Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Art Imitating Life

Trips to Northern California always seem to inspire me to write. It’s a rich area for anyone who is food inclined. Obviously with the wineries and San Francisco clustered so close together a food scene is bound to thrive, and the proximity to farms that benefit from the temperate weather that prevails for most of the year doesn’t hurt either. I had some awesome food and wine on my annual jaunt this year. Lovely fancy restaurants, innovative chic casual ones, some damn good Puerto Rican food, local olive oils and everything in between (with the exception of a sad oyster fail on the coast due to odd scheduling, fyi apparently everything closes on Tuesdays). 

But what got me thinking when I was flipping through pictures after returning home was an art exhibit Shea and I stumbled on out on Point Reyes. And I do mean stumbled on: there was no museum, no well advertised art gallery to draw attention to the exhibit. At the back of a “general” store in what counts for Point Reyes Station’s downtown strip there was a display of canned goods.

These were canned goods as art. Canned goods as commentary in many ways. The room felt sort of like wandering into someone’s pantry, and sort of like stumbling into a pretentious art gallery. I was, and still am, torn on how I feel about the exhibit.

Aesthetically it was right up my alley: rough wooden shelves, natural light, natural fibers. The subject matter was also in many ways right up my alley, I’ve been playing around with canning on and off for the last couple years from a purely practical standpoint as a way to survive abundant CSA shares.

In many ways I loved the exhibit; in the same way that I love most folk art exhibits because they celebrate a tradition of functional art mostly created by women in eras when artistic expression wasn’t encouraged if you were female. It’s the same thing that drew me to focus on social and cultural history over military strategy and politics when declaring a major in college. Until relatively recent decades the history of women was woven into the fabric of the textiles they wove and stirred into the recipes they made.

I was reminded again of this in reading a (sort of terrible) book I’ve had on my reading list for a while that reimagines some elements of the Salem witch trials. The book isn’t great, so it doesn’t bear mentioning except that watching the modern character in the book try to reconstruct the history of all these 17th century women from probate records because women didn’t really write things down reminded me about why cultural and social history matter.

Because of that, part of me loved this exhibit on preserving food. (I’m sure there’s an analysis in there about preservation of tradition and literal preservation of food for survival or something, but I’ll leave that to art critics.) The part of me that couldn’t wholeheartedly get behind the exhibit is the contrarian that rolls its eyes every time some “olde tyme” tradition gets popular.

I’m happy these traditions are surviving in such a technologically focused age, I am. And the more people who are moving away from buying processed food and scary prepared items, the better. But these traditions survived in many areas before they were trendy. Maybe it’s the herd mentality that irks me. Or maybe it was the $150 price tag stuck on one of the canned works of art in the back of the Point Reyes Station general store. As a whole, the exhibit might have some meaning. As individual works of art I can’t help but think that a $150 jar of dilly beans is just an overpriced jar of dilly beans that someone could have made on their own. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Things Gleaned From the AP

Several months ago the newest edition of the AP style guide landed on my desk at work. For anyone who doesn't know it's a quintessential resource for writers. It helps keep track of the millions of specific, counter intuitive rules journalists follow. It's a way to ensure continuity. Grammar geeks like myself dig books like this. And because it's used by the writers and editors who produce a lot of what we all read, it's interesting to see what makes the list. What terms are so important or so often questioned that they need to be included in the book everyone consults when copyediting their work? Which is why I noticed that the 2011 edition of the style guide includes--for the first time--a section dedicated to food.

Separate sections have existed for years for business and sports writers, but there has not been a dedicated section for food writers, restaurant reviewers, etc. It could be a sign that food has crossed into the realm where it's equated with sports as an acceptable hobby (read: obsession). Of course, arguably that status was achieved years ago and the AP is just now catching up. Regardless, I found the words and terms that were included in the guide an interesting, if at times bewildering read.

In no particular order they are:
  • Balogna is undefinable. Described only as "lunch meat," it is a terrifyingly vague definition, especially when compared with prosciutto, "a salt-cured Italian ham, served thinly sliced."
  • You want to be labeled a gourmet, not a gourmand (someone who likes good food, who tends to eat to excess, aka a glutton). A gourmet is "a person who likes fine food and is an excellent judge of food and drink."
  • Corn dog is 2 words.
  • You can call it a colander, but strainer is "preferred." (Preferred by whom the book does not specify.)
  • Carnaroli is an Italian rice similar to arborio, both used to make risotto. (Personally I'd say carnaroli is superior, but let's not split hairs. I'm just impressed it made it onto the list at all.)
  • There is NO apostrophe in farmers market. Unless of course a singular farmer owns the market in question.
  • The term frankfurter is still apparently used. (Really?!?)
  • Filet-O-Fish earned its own entry. (!)
  • Filet mignon, that super tender beef cut, is usually 1-2 inches thick and cooked by a brief searing, then finished in the oven or under a broiler. The definition is that specific. 
  • Crock-Pot is a brand, not an appliance. Unless it says those words on it what you have is a slow cooker. (other brand vs. object entries include: Fluff vs. marshmallow spread and zip-close bag vs. Ziploc. However, that thing you put hot beverages in can be a thermos or a Thermos.)
  • Dr Pepper does not have punctuation in it. (Dr not Dr.)
  • Note: French dressing, french fries, French toast. Capitalization counts. The "french" in french fries refers to the cut, not the country of origin. (Freedom fries do not rate an entry.)
  • Grits make the cut. Polenta does not.
  • Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on corn and is considered a delicacy in Mexico. It's flavor is smoky-sweet. (Is this a term that comes up a lot?)
  • It's Jamaica rum, not Jamaican.
  • Ketchup, not catsup.
  • Locavore is in there. (ugh!)
  • Kool-Aid is still apparently considered food.
  • Mustard=the condiment. Dry mustard=the powder. Specificity counts.
  • Red onions are also apparently called Italian onions. (Who knew.)
  • Skillet is preferred to frying pan.
Don't you all feel more prepared now?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

On The Perils of Working Outside

DC’s 80 degree spring weather has arrived, and with it the temptation to throw over all productive activities in favor of drowsy, lazy afternoons outside. 

Today I arrived at a compromise: utilizing the shade provided by the tree behind my apartment I have discovered a way to both work near enough to my internet connection to actually do work and work outside while still seeing my computer screen. Big win.

What I did not count on was the temptation this beautiful day would provide to anyone with a penchant for cooking outdoors over fire. The smells of herds of DC grills all heating up steak is driving me mad.
Even the last of my latest cheese splurge wasn’t enough to satiate the grill induced hunger. 

What is it about meals cooked over fires? They are almost always perfection. And the first few of the season are downright inspirational. 

I guess I shouldn’t complain, my house was the house of grill temptation on Easter when MN grilled a butterflied leg of lamb for a tasty twist on Easter tradition. It was delicious. As was the new brussel sprout treatment I discovered (hint: it involves bacon and lemon and can be found here). 

I’ll just have to settle for the knowledge that grilling season has begun and we have two full months of grilling fun before DC gets too hot to cook in. And since I can see a wood fired Argentinian style grill and a massive oil drum smoker from my current perch, it shouldn't be too long now.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Food for Thought

I read an article over the weekend that provoked some questions about what we should value in food. The article’s three-way conversation (between two chefs and one well known author and television personality) came down in the end to a debate over ingredients or technique as paramount. 

Unsurprisingly given the cutting edge techniques employed by one of the chefs, he argued strongly that the tendency to exalt the ingredients over the chef is leading to mediocrity. It is a mistake to focus on just ingredients, he suggested. He asserted that if one is paying a certain amount of money to eat in a certain caliber of restaurant one should assume the ingredients are going to be high quality but what makes a meal rise above mediocrity is what the chef does. That the cooking is what counts. 

I so see the point. It’s bound to come up in every creative outlet in some form. In writing: if you have a good subject matter for a stellar story, how much is attributable to the word gifts of the author? If a photograph depicts something beautiful, how much value is placed on the eye of the person behind the lense? Etc. etc.  In essence he seemed to be arguing that quality cooking is about what the creative artist (here the chef) does with the raw materials he or she is given. 

Which is true. Except it obliterates some sad realities about our current food system. Leave aside for a moment that whether or not we “should” be able to assume a certain quality of taste in ingredients in a certain class of restaurant, I don’t think we always can do that. And leave aside for a minute that the kind of food this particular chef cooks is to the food most of us eat as haute courture is to jeans and a t-shirt. 

I’m not entirely sure where I come down in this particular argument. Being someone who both enjoys supporting local farms and purveyors and someone who is frustrated and infuriated by the trendy lemming-like rush to “farm-to-table” concepts, I get the frustration. Simply sourcing hard to find heirloom ingredients for a restaurant does not a five-star dining experience make. But at the same time, democratizing the awareness that foods grown, cultivated and bred in certain ways improves both the quality of those foods and their impact on the world seems like a positive step.

Friday, January 13, 2012

This Little Pig

At lunch today at a local restaurant I had a visceral reminder of how much food culture has shifted since I grew up the child of 60's-era hippies (as previously referenced and illustrated here, I mean really look at that hair! the lapels!), primarily in the figure of the enormous half pig carried through the dining room and plunked on the counter of the open kitchen. I was psyched, but suffice to say my semi-back to the land parental units gave us a childhood that wasn't entirely mainstream. Wonderful, yes. Mainstream? Not so much.

The fact that we ate eggs from our own chickens and raised pigs and a cow to eat isn't really your usual 1980s childhood tale. Granted, in rural Vermont where I grew up it was. Southern Vermont is steeped in rural familiarity with small farming enterprises; rural areas held on to those memories of where our food came from long after it became a styrofoam wrapped commodity in most places.

But for mainstream U.S. society food became something that seemed to sprout out of thin air in the refrigerated case at the supermarket. That divide was very clear to me in the decade since I left Vermont for urban areas. Apparently it was unusual that we had a cow, incidentally named Roast Beef (RB for short-a tag my father and I each steadfastly blame on the other). Unusual also were the chickens. And the pigs. The flock of very mean geese. The rabbits. The pheasants. The occasional goat. Horses, bantam hens (smaller than the regular ones), araucana chickens (they lay smaller, pastel eggs), homing pigeons. And a partridge in a pear tree. Just kidding, but only about the partridge. The rest were real.

It's not exactly a scene from Family Ties or the Cosby Family. And yet today I watched diners calmly eat their lunch in a vaguely upscale trendy restaurant inches away from a chef butchering half of a very large pig. The first thing that came off was the head. Out came the iPhones, but aside from that she could have been slicing lemons for the bar. Okay, they were a little more interested than if she was just cutting citrus, but you see my point. It's pretty hard to ignore that your brussel sprouts sauteed in bacon (which were fantastic btw) aren't connected to the 400 pound pig being carved up before you.

Or is it? Part of me wants to say, bravo. We've normalized the food chain again. But the cynic in me has to ask, have we really? Or are we just fetishizing our food and turning it into dinner theater? To be fair the restaurant didn't seem to be deliberately putting on a show. It was well after the lunch rush and the concept of the place is that all its kitchens are wide open. There really isn't anywhere else to do basic prep, even if it does involve carving up a pig. I just hope those diners watching also take the time to gain transparency into the food they buy, eat and cook at home.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Lazy Ratatouille Recap

Digging through e-files today I discovered a long lost post written but never published. So despite the transition from tomatoes to apples and all that autumn entails, here's where I was at for July and August. Plus it seemed to fit with our handy dandy new header (thanks Shea). Love the tomatoes.

Julia Child (JC) is adamant about a number of things. Among them she insists that the elements of ratatouille (tomatoes, onion, garlic, peppers, zucchini and eggplant) MUST be cooked separately before they are combined. It has something to do with integrity of flavor I suppose. I’ve made JC’s version. It’s fantastic, and I must admit worth the extra effort if you have the leisure time.

However, on a Tuesday night after work I’m usually uninterested in the prospect of turning a potentially one pot, quick dinner into a 50 minute labor-of-love-homage to French cooking. Sorry, JC.

And really, while her version is outstanding there’s a million ways of deliciously combining tomatoes, onion, garlic, peppers, eggplant and zucchini. (Or aubergine and courgette if you prefer. Such pretty words.) Add to that the seasonal felicity of all those items and basil appearing at the same time in my CSA haul. With the exception of peppers: when faced with a choice between taking one less heirloom Cherokee purple (unthinkable) and an unexciting green pepper, I made the obvious choice.

Given the Tuesday-state of things I opted to violate JC’s cardinal rule of ratatouille making, and horror of horrors cooked everything in one pot. Hopefully the fact that I used my very best and prettiest pot (Le Creuset to be exact) will help make up for my sins.

And the results, while not strictly traditional, were awesome both hot and cold when incorporated into a pot of Israeli couscous cooked in broth. I don’t usually measure when I’m cooking out of my head but roughly speaking I think I used equal amounts of the aubergine and courgette; an onion; two cloves of minced garlic; most of a large container of grape tomatoes; salt; olive oil; a tablespoon-ish each of anchovy paste and tomato paste; and a sizable handful of basil leaves.

Chop the courgette into bite size pieces, toss with salt in a colander and leave in sink to drain while prepping other ingredients, stirring it occasionally. After chopping all necessary ingredients to give the eggplant time to do its thing (i.e. releasing some of its bitterness) sautée onions in oil. When they're soft add the garlic and cook until just fragrant. Add eggplant and cook until it loses some of it’s resistance. Add zucchini and sauté until crisp tender. I added anchovy and tomato paste here, stirring to fully incorporate. Then tomatoes. Turn heat to low and simmer while couscous cooks (a 2:1 broth to couscous ratio boiled in a pan until liquid is almost entirely absorbed). When couscous is done I turned off the vegetables, tossed in some chopped basil. And mixed the two pots together. Finis. 

It may not be traditional, but it was certainly delicious. This is what I love most about having a csa, the abundance of fresh ingredients that I'm forced to do something with. It's made me very appreciative of how well seasonally symbiotic crops go together. (See above recipe.) Even lacking in one typical ingredient things still taste right. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Evolution of an Eater

I just finished reading a Mark Bittman excerpt about how he learned to cook at His was a largely accidental and practical journey. It’s a path that I would assume resonates with a lot of people. And from the perspective of a child of parents of his generation who had a very similar approach to cooking I think I learned from my parental units the same way Bittman's eldest daughter learned from him. My parents were no fuss, fresh ingredient oriented, aging hippies as well.

My father went through various cooking “phases” where he would become enamored of the cooking styles of his Italian ancestry (kicking off a Marcella Hazan exploration that I was unappreciative of until I was much older) or lavish annual Memorial Day and Christmas Eve parties (which could account for my masochistic urge to host dozens of friends for sit down dinners). In our house however, my father was the “special occasion” cook (although to be fair that has completely shifted in recent years).

When my siblings and I were children my mother was responsible for the day-to-day nourishment of the family. It was a skill she didn’t pick up until she was an adult. It was my father who taught her to cook in the early days of their relationship. My father-the product of a woman who was decades ahead of her time as a working mother in the 1950s and thought that there were more interesting things a woman should do than just cook and entertain (go Gram!)-taught himself to cook mostly out of self-preservation. My paternal grandmother is a spitfire, a fantastic dancer and so vivacious at 90+ that I feel old by comparison, but a stellar cook she is not.

My mother grew up in the exact opposite environment. My maternal grandmother is a fantastic cook, incapable of cooking for a group smaller than 20. Another skill I may have inherited, but in her case a well-justified habit. She fed a family of 10 three meals every day. The sheer logistics involved in that scale of cooking meant my mother never learned how to cook from her mother. My guess is it was easier for my grandmother to delegate care of my mother’s seven younger siblings and household chores to the elder kids than it was to teach them how to use knives and fire safely.

By the time I was old enough to register what was entailed in cooking, my mother was a very proficient cook with an experimental streak that grew as we got older. I don’t remember specifically being taught to cook. I do remember messing around periodically in the kitchen. Our first microwave was particularly entertaining—like an easy bake oven on steroids. In high school my best friend from down the street and I experimented a lot with stir frys for a full summer. And there were a lot of “fancy dinner” parties with my friends that had more to do with dressing up than cooking.

What really launched my interest in cooking were too rather pedestrian impulses: I like to eat and was too poor to eat out as a recent grad living in New York and I hate doing dishes. The first was a rather obvious impetus: survival. The second was a literal cause and reaction. The rule at our large family gatherings is the cooks don’t do the dishes. I hate doing dishes. It seemed only logical to start volunteering to cook side dishes. Which evolved into increasing experimentation, a cooking club with friends, the eventual masochistic urge to take over family holiday dinners and so on. The rest, as they say, is history.