A Carnivore’s Delight

Last week at this time, I was in Palm Desert with my brother, my sister-in-law Lori, my niece Hilary and her family, and my niece Jennifer. We were looking in amazement at what Dan had prepared for us: a feast featuring various cuts of meat that would make any carnivore drool. There were also several varieties of roasted vegetables, such as the artichokes pictured below. To make it a truly gourmet experience, Dan had prepared a batch of homemade Béarnaise sauce which was so good that it seemed to go with everything.

Since the onset of my Type II diabetes about ten years ago, I have been more of a part-time vegetarian. But there is something about my brother’s cooking that cannot be denied. The last time I overindulged in meat was in Buenos Aires, when I went to a parrilada, ate a huge steak, and got picturesquely ill from several of orifices, missing my bus the next afternoon to Puerto Iguazu. This time, I merely sampled the cuts on display and suffered no untoward effects.

Roasted Artichokes

It was a delicious meal. I consider myself a passable cook, but not fit the touch the hem of Dan’s garment when it comes to a comparison. If I am overweight, it is fo a good reason. My great-grandmother Lidia Toth was an excellent cook. My mother was also good, but most notable for her soups and baked goods. (I am wearing those baked goods to this day.) I take after my mother in making good soups—the one area I might be able to give Dan a run for his money.

People have always told Dan he should open a restaurant. He is much too canny for that form of slavery. He has at times prepared dishes for restaurants and made friends of restaurateurs, but he was never tempted to go into that profession. Why should he? He is a superb home builder and has just finished building a log home in Idyllwild that he completed the sale of just this last week. Too bad: I would give much to live in a house that he built.


The Cook

I Do All the Cooking at Home

I Do All the Cooking at Home

At some point during the 1960s, I discovered that eating out at restaurants all the time was going to:

  1. Eat into my finances
  2. Deprive me of the fruits and vegetables I needed to survive and
  3. Make me tired of eating out all the time

I knew what good food was because I was raised on my Mom’s Hungarian home cooking, supplemented by my great grandmother Lidia’s special dishes. But I made the mistake of never learning from them, though I did help my Mom from time to time, mostly stirring the pot so the food would not burn.

My first experiments were pretty bad: They usually had too many spices (more or less randomly chosen) and relied excessively on rice and pasta as the carbohydrate base. Also I used way too much ground beef, for which I now substitute lean ground turkey.

When Martine came to live with me in the early 1990s, I also had to learn to cook to please her. This is not easy. Martine cannot eat spicy food, and there are too many ingredients that she flat-out doesn’t like. Also, as she suffers from recurring bouts of irritable bowel syndrome, I have to be able to turn on a dime and cook something especially bland at a moment’s notice. This week, for example, despite the heat and humidity, I made a pot of vegetable soup.

Tonight, I plan to cook Ree Drummond’s spaghetti with artichoke hearts and tomatoes. I like her recipes because they are well conceived, simple, and lavishly illustrated. Her cooking column is called “The Pioneer Woman.” I haven’t found a clinker yet in the lot.

Why do I do all the cooking? Well, for one thing, Martine is notably maladroit at cooking; and her mother prepared the most vile dishes I have ever eaten. (Her vegetables were greasy!) Secondly, I like to cook. It makes me feel good about myself. Every once in a while I experiment with a new recipe that I have to throw out, but essentially I have a fairly decent repertoire of healthy dishes that I can rely on to see us through.

I’ve cooked the spaghetti with artichoke hearts and tomatoes two or three times before with good results. I just have to make sure the tomatoes are chopped up fine because big pieces of tomato are one of Martine’s bête noires.

Don’t Toque to Me About Chefs!

Making a $25.00 Tower of Exotic Foodstuffs

Making a $45.00 Tower of Exotic Foodstuffs

The problem with American restaurants is that there are too many chefs and not enough cooks. Ever since the Food Network went on the air, people started paying too much attention to people with large white toques who like to mess around with food, forming little towers of quinoa with raspberry sauce and maybe a small amount of meat or fish. The less the foods appear to go together, the more renown the chef is likely to earn for his or her daring.

It’s become an epidemic. The tutsi-fruitsie is king. The ice tea is contaminated with passion fruit or other petrochemical waste. Side dishes avoid the usual rice or potatoes and provide instead broccolini with mashed yeast and ground Murano glass and Galena lead pellets.

Whenever I see some Culinary Institute of America (CIA) chef wearing a towering white toque, I know I’m in for a pretentious soaking. On the other hand, when I see what Hungarians call a szakács or szakácsnő (cook, masculine or feminine gender respectively), I know I am likely to have an excellent meal. There must be no toque or other sartorial trimmings. I want a good, honest cook who knows how to prepare food. And no little towers!

As for the Food Network, I hope they switch over to running “Antiques Roadshow” or “Pawn Stars.” Or maybe they can talk about Kim Kardashian or some other celebrity twinkie. They certainly have not done anything to improve the quality of food in this country.

Soup Wisdom

Sadaf Soup Mix, One of the Indispensable Ingredients

Soup Wisdom is the name of a little book by Frieda Arkin that was produced by Consumer Reports back in 1980. It is one of the two sources of what I know about making soup. It is the lesser source: The main one is my mother, Sophie Paris, to whom this blog posting is dedicated. For the duration of my childhood and well into my adult years, my mother taught me that soup can make for a great meal. Just recognizing what a great soup can do for you is half the battle: The rest, like sex, consists of experimenting with a willing partner.

Here I will attempt to give away my secrets to making a delicious soup. Some of what I say will be general, some specific.

Take Your Time. Soups are better when you take several hours to make them. Once the mixture is boiling, lower the heat and slowly add the ingredients one by one.

Using Your Blender. A mistake that many neophytes make is to make the soup too thin. There are several ways to avoid that. The Hungarian method is by making a rántás, or roue, using butter; minced onion, garlic, and parsley; Hungarian (not Spanish) paprika; and a couple tablespoons of general purpose flour.

What I usually do is, as the soup nears completion, ladle some of the mixture—liquids and solids together—into my blender and add a chopped-up bunch of Swiss Chard, which gives the broth a wonderful flavor along with the thicker texture. If you don’t have Swiss Chard, some other greens could be substituted—but note that the Chard is a really great flavor booster!

“Soup Mix.” Living as I do in an area where there are numerous Persian, Armenian, and Middle Eastern markets, what I always do is buy some “soup mix,” which consists of small pieces of green and yellow split peas, pearl barley, rice, and alphabet macaroni. I add this to the soup as soon as the liquid begins to boil and let it basically cook down to form a nice and very healthy background flavor and texture. I am partial to the brands put out by Sadaf and Springfield Foods.

Soupercharging Your Soup. If you have more time than I have, you might want to make your own beef, chicken, or vegetable broth to use as the base of your soup. Here’s where I cheat a little: I buy some soup broth of the desired variety from Trader Joe’s or my local supermarket. This week, I made a vegetarian minestrone using Swanson’s canned vegetable broth, which was quite good. I love the Trader Joe chicken broths, of which there are a couple of varieties.

Salt at the End. Some ingredients tend to get a little tough if you salt the soup too early. Since Martine doesn’t like salt very much, I don’t add any salt until the soup is served.

I know I said at the outset to take your time, but one of these days, I’ll post a blog about what I do to cheap ramen mixes to make them tastier and healthier without taking more than 5-10 minutes of my time.