Archive for category Cooking

I Have Been Betrayed by Rice

So I’ve been puzzled for a long time as to how I might manage to get poisoned on a seemingly routine basis, because I have. Food poisoning is not fun. It involves hours (and sometimes days) of discovering exactly how many tiles are on the floor of your bathroom, and then attempting to forget that number while counting for the Nth time.

But, I think I’ve finally figured it out. It’s all about rice. See, I’d always assumed that the proscriptions about eating reheated rice were based on not-adequately-sterilized leftovers — the assumption being that if you heat those leftovers past the boiling point you’re safe, and anyone who got sick wasn’t doing that.

Um… ANNOYING BUZZ! False!

The problem is that rice is home to a particularly nasty bacteria that, in its dormant state, does not get killed by home cooking – you need temperatures in excess of four-hundred-degrees to denature the suckers (which, as it turns out, is what those big food companies do to prepacked meals). As soon as the rice cools to a bacterial-friendly temperature, these little mofos come to life and start breeding, and their ‘excrement’ is a toxin which does not break down when heated, even though returning the rice to high temperatures kills the critters themselves. Their crap is there to stay.

So it turns out that you cannot under any circumstances consume rice after the initial cooking without risking serious consequences. If you have a top end rice cooker and don’t open it, you can actually hold the rice for a really long time, but as soon as you access it you’ve got at most a window of a few hours in which to safely eat it.

Gee… You’d think I’d have known that with my vast and in-depth explorations of all-things-food, but no. I suppose it’s just one of those “everybody knows they shouldn’t do this” things that I never experienced. Dammit. Nobody has ever said to me “don’t eat day-old rice because IT MAY BE POISONED and YOU CAN’T MAKE THE POISON GO AWAY.”

Dang.

Well at least I’ve finally figured that out. I will now go and eat freshly cooked rice along with the pea soup I’ve just finished making. I will savor every bite. And if I have leftover rice after I’ve finished my meal I’ll be sending it to the compost heap.

Advertisements

2 Comments

The Source is Not With You

Google “Cooks Source Magazine” if you want the gory details, but let me sum it up for you…

Last night someone noticed a distressed blog entry that described how the blogger’s work had been “appropriated” by a for profit publication without notification or payment. Not a pro blogger, just another one of those “hey, I wrote this thing for anyone interested in reading about it” folks.

The magazine is just one of those little local free papers in central Massachusetts that gets distributed at various shops and restaurants, reaching maybe fifteen or twenty thousand readers. A friend of the writer had contacted her to congratulate her on being published. The writer, thinking it might be an honest mistake, contacted the owner/editor of the rag. She politely asked for a printed apology and a donation of $130 to the University of Columbia’s Journalism department.

Then the editor made the mistake of responding poorly, refusing to pay, claiming that the victim should be happy about it, and that if anyone deserved to be paid it was herself as she’d had to edit the article — her editing consisted of butchering transcriptions of fourteenth and sixteenth century English into modern – completely missing the point of the article.

The quiet sigh of distress from the victim got noticed, and as the majority of content on the interwebz is *written*, you can imagine how outraged the professional writers got when this came to their attention. Hell, the girl wasn’t even asking for money herself.

By eight AM this had gone wide enough that well-read bloggers had picked it up. By nine AM Neil Gaimen had tweeted his 1.5 million followers. Wil Wheton tweeted it to his. At 11:30 it had been picked up by at least one national news organization. I expect it’ll make Fox News this evening.

See, it turns out that pretty much the entire content of the magazine is lifted from the web. And the editor didn’t restrict herself to unknown bloggers, she’s been swiping stuff from The Food Network, Paula Deen, and Martha freakin’ Stewart. Oh, and there’s also some infringement of stuff owned by a little company created by some fellow named Disney.

What’s astounding is that she reposted the entire magazine on a Facebook page, and it took folks about thirty seconds to start pasting paragraphs into Google and locating the originals. Deen has already confirmed that she’s unleashed the lawyers. Others are surely following suit.

The magazine’s source of income, the local businesses who advertised in it, have been e-mail bombed into submission, expressing justifiable outrage that they’ve been taken advantage of. These are the editor’s neighbors and possibly even former friends. The woman’s business is toast. Her social standing has been demolished publicly and internationally. If any of the major players sue (and they likely will, because we’re talking about print here, not just some ephemeral bits) then she will be financially ruined. Add to this that copyright violation is a US Federal offense, and she is absolutely screwed.

The Internet has effectively destroyed her life in a matter of hours, and she could have avoided it if she’d just been polite and anteed up $130 dollars.

And you know what? Based on her actions, her contemptuous response to that unrewarded blogger, she’s one of those people you run across occasionally who really deserves it.

2 Comments

Grilled Cheese in My World

It starts small. You have a singular craving, something which is supposedly simple and easy to achieve – the creation of a grilled cheese sandwich. And yes, I realize that at first this seems like a simple thing, but it turns out it’s about the effort to fulfill a desire that is purportedly easy within our culture.

For some reason today I found myself craving a grilled cheese sandwich. This is not particularly odd as I personally adore cheese and, during my vegetarian phase, often resorted to it as a staple. Crunchy butter-toasted bread, awesome cheesy goodness within – forget hamburgers, this is the food that I really wanted.

And occasionally I find myself needing to fill that “Grilled Cheese Void” even now.

Trivial, you say. Go buy a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese, fry the sucker up and you’re done…

Except it’s *me* who’s making it.

So, having decided I wanted that particular sandwich, with appropriate accompaniments, I was forced to set off on a mission.

It started with the Soup…

A grilled cheese sandwich is nothing without an appropriate accompaniment that provides dip-able goodness, so I needed to fabricate a soup. Since this was the part that would take the longest I tackled it first. Into a deep pot went onions, celery and carrots, a fine base to build flavor on. After the veg had colored I tossed in some stock that I’d previously frozen – and a soup was born. It was a bit weak, so into that brew went a load of spices and a few bits of random dried pasta that were lying about. A hit from my stick blender brought it moderately together. I had proto-soup, but it wasn’t quite there yet.

Meanwhile, I needed to deal with the bread. I don’t buy bread – I make it. So, into my stand mixer bowl went a cup of flour and a tablespoon of yeast, followed by a cup-and-a-half of hot water. An hour later I has a fabulously fragrant sponge to which I added another two cups of flour and teaspoon of kosher salt. On to the stand mixer, which thanks to a dough-hook blended the mass into a cohesive whole. Another ten minutes of old-fashioned-hand kneading and I had the beginnings of the loaf I needed.

The soup had cooled, so I moved it to my refrigerator for the next hour or so, wanting it to be thoroughly chilled. The stick blender had done a good job, but not good enough. This was going to need a serious mulching from my traditional blender. I gave it that, and then some. A pinch more salt. Some generic curry powder. A bit of hot sauce. Suddenly the soup had a WOW quality – not great as a standalone product, but just perfect as the accompaniment for my nascent sandwich.

Before we go on let’s clarify. I wanted a simple sandwich with a tasty side – thus far I had built a soup and created proofing dough. Another hour passed. The dough wasn’t rising aggressively (not surprising given that the weather out here has shifted to cold and wet – yeast doesn’t like this atmosphere). I shifted gears and went to work on the grilled cheese filling. In my fridge was a hunk of aged cheddar, some “at the end of its’ life” mozzarella, and various bits. I did *not* start with the cheese. Instead, I decided the base of the filling needed to be a tomato concassaee. That’s the tomato flesh stripped of its skin, emptied of the internals, diced into small bits. So I proceeded to blanch the globes, denude them, and chop.

Now I moved onto the cheese. A little block of cheddar met my box grater defiantly, but fell easily. A similar chunk of real (not processed) mozzarella followed (it fought me desperately but was ultimately shredded). This filling still lacked punch. Ah! Kalamata olives were hiding at the back of the fridge. A dozen, chopped within an inch of their lives, provided both salt and sharpness to the filling. A few grinds of pepper and I had my core.

Meanwhile, the bread dough rose, and I was reduced to a waiting game. An hour passed and I knocked out the dough and transferred it to a loaf pan. Another hour passed, and then two. Finally, the mass had risen sufficiently to warrant baking. Into the oven it went. Five hundred degrees to start with, immediately reduced to four-twenty-five. Forty minutes to bake, and nothing I could do to speed the process.

Later. Bread. Done. Cooling on one of my baker’s racks. A pause. Thirty minutes for the loaf to set.

And now the finale. The loaf cooled, my serrated knife tore through it. I slathered one interior side with Dijon mustard, the other with roasted garlic puree I had stashed in the fridge. Between them I slathered the mix of cheese, olives and tomato. I pressed the slices together passionately. On the outer sides I applied a liberal coating of butter while I heated a non-stick pan to *incendiary*.

With the pan at maximum heat, I slipped the sandwich into it. The roar of the sizzle filled the air. The nutty smell of browning butter was everywhere. It took less than a minute for one side of the nascent sandwich to brown to perfection.

Flip.

The pan roared as the second side hit the glowing cooking surface. Seconds passed, each one tortured by the fear that I was letting the bread remain on the grill too long, that the resulting creation might become burned. But I held out, trusting my instincts, believing in my ability to judge the done-ness without seeing it directly.

And I was rewarded.

A perfect, crisp exterior gave way to an oozing interior, each bite a complex song of crunch, tomato, cheese and olive. The ultimate grilled cheese sandwich. And when dipped in the warm soup…

Heaven.

I had achieved my goal.

And so it took me seven hours to cook a grilled cheese sandwich… Something which most folks take for granted as a “quick and easy meal”. The lesson here? Truly good food takes time. There is no substitute. What most people consider good is really just a mediocre approximation.

You may want to argue this point, but I’m not going to participate. See, I’m the one eating this awesome sandwich, with the astounding accompanying soup, and a casually created wasabi mayonnaise that gives the plate an added punch. I just *do not care* if you believe you’ve got a justifiable contrary position because this is a spectacular grilled cheese sandwich that makes me happy.

The only regret I have is that you’re missing out on it.

That’s my literary two cents worth on the meal I just had. Your mileage will vary.

Me? It’s been awesome.

Leave a comment

Children of the Corn

So along with all the other “MasterChef” variants out there, the Australian licensors have unleashed “Junior MasterChef AU”, in which the contestants are all 8-12 years old.

OK, I’m not a parent, and don’t have any day-to-day contact with kids, so my initial reaction was “hmm – maybe a couple of steps above grilled cheese and smores”, which was about where I was at when I was that age (I wasn’t allowed to go near a stove until I was about twelve, and was not allowed to touch a power tool until I was fourteen, so I think my personal experience is probably somewhat skewed). I didn’t really start cooking creatively until I was living on my own dagnabbit…

So, it came as an absolute shock to watch a bunch of *children* produce dishes that are, in every way, equal if not superior to the dishes that have been produced by the adult MasterChef contestants I’ve seen. Steamed snapper with sweetened soy sauce and julienne veg by a ten-year-old… Perfectly prepared Thai fishcakes with sides by a NINE-YEAR-OLD.

Sure these kids aren’t going to be working “the line” in a professional kitchen any time soon, but they’re knocking out dishes that you’d happily pay for in a restaurant. While I was watching this I felt, in the words of Anthony Bourdain, like abandoning pretty much everything and just signing up for one of those “Drive the Big Rigs” courses. Yeah… Hauling produce cross-country is about all I’m good for if this is any indication.

But seriously – I’m just astounded, and I mean COMPLETELY astounded, watching these youngsters. They don’t *sound* the way I’ve imagined kids should sound – they’re just like adults in every respect except for size and corrective-dental-work. Maybe it’s because they’ve spent too much time watching cooking shows. Perhaps they’re parroting back the kinds of reactions they’ve seen from the adult contestants they obviously admire (when a ten-year-old says they’re “floored” because a well-known food critic has entered the room, it gives me pause – I didn’t even know that food critics existed at that age).

Then I wonder if perhaps it’s just fundamentally true that we can’t relate to younger generations from a personal perspective because their world is so wholly different from our own. You so often hear clichés like “they grow up so fast…” Perhaps the more accurate statement is “They know so much more than we did at that age.”

There are two things these kids lack – a desire to make their cooking needlessly complex, and the cynicism that abounds in adults. I don’t see that as a negative. It makes me feel old watching individuals who haven’t been broken by the world around them yet, and it also makes me feel a bit melancholy that I never had the opportunity to have children of my own.

Then again… with my luck I’d have ended up with a brilliant entrepreneurial twelve-year-old busily cooking Meth in the basement.

Leave a comment

Masterchef [Insert Country of Choice]

I watch cooking shows. Let’s be really clear here – I watch *a lot* of cooking shows. This is not a surprise to anyone who knows me – I’ve been obsessed with cooking for a very long time, and I take it pretty damn seriously — how many people do you know who buy twenty-pound bags of onions just to practice knife skills – the French Onion soup that results is just an inadvertent consequence of that activity (though it’s damn tasty).

For many years I’ve been a fan of the BBC show “Masterchef”. The format is fairly straightforward – amateur cooks from around Britain compete for a handful of “on air” places and then progress through a series of challenges. The winner is dubbed “Masterchef” and these individuals generally go on to professional culinary careers. It’s a typically British program – very sedate and laid back. The contestants are chosen prior to the main production, and their participation is based entirely on the quality of the food they produce. Most of them lack any sort of “typical” television charisma, so the charm of the show comes from watching really regular folks cook astoundingly good food with virtually no experience. Honestly, the program screams Home-Brew-BBC throughout, and I can’t imagine it being interesting to anyone outside the UK other than someone as food-crazy as I am.

But that turned out to not be entirely true. MasterChef developed a dedicated following in… Australia. Aware of this, an Australian production company acquired the rights to the “MasterChef” IP and went about re-inventing the property in a rather dramatic fashion. Instead of a compressed broadcast schedule that consisted entirely of highlights from the contest, the AU production locked the contestants in a “Top Chef”-like house, limiting their outside contact for the duration of competition. Then they staged their challenges on a daily basis over a three month period. And they recorded absolutely everything. The result? A single season of “Masterchef AU” is seventy-plus (yes, that seven plus a zero) episodes. The show is broadcast daily over a period of fourteen-to-sixteen weeks. It’s an insane amount of content.

A year after the first series of Masterchef AU aired, a New Zealand broadcaster caved in and created a local version. Lacking the resources of the AU production, Masterchef NZ duplicated the format of its’ AU parent, but condensed the program to a once-a-week experience. While this reduced audience involvement with the various participants, it didn’t eliminate it, and the NZ program proved to be a huge success with the local audience.

The NZ program, compacted to a “manageable” format, consequently ended up on the North American radar. The format had become condensed to a manageable, dramatic program. Casting was a no-brainer given the success of the AU program. The judges consist of a distant, silent chef who reserves judgment, an enthusiastic and experienced chef who supports the contestants, and a hyper-critical food master. Inevitably Gordon Ramsay was asked to participate (heck, he was likely involved from minute one).

Consequently, we now have “MasterChef US”. I don’t think it’s a horrible thing. Hell, any show that celebrates the skill of utterly unknown cooks is a good thing – it reminds us that anyone can cook a great meal – though it’s important to keep in mind that being able to cook does not make anyone great… Just that a great cook can emerge from anywhere (yes, I’m quoting “Ratatouille” here, but it’s appropriate).

What fascinates me is that a US audience is now watching a program which is based on an NZ format, which was derived from an AU show, which had its genesis in a BBC program. Damn! What does this mean for “original content”? You can work your ass off developing an amazing idea, but that hour of primetime broadcasting is probably not going to get allocated to your masterpiece. It’s going to go to a show that a handful of assholes like me made a sufficiently loud stink about. And there’s no guarantee the show will be any good. Hell, history suggests that it’ll probably stink. And “MasterChef US” is certainly not a masterpiece. It’s not terrible, but if you’ve got access to the Australian program then it’s little more than a poor imitation.

Damn.

I wish the US producers had the opportunity to create a show modeled more closely on the AU version of the program, rather than getting themselves stuck into the standard North American weekly format. A daily show would be innovative within the US marketplace, and would likely find a huge audience.

I guess it’ll happen when it happens. And that will likely be sooner rather than later. After all, they’re going to have to replace those failing soap operas eventually.

Leave a comment

A New Old-Fashioned Way to Bake Bread

It took me just twenty years to figure out how to bake a good loaf of bread reliably. Oh I had the occasional success, a few perfect products here and there, but being able to consistently produce something that absolutely beat out store-bought items had eluded me. Then, a few months ago, I started getting experimental.

I’d always followed traditional recipies for bread. You know the ones – bloom yeast in sugar water, add to dry stuff, mix, knead, proof, knock down, proof some more, bake. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. And then one day, while contemplating sour dough, I had a thought. Why bloom the yeast with sugar? Why not just bloom it with some of the flour and treat it like a loose starter? Worked like a charm, and the details are below. I’ve done it this way ever since and haven’t had a single problem.

I discovered later that my clever idea has been around for, oh, a few thousand years and is referred to as the “sponge” method. What surprised me is that, although I am by no means a rampant baker, I do spend a fair amount of time reading about this sort of stuff, and I’d never heard of it.

To any experienced bakers reading this please keep in mind that these instructions were originally written for a friend who had given up on baking thanks to her own repeated failure and subsequent oven-phobia. This was an effort to inspire her to take another crack at it.

At any rate, here’s my recipe. You can optionally switch out one or two cups of white flour for something more interesting like Rye or Spelt.

This will make one “average” loaf (in your standard loaf pan) or you can form it into whatever shape(s) you desire – I like doing single rustic round loaves generally.

THE STARTER:

1 cup of plain old all purpose flour – for a more airy crumb use bread flour
1 tbsp of dry yeast (the old fashioned dry kind, not instant, not fresh, the cheap stuff)
1 and ½ cups of very warm water (just at the point where it’s unpleasant but not painful to stick your finger in it)

Mix the flour and yeast in a bowl (preferably the bowl from a stand mixer if you’ve got one with a dough hook, but you don’t need it)

Add the very warm water and mix until you’ve got a smooth paste (I use a whisk for this)

Leave the mix in a warm place, uncovered, for at least one hour (the longer you leave it, the more the finished loaf will lean towards a sourdough flavor – I think the longest I’ve let it go is about four hours, any longer and you should probably cover with a damp kitchen towel).

THE DOUGH:

2 cups of plain old all purpose flour
1 tbsp of kosher salt

Mix flour and salt together in a bowl and then add to the starter. Combine thoroughly (if you have a stand mixer, use the dough hook and let it mix for about ten minutes) until you have a dough that’s slightly denser then stiff porridge – it should be sticky, but not gloopy. In the mixer it will tend to partially coat the inside of the bowl.

Now, take this sticky mass and dump it onto a clean work surface. DO NOT TOSS FLOUR ON THE SURFACE! Yes, I know this is counter to pretty much every kneading process you’ve ever seen, but just trust me on this…

You are going to need a pastry scraper – you know, one of those flat squares of metal or plastic. The dough is going to want to stick to the work surface. Your goal is to knead the dough with the help of the scraper, but not add flour if at all possible. If the dough isn’t sticking to the surface when you start, then it’s too stiff and you need to get more water into it.

Now you knead the dough. It will take several minutes (dough kneading is sort of a Zen thing, and experience determines speed). The goal in kneading is to keep folding the dough onto itself and trapping as much air as possible inside while you do so.

As you knead, moisture will be absorbed by the flour, and the dough will become less sticky. If after several minutes the dough is still determined to stick to the work surface while you knead, then add a very tiny amount of flour (about ½ tsp). Keep kneading and adding tiny amounts of flour until the dough stops sticking while you knead (you know you’ve got the balance perfect when you can continually knead the dough without using the pastry scraper, but the dough glues itself to the work surface if you leave it sitting for more then ten seconds).

Now, take the dough, form it into a ball, give it a little sprinkle of water (I run my hand under the tap and then just smear it across the ball) and cover it with a bowl at least four times larger then the ball (yes, leave the dough on the work surface and just cover it with a bowl – none of this namby pamby “oiled bowl covered with damp cloth” garbage). If you don’t have a really big bowl then go ahead and do the old-fashioned oil-in-bowl method, but either use really good oil that will add some flavor, or a completely neutral vegetable oil. Using oil will change the color and texture of the finished crust, usually making it both browner and thicker.

Now leave it alone for about an hour. It will rise. After an hour, punch it back down to its original size, form it into whatever you want (and in or on whatever pan you’re going to bake it in) and leave it alone for another 90 minutes or so. It should be covered (and a bit more water smeared on it) but don’t cover it with anything that might come in contact with it while it rises. This is why I like those simple round loaves – I just toss the dough ball on some parchment on a sheet pan and recover with my big-assed bowl.

BAKING:

Preheat your oven as hot as you can – usually around 500 degrees.

Very gently transfer the risen dough to the oven, and as soon as you close the door reduce the temperature to between 410 and 425 degrees (ovens are notoriously inconsistent, so your mileage may vary).

Leave it alone to bake in solitude. It’s done when the crust is “golden brown and delicious ™”, and it sounds hollow when you tap it.

You’ll probably have to do the recipe a few times before you figure out a reliable time/temperature for your preferred loaf style. Also, depending on the heat distribution of your oven, you may find that you get a big air-pocket in the top of the loaf (this can also happen if the skin of the loaf gets too dry during the second rise).

If that happens, then slit the top of the dough with a very sharp knife right before baking (yes, it appears there is a reason bakers do that as it turns out – it’s not just cosmetic).

Hopefully this will propel you towards bread self-sufficency and a desire to experiment further, and without having to spend twenty years getting there.

Leave a comment

Peppers in a Pot

Capsaicin.

That’s the stuff that makes hot peppers hot. I’ve got something to say about Capsaicin, but we’ll get to it in a bit.

I love to cook. Being a vegetarian, it’s actually a nearly essential skill. If I couldn’t cook, I wouldn’t have a lot of options at mealtime. Don’t get me wrong – these days it’s easy to be a vegetarian. There are lots of ready-made meat substitutes available that are pretty convincing. Gone are the days of just grain patties and tofu (though tofu is a glorious thing). Welcome to the world of simulated spicy Italian sausages, flame-grilled fake chicken patties, even bacon-like strips that you’d have a hard time distinguishing as unreal in you BLT.

You doubt my word? Check out the local supermarket. If you’re anywhere near a major civic center you can probably get burgers, ribs, chicken wings, even un-meatloaf. For vegans, there are plenty of soy products that substitute for milk, cheese, ice cream, and anything else you care to desire.

Some people complain about the cost of these products, but given the cost of a piece of good beef, there isn’t a whole lot of difference. Sure, soy products should be cheaper, but right now they’re still a niche item, and folks like me are generally willing to accept the profiteering, since it’s probably going back into R&D for even better products.

Keep in mind, though, that being meat-free doesn’t necessarily make a product healthy. A lot of simulated products contain large amounts of vegetable oil. Some don’t contain a whole lot of anything nutritionally valuable. And even with the stuff that does, you can only eat packaged meat substitutes so many nights in a row.

Restaurants are always an option, of course. Most places have at least a few items on the menu that cater to vegetarian pallets, and even if they don’t you’ll find that the Chef is probably willing to whip up something special. But you can clock up a small fortune by eating out on a regular basis. I have some friends who did a bit of accounting and discovered they were laying out six to seven thousand dollars a year on meals, many of which they realized would be easy to make at home. And that penne with rich vodka crème sauce isn’t doing any nice things to your arteries.

A lot of people assume that I took up a meat-free lifestyle for political reasons. As much as I think that food animals get a raw deal, I still own leather goods, so that wasn’t my motivation. Some people ask if it’s because I have allergies. This is partly true – fish always made me ill, though not in any sort of life-threatening way. But a good steak was a happy thing right up to the time I quit carving.

It happened like this… I was working as a creative director at this place that was located in Toronto’s “fashion district”. In Toronto, the fashion district isn’t where clothes are sold; it’s where clothes are made. At the time, while I had reached that point in self-sufficiency where I could make a decent dinner, it was often a time-consuming task.

Thanks to long hours, I frequently ate at one of the small number of local diners, feasting on whatever deep-fried-refried-mystery-meat that happened to be lying around in the highly appetizing grease-soaked steel hotel pan, with the obligatory side of limp, chilled fries. I shit you not – even the staff didn’t know whether it was chicken or pork half the time.

Yumm…

I’d been at the company for about four months when one of my coworkers showed me the ultra hidden location of a nifty little vegan deli. It was literally in the basement of the building across the street, and if you didn’t know it was there you’d never be able to find it. There were seats for at most fifteen people, and it was always busy.

At first, the idea of eating a meatless meal was foreign to me. Meat was part of -every- meal, but I gave one of the vegetable grain patties a try (on a dairy-free bun with soy sprinkles on it), and discovered that the food tasted a hundred times better than the chalky chicken salad sandwiches I had been reduced to in previous weeks. I ate there regularly after that, and realized at some point that I simply hadn’t had any meat for almost three weeks.

The thing is, I felt better than I had in ages. My improved energy was simply the result of not pounding down a heavy meal at lunch, and I found I slept better when my body wasn’t trying to digest the fourteen-ounce T-bone I’d had for dinner. Soon it was a month. Then it was two. I kept telling myself that I’d go back to eating meat if I really felt like it. Over five years later, it’s just never happened.

I’m not a complete vegan. I still eat eggs occasionally (though these days I’m more inclined to use Egg Beaters or one of the similar cholesterol free substitutes), and I love cheese (though again I usually stick with the synthetic stuff). I also don’t object to baked goods that contain dairy. Since I don’t eat sweets, ice cream and chocolate are non-issues.

It’s never been hard for me to be a vegetarian. I’m pretty attuned to what my body wants, and with the aid of a multivitamin once in a while I’ve never been subjected to the health issues experienced by some of the people who chose to dispense with animal protein. It’s not for everyone, though. I’ve known a number of women who tried to adopt this lifestyle, only to encounter a myriad of physical problems as a result. Almost universally, their doctors recommended that they return to eating meat, which can be problematic if they’ve excluded it from their diet for too long.

Here’s the thing, you body adapts to deal with what you feed it. The enzymes required for digestion are different for each of the principle foodstuffs. It’s a common problem for adults to become lactose intolerant, which is itself a result of a normal decrease in milk consumption. You don’t really need milk as an adult, and if you stop drinking it for a period of time, your body simply stops producing the enzymes needed to digest it. The same is true of meat.

A few years ago, someone unwittingly fed me Chinese “pot-stickers”, which are little bundles of ingredients wrapped in thin pasta-like dough that are boiled and fried. The contents always look remarkably similar – sort of a brownish paste – whether they contain vegetables, meat, or a combination of the two. Unfortunately, the person who purchased these “onion” pot-stickers didn’t read the actual ingredient list, which included both beef and chicken. I got ferociously ill a couple of hours later.

So, it looks like I’m pretty much committed to being a vegetarian.

And fortunately, I like to cook. It’s a lot easier to be a vegetarian if you can make meals that you find really satisfying, rather than trying to find a can of something that you sort of feel like, but not really. You also discover that there are many cultures where meat is never eaten (parts of India are a prime example of this), and plenty of amazing recipes that aren’t on the menu at any of the local eateries.

I think it’s good to make your own food, even if something ready-made that fits your appetite is available. I know a lot of people who can’t cook at all. There are plenty of folks who consider boiling a pot of water to be a major undertaking. In our fast-food focused culture, it’s a little too easy to simply grab a cheeseburger and fries, even if it takes more time than whipping up a healthy bowl of noodle soup.

North Americans, raised as we were on pot roasts and elaborate Sunday dinners, are seemingly terrified of actually learning how to concoct a meal quickly. It’s easy, and I’m not talking about hotdogs here. Of course, in order to be able to cook when you want, you need a pantry. Sadly, this is something else that seems to have fallen out of favor with the ever-spreading nationwide infestation by Taco Bells and Mickey Ds.

I suspect that a lot of people try their hand at cooking (a lot of cookbooks seem to get sold in a country where so few people actually make their own meals), but when their culinary attempts fail to match the appearance of those glossy, art directed color photos in the book, or they wind up gagging on the first bite because they used a tablespoon of salt instead of a dash, or they turn away from the stove only to discover that dinner somehow turned into charcoal in under a minute, they throw in the kitchen towel.

The thing is, the only way to learn how to cook is to cook. Watching Martha whip up soufflé looks easy, but you’re probably going to screw it up the first few times. I’ve created burned wreckages in many a pot, and my penchant for experimenting has led to more than a few meals that it would be generous to call inedible. On the other hand, some of the creations that have arrived on my dinner plate have been delicious, and when I cook for friends I keep the experimentation to a minimum and they always seem to enjoy the meals I prepare. There are few things as satisfying in life as preparing a meal for people you care about (and tricking them into a healthy one, at that).

While special occasions can keep me in the kitchen for the better part of a day, they aren’t something I do on a regular occasion. There are a lot of things I would like to spend my time doing, and while cooking is fun, it often takes a back burner to work, or writing, or just hanging out.

When I’m focusing on a non-food project, I usually get into a routine. Every weekend I’ll take whatever produce happens to be in my fridge and toss it in a big pot. I’ll add some spices, and maybe throw in a cup of pinto beans or some TVP chunks (the stuff they make bacon bits out of, but much larger – usually available through health food and specialty grocery stores). Let it simmer throughout the afternoon, and at the end of the day I have enough soup or stew to provide the bulk of my meals for the rest of the week.

Now lets get back to the Capsaicin …

Along with pretty much every other vegetable in the world (with the possible exception of beats, though I still eat ‘em occasionally) I’m a huge fan of hot peppers. Jalapeños, Anaheims, Porblanos, and many others are favorites, though I’ve avoided Habeneraos since an early cooking accident left me in anguish for nearly three days (factoid: a Habenerao pepper is approximately five thousand times hotter than a Jalapeño… ouch).

Usually I have a large handful of peppers that get tossed into my Sunday creations. I can’t resist buying them, so I always have a stock in the fridge waiting to be used.

When you cut a pepper, you need to clean out the seeds (and usually the bulk of the veins, since the seeds are connected). This has the dual effect of prepping the pepper for cooking, and reducing the chemical heat, since the seeds and veins are the areas of highest concentration. If you just want some heat and a bit of the flavor, it sometimes best to toss them in the pot whole, and toss them in the trash when everything has finished stewing. Cleaning peppers, however, means slicing them open and inevitably getting your hands covered in the essential oils they contain.

There’s one essential oil that haunts me constantly.

You guessed it…

Capsaicin.

When you cut the pepper, Capsaicin gets on your hands, and there’s no way to wash it off easily. The oils stick tenaciously, and only time (or a deliberate dousing in milk or yoghurt) will dispel them. Soap won’t help one bit unless you’re prepared to scrub your hands raw.

For the kitchen novice, this is an immediately uncomfortable experience, and you’re well aware that your fingers are burning, so you tend to be careful about what you do with them. The real potential for additional damage doesn’t become an issue until you’ve been cooking long enough to develop Chef hands.

With sufficient exposure to hot pots and pans, scalding water, and all the other occasional sources of damage, the skin on a cook’s hands gets toughened, and your brain raises the threshold at which your hands will actually feel pain. At this point you don’t really notice the Capsaicin any more, and your hands don’t feel like they’re burning with pepper essence.

So, unthinking and unknowing, you do something that’s totally unconscious… like rubbing your nose or scratching your testicles. The oil gets on skin that isn’t hardened against Capsaicin.

Oh-holly-goddamn-fucking-hell!

I’m sure somebody is selling this stuff as a sex-aid, but as I write this I am in serious pain… again. It happens virtually every time I use ‘em, but I still buy hot peppers, and I still make the damn soup, and every time I tell myself I will -NOT- touch any part of my anatomy that is sensitive.

And yet somehow I always manage to do exactly that.

Son-of-a-bitch-shit-damn-fuck!

OK, under the right circumstances this kind of over-stimulation would be fun… but I’m here by myself, dammit, and I have no intention of performing a laying-on-of-hands under the current circumstances…

You get the picture, and that’s enough for now. Go make yourself some dinner.

But steer clear of the Capsaicin unless you’re prepared to pay the price.

Leave a comment