Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hand-Wringing Over Neck-Wringing

One of my favorite cookbooks is New Orleans Recipes, a wee tome originally published in the 1930s. While the book contains authentic Creole recipes, it also reflects a distinctly different sensibility, complete with cringe-inducing, Aunt Jemima-type cover art and a way of preparing food that’s quite removed from today’s comestibles that too often are: 1. heat-and-eat 2. dump-into-a-bowl-and-stir-in-a-cup-of-water or 3. pick-up-at-a-drive-through-window-from-a-surly-teen.

The cooking fat in this book is typically lard, and as for precision of measurement, you’re instructed to “get a knob of lard about the size of a walnut.” Occasionally it will tell you to fry something “in a heaping tablespoon of butter.” A chicken recipe will tell you to go out and get a chicken that weighs about two or three pounds, and of course, that means stepping out your door and selecting the appropriate chicken from amongst those pecking around in your yard--and killing and cleaning it--before you ever get started on the recipe. (It goes without saying that dieters and vegans were not considered a part of the cookbook-buying public in those days.)

This was a reality of my mother’s growing up years in the country, but since she helped my grandfather with the farm chores, my grandmother was the one who always took care of chicken detail. My mother knew this was something she should learn to do, too. So one afternoon she attempted to dispatch a chicken using the same fling-n-twist action she’d seem my grandmother perform. Unfortunately, she succeeded only in tearing the skin away from the neck, so that it pulled down over the chicken’s head. Then she lost her grip, and the chicken got away from her and raced blindly around the yard, as if it had a turtleneck sweater pulled over its head. Finally, my grandmother had to run out and catch it and put it out of its misery. (While my mother has always been willing and able to take on difficult chores, that remains one of the few times she has ever attempted to wring a chicken’s neck.)

To the average cook these days, the most difficult part of preparing chicken is buying a whole one and having to break it down. (Of course, with rising food prices, it’s a skill that can save you some money.) Largely, we’re spared such chores, so most everyone forgets that dinner started out as a sentient being, minding its own business in the farm yard. It’s much easier to eat meat when you don’t do battle with it first.

Not that I want to slaughter every piece of meat I set about to eat, but having spent my early years witnessing the cycle of life and death on the farm makes me appreciate it all the more. One thing I hate most is having to toss out meat that I’ve left in the fridge too long. It seems disrespectful to the animal it came from.

There are some who see any meat consumption as inherently disrespectful of the animal, but I agree with Fergus Henderson, Tony Bourdain and all the other chefs who talk about respect for the living thing that died so you could eat: The best way to show your regard for these critters who are raised to feed us is to take full advantage of all they have to offer. That’s what Fergus’ nose-to-tail cooking and eating is all about.

And as for that neck-wringing business, I'd say those chickens lived a pretty fine life pecking and scratching around on the farm up until that final moment, and in the hands of my grandmother, the pro, the end was quick and merciful.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Change in Choice of Beverage

My friend, the lovely and talented Missi Pyle, sent an e-mail this morning announcing the release of her new album, It’s OK To Be Happy. (plug plug plug) I’d just poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down to listen to it online (and to BUY IT, I promise, Missi!). About 30 seconds into the first song, the house began to shimmy like mad, and the cats all flew into the back and—I assume—under the bed. I couldn’t fit under there and had to settle for crawling under the table. We’re all still pretty jittery. Of course, I joked to Missi that it was the impact of her music that made it seem as if the whole earth were moving . . . It was really odd listening to her singing away while I was crouched under the table, wondering when the house would quit shaking.

At times like this, you just don’t need coffee. After the earthquake was over, I traded the java for a slug of Jameson’s. And then another. Now I feel much better, although adrenaline and whiskey make for an unsteady combination, especially since I was too shaken up to eat lunch. I must admit, though, a good Irish whiskey trumps supermarket coffee any day.

Well, good luck with the album, Missi! I'm hoisting the Jameson's bottle in your direction. See you soon. xoxo

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dream Omelet

God bless The Onion! Those guys can make me snort soup through my nose every time.

Check out Chef Cooks 'Dream Omelet' From Recipe That Came To Him In A Dream. It's a great antidote for all those years of cooking demos we’ve endured on the morning television "news" shows.

Bon appetit! And if you're not going to eat those keys, may I have them? I'm starved!

(And if you're in the mood for more Onion-styled, food-related silly business, check out their news report
Domino's Scientists Test Limits Of What Humans Will Eat.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

We’ll Always Have Paris

As I read the blog of my colleague, Jackie, who just returned from eating her way through Paris (Jackie, I hope you packed your stretchy pants!), I’m recalling my visits there and wishing I’d been blogging in those days.

Well, it’s a toss-up. If I HAD been blogging then, I’d have spent precious time at the computer instead of exploring. But blogging forces you to pay more attention to what you’re seeing, eating and experiencing. Also, you can sit in an Internet café and capture your experiences at the keyboard when your feet have had all of the Louvre or the Great Wall of China or (you fill in the tourist-must-see) they can handle for one day. (Sometimes being in the Internet café becomes the experience itself. Once I was caught in a blackout in one with an array of people from all over the world during a fierce thunderstorm in Siena, Italy. Being inside that stone maze of a town with the thunder rolling through, I felt as if I were a pin in God’s own bowling alley!)

On my most recent trip to Paris, this time with my husband, Andy, we stayed in a great bed and breakfast in Montmartre, in a neighborhood where we lived as temporary locals. We saw tourists and other Americans only when we ventured beyond the few blocks where we bought our groceries and typed our e-mails. The shopkeepers were startled to see us, and many spoke no English at all. But our curiosity about authentic local foods and our willingness to try to communicate in French—as pathetic as we were at it—melted any negative feelings they might have had about tourists. They treated us graciously and with hospitality.
Tomatoes like this will make you want to dodge the supermarket forever after.

“Bonjour! Je voudrais deux baguettes, s’il vous plaît” (pronounced badly) began to come to me easily (In case you have even less French that I do, that’s, “Good morning, I’d like two baguettes, please.”) We shopped for our food the way Parisians do—bread from the boulangerie, cheese from the fromagerie, fruit and veg from the sidewalk stands and sweets from the pâtisserie. This made for great snacking, picnicking and eating at home when we were just too tired to leave the flat after a long day of prowling. Eating this way was also less expensive, but, more importantly, it allowed us to get an idea of how Parisians go about their daily lives.
The street view from our window: the meringue-like basilica of Sacré Coeur and
the intriguing cemetery of Montmartre were a quick stroll away.

While we ate our share of meals out—always looking for places where the locals dined—we took many of our meals in our B&B, a flat we had all to ourselves in one of the many Haussmann-styled buildings that give Paris its seven-stories-with-a-balcony-covered-in-geraniums look. (They don’t call ’em “French doors” for nothing!) Each day while we were out and about, our hostess, Francoise, would sneak in and leave a round of creamy camembert for us in our tiny kitchen, a bottle of wine, or, once she decided she liked us, a jar of her mother’s wonderful homemade strawberry jam.
Our kitchen window offered an array of fresh herbs and
a view of the neighbors’ kitchen windows and THEIR fresh herbs.

Jackie rhapsodizes in her blog about the macarons at Ladurée and Pierre Hermé—and the pictures she took certainly back her up--at least visually. While I haven’t made it to Hermé yet, Ladurée was a revelation in the way Parisians take their time and take their afternoon repast. And yes, I, like many food-obsessed visitors to Paris, have since tried to make macarons, with varying degrees of success.
My first attempt at making macarons—trickier than a soufflé, they are.

And she apologizes for misspellings, since she’s typing on a different keyboard. That’s a travel frustration I find intriguing—what are all those extra characters on the keyboard? And where did they move the @ sign? When you’re blogging or e-mailing from a foreign keyboard, you find yourself fumbling as if you’re back in Typing I class. After awhile, you peck out a hasty “sorry for the typos” and keep right on going, because you’re under the gun, spending both time and money (as in by-the-minute Internet charges) so you don’t want to waste any of either.

So what if it’s been almost two years since our last visit to Paris? There's no blogging statute of limitations, is there? One of the pleasures of travel is that by looking at photos and recounting to others what you did while you were there, you continue revisiting a place for years to come. We'll always have Paris, as Monsieur Rick says. He's right. And so is Hemingway. Paris IS a movable feast, but the urge is strong to return and plunge once more into its sights, sounds, textures, tastes and aromas . . . its Paris-ness!
Where else would you find door handles made of copper pans and lids?

To whet your appetite with great pix and commentary, check out Jackie’s blog, Foodie Reflections. Welcome back, Jackie!

And if you want to see some of our meals and get a feel for our visit, more photos of our trip to Paris are located in the Tours section of my website, Hungry Passport Culinary Adventures. Just click on the Eiffel Tower photo on the right hand side.
Maybe by the time I return they'll have that leaky-sphynx problem taken care of!

Some things are just too odd not to shoot a picture of.
(I just noticed our reflection in the glass in front of this poster!)

Au revoir!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Fun with mathematics & small, round food

100% of my cherry tomato harvest disappeared from the kitchen counter last night.

While we slept, the cherry tomatoes metamorphosed into cat toys. When I got up this morning, I found a lone tomato sitting in a shaft of sunlight on the kitchen floor.

Cosmo heard me in the kitchen, so he raced in and took up the game again, smacking the tomato this way and that.

Then he ignored it for awhile. After all, he IS the superior one.

The tomato tried to make a break for it but was captured in the end.


I don't like refrigerating tomatoes, as it destroys much of their flavor and delicate texture. So I guess I'm going to have to start keeping them in the microwave, along with the bread (see "The Bread Thief," April 25, 2008), so Cosmo doesn't make off with any more of the produce from our meager desert garden.

As for that tomato harvest, truthfully, there were only two tomatoes, since that's all that were ripe. But when you use percentages, you can make anything sound more dramatic, profound or whatever you need it to. (50% of the harvest is still missing!)

Another example: a squirrel made off with 25% of our tangerine crop last winter. We'd just planted a new tree, which had four tangerines on it, 25% of which dropped off through our clumsiness during planting. We later harvested 50%.

Gee, isn't math fun?!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Adventures in Staycating

The trend this summer, with the economy and the dollar growing weaker than Superman in a kryptonite speedo, is toward "staycation." It’s a good idea, in theory, but you need to get away from your “stuff,” both the literal stuff and the figurative stuff, if you’re going to relax and experience something new. And that can take some work—or at least some creative planning.

One way is to sample food that’s outside your usual repertoire. One New Year’s, Andy and I resolved that each month in the coming year we’d try a new cuisine, see at least one play and take a hike somewhere outside the confines of the city. Of course, resolutions are made to be broken, and while we were unable to carry through with all three components of our resolution for the entire 12 months, we did manage to enjoy some cuisines with which we were unfamiliar.

Some of our discoveries:

*We found out how cultures can meld when we visited a Chinese Islamic restaurant. While you don’t typically find bread on the table in Chinese restaurants, this one featured a gargantuan round of sesame bread that carried us through the meal and over the next few days. I’ve since heard stories of Chinese Islamic restaurants that serve even larger rounds than the one we got. Apparently, it’s a staple of the cuisine.

*At an Ethiopian restaurant, we discovered the pleasures of eating communally and with our fingers. Our two huge steaming trays, one of vegetarian stews and the other of assorted meats, were served with injera, the famous crepe-like, sourdough-tasting flatbread that functions as both utensil and food.

*We tried a Persian restaurant to see how the food differed from other Middle Eastern cuisines with which we were familiar. The fesenjan, a pomegranate and walnut sauce that’s typically served with duck and chicken, was so good I ate it without the meat on a huge plate of basmati rice and purred like a kitten for the rest of the day. And the tah-deeg, the golden layer of crusty rice remaining at the bottom of the cooking pot, was both yummy and fun, sort of a grown-up rice krispie treat.

So try a cuisine you’ve never had or one you’re not too familiar with. If you go when it's not the height of the lunch or dinner rush, you may have time to engage your server and possibly even a cook or chef. When you’re ordering, ask, “What do you like?” or “What's your favorite thing on the menu?” Don't say, "You pick for me," because you may end up with the blandest thing they have.

My friend, Chuck, of Gumbo Pages fame, has a business card-sized guide he keeps in his wallet that’s helpful for ordering in ethnic restaurants. On it is the following sentence written in several languages: "I have a white face and a Chinese/Thai/Russian stomach"—you get the idea. This lets the server know he’s an adventurous eater. Chuck said that once when he handed this card to a server, the server took away the first "safe" menu and returned with a "real" one.

Consider this as a staycation option to the same ol’ same ol’. Who knows? Maybe this fall your kids will write an essay titled “What I Ate on Staycation.”

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Savor the flavor, if not the actual food

A couple of Christmases ago, my friend, Kathy, gave me two tubes of toothpaste that weren’t of the usual minty or cinnamony variety—one was Ichibanzumi green tea and the other, Indo curry. The Indo curry wouldn’t make you want to squirt it over your rice, but it does suggest the savory nuances of Indian cuisine. The green tea is delicate and fresh tasting, just not in a minty way. In fact, it reminds me of those Bertie Bott’s grass-flavored jellybeans from the Harry Potter marketing empire. (By the way, I’m a total chicken when it comes to blindly eating those things—I study the accompanying photo carefully to be sure I don’t go chomping into any that taste like ear wax, vomit, compost or rotten egg. Now THERE’S a test kitchen I wouldn’t want to work in!)

Put out by a company called Breath Palette, these toothpastes (#5 green tea and #14 curry) are but two of a variety of revolving flavors available for those who enjoy trying something a little different. Current offerings include cola, rose, bitter chocolate, lavender and something called monkey banana. (So does it taste like monkey or like banana? Or both?! Were any monkeys harmed in the production of this toothpaste?)

Perhaps you could enhance the after-dinner gourmet experience by mixing chocolate and banana on your toothbrush. Or how about combining rose and lavender for a floral brushing experience? Or pumpkin pudding, cinnamon and fuji apple to relive the pleasures of Thanksgiving in the spring? Actually, that might prove helpful to dieters who crave the flavors but are afraid of the calories.

While they were fun to try, I think I’ll stick with Crest. Unless Breath Palette picks up on the Bertie Bott’s idea and starts making toothpastes that taste like bacon, sausage, marzipan and cotton candy . . . Mmmm . . .

Monday, July 14, 2008


I’ve often smelled the notoriously STANKY durian fruit on the stands outside the doors of markets on Stockton Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown, but I’ve never had the opportunity to try a bite. It IS uniquely off-putting stuff, that’s for sure. People liken it to everything from gym socks to rotting meat to skunk spray. Geez, who WOULDN’T want to belly up to a serving of that?! You can’t even carry a fresh durian onto a bus or into a taxi, the smell is so obnoxious and overpowering.
And it looks so harmless, doesn't it? . . .
But I’ll try most anything once, so I’ve been looking for a chance to sample this Southeast Asian “king of fruits.” My opportunity to get an idea of what it tastes like came this weekend in Thai Town when I ordered durian ice cream. It was at the same time both delicate and assertive. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything with that self-contradicting characteristic. It had a soft, fruity flavor with a sulphuric back taste you sometimes get with garlic or onion that has been cut and then left sitting on the counter for a while. It’s oddly both appealing and repellent, sort of like Mick Jagger.

Would I order it again? Sure, I might. Or I might try another flavor that doesn’t show up in my local ice creamery. It’s great having the opportunity to visit a sweet shop in an ethnic neighborhood and discover flavors that are as basic and beloved to its citizenry as vanilla and chocolate are in my own neighborhood. You never know when you’ll find something you love so much you’ll get it again and again—like that avocado shake I order every time I go to a particular Vietnamese restaurant back home in Memphis.

As I’ve said ad nauseum, I like to keep an open mind and an open mouth. If I don’t like what I’m trying, at least I’ve made an informed decision. And I can always keep a tin of Altoids with me, just in case!

Friday, July 11, 2008

For the Sake of Saké

Last night Andy and I attended a dinner that showcased an array of sakés produced by SakéOne, the United States’ only producer of that quintessential Japanese beverage. Cooked up by Chef Jet Tila, groovy Thai chef and personality extraordinaire, the meal featured five flavorful courses: red miso; oshi sushi; tofu and bonito salad; marinated cod over soba noodles; and teriyaki chicken from Jet’s stash of family recipes.

Each course was accompanied by a different saké, and e
verything was delectable. Each saké enhanced the fine food. Each dish enhanced the fine saké.
Marinated black cod with edamame, served over a bed of soba: Most of my past exposure to cod has been either baccalà or fillets battered and fried and served with chips. But a two-day bath in saké produces a buttery, delicate cod that will make you forget all about frying. The Momokawa Ruby we drank with it brought out the sweetness in the dish. And the dish returned the favor.

But the really cool thing about the experience is that while we sampled five sakés, it was akin to trying ten, for each saké had two flavors—one before we began eating each course, and another while we were eating. The flavors in each dish drew out flavors inherent in its appointed saké--like magic!

Our sakés were served chilled and in wine glasses, from which we could inhale their varied and wonderful fragrances. No tiny cups in sight. It was a great introduction to what, for us, is only slightly familiar territory.

A lot of attitudes and ideas about saké spring not from actually tasting it but from hearing other people’s stories, whether they're original or secondhand. How do you categorize it? Is it a beer or a wine? I
t’s brewed, like beer, but its alcohol content is more on a par with that of wine. And how do you serve it? Hot or cold? (It turns out that while heating saké can help take the edge off a chilly day, it's essentially an old trick used to make a poor saké a little more palatable.)

In the end, it really doesn’t matter. Saké is its own animal with its own tales and traditions. Legend has it that the beverage was originally made by employing virgins to chew the grains of rice, the idea being that an enzyme in their saliva helped kick off the fermentation process. Whether or not there’s any truth to it, it’s a great story. And only extraordinary foods and beverages—and people!—tend to come with such folklore attached.

*Many thanks to Chef Evan Kleiman and Angeli Caffé for hosting a great evening.

Speaking of extraordinary people, I enjoyed this tasty, leisurely meal--and lots of great chat--with Barbara Hansen, of and former Los Angeles Times food writer, and Chef Jet Tila. Jet credits Barbara with propelling him into the professional food world.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Happy Birthday, MFK!

I pulled out a book by MFK Fisher this morning and noticed that she was born on July 3, 1908. So this time 100 years ago, the most beloved of all food writers was just a teeny little blob of freshly-hatched humanity.

This puts me in two minds. The first is to remark on a remarkable life, although it’s been so much written about and discussed that I’m sure I have nothing profound to add to the discussion. Just to say that in many, many ways she affected those of us who love food and who love to write about it. If nothing else, she made the love of food ACCEPTABLE to write about. If she had never lived, would anyone have come along to so eloquently do that job for her?

The other is something I think about when I see old baby photos of noteworthy people—the potential in every newborn baby. Regardless of where that baby is born, when or into what culture, that is a person who is capable of infinite things. As I get annoyed by howling babies and hyper little ones, I try really hard to remind myself that they’re little bundles of potential, just trying to work out what it takes to get their feet onto the road that will lead them—we hope—to accomplish something worthwhile, or at least to be someone we love to see come and hate to see go.

I never had the honor to meet MFK, but I know she was one of those.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Things I don’t know what to do with . . .

Please just let me get this out of my system. Sometimes I accumulate bits that can’t be spun into blogs or articles, but I have to do SOMETHING with them. They just sit around, taunting me for my inability to use them:

* Recently I dreamed that I was told my baptism didn’t “take,” and I had to go and be re-baptized at the customer service counter at Trader Joe’s. (I woke up laughing.)

* Embarrassing food incident: I once made a Chinese dish on a first date that came out looking like the heads of unborn baby birds (wontons filled with a spinach mixture). The guy only called me once more: to say he didn’t want to see me again.

* A few years ago, my friend, Cindy, received a steak-of-the-month Christmas gift from her boss, and she was plenty excited by the prospect of receiving regular shipments of meat to her door. On the day the first shipment arrived, she rushed home from work and up the steps to where the package awaited her on the porch. A neighborhood tom cat had taken a righteous whiz on the box. The inside packaging was well sealed and the food uncontaminated, but still . . . Cindy’s response is unprintable.

* And then there was this strange lemon I got a couple of years ago. I'm relying on that picture-paints-a-thousand-words adage for this one:

Thanks for indulging me. In the future I’ll try to refrain from talking about urination in my (mainly) food blog. Peace out!