Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Real World, Part One

A student returning to college asked the readers of the Blog 101 Cookbooks to suggest ways he might overcome the horrors of dorm food and required meal plans. After 392 comments the host interrupted the process.

It is difficult to make generalizations about the state of food on campus. For every food service that is diversifying and including more healthy options, there is a campus that has been optioned by fast food chains.

I believe that every college ought to offer classes in food; nutrition, shopping, preparation, and presentation. Refined Home Ec ought to be a required part of every gen ed curriculum and should begin with food. I'll begin with the following:
The cruise through the supermarket.
As has been mentioned in this space the number of MREs for civilians now being offered in every major supermarket grows and grows. They are intended for working persons who simply don't have the time or inclination to cook. Salad bars, rotisserie spits, precooked entrees and sides abound. One pays for that convenience. Students can learn to roll their own. The lettuce that is 6 bucks a pound in the salad bar, is 1.50 in the produce case. Even here the price for convenience has one paying a premium for the bagged "salad". Anyone can shred a head of lettuce, slice a cuke, peel a carrot, top a radish. The temptation is to select one of the hundreds of dressing that line an entire aisle of most stores. The reason there are so many is that they are cheap to produce and yield high profit. Good for them Bad for us. Note the presence of things you either can't pronounce or know by now aren't good for you. The number of offerings suggest that something as simple as the most basic dressing is as foreign to most of us as its name, vinaigrette. One part vinegar, three parts oil, salt, pepper, whisk with fork, pour. Add herbs, flavored vinegars, mustard, go nuts, have fun.

Fruits aren't as easy as you might suspect. A tasty apple is a slam dunk but unless you live near where they grow them you aren't going to taste a ripe peach. Ripening fruit is a problem. Some solutions are easy. A pear needs time to develop and placing them in paper bags and waiting a day or two will work. Off gases from bananas will ripen pears, papayas, and mangos so placing them together in a paper bag will ripen all of the fruit. Here's a fundamental truth: Fruit goes on sale when it is in season, ripe, and abundant. Knowing the cycle of ripening is a help. Here is an example from Michigan You will need a local resource.

So we will cruise through the store and note fresh and available options; nuts flood the market around the winter holidays, Florida citrus comes in after the new year, potatoes and all manner of the onion group are harvested in the fall.

We have mentioned cans of salmon and beans. Canned tomatoes are their own special treat. Watch for the sodium content when choosing a brand. You don't need the extra jolt of salt. In most cases I prefer food packed in jars to cans. There are fewer negative surprises. Roasted peppers and new lines of vegetable (eggplant, olive, artichoke, chickpea) spreads are becoming common.

This naturally leads one to bread. Most supermarkets are buying in bread from local artisan bakers and if you don't have access to a decent loaf, move.

What's your criteria for a good life? That loaf, torn, dipped in olive oil, rubbed with a clove of garlic, topped with a slice of a hundred options in the cheese or deli cases, a tomato crushed in the hand, smeared with hummus, tapenade, or creamed cheese. And we haven't cooked anything yet.

The revolution is upon us, the kinks are still being worked out, but induction cooking is a fact of life. I would guess that food is being kept warm in your cafeteria on an induction hot-plate. They are not of uniform quality and reviews vary. I bought one from

It has never failed me. The investment is well worth it. It does not spread noxious fumes, is cool to the touch, and is portable. It requires cookware that responds to a magnet. Luckily, the one pot you need, a spun steel wok with a flat bottom, works. Don't get caught up in the asian names and uses for a wok. It is the most versatile pan in the kitchen. You can scramble an egg, cook soup, make spaghetti, and of course you can stir fry veggies. It will also serve as a mixing bowl. The key is never to use soap once it has been seasoned, (heated with a film of oil to smoking and allowed to cool).

People need to learn about tools, and their care and maintenance. None more-so than a knife. There are really only two knives any cook ever needs, but I will forego the 8 inch chef's knife for our purposes and stick with the knife that can do it all. My choice is a "trout knife" from LLBean.

You can peel. core, filet, scrape, bone, chop, and then use it to eat with. It fits neatly in all hands, takes a great edge, and comes with a sheath. Buy a fork, tea and soup and ladle spoons, a high temperature tolerant spatula, a soup bowl with a flared edge so that you can grip it when you use it as a mixing bowl, a flexible cutting board that can be rolled up, a set of rigid plastic plates that can be wiped clean and a can opener.

Applying all of the above thoughts let's make our first dish. Gather an eggplant (firm, small button on end) a smallish onion, a head of garlic, a green pepper, a zucchini if they are in season, a 14-oz can of diced tomatoes, a handful of pitted olives, a bottle of good vinegar (apple cider works fine), a 16-oz bottle of good olive oil, a fresh herb (basil, parsley) if available, and a packet of dried oregano, salt and pepper (they now pack pepper in grinders ready to go).

Peel and chop, onion in dice, chop pepper (take off top, break with your hands, press skin side down so your knife won't slip, slice lengthwise , and then chop) peel and cube eggplant, break out a couple of cloves of garlic (trim skin off), wash and trim ends off zuke and then slice in thick chunks. Open tomatoes.

Pour several tablespoons of oil in wok, heat to full blast and saute onion, pepper and eggplant together, stirring and turning often with wok tool. Five minutes will do. The eggplant will absorb the oil like a sponge so add sparingly as needed. Add chopped garlic and turn just to brown lightly and then add tomatoes and the liquid from the can. It will bubble, add a bit of water if it appears dry, it should be wet on the edges. A teaspoon of salt, grindings of pepper, a palmful of oregano, a quarter cup of vinegar (count to two when pouring), a handful of olives and a packet of sugar stirred in complete the ingredients. Turn the heat down to simmer, and cover. Five minutes later turn the contents over to avoid sticking or scorching. Repeat once or twice. You don't want a mush. The eggplant should appear to have some shape. Let cool to room temp. Rip bread, top with 'caponata", chase with "a simple chianti".

I will suggest recipes from time to time.

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