Monday, April 8, 2013

Do You Eat What You Are?

I’ve been wondering lately: If it’s true that we are what we eat, is the reverse also true? Do we eat what we are?

When I was a child visiting my grandmother, a thrifty Scottish woman in rural West Virginia, we ate directly from the garden and the fields.  In the summer, we feasted on corn on the cob rolled in butter, hot mixed peppers simmered with fresh tomatoes, juicy blackberry and rhubarb pies, salad greens wilted with hot bacon dressing. In winter, we ate fruit and vegetables that had been “put up” in the cellar.

I was also the daughter of a Tokyo-born mother and a struggling, blue-collar father, a combination that gave our budget meals a slight Asian twist. Chili con carne was served over Uncle Ben’s rice.  A can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup became egg drop soup after my mom plopped a raw egg into the pot.

At the same time, I was a hometown girl of Clarksburg, West Virginia, a surprisingly diverse town with thriving Lebanese and Italian populations.  Our neighbors, the Thomas family, supplied us with wide, flat sheets of Syrian bread. Mom scrambled eggs with stinky wild ramps and then we rolled the concoction into the flatbread, burrito style.

When I went off to college in South Carolina, I was a scrawny teenager desperate to add curves to my boyish figure. Grits with gravy, hot rolls with butter (consumed by the half dozen) and deep-fried everything guaranteed that I immediately gained the “freshman fifteen.” When I wasn’t refilling my plate in the cafeteria, I could be found at Sir George’s, an all-you-can-eat buffet that we affectionately called “Sir Gorges.”

After college, I moved to California and became a busy fifth-grade teacher and a grad student struggling to make ends meet. I lived on Bisquick biscuits that I made two at a time and generic cans of soup. 

Not long after that, in the 80s, I morphed into a full-fledged yuppie, working in downtown LA as a marketing manager at what was known then as “the phone company.” For the first time in my life, I had disposable income and non-disposable time. I dined at restaurants specializing in “California cuisine” (think miniscule portions at maximum prices). When I wasn’t dining out, I was dropping in to Bristol Farms, a Whole Foods precursor, to purchase pricy, premade items.

When I quit my job in the early 90s to become a full-time mom, my cooking and eating habits once again changed. I learned the beauty of the stir fry and how to wok this way. While my toddler was occupied for minutes at a time, I chopped an onion here or diced a pepper there or thin sliced a chicken breast. When Dad got home for dinner, I threw everything into a sizzling wok.

But when the toddler grew into a picky preschooler and I became a harried housewife juggling writing, home duties and volunteer work, the stir fries disappeared.  I’ll never forget the moment when I looked down at the grocery cart loaded with convenient blue boxes and processed orange slices that passed for cheese.  I groaned to myself, “I’ve become white trash!”

Fast forward a few years, and I became a cancer patient at the City of Hope. I took to heart the words of a wise dietician: “Eat nutrient-dense foods.” From that moment on, I started examining the nutritional punch of everything that went into my mouth. Instead of faux wheat bread, I chose dense, multi-grain loaves. And brown rice took the place of the nutritionally vacuous white stuff I'd been consuming. I couldn’t get enough fresh fruits and vegetables.

Shortly after my stint as a patient, both in and out of the hospital, I joined a community called RIPE, an Altadena-based group that swaps and shares home-grown organic fruits and vegetables. The sharing soon went well beyond surplus citrus and zucchini. I saved my leftover citrus rinds as treats for a nearby family of goats. The goats’ owners shared with neighbors the nutrient-packed soiled hay, which we used as mulch for our vegetable gardens that produced food that we shared with one another. It was a perfect circle of sharing and caring.  Who I was and what I ate became closely intertwined.

And now I’ve entered yet another chapter, a stress-free life in Scottsdale, AZ, filled with hiking, writing, volunteering and cooking. I haven’t yet figured out how to grow vegetables in our hot, arid climate, and produce sharing would be difficult (if not impossible) among the endless chain of gated communities.

But I’m slowly making friends who love to share their knowledge, experience and kitchen bounty. One friend spent an afternoon with me making orange marmalade from the citrus that I'd carted in from the Altadena backyard. Another new friend brought over a jar of homemade limoncello that’s far superior to the batch that I made last year.

And I’m taking pleasure in feeding the new “picky eater” in my life, a boyfriend who doesn’t like pasta from any country, shellfish from any sea, fish (other than salmon) and a long list of vegetables.

Hope you’ll join me in this new phase of my life as I explore who I am and what's on my plate.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Grapefruit Guilt

Guilt seems to be an overriding theme in my life. Blogging guilt crept in after not posting for more than seven months. Gardening guilt overtook me when I missed all of the windows for planting spring and summer vegetables. And grapefruit guilt attacked when I contemplated the wasted citrus in my back yard.

Last year, I didn't have to deal with grapefruit guilt. I simply posted a message on our local RIPE produce exchange group and citrus pickers would magically arrive to harvest the fruit. But after an area fruit fly quarantine put the kibosh on fruit sharing, untouched yellow orbs fell to the ground or languished on the branches.

To the rescue came two small appliances - my De Longhi citrus juicer (lightweight, easy to store and use and just $15) and my Cuisinart ice cream maker (purchased online for less than $50).

Straight grapefruit juice has too much pucker-power, but grapefruit ade, with the addition of water and simple syrup, is as refreshing as the stuff kids hawk at summer-time stands.

Grapefruit Ade

2 cups grapefruit juice (about five grapefruits)
1/4 cup simple syrup (1/4 sugar and 1/4 cup water, heated until clear)
1 cup water

Let the simple syrup cool, stir the three ingredients together and start looking for a front-porch swing.

I found this recipe for Grapefruit Mint Sorbet on the blog for Produce in the Park, a volunteer-sponsored food and produce-sharing group in Monrovia. I love it when I have all the simple ingredients - grapefruits, mint, sugar and vodka - on hand for a delicious and refreshing dessert.

Grapefruit Mint Sorbet

2 cups grapefruit juice (and some pulp if you’d like)
2 cups water
1.5-2 cups of sugar (according to taste and sweetness of your fruit, but start on the low end)
2-4 sprigs of mint
1-2 shots of vodka or tequila

In a small pot, combine the juice, water, 1.5 cups of sugar and mint. Bring to a boil and then simmer on low for 10 minutes. Let steep for an additional 10-20 minutes, remove the mint, pour in the alcohol, then chill (the juice, that is).

At this point, you can either place the juice in an ice cream maker for about 25 minutes, or put it in the freezer. If you opt for the freezer, just make sure to scrape/mix it every 30 minutes while it’s freezing to incorporate some air.

The fresh-from-the-maker sorbet gets weeply quickly, but an hour in the freezer produces a firmer version (see above photo).

These grapefruit recipes have cleansed my guilt as effectively as a sorbet cleanses the palate between courses. Now if only I could find a recipe to dissolve the other guilt in my life.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Cheese Flops

When I first bit into a gougères, a savory French cheese puff, at Tartine in SF, I wondered, "Where have you been all my life?" The treats are crisp on the outside, puffy on the inside and infused with fresh thyme and gruyere.

I was delighted to learn later that Fraiche in Culver City baked their own gougères and even served their hamburgers on the puffy buns.

But, alas, I discovered during my September visit that Fraiche no longer bakes or serves the bread.

"Where can I buy fresh gougères?" I asked the Food Librarian, who had just posted about the perfect puffs she made at home.

"In your own kitchen," she wrote back.

I was about to pop open a bottle of champagne I'd been saving and decided that gougères would be the perfect accompaniment.

I turned to the master source, the Tartine cookbook that I had purchased during a recent visit to the venerable bakery. I'd no longer have to journey to SF to sink my choppers into a gougères.

But this beautiful cookbook was not a fit for baking-challenged moi. The ingredients and directions were listed on two different pages and I had to keep flipping back and forth. The directions were written in long, narrative paragraphs, not bullet points. And the directions left some confusion. (It said to stir in the flour. Should I turn off the flame first or keep it on high?) They didn't say, so I guessed wrong and turned off the flame.

Perhaps that's why my puffs were a flop, as flat as giant buttons. But that didn't stop friends and family from asking, "Are there more?" I baked up tray after tray of the flops, and they greedily ate them.

Just imagine how gaga they'll go over a gougères done right. (Next time I'll follow Tartine-loving Jen's instructions on Oishii Eats.)

(PS It may be a while before I can bake up another batch of gougères. I broke a hip, had pin surgery and will be hobbling about on a walker for a few weeks.)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Foolproof Fried Rice

When you forage through your 'fridge in hopes of finding enough ingredients to assemble a meal, what do you find?

In our household, eggs are a given. And I can always count on those "baby" carrots that we buy but seldom eat. Some kind of leftover meat - ham, Canadian bacon or leftover chicken - is usually lurking. I can unearth wilted green onions and half of a forgotten red pepper. And I'm never without peas in the freezer and garlic in the pantry.

I have the fixings for one of my favorite go-to meals - fried rice. It's easy, delicious, nutritious and a great way to use up the bits and pieces in your fridge.

The trick is to have cold, leftover rice on hand. You can bring home the uneaten rice from an Asian restaurant. Or you can make extra rice and chill. Both are good options, but aren't always available when the urge for fried rice strikes.

So I'll share with you a little secret to ensure that you always have all the fixings for fried rice on hand: brown rice from the freezer section at Trader Joe's.

No need to defrost. Just dump a bag of the frozen grains into your sizzling wok or fry pan. And, believe it or not, the results are superior to the leftover Japanese short-grained brown rice that I sometimes use. The TJ's frozen rice produces beautiful, separate grains, and that's the secret to a great, mush-free meal.

The young adults in my household thumb their noses at plain brown rice, but when it's fried with meat, veggies and egg, they gobble it down. Even my one-year-old grandson can't get enough. And, best of all, we never get bored because the variations are endless.

  • Go to Wandering Chopsticks for several fried rice recipes, including this one with Chinese sausage, frozen vegetables and egg. I credit her for teaching me to make fried rice.
  • Some fried rice recipes call for cooking the egg separately and adding it in later. Another technique (my favorite) is to saute the meat and veggies, push them to the side and cook the egg in the well in the center.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

More Than One Way to Brew a Cup of Coffee: Roaster Family Coffee

I had hoped to meet my morning caffeine quota with jasmine tea from Lunasia (my current favorite non-cart dim sum restaurant). But when I learned the wait for tea and dim sum was 45 minutes, I dragged my un-caffeinated self across the street for a quick cup of java at Roaster Family Coffee.

I expected the barista to serve a cup from a pot or urn. Instead, she measured and ground fresh beans. Just for me. What came next was even more surprising. I was familiar with percolating, pressing and dripping methods for brewing coffee. Roaster Family Coffee uses a siphon brewing method. Invented in 1840, the brewing contraption looks like something from an antebellum mad scientist's lab.

Clockwise from top left: 1) Grind beans. 2) Place beans in vessel over pot of water. 3) Water vapor forces hot (but not boiling) water from the pot into the vessel. 4) See how the vessel is filling up? Alchemy or physics?

1) A quick stir 2) Physics in action again: When heat is turned off, coffee returns to pot. 3) Fresh siphon-brewed coffee 4) Elegant service in a china cup for just $1.80.

The brewing method might be so two centuries ago, but the heating method - a halogen burning system - is 21st century.

The decor is a lot like the brewing system - a mix of the old and new.

How was the coffee? Strong and rich without a trace of acidity or bitterness. Come for the show, but stay for the coffee.

Roaster Family Coffee
521 W Main St.
, CA 91801
626. 282.8879

713 W Duarte Rd.
Suite F

Arcadia, CA 91007

For more information about syphon-brewed coffee, visit the Coffee Geek or the New York Times.

Coffee on FoodistaCoffee

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness: Ice Cream for Breakfast

Our new tradition: Ice cream for breakfast on the Fourth of July

One of my high school/Facebook friends recently shared her family's Independence Day tradition: eating ice cream for breakfast. She wrote, "It's a coal camp thing," one that's endured for five generations in her family.

I searched the Web for references to ice cream for breakfast on the Fourth of July and came up empty handed, but that didn't hold me back. When I announced my intention to start a new tradition, I received enthusiastic endorsement from the young adults in the family.

We would declare our independence and pursue our happiness by starting off the day with a bowl of vanilla. Of course, to show our colors, we added bananas, strawberries and blackberries to the bowl.

When it came right down to it, I didn't have the constitution to eat early morning ice cream. Instead, I started out with an egg in a toast cup and a cup of Joe. (Cut a hole in a slice of bread, fill the hole with an egg and fry in butter. Make sure to fry the round piece of bread in butter too, and then dip it into the soft egg yolk.)

Image from Wikipedia. Eggs in a toast cup, also known as eggs in a basket

After my savory dish, I still wasn't ready to indulge in a frozen dessert, but I ate the sliced strawberries, bananas and blackberries. Everyone else, including the grandson, shoveled down their ice cream and wished that every day was the Fourth of July.

Happy Independence Day!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reminiscing and Reproducing Thai Crab Fried Rice

A few years ago, when I worked at a small marketing communications firm in Old Pasadena, I became a regular at a local Thai restaurant. A colleague and I never grew tired of sharing the lunch special four times a week at our desks. The owner Sue, aware of our frugal ways, would always slip in an extra order of brown rice.

When I worked late, I would often slide solo into my favorite seat by the window, listen to the sounds of the water wall and order Thai crab fried rice and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Sue would always top off my glass with whatever was left in the bottle.

Alas, Sue eventually sold the restaurant to a clueless entrepreneur who replaced the wall of water with a giant flat screen TV. Not a good sign. When he changed the menu, the crab fried rice was one of the the first casualties.

I've ordered crab fried rice in other Thai restaurants, but it never measures up. Maybe it was Sue's nurturing or the soothing sounds of the water or that extra touch of white wine that made that dish so special.

I was about to give up until I found this recipe on Wives with Knives. I made it for lunch today, and it was nearly as good as the version that Sue's mom used to cook up for me at Nana.

Thai Crab Fried Rice
  • 3 to 4 cups rice, cooked the day before and refrigerated overnight (I used Japanese brown rice because it's more nutritious than white, but I think basmati rice makes the best fried rice.)
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup raw carrot, grated (I used frozen, but I like the idea of fresh.)
  • 1/2 cup peas, fresh or frozen
  • 1/4 cup green onion, sliced in 1/4 inch slices
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 4 ounces or more Dungeness crabmeat (I used lump crab meat from Whole Foods.)
  • salt to taste (I found that, with the salty soy and fish sauce, salt wasn't necessary.)
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • cilantro (Original recipe called for parsley, but I prefer cilantro with Thai food.)

Mix together the fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice and sugar in a small bowl. Set aside.

Add 1/4 cup vegetable oil to a large wok or fry pan and heat until it just begins to smoke. Add peas, carrots, green onions and ginger and cook for about one minute, stirring so it doesn't burn. Add rice and lightly mix, then add liquid mixture and blend well. Fry for 4-5 minutes, watching that the rice doesn't burn.

Make a well in the middle of the rice and pour in the beaten eggs. Wait for about 30 seconds and then cover the eggs with rice. Leave for another 30 seconds and then continue to stir fry until the eggs are cooked and are mixed well with the rice.

Remove from heat and gently stir in the crab meat, garnish with chopped cilantro or parsley and serve with lime wedges.

The only thing that could have made it better is a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.