Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Worth the Read


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

Will Drive for Food

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

It started, as so many of my messier ideas do, with something I read. Which made me buy Julia Child’s first book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” So Thursday I thought, hey why not, lets try one of JC’s recipes. Coq au vin seemed pretty straightforward. There were no techniques involved that I didn’t know. And she’s like the original kitchen goddess right? Everyone, but everyone references Her. It’s about time I gave it whirl right? Except it was a weekday after work. And what I hadn’t fully absorbed at the outset about JC is that those recipes take forever. Seriously. For. Ever.

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

Seeking Suggestions....

Farmers market impulse purchase of the day (aside from MORE plants I didn't need): green garlic. Taking suggestions on what to do with it now beyond just using it like regular garlic. I had an article from last year about what to do with the earlier spring phases of garlic, something about green garlic soup...now if only I could find it. Help!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Home Sweet Hobart

In response to Shea's post from earlier today I felt like I should respond with a "best breakfast" spot of my own on the East Coast. Just to represent.

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.

The Glory of Benedict

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

Clearly Over Posting

Interesting rumination on Alice Waters role in the food world. Considering that the season for farmer's markets just kicked off in D.C. I have to say I see more of the positives than the negatives in what she's done for eating in America. Every movement needs someone at the forefront agitating for an uncompromising vision of what is possible. It's up to the rest of us to work what we can into the realities of our own lives. The rigid element in any movement can be grating, but overall I do think she's done some pretty amazing things to bring local eating into the mainstream consciousness. Others contributed, complicated and diversified how that movement developed, but when all is said and done someone had to do it first. It's worth the read.


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Variations on a Theme

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

I'll Have Mine Rare

Per the Associated Press newswire on May 5.... this is a president I can get behind. Haven't yet ventured to Virginia personally to try Ray's Hell Burger but it consistently ranks high on the DC "best burger" list. Thus far my adventures in burger-dom have only extended as far as Capitol Hill and the Good Stuff Eatery. Granted, they make a burger I'd consider selling my soul for. But a prez who can get down in a place with the word "Hell Burger" right there in the title at less than 7 bucks a pop? Yes, please. Times have truly started to shift.

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.

Roasting with the Jones'

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.