cookbooks, Food, videos

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

salt fat acid heat

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, by Samin Nosrat. Published in April, 2017. 480 pages.

It seems to me that the eve of the American holiday which centers almost exclusively on the idea of giving thanks for our food is the perfect occasion to review the best seller Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

Because I have a laundry list of food related items on my checklist at this very moment, I’ll keep this short and sweet. This is an excellent book for novice cooks, because it lays out the best ways to use what Samin refers to as the four elements of cooking which, once understood, makes creating great food an attainable goal; even without a recipe to follow:

“Season food with the proper amount of salt at the proper moment; choose the optimal medium of fat to convey the flavor of your ingredients; balance and animate those ingredients with acid; apply the right type and quantity of heat for the proper amount of time—do all this and you will turn out vibrant and beautiful food, with or without a recipe.”

There wasn’t much here that I hadn’t figured out to some degree over my nearly 25 years as a wife and home cook. Nevertheless, I still learned a few tricks from this book. More than teaching me anything, it gave voice and cohesive expression to elements of cooking which I already knew and was using in my own cooking. I also really enjoyed the scientific approach and explanations of how certain elements, such as salt, interact with foods to produce the desired flavor:

The distribution of salt throughout food can be explained by osmosis and diffusion, two chemical processes powered by nature’s tendency to seek equilibrium, or the balanced concentration of solutes such as minerals and sugars on either side of a semipermeable membrane (or holey cell wall).

The combination of these scientific notes and the enthusiastic exuberance Samin expresses with respect to food and cooking, made for a very entertaining book. It’s worth a read.

And if you happen to have Netflix, the four episode series by the same name (Salt, Fat Acid, Heat), is well worth a look.

We are a cooking family making many memories and original concoctions in our kitchen. Because of that, we loved watching this show and concluded that Samin Nosrat is the kind of foodie we would all love to be friends with: One who actually cooks!

Have a blessed and enjoyable Thanksgiving. Laugh, cook, eat and enjoy your families.

5 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

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American history, cookbooks, Food, nonfiction

A Square Meal, pt. 2

a suare meal

A Square Meal: A Culinary History of The Great Depression, by Jane Zeigleman and Andrew Coe. Published 2016. 336 pages.

Read part 1 of this review here.

So…what did people actually eat during the Great Depression?

In reality, a lot of people ate just fine. There were plenty of hungry souls, but the one drawback of this book is that without a working knowledge and full picture of the period,  you’d come away thinking that just about everyone in America was starving. Not everyone was, but as I noted in the first installment of this review, the hungry were caught in the middle of a political tug of war which spilled over into the rest of the country, changed the way the populace viewed economic security, and catapulted FDR into the White House.

The Depression, for both the destitute and those who feared destitution knocking at their door any day, ushered in a culture of extreme attention to thrift. This thrifty attitude was served up on plates of the employed and unemployed alike. Because the home economists and nutrition specialists who worked for the government wanted to make those living on relief as uncomfortable as possible with the prospect, the food allotments were bare bones and bland, as were the recipes they introduced to families as a way to stretch their food.

Recipes that would make most of us turn up our noses in disgust were prepared and received with thanks by people little else to choose from. Even then, according to Coe and Zeigleman, there were times when the lack of calories and necessary nutrients caused even them to complain of the substandard nature of the food they received. They made do dishes such as Ritz mock apple pie, where the buttery crackers serve as a stand-in for the apples:

2 cups sugar

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 3/4 cups water

Pastry for 2-crust 9-inch pie

36 Ritz Crackers, coarsely broken (about 1 3/4 cups)

Zest and 2 tablespoons juice from 1 lemon

2 tablespoons butter or margarine, cut into small pieces

1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1. Mix sugar and cream of tartar in medium saucepan. Gradually stir in water. Bring to boil on high heat; simmer on low 15 minutes. Stir in zest and juice; cool 30 minutes.

2. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Roll out half of pastry on lightly floured surface to 11-inch circle; place in 9-inch pie plate. Place cracker crumbs in crust. Pour sugar syrup over crumbs; top with butter and cinnamon.

3. Roll out remaining pastry to 10-inch circle; place over pie. Seal and flute edge. Cut several slits in top crust to permit steam to escape. Place on parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until golden brown. Cool.

The casserole made its debut during the Depression, but it wasn’t the tasty, cheesy, seasoned dish most Americans love in some way, shape or form. No. It was more along the lines of this ditty cooked up from the mind the well-intentioned Eleanor Roosevelt, spaghetti with boiled carrots and white sauce (from Ranker.com):

Made from spaghetti, boiled carrots, and a simple white sauce of milk, flour, salt, and butter, the first step is to cook the spaghetti for a sadistic 25 minutes, which in a sane world means Step #2 is to order the biggest pizza Domino’s will make. But this is the Great Depression we’re talking about, so the idea is to get the noodles mushy so they pair nicely with the boiled-to-death carrots and the pennies worth of creamy sauce. The result? A “vehicle for nutrition and nutrients” that probably made people want to eat their old Flapper hats instead.

The most unusual food stuff I came across while reading this book was the word “milkorno”, which I later learned was a mixture of milk, corn meal and salt that home cooks could use in various ways to stretch and pad their meals adding both a filling experience and superior nutrition. From Ranker:

Mad scientists at Cornell University in 1933 invented a gruel called Milkorno, a mix of powdered skim milk, corn meal, and salt, to help families in need “stretch budgets without sacrificing nourishment,” promising “Meals For a Family of 5 For $5 a Week.” The name comes from combining “milk” and “corn” with the surprised “Oh!” that guests of Eleanor Roosevelt probably made when she explained what she tricked them into eating at the White House later that same year.

There were also Milkorno’s step-siblings Milkwheato and Milkoato.

The recipe which sent me on my search for the content and origins of this “superfood” can be found on page 183 of A Square Meal: Chop Suey with Milkorno:

2 pounds lean pork cut into cubes

2 cups sliced celery

2 cups sliced onions

3 or 4 cups cooked milkorno

salt and pepper to taste

Saute pork; add the seasonings and 1/2 cup water and simmer until tender. About 1/2 hour before the meat is tender add the celery and onions. If desired the gravy may be thickened by adding 2 tablespoons of flour to each cup of liquid. Pour this mixture over hot cooked milkorno, and serve.

Sounds yummy!

From our vantage point, 80 years in the future where food is plentiful, we have access to more variety and flavors of food any era, and more nutrition information than we ever needed, it’s easy to look at these recipes and see them as disgusting culinary gruel. These foods however, served to fill a specific need at a specific point in history. They also, whatever their limitations, illustrate an ability to adapt and make due under far less than ideal circumstances, a skill sorely lacking in today’s Western culture.

For those insights among others, I highly recommend A Square Meal. It exposes the reader to a lot of information and history that has been lost to all but the most avid history buff who would bother to seek it out. It’s not a perfect book, but it does manage to be both engaging and educational without bludgeoning the reader with the authors ideology. That latter alone makes it worth a read.

4 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

American history, cookbooks, educational, nonfiction, politics

A Square Meal, pt. 1

a suare meal

A Square Meal: A culinary history of the Great Depression, by Jane Zeigleman and Andrew Coe. Originally published in 2016. Hardcover, 336 pages.

After dancing around the review of this information loaded book, I finally concluded I could only do it justice reviewed in two parts. This is because the book delves heavily into two subjects, showing how they overlapped during the Great Depression.

In some sections, mostly the beginning, A Square Meal heavily explores the economic and political climate as the soaring, roaring 20s gave way to the austere and lean 1930s. Beginning with the differences in culinary and lifestyle attitudes between rural America and urban America in the years following WWI, these authors take pains to cover every base that contributed to Americans’ approach to food at beginning of a long economic winter that stubbornly refused to loosen its grip.

They assumed, rightly I believe, that it wouldn’t be possible to adequately discuss the latter without giving the reader a thorough understanding of the former. Because of that, I am going to use this part of the review to highlight some of the cultural, political, and economic themes they explore before getting to the ways this informed meals and Depression era cooking in part 2.

As the mid-1920s unfolded, there was something of a tension between the young people who were leaving the rural farms of their youth (particularly the young men returning home from Europe after the war), and the families left behind on farms in rural America who were largely deemed as backwards and inefficient by modern urban standards. There were whole disciplines, both academic and vocational, dedicated to rural reforms and increasing the efficiency of work for farmwives. This disconnect was largely based on the fact that time and productivity in the two places was viewed quite differently:

“In the great urban centers, the pulse of the factory served as a kind of metronome for the city at large. In the urban workplace, where wages were paid by the hour, efficiency was a measure of success. Factory hands demonstrated their worth by completing the maximum number of standardized motions in a given period. After the factory whistle blew, their time was their own. But even at leisure, city dwellers saw time as a resource, like coal or copper. The fear that time might run out, as every resource will, left them with the dread of time wasted.

On the farm, meanwhile, time was not something you stockpiled like firewood. Farm chores took as long as they took—there was no rushing an ear of corn—and the workday stretched to accommodate the tasks at hand. Time was elastic. The minutes and hours that mattered so much to city folk were irrelevant to the drawn-out biological processes on which the farmer depended. In place of the clock, the farmer’s yardstick for measuring time was the progress of the seasons. As a result, his view of time was expansive, focused on the sweeping cycles of the natural world. For city people, time was fractured into finite segments like boxes on a conveyor belt. On the farm, time was continuous, like a string around a tree, one season flowing inevitably into the next.

It was this rural inefficiency that that urban “efficiency experts” tackled with a fierce determination to eliminate. Even when farm wives expressed great contentment with their lives and lot, their passionate letters in response to magazine articles portraying them as “The Woman God Forgot” were ignored. The people who knew better were dedicated to improving their lives whether they felt they needed it or not:

To quantify what they already knew, in the early 1920s researchers from the Department of Agriculture equipped rural homemakers with pedometers, devices pinned to the women’s aprons or strapped to their ankles which counted their steps as they went about their chores. Among their findings was that one Montana woman walked a quarter of a mile in the course of baking a lemon pie!

I’ll leave the irony of pedometers as a tool to measure steps for the purpose of decreasing them hanging there for you to consider. Efficiency apartments with their nonexistent kitchens, the proliferation of delicatessen, and the marked increase in working girls stood in stark contrast to the life of the farm wife.

Once the crash of 1929 took place, a slow equilibrium between rural and urban life began to gradually flow across the country. Initially the urban centers were the hardest hit, as the rural parts of the country were at least equipped to feed themselves with the fruits of their own labor. As the early 30’s began however, a severe drought overtook much of farm country. Hunger and subsistence living became a way of life in every part of the country.

It is at this juncture that the authors spend a fair amount of time discussing the political policies of the day. There was an outcry from many people for food relief, while the federal government balked at the very idea. Fear of creating a people dependent on the “the dole” was a paramount concern at the time. President Hoover was convinced that a combination of public charity and local government was the answer, not federal aid in the form of food relief.

The federal government’s abject refusal to offer aid in the form of anything other than seed for planting -not very useful during a drought- and copious literature with suggested ways to survive on less, cheaper food largely paved the way for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ascendancy to the presidency.

As governor of New York, Roosevelt embarked on what was at the time described as one of the greatest social experiments ever undertaken. Families in his state were given aid in the form of direct food relief, something that hadn’t yet been done beyond the local level and through the Red Cross, which was itself derelict in its distribution of relief to the starving.

Along with the distribution of coupons for a strictly chosen list of staple foods, the women who headed home economics departments throughout the country and in government agencies went to work producing menus meant to be a “living diet” rather than a ‘working diet”. These were complete with recipes for meal ideas meant to stretch the groceries as far as possible. Dishes for example, such as creamed spaghetti with carrots, just one casserole among many that was a popular way to deal with the monotony of ingredients that families were allotted through food relief programs.

That is but one among many culinary developments of the Great Depression with which I hope to share from the book in part 2. This book is a wealth of information and there’s no way I can possibly explore it all, so I do recommend you give it a read if the topic interests you.

I hope to be able to post the second half of this review by Friday.

cookbooks, health and fitness, nonfiction

The Gluten-free, Almond Flour Cookbook.

GF Almond flour cookbook

The Gluten-free, Almond Flour Cookbook, by Elena Amsterdam. Published in 2009. 144 pages.

I stumbled upon this one in our local library and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I have finally accepted the reality that at this stage of life[1], the white sugar and white flour have to be forever banished. Or at least relegated to the odd special occasion. Since special occasions seem to occur with startling regularity in this house, I have to take the further step of figuring out which times I’m willing to throw caution to the wind and eat the cake.

I had been grappling with how to make this adjustment, given that baking is a very big part of my life. I even brought a decent supplemental income for a couple of years selling my home baked wares. Our eldest is also quite the baker and is on the cusp of developing quite the entrepreneurial enterprise as a baker herself. In other words, around here gluten is more than just the protein found in wheat that makes the bread chewy and the cake stay together. It’s a major part of kitchen life. Because we thoroughly enjoy working with it, I was a little sad to say goodbye to baking as much as anything else.

Enter this little book by Elena Amsterdam, and baking (at least baking I can actually eat) re-entered my life in a snap. I haven’t tried every recipe in the book yet, but I have tried 5 and not one has been disappointing. That was enough for me to go ahead and offer a review and endorsement of the book. The second reason I felt comfortable with it is that my husband thoroughly enjoyed the flavor of both the pancakes and the pecan shortbread cookies, and he is not easily impressed. Because he has become increasingly less tolerant of high levels of sweetness, these recipes are a good fit for him as well.

The natural sweetness of the almonds means that only few tablespoons of agave nectar are used as the sweetener in most of the recipes. I haven’t made one of the cakes yet, but I will this weekend -I hope, as we have quite a full one ahead- but the frostings will require confectioners sugar, making them recipes with a higher level of sweetness.

The caveat here is that almond flour is expensive. I paid $13.95 at our local warehouse club for a three-pound bag and felt like I was getting a real deal. However, because I am making adjustments to my diet which are permanent and not a temporary fix, I don’t have a problem with making the investment. As far as I am concerned, almond flour is equivalent to gluten free GOLD for someone who loves to bake but wants to keep the white flour in their diet to a minimum.

Grade: A

[1] The dietary changes are not related to weight loss, but rather hormone balancing, and by that I mean hormones of all sorts: adrenal and thyroid as well as estrogen and progesterone. I may review a good book I read on the subject at a later date. I am giving it 30 days to see if the positive changes I am experiencing are more than just a fluke.