Avgolemono, and some gumbo observations

Cooking is a funny thing sometimes. Take today: I decided I’d spend some time making some good food to freeze/refrigerate for the week. Dish 1 was chicken-sausage gumbo; Dish 2 was avgolemono soup.

Dish 1 took me much of the afternoon and evening, in one way or another: cooking the chicken and sausage, making fresh chicken stock, making the roux (which, by the way, took its full 45 minutes of stirring but looked and smelled gorgeous), chopping and sauteeing the vegetables (cajun mirepoix – onions, celery, bell peppers – plus carrots and okra, garlic and habanero), and letting it all simmer with seasonings to perfection. The result, my roommate and I agreed, was a lovely gumbo, with countless overlapping layers of dark, rich flavor.

Dish 2 took me about twenty minutes and four ingredients. Its flavors weren’t as multifaceted and deep, but they achieved a balanced elegance that made it at least as appealing (though not as filling) as the gumbo. Creamy, bright, savory, and velvety on the tongue, it’s the kind of stylish dish I would happily serve to dinner guests. While I’ll certainly make gumbo again, avgolemono may just go on my regular cooking playlist – and, unlike the gumbo, it’s easy to make vegetarian. (Sorry, Brad; without the bacon-and-sausage cooking fat, the tender slivers of chicken thigh, or the juicy chunks of sausage, the gumbo wouldn’t have been the same.)

Avgolemono Soup (a not-perfectly-authentic rendition)
(8 servings)

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Many hellos in America

I know there aren’t a lot of Top Chef watchers reading here, let alone Top Chef watchers who also follow it on Television Without Pity. Call me a coward for not posting there, I suppose. Mostly, I just want to see if I’m the only person bothered by a habit that seems ubiquitous on the forum boards, which I believe has even slipped into the official Bravo blogs at points.

The contestants this year are almost all American, but one of them, Elia, grew up in Mexico. She speaks English fluently, though with a Spanish accent. Frankly, though some contestants (Mia comes to mind) work to link their cultural/ethnic/regional origins with their cooking style, Elia very rarely does so; she was trained in France and tends to show the most culinary influences from there.

However, when people talk about Elia, positively or negatively – but especially negatively – they parody her accent. One typical example: “In the first episode, she wouldn’t shut up about the “deeleecous” American cheese (aka “thees funky product that shouldn’t exeest”).” Not everyone does it, but it’s a consistent feature when people quote her, and nobody seems bothered by the habit.

It’s a bit like, oh, for example, electing the first Democratic Speaker of the House in over ten years, and rightly celebrating the fact that the highest echelons of political power are no longer closed to women, then filling your newspaper articles and photo captions with descriptions of her clothing. It’s not cute. It’s demeaning. It’s a reminder in her moment of triumph and achievement that she is still different, a curiosity, a reluctantly-admitted guest.

I’m forced to conclude, from the online silence on this subject, that I may be reading too much into the common online tendency toward caricature. Feel free to tell me so. However, it does disturb me to see the assumption that, as long as we’re not saying that a trait is bad, it’s okay to consistently paint it as other. If reality-show fans transcribed black contestants with an exaggerated, phonetically-spelled AAVE dialect, we would rightly protest; why should a Latina be treated differently?

Ode to Eggs

A box without hinges, key, or lid,
Yet golden treasure inside is hid.

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Tomorrow, our apartment will host the Great Egg Scramble-Off of 2007, where we will, though careful scientific investigation, verify the method for Exquisitely Perfect Scrambled Eggs. But in the meantime, in honor of Radical Fun Day 2.0, I present an Ode to Eggs. Sadly, this subject is not especially friendly to vegan radicals – but y’all still rock in my book, okay? Peace.

Eggs are the most perfect food in existence. They dissolve on our taste buds, subtle and sublime whether served cooked or raw; their chemical properties allow for technical feats of cooking wizardry; their nutritional profile provides a source of protein and nutrients unrivaled in the realm of affordable foods; and, though often factory farmed these days, they can be one of the most environmentally friendly forms of food. Even their infamous high cholesterol only adds to their perfection. After all, were not their consumption a restricted, half-guilty pleasure, they would be reduced to the level of carrot sticks and oatmeal, delicious but banal. Eggs beckon us coyly with their flexibility and flavor, then hide, blushing, behind the guise of forbidden fruit.

Let us embrace the egg.

As a child, my favorite foods revolved around eggs. My aunt’s row house in London encompasses many of my fondest food memories, from potatoes glistening with the juices from Sunday roast beef to blackberries picked in the back garden, staining our thorn-scratched fingers with tart juice. However, the most memorable dish of all was her meringues; I have never seen their like. Smooth kisses of vanilla-tinted ivory, they dissolved in my mouth with a satiny, crisp texture, often accompanied by fresh-whipped cream but just as perfect on their own. I still have dreams about those meringues.

Then there was my mother’s cholent. This traditional Sabbath dish would simmer overnight in her clay baking dish, mingling the strong tastes of beans, wheatberries, and beef into a gloriously thick stew. My favorite part of the dish, though, was the eggs. When she laid them onto the top of the stew before baking, shell and all, the slow cooking infused them with a tea-brown hue and a smokey richness. Before serving, my mother would peel them and slice them in half, and their bright yellow yolks shone forth from the pot.

One of my favorite egg preparations, though, was the simplest: “Best Egg,” we called it. A freshly hard-boiled egg, still finger-searingly hot, would be peeled, dropped into a cup, and mashed with a fork along with butter, salt, and fresh-ground pepper, melting the fragrant butter and transfiguring the egg into an object of such satisfying sumptuousness that, for the short period of time I ate it, no other food in the world could distract me.

Cooking on my own, I experimented with many egg preparations: fluffy souffles, crusty bread puddings, pepper-tinged shakshoukas, golden challah loafs, cool egg salads. I learned different egg dishes for different moods; some mornings called for crisp-edged fried eggs, oozing their golden hearts onto buttered toast, whereas some evenings made me crave a bowl of salty ramen, cooked with fresh vegetables and starring a luscious egg poached in the broth. My biggest ovulary pleasure, though, has become scrambled eggs. I’m not talking about the kind you scoop up from a breakfast buffet or eat with your Waffle House hash browns; those can be perfectly tasty, of course, especially with a generous topping of salsa and shredded cheese, but they use eggs as a means to an end. In perfect scrambled eggs, the egg itself is the end. Butter, salt, and perhaps a splash of milk may lend the egg depth and seasoning, but the egg stands alone. Soft sunshine-colored curds melt onto the tongue in fluffy, custardy waves. Airy pillows of barely-firm egg part beneath the fork, untouched by flecks of browning or outside flavoring, a pure and divine epiphany of earthly ambrosia. I can think of few greater carnal pleasures than a plate full of those pristine eggs, their only accompaniment a few wedges of crunchy whole-grain toast for textural variation.

Eggs are, indeed, the most perfect food in existence.

Waking from eternal sleep: ThouShaltNot

Brad introduced me to ThouShaltNot several months ago. I found myself very much enjoying their musical style – a gorgeous variant of goth music, with influences from EBM, industrial, classical, and more – but I hadn’t listened closely to the lyrics. So when, a few weeks ago, he mentioned “You know they’re Christian, right?”, I was . . . surprised, to say the least. I started reading their lyrics and listening more closely, and with lines like “At the bottom of the sea, I was bathed in your forgiveness” and “Is it better to reign in a world of pain than to serve a cause divine?“, I have to wonder how I hadn’t noticed.

Granted, they don’t have the explicit references to Christianity that Sufjan Stevens has, let alone the “I love Jesus! Jesus is awesome!” of a lot of Christian contemporary music. But it’s everywhere implicitly, and I can only assume that the careful lack of self-identification as Christian is a result of the fact that the goth music market, already small, includes many people frustrated with or embittered to religion. By letting their beliefs permeate their songs but remain superficially unspoken, ThouShaltNot can reach far more people with their powerful lyrics. I’m impressed. And I still think their music is gorgeous. ::grins::

Embrace the Sun (mp3 download here)

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No-Knead Bread Photos

I finally got around to making the aforementioned No-Knead Bread here in New Haven, and (unsurprisingly, given how fool-proof it is), the results were superb. If you notice dark flecks in the crumb, that’s from a mix of dried herbs I added, which gave it a nice fragrance. I even convinced my low-carb-dieting roommate to share over half the loaf with me in one sitting. Yay, creating temptation! Or something.

I have a couple more photos of the bread here. But really, don’t you want to try baking it? You know you do.

Lunch today was Coq au Vin without the coq, vin, or lardons. ::grins:: And yet the result was really very good, if I do say so, and not all that far from authentic in its flavor. I’ll have to make it again and get amounts for what I used, so I can share. (If you’re curious, the coq was replaced by free-range chicken thighs; the vin by homemade chicken-vegetable stock, some blackberry jelly for sweetness, and some red wine vinegar at the end for sourness; and the lardons [bacon] by extra butter.)

Tamago Bukkake Gohan

A few years ago, traveling in Scotland with my friend Christy, we were deciding what to do with a bag of rice and some eggs in our youth hostel kitchen. She told me about a dish she’d learned from a Japanese friend of hers, and it’s become one of my staple foods – not because it’s the most gourmet dish I can make, but because it’s simple, satisfying, and quick.

That dish is called tamago bukkake gohan (“egg-splattered rice”), or sometimes just tamago gohan (“egg rice”). There are multiple variants on the dish, but this is the salmonella-minimizing one. The result is a delicious mixture, moist and fragrant with the rice and delicate egg. It’s the perfect fast breakfast, if you make extra rice in the evenings to save for it, and aside from the egg’s inherent cholesterol, it’s quite healthy.

Also, it has the best name ever.

Tamago Bukkake Gohan
(serves one)

1) Reheat a bowl of rice, or spoon out a bowl of hot rice. * Make sure that it’s so hot that you can’t touch it for more than a second or two.

2) Wash an egg thoroughly, then crack it into the bowl. Mix well with the rice.

3) Add soy sauce, salt, and/or pepper to taste. Enjoy! **

* – One of these days, I’ll post about how to make good rice, which is an art form that I still haven’t fully mastered.

** – The chances of a given egg having salmonella at all are miniscule, and the hot rice should kill it; unless you have a weakened immune system, this dish is quite safe. However, if the idea of still-damp egg scares you, you can pop the bowl of rice in the microwave until it solidifies into a scrambled-egg texture.