Archive for the ‘Personal Essay’ Category

Saving the planet with jalapeño poppers

February 1, 2013

Looking to save the planet? Apparently, jalapeño poppers will take care of that.

Browsing around on line, I ran across a recipe geared towards that great orgy of sports and entertainment, the Super Bowl. “Cheap, Sustainable, Delicious: Jalapeño Poppers” the headline promised.

Sustainable? While the article didn’t mention what, exactly, made them sustainable, it did look like a nice, easy recipe for a popular food that can contain upwards of 50 ingredients in commercially, mass-produced versions (Sodium Hexametaphosphate, anyone?). Compare that to the recipe’s nine ingredients, all easily pronounced and requiring no reference materials, and – yes – they are, in comparison, sustainable. But really, is that the draw? And, really, does making Super Bowl snack decisions based on perceived sustainability make any sense?

One of my guilty pleasures over the past couple of weeks has been watching the breast beating and cries of remorse over quinoa. The problem? Apparently, new first world demand for the vile little grain has risen so much that it’s now priced out-of-range for the Bolivian and Peruvian people who have relied upon it for centuries as an important source of protein.

“Quinoa was, in marketing speak, the ‘miracle grain of the Andes’,” reported the Guardian last month,”a healthy, right-on, ethical addition to the meat avoider’s larder (no dead animals, just a crop that doesn’t feel pain). Consequently, the price shot up – it has tripled since 2006 – with more rarified black, red and ‘royal’ types commanding particularly handsome premiums.”

Premiums that Andean peasants can’t afford.

In our drive to find food, or just about anything really, that doesn’t harm the planet or ourselves, we go to bizarre lengths. Importing grains from thousands of miles away seems perfectly reasonable to otherwise smart people, despite the fact that there are countless meatless sources of protein available to us here in the United States. (Who am I to criticize? I think nothing of buying Chilean wine and Indian tea.)

The problem I have with those jalapeño poppers? It’s not the recipe. It’s certainly not the encouragement to make something from scratch. It’s the heavy dose of dogma (season to taste). For anyone looking to reduce their carbon footprint or to simply live with slightly less impact on others around them, cooking from scratch is the way to go. For anyone who simply likes real food, rather than something frozen in a pouch, cooking from scratch is the only way to go.

So, enjoy the Super Bowl. Enjoy the poppers. But, for everyone’s’ sake, go easy on the dogma. That stuff’ll kill ya.

Gazpacho, linguistics, and supply-and-demand

July 9, 2012

What does it mean when an item is sold for less than the price you’re used to paying? It’s a quick little lesson in the laws of supply and demand, is what it is.

I found myself in a Spanish supermarket yesterday, conducting my first real grocery shopping expedition since arriving in Barcelona last week. My list of things to buy was short: tomatoes, a cucumber, a pepper, bread, onions, garlic, and vinegar and olive oil. You may recognize these as the ingredients for gazpacho which, given the July heat here on the Mediterranean coast, was my goal for the day.

Vegetables were the easy part. I bought what I needed, including bright red tomatoes from Almeria, on Spain’s even hotter southeastern coast. I found them at the Mercat Llibertat, the public market near my temporary digs in Barcelona’s Gracia neighborhood. There were plenty of choices to choose from as far as fruits and vegetables and meat were concerned, but if I was going to buy olive oil and vinegar, I would have to go to the other side of the market, which contained a supermarket rather than the open stalls run by independent vendors.

I made my way to the store’s selection of oils and vinegars and what I found surprised me: everything was cheap. Cheap, in other words, in comparison to what I was used to paying back in San Francisco. Suddenly, my yardstick for determining the potential quality of the product I wanted was gone. Was a three euro bottle of olive oil as good as, or worse than, an otherwise cheap 12-dollar bottle back California?

Brand names didn’t help here as I wasn’t familiar with them. A quick glance at the vinegars didn’t help, either. I wanted a nice bottle of sherry vinegar but, again, they were all cheap in comparison to what I would have paid back in the States. Instead, I left the store with a few other purchases, and decided I needed help.

I found the help in a small xarcuteria and butcher shop just behind the market on the Placa de Llibertat. In broken Spanish, I asked a woman working there if there were a place nearby to buy high quality olive oil and vinegars. There is, she said, and – thankfully – slowly, she directed to another shop two blocks away.

For some reason, I’m surprised by people’s generosity with foreigners. I don’t know why it surprises me: I take great pleasure, myself, in giving directions or offering help to foreign visitors to my own city. For the past several days, people have been enormously kind and patient with my poor Spanish even going so far as to politely correct my grammar – explaining the proper way to get my point across.

Just a day or two ago, I was walking down Carrer d’Asturies, a narrow pedestrian-only street lined with bars and shops and restaurants, and stopped at an ice cream shop for something to drink. The woman behind the counter took my order for an orxata, the rich but thin rice drink which I knew from Mexico but which, to my surprise, originated in Valencia (The Mexican version is typically flavored more generously with cinnamon).

“Puedo tener un orxata gran,” I said, dramatically blowing my cover with everything from my pronunciation to my accent.

She smiled, got my drink, and then handing it to me, explained that in Spanish, I didn’t need to use the indefinite article and that “puedo tener orxata” was, actually, the correct way to ask. She also, I think, noted that I was mixing languages. “Gran” is Catalan for large and, indeed, the sign I was reading from was in Catalan, but I was ordering in Spanish so “grande” would be the correct choice. All the while, she was smiling and this was no rushed correction. She was taking time out for me and I was grateful.

But back to my search for good oil and vinegar. I found the shop to which the woman at the deli had directed me. Inside the small shop, the store’s lone employee greeted me from behind a small counter, surrounded by high shelves filled with bottles and cans of numerous foodstuffs.

So far, I begin nearly all my conversations in Spain with “Hola! Mi español es muy malo.”  The store clerk, of course, would have none of it and cheerily lying through his teeth, complimented me on the  fracturing of his language. From there, I continued to the point of my visit: “Buscando bueno aceite y…” and I stopped because I realized I had forgotten the word for vinegar.

“En inglés,” he encouraged me.

“Buscando bueno aceito y vinegar para gazpacho,” I said.


I felt like an idiot. “Si. Vinagre.”

He just smiled and directed me to a shelf filled with bottles of both. I was surprised by the small difference in prices at his shop and those at the supermarket. His prices were a few euros more, but the selection was better and the products were from smaller producers. He began pointing out a few that were better for gazpacho. He suggested one bottle of oil in particular.

I asked – I forget how – if its flavor was fruity but he said I wanted something a little more astringent, peppery. I bought the oil – 750 liters for about nine euros – and a bottle of sherry vinegar for about four.

Back in California, of course, I’d been buying different olive oils for their different flavors. Less assertively flavored oils are better for cooking but I do like the variety others offer, too. Some are simply better for salads or for flavoring various dishes but, as olive oil isn’t the culinary staple it is here in Spain, the prices reflect the smaller quantities – and variety – available there.

That’ll take some getting used to but it also means being able to sample a larger variety of oils and vinegars here without breaking the bank, or sin hacer saltar la banca.

Cooking for Friends

January 11, 2011

I hadn’t seen Phillip in at least a few months when he called me earlier this week. Schedules fill up, obligations take over, and before you know it, you and your friends exist in completely different dimensions. Let’s have dinner, I said, and we made plans to go out.

Despite those plans, the urge for soup had overcome me. It’s been cold in San Francisco lately – San Francisco cold, mind you, but it’s damp and 49 degrees seeps into you in a way the cold in Alaska never did – and I had a full container of dried canellini beans and a fresh bunch of kale and somehow the day just called for soup. I put the beans on to soak after giving them a quick boil and made my way to the produce market to grab a few extra items for dinner: a baguette, a bottle of pinot grigio, and a pound of Italian sausage.

As the afternoon progressed, the soup began coming together. In addition to chicken stock – store bought, I have to confess even though there was freshly made stock in the freezer –  I added onions, garlic, rosemary, oregano, and a bay leaf and let them simmer for a while along with the beans. I began thinking of serving dessert, too, and found a friend’s recipe for a citrus cake  except that I didn’t have limes or lemons but I did have blood oranges, and I began pulling that together, too.

Eventually, sausage and carrots and kale made their way into the soup and I mashed up some of the beans to thicken it, the cake was baked and then drenched with a syrup of orange juice and sugar, and Phillip arrived, pleased to find out he’d be eating homemade – he’s not a cook – rather than going out. The apartment was filled with the smells of soup and baking. I poured some wine, pulled the baguette from the oven, and began dishing out the soup. I’d already placed a small Japanese rice bowl filled with black and green olives on the table and we began to eat.

The conversation, freed from the rigors of trying to figure out where to go for dinner, flowed and we caught up on our activities of the past few months. I’d been traveling and he had lots of questions about Mexico and I told him about Tijuana and what an ugly city it is but how lively and wonderful it is, too. We talked about the concerts I saw there and the galleries and the museum and the food and I promised to show him photos from both my trips there.

The soup was good – more rosemary and some lemon would have made it better – and Phillip was pleased with the kale. We drank more wine and ate more olives and then it was on to dessert and photos of Tijuana and Naples and Capri and the discussion about aging parents and relatives.

The soup, I think, facilitated all the talking. Soup does that, especially thick wintery soups.

Nothing like nothing in the larder

July 7, 2010

If there are any notable challenges to the creative cook, poverty probably ranks the highest. There’s nothing like nothing in the larder to truly inspire a cook to new levels of culinary greatness.

Take this evening, for example. Still waiting on payments from a web site which shall remain nameless, I found myself rummaging through the refrigerator looking for something to make for dinner. Last night, I made a pretty tasty sweet potato and chickpea soup (which included green apple, shallots, corn, cilantro, garlic, and jalapeño) with a pan of corn bread but after eating the soup for lunch today, as well, I wasn’t really in the mood for another helping.

Actually, photographing the damned noodles and fussing with the lighting was probably more difficult than actually making them.

What else was available? Not much. Then I remembered I still had a couple of eggs in the refrigerator. I had flour. And olive oil, and capers, and sage growing on the windowsill in the kitchen. There was still a chunk of Romano cheese, too. Dinner just sort of presented itself.

I learned how to make handmade pasta several years ago but I’ve been making it with more frequency in the past couple of years. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I spent a couple of hours with the kids at my temple teaching them how to make noodles from scratch. It’s a useful skill to have and, anyway, few things rival the simple pleasure of fresh, homemade pasta.

It took me about 20 minutes to make a batch of fettuccine using my hand cranked pasta machine. Before I threw it into the pot to boil, I picked several leaves of sage from my windowsill herb garden and then, after cutting them into a fine chiffonade, I tossed them into a skillet filled with about three tablespoons of olive oil heating up over a low flame. I rinsed off a couple tablespoons of the salted capers I bought while I was in Italy and added those to the oil, too.

While the herbs sizzled gently in the pan, I dumped the noodles into the pot of boiling, salted water I had going on the other side of the stove, stirring them to prevent them from sticking together (unless you hang the freshly made noodles on racks or toss them with flour, they have an annoying tendency to cling to one another as severely as if they were suffering from abandonment issues). Fresh noodles, of course, take very little time to cook. That gave me just enough time to grate about half a cup of Romano cheese and to crush some black pepper.

In a few minutes, the noodles were done. I drained them, returned them to the pot, and then poured the hot oil and herbs over the pile of pasta. I added the pepper, and then – stirring the noodles all the while – added the grated cheese, bit by bit.

Dinner was ready. Inexpensive? Oh, yeah. I figure about 45 cents for the flour, 33 cents for the eggs, 16 cents for the olive oil, and another 40 cents or so for the cheese – as well as for the capers –  and the whole meal probably cost me $1.74.

Being broke doesn’t mean one has to eat badly but eating well on a budget running in negative digits does require a certain amount of skill.

Fresh Chicken

February 24, 2010

Apples on display at the Civic Center Farmers' Market.

At the Civic Center farmers’ market today I ran across something I hadn’t noticed before. Outside the row of stalls selling everything from cheese, fish, and flowers to choi sum, kari leaves, and blood oranges, was a truck covered in tarps.

It was partially covered, actually, with a tarp draped across one side and extending over the top of the bed, and a small, portable pavilion had been set up in front to give the vendors and customers a place to stand and conduct business out of the drizzle that had been falling all morning. The vendor, a beefy Latino guy with a thin mustache and deep brown skin, was selling live chickens.

Held in crates too low for them to stand up, the Rhode Island reds sat three or four to a cage, stacked at least six or seven crates high, nervously watching as a woman pulled them from their confines. She reached into one cage and pulled out an obviously nervous bird.  I assumed at that point it was headed to the chopping block – that’s not true, I was actually waiting for her wring its neck – but, instead, she tucked the clucking hen gently into a paper grocery bag, folded over the top to close it, and then handed it to the man who then passed it over to a customer.

His customers were almost all Chinese: small women with short, sensible, no-nonsense haircuts and the standard-issue fleece jacket sold to tourists who never expected San Francisco to be as cold as it often is, with a stylized “SF” embroidered on the breast. As I watched, one woman was crouched down, tucking a full paper bag into a plastic bag with handles which would be easier to carry. She would, later that day probably, kill the bird at home for dinner that evening. You don’t get much fresher than that.

Five years ago, I managed an apartment building in Nob Hill, just a couple blocks outside Chinatown. Many of my tenants, as well as my neighbors in other buildings, were Chinese. I had only lived in San Francisco less than two years at that point and was even newer to the neighborhood.

Working in an empty apartment one afternoon, repairing a window, I was surprised by the sudden sound of a chicken clucking. I opened the window on which I had been working a little farther and leaned my head out into the light well. Several long moments later, I heard it again. The chicken sounds were coming from an apartment on the fourth floor, where Mrs. Fang lived.

I knew that many Chinese – and Latinos – often bought live chickens to slaughter at home. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that the tenants who lived in the small but comfortable studios in my building were doing it, too. As a kid, my family had raised chickens on our small farm and I tended to think of slaughtering chickens as a fairly messy business best done outdoors. But, no, when one’s total acreage consisted of about 450 to 500 square feet on the fourth floor of a 99-year old apartment building, one made do with what one had.

I heard nothing else after several moments and returned to my work. The doomed bird would end up, no doubt, as the centerpiece of dinner that evening, perhaps as salt-baked chicken, or in a rich soup. The next morning, hauling out the trash to be picked up by the city, I saw no feathers, nor any other signs of the poultricide that had taken place the day before. In fact, over the next couple of years, I never found any hints of other animals being dispatched in the building. The home-butchering was quiet, tidy, and discreet. It was just as well: we didn’t allow pets, anyway.

A Sign of Good Things To Come

February 4, 2010
At the moment – at this very moment – I’m broke. Like freelance writers everywhere, I am dependent upon the whims of editors and their bookkeepers to ensure I receive payment for my work. Unlike many freelancers, I know how to cook and that makes my life a little easier.

Part of the beauty of knowing how to cook, even in the face of abject poverty – whether it is temporary or long term – is knowing how to make the best of sometimes very limited ingredients. If I have staples on hand, I feel secure. Even in the direst of circumstances, I can at least turn out a solid meal that will not only sustain me physically – hunger is hell on the body – but emotionally. Dreary food is hell on the spirit.

Tonight, I made one of the dishes I grew up with, pinto beans and corn bread. I love beans and I make damned good corn bread. What I love about beans and corn bread, even more than its tiny impact on my budget, is that even when I’m feeling flush, I still love to cook it. Even when money is the very least of my worries, a pot of beans simmering away on the stove top with a ham hock or two bobbing about amidst the legumes is remarkably reassuring. It is comforting in the way a warm house is comforting when one comes in from the cold, or comforting as the return of a loved one is after a long, unsure absence.

Corn bread, too, baking in the oven is a source of surety. Pouring the batter into a scalding iron skillet – hearing it sizzle and watching it bubble around the edges of the pan as it hits the melted fat – is a call not only to the taste buds but a wealth of scents and sounds. Corn bread is enveloping comfort at its best. Simple to make with none of the fussiness of yeast breads, corn bread’s gritty bite is substantial with flavor and nourishment and reliability.

Once the bread is done and the beans are finished simmering, I love to dunk the buttery slices of bread into the pot liquor, letting them soak up as much liquid as possible while still being able to get the piece into my mouth before it disintegrates from the weight of the juices. I always eat too much corn bread when I serve it with beans; the combination of flavors is irresistible.

I wasn’t aware that not everyone felt as highly about beans, or corn bread, until I was living on my own. A woman with whom I was friendly and I met on the street. This was in my hometown, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and I must have stepped out to pick up something because I had beans cooking on the stove at home and in the course of chatting, I invited her over for dinner.

“Oh, no,” she insisted. “I’m planning on making curry. Come to my house, instead.” I remember, too, she was from Illinois, or someplace like that, and like many of my friends was a student at the university. I did have dinner with her at her house, but I was disappointed she seemed so uninterested in what I had planned. Beans and corn bread, I came to realize, was not a dish highly prized by everyone.

Nearly 25 years after that encounter, though, I still prize them and tonight, even with an empty checking account and a sense of impatience as I wait for the mail carrier to push those highly anticipated checks through the mail slot in the door to my flat, I feel that same sense of satisfied pleasure that only comes with a meal one truly enjoys. Beans and corn bread mean everything is, and is going to be, just fine.

Bear With It

January 28, 2010

“One of the secrets of cooking is to learn to correct something if you can,” wrote Julia Child, “and bear with it if you cannot.”

Kitchen disasters are part of the experience of learning to cook. If you’re paying attention, you should be able to derive some lesson from the whole affair and come out of it a better, more experienced cook (Arguably, had anyone been paying attention in the first place, we might not be having this discussion).

Last October or maybe even into November, some California farms were still producing strawberries and raspberries, but it was the end of the season and the quality, while nice, wasn’t like those of the first of the season. Wandering through the farmers’ market at Civic Center, I ran across one booth where they were selling both kinds of berries for roughly a buck a pint. I took home about four-and-a-half or five pints, deciding right away I’d just make them into preserves. Good idea but poor delivery, as it happened.

Using a recipe for preserves from my 1964 edition of “Joy of Cooking” – I wanted a very basic recipe – I combined the berries and sugar together in a pot and simmered them together for a while. One of the things that struck me was that the recipe didn’t call for pectin. Strawberries, too, aren’t particularly rich in pectin, and while I knew all this, I failed to do the one thing that would have helped: I didn’t add any pectin (Often, I’ll just grate apple into the mixture taking advantage of its high levels of pectin). Call it hope or just call it laziness, but the recipe called for enough sugar that I was reasonably sure the preserves would gel just fine.

They didn’t, of course.

I canned them anyway and I’m glad I did. I’ve been using the sweet berry mixture as an addition to baked goods and just about anything else that happens to need a serious shot of fruit. So this, dear reader, is why I’m eating ice cream in January made with locally produced strawberries. I’m bearing with it.

Meeting My Muse

January 19, 2010

I should be writing about various products I saw today at the Fancy Food Show here in San Francisco but I’m far too brain dead to think objectively – or at all, for that matter – about any of the roughly 2.7 zillion products which were being promoted at me from all directions. What I’m not too tired to write about, however, is who I spent the day roaming the aisles of the show with: Marlena Spieler and Marcy Smothers.

I have admired Marlena Spieler, the author of something along the line of 70 cookbooks and, though she lives in Great Britain, a food columnist for San Francisco Chronicle. In particular, my admiration for her work really arose through my repeated use of her encyclopedic “The Complete Guide to Traditional Jewish Cooking” when I was head cook for an upscale deli here in the city.

Marlena Spieler and I after she's signed my copy of her cookbook.

Full of great recipes, many of which were traditional shabbos meals, they were ideal for the deli where they would need to hold up well for two to three days at a time. Many of them I cooked repeatedly; others were handy last minute replacements when ingredients for our standards had fallen through.

The soups – well, what can I say about the soups except, like everything else in the book, they were wonderful, homey recipes that stick to the ribs and transport the diner with rich combinations of spices and down-to-earth ingredients. The recipes were clearly and concisely written; the end results, almost always perfect (I’m not the only one who thinks so. A group in Sacramento, Calif., has committed themselves to cooking their way through the book and blogging about the experience).

So, who was this woman with whom I spent so much time in the kitchen? As it turns out, she’s also friends with an old editor of mine from my days as a reporter at Anchorage Daily News. I finally took advantage of that connection – through Facebook – to write Marlena a gushy fan letter and she actually wrote back. Through a few more exchanges, she suggested meeting on her next trip to San Francisco which, happily, happened to be for the Fancy Food Show.

“I’m with my friend Marcy Smothers”, she told me on the phone as we discussed plans to connect. “She’s a radio producer.”

Marcy, as it happened, is far more than that and knows, apparently, everyone (“I love to drop names,” she stated quite unapologetically at one point, but she never dropped a name without a solid story to back it up).

We had agreed to meet at booth 1749 in the organic foods pavilion where, as it happened, Tyler Florence was on hand to promote his new restaurant and sign autographs. Marcy, of course, knew him but gushed along with all the other fans there to meet him. I took photos of the two of them together including one of them embracing (“It looks as if he’s greeting me after I returned from the war,” she said). Of course, this didn’t happen until after I pulled my well-worn and greasy copy of Marlena’s book from my knapsack along with a thick black marker and asked her to autograph it. Flattered and amused, she did just that and Marcy took a photo of me, smiling broadly alongside one of my culinary muses.

The rest of the day was spent following the two women along. Curious and knowledgeable about everything, they interviewed everyone and sampled and tasted their way through the show with enthusiasm. They graciously introduced me to everyone they knew, shared stories and gossip with me, directed me to the more notable exhibitors, and were patient and generous with a guy really only now breaking into a world they’ve occupied confidently and enthusiastically for quite some time already.

“Wow” is really the only word I can think of. And, of course, “Thanks.”

On Julia Child, fat, life, and Netflix

January 12, 2010

Note: I wrote this essay several months ago and then, apparently, promptly forgot it. It’s still timely in that I am continually asked “Have you seen ‘Julie & Julia’ yet?” I haven’t, as it happens, and I’ll probably wait until it’s available through Netflix.

Five years to the month after her death, people are rediscovering Julia Child. It’s not as if we didn’t know who she was, of course, but as is the case with many artists, true appreciation seems to come after they’ve passed away.

With the release of the film “Julie & Julia”, people are buying her first cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (from which I first learned to make quiche), and pushing it into the best seller category. According to a story in Sunday’s New York Times, more copies have been sold in one recent week since the film came out than have ever sold in any given year since it was published 48 years ago. According to the same story, folks are a little surprised by what they’re finding in the pages: recipes that call for generous amounts of real ingredients such as butter and lard.

Now that they’re buying the book, here’s hoping they won’t be frightened off by the fat because it was always Child’s lament that too many people are afraid of food. She’s correct: fat, despite what the manufacturers of low-fat anything will tell you, is good for you.

“Fat gives things flavor,” she once observed (One of the chefs under whom I studied in culinary school was more succinct: “Fat is flavor”).

You needn’t eat a ton of the stuff, but in moderation it’s fine, and it certainly tastes and feels better than, say, soy milk made with added carrageen to hold it all together. Ingredients aside, however, what Child taught us most was to enjoy what we have, to take chances, both in the kitchen and out. Even in death, she still continues to inspire. It was after reading her biography “Appetite for Life” by Noel Riley Fitch I decided I wasn’t too old at 39 to go to cooking school. If she didn’t begin cooking until she was 37 – and I had about a 20-year head start on her there – then age truly doesn’t matter.

While I have yet to see the movie (there’s that new Quentin Tarantino flick I want to see first) I’m excited to see people taking such an interest in Julia Child’s work. Whether this current fascination will result in anything more than people rushing out to buy expensive kitchen equipment they won’t use more than one or two times remains to be seen, but for the few who discover the beauty of cooking a meal themselves, and serving it to people they care for, then it’s been more than an opportunity for movie studios to capitalize on the work of a great woman.

Julia Child’s work lives on and, luckily for us, it was work that – at its core – was little more than an example in how to live our lives more fully, more profoundly, more enjoyably.