Friday, October 12, 2012
Chef John Foster: It’s time to rediscover
our caveman roots – vegetables, that is
Apparently, my sole purpose in life right now is to get you to eat your Brussels sprouts. Or add a little root vegetable to your diet. How about some barley soup or mashed, buttered turnips?
No one needs my help with summer vegetables, a little tomato salad or perhaps some grilled corn effortlessly tossed together for a memorable summer meal. I would bet the farm (if I had one) that as soon as the weather turns cold and the vegetables come from below the ground rather than above, the rate of takeout dinners goes up. Root vegetables or KFC? And that kids is a shame, because we didn’t start out that way.
Ten thousand years ago it was the grains and roots that kept us alive, and KFC or cooked protein in general was just a flicker of a thought, based more on chance than industrial feedlots. In fact our ancient teeth showed signs not of fangs, but of furrows ground into the molars from chewing roots, shrubs and grains. Even up into the 20th century, the average American household probably ate more roughage than protein, and that diet combined with hard work and the occasional citrus fruit kept us fairly healthy and vibrant.
Now we live in the land of protein, pounds and pounds of beef, chicken and pork. Some of it well raised, some not but readily available. So addictive in some cases (bacon) that we could have a worldwide shortage of a foodstuff that comes from the most prolific beast we raise: the pig. We eat like cave people, or what we think cave people should eat like but we don’t run down our food anymore or move our house from spot to spot avoiding starvation, barren lands and the omnipresent Mongol tribe.
So our food choices may be greater and still just as dangerous. We have talked a lot about diet in this column, mostly as it relates to the local food scene and the importance of eating seasonally. You all should know my position on this topic. But after a week of cold weather eating, I find myself stuck in the same rut as millions of Americans. Chicken or beef or pork in some form every night for a week, and I find myself a step slower, grunting from couch to the table, and generally with the energy of a slug.
So I will be reaching back to my youth, trying to recapture some balance by using my mother’s system of feeding a family of seven. It wasn’t protein every night, it was fish on Friday, roast on Sunday and the rest of the nights were soups, stews and casseroles. I can certainly eliminate the hamburger helper (yes we had that on occasion) and lighten up the cream of mushroom sauces(those too)but the notion that we should and could have meat every night will be modified, and tracked by me in this column. And as I cook for my family I will be cooking for you. You may not like what I fix but I will try to make the recipes so open-ended that they will be easily and creatively altered.
My first dinner next week: roasted fall vegetable risotto with local chevre.
Remember that risotto is a method, not a grain, and that it is applicable to most grains that are whole, high in starch and able to hold their shape over a long cooking time. Most containers will have a standard recipe but for the bulk purchases you merely need to follow a general rule. Use only as much liquid as you need to recover the cooking grains each time. This allows the grain to open and cook slowly, under a controlled method.
Once the starch has started to release it is simply a matter of time and tasting before you get the center of the grain almost completely cooked. At that time you will take your spoon and vigorously stir through the pot bring out the creaminess of the rice. This will be the time to add your roasted vegetables, hot from the oven. Season with salt and cracked black pepper and stir in some chevre, or goat’s milk cheese.
As for the vegetables, just remember that roots will cook at approximately the same rate (make sure to take both skins off, the outside and the less obvious inside, less than 1/8th inch inside), roast them in olive oil or they will dry out, and then combine them with other choices such as butternut squash or cauliflower and broccoli. For extra flavor, don’t forget the aromatics such as onion and garlic. And of course, if you don’t like chevre, parmesan is always an acceptable substitute.
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.