What I Really Eat

Making gorgeous tarts and experimental sauces is all well and good, but what do you eat for lunch on a hectic day, for instance?  How about breakfast when your eyes seem to have retreated permanently into your skull?  What gets you through the days, presuming that nobody cooks for you and you haven't the money to go out?

I'm jobless, so my day-to-day food is still a little ambitious.  As in I might use the stove in addition to the microwave or the toaster.  No cooking at all is also a possibility, of course.  Recently for lunch I have been, rather than a dish per se, just throwing together three or four things that take a minimum of effort and not much time.  Most of the time this involves leftovers.

Mundane food would be strange to write recipes for.  It's creation is entirely circumstantial.  Unless you're the sort of person who plans all of your meals and meticulously buys only ingredients for use in your meals.  Personally I find life to be far messier, especially sharing food with who I live with.  Today my lunch was miso soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, and a pear.  Why?  Because miso, bread, cheese, and pears were around.  But someone else would have done something else with these same things.  My lunch was both circumstantial and idiomatic.  It would be silly to write a recipe because making these things is not particularly complicated nor desirable, and because they came out of a very particular situation.  Then again taking food in and out of different contexts is what recipes do.  Just because this context is not the pristine dream world of a culinary superstar and the food is not the subject of superlative praise does not make it pointless to share.  I guess.  Sharing is one thing, but a recipe?  Really?  Whatever.

The truth is, I didn't eat the pear.  It just sounded like what should have gone with it.

31 December 2010

Eggs on toast and a cup of ginger tea is far too often my breakfast. Gosh, now that I'm writing about it, it sounds nice.


What makes a good tarte tatin? Going by the polite compliments of those who consumed the pear-ginger tarte tatin I made for Christmas dinner, my quibbles are excessive. Soggy crust does not matter. The way the butter rose to the top to form an off-white opacity does not matter. Hell, those things didn’t matter to me, either. I only wanted there to be more of it. Yet a sense of culinary aesthetics demands that the pears should not be laying in a pool of liquid when the tart is turned out onto a dish. (Maybe this could be avoided by using sugar instead of honey.)

There is also a sense that the making makes the dish, a conflation of the process with the result. The logic goes if I’m pleased with the pears boiling in honey--if it looks good, if it smells good--then the tart is good. This also goes for the sweet potato pie I made the same day. I liked its color (a bilious drab green), and what went into it. The light spices, the light sweetening of honey, the light color of the Japanese yam flesh, the thickness of the pie all came together in an aestheticism that had nothing to do with taste and yet constitutes a great part of taste. When I tasted it, it was the beauty of the process I was wishing for.

This is why it is necessary but impossible to separate taste from aesthetics, pleasure from ideas. Necessary because taste does not come of itself, and impossible for the same reason.

I might account for my former enthusiasm for the dozens of dense, eggy spice cakes by remembering my enjoyment of what went into them. There was a subtle balancing art of ingredients and spices that went into these cakes that was impossible to discern in the finished product unless you were me. It was possible for me to taste some hidden nobility in the cake despite the consistency which I could somehow deny. More likely I only now, several years later, remember them as dense and disgusting, and at the time there were not other possibilities that I knew of.

In honor of the cooking process’s interiority (if not the cook’s) rather than its ultimate appearance as taste to the world, the accompanying photos are of pear peels, pears boiling in honey, and unbaked sweet potato pie.

Excuse me.  Instead of "in honor of," the paragraph above should begin "to exploit," much like speeches that "honor" the dead.

27 December 2010

A General Guide to Braising Vegetables

Or maybe this is called stir-frying. The idea is to brown them a little in oil before steaming them. 

vegetables spices salt flavorful liquids

Chop vegetables into bite-sized pieces about 1/4” thick. Heat a large saucepan to medium heat, add oil and spices. Temper spices for about thirty seconds before throwing in vegetables (carefully--they will sputter). Stir quickly to spread the spices around and stop them from burning. Fry on medium-high heat for about five minutes, stirring every minute. Add salt and flavorful liquids and cover for about three minutes. Continue steaming if not done (somewhere between crisp and mushy is my preference).

Of course, every vegetable is different. Bok choy for instance doesn’t need as much cooking time, and only the stems need to be really cooked, whereas the leaves just need to be wilted. This recipe is based on carrots and parsnips which I fried with garlic and black pepper and steamed in lemon juice and mirin. The parsnips cooked more quickly than carrots, and came out mushier than the carrots. Which was actually kind of nice.

22 December 2010

Mrs. Hudson's Biscuits II: Hiding Behind Photography

This recipe is vastly improved using the right ingredient, corn flour, rather than the course corn meal that made the first time like eating sand.  The photo of the finished product I daresay is beautiful.

I'm not sure, however, if they're "good."  It may look like a moist, dense cake, but the corn flour ensures a flat texture that dissolves into a paste of silt in the mouth.  It doesn't really taste baked--it's more like a grain paste molded into a pleasing shape, like a corn halvah.

This time I spread the dough in a round pie pan, baking it as a sort of giant cookie, and then slicing into eighths once it was glazed and cooled.  Which admittedly makes far larger biscuits than called for.

It's only the texture I'm iffy about--the flavors of lemon and corn go well together I think.

Why did I try this in the first place?  Because the photos looked nice.  Now I've taken an appetizing (I think) photo, in a different way, of more or less the same thing.  If this weren't such an oddity, the world might be full of mouth-watering photos of it.  Culinary hobbyists' kitchens everywhere would pop out these sunny-looking treats.  The texture I've described as displeasing might instead be the subject of a poetics of delicacy.  Like chocolate, a few strange people would never like it, much to the confusion and even mild distrust of everyone else.  Or maybe not.  There's more to gastronomic phenomena than photography.

What did the gelatinous goodies of the 1950s taste like?  And I don't mean "what would they taste like if we made them today and tried them?"

19 December 2010

There has got to be a better way to spread this into a circle.

a nasty concoction

I used to sneak into their kitchen at night to concoct an ineffectual remedy for an intangible ailment warm milk chamomile nutmeg vanilla I used two spoons of honey

16 December 2010


I am sugar high on this.  No, there is no photo.  It feels like decadence despite having stood impatiently over the little pan waiting for the honey to burn just so.  It's a Nigellaesque decadence: culinary labour as pleasure in itself.  I'll have to wash the dishes later, of course.  For now I can sit in bed spooning pieces of crushingly sweet pear and licking the spoon of darkened, ginger-perfumed honey.  Who needs crust?  Small pieces.

16 December 2010

Kale The Bittersweet

Kale fried with dill seed is actually kind of good. If it exceeded my expectations, you might wonder why then did I cook it? There is a bag full of dill seed, at least I think that’s what it is, in the kitchen cupboard, I have no idea why. I don’t know what could I have been cooking for which I specifically needed dill seed. It smelled appealing when I was looking for a way to cook some wilting kale. Not knowing what it was, and knowing that nobody else was going to eat it, I fried it and some black pepper in sesame oil before throwing in the kale, which in parts soon became almost blackened with slightly bitter anise-like flavor. I felt that this was becoming a disaster: burnt, nasty flavor. When I finally tasted it, I liked it, but doubted the verity of my impression. Is this simply novelty? Would anyone else like this? Would I like this at any other time? Could I have carried out any experiment and been happy with the results? In other words, does this taste exist only in the fleeting moments when I devoured the fried kale? This of course is also a delusion--the “taste” was built as I remembered it, thought of how I would describe it, and began writing this blog entry. And what will probably drive me to make it again is a desire to have again the inflated memory that never quite was.

Such food passions vary in their capacities to disgust, satisfy, and beg to be tried again. Take the sugar binges that made up a good deal of my friendship with someone: every so often (perhaps weeks, perhaps months or years) we would make an absurd amount of some sugary dessert. Our enthusiasm diminished dramatically the more of it we ate, and after not too long we became disgusted with it. I would usually continue to nibble, helplessly in its thrall, exemplifying and sometimes uttering the phrase “take it away from me.” Overdoing it like this cured us for quite a while of our desire for whatever we had just made. But eventually one of us would want to try this all over again--not necessarily the exact same dessert, but to again go through the process from desire to disgust.

Emma Recchi's brief moment. Favorite dishes are quieter and less dramatic. In fact, good cooking might be defined by its ability to not quite satisfy. To keep one on the point of wanting, to not overdo it. It is in this way that less can be more--one eats more to taste again what began but did not meet one’s fantasy. The impossible way to maintain a compelling fantasy is never-ending dynamism. The fantasy must never be revealed as already reached or completely out of reach. One must be kept always somewhat disappointed and somewhat hopeful. Among all the illimitable distractions of being, one sometimes strives to be entrapped briefly in such simplicity. Perhaps what I liked about the kale was its mixture of pain and pleasure, bitter and sweet. And maybe by singing such praises you will be convinced of what I am not.

1 bunch Italian kale 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil 1 teaspoon whole dill seeds 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper 1/2 teaspoon salt

Chop the bunch of kale every one inch, keeping the stemmy pieces separate from the leafy pieces. On medium heat, fry the dill seeds and black pepper in the sesame oil for about thirty seconds. Add stemmy kale pieces. Increase heat to medium-high. Fry for about four minutes, stirring every minute. Add the remaining kale and cover. Uncover and stir every two minutes, repeating this process four times. Remove from heat, serve immediately.

15 December 2010

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Baked Sweet Potatoes With Nutmeg-Paprika Sauce, Leftover Roast Chicken, and Bok Choy

For once I'm writing a recipe (with pictures!) for one of my dinner improvisations.  The idea for the sauce came from my friend who likes sweet potatoes with olive oil, paprika, nutmeg, and salt.  The lemon in the sauce--used mostly because I had excess lemon juice from making a pear tart--is a bit intense, but seems to mellow over time and with bland sweet potato.  At first I thought it was a mistake using lemon juice, but it quickly grew on me.

For two:

2 sweet potatoes (I used "Japanese yams" which have dark purple skin and light yellow flesh)

1 largish bok choy plant

some leftover roast chicken


juice of 1/2 a lemon

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 egg yolk

1/3 cup chicken stock 

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon nutmeg

~1/2 teaspoon salt

for bok choy:

1 tablespoon cooking oil

2 teaspoons tamari

2 teaspoons mirin

Put sweet potatoes in oven, and heat to 375 F.  When sweet potatoes are soft all the way through (maybe 45 minutes), take them out.

Heat a large saucepan to medium-high heat.  Chop bok choy into biggish pieces, separating the leafy pieces from the stemmy pieces.  Coat saucepan with cooking oil, and fry the stemmy pieces for a few minutes, browning them a little.  Add leafy pieces, tamari, and mirin, and cover for another few minutes.  Uncover, stir, and reduce liquid (on the same medium high heat) for a minute or two so it begins to coat the bok choy.  Transfer bok choy into a bowl.  Remove from heat.

Whisk together egg yolk, lemon juice, and chicken stock.  When the saucepan has cooled down a bit, put on medium-low heat and add olive oil and paprika and nutmeg.  Stir a bit while the spices temper for a minute.  Add liquid mixture, whisking as you do so.  Take a tablespoon or so size piece of baked sweet potato, remove the skin, and mash it into the sauce with a fork.  Continue whisking.  Reduce the sauce for a few minutes.  If it's too thin add some more sweet potato, or flour, but it shouldn't bee too thick--more of a gravy consistency.  Remove from heat.

On a plate open a sweet potato up with a fork, and pour sauce over it and heated leftover chicken (microwave or bake on low heat in a covered container).  Serve with bok choy.

11 December 2010

The paprika didn't really taste like parika, and considering that it didn't turn the oil bright red either, it probably wasn't. Maybe it was mace.

Chicken Soup

Making chicken soup from scratch is a long string of delayed gratification. It’s not just that there’s a lot of waiting, but also that there are so many stages of the process. This accounts, I think, for my enthusiasm for making soup. There are days of anticipation. First I have to salt the chicken, leaving the chicken to soak up the salt overnight. The next day I roast it, and if I’m feeling particularly impatient and productive, I begin simmering the stock in the same day. More likely it won’t be until the carcass is mostly picked off a day or two after I roast it that the stock is begun. Once the stock has finished simmering (usually I leave it overnight), finally soup can begin.

The above is a simplification of what’s involved of course. Before roasting the chicken really should be dried out a bit in the interest of crispy skin, although honestly I don’t often bother. Before making stock the carcass should be stripped of most of the good meat (but not all), which is at once satisfying and daunting (despite the fact that it takes less than ten minutes). After the carcass has simmered with flavoring vegetables, the stock must be strained and possibly skimmed. And of course the contents of the soup itself must be cooked and seasoned.

This time it was rice, carrots, and leeks. Planning and preparing the ingredients is for me a form of utopianism: “yes, this will be perfect in the soup.” And the soup I imagine will save any lack of care, binding everything together into a hot selfsame liquid. To reverse the sense of a Woosterism, once it’s in the soup, it’ll be spiffing.

At the end of all this the soup is--well it’s okay.

9 December 2010

Simmering stock fromchicken carcass and vegetablescraps that I've frozen over the past few weeks.

The stock is somewhat cloudy because I misguidedly used potato skins.

Chicken Attachments

My favorite parts of roasting chicken are the vegetables roasted in chicken juices and the soup.  That I think of the chicken meat itself as an added bonus probably reflects badly on the way I roast it. At least I began with some sort of guide: Beyond Salmon's notes on roasting chicken legs.

The potatoes, onions, and other vegetables (today it was broccolini) that I nest around the chicken collect and exude water, making the bottom of the chicken consistently soggy.  Because I don't have a meat thermometer I'm never quite sure when to take it out of the oven.  Testing for doneness involves cutting into it, which breaks the skin and exposes more flesh, so if it has to bake longer after testing it will lose moisture quickly.  Usually, paranoid, I err on the side of overdone, but this time by accident I undercooked it.  You can see in the photo that the leg meat looks fairly pink, as did the breast meat.  So I baked the meat sealed in in tinfoil at 300 F for another fifteen minutes or so.  Much of it is just going to go into the soup anyway.

Anyway, about the vegetables.  The slices of onion and potato were sidled up to the chicken after the first ten minutes of baking (at 450 F).  When the chicken was done (or so I thought), the potatoes were not.  At this point I removed the chicken, added the broccolini to the roasting pan, mixed it in, and put it back in the oven for about another twenty minutes.  The vegetables have been soaking up flavor from the chicken, olive oil, lemon juice (along with the lemon halves in the pan), garlic, black pepper, and salt.  (If it were summer, there would also be thyme.)  I adore them.

It occurs to me that the problem of soggy-bottom might be alleviated if I roasted the vegetables in another pan and poured the liquid from the chicken roasting pan into it when the chicken is done.  Alternatively I could make a gravy out of the chicken drippings and pour it over separately roasted vegetables.  But there is something appealing about this doomed method of roasting them together.

7 December 2010

Photos & Memories to Eat

What I want to make:

Bakewell Tart.

Idli and Coconut Chutney.

Pear Souffle--not so ambitious, nor of bottomless pockets, I would skip the pear wafers and pear eau-de-vie.

5 December 2010

Something You Really Shouldn't Make, and Something Else, Which Requires The First

1. Looking for a way to use four granny smith apples, I was going to try to make "easy apple strudel," which more or less amounts to surrounding apple slices with puff pastry and baking it.  Unable to find puff pastry in the store, I bought phyllo dough instead, thinking that surely I could use this for something involving apples.  The something I stumbled into on allrecipes was also a "strudel," and seemed to function upon a principle of turning phyllo into puff pastry by layering butter between each sheet.  That, it turned out, was a very optimistic reading of the author's thought process.  Granted, I didn't follow the recipe exactly.  The gist seemed to be: layer about eight sheets of phyllo with melted butter in a pan, then put some apples, sugar, and whatever else you want on top of it, and then... and then what?  Here the text of the recipe says one thing, while the photo clearly shows something quite different.  The recipe reads "roll the sheets up to form a log shape."  The photo looks more like the edges were rolled up to prevent juices from spilling out.  For reasons somewhat murky to me, I went for the photo.  It occurs to me now that anyone can submit a photo for a recipe on allrecipes.  Food photography incites a strong mimetic impulse, but here the assumption that the photos accompanying a recipe come from the author's execution of the recipe, filling out the vagaries that the recipe's words have left, is wrong.  In this case the photo is of someone else's (mis)execution of the recipe.  Allrecipes is thus where a recipe's signified is set adrift.

The web 2.0 mechanism has wide limits, but of course there are plenty of other instances of dissonance between a recipe and its accompanying photography.  In those lavish coffee table cookbooks filled with beautiful photos that take up whole pages, the recipes often lack the finishing touches that made them look so good in the first place.  I have this Thai cookbook that mostly consists of photos of the countryside and its people living a far more aesthetic life than anyone possibly could.  In all the photos the dishes have these amazing garnishes, are placed on rustic tableware, and sometimes even contain ingredients that aren't in the recipe.  What draws me to make a particular recipe in the book is of course the photo, but not only is the recipe inadequate--it is impossible to recreate the photo unless you live in a fantasy version of Thailand.  In other words, rather than follow the recipe, you're better off going to a very upscale Thai restaurant in the US.  Yet if you do follow the recipe, it will be a medium through which to experience the photo.  Though you can see that your dish is not as it is pictured in the book, you taste the photo.

In the case of this "strudel," the photo fantasy backfired: tasting what I made didn't confirm that my version pales in comparison to the pictured, but rather it told me that what was pictured wasn't that great. It tasted about like it looked--okay.  The phyllo at the edges curled up and turned crunchy, which was mostly just annoying.  I ended up scraping most of the excess flakes off before putting a piece on a plate.    The bottom crust was far too tough, making it difficult to eat with a fork, as well as being an unpleasant texture.  The filling at least was nice: tangy, sweet, and cooked just right (the apples were neither mush nor crisp).

2. As a result of the above debacle, I now had a lot of browned phyllo flakes.  Rather than throw them away, I decided to turn them into a sort of bread pudding.  The pudding came out much better than the original "strudel" I think.  What follows is a very rough recipe, as I wasn't really measuring anything.

~2 cups phyllo flakes (I tore up some uncooked phyllo too)

2 eggs

~2/3 cup milk

~1/2 cup sugar

~2 tablespoons honey

~2 teaspoons cinnamon

~1 teaspoon nutmeg

a few drops of vanilla

~1 cup chopped almonds

~1/2 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 350 F.  In a bowl whisk together eggs, milk, sugar, honey (heat in a microwave first), cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla.  In a 8x8 baking pan, toss phyllo flakes, chopped almonds, and raisins.  Pour wet mixture over dry mixture.  Bake until the whole thing puffs up--maybe half an hour.

4 December 2010

The photo I saw on allrecipes.

My version.

Spicy Orange Sauce

1 large orange 1 egg yolk 2 tablespoons sweet chili sauce 2 teaspoons sugar 1/2 teaspoon crushed dried chilis

Zest orange and reserve orange zest.  Juice orange, removing any seeds.  In a large saucepan combine orange juice, orange zest, and egg yolk with a whisk.  Put saucepan on medium-low heat, stirring with whisk.  When it begins to bubble, add sugar, sweet chili sauce, and dried chilis while continuing to stir.  Reduce to a saucy consistency (it should flow, but thickly).  Remove from heat.

I made this to accompany baked tuna filets, and liked it very much.  Maybe it would go well with other things?

3 December 2010