Sunday, December 20, 2009
Monday, December 14, 2009
I love the reference to steampunk in this piece by the way, it's an alt culture I think is interesting.
Sunday, December 6, 2009
I’ve waited so long to write my Thanksgiving blog post that it’s almost Christmas. Yikes. Apologies for the delay, but I'm knee deep in planning Christmas Dinner for 30. (In a moment of hubris and overestimation of my talents I may have volunteered to helm our family's biannual Christmas gathering. Ooops.) And in all honesty I didn’t know where to start on my Turkey Day entry.
I could start with a detailed list of the embarrassingly OBSCENE amounts of food we had. No joke. We’re talking 3 Turkeys, 1 ham, 1 duck, 15 pounds of potatoes, 1 tray of mac and cheese, 1 soup, 20 sides, 5 pies, 1 apple pudding, 1 almond tart, 3 cakes, 6 trays of stuffing and a partridge in a pear tree. Ok, I made the last one up but you get the drift. Obscene. Amounts. Of food.
Or I could start with the list of typical near-disasters that occurred. The turkey that refused to thaw-leaving us with an entire leftover bird when it finally emerged, perfectly done about 30 minutes AFTER dessert. The three batches of gravy that went awry. The seating mishaps, the minor spats. The late start to dinner that meant some folks had to leave for other parties. Oh, and then there was the oven fire.
Rather than focus on all those things I prefer to focus on what fun the whole affair was. There was some delicious food consumed, at a lovely table. Happy glowing neighbors and friends of neighbors abounded. And did I mention the Richard Simmons placecards? (LL is demonstrating those in one of the attached pics.)
All mishaps aside, it’s those bumps and messes along the way that sometimes make for the best meals. Or at least the most family-like. And we had enough to feed anyone and everyone that came near Hobart Street for over a week. What more can you ask?
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
I’m not sure where I’ve been hiding, but did you know that the President of the United States officially pardons a turkey for Thanksgiving every year? That it’s been a holiday tradition since Truman?
I did not know that. The lucky bird, this year his name is ‘Courage’ (seriously!?! I couldn’t make that up), gets officially pardoned and then apparently flown FIRST CLASS to Disneyland to serve as the grand marshal on a Thanksgiving float. Then Courage, who has so recently cheated death, retires to live on some fake ranch at Disneyland. Although personally, if I were a turkey I’m pretty sure I’d opt to end up as dinner over living out the remainder of my days at Disneyland.
According to an article in the Washington Post today that’s worth a read, Butterball turkeys like Courage only live 4 months. They’re bred for breast meat….which explains why Courage weighs in at a whopping 45 pounds. That’s too big, especially for a bird destined for the table. There’s no way to cook a bird that size without seriously under or over cooking portions, but I digress.
I have a number of beefs with this entire process, although overall I find it highly entertaining. First off let’s start with the fact that the POTUS is the one doing the pardoning. Really? He has nothing better to do with his time? I mean come on! I get that it’s tradition. We’re big on tradition in the U.S., especially when it comes to our leaders but seriously.
Second, they fly Courage to Disneyland first class. First class? I’VE never flown first class. Plus Courage has an understudy, Carolina. Just in case he gets stage fright at the parade tomorrow. I’m assuming they both get a first class seat. Although maybe Carolina gets relegated to coach with the hoi polloi until she gets her big break.
And lastly, like most traditions, I’m assuming there’s some symbolism here. But for the life of me I can’t figure out what it is in this case. I suppose on some level the whole thing is very American. Butterball, slaughterer of millions of oversized overweight commercial birds, saves one symbolic bird from the fate of its brethren who will be consumed by millions of Americans who will gorge themselves on far too much food during a holiday that supposedly represents the spirit of cooperation and gratitude. Don’t get me started on the hypocrisy of the “historical” components of Thanksgiving. And to top off this turkey ceremony, insult to injury, Butterball’s lucky bird gets sent to DISNEYLAND. Sigh. American commercialism trumps all again. It’s like having POTUS do commercial spots for Butterball and Disney. Ick.
I will say Obama handled the whole thing with a respectably self-deprecating level of humor. If you care to check it out CSPAN gave the 10 minute ceremony top billing this morning. Sometime around minute 2 or 3 is Obama’s borderline snarky comment about how he feels about the 15 minutes he spent hanging out with Courage today. Otherwise he does his duty pretty willingly all told.
Happy Thanksgiving! I'm off to finish prepping for tomorrow, wish me luck we have a full table and a lot of prepping left to do. There will be no birds pardoned at my house this year. In fact three of them, possibly four if the duck happens, plus a pig will grace our table this year. And I'm very thankful for every last one of them.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Surprisingly there was one recipe for pumpkin pie included, circa 1656, that actually looks like it had some potential. In addition to your standard nutmeg/cinnamon/allspice/clove pumpkin pie spices this recipe added thyme, rosemary, parsley, pepper and marjoram. I don’t know about that last one, marjoram easily hints of soap to me, but the idea of a savory pumpkin pie is something I could definitely get behind.
It’s sacrilege to admit so close to their big day, but pumpkin pies are my least favorite fall food. I’ll eat it if someone makes it. Out of a sense of decorum on Thanksgiving I try a sliver every year just to make sure my tastes haven’t changed (don’t mock, I find my tastes frequently evolve for the better as I get older). But I might have to give some thought to this rosemary and thyme inclusion. Maybe in the crust? The rest of the pie bears little to no resemblance to modern incarnations, there are slices of real pumpkin laid in the pie and something that seems to closely resemble custard poured over the top if I’m reading my 17th century cooking lingo correctly.
Items included in the “old-fashioned” Thanksgiving menu from 1895: oyster soup, breadsticks, olives, celery, chicken pie, creamed macaroni with cheese, radishes, roast turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, onions, squash, cranberry sauce, lettuce salad with French dressing, mince pie, apple pie, pumpkin pie, apples, nuts, raisins, coffee and cheese wafers (high quality crackers with good cheese melted on top in the oven apparently).
The article specifies that ONLY red and yellow apples with chrysanthemums should adorn the room, by the way. None of those fake turkey centerpieces or tablescapes a la that dreadful Sandra Lee person on the Food Network.
The “modern” menu the paper listed, per a famed Delmonico chef included: mortadella, celery, codfish, egg sauce, lamb chops a la Robinson, croquettes of macaroni, curry of chicken a l’Espagnola, mushrooms on toast, punce en surprise (punce?!?), roast turkey, cranberry sauce, celery salad, mince pie, strachino cheese and coffee.
I have to point out, no only did both “old” and “new” recipes in this article include a “macaroni” dish, but they both list celery as a standalone dish without elaborating on a preparation. I’m curious now. Maybe we’re missing out on something exciting to do with celery? I’m skeptical.
PS: There’s a frightening, but ironically placed, article directly following all the talk of menus warning about the effects of unseasonably warm weather on the slaughtered turkeys that year. You might want to skip the finer details, but it references unpleasant odors and “damp” turkeys. Menus might make me nostalgic but I’ll take a life with refrigeration any day.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
A chance discovery at the Mt.P farmers market last weekend has me dreaming of the myriad uses for pork fat. On the hunt for ingredients for a traditional Italian dinner we discovered that Truck Patch Farm carries guanciale. (This being territory south of the Mason-Dixon line they call it smoked pork jowl, not guanciale, but same same.)
Last weekend was all about Italia. FG was in town visiting. Per usual we started the weekend with wine and cheese. That progressed to delicious homemade muffins with KF and her charming mother. Saturday afternoon rounded things out with a tart fall salad via IAG. But that was all just a warm-up for dinner. Inspired by the guanciale discovery on a trip to the market between muffins and salad, FG made bucatini all’amatriciana.
It never ceases to amaze me how much flavor pork imparts to things it’s cooked with. Had a chat today actually about the flavor possibilities of pork vs. chicken vs. beef. Consensus found chicken to be somewhat lacking. And I had to plug the grassfed beef as being particularly flavorful. Plus I’m a sucker for slow cooked beef as well. And veal. Ok, clearly the girl from the dairy state digs her cows. But I have to admit that pork is rapidly gaining some ground for me as a cook.
Speaking of pigs, the pork shoulder that MN graciously smoked for us over Halloween was every bit as good as you think it was. Awesome. And remarkable to me what depth of flavor wood smoke imparts to food. I have serious smoker envy now. MN’s Is a thing of beauty to behold. Seriously. I’m looking for pictures so you can appreciate, and not having much luck. You’ll have to trust me. It’s gorgeous. And that pork. Oh. My. God. If he’s not careful we might make him smoke everything.
Anyway, back to the pork-tastic meal from last weekend. Truck Patch was also the source of some delicious Italian sausage which was broiled with cheese on crostini. Also finally found the perfect perch for some awesome sardines that JH brought me from Portugal earlier this year atop a baguette with butter. We were almost too full for the bucatini all’amatriciana. Almost.
It was a perfect, mostly local, and almost entirely pig and carb based meal. It was perfect.
If I was feeling more honest I would go back and revise my “Turkey Turkey Pig Turkey” post. It should probably read Turkey, Pig, Pig, Pig, Turkey. Not only was last weekend pork-centric, but we’ve dropped one turkey meal from the lineup. Not from any lack of interest in turkey per se, but more because I clearly have been distracted by other meals. Plus Thanksgiving needs my full attention this year—IAG and I just started planning what looks to be a lovely menu. Very, very excited. Stay tuned.
Friday, October 30, 2009
In keeping with the theme of this blog I think what I’ll miss most about Gourmet (aside from the regular venue it gave Ruth Reichl) will be its invaluable expansion of what we consider “fit for human consumption.” And by “fit” I don’t just mean edible or delicious. I think Gourmet was one of a number of national platforms that helped people start to think about what their food choices mean, how food really does touch on every aspect of our lives from the purely superficial to the deep and meaningful. I believe that thinking about those things is very important, even in light of all the self-righteousness that has arisen around some sectors of the food industry (I’m looking at you vegan activists and militant locavores). There’s so much about food that has a larger context, and whether I agree with all sides of the issue or not, I do think the dialog itself was important.
So here’s my final toast to Gourmet, in all its glossy, pretty, fanciful food presentations, its top notch travel features, and some of its more serious endeavors. Thanks for helping us really figure out what’s “fit” to consume. You will be missed.
By the time December rolls around the capacious dining room tables at my house will have supported no fewer than three Turkeys. And dozens of friends will have gathered to give thanks for whatever it is they give thanks for, which with this crowd probably mostly means for the food, wine and good company.
We kicked things off with a lovely Canadian Thanksgiving celebration courtesy of Chef Jen B. Canadian Thanksgiving, it turns out, looks much like American Thanksgiving with the addition of some new-to-me desserts including a butter tart that is every bit as decadent and rich as it sounds.
We’re interjecting a Halloween open house into the Turkey Day line-up this weekend. Slow cooked pork will elbow aside the ungainly turkey for one night. As a total aside, don’t you just love the complexity you get when you slow cook things? It’s the ultimate example of patience rewarded. The supporting case for our pig, courtesy of neighbor Mike, will be a full barrage of comfort foods to fortify the neighborhood adults for the onslaught of marauding pint-sized trick-or-treaters that descend on the street. The flip side of living in a locale that closely resembles the friendly feel of Sesame St. or Mr. Roger’s neighborhood is that it attracts the same fans those shows did. Don’t get me wrong, Halloween is my favorite holiday on Hobart but I don’t think I was prepared for the sheer volume of hopped-up-on-sugar-kids we saw last year. This year I know better and we have a very VERY large pile of refined sugar products waiting to be distributed.
Once the costumed kids and the neighbors’ annual Halloween show have passed we’re into November. And November means Practice Thanksgiving. I view it as a dinner which let’s me experiment with more untraditional dishes that might not be ready to incorporate fully into the actual Turkey Day menu yet. But turkey number two takes its bow at this party.
Our final bird will mark Thanksgiving itself. Due to a number of factors—namely a family wedding and bit of travel fatigue—I’m opting to stay in Washington for Thanksgiving. I was calling it “Orphans Thanksgiving” for awhile, implying that we were picking up any strays who couldn’t or weren’t inclined to head out of town. But so many folks have opted to stay on purpose (myself included) that it really feels like a deliberate destination. Not so much a meal for orphans and strays as it is a pretty exciting gathering of some of my favorite folks. I’m more than a little bit excited. And not just because it gives me a chance to try out a few recipes before tackling a high pressure Christmas dinner for 35 in December (more on that mess at a later date).
I’ll try to take some good pics of the rest of our trio of fowl and the lone swine.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Thursday, September 10, 2009
You could call me a Japanese Fanboy. My interest in Japanese history and culture started my senior year of high school, followed by a degree in Asian History and my current 9 year stint as a Sushi Chef. I'm just letting my bias be known before I gush here about the recently opened Mahoroba Bakery in Sacramento.
An aspect of Japanese culture I really admire is their attention to detail and drive for perfection. The Tea Ceremony is one example of this. About a thousand years ago they developed the absolute best way to make tea. And then they stuck with it. Kikkoman Soy Sauce, one the bigger soy sauce makers in the world, has been around since the mid 1600s. That's a serious company history. In the sushi bar, many people are surprised to learn that in Japan, Sushi and Tempura are (beyond the tourist areas) not available at the same restaurant. It would be un-Japanese to specialize in two things, therefore specializing in neither. It is this cultural trait that puts them on top of the electronics and car industries. They take it seriously, whatever "it" is.
In this case, it's pastry. Pastry and bread in Japan is, like their beer, a relatively (in the last hundred years) new phenomenon. Their word for bread "Pan", is the same as the Spanish word, not out of some cosmic coincidence but because bread was brought to Japan by Portuguese and Spanish trading vessels in the late 1600s. They took it and ran with it, apparently all the way to Freeport Blvd in Sacramento, California.
This is usually the section where the writer divulges the secrets of the Japanese baking process, the special techniques, ingredients etc. that you could use at home to recreate the kind of pleasure you get from eating a pastry from Mahoroba. But the truth is I have no idea how the pastries they offer transcend the Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kremes of this country, but they do. To write a true review I really should have just sat there and sampled all the varieties (20-30) but I didn't want to put my health on the line for this article.
I can tell you that the white chocolate ones, soft, rich bread, surrounding a creamy white chocolate center, may have been made by an angel. If you're not into sweets Mahoroba offers Chicken Terryaki mini pizzas which are also excellent. My favorite (and pictured here) are the Red Bean Paste, Strawberries and Cream. The term "Red Bean Paste" conjures images of Mexican food stuffed into a donut, but I assure you it is very different. Sweet and smooth, it adds a heartiness to the pastry that gives the eater a sense that maybe they are getting some health benefits from this piece of Japanese Pastry Genius after all.
Regardless of what they fill their pastries with, I'll be back, again and again. And as far as a true understanding for you my readers, well you're just going to have to go there.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
It's lead to some surprisingly satisfying meals. And further experimentation is definitely warranted. Quinoa was a bit of a revelation. Clearly I have not been a vegetarian...well ever, but somehow I missed out on some of the staple grains. The "kitchen sink" style quinoa salad I made on Sunday needed some tweaks, but it was surprisingly easy and tasty for something so healthy.
But tonight's project topped it. In one shopping fit I purchased multiple lentil varieties. And aside from a decent side for fish one night I haven't touched them since. I move the pretty multi-colored mason jar housing them almost daily to get at other items in the cabinet, but haven't felt inspired. Tonight I finally managed to make use of some of the contents in a lovely, easy meal made up of a mash-up of a few different recipes.
Lentils du Puy are small dark lentils, they're often described as green but I honestly think they're more indigo or purple. From what I gather they are traditionally from the Auvergne region in France. The provenance of mine was by way of Whole Foods, so I can't vouch for the authenticity of their native land. Tonight's dinner was inspired in part by a vegetarian take on another recipe and in part by a blog I read about one woman's favorite lunch from a Paris bistro.
Essentially it's lentils cooked in white wine with eggs. So simple, but SO delicious. I'm continually amazed at the complex flavors that wine and fresh herbs give the most basic dishes. I add wine to a lot of things, it's probably what drew me to this recipe. I tend to add a splash to any cooking broth or sauce. Even a recent attempt to make pesto for a pasta salad with limited kitchen tools was remedied with a splash of wine--with decent results I must say.
Regardless, here's the basics of tonight's foray into the Great Cabinet Purge. There are pictures, but cooked lentils aren't particularly photogenic. You'll have to trust me, it was very pretty. Enjoy.
(Guide to my abbreviations: C=cup; T=tablespoon, as opposed to t=teaspoon)
Lentils du Puy Cooked in Wine, w/ Eggs
1/2 C lentils
1 bay leaf
1/2 C wine
1/2 C broth
1 med onion or 2 shallots, chopped fine
1 T flour
1/4 C parsley
-boil the lentils and bay leaf in water until tender, about 20-25 minutes. Drain and set aside.
-saute the onion/shallot in oil until tender.
-add wine, broth, flour and the cooked lentils.
-bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated.
-add parsley and salt and pepper to taste.
-fry two eggs in oil/butter, leaving yolk runny
-serve eggs over lentils with a side of greens
(note: I added some shredded aged gruyere, just because, but I don't think it's necessary)
Monday, August 10, 2009
- Grilled pork loin with pineapple basil salsa. The basil really really made this one. I’ve tried it a few different ways, really it’s the salsa that makes this worth trying. Simple. Delicious. Repeatable. And has officially replaced mango salsa as my fruit based condiment of choice.
- Plums cooked with rosemary, sugar and juice over any kind of cream based goodness. It’s equally awesome with a dollop of mascarpone, sour cream or whipped cream. I think it’d be equally phenomenal paired with Greek yogurt, ice cream or quark.
- Fresh tomato sauce with capers and olives over penne. Needs some tweaking, but I’m developing a mild obsession with capers. I plan to revisit this one.
- Raw oysters and clams on the half shell eaten on the dock, with a steamed crab follow up. Clearly this was not a cooking episode, but to the cousin who kindly shucked them all for us: my thanks. Yum.
- Quinoa salad with grilled veggies and a champagne vinaigrette. I’ve been intending to try cooking quinoa for months. Finally did it. And surprisingly loved it! The specifics of the recipe aren’t as important, it was a definite kitchen sink approach, but glad to find a new grain to play with.
- JH made some seared tuna steaks after our fish market trip (more on that later) that were outrageous. She served them with some soy, ginger, sesame, wasabi sauciness… Awesome. Plus an Asian cole slaw on the side that might have changed my opinion about cole slaw forever. Seriously.
- Cod steamed on the grill with capers, dill and lemon, also procured at the fish market, see above. Never ceases to amaze me how buttery cod can be without the slightest bit of actual butter added. Awesome. And another caper-obsession fueled dinner.
- Have had bbq ribs (cooked by others) twice in the last two weeks. I’d forgotten how awesome they can be. Messy and a bit carnal, but delicious. One set was wet, one dry. I know bbq purists tend to favor one over the other depending on their personal style, but I have to say I love both. The dry rub on the most recent set was amazing, and even better the next day. And the ribs done with sauce were also great.
- IAG rolled fresh picked peaches and goat cheese in chicken. And grilled it. Enough said.
- Got my fill of Country Market pies on vacation with the whole fam at the beach. They’re an institution in our family. Strawberry rhubarb, peach, berry. If I could make a pie crust half this good I’d be a very happy girl.
Vermont's a wonderful place, with a well entrenched local, sustainable food community. It's nice to see it get some attention, although the Vermonter in me has an inherent mistrust of any increase in tourism. That being said a lot of the local purveyors and business men depend on visitors, so here's the link.
Vermont Cheese Trail
Monday, July 27, 2009
Tonight I gave the Perfect Burger a shot. Here's a recap of the little things that make the "Perfect Burger" stand above the competition, according to the New York Times.
1. A 70-30 meat/fat content ground beef (I could only find as high as 80-20)
2. Sear the meat on the grill or in a skillet, finish in the oven on 375.
3. Don't handle the meat too much, shape it, and put it in the fridge to chill.
4. Make a small dimple in the center of the meat to avoid the "puff up" effect.
5. Salt just before cooking.
6. Have a warm, crispy, not totally in the background, not totally in the foreground, bun.
7. Homemade Pickles, cucumber slices soaked in rice wine.
8. Grate the cheese, then shape it to the burger for superior melting properties.
9. Cold, crisp lettuce and ripe tomatoes.
So, here goes. The choice of a higher fat content burger is not only cheaper on the wallet, but tastier to the pallet. Probably not as good for the body though (Soul and Mind, perhaps...) Searing the meat on the grill and then finishing in the oven makes for an incredibly juicy burger. Also, this method allows cooking large volumes of burgers to be ready at the same time. That I didn't overpack the meat helped but I can't say I really noticed an improvement from my previous "meat handling" technique. Make a dimple in the center, whole new world. This burger actually came out the shape I wanted it to, making it cook more evenly and also much easier to eat. Wow, who would have thought such a simple thing could make such a difference. Salt just before cooking? No noticeable improvement. Warm crispy bun? I'm still looking for the right bun, not that these were bad they just weren't that good either, and I still vote English muffins as the best burger bun. Homemade pickles? Maybe if I had let them soak a little longer or cut them a little thicker but overall, not the crazy "Wow!" you would hope for in something handcrafted. Grating the cheese and then shaping it absolutely makes a difference in both even meltingness and cheese stabilty. I always use crisp lettuce and ripe tomatoes, who doesn't?
Perfect? Not by a long shot, but a few key tips that will definately set these burgers above the rest. For now though, I'll keep looking for that perfect recipe.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
I don't think I can fully explain how excited I was to pick blueberries on my way home from the shore over the Fourth of July with LL and turn them into pancakes 24 hours later. Something about pick-your-own anything makes me happy. Giddy, silly, deeply little kid happy. It capped a perfectly July Fourth-y kind of weekend of beach, clams, food.
The house I grew up in until I was 18 was across the street from a huge pick-your-own operations in VT. Strawberries gave way to blueberries which in turn bowed to make room for raspberries. And there were orchards all over town that offered the same option for apples when the weather turned in September.
I remember long, hot summer days in the strawberry patch with my mother picking what seemed to me at the time like hundreds of pounds of berries to freeze for winter (or at least the ones that didn't get stuffed directly into our mouths). I remember cool wet falls days punctuated by fresh cider doughnuts spent pickng the apples for crisps and pies. For the record, apple picking was usually deemed the more "fun" of the two when we were kids because it offered an excuse to climb trees. Strawberries taste amazing when still warm from the sun, but picking berries off all those squat plants in long endlessly straight rows was much less fun than climbing gnarled old trees to toss apples down.
In both instances, and again last weekend as a grown up gathering blueberries in N.J. half the fun lies in eating oneself sick on the just picked fruit. If you've never tried it, I highly recommend a pick-your-own excursion.
The nostalgia was pushed even higher by coming home and making pancakes for dinner. It should be said here that LL and I spent a good portion of our picking time plotting out what to do with all the blueberries, I'm already wishing we'd doubled our haul.
But back to the pancakes. There's something so quintessentially comforting about breakfast foods, but I don't always have the craving early in the a.m. Breakfast for dinner isn't a tradition from my childhood, I think it's a habit I've acquired in adulthood. It must stem in some way from the discovery of brunch in college--we ate brunch like it's what we were studying to do. Although usually we ate out, cooking brunch in evolved later.
I've come further in my culinary wanderings as I've gotten older--I'm pretty sure that brunches and dinners I cooked in college never consisted of homemade blueberry buttermilk pancakes with a side of brown sugar and cayenne carmelized bacon. The college variety would have been more likely to include Bisquick and frozen veggie sausage patties (still a go to favorite prepared food if I'm being honest, but only Morningstar Farm's). Both meals would be smothered in real maple syrup, for Vermonters nothing else exists.
Regardless, I'm excited that pick-your-own berry patches have survived long enough for my culinary proclivities to catch up and give their fruit it's just dues.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
The Best part of my job as a Sushi Chef is, without a doubt, also the worst. It's the people. Whether its coworkers or customers, they make or break my day. Working with the public, particularly in a serving capacity, jades you to the human race. You find yourself continually disappointed with the shortcomings of mankind.
However, there are glimmers of hope here and there. We have no televisions in our restaurant, mostly because we don't want people to linger. This has a side effect though. People actually have to talk to each other. I had a man tell me once that his body produced electrical charges in sufficient amounts so that he could kill everyone in the restaurant if he wanted, but not to worry, he wasn't going to do that. I've also had deep debates about politics, the environment and God. And this is all while I'm getting paid to slice fish and pack rice.
There is something intimate about providing a meal to someone, the giving and receiving of something that sustains life a little bit at a time that brings out interesting sides to people. It is why I think more families really should eat together, without the television, or music, or anything but food and their thoughts on their day, their future and their past.
This brings me to our most recent topic of sushi bar discussion. Given, that in a lifetime, there can only be one Best Day; what are the chances you've already lived yours? What if it never really gets better than that? Does this mean you're on the downslope? Is it logical that the longer you live the more likely it is that you've already had your Best Day? Is it possible you've had your Best Day but not your Worst?
Think about this....
People so far fall into two camps. The first, are the people who are pretty sure they've had their Best Day already (largely because they are going through what they perceive to be a traumatic life event right now). These people are immediately dragged down by this question, and tend to shoot the messenger.
The second camp are the ones who think the idea of a best day, rating your days, even thinking about whether there is such a thing, is stupid and a waste of what could be your Best Day. I liked my father's answer the best, basically that time is an illusion, there is no past and no future, there is only Now.
But it's mealtime, one of the few things where we're not assaulted by outside stimulation except the simple act of eating that draws these questions to the forefront of our minds, and I'm thankful that I can be a part of that, regardless of whether or not I have the answer to life's many questions.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
"It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it...and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied...and it is all one."
M.F.K. Fisher, 1943
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Ok, back now? Here’s where I am going with this. My dear, old friend is constructing some seriously artful meals. Well thought out. Beautiful. Mouthwatering dinners. You can tell that he is a real honest to goodness chef. And he’s giving me major league stage fright. How is one supposed to compete with that? He’s an impossible act to follow.
More than half-okay realistically closer to 90 percent- of meals I cook these days are those slap-dash affairs where I’m rummaging deep in my cabinet looking for something, anything to use to turn the disparate ingredients I’ve mined out of my refrigerator into a semblance of “dinner”.
I do the requisite grocery shopping, I make the pilgrimage to the farmers market and come triumphantly home with anything pretty and fresh I find there. And I read and collect recipes compulsively, like some people collect stamps or coins or whatever it is people like to accumulate excessively large collections of. I try to maintain a working “pantry” of those ingredients that you should always have on-hand.
But despite all that I still find myself on most nights doing mental gymnastics to get something that resembles a balanced meal onto my plate. I can usually get one element right...but really there's only so much a side dish can do.
My meals look nothing, I repeat NOTHING, like those lovely pictures Shea posts. My approach of late has resembled a patchwork quilt gone awry. Lots of clashing colors, and as yet no discernible pattern. Recent hits: A variety of sauteed summer squashes over bland Israeli cous cous. Egg salad-always a perennial, lazy favorite when home made. Tuscan kale with garlic scapes and pine nuts-delicious but clearly a supporting actor in need of a star that never showed. And the low moment a couple weeks ago, brats and....wait for it...frozen peas. So much for the culinary arts.
I fear it’s a reflection of my general state of mind this summer. I miss nice orderly, matching meals, with a main protein and two sides. I’m capable of them-if I take the time to plan ahead. They’re just not in the cards for me lately. And with summer rolling in, it’s looking unlikely for the near future.
Until some coherence returns I plan to live vicariously through Shea’s well-tuned meals. And in the meantime, I am seriously borrowing a few of those recipes for future use, when my planning skills return. Spiced banana sundaes? Really? Yum. I'm pretty sure they should qualify as a "balanced meal."
Sunday, June 7, 2009
In keeping with Liza's burger theme I thought I'd write about my favorite spot out here. In a time when we should support local businesses and reduce fuel consumption, a thirty mile (and 2000 vertical feet) drive to my favorite burger spot is not the way to do this. Not only is it not a locally owned business, but it's a corporate chain. I write, not of the golden arches, but of the golden arrow. In n' Out Burger.
Those of you on the east coast most likely think its a myth, a burger lover's Shangri-La. But I assure you, it's real. And it's soooooo good. A Double Double Animal Style (more in a minute) contains 670 calories, dwarfing McDonald's puny Big Mac by 110 calories. Their fries are real potatoes pealed and then cut directly into the fry oil. You can get a burger and fry for under five dollars, a steal in this economy. The company looked at opening up a store in Tahoe but decided that winter road closures might lead to a delay in the availibility of fresh ingredients, so they decided not to. This is a restaurant philosophy I can stand behind. They are one of the few (I think Jack in the Box is the only other) fast food joints that perform bacteria testing on their meat, ensuring quality.
Beyond the above mentioned pros there is another. In n Out's menu. Foodwise you have four choices. Double Double, Cheeseburger, Hamburger, Fries. That's it. They don't waste time with fry sizes, specialty sandwiches, or half hearted attempts at coffee. They make burgers and fries and that's it. There is however, a secret menu. It expands their menu to include things like "animal style", "the flying dutchman" and "4x4", among others. How cool is that? Now all of a sudden being a patron of a burger joint has made you a member of a secret society!
Until my local spots figure out these simple but crucial tricks that make me go back again and again for my calorie count, I'm going to In n Out, every chance I get.
Monday, June 1, 2009
Which got me thinking. Clearly summer evokes burgers and grilling for many folks. It's arguably one of the few major contributions to world gastronomy that the U.S. has made that is very uniquely "American". Supposedly there's a spot in New Haven, CT that made the very first burger ever as a way to use up leftover bits of steak. How's that for recycling?
Despite it being the season for burgers, and despite recent trends that focus on moving everyday food upscale (see foie gras stuffed burgers and Wagyu and kobe beef burgers priced like small cars(, the humble burger really does seem to be having a moment. Is it because of this all-American image, or could it be that it's still an affordable indulgence? My guess: it's a bit of both. A burger is one of the few comfort foods that surpasses regional trends, at least at a basic level before all the dressings, condiments and tweaks are added.
Being a bit of a carniwhore myself (new favorite word courtesy of F. Bruni at the NYT) I do understand the burger's appeal. Juicy, satisfying, and when cooked right and topped properly just perfect. It's one of the few food cravings I have constantly. And it's an easy itch to sc ratch. Not only are there an increasing number of spots to get a great affordable burger of any style, as evidence by all these articles I keep reading, referencing, and posting, they're simple to make and play around with. Shea showcased quite a few great versions in the last few months.
I hadn't made burgers in awhile, until a recent bbq. Kept them simple, but tried matzoh meal instead of bread crumbs. A nice change of texture (thanks IAG). And I finally made it to the Shake Shack in NY recently, about five years fashionably late to that particular party. Yum-although I have to ad mit I think I like the ones from Good Stuff Eatery here in DC better. Apologies to any NY loyalists.
Which all goes to show, maybe I'm having my own little burger-mania moment. Seems an apropos time, we could all use a little comfort and a taste of summer these days.
Now I officially promise to stop blogging about burgers....Promise. Ok, I'll try to refrain until the next bbq.
Please stop eating at all the restaurants I love/am dying to try. (See the first couple's trips to Good Stuff Eatery, Bluehill,Ray's Hell Burger etc.) While it shows impeccable taste and respect for food you are making it impossible for me to even get through the door as hordes of your fans descend to take all the tables.
Good for the business, possibly good for the national awareness of high quality food, but terrible for my poor deprived taste buds.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
This article, called "The Case for Working With Your Hands," that ran in the NYT mag over the weekend is well worth the read despite the daunting length. I implore you to read the article for the full idea, but for those who want the Cliffs Notes: in a nutshell he writes about the joys of useful, hands on work versus the abstract, often willfully counterintuitive jobs most Americans do.
What, you ask, does this have to do with food-the supposed subject of this blog? For me, plenty. I think in a roundabout way the author gets at what I find so therapeutic about cooking and food. It's a tangible experience. It requires thought and concentration, and an unavoidable amount of physicality. There is a visceral quality to food that even the sterilization and fluorescence of the supermarket haven't been able to scour out of the experience of preparing and eating food.
At the most basic level eating is a biologically mandated process, what we as humans have chosen to do to adapt that process crosses a spectrum from debasement to high art depending on the practitioner. But regardless of what we do, there is an unavoidable basic, natural component to food. And subsequently to cooking.
You could argue, and many have, that the average American is pretty far removed from the realities of growing or cultivating their food (although I do think that is changing). But even many of those people who believe that chicken is born into plastic wrapped styrofoam containers and fruit should be available regardless of season in waxed, perfectly uniform pieces may eventually have to cook those items. It's still the moment where we get to do something with our hands.
Cooking is the only "dirty" job many of us do anymore. Food for thought.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
In stark contrast to the backyard barbecues of Hobart, the “don’t even bother to put your shoes on” comfort of a home meal surrounded by friends and neighbors, there is something about the wide open spaces of the west coast, the valleys that extend to the horizon, the sky that is everywhere and yet can’t hold you in, that make it a normality to drive miles and miles for a meal.
The city of Sacramento is, to me, Reno’s cousin in California. Flat and smog laden, temperatures in the summer routinely go from hot to miserable. This and other unfortunate attributes are the kind of things that make you want to grab a citizen and shake them, pointing towards San Francisco yelling, “There is a much cooler city, in many ways, right over there! Why are you still here?!”
Just off I-80 (i.e. a short stop off the highway on your way to a much better destination) is the wonderful Tower Café, a literal monument to great food. Located at the site of the original Tower Records, it has a colorful, busy, artsy interior, a great baked good selection and a superb breakfast.
The café’s menu makes you want to start at the beginning of the month and make your way through the choices daily. The Carnitas con Huevos (my choice today), is succulent slow cooked pork, scrambled eggs, tortillas and potatoes just the way you want them, crispy and crunchy on the outside and melt-in-your-mouth creamy on the inside. That you can get slow cooked Mexican style pork for breakfast is another reason to love the west coast, and indeed the Tower café serves the kind of food that makes traveling miles and miles, and then ending up in Sacramento, well worth the trip.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Oh, and lady looooves her butter.Health food this is not. I poured my first glass of wine somewhere around halfway through the first stick of butter. Sadly a not so great rose. Note to self: get my sister to give me a list of good roses again, because the good ones are so very very good, and this one was so very very not. But I digress.
We were talking about her epicuriousness, and she is no joke. I followed the recipe pretty closely for a first outing but out of necessity overlooked one ingredient. In all honesty, I was secretly thrilled there was no cognac in the house because the last thing I really want to do before a weekday dinner is light my stove on fire. On purpose. Without any adult supervision. (There’s a stage in JC’s coq au vin where you pour cognac in the pan and LIGHT IT ON FIRE whilst “averting your face”!?!? Seriously.)
Even without the culinary arson I occupied some serious kitchen real estate in my foray. Two hours later there were dishes on every surface of the kitchen. Parsley from one end of the counter to the other—inextricably so because it wasn’t an actual ingredient in the coq au vin I was making. And I might have used every pot in the kitchen (though in JC’s defense that has much more to do with my inability to estimate volumes accurately and having to switch pans midway through cooking).
Was it foolishness to dive into my first French cooking experience on a weeknight? I don’t know. But here’s what I do know—coq au vin is delicious. Seriously awesome. I might’ve made a mess, and it may not have been the prettiest thing I’ve ever plated. And JC definitely goes the long way round on things, which in our current corner cutting culture is a shock to the system. But woman knew what she was doing. Or at least she knows coq au vin (I’ll let you know about the rest). Honestly it wasn’t that difficult—just time consuming. Next time I’ll read ahead, it might help. Or better yet, coq au vin in terms of prep time and heftiness might best be left for rainy Sunday dinners not hot muggy Thursday nights. Live and learn. But I certainly ate well.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
But as I tried to think of what restaurant to pick I had a realization. The best brunch I've had in recent memory wasn't in a restaurant, but it was in the place outside of my home that I return to most frequently for great meals and good company. My neighbor's back patio.
I lived in NYC for 8 years. EIGHT. And never once in that nearly-decade did I share a meal with one of my neighbors. Just shy of a year on Hobart Street here in D.C. and it’s the rare week that doesn’t bring a gathering of some kind with a slew of neighbors.
It started with a back and forth between my group house and the house next door that predates me. But the back and forth accelerated. Birthday dinners. Sloppy joe nights. Going away parties. Seder. Christmas. Easter. Marathon carb loads. And so on. And a barbecue pretty much every time the sun decides to shine. All casual. All stocked with food-most a semi potluck approach. And all full of an ever evolving cast of neighbors and their friends.
The menus are as eclectic as the crowds. Some have a theme. Some have no coherence. Some are too heavily weighted towards one course, one food group, or the bar. Some are just perfect. But what sticks out--beyond how consistently tasty the food is--is how wonderful the crowd is and how lucky we are to live here. All of our gatherings have done a wonderful job of fostering a sense of community.
I’ve been meaning to chronicle more of the neighborhood culinary adventures, they’re part of what originally made me think a blog was worthwhile. It’s a pretty prime example of where culture and food meet.
For those who haven't been to Hobart it’s a charming street, with large front porches, old formal dining rooms and shady back yards that beg to host parties.One neighbor told us over drinks at the local bar last weekend that when he moved in one of his neighbors said the street rule is if there’s more than three people on a porch you can invite yourself in. I think the social vibe was here long before us-but I’m thrilled to carry it on.
Oh, and that brunch that I think rivals the West Coast offering Shea detailed...it was an all day affair that started with a recovery brunch, moved through cold beers and settled nicely into dinner. I can't recall everything we ate but it included pork medallions in a mustard sauce, eggs with tarragon, bacon, and capped off with chicken/yogurt/mango sandwiches that were just perfect for the 90 degree day that surprised us in April. The food was great, but I do think the company added something.
For visitors to Reno, there are plenty of things to point and laugh at; the bleakness a city in the desert can’t escape, strip clubs, pawn shops, casinos that imply youthful partying but reveal aged oxygenated retirees gambling everything they’ve got left. Peg’s Glorified Ham n’ Eggs would not be on this list. In truth I’ve only ever eaten one thing here, Chef George’s Benedict, a brilliant southwest take on Benedict with Chorizo and a rich Chipotle Hollandaise. I didn’t even look at the menu today and judging by the crowds inside, the comforting chatter, the clinking of silver on flatware and the shuffle of the waitresses’ feet on soft carpet; others have their own favorites here and keep coming back. I always wait here which, now that I think about it, has been true of great breakfast spots throughout my life. Peg’s Glorified Ham n Eggs is a welcome addition to that pantheon.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
In keeping with yesterday's post...an article about a Burger of the Month club in NY (with the entertaining acronym of BOTM pronounced like a part of the anatomy that probably doesn't benefit from participation in said club). This is a brilliant idea via the NYT dining section. Now I wonder who I can rope into founding a DC chapter.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Obama, Biden go out for burgers
"ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — It's like this: When you want a burger, you have to have a burger.
In this state of mind, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden took a short — but wholly noticeable — motorcade ride from the White House to Virginia and pulled into a small, independent burger joint called Ray's Hell Burger.
The two leaders went right up to the counter where the meat was being grilled and ordered.
Each fetched cash from his pocket and paid, and then the pair stood like the rest and waited for their number to be called before going to a table.
The restaurant, which prides itself on premium aged 10-ounce burgers, sits in a small strip plaza. The burgers sell for $6.95."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
When I pulled it from the pool of white packing peanuts in the shipping box, a few fluttering to the floor, I didn’t know what it was. I could tell it was a machine of sorts. It was heavy and from the pictures on the box looked like some kind of trendy popcorn maker. Brushing away the static clinging peanuts revealed a home coffee roaster.
Just that act of brushing something away to read an “inscription” already made me feel like Indiana Jones. This was no longer a routine night at home with the cats; something now had to be decoded, discovered and conquered. And really this is an indication of how mundane my life has become, that receiving an unsolicited coffee roaster in the mail made it seem like I was about to set sail on an adventure.
This gift from my father was the iRoast 2. I liked that the name implied that in addition to my other culinary skills I also roast coffee. “iRoast 2” could easily be construed as “I roast as well”. It was already padding my ego.
Digging through the peanuts again revealed several tightly packed plastic bags of light green pellets. Now it appeared my dad had smuggled me some kind of illicit narcotic through the mail. But no, these were raw coffee beans! They were a pale green, smaller than the roasted coffee beans I grind everyday, but on closer inspection were the same basic shape, the rounded oval turtle back, with the single divot running lengthwise down the other side.
I spread the bean bags and various parts of the roaster out on the counter like puzzle pieces. There was a giant heavy motor, a glass chamber, a metal mesh filter, some other odd filter, a weird top shaped like a tear drop and finally an open metal cylinder. Obviously these components fit together some way, but rather than look at the instructions, still unwrapped on the counter, I began to mash and twist the various bits together. It was now a machine teetering on itself and the cats, bored with the packing peanuts they had spread throughout the apartment, were looking from the machine back to me with alarm. That didn’t seem safe, so after tearing open the instructions and reading the directions, I had an assembled coffee roaster.
Now to choose a bean! I had several options, involving the countries of Brazil, Kenya, Ecuador and Columbia (places Indiana Jones no doubt traveled through), with descriptions like “chocolate milk”, “sweet citrus”, “peach-apricot preserves”, “spiced tea”, “apple skins”, and “mild floral aroma”. These clear, if a little snooty, qualities were also paired with more austere and baffling descriptions like “City+ to FC+”, “At City+”, and “FC to FC+”. In the end it came down to my love of another beverage, Whiskey. One of the bags had the word “Bourbon” written clearly in both the title and description. Sold.
I loaded the glass chamber with one cup of “El Salvador Siberia Estate Bourbon”, twisted the lid shut and turned my attention to the controls. The machine has one digital read-out and only four buttons: Preset 1, Preset 2, RoastTemp, and Cool Time. “Who needs instructions when there’s only four buttons?” I thought. Preset 2 seemed like a good bet. Once pressed, the machine’s readout changed from blinking dashes to 11:30. I mashed Roast Temp, thinking I was now setting the power of the machine. Nope.
That started it, and with the sound of a powerful hairdryer, the beans began blowing about the chamber and clinking against the glass. Both cats, sensing danger involving untested machines, heat, and poor ventilation, ran for cover. I sat mesmerized by the process. The time read-out was now counting down, and I had the feeling that I had triggered a bomb. Indiana Jones triggered bombs, but surely he didn’t sit in his kitchen alone and watch them count down.
While I’ve found it true that “a watched pot never boils”, a watched bean certainly roasts, and roasts fast. By four minutes, they had become a light brown, and most had lost their skins, an attribute that wasn’t even visible when examining their raw state. By six minutes they were a milk chocolate color. By seven minutes they began to sweat, releasing a greasy residue on the sides of the glass and were beginning to turn a dark brown. This looked perfect I thought, before realizing I still had another four and a half minutes to go. The beans continued to get darker, and then smoke was angrily billowing out of the machine and filling the apartment. I opened three windows and the sliding glass door, turned on the hood vent above the stove and began wildly flapping my arms. The cats were now exchanging worried glances with each other and had taken cover under the couch.
And then the sound abruptly changed, still a hairdryer but muffled, and the readout was counting down a different time and alternated flashing the word “Cool”, as if to say, “It’s all good Jackass, you didn’t burn your apartment down.”
Once it stopped I had what looked like roasted coffee beans! They were almost black in color, but smelled rich and complex (burnt? I hoped not). The coffee (liquid version), I had the next morning tasted better I think because of the adventure I had embarked upon and survived the night before. It still lacked something though, and in looking over the instructions on roasting for the first time I came across the phrase “every second can alter the flavor of the bean. Choose your time wisely”. Well that was intimidating, but also heartening, that my adventure in roasting had just begun.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
It was the first thing I urged my brother to do when we got to Dublin (his first trip outside the U.S. with a passport). He came back full of all kinds of revelations about where we were--I felt particularly vindicated.
Sometimes it feels like as our supposedly “global” community is homogenizing all the world’s cultures. Is it good that we all have more interest in other parts of the world? Yes. Does being aware of other cultures benefit humanity? Clearly. Do I want to travel and eat only foods that remind me of home? Not even a little bit.
(As a side note, having never lived abroad I can only speak to the vacationers palate. My ex-pat friends all have specific food indulgences that help ease homesickness-the availability of those items in what one friend called the “American grocery store” was a crucial survival tool.)
Part of the appeal of traveling for me is to be somewhere unlike where I live-and a huge piece of that is food. I describe trips by the meals eaten and drinks imbibed. Even when simply traveling back and forth between my newly adopted hometown of D.C. and the concrete jungle I called home for nearly a decade in New York, I still measure the miles in meals.
I love that you can find great ethnic food in most major cities all over the world, it helps fill cravings and exposes people to new foods. But I also love that quality New York pizza is still impossible to find outside the metro-area; that Guinness really does taste better in Ireland; that most local items I’ve eaten in Italy were a revelation. Those differences are to be savored, and provide a great lure to push us to travel.
There is, of course, a flip side. It’s awesome that I can find quality Italian, Greek, Indian, and Japanese food in markets. The level and quality of genuine Chinese ingredients available in Chinatown in New York make you feel like you’ve stepped into another country. The Ethiopian restaurants in D.C. have allowed me to try a cuisine I may never have the chance to try on its home turf. Clearly, the availability of all these different foods is wonderful. I just hope we can strike a balance. If EVERYTHING I can get abroad is available at home, if all cultures resemble each other too much, where’s the fun in traveling?
And beyond just the fun, I think it’s good for us to travel. The physical distance from home, pushing literal and figurative boundaries when we visit new places, is so amazing for the people, the sights, the perspective, the history…. And of course the food. For my part, I will continue measuring the miles in meals, and in the meantime remind myself how wonderful those meals were with whiffs of something similar at home.