01 April 2010

Food Principles

Most of my posts and thoughts here are descriptive (I ate/drank/made this – here's how/where) rather than proscriptive, but I do have a central set of motivating ideas about food behind my actions and consumptions.  I'm not doctrinaire in anything, really, and food is no exception – making hard-and-fast rules keeps you from a range of experiences, and so many of the hard-and-fast food rules cut out favorite things of mine, so: all in moderation.

Rather than being a total locavore/vegetarian/Atkin's/caveman/cheapskate, I find that applying a set of general principles (which can always be adapted for context) serves me well in making food that is generally healthy, tasty and affordable. It's not an all-encompassing philosophy, and clearly your mileage may vary, but if you were wondering how or why I do what I do, these are a pretty good guide. So, in no particular order, here are my thoughts on food.

  • When shopping, think by ingredients rather than meals. A lot of people (I used to and very occasionally still do this myself) go shopping with a template derived from recipes, e.g., "I'd like to have Chicken Kiev, so I need X, Y and Z", and I find that this approach misses the boat in several respects. First, it constrains you into the box of "recipes I already know", which might guarantee successful execution of a meal but gets pretty boring pretty quickly. Second, it commits you to particular ingredients regardless of price, season and sourcing: that caprese salad is just not going to be as good with mealy, watery, off-season Mexican tomatoes and cow's milk mozzarella, trust me. And third, it's just not economical: not only are you locked in to whatever price the main ingredients happen to be, chances are there's some minor ingredient that you a) don't already have, and b) won't use all of what you buy before it goes bad. That's just flat-up waste, and I hates it. But if instead of thinking about meals before you go shopping, you think of them after (or even during), you will be able to take advantage of 
    • fresher ingredients – just see what looks good!
    • better prices – buy stuff that's on sale or in season (which will be tastier, too), and
    • a broader, more interesting range of meals – coming home and thinking, "What am I gonna make out of this?" is fun, not terrifying! Especially when...
  • Don't be afraid to royally mess up a recipe. Not everything (either from a book or that you make up on your own) will work out perfectly the first time, so experiment and be willing to fail. If you know what you like, you can always correct it a bit and have a just-okay meal: the next time, it'll be great. Keeping always in mind,
  • DO NOT OVER-SALT. There is simply no excuse for it. In addition to being one of the absolutely easiest ways to make your meal healthier, you can always just add more salt when the food's on your plate. If you make a meal too spicy, you can correct that any number of ways, but too salty? Ruined. 
  • Know what you like. Interrogate your tastes, and be okay saying to yourself both "I really like X" and "I just don't like Y." There's nothing worse than putting a lot of effort into a meal that you know in your heart you aren't really going to enjoy. Okay, there are a lot of things worse than that, but regardless, just be okay with what you like.
  • Don't be afraid to cook richly. I don't hate on cooking light or healthy, but there are degrees of appropriateness. Cooking vegetables in olive oil and serving over brown rice? Delicious. Substituting canola oil for butter and still expecting your cream sauce to come out right? Unlikely. Rich food, while not an every-day thing (at least if you're trying to maximize the number of days you're around), is with us for a reason: it tastes incredibly delicious. So make it, and eat it, in its proper proportions. When you cook risotto, you can see for yourself how much buter and cheese is absorbed by those wonderful little kernels of rice, so don't eat the whole damned bowl. Relatedly,
  • Use and serve smaller plates. If food is threatening to spill off your plate, you've served too much. Get dinner plates that aren't XXL: they take up less space, and even filling your plate you'll eat less. If you're genuinely hungry after finishing, you can always take more – if you don't feel like finishing your plate, you can always put it in the fridge for later. Really, it's okay.
  • Always be on the lookout for good cookware. Good pots and pans matter, but this shizz is expensive. So go to thrift stores and keep an eye on Craigslist for good stuff – genuinely good cookware will last you potentially decades, so it's always worth picking up if the price is right. I suppose if you actually have money you could just go out and buy it, but what's the fun in that?
And, a particular pet peeve of mine:

  • Don't buy mid-market beer.  If it's a cheap-beer kind of night, get some PBR – not the worst thing ever, just like an occasional pack of Doritos won't kill you. But for the same reason that you wouldn't go to TGI Friday's, don't buy mid-market beer. Beer is food, and even top-end microbrews at $10-12 per 6-pack are not that expensive: still a lot cheaper than going out to drink. Given the exceedingly high level of quality available in US microbrews (the best beers in the world from top to bottom), the couple of extra bucks you pay are going to be well, well worth it in terms of taste. Especially if you're paying attention to the quality of the ingredients in your food, this is a no-brainer. This also does mean that I will definitely give you the stink-eye if you ever bring Beck's to my house.

Okay! That's probably enough for now. Go forth and do good!

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