Archives for posts with tag: Dining Section

Do you have rice phobia?

According to a recent article in the New York Times Dining section, it’s “a thing” (actually, rice phobia is a thing according to someone quoted in the article; see “Fluffy. Tasty. Tricky. Learning to Cook a Good Pot of Rice.”).

I don’t think I have rice phobia but I don’t cook it often, either. That’s not because I am afraid of rice or even that I don’t like it. It’s just that I prefer pasta on those relatively rare occasions when I eat a big plate of carbohydrates (and, to me, potatoes fall into a different category).

When I do eat rice, it is usually a variation on risotto, a dish whose traditional preparation technique—standing by the pot, constantly stirring—suits my temperament (what can I say? I like boring and repetitious). Also, I’m pretty good at it (although most Italians would likely disagree).

On those rare occasions when I do cook standard rice (by which I mean American white, long-grain rice), I follow the “recipe” that my mother taught me many, many years ago, before I even realized I was learning to cook: one cup rice, two cups water; bring to a boil; cover and reduce to a simmer; remove from heat 20 minutes later. No rinsing the rice beforehand, no butter, no salt (my mother almost never added salt during cooking).

Prepared this way, the rice has never burned. Nor has it ended up gummy (at least, not exceedingly so; rice is by its nature somewhat gummy). Every once in a while the pot has boiled over because I didn’t reduce the heat enough but after I have corrected the gas level, the rice resumes normal cooking and comes out more or less the same.

Most likely, my rice is not the perfect rice that Kim Severson is striving for. It’s probably not even good by her standards. For me, it is good enough.

But, really, what can you expect? I grew up on Minute Rice.

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We spent some time today planning our Thanksgiving meal.  The menu is based on tradition so there are not many choices to make.  Typically, our trusty-dusty recipes dominate although we will usually consider the variety of choices presented in the November food and cooking magazines.  Often, but by no means always, something new can be accommodated.

Not this year, though.  To work around work and travel schedules, we are having the main meal early—the Wednesday before—and taking it on the road.  We’re still the cooks, so everything must be made ahead.  Further—and, hey, no pressure—we’ll be joined by relatives visiting from out of town.  This is no time for experimentation.

We always start with the basics:  roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce.  Then we add another starch, some variation of sweet potato casserole or a second stuffing (and probably, I should use the term dressing because we haven’t stuffed a turkey since 2001).  Yesterday’s New York Times Dining section (see “Essential Thanksgiving”) referred to this menu component as “something orange”, a clever characterization that they expanded to include macaroni and cheese.

(Serving mac and cheese on Thanksgiving is an interesting idea; many Italian-Americans I know include pasta as a separate course on Thanksgiving, which has always struck me as a good way to combine—or, dare I say, mash up—culinary traditions.)

We agree with the philosophy that there should be something green on the table to round out the menu both in nutrition and color.  In past years, we have prepared everything from Brussels sprouts, kale, and even an arugula fennel salad (although salads are my least favorite contributor from this group).  Most recently, we have been making green beans with walnuts in a lemon vinaigrette which is a perfect complement to the meal (the dish’s acidity refreshes the palate) and has the added advantage of being relatively easy and quick to prepare.

And then there must be dessert.  Most often, this is pie, pumpkin or pecan.  Some years, we add a second sweet, which may or may not be another pie.  This year, we decided to make a Polka Dot Cheesecake, a recipe developed by Maida Heatter and featured in an early issue of Saveur magazine.  The polka dots in the recipe are chocolate but we’ll make them pumpkin-flavored in honor of the season.  (Maybe we’re experimenting this year after all.)

I like to start the meal (while the turkey rests) with a small glass of Bourbon.  This is not my usual cocktail choice but the Bourbon and its perfect accompaniment of roasted, salted pecans are uniquely American.  Both items seem appropriate for Thanksgiving which, although not uniquely American (Canadians celebrate it in October), is in part a celebration of being American.

Last week’s New York Times Dining Section included an article about dinner kits, one of the latest trend in convenience foods (“Everything but the Cook”).  It’s an interesting idea:  After browsing menus on a website, the customer orders dishes online.   The next day, a box containing recipes and all of the necessary ingredients—pre-measured and individually packaged—is delivered to the door.  All of the prep work has been done but the customer does the cooking.  The concept falls somewhere between the traditional approach (plan, shop, prep and cook) and ordering in (choose, telephone and wait).  Services like FreshDirect and Peapod fall to both sides, providing either the ingredients (in normal supermarket quantities) or prepared foods (just like take-out).

Dinner kits have some definite advantages.  For people who feel they are too busy to cook, they can raise the quality of the food in a higher proportion than the additional time required to prepare them.  Less food is wasted because only what is needed for the recipe is included in the kits.  And the expansive selections and detailed instructions can help broaden a cook’s repertoire and increase cooking skills.  A dinner kit is also a relatively low-risk way to explore a new cuisine or ingredient.

Of course, one cook’s asset is another’s liability.  The cost of dinner kits is higher than cooking from the larder (no economy of scale) and is more comparable to eating in a restaurant.  The use of pre-packaged ingredients greatly increases the amount of packaging, much of which is not recyclable (I suspect that a lot of polystyrene is involved).  Pre-measuring makes the recipes less flexible—if the cook decides a dish needs more smoked paprika, he or she is out of luck—and means that the food is handled by more people, increasing the risk of contamination.  Further, depending on the cook’s baseline skill set, nothing may be learned from cooking this way.

More significantly, though, the dinner kit concept opens up a debate about what constitutes home cooking.  Few would argue that ordering delivery from a restaurant is any different from eating it out, even if the dishes arrive unheated.  But if they arrive unassembled as well, do they cross the line into the realm of the homemade?  Or is something lost from the home-cooked experience when half of the work has been done by others?

I think it is less a question of what is done and more about how it is done.  For example, a multi-course meal prepared from scratch might not qualify as home cooking if it is performed perfunctorily or without any thought for or involvement of the diners.  Similarly, a dinner out can have significance to and emotional resonance for the guests if the host puts some conscious thought into the choice of restaurant, makes an effort to add to its warm, convivial atmosphere and takes whatever other steps are necessary to insure a positive experience.

The key ingredient, of course, is love.  The more of it that is thrown into the pot, the less the other ingredients matter.  It helps to start the process with attention and thoughtfulness, in the same way that sautéing a mirepoix forms a flavorful basis for soup.  And adding playfulness, adventurousness, or even nostalgia can spice things up, whether it takes place in the home kitchen or at a restaurant.

Quite unexpectedly, we received a seed catalog in the mail today.  It came from John Scheepers, a company I usually associate with bulbs.  We’ve purchased bulbs from them in the past but not for several years.  And we have never gotten a seed catalog from them before.  Why did they choose to send their Kitchen Garden Seeds catalog now?  Perhaps they’ve been reading my blog and knew I was interested in growing from seed this year?  (No, probably not; anyway, the catalog was addressed to Rachel.)

While looking at the variety of available seeds, Rachel was reminded of one of our favorite salads.  It is composed of arugula and thinly-sliced turnips in a honey-based dressing.  The original recipe (Shaved Turnip Salad With Arugula and Prosciutto from the New York Times Dining Section) calls for prosciutto, which adds a hefty umami component and is quite tasty, but we prefer to crumble in goat cheese instead.

The key to the salad is that the turnips are used raw.  Therefore, it needs to be made with the freshest available.  We have a good source for turnips (a Pine Island farm that sells at our weekly market) but why not grow our own?  There’s no way to get turnips fresher.  And that way, we would also get to eat the greens.  As we learned last year with the radishes and beets, that’s a bonus we can’t usually get, even from the farmers’ market.  I’ll peruse the Scheepers catalog for turnip seeds and other potential vegetables.

I will also be looking into the Hudson Valley Seed Library, an organization devoted to preserving the seeds of plants well-suited to the climate of the Hudson Valley (and of the Northeast, more generally).  It’s a great concept:  gardeners borrow seeds in the spring, plant them and nurture them to fruition and then, in the fall, harvest and preserve the seeds and return them to the library (some of the plants must be allowed to grow beyond the vegetable-harvest stage).  These days, the library also grows and sells its own seeds.  A field trip may be in order…