Monday, January 24, 2011

The Comfort Food Kama Sutra

Its amazing how the same ingredients, in different combinations, can create an adventure out of the most familiar. . . . . food.

Its been the worst six weeks in memory here in the fancy-scarf wearing, Amtrak-riding Northeast, as far as the winter weather. Winters aren’t all that harsh here on the Jersey Shore, as a general rule. Its common to go for a year or two without any snow, and its rare for the ponds and lakes to freeze solid enough for skating. This is the Mid-Atlantic, not New England (if they extended the Mason-Dixon line due East, it would cut right through southern New Jersey), but the last 6 weeks have been downright Vermont-y, with over 40 inches of snow, temperatures rarely rising above freezing, and Barnegat Bay nearly frozen over.

So, of course, this is the kind of weather when you long for the proverbial "comfort food," soups and stews and warming, soothing dishes. “Comfort food” has been something of a food fad the last several years, first there was French Bistro, then the rediscovery of the American cultural parallel,“Diner Cuisine,” which has in turn led to this year’s new black, the mac and cheese and bacon-with-everything craze, and I can’t help thinking the cupcake thing is related.

Comfort food is, of course, first and foremost, comforting. But you don't usually think of it as exciting or adventurous, but there is no reason it can't be. As soothing and enjoyable as a warm bowl of something substantial, like beef stew, lentil soup, chili, or a chicken pot-pie may be, it can still be improved with some extra attention and inventiveness. As with most things in life, and perhaps food and sex most of all, you get out of it what you put in, you can sleepwalk through the same old routine, and put together what will still be a satisfying, if mundane, missionary-position meal, or you can bring some enthusiasm and creativity to the fore, incorporate an unexpected spice, dress your dish in something more provocative, consult the culinary kama-sutra for some inspiration, a new way of combining those familiar ingredients. And as always, its about making daily life your art and your love, and through making the everyday special, appreciating life and its beauties and joys all the more, being more mindful of the blessings of life.

Today’s dish was inspired by a rare trip to Whole Foods. My home town is located out in the boonies, surrounded by the Pine Barrens of south Jersey, and does not have much in the way of sophisticated purveyors; “not much” as in “none.” So, whenever my travels take me past a place where I can find the rarities unavailable at home, I tend to stop, and yesterday I stopped at a Whole Foods. To my surprise, nothing in the seafood section looked very tempting (where have all the fishes gone?), so I decided to stock up on some of the hard-to-find bulk items they offer. I wound up buying a few pounds each of green DePuy lentils, toasted pumpkin seeds (to throw on salads for the crunch), bulgher wheat, and on a whim, some falafel mix (I was hearing Jonathan Richman’s “Dancing Late At Night” in my head, when he sings “you can smell the late night falafel stand, dancing dancing late at night”).

As Du Falafel, a fixture of the Marais district in Paris

At home, I already had a boneless chuck roast I planned to put in the pressure cooker, and the falafel mix gave me an idea. Over in the produce section of Whole Foods there were bags of mixed winter greens, colorful cabbages (the leaves from the ornamental cabbages, purple, green, and white) mixed with green, red, and yellow swiss chard, all chopped and washed and ready to cook, I have bought these mixes before, and they are so easy to cook, quickly saute, and they come out so colorful, so I bought one of those, and for just an extra dash of color and flavor, I bought some yellow beets, which, if you glaze them, cook to an amazing golden color. I had no plans to infuse a great deal of beet flavor, just add that beautiful golden color to contrast with the greens and the red of the pot-roasting sauce (I had decided to pot-roast the chuck with tomatoes).

First, however, I must digress, and offer my praise for pressure-cookers. I got into pressure cookers years ago, all part of my planned career as a pirate, a voyaging sailor. People who go on long sailing voyages like pressure-cookers for two reasons; first, they cook foods fast, so you use less of your precious fuel, and second, long-distance voyagers tend to eat a lot of dried legumes, which would take hours of cooking, without a pressure cooker, but only 40 minutes, using these magical devices. I have owned several over the years, but this electric model is
the best pressure cooker I ever used; its computerized controls keep the pressure perfect without the constant “hissing” from the steam-release valve that usually accompanies pressure-cooking.

Pressure cookers take advantage of one of the physical (as in "Physics") properties of water, which is that the boiling point of water is proportional to the ambient pressure. This is why recipes have to be adjusted for a longer cooking time at high altitudes, because water boils at a lower temperature under the lower atmospheric pressure present at high altitude. Pressure cookers only work with simmered or braised dishes, because they rely on water, but they allow you to, for example, braise a pot-roast in 45 minutes that would take 3 hours in the oven or on a stove-top. The pressure cooker traps the steam with its air-tight lid, and this makes the pressure go up, and under high pressure, the liquids in the cooker can reach much higher temperatures than the normal boiling point of 212° ƒ.

Of course the first step in braising anything is browning. This cooker has a setting for that, it makes it so easy.

This dish was pot-and-pan-intensive, but what the heck, you have to suffer for art:

So, in the end, I am braising the chuck roast with red wine and whole Italian plum tomatoes, crushed by hand, with garlic, onions, celery, parsley, carrots and bay leaves, everything will be strained out after cooking to make a smooth sauce that I will reduce and thicken. I am sautéing the greens with garlic, just a bit of red pepper, and olive oil, I am making flat falafel pancakes, I am caramelizing one diced yellow beet, for that golden color, and I am also sautéing some shiitake mushrooms as a garnish.

The final presentation: a bed of the greens, a falafel pancake jauntily tilted across one side like a frenchman’s beret, some torn chunks of the fork-tender braised chuck on top of the falafel, with the shiitakes and golden caramelized beets on top for color.

Only I forgot the beets, I cooked them early on, and put them in a bowl in the microwave to re-heat when everything was done, and I totally forgot them.

Next time, I will do this with a white corn polenta cake. The falafel made this dish very different, very rich, and full of flavor, and maybe just a bit too “busy.” And a meat-substitute and a meat in the same dish, that’s a bit much. A fried cake of white corn polenta, that would be a gentle, creamy counterpart to the lovely tomato-red wine braising sauce, so next time, or when I get to put this on the menu of my someday dream restaurant, it will be made with a white corn polenta cake. Or maybe one of those Swiss potato-cakes. . . There is so much to look forward to, so many positions in the culinary Kama Sutra.

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