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Although a man of questionable literary talent, William Shakespeare was a marvel at cooking out-of-doors. When it came to open-flame cuisine, the Bard was far more capable than most realize, and was, in fact, much better known for his “Gryled Lyme-Hyssop Filet of Pike With Glaze of Tamarynd” than any of his only moderately successful dramatic works.

Those of us “in the know,” however, often find clues as to Shakespeare’s interest in fine cuisine encoded within the language of the plays themselves. Take, for instance, this little paean to the barbecue from one of his lesser-known plays, “All’s Well Done That Ends Well Done.”
——
Shakespeare’s Seven Stages of Barbecue

All the world’s a grill,
And all the men and women merely diners,
They have their tongs and spatulas,
And one cook in his time bastes many meats,
His barbecue consisting of seven ages. At first the salad,
Green and crisp in the mixing bowl.
Then, the wine– poured from the bottle
And shining in the glass, creeping down throats
Willingly to stomach. And then the snacks,
Crunchy, like chips, with a salty ballad
Made to his muncher’s tummy. Then a fishy,
Full of strange odors, and breaded like the perch,
Subtle in flavour, glazed, and garnished in citrus,
Soft and delightful,
Even in the diner’s mouth. And then the meat
In fair round belly, with good fat lin’d,
With marinade severe, and portion of formal cut,
Full of fine juices, and succulent goodness,
And so it plays its part.
The sixth age shifts
Into the clean and sofa’d sitting room,
With creamed ice in bowls, and cake and pie,
The ruddy glows well display’d, a belly too wide,
Turning again towards the red grape,
And decaf coffee all around. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second helpings or mere oblivion,
With scrapings filling the brown eye’d dog,
Sans meat, sans bread, sans cheese, sans everything.

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1. Food and cooking are deceptively simple acts that are encountered by everyone, every day, and everyone has his or her own opinion on just what tastes good. However, as with effective spiritual practice, good cuisine requires both intelligence and wisdom, both individual experience and a willingness to trust the classics and the experts. Instead of The Gospels or the Dhammapada, you’ve got Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Instead of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, you’ve got Harold Mcgee.

2. Sure, people can cook without ever having cracked open a book on the subject. Some people can cook intuitively with very little need for recipes or measurements, but the food they cook tastes so good because of the processes described in the books they don’t read. If I intuit that searing a lamb shank and then slow-roasting it in liquid makes for a delicious lamb shank, it doesn’t make my process any more “valid” than a recipe for “Braised Lamb Shank” in The Joy of Cooking. Studying what the experts have to say give you a foundation for your own practice.

3. This doesn’t mean you have to follow what Jacques Pepin says to a “t”– indeed, the best instructors are the ones who teach you how to improvise every now and again. But, this improvisation isn’t “making stuff up,” it’s personalization.  Myths are recipes for spiritual practice, and deviating from them here and there should be encouraged. However, you can’t make hollandaise sauce using rum and tuna fish, any more than you can make enlightenment using Ken Wilbur and ayahuasca.

4. Just as with spiritual practice, if you don’t try to figure out what you’re doing when you’re cooking something, you’re gonna end up screwing up. You can substitute baking soda for baking powder all you want because you think it’ll work, but you’re gonna end up with some nasty cookies. And you’ve got a bunch of nonsense out there, too– no matter how many dumb jerks in restaurants are trying to pass off tilapia as Chilean Sea Bass, there’s a huge difference for those who choose to take the time to understand it.

5. Cooking depends to a great extent on the imperfection of the world, on the need to kill to survive, no matter if you’re killing animals or plants. Nonetheless, it’s also the perfect example of the spiritual seed hidden in all things that can manifest in the simplest form: a perfect brioche, a melt-in-your-mouth grilled sirloin, a piece of raw salmon wrapped in a thin layer of nori.

6. There’s a reason so many food critics describe eating as a “revelation,” or “sublime.” As far as I’m concerned, if the flavor of the tenderest slow-cooked forkful of corned beef with a little caramelized carrot and potato isn’t enlightenment, I don’t know what is. For you, it might be the first bite into a hand-picked tomato fresh off the vine, or a swallow of a perfect Italian vino rosso that doesn’t even have a label.

Although it’s tempting to characterize Meat/No Meat as “Flexitarian,” or “semi-vegetarian,” we prefer the term “Biculinary.” There are dozens of flexitarian cookbooks on the market already; what makes our cookbook different from all of those guys?

A flexitarian diet is one in which someone eats mostly vegetarian cuisine, but occasionally adds meat.  Emily is 100% vegetarian (“ovo-lacto-vegetarian if you’re a hair-splitter), so she wouldn’t ever use the meat versions of the recipes we’re including. Jeremy, on the other hand, greatly enjoys vegetarian cuisine, but is a dyed-in-the-wool omnivore. The meat versions of each recipe won’t just be vegetarian versions with a little animal protein added for flavor.

This is why our recipes are a little more complex than just “Stir fry with chicken or tofu! *Giggle!*”

The eggplant salt pork or veggie sausage experiment are excellent examples. We’re concerned not with simple substitution, but with coming up with holistic flavor contributions that will contribute additional complexity to a recipe. This might mean a little more initial work, but the payoff is always something more than the simple, utilitarian flavor of seitan. We want to turn that seitan into something sublime!

Of course, we’ll also provide “easy” versions for those times when you don’t feel like whipping up a two-day eggplant confit.

The other flexitarian trope that doesn’t fit into our philosophy is the idea that semi-vegetarian cuisine needs to be “healthy,” or healthier, than meat-based food. Meat/No Meat is not a health food book. Granted, we won’t subject our readers to Paula Deen-style butter debauchery, but we don’t feel it’s our responsibility to count calories and fat for people who use our recipes. Eating more vegetables is better for you, yes, and some of our recipes will be healthy and wholesome, but this isn’t the main concept behind our book. We’ll also be including recipes that are deep fried, salty and fatty.

Flexitarianism is great, but it’s different than what we’re doing. We’re more interested in the commingling of two culinary philosophies, not mere replacement therapy.

We still need your help!  We have 31 days to go to raise $2,669.00, or the project won’t be funded or produced.  Please consider becoming a backer today!

We’ll be returning to our discussion on the perfect vegetarian sausage substitute shortly, but first, we wanted to draw your attention to the anti-foodie Culinist Manifesto.  So there.

—————————————–

1. A “Foodie” is an amateur Culinist, concerned primarily with eating (enjoyment of food).

2. A “Culinist” is ultimately concerned not solely with eating, but with culinary art: cooking (ingredients + practice), then eating.

3. The difference between being a foodie and being a culinist is that one can become a foodie by paying for it, whereas  being a culinist takes practice.

4. The culinist understands that the soul of culinary art is the home-cooked meal. The culinist is a Maker, a DIY cook, a radical improviser; not necessarily a chef.  She respects those who have dedicated their lives to food as an industry, but focuses on cooking at home.  Witness the number of chefs who, when asked about their favorite meals, recall not a dining experience at a high-end establishment, but food prepared by a loved one in her own kitchen.

5. The culinist also recognizes the class issues of food. Although certainly cognizant of the joys of popular food culture– television, celebrities, magazines– the culinist recognizes that most of the trappings of popular food culture are accessible only to those who can afford them.  Although she uses fresh, healthy ingredients whenever possible, she recognizes that these ingredients aren’t always available or affordable.

6. The culinist enjoys dining out as much as anyone else, but instead of simply thinking “this dish is delicious– we should come here again!,” is inspired to try to recreate the dish in her own kitchen.

7. The culinist believes that basic cooking skills are accessible to everyone, not just the privileged few, and considers it a duty to encourage others to cook, and to cook for others.

8. The culinist encourages and supports local food movements and farmer’s markets, but sees no shame in taking advantage of less expensive options, or using out-of-season ingredients should the mood strike. If using, for example, out-of-season tomatoes, the culinist will find a way to compensate for their inadequacies instead of going without.

9. The culinist is a gustatory adventurer. A true culinist will try anything in her ethical alphabet, as long as it is considered food by at least one other culture. A vegetarian culinist won’t hesitate to dive into huitlacoche; an omnivore culinist won’t balk at entomophagy. A true culinist will enjoy a wagyu rib-eye, but will not hesitate to indulge in a Big Mac should the mood strike.  The difference between the foodie and the culinist is that the culinist will likely try to use these ingredients for herself.

OUR DEMANDS

ON NOMENCLATURE:

10. We demand to be recognized as culinists, who see the culinary arts as living practices instead of as commodities and consumables.

ON REVIEWS:

11. We demand an end to useless reviews of high-end restaurants that most people can’t afford.

12. We demand reviews of establishments accessible to average people.

13. We call for reviews of recipes which can be cooked at home; reviews of ingredients that are delicious and cost-effective; reviews of cookbooks that are practical, not celebrity-driven or full of expensive recipes useless to the home cook; reviews of grocery stores and retailers.

14. We call for reviews useful to the Home Cook, not the faddist hobbyists of the modern food scene.

ON INGREDIENTS:

15. We demand affordable and accessible high-quality ingredients.

16. We call for higher taxation of processed foods and tax-breaks and incentives for small producers. 

17. We also, however, call for an end to the bigotry of whole-food purists. A culinist attempts to fashion an amazing meal regardless of the provenance of the ingredients available, and doesn’t look down her nose at those who cannot afford to pay for high-cost organics or boutique ingredients. A culinist occasionally might enjoy a fast-food hamburger from a national chain or a sausage full of nitrates and doesn’t need a lecture.

18. We call for a greater tolerance of interesting and exotic ingredients. Someone who wants to cook at home with grasshoppers shouldn’t have to face cultural derision for doing so.

ON RESTAURANTS:

19. We call for greater recognition of those who actually do the cooking. We don’t care about the public face of the latest trend-setting gastro-fad celebrity persona as anything more than ephemeral entertainment. Instead, we are interested in the line cooks, the wage slaves, the home cooks. 

20. We call for restaurants to explore creative cuisine available for everyone, not just the wealthy classes.  

21. We call for multiple portion sizes for more menu items available in all dining establishments, which will reduce waste and make better food available to a wider audience. Less waste + a wider audience = more cost-effective dining.

IN CONCLUSION

22. The Culinist is a hands-on devotee of cooking as an art form that should be widely available to all, in home and out; that the cook should have access to the widest possible palette of ingredients; and that everything is worth trying at least once. Any other approach is mere foodery. 

Are you a FOODIE, or a CULINIST?

Spoon What Thou Wilt....

Hadn’t seen this before, but it’s far too bizarre to pass up. Dangerous Minds posts a recipe for rice “to be eaten with curry” by infamous occultist Aleister Crowley. It’s not a terribly difficult or unique recipe, although at the time, it was likely the kind of thing well-to-do “Orientalists” would have found de rigueur. To his credit, Crowley was well enough travelled that he probably did learn the recipe overseas (though his views on other “races” were as odious as the usual early 20th Century Brit).

Rather than repost the PDF, I think it’s worthwhile to transcribe it, because of what I find the most intriguing aspect of the recipe. Prior to Fanny Farmer’s standardization of the recipe format, instructions for the cook could come in any variety of forms, from the vague and measurement-less paragraphs of the Roman Apicius (“Put pieces of kid or lamb in the stew pot with chopped onion and coriander. Crush pepper, lovage, cumin, and cook with broth oil and wine. Put in a dish and tie with roux”), to the verbosity of the medieval A Book of Cookrye, the enterprising home cook could count on very little other than (maybe) a list of ingredients and (perhaps) the order in which they were to be cooked. In other words, prior to using many of these recipes, the curious cook had to know… er… how to cook.

Although precision and measurement had already begun to sneak into many texts prior to its 1896 publication, Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book changed all of that. Although still not quite in the format familiar to most modern recipe readers (list of ingredients, step-by-step instructions), the Boston gave background information about each main ingredient, including its “composition,” and included fairly standard measurements within the text of each recipe:

Select potatoes of uniform size. Wash, pare, and drop at once in cold water to prevent discoloration; soak one-half hour in the fall, and one to two hours in winter and spring. Cook in boiling salted water until soft, which is easily determined by piercing with a skewer. For seven potatoes allow one tablespoon salt, and boiling water to cover. Drain from water, and keep uncovered in warm place until serving time. Avoid sending to table in a covered vegetable dish. In boiling large potatoes, it often happens that outside is soft, while centre is underdone. To finish cooking without potatoes breaking apart, add one pint cold water, which drives heat to centre, thus accomplishing the cooking.

This is an obvious improvement, for obvious reasons. When we look at Crowley’s recipe (or the recipe from Apicius above, for example), we find that Farmer’s is clearest, likely easiest to use for the home cook, and certainly most reproducible. Applying what was generally considered a “scientific approach” to recipes was essentially a revelation (measurements, wow!).

Still, and this is the point I’ve been trying to get to, I personally tend to think that what we gained in accuracy via the standardization of recipes, we may have lost in creative narrative value. Crowley’s recipe is a perfect example, so here it is, in full:

RIZ ALEISTER CROWLEY

(to be eaten with curry)

Use pilaff rice (best 5-7 years old).

A.

Throw into quite boiling water, with a little salt in it. Stir with wooden spoon or fork.

After 8 minutes test it by taking a grain, and pressing between finger and thumb. It must be easily crushed, but not sodden or sloppy. Test again, if not right, every two minutes.

When quite right, pour a lot of very cold water into the saucepan.

Empty the rice into a cullender [sic], and wash well under cold tap.

Put cullender on a rack above the flames (gas) and let it dry.

Stir continuously with a fork, using a lifting motion, never pressing down. During this process remove carefully any black specks or hard discoloured grains.

Shake the cullender every minute or so until the rice moves freely, almost as if it had not been cooked at all.

Empty cullender into saucepan B. (see next page).

Stir until all is uniform, a clear golden colour, with the green pistachio nuts making it a Poem of Spring.

B.

Take Sultanas
Jordan Almonds
Pistachio Nuts
Cloves
Cardamoms (very few)
Turmeric powder (enough to colour the rice to a clear golden tint).

Stir all well together, in an ample amount of butter, in a large saucepan, and warm gently.

Keep warm until the rice is ready to add.

ALEISTER CROWLEY


I don’t doubt that this rice “pilaff” dish is likely quite tasty, though your average beginning modern home cook would be hard-pressed to sort through the dish exactly as Crowley describes (for one thing, he or she would have to figure out that “Sultanas” are white grapes, or the raisins thereof). That said, what interests me the most is the line, “Stir until all is uniform, a clear golden colour, with the green pistachio nuts making it a Poem of Spring.” Reading through the recipe, it really smacks into you– a nice surprise indeed (if a bit heavy-handed from the standpoint of poetry).

Although one can certainly appreciate the accuracy of a Farmer, it’s rather pleasant to come across a little creative narrative in an otherwise mundane instruction. I rather think it’s missing from a lot of modern food instruction. We who cook know from experience that there’s more to sweating onions than, “heat to medium low, add the onions, stir occasionally until droplets begin to form.” Why not, “stir occasionally until the onion cries fragrant tears, becomes the softness that lives beneath its pale skin”? Okay, not my best work, but you get the idea.

Obviously, not every writer of recipes is interested in creative writing, which is fine, but I think it would be nifty if we started playing a little more, making recipes more descriptive, more creative, more interesting to read. Of course, I’m whole-footedly in the “cooking is art” camp, so I’m biased. The “cooking is skill” crowd can soundly argue for the reliability of standardization. But surely we can maintain accuracy while acknowledging the music of the recipe, or at least toss in the sometime surprise, like Crowley’s “Poem of Spring.”

I’ve always been on the fence regarding the MSG question. I know lots of people who claim to have bad reactions to it. E, in particular, has a nasty reaction to certain asian foods that we attribute to MSG (strangely, they’re usually Taiwanese, which makes me wonder if it’s some other ingredient peculiar to Taiwanese cooking). On the other hand, plenty of evidence (including the millions of Asian people who use it every day) seems to indicate that it’s not as bad for you as its reputation would indicate.

Here’s a fantastic article from the Guardian (from 2005) all about the substance and whether or not it’s yuck:

When you next grate parmesan cheese onto some dull spaghetti, what you will have done in essence is add a shed-load of glutamate to stimulate your tongue’s umami receptors, thus sending a message to the brain which signals (as one neuro-researcher puts it) ‘Joy and happiness!’ Supper is rescued – and your system has added some protein and fats to a meal that was all carbohydrate.

Ripe cheese is full of glutamate, as are tomatoes. Parmesan, with 1200mg per 100 grams, is the substance with more free glutamate in it than any other natural foodstuff on the planet. Almost all foods have some naturally occurring glutamate in them but the ones with most are obvious: ripe tomatoes, cured meats, dried mushrooms, soy sauce, Bovril and of course Worcester sauce, nam pla (with 950mg per 100g) and the other fermented fish sauces of Asia….

It’s not surprising that the MSG-makers are so busy on their product’s image, because MSG-phobia still shows no signs of subsiding. This despite the fact that every concerned public body that ever investigated it has given it a clean bill of health, including the EU, the United Nations food agencies (which in 1988 put MSG on the list of ‘safest food additives’), and the British, Japanese and Australian governments.

In fact, every government across the world that has a food licensing and testing system gives MSG – ‘at normal levels in the diet’ – the thumbs-up. The US Food and Drug Administration has three times, in 1958, 1991 and 1998, reviewed the evidence, tested the chemical and pronounced it ‘genuinely recognised as safe.

Of particular interest is the chart at the end, which I’ll duplicate here in full because it’s worth checking out. It’s a list of ingredients found in many processed foods that are actually MSG in disguise:

So you think you don’t eat MSG? Think again…

Some of the names MSG goes under

monopotassium glutamate
glutavene
glutacyl
glutamic acid
autolyzed yeast extract
calcium caseinate
sodium caseinate
E621 (E620-625 are all glutamates)
Ajinomoto, Ac’cent
Gourmet Powder

The following may also contain MSG natural flavours or seasonings
natural beef or chicken flavouring
hydrolyzed milk or plant protein
textured protein
seasonings
soy sauce
bouillon
broth
spices

Free glutamate content of foods (mg per 100g) roquefort cheese 1280
parmesan cheese 1200
soy sauce 1090
walnuts 658
fresh tomato juice 260
grape juice 258
peas 200
mushrooms 180
broccoli 176
tomatoes 140
mushrooms 140
oysters 137
corn 130
potatoes 102
chicken 44
mackerel 36
beef 33
eggs 23
human milk 22

Me, I’m on the fence. I can’t imagine ever buying any for use in the kitchen, but since I don’t tend to get the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” the question is more academic.

That said, I do keep a package of kombu on hand in the kitchen. I add a piece to rice while it’s cooking, or to any ‘one-pot’ stew or simmer, and the difference is notable. What’s really easy and fun is to make a kombu dashi (broth), which can be used as a base for miso soup, added to savory dishes that require liquid or deglazing, mixed in with rice, or used instead of water to steam vegetables.

Yum Kombu Awesome

(Great Kombu Photo by “Kok Robin,” found at http://www.aziatische-ingredienten.nl/kombu/
Check out the rest of the site, too, which has some excellent information on Asian Ingredients!)

This version is quick and dirty, and largely improvised. It’s a little different than the usual kombu/fish-flake I’ve provided veggie and non- variations. Enjoy!

Kombu Dashi

2 large pieces of kombu (let’s say 3-4 inches)
4 cups water
1/3 cup Mirin (a Japanese cooking wine)
1/4 cup rice vinegar
2 Tbsp bonito flakes OR 1/4 cup chopped dried and reconstituted shiitake mushrooms for a veggie version (or both, if you’re inclined to a stronger flavor)

Soak the kombu in the water for 30 minutes. Add the Mirin and the vinegar, and turn the heat up to medium high, but keep an eye on it. Right before the water starts to boil, turn off the heat and remove the kombu. Add the bonito flakes/shiitakes and simmer for an additional 10 minutes (or to taste). Strain the liquid, and you’re golden.

Eat some Glutamate today!

Here’s a little peek into the deranged brain of an Itinerant Omnivore.

My favorite market in the greater Seattle area is the 99 Ranch store at the (I did not make this up) “Great Wall Shopping Mall” in Kent. From their delightfully earnest website:

For thousands of years, the Great Wall of China was known to have been created to fend off the nomads and barbarians of Outer Mongolia. Today, we find the Great Wall Shopping Mall as a relic of not defense, but of gathering.

Awesome.

Anyhow, the 99 Ranch Store is the normal person’s version of awesome-but-touristy-and-crowded Seattle institution Uwajimaya. 99 Ranch is to Uwajimaya as, oh, let’s say Katz’s is to the Stage. They’re both terrific, but I think part of the appeal of 99 Ranch (other than the notable absence of wealthy middle class food snobs) is that it’s part of a chain, as opposed to a ‘specialty megastore’ like Uwajimaya.

Right. Well. Back to the title of the post. One of the nicer things about the 99 Ranch is its exceptional seafood section, far more varied and interesting than the same at similar markets. Although they have the usual selection of in-season fishies in tanks and a veritable tidal pool’s worth of shellfish and urchins, they also often feature nifty delicacies in fresh form that aren’t often found at your neighborhood fishmonger’s. The other day they were stocked to the gills (ha ha ha!) with freshwater eel, whole or pre-sectioned (recipe forthcoming in a future post). They also had skate wings the size of skateboards which I’m dyin’ to try on the grill sometime soon.

On our most recent foray, whilst perusing the pre-wrapped seafood section for cheaper fishy delights, I spied a fairly inexpensive but delightful looking package of bone-in catfish steaks (cut wide, perpendicular to the spine, instead of long like a fillet). Now, as a native of the American South, I loves me some catfish, but where I’m from it only comes in two forms: deep fried fillet in flour batter, or deep fried fillet in cornmeal batter. So, curious as to how it might taste unbattered but grilled, I adopted the package and brought it home.

I knew it was a gamble, based on the fact that these suckers can get pretty bony, but it looked so nice and didn’t have any noticable fishiness in the market– it was very obviously relatively fresh, as far as these things go. Alas, can anyone guess what happened when I opened the package? Yep, it was the dreaded catfish muddiness.

It Smelled Like This


Catfish, y’see, occasionally takes on a muddy smell/flavor due to its position on the literal bottom of the food chain. What should I do? Could I get rid of the muddiness? Is this safe to eat? Could this fish be saved? What does Harold McGee think?

Into On Food and Cooking, where we find the following:

[Muddiness is] most often encountered in bottom-feeding fish, especially catfish and carp that are raised in ponds dug directly in the earth. The chemical culprits are two compounds that are produced by blue-green algae, especially in warm weather (geosmin and methylisoborneol). These chemicals appear to concentrate in the skin and the dark muscle tissue, which can be cut away to make the fish more palatable. Geosmin breaks down in acid conditions, so there is a good chemical reason for traditional recipes that include vinegar and other acidic ingredients.

A-ha! So, get rid of the skin and bathe in acid. Right. So, I took two of the eight smallish steaks, trimmed and chucked the skin, and sat them in a bath of lime juice and Bragg’s Liquid Aminos for a couple of hours. No luck!

This had me stumped, since I still wanted to use the fish, but if an acid bath didn’t kill the muddiness, what could I do? Finally I hit upon an answer: instead of getting rid of the muddiness, why not try to incorporate it into something as a flavor?

I asked myself, what tastes good when it tastes a little like dirt? I guess maybe some kind of earthy salad would work, with a strong acidic component to cut into the muddiness even more. What if I did a faux-tuna salad, with the catfish and a nice bunch of wild sorrel I’d picked up at the Farmer’s Market for acidity and a mayo dressing? That should be pretty good, and easy, and tasty if it’s done right.

OK, so, let’s start by getting rid of as much ‘eau du peat bog’ as we can by covering the fillets in oil and baking them at 250 degrees for a couple of hours. When that’s done, we’ll change the oil and crank it up to 400 for an hour or so, so the flesh falls nicely from the spine. When the fish is well-cooked but not dry, we’ll shred it up, add the chopped sorrel, some chili oil, some mayo, black pepper and Sriracha to taste, mix well and stick it in the fridge overnight and voila!

The final product? The muddiness is still there, but definitely more of a component of flavor and less a deterrent. It’s good! The sorrel (stems and all) is like the more traditional dill pickle in flavor, and the more traditional celery in texture. Its tanginess mixes well with the flavor of the fish, making it more like earth and less like the bottom of a slough. The catfish is moist and flaky, and holds together in just the right way– it tastes and feels like a decent whitefish. Not miraculous by any stretch of the imagination, but passable for a week’s worth of lunches.

So, on Monday, I sit down to eat it for lunch, spread on Wasa bread, and find that, although fairly tasty, it’s FILLED WITH TINY PIN-BONES! Now while I eat lunch this week I have to spend half the time pulling little bones out of my mouth. Catfish, you have defeated me. You, catfish, win.

*Sigh.*

In conclusion, Just Throw The Damn Fish Away Next Time!

If you live near or have visited salt water, especially of the marshy variety found near intracoastal waterways, you’ve probably walked past a big ol’ stand of Salicornia, also known as sea bean, sea asparagus, glasswort, picklewort or samphire.

It Looks Like This

This image comes from West Coast Seaweed (http://www.westcoastseaweed.com/)– a fantastic resource for all things Salicornia!

For those of us who don’t live immediately near a wild source, they can sometimes be found in specialty or Asian markets. If you live in Seattle, they can regularly be found during the summer at the “Foraged and Found” booths at almost every weekend Farmer’s Market (find yours here), for an incredibly reasonable $10.00/lb. I pick up 1/2 lb every other week or so, and it lasts me for a couple of dishes. Beats a four-hour drive to the likeliest nearby foraging spots.

These delightful little fellows come to the kitchen pre-seasoned. Since they grow so close to salt water, they’ve adapted to thrive on the stuff, and, for all intents and purposes, draw it up from the sand/soil. This lends the critters a fairly salty flavor, with definite overtones of minerals. They’re so salty that it’s a good idea to soak them for a while before using them in a recipe. Once soaked, they taste like string-bean pods or really tender asparagus like when it’s super-thin in Spring, and retain their crispiness if cooked.

The amazing thing about these guys is their perfect semi-salty versatility, especially considering the whole low-salt cuisine thing. If you cook with sea beans, you don’t need to add any salt to what you’re making! Properly soaked, 1/2 cup of sea beans contains about 70 mg of sodium, but the additional mineral content stretches that flavor and enhances the taste of whatever you’re making. All you need to do is add a few of them, finely minced, to any savory dish and they’ll add a delightful augmentation of flavor that precludes the need for any additional NaCl.

They’re really nice raw, in salads, but I prefer to cook them, either in small amounts as a salt replacement, or as a side dish, the same way I’d use asparagus. One good thing to do is to mix 1/4 cup sea beans with 1/4 cup sweet onions and cooked underneath a broiled steak seasoned with black pepper (no salt!); the juices from the steak seep down and cook the vegetables, and then cut the meat into bite-sized pieces so each fork-full of steak/sea beans/onions provides the perfect balance between umami/salty/sweet/tangy/juicy. Heck yeah!

Another good trick, especially nice on the grill, is to take some nice whitefish– cod, trout, catfish– and season it with a couple of twists of ground pepper, a squeeze of lemon, a pat of unsalted butter, and double-wrap it in foil with a 1/4 cup sea beans. Toss it on indirect heat for a good 15 minutes, take it off the heat, unwrap it and breathe in those amazing aromas. The littoral essences from the sea beans envelop the fish during the cooking process, bathing it in green, slightly briny delight. It is like eating cooked sashimi.

Finally, here’s a more formal version of a recipe I keep returning to every time I procure some of these guys. Note, once again, the lack of directly applied salt– the sea beans provide plenty. The actual recipe is super-easy to make, though it may require some wait-time while some of the ingredients soak.

Quinoa Sea Bean Salad

Ingredients:

1 cup cooked quinoa, chilled overnight
1/2 cup firm tomatoes, diced
1/2 cup chopped sea beans, soaked overnight and rinsed to taste
1/2 cup extra-firm tofu, pressed and cubed, soaked for 1+ hours in juice of 1 lime
3 scallions, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
*1/4 cup crumbled feta or gorgonzola cheese (leave this out or replace with fresh mozzarella or swiss for less sodium)
1 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp white pepper
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp flour
virgin olive oil
balsamic vinegar

1. Remove the tofu from the lime and pat dry. Mix the flour, paprika, white pepper and cumin and toss the tofu in the mixture until well-coated.

2. Sweat the scallions and garlic on medium-low heat. Add 1 tsp of the olive oil and cook for ~1 minute, until soft but not yet golden.

3. Increase heat to medium-high. Add the tofu and stir frequently until scallions, garlic and tofu are all golden. Remove and set aside.

4. Mix the quinoa, tomatoes, sea beans, tofu mixture and olive oil and vinegar to taste.

That’s all there is to it. Eat some sea beans today!

I’ve been looking suspiciously into the pinholes on top of my salt shaker of late because I was recently diagnosed with hypertension (that’s High Blood Pressure). This is incredibly rare for my age– I’m in about the 1-2% range (screw you, all you lottery winners– I beat a different kind of odds). It’s not directly attributable to the amount of salt I get– in fact, it’s likely largely genetic– but it certainly will do me a world of good to cut back substantially on the ol’ NaCl (we can talk about the increased exercise and such another time, on a different blog).

The problem is, when you’re a food geek like me, there are some things that require salt. It is, after all, one of the five Simple Machines of Flavor (bitter, sweet, sour and “umami” being the other four). There are items (pretzels come to mind) and recipes (certain baked goods) that are, for all intents and purposes, pointless without a couple of spoonfuls from the ol’ salt pig.

You Salty Little Bastard


This, however, to my occasionally maniacal mind, makes what could be seen as a dire punishment into an intriguing challenge. How can we make freakin’ delicious recipes which typically call for salt (I’m looking at you, any kind of dry-rubbed meat, and your pal bacon, too) into still delicious, yet way better for you recipes that won’t eventually cause your brain to explode?

This isn’t just an academic question. If you live in an industrialized country and eat any kind of processed food whatsoever on a regular basis, you eat too much salt. Hell, even most cookbooks out there, regardless of how hoity-toity or high-falutin’, use far more salt than is necessary in most recipes. Here’s the thing: the more salt you eat, more you acquire the taste. The more you have a taste for salt, the more you use in a recipe. And so on. So, the way I see it, we’re culturally trained to use more salt than we need in our cooking, and maybe we can take a look at ways to cut it out.

Health-wise, we get plenty of sodium from a “well-balanced diet” (whatever that means); anything additional is the icing on top of the salt cake. Most of our salt comes from the aforementioned processed foods and from eating out at restaurants. Thanks to perceptions of low-cost and convenience, most people rely on this stuff, and where the Recommended Daily Allowance of Sodium tops out at 2,000 mg (at most)/day, the average U.S. Consumer eats between 4,000-5,000 mg/day. Yikes!

So, as a salt aficianado, I’m going to take a look at some ways to cut back this insane amount of salt we eat. I’ve come up with a little set of rules that I’ll be trying out, and posting here occasionally with updates, successes and failures.

THE RULES:

1. Occasionally we like to eat processed foods and dinner out. One of our goals will be to reduce our sodium intake at home so we can still enjoy meals out where we won’t be able to know how much sodium we’re getting.

2. We will not eliminate salt completely; we will still cook sausages and other salty treats every now and again. We will, however, attempt to balance our meals so that a salty sausage isn’t accompanied by a salty side dish and a salty dessert.

3. We will be eagle-eyed label readers and have an idea of just how much sodium we’re getting in packaged food. We will opt for no- and low-salt versions of the food we eat unless they are somehow chemically modified. If salt has been removed by adding a chemical, we’ll pass.

4. When I used to paint pictures, it took me some time to realize that my artowork looked far better if I didn’t ever use the color black (totkb to Bing, who taught me this trick). When I tossed my tube of black and replaced it with dark shades and hues in my paintings, the difference was astounding. I think this is because absolute black doesn’t really occur in nature. With this in mind, we will try to add salty substances to our recipes instead of salt itself. Instead of a tablespoon of salt in our dry rub (one tablespoon= ~2500 mg of the stuff), let’s use something that contains 1/12th of a tablespoon of salt and 11/12 of something else that is awesome and tasty.

5. We will get to know the underused flavors– bitter and sour– and find out how our jaded western palates can use these to help us appreciate cuisine in a way that doesn’t require as much salt.

6. Finally, we will make simple low-sodium and salt-free versions of our favorites that usually have lots of sodium. Homemade stuff always tastes better!

Hey, we are not doctors, nor are we dieticians. If your doctor or nutritionist has instructed you not to eat any sodium whatsoever, do not follow advice from some guy on the internet. If, however, you’re interested in coming up with some ways to get rid of some of that excess sodium but do so in a way that doesn’t result in cardboard-flavored grossness, it should be fun; feel free to play along, or discuss as we go! This will be a totally unscientific experiment; our instruments will be our taste buds and common sense.

Woo!