Mirepoix -- From the French, a mix of aromatics that provide the savory foundation of a recipe. From The City Cook, a periodic report on things that have been collecting on my desk.
"Hark it's midnight, children dear. Duck! Here comes another year!"
I think humorist Ogden Nash nailed it with these lines from one of his witty verses written nearly a century ago. Given how 2016 has begun (the stock market, geopolitics, el Niño, primary politics), keeping our heads down might be a good idea.
But there's always something irresistible about the clock striking twelve and the calendar turning the page to a new January 1st. We just can't help wanting to give ourselves a fresh start. And why not? It's as good a time as any to draw a line in the sand and say that from this point forward we'll do better.
How we cook and eat seems to always be on any self-improvement short list, although just as this New Year begins there are new sources of confusion. Seeing Oprah's new role with Weight Watchers seemed a throwback. And as someone who has lived her life in public, her decades of yo-yo losses and gains taint her leadership on the eat right/lose weight stage. Plus Oprah is a very smart woman and if all our food questions could be answered by a weight loss company, certainly she, and we, would have figured things out a long time ago.
Then the federal government, which every five years has a mandate to update its nutrition guidelines, issued new ones that aren't terribly different from the previous. No doubt this is due to how many "cooks" -- from nutritionists to food industry lobbyists -- had a hand in their making. These guidelines are important because they have a direct impact on school lunch programs, but they still don't much help the rest of us struggling to know what it really means to eat right while we sort through the bookshelves of experts telling us what to do.
To put all this in context, Bloomberg Business published a fascinating data based article called "How America Got So Fat, In Charts."
With all the options we have, all the choices we can make -- why is eating right so bewildering? And this is before we add such things as appetite, pleasure, tradition, and culture to the mix. Plus there are those pesky things like budget, time, and our skill in being able to put a meal together.
I certainly don't have the answer but I do my best. More fish than meat. Less pasta and bread. Almost no sweets except when we have company. Low-fat dairy with the occasional treat of wonderful cheese. Lots of vegetables. Olive oil. Fruit instead of juice. Salad at every dinner. It's all probably similar to what many of you do.
Still, I'm always curious about what other home cooks do, i.e., those of you who prefer to eat at home instead of out or take-out. So I was fascinated by a recent interview in The Boston Globe with Tom Brady and Giselle Bundchen's personal chef. If you've ever wondered how two people who use their bodies, energy, and physical stamina, to achieve their phenomenal success eat every day, this is an intimate insight.
The Brady/Bundchen family solution might not be for everyone (Me? Give up tomatoes?!) and maybe it takes a personal chef to make it work. But what I took away from this article is that at every price point, we're on our own to figure this all out and make it work.
Should Versus Do
With all the hand wringing about how we should eat, there is the reality of the actual choices we do make. For a look at what we're really doing in our kitchens and at our dinner tables, Town & Country Magazine compiled a list of the top ten recipe Google searches done in 2015.
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sweet potato fries
- Philly cheesesteak
- Apple pie
I noticed that there are no tomatoes on this list so maybe Tom Brady's chef is on to something. For me it's the cabbage at number ten that is the outlier. We'll see if that's still on the list at year-end.
As to what we do when we eat when we're out, another 2015 data collection was done by the National Restaurant Association. According to a national survey of chefs published at year-end in Nation's Restaurant News, on the rise are African flavors, up 20%; ethnic cuisines and spices are up 11 to 14%; and "house-made" items including soft drinks, beers, pickles, ice cream and butchered meats are also growing in popularity. On the other hand, kale salads are down 10% (aren't you glad?), both gluten-free foods and quinoa are down 8%, and you'll be happy to know that on-a-stick items (I have no idea what these are; I don't think they meant Fudgsicles) for kids are down 5%. It also seems that seaweed is the new kale and that consumers have discovered brewing coffee at home. Look out Starbucks!
Dirty and Clean Food
I've written before how every year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes its research report "A Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce."
In 2015 they tested 3,015 produce samples and found that nearly two-thirds had some kind of pesticide residues on them. Some are worse than others and these earn a dubious place among the top twelve, called "The Dirty Dozen." Another group, however, was just the opposite with relatively few pesticides, earning the title, "The Clean Fifteen."
Here are the EWG lists:
The Dirty Dozen
- Sweet bell peppers
- Nectarines (imported)
- Cherry tomatoes
- Snap peas (imported)
The Clean Fifteen
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Sweet potatoes
Organic produce can be costly and sometimes hard to find. But as you buy your produce, these lists can be helpful guides to know where to put your organic grocery budget. Perhaps you have access to farm stands or Greenmarkets where small farmers might not be certified organic but practice clean farming and can vouch for low or no pesticides. Ask questions and read produce labels, just as you do for packaged foods.
I would add three other grocery practices. One, try to buy hormone-free milk and yogurt. Two, do the same when you buy chicken and eggs (free-range does not necessarily mean no antibiotics). And three, only buy wild shrimp. Sorting on ingredients that don't have added hormones and antibiotics is a big step toward eating healthier so if you haven't yet, start doing so with dairy, poultry and shrimp.
A Sweet Finish and A Sweet Start
All this talk about what's healthy, what's dirty, and what's clean can certainly kill an appetite. To get our minds back to the pleasures of home cooking, especially during the holidays, I thought I'd end this newsletter with a bit of crowing about my Christmas Day dinner. After spending the last few holidays away from home, this year I wanted to put on a big show, as much for my own sheer fun to make the meal as to please our guests.
My dinner for six took a week of planning, three days of shopping and about six days of cooking but by the time December 25th arrived I was in a relatively zen state which let me completely enjoy the day, and the eating. I've added a photo of my meal workplan, mid-process, which shows what a beast I had taken on.
We began with my own duck liver paté, Ina Garten's salmon caviar dip (I double the amount of caviar and of the dill), home-baked potato chips for my gluten-intolerant friends (see our link), and pimento-stuffed green olives that had been each wrapped with a white anchovy. The meal began with a cup of Julia Child's luscious mushroom velouté, then her spinach gratin, garlic-tinged flageolets (using a wonderful Thomas Keller recipe from Bouchon), and a glorious double rack of lamb that I trusted to an herb rub and roasting method from Sara Jenkins' always rewarding 2008 cookbook, Olives & Oranges. I then served a green salad and a big wedge of Colston Bassett Stilton (gorgeous, hard to find, and bought at Zabar's) and my own baked breadsticks instead of bread (plus store-bought gluten-free crackers). Beverages had begun with icy cold Prosecco followed by a superb and favorite super Tuscan wine (all generously brought by our guests), and vintage port at the end. The meal finished with lemon mousse and a platter of shortbread and iced spice cookies and two candies I made using genius recipes from Edd Kimber's outstanding 2015 book, Patisserie Made Simple. I had written about Edd's book in a year-end article about cookbook gift ideas (see our link) and the more I work from it, the more I have to praise the way he makes our most favorite French desserts accessible to the most insecure home cook.
One of the candies was what are called Orangettes, or what many of us know as candied orange rinds. I appreciate that most of us are trying to do a bit of detoxing after the holidays, but tuck this one away for the next time you have a dinner party. They can be made days in advance, which is a plus. Serve a little plate of them at the end of any meal, maybe with a glass of Cognac, as the flavors couldn't be more perfect together.
Mr. Kimber also provides the instruction for coating the finished sugared rinds in tempered dark chocolate. I didn’t have the time to do this for my Christmas meal, but given how amazing these are without the chocolate, the next time I won't even be tempted.
Orangettes (adapted from Patisserie Made Simple by Edd Kimber)
Makes about 60 pieces
4 large organic naval oranges (you're eating the skins so buy organic)
1 3/4 cups sugar, plus more for coating
Wash the oranges in cool water and dry with a paper towel.
Slice off both ends of the oranges and then score the peel into quarters. This will let you remove the orange peel in four large pieces. Carefully remove the peel from the fruit and then cut them into 3/8-inch-wide strips.
Put the strips in a medium pan and cover with cold water. Set the pan over high heat and bring to a boil. Simmer for 2 minutes to blanch the peel. Drain off the boiling water and repeat the process another three times. This process will help reduce the bitterness in the peel and also begin to soften them.
Set the blanched slices aside.
Put the sugar in the same pan and add 1 3/4 cups water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and stir a bit to help the sugar dissolve. Add the orange peels and reduce the heat to a simmer, then cook for up to 1 hour or until the slices are soft and almost translucent. Remove from the heat.
Using a pair of tongs, lift the slices from the syrup and put them onto a piece of parchment paper in a single layer. The leftover syrup can be cooled and refrigerated and used in cocktails (a Cosmo would be a good use).
Leave the slices to dry for at least 4 hours or until the surfaces have become tacky. Put about 3/4 cups sugar into a medium bowl and add the slices, a few at a time, and toss to coat thoroughly. Put the sugar-coated slices onto a clean sheet of parchment paper in a single layer and leave to dry overnight.
The orangettes will keep for up to two months in an airtight container but my prediction is that they will have all been eaten long before then.
So as we duck! into another new year and wring our hands over how to cook and eat well in 2016, remember to include a little sweetness. Given how the year has begun, I have a feeling we're going to need it.