Archives for posts with tag: New York Times

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.

Advertisements

It turns out that when I was describing the benefits of crop rotation two weeks ago (see May 4, 2014), I was only half right. The process can be much more complicated—and substantially more advantageous—than merely planting different families of plants in different plots each season. The key is choosing what to plant and the order in which to plant it.

A good example of a more scientific approach to crop rotation is described in an Op-Ed piece by Dan Barber, chef of the restaurants Blue Hill (in New York City) and Blue Hill at Stone Barns (in Pocantico Hills, New York), that appears in today’s New York Times (see “What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong”).

Chef Barber buys his wheat from a farmer in upstate New York. On a visit to the farm, he learned that the wheat is only planted at the end of a four-year cycle of carefully selected crops, each of which performs a specific task for conditioning the soil. The procession follows a basic order which can be modified as soil response and weather patterns dictate.

First up is a cover crop such as mustard, which cleanses the soil and adds nutrients. Next is a legume to fix Nitrogen. Rye follows which, apparently, crowds out weeds (and also “builds soil structure”, although no explanation is given as to what exactly this means). Last to be planted is the wheat, the crop that outsiders (and until recently, Chef Barber) would think of as the whole point of this enterprise.

What is lamentable in the wheat farmer’s case is that the market for what those outsiders might call the off-season crops—the mustard, peas and rye—is scarce. While the wheat commands high, New York City prices, the other vegetables and grains go unwanted and often end up as feed for animals raised as food. Such use is not considered by most experts to be a very efficient use of resources.

Chef’s response to this situation was to develop menu items at his restaurants that incorporate the lesser crops and thereby elevate their stature and, presumably, their price (I hope that he pays his farmer as much for the mustard, peas and rye as he does for the wheat). It’s an elegant solution—a no-brainer, in retrospect—and also a win-win. Really, it’s a win-win-win because not only do the farmer and the chef benefit but the patrons of Blue Hill get tasty meals out of it, too.

So, how might this concept apply to the backyard gardener? Well, I’m not sure about growing an entire planter full of rye or mustard but half of a planter mixed with other like vegetables or grains might work (especially if Chef shares his recipes). And I never feel like we have enough Sugar Snap peas so the year of legumes would not be a problem. The primary issue is space, something we never seem to have enough of.

Maybe the question for me is, where can I put two more planters?

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.

There was an amusing Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times wherein the author, Ben Schott, proposes a selection of new German compound words that “express the inexpressible” (see Schottenfreude).  Of the neologisms presented (excerpted from an upcoming book), my favorite is, “Fingerspitzentanz”, which he defines as “tiny triumphs of nimble-fingered dexterity” (isn’t that redundant?) or what I would call the joy of simple tasks done with the hands.  “Kinking a metal tape measure into a corner” and “Inserting a USB plug right-side up, first time” are two such tasks—exhilarating in their small way—that I can relate to (although the latter almost never happens).

If it were my book, I would add another word, “Laubrechenzufriedenheit” (leaf raking contentment; my apologies to speakers of German), for the immense satisfaction that can be achieved after completing what might be considered a menial activity or chore, especially when it has been done well.  The feeling of accomplishment that follows the completion of a significant project or attainment of a lofty goal is more readily recognizable but, almost by definition, much more rare.  The commonplace and mundane tasks, such as making dinner, clipping the fingernails and, yes, raking the leaves happen much more frequently but are no less important to quality of life and peace of mind.  And after all, as my father often remarked (in lieu of criticism), if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing right.

Most if not all gardening activities fall into this category of quotidien chores that provide for almost constant gratification and these daily successes and feelings of reward are probably a major contributor to gardening’s popularity (they are for me).  It helps that many garden chores are relatively straightforward and therefore easy or quick to master and accomplish with flair.

Now, it is not that expansive, longer-term gardening goals, such as creating a huge, formal garden over the course of several years or expanding a vegetable garden until it serves the entire neighborhood, are not worthy of attention—they are—or that arriving at them is not a significant accomplishment (the neighbors would certainly appreciate either example).  Rather, the path to those larger goals can be embellished by a series of lesser rewards that encourage progress.

Gardening can be a noble pursuit but at its core, it is a humble one.  To do it, one must get one’s hands dirty.  And that, at the end of the day, can be immensely satisfying.

We couldn’t visit Saratoga Springs without spending some time at the racetrack.  After all, it is one of the main attractions—if not the main attraction—in town.  The purebred horse trade, which includes polo and horse auctions (see “The Hamptons on the Hoof” in the New York Times for a discussion of the latter), ensures a steady flow of tourists at all income levels and fuels the local economy.

The New York Racing Association has done a great job of making horse racing—and gambling—at Saratoga Springs a wholesome family activity accessible to novices and bookmakers alike.  There are plenty of seating options and many food choices that range between the cheap and casual to the formal and expensive.

What the NYRA has not done is make their pricing structure transparent and straightforward.  Because there are so many variations on seating, they are all priced separately.  And surprisingly, a ticket for a seat will not get a spectator through the entrance gates; admission is an additional charge.  We purchased tickets for our grandstand seats in advance online but had to buy our admission tickets at the will-call window.  The only thing more complicated is the betting but that would take an entire blog to explain (after I figured it out, that is).

We watched—and bet on—the first four races.  The first was a steeplechase on the innermost turf (the track has three concentric ovals, the outermost of which is dirt while the inner two are grass) with four jumps, located at each end of the turns.  The horses were started from a walk without the use of gates (I’m not sure how they handle false starts) and were at full speed by the first jump.  The field was mostly well matched and remained closely grouped for the entire race.  When they encountered each gate, they seemed to flow over it rather than jump.  Our horse, Alajmal, came in second to last.

The second race, a five-furlong sprint on the outer track, was over in a flash (well, 58 seconds).  The horse we picked to win, Pure Sensation, was part of a three-horse group that led the field by several lengths for the duration.  The colt could not hold on, though, and lost to Corfu by half a length.  In the third race (another sprint), the saucily named filly Chase My Tail won handily while our horse, Handshakesnkisses (we chose her for her name) came in last.  According to the race analysis, she was “no factor”.

Easily the most exciting race for us was the fourth.  A friend had asked us to bet $10 on the third horse in the fourth race.  Number 3 turned out to be Miss Valentine.  She (and her jockey) came out of the gate strong and led for most of the race.  After fading in the home stretch, she appeared to be boxed out by the front runners but with a last burst of speed, made a dash for the win.  At the line, it was Miss Valentine, Clear Pasaj (No. 2) and Willet (No. 5), nose to nose.

The race too close to call, we waited—with great anticipation—for the photo finish to be reviewed.  Sadly, Miss Valentine came up short.  The final result was Clear Pasaj with the win, Willet to place (by half a head) and Miss Valentine to show (by another half head).  A disappointing outcome but it was a lot of fun to watch.  Those horses move fast!

A day at the races made for a nice break from gardening but we had had enough of it (and only lost $30).  We left before the fifth race bell and, after stopping at Hattie’s Chicken Shack (highly recommended) for fried chicken (what else?) and hushpuppies (the best I’ve ever eaten), headed for the Thruway south and home.

There was a nicely-written article in Sunday’s New York Times about using deadlines to motivate work and prevent procrastination (“Need Motivation? Declare a Deadline.”). It’s an interesting—and chilling—topic for me. I don’t think anybody really likes deadlines and most people probably dread them but very little would get done without them. If we had to rely entirely on our wishful thinking about what we’d like to accomplish, we’d have next to nothing to show for it.

I’ve been trying to minimize my exposure to deadlines but I recognize setting them as a motivational tool. And I’m pretty good about meeting self-imposed deadlines, especially when the work involved is important and/or urgent. If it really needs to be done, I’ll usually get it done.

But I’m pretty good at dragging my feet, too. Sometimes, this is because the task at hand is unpleasant and I simply do not want to do it. For example, we are in the process of updating to a new computer. Many people would enjoy this (increased processing speed, more memory, better apps, etc.) but I do not (I find it very disruptive). Consequently, the process has taken a long, long time (and not a little nudging by Rachel). There’s no urgency here, though, so there’s no problem.

Most often, however, my stonewalling is evidence of some internal doubt, an intuitive hesitation brought on by a feeling—not always conscious—that the chosen action might not be the right one. It can be easy to come to a decision based on overwhelming rational criteria but nearly impossible to act on it if I know in my heart that it will not serve.

This can occur when faced with the big decisions in life—career choices, buying a home, raising children—but crops up with the more mundane as well. Last year, for example, I resolved to pave around the planters with the surplus stone we have on hand (see June 10, 2012). I allowed myself until the end of the summer to get it done but despite my apparent (and public) commitment to the idea, the task is still undone.

Reconsidering, I think that what I had proposed to do would have required too much effort to achieve a result that we were not sure was what we wanted. Instead, I will take some very good advice from the Times article, and opt for something that I can actually accomplish even if it is not necessarily the best I can do. In other words, I’ll choose something that is good enough (at least for now) and make getting it done the priority.

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…