Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Top Chef Spotting

I'm a fairly big fan of Top Chef, even with all the problems I have with the format. So imagine my small thrill to find the filming season's chefs at Whole Foods when I stopped there to pick up some picnic things for a toddler's birthday picnic this morning. They were, unfortunately, almost finished checking out, so I didn't get to see them running around for ingredients.

I won't spoil anything with more info -- in fact, I'm glad that it appeared to be early in filming with a lot of chefs, 'cause I wouldn't want to bump into them at the final six or seven and be spoiled myself!

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Pilfered Brussels Sprout

LittleGirl, veggie-lover that she is, reached up and grabbed this Brussels sprout out of a basket at the Farmers' Market last week. The farmer waived off attempts to pay for the pilfered sprout and was a little tickled to watch her take nibbles out of it after I pulled out a few outer leaves. Then, as you can see, she took one Tremendous Mouthful (thanks, Blueberries for Sal) and that was that.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Or, a personalized obituary of my first experiences of culinary mecca.

The NYTimes today reports the closing of Manhattan's two branches of Balducci's market. In it's former home on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, Balducci's was my introduction to the joys of food shopping and food porn. I didn't learn new ingredients as much as see them at their finest. And, of course, most expensive. My actual shopping at Balducci's was limited by the smallness of my budget, but I loved walking through those cramped spaces that passed for aisles with a basket waiting for one of two specialty items to perk up a menu. I longingly admired the tropical fruits I'd eaten while traveling through SE Asia, tempting, but beyond my means.

My aunt and uncle lived around the corner from Balducci's through all my teen years. And I do mean around the corner. They lived on West 10th Street, four or five buildings in from Sixth Avenue. Walking almost anywhere meant walking past the glorious windows of aging meat, bright-eyed whole fish, and delicate pastries that represented a closed world to me for the first years. It's not that the world of food was closed to me. On the contrary, my family, nuclear and extended, are lovers of food and explorers of cuisine. Our trips into Manhattan brought a car to my aunt's disposal and often led to a trip to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn to stock up on Middle Eastern goodies at Sahadi's.

But for many years, I never entered Balducci's, although I'm not sure why. Later, when my aunt and uncle started spending weekends near my parents, I sometimes took over their apartment, with friends coming from as far as Montreal and Boston for weekends full of friendship and food. And then I did shop at Balducci's for then-hard-to-find specialty greens to elevate a salad made mostly of more ordinary leaves. Or for good bread to go with cheese from the East Village Cheese store that made fun cheeses affordable for me.

I occasionally forked over way too much money for a pastry for myself or bought a quarter pound of swoon-worthy coffee beans. Once, I stood behind Jodi Foster at the check-out. Mostly, though, I looked. And dreamed.

Even though I never visited Balducci's once it moved from the cramped, but wonderful space on the Avenue of the Americas, I'm a little sad to think that it no longer exists in Manhattan. The mingled food smells, the jeweled berries, the shelves crammed with oils, vinegars, and imported treats. They let me imagine meals I couldn't afford then (or now, really), but enjoyed planning. Always in my head, never on my stove. Luckily, my Memory Lane still pictures that market in that location, stocked with all the food goodness my culinary dreams require.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Mark Bittman: Food Matters

Living, as I do, in the middle of nowhere, libraries are not thick on the ground. I'm a lifetime fan of libraries, so this is a sadness. The two bright spots in my library-poor existence are my once-every-two-weeks bookmobile visits (one of the stops is just a mile away -- it's miraculous!) and the fact that Las Vegas libraries are incredibly generous and allow non-Nevada residents (strictly limited) borrowing rights.

Two weeks ago, Mark Bittman's Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating* was sitting on the shelf in our bookmobile that is for special-order books, either on their way to patrons or recently returned. I very eagerly asked if it was coming in or going out, and my luck held: it had been returned at the previous stop and was all mine!

I had to return it yesterday without managing to actually try a recipe, although I read through them all. Ok, I skimmed the ones focused on meat, but those were a minority in this manifesto for limiting meat consumption.

Let me just say that I like Mark Bittman. I like his New York Times articles and blog. I like many, many of his recipes.

Apparently, I am not so fond of his prose in larger helpings. The first part of the book is a nutritional call-to-arms, arguing that eating less meat, more plants, and many fewer process foods altogether is a recipe not only for personal health, but planetary health as well. Eating a diet with few (or no) animal products is much easier on the environment and your body.

Among the recent books advocating this basic stance (Michael Pollan's works, among many others), I found this one a little lackluster. The recipes put the opinion into action very nicely, but the presentation of the opinion itself lacks soul. Don't get me wrong -- I don't argue with the premise. I haven't eaten red meat or poultry since 1985. I eat fish or other sea creatures a few times a month. This is a bandwagon I'm already on. I sing in this choir.

And maybe that's part of the problem: very little of the information was news to me. Another part was the format, which bordered on textbook-like. The excerpted quotes in the side margins just just served to distract me from the main text like so many buzzing mosquitoes at an outdoor concert picnic. The headings and sub-headings made the text choppy. I never felt that a rhythm built up at all.

I'll probably get the book again sometime to try a few recipes. Or I'll get Bittman's vegetarian cookbook, which I assume will have a similar, but larger selection. As a short, focused cookbook, Food Matters holds up. As a rousing call to action? Not so much.

Monday, April 13, 2009

An Easter Of Asparagus

Easter dinner was supposed to be a nice, balanced meal, but egg coloring and LittleGirl's hunger meant that a few things went by the wayside. Luckily, I had bought way more asparagus that three people could possibly eat at one sitting, so there was still a spring bounty. The asparagus was simple: peeled stems, olive oil, salt, pepper, and a hot grill. Very yum! For lunch today, too.

It was a gorgeous day -- one of our first -- and we toyed with the idea of eating at the splintery outdoor table we inherited with this place, but ended up inside. Very, very good meal.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Cooking For Kids

I think LittleGirl does pretty well in the nutrition and eating parts of life. She loves peas, broccoli, asparagus, spinach, onions, garlic, etc. She's not so big on fresh fruit, but will eat dried fruit and unsweetened apple sauce and a lot of cooked fruits (like a mixed berry/cherry crisp). But even so, I get a little bored with the short list of meals that she will eat and we (the grown-ups) can also enjoy.

At our last trip to the library, the book real food for healthy kids by Tracey Seaman and Tanya Wenman Steel was propped up in the new book section. I thought I'd see if I could get some new inspiration. I've tried one recipe so far (a toasted cheese snack with parmesan) that went well with a green veggie soup I'd made for dinner. It was tasty and easy and just different enough that we all enjoyed it.

The introduction to the book talks the good talk about whole grains and lower fat and lots of fruits and veggies. The authors urge the reader to ban white bread and white rice from his or her kitchen, and they provide nutritional information for all the recipes.

The problem is that their recipes don't live up to the hype. Although they suggest 20% of calories should come from fat, many -- if not most -- of their recipes are way above that. In just the first section of breakfast recipes, one recipe gets 69% of calories from fat! Of the first seven recipes in the book, fat represents more than half the calories in four dishes. The remaining three dishes get just over a third of calories from fat.

Now, the authors may assume that you'll be adding lots of fresh fruit or other low-fat, low-cal components to the breakfast table, but they'd have a hard time making up for the main dish.

I don't usually stress about how many calories of this, that, and the other are in the foods I make (probably explaining my current dress size), but when a cookbook is so explicitly selling itself as a source for healthy kids' food, I expect a little better. I may try a couple more recipes, but it's not the go-to book I'd like to find for easy, kid-and-adult-friendly foods.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Wonders Of Bahn Mi

Husband and I met when we were both graduate students living in St. Louis. For those not in the know, St. Louis has incredibly cheap housing, which made it a good place to be a student on a limited budget. I bought a house my second year in the city and never looked back.

My house was in a part of town with a lot of Vietnamese immigrants, including a sizable Hmong population, and I could easily walk to three excellent Vietnamese restaurants and a slightly longer walk would get me to two more plus a decent Thai place. It was heavenly. The closest place to me was a real hole-in-the-wall when I first moved there -- Banh Mi So #1. I glanced at the posted menu once while taking a walk, didn't see much that was exciting, and stuck with the place that offered what Husband and I called our "three and a half dollar dinner" for the next several years.

The three and a half dollar dinner was a bowl of vermicelli noodles with tofu and a wide and ever-changing collection of green herbs and vegetables, all very lightly cooked with a light broth. Not enough broth to make it a soup, but enough to make it absolutely delicious.

But over the years, Banh Mi So #1 spruced up a little. It added an outdoor seating area on the wide sidewalk. Plants joined the cafe tables and umbrellas. A friend convinced me that it was time to give this place a try. I was almost instantly addicted. To banh mi chay -- tofu banh mi sandwiches. Their spring rolls -- advertised as the best in the city -- lived up to their excellent reputation, but the banh mi is what kept me coming back.

That, and the proprieter-husband reminded me strongly of my grandfather. I know that an elderly Vietnamese man and an elderly Russian Jew probably shouldn't look alike, but they really do. He treated me like a grandfather, too, suggesting tofu dishes I hadn't tried and joining his wife in haranguing me to try their Vietnamese desserts, heavy on mung beans.

The best suggestion he offered was his very first one: ordering my banh mi chay with double tofu, an option offered for all their sandwiches. And this brings me to the inspiration for this post. Today's NYTimes has a very nice article on the innovative bhan mi chefs of New York City. I almost drooled while reading it, but kept getting stuck whenever they talked about the overstuffed, big sandwiches available. One descriptor that would not fit Banh Mi So #1's creations is overstuffed. When I opened up my first sandwich to see what was inside, I had to search for the tofu -- and I had double tofu! There was, on a roughly 10 inch roll, perhaps an ounce and a half or maybe two ounces of tofu, along with a thin scattering of pickled daikon and carrot, three or four rings of jalapeno, a smear of mayo, a splash of fish sauce dressing, and a few sprigs of cilantro.

It was enough.

The flavors and quantities were perfect with the airy French bread roll. I was a convert. When we were later getting ready to move to Isolationville and I had packed up pretty much all of my kitchen, I frequently called to order a banh mi chay, double tofu, and would walk around the corner to pick it up a few minutes later, wrapped in deli paper secured with a bright yellow rubber band.

When I returned to St. Louis for my only visit since leaving three years ago, I ate there twice, and was welcomed home by my Vietnamese grandfather.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Lemon Day Roundup

Zorro has posted a truly delicious roundup for Lemon Day. Lots of lemon tarts and pies and cookies and ice cream, and some savories mixed in as well. I might need to put extra lemons on the next shopping list so I can do a lemon dessert. I don't know if I've mentioned this, but I very foolishly gave up chocolate for Lent, so with a week left, a rich lemon dessert would really hit the spot.

Luckily, Husband loves lemon desserts. My dad hates them. When I was growing up, a huge treat when he wasn't home for dinner was a lemon dessert, often a lemon sponge custard. Occasionally, that was dinner, not just dessert. I'm glad I don't have to avoid them as an adult.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Lemon Day Tofu Piccata

A glut of lemons inspired Zorra to create a Lemon Day food blog event. I would love to have a glut of lemons to make lemon curd and lemon tarts and lemon sponge pudding and lemon almost anything else. I, unfortunately, do not have a glut of lemons, so my lemony dish for this event had to be somewhat less lemon-focused.

By long journey from my sister, who used to make chicken-fried tofu, comes a tofu piccata dish similar to what my mother makes now. Because tofu doesn't have as much flavor as chicken breasts or thighs, a plain flour coating doesn't provide enough oomph, so I use a combination of flour, chickpea flour, and nutritional yeast, well-seasoned with salt and pepper. The sauce is made from the pan drippings and is bright with the flavor of capers and lemon.

To make this, I use an extra-firm tofu and press it briefly to get rid of a little extra moisture.

The coating (for about a pound and a half of tofu):

1/2 cup nutritional yeast
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup chickpea flour
Salt and pepper to taste

Cut the tofu into 1/2 inch thick slices. Dredge each slice in the flour/yeast mixture to coat well. Pan fry in olive oil in batches. Keep the tofu warm in a low oven while frying later batches.

When all the tofu is done, add a little oil and four or five thinly sliced garlic cloves. Cook until slightly soft. Add a tablespoon or two of the flour/yeast mixture and stir well, cooking to form a not-quite-roux. Add two to three tablespoons of small capers (or roughly chopped big capers), the juice of one large lemon (at least a third of a cup), and a quarter to a third cup of water or stock and cook until slightly thickened. At this point, this recipe is suitable for vegans. If you're not worried about that, add a couple tablespoons of butter to make the sauce richer.

I serve this with a puree of cauliflower and potato and something bright for color on the plate.