The Pain That Isn't There

So many of the dishes I enjoy cooking require a fair amount of chopping.  Like last night's hash -- potatoes, some leftover smoked brisket, an onion, a poblano pepper.  All cut into half inch dice.  A lot of chopping.  Since I don't have much fine motor control it's inevitable that I cut myself.  Not often, but frequently enough that I can't say it's rare.

One of the advantages of the spinal cord damage that transverse myelitis has left me with is that the cutting doesn't hurt.  I hardly feel it.  It's more likely that the hand holding the knife registers that I've cut into something that isn't the celery stalk I'm trying to focus on without noticing that the ring finger of the hand holding the celery has curved underneath the stalk just as I'm pulling the knife along the center.  (This was a few months ago prepping the soffritto for my bolognese).  The blood clues me in.  It's a nuisance.

It isn't that my hands are numb.  Far from it.  I have lots of sensation.  There's the constant buzzy tingling in both hands from above the wrist to the tips of my fingers, as if I'd slept on the elbow wrong and the hands are just waking up.  Occasionally there'll be bursts of sensation at the tips of a finger, a little explosion seeming to have just gone off on the surface of the skin.  Random sharp pains at the wrist or the thumb joint come and go.  None of these are "real."  That is, they're not an accurate reflection of something physiologically happening in my hands.  They're the artifact of the garbling of the signals those nerves are trying to send to my brain through that inch or two of demyelinated spinal cord just below my neck.  As if the individual wires in a cable had the insulation stripped off and the signal was short-circuited on its way up the line.  The stiffness, the effort required to bend the fingers or to straighten them again is the garbling going the other way -- my brain trying to control the fingers, but unable to get a clear signal to the necessary nerves.

Given all of the work going into that miscommunication in both directions I'm hardly surprised that when I cut myself the nerves don't seem even to try to send the shock of that sensation up to the brain.  There's too much already in the way.  So I feel the pain that isn't there and don't feel the pain that is.  I try to be careful.

The twenty or twenty-five minutes a day of guitar practice is going well.  I'm working on the ring finger of my left hand.  I need D-major-1 a D major chord in almost everything I play, and bringing that finger around to the D note on the 2nd string has been taking about an extra beat.  But I discovered the other day that if, when I'm bringing the index and middle fingers around to their positions, I tighten the muscle across my left shoulder blade, the ring finger keeps up.  For now, I have to remember to consciously trigger that muscle, but give me a few thousand more repetitions and it should become routine.  I suppose, in the old days, I used all the muscles in my arm to form chords, but it was subtle and automatic enough that I never really noticed.

Among the very many things I've learned in the last five and a half years is how stunningly complex the movements of a healthy body are and how little conscious thought is required.  The intricate mystical ballet of muscles and nerves combining to have fingers do everything from playing the piano to brain surgery to a fifteen year old girl talking on an airplane to a blind and deaf man.  Marvelous.

In my world, none of it is automatic anymore.  Everything has to be done with intention.  Let the attention waver for a moment and blood wells up from the tip of my finger.  But find the right muscle to flex and I can hit that D chord.



Putting Things Together

Then I remembered the ginger ale.

I was just about to put the cabbage in.  I had plenty of butter in the pan and the pancetta had rendered out its fat, but I still needed some braising liquid.  We're out of the frozen cubes of stock that Lynn makes when we've finished a rotisserie chicken or I would've used a couple of those.  I was about to give up and grab the vermouth when I gave the carrots and onions and garlic and pancetta one more stir.  The carrots' orange was bright and glistening in the butter and fat and I remembered the carrots braised in butter and ginger ale that I'd fixed some months ago.  Happy boy, now.  That's it.  Hint of ginger and a touch of sweet.  Lynn keeps a rack of soda cans there near the kitchen door.  Splash some in.  Ten minutes covered, then a minute more for the last of the liquid to cook off.  Finished with a few dashes of sherry vinegar.  

The plan had evolved during the day.  There's quite a bit in the refrigerator to work with and now that I'm taking on another meal each week I was mulling menus.  Three-quarters of a head of cabbage in the lower drawer.  That'd be easy with a bit of onion.  I asked Lynn if she'd get a kielbasa out of the freezer.  I could steam chunks of that in with the cabbage and onion.

Then, after I'd gone upstairs and was doing the morning exercising, I thought of the pancetta.  I'd been musing about an amatriciana or a carbonara later in the week, but the pancetta would go well with the cabbage.  I finished my stretches and sent a text to Lynn -- leave the kielbasa, I'll use up the pancetta.  Later on decided that garlic was now in order and that carrots would add some color and heft.  I was still making it up all the way to the moment I remembered the ginger ale.

This is my favorite way of working in the kitchen.  No recipe.  No measuring.  A notion of a plan.  I'll browse recipes online for ideas (that's where the sherry vinegar came from).  Then I'll try to turn myself loose.

It comes from being decades in the kitchen.  Some good cookbooks that teach technique and not just following recipes.  (Thank you, Jack Bishop.)  Paying close attention when we're out to eat at the way our favorite chefs find balance in the unusual.  (Praises to Duane Nutter.)  

And then there's the competition with Lynn.

In the years before the short circuit, when I was responsible for getting supper on every weeknight, I loved the chopping and combining and stirring.  It was so wonderfully concrete after another day spent planning and cajoling and nudging and trying to help the people I worked with accomplish things.  I was good at that and it was marvelously rewarding but there was rarely a sense of accomplishment that felt like completion.  Opening the wine and putting the plates on the table gave me that.

Then the years when I was incapable.  Dragging myself exhausted after working through the day, hands enfeebled, not able to stand for more than a few minutes at a time.  Lynn had to take on all the daily cooking.  It was years before I was able to do more than the very occasional special meal or my pasta lunch on Saturdays.  The Christmas spaghetti.  Josie helping me with potato pancakes.

Slowly it came back.  Truly, the competition with Lynn helped.  She expanded her repertoire, continued to hone her skills, increase her knowledge (thanks in no small part to her "beloved Kenji") and emphasize appearance as much as flavor and balance.  I'd always relished the fact that we were equal partners in the kitchen, albeit with very different styles.  Now I was clearly falling behind.

A meal like last night's, the pleasure that came from fixing it and eating it, reassures me.  I don't think I'll ever be her equal in presentation.  I just don't have that visual sense.  But I'm back to doing my share.

Must Do More Cooking

Among the indignities I suffer following my bout with the peculiarly aggressive case of transverse myelitis is the gradual atrophy of my cooking skills. This might be slightly more tolerable if it were not for the fact that Tambourine Grrl's abilities have advanced substantially.

Three years ago, and for most of our life together up to then, we split the cooking duties. During the week, I handled suppers, working on the stove top. We ate pastas with a variety of fresh vegetables, stir-frys of endless variety, the occasional risotto, simple meals based on rice or potatoes or roasted vegetables. After a long day at the library, where I rarely had the satisfaction of simple completion, I loved the act of chopping and swirling and turning out a wonderful meal of fresh ingredients and big flavors in 30 to 45 minutes.

On weekends, Lynn took over the kitchen. Soups and stews and roasts and fresh breads and homemade ice creams. She filled the freezer with leftovers so whenever neither of us was in the mood to cook it was simple to pull out something lovely. When we renovated our kitchen ten years ago, stripping it back to the rafters and starting from scratch, she designed it around our two styles, with a 5-burner stove top, work area and dual sink on one side, and on the other a lower work surface and sink (she is short) next to the ovens. And we continued to grow as cooks and share ideas and learn from each other and from Jack Bishop and Serious Eats and I think we were pretty evenly matched and life was good. And meals were delicious.

Then came my collapse and Lynn had to take over all the cooking. Her skills continue to grow. Old favorites are even better now, as she subtly adjusts the seasonings. Every week there is at least one meal that is wholly new, based on some recipe idea she's seen somewhere. She was always better at presentation than me, and the plates are lovingly arranged. She thinks of colors and shapes in ways that I never bothered to.

I am so jealous.

Physically, I'm improving. I'm gradually doing a bit more cooking. I'll make a plate of linguine with clams for my lunch on a Saturday. For Mother's Day I did the grilled steak dinner. I've still managed the meatballs sauce for Christmas. With Josie's help I make potato pancakes for special occasions.  I'm teaching her to make her favorite Cacio e Pepe. But these are all long-time standards. I'm not learning anything! Lynn is so far ahead of me now!  

Case in point. Earlier in the week she made a dish with fresh tomatoes, herbs and linguine, the pasta cooked into the tomatoes. It was good (although not worth the amount of work the peeling and seeding of all those plum tomatoes required. She won't make it again). We had a lot left over. I offered to make a frittata with the noodles if she'd take the tomato drippings and make some kind of sauce. When I got ready for the frittata I drained the pasta and what was left was a little less than a cup of tomato drippings with a quarter inch of olive oil on top. I didn't have any ideas for turning it into a sauce.

I concentrated on the frittata. Simple. Eggs, grated parmesan, a little oil to coat the pan. The frittata was very good. And when we sat down, she brought a little gravy boat of smooth, thick delicious tangy sauce to spread over the top. How did she do that? She described what all she put into it and, frankly, I was simply so impressed I didn't process the details. But that's the kind of thing she can do now.

I am so jealous.

This weekend she's off to visit her Dad, so I'm on my own. Last night I made a big batch of the lemon chicken pasta so we can have that for supper when she gets home. It was good, but again, it was a dish I've been making for 20 years without variation. Today, though, for lunch, I had some leftover spaghetti aglio, olio and pepperoncino from Joe's and I was trying to figure out how to turn it into lunch. There were a few wilted scallions in the bottom of the vegetable drawer, so I trimmed those and cut them into half inch pieces. I put a little peanut oil in the wok, cooked the scallions for a minute, added the spaghetti to heat, and then put in a splash of sesame oil. It was simple.  It was delicious. It was fun.

My energy level isn't to the point where I'm ready to resume the weekday cooking, but I could step up for weekend meals more often.  I have so much catching up to do!



True Duck

I like duck, and if it’s on a restaurant menu I’ll often lean that way.  I’m rarely disappointed (fact is, I’m easy to please).  But it wasn’t until I had the duck at True that I realized how refined and far from the garden the duck in those other restaurants has become. 

As I ate it seemed that here was duck that someone from the household had shot that morning (in the spirit of Catching Fire making a zillion bucks over the weekend, I’ll say it was the 14 year old eldest daughter of the house, up just before dawn, crunching lightly across the frost).  Roasted and sliced over a bed of braised collards with a handful of baby heirloom carrots that her little brother pulled from the garden just before cooking.  A dollop of mashed butternut squash and a spoonful of cherry compote that had been put up the previous fall.  In the quiet of the softly appointed dining room it was easy to believe we were in that farmhouse at the big family table, rather than a chic restaurant in Montgomery.

When some of my favorite restaurant meals are impressing me with the way the flavors are balanced, I find myself thinking in awe, “How did they do that?  How did they know to mix those ingredients in exactly those proportions?”  I didn’t feel that way at True.  It seemed obvious.  Now my fantasy farm fades and I imagine Chef Wesley in the kitchen, the vegetables in front of him (that were, indeed, pulled from a garden that morning), and the duck laid out (which was, in fact, killed that morning not far from Montgomery), cooking and arranging almost without thinking about it.  Just paying attention to the food and what it was and where it came from.

If there is a New Southern Cooking in Alabama, following the path that Frank Stitt started on 30 years ago, a way of thinking about food that marries the most iconic ingredients of the rural south with a global sensibility and technique, then this is one of its finest exemplars.



When The Chef Is Having Fun...

If you cook often, you come to realize how much your mood affects how your meals turn out.   I come home weary and distracted and I make a dish that I've made many times before and I am sure that I am doing it in exactly the same way that I have in the past but it ends of up tasting uninspired -- fine, but nothing special.   Three weeks later, I'm trying the same dish but I'm in a mood where I'm loving what I'm doing and taking tremendous pleasure from it.  I still don't think that I'm doing anything different in terms of ingredients and amounts and heat and time...  but the food tastes better.  And it tastes better to Lynn, too, no matter what her moods may have been.

So it's become my standard practice in a restaurant, when everything on the menu looks interesting, and I can't make up my mind what I'm in the mood for, to ask the server to bring me whatever the chef "is having the most fun with tonight."

This only works, of course, when you have a chef who really knows what he or she is doing, and that was definitely the case last week when we had dinner at Tangled Up In Blue in tiny Taylors Falls, Minnesota, about an hour or so from the Twin Cities.

We went early, since we wanted to be able to get back to the Inn in time to watch the sunset from our porch.  It's still early in the season, so we were the only people there when we arrived.  The interior is, unsurprisingly, done up in various hues of blue, dusted with sparkles.  Wine bottles, sculptural fixtures, small candles on the tables; the place calms and invites.  It is intimate and welcoming with the sense that someone has turned the front half of their house into a casual, but sophisticated, dining space.

A nicely wide-ranging menu with a variety of seafoods & meats -- including bison, which Lynn was immediately intrigued by.  Everything looked interesting, everything looked good, and I wasn't in the mood to have to make my own choices.

So when the server came, I ordered wine and we ordered appetizers, and then, after Lynn expressed interest in the bison, I said, "Whenever I'm in a place where everything on the menu looks good..." and Lynn interrupted, laughing, "I know just what you're going to say."  And so we explained, and the server grinned and said, "I may have to have the chef come out and talk to you."

A little while later, Paul appears at our table, a little quizzical.  I explain my theory about how having fun affects your cooking and he smiles and nods.  I tell him that Lynn's in the mood to try something with the bison, but I'm up for whatever he wants to do.  He sees that we've ordered a big red wine, so he suggests that if he goes with the bison for Lynn, he can do something with a filet mignon for me.  "That works,"  I say. 

As he turns to the kitchen Lynn calls out, "Oh, and with red meat we're definitely rare to medium-rare people."  He turns, with an even bigger grin, and says, "I love you guys!"

Turns out that one of the things Paul is particularly good at (at least on the evidence of this one meal) is mixing sweet and spicy in perfectly balanced but unexpected ways.  My filet (a beautiful piece of meat in and of itself) came with a semi-spicy roasted pepper and raisin risotto topped w/ toasted almonds.  There were cilantro lime carrots and the sauce was honey habanero.  Lynn's strip steak was possibly the tenderest, most flavorful piece of bison she's ever had (and she'll go for the bison whenever she sees it on a menu) with carrot potato gnocchi, wilted spinach /w tomatoes, sauteed zucchini & squash and a bleu cheese demi glaze.

We traded up a bit, just to compare, but he'd done a perfect job of picking for each of us.  I laughed when he came out to check on us -- "As far as our own cooking goes," I pointed out.  "Lynn's the one who makes gnocchi and I'm the one who does risotto."  You'd think he knew.

At the end of the meal, it's not as if we needed dessert, but they do bananas foster, flamed at the table.  Why not?  It seemed like an appropriately celebratory way to end a marvelous meal.

I hope that Paul had fun -- he was certainly carrying a big smile at the end of the night.  So did we.  We were stuffed.  We were happy.  We were hoping we can figure out a way to get back there one day.




I Didn't Have Lemons

As I was getting my stuff out of the trunk I didn't have the grasp on my Publix grocery bag that I thought I did and it dropped to the driveway.  A pretty impressive "Crunch".  The eggs had been carefully packed at the bottom.  I'd been so pleased with the way the young woman at checkout had done that.

Sure enough.  Only one of the twelve was still whole.

No matter.  I hadn't decided what to have for lunch anyway.  I managed to get most of the remaining eleven eggs into a mixing bowl, with a minimum of bits of shell.  Lynn beat them lightly and took out the equivalent of two or three for her baking needs later this afternoon.  I went to my study to have a bloody mary and read the paper while the eggs came up to room temperature.

I suppose I ended up with the equivalent of six or seven eggs.  I fried three pieces of bacon, crisp.  There were three scallions in the bottom vegetable drawer, so I peeled off the decaying leaves and chopped the rest.  I'd picked up a basket of mixed hot peppers at the farmer's market, so I selected a long, pretty, thin red one and halved it lengthwise, scooped out about half the seeds and sliced it thin.

When the bacon was done, I put the slices on a paper towel and put the scallion & pepper into the bacon fat to cook for about a minute and a half -- just long enough for their scents to fill the kitchen and to hear them sizzle.  At least half the pleasure of cooking is the scents & sounds.

I poured a bit of milk into the eggs and then grated in maybe a quarter to a half cup of parmigiano-reggiano and beat that fairly well.  A bit of salt & pepper.  Then stirred in the crumbled bacon and the scallion/pepper mix.  I added a tablespoon or two of butter to the fat remaining in the skillet and put it on medium heat, and then poured the egg mixture in.  While it started to cook, I took one of the small tomatoes from the farmer's market and sliced that thin.  When the frittata was about half set, I placed the rounds of tomato on the top, pushing them in slightly so that the tops of the tomato slices were even with the top of the egg stuff.  A slight grate of pepper on top of each tomato slice and then one more light dusting of grated cheese.

(Should I mention at this point that I'm making it all up as I go along?  It's jazz.  You get the feel and you just kinda know what ought to work next.  Usually, it does).

Kept that cooking until there was just a little pool of uncooked eggs in the center (you test it by jiggling the pan every now and then and seeing what the egg does).  In the meantime, I had the oven broiler going.  I moved the pan into the oven, under the broiler, checking it every fifteen seconds or so until it was beautifully browned.  It just takes a minute or two.  Took it out and slid it onto one of those fine little platters that Lynn made forty years ago, that we still use regularly.

"Fresh herbs?" says Lynn. 

"Yeah, I was thinking about that, but if we're gonna do it, we need 'em quick." 

She went flying out the door, came back with a stalk of basil and a bunch of oregano.  "You do the basil, I'll chop the oregano."  We scattered the herbs half on half and let them sit for a minute or two so the heat from the frittata would wilt them, ever so slightly.

Yes, it was fabulous.  Yes, I know that the thing to do would've been to take a picture and post it here.  That's what people do nowadays, don't they?  I'm just not that into the picture taking thing.

Trust me.  It was gorgeous.

Les Soeurs des Montagnes

Arielle greets us at the door, face beaming, eyes bright under the frame of wiry gray hair.  "Hallo," she says, in her thick French accent, reaching out to take our hands in hers.   A few steps behind her, MariJo peeks out with what we mistake for shyness.  "Bon Soir!" she calls. 

"Bon soir," we say, amused and delighted by the effusiveness of the greeting, and I ask if we can book a table for about an hour from now.  

"But of course!" says Arielle, and writes my name in her book.  "Voila! We'll see you again about 7:00."

In doing my restaurant research before heading out to Breckenridge, I'd put Le Petit Paris at the top of my list.  The reviews were pretty good, and since a nice Parisian bistro is my favorite type of restaurant, I'm always on the lookout for another one to add to my collection.  Lynn and I had gone out for dinner with friends the night before, so on our last night in Breckenridge we were looking for something a little intimate, casual and romantic, and this seemed to fit the bill.

As we walked back out onto the street, we were both grinning.  "I have a good feeling about this," I said.

We did a bit more strolling along Main Street, the sun out now after the earlier snow showers, lighting up the last bits of day.  We stopped at the Crown Tavern for a whisky, sitting in comfy chairs by the fireplace, talking about how fine and fun the conference had been.   Great speakers, superb location, wonderful friends.  We'd had a fine time the night before singing and playing until late.

Back at Le Petit Paris, Arielle led us to a comfortable corner table and we embarked on one of the most delightful dining experiences we've ever had.  The food & wine were superb, the place itself wonderfully cozy and completely Parisian, but les soeurs themselves were what lifted it into another plane.

Arielle is the elder -- sixty next year, as she told us several times -- the owner of the place, three years now in Colorado, having gone through hope, betrayal, misery, wonder and redemption to get to the place she is now.   MariJo (which we choose to believe is diminutive for Marie Josephine), of the long blond ponytail, slender in blue jeans and her crisp white waiter's shirt, is a fountain of smiles and gentle laughter, emphasizing that we have all of the time in the world.

Over the course of the next couple of hours we have a remarkable meal and gentle, funny, serious, deep conversation with each of the sisters, conversation that never seems intrusive, never gets in the way of the romantic intimacy of the evening that Lynn and I are having, but that tugs us gently into their world.  MariJo helps me with my french, particularly the tricky tongue action necessary to get "grenouilles" just right.  We hear from Arielle about the circumstances that led to the restaurant being shuttered for three months last year, and how it was the community that rallied round her to fix things and get her back up and running when she thought all was lost.  " I do this now for the people of Breckenridge."

We discover that MariJo, for all of her astonishing beauty, is quite the natural comedienne, and when she falls into an imitation of a Colorado redneck or a Parisian FN, putting her hands on her hips and puffing out her cheeks in indignation we're ready to fall out of our chairs with laughter.  She's telling us that, having lived all of her life in Paris, she was a little nervous about coming out to small town Colorado.  "As soon as I open my mouth," she tells us, confidentially, "they can tell I'm not from around here."  But everyone has been fabulous.  Yes, there are those small-minded people, but you find them everywhere and there aren't enough of them to let it worry you.  She takes her doggies out for walks in the mountains and thinks she's moved to someplace very much like heaven.

We talk with Arielle about wine, and find that, like Lynn, she doesn't care for white wines, believes that you can find the right red wines to go with anything, and that she spends a lot of time picking out just the right wines for her restaurant.  "I'm no sommelier," she says several times (she says everything several times), "But I pay attention to wine."

MariJo does the desserts and is rhapsodic when describing them.  Often, I skip dessert, but I knew that in this place I didn't dare -- her disappointment would've been heartbreaking.  When we ask her to help us select, she asks us many, many questions before she chooses for us.  There is no shyness about her when she brings them out.  She knows they're fabulous.

Eventually, after coffee and cognac, we've about run out of reasons to stay, although we would if we could.  They come with us to the door, and we kiss on both cheeks and can't quite let the conversation go.  It is inconceivable to me that we won't see them again.

Finally, we're on the street, strolling back to the lodge.    Did we just have dinner in a restaurant?  No, Arielle and MariJo just took us in for a few hours.

The myth of time-saving

When I was at my Mom's earlier this summer, we had dinner at home one evening.  She broiled steaks and baked potatoes and asked me to fix the frozen brussels sprouts.    The sprouts were done in a butter sauce, and designed to be fixed in the microwave.  They were very tasty.  But it occurred to me that I could have fixed fresh sprouts in just about the same amount of time and had more fun with it.   There was nothing creative about microwaving the package, except, perhaps, the challenge of figuring out how to finally get the plastic top off so I could get them into a serving bowl without burning my fingers on the hot sauce.   If I'd had fresh, I would've trimmed them in a minute or two, and even if all I'd done was boil them and add butter and maybe some lightly sauteed garlic, it wouldn't have taken much more than the ten or twelve minutes that the frozen microwaveable ones took.  Or, I could have sliced them in half, lightly browned them on top of the stove in olive oil and then sprinkled them with parmesan cheese.  That would've taken even less time.  Or, I could've roasted them in the oven (I'm getting hungry now).  I would've melted butter & olive oil in a hot oven and then rolled the sprouts in with some garlic salt and lemon pepper and maybe some paprika (my favorite spice) and let them go for forty minutes or so.  Sure, that would've required me to get started much sooner, but the actual prep time would still have been only a few minutes.

The point being that I cook just about every night that I'm in town and spend very little time at it.  Last night I made fried rice.  I've been making it the same way for years and it takes fifteen minutes from the time I take the eggs out of the fridge to the time I put the dishes on the table.   I had the leftover rice from Friday night when we had a batch of Lynn's black beans from the freezer, a meal that also took just minutes to pull together.  On Saturday I made a beef stir fry with mushrooms, onions and jalapenos.  I took my time slicing the beef and I let it sit in a marinade for half an hour, but I still didn't spend more than twenty minutes altogether in the kitchen.

So I get impatient with the notion that in our helter-skelter society people don't have time to cook.  Lynn points out the flaw in my reasoning -- people don't have time to plan.  They don't have time to shop.  I can't argue with that.  I can cook simply every night because it's part of my normal rhythm to stop at the grocery store three or four times a week for the fresh vegetables or whatever other ingredient I need.  And that's never much because Lynn loads up on the staples once a month in a marathon three-hour shopping spree so we always have a fully stocked pantry.  And while I do the simple, fast, stovetop cooking, she spends time on the weekends with soups and stocks and breads and things that cook long and slow and that make lots of leftovers, which is why I could pull out a package of wonderfully cooked black beans from the freezer on Friday night.

I can't imagine a life without cooking.  My mom got us all started very early.  I don't even remember what I started with, but I do remember being very puzzled when I was old enough to hear that many men never learned how to cook.  How could you not know how to cook?  I could understand not knowing how to cook particular things -- there was always more to learn, and some of the preparations seemed completely mysterious.  But not know how to cook at all?  I couldn't even figure out what that meant.

Nonetheless, according to Michael Pollan's excellent essay in last Sunday's NY Times magazine, only 58% of american evening meals qualify as "cooking" even when you define cooking so loosely that putting lettuce in a bowl and pouring bottled dressing over it qualifies.    The most popular meal in America is a sandwich.

I don't think I've ever watched a full episode of a cooking show.  Pollan's essay helps me understand why, at the same time that it elucidates the fabulous success of the Food Network.  I've got a kitchen full of cookbooks that I rely on for advice, and whenever I'm thinking of trying something new, I'll see what I can find on the web that uses similar ingredients, just to spark my imagination.  But watch a cooking show?  It never occurs to me.

There seems to be little doubt that we would be healthier if we did more cooking -- real cooking, not just "dump-and-stir" (to use the obnoxious phrase that Pollan says characterizes the Food Network's daytime cooking shows).  Lynn and I are apparently two of the very few Americans these days who are not on any kind of maintenance medications, and I'm convinced that it has something to do with the fact that we eat so little processed food.

The irony here is that we don't eat the way that we do in order to be healthy.  We're dedicated carnivores (although we often fix meatless meals).   I make liberal use of butter and eggs, and turn up my nose at low-fat anything (well, except for 2% milk).  We eat the way that we do because we love to cook, we've learned how to do it efficiently, and the meals that we eat simply taste better than if we stuck with "time-saving" manufactured food.  

At the end of his article, Pollan quotes Harry Balzer, a food researcher and marketer, who is convinced that the trend toward less cooking is irreversible.  Pollan asks him about the impact of industrial prepared food on the nation's health and Balzer says, “Easy. You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”

Not to mention that roasting brussels sprouts is so much easier than figuring out how to get that damned plastic wrap off the top of the plastic microwaveable container.

A couple of simple pasta recipes

My sister writes to say that her daughter, now in her second year at MIT, is looking for recipes.   Dining halls and many other campus dining options aren't open during January, so she and a group of her friends are doing a dinner rotation.  Here's a couple of my favorites that are easy, fun and delicious.

One of the simplest and most flavorful pasta sauces is called puttanesca (look it up).  There are many variations -- I first learned mine from my very favorite cookbook, Jack Bishop's Pasta e Verdura

For four people, use a 28-ounce can of tomatoes.  (Jack recommends whole tomatoes, roughly chopped, but I typically use diced -- depends on what texture you want).

Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large skillet.  Add 4 minced garlic cloves and 1/2 tsp of hot red pepper flakes.  Saute that over medium heat for a minute or two, until the garlic turns golden.

Then add the tomatoes, 2 tablespoons of drained capers, and about 16 olives, pitted and chopped.  Jack recommends half black (like Kalamatas) and half green (like Spanish Queens) but really, you can use whatever's handy.  Simmer that until the sauce is the consistency you want -- takes about fifteen minutes.  You can use a fork to mash the tomatoes a little bit if you want it smoother.

That's it.  While the sauce is simmering you can cook and drain the pasta.  I typically use linguine, but spaghetti or any other long thin shape works great (figure three to four ounces pasta per person).  Mix the pasta and the sauce and serve it up.

I usually sprinkle a little fresh grated parmesan on mine, but don't do that unless you've got really good parmesan -- it's expensive, but you only need a little bit.   And getting good parmesan in Boston should be a snap!

If there's just one or two of you, use a small can of tomatos and reduce the rest of the ingredients appropriately.  Once you've had it a couple of times you'll get the hang of what proportions you want to use. 


I've got nothing against jarred pasta sauces, particularly those made by Classico or Barilla.  Here's a lemon-chicken pasta that uses Classico's tomato and basil sauce.

Grate the skin of a lemon with the medium grate of a standard box grater (which you ought to have in your kitchen anyway).  Then juice the lemon -- you should get about 1/4 cup of juice.  Mince three or four garlic cloves.  Add the lemon juice, lemon zest (the grated skin), and the garlic to about 1/3 cup of olive oil in a small frying pan.  Heat on medium just until the mixture froths up for a minute or two.

While that's  cooling, cut up a couple of chicken breasts into the thinnest strips you can manage (if they're slightly frozen, it makes the slicing easier).   Put the chicken pieces in a bowl and pour the marinade over them.  Mix them well with your hands so that all of the pieces are well-coated with marinade.  Let that sit for half an hour.

Set a large skillet (or a wok, if you have one) over medium to medium-high heat.  Pour the chicken and marinade in, and saute the chicken until it's white, then pour in a jar of pasta sauce (like I said, I use Classico's tomato and basil or tomato and sweet basil.  A jarred marinara would work well too.  I would not use a sauce that has other flavors in it, because that might clash with the lemon-garlic-chicken flavor).

Let that simmer while you fix the pasta. 

Leftover sauce will keep for a week or two -- I always make enough for two or three meals.  And you can double the whole thing if you've got a large crew to feed.


If this kind of thing appeals to you, get a copy of Jack's book (mentioned above).   Over the past few years I've probably made half the recipes in that book and every single one has been fantastic.  Plus, I've learned a tremendous amount about cooking.   I've got several other of his cookbooks and they're all wonderful, but Pasta e Verdura is the very best of all.

Cloned Food

There've been a scattering of news stories since the FDA declared cloned food safe to eat.   It doesn't appear that the announcement has changed anybody's mind, but that's pretty typical of our non-scientific age.  If you were queasy about cloned food to begin with, you tend to be dismissive of the FDA (what do they know?); and if you were inclined to think that cloned food isn't a problem, you take the FDA announcement as proof of your position (so there!).  But was there anyone, anywhere, thinking, "Well, I'm not sure about the safety of cloned food.  I guess I'll wait to see what the scientists at the FDA say, and then I'll make up my mind."  We're in an age where we make up our minds first, based on vague feelings and the punditry of those we feel most closely aligned to, and then we interpret or dismiss the evidence to suit those beliefs. 

I wonder if the woman on the NPR story who expressed her discomfort with cloned food in typically vague and emotional terms eats mass-market chicken.  And if she does, whether she has any clue at all about how those chickens are grown.  Those birds certainly bear less resemblance to the chickens pecking around the feet of Auntie Em in Kansas than the cloned cattle will bear to the animals that they're cloned from.  That anyone would think that the non-cloned versions of mass-market meat proteins are any more natural than the cloned versions seems to stem from ignorance and a romantic nostalgia for what farming has not been in several decades.

I suppose that one could object to cloned food on the principle that cloning itself is a bad thing, although again, the root of this objection can't be scientific.  And that one would object in principle to cloning food animals, but not be concerned about what we do in slaughterhouses and chicken factories strikes me as another bit of cognitive disconnect.

I say this as a confirmed carnivore who rarely eats a vegetarian meal.  I may be uncomfortable with the ethical conundrums surrounding the way that we produce meat in the 21st century, but I still make the choice to eat it.  I do try to be aware of what really goes into the food that I eat so that at least I'm making informed choices.  Living in the modern world is an ethical minefield where one is never entirely sure whether or not bits and pieces of your value system haven't already been blown off, and you didn't realize it because you weren't paying the right kind of attention.

As Dylan says in Brownsville Girl, "People don't do what they believe in, they just do what's most convenient, then they repent."