When I started this blog, I was making a ton of lentil and bean type soups by creating a mirepoix in a pan, sauteeing, and then, later, adding lentils, water, and simmering until done.  Bittman has done it again by generalizing the process. Especially interesting to me are his mushroom and tomato soup recipes, which seem little different in character from the older lentil soups I’d make. These new soups have the advantage that they are considerably more diabetic friendly.

This base (or similar) can begin plenty of soups.

It was a bounty crop of good reading in the online edition of the New York Times. There were at least six articles I bookmarked, to read later. The article on precocious science and Natalie Portman caught my eye, because one quote about Portman I thought applied equally to food blogging.

If anything, stories like Ms. Portman’s show that great success, like DNA, is constructed of a few basic building blocks: tenacity, focus, and the old Woody Allen line about just showing up.

There was an article about coconut oil’s improving reputation. Well, among the diabetic community, its reputation has never gone away, and our kinda folks have been patiently waiting for all you normal eaters to see the light. Bittman, continuing a theme ever since he moved from the Minimalist to  the Opinioniator blog, discussed ways to improve farm subsidies. A comment by GrassFarmer is eminently quotable.

I am a dairy farmer and I hate subsidies. They allow the biggest farmers in our township to rent all the land and plant corn & beans, thousands of acres. Then they concentrate cows, thousands, and get more US taxpayer dollars to build manure pits ($100,000) and digestors ($500,000) while employing illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, my grazing based dairy which matches cows (about 100) to an appropriate number of acres…..keeps the land cloaked in green grass to keep soil out of streams and manure out of wells. There aint no subsidy for my pastures and yet I am profitable even with the table tilted so far to the corn-bean-dairies I’ve got virtigo. And my milk and beef is proven more nutrient dense and balanced in omega-3:omega 6. In Wisconsin we’ve dropped from 50,000 smaller dairy farms (small business anyone?) down to under 10,000 large mechanized farms in a couple of decades. Get rid of subsidies all together and my kind of small modern farm could flourish and feed the world healthy food while employing 100,000 more people!

Researchers are looking into the art and science of self-compassion. Those that are easier on themselves lead healthier lives. Further, they seem more at home with their diets and therefore, eat better. If you’re having issues with tendons, a number of traditional remedies have been shown to fail, and finally, an article on the benefits of exercise as you age.

Wow. Not the normal haul from a daily newspaper.

One year ago to this day I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and chronic gout. It was an eye opener, a shot across the dietary bow. I had no choice but to get my metabolic house in order. So, over the last year I lost 80 pounds. My gout symptoms disappeared over the summer. In December I went off all diabetes medications and I’m treating my diabetes with just diet and exercise. I can show you one of the best dietary tools I’ve ever encountered:

It’s a miracle of modern civilization, called the stainless steel knife. Using one of these, you can cut your food into reasonable portions. You can then doggie bag the rest, to be eaten later or given to those in need. In the process, you get to practice prudence, practicality, and portion control. The 3 P’s, and a good oft used knife, will put you in good stead no matter how healthy or unhealthy your particular dietary routine might be.

With all due respect to Mark Bittman and his recent Manifesto, the essential issue in American food and health is portion control. Eating enormous quantities of very healthy food doesn’t make you any healthier than enormous quantities of relatively unhealthy food.

People cook in ways they know and trust. A recipe once learned may be modified or adapted to create another method of cooking. Sometimes the techniques transferred are vestigial. While working fine in their original context, they may not be optimal in another context.

One such place where this kind of non optimal transfer may be occurring are in dishes like curried lamb and lentil stew. I’ve made this, and when I did, I initially followed the directions exactly. One of the things this recipe wanted the cook to do was stir the curry spices in with the lamb and toast them for a minute or two. After doing this, the lamb was transferred into water and cooked for some 45 minutes more.

This approach, toasting the spices, makes a great deal of sense if you’re starting with cumin and mustard seeds and wanting to add the toasty flavor to the food. In other words, it’s a cooking technique, or pattern, derived from the cooking of curries. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in a watery stew where the long period of simmering will deprive the spices of their low molecular weight aromatics over time. In a stew or soup, you want to put the most flavorful spices in last.

I had seen this done a number of times in Indian cooking, where their love of dals is an influence on the various lentil recipes I’ve posted over time. I used this “last in” approach on a urid dal soup I made, but I never had a name for the technique. I just picked it up by reading recipes.

But Mark Bittman has just published an article in the New York Times and it puts a name to this technique. Mark calls it a tarka, and Mark talks about the use of a tarka (along with some advice on cooking with lentils). I haven’t looked closely at the recipes, but I’ll note that Mark’s advice runs contrary to the normal practice of Indian cooks with the tougher dals. Indian cooks soak them. For whole urid dals, I’d recommend an overnight soak and a good three hours cooking. The additional time changes the texture of these tough lentils, becoming less a soup and more a “dal”.

Garlic, chiles, and baby bok choy were cooked in olive oil and added at the last minute to this lamb and lentil stew.

I’ve done this “last minute cooking” with ‘oils’ other than clarified butter (ghee). I find that olive oil works well enough. In this stage, things like spinach or baby bok choy can also be prepped and added to these soups. Techniques like these not only work well in Indian influenced cooking, but you see related last minute additions in things like this Irish beef stew recipe as well. The tarka “pattern” is not only for Indian cooks, but for anyone wanting fresh leaf vegetables and fresh spice flavors in their soups and stews.

If you’re a regular NY Times reader, you probably won’t have missed this, but to remind me (and give a link I can pass on to family), I’ll note that Mark Bittman, author of “How to Cook Everything”, has a list of 101 easy starters to make for Thanksgiving. The other comment, more of a tip, is that good newspapers have a “printable” mode for long articles, that you can find. If you use it, it’s far more readable as all the text ends up on one page and almost all the ads go away.

One of my favorite Mark Bittman articles is “For the love of a good burger“, where he details how he likes to cook his burgers. The essence of the technique, as best I understand it, is to use a good but fatty cut of meat, grind your own meat, and then don’t compress your patties. When talking about compression, Bittman shares this bit of wisdom:

The patties should weigh about 6 ounces each: not small, but not huge, either. Handle the meat gently. Make the patties with a light hand, and don’t press on them with a spatula, like a hurried short-order cook.

It’s not exclusive to Mark Bittman either.  In Tony Rosenberg’s article, “A Perfect Burger, Top to Bottom“, he talks about forming the patties and again, there is an emphasis on being gentle when doing so:

Then work gently to make thin patties. If you really pack the burgers (particularly if you’re using leaner beef), they will acquire a dense, meatloaf-like texture. Thin burgers cook quickly and don’t ball up into fat pucks (heat tends to shrink the patties), plus you get a good balance of meat, toppings and bun in each bite. Gently press and stretch the patties, sprinkle them with a little salt, and make your way to the grill.

And in an article based on the advice of Bobby Flay, we see:

To get a nice char on the meat while keeping the inside juicy, cook over high heat, according to Flay, who cautions that you shouldn’t play with the meat while it’s on the grill: Place each patty on the grill (which you should have preheated for 15 to 20 minutes), let it get brown and slightly charred (this will take about 3 minutes), and then flip it. Flip each burger only once or they will start to fall apart. Don’t press on the burger either; this will cause juices to come out of the meat and will cause annoying flare-ups.

I have had in my life, maybe one and a half, maybe two “Bittman” burgers, burgers that were not flattened until the meat was firm and hard. Both times I’ve have had them at Ted’s Montana Grill, once in Cumberland Mall, and the half in Snellville. In each case the meat was almost falling out of the burger, the patty really wasn’t held together with much more than a prayer. But the meat is insanely tender when handled in this way. It’s not a style of burger that everyone likes. My reader Susan doesn’t, and calls them “crumbly”. Personally, I like the idea of hamburger that almost melts in the mouth and is, to my tastes, sublime.

I’ve been in communications with Foodie Buddha on the matter, he of the affable disposition and the nice burger joint tag. But I really want to throw this whole question open to the blogosphere: is there any restaurant in Atlanta that actually serves a good “Bittman” burger? Is there any restaurant anywhere that serves a burger without being pressed to death by short-order cooks? If not, why not? If so, why?

Notes: The blog ToastPoint has an interesting attempt to make a “Bittman” burger at home. Other interesting Bittman burger articles include the “Inside out Lamb Cheeseburger” and “The Real Burger“.  The blog “Eat” has an intriguing article on making a Bittman style lamburger. Checking the WordPress tag “great hamburgers” yields this interesting blog report on Burger Meister in San Francisco from the Meat Meister’s blog. Checking the WordPress tag “the perfect burger” reveals this review, by Dorothy on the Hill, of a place called the Eat Bar, in the Washington D.C. area.