This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things. I originally started eating this way to heal from chronic health problems and...it worked!
A few months ago when my friends and were planning another themed dinner party, I submitted the idea for Mesopotamia on a whim and it was picked. So I delved a bit into cooking from the Fertile Crescent, where many foods we eat every day originate. There are "recipes" that exist from this time and place, in the form of tablets from Babylon in the Yale collection written in cuneiform. The problem is that these terse "recipes" have certain ingredients that have not been conclusively translated. Perhaps archeology will fill in the gaps. Archeologist Patrick McGovern, for example, used chemical analysis of pottery residue to reconstruct an ancient Phrygian drink and brew something similar for Dogfish Head called Midas Touch.
Jean Bottero published the most complete translation of the Yale Tablet recipes, but interestingly, food bloggers have contested some of his translations. Jean supposedly loved to cook, but perhaps held a French contempt for other cuisines, declaring the Yale Tablet recipes not fit for anyone except his "worst enemies."
It is interesting because a lot of the recipes are for broth and I've been been thinking about the influence French cooking has had on how many people make broths. I sometimes get emails about how I prepare broth and sometimes people are shocked I don't remove the fat from my broth. I leave it in the vast majority of the time.
But in traditional French cooking, which has influenced so much of the Western world, the fat is often removed in various ways such as skimming. This reaches its pinnacle in French consommé, in which egg whites are used to effectively remove the fat. That's cool, but I don't really feel the need to do that at home. I think this is partially because I have been so influenced by Korean food, in which broths are often purposefully cloudy or fatty.
The removal of fat is probably a recent development. The first broths ever made were probably made in the later paleolithic as part of a survival strategy known as grease processing. The very purpose of breaking and boiling bones was to probably acquire extra fat with the added bonus of the savory umami bones impart into liquid. I think a paleolithic human would be horrified by the process of consommé, which involves essentially wasting both the egg whites and a bunch of fat (though if you have a dog at home, they appreciate eating the leftover "fat raft").
Apparently Babylonian broths were similar to paleolithic and Korean broths, in that they were nice and fatty. If you don't like fat, you might call them greasy, but a good cook should be able to design the rest of the recipe in order to make them more balanced.
Similarly, whereas most modern cooks use purified salt, ancient cooks were probably more likely to cook with salted condiments (similar to fish sauce or soy sauce)and other foods like salt-fish or salt-pork. And probably if they were making beer, they were also making other fermented foods like pickles. Unfortunately, the fragments on the tablets don't have much information on the specifics of these things, but I would not be surprised if pickles or salt-cured foods were some of the unidentified ingredients like suhitinnu, though some believe there are spices or even vegetables.
Either way, it was an excuse to whip up some Middle Eastern ingredients that possibly have a long history. Harissa was out, because it relies on peppers, which didn't exist in Babylon since they came to this region of the world through the Columbian exchange. But like how Korea was making kimchi with other Ingrid before the Columbian exchange introduced peppers, it is likely the Babylonians made something like harissa, which is so good because it's essentially a bunch of delicious spices marinating together. I made my regular harissa recipe, but used more garlic and other spices: cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and caraway being the dominant ones (you can see what spices I have on my Trello board). I also made some delicious preserved lemons, though the Babylonians would have more likely had a type of citron.
One ingredient I had a lot of fun with was some tears of mastic I bought in Greektown here. I first had mastic in New York City at a goat ice cream shop (yes, really) called Victory Garden, where they used it to flavor soft serve ice cream. I have a strong affinity for evergreen flavors that evoke both forests and cathedrals, so I was addicted to mastic immediately. It is often sold as "tears", since it is the harvested resin of the mastic tree, and I bought the lowest grade small ones to experiment with. I ground them with a mortar and pestle and made some teas, which are supposed to be very good for your stomach lining, though you have to be careful when adding the mastic to liquid. If you don't add it slowly it literally turns to gum and you realize where humans probably got the idea for chewing gum. There is evidence that ancient humans chewed tree resins. But that doesn't bother me too much, it actually makes a rather nice gum, albeit with a fickle texture. Mastic has a very complex flavor, being both bitter and sweet, but that makes it actually rather perfect for balancing fatty foods.
The small mastic tears I use
I decided to make a goat leg since I had one in my freezer. I hadn't cooked one in a long time, so I googled for some recipes and found one that suggested marinating in beets in order to give an attractive red color. I thought I'd go one further and use the beets for the acidic component of the marinade as well by using some Scrumptious Pantry pickled beets I had in the fridge. Full disclosure is that Scrumptious Pantry invited me to the Localicious event at the Chicago Good Food Festival, but I've been buying their excellent products from the Green Grocer since I started shopping there. At Localicious I sampled many good local foods, like the genius Billy Sunday deviled eggs that had liver mousse whipped into the yolk, and cider from Red Streak. While I was getting some locally cured ham from the chef at Big Jones, my friend and I bumped into a man and we promptly apologized, only to realize it was Sandor Katz, who is largely considered a fermentation god. I love my copy of his Wild Fermentation. We chatted a bit and various things, including the excellent practice of marinating meat in pickles, which he has also tried with good results. God knows what marinating meat in pickles does, I get the impression that pickle juice is a much more complex in its actions than plain lemon or lime juice.
The rest of the goat leg marinade was Midas Touch beer, Wild Blossom mead, and good olive oil. The next day I made my spice/aromatic mixture, which was plenty of shallots, olive oil, garlic, preserved lemons, pistachios, sesame seeds, mastic, cinnamon, fennel, licorice, black pepper, fish sauce, cumin, dates, and fig vinegar processed until smooth and rubbed all over the leg. I braised the leg in the marinating liquid diluted with duck stock for a couple of hours. It was delicious- tender, red, meaty, earthy, slightly sweet, and highly aromatic. I served with some full-fat Greek yogurt mixed with sumac.
I wish I could give exact ingredients to my recipes, but I usually improvise when I cook. I didn't grow up with fancy food- I loved Hot Pockets, Lunchables, Chick File A, and Kraft Handy Snacks. But I was lucky enough to spend a lot of my childhood outside in the woods. I think that helped me develop a "nose" for flavor, and flavor is as much about the nose as the mouth. I have found memories of sweet honeysuckle, crisp wild chives, pungent tulip trees, balmy pine needles, and the fragrant vines of wisteria. When I have my own children, I hope they can be as exposed to things like these as I was, as I think they are not just important in giving children an appreciation of nature, as to give them other sensory experiences that can help them appreciate many other things that draw on nature for inspiration later in life. If you didn't grow up in such an environment, I think educating yourself about flavors and just trying lots of diverse and interesting foods can help you learn to improvise. As far as educating yourself about flavor, I started a book recently called Taste What You're Missing which is written by a food developer who had to develop her palette as an adult on the job, and so far it's pretty good. Also, have plenty of spoons so you can taste while you are cooking and adjust. I tend to use at least seven different spoons a day, which makes me feel very glad I now have a dishwasher.
It struck me as a sliced off lingering slivers of lovely red meat from the bones of the duck that I was doing something both very ancient and also very similar to the dreaded pink slime. Hear me out on this- pink slime's defenders talk about how it let's them use the whole carcass of an animal, which is an admirably thrifty concept. Of course it's been demented by desire for "low-fat" products, so the perfectly good little bits have to be mangled and treated like garbage in order to get the lean meat from it.
I wasn't concerned about fat or sinew. In fact, the fat was exactly what I wanted, but I'd take the rest too. The duck, along with the old lard breed pigs and dual-purpose cattle breeds, is an animal of the old farmstead, where farms had a level of diversity and self-sufficiency I don't see very often today. The duck, like a lard-breed pig such as the mangalita, provides a complete meal. On the foot, it is crafty and resourceful, able to defend itself and survive where modern breast-bloated birds (also in pursuit of the inferior lean meat) flounder. In the kitchen, it's an all-purpose culinary wonder. At the slaughterhouse, it's an anachronism, banished by many because those feathers that are so useful in life are difficult to pluck. Some farms I called have had to stop selling them for this reason. It's a shame, because really, duck is about a million times better than any other poultry except maybe goose, another hard to find old farm animal.
Home cooks also seem to be a bit intimadated by ducks. Some make the mistake of treating them like the more common chicken, which causes some problems. An average duck is more active than an average chicken, so the meat can be a bit tough if just roasted. Also, the fat, which is truly one of the best things about a duck, can turn into a problem if not treated properly. It's also just not chicken, it's meat is a bit like beef. You really don't want to overcook the nice juicy steak-like breast. Just roast the average pastured duck the way you might roast a chicken and you end up with overcooked breasts, tough legs, and a pan full of fat that you don't know what to do with. So I taught a class for Chicago Meatshare that showed how to do it right (or at least better than average) with a duck from Paulie's Pasture, a local farmer I sometimes order from.
The right thing to do, in my opinon, is to divide and conquer, yielding ingredients that will last dozens of very good meals. Luckily, you pretty much can break down a duck like you can a chicken (I learned how to do this mostly from Youtube to be honest). I did, into breasts (careful to keep the skin on), legs, wings, and carcass. Here is where it is different- this duck has globs of fat, particularly around the neck, but really everywhere. Those precious bits of fat I trimmed and put in a pot on low, starting a dry fat render. Usually I use my crock pot for that, but I wanted it to be ready sooner this time. Duck fat is like liquid gold, yellow like olive oil with probably the most appealing flavor of any animal fat besides butter. I wanted as much fat as possible. The bits of leftover solids in the pot are cracklings, I saved those for later too.
And then I did what pink slime tries so hard to do, but fails to, something that people have been doing for many millenia. Perhaps it was among the first types of food processing. In archaology it's called "bone grease processing" and appears to have become very popular during the upper paleolithic as a way to obtain as much precious fat as possible. I stripped little bits of meat from the carcass, my homemade "pink slime" after breaking down into the basic parts, reserving those to use later. Then I broke the carcass up and covered it with water in my crockpot, leaving it on low to make broth. In ancient times they smashed the bones, creating tell-tale fragments, in order to get as much of the inner bone fat as possible. The broth itself has plenty of great stuff and I reduce it and put it into ice cube trays. But you should also get a second smaller yield of duck fat from that, which you can seperate with a fat seperator or simply by cooling it in the fridge where it will collect on the top. That fat is a bit less pure so I use it soon for cooking everything from omelettes to vegetables.
I've been experimenting lately with flavor schemes. I have several that I use in my kitchen. The main principle I use is savory/sweet/acidic. I use all three elements in every dish, often adding spicy to the mix. Some ingredients have several elements. The main ones I used here are:
Northern: Hen of the Woods Mushroom/Birch Syrup/Cider/Lingonberries/Mustard
Asian-ish: Tamari/Fish Sauce(I used Red Boat)/Rice Vinegar/Sambel Oelek (garlic chili paste)
French-ish: Stock or Broth/Mirepoix (celery, onion, carrot)/Cider
The skin-on breasts were the first thing I cooked. Because, well, they are impressive, tasty, and quick. All you really have to do is season with a bit of salt and pepper, cross-hatch the skin with a knife, and place in a medium-hot pan, without any oil, skin side down. The skin renders and produces more than enough cooking fat for the breasts and many other things. That's all the fat I needed for cooking for the rest of the night. I wanted the breasts nice and rare because honestly, it's just damn delicious that way. I did medium-high for 7 minutes, low for three minutes, flipped, then cooked on low for an additional 4 minutes. Then I let them rest in the pan for a bit while I softened the frozen lingonberries in a pan. In another pan I cooked some hen of the woods mushrooms in some of the leftover duck fat. I also glazed the breast with a bit of some sour cherry mustard I had. I sliced and garnished with thyme. I wanted this dish to reflect the flavors of autumn and northern forests.
The next dish was a bit more pedestrian, but no less delicious. I simply took some leftover haiga rice and fried it in the duck fat with the little bits of meat and egg, adding my "Asian-ish" elements to make a delicious fried rice.
The main failure was that I browned than braised the legs with the "French-ish" flavors, random autumn vegetables (sweet potato, celeriac, blue potato), and some homemade stock I had for an hour in a dutch oven...which was really not enough time to make the legs tender, but they were still OK. If I had more time, I would have done a confit or a rilette. Luckily, I did save the wings, which I browned and braised overnight in a crock pot and they came out really nicely, especially with a nice mustard cranberry glaze and the leftover vegetables.
I broke down the duck fifteen days ago and I am actually sitting down eating another meal from this same duck this evening, a ramen I made with the duck broth cubes, the Asian-ish flavor palette, and some over-salted pastured pork a friend gave me, garnished with carrot and seaweed. If you ever over-salt something you can sometimes save it by making a soup or other brothy dish out of it, which is one reason I don't pre-salt my broth before storing it. I used these 100% buckwheat noodles, which are pretty amazingly easy to cook, particularly compared to regular buckwheat soba, which turns to glue if you look the wrong way while it's boiling. I also have used the broth in risotto (also added some duck cracklings to that) and congee, which uses leftover rice in a broth that I flavor with the Asian-ish flavor palette. Overall, I probably got 20-30 meals out of one duck. I can't wait to cook one again!
Thanks for the photos Erik! Also, I couldn't have done the class without Tom, my "sous chef", and all my awesome attendees!
Sadly, I had a less exciting dinner, but some people have asked me to share this method I use for post-workout or other meals in which I need a lot of calories at once. It's simply cooking haiga rice with some sausages (or fish if you want a lower calorie meal) on top.
My favorite sausages to use used to be the Banh Mi ones from the Meat Hook because of all the rich flavors contained in them. But these are lamb merguez from Smoking Goose. I also like some of the Butcher and Larder Sausages. The aim is to find a sausage that is full of goodness because it will hopefully drip into the rice when you put it in the steamer. I also have found that this method will cook frozen sausages perfectly fine, just make sure to check the middle to make sure it is cooked and if it's not you can throw it in the frying pan, but I've never had that happen. You can also add any kind of vegetables you would normally steam.
Meanwhile, I grease the bottom part of the rice cooker with ghee and add in my .25-.5 cup of rice and some ice cubes of frozen stock. I turn the rice cooker on and leave it to cook. When it's done, the rice has a nice crispy buttery bottom resembling the Persian "tahdig" delicacy. The rice is seasoned by the sausage, but I also add garlic-pepper relish, an egg yolk, a few drops of Red Boat fish sauce, a bit of rice vinegar, and tamari. I mix that all together, slice up the sausage, and top with vegetables, fresh herbs, or seaweed.
Not very pretty, but delicious and filling... and quick and easy.
This suggests that the problem is somehow in the intolerant person, even though there are no genes for food intolerance and very few cases of food intolerance result from an immune reaction. Food intolerance is actually the inability of an individual's incomplete gut flora to digest certain types of food.*
The question becomes whether or not you can figure out which foods you are intolerant of and then whether or not you can become more tolerant. Your malfunctioning gut bacteria probably don't care about whether or not a food is "paleo" or not.
This becomes clear now that an army of paleo cookbooks have been published that contain nut and coconut flours. My family has discovered the hard way that these flours can be quite harsh on the digestive system. My mother told me she reacted terribly to some coconut flour baked goods she made, but not to plain old bread. I found that I reacted to both about the same, which meant that both seemed to lead to cramping and bloating. That's not really surprising, since it seems fructans are my main enemy.
Almond and coconut are "paleo" ....why? Because they are not seeds (actually, they are technically seeds, which is pretty hilarious that people don't think of them as such) and grains? Even though there is ample evidence for seed and grain consumption in the actual Paleolithic. And almond and coconut share many of the properties that some "paleo" advocates claim are the problem with grains, such as high levels of phytic acids and potentially-reactive lectins and other proteins.
For example, Robb Wolf tweeted that he didn't think grains could be a "safe starch" because there are some papers on various immune-system reactions to them. But I can find papers on verysimilar reactions to our sacred cow. I'm sure in some parallel vegan circle-jerk twitterverse, Dr. Dean Ornish is tweeting those papers to confirm his follower's various biases, but as I wrote about sialic acid from meat, not everyone reacts this way. And in particular, I don't think healthy people are as likely to have such dysfunctional immune responses to food, but Westerners raised on crap in a "hygienic" environment are very vulnerable.
My mantra is that a sick person can react to ANYTHING. And a very healthy person can tolerate a lot of terrible things. I always like to remember the story of Mithridates VI of Pontus, who was so paranoid about being poisoned that he took small doses of various poisons in order to accustom his body to them (hormesis perhaps). When he was defeated by Pompey, he tried to commit suicide by poison, but couldn't because he was immune to what he had on hand. So he had to have his bodyguard execute him by sword. He is immortalized in an excellent poem by A. E. Housman
There was a king reigned in the East: There, when kings will sit to feast, They get their fill before they think With poisoned meat and poisoned drink. He gathered all the springs to birth From the many-venomed earth; First a little, thence to more, He sampled all her killing store; And easy, smiling, seasoned sound, Sate the king when healths went round. They put arsenic in his meat And stared aghast to watch him eat; They poured strychnine in his cup And shook to see him drink it up: They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt: Them it was their poison hurt. –I tell the tale that I heard told. Mithridates, he died old. – A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad
I love the line "the many-venomed earth" and it's one that has struck with me often as I study science, along with Tennyson's "Nature, red in tooth and claw" from In Memoriam.
Interestingly, through self-experimentation I've found that I do not just OK, but much better eating things made with rice and certain pseudograins. My skin improves when I eat finely sifted fermented buckwheat (a pseudograin) and I have much more energy and digestive stability when I have some rice in my diet.
I also think some of these gluten-free grain-free things are pretty much torture to cook, requiring all kinds of fruit/vegetable purees or five million eggs to produce something even somewhat appetizing. And I don't have any particular interest in eating things that are only somewhat appetizing unless they are exceptionally nutritious.
Sometimes I get asked what my diet is like and that's a hard question to answer. I'll go through periods where I cook some particular ingredient over and over again, and then I kind of forget about it for awhile. It's like that with buckwheat for me. Perhaps the craving has something to do with buckwheat being particularly rich in magnesium?
Lately, one of my favorite meals is buckwheat pancakes with delicious toppings. My method for making buckwheat pancakes is that I sift the flour and then soak it for a day in sour whey or sour cream. Then I mix in an egg and cook it in fat of some sort. This one I topped with bacon-wrapped elk, REAL lingonberries (not the jam from IKEA, I bought them frozen at Erickson's Delicatessen and they are very sour, so they work very well with savory dishes), and seaweed.
* I also agree with Mat Lalonde that reactions to specific proteins can be an issue, though the two things are somewhat interconnected
This week I spent almost my entire food budget for the month on one meal and it was completely worth it even if it means I have to eat just ground beef from my dad's farm for the rest of the time.
I grew up on Chick Fil A and Kraft, so I didn't really discover fine dining until I was in college. I think my first date ever was probably at Cafe Luna, one of Champaign-Urbana's few fine-dining establishments, with a graduate student much older than I was. Fresh in my abandonment of veganism, I'll never ever forget the lamb shank I ate there, the way it melted in my mouth. This restaurant was where I was baptized into a love of truffles, duck confit, and aioli. I learned that pleasure from food didn't have to involve overeating, that it could involve more complex emotions, flavors, and aesthetic experiences. My taste and my food budget has never recovered.
In terms of the delicate avant-garde Kaiseki-influenced modernist cuisine that now dominates the upper tiers of fine dining, my first experience was probably at Manresa, in California. After that meal, I wondered if it is possible to become addicted to novelty? I suppose if that is possible, I do suffer from a terrible case of neophilia. The next day after a meal like that, my regular food seems so pallid and devoid of life. It's no wonder so many people who enjoy modernist cuisine are spurred to improve their own cooking skills.
Getting Next tickets was no small feat. I think I am either enormously lucky or very fast at clicking things. It felt good to be one of the thousand that won out, out of many thousands more who tried. Which was surprising, since this year's headlining meal is the most expensive that NEXT has ever done, because it is a tribute to elBulli, which was considered the greatest restaurant in the world before the head chef closed it so he could do other things.
A Day at elBulli is mainly pictures, which are important for getting a sense of what the restaurant was actually like. It was in a somewhat out of the way part of Catalonia, nestled along a picturesque coastline. Seeing pictures of that place, I experienced a wistfulness in my heart, one that I am familiar with. I remember I first felt it one very rainy day in New York City, when I was sitting on the Subway. I had just moved there from Uppsala, Sweden, and was trying to get my bearings. I looked up at the ads that are on the ceilings of every train. One was for Delta, advertising flights to Japan, Brazil, and all sorts of other places. It was almost like that feeling you get when you get a call from someone who you are yearning for. But this feeling was infused with wanderlust. New York City might be the greatest city in the entire world, but in that moment all I wanted to do was experience, once again, the feeling of waking up somewhere new. Perhaps that's why I lived in Manhattan, then Brooklyn, and finally Queens before I left.
If I haven't figured out how to eat in a way that made me healthy, I might have never left Illinois. I was supposed to study abroad my junior year, but one of the reasons I didn't do it was that I honestly didn't know if I could make it. I didn't want to be sick in a strange country. But I got healthy, and I went to Sweden. And it was good that I was pretty healthy there, because my roommates informed me that people didn't go to the hospital there for frivolous reasons. Eventually I did wear my health down a bit with booze and cake, necessitating a cleanup of my diet towards the end, but I never once needed to see a doctor.
Sometimes I wonder if my newfound health is as much about what I do eat, rather than what I don't eat. Sure I feel best when I leave certain things out of my diet, but I'm not particularly delicate. It took months of boozing and caking around Central Europe before I really started to feel it. It reminds me of one study in which they successfully treated GERD with melatonin (I think sleep is important in the causality of GERD) and vitamin and amino acid supplements. My diet when I had GERD probably didn't just have some terrible foods, it really honestly didn't have anything good. I probably didn't get many nutrients that are used to build the linings that protect our gut from potentially injurious constituents of food (any food can be an issues). I've gone from being a delicate flower (at one point I was so sensitive to histamines that I couldn't even have fermented foods) to someone who can really take a punch and keep going. Nothing was as gratifying as going to the allergist and testing positive for NOTHING this fall, when in the past I tested positive to almost everything. Inflammation makes you react to things, good and bad. Once you've got that down and repaired your digestive system, things get easier for many people.
Which is good. Because honestly, god knows what I ate at Next. There were certainly some innovative dishes that used other ingredients in place of things like pasta (cauliflower couscous and a ravioli made out of cuttlefish), but honestly, there were lots of things I ate that I would have trouble eating if I hadn't cultivated some resilience. The restaurant was explicit that this was one cycle where food allergies could not be accommodate. I'm lucky I don't really have any.
When dining, a guest can experience pleasure on four different levels. First, there is a purely physiological pleasure which comes from satisfying hunger; it is the most fundamental pleasure, but no less important for being so. Secondly, there is the pleasure perceived by the senses, which tells us, for example, if a dish is 'delicious,' whether or not we like it, if it is too salty, if we have tasted better in other restaurants or at another time, and so on. Third is the pleasure connected with emotions: everything related to the occasion, such as the attention and generosity with which a guest is treated, the company around the table and the guest's own expectations. Most restaurants are able to satisfy these three types of pleasure.
However, there is another kind of stimulus which is directly related to reason. It is the intellectual pleasure derived from judging the meal according to parameters that are not strictly gastronomic, in which other elements come into play, such as sense of humour, irony, provocation, childhood memories, or -- a very important point -- the appreciation of the level of creativity of a gastronomic proposal. These are aspects which the guest does not expect to find in a restaurant, but in fact they form an integral part of the dish and of the menu. This is what is known at elBulli as 'the sixth sense.' When a new dish is created, the aim is that the guest will enjoy it on all flour levels, and experience all the pleasures that the act of eating can provide.- From A Day at elBulli.
And it was all worth it. I can say I've often regretted buying things, but I've never regretted a journey or experience. In fact, without these, I feel diminished, as they are a major source of creative energy for me. I wish I could find this creative energy elsewhere, in some god or some romance, but it has never been that way for me, though these things also influence me. After a meal like the one I had at Next or a trip like the time I went to Big Sur, I feel broadened and sharp. I feel like all kinds of experiences I have had before have been coalesced and made more clear to me.
I'm not a materialist, I don't care for things. I don't like cars, I hate things that can be exploited. I live a simple life. The only luxuries I have in my life are travel and food. I don't even own a car—I use a small car that is here. It's not even my car. I use it to come to work sometimes. Really, to get from place to place, I just take a taxi. I have a cell phone that I use a lot. I use the phone to get organized, but on July 30, when I start a new life, I'm going to remove the phone from my life."- Ferran Adria
A tidepool, lying by the ocean in the sun, the curling bark of a tree I found in a park in Madrid, the colors in the drunk dream sequence in Dumbo, the way the first fish I ever caught smelled, a kiss you were not supposed to take, scratching the skin of a lime in my cousin's orchard, playing in my mother's garden when I was eight, sitting with friends in a smoky bar in Europe, the scent of the forest floor in Sweden, seeing El Greco paintings for the first time, a dream I had about Japan. Things too little to be easily remembered, except when the senses are tantalized.
cauliflower cous-cous with solid aromatic herb sauce
When I got home I was somewhat drunk (which is why this is pretentious and rambling) and I thought about what a meal would be like if it were such avant-garde cuisine, but influenced by the Paleolithic. What if you did a meal that went beyond the banal and really reached into the depths of that era. The dish above was a big influence because of the variety of vegetal flavors surrounding the "cous-cous." Some of them were unfamiliar, even alienating.
The concept of alienating food entranced me because one thing I find is that people are often unable to conceive of the fact that the diet of ancient hominids was enormously diverse, containing foods that most people have never even thought of as foods. Many of the foods and flavors you find in paleobotany are profoundly alienating to the modern consumer. Some of them were multi-purpose as well, with the lines blurring between food, medicine, and recreational psychoactive substance. I would include such alienating flavors to emphasize the remoteness of the era. Of course maybe I wouldn't include so many psychoactives for safety reasons. Cocktails could stand in.
However, despite being strange and alien, the meal would also serve to humanize ancient hominids. Evidence shows that ancient hominids used natural materials not just as tools, but as decoration, utilizing shells, natural pigments, and feathers for aesthetic purposes. Some of the plants they used also don't seem to have much purpose, beyond imparting flavor. In incorporating these ideas, the meal would fight asceticism with aestheticism. Such associations would be emphasized with references to Japanese Kaiseki, which is a notable form of cuisine because many plants that were used in the Paleolithic are no longer used in modern cuisine at all...except in Japan. This also emphasizes the complexity and diversity that characterizes both Japanese and Paleolithic edibles.
Oh, also with inspiration from The Knife's electro-opera about Darwin
cattail flour/buckwheat blini with roe, hazelnut “sour cream,” and yellow cattail pollen “golden” powder
10. Botrychium ternatum = fern root =
bracken starch mochi
Also, the table is decorated with wood chips and lamps made from small animal skulls hang on strings from the ceiling. On this menu is printed:
From Nabakov’s Pale Fire What moment in the gradual decay Does resurrection choose? What year? What day? Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape? Are some less lucky, or do all escape? A syllogism: other men die; but I Am not another; therefore I’ll not die. Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time, A singing in the ears. In this hive I’m Locked up. Yet, if prior to life we had Been able to imagine life, what mad, Impossible, unutterably weird, Wonderful nonsense it might have appeared!
Coming soon: My new book, the opposite of Paleo Comfort Foods, which will be titled Pretentious Postmodern Molecular PaleoGastronomy. All the recipes will require a fully equipped laboratory and ingredients that can only be found in remote mountain wilderness. However, I have been having trouble finding a publisher.
I'm not big on making desserts, but for special occasions this is a great quick recipe and I think it's quite a fun project for kids. It's also very filling and makes small servings, which makes it an ideal treat.
It's simple: just halve a Lara Bar of your choice and either use a silicone cupcake mold or your hands to make it into a "cupcake" shape. Then I made some icing with mixing some coconut manna/butter with a dash of honey, lemon juice, and vanilla. Then I mixed some delicious Kelapo Fair Trade coconut oil into that until it was the right texture to ice. I decorated with coconut flakes.
Last night I made an excellent leg of goat. It's been really really really hot here in NYC (104 yesterday!) so I haven't had much desire to further heat up my apartment by turning on the oven. Thank goodness for crockpots and toaster ovens. I also got to try out my newest toy, a Jaccard Meat Tenderizer.
It allows your meat to cook more quickly, but it also allows you to marinate things faster. I've been able to get shoulder to be grill cut for curries rather than a braising cut with this neat device. For the goat leg I used it to get a good lime-curry marinade. I also did a dry cooking method, which worked amazingly. Usually I cook with some sort of liquid in my crockpot like wine or broth, but this time I didn't use anything. In the morning there was a nice fatty broth. The meat had a better texture too.
Someone posted on paleohacks about the layer of solid fat that such leftovers develop when you put them in the fridge. While it looks unappetizing, when you heat the leftovers up it will melt into the meat. It's also worth saving to use on cuts of the animal that are less fatty. There is no need for added fat (butter/ghee/coconut) in cooking most grass-fed meat if you buy a whole animal as long save fat from some braising cuts to use on the leaner parts. Some animals will be leaner than others though, depending on the pasture, age, breed, and season of slaughter.
I learned about this meat tenderizing from The Butcher's Guide To Well-Raised Meat, by Joshua and Jessica Applestone, a married couple who own an organic butcher shop called Fleisher's. They have a location north of the city in Kingston, but will be opening in Park Slope this fall.
Now while I have my meatshare buying club that allows me to buy good meat for very affordable prices. I'll be writing a booklet about how to organize one soon. But I do sometimes go to butcher shops like Fleisher's, The Meat Hook, and Dickson's. A butcher shop is going to cut with more of an eye towards customer needs and be able to make more delicious secondary products than the slaughterhouse butchers that my meatshare meat goes through. If I am strapped for time, I often go to the butcher and pick something up, like marrow bones or sausage. I don't get these in my meatshare. If you have more money than time, a butcher shop is probably a better place to get meat than a meatshare. Sadly, good butcher shops are few and far between. NYC is a rare hotspot of butcher shops selling pastured meat, some of them sell it exclusively. I've heard of such shops in Seattle, Austin, San Francisco, Portland, and Chicago...but even some major cities seem to lack them. I couldn't find one in Boston when I was there recently.
The Butcher's Guide explains how this happened, how small butcher shops were crowded out when the industrial model emerged that emphasized cheap meat by cutting out the middleman. The cost of this cheap meat was disconnection from the source of the meat and a low-quality product pumped with additives. At the butcher shop you can learn so much about how to cook cuts you didn't even think about buying before and you can also quiz the butcher on the conditions that the animals lived in. Joshua Applestone was a vegan for over a decade because he objected to the way most animals were treated, so he vets his suppliers with care. His suppliers are mostly people who wouldn't work with a meatshare. They represent a different niche of medium-size operations where the farmer often has other jobs and lacks time and marketing know-how. Most meatshare farms are tiny operations that don't have enough product to fill a butcher counter for even a month.
A butcher shop needs a regular supply of consistent products. That's a bit of a limit, as truly grass-fed beef is a seasonal product, so some of the meat they sell in the winter is grain-fed. They also couldn't find a supplier that could provide them with enough pastured chickens, so they buy organic chickens instead. It reminds me of something I've been thinking about, that in the past chicken and pork were secondary products on a small farm. They were fed waste from grain and vegetable agriculture, which was a sustainable model, but didn't produce the amounts of chicken and pork that Americans are used to eating now. There was a kerfluffle in the paleo blogosphere aboutbacon, which I pretty much ignored since my suppliers are very small and slaughter seasonally. I really only end up getting pork once or twice a year. If they were truly only feeding the pigs secondary products, it would be once a year. Some of my friends who are from Eastern Europe fondly remember the yearly pig their family raised with spoiled crops and leftovers, which was slaughtered on Christmas. Soon the EU will make this home-slaughter illegal.
A butcher shop also needs to move a variety of products because whole animals aren't just a butch of tenderloins and steak. I am skeptical when I visit restaurants that market themselves as sustainable, but that serve the same meat dishes day in and day out. A sustainable system is represented by restaurants like Northern Spy Food Company, a restaurant that goes through a whole Fleisher's pig a week, each day serving a different delicious part.
Besides lots of information about the economics of meat and why you should buy pastured products (did you know that chicken waste is still considered an acceptable feed for cattle??), I also appreciated the book's practical tips on supplies like knives and cutting boards. Also information on basics like tying a roast. I didn't grow up cooking meat so some of this basic stuff is new to me. I was also interested to know that vacuum packed meat lasts much longer when sealed in the fridge than I thought, around 2-3 weeks!!! They also tell you what cuts need to be braised. For the more advanced, the book has instructions on DIY pig roasts and breaking down a lamb. There are also some interesting recipes I'm looking forward to trying. Overall this is a great and easy to read book that can help you purchase meat with more awareness of how the process works and also prepare it properly.
Dinner was at Takashi with Patrick from PaleolithicDiet.com. I've mentioned this temple of raw and lightly grilled meat before. The first course is raw meat and the second is cooked. We enjoyed the raw liver (seriously it's good and I don't know how they make it taste so awesome), raw chuck flap with sea urchin, raw chuck eye tartare, and flash-boiled shredded achilles tendon. Second course we had "the tongue experience," heart, kalbi, sweetbreads (HIGHLY recommended, like a piece of delicious fat), and beef belly. I also recommend the stomach and cheek.
Oops, I exhausted my eating out budget for the week, so I only ate what was already in the fridge. For breakfast we had "double yolk" baked eggs adapted from Michael's Genuine Food, a cookbook from a chef in Miami. They have a layer of tomato sauce and sour cream, a layer of eggs (mostly yolks), and a layer of cheese. I just made a small dish of these baked in the toaster oven (my summer oven since it doesn't heat up our tiny apartment) and it was very satisfying.
For lunch we had some pork chops from Spring Lake Farm and yogurt with berries. We drank some cold-brewed Oolong tea.
For dinner we had a leftover hash inspired by the hash at Red Rooster in Harlem. I baked some sweet potatoes in the toaster oven until crispy, tossed in some chopped bacon, cooked some plantains in the bacon fat, and topped with key-lime Hollandaise sauce. Fantastic! We had some small, but fatty goat chops from Glynwood farm and some hibiscus cinnamon tea. I like that Hollandaise tastes pretty darn good even when I mess it up and it's lumpy...I'll try the Alton Brown method next time.
I thought about getting my mother chocolates or flowers, but instead I got her something much more useful and healthy: kitchen tools! I hope she is enjoying them:
A microplane! If you like flavor you should get one of these. The design maximizes the surface area of the ingredient you are working with. I mostly use mine to grate cheese and zest citrus. I really don't think I could go back to a regular grater, microplanes are much easier to use.
A garlic peeler! Simple, small, and saves me time when working with delicious garlic. I can peel several cloves at once!
A brew basket! Last time I was home I noticed all we had were tea balls, which don't really allow the leaves to unfurl for a flavorful and healthy cup of tea. I also may have stolen the only nice tea steeper we had... Tea pots are OK, but these allow everyone to brew their own favorite tea and are much more portable. I use them both at home and in the office. The awesome thing is once you are done steeping, the lid doubles as a stand!! I wrote about them on cool tools.
Edit: my sister got her another of my favorite tools!
A digital oven-safe meat thermometer. I love cooking with this because I don't have to open the oven to check on meat and lose valuable time by letting heat out! It also decreases the supervision time I spend. I can put it in the roast and just set it to alert me when it's the right temp. When I'm cooking meat in the frying pan and also cooking a side dish, I just stick it in the meat and can focus on the side dish and not worry about the meat too much.
I bought a goat from Glynwood farm last weekend. I didn't make it a meatshare because goats are small enough for my two roommates and me alone. In fact, a whole goat can fit in a normal-size freezer. They are often less than 35 lbs total hanging weight, which ends up being like 25 lbs. I will be writing a guide to whole animal buying soon, but I have been pleasantly surprised with this goat. I buy lambs often and they vary in quality. Sometimes their fat just is very gamey tasting and has to be trimmed off or heavily spiced. I've had goat at Nigerian and other African restaurants that was like this.
But this goat's fat tastes amazing. I had the loin chops tonight. I simply rubbed them with curry powder, black pepper, salt, and added a dash of lemon juice. I had a random buckwheat craving (magnesium???) so I made a simple buckwheat pancake by soaking the local buckwheat flour in a thin raw milk yogurt for an hour or two and then mixing in an egg and cooking in a frying pan with butter and coconut oil. Yum.