Sunday, November 30, 2008

Food is for Family

I wrote the following piece about my food experiences during my homestay for one of my classes....

Life in San Luis with the Mata-Vargas family is all about simplicity. The farm is small and simple; the house is small and simple. It doesn’t take much to be happy, especially in such a warm and loving family. The food follows the same pattern—maybe that’s why I like it so much: I mean, life has many complications (no matter how simply you live), so why not keep what you can control in life simple?

To say that the food was simple is not to say that it wasn’t completely satisfying, for my body and for my spirits. Every meal was warm and freshly prepared and well balanced. And that in itself is quite a feat. One complication in life that Eliza, my home stay mother, faces in preparing these wonderful meals to nourish her family, is that every member seems to have a different schedule and different preferences. But it is important to Eliza that her family eats their meals warm and fresh. Breakfast is an especially important meal—“I don’t understand how people can be satisfied with only a bowl of cereal in the morning. I need something hardy, to make me strong for the day,” she says. She usually prepares scrambled eggs on tortillas (fresh and hand-made, of course), gallo pinto, and if there is meat left over from dinner, she will heat that up as well—simple and hardy. But breakfast is actually the most complicated meal during the week. Adrianna, the teenager, catches the bus in Santa Elena to go to school in the San Luis at 5:30 am every morning—hers is the first meal that Eliza prepares around 4:30. Next, Alvaro (my home stay dad) awakes, and Eliza again prepares a fresh breakfast. Some days she’ll eat her breakfast with her husband, other days I don’t know when she makes time for herself to eat. Finally I wake up at 6:15, usually just after Laura, the three-year-old, (and the most picky eater) wakes up and avoids her mother’s first attempt at getting her to eat. Laura is usually willing to eat what I eat—gallo pinto is her favorite, and always papaya when it is our fresh fruit option. All this is accomplished by the simplicity of the meal—Eliza just chops up some cilantro, onions and peppers for the gallo pinto, and combines the rice and beans from the night before, and keeps a bowl of eggs waiting by the stove, and tortillas patted out, ready for the pan—every thing is ready to be cooked fresh as each member of her family awakes.

As important as meals are, I am surprised by how quiet it usually is around the table. True, we rarely all could eat together (even for lunch and dinner), but when we did, we were generally in our own thoughts. I think that for this family, dinner is a time to be tranquillo, to wind down, and to appreciate life. These meals, as simple as they may be, are the fruits of much labor and love. Eliza went once a week all the way to Santa Elena to buy groceries (anything that wasn’t grown on their own farm), and plans the week so effortlessly. She knows exactly what each family member liked and would eat, exactly which treats to buy. They don’t have much, and although they aren’t extravagant, meals are an expression of love and care.

The value of food as a symbol of care is most evident when guests come to visit. On my last Saturday, Adrianna had her fifteenth birthday party, and the whole family came to celebrate. For this occasion, my family bought a whole pig. A couple family members who live nearby came over on Friday, and we spent the whole day cutting and preparing, snacking and chatting around the traditional wood burning “cocinera.” So much love, work and pride went into preparing the food for Adrianna’s big day. And during the party it was clear that food was an important part of the culture of the family. The epicenter of the fiesta was in the back, around the cocinera, where the family munched continuously through the night, as they shared their contentment.

...During the party, and especially during the preparation for this party, I could only think of my own family, and of my Ammy Irene. I imagined that she would have prepared for a party like this much in the same way. The huge pot of pork cooking over the woodburning stove, the constant snacking as we cooked as a family. The smells and the sound of crackling meat in a hot pan brought me back to my grandmother's kitchen, and I was able to appreciate more than ever the love that is involved in preparing meals like this.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ohhh Baby Baby It's a Wild World

Remember that song from Cat Stevens? I'm reminded of that as I read the further adventures of Little Fi in Costa Rica, and reflect on what a month and a half of political writing for Planetwaves is doing for my head.

We are and always will be a political family. My sister, Fi's mom got her degree in social science and Master's in education at UCSC. Fi's paternal grandmother was a teacher for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. Fi's auntie, me--well I've been politically active since I started work as a CETA artist here in San Francisco. I am an artist-activist, and have been a core member of one of the nation's highly recognized women's theater company - Cultural Odyssey's the Medea Project--Theater for Incarcerated Women.

In that environment, all Fi had to do (because I've always believed she was an old soul to begin with) was be observant. And she is.

Here we are, November already. The world is becoming a wider, wilder place for me and my family, physically and intellectually. Our country is changing, and hopefully, we're changing with it. We're all learning, and the world at this stage, is in transition. You can feel it by the season and you can feel it by the news. We're going to change.

Aside from my blood family, the one thing though that keeps me grounded here in my little Berkeley cottage is the love of my extended family - friends Bob and Wen, Karen and Jim--and having a few glasses of wine, some beastly argument over politics and a great dinner. Hey--its the Berkeley way. And what goes better with some lamb shank osso bucco than some raw veggies with bagna cauda and some risotto milanese?

A little argument with your salad?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Lobster Experience

I’m diving in Belize with my dad for a week, and I’ve just had one of the top lobster experiences in my life. It was an EXPERINCE, not just a meal.

The dive shop we are diving with, Chuck and Robbie’s, is small and locally owned. So local, in fact, it is located on the beach right in front of Robbie’s father-in-law’s house.

As it turns out, Robbie’s father-in-law (we never did catch his name), a short, happy, always chuckling and smiling man, is a fisherman. The other day, around 9 in the morning, he came up to the shop with a bucket full of large lobster tail. He had caught them that morning, by hand. Yes, by hand, meaning he went out there with fins and weights and dove down for each one of them. He sold us some on the spot, straight out of the bucket—dinner.

That night, we took them to our room (which had a kitchen) and made a feast. Rice with black beans, steamed peas from a local veggie stand and of course, broiled lobster tail. DELICIOSO. Washed down with the local beer, Beliken.

This simple meal was by far the best lobster experience I’ve had in my recent memory, and never have I enjoyed it so close to the source. Not only did we buy it directly from the man who caught it, on the morning it was caught, but just the day before we had dove and seen these lobster in their native home! Talk about fresh. Just another confirmation that the fresher, more local and native the food, the better.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Just Where Have I Been?

Just want to let friends and family know that I, Auntie Fi, aka Fe Bongolan, have not fallen off the flat end of the earth. I've been busy writing elsewhere. I was asked to join the crew at Eric Francis' Planetwaves to help out with writing while we're in the midst of a very busy campaign season.

A little background for those of you who know me from my food writing only: I am also a political blogger. In 2003-04 I was a blogger and blog moderator for the Kerry-Edwards campaign. In the past, I've posted at Democracy Cell Project. Most times now, you will find me posting at Daily Kos. If you click on the links I've provided, you can pretty much navigate yourself over (to Planetwaves and Daily Kos especially), and find me.

When Eric asked me two weeks ago to help out, I never thought we would be dealing with a Wall Street crisis, the ongoing sagas of Princess Sarah Palin, or debate politics, but since all of these topics are OTHER passions of mine, its been a hell of a ride. And there's more to come.

Don't worry, there will be more Pantry Zero recipes (otherwise Ruthie will have my head), Little Fi will hopefully give us some travelogue from Costa Rica (where she'll be studying biology for the next quarter), and I may just need to come here and decompress after the onslaught also known as national politics. I'll also be writing here about comfort foods, international hospitality, and the first International Body Music Festival, sponsored by Crosspulse, the non-profit arts organization for body musician Keith Terry, recent Guggenheim Fellow, my favoritist music teacher in the whole entire world, and gang leader of the family's most favorite a capella group "Slammin'".

Its going to be an amazing fall and winter!!!

Monday, September 1, 2008

My Hero

I was first introduced to Anthony Bourdain when I pondered a possible future as a chef with former roommate, pal and web-genius Mark Petrakis (aka: Spoonman for those of you in the 80's and 90's performance art scene). When I mentioned to Mark, who was also a former cook in a restaurant and who taught me about the frugal magic and majesty of caramelized onions---that I was contemplating a life as a chef, he recommended I read Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential".

Being a little afraid of encountering what would amount to a devastation of my master chef fantasies, I stayed away from Anthony Bourdain for five years, until 2004, after catching a bit of "A Cook's Tour" on the Food Network, I realized what I was missing.

Here's this big tall gorgeous guy, serious chef and rabid food writer. His humor had a familiar ring--kind of what my dad, also a cook, would have been if he was raised in Jersey--earthy and irreverent. Catching those brief minutes late at night (Food Network was terrified of Bourdain's outrageousness), I was howling with laughter watching the nation's recipe channel.

A total snarked up foodie. How did this guy make it to national television? But make it, he did, and "No Reservations" is a ritual rush home from work to catch Tony's premiere episode on Monday nights. Thank God, rush hour traffic is light on Mondays in the Bay Area.

Anthony Bourdain has his heart in the right place. He appreciates, respect and emanates a wry enjoyment of all cultures. After being one for most his life, he's got respect for the working man, and certainly reverence for foods and recipes with humble beginnings. He comes to us from a beautifully poignant place, a man in his prime, from a hard-working life in the grueling position of chef. As a cook's daughter, I know what that life was like. That experience makes him cocky and wise, as well as very very grounded. I envy his ability to chronicle his travels with writing skills that are blazingly sharp and loving at the same time.

So today, on Labor Day, I am watching another "No Reservations" marathon in preparation to say adieu to yet another stellar season of first-run episodes. Tony reminds me that loving food is loving life and all its moments. Even if you have to heave up chunks after a bit too much of life. But only he can talk about that, and we who love Tony around the world, appreciate his sacrifice.

Friday, August 22, 2008

An Ode to Love

In honor of new love, past love and the hope for future love...

Molten Chocolate Cakes

1/4 cup sugar
2 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
2 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped (or chips)
1/4 cup unsalted butter, in small chunks
2 large egg yolks
1 large egg
2 tsp all purpose flour

Frozen fruit you have on hand (I prefer blackberries, raspberries or strawberries)
Powdered sugar
Preheat oven to 350 F

Blend cocoa and sugar. In a double boiler, melt chocolate and butter over low heat, and stir smooth. Remove from heat and whisk in cocoa mixture. Whisk in egg yolks, then whole egg and flour. Butter and dust wuth cocoa, two, 3/4-cup ramekins or custard cups (or even 3 extra large muffin tins) and divide batter into them evenly, leaving a little room to rise. Push in 1-3 pieces of frozen fruit for a "surprise" in the center.

In 350 F oven, bake for about 22 minutes in a water bath (water bath optional, but ensures that the cakes don't bake all the way through, keeping them "molten"). The edges should be set, with the center still shiny. tester inserted in center should come out with wet batter.

Cut around the cakes to loosen and invert onto plates. Garnish with powdered sugar and/or fruit (warmed and lightly sugared) or fruit sauce (usually with a hint of liquer).

These cakes brought us to our knees in ecstasy upon first bite. Those minutes of spontaneous, inexplicable laughter...those were moments of love. May new Love and future Love give us the same pleasure, and evoke the same reaction.

May new Love and future Love melt us from the inside, turn us molten like these cakes, so that when our inner warmth is spilled out upon Love as he first tastes it, he may also be brought to his knees in laughter.

May we all be laughing on our kitchen floors for a very long time, in Love....

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Question

Do You Choose Love or Does Love Choose You?
I continue to ask
What it is that draws me to you.
I had no idea, and even then it was just a whisper.
A seed was planted in my dumb ground.
No belief in sincerity.
But then my eyes opened and I began to see you.
You look at me, peeling bark away, exposing tender skin.
For the first time, unlike all the ones who’ve tried and failed,
I let you in. And you succeed.
You’re probably going to doubt everything I’ve just written
And push me off, with a bear’s grunt
But you ought to know
The flame that was lit that day you first kissed me
Illuminated a once dark room in my heart
and it grows brighter each passing day.
I finally for the first time have come to believe
That Love does indeed choose you.
And I choose you. Because I need you
Like the world needs spring.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Welcome to the World, Elizabeth

A new baby has entered our family circle today. Her name is Elizabeth Rose. Today, on her first official breathing in of the air of the planet, I dedicate this prayer to Elizabeth's first day on earth.

Elizabeth, may you always know that warm hands will hold you, strong and steady people will be there to pull you up if you fall, help you take your first steps, give you your first bites of sweetness, and teach you how to look up and out into the world. Perhaps at the stars.

You'll know the sound of your grandmother's, grandfather's and great-grandmother's and great-grandfather's laughter. You'll feel their kisses, and their joy in holding you in their arms.

You'll sense the bright sharp wind cooling the summer heat as you race across the lake in a summer that feels like spring. You will learn how to swim across that lake and become part of an even larger circle of family, friends, and generations older than your great grandmother.

You will overeat at least one perfectly made cherry pie. You will not be able to enumerate the number of lumpias you will eat. You will have at least one bite of great grampa's trifle, and maybe, if you're lucky, Felicia will teach you how to bake cookies. You might even win a prize doing so.

All these sweet pleasures of the world are immediately available. And you will dream. Of flowers, birds, sunlight and fishes. You will imagine incredible things, and one day, do them all. You will make your own dreams come true. And remember, more than anything, know that you are welcome in this, our world.

Glad to have you here at last.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Prelude to Pantry Zero

It has been too long since I have written. It has been too long since I have been truly inspired and moved to write about food (how so so sad). But now, I find myself in a very strange state that I have never NEVER experienced in my life, having grown up (as my mom and aunt did) with a promise of family, education and food--I find myself alone in a temporary apartment far from home, and what's more, in an apartment devoid of food. An EMPTY pantry. And I have arrived at this befuddling state in a very interesting moment in my life.

I drove down to Los Angeles (six and a half long hours to drive with only the company of the radio) on Sunday. The Friday before that my family was evacuated from our house because of fires burning their way towards us. As my grandmother with a broken leg, my mom (surprisingly hysterical) and I packed our things (my grandfather, dad and brother were all gone) I was in "stay calm" mode, not thinking about the possibility that I could be leaving my childhood home for the very last time. That very sobering thought hit me as I ate dinner in my best friend's house (her family, bless them, took us in). It was possible that I would never prepare another meal in the kitchen where I learned how to cook (that first batch of chocolate chip cookies). Did I save the right things? What would I miss? I looked at my small collection of things deemed worthy of being saved--family photos and videos, my brother's artwork (saved on his computer), important documents (all in a fire box anyway), some of Grammy's valuable paintings...that's about it. Everything else is replaceable--even expendable--luxuries. (But, thank goodness, my house was fine (the fires were contained under 1/4 mile of dry grass away from our property) and I didn't have to face that reality....)

This brings me to my point. We don't really need much. In life, and (let's connect this to our pantry problem) in the kitchen. So I've been in my empty temp apartment, no furniture, no power (a problem that had better get fixed soon or my building's manager is going to get yet another earful), and no food, for 4 days now. And while the whole no power thing is more extreme than necessary, this very simplified existence has really put some of life into perspective for me. At first I was frustrated and frazzled (not helped by the lingering shock left by the fires) by not having these comforts of living. But now I'm finding peace in it. And with no fridge or snacks lying around (and not enough cash to be willing to eat out all the time) I'm really rethinking my relationship with food.

There are some different dogmas about food that I have been grappling with. I have been raised to enjoy food, not only to nurture my body but to fill and comfort my soul as well. Then there's the idea introduced to me by a very influential teacher/mentor in high school, that we should "not live to eat, but eat to live." I like both seemingly contradictory views, and haven't been able to find a marriage of the two. Now, as I stare at this empty pantry, I see a perfect opportunity to do just that. Find a balance. Work in the opposite direction from my Auntie Fe. I want to fill my new home with essentials. Food that is versatile and healthy and satisfying for my body and soul, but not so extravagant that I feel like food is something to live for, or invest my happiness (and money) in. I can build a pantry that will keep me far from needing a "Pantry Zero" operation.

I’ve started with good whole wheat bread, organic peanut butter and local honey from the farmer’s market (all these things don't need a fridge and are amazingly comforting and nutritious--whole wheat + legume = a complete protein!). When I get more settled in my permanent apartment (the lease starts in July) and finally get power and fridge, I plan to start slow and simple. Here are the essentials that will be the first things to hit those shelves:

Brown rice
Basic spices
Good olive oil or vegetable oil
Whole wheat bread

With some fresh produce there is so much that can be done with these simple ingredients. And so my new apartment resolution is this: to live as simply as I can, because the parts of life that are out of my control (like fires) are complicated enough as it is.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Ruthie's Challenge - Part 1

Since "Pantry Zero" was initiated, I haven't had time to blog here until today, having obsessed completely over the last month on who should be the next President of the United States. So now, that has passed, he's in, we can continue our pursuit of innovative tastes, familiar ground, and chic and tasty gustatory frugality.

Which brings me to Ruthie's Challenge. Everyone, I hope you all remember Ruthie, my office spouse (please, I know its the San Francisco Bay Area, but I'm straight and she's a hetero-married mother of two).

Ruthie has been so motivated by Pantry Zero that she's personally challenged me, due to a completely unrelated turn of events, to a Pantry-inspired meal. It seems that the shelves in her pantry are getting replaced and that has caused huge displacement and an exciting discovery for the Simon Family.

She's got jars. Not only that, unopened, hermetically SEALED jars of fancy stuff that she's dying to try now that she's remembered she has them.

So Pantry Challenge #1 - Hoisin Sauce

My response:

Hoisin Chicken

Chicken thighs and wings
salt and pepper to taste
sesame seeds or chopped scallions
Hoisin Sauce

Preheat over to 375 degrees. Sprinkle salt and pepper onto uncooked chicken pieces. Put thighs in preheated oven first (they need a minimum 45 minutes to cook), followed by the wings eight minutes later. At the last fifteen minutes of cooking, brush hoisin sauce on the chicken parts and continue roasting. (If you want a crispier, more caramelized glaze, turn up the oven by another 25 degrees).

Remove from oven and sprinkle with sesame seeds or finely chopped scallions.

And please, if anyone of you has a Home Depot installation contractor who is replacing your pantry shelves and YOU find some forgotten and hidden gems lying in wait in YOUR pantry, do not hesitate to post a challenge here.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

If You Haven't Heard by Now (Pantry Zero - Part 2)

We're in for something we haven't seen for a while. As Pantry Zero below suggests, I have been waking from a coma of living outside my means as a form of pure entertainment--for want of something better to do.

My confession: Most of my young life, given my cultural and familial background, food has been a comfort, a refuge for being unloved, unworthy, and a form of entertainment. This is the deep water under that bridge of my life.

At present for better or worse, food has been my escape from a sometimes disappointing world. Because of that, and my need to create some beauty to fill in the darkest gaps in this all too dark world, my love of family and extended family, a cellular habit to deeply explore the realms of the senses, and my desire to honor the inheritance of a family of good cooks, food is a very satisfying form of creative expression. Next to theater, it is one of the great passions of my life.

But the zeitgeist of the times indicates clearly--now is the time to dust off my ancestral values about living and eating and functioning in this world--and to create my own means of living within my means. And to do it fucking well. Alot is at stake.

Are we going to hold on selfishly to our way of living in order to continue greedily at the trough while others starve? Can we/I continue to drive our cars while the impact of it being on the road means someone does not eat for the day? Or, if we're using ethanol, driving our cars despite the fact whole countries will starve?

The larger heart of me--the heart that learned that love and generosity begins at the table and flows out into the community--is pained to see that the world we live in is imperiled by the selfishness of the few. We are consuming so much so fast and at such a high level that other parts of our shared planet are shrivelling and dying. Our use of resources for our entertainment, functioning, and, face it, luxury are depriving the very lifeblood of those who cannot begin to imagine the kind of standard of living we enjoy. We consume and others starve. Water, land, animals, air. Are there other ways we can exist so that others aren't harmed?

Special thanks to Milos Janus Outlook for their post at Daily Kos. Its a wake up call and inspiration.

More will come of this.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pantry Zero (updated)

It's shocking how wasteful I was. A bin full of vegetables going straight to the garbage. Roasted chicken on the bone mummifying in the back of the fridge. Once plump juicy sausage dried out, desiccated, looking lonely, vile and mean. Seriously, if my parents, my uncles, my grandfather, heaven bless them all, saw what was happening in my refrigerator, I would have been summarily beaten.

You. Don't. Waste. Food.

In the 1960s, my father took home roughly $5,000 a year as a cook in a migrant labor camp. My mother worked in a cannery and brought home $12,000. In between were mortgage payments, clothes on our backs, raggedy sometimes, but mostly presentable, and we always always always had good food in the chest. Dad would bring home rice, beans, butter, bread and meat, while mama would make sure we had our eggs, vegetables, milk. We rarely needed to spend much on groceries, because both of them would bring home fresh food from work. And food was cooked and ready to go. Even my sister and I cooked meals as kids, so invested our family was in making sure we had requisite survival skills AND survived.

"We may never be able to leave you a fortune, but we will never let you go without an education or good food in the house".

Now here I was, the food that I worked so hard to pay for, rotting like abandoned convicts on Devil's Island. In total, I'd spent an average of $260 per month for food shopping, which isn't bad for some people, but I wanted to do better. I yearned to know what its like to depend on what I've got, instead of an ephemeral longing for quick bites that satisfy an empty, superficial desire, or a quick fix of some expensive cut of meat or fish bought out of mere convenience, leaving me financially adrift and spiritually numb. I've been shopping and consuming as if trying to entertain myself, with the newest, the latest taste sensation my next quarry. I needed something deeper--an appreciation of what I have instead of the constant pursuit of what I craved. All the great chefs and food writers that I care about - Bourdain, Ruhlman write about their admiration of the global, the simple, the crude and the humble foods that are alchemically transformed through cooking arts that come from the creativity borne of poverty, elevating the simplest of foods to the height of fullness.

In search of the simple and cheap, I had no further to look than five steps from my stove, where my pantry sat, tapping its foot, wondering when the hell I was going to get around to making something of its stock, laying dormant, warehousing food. Which brings me to the concept of Pantry Zero. The name of the top-secret plan to use up my pantry as the BASE for my meals instead of the afterthought, or pantry as storage and filing (aka known as Pantry-as-closet-for my-Trader-Joe's-bitter-71%-dark-chocolate-candy-bars).

And what better companion to embark on Pantry Zero than Wendy. My friend Wendy and I have this close-knit sisterly friendship that's been forged by years of standing together at the stoves of our respective kitchens, getting into a groove fugue concocting dishes from ingredients fabulous and plain, with always great results. We cook together as if we're having a conversation, but the words are the ingredients, and the feast the story. Both our parents are children from the Depression, her mother a former teacher in home economics and with my parental background, we had it in our genes to accomplish what our parents did in their day.

Last Sunday, we began with me purchasing $15 worth of ingredients, and $40 of goods already bought lying in wait in the pantry or freezer. Black eyed peas, a smoked ham hock. Onions from the vegetable bin in the fridge. Uncooked zucchini from last week's barbecue, some stalks of scamp, celery, carrots and minced garlic go into the pot to sweat. Wendy at the other end of her kitchen counter grinding spices she already had in her drawers, a couple of cans of garbanzo beans from the pantry, and some ginger, onions, garlic, and chilis. I pull out six pre-cooked boneless skinless thighs from a foil wrapper and clice these up into bite-sized chunks and put them in the pot of sweating savory vegetables. Stock is added. Simmering begins. I was lucky to have tons of garlic, parsley and lemons from last week's barbecue to do a gremolata to spoon on the chicken-vegetable soup to finish it (add a pinch of parmesan and its really ready). With the pot of black-eyed peas with ham, some brown rice and this soup, I have enough pre-done meals to carry me through the week, lunch and dinner. At a cost of roughly $30, and no more going to the store. No need to spend a ridiculous $8 bucks for a sandwich, a drink and some chips for lunch when I could have homemade chicken soup with vegetables, gremolata and freshly grated parmesan for a fraction of that cost.

But there's more to be done. I'm thinking next time we do lumpias of all stripes. And I wonder what Wendy's planning? She's taken a class in Indian cooking and she's unfolding knowledge gained as we work together. Since we're both getting good at the economics for Pantry Zero, the thing we're approaching now is the fun of doing something new, innovative, and fresh with the old tired simple shit we've had on hand forever.

Just like everyone else around this world. And really, isn't that what it means to truly live?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Pastes, Jars, Squeeze Bottles and Cakes

Probably because I've been on a very simple diet of a low-fat protein and a vegetable, and starving for a little variety, I have been hungry for a different trajectory in tastes lately. Probably spurred on by my introduction to the variety of Indian and Thai curries. Probably because the Thai Market, called Tuk-Tuk, is within walking distance of my home and I can get palm sugar, red curry paste and kaffir lime leaves there with little effort. Probably because I need to find a different way to making boring vegetables, like, cauliflower--delectable.
You heard me, delectable. Nothing makes cauliflower more delectable than in an Indian curry. And its so simple. Red curry paste, a can of coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil make it work. Its the combination of sweet-spicy that makes it so satisfying, and great with brown basmati rice.
Then there's mole. My family came back from Mexico bearing gifts of Mayan artifact replicas, a squeeze bottle of Mexican vanilla, and a cake of spicy black mole. I've used it as a sauce base with hoisin sauce, which makes for a spicy-sweet black hued glaze that's multi-layered and complex.
Once in awhile, I take out my jar of Thai crab paste with garlic and chilli and add it to a garlic rice and shrimp dish. It adds a beautifully rich deep seafood flavor not unlike a seafood stock, only spicier. Throw in a little black bean chili paste to a steamed fresh piece of fish, add some sliced fresh ginger and scallions and we have the fresh and spicy flavors of Canton available in Berkeley. Heaven.

Most of these savory flavors cost no more than $3.00 at an Asian supermarket, and they pack miles of punch--adding a flavor boost to pasta, fish, meat, poultry, rice, soups, stews, pilafs and whatever you can think of. Scrambled eggs with chili paste? You betcha!!!

Attention college students, a little exploration in ethnic food markets can yield an attractive array of flavors available on the cheap for your ramen bowls, pasta jags, and even maybe a pizza or two.

Take a chance.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A New Leaf

It was the dizziness in the morning that alarmed me. And the sudden cravings for something sweet mid-afternoon that gave me a clue. When I went to the doctor, my blood pressure was 168/90.

I was scared. Bad cholestrol was higher than the good kind, and fasting blood glucose was high normal at 100, when it should be in the low 60s.

So now, the changes begin.

Instead of the occasional gym, one Pilates workout and two classes at Rhythm and Motion, it will be five classes, one gym session and Pilates workout for the unforeseeable future. I will walk with my workmates during lunchtime, and get my big ass out of the desk every hour to stretch and take a walk through the building I work.

Butter is verboten. And sob, no more pork with fat. Salt use down by half and white sugar and flour are tossed. Instead of blogging four hours, I will do something to organize my house better. Toss out old clothes, shoes and those fucking papers that have accumulated in my computer hutch.

A note to my family and friends - no, I'm not going to die. I'm going to manage myself better. I won't tell you how many pounds I want to lose, but I will tell you I have a long, hard slog.

But does this mean I will have no more gustatory pleasure in my future? Am I not going to cook anymore? Am I not going to share what comes from my ample table with others?

Hell. Fucking. No.

What I will do is make what I've got work. And use the pallette that fabulous and healthy food provides to make this new leaf work. So today's recipe is for ginger carrot soup.

6 big carrots, sliced
1/2 sweet maui onion sliced
5 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 Tbs. grated ginger

Braise the carrots, onions and ginger in the broth until tender. Pour mixture in blender to puree, or use a hand blender to do the same thing. Serve with a dollop of yogurt, or blue cheese, or feta.

Now get your butt out there and walk for 30 minutes.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Food that Makes a City Great

I've never been one to sprint to the latest trendy restaurant in this city. I live in a region so diverse and food-obsessed that its a constant, pleasurable process trying to figure out what you want to eat for lunch or dinner. Low $? High $$$? Chinese, fusion, Latin, European, American, pizza, shawerma, pozole or soup dumplings? By the time you've narrowed down your choices, your blood insulin levels go off the chart, you become delirious and head for the nearest Rite-Aid for a bag of chips and the rack with the latest edition of the SF Bay Guardian and its food review section.

It can stress you out.

UPDATED: I am grateful that I live in a region where its a veritable genie's lamp as far as food choices. And I have my preferences: tapas on Valencia Street (Ramblas is great for that), the Los Compadres taco truck at the Civic Center parking lot for their Lengua Super Tacos, perfect chicken congee and fresh-fried Chinese donuts at Hung Ling on Broadway, or the $9 worth of dim sum that you can pick up at the place near 6th and Clement that can easily feed a family of four. The fresh warm hand-made tamales by the women who manufacture their food products at La Cocina in the Mission District. The incredibly soft pan dulce at the Mexican panaderia run by Chinese bakers on Mission between 24th and 25th.

The entire list can read like the first chapters of a gustatory Genesis.

I love that my city does not mess around when it comes to food. Evidence the farmer's markets that occur weekly throughout the city. Now I am not going into which restaurant serves the best gnocchi, or who has the most unctuous uni, or whose pizza crust is the best (a topic of considerable controversy). And I don't care about who serves the best martini, fried olives or roast duck. That isn't my point. There are tons of writers who DO research and investigate that. I'm talking about MY San Francisco, and its a personal journey de cuisine.

I prefer the braised chicken feet at City View over everyone else's, but that doesn't mean I don't love Ton Kiang's scallion dumplings. Its just that there's a difference in approach to each at each site to merit frequenting both. And I always go to Mara's Italian Bakery on Columbus because on a cold rainy day, a latte and a slice of their almond cake makes you ache with pleasure from the soul. Hayes Street Grill's creme brulee is the absolute, while the hamburger with a crisp cold martini at Zuni Cafe provides an experience in pure satisfaction. And I happen to love the shaken beef at Sunflower (Vietnamese) Restaurant on Valencia Street, and willing to stand in line after an evening of theater to get my fix, along with a Vietnamese crepe and a Singha. A perfect Saturday night. And then there's the ritual weekday lunchtime trek to the Tenderloin where a perfect chicken biryani awaits.

There are thousands of personal journeys undertaken each day in this culinary hub. Its a small city, yes, with less than a million people. But it stands pretty well-balanced on its shaky seismic legs, has managed to re-build and transcend itself many times over, and still has room for the traditional and experimental.

When you're in a city at the very edge of your continent, there's nowhere to go but everywhere.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Babe-a-licious - A Love Note to My Boys

I dedicate this special recipe post to my boys Nikko, Jake, Addison and their pals. In an endeavor to help them improve their cooking skills and perhaps impress a few women while they're at it, I've set about to make this post a first of I hope many to help them become more than adept in the kitchen, perhaps inspiring actual meal prep from salad to dessert, instead of the meal in a microwave bag, cup o' noodles slag or the never-ending onslaught of carbs and cheese called le pizza.

Come on guys, its fun and its EASY to cook. Also--it saves you some much-needed bucks for the latest X-Box iteration of brain-fritzing.

Before I begin, there is only one credo in the kitchen that you must adhere to. Practice makes perfect.

For example, when it comes to doing anything having to do with eggs, practice makes perfect. Let's take a look at the audaciously rich sabayon (or as the Italians say: zabaglione). Egg yolks and Marsala whisked heavily OVER, not in, boiling water. It sounds easy enough, but here are words to the wise.

Watch. Your. Whisking. Practice, practice, practice.

Pre-assemble your ingredients, making sure your eggs are at room temperature before you begin. Separate yolks from white, and save whites for another use (omelettes come to mind), and pour yolks into large metal bowl (large enough to go OVER, not in, a pot of boiling water. Add marsala.

Whisk the shit out of it until the yolks-marsala are foamy AND form firm peaks. You are actually cooking the yolks while they are whisking. Just DON'T allow the bowl with the yolks to touch the boiling water. Once this portion of the sabayon is ready, take it off the heat. Set aside. It should pour off your whisk like a thick sauce. You're done.

Pour a half-pint container of whipping cream into a chilled bowl. Add 1/3 c. sugar. Whip the shit out this until the whipping cream is firm--close to butter but not quite. Fold the whipped cream into the fluffy egg yolks and combine, briefly. Serve immediately or you can serve the sabayon chilled. Pour over strawberries, cherries, berries, or any other fresh fruit.

Now go out there and thrill the babes.

Ingredient List
4 eggs, separated
1/3 c. marsala or other sweet liquor (amaretto, calvados, even kahlua if you want a coffee effect)
1/2 pint of whipping cream
1/3 c. sugar (for whipping cream)

The list above should cost you no more than $15 at Trader Joe's (especially if you go for their generic amaretto).

Final note: You need to proportionally increase the recipe volume if you have more mouths to feed. The above recipe feeds two generously as a sauce over fruit. If you want to increase it to make individual puddings, double the recipe. It translates and volumizes easily and well.