Saturday, May 22, 2010

Spotlight on: rosemary

I thought it might be fun to occasionally highlight some specific raw ingredients, with the intent of showing the very different ways the ingredients can be used. Food is vibrant and exciting, but if you prepare things the same way over and over again, it might get boring. I hope that never happens for any poor food out there!

As I cook, I've been amazed by how similar some cuisines are. Food from Mexico and food from India is surprisingly similar. Meat (usually chicken) is often prepared in a thick, spicy sauce. Cumin is a popular flavor in both cuisines. Lime is a popular fruit. And both cultures have a flatbread (tortillas or naan) to sop it all up. Yet, somehow, the end result is noticeably different. Chicken mole gets heat from dried chilies. Chicken tikka masala gets richness from ground almonds.

So we learn that every raw ingredient out there can pose in a variety of guises. Today I spotlight rosemary, a potent herb used most often in Italian cooking. But these uses are quite different.

To begin, a very traditional approach--rosemary focaccia with tomaotes. I made a basic bread dough and added 1 tbs. chopped rosemary (something you can do too--keep in mind these simple proportions 3:1 flour to water, plus ~1 tsp. dry yeast, salt, and ~1 tbs. olive oil), used my fingers to create dimples, topped with olive oil, and a mix of halved cherry tomatoes, more chopped rosemary, grated lemon peel and sea salt. Bake about 20 minutes in a 425 degree oven.

Voila! Molte italiano!

For a less traditional use, I turned to the liquor cabinent and made...a rosemary martini! Create a simple syrup by combining equal parts sugar and water in a saucepan with a few rosemary sprigs, bring to a boil, then simmer for three minutes. Cool completely. In a cocktail shaker with ice, mix four parts vodka (though this might be even better with gin, but I was out) to one part syrup (or to taste) and squeeze in some lemon juice. Shake, pour into a frosted glass, and garnish with a sprig of rosemary. The rosemary makes this cocktail very refreshing!

As you can see, it's possible to use the things in your refrigerator in very different ways! I hope to write on a new ingredient soon, and am open to suggestions! What do you wish you had more uses for?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What's a food blog, anyway?

On Saturday, I had the privilege to cook for three men, two of whom were brand-new friends. We chatted and drank beer while a pork loin was in the oven, and somehow got on the topic of food blogs, by which I mean, I was explaining to them that, in fact, food blogs exist, and that, in fact, lots of people read them. It was a new and difficult concept for them to understand, especially blogging of the Julie/Julia variety--talking about someone else's recipes. "What do you write? Today I made chicken?"

But all kidding aside, it occurs to me that the gentlemen make a valid point. Of course I find reading about deglazing a pan terribly interesting, but perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that (most) people haven't given the subject a second (or a first) thought.

So in this post my purpose is to attempt to answer the question--why do people write and read about food?

To begin, I will say this: it is not to catalog or learn new recipes. Oh, that may be part of it, but recipe writing is too simple an answer. First, it's already been done before. People like Fannie Farmer and Marion Cunningham have cataloged just about every basic American recipe you can think of in their cookbooks. We are in a new food stage in America. Sure, new cookbooks from celebrity chefs are coming out all the time (and I love them), but mostly they are part of our new "foodie" landscape. I think a lot of people are interested in food for the sake of food, not for the sake of cooking it. Second, I don't use recipes all that often. If I want to make something specific that I've never tried before (falafel), or want to know about cooking times/temps (roast chicken), I'll refer to a recipe. But generally, I don't bother. That doesn't mean I don't read recipes. I do. I look at cookbooks everyday. You may wonder what the point of looking at cookbooks and not making the concoctions contained therein is. The answer has three parts, and I think, each part will answer the question at hand about food blogs.

(1) For some people, and I am among them, food has a magical quality. The mere mention of the word "artichoke" has the power to excite me. I like reading about food like I like reading about my friends. I read cookbooks, food blogs, and food memoirs (autobiographical works that center around the preparing or eating of food--check out Ruth Reichl or Marlena de Blasi) because I love hearing about what different foods--or maybe I should say ingredients--are doing. My friend Richard is quickly becoming my favorite person to cook with because he gets just as excited as I do. One mention of "pizza dough" and he comes running. Cooking is just as much fun as eating.

(2) Reading about food builds a mental catalog of flavors and their combinations. The reason I don't use recipes is that, when it comes time to do something with the fava beans I picked up at a market in Charleston, I've already seen ten different ways of preparing favas, and I know which ingredients are a fava bean's friends. This kind of information sinks in through osmosis, the way anything does when you become familiar with it.

(3) Reading about food reminds me of food (or introduces me to something new). What I mean by this is that when I read someone talking about the barbecue they ate in Texas, I remember how much I like barbecue, how I haven't eaten it for months, and how I should make some. I also discover new ingredients. For example, last spring, Bon Appetit magazine featured ramps (see it here), which I had never heard of or seen before. But they looked great. And ever since my first introduction, I've seen recipes for ramps. But I've never actually seen ramps. Until today. I snatched them up. And, because of reason #2, I already know how I'll prepare them.

My beautiful ramps!