I have so woefully little to report, foodwise. I haven’t been doing anything besides working (a lot) these last couple of weeks. To maintain this blog and not fade into internet oblivion, I have to resurrect a food event of a month ago. The theme of this food event is “the lengths I will go.”
I went to Texas this summer, a trip that has fueled at least half the entries on this blog, likely due to the fact that I did nothing but eat for a number of days straight. Before I left the Texas summer heat for the miserable tepidity of Boston, Lara gave me a jar of salsa (among many many other things) from Dick’s Cafe in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The jar sat around waiting for a fitting occasion. As I mentioned, that occasion turned out to be a random Thursday, complete with hibiscus tequila cocktails.
The salsa was worth the wait. It is without doubt, the best salsa I have had. It’s smooth and thin, very very garlicky, slightly sweet and really hot. It tastes fresh and non-preserved - this observation is supported by the ingredient list: tomato puree, tomato sauce, Hatch Valley jalapeno peppers, garlic and salt. Granted, the tomato sauce part is somewhat vague, but the product couldn’t taste further from mass produced.
So the jar was gone in oh… a couple of hours. While never having this salsa again seemed horrifically depressing, flying to NM for a jar of salsa did not seem economically sound. The internet came in to save me yet again - Lisa and I ordered a case (8 jars) of salsa from Dick’s Cafe to share. That sounds really simple, doesn’t it? Well, consider this. I nearly broke into a cold sweat typing that web address into my lab computer’s browser. One small mis-step (or mis-type) and my network connection would be shut down by the hospital for downloading inappropriate subject matter. I typed very s l o w l y. WWW.dickscafe.net. Whew.
The site is painfully low tech, the order didn’t really go through and I had to call NM. When informed where I would like the salsa shipped, the guy on the phone asked, “Err, how did you hear about us?” So I told him. I am in the know.
The following is my best attempt at presenting the broad strokes of a dialogue (somehow, non-science writing was left out of my graduate school curriculum. Shame) that took place as I was trying to get my package from the post office.
The scene: Tuesday, 7:30AM, post office.
Me: Sleepy and perilously close to cranky.
Post office employee (POE): Bejeweled, disgruntled, and slow as molasses.
POE, struggling under the weight of an innocently small box: “What is in here? It’s so heavy!”
Me, perking up: “It’s salsa!”
Pause and blank stare from POE
POE: “Salsa? As in, chips and salsa?”
Me, perkier still: “Yep! There is a restaurant in New Mexico that makes this great salsa and I ordered a box of it from them. It’s reaaaally good salsa.”
POE, dubious: “Well, yeah… I guess it does say New Mexico on the box… Huh.”
Me, thinking: “No shit, lady.”
POE, clearly puzzled by me: “So they just sent it to you? That’s nice of them.”
Me, confused: “Um ok. Thanks! Bye now.”
I don’t know how, but I could smell the salsa outside the box. I am lucky this stuff doesn’t have alcohol in it. I would be in real trouble if it did. It is positively addictive. I am glad not to have to weigh each occasion as salsa-worthy, or not salsa-worthy. I can always just order another case!
I went to great lengths for this salsa. I agonized over the web address, I struggled with the website, I had indirectly apologize to a POE for the heft of my precious box… and it was all worth it.
I have to go to lab now. Sigh.
P.S. Someone from the UK visited my blog after searching for "bugger smell" on Google. I don't even want to know.
Saturday, October 28, 2006
Friday, October 13, 2006
I hate in-betweens. I hate being in between sizes, in between meals, in between decisions, in between a rock and a hard place… Point is, in-betweens are uncomfortable and disconcerting and I hate both them and the fact that life is filled with them. Well mine is, in any case. I particularly loathe the in-between when it comes to food. I am not terribly upset when something I make sucks royally and completely. I can chuck it in the trash bin, deem it a failed experiment (oh I am so good at failing experiments - ace, in fact) and move on. Likewise, if I make something wonderfully excellent and spectacular, I eat it, I am happy, I write a blog post. It’s all very straight forward. But then sometimes, I make something that is almost-there-but-not-quite-something-is-missing. That bugs me. I am not happy eating it, I feel guilty tossing it, and I can see what I should have done differently. That one small misstep is staring me smugly in the face, taunting me with what could have been.
In the name of full disclosure, I would like to present my latest in-between: the roasted onion. A long time ago, the Boston Globe ran an article on onions slowly roasted on a bed of salt. They were said to come out picturesque, meltingly soft and sweet, and were eaten whole from the top, like a soft-boiled egg. I loved the idea of eating an onion in its shell, of turning something sharp and unappealing into something sweet and scoopable.
I had a lot of onions in my last Boston Organics box. They were picture perfect – small, perfectly round, and looking really perky. I left them to sit around for a while because I was (surprise) in lab and too busy. They were starting to look decidedly less perky. It was time for me to intervene in their rapid descent into non-perkiness. And so we come to my first mistake. The Globe article used red Bermuda onions but all I had were plain yellow ones. I figured that all onions become sweet when slowly cooked so I decided to take a chance. Bugger.
I didn’t remember if I was supposed to cut the top off the onion or not - being the experimenter that I am (not for much longer, I hope) I cut the top off one and left the other whole.
I then rubbed the onions with olive oil, sprinkled them with black pepper and Red Hawaiian Sea Salt that I have been dying to use, and stuck them atop a mound of coarse (plain) salt. Into the oven they went, at 350F for as long as I could stand it.
Turns out I could only stand it for an hour and a half. They stank. Seriously. My entire apartment filled with essence of onion, and not in a good way. It was a pungent smell that hung in the air. How something so small could emit so much odor is beyond me. The onions were two inches in diameter, max! I even lit a candle to cover up the smell but it was no match for the mighty onion. So, mistake number two – I should have probably left them to roast longer but I didn't, for fear of being told I stink the next day. Bugger, again.
The grand reveal came the next day because I was too tired to eat them that night. Turns out that leaving the top on is definitely the way to go – the whole onion was more thoroughly cooked than the decapitated one. I guess it could steam inside of its own skin, as disturbing as that sounds. The texture of the onion was close to smooth and buttery (I could tell that it would have gotten there had I been more patient) but the taste was off. It tasted just like… onion. Less offensive than raw onion to be sure, but not terribly flavorful. I don’t think there is enough sugar in yellow onions to develop the depth of flavor and sweetness that I am guessing would be the case with red onions. It was alright as a spread on bread but certainly not something to be eaten with a spoon, as I had envisioned. Bugger once more.
The texture was almost there, but not quite. The taste was kinda there, but not quite. So there you have it - my in-between. The onions made for a pretty picture but sadly, that was about it. I will try to make this again once I have a) a bigger apartment with b) a powerful exhaust hood and c) red onions. I do recommend you give it a try. They really are nice to look at, if nothing else.
Monday, October 09, 2006
Have you heard the news? Chilean Sea Bass is back! It's had a difficult few years but now appears to be on the road to recovery. So. There is much excitement in my life. Get ready for it… Whole Foods has a podcast! Yes, I am that big of a dork that I listen to the Whole Foods podcast while in lab. I now know all kinds of things about Chilean Sea Bass (or CSB, as it will now be known). I shall now proceed to share these things with you. If you find me too big a dork in my discussion of a fish, please feel free to scroll down and read something else… Eh, on second thought, don’t bother. It will be dorky down there as well.
CSB is also known as Patagonian toothfish. The fish-seller-dealer people decided that “toothfish” could not possibly start anyone salivating and changed the name to Chilean Sea Bass in 1977. This was a rather bizarre choice of name for a fish that is neither a member of the bass species nor fished anywhere near Chile. The Chilean part of the name comes from the fact that Chileans were the first to market the fish in the US. The bass part… Not a clue.
Whole Foods stopped selling CSB in 1999 because the methods used to fish for CSB were non-sustainable, poaching was rampant, and the fish was at risk of becoming endangered. Most restaurant chefs supported the informal ban on the sale of CSB. If between the years of 1999 and 2006 you were served CSB in a restaurant it was likely a) not CSB and/or b) smuggled into the country, although some legal CSB was still being imported.
The development of new and sustainable methods of fishing along with the application of highly rigorous standards and control measures have permitted Whole Foods to begin selling CSB once again. Yaaay! The sea bass in Whole Foods stores has been caught off the coast of South Georgia Island, near Antarctica, using eco-friendly methods. The fish is traceable from the boat on which it was caught to store in which it is sold. The fact that CSB has better supervision than half the children in this world may explain why it costs an arm and a leg. But man, is it worth it.
After assuring the fish guy at my Whole Foods that I did indeed intend to purchase the coveted fish and was not just jerking him around (he was looking at me all suspicious-like. I guess I look suspicious), I sped home to try it out. It only got more exciting from there. A small aside: I am now the proud owner of a giant cast iron skillet. Since I apparently have absolutely no sense of dimension, I bought a 12” pre-seasoned cast iron skillet and was surprised to find out that it hardly fits on my stove. It’s giant and not a little intimidating. So, I did what any self respecting cook would do at this juncture – I opened a bottle of wine and set the burner on high.
Once the skillet was almost smoking hot I poured in a bit of olive oil and threw in a piece of salted butter. I say threw because I was trying not to get close to the skillet – it was sputtering everywhere. This is where I became extremely glad that I took the battery out of my smoke detector. Don’t tell anyone. The butter browned right away, I put the salted and peppered fish in the skillet and let it sear and sear and sear on one side until there was a thick brown crust – my very favorite way of preparing fish. A couple more minutes under the broiler and it was done!
And let me tell you, it was perfect. The thick crust was crunchy and salty, giving way to creamy creamy fish. CSB is very fatty, which explains not only its spectacular texture but also its intensely sweet taste. It really is one of the most flavorful fish I have ever had.
I highly advise everyone to go get CSB from whoever will sell it to you. It’s ok now! The fishing methods are eco-friendly, and earth conscious and all that. You will be doing the planet, the long-suffering (and now, eco-friendly) fishermen, and yourself a favor.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
My Mom used to make a mushroom soup when I was little (12ish). The crinkled and crusty piece of paper that had the recipe photocopied on it (from an unidentified source) had the heading “Mushroom Velvet Soup.” This was back in the early nineties, so Mushroom Velvet Soup didn’t sound nearly as tacky as it does now. Actually, it sounded rather sophisticated and involved. The soup had a lot of flavors familiar to me, having spent only a couple years in the country at that point. There was dill and there was sour cream – two staples of Russian cooking. I loved it.
I had absolutely no interest in cooking at that time. In fact, I considered it punishment. This soup, however, really was punishment. Velvet obviously implies something smooth and rich. Unfortunately, a biting box grater and my 12-year-old hands were the closest we came to a food processor or immersion blender in the house. So, the soup making would go a little something like this. My Mom would call from work and ask me to grate the mushrooms before she got home. Yep, grate. Mushrooms. A whole carton of them. I hated every minute of it. I lost a lot of skin to that stupid grater.
After she got home, my Mom would make the soup with my nowhere-close-to-pureed mushrooms. The resulting soup tasted great but was certainly nowhere near velvety – even less velvety on the days when I was an extra cranky 12 year old and didn’t do very well with the aggressive box grater. The soup was one of the first things I learned how to make when I started cooking a little in college. I haven’t made it in years, for obvious grater-related reasons.
This is a slightly more grown version of that soup, made with the advantage of kitchen gadgets I am now privileged to own. I substituted crème fraiche for the sour cream to make the soup rich with a slightly more subtle tang, and used shallots in place of onions to let the mushroom flavor stand on its own a bit more. It was as classy as I remembered it.
Mushroom Velvet Soup, all grown up.
2 tbsp olive oil
2 small shallots, chopped
8 oz. crimini mushrooms, roughly chopped (ha!)
¾ tbsp flour (helps with the velvet part of the soup)
2 cups chicken stock (more if you like a thinner soup)
3 tbsp crème fraiche
big handful of finely chopped dill
1) Saute shallots in olive oil till softened, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms, salt and pepper, cook until all the water from the mushrooms evaporates.
2) Add the flour to the mushrooms, stir until absorbed. Pour in the stock and bring soup to a boil. Locate the pot lid at the very bottom of your sink that is overflowing with dirty dishes (or is that just me?), wash it, cover pot, lower heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, till the soup thickens and the mushrooms are thoroughly cooked.
3) Buzz the soup with blender (hehe) until smooth.
4) Add crème fraiche and dill, reheat but do not boil. Thin soup with stock if desired. Season with salt and pepper.
Monday, October 02, 2006
Now that I am all atoned and repented, I can share a bit of wisdom with you that I managed to stumble upon during my time of reflection and starvation.
1) Clothes fit a lot better after a fast. I am, however, in no way advocating this as an effective weight loss technique because frankly, and not surprisingly, it sucks big time. Breaking the fast most certainly makes up for all the calories denied the day prior leaving you (me) back at the start.
2) I spend an inordinate amount of time during each of my days thinking about food. When I wasn't eating and was trying desperately not to think about food, I was totally bored! There was nothing to fill all of my empty time. Food = intellectual stimulation.
3) When preparing to embark on a 24 hour fast, the choice of reading material is absolutely crucial. For example, I chose My Life in France, Julia Child's autobiography. I don't know why the problem with this choice wasn't obvious to me until the day of the fast. The book is wonderful, Julia Child's voice is inviting and lacking in pretense and she is generally a whole lot of fun (none of these are novel observations, I realize). It's so much fun to read, especially since each sentence is dripping with her joy and enjoyment of every moment of her life (or of the life she chooses to present, anyway). BUT she talks a lot about food. Duh. She talks about food in gorgeous detail, about both her failures and unmitigated successes. I highly recommend it, but only when you are not at all hungry.
That's as far as I got. I try not to dig too deep.