Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Thanksgiving Syndrome

Hi David.

At some point I realized I was beyond full and found myself pleasantly surprised at my own capacity to continue eating. It was almost my responsibility to do so. My body observed me place another cracker with cream cheese and caviar in my mouth in a state of utter confusion. One thing was perfectly clear to my poor body, though, this was not an occasion where its protest would be of any relevance. 

I collapsed into bed a couple of hours later, full of serrano ham, deep-fried chicken livers, hot dogs with parmesan cheese and truffle butter, cake, wine, cocktails... I'd been home in Puerto Rico for less than 12 hours and that was only the first of several parties being held in honor of my homecoming. I vaguely recall calling my boyfriend, who was safely in New York losing weight in my absence, and groaning, "Oh my god, I haven't eaten this much since lunch." Several hours before this first cocktail party my family had celebrated my arrival with a two hour lunch at Al Dente restaurant complete with bacon wrapped escargot and pumpkin ravioli. This pace did not let up for the next two days.

Each and every visit I make to Puerto Rico is a homecoming, the fatted calf is slaughtered, cakes are baked, and champagne bottles pop, figuratively and literally (maybe not the calf part). But this isn't something unique to me. Homecoming, graduations, holidays, weddings, any joyous celebration, and even sad ones like funerals, require an obscene amount of food to make them complete. It's what I'm going to call Thanksgiving Syndrome: a cross-cultural need to celebrate by eating and drinking in large groups to the point of collapse. 

Evidence of this tedency can be found as far back as the cave drawings. What did prehistory humans like to draw and tell stories about? Hunting the big bison that would become the weekly dinner feast (the metabolism stayed, the eating habits changed, what's happening evolution?). 

In Homer's Odyssey, every time Odysseus set foot on a new land, some sort of cattle was slaughtered and he and his new friends, who never asked what his name was until the tenth course, would feast all night. 

In the Bible, Jesus feeds a throng of people with two fish, a loaf of bread, and a skin of wine... all of which conveniently never ran out despite the hundreds of people devouring seconds and thirds. 

Food is a common offering to the gods, from bowls of milk to cakes left at the feet of statues then distributed among worshippers. 

Times of fasting usually culminate in feasts, from the breaking of the Yom Kippur fast at Katz's Deli for the Jews (or at least the Jews I know) to streets flowing with the blood of slaughtered animals at the last sundown of Ramadan (true story). 

I don't think I need to go into Thanksgiving, except to reiterate the 5000 calories generally consumed on that day and the inexplicable abundance of leftovers after the gorging. 

It's culture, it's tradition, it's human nature.

We could just as easily do something else and omit the food part, play music all night, dance, go somewhere special like a beach or church (maybe not church). And, we do. But without the giant meal throughout those festivities it would feel like something is missing. These special, large, no-holds-barred meals are what make the event. On a practical level, you need tons of food, if you're going to feed tons of people. But that much?

Your stomach hurts, you get tired, you can barely move, you've gained at least two pounds in two hours, but somewhere deep inside you are at ease. You feel warm, your mind calms down (food coma), you feel, um, satiated, to say the least. There is something comforting, grounding about being able to eat as much as you can and then eating more. And being able to stop and go back to your normal eating habits once the party is over. Overeating in the context of a party, something that happens occassionally and with many people, is more than OK, it's the whole point. In a way it reminds you how good it feels to not do that all the time. What elevates binging to celebrating, though, is that celebrating is collective binging. It's social deconstruction of you body and brain (if you're drinking). 

Food is important to people for reasons of survival, comfort, energy, nutrition, but what makes food special is eating it with other people. It's one of the most complete sensory experiences you can have as a group. Memories are triggered, places and events are relived collectively through the palate. And somewhere around this point, there is an understanding. A line is crossed usually after the first set of appetizers, lubricated with booze, and once you reach that point, there is no turning back, there is only pressing forward. You know that by continuing to eat and drink you will cause harm to yourself and you know it's going to be awesome. 

That's why desserts exist.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Squash Stuffed with Lamb

I've gotten good at bullshitting my way around a kitchen. I often read in blogs about people taking this and that recipe and putting them together to create their own recipe that already exists. So I did that. 

Having volunteered at my CSA July 4th I got to stock up on double and triple my usually quota since so many vegetables were leftover (yeah, I guess two heads of cabbage is excessive when you have no idea how to cook cabbage) and I had about six different sized squashes and zucchinis. 

And the lamb. 

One is naturally meant for stuffing the other.

I quickly made a tomato sauce with diluted tomato paste, onions, garlic, herbed olive oil, and a touch of honey, a doctored recipe I've read over and over again when searching for how to make North African stuffed peppers. Set that aside, then I put some onions (scallions work better for this) to sizzle in olive oil in a large pan and preheated the oven to 450.

While that combo worked its olfactory magic I went about the tedious task of gutting out the squash. I never realized the insides are solid previous to cooking, though I guess I should have known that since it's obvious when you slice them. Which I do often for ratatouille and stuff. But these are not natural connections one makes on a day to day basis. (Shut up.)  All my spoons were resting complascently at the bottom of an overflowing sink and trying to work the solid skin and seeds out with a knife resulted in pierced skins and uneven insides. I finally used a serving spoon and decided adamantly against making stuffed cabbage as a side dish. I'd had enough of stuffing things, thank you.

Garlic joined the onions in the hot oil. They caramelized very nicely, and shortly after the garlic came the insides of the squash (a step taken from two recipes online, my friends who make stuffed things usually just combine the meat with a starch like rice or potatoes, discarding the insides) and the crumbled ground lamb, dotted with fat and a hazy pink color. I salt and peppered it the night before since I hear you get a much better flavor from doing that (according to Food & Wine, apparently this is a technique you should avoid at all costs when making pork), then sprinkled liberal amounts of cumin, allspice, and cayenne over the mix. And more salt and pepper. 

The whole thing cooked more quickly than I expected. I'm into slow cooking but haven't mastered it so I always speed through my slow cooking. The squash melted, the lamb turned brown, the pan filled with liquid. As I spooned this mix into the empty squash shells I had a feelings I was missing something (as I tend to) then spooned some of the liquid over each of them. When I do things like that I have some vague notion of why I'm doing it which is rarely backed up by any concrete evidence. The idea behind adding the liquid was to keep the meat from drying out and for it to stew. I guess.  

The squashes looked pretty sitting in the roasting pan covered in crumbled meat but also looked incomplete. Something was just off. I added the tomato sauce, a marked improvement and remembered what I had meant to do: I wanted to mix in chopped parsley and lemon zest into the meat mixture. Next time, if there is one, I will add the parsley, maybe some cilantro too or some mint or scallion greens, something green for color and taste, lemon zest, and eggs, as a binding agent so the whole thing keeps together. But on with what I actually made.

I sprinkled parsley over the tomato sauce and squirted lemon juice over each squash (it sort of worked as a replacement) and put the whole thing covered in foil into the oven.

Somehow Eissa manages to cook this for 3 hours. Since last time I'd asked for a recipe I'd gotten snapped at I fought the temptation to text him and relied on published sources. All my recipes called for 30-40 minutes, I did 45 in the spirit of slow cooking but 30 would've been enough. The pan was filled with liquid again and the squash were fork tender without being mushy. Transferring them over to a cookie sheet revealed weakness in their structure, which can be remedied with a shorter baking time, no liquid spooned in along with the meat, and eggs. I crumbled queso fresco over them, I think a cheese with more flavor would've worked better, like mozzarella, but part of this exercise was to use stuff I had at home. Broiled them (more liquid came out, where was this coming from?) then served it with some fresh parsley for garnish and more lemon juice.

Robin says it's the best thing I've ever made for him, the flavors harmonized really nicely. It was better than I expected but still a work in progress. What I love about a recipe like this is that there are several key things you do: empty shells, be it squash, zucchini, tomatoes, bell peppers or potatoes, then you combine meat (chickpeas are a nice vegetarian substitute, although the two combined are also quite nice) with the insides of the shell, eggs, cheese, or a starch, something to give the mix some body, add herbs and spices, then add a sauce. One recipe called for a yogurt sauce but the tomato sauce is more traditionally North African which was what I was going for. And bake. It's relatively easy, though time consuming, and the rest of it is so much what you choose to add to it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

10 lbs. of Kosher Lamb

Two sets of ribs, some five pounds of nicely marbled ground meat, and a hunk of fat, flesh, and bone I can't even identify because the label is in Hebrew, are currently residing in my freezer. Meat has returned to my kitchen after nearly two years' absence. When I told my writing professor, a New Englander of Portuguese origin, he responded with a hearty, "Welcome back." 

We'll think of the slaughtered lamb from Mitzvah Meats as a sort of celebration.

Why I came back to meat is obvious: meat is delicious. As a foodie, my pseudo-morals about not killing animals and the fact that humans don't need to eat meat (it is bad for you to eat it every day, in my opinion) have never held enough water to keep me out of the blood and flesh pool for more than a few months at a time. Come on, I grew up watching entire hogs with metal poles sticking out of their mouths and rear ends rotate slowly over an open fire. Before my age had entered the double digits I picked at blood sausage and charred skin along with all of the adults, luxuriating in the meaty wonder of it. I've been a closet foodie most of my life and when I finally decided to embrace this obsession with food, meat was right there grabbing at my pseudo-vegetarian ankles, begging to be heard or, rather, prepared.

And finally I did. On Monday I made pork chops. The first meat I cook since I left Spain in 2007.

But my qualms about the killing of animals (and all the rampant cruelty of corporate America's industrialized farms, see Food, Inc.) for what I consider a luxury item still bring up images of horrifying cruelty, eyes wide with fear and confusion before a bloody, painful death. So I decided that the only way I could really enter the meat cooking world was to buy meat from a provider I knew had given my dead animal a good life. Enter my CSA and their connection to Mindful Meats, or Mitzvah Meats. Although the price for all the lamb was steep, it was kosher, humanely raised, and pasture-fed. And most importantly, you knew this meat was going to taste awesome.

The clincher was the idea of making a lamb ragú. I have no idea how I'm even going to make that with the weird cuts I was given and my utter lack of a meat cleaver, but a ragú will be made, along with a tajin and... ribs, I guess. This is a bright new world that has opened up for me in the kitchen and while chicken is off-limits for now and vegetables will still hold the upper hand, I'm finally catching up with the rest of Food World. Many great vegetarian cooks will argue that you don't have to make this stuff to be considered a foodie but the bloodlust is ingrained in me. My culture, my upbringing, my tastes all demand a meat fix every so often. Usually red. Usually rare.

I'm excited.