Archive for the ‘The System Approach to Cooking’ Category

A friend told me this sounds like a self-help title.  Well, it kind of is.  There are some common themes that I have found run more or less constant through the world’s cuisines.  I find it useful to think of the purpose of the dish before thinking of the specific types of foods I want to add, and looking at eating patterns through the lens of multiple cultures gives us that much more flexibility in thinking of what to prepare for a given meal or event.

The basic elements of the typical main meal of the day:

The Appetizer

Appetizers can range from a bowl of potato chips to a plate of fried calamari to a single broiled scallop with an expensive sauce on a piece of lettuce.  The general idea is that it’s either something to eat while you’re waiting for the main dish to finish cooking, or that it opens your appetite for more things to come.  In some places this is also known as the “First Plate.”

Soups, small pasta portions, small salads, breads and spreads, and tapas make good appetizers.

The Meal

The substantive portion of food.  Also known as the “Second Plate.”  Usually consists of a stew or combination that juxtaposes proteins and complex carbohydrates.  This can be meat and potatoes, poultry and pasta, fish and rice, or a variation on any of these matches.  A vegetable or vegetable medley is often added.  Vegetarian options usually replace the meat protein with a legume, such as lentils, chickpeas, or beans.  For instance, a tagine with chickpeas, fruits and vegetables, and couscous.

New Age Western diets emphasize reducing the carbohydrate element in meals; however, the most successful long-term diets of this sort acknowledge that whole grains–and the carbohydrates that come with them–are a critical part of the human diet.  A well-rounded, home-cooked diet is often significantly useful in losing weight; just the sheer reduction in processing chemicals and preservatives through control of the ingredients makes a great difference.

Other diets such as vegetarianism and veganism remove a great deal of proteins; it is best to consult texts and cookbooks that have been approved by doctors for the best ways to maintain the necessary balance through the use of legumes, fruits and vegetables, and other meat substitutes.

The Dessert

We typically think of desserts as a sweet treat at the end of the meal, to be had with sweet wine, liqueur, coffee, or tea.  Dessert is often light because we are already at least somewhat full.  The texture is sometimes creamy or buttery, sometimes flaky or crunchy, and sometimes fruity and refreshing.

“Other” types of meals, and the People Who Eat Them

Many cultures have “in-between” snacks and small meals to tide everyone over between meals.  In fact, in Morocco it isn’t uncommon to have several snacks and meals throughout the day–a far cry from the traditional 3 meal schedule, and the more contemporary 5 meal per day plan, in the US.  In Spain, a small pastry and coffee is normal for breakfast, with a very large afternoon meal, maybe an evening snack after work (usually tapas) and a smaller meal later in the evening, usually between 10 and 11pm.  In Germany, cereals, or muesli, topped with yogurt is a normal breakfast, as are cold cuts and bread, and a lunch with beer and a heavier dinner.

England, as many Americans know, boasts a huge traditional breakfast with such goodies as fried eggs, toast, mushrooms, tomatoes, hash browns, sausage, bacon (thicker than bacon in the US), black pudding (much like Morcilla sausage in Spain used for tapas and meals), and if you’re close enough to Ireland, white pudding too (like black pudding but without the blood and with more fat).  I know that after a British breakfast I can’t eat too much more for the rest of the day.  But I usually have enough space for an afternoon tea, which usually consists of tea with cream and a pastry or small snack (for instance, toast with butter or the classic crumpet), followed by supper and dinner (which in the US are two words for the same thing).

Obviously, there are many types of meals, and half the fun is learning about them.  But basically, one way of thinking of the typical substantive meal is as a formula:


Of course, there are many variations on this formula, depending on cultural preferences and regional availability.  But this is the most common combination of food categories and an easy way to make pairings in your head when you’re just throwing something together from what you have or thinking of what you need to restock in your pantry as backup.

Why we should care about food patterns and the role of The Meal

It is interesting to think of how meals are incorporated into the daily routines of different cultures; it gives us a chance to step back from our own reality and rethink the way we eat.  One thing does seem to remain constant: meals, big or small, are opportunities for social gatherings and allow for communication and comradery, if we utilize them as such.  But so often, we eat alone, quickly, without thinking about where our food came from or even what is in the food we are eating.  Maybe not every meal can be a big deal, but making time for friends and family and taking time to prepare our meals, at least in my opinion, adds an important social dimension to our daily lives.  It’s worth making the time!

In any case, it is important to have a basic idea of how these meals fit together, in order to take them apart, ingredient by ingredient, and put them back together again in perhaps unexpected ways.  The interchangeability of many ingredients means you could have a sack of apples that could, in theory, be used for the appetizer, the meal, the snack, or the dessert–or even all four if you choose.  This is especially helpful if you’re working with limited ingredients and don’t have time to run to the store for more.  Half the fun of cooking is finding new ways to prepare old favorites.

Theory in Practice: an Example

Very few people can start to put strokes to canvas before knowing what they want to paint.  Let’s say you open your pantry to make something and you find a sack of potatoes, one onion, a bunch of radishes, and some carrots.  You turn to the fridge and you have only sour cream, cream, butter, two chicken breasts and a little cheddar cheese.  Some lemons sit nearby.  You have your usual backdrop of sugar, flour, corn starch, salt, pepper, vinegar, and olive oil, and maybe some bread crumbs and graham crackers too.  If you don’t already have an idea what kind of food you are trying to make, if you can’t think of whether it is a savory snack, a sweet treat, a full meal–it will be nearly impossible to make the ingredients you have work for you.  This is not to say that you have to have the whole recipe set out in front of you–that’s absolutely not the case, because that would be the opposite of  “breaking free” of the rules and playing with new ideas.  You can always look up recipes, but it’s always more of a hassle to be prepared with everything you need to follow them exactly than it is to add or subtract something and make it your own.  Not having the time to go back out to the store and buy everything necessary for a given recipe is often what deters people from making something quickly from scratch and ordering takeout instead.  This is easily overcome with a well stocked kitchen and a little creativity!

Continuing with the example with the ingredients noted above.  If it is an afternoon snack you seek, you may wish to make some version of Kalter Kartoffelsalat (German cold potato salad); if it is nighttime, maybe a stew or a carrot-radish-onion salad as an appetizer to a meal of lemon cream broiled chicken breast and mashed potatoes or potaoes au gratin.  If you only want something light and sweet, you could make a lemon cup with whipped cream and crumbled cookie topping (or, alternatively, lemon pie).  There are almost always several options using the same ingredients.  And it’s fun to try to think of all of them!

Note: The recipes to the meal ideas above coming soon!


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Maybe you’re thinking to yourself that making food from scratch sounds great, but you have no time for it, especially during the week.  Well, it’s entirely okay to cut corners and use pre-cut, canned, jarred, frozen, dried, freeze-dried, or pre-assembled ingredients.  Of course, normally it’s healthier if you have fresh ingredients, and generally you will be able to taste the difference.  That said, there is nothing set in stone about what has to be your creation and what can be store-bought; there is no contest for most “from scratch” cook, and the only real litmus test of success is that you and your family and friends enjoy the outcome.  This blog post lists some great quick recipe ideas with pre-made ingredients from Trader Joe’s, for instance.

So, you may be now be asking yourself, what is the point of making the sofrito from scratch, or what motivation might exist for marinating the chicken breast yourself when it is so easily purchased at the store with a delicious marinade already prepared?

1)  Knowing what is in your food

I don’t know about you, but I don’t always understand all of the ingredients listed on bottled products.  I never fully understood the MSG debate, but it seems to be in a lot of pre-made foods.  I know it’s just a flavor enhancer, but because it’s not something I myself would add while cooking, I do generally try to avoid it.  And despite the fact that I am not a fan of the fact that an unnaturally occurring enzyme has to be added to create high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), the main reason I don’t like it is that I actually just don’t like the aftertaste.  It’s for this reason that I absolutely adore Coca-Cola outside of the U.S. (in which sugar is used) but avoid most soft drinks when I’m Stateside (the land of HFCS, thanks to our unfair tariff imposition on sugar and our corn farming subsidies).  So you can eliminate any “iffy” ingredients in your food and drink by controlling them at the source.  Furthermore, if you have any sort of restrictions on your diet, like food allergies for instance, the only way to be certain of everything that is in the food is to make it yourself (save spending extra bucks in the special foods section, which is okay too if you can swing it).

2) Reducing fat, sodium, or calorie intake

Again, starting from the source gives you complete control. It probably comes as no surprise to you that fats and extra carbs or calories can be sneaked into a prepared meal.  In fact, frozen foods usually have ridiculously high sodium content to help with preservation.  The frozen pizza I used to enjoy once a week when I was growing up had more than 30 grams of fat per serving–and it was a personal pizza so I would eat 4 servings in one sitting.

Following on the pizza example.  I was recently in Venice and seeking a respite from the expensive restaurant dinners I had been inhaling.  I found a hole-in-the-wall trattoria on the water, with pizzas made to order.  I watched as a balding man in a smudged white apron sweated over a small table filled with no more than 10 basic ingredients, including simple dough balls, shredded mozzarella, halved cherry tomatoes, freshly sliced prosciutto, sliced pepperoni, and a tub of tomato sauce.  Apparently they also had a specialty of making pizza with french fries on top (not something I care to recreate).  In the 30 minutes it took for me to be able to walk out of there with my two pizzas, I watched that man throw together about 15 pizzas.  He actually didn’t even start on my pizzas until about 20 minutes in.  If this doesn’t prove how fast and easy it is to create your own pizza masterpiece, complete with the knowledge that you’re eating only the ingredients you’ve added and no extra grease or preservatives, I don’t know what would.

3) Availability

If you travel a lot, you know how important it is to be able to find local versions of your biggest comfort foods.  Likewise, if you went on vacation and had the most amazing dish but can’t seem to find its match anywhere where you live, short of having someone airmail it to you, you will be looking at the option of recreating it on your own.  Substituting ingredients may be necessary.  Understanding food patterns is essential to recreating meals and adding your own flair to the recipes.

4) Spicing it up in the kitchen

If you get to make the dish yourself, you not only get to control what flavors are in the meal but you will also be making a connection in your mind of new flavor combinations, rather than just taking what is given in a pre-made sauce packet or takeout box.  You can use these new combinations in other recipes, and you will be more likely to actually do that, as you become more and more comfortable with making things yourself and gaining confidence in your cooking.

This is not to say that switching things up is always easy.  I have been called a “creature of habit” on more than one occasion.  I am known to stick with things that work: a particular parking spot at the supermarket; a particular convenience store.  It’s no different with food.  I enjoy particular cereals; a particular brand of soy milk; a particular flavor of gelato.

There’s nothing wrong, at least in my opinion, with sticking with what you know.  If you make an amazing chicken fettuccini, why mess with it?  If your family requests your signature cranberry sauce every Thanksgiving, there’s no need to disappoint them with something new.

However, as they say, a little change can actually do you good, at least once in a while.  Change in the kitchen, as with all things in life, can be fun and exciting.  So pick a night that doesn’t matter to you–no need to hijack the Sunday pot roast dinner if it’s a tradition; try a Friday instead.  Trying new things shouldn’t feel like a chore, it should be something you look forward to.  So take baby steps if changing your methods seems overwhelming; try dedicating one night every couple of weeks for something “different,” and see how it goes over in the household.  Chances are you’ll eventually stumble on something worth trying again!

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To really understand an ingredient’s potential, we have to think of what the purpose of the ingredient is.  This may sound elementary, but the more we cook, the more complex these connections will be, and this will expand the horizons of our abilities in the kitchen.

Let’s say you get a jar of high-quality dark Manuka honey as a gift from a friend who just got back from a trip to New Zealand.   Great gift, but, unless you regularly use honey in your every day cooking, this kind of quality ingredient–packed with natural immune system support and deep sweet flavor and texture–could be used simply for the occasional cup of tea, or perhaps to sweeten a randomly purchased pastry.  Unless you get into the habit of actually thinking through your ingredients, a terrific, and sometimes rare, ingredient can be left in the cupboard for months or even years before you remember it’s there.

So, let’s use the honey example.  You could use it as a glaze for your next baked ham, in place of sugar in baking pastries, in sauces, and to sweeten marmalades and shakes.  You can drizzle it on more than just pastry–ice cream, fruits, and cereals, for instance.  You can even make cereal bar snacks using honey as a healthy alternative sweetener.

Likewise, looking at a given recipe and spending a few seconds thinking about the potential use for each ingredient will help you to tweak the recipe to your liking as well as possibly kickstart new recipe ideas for future meals and parties.

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If you want purple but you only have red and blue, what do you do?  How did you learn that mixing the two makes the one?  Either someone told you, or you did it accidentally, or maybe you had a hunch and went for it.  So it goes with food preparation.

It may sound obvious, but it will be quite difficult to play around with different textures, flavors, and spices if you don’t first have at least a basic idea what kind of result you’re looking for (sweet, spicy, tangy, sour, salty, etc.).  Whether you’re cooking just for yourself or for family and friends, knowing what the preferences are of those dining is absolutely key to experimenting with new options.

For instance, I don’t like a lot of salt in my foods normally, so when I cook just for myself, I am able to salt (or not salt, as the case may be) the entire meal to taste.  But when I am cooking for my family, I have to remember that I am the only one with that preference.  Sometimes I split the meal and set some aside for myself; sometimes I focus on other ingredients to compensate for the lack of salt (and hand them the shaker when I place the serving dish on the table).

The same would go for experimenting with a new spice: say, anise seed for instance.  As it has a strong licorice flavor, anyone who does not like licorice is probably not going to like anise seed in their pasta.  Maybe they would like a few seeds on their steak, and maybe they wouldn’t know it unless you surprised them, but don’t be upset if that kind of gamble backfires in your face.  (I’ve seen it happen.)

I guess the idea here is: break the rules, but don’t break them so far apart that the ends don’t justify the means anymore.  Work within reason; use your knowledge of your family’s preferences to help you in your experiments, instead of just throwing caution to the wind and hoping your family will like it.  Try to treat them as you would food allergies; you wouldn’t mess with that, so why mess with a flavor you know isn’t going to go over well?  Instead of viewing preferences as a limitation, try to view them as an extra challenge within which you can still make a great many variations on one recipe.  If you decide to buck this advice and still go for it, at least have a backup option ready to go.

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The way we view food is usually ingrained in us from the time we are little.  We know that onions and meat go well together (if we eat meat); that cheese is good with crackers; that ice cream complements cake; that strawberries go well with cream.  The list goes on and on.

Passive acceptance of food patterns can hold us back in our kitchen creativity.  This may not be a bad thing for everyone.  Some people don’t have adventurous taste buds.  My mother, for instance, prefers simple foods, namely cheese and crackers for dinner, ham sandwiches made literally of ham and bread with nothing else, and steamed vegetables with nothing but salt to flavor them.

Suffice it to say, I grew up with very little food variety at home.  Most of my food came from boxed, frozen, or fast food sources.  I always liked to cook, but what I was actually allowed to cook was limited and somewhat monotonous.  It was a big day in our house when I asked to switch from “cooking” boxed mashed potatoes to real potatoes.  Bigger still was the request to attempt real mac and cheese for myself (although I still love boxed mac and cheese, the way I love Taco Bell).  It wasn’t until I left home that I realized that there was a wide world of food out there, and I didn’t have to be a professional chef to figure out how to cook most of it to my own liking.  A few simple tricks can go a long way.

Now, I like to try new things, to stretch the boundaries, and to treat food as many treat music and literature–as an art with limitless possibilities.  I feel fortunate to have been able to learn the foods of many world cultures–it is a window into the cultures themselves.  I also find that learning about the ingredients in food prep leads to a deeper appreciation for the soil that produced it, which I think is important and often forgotten in hyper-driven urban life.  Finally, it’s just plain fun to play with food.

If you like the fancy foods that pair unlikely partner ingredients when you go out to eat, why shouldn’t you bring that curiosity into your own kitchen?  Recipes you find online don’t have to be followed as gospel–why not take out an ingredient you’re not crazy about and replace it with something you like better?  I call this seeing the “rhythm” of food patterns, knowing what can substitute for what, and knowing your own preferences and those of your family well enough to be able to throw a good meal together even if you only have 5 or 6 ingredients in the pantry.  It’s almost like a game challenge, your own personal Iron Chef.

And if you already play with your food–then I just hope you’ll enjoy the recipes!  And please give feedback and additional variations.

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