Porkchops and Spinach

Last night, I did something that I absolutely dread: I cooked a recipe out of a cookbook.

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This may not seem terrifying to the rest of you, but there’s something about cooking while reading while measuring while stirring while pouring while flipping that completely destroys any normal cooking ability that I have.  I think it’s the reading part that gets to me.

Baking something out of a cookbook?  No problem.  That’s normal.  I can’t just stand there in the kitchen and decide, “You know, I think I’m going to put this flour together with this cocoa powder and see what comes of it!”  Baking is more science than art, and for that you need a recipe.  Sure, you can fiddle with the recipe as you go or modify it later to your liking.  But baking is simple and straightforward: stir things together in bowl, bake.  Throwing “reading” into that mix doesn’t make too much of a difference.

Cooking, however, is different for me.

I’ve always been the kind of person who cooks in the same way that I play piano — by ear.  Now, I don’t have the incredible palate that my mother has, where she can visualize a meal and all of its ingredients in her mind and know exactly how everything will taste together before she’s even bought the groceries.  But I know what goes together and what doesn’t.  And I usually make our meals out of whatever’s in the pantry at any given time, a practice which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to following a recipe out of the latest issue of Bon Appetit.

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Weirdly, I own a massive collection of cookbooks (again, not as large as my mother’s collection which — at last count — numbered 258 tomes).  But instead of using them for their intended purpose, I read them like you would novels.  And I suppose that somewhere in the back of my mind, I ferret away little chunks of cooking knowledge that present themselves when I’m poking aimlessly through my pantry and trying to figure out what I can make with a can of butterbeans and some leftover baby spinach.

That said, I am determined to start cooking with actual recipes.  And to that end, I chose a very easy porkchop recipe with a caramelized onion sauce (a Rocco di Spirito recipe) and a side of creamed spinach (my mother’s recipe).  And I have to say, I was impressed with the results.

I don’t know if it has more to do with the fact that I’ve finally got decent appliances and cookware (I love you, All-Clad) or that I’m a calmer person in general than when I first started cooking in college, but everything turned out exactly as planned.

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The recipes are after the jump.  Yes, they’re ridiculously easy.  But for someone like me, they were quite an accomplishment. Continue reading Porkchops and Spinach

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Cuisine Cartography

I graduated from college with a degree in cartography.  Like many other post-grads, I’ve found very few real-world applications for my degree (at least, ones that pay enough to live off of…) and so I work in a completely different field now.  That said, I still have a deep appreciation for the art of cartography and the beauty of maps.  Take, for example, these fascinating maps of food (and be sure to click on each heading to visit the page where I found these lovely maps):

Totem Foods of North America

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I’m kind of startled to see that Houston (and San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Brownsville, the entire Valley, etc.) falls into the “Gator Nation” belt.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I love alligator as much as the next person.  But I definitely wouldn’t categorize it as a Totem food here.  And I can’t imagine trying to serve someone alligator in the Valley.  Houston’s close enough to Louisiana and the swamps of East Texas for alligator to be fairly standard cuisine, but that’s not true in points west.

In reality, the whole portion of the Gator belt starting with the Texas-Louisiana border and heading west should be an amalgamation of the Corn Bread & BBQ Nation and the Chile Pepper Nation.  Mmm…  Now who wouldn’t want to live in that nation?

Continue reading Cuisine Cartography

On Ethiopian Food

Note:  This is actually a transported post from my other blog, which I wrote nearly two years ago, but I wanted to share it here nevertheless.  I — mercifully — don’t work for this boss or at this company anymore.

I conned a few of my coworkers into going to one of my favorite restaurants today, Blue Nile, with the promise of “It’s just regular food, like lentils and chicken, but cooked a little differently!”  Which is true, if a little misleading.  I left out the part about eating with your hands because I was stretching my luck as it was by dragging them out to the Richmond boonies amidst places with names like “Discoteca #14” and “La Belleza Salon — La Mas Bella!”

Blue Nile serves the most delicious Ethiopian food this side of Addis Ababa.  I am such a dork.  And yes, I’ve heard the joke about “How many ways can you cook a grain of rice?” or the one about “It’ll be a quick meal; we’ll order two empty plates and leave,” both courtesy of my manchild boss.  Quick visual of the boss, while we’re on topic:

He usually wears sleeves, but the accent and attitude is still Da Bears.

Ethiopian food is, as I said before, pretty much the same food we eat over here — chicken, beef, potatoes, lentils, greens, etc. — just prepared differently and with very distinct, unique spices and lots of clarified butter.  It’s also eaten without the use of utensils; you use pieces of injera bread to pick up your food.  Injera is a slightly sour-tasting flatbread made from teff flour, which is very nutrient-rich and does a good job of balancing out the spicy nature of most Ethiopian dishes.

Now that we have that out of the way, I’d just like to say that I’ve learned a lesson today.  Don’t force Ethiopian food on good friends.  It will only make them fear and resent you.  Also, when you’re driving back to work, sheepishly, let them listen to the radio and don’t force them to listen to your new Coheed and Cambria CD, which also — clearly — is not for everyone.

Within five minutes of returning to the office, everyone had heard about the fearsome meal.  I’m not going to say that Ethiopian food is an aquired taste, because I instantly liked it from the first time that spicy, rich, earthy doro wot first passed my lips three years ago.  I just think that maybe it isn’t for everyone.  As my friend Aurora pointed out, it’s hard to get past that first visceral reaction to food that looks as if it were a challenge on Fear Factor.

Okay, I admit that the injera does look a little like a Dr. Scholl’s insert.

All of that aside, I highly recommend Blue Nile as a jumping-off point for Ethiopian food.  The waitstaff are friendly and more than willing to explain their dishes to any newbies, the food is very reasonably priced (on other occasions, my friend Jacque and I have been known to split their enormous vegetarian platter between the two of us for $4.50 apiece; yeah, that’s right — $4.50 apiece!) and it’s all delicious.

You Are What You Eat

I’m going to go off on a rant for a second here.

 

Store’s effort to sell fresh chicken raises concerns

 

The story above interests me for several reasons.  The people concerned about the possible slaughter of poultry in their neighborhood grocery store don’t identify themselves as vegetarians, animal lovers, or even crazy PETA activists.  They aren’t concerned that the method of killing the chickens is cruel (which it isn’t).  They simply seem to have a problem knowing where their poultry comes from.  I’ve run up against this dilemma quite a lot lately.

 

People want to eat, but they also want to know as little as possible about the food they’re consuming.  We have become so far removed from our food sources that it’s worrying to me in a large-scale Malthusian way.  If we were to lose all means of current food production tomorrow, how many of us would be able to sustain ourselves?  How many of us know which wild berries or mushrooms are edible?  Or how to grow a vegetable garden?  Or how to clean a fish?  Or how to slaughter a lamb for meat?  Or milk a cow?  Or simply even COOK?

 

I was reading a book by Anthony Bourdain a few weeks ago, called A Cooks Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines.  In one of the chapters, Bourdain recounts visiting a friend’s family farm in Portugal and participating in the slaughter of a pig for a big feast later that week. Continue reading You Are What You Eat

Bistro Provence

Location:  Bistro Provence
Date:  November 14, 2007
 

Robb Walsh, who is quite possibly my favorite food journalist and who we Houstonians can proudly call one of our own, has a timely review of Bistro Provence up at the Houston Press.  I say “timely,” because I just ate there for the third time two weeks ago.  I had mixed emotions about my last visit, so I’m glad to see that a professional food critic has vindicated my feelings about the place, whether he knows it or not.

We took my Day Job boss to Bistro Provence for her ten-year anniversary with my company.  Since there were six of us, I called the restaurant the day before our lunch to make sure that they could accomodate six people during their busy lunch rush.  The person who answered the phone sounded harried and uninterested at the same time, even though I made sure to call around 3:30 pm (hoping to catch them in between the lunch and dinner rushes).  He snootily told me that they don’t accept reservations, something of which I’m very well aware, and I told him so.  He responded with, “Okay, then you know we don’t take reservations.  Just show up and you’ll be seated.”  And then abruptly hung up the phone.

The next day, the group of us showed up at 12:30.  The parking lot was full, as always, but we were heartened by the fact that several tables outside on the popular patio area were empty.  Inside the restaurant, several other tables were empty as well, but they were all two-tops: nothing large enough to accomodate our group.  Every table seemed to be inhabited by — quite fittingly — actual French people enjoying their traditional long lunches with bottles of wine.  The boss loved the quaintness and “authenticity” of the place, and she happily agreed to wait for a table.

…this was a bad idea. Continue reading Bistro Provence

Kicking It Down A Notch

Bam! Food Network pulling plug on Emeril Live

NEW YORK — Food Network is kicking Emeril Lagasse down a notch.

The celebrity chef’s Emeril Live, which has been on the air for 10 years, will cease production Dec. 11, Food Network publicist Carrie Welch told The Associated Press.

“However, Emeril is under contract with Food Network,” Welch said Tuesday. “We love him, we support him and look forward to a long partnership with him.”

Welch wouldn’t comment on Lagasse’s contract.

Asked why the show was canceled, she told the AP: “The only reason would be that it hit a ton of television milestones and, you know, all good things come to an end.”

The Food Network will continue producing Lagasse’s The Essence of Emeril, and he will take part in “specials and other development opportunities in the future,” Welch said.

The network also will air reruns of Emeril Live.

“I am deeply appreciative to all the unbelievable staff — many who have been with the show since the beginning — and all the loyal viewers, and the many talented guests who have appeared on the show through the years,” Lagasse, 48, said in a statement provided by Welch.

“I look forward to continuing my association with the Food Network with The Essence of Emeril, and I have lots of new ideas cooking,” he said.

Emeril’s show was the first show that I ever watched on the then-young Food Network.  I was immediately taken in by his warmth, his chuckling and shuffling around the kitchen, the way he interacted with his audience and the sheer joy he seemed to exhibit while cooking for people.  I grew up on The Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child’s The French Chef, but I’d never felt an immediate magnetism like Emeril’s before.  I like to think that most people felt that way the first time they watched him, too.  But in recent years, the show had grown stale and boring while a new crop of TV chefs grew up around it, decreasing its relevance with each passing day.

Emeril helped to launch the current wave of televised foodie-ism, from the grating annoyance that is Rachael Ray and half-assed fakery that is Sandra Lee, to the raw passion of Anthony Bourdain and manic energy of Alton Brown.  In a way, I’m sad to see him leave the airwaves for now.  But in another, more emphatic way, I’m glad to see him move on.

For as interesting and trailblazing as he once was, I believe Emeril’s river has more than run its course.  The man has become a parody of himself, with his endless catchphrases: “BAM!” and “Kick it up a notch!”  The low point came when he repeatedly and loudly applied the former catchphrase to cinnamon-flavored toothpaste in a commercial that ran — briefly, mercifully — earlier this year.  As far as I’m concerned, “BAM!” was the unfortunate precursor to the headache-inducing “EVOO” and its ilk, and both deserve to be put down once and for all.

So, good-bye Emeril.  I can’t say that I’ll miss your show or your catchphrases, but I’ll miss your anchoring presence.  I hope to see you again soon in another incarnation.

Anthony Bourdain will probably miss you, too.