Eating Soft Foods
—for Palliation or Pleasure
Last Saturday, while taking the first bites of my dinner—leftover slices from a delicious salsiccia pizza from Schilling Brewery and Taproom (see “The Short Pour” [the link will open in a new window or tab] The Short Pour)—I heard an ominous loud crack from what dentists designate #5, the premolar, or bicuspid, that sits two teeth back from the first canine, and then, not quite simultaneously, a powerful stupefying blow to my jaw, as if pounded suddenly with a mallet. Digging with my tongue for what I was sure would be a bit of sand, though it felt like I’d bitten down on a boulder, I found nothing but the usual and expected lubricious (and disintegrating) sparse ingredients of what I will point out again was actually a quite tasty thin crust pizza, perfectly and crisply baked in a wood-fired brick oven, and spread, if anything, over-liberally, with a slightly tangy, viscid mozzarella: seemingly nothing to threaten dental work there.
As the ripples of a deep dull pain spread from my teeth to my upper jaw and the TMJ, and I tried to answer the troubled questions of my wife, sitting right next to me. I don’t know what sound, or sounds, of pain and surprise erupted from me, but clearly I had sounded that something was wrong. I can remember thinking instantly: I’ve bitten down on something harder than human dentition is designed for and cracked a tooth. Actually what I thought was briefer, to the point, and spiced with some expletives—which were the more likely substance of whatever utterances I managed to voice.
Nothing in my life has ever caused me more existential angst than problems with my teeth, of which I’ve had a few. Among the more recent, now six years ago, was a similar fatal collision of a tooth, mine, with a foreign object, of a hardness less than diamond, but greater than enamel and dentin (among the internal substances that constitute a tooth’s structure). I was sitting, enjoying the sun on the deck of a favorite local restaurant in Aups, France, near the village in which we have a house, in the afterglow of a delicious lunch. To cap it off, I had an espresso, which, in one of those quirky bits of charm in which small bistros and restaurants express their inventiveness even to the smallest detail, was garnished with a bit of sweet. Usually it’s a demurely wrapped thin lozenge of very fine dark chocolate, and would that it had been. But the young chef has decided to garnish his demitasse servings with a house-marinated cherry, stem removed. What led me, beyond the thin film of unctuous liqueur-based syrup that clung to the cherry’s skin, and the aroma of it, to persuade me that the cherry was pitted I have no idea, save for a brief, but critical, lapse of mindfulness, induced no doubt by the reverie that was settling in because of the lunch. In all events, I bit down on the cherry with no regard for the safety of my teeth or the rest of my mouth, and proceeded to sheer off a thin wedge of tooth, in a rather premonitory way, in retrospect, from the bicuspid on the opposite side of my mouth in the upper quadrant on the left—mirroring my current injury.
Not to mince words, given my predilection for instant existential angst ignited by any trauma, serious or ultimately benign, to my teeth, I freaked out. I spit the errant pit into my hand, along with the shard of tooth, which I wrapped carefully in a tissue (to what end I am not exactly sure, probably some buried recollection of a tidbit of otherwise useless knowledge read in some forgotten news story months or years past, about whole teeth knocked traumatically out of victims’ mouths and somehow, through the miracle of modern dental technique, reinserted and saved). In my case, after a hurried transatlantic call—OK, how many dentists do you know in rural Provence?—to my dentist in Boston, who was just starting his day at the office, and who reassured me, after some rapid clear preliminary tests of the likely damage (heat, cold, air sucked in through pursed lips), all of which proved negative, that it could wait for my return home over six weeks hence. That tooth suffered no particular damage, and now sits perfectly functionally in my upper jaw, where it’s been since it first grew out, with a spiffy cubic zirconia crown covering it, so no one is the wiser.
I wish I could say as much for the latest artifact of my self-induced dental mayhem. Once the thrumming pain died down to a dull pounding, muffled by some ibuprofen, and long after the suspect pizza had been cast into the trash, I gingerly explored the injured tooth with the tip of my tongue. One half was still rock-steady and painless as a really tiny Gibraltar. The other half, on the inside, with the smaller cusp projecting from it, was clearly loose, and very tender, less like a rock than like deadwood.
Without burdening the more squeamish reader with any more details, suffice it to say, that ultimately, after two visits, three days and then a day later, (naturally, this past weekend was a national three-day holiday, and I’ve learned dentists don’t open on Memorial Day) to a very very competent local dentist, the tooth—wholly unsalvageable—is no longer in my head.
In the interim, and for now, as my advised regimen for a couple of days surrounding the extraction, I was and remain forced to consume what the booklet the dentist supplied described (to me hilarious in its earnest specificity) as “nutritious soft foods.” I was handed the booklet three days ago, but I know from past experience that soft food was my essential status quo menu as it has been for almost a week now. For one thing, until the tooth could be salvaged or removed, it was too tender to withstand the pressure of trying to chew into even the most compressible of foods.
As a result I’ve been eating on one side of my mouth for these few days, and will continue to do so until the gum is well on its way to healing. I’ve also, necessarily, reverted to a regimen which is at once childlike and, in the most apposite of qualities, replete with comfort foods. I’ve revisited some dishes I haven’t had in some time, one of them not since my own childhood, and the peculiar combinations of ingredients to which my mother introduced me and I always found not just soothing, but in their bland, nearly tasteless way, quite satisfying. I am fairly certain as well that the nutritional requirement must take a back seat to comfort. There are probably whole books on the subject of how nutritional needs go out the window when the greater need for comfort food comes in the door—and if there aren’t, there should be.
I thought it would make for an interesting topic here on Dinin With A G to review some of the fare that has kept me going through this latest dental ordeal.
When I was a boy, and considerably more svelte (in truth I was quite skinny, appallingly so to my mother; in a very healthy way, as science has since proven to be the desired condition, all things considered), I was plied constantly with food, most of which I refused. I wasn’t picky, mind you. I was, as I remain, quite discriminating. I didn’t eat a lot of things on the household menu, because my mother, plainly and frankly, was a lousy cook. That is, she was a lousy cook of anything but the fare she was taught to cook and ate herself as a child, the cuisine of Eastern European Jews. Pot roast? She was a master. However, roast beef or a steak became a grey, tasteless mass in her hands, as if rare meat consumed by humans were corollary to Original Sin. Fresh vegetables took on the colorless pallor only a DelMonte in one of its canning factories at the time could attain. And speaking of soft, whatever integrity a fresh carrot may have had when it started, after passing through my mother’s hands it ended up wilted on the plate and mushy in the mouth.
I took to abstaining unless the vegetables I was served were untouched by heat. I became a connoisseur of all manner of things raw, from carrots and peas, for sure, to such exotica as raw turnip, whose vaguely stinging bite I came to savor. As for cooked dishes, there were only a few, and these from the extensive repertoire of “native” foods my mother did quite well with. Curiously, I was only offered a small sampling of what I came much later in life to appreciate as the true range of her mastery.
Why I wasn’t offered the shtetl delicacies that my father smacked his lips over, I have no idea. To be fair, it’s also possible, that, like a lover who offers a suitor no requital, I’ve made the other the offender, and deny my own role in the spurning. Maybe I was offered gribbenes (the crispy bits of skin and slivers of flesh that remain in the pan after rendering chicken fat into schmaltz—the heady, heavenly textured “butter” of poor Jews, probably worse than butter from a nutritional standpoint, but nobody asked, and nobody told). Maybe I was offered kishke (the closest you’ll get to sausage in a Jewish household; essentially the cow’s scrupulously cleaned intestine, stuffed with bread crumbs and ground meat and offal, and highly spiced). Maybe I said no, maybe off-handedly, like a languid and indifferent Rodolphe to the perpetually spurned Emma Bovary. Maybe it was passionate (“No I won’t!” I was famous, even at the age of five, for declaring in other contexts, as pressure was brought to bear to end my resistance to the will of an adult). I have no recollection whatsoever.
I know I didn’t come to appreciate these delicacies, and many others, until well into adulthood. Yet there was, as I say, a small palette of dishes that somehow I came to appreciate; some of them predictable, as who doesn’t love potato latkes, let’s say? But others were likely more generic and spur of the moment inventions by my mother, hapless in her sense of defeat in her constant effort to fatten me up. “Lange luksch,” she always called me, from about six or seven years on, as I was not only skinny, but slightly taller for my age: “long noodle.” And in that name was the key to my weakness, or at least one of them, when it came to making sure I took in excessive calories.
I have always loved pasta. I especially loved the standard pasta of Jewish cooking, broad egg noodles, which were transformed into a wide range of dishes, including many entrees that were mainly “dairy” in the Jewish taxonomy of Kosher meals: a dish was either fleischig (incorporating any part of a Kosher animal, essentially beef or lamb) or milchig (made of, or derivative of, milk, and verboten to be consumed with anything that contained meat—and dairy included cheese, butter, variously soured versions of cream, in addition to the basic elixirs of milk or cream).
For Americans, especially in those days, pasta dishes were more readily envisioned as sauced with reductions of tomatoes and other vegetables, and bolstered with meat, from meatballs, to ground beef or veal, but whatever—exclusive of pork, of course, the unholiest of non-kosher animal flesh. Vegetables were Kosher-neutral or pareve, and could be eaten in combination with fleischig or milchig ingredients. But vegetable sauces, given the aforementioned deficiencies in my mother’s skill set, were beyond her.
So, what to do with my love of pasta—which I liked so much, I would eat it raw, crunching the bits like crackers, or sucking on a single strand of spaghetti like the world’s thinnest and most elegant of cigarettes—and my fortuitously complementary love of a wide array of dairy products? Easily enough, and with little labor, the answer was, to combine them.
Many were the dinners I had that consisted of a bowl of pasta mixed with butter, which my mother, perhaps desperately, but, as it turned out, unnecessarily would first lace with sugar (add an egg or two, some cinnamon and perhaps another spice or two, and a handful of raisins, and you’ve got the makings of a pudding—kugel in our parlance—which only required a buttered baking dish and an oven). Perhaps it was merely instinctual to add the sugar, an anticipatory step in the construction of the phantom kugel she had in her head.
I would have been, and often was (and have been since, especially when dining alone) quite satisfied with noodles and butter. Though that preference has been transmuted, truth be told, to a more respectably “sophisticated” dish of pasta aglio olio, pasta in a garlic and oil sauce—a dish cannot be simpler and still be considered cooking with finesse than this.
Kicking her game up a notch, my mother would try other dairy additives. Pasta with various forms of very young, dry small curd cheeses, for example. The most readily available is always cottage cheese. But then, at least in every Jewish delicatessen or any supermarket in the same neighborhood, there was also farmer cheese, which came in huge blocks and is essentially a pressed cottage cheese—a very bland analog to ricotta, that could be sliced or mashed, as well as pot cheese, a coarser variety of cottage cheese, and not too popular in our kitchen, at least when I was sitting at the table.
Pasta with cottage cheese actually could provide quite a number of essential nutrients, including complex carbohydrates, protein, and in itself as a dish almost satisfied my mother’s objective of getting as many calories into my mouth as possible. However, as is known among the practitioners of other great world cuisines, there is a universal lubricant and, well, a sort of culinary emulsifier, and all in forms that are basically cousins to one another that provides the necessary magic. Just as the French use crème fraîche and Mexican cooks use crema, Jewish cooks, as a final master stroke, add a dollop or two (or three) of sour cream—essentially cream which has been treated, by enzymatic action, and the judicious application of cooling and raising to room temperature—a tangy (mistakenly and perpetually designated as “sour”) potion that makes a lowly dish of pasta mixed well with bland curds of cottage cheese suddenly a vessel of a pleasurable melange of textures, subtle flavor blends, and (important to the diner on one side of his mouth) easily chewed and even more readily swallowed.
Sour cream is a not so secret pleasure. With chives and a little salt and ground pepper, plus an optional nugget of sweet butter, it makes a perfectly baked potato into a feast, most of whose calories are in the sour cream—and mostly fat at that, of course; there are low fat and even, mirabile dictu, no-fat versions, but God keep us from these. In significant moderation, the 60 calories or so of a generous portion of real sour cream, even though it’s virtually pure saturated fat, is worth the pleasure, and presents little danger to one’s health. Here’s the best way to make a portion of egg noodles with cottage cheese and cream:
Noodles with Cottage Cheese and Sour Cream
1-1/4 cups of dry noodles, preferably “extra-wide” or broad egg noodles, made from semolina wheat
4 Tablespoons of 2% milkfat small curd cottage cheese
1-2 Tablespoons sour cream
In salted boiling water sufficient to cover, add the egg noodles and cook al dente, usually 7-8 minutes. While the noodles are cooking, put the cottage cheese first, and then the sour cream into the bottom of a soup or cereal bowl.
Drain the noodles well, trying not to overcook. Even toothless, to the diner noodles lose their allure once they lose their integrity. Once drained, toss the noodles immediately into the bowl with the cottage cheese and sour cream, covering them. With a soup spoon, mix everything well, making sure it’s well blended, and the noodles evenly coated with sour cream. The mixture will be exactly the right temperature for consuming immediately. Your choice of fork or spoon.
—Distraction from the Extraction
Both before the procedure, and starting a good two days afterward, when it’s comfortable to chew at least softer foods at least on the other side of my mouth from the injured site, a great pleasure and distraction from my oral memento mori is dining out. Our favorite restaurant, only 20 minutes away on a rolling country road, with views of the Connecticut River, and the undulating countryside opposite on the shores of the Vermont side of the divide, is Ariana’s, located in Orford, NH. Its owner and estimable chef is the amiable, easy-going, and deceptively talented Martin Murphy, whose surname belies a deep interest in the cuisines of several countries and continents. Like as not, and early enough in the day, he will answer the phone to take reservations himself. And reservations are a must in this, the high, season. We were there again last night, a Saturday, and, far from the loneliest, it’s the busiest night in this unprepossessing farmbouse restaurant set amidst the corn fields of Orford. We got one of the last tables available, at the hour urban folks make fun of, 5:30, and glad to have the opportunity.
Real food is available in the sticks, if you know where to look, and you are lucky enough to be close enough to be within driving distance.
So we went there, just two days after my dental disaster, with the tooth still tender, but only to direct pressure, which I had no intention of applying. This meant avoiding my usual favorites, perhaps a filet from the grass fed local beef, raised on a farm just miles away on the same road. Or chicken, or shellfish.
I opted instead, first for an appetizer unique to Ariana’s among the local choices, and representative of the melange of flavors and textures Chef Martin has concocted. It’s pictured above, a snap I remembered to take as I was halfway through it. The pork dumplings are two-bite size purses of the tenderest rice pasta wrapped around local free-range pork ground and just poached to melt-away succulence. They’re served in a a light pork broth, seasoned with lime and chili and punctuated and enlivened with shreds of house-made cabbage kimchi—with an optimal level of tang and spice, without overcoming the savory goodness of the much more subtle main part of the dish. All of this is garnished with shards, as you can see in the photo, of freshly plucked (from the restaurant garden just outside) green onions.
As a second course, I finally had a dish my wife orders virtually every time we visit, she’s so enamored of it. A great lover of spicey food, with zest, and flavor, and made with imagination, as well as, if possible, devoid of animal flesh (when my mouth is up to par, I’ll often indulge in red meat, so we make an interesting and complementary pair of diners), she’s been praising the Vegan Curried Rice since the first time she ordered it. It’s described this way in the menu: “Ginger Jasmine Rice with a Coconut Curry sauce with Peppers, Mushrooms, Onions, Tomatoes and Scallions,” which goes a long way to telling you what’s in it, but does no justice at all to describing how compellingly all these are put together in a single dish, with balance, zest, poise and hanging together from first spoon- or forkful to last. Given the circumstances, I ordered it for myself for the first time.
It deserves all the praise my wife bestows on it. And it went down with nary a problem from any part of my mouth or the rest of me. I myself might have prepared a whole-grain, that is, a “brown” version of the rice or (we speculated as possibly interesting) even another whole grain entirely, like farro or barley… but that’s to quibble, not to mention play chef when nobody asked us. There is another dish on the menu, a Wheat Berry Pilaf, whose presence suggests that two whole grain dishes might be overkill given the otherwise apparently more commonplace preferences of most of the patrons of Ariana’s. The menu—by no means satisfying the soft foods requirement temporarily imposed on me—features duck confit, but at the same time there’s also a shrimp scampi. To balance the curried dish I described, not to mention that Pilaf, there’s also a Penne Bolognese. Given it’s the sticks, it’s a nice way to meet all appetites and palates, from the usual suspects to the vaguely exotic. I doubt very many people leave unsatisfied, and the difficulty of reservations for the four or five months a year the region is unencumbered by the vagaries of winter weather attests to that supposition.
The Basics of Soft Eating
The rest of my regimen during this trying week has, no doubt, a predictable quality to it, especially if one accepts that with the need for comfort, the need for healthy dining loses some part of the argument as to menu choices. There are plenty of soft foods, after all. The list gets shorter, and tighter, with the restriction that it somehow be “nutritious” as well. However, the mere qualifier has, at least legally, a lot of breadth of admissible interpretation. Generally, this means it should be nourishing and, as one dictionary has it, “efficient as food.” So ground chalk is out. However, all but the most fascistic of nutritionists allows for a certain amount of leeway, with the always necessary proviso of “moderation,” in the intake of foods otherwise known to be harmful to excess: the usual culprits being sugars and fats, especially saturated fats.
However, man or woman does not live by whole-grain, multigrain bread alone.
For one, a man or woman can spread a slice of that loaf of wholesome bread—assuming it’s a nice soft pullman version, or has been trimmed of any crunchy, crusty, chewy integument, aka “crust,” which has a tendency to head for tender exposed portions of an abused oral cavity—with a nice soft, very soft, spreadable cheese product. I happen to like “The Laughing Cow,” as it’s called, quite literally, in Anglophone markets, or as “La Vache Qui Rie,” as it’s sold all over France. Check the ingredients. A connoisseur or a dairy farmer will scoff, but out here in the sticks, where it’s not so easy to come by a ripe triple-crème, with a pedigree and integrity, especially at the local supermarket, this is an adequate substitute, especially taking into account the condition of old #5 up there in the upper right quadrant of my personal mouth. Aside from actual cheese, there are small amounts of common food additives, most or all of which are considered to have some nutritional value, and seem to be there mainly as emulsifiers and very mild preservatives—and the simple fact is, I don’t feel guilty eating it in the absence of something better—better nutritionally or better-tasting.
Sufferers sometimes can’t be choosers. And the simple fact is, I like it. For what it’s worth, I hate Velveeta and Kraft slices, which I doubt are actually cheese.
Switching gears, or sides of the plate, so to speak, let’s talk about foods that actually, and almost unquestionably, are good for you. Soft and nutritious could be a way of translating that Middle Eastern mainstay, centerpiece of many a mezze plate, star alternative to Lipton Onion Soup Dip at cocktail parties, otherwise known as hummus. A paste, minimally speaking, and usually minimal is best, of pureed chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, garlic, salt and little lemon juice, hummus is delicious itself, if a tad bland (though not tasteless, or it shouldn’t be, especially if you’re not a wuss about the garlic). There are myriad commercial blends and brands—few of them excellent, but even fewer inedible, though the latter exist—and it’s also easy to make, assuming you have tahini on hand, never mind the other less esoteric ingredients. We could make it in a minute in our kitchen back at headquarters—our home base in suburban Philadelphia—but, that’s as distant as my personal dentist. Sabra is a good brand, reliable, and increasingly available. It’s not the best we’ve had, but it’s far from the worst, and, because all major brands now come “flavored” with various condiments, in its “supremely spicy” version it is quite an exciting addition to one’s regimen, even daily. You can ask my wife.
Ordinarily we consume it on very crisp crackers. Trader Joe’s makes a very tasty multigrain brown rice cracker that is baked that comes in large bags and is a staple in our house. San-J brown rice crackers are also good, but pricey. There are always tortilla chips, an acceptable alternative especially in the low-salt or unsalted versions. However, given the need for soft things to stick in my mouth, I found it best to dip into the hummus with small squares, perhaps one inch to a side, perhaps a little smaller, that I cut out of slices of that multigrain pullman loaf I mentioned. Eating the hummus makes me feel good about myself, a little better about indulging in that Laughing Cow cheese product, and a lot better about the real bad, really gratifying indulgence that constitutes dessert in this velvety squishy gustatory interregnum forced upon me (I’m talkin’ doughnuts, but I’m not done with the healthy stuff yet).
As long as we’re in the Middle East, let me also put in a word for a regular companion to hummus on that mezze plate, the famous bulgur salad known as Tabbouleh, made with the aforementioned wheat, chopped tomato, garlic, parsley and lemon juice. It’s soft, requires little chewing, can be shoveled in on a 1-inch square of bread, or eaten plain. And there’s no question about being nutritious.
Back to dairy products for a moment, because I know many of you are wondering, where’s the yogurt? It’s for breakfast, as far as I’m concerned, and I prefer it with granola and fresh fruit, usually berries. However granola, though it’s made of smaller bits, is really not soft so much, especially the kinds I prefer, replete with dried fruits and nuts, and which tends to clump, because it’s often sweetened with honey. I know from experience these are not compatible with tender jaws, and after the extraction the bits and pieces are inadvisable near the still open socket previously occupied by a tooth. Hence I tend to eat the yogurt plain, or simply with berries.
And the berries I prefer are blueberries, which are available year-round, though their provenance moves from place to place around the globe, usually South America-way in the winter and then closer and closer to home in summer. They do not suffer as much in quality as strawberries do on the east coast, where the only place to buy strawberries that have half a chance of being decent is from local farm stands (or one of those “pick your own” places) in season. Strawberries are not quite here yet in northern New Hampshire, so I’m eating the blueberries I usually do, in a poly bin from the local market. Yogurt and berries, and that’s pretty much the recipe (except remember, always, to wash the berries and drain them, even if they’re organic).
It’s commonplace, to the point of demonstrating an utter lack of imagination, to call chocolate “sinful.” But there it is. And with my mouth in its delicate condition, of all the forms of chocolate in solid form that I could imagine eating, while also satisfying the need for extreme levels of comfort, is the most notorious of no-no food items (the real sin may be calling this food), the one indulgence I usually can control myself and refrain from having in the house for all but possibly one or two times a year. I am talking Entenmann’s Rich Frosted Donuts—240 calories each, including a full 50% of your daily recommended value of saturated fat in one compact efficient round delivery system (I feel it’s appropriate to use the same terminology the government does when speaking of tobacco products and nicotine), plus 10% of your daily carbs in no discernible healthy form, negligible fiber—I’m not sure how even a fraction of a gram got in there, as well as virtually no protein (which means the flour they use must be there purely for the bulk, and not good bulk either, and to carry the fat without letting it all melt away in the friolator). All in all, in one word, just plain bad. But man, are they good… And I’m allowed, because I have suffered. It’s all for the chocolate of course, which appears as a thin friable shell—so clearly the donut itself is merely an infrastructure for this skin of wonderfulness, and not, to continue with the theme, even close to good chocolate. Fortunately, what chocolate there is comes from cocoa, and no other part of the cacao bean (who needs cocoa butter when the recipe is already rich with palm oil, and hydrogenated palm oil, and sugar, and corn syrup—only the words “high fructose” keep them from being forced to label the ingredients as simple poison?).
I admit freely to my love of this junk, even at the risk of losing what little shred of reputation for culinary stature that might cling to me. I’m only human. And listen, I’ve just lost something near and dear and very personal, an actual bodily part of me for untold years, since childhood in fact, and which I valued and cherished as I did and do all of its companions, and for which loss comfort foods, including chazerai like Entenmann’s Rich Frosted, only begin to compensate. Check back with me when my gum has healed and I can once again eat like a responsible adult, and a mensch.