Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The commodification of cooking skill in a food-as-fetish culture

In a recent forum on Facebook, a friend and fellow food blogger initiated a discussion that raised some questions for me about convenience cooking products and about how the market for those products is being developed and presented.  The discussion was about Saute Express, a new product from Land O' Lakes that is a prepackaged seasoned butter and olive oil "saute starter," and it centered mainly on whether or not this product appealed to those who were pressed for time in the kitchen (this is who convenience products appear to target), and how many additives and preservatives might be in the product (one of my concerns as well).  So far, our discussion has lasted over two days and I expect there will be more lively reactions and comments trickling in about Saute Express and its existential importance and/or meaninglessness in the food world.

So why does this product and others like it get our backs up?  In the foodie community, we are likely to be perplexed (or even disdainful) about consumers that lack or use a shortcut to execute what we consider a basic cooking skill.  In regard to the recent Facebook discussion, this skill would be a rather simple one: combining oil and butter with various seasonings in order to saute something.  Have you noticed that the simpler the procedure for which a convenience food product is offered, the more the disdain among foodies toward the people who use it? 

We foodies also tend to think that non-foodies lack initiative and creativity if they purchase convenience items.  After all, how many working synapses does it take to combine a little olive oil and butter in a skillet with some shallot, or garlic, or plain old salt and pepper?  And, tending to be purists who are rather finicky about what we put in our mouths (read: snobs), we also cringe at a product that might be loaded with chemicals, preservatives and other 32-letter ingredients not spontaneously found in nature, while other consumers tend to just see the convenience and welcome a change in their weeknight dinner routine.

And--prepare yourself--Land O' Lakes isn't the only company marketing these convenience products.  Two relatively new products that help consumers "create" meals are also found on supermarket shelves.  One of them, Philadelphia Cooking Creme, is an "easy-melting" cream cheese product marketed by Kraft Foods that comes in several varieties.  And then there is a product called Recipe Inspirations, packets of premeasured spices with accompanying recipe cards, marketed by McCormick.  I'm sure there are other convenience food products like these, but these are the most mainstream items I've noticed in recent months.  And for me, they generate the same "ick" response.

It would be easy for those of us with kitchen proficiency and a love of all things food to judge that the people buying these convenience products are lazy and lack creativity.  Those of us who enjoy cooking are usually darn good at it and wouldn't dream of putting such things in our shopping carts, much less on our dinner tables.  We would call on our imagination and skill base to create a great meal.  Because we enjoy doing it.  And I think we lose sight of the fact that there are people who do not enjoy doing it all all.  Some of these people don't have a clue about how to do it, either.  Most of them will admit that.

So I think there's another mechanism behind the production and marketing of these convenience products--one which caters to the ego and, at the same time, to the primitively enjoyable experience of eating, especially in a social setting.  Arguably, the culture of foodie-ism is all about the enjoyment and experience of food, the preparation of food and an almost pathological need to determine the source of the food, as this clip from Portlandia shows.  For those of us who are serious about it, cooking and food acquisition consume time and financial resources roughly equivalent to the ownership and maintainence of a small yacht.  We venerate chefs and restaurants, some of which have acheived a status formerly reserved for athletes and rock stars.  We view myriad shows about cooking, read a plethora of food magazines brimming with recipes and glossy photos, and produce a cornucopia of food blogs in which food is primped, pimped, pushed and photographed in such a way that this phenomenon is now referred to as "food porn."  We call ourselves "foodies."  We have our own language and we memorialize the food we eat with our cameras.  And we have--don't deny it--considerable ego needs.

A culture that elevates eating, cooking and food to such high levels has done at least two things: it has created a subculture in which the kind of food you choose to buy, cook and eat is thought to be equivalent to your social status, intelligence and moral values, and that subculture has made of food a fetish, "an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion" as Webster states.  I am unabashedly in this subculture and I am fluent in the language, trade in the currency, am fully socialized in its customs and worship at the altar on a frequent basis.  But I do also recognize that there are people who are not my people.  Those people, non-foodies who have perhaps created a fetish out of something else--yes you, dear husband the golfer--are, in my mind, divided into three groups:  those who don't care about food (the eat to live camp, like my husband the golfer), those who enjoy good food as long as they don't have to prepare it (the unmotivated, like some people in my extended family), and those who are what I think of as foodie wannabes, or people who wish they could prepare stunningly brilliant food but lack the skill and time to do so.  I won't name names here, since some of them are a bit delusional about their capabilities.

Foodie wannabes, arguably, may be the most important target group in the production and marketing of products such as Saute Express, Philadelphia Cooking Creme and Recipe Inspirations.  People naturally want to be recognized and applauded for their efforts.  If they lack cooking skill, they can "live the dream" and purchase skill and effort in the kitchen in the form of these products.  They can, for a few minutes, enjoy the accolades of their family or dinner guests, and have the satisfaction of having prepared a meal that was appreciated, perhaps even complimented.  In this way, cooking skill has been commodified in a food-as-fetish culture. 

Foodies curl up and die at these notions, but there is, I think, a very real desire on the part of others who do not belong to our special club to be considered as part of its membership.  To be seen as someone who might have some chops (forgive the pun) in the kitchen in a culture that idolizes food and food preparation is tantamount to a Kardashian getting her picture on the cover of People Magazine. You have arrived.  And the world knows it.

But real foodies would never believe nor accept that.  And it's not being on the cover of People Magazine but rather the cover of the "Best New Chefs" edition of Food and Wine that we want.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Easy, elegant shrimp de Jonghe

For years, I have made and loved shrimp de Jonghe.  Buttery, garlicky bread crumbs mixed with shallot and herbs, layered with small shrimp and a good splash of sherry, this classic recipe is easy and impressive every time.  True Chicago cuisine, the ingredients come together in a magical alchemy that entices everyone to the kitchen with an irresistible aroma, and enchants everyone at the table especially if it's served as an appetizer portion in scallop shells.

Original photo taken by CG

Accredited to Henri De Jonghe, one of three brothers who later owned the DeJonghe Hotel in the Loop during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, shrimp de Jonghe was part of the signature cuisine of the original De Jonghe Brothers restaurant.  Some say that Henri's long-time chef, Emile Zehr, was the creator of this delectable concoction, but history is murky here, as it often is when culinary miracles occur and two chef's egos are on the line.  In any event, the original recipe for shrimp de Jonghe remained a secret long after De Jonghe and Zehr died, although versions of it have appeared in many incarnations for over a decade.

Sources also indicate that the De Jonghe brothers' restaurant originally opened on Chicago's South Side in time for the 1892 World's Columbian Exposition, had a successful debut, moved to the basement of the Masonic Temple in downtown Chicago, then later relocated in the heart of the famous Loop.

Aerial view of the Columbian Exposition (Chicago World's Fair) in 1893.  Photo: public domain.
The restaurant in the De Jonghe Hotel soon became the "in" place to dine and its fame was widely known.  The establishment flourished until a Prohibition agent posing as "a traveling man from Boston" visited during the summer of 1923 and arranged to buy, with the help of hotel manager James T. Hickey (himself no stranger to the inside of a police station), 3 pint bottles of whiskey from the head waiter.  A raid ensued, 30 cases of liquor were seized and De Jonghe's was padlocked, never to reopen again.  For more information on this turn-of-the-century hotel and restaurant (and yet another approximation of the original recipe for shrimp de Jonghe), see this article from the 27 January 1985 edition of the Chicago Tribune.

The De Jonghe Hotel and Restaurant  c. 1910 from John Chuckman

Although I am sad that the De Jonghe Hotel and Restaurant are no longer to be enjoyed, I am grateful for the one enduring culinary treasure associated with them--and for their part in making some colorful history during Prohibition.  Shrimp de Jonghe is truly a timeless dish, but serve it with sparkling wine in a vintage coupe and voila!  You're in the dining room of the Hotel De Jonghe making eyes with that sheik across the room.

Using a vintage hollow-stem coupe convinces me I've had another life as a flapper...

Recently, I paired shrimp de Jonghe with an absinthe-based cocktail in an absinthe tasting.  I took one of my favorite renditions of shrimp de Jonghe (from The New Doubleday Cookbook) and ramped up the anise profile by increasing the tarragon called for in the recipe and substituting Pernod for the sherry.  As I said before, use those cute little scallop shells as part of your presentation and you'll have your guests eating out of your hand, er shell.

Shrimp de Jonghe with Pernod

     Shellfish and anise are a natural combination.  If you can't get Pernod, any high-quality pastis or anise-flavored liqueur that is not too sugary will work.  This recipe is adapted from The Doubleday Cookbook.  Fresh herbs are what make this work so beautifully--don't skimp.

1 cup unsalted butter, liquified
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, minced (or substitute 2 scallions, minced)
1 Tbs. minced parsley
1 Tbs. minced chives
1/2 tsp. minced tarragon leaves
1/4 tsp. dried marjoram leaves
1/8 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
4 cups soft white bread crumbs, divided
2 Tbs. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 to 2 Tbs. Pernod, plus enough water to equal 1/3 cup liquid
3 cups cooked and peeled small cocktail shrimp, about 1 lb. (I often thaw out and use the frozen variety called Pacific Seafood, which you can find at most HEBs, because they're the perfect size for this dish)

Special equipment: scallop shells for baking, approx. 5" across (you can find them on sites such as this one), or use 4" individual ramekins

1.)  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2.)  If you are using scallop shells, you'll need a couple of baking trays filled with rock salt, or  about three 12-cup muffin tins to balance the shells on while they're in the oven.  If you're using individual ramekins, butter the insides well and place them on a baking tray.
3.)  Cream together by hand the liquified butter, garlic, shallots, herbs and nutmeg until well-blended.
4.)  Mix in 3 cups of bread crumbs, lemon juice and Pernod.
5.)  Layer seasoned bread crumbs and shrimp in shells or ramekins, starting and ending with a layer of crumbs.
5.)  Divide remaining crumbs evenly over the top of each shell or ramekin.
6.)  Bake for 20 minutes, or until topping is lightly browned and mixure is heated through.  Makes about 10-12 appetizer portions.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Cauliflower and cheddar bites with creamy chipotle dipping sauce

Several weeks ago, having the remainder of a beautiful head of cauliflower on my hands, I made these galettes and swooned.

Photo by Iain Bagwell

The combination of cumin and spice, the texture of the cornmeal and flour together and the dipping sauce THE DIPPING SAUCE! made of creme fraiche and chipotles compelled me to keep eating these incredible cakes until I almost burst.

Yes, my pretties, that is what it means to be out of control in the food department.

In the original recipe, these cauliflower galettes are fried, which means that they taste great, but they are very messy to cook.  I don't know about you, but I don't like frying food because it makes a very messy stove and kitchen and then your house smells like fried food for days.

I wanted to rework the original recipe so that I could bake the batter in mini muffin cups and eat them as finger food with lots of that great sauce.  I made a few adjustments and I think that the new recipe-- no frying involved--is very tasty with no sacrifices to texture or flavor.  And the best part is I can still maintain my dysfunctional relationship with food by eating about a dozen in one sitting.

These little beauties make great party appetizers and can be made ahead and frozen or refrigerated until you are ready to reheat and serve them.  Just make sure you reheat on a greased baking sheet or one lined with parchment to avoid leaving some of the deliciousness behind.  Otherwise, you'll be scraping all those toasty little bits off the pan and eat them when no one is looking.

Cauliflower and Cheddar Bites with Creamy Chipotle Dipping Sauce

     This recipe was adapted from the November 2012 issue of Southern Living.  You can make these ahead and freeze or refrigerate until ready to serve.  Reheat in a 375 degree oven on a greased baking sheet (or one lined with parchment) until warmed through and sizzling, about 5-7 minutes for refrigerated bites and about 10-12 minutes for frozen bites.
1 medium-size head cauliflower, cut into small florets  
2 Tbs. olive oil 
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper 
1 1/4 tsp. salt, divided 
1 cup plain yellow or white cornmeal 
2 tsp. baking powder 
1/2 tsp. ground red pepper 
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
3 eggs  
3/4 cup Greek yogurt  
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Cheddar cheese
6 green onions, sliced and divided (plus more for garnish, if desired)
2 to 3 canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, finely chopped 
1 cup crème fraîche, sour cream or Greek yogurt

1.)  Preheat broiler with oven rack 8 inches from heat.
2.)  Place cauliflower on a baking pan with sides and drizzle with olive oil, then sprinkle with black pepper and 1/4 tsp. salt; toss to coat.
3.)  Broil cauliflower for about 10 minutes or until lightly browned, stirring halfway through.
4.)  Remove from oven and reduce temperature to 375 degrees.
5.)  Cool cauliflower for about 30 minutes.
6.)  Whisk together cornmeal, baking powder, ground red pepper, cumin and remaining 1 tsp. salt in a medium bowl.
7.)  Whisk together eggs, yogurt, olive oil and 3/4 cup water;  blend well with dry ingredients.
8.)  Fold in cheese and half of green onions.
9.)  Fold in cooled cauliflower.
10.)  Spoon batter into greased miniature muffin pans.  It's OK if the batter rises above the pan because it's a chunky batter and fairly stiff.
11.)  Bake cauliflower bites for about 13 to 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the batter comes out clean.  Bites should be golden and puffed.
12.)  Combine remaining green onions, chipotle peppers and creme fraiche and serve with warm cauliflower bites, sprinkling with extra green onions if desired.  Makes about 4 1/2 dozen.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Impress your guests

Earlier this week, I hosted my second annual New Year's Day Open House as a way of thanking friends and guests of The Voluptuous Table for their support over the past year.  The menu was long and varied (which you can see here on my Facebook timeline) and one of the desserts, a Cherries Jubilee Diablo, was THE BOMB!  I'm so glad my flambe skills are adequate enough to avoid burning my house down, but I was most grateful for my assistant and friend, Bill the Wine Guy, who made the flame travel repeatedly up and down the spiral of clove-studded orange peel using just a small glass cream pitcher full of ignited brandy and kirsch.

Alcohol-fueled fire doesn't translate well on camera, but it's there.

In fact, it was so much fun, we wanted to do it again right away.  Just to practice, you know, because flambe is a lot of fun if you know what you're doing.  But next time, we'll need a longer handle on the vessel that holds the flaming liqueur.  So sorry about those knuckles, Bill.

There is nothing like a flaming dessert to end a meal.  If you've offered your guests enough alcohol, they're easily impressed with seeing fire in a pan right in front of them and they'll lean right in and utter plenty of oohs and ahhs.  But this is not always a good idea if someone is wearing a polyester tie or scarf and gets too close so that their clothes catch on fire, or if someone is wearing a lot of hairspray and hair starts burning, or if someone has had too much to drink and their balance is off and both fire and dessert go flying.  I say these things as warnings because they have happened to me or to people I know.  In order to protect privacy, I cannot tell you specifics, but I have witnessed these mishaps and remember them vividly.

We are wise when we flambe to remember the words of George Santayana: "The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again."  Well, it's safe to say that I don't remember history very well because I like to flambe so much.

A flaming dessert is like a meteor--all flash in the pan and suddenly bright, and then it's over.  You get only one shot at it to make it happen.  If you fail at flambe, you fail miserably.  And there are a lot of variables to contend with.  Such as: not enough alcohol, alcohol not sufficiently vaporized, too much alcohol overly vaporized, not using long matches instead of lighters, being startled by the ignition process and dropping something in the food that is not edible or onto someplace flammable, not giving the flame enough space and most importantly, trying to flambe for the first time in or near an alcove.  Again, due to privacy issues, I can't tell the whole sadly hilarious story but let's just say that there was a duck, a bottle of Grand Marnier, a chafing dish, a lit match and an inexperienced waitress in front of an alcove banquette containing six restaurant patrons.

Dinner for six, including two bottles of champagne and a fairly hefty bar bill, was comped that night.  The waitress, although she should have been fired, was given a scourging lecture by a very irate, red-faced chef.  The lecture was in French, but there was no doubt about the fact that the waitress had royally screwed up.

But she still plays with fire.

So that is why it is always a safe and good thing to have a fall back at your parties to impress your guests.  The real star of any party is what I call a "workhorse" dish.  It's the kind of dish that is offered in quantity, it's substantive, comforting, grabs your taste buds immediately, pleases pretty much everyone, and is the recipe everyone requests.  My workhorse dish was a special New Year's Day soup.  And no, I did not flambe it.

It's traditional to serve black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for luck.  Add some collard greens to that and the belief is that you'll have more money in the coming year.  Eat some pork and you'll be moving forward (pigs root in a forward direction, but you shouldn't eat chicken or turkey because they scratch backward--get it?).  I love all of these foods--and the superstitions that go with them--and wanted to have them come together in a delicious way.  So I went on a recipe hunt and found this one from Homesick Texan.

I made a few modifications because I had pork shoulder not ham (so I added some much-maligned Liquid Smoke).  I also reduced the amount of chipotles and added some extra chicken broth to make the soup go a little further.  I sauteed the collard greens in the olive oil that I substituted for the bacon grease to bring out their sweetness.  I made this hearty soup the day before serving it, so it had the benefit of being seasoned through well by the time it was served.  And it was so popular with my guests, I am lucky that I got some of it myself before it disappeared.

And that is why there is no picture of this insanely good soup.  But do try it.  It's an easy recipe and you can double it for a crowd.  If you didn't get your black-eyed peas on New Year's Day, you still have time before the week is out to get some into you.  But don't stop there.  It's always the right time for black-eyed peas.

If you're adventurous and like to make impressive party desserts, let me know and I'll send along the recipe for Cherries Jubilee Diablo.  Like I said, it's the bomb.

Good Fortune Soup (adapted from Homesick Texan and an original recipe from Gourmet Magazine, December 1998)

I don't think of myself as superstitious, but just in case, you've got the three essential ingredients for good luck in the new year, all in one pot.  The chipotles bring a pleasant warmth.

3 Tbs. olive oil (or substitute bacon grease)
1/2 lb. collard greens, stems removed and chopped
1/2 lb. pork shoulder, diced (or substitute ham and omit Liquid Smoke)
2 15 oz. cans black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained (you can use fresh or frozen as well)
1 small onion, diced
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 large carrot, diced
3 chipotle chiles chopped finely
1 can of Ro-Tel tomatoes
1 tsp. thyme
6 cups chicken broth
2 tsp. Liquid Smoke
2 tsp. apple cider vinegar
pinch of sugar
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1.)  In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until rippling and saute the diced pork until no longer pink, stirring frequently.
2.)  Add the onion and carrot to the pot and continue to cook for 10 minutes or until onions start to turn transparent.
3.)  Add the garlic and cook for three more minutes.
4.)  Add the collard greens and continue to cook for about 7 minutes, covering the pot with a lid to help them shrink down.  Stir the greens well from time to time so that they are covered in the oil and cooking juices.
5.)  Add the vinegar, sugar, chicken stock, chipotles, Ro-Tel tomatoes and thyme.
6.)  Bring pot to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for half an hour, stirring occasionally.
7.)  Take one can of black-eyed peas and roughly mash with a fork.
8.)  Add mashed black-eyed peas and also the remainder of the whole black-eyed peas to the pot.
9.)  Continue to simmer soup for another 45 minutes.  Serves 6-8