Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Sunday, December 13, 2009

This is How You Eat

This week I created a survey based on culinary Top Threes- homemade dinners, desserts, breakfasts, childhood foods, and so on- and sent it to several dozen of my faithful friends. I was giving them the privilege of acting as representatives of the under-appreciated twenty-something-year-old demographic who in my opinion lives in a culinary limbo. We are too poor to have access to ingredients more expensive or exotic than the occasional steak (usually paid for by our parents anyway) but who have shed the simple tastes and invincible (or useless, in the case of D and myself) teenage metabolisms that made several weekly trips to Wendy's OK. A handful of this underrepresented demographic replied, making me realize that their under-representation is probably self-induced since most moaned about how they don't like thinking. But they were good enough to answer and their answers will become the basis for my case study in the changes in gastronomic preferences of a generation in transition. Big words!

Almost all my subjects are New York based, which does influence their responses for a number of reasons: seasonal and local availability of ingredients, NYC as culinary mecca, NYC as prohibitively expensive, distance from family. My friends who replied also had very varied backgrounds: Colombian, Mexican, Guyanese, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Libyan, white. Despite the difference there are a number of patterns that emerged which I will go on to analyze because its Sunday and I really have nothing better to do.

What we can feel good about, though, meaning us NYC-dwelling 20-something-year-olds, is that we still honor our food traditions but our diets have progressively gotten better. We may actually avoid becoming fat like our parents. Here's why (don't worry, I'm only going to list the more interesting sections):

Homemade Dinners:

"Some kind of pasta with marinara sauce."
"any kind of pasta"
"pasta, chicken, vegetable"
"grilled chicken (maybe with a side of broccoli, probably not)"

If you're going to invest in anything this year make it either chicken, pasta, or vegetables. Rice came at a close second as did soup. There were a handful of anomalies, more complex dishes like tagine, stuffed pepper, and other mostly North African dishes or simple Chinese fare like tofu and vegetables.

Dinner Ordered or Eaten Out:

Asian food was overwhelming mentioned, from Chinese, Thai, Indian to specifics like veggie lo mein and sushi. Pizza and burgers were in second place followed by the word occassionally. Most of these people even hold gym memberships. (That's right, none of my friends are fat.)


This category for reason confused some of my subjects. By top three some thought I meant four or more which they somehow turned into three by combining two things into one like "cheesecake/pie" or "cookies/brownies." Chocolate, cookies, cheesecake, and ice cream were the highest rated, with two practicing Communists saying they don't really care for desserts.

Blow-Out Feasts Eaten Out:

One word: Steak. Steakhouse, Outback, Churrascaria... the biggest blowout for my friends and I involves bloody, red meat. Second place went to Olive Garden and Max Brenner. Meals eaten abroad and paid for by someone else also came up which only confirms that if you're traveling and someone else is paying, you can eat as much as you want.


Christmas and Thanksgiving were prominent but what was interesting was how they specified that what made them special beyond just the food was the gathering itself with family or friends. Interesting because so many people hate these holidays for precisely that reason.

Most Hated Foods:

This was the Freak Show portion of the survey. The most mundane: Broccoli and cabbage. The most bizarre: sea urchin, bone marrow, chinese buffets, and "the Large Fish Eggs, the smaller ones I can live with on sushi because they blend in. but the big ones taste like suicide in your mouth." That's right, suicide in your mouth. An oddly common one was raw onion.

Guilty Pleasures:

We're still kids at heart:

"Peanut Butter Cups Sour Gummy candy Cookies!!!!! OH MY GOD YES"

"Ice cream with unlimited toppings ... like cookies, cereal, fruit, chocolate fudge all at the same time.. ON.. a hot brownie/chocolate cake"

"butter<--spreading too much of it on bread, cooking with it, baking with it, LOVING IT"

"the occasonal fast food dose. Like that time we went to McDonalds... Sometimes you just need a dose of gross."

One of the Communists left this section blank. Other notable items aside from the fast food and dessert orgams above were french fries, hostess cupcakes, and cheetohs. Mmmmm processed foods.

The last three sections all realte to each other as they prove three things:
  1. We are shedding college habits like fast food and hard liquor (with the exception of those who listed fast food as a guilty pleasure, which is still indicative of a reduction).
  2. We grew up on processed foods like pop tarts and slim jims which we don't eat anymore but which we remember fondly.
  3. There is a definitely vegetarian slant in what we have recently started eating with many vegetables like kale and brussel sprouts coming up and a sharp decline in meat.
I actually have to water down some of the self-congratulatory sentiment I felt when beginning this article. I was speaking to one of my friends/subjects while finishing this piece and celebrating in what good shape our generation is food-wise until he corrected: "at least the middle/upper class college educated generation." And sadly, that's the truth in a nutshell. My subjects are hardly a worthy sample of the whole of our generation and much less our country. Like I said, I don't have any fat friends and most live in NYC. Beyond simply being educated on better nutrition and eating habits we also have the resources to make those decisions. But then at the same time, considering what most of us earn per year, what's really missing in the decision-making process of the most of the nation is the inclination to make better food choices. I really hope Jamie Oliver and Mark Bittman can make this happen. Until then, keep up the good work, guys.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Recipes for the Ungodly Hours

This morning I woke up at 6 am and made soup. No, I wasn't particularly craving soup for breakfast, in fact I had a breakfast engagement at 8:30 in the city. So why on earth, you may ask, was I watching dawn light creep up over the cemetery trees while chopping onions and boiling squash?

I was making my lunch.

Since I lived in Spain with a mind for finances and the love of vegetables and cooking, I've been an early morning/late night cooker out of necessily. I've just as readily come home at 8:30pm and pulled out the chopping board when others would've pulled out the take out menu. I'm not trying to build myself up as some supernaturally powerful, sleep-dreprived home cook who hates herself. It's not like I'm baking a wedding cake before R gets up just for kicks.

My budget is, how should I say, limited, at best, and my ability to manage it is, let's see, um, inept. Because I like to cook and because I overbuy at the supermarket, I'm often forced, for lack of a better word, to put my pots and pans into high gear. Often I end up producing an inordinate amount of dishes to wash for only two people eating, but that's on the good nights-- when I get home early, make that quiche crust, boil those presoaked beans, or dice that half dozen vegetables. Usually I get home and my brain can't really process more information than chop onion, heat olive oil, add tomatoes... now what? And sometimes it one of those week when I fell asleep before I could make my lunch, there are no leftovers to pack, and I forgot to factor in the ConEd-Time Warner-National Grid bills before I bought those new gloves, that new hat, and that knife skills classes. So I have not choice but to make myself something for lunch, usually the morning of. And, sadly, PBJs have never quite cut it for me. Then again a I'm not going to try to make Cassoulet at 5 am on a Wednesday.

So for those days when I'm half-awake and armed with a chef's knife, I have a handful of simple, quick recipes for quick meals that are hot and/ or reheatable. Here are three of my more effective ones, which can be made at any time, one under an hour and two under half an hour.

Black Bean and Squash Soup

** This is why this dish is wonderful: its a filling lunch or dinner and its ready in under an hour, mostly unattended. The starchy, salty beans are balanced by the sweetness of the squash. The spices soften the flavor while also filling it out, making it almost earthy. The vinegar is almost imperceptible but gives it a nice kick. I made it this morning and had all of it.


- 1 can of black beans with liquid or 1 cup dried black beans, soaked overnight
- 1/2 butternut squash (can also use calabaza, acorn, or any other sweet squash), peeled, seeded, and cubed into 1 inch squares
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 leeks, chopped, or 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp coriander
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 1 tbsp cider vinegar (optional)
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil

In a pot or crockpot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onions and leeks or garlic and cook stirring until softened. Add oregano and allow to cook for another minute or so. Toss in the squash, cumin, and coriander. mixing all elements together. Cook for a few minutes, then add beans, salt and pepper, stir together. Pour chicken broth, stir in vinegar, and bring to a boil. When bubbling, cover and lower the heat. Simmer for half and hour to 40 minutes or until beans and squash are soft and squash is fragrant.


** This is a Libyan breakfast served throughout the Middle East. I made it for the first time with julienned green and red pepper and with cayenne rather than jalapeño. It was a recipe from a North African cookbook I own which, along with my half-Libyan friend Eissa and my friend Sam's Tunisian husband, opened my mind to what is now my new favorite food: North African food. Its spicy, flavorful, filling, from eggs in spicy tomato sauce to stuffed peppers to tangine, as of now anything that contains cumin, paprika, cayenne, or allspice is good in my book. This recipe is my favorite.


- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 jalapeño, seeded, cored, and chopped or cayenne to taste
- 1 can diced tomatoes with liquid
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 tsp paprika
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 4 eggs
- 2-4 slices of bread, toasted
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

Heat olive oil in a skillet or pan with a lid. Add onions and jalapeño and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, paprika, and cumin and cook for a few more minutes until fragrant. Add tomatoes and water, stir, and bring to a soft boil. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes, until sauce is slightly thick then stir in parsley. When ready, use a spoon to open 4 spaces in the sauce and crack an egg into each one. Cover and cook eggs until whites are set but yolk is still runny. Serve eggs with sauce over bread.

Curried Egg Salad

** I made this for our plane ride to Puerto Rico last week and they worked out really nicely. My favorite chutney to use with this is Beth Farm's Spicy Tomato Chutney available at the Union Square Farmer's Market. Its far tastier and more interesting than a regular egg salad or cold cuts sandwich and very filling. Probably my favorite sandwich.


- 2 pieces of bread, toasted (rye bread is particularly good for this)
- 2 eggs, hard boiled
- 1 tsp curry
- 1/2 tsp tumeric
- 1/4 tsp allspice
- 1/8 tsp cayenne
- 1/4 onion, chopped
- 1 tbsp mayo
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tomato, sliced, preferably roma (optional)
- Several leaves of spinach (optional)
- Chutney (recommended)

Spread chutney on one piece of bread. Crack hardboiled eggs and remove skin, crush the whites and yolk together with a fork. Add mayo, onion, and spices until it becomes a paste. Spread over bread without chutney. On top of egg salad, arrange tomato slices and spinach. Close the sandwich, wrap up, and get to work.

All pictures are from internet, not mine.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Home's Cooking

I'm getting the impression that the only culture that truly accepts vegetables as food and not seasoning for meat is the Indian culture and the liberal urban well-to-do hippie culture. And my cat, Tito. Or maybe I've decided to make a sweeping generalization because I've been living in a bubble of Hispanic and Middle-American culture for the past week. Or because I've frequently been attacked by some of my close friends (Mexican, Guyanese, Libyan, respectively) for proposing that meat, like cookies, is a "sometimes food." Or maybe its just them and my family who regard me as the vegetable-eating black sheep. Like my cat, Tito.

Circumstances have conspired against me, and high cholesterol or not, I've been in a meat-induced high for days. Texas was only different because my sister-in-law humored me and let me add some braised cabbage and a salad to the Thanksgiving menu.

Vegetables just aren't part of my family's gastronomic repertoire and they aren't really part of Puerto Rican culture's repertoire either. The Puerto Rican diet consists of fast food, plastic wrapped cookies from boxes, chips, meat, rice and beans, root vegetables like potato, yuca, calabasa, either fried or boiled, meat, bread, cold cuts, meat, some heavy pastas like lasagna or spaghetti bolognes, pasteles (which are like tamales made with plantains and meat), and did I mention meat? Now, don't get me wrong, Puerto Rican food is delicious, so delicious in fact that vegetables actually taste boring, even nasty, in comparison to its meaty, fatty goodness. Take my brother.

My younger brother, whose body is composed primarily of burgers, decided to try salad for the first time during Thanksgiving because he found a dressing that reminded him of the Sweet Onion sauce from Subway. He took one bite of spinach and tomato and spit it out immediately, swearing to never to eat salad again.   

Going back to my sweeping generalization, there is a cultural defensiveness that comes over people when you threaten their meat consumption. I'm obviously discarding from this equation vegetarians, Indian people, French people (the bastards), and anyone who has ever lived in New York or California. But most typical, traditional, family meals have some sort of meat at their center. I understand that urge to anchor down a plate with a protein.

Since I started eating meat again I've realized how nice, how complete a dinner feels when you can include some sort of well-seasoned, tender animal flesh along with your vegetables. I usually try to make due with just with cheese or eggs but nothing really beats the saltiness, the firm texture, and the fullness that comes with eating meat, be it chicken, red meat, pork, or fish. I mean, what plant could ever replace the sweet-salty-perfect flavor of bacon?

But above and beyond the physical addiction that the utter and thorough deliciousness of well-prepared meat created in the human brain and body, there is also an entitlement that comes down from as far back as the cave paintings where picture-stories about packs of men hunting of bison, mammoths, and tigers decorated stone walls. Consider the Greek and Roman orgies where the blood of cattle flowed or the simple peasant's sacrificial lamb offered up the gods then greedily consumed by the worshipper. Hindu and Christian fasting usually consists of abstinence from meat and alcohol, Muslim fasting culminates in massive, meaty feasts, and all holidays have an animal assigned to them.

Unfortunately, unlike the warring Greeks, the nomadic tribes of cavemen, or the peasants, physical labor has all but disappeared from daily life as medical science has ballooned over the decisions people make about what to eat. And medical science is under the constant assault of the industrialized meat industry and the stubbornness of traditions. Trandition and money met and as they say in Spanish, el amor y el interés fueron al campo un día... (love and private interests went to the country one day...)

As I learned from Michael Pollan, the meat industry lobbied long and hard against the discovery that doctors made several decades ago that over-consumption of meat was responsible for the number one cause of preventable death: heart disease. The meat lobbyist weren't buying it so they demanded the scientists boil it down to something they could work with. So the white coats determined that it was the fat in the meat that caused high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high rates of preventable death. The meat lobbyists thought it over, nodded, and went to press with the story: Fat is Evil! And so was born the fat-free industry. Everybody wins.

Well, guess what's fat free. That's right. Because of the lack of government subsidizing which make them expensive and their more complex flavors which make them challenging, vegetables need to step up their game in order to beat this iron-clad money-tradition meat combo. I propose a few ways to counter the meat monopoly over the gastronomic preferences of the world:

1) Visit New York with someone who has lived there. California works too.
2) Eat Indian food.
3) Pick one day a week to not eat meat.

This last one I'm stealing from a litany of food writers who are better versed than me on this subject. But the brilliance of this suggestions, beyond its obvious health and environmental benefits, it also creates the ideal scenario of invention by necessity. You can do as much and often more with vegetables than you can with meat. If you're looking for a starting point, create traditional meals with meat but add vegetables you've never tried or prepare vegetables you know in a way you're not used to. If you want to go a step further eliminate the meat from the center and make up for it with new dishes of vegetables (use cheese and eggs if you're scared). For the more adventurous I recommend experimentation with curry, cumin, cayenne, and tumeric. Once you go down this road, you'll never go back. The point? Just try new things.

Be like Tito.