George Rector: M.F.K. Fisher’s Dirty Old Uncle

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We struck gold in the depths of the library the other day when I dug up Dine at Home with Rector: A book on what men like, why they like it, and how to cook it, by George Rector, c.1937.

Rector (1878-1947) was a restaurateur and popular author. This book is ostensibly a cookbook–I don’t know what else it would be–but it doesn’t have recipes per se. Instead, he just mentions how to cook things as he’s steaming along. I’m in love with the hardboiled yet strangely comforting prose (though I do have to ignore the casual sexism and racism of the period).

Seems most cookbooks these days range from bland to, at best, passionately sincere. Old George is just in it for the fun. The pleasure of reading him is filed in my brain alongside the pleasure of reading M.F.K. Fisher, though he’s more like her dirty old uncle. Which is to say you’d happily read either them even if you have no intention of ever cooking anything ever again.

Speaking of casual sexism, I’m particularly fond of the chapter titled “When the Wife’s Away”, which steps befuddled menfolk from the basics of grilling a steak (“Steak is a good thing to begin on; don’t be scared off because it’s one of the aristocrats of the cow kingdom…”), to how to scramble eggs over a double boiler (“that’s the dingus Junior’s cereal is cooked in…”) to making “that noble experiment known as Rum-Tum Ditty” for the boys when they come over for cards. Rum-Tum-Ditty, I have to say, defies explanation. Let’s just say the ingredients include whipped egg whites, a pound of cheese and a can of tomato soup.

Speaking of befuddled menfolk, Erik is quite fond of this passage about making Hollandaise sauce (from the chapter titled “A Touch of Eggomania”), not least because it has introduced the term “hen fruit” into our lives:

For eggs Benedict, you need Hollandaise sauce, an additional contribution of the hen fruit to the pleasures of the palate, and to the confusion of cooks. Hold on to your hats and we’ll round that curve. Add four egg yolks, beaten to the thick, lemon-colored point, to half a cup of butter melted in a double boiler. Stir as you add the eggs and keep stirring–stir with the calm and temperate perseverance of the mine mule making his millionth trip down the gallery. That’s the secret–that and getting the water in the bottom hot as blazes without ever letting it come to a boil. Just before the mixture gets thick–timing again–put in a tablespoon of lemon juice and cayenne pepper to taste, and I hope and believe you’ll have a crackajack Hollandaise. Which is something to have, because it’s cantankerous stuff, as the tears shed by millions of cooks down the ages all testify.

A Guilty Pleasure: The Mid-Century Menu

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Back in my time-wasting grad school days I made somewhat of a hobby out of thrift shopping. Along with the mandatory copy of Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream, every thrift store would have a collection of post-war, space-age cookbooks. Recipes, in this period, are a kind of recombinatory matrix of industrial ingredients. You take some cocktail wieners, a dollop of mayonnaise, some ketchup and a surprise ingredient, say dried prunes and roll them all up into a ball that roughly resembles a low earth orbit satellite and you’ve got dinner.

This is the culinary territory explored by “Retro Ruth,” the genius behind the Mid-Century Menu blog. She cooks up one mid-century recipe a week and feeds it to her husband Tom who does a kind of visually documented taste testing. It’s great fun and their blog is one of my favorite internet time holes, even though I’ll never make this stuff. In the past year they’ve been covering the outer-stellar potlucks featured in the background of the Astronaut Wives Club. Then there’s the cocktails. The disasters, such as the Salmon Vermouth Casserole, are particularly entertaining.

Did you grow up with this stuff? As always, we love your comments.

071 Farmer Mai Nguyen

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Wondering about the next generation of farmers? Meet Mai Nguyen. She grows grains and vegetables in Northern California using a no-till, dry-farming method with draft horses–all in the midst of a historic drought! During the course of the conversation we discuss:

  • Southeast Asian vegetables
  • Growing rice
  • Dry farming
  • No-till agriculture
  • Growing wheat
  • Sonora wheat
  • Red Fife wheat
  • Dark rye
  • Managing risk
  • Sheep and draft horses on a small farm

To find out more about what Mai is up to check out her blog farmermai.com.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Josey Baker on Bread: Whole, Wild, Wet, Slow and Bold

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You can make bread or babies with Josey Baker’s advice. Earlier this month, the bread cult I co-founded, the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, hosted a class by author and enthusiastic bread nerd Josey Baker. Baker and his mentor Dave Miller (yes, they do have oddly appropriate surnames) have developed a style of baking that Josey has turned into set of five principles, a kind of Kama Sutra of bread: whole, wild, wet, slow and bold. Let’s get funky and break that down.

Whole
To make white flour, all the good stuff in wheat is sifted out, leaving it lifeless. Even “whole wheat” breads are made with a significant proportion of white flour. It’s been this way now for a long time. White flour, once the exclusive domain of the elite became, in the 20th century, the ubiquitous loaf of Wonder Bread many of us grew up with.

And what about that whole grain flour at the supermarket? Imagine if the only wine available in stores was wine-in-a-box, and it came in two flavors, “white” and “red.” This would be a sad world. Well, our whole grain flour choices are actually worse: there’s only one kind sold in supermarkets. Despite appearances, though, there’s actually a whole wide world of biodiversity and flavor to be found in wheat, varieties such as Kamut, Sonora, Charcoal, Triple IV, Einkorn and Red Fife, to name just a few. All are radically different in terms of color, texture and flavor. It really is analogous to wine varietals. Both Baker and Miller take advantage of grain diversity by working with farmers, milling their own flour and creating 100% whole-wheat loaves that highlight the flavor differences between wheat varieties. We’re very lucky in Los Angeles to have a retail mill, Grist & Toll, that sells many different varieties of fresh ground flour and whole grain. But, for those of you not in SoCal, check the interwebs for local millers or mail-order sources for flour and whole grains.

Wild
The wild refers to wild yeast, as in sourdough or “levain” in French. For me the best thing about working with wild yeast is that the bread has a more interesting, pronounced flavor. Another big advantage is that, due to the lactic acid producing bacteria in wild bread cultures, your bread will last a lot longer–up to a week in my experience. Lastly, though it hasn’t yet been proven, there may be some health advantages to wild starters. The lactic acid bacterias might make bread more digestible.

Wet
Both Baker and Miller mix up doughs that are surprisingly wet. Whole grain soaks up a lot of water to begin with, but both Baker and Miller push that wetness to very high hydration levels: sometimes in the neighborhood of 120% hydration if you’re keeping score. (N.B. Hydration level refers to the ratio of water to flour by weight: 100 grams of flour mixed with 100 grams of water = 100% hydration)  A big advantage of wet dough is that you don’t need to knead it. The gluten strands align on their own in the wet dough matrix. You still have to do some stretching and folding to help the gluten alignment process along, but you don’t have anything that resembles traditional kneading. Very wet doughs have the disadvantage of being difficult to turn into hearth loaves. Dave Miller overcomes this by his almost supernatural ability to shape dough. It’s almost like he can just stare at a pile of what looks like pancake batter and miraculously turn it into neat little boules. Baker had a great tip for those of us not as adept at forming loaves out of wet dough: just bake your bread in a loaf pan. Problem solved! I’ve been doing a lot lately.

Slow
The refrigerator is your friend. Doing some part of the fermentation in the fridge lengthens the fermentation time and helps develop more pronounced flavors. It also allows greater flexibility in your baking schedule. Got to go to work? Pick up the kids? No problem. Put that dough in the fridge. Baker likes to do the bulk fermentation (e.g. the first fermentation) at room temperature, shape the loaves, and then proof them in the fridge. They can then come straight out of the fridge and into the oven. Miller, due to some quirks in his schedule, likes to do the latter part of the bulk fermentation in the fridge, shape the loaves and then proof them at room temperature. One advantage with Miller’s approach is that cold dough is easier to shape. Personally, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I’ve had more luck with bulk fermentation at room temperature and proofing in the fridge.

Bold
One of the biggest mistakes newbie bakers make is puling their loaves out of the oven before the bread is really, truly done.  Both Miller and Baker leave their loaves in the oven until they are almost burnt. The reasons are multiple. Take the loaf out too soon and, particularly with whole grain breads, the crust will be too soft. Another reason is that Miller contends that the sort of whole grain breads you buy at the supermarket are under-baked. Poke the center of those commercial breads and the texture is often like play dough. Plus, I’d say, those boldly baked loaves are pretty.

Josey Baker’s formula is simple: find an interesting grain, ferment it with a sourdough starter with a lot of water, use the refrigerator to your advantage and bake it to the edge of being burnt. The details of this process will be the subject of future posts.

I made soup out of a Halloween pumpkin and it didn’t completely suck

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Our neighborhood of tiny, overpriced bungalows is the place to go trick or treating, for some reason. A record keeping neighbor counted 300 trick or treaters at his door this weekend. He had collaborated with another neighbor on an elaborate, coordinated display: Mount Olympus vs. Hades. Up on Mt. Olympus (one side of our street is 30 feet higher than the other), Zeus wielded a shiny cardboard lightening bolt, while down below the devil dealt with those 300 kids. I made a mental note to up our Halloween decor game next year as all we had was one hastily carved pumpkin and two uncarved pumpkins.

The next day, surveying the trail of candy wrappers on the sidewalk, I felt a little guilty about those uncarved pumpkins. I resolved to eat them. An NPR story, “Do We Waste a Lot of Pumpkins We Could Be Eating?“, tipped me off to an Epicurious Curried Pumpkin soup recipe that uses coconut milk and hot pepper flakes. The recipe takes advantage of the fact that you could make delicious soup out of cat litter with coconut milk and hot pepper flakes.

Of course that same soup would taste a lot better made with a kabocha squash. And Halloween pumpkins make great worm food. But I was reasonably pleased with the soup, especially after it had mellowed in the fridge for a day.

How was your Halloween? What do you do with the leftover pumpkins?