Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Cooking Class I Regret Never Taking

Regret is a powerful word for me.  It is a word I try very hard to avoid using because it implies I’m wallowing in something from my past I cannot change.  Whatever the circumstance, hopefully I’ve learned from my mistakes and won’t repeat them.  But, alas, I do have a couple of regrets and one that occasionally pesters me lately is:

Not taking high school chemistry!

An odd regret, I know.  Only until I started watching Alton Brown’s "Good Eats," did I come to understand how baking, stir frying, braising, mixing, etc. is all just one big chemistry experiment.  No wonder I have felt so beholden to recipe instructions as I haven’t had a good grasp on the power and potential of ingredients when combined, altered by time, heat or refrigeration.

My 8th grade home economics class did a great job in emphasizing reading instructions and measuring.  I really enjoyed it.  What it didn’t do was teach me about cause and effect of the combined ingredients I was working with.  I could have understood the Table of Periodic Elements, which would help me understand weight, melting, boiling, solids, liquids and gas or been provided guidance on designing menus with complementary foods that are sweet and savory combined with varying textures all while considering nutritional benefits.  Or that water/moisture is the #1 culprit that promotes spoilage.  Or better yet, how to improvise when you are missing a key ingredient or want to alter the serving size.  The joke "better food through chemistry" can cut both ways!

I, like so many other girls, avoided science classes.  I enrolled in only what I had to.  As silly as this sounds, my avoidance stemmed from the Jerry Lewis film, “The Nutty Professor.”  The 1963 version scared the living day lights out of me!  The professor's wacky dental work, bad haircut and the ever-present lab experiments gone very wrong left my 5 year-old brain convinced that all things chemistry must be avoided!  Today, I recognize how ridiculous it was to base my decisions in choosing my classes on this lasting impression from a slapstick movie.  Yes, Hollywood can influence young children!  I’m living proof.

Girls steering clear of science and math has been an on-going problem over the years.  During my era of growing up, the gender gap was reinforced with the assumption girls were less interested in math and science promoting a lack of confidence in young girls to even pursue those subjects.  Based on these assumptions, teachers and parents, unaware of their own bias, would naturally help boys with their science and math studies while excusing the girl’s lack of performance based on her level of interest.  A vicious cycle.   And no less helpful in promoting interest in food chemistry, the delay of food science as a study  is not taught until college and only at select universities.  If my first classroom science exposure wasn’t the stinky dissection of frog and worm digestive tracks, I may have found science wasn’t all bad.  Fortunately since my days in school, much has been learned about motivating a student, regardless the gender, with positive images, experiences and reinforcement.  

I don’t have children, nor am I an expert at all the challenges parents face when helping their children grow up.  But what I can tell you is, now in my mid 40’s, I really appreciate the potential of a well rounded education especially recognizing what aspects of mine were missing.

Just because I’m not in school, it doesn’t mean I lack the ability to teach myself.  This old dog can learn new tricks.  Remember when you’d ask your mom how to spell something and she’d say look it up in the dictionary?  Same thing here.  I look it up on the Internet.  When I had a question about the difference of boiling, simmering or quivering water and how altitude affects it or if salt really affects the boiling point, Seriouseats.com helped me out.  Or our friends across the pond, The UK Food Standards Agency, helped me out when I was trying to understand how best to defrost raw meat and cooked foods.  These are just a couple of examples.

Food & Wine magazine selects Best New Chefs every year.  In this year’s top 10 selection, 9 out of 10 are male chefs (Missy Robins is the only female).   If you read each Chef’s bios, they have their favorite cookbooks where they still learn more.   In the past 11 years Food & Wine selected one woman chef in 2009, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004 and 1999, two in 2008, 2002, 2001 and 1997; three in 2000 (one was co-chef with her husband) and 1998; and zero in 2003.  Food & Wine has not published what their criteria has been when drawing their “cutting edge” selections. While my conclusion is not a scientific one (thanks, Jerry Lewis!) my guess is the gender gap may be directly relational to the lack of fostered education in food science that inspires creativity and that biases do still exist.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Super Size Me ... My Way

If you asked me 10 years ago where my food came from, I would have naturally answered, “The grocery store!” Duh.  My selections were made based on the grocery store’s ability to provide a nice, sanitized presentation whether it be packaging or handsome looking produce.  Most people of my generation, growing up in an urban setting, would have answered much the same.  Aw…simpler times.

Ask me that question today and my answer takes about 20 minutes! This change in my response didn’t happen overnight.  It has been a personal evolution and revelation in the making.

A pre-Katrina visit to the Gallier House Museum in the French Quarter of New Orleans planted a seed in me for further contemplation. The docent who led our tour eloquently described daily life for a prosperous family, post Civil War. What resonated with me was the full-time effort it took for the lady of the household to plan meals for her family based on food availability.  Just think what it took to do this in a time before refrigeration and automobiles. Turning a mirror on myself, I remember thinking how easy I had it today. Trips to historical places like Gallier's, Boston's old town and even San Simeon here in California allow a chance to, just briefly, wear another persons shoes -- even if the person is long gone.

Around the same time, my mom, in an effort to provide the best possible nutrition for my dad’s health, had been seeking better food choices for her household.  She and I share the gene of inquiry! We would compare notes, but she was much better informed than I.  She’s the first person I knew to look to alternatives to prescription pills, but not excluding medical advice for better living. Her best piece of advice, read labels and understand what they mean.

So, I started reading labels.  Then I had to study what some of those strange things they were putting in my food were actually for.  And, what those strange things actually did to me.  Then I watched Fast Food Nation, Food Inc., Super Size Me and read Eating Well, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and Barbara Kingsolver among others.  In our collective effort to advance through the industrialized and communication eras, we, by silent majority, have allowed our food barn door to open wide. I feel like we've been taken advantage of while we've been slaving away at our jobs to pay for our food.  Doomsday?

I don’t see it that way.  The more information I have, the more empowered I feel. All but Fast Food Nation, provide a path to food salvation if you look for it.  Clearly, I’m a girl who views life as a glass half full.

Before long there was a wholesale clearing of our pantry.  High fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, names of ingredients I can’t pronounce …all of it, gone from our diet.  We are now at the point that if a canned or prepared item has more than five ingredients in it, we will not buy it. We also won’t buy anything in it with ingredients we don’t recognize.

Lately, the food news has been anything but positive. While it can be discouraging, the way I try to ground myself is to ask, “but what can I do?”  The only answer I’ve come up with is taking responsibility for myself.  It’s the only thing I can control.  I can’t get more local than that!

So what have I done?  For the last couple of years, I’ve concentrated on getting all my produce from our local farmer’s market and have been greatly rewarded with better tasting food.  Added benefit…it actually is less expensive then the grocery store!  I’ve also dabbled in growing my own. Since moving back to California, the climate makes gardening a joy but I was clearly a novice at growing vegetables. No one told me I had to pick a zucchini the moment I observed it’s growth.  Nor did I have the where with all to know I should rotate my crops every year (one year I had a great tomato harvest and the next only two sorry looking globes).  How quickly a generation or two loses the ability to know how to grow their own food.  In my family tree, it was only two generations ago they led an agrarian lifestyle.  It’s a good thing I didn’t have to rely on my farming skills to feed myself.

Perhaps I should have picked the zucchini a day earlier

This last summer however, I was clearly getting better at my gardening craft by making soil improvements and generated the most glorious tomato vines that just kept on giving. Yes! The more I researched to improve my skills, the better the pay off. I’ve now taken it to the next level with my winter vegetable garden.

After this weekend, my patch is now a raised vegetable garden with a removable covering to protect the plantings from our California heat.  I enlisted my husband’s help and researched the plans.  After two days of power tools, much digging, assistance from our dog Sammi and 90 degree heat we have a 50 square-foot redwood plot with spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, Swiss chard and herbs seedlings thriving in their new environment.  I’m already planning my winter meals around them.

Taking responsibility for myself has now become my hobby… not only am I’m loving it, I'm all the healthier for it!

If you want to build your own raised bed, these instructions were easy to follow and I'm pleased with the outcome:  http://www.sunset.com/garden/perfect-raised-bed-00400000039550/

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Eating Out - What's Your Preference?

Why is it I flinch when a friend of mine wants to eat at the same place, order the same thing and is more than okay eating at a chain restaurant versus a locally owned, creative hot spot?  Am I the only one who reacts the same way to his choices?  His other friends lovingly tease him about his predictable ways as well.

I have asked why he prefers his restaurant and menu choices.  It’s all about expectation. He likes going to a place where he knows exactly what he will get.  There is something comforting when he can rely on consistency and convenience.  Same wait staff, same lighting, same food, same portion size and so on.  Chain restaurants rely on people like him for their survival.

(Being fair, he does occasionally eat at locally owned eating spots but even then will order the same tried and true dishes.)

On the opposite end of the spectrum I have friends who do nothing but choose restaurants by the “eat locally, think globally” approach.  They are wanting the artisan experience or are trying to eat as healthfully as possible.  While the experience may be unpredictable, the potential reward is tremendous food, presentation and atmosphere.  More than likely, the ingredients will have been purchased through a local sustainable food source and the entrepreneurial spirit motivates the owners to succeed.  As a patron of a locally owned restaurant there is the joy of discovering it all.  The locally owned restaurant succeeds or fails based on whether or not they are able to meet those expectations.

In both cases, a restaurant's success or failure relies on its guests’ anticipated and actual experiences.

I’ve always thought of myself as the adventurous type.  Philosophically speaking, life is short and it is meant to be lived fully, with variety.  Experiencing another’s creativity feeds my soul and my tummy. But as I was preparing to order breakfast from my favorite mom & pop cafĂ© this last weekend, it dawned on me that while I am a strong supporter of the local guy who ends up supporting the local economy, I tend to order the same thing every time I go to a restaurant I’ve visited before.

Light bulb moment…I fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum!  Have I been hiding under the veil of something I thought I was?  It’s very strange to realize you are not living up to your self-described image.  Beginning with that meal, my challenge has been to remind myself to live it up and order something new.  I continue to be a work in progress.

I'll end with this thought, being mindful of a restaurant choice and the menu selections will only help you appreciate the experience all the more.  Most importantly, you will start to consciously create the person you aspire to be through your choices.  If only it were that simple given access and convenience and other motivating factors. 

Is there a right or wrong when it comes to our restaurant choices?  Where do you fall in the spectrum and why is that?

Here’s some interesting factoids to get you thinking from the National Restaurant Association’s list of the Top 20 Food Trends for 2010:
1. Locally grown produce
2. Locally sourced meats and seafood
3. Sustainability
4. Bite-size/mini desserts
5. Locally produced wine and beer
6. Nutritionally balanced children's dishes
7. Half-portions/smaller portion for a smaller price
8. Farm-/estate-branded ingredients
9. Gluten-free/food-allergy conscious
10. Sustainable seafood
11. Superfruits (e.g., acai, goji berry, mangosteen)
12. Organic produce
13. Culinary cocktails (e.g., savory, fresh ingredients)
14. Micro-distilled/artisan liquor
15. Nutrition/health
16. Simplicity/back to basics
17. Regional ethnic cuisine
18. Nontraditional fish (e.g., branzino, Arctic char, barramundi)
19. Newly fabricated cuts of meat (e.g., Denver steak, pork flatiron, Petite Tender)
20. Fruit/vegetable children's side items

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