Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

March-April 2007
© 2006 by Bret S. Beall


Recently I was watching one of the more upscale cooks on the TV Food Network … she was making a blueberry sauce for a dessert. She made it similarly to mine, with some wine, but she added sugar (which it doesn't need), and I add a pinch of salt (which it does need). Ingredient differences aside, at the end, she strained the sauce! She wanted to get the skins and seeds out. WHY? Blueberry skins and seeds are insignificant distractions, so one shouldn't worry about them; instead, they are important because they add important fiber and nutrition, and most of all, they add texture. I would never strain a blueberry sauce. I want texture in my food, and so should you!

Is it just me, or do many adults seem to prefer baby food to real food? What I mean is that so many of the most sought after foods (or most sought after preparations of foods) have the consistency of baby food. These foods have been so processed and prepared that the fiber and nutrients have been reduced if not outright stripped. The absence of textures minimizes the need for the teeth and jaws to work appropriately, which can lead to dental problems. And if there is no texture remaining, there is less chance that the brain will receive messages of satiation, which leads to weight gain, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and more.

More TV Trauma

Thank goodness for mediocre food television. Thank goodness I can have the TV on and multitask at the same time. Thank goodness I'm sufficiently detail oriented to grab anecdotes to share with you! Two such anecdotes that I want to share are from the second season of the show "America's Top Chef" on Bravo. I have had a real love-hate relationship with this series, and even cited it as an anecdote in one of my lifestyle columns on dishonesty. But relevant to texture, I was slightly surprised to hear one of the judges knock a contestant because he had not strained his sauce; that may be classic French technique, and it yields a smooth sauce which restaurant diners may expect, but it doesn't help increase our daily load of fiber. This same judge criticized another contestant because she had not pureed the soup she served; now, I NEVER puree soups (not wanting to clean my immersion blender being a primary motivator), so I couldn't get behind that judge's decision, though in fairness to him, the contestant DID intend for the soups to be drunk from champagne flutes, so I can understand the intention.

Before leaving the question, "To puree or not to puree," let's discuss it some more, at least with regard to soups. Consider Lobster Bisque versus Lobster Chowder (roughly the same ingredients [lobster, lobster stock, onions, cream/milk, salt, pepper, seasonings] though Lobster Bisque usually does not have potatoes). Lobster Bisque is made from a highly concentrated stock made from the crushed and browned shells of lobsters; Lobster Chowder should include the same stock made from the lobster shells. Lobster Bisque is both pureed and strained to provide the smoothest of textures … again, more classic French technique. On the other hand, well-made Lobster Chowder has pieces of sautéed onions, chunks of potato, and morsels of tender poached lobster, seasoned with bay and just a hint of thyme … it has body, and substance, and heft … and texture! Because of the "work" involved in eating chowder, I will end up eating less, thus consuming fewer calories, before becoming more sated.

Comfort Food

Today, one place where texture has been largely victorious is in the banishment of overcooked vegetables. Well, maybe the victory has been incomplete, as I keep encountering green bean casserole at holiday times, and those beans are overcooked beyond belief (they usually start with canned beans, which are overcooked to begin with). When I've inquired about this phenomenon, I'm told that it's about "comfort food," and that includes such memories of childhood as mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and rice pudding.

Why does this comfort food have to be so mushy and squishy and without texture? Nostalgia for the poor-cooking of one's youth and family? Or is it perhaps related to not having ever experienced better alternatives. I remember, even as a child, that I discovered that I didn't really want perfectly smooth mashed potatoes. I ate them, because my mother made them well, because they tasted good, and because her cream gravy was addictive, but I always begged her to serve boiled potatoes that we mashed on our plates, and then added that addictive gravy … they seemed to preserve more of the potato flavor. Today, my mashed potatoes retain the skin, and they are steamed rather than boiled, and they are mashed with a fork, and often are mixed with sautéed greens … giving me texture, nutrition, and comfort.

My macaroni and cheese, and rice pudding, also have texture as well as exquisite flavor. I bake both, which provides each a browned crust. With my macaroni and cheese, the pasta is undercooked when I assemble the dish, so that the resulting macaroni is close to al dente in the finished product. With my rice pudding (http://www.god-dess.com/services_recipes Nov04.html), I usually add fruit, nuts, chocolate chips, or other goodies to add texture; if you want a soft, creamy, squishy, texture-less rice pudding, look elsewhere.

Ignoring those crazies who promote low-carb diets, most people absolutely LOVE risotto and pasta. Just last month I finally got around to writing a column about risotto (http://www.god-dess.com/services_recipesJanuaryFebruary 2007.html), and I specifically had to address the final texture of both the dish and the individual rice grains. Italian risotti are either creamy or stiff, but without question, the rice grains are firm in the center (al dente). The same is true for pasta; noodles are usually grossly overcooked; people forget that in Italy, a pasta dish is about the noodle, and its interplay with the light saucing, rather than focusing on the sauce solely (and please don't bury it in gloppy cheese, either).

Luxurious Food

Why do some foods become luxurious, and others become plebian? How did lobster move from being the poor man's food to being one of the most expensive shellfish? Personally, I think marketing has a lot to do with, along with the tendency of a lot of people to be sheep, to follow the "leader," to eat what they are told they "should" eat. Increasing rarity also led to lobsters' desirability.

One of the most popular beef cuts is filet mignon. Why? Because it is the tenderest cut, taken from a small muscle (along the back of the steer) that gets very little exercise, so the muscle fibers rarely tighten. Interestingly, this piece of meat is also the one (in my humble opinion) that has the least amount of flavor, but it has that air of luxury because it is not an abundant cut of meat. It is popular because it doesn't take much chewing. Once again, by minimizing chewing, you endanger dental health, and simultaneously minimize the messages to the brain that signal satiation.

Veal is another meat that is popular because of its tenderness; people rave about it because if its mild (non-existent?) flavor and tenderness that is often described as "like buttah." I eschew veal. It does not pass my lips. It does not have sufficient texture or flavor to please me, and its production is reprehensible. Calves are held captive in stocks and are fed without being allowed any exercise before they are slaughtered. The purpose of the restraint is to restrict muscle movement, which yields a tenderer cut of meat. Consumers of veal are foregoing important texture and flavor while encouraging unethical, inhumane farming practices. Where is the logic here?

I currently call Chicago home. Our city council has attracted national attention in the past few months by voting to ban the sale of foie gras. Foie gras is produced by force-feeding ducks and geese in order to fatten their livers. In the past, I have eaten foie gras a number of times. I'm not proud of it, but I did in order to sample a variety of preparations in order to try to understand WHY people were so infatuated with this expensive, and therefore, luxurious product. Foie gras is usually sliced thickly and pan-seared to obtain a crisp exterior while preserving the fatty, soft interior. This drives home the point that the only texture in the dish derives from the external seared crust. It is also often served with flavorful fruit presented as a puree or compote; the flavor of the foie gras is so delicate that it needs the fruit to enhance it. Essentially, the bird livers became so fat that the resulting product is mostly fat, which is a flavor carrier, not usually a flavor component. So, what is my problem with foie gras? First, I've eaten the livers of ducks and geese that were not force fed (I raised these birds on our farm when I was a teen), and therefore, non-fattened; they have immense flavor and texture which I enjoy far more than the fatty foie gras, and can be combined with a greater variety of auxiliary flavors to create a great dish. Clearly, I don't have a problem with eating these bird livers. I have a problem with the inhumane force-feeding of birds; if the ducks and geese wanted to eat until their livers fattened, they would do it ... but they don't. Foie gras is unnatural and unethical. I'm not sure that I support a law to ban this product, as I would hope that people could monitor their own ethical behavior. However, after recently reading a web posting by someone who claimed that "Banning foie gras is cruelty to humans," I question my hope.

Where Can You Get Texture? Everyday Cooking!

There are those who might argue that "coarse, textured" food is "common" or "peasant" in nature, while cuisine that is silky smooth is haute cuisine. French haute cuisine does seem to emphasize the minimization of texture. Perhaps this is because historically, it was prepared for royalty and other nobles and elites at a time when dental care was not so good … many of these people lacked their full dentition, so they needed soft, mushy textureless food. The desire to emulate royalty has created a demand for haute cuisine, which is a far cry from peasant cooking.

I think that I will take the "peasant" version any day over the "haute" version, and I will be healthier and happier for having done that. Around the world, peasant food invariably has flavor and texture … and it is more economical than more "refined" cuisine. Because of peasant food's superior qualities, I prefer to avoid the slightly pejorative term "peasant" in favor of "everyday." Look at every culture on the planet, and you will find that everyday cooking has flavor and texture. Whether it is Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Guatemalan, Brazilian, Oceanic, any African, even American, everyday cooking is a winner. Many of these everyday cuisines are sophisticated, and offer amazing flavors, textures and aromas to stimulate all of the senses.

Braised Short Ribs

I think braised short ribs are very luxurious. Amazingly tender when properly prepared, they still pack fantastic flavor and texture, and proper technique eliminates most of the fat for which they are famous. I don't think I have previously presented a meat recipe, as I don't eat a lot of meat, but this one should become part of your repertoire (unless, of course, you are vegetarian or vegan).

Place the olive oil in a medium-hot skillet. Dredge the short rib pieces in the flour placed in a flat dish, being sure all surfaces are coated (discard leftover flour); season each surface with a small pinch of salt and a grind or two of pepper. Place the floured and seasoned short ribs in the skillet, and brown each side until crusty; this takes about 15 minutes as you continue to turn and brown each side. Remove the completely browned ribs to a paper towel on a plate. Drain all but about 2 T of the olive oil from the skillet. Add the slivered onion, and stir to deglaze the skillet. Continue cooking and stirring the onion until it caramelizes slightly. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring and sautéing the garlic until it becomes aromatic. Add the ribs back to the skillet, nestling them in the onion-garlic mixture. Add the bay leaf pieces, stock and wine to the skillet, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover partially, and cook for one hour, turning the ribs several times. The ribs should be falling off the bone, and fork tender, and the stock-wine mixture should be reduced to a thick sauce that will coat the back of a spoon; taste the sauce and adjust the salt and pepper. Remove and discard the bones. If the sauce isn't thick enough, increase the heat to evaporate more of the liquid. When the sauce coats the back of a spoon, the dish is ready to serve. Turn off the heat, and use a spoon to scoop out the clear liquid fat on top of the meat and onion, being careful to avoid removing the sauce itself below the fat; discard the fat.

There are several serving options. The rib pieces can be served as they are, draped with the degreased sauce, alongside a green vegetable. Alternatively, my preference is to shred the ribs in the sauce with two forks, and serve it as a ragout over rice, smashed potatoes, or polenta; again, a side of a green vegetable makes a great accompaniment. This is a hearty dish that will wow you, your family or your guests. Try it before the weather becomes too warm. And freeze the leftovers; the flavor becomes even better when reheated.

The above recipe illustrates that food with texture doesn't have to be tough. That's a misnomer. If you use the right ingredients and techniques, you can have flavor and texture without toughness. That means you can have healthy cuisine that will enhance your life. If this is your goal, and you need some guidance, let me help you. My recipes and techniques span the globe, and can bring great pleasure to everyone who samples the resulting cuisine. You can reach me at 773.508.9208 or email me. Embrace the many textures of food and life today.