Eating Animals… or Not

I promise not to spend so much time talking about my personal eating habits in the future, but I just listened to this wonderful conversation between Anthony Bourdain, who is the host of my very favorite Travel Channel show, and Jonathan Safran Foer on whether or not we should eat meat.

You can listen to the discussion here, which I HIGHLY recommend.

Basically, Bourdain is about as meat-hungry as you can get- he has stated that it’s his reason for living. And Safran Foer is now making lots and lots of money for his recent book Eating Animals, in which he talks about all the reason he is, and we should become, vegetarians. The thing that made this talk so absolutely wonderful, however, is that there were very few things the two actually disagreed on. For that specific reason, this was one of the most informative talks I’ve heard on the subject. No one was angrily trying to prove that they, and they alone, were right and that their “opponent” was some horrible person. Instead, they talked about the real issue at the heart of all this: that factory farming, which produces 99% of available meat, is a very bad thing.

And I have to say that I almost 100% agree with both of them. They are really just two sides of the same coin. The message that one should take away from this conversation, the message that I think is what might save us, is that feeding ourselves should never be a throw-away, thoughtless moment in our day. It should be something imbued with conscious decision and never taken for granted.

I’m the halfway point between Bourdain’s meat lust and Safran Foer’s vegetarianism. I do lust after beautiful cuts of meat and dream of Spanish jamón, but I will only indulge when I know the provenance of the meat (where and how it was raised) or if, as Bourdain mentions, not eating meat would mean that I missed out on something of cultural significance. Which means that, more often than not, I eat like Safran Foer. But, where Safran Foer sees vegetarianism as his path out of the moral, environmental, and social murk that is industrialized farming, my path is actually to eat MORE meat than I have in years, which requires me to raise it myself. And, naturally, to share it with others.

From another interview with Bourdain, Safran Foer, and famous chef Eric Ripert.

ON EATING MEAT OUT OF POLITENESS OR ON CEREMONY
Safran Foer: “People sometimes say to me, ‘Well, we go to my grandmother’s house on Christmas and she makes this thing,’ and I say, ‘Well, then eat that thing, that’s a great use of food. The McNugget is not a great use of food. And if we can all just agree that we’re only going to eat meat when it matters, that we’re only going to eat meat when we really enjoy it, when we care, when it makes a difference, when it serves any kind of social function, that would be eliminating I think 80 percent of the meat we eat.”

LAST WORD
Bourdain: “I will kill a pig and I will eat it. I will shoot an animal in the head and eat it. But I’m not doing it for fun, and I’m not blind to the circumstances and conditions in which animals are raised. I think there’s a lot of common ground here and we’re going to move, hopefully, toward the side of the angels.”

What’s Cooking: An Ethiopian Dinner

Wednesday night, I decided to try a family experiment. I love “ethnic food,” but my family has a very “American” palette. That’s not to say that they are the stereotypical American’s who love fast food and junk, but they are most comfortable with American and Southern classics. World food for them is usually Tex Mex and MSG laden Chinese. My tastes run to more varied flavors: I love Thai and Indian and Lebanese and Turkish and Moroccan and Spanish and on and on.

One of my favorite meals is Ethiopian wats (spicy stews). Whenever I’m in a good food city, I try to find an Ethiopian restaurant to grab dinner at. I can’t handle the full spice effect, but the milder flavors are just perfect for my taste buds.

I’m always trying to find ways to broaden my family’s tastes, so I figured the best plan of attack was to try my hand at making Ethiopian food myself and force them to eat it! Handy dandy “What’s Cooking” material! For this special dinner I decided to make some of my favorites Ethiopian staples and to make something I’d never had before.

Getting Ready

There are some important vocabulary words to know when discussing Ethiopian food.

  • berbere: A paste, composed of hot spices, used to season many foods.
  • injera: Spongy, fermented bread that tastes similar to sourdough bread and resembles a large flour tortilla or large, thin pancakes
  • wat/wot and alecha: Stews. If a dish has “wat/wot” in its name, it will be made with berbere and be hot, while “alecha” means mild. 

All of the following recipes should feed 6-8 people.

Injera

hecka injera

Injera (Image by artnoose via Flickr)

First up, we had to have the ubiquitous injera. Injera is eaten with almost every meal in Ethiopia (and neighboring Eritrea), but this is not just any bread. It is serving platter, utensil, and meal, all in one.

Injera is typically made with teff flour. Teff is an annual grass, a species of lovegrass native to the northern Ethiopian Highlands. It is believed to have originated in Ethiopia between 4000 BC and 1000 BC. According to Wikipedia

Teff (Eragrostis tef)

Teff (Image via Wikipedia)

the grain is gluten-free and has a high concentration of different nutrients, a very high calcium content, and significant levels of the minerals phosphorus, magnesium, aluminum, iron, copper, zinc, boron, barium, and thiamin. Teff is high in protein. It is considered to have an excellent amino acid composition (including all 8 essential amino acids for humans) and has lysine levels higher than wheat or barley. Teff is high in carbohydrates and fiber.

Therefore, injera made from teff flour is an excellent nutritional staple and has the added benefit of being quite filling and extremely handy.

Because teff flour is very low in gluten, it isn’t suited to types of bread that rise; instead, it is fried much like crepes or pancakes. Typically, injera dough is left to sit for a few days to allow it to ferment. In this way, it acquires a slightly sour taste similar to sourdough.

Since teff flour is still fairly hard to find outside of Africa (and because I didn’t want to wait a few days while the dough fermented) I used a recipe modified by Ethiopians living in North America. This recipe can be found in Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook.

Mix:

  • 3 cups of self-rising flour
  • 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup of cornmeal or masa harina
  • 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
  • 3 1/2 cups of warm water

Let the mix set in a large bowl, covered, an hour or longer, until the batter rises and becomes stretchy. It can sit as long as 3-6 hours. When ready, stir the batter if liquid has settled on the bottom, then whip in blender, 2 cups of batter at a time, thinning it with 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of water. The batter will be quite thin.

Cook in a nonstick frypan without oil over medium or medium-high heat. Use 1/2 cup of batter per injera for a 12-inch pan or 1/3 cup of batter per injera for a 10-inch pan. Pour the batter into the heated pan and quickly swirl the pan to spread the batter as thin as possible. The batter should be no thicker than 1/8 inch. Do not turn. Injera does not easily stick or burn. It is cooked through when bubbles appear all over the top.

Lay each injera on a clean towel for a minute or two, then stack in a covered dish to keep warm. Finished injera will be thicker than a crepe but thinner than a pancake.

Alecha

 

Alecha (Image from katyabaxter.com)

Stews form the basis of most of Ethiopian cuisine and alechas are the milder version, usually made with vegetables but they can also contain meat. I made a basic vegetarian alecha to cool our mouths.

In a large saucepan, combine:

  • 2 tablespoons of oil or niter kibbeh
  • 1 clove of garlic, chopped
  • 1 red onion, chopped

Sauté until the onions are soft, but do not brown.

Add:

  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 3 medium potatoes, chopped in large pieces
  • 2-3 carrots, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon of pepper

Cook about 10 minutes until the potatoes and carrots begin to soften.

Add:

  • 1 pound of cabbage, chopped
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 green chili pepper, seeded and quartered (optional, for extra kick)

Cook until the vegetables are tender. Stir gently to combine, taking care not to mash the vegetables

Sik Sik Wat and Beg Wat

Wat or wet, known as tsebhi in Tigrinya (also ...

Wat (Image via Wikipedia)

The basis of all wats, the spicy stews, is berbere. You must first make your berbere paste, but then you can add the meats you prefer to the berbere base. I simplified the berbere a bit since some of the spices are expensive (and not typically used in my kitchen) and because I was trying to ease the family’s taste buds into submission.

To make a simple, less spicy, berbere, in a heavy saucepan heat on low:

  • 1/4 cup of oil or niter kibbeh
  • 2 large red onions, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced

Cook gently until the onions are soft, but do not brown.

Add:

  • 1/2 tablespoon of crushed red pepper (traditional wats call for a LOT more red pepper)
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons of paprika (this is to maintain the rich red color the berbere looses as you omit red pepper)
  • 3/4 teaspoon of pepper
  • 3/8 teaspoon of ground ginger
  • 3/8 teaspoon of ground cloves
  • 3/4 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
  • 3/8 teaspoon of cardamom

Simmer for 1-2 minutes. This is your berbere base!

To the berbere, add:

  • 2 pounds of your preferred meat, chopped in approximately ½-inch squares (for Sik Sik Wat, add beef tenderloin, boneless sirloin, or stewing beef; for Beg Wat, add boneless lamb shoulder)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt

Simmer about 30 minutes until the meat is tender and the flavors are well absorbed.

The Meal

Typical Ethiopian platter (Image via Wikipedia)

Typically, Ethiopian food is served communally: injera is placed on a large platter and the food is placed on the injera. Everyone sits around the platter to share the meal. Diners tear off a piece of injera and scoop up food.

Sadly, neither our platters nor our kitchen table are really designed for this type of communal dining, so we did the next best thing: we actually sat at the table as a family and ate, something we rarely get around to these days.

The verdict was that it was still too spicy for most, even though I SERIOUSLY cut back on the pepper. Other than that, everyone really enjoyed it. The alecha was a big hit and everyone actually tried everything (I’m the only one who really likes lamb, so even that was a stretch). They all said they would gladly eat the meal again, with a little less kick of course!

So, yay me! I didn’t ruin any of it. That’s one international cuisine under my belt… which one will be next?

Note: I had to use free license pictures in this post for two main reasons. Firstly, because my camera is currently not working. And secondly, because I spent the better portion of the day on my feet on a hard tile floor slaving over this lovely meal and by the time it was ready I was too tired and hungry to remember to ask my dad to take pictures. Next time I’ll be sure to get some.

What’s Cooking: ummm, typos

Buttermilk Chess Pie.

Image via Wikipedia

So, I decided to make Chess Pie again tonight. (Can you guess that I love it?) I gave the borrowed cookbook that had the recipe in it back to my grandmother, so I hopped on here to grab the recipe from my previous post. I printed the page and bebopped into the kitchen to get to work. And that’s when I realized that something was wrong.

The first red flag was that my recipe called for cornmeal. Cornmeal! In a pie! Sheesh. Apparently I really wasn’t paying attention when I copied that recipe onto the blog, since it should have read cornSTARCH instead of cornMEAL. What a disaster some poor reader would have created had they listened to me.

The second red flag came about by chance really. I glanced at the baking time before I popped it in the oven. What I “saw” was 20-25 minutes. The timer went off at 25 minutes and I went to check the pie. It was hardly cooked at all! So I peeked at my recipe and saw that I had actually typed “20-55 minutes.” Pretty flexible, huh? It was supposed to read 40-55 minutes.

Man, oh man, I need to be MUCH more careful when I type up recipes in the future! Or just be in less of a hurry to eat them so that I have time to proofread.

When Worlds Collide: The Untold Story of the Americas After Columbus

I really loved the PBS documentary When Worlds Collide: The Untold Story of the Americas After Columbus, which aired last night. There wasn’t much presented that I didn’t already know from Anthropology and Religious Studies classes, but it was a very nice presentation.

I particularly appreciated the fact that they showed the vast influences New World foods had on the Old World: maize, potatoes, tomatoes, turkeys, chocolate, sugar, etc etc.

You can watch the entire show on the PBS website.

What’s Cooking: Risotto

Sometimes food experimenting just creeps up on you. Last night was one of those strange nights when I think I’m way to lazy to cook and then end up happily slaving away in the kitchen for an hour. I don’t really know what possessed me to make a notoriously finicky dish at 8:30pm, but I found myself chopping onions and sautéing rice for my favorite Italian rice dish: risotto.

How it got there

Silk Routes

Most people think of Asia when they think of rice. It’s not an incorrect assumption: scientists do believe that rice originated in Asia and Asians do produce and consume the majority of rice. But Asia is just a single chapter in rice’s story. Along with spices, silk, and porcelain (and many other goods), rice was traded between Asia and the West. The introduction of rice into Europe could have taken different routes:

  1. from Persia to Egypt between the fourth and the first centuries B.C., facilitated by the conquests of Alexander the Great, as his empire united India, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Mediterranean.
  2. from Greece or Egypt to Spain and Sicily in the eighth century A.D., in connection with the Islamic Moors‘ conquest of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal).
  3. from Persia to Spain in the eighth century and later to Italy between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries as the result of growing trade networks between Europe and Asia.

However it got there, rice became an important crop in northern Italy’s Po Valley. So important, in fact, that Italy is Europe’s leading rice producer. Rice thrives so well in the Po Valley that first courses of risotto are more common than pasta and are a great way to serve whatever is in season.

Rice is rice, right?

There are hundreds of rice varieties, each with a slightly different purpose. Oryza sativa var. indica (long-grain rices) contain less amylopectin, a water soluble component of starch, making them less sticky than Oryza sativa var. japonica (short-grain rices), which are high in amylopectin. Short-grain rices have less amylose, a component of starch which is non-soluble in water. This all really just means that long-grain rices absorb less water, retaining much of their form and texture, while short-grain rices fluff up and get sticky- the starch that they release forms a creamy coating that lumps the rice together. Long-grain rices are usually boiled or steamed.

Arborio Rice

Italian rices are of the short-grained varieties. The preferred varieties in Italy, especially for risotto, are described as superfino or “the king of rices”. These include Carnaroli and Vialone Nano,  considered to be the best (and most expensive) varieties, and Arborio, the most accessible and most commonly found outside Italy.

Down to the Risotto

Risotto is tricky to perfect. So much of getting it right depends on timing and really understanding how the rice cooks. This makes it somewhat intimidating for new cooks but once it’s in your repertoire, it’s a fantastic way to enjoy cleaning out the fridge- you can add almost anything to a risotto and come out with a spectacular dish.

Risotto Mantecato

For this experiment, I choose to make a very basic Risotto Mantecato (risotto with butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano). This preparation will feed 2-3.

  • In a stock pot, bring 3 cups of stock (vegetable or chicken) to a gentle boil
  • In another pot, warm ½ cup of white wine
  • In a large saucepan, gently sauté 1 finely chopped small-medium onion and one crushed garlic clove in 3 tablespoons of good quality olive oil for about 5 minutes
  • Stir in about a cup of superfino rice (I used Arborio) and cook until almost all of the oil is absorbed
  • Add the heated white wine* and cook until almost all of the wine is absorbed
  • Add a quarter of the boiling stock to the rice and simmer, stirring very frequently until almost all of the stock is absorb
  • Stir in the remaining stock gradually, a cup at a time, allowing stock to be absorbed almost completely each time (This should take about 15-18 minutes)
  • When the rice is rich and creamy but still al dente, remove it from the heat and mix in a few tablespoons of cold butter (to taste) and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (to taste)
  • Serve immediately, as the rice will continue to cook in it’s own heat and will become dry

This risotto turned out pretty good. I didn’t have fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano so I resorted to (gasp) the kind in the plastic shaker. I could tell a difference but not enough for it to make the risotto unenjoyable. I can’t wait to make it again, next time with some fresh seafood!

*Cold wine or stock will shock the rice and it won’t cook properly

An Edible History of Humanity

Cover of "An Edible History of Humanity"

Cover of An Edible History of Humanity

As macro studies of agriculture throughout history go, An Edible History of Humanity is engaging and accessible. The author, Tom Standage, does a very good job of showing the numerous connections between agricultural advance, economic shifts, cultural exchange, and populations. The history of various crops- spices, corn, wheat, rice, potatoes- is very informative and, I think, very important.

The problem that I had was that it was ONLY a macro study of food throughout history. Standage chooses to glance over the actual lives of the people within the system he is looking at, which puts him at a great disadvantage when talking about what these systems really mean to humanity and our way forward. In the latter part of the book, he spends a lot of time talking about how the agricultural advances of the “green revolution” freed up the labor force to move into industry, ushering in the Industrial Revolution.

What he ignores, however, is that many, if not most, of those who moved to cities and began factory work did not go willingly and gleefully. They were forced from their land because of falling crop prices, torn from their communities and families, and forced into the factories as their only option of making money. While this did serve to drive industrial economies forward, we cannot ignore the problems that it created as well. Problems such as: increased occupancy in low rent areas leading to desperately unsanitary conditions and a rise in pestilence; increased urban crime; loss of cultural and familial traditions; rise of unsafe and abusive working conditions; not to mention the environmental damages caused by industrialization.

Standage discusses the recent resurgence of Asia in the global economy, attributing it to their more recent “green revolutions,” but he ignores the human impact that this shift has caused, namely the massive waves of “country peasant girls” who are being forced to move to the cities to work in the sex trade or extremely low paying industrial jobs. One of my favorite food documentary shows was Blood, Sweat & Takeaways from the BBC. It looked at the real cost of cheap food, food only made possible by the drive towards industrialization that Standage so admires. Six young British food consumers spent time working alongside Asian farmers, planting and harvesting crops, as well as workers in the industrial food sector, processing tuna and chicken. They had to live off a typical salary and share the homes of the workers. The clip below is from the time they spent in Bangkok, working in the chicken processing plant.

The most glaring problem, for me, is that Standage makes very little effort to conceal his personal point-of-view on the local/organic vs industrial agricultural debate. He seems to be genuinely mistrusting of people who believe that the world CAN survive on a more locally centered food supply. Standage’s arguments about the necessary success of the current industrial model seem very similar to classical social evolution, a social theory that Anthropologists have discarded as reductionist and Western-centric.

Still, I gave it 3 stars, which probably seems strange since I had such problems with the last few chapters. I think it was because the title, to me, suggested more of a look at the people involved when Standage is really talking about the economies involved. I would recommend the first 1/2 of this book as a great overview of the “how” and the “when” of agriculture, but if you are looking for something about the people in the system, perhaps this isn’t the book for you.

Note: I highly, highly recommend watching all of Blood, Sweat & Takeaways as well as it’s companion show, Blood, Sweat & T-Shirts.