Thursday, December 30, 2010

So Much To Know, Even with a Slow Cooker

I still have so much to learn.  Being in the kitchen, sometimes, proves it to me.

Even with the simplest of kitchen tools, to know how to properly use the item is a must. Just when I think I've mastered an appliance, it becomes a mystery I wasn't even aware needed to be unraveled.  And so was the case with my Slow Cooker.

Who doesn't love their Slow Cooker?  Mine is put to work throughout the year.  Whether it's for a warm meal ready and awaiting my arrival home from work, preparing a meal for guests freeing me up to enjoy their company or cooking on a hot day while trying to avoid heating the kitchen any's my "go to" appliance.

I, like so many others, just plug in my cooker, dump the ingredients in the liner  and walk away not giving it a second thought.  Many, many times.  But not too long ago, as I was dishing out my tasty Mu Shu Pork in a fairly new Kitchen Aide Slow Cooker, I observed this particular preparation was drier than I had remembered.  Odd.  Not until I was transferring the leftovers did I discover there was a hairline crack in the ceramic liner.  All the moisture missing from the meal had leaked into the shell of the cooker.  What a mess!  What had gone wrong?

It's difficult not to ask myself, "did I do something to prompt its failure?"    The answer is maybe.  The liner should not be exposed to dramatic changes in temperature.  I'm guessing I'm not the only one to have left my warm leftovers in the liner and put it directly in the refrigerator.  A big no, no.  I'm also betting I'm not the only one to have put cold ingredients straight from the fridge into the Cooker as it's warming up.  Apparently, I've been testing fate for years. 

Lucky for me, the Kitchen Aide was still under warranty and the company promised a new ceramic liner would be shipped as soon as they had them back in stock.  About 8 weeks, I was told.  Really?  It turns out with this particular model the heating elements in the case surrounding the ceramic liner did not heat evenly.  Kitchen Aide was scrambling to replace hundreds, maybe thousands of liners across the country.  In waiting for my slow cooker replacement, I decided to do some reading and discovered not all slow cookers are the same. Learning from my mistakes, if you want to ensure a long life with your slow cooker I recommend following these tips:
  • Don't put really cold items in a warming slow cooker. The shock could make it crack.
  • To refrigerate your leftovers don't use the slow cooker ceramic or porcelain lining; alternately use a casserole or other container. Bottom line, putting your liner in extreme conditions could cause it to shatter.
  • Hand wash the lid and the vacuum seal. The seal could stretch out in the dishwasher lessening its effectiveness in future cooking.  It's probably overkill, I now hand wash my liner be on the safe side.
  • If following a recipe for a Slow Cooker with a specifically treated liner for browning on the stove top and you don't have that treated liner, don't brown on the stove top.  You will surely break it.
Speaking of browning meat, I've always wondered why crock pot/slow cooker recipes instruct the reader to brown the meat prior to starting the slow cooker.   I dug further to find out why.  It is so that one can achieve maximum flavor and texture since the slow cooker environment can't provide the same result.  This reaction I just described is named the Maillard reaction.  Maillard was a physician who discovered that cooking in a high temperature, low moisture levels, and alkaline conditions all promote the flavorful reaction by changing the sugars and proteins on the surface. Low moisture levels are necessary mainly because water boils into steam at 212 °F (100 °C), whereas the Maillard reaction happens noticeably around 310 °F (154 °C): by the time something is in fact browning, all the water is vaporized.  With too much moisture in the environment it actually inhibits browning and hence flavor.  If a recipes says brown the meat first, don't skip this step.  Do it!  You'll be so much more pleased with the outcome.

The more lessons I learn, even the small ones of learning about an appliance, reinforces the phrase I've appreciated recently from Elena Kagan, "with age comes wisdom."  Then bring on the age (just not too fast)!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Gift of Food

You may call it re-gifting, but I call it sharing with those not so fortunate.  My office received a lovely, extremely large gift of baked muffins, brownies and other tasty treats.  This basket could feed at least 50 people!

Because it is the day before most offices close for the holiday, my office is running on a skeleton crew of 7.  Even if we each sampled from the basket and took some home, we would have had food wasted.

As we all stood and stared at the beauty of this basket and marveled how we couldn't possibly consume it all, we came to the conclusion at the same time....let's donate it to a local food bank.  With the aide of Google and a couple of quick calls, we selected the San Fernando Rescue Mission where they are thrilled to receive such a donation.

In a time when they usually receive canned goods, baked items are really a treat.  Of course not every food bank would accept freshly baked items, so if you want to do the same call ahead.

I am so proud to be part of this group, who in their hearts believed the food would be most appreciated by those less fortunate than us.  Now that's the spirit!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Persnickety About Persimmons

I am usually not a picky eater.  Put most food in front of me and 20 minutes later you'll find an empty plate.  Of course, that hasn't always been the case if you ask my dad or my great grandmother if she were still with us.  My dad has a vivid memory of coaxing me into eating my peas by making a game out of how many peas we could spear on our forks.  As a 4 or 5 year old with my under-developed taste buds, my great grandmother clued me in that the way to down a glass of bitter grapefruit juice was to pinch my nose.  What lengths adults will go to get their young kids to eat healthy food!

Now as a grown up, I love all kinds of different food including the once despised grapefruit juice.  However, I still have a few holdouts I just haven't seemed to be able to overcome.  Persimmons being one of them.

If you are not familiar with Persimmons, they are most prominent in areas with mild winters and moderate summers (like Southern California).  There are several varieties.  The variety I had become familiar with, Fuyu, is considered to be the non-astringent type originating from Japan.  A non-astringent persimmon can be eaten when it is crisp like an apple or in a very ripened state where the fruit's consistency is almost jelly-like.  It's high in glucose, generous in fiber and in traditional Chinese medicine is thought to regulate ch'i.

On a recent visit to our home, my grandmother brought her pretty little bounty of persimmons from the tree she tends in her yard.  I did my best to graciously receive the gift.  If only I liked persimmons!  If only John liked persimmons!  I readily admit in visits past when she happily presented her persimmons, I would only use them as fall decoration.  Every once and awhile, I would slice one up in her presence and try it one more time.  Between the flavor and consistency, I was having trouble becoming a fan.

This year would be different.  I had decided I was going to give persimmons a fresh start -- wipe the slate clean, open my mind and set aside my persimmon prejudice.

Why the change of heart?  A publication released over the summer by the New Scientist, revealed that 16% of the energy consumed in the United States is used to produce food and that 25% of our nation's food is actually going to waste; a majority of it being dairy and vegetables.  In their estimation MORE energy is wasted in perfectly edible food being discarded by people in the US each year than is extracted annually from the oil and gas reserves off the nation's coastlines.  Based on this recent finding, Discovery's Planet calculated the average family throws out an average of $600 year in fruit alone!

In a time where so many are concerned with the energy it takes and the greenhouse gases added to transport and produce fresh, clean food along with the lack of fresh food access to so many, I couldn't help but examine my own habits.  How fortunate am I to live in a climate that provides so much for so little?  Very, I concluded.

It's time for me to change my ways.  I needed to start thinking like a parent.  Find a solution to help me consume those pesky persimmons.  Once I took on the new mindset, the path to eating persimmons was easy.  I found a cookie recipe that uses the ripe pulp of the persimmon.  When the first batch came out of the oven, I had to make sure they were edible (of course).  4 cookies later I determined not only were they edible they were actually very, very good!  John concurred by having just as many.  He's even asked when I'm going to make more!

Like anything new, it will take awhile for this mindset to become habit for me.  But I am determined.  And if all else fails, my food that has gone unused will still be put to good use in my recently installed garden compost bin for future generations of over-ripened fruits and vegetables.

If you have access to persimmons and want to try out the cookie recipe, visit the All site.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Turkey Now Speaks...

Thanksgiving has come and gone and I promise not to bore you with a detailed story of our wonderful day. Something did occur, or more accurately, occurred to me, worthy of reporting especially considering this blogs mission statement: Life lessons and food.
A Christmas Story [Blu-ray]
The task of cooking the turkey fell to me this year. Like Sylvia, I love to cook and look forward to tough challenges. Roasting turkeys, not so much. Why? Because the turkey is the center piece of the meal and if you have an epic fail, as depicted in the movie "A Christmas Story," there is nowhere to punt. For example, if we have invited friends or family over for a regular Saturday night dinner and there is a massive failure, we can load up the car and go out for sushi or a goose if you want to stick with the movie plot. But Thanksgiving? The expectation is turkey!

The Tuesday night before the big event, Sylvia and I reviewed an Alton Brown (of "Good Eats" fame) episode dedicated to cooking the perfect turkey. Basically, soak the bird in a brine, stick the turkey into a 500F oven for 30 minutes to brown, reduce to 350F and cover the breast with a triangle of foil as to not dry out the meat, cook until meat thermometer says 161F, rest the bird and eat. That is the highly condensed version.

So, there I was, after 30 minutes at 500F with a bird that is perfectly browned. Just ten minutes later the digital meat thermometer starts beeping -- it says the meat is 161F! Done if I'm to follow Alton's instructions. I had been careful to place the probe exactly where he told me to. You and I both know, this bird is nowhere near done after 40 minutes. Now what?

I decided to rely on my gut instinct and throw out most of the rest of instructions I had planned to follow. And throw out the digital thermometer -- I was going old-school on this turkey! Covering the bird completely with foil (based on a grilled whole chicken I have cooked that is stunningly moist when done) and pouring a 1/2 bottle of beer in the bottom of the roast pan. Mostly because I had already drank the other 1/2. Then I waited. When the bird "looked" done and a test pull on the wings felt about right, we pulled it out of the oven and let it rest. When it came time to slice it up, I was able to grab the drumstick and free it from the joint with just an easy twist and pull. No electric knife needed.

Ah, yes. The life lesson.

When I cook, I seem to have a sixth sense about when an item is cooked as I want it. Especially beef. Either on the grill, stove top or oven. When grilling, I can be in the house, chatting with friends, drinking wine and having lots of laughs when suddenly, a "virtual" timer bell will go off in my head and sure enough, the meat will be cooked to perfection, in my humble opinion. Also in my humble opinion, I am not the only one with this "skill."

I mentioned this to Sylvia the next day and started to think about the thousands of years humans have cooked over open fires and how it might be possible this "skill" has been passed down to me. I never knew my grandparents so the thought of having some connection to unknown ancestors going back thousands of years -- whether one believes it's possible or not -- is a nice little diversion. Trying not to get to "new age" on you, but maybe even a connection to the animal that has given their life to sustain mine?

And what about trusting my instinct? When I have suffered most in life is when I haven't trusted my instincts. Thanksgiving Day was a nice little test to confirm the software is working as expected.

Happy Holidays,


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Kitchen Stocking Stuffers, Now Why Didn't I Invent That?

“What in the world?”
It was my first question when I saw these hanging in a kitchen store display window in Vancouver.  Were they very oddly shaped Popsicle forms?  A Canadian's idea of a joke?

I must know so I ask the proprietor of the store about her display.  Her answer to my question?  A banana case!  No question her strategy of hanging these in her front window, got people like me in her store.

With the holidays upon us and always on the lookout for the perfect stocking stuffers, kitchen gadgets are my favorite item to give and receive.  But I'm not so sure about this one.  I have never personally had a problem transporting a banana in my lunch, but then again I try not to whack my lunch around like it was a hockey puck.  After doing a bit of research, these cases were actually designed in Japan as part of a vast array of bento box gear items.  What's a bento box?  Think of it as a Japanese version of a lunch pail except that it has many compartments that make it easy to store food.  The Japanese are masters of creating items with a less-is-more approach.  Sometimes designed with understated elegance or in the case of this container, very quirky.

It's difficult not to marvel at the creativity of the human race.  When there is a need, people in this world find inspiration and develop a solution.

Take peeling the skin off garlic for example.  At first glance I had no idea what Santa left me one year. This pliable, not very pretty tube gave me no clue to its brilliance at disrobing a clove of its papery skin.  If you're like me when cooking, my recipes almost always call for a couple of cloves of garlic.  Pop a clove in the cylindrical rubber tube, give it a firm roll with the palm of your hand and low and behold a beautifully naked specimen.  (Yes, I'm still talking about the garlic)

Have you ever needed to grab the handle of a pot on the stove or the lid off a hot item but the potholder not within reach?  My solution up until last year was to grab a kitchen towel with the associated risk of catching it on fire.  Santa must have been peaking through the window because last year he left me little rubber grippers.  Why didn't I think of that?  I have them right next to stove in a drawer -- always at the ready.

If you (Santa) are stumped by what to fill in a cook's stocking, perhaps I've given you some ideas about finding some very inexpensive, useful gifts.  Or at the very least, creating a stir of giggles with a mystery kitchen gadget on Christmas morning.

You actually may be thinking right about now, "I must have that Banana Carrier!"  Since I'm a mind reader, here's your access to getting your very own along with the garlic peeler and holders:

Banana carrier
Garlic peeler
Pinch holders

Now that I'm out of stocking stuffer ideas, do you have any you'd like to share?  If so, feel free to leave a comment.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Earning My Turkey Wings

I was in the 23rd year of my young life and a newlywed when my mother suggested it was my turn to host Thanksgiving dinner.  Although she and I can’t recall much about the actual dinner, it was a poignant moment when my mama bird pushed this baby bird out of the nest to get my hosting wings.  It must not have been too much of a disaster for this fledgling or I would have remembered that!  What I do know is that before I managed to pull the event off, I only thought I knew what I was doing in the kitchen.

Nature versus nurture?  There are times in my life when I inadvertently may say or do something that reminds me of one of my parents; it’s usually my mom.  It happens to me when I least expect it.  It may be the way I turn a phrase or physically react to a situation.  In this situation (hosting Thanksgiving dinner), I automatically go into organizational mode, just like my mom.  Is it because I observed it or is it part of my evolution?  Or am I taking as much care in return for the years of her doing it for me and my family?  I’m not sure, it just comes naturally to me.

What better event than Thanksgiving to learn the basic merits of Mis En Place, a French culinary term where everything is in its place for ease in food preparation.  My previous experience in Thanksgiving prep while growing up included making the pastry for pie, setting a lovely table, overseeing the condiments plate (many a disappearing olives may have occurred during my supervisory time….I claim complete ignorance of their fate) and doing the last minute stir on the gravy.  Mastering the planning, timing and execution of an entire dinner took much practice….years of practice.  I’ll admit that this baby bird still gets a tad nervous on timing and cooking everything properly.

As I plan for next hosting gig just days away, you can bet I’m in planning mode right now to compensate for my weaknesses.  My free-range Heritage turkey has been ordered and my guests who offered assistance have their assignments.  If nothing else because of my lack of practice preparing everything else, I can guarantee I will have a lovely place setting, the pastry will be perfectly flaky and there may be a missing olive or two. 
Shh...don't tell

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Kitchen Transformed - The Jury Has Reached A Verdict

Like clockwork, the city of Los Angeles called me up for jury service recently. After two short years, I was being asked to sit in judgment of another once again. While trying to sit patiently in the jury room waiting to be called to a courtroom, I reminded myself of a time when a “jury of my peers” needed to help make a determination that affected me. And I got to pick the jury!

After having renovated much of our 1905 home in Dallas, the time had arrived to tackle the kitchen. The only way to describe the kitchen would be, hideous!

After looking at these snaps, you are probably thinking we needed to have our heads examined for ever having purchased this house in the first place. Maybe so, but that’s a whole different life lesson. We actually cooked and entertained in this kitchen for two years. What generous, loving friends and family to actually consume a meal out of this sorry looking facility. But as anyone who has ever done a home kitchen remodel, the task is extremely expensive no way you slice and dice it. As the old saying goes "in for a dime, in for a dollar." Or, lots of dollars!

Being an historic home, my personal goal was to try and retain as much of the original charm and character of the home as possible. The charm in question and in dispute was the butler’s pantry. My husband, John, and I usually always come together and easily agree on the direction of a project. But not this particular project.

The butler’s pantry was a separate room that served as a hallway of sorts between the kitchen and the dining room. It had great storage, had the original craftsmanship (even though it was painted lipstick red) and made a fairly handy bar when called upon. The problem was it carved a big chunk out of what could be crafted into a fairly large rectangular shaped new kitchen space. John was quite insistent the butler’s pantry had to be sacrificed to make the new kitchen as functional as we had hoped. Of course I was just as insistent that I wasn’t going to give up the original design.
Photo of Previous Owner's Pantry...yes, really

View of the pantry wall from the kitchen

How were we going to break the stalemate? In our usual fashion, we easily agreed we needed third party intervention. So we threw a party and invited four friends who shared the same ideas about the importance of the historic district we were living in. And if a tie breaker was needed, we also had our real estate agent come over. Jury chosen, John and I agreed to live by whatever the majority agreed upon -- the final verdict. We promised no hard feelings to all involved whatever the outcome.

Each "side" had to make its case as the jury of our peers listened and asked questions to each of our points. For me, keeping the house in as near historic condition as possible was best for the house. My husband pointed out the benefits of the added space in the most important room of the house. We had points and counter-points. The jury was deadlocked in the end, a sure sign of the veracity of our arguments. Then our real estate agent who specialized in selling historic homes spoke for the first time. "Bigger kitchens make houses better sellers." The dreaded "resale value" argument!! I could see the rest of the jury sway right before my eyes.

The verdict…the pantry had to go. A few days later, it's now empty shelves, which had stocked the beverage and glassware needs of people since the horse-drawn carriage days, met the blunt end of an axe and sharp teeth of my husband's favorite electric saw. I reluctantly helped cart the carcass of my failed defense of the butler's pantry to the ever-present dumpster. I was sad (can you tell?)
John's victory rubble

With that, we set about designing what the newly shaped floor plan would look like, minus the pantry. We worked hard to create the character of a 1905 home while crafting the kitchen of our dreams. My loss turned into my gain. Take at look at these "after" pictures.

It turned out to be a spectacular kitchen, very much in keeping with the period of the home yet updated to meet today's needs. I miss this kitchen terribly to this day, especially coming upon the holidays. Thank you to my jury for nudging me in the direction I was so reluctant to take. I don’t regret at all turning over the decision on something I couldn’t see so clearly on.

Sadly, we had to sell our home just one year later. And what do you think the new buyers liked most about our 100 year-old house?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Tex-Mex Vs. Southwestern-Style Mexican Food... There Is No Debate

As I start my latest blog entry on the eve of the November elections, I have no idea how the elections will pan out. Nor am I going to discuss or speculate about the pros and cons of any candidate or position on this site. Would you not agree, however, this latest political season has been peppered with some serious conflict? So, the weekend before the mid-term elections, my husband and I did attend a rally but not the one that got all the hoopla. It was an event of our own making. Let's call it the first annual "Santa Fe Food Rally." Several of our great friends from Dallas were on hand for the festivities.

Most of my friends know I’m writing this blog and going into the weekend, I jotted down some ideas about what angle I might take when writing about our trip. Trying to be the best journalist, without really being one, I did not want to be the creator of our experiences, but organically letting the tortilla chips fall where they may. My story outline envisioned a battle between the "Southwestern Style Mexican food is best" versus "Tex-Mex can't be beat" camps. The only way to settle any disagreements was to consume great quantities of Mexican food (prepared "New Mexico" style) during the trip. My pre-conceived theory of one’s attachment to their local cuisine, by my estimate, would trump the merits of the competing version. I’ll merely sprinkle a little spice by asking pointed questions.

I have witnessed passionate discussions on this very subject before. Why wouldn’t it happen again? My friends are not shy of spirited opinion. For me, nothing beats Southwestern-Style Mexican food. It’s what I grew up with. My mother, having lived her formative years in New Mexico, passed on her love of the cuisine to me -- especially prepared the New Mexico way. Living in San Diego in my formative years, only reinforced it. While my husband and I were later living in Dallas, I just couldn’t acquire a taste for Tex-Mex. Just like I couldn’t acquire the taste of chicken fried steak. (Not to sound too Jessica Simpson like but, "Is it chicken or is it steak?") Sorry guys!

What's the difference, you might ask?

Traditional Mexican food was created with the local spices (oregano, cilantro, cinnamon, cocoa, cumin and chili powder) and ingredients (typically corn and beans) native to Mexico. The Spanish introduced rice to Mexico in the 1500’s. And depending on the region of Mexico’s food, you may encounter vegetable/chicken laced dishes in the Southeastern corner based on Caribbean influence, fish intense dishes on the Pacific Coast or more exotic renditions of iguana, rattlesnake and insect proteins in Puebla. There are many other regional versions as well. Just like regional differences you find here in the US in the way barbecue is prepared.

Tex-Mex is a blend of food products available in America combined with Mexican Americans' influences from across the border. Generally Tex-Mex has beef product due to the ranching culture of South Texas. Toss in the Americanized elements of yellow cheese because of its cheap availability along with an emphasis in cumin.

Southwestern-Style Mexican food is a blending of items that may have been eaten by Spanish colonial settlers in the United States, cowboys, Native Americans, Mexicans and now modified by accountants and new-age chefs. It is similar to Mexican food, but it’s emphasis is in the chile such as red or green, most notably Hatch chile. Ask for red and green and they will bring it to your table “Christmas” style. In Texas and Arizona, green is not popular at all.

Red Hatch Chile - Southwestern Style

Green Hatch Chile - Southwestern Style

Surely this melting pot of food styles and regional tastes that made up our little group could get a rise out of somebody. Nope! Not one person stepped to the plate. Universally, my little sample size of friends on this trip preferred Southwestern Style Mexican food over Tex Mex. So much for my debate. The only nuances were whether or not they favored the red chile over the green. Believe me, we ate much of it. So much for the beginning, middle and end of my blog story. Where was the conflict?

As it turns out, this election season's conflicts, played out in :30 second commercials and newscast filters, influenced my anticipation that with every topic someone would take a “side.” The conflict, as it turns out, has been with myself. As trying as this political season has been to watch, I had forgotten to factor in my friends are reasonable, sane conversationalists giving consideration to others opinions. I didn’t need to go to a Washington rally (sane or otherwise) to be reminded most Americans are similar to my friends and it is just a few who are getting all the attention.

If you want to know where this not so great Tex-Mex versus Southwestern - Style Mexican food debate took place, visit the links below. All of these restaurants were terrific. Just like the company.

Tecolote Cafe
The Pink Adobe
Cafe Pasquals
The Pantry

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Cooking Class I Regret Never Taking

Regret is a powerful word for me.  It is a word I try very hard to avoid using because it implies I’m wallowing in something from my past I cannot change.  Whatever the circumstance, hopefully I’ve learned from my mistakes and won’t repeat them.  But, alas, I do have a couple of regrets and one that occasionally pesters me lately is:

Not taking high school chemistry!

An odd regret, I know.  Only until I started watching Alton Brown’s "Good Eats," did I come to understand how baking, stir frying, braising, mixing, etc. is all just one big chemistry experiment.  No wonder I have felt so beholden to recipe instructions as I haven’t had a good grasp on the power and potential of ingredients when combined, altered by time, heat or refrigeration.

My 8th grade home economics class did a great job in emphasizing reading instructions and measuring.  I really enjoyed it.  What it didn’t do was teach me about cause and effect of the combined ingredients I was working with.  I could have understood the Table of Periodic Elements, which would help me understand weight, melting, boiling, solids, liquids and gas or been provided guidance on designing menus with complementary foods that are sweet and savory combined with varying textures all while considering nutritional benefits.  Or that water/moisture is the #1 culprit that promotes spoilage.  Or better yet, how to improvise when you are missing a key ingredient or want to alter the serving size.  The joke "better food through chemistry" can cut both ways!

I, like so many other girls, avoided science classes.  I enrolled in only what I had to.  As silly as this sounds, my avoidance stemmed from the Jerry Lewis film, “The Nutty Professor.”  The 1963 version scared the living day lights out of me!  The professor's wacky dental work, bad haircut and the ever-present lab experiments gone very wrong left my 5 year-old brain convinced that all things chemistry must be avoided!  Today, I recognize how ridiculous it was to base my decisions in choosing my classes on this lasting impression from a slapstick movie.  Yes, Hollywood can influence young children!  I’m living proof.

Girls steering clear of science and math has been an on-going problem over the years.  During my era of growing up, the gender gap was reinforced with the assumption girls were less interested in math and science promoting a lack of confidence in young girls to even pursue those subjects.  Based on these assumptions, teachers and parents, unaware of their own bias, would naturally help boys with their science and math studies while excusing the girl’s lack of performance based on her level of interest.  A vicious cycle.   And no less helpful in promoting interest in food chemistry, the delay of food science as a study  is not taught until college and only at select universities.  If my first classroom science exposure wasn’t the stinky dissection of frog and worm digestive tracks, I may have found science wasn’t all bad.  Fortunately since my days in school, much has been learned about motivating a student, regardless the gender, with positive images, experiences and reinforcement.  

I don’t have children, nor am I an expert at all the challenges parents face when helping their children grow up.  But what I can tell you is, now in my mid 40’s, I really appreciate the potential of a well rounded education especially recognizing what aspects of mine were missing.

Just because I’m not in school, it doesn’t mean I lack the ability to teach myself.  This old dog can learn new tricks.  Remember when you’d ask your mom how to spell something and she’d say look it up in the dictionary?  Same thing here.  I look it up on the Internet.  When I had a question about the difference of boiling, simmering or quivering water and how altitude affects it or if salt really affects the boiling point, helped me out.  Or our friends across the pond, The UK Food Standards Agency, helped me out when I was trying to understand how best to defrost raw meat and cooked foods.  These are just a couple of examples.

Food & Wine magazine selects Best New Chefs every year.  In this year’s top 10 selection, 9 out of 10 are male chefs (Missy Robins is the only female).   If you read each Chef’s bios, they have their favorite cookbooks where they still learn more.   In the past 11 years Food & Wine selected one woman chef in 2009, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004 and 1999, two in 2008, 2002, 2001 and 1997; three in 2000 (one was co-chef with her husband) and 1998; and zero in 2003.  Food & Wine has not published what their criteria has been when drawing their “cutting edge” selections. While my conclusion is not a scientific one (thanks, Jerry Lewis!) my guess is the gender gap may be directly relational to the lack of fostered education in food science that inspires creativity and that biases do still exist.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Super Size Me ... My Way

If you asked me 10 years ago where my food came from, I would have naturally answered, “The grocery store!” Duh.  My selections were made based on the grocery store’s ability to provide a nice, sanitized presentation whether it be packaging or handsome looking produce.  Most people of my generation, growing up in an urban setting, would have answered much the same.  Aw…simpler times.

Ask me that question today and my answer takes about 20 minutes! This change in my response didn’t happen overnight.  It has been a personal evolution and revelation in the making.

A pre-Katrina visit to the Gallier House Museum in the French Quarter of New Orleans planted a seed in me for further contemplation. The docent who led our tour eloquently described daily life for a prosperous family, post Civil War. What resonated with me was the full-time effort it took for the lady of the household to plan meals for her family based on food availability.  Just think what it took to do this in a time before refrigeration and automobiles. Turning a mirror on myself, I remember thinking how easy I had it today. Trips to historical places like Gallier's, Boston's old town and even San Simeon here in California allow a chance to, just briefly, wear another persons shoes -- even if the person is long gone.

Around the same time, my mom, in an effort to provide the best possible nutrition for my dad’s health, had been seeking better food choices for her household.  She and I share the gene of inquiry! We would compare notes, but she was much better informed than I.  She’s the first person I knew to look to alternatives to prescription pills, but not excluding medical advice for better living. Her best piece of advice, read labels and understand what they mean.

So, I started reading labels.  Then I had to study what some of those strange things they were putting in my food were actually for.  And, what those strange things actually did to me.  Then I watched Fast Food Nation, Food Inc., Super Size Me and read Eating Well, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and Barbara Kingsolver among others.  In our collective effort to advance through the industrialized and communication eras, we, by silent majority, have allowed our food barn door to open wide. I feel like we've been taken advantage of while we've been slaving away at our jobs to pay for our food.  Doomsday?

I don’t see it that way.  The more information I have, the more empowered I feel. All but Fast Food Nation, provide a path to food salvation if you look for it.  Clearly, I’m a girl who views life as a glass half full.

Before long there was a wholesale clearing of our pantry.  High fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, names of ingredients I can’t pronounce …all of it, gone from our diet.  We are now at the point that if a canned or prepared item has more than five ingredients in it, we will not buy it. We also won’t buy anything in it with ingredients we don’t recognize.

Lately, the food news has been anything but positive. While it can be discouraging, the way I try to ground myself is to ask, “but what can I do?”  The only answer I’ve come up with is taking responsibility for myself.  It’s the only thing I can control.  I can’t get more local than that!

So what have I done?  For the last couple of years, I’ve concentrated on getting all my produce from our local farmer’s market and have been greatly rewarded with better tasting food.  Added benefit…it actually is less expensive then the grocery store!  I’ve also dabbled in growing my own. Since moving back to California, the climate makes gardening a joy but I was clearly a novice at growing vegetables. No one told me I had to pick a zucchini the moment I observed it’s growth.  Nor did I have the where with all to know I should rotate my crops every year (one year I had a great tomato harvest and the next only two sorry looking globes).  How quickly a generation or two loses the ability to know how to grow their own food.  In my family tree, it was only two generations ago they led an agrarian lifestyle.  It’s a good thing I didn’t have to rely on my farming skills to feed myself.

Perhaps I should have picked the zucchini a day earlier

This last summer however, I was clearly getting better at my gardening craft by making soil improvements and generated the most glorious tomato vines that just kept on giving. Yes! The more I researched to improve my skills, the better the pay off. I’ve now taken it to the next level with my winter vegetable garden.

After this weekend, my patch is now a raised vegetable garden with a removable covering to protect the plantings from our California heat.  I enlisted my husband’s help and researched the plans.  After two days of power tools, much digging, assistance from our dog Sammi and 90 degree heat we have a 50 square-foot redwood plot with spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, Swiss chard and herbs seedlings thriving in their new environment.  I’m already planning my winter meals around them.

Taking responsibility for myself has now become my hobby… not only am I’m loving it, I'm all the healthier for it!

If you want to build your own raised bed, these instructions were easy to follow and I'm pleased with the outcome:

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Eating Out - What's Your Preference?

Why is it I flinch when a friend of mine wants to eat at the same place, order the same thing and is more than okay eating at a chain restaurant versus a locally owned, creative hot spot?  Am I the only one who reacts the same way to his choices?  His other friends lovingly tease him about his predictable ways as well.

I have asked why he prefers his restaurant and menu choices.  It’s all about expectation. He likes going to a place where he knows exactly what he will get.  There is something comforting when he can rely on consistency and convenience.  Same wait staff, same lighting, same food, same portion size and so on.  Chain restaurants rely on people like him for their survival.

(Being fair, he does occasionally eat at locally owned eating spots but even then will order the same tried and true dishes.)

On the opposite end of the spectrum I have friends who do nothing but choose restaurants by the “eat locally, think globally” approach.  They are wanting the artisan experience or are trying to eat as healthfully as possible.  While the experience may be unpredictable, the potential reward is tremendous food, presentation and atmosphere.  More than likely, the ingredients will have been purchased through a local sustainable food source and the entrepreneurial spirit motivates the owners to succeed.  As a patron of a locally owned restaurant there is the joy of discovering it all.  The locally owned restaurant succeeds or fails based on whether or not they are able to meet those expectations.

In both cases, a restaurant's success or failure relies on its guests’ anticipated and actual experiences.

I’ve always thought of myself as the adventurous type.  Philosophically speaking, life is short and it is meant to be lived fully, with variety.  Experiencing another’s creativity feeds my soul and my tummy. But as I was preparing to order breakfast from my favorite mom & pop cafĂ© this last weekend, it dawned on me that while I am a strong supporter of the local guy who ends up supporting the local economy, I tend to order the same thing every time I go to a restaurant I’ve visited before.

Light bulb moment…I fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum!  Have I been hiding under the veil of something I thought I was?  It’s very strange to realize you are not living up to your self-described image.  Beginning with that meal, my challenge has been to remind myself to live it up and order something new.  I continue to be a work in progress.

I'll end with this thought, being mindful of a restaurant choice and the menu selections will only help you appreciate the experience all the more.  Most importantly, you will start to consciously create the person you aspire to be through your choices.  If only it were that simple given access and convenience and other motivating factors. 

Is there a right or wrong when it comes to our restaurant choices?  Where do you fall in the spectrum and why is that?

Here’s some interesting factoids to get you thinking from the National Restaurant Association’s list of the Top 20 Food Trends for 2010:
1. Locally grown produce
2. Locally sourced meats and seafood
3. Sustainability
4. Bite-size/mini desserts
5. Locally produced wine and beer
6. Nutritionally balanced children's dishes
7. Half-portions/smaller portion for a smaller price
8. Farm-/estate-branded ingredients
9. Gluten-free/food-allergy conscious
10. Sustainable seafood
11. Superfruits (e.g., acai, goji berry, mangosteen)
12. Organic produce
13. Culinary cocktails (e.g., savory, fresh ingredients)
14. Micro-distilled/artisan liquor
15. Nutrition/health
16. Simplicity/back to basics
17. Regional ethnic cuisine
18. Nontraditional fish (e.g., branzino, Arctic char, barramundi)
19. Newly fabricated cuts of meat (e.g., Denver steak, pork flatiron, Petite Tender)
20. Fruit/vegetable children's side items

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Kitchen Souvenirs

Summer vacation has unfortunately become a distant memory.  The planet has circled the sun and it's new position has brought about the fall of the year and it's routines.  Time marches on and the future is unknown.  But the things I have done, the places I have visited place a bookmark of sorts in the book that is my life.  My most well well-worn bookmarks are the vacations my husband and I have taken, traveling the world to the extent our budget allows.  Not to run the metaphor to death but sometimes the joy and happiness that bookmarks some vacation from long ago begins to sadly fade
with age.  How have I renewed the memories?

I had an epiphany this summer when I realized I do have triggers that give me the ability to gain back some of that treasured feeling.

In the recession-laden years, our vacations have been less frequent.  Because of this, it's more important than ever to find a way tap those feel good memories until the opportunity for the next adventure arrives.  My vacation escapades are a chance for me to experience a kindred spirit even though the people and cultures may be vastly different than my own.  I love being reminded we live in a global village and that we all have the same basic needs.

I never before had contemplated what I select as a typical souvenir.  For whatever reason I did give it consideration as I was buying my latest keepsake this summer.  The treasures I purchased were three small olive serving bowls created by a local artisan in Arcos De La Frontera, a tiny, but beautiful cliff side White Hills Town in Spain.  As with any of my purchases, I evaluated if I might be duplicating something I already owned.  I also asked myself, am I getting something unique?  In this summer's case, no, I had no olive serving dishes.  Perfect!

Olives in Spain

Souvenir Olive Serving Bowls

Last year we went to Maine.  What did I purchase?  Local homemade blueberry jam.  $7.00!  Before that a wine tasting weekend in the Central Valley of California, the purchase...handmade tea towels.  As
I really started to reflect on my purchasing trends (yes, I'm a research geek), more came to mind from my years of visiting different places.

Toothpicks are big in Japan!

  • A porcelain toothpick holder from Tokyo.  The metropolis can be overwhelming especially with the language barrier.  A challenging trip softened by the very helpful locals through hand gestures and a lot of pointing to select our menu choices.
  • A wooden salad bowl from pre-Katrina New Orleans.  I never use it and not think of the hurricane that forever changed the city.  I use it everyday.
  • My German China egg cup holders from Baden Baden, located in Bavaria on the Westside of the Black Forest.  The town is one of the very few left unharmed by the destruction of World War II.  A charming and grateful group of people.  These people know how to relax as they are the destination for spas and a casino.
  • A breadbasket handcrafted from a village woman I visited with in Fiji.  She had her baby strapped to her chest while we did our transaction.  Her weavings were her only source of income.
  • A hand painted teapot from Victoria, Canada.  My girlfriend Lizbeth and I took a girl trip there where she indulged my quest for the perfect teapot from the town known for their high teas.
  • Banana bread on the rustic road around the north side of Maui, Hawaii.  We brought it home and for the next few days we ate slices in near reverence in the mind space that is Hawaii.
  • A cookbook from the restaurant, La Posta in Las Cruces, NM.  Even though I was born and raised in San Diego, my first memory of Mexican food was here and left a lasting, positive impression.  My grandfather lived in Las Cruces and we took our family vacations there every summer.

Breadbasket handcrafted by a lovely woman in Fiji
As you can tell I'm not a big art collector, antique hunter, jewelry fanatic or general trinket gatherer.  Any armchair psychologist would probably tell you my souvenirs are practical in nature.  My acquisitions indeed are used in my everyday living.  But my souvenir purchase motivations are somehow more than just a practical item. In the final analysis, when I really considered what I brought home from vacation, my motivations are crystal clear. The moment I touch that item, it has the ability to transport me back to the day I bought it.  I have somehow captured the vacation spirit and the people I've met through those symbolic purchases.  That spirit and the former strangers now inspire my daily life and my food preparation.

I know I'm not the only one out there with this affinity.  Recently, a friend of mind shared how he and his wife, early in their French getaway, acquired a not so small cast iron pot and proceeded to carry it with them all across the French country side because it was cheaper than trying to ship it back to the States.  They must have really wanted that pot!  They wanted that pot for the very same reasons I made my purchases; to place a bookmark in a place and time that can evoke their memories every time they cook with it.

Do you have a special souvenir which takes you back to vacation mind-set?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Magic Remedy....Potstickers

Those of us who have lived in a large city occasionally dream about about the peace and quiet of living in a small town.  My husband, John, and I were in our second year of living in (and generally, loving)  Chicago but our patience with big city congestion was being put to the test.  The occasional overwhelming feeling of too many people, the claustrophobia of walls of tall buildings, excessive noise, traffic and long lines was just enough to push us to a decision to take an attractive job offer in the central part of Texas.  Small town life, here we come...y'all.

Within a month of the move, we realized we had made a mistake.  The town was too small for us.  First the porridge was too hot and now it's too cold.  We hadn't calculated in our love of all things big city life provides.  Those loves include theatre, museums, great restaurants, retail choices, parks and ... friends. 

Not only were we lonely we were bored silly.  Our default entertainment choices were the bookstore and a mom and pop video rental store.  Thank goodness for both.

One fall weekend, I rented a little unknown movie at the time called, "Tampopo."  This movie now makes some food writers Top 10 Food Movies of all time list.  If you are not familiar with this Japanese movie from 1985.  Here's a short summary without spoiling the ending. 

It's about a widowed mother who struggles to make ends meet by running a ramen shop.  One of her patrons tells her food is lousy but bonds enough with her and her son and decides to help her find the perfect ramen recipe.  Every time one of the actors slurped the next tested attempt at the perfect noodle soup, John and I were salivating.  Did you know there is an etiquette to slurping properly? 

Our next video foray was "Eat Drink Man Woman."  It's a story about a Chinese Chef who makes elaborate Sunday dinners for his daughters.  Between these two movies, we were starting to get desperate for some great Asian food.   Searching our little town's restaurants high and low, we couldn't seem to satisfy our craving.  Next stop, the trusty bookstore.

There were many cookbook choices, but within the pages of a thin paperback titled, Chinese Cooking at the Academy, we found our life-line out of tedium and into the world of Asian cooking.   The book had recipes we had enjoyed in restaurants and new things we never heard of.  It had an extensive list of tools and pantry items one would need to successfully make the tasty Chinese dishes it contained.  Onto the outlet mall!  I remember the date, December 26, 1995.  First purchase?  A wok!

Our first attempt was Kung Pao Chicken.  It would have been fantastic first dish had I realized you weren't supposed to actually chop the red peppers the recipe called for.  We tried it again the next night and got it right.  The flavors were tantalizing. 

A few days later it's New Year's Eve.  No party or friends to celebrate with, my husband and I turned to each other and decided to try something a bit more complicated from the cookbook. We chose pork and vegetable potstickers.  We had never heard of bok choy and neither had the good folks at the local supermarket, but after a bit of searching we had bok choy and all the other ingredients we needed to create these little fried/steamed dumplings.  The prep and cooking required every available utensil, burner, pot and pan we owned at the time.  Even the oven got in the act.

What beauties we created!  And the taste?  Stunning.

By the time the following New Year's rolled around we abandoned the small town and moved to the "Big D," Dallas, TX.  We decided to throw a 2nd Annual "New Year's Potsticker Bash."  We invited our next door neighbors, a young couple named Lee and Jennifer, to help in the festivities.  What a bonding experience cooking is.  And with potstickers, there are jobs a plenty.  Mixing the stuffing, folding the wontons into the proper shape, trimming the ends, one person to fry and another to steam. 

We enjoyed Tsing Tao beer along the way, laughed, cooked and even improved upon the recipe.  We established lifelong friends that New Year's day.   When their friends and family finally came to visit, forget all that the "Big D" had to offer, it was potstickers they wanted.  Our potstickers.  We were game...bring it on!   What started with John and I now grew to 8 people crowding into our little Dallas kitchen busily involved with the making of the tiny dumplings.  Our reputation as the potsticker experts snowballed from there.

Over the years, we've repeated those scenes many times and continue to enjoy our potstickers and our friends.  The dumplings definitely rank as one of our better dishes.  One night over 20 people came over for "Potstickers Night" and everyone left bonded and full!

But more importantly, the shared cooking experiences refocused us.  Gone was our boredom and loneliness.  Say hello to the joy of self creation and the joy of bringing people together.  Many times when we reflect on our decision to move to that small town, we've struggled to come up with what good came out of that experience.  Usually we've come up dry.  Today, upon reflection, we discovered that for us to overcome something negative, we had to get proactive.  We may not have known what the final outcome would be, but our journey has been so fulfilling.  Our answer now to the question, "What good came out of the small town experience?"  It's...Potstickers!

Consider the following a bit of a post-script.  I was searching the thousands of pictures on my hard drive for candid shots of past potsticker nights.  None exist because when one is up to one's wrists in potsticker filling and laughing away, taking photos is not top of mind.  The next time John and I do potstickers we will document the event with photos and will update this post.

If you have a favorite food movie, book or food inspiration, please post a comment.  Your experience will surely plant the seed for someone else.

Top 10 Food Movies article from LA Weekly:

Top 10 Food Movies from Epicurious:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Recipe is Merely a Suggestion

By day I am a resourceful, solution-oriented manager.  By night I go home and meditatively prepare a nice meal.  I freely admit my natural tendency in the kitchen is to follow a recipe to the letter. My practical nature believes someone else has tested the recipe so it must be proven. Why mess with a good thing? The short answer I have come to realize is it's somewhat limiting and not terribly creative.

Step into my kitchen moments before I begin to actually cook a meal. Every measurable portion, the oil, spices, water, milk, salt and pepper is already measured and placed in it's own container ready to be added at the exact moment the recipe calls for it. I am the Alton Brown in our household.  Each step choreographed -- in the right place.

Watch my husband John cook. He measures spices in his hand and dumps them in. If the recipe calls for 1/2 cup of soy sauce, he'll add 3/4 or so. I don't really know for sure because he just pours it straight from the bottle. "That should be about right," is often heard.  Think of him as Emeril.  Bam!

We both consistently make good meals and we've both had failures. Our only difference is process.

When we cook together, John intuitively can sense my discomfort at his process.  He calmly volunteers the recipe is "merely a suggestion."
Yet, I continue to methodically follow recipes. One would think I would have learned when the occasional disastrous creation I labored over disproved my ingrained "it's tested it must be good" theory.

What could break this cycle of mine? It turns out the answer would be found outside the kitchen. Swing dancing lessons provided the path.

I grew up dancing, mostly for musical theater. Everything was choreographed. But in partner dance, especially the swing dance steps I was learning, I had to release the choreographed dancer's mind set. As a woman it is my role to follow the man's lead but I found myself leading my rotating dance partners during lessons.

A few insistent "Stop leading!!" comments and I finally got it.

Low and behold, what joy I found in the unexpected. Letting someone else guide the next dance moves so spontaneously, put me in a state of immediacy and surprisingly showed me it's possible to do a move you never expected to do. It was exhilarating!

After repeated experiences at dancing in this new way, it dawned on me I was also releasing my tight grip in other aspects in my life....including cooking! Cooking has always been a meditative process for me, but now it's also joyful. I can now say I really appreciate what The Joy of Cooking is all about.
And when my husband and I create meals together now, it feels like we are dancing!

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