Monday, August 24, 2009

Julia: Alive & Well

Almost 48 years after it was first published, Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child is finally topping the New York Times best-seller list. I saw the charming movie Julie & Julia over the weekend, which is fueling this recent book-buying frenzy. Last week 22,000 copies were sold — more than were sold in any full year since the book’s appearance, according to its publisher Alfred A. Knopf.

It's not because we've thrown caution to the wind and have adopted a butter, cream, and fat diet, all deliciously wonderful things at the core of traditional French cooking. Or because there's been a renewed interest in aspic. I think people are simply bewitched by "Julia" (played with aplomb by Meryl Streep). She had such a passion for life and food and possessed this magnetism about her. You couldn't help but smile when you saw or heard her. She had a big spirit and I think people were drawn to her because of it. She was a bit of a "fish out of water" — physically at 6' 2" and emotionally restless and looking for something "to doooo" in Paris —but didn't let that stop her. She was brave. She was loving. She was joyous. 

The movie follows two story lines of women (Julie Powell being the second who decides to take on the challenge of cooking and blogging about all 524 recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a mere 365 days) who turn to cooking when they were looking for a sense of purpose. It happened to lead them both to great things. I don't think any of us who picked up the cookbook or have renewed interest in Julia Child after watching the movie are expecting to find similar success. I think we all just want to be a little bit more like Julia. 

Julia followed her stomach — and her heart — in a way I don't think many do. It's the passion that counts in life. Hers happened to be about food and it revolutionized home cooking. She famously said, "I see every recipe as a short story." I love that. Where some people can hear a song and are transported to another place and time, food has that power over me. I remember cities, people and events according to the food I ate or cooked and who I shared it with. Like when I recently discovered I actually like olives when I was in Madrid this summer. Well, not all olives, but some of the green ones. Or when I stayed up all night baking lemon squares for a sorority rush party my junior year in college only to walk in the kitchen to find the cat standing in the middle of the pan (which is impossible to fix, I realized). When I see macaroni and cheese, I think of my parents going out on the town. That was our standard "babysitter dinner." It allows me to catalog my life, but in a delicious context sprinkled with the memories of how I've become who I am and how I got here. Sure there were some culinary misadventures and even catastrophes, but I wouldn't trade them. It's what makes life life

I think that's why I'm so drawn to Julia, now more than ever. She exuded life. But she knew it could be messy. She seemed so fearless and undaunted by the occasional mishap. She's made me braver, more adventurous in the kitchen — and in life. So I think I'll head down to La Super-Rica for lunch. This was one of Julia's favorite restaurants and happens to be here in Santa Barbara, where she moved in 2001 and lived until she passed in 2004, just two days shy of her 92nd birthday. I want to revel in her spirit and I'd like to think Julia would approve of my method. 

Hot Dog!

Last weekend I was in Portland to celebrate a friend's birthday. On my way back to the airport, I spotted the 27-foot-long Oscar Mayer Wienermobile! My first time ever! Yes, I was sleep deprived and had indulged too much the night before, but this put an instant smile on my face. 

Mondays in general feel like a slight hangover to me, so I thought I'd share this image with you in hopes that it will alleviate some of the pain associated with the fact that the weekend is over and its back to the grind stone again.

Happy Monday! 

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Beer Me

I'm all about fine dining with beautiful linen napkins and crystal stemware, but there is something so satisfying about sitting down at a newspaper-covered table with a big bushel of blue crabs and a bucket of cold beer in front of you. You roll up your sleeves, pop open your beer, grab a crab, and make sure you have a roll of paper towels nearby. 

So when I was invited to a seafood and beer pairing dinner, my vision was rather low-brow. But I forgot one important detail. The chef behind the dinner was Dylan Fultineer, one of the most inventive and eclectic chefs I've been exposed to. He's like a magician or chemist, concocting dishes with seemingly disparate ingredients that rationally could only be the result of some sort of culinary dare, but he somehow makes them work. But not just work. Your mind is blown. Since Dylan left the Hungry Cat earlier this year, I've been mourning the loss of his ridiculously creative and delicious dishes that make you feel like you've just won the lottery. 

Currently calling Hollister Brewing Company home, he may have shifted to a more gastropub repertoire, but these monthly beer pairing dinners give him a chance to get back in the kitchen and do what he does best: Create off-the-chart dishes using the freshest local ingredients. But in typical Dylan fashion, he's not just serving memorable food. He's reeducating you on the pleasure of eating. His new partnership with self-taught and award-winning brewmaster Eric Rose seems to be a match made in heaven. 

Both are part artist—part scientist, working together to create an integrated dining experience with as much focus placed on the beverage as the food. The result, quite frankly, knocks your socks off. 

No stranger to tasting menus paired with wine, I've come to appreciate how just the right glass of wine can elevate a dish from good to flawless. But beer . . . hmmm. . . I can't say I've ever really given it much consideration as a transformative element to eating. But after my seafood and beer pairing at Hollister, I'm a believer. Not your most adventurous beer drinker, I was a little skeptical. Stouts, creamy ales and smokey beers often leave me wishing for a wine list, but like good pairing should, once I tasted the beer and the dish together, I wondered aloud what combination could possibly be better? 

I could wax on and on about the courses in excruciating details, but I thought at this point you'd prefer to read the Cliff Notes:

First course: Beausoleil oysters on the half shell with champagne mignonette served with Sands Sessions Cream Ale

Second course: Local halibut ceviche marinated in Sands Session Cream Ale with ambrosia melon, watermelon radishes, watercress and sesame seed cracker served with Fairview Farmhouse

Third course: Belgian Country Pale Ale braised local mussels with toasted ciabatta and harissa aioli served with Hollister Hefeweizen

Fourth course: Wood-grilled Columbia River white sturgeon, shell beans with sofrito cooked romano beans and toasted marcona almonds served with Irish Red 

Fifth course: Olive oil cake with creme fraiche ice cream and American sturgeon caviar served with 540 Apricot Wheat

I do feel compelled to comment on the dessert because I know it seems whacky. I don't have a massive sweet tooth so an olive oil cake is an ideal finish. This cake was fluffy, moist, slightly fruity, delicate and leans almost to the savory side of the dessert scale. Accompanied by a lovely little scoop of creme fraiche ice cream, with a sublime tanginess, and topped with a dollop of caviar . . . . I know! Bizarre! But insanely delicious! You'll have to trust me on this one. I'm not even a huge fan of caviar [and I call myself a foodie?!], but this was the most stunning combination of the evening, only perfected by the wheat beer I washed it down with.  

With the widespread availability of craft beers and the fact that beer offers a broader range of flavors than wine, it needs to be more than a secondary thought when considering what to drink with your meal. [For ideas on pairings, look here.] My introduction at Hollister definitely made me a convert. I'll definitely be expanding my beer pairing beyond pizza and burgers. I might even serve it with cloth napkins!

And in today's economy when you're perhaps less inclined to reach for Robert Parker's latest 94-pt choice, craft beer should be considered the new affordable luxury. 

Beer me, please. 

Monday, August 10, 2009

Churros con Chocolate

No trip to Madrid is complete without sampling the city's famous "churros con chocolate." While some people claim it's the ideal breakfast, I thought it was pretty hard to beat as a late night snack after a night out on the town. Luckily, the Chocolatería San Ginés is open 24 hours!

Serving up piping hot sticks of fried dough along side cups of hot cocoa since 1894, this place is legendary but quite the hidden gem. 

I had the address and a map but neither helped me (and it wasn't the fact that I'd had a few glasses of wine and a shot of orujo!). A kind taxi driver finally delivered me to the neighborhood where I could literally follow my nose the rest of the way. The smell alone is a dieter's nightmare, but seriously who can diet while traveling in Spain?! 

I don't think something doughy, fried and sugar-coated can be described as anything other than tasty, but it's the chocolate that elevates it to a whole new level. It's dark, rich and tongue-coatingly thick. 

Although called hot chocolate, it's more like hot fudge, clinging decadently to the churros (and your fingers). The churros, I realized, are really just the chocolate delivery mechanism. 

Once the churros are gone, you have to switch to the spoon method, as you know there is no way you're leaving any chocolate behind. And because I'm a nice person, I will refrain from sharing the photos of my friend Karen drinking the last precious drops. It was that good. 

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bowled Over

I have been loving Madrid's hearty fare for the past month, but with the temperatures routinely in the mid to upper 90s I've been feeling like some seafood was in order. The land-locked capital of Spain is (perhaps surprisingly) known for its excellent seafood, with the freshest options flown in daily from all three coasts. Several locals insisted I dine at Taberna Maceiras to get my fix. 

Located on Calle de las  Huertas, a hub of nighttime activity with a plethora of bars, restaurants and jazz cafes that beckon to you, Maceiras looks like nothing special when you walk by it. With an unassuming hand-painted sign, you're almost temped to pass it by. 

But the people waiting in line outside with a look of slight desperation on their faces make you think twice. [Disclaimer: This photo was taken after dinner, when the line had subsided.] 

The interior is cozy and rustic, filled with communal tables and wine barrels in the corners. It has a kitschy nautical theme going on, which seems fitting here. As you sit down at your table (that you'll likely end up sharing with others), you're handed the menu — a simple, round piece of wood with the selections hand-written in different ink colors. It looks a little bit like a middle-school craft project but it works with the vibe of the place. 

The restaurant specializes in seafood from Galicia, which I discovered is as delicious as their wines! The Galicians are known for eating gargantuan amounts, so when in Rome . . . . It was hard to choose, but my friend Karen, who'd come to hang out with me during my last week in Spain, and I ended up going with some fried calamari (that looked like enormous onion rings when they arrived but were incredibly tender) . . .  

. . . mussels baked in this delicious spicy, tomato broth . . . 

. . . and baked hake in a garlic butter sauce, served right out of the oven (and the pot)!

But to fully compliment the superlative seafood, we needed some wine of course! The selection is first-rate and well-priced. We went with an acidic and vibrant Albariño, which was the perfect match. In keeping with the Galician tradition, the wine is served in ceramic bowls. 

I can't put my finger on exactly why, but I loved drinking wine from the bowl. It has an informality and an intimacy to it. Like you're drinking coffee with your girlfriends. I don't actually drink coffee, but I'm thinking this new vessel for wine might be a way to get my "coffee talk" in while sipping on something more up my alley. Wine at Starbucks: Now that would be a strategic way to dig out of the recession and recapture the market share McDonald's has taken away. Doesn't a glass of wine cure more than a cup of coffee? I rest my case. 

Monday, August 3, 2009

What You See is What You Get

What do Madrileños do on a Friday night? Eat, drink and definitely not sleep! Maria, my expat friend and tour-guide for the night, showed us how the locals do it. 

I think the key is to stop frequently for sustenance. One of the many highlights was a little "cave" called Mesón del Champiñón (House of the Mushroom), one of the oldest taverns in the city and located under the Plaza Mayor

As the name would indicate, they serve mushrooms — stuffed and grilled to perfection — and that's about it. It's a narrow room with walls decorated in a funky green and brown pattern with with a bar on one side and a small back room with an organ player where the locals come to dance off all the calories they consume here. 

A small portion of the bar serves up pitchers of sangria and cervezas while the lion share of the space is dedicated to cooking the house specialty. There are trays stacked ten high with stuffed mushrooms waiting to be cooked as the orders fly in. 

I was grateful for the plexi-glass wall in front of the grill so I could watch the chef in action. It's quite a process to behold. At full tilt, he had more than 200 mushrooms going at once. 

We ordered a ración, which was delivered hot off the grill and served with lots of toothpicks.

I don't know if the toothpicks are supposed to keep people from nibbling off your plate or what, but it's a highly plausible theory once you taste them. Each one is filled with bits of chorizo, garlic, and herbs with a healthy dose of salt and oil. Low fat: No. Delicious: Yes. 

It was just the hearty snack needed to energize us as we set off into the night once again to mingle among the locals and visitors alike who enjoy the city's thousands of bars before heading to a disco at sunrise. Seriously, I now know why there is a siesta each afternoon.