Sunday, February 21, 2010

Slow Food

I mentioned a few posts ago that I was interested in cooking for the sake of slowing down meals. I value a meal with friends that allows us to savor the goodness around us, in our food and in each other.

I also wrote that I'd like to write a bit about food justice issues. That may seem like a strange term: food justice. To me, it means understanding that the food we eat isn't just an amalgam of disconnected nutrients. Someone planted the food, or raised the animals. Someone harvested the plants or slaughtered the animals. Some packaged it up and transported it to the store. Someone sold it to me, and someone cooked it. Someone, someone, someone.

Food is about people. All of the people involved in the production and consumption of food are connected. I'm connected in some way to the farmer who first plants the seed of the green beans I'm cooking. In some sense, we are a community, though we are far apart, and probably will never meet. The food I eat has an impact on many other people and on the planet's ecosystems. Because of this, I care about how the people who produce the food I eat are treated.

There is a growing movement out there that has become known as the Slow Food Movement. The name is used in contrast with fast food. I think it can encompass a lot things, but it includes ideas of supporting local, family farms when you buy food, avoiding processed food, cooking whole meals instead of just putting a frozen dinner in the microwave. It's about taking the time to care for those you love when it comes to meals.

Here in the U.S., you can check out the website for Slow Food USA. Here's how they describe their mission:

Food is a common language, and a universal right. Slow Food USA envisions a world in which all people can eat food that is good for them, good for the people who grow it and good for the planet.


Slow Food is an idea, a way of living and a way of eating. It is a global, grassroots movement with thousands of members around the world that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment.

Slow Food USA promotes a number of interesting projects, including protecting so-called heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables and getting healthy food served in schools. They also offer a "Snail of Approval" to businesses which promote the slow food ideals of quality, authenticity and sustainability.

If you're interested in finding out more, visit their website, and look for a local slow food group in your community.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

South African Rusks

I like to think of rusks as a sort of South African biscotti. At least that's how I describe them to my friends who've never tried them before. Rusks are a hard, twice-baked bread that are just lovely in the morning dipped into your coffee or tea.

I first came to know rusks when I was living in Malawi, southern Africa, during my time in the Peace Corps. Food in the village was fairly plain, and I was often looking for simple ways to add variety and flavor to my simple diet when I came across a South African package of Ouma Rusks. I was instantly a fan, since my day always started with a cup of hot coffee. Decent Malawian coffee and Ouma Rusks became the start of every day for me.

Of course, here in the U.S., rusks are unheard of. You can always find biscotti of varying quality at Starbucks or some other chain coffee store, but rusks have a certain rustic quality that I enjoy. There are a number of recipes on the internet, but I came across a simple one here and thought I'd give it a try this past weekend.

The instructions are fairly straightforward. Sift together the dry ingredients, mix the wet, and combine to form a doughy batter.

The batter is then rolled into small balls, and placed into a baking pan (or several bread tins), so that they're all snug and tight in rows.

Now they need to be baked for about 45 minutes, during which time they rise up and form thick pieces about 3 or 4 inches tall.

Now, this is where I think I may have gone wrong. It might have been an issue of the oven being too hot, or perhaps I had packed the dough balls into the pan too tightly. The outside was nice and crusty and brown on most of the loaf, but it was just beginning to go from golden brown to burnt. A few more minutes would have brought them to that point.

The inside, however, may not have been cooked enough. The dough was mostly cooked, but it was still very moist--too moist, if you ask me, for this next step. Once this first baking is done, the loaf needs to be set on a rack and cooled, and once that's done, the pieces need to be separated. If this first baking has gone the way it should, the loaf should separate into nice pieces. Mine did not, at least not for the whole thing. A section in the middle sort of split in two at the midsection.

Most of them turned out just fine, though. It was just these few in the middle. Once the pieces are all separated, they're set on backing pans and placed back into a cool oven for about 5 hours to dry.

This part worked out fine. When they were all finished, they tasted just like I had hoped. The rusks were hard, but not so hard they were difficult to eat, and they were dense and hearty. This was a simple recipe, so the flavor was uncomplicated, but I like this. Later I may experiment with dried fruit or other spices, but for now these buttermilk whole wheat rusks have been a hit.

Delicious! And perfect with my morning coffee. Watch out for the crumbs, though.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Braised Beef

I have found that braises are among the best ways to prepare meat. It's a slow cooking process, but can be relatively simple. The meat acquires a rich flavor, becomes perfectly tender, and the braising juices make a nice sauce.

Recently, I prepared the basic beouf à la mode, beef braised in red wine, from MAFC. It was just at the end of Christmas break, and a few members of the community had returned to Ciszek, so it was just right for the group that had assembled.

The first step is a simple marinade of red wine, olive oil, and aromatic vegetables and herbs, into which goes a roast that has been larded, which means that you have the butcher cut strips of fat into the meat.

[Note: I have a saying: Always cook with wine. When called for, add some to the recipe.]

This is after almost 24 hours. The roast has absorbed the marinade nicely. In fact, it has basically turned purple, which was a little weird. But it smelled lovely.

When the meat has been marinated for 6-24 hours (this was almost at 24), the meat is drained and browned in cooking fat. I just used oil, since I'm not ready to render any fat for this purpose.

Into the same pot, the marinade is added back in and reduced at a boil, and some kind of other meat is added. MAFC recommends a cracked veal knuckle, a split calves foot, or a pork, ham, or bacon rind. I went with the latter. It's easiest to obtain from my butcher on short notice. And frankly, I love bacon.

MAFC provides a valuable tip to cooking with American-style bacon, and it's the kind of little insight that makes this book so valuable. The bacon is blanched for 10 minutes. American-style bacon is usually smoked. Blanching takes out the smokey flavor so that it's better for use in French cooking. That's the kind of thing that I would never have thought of as an amateur cook, but is characteristic of the attention to detail in MAFC.

Beef stock is then added, and then the whole thing is covered and placed in a 350 degree oven for 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

When removed, the roast is remove and sliced, and the marinade is boiled down (after removing any fat) to make a slightly thick sauce. I served it along with carrots and potatoes, according to the recommendation in MAFC.

It was fantastic! The meat was juicy and flavorful, tender to the fork, but not falling apart. The sauce was rich and perfectly complimentary to the meat. I might have seasoned just a little more as I made the sauce, but it wasn't so lacking that everyone was reaching for the salt grinder.

Overall, I have to say, a triumph! If you're looking to try out a recipe from MAFC for the first time, I highly recommend this one.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

A Return to the Kitchen

It's only in the last year or so that I've rediscovered the joy of cooking.

Before I entered the Jesuits, I was a flight attendant for a major US international airline. I was able to sample cuisine from all over the world, and on the days I was home, I would often eat out with friends. I cooked on occasion, but I found cooking real meals for one person to be a challenge.

A few years into my life as a Jesuit, I realized a couple of things. One is that I miss the experience of dining. Not the part about being waited on, or ordering from a menu, those experiences associated with restaurants, although that's all nice too. What I missed was the experience of long conversations at table, of developing friendships, and yes, delicious food.

Now, in all fairness, we eat well here at Ciszek Hall in the Bronx. As one of the menu planners, I get to plan meals that I like, and I'm willing to take risks with recipes and ingredients so that our menu is diverse, filling, and tasty. But we don't dine at meals. We sit for a specified time, eat our meals, and we have some time to chat, but it's not the same as setting aside time for a slow dinner, where the food can be really savored, and no one has to get up to hit the books.

I also realized that I needed a hobby, and I decided that that hobby would entail a return to the kitchen (we have a cook for dinners Monday through Friday). I find that cooking is an almost meditative experience. It gets me out of my head, and gets my hands to work on something tangible. Philosophy studies are very abstract, and the results, such as they are, often seem convoluted. In cooking, my mind is focused, my hands are busy, and I am always amazed at a process that takes the fruits of the earth, so many different kinds, and brings them together in an entirely new creation.

I am lucky to have grown up in a house where great cooking was appreciated. At some point when I was young, my dad discovered Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and dinner in my home was never the same. Now, we didn't eat French cuisine every night, but often enough my dad would break out the book and treat us to something incredible. He still has that book--it is a battered old thing, hardly legible on some pages any more--and he even had it signed by Julia herself before she died.

Count me among those whose interested in cooking was reinvigorated by last summers movie Julie & Julia. My mouth watered in that movie theater watching the recipes on the screen and thinking about how delicious they would taste. I had cooked before, but the recipes were simpler. MAFC is in a different league. But despite the complexity of some of the recipes, the breakthrough of the book was it's simple organization. If you've never looked at it, check it out. Ingredients and tools are in a column on one side, and they only appear as they're needed, according to the instructions in the adjacent column. Brilliant! If you can read, you can cook.

This year at Ciszek, about every month or so, I have a small dinner party for about 6 men of my community, first come, first serve, in which I prepare a multi-course meal, often with recipes chosen from MAFC. It's a chance for a few of us to slow down, way down, and share camaraderie over some good food, in about as close to a fine dining setting as one can get in a Jesuit community. Some of what I'll post will come from those experiences.


Friday, February 05, 2010

A Brief Introduction

My name is Jason Welle, SJ. I’m a Jesuit scholastic—a Jesuit who’s recently professed vows and is now in studies—from the Oregon Province, but currently studying philosophy at Fordham University in Bronx, New York. I want to thank Ryan Duns, SJ for inviting me to participate in the Jesuit Recipes blog. I hope to give this blog a breath of fresh air, a bit of revitalization after a long silence.

I greatly enjoy cooking. I think that good food can be a wonderful gift to a friend, a true labor of love that your company enjoys immediately. A sit-down dinner can allow for relaxed conversations, friendships to be built, and families and communities to bond.

A good meal can’t be rushed through—not in the preparation, and not in eating. It needs time. It requires you to slow down, to think about what you’re doing, and to enjoy the moment. Many of us need that in our lives, but many don't take advantage of it.

I also think a lot about how food is used in our world; not just for bonding and entertainment, but also for business and in politics, and how it affects various groups of people like farmers and people in developing nations. I hope that this blog will be a place where I can share some thoughts, invite a charitable conversation, and encourage others to consider how food has a broader affect in the world than simply filling our stomachs.

I expect that this will be a low volume blog. I'll maybe post once or twice a week. If you have some great recipes, feel free to share them.

Thank you for visiting. Please check back again soon.