Sunday, February 08, 2004

The Food Thing

I've been doing the Food Thing. I do the Food Thing every once in awhile, when I realize I've neglected my culinary inclinations. The Food Thing means reading recipes, looking for places to buy ingredients, and generally spending one's time thinking about food.

So I went over to St. Blog's Parish Cookbook and copied down a lot of recipes. Then I made sure to get the Christmas-feast recipes Tom Fitzpatrick put up (no pun intended) on his Recta Ratio blog here, here, here, and here. If you know Tom, I would recommend doing everything possible to ingratiate yourself so that you get invited over for Christmas celebrations. I can't ingratiate. It's a congenital defect. So I'm just going to show up like the wassailers he wrote about and demand food in a jovial but menacing way. I'll bring actor Brian Dennehy with me. Nobody can do jovial-but-menacing like he can, except Humphrey Bogart, and Bogie's gone to the Big Brown Derby in the Sky. The only problem is that I'll have to wrestle Brian for the port jelly with custard sauce, and Brian outweighs me by at least ten pounds.

Then I went to Recipe Goldmine to find crock-pot recipes. I'd like to learn how to cook with a crock-pot, because my wife and I work and if we tried to make dinner the way I like it we wouldn't eat until 7:00. I don't mind that, myself, but we're in the midwest. If the midwest were a middle-eastern country, there'd be Cultural Police driving around looking through windows for people seated at the dinner table after sundown. It's not a muslim country, of course, but you still have to feel ashamed of yourself when you eat that late. I've never managed to make crock-pot food well. It always tastes, well, leeched and soggy. The flavors seem duller, the textures more uniform and on the softer side. I hope nobody's reading this and thinking "Well duh, you moron, whaddaya expect when you put beef and potatoes in water and heat them for twelve hours?" That would mean there's no way to make crock-pot food taste good. That would be doom.

On a happier note, I found IGourmet.Com. This is the food that thrills. Truffle paste, cream of artichoke soup, escargot, soppressata, dried morels and porcini, amaretti, torrone . . . . sigh . . . . That's eatin' high, I say. Nothing better than to sit down at a quiet dinner table with some leek soup and fresh bread. But it is not to be. Alone and with an aged palette I meet and dole unpleasantly-cooked food unto a velveeta race . . . .

While going through Recipe Goldmine I was reminded of my rules, verified by a good deal of testing, which can help weed out the truly time-wasting recipes from the bewildering array one finds on home-cooking websites. How can you tell whether to make Beef Stroganoff I, II, III, IV . . . XIX, XVIII, or MII? Here are some handy tips that let you know when you should remain calm, keep your hands to your side, and back away slowly.

(1) "This is even better the next day!" True, some foods are very pleasant to eat as leftovers, but usually dishes worth making don't sit in your refrigerator like cocooned worms until a sufficient number of the earth's revolutions can bring forth a new beauty. I tend to think this phrase means, "Maybe I'll have time to get the hell out of Dodge before you even try eating it." Besides, what's the point of making it for the next day? I have to eat today too, and this just doubles my work.

(2) "Serve hot." This instruction, appearing in recipes for stews and roasts, makes me wary. What is it about the chef that he or she believes that a stew should be served cool? Vichystew? Do ice cream cartons say, "Serve cold"? No. That's because Ben and Jerry know what they're doing.

(3) "1 lb Meat." If the chef doesn't care if you end up with Balogna Wellington or smoked-salmon sloppy joes, why should you?

(4) Ketchup (which people from odd lands spell "catsup") is not an ingredient. It's a condiment. As in, "it has a flavor that becomes disgusting when you use more than a tablespoon." When I see recipes that say "2 cups catsup," I say to myself, "Heck, why not throw in a pound of wasabi? At least I won't be able to taste the cat's supper." There are two exceptions to this rule. One is certain recipes for barbecue sauce. The other is the mystical concoction called "Wimpy" that my wife makes with hamburger, dried minced onions, and Del Monte Catsup.

(5) Peanut butter has no business on the dinner table, unless we're having desert. I can't fathom recipes that would require me to slather large quantities of peanut butter on meat and vegetables. When was the last time you put peanut butter on a hot dog? Calling it a "satay" won't help anything. It will make matters worse because some people will think that in addition to having a llama's tastebuds, I don't know what a satay is.

(6) Canned mushrooms are used by people who've never tasted real ones. I don't think a seriously-miseducated palette is going to hit on a good recipe by anything besides coincidence, and since the recipe already has canned mushrooms, I don't like the odds. I except truffles from this rule. A truffle is so good you can do anything to it without diminishing its ability to please. You could even make "catsup and peanut-butter truffle soup with meat," and you could still pick out the truffle bits and dream of Tuscany or Provence.

(7) Brand-name ingredients. Sometimes this is unavoidable. You can't, for example, make my grandmother's ice-box cake with Jello pudding, and if you're going to use prepared Mayonnaise then you have to use Hellman's. But when the recipe calls for a brand-name ingredient without an explanation or apparent purpose, you have to wonder about the reason. For example, is it really that important to use Libby's Whole Kernel Sweet Corn? Is it important to say the whole thing, "Libby's Delicious Whole Kernel Best Sweet Corn Better than Green Giant and Good For You Too"? I don't think so. In fact, I think the recipe's author is an industrial employee who's under continuous pressure to come up with something that will get one more box, can, or bag out of the store before the lawyers move to admit the list of ingredients as Plaintiff's Exhibit 12.

(8) Magic Ingredients. You can just tell that some recipes were written by people who can't wait to let drop the fact that this wonderful, oh-so-tasty dish was made by combining food no one gets excited about with a Magic Ingredient that transforms an otherwise lowly repast into the very ambrosia of gods. Like cinchona bark or pennicillin mold, the Magic Ingredient is usually something that could be described as Right There Under Our Noses All Along and which was discovered only through the Serendipitous Genius of the Chef. Fooey. Pot-Roast, my friends, is pot-roast and it will remain pot-roast even if it's been slathered in Miracle Whip or poached in root beer. The only thing such trickiness will produce is pot roast with an odd taste, like it was made with Miracle Whip or root beer. God has decreed a universe in which Filet and Sirloin are very, very good and in which pot roast is . . . well . . . what you have to eat a couple of times each month. Trying to reverse that order by jazzing up pot roast is the culinary equivalent of schism.

Ignore these rules if you like, but only at the risk of serving "Meaty Skippy's[TM] Peanut-Butter Root Beer Stew with Canned Mushrooms, Left Over and Served Lukewarm" or something very much like it. I have, and I wasn't thanked for it. I was instead banished from the kitchen, deprived of all meaningful contact with food in its unprepared state, unable to give free reign to my culinary inclinations. Hence my present need to do the Food Thing.

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