Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Gummy What?!

Pure gummy goodness...silly, but they beg to be eaten with chopsticks!

While visiting our family farm in Tennessee this past week, I stopped by a country store run by the Mennonite community. It was filled with what you'd expect--wholegrain this and home-canned that. All fresh, wholesome and nutritious. But in the midst of everything I spotted one of the wackiest things I've ever found--gummy candies in the shape of chicken feet.

Even at an everyday, ordinary store this would be amusing. But why would a Mennonite grocery carry something like this? The quiet young woman who assisted me gave me a slight smile as she rang up my purchases. She was so polite I couldn't just blurt out something idiotic like, "What the hey? I'm counting on you to be sober for the both of us!"

Maybe next time I'm home I'll get up the nerve to go back and ask. Unless, of course, I find something even stranger there, like, I don't know, say Necco wafers shaped like undies...

Friday, June 12, 2009


A yummy blend of pork, apples, sage and cheddar cheese. I think I have a new canapé to trot out for the next party. I just won't mention that secret ingredient. Can I count on your discretion?

Recently I spotted a news item about chefs all over the US who are engaged in a pork-off, to see who can come up with the most imaginative uses for swine.

The list of their experiments is dazzling and comprehensive, from cheek to belly to backside. I was inspired. But I had to take a different tack, since I couldn't realistically dig a pit in my backyard and smoke/roast/lovingly fire up an entire hog (not today, anyway). I decided I could at least do something with pork product that I've never done before. I decided to go for a pig juice application...fat.

So I substituted bacon drippings for butter in a pâte à choux recipe, reducing the amount of sugar by half but otherwise hewing to the basic choux recipe. Then I piped out cream puffs and eclairs and even a pig!
Silly, but I just have to show him off, the original porq-à-choux! ("Cabbage pig?" Hmm, let me rethink that.)

The resulting puffs don't scream, "Hey there, I taste like pork!" but they carry a subtle, smoky porcine essence. And of course, they have a luscious mouth feel.

For the filling I made a chunky applesauce from granny smith apples, with a sprinkling brown sugar, some chopped fresh sage leaves and a wee slosh of that lovely pork fat-infused bourbon (see Bacon-Laced Booze Bliss).Then I stirred in some crumbled bacon, filled the porky puffs with the mixture, and melted a little sharp cheddar cheese over the top.

The result was a great blend of flavors, with none overpowering any other. Sweet and salty and smoky and porky. Those ingredients played together like the good friends they've always been.

A lot of my kitchen experiments turn out to be one-shot things, fun to try, but I'll never do them again. This time I've found myself a keeper!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Don't Bug Me...I'm Eating Insects!

I've never had a guest blogger on my site before, but my friend, Robert Watkins, has a story that's entirely too cool for me to embellish or tinker with. So I'll present it to you as he did to me, his account of eating a bowlful of fried wasps and yellow jackets in a remote region of China, during his travels there as Director of Global Missions for the Cumberland Presbyterian Church:
Fly-swatter-lickin' good, eh, Bob?!

"We left Kunming for the 12-hour bus ride to Jinping in south China, which was close enough to the Vietnam border that we could see their lush green mountains. Jinping is so Chinese that few western influences have entered. Rev. Lawrence Fung from San Francisco, a group of five other Chinese from his church, and I entered a little family-run kitchen in a rustic wooden house on a side street. Actually, it was the nicest house within sight. The tables were similar to wooden picnic tables in the park. Red and white checked vinyl cloths covered each of the two tables.

We asked for menus and were informed that they had no such thing. Instead, they began to list a few things that we could have. But the dishes they were offering made no sense to Lawrence and the other Chinese who were used to Cantonese names for dishes, so they finally invited us to into the kitchen to see what was available. One of the first things to catch my attention was this bowl of wasps and yellow jackets. I asked what those things were doing in the kitchen, and they said that they were often eaten in that area.

This was right down my alley, something I had never eaten before. We selected several leaves, vegetables, chopped up meats (never can be too certain about those!) and asked to sample the wasps. I thought they would bring in a dozen or so of them but was surprised to see they fried up the whole bowlful. I don't know how they did it, but it was a delicate dish, because the little creatures arrived with their tiny wings still attached to each thorax.

I wondered: Will the venom irritate my stomach? Turns out they were really good and indistinguishable from french fries, except for the strange buzz I got from the meal." [har har!]

Thanks, for sharing this, Bob. I guess you know I'll have to try them some day and write my own blog about them.

But tell me, will eating bugs give you an insection?! ;)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Chicago, the living part

Lake Shore Drive is great for biking, walking or admiring from a towel on the beach.

There's nothing like a real city to make you pine for one. Los Angeles is less a city and more a mass of suburbs, accessible almost exclusively by car. If you remember Steve Martin's character in L.A. Story hopping into his car to drive to his best friend's house, two doors down, that's hardly an exaggeration. I think many people in LA would rather be arrested for shoplifting than to be seen out walking. (LA is a city where people take the elevator to and from the gym on the 2nd or 3rd floor. Honest--I've seen this!).

So spending a week strolling the streets of Chicago was a treat. Andy and I loved our five-minute walk between our friends' house and the El, the urban rail system that took us between downtown and their place close to Wrigley Field. Even the rain was welcome, we see so little of it in Southern California.

Whether you're on it or under it, the El gives you the feeling that you're in some movie you've seen before. But were you in black and white? wearing a fedora? smoking a nonfiltered...?

Bryan and Sara were fabulous hosts!

It was great staying with friends, who enabled us to enjoy a much more personable and close-to-the-ground experience than we'd have had if we'd stayed in a hotel. One morning while they played tennis in a nearby park, Andy and I lazed on a blanket under a tree by the court, reading, napping and enjoying the green grass, green trees, green plants, the green, Green, GREEN! of being away from desert-dry Southern California.

Our Living-Chicago week also entailed taking a nice long walk through the wind and rain to the drug store to buy cold meds for Andy, who came down with sore throat, sniffles and all the rest, almost as soon as the plane plopped down at O'Hare. Still, the air was fresh, washed clean by the spring showers. And holing up under a blanket in a comfy chair, reading a book and hanging out with your buds is by far a better way of coping than lying around a hotel room, obsessing over the money and vacation time you're wasting. Himself got along just fine.

A party at the home of some friends of our friends afforded us another opportunity to live as locals. Just around the corner (about four houses down, one house over, to be precise) is a good distance for a party, particularly if you want to have a drink or two or three...

A quick walk to Trader Joe's supplied what I needed to make a big ol' pasta salad to share with our friends, old and new.

When you're this close, it's impossible to be late!

Scotch with your burger, Andy?

We also had lunch one day with my cousin, who has a lovely condo in a highrise overlooking the lake--a quite different slice of life. She hosted us for lunch at the Arts Club downtown, where the food was good, the company even better and the artwork intriguing but, alas, unphotographable. No cameras allowed! Still, seeing Picasso's pre-cubist stuff is always enlightening.

Why this photo? Overlap between the eating and living parts is inevitable, because eating is such a part of living, especially in Chicago. People may stand in line for an hour or so at Hot Doug's, but everyone seems to be in pretty good spirits about it, because the payoff is grand. I doubt you'd find such a cheerful bunch of people waiting at the DMV. And it was this way even when I stood in line here on a snowy morning in early spring a couple of years ago.

Yarrr, there be pirates in this museum!

It was great getting to experience the city as a temporary local, not being isolated in a hermetically sealed hotel room and whisked from tourist spot to tourist spot in a taxi.

With museums and amusements that appeal to the locals as well as to visitors, an array of food choices I've seen only in NYC and LA, and a beauty and walkability that make it a pleasure to travel on two feet, Chicago is a city I can visit again and again.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go add up my frequest flyer miles and start planning the next trip!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Chicago, the touring part

Chicago...what a great walking city! We thoroughly enjoyed our time on the pavement, pausing to discover things we probably would have missed if we'd been whisking past it all in a car.

Like this statue of "American Gothic," the Grant Wood painting rendered in three quite tall dimensions--three stories tall, in fact! (Don't dawdle if you want to see it--it's only there until October 2010.)

Hey, haven't I seen you two somewhere before? Some people look soooo familiar... (I never knew the painting was THAT big!)

The "American Gothic" painting itself is in the Art Institute of Chicago. We enjoyed a leisurely amble through there, too. Tons of great art--a lot of which you'll recognize if you weren't faking mono during art appreciation class. The Asian collections were outstanding, too, but it was the public art all over town that appealed to me most. Public art is quite big in Chicago (remember Cows on Parade?)

Millennium Park, just north of the Art Institute, is brimming with great art that is accessible in some curious ways. Like this 50-foot high LED-animated sculpture of one Chicagoan's face. His expression changes subtly until water pours from his mouth and onto the plaza below, where you can wade and splash about. Then this face disappears and the face of another Chicagoan appears.

Personally, I think it's impossible not to get a hoot out of Cloud Gate, better known as "The Bean," that giant shiny metallic bean-shaped thingy that no one seems to get enough of. It was fun looking at ourselves mirrored in it, examining the city at all angles, and then watching other people get a kick out of it, too.

(If you want to see something cool, go to Google Maps, zoom in on the satellite image of Chicago and look for this sculpture. You'll see the skyscraper tops curve around it like fingers gripping a baseball.)

Some of the sculpture is actually performance sculpture. And it will even let you hold its copper-spray-painted toy shotgun! However, it WON'T let the pigeons poop on it. Smart sculpture.

We decided to park it after awhile and take an architectural tour of the city, which we enjoyed from the upper deck of a boat plying the Chicago River. Chicago is a city that loves to build, so it was fun to discover the creativity that reveals itself in layers upon layers of building design.

The Chicago skyline is a great blend of the old, the new and the somewhere-in-between.

The Carbide and Carbon Building, glimpsed through the rigging of a crane (always building...) was fashioned to look like a champagne bottle. And that's real 24-kt. gold up there, lots of it. Built in 1929, it's now a Hard Rock Hotel. Cha-cha-cha!

This building overlooking the Chicago River and Lake Michigan has undulating balconies and facade work designed to make it look like a flow of water, as if there weren't enough already...

They call these two towers the corncobs. That would take an awful lot of butter and salt.

This great little house built onto the side of a bridge and perched over the Chicago River reminds me of what you'd see in some old European city. Several of these overlook the water, attached to bridges up and down the river.

Apparently, this dude likes to dress in bright colors, stand on the bridge and wave at people like us. He's such a fixture that he was incorporated into our tour guide's routine. I guess there are worse ways one could spend one's retirement.

This mirrored building was designed to showcase those around it. Groovy!

I highly recommend that anyone visiting Chicago make time for a river architecture tour (we chose Wendella, which was excellent). It's a great way to take a load off while you get a good look at some of the components of one of America's most remarkable skylines.

Look up at those buildings all you want to, but at some point it's fun to go up into one of them and look down at all the rest, which we did in the John Hancock Building. Except for the wobbliness in our knees when we got too close to the windows, 95 stories above Chicago was a cool place to be. Now I understand why our cats like to climb to the top of their tree and look down on us and the rest of the house. It's fun!