Tag Archives: cooking

Cooking is important

Pax Arcana

Last night I made one of the sparkly and art deco Mrs. Pax Arcana’s favorite dinners — baked orzo with shrimp and feta cheese. It is a fantastically easy thing to make and requires very few ingredients from outside an average pantry, yet the simple combination of crushed tomatoes, tangy feta, olive oil, white wine, garlic, shrimp, and tiny nuggets of pasta is among the tastiest things on earth.

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That I am fond of cooking surprises some people. Yes, I look like the president of the young Republicans. Yes, I watch baseball and drink beer —  occasionally scratching my balls in the process. Yes, I have a Hungarian manservant who would gladly prepare my dinners upon request.

But to me, cooking is a fundamental human activity — as much as speaking, singing or dancing. According to one Harvard professor, it’s even more than that.

In a recent address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Dr. Richard Wrangham argued that cooking is more than just a commonality of experience between human cultures. Instead, it is the thing that underpins much of human evolution.

I could not attend the conference since my own group, the Grand Council of the Great and Serious Men of Science, convened on the same day to elect a new Steward of the Bunsen Burners (congratulations Dr. Himmelstump!) — but the Economist summed it up this way:

Humans became human, as it were, with the emergence 1.8m years ago of a species called Homo erectus. This had a skeleton much like modern man’s—a big, brain-filled skull and a narrow pelvis and rib cage, which imply a small abdomen and thus a small gut. Hitherto, the explanation for this shift from the smaller skulls and wider pelvises of man’s apelike ancestors has been a shift from a vegetable-based diet to a meat-based one. Meat has more calories than plant matter, the theory went. A smaller gut could therefore support a larger brain.

Dr Wrangham disagrees. When you do the sums, he argues, raw meat is still insufficient to bridge the gap. He points out that even modern “raw foodists”, members of a town-dwelling, back-to-nature social movement, struggle to maintain their weight—and they have access to animals and plants that have been bred for the table. Pre-agricultural man confined to raw food would have starved.

Cooking, on the other hand, made meat more easily digestible — allowing humans to absorb more calories and nutrients with less substance. Cooked food is also digested almost entirely in the stomach and small intestine, where it can be absorbed easily — whereas only about 50% of raw food is absorbed there.

There’s also the fact that cooking makes food softer, and therefore easier for the body to process:

Another telling experiment, conducted on rats, did not rely on cooking. Rather the experimenters ground up food pellets and then recompacted them to make them softer. Rats fed on the softer pellets weighed 30% more after 26 weeks than those fed the same weight of standard pellets. The difference was because of the lower cost of digestion.

In fact, Wrangham thinks our current obesity problem has less to do with overeating than with the pervasive softness of processed foods. So once again, the bottom line is to PUT THE VELVEETA DOWN, FATTY.

What’s cooking? [Economist]

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The hot stove

Pax Arcana

I may be a jealous dipshit who fucken sucks at life, but I do have one thing going for me — my pots and pans are awesome.

Thanks to my goofy interest in cooking — and my gala 2005 wedding — I am the proud owner of a pantry stocked with enough top-tier equipment to make even the most devoted fan of the Williams-Sonoma catalog jealous.

The base set is All-Clad Copper Core: three fry pans, a large saute, a large stockpot, two sauce pans, and a butter warmer. I also have small and large All-Clad nonstick stainless fry pans for eggs and other foods requiring a gentle touch.

Beyond the basics, I have a 12″ cast iron skillet for high-heat searing and oven use, a 10″ square cast-iron grill pan, an 8-quart Le Creuset stockpot, and a kick-ass carbon steel wok for stir frying.

But is it all worth it? Does my arsenal of expensive (except the cast-iron and the wok) weaponry make me a better cook? Would I be better off with the cheap-o sets available at Macy’s?

That’s what Harold McGee wondered also. In this article for the New York Times, McGee buys up a ton of cheap and expensive pans and does his own tests to see what you get for your money.

He found that for some types of cooking, it really doesn’t matter:

I started by timing how long it took the pans to bring a cup of water to a boil over the maximum gas flame on my stovetop. The copper and the cast iron each took 3 minutes, the aluminum-stainless combination 2.5, and the thin nonstick aluminum just 2 minutes. Light and cheap win for speed.

This makes sense, because more expensive pans are typically heavier. This means they heat up more slowly but distribute heat more evenly and retain it longer. My All-Clad Copper Core pans boast a 5-ply bonded construction of steel and copper.

In a good conductor, heat will flow quickly throughout the pan; with a poor conductor, the heat should build up into a hot spot in the metal just above the burner. To make the pans’ heat landscapes visible, I put a round of parchment paper into each pan, weighed it down with pie weights and put the pan on a medium-high burner. When I saw or smelled the paper browning, I removed the parchment.

The heavy copper and the light aluminum pans produced evenly toasted heat maps. The stainless-clad aluminum did pretty well, too. But the cast-iron pan scorched a small area, and the pattern was familiar. For years I made risotto every week or two in my favorite enameled cast-iron pot, and always found a solid brown ring of stuck rice grains right above the flame.

From there, McGee goes off on a tangent about butter, oil, and other elements that cause food to stick to untreated surfaces. He also discovers, to his surprise, that the less vigorously the pans are cleaned, the more likely they are to allow you to flip your eggs or fish. In this way, the best pans often have less to do with cost or construction than with how frequently you use them:

So what to do about getting pots and pans that work best? Choose the ones that you like, for their heft or their lightness, for cachet or economy, for finickiness or ease. Mind the rippling oil. And cook with them often.

What’s Hot, What’s Not, in Pots and Pans [NYT]

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Coolio wants to make you a salad

Pax Arcana

You may have asked yourself, “Hey, what’s Coolio up to these days?” If you did, please return to your Hogan’s Heroes reruns and scheduled lobotomy.

Anyway, turns out Coolio (real name Coolio Coolio Ghali) is now pimpin’ it in the kitchen with his own Web-based cooking show. As you can see below, Coolio has mastered the art of… well, nothing.

[Warning: This video contains bad language. And bad taste.]

Join Coolio next week as he makes “the world’s best Beefaroni” with Rachael Ray!

In a humble homage to America’s greatest writer, I now present a short list of the culinary offenses of Coolio:

1. His knife skills are not good. It looks like he’s actively trying to slice his damn thumb off.
2. Not only are his knife skills not good, he’s slicing a tomato on a ceramic plate, which can easily damage the plate and the knife.
3. He uses fine grain salt. Is there no room for sea salt — or at least Kosher — in the Coolio TV budget? It’s really not that expensive.
4. The aforementioned salt comes from a salt packet. There are no words.
5. He uses about 10 times as much balsamic vinegar as any human could be expected to tolerate.
6. Flavors don’t “coagulate.” They combine.

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The silliest thing we read all day

Pax Arcana loves us some side dishes, salads, and even brown rice, but still we were flummoxed to come across the following lede in the food and wine section of today’s New York Times:

The entree, long the undisputed centerpiece of an American restaurant meal, is dead.

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Can this meat be beat?

To be fair, reporter Kim Severson doesn’t actually mean the entree is dead. She just says it is dying:

Upstarts like the snack menu, with its little offerings of polpettine and deviled eggs, are encroaching from the flank. Crudi, salumi plates and cheese boards have piled on. The appetizer, once a loyal lieutenant, is demanding more attention on menus. Side dishes and salads, fortified by seasonal ingredients and innovative preparations, are announcing their presence with new authority.

But the gravest threat may be the dining public, which seems to have lost interest in big, protein-laden main dishes.

Huh?

Pax Arcana looked to the left. Then we looked to the right. And we didn’t see anyone trading in their T-bones, lamb tongue, or brisket for a sampler pack of honeyed brussel sprouts and three slices of chorizo baked in Manchego.

Sounds like someone got her claws in a trend story and clung to the premise for dear life…

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Padre Gastronomica: Using an oven

After Pax wrote his recent piece about that food blog he likes, and said that even I could learn from it, I decided to take my hand at cooking this fine evening. See, normally I come home and choose between heating up leftovers from home (if I’ve been back to the great state of Maine recently), or firing up the microwave with an awesome Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers.

But tonight would be a different night, and involve the oven. Results and recipe after the jump.

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Pax Gastronomica: Sausage, spinach and sweet potato soup

While successfully executing someone else’s recipe can be rewarding, we find it far more satisfying to cobble something tasty out of whatever we’ve got lying around. Tonight we found the perfect venue for our homemade chicken stock (we roasted a bird Sunday evening and prepared a full gallon of stock with the carcass) by modifying a recipe for Portuguese kale soup and making use of our existing assets — including hot Italian chicken sausage, two sweet potatoes, and some cooked brown rice.

The result is a hearty — and healthy, unfortunately — cold weather soup.

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This is Slovenian sausage soup. Ours looks nothing like this.

Recipe after the jump.

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Ruhlman extends his brand

Michael Ruhlman, proprietor of the helpful and occasionally entertaining eponymous foodie blog, has branched out into even more bloggy goodness with his new Elements of Cooking blog — the accompaniment to his new book of the same name.

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The new blog has great photos (a hallmark of Ruhlman productions) and is off to a good start, with accessible mini-articles on everything from aromatic vegetables to the importance of water in the kitchen.

Pax Dictum: Even Father Scott could learn to cook from this blog.

Pax Dictum II: Clearly we’re fans of Ruhlman, but does he always have to stand behind a jet engine for his headshots?

Elements of Cooking [Homepage]

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