Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Food Religion

or Cooking Dogma

I'm realizing that when it comes to cooking I can be very dogmatic - more so than I usually am since I'm usually quite flexible and sensitive to diversity. I think it's because we are a nation of cooking shortcuts even when it makes no sense to have a shortcut, and the shortcut has worked its way deeply into our culture.

When I was a kid, I though that all Parmesan Cheese came out of a green can. I thought that Cranberry Sauce came out of a can. What it ever a revelation that not only did it not have to always be in a can, it tasted better when it didn't and, (and this is the part that really astonishes me) having either fresh takes almost no further time. Grating a small block of Parmesan takes less than a minute. Making cranberry sauce from cranberries takes 10 minutes of boiling them in water and sugar.

It continues. When I first made a stuffing that called for cornbread I decided to make the cornbread since it was my understanding that making it was pretty easy. It is. Guess what took me a lot longer? Finding the cornmeal in the store. Oh it's there, but it's lost in a sea of cornbread mixes. One gets the impression that cornbread is intrisincally difficult, but I have yet to figure that out. Unlike say buttermilk pancakes for example, there's nothing exotic in the recipe at all. I'm all for convenience - I eat bagged salad all the time., but we're getting "help" with things that we don't need help with really or the help takes just as much time as the more standard method, some help that is. I get the impression that someone has been doing the equivalent of selling refrigerators to Eskimos to us.

But there are other shortcuts that are there just for the sake of capitalism. I'm definitely in the Bagels should be boiled camp. Non-boiled bakery items in the shape of bagels are usually quite excellent, but they are not bagels. Boiling brings the gluten to the surface and a real bagel has a semi hard surface and a delicious interior. Without the boiling (called kettling) before they're baked, you don't get that contrast in texture.

There are times when the shortcut is so entrenched it's difficult to discern what was before the short cut. I like to cook Indian food and I love Indian spices, and have learned from people like Julie Sahi (I'll check the name and get a reference) author of Classic Indian Cooking, that: curry is not a powder, it's a method - a combination of spices. Unfortunately, it's sometimes very difficult to get beyond "Curry Powder" and fortunately I never got in the habit of using it so I didn't have to unlearn reaching for it.

Then somewhere I get more rigid than is likely healthy. Take pesto for instance. It should have 5 ingredients and that's it: Basil, Garlic, Parmesan, Pine Nuts, and Olive Oil. Maybe Sundried Tomatoes if you feel so inclined. But parsley? Almonds? Heavens why?

My point? Well I think it was back there around the Eskimos.

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