Category Archives: Cooking

Adventures in the culinary arts, mistakes and all.

Ratatouille for One

My new apartment is small. People tell me it’s too small and I shrug them off, but when I cook here, I realize how important kitchen space is to me. I stack three plastic bins of books (lacking the shelf space for all my fiction) as a makeshift island. I leave dishes next to my modem to dry on a mat.

Pile of uncooked tomatoes, yellow squash, carrot, garlic, and onion.

I moved to Spokane for several reasons: A fresh start, to teach part-time, to live in a state with (relatively) better healthcare, and to get professional training as a baker. I can write, read, and sleep well enough just about anywhere, but I didn’t realize how precious kitchen space can be.

When I get home with a bag of squash, tomatoes, and onions from my grandparents’ garden after visiting them in Montana, I squeeze myself between my door as it barges against a lamp and my fridge. Here, I feel like I’m in a scene from the 2007 Pixar film Ratatouille, in which Linguini brings Remy to his own similarly tiny Parisian apartment, where Remy takes in the view of the Eiffel Tower from the studio window. My new place doesn’t have an equivalent view, though, no apparent silver lining. I can only make do with what I bring to this place.

As I assemble my ingredients and begin heating oil in a small cast iron skillet for a lone vegetarian dinner, I think about the bright, colorful ratatouille that Remy makes in the film. The premise is much like an old fable: Remy the rat emerges from the sewers, befriends a garbage boy, and reinvigorates a restaurant and the soul of a pretentious critic, Anton Ego, with his cooking.

In the film, the character Colette calls ratatouille “a peasant dish” and Ego balks at it when presented with a plate of it before taking a bite. It’s telling that his first bite transports him to memories of his childhood eating a heaping bowl of stewed vegetables in the countryside, reminding him of what we can assume are the working-class roots he pushes away now as an arbiter of expense and prestige.

The twist is predicated on the dish’s obscurity. Mollie Katzen describes ratatouille as a “Mediterranean vegetable stew” in the original Moosewood Cookbook, to be served “on a bed of rice, or in a bowl” (Katzen 119). Rebecca Seal notes that in the nineteenth century, ratatouille was “a staple for the armed forces and prisoners.” Like other peasant dishes of nineteenth century Europe, it was probably similar to the gruel that Ebeneezer Scrooge sulkily eats in his miserable apartment, alone with his ghosts. Laure Murat makes much of the dish’s obscurity, observing that the Tresor de la langue francaise, a voluminous French dictionary, locates the origins of ratatouille in “a crossing between ‘tatouiller’ which means ‘to stir, to handle a lot; to spill in the mud’ and ‘ratouiller,’ ‘to make murky, to shake, to stir; to make dirty'” (Murat 144).

The dish is broad, flexible, open to interpretation. In fact, what Remy makes in the film is actually based on a culinary variation of ratatouille called confit biyaldi, which the pioneering health-conscious chef Michel Guérard invented in the 1970s during the Nouvelle cuisine movement, which revolutionized what is now an accepted standard in Western cuisine (and partly stolen from Japanese traditions) for culinary presentation, with an emphasis on a smaller quantity of food neatly organized at the center of the plate. What Ego eats—a small stack of carefully prepared vegetables and sauce—is the culmination of cultural changes in Europe that some scholars trace to the May 1968 protests that swept across France. After May ’68, Nouvelle cuisine began as “a bid to enhance the professional control of restaurants by chefs” by transforming cooks into “inventors rather than mere technicians” (Rao et al. 805).

Murat’s interpretation is that the murkiness of the dish is one of several ways that Remy is marked as an outsider generally, as queer specifically. For Murat, the movie “suggests that the culinary work of art implies the transformation of what the norm treats as discarded material. . . it is no coincidence that it is cooked by the ‘rejects’ of society” (Murat 144). The title of the movie could refer to the cast of characters themselves, who come together to form a better community through collaboration, to be inventors rather than rehashing the restaurant’s same old recipes.

This has its limits. The film is not kind to its one female protagonist, Colette, whose hard work in the industry Remy supplants at the last minute. Likewise, Linguini and Remy lose whatever intimate friendship they have when Linguini chooses to be with Colette, who is then expected to let her new lover’s former mentor (or friend or top or something) take the role of innovator, subjugating her again to the role of a technician. The film really only suggests radical shifts against hierarchy without fully arriving at them. It is Disney, after all.

Chefs like Guérard and Thomas Keller (of the French Laundry) popularized ratatouille for their generation, but for my generation, the 2007 film drew attention to the dish in the playful way it deserves. Ratatouille can be made from the detritus of castaway ingredients. Like other stews, it’s useful for getting rid of ingredients before they go bad. It’s a way of making the best of what’s available, easily adapted to new and changing circumstances. It’s a good dish to master in my tiny, viewless apartment. It’s a dish that, literally, anyone can cook, and ultimately, it’s a good dish for the Anthropocene, adaptable to whatever manages to grow in the garden after abnormal weather patterns, drought, smoke, and other effects of climate change. This is true of my grandparents’ garden, which has taken hit after climatic hit this year, and yet they still have plenty of squash.

My version of this dish uses ingredients available at most farmers markets in the Northwest, or from a variety of backyards if you have friends who are homeowners.

Dish of ratatouille with yellow squash and zucchini over tomato sauce.
  1. Assemble vegetables. Eggplant is traditional but I had yellow squash, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and zucchini.
  2. Add olive oil to a cast iron skillet (the size depends on who you’re cooking for). Chop the onion and mince garlic and add to the oil on medium heat with a pinch of salt and pepper, to brown.
  3. Add sliced red tomatoes and halved cherry tomatoes. Add basil, oregano, and a dash of red wine vinegar or a squeeze of fresh lemon.
  4. Stir occasionally for fifteen minutes. Slice veggies thinly, using a mandoline if available.
  5. Remove the skillet from the heat when the sauce is stewed down a bit. Arrange veggies in a stack on top of the tomato sauce, fitting in as many as possible. You can be fancy and make it a confit byaldi by packing in the slices vertically, or go for a rustic look with something more pile-shaped. You can make it vegan or top with grated cheese, before or after baking. You can garnish with parsley, or basil, or more cherry tomatoes. This recipe is open-minded. It’s up for whatever.
  6. Cover the pan with foil. Bake in the oven at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 25-30 minutes (use more time for a bigger pan).
  7. Serve with bread, or with wine, or on a bed of rice, or whatever you have available.
  8. If dining alone, watch a movie or listen to the radio while eating. If ghosts or rats arrive, listen carefully to what they have to say.

Katzen, Mollie. Moosewood Cookbook. Ten Speed Press, 1977.

Murat, Laure. “What’s Queer About Remy, Ratatouille, and French Cuisine?” What’s Queer About Europe? Productive Encounters and Re-Enchanting Paradigms, edited by Mireille Rosello & Sudeep Dasgupta, Fordham University Press, 2014, 136-147.

Rao, Hayagreeva, Philippe Monin & Rodolphe Durand. “Institutional Change in Toque Ville: Nouvelle Cuisine as an Identity Movement in French Gastronomy.” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 108 No. 4 (2003), 795-843.

Seal, Rebecca. “Deconstructing Ratatouille. National Geographic, May 10, 2019.

Recipes for Grad Students: The Office Hour Banana Smoothie in a Used Salsa Jar

smoothieLet’s say you’re a grad student who teaches in the morning and takes classes at night. What do you do for lunch between those times? You have grading to do and office hours to keep and assignments to write. Going home for lunch is an option, for those who have time or enjoy skipping homework assignments. A useful alternative is a smoothie: easy to make, easy to eat, and usually easy to digest, all in the relative comfort of a small graduate office while you work on job applications during your office hours.

The recipe is simple:

1 banana

1/4 cup milk

1/4 cup yogurt

2-3 Tablespoons peanut butter

1/4 cup granola

1 Tablespoon honey

A dash of cinnamon

Mix all ingredients in a blender or mash them in a bowl with a potato masher if your blender is broken again or as stress relief. Make sure to blend thoroughly, as the peanut butter will make the smoothie more pudding-like in texture.

Presentation matters; just watch any show on the Food Network for five minutes. If you find yourself in need of a stylish smoothie container, just remember that, as a grad student, chances are you have an empty salsa jar somewhere in the back of you fridge (just admit it, you know you do). It’s trendy to put cocktails in Mason jars, but a smoothie in a salsa jar is ahead of its time. The plus is that nobody will think to steal your lunch from the grad lounge refrigerator, especially not when they open a salsa jar to the smell of bananas.

If your students catch you drinking from a salsa jar, they might think twice about asking for an extension, so really, this recipe is a win-win, assuming that phrase means two wins for you and you alone. Enjoy your smoothie, and enjoy your office hours.

-jk

Edible Ekphrasis

babette's feastLast week, I had the pleasure of watching the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast, directed by Gabriel Axel. Based on a short story by Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast is set in a small village in the nineteenth century, focusing on two sisters in a strict pseudo-Puritan sect and their French cook Babette, whom they took in as an act of charity after she fled violence in France (as we all do from time to time). Her mastery of French cuisine contrasts the bland, simple food the sisters eat. Babette eventually inherits 10,000 francs, and decides to cook an elaborate, “real” French dinner for the churchgoers, who wrinkle their noses at the appearance of her imported ingredients (live quails, a turtle, various wines and champagnes), vowing not to mention the quality of the food to maintain their piety. Their decision to refrain from commenting on the food becomes more and more difficult as they eat, and the wine certainly complicates things, too.

It was one of the two last films that I watched on a Sunday night tradition that has become known as Single Guy Movie Night, hosted by a kind and brilliant PhD student and attended by myself and a fellow second-year MA student (and sometimes a married honorary single guy when he’s available). Since August, I have enjoyed our host’s meals and taste in movies, and he has occasionally tolerated the movie tastes of his guests.

This last year, I have watched more films on Sunday nights than I can remember: The 400 Blows, Road Warrior, Mad Max: Fury Road, Moonlight, Elizabeth, Halloween, Carrie, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Rogue One, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Spartacus, ParaNorman, The VVitch, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, among many others. It was fitting, I think, to end with a soft film about food, and perhaps the best film about food I have seen.

There is a small canon of food films. Ratatouille remains my favorite Pixar film, and I enjoyed Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s 1996 Big Night, about Italian cooking. Jon Favreau’s Chef belongs in this canon, and though it is about many other, disturbing and beautiful things, Peter Greenway’s 1989 The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and His Lover is a fantastic movie centered around the act of eating/consumption.

These movies are ekphrastic, in that they are about other forms of art. Most ekphrastic storytelling tends to be about painting or music. Putting the focus on food, and therefore taste, forces the audience to think about their own taste. The visual emphasis is on preparation, ingredients, cooking, and of course eating, a meta-narrativized mirroring of what audiences do when they watch movies, not literally eating the film but taking it in, enjoying its flavors, the blend of sweet or savory scenes, bitter or vibrant dialogue. As such, these films subtly ask their audience to reckon with the art they consume, the difference between taste and appetite, the difference between taste and quality, and do so in ways that invite variation. There is plenty to choose from on the menu; what will you watch tonight?

Babette’s Feast is different. At the forefront is gentleness. Rather than for competition or financial success, the film’s protagonist chef wants to give her patrons a free, perfect meal to show her gratitude. Her patrons, again contrasting from most food films, want to lower their expectations and resist enjoying the meal. The climax is the feast, but the pleasure of this long, drawn-out scene is watching the characters resist their own pleasure, and in subtle ways fail. The audience gets to see them lose, which means for them enjoying wonderful food. Babette brings them to their satisfaction by what she offers on the plate, giving them permission to enjoy life.

I prefer gentle movies, and that is a matter of taste. I like atmosphere, music, scenery, and subtle character developments that are easy to miss. But this is taste, and I give myself permission to enjoy everything on the menu. Life is short, and if I stuck to the same kind of movie, I’d miss out on the dozens of excellent movies I’ve had the gift of watching this past year with friends. It is too late to prepare a real French dinner for them to show my thanks. This has been an obscenely difficult and unpredictable academic year that left me paranoid, disillusioned, and feeling far from gentle. Babette’s Feast reminds me I am allowed to enjoy what I consume, whatever it is, and there is nothing wrong with taking pleasure in things, in as many things as possible.

The year is over for me. What comes next is new and uncertain, but I would prefer to go into it with an expanded pallet and the energy to enjoy generously.

-jk

Coffee: A Steamy Love Affair

Coffee Poet.jpg

Those who know me know that I love coffee. Those who don’t know me can easily guess, thus far, that I have a moderate fondness for coffee. To be clear, I’m not picky; I like tea, cocoa, water, smoothies, milkshakes, juice. But coffee has a special place in my life.

I had my first cup in my high school cooking class. During one of the baking sessions, our teacher turned on the coffee pot near my station while our muffins were still in the oven. That’s when I had my first cup of caffeinated hot brown acidic water, filled with cream and sugar like most first-timers. After a while, I started drinking coffee whenever I cooked, then every morning, then every morning and afternoon, then several times a day. For a while, I got headaches when I didn’t consume any caffeine by 10:00 AM.

I’ve since become less addicted. I once considered giving it up for Lent but decided that not even Jesus would have gone that far. Nevertheless, I have cut back, and not just because I’ll probably have an ulcer by the age of twenty-six if I don’t.

There are coffee addicts and there are coffee lovers, and I want to be the latter. The difference between a violinist and someone with a violin is making every note a masterpiece. The difference between a chef and somebody who cooks every meal is mastering the kitchen’s tools and ingredients, and cooking with gusto rather than mere hunger. Anything can be an art, and the only way to become an artist is to inhabit a practice so fully that we infuse ourselves with it.

Everything about coffee is perfect to me, and if not I try to make it perfect. Espresso, lattes, dark roasts, light roasts, the smell of the beans, the feel of them in my fingers, the careful measurement of fresh grounds into the coffee pot, pouring the first cup, breathing in the scented steam before the first sip, and feeling it run down my throat hot and fresh, until it bounces around my stomach looking for a place to sit. I write with it; I read with it; I get to know people with it. It’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly for me, which is likely why I haven’t slept since 2015.

What practice or hobby or food do you love? Let me know in the comments!

-jk

P.S. If you thought the title was cheap, consider all the other possibilities I had to work with. Drip coffee was only a starting place.

I Bought a Pumpkin. Now What?

Orange

Leaves are changing colors, candy is getting cheaper and oranger, and the farmer’s market is filled with freshly harvested pumpkins. Resisting temptation is hard; now I have a pumpkin. What does one even do with a pumpkin?

Orange Triptych

The first thing to do is get to know the pumpkin. Give it a cute name, something like Fred. Spend a few nights drinking with Fred. Really get to know him. From there, it’ll be easier to figure out what you want to do with Fred. In my case, I wanted to make Fred into a pie.

Fred 1

Give Fred a good bath, remove Fred’s stem, and slice Fred laterally with a large cutting knife. This might upset Fred, but he’ll just have to learn to live with it. Using a large spoon or ice cream scoop, remove all of Fred’s insides, scraping against the flesh to get all the strands and seeds out. It goes without saying you can save Fred’s inside for later consumption. Dash a little salt onto Fred’s flesh, place his two halves flesh-side down on a covered cookie sheet, and bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about thirty minutes, or until Fred is nice and mushy, like he always gets after a few beers.

Fred 2

Again, using an ice cream scoop or large spoon, scrape out Fred’s flesh, which should come out easily after baking Fred. He may be confused at this point, but just remind him it’s for a good cause. Mash (or blend in a food processor) Fred’s flesh, until it’s nice and smooth. You can store some of Fred’s flesh in the freezer for future endeavors. For example, you can make muffins out of Fred, too.

Toss 1 cup of Fred’s pureed flesh into a sauce pan and cook until it simmers. Add 1 cup milk, 1 teaspoon nutmeg, 1 teaspoon ginger, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves. Feel free to adjust the spices to make Fred as spicy as you like. Fred, of course, prefers to be very spicy, if his sass didn’t tell you anything. Mix well and let simmer.

Fred 5

In a separate bowl, combine two eggs and 1 cup of brown sugar. Add this to Fred’s simmering remains and stir to combine.

Fred 4

Once the eggs, sugar, cream, and Fred are thoroughly combined, pour into a pie dish with a prepared crust. You can make your own crust (like I did, in a completely unpretentious way), or buy a premade crust. Place the pie dish on a cleaned cookie sheet and bake Fred at 350 degrees for forty to fifty minutes. Fred will be very disappointed, but delicious. You can make it up to Fred by covering him in whipped cream and serving him with hot beverages. Like all gingers, Fred loves whipped cream and hot beverages.

Fred 6

-jk

Leftist Vegetarian Chili

Let’s say you want to make chili for the autumn season, something you can bring to a pot luck at a moment’s notice. If you’re anything like me (an English Major), any pot luck you get invited to will be filled with vegetarians who bring gallons of humus and pita chips by the crate. Here’s an easy recipe for a healthy chili to satisfy any English Major’s left-leaning, postmodernist palate.

The first step is to go to the local farmer’s market to obtain the best locally grown organic non-GMO socialist ingredients. Obtain the following items:

4 or 5 tomatoes1
1 red onion
1 sweet onion
2-3 carrots
2 bell peppers
2 jalapeno peppers
1 green chili pepper
1 habanero pepper
1 yellow summer squash
1 potato
1 copy of Das Kapital
2 cans of black beans

Optional: two bowls of marijuana, but only if you’re serving at a gathering of poets. If the chili is for a faculty meeting, two to three liters of rum (as a side dish) should be provided.

Various seasonings (salt, pepper, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, grassroots activism) should be added to your own taste (which should be excellent because you’re an English Major).

First, lay out the ingredients and tell them that cuisine is a social construct. Then chop up the onions and dump them into a cooking pot with an inch of oil. Stir them enough to keep them from burning, and add salt and pepper. The onions should be strong enough to make you cry, if you aren’t already crying about the TPP.

2

Next, chop up the tomatoes. Add a can of tomato sauce if you really want to give money to the 1 percent, you terrible monster.

Add the cans of beans, ignoring the fact that Big Canning got your hard-earned money. In a vegetarian chili, you need protein, and the beans will provide enough protein to help you resist the man.

Chop up the vegetables; carve them the way you’d carve up Wall Street, and redistribute their wealth in the pot. Season liberally with spices.

4

Next, chop up the peppers. Be careful to protect your hands, otherwise your fingers will burn the way the Christian right wants you to burn in hell. Be especially careful chopping the habanero, which will provide the amount of spiciness needed to smash the patriarchy. You can also add smashed patriarchy to the chili, but don’t add too much; patriarchy has very little nutritional value, because it’s mostly fatty acids and blood.

5

Stir all ingredients and continue to season as you see fit, because you are a creative and unique individual and however you season it will be an expression of your individuality in the rising tide of fascism. However, don’t add too much cinnamon or ginger; if you wanted a pumpkin spice latte, you’d go to a coffee shop with your Mac and write a screenplay in the corner.

6Let the chili simmer the way the working class simmers before the coming revolution, for two or three hours. Feel free to freeze it for the future or emergency pot lucks. Because your vegetarian Marxist postcolonial chili will be as spicy as your attitude (on tumblr), serve with lots of bread, or over rice. This chili is not for the faint of tongue.

Feel free, even, to serve it to your conservative friends. It may be meatless, but that’s no reason to be afraid of it. Take it to a tailgate party, or an NRA meeting. Use it to bring people together. What we eat may be politically driven, but sharing a meal is universal. At least that’s what the shoeless hippies who sold me the onions said.

-jk

In Search of the Perfect Beer Milkshake

Beer Shake

“If a man ordered a beer milk shake, he thought, he’d better do it in a town where he wasn’t known. But then, a man with a beard, ordering a beer milk shake in a town where he wasn’t known–they might call the police.” -John Steinbeck in Cannery Row.

My favorite author, John Steinbeck, is known for his epic novels about the lives of the working poor like The Grapes of Wrath. While I love his longer works, the Steinbeck novel that has had the most influence on me is Cannery Row, more a collection of interconnected stories than a novel. I first discovered it four years ago, and I have reread it every fall to rediscover the magic of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in Montery, California, which he calls “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

In one story, the main character Doc remembers somebody commenting that he loves beer so much, “someday [he’ll] go in and order a beer milk shake.” Because he is safely out of town, he takes the bet and orders one, providing the following recipe: “Put in some milk, and add half a bottle of beer. Give me the other half in a glass–no sugar in the milk shake.” Because Doc is one of my favorite literary characters, I attempted to make a beer milkshake following Doc’s specifications.

It turned out dreadfully, so I worked on changing the recipe. Because several restaurants have already experimented with beer milkshakes, one can probably find several recipes online, but here, I offer my own.

1 bottle of beer (preferably a flavorful ale or stout)

3 scoops vanilla ice cream

1/4 cup milk

1 tablespoon sugar

2-3 icecubes

Beer Shake

Combine all ingredients in a blender and serve fresh and cold.

Beer Shake I tested numerous variations of the beer milkshake. With dark beers, I tried adding chocolate sauce. With ales, I tried using only ice cream and beer, nothing else. I don’t know what Steinbeck was thinking when he wrote about Doc’s excursions into the world of beer milkshakes; he wrote that “it wasn’t so bad–it just tasted like stale beer and milk.” I may have taken Steinbeck fandom to an extreme, but his work is dear to my heart. For now, I’m content to read my favorite writer, take his jokes too seriously, and remember his reflections on the world:

Cannery Row’s “inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.”