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July, 2008 | Manolo's Food Blog
Archive - July, 2008

Cooking: recreation or drudgery?

Many years ago when Mr. Henry first approached a stove with motive and intent, he did not have the confidence he has today. Sweat collected on his furrowed young brow. From the start, however, he felt rookie confidence in tackling the grilled cheese sandwich.
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There was the bread, of course, and the cheese, as well as a bit of butter in the pan. Through arduous trial and error young Mr. Henry honed his technique. Unguided and alone he discovered that to achieve even browning one must depress the sandwich lightly so that runny cheese not ooze embarrassingly out the sides. This required finesse with the spatula, a delicate up-and-down, chip-and-putt touch like Greg Norman’s, a touch you are born with, not a touch you can learn.

More important, he found from the beginning that cooking suited his innate talents. He likes to be in control of his own destiny, and he likes to eat. From his success with the grilled cheese sandwich, he strode on ahead to new challenges.

In short order, as it were, he became master of the scrambled egg, too. (Or so he supposed. Now he knows better. Truly velvety scrambled eggs must be cooked slowly over mild heat. After the eggs begin to clump you add a touch of milk or cream to retard the process.)

When faced with more complicated fabrications like soups or stews, however, he wilted. For help he stole peeks at Fannie Farmer or Joy of Cooking, furtive scans in the corner lest a big sister discover him in feminine occupations thereby obtaining premium ammunition for teasing.

In the Henry household, real men did not cook. Mother Henry herself only cooked under duress. Genuine slow cooking – gravies, stews, cakes – was conducted uniquely by women in household employ who closely monitored and roundly discouraged children in their kitchen. That is, cooks shooed kids out the back door.

While the skill of cooking held commercial value, the act itself was looked upon as drudgery. Since maids did not come on Sunday, traditional Sunday dinner slumbered in the freezer, R.I.P. And to think those little prison-issue aluminum trays once held genuine excitement. Ah, yesterday.
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Now for Mr. Henry cooking has become a form of recreation and relaxation, a task that fully occupies the mind and the hand, a task concluding in a treat for the cook and his tablemates. Since he works more and more from home, and since he shops for food on foot, the burden of driving the car has transformed into something similar, too, a pleasure and a pastime.

In a completely unforeseen cultural development, TV cooking shows have become the teen-age rage. Once the daily grind of servants, cooking has entered the pantheon of applied arts.

“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Well, today taking the heat has become cool.

Who saw this coming? What does this seismic cultural event portend?

Today’s kitchen is the focal point of the house, its beating heart. Traveling salesman know that if you can get the client into her kitchen, you can close the deal. Someone who allows you into their kitchen has allowed you into their family.

Interior design today usually favors an open plan with no wall between kitchen and living area. The shift in America’s approach to cooking has changed not only living patterns but architecture, as well. Mom standing at the stove in a kitchen cubicle has become Dad standing at the stove in the center of the house.

This happy arrangement leaves Mom free to pursue her destiny – free to discipline the children and pay the mortgage.

Bill Blass meat loaf

Last week Aunt Bev came barreling out of the Mountain West to help nurse Mrs. Henry and do chores with her characteristic house-elf perseverance. Now the fridge is spotless inside and out. Thanks to her deft work with a toothpick, little crevices in the door panel no longer harbor black gunk. (Who knew?)

Aunt Bev would rather clean house from top to bottom, however, than cook dinner. She is fully capable of throwing dinner together. She does it quite regularly back home. But she does not enjoy it. For her, cooking will always be drudgery.

Her sister, Mrs. Henry, is exactly the opposite. She likes nothing more than to plunge her hands in flour up to the elbows. When renovating the kitchen she designed a long, unbroken stretch of countertop so that baking would never again create congestion.

When she cooks, she leaves the kitchen a wreck. But each dish arrives perfectly hot and perfectly done at the same time. It’s a miracle of theatrical timing performed without rehearsal or stage fright.

Although Betsy hates to cook, she baked a pumpkin spice bread for Mrs. Henry’s convalescence that became the top treat of the week. If you hate to cook, it’s practical to have one whiz-bang recipe to prepare in a pinch.

When the temperature outside is in the middle 90’s, what should you fix for dinner? You want to make a dish that’s good for leftovers but you don’t want to fire the oven more than absolutely necessary.

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Aunt Bev’s choice, her whiz-bang recipe, is the Bill Blass meat loaf. (Did you realize that High Wasp society considers the humble, old-fashioned meat loaf to be the ultimate in chic? At Connecticut country estate weekend parties it’s positively revered as a holy relic.)

Always a tinkerer with recipes, Mr. Henry added rolled oats in place of bread crumbs, added an extra egg, and left out the butter altogether except to grease the pan. To accompany he chose mashed potatoes, a green vegetable, and a pinot noir.

Back in the last century Mr. Henry had the great pleasure of making Bill Blass’s acquaintance. Even in a business negotiation which normally reveals the worst aspects of someone’s personality, Mr. Blass was an authentic gentleman – witty, charming and forthright.

Here is the recipe. In changing those few details, Mr. Henry hopes he has Bill’s blessing.

Mrs. Henry goes bionic

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This week Mrs. Henry had surgery. She no longer walks with original factory-installed parts. Chromium now replaces mother nature’s original joint.hip-parts.jpg

In the adjacent room Mrs. Scharf sceamed, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! I’ve just come out of soy-gery! Noyce! Noyce!”

The nurse told her to stop yelling and noted that here in the Hospital for Special Surgery all the patients have just come out of surgery. This argument cut no ice whatsoever with Mrs. Scharf, however, who kept it up the whole day long.
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At dawn on the second day after surgery they gave Mrs. Henry two Vicodin (codeine) followed by a can of “creamy milk chocolate Ensure, complete, balanced nutrition.” To the medical profession it may be complete, but Ensure did not offer much nourishment. Its foul taste and texture ensured instant regurgitation.

Poor Mrs. Henry had a bumpy ride that day, but after she refused both the medication and the hospital diet, she began to improve. Throwing himself into the breach, Mr. Henry prepared a dinner that she could find palatable and easy to digest.

What is your go-to comfort food after a bad day in the operating theater?

For Mrs. Henry it is miso soup, soft tofu, white rice (with umeboshi) and broiled Arctic char. She felt better within minutes. For breakfast he made her a compote of white nectarines eaten with cottage cheese and crackers. They released her the next afternoon.
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The list of ingredients for Ensure defies exaggeration:

Water, corn maltodextrin, sugar (sucrose), milk protein concentrate, canola oil, soy protein concentrate, corn oil, cocoa powder (processed with alkali), short-chain fructooligosaccharides, potassium citrate, whey protein concentrate, magnesium phosphate, natural and artificial flavors, sodium citrate, soy lecithin, calcium phosphate, potassium chloride…

That is only half the list. The remaining ingredients have really complicated names.

Ensure may well be parody-proof, but its use in hospitals is positive proof of the commercial might of America’s corn and soy agro-industrial complex. To Mrs. Henry, and to anyone who eats a sensible diet, Ensure tastes like poison. Why can’t hospitals figure this out?

Friends brought baskets of goodies. Stinky baked delicious too-many blueberry muffins. Kim sent a gift basket from E.A.T. including a silver bell shaped like a Southern belle (get it?) which Mrs. Henry now rings every eight to nine minutes. The physical therapist is on his way over to treat her bell-ringer’s elbow.

Cornish pasties

From the New York Times:

 

July 8, 2008, 3:40 pm
Dept. of Oops

By Stephen J. Dubner

The Economist is, almost inarguably, a great magazine.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t make the occasional mistake. Consider this lead from a recent article about a huge Mexican mining company called Fresnillo, which was recently listed on the London Stock Exchange:

In the hills north east of Mexico City it is not uncommon to find Cornish pasties for sale.

They meant to write “pastries” but, considering that miners work really hard, they might also be hoping to encounter the kind of people who go shopping for pasties.

Yesterday the famed Freakonomics writer stepped right in the middle of his very own pie. Responses and corrections to this howler make very good reading. One true disciple wrote that Dubner could not have really meant what he said and instead was proving his own point about “the occasional mistake.”

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The Cornish pasty (pass-tee) is yet another British savory pie, one designed to be held in a sweaty, arsenic-dusted, tin miner’s hand. You eat the pie and toss the hard, folded crust that serves as a handle. It’s the first hot pocket sandwich, an inventive adaptation for a worker hundreds of feet down in the ground.

To really appreciate English food, Twistie says “Have a hearty, flaky, utterly delectable Cornish pasty.”

The savory pie is the very soul of British cooking. It is a preparation suitable to an antique hearth rather than a modern stovetop, a dish prepared in the morning and left out all day, perhaps two or three days. Incorporating meat and vegetable, it constitutes a complete meal.

According to the OED, “pasty” and “pastry” are both derived from the French pasté, but pasty is the older coinage.

Pasties are first mentioned in the 13th century, before Chaucer, before Piers Plowman, before the modern language known as English. It seems British cooking has changed less in 800 years than the English language itself.

Perhaps because they couldn’t afford finely ground pastry flour, the Scots employed a sheep’s stomach to house their national dish, the haggis. There is nothing airy-fairy about those Scots. In haggis no morsel of offal is too humble to include.

Why are English eating habits so conservative when their language is so dynamic? Isn’t culture bound up in language and vice versa? If so, why is the English menu stuck in the Middle Ages? Surely tradition can bend to accommodate a few improvements, the stovetop, for example, or the refrigerator.

Indeed, it was the traditional absence of refrigeration that sustained the tradition of bitter ale. Lager needs to stay cooler than bitter ale. Though he tries every decade or so to appreciate English bitter, Mr. Henry finds it consistently revolting. Thank the glorious angels for Guinness – rich, palate-cleansing, draught Guinness.

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Did the medieval French plate look like the quintessential French plate today. That is, was there a meat with a sauce (butter based), a separate vegetable, and a starch? Unlikely.

Was medieval Japanese cuisine composed of fish or fish stock? Yes, probably. Like Britain, Japan is an island kingdom. Like the Brits, the Japanese drive on the left. Like English, Japanese is a dynamic language that appropriates foreign words. (Does this seal the argument? Probably not.)

Mr. Henry is no pasty man. He takes little pleasure in the genre of savory pies. Even the South American fried empanada holds no allure. Granted, Beef Wellington, the aristocrat’s pasty, is a pleasant diversion, but almost inarguably a filet of beef is tastier when baked without crust.

Britannia rules the waves

All week Londoners have been enjoying an unusual spell of sunny weather. Could this be the explanation why low-cut blouses and scanty dresses dominate feminine fashion? Not since he walked the beach of Nice at age 17, a peak experience of his late boyhood, has Mr. Henry seen so very much of so very many bosoms.britannia.jpg

Like great white naval vessels riding the high seas, bouncing breasts command the London concourse. Rule Britannia!

In every cafe, pub, and restaurant he visited this week, the waitress chose her outfit for a stage audition. Mistress Quickly, a tavern wench, or the village strumpet are juicy parts, to be sure, confident to bring advancement. These actresses really can fill the role.
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Lately when Mr. Henry thinks of scones with clotted cream, visions of Devonshire dairy maids pop up. The word “pudding” now animates Mr. Henry’s imagination towards sweets not available on the menu.

Bottoms are nearly as uncovered as tops. Rare English sunshine illuminates scanty pants beneath gauzy skirts. It’s a little bit much, really. Or rather, it’s a little bit too little.

Mr. Henry likes the female form. He adores the female form. The unengaged parts of his brain think of little else but the female form. In his considered opinion, there is nothing like a dame. But he finds himself distracted by seeing so much female nakedness in this traditionally prudish country. Bombarded by pale-skinned and dark-skinned beauties, how can he be expected to absorb the subtleties of English Gothic architecture? Concentration flags. Mental acuity goes mushy. His train of thought follows the wrong signal switch and then he wonders why he bothered to trudge all this way just to abuse his feet on medieval paving stones.

When a man is tired of London breasts, is he tired of life?

Seeking revival in traditional pub foods – bangers and mash, fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, ploughman’s lunch – time and again Mr. Henry found the menu listing duck breast salad or felafel instead. The English pub has gone gastro.

On nearly every menu now there is a vegetarian selection indicated by (v). This represents a genuine revolution in English cooking. Results are mixed, but in two cases so far the felafel has been first-rate – freshly prepared, brightly seasoned, and crisply fried. Salads have been excellent.alphonso-mango.jpg

The steak and ale pie Mr. Henry snagged at the Wellington on The Strand lived up to tradition. Judging by the crust’s sturdy exterior and soggy interior, it could have been made in the 18th century. It was timelessness itself.

The week’s most exciting taste without doubt were the Alphonso mangoes from India, pale orange with the creamiest, most aromatic flesh, available for only a few weeks each year. Mr. Henry bought them at the Saturday farmer’s market on Portobello Road. They are the food of Shangri-La.