Reader Responses

There have been a couple of comments raised since I started this run of foodblogging that have stuck with me, and I want to take some space to address them here.

A couple of posts ago, Geoff asked me if I had turned to the dark side:

Instant Jasmine Rice? It sounds like an abomination and doubtless very bad for the environment. Please say that you haven’t sold out like Delia?

Rest assured, instant rice isn’t part of my normal repertoire. In fact, I’ve blogged about the two times I’ve used instant/minute rices on this blog – a previous foray into instant brown rice (curse you, Uncle Ben!) and this move to boil-in-a-bag jasmine rice. The brown rice is passable for a quick lunch, the jasmine rice came out much nicer. Time permitting, or serving this to other guests, I’m much more likely to make the rice from scratch.

I did some digging, and couldn’t find any environmental concerns regarding instant rice. According to McGee [1],

Quick-cooking rice is manufactured by cooking white, brown, or parboiled rice, thus disrupting its cell walls and gelating its starch, then fissuring the grain in order to speed the infiltration of hot water when the consumer cooks it, and finally drying it. The fissuring may be accomplished with dry heat, rolling, microwave treatments, or freeze-drying.

In plain English, unless I miss the mark, this means that it is cooked some to tease the starch out of the rice kernel, cracked open so water can soak into the rice faster when finally cooked, then dried for preservation. Aside from basic process concerns – what to do with the water from cooking the rice, where to get the energy involved in fissuring and drying the rice, etc – I don’t see any particular environmental impact to quick-cooking rice.

However, I did turn up some other interesting information during the research, and some useful resources. The Cereal Knowledge Bank, provided in collaboration by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), is an excellent source of information about the growing, harvesting, and science that really goes into rice production. This includes information on environmental concerns, real facts about the rice shortages and skyrocketing prices of food among much much more. It surprised me to see such a think tank exist for a basic, almost commodity grain, until I recalled something Paul Collier (an economics professor at Oxford University) said in a comment on a piece by Martin Wolf in the Financial Times:

Unfortunately, large-scale commercial agriculture is unromantic. We laud the production style of the peasant: environmentally sustainable and human in scale. In respect of manufacturing and services we grew out of this fantasy years ago, but in agriculture it continues to contaminate our policies.

(The rest of the comment is excellent. Originally spotted it at Marginal Revolution.) There really is a lot of science that goes in to modern agriculture – my big "duh!" moment – but also a strong need to promote (and popularize) the adoption of scientific advancement in farms on a global scale. While I’m in support of raising awareness for improved conditions for growers such as Fair Trade initiatives that promise a living wage to be paid to coffee growers (and sidestepping any economic debate about price floors or how this actually affects supply and demand), it is just as important to realize that we can improve on these practices and make better use of available farmland.

The second point I’ve been thinking about is a statement I made in a post in January, when I kicked off this food blogging effort:

I believe mainly in classical preparations and food that has an evocative history or culture over modern adaptations or replications.

The Blurker Gone Bad called me out for a better explanation of what I meant. I’ve been working on answering that question since then, and still lack some real crisp sound bite that explains it, so please bear with me for a slightly verbose explanation.

Let’s start with an example. Choucroute Garnie. Here’s the Wikipedia entry – it’ll do as well as any recipe for this purpose, and I’ve not made it at home, only had it at restaurants. Essentially it’s a hot bowl of sauerkraut, pork in all its glorious forms, and potato, all boiled together, served with a hot mustard and a crisp glass of dry Riesling. Done properly, when you taste this, you can close your eyes and see the banks of the Rhine river from a steep mountainside covered in vineyards where they make Riesling.

By contrast, tell me what images are conjured up by, say, this recipe for frank ‘n beans?

Okay, maybe not the most fair comparison, but hopefully an illustrative one. I have a similar problem with fusion cuisine at times. I’ve been to some fantastic fusion restaurants (Dekxels leaps to mind) and had some wonderful food, but it’s more of an intellectual exercise rather than something I can emotionally connect with. It is interesting to see how two normally unconnected cuisines can come together and complement each other, but I get no sense of … identity, I suppose … about the meal.

Think for a moment of the housewife one to two hundred years ago – let’s go with nineteenth century. Exotic foods were not nearly as readily available as they are today. Neither is there an abundance of knowledge of, say, wok technique in northern France. The farmer’s wife kept her family fed with the materials and ingredients locally available, and with ingenuity – braising can make the toughest meat into a mouthwatering meal, for example. These combinations of flavors and seasonings have stood the test of time and strongly evoke a region or locality when brought together.

For dinner tonight, I made poulet au pot – a poached chicken with some vegetables in a broth. The broth was seasoned with thyme, black pepper, leeks, parsley – all things I equate with northwestern Europe (NW France/Germany). If I had changed out, say, parsley for oregano and brought in some garlic, I’d suddenly be in the Mediterranean. Pull it all out and go with garlic, ginger, and mushrooms, and I think of China. These flavor combinations [2] are a means to connect with a food’s history and identity. I have a problem with modern cookbooks that promote replacing butter with miniscule amounts of olive oil and masking the switch with large amounts of garlic or crushed red pepper. It may be perfectly fine and even delicious, but soul-destroying all the same.

At the same time, family traditions and personal signature dishes are also part of the joy of cooking. I make (Christine’s recipe) a stroganoff with tomato juice, egg noodles, and ground beef that bears only a passing resemblance to any stroganoff I’ve come across, yet remains a family favorite. I have a recipe tucked away for headless gingerbread men [3]. These stories and familiar things are part of family life, and equally important. These are things that have been imbued with a soul or identity because of these common experiences, something that say "home". I’m not trying to say that we should all cook like turn-of-the-century French housewives, although there’s a LOT of good stuff in there. However, I don’t hold bastardized low-fat low-carb low-calorie low-everything food movements in anything close to the same regard.

Okay, folks, this post has taken nearly two hours and most of my Macbook battery life to come together. I need to be asleep. For the moment, I’ll put in a skeleton of today’s recipe and come back and flesh it out later. This is what I made for dinner tonight, nice and light and generally good for you.

Poulet au pot (Chicken in a pot)
Serves 4-6

  • 1 chicken, about 3.5-4 lb.
  • 8 carrots, trimmed and cut into chunks
  • 6 small white potatoes, halved
  • chicken broth and water, enough to cover all of this in a pot not much larger than the ingredients themselves.

Put everything in the pot over medium-high heat and bring towards a boil. Just before rolling boil, cut the heat to low and simmer gently for 45-60 minutes until the chicken has reached safe temperature (165-170 in the thigh, I believe – FDA guidelines)

Remove the chicken from the pot, draining as much liquid as you can back into the broth. Carve the chicken. Serve slices of the chicken in a bowl with vegetables, a ladle of broth, and coarse salt passed at the table.

[1] – McGee, Harold. On Food And Cooking. New York: Scribner, 2004. p. 474
[2] – Disclaimer; these regional assignments are based on my current understanding, and I really need to go back and brush up on the regions of France, Germany, and Spain before making more declarative statements about the herbs and spices used in each region, so take that all with a grain of salt.
[3] – One year, growing up, we decorated the gingerbread men at Christmas with little silver decorative balls. Then Mom discovered they were inedible. So, we beheaded all of the gingerbread men, and served them in a particularly morbid display at the big annual Christmas Wassail party.