Wednesday, November 28, 2012
This past weekend began the Winter Holiday Season. Thanksgiving leftovers are slowly getting cleaned up, lights are going on the houses, trees are getting tied to car roofs. While we focus so much on the traditions of specific days – Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years – I suspect we all have numerous rituals of the season that we celebrate during the next month.
In my family we start the day after Thanksgiving with Christmas music in the morning. Over the weekend we put up lights, set out lawn chairs after dark, crank up some Christmas music, grab some hot chocolate and make a show of flipping the lights on for the first time. Throughout the next month there are nights of Home Alone, The Santa Clause, Rankin/Bass shows, A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Grinch That Stole Christmas. There will be an evening of Mexican hot chocolate and candy canes while we read the story of Jesus’ birth. Typically we go get a Christmas tree with some other families, forming a four-car convoy into the mountains, but not until we have shared an amazing breakfast. One morning some pancakes will get green and red sprinkles. Candy canes will miraculously appear on the tree every few nights, placed there by Santa’s elves doing his lead-work. We do what we can to build the fantasy of the Christmas season.
This season I will be looking forward to a Polar Express ride in Sacramento, a visit with my family and our German Christmas Eve meal, and constructing some new traditions with the kids. What are you looking forward to? What meals and foods mark the season? How do you create some fantasy for the holidays?
Talk to you all soon…the lights and decorations beckon.
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
French fries are certainly ubiquitous. They serve as plate filler in all sorts of restaurants across this country, too frequently in absurd quantities. However, great fries are a true treat. I could go for some from In-N-Out, well done, anytime. I think they're the only fast food fries that taste like real potatoes. And I love being able to watch someone prep them right in front of me....from potato to fryer to my mouth. But many places are able to take fries to a whole new level. While traveling in Europe, particularly the Low Countries and France I have had some wonderful pommes frites. My favorites have been from a stand in Brussels, a festival in Luxembourg and Chez Denise in Paris. Everyone seems to have a few secrets for a truly great fry, but one consistent element seems to twice-fried. Here in the States my favorites have been Les Halles in New York City and Duckfat in Portland, Maine. Here CNN gives Duckfat some recognition.
Monday, November 26, 2012
Saturday, November 24, 2012
A slightly different form of the following was previously published in Prysm, a now defunct weekly magazine in Columbia, Missouri.
This is grain, which any fool can eat, but for which the lord has intended a more divine form of consumption. Let us give praise to our maker and glory to His bounty by learning about beer.
- Friar Tuck, Robin Hood (1991)
Beer must be the greatest but most maligned beverage in the world. In the public’s mind, wine is the beverage of choice in fine restaurants and for special occasions. Beer is the cheap, commoner drink. Wine is the subject of regular newspaper columns, magazine articles and numerous magazines. Beer gets a special occasionally – normally having to do with green food coloring or “new” craft brewers battling in the face of the big three. Mixed drinks garner outrageous prices. Beer gets ridiculous specials that merely require the change on the floor of your car. Nice restaurants have their own wine menus and sommeliers, while servers, when asked what beers are available, tell you they have everything – Bud, Bud Light, Michelob, Mich Ultra, Miller Lite, Coors, Corona, Stella and Heineken…wow! Wine gets special glasses depending upon whether you’re drinking various reds or whites or bubblies. Beer gets a frosted mug to cover up the taste or the same kind of glass the water is served in. Wine has even become the subject of tourism and Hollywood movies. Books about wine and spirits take up numerous shelves at the local book store. Books about beer don’t fill a shelf.
Granted, there are nicer restaurants that boast beer lists that can match their wine lists, but these require some hunting. And many places throw in a quality pale ale or IPA to go along with their megamarket fizzy water, but one or two choices to go beyond the equivalent of Strawberry Hill does not true choice make.
This is really a shame because beer is amazing. It is arguably humanity’s first manufactured food. Archeologists can show pretty convincingly that it was either bread or beer. And those two are essentially the same thing with different quantities of water. So beer has been nourishing people since the dawn of civilization. You could even argue that, through the farming of the necessary grains, beer is the foundation of human civilization. The ancient Sumerians and Egyptians each made it, reserving vast quantities for the royal families who used golden straws to drink it.
Beer has also been humanity’s safe water source through the hardest times. Throughout the last millennium in much of Western Europe, and eventually in the British colonies of North America, beer provided all the necessary nutrients and none of the dangers of the local water. Beer of low alcohol content was consumed by both genders and people of all ages, classes and at all meals. It was the depletion of the beer supply that caused the crew of the Mayflower to call it a day and drop the Pilgrims in Massachusetts.
Beer can also be made from almost anything. While all beer has water and yeast in it, most today have hops and malted barley and frequently wheat. But throughout the world and throughout time lots of other ingredients have been used including heather, kelp, rice, hemp, roots, fruits and vegetables – even garlic. People made beer from whatever ingredients were available. It is phenomenally versatile.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a beverage that goes with more meals. Sure, it’s become cute and clever to pair a burger with wine in some restaurants in places like Las Vegas, but get real. Nothing can go with fried food, burgers and brats, or barbecue like a beer. And much of what is traditionally served with wine actually goes better with beer. Seriously, go buy a variety of beers and a variety of cheeses – or crunchy bread, or some nice fish – and start experimenting. Pick up some ice cream and a Belgian fruit lambic. Or flourless chocolate cake with a barleywine, strong ale or doppelbock. Make a weekend of it, and I’ll bet you’ll be surprised how amazing the beer is – and how much more it can accompany than wine.
More and more, people are interested in the sources of their food. People are buying organic and from local farmers’ markets and finally putting some real thought about what they put in their mouth. Check out the ingredients of your average micro or craft beer. You’ll see few ingredients, all of them easy to pronounce and healthy. Compare the nutritional value of one of these beers to the sodas people gulp by the gallon. Obviously, no one should be drinking beer by the gallon, but you see the point. Beer is good for you – in moderation of course.
Beer is also wonderful because no other industry has so much fun. Consider the names…Doggy Style, Arrogant Bastard, Big Butt Bock, He’Brew Jewbilation (it’s kosher), Polygamy Porter (you can’t have just one), Delirium Tremens, Coal Porter, Moose Drool, Skullsplitter, Immort Ale, Erin Go Braless, Yellow Snow, Kilt Lifter or Wailing Wench. Their festivals have concerts, brewery tours, dancing, and camping. They’ve even begun bands like the Pain Relievaz. And some brewers even have their own B&B connections just like the vineyards. I know a small brewpub that makes a big annual celebration out of Talk Like a Pirate Day! Beer people are fun people!
What I find most fascinating about beer is its variety. With a few changes in preparation of the malted barley and choosing different varieties of hops brewers dramatically alter the taste, smell, and texture of beer. Throw into the mix the varieties of water and yeast from one brewery to another and with only four main ingredients we get an endless array of flavor.
Find an excuse this winter to celebrate with the most plebeian of drinks. If you’re drinking the same thing you have for years at bargain prices, branch out a little and experience the variety of styles and tastes. Find out why many now say that this country has the greatest beer culture any nation has ever seen. Demand that your favorite restaurants and stores respect your beer taste and carry beers (and appropriate glassware) to match their food and wine selection. A toast to hops and barley!
Why we are here:
To tremble at the terrible beauty of the stars,
to shed a tear at the perfection of Beethoven's symphonies,
and to crack a cold one now and then.
Monday, November 19, 2012
I ran into the grocery for only one thing, but on my way to the register I caught the Mallomar display in the corner of my eye. I glanced and grinned, remembering how much I enjoy them. Then I saw the price, $3.99. Well…I could afford this little luxury…why not? It was a warm day in San Jose so I put them on the floor of my car under lots of paper; I couldn’t have them melt!
That night after dinner the kids asked if they could have dessert.
“Of course, in fact I have a very special treat. A treat you can only get in the fall and winter.”
As soon as I took them from the cabinet the kids lit up. They had seen them before but hadn’t had one. Is that proof that yellow really is the most memorable color to your brains? I sat at the table and began to explain.
“This is a special treat. You can’t have these all the time because they melt, so it is important to savor each bite – you never know how long you will have to wait for another. So eat this slowly and enjoy every part…the soft cookie inside, the filling like marshmallow, the thin layer of chocolate – but be careful…you don’t want to drop any chocolate. And be sure to try to get some of all three parts in each bite.”
I started to open the box. “Do I have your word that you will savor every bit and eat one slowly?”
“Yes, yes, yes….can we have one??!!”
“Ok…but remember…enjoy every bite.”
His eyes lit up as he took that first small nibble. She grinned and giggled. A harmonious , “mmmmm” filled the dining room. They each took about two full minutes to consume their single mallomar…small bites fully savored before another was taken. Big smiles. And not a single request for one more…until tomorrow.
Sunday, November 18, 2012
Today in church the priest explained that when he was a kid and heard something scary or confusing his stomach would get upset. The only thing that calmed him was spaghetti with butter and parmigiano, chicken soup or mashed potatoes. What soothes your nerves?
Friday, November 16, 2012
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
The morning sun streams through the sliding door and lights up every surface in the dining room. There’s no fog in sight. Dew drops from the eaves and the trampoline in back. Our lone sunflower is turning to its namesake to start one of its final days. The kids are watching morning cartoons, cuddled together under a blanket.
One whispers, “I’m hungry.”
“Well, what do you feel like eating?”
“Mark, can you make us those eggs you make?”
“You mean soft-boiled eggs?”
“Yeah!!!,” both of them scream.
How can I deny such enthusiasm?
Every family has certain dishes that will forever be associated with one parent or the other. While each parent may be able to make all the important family comfort foods, it just isn’t the same unless a certain one has made a particular dish. In my family, the soft-boiled egg has become one of “my” dishes. And the kids are very particular – the texture has to be just right. The yolks have to have the right consistency – runny, but with a firmness you can only get in a farm-fresh egg. The whites have to be cooked, but not quite solid, still gooey. And they must be served warm.
The perfect soft-boiled egg does require precision, but anyone can do it with a little patience. Make sure you have the right raw goods. Start with fresh, organic, vegetarian eggs. I like to put four to six straight from the fridge into a strainer with handles that can hold the strainer on the lip of the pot, but make sure the strainer and water is deep enough for the eggs to be submerged.
Once you are sure the strainer and pot work well and you have the right level of water, put the eggs back in the fridge. Now heat the water to 180 degrees (any food thermometer will do). This you will need to play with and practice. You will want the water no hotter, no cooler than 180 and you will want to keep it there for the duration of cooking. When the water gets to a touch over 180, put the eggs in carefully and hit the timer for seven minutes. Do your best to keep the water temperature stable, but if it drops I will keep the eggs in for an extra 30 seconds or so. If the temp goes to high, turn the heat down a touch. When you’re ready to take them out, pull out the strainer only, take it to the sink and run cold water over the eggs to stop cooking. Now they’re ready to serve.
We place them in special egg holders and we use a special egg topper the kids call Evil Mickey to remove the top of the shell. They use cute little spoons to dig in and scoop out all the deliciousness of the egg. My stepdaughter loves to stick small pieces of toast into the egg to eat the yolk.
“Look, the inside of my shell looks like there was nothing in it.”
“Wow! How did you do that?”
“With my spoon! Can I keep the shell?”
“No, it will just break and eventually sme……”
“Can we go watch TV now?”
Try this. Don’t be afraid of partially cooked eggs. If it pulls my kids away from Scooby Doo or the Power Rangers for a moment or two it may just work the same miracles for you...at least for a few beautiful minutes of a sunny weekend morning.