Saturday, August 16, 2014

Chef - a Delicious Road Trip

2014 has blessed us with three foodie movies to savor.  First up was Tasting Menu, somewhat inspired by the closing of Spain’s El Bulli.  Though released in April, the DVD is out in October, and I will have to review it then.  Next came Jon Favreau’s Chef which I will review here in a moment.  In the last week we were treated to the dessert, The Hundred Foot Journey.  I hope to devour that in the next week, so stay tuned.

Chef… I went to this expecting food to only play a secondary role and ultimately to find it a little unsatisfying but a decent escape.  I was wrong.  Food played a central role, it was loaded with morsels of wisdom and subtle foodie observations and proved to be an entertaining and enjoyable film.   

Favreau plays a LA celebrity chef caught between a rock and a hard place.  His manager/restaurant owner wants him to stick to what he does well, take no risks and simply turn out the same menu night after night, year after year.  But the city’s most influential critic is about to visit and the Chef would like to display his chops.  The manager threatens him with his job.  He gets a lousy review.

In this first third of the film we see that the Chef, Carl, is obsessed and consumed by his work but that he truly loves the creative process of cooking; the restaurant is stifling to him.  However, his obsessiveness seems to have cost him one marriage and regularly drives a wedge between him and his son.  

After a verbal explosion goes viral Carl loses his job.  Now we know it’s time for the redemption and it will likely involve Carl getting back in touch with both his love of creativity, cooking and his son.  Totally predictable, right?  It is.  But it’s fun.  

Enter a food truck, the support of his ex-wife, Miami and the beautiful simplicity and love of Cubano sandwiches.  Along the way we will get touching conversations, father-son instruction in the value of hard work and love of food, the subtlty of sandwich creation, a road trip and ultimately rekindled romance and food fame with a predictable twist at the end. 

The co-stars really steal the show.  Sofia Vergara plays the ex-wife and her easy smile warms the screen.  Jon Leguizamo’s humor and flair brings lightness to Favreau’s self-absorbed chef, and Bobby Cannavale nails it as a loyal sous chef.  Dustan Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Scarlett Johansson, and Robert Downey, Jr.  have smaller parts played spot on.

This won’t win any awards.  But you will enjoy it.  I highly recommend it…but you need to find a place in town for a good Cubano and make a reservation for 15 minutes after the movie is out…you’re gonna want one! 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Humble Scotch Egg

I have a cookbook in my kitchen that often gets a giggle – Traditional British Cooking.  I have been asked if it featured blank pages.  So unfair!  Our stereotypes of culinary greatness and grandeur tend to be French – thanks Escoffier and Julia Child.  Soul nourishing comfort foods?  Italian maybe.  Exotic flavors?  Asian of all kinds.  Filling, rich foods?  German and Eastern European.  But the British Isles get left out unless we are talking beer and spirits.  In retort I bring up pub grub and people just smirk as if that doesn’t count.  But fish and chips, a shepherd’s pie, some bubble and squeak – these may not be the result of some hours’ long processes with reductions and so on, but they are delicious.  Furthermore, we seem to be in an era in America of appreciation for simplicity, minimal ingredients, and fresh, versatile flavors.  So let’s give British food a break – and a try.
In Chicago recently I had the pleasure of eating at Blokes and Birds in Wrigleyville.  I spotted Scotch eggs on the menu – an item I never see without trying.  I am physically incapable of passing them up.  So along with an excellent burger and some fish and chips, we added this traditional portable snack.  And it was delicious.  In fact, before going on, I have to encourage you all to visit Blokes and Birds.  Great food, great location and stellar service.
That said, I got to thinking about the Scotch egg.  It is so simple it is a work of genius.  But why do we reserve these treats to pub visits?  It is simply a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage, rolled in bread crumbs and fried.  That would be easy to do at home, right?
And it has a wonderful, if disputed, history.  It could be the creation of an elite grocery store in London, or maybe a natural adaptation of an Indian meatball.  It might even have North African origins.  It is definitely not from Scotland.  But it becomes popular because it is filling and easily portable, delicious hot or cold.  This is a simple snack for the masses.  I had to do this at home!
I did what I often do – glance at a half dozen recipes and then just create my own.  I rarely use recipes – prefer to just create based on what I have seen.  So I hard boiled some eggs – cold from the fridge into rolling, boiling water reduced to a simmer for 12 minutes and then hit with cold water.  This way the yolk is done but golden and creamy, not dry.  After the eggs cooled and I peeled them I made a patty of mild Italian sausage in my hand, placed an egg in the middle and carefully wrapped the patty around the egg.  I thought this might be challenging but it was easy!  Then I rolled the sausage/egg ball in a whisked egg then rolled it around in a bowl of about a cup of flour, cup of bread crumbs and half a cup of panko with some salt and pepper.  I then dropped the balls into about an inch worth of vegetable oil, very hot, in a Dutch oven on the stove.  After a careful turn they fried up to a beautiful golden brown and looked to be restaurant quality.
The kids wandered in and out of the kitchen, knowing what I was making but skeptical – eggs inside sausage – weird!  Once all five balls were done I sliced them in half and put them on the table.  The kids looked a little more curious now.  My stepson took a bite.  “Yum.  Cool!”  My stepdaughter took it apart a bit to accommodate a sore mouth due to some orthodontic work, but responded with a “wow…that’s good.”  Some family dropped by conveniently and they too loved them.  This was sooooo easy!
And there’s even more that can be done.  What if we pickled the eggs in Worcestershire or Jalapeno juice?  What if we used a beer batter?  Or chorizo or a hot Italian sausage?  The possibilities are endless**.  Each family member could develop their own signature egg.  These could even be done with different kind of eggs – mini ones with quail eggs or giant goose eggs.
So give the Brits a break and try these at home.  
**Additional note - Just last night we had dinner at a new Santa Cruz restaurant, Assembly.  As a snack they served Scotch olives!  They were delicious!  Get to Assembly ASAP.  Review to come soon.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Eating with Class

Published simultaneously at It Takes A Kitchen and Let's Improve Schools Now

I spend most of my time here discussing the intersection of food and family.  But it is my career that has kept me from writing much over this past year and now brings me back.  In fact, I am coming back to write in both blogs, one single entry that bridges each topic – food and education.  Over the last four years I have had the immense pleasure of working with a group of nine high school students as they navigated high school – beginning to end, through AP classes, college apps, prom, spirit contests, assemblies, team building activities, anti-drug lectures, and even learning how to breath to relieve stress.  I firmly believe that a formal education is fundamentally a human endeavor based upon relationships and communication between people.  A deep, meaningful education cannot be replicated online or standardized.  Working with nine teens over four years’ time validates this belief. 

Furthermore, I firmly believe that relationships of all kinds are best formed over food.  Stop and think about it… Have you ever lead a group of community volunteers?  Offer food at meetings and people might show up.  Watch the conversation after church over a donut.  Think about your romantic relationships – I will bet they all included quite a bit of time over meals.  Want to get strangers talking?  Feed them something delicious.  Food brings people together and uncovers layers to relationships that will go unnoticed until sharing food. 

Over the last four years my group of students, my advisory (they call themselves Janda’s Pandas) have met weekly and food was key.  Truth be told, it was almost always junk food, but food nonetheless.  Without food, they were lethargic and bored.  Throw a gummy bear at ‘em, and it was like throwing a match into a box of dynamite.   However, in their junior and senior years we started making waffles in class.  The smell filled the building attracting the appetites of kids from other advisories.  Chocolate chips, whipped cream, and fruit all made great toppings and the leftover chips became quick snacks for them as they wandered by throughout the week.  Eating these waffles almost did as much for team building as the ropes course their sophomore year or the ocean kayaking their junior year. 

However, the culinary coup de grace for this group did not come until the end.  During their senior class trip to Laguna Beach last week we all ate at Mozambique.  Not knowing much about East African cuisine I cannot say much for the authenticity of the experience (they had pasta dishes and burgers?) but the authenticity of the meal was not at all the point.  The point was camaraderie, family.  We laughed about memories, we dreamt about college and we shared our food.  A couple kids shared a gigantic plate of seafood, working up a sweat to finish it all while the rest of us marveled.  They all left in a flash while I collected their desserts only to deliver them at the start of their class kumbaya moment.  Just a couple nights later, back home in San Jose, they all wanted to do it again after their Baccalaureate ceremony so we grabbed dinner in Santana Row.  I am left wondering if they would have liked to go out to eat every week. 
We already know that food quality is a major selling point for colleges today.  Some schools are approaching food differently (The Edible Schoolyard and Appleton, Wisconsin’s Central Alternative Charter High School are great examples) and seeing real behavioral and cognitive results.  But our efforts do not have to be so vast.  Simply sharing a meal with our students can make a difference in their level of commitment and joy in the process. 

“My kids” are now off to college – from coast to coast and from north to south – they are off to discover independence, test boundaries, live dreams, and seek wild success.  They will do phenomenal things, each in their own way.  But none of them will do it alone.  They will be supported by friends, professors, mentors and new advisors.  Bonds with these new people will be formed, often over food.  I hope they will tell me about it.  I hope when they return we will eat together again.  I miss them already.


Next year I start another four years with a new crop of freshmen.  We will eat together sooner.  We will build our bonds earlier…with waffle batter.  

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Celebrating Valentine's Day - Family Style

Are you feeling bombarded with pink?  It’s that time of year again...  Valentine’s Day.   Restaurants will be booked solid, chocolates will cap every aisle at the grocery store, and those not in a romantic relationship will feel left out.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.  In our family we like to make a big deal of every holiday; we even make them up and Valentine’s Day gets its own spin.  It’s just about love and appreciation – love of family, love of friends and even the dogs.   

We have to make the effort to make it this way.  It’s the lone holiday that commercially doesn’t really revolve around the kids or family. Our first year together we tried to figure out how to make it kid-friendly.  We knew that a new man in the kids’ lives taking their mother out wasn’t really a great start.   We wanted a family meal that included the kids.  It had to be red.  Spaghetti sauce.  Meatballs.  Meatballs in the shape of hearts – all made by the us and the kids.  That was key.  When blending a family and raising kids to enjoy food you must include them in the process no matter how brief the attention span.  This is now the traditional Valentine’s dinner…somewhat-heart-shaped meatballs and spaghetti.  We share a meal, and chat about things we love.  The kids giggle or cringe if we get to gushy and yell, “yuck!” if we kiss, but we all have light-hearted fun and hug and dance around the kitchen.  To get ready for the meal the kids and I now go grocery shopping and we each buy flowers for mom.  This began as a Valentine’s Day thing, but now the kids often ask to buy mom flowers when we go shopping together.  If they grow up wanting to buy their mother or significant other flowers every so often, I figure I’ve done alright.  In fact, if that’s what they like to do, they got the point…Valentine’s Day is about celebrating the love we all have for each other, not just romantic love.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

America's Defining Foods

A few years ago while traveling across Europe with an Italian friend I was told that Americans have no culinary tradition or invention outside of hamburgers and hot dogs.  Immersed in all things Italian and French at that moment, I tended to agree.  I have thought about this often in the years since.  We were wrong.  While many things American have by nature roots on other traditions, there are many foods that are uniquely American.  Thrillist just recently published their list of America's 33 Most Iconic Foods, and it has motivated me to add my two cents.

One thing I enjoy about this list is not just listing the foods but also ideal locations at which to eat them.  As I dove into the list I was looking for the usual suspects – BBQ, wings, burgers, and county fair food like corn dogs and smothered fries.  Instead I found some regional treats I need to add to my collection.  Of course, I also found a list of places I apparently need to eat some old stand-bys and a fair number of foods and places I have already eaten.
Here are some specific responses…
1.       Reindeer meat in Alaska – ok, Americans are not exactly known for consuming a wide range of meats.  We stick to cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and some fish.  Organ meat and non-traditional animals?   Not so much.  But I love and will search for the odd meat.  Reindeer in Alaska? I’m intrigued.  If you like the occasional odd meat, I recommend Le Fou Frog (http://www.lefoufrog.com/)  in Kansas City for some French preparations.

2.       Brisket and various forms of BBQ show up on the list a few times and certainly evoke Americana to me.  Risking committing patriotic blasphemy, BBQ has never really done much for me.  But perfectly cooked ribs, burnt ends, or a pulled pork sandwich…ok….delicious.  And my favorite place for ribs is by FAR Oklahoma Joe’s, an amazing place that shares a gas station in Kansas City, Kansas (http://oklahomajoesbbq.com/).  It is worth making a special trip to KC. 

3.       Hamburgers and hot dogs and the three summer holidays – is there anything more American?  Chili dogs, Chicago dogs (and Hot Doug’s has been on my list for years), red hots – in many forms we have special hot dogs.  The burger seems to have gone through serious expansion phase where we see gigantic burgers with so many toppings nobody’s mouth can take them in.  But my favorite burgers go the other way to minimalism and simplicity.  Booches in Columbia, Missouri (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Booches) and Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago make a simple, small burger with basic white buns and white American cheese served on wax paper (http://www.billygoattavern.com/).  Order two to start and let ‘em melt in your mouth like no other.

4.       We do some wonderful things with seafood in this country including crab cakes, lobster roll, oysters and all sorts of grilled fish.  And my single favorite lobster roll remains Day’s Lobster Pound in South Yarmouth, Maine (http://www.dayscrabmeatandlobster.com/).  It is simple, not overly seasoned or covered in mayo, served on a grilled flat bottom roll, and it makes me weep for its delicious simplicity.

5.       Okra, chittlins, hominy, greens – soul food could rival burgers and dogs for being quintessentially American.  Some hot sauce and good music and you have pure joy.  The best I have had came from a church fundraiser and was made with lots of love.

6.       Stews and Chowders – we have a knack for making some rich, delicious, chunky soups.  The only one I get too excited about though is a New England clam chowder, preferably my dad’s based on the recipe of the York Harbor Inn in York, Maine (http://www.yorkharborinn.com/).  It can’t be too thick and creamy, must be loaded with clams, and absolutely must not be red or clear.

7.       Pork Loin and pulled pork sandwiches – When I coached track and field in Missouri the State Championship track meet was held at the stadium of Lincoln University, an HBCU, in Jefferson City.  The dads of one of the university’s fraternities set up a trailer a numerous grills outside the stadium entrance.  By 10am each day the front of the stadium filled with the most amazing smoke.  Stop by that trailer and get pulled pork or pork loin slapped on a piece of white bread that serves no purpose but to hold the meat while you quickly eat.  The bread will disintegrate.  You will be happy and messy and smiling. 

8.       Chicken and waffles – like so many regional idiosyncrasies, this one has gone national while LA’s Roscoe’s remains the original and the Mecca (http://www.roscoeschickenandwaffles.com/).  I haven’t been yet, find the combo exceptionally weird, but look forward to a visit soon

9.       Sandwiches  - Cultures all over the world have sandwiches, but we seem to have them all.  The pastrami at Katz’s in NYC is worth every dime of the small fortune it costs (http://katzsdelicatessen.com/).  A great BLT, my favorite is Betty’s in Santa Cruz, CA, makes me feel like a kid again (http://www.bettyburgers.com/).  Italian beef combo in Chicago or Philly cheese – makes my mouth water.

10.   Brats – can this really be American?  Sure, Wisconsin seems a great place to grab one, but so does Munich.  Don’t get me wrong, I love ‘em, but the best I have ever had was in the train station in Hanover, Germany

11.   Fried Chicken  and Chicken wings – Certainly American food icons, but I don’t get it.  Too much trouble, too little reward.  Just give me straight blue cheese and anything fried.

12.   Mexican Food – I find it funny that the Thrillist list has at least three clearly Mexican items.  Granted, a burrito in the States is a very different thing.  That said, I have had a serious craving for a good taqueria for months now and in that time have had a dozen tacos in local taquerias, but I remain unsatiated.  Had great tacos…I just want more.  I can’t cure this craving!

13.   Toasted Ravioli – I mentioned these the other day – truly St. Louis’ iconic food and now it is turning up at catered parties and wedding receptions all over the nation.  Americans really are happy to eat anything fried.  Deep fried ravioli…it has grown on me, and I am partial to Rigazzi’s in St. L (http://rigazzis.com/).
What do you think are America’s most iconic foods and where must we eat them?  What are our equivalents of foie gras, beef wellington and osso buco?  Have tacos and brats been so adopted and adapted that they are now also American foods? 

 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Superbowl Weekend Eats

I hope you all had a wonderful Superbowl weekend.  I will be posting soon a few thoughts in regards to a variety of foodie articles I have read lately, but quickly wanted to share a couple quick thoughts from my weekend.  First, I had another anatopistic experience.  I went to a wonderful retirement party for one of my wife’s colleagues.  At the buffet was a huge chafing dish of toasted ravioli, the St. Louis icon.  I was amazed.  Furthermore, they tasted pretty good.  They were, however, Californified, served alongside a pesto aioli. 

I also made one of my childhood favorites for my Superbowl feast.  My mother called this pizza bread, but it really doesn’t resemble a pizza at all.  We ate it once a year, always on Superbowl Sunday. 
It’s simply bread dough rolled out as flat as you can get it with whatever cold cuts or deli meat you like, some white American cheese (it just melts so perfectly) and some pepper salad.  I use a combination of roasted red bell peppers and mild banana pepper rings.  I then roll it, fold in the end, egg wash it and bake on 350 for about 30 minutes.  You could add whatever meats, cheeses, peppers or giardiniera you like to fit you and your family’s tastes.          

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Frankly, Mr. Shankly

If you are reading this and have already been to this blog I think it is safe to say that you already believe food is far more than simply sustenance.  You likely see food as a form of art, or a wonderful hobby.  Perhaps food is something that brings you joy.  If you have been one of my readers you know I see food as something that creates community and intimacy.  Undoubtedly you know people for whom food is simply food, not to be imbued with all sorts of social or emotional powers.  Well, be sure to share with them a movie I recently watched.

May I Be Frank is another in a long line of movies that explore our modern, affluent lifestyles and the damage we are doing to ourselves.  May I Be Frank is different in that it looks at how fast a healthy, cleansing diet can affect both our health and our emotional state.  Frank Ferrante is a middle-aged guy with a colorful past of drug use, womanizing and a total lack of self-respect.  He wanders into Cafe Gratitude in Berkeley, California and is confronted with their question of the day.  What do you want more than anything else in your life?  Frank wants to fall in love one more time but knows that’s impossible until he loves himself.  His server is intrigued and together with a couple other employees set out to whip Frank into shape – emotional and physical.  What follows is Frank’s experience with wheatgrass, colonics, and self-affirmations.  Frank is a charming guy, impossible not to like.  He is brutally honest about what he is experiencing even while struggling to be honest with the pain in his life.  However, in just a few weeks he loses weight, cleans up his body and begins to wrestle with his demons.  As I watched I was completely convinced that his new, cleaner diet was the key ingredient leading him to reflect and search for healing. 
This is not an easy film to watch, yet it is completely engaging.  It will force you to think about your own life – nutritionally and emotionally.  But hang on to the end – all the way through the credits – and you will discover such hope.  I loved the intimate feel of the movie.  In a time where documentaries often get such acclaim and even audience, this is one that feels like a film festival.  That small, unknown, intimate film that lacks the star-power or marketing experts to make it the next Bowling for Columbine or An Inconvenient Truth, it is the sort that you will watch, feel good about, and want to share with others. 
     

Monday, January 27, 2014

Food is our past, present and future

Thank you to my readers who send on more thoughts about food and how it helps us make connections with others.  Here is another piece that was sent my way, apparently from O, the Oprah magazine: 

When I walk
into my kitchen today,
I am not alone.
Whether we know it
or not, none of us is.
We bring fathers
and mothers and kitchen
tables, and every meal
we have ever eaten.
Food is never just food.
It’s also a way of
getting at something else:
who we are, who
we have been, and
who we want to be.
-Molly Wizenberg, from A Homemade Life

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Happy Birthday Grandma

This blog is an exploration of how we form intimate connections with people through food.  I am amazed and fascinated by the power of a meal to create bonds between strangers, strengthen bonds between family members, and deepen bonds between lovers.  In my life, I am particularly interested in how food and cooking is forming bonds between me and my stepchildren.  But food is such a central part of my family that sometimes cooking functions to provide the unexpected.   

Today we honor my wife’s grandmother on her 92nd birthday.  She’s lived in the same house in Los Angeles for over 60 years with a small, simple kitchen... a kitchen that is a second home to my wife and her siblings.  My wife and I with her brother visited with Grandma over Thanksgiving.  Of course that’s a holiday loaded with tradition and very specific foods.  However, this past year that was to be turned on its head for me.  The three of us had hoped to cook in her kitchen and share that experience with her.  It is what we created that surprised me.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving we asked her to show me (my wife and her brother have been cooking with her since they were little) how to make tortillas.  I had envisioned a simple snack.  We ended up with a feast filled with family history and tradition.  First she showed us how to make the dough.  Of course the recipe was in her head and intuition seemed to be the most important ingredient.  Once the feel was right we let the dough sit for a bit before we formed it into small balls for rolling out.  From an overstuffed drawer she pulled a rolling pin that most resembled a sawed-off broom handle that had seen a lot of love.  Apparently that rolling pin belonged to her mother!  She proceeded to roll out a perfect circle of flattened dough about eight inches across.  She made it look so easy and chatted through the entire process.  After making a few and throwing them on a griddle she looked at me and said, “your turn.”  I was intimidated…simple as that.  I took that historic rolling pin and started to roll out…a rectangle, then an oval, then a blob. 
I took some advice, tried again and again and kept getting something closer to a football shape than a circle.  My wife and brother-in-law took turns and did better, getting near-circles and then Grandma jumped in again.  And again, perfect circles.  As we each took turns Grandma started giving directions for my wife to make a salsa verde.  Into the blender went herbs (from her garden) and spices, some tomatillos, tomatoes and before you knew it a gorgeous smell overtook the kitchen.  Meanwhile, Grandma got to work on some refried beans, eggs and arroz rojo.  I watched amazed as a feast was brought together in short order with a grace and skill I can only aspire to.  Grandma did this like a woman a third her age.
When we finally sat at the small table a colorful, love-filled Mexican feast welcomed us, all assembled by this vibrant, incredible petite woman.  This was a true Thanksgiving meal linked to our family’s past, present and future.
Happy 92nd Birthday, Grandma.  May we all have many more together.    

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Malibu Perfection

In A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain writes about searching for the world’s greatest meal.  In the introduction he explains just what he defines as a great meal.  It need not be made of the finest ingredients or by the most elite, prestigious preparations.  It doesn’t need to be the priciest, most elaborate or rare.  It does not need Michelin stars or New York Times reviews.  To Bourdain, the greatest meal is some combination of the food, its preparation, the setting and the company and conversation.

Sometimes an amazing meal can be an unexpected surprise.  Recently my wife and I were driving from LA to Santa Cruz, California.  We had packed a simple picnic to eat along the way… crusty baguette, brie, prosciutto, coppa, salami, arugula, grapes, Pellegrino and some M&Ms.  I was content with swinging into a rest stop or parking lot, but my wife had other ideas.  Just north of Malibu we stopped at a small parking lot and headed down to the beach…way, way down a series of wooden, rickety staircases.  The beach was strewn with huge rock formations and backed by the massive cliffs we had just descended.  There were maybe a dozen people within 5o yards of the foot of the stairs in either direction.  We walked a bit looking for the perfect private spot against the cliffs to eat our picnic lunch.  In the warm Southern California sun we wished we had not worn jeans.  The meats were wonderful, the cheese creamy and the baguette crumbled just right.  Few seagulls noticed, and they left us alone.  We ate in relative silence – an experience we rarely have anymore with kids and dogs keeping us busy.  The sun, the sound of the surf, the melting of thin-cut meats in our mouths, the sweetness of juicy grapes all conspired to create a perfect meal. 
We covered our cooler and bag and headed down the beach for a walk.  The gigantic rock formations had their lower portions covered in mussels, some of them the size of my fist.  Kids ran around in tide pools while college kids snapped pictures on the stairs.  Couples walked hand in hand.  Sandpipers ran in unison back and forth like a crowd of 7 year old boys who have been told not to get wet.  A cormorant sat atop a rock drying off in the sun.  And the M&Ms proved a flawless dessert.  We didn’t need some fancy chocolate lava cake after foie gras and caviar.  Tenderloin and wasabi potatoes?  No need.  We had a perfect meal in a perfect setting with our favorite culinary companion.  

This is what Bourdain was looking for.  This is what we found.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Blending Family in this New Year

As the holiday season passes I think it is important that we stop for a moment and reflect.  What are the memories you will keep from this year?  A great party with friends that involved far too much dancing too late into the night (morning)?  A great dish – paella for New Years, beer braised short ribs for Christmas?  Was there a birthday celebration in the middle of it all?  Did you see some long lost family members?  Get an amazing gift?  Were you reminded how crazy, wonderful or just plain insane your family is?  Did you simply catch up on much-needed sleep?  I would answer a resounding ‘yes’ to all of these questions.

A curious thought occurred to me this year baking with my family.  We all have certain objects that conjure memories for us.  My wife and I each have a kitchen tool that rarely gets used anytime but the holidays and somehow they embody all that these winter holidays are all about.  For my wife it’s an old flour sifter.  It is as if the metal embodies a sense of belonging.  The sifter is older than she is, dating back to her parents’ wedding.  The mere sound of the metal on the sifting screen makes her feel at home.  In fact, it’s the feeling of home that makes the sifter special.  She moved around a lot as a kid.  In each new home she felt securely at home once that sifter was unpacked and had found a place in the kitchen.  When it comes out to sift anything it is always accompanied by a story of memories of cardboard packing boxes, a new family adventure, and a sense of being centered and safe as long as the sifter was present in their kitchen.    
My beloved, memory-filled kitchen object is my great grandmother’s meat grinder.  I use it once per year (though I would love to use it more often) to grind the turkey organs to make my Thanksgiving stuffing – the same stuffing my family has eaten for at least five generations.  Holding it in my hand I see the kitchens it has been used in, the relatives who have used it, and the traditional meals it has helped make.  The most vivid memory is of my father using it to make ham salad after Easter.   Ham and pickles would go in, some fine greenish pink mush would come out and once mixed with some mayo became something I really didn’t want to eat – and still don’t.  But the memory of being a little boy and that sense of safety and family that goes with the memory is far more important than the food.

Now that meat grinder is a source of wonder for my stepkids.  They watch the gizzards, livers and a heart go in and fortunately forget those stuffing ingredients before we eat Thanksgiving dinner.  However, my step son is taking a liking to eating heart.  I suspect he might also find a love for that meat grinder.  My stepdaughter now can pull out that flour sifter and look to her mother for a story.  “Mom, isn’t this sifter really important to you?  Why?”  Now at the end of these holidays we have taken one more step to blending and sifting ourselves into a family.

I hope you all had a great holiday season.  Happy New Year!                
    

Friday, January 10, 2014

Building Community

A friend sent me the following quote recently...

If you really want to make a friend, go to someone's house and eat with him... the people who give you their food give you their heart. - Cesar Chavez

I found it wonderful to consider this in light of how we build relationships and community over food and how we defeat discrimination.  Think about it...food breaks down walls and lets us connect with people.  It is the cure to hatred, racism and the fuel to build neighborhoods and nations.  
 

 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Taste of Summer to Warm Your Winter

As much of the USA gets pummeled by Old Man Winter at the start of 2014, I reach into my freezer in search of random ingredients I can assemble into meals.  Deep at the bottom I have found a memory...  One bottle bearing one last, sweet, delicious sip of summer.  Though the central coast of California continues to see beautiful spring temperatures and sunshine, I know I have something in this bottle to brighten and warm the days of the rest of you.

Golden like sunshine, slightly thicker than water and packing a punch if you are not careful, an ice cold limoncello will brighten any day and instantly transport you to a summer afternoon.  In fact, for me limoncello always transports me to a specific place and time.  July in Florence, Italy is hot and sticky with tourists.  Though I love Firenze, I cannot say I would recommend July as a time to visit.  However, if you are there save Santa Maria del Fiori, or Il Duomo, for late afternoon.  This iconic church, the first dome constructed in Europe since the fall of Rome and the dominating structure of Florence, is sheathed in white, pink and green marble.  In late afternoon in July the setting sun lights up the façade.  Take a seat at one of the many sidewalk cafes that circle the piazza.  Order a limoncello (don’t mind the exorbitant prices) and sit back to watch the show.  It’s a slow dance of golden sunlight with pink and green marble.  Savor the sweet tartness of the lemon-yellow nectar.  Let all these colors and flavors dance in your head and warm your soul.  Let all the worries and the stressors of your life melt away.  Enjoy that dance and be warmed amidst this snowy, chilly winter.  And look for some limoncello deep in your freezer.  You might find a Tuscan summer in there.


Here are a couple explanations and recipes for limocello –
For those with less time and fortitude - http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/giada-de-laurentiis/limoncello-recipe/index.html
If Batali really uses this one in his restaurant, Lupa, then it’s the best limoncello I have ever had - http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/mario-batali/lemon-digestive-assistant-limoncello-recipe/index.html

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Oh, Porchetta

When I was in Italy a few summers ago I spent a great deal of time wandering through street markets.  I was not shopping for anything.  Wait, that’s not true.  I was looking at produce.  Buying a fresh San Marzano tomato in July and eating it like an apple is a pretty awesome thing to experience.  Invariably every market had a porchetta stand.  I was captivated by these.  One long counter and a couple guys in butcher’s aprons took orders and prepped simple sandwiches.  They would turn around and carve chunks of pork off a giant pig, snag a couple crisp pieces of skin, throw it all on a crispy roll, sprinkle it with rock salt and hand it to customers lined up five deep.  I fell in love with porchetta.

I looked carefully at the entire process.  Though at first I thought it was a whole pig they were carving, I soon discovered that it was more like a giant boned and stuffed pig.  In fact, it looked like a gigantic sausage with a head.  I looked into the process and found out that this is a very elaborate process and does in fact call for boning an entire pig, filling it with some seasoning, sometimes some offal, and tying it up like a sausage and roasting it for a long, long time.  I looked into duplicating it in miniature, likely with a large slab of pork belly and a pork tenderloin, but discovered that locating a large slab of pork belly is not always easy.  Maybe this Christmas I will give it a try.  In the meantime, check out Nancy Kruse’s national tour of Porchetta at In Praise of Porchetta.  She leads me to think that I need to get North Carolina or Oregon for one of those food trucks.  By the way, in my opinion, porchetta is the perfect food truck food, far better than seeing it all fancied up in a restaurant.  Throw some meat on a bun, sit in the summer sun and call it a day!
Want to see the process?  Check this out - A You Tube video

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Making Movie Feasts

A number of posts back I shared a list of my favorite foodie movies.  One of them was Babette's Feast, a 1987 Oscar winner from Denmark.  Truth is, the movie does exactly what I want to be writing about.  In the movie a French woman living in an austere Danish community the late 19th century prepares a sumptuous, sensuous, decadent meal for her somber community and creates quite a stir.  At its core, Babette’s Feast is about how food brings us together and creates intimacy and community.  Not long after writing the blog entry I came across a wonderful essay that raises a challenge to all of us.  In J. Bryan Lowder’s Cooking With Babette in Slate Magazine, we are regaled with a wonderful story of attempting to duplicate Babette’s feast  at home.  After reading it, I think I might be better suited to just eat Reese’s Pieces,  ride a bike and call it my E.T. meal; I don’t have the budget, time or skill, I am afraid, to replicate such a meal.  But then eating candy on a solo bike ride across the moon would be missing Babette’s point, now wouldn’t it?  That said, the essay is a great read and inspires an idea.  What is your favorite foodie movie?  Now, go watch it again and pick a recipe.  Come back here or to the Facebook page and share your experiences.  Happy watching, happy cooking, happy eating!!!   

Friday, September 6, 2013

Do you take apart your Oreos?

Pizza may not have pineapple.  Meatloaf must have bacon over the top.  Chili must be beef and tomato based.  Barbeque ribs must have a dry-rub.  Tuna salad may only be made with mayonnaise, not Miracle Whip. 

People have all sorts of rules about their favorite foods.  I certainly have more than a few.  Many of these rules have substantive results.  Pineapple really does change a pizza.  The various styles of chili, barbeque or clam chowder really are quite different.  But once the food is done and ready to eat, what’s done is done, right?
The other night I was wrapping up my summer sitting in the sun after dinner eating an orange creamsicle, and it occurred to me that we also have particular ways of eating our favorite foods.  I took a bite off the top of the creamsicle, savored the bite, then looked at the creamsicle.  The cream inside was smooth, but surrounded by a thin layer of orange with an irregular, icy texture.  Immediately I was transported to my childhood when I did my best to eat the orange first, leaving me with the creamy center.  I had to use my front teeth to gingerly chip the orange off.  I loved it when I was able to separate a large slab of icy, orange brightness.  Then the creamy richness rounded off the experience.

What other foods require a certain method?  I like my Oreos fully assembled, dipped in milk almost till soggy.  I like my Pringles in stacks of three to six; they just taste different in quantity than solo.  Same goes for Doritos.  A Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup is a two bite treat if I am trying to control myself.  If nobody is looking…one bite.  I like my peas mixed with mashed potatoes.  I love leftover chili poured over pasta.  I love Ruffles potato chips on a tuna or bologna sandwich.  I like mayo with my fries.  I do not dip fries in my milkshakes.  When I was a kid I ate only one thing at a time, never letting my foods touch.
I know others who always disassemble the Oreos first.   Some eat the creamy center, some dip in milk, some don’t.  I know one person who eats the edges of a Reese’s first.  I know somebody else who eats a Kit-Kat in layers.  I know many who only know one condiment – ketchup.  I’ve known people with all sorts of methods for eating a banana, including with a knife and spoon! 

Do you eat the candy coating of an M&M first?  Do you bite into a Tootsie Roll Pop?  Do you eat a burrito with knife and fork or by hand?  Use a spoon with spaghetti?  What are your eating idiosyncracies?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Food you can listen to, Music you can eat

When I cook I prefer to have music on, frequently loud, always something I can sing along with.  And I go out of my way to be sure that I am loud enough to be heard outside so as to most effectively embarrass my soon-to-be 11 year old stepdaughter.  Isn’t that part of a parent’s job?  Often the music and smells draw the family into the kitchen and little, impromptu dance parties develop.  It’s a fun, chaotic, loud, delicious scene.  Recently it got me thinking about music that’s about food.  I tried to come up with my favorite songs that feature food and I discovered that there is actually quite a bit of foodie music.  In fact, numerous blogs have already covered the subject.  One webpage (http://www.mixedup.com/foodsongs.htm) has an exhaustive list organized by food.  Alas, I share with you my favorites in the order they came to me and invite you to share yours. 

That's Amore by Dean Martin – American or not, it makes me feel like I am sitting at a sidewalk café in Rome enjoying a bowl of pasta, vino rossa, and some sunshine.
Scenes from an Italian Restaurant by Billy Joel – One of my all-time favorite songs to cook with.  It’s almost long enough to boil pasta, it tells a great story, and is “told” over a meal.  And it’s long enough that my stepdaughter sinks all the way to bribery to get me to stop singing.     

Pour Some Sugar On Me by Def Leppard – I read somewhere that misheard lyrics, mondegreens, are most often about either food or sex.  To take the idea a step further, I would suggest that most often songs that talk about food are actually talking about sex.  This song has to be one of the best examples of the last 30 years and always gets the crowd going in the kitchen.  My, won’t they be embarrassed in a few years?
Cherry Pie By Warrant – How is it that women always get equated with food?  See above.  I am the last person you’ll find defending the value of eighties hair bands.  I spent most of the eighties listening to what was then called college rock, now alt. rock.  But a few cheesy pop tunes (didn’t eighties pop include its hair bands?) had to seep into my consciousness.  No matter what you thought of this years ago, doesn’t it make you grin and reach for some hot fruit?

Eat It by Weird Al – I’m sorry to have to include this, but it cracked me up as a kid and sitting down to think about food and music brought this to mind immediately.  Now I find it disgusting and somewhat offensive.  I don’t sing to this in the kitchen.    
Jailhouse Rap by The Fat Boy’s – I know The Fat Boys had more than a few other songs that revolved around food, but this is the one that comes to mind.  Motivated by a pizza craving, a crime is committed and he ends up in prison.  Another song that’s a story.  Listening to it, I am struck by how much I miss the humor, fun and beats of Old Skool hip-hop.

Alice’s Restaurant Massacre by Arlo Guthrie – When I was a teenager I learned of this song listening to St. Louis’ KSHE 95 on Thanksgiving Day.  Again, I love a song with a story and this is the epitome of storytelling.  It’s also a great sample of late sixties politics and a piece of American history.  And since I identify it with Thanksgiving, I also identify it with eating and cooking. 
Sweet Potato Pie by James Taylor and Ray Charles – My wife brought this song to me and we had it played at our wedding.  Again, we have a love, a woman, turned into food, but isn’t it wonderful?  Simply put, it’s a sweet song.  And I don’t even like sweet potatoes! 

Sweet Potato by Cracker – I guess as I was thinking about these the word “sweet” got something going.  I love this band and find so much of their music catchy and fun.  This song is in my “happy song” category and I can’t help but sing it loud and proud.
Sweet Pea by Amos Lee – If there’s a perfectly happy, sweet, romantic song this is it.  Soulful, bluesy and I can’t stop singing when I cook.  We also had to have this played during our wedding weekend.

Breakfast in America by Supertramp – For a guy who loves punk and alt. rock there’s little worse than Supertramp.  Truth is, Supertramp is one of my guilty pleasures.  Breakfast in our house is a big deal.  Rarely do the kids eat just a simple bowl of cereal more than three days in a row.  Now that school has started each weekend will have at least one breakfast feast.  And this song will roll around in my head while cooking each and every one.
Pulling Mussels from a Shell by Squeeze – I have no idea what this song is about, but I love it and virtually everything Squeeze made.  As for mussels – I remember my first ones in Luxembourg as a teen and have loved them ever since.  White wine or a hoppy beer, shallots, garlic, some herbs to steam them and a good baguette to dip in the juice and you have the perfect winter meal.  And I will hum the song in my head the whole time.

Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffet – A great meal has to have a great drink.  And is there a greater song about a drink than this?  Nuff said.
The Pina Colada Song by Rupert Holmes – Pina Coladas were the first mixed drinks I remember.  And this song just gets stuck in your head.  Has anyone had a Pina Colada since 1980 without thinking about this song?

Lunchladyland by Adam Sandler – The other night we made sloppy joes from scratch.  You have to do this – it is easy and easily customizeable to family tastes.  But I simply cannot say “sloppy joe” without thinking about this song.  I shared this video with the kids after dinner.  They giggled in awe of Chris Farley.
Do Fries Go with That Shake by George Clinton – Food and sexual innuendo – they go together like, well like fries and a shake!  This song and video is hysterical, and to my wife’s dismay, I sing this to her all the time, normally with the kids around so they think I am just excited about eating again.

Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk by Rufus Wainwright – This actually doesn’t sound a like a good combination to me, but to each his own.  The year I moved to California I listened to this song a lot and find myself humming it often. 
Cups and Cakes by Spinal Tap – From one of my favorite movies, a song about baking, right?  Every birthday celebration we find ourselves making cupcakes or a cake and me humming this.

Ice Cream Castles by The Time – Remember Purple Rain?  Remember Prince’s rival, Morris Day?  I wanted all the music from the movie and picked up The Time’s album at the same time as Purple Rain and discovered this one.    
Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones – Supposedly this song was inspired by one of Ike Turner’s back-up singers…not food.  I can’t help but sing when I hear this, loving the blues influence and all that soul.

Peaches by The Presidents of United States of America – I love music that tells a story and has something substantive to say.  Art ought to get political.  It’s okay for art to be serious.  This is none of the above – this is just silly.  But a peach can’t be eaten without singing this. 
Lost in the Supermarket by The Clash – Everything from The Clash was right up my alley.  I loved the politics, the international influences, the raw aggression in some of their music.  But this song makes me smile.  And then….listen to the lyrics…this is not the result of happiness.  And it speaks to a kid’s worst fear, being lost in a large store.  But the image sounds great to me as an adult.  The only place I actually enjoy shopping is the supermarket. 

I Want Candy by Bow Wow Wow – I know this is a cover, but I love Bow Wow Wow’s version.  The drums make me move.  There are some amazing stories about this band and its underage singer, Annabella Lwin, and the song really irritates lots of people.  Somehow when I was younger I just knew there was something inappropriate about this song.  But I liked it.  It might be the most overplayed eighties retro song after Come On Eileen.  My kids love the song because the say its title all the time! 
Red Red Wine by UB40 – This is another cover song (Neil Diamond wrote it) but this is the version I grew up with.  And for our purposes here today, at least this really is about wine. 

I Want A Little Sugar in My Bowl by Nina Simone – This is another old song, but I think Simone does it best.  I am pretty sure if you had never heard the English language then heard this song, you would absolutely know beyond any doubt that this song is not about food at all.  Not sure?  Listen carefully to Bessie Smith’s version.  Both of these women epitomize the raw sexuality of the blues.  In fact, if you listen to the blues you know there’s a whole lotta music about…food.
Cinnamon Girl by Neil Young – I love Matthew Sweet’s version, but grew up with Young’s.  I often wondered what on earth a cinnamon girl was, and I still can’t define it, but since meeting my wife, I can say I know.  I sing this to her all the time and the kids beg me to stop.    



C is for Cookie by the Cookie Monster – Bring on the cookies!  Isn’t this everyone’s first food song?!

Eat the Rich by Motorhead – This band rocks!  This is metal…period.  Those eighties hair bands got nothing on these guys.  Metalli-who?



Ice Cream Man by Van Halen – About the same time I was cracking up listening to Eddie Murphy’s Delirious (The ice cream man is coming!  Want some?) I was also listening to Van Halen.  They rocked, and they had a sense of humor, at least until they thought an inability to drive 55 was the height of rock 'n' roll rebellion.  And what’s better than ice cream in the summer time listening to your favorite tunes?
 
What are your favorite foodie tunes?