Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A good book and a poached egg

As a hobbyist food writer, or an aspiring one, it goes with the job (or hob, short for hobby? No?) that I also read a lot about food. And in reading about food, I never cease to be amazed at how unsophisticated, how behind-the-times, and how uneducated I tend to be. The inexpensive thrill of cooking with goat meat, to illustrate. I thought I could be the first person to have something to say about it; self-satisfied and self-aggrandizing, I would post comments that linked back to my blog on a hundred other blogs, subsequently earn myself rank among the Orangettes and the Wednesday Chefs, and be known as that plucky young woman who pointed out to all Americans -- or at least all food-interested yuppies, eager for any new fad (I say this without a sneer, for I include myself among them) -- that while goat is eaten by something like 78 percent of the world, it has never occurred to about 78 percent of Americans that it's even edible. In rallying for this ruminant, I would singlehandedly turn chivo and cabrito into household names and boost the sales at ethnic markets nationwide.

Before I could even plan my next trip to Patel Brothers, on March 31 the New York Times broke (I say broke intentionally, as if it were Pulitzer-material investigative journalism) this story, "How I Learned to Love Goat Meat." It's over, I thought -- now I will have to extol the delicacy that is slow-roasted suburban squirrel, anything the established food bloggers haven't already thought of. Sure enough, Serious Eats and The Kitchn got their goat within hours. And it turns out that even the Times was behind the times -- New York magazine had already done a piece on goat meat about six months earlier.

It's the same thing with the late author Laurie Colwin and her wonderful 1988 essay collection, Home Cooking, which I'd never even heard of till I fortuitously picked up a copy at my high school's used book sale. I thought I had uncovered some lost artefact of the late 80s, but it turns out that Colwin has long been a favorite topic in the food blogosphere, despite that her untimely death in 1992, at age 48, occurred almost a decade before the word "blog" was even a part of the American lexicon. Colwin's work still gets a lot of press, and -- after devouring her first collection of food writing in just a few sittings, within the short span of a single lazy Sunday -- I understand why.

My plan for this particular Sunday was to spend it in solitude, but Home Cooking kept great company all day. It may have been less enjoyable were it not for the stick-to-your-ribs PB&C I ate while I read, since this is the type of the book that can make you painfully hungry. Luckily enough, I had the book in one hand, weird sandwich in the other. In fact, mid-bite of some crunchy cabbage and salty peanut butter sprinkled with red pepper flakes and raisins and sitting between two staling slices of wheat bread, I read this most fitting passage:

Dinner alone is one of life's pleasures. Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.

But this was just one among about a thousand favorite passages (in a book of fewer than 200 pages). There is no way I could ever do Colwin's beautiful, inspiring, spare, funny, and simultaneously self-righteous and self-deprecating writing any justice here. But, I will give a few tastes, as well as a recipe, in hopes that you, too, will read this book and love it as much as I (and the rest of the food blogosphere) do. Regretfully, I don't think I can lend my copy, as I want to always be able to use it for reference.

On Fried Chicken:

As everyone knows, there is only one way to fry chicken correctly. Unfortunately, most people think their method is best, but most people are wrong. Mine is the only right way, and on this subject I feel most evangelical.

On Not Being a Picky Eater:

I will never eat fish eyeballs, and I do not want to taste anything commonly kept as a house pet, but otherwise I am a cinch to feed. My only allergy is a slight one to caviar, making me a cheap date. Furthermore, I am never on a diet regime I cannot be talked out of.

On Vegetarians:

Like Protestants, they come in a number of denominations. Lactovegetarians will eat dairy, eggs and usually fish, but some lactovegetarians will not eat fish. Vegans will not eat dairy products or eggs or fish. And some people say they are vegetarians when they mean they do not eat red meat, leading you to realize that for some people chicken is a vegetable.

On Dinner Parties:

It is a fact of life that people give dinner parties, and when they invite you, you have to turn around and invite them back. Often they retaliate by inviting you again, and you must then extend another invitation. Back and forth you go, like Ping-Pong balls, and what you end up with is called social life.

Colwin could write about anything, and I would keep coming back for seconds and thirds (I'm eager to begin reading her novels; her day job was fiction writer, and she wrote about food for fun), but I feel especially lucky to be acquainted with such an enjoyable writer who is also a champion of cheap cooking. Colwin spends many a page analyzing and reinventing frugal classics such as chicken salad, potato salad, lentil soup, chili, and frittatas. One recipe I felt I must include and adapt for this blog comes from the book's second essay, "The Low-Tech Person's Batterie de Cuisine," and can be made by someone who owns "nothing but one knife and one pot."

Recipe: Sauteed Vegetables and Poached Egg in One Pot

Paraphrased from Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking (1988). Serves 1.

Some vegetables - Colwin suggests "a little green zucchini, a little yellow one, a few snow peas, a small sliced onion," but for springtime I might try asparagus, green beans, broccoli, some kind of bitter green, or whatever else is lying around in the crisper
Some butter and minced garlic
Black pepper
One or two eggs, "depending on how hungry you are"

Saute the vegetables in butter and minced garlic, partially covered, till soft. Remove the cover, grind on some black pepper, push the vegetables to the sides of the pot, and melt a bit more butter. Break in the egg(s) and cover till cooked.

Colwin concludes the recipe thusly: "If you are civilized, you can arrange the vegetables on a plate and put the egg on top. If you are not, you can eat it right out of the pot. If you want some grated cheese, you can scrape it with your knife."


HungryGrad said...

That author sounds a lot like Kingsley Amis. I suggest "Everyday Drinking," a compilation of his essays on booze.

DEO said...

Yes, I've been wanting to read that! My only fear is, will it make me thirsty in the same way that Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking makes me hungry? If so, I need to be careful!

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