I'd like to take some time and talk about forgotten foods.
Right now, we need to be able to step aside and re-evaluate the foods we once loved, foods each of us once personally thrived upon once out of necessity, and re-embrace them.
For those of you who went to college or moved out on your own for the first time I want you to remember ramen. Remember? Those fifty cent packets of Styrofoam noodles and flavor pouches that you once subsisted on when you were penny poor and your couch was a hand-me-down? Lunch, dinner, and even a few breakfasts consisted of five-minute noodles and powders filled with MSG, sodium, and many other delicious and unpronounceable chemical compounds. If you learned how to really make it work and turn it into a healthy meal you started tossing the packets and began to use chicken broth. You sauteed garlic and onions, and added them to the soup. You plonked in slivers of radishes and the radish greens because a bunch of radishes were only a dollar.
You didn't bemoan these meals (well, not often). This was because they were your first foray into self-reliability. The ramen was a means of living and eating. It was a codex that brought your social circle together and gave you a common, affordable food to bond over. It was what got you through the slag of finals, the heartache of another electric bill you somehow had to pay, and what you made to celebrate the passing of both.
Now that you're years out of college, have found success, and sit at a desk for a grownup job how often are you eating ramen? When was the last time you even thought about it?
Now apply that to most of the foods you ate when you were poor and young. I, personally, rarely ever cook potatoes anymore after cooking my way through - many times - The Potato Cookbook. It was a book I found at a yard sale my first week into college and purchased for fifteen cents, but it was a wealth of knowledge on the subject of potatoes. Plus, heck, potatoes were three dollars a bag and they filled me up. For years I subsisted on potatoes, oftentimes served alongside steaming bowls of ramen.
After I got a real job it was probably seven years before I cooked another potato. (And never since have I cooked ramen.)
But let me tell you that I know how to cook a god damn potato. Potatoes dauphinoise, potato leek soup, twice baked potato, potatoes gratin, potato fritters, potato pancakes, potato salads of all kinds, potatoes with dill and sardines... I know them all and by heart.
I just rarely cook them.
How many recipes - and I mean really, truly great recipes - do you know but never make because you just got sick of them? Where you sit there wondering what to make for dinner and somehow you have potatoes sitting on the table and you pass them over. "Yeah, I could make potatoes. But nah... what else?" Regardless of the fact that those potatoes would be damn epic?
It sounds silly, but it happens all the time. We have great go-to recipes at our disposal, but we eschew them out of culinary ennui. We've desensitized ourselves to the greatness of certain dishes or ingredients due to earlier overexposure. Even after enough time has passed we never seem to get back on board and really explore these foods again once we have new knowledge and experiences to apply to them.
I know how to make Sichuan stir-fried potatoes and potato korma now, but I never make them. Why is that?
That's the culinary ennui.
So sometimes we have to force ourselves to bid adieu to our culinary ennui. To step out of our comfort zone and re-immerse ourselves in an older, more worn in comfort zone. It may be a bit threadbare, but nothing that a bit of spicing up can't fix. (Perhaps garam masala?)
And here's what: once you've had enough personal space from your ramen and potatoes, I think you'll realize just how great some of these ingredients are.
On the other hand, like with the ramen, you might come to the understanding that you've grown older and matured - tastes, like people, do that - and these noodles that you once loved are now, actually, pretty darn terrible. This could be especially true if you've learned to make pasta from scratch or have some soba noodles in your pantry.
But both ramen and potatoes still have a place in our lives. Now, given, I'm using ramen and potatoes as place holders for this conversation. Your foods might have been celery and cheap peanut butter, or perhaps frozen corndogs, but you get my point. These foods - processed and organic - have been impactful to our lives. These foods saw us grow and taught us to cook. They shaped our ideas and gave us the ability to grow. They sustained us, and regardless of what the food was that's something to be thankful for.
Yes, we may have moved past ramen towards a preference of carefully home-crafted stock and designer orzo since our tastes have evolved, but that flat, rectangular Shrimp-Flavored packet of ramen is what evolved our opinions of food, and as such will always resonate in our core as a crucial food stuff.
It's the same way that you may view books, television shows, or movies you loved as a kid today and think, "Wow, did I really like this once?" You don't have to like it now and in fact you may think it downright stupid, but you can't deny how much joy it gave you as a child. Perhaps the idea and memory of those mediums - like food - are what really sustain you. They're what give you that joy that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy today.
If we're really lucky we can go back and view these medias and taste these foods again and discover that they're still gosh darn amazing. It's one of the best feelings to realize that what you once though was great back when you were young and naive is still great once you've gained insight. It demonstrates that these potatoes weren't just a means of alimentary abnegnation, where you simply zoned out and just inhaled them out of zen-like acceptance of calories and denying flavor for satiety's sake, but that these potatoes were some of the best dishes you have ever prepared.
Rediscovering these types of food may not be haute, organic, Slow Food, or part of any particular movement. But so what? Eating is about both fulfillment and fullness.
One of the recipes I used to put together all the time when I was younger and had to scrimp my pennies was garlic and Parmesan bread. (I bet you were expecting something with potatoes, right?) It was something special to go with our giant pots of affordable spaghetti or when we had a potluck party. I would save up my money for Parmesan. The real kind. The stuff that costs eight dollars for a really good wedge chipped from a recently cracked wheel. Eight dollars for cheese when you were saving your tea bags for a fifth use is an extravagance on par with taking yourself out to The French Laundry and dropping $400 on dinner just because it's a Tuesday.
I hadn't made it since probably 2005. Then the other day, out of nowhere, I realized that I was seriously hankering for some of my garlic and Parmesan bread. An entire stick of softened butter, a few juicy and preferably sticky cloves of garlic finely minced, a handful of chopped parsley, an avalanche of shaved Parmesan, and a heavy pinch of salt all mashed together and jammed deep into carved niches of a loaf of bread. Baked in foil and served hot from the oven it is a revelation in garlic, dairy, and bread.
So I revisited it last night. And it was glorious.
Brian asked me why I had never made this before for him when it was so good. I told him I didn't know, which was odd. Why had I kept this on the back shelf of my repertoire for so long?
I guess it's because sometimes it's hard to shake your ennui. We get absorbed by it and after so long we don't even question it anymore. We simply accept it as part of our diet and taste. Yet this recipe is one worth not only revisiting but keeping close to the table and ready for guests.
Tossing it together is easy enough. Pound the ingredients together with a wooden spoon and glop it into some smartly carved bread (and the carving method is the real key here as it ensures that every crevice of bread gets soaked with the sulfurous-smelling butter). You bake it for a little while and then give it a nice bit browning. The results are no less than a religious experience. One could be no more a devoted acolyte to food than to serve this at every single meal.
I'm going to give you a push and tell you to make this tonight. Really, I mean tonight. You can do it and you won't regret it. When you eat and and you begin to quiver with joy, think about the foods you've decided to no longer make. That food from youth and poverty or perhaps from just way back when during a time when you made it every. single. day. that you once loved but have vowed never again would you eat it because, "If I eat one more of (insert food), I will surely die."
Take charge. Make it again. Add a twist. Add some spice. Shock that ennui and fall in love again. Or, perhaps, make peace that it really is a food of your past. That's fine, too.
Either way, you'll discover more about your relationship with food and that just makes you a better cook and person.
That's all for today everybody.
Garlic and Parmesan Bread
1 quality loaf of bread
4 large, sticky cloves of garlic. minced
a good handful of parsley, chopped
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 solidly good pinch of kosher salt
1 cup or about 2 ounces of finely shredded Parmesan
1. Preheat oven to 425F. Slice long groves into the bread, but don't cut all the way through. We want deep crevices for our butter.
2. Mix the rest of the ingredients together in a bowl with a wooden spoon. Cram the butter into the crevices of the bread. It'll all fit. If it gives you trouble just cram it in harder.
3. Wrap the loaf up in foil and bake for 20 minutes. Then unwrap it a bit to expose the top and bake for 5 more minutes so it can get all crusty with cheese and butter.
4. Eat. Eat and be happy.