Breakaway Cook

Eating Animals

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I’ve been thinking a lot about vegetarianism recently, since I’m putting the final touches on my new book, which I’m calling The Breakaway Vegetarian Cook: An Umami-Intensive Journey Into Vegetables. I’ve long played with the idea of writing this kind of book, but I was nudged along by some close vegetarian friends of mine and by all the email I’ve received over the years from vegetarians.

I am thrilled with the all dishes in the new book. I guess I’m finding that a vegetable-centric diet, supplemented with occasional meat cameos, is, in the end, extremely satisfying (the book has no meat at all in it, however). I know that I have consumed far less meat in the past few years than I used to. And that meat comes from ranchers that I personally know.

That said, while I applaud veganism and vegetarianism as sound choices for anyone no matter what their reasoning, I find that a welfare-based approach to eating animals is the way to go for me personally. The nightmare that is factory animal farming is shameful and horrifying beyond all description, but the ranchers I know give their animals pretty damn nice lives — open pasture, water everywhere, uncrowded, leisurely conditions … certainly worlds beyond anything these animals would find in the wild. And with quick, painless deaths, it’s hard to imagine better conditions for both living and dying.

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I’ve been thinking about something Elizabeth Kolbert wrote, in her New Yorker review of Jonathan Saffron Foer’s gripping, if sickening, book, Eating Animals:

“Vegetarianism,” she writes, “requires the renunciation of real and irreplaceable pleasures.”

And it’s true — the pleasures derived from eating meat are some of life’s finest.  There is something primal — primordial, even — and powerful about cooking and eating meat. At times it feels as if our brains are predisposed to consume as much of it as we’re able to; it satiates like nothing else.

The question is: how far are we willing to go in pursuit of our pleasures?

Foer presents many powerful arguments in the book, but I would say the overarching one is: there are more important things in life than maximizing one’s pleasure, and that the moral imperative of treating animals in the most basic of humane ways — that is, not killing and eating them — trumps whatever pleasure you personally derive from their consumption.

Foer rails throughout the book on the horrors and atrocities of factory farming — hours of the some of the most depressing reading you’re likely to come across anywhere — but he’s especially infuriated against the people who call him, and all vegetarians “sentimental,” that his decision to not eat meat is a delusion of innocence:

“Two people are ordering lunch,” he writes. “One says, ‘I’m in the mood for a burger,’ and orders it. The other says, ‘I’m in the mood for a burger,’ but remembers that there are things more important to him than what he is in the mood for at any given moment, and orders something else. Who is the sentimentalist?”

I don’t think that Foer realizes it, but in one way he’s a classic Buddhist. What he’s most concerned about — alleviating suffering (of animals) — lies at the deepest core of Buddhism.

Like Foer, I’m soon going to be in the position of making dietary decisions on my child’s behalf, and the story of meat is one that will have to be told to Daphne sooner or later. If we do eat meat together, we will do so with our eyes wide open, and not be lulled into “forgetting” where it came from. Which is all, in the end, that Foer is asking of us.

Foer’s occasional forays into shrill (but hardly preachy) territory will turn off many thoughtful and sympathetic readers, but don’t let that stop you from picking up the book. There’s a boatload of wisdom in it, much of which centers around his Holocaust-surviving grandmother.

Although Foer’s book looks an awful lot like an argument for vegetarianism and even veganism, it’s actually not: it’s an argument toward informed consent, and taking responsibility for one’s choices. “Cruel and destructive food products should be illegal,” Foer writes, which makes total sense to me.

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The End of Overeating

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It’s not often that I read a book that begins to reach out, encloses itself around my neck, and starts to squeeze. Dozens of powerful ideas are like tentacles that not only grip, but begin to work their ways inside my throat. This isn’t as unpleasant as it sounds; I immediately know that I’m reading something that’s going to stick, and to live with me, for a very long time.

David  Kessler is the man, and his new book, “The End of Overeating,” is the cephalopod hanging around my neck. This is probably the best book ever written –well, to my knowledge it’s the ONLY book written—about the neurology/biology of appetite, and how this knowledge is used, developed, and exploited by industrial food concerns.

Kessler’s ideas are remarkable for many reasons, but let me outline just three of the big ideas in this book that I think are most relevant to our community here. There is much more to say about all of this, but for now:

  • Big idea #1` Human beings have evolved to react in autonomic ways to foods that are, to use Kessler’s term, “hyperpalatable.” By this he means foods that tend to combine fat, sugar, and salt, with much emphasis given to texture, in ways that are easy and convenient to purchase and to consume, and that are reasonably affordable for most.

If you imagine the menus of the big fast food chains and, especially, of the big chain megacorporate restaurants like Chili’s, the Cheesecake Factory, and Outback Steakhouse, and their 2,000+ calorie bombs like the “blooming onion,” and buffalo wings (which are actually appetizers), you quickly arrive at the definition of a hyperpalatable food: doubly, and sometimes triply, fried foods that layer fat, salt, and sweet on inexpensive delivery vehicles (onions, cheap meat, potatoes, zucchini, etc.) and serve it with a sauce. The insides of these foods are soft and almost pre-chewed, really, and the outsides are crispy/fatty. Just a few chews are necessary to get them down. All of this makes them hyperpalatable.

  • Big idea #2 Hyperpalatable foods tap into brain circuits in surprising ways. When we taste highly palatable foods, taste buds in the tongue respond by sending  a signal to an area of the lower brain responsible for controlling many involuntary activities, such as breathing and digestion. That activation enables the body to perceive a rewarding experience.

Neurons in the brain that are stimulated by taste and other properties of highly palatable food are part of the body’s primary pleasure system known as “opioid circuitry.” The opioids are also known as endorphins, chemicals produced in the brain that have rewarding effects similar to morphine and heroin. Stimulating the opioid circuitry with food drives us to eat foods that deliver the strongest “hit” possible, with “hit” being the combo of fat, sugar, and salt, delivered as pre-chewed as possible.

The opioids produced by eating high-sugar, high-fat foods aren’t just stimulating; they can relieve pain or stress, and calm us down, at least temporarily. Infants cry less when given sugar water. Eating highly palatable food activates the opioid circuits, and activating these circuits increases consumption of highly palatable food. It’s a perfect cycle that results in the consumption of more calories than we are evolutionarily equipped to handle.

One small region lies at the center of all that pleasure. The “hedonic hot spot” is just one cubic millimeter, the size of the head of a pin, in the nucleus accumbens. When the nucleus accumbens is activated, it causes us to like something, to *really* like something.

  • Big idea #3 The food industry has essentially hijacked the brains of tens of millions of Americans (and others, of course, but this is primarily an American phenomenon) by making and marketing foods that hit all these neuronal sweet spots, which only stimulate our desire for more.

Kessler offers mesmerizing – and bone chilling — descriptions of how restaurants and industrial food concerns manipulate ingredients to reach the “bliss point” – it’s an inverted U shape that adds more sugar, salt, and fat until we reach the top of the curve. Foods that contain too little or too much sugar, fat or salt are either bland or overwhelming. The section on the Snickers bar, and how it achieves its path to neuronal bliss, is alone worth the price of the book.

Early human diets contained only about 10 percent fat. Sugar intake, primarily from ripe fruit, was even less. But these foods were essential sources of the energy needed to survive, and we developed the biological tools/neuronal circuitry to lust after and appreciate them when we could get them. We have more than 300 olfactory receptors to sense the odors associated with fats, as well as an innate preference for sweetness, and it’s not hard to understand why, after reading Kessler.

The second half of the book is more concerned with practical ways to gain control of one’s eating habits, with emphasis on mindfulness as the path to lead us out of the grips of hyperpalatable foods that really are very, very bad for us. Effective intervention, mainly through mindfulness and “nudges” we set up for ourselves – don’t have bad foods laying around the house, reduce portion size by serving on smaller plates, learn to think of some foods as enemies that disgust us, and many more — draws us away from the conditioning power of a stimulus before it triggers its usual response. Breaking mindless eating habits is supremely, extraordinarily, difficult. But forming new ones, like we discussed recently, is one good way out of a bad cycle that we want to eliminate.

So how does all of this relate to breakaway cooking? Breakaway cooking, too, likes sweet, fat, and salt. Very, very much.  I couldn’t help but notice that some of my tastiest dishes are indeed somewhat hyperpalatable. Salts are used widely, as are fats like good olive oil and good butter, and even some animal fats, especially duck fat, and a faint touch of sweetener in the form of fruit, maple syrup, agave, honey almost always makes a dish really shine. Texture is hugely important – nothing satisfies like an umami-laden crust of, say, pulverized shiitake, pulverized dried tomato, and herbs pressed into a piece of meat or tofu and then lightly fried or roasted till highly crispy.

The difference between, say, the Cheesecake Factory and breakaway cooking at home, concerns both quantity and quality – small amounts of extremely high-quality olive oil, flavored salts, vinegar, fruit/agave/maple syrup/honey, and tarting up  a vegetable “carrier.” I also think the big chains have yet to understand the power of umami. God help us if they do!

Check out the book, please — you won’t find a more compelling analysis of why we eat the way we do today. Would love to discuss it here.

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Jehangir Mehta's Brilliant Breakaway Indian Creations

I’ve been thinking about Jehangir Mehta’s food ever since I tasted it last summer, so it’s with special delight that I recently received his new cookbook, Mantra: The Rules of Indulgence.

Mehta is a breakaway cook on steroids. The title comes from Mehta’s aversion to the rules that govern much of Indian, and specifically Ayurvedic, culinary traditions. His “indulgence” of the title is not some hedonistic indulgence, it’s Mehta giving himself permission to indulge in rule-breaking of all sorts. And does he ever!

Mehta grew up with cooks serving Ayurvedic meals at home. I don’t know a lot about Ayurvedic cooking, but I do know that some of its most important foods — avocado, pomegranate, blueberries, grapefruit, and honey — are among my favorites. Food seems to be a means to address heath concerns; certain foods are believed to be beneficial both to prevent certain maladies and to address them once they show up. There is a heavy on emphasis on “balance.”

Part of what makes Mehta’s food so interesting is his sense of play between 1) centuries-old rules and 2) modern sensibilities. He seems happiest –and of most interest to breakaway cooks — when he’s pushing individual ingredients far beyond their traditional roles. This in my opinion is a fabulous way to cook: by isolating powerhouse ingredients — think of miso, tamarind, lemongrass, matcha, pomegranate molasses, rosewater, saffron, chipotle, preserved lemons, ghee, shiitake, umeboshi, jaggery . . . the list goes on and on — WITHOUT the burden of doing everything traditionally associated with those ingredients, a cook is utterly free to create new dishes that carry whatever predominant notes one wishes.

Mehta brings his unique sensibilities from the pastry world, where he has concentrated most of his considerable energies, to the savory world, so dessert-minded people will have a field day with this book. While many of the techniques are from the kitchen of a truly professional restaurant pastry chef, and are thus in all likelihood beyond the reach of average home cooks with limited time and equipment, the sheer ballsiness of his creations are so inspiring that home cooks might want to take them on anyway.

Some examples: he makes a vegetable cake that sounds incredible: cauliflower, artichoke hearts, golden beets, and broccoli, mixed together with paprika, eggs, flour, and sugar. Cauliflower clafouti, anyone? Made with almond flour, lots of butter and eggs, and milk. Cardamom cookies, chive biscuits, tumeric Yorkshire pudding, guava-tamarind brittle, saffron-glazed nectarine “carpaccio” with yuzu sherbet …. don’t all these sound wonderful, and almost familiar to breakaway cooks?

And for anyone wanting some grown-up non-alcoholic drinks: how about a cool glass of orange-marigold iced tea? Or perhaps some lavender citrus tea, a basil cocktail, or just cucumber water? I imagine that all of the drinks in the book could even be made in concentrated form, and combined with some sparkling water for everyday drinking.

Mehta has a tiny, and I mean TINY, restaurant in NYC called Graffiti. His kitchen, apparently, is the size of several large cutting boards (I’m barely exaggerating). Several friends of mine have visited it, and all have come back with glowing reports. If you find yourself in New York and want some breakaway Indian food, Mehta style, do ring him up and make a reservation. If you need an additional reason to visit, his prices are insanely low by NYC standards. Do report back, please, if you end up there.

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Cookbooks That Have Strongly Influenced Breakaway Cooking

 

Eric Gowers Favorite Cookbooks

I somehow forgot to mention here that a month or so ago the surreally talented Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks ran a short piece on a handful of the cookbooks that have had an unusually strong influence on my cooking. The full article can be read here, but let me paste the main part below for quick reference. There are in fact many more cookbooks I cherish and use, and one day I’ll get around to cataloging them, but for now here are a few. As an exercise I would love to expand on each one, and may do that if I hear from you that that would be a worthwhile endeavor.

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  • Gray Kunz (with Peter Kaminsky), The Elements of Taste. My vote for the most creative, interesting, and ground-breaking cookbook of all time. Kunz considers thinking about taste in the traditional five ways – sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and umami ­– to be a pathetically primitive way to understand great food, especially the preparation of it. He has about 15 ways to think about taste, complete with groupings like Tastes that Pull (tangy, vinted, bulby, floral/herbal, spice aromatic, funky), Tastes that Push (salty, sweet, picante), Tastes that Punctuate (sharp, bitter), and Taste Platforms (garden, meaty, oceanic, starchy).
  • Deborah Madison and Ed Brown, The Greens Cookbook. I cut my teeth on zen cooking, and really recommend it. I grew up in a meat-centric (actually wild-game-centric) household, and when I learned about how zen monks cook and eat vegetables and grains, it changed everything for me. I consider this book the best of the lot, which would include all the Tassajara books and other zen cuisine books.
  • Jeremiah Tower, Jeremiah Tower Cooks — It’s not so much the recipes in this collection that inspire, it’s Tower’s utter conviction in absolutely everything he does and says. There is no falliblism with Tower; it’s unthinkable to him to cook a dish in any way but the way he has devised, tinkered with, and thought about. There is a great deal of information for people who really want to learn how to cook well, all infused with Tower’s considerable panache.
  • Robert Wemischner, The Vivid Flavors Cookbook. This guy has broken away so far he’s coming out the other side! A wildly creative, boundary-smashing, bold and daring book full dishes that pop, pop, and pop some more. His writing style (not to mention recipe titles) can be cloying, and many of the recipes are very labor-intensive, but my hat is off to his originality and sheer nerve.
  • Jerry Traunfeld, The Herbfarm Cookbook, and the The Herbal Kitchen. Traunfeld is the undisputed King of Herbs — he uses them, usually in large quantities, in everything, and everything seems to taste better as a result. The main influence in my own heavy reliance on herbs to deliver flavor and to keep things on the lighter side.
  • Michael Field, All Manner of Food. The fussiness and sheer arrogance of Field’s books make Tower look like a wilting wallflower, but there is so much to learn from him that it’s like a complete culinary school education wrapped in one volume. Long out of print but easily found on the net.

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Book Review — Happy in the Kitchen

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I thought it might be fun to start a new review section of this blog, in which I sketch some thoughts on certain cookbooks that have caught my attention for whatever reason. Because this blog is all about breakaway cooking — that is, getting innovative, lively, and above all tasty dinners on the table with as little fuss as possible using flavors and ingredients from around the world — I will definitely look toward how well the books I choose to review fit into the breakaway scheme of things, but I’ll also look for ideas, techniques, gear, anything at all that might lead us down prominent-looking alleys.

So let’s kick it off with Michel Richard’s extraordinary Happy in the Kitchen, published by Artisan, surely the handsomest cookbook publisher in the world .

If we’re looking for a book for casual home cooks who just want to get dinner on the table with a minimum of hassle and time, it’s hard to imagine a more inappropriate book. Many, and possibly most, of the recipes in the book are almost ludicrously complicated, and are often comprised of nested recipes within recipes that ask the reader to prepare three or even four recipes found in the book as part of another recipe! Meta-recipes, if you will. Richard, chef-owner of DC’s Citronelle (among other restaurants) and one of the more innovative and prominent chefs working today, is obviously quite used to having an army of 20-year-olds perform the dozens of labor and time-intensive prep work required to make these fine and no-doubt delicious dishes. And, with many recipes calling for 4 to 16 tablespoons of butter, plenty of heavy cream, bacon, bacon fat, and melted cheese, this is not a book the American Heart Association is going to get behind.

So why do I like this book so much, and why bother with a review? Because Richard is an utter maniac in the kitchen, where he is quite clearly deliriously happy. The book is full of so many unique ideas it’s hard to summarize them, but, of the dozens of new (to me) ideas, consider just a few:

  • Tomato water — puree five pounds of bruised, overripe tomatoes, place in a fine colander, and let it all drip for a day. Reduce by half in a saucepan. Or, even better, if you need a small amount of tomato water in a hurry, place the tomato puree in a French coffee press and press the solids to the bottom! Use the water to poach fish, as a light stock, etc. I’m betting it would make terrific rice.
  • Miso broth — 2 cups miso, 10 cups water, simmer and strain, let it settle, only use the clear broth.
  • Ginger remoulade
  • Wacky cuttlefish schnitzel: puree the cuttlefish, shape it with plastic wrap (one of his favorite kitchen tools), bread it, and fry it!
  • Roll meat and veggies in plastic wrap to form logs (one of his favorite shapes), freeze, and slice in new ways (he loves his meat slicer for this purpose)
  • Use a benriner to finely dice potatoes
  • “Virtual” fried rice, made with potatoes
  • Sweet pea, basil, potato puree
  • Snow pea linguine (no pasta)

And on and on! Happy in the Kitchen reinvents just about everything, but he especially delights in completely new ways to think about the most mundane of vegetables, in particular potatoes (he seems obsessed, in the best possible way, with potatoes), but also carrots, corn, beets, and tomatoes. Same goes for chicken, fish, beef, lamb, and pork.

The photography, by the incomparable Deborah Jones, is so inviting and fresh it’s surreal. She somehow is able to convey Richard’s ideas, innovations, playfulness, and sheer love of his craft. How does she do it?

One last reason I’m attracted to Michel Richard and his style of cooking, impossible as it might be to the great majority of home cooks — he exemplifies and personifies the best of all reasons to bother with cooking at all: it makes him very happy to do so, and the love spills out on every page. It’s almost Buddha-like in its devotion to sweetness and light. No matter if you never make a single dish from the book: you’ll walk away with the most important cooking lesson of all — that cooking with love is really the only way to make really great food. That love, plus his insane techniques, risk-taking, and breathtaking innovation all add up to a rather heady reading experience. We could all get a little happier in the kitchen by reading this book.

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