Monday, April 20, 2009

Delicious things.

Since I can't stream NPR in BsAs, my main way of staying connected to what's going on in the world is by reading the headlines on The New York Times: Global Edition web page. I set it as my homepage so even if I don't feel like making an effort to be a good, worldly citizen, at least some of the planet's goings on confront me every morning. Today, one of the featured columns was about recipes for healthy cooking. The Times has a column called Recipes for Health written by a Ms. Martha Rose Shulman, and this week, readers can post questions for her and she'll respond on the website. So I was scrolling through some of the questions, but when I came to this one, I just stopped dead in my tracks:

If flavor and aroma were not a factor what should one eat for optimum health?

-- Paul Silver

Let's all just have a moment of silence for Paul Silver and pray that he lost his olfactory capacities in a horrific freak accident. Otherwise, I just can't understand why anyone would even attempt eating anything at all sans taste or smell. Eat ice, Paul Silver. Or protein powder mixed with water. Hell, just swallow a handful of multivitamins 3 times a day.

I spent my morning in the kitchen of a closed-door home-style restaurant taking a cooking class from an award winning New York chef/sommelier. Paul Silver probably spent his google-ing how many calories there are in seltzer.

Forgetting Paul Silver for a while, I'll tell you about my cooking class. It was a vegetarian class, though really it was just 4 dishes without meat. To me, vegetarian cooking is about finding innovative, flavorful ways to incorporate different proteins into a few dishes that add up to a complete meal. But we didn't really do much in the way of innovation. We just didn't use any meat. So, the 4 dishes were as follows: Fennel with figs scented with bay leaf and cinnamon, Whole wheat langanelli with sauteed cauliflower, Brussel sprout soup, and Swiss chard pastilla. Don't get me wrong. The food was good and it was fun to be in the kitchen in a small group (just 3 students and Dan, the chef), but I did leave thinking critically of what we made and how we made it.

Fennel with Figs. The first thing that bothered me about this recipe was that it required three separate ways of cooking the fennel. First, it was boiled. Then, it was browned. And then it was baked. Just seemed a little overkill to me, especially for a dish that didn't really reflect the amount of work and machinery that went into it. And I think the fennel itself couldn't even figure out what it was supposed to taste or look like. It had the texture of a boiled vegetable, plus a barely there crust from the brief browning. And I think the time in the oven just added to the confusion. The fig part, though was great and not as sweet as I thought it would be. I've never cooked with fresh figs before and I think I'll definitely try and use them again in some other kind of dish. So, this dish was alright. But I think I'll stick with Mom's stellar roasted fennel.

Whole Wheat Langanelli with Sauteed Cauliflower. Turns out langanelli is just a fancy word for trapezoid-shaped pasta. Apparently it's related to the word "mal fatti" or "misformed". I didn't particularly enjoy this shape, and I think I'll leave my whole grains out of the pasta bowl. I just prefer regular old, white flour pasta, and as long as you don't eat it every night that's just fine. One thing I definitely have learned here (from Celeste, from this class, and from the crazy Italian man who has a pasta making show on the Argentine version of Food Network) is that it's insanely easy to make your own fresh pastas, and I think that's something I'd like to continue doing back home. So the pasta was fine, but the cauliflower was AWESOME. Definitely one of the highlights of the meal. Just some onions sauteed in olive oil, plus rosemary and red pepper flakes. Sautee the cauliflower til it's nice and brown and then turn down the heat and cover the pan until it's soft all the way through. The cauliflower didn't turn to mush, and it was nice and smoky from the browning and the rosemary. I will definitely cook that part of the dish again!

Brussel Sprout Soup. My favorite dish from today and the first soup I've had since leaving Mom's chili and pea soup far away on Piper Lane. The best part was that today was such a soup day too. It was probably not even 60 F when I left my apartment this morning, and there was a crisp breeze all day. It's finally getting to be "winter" down here. So this recipe was fabulous, and the brussel sprouts just started coming in last week so it was very seasonal. We started by learning to make vegetable stock which is incredible simple and wonderful and a skill I will bring back to the kitchen at home. Then we just sauteed onion added the brussel sprouts, carrot, veggie stock, a bit of "leftover" white wine (what? leftover wine? never heard of such a thing), and some salt+pepper and let it simmer until everything was cooked through. Then we pureed it all (which I'm usually not that into, but it totally worked since brussel sprouts can't really be bite sized without falling completely apart) and sprinkled a little parsley on top. YUM.

Swiss Chard Pastilla. I'll just lay it out there... sorry fancy chef Dan, but my spinach pie that I adapted from the recipe in Barefoot Contessa easily beats out your version. The swiss chard we used was also a little overgrown, in my opinion, so I tasted a bit of that chalky, bitter aftertaste you get from overgrown chard. This was just your basic phyllo dough crust + greens and pine nuts, you know, that kind of thing. The way to make it a real vegetarian dish (and a real TASTY dish, to me, at least) is to bind the filling with an egg and throw some feta or ricotta in there! Today's version just ended up being some sort of soggy greens with some interspersed pine nuts and raisins encased in some crispy phyllo. Oh well. I did learn a good trick though, for making sure the bottom of the phyllo doesn't get gummy... when you take the dish out of the oven, throw it on top of the burner for 2-3 minutes and it will crisp up the bottom. Also makes it easier to get out of the pan. So, thanks for the tip! It'll just make my recipe even better!

Despite my critiques, this morning was a blast. I did learn some new skills and tips and it's also a good feeling to realize that I know my way confidently around the kitchen and do a pretty great job. I'm looking forward to another class with Dan next Monday on Peruvian cooking, so I'm hoping to learn some things I've never tried before!

Thanks Mom and Pop for teaching me how to enjoy preparing and eating food. If only Paul Silver had been fortunate enough to have a family like mine...

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