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Cooking For One: Finger foods in invitation to intimate with your meals

Thursday, July 08, 1999

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Lots of people say they don't like to cook because handling and touching food is icky. Raw chicken is clammy. Smearing baking pans with oil is messy. Stuffing a turkey is gross.

Right. But if you want to learn to cook and to be a good cook at that, you have be on an intimate relationship with food. Touch, feel, press, squeeze, pinch, rub and massage. You have to handle it.

Many Asian and Arab cultures eat with either chopsticks or the fingers. We Americans, saddled with our numerous metal eating utensils, are a distinct global minority.

So your mother told you it's bad manners to eat with your fingers. Sometimes it is. The rule of thumb, in formal settings, is to use utensils for most everything. For instance, it would be bad manners to glom onto a pork chop with both fists at a formal dinner when the hostess has laid out fine linens and silverware. Most meals taken at better restaurants fall into the same category.

In less formal settings, it's OK to eat some things with your fingers, and it is not, repeat not, bad manners to just pick up. Think about it. Most of our favorite foods are hand held: burgers, fries, wings, popcorn, bagels, doughnuts, pizza, fried chicken, cookies, tortillas, eggrolls, barbecued ribs and corn on the cob.

Anybody who can't or won't pick up a grilled lamb chop and gnaw the bone is standing a bit too high on ceremony and is immediately suspect as a person who avoids contact with food.

If you are a little uptight on the subject, try a couple of simple detox exercises in the kitchen. Use fingers instead of tools.

The solo cook has a distinct advantage here. Nobody's looking.

Start with simple steps. Squeeze lemons and oranges by hand. Roast peppers and rub off the skins. Toss salad with your hands.

Make bread and enjoy feeling the dough yield under the pressure of your palms.

Using the hands and fingers is not only convenient and informal, it's sensual. Point is, if you don't handle food, you won't understand it and cooking will always be something that somebody else does for you.

There are lots of foods that we eat in public that are perfectly fine to eat with fingers. Here's a list and some of the etiquette rules that go along with them.

Asparagus -- This is finger food. Pick up the spears unless the stalks are limp or really long, but avoid throwing your head back and looking like a trained seal. If you feel more comfortable using a knife and fork, do so. Either way is correct.

Artichokes -- There's no other way. Pull off the leaves with the fingers, scraping the meaty end of the leaves upside down through your teeth. Discard the leaf onto your plate. Never attempt to eat the whole leaves unless you want to OD on fiber. When you get to the artichoke heart, cut it with your knife and fork.

Bacon -- If it's limp, use a fork. But if it's dry and crisp, use your fingers.

French fries -- When served with a Big Mac, fries are universally eaten with the fingers. When eaten with steak or other foods requiring a knife and fork, cut fries into reasonable lengths and eat with a fork.

Pastries -- At a breakfast meeting, use the tongs provided (maybe) to get the pastry onto your plate. If the boss is watching, cut the pastry in half or quarters and eat with a fork. If it's not too sticky, fingers are OK.

Shrimp -- If it still has a tail, either pick it up with your fingers or use a knife and fork. If it has no tail, spear it with a fork. It's OK to eat shrimp cocktail with the fingers.

Raw veggies or chips and dip -- Fingers, of course, but no double dipping or you look like George on "Seinfeld" reruns.

Olives -- When the late Henry Morgan was asked if olives should be eaten with the fingers, he replied: "No, the fingers should be eaten separately." Whatever.

Finger-lickin' Asian Chicken Wing Sauce

Grill or broil chicken wings. To make 4 servings, buy 12 whole chicken wings (about 2 1/2 pounds) and hack into sections, discarding the wing tip. For classic Buffalo wings, dip the wings into a mixture of melted butter and hot sauce, as hot as you can stand it.

For variety, try this Asian dipping sauce. Hoisin sauce is to Asia as ketchup is to the United States.

2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2-inch piece fresh ginger, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves

Mix hoisin sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce and water in a small bowl; set aside.

Heat vegetable oil in a small saucepan over medium heat.

Sauté ginger and garlic until fragrant but not browned, about 30 seconds. Stir in hoisin mixture and cook until flavors meld, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Off heat, stir in cilantro. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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