Gadget: Tomato Corer

Tomato CorerIt's that time of year: tomato time! That means I'll be eating sliced tomatoes (lightly salted and covered in basil, sometimes accompanied by mozzarella di bufala) nearly every day. The easiest way to core tomatoes before slicing is this little gadget. I was introduced to it at the restaurant where I worked in 2004 and now I can't live without it. Normally I frown on such a specialized single-use item in my kitchen, but it's so useful (and small and inexpensive) that I've made an exception. I [heart] you tomato corer!

Previous gadget: Kwik Kut

It’s a wonderful life

(by Michael Ruhlman, guest blogger)

This continual talk about the ethics of eating creatures that were once living is starting to get on my nerves. It’s not enough that those knuckleheads in Chicago and those sensitivos in California want to waste their time on the foie issue and the Whole Foods people figured out a cool marketing tool in playing to our arrogant anthropomorphist inclinations—giving lobsters spa treatment so we feel better about driving a knife through their skull? Brilliant.

What’s next, no oysters? No sir—they’re alive! No more salmon roe—think of all those unborn salmon you’re smearing on your toast and dotting on your blini! All the good salmon deeds that will remain undone! All that emotional life of the unborn chickens! Gone! Delicately poached and nestled on frissée! Clarence the Angel where are you?

What is going on here? Lobsters are insects! Ducks are not harmed by gavage! The real victims are the agribusiness chickens, cows and hogs, but the animal rights activists can’t touch the culprits responsible, true goliaths. So instead The People try to save the little animals. But I say such people are either motivated by self-interest or ignorance.

Beyond the fact that our current hand-wringing foreshadows an America that increasingly regulates how we live our lives (with a government attempting, via warfare, to regulate how other countries run their lives), which is scary enough, the more insidious danger to me is that we think clams and ducks and lobsters are people too. They’re not. But the flip side to this is that, in a way, we’re not all that far off when we believe such things. This is the height of human arrogance, to think that we’re somehow above the animal kingdom. We have one trait beyond our handy opposable thumb: we know we’re conscious. Ducks are conscious, yes but do they know it? No. Perhaps some very advanced French duck is right now fitting a Gauloise into its cork-tipped filter and adjusting its existentialist beret, but not in America. They’re animals.

And so are we, but in our self-consciousness have become hubristic, and therefore harmful. Make no mistake: we are animals. I am no different from a salmon. Why else would I return to Cleveland!? Cleveland! I had to return. I returned by smell. I returned to spawn. I’m not kidding. There is no other logical justification for the apparently ludicrous decision to live in Cleveland when I don’t have to. I think if we acknowledged our place in the animal kingdom—happily at the top of the food chain—and stopped thinking we were so damned superior to animals, it would be a better earth all around. We are animals who eat other animals. There is nothing wrong with this. Has this country gone insane? Even the restaurant critic for the New York Times, former Italy bureau chief, a thoughtful and reasonable man with a powerful pen, he’s having a moral dilemma over his shrimp! This is crazy!

Where is Bourdain? Tony, you’re an evil motherfucker, but I know you’re with me on this one. Help me. Where are you? Iran? Turkey? Put down that opium pipe and get your skinny ass back to your own country and do your show here, before we lose it. We need a full and clear view of how far off the track we’ve gone with our most common and basic pursuit, to nourish ourselves and our families. We need smart voices to get us out of these woods. Where is Steingarten? Jeffrey, you scaly curmudgeon, speak up! We can’t lay it all on Pollan—he did his part. What about someone with real power to sway the American masses. Rachael Ray! How about it? She affects the cutesy Suzie next door but I know for a fact she’s got a pair of brass knuckles in the pocket of those fat pants of hers. Emeril! Millions listen nightly to you! Put down that tube of Crest and teach people about the food we eat! Wake up! It’s not about the ducks and the lobsters. It’s about the corn and the oil. About big business and powerful lobbying in DC. They want your money and that’s all they want. They want your money and you can give it to them or withhold it. Make good choices about what you buy and what you eat and what you feed your kids.

All right, I’m done, I haven’t even started my work this morning and I’ve gone and shot 700 words on a rant. I’m going to go eat a hot dog, that’s always a good morning restorative…


The coastal papers

Today two of my favorite subjects were combined by one of my favorite writers about food, Judy Rodgers Salt and Russ Parsons. Rodgers, chef and an owner of SF's Zuni Cafe, is one of the most observant cooks I’ve ever met. Repetition and paying attention: that’s the essence of becoming a good cook. Judy knows the how a leg of lamb that reaches an internal temp of 100 degrees an hour after it went into the oven will be different from one that took two hours to reach that temperature. The kind of deep lamb knowledge you only get from roasting a thousand legs. Here she discusses salt, not to season food before it goes into the pan, but to transform the food well before it’s cooked. We tend to take salt for granted but in fact the ability to use salt is THE most important skill a cook has. (Is full-disclosure necessary here? Judy blurbed my charcuterie book with uncommon generosity and eloquence. And for this reason I’ll never be able to write about her for a newspaper or magazine, which is a shame, because she’s one of the most interesting cooks in the country. And she really does cook in Zuni’s open kitchen, in corduroy skirts and vivid stockings, number 2 pencils holding her long hair in a bun!)

From the big daily on the other coast, I can’t resist trumpeting a fellow Cleveland boy’s two-star triumph. Way to go, Michael (and Jonathan Sawyer and the Parea staff). You do this beleagured town proud. Stay focused.

Another maligned additive

Apropos of knowing whats what on your processed-food ingredients list in addition to high fructose cs, dont forget MSG. I'm reminded of this as I perused the just arrived Art of Eating, Edward Behr's excellent and elegant quarterly in which Rowan Jacobsen discusses the issue of Umami, also the subject of a recent book called The Fifth Taste by Anna and David Kasabian. Umami can be described as a kind of deep savoryness that you get from tomatoes and fish sauce and mushrooms, and Jacobsen's article is the most lucid and concise discussion of umami I've read. (One great source of umami, Jacobsen tells us, is breast milk: add a little breast milk to your bechamel sauce for a je ne sais quoi that will have your guests clamoring for more!)

About MSG, the effective part of which is an amino acid called glutamate, he correctly writes: MSG has taken a bad rap. It's effective as a taste enhancer but by the 1970s many second-rate restaurants had a heavy hand with the MSG, and it was blamed for Chinese Restaurant Syndrome: symptoms of headaches, dizziness, and nausea after eating food to which large quantities of MSG have been added. Chinese Restaurant Syndrome has been debunked, and MSG now has a fairly clean bill of health, but it is still virtually synonymous with artificial food additive.

All true. Even in large quantities, MSG isn't apparently harmful and few people actually have an uncomfortable sensitivity to it. It was originally derived from seaweed, that is, it's natural. But in my opinion umami is best enlisted in your dishes via foods rather than MSG. Try adding a few drops of good fish sauce, nam pla or nouc mam, to your macaroni and cheese and see for yourself.

Agribusiness’s Lab Rats

I loved Melanie Warner’s smart article on High Fructose Corn Syrup in today’s NYTimes business section not only because it explains a subject that is not very well understood by the public (what HFCS is and how it’s derived from corn), and suggests that HFCS, which has for several years been demonized as a cause of this country’s obesity crisis (and has recently obsessed the beloved megnut), is no worse for you than regular table sugar, which can be derived from sugar cane or beets. What the article points up for me is how badly we base our eating decisions, we who are trying to eat as well as we can.

The article leads with a woman-on-the-street comment—a Rhode Islander says she avoids foods containing HFCS because it’s been linked to obesity. But that’s as far as she goes. We have to stop to think if this makes sense, and if it does, why?

From a physical standpoint, I can’t imagine HFCS is worse than sugar for its being processed (enzymes break carbohydrates down into glucose then into fructose). It’s not bad for you pre se. But does that mean you should embrace it?

No: 1) If you’re eating something with HFCS this means likely that it’s got a lot of other crap in it that’s worse. 2) The cheapness of it has allowed soft drink companies, for instance, to produce bigger quantities of it, which we, like lab rats, consume in whatever quantities they give it to us in. 3) It perpetuates our reliance on agribusiness corn, which is just a couple steps away from perpetuating our reliance on oil. (As Pollan shows in his excellent book, Omnivore’s Dilemma—I’m halfway through, and so far it’s his best book.) These are the kinds of things we must know in order to make decent decisions about what we consume and why.

Same with nitrites. People avoid them without knowing why, having only some vague notion that because it sounds like a harmful chemical additive it must be. The notion that nitrites are bad for you is underscored by bacon companies who have introduced non-nitrite bacon (both commercial companies and good companies such as Niman). In reporting a story on bacon and corned beef for The NYTimes last fall, I asked a food scientist if there were something I was missing here. He said, "No, it’s a marketing device." I wonder if the companies themselves even know why they’re doing it. Perhaps even they think they’re doing the consumer a great service.

The fact is nitrite, which I write about in Charcuterie, are naturally occurring chemicals (they’re in spinach and celery and other vegetables, for instance), and aren’t apparently harmful in and of themselves. They have been shown in certain situations (under very high heat for example) to produce nitrosamines which have been shown to cause cancer. So some caution is advisable. But there’s little evidence that shows nitrites (usually in the form of sodium nitrite, a curing salt used in bacon and sausages and corned beef) are harmful in the quantities that we eat them today. (For a definitive statement on cautions and facts, see Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking.) But how many know this?

I was grilling sausages and bacon yesterday at one of our growers markets here in Cleveland and a woman asked if the stuff on the grill had nitrites. I said the bacon did but the sausage didn’t. I tried to explain to her what I knew about nitrites, but she wrinkled her nose. Though she couldn’t explain why she thought it prudent to avoid nitrite, she wasn’t buying what I had to say. And I wasn’t even selling the bacon or wursts.

Even the most fundamental aspects of eating are misuderstood, and yet are acted upon. We think eating fat makes us fat. It doesn’t—eating more calories than we expend makes us fat. Eating cholesterol doesn’t raise our cholesterol; the food cholesterol in eggs doesn’t translate into blood cholesertol, but saturated animal fats can. This is the information that’s important.

When you avoid eating something, I hope you know why you are avoiding it. As a rule I avoid eating chemically processed food (though I have a weakness for Pringles); I avoid eating anything that comes out of a box or a cellophane or waxed-paper bag. But I adore good processed food, preferably food I’ve precessed myself, like pork belly, either cured into bacon, or poached in fat. That’s the best kind of processed food there is and should be consumed with gusto.