Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Can Americans Cook?

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Can Americans Cook? I see this question, in various forms, all over the internet... and actually I'm not sure what it really means, "cook". I must say I've eaten some very fine fare all over this country... and an abundance of dreck. My own plunge into real foods over the last year, and more recently into charcuterie, has shown me that I have far more to learn about cooking than I thought.

My 23 year old niece, who lives in this household, does what she calls "cooking" for herself and her mother. However, what she really does is heat food. As Michael Ruhlman says, "Heating isn't cooking. Heating heats. Cooking transforms!"

I grew up with the impression that French food/cooking was hifalutin' (haute bourgeois cuisine)... a concept absorbed growing up in the era of Swanson TV dinners and TV food marketing. In 1943 (when I was 3), there was a recipe for Apple Crisp Pronto, a concoction of packaged sliced white bread, margarine, honey and apples meant to help Rosie the Riveter get dinner on the table.

Now as I am starting to learn to make various charcuterie products, I have also been researching how to prepare them for the table. Let me tell you, it is an eye opener to see some of the thoughts about foods and cooking that have been lurking deep inside my head for many years!

So far I have cooked four of the five different kinds of sausages I made recently. Two were wonderful, and those were where I followed the recipe pretty closely. Two others have trashed after trying some in a meal, even though a bite was cooked and eaten as a trial patty before stuffing any of them. Those two were just not very flavorful, and I now believe it's partly because I cut down on the seasonings, thinking the amounts were overkill. That stems from my lack of experience in making sausage and knowing how flavors change over time, whether frozen or even refrigerated a day or two before cooking.

What the French (along with Spanish and Italian) countrysides provided was delicious food made from readily available, less expensive (or sometimes throw-away) items. It's not the expensive items that transform food (although truffles and caviar may, if you can afford them!). No, it's something else that transforms, and I'm searching for it... simple food prepared and presented with care and passion, and the elusive alchemy that fuels memorable meals.

Can you honestly tell me what the meat tastes like when you eat a BBQ sandwich (or even what kind of meat it is)? There's a current lawsuit against Taco Bell for false advertising, because their "seasoned beef" is less than 35% meat as required by the USDA. I bet those products are so covered in seasonings and/or sauces that no customer even notices there's almost no beef in them!

Photo from Naotakem's Photostream

What makes food taste delicious can be as simple as seasoning with spices and herbs, or marinating, and using delicate sauces... the attention to food preparation. (Of course, starting with quality food helps!) It takes Time, something many of us are unwilling or unable to expend on the task. We might miss Oprah! or NCSI... (someone should invent a font for sarcasm). It is just a mind-set about time, that's all. (The average American spends something like 15 minutes a day in the kitchen, and 3 hours in front of the TV.)

Time to prepare healthy, tasty food doesn't have to mean hours of drudgery in the kitchen. For example, the brined pork roast I wrote about recently took 10 minutes of my time to prepare the brine. The next day it took 15 minutes to brown the roast, turn on the oven, slice the onions and carrots and add some wine before covering it with foil. Then a few minutes to carve and serve later when it was cooked. That very small roast fed me for 5-6 meals, and took no more than half an hour of my actual time, spread over 2 days.

To be honest, some foods do take time to prepare, and I always have a learning curve where the preparation is even longer when it's a new food. I'm about to buy my first duck, which is expensive in this country.

There are many French recipes using duck. I realize now it's because they had them in their farmyards like we once had chickens, so they were cheap meat. A duck can provide many meals, and one use was putting the legs into a confit where they were covered with duck fat  in a crock, and stored in a cool place for several months. The famous cassoulet is nothing more than a slow cooked bean stew, with some sausage and duck or pork confit.

The bottom line was that to survive, those generations had to learn to preserve foods... all kinds of foods. In America during the last few years, home food preservation has increased dramatically, centered around home canning and dehydration. Probably many of us now have jars of homemade tomato sauce, jellies, jams and pickles on our pantry shelves, whereas 15 years ago it might have been unthinkable.

Charcuterie is simply a means of preservation, which was vitally important to the farmers and poorer classes of the populations in earlier times. (A confit like I mentioned above, is considered charcuterie.) Much charcuterie we know evolved in France and Italy because the climate was more moderate for curing things like olives, cheese, ham and salume. The charcuterie that evolved in say, Hungary or Poland, was quite different; they often smoked meats due to a colder climate, shorter seasons, and where the drying conditions were less favorable than in France, Spain or Italy. Regional charcuterie exists all over the world, in every culture because every culture needed to preserve foods.

In my opinion, the real key to the value of food preservation (besides economy, and the availability of food during possible disruption of electric and food transportation services) is how much we enjoy eating it later. (Make it tasty!)

I cannot tell you how many jars of some home-canned vegetable I have made and later thrown out because the taste was insipid and the texture just plain lousy. I'm getting better with learning how to adjust what happens to seasonings and textures during processing, but what's really important is that I have gained confidence in my home food preservation ability via canning and dehydrating to not poison myself... and now I'm ready to expand into meats other than home-canned.

That learned confidence about food safety makes me less afraid of killing myself (and friends) by preserving some meats. However, I cannot imagine a pantry full of jerky or pemmican, which are so easy to preserve. Sure, they qualify as preserved meats... but who wants a steady diet of jerky and pemmican?

So along with learning to make charcuterie, I want to look closer at French, Spanish and Italian countryside cooking for taste, and get over my learned bias. No, I will not be studying the foods of just those countries, but I'm starting there because there is so much written about them. I doubt I will ever be considered a cook, but hopefully I can learn to turn cheap cuts of meat into something tasty rather than merely edible.

I adore Julia Child, the towering Empress of the Kitchen, but truthfully have never attempted more than one or two of her recipes... and that was many years ago. However, I am told her book The Way to Cook teaches one to think about cooking, and that's something I really need to do!

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