Sunday, March 29, 2009

Working the Sides

I have a friend who recently moved to San Diego from Seattle. Now, having been to Seattle, I understand that the definition of "foodie" is different in that city than it is in this one. I'm thinking now of Pike Place Market, and just the thought of it is making my mouth water. I had never seen a market like that in my life before visiting a friend who lived in Seattle. Wandering through stalls which offered fresh morel mushrooms next to piles of the freshest herbs and veggies was heaven. And of course there was the flying fish. My friend and I picked out a fish for our dinner that nite, the man scooped it off the ice and tossed it to someone behind the counter while screaming something like "incoming salmon!!" The man behind the counter looked up at the last minute, raised both hands just in time to catch that sucker. The miracle was that he didn't drop it! For those of you who have been to this market, you know what I'm talking about. For those of you who haven't, you have a good reason now to go to Seattle. Seriously. It's worth it for the entertainment value alone, let alone the quality of the food.Anyway, my friend found a downtown loft which he liked and moved in. For a serious foodie, I'm amazed that this loft suits his needs, as the kitchen is incredibly small. But he assured me that since he's spent lots of time cooking on boats, it didn't matter. And judging from the meal he produced that nite, I would have to agree with him. I am working on getting the recipe and will post it as soon as I've re-created it.

But in the meantime, he made a rice dish which sent me into orbit. My relationship with rice has always been a pleasant one. Sometimes it's the perfect background for a spectacular entree. Sometimes it has a bit more personality than that and can share the stage as a supporting actor. I don't know why this particular version of rice hit a home run with me. Maybe it was the fog that was coming in, making the sweetness of the dates feel so comforting. Maybe it was the Cline's Zinfandel we were drinking. Seriously good Zin for $7.99 at Trader Joe's, and more expensive elsewhere.But whatever it was, the rice dish stuck in my mind, so I decided to try to re-create it. There's no recipe here, of course, just some guidance and possible ingredients. And even though it amazes my sister-in-law, I never measure my rice or my water. I just pour some rice into the pot and cover it with water to about 1/2 - 3/4 of an inch above the rice. Then I bring it to a boil without the lid, turn the heat down and put the lid on. It seems to work every time.
Brown Rice With Dates and Lemon

1 C rice
2 C water or chicken stock, or some combination
6-8 dried dates, chopped
zest of 1 lemon, slivered into "matchstick" pieces
seasoned rice vinegar

Cook the rice in the usual manner, adding the chopped dates and lemon about half way through the cooking process. When the rice is done, fluff with a fork and sprinkle some seasoned rice vinegar over it. Toss and sprinkle some more so that all of the rice will have a little of the vinegar. It won't make your rice soggy, just tasty. Grind some fresh pepper and toss.

Now, if you're like me, there are times when you don't feel like eating a whole dinner. Sometimes you just want to graze. (I'm a champion grazer!) I've had days like that recently, and I've just eaten some of the leftover rice and nibbled on these incredible olives from Whole Foods.
They're called Castelvetrano, and they have (temporarily, at least), replaced Luques as my faves. If you can find them, I highly recommend them!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Trip to San Juan Capistrano

I drove up to San Juan Capistrano a couple of weeks ago to do some photography. I hadn't been there in years and years. My memory of it was that it was a quaint town, and that there was a mission where the swallows returned year after year.
What I had forgotten - or maybe I wasn't there at the right time of the year - was how beautiful the town can be when the trees are in bloom...
This time around, I saw it with different eyes. I began to piece together a part of California's history as I exited the Starbucks and walked across the street to the mission. The mission was built in 1776 by Spanish Catholic Franciscans, and is part of the chain of missions stretching through California.

The history of this mission is similar to many such missions in the southwest: The building of a mission, the subsequent conversion of the indigenous people, the destruction of the mission and then the subsequent rebuilding. This history repeats itself over and over. I have seen it in New Mexico and it is here in California as well. What usually happens is that the mission eventually falls into disrepair and is left as ruins which become a tourist attraction. In the case of this mission, there is actually a chapel which is still in use.
But the small entrance fee is worth it just to stroll through the grounds and duck into the restored rooms.

And of course, there's the wonderful fountain in the central courtyard, with it's resident fish, and exquisite leaves floating peacefully....

I was grateful to spend a day with the sole purpose of seeing. I needed that respite from the hectic days that speed into each other, blurred by necessities and phone calls. There in the gardens of the mission, a golden fish glides by with nothing more than the next morsel to think about. It is his inheritance, just as the freeways are mine.

Next week I will have a recipe to share. This week without my lens was given to finishing up all the "gotta-dos" on my list!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

My Secret Obsession Revisited

My camera lens is off being repaired. This leaves me feeling completely out of sorts. I mean, I don't know what to do with myself! It also means that I cannot photograph anything that I've cooked recently. So while I was sipping my morning chai, I decided that maybe it was time to revisit this old post that I did back in March of 2007. I don't have a clue how I did such a good job of formatting the original post - this one's been fighting me for hours!! Hopefully, my lens will be back in time for next Sunday's post - I'm in no mood to spend my Sundays in battle.


When I was growing up, every time any of us felt sick, my mother always made us tea and toast. Lipton, of course. It was supposed to make me feel better, and I suppose the simplicity of it made sense, but the effect was always the opposite her goal. One lump or two made no difference - I would sip the tea and immediately feel nauseated. I guess it had a Pavlovian effect on me in later years, when the smell of tea would make my stomach queasy. I loved watching English actresses pouring tea into china cups and passing around lumps of sugar. It was all so civilized and lovely. I would have loved to have lived that civilized and lovely life, I thought, wearing those dresses, pouring that.....tea? Oh dear. I needed a substitute.I really cannot remember when it happened. Honestly, I don't recall if I was still living in New Mexico, or if I had moved to California, but at some point in the distant past, I was with some acupuncturist friends who offered me a cup of bancha tea. "Um....I'm not really a tea drinker...." And before I could explain my Pavlovian response, they insisted that this was not like black tea, and I should try it. "Well.....OK...." It was not in my nature to argue with my hosts, after all.
I said a silent prayer and took my first sip. This is tea? Really? For those of you unfamiliar with it, bancha is a traditional , daily use, Japanese green tea variety that is made from mature leaves, plucked in the summer or autumn. Bancha's like a mature samurai - the extra time it's had to mellow in the sun makes it a bit toastier in color, with a sweet, earthy taste. It has nothing in common with the black tea favored by Europeans. It's ability to strengthen the metabolism and aid in digestion, makes it a favorite among those following a macrobiotic diet. All I knew was that it was delicious. Bancha led to sencha and matcha - all from the same tea plant, but picked earlier in the year. These familiar green teas are slightly more arrogant - they have an edge to them, and an astringent quality. As long as they're not steeped too long, they are delicious. Leave the bag in the water for too long and you're probably not going to like the bitterness. Of course, it's easier to put up with the attitude when you know their antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic properties.
From there, I branched out into Earl Grey. The Earl was a huge step for me, as the basis here is black tea. But it is flavored with bergamot oil, which lends a distinct citrus flavor and aroma. With citrus as it's leading edge, I managed to sail past that black tea flavor without my stomach noticing it. I was making progress. The Earl and I are friends now, but we don't see each other too often.

Then I discovered Spiced Chai, or Spiced Chai Tea, as Trader Joe's calls it. Funny name, that. Since chai is another name for tea, it means that this tea's name is Spiced Tea Tea. Be that as it may, I used to take a teabag and pour boiling water over it, letting it steep for a while until it reached the right color. Then I'd add milk.
But back in 2000, a friend of mine who is a photojournalist went to India to photograph the first Kumba Mela of the new millenium. The Mela is an enormous Hindu festival, and that year it was held in Alahabad. There were about 75,000,000 people from all over the world who converged on Alahabad for the celebration, and my friend was swept up by the colors and sounds and smells of it all. He told me about drinking tea from a street vendor, who would have a pot of water with milk boiling over a fire. When someone ordered some tea, he'd throw a handful of tea and sugar into the pot, then ladel some into a small, low-fired ceramic cup. The cup was "disposable", meaning people would throw them away when they were done.

I was intrigued by the idea of boiling the milk in with the water, and wondered if it would make a difference. I don't eat much sugar, but I figured a teaspoon of it wouldn't make all that much difference.

With my first sip, I became a convert.

Ever since then, this has become my standard morning drink. Yes, I will still have a cup of coffee from time to time, but my morning chai has become my morning comfort. Different brands of chai will have different spices in them, but ginger and cardamom are fairly standard additions. In Chinese medicine, both of those spices are used to benefit the digestive system, and there is a whole school of thinking in Chinese medicine which says that all chronic diseases stem from a poor digestive system. As a student of mine once pointed out to me as I sipped my chai in an herbology class, declaring that my digestion was actually quite good, "Yes, but you self-medicate every day!"

She was right. I do. And intend to continue to do so, enjoying every sip!

I now have an entire pantry shelf devoted to teas. I don't know how that happened. Do they breed in there? And I've discovered something about me. I'm fickle. I'll fall in love, it will last for a while, and then I move on. So while bancha was my first love, my relationship with Earl Grey was more of an affair. Spiced chai is my steady partner in life. But I confess to having a few flings from time to time. There's genmai cha, a green tea with roasted brown rice in it. Genmai has a kind of popcorn flavor, which is appealing from time to time, but not as a steady romance. His first cousin houji cha, a handsome brew made from roasted bancha leaves. With a chestnut color and light, almost sweet taste, I flirt with him in the summer. (He's the most decafinated of the green teas.) And then there's a very special, decafinated rooibos (Afrikaans for "red bush") tea, which a local pastry maker calls Marco Polo Rouge. Marco is from the legume family, and he's oh so sweet and slightly nutty. Someday, I hope we travel together to his homeland. So far, he's been silent on the subject.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Leftover Curry

What was it that I made that used coconut milk? Did I post it here, or eat it before I had the chance to photograph it? My memory isn't what it used to be!

But there's this small jar in the fridge of coconut milk, so whatever it was, it didn't take the entire can. It's been sitting there staring me in the face every time I open the fridge. I knew I was going to do something with it before it went bad, but I didn't want to get locked into an idea and then go shopping for the ingredients. I wanted to let the dish evolve out of what I had in my refrigerator and my pantry. Most of my best meals happen that way.

I want to digress a bit here. There's a story which goes with this post, and I don't think I've told it before. When I was married and living in New Mexico, Bob did most of the cooking. I thought I was a pretty good cook when I met him, but I was a complete amateur. He had a pantry that could have supplied a batallion for at least 2 weeks. At first I found the whole thing overwhelming. Why did we need to keep all those weird ingredients in the pantry when we never used them? Lotus root? Odd pastes from Indonesia? Or Thailand? Why did we need 10 cans of green chili? How come our freezer was packed with everything under the sun?

Well, not only was he an amazing cook who taught me how to be creative in the kitchen, but he was also a magnet for all kinds of people from all over the world. I have no idea how we collected these people. They just showed up, like flies on the screen door before a summer rain. I remember one day a Chinese man showed up and he saw our kitchen with a selection of woks and 3 or 4 different soy sauces as well as shrimp paste and all the other necessities of a well stocked kitchen, and he offered to cook us a meal. We were delighted. "But do you have any ____?" (I've forgotten right now what it might have been.) "Sure!" "And what about lotus root?" "Oh yes, we have that." With each ingredient requested, his eyes got bigger and bigger when our answers kept coming back "Yes, we have that." So he set to work in the kitchen and produced a phenomenal meal for us.

And this type of scenario happened more than once, with people from various countries around the world and various states in the U.S. So whether or not it was a local from New Mexico wanting to prepare his favorite version of chili rellenos with home made flour tortillas and some beans and chicos, or someone from Indonesia wanting to make some Gado Gado for us, we always had the ingredients on hand. The only thing which might have necessitated a trip to the store would have been the fresh ingredients - we might have been out of mushrooms, say, because we had used the last of them. (I can't remember ever running out of onions or garlic, though.)

With a steady stream of interesting meals comes a steady stream of leftovers. Bob was a master of leftovers. I've met people who never ever eat leftovers, and I wonder if they are the same species as I am. I don't know how I would survive without them! On the days I see patients, I work until 7pm. I absolutely do not want to come home and start cooking at that time, so if I don't have anything in the fridge, I eat popcorn for dinner. Leftovers rule.

So now back to the coconut milk.... When I looked at that jar, I knew it was going to be a curry. It was either going to be that or that wonderful Thai soup made with coconut milk and galangal. But my favorite Asian grocery store is closed for remodeling, so I am left without a store close by to score some galangal. Curry it was.

When Bob made curries, he was quite creative about the process. He didn't feel constrained by tradition, and so his curries contained ingredients which people from Asia would probably look upon with some skepticism. But since they always tasted great, I adopted the Bob method of curry. The recipe I have here is my own, the amounts are an estimate and should never be considered written in stone. And by all means, if you've got something leftover in the fridge, unless it's a chocolate bar, try throwing it in - just for grins! Mine started with leftover coconut milk and a leftover, store-bought roast chicken....legs, thighs and some breast meat eaten for lunches. Bones reserved for stock...

1 3/4 C leftover chicken meat, diced
1 onion, sliced
2 tsp garlic, diced
1 1/2 TBS canola oil
1/2 C chicken stock
3/4 C coconut milk
6 asparagus spears, cut into 2" pieces
1 apple, cut into cubes
1/2 to 1 TBS Thai Green Curry paste
1 TBS brown sugar

In a saucepan, combine the chicken stock and the curry paste and simmer, stirring, until the paste is melted into the stock. Add brown sugar, stir until it dissolves and set aside.

Heat the canola oil in a pan, add onions and garlic. Saute until the onions are translucent - about 2-3 minutes. Add chicken and stir until chicken is coated with the oil and has absorbed enough of it to flavor.

Add the stock and the coconut milk and stir. Reduce heat and simmer until the sauce has reduced somewhat.
Add the asparagus. If your asparagus was previously steamed, you will want to add it at the end. If it's fresh, it will need an extra minute or two to cook lightly.

Kitchen Notes

You can add some fresh basil if you've got it. It's always a lovely addition to Thai curries.
The sugar in the recipe offsets the spicy of the curry paste. It's the same principal as serving sopapillas with honey in a New Mexican restaurant - the honey will cut the spicy of the chili. You can drink water all day long and it won't put out the fire on your tongue if you've overdosed on chili. But something sweet will help douse the flames!

The Thai Curry Paste was a small jar I bought from Trader Joe's. I didn't photograph the jar because, quite frankly, I forgot to do so. And now my camera lens is having seizures and I must send it to be repaired. But you can find these kinds of pastes these days in many stores. The brand is not as important as the taste, and you'll have to experiment to decide which one you like best.

The apple was thrown in at the end because I had bought 3 apples, and none of them were great. The middles had begun to turn brown, so I used this last one in the curry, cutting out the brown parts.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Vegetable Curry

Sometimes a good idea doesn't translate well.

I love Sundays. I get to wake up late. And then doze off again. I think the cat gets that it's Sunday. She doesn't try to wake me by kneading on the pillow next to my head, or gently brushing her whiskers against my cheek. She was content to doze with me. That part went well.

Today a friend came and picked me up and we went to brunch at a local restaurant. I've eaten there many times before, but today, for some reason, everything was We sat at the counter, and the waiter gave us the menu. He was quick to ask if we wanted coffee or juice, but after that, he basically didn't have time for us. His whole attitude was sullen, as if he had just been dumped the night before.
We drank our coffee, figured out what we wanted, and waited. And waited. And waited. Another waiter came by and offered us more coffee. And we waited. Finally, our waiter remembered us and asked us what we wanted. I ordered the Yucatan tostadas - black bean and chorizo mixture on top of corn tortillas with avocado, salsa and eggs, any style. My friend ordered a pulled pork sandwich.

And we waited. And waited. And waited. Yet another waiter came by and asked us if we had ordered. Yes. What had we ordered? When my friend mentioned pulled pork, he said "Oh. That's why", and left. As if pulled pork was something you started from scratch when the customer came through the door. More coffee. Some water. And finally, the food.

My friend looked at his sandwich and said "This isn't pulled pork." And it wasn't. It was chopped pork, and it was dry. The waiter wanted to know what the problem was, and my friend told him that it wasn't pulled pork. The waiter said that it was how they made their pulled pork, and my friend said that they could also call it a waffle if they wanted to.I don't think the waiter got it.

And my tostadas? They were delicious. Especially if you were a vegetarian. Because I don't think any of the chorizo "fell off the string", as my mom would have said. When I asked about it, he said that it was mixed in with the beans. NOT. But at least it tasted good. I dropped the subject.

From there we went to the farmer's market and loaded up on veggies. I had some left over roasted poblanos from the Mexican style lasagne I had made, and I knew I wanted to make a veggie dish with them. My friend, who is an outstanding cook, suggested a curry with squash. It was a gray day, and curry sounded so very right. The farmer's market, however, didn't have any winter squash. I bought some string beans, tomatoes and some salad greens, but no squash. So we went to a local market and I got my squash.
Back home I roasted the squash and the tomatoes. A little too long. I figured on about 45 minutes for the Carnival squash, but since it was small, 30 minutes would probably have been better. The tomatoes were....well....easy to peel.

So after peeling and chopping, I added them to the onion and garlic I had chopped, and then proceeded to wash and trim the green beans. They were added next, and I stirred the pot and then turned it off while I peeled the squash. It was softer than I wanted it to be. But I was well into this dish, and there was no way I was going to change course. I had eaten enough soups, thank you. I wanted something I had to bite into, not drink.

After adding them to the pot, I turned the heat back on, found the remaining black beans from the Mexican lasagne and added them. I found an open box of carrot ginger soup from Trader Joe's, and remembered that it was what I tried eating in the middle of my flu. So I added about a quarter of a cup. I had a can of Trader Joe's light coconut milk and added about half the can, as well as the chopped, roasted poblanos..... And, of course, a little salt. And some lemon grass.

But of course, stirring the whole thing was enough to break down the squash and turn it into squash mush.
Like I said......sometimes a good idea just doesn't translate. In this case, it didn't translate visually. It DID, however, taste quite good. So if you want to try this at home, I would recommend peeling, cubing and lightly steaming the squash first instead of roasting it. I think it would hold up better, and make for a much better photo. Which is why I'm sharing these other photos with you.......because they're visually more appealing.

And I'd also like to share a poem and another photo with you. I came across this poem in a magazine......

O, to take what we love inside
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it...

There are days we live...
from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Li-Young Lee from "From Blossoms"