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 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 -
If Batali really uses this one in his restaurant, Lupa, then it’s the best limoncello I have ever had -