Temptations as Hunger Pangs

Some thoughts as the Orthodox Christian Church finishes the second week of Lent.

As a youth I was heavily influenced by the parachurch organization, The Navigators. For the Navs, the solution (the very good solution, I will add) to most spiritual problems was to pray, memorize scripture, and get together with your trusted group of like-minded people to tell them what was going on. (The sensibility of small, trusted groups and how they are supposed to function is a de-clericalized Protestant version of Orthodox confession, so they were certainly on to something in their disciplines.)

I don’t know the precise theology of why it is they recommended prayer and scripture to counter temptation and various spiritual problems; I don’t even know if there was a singular theology behind the practice, but the way I came to understand it was that scripture and prayer were a sort of inoculation against temptation. The basic framework with which I approached the whole problem was war or battle. There was a good side and an evil side. Prayer and scripture strengthened the good side in order that the evil side could be defeated.

As I was reminded by Michael Gillis this week, St. Isaac the Syrian offers much the same advice but his reasoning is a bit different. We are, in Isaac’s world-view, primarily spiritual creatures who are hungry for spiritual things, although in our sinful state we may not recognize this underlying reality. When we are not feeding our true inner being with true spiritual things that satisfy, we become spiritually ravenous, and anything will do. We attempt to feed that deep spiritual hunger with worldly things rather than spiritual things: money, sex, power, recognition, etc.

Whenever temptations arise and we find ourselves in a cycle of temptation, yielding to temptation, and then increasingly stronger temptation, it is evidence that we are spiritually hungry and we need to be more mindful of our proper spiritual disciplines that provide spiritual nourishment. Doing these things will feed our hungry soul and the temptations will retreat and not be so bothersome.

I like St. Isaac’s imagery because it puts the world and its temptations into the proper perspective. To think of this struggle as a war is to give the world system and its temptations far too much significance. They are defeated. One of my favorite Karl Barth arguments is that sin and evil have no actual reality because they are non-being: they don’t do battle with God’s reality, they merely negate it. When handled properly the passions are simply a nuisance … a nuisance we must be mindful of and guard against, but still, a nuisance, and not an undefeatable enemy.

Conversely, it would be unwise to underestimate the power of temptation. Such things can ensnare us, addict us, and drag us down so far that we cannot even imagine loving God and honoring God’s good creation any longer. Nuisances can become very powerful and very dangerous when not attended to. But that being said, the solution is not to give them more reality than they have by battling them, the solution is simply to feed our soul with what it is truly hungry for. Over time this diet of true food, of Living Water and Life-giving Bread, will satiate our soul and the passions will slowly dissipate.

Scripture is not a talisman and prayer is not an incantation protecting us from evil. Rather they are food and through them we can be led to the true source of true satisfaction.

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Thanksgiving

I hope everyone has a blessed Thanksgiving Day.

My thinking always goes in the direction of the Eucharist on Thanksgiving day because the Greek word eucharistia is translated “thanksgiving” in English.

Alexander Schmemann once wrote, talking about the sacraments in general, not the Eucharist in particular, that we do not ask God to make things to be something they are not, but to become what they truly are.

This Thanksgiving, may your meal become what eating was truly meant to be, a communion, an event in common in which the people participate in one another through the grace (charis — the root word for eucharistia, or thanksgiving) of food and conversation.

One-upping the Almighty

I like great writing. I especially like great writing when it says something I agree with. Eric Fry, over at the Daily Reckoning, offered up this tidbit today:

That’s right; the same folks who brought you Agent Orange and other delightful dioxins have created a vast array of food products that are even better than what the Almighty, Himself, managed to come up with. Perhaps He simply lacked the imagination to create a strain of corn that could withstand heavy doses of “Roundup,” Monsanto’s top- selling pesticide.

In Praise of Ketchup

Chutney is exotic. Salsa is sexy. (Have you ever gone “ketchup dancing”?) Ketchup is probably little more than the stuff you unthinkingly glob onto your fries at the local burger emporium. Shame on you!

Making an egg sandwich with cheese and ketchup the other morning, I wondered how it had happened that ketchup had been reduced to such ignominy.

Set aside, for a moment, your belief that ketchup is the most pedestrian and a mostly invisible condiment in the refrigerator. Take it out and taste it again for the first time. Of course there’s tomato, but tomato is also the beginning of salsa, some chutneys and even the occasional odd jam. There’s far more to ketchup than just tomato-y goodness.

Infused into that tomato-y goodness is a complex group of subtle flavors that have become so commonplace we fail to appreciate its complexity. It begins with sweet and sour: brown sugar and vinegar. Americans love things slightly sweet. The condiments of many other cultures focus on sour or piquant. Ketchup Americanizes the condiment by adding sweet to the sour.

And what else is there beyond the tomato, the sweet, and the sour? At this point, ketchup becomes every bit as American as Apple Pie. It’s a flavor combination so commonplace most people can’t pick it out for what it is: Allspice with a touch of cloves. These are spices that are as old as the American colonies. When we think of American comfort food, the Thanksgiving Feasts, and Apple Pie, we are saying that allspice (a fundamental spice in all these foods) is one of those things that identifies us as Americans every bit as much as curry is associated with India and various Persian delicacies.

Certain spices pair particularly well with certain foods. Nutmeg, for instance, is almost universally recognized as the secret ingredient to great vegetables. Allspice, on the other hand, rounds out dairy like no other spice. Do you want to make mac ‘n cheese that is absolutely unforgettable? Well, certainly you must add a wee bit of mustard to the concoction. But, don’t forget a pinch or two of allspice. The cheese will be cheesier. At breakfast the eggs will be eggier. At desert, the milk shake will be shakier, no matter if it’s chocolate, strawberry, or malted vanilla. Dairy aches for allspice.

Which is why ketchup is such a natural addition to eggs at breakfast and mac ‘n cheese at  noon. The allspice adds the pop and the cloves add the bite to the eggs, sausage, and potatoes, that you hashed together on your plate before scooping them on a piece of toast.

But instead of pumping ketchup onto your fries or glopping it over your breakfast, put a tiny bit on a spoon and taste it. Consider its subtlety: Sweet, sour, (and now that you know) allspice, cloves, garlic, and maybe a hint of onion and celery seed. Pretend you’ve never tasted ketchup before in your life.

Certainly it’s as exotically American as chutney is exotically Indian or hoisen is exotically Chinese. It’s only ordinary because we Americans were fortunate enough to grow up with it … a blob on our high chair trays in which to dip our hot dog pieces, a squirt on our potatoes so we would eat them at the dinner table without fussing.

Mom’s have been in on the secret for generations. Ketchup is actually a glorious and wonderful taste surprise … once we actually taste it again for the first time.

Bay Leaves

I’ve made no secret of my disdain for dried bay leaves in cooking. My general advice is “fugetaboutit.”

Nothing says spring like faded brownish-green bay leaves fresh from the can ... not!!!

But I had the opportunity to do a scientific experiment yesterday with fresh dried bay leaves. (I know, that’s a contradiction of terms. A good rule in cooking is never use an ingredient which forces you into a logical fallacy or internal contradiction.) I purchased a brand new container of McCormick brand bay leaves, and moments after removing the hermetic seal, I popped two bay leaves into boiling water and simmered them for a half hour.

During the duration of this scientific experiment the kitchen smelled wonderful. Pretty much the same as every Whole Foods Market that I’ve ever been in. (So that’s your secret, John Mackey, one of your employees in every store is tasked with simmering bay leaves and piping that aroma into the shopping area.) But at the end of the simmering period? …

… the water tasted vaguely of boiled leaves. Brenda tried it too and said she thought it might taste a little like soup.

I’ve tried this before with not-so-fresh bay leaves … and admit it, the bay leaves on your spice rack are probably months, if not years old … and I got nothin’ — little aroma while simmering, no taste in the water afterwards. So “fresh from the factory” dried bay leaves certainly improve the situtation, but what they add is negligible. (I suppose the French would call it subtle. Most of their food is, after all, subtle negligible and can be greatly improved with a dash of tabasco sauce or a shake of Moroccon or Algerian curry powder … nothing improves the French like the North Africans … but I digress, and the French who have their cars burned in the streets on a semi-regular basis probably disagree.)

So my advice is save your bay leaves for making victory wreaths or as aroma therapy when you can’t make the trek to the big city to visit the nearest Whole Foods Market. But as an ingredient in soup? Fugetaboutit!

More Adventures in Cooking

I know. I’m in danger of turning this into a food blog! Oh well, I guess that’s what fascinates me at the moment.

I was with my brother and sister-in-law last week, and Marc mocked me and gave me no end of grief for my revised Basque Lamb Stew recipe (which replaced the lamb with bison meat and added poblano peppers — both from the Americas rather than the Iberian Peninsula). Well, tonight I had the bison meat thawing and had a hankering for tomatillos. As a result, the recipe went totally off the rails, and it turned out pretty darn good. But I’ll definitely have to change the name. I think I’ll call it “Bosque Buffalo Stew.”

In case you didn’t notice, I changed the “a” to an “o.” Bosque refers to “areas of gallery forest found along the riparian flood plains of stream and river banks in the southwestern United States” (see Wikipedia — the only reason I know this is that a good friend from high school lives in Bosque Farms, NM — a southern suburb of Albuquerque). For any of my readers who are overly critical, I realize this dish doesn’t have anything to do with bosque. But I figure people in the S.W. U.S. eat a lot of poblano peppers and tomatillos. Furthermore, bison, if they would have wondered down there back in the day, would probably have spent a lot of time along the river bank among the riparian forests enjoying the shade and clear, cool water. So while not particularly precise, I do think the new name is evocative of cultures and flavors reflected in tonight’s dinner.

Tonight I browned up a pound of bison steak cut into bite size chunks. (By the way, it is the most beautiful meat. Not quite as dark in color as elk or moose, it is still a very deep red and the color is more vibrant than any variety of deer meat. It is beautiful laying out on the cutting board.) I set that aside and sauted a trinity of onion, pepper (roasted poblano and roasted red bell), and celery. I then spiced it up with lots of rosemary (true to the original recipe), oregano, paprika, ancho chili powder, and cayenne pepper (true to the bosque), and then added a half pound of tomatillos and a few ounces of red wine, cooked it for a few minutes on the stove top and then stuck it in the oven for the rest of the afternoon.

For a veg, I grated up raw cauliflower in a food processor and cooked that in just a bit of beef stock on the stove for fifteen minutes. The end result is very similar to rice. I poured the stew over the top. (Another homage to Mexican cooking — chili verde over rice. Granted my bosque stew was a far cry from chili verde, which is where tomatillos generally end up, but the slight sourness of the tomatillos worked very well with the dark and savory flavors of the buffalo and rosemary.)

We added a salad and some home made bread and voila, it was a riparian delight. (I do live by the river, after all.)

Adventures in Cooking

Tonight was nearly the sort of disaster that causes one to throw up the hands in defeat and go out to eat. This morning I pulled a sirloin steak out of the freezer for tonight’s dinner. We buy grass fed, grass finished beef from the One Stop Meat Shop in Sioux City. (I prefer my corn on the cob, not on the hoof.) Since they’re a small operation all their meat is cryo-vac’d and frozen. It is also great quality meat — very little shrinkage, etc. But because it’s cryo-vac’d it’s sometimes hard to see exactly what one is getting.

Tonight’s steak was a classic example of that rare occasion when you get something less than you expect. It was just over a pound of bone-in sirloin, but the bone looked tiny, so I was pretty sure there would be plenty for both of us. Turned out the bone (actually, two separate bones) was big and the meat loaded in gristle. By the time I finished trimming and cussing and trimming, we had six ounces of actual meat left, most of it in tiny little pieces.

I was planning on grilling the slab outside and then slicing it into several strips for serving. No way that was happening. Time to punt.

I hurried up and put a half pound of cauliflower in the steamer and started heating an itsy-bitsy saute pan to brown the meat. (After all, when all you have is 6 oz of sirloin, all you need is an itsy-bitsy saute pan.) After browning the meat I doused it liberally with curry powder, poured some almond milk into the pan and cooked it on low until just before dinner time to see if I could tenderize it a bit.

After the cauliflower was soft, I mashed it up with a fork — it ends up in a consistency very similar to mashed potatoes — and put some salt and curry powder in that, stuck it in the oven to keep it warm and turned my attention to the itsy-bitsy saute pan. Sure enough, since I was dealing with sirloin instead of loaves and fishes, there was still an itsy-bitsy amount of meat in there (even with no shrinkage, when you start with itsy-bitsy, you tend to end up with itsy-bitsy). It was also pretty tough, but edible … but the almond milk had remained thin as water. (I’ve never cooked this way with almond milk; I was hoping it would thicken up like coconut milk does.) So I added some corn starch and managed to get a fairly thick, yellow sauce, slightly sweet and loaded in curry flavor, to coat the meat.

Meanwhile, I also had prepped a couple of servings of broccoli and was steaming that in the steamer. Since the water was already hot (from the cauliflower), it didn’t take long.

Plating: I pulled the mashed curry cauliflower out of the oven and put it on the plate. It was a substitute for rice. Over that I poured the curry beef, put a serving of broccoli and a roll beside the curry beef, and voila, we had an odd sort of Indian meal. And as long as you don’t buy into the whole Buddhist-reincarnation-cows-are-holy thing, I can assure you that no grandmothers were cooked in the preparation of this meal.

Other than the fact that 3 ounces of beef is decidedly not quite satisfying, it turned out to be a pretty good meal, and the whole thing (salad not included) came in at 400 calories. It’s going on my list for meals to keep in the dinner rotation.

And besides, we finally got some snow earlier this week. (Actually, we broke a record for snowfall that has stood for nearly a hundred years. But when you start with bare ground, 6.2″ of snow ain’t nothin.) Who wants to stand in that big ol’ drift of snow in front of the grill cooking steaks?

(Well, actually, I wanted to stand in that snow drift grilling steaks, or burgers, or brats, or something! But when all meat is still in thef freezer, frozen solid, one has to set out on a different sort of adventure in cooking.)

How to Roast a Pepper

I remember the first several times I tried to roast peppers, I found it pretty daunting. I tried the oven, the barbecue grill, and the stove top at various heights before I finally began to get the hang of it. Since my recipe for Basque stew includes roasting peppers, I thought it would be helpful to include the following directions with pictures.

Today I roasted a red bell pepper and a poblano for tonight’s shrimp gumbo. (I know, poblanos don’t really belong in gumbo – think of it as a Cancun/Creole fusion dish.) When I bought the peppers they both had fairly long stems. (You can see them off to the left.) The first thing to do is trim off the stem so the pepper can be stood on it’s cap over the heat.

I place a wire rack directly on the stove heating elements. That way the peppers can get within millimeters of the heat without actually touching the elements. I also have a set of tongs available. I do most of my turning and adjusting by hand, but toward the end of the process the peppers get hot and it’s helpful to have tongs to turn them.

Make sure your vent fan is turned on, this occasionally gets a bit smoky. You will hear the peppers pop and they will actually jump around a bit on the grate, but don’t turn them yet. That’s just the juices beginning to boil and steam. Wait until you can smell the skin scorching before you turn the peppers. As each side scorches, turn them again. The first several times I was far too timid about this because it goes against my nature to burn things, but the whole process goes faster if you let each side get a good scorch.

It’s also important to scorch as much of the pepper’s surface as possible. That means you have to set them up on end, and hold them at odd angles over the heat to get the various surfaces burnt. (Notice that the poblano is roasting faster than the red bell. It takes almost twice as long to roast a bell pepper because their flesh is quite a bit thicker.)

Peppers have flat surfaces and edges. (Poblanos are three-sided and therefore have three edges.) The skinning goes better if the edges are scorched as well as the flat surfaces. In order to do that I hold the edge face-down with the tongs. Sometimes you can balance one pepper against another to get the edges. The poblano is nearly finished. Noticed that all the skin is, if not blackened, at least crinkly.

As soon as the peppers are done roasting it’s important to put them into a plastic sack. I save produce sacks and use them to steam the peppers. Notice that even though the red bell is still roasting I went ahead and sacked the poblano. The sack holds in the heat and allows the pepper to naturally steam off the skin from the pepper flesh. If you place it in the plastic bag promptly and leave it alone for an hour or two, not only will the pepper cool down so that it can be worked with, the skin will slide right off.

Once the peppers are done roasting, put them in the plastic bag and twist the top so the hot air can’t escape the bag. Leave it set just like this for a couple of hours.

When it’s time to take the skin off, I roll the bag back so that I can do my work directly on the bag. The skin and seeds tend to stick to everything, so this not only makes clean-up easier, it will actually make cutting up the peppers easier when we get to that step.

Here’s what the peppers look like with the skin removed. Notice how clean the board is. All the mess is in the bag.

Once they’re skinned, I slice them open so that they will lay flat and then hold them over the bag and remove the seeds and core. The heat of a poblano pepper is mostly in the seeds and membrane, so make sure you remove all the seeds. It can be tedius.

If you’ve not worked with poblanos before it’s very important to make sure you remove all the membrane. In the following picture, the knife is slicing under the membrane. It doesn’t look like there’s much to it at all (especially compared to a bell pepper membrane which is much larger). But don’t be fooled. After slicing some of it off, stick in your mouth and eat it. That will give you an idea just how hot they are: not as hot as a jalapeno, but if you’re more of a “medium” rather than “hot” sort of person, the membrane will definitely give you a jolt. I think it’s important for the cook to actually eat some of the membrane. You can control how hot the dish will be by including none, some, or all of the membrane. But if you don’t know how hot the membrane is (and it varies from pepper to pepper) it will all be guess work.

Notice on this pepper I have left some of the membrane behind. I’ll eventually add tobasco sauce to the gumbo. I might as well get some of the heat from this pepper as from the tobasco sauce.

Once the peppers are cleaned, I line them up for slicing and dicing.

Chop the poblano quite fine. (I didn’t use the nknife in the picture for chopping the peppers, by the way. Use the right tool for the job! That one is good for working with membranes. You need a long, flat knife for chopping.) Since the poblano functions much like a spice, the small pieces will spread the flavor out. I personally like to leave the red bells in larger chunks. They’re a savory rather than a spice and I think they work better in most dishes in larger chunks.

And that’s it. Your kitchen now smells great. You have a batch of freshly roasted peppers. Just one more thing. Don’t rub your eyes! If you’ve been deveining poblanos, it will make your eyes burn when you rub them.

Basque Lamb Stew with Bison and Poblano Peppers

Someone asked for the Basque Lamb Stew recipe I mentioned back here.  The original recipe can be found over at Simply Recipes. We had a 1 lb package of lamb stew meat in the freezer and cut the recipe in thirds. I would also recommend one roma tomato per pound of meat instead of the “large ripe tomato” the recipe called for. Large grocery store tomatoes are typically beefsteaks, which have a bright and acidic tang and are therefore excellent for a BLT. Roma’s are far better for cooking because they have more potential flavor, but have very low acid levels, so the flavor doesn’t come out without the addition of heat and an acid. The acid of choice, when cooking tomatoes, is wine because tomatoes are loaded with alcohol-soluble flavors that need booze to bring them out. But vinegar or citrus will enhance low-acid romas too if you don’t want to use wine or brandy (or tequila for that matter, if you’re making chili).

My only problem with the original recipe is that it’s not what I think of as a “stew.” It’s all meat and no veg. It reminds me of a Texas chili. I like some veg in my stew. And as I mentioned, lamb is also extremely fatty. So when we made it the second time we used bison and added carrots and peas, and a poblano pepper to balance the carrot. (I’m guessing a turnip would blend beautifully with the rosemary and potato would work too, but we don’t keep turnips or potatoes on hand.) Here’s the new and improved recipe (and definitely not very Basque with the addition of American Bison and a Central American pepper – oh well.)

  • 1 lb. buffalo steak
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
  • 1 Tbl dried rosemary (we only have fresh rosemary in the summer)
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1 stalk celery
  • 1 cup carrots cut into chunks
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 roasted red bell pepper, cut into 1/2 inch strips
  • 1 roasted poblano pepper diced
  • 1 roma tomato
  • 1-2 sprigs parsley, chopped
  • 1 bay leaf (bay leaf? Pullease!!!! There’s no taste in those things. Fugettaboutit!)
  • 1/4 cup dry, full-bodied red wine
  • 1/4 cup chicken stock
  • 1 cup frozen peas

Directions

1. Combine the meat, half the garlic, rosemary, and white wine in a bowl or freezer bag. Let marinate for 2-3 hours. Drain the meat, discard the marinade, and pat dry with paper towels. Mince the remaining garlic and set aside.

2. While the meat is marinating, roast the red bell and poblano pepper on the stove top. Once the skin is charred, place them in a plastic bag and set aside until they cool. (This allows the peppers to cook a bit and loosens skin.) Once cooled, rub off the skin and discard and remove the seeds and inner membrane. (Especially important for the poblano, since the seeds and membrane is where the heat is. If you want a stew that leans toward fiery hot, keep the membrane and a few seeds. If you want to limit it to a mild burn, remove the membrane.)

3. Heat olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan with lid, over medium-high heat. Working in batches, brown the meat on all sides, about 10 minutes per batch. Start sautéing the onions. Once the onions are hot, add the celery and continue sautéing until the onions are soft. Add the carrots and sauté for a couple of minutes, until the carrots are hot, then add the meat, scraping and incorporating the browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon during the sautéing process. Stir in paprika, add roasted peppers, tomatoes, and parsley and mix until the flavors are combined.

4. Add the red wine. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and simmer until juices in pot reduce and thicken slightly, about 10-15 minutes. Add chicken stock, cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until meat is very tender, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

5. A few minutes before serving, add the frozen peas and simmer until they are cooked through. Adjust seasonings.

Optional: garnish with fresh mint leaves (though I have no idea how “Basque” that is, it just tastes good.)

Makes 4 servings, based on 4 oz of meat per serving. Makes 2 servings if you want seconds on the stew.

The logic of the recipe changes:

First, since I’m adding carrots as my primary veg, I may as well add celery and create a mirapoix (sautéd onion, celery, and carrot).

Second, the poblano pepper is definitely an odd addition. I personally love the rich flavor of roasted poblano peppers, and in this recipe the darkness and bite of the poblano balances out the sweetness of the carrot. The real genius of the original recipe is the rosemary in which the meat is marinated. I haven’t experimented with this, but I suspect that the sweetness of the carrots would undermine the rosemary without the darkness of the poblano. That’s why I added them in the first place. If you’re not interested in a little heat and don’t want to go to the work of roasting poblanos, reduce the amount of carrot and add a turnip, or if you must be totally boring, a potato.

Third, a note about poblano and red bell peppers: They both have thick and waxy skins that need to be removed before cooking with them. Aside from the wonderful, smoky flavor roasting them brings, roasting is necessary so the skins can be scorched and taken off. Some people don’t have an issue with those waxy pieces of thick skin floating around in their stew. It bugs me to no end, so I always roast either red bells or poblanos when cooking with them.

If you live in a town with a large Mexican community, chances are you can buy bags of fire roasted poblanos from street vendors in the summer. They freeze very well. If you don’t have that luxury, just roast them on the stove. It makes the kitchen smell fabulous, so I do it myself.