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Saturday, August 1, 2009

How We Learn to Cook

The only time my dad came in the kitchen was to ask when dinner was ready. True to his generation he literally couldn't boil water. My mother and grandmother taught me to cook.

Long before there were neighborhood farmers' markets, my mom liked to stop at roadside stands to buy fresh tomatoes, corn, and strawberries. She followed recipes but also liked to experiment. She enjoyed having my sister and myself in the kitchen with her because she believed that cooking was fun.

I regarded it as a parental duty to teach my sons as my mom taught me.

When Franklin was six years old I gave him a step stool so he could reach the cutting board, a bunch of parsley, and a knife. He did an excellent job mincing the parsley. The only problem we had was when his mom saw that I had outfitted him with a very sharp 8" chef's knife.

She disapproved mightily. But no blood was spilled that day, and Franklin has grown up to be a very good cook, so has his younger brother. Having taught them both a few kitchen skills, they are off and running.

Recently a reader of the blog and a friend, Connie Ciampanelli, sent a remembrance of her mom. Connie picked up her mom's enthusiasm for cooking, even as, over time, she discovered farmers' markets and a different style of cooking.

Mom was a cook of the fifties, we had mostly canned vegetables. Once she brought home an extremely exotic item: Del Monte canned zucchini with tomato sauce. We were enthralled. Yuk. Major, major yuk!
I remember clearly going to the neighborhood store and seeing these big purple vegetables and wondering what the hell they were. I know now. Eggplant. Eggplant? What's eggplant? I don't see any eggs. Wow, I do digress...

Mom went back to work when my youngest brother started school, so I would have been about thirteen or fourteen. As the oldest girl, I was bequeathed the responsibility of cooking weeknight suppers (we were working class folks, it wasn't called dinner) for the seven of us. Here is a capsule of Mom's instructions:

"Peel (here insert vegetable: potatoes, carrots, green beans, themselves a rarity) cut into quarters, cover with water, bring to a boil and cook for one hour." Everything was cooked for one hour, yes, let's cook the nutrients right out of those babies.

EVERY supper had potatoes, never rice, Pasta was spaghetti and meatballs once a week. On Wednesdays. Dad liked his routine. Anything more exotic was not ignored but unheard of. We had meat with baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes. Dad would settle for nothing else. Scalloped? Au Gratin? Nah, too fancy. Rice? That's for sissies. God, when I think of the way we ate! But the salvation is that it was all done with love.
These days, how we learn to cook and who teaches us has become more than just a personal issue. The current health care debate includes an argument that medical costs are increasing at an alarming rate partly because of how we eat and how much we rely on ready-made and fast foods.

Michael Pollan has a thoughtful essay,"Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch," in the New York Times Magazine, where he talks about the effect of mass marketing on the way we cook and feed ourselves. The net effect, he says, is that today Americans infrequently cook "from scratch" and usually regard cooking as a chore, something to be dealt with as quickly as possible.

Statistically, he explains, when people cook their own food, obesity levels decline. The question is, how to encourage people to get back into the kitchen?

Looking back at how I learned to cook, like Connie, I was lucky that my mother taught me to enjoy cooking. In the kitchen the other day I wanted to show Michael, our youngest son, how to roast a chicken breast with parsley. He looked at me mystified. "Why do you think you need to show me? Franklin and I are your sons. We know already."

By osmosis or example, if we're lucky, our kids pick up on our love of cooking. That's a very good thing.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Summer Grilling: Skewered Shrimps & Cherry Tomatoes

Festive enough for a party, quick-and-easy for everyday cooking, skewered shrimp and cherry tomatoes are ready to serve in 30 minutes.

A few words about the convenience of shrimp. In my experience, shrimp that come already shelled and deveined have less flavor and are more susceptible to freezer burn. If you buy shrimp in the shell, the benefits outweigh the added work. Buy the large sized ones (30-35/pound).

Removing the shell is easy enough, if a bit tedious. Grasp the legs in one hand while you rotate the shrimp with your other hand. The shell will come off easily. If you want the tail meat to stay on the shrimp, pinch the very tip of the tail with your fingers and gently pull the meat away from the shell.

With a sharp paring knife, cut down the back of the shrimp, pull away the vein, and discard. Wash the shrimp thoroughly, drain, and keep cold until ready to use.

Save the shells. Put them in a pan with a 1/2 cup water and simmer 10 minutes. Strain and discard the shells. Use the stock to make pasta sauce. To save for later use, freeze the shrimp stock in an airtight container. If any ice crystals accumulate on the stock, while still frozen, wash the crystals off with cold water before defrosting.

To freeze shrimp without fear of freezer burn, toss the deveined shrimp in olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper. Place in a Ziploc-style plastic bag, squeeze out the air, and seal tightly. Flatten out the bag so the shrimp lay next to each other so they'll freeze individually. That way you can remove a few of the shrimp at a time. Lay flat in the freezer.

Skewered Cherry Tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes are plentiful in the summer. Grilled, their sweetness is accentuated.

Yield 4 servings

Time 10 minutes

Ingredients

1 basket cherry tomatoes, washed, stems removed
1/4 cup olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Method

If you're using wooden skewers, soak them in water at least 1 hour before grilling. Toss the tomatoes in the seasoned olive oil to coat well. Place 3-4 tomatoes on each skewer. Reserve the seasoned olive oil for later use.

Grill the tomatoes on a hot grill, turning frequently to prevent burning. They're cooked when the skin splits. Serve while hot.

Use any left-over tomatoes in a pasta or in a mozzarella-tomato salad.

Grilled Shrimp

Shrimp are naturally sweet and flavorful. Seasoned in a wet marinade or dry rub is all they need. If you're using wooden skewers, soak them in water at least 1 hour before grilling.

Grilled Shrimp with Olive Oil, Sea Salt and Pepper Marinade

Yield 4-6 servings

Time 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound shrimp, washed, deveined
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Method

Toss the shrimp in the seasoned olive oil, place 3-4 shrimp on each skewer and cook on a hot grill, turning frequently to avoid burning. Cook until the shrimp are lightly charred.

If a grill isn't available, the shrimp can be cooked in a 450 degree oven, preferably resting on a wire rack over an aluminum foil covered cookie sheet.

Grilled Shrimp with a Garlic-Ginger-Soy Marinade

Yield 4-6 servings

Time 30 minutes plus 1 hour marinade

Ingredients

1 pound shrimp, washed, shelled, deveined
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup mirin
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger, peeled
2 garlic cloves, peeled, grated
1 medium yellow onion, peeled, cut into shrimp-size pieces
1/2 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1 scallion, washed, thinly sliced, white and green parts
1 teaspoon roasted sesame seeds

Method

Mix together all ingredients and marinate the shrimp for an hour but no more. Any longer and the shrimp will absorb too much of the marinade.

Put 3-4 shrimp on each skewer with a single piece of onion between each shrimp and cook on a hot grill, turning frequently to avoid burning. Cook until the shrimp are lightly charred. If a grill isn't available, the shrimp can be cooked in a 450 degree oven, preferably resting on a wire rack.

Grilled Shrimp with a Tex-Mex Dry Rub

Yield 4-6 servings

Time 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound shrimp, washed, deveined
1 teaspoon ancho chili powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 garlic clove, peeled, grated
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon beer

Mix the dry ingredients together. Toss the shrimp first in the beer and then with the dry rub.

Put 3-4 shrimp on each skewer and cook on a hot grill, turning frequently to avoid burning. Cook until the shrimp are lightly charred. If a grill isn't available, the shrimp can be cooked in a 450 degree oven, preferably resting on a wire rack.