Monday, December 28, 2009

Review of Ratio by Michael Rhulman

I thought it would be a good idea since in my last article I made a point to disagree with an idea presented in Ratio to take a moment to say what a wonderful book it is. The contridiction was more towards a phrase which invoked an idea of my own views of food not any thing that really represents the book in full, and since I was unable to put the book away, finishing it in just one day, I should point out that for the home cook, more importantly the poor cook, Michael Rhulman has created another companion to the kitchen, the first being Charcuterie co-aurthored by Brian Polcyn, this is an invaluable text.

One of the things that kills a food budget is the constant need to purchase items for each meal. Most cooks, not relying on prepackaged or conveinces foods, are often forced into daily trips to the market for one or two items to complete the meal. This, I have noticed, most often starts before they even get home. A quick search on the internet trying to find a recipe to match to most items possible in their pantry. In my attempts to limited the cost of my food purchases have maintain par stock of certain materials for easy maintenance of my kitchen. This comes from years of restaurant experience of knowing what I have and being able to improvises from it. For those without the experience or knowledge the kitchen can be a trap of cost and inconvenience. Ratio attempts, to a certain degree, to free people of the dependence of recipes. To create a kitchen system that is based on obtaining a rudimentary understanding of the interrelationships of ingredient. It covers the base of cooking knowledge; bread, pasta, and pastry, stocks, sauces, sausage, and thickeners. With the arsenal of culinary knowledge you can reduce your supplies to a bases of ingredients in which to constantly be able to cook without the need of completing an list for shopping. The freedom to create from simple understanding.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Food and Art

I was reading the other day from one of my favorite food blogs ( the December 13th article) about food and art. Which led to some question about the nature of food. Coming original from an art background and finding myself into restaurant work as an necessity at first, and working to the point of dedication to food I have always attempted to create food that suited my artistic needs. What is then artistic food?

In the introduction of Ratio by Michael Rhulman he discuss hollandaise sauce as it applies to his discover of ratios. He states, "Take away the vinegar, pepper, and lemon and you still have hollandaise. Take away yolks or butter and it ceased to be hollandaise," (Rhulman xxiii) what he was discussing was in reference to the old Dean at the C.I.A. and his conversation of ratios, and that an understanding of the fundamentals of cooking is necessary in understanding food. But this is a backwards approach to understanding food. To understand the fundamentals, I believe, you must understand food. Make hollandaise and place it in a bowl what is it? It is not a meal, despite the friends who would claim they could eat by the spoonful I would challenge them to eat a whole bowl, nor is it a sauce. When studying sauce making in a culinary school your are given several criteria as to what is a sauce. You may been told about consistency, or classifications, but these are just label and points of qualities. The one criteria is that it is a liquid that is used to enhance a meal. A English Muffin, ham, and poached egg is a fine meal, but to add hollandaise to elevate, to improve it. It is not because it becomes Eggs Benedict, this is just a name of a dish and one that, in the contemporary since, has little to do with traditional ingredients, it is because the sauce works well and enhances. The acid, the fat, the moisture, these qualities create something new out of what was already there. So to the point of without vinegar, pepper, or lemon, but with just butter and egg you have hollandaise I will have to say no. Butter slowly whisked into egg yolk is emulsified butter, butter slowly whisked into egg yolk with vinegar, pepper, and lemon is emulsified butter with vinegar, pepper, and lemon. It is the intent that makes it Hollandaise Sauce.

There was a great moment in modern art where somebody decided that it was the intent to create that was the art with the end product being the manifestation of that intent. This idea is as fundamental to cooking and eating as it is to the visual arts. What makes a Christmas dinner different than any other dinner other than intent. It is an idea that every cook should be asking their self when they begin creating a new dish.

This discussion of sauce, intent, and art in food my seem to stray in subject away from the purpose of these collection of writings, but what makes a good meal different from one survival. It is rare that in the quest for survival that purpose, intent, and fulfilment come into our meal, but art is life as much as food is life. Suffering as well has a place in all of this. In my attempts to create a gallery worthy conceptional food piece I stand on one principal of art that artist use cultural language as the medium for their work and message, and almost no human action, save love and religion, has more cultural meaning than food. The lack of food, not to link myself with the minimalist, has a much impact than its presences. To eat rice everyday, as I am prone to do, is to experience life is some form, and it is with these understanding that we must approach solving issues of poverty; thru an artistic understanding of food, cultural, and emotional impact. The food and assistance must have the same impact delivered on a person as a chef deliveries with a sauce. Ask questions of those we seek to help, not just are you hungry, but what do you want, what did your parents eat, where do you come from. The key to solving the issues of hungry, and the desperation that it comes with is to find the impact. For me it has been a life long pursuit for a perfect red beans and rice. A quest introduce, possibly with the realization of its impact on me, by my parents. So how to feed someone like me, give me beans, I have all of the rice I can take.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Food History

As Christmas approaches I began pouring over classic recipes in the hopes of a good feast (which looks do able with recent offers of donations), so I thought it would be a good time to look over a few texts of food history to give my feast the sort of traditional depth necessary for creating an atmosphere that goes beyond just seasonal fare. This act of research is something that is miss by many cooks, and home cooks. We are very aware of comfort foods, and the sense memories that come from the smells of certain baked goods and roasting meats. It is also necessary to reach into a deeper history that we may have no previous connection to. This is not only for a branch into an ancestral connection, but into understanding the weight of our food history. As a poor person it is necessary to find this link to the meager fare from generations past to give us guidance toward a more fulfilling diet. In the modern world of convenience things like $.99 items at a fast food joint or cheaply produce frozen meals can be seen as a boon to our ever shrinking food budget, and in the immediate perception of handing over one dollar for a bit of warmth and protein the logic seems to hold. Today I spent a few hours with a friend reading to her from the book, "Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking," and she was amazed by two things we saw in the section on Medieval Britain. First was the shocking numbers on grain consumption by the people (I believe her words were, "Wow, they real did live on bread."), and, secondly, the descriptions of the meals that the peasantry eat seemed lavish and inviting. Yet to the people of the times these were meager meals brought together with what little that had; rye breads, oat cakes, stewed cabbage and baked apples. Her comments where coming from one, though passionate about food and very knowledgeable about food preparations, that saw the ability to eat like that to be something outside of her schedule and means. I have been a huge advocate that this great food revolution that we are currently in (local, sustainable, organic, what have you) needs to be claimed and used for the poor by the poor. Their was a time when the effort to produce bread was not only seen as an necessity to survival, but no idea would have come to them of buying bread to save time. We must looking back to these roots of culinary tradition and reclaim practices of bread and cheese production, curing meats, and learning to cook for our selves.

This is all very necessary for the working and struggling classes to pull out of the dependence on convenience foods, but we must be able to find a emotional connect to these dishes. If we are to eat rice every day in order to survive it helps to know that their is volumes of history of peoples that with little more than rice to live on have aided in the development of civilizations. Several years back I was in a little worse off than now (which isn't saying to much, but with the benefit of mild Southern winters), and living on a diet that doesn't differ to much from now, the exception was a little less cooking knowledge to help stretch out the food, it consisted mostly of black beans and some masa for my tortilla. Around that time I came across the book, "Don't Be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks From the Heart: The Story of Elvia Alvarado," Elvia is a labour organizer and activist first brought to US attention during the eighties, in the book there is a wonderful description of the average meal of the compasinos in the area where she was organizing which was, to the letter, the meal I was waiting for to finish cooking. After that I never look grudgingly at my pot of beans or my tortilla, I had a deep connect to the poor on a global level with every smear of bean wipe up with my tortilla, every mouth full of rice, with the cracked coating of dough on my hands will I made my bread. The great problem with programs to help us it that it is often coming from people with a disconnect from our lives and needs. Every food drive calling for canned goods for the poor make me sad; give us flour for our bread, corn to mill, beans to wash and cook. Let us have a connection to our food. If you want to give us something, give us land. Le us look to people like Ledonna Redmond as an example on how we should bring food to our tables.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Today began as nearly everyday for me begins with the question of what will I eat today. This question can be, and in determining what I eat it is rephrased several times before I settle on a meal. The choose of the word "will" in "what will I eat," demand that I will be eating something. This sort of assurance that substances will be coming my way is a word best left up to those with money. My day starts off with two questions, "What can I eat," and "What could I eat?" The former is in the realm of fantasy where images of plump sausages, fruit, and cream try to distract my appetite from the meager state of my larder. All this occurs while I ponder the first question of what can I eat. I know coming into the kitchen that there is always basics of salt and sugar, along with various dried herbs and spices. Then there are some of what would be called the basics, but with the struggle to feed oneself they are common place but hardly standard; flour, masa, and render pork fat (raw lard). Today was a special day because beyond the basics I had meat. Generally speaking when I say there is meat in my home it is normally pork, and when there is pork more than likely it is pork belly (I shall, at a later time, discuss the wonders of the belly). The belly, which is now cured for bacon, I decided to save for later in the week, so today I make use of the other components that the belly provides; bone and skin. The other day I had removed the rib bones from the belly and slowly braised them for six hours, they then became part of a wonderful rice dish. Later that night I took the sheet of pig skin off the belly and allow it to cook slowly in the same liquid from the ribs. The skins spent the night steeping in the liquid till this morning, where I pulled, dry them off, and cut them in pretty little ribbons to fry off for delicious crispy bits of fried skin. These little ribbons became the filling for my arepas.

The arepa is one of those holy little items of the culinary world that gives meaning to a impoverished meal. Arepas are masa cakes the come from South America, they are often the bread for small sandwich like creations, sliced and filled with a variety of goodies. I first came across arepas while working a the Chicago restaurant Coobah where they produced a sweet variety that I have adopted for my home. The version given here is similar to their version but with a few variations, such as the use of a filling, they simple made the cakes as a base for their Eggs Benedict variation. The measurements are approximated, since I do this mostly to feel.

2 c. Masa

2 T cilantro, chopped

TT Salt

1/8 c. sugar

2 T Rhum, optional

1 can coconut milk, optional

Toss you masa, cilantro, and salt in a bowl and set aside. Place the sugar in a heavy bottom pan with enough water to give a wet sand feel, and place it over high heat. As the water cooks away the sugar will have enough time to melt, and then begin to caramelize. Once the sugar reaches a nice amber color you will turn it in to a caramel sauce of some form. The options here are adding about 2 cups of water to the caramel while whisking, or adding the Rhum will whisking followed by the water or coconut milk. While the sauce is still boiling pour it into the masa mixture. Stir quickly to evenly mixt the dough till it forms a stiff dough that is pliable and holds to together, if needed add more water. Pull off about 1 oz. balls of the dough forming them into round discs. Place your filing in the middle, and cover with a second disc and seal the edges. After all of the arepas are formed fry them in a little hot lard until they are nicely browned on the outside.

They filing can vary, but should be able to hold up to the sweet dough. For this meal I used the salted fried pig's skin I mentioned earlier. The final verison of this dish was served with sofrito made with tomato, culantro, cilantro, scallion, onion, jalapeno, lime, and shredded smoked fermented fish.