Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Aesthetics of Food

Recently I came across something that looks like this:

It is Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Summer from the Denver Art Museum. It made me think of something similar I made in high school: 

My dad will tell you I went through many burgundy pencils for that plate, sending him all over town to purchase them. It got me thinking about Saxton Freymann, and made me wonder why people get excited about food in art. I feel like it is just supposed to be fun and whimsical and maybe along the same line as the wedding cakes that look like other things, or in one case the bride herself. 

Starting from squeeze bottles for sauces in restaurants and going all the way to sugar sculptures, the importance of the aesthetics of food cannot be ignored. I believe that dishes can look better when different colors are combined, and that of course some presentations are more attractive than others (the plating at Bouchon was nothing short of beautiful), but I think too much fussiness (especially with desserts on a lot of Food Network shows), is just too much and unnecessary. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My Life in Grocery Stores

"I love grocery shopping when I'm home. That's what makes me feel totally normal. I love both the idea of home as in being with my family and friends, and also the idea of exploration. I think those two are probably my great interests." 
-Yo-Yo Ma

(C-town, Astoria)
We just read the book  A Pigeon and a Boy: A Novel for my book club. The narrator mentions that he thinks he can divide his life into time spent using 4 different grocery stores, and that this division stands out in his head more than times spent in different places or with different people. I think this is an interesting way to look at things. An important theme in the book was loving one's home, since without that feeling homing pigeons cannot complete their missions. I think having a grocery store one loves is an important factor in feeling at home in an area. Here's what it would look like if I divided my life in grocery stores (roughly).
  • When I was in college I frequented a Kroger on Pontiac Trail in West Bloomfield, MI. It was fabulous. It had huge aisles, bright lighting, and was open 24 hours. I loved going there and wandering around thinking of what to eat. My decisions usually ended up vaguely as Diet Coke, Melba Toast, and Lean Cuisine frozen dinners. This all does not sound appetizing at all now. I would then go home and pull all-nighters reading European history as my pile of Diet Coke bottles grew in the corner. I didn't know much about food then at all, but years later when I lived in NYC I would think back to that grocery store as an unattainable ideal in a large city. I would visit MI and spread my arms as far as they would go and in a New York state of mind think "Why would grocery store aisles ever need to be this wide?" Doesn't matter why, it was fabulous! (I will also mention that one thing I hated about MI while I lived there was that everything was so sprawling and that even the CVS would usually have a well-manicured lawn, so I am a bit of a hypocrite to only appreciate this after I left and spent my mornings crammed in the cattle car that was the 6 train).
  • The first year I lived in NYC I lived in a neighborhood that didn't really have a good grocery store. I bought Campbell's chicken noodle soup and pop tarts from convenience stores and Cliff bars from the Duane Reade. I think not having a good grocery store added to the feeling that my first year in the city was a long vacation instead of feeling at home.
  • Then I moved to Astoria, Queens. I spent a couple years living by myself where it was basically one long version of this. The C-town on Broadway and 29th Ave. was pretty good for what it was. Some of the produce was attractive, and the bread was fresh. I will have to admit though that most of my meals consisted of huge frozen containers of cream puffs, an entire box of chocolate eclairs, goat cheese with rosemary bread sticks, and premade waffle batter made in a waffle machine I walked all the way to the Woodside Best Buy to purchase. I think during this time I would also get headaches from forgetting to eat meals altogether. My patronage there was kind of random, and the employees must have thought "We haven't seen this girl in 4 days and she just buys Chex Mix?", but they were very nice. Once my friend from MI visited and I bought yogurt and Diet Coke and she still said "You have nothing in your fridge!", even though I thought I had stocked up for her. It wasn't the biggest grocery store in the world, but it had some nice ethnic foods, and it was clean. I have fond memories of visiting there. Then, after a while when I actually did start to cook meals for myself I realized how much it was lacking. For example, they didn't have chili powder. I would later discover more in depth the problem in NYC that it takes 3 or 4 different stores often to acquire the ingredients for a balanced meal.
  • Then I moved in with Scott in Brooklyn Heights . This was more of the same problem where the Key Food had awful produce and refrigerated their garlic so it went bad quickly, but they had good prices on soda and cereal. For produce I would end up going to higher end smaller shops, for fish another small shop, and other things I'd finish up at the Trader Joe's (which always had huge lines and never had everything you needed so going there didn't free you up from wandering around the neighborhood in search of a quality item at a good price anyway). For a special occasion, like our first Easter together, I would go buy steaks or something from the Whole Foods on Houston Street, but it cost a fortune. This was though the first time period that I was trying to put together a meal that another person was going to enjoy, so it actually made me care more if it was actually good. But, alas, scrounging together a full meal in Brooklyn Heights wasn't that easy, which made me appreciate our situation all the more when we moved to Albany.
  • This leaves me to the Price Chopper in Slingerlands, NY. Ahhh, sweet satisfaction. First of all steaks from the meat department are great. They might not be quite as good as the Whole Foods ones, but with a little Peter Luger sauce and some grilled tomatoes it is a very, very good summer meal. When I first moved here and I was only working part-time I would try to put together something good for when Scott came home from work - spaghetti with meatballs, chicken pot pie with buttermilk topping, or chili. The store is well-laid out and I love going there (I did even more so when we first moved here). The produce is both good and affordable. The salad bar and deli sandwiches are good. I will say we haven't really ever found good fresh mozzarella at this store, but it has so many other good things going for it that I will let that slide. I was more ambitious than I had ever been before in Thanksgiving 2009 when I cooked for my family. I remember filling the cart with oxtails, leeks, holiday floral arrangements, and tons of other ingredients, filling it up to the brim. I remember how good that felt to have people to cook for, and I probably appreciated that as much as the quality of the grocery store's selection, layout, and prices.

I realize here that dividing my life in grocery stores is as much about dividing my life between the college student, the single girl, the girlfriend aiming to please, and the (hopefully) gracious host, as it is about the characteristics of the individual stores.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Wedding Desserts

I have previously talked about our wedding cake at a couple of times. And I have nothing new to say other than to say again that I loved the red velvet with cream cheese icing, but now we have  the professional photos!

Am I the only girl in the world who would put the Mona Lisa on her wedding cake? Yes, I might just be.

Another thing we did was make chocolate chip cookies for the favors. The significance of this is that Scott likes when I make him chocolate chip cookies, so cookies for everyone! Spread the love! We used Thomas Keller's recipe from Ad Hoc, which I believe to be the best chocolate chip cookie recipe there is. And thanks to my stellar Matron of Honor and her friend who I had not even met before the previous day, they all got made without any effort from me.

For the packaging I used a Martha Stewart idea and slipped the cookies in CD sleeves I had decorated with some paper, stamps, and ribbons. I also bought some neat little tags for 99 cents from ebay with wine barrels on them and stamped them with "Thank you". People seemed to love the cookies, and actually it was very cheap considering it was mostly just cd sleeves, ribbon, paper, flour, eggs, brown sugar, regular sugar, and chocolate (I did spring for the Ghirardelli, but not the Valrhona like Keller recommends). If we hadn't done something cheap we probably would not have done favors at all, but I think people appreciate desserts at weddings.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Food Snobbery

"We must never confuse elegance with snobbery." -Yves Saint Laurent

Today I got to thinking about food snobbery. I have written previously about my experience when I met Ruth Reichl. Every time I see her books in the bookstores now I think of that meeting and actually don't really want to read what she has to say. Maybe I shouldn't let it influence me, but it does anyway. Eating is obviously in its lowest form something a person needs to do to survive,and making it into some otherworldly or vaguely sexual thing is weird sometimes. Sometimes it is good to lighten up a little.

A couple years ago we had an artist at the museum where I work who was doing a piece that was supposed to be about food. He spent time with two families in two different neighboring towns with different positions of social class. This artist himself had a background in a disadvantaged socioeconomic position, had worked as a social worker, and he had lived for a long time in various big cities on the east coast. All that time in the Bronx really should have given him a more enlightened perspective. He told us about meeting with the family with the lower socioeconomic position of the two and how they always gave him gifts. He brought out these gifts the family gave him which were often boxes of crackers from the dollar store. He read off all the processed ingredients, chemicals, and food dyes listed on the side of the box and said how he would never buy these. He said he would normally shop at the organic co-op market in town, which is actually very expensive. Something about this really rubbed me the wrong way. It is not like he was saying it would be cheaper for the family to make their own crackers from flour, butter, salt, and water, he was instead saying the artisan organic crackers at the co-op were much preferable. He then went on to list off all the reasons the more expensive crackers are better without mentioning the key thing - that the ones he preferred are way more expensive. He also criticized a bathmat the poorer family bought at the dollar store saying the ones he normally buys from CB2 are a lot more durable (because it is a lot more expensive!). What really made me angry was that these crackers he was criticizing were a gift. It doesn't matter if he would normally buy them or not. People do the best they can with what they have. He also criticized the large grocery store in town and its bright lighting, celebrity tabloids and cheesy cartoons on birthday cakes. He said he much preferred the look of the organic market, and said that he only went into the big grocery store because he thought the family would like a birthday cake from there more. Food shopping is not about aesthetics. It is about nourishment and economics. It's not about having a discerning style. It is about what a family can afford.

If a person eats a certain type of food that also doesn't make them a snob. Arugula is a plant that provides nourishment - it is not a political philosophy. And it doesn't make me a snob for eating a vegetable that has more nutrients than iceberg lettuce. Same with tofu and sushi. I am sure there have been millions of people in the history of Japan who have eaten sushi and never imagined that it would one day in this country be associated with soy-milk lattes, the New York Times and Volvos. I am sure millions of people ate sushi and tofu throughout the history of Asia who weren't particularly well off or snobby about food in any way.

I guess I am just saying we shouldn't judge people who can't afford to buy artisan crackers, and we shouldn't act like there is something poetic about eating your breakfast. I don't think food should be a divisive social issue. Everyone should have access to affordable and healthy food. And for Ruth Reichl to have been pretty rude to me didn't make her a better food critic. Everyone needs to eat. It is the most basic thing. One person's taste buds aren't more magical than another person's, and it doesn't somehow make someone a better person than another because they can afford more expensive food.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Food Truck in the Berkshires

Williamstown, MA (where I work) may not have a gas station. The credit union may be in a house, and  the movie theater may play only one film at a time. The only coffee shop in town may close at 5pm, but there something new that makes us just as trendy as Portland, OR. There is now a food truck in town. I haven't tried it yet because the lines are always really long, and the students aren't even in town yet. Pretty exciting!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Randomness with the CSA

So it goes without saying that signing up for a share with a CSA fills your house with vegetables. Some things are obvious what to do with like eggplant (eggplant parm!) and tomatoes (panzanellla!), and some things are less obvious (bunches of basil bigger than our heads). And while careful thought and planning can lead to amazing results with different and unique dishes, sometimes it is easier to just throw it all together and hope for the best. And in that spirit I decided to make a soup. First I chopped up leeks, both red and yellow beets, both yellow and orange carrots, huge amount of cabbage, garlic, and crookneck squash. I put in the pot some butter and canola oil and added the leeks and garlic. I cooked that down a little and added  the rest of the vegetables and salt and pepper. I added some oregano and red pepper flakes. I threw it a ton of chicken broth, good amount of dry vermouth, and some water. I put in a bouquet of oregano, thyme, sage, and dill from the CSA. At this point I walked around the kitchen and found a lone chicken breast in the freezer. Well, what good is that ever going to do anyone? So I threw it in there. Then tomato paste, a ton of paprika, some cumin, more paprika, more salt and pepper and Marie Sharp's hot sauce (the one we have is made from a carrot base and is very good). I put in some garlic Tabasco, and walked around the kitchen again and found a small amount of tri-color rotini  in a box and stirred that in. What good is a small amount of one kind of pasta going to do for anyone? Not much, so in it goes. I put it up to boil until the pasta was cooked, and then added white wine vinegar and finished off a bottle of buttermilk.

The final result you ask of my random wanderings through my kitchen? It was absolutely delicious. It was more delicious that a lot of soup recipes I have actually followed in recent weeks with ingredients from the CSA. It was almost like you start out with some ingredients and realize the direction you are going and finish it with seasonings. I started out with the beets, dill and cabbage, realized it was an Eastern European combination, added paprika and the buttermilk (tastes like sour cream), and it was actually amazing. I would order it in a restaurant, that is how good it was. I was so impressed with how it randomly turned out, and in the process I cleaned out not just tons of vegetables and all the garlic in the house, but a tube of tomato paste, a frozen chicken breast, the remnants of a box of tri-color rotini. What are you going to do with all the leftovers in your kitchen without making a soup? A lot of different kinds of vegetables require thought and planning, which can be difficult since fresh produce does not last forever. I can't wait to eat it, and I can't believe it was actually that good.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Negri's Family Style Italian Dinners

 For a few days on our honeymoon we had a string of pretty amazing dinners. But by the time we got to Santa Rosa, we were ready for something a little simpler. It would have been fine to go for something fancier if anything had looked interesting, but the food scene in Santa Rosa looked expensive without being thrilling (after Bouchon and Zuni Cafe it was easy to be underwhelmed). So we decided to take a little drive west to an old lumber town, Occidental, and try Negri's Italian Restaurant.

I am a sucker for immigrant stories, ever since I worked at Ellis Island for a summer. I think that I am so interested in immigrant stories because they usually make me think about the improbability of people meeting and making a life somewhere, and how easy it is to lose one's way. It makes me think about the struggles gone through and sacrifices made by previous generations for their descendants. I think about the really poor people coming over from Italy with literally one small suitcase to their name, and them making a life somewhere in the U.S. where their grandkids grow up to be super spoiled, hang out at the mall, have every new technological gadget and hate everything, and it just makes me think we should all appreciate just how good we have it. It also makes me think about the psychological process of making a life somewhere and how different life is for people who live in the same place they grew up all their lives compared to people who have moved many times. Every place a person lives is a part of who they are and they would not be that person without that specific collection of experiences. I grew up in the Midwest, but after spending 6 and a half years on the east coast can you say I am Midwestern? No, not really.  I like to think maybe I've grown from the experience and that I have east coast sophistication mixed with Midwestern friendliness. In the same way that someone who comes from Italy to Northern California is not quite entirely the same as people who stayed in his town in Italy and is also not quite the same as people who are from Northern California. The immigrant experience puts a person in a limbo state, not quite one thing, not quite another, waking up every day for many years feeling just a little bit off. And I know it is not like I am from India or something, but I don't say "wicked", "idear", and I pronounce "aunt" like "ant". I also say things to my childhood friends they don't understand like "Should we get some seltzer?", "You mean 'pop'?" So I am a bit of both things, in the same way that I do think there are some differences between Italian cuisine, and Italian American cuisine. A sense of place can change many things about food and people, some subtle and barely recognizable and some more obvious.

Here is the story of how the restaurant came to be, taken from their menu (I see it has typos, but that isn't my fault):

The food was pretty good. It wasn't exactly the most exciting ever - just very traditional Italian, but the fact that the food was made from recipes the grandfather brought over from Venice and that the grandchildren still owned the restaurant made me love it. I also loved the red checked tablecloths and the food carts the waitresses wheeled out to the tables. I loved the bread, the view of the redwoods and the historical hotels in town, and the rowdy locals hanging out by the bar. I loved the family photos hanging on the wall of three generations. I loved that we were at the point that was the summit and stop over point for the lumber trade, and the old west feeling in the tiny town (think "Deadwood").

There is something romantic and honeymoon appropriate about old school, very simple Italian food. We just should have ordered one plate of spaghetti like "The Lady and the Tramp".

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Goodbye Summer

So I am officially getting sick of the watermelon gazpacho I have been eating for lunch all summer, and my InStyle magazine that came yesterday got me drooling over riding boots and Tippi Hendren wool dresses and tweed suits all over again, so I would say summer is coming to a near close. Sure, you say, not quite sure yet, but I want to feel prepared. I want to appreciate it fully so that one day in the not so distant future when I am fighting my way up a mountain through an awful snowstorm, the first of many, I can remember flawless, dry summer days and remember that those will come again.

This summer will be remember as the summer I got married, went on a honeymoon (finally getting to visit California, falling totally in love with the Pacific Northwest), and watched years 1990-1996 of Beverly Hills, 90210. It was also the summer we almost hit a grizzly bear with our car on our ten hour long drive from Napa to Portland, which was for some reason was very memorable to me (maybe because I thought we were going to die).

We finally checked out the Smith's Tavern pizza Memorial Day, which was every bit as good as it has been rumored to be. We didn't really spend a lot of time checking out new Albany restaurants, but we did find some cool things at the Troy Farmer's Market and even joined a CSA, which taught us problem solving and brain storming in the kitchen. Some problems were solved better than others. On our honeymoon we checked out: Mesa Grill in Vegas (great sauces, and it was cool to see the steaks being seared in the middle of the restaurant), The Buffet and the Bellagio (not the most food you'll ever have, and not the best, but some awesome combination of those two things), Bouchon in Yountville (amazing in taste, texture, and presentation), Press in St. Helena (where we had some amazing King Salmon and a very relaxing, comfortable meal), Zuni Cafe in San Francisco (where everything was pretty much to die for and as local and fresh as possible), and did a tour of brew pubs in Portland.

Bouchon Roast Chicken
King Salmon at Press
Sea bass at Zuni Cafe
So, yeah, I'd say I can put in it the past. I say bring on the butternut squash soup, pumpkin bread, pumpkin lattes, and actually anything with pumpkin pie spice in it. Bring on braises, and soups, and brisk mornings where I almost slip on the leaves in the parking lot with my brown riding boots. Bring on dark nights sipping Lapsang Souchong, the smoky flavor filling the room and the steam massaging my face, and bright afternoons spent picking Indian Ladder Farms apples. Bring on Jameson's, football, scarves and tweed, but don't bring on the holidays. I don't think I could deal with all that quite yet.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"It Tastes Like...Feet."

Is Junior Soprano right in his evaluation of dandelion's flavor? Well, I wouldn't say he's entirely wrong. We've been greatly enjoying our first CSA -- this week's highlights included eggplant made into a delicious parmigiana, cabbage turned into great slaw, and a wonderful squash soup. Tonight, the main thing left from last week's bounty was dandelion greens. We used Mark Bittman's recipe, making a salad with a bacon, shallot, vinegar and dijon dressing. Essentially, a classic frisee aux lardons salad without the egg and with dandelion serving as the bitter green.

The results? The good news is that dandelion greens are extremely nutritious. The bad news is that they...don't taste real good. I like bitter greens more than most -- escarole, broccoli rabe, love 'em. So I finished my salad, but I wouldn't claim it was with relish. Even if you like bitter greens, the intensity of dandelion bitterness is tough to take.

In the future, I would use dandelion greens as part of a salad with other greens -- maybe butter lettuce or cabbage -- but probably not as a main feature.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Our first CSA

We've recently signed up for a CSA share at the Shaker Mountain Canning Co. in New Lebanon, NY. I totally underestimated how much fun this would be. Not only is it healthy to have a large basket of vegetables to be forced to figure out what to do with, and is it good economics to support local farms, but it forces the kind of brainstorming of recipes that is really a good time. Instead of looking up a recipe and then going to the store to buy the ingredients, it is quite literally what is in season and what can we figure out what to do with these things? Last week we got okra, collard greens, herbs, green beans, lettuce, onions, beats, summer squash, zucchini and cucumbers. We made a variety of foods including summer squash soup, stir fry, cold beet soup, roasted okra with the green beans, and jambalaya, among other things. It is so fun, and I can't wait to see what we get today. Getting ingredients you weren't planning on is a great way to force yourself to try new preparations and recipes. Good for us, and good for the farm to have community support. It is a win-win.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Peanut-Free Peanut Butter

I am married to someone who has a nut allergy. And I could just do whatever I wanted, and think it was fine if there weren't nuts actually in his food, but the truth is it is not that nice to have things that bother your loved ones in the air, in crevices on the counter, or on pans they eat off of no matter how hard you try to clean things. I also once heard a story of a guy who ate a peanut butter sandwich for lunch and than came home and kissed his wife who died from the reaction to the peanut particles still in his mouth. Not very nice. I, however, do enjoy the flavors of nuts and once in a while do eat some while I am at work. Somehow not being able to eat certain foods makes them very exciting. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Which is why when my coworker was complaining that the daycare facility that her toddler goes to does not allow peanut butter because some kids are allergic, and instead allows only fake peanut butter, I said "what is this fake peanut butter?" Well it is apparently made from roasted soybeans and it tastes just like peanut butter. Actually I may not be the best person to ask since I haven't have real peanut butter in years, but I think this stuff is delicious. What is actually funny is that my husband actually being allergic to peanut butter does not think that the thing that resembles something that could kill him is exciting. I said "It tastes just like it!", and he said "So why would I want to eat that?" But it is perfect for me. So far I have put it on Triscuits and graham crackers sometimes with a dollop of cherry jam on top too. It feels like I am getting away with something, it is so good. My coworker who actually does eat real peanut butter is not impressed, but for someone who lives with someone who is allergic to nuts this is a real find!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Wine Tasting Honeymoon

 We just got back from our honeymoon this weekend. We did sort of a west coast tour which included a lot of winery visits. In Napa, we visited the Elyse winery where we tasted some really amazing wines, and a port that really impressed us. Previously, we had worried about tasting wines that seemed too expensive for us to purchase, but looking back it doesn't matter if you buy a bottle or not, you still get to enjoy your tasting (many places the tasty fee is waived with purchase of a bottle though so might as well if you really like it). The Elyse winery visits are by appointment only, partially they said to avoid drunken bachelorette parties and rowdy people in limos, but you can actually call that day and still get an appointment. Then, we visited Domaine Carneros which had some really nice sparkling wines. The tasting area is a bit of an over the top ostentatiously French looking set up, which is actually a very nice spot to enjoy some flights of bubbly.
 In Sonoma, we visited Benziger family winery. They use a biodynamic approach to wine making which includes growing a variety of plants around the vineyard to attract different kinds of bugs and animals be to the vineyard ecosystem. It is also a true family farm with many people from the family who actually work there. It was all around a really pleasant place to take a tractor-tram pulled tour.We enjoyed their chardonnays, pinots, and even the port.
We also went to Landmark Vineyards. It is a very beautiful property, and after the tasting we playing croquet and bocce ball (I won). They had several kinds of chardonnay which all tasted different from each other. The Overlook Chardonnay is the most widely available, and it is very good. The Grenache was also very good and tasted a lot like a Rhone Valley wine.

Then we drove to Oregon. We saw the Pacific Ocean, almost ran over a bear crossing the road and listened to the audio book of Tina Fey's BossyPants (very funny).

Then we visited the Argyle Winery. We have been drinking their wines for years, and in fact I served their bubbly with our wedding day lunch in the bridal suite. Their pinots are great. At the tasting they also had a sparkling red, which was kind of weird, but seems like it would be festive for serving before a holiday meal.They also make a wine in the style of an ice wine which was actually very tasty. They were really genuinely nice and seemed to appreciate that we have been drinking their wines for years. Then we visited Willamette Valley Vineyards. We had one of their pinots for Scott's birthday at Jack's Oyster House a couple of years ago. Their pinots are all great, and we also tried some of their port which was maybe not as interesting as the port at the Elyse Winery or at Benziger's. They also have this weird wine made from whole clusters of grapes which does not age in an oak barrel. It is like bottled fruit salad, very light and fun. Because it isn't aged in a $1200 oak barrel it is also half the price as the rest of their wines. It was definitely an interesting wine. Then we went to De Ponte Cellars. They had great views, some great pinot noirs (some vintages were more mineral-like and some were more fruit forward, but they were all very well-balanced), and Melon de Bourgogne, a  very tasty, crisp, and refreshing white wine.

It was so fun to learn about how wine is made, and get to try many different kinds side by side in order to compare them more directly than in normal life. All in all it was a really great time. Then we went to Moose Jaw, SK for a 50th wedding anniversary party (where all romantic honeymoons end up).