“itadakimasu.”

don’t worry.  this isn’t a post about the japanese language.  i do my best to avoid writing those because they are, on the whole, excruciatingly boring for anybody who isn’t a devoted student of the japanese language.

this is a post about japan and its attitude towards food.   while it would be so easy to slam you over the head with one anecdote after another in an attempt to illustrate all kinds of taboos and mores, i am of the opinion that a single word might actually accomplish a deeper understanding of the lesson i want to convey.

when translated literally, itadakimasu means something along the lines of “i will partake.”  the phrase is beautifully vague and pretty darn confusing due to the omission of any discernible object which would undertake the verb “partake.”

japanese children say it before they dig into school lunch every day.  eighty year old japanese men say it before chomping down on a beautiful piece of sushi between bottles upon bottles of japanese sake.  itadakimasu is a word which transcends age in a highly ageist society.  it is used without thought in nearly every situation involving food or drink in modern japanese society, regardless of time of day, formality, or company.

when i ask the children i teach why they say itadakimasu and what exactly they are “partaking” in, they almost always give me the same reply: “we are giving our thanks to the nice old ladies that made our lunches from scratch.”  they aren’t wrong.  most people in japan use itadakimasu to mean something along the lines of “thank you for making this beautiful meal, i’m going to dig in now.”  based on such an explanation, the japanese stigma behind wasting food starts to make sense.  it is almost common sense that you should never waste any part of a meal that someone worked hard to prepare just for you.  in other words, it is bad to waste because it is bad to be rude.

they aren’t wrong, but they aren’t quite right, either.  i fell in love with this word when it was explained to me by a weekend farmer and fellow teacher.  when i asked him what exactly he “partakes” in, his answer was simple:

a life.

he explained to me that every living thing in this world has a life, and in order to consume it, we have to end that life.  cooking is, in a way, a manner of manipulating the life force of this world.

he told me that this is the reason why japanese cuisine has valued the integrity of its ingredients for so long.  traditional japanese cuisine augments its ingredients, it doesn’t cover them.  some japanese people joke that the only spices they use are soy sauce, mirin, japanese sake, dried fish, and hot water.  and most of them, especially the elderly folks, know that there is more than an element of truth to such a joke.

when he explained all this to me, the real reason for the japanese stigma behind wasting food made sense to me all of the sudden.  it isn’t a waste to end the life of a living thing, make it into food, and then not consume that food.  it is a tragedy.  by cooking, we shape the life force we harvest from nature, and by eating, we give the action meaning.

if you have read this whole long-winded post so far, i have a quick favor to ask of you.  i’m not some weirdo who is going to demand that you start saying itadakimasu before every meal.  i’m not going to force you go out and become a vegan.  i won’t even tell you you should try to eat more japanese food.

all i ask is that every time you buy groceries, cook a meal, or eat at a restaurant, take a split-second to appreciate each and every one of the myriad ingredients.  because they are giving their beautiful lives to you in an effort to help you appreciate the beauty of yours.

perfect 10: ingredients to live by (part ii)

stock

there is a reason they called it stock, and that is because you should always have an inexhaustible supply of it.  i don’t know if that is actually why it is called stock, but if it isn’t, it should be.

stock comes in all different kinds, and that is why it is just so darn indispensable for a well-prepared cook.  chicken stock, beef stock, pork stock, fish-based stock (such as japanese dashi), and the myriad vegetable stocks that exist all have very different flavor profiles.  each can help you accomplish a particular goal in the kitchen.  try them out and see which one does best with your particular style of cooking.  if you can’t decide, it never hurts to have all of them on hand.

stock keeps remarkably well.  in the case of chicken, beef, and pork stock, it is regularly frozen in bags or cubes and stored.  it can then be used directly from the freezer.  in the case of fish stock, like dashi, or vegetable stocks, such as seaweed-based broths, they are often condensed into dry granules that can then be reconstituted when mixed with hot water.

there is no possible way that i can list all of the uses of stock without typing until my fingers bleed.  stock can be used as a flavorful alternative when boiling pasta, an aromatic base when steaming or broiling meat, the backbone of any good soup, a base flavor for sauce, or palette cleanser between the courses of a meal.  which is just to name of few of the more popular implementations.

it comes in a can pretty often in the states, but if you go to your local butcher shop often times you can find it frozen in a bag.  the stuff the butcher shop has is generally going to be a little fresher and a more pure, but for the difference in cost it might not matter to you.  remember, buy the stock you want for your recipe, and don’t be enticed by claims of “less fat” and “half the sodium.”  sometimes, your stock needs those things to function in the way you want it to, and to exclude the “fat” and “salt” from your broth can often be a recipe for bland food.

like any charcuterie will tell you, fat is your friend.

without stock, you would never be able to make things like bacon leek and potato chowder, real miso soup, any kind of gravy, white bean chicken chili, french onion soup, or beef stew.  i don’t even want to imagine a world without beef stew.  what a terrible, terrible place that would be.

butter

don’t call me a fatty or judge me or anything yet.  butter is amazing, and yet on the whole completely misunderstood.  as much as i like to make fun of france, they understand a single tried and true fact more than most other countries.

very rarely is there such a thing as too much butter.  and while you may disagree with me based on your experiences, you are wrong.  don’t worry, i will tell you why.

salted butter is the bane of butter lovers everywhere.  if you had told me twenty five seconds ago that there is such as a thing as too much salted butter, i would have nodded in agreement and maybe given you a fist bump or something equally corny.  salted butter has extremely limited uses (e.g. for sauces, basting meats when grilling, and frying eggs).  even in situations for which it is well-suited, it can often ruin food when used in too great a quantity and might better be replaced with unsalted butter anyway.  i invite you now to throw salted butter aside.

those of you who have yet to get up from your chair to throw your salted butter in the garbage can are more likely than not bakers, whether professional or amateur.  baking, especially the creation of wonders like puff pastry and pie crust, involves the use of copious (see: appropriate, glorious) amounts of butter.  it is butter that provides these baked goods with their flakiness, their fluffiness, and the airy light texture we all know and love.

sure, you can spread it on things.  yeah, you can put it in a frying pan instead of vegetable oil.  ok, go ahead and put it on top of your baked potato.  but don’t sell butter short.  it is so much more than you ever could have imagined, and the mild creaminess of unsalted butter is an invitation to try to use it in whatever you can.  it won’t kill you, i promise.

we have butter to thank for mashed sweet potatoes, crepes, croissants, phyllo dough, baklava, the greatest grilled pork tenderloin recipes of all time, and most indian cuisine involving lentils (such as daal, which is fan-freaking-tastic).  the list goes on.

cucumber

people who don’t like cucumbers need to learn to relax.  yeah, they are watery.  sure, the skin can tend to be a little bitter and the seeds can be a pain in the butt.  but don’t concentrate on the negatives.  concentrate on the crispness.  the bountiful, bountiful crispness.  the cucumber is a wonder because, despite the almost violent crunchy goodness, it has a flavor so mild and friendly that it seems to say “go fraternize with other vegetables, but know that when you come back, i’ll be waiting for you.”  and once you learn to effectively utilize the cucumber, you might never leave home again.

like spinach, cucumbers are absolutely delicious when raw.  unlike spinach, it is generally ill-advised to use cucumbers in any kind of cooking that involves heat.  yes, i can feel your incredulity through the internet.  trust me, i’ll explain.

why in the name of all that is holy would a vegetable that should never be cooked end up on a list of ingredients which is supposed to be comprised of the most essential groceries for cooking?

if you remember when i first described the concept of the perfect 10, the purpose of the list was not to provide a series of ingredients, each with a unique and complex flavor profile which could make or break your cuisine.  if that were the case, the perfect 10 would be rife with black truffles and iberian bacon and smoked gruyere cheese and the like.  but instead, the point of the perfect 10 is to provide cheap, versatile, long-lasting, and easily prepared foods to aid the common person in filling their belly and feeding their soul.

it is the “easy” portion of that description which most aptly fits cucumbers.  it is totally valid to criticize cucumbers for their inability to be cooked.  but such criticism cuts both ways.  cooking food with heat requires time and effort and preparations before the cooking part even begins.  preparing food without heat requires nothing but technique and a little bit of imagination.  start cooking potroast, and i’ll start making a salad.  we’ll see who ends up eating first.

or we could not do that, because i think you already know who will win.

cucumbers could easily be one of the fastest foods to prepare.  from the refrigerator to the serving dish, a beautiful, complex, and delicious cucumber salad can be prepared in under ten minutes with just a little bit of know-how.

and if you have a little more time, cucumbers can become something truly spectacular.  homemade pickles (or japanese sunomono) and tsatziki sauce are just two examples of excellent foods that can be prepared with a very few ingredients and almost no effort to speak of.  just remember to bring along cucumber’s three best friends: salt, garlic, and anything creamy.

yogurt

yogurt is pretty good for you.  i think.  i honestly don’t know, because that doesn’t matter to me and it isn’t even close to the reason why i put it in the perfect 10.  so it must be on the list because it goes so well with fruit, right?  yeah, well, i don’t really ever eat fruit, so i’m not too sure about that one.  oh, so it must be on the list because it tastes like heaven when you pour honey on it.  so does everything else in the world, so we can throw that reason out with the rest of them.

i’m not trying to write you off.  yogurt with fruit at the bottom is really tasty, and using yogurt as the main ingredient in smoothies is a great idea.  and you aren’t wrong, yogurt with honey is great.  but yogurt was meant for so much more than being a creamy fruit/honey delivery system.

the bacterial cultures present in yogurt give it a chemically dynamic nature that milk and butter can’t even begin to hold a candle to.  granted, the living nature of yogurt can cause it to spoil quickly, burn, fall victim to over-mixing, or become a seemingly unending font of water.  but the good far outweighs the bad.

yogurt is a beautifully engineered, chemically complex powerhouse of possibilities.  to make yogurt from milk is a waste of time (for the average person), mainly because it would most likely be faster and cheaper to just go out and buy yogurt.  but to use yogurt as basic building block for the creation of much more expensive, harder-to-come-by foods is not only easy, but smart and cost-effective.  for instance, all you need to make a healthier version of sour cream is a drip coffee filter, a cup, a tub of plain yogurt, and time.  i know, i do it all the time.  and from this pseudo-sour cream to cheese (such as lebaneh), all you need is a little more time and lemon juice (or any other citrus-based acid).  starting to understand why yogurt is on this list?

i won’t lie to you, yogurt can take some practice to use effectively.  but once you start to embrace the practical chemistry of its uses, you will find yourself becoming a more self-sufficient person and a more practical cook.

canned tomatoes

“well, if you are such a good cook, why don’t you use real tomatoes, huh?”  i do.  pretty regularly.  but there are a few questions about real tomatoes that can get in the way of a good cooking session.  for instance:

how do you know if a tomato is ripe?  what do you do with the seeds?  what do you do with the skin?  why is the tomato green on the inside?  why is the tomato grainy and not very good?  where the heck is all this water coming from?  what is the difference between all these types of tomatoes?

and with canned tomatoes, all these questions can go away in the blink of an eye.  can you make all the same recipes as you would have been able to with fresh tomatoes?  simple answer, no.  bruschetta with canned tomatoes is terrible.  pico de gallo with canned tomatoes is terrible.  margarita pizza with canned tomatoes is terrible.  i think you get the idea.

but instead of these recipes (most of which aren’t exactly price or time-friendly), you can make some simpler, more suitable meals for a fraction of the price.  canned tomatoes, when utilized appropriately, can cut down on preparatory time, cost, amount of seasoning required, and even cleanup.  but there is one advantage to canned tomatoes that often goes overlooked.

reliability.  canned tomatoes are pretty darn consistent.  when you pop that can lid, very rarely are you going to be surprised by what comes out.  the tomatoes will be soft, they will be contained in their own juice, and there may be a little bit of salt added for the sake of preservation.  fresh tomatoes, however, could be one of the most unreliable fruits around.  even an expert occasionally picks out and pays for a tomato that just isn’t good.  i would estimate that for every three fresh tomatoes i have purchased in the grocery store, at least one was mealy, not ripe yet, too soft, bruised, or severely lacking in usable flesh.  there are just so many things that can go wrong with fresh tomatoes, and while 3:1 is a pretty good success ratio, it isn’t nearly good enough for somebody who is living on a budget.  25% of your food going to waste just isn’t cost effective.

and so instead of the bruschettas and pico de gallos and margarita pizzas, i invite you to make foods that are a little more conservative.  homemade tomato sauce, tomato-based curry, dark chocolate mole, chili, beef stew, and minestrone are all rib-sticking, delicious meals in and of themselves, and the quantities in which they can be produced can save you from having to cook every day.  just something to keep in mind.

are canned tomatoes a shortcut to good food?  you bet your butt they are, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

perfect 10: ingredients to live by (part i)

some people out there are living all alone.  some are living on a budget.  some people are doing both.  and this week, pmk is all about you guys.

close your eyes, and do a quick tally.  how many times in the past week or so have you thought something along the lines of, “i’m tired and cranky, and i think i am in desperate need of some food within the next thirty minutes,” only to go to your kitchen and discover that all you have is saltines and ketchup.  you don’t need to be exact, just ball park it.  one time?  two?  five?

let’s say you answered five or more.  i won’t allow that.  ok, let’s say you answered two.  that is not acceptable.  even if you answered one, i just won’t have it.

and so pmk’s theme this week is what i have dubbed “perfect 10.”  with a no small amount of help, i did my best to develop a list of ingredients which are ideal for any person living on a budget.  low in cost, high in versatility, and easy to use within their expiration dates, all ten of these ingredients are kitchen staples.

here are the first five, in no particular order:

pasta

first thing is first.  it doesn’t go bad, and all you need to cook it is a pot and hot water.  that being said, pasta epitomizes versatility.  pasta and a homemade sauce can feed a single person for a week, and if you add in a basic meat dish and an easy appetizer, you can go to bed every night with a fat wallet, a smile on your face, and an uncomfortably full stomach.

the key to pasta lies in its myriad forms.  spaghetti, especially angel hair, is easy to handle, easy to plate, and cooks quickly and evenly with correct technique.  orzo can be used as a substitute for rice in dishes like doria or risotto.  pastas similar to penne and rigatoni retain sauce better than most other shapes.  lasagna can be layered, making it ideal for baking once boiled.  the list goes on.

pasta carbonara, penne with pesto sauce, spaghetti bolognese, chicken doria, and minestrone are just a few recipes that come to mind as extraordinarily delicious, mind-numbingly easy to make, and poverty friendly.

spinach

let’s get the negatives out of the way first.  it wilts.  it wilts if the refrigerator is too cold, it wilts if you don’t put it in the refrigerator, it wilts if you cook it, and (let’s be honest) sometimes it just wilts if you look at it askance.  and if you buy the stuff that isn’t baby leaf spinach (i.e. real spinach that has stems and comes from a field instead of a hydroponic lab somewhere), you have to wash it vigorously on account of it being chock-full of sandy soil.

but it is delicious, soft, and crazy nutritious when fresh.  and cheap.   a nice big bag of a few bundles can go for trifles in the grocery store.  if you can find a good farmers market, they practically give the stuff in away in quantities that a normal human being who lives alone could never use.

but why spinach as opposed to the other myriad leafy greens?  it is ubiquitous, but more than that is a staple both raw and cooked.  spinach obviously makes excellent salads, but it makes great soups, an excellent compliment to sauces, a beautiful appetizer when appropriately seasoned, and a colorful garnish.

as roughage on sandwiches, a stuffing component for baked or grilled meats, or a quick snack when running out the door, spinach is the obvious choice.

chicken breasts

“but they are dry and they have no flavor.”  yeah, well, that is because you don’t cook them right.  a well prepared chicken breast can knock the socks off of even the most tenacious food scrooge.

remember, the cost is directly proportionate to the amount of work you want to put in.  a whole chicken is going to have a cheaper price per 100 grams of meat, but is going to be a pain to break down into the requisite cuts you want to use.  conversely, a deboned, skinned, tendon-free chicken breast cut into tenders is going to be more expensive because (unless you have some confidence issues) literally all you have to do is put it in a pan with some oil and not burn it.

chicken breasts are on this list because the unboned chicken breast with the skin still intact is the meat when it comes to a balance of price and prep work required.  the succulent texture (when cooked correctly) and basic taste allow chicken breasts to take on all kinds of flavor profiles that pork, beef, and more exotic (and expensive) meats cannot.

sliced teriyaki chicken, pulled chicken breast sandwiches, japanese-style chicken, chicken breast battered and deep fried…  i can keep going if you want.

french bread / baguettes

bread is a surprisingly deceptive item to add to any grocery list, mainly because of how hopelessly vague it is.  sliced white bread is the death of flavor and texture, and yet (for most people) it tends to be the single most common bread that comes to mind when picking out groceries.  i am of the (well-informed and entirely experience-based) opinion that if a bread isn’t good enough to eat by itself, you probably shouldn’t be buying it.

that being said, i’ll be the first to admit evaluating bread can be tricky.  there are many breads out there that taste perfectly fine, but have no identifiable texture.  conversely, there are all kinds of breads that boast a fantastic texture, but taste like air.  and i know that each and every person has run across that loaf of bread which looks like it probably tastes like god himself, and then sulked away with their head hung in sadness once they laid eyes on the price tag.  and so, in much the same vein as chicken breasts, a clever middle ground is the key to this ingredient’s inclusion in the perfect 10.

french bread has an interior that is soft, beautifully porous, and an absolute delight when toasted.  but honestly, so does italian bread, sourdough, kaiser, and almost any whole grain or wheat bread.  it is the crust of the french loaf which sets it apart from its competitors.  the crust, which exists somewhere between the hard shell of sourdough and the soft squishiness of the kaiser roll, is probably the key factor in the versatility and overall appeal of french bread.  the crust provides a contrast of texture that prevents the bread from becoming uninteresting over the course of the meal, and the tough crunchiness make it ideal for toasting and dipping in sauces.

and just in case you weren’t convinced yet, i am now going to spoon-feed you my opinions as heavy-handedly as i can.

this is between you and the bread.  there is no need to involve some fancy serrated bread knife in the affair.  people in the dark ages had the right idea.  just tear off a chunk and dig in.  french bread is one of the only breads which might actually be better unsliced. toast the whole loaf as is if you can.  if not, rip it apart with your bare hands and then throw it in the toaster oven. when it comes to this style of eating, i think the only type of bread that can hold a candle to a baguette is russian black bread (and that is saying quite a lot seeing as black bread might be the single most rustic, hearty, and soul-nurturing flavor known to mankind).

italian butter with toast, tuna melt grinders, bruscetta crackers, and cheese fondue are only the first few things i could think of which seem to be engineered specifically for french bread.

eggs

a friend once asked me, “if all the animals we eat for meat were going to die tomorrow, and you could only save one, what would it be?”  i thought about it long and hard.  the obvious decision for me was to say i would save our good friend the pig because of the deliciousness and variety of his many cuts of meat.  but i responded that i would save the chicken.

i admit, i love chicken breasts and chicken legs and chicken thighs, but it is the eggs of the chicken in which i place my undying faith and adoration.  each egg is a perfectly contained, naturally produced 80 calorie meal.  in their unaltered form, eggs can be boiled, poached, fried, used as a thickener in sauces, and implemented as a source of richness and smooth texture in otherwise dry dishes.  when altered, the possibilities become nearly endless.

eggs are an obvious inclusion in the perfect 10 because they are cheap, keep for a reasonably long time, easy to cook, and incredibly versatile.  but the real reason i included them is because they are, without a doubt, one of the most amazing and nutritiously beneficial adaptations in the history of the living world.  as verbose as i am, i am well aware that any attempt i could make at doing the egg justice in this post would fall short.  the egg deserves a post of its own, and perhaps someday in the future when i have time to research, collate, and cook for a few days straight, it’ll get its day in the sun.

until then, i hope i am forgiven.