Consider the Fork

Vegetal Matters - Consider the ForkIn Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, Bee Wilson takes us through the development of ubiquitous cooking tools, some of which have changed very little since their invention (like the spoon) and others that have improved many times over (like refrigeration). Wilson is mostly concerned with history and adoption, but does cover some science when appropriate, like in the development of canned foods. Maybe Consider the Fork was deemed a catchier title, but I think a spoon would have been more appropriate as it is the almost universal utensil. Wilson notes that the fork is not loved by all (chopsticks and fingers are the other main utensils), but just about everyone uses a spoon. Cooking and eating are the grand unifying activities across all cultures, which are also united by a simple but ingenious tool.

It was the fork though, that changed our bodies. Many of us deal with a lot of metal in our mouths during adolescence to achieve the ideal straightness and overbite. The aptly named Professor Charles Loring Brace is an American anthropologist whose researches the development of the overbite, which didn’t appear until the late eighteenth century. As there was no big change that happened to diets at that time, his theory is that it was caused by the widespread use of forks. We no longer needed our top and bottom teeth to touch for optimal biting and ripping, so the top layer progressed forward. Evidence has so far supported this theory, as cultures that adopted the fork later (or not at all, such as the Chinese) have corresponding overbites (or not).

Consider the Fork covers more than just utensils though. Continuously puzzling, is American’s reluctance to join the rest of the world (except for Liberia and Myanmar) in adopting the French metric system for measurement. Instead we insist on measuring dry goods by volume, even though this is highly variable. Wilson says that our measurement tools should fulfill these five requirements: accuracy (adhering to a fixed value), precision, consistency (measuring the same amount time and again), convertibility (fitting into a system and being able to measure butter as well as flour or any other ingredient), and ease of use. (113-4) Volumetric cups do none of these well, except for being as simple as possible and portable. But, “a cup of something is not just a cup. Experiments have shown that a cup of flour may vary in weight from 4 to 6 ounces, just by changing the degree to which the flour is sifted and airy or tamped down.” (116) I did an experiment with 5th graders where they each scooped a ½ cup of flour and then we measured them, and they varied by 15 grams. Besides the variability, the system just does not make sense. Even after a decade of independent cooking, I still find myself having to look up how many tablespoons go in a cup, whereas I never need to question how many milliliters are in a liter. I know large infrastructure changes as at first a setback, but I think we owe it to the sanity of future generations to embrace metrics. We can measure by the liter, run by the kilometer, record heat in Celsius, and measure in harmony with the rest of the world. (And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of daylight savings please.)

Wilson doesn’t devote many pages to the subject, but she brings up labor saving in an interesting way.  The general view of devices such as fridges and food processors is that they use less labor to get food from the field on to our plates. But really we’ve just been further removed from the labor: “We do not see the hands in the chicken factory that boned the breasts, never mind the chickens that gave their lives, nor the workers who labored to assemble the parts of our whizzy food processors. We only see a pile of ingredients and a machine ready to do our bidding. Alone in our kitchens, we feel entirely emancipated.” (173) She certainly paints a lonely picture of the kitchen, disjointed from the connected and transparent food system that is increasingly called for.

Consider the Fork was well researched, and a mix of anthropology, history, and science. The emphasis was more on the anthropology and history than science which disappointed me a bit, but it didn’t detract from my reading experience much. It was an entertaining read, and a great addition to the general culinary history library (if these kind of books are your jam, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human is another great one).

Further reading (or listening): The Golden Spoon

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Polenta with Roasted Veg and Tomato Sauce

Vegetal Matters - Polenta with Roasted Veg and Tomato SaucePolenta is my new pantry hero and pasta/grain alternative. It’s a multitasking ingredient (I use a medium grind cornmeal that I cook as polenta, bake with, and use as a crispy crust), that makes just as good of a breakfast as it does lunch and dinner (which I can’t say for pasta). I think of this recipe as more of a formula. Make polenta, stir in any cheese that needs to be used up in the fridge (or leave out the cheese and milk for a vegan dinner). Roast whatever vegetables you have around. Top with tomato sauce, or just a little bit more cheese. In the morning reheat leftovers and top with an egg (or the egg could be part of dinner, too).

Polenta with Roasted Veg and Tomato Sauce

Serves 4

  • 1 cup dry polenta
  • 2-3 cups water (divided)
  • ½ cup milk
  • ½ teaspoon salt + some for sprinkling
  • 3 ounces goat cheese
  • 1 lb cabbage (about half a smaller head)
  • ½ lb of broccolini or broccoli (cut into small florets if using broccoli)
  • 2 cups chopped kale (any kind is fine)
  • 2 cups of tomato sauce

Heat the oven to 400F. Cut the cabbage into 1 by 3 inch pieces. Toss the cabbage and broccolini on a baking sheet with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Roast for 15 minutes. Toss the kale in a bowl with a teaspoon more of olive oil. After the 15 minutes, toss the cabbage and broccoli, and add the kale to the pan right on top. Roast for 5 more minutes.

Heat the tomato sauce over medium low heat while the veg and polenta are cooking.

Whisk the polenta with 1 cup of water, the milk and ½ tsp salt. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer and cook uncovered. Add 1 cup of water and  stir constantly so it does not stick. Cook for 15 minutes, adding more water 1/4 cup at a time if it seems dry or you like polenta on the soupier side. When soft turn off the heat and add the goat cheese. I don’t even bother crumbling it, just stir it in so the goat cheese is covered, but the top back on, and whisk again to incorporate right before serving.

To serve, spoon a quarter of the polenta into each bowl, top with roasted veg and half a cup of tomato sauce (or more if you’re me). Finish with an extra crumble of goat cheese or some grated parmesan.

Spring Composed Salad with Lemon Caper Dressing

Vegetal Matters - Spring Composed Salad with Lemon Caper DressingThere was snow on the ground when I got up this morning. So, I realize I’m jumping the gun with all these spring ingredients, but it still feels like they are a long way off from the farmer’s market and I can’t wait any longer. This salad looks fussy, but it is far from it. It comes together quickly, and is infinitely adaptable. The dressing is assertive (and certainly not for the caper haters), but deliciously bright. Use whatever vegetables you have around, cooked or raw. Chicken or fish could be added (or omit the egg for a vegan meal). If you have any fancy or flavored salt around, this is a great time to use it. I had some lemon salt I made (so easy!), but a big flake or sea salt would shine here. I love the look and process of eating a composed salad, but you could certainly toss it too. Is that enough options? Get to salad making!

Spring Composed Salad with Lemon Caper Dressing

Salad inspired by Alana Chernila, and dressing adapted from Feed Me Pheobe.

While I tried to be specific, don’t get crazy with exact quantities here. Use what you have and what you like. This would easily double or triple for a crowd (just use multiple platters).

Serves 4

  • 1 lb red skinned potatoes
  • 6 radishes (about ⅓ lb)
  • ½ lb asparagus
  • 2 handfuls cherry or grape tomatoes (¼ lb)
  • 4 eggs
  • ¼ lb snap peas or green beans
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Whiz the ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, mustard, and capers in a food processor or blender, or mince the capers and whisk all ingredients together.

Place the eggs in a small pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and cook for 9 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold water. When they are cooled a bit, peel and quarter.

Preheat the oven to 425F. Cut potatoes into 1” pieces. Toss in olive oil and a bit of salt and pepper. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes. While the potatoes are baking, trim the ends off the asparagus, cut the tomatoes in half, cut the radishes in quarters, and look at the pretty snap peas. On a large platter arrange the tomatoes, radishes, snap peas, and hard boiled eggs. Season them all with a little salt and pepper. Fill a small bowl with the dressing and place in the center.

After 20 minutes take the potatoes out of the oven and move them over to one half of the baking sheet. On the other half put the asparagus and toss in the oil that remains on the pan (or add a teaspoon more if needed). Return the pan to the oven for 5 more minutes. When they are all done let them cool slightly, then add to the platter with the rest of the salad. Dip, and enjoy!