Wednesday, September 30, 2009

You Are What You Eat

I know we were all told not to judge a book by its cover, but I don't think we can help it at times. There's an opinion forming chip in our brains that makes us conjure up strong ideas about people, often with very little information. I read an article a while back in Cosmo or some other high-brow literary publication that shared pictures of three guys' grocery carts. They had a panel of women who analyzed the contents and made a hypothesis about the guy behind the cart. Total idiocy but I was totally intrigued. Of course you had some easy targets, like the yogi's cart filled with vegan stuff, but then there was the successful, married CEO whose cart was brimming with Fruity Pebbles, Chef Boyardee and Mac and Cheese. I would have pegged him as a single college boy (perhaps with some piercings and tats), but it turned out his wife was out of town for a week and he wasn't much of a cook. 

But really, can we form an accurate opinion about a person simply by looking at what's inside their shopping cart? What about by looking inside their refrigerator? In a series called You Are What You Eat, photographer Mark Menjivar has traveled across America taking photos of just that to paint a subtle portrait of their personal lives.  

The fridges are photographed as is, nothing added or taken away. Clearly people from all walks of life took part in this photographic adventure: the rich, the poor, vegetarians, Republicans, dreamers, those left out, and many more. But the reality is we never know the full story — even if we think we do. 

Take a peek . . . . The portraits are fascinating!

Carpenter & Photographer / San Antonio, TX / 3-Person Household / 12-Point Buck / 2008 
[Disclaimer: This has to be the manliest fridge/freezer I have ever seen — tequila and deer meat. I mean come on!] 

Bartender / San Antonio, TX / 1-Person Household / Goes to sleep at 8 AM and wakes up at 4 PM daily. / 2008

Community Volunteer / San Angelo, TX / 1-Person Household / Completely blind and lives alone. / 2007

Midwife & Middle School Science Teacher / San Antonio, TX / 3-Person Household (including dog) / First week after decided to eat locally grown vegetables. / 2008

Street Advertiser / San Antonio, TX / 1-Person Household / Lives on $432 fixed monthly income. / 2007

Mark hopes that by giving the public a backstage pass into the nutritional lives of your average Americans, people will think about how we fuel our bodies and the impact it has on others and our environment. "A refrigerator is both a private and shared space," he said. "One person likened the question, 'May I photograph the interior of your fridge?' to asking someone to pose nude for the camera.  My hope is that we will think deeply about how we care. How we care for our bodies. How we care for others. And how we care for the land."

With that thought, I'm off to go analyze my fridge. 

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Recipe Redux

As some of you may recall, my first attempt at the "simple pasta dish" a few weekends ago was rather disastrous. I'm happy to report my cooking hex has been lifted, which is great news for anyone coming over for dinner in the near future. The down side is the 5 pounds I lost as a result of having to throw out most of my cooking for a week has returned.  

Although fall is officially upon us, it's still glorious beach weather in Santa Barbara with the Farmers Market overflowing with tomatoes. I wanted to try my hand (again!) at preparing a super simple southern Italian summer pasta to showcase them. But with any simple recipe, the ingredients have to really be top notch. Trust me, this is not a time to be scrimping. I searched unsuccessfully for my beloved San Marzanos but the Romas were certainly nothing to thumb your nose at. 

The other key factor in this recipe is the bottarga. The what?! . . . Bottarga. Sometimes referred to as the poor man's caviar, bottarga is salted, pressed, and dried mullet or tuna roe that's been waxed to prevent further drying and exposure to light. I admit it looks bizarre, like some sort of large animal tongue, but don't let the appearance scare you off. You grate it over food and it ends up looking like bread crumbs and tasting salty yet sublime. 

It personifies a "secret ingredient" — that one flavor you can't quite put your finger on but transforms an almost ho-hum dish into something you salivate over still months later. Think of it as a kind of oceanic equivalent of supreme parmesan cheese. There is no substitution. It's imported from Italy and is pretty expensive (around $10 an ounce), but it has a shelf-life of at least nine months in the fridge, making it a long-lasting and definitely tasty investment. This is hard to find though. Very few grocery stores or gourmet shops carry this, but you can buy it online here and here. Ask your local gourmet shop if they'll special order it for you. Get some though. You'll love it and find many other delicious uses for your culinary expenditure like eggs, risotto, salad, bruschetta, etc. 

This is a perfect weekend dish because it does require some advanced planning but little effort. To make this recipe work, you need to roast the tomatoes over very low heat for a very long time. Given my unfortunate outcome previously, I chickened out at five hours and pulled out the tomatoes instead of cooking them for the recommended six. I just couldn't stand the thought of whipping out another tray of shriveled up pieces of bark, I mean tomatoes, again.  Here is a before and after picture. The end product is nearing a "sun-dried" look but still a little juicy. 

This is totally random, but here is another picture of the finished tomatoes, which reminded me of a tray of those wax lips you see at Halloween. It made me chuckle. I'm clearly easily amused. . . .

Anyway, once the tomatoes are done, the dish comes together in minutes, which is also a bonus because who wants to be slaving over a hot stove for hours when it's still 80 degrees at 8 o'clock at night? However, the richness of this dish still tastes like you spent the entire day in the kitchen, when really, if you're like me, you were just reading the latest US Weekly and sipping a glass of wine. Some secrets don't have to leave the kitchen. ;-) 

Penne with Oven-Roasted Tomatoes, Garlic, Chiles and Bottarga
Adapted from A16: Food + Wine Cookbook

Kosher salt
Extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1/4 tsp dried chile flakes
2 dozen fresh San Marzano tomatoes (or Romas if not available)
1/2 lb penne (I used whole wheat because it makes me feel less guilty)
1-ounce piece of bottarga for grating
Parmesan cheese for grating (optional)

Cut tomatoes in half and core. Place cut side up on a foil-wrapped cookie sheet covered in a layer of kosher salt. Place in a 200 degree over for approximately 5 hours. The tomatoes will be beyond "roasted," almost teetering on the verge of becoming dried out. This intensifies the flavor of the tomatoes. These can be made in advance and kept in an air-tight container and refrigerated. 
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta. Meanwhile, heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large saute pan over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and chile flakes and sweat, stirring occassionally, for about 3 minutes or until the garlic has softened. Chop roasted/dried tomatoes in halves and add to the pan, cooking for about 5 minutes or until the tomatoes have plumped up. Taste for seasoning and add salt if needed. Keep in mind the bottarga is salty so proceed cautiously. 
Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook for about 1 minute less than specified on the package. Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the sauce and toss well, adding some of the reserved sauce or a few drizzles of olive oil if needed. If the sauce is too loose, turn up the heat to medium-high and cook down the sauce with the pasta. Taste for seasoning adding more salt if needed. 
Serve the pasta in a bowl and grate the bottarga over the top to finish and serve immediately. I add a little grated parmesan too because frankly I think it makes any tomato-based sauce taste better. Yields: 2 servings. 

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Eat Out and Represent

Who doesn't want an excuse to get out of the kitchen — well, at least for one week?! September 20-26 is Share Our Strength's Great American Dine Out. When you eat out at one of more than 4,000 participating restaurants, a portion of the proceeds goes towards children's hunger relief. Visit here to learn more and receive a list of participating restaurants in your area. 

So head out to a restaurant involved in the cause to end childhood hunger and eat guilt-free. Avoiding washing dishes never felt so good . . . . 

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Love at First Bite

I'm in love! Well, OK, I'm definitely in serious like and have fallen hard. I've made this salad at least three times in the past week. It was inspired by a salad I had recently at a restaurant in San Francisco. It was actually a tiny green bean side salad (almost an elevated garnish) served with some tapas, but to me the salad stole the show. It had some unique combinations (tomatoes and hazelnuts) that I don't normally think to use, but the chef also left the beans slightly less than al dente, making me wince thinking of all the sad, soggy beans that were being eaten around the world at that very moment. I swooned over the freshness and lovely crunchiness. It was like a mouthful of summer in each bite. 

Soon after I declared my love of said green bean salad, I was thrilled to find a recipe for a similar version (also inspired by a restaurant meal in San Francisco) here, a great website for vegetarian dishes. I added my own twists based upon the ingredients I had on hand and found it delightful, so much so that I feel like I've become a green bean stalker. 

Now that Labor Day has passed us and summer is waning, I think it's the perfect addition to any meal to keep that summertime spirit burning as long as possible. Just don't wait too long, as these ingredients won't be around much longer. Oh the fickleness of love. 

Summer Green Bean Salad
Adapted from

3/4 lb green beans, trimmed 
1 tsp finely chopped green onions
1/4 tsp finely chopped fresh thyme
1 Tbsp minced shallots
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp heavy cream
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp ground pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tsp honey (optional)
3 cups frisee, torn
1 cup cherry tomatoes, cut in half
Fresh corn cut from 1 small ear
1/2 hazelnuts, smashed and toasted
1/2 cup feta cheese

To make the dressing, whisk together green onions, thyme, shallots, lemon juice, heavy cream, salt and pepper. Add the olive oil by whisking with a fork until all ingredients combine. Taste and adjust for more seasoning if needed. If there it's too tart, add a tiny bit of honey to take the puckery edge off. 
Cut green beans on the diagonal in 1-inch bits. Place in a microwave safe dish with 1 Tbsp water and cover with saran wrap. Steam for 90 seconds or until just slightly less than al dente. (If you prefer, you can also cook the beans in salted, boiling water for about 2 minutes). Quickly drain and run under cold water to stop the cooking process. 
In a large bowl toss the green beans, corn, half of the hazelnuts and frisee with a big splash of the dressing. Toss well and add more dressing, salt and/or pepper as needed. Add the tomatoes and feta cheese. Turn onto a platter or plate individually and top with remaining hazelnuts. 

Note: I've made this several times with a combination of wax beans and haricot verts. I think any mix of beans would be delicious. You can also use chives instead of green onions and dried thyme instead of fresh if that is all you have on hand but it's not as bright or tasty (but still good). If you can't find frisee, I've used escarole lettuce, but Romaine hearts would also be a workable alternative. The cream imparts a richness not a heaviness to the dressing so don't skip it. I also think an avocado would be a delicious addition. 

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cooking Catastrophe

You can't win 'em all. And some days just seemed doomed. I think I had a cooking hex on me today. There are several examples but one I think well illustrates this is my roasted tomatoes. 

Yes, those are actually beautiful, fresh Roma tomatoes (which I think were actually San Marzanos but it didn't seem right to argue with the guy selling them at the Farmers Market). I was so excited all day to spend six hours roasting them at 200 degrees (yes, six hours) because I knew they'd be amazing in this pasta recipe. One of those simple yet mind-blowing ones that involves about four ingredients and makes you wonder why you don't cook more "simply" more often. Oh yeah, because it takes six hours for the tomatoes to roast. . . . 

Anywho. . . as is evidence by the above exhibit, things didn't quite go as planned. I mean, I read the recipe several times, I followed it to a tee, and I even checked on the beautiful, fresh Romas an hour before they turned to brown, shriveled rocks. Quite a contrast. 

I kept looking at my stove trying to figure out if the cat somehow adjusted the oven setting to broil and blasted them for 45 minutes and then nonchalantly reset the oven before laying back down on the sofa for yet her 17th hour of sleep for the day. Wishful thinking. I have no one to blame but myself (oh and the hex). 

Tomorrow is another day and hopefully I'll be luckier in the kitchen. 

Friday, September 4, 2009

Stimulating Swine

It's almost impossible to turn on the news today without hearing about two things: how bad the economy is and swine flu. But I hadn't realized "the other white meat" had been directly affected by the recession. 

When the $787 billion stimulus bill was passed by Congress in February, $317.2 billion in spending provisions were appropriated for various federal agencies. As it turns out, the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) spent $24.3 million of stimulus funds on pork! To be precise, AMS bought $16.9 million of canned pork, $2.6 million of ham (with water added, cooked and frozen), and $4.8 million of sliced ham (with water added, cooked and frozen).

Were people boycotting the pork and ham markets due to misinformation about the swine flu? I'm pleased to report the answer is no. AMS is sending the meat to food banks as part of a $150 million effort to feed the the record number of hungry Americans during the recession. At least they had the good sense not to buy any spam! 

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Banned in 'Bama

I love my wine and I love my family's home state of Alabama. I've never had to choose between them before. Recently though the Alabama Alcohol Beverage Control (AABC) Board placed a ban on Cycles Gladiator wine because of its label. It features a replica of an 1895 French advertising poster for Cycles Gladiator bicycles, which symbolized a celebration of the freedom and happiness that pervaded Europe in the late 19th century, an era known as the Belle Epoque. This era marked many notable inventions and improvements to daily life, not the least of which was the modern bicycle. 

Clearly this wine should be banned: The woman is not wearing a helmet! And it appears she's biking at night with no lights or reflectors. So dangerous! How could that have been overlooked when it first hit the shelves in 2006? But suddenly the AABC Board has decided the stylized, art-nouveau rendition of the nude female violates Alabama's rule against displaying "a person posed in an immoral or sensuous manner." 

Strangely, it appears the AABC Board has no problem with wines sold under suggestive and potentially offensive names like Menage a Trois, Fat Bastard and Bitch. And the Alabama Tourism Department seems to be cool with naked women in public. They distribute a tourism brochure featuring Hiram Powers' 19th century nude statue The Greek Slave on the cover. The statue is on display at the Westervelt Warner Museum of American Art in Tuscaloosa and the brochure is available in museums, interstate highway welcome centers and visitors' bureaus statewide. 

While the ban has caused quite a stir, it's also caused quite a business opportunity. Bill Legion, President of Hahn Family Wines of California, the makers of the wine, said its website traffic went from 100 to 8,000 hits a day and online sales have increased tenfold. I guess there really is no such thing as bad publicity. 

I was camping up in Big Sur, CA last week and ran into a general store with a killer wine selection. [Honestly, only in California do you find people sipping excellent vintages in front of their tent or camper.] It happened to carry Cycles Gladiator so I couldn't resist checking out the "lewd label" and buying a bottle. My girlfriends and I sipped on it while we sat around the campfire — although we made sure to drink it with our eyes closed to avoid seeing such a pornographic image. 

If you're interested in supporting the plight of the nymph, check out the goods on this site. Just be careful about wearing the shirt in Alabama. If they're banning wine with inappropriate images, what will they do to a person wearing one?! 

I'm a long-standing University of Alabama Crimson Tide fan, which is pretty much a religion in my family. But after this ban on Cycles Gladiator, I'm realizing my blood must have turned more cabernet than crimson since moving to the West Coast. Just don't tell my granddad, the biggest UofA fan that walked the Earth. He'd roll over in his grave.