The Cooking Blogger's Nondilemma

I began composing this post, including this sentence, in the shower, which both is and is not an ideal place to compose something. It’s ideal because there aren’t many distractions and because there is no actual page upon which what I’ve written is visible. It is possible to crystalize by editing and editing, without really having to edit anything because nothing is set down. But the problem with composing things of any length in your head like this is that they never come out onto the page as you’d hoped. For one thing, it’s very easy to forget what you never actually wrote. Writing in general is not much different; composing in the mind rather than on the page just delays the problem.

Sometimes writing this blog is a pain. It has to be thought about (tragic, I know). It’s not anything like, say, Alicia in “The Good Wife” typing out an additional argument to a Legal Aid appeal in 48 minutes with a crowd looking over her shoulder and talking over each other to give her information. It is at least somewhat believable that one could actually do such a thing because the form and content of the document would be largely, I imagine, determined in advance. (Law students, correct me on this?) This blog, on the other hand, while it has vaguely defined a genre for itself, has not really settled into a consistent form, and its content often comes from intangible sources. Generally I just cook something, take a few harried photos, and hope that something a little bit interesting will suddenly befall me when I finally sit down to write about it. Often coming up with something to say about whatever I’ve cooked means writing in the most over-the-top way.

But what tires me about this blog is not the actual writing. It's that sometimes when I cook I think must I really think about what I’m doing? One of the pleasures of cooking, to me, is losing myself in a nonlinguistic activity. If I’m to post about what I’m cooking, not only do I probably have to take mental notes on techniques and measurements of ingredients, but I have to (well, okay, I want to) think of some way to frame the post other than “I cooked this. It was interesting. Some things went well and others did not.” This turns cooking into a queer experience: I have to create the frame and be within it at the same time. I get tired of being in-frame.

I may be making a mistake in, well, framing the problem this way. While being split between inside and outside, observer and actor may be awkward, is there really any time when one isn’t?

I have experienced the fatigue of framing in another way, through photography, in which there is literally a frame. I always say that I got tired of photography because I didn’t like that my vision was turned constantly into a search for a good composition. The problem as I saw it was that whether I not I had a camera, photography never really went away. Photography was a scene of anxiety: I didn’t want to miss an opportunity for a good photo. This put me in a very odd relationship with the passage of time. While every new moment afforded the possibility of a photo, I didn’t want each moment to pass because even when I took a photo to record the moment I was never sure it was the right photo. But I think what I ultimately ascribed my dislike of photography to was how it demanded that I objectify my visual experience. Things seen were there for one purpose: to be photographed. From inside my photographer’s gaze, I felt that this collapsed the experience of seeing. My complaint was that I didn’t want to see for a purpose, I wanted to just see. I wanted out. There is something paradoxical about this. In the politically naive way I approached photograph y, it was the most purposeless way of seeing possible. It created a fascination with form for form’s sake. But this purposeless seeing, I thought, became unbearably purposive. So I stopped, and considered myself free from the frame.

My idea regarding both cooking for a blog post and photography, I suppose, is that there’s a great blossoming of depth and complexity when I step out of my framing mechanisms. The problem is that this blossoming can only be felt in relation to what I want to distance myself from. So a few nights ago when I made dinner and I thought how sick I was of this blog business, I had a nice, peaceful time cooking. Cooking can be a good time to reflect in a non-deliberate way on things other than cooking. And while cooking my world consists of more than cognition; I feel, smell, and taste ingredients. But because I insist on an ill-defined idea of “the grass is always greener,” I have to wonder if what I liked about the experience was any positive feature at all, but rather what it was not. It was not a cooking experience destined for a blog post. (And here I am writing about it.) I liked the way the distance from blogging felt. It felt like privacy, which is not something that can be felt on its own; one can only feel private from some form of visibility.

Facebook is a massive nexus of transparency. It’s monstrous, and turns its users into monsters. We are there to be seen and to peer at others. Thus not posting anything on Facebook feels like privacy. But if there were no Facebook, I could not have privacy from it. And it produces privacy in another way: you may show all sorts of things about your life there, and yet live outside of your publicity. You may live bits and pieces of a private life because it is so publicized. Similarly, because I write a blog that is largely about my life, I am afforded privacy.

(If I say “privacy” one more time you’re going to kill me, aren’t you?)

27 February 2011

Pankeggs (and American Breakfasts)

The older I get, the more finicky I become about breakfast. Mostly I poke at it, trying my best to take seriously what only seems like an abstract need for food in the morning. The food often seems too rich, like it’s trying to feed me. Awfully presumptuous of it, don’t you think? Breakfasts in American restaurants are the most offensive in this regard. Their menus full of terrifying practicality, like every customer is in a state of emergency and has got to GET SOME FOOD IN THERE, stat. They don’t waste time on trivial things that aren’t dense with protein, fat, and carbohydrates. And they would never dream of skimping; they err on the side of making you explode. Don’t they understand that breakfast is a time of nausea? It’s in the name. Following a fast, one does not gorge oneself on bacon, eggs, butter, potatoes, and coffee. One might be very hungry, but one needs to ease into the fact of eating. One needs to be seduced. The purveyors of American breakfasts seem completely ignorant of the erotics of eating. To consider the mediative process by which food gets from plate to stomach would be, what, too French?

(I know, I just romanticized Frenchness. Sigh.)

Nonetheless, this morning I made pankegg. It’s one of those gimmicky breakfast foods that fuses a fried egg with some starchy substrate. Actually I can only think of two such foods: egg-in-a-hole and pankegg. Yeah, alright, so maybe it’s not a whole genre.

Pancakes 1 egg ~3/4 cup milk 2/3 cup whole wheat pastry flour 2 teaspoons vegetable oil pinch of salt 1 teaspoon baking powder

Pankeggs 3 more eggs, one for each pancake

In a medium bowl combine egg, milk, and oil. Add flour, baking powder, and salt. Thoroughly whisk everything together. Let stand for five minutes while the pan heats on medium heat.

Oil the pan. Pour pancake onto pan. When there are lots of bubbles, remove it to a plate, uncooked side up. Crack an egg into the center of the pan. Immediately place the pancake on top of this, uncooked side down. Cook for a few minutes, so that the yolk in still runny. Serve egg side up. Repeat for remainder of pancake batter (should make 3).

22 February 2011

Match cut to the second to last photo?

There isn't roughly 3/4 cup milk like the recipe says. I just fill the measuring cup to the 1 cup mark.

Tierra del Pancake-o

It's true, taking this photo allowed the egg to cook for too long without the pancake. I'm sure it was cold and alone for those ten seconds.

Pregnant pancake!

Little known fact: eggs scream at frequencies we can't hear.

Ugh.

Eggy Biscuits with Eggs

I sometimes use an egg as a trick to make biscuits fluffier. It does render them somewhat unbiscuitlike, but they always seem to come out a little flat if I don’t use an egg. The eggy biscuit is like a bad combover, but maybe nice if one doesn’t want it to be something it’s not.

Eggy Biscuits

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour 1 teaspoon salt (if using salted butter, then 3/4 teaspoon salt) 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 6 tablespoons butter 1 egg ~1/2 cup milk

Preheat oven to 450 F. Combine flours, salt, and baking powder in a large mixing bowl. Cut butter into flour with a pastry cutter. Crack egg into measuring cup. Fill measuring cup to 3/4 cup mark with milk. Break up egg with a fork, and then pour egg & milk into mixing bowl. Mix to make a dry dough. Form dough into a ball with your hands, and knead it about ten times. Roll dough into a small sheet 1/3 inch thick. Cut with a bowl about 3 inches across, or more appropriate implement. Bake on a sheet until golden brown on the bottom.

18 February 2011

Oh right, ham as well.

The perfect way tofall backasleep in the morning.

Pantry Cleanse II: Quinoa and Kidney Beans

There are two things lurking in my pantry that have become staples in the last two weeks. I always cooked and ate them separately--quinoa as a kind of hot grain salad, and kidney beans as a thick soup. Today I decided to make a meal of combining the two.

This being a "pantry cleanse" (a term I've lifted from "life, in recipes"), all of the ingredients are incidental. Each has a particular history of how it ended up in the kitchen. Because my father has a tendency to buy food as if we are preparing for the end times, we have an entire case of canned kidney beans, and a giant bag of quinoa. There are those things that I habitually buy and see as necessities: onions, cooking oil, salt, chili powder. I bought the green onions because they were on sale and I thought they might encourage me to improvise. My brother and I got a yellow beet and carrots for a salad some time ago. I don’t remember why we had mushrooms and jalapenos--for some other meal. Inexplicably we have what to me is an enormous quantity of saffron. I really don’t know what to do with it. I put it in all sorts of things, thinking that I’ll taste it, but I don’t. Its subtle flavor eludes me. In imitation of some kind of aromatic rice dish, I used it in the quinoa, along with some cloves.

Incidental food is a topic that I have talked too much about, but I think insufficiently. Sure, there are recipes, like this one, that come about incidentally. But what I want to talk about is how it’s a deceiving accident of idiom that one makes food. What I want to say amounts, basically, to an “in Soviet Russia” joke: food makes you! There are several reasons for this. As much as the ingredient lists of some recipes would have us believe supermarkets are infinities of choice, there are in fact items that are not available. Foods are varying levels of affordable in different places. We are habituated to certain kinds of foods and preparation methods. And most importantly, food is woven into our social lives, our families, and our psychology. Maybe your mother tries to dictate what you eat. You may not necessary follow all or even any of her commands, but nonetheless your gustatory life becomes defined by them, by her. Maybe you live with your grandmother, and she only has certain scare items in the kitchen. Maybe your crazy landlord lives and sleeps in the kitchen, and you want to limit your time there as much as possible. Maybe you live at home with your father who impulsively buys an assortment of food that you feel compelled to use before it perishes. And maybe you’re a cheapskate and want to eat as much of the odd items laying around the kitchen as possible, buying only very little.

Nigella Lawson talks about culinary agency with a turn of phrase that I like, “greedy opportunism.” Of course there’s more than a little contrivance in her usage. Greedy opportunism is the process of gadding about in her shining kitchen picking out gourmet goodies that just happened to find their way there, and relishing some new use for them. It is as if she has an infestation of pantry-stocking gremlins. But while it is a class-charged way to frame her show, it’s also one way that improvisation in cooking happens: things you don’t necessarily have a planned use for will end up in your kitchen; use them somehow. At least half of what I cook is through greedy opportunism. Although I must admit that only rarely is it greedy.

Beans

2 12oz cans kidney beans

2/3 cup water

1 onion

4 mushrooms

1/2 carrot

1/4 yellow beet

1 clove garlic

1/2 jalapeno

1 tablespoon cooking oil

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Chop onion 1cm square. Cut mushrooms in half and then slice finely. Julienne carrot into 1/2 inch long pieces. Chop beet, garlic, and jalapeno half finely. Fry all vegetables in cooking oil in a large saucepan on medium heat. Add salt and chili powder. Sautee for about twenty minutes, stirring every few minutes. Don't stir more often because the mushrooms won't brown. Stir in kidney beans and water. Bring to a boil and then remove from heat.

Quinoa

1 cup quinoa

2 cups water 1/4 lemon

1/3 cup chopped green onions

1/4 teaspoon saffron threads

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon powdered cloves or 4 whole cloves

Combine quinoa and water in a medium pot and and bring to a boil, covered. Remove from heat and add lemon quarter, green onions, saffron threads, salt, and cloves. Cover and simmer on medium-low heat until all the quinoa has absorbed all the water. Remove from heat, add salt, and mix to disperse seasonings.

16 February 2011

Please, please give me something better to do with saffron.

Mickey the Milk Man

It has been pointed out to me that I am often appalled by food. For someone who writes a blog about food I have remarkably little enthusiasm for eating. I push away my plate, content more with the freedom from having to eat I have just won. Eating is often merely a distasteful means to an end. Maybe this is because I read In The Night Kitchen over and over as a child. Or perhaps I read it over and over because in some way it spoke to my tendency toward disgust. In either case the book is certainly related in some way.

There is actually a convincing case to be made for the latter possibility that I have always been prone to rejecting food. As a very small child, I am told (I don’t remember this), I went so far as to pick the bowl off of my highchair and throw it at my parents. They were the oppressors who had introduced this cruel new economy into my life: to survive you must eat. I rejected it as a theory for as long it was possible to do so. The doctor worried. My parents worried and, hoping that the problem was merely an uncontrollable enthusiasm for throwing food at them, bought a bowl with suction cups. Somehow, I managed to throw this new bowl at them too. Their idea of why I did this remained unchallenged. But today I am convinced that I did not just take pleasure in throwing things at them (though I’m sure I did). I think that I was appalled by the notion that this stuff in the bowl had to go into my mouth, and moreover that I had to make it do so. No more were the good old days of breastfeeding and bottles. I’m sure I’m getting the chronology wrong somehow, but after a rather extended period of drinking from a bottle, I chucked it into a trashcan myself, in a symbolic gesture full of melodrama. I didn’t know at the time what I had just gotten myself into. My will to self-determination was propped up by the idea that beyond the bottle lay not just dignity, but freedom. Nobody ever told me that I would have to eat.

In a way my childhood fast is the very height of heroism, and in its extremity reveals heroism’s absurdity. Here is heroism: one stands between a reality and a truth and throws a fit. I would deal with primal loss by viewing the world with skepticism and occasionally denying its vicissitudes altogether. I would not accept eating as my access to the good stuff. No, it was just some new shit.

Mickey of In The Night Kitchen has a much less problematic relationship with, um, milk.

Among other things, In the Night Kitchen is the story of Mickey's nakedness.

Mickey falls into the night kitchen under a mistaken identity: milk. Yes, that is his hand.

Mickey asserts his identity, his separateness from the night kitchen and its ingredients. He is not a part of their mad cake production. He is not milk. He is special. Or at least he certainly has no doubts that he is.

Despite his protestations the bakers still take him for milk, and for this reason chase after him.

At this point he has transformed as if by magic two foods into tools for his use: a jumpsuit from the cake he was baked in, and an airplane from unbaked dough with which to evade the bakers. The bakers in fact form no real threat. He is the master, almost effortlessly shaping all the world to his will.

Refuting that he is milk, he goes to get milk. This is the story, then, of the formation of Mickey's masculine subject-position. I daresay it's not a coincidence that the bottle of milk is an enormous phallus and the tallest building.

But to get milk and yet be separate from milk he must form a new relationship with the milk. Rather than being confused for milk, he and the milk interpenetrate. Distinction is just another word for friction. Interestingly he and the book celebrate this moment. To have rather than to be might necessitate objects circulating through you, but it's not a price. It's a kind of glory, it seems.

The milk, it is worth noting, dissolves his cake-clothing. Getting the milk demands nakedness.

Mission accomplished. Mickey relishes in his newly forged identity: he gets milk.

This is the only red text in the book.

He is restored from nakedness to the regular world and clothedness, but now a boy. His identity is from the night kitchen is not lost, but reflected: oh to ho. He shares this secret joke with himself.

Perhaps I liked the book so much because it offered a new, exciting possibility for my relationship with things that come in bottles. Maybe I threw away my bottle in hopes of becoming Mickey, the perfect boy.

14 February 2011

Yogurt Pancakes

2 eggs 1 1/2 cups milk whole wheat pastry flour 2 tablespoons yogurt 1 tablespoon vegetable oil pinch of salt 1 teaspoon baking powder

In a medium bowl mix together eggs, yogurt, oil, and salt. Whisk in 2 tablespoons flour. Whisk in milk. Whisk in 3 more tablespoons flour and baking powder. Continue adding more flour until the batter is slightly wetter than the desired consistency. Whisk, whisk, whisk. It will thicken a little more as the whole wheat pastry flour absorbs more moisture. Fry pancakes in a pan on medium heat, flipping each when the top has lots of bubbles. I eat them with butter and maple syrup.

13 February 2011

Gobi Manchurian

Post hoc ergo proptor hoc. That the fire occurred the morning after making it is not important. Gobi manchurian causes grease fires.

(The morning after is, after all, the more fiery moment.)

Non-Wheat Gobi Manchurian (adapted from Sailu's Kitchen)

2 medium cauliflower heads

Breading 1 cup nonwheat biscuit mix 1 1/3 cup water 1/4 finely chopped jalapeno 1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger 1 large clove finely chopped garlic

Stir Fry

2 tablespoons sesame oil

the rest of the jalapeno, chopped

whites of several green onions, chopped

1 large clove garlic, finely chopped

1 teaspoon ginger, finely chopped

Sauce 4 teaspoons soy sauce 5 tablespoons tomato sauce 3 teaspoons vinegar 1 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar 1 teaspoon chili powder

Chop cauliflower into florets about 1 inch square. Soak florets in salt water. What does that mean? I used probably 3 teaspoons of salt. Who knows if it does anything. Finely chop jalapeno, ginger, and 2 cloves of garlic. In a large mixing bowl combine all breading ingredients. In a small bowl combine all sauce ingredients. Chop the whites of a bunch of green onions off and chop them into roughly 5mm pieces. Fill a wok about 3/4 inch with high-temperature oil. Heat oil to ~350 F, if you have a thermometer. Otherwise try heating it for five minutes, then test it every minute or two with a dollop of breading. It should bubble a lot, and brown fairly quickly. What specifically does that mean? I don't know. In any case drain the florets thoroughly and dump them into the bowl of breading batter. Mix them around until they're evenly coated.

Then deep fry as many as will fit in the oil at once. Turn them over with a very long utensil every couple minutes (the oil is not deep enough to fry them evenly). Break apart any that stick together with the same long utensil. Don't let them get cuddly. When they are golden brown (is anything ever not supposed to be golden brown when it's done?), take them out with the giant utensil, without taking too much oil with them, and put them on a paper-towel-covered plate. Repeat this paragraph until there are no more florets to fry.

Pour the oil into a very very dry container that will not die from the sudden heat. Then pour the sesame oil in the wok. Stir fry all the ingredients under, yes, you guessed it, the "Stir Fry" title. For a few minutes. I didn't do this. I forgot. I just put the stir fry ingredients in with the sauce. Which is next: pour the sauce into the wok. Stir it constantly for about five minutes. Add a few tablespoons of water, and let it come to a boil again. Then dump in all the deep-fried florets and coat them with the sauce. The question here is: to immediately remove them from heat, or to fry them in hopes of making them crispy? I went in between, frying them for only about a minute, and they came out soggy.

13 February 2011

Timing

Truthfully all the durations in my recipes are guestimates. When I say five minutes I just mean what felt like a short amount of time. I was not looking at the clock. I imagine this isn’t a surprise to anyone. Timing in cooking is vague and conditional, something sensed out and learned.

Despite knowing this about myself, it is sometimes easy for me to get take the numbers of minutes in someone else’s recipe as absolute. There are far too many variables that make this impossible. Even if the recipes were written from precise timings in the author’s kitchen, these do not necessarily or even often translate well into another kitchen. Ingredients differ, altitudes differ, pans differ, burners differ, etc. There is a complex if not always logical process of translation. Often what the recipe says marks the dish as done is more absolute than the cooking time. But those numbers are not useless. They might tell me that something is different. If the recipe says 45 minutes and the cake has been in for an hour and still doesn’t look done, then something is different, even though what exactly is the work of sketchy reasoning.

Either improvised or from a recipe, cooking involves for me a great deal of anxiety about how long to cook something. The worst are the things I can’t taste for doneness, like baked goods or roast chicken. Or tea, which I rigidly time but am always wondering if I should leave the leaves in longer or take them out early. Even when I cook something as simple as sauteed vegetables I go to the pan every two minutes to taste how soft they are, and am constantly uncertain if they’re soft enough or too soft. It’s not really two minutes, it’s more like I’ll take it off the burner when I’m done reading a blog post, after I feed the dogs, after I go to the bathroom, after I finish doing the dishes, etc.

The clock, in other words, is a deceptive ally to cooking. It deludes cooks into false certainties that assume the kitchen is the same as the mechanical innards of a clock. Timing, on the other hand, is essential.

6 February 2011

Failed Psychogastronomy

It's easy for me to forget that food can have dire effects on us. More than something that is tasty, or something to eat because you are hungry, it heats you up, cools you down, energizes you, makes you sleepy, gives you a headache, burns your cheeks, as well as plenty else. There are also all the long-term health effects diet may have, but I am talking about effects at an immediate level of sensation, emotion, and bodily helplessness. Taking a cue from bringing to light the abject aspect of digestion, I want to conceptually explode the body and the subject further. Rather than thinking of food as having effects upon the self or the body, but I would like to think of food's entry itself as a beginning of these identities. Let us take the adage "you are what you eat" to an extreme.

Can language do this? Can subject, object, and verb be arranged to bring about their undoing?

I bring this up because of a fairly mundane drink of yogurt, water, and honey. It was just what I needed at the time I drank it; it was soothing and cooling (both in the sense of temperature and otherwise). For a while it transformed what I could and could not sense. It would be nice to place cognition aside from this externalizing gustatory scene, but I'm afraid it too bends and is bent by eating. I began to write the recipe for this drink, which led somehow into reading lassi recipes online. My half-cognition of what happened recognized itself through a descriptor in one of these recipes: "soothing." This validated my feeling that the drink had brought about a change. Which brings me to trying to write this and having difficulty remembering anything beyond the words I read in that recipe somewhere (and I can’t find the recipe either). This doesn’t make the case for what I was saying about cognition at all. Damn.

Honey Lassi

1/2 cup yogurt 1 cup water 2 teaspoons honey

In a glass drip honey over yogurt. Use honey-covered spoon to mix together yogurt and honey as thoroughly as possible. Without removing spoon, add water. Stir until most of the honey is dissolved from the spoon.

4 February 2011

Pantry Cleanse I: Assorted Legumes

Whoever decided to package several different varieties of beans and lentils in a “Gourmet Bean Blend” is an idiot. A very clever idiot, because people buy this stuff. It’s an appealing idea to make soup from this rainbow legume hodgepodge, however the logistics of actually cooking them all together like this are impossible, or at the very least not ideal. The trouble is that a yellow split pea and and a red bean take vastly different amounts of time to cook, and uncooked legumes do not taste good. The only solution is to cook the largest beans completely, and in so doing cook everything else to death. As we often hear, the lowest common denominator tyrannizes everyone else.

Beans take a long time to cook. This wouldn’t much of an issue, except that legumes are to soup what dirt is to mud--they settle to the bottom. So they have to be unstuck from the bottom every few minutes to keep them from burning. After five hours of walking back and forth between the pot of beans and whatever else I was doing, it was two in the morning and I was sick of it. The beans were not entirely cooked, but they were edible. Sometimes, as in writing this blog entry, one has to stop.

2 cups "Gourmet Bean Blend" 6 medium tomatoes 1 large onion 3 tablespoons cooking oil 2 cloves garlic 2 teaspoons mustard seeds 1 tablespoon coriander powder 1 1/2 tablespoons sambar powder

Soak beans in cold water for 8 hours. Finely chop onion and garlic. Drain water that beans were soaking in, and transfer beans to a large pot. Cover beans in 2 inches of water and begin bringing it to a boil. In a large, covered saucepan on medium heat fry mustard seeds in oil until most of them pop. Add onion and garlic and reduce heat to medium-low. Add coriander and sambar powder. Continue frying until onions are soft, stirring every few minutes. When beans have begun to boil, reduce heat to medium-low. Cut tomatoes into large chunks. When onions are done mix in tomatoes. When tomatoes have disintegrated and reduced to a thick sauce, transfer tomato-onion mixture to bean pot. Cook for however long it takes for all beans to become tender, possibly six hours. Stir often to keep from burning. When done, salt to taste.

1 February 2011