Friday, 9 February 2018

The why of cooking

What’s the most efficient path to kitchen wisdom?

It’s a shame that the standard way of learning how to cook is by following recipes. To be sure, they are a wonderfully effective way to approximate a dish as it appeared in a test kitchen, at a star chef’s restaurant, or on TV. And they can be an excellent inspiration for even the least ambitious home cooks to liven up a weeknight dinner. But recipes, for all their precision and completeness, are poor teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it.

This means that for most novice cooks, kitchen wisdom—a unified understanding of how cooking works, as distinct from the notes grandma lovingly scrawled on index-card recipes passed down through the generations—comes piecemeal. Take, for instance, the basic skill of thickening a sauce. Maybe one recipe for marinara advises reserving some of the starchy pasta water, for adding later in case the sauce is looking a little thin. Another might recommend rescuing a too-watery sauce with some flour, and still another might suggest a handful of parmesan. Any one of these recipes offers a fix under specific conditions, but after cooking through enough of them, those isolated recommendations can congeal into a realization: There are many clever ways to thicken a sauce, and picking an appropriate one depends on whether there’s some leeway for the flavor to change and how much time there is until dinner needs to be on the table.

The downside of learning to cook primarily through recipes, then, is that these small eurekas—which, once hit upon, are instantly applicable to nearly any other dish one prepares—are most often arrived at via triangulation. It’s like trying to learn a language only by copying down others’ sentences, instead of learning the grammar and vocabulary needed to put to paper lines of one’s own.

Short of enrolling in a cooking school, is there not a more direct, less haphazard way to arrive at a fuller idea of the theory behind good cooking? One gets the sense that chefs and cookbook authors are in possession of some magnificent guidebook full of culinary insights, consulting it to construct their dishes and revealing its secrets to everyday cooks only in fragments. No book could live up to that hyperbolic image, but I was still surprised, after roughly a year of searching, to find that there are very few books that concisely articulate the concepts that underlie good cooking, in a way that neither patronizes nor overwhelms. One might call what I was looking for “a metacookbook”—a book not about a certain cuisine or style of cooking, but about cooking itself—and I found good ones to be surprisingly rare.

One of the reasons for this is that the standard recommendations for a concept-based book about cooking are not completely helpful. Many of them, I found, were not metacookbooks at all, but rather in-depth guides to mastering the fundamentals of a classically respected cuisine (most often French or Italian) or matter-of-fact catalogues of cooking techniques, such as how to poach an egg or make a soufflé that doesn’t cave in. And of the recommendations that did fit the category, few struck a readable balance between in-the-weeds scientific digressions and everyday pragmatism. After reading through about a dozen metacookbooks, I did eventually arrive at the sort of knowledge I’d hoped for, but I also saw how some were much better than others at getting me there. Of all of them, my favorite—and the one I’m most likely to recommend to a beginning cook with even a faint desire to improve—is Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which is out this week.

But before getting to Nosrat, I started where nearly everyone appears to start: with Mark Bittman. Bittman’s How to Cook Everything was the first book several people (and websites) recommended to me when I first described the sort of knowledge I was after. Indeed, it was the first cookbook I ever received, from a gift-giver who correctly guessed that it would satiate my culinary curiosity (or, less charitably, that it would finally stop me from hovering over the stove, asking questions about every step of a preparation).

People start with How to Cook Everything for good reason: It is near-encyclopedic and approachably written. Moreover, it is highly reliable; when following one of its recipes, disappointments are rare, especially compared to what comes of cooking from the recipes that can appear at the top of Google results. All this, plus the fact that it includes many variations on each recipe, makes How to Cook Everything a fantastic book to have on hand, especially for beginners.

Learning about, say, the etymology of a leafy green sheds little light on how best to prepare it.
Yet, despite being so often recommended, it is not the ideal metacookbook. Over the course of a thousand pages, one may reach an understanding of what it takes for a meal to truly come together, but How to Cook Everything seems like one of those books that few other than the copy editors have read cover to cover. It is best used as a reference book, absorbed in two-to-three page bursts that describe the basics of, say, bouillabaisse or baked potatoes. Reading it in its entirety would be like reading through the dictionary.

Looking for a book that would more clearly illuminate what makes a good meal—which flavors or textures complement each other and fundamentally go together—the next phase of my search focused on science-heavy books. Perhaps I overcorrected by looking next to another common recommendation, Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. McGee is a legend in the food world, and the book, first published in 1984, is a favorite of many professional chefs. More than 30 years after its publication, the book still stands as an astounding informational achievement; in the foreword to a more recent edition, McGee recalls having had basic questions about food, failing to find satisfactory answers to them in book form, and hitting the stacks of a college library to read academic papers from journals like Poultry Science and Cereal Chemistry. The book he ended up writing based on that research unsealed knowledge that had previously been considered of narrow interest to academic and industry researchers, and the cooking-obsessed culture that has blossomed since its publication proved his instincts sharp.

The idea of a book that explains everything about cooking, down to the molecule, is fascinating, and On Food and Cooking is a fun title to have around. But learning about, say, the etymology of a leafy green sheds little light on how best to prepare it. McGee’s book is so exhaustive that it might be less readable (in a cover-to-cover sense) than even Bittman’s book. I tried to read it straight through, and stopped dejectedly in the middle of a history of dairy—I think around where McGee describes the first time humans turned water-buffalo milk into mozzarella. McGee’s book is better skipped around in occasionally than turned to for a focused lesson on cooking concepts.

On Food and Cooking inspired a number of cooks and cookbook authors to integrate scientific approaches into their practices, and some of them have produced cookbooks that read as more populist versions of McGee’s book. But however informative they are, the handful that I encountered more than anything prove the difficulty of writing about kitchen science in a way that both grabs the reader and feels relevant to actually developing better cooking instincts. The editors of the exacting and widely beloved magazine Cook’s Illustrated put out The Science of Good Cooking, which breaks its teachings down into 50 lessons—an improvement on McGee from a readability standpoint. Still, the book is hardly more digestible than a textbook, with chapter titles ranging from the weakly playful (“All Potatoes Are Not Created Equal”) to the downright dry (“Potato Starches Can Be Controlled”).

Another option I checked out, Jeff Potter’s Cooking for Geeks, similarly displayed the limits of grounding cooking lessons too much in science; what it made up for in its looser writing style, it more than lost in its distracting tendency to try flattering the “geeks” who might read it by pandering to the most basic clichés about them. The first line of the preface, for instance, is: “Hackers, makers, programmers, nerds, techies—what we’ll call ‘geeks’ for the rest of the book (deal with it)—we’re a creative lot who don’t like to be told what to do.” I know more than a few programmers who would be fascinated by the information in Potter’s book but put off by his tone.
An illustration from Samin Nosrat's Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
If the books put out by Potter and Cook’s Illustrated make clear some of the challenges of framing a scientific approach, The Food Lab—a physical distillation of the spirit and content of J. Kenji López-Alt’s passionately experimental blog of the same name on the website Serious Eats—demonstrates its potential. López-Alt’s method is simple: He tries a bunch of different ways of preparing a dish, and then picks the best recipe and explains why it’s the best, in uncomplicated but unpatronizing language. After a recipe for penne alla vodka, for instance, he includes an explanation of why it’s good not to omit the vodka—it lends the dish a slight piquancy that can cut through the sweetness of the tomatoes and cream—and describes what the sauce tastes like without it. While López-Alt’s book is full of recipes, it in my mind still qualifies as meta because he is intent on taking them apart to see how they work; in this way, López-Alt usefully cuts out some of the inefficient extrapolation that’s usually required to squeeze lessons out of recipes, and simply explains why any given one works.

The downside of The Food Lab (for my purposes) is that it is compiled like How to Cook Everything, which makes reading it all the way through—and coming away with a simple, overarching understanding of the concepts behind good cooking—out of the question. Two prosier science-oriented metacookbooks I came across, Russ Parsons’s How to Read a French Fry and Michael Pollan’s Cooked, were at least meant to be consumed from beginning to end. But Parsons’s, though highly insightful, could have used some further conceptual zooming-out beyond detailing the chemical specifics of certain dishes (like the browning of the titular french fry) and ingredients (like how a berry’s cells change once it’s picked or refrigerated). And the few big thoughts gleaned from Cooked, which takes several detours into memoir and food history, seemed too elementary.

Nosrat’s wisdom is apparent in the way she instructs, which lets her cover food science without ever getting lost in the finer points of chemistry.
To be sure, the scientific route is likely one that will resonate with ambitious home cooks who gravitate toward precision. But I left each of these guides with a nagging sense that there is a simpler way—one more grounded in common sense and intuition—that might inspire people who do not already fancy themselves dedicated cooks and/or scientists. A more welcoming, more widely appealing, and thus more effective method might be one that teaches cooks to start with their thoughts and senses rather than a temperature setting on a sous-vide device. If a lesson or two about science is gained incidentally in the process, fine, but let’s leave the history of water-buffalo domestication out of it for now.

The metacookbooks that take this tack are up against a challenge: It’s hard to teach intuition, which in truth can only fully arise through experience. But it is possible to come close. Sally Schneider’s The Improvisational Cook does a passable job of this, but reads a little too densely for a book about being spontaneous. More impressive was Michael Ruhlman’s Twenty, whose organizing principle is to walk through 20 fundamental building blocks of good cooking—things like “grill,” “vinaigrette,” and my favorite, “think”—and includes recipes and little kitchen experiments that best illustrate each concept.

Cook’s Illustrated gives readers 50 essential lessons and Ruhlman gives them 20, but my favorite metacookbook has only four. They make up its title: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. In it, Samin Nosrat, a former chef at the foundational farm-to-table Bay Area restaurant Chez Panisse (and, among other things, Michael Pollan’s cooking teacher), offers a beautifully simple checklist for ensuring a dish ends up in a good place: Has it been sufficiently salted? How was fat used to inflect its flavor and texture? Is there acid in there to balance out the overall flavor? And should it have been exposed to a different type or amount of heat? This is the book of cooking grammar that so many novices would benefit from.

Much shorter than reference-style books like How to Cook Everything and On Food and Cooking, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is written smoothly and casually, and kept breezy via charming watercolors by the perceptive Bay Area artist Wendy MacNaughton. Nosrat’s wisdom is apparent in the way she instructs, which lets her cover food science without ever getting lost in the finer points of chemistry. Because she puts theory first, her approach to cooking is not just much easier to grasp and emulate than, say, López-Alt’s, but it also applies to just as many dishes. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’s framework is a valuable user’s manual for recipes, letting even the greenest cooks disassemble them to see how their parts fit together.

Her book is full of perspective-altering moments that are akin to being told about the arrow hidden in FedEx’s logo and never being able to unsee it. Her guidance in salting water boiled for pasta (which is to do so very generously—it should taste “like the summer sea”) led me to see how much of an exponential leap in quality can come from simply not being afraid of over-salting. There are plenty of books that contain the same information as Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat—indeed, its bibliography cites books by McGee, Ruhlman, and Pollan—but, at least for readers new to cooking, it demonstrates how some parts of its predecessors could stand to be boiled off. A book like López-Alt’s is highly valuable to have around once one has confidence in the kitchen, but Nosrat’s seems much more vital for the purposes of getting to that point.

Apart from these more subjective assessments of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, there is also an egalitarian argument for Nosrat’s book that recommends it over its peers. While cooking is for many a hobby, it is also a thing that nearly everyone has to do, usually when time is short. As the writer Elizabeth G. Dunn wrote for this site two years ago, so many recipes and cookbooks today “carry promises of speed and ease,” irritatingly claiming that “freezing my own chicken stock is a ‘no-brainer’ [and] homemade Calabrian chili oil is an ‘easy’ way to add big flavor.” These assertions can weigh on hobbyist chefs who, despite trying their darnedest, still find from-scratch recipes onerous and time-consuming. But more importantly, they likely scare off the people who don’t consider themselves cooks in the first place—arguably the people who would benefit most from a few basic pointers. Not everything described in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is easy or quick, but it is nonetheless an achievement that Nosrat’s book would be of value both to people who don’t consider themselves cooks and to people actively striving to become better ones. It is additionally impressive that she accomplished this without going into as much depth as other writers have felt the need to.

On top of Dunn’s point, so many of today’s more popular cookbooks are essentially postcards from some idyllic region or some big-shot chef’s critically acclaimed restaurant. They have recipes, sure, but they devote just as much space to the stuff of aspirational lifestyle publications—short essays reminiscing on some effortless backyard summer dinner party, photography whose beauty is perfectly calibrated to spark envy and lust. These cookbooks can be enchanting, but the message they carry is that your truest, most carefree self is unlockable only by assembling the perfect grain bowl in an immaculate kitchen other than the one you own. Nosrat’s is different. It is about using simple concepts to make the most of the scratched-up cutting board, the stove in need of a thorough cleaning, and the slow-to-heat oven that are already right in front of you.

(Source: The Atlantic)

I deleted WhatsApp for a year and here's what I learned

An initial flurry of real calls and more time to read turned into losing contacts, missing out on groups and upsetting my wife, writes Knut Traisbach in the Guardian. Read on: 

At the end of 2016, I sent a message to all my contacts: “After 31 December, I will not use WhatsApp any more. Instead, I will use Threema and Signal.”

On New Year’s Eve, I closed my WhatsApp account and deleted the app from my phone. A few clicks later, I’d left all my family, friend and work groups, the school groups of my children and all my individual contacts.

During the first minutes of 2017, I saw my friends typing on their phones while mine remained unusually silent. Suddenly I was not available anymore. It felt strange, uncomfortable, daring and good.

My initial reasoning for such a drastic step had little to do with mindfulness or the want of being disconnected. I had installed WhatsApp in 2012 only because all my friends had it. By the end of 2016, the ubiquitous chat app started to send me annoying periodical reminders that it would stop working because the operating system of my beloved Nokia phone was no longer supported.

The notifications made me wonder whether I should be using non-Facebook-owned alternatives and stop spending so much time on convenient but seldom meaningful chats.

My defiance turned into a social experiment: I bought a smarter phone but uninstalled the application that, Facebook says, “one billion people around the world use … every day to stay in touch with their family and friends.”

My app-stinence had a promising start. Good friends sent text messages during New Years Day, called or responded to my calls. Instead of typing and recording messages, I returned to having actual conversations on the phone. My family and closest friends even installed one of the new non-Facebook messaging apps I had suggested, but suddenly I went from having 70 contacts to just 11 on my list.

At the beginning, I often felt isolated and as if I had abandoned friends. Some contacts ebbed away, while I had to withstand the odd awkward look of disbelief and discontent from others when I explained that I did not use WhatsApp.

I checked my phone less – which meant I missed out on what was happening in
my kids’ school groups. Photograph: Lauren Hurley/PA
After a few weeks, I noticed that I checked my phone less, did not scroll through my contact list to look for updated profile photos or send messages to people low on the conversation list just to say hello. I began to read more. But I also learned what it meant to miss out and not to be part of groups anymore.

When I met friends, I needed to be updated about earlier group exchanges. I had to continually ask my wife about discussions in our kids’ school groups. She became understandably annoyed when forced to scroll through 94 new messages about the next birthday party or unexpected drama in the kindergarden of our two toddlers.

No alternative
In the ensuing discussions over the past year, it became more difficult than I thought to defend my step in terms of privacy and data stinginess. Those sympathetic with my decision often said that for work and social reasons they had no alternative.

A colleague pointed out that he had no Facebook account, so the matching between accounts for advertising purposes was not possible. I knew that in Europe Facebook had been asked to “pause” the data sharing from WhatsApp. “But what happens with the data of up to one billion people that has been matched and shared already?” I asked.

Facebook has not been obliged to delete this data. That we do not know precisely how this data is used to nudge and influence us without us noticing, worried me. “Anyways, I have nothing to hide,” several friends told me, hardly concealing their annoyance. The main question that I started to ask then was: why do we trust private companies more than we trust our governments?

Our default position is to mistrust strangers and governments, but we trust convenient services without really knowing anything about them. We trust that private companies use our data to “improve our lives”, but we hardly reflect on where our lives are taken. Facebook paid $19bn for a company that has encrypted the contents of messages since 2016 and does not advertise.

Clearly there is value in information about our habits and contacts, not just the content of our conversations. Companies create personal profiles with our data, but these profiles are about who we are, not about who we want to be.

During the last year I realised how little we know and how little we care. We do not regard our data as a scarce and valuable commodity. Data seems like time; we just assume it is there.

Over coffee I asked a friend: “If you had only one piece of personal data left to spend, how would you spend it?” He laughed, paused and then his phone whistled.

Ankit Saxena murder: How girlfriend’s mother meticulously planned the killing

The Ankit Saxena murder was meticulously planned by his girlfriend's mother, the probe has revealed. She had intentionally created a road rage like situation before killing the Delhi photographer.

He was murdered in the most brutal fashion even as his parents begged and pleaded before the killers, the eyewitnesses have told the police. Ankit Saxena was in love with a woman called Shehzadi. Her parents were opposed to the relationship. He was stabbed to death by the girl's family in Delhi last week.

The police learnt that Ankit was in his car in the neighbourhood. The girlfriend's mother got to know about the same and rushed to the spot on her scooter. She then intentionally hit against the car which forced Ankit out of the vehicle.

When he got out, the mother confronted him about the relationship. The rest of her family then joined in and started abusing Ankit. They then began assaulting him. His parents were right there and were begging to spare their son's life. However Ankit was murdered in the most brutal fashion, eyewitnesses have told the police.

The eyewitness also said that Ankit's mother too was assaulted when she tried to intervene. When his mother fell to the ground, Ankit tried to save her. As he picked her up, a family member of his girlfriend pulled him by his hair and stabbed him. Shehzadi's uncle and brother held Ankit while the father slit his throat, the police were also told.

(Source: One India)

'World's loneliest bird' dies surrounded by concrete replicas he thought were his family

‘It would have been nice if he had been able to hold on a few more years and found a partner’

A much-celebrated gannet, the only one of its kind living on an island off the coast of New Zealand, has been found dead surrounded by concrete replicas of birds it is believed he thought were his friends and family.

Nigel “no mates”, as he was affectionately known, lived his life on the edge of a desolate cliff on the almost-uninhabited Mana Island, with only 80 fake gannets for company.

His body was found alongside one particular concrete gannet replica conservationists say he believed was his partner. Nigel had attempted to woo the replica in 2013 in an act of courtship, which led to him building a nest from seaweed, mud and twigs for the bird.

“No mates” Nigel was lured to the island five years ago by wildlife officials, who first placed the concrete replicas on the cliff side in December 1997, broadcasting their calls through a sound system in hopes of establishing a new colony.

He was the first gannet to settle on Mana Island in 40 years and conservationists hoped there would be many more, but none followed and he developed a moniker among his fans of “the world’s loneliest bird”.

In a cruel twist of fate, three new gannets were spotted on the island last year on Christmas Eve, marking 20 years since the concrete colony was first established, and it was thought that Nigel would finally have some flesh-and-blood company.

Posting on Facebook, the Friends of Mana Island group, who throughout the years have kept Nigel’s fans up to date with his exploits, said: “Some sad news from the island ... Nigel our first gannet has died suddenly.

“Nigel won the hearts of Friends of Mana Island members and visitors to the island, settling there alone.

“Here’s hoping the three new arrivals stay and reproduce.”

The island itself is a scientific reserve and subject to a restoration project, with seabirds playing a vital role to the ecosystem, their droppings providing rich nutrients and their burrows creating homes for other wildlife.

Nigel’s body was found by Chris Bell, a ranger from the New Zealand Department of Conversation, who also inhabits the island alone.
Nigel surrounded by his concrete look-a-likes (Facebook/Friends of Mana Island)
He told New Zealand news website Stuff that it was incredibly sad to lose the gannet patriarch just as three new birds were joining the colony.

“This just feels like the wrong ending to the story. He died right at the beginning of something great,” he said.

“I certainly feel sad. Having had him sat there year after year with his concrete mate, it just doesn’t seem how it should have ended.

“It would have been nice if he had been able to hold on a few more years to find a partner and breed.”

The Friends of Mana Island group posted a poem in tribute to Nigel, with the lines: “We weeded, we painted, we sprayed guano around, we hoped you’d find the real thing.

“Three newbies arrived, a Christmas surprise, but suddenly you are gone.”

Nigel’s body has now been sent to the Massey University to determine a cause of death.

It is unknown where he will be laid to rest but one fan suggested on the Friends of Mana Island group that he be cremated and his ashes stored in a concrete urn made to look like him.

(Source: Independent)

Women are speaking out about being sexually harassed during Hajj

While one might think that men would tame their vile urges while performing their religious Islamic duties in the holy city of Mecca, the reality is quite disturbing.

Women have recently been speaking out about their experiences with sexual harassment while carrying out tawaf around the Kaaba during their pilgrimage to Mecca.

It all started when Pakistani Sabica Khan shared a heartfelt Facebook post in which she detailed being harassed while performing tawaf, after which women began sharing their own encounters with sexual harassment in Mecca.

"My entire experience at the holy city is overshadowed by this horrible incident"

"I was literally petrified."

Khan started off her post by writing, "I was afraid to share this because it might hurt your religious sentiments." She then narrated how she was sexually harassed several times while performing tawaf.

Khan said she first felt a hand on her waist but brushed it off as an innocent mistake. However, the touching persisted and she was very uncomfortable.

"During my sixth tawaf, I suddenly felt something aggressively poking my butt, I froze, unsure of whether it was intentional.

I ignored [it] and just kept moving slowly because the crowd was huge," she wrote.

Khan explained that she could not turn around because of the huge crowd.

"When I reached the Yemeni corner, someone tried to grab and pinch my butt," she added.

In response, she stopped moving, grabbed the harasser's hand and yanked it off her body.

"I was literally petrified. [I] couldn't even escape, so I stood, and turned around as much as I could, to see what's happening, I turned around but... couldn't see who it was," Khan explained.

Khan went on to say she felt "so violated" and was "unable to speak out," adding that she remained quiet about the incident fearing that people would not take her seriously.

"My entire experience at the holy city is overshadowed by this horrible incident," she concluded, urging women to speak up about harassment.

Countless women said they have faced similar encounters

Encouraged by Khan's words, several women commented on the post with their own experiences.

One woman, who chose to remain anonymous, told StepFeed she has been sexually harassed multiple times during her many visits to Mecca for Umrah, the non-mandatory Islamic pilgrimage.

She said harassment is most common in the queue leading to the Black Stone, a rock set into the eastern corner of the Kaaba.

She explained that she has encountered "pinches and inappropriately being touched by male organs at the butt" on multiple occasions.

As a result, during her recent visits to Mecca, she has been avoiding the Black Stone and performing tawaf in the outermost perimeter, which is less crowded.

"Women aren't safe anywhere" ... Women respond to Khan's post:

"The holiest place on Earth disgraced by human beasts"

People are applauding Khan for speaking out

"You're not alone"

The issue seems alarmingly widespread

A reminder of people's hypocrisy

"Places don't matter"

(Source: Step Feed)