Friday, May 24, 2019

Spring Awakenings

When I was younger, I was completely dismayed by the fact we couldn't hang Christmas lights. "We're not Christian," said my father, "so why would we hang Christmas lights?" And while the analytical part of my brain had developed enough to understand this bullshit, my still-developing emotional controls took it pretty hard. However, as I grew and matured a bit more, I came to find that beneath the guise of separate religious traditions, many of us took part in celebrating light in times of darkness (or winter). So while we couldn't hang Christmas lights, we could still engage in the seasonal juju by lighting the menorah (which, despite my fathers religious claims, was something he probably just found easier do to). And, just as these major and somewhat universal holidays celebrate the cyclical (and secular) change in the seasons, we as a people/society/whatever, seem to be cycling back to these secular roots as we begin to celebrate the aftermath of these festivities.  

In Anthropology, we learned that the god (or gods) of a society often reflect the values of the people who worship them. In ancient Greece where warfare was relatively prevalent, the gods were often strong (and moody). Eventually, as we became more settled, our gods became wise and as forgiving as our crop yields. And these days (if you are to believe Nietzsche) god is dead which a. may reflect the inner lives of city dwellers or b. reflect a general exodus from religion altogether. Either way, we seem to be getting back to our secular roots as we celebrate things like National Doughnut Day, National Siblings Day and, my personal favorite, National Tequila Day. In some sense, you might say consumerism + Instagram is the new religion. However, on a larger scale, we have things like Movember, dry January, etc. (like religion, most of these themes are used for good). And so, this April, I attempted to set a monthly theme that was helpful and tried to go against the grain of consumerism: cooking all my food at home. 

As stated above, I've always been intrigued by Catholicism in some ironic variation of the forbidden fruit. I love Christmas and I've always loved Easter... likely 'cause for me, baskets of chocolate were (and are) so much more intriguing than a boring Seder. But just as holidays in winter celebrate the theme of light, those in spring seem to celebrate rebirth and fertility as new plants begin to emerge from the ground and folks begin to emerge from their homes. So, with a new bounty at hand, I figured spring would be a great time to start a new challenge of cooking for myself exclusively, without traveling to restaurants in order to find flavor. In general, a few things happened: 

Things became easier and more interesting: As with anything done repeatedly, the process of shopping for and preparing foods became a bit more streamlined as I began to do it each day. As I generally rely on "greens and beans" for health, taste and economic purposes, I began to buy some combination of avocados, cucumbers and beans each day with the march of spring (no pun intended). And while this might seem a bit boring, keeping ingredients and their related dishes (of guac. and hummus, in my case) in heavy rotation actually allowed for greater spontaneity in the kitchen as I began to work more with each ingredient and became increasingly familiar with their flavors and textures. Just as a stable relationship allows for spontaneity, once I became comfortable with the foods I often used, I began to use them in new ways (and with new ingredients) to make things like...

Salad-e Shirazi: As the weather turns warmer (see Summer Lovin'), I began to use cucumbers and avocados as the greens in my beans and greens. As an adequate source of fat, avocados can replace oil and tahini in a hummus recipe and cucumbers can be eaten with the hummus. However, one day when I was out of beans, I came across this baby which definitely complies with the theme of easy (and interesting).  

Green Goddess Dressing: As with cucumbers and avocados, I've been buying parsley a bit more than usual. I'm not sure why but it may be because I once used a (literal) bunch to make the above dressing and have always subconsciously wanted to make it ever since. The featured dressing packs a lot of flavor which can be used to offset the sometimes mundane taste of cucumbers while adding some essential nutrients to your diet. 

Spring Ragout: The second I saw this recipe, I knew I had to make it (a rare circumstance for something with over three ingredients). At the beginning of my blog, I often wrote about soup stocks as I could never really find one quite flavorful. There were mustard broths that sucked, seaweed stocks that lacked flavor and then I finally settled on bone broth which I've almost referenced in every post since. However, this particular recipe uses tomatillos to enhance the broth's flavor with some acidic bite. And as I often worked with tomatoes over the past month, I felt comfortable substituting them in with other spring vegetables I had on hand. If you make one thing this spring, make this

I got really into cooking methods: As someone who was raised on Chinese takeout over home-cooked meals, I still have limited kitchen-skills despite my best efforts to make the opposite true. Just as one is able to better acquire a new language earlier in life, I don't think I'll ever reach a level of fluency in terms of cooking. Like my French, I'll always just be able to "get by." However, by spending an increased amount of time in the kitchen, my learning curve did spike a bit as I handled (the same) foods more, became more accustomed to their flavors and used them in different fashions in order to satisfy some semblance of diversity within my scope of recipes. And as I began to make more hummus, more guac. and more harissa, I began to think of how I could prefect them and make them increasingly complex. Ergo, I learned to cook beans to perfection and made my way through Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat in order to learn how each dish could become a success. A few takeaways lie below:

Each dish pretty much requires a balance of Salt, Fat, Acid and Heat: As I didn't really grow up in the kitchen, I really lost out on any fundamentals of cooking. And so I've searched high and low to find a tome that would educate me in such "dark arts" as opposed to simply providing recipes. As I generally prefer larger ideas to details (which I'm beginning to find is a bit of an issue in my life), I can often plan a large meal but could never delicately create the dishes without help from five different cookbooks. But reducing down a cacophony of flavors and foods into four categories helped to further streamline my shopping list while allowing me to wing it more in the kitchen. Based on the book above, along with something green and something bean, I would often have:

Lemons (or limes): Apparently, limes contain more acid than lemons but lemons are really used in a lot of dishes and are also great for cleaning. If I didn't have much in my house, I knew that I could make a dressing with one of these ingredients and throw it over something. 

Good Olive Oil: The more I cooked, the more I threw in the towel and simply bought the expensive olive oil I liked. As someone who loves olives, I've always been curious as to the fact that I've never liked olive oil. But, apparently, most olive oil is crap. This is not to say that good olive oil need be expensive, there are just a few that taste good which is often symbiotic with quality. Like lemons, as the ingredient is so ubiquitous, it's often good to have a good one on hand. I like this one here (also sold at Whole Foods). 

Herbs: As I got my food base on lock, I began to realize that herbs could enhance anything from hummus to guacamole (pretty much the only two dishes I make). But like lemons (and olive oil), things like parsley and cilantro pop up in quite a few recipes like every one above. Somehow, parsley has become something of a favorite and I've used it in everything from Green Goddess Dressing to Tahini Ranch Dressing (I like dressing). 

I saw a decrease in alcohol consumption: As seen above, I'm not sure when food became so expensive (probably at the same time I became old), however, when I would run out to restaurants with friends as opposed to prepare food at home, I often found myself in the circumstance of refusing to pay thirteen dollars for some trendy form of cauliflower and basically would buy something at a happy hour price in liquid form. And, in general, as my appetite and tolerance for food prices deceased, my reliance on alcohol increased as I never wanted to be that freak at a restaurant who didn't order anything (being trashed was okay). But as I began to cook at home, I also began relying less on alcohol and more on food that was increasingly tasty (and cheap). Whether this was good or bad from a moral perspective is irrelevant as this is not treatise for or against drinking. However, my skin and hair looked to be in better shape without the presence of said substance. 

So there you have it... a return back to secularism where a season's bounty was celebrated before taking on more dogmatic and commercial angles. And while my "spring awakening" likely put you to sleep, I hope you'll like the recipes and engage in some monthly challenges yourself. Tis' the season ;)

Our season's change, our gods change (according to Anthropology)... the one consistent 
in all this is change. My love for David Bowie will never change.