I had tortellini for dinner tonight. Tiny pasta dumplings stuffed with parmesan cheese, bathed in rich marinara sauce, chunky with mushrooms and onions, speckled with basil and oregano, filled my bowl. More parmesan -- freshly grated -- topped it off. A round focaccia, steaming from the oven, with crisp rosemary and onion flaking off the top, provided a means of mopping up the sauce once the pasta was gone.
Mad cow disease has herded beef off the table. Avian flu has struck the Chinese chicken; you have a drumstick and your brain stops tickin'. South Beach diet claims you might as well be drinking Wesson when you reach for fruit juice. And Atkins -- oh, the ubiquitous Atkins -- says better dead than bread.
I'm telling you now: it's all hogwash. Remember all those other hollow threats of years past? Killer bees from South America. Y2K. The annual flu epidemic, followed by the annual vaccine shortage. The Cubs. So now, they want us to believe that the new threat is...food?
Personally, I find that a little hard to swallow.
Media-fed fears and diet-fed fanaticism are robbing food of its flavor. Commercials no longer sell you on the taste of a product, but its component value. Don't eat this because it tastes good, eat it because it has less than 6 grams of fat. (Disclaimer: if you leave off all the condiments and cheese) Don't drink this because it's delicious, drink it because it has 1/3 the carbs of other beer. (Disclaimer: you thought our stuff was watery before? HA!)
Let me tell you: life's too short to drink cheap beer.
It's too short to eat bad food, too.
Let's face it, a diet of little more than fast food will get you nothing but blood vessels that could be used as grease pencils. If your idea of "going out to eat" means sitting inside at Burger King instead of using the drive-thru, you deserve every squishy yellow morsel of cholesterol in your ever-narrowing arteries. But how much do you enjoy it, if you're eating it day after day? Fast food is depressingly uniform and, apart from cost and convenience, it offers very little reward.
Think about it: you could get an 89-cent cheeseburger from McDonald's, a grey patty roughly four inches across, about a quarter-inch thick, topped with a waxy cheese slice and flattened between two Wonder bread buns. Or you could stop in nearly any bar and grill and get yourself a thick, hand-formed patty of fresh ground beef, cooked over an open flame to a juicy medium rare, topped with a thick wedge of cheddar cheese and a splash of steak sauce, served on a toasted onion roll. Will it cost more? Yeah. Will it take more time? Yeah. But next time you peel the paper off that dough-wrapped puck of a McBurger, you're going to remember my words and wish you were pushing thick cut fries around your plate, sopping up beef juice and A1.
But fast food joints aren't the only ones serving up a menu of dining don'ts. Full service restaurants are just as guilty. They over-sauce and over-season in the name of some unholy cuisine deemed "fusion." I challenge you to actually identify what you're eating at some of these places; can you actually taste it? That pan-seared cutlet of free range squab in a veal sweetbread gelaté served over a soy-pancetta risotto and washed with a roast prune and madeira reduction. Yeah. What does it taste like?
When you bring the fork from your lips, are you smiling because you like it, or because -- since those four bites' worth cost you $25 -- you think you're expected to? What you're really eating is haute cuisine a la Spam; the chef took a bunch of incongruous fancy bits, poked and sautéed and blanched and carved them all up into something with no discernable identity. All forest, no trees.
Last Christmas, I was given a cookbook. And though it contains recipes, this particular cookbook is more like a collection of suggestions, rather than a strict instruction manual. It's called Appetite, by Nigel Slater, and it's a brilliant treatise on how people could eat extremely well, yet without requiring substantial investments of time or money. The recipes are all wonderfully simple; you don't need to be a CIA grad to cook them. And as I've adapted my cooking style as a result of Nigel's suggestions, I've been left scratching my head at restaurants, grocery stores and dining tables of friends and family: why doesn't everyone cook this way? Why doesn't everyone eat this way?!
Reading Appetite is the perfect restorative after immersion in today's climate of culinary paranoia. The book is equal parts cocky and soothing; Nigel assures curious cooks that they needn't be afraid of their kitchens, and by extension that none of us ought to be afraid of our food.
So here's your choice: you can munch down a Chicken-Bacon Ranch wrap from Subway, dutifully avoiding carbs, cholesterol and flavor, or you could tear into a tasty piece of chicken you roasted yourself, savory with garlic and herbs, maybe with some sauteed greens spiked with tangy feta cheese on the side. You can avoid chicken, beef, bleached flour, bottle-fermented beer and every other food that's ever been the cause of a health scare, or you can dab wasabi on a neon-pink slice of raw Ahi tuna and pop it down, relishing the taste (and the brief fireworks in your head). You can avoid bread (carbs!) and raw milk cheese (bacteria! cholesterol!) or you can chew on a crusty baguette smeared with an earthy, buttery double-cream brie.
If it helps to sway your mind, consider this: How many calories do you think it takes to push a grocery cart through the store, haul the bags in from the car, put everything away, prep and cook a good meal and clean up the kitchen? And how many calories does it take to idle at the drive-thru? See what I mean?
We can't live without food. So why should we settle for food without life?
If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.
ABOUT RUSS CARR
more about russ carr
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
2.18.04 @ 9:05a
damn, russ. what time's dinner?
2.18.04 @ 11:29a
That said, I love me an occasional McGriddle. Mmmmm...Infused.
2.18.04 @ 12:41p
The thing is, fast food isn't supposed to be about taste. It's supposed to be about fast. So many people are so busy that suddenly it's 2:30pm and they haven't eaten lunch. They're not going to stop for 45 minutes to make a nice strip steak sandwich on french bread with dijon, spinach leaves and a chunk of swiss. They're going to grab food that's served to them 30 seconds after ordering.
I don't think you always need to eat for enjoyment. Just like people have sex for different reasons (love, entertainment, obligation, procreation) or exercise for different reasons (lose weight, better health, fun, challenge), you can eat for different reasons.
But the key is balance.
2.18.04 @ 1:10p
Food should be about taste and ingredients. I can't believe the crap people willingly put into their bodies on a regular basis. Also, people just think they are too busy to eat, possibly to feel self important. I'll bet the same ass that needs his lunch in 30 seconds goes home and watches 5 hours of TV that night. Eating, when done right is one of the most wonderful and valuable pleasures in life.
You are so right about balance though Matt. Anyone can eat whatever they want as long as they offset it with with something healthy. If you plan to order dessert, make sure to order a salad too.
2.18.04 @ 1:28p
There is constant debate on the washingtonpost.com cooking discussion about whether it's more expensive to get the fresh stuff or not. The short answer: of course it is. But in truth it all depends on how you do it, and every diet can use more unprocessed ingredients. If you're concerned about time and money, you don't have to buy fresh broccoli in the produce section, but you could at least buy a bag of broccoli and throw it in the microwave. That's better for you than buying a freezer bag of tater tots and fryin' 'em up.
As for the fusion stuff, I'm seeing a really nice return to "great ingredients prepared simply" all around Washington. Had a great BBQ pulled duck entree with sauteed green beans and sweet corn polenta the other night. And we did our Valentine's dinner ourselves -- rather than going out to an overcrowded, overpriced restaurant, we bought lamb merguez sausage, great wine, elderberry cheddar, red pears, dates, and chocolate. Went home, cooked up the merguez with couscous, never looked back. You get the satisfaction of preparing something yourself and a much more pleasant experience besides.
2.18.04 @ 2:02p
Food should be about taste and ingredients.
Precisely. If you're not eating something because it tastes good, then you might as well be eating some extruded protein and fiber concentrated energy bar, ready to be gobbled down just as soon as you tear off the wrapper, at breakfast, lunch and dinner!
If you have so little time in your schedule that you're scarfing down fast food for lunch -- just lunch -- five days out of the week, then all that fat and sodium is just going to compound the problems of your already overstressed system. Instead, keep a box of crackers at your desk. Bring a hunk of cheese or a cup of yogurt from home -- zero prep time! If you need protein, keep a can of almonds. There, you just saved the time you would have spent driving to Taco Bell, and you can spend those moments eating slowly and enjoying your desktop picnic.
Jael, that cheese sounds great.
2.18.04 @ 2:17p
We've now had a porter cheddar and elderberry wine cheddar with a similar look: it's like they took little chunks of cheese, surrounded them with the liquid, and then squished the chunks together in a block. Cool-looking. Like a mosaic almost.
The porter was tastier -- less sweet, with a duskier, stronger flavor.
You would love it.
2.18.04 @ 2:19p
I don't agree that fresh stuff is more expensive, Jael. If you buy vegetables that are in season (tomatoes in February are a bit spendy right? check out the broccoli prices though) and actually shop for deals on quality meats, you can make a wonderful dinner for 4 for about 10-12 bucks. I doubt a family of 4 can get out of McDonald's for less than that. What does organic rice cost? Beans? Lentils? Potatoes? A loaf of great Italian bread as opposed to Wonderbread? People are just afraid to actually make something. Processed food is expensive, fresh is actually pretty cheap if you make a little effort and get creative with what's in season.
Yeah, good cheese rocks. Russ, that's great advice for a quick lunch. What jerk convinced this country that cheese is bad for you? And then "American cheese" is congealed, yellow oil? That's not right! Why don't we have a good cheese? It's embarrassing.
2.18.04 @ 2:22p
A dinner for four for $10-$12? Where are you shopping?
It would cost that much just for the meat portion of the meal for four.
I always figure on $10-$15 per person in ingredients when I cook depending on what I'm making.
So it's not necessarily less expensive to eat in, but I wouldn't say it's more expensive either.
2.18.04 @ 2:31p
Yep, 10-12 bucks and that's at Whole Foods! Going back to Jael's simplicity concept... Buy some free range whole chicken legs (one per person is plenty, those free range boys get some J Lo thighs and they are always on sale), throw them in a steamer with some potatoes and yellow onions for about 45 minutes then hit the whole thing with some salt, pepper, and butter. You will be amazed at how much flavor this has. Add a salad and you are the man and you spent next to nothing and had almost zero prep time. Think steaming is too simple? Throw the same stuff in a pot with chicken broth and a couple of cups of red wine and some fresh herbs.
2.18.04 @ 2:38p
Yep, it all depends on what you get and where. It would be tricky for me to feed four for $12, but there are ways. Cheaper cuts of meat, like chicken thighs -- Dathan's spot-on there. Ditto with the dried beans and lentils. There's a recipe in a Cooking Light I have, chickpea stew with lemon and cumin served over polenta. I have to try it one of these days. Fancy enough to serve to guests, and DIRT cheap.
2.18.04 @ 2:43p
The oft-quoted roasted chicken recipe I serve, along with some potatoes and maybe some sautéed spinach and a nice bottle of white wine -- certainly no more than $15. And yeah, that's with a buff Whole Foods chicken.
2.18.04 @ 2:54p
See, on the other end, for V-day I made a stuffed pork loin and the Morel mushrooms in the stuffing alone cost me $25.
Soups. Soups are cheap. I can make a great butternut squash soup, or a tortilla soup for really cheap.
2.18.04 @ 2:56p
I was going to say that maybe food is more expensive in San Francisco, and then I realized that Dathan is IN San Francisco, so he probably knows better than I what food costs there.
Our fancy Valentine's dinner cost $60, but $30 of that was wine. Still cheaper than it would have been at a restaurant. No markup, no tip.
2.18.04 @ 3:08p
I could be wrong, but I don't think food is really more expensive here. It just depends on what you're making. You also have to factor in what you already have - if you've got a good spice rack, a teaspoon of this and a pinch of that is no big deal. But if you have to go buy bottles of specific spices for a dish, it can get spendy.
And yeah, the same dish will almost always cost you more at a restaurant. Plus, you have the fun of cooking it yourself.
2.18.04 @ 3:12p
Yep, the spices can break the bank. And I fill the freezer with meat whenever it's on sale. Pork is magic, you know.
Oh, and Russ, props on the BNL sneak.
2.18.04 @ 3:14p
Jael, you made a really good point about cheaper cuts of meat. When cooked the right way they are phenomenal. Throw a london broil in the crockpot with some veggies and forget about it. I know crockpots sound cheesy but they are the easiest thing in the world and they can turn out some great stuff. Braised lamb shanks, Epicurious.com has a load of recipes for them and they are so good they'll make you cry. Stew some stew meat.
I hear you on the other end too Matt. For Christmas I make my dad's crab cioppino, it feeds about 10 and it runs me a good $150 not counting wine, veggies, and sides. Well worth it though. You're right on about the spice rack too. If you have a yard, it's such a good idea to have an herb garden. Seeds are virtually free. If you don't have a yard, stick a few small pots on the window sill and at least grow the basics, basil, thyme, parsley, etc. Fresh herbs make all the difference.
Wow Russ, you've got me all fired up to go home and make dinner!
2.18.04 @ 3:28p
Just a few months ago we got a Pensey's Spices in the area. The place is addictive. Four or five different kinds of cinnamon, oodles of curries... and they have sampler jars of everything so you can go thru and just sniff. I've already started restocking my spice rack from there as I run out of particular items. The quality is much better than the stuff that's been sitting on the grocery store shelf for who knows how long.
As for herbs...hey, it's always better to grow your own, man. I keep lots of little baggies in the freezer, everything we harvested in the fall. I think we spent maybe $2 on some little buds last summer, and it all just grew and grew. Rosemary, oregano, basil, spearmint and thyme. We also buy big bunches of cilantro and parsley at local (non-chain) markets and freeze that as well.
2.18.04 @ 4:32p
Well, I don't eat fast/frozen food because I don't have time to cook or because it's cheaper. I eat fast/frozen food because when I'm hungry I want food now. Is there a healthy way to perpare a full meal quickly?
2.18.04 @ 4:35p
Define "full meal."
2.18.04 @ 4:44p
My vday dinner cost $55 at a restaurant for just me (no valentine per se). But it was good. I will constantly skip the fast food in place of a nice, good dinner at a sit-down restaurant. But it gets spendy!
2.18.04 @ 5:01p
Full meal: at least 3 food groups, fills me up, tastes good.
2.18.04 @ 5:23p
Adam, think kabob. Cube any sort of meat and veggies, stick them on a stick and drop it on the grill (or grill pan, a good cast iron one should run you around 9 bucks). When it's almost done brush on some teriyaki sauce. You can make your own with a bit of soy, garlic, and brown sugar. There is nothing easier than cooking rice in a rice cooker. Start to finish shouldn't take more than 20-25 minutes. Another idea is to make a stew, roast, or a lasagna type thing that you can spend some time on during the weekend then have it for dinner a couple of times during the week. What's faster than leftovers? Always make a fresh salad though and keep in mind that it doesn't have to have lettuce. A bowl full of iceberg isn't going to do anyone any good.
If you actually start to cook you may forget the whole immediate gratification issue anyway. It's immensely satisfying to put some real thought and effort into a meal and have it turn out well. Work that anticipation! Plus, back to the cheese thing, keep some excellent cheeses handy. I always snack and have a glass of wine or a good beer while I cook.
2.18.04 @ 5:35p
In the first part of Appetite, Nigel Slater lists several "Dos and Don'ts" about cooking. One of my favorites is, "Before you start cooking, pour yourself a drink."
Make yourself some seafood pasta. Start the water on its way to boiling. Get some butter and olive oil sizzling in the pan, toss in some mushrooms, onions, peppers, garlic to saute. While they're going, peel half a pound of shrimp. By the time the veggies are softening, the water should be about ready. If you use fresh pasta (like DiGiorno) it cooks in 3 minutes. Toss in the shrimp and whatever herbs you like. The shrimp cook in 3 minutes, too. Drain the pasta, toss on your veggies and shrimp. Less than half an hour, easy. I know -- it's what we had for dinner on Monday.
I got black tiger shrimp for $5/lb, and they were so cheap I added some scallops to the basket. I had a can of crabmeat in the pantry that I'd bought on sale, so I tossed that in the pan, too. A couple of tablespoons of ready-to-go Alfredo sauce (reduced fat, DiGiorno again) added some body to the seafood and veggies. Chopped some oregano and basil and added it at the last minute, with a sprinkle of crushed red pepper and a handful of shredded parmesan. But all of that was optional. And it still took less than 30 minutes.
And yeah, Dathan, iceberg sucks. Get some mixed greens or baby spinach or such.
2.18.04 @ 5:37p
Iceberg has its uses. No substitute for the old-school iceberg/blue cheese/bacon-bits combo. Not that you can even get that around here, except ironically.
2.18.04 @ 5:49p
I want to read that book. I like the guy already.
True Jael, they make a very tasty version of that at Ruth's Chris. I just worry that when most people think salad they dump a bag of iceberg in a bowl and drown it with ranch. Nasty business.
2.18.04 @ 5:59p
Ah, here you go, Dathan. Nigel Slater's "New Cook Survival Guide." Eminent common sense! (how exceedingly British) There are three pages' worth. And links to a few of his recipes.
2.18.04 @ 6:27p
2.18.04 @ 11:41p
I've always been a timid eater (unlike Tracey, who will eat stuff I've never even HEARD of.) However - timidity aside, I still love food and love to cook, and I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments in this column. If you're not going to enjoy what you eat, why bother? Might as well start eating Soylent Green. And if you're going to obsess over every morsel that passes your lips, well, you're going to enjoy it even less. I hate when I order something gooey and chocolate in a resturant and one of my constantly-dieting pals not only sighs and tells me how much she'd "love to be able to eat that" but further screws up my enjoyment by telling me how many fat grams are in it! I've started to get really ornery and rude about that, because it bothers me so much - now I flat-out tell these people, "Hey, I weigh 110 pounds soaking wet. Ask me if I CARE how many fat grams are in this."
2.19.04 @ 3:15a
Funny how many people would rather run out and buy into a faddish diet program that involves all sorts of ritualistic behaviors, than listen to all those wise old general-practitioner MDs who have seen the fad diets come and go over the years (grapefruit, high protein, Scarsdale, Beverly Hills, etc.). What those doctors will unanimously tell you is, eat sensibly and exercise more. That's it, the secret to good health in a nutshell.
When it comes right down to it, we know how to eat right. We all know what the four food groups are - we learned that in grade school. We know, deep down, what a "sensible" meal is.
And we all know the other side of eating right is getting at least a moderate amount of real exercise. Go walk your dog; do 10 push-ups a couple times a day; ride a bike to the store; go to the local park and walk the entire running trail; challenge the neighbor kids to a pickup game of touch football; whatever. Mix up your activity like you mix up your diet, so you don't get bored with it.
So says the man who, when seen without a shirt on, looks like he's due to deliver that baby in about five or six months. But I'm working on it - better late than never, I guess.
And let this be a lesson to you under-30 types: better never to gain it in the first place than to have to lose it. Don't trust your metabolism not to betray you when you get to be around 29-32 years old.
2.19.04 @ 11:07a
Start to finish shouldn't take more than 20-25 minutes.
Still too long. I'm going for, um, 7 minutes tops. Anything more than 10 isn't "instant" gratification. And often cuts into my Prime Time viewing schedule.
2.19.04 @ 11:22a
Cook ahead. Reheat.
2.19.04 @ 11:22a
7 minutes? You're going to have to stick to microwaving Salisbury steak.
2.19.04 @ 11:32a
This is my point. Thanks.
2.19.04 @ 5:59p
Yeah, you're pretty much out of luck then, Adam. There's not really a "something for nothing" alternative. You'll be stoked in like 200 years though when Star Trek food replicators become common household appliances. Man, that sucks though that you'll forgo good food for TV! If you just can't live without Dawson's Creek, put a TV in the kitchen.
2.19.04 @ 6:02p
Thanks. It was never about Dawson's, though. Used to be about Buffy.
2.25.04 @ 1:32a
Adam - have a snack. Then cook. Slice a little cheese, have some crackers and a little wine and nosh a bit as you prepare. Prepare enough for leftovers the next day-fresh, good leftovers that are quickly zapped.
Matt, honey, you bought morels in February? I'm sure the stuffing was delicious, but you're out of season, hence, they were more expensive. Wait until after the spring rains, and then you'll have morels on the side of your building. Well, not really, but they'll be everywhere in the woods.
In my quest for more healthy, organic meat to feed Boy, I purchased some ground elk from a local rancher last weekend. He raises the elk on 200 roaming acres, allows hunters to come in once a week, doesn't process the elk until it's been examined by the health officials, and then everything is processed at his private locker. The pound of ground I bought cost $1 more than ground chuck at the grocery.
There was no fat in this meat. Yet it was totally tender, completely delcious, and lower in fat, calories and cholesteral than chicken and even bison. I sauteed onion and garlic, used the same pan to brown little elk meatballs (I needed nothing at all to form them - no egg, no breadcrumbs, nothing), and deglazed the pain with a little veggie boullion and port. Threw it all in the Crock Pot with red/yellow/green peppers, canned, lo-sodium tomatoes and freshly ground pepper.
It was beyond delicious. Tender, moist and full of flavor. Served it over brown rice with a fresh green salad and homemmade rye bread.
And there were leftovers the next day.
I think we miss an important part of society not knowing how are food is prepared, not knowing about whole ingredients, not knowing what should be had when when it's at the peak of flavor. Right you are, bro - life in our food.
2.25.04 @ 1:49a
Adam Kraemer: "Instant gratification takes too long, who do I see about some retroactive gratification?"
2.25.04 @ 9:37a
And Tracey made me hungry. Where's that oatmeal?
12.13.04 @ 12:16p
Big bump here: I was in the bookstore yesterday shopping for Christmas presents, and found this Nigel Slater book. Just flipping through it made my mouth water. Fortunately, the friend for whom it is intended lives close enough that I can pop over and borrow it back!