These Chiles? Nothing to Fear

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AKUMAL, Mexico — There is no one American cuisine, and I suppose you can say there is no one Bittman cuisine either. The nation developed without respect for what was here before the Europeans flooded in, and what might have been was supplanted by anything goes. This culinary manifest destiny can be fascinating, of course; my block has Turkish, Southwestern, Tex-Mex and Italian, all within 100 feet of one another. (That’s before you cross the avenue.) None are very good, but you can’t complain about variety.

My own story is one of rejecting, or at least subsuming, a limited culinary heritage that I saw, and continue to see, as inferior to those of much of the rest of the world. Oh well, it’s not inconceivable that in the course of their threatening, perhaps horrible, early years and subsequent difficult journey across the Atlantic, my grandmothers lost many of the better elements of the cooking of their mothers and grandmothers. I’ll never know.

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Food’s Big-Picture Guy

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I wish Olivier de Schutter had the power to match the acuity of his analysis, but it’s great that we’ve had an advocate whose vision is as broad as that of the corporations who have for the last 50 years determined global food policy. Since 2008, the human rights lawyer has had the title of United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food. (His second three-year term ends this week.) This is obviously not a genius marketing title and, even worse, the position carries no real power.

Still, the notion of an impartial observer who can see trends as corporations do — across political borders, and agnostic to them — is a valuable one. It’s easy enough for individual Americans to see how our problems may resemble Canada’s; it’s much more difficult to imagine ourselves struggling the way Indonesians do. That’s what De Schutter has done: shown us that the issues with the food system are as global as trade.

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Ribs, 3 Ways

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You cannot argue that ribs are seasonal. If you’re a fan, you want them as badly in January as you do right now. In fact, regardless of when “now” is, it’s as good a time to be cooking ribs as any, because ribs are equally good when prepared using almost any method of cooking. If there is a revelation to be found here, it is in the lightest and probably easiest recipe: ribs braised with anchovies and white wine — a dish in which the ribs can be eaten neatly, with knife and fork (and the sauce used to dress pasta or rice, or as a bread-soaker).

But there is a range of options. The standard, most straightforward method is two-step grilling with little more than salt and pepper — I offer more elaborate, though hardly difficult, variations. The most complicated recipe, which uses two cooking methods, is also by far the most time-consuming, but could be the most rewarding, at least for classicists. You smoke the ribs over indirect heat with sage and ginger (or other spices; see the variations). This can be done in advance, and it can be done simultaneously with direct-grilling something else, or even as the heat is dying down from a big fire.

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Chicken Parts, 12 Ways

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If you give a cook a whole chicken, chances are he’ll roast it, because for all its wonderful attributes, a whole bird just isn’t that versatile. Other than sticking it in the oven or plunging it into a pot of liquid, there are not a lot of obvious ways to cook it.

Cut that chicken into parts, however, and the possibilities open up, easily enabling techniques like braising, sautéing and grilling. And while you have to work pretty hard to get a whole chicken with crisp skin, by using parts, you can achieve that result easily and consistently. It’s worth noting, too, that unlike the ubiquitous boneless (and skinless!) breast, bone-in parts retain their moisture during cooking.

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Cinco de Mayo, VB6-Style

Tofu Ceviche

In celebration of  Cinco de Mayo (this coming Monday), and the official release of my new book, The VB6 Cookbook (this coming Tuesday), here is a recipe (and here’s another one) for enjoying the holiday VB6-style.

Tofu Ceviche

Makes: 4 servings

Time: 20 minutes, plus pickling time

Tofu is made a lot like cheese, so it doesn’t require cooking. It does, however, benefit from marinating, and—within limits—the longer the better. There are so many ways to eat this refreshing dish: over greens, brown rice, or grains; with Boston lettuce leaves for wrapping; tossed with whole wheat angel hair; tucked into warm corn tortillas; or of course, all on its own.

Ingredients

1½ pounds firm tofu (1½ blocks)

½ cup cider vinegar or sherry vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoons salt

4 scallions, sliced

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 bunch radishes, sliced or chopped

1 cucumber, sliced or chopped

1 avocado, cubed

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ teaspoon pepper

½ cup chopped fresh cilantro

Directions:

1. Cut the tofu into small cubes. Put the vinegar, sugar, salt, and 1 cup water in a large bowl. Whisk to combine, then add the scallions, garlic, and tofu; toss gently to coat with the marinade. Refrigerate for as little as 15 minutes or up to 2 days.

2. Drain the tofu mixture, reserving the pickling liquid. Put the tofu mixture in a large bowl and add the radishes, cucumber, and avocado.

3. Toss the ceviche with 2 tablespoons of the reserved liquid, and the olive oil and pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more pickling liquid if you like. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve.

Variations:

  • Greek-Style Tofu Ceviche: Use red wine vinegar instead of cider. Swap 1 small red onion for the scallions, 2 tomatoes for the radishes, capers or chopped olives for the avocado, and parsley for the cilantro.
  • Vietnamese-Style Tofu Ceviche: Use lime juice instead of the vinegar and add 1 or 2 teaspoons fish sauce (unless you’re being strictly vegan). Try fresh mint or Thai basil instead of the cilantro. Top with crushed peanuts if desired.

More Ideas

Make it even more herbaceous by tossing in fresh basil and mint along with the cilantro.

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Bagels, Lox and Me

On Sunday, I put on my running clothes, went out to the elevator, and pushed the button. In the time it took for my finger to travel from the wall back to my side, I’d decided that it was not a day for a run but for a trip to the market. I slipped a coat over everything and went to the store, where I bought bagels, lox and cream cheese, along with some badly needed staples. I then came home and ate. (While, of course, reading The Sunday Times. Sigh. Sometimes it’s tough to be a cliché.)

The run never happened, and that’s unusual in my recent history; I was a near-paradigm of discipline this winter. And I’m pretty disciplined in my eating, too, at least during the day. But something happened Sunday, a combination, I suspect, of annoying little things that led to a short-lived mental breakdown. The cause isn’t important; it’s the response that most interests me.

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Unsustainable Living: “The Ogallala Road”

A story of land, water, relationships and love, “The Ogallala Road” is the 100-year history of a farming family in Kansas as well as the second of Julene Bair’s memoirs. The first, “One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter,” was well received, but this new one is more polished, touching and engaging.

Kansas, specifically western Kansas, is one of the book’s main characters. It is here that Bair witnesses many changes in the period from her birth in 1949 until the turn of the 21st century, a time when the small American family farm and many of its supporting towns were pretty much overwhelmed by industrial agriculture. It was then that farming went, as Bair puts it, from “intense labor that broke men’s and women’s backs to intense pillage and poison that broke the earth’s.”

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12 Things to Do with Hard-Boiled Eggs

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Now that Easter is over, it’s time to stop thinking about hard-boiled eggs as something to hide and once again start thinking of them as food — and a versatile one at that. Hard-boiled eggs are worthy both as self-contained snacks and as main ingredients in more substantial dishes. The key in either case is cooking them so that the yolks are firm but still creamy rather than chalky, and peeling them without either tearing the egg to shreds or driving yourself mad.

The first part is accomplished easily enough by following the master recipe; I’ve found that nine minutes in hot water yields the perfect consistency for large to extra-large eggs, but if you prefer your yolks on the softer or firmer side, adjust the timing as needed. If you’re going to simmer the eggs in tomato sauce, hard- boil them for only seven and a half minutes, because they’ll continue to cook in the sauce. To minimize the dreaded green color, which comes from not cooling the egg quickly enough, dunk the eggs in an ice bath immediately after cooking — and don’t skimp on the ice.

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Why Care about the McCutcheon Decision?

In the food world, change from the ground up is all well and good. We desperately need cooks, gardeners, farmers and teachers. But we also need legislation. The recently passed and almost uniformly abysmal Farm Bill is a lesson in how legislation affects those of us working to change the chaotic so-called food “system.” Pittances were tossed at supporters of local and organic food, fortunes’ worth of agribusiness subsidies were maintained, and much-needed support for the country’s least well-off was slashed.

That’s a Republican-led Congress at work, but when it comes to supporting Big Ag and Big Food, most of the Democratic representatives from states where farm income matters most are not much better: While the majority of Big Ag’s financial support for candidates goes to Republicans, Democrats are close behind. For big-time change on a national scale, we need representatives who put the needs of a sustainable food system and all that goes with it ahead of those of the chemical and processed food manufacturers who are currently running the show.

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A Cappuccino for Public Safety

In New York, many things are referred to as jokes. The Van Wyck “Expressway,” for example, a coarsely paved road that has been under repair for as long as anyone can remember, is a joke. Compared with those of other world capitals, our mass transit system is a joke. And every now and then we’re reminded that underground is a bewildering mess of pipes, wires and fibers, the stuff that keeps the whole semi-anarchic mess running. That’s a joke, too, one that The Times called “a glaring example of America’s crumbling infrastructure.”

Although black humor is dear to New Yorkers, these are not funny jokes. No one likes the service interruptions and long waits for a train. But when gas pipes explode, as they did in East Harlem last month, killing sleeping innocents, it’s tough to remain stoical. This isn’t the Blitz or 9/11, events on which we could blame an embodiment of malevolence for random deaths of fellow citizens. Deaths like these are largely preventable.

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