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Posts Tagged ‘cooking’

Low Tech

Fresh pork belly for seventh grade Bacon Unit

So, last month, in the course of discussing bacterial growth with my seventh graders, we got around to talking about salt and food preservation.  (It was only a matter of time.)  We had been talking about the conditions where bacteria thrive, and I had them suggest some ways that we keep things from spoiling nowadays.  They brought up the refrigerator, freezer, heat, plastic wrap, preservatives, antibiotics!, and salt.  So we talk about the book Salt, by Mark Kurlansky, which I loved (and here they think I’m crazy for reading a whole book about salt in the first place, but also for liking it).  They studied explorers in sixth grade social studies, so they’ve heard about salting meat for long voyages (proving that they remember some things from year-to-year, for the record).  And some of them know that shaking salt on slugs causes them to shrivel up, because apparently a few of them still play outside from time to time (and are devious enough to torture slugs with science).  And now they know what the salt does to bacteria.  I even mentioned osmosis, which they’ve all heard of — even if they don’t know what it means yet — because of Osmosis Jones (which I’ve heard of, but have yet to see).  It was a good lesson.  (Next year I’m planning to throw in a clip of Alton Brown’s “Urban Preservation II” episode, where he dehydrates the pool at the bacterial spa, around 4:55 in…).  I mention that they can make their own bacon in the same way; cure it, smoke it, slice thick, fry it up.  And if they weren’t paying attention before, they were now.

So I thought it was time that the class learned where bacon came from…

A few weeks before I had ordered a whole pork belly from Greyledge Farm in Roxbury, CT.  It came in at 11 lbs, one of the thickest and meatiest slabs of belly that I’ve gotten so far, and I was really happy with it.  The timing worked out well.  I had it at home in my fridge, and decided that this was the time to introduce pork belly to the seventh graders.  We discussed the basics of good meat sourcing, about finding a local farmer, if possible, one that can tell you about the provenance, breed, and diet of your pig.  I mentioned the farmer’s market here in New Canaan, where I got mine, and explained that any pig farmer would be happy to get you a slab of fresh belly.  It’s occasionally available at Whole Foods.  I’ve also gotten good pork belly from John Boy’s Mountain View Farm in Washington County, NY.  Walter Stewart’s Market carries Mountain View’s Berkshire pork.  Talk to Pete at the meat counter.

Yes, kids, this is where bacon comes from

I introduced Michael Ruhlman’s Basic Dry Cure from Charcuterie, and referenced this post of his for making pancetta, with the plan to smoke over hickory chips instead of drying it.  We scaled the recipe down for a 3 lb slab of fresh pork belly (using ratios; math teachers and Ruhlman would be so proud!), and we added brown sugar, black pepper, and crushed juniper berries to the cure in the zip-top bag.  After curing, I brought the pieces home to smoke over the weekend (the timing on this didn’t work out to do a smoke-roasting lesson at school, which wouldn’t be too interesting anyway; the interesting part isn’t watching the smoked meat, but eating it).

The following week we had class downstairs in the kitchen, and students worked on a review sheet on viruses and bacteria while I fried up our thick slices of bacon.  I slow cooked it that morning, wrapped in foil in a 225 degree oven for about 2 1/2 hours, then crisped it up in a pan.  There wasn’t enough for a whole BLT per kid or anything, but they did get a good taste, and several of them asked after class, “Where can I get that recipe again?”

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Hungry Monkey

hungry monkey cover

Hungry Monkey, by Matthew Amster-Burton


Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa over at Ideas in Food turned me on to this book Hungry Monkey with their review a few weeks ago.  And when my sister-in-law read the cover and subtitle, she laughed and asked if it had been written for me.  A Food Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater?  Yup.  I really enjoyed the book, and I’m looking forward to making several of the recipes for the kid at some point.  Author Matthew Amster-Burton has an easygoing voice, and he writes with wit, self awareness, and humor.  He explains how parental anxiety about baby food can be overwhelming, and that the research out there on allergens, the timing of food introductions, and food philosophy (if you can call it that) varies hugely.  Then you realize that over the course of recorded history (and before that too, I’m sure) parents have, after breastfeeding, been feeding kids adult food in some form, with developmentally appropriate degrees of mush, chunks, and spice.  And it’s likely that over that span of time there have been kids that have been picky eaters.  It’s not a new phenomenon.

So it was refreshing to read Amster-Burton’s book, which finds a kind of middle ground (leaning towards the adventurous) on what to feed your kids.  He’s not overly cautious, but not reckless either.  The other thing I appreciated is that he seems to be realistic.  There’s only so much you can do as a parent to steer the tastes of your children.  (It’s possible that you can’t do anything.)  You can control what comes into the house and where you choose to eat out, but beyond that, it’s a total crap shoot.  Being adventurous eating parents does not necessarily beget an adventurous eater (supertasting and nontasting genes notwithstanding).  His daughter doesn’t like vegetables, or cheese, for example, and that’s okay.  (Apparently having your kids help in the kitchen is not a surefire way to get them to eat vegetables.)  Maybe she’ll grow out of it.  What comes across clearly in the book, is that he and his daughter share an appreciation for cooking and food, while recognizing the quirkiness of individual taste.  I enjoy cooking, and I’m at the beginning of this whole feeding a kid thing at home.  So the timing of this book, for me, was perfect.  And it’s a hilarious read.  If you’ve got kids, or have some on the way, and you think about food ever, it’s worth checking out.

By the way, Chapter 12 – The Monkey and the Meat Grinder: hysterical.

Amster-Burton’s blog is called Roots and Grubs, and you can get the book lots of places.

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Ah, food TV, where have you gone?

Oh, food TV, where have you gone?

Michael Pollan’s article Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch is the cover story of today’s New York Times Magazine. And it’s a long one.  But it basically says that cooking at home is actually good for you.  This is good to hear.  I like to cook at home.  He means to really cook at home, though, not just to reheat frozen things, or to assemble a sandwich (which apparently technically counts as cooking, according to the people that gather statistics on these things).  In short, by letting other people process and cook for you (by buying processed and pre-made foods), you’re giving up control of what goes into them.  Salt, sugar, and fat are cheap, so it’s no surprise that they end up as prominent ingredients in many ready-to-eat or reheat options at the grocery store.  This is one of the main premises of Pollan’s In Defense of Food.  The simple act of preparing your own food puts you way ahead.  But that’s not what the vast majority of Americans are doing.

People are certainly interested in food now. Watching cooking has gained tremendous popularity, as evidenced by the success of many shows on the Food Network and Bravo, but increases in ratings have coincided with a decrease in the number of people cooking at home (see article for stats and references).  It’d be great if Top Chef got more people cooking at home; maybe add a quickfire challenge to the sibling rivalry?  Apparently that’s not the case.  Pollan also notes a change in the type of shows that are broadcast.  There’s a shift from shows that used to show you how to cook (like Julia, back in the day; and Alton Brown, more recently) to more shows just about eating (Guy’s Big Bite, the Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food, etc).  I’m all for travel shows, and sure, I’d love to hear about a great diner, but this is a somewhat disturbing trend.  Get thee back to the kitchen!

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Update 8/4/09

Some other responses online to this article:

Ruhlman‘s post is right on target.  He asserts that more people are cooking; he is one of them.  As he states at the end of his article, “we have just begun to cook, and not a moment too soon.” He’s a champion of a new era of home cooking.  Making your own pie crust, pickles, curing bacon?  But it takes so much time, they whine.  Some people are cooking more, and the movement among locavores, foodies, and food bloggers is definitely growing.  But in America as a whole?  I think in that case, Harry Balzer is right.  I don’t want him to be right, and I don’t think he’ll win (see his points in the original Pollan article).  But he’s a cynic.  He’s a food-marketing researcher.  It’s his job to capitalize on the fact that Americans are lazy and cheap, and he’s going to provide plenty of options for them at the grocery store.

And an article from Barbara Fisher of Tigers & Strawberries, that discusses whether Pollan’s article was sexist in its assessment of women in the kitchen, specifically regarding some generalizations he makes about income and spending.  She points to this passage, “In general, spending on restaurants or takeout food rises with income. Women with jobs have more money to pay corporations to do their cooking, yet all American women now allow corporations to cook for them when they can.”

I agree that this statement doesn’t apply to all women, and that is the word Pollan uses.  But the trend is clear, that Americans in general “allow corporations to cook for them when they can.”  Ease, convenience, cost, time.  Look at the rise and popularity of processed and prepared foods!  Someone is buying them.  I also hear her point that Pollan’s article is depressing (especially if Balzer’s opinions are taken as fact), I think it’s probably a healthy — sorry, wrong word, accurate — assessment of what’s going on in America.  If you look at obesity rates, increases in TV viewership, and decreased time spent cooking in the kitchen (as Pollan does), those are objective pieces of data that highlight what’s going on.  The situation is depressing if we don’t do anything about it.  Barbara, you’re right that many people are cooking.  There is a movement here, and I agree wholeheartedly with Ruhlman’s take on it (which has a more positive spin on it), but in the grand scheme of things, the fact that we cook from scratch doesn’t mean that millions of Americans don’t.  I believe there is hope.  And Pollan’s article just points out pretty clearly why we need it.

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With summer break here, I’m looking forward to reading several books that have been in the stack for a while.  Just before school ended, I got several recommendations on books to read, and I’d like to get through some of those (see Books page for the complete list, ever evolving).  I’m sure I’ll add more to the pile before I’m through it.  Please leave suggestions in Comments if there’s a book you think I should read.  I’m always happy to have new recommendations.

I’m also planning on doing some reading on gardening, starting with the Michael Pollan book.  If I’m feeling adventurous, I might build a planter or two to see what vegetables I can grow in our small back yard, beyond the standard chives, basil, and parsley that we have going so far.  There are several reasons for wanting to do this, and most of them have to do with moving myself along the continuum from completely dependent, to only somewhat independent of traditional food systems.  This might be just an idealistic drop in the bucket, in the grand scheme of things, but I’m okay with that.  I came across this idea in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Cookbook, and it makes a lot of sense to me.  Another reason to garden is that it’s an extension of the reason that we bake our own bread, cure our own bacon, or do anything from scratch.  We get creative control, and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from seeing a project through start-to-finish.  I imagine that might be an order of magnitude greater for someone who builds a house from the ground up.  Since I’m definitely not going to build a house, I think I’ll stick with growing vegetables.  I think I could be a good gardener, you know.  Another reason is that I’m going to enter Ruhlman’s BLT-from-scratch Summertime challenge, which I can totally win.

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To complicate matters — clearly going against the plan of simplifying and shortening the book pile — I just got back from the book store.  I got the Pollan gardening book, Second Nature (see link above); The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen; and The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart, which I’ve been reading a lot about.  (I’m considering keeping tabs on the Bread Baker’s Apprentice Challenge, where folks are working through the book one recipe at a time; details at the blog Pinch My Salt.  That’s a lot of food challenges for one post, so I might just observe this one, learn a bit, and pick up the baking in the fall when it’s a little cooler out.)  Lastly, I had the Helprin book Digital Barbarism in my hand, but I didn’t get it.  I really like Helprin’s novels — a topic to fill a post of its own — but I’m going to hold off on this one for a while, until I really get the itch to read about copyright law in the age of the blog.

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