Friday, December 10, 2010

Eat, Drink, Cook: A revival of kitchen creativity

Shortly after Thanksgiving, food writer Abigail Carroll published an opinion piece in the New York Times explaining that while the holiday feast honors the traditional gathering of pilgrims and Indians, the meals in the days that follow typically pay homage to another time-worn tradition: leftovers.

She explained that through history the popularity of leftovers rose and fell with what was happening in the culture at large. In truly ancient times, food preparation was difficult and time-consuming, meaning leftovers were practically a necessity. With the industrialization of work and food, leftovers lost their status and were even stigmatized. Hard times have tended to bring them back into vogue. She writes:

"With two world wars and the Depression, leftovers enjoyed a resurgence. Eating leftovers came alongside victory gardens, home canning and meatless and wheatless days as a form of kitchen patriotism. In 1918, 'Foods That Will Win the War and How to Cook Them' encouraged women to turn meat remainders into soup, and cold muffins into toast. By the late 1930s, reliable home refrigerators made storing uneaten food significantly easier. No longer was it necessary to pick at the same dish for consecutive meals until it spoiled. Appliance manufacturers published cookbooks with advice on putting, as Frigidaire advertised, a 'lift in leftovers.' In the 1950s, Tupperware became available followed by Saran Wrap and Ziploc bags, and since the late 1970s, Americans have been 'nuking' leftovers in microwaves for instant snacks and meals."

Even so, leftovers in the modern age have almost been eliminated in some households, she concludes, by processing that has extended the shelf life of many items to near infinity as well as "countless venues for eating out."

Growing up on a farm, a day spent slaughtering chickens or rabbits meant a certain sameness for many meals in a row. Today, as I find myself continually cooking for just one or two, a pound of beef or package of chicken breasts can go almost as far. Part of the fun of cooking is reusing leftovers in creative ways so that it isn't obvious that the same meat is being eaten at yet another meal. Variety is the spice of life. I like to have a couple of meat items "in play" (thawed and waiting in the fridge) and trade off between them as I go from meal to meal.

On the topic of meals likely to result in leftovers (at least for small families), a recent issue of Parade, the weekly insert that appears in the Denver Post and other newspapers, featured the poet Maya Angelou sharing a "Sunday dinner" recipe from her second cookbook, Great Food, All Day Long, just out this month. Potential for leftovers aside, another aspect that makes her Mixed London Grill (above) look so appealing is the diversity of ingredients. A carnivore's dream, it calls for bratwurst sausage, lamb chops, pork loin and sirloin. What really intrigued me was mention of the lamb or veal kidneys. "Kidneys have wonderful flavor, and yet few Americans eat them," Maya told Parade. Take it beyond kidneys: Americans don't eat nearly enough highly nutritious organ meats, in part as a phenomenon of the same industrialization that has made leftovers unnecessary. As consumers, we can eat the steak of the steer or the breast of the chicken every time, even though this is obviously not how animals actually occur in nature. The rest of those carcasses do go somewhere, maybe to be used in pet food, maybe shipped to a less industrialized and poorer country where the people can still make the equivalent of a feast from a head or a hoof. (In that regard, we Americans would do good to revive some of their creativity and try a little harder to use a wider variety of parts.) 

I confess, I'm actually uncertain about making this dish with a beef kidney. But I do have some chicken livers and gizzards left from a recent whole chicken processed on-farm at Callicrate Cattle Company (You can see how the birds were raised and processed in these pictures). And the beef livers at Ranch Foods Direct come from animals fed a strictly natural diet (no growth promotants) — an important consideration when buying and preparing organ meats. (The liver acts as a filter during digestion and poses as something of a sponge for unhealthy residues.)  No doubt the cleanness of the liver has become less of a consideration to a large scale beef industry that is mostly selling steaks, ground beef and roasts (not organ meats, so much.) But it's important if you want to practice eating in more rustic and creative ways, which also tend to increase nutritional diversity.

Yes, it's potentially healthier to eat more meals at home and downsize your life, if possible, so there's adequate time to engage in the "domestic arts" — perhaps to even go so far as growing and slaughtering the chickens, as well as eating them... (keeping in mind, of course, that most things are better when optional).