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Food

I know I haven’t posted much by the way of recipes recently, but I experimented my way into this variant of a Monte Cristo sandwich the other day, and I love it, so here it is –

Take whichever bowl is closest to hand and squirt in a healthy amount of Japanese mayo (it probably has an official name, but that’s what we call it around our house, and that’s how we ask for it at the store downtown). Add about two thirds the amount of oil (I’ve used olive and grape, and both worked fine). Add lots of minced garlic (don’t skimp on garlic, ever). Add a bunch of minced fresh parsley. Add salt and pepper. Grate into this mixture a nice strong, hard Swiss cheese (I use Emmentaler), enough that the mixture gets nicely spreadable.

Spread this mixture thickly onto two slices of bread. This is not the time to get health conscious. Thickly. Put some fresh shaved ham between them.

Preheat a skillet. While you wait, crack a couple of eggs into a bowl, and whisk with some milk. Pour the egg mixture into a shallow pan until it’s about the height of your bread. Dip your sandwich into the egg mixture on both sides. It shouldn’t be much trouble, because the cheese mixture holds everything together. Fry it until it’s beautiful and golden on both sides.

Eat.

Most Thursday evenings I go hang out with some guys at my friend Aaron’s house. We usually watch a movie or play a video game (no sports allowed). More importantly, one of us brings snacks, which can range from purchased fast food to gourmet homemade eats, depending on who happens to be cooking that night. It was my turn last night, and I realized that in all the years we’ve been doing this thing (something like five now), we’ve never had burgers. Not once. Ever. I decided to remedy that.

Now, here’s my position on burgers – they must be real. I don’t eat fast food burgers (if I’m eating guilty fast food it’s almost always fried chicken). I absolutely on principle never eat the frozen hockey pucks that come in packages of eight or twelve from your closest grocery store. No matter what they claim to make them from or stuff them with, frozen hockey pucks made of sirloin and stuffed with cheese and jalapenos are still, in the end, just frozen hockey pucks. I won’t even call them burgers.

The truth is, if all you did was go down to your local butcher and get a few pounds of high quality hamburger, formed them into patties (adding no seasoning of any kind), and grilled them, they’d be far better than any frozen meat product you could find in the store. And, after you factor in the time you’d spend peeling the pucks from their papers and cooking them from frozen, making them yourself wouldn’t even take that much more time or effort.

Of course, if you don’t mind some time and effort, here’s the recipe I made last night:

Mince a few cloves of garlic (more is always better), six or eight green onions, and a bunch of mushrooms. Any mushrooms will do, but the more flavourful the mushroom, the more flavourful the burger. If you use white button mushrooms, you’ll hardly notice them. If you use shitake mushrooms, you’ll notice. I prefer to use several different kinds in order to add some complexity to the flavour, but you do you.

Saute the garlic and onion in butter. When they’ve softened, add the mushrooms. Add salt and pepper. Saute until the mixture is quite dry. We don’t want to add too much moisture to the burgers. Dump the mixture into a bowl and let it cool, then add a little mustard powder, a healthy amount of grated parmesan cheese, and the beef. Mix well, then add an egg or three, until you get the consistency you want.  Form into patties (at least a full cup of mixture in each, preferably more, because nobody likes tiny, shrunken burgers).

In a new pan saute a bunch of sliced onion and garlic until softened. Add a little brown sugar and Worcestershire sauce. Cook until the onions are caramelized and make your house smell better than all the other houses on your street. Crumble in as much Stilton blue cheese as you think is wise, then double it. Stir until creamy and your house smells better than all the other houses in the known universe. The mixture will have a slightly grainy texture to it, which I like, but if that bothers you, you can always blend it in a food processor. Scoop it into a container and let it cool.

Cut nice sourdough buns in half and spread them with garlic butter. Pour a bag of deep-fried onions into a bowl. Lay out some prosciutto on a plate. Wash, thoroughly drain, and chop curly chicory endive. Put it in a bowl.

Now, get those burgers on the grill, but please – for the sake of all carnivores everywhere – do not overcook them. It gives me chest paints whenever I’m over at someone’s house, and the designated “grill master” just keeps cooking the burgers into desiccation. The guy opens the bbq (and yes, it’s invariably a guy doing the damage), pokes at meat already cooked far too long, asks those standing near whether the burgers “look safe” yet, tries to get a thermometer reading, then finally decides to leave them “a few more minutes, just to be sure”.

Do not be this person. If you have good quality meat from a good quality butcher, and if you have any clue whatsoever about kitchen hygiene, you should be able to eat those burgers raw. You won’t, of course, because they’ll taste so delicious grilled, but the point of grilling isn’t to make them safe. It’s to make them delicious. Frozen hockey pucks need to be made safe. Real burgers need to be made delicious. Never forget this.

Right, so as the burgers are grilling, also throw the buns face down on the grill and let those faces get a bit crunchy. Spread the bottom of the bun with caramelized onion and blue cheese mixture (don’t skimp). Add a handful of deep fried onion and a handful of endive. Add the burger, sizzling. Add two or three strips of prosciutto. Put the top on. Eat that bad boy.

If you can go back to eating hockey pucks after that, we need to talk.

Our culture has at least three very dissimilar ways of understanding the idea of hunger.

First, we think of hunger as a part of poverty or famine, usually in far off places like a foreign country or an inner city neighbourhood. In this sense, hunger is a social problem that needs to be eradicated, preferably without actually involving us very closely with the people who are hungry. We’d rather send some money or attend a rally or something and feel like we’ve done our part. Meeting any hungry people in person would just be uncomfortable.

Second, we think of hunger as our own physical need for food. Again, we want to be rid of hunger in this sense as quickly as possible. The moment we feel a hunger pang, we start rooting in the fridge for a snack, looking for a fast food joint along the edge of the highway, or heading for the vending machine in the staff lounge. We almost always look at this kind of hunger merely as a problem to be fixed, and expeditiously if possible.

Third, we think of hunger in a more metaphorical way, as a drive or a need for something that isn’t actually food. We talk about an athlete as being hungry for winning or about an executive as being hungry for success. In this sense, we use the term a little more positively, with the implication that it’s good to be hungry for these things. The idea is that staying hungry results in greater amounts of fulfillment. Even here, however, the assumption is that the ultimate goal is to satisfy the hunger. The hunger is only good to the degree that it results in greater satisfaction. It’s the food equivalent of not eating all day so that you can get your money’s worth at the all-you-can-eat buffet.

Understanding hunger in these ways, our culture ends up having a strange relationship with the idea of fasting, something that my doctor is now having me do regularly as a way of regulating my blood sugars. Because we’ve trained ourselves to think of hunger as a sign of poverty and failure, or as problem to be swiftly eliminated, or as motivation used to achieve greater satisfaction, the idea of a hunger remaining deliberately unmet – not so that we can consume more later, but just to be endured – is difficult for us to understand.

And yet, there’s all sorts of evidence that our culture not only eats too much but also too often to be healthy, that it’s not good for our bodies never to be hungry. Quite apart from the emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefits that people have touted for fasting over the centuries, there are real physical benefits to allowing our bodies to be hungry on a regular basis. Among other things, it helps improve insulin sensitivity (which is why I’m required to do it), metabolism, brain function, and immune system.

I’ve only been eating in an eight hour window each day now for almost a year, fasting for the other sixteen. For the first three months (now only maybe once a month), I was also fasting one entire day a week. I’ve also cut out added sugars and big chunks of easy carbs. In just three months my bloodwork had improved dramatically. I also lost almost thirty pounds, stopped getting acid reflux at night, and am noticeably less tired and sluggish.

My point isn’t that you should take up this diet yourself. In fact, on principle I wouldn’t recommend that you take up any diet you found on some non-nutritionist’s blog, not without first chatting with your doctor about it.

My point is that in order to change the way I was eating, I first had to change my relationship to the idea of hunger. I had to stop looking at hunger solely as a problem to be eliminated. I had to begin welcoming it (in defined circumstances) as a sign of my body’s healthy functioning. Rather than looking always to fix my hunger, I had to begin embracing it. I had to start saying to myself, “This hunger is good.”

Just to be clear, not all hunger is good. Some hunger is starvation. Some hunger is lust for ever greater consumption. But neither is all hunger bad, and we need to be better at allowing ourselves to be hungry, not as punishment, not as incentive, but just because sometimes it’s good for us to be hungry.

My wife and I laid in bed late this morning, made love while the kids binged on Saturday morning television, had a lazy shower.

Then she baked bread with browned butter for the party at our friend’s place this evening, and my eldest son made chocolate chip cookie’s for his friend’s birthday party this afternoon, and I sauteed batches of mushrooms and sweet onions for another friend’s fiftieth birthday tomorrow.

I’m reducing the extra onions into soup as I write this. The house is full of astringent sweetness, and of C.D. Wright’s reflections on the nature of poetry, and of “Paloma” by MESTIS.

I made this soup for a church function the other day, and people have been pestering me for the recipe, so here it is. As usual, I didn’t actually measure the ingredients, and I am giving much reduced proportions here, but I know that many of the people who asked for the recipe would prefer me to be as precise as possible, so I did my best.

First saute in butter a large chopped onion, two-inches of grated fresh ginger, two tablespoons of grated orange peel, a teaspoon or so of ground nutmeg, and some salt. When this is all very soft and browned, add about four cups of chopped carrots and continue to cook over a medium heat, stirring frequently, until the carrots begin to soften. Then add four cups of chicken stock (or just enough to cover the carrots) and cook until everything is very tender. Then blend everything and add enough heavy cream to make the mixture the thickness you want.

I think coriander and cinnamon would go very well in this also, though I haven’t tried. It tastes very good cold as well. I made some for my vegan (sort of) wife that substituted more chicken stock for the cream (we didn’t talk about the butter), and it was good but not great, because cream is, well, cream.

We picked our first real crop of cherries this year, probably a quarter of a bushel, so we have been eating cherries at every opportunity, putting them in cereal and on icecream, and I used the ones with bird bites in them to make a cherry pie.

Yesterday we also picked our chokecherries, the second year now that we have had enough to make them worth picking.  Their sour taste keeps them from being edible fresh (though my youngest son was not at all deterred), but they make great jelly.  I prefer no-pectin recipes, and they are not always easy to find, so I thought that I should post mine:

Just cover the chokecherries with water in a pot, including some unripe ones for flavour and added pectin.  Boil them until they are very soft, then mash them lightly.  If you want your jelly to be clear, strain the pulp through cheesecloth, but do not squeeze or press it.  If you want a more jam-like jelly, press the pulp through a sieve.  Either way, combine the juice with equal amounts of sugar and about a tablespoon of lemon juice per cup of chokecherry juice.  Small batches tend to jell better, so work with amounts of  three to five cups of chokecherry juice at a time.  Bring the batch to a boil, stirring often, until it reaches jell stage.  Pour into canning jars.  Water bath for five to ten minutes.  Let cool.  Check that the jars have sealed.  Store the jars in a cool and dark place.  Eat the jelly often, especially on icecream.

My boys and I have come up with a variation on the traditional cucumber sandwich.

First, cut a fresh bun in half and smear both sides thickly with garlic butter.  Cover both with cheese, as much as you can fit, and then bake until everything is melted and beautiful.  Lay cucumber slices into the cheese on both sides.  Salt and pepper the cucumbers liberally.  Spread a creamy sauce over the cucumbers (ranch or Caesar dressing will both do, but we generally use a three cheese dressing that we buy at our local grocer).  Lay a thick piece of chicken schnitzel on one side of the bun, and put the other side of the bun on top.

Enjoy the garlicy, cheesy, creamy, schnitzely, cucumbery goodness.

I went to the market this morning and came home to a warm kitchen, which, considering the temperature outside and the lack of insulation in my house, was quite remarkable.   My wife was baking her favourite cold-rise sweet dinner rolls for the dinner we are attending tonight, and she was preparing our bread for the week also, a Swedish rye bread that she was trying for the first time.  My mother-in-law was in the kitchen too, simmering the stock for a chicken soup intended for our church’s soup luncheon tomorrow, so I put the groceries away amid the smells of rising dough and soup stock, and then I had the chance to add to them, beginning my own soup for tomorrow, potato and bacon and green onion and parmesan and cream cheese, and I put the pear pies in to bake, and I remembered, once again, that there is nothing like a warm kitchen in winter.

I first began roasting coffee three years ago.  My mother-in-law bought me a roaster for Christmas, and after I was finally able to source a regular supply of green beans, I fell in love, not only with the taste, but also with the addition to my morning coffee ritual.

The problem was that the roaster was a little delicate for life in our house.  It made very nice coffee, and it also had a basket to catch the chaff, a reasonable timing system, and a cooling phase for after the roasting was complete, but the roaster itself always seemed to be breaking.  The chaff basket was a bit top heavy, so the glass container beneath it would sometimes tip, and it broke twice and had to be replaced at a tidy sum.  Then the element burnt out for no reason that I could figure, except maybe that our kitchen is plenty cold on a winter morning and the element may have had too extreme a temperature change.  When I looked into the substantial cost of replacing the element and then added in the cost of replacing the glass holders occasionally, it was more than the price of a new roaster, so I thought that I would take a look at some other roasters that were hopefully a bit more durable.  What I discovered, however, was that a special roaster is not at all necessary to roasting your own coffee.  Not only are there several stove top methods, all of which seem to require a bit of practise, but there is also the standard air popcorn popper, which makes very good coffee with only a little practice, and which has been my primary way of roasting coffee ever since, something like a year now.

Besides making very good coffee, an air popcorn popper is relatively cheap, fairly durable, and widely available.  Even good quality poppers can be purchased for under fifty dollars new, and they can often be found in thrift stores for next to nothing.  They do not have a chaff basket, or a timer, or a cooling cycle, of course, but a large bowl in front of the spout will do to catch the chaff, and the time will depend on the temperature and your preference anyway, and air cooled beans taste no different than machine cooled beans, so the poppers have the advantage of the roasters in almost every way I can think.  Besides, while I am certainly the sort of foodie who delights in preparing things at home, I am not the sort of foodie who expresses this delight mostly through acquiring specialty gadgets, and the popper lets me use something that I have already and lets me hack it for use in ways that it was never intended, all which pleases me very much.

Now, if you are interested in learning to roast your own coffee this way, which is an interest that many people have expressed to me in the last year, the process is fairly simple.  First, you need to acquire an air popper if you do not have one already.  Pretty much any air popper will do, but it does need to be an air popper rather than one of the mechanical poppers out there, because the beans need the air flow.  The only other thing to keep in mind is that a higher wattage is probably better than a lower one, which may be another reason to try a thrift store where you might find one of the old high power, low efficiency, unbreakable units that they used to sell back in the day.

You will then need to find some green beans.  This is not a simple thing here in Guelph.  Though we do have several places that roast their own green beans, and though they can sometimes be badgered into selling some of them, none of these retailers sell green beans as a regular part of their business, which can be a bit frustrating.  There are several options for ordering beans from Toronto, like The Green Beanery and Merchants of Green Coffee, but the closest and most customer friendly source I have found is Eco Coffee in Kitchener.  I use them almost exclusively, and I have never been disappointed.

Once you have your beans, fill the hopper of the air popper up to whatever its regular capacity would be for popcorn kernels.  Avoid the temptation to fill it too full, because the beans need to circulate freely.  Replace the lid, place a bowl under the spout, and turn on the popper.  The roasting time will be highly variable, not only because of air temperature and humidity, but because everyone likes their coffee roasted differently, so never just set a timer and walk away from the popper.  Instead, do whatever else needs to be done in the kitchen and keep an ear on what the popper is doing, because the progress of roasting will be much more evident to the ear than to the eye.

After a few minutes you should begin to hear a distinct popping or crackling sound.  This is called first crack, and it is the sound of the thin outer skins of the beans popping.  About this time you should begin to see these skins, delicate, light brown husks, come floating out of the popper into the bowl, as the beans rub the skins off each other and the air blows them out of the hopper.  These husks will be few at first, then there will be a bunch of them at the same time, and then they will dwindle again, much the same as popcorn pops, and once most of the husks are spent, the beans will be ready for those who like a light roast.

After a few minutes more, during which there should be very little sound, the cracking will  begin again.  This, logically enough, is called second crack, and those who like a medium roast should stop roasting just when they hear the first of these cracks.  The second crack is caused by the centre part of the bean, where it used to attach to the cherry, popping off as the bean expands.  These bits look like little black discs, and they will soon come floating out of the popper as well, slowly at first, then rapidly, and then slowly once more.  Once the second crack is complete, the beans will be ready for those who like a dark roast.

Of course, there are those of us who like our beans darker even than a dark roast, who prefer a French roast or even better, and we will need to keep roasting for a few minutes even past the second crack stage, until the beans start to look very shiny and oily.  At this point, you may even see a bit of a haze begin to emerge from the popper, like when oil is heated in an empty pan, which is essentially the case as the coffee bean oil hits its smoke point on the side of the popper.  This is a good sign that the beans will be dark enough to satisfy even those with the most bitter palettes.

At whatever stage you think your beans are done, you should empty them from the hopper immediately, so that the beans on the outside are not left against the hot metal.  Dump them into a bowl and leave them to cool.  Ideally, they should sit for several hours, but I generally wait only until they are air temperature before grinding them and making that first perfect cup of coffee.

This may seem like a lot of work for your java, but if you turn the roaster on first thing in the morning and leave it to roast while you prepare the rest of your breakfast, the sound and the smell make for an anticipatory experience that more than pays for the time it takes.  I highly recommend at least trying the experiment, and I will even volunteer my assistance if any of you need some help with your first attempt.  It will only cost you a cup of your freshly roasted coffee.