Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Introducing "Year of Smoothies" (also: How I Learned to Cook)

Here's how I learned to cook.

I didn't want to be "educated". I didn't need to know how to blanch a rutabaga or prepare savory gelatins or make my own lasagna noodles or bake croissants or cut a turkey or roast a capon or whip up a hollandaise or chowder. I'm the only food lover who doesn't yearn to be a chef. I just wanted to cook healthy and delicious at home. That's all. Modest ambition. But really seriously delicious. Focused modest ambition!

I don't cook dishes with names. For dishes with names, I go out. At home, I might whip up something interesting with chicken breast, kasha and scallions. I improvise. But I wanted better results. I wanted control. I wanted touch.

I started with a Year of Panini, circa 2015. All year I cooked pretty much exclusively panini. And, no surprise, I got good at it. Because what makes you good is iterations. Lots of go-rounds. That's why restaurant cooking is so consistent; they've made that calamari 50,000 times, and it shows.

Not just iteration, though. You don't want to stand there with a pinched face and dangling cigarette pounding the food into submission, like scrubbing a toilet. You can't be rotely procedural. Instead, I played off of my perspective; my framing. Every time I have to make a decision, I picture myself eating the final result. Would I prefer this crunchier? Saltier? Would it miss some sort of oomph or other? Is this how I like it? How could I better serve my own taste? What might give me 100% satisfaction?

After a year of diligently making panini, I'd evolved certain habits - bundles of micro-tricks and nano-decisions. As mutations crept into the DNA of my panini-making, the successful ones endured. And that's how you build up deliciousness. Constant micro-revision, careful analysis, and sticking with what works amid oodles of iterations.

Why panini? I could get my mind around it. It felt familiar. And there's a safety net. Merely dropping a leftover chunk of chicken between two slices of decent bread and press-toasting would yield reasonably good results. The entry point (on my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating foods and other things) would be a "6". If I'd started out attempting to master stock or crêpes Suzette, vast terrains of awfulness would need to be evaded. Also: panini-making didn't intimidate me. It didn't feel fussy. I could stretch my mind around it. Nearing age 60, I've discovered the immense power of a comfortable entry point.

My panini eventually got great, and I followed with Year of Tacos. I'd sourced righteous nixtamal tortillas (which again propped me up at a "6" starting point). And, as with the panini, as I improved my prep of protein fillings and my artful use of spices, sauces, and condiments, I sneakily instilled broader cooking skills. I learned how to sauté a helluva chicken thigh, and mastered salmon-broiling and high-confidence omelets (instructions buried here). In the end, I discovered that tacos and panini are effectively identical: protein engulfed by starch. I already had a feel for that, thanks to panini, so I expanded into tacos from a position of confidence.

Then came Year of Pasta, another configuration of engulfing protein in starch. I applied what I'd learned. I started getting good faster. I was learning. And now, even if I'm not making panini or tacos or pasta, I can use that experience, so long as I don't try to preparae dishes with a name. Still no hollandaise!

I've been smoothie-curious for some time, but whenever I research blenders, I rediscover two truths:

1. Everything but a Vitamix absolutely sucks, regardless of how many of your friends rave over their Nutribullets or Ninjas. Dig deep into comments and reviews, and you'll find that they suck. They all just suck.

2. Vitamixes are super-expensive, super-bulky overkill.

Whenever my blender amnesia leads me to deep-dive this realm, the conclusion is identical: I really can't beat the $20 Cuisinart Smart Stick immersion blender I already own.
Note: recent versions of the Cuisinart Smart Stick immersion blender suck. For liability reasons, they've added a safety nanny switch at the other end of the stick, so you need to press the "on" button with one hand and the nanny switch with the other, giving no way to control the cup, which results in splurging explosions of milk and fruit. I don't know what to tell you. Maybe try to buy a "vintage" used Smart Stick on eBay predating this "innovation.” Or else just give up and bite the Nutribullet.
The notion that I had the magic shoes all along was too surprising to stick. So I'd snooze the idea for another 6 months and then launch back into blender research. I was caught in this loop for several years.

Finally I roused myself from my stupor and bought this steel cup for smoothie-making (it doubles for smoothie-drinking), and gave it a try, discovering that my immersion blender actually works better than a conventional blender for smoothies, because you don't need to stop to unclump. Immersion blending is a more active way of blending, so clumps unclump in situ.

The one drawback is that only an expensive conventional blender can really crush ice. But you don't want ice in your smoothie! As any beginning chef learns: water dilutes. It's the enemy! So I slice bananas onto wax paper, freeze them for a couple hours, then pop the slices into a sealed freezer bag. Those are my ice cubes. Any other sort of fruit will work the same way. And not every smoothie needs to be super cold. When I must resort to ice, I do the spoon trick, very lightly but persistently tapping upon each cube with a teaspoon until the vibrations shatter the cube. Walla.

My stone mortar and pestle is better/faster than any other method for grinding flax seeds. You don't want to buy/keep ground flax seed, it goes rancid super-easily (it probably did before you even bought it). Whole seeds are far more resilient, and can be ground, a teaspoon or two at a time, in 20 secs flat. You can grind lots of other stuff in mortar pestle faster/easier than in food processor (unless you'd doing large quantity). Low-tech, low-price really works best in this realm.

My first smoothie triumph is a bit of a work-in-progress:

1 pitted medjool date, chopped fine (Trader Joe's has these)
1 handful of raw unsalted pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds, also Trader Joe’s), lightly pre-ground in mortar and pestle
9 ounces Milkadamia unsweetened, non-vanilla macadamia milk, available at Shoprite or Whole Foods

The result was really thin (and not super-cold, since nothing was frozen), but smoothies don't always need to be milkshake thick or freezing cold. But the flavor. Oof, the flavor.

One problem: I found the limits of my immersion blender. It left a sediment of chewy date nuggets at the bottom of my stainless steel cup. But that was a problem only until I grabbed a spoon and ingested said nuggets amid dregs of the nutty medium, at which point I had no problems on god's green earth.

I have bought lucuma powder (low-glycemic butterscotchy natural sweetener) and dried mulberries and Venezuelan Gourmet Cocoa Powder as well as planet-killing plastic flexi-straws in preparation for this understaking. My flax seeds are organic whole goldens from Bob's Red Mill, bought at Stop-N-Shop.

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