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Thoughts on braising

My career as a blogger has languished throughout this (busy) academic year. Now as it gets busier still I will have a few things worth blogging about (not necessarily including what follows) so I'll attempt resurrection with a new post. Spring is indeed the season of rebirth, so I offer something I wrote in the dead of winter.

Thoughts on braising

Not too long ago I read Michael Pollan’s Cooked (2013) and was especially struck by the chapter on braising: ch. 2: “Water”; the book improbably uses Aristotle’s four elements – earth, air, fire, and water – as the premise for the foods Pollan explores. Some of the associations are a bit strained, like water and braising. The book also made me want to work more on baking – so I recently began a sourdough starter as described in Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread (2010) - and experiment with fermentation (Sandor Katz, The Art of Fermentation – 2012) - but most of all I was curious to learn more about braising. As I have a sort of connection with Samin Nosrat, the chef who helped Pollan with braising, I got in touch with her and learned of her forthcoming book – this is beginning to sound more like a bibliography than an essay - Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking. Like Pollan, I guess she felt the need to include four elements, though in her case they make a bit more sense. I volunteered in fact to be one of the testers for her recipes, though by the time she was ready I was out of the country and away from my kitchen. Anyway, I have pre-ordered the book and look forward to its arrival, presumably in the coming weeks.

All of that said, I have in recent years been conflicted about meat consumption. The way that we raise 99% of the meat in this country is distressing on multiple levels and so I attempt to avoid factory farmed meat (meaning that I end up spending more and eating less). Beyond that there are of course health and environmental issues. On the environment, studies suggest that most Americans could lower their carbon footprint more by giving up meat (or even just beef) than they could by giving up driving their car (and unfortunately that applies to grass-fed beef just as it does to the CAFO variety). From a health point of view it is hard not to imagine that Americans eat more meat than is good for them (and again certainly than is good for the state of the environment). Moreover, for decades now, nutritionists and the USDA have recommended low fat diets as crucial to lowering the risk of heart disease and other degenerative diseases. It turns out, though, that they may have been wrong. Recent books by Gary Taubes (Good Calories, Bad Calories - 2007) and Nina Teicholz (The Big Fat Surprise - 2014) – I’ll confess I have only read the latter – argue, based on a thorough review of the scientific literature, that not only is saturated fat not implicated in heart and other degenerative diseases, it may indeed combat those diseases (raising e.g. “good” cholesterol). The key to our national, indeed international, malady (obesity, diabetes etc.) would seem instead to be the high carbohydrate and especially high sugar diet we have been consuming. According to Robert Lustig: “Our current [US] fructose consumption has increased fivefold compared to a hundred years ago and has more than doubled in the last thirty years” (Fat Chance – 2012, p. 118). Those thirty years of course map perfectly onto the obesity/diabetes epidemic. Lustig engagingly describes in his podcast (“Sugar: The Bitter Truth” – 2009) that our liver processes sugar no differently than it does that other sometimes abused carbohydrate, alcohol, and so the increase in sugar consumption has also led to an epidemic in liver disease (or metabolic syndrome). What to conclude? Braise on (and pass the butter)?

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