Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Matters of more substance...

I was having a discussion today with the inimitable Mr. Teacup over on Twitter. I decided to summarize my thoughts in a less compact form, thus also giving him room to respond in more than 140 characters, and perhaps we can have a pleasant discussion. Or a well-reasoned unpleasant discussion, or who knows what, but at least we'll have room for it.

I don't know much of Mr. J.W.R. Teacup, Esq., but he has generally proven to be a well read and thoughtful dude, albeit perhaps further steeped in Marxist theory than I normally go for. (I'm more for pu-erh, or a nice chamomile. Marxists are often terribly bitter when oversteeped, although they add a pleasant flavor when part of a blend of other thinkers.) He is not, to the best of my knowledge, an engineer of any flavor, although it's quite possible. Which brings us to the current topic of discussion.

We were both holding forth on a subject somewhat near and dear to my heart, the question of whether everyone in the world should learn to code. He initially pointed out the post by Jeff Atwood titled "Please Don't Learn to Code" in which Jeff, a programmer himself, rightly points out that most people will never need to code, will be terribly bad at coding, and probably ought to focus on other things in life. All of which I hold to be true. However, I still believe everyone in the world should learn to code.

Actually no. I don't believe that. Here's what I do believe. Everyone in the world should be exposed to the practice of logic, of critical thinking, of problem decomposition, of forming hypotheses and testing them by painstakingly changing one variable at a time. The reason why I advocate for programming over any other science or engineering discipline is as follows. Computers are ubiquitous. Computers, at least these days, are pretty much unbreakable to a novice (ah, those halcyon days of setting IRQs by hand!) You can make a mess of things in your little sandbox, but a reboot will fix almost anything you may have done short of deleting your hard drive. Code is highly repeatable, unlike frogs. Type the same line of code 10 times, and it will do the same thing. And the behavior of your code is not already known, unlike the laws of physics, so you can't cheat by looking it up on the internet or in the back of the book. And you don't even need to know algebra!

This makes programming a superb microcosm for teaching and demonstrating the principles of certain types of well structured thought at a fairly early age. I will cheerfully agree that most people will suck at writing code. However, I believe that the process of learning how to write code will make them better people in a fundamental way, similiarly to the way that learning to critically read Stendhal will make them better people, despite knowledge of Stendhal being one of the most useless things known to man. The act of critical thought in and of itself, the ability to analyze, dissect, and be aware of one's own assumptions is a key part of an education, and one that I think is sadly lacking from both engineering and the liberal arts. Engineers avoid literary theory, claiming it's full of unwashed anarcho-Marxist hippies, literary theorists decry engineering as an oppressive tool of patriarchy and false consciousness, and both sides lose out on key intellectual tools.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Month of Food Blogging (15 of 28) : Salisbury steak

Salisbury steak always makes me think of TV dinners, greasy, gristly meat, gravy loaded with MSG... I'd better stop, I'm grossing myself out. It's actually a really tasty dish, when made from scratch. It won't win any elegance awards, but it's hearty and savory with a nice beefy, meaty tone to it, and it's quick to make and inexpensive.

Until I started doing research for this post, I didn't know where the name came from. I had always assumed it hailed from Salisbury, England. Somehow in my head, adding bread crumbs to meat to stretch it seems like a very British thing to do. (I think it's the bangers.) But, thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia, I am now informed that it takes its name from Dr. James Salisbury, an early proponent of low-carb dieting. I'm not entirely certain why he favored chopped beef, versus a perfectly good steak, like most carnivores. However, the original Salisbury steak contained no bread crumbs. Internet rumor has it that it was a modification by thrifty WWII housewives, to stretch precious beef supplies a little further.

Salisbury Steak

Servings: 2
Time: about 30 minutes
Planning Ahead: None
The Funny Stuff: No funny stuff
Virtues: Easy, fast
Downsides: None, really. A bit on the high fat side.
Calories: 423

1/2 lb ground beef
1 tsp salt
1 tsp worcestershire sauce
1 egg
6 saltines
1/2 an onion, minced
1 sprig of fresh thyme, or 1/2 tsp dried thyme
pepper to taste
2 cups sliced mushrooms
The other 1/2 an onion, sliced
2 Tbsp flour
1/2 cup red wine
1 Tbsp beef soup base
1/2 cup water

Combine the beef, salt, and worcestershire sauce, and let sit for 10 minutes. While it's sitting, prep all of the veggies, and preheat your skillet to medium, and your oven to 350.

Add the thyme, cracker crumbs, egg, and onion.

Goosh everything together. (I'm pretty sure gooshing is the technical term for this operation.)

Form into hamburger style patties, and drop into the pan.

Cook 3-5 minutes, until brown on the first side, and flip.

Once they're brown on both sides, pop them in the oven on an oven-safe dish, and add the onions to the pan, stirring occasionally.

Once the onions are softened and starting to brown a bit, add the mushrooms, and toss them until lightly cooked.

Sprinkle the vegetables with two tablespoons of flour, and toss to coat.

Deglaze the pan with the red wine, stirring quickly to prevent the flour from making lumps.

Let that reduce a bit, and then add the beef base and water.

Stir everything together, scraping the pan to get the reduced wine up, and voila, you have a lovely brown gravy.

Pour the gravy over the meat, and serve.

Photo credits to Aaron Wood and Aleatha Parker-Wood.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Month of Food Blogging (14 of 28) : Cassoulet, deconstructed.

Every culture has a dish which seems to translate to "we threw some leftovers together." In the US, it's often chili (or the dreaded "casserole"). In Italy, it's panzanella. In France, it's the dish known as cassoulet. Cassoulet is composed of beans and a menagerie of meat, slowly simmered in water and fat until the beans are tender and infused with meat flavor. Escoffier calls for pork rind, pork belly, and garlic sausage. The full Toulouse treatment calls for garlic pork sausage, pork rind, duck confit, mutton, and/or partridge. Oh, and it's got breadcrumbs on top. You get the idea. Leftovers. However, at its essence, it's a story about beans, slow cooked in broth and fat, with a bunch of thyme and some meat. The kind of dish you want to come home to on a cold winter's night. This is a heavily stripped down version of the real deal (which I also love), but this one takes about 5 minutes in the morning, and is amazing when you get home. The kombu is there to add an extra kick of glutamates, and the baking soda makes the skin of the beans more permeable, so they get more tender and soak up more flavor, without disintegrating.


Servings: 4
Time: 5 minutes of prep, 8 hours cook time, 5-10 minutes of finishing touches.
Planning Ahead: Start it in the morning
The Funny Stuff: Flageolet beans, kombu, duck fat (optional), chicken confit (optional, but highly recommended)
Virtues: Easy, high in fiber
Downsides: High fat
Calories: 324 (not counting the confit)

1 cup flageolet beans (or large white beans)
1 1/2 Tbsp chicken soup base
About 5-10 sprigs of thyme
2 chunks of kombu, about 2"x4" each
a pinch of baking soda
1/4 cup duck fat or olive oil
6 cups water
1 smoked brat, or other neutral flavorful sausage (garlic is traditional, Polish is pretty good, andouille is a bad idea. I checked.)
2 chunks of chicken or duck confit

Put the beans, soup base, thyme, kombu, and baking soda in a crockpot.

I do literally mean a pinch of baking soda.

Add the duck fat and water. You can either add the sausage now, or at the end. If you add it now, it will permeate the beans, but the sausage itself will be bland at the end.

Set the crockpot for low, and let it cook for 8 hours.

If the beans are still a bit soupy, reduce some of the cooking liquid, by transferring it to a pot and boiling it on the stove for a few minutes. If you didn't add the sausage at the beginning, heat it up (30 seconds in the microwave will do) and chop it in. If you're having it with confit, heat that up as well, and place it on top. We had this with baguette and green salad, and the baby got minced sausage and beans and a vegetable.

Photo credits to Aaron Wood and Aleatha Parker-Wood.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Month of Food Blogging (13 of 28) : Crockpot confit

Confit is a word that conjures visions of French bistros, long conversations over wine, espresso at 9 PM. It's not a ticket to Paris, but it's at least a nice reminder. As with most French cooking, it takes a long time to make, but most of that time is spent waiting around, working your way through the collected works of Molière and sipping wine.

As I mentioned in my last post, the magic of confit lies in the salt and the low temperature cooking. A long salting process breaks down the muscle and pulls the water out of the cells, making it very tender. Then the low temperature allows the meat to cook without causing the muscles to tighten and dry, and the oil drives out any remaining water.

Originally, confit was a way to soften and preserve the very tough legs of ducks. Once the meat was confited, it was left to cool in the duck fat. Between the salt and the fat, it could be kept in a cool dry place for months, making it a good way to put meat by for the winter. (Assuming, of course, that you didn't develop botulism in the anaerobic conditions under the fat, as occasionally happened.) These days, we have refrigeration, but it's still a great way to make meltingly tender meat. Here I've used chicken thighs rather than the more traditional duck, and it's still delicious. You can also swap out the duck fat for olive oil or other fats, if you just cannot get your hands on duck fat. If you do get duck fat, it can be reused several times, until it gets too salty, at which point, I recommend using it for potatoes Sarladaise.

Once you have made confit, it's very versatile. You can serve it atop cassoulet, as I'll do in my next post. You can shred the meat and use it to make a very fancy macaroni and cheese, a la Calafia Cafe, or put it in ravioli. You can certainly just re-heat it and eat it straight. It also freezes really well, again, because there's very little water in it.

Crockpot confit

Servings: 2
Time: 10 minutes of prep, 1-2 days salting time, 8 hours cook time.
Planning Ahead: Must be salted at least 8 hours in advance and then cooked for 4-8 hours.
The Funny Stuff: Duck fat.
Virtues: Very little effort
Downsides: Lots of fat
Calories: Depends on how much fat the meat soaks up. (I have no idea.) Minimum 150 calories, max, 200?

2 chicken thighs or duck legs
2-4 cups duck fat, enough to cover your chicken in the crockpot (can be strained and reused)
2 tsp kosher salt
1 sprig fresh thyme
2 cloves garlic

Set the chicken thighs in a bowl, or baking dish. Sprinkle both sides of the chicken thighs with salt, trying to cover them as evenly as possible.

Crush the garlic, and sprinkle it and the thyme over the chicken. Cover the dish, and set it in the fridge for at least 8 hours, and up to 48.

The next morning (assuming you are aiming for dinner), take the chicken out. There should be little to no salt left on the surface. Some people brush off the thyme and garlic at this point, because it makes the oil messy, but I like the flavor it adds to the oil. Pop it in the crockpot. Take your duck fat, and warm it up a bit, so that you can pour it, or at least spread it.
Pour it over the top of the chicken, set your crockpot to low, and walk away.

Come back 6-8 hours later. Voilà. You have confit.

Here it is over some cassoulet. (Sneak preview of the next post!)

Photo credits to Aleatha Parker-Wood.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Month of Food Blogging (12 of 28) : Love like salt (or, chemistry in action)

Well, that was exciting. In the last month, my laptop started overheating due to a bum fan, my grandfather passed away, I passed my qualifying exams (I am a doctoral candidate!), my daughter started teething, and in general, the universe threw me a series of curve balls. But the laptop is fixed, the exams are passed, the daughter is well stocked with cold teething rings, and I'm ready to get back to this project. I'm clearly no longer aiming to do 28 posts by Feb 28th (that would require a time machine), but we'll still aim for 28. (29, really, as I plan to do a retrospective on lessons learned at the end.)

Today, I'd like to branch out a bit from recipes, and talk a bit about sodium. And time. And the beautiful things that sodium can do for you.

Sodium gets a bad rap for a variety of reasons. It's often used in lieu of other, more flavorful, ingredients, in order to make cheap things tasty (both as salt, and in conjunction with glutamates, as MSG). It has a reputation for causing high blood pressure and heart disease. (An undeserved one, by the way. Check out the Cochrane Report on salt and hypertension for the current state of medical science. In summary, it does have minor effects on blood pressure, but only on the order of a point. And a reduced sodium diet can lead to increases in cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which are rather more strongly correlated with heart disease than blood pressure.) However, it can still have bad effects on the kidneys in large amounts. Given all that, a lot of people over-react, and try to avoid salt entirely.

I don't advocate going off and eating salt by the tablespoon, and most pre-prepared foods have far more salt than they need. However, when you're scratch cooking, a little salt at the right time can do wonders for your cooking.
  • Salt is tasty
  • Salt is a natural preservative
  • Salt is a meat and vegetable tenderizer
  • Salt softens beans and helps them cook faster
  • Salt makes bread dough more elastic
  • Salt makes eggs more tender

Let's wander down the garden path of chemistry for a bit, and talk about why some of these things are all true. Salt is composed of sodium and chlorine, in an ionic bond. However, like some couples we all know, all it takes is a little liquid, and the bond becomes very weak, breaking the salt into a sodium and a chlorine ion (charged particle). Now, sodium and chlorine are both notoriously promiscuous and will cheerfully glom on to anything that will have them. (I'm going to run this metaphor for all it's worth!) When you put salt in bread, the sodium will happily hook up with the gluten, and cross link it, so that many long chains of gluten are stuck together in a matrix (kind of like a snarl in hair). This strengthens your bread dough, and lets it rise to fluffier heights. (Ever notice how Italian bread is usually flatter and denser than a French baguette? That's at least in part due to the low salt content of traditional Italian breads.) When you add salt to eggs, it also sticks to the proteins, but egg proteins don't link to each other as well when there's a sodium in the way (unlike gluten), so they can't form a tight mesh to get all stiff. Thus, adding salt creates very tender eggs. (And is why you never salt a meringue, because it won't set properly.)

When you add salt to vegetables, a slightly different set of things happens. Vegetables have a bunch of water. but it's normally all locked up in the cells. The salt sets up what's known as osmosis, and begins to suck water through the cell membranes. In the case of veggies, it means that they start to soften, as the water is pulled out, without having to rupture the cell walls and make the vegetable mushy (as boiling does.) This is part of why pickles have the texture they do, as the salt softens the pickled vegetable while still preserving a bit of texture and crunch.

In the case of meat, something even more magical happens. If you salt meat and let it sit for just a few minutes, or cook it right away, the salt will pull all the water out of the meat, just like it did the veggies. This is terrible. The muscle fibers get very dense, the meat gets very dry and chewy, and it's impossible to brown the meat, because it's leaking water. This is why you don't salt meat during cooking if you're using a fast cooking method, like searing. However, if you let the salt sit for a while, the meat begins to draw the water (and salt) back in. According to the eminent Harold McGee, this is due to reverse osmosis, but I've never been able to figure out where the pressure for RO would come from. It matters not. What matters is that if you salt your meat early (like 6 hours early), you will have incredibly tender, juicy meat, because the salt begins to break down the muscle fibers, while holding the water in, and the salt will permeate all of the meat, instead of sitting on the surface. This is the secret to dishes like confit (which I will talk about in my next post.) A long salting process allows the meat to become very tender, and then it's followed by a low and slow cooking process in oil, so the oil can displace all the remaining water without toughening the meat again.

There's many more applications for sodium (I haven't even gotten to beans, and why a little salt and a pinch of baking soda is the best way to cook beans), but this post is running a bit long, and it's late, so I think I'll save it for another day.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Month of Food Blogging (11 of 28) : In which your author attempts Kadu with meat sauce and only sort of succeeds.

I had some bad family news earlier in the day, and Husband had been working over the weekend (and was unavailable for photography duties), so I was a little off my game. I considered simply not writing this one up, but thought the process of recovering this meal from disaster might be educational, or at least entertaining.

Kadu (technically Kadu Qima, since I am making it with meat sauce) is a traditional Afghan dish, made with pumpkin. However, Afghani pumpkins are apparently much more flavorful than American pumpkins, so it's common to see people make it with the more meaty butternut squash. It's essentially roasted squash with a bolognese over the top, finished off with a dollop of yogurt-mint sauce. I often make a cheater version of this, starting with canned spaghetti sauce, which is also quite delicious. However, I decided to get all fancy, and do a proper kadu, starting from this recipe and this recipe. Getting fancy may have been my first mistake. Read on.

Butternut kadu

Servings: 2
Time: 23 minutes
Planning Ahead: None
The Funny Stuff: Garam masala, ginger, other exotic spices
Virtues: Fast, high in vitamin A, low fat, reasonable sodium content.
Downsides: None. It's awesome.
Calories: 395

1 small butternut squash
1/2 lb ground beef or lamb
1/2 tsp salt
1 onion. If you, um, had an onion. Crap.
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 cubes prechopped ginger, or 1/4 inch of fresh ginger
1/4 tsp cloves
2 tsp coriander
1/2 tsp turmeric
a couple whole cardamom, or 1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp garam masala
1 14 oz can diced tomatoes
6 oz plain yogurt (preferably low fat Greek)
1 tsp dried mint
1 clove garlic
1/2 tsp salt

Set out your ingredients. Realize you have forgotten to buy onions for the third time this week, even though you JUST went to the grocery store to buy yogurt for this recipe. Swear like a sailor, causing both your infant daughter and husband to look at you with deep concern.

Shrug your shoulders, aiming for Gallic insouciance. Chop your squash into rounds. Pop it into a microwave safe dish and microwave it for 8 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

While the squash is microwaving, start your ground beef browning in a skillet with 1/2 tsp salt sprinkled over. When the squash is done in the microwave, put it on a cookie sheet, and pop it in the oven with a 15 minute timer.

If there were an onion, you would now add it, chopped, and brown it with the meat. But there is no onion. Hunt around your cupboards in case there is an onion that has materialized, in amongst the teething biscuits and cheerios. In desperation, fish out some green onions from the fridge. Chop them finely. Add those, along with some spices, the 2 garlic cloves, the ginger, and the canned tomatoes.

Stir that all together. Decide that the green onion just isn't going to cut it. Add a metric boatload of onion powder. (Which is slightly smaller than an imperial boatload, as determined at the Treaty of Calais in 1889, after the British navy forcibly proved that their ships were, in fact, larger than the French ships, and demanded that the French not call them "boats" any more. (OK, I may have made that last bit up)). Stir everything together, and let it simmer.

While it is simmering, add the garlic, mint, and 1/2 tsp salt to the yogurt. Stir it all together and let it sit so the flavors can meld.

Taste your pretty, pretty sauce.

Discover that it is tragically bland. Swear some more, but softly, and in a foreign language this time, so as not to teach the baby bad words. Add more of everything. (Bringing us up to the totals described in the recipe.)

Simmer some more, and discover that it is now delicious. When the squash is done baking, pop it onto a plate, cover it with meat sauce, and a dollop of yogurt.

Sit down to eat your tasty meal, only 23 minutes and 5 swear words later. Baby had some of everything, and loved it.

Photo credits to Aleatha Parker-Wood.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Month of Food Blogging (10 of 28) : Seafood Carbonara

This recipe is very rich, but it's fast and delicious. We usually eat it with a hefty green salad. You can also eliminate the bacon all together (it's only about 40 calories per serving, but perhaps you're watching your saturated fat, or keeping kosher), and substitute olive oil for the bacon fat. If there's no bacon, I like to add some smoked salmon or trout to bring the smoky flavor back in.

Seafood carbonara

Servings: 2
Time: 15 minutes to thaw seafood, 15 minutes to cook
Planning Ahead: None, unless you want to thaw the seafood in advance.
The Funny Stuff: Block parmesan (or good quality pregrated parmesan)
Virtues: Fast, high in omega-3s
Downsides: Lots of fat from cheese and eggs, high cholesterol from the shrimp, lots of carbs.
Calories: 446

4 oz angel hair pasta, dry
2 oz parmesan
2 eggs
1 Tbsp parsley, chopped (optional)
1 slice bacon
4 large scallops
4 large shrimp
3 cloves garlic

reserved pasta water

If the shrimp and scallops are frozen, then thaw the shrimp and scallops in a ziploc in warm water. While the seafood is thawing, bring 4 cups water to a boil.

While the water is heating, shred the parmesan in the food processor. Crack the eggs over the shredded cheese, add the parmesan, and stir everything thoroughly.

When the water comes to a boil, add the pasta. Set a pasta timer for 12 minutes. Brown bacon over medium heat.

When the bacon is browned, remove it from the skillet, and add the seafood to the bacon fat, turning it every few minutes.

When the scallops are starting to crack, and are no longer translucent, the seafood is done.

Crush the garlic in with the seafood, and stir. Reduce the heat to medium low.

The pasta should be done at this point. Drain the pasta, reserving about a half cup of pasta liquid. Toss the pasta in the skillet with the seafood. Crumble the bacon over the top, and toss the noodles to coat them in the bacon fat and seafood juices.

Turn off the heat, and immediately, while the pan is still hot, add the egg and cheese mixture on top of the pasta. It needs to be hot enough to cook the egg and cheese, but not so hot that the egg cooks before it coats the pasta. Stir thoroughly.

Once the egg is incorporated, turn the heat on low again. Add the reserved pasta water (which should still be hot) a tablespoon at a time, stirring, until the pasta sauce reaches a creamy consistency.

I like mine moderately creamy, so I added about a quarter cup, but it's entirely a matter of taste.


Photo credits to Aaron Wood and Aleatha Parker-Wood.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Month of Food Blogging (9 of 28) : Smoked Paprika Chicken

When I was pregnant, one of our friends gave us a book called Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater. The jury is still out as to whether we'll succeed in making our offspring an adventurous eater (the twos are yet to come), but in the mean time, the book was good for a lot of chuckles, and some excellent recipes. This recipe started off as a Hungry Monkey recipe, but as usual, I've added my own spin on it.

Smoked Paprika chicken

Servings: 2-4 (calories listed for 4)
Time: 10 minutes prep, 5 or more hours cooking, optional 20 minute reduction
Planning Ahead: Needs to be started in the morning.
The Funny Stuff: Smoked paprika, canned tomatoes
Virtues: Low fat, lots of vegetables, high in vitamin A.
Downsides: Stains like mad. Wear an apron during the reduction phase.
Calories: 269

4 chicken thighs
1 carrot
1 celery stalk
1/2 onion
2 tsp salt
Pepper to taste
3/4 cup red wine
1/4 cup smoked paprika (no, that is not a typo. 1/4 cup.)
1 can diced tomatoes
1 Tbsp tomato paste (optional)

Lay the chicken thighs in a single layer over the bottom of your crockpot, and add the chopped vegetables.

Add your salt, paprika and wine, and canned tomatoes.

Give it a good stir to mingle everything, including flipping the chicken a couple of times. Set your crockpot on low, and cook for at least 5 hours.

At this point, you have a very tasty dinner, suitable for a work night.

However, if you're a bit of a perfectionist, or throwing a dinner party, do the following. (While wearing an apron.)

Add the tomato paste to a pan.

Toast it over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it starts to caramelize.

Strain the sauce through a colander into the pan, leaving the veggies behind.

Turn the heat up to high, and reduce the sauce by at least half, stirring occasionally.

Drizzle it over the chicken and vegetables. (No photo available, we were ravenous by this time.)

Photo credits to Aaron Wood and Aleatha Parker-Wood.