Sunday, April 25, 2010

Olive oil: An ancient food for today's world

There is an ancient Greek myth that tells us why the city of Athens came to have that name, a tribute to Athena, the goddess of wisdom and justice. Long ago, the city itself had no name, but was still very beautiful and prosperous, and both Poseidon, god of the sea, and Athena, coveted it and wanted to make it their patron city. Zeus declared that the citizens of the metropolis could choose for themselves which divine being they preferred based on the merit of a single respective gift.

Poseidon struck down his trident and out sprung a spring. Unfortunately, the water was as salty and undrinkable as the ocean over which he ruled. Athena threw down her shield, and out of the divot it made in the earth planted an olive tree. From this tree, the people not only got the actual olive, which was very tasty, but the olive's wonderful oil, which could be used to cook and flavor all sorts of things, as well as light lamps in their home. Athena handily won, and to this day, the city retains is divinely attributed moniker.

Olive oil is, and has been for centuries, a staple of the Mediterranean diet. There is an excellent article in this month's Saveur by Nancy Harmon Jenkins about olive oil, from its history to its cultivation and of course, its myriad of uses in the kitchen. As the foundation of much of Greek and Italian cuisine, newborn's lips are often smeared with a little extra-virgin before the first taste of their mother's milk. Talk about a head start in your culinary education!

75% of the world's olives are used to make olive oil, and while the United States was quite late to pick up on its magic, it is now the cornerstone of many people's kitchen. I myself use olive oil constantly when I cook. For fish, for stir-fry, to cook eggs, for my salad, from satueéing vegetables, grilling meat, and braising chicken...basically anything and everything that involves a pan. It has so much more flavor and complexity than butter (while simultaneously enhancing the flavor of the original food that you are cooking). It has gotten to point that I can taste the chemical residue left on food by using PAM or other pan-greasers, including Crisco. Yuck.

Other uses? I like to pour a tablespoon over my pasta and toss after I strain it to keep it from sticking. True Mediterranean households even have family recipes for olive oil cake and cookies, yum. And nothing sets off the flavor of great bread like a little bit of olive oil for dipping.

In addition to all these lovely gastronomical traits, olive oil itself is also ridiculously good for you, perhaps an additional reason for its longevity and relative consistency over the centuries. It does wonders for your skin--so many skin and hair products out there claim to be infused with the olive's essence, and as it is a monounsaturated fat, it does wonders for your cholesterol. Lowering the bad kind while increasing the good. Additionally, it boasts antioxidants called polyphenols, which Jenkins says can boost protection against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some types of cancer, and possibly even Alzheimer's! Not bad for something that I would eat anyway just for the taste.

How olive oil is made has remained relatively unchanged, but new presses are opening, and whereas oils from places like Spain and California were usually not much to write home about versus the oils from Italy, Greece and Lebanon, things are changing. Great olive oil for the every-day chef can be found in most grocery stores and specialty markets, but if you want to really sample some artisenal stuff, there is a listing of the Saveur team's 10 favorites in the magazine and, but I think an even better place to explore oils is my beloved Zingerman's.

Why Zingermans? Well, for one, they have the buying/shipping of whatever you'd like just a click away. Secondly, they've been doing this for decades and have quite a palate for it, and offer things in a wide variety of price ranges and styles. Rustic and fruity oils from Chile, light oils for baking fish from Italy, oils from Provence, Puglia, Tuscany, California, you name it. All hand-picked. Then, just turn the page or click the neighboring tab to order a lovely loaf of bread with which to eat it!

For the true olive oil aficionado, you can join their "tour de oil" for $95. I got this as a gift for one of my old teachers who loved to cook, and to this day, she professes that it is the best gift she ever got. Perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration, but it is a gift that keeps on giving: she still orders one of the oils she "discovered" on this little tour.

So, swap out the PAM and the butter and use olive oil in everything and anything that requires a skillet or grill, be it fish, chicken or vegetables. To enjoy a special oil "vintage," slice a baguette, toast it, and while it is still nice and hot, rub it with a clove of cut garlic, and dip or drizzle away!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Gastronomical Pet Peeves

I could fill a whole book about things that annoy me, food-wise, starting with mayonnaise, but there has been one that keeps re-surfacing recently, and it simply must be addressed.

Pretend you are at a cocktail party. Something important enough that you dressed up, brought a bit of make-up to work for 5:00pm re-touching, and even made sure to carry a spare pair of flats in your purse so you can change in and out of your impractical (but very cute) high heels. Nonetheless, before said cocktail party, you were so busy sending last minute emails and returning phone calls that you put off that you didn't have time to get anything to eat before arriving.

I, for one, am a huge believer in having something to eat before attending ANY sort of professional event where alcohol will be served. I don't care if it is a seven-course meal cooked by Alain Ducasse. A PBJ from home, a quick granola bar, or something starchy will never go amiss. Unfortunately, I just could not get my sh*t together before a recent event, and scooted on up to midtown, hoping, praying, relying on the fact that there would be some sort of crudité or some hors d'oeuvres being passed around with which to line my stomach.

So, here we are, schmoozing and trying to seem as lively as possible while listening to my stomach grumble, angry with me that all it has encountered since lunch is some cheap vodka and three cubes of cheese. Trying to eat and mingle at these things is always very tricky for me--you can't NOT have a drink in your hand, otherwise everyone thinks your a stick in the mud, and so that only leaves one hand free to eat, meaning your limited to single cubes of cheese or carrots dipped in whatever nasty mayo-based concoction they have before you (what is wrong with hummus, people? It tastes so much better!). Thankfully, the passed hors d'oeuvres came out before things got too dire.

Passed hors d'oeuvres at these sorts of things must all come from the same catalog--mini quiches, pigs-in-a-blanket, chicken skewers, and some sort of cracker with lobster paste--but they all serve one purpose at these sorts of things: preventing me from getting black-out. It is gauche, but it is true.

And this is right about where things turn sour. Here I am, sipping my booze, discreetly trying to fill my stomach with something that doesn't require a lemon wedge, and out come the piece de resistance of passed hors d'oeuvres. The mini egg roll.

These things are always lukewarm to the touch, and seem like such a marvelous little thing, especially when they follow the "cracker with lobster paste." You pick it up by its whimsical little toothpick, bit into out, and out squirts boiling out egg roll oil.

Now, this never happens when your talking to someone in your same socio-professional "bracket." No. It happens when you're talking to "someone important," perhaps a Noble prize winner, or maybe someone whose won Pulitzer. Regardless, they are obviously smarter than you, because they knew better than to try and eat one of those damn mini egg rolls. Otherwise, they would look like me, standing there, eyes watering, doing my best not to try and spit out the offending piece of mini egg roll into my glass (gross), yet the boiling oil in my mouth is so hot that I simply cannot swallow, and so am just sort of standing there with my mouth half opened and a pained look on my face, all while trying to still look as interested as possible.

Damn you mini egg rolls is all I have to say. Where are those mini quiches when you need it?

That is one thing I will certainly NOT be having at the wedding.

Friday, April 16, 2010

That's MRS Gastronomical Jess to you...

That's right, readers! Sir Vronsky, that riddle wrapped inside a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma, foe of beets everywhere but lover of all other sort of cuisine, proposed to yours truly earlier this week.

While this will NOT become a wedding blog, I am sure as this engagement progresses, I will be inviting feedback on catering, meal selection, restaurant venues for various dinners, and of course, CAKE. Yes, even though I am firmly on Team Pie, I will be having a full-on, awesome cake, unless of course I discover wedding pie over the next few months, in which case all bets are off.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Nourishing the Soul and the Body

But isn't it the body and the soul? Yes, that is indeed the proper colloquial syntax, but a discussion I had with some friends and Vronsky the other night made me wonder that perhaps the reason for many American's schizophrenic relationship with food is that we are putting "soul" ahead of the "body."

Now, believe you me, dear readers, that I am all for an emotionally rewarding relationship with my meals, as was M.F.K. Food should be a sensuous experience, laden with memories and hopefully help create some new ones as well. Food should feed your soul, but its primary function, is and always should be, to give your body the fuel it needs, and I think part of the problem with modern diet is that people sacrifice giving the body the nourishment it needs for the more immediate emotional payoff. Eating for the sake of eating, which in the end, leaves both body and soul unsatisfied.

A friend of Vronsky's and mine, J, is opening a gourmet chicken and fish sandwich shop in Williamsburg (more on this to come!) and being so close to the ground in the food industry, J had some fascinating stories to share about how people impulsively buy bad fast food because of the emotional payoff, not stopping to consider what exactly they are putting in their mouths. Jamie Oliver tries to counter-act this by showing people a whole chicken, and then demonstrating exactly what goes into those chicken McNuggets. Needless to say, not a whole lot of chicken. Why not learn to roast or grill or stir-fry the actual chicken meat? Then, you will actually be nourishing your body, and hopefully your soul as is rewarding, and it will open up doors to different kinds of cuisine, recipes, and styles of food, bringing back the same soulful reward that one used to get from the un-nourishing, but familiar, McNuggets.

I am all for eating what tastes good, what you are craving, but I also have always tried to keep a mind to what my body needs to be at its best. After all, the body and mind are intertwined...if my body feels crappy, I'm not in that great a mood, and if I'm in a bad mood, a don't feel so hot physically either.

So what exactly am I getting at? Besides the classic "mom" mantra of "eat your fruits and veggies," I really do believe that trying to get the four "food groups" in your diet each day is not only healthy and good for you, but I think forces one to explore different options. Get away from that weak little side salad, and try some asparagus or some kale or some beets (me and my beets). For a starch, try some fingerling potatoes. Boil them up until they are 9/10ths cooked with a bit of salt, and then remove from the water with a slotted spoon, coat with olive oil and an Italian seasoning blend, and stick in the oven for about 15-20 minutes on a baking sheet. The potato skin will develop a nice crisp, but the insides will stay soft and delicious.

Looking to integrate more fruit in your diet? Slice up some apples and serve it with spinach, walnuts and some goat cheese for a great salad, or toss in some blueberries and raisins with some plain granola (I like the Bear Naked brand) and greek yorgurt or Stonybrook organic plain yogurt, perhaps drizzle a bit of honey on there too, for a delicious and healthy breakfast.

Put sprouts on your turkey sandwich in addition to lettuce. Stir-fry your chicken with snow peas, onions and some sweet peppers. Maybe even add some water chestnuts! If you have had a long day at work and are reaching for that spaghetti sauce in a jar, toss in some whole tomatoes, quartered, and perhaps some sliced celery and onions, or even some kidney beans to give it a bit more flavor and heft. Explore mushrooms and different types of beans as protein options, or experiment with different ways to prepare chicken. Explore and have fun, and never loose sight of what exactly you are putting it your body. The closer food is to its natural form (whole pieces of meat, fresh produce, non-refined starches) the more fun it is to cook and the more fun for your body to absorb!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Beet the Blues

Beets are as wonderful to eat as they are as fun a word to say. I feel that they are one of the most under-appreciated foods--they have a wonderful texture (firm, with a slight crunch), a tart-yet-sweet taste, and are wildly nutritious. There are few occasions when the beet is out of place, from a soup to a stew to braising and roasting for salads and sides, and yet so many people fear the beet like they do other root vegetables, from turnips to rutabagas. Perhaps it is the weird names? All I know is, these folks are missing out.

Vronsky is one of them. Even though I've probably eaten them in nearly every iteration in front of him, in at least three different countries (beets are a very cosmopolitan produce), he will never try my beets. I don't know what it is with him and other beet healthy? Too colorful? To tasty? It puzzles me and makes me sad, because something so simple as beets on my salad will make my day. Perhaps I need some more thrills in life...

Beets are a staple of many "northern" folk diets. Beet soup is a cornerstone of traditional Russian, Polish and many Nordic meals, and along with cabbage, are one of the few vegetables that will last and nourish one throughout the long Russian winter. Beets, cabbages, and onions will literally provide the body with all it needs, preventing nasty things like scurvy and vitamin deficiency in the winter months, and are much more enjoyable than sucking on lemon slices like they would do on those olden-day sailing ships to prevent those same ailments. There is also a very funny reference to beet soup in David Benioff's excellent book City of Thieves, which also involves a search for eggs, and is a fabulous, poignant, honest look at the infamous siege of Leningrad and partisan warfare. Plus, one of the main characters, Kolya, is one of the most charming literary figures I've come across in a long time. (If you can't tell, I've been on a huge Russophilic kick lately, beets included).

Beets have a very high level of anti-carcinogens and are loaded with antioxidants and help prevent certain types of cancer, especially colon, and may even help prevent birth defects due to their high level of folic acid. They also help increase the oxygen-carrying capability of your blood, something helpful to all you athletes out there, especially endurance athletes (cyclists, triathletes, runners, swimmers, etc.) This is because the iron found in beets, although not in huge quantities, is of the highest quality, and therefore, the most efficient for your body to put to good use. Learn more about how beets benefit your body here in addition to being delicious.

But enough about the health benefits. Beets are damn tasty too, hence the basis of their gastronomical appeal. As the beet is a very hardy food and has such a special flavor, they are a favorite of chefs around the world. I even remember Richard Blais on "Top Chef" using beets during the challenge where the little kids had to help them cook. His kid, who was initially intimidated by said beets, loved the taste from first bite and bragged to all her school chums during the actual meal service that she had chopped the beets all by herself after they were roasted. Richard Blais thought it was so cute how she acted like she had been eating beets all her life and was a true beet aficionado.

Beets are most popular when roasted. When you find beets on your salad (usually with some goat cheese and a vinaigrette), or as a side, they will be roasted. In Germany, they like to pickle them, but roasted is my personal favorite, and also the easiest to make at home (in my mind).

How to roast your beets (and use the greens too):

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Wash your beets thoroughly, leaving the skin on, and remove the greens on top. Rinse the greens and set aside.

Toss your beets with two tablespoons of olive oil, or enough to coat, depending on the size and quantity of beets. Then, place the beets in a small roasting pan or baking dish. The beets are easier to peel once they have been roasted, and it helps keep them moist.

Cove, and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until a knife slides easily through your largest beet.

When the beets are almost roasted, take some more olive oil, heat in a skillet over medium/low heat along with some garlic and onions and cook until onions are almost clear. Then, tear your beet greens into 2-3 inch pieces and add to skillet until they begin to wilt/go tender. Remove from heat, slice up your now perfectly roasted beets and enjoy with either a bit of red wine vinegar, or salt and fresh pepper, or even with a bit of rosemary or thyme.

For a slightly different variation, you can toss your beets with a bit of salt and pepper and garlic, along with the olive oil, prior to roasting and then drizzle with balsamic vinegar once done but prior to serving. I think this makes them a bit too garlicky, but it is up to you. Either way, a wonderful and unique spring side dish!