Friday, May 29, 2015

Herb Life

As stated in Distillation and the Learning Curve, I often look at the similarities between things to find deeper truths in commonalities. For example, in my non-medical opinion, if beauty products are pimping plants in their concoctions, whether it be sea buckthorn or seaweed, I find it safe to assume that plants are helpful aids in the beauty routine. While the aforementioned post dealt specifically with plants and beauty, I'd like to take some time to deal with the topic of plants and health.

In a previous blog post entitled, All in One, I spoke of how a simple BuzzFeed article brought me back to basics, reminding me that while carrots and radishes and eggplant might be delicious and generally healthy, it's the leafy greens like kale and spinach which really pack a (vitamatic) punch. To this extent, I started thinking of other green plants, mainly herbs, which I could infuse more heavily into my diet.

When I began this blog, I talked about how water (again, in my non-medical opinion) should be at the bottom of the food pyramid. According to the Mayo Clinic (and basically everyone else) women should generally consume 9 cups and men should consume 13 cups of water on the daily. Water, obviously, has a myriad of benefits for our bodies from flushing toxins to keeping our muscles energized but there can be elements added to our water that deliver unique benefits in and of themselves. While we may not wish to add kale to our water, I have often written about adding herbs, spices and citrus to boost the flavor and nutrients of something we should already consume each day.

As stated before, I've written a lot on herbs in the past, however, for me, the repetition of information is always helpful and I tend to learn something new (and I hope you do too!). Recently, I came across a post on Into the Gloss entitled There's and Herb for That which detailed herbs for hair growth, herbs for calming the skin (can't wait to try this), etc. However, beyond maintaining the appearance of our exterior, herbs do a lot to aid our interior. But what is an herb? Herbs, according to Wikipedia, are, "plants used for food, flavoring, medicine or perfume." To this extent, it seems as though kale could be an herb but we'll stick to the tried and true category containing your oregano, basil, etc. To further pare down our category of herbs, below lies a list of herbs I've been using as of late and their benefits.

Mint: I've been using mint a lot as of late. I hate to admit it, but my students have been reading a Batman book (that's not the embarrassing part) in which Bruce Wayne takes a cup of tea at night. This ritual struck me as thoroughly calming and something I wanted to do despite the fact that the weather on the Eastern Seaboard is turning warmer. Conventional teas have given me some pause, however, as I'm tentative to use (often bleached) tea bags with what seems oftentimes like old, brittle tea leaves. Enter mint. Mint has always pleased me as an herb. Oddly enough, there are some herbs I really don't like but I think I have enough positive associations with mint to really enjoy its flavor. To make a mint tea (which may be preferable to rosemary or sage in the Spring), I simply boil some water, slip some tea leaves into my floating tea infuser and, voila, I have a pleasant tasting tea for the evening.

Above: Nightly mint tea sans infuser.

Instead of relying on dried mint leaves, I purchased a small mint plant from my local farmers' market. I find that fresh mint leaves often taste, well... fresher and I'm hoping my purchase of a pre-grown plant will grow larger and spread as I have an alternate use for this herb in the future. In addition to brewing tea, I'd like to start using (pepper)mint in the creation of essential oils.

I recently came across a great blog entitled The Crunchy Moose. The blog is "crunchy" in its focus on all-natural ingredients in one's beauty routine but every suggestion I've taken from the site has been miraculous. The blog's author, Ashlee, also offers an online "class" on essential oils which sends a info-filled email to your inbox each day. To access the site where you can "enroll" in her class, click here. Through Essential Oils 101 and my own research, I've come to find that different essential oils (obviously) offer different functions. Below is a list of some commonly used essential oils and their strongest areas of aid.

Peppermint: Often used for energy
Lavender: Often used for calm
Lemon Balm: Often used for focus

Essential oils, or the, "highly concentrated, aromatic essences of trees, shrubs, hers, grasses, resins or flowers," (according to The Crunchy Moose) are often used by patting a dab behind the ears or on the neck, added to teas or food or diffused through the air. While the benefits of these liquids seem to be endless, it takes a lot of plant to make a scant (amount of oil). However, once the essential oil is distilled and bottled it will not expire (though it may evaporate). Therefore, buying a mint plant allows for great, natural teas but will also grow wildly in your yard, perhaps allowing for enough leaves to create an individual sized essential oil. If you are interested in making your own essential oil, you can click here to learn more about the process.

(Note: The process of creating essential oils is rather involved, so if you wish simply to add mint to your tea and purchase essential oils from your health food store, you will still reap all the benefits of this antioxidant rich, digestive aiding, breath freshening herb.)

Lavender: Lavender oil comes next on my "bucket list" of essential oils and, likewise on my list of herbs to cultivate this summer. Lavender is often grown in the south of France but can easily be grown stateside in Hardiness Zones, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. While mint is said to energize (at least in essential oil form) lavender is said to calm. I remember learning about the color wheel in high-school art class and seeing how the "cool colors" were claimed to impart calm on the viewer. But beyond looking at lavender, consuming it can aid in reducing nausea and/or a loss of appetite, help with insomnia, nerve pain or even hair loss (according to WedMD).  While the smell of lavender can relax you (I plan on growing, cutting and keeping a lot in the house) it also lends itself well to teas. You can either make lavender tea by placing a few of its flowers in a tea infuser or you can simply buy it pre-made (just try to get pre-made lavender tea in unbleached tea bags).

(Note: If you are taking certain medications, tread lightly in using natural, lavender tea. You can read more about this issue here.)

According to Whole Foods, essential oils can be added to bath water, moisturizers or even our pillowcases to impart the specific effects of the herbs they use. As opposed to mint, lavender seems to lend itself well to a beauty routine with its pleasant scent that's a little less obvious than peppermint. In order to receive lavender's calming benefit on the daily, I plan on adding a few drops of its essential oil to my shampoo and perhaps to my pillow before I fall asleep. While I had grand plans of keeping an apiary this summer (however, honey extractors are insanely expensive) I had thought of planting lavender as a source of pollination for my bees. Had I done this, I would have considered making my own lavender essential oil but, as I'm finding, Whole Foods has a great beauty department replete with a myriad of oils to choose from. I think I'll just go there.

So, there you have it, an "essential" yin and yang of my herb use with mint used for energy and lavender for relaxation. Both herbs, however, can aid in digestion and both have deeper benefits for the body and mind than simply affecting our energy levels (read: mint and lavender have been shown to reduce the risk of some cancers). While I had thought of including lemon here, it is not an herb even though I place it in water like a tea and use its essential oil. We'll save lemon for another post. Enjoy!
I didn't include lemon in this post but I figured a picture would suffice. You can't see it but there's mint and honey too!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


As stated a few posts back in All in One, Into the Gloss has recently become a slight obsession of mine. Featuring articles on beauty routines for the hair, skin and nails (among other topics) I tend to check the site on the daily. Recently, I came across an article espousing the benefits of Cabellina Chile Con Romero Shampoo and Conditioner. The article reports that both products work well in the volumizing and oil-reducing departments when it comes to hair care. Apparently, chili extract does well in stimulating the scalp.

The article intrigued me not only for my love of chilies (again, see All in One) but for the benefits these products could have on the hair and scalp. As I begin to develop my beauty routine, I am making efforts to keep my use of products curated and as natural as possible. To this extent, I use honey on the face and (often) vinegar in the hair. Many of these products are aimed at not moisturizing the skin but at keeping my oil levels in check. I often joke that, once acne left my face, it went to my head, providing me with a scalp that is consistently oily. In college, I struggled with dandruff yet relied consistently on tea tree oil and seaweed shampoos which never seemed to work (take that Bumble and Bumble). It wasn't until I started using an actual dandruff shampoo that my scalp really seemed to clear and my hair really seemed to grow. Now that everything seems under control, however, I'm ready to branch out and try new things... knowing that I'll always have my bottle of vinegar on hand for a good anti-dandruff/high-shine rinse.

In addition to featuring comprehensive articles on a variety of beauty topics, Into the Gloss also has a link featuring small tidbits of beauty advice. I love flipping through this small section to be reminded of simple, everyday things we can do for our hair and skin. The first point featured in the "advice column" possesses a hint from hair stylist +Amoy Pitters who claims, among other things, that, "your scalp is part of your skin so it should be clean to stimulate growth." An obvious point but one that I often forget. This statement, in a sense, shifts my whole framework from viewing the hair and skin as separate to seeing it as essentially one component with the treatment of the skin of the utmost importance. Whereas before I may have thought of treating my skin for its oily composition and my hair for its dryness, I can now concentrate on primarily treating the skin on my face and scalp as step one. To this extent, my wishlist of beauty care products lies below.

Christophe Robin: Cleansing Purifying Scrub with Sea Salt: Christophe is a colorist based in Paris who has come out with a line of hair care products which use natural ingredients to combat damage done to hair through color or the environment. Flipping through his list of products, I was happy to see the use of lavender (a stress-reliever) and chamomile (a stress-reliever) 'cause I often need stress relief. Robin's Purifying Scrub particularly caught my eye, however, due to the fact that my scalp often feels it needs a more thorough clean. I can remember doing laundry with my fiance when we first met, laughing at how he would often stuff the washer to full capacity in order to only do one load of laundry. In response to my teasing, he conceded that, "yeah, sometimes when I fill the washer this full the clothes in the middle of the washer won't even get wet." I often feel the same way about my hair. While I have the benefit of thick hair, I also have the detriment of thick hair. While I feel that my dandruff shampoo and vinegar rinses often clarify my hair. there still seem to be hinterlands (in German, according to Wikipedia, hinterland means, "land behind a port," on my blog it means skin behind any area touched by water) of may hair and scalp that remain oily from years of buildup. To this extent, a purifying scrub is in order.

Exfoliation has gotten a bad rap over the years. In the '90's and early 2000's many magazines warned of the potential harms of harsh scrubs (maybe it was all the St. Ives products sold at the time). However, Into the Gloss also holds a tidbit of beauty advice from renowned dermatologist, Patricia Wexler who states that, "I always tell people to exfoliate on a daily basis. This once a week thing is nonsense. But, I think you have to know your skin. You should never look red or irritated - you should look better after you scrub." Well said. While I might not use a scrub on may face every day, I could see myself using Christophe Robin's scrub consistently on my scalp (or back of my face).

Aurelia Probiotic Skincare: Monday to Sunday Bamboo Muslins: Following the theme of exfoliation, the Aurelia Skincare as put out a series of anti-bacterial muslin cloths which can help of exfoliate dead skin cells after your cleanse. Upon learning about more natural methods of skincare and setting out on an adventure in oil cleansing (which requires you to remove oil with a damp, hot towel), I realized that I've possessed nary a facecloth since 1988.While the process of exfoliation has become enlarged in my scope of necessary beauty rituals, I suppose those articles written in the '90's condemning scrubs rubbed off on me (no pun intended). While I want to exfoliate and have no problem exfoliating my scalp (see above) an anti-bacterial muslin might be a great way to ease me into the process of exfoliation.

Aurelia Probiotic Skincare is a British based company which, "seeks scientific excellence by pushing the boundary of skincare." Using organic, plant based formulas, the company seems to concentrate most on battling the effects of "ageing" in Britain, aging in the U.S. Stripping their products of unnecessary and harmful chemicals, Aurelia Probiotic Skincare seems to "treat" aging through the reduction of inflammation. To do this, their products "work" with molecules that react with the body's immune responses. Not bad. While age denial isn't really my thing (I'm an old-soul which thinks there is great beauty in aging) I could definitely go for their muslin cloths which can lift dirt and dead cells from the skin while simultaneously being gentle. In addition to acting as a cleansing agent, the act of massaging exfoliants into the skin/scalp can also work to stimulate blood flow and the regeneration of cells, leading to a healthy glow wherever you use it.

Note: While I'm dying to have Christophe Robin's Purifying Salt Scrub in my beauty routine, I'm ambivalent about paying $52 USD for the product. Therefore, I wanted to share my solution with those who want the option of the jar of goodness itself or its homemade equivalent. Like I said, I am beginning to treat my scalp as part of my skin instead of treating it by allowing it to absorb any product that goes on my hair. To this extent, I have the dual issue of exfoliating my scalp while trying the moisturize my tresses. Here in lies the beauty of coconut oil. Essentially the kale of the beauty world, coconut oil has been featured in high end and homemade remedies alike. High in triglycerides, coconut oil has moisturizing qualities and has been shown to help with psoriasis. To make my "moisturizing scrub" I plan to mix 1/4 cup coconut oil with 1 cup of cane sugar (I know I'm complaining about the price of the pre-made salt scrub but if you have a Vitamix to blend this bitch, you'll get a more homogeneous mixture) rub a little on my scalp and through my hair and wait twenty minutes before shampooing. I'm excited to see how an exfoliating massage my benefit my scalp while the coconut oil benefits my hair. I'll let you know!

Sunday, May 17, 2015


For a long time I've been wanting to pimp beans from +Rancho Gordo . Rancho Gordo, based in Napa, offers a wide variety of heirloom beans as well as dried chilies, sauces and seeds... everything you might need for your next batch of hummus.

Below, some photos of hummus preparation...

Saturday, May 16, 2015

All in One

I grew up with a father who is vegetarian. Watching someone eat no meat while harboring my own love of vegetables has generally led to a lack of protein in my diet. This fact has become more apparent as I age and realize that, while I eat a lot of vegetables, Little Debbie won't adequately sustain the rest of my diet. To this extent, I have started to eat a lot of beans for protein. I remember my dad opening a can of beans each night and "dousing" a bottle of Tabasco Sauce over it. But why keep things easy and straightforward? I...have been making hummus.

Full disclosure, I like soft foods. I'm not talking about foods that are naturally soft, I'm talking about foods that are boiled, blended and can be eaten with a spoon. I'll essentially eat any soup and, for some reason, I love dips. It may be due to childhood memories of having dips at parties because for me, dips evoke a feeling of excitement (plus, they fit into my "soft foods" category). One dip I particularly enjoy is hummus. I used to eat hummus a lot in high school, the kind that came in the big, plastic tub. As my father was vegetarian, we kept it as a staple in the fridge and, like dip, hummus still evokes fond memories. As I age, however, I've veered  away from store-bought hummus and have begun to make my own. The benefits of this process have been two-fold. First, making hummus dip from scratch has saved some coin and second, while many store-bought brands are healthy, homemade hummus can be healthier. This last point has become evident in my realization that homemade hummus contains many nutrients I miss through my primary consumption of vegetables. It is essentially my "all in one" dish which calls for ingredients containing protein, calcium and Omega-3's to name a few. Thus, below lies the ingredients put into homemade hummus and their benefits.

Beans and Pulses: Essentially, hummus is a simple mixture of beans, tahini and lemon juice (with maybe some garlic and seasonings). While beans (or legumes) may be the operative ingredient, there is no rule stating the types of legume you have to use. Pinto and adzuki beans, for example, rank high on the ANDI (aggregate nutrient density score) scale with lentil, kidney and black beans following close behind. (You can find Whole Food's comprehensive ANDI guide here). While chickpeas fall lowest on the ANDI scale (holding thirty-one points less than pinto beans at 55) they are the predominant bean with which hummus is made. If you care about the presentation of your hummus (let's say you plan to serve it at your next shindig) chickpeas may be the best bean to use. The light color and creamy texture of chickpeas makes it more visually appealing than a dark green lentil but, hey, do you.

Note: In addition to Feed Me Dearly, Into the Gloss has become another one of my favorite blog sites. This week, ITG featured an article on Japanese, homemade beauty remedies which cited ground adzuki beans as an exfoliant. If you buy them for your hummus, you may get an added bonus towards your beauty routine.

(Chicken Feet) Stock: Stock, of any kind, is not a common ingredient in hummus. You may not see it in any recipe for hummus that exists. However, if you choose to go the dried bean route, stock (of any kind) can be a great addition. When I was young, I loved reading "Watch Out for the Chicken Feet in Your Soup." Written and illustrated by Tomie de Paola (who also did Strega Nona), I was probably more intrigued by the use of bold colors and interesting illustrations of an Italian grandmother's home than I was with the actual story but I always found the use of chicken feet in soup rather esoteric and alluring... something I couldn't quite gain access to or understand. Some twenty-five years later, however, I got my chance at chicken feet soup.

Having gone to the butcher to pick up some (hopefully free) beef bones, the butcher directed me towards a freezer filled with frozen bones and specifically pointed me towards the chicken feet claiming that it made a great, gelatinous soup stock. Having remembered an article featured on Goop which cited the benefits of gelatin (from bones) on the skin, I snatched up a pack and brought it home. My new toy in the kitchen is my slow cooker. While this device might sit in the back of most cooks' shelves, suffering from overuse, it has become my culinary life saver. Not wanting to keep stocks boiling on the stove while I run to the store or keep beans cooking while I go to work, I simply throw them in the slow cooker overnight. I just bought All-Clad's 4-qt Slow Cooker and I love it. More to the point though, if you choose to use dried beans as the base for your hummus (they have less salt than the canned variety) cooking them in stock (in your slow cooker) can be a flavorful (if not vegetarian) advantage. For my "chicken-feet" stock, I simply threw the defrosted feet in my cooker, added salt and bay leaves, then covered it with water and cooked overnight. Gelatinous and delizioso.

Sesame Seeds: Behind beans, tahini is the second most important ingredient used in the production of hummus. A paste made of sesame seeds and olive oil, tahini can often be expensive when purchased in the grocery store. Therefore, I tend to buy my sesame seeds whole from amazon, toast them in a skillet and blend them with olive oil. For someone who doesn't have a lot of dairy in her diet, I learned (happily) that sesame seeds contain a high amount of calcium as well as zinc and magnesium (which is an "anti-cancer compound). In fact, to see the entire list of the seed's benefits, click here. When it comes to hummus, 1 cup of sesame seeds will typically yield 1/2 cup of tahini when blended with olive oil. More on this below.

Olive Oil: I need more olive oil in my life. As a youngster, I remember my dad (the vegetarian) consume a spoonful of the liquid each day to access monounsaturated fat in some form. While I've always loved olives, I've never been keen on the taste of the oil they produce. However, the benefits of olive oil on one's health and beauty routine are unavoidable. At this point, it seems as though every beauty site talks about olive oil for the hair or to use in an oil cleanse, which is great. Olive oil is often cheaper than other (healthy) oils as long as you're aware of the brand you're buying (for more on this topic, my former post Tuscan Tea focused on some scandal in the oil industry). Olive oil also possesses a substantial amount of anti-oxidants and acts as an agent for calcium absorption making it a good companion for our calcium-rich sesame seeds. Specifically, when used in combination with 1 cup of sesame seeds to make tahini, 2 tablespoons of olive oil will generally suffice.

Chilies: I'm a huge fan of chilies in all forms. I often buy them dried for preservation purposes but also like to buy them fresh and pickle them. I always put them in hummus. Oftentimes, I cut the tops and then scrape the seeds from two dried chilies before placing them in hot water for twenty minutes. When it's time to blend the hummus into a silky, smooth concoction, I throw the soft peppers into the blender with everything else. Adding chilies to one's hummus not only adds extra flavor to what can sometimes fall on the bland side if using dried beans (remember to add salt to your stock!) it also relays a myriad of benefits to our bodies. Like leafy greens such as kale and spinach, chilies provide a wallop of vitamin C to whoever consumes it. Its been shown to help in digestion can also help activate your metabolism. WOOT WOOT.

So there you have it: an all-in-one recipe that contains extensive benefits in a single dish. To make the hummus, I often soak dried beans overnight, (again, any type of bean is fine) then place them in a dutch oven and cover them with stock (again, any type of stock is fine). After bringing the stock to a boil, I let the beans simmer until soft (about and hour and a half). While the beans are cooking, I toast 1 cup of sesame seeds in a pan over low heat, often throwing some cumin and coriander seeds in for good measure. Once the seeds begin to give of an aroma, I place them in a blender with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and blend to a paste. Likewise, while the beans are still cooking (this is the most boring part of the process) I bring a separate pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, I turn off the heat and add two dried, de-seeded and de-stemmed chilies and let them soak for 20 minutes. When the beans are ready, I throw them into the blender with the chilies and tahini and blend 'till smooth. You may have noticed I use only blenders cause food processors stink. My one question that remains once the hummus is complete is that, after making a dish with so much effort and with so many benefits... why am I eating them with Tostitos?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Distillation and the Learning Curve

As a teacher by day I have become familiar with various learning styles and the ways we process information. Some of us process information verbally, others visually and some perhaps emotionally over using more rational methods. As not only a teacher but my own (sometimes begrudging) companion for the past thirty-two years, I have certainly learned something about my own learning style. For me, the distillation of information to it's barest bones often helps me determine deeper "academic" truths. What can I say, I'm a minimalist. This process is often helpful in the food world as an array of articles fights for room in one's consciousness purporting the benefits of potatoes or acai or your mother's shoelaces. Save for the latter, both of the above ingredients are certainly good for you but when you're trying to incorporate all these foods into your diet, it can be quite exhausting. I, for awhile, felt this overwhelming feeling towards beauty products. Luckily, I gave up on the idea of color or foundation a long time ago after my acne cleared up and I was through with any unneeded beauty routine (again, I'm a minimalist). As I age, however, the idea of caring for myself has come more and more into my (blurring) view, leading me to consider skin and hair care products that won't only make my skin look better but will be good for my skin.

Several blog posts back, I entitled an article Plants in the Mouth and on the Face. To paraphrase the food chain in a very basic and unscientific manner, we might suffice to say that water (and sun) feed plants and plants feed animals (and some animals feed other animals, etc.) If someone were to ask me the key component of my "beauty routine", I would have to site, first, the consumption of water at the base of the food chain. It's a personal belief but I've always thought that what we put in our bodies affects us more than what we put on our bodies (cue juvenile laughter). Again, this belief is personal but, if we only put a fractional ounce of moisturizer on our skin each day but drink sixty-four ounces of water (or soda) I would think the drink may have a greater affect on how our skin looks. Therefore, I drink a lot of water to flush out toxins from my body through the kidneys (which take over after we've met our hydration quota) and keep my skin from reaping the affects of dehydration (dryness, wrinkles, etc.). Indirectly, by avoiding muscle fatigue through the consumption of water, I'm able to to keep on with my yoga which definitely helps my lymphatic and endocrine systems and (I think) leads to a better glow.

To move on to those things which use water for food, plants serve as the next step up in the food chain (and my beauty routine). Here, I've seen how the affects of green plants such as kale, spinach and herbs contain a multitude of vitamins (particularly A, C and E) which can help the skin. According to Joy Bauer, "[v]itamin C helps the body make collagen... [which] keeps your skin and hair healthy and beautiful." However, this is where the distillation begins. Since I'm relatively new to the beauty scene, I've felt somewhat like a kid in a candy store with as much dopamine in my brain as there are options to chose from. While knowing I wanted to stick mostly to beauty products with natural ingredients, I found myself pulled at once to Aesop's Parsely Seed Cleanser only to be sidetracked by MyHavtorn's facial oil which counts sea buckthorn as its primary ingredient. While many come to find the right product for their skin care routine, I neither have the time or money to indulge in such experimentation. When my mind was (delieriously) swirling with with all these options, however, I came to the realization that all the products I need in my beauty bag ASAP were plant based. That KORA Organics Exfoliating Creme... made of bamboo and oat flour. That Grown Alchemist Hyrdra-Repair Day Creme... botanically based. To some extent, while this does not ensure I'll find the best product for my beauty routine, I can now take comfort in the fact that plants (in general) are beneficial to the skin and there's often not a silver botanical bullet that might clear my redness or acne or make the profile of my face better. In the end, it's the intention to stay true to what's good for us which might be the most beneficial.

One note, however, while eating plants and using them in your skincare routine can really only offer you beneficial results, not all vegetables (when consumed) are created equal. This fact came back into my scope of reference while reading a BuzzFeed article entitled 26 Most and Least Healthy Vegetables. While my doctor has often told me to eat dark, leafy greens (you don't just have to rely on the BuzzFeed article to know they're healthy) recipes for romesco sauce or anything with artichokes often drew my attention from these healthy powerhouses. Looking at BuzzFeed's article, however, it was made clear once again how beneficial dark, leafy greens can be, even when compared to other vegetables. While I'm not sure of their scoring method, kale received a 1,392 while vegetables like broccoli and and peas received a 268 and 173 respectively. Much like my preference for distilled information to make the best choice (what do all of these things have in common and how can I get the most of it?) I found that, as I begun to eat more vegetables, things like peas and bean sprouts began to fall by the wayside and things like cabbage and kale seemed to yell at me from the store shelf. So... more recipes with kale to come.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Feed Me Dearly

Feed Me Dearly is a new (to me) blog I stumbled upon while browsing (where else?) the Williams Sonoma website. The blog contains recipes as well as posts about family, seasons and all things food. Read it. Love it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Mother Sauces

In anticipation of Mother's Day this month, I wanted to write a little about Escoffier's "mother sauces." The topic of sauces has been on my mind as of late as I consistently come back to them as a way of adding flavor to my meals. As referenced in a few posts back, I have developed a list of traveling destinations based on the locale of certain restaurants. Recently, I've developed a hankering to visit Bar Tartine in San Francisco but have sufficed upon visiting their website for the time being. It is there that I stumbled upon a recipe for tonnato sauce, a glorious mix of tuna, capers, anchovies and olive oil (I omitted the mayonnaise 'cause mayonnaise sucks). Upon discovering this concoction which ended up as a dip for my french fries (heaven) I was reminded of how much I love sauce both as a condiment and a challenge (which combination of ingredients can I use to form the perfect mixture?).  However, to really begin my re-acquaintance with sauces, I decided to begin at square one.

In 1903, George Auguste Escoffier published Le Guide Culinaire, a veritable compendium of French cuisine. In it, he referenced what he called the five "mother sauces" or sauces which served as the base from which many variations could be derived. Just as we see mango salsa and salsa verde as a variation of the original "red" salsa, Escoffier identified bechamel sauce, veloute sauce, hollandaise saucetomate sauce, and espagnole sauce as the basic sauces which could "beget" an almost infinite list of daughter sauces. Featured in classic French cooking (more on international sauces later) such sauces shared a number of both similarities and differences.

Cooking definitions are somewhat ambivalent, I have found. One often roasts a turkey and bakes a cake but when it comes down to it, the definitions for roasting and baking are generally the same.Similarly, what separates a sauce from a stock can be equally as vague, however, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a sauce is, "a thick liquid that is eaten with or on food to add flavor to it." While, in my experience, the thickness of a sauce can vary from a thin pan sauce to a thick barbeque, Escoffier's mother sauces fit the bill of containing: 1. a liquid 2. a thickening agent 3. flavorings. Each of these elements will be explained further in the following paragraphs.

The liquids featured in Escoffier's mother sauces are often what distinguish one sauce from another. In a classically prepared bechamel sauce, for example, milk is used as the base to which a thickening agent and flavorings of nutmeg, cloves and onion are added. In a veloute, a white stock made of veal and/or chicken bones serves as the liquid base. The list below contains the liquids dominant in each of mother sauce. (Note: the links offered to recipes for each sauce are often variations of the original recipe.)
Bechamel Sauce: milk
Veloute Sauce: White Stock (made from veal or chicken bones)
Hollandaise Sauce: Clarified Butter
Tomate Sauce: Stock (since brown stock often includes tomato paste, use the brown stock link below.)
Espagnole Sauce: Brown Stock (made, traditionally, from beef bones)

Thickening Agents
Like the liquids featured above, thickening agents impart a unique flavor to each sauce. In tradition French cuisine, a roux, an equal mixture of fat and flour, is used to thicken each sauce, however, not all mother sauces use this agent. In a hollandaise sauce, for example, egg yolks are used to thicken clarified butter while in a tomate sauce, a roux is traditionally used but is often discarded in lieu of using only tomatoes. As above, so below (are the thickening agents used in each sauce...) One note, the "fat" used most in a traditional roux is clarified butter. The color of a roux, ranging from light to dark, depends on how long you cook the flour/fat mixture. To this end, the same link is attached for all roux recipes.
Bechamel Sauce: white roux
Veloute Sauce: blond roux
Hollandaise Sauce: egg yolks
Tomate Sauce: roux or tomatoes
Espagnole Sauce: brown roux

Flavorings, while serving as the base for many dishes, are more of an afterthought when it comes to sauces. As long as you have a liquid which is thickened, one can then think of flavorings based on individual tastes if you are cooking for yourself or your family. To some extent, the flavorings one chooses may be best if paired with liquids used for each sauce. For example, if one is using a white stock in a veloute sauce seasoned with parsley and thyme, one may want to add similar ingredients as flavorings to their sauce. However, below, I have provided the traditional flavorings for each sauce. (Note: in traditional French cooking, mirepoix or aromatic vegetables are used to flavor many dishes, thus, wherever you see mirepoix, use diced onions, carrots and celery.)
Bechamel Sauce: onions, nutmeg and cloves
Veloute Sauce: salt and white pepper (more flavor will come from the white stock)
Hollandaise Sauce: lemon juice, salt and pepper
Tomate Sauce: mirepoix, salt, pepper, bay leaf, thyme, parsley
Espagnole Sauce: mirepoix, ham bone, tomato puree

I remember reading in The New Yorker's Secret Ingredients that a French meal can set you back a lot both financially and in the dietary sense. Many French meals are robust in flavors and in calories. While somewhat the godfather of Western cooking (and with good reason) I have often found myself straying towards foods that are a little less dairy and a little more vegetable. In this sense, I've ended up somewhere "south" of the culinary border to a land that is just as flavorful (and a little more healthy). To this extent I have come to place a few "sauces" (or essentially liquified solids- same thing as thickening liquids, right?) into heavy rotation. A few to note...
Chimichurri Sauce: An Argentinian blend of parsley, salt and oil; amongst other things.
Curry: Essentially the "mother sauce" of India.
Harissa Sauce: spice up your life with this mix of spices and oil.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Down by the River

I often write things to remember them, hence my blog about all things cuisine. Recently, I have come across a "gem" on YouTube which I want to recall when I'm in my "food mood". The site, and accompanying YouTube channel is that of The River Cafe, a high end restaurant on London's River Thames.

I came to know about The River Cafe through, of course, Williams Sonoma which often features noteworthy chefs within their blog, on social media, etc. In April, the site featured April Bloomfield, a British chef and current owner of The Spotted Pig in New York. Having just released a cookbook entitled A Girl and her Greens featuring simple preparations for delicious, seasonal vegetables (in contrast to her last book which focused on meat), I wanted to get to "know" April Bloomfield better... after all, I'm also a girl who loves her greens. Having been raised in England, April held previous posts at The River Cafe and Kensington Palace (home to the former Princess Diana and Duke and Duchess of Cambridge... as well as Prince Harry I believe). She also worked at Bibendum in London and Chez Panisse near San Francisco. Having heard of Chez Panisse and Kensington Palace (albeit as a residence and not a place for dining- I should have known royalty must eat too!) I wanted to explore The River Cafe more and what I found was a gold mine of information.

The River Cafe's website is simply a very long page of information with a navigation bar on top which will direct you to any section you'd like. Visiting the site, you are free to explore the restaurant's menu, wine list, books and staff bios if you wish. What drew me, however, was its section labeled recipes, the section I'm drawn to on any chef's or restaurant's site. Here, The River Cafe presents short videos featuring recipes for sauces, desserts and main courses. Each video is narrated and demonstrated by a member of the restaurant's staff who delivers helpful hints about ingredients along the way. Since The River Cafe serves Italian fare, there is a fair amount of fish and meat dishes offered such as beef steak fiorentina and fish stew. Clicking on the link to a recipe brings you to a video within the YouTube realm, where you realize The River Cafe has supplied numerous recipes to its viewers, based mostly around each season. Providing the opportunity to subscribe to RiverCafeLondon in order to easily access their deep reservoir of Italian dishes, I immediately obliged, giving myself something to watch as I fold laundry, clean the house or simply when I want to thoroughly immerse myself in simple, refined, delicious cooking... just as I'm sure April Bloomfield would have wanted.