This Weeks Share: Arugula, Beets, Bok choi, Daikon, Escarole, Garlic, Leeks, Lettuce, Onions, Peppers, Hot pepper, Satina potatoes, Pie pumpkin
I seem to come across a lot of recipes these days that exist at the extremes. At one end are the quick and easy dinner ideas for the busy family–the open one can, add a package, mix, microwave, top with a jar of something recipes as often as not sponsored by some giant consumer product company that read more like shopping lists than cooking instructions. At the far end, the show off restaurant dishes requiring advanced engineering, a week of hard labor and several ingredients you cannot easily get your hands on even in Brooklyn.
Our local paper recently ran a piece on 10 easy work night pasta dishes. It began innocuously enough with a Caprese pasta, the only quirk a suggestion–in the heart of tomato season–to stick with a container of red grape tomatoes from the grocery store. But it went downhill quickly. Sadly, I did not hang onto the article. I seem, however, to remember a cheese burger pasta and something that involved hideous amounts of peanut butter. All but the first of the recipes included at least one canned or bottled object and one hefty container of some dairy product.
I also recently saw a segment of something called Home Cook, which features an Irish restaurant chef (not quite sure how public television developed its unlikely obsession with Irish cooking). The host’s own recipe for a trio of raspberry desserts pushed the limits of what most home cooks would consider reasonable. But it was the beef dish produced by the chef whose kitchen he visited that really caught my attention. Not that he actually suggested that viewers should–or could–consider making the dish. But he did devote a fair portion of a show called, once again, Home Cook, to it. This dish involved beef prepared three ways–two of them requiring an industrial-grade sous vide machine, several sauces and, of course, a touch of foam. I lost count of all the elements on the plate, but it had at least 10, each one requiring some level of separate preparation. With the right equipment you could probably do every step at home, but to plate it you would need a restaurant staff. Which is fine. It is a quintessential restaurant dish, and that level of labor is in part what you pay for if you choose to eat in such places. But why show it on a program allegedly aimed at inspiring home cooks to get busy cooking? It seemed rather to serve the purpose of reminding us mere mortals how far beneath the kitchen gods we truly are.
To be fair, there are plenty of (actually, too many) recipes that fall somewhere between the extremes. In fact, figuring out what and how to cook and getting your hands on the ingredients you need has become far easier. Without much effort or travel or even expense, I can get spring roll wrappers, an immersion blender, real cheese, pomegranate syrup, cinnamon sticks, sea salt, silicone baking molds, and then I can go online and find thousands of instructions with pictures or video to show me how to use them (and some of these are even good). But I feel like the gap between the extremes is growing wider.
Maybe the sheer volume of recipes available simply takes up so much space that it inexorably pushes the ends further apart. Or maybe it gets harder and harder to make your recipe stand out, so you are more willing to go to one extreme or the other to be noticed. Or maybe we have a widening food gap in this country. The folks eating locally, sustainably, artisanally, every bite carefully and thoughtfully crafted down to the molecule are balanced by those who increasingly rely on processed goods of questionable provenance and nutritional value. Americans spent about thirty-five billions dollars on organic food in 2013, and about seventy-six billion on soft drink.
Fortunately, the spending on organic food is going up at the same time the spending on soda is going down. But I am afraid we are heading towards a society clearly divided between kale eaters and cola drinkers, the farm-to-tablers and the factory-to-tablers. Those at the farm end may well be eating better and better, their food healthier, more sophisticated, tastier. But at the factory end people will be eating worse and worse, more and more cut off from real food by cost, time and culture. And that is not okay. We cannot judge ourselves as a society simply by the heights we achieve–even when those heights include carrot dust, breadcrumb foam, sustainably foraged morels, line-caught sea bass, hand-crafted weissbier, small batch heirloom olive oil. We must also consider how well the least well off do. Louis XVI lived magnificently, and yet somehow that failed to make France a free and just nation.
I am not suggesting that we should all eat worse in the name of equality. Or that we ban soda and force every American to join a CSA. But perhaps rather than simply glorifying chefs who produce four-hour, eighteen-course extravaganzas that force us reconsider the beet, we could save a little of our adulation (and our money) for the people who are finding ways to make sure that everybody gets something good to eat. The people stocking food pantries with local produce, improving the quality of school lunches, running urban community gardens, creating new forms of food distribution in underserved communities (Poughkeepsie, where I grew up, for years had no super market for its 30,000 residents), making basic nutrition a part of education. It may not be the sexiest, most telegenic, brandable work in the food world, but it may be the most necessary. No matter how well you eat, living in a fantastically rich country with millions of poorly nourished citizens leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Vegetable notes: A diakon (the white root) is basically just a very large radish. You could just whack off some chunks and serve it up with sour cream and coarse salt, or eat it however you normally eat radishes. You could also cut it into thin disks or sticks and simmer it in some vinegar with spices (star anise, clove, allspice) and salt and perhaps a little ginger and garlic), then put it in the refrigerator for at least a day to make pickles. Or shred it and add it to cole slaw. Or cut it into chunks and steam it and drizzle it with soy, chile oil and rice vinegar. Or just leave it on the counter and admire it.
Your pumpkin is called a pie pumpkin because it is meant to be eaten. In a pie. Actually, most pumpkin pie is made with Butternut squash, so perhaps it would be more fitting to substitute the pumpkin for the squash in your favorite Butternut recipe. There’s nothing like a little kitchen irony.