Tuesday, July 10, 2007

How To Cook Dinner When It Is A Million Goddamned Degrees

1. Before you leave the house in the morning, put a large glass jar full of water and dried beans where it will get sun all day. (If you are lucky, your roommate will move it to follow the sun as the day goes on.)

2. When you get home, after you have showered, put on boxer shorts and a ribbed tank top, and had three glasses of sun tea, carry your rice cooker (preferably a large one with a vented top) to the back porch, and plug it in. (If you are not lucky enough to have an outlet on your back porch, run an extension cord.) Add the beans and a bunch more water. Cook for 10-15 minutes, or until the beans are done (the skins split when you blow on them, and then are soft through).

3. When the beans are done, add raw rice, chopped garlic scapes , whole cumin, whole dried chipotle peppers, and salt. Let them cook.

4. When the rice is about cooked through, stir in chopped fresh green beans (or snow peas, fresh peas, etc).

5. Let cool. Eat, still in your underwear, in front of an open screen door with the ceiling fan on high. Follow with lemon sorbet.


I also cook in the crockpot on the porch sometimes. And last night, we got takeout. What do you when it's too hot to breathe, let alone make dinner?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Gravy Tasting

The Table is Set

We had a gravy tasting the other night.

As a vegetarian and gluten-free household, we don't eat normal, wheat-thickened, chicken-juice-based gravy. But gravy is good. Gravy is smooth and fatty and comforting. Gravy is biscuits and gravy at a two AM diner, gravy is that one Thanksgiving that actually felt like a Rockwell painting, gravy is birthday dinners and everything right with the world.

I grew up in a household where gravy was never from a can or jar or packet. This was not because my mom was some sort of anti-packaged-food zealot; it was just because gravy is idiotically easy to make. You take the the broth from under your turkey, you make a roux, you add the broth and some canned chicken broth. This was always done while the family was frantically carrying the last few dishes to the holdiay table, and while my dad was pouring ginger ale into our fancy glasses and my brother was lighting the candles. It was not a moment of stress. Gravy was just the last thing to get made.

But I was worried about making vegetarian gravy, actually. I was worried that using this method would never produce gravy that tasted like gravy; I was worried it would taste like vegetables instead. Not that I don't like vegetables...but that's not gravy. So I was in Whole Foods, and saw some instant gravy packets. I picked them up, went home, and announced to the family, "We're having a gravy tasting tonight."

"OK," they said.

The gravy tasting was held outside, because it was hot and sticky, and because I love nothing more than to grill things. We gathered around our new backyard table in our deck chairs that I trashpicked off the street.

The accompanying dishes were:
Grilled Snowpeas Grilled Broccolini, Small Potatoes, and Marinated Summer Squash

Snowpeas, cooked in tin foil on the grill
Grilled Broccolini
Grilled New Potatoes
Grilled Marinated Summer Squash (this one was a palate cleanser)

However, what you really care about is the gravy. I had four different varieties. All but one were vegan and cholesterol free; all of them were gluten-free, vegetarian, and a lot healthier for you than regular gravy. Here are the brands:

gravy brands

The brands are:
#1: Road's End Organics Golden Gravy Mix, purchased at Whole Foods Columbus Circle, makes one cup of gravy
#2: Road's End Organics Savory Herb Gravy Mix, purchased at Whole Foods Columbus Circle, makes one cup of gravy
#3: Orgran Natural Gravy Mix, purchased at Fairway in Red Hook, Brooklyn, makes a lot of servings
#4: Pacific Organic Mushroom Broth, purchased at the Park Slope Food Coop, makes 4 1-cup portions of gravy (or some mushroom soup).

Directions for the first three were identical: boil water, add powder, let thicken five minutes, serve. For the fourth, I melted butter in the pan, added an equal amount of cornstarch, let it cook for a moment, and then added a cup of mushroom broth. The thing to remember (and which I always forget) is that cornstarch roux has much less holding power than flour roux. This amount of broth probably could have handled 4 tbsp each of butter and cornstarch before it got too thick.

And here is what they looked like, cooked and in their bowls.

Numbers 1 and 2 Numbers 3 and 4
Number 1 on the right, #2 on the left Number 3 on top, #4 on bottom

Numbers 1 & 2 had started to congeal unpleasantly by the time they were served, about 5-10 minutes after cooking. When stirred, they became a good consistency again...until they set up again. Number 3 remained a good consistency throughout. Number 4 was quite runny, because I only used 2tbsp each of butter and cornstarch.

So, what was the verdict?

Very, very mixed. None of them were prima facie disgusting. Number one had the Boy, who grew up in the South, singing about how we needed to make biscuits and have biscuits and gravy RIGHT THEN. However, that was the closest we got to an endorsement of the bunch. Number 2 tasted just like #1, only with a bunch of store-bought "Italian Seasoning Blend" dumped in. Not bad, and decent with the broccolini...but not gravy. Number 3 tasted like precisely nothing; no bad aftertaste, but no substantive taste at all. Number 4 tasted like mushrooms; the Boy compared it to mushroom soup. However, even he (the biggest mushroom lover in the bunch) was dissastisfied with its gravy-potential.

Unfortunately, we cannot whole-heartedly endorse any of these. If you're a vegetarian who has been craving those biscuits and gravy of your childhood, Road's End Organics Golden Gravy Mix will make you feel like a meat-eating kid again. But, apart from that, there isn't much going on here.

However, I'm wondering about the Orgran mix. (Partially because I still have most of the bag in my cabinet, and I dislike throwing things away.) As I said, you need a lot of cornstarch roux to make a gravy come together, and rice flour can sometimes produce an unpleasant grittyness. But one tablespoon of the Orgran mix turned a cup of water into a thick, brown gel. Granted, it didn't taste like anything, but it definitely has thickening power. My next gravy experiment will probably be to take vegetable broth (Imagine's No-Chicken Broth is the store-bought house favorite, or I make my own) and thicken it with the Orgran mix. Maybe then I'll have found a gravy worth eating.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Culinary Highlights of My Honeymoon, Part 1 (of 10 or so)

I was originally going to do my honeymoon food review all in one piece. However, Bazu's recent updates from her trip to Puerto Rico, while making me desperate to get on a plane, also reminded me that posts with lots of photos take forever to load in my RSS reader. On the off chance any of you have the same problem, I'll be doing these a few at a time.

In any case:

Culinary Highlight #1: Breakfast on Amtrak #97, the Silver Meteor, Between Jesup, GA and Jacksonville, FL

departures board, penn station

We had boarded the train the afternoon before in New York, and were about half way through our twenty-seven hour tour of the Eastern US from the comforts of an 8 by 4 bunk. It was the early dawn, and we were bleary-eyed from a night spent trying very hard to sleep in a single bunk...and then giving up and splitting up onto two bunks. We stumbled into the dining car to make sure that we got that breakfast we had paid for with our sleeping compartment tickets, before they stopped serving.

welcome aboard

My memories of the meal are almost hallucinatory, blinded by exhaustion and the rhythm of the train rocking slowly along its path. It was not yet eight. The light streamed through the train car windows, and the flat rural landscape of South Georgia tore by us at seventy miles an hour. We sat alone at a table together. I drank hot tea with two lemon slices and a sugar. We were in a small hum of sleepyness and love, and we ordered breakfast.

wife's breakfast on the silver meteor

The Wife ordered the 'breakfast scramble,' which came with French toast. She asked for them not bring the French toast, but they forgot. Luckily, I was able to extract them for my own purposes. The Wife describes it as "actually decent...cheesy without really noticing the cheese...and the potato was sooooo soft, it almost melted...and whatever the sausage was was decent, and the egg was ok, but the potato was sooooo good."

I ate her French toast. If you like your French toast dry and not too eggy, than it was perfect. I really enjoyed it. I had ordered an abomination called "The Continental," which came with a lousy croissant, cereal and milk, yogurt, and very bad fruit salad. The French toast was the good part.

We stumbled back to the room again, which had been helpfully made up by our steward, looked out the window for a few minutes, and then fell asleep until Deland.

Nota bene: on the way back I ordered the Southwest Omlette. It was much better. And the Wife was right about the potatoes being excellent.

southwest omelette

Be A Man (A Feminism Friday Post)

I caught a rerun of an episode of Top Chef this afternoon. If you've been watching, it was the one with the barbecue challenge, where the cute southern dyke got eliminated. Towards the end of this episode, Howie and Joey get into a little argument. I'm not a fan of either of them; Joey uses the fact that he's from New York City as if it inherently means he's better than everyone else. Granted, New York City is AWESOME and INHERENTLY BETTER THAN EVERYWHERE ELSE. But you, mister, you are a schmuck, and there are lots like you here. You are un-awesome. Howie, on the other hand, is merely nothing special. He has screwed up pretty seriously in two of the four episodes so far, so I'm guessing he's no great shakes. Also, he was the first to trot out the "I'm not here to make friends" trope, which I find boring and insufficient. Both of these guys are big beefy white dudes, probably Italian, based purely on looks.

Right after they leave the judging room to wait to find out who has been eliminated (both were ranked in the bottom four), Howie and Joey get involved in a detailed argument about the meaning of masculinity. (OK, they don't think that's what they're doing. But, dude, it so is.) Joey has just said in front of the judges that Howie should go home, because of a previous (serious) mistake and because he was in the bottom four again. Between them leaving the judges room, the editors have inserted a clip of Joey saying "My blood flows red, and competition brings out the animal in me." When they get back out to the waiting room, Joey yells at Howie to "step up and be a man."

What, precisely does "be a man" mean here? Cooking is simultaneously a feminized field (the proper domain of the housewife, the private sphere par excellence, the location in which to be barefoot and pregnant), and a masculinized field (knives, fire, people yelling at each other, military metaphors, a lot of cock-measuring, pun intended). So clearly, to "be a man" is to force the act of being a chef into that masculinized field, to abolish the gender ambiguity. Joey is attacking Howie for being insufficiently aggressive. In front of the judges, Howie apologied for his work being not very good and vowed to do better. This was too feminine for Joey; he wanted Howie to be aggressive, defensive--to enact a sort of violent masculinity.

Howie responds to Joey in equal volume, and with an equally aggressive tone of voice. He says to Joey, "You've been blaming everybody else for your bullshit. Shake somebody's hand to be a fucking man. You be a fucking man." Here, he argues that masculinity is not about aggression. It isn't about being mean enough or loud enough. Instead, it is about responsibility. Joey does not take responsibility for his mistakes in cooking; his statements in front of the judges, and in general, show a disregard for the opinions of others. Howie is willing to admit his mistakes (his inability to get one of his proteins plated in an earlier challenge, for instance) and to own up to them. This, in his opinion, makes him more of a man than Joey. If he had been eliminated, he says "I woulda been a fucking man about it, but you wanna bitch like a little girl" about the possibility of elimination. At this point, Joey recedes into an adolescent sulk, and we cut back to the impossibly beautiful Padma Lakshmi leading the judges.

I think that Howie's version of masculinity is the better; I also think it 'wins the argument,' for lack of a better term. In any case, Joey gives up. But I also think that's the problem of Joey's masculinity--it only works if you get people to acquiesce to it. When Howie says, "no, MY masculinity, asshole!" Joey can just go, "whatever, dude." It's like how Eddie Izzard says--when someone yells "Bloke in a dress!" at you, they don't cope well when you say, "yeah, and?"

What do you think--about masculinity and kitchens or about this season's Top Chef?

(The Feminism Friday concept comes to us courtesy of Thinking Girl. Why not reserve some space in every week for a little gender revolution?)