Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Best and The Worst

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

Food for Thought

Just when I start to think I have this writing thing down I read something that makes me wish I'd written it. I find most of what M.F.K. Fisher wrote inspires those moments actually. Here's a bit from my reading the other night per "The Art of Eating", a wonderful compilation of her books of essays that everyone who eats should read. This particular bit of poetic prose comes from "The Gastronomical Me" which she wrote decades before "foodies" had thought up the term to identify themselves with.

"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

Serious Props

You've all clicked your way over to Shea’s “other” blog, Cooking With Hoover, by now, yes? For those few who haven't checked it out, go ahead, go now. Take a look….

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

Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger...

Burgers! I can't escape them lately. Yes, it's summer but the burger blitz of late is a bit out of hand. Newspaper articles about burger of the month clubs, magazine articles about the 20 best burgers in the U.S., multiple trips by members of the Obama administration to multiple local joints (the latest was Obama at a Five Guys near Nats Stadium with a NBC crew in tow). And that's just in the last couple weeks. It's like burger-mania.

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.


Dear Mr. President,

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.

Sincerely, LC