Thursday, September 2, 2010

Convenience ... or flavor?

This headline was the main one on the cover of the Washington Post food section this week. It referred to watermelon (seedless mild ones vs. intensely flavored seeded ones), but it occurred to me that it could be the standard by which to judge all our food choices. Dietitians have been advocating intentional eating (along with 30 minutes of exercise a day) as necessary to keep a healthy weight. To paraphrase Michael Pollan: Eat food, not too much, and enjoy it more.

Preparation is a key to the enjoyment. If you keep that in mind, you've won half the battle our culture is fighting against. We rush, rush to get more done, cutting every corner we can find. The food industry has responded to this, preparing and processing our food so we can get in our mouths quickly. Yet while we are cutting the time it takes to put together our dinners, the industry is cutting corners as well to make a profit.

Good chefs fight against processed foods. No wonder we love to eat out at a good restaurant. The food is spectacularly attractive and tastes great.

And that's why books by chefs sell well. We've eaten it, we want to fix it. Unfortunately, most of the recipes in a chef's cookbook involve intense preparation. And why not? That's what the minimum-wage minions in the kitchen do (besides the dishes... which add up to a substantial number for many of these recipes). And on top of that, some just don't translate well to the home kitchen. I knew from experience that adapting family recipes to feed a hundred or more people takes a lot of tweaking, especially with the spices. And what I learned testing cookbooks over the years is that many chefs find great cookbook writers and testers to produce their works, but others rush to press without adequately testing whether the recipes, even when followed to the letter, will turn out well for their readers.

Good recipes don't need a lot of ingredients to taste great, but the simpler the recipe, the better your ingredients need to be. If you don't enjoy food prep, start with recipes that call for five ingredients or less. Work up from there. Pay attention to how fresh the pepper is as you cut into it to dice it (a good tipoff is the condition of the stem; if the tip is black and shriveled, it's been off the vine for some time), how little flavor the pithy parts contribute (cut them out and throw them into the compost pile),  how a smaller dice exposes more of the surface to flavor the dish. Don't enjoy cutting onions? Goggles work well, but chilling the onion or putting a slice of bread in your mouth before taking out your knife sometimes works as well. Does that garlic that keeps jumping out from under your knife need to be minced? Position the side of your chef knife on top of the clove and give it a good whack with your free fist. Then mince the crushed garlic.

Embrace the prep. If you think of it as the essential element of getting better food into your body, you will value it as much as you value your time. It's when you don't value it that it becomes mere scut work. Cultivate sacredness in your daily meal preparation, and your meals - and your body - will rejoice.

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