Thursday, January 27, 2011

Simple Pleasures

Skirt Steak with Spinach and Pumpkinseed Pesto Pasta Shards

Skirt Steak, until recently, a poverty food

What I most want to do with this blog is to show people the joy that can be had in one of the most basic human activities, preparing and eating our food. We must have air, water, food, and love, those are the essentials of life. And since we have to cook and eat, every day, anyway, why not make it a joy, rather than a dull routine? Why not approach it with reverent abandon, aware and thankful appreciation for one of the greatest sensual gifts of life? Go for it with gusto, but also with appreciation and awareness!

I want to share my love of cooking, and of making the most with the least, I want to show that the most everyday, economical, simple meal, can be as enjoyable as a gourmet dinner in the finest restaurant, and I want to show that creating something special from the simplest things is something that anyone can do. We have to prepare our meals and eat them, and we have a choice, open a can of Ravioli-Os, plop it in a bowl, and microwave it, then shovel in the calories we need, as a mindless act of simply fueling our body, or we can make it an act of loving creativity in the preparation, and an act of reverential appreciation in the consumption. It costs no more to make preparing and eating a meal an act of loving creativity and sincere appreciation, and very little more effort, and that extra effort itself can be a joy, and an act of love.

I have made many allusions comparing cooking and eating with sex, my favorite being the observation that with both activities (and they can overlap), you get out if it what you put into it,or as Paul McCartney said, in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make. I hope these comparisons are not off-putting, because I think the comparison is perfect. The difference between appreciating the act of creating a meal, and mindfully and thankfully taking joy in its consumption,and simply scarfing down some awful fast-food, is exactly the same as the difference between making love, and a cheap one-night hookup (followed by the dreaded "walk of shame.") The basic, animal appetite may have been sated, but the soul and the spirit are left unfed.

The walk of shame, cab to door version. Do you think he paid for the cab fare?

Savoire Vivre

George W. Bush may or may not have said "the problem with the French is they don't even have a word for 'entrepeneur'" (if he didn't, he should have, its such a perfect W thing to say). But the French do have a phrase that perfectly defines the theme of this blog, which is,to paraphrase the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, "making the mostest with the leastest." The French phrase is "savoir vivre;" literally it translates as "knowing how to live," but there is a strong element of "living well without waste," of knowing the secrets to finding the greatest pleasure with the least expenditure (this is not to be confused with "Savoire Faire," who is an omnipresent Canadian cartoon mouse).

I promise there will be a post soon devoted to the joy of canalboating in France!

Savoir Faire is everywhere!

This meal is a modest example of living well, creating and taking extra joy, from the most mundane, taking the most ordinary, simple Wednesday night dinner, made from the most economical ingredents, and making something simple but delightful. Putting in the extra effort, putting in the love, that comes back in love of life, appreciation and mindfulness for the everyday gifts that too often go unnoticed.

Its just skirt steak, seared in a very hot antique cast-iron skillet (it was given to my mother when she married my father in 1945, 66 years ago). Coooking meat this way is not frying, its not sauteeing, this is "pan-broiling," and it cooks a steak better than the so-called "broiler" in most home ovens.

One important note: you cannot do this with a non-stick pan! Nonstick pans are evil (I think I might get sued if I say Teflon; its a good thing it doesn't count if its in parentheses) and I won't have one in the house. You simply cannot cook properly with these pans, because they cannot stand the heat required. This is most true if you want to pan-broil anything. And there is this ugly ugly secret about That Substance Which Must Not Be Named, that the Major Corporation that owns the State of Delaware and rhymes with "Dumont" works very hard to suppress: the stuff emits a noxious gas when subjected to high temperature, which can make you sick as a dog. This is absolutely true, you can Ask Cecil if you don't believe me.* In fact, its probably happened to you, but you just thought you had a 24-hour bug or something. The gasses produce flu-like symptoms in humans, mostly extreme headaches and vomiting, and can kill small birds (the proverbial canary in a cold mine effect).

So anyway, there is nothing simpler than pan-broiling a steak; start with meat at room temperature, and take it out of the package some time before you are going to cook it, too, and wrap it in a towel, or paper towels, to let it dry out. Most beef has too much moisture, and will always cook better if you let it dry out a bit, you can even squeeze it and wipe it with a towel to get some of the excess moisture out. This is important with pan-broiling, because there is noplace for any seeping liquid to go, it stays in the pan and all of a sudden, you are poaching the steak, rather than broiling it, and you do not want that.

I seasoned the meat (meat is murder, tasty, delicious murder) with salt and pepper, and coated it with just enough oil to make it glisten. I heated the pan over my biggest burner at the highest heat, for several minutes, (this is where your bird would keel over dead, if you were using a Teflon pan) and threw the meat on the smoking hot iron. You know its working right if there is a lot of smoke. After the initial searing on both sides, you can turn down the heat a bit, but never let it get cool enough that moisture puddles in it, of you see anything bubbling, you're doing it wrong. The whole process takes 5 minutes.

Now to the spinach-pumpkinseed pesto pasta shards. You aren't often served pasta with meat, and I think its a matter of texture, a skinny noodle, like spaghetti, just doesn't seem right with a chewy, rich, piece of steak. But I think that a thick, chewy pasta works great with grilled meats, fettucini alfredo, for example, the Italian version of mac and cheese, can work. The only problem was I had no fettucini, and this is the Wednesday, mid-week after work, I am gonna make do with what I have meal, so I looked on the pasta shelf, and I had some lasagna, the thickest, chewiest pasta of all. And its not just for making lasagna anymore. I hesitate to say I got this idea from Martha Stewart, the famous ex-con (she was railroaded) and my fellow New Jersey-ite, but yup, one of her cookbooks is among my favorites, "Good Food Fast," and in it, she had a recipe for "pasta shards," lasagna broken up into random pieces, not too small, thusly:

So, what would I make for a sauce? Alfredo, nah, I'm trying to lose some pounds lately. Tomato sauce would not complement the steak very well, so again, I went to the refrigerator to see what I had on hand. I was low on fresh vegetables, but, there in the freezer, a bag of spinach! And some lima beans, which would thicken the spinach sauce, (once pureed) so this became my plan.

First, I finely diced a half an onion and several cloves of garlic, and slowly sauteed these in olive oil until they were soft and translucent. Then in went the spinach and lima beans, along with a hocky puck of veal stock (this will be the subject of a future post; I make veal stock, which is a magical all-purpose elixir, and freeze it in a muffin pan, then take the frozen hocky-pucks of stock and store them in a bag in the freezer, so I can just grab a half-cup at a time, when needed, which is almost always).

I had also thrown in some parsely, to intensify the green color, and the fresh parsely livens up the flavor of any herb or vegetable, it perked up the frozen spinach. When it was well-cooked, I added salt and pepper, a tiny bit of cayenne, about a half-cup of grated parmesan, and a handful of those roasted pumpkinseeds I have been going on about for a week now, they are great in so many things, again, here, they replaced the pine nuts that are more common in a pesto, and now I prefer them, they are lighter, more delicate. Then it all went into the venerable cuisinart, and in the end, I added about two tablespoons of cream, and it was divine.

So then, it was simply tossing the pasta shards with the spinach-pumpkin pesto, and serving it forth. I should have made a gremolata as a garnish, that would have been the final little "something special," it does look a little bare, next time, gremolata, in this case, I would have coarsely chopped some of the pumpkinseeds, and mixed it with some grated parmesan, along with perhaps some scallions, or finely diced shallot, and some lemon zest, then sprinkle it on top of the meat and the pasta.

I can't wait to make this same pasta sauce, with squash substituted for the spinach, next time. Or maybe cannellini substituted for the spinach, look at that, three different sauces, one recipe, damn I love this cooking thing.

* Cecil Adams, author of The Straight Dope, the wonderfully funny advice column published for years now in The Chicago Reader:
Cecil has a helpful and humble FAQ which explains why you can trust his advice on any and all topics:
1.Who is Cecil Adams?
Cecil Adams is the world's most intelligent human being. We know this because: (1) he knows everything, and (2) he is never wrong.

2.How do we know that Cecil knows everything and is never wrong?
Because he said so, and he would never lie to us.

3.No, really.
Listen, read the columns. Soon you will agree this is no ordinary man.

4.What do you mean, "columns"? You're telling me the world's smartest human being works for the newspapers?
We all gotta eat. Yes, Cecil works for the newspapers. His syndicated weekly column, the Straight Dope, presently appears in more than 30 newspapers throughout the United States and Canada. Ballantine has published five collections of his work, a Straight Dope TV show aired on the Arts & Entertainment cable network, and we'll be starting on the biopic as soon as we can line up Sly Stallone.

1 comment:

Sara said...

Because birds have extremely sensitive respiratory systems, bird owners must take precautions to protect them. Cooking fumes, smoke and odors that have little or no effect on people can seriously sicken and even kill birds, often quite quickly. Cooking fumes from any type of unattended or overheated cookware, not just non-stick, can damage a bird's lungs with alarming speed. This is why bird owners should take steps to protect their pets, such as keeping their birds out of the kitchen, never leaving cookware unattended, never allowing pots and pans to overheat, and making sure that their kitchen is properly ventilated at all times.

In terms of Polymer Fume Fever... Over the past 40 years, there have been only a few reported accounts of polymer fume fever as a result of severely overheating non-stick cookware. It should be noted that butter, fats, and cooking oils will begin to smoke at approximately 400°F (204°C), producing fumes that can irritate eyes, nose, and throat and possibly cause respiratory distress. DuPont non-stick coatings will not begin to deteriorate in appearance or performance until the temperature of the cookware reaches about 500°F

Regulatory agencies, consumer groups and health associations all have taken a close look at Teflon. This article highlights what they found -- the bottom line is that you can use Teflon without worry.