Peppers: To Char or to Bake?

Is there a ‘right’ or ‘better’ way to roast peppers?  Television and popular cooking instruction sites — especially the fast-and-easy-themed ones — frequently advise halving and cleaning out red peppers and baking/roasting them in a very hot [500-degree] oven until they look charred, wrinkled, and — perforce —  collapsed. They then proceed to bagging, cooling, peeling and slicing followed by flavoring.

One hopes that the authors of these sources are actually aware that the original and still common traditional method for roasting peppers involves direct flame applied to the peppers’ outer skins. Presumably, they opt for the oven method because it requires less attention and less cleaning up.

In fact, both methods have real culinary roles that go beyond considerations of convenience.

Many people have trouble digesting peppers, mostly due to the acid/bitter bite of the skins. Both methods make skin removal easy, and both sweeten by heating. [It is possible to use a peeler to remove the skins from raw peppers, but the result is good but different.]

Traditional flame charring on a grill or indoor stove burner [electric-included] allows the cook critical control over how much or how little the actual pepper flesh is cooked and thereby softened by the process. It can produce peppers that are freed of skin bitterness but not at all flaccid, with lively, toothsome texture, freshness, and flavor enhanced by the smoky/charred character added by the process.

With this method, cheaper green peppers are often actually preferable to more expensive, softer-fleshed, sweeter red, yellow, or other-tinted varieties.

Oven-baking produces a different result.  Even a very hot oven cannot apply flame-hot heat directly to the skin.  As a result, by the time by the time the skin gets charred enough to provide some flavor and to peel easily, the pepper is usually cooked throughout, completely soft-to-flaccid, and devoid of lively acidity.

However, peppers with these characteristics may be perfect for smooth soups, spreads, dips, certain sauces,and other pureed dishes in which their structure is intended to disappear. Also for for cooks who like sweeter ingredients.

But for pairings with garlic, ripe or salty cheeses, fresh herbs, and olives in traditional antipasti, savory salads, and sandwiches, the firmer-fleshed, livelier,charred roasted peppers are far preferable.

One very important adminition.  Whichever method you use, do not soak or run water over the peppers as or before you peel them.  It may be more convenient because it makes thorough char removal easier, but the peppers become water-logged and lose most of their desirable smoky/charred flavor.

Water-logging is also the price flavor and texture pay to convenience in water-packed canned or bottled peppers. I drain them thoroughly then dry then very well between multiple layers of towels. Depending on how over-softened they are, it may be bothersome  to peel them from the toweling. Depending on how I plan to use them and how non-flaccid they are, I may briefly re-char the firmer ones over a gas burner to bring them closer to the real thing.

Pasta Blunders: From Domestic Science to Celebrity Chefs

[This a repost from my much more opinionated and contentious food blog, The Conservative Food Blog http://conservativefoodblog.wordpress.com/.  If you can abide the argumentative stance, there are some very useful tips about cooking and serving pasta…..Peter di Lorenzi]

Non-Italian-Americans have always had a ‘filtered’ relationship with the very simple techniques required to cook pasta properly.  From the late 1800s until roughly the 1980s, the filtering was done primarily by teachers of ‘domestic science’ and home economics [DS/HE],as well as by home-recipe book writers, both of which groups, especially the former, had little or no familiarity with Italian foodways.  They were concerned with their own cherished values of convenience, time-saving, and industrially-guaranteed sanitation  rather than with flavor, authenticity, or the optimization of gustatory quality.  The unappetizing pasta techniques they espoused were, then, errors of ignorance, inattention, and shabby ‘delicacy’. Thus:

  • Undersalting pasta water  -–  more a result of simply not bothering, I think, than of any visionary concern with excessive sodium consumption.  The result, an irreparable blandness, probably made the final tasteless product more suitably ‘delicate’ in their kitchen-clock-focused eyes.
  • Overcooking pasta —  As much, I am guessing, an effort to tame the whip action of twirled al dente strand pasta  — with resulting unseemly stains — as from a generalized propensity to overboil everything.   Water-logged pasta also nicely dilutes the too-strong flavors [sic – these were the notions of home ec ladies, after all] of the canned pasta sauces [or stewed tomatoes] they advocated and no doubt used.
  • Breaking strand pasta  —   Again, to avoid whipping/staining, as well as to minimize the pointless, inefficient effort  — lest you forget: this was domestic science! — involved in twirling unbroken strands.
  • Rinsing cooked pasta  —  This practice flows logically from the DS/HE  foundational  value of convenience over flavor [except, sometimes, in sweets] and from their doctrinaire disinterest in the practices of those cultures that value and cherish their foods — none of the time-consuming fussing and bothering of immigrants for these educated, careerist WASPs. They imagined, I bet, that rinsing rendered unnecessary the practice of tossing hot, unrinsed pasta in butter or, horrible dictu, in greasy olive oil.
  • Not tossing cooked pasta in oil  —  Oil in any form was somehow un-Protestant and best kept to a minimum to the DS/HE missionaries, thus leading to the rinsing of pasta cited above but also to its near invisibility in their preferred concocted salad dressings, where it was usually camouflaged in nice white, dairy-looking mayonnaise.
  • Over-saucing pasta  —  There really is nothing one can do with bland, overcooked, undersalted, water-logged, unlubricated pasta save to drown it in so much sauce that it sort of disappears into a kind of red sauce noodle soup. Given the kinds of sauces that probably passed efficiency muster for these scientific educators, one can more charitably comprehend the preference among so many non-Italian Americans for Chef Boy-Ar-Dee and Franco-American canned pasta products.
  • Not tossing pasta with sauce  —  again, a matter of the ‘no-extra-step’ Taylorite mentality, seen also in untossed green salads and in the characteristic pile of grated cheese sitting atop the ladle or twelve of sauce.

Though they malinger in some stubbornly dismal backwaters of home practice, these debasing practices no longer corrupt the pasta served in many restaurants and on television food shows.  There they have been replaced by new errors:  of performance, presentation, and  — this will make the pretentious, little price-gouging hearts of ‘celebrity chefs’ everywhere and Food Channel ‘personalities’ swell  — ‘deconstruction’ [understood here as the willful dis-integration of a usually traditional or classical dish for the purpose of showcasing in unmistakable isolation the expensive ingredients and  laboratory processes that  supposedly justify the ridiculous price.  Or for no reason at all save to display a vicarious association with  a by-then commonplace ‘creativity’ as well as, perhaps, a particularly conformist form of edgy daring.].

These new de rigeur frills of performance/conformity pasta preparation have everything to do with the food channel and celebrity chefs and their intense quest to be seen doing whatever the hapless food media happens to be lapping up this season.  These latter poor souls strive comically to find some ‘new’ technique or fad ingredient [that others of their clan — probably in New York — are already writing about; lest how would they, in their usual journalistic ignorance of things culinary, have ‘brought it to light?].

These discoveries they delightedly proffer — and, too often, alas, wield — to their readership as evidence of their ‘in-the-know’, cutting-edge status as interpreters and tribunes of the culinary avant garde. The wielding part comes when they are inflicted upon sacrificial restaurateurs and chefs who may not yet have realized that such trendy performance/ingredient frills are the basis by which food writers and reviewers will deem them worthy of notice, cheerleading feature stories, or positive reviews.  For these unenlightened dullards, to be out of step with current food fashion, as understood by your local food writer, is to be consigned to the dustbin of disdain.

The second generation of ‘filterers’ were spawned in the era of nouvelle cuisine presentationalism, and have become virulent in our own era of food TV, food media, and  ‘celebrity chef ‘ shows, ‘competitions’ and restaurants.  What unites them all is desperate gotta-be-with-it conformity and self-promotion.

Thus, you get the kind of silliness whereby all pasta dishes are tossed in the pan, no matter what the nature of the sauce; pasta is wrung into absolutely pointless presentational cones; pasta is dressed with shaved/microplaned cheese that actually limits the total amount of cheese used AND, worse, its likelihood of adding meaningfully to the overall flavor of the dish. To wit:

  • Pan-tossing all pasta  —  purportedly to allow the pasta to ‘soak up all the delicious flavors of the sauce’ by heating/dressing it in the sauce pan before service, this practice originated in restaurants in the post-1970s and 1980s,  after the triumph of the ‘Northern-Italian-cream-sauces-are-more-sophisticated-and-‘in’ orthodoxy/fashion that sneered at the old Southern Italian tomato-based sauces.It was quite functional as a means of reducing the liquidity and enhancing the coating capacity of cream-and oil-based sauces [because the fat content of these sauces coated the pasta and limited absorption after initial contact] that became so prevalent in ‘serious’ Italian restaurants of the late 20th century.  It also worked well for oil/brothy sauces such as white clam sauce and other seafood pasta dishes, making them less liquid and, with sufficient olive oil or butter, more clingy.  For tomato and vegetable-based sauces however, the pan dressing process, amplified by the high heat involved, will often, unless the pasta is well oiled, absorb too much of the base vegetable juices, resulting in sauce-bloated pasta and  dried-up sauces, especially after the initial serving.  That is why, when pre-indoctrinated Italians dressed and tossed their pasta off the heat, in bowls, they would first lubricate pasta intended for tomato or vegetable-based sauces with oil or butter. Pan-saucing also produces unnecessarily hot pasta that may be seen as necessary in restaurants, where food stands until it is picked up and served — and where steaming hot food is seen as a sign of quality, though many sauces actually taste better, and more intensely flavorful, when they cool a bit.  Tossing in a bowl has the added benefit of bringing down the overall temperature to these more flavor-developing levels. Pan tossing with grated cheese is a disaster-in-waiting, encouraging a very high likelihood that even properly aged, quality cheese will clump up or burn.
  • Presentational pasta cones  —  this is nothing but a purely pathetic conceit — rooted in the even more embarrassing ‘tall food’ plague, to demonstrate presentational flair when done by TV conformity- robots, and even more ridiculous when simply so arrayed on a plate carried out to you from the kitchen.  For home serving, where the standards tend to be much less idiotic, it is laughable.  If it does anything, this vice of simpletons guarantees that an intentionally higher percentage of the pasta is NOT in contact with the puddled sauce below.  Worse, if done with thoroughness, it will succeed to a degree in actually wringing sauce from the pasta in the manner of those old wringer-mops that wrung the mophead dry with a pull of a lever on the handle. [This practice, one imagines, may not have been quite so purposeless back in the Home Ec/Domestic Science days, considering the gustatory quality of the sauces they no doubt advised their victims to use.]
  • Shaved [or even micro-planed] grating cheese  —  Those curled shavings of Italian grating cheese, usually parmigiano reggiano, that are displayed prominently atop pasta dishes in pricier, pretty-food restaurants and food TV shows, are perfect metaphors for the debasement and vitiation implicit in the whole performance-presentationalist  project.  The shavings are eye-catching; they let you know you are getting cheese worth being gouged for; and, if you wish, you can easily take a piece and taste it to verify quality.  But they consolidate the cheese in discrete curls, thereby NOT integrating them into the whole dish, where, for centuries, wiser, simpler, non-Manhattanite, non-Culinary-Institute graduates  knew — without benefit of celebrity shows and food writers — that they should be dispersed to flavor the entire dish.  Even the beloved microplane, a fixture now in every food-attuned household and so beloved of lingering close-up TV cameramen, in fact, degrades the simple act of grating cheese for pasta. Sufficiently aged, hardened, granular cheeses [‘parmesan’-type cheeses are called grana cheeses in Italian] are so perfect for intensifying already highly-flavored pasta dishes precisely because, when grated on an old-fashioned raspy/tearing grater, or even in a food processor, they are broken into tiny ,solid granules that disperse easily in the sauce yet do not entirely dissolve — or worse, melt — and disappear.  Instead, they provide little crystalline nuggets of flavor sparkles within every forkful. Highly salted pecorino romano cheese behaves in much the same way.  The microplane, in its usual grating-cheese configuration, actually shaves very thin feathery/flaky sheets of cheese that — because they lie so lightly upon each other, with a lot of air trapped between layers due to irregularities and curling, just like feathers — actually contain much less actual cheese than a visually similar pile of cheese grated the old-fashioned way.  [Just try pressing down a small cup of both cheeses and note the result].  The overall result, then, is that a] there is usually less actual cheese for the dish, and b] unless the pasta is at almost room temperature, the tiny ‘feather-flakes’ melt almost immediately and provide far less residual flavor than the nuggets rendered by the more traditional manner.  But the cheese shower produced does looks so much better on TV, and the cynical restaurateur knows that a ramekin of microplaned cheese costs him a whole lot less than the same of grated cheese.  As for the use of the stick-sized shaved cheese, it is just about as useless to the real flavoring function as are the lovely shaved curls.

The simple truth is that both generations of fallacies might so very easily have been avoided by simply observing the practices in any reasonably traditional Italian-American home, of which there have been and still are millions. The ‘scientists’, we know from Laura Shapiro [“Perfection Salad”] and others avoided them because they represented precisely the target of their progressive crusade to indoctrinate malleable schoolchildren against the ‘excessive’ time wasting and uneconomic expense devoted to meals by their then-immigrating traditional parents — unnecessary fresh vegetables and leafy greens — often bitter! —not to mention how offensively all those cheeses and garlic assailed their privileged, Protestant noses.

The newer generation of ‘filterers’ ignores the simpler traditional methods of families for far less ‘noble’ reasons.  For them, it is all about making it by getting noticed, and home methods are anathema.  There is no ‘creativity’;  no reputation to market;  no claques of adulatory disciples, writers, and viewers to cultivate;  no justification for high prices when outstanding flavors can be achieved by ordinary people with common ingredients for relative pennies.

G.K. Chesterton, one of my favorite thinkers, sums up our current situation on this issue quite nicely, I think:  “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”  Nor, one is tempted to add, because they become crusades for a blithely assumed progress, which Chesterton aptly defines as “a comparative of which we have not defined the superlative”.

Six Basic Methods for Cooking Polenta

BASIC POLENTA METHODS

Six simple methods for preparing nutritious, inexpensive, flavorful polenta. I’ve used them all and now find myself now using the pressure cooker method most frequently

THE SIX BASIC METHODS FOR COOKING POLENTA / CORNMEAL:

1. in a heavy pot on the stove top
2. in a heavy pot or casserole in the oven
3. in a stove top double boiler arrangement
4. in a microwaveable or Pyrex bowl in a microwave oven
5. in a slow cooker appliance
6. in a pressure cooked

ALL SIX REQUIRE THE SAME UNADORNED INGREDIENTS

 approx 3-4 cups water, depending on most common desired thicknesses
 1-2 tsp salt [or to diet/taste]
 1 cup coarse-grained cornmeal [any cornmeal will do, but coarse yellow makes most hearty, rustic polenta]
 optional butter, olive oil, pepper, or grated cheese

STOVE-TOP METHOD:

This is the most traditional Italian method. It requires constant stirring to prevent burning:

1. Bring water to a boil in heavy pot
2. Add salt [if diet allows]
3. Reduce to a simmer
4. Add cornmeal in slow steady stream, stirring with a strong wooden spoon or a strong whisk. [ a good way to do this is to let a fistful of cornmeal run through nearly closed fingers]
5. Stir constantly, keeping pot at a slow simmer; do not allow polenta to burn on bottom of the pan
6. Stir for 20-30 minutes or more. Polenta is done when it begins to tear away from the sides of the pot as you stir.

OVEN METHOD:

This method requires much less effort and produces good results:

1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
2. Bring water to a boil in heavy pot or casserole
3. Add salt [if diet allows]
4. Reduce to a simmer
5. Add cornmeal in slow steady stream, stirring with a strong wooden spoon or a strong whisk. [let a fistful of cornmeal run through nearly closed fingers]
6. Put pot in the oven, uncovered, for 35-45 minutes, stirring occasionally until it reaches desired thickness

DOUBLE-BOILER METHOD:

This is easier and less likely to burn than plain stove top method:

1. Same as above, except that after step 5, insert to pot into a larger one that is partly filled with gently boiling water with a rack or soup bowl in its bottom to separate the two pots.
2. Stir occasionally, uncovered for about 35-45 minutes, or until corn meal pulls away from edges of pot and reaches desired thickness

MICROWAVE METHOD:

This is a very easy method that produces good results:

1. Pour boiling water in a large Pyrex or microwave bowl
2. Bring water to a boil in heavy pot or casserole
3. Add salt [if diet allows]
4. Add cornmeal in slow steady stream, stirring with a strong wooden spoon or a strong whisk. [let a fistful of cornmeal run through nearly closed fingers]
5. Put bowl in the microwave, uncovered, and cook at medium-high heat for 30-35 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes and rotating bowl

SLOW COOKER METHOD:

Another easy method also yielding good results

1. Pour boiling water into a slow cooker set on ‘high’
2. Add salt [if diet allows]
3. Add cornmeal in slow steady stream, stirring quickly
with a strong wooden spoon or a strong whisk. [let a
fistful of cornmeal run through nearly closed fingers]
4. Cover the cooker and cook on high heat for 70-90
minutes, stirring every 15 minutes, if possible
5. Add some water if overly thick and stir in well
6. Let sit for 5 minutes before serving

PRESSURE COOKER METHOD:

The fastest method — and with the high, wet heat, perhaps the best:

1. Pour water into pressure cooker
2. Add salt [if diet allows]
3. Add cornmeal in a steady stream, stirring quickly with a strong
wooden spoon or a strong whisk. [let a fistful of cornmeal
run through nearly closed fingers]
4. Cover the cooker and cook on high heat for 70-90 minutes,
stirring every 15 minutes, if possible
5. Add some water if overly thick and stir in well
6. Let stand for five minutes before serving

Dark Chocolate Lowers Heart Attack, Stroke Risk | Metabolic Syndrome & Heart Disease | MyHealthNewsDaily.com

Dark Chocolate Lowers Heart Attack, Stroke Risk | Metabolic Syndrome & Heart Disease | MyHealthNewsDaily.com.

Someone ought to do some really useful research on how many hundreds [thousands?] of studies have been done, usually with public funds, on the amazing health benefits of chocolate. [This one was paid for by Australian taxpayers, with help from a drug company, but we in the USA have had, and paid for, no end of similar, repetitive urgent studies.]

These studies do have several unquestionable side benefits:

  • They keep the whole apparatus of research nutritionists, statisticians, assistants,  interns, et al, in grant monies
  • They keep mindless health journalists supplied with a predictable flow of  collusively-headlined copy
  • They corroborate and ratify the food desires and fantasies of multi-generations of yuppies, especially women, many of whom ‘feel’ thereby ‘scientifically’ ’empowered’ to denounce less enlightened mortals who eat ‘bad’ foods — like meat, for example.

Why ‘collusively headlined’?  Well, the article might much more informatively been titled:  ‘Dark Chocolate, Eaten By-Itself,  Added to Long List of Flavenoid-Rich Foods’  Leafy greens, beans, eggplants, green tea, soy products already provide ample, less expensive sources of flavenoids —- and they don’t require ten years of consumption to show meaningful beneficial results.

The unfortunate effect of the constant flow of reported-on and, yes, collusively-headlined studies blaring the great health benefits, no matter how trivial, of chocolate is to create and/or confirm, in the chocolate- and-dessert-fixated sectors of the general public, the welcome, if-erroneous, conviction that chocolate desserts, cookies, brownies are approved by ‘science, because, after all, we all know that “chocolate is good for you”.

Peter di Lorenzi