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Archive for September, 2008|Monthly archive page

Bookshelf: The Compassionate Carnivore

In Bookshelf on September 28, 2008 at 1:01 am

    Catherine Friend’s The Compassionate Carnivore has been sitting, neglected, in my reading pile since it was first published in April. After a visit with my doctor and nutritionist in January, I spent most of the first few months of the year immersed in Michael Pollan, Brian Wansink and Marion Nestle. We had made the big change in the way we ate and I felt like I was up to my ears in statistics and data about corporate food creation, so another book on the world of meat felt like overkill. However, I learned this past week when I finally picked it up again that Friend’s book is more of a narrative about how hard it is to make some of those big diet transitions and how to approach it realistically. She shed her own ignorance of the origins of meat when she moved to the source; a small farm in Minnesota.

     Friend briefly catalogs her education on the production of meat, much of it taking place as a result of her new role in the human food chain as a sheep farmer (she admits that her partner, Melissa, does the vast majority of the actual farm work, but she does seem to lend a hand with just about everything). There are a few chapters of data about factory farming and the processes by which a baby animal is eventually transformed into portions on styrofoam trays. If you don’t think you can stomach other books that get into factory farming for several hundred pages, but want to know more so you can make informed decisions,  Friend has written this book with you in mind. After the toughest pages detailing how different animals are prepared and slaughtered, she injects a vignette meant to clear your mind and give you happy thoughts of pastures and sweet grass. From there, she moves to how to find meat that you can live with, now that you have all this newfound knowledge. She advises a gradual approach and a critical eye towards labels like organic and cage-free.

     The feature that sets Compassionate Carnivore apart from other books on modern meat production are the back stories of Friend’s own transition to farm life. Her stories of how cuddly and soft the lambs can be share equal space with her family’s techniques for making sure they don’t get too emotionally attached to the animals they raise lovingly for meat. When taken as a whole, the stories of chasing down ewes, and tragically cute steer illustrate a pragmatism grounded in compassion. Friend is unapologetic about loving meat (and convenience food) and the costs of running a truly sustainable farm filled with humanely raised animals. But she also shows compassion for that other animal, the harried American consumer, overrun with choices and not always able to afford organic, pasture-fed, cage-free and the like. The personal stories in Compassionate Carnivore teach that it’s not important to get it right every single time and with every single purchase, but that the small efforts eventually yield a benefit larger than the sum of their parts. For us, and for the cuddly sheep.

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Economy Got you Down? Apple Pancakes may be the Remedy

In Home Cookin' on September 21, 2008 at 6:09 pm

     The most emailed story this morning on the New York Times website is about the potential impact of last week’s meltdown and proposed government bailout on everyday Americans, and what you can do to minimize personal risk. These are indeed, serious times and a lot of families are sitting around the table trying to figure out how to prepare and recover. With such gravity on topic at mealtime, I thought we should have something comforting and reassuring for Sunday breakfast, something to remind us to be grateful for what we have right now. The federal government may have bailed out AIG, but our household economic band-aid was Apple Pancakes.

     Apples, though available year-round, are only harvested in the fall, and they are in peak condition right now. When combined with a familiar food like pancakes, they evoke cinnamon-tinged memories of a loved one in the kitchen making you breakfast as a kid. What better fortification could there be for the dour news from the Sunday morning talking heads? I sliced up a few crisp Jonagolds and simmered them with a little white wine, butter, honey and cinnamon, until just softened but not mushy. While that perfumed my kitchen, I minced another apple and threw it into my pancake batter. When I add a fibrous fruit like apples into pancakes, I cook them just a bit more slowly, so I can get great golden coloring on the outside while giving the inside enough time to really cook.

     Layering the pancakes and simmered apples, I topped it all off with a dollop of yogurt sweetened with agave nectar and a little vanilla. Every bite combined a little fluffy pancake with tart apple bits and silky apple slices with a deeper, more complex flavor from the wine.  Interspersed with sips of coffee, we munched and contemplated the news.

 “This bailout package will really test Congress, I’m worried they’ll rubberstamp without making provisions for transparency and preventing this mess from happening again.”

“Mmmmm, me too. Damn these pancakes are good. Is that cinnamon?”

For a little while at least, the economic future looked a bit brighter from inside our Apple Pancake haze. Makes you want to go back for seconds.

Sashimi: Indulgence without Regret

In Home Cookin' on September 21, 2008 at 5:26 pm

     Sashimi is one of those dishes that can often be prohibitively expensive, because unless you pay for great, fresh fish, you’re just eating uncooked ocean meat. I got really lucky the other day and got to the market early in the morning, just as they were putting out the sashimi cuts. I found a hunk of moist, firm salmon and after asking the fish monger if I could take a sniff, giddily put it into my cart.

     For me, the trick to eating any type of meat, is to pay for very good, but relatively small portions and use it as a garnish or side, and not the heavy base of a meal. I envisioned this beautiful piece of salmon as a highlight of a long, Saturday afternoon lunch composed of a sort of deconstructed chirashi bowl. Instead of assembling a traditional chirashi – seasoned sushi rice in a bowl with cuts of sashimi, omelette and vegetables on top – I laid out all the mini-dishes on trays to encourage lingering and sampling. Most were easy to make and then put aside as I worked on the next; clams steamed in ponzu with shiso, marinated carrots, Japanese style omelette or tamago, and lots of pickles. For the fish, I made my best attempt at nice even slices and left them alone. The result was a perfect compliment to a Saturday afternoon; a feeling of luxurious indulgence, with healthy, simple preparation.

Nature’s Bounty = Kitchen Splendor: Apple Picking in Oak Glen

In Home Cookin', Places to Go: SoCal on September 21, 2008 at 4:51 pm

     Though I sometimes grumble about living in the Inland Empire , the area has something going for it that I never dreamed of in my ratty apartment in Culver City: close proximity to Oak Glen. If you’ve never been, Oak Glen is a small community of farms and orchards about ten minutes east of San Bernardino.Many of the farms are open for u-pick and produce shopping year round, but they’re most famous for idyllic apple picking in the fall.

        We ventured out yesterday for apples, of course, and a last run at this year’s delicious raspberry crop. Our farm of choice was Snow-Line Orchards, because picking raspberries requires a certain amount of energy that can only be derived from their deep fried mini cider donuts. When you walk into the main barn at Snow-Line, a voice immediately calls out: ” Are you ready for your cider donuts?” like she’s been waiting for you all morning. Beautiful.

      There’s definitely a weird paradox at play when you go fruit picking for fun; if you did it everyday, it would be back breaking and you probably wouldn’t get paid much. But if you do it once or twice a year, it seems like a great adventure. I tried not to contemplate it too much as I walked down each row of berry bushes, constantly distracting myself by putting four berries in my mouth for every one that made it into my little basket. That ephemeral raspberry flavor that’s more like a sweet breeze on your tongue, as opposed to a solid piece of fruit in your mouth, was strong, with a tiny burst of juice to remind you to swallow. For $12, you get to fill three pint baskets. Not a bad deal, even before you factor in the pints that go straight from the bush to your tummy.

     Snow-Line has about a dozen different varieties of apples at any given time, already picked and bagged up for you. I spent at least half an hour wandering among the sample dishes, contemplating the Mutsu and Winesaps, debating Jonagolds for pie or Galas for chomping on during the car ride home. The Mutsu and Jonagolds were particularly crisp and sweet with just a hint of tartness that holds up well for snacking or baking, so I grabbed a few bags and began plotting.

     When you have fruit this fresh, literally hours off the plant, it seems almost criminal to cook it. So I settled for raspberries with mint and apple and blue cheese wedges….for about 6 hours. Then I gave in and made the apple cobbler that had been haunting my brain all day. It’s a great foil for fresh apples; minimal ingredients, not too much crust and sugar and goopy stuff to interfere with appreciating the freshness of the fruit. Not wanting to neglect the raspberries, I covered a buttery, crumbly tart crust with a thick raspberry sauce– berries simmered with sauvignon blanc and a little sugar – and rejoiced in the pleasure of a homemade tart. 

     Whenever I have to live far away from California, I develop a strong appreciation for how fresh our produce is here. That’s why if you’re lucky enough to be reading this within 90 miles of San Bernardino County , I strongly urge you to cancel whatever you had planned for this weekend, pack up the kids, the dog and whatever and get out to the farm. I’ll try to leave you a few raspberries.

All Hail the Fritter

In Home Cookin' on September 19, 2008 at 5:59 am

     In my kitchen, versatility reigns supreme. I don’t believe in one-hit wonder gadgets, and I heartily support dishes that can magically transform in the blink of an eye. Is it any wonder that to me, the fritter is king? Fritters come in many forms, but your basic formula of small pieces of veg/meat/shellfish/fruit, bound together with dough/batter/egg yolk and deep-fried/pan-fried/baked and then deep-fried rarely fails. Like your date night jeans, they can work it for any occasion. Looking for an elegant indulgence? Scallops, squid and leeks just barely held together with a light tempura batter and flash fried in little rounds. Something to go with that ice cold beer and a playoff game? Scallions and kimchi, chopped up in a thin Korean style crepe, pan fried and slathered in spicy dipping sauce.

     The fritter’s best venue is of course, the everyday. Nights when my refrigerator seems cavernous and all I have left is whatever is rolling around in the vegetable bins. Typically, my produce comes into the house on Saturdays after the farmer’s market, and by the next Friday, the only things left are my hardy root vegetables and squash. That’s when I take out my dinky mini cuisinart and make some magic.

     I’m a fan of the Mark Bittman fritter method from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (always a good guide when trying to use up anything that’s not meat). Dead Simple. Take two cups of your vegetables and throw them in the cuisinart or grate them meticulously by hand. Some great combinations I’ve been into lately include butternut squash with purple okinawan sweet potato, ruby sweet potatoes with shallots, and carrots with parsnips or burdock root. Go nuts. Combine with a beaten egg, about a cup of flour, salt and pepper. Get whatever milk you like and add just enough to get a nice thick batter that is sticky, but not dripping. Put a little oil in the bottom of your pan, drop big spoonfuls of the batter and spread flat. Keep the heat pretty medium, you need to give the veggies time to cook and then get golden brown each side (about 10-12 min per fritter).

     These are great for all meals, with a lot of different toppings. I’m a fan of any sort of tangy dairy; yogurt, creme fraiche, sharp cheddar and chevre; my husband likes ketchup. Tonight, I served them with broiled salmon, yogurt that I thickened in some cheese cloth and a little cucumber. So go clean the good stuff out of your fridge and get your fritter on.

Tastes: Endless Summer

In Home Cookin' on September 14, 2008 at 8:57 pm

       This weekend’s farmer’s market delivered one of the joys of California living; opulent, jewel-like late summer tomatoes. Many of the farm stands were overflowing and held rare gems; asian pears made a crisp, sweet appearance, grapes were in sugary abundance and even taro plants were available. Despite all that bounty, the real highlight was the crate of heirloom tomatoes at my favorite booth for local organic vegetables.

     My theory on the resurgence in popularity of the heirloom tomato is that as commercially grown tomatoes have gotten redder and more tasteless over the years, heirlooms from local markets offered an avenue to distinct, vibrant flavors and that all important “foodie” flair. But even heirloom tomatoes have gone the way of the “certified organic” label; they appear in most national grocery chains and it’s hard to discern what the label really means in that context.

     These beauties were the real, open-pollinated, deal; deep, vibrant color, that faint fresh smell, and a serious heft. Holding Brandywines and Black Krims in my hand, they felt slightly firm, but ready to burst at the same time. Slicing into them almost felt like sacrilege, until I saw the swirls of mango yellow and fuschia, the deep garnet and ruby tones. I’m a purist when it comes to preparing perfectly ripe produce like this and don’t like to mess with Mother Nature’s handiwork too much. A sprinkle of sea salt, and that’s it. What you receive when you don’t interfere is a plummy, hearbaceous flavor, with a sweet aftertaste. I also sliced up a Green Zebra, which yielded a tart, sort of green apple flavor. But it was so good,  it didn’t make it into the salad bowl.

Max’s Restaurant: Hey there, Good Lookin’

In Places to Go: SoCal on September 8, 2008 at 6:18 am

The toughest part of the Filipino restaurant business is that every customer who walks in the door orders dishes their mother, Lola (grandmother) or uncle made countless times during their childhood. The average customer expects a selection from about two dozen standard homestyle recipes, plus maybe a couple of regional specialties. Most family owned establishments put out their clan’s best recipes, and hope that nostalgic memories of the “right” taste don’t get in the way of customers enjoying their fare.

Max’s Restaurant, a chain of Filipino restaurants famous for their fried whole chicken, manages to dodge this familiarity bullet, but sacrifices taste in the effort. According to legend, the chain was founded after World War II as a café for American troops stationed in Manila. While growing up in the Philippines, my impression was that Max’s was specifically for military personnel, because the one I went to was always filled with Americans and my dad always ordered spaghetti. I later realized that my childhood Max’s was next to an U.S. military base, explaining the large American contingent –and that to this day, my dad always orders spaghetti regardless of where we eat. The Max’s I remember as a kid is but one of dozens of bustling outposts all over the Philippines, Hawaii and California.

As an icon in the Filipino community, you’d think Max’s had well-seasoned dishes and great service. It is true that the staff is always welcoming and the service has a warmth and familiarity that makes the restaurant feel like a really clean, slightly generic looking family spot.

The funny thing is, I’ve never heard anyone say the actual food, other than the chicken, is a big draw. Max’s seems to rely on a principle that since you can’t make it taste like everyone’s mother’s recipe, go for the middle ground and make it bland. On a recent visit to the Puente Hills location, I greedily dug into family size platters of Pancit Palabok (rice noodles covered ground pork andshrimp sauce) and Daeng Ng Bangus (boneless milkfish dried and then deep fried). By definition, these are usually strongly flavored dishes. Although the Palabok sauce was the standard unholy orange color (produced by annatto seed extract) it just tasted sort of…orange. The Daeng was a beautiful deep brown, steaming hot and crispy, but under salted.

The famous fried chicken follows the theme of nice to look at, boring to eat. Inside, the flesh tastes suspiciously like it has been poached and then quickly deep fried to finish. But on the outside, glorious crispy skin snaps in your mouth with a salty tang. At Max’s they seem to have perfected the art of great appearances: Always a lively family crowd, modern facilities (even a stainless steel handwashing station!)and food that looks just like mom used to make.

Bottleshock: Let the Love Flow

In Bookshelf on September 8, 2008 at 3:07 am

     Bottleshock is in some ways, the perfect wrap up to our country’s post Olympics nationalistic fervor. Many felt a surge of national pride at the sight of Michael Phelps trouncing every other country on our collective behalfs. That “you done good, kid, you done good” feeling is also cherished in this summer’s “Bottleshock,” starring Bill Pullman, and Alan Rickman. On the surface, it’s an entertaining movie about what it takes to make good wine and how the upstart American underdogs beat the French at the famous Paris tasting in 1976. But once you get past the gratuitous hippie love story and the cliche’s of father/son antagonism/gruff love, it’s really about the greatest cliche of them all; belonging.

     The films’ strengths are moments that illustrate how some people can effortlessly belong together, while others always feel like they are looking through a window at a family dinner. In a scene where two of the main characters Bo Barret( Chris Pine) and Gustavo Brambilia (Freddy Rodriguez)  are trying to hustle money by betting on Gustavo’s ability to blindly identify any wine’s grape and vintage, the local bar flys harrass and tease the boys about their claims. However, this is Napa, and even the grizzled locals at the bar are wine snobs, declaring that any fool can tell a merlot from a cabernet. Everyone in the Napa scenes, from the vintner to the farm workers, talks about viticulture and soil moisture and bouquet. Wine is such an everyday drink, locals consume it from juice jars, coffee cups and straight from the bottle. Only outsiders use stemware. 
      Meanwhile, in Paris, British expat and wine worshipper Steven Spurrier (Rickman) finds himself continually on the outside of the French oenephile elite he admires. He conceives of the idea of the U.S. Vs. France tasting after experiencing multiple humiliations that remind him of his non-French status. Though the idea is partially to drum up business for his wine academy, it’s also a way to prove that he supports France’s reign over the epicurean kingdom.
     Wine solves all ills and ultimately, brings the close closer and the outsiders in. Neighbors in the Napa valley stand up and support each other with it. Spurrier becomes a pariah to the French wine elite, but it’s ok, he’s just become sommellier to the world. And of course, the guy gets the girl, the father loves the son, the young working class boy pulls himself up by his bootstraps — all on a river of wine. Even the cheesiness helps Bottleshock bring the often esoteric art of winemaking, solidly down to Earth.

Tastes: Blackberry Cabernet Gelato

In Places to Go: NoCal on September 5, 2008 at 5:09 am

     When I lived in Houston, that bastion of heat and muggliness, there were some days that simply demanded gelato. You would think that in a place that hot and uncomfortable 325 days out of the year, there would be a lot of great icy treats. There were lovely raspadas and the local devotion to Amy’s ice cream, but otherwise, cool desserts were hard to come by. I considered myself blessed to live in the same neighborhood as a strangely out of the way Italian deli/specialty food store called Nundini. I bought a lot of unneccessary pancetta at Nundini, all as a cover for visiting the Gelato guy. An exuberant man in his early thirties, the Nundini Gelato guy greeted me every time I came in with a “My dear! You have to try this creation I came up with this morning!” What followed was typically a pure, silky, bliss: cucumber basil, pear chianti, prosecco raspeberry…heavenly. Gelati and sorbetti are ideally fresh, daily changing treats, based on whatever is beautiful and in season around the gelato maker. The vast majority of gelato made in the United States is pre-packaged and pre-flavored. While that can be good, nothing can replace the rare jewel that is a seasonal gelato case.

     For the past two weeks, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the taste of a sorbetto I had recently in Oakland. Tango Gelato’s Blackberry Cabernet made the pining for my Gelato guy in Houston a little less acute. In every spoonful, a range of flavors moved through my mouth, each with their own distinct personality. The tart sweetness of the blackberry asserts itself from the beginning and just when I began to wonder if this would be yet another one-note disappointment, the cabernet began to slowly unfurl. Suddenly the blackberry was tempered by an oak tone, slight vanilla and other signature cab notes.

    According to our scoop master, Tango Gelato prides itself on innovative flavors and a greater degree of freshness than most other U.S. gelato joints, though it’s not made fresh daily. Titling themselves an Argentinian style gelato establishment (Argentina hosts a large Italian diaspora, and consequently, lots of gelati), Tango nevertheless reaches into other corneres of the world for flavors including Thai Iced Tea , Olive Oil and Dulce De Leche Almond. I can only hope that someday soon, they look a little closer to home and try out a flavor based on a great Argentinian Malbec.