lemon jelly

Things to Re-visit
September 13, 2008, 6:39 pm
Filed under: food, philosophy, recipes | Tags: ,

For the most part, I expect a lot from myself. Maybe my obsessive revisions come with the philosophical territory – sometimes, it seems that you have to be either a genius or a perfectionist to succeed in this business – but, even so, pretty much everyone knows that the prospect of failure when I’ve done my best terrifies me. Rewind to last fall when I got my first and only paper back from Introduction to Kant, then, and it probably won’t surprise you that I dropped the class, turned tail, and ran when I saw the less than stellar grade. Metaphysics, an incomprehensibly wheezy and Scottish professor, and poor grades were just too much to handle in the midst of a bigger crisis of confidence at the time.

Ever since, of course, any mention of anything even remotely related to the transcendental aesthetic, pure reason, or a priori synthetic judgements has pained me – made me wince, grind my teeth, and wave my arms dismissively – that is, up until last Tuesday. At 1:00 pm that day, I bit the bullet and joined the class for a second time, still dreading raspy, brogue-addled run-on sentences and German obscurity but resigned to the fact that a philosophical education isn’t complete without a good grasp of Immanuel Kant.

It wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was splendid. I hung on to almost every word. Maclachlan’s Scottish mutterings made my head light up with the past year’s worth of formal logic, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind. Things actually made sense! A little time and experience has made all the difference. Some things might just be worth re-visiting (we’ll have to see how the first paper goes…).

Bok choy, though, has definitely proved to be one of those things worth re-visiting. I went on this dirt-cheap six-day tour through central China last December, and I swear that greasy, bland bok choy was the only vegetable served on our tour circuit, lunch and dinner, from Nanking to Shanghai. There was even some at one of the hotel breakfast buffets. Not surprisingly, bok choy didn’t make my grocery list after that. But then, a couple of weeks ago, I saw one of my favourite vendors at the farmers’ market selling cute little bundles of Shanghai bok choy and couldn’t resist.

Stir-Fried Bok Choy

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large clove garlic, sliced
  • 1 tbsp fresh ginger root chopped
  • 1 fresh red chili, de-seeded and chopped
  • 1 small bunch Shanghai bok choy (about a quarter pound), separated into stalks
  • 1/4 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tsp cilantro, chopped
  • 1/4 tsp honey
  1. Heat oil over medium-low heat in a sautee pan.
  2. Add garlic, ginger, and chili to oil and brown, about five minutes.
  3. Turn up heat to medium, add bok choy, and stir until wilted, about three to five minutes. Add sesame oil.
  4. Remove bok choy from heat. Sprinkle with cilantro, drizzle with honey, and toss. Serve over rice.

Makes 2 servings.


Modest Steps

Contrary to popular understanding, philosophy is a pretty modest enterprise. The days of grand, architectonic metaphysics are pretty well over. No one today is going to sit down with a pen and try with a little a priori deduction to convince you that God exists. One of the hallmarks of any grounded method or mode of inquiry is its practitioners’ recognition of the method’s limitations. Without it, you end up with embarrassments like St. Anselm’s folly. I think it’s safe to say that some hard lessons have been learned and that philosophers generally don’t entertain those kinds of pretensions anymore.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally get tripped up by overambition. I realised last night that I’ve probably been having trouble with my thesis because I’m not quite ready to settle the ongoing debate in liberal theory in twenty pages. So, today I’ve been scaling back and taking modest steps – in food and in philosophy.

A few nights ago, I made Daniel Pattern’s honey-glazed apricots, but lacking the requisite vanilla ice cream, I’ve been smushing the lovely sweet-tart apricot halves on toast for breakfast. At lunch today, I decided that that gooey goodness would work well with some old cheddar too. Grilled cheese, anyone? Unpretentious and completely doable.

Gooey Grilled Cheese with Smushed Apricots

  • two slices multigrain bread
  • softened butter for slathering on bread
  • thin slices of aged white cheddar
  • 2 honey-glazed apricot halves or 1 tbsp of apricot jam (see above)
  • a pinch of sucanut or brown sugar (optional)
  • 5 or 6 medium basil leaves
  • fresh ground pepper
  1. Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Butter each slice of bread on one side and flip over. Top one slice with half the cheddar. Layer with apricot halves and smush with a butter knife until fruit breaks out of skins. Spread fruit evenly over cheese. Sprinkle with sucanut if using.
  2. Smash basil leaves with the end of a wooden spoon to release oils. Stack leaves one on top of the other, roll up from stem towards tip, and slice thinly to get curled shreds. Layer basil on apricots. Add pepper to taste, followed by the remaining cheese. Top with second bread slice, buttered side up.
  3. Grill sandwich on skillet, 3-5 minutes per side, flipping when bread is golden. Slice on a diagonal and serve immediately.

The Luxury of Choice and What It Affords
July 23, 2008, 1:40 pm
Filed under: food, philosophy, recipes | Tags: , , , , ,

Between chapters on consociation at work yesterday, I came across an interesting article in The New York Times entitled “A Locally Grown Diet With Fuss but No Muss.” For the most part, it reports on the entrepreneurial activity that has sprung up recently in response to the sudden trendiness of locavorism. Such services as organic-fruit home delivery and backyard-organic-garden development/maintenance are being offered by a growing number of small businesses for people who would like to enjoy the benefits of organic or sustainably grown produce but can’t be bothered to visit the farmers’ market or start a garden of their own. However, the article also provides some analysis of mainstream motivations for eating locally. It identifies locavorism as a trend comparable to that of organic food – a movement popularised by food aficionados and environmentally conscious individuals alike.

Naturally, this got me thinking about the relations between luxury, morality, and choice. Adherents of ‘food movements’ like locavorism and vegetarianism are often accused of being self-righteous and overly moralistic. It is said that they fail to recognise the real problems of the world in over-complicating their own lives of privilege, that they are just being finicky about the details. Of course, this kind sneering antagonism irks me to no end. Yes, it’s true that the people who subscribe to these movements are the people who can afford to. Organic produce is significantly more expensive than its run-of-the-mill counterparts. I haven’t baked a single batch of cookies since beginning my little ‘vegetarian odyssey‘ because paying nearly $10 for four sticks of butter would be in my case just a bit outrageous. However, the fact that eating ethically is limited by the expenses associated with it, a luxury even, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a legitimate practice. What it does demonstrate is that moral action is constrained by choice, and that with respect to dietary practices, choice is a luxury. The people who can afford to buy organic/local and do so aren’t necessarily more moral than those who don’t. Rather, these locavores, vegetarians, and organic enthusiasts are simply meeting the extended set of responsibilities that come hand-in-hand with the privileges afforded by more choice.

This isn’t moral relativism. Moral obligations are only legitimate insofar as the people to whom they are prescribed can in fact carry them out. So, the fact that these new food ‘isms’ might only be realistic for a limited number of people right now doesn’t make them any less of an obligation for this number. The real point of contention is whether you, me, or Jones belong to the category of the exempt or the obligated.

Obligation isn’t so bad, really. Will another recipe persuade you? I didn’t grow these cukes myself, but I at least made it as far as the farmers’ market.

Cucumber Salad with Toasted Sesame and Ginger

Note: Cucumbers are pretty water-laden suckers, so this isn’t the sort of salad I would recommend making in advance. Cutting the cucumbers and letting them drain in a colander with a teaspoon of salt for half an hour might help, but I was racing to get to work when I made this.

  • five Kirby or pickling cucumbers cut into matchsticks
  • 1 scallion, green and white parts finely sliced
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp mirin
  • 1 tsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp toasted sesame oil
  • 1/2 tsp honey
  • 1 tsp freshly grated ginger
  • 2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
  1. Whisk together olive oil, mirin, soy sauce, sesame oil, honey, ginger, and sesame seeds in a medium bowl. Add cucumbers and scallions. Toss and serve immediately.

Simple Granola
July 16, 2008, 2:00 pm
Filed under: food, philosophy, recipes | Tags: , , , , ,

A couple of weekends ago, I made two bank-breaking purchases – an incredibly cute pair of heels and a food processor. Naturally, this led to a spate of bemoanings on my part about how I shouldn’t be spending so much money when there are arguably more important things like tuition and travel to consider. Keran, who was staying over at the time, had to put up with all of this, but she just rolled her eyes and told me bluntly that, though the shoes were definitely worth it, the food processor was completely unnecessary.

I protested, of course, pointing to my already mangled feet while enumerating on all of the wonderful things I planned to make with my new sexy, stainless-steel machine. However, she wasn’t very impressed with the possibilities of homemade hummus, nut butters, and various purees. Keran, dear though she is to me, just isn’t the type to bother with kitchen labours. She did make a memorable chicken curry for me once last fall, but you might say that our friendship has largely been built on meals at expensive restaurants and lamentations over boys. She appreciates great food but doesn’t see the (potentially) elaborate efforts behind it as worth her time.

I didn’t think much of our brief discussion at the time, but after considering how much went into our Friday-night dinner and the endless mounds of dishes I always seem to be scouring at, I began to ask myself why in fact I bother. I do spend a lot of time (at least during the summer months) in the kitchen, at the farmers’ market, and thinking about food. Maybe if I weren’t so intent on soups from scratch and interesting greens, I’d actually get around to reading things like that Adorno book I bought two years ago. Of course, I’d never really consider giving up on my kitchen adventures. It just took some thinking to say why.

What it comes down to is this: for me, at least, making food is in itself a worthwhile experience with its own rewards. I won’t deny that chopping vegetables is generally a torturous task, but there is something distinctly magical about how kitchen toils transform into something delicious. Maybe, at heart, I’m still five years old, or maybe, I just like to make my life more complicated than it need be, but I think that it’s quite possible that there’s something to appreciate in my painstaking, sometimes crazy culinary efforts. For me, the struggle is always part of the satisfaction. Food is a labour of love worth all the more because of the labour.

Of course, cooking isn’t for everyone, and sometimes, it just isn’t practical, affordable, or possible to do it all yourself. After all, I’m still happy to have someone else milk cows, make sourdough loaves, and ferment my tofu for me. Even so, I think that making some things yourself is worth a try, just once. Start with something simple, like granola. It’s hard to mess up and worth every bite.

Simple Granola

Adapted from The Tassajara Bread Book

Note: Granola is easy because you can make whatever substitutions you’d like as long as you abide by the ratios: 3 parts oats, 2 parts whatever else + 1/4 cup honey and 1/4 canola oil for every 5 cups of dry ingredients. I’ll eat this granola on its own, with some raisins or dried cranberries, with yogurt, with a little wheat germ for added nutrition, or added to whatever commercial cereal that happens to be lying around. It’s incredibly versatile stuff and so good. I suspect that substituting some of the honey with maple syrup (or just adding some in addition to the honey) would make for an even better granola, but I ran out of maple syrup recently and haven’t had the chance to try it.

  • 3 cups large-flake rolled oats (not the quick-cooking kind)
  • 1 cup chopped almonds, pecans, walnuts or some combination of these
  • 1 cup sunflower or pumpkin seeds
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees F.
  2. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add honey and oil, then mix until evenly coated.
  3. Spread mixture out in a thin layer on to a large, parchment-lined baking sheet and bake in preheated oven for 45-50 minutes, stirring granola around at about the 20- and 35-minute marks for even browning.
  4. Let cool to room temperature and store in air-tight containers.

A Family Affair
June 26, 2008, 12:05 pm
Filed under: food, philosophy | Tags: , ,

Tomorrow is a bit of a big day. I’m hopping on the train after work to visit my parents for the long weekend. Since they will try to overfeed me as parents are apt to do, I will have to tell them at some point that I am no longer eating meat or animal products obtained in factory-farm conditions.

It’s quite possible that I have a penchant for melodrama, but I don’t think that this will go over well. I would never say that my parents are small-minded people, but I do think of them as being rather set in their ways. It’s not as if they’ll treat my new dietary restrictions as a moral affront or a challenge to their own lifestyle, but I’m afraid that they won’t understand where I’m coming from or even consider it a viable alternative to how they live. I expect a string of protests concerning my health and well-being and then many efforts to persuade me to eat some meat at least once in a while. It shouldn’t be a terrible affair of cursing and door-slamming, but I anticipate some pain on my part.

Of course, it doesn’t quite have to be this way. In a sense, I’m under no obligation to explain myself to them. Understanding isn’t in fact required on their part, only begrudging acceptance. However, I’m not a big fan of this kind of thinking. It smacks of teenage brattiness and bellowing things like “It’s my life, and I can do what I want!” It is unreflective self-assertion at its worst. Yes, as a free and rational individual, I am entitled to make my own decisions and to conduct myself as I will without the interference and interjections of others. At the same time, I think that that very free agency entails a responsibility to offer a rational account for the choices I make. So, just because my diet is well within the domain of personal choice doesn’t mean that it can’t be subjected to scrutiny or that it doesn’t require defense on other, more objective grounds.

Tomorrow, then, I will sit down with my parents at dinner and tell them that I’m no longer eating meat and a large variety of other animal products. I expect much dismay and maybe even some disappointment, but I won’t leave it at that. I will try my best to get them to understand that I have made a personal and moral commitment to recognising the interests of non-human animals and why this means that I won’t be eating the way that I used to. Then and only then is free choice a legitimate trump card.

The Vegetarian Odyssey
June 20, 2008, 11:46 pm
Filed under: food, philosophy, Uncategorized

I had a prof who once explained the Aristotelian notion of a first mover in terms of a lemon jelly doughnut. “Motion,” he said, “begins with desire.” While the details of the Metaphysics are largely lost on me now, it’s still true that little makes me happier than food and philosophy.

Up until recently, any intersection between the two was incidental. Brownies were an afterthought – a little something to keep us going while we poured over a semester’s worth of notes on qualia and consciousness or identity politics. We may have talked shop as we beat eggs or melted butter, but the confections themselves were never really central to the conversation.

Food and philosophy, of course, are not mutually exclusive matters, and this is old news. It’s just taken a bit of time to register with me. Plenty has been written on the ethics of modern food production and consumption already, and with menaces like BSE and world famine hitting the press, there’s bound to be plenty more. My interest here, then, isn’t in finger-wagging and moralising. Rather, I want to document my experiences as I go about changing the way I eat and, of course, share some recipes.

After twenty odd years of eating meat – everything from my grandmother’s turkey pies to frog innards served in a papaya – I’ve decided that it really isn’t a practice I can justify continuing. Factory farming, environmental damage, and slaughter, at least in my mind, weigh quite heavily against gastronomic pleasures. With the help of some friends and philosophers, then, I’ve set out on the first few steps of what I’ve termed my ‘vegetarian odyssey’.  In keeping consistent with my moral convictions, this means at minimum (1) no more meat and (2) no animals products that were obtained in cruel or inhumane conditions.

Of course, there are other considerations that come along with this change – namely, health, grocery bills, and delicious food. Since I am still a health-conscious and food-loving but impoverished student, I’ll be keeping all of these in mind as I write and cook here.