Friday, November 27, 2009

Perfect timing

Isn't it ironic that the times when families gather for food and celebration are perhaps the most stressful, drama-inducing days of the year? I base my calculation on experience, of course, and welcome replies to the contrary. The problem, in my view, is not that they are indeed stressful and dramatic, but that we expect them to be anything but.

We have a Pollyanna view of the holidays, painted by cultural expression. Ultimately, these days can be a huge letdown if one element of the experience is "negative," i.e. a dish doesn't turn out, an awkward moment occurs between family members out of touch for 98 percent of the year, siblings clash, or emotional conversations creep up that have long since needed to.

Isn't it a rare day when all seems peaceful and bright? But that's okay. The point isn't for the gathering to remain free of tension, awkwardness, or other unpleasantness. We should let go of idealistic notions of happy-go-lucky, sepia-toned nostalgia. Holidays should be welcomed, not because they elude negativity, but for their revelations: They jolt us—to reflect, to converse, to balance, to indulge...what we should but rarely do on the other non-holidays of the year.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Meating my life away

2009, as fast as it's gone, has offered results a long time coming. Maybe I'll call it my reaping year, which—like leap years or full moons—come once every four turns (or, for me, possibly eight or sixteen).

Among the changes I've embraced is one that I see sticking with me—my relationship to meat.

While in New York, I discovered food journalist and cookbook author Mark Bittman. And earlier this year Bittman’s latest book Food Matters found its way to my bedside table.

Its premise is simple: Eat more plants. Cut back on meat. Help your body (makes sense) and the environment (come again?). It’s a no brainer that meat has more fat, sodium, and caloric content than plants. Thus, cutting down one’s meat intake will lessen the work the body has to do to break it down (and will lessen that pesky arterial plaque which can lead to heart disease).

Okay, fair enough. I am concerned with my health—reason one to consider changing my diet. But animals—some of my favorite people—and environmental protection are further bait. Bittman enlightened me: Animals raised industrially are done so in the harshest conditions, often in overcrowded lots, sometimes concrete, and fed diets of corn and soy, and even meat, which are nutritionally wrong yet economically sound for farmers. And to keep their stock healthy, they often pump them with antibiotics, which in turn make their way into our bodies, weakening our systems’ receptivity to such medicines. Heart attacks and antibiotic immunity? We truly are what we eat.

But enough about me. And the animals. Let’s consider our land. Fifty percent of U.S. farmland is devoted to corn and soy crops, which aren’t grown to alleviate hunger, but which are pumped into the bodies of cattle, chickens, and pigs—not to mention sugar-saturated grocery aisles full of high-fructose, partially hydrogenated fluff. (After-school snack, anyone?)

These insights were the kickers for me. Among others that Bittman shares:

“It doesn’t take a genius to see that an ever-growing population cannot continue to devote limited resources to produce ever-increasing amounts of meat, which takes roughly ten times more energy to produce than plants. Nor can you possibly be ‘nice’ to animals, or respectful of them, when you’re raising and killing them by the billions.

And it doesn’t take a scientist, either, to know that a handful of peanuts is better for you than a Snickers bar, that food left closer to its natural state is more nutritious than food that has been refined within an inch of its life, and that eating unprecedented quantities of animals who have been drugged and generally mistreated their entire lives isn’t good for you.”

Sobering words. But, all said, this doesn't mean that meat—locally and humanely raised meat—is totally out of my life. I have simply reevaluated the sources of my food and my consumption of it, becoming more aware of my impact on the planet—and its impact on me—one bite at a time.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A brief history

It's lately been a whirlwind of meals, conversations, thinking, and writing. Like a child (or an old, old woman), I steer in Pollockesque gestures.

I'm okay with that.

A history of the past two months, in photographs.

Farmers' Market

Shrimp 'n' grits

Slow-roasted pork, black beans, rice, plantains,
shrimp in sweet-savory broth

Green bell pepper and Gala apple

Smoked mackerel and caramelized onion bruschetta
with Genoa salami

Spinach salad with tomato, cheddar, and feta

"Cosmic dog," with sweet-potato mustard and bleu-cheese slaw; "Planet dog," with Jamaican relish and yellow mustard; shoestring fries
Mount Pleasant

Sweet-potato Belgian waffle with sorghum syrup
and pecan butter


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Full service

I was still buzzed from morning java when I headed for afternoon caffeine at Greenville’s Coffee and Crema on South Pleasantburg. I’d recently read about its expertly pulled shots and decorative latté—reconstructions of top-quality beans from Durham, NC's, gifted purveyor, Counter Culture Coffee—and was hoping to find a stand-in for my city cappuccino.

But thinking of Coffee and Crema threw my mind to another fresh-faced spot—Coffee to a Tea—in West Greenville. When I walked into the sunny shop (once a mom-and-pop diner, features still visible through artsy-eclectic décor), two young women (presumably the owners) were chatting up a patron leaning casually against the bar and flipping through a magazine. The man, I learned, lives in the neighborhood and comes daily for fellowship, banter, and maybe a fresh cup. You see, instead of setting up shop in a posh ’hood or downtown storefront, the owners opted for a lower-income area, one that looks amber-preserved circa 1965—a commercial ghost-town, where the city’s less privileged make their homes.

And then it hit me: These women—entrepreneurs, bakers, coffee mavens—are public servants. And their shop is more than meets the eye: part gallery for local artists, part classroom for nutrition and sustainable foods (everything, from the homemade cakes to the chocolate for the mochas, is all natural. Plus, coffee comes from West End Coffee, bagels from Greenfield’s, milk from Happy Cow Creamery), and part melting pot—classes and cultures converge for fresh coffee.

I often consider the relativity of my interests, my work—how best I can package them to serve. Coffee to a Tea reminds that a food business not only offers culinary and gustatory pleasure: It is a crossroads of diversity, history, information. And that’s what I call exceptional service.

(By the by, I found my cappuccino’s counterpart at Coffee and Crema—whose charming owner serves great conversation and an endless knowledge of the bean, along with fine espresso.)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Marking time

Spring has me considering things old and new.

We've had resplendent weather this April, with a mean storm now and again. Such lovely days make it hard to imagine being anywhere else. Beautiful weather floors me. My senses go wild, and I want to hold on to every waking moment. Such concentration is exhausting. I don't know what it is with me lately, but I've been adamant, downright stubborn, about not letting go: I want to jar everything beautiful (good and bad). I think I've hit my stage of revolt: Time is going too fast!

The other day I received a package from a dear friend. She and I had the pleasure and privilege of studying in Cortona, Italy, for fall semester 2002. During a recent conversation, she mentioned that she was digitizing Cortona photographs and that I should expect a package of prints in the coming weeks.

That stack was more than I bargained for. I was floored by time.

Who knows what latent interests/knowledge we have? I've probably always had a culinary penchant. It wasn't until Cortona, however, that my interest was piqued. Maybe it was the slower pace of life, a focus on mealtime, with its hours-long pace and devotion to courses and conversation. Perhaps it was the bounty of fresh produce, cheeses, olives, chocolate, small markets, specialty shops, one-euro cappuccino. Whatever the reasons, they tapped into that latent love, and I discovered the pleasure of food.

Years later, I understood its importance for marking time. I once read that a man remembered his wine by assigning a different image to its taste. A deep cabernet would evoke dark woods on a snowy night—or something of the sort. My brain works oppositely: Those dumplings? Sheer heaven in June '05. The weather was pristine, and I walked up from Chinatown in my pink tank and cocoa-brown pants.

Looking through those photographs was bittersweet. My friend's keen eye captured moments that escaped my photo-journey, so I was glad to have her records for the gaps. But more than this, I was saddened by the fact that I saw myself in time, in moments that I have forgotten. I was there! I stood there. I looked angry, or hot, or elated, or captivated. How could I not remember? Why didn't such precious time matter?

Maybe it did for a while. But (to be clichéd), everything has its season. Memories, too, have their temporal arcs. They begin, grow, peak, recede, and—eventually—die. I probably should leave the process alone. Let the mind age.

With attention and care, it should only get better by year.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Fresh, direct

Life is complicated. But sometimes I make matters worse. Is it because I get high from problem solving? Find beauty in tension? Enjoy cleaning? (Too much, actually.)

Or is it to heighten the pleasure of simple moments? Simple = whole, balanced, soul-satisfying.

The other day, as I was cracking eggs for my first frittata (Blair's first frittata, age 27.8), I had my moment, smack dab in the springtime kitchen. Late-afternoon light through the cracked window, that gorgeous golden light washing the open, peaceful space. The tomato, fragrant rosemary, eggs, the freshly grated Parmesan, buttery cheddar, and grassy brie—so direct, so simple, so fine.

My mind may feed on conundrums. But this sublime simplicity is even finer.

Vegetable Frittata
(Courtesy Julianna Pletcher)

1 cup diced baking potato
1/4 cup water
1 Tbs olive oil or butter
6 scallions (green onions), white and some green parts, thinly sliced
1 cup loosely packed, fresh spinach leaves, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup fresh basil and parsley, chopped (note: I substituted fresh rosemary, chopped, about a tablespoon worth)
6 large eggs
3 Tbs milk
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and ground pepper, about 1/4 tsp each or to taste
1-2 Roma tomatoes, thinly sliced
2-3 ounces of crumbled goat cheese (note: I used brie and Wisconsin cheddar, but I'm sure that goat cheese would be divine. If you're in the area, pick up yours here.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place potato and 1/4 cup water in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover with a loose lid and microwave on high for four minutes or until tender, stirring once. Or, boil potatoes on the stovetop until tender. Drain and set aside. Then, heat a medium (10- to 12-inch) cast-iron skillet, or a nonstick, ovenproof skillet. Add oil or butter and green onion. Sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add potatoes, spinach, and herbs and continue to cook for 3-4 minutes. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, Parmesan, salt and pepper. Turn off the heat. Pour the egg mixture into the skillet and stir gently to combine. Cover the handle with foil if it isn't ovenproof. Place the skillet in the oven and cook for 15-20 minutes until set, then remove it and set the oven temperature to broil. Top the frittata with tomato slices and extra cheese, if desired. Broil for 4-5 minutes, or until the eggs are set and the cheese melts. Cut into six wedges and serve. Could also be served at room temperature. Feel free to incorporate other veggies, like asparagus, bell pepper, onion, swiss chard, zucchini, etc.

Omnivores can throw in sausage, pancetta, or prosciutto. (But why complicate?)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Escape (roots)

Much of our experience with food (or at least my experience) centers on the idea of escape. (This isn't going to turn into a self-help diatribe.) What I mean is that I often turn to recipes or restaurants that transport me from the mundane. Lately, I have been pining for my big-city staples, as it's hard to step across the street here in South Carolina for my favorite diner eats. But even in New York, I wanted to elevate, i.e. escape, my experience by continuously trying new and eclectic cuisine. For less than a tank, in the matter of a night, I could travel to the far reaches of the Middle East and back: Behold the power of hummus.

Keeping a blog has its benefits. Beyond its value as an immediate and low-maintenance way of exchanging ideas, it is forcing me to hone my thoughts and extract them. Among the realizations that I've come upon in recent weeks is instead of pursuing avenues of escape—my most foot-worn being food—I should be as present as possible. Open my eyes and mind to the South's cultural and culinary bounty.

But maybe I shouldn't be so hard on myself. After all, we all are searching—craving enlightening and enlivening experiences different (or what we perceive as different) from our own. Who doesn't appreciate tapas? To be offered myriad delectable options for composing the most tongue-tantalizing experience possible? I want the tapas of my life to be culturally, ethnically, professionally, and personally distinct, daring, dense, and delicious. Escape is okay, necessary even, as long as I remember where I am.

I will start here. And go from there.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Worth at least 301 words

Consider the importance of food.

Take, for instance, this photo of...? Ice cream probably comes to mind: The concoction looks like a white, creamy glop topped with caramel drizzle (not to mention a maraschino cherry), flanked by parlor spoons.

Assumption will not get you far.

In reality, this unassuming, somewhat dull-looking edible is actually Shey-tsi, a signature Tibetan dessert (minus the cherry) offered at Tsampa, one of my favorite New York City restaurants and a former East Village haunt. The white glob is, in fact, a tangy, rather piquant yogurt, smothering one of the most delicious and complex cakes that I have ever tasted. The brown-sugar-kissed sweet is made from tsampa, or roasted barley flour, a staple in Tibet (think corn in America). Unlike our American counterparts made with enriched wheat, or no flour at all, the barley gives this cake a dense, grainy texture. It may be the only dish at Tsampa with tsampa as an ingredient, but no matter: The cuisine is superb, heavily influenced by Chinese and Indian food, as well as Japanese and Thai (for good measure).

In New York, I would often photograph my favorite dishes. Sorting through, I see that I have dozens more of food than of friends. Nothing against my beloved dining companions, but it’s just that beyond the frame, I can see them. I know the dim and din of the restaurant, the purr of the cab outside. This food reminds me of me in a city where I no longer live, but the essence of which I carry—full tilt—every day. It reminds me of what I focused on in New York, what the city brought out in me (or of me), what was missing.

All this, plus the fact that eating is joy, pure and simple.

Funny how food—a gloppy mess, at that—can be so potent. But this is food for me.