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

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