Archive for the ‘Food’ category

How to Have Guests – And Enjoy Them

December 16, 2008

My family lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and not only is it home to the one and only, world famous Zingerman’s family of businesses, loved by foodies one and all, but it also has a really fantastic public library. Once a year at least (I’m not sure, I don’t live there anymore) they have a book sale at the library made up of, I’m assuming, books that were donated to them. They charge next to nothing for the books, but all the proceeds go to benefit the library, and you can find a lot of really wonderful treasures, if you’re willing to hunt through the piles. The last time they had one of these sales, I sent my mom and sister there on a mission to pick me up any fun/interesting/useful cookbooks they could find (no surprise there), and boy did they hit the jackpot! I finally got to see what bought when I was recently home for Thanksgiving, so I’m just now working my way through them, but there are some totally fun images and great quotes that you should keep an eye out here for in future.

I thought I would start you off with a little quote from one of three Betty Crocker cookbooks that I got. This one was published in 1959 and is entitled Betty Crocker’s Guide to Easy Entertaining: How to Have Guests – And Enjoy Them.
Jack Spratt

From a section called:
What do you do about guests with special diet problems?
“The thoughtful guest who is on such an extremely restricted diet as a salt-free one, for example, does best to regret an invitation to a meal. It is not kind to ask a hostess, who has her hands full anyway, to prepare an entirely separate meal for one. It is even more unkind to refuse the party dishes she has gone to such trouble to prepare. In this case it is better to say, “We are not dining out at all while Bob is on a limited diet, but we’d love to join you anytime you’re planning an after-dinner party.” This gives the hostess a chance to say, “We’ll miss you – but will you join us after dinner?” Or, if late-comers do not suit her plans, “I’m so sorry. We’ll plan an evening together soon.”” (17)

My reaction:

Can you imagine if this were the protocol in this day and age? I mean with all the “special diets” and dietary restrictions that we are all constantly navigating, whether by choice or for health-related issues, if we went by the above advice, we’d never get a chance to eat with people who didn’t have the exact same diet as us, unless we went out to a restaurant of course.

I do not see why bringing your own food to a dinner so that the hostess is not put out and you can still attend would be considered in bad form? And if you are to be a shut-in until you have managed to somehow work your way around your “special diet”, then why would anyone ever choose to stick to their diets? If this isn’t a means of marshalling everyone into one generic diet or cuisine, I don’t know what is! Keep in mind that this is during a period when there was also heavy push to find and stick to “American-style” foods, none of that foreign stuff, particularly if you were an immigrant. Think here about the cooking schools that were so popular during the 1950s and all the packaged and processed convenience foods which were supposed to make life easier without the quality suffering (yeah right!).

Part of me has such a hard time getting behind the above advice because I can’t remember ever having attended such a formal dinner party, which just goes to show you how much more informal we’ve become since then. It’s funny to juxtapose this against a comment which was made at the beginning of this same book which states, “The lives of all of us have changed vastly since we watched our parents preparing for the first big party we can remember…. Our clothes and manners are far more casual. And our entertaining is less formal…” It would seem that we are on a downward slope toward casualness when it comes to entertaining, though I’m sure that more formal dinner parties become the norm as one ages. It is much easier to cobble together a bunch of friends and a hodge podge of dishes when you’re a graduate student than when you are more settled and the opportunity to get together isn’t there as often, then expectations are higher and formality tends to go along with those expectations.

Anyway, I just wanted to share the above quote with you all since it made me laugh when I read it, simply imagining how ridiculous it would be if we all followed those instructions today. I don’t think I’d have any friends and I certainly wouldn’t go out half as much. Today we’re much more accommodating (which, Betty acknowledges can be a hassle it’s true), though this seems almost a necessity given the extent to which dietary restrictions and special diets have gained acceptance across society. It’s practically more unusual to find someone who doesn’t have food allergies or special needs. I find it’s always good to look back into the past to give our present circumstances some perspective, and this certainly has done that for me.


Embrace your sensualist side

December 13, 2008

So I’ve been playing around a lot recently with the idea of being a sensualist. I can’t exactly remember where I first heard the term now, but I like to think of it as someone who is fully experiencing the moment that they’re in. And this is certainly something to strive for. I know we can all get caught up in thinking / reminiscing about the past and planning / hoping about the future, but imagine how great it is to really be in the present, 100%. I think I’m learning, that there are more and more times in recent months / years in which I’ve been able to achieve this level of presentness. Some of you may be thinking how rather yogic this seems, and it’s true that being here and now is something that we talk a lot about in yoga, but I would like to transition this concept, as always, to the realm of food. And this is how I return to the notion of sensualism. To really have all of your senses turned on, to be aware of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures, this can only serve to increase your appreciation (or frustration I suppose) of a situation. When you’re in a good place, having a good time, though, the ability to take it all in is so much more fulfilling. Perhaps something to keep in mind during this unavoidably hectic time of the year…

Everyone I know is getting barbecue sauce for the holidays!

December 2, 2008

Okay, so I have an extreme love of barbecue sauce. Anyone who knows me, even just a little bit, knows this. One of the best gifts I ever got (for Valentine’s Day no less) was a barbecue sauce of the month club (which technically wasn’t every month, but two bottles of sauce every three months, I wasn’t complaining, no siree). Technically speaking barbecue sauce is not that difficult to make. It often has a mustard, ketchup, or vinegar base – this frequently reflecting the area of the country from which the recipe originates. But really, you just throw a bunch of ingredients together in a pot on the stove and boil it for a little while, sometimes you need to puree it, but it’s as easy or easier than making soup (though perhaps a bit less healthy and let’s hope that you eat slightly less – this may not be the case if you like it as much as I do). Maybe I need to start keeping track of my soup to barbecue sauce ratio as a measure of general overall health, an interesting proposition now that I think of it. ☺

Several years ago now I bought a barbecue cookbook at Reading Terminal Market here in Philadelphia called Peace, Love and Barbecue by Mike Mills and Amy Mills Tunnicliffe. It’s a great book which has a little on everything you might want to know re barbecue from the history in different parts of the country, to stories about specific barbecue joints, to barbecue competition teams, to recipes for sauces and rubs, meat, sides, and desserts – all you’ll require for a complete barbecue meal. Last winter I fully intended to test out several of the barbecue sauce recipes in the cookbook to keep my fridge stocked with a variety of sauce yumminess, but never quite got around to it. I was recently reminded of said project and reinvigorated with the enthusiasm for trying out several options. I marked out four recipes to try and began compiling all the necessary ingredients (e.g. I have actually, not until this project, purchased a bottle of ketchup since moving to Philadelphia five and a half years ago – barbecue sauce is my ketchup, what can I say?).

Over the last two weeks I’ve managed to find the time to make three out of the four of these recipes (still looking for an ingredient or two on the fourth) and now my fridge is literally bursting with sauce. This last batch was what really put me over the edge. It just goes to show you that it’s best to pay attention to the details when you’re reading through a recipe. I didn’t even stop to consider how much output there’d be for each of these sauces, and the last one I threw together made three quarts! Three quarts, that translates to between four and five bottles of sauce. I mean I love sauce and all, but that is serious loot! Even when I’m really blowing through the stuff because I’m having a particularly barbecue sauce-centric phase, there’s just no way I’d eat that much in less than a one-bottle-a-month sort of rate, and that’s when I really like the sauce. I’m not going to tell you what my current favorite sauce is, since I don’t want to turn into an advertisement here, but I do have strong preferences, and when I buy a new kind I’ve never had before I almost always end up mixing several together or adding in other ingredients to try to create the kind of taste I’m looking for. All of which is to say, “everyone I know is getting barbecue sauce for the holidays” because it is am almost literally leaking it out of my apartment. It’s taking over my refrigerator and I have too many other cooking projects that I will want to use that space for, sorry sauce, I love you an’ all, but…

So, if you’re in my circle of friends, let this be a forewarning to you, prepare yourself, get all of your favorite barbecue recipes together, arm yourself with a litany of options, so when a bottle of the sauce arrives in your house or apartment, you’ll be ready to roll.

Food Thoughts

October 30, 2008

I’ve been pondering recently what it is about food that I find so compelling. Why it is important aside from providing sustenance in my life? One of the things that I keep coming back to is the power of food and food-related situations for making connections and creating, building, and deepening relationships. I realize that sitting down to a meal is not the only time when connections occur, but the sheer fact that eating helps form the basic structure of our days surely is an indication of how significant it truly is.

If I think about it, the meals that have meant the most to me have real context and meaning, it was not so much about the food, but about the people involved and the occasion. I surely have my own preferences when it comes to eating, but most important for me is a sense of togetherness, of camaraderie, of sharing, of opening up of your heart and oftentimes your home. I suppose part of this must be a function of the fact that I grew up in a household that stressed the importance of family meals. And as I have moved out into the world on my own, I seek that sense of belonging around the table as I share a meal with others. Many of my happiest moments are those times when I have felt such sense of  togetherness with the other people at the table. As you travel through life meeting acquaintances, friends, and lovers for a bite, remember the importance of the meal and perhaps think a little bit more deeply about its role in your life.

Foodie Crushes

October 24, 2008

So I’ve recently come up with a new term to describe a phenomenon in my life. There’s a joke amongst my friends that I have a crush on every guy I ever meet, which it has to be said is probably true, but I like to think it’s because I see the good parts in people and it intrigues me. That’s not at all to say that it ever (hardly ever) translates into my actually dating these guys I may be crushing on, nor that I particularly want to. Recently, however, this appreciation of the opposite sex seems to be on a more focused track, such that I am now officially designating a whole class of crushes as “foodie crushes.” When I first tried to describe this to my sister, she did not understand it at all, but then again this may be because she’s not a foodie and so connections made in, around, through food are not nearly as important to her.

Here’s the part that may make you laugh, although some of these new foodie crushes in my life are people that I can legitimately say are my friends, others are more often people that I come into contact with when I’m out in search of a great foodie experience, i.e. people working in restaurants. Whether it be the waiter who shows an in depth knowledge of the food and possesses an adept means of expressing this, or the staff in the kitchen pouring out their hearts and souls (or so I like to believe) into the food so that you can have a wonderful meal. Expression through the medium of food. This is an interesting and provocative topic, and one that I am so intrigued by. Again, it comes back to this underlying idea that I have that food is an expression of self, that it reveals your identity, that it can even show you things about yourself and the people around you (both good, bad, and indifferent) that you hadn’t known before. So, when I meet or see someone who seems as engrossed by food as I am, I’m drawn to them, I want to know more, I want to explore who they are in and around a meal, and I’m hoping that those people who work in food wouldn’t mind. Someday I may actually work out a way of asking these people more about themselves, of trying to sit down with them at a table, of seeing who they really are. But for now, I am caught up in admiration mainly from afar. What I want is to connect through food, but I’m often too shy or afraid to do anything about it, instead I’m left simply dreaming about it, and remembering times when it’s happened in the past.

Cooking your way to a man’s heart…

August 20, 2008

I’ve long been interested in looking more closely at the genre of cookbooks, recipes, and other literature in its various different forms which forefronts this notion of cooking as a means through which women can work their way into a man’s heart. It seems such an “old fashioned” idea, yet we all know that food is one of those things that brings us together and that food and sex are two of the most primal needs or desires that we have. So surely, if you can cook well, then you have a tool through which you can attract good people into your life and certainly hope to keep them around, or at least that’s the theory. I will agree that the woman as the sole provider of nourishment is too out-dated and that we have certainly moved into a food culture in which many of the culinary responsibilities are shared or somehow divided amongst other household chores. I hope that this means that we will soon be seeing a return to this type of literature that seems to have been so popular in the first few decades of the 20th century, for example The Settlement Cookbook: The Way to a Man’s Heart by Kander and Schoenfeld (1903), but in a new form, with the focus shifted to shared building of relationships through food. Not only can women treat their men well by feeding them wonderfully prepared meals, but men can do the same for their women, and they can both enjoy preparing food together for themselves, their friends, and families. Read through the poem below and just think about the embedded messages and how they might be incorporated into your food philosophy today.

How to Cook a Husband
In a lecture room, before a cooking school,
For cooking a husband was given this rule:
First, in selecting, to market don’t go;
The best you’ll find there, most surely no.
For although there are many, yes, galore,
The prime will always be brought to your door.
Don’t think for a moment, to bake or broil,
Much better tie in the kettle to boil.
Use a silken cord called comfort – ‘twon’t break,
But one called duty is apt to be weak.
To make him secure it is well, no doubt,
Yes! for aught we know, he’d be falling out.
And then, too surely if your back were turned,
He’d become, alas! both crusty and burned.
In cooking a husband you’ll plainly see,
Like lobsters and crabs, alive they must be.
Should he sputter and fuss, help there is none;
Some husbands do it until they are done.
Some sugar add, in the form of kisses;
You’ll find to absorb, he rarely misses.
Vinegar and pepper, use none at all;
But of spice you may add a sprinkling small.
Stir some, lest to the kettle he adhere,
Thus making him useless, I greatly fear.
Please not in his side some instrument stick,
For when he is done you will know it quick.
With proper treatment and excellent care
You’ll find him, indeed, delicious and rare.

Goderich, Lake Huron, Canad
from Famous Old Recipes Used a Hundred Years and More in the Kitchens of the North and South Contributed by Descendants ( 1908 )

Can you do the Django?

July 7, 2008

There is something about the Restaurant Week format, with the typically smaller number of dishes being prepared by the kitchen staff in restaurants across the city that tends to lend the meal somewhat of a conveyor-belt feel, or at least that’s the opinion that I’ve come to after numerous experiences. There have been relatively few Restaurant Week meals that I’ve been utterly satisfied with, so much so that I don’t make the effort to plan to go out to eat when the time comes. But that said, there are a few places where I’ve had really excellent Restaurant Week experiences, and Django is one of those. This small, homey, almost French provincial BYOB near 4th and South Streets is definitely all that its been cracked up to be. When I ate there for Restaurant Week about a year and a half ago it was definitely impressed by the quality of the food they were turning out and I was not disappointed on a return visit last evening. Since I had been so impressed with the meal in the rather more constricted Restaurant Week format, I really wanted to go back to see what the kitchen was preparing on your typical Saturday night.

I have to say that one of the things I really appreciate about Django is how they embrace the feel of home and charm in both their food and decor. I mean any place that serves you bread baked in a flower pot has got a lot going for it from the get go, right?

The menu was filled with wonderful choices of seasonal, fresh, local foods (they change their offering frequently) that in their mere description made you want to gnaw on the paper menus, but then that could just be me. I would really have loved to be able to try one of everything, but we wouldn’t have been able to fit all that food on our tiny little table, not to mention the fact that I wouldn’t have been able to fit all that food in my stomach. My dinner companion and I decided to split an appetizer and two entrees and a dessert. We started with a goat cheese gnocchi with house made porchetta (a boneless pork roast), broccoli rabe and sweet garlic, topped with aged provolone and served with long hots jus. These were not your typical Italian BYOB gnocchi, they had a firmer texture than I was used to, but this was a better accompaniment to the porchetta texture-wise. I was surprised by the pungency of the au jus, which almost tasted beefy in origin. The broccoli rabe was a definite success. I may have mentioned on here somewhere before how difficult it seems to control the bitterness in broccoli rabe, it can often get to be way too overwhelming, but in this dish, that was certainly not a problem.

They surprised us with a little amuse bouche of smoked salmon pate and spicy avocado spread on top of, get ready for this, a round tortilla chip. I laughed when I realized that’s what the base was, I could just picture the servers in the back pawing through a bag of tortilla chips picking out the unbroken ones for the guests and chomping through the others if / when they could steal a spare moment. This was a surprisingly tasty little treat though, so don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

For one of our entrees we ordered a seared rare Hawaiian Big Eye Tuna with pink lentils, peaches, crab and basil in blood-orange and coconut curry broth. This was a definite flavor success! I love anything with coconut in it and since peaches are just starting to come into season, they lent a really wonderful freshness to the whole dish. I am personally still working on my love for lentils, I think I need to start making them more often at home. It’s mainly a texture dislike for me, I prefer smooth and mushy rather than grainy and crunchy. The appearance of this dish alone, however, was enough to impress, I mean carrying on the theme of the pinkness of the rare tuna throughout the other aspects, it was definitely a keeper.

The other entrée we ordered was an organic duck breast served with an arugula, cherry, and goat cheese salad, a confit-goat cheese cigar, a foie-gras torchon, and a port-cherry reduction sauce. I really appreciated the fact that they left the skin on the duck breast and I loved the foie-gras. Something about duck breast and foie-gras, the chewy meaty texture and the silky smooth, goes so well together. I did think that they could have played up the cherry part of this dish a little bit more, the flavors were a bit flat for my taste and I felt that if they’d either had a few more dried cherries in the port reduction or fresh ones in the salad, then it would have brightened up the flavors just the right amount.

Ah, to dessert, my perpetual favorite. We all know that Django is and has been known for their cheese plates and they definitely still have them on their menu, but no amount of polite hinting would convince my dinner partner that they wanted to try this, so we ended up going for the strawberry-rhubarb shortcake with an almond biscuit, vanilla cream fraiche, lavender honey and whipped cream. I do believe that this is the first time I’ve ever had a strawberry rhubarb shortcake and I really did not know what I had been missing. This was wonderful! The almond biscuit was light but also with some crunch and the whipped cream with honey was heavenly.

As promised in other reviews I’ve seen the wait staff were very polite and friendly, despite the lateness of the hour and the fact that we were almost the last table to be seated for the evening. The freshness of the ingredients that they’re using at Django really shines through in the brightness of the flavors they’re presenting. I would say that I was as impressed with them on the second visit as I had been on the first, so I really