Cooking under Siege (Gaza)

Just wanted to share an interesting article from The Economist‘s supplementary magazine 1843.

A blurry image of tiny morsels of falafel – mid-fry – flashes up on my phone, accompanied by a text apologising for the quality of the photo. “Did you get it?” asks Wafaa Saad, a mother of six, from Gaza City. “The connection is weak. The electricity keeps going in and out.” Two symmetrical plates of falafel, delectable fritters formed from chickpeas, fresh dill, chillies and coriander, are surrounded by olives, pickled peppers, shatta, a local chilli-pepper paste, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. “Dinner!”

excerpt from the article “How to eat well while living under siege” from The Economist publication 1843, written by LAILA ELHADDAD

So… whazzup? What’s this about?

My intentions for this blog

I’ve spent a few days trying to block out this post in my mind so I could coherently lay out what this blog will look like. Well, thanks to my amazingly non-linear brain, I confess to having failed to develop the neatly articulated, logically sound description of the blog I have envisioned.

Welcome to my “stuck in the spin cycle” brain. Everything’s in motion; most ideas are under consideration. Basic theory: we’ll know what this blog looks like when it’s built. That said, I can tell you what this blog is not. It is not a recipe blog. It’s not a diet blog. It’s not a lifestyle blog. I’m neither a chef nor a “social influencer”. There are plenty of perfectly talented people out in the blogosphere who are rocking those gigs and that’s not where my head’s at.

This is a cooking blog. it’s about that most human of activities — the preparation of food. Food is not merely fuel. It’s a source of joy and it comforts us. Food is an expression of love. Breaking bread with friends and family is where we build the bonds of community. We feast on our holy days because food is a central pillar of who we are as a people; as a society over just a collection of individuals. Yeah, I’m a bit of a shameless romantic in this department and I’m not one bit embarrassed by it.

I have spent a lot of time teaching cooking skills in my life. I was a volunteer at my local food bank where we have a teaching kitchen. i used to do a cooking show for my local cable channel that was pretty popular with the immigrant community in my home town. I have cooked all my life and was encouraged by the wonderful cooks who were my mother and grandmothers. Cooking is my passion. I read cookbooks like others devour mystery novels. My sister is an awesome cook, especially when it comes to anything Italian. It never occurred to me that there were people who didn’t know how to cook. Not because they were lazy, or stupid, or spoiled or any of the other cockamamie reasons people give for the marked decline of cooking skills in our society. Many people don’t cook because they don’t know how to and that lack of what I call “cooking literacy” is a huge barrier.

When I was working with clients at the food bank, we always had recipes hanging on the walls for people to take home with them. One day I saw a woman looking at one that she had picked up. She read it and then she put it back. I said, “You can take that with you if you want”… I can’t remember what the recipe was for but she wasn’t going to take it because she didn’t have oregano at home, so she couldn’t make it.

“All I have is Italian seasoning”, she said.

“That would work. Just use the same amount”, I replied.

The look of astonishment on her face was a life lesson for me. As I continued to teach, I gently explored the level of “cooking literacy” in my classes. Information that I have always taken for granted because it was just part of my environment can be a massive obstacle for some people who are just doing their best to put a meal on the table for their kids.

A lack of basic cooking knowledge was holding them hostage. They relied on highly processed and expensive packaged foods. Their diets were laden with salt and sugar. Even if they had a bag of rice and a bag of lentils, they didn’t know how to turn it into a meal. They didn’t know how a few inexpensive spices could elevate a dish from “meh” to “can I have seconds?”. The region where I live has real social problems with childhood obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and other health disorders that are not helped by high consumption of these “industrial food-like products” — Thank you, Michael Pollan, for that phrase. We need cooking skills in our community and there’s no sense in bemoaning the lack of “home economics” in the public school system. Moaning about how it was in the “good ol’ days” doesn’t fix the problem now.

Those of us who cook already know that it’s considerably cheaper to buy a chicken and cut it up rather than buying it already cut into pieces by the butcher. It’s in the range of $1.00 or more per kilo. That information doesn’t help you if you don’t know how to cut up a chicken, what to do with it once it’s cut up. Besides, right now, a bucket of KFC looks like a viable option because the kids need to eat. Right. Now.

All in all, this blog is going to hang around three basic components. They will be called “Know Your Ingredients”, “Know Your Equipment” and “Kitchen Basics”. Most posts will be added into one of these categories. We also have sections with recipes to spark people’s imaginations. And because food is an important part of culture, there will be posts on news and philosophy about food, cooking, diet, agriculture, environment, and economics.

What this blog is NOT is a harangue that you should eat THIS way and only THIS way. And furthermore, people who eat THAT way are … well not quite civilized. None of that nonsense because if a person can make choices about what kind of food they eat, they enjoy a certain amount of privilege in our society. It took me a long time to wrap my head around that. My goal is to give people the information that they need to make creative and informed choices about how they feed themselves and their families.

Most of the people I was teaching frequently experienced food insecurity, largely because there was too much month left at the end of the money. For this reason, a lot of the cooking classes focused on low meat/no meat dishes. Meat and cheese both can take a big bite out of the family grocery budget. Having a couple of dishes that the family enjoys that don’t contain these two expensive ingredients can go a long way to keeping the food costs down.

Not everything in this blog will be about inexpensive meals, or vegetarian cooking although there will be plenty of both. Holiday feast food tends to be more expensive and more complex. There will be posts on gourmet ingredients, with the idea of helping people make substitution choices that fit their wallet and regional food availability. I’m not concerning myself a great deal about “local” food because this is the internet and already, I have readers from around the world. I have no idea what’s “local” in the markets in Romania this week.

Here’s a quick break down of the major sections of this blog:

Know Your Ingredients

What’s the difference between Himalayan salt, kosher salt, and Celtic sea salt? Does it matter on my pasta? White onions, red onions, shallots, spring onions? What gives? What is elephant garlic anyway?

All these questions and more will be answered in the Know Your Ingredients section.

Know Your Equipment

What features should I look for in a decent fry pan that isn’t going to break the bank? Is the latest rage, must-have kitchen gadget worth it? How do I sharpen a knife? Do I really need a bread knife? How do I prioritize my purchases if I’m just starting to build my kitchen?

These are the types of questions I’ll be tackling in the Know Your Equipment section.

Kitchen Basics

It just the little things you need to know that make cooking so much easier and convenient. Need a quick salad dressing for your greens? Five minutes and a few pantry items will make a great vinaigrette. Teriyaki sauce .. I’ve got that as well. How to make gluten-free, vegetarian gravy for your brother-in-law this Thanksgiving?? On that as well.

News and Philosophy

Sometimes I like to take a step back and see the whole forest instead of just the trees. Cooking is a cornerstone of culture, so I consider history, anthropology and other oddball subjects to be fair game for a cooking blog. There will be talk about agricultural policy and climate change and who knows what else I find interesting.

Thanks for joining me on this journey. I hope I can spread some of my passion for cooking. Thanks for reading. Keep cooking and we’ll talk later.

Back in the Kitchen

I’ve had this blog site open for a couple of years now and haven’t done anything with it. (Edit: actually, it’s been 5 years…) I made a few posts on it but never really got past the “I think I might” stage. It was one of those “some day” projects — right up there with writing a novel and becoming an astronaut.

In any event, “some day” has arrived in my life. I’m not going to recount all the twists and turns that have brought me here. Some of it will inevitably show up within the much more regularly provided blog posts. Some of it will be just another one of my annoyingly tangential screeds on whatever irrelevancy that’s crossed my mind. One thing that has become painfully clear to me over the past couple of years has been I’m feeling the lack of any kind of creative outlet. I like to write and over the past fifty years (or so), I’ve developed a yeoman’s skill level on basic wordsmithing. I like to teach. I love to cook. I’m a foodie who lacks the money to go completely deep-six on that subject.

I’m also a Maritimer — which means the kitchen is the central room of my life. It’s where I spend most of my time and energy. This blog is going to be about more than just recipes (although there will be recipes). It’s going to be about all manner of food, technique, equipment, food culture, food security and other social justice issues and…..and…and… because in the words of Walt Whitman, “I am large and contain multitudes”.

Screw ups are a basic part of cooking.

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Last week I had been involved in a joint cooking project and one of the other participants referred to me as fearless in the kitchen. Point taken — I am. That comes from the fact I’ve made so many cooking screw ups over the years, I’ve lost track of them. So my advice to any budding cook or anyone who wants to improve their cooking skills is simple: Get over it. You’re going to make mistakes. No matter how long you’re at this game, you’re going to mess something up.

Sometimes, it’ll be your own lack of attention — oh crap, that said 3 teaspoons, not tablespoons. Sometimes, it’ll be an ambiguously written recipe. And sometimes, it’ll just be plain ignoring your own common sense.

Which brings us nicely up to this week’s kitchen failure. I decided to try out a new recipe from an online site that I subscribe to. I’m keeping their name out of this because this one is totally my screw up and not theirs. It was a recipe for a cider brined pork roast and, as usual, I didn’t have the exact list of ingredients they called for in their directions. For starters, I had a smaller piece of pork.

Even as I was making up the brining solution, I thought to myself “That’s too much salt” but throwing both caution and common sense to the wind, I carried on.  I also left said pork roast in the brining solution longer than the recipe called for. Surprise, surprise — when I cooked it, the meat was too salty. And when I say too salty, I’m not whistling “Dixie”. .

Now some cooking screwups have to be binned immediately. There is no recovery or re-purposing them. It’s a wreck. Get rid of it. Order out. This one, however, I think has some hope of salvation. Today, I’m cooking some black beans and will see if I can make a pork black bean soup. Recipe will be posted if it works. Lamentations will be posted if it doesn’t.