Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cloudy Days and Pimento Cheese

I've been thinking a lot about light lately.  Or more accurately the absence of light. It's been nine days now without a sunny day. I thought I'm lucky because I haven't plunged into a desperate gloom even though everything is gray. I thought I've been doing well to avoid the winter ick.  I've been working out nearly everyday.  I've been eating plenty of oranges. But sometimes, the winter ick gets a hold of me no matter what.  Sometimes I just snap.  Sometimes it's been cold and cloudy for days on end, and someone puts an empty bowl back into the fridge.
And sometimes I am enraged.  You see, the empty bowl had contained bright, creamy, spicy pimento cheese.  When it's bleak and rainy, well, a bit of orangey cheese and pimento dabbed on a cracker is quite nice.

Pimento, I know, sounds strange.  It is a sort of retro-throwback. It reminds me of my father's longtime favorite lunchmeat: pickle and pimento loaf--a type of bologna studded with tiny flecks of pickles and pimentos or "p&p" as we affectionately called it.  And, this pimento cheese spread, well it's really no different, something rather humble, but absolutely delisious and known to always hit the spot.  Which is why, I suppose, it did not survive midnight snacking at my house.

I first had pimento cheese at Johnny's Cafe when I was waitress there.  The chef used to make pimento cheese for wine tastings.  It was a perfect compliment to the 70s style iceburg lettuce wedges with bleu cheese and the prime rib Johnny's is famous for.  Of course, the chef would gussy up the pimento cheese by laying it on a bed of Bibb lettuce and serving it with crustinis.  People loved it.  They always wanted to know what was in it, but we were sworn to secrecy.

I had forgotten all about it until this December.  Andrew Knowlton, the BA Foodist, recommended it to a reader as a economical crowd-pleasing canape, and he was spot on.  Luckily, I attended a party this week in which the hostess was savvy enough to make pimento cheese from Knowlton's recipe.

Oh my goodness, I didn't realize how long it's been.  I was so enamored with the delightful spread, my hostess even sent me home with the leftovers.  (And we know how that worked out, so I'll stop now.)  Anyway, I didn't stay angry long because this spread is a cinch to make.  It's a quick mixture of shredded cheddar, mayo, and pimento.  So, click on over to Bon Appetit and grab the recipe.  Whip up a batch, and your day will feel sunnier even if the weather doesn't cooperate. 

Friday, January 15, 2010

"Core Attachments" Regarding Soup

I just finished reading Up in the Air to prepare for watching the film adaptation that just hit theaters.  (Yes, I know that I'm a English Lit. geek through and through, and I have the student loans to prove it.) The book is good, but not great.  To me, it seems like Walter Kirn is trying much too hard to channel Chuck Palaniuck.  I'll probably still go see the movie because I did like the ever-so scathing criticism on the consumer-driven corporate world.  Plus, what's not to like about George Clooney?  While I think Kirn's best work to date is still Thumbsucker (which was also adapted for film), Up in the Air was still an enjoyable read. 

What really struck me about the novel, though, was this short passage:

"The lines we draw that make us who we are are potent by virtue of being non-negotiable, and even, at some level, indefensible.  Sally will not wear synthetics.  That's who she is.  Billy won't touch eggs.  That's Billy for you.  To apologize for your personal absolutes, for what Sandy Pinter calls your "Core Attachments," means apologizing for your very existence" (Kirn 39).

While picky eaters drive me nuts, they are perhaps those in the food world that have the most "Core Attachments."  Sometimes I have trouble understanding them.  My "What do you mean you don't like kale?  You just haven't had GOOD kale.  Let me cook you some." approach has failed to work on Kent.  I have lost the kale wars.

So, while it unnerves me to no end that he won't eat a vegetable I love, I do like the idea of having strong and potent virtues regarding what you eat and what you will not eat.  Even though these "Core Attachments" are indefensible, they are still to be respected.  No matter what I do to prepare kale, he will not like it.  No matter how closely the kale tastes to brussel sprouts (which, by the way, he loves), he will not like it.  Kent is attached to hating kale.  It's taken a long time, but I respect that.

When you start learning a lot about your food, like how it was raised/grown, where it came from, what conditions the laborers work under, what damage it does to the environment and to your body, the list of "Core Attachments," the list of things you absolutely will not eat can  grow rather quickly.  For instance, my friend AMR, won't eat fast food anymore.  After I saw this video clip on battery caged produced eggs, I resolved that I would never buy another factory-farmed egg.  Shortly after, I got the Girls, and now I have all the fresh, safe, and humanely-produced eggs I can use.

Sometimes, I have simpler core attachments that manage to infiltrate my life almost without my noticing.  For example, I realized that I have not bought a can of soup in 3 years.  I LOVE soup, and this amorous desire is based on the fact that I enjoy making homemade soups and stocks from scratch.  I can't go back to store-bought canned soup because for minimum effort, I can achieve a cheaper and higher quality soup than I can buy off the supermarket shelves.  There's only one drawback: homemade soup does take some time.  Not a lot, but none the less it takes more time than opening a can, except when you make miso soup.

This has been the first full week back in school, and I've been spending 12 hours or longer on campus at a stretch--which is great for productivity, but hell on home cooking.  So, this afternoon, I needed something warm, quick, and healthy to cook.  And, in a matter of minutes, I whipped up this soup.

Miso paste should be a staple in everyone's refrigerator because it has such a long shelf life and can add a salty-smoky-unami zing to all manner of soups, sauces, and spreads.  There are all several styles/flavors of miso, from mildest to most intense they are: white, yellow, red, and brown.  Feel free to use any miso paste for this soup. I'm partial though to the stronger red and brown varieties.

Better than Canned Miso Soup
(serves 1)

2 cups water
1 oz buckwheat soba noodles (they come with three bundles to a package, you'll want to use a scant half a bundle)
2 mushrooms, sliced (I used one cremini and one white button).
2 handfuls fresh spinach
2 t. red miso paste
1 green onion, sliced

Bring water to boil.  Add noodles and mushrooms and cook for about 4 minutes, or until noodles are soft.  Add spinach and cook for 30 seconds more.  Remove from heat.  Stir in miso until dissolved.  Ladle into bowl and sprinkle with green onion.

Miso Soup on Foodista
 Works Cited
Kirn, Walter. Up in the Air. New York: Random House, 2001.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What would you eat for your last meal?

This semester, I've decided to teach 3 sections of College Composition II using a theme. That theme: Food. While we'll do lots of academic writing and research over the semester, for the first day ice-breaker I wanted to complete a fun prompt.

What would you eat for your last meal? Why?

While I haven't been through all the results yet (there are 75 of them after all), I am fascinated by the repeated themes. People choose their last meal based on memories and on relationships with other people. While the food is described in great detail, it becomes beside the point. Food, what we choose to put in our bodies, connects us to, quite literally everything. As a class we began brainstorming issues related to food and we came up with an impressive list:

social class
popular culture
health care
animal rights

just to name a few....

One thing I try to do throughout the semester is write along with my students.  And, like my students, I was no exception to choosing a last meal based on memories of family.  Here it is:

I would choose comfort food for my last meal and chicken and potatoes with gravy is comforting in a homey, rural way.  I wan my last meal to go like this: it is summer.  I am barefoot, but seated at the dinner table because we always sat down as a family at the dinner table.

The chicken is fried.  Simply dredged in flour, salt and pepper and cooked in Wesson oil in my mom's beat up electric skillet.  The lid of the electric skill is dinged and dented, and the original knob long gone.  My dad replaced the broken knob with an empty thread spool.  In this way, the skillet shows my family's values of resourcefulness and problem solving, and our talent at fixing things with our hands.  After cooking, the meat falls in slivers from the bone and the skin would be crispy and brown, nearly caramelized in places.  I eat the breast, which my mom always cut just to encompass the wishbone.  I make a wish with my father, cracking the wishbone.  One of us tries to cheat by chocking up to far on our half of the bone, but it doesn't matter because we would both wish for the same thing.

There are potatoes, too.  Boiled not mashed.  My dad preferred them boiled--so that's the way my mom always made them, even though my sister and I liked mashed.  Now, I realize that the boiled potato is superior.  It is more flavorful.  It is unadulterated, so the potato tastes faintly of earth from which it came.  Also, the boiled potato allows for maximum gravy absorption.  I press firmly on the potato with the back of my fork until it gives way in moist crumbles, and the tine marks leave a solid imprint--then I dump as much white country gravy over it as it could bear.  Crisp chicken-skin cracklings stud the gravy, and it's dotted with lots of black pepper.

The meal is rounded out with fat slices of juicy beefsteak tomatoes, plucked from the vine only moments before hitting the table.  Sprinkled with only a bit of salt and pepper, these tomatoes are a flavorful dance of acid, sweet, a textural tango of toothy skin and seeds and pure juicy flesh.  I might eat sweet corn, too.  The ear inundated with butter--butter shoved into every crack and crevice between each kernel.

When I think about why it has to be this meal, ultimately it's because its this meal that defines us as a family, and therefore defines who I am.  This was years before I realized there was anything wrong with my parents' marriage.  Years before I thought about us as "country folk."  This is a meal that sets us in a time, in a place. The food was ours.  Homegrown.  Together we raised and butchered the chicken.  Together we planted and watered and weeded the garden.  I would want this to be my last meal because it reminds me of simplicity and innocence.  It brings me back to a time when the dinner table was a safe haven.   These meal that my mother prepared, nearly unchanged, for years became the basis of my food philosophy long before the term locavore was coined.  The idea of knowing where your food comes from and preparing it from scratch have stayed with me all these years, so that's part of it too.  But, finally, this meal is a communion between my body, the food, and the people I share it with.   

So now I want to hear from you.  What would you eat for your last meal? Why?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

To a Messy, Imperfect, and Hopeful New Year

For this year, I have decided to be okay with failure, with imperfection, and with a sink full of dirty dishes. But, I will never be okay with giving up on living a passionate, inspired life. I will not stop working to live the life that I want.

I've been in New Year purgatory, that space between New Year's and the beginning of the spring semester this week. It's an odd place, both exhilarating for its newness and exasperating for the pressure to live up to a new year's worth of expectations. This week is a space to wax nostalgic and indulge in my favorite weakness--reminiscing about "the good old days."

But, as I reflect 2009, I begin to find a theme: perfectionism is getting in the way of my life. So for 2010, there is no list of resolutions, no "I will be betters," no promises. Another thing I realized during all my holiday travels and visits with family and old friends, is that I am truly happy with who I am and where I'm at with my life right now. This is huge.

It's taken me a long time to be happy in Ohio. For the first year I was here, I had these incredibly sad, longing-filled dreams in which I yearned to be back in Omaha. I would dream the details of the apartments I left behind, the slant of sunlight from the kitchen window, the lime green painted living room, the backyard where I planted my first garden.

Over Christmas it was great to be back in Omaha, but it also made me realize that even if I did want to move back, I wouldn't quite fit anymore. In fact, I felt like a walking ghost. The term "old haunts" rang true. My nostalgic ache vanished, and realized I am content.

I'm content even if my 2009 Food Resolutions didn't pan out like I hoped. Here they are:

1. Make my own ricotta and mozzarella cheese. (And hopefully taste raw milk for the first time.)
Sort of. I made ricotta, and I tasted raw goat milk for the first time, but I never got around to ordering the rennet to make mozzarella cheese.

2. Make homemade sesame seed bagels.

3. Learn to can tomatoes from my garden.


4. Make dandelion wine and Lemoncello.
Sort of. I made dandelion wine, and it was a disaster. I used balloons for the off-gassing of the fermentation process and the wine ended up tasting like latex. Yes, the finish of my dandelion wine was condom-flavored. After that I didn't risk Lemoncello.

5. Cure my own corned beef.
Nope. I found a recipe from Martha Stewart, but ultimately it was too pricey for my budget when I wanted to try it in March for St. Patty's day.

6. Cook and eat beef tongue.
Not yet. Stay posted! I got a frozen beef tongue as a Christmas present!

7. Make pirogi.

8. Make coffee can ice cream.
Sort of. After finding a cheap electric ice cream maker at a yard sale, I've never looked back. Salted caramel ice cream was the best result so far!

9. Make Baked Alaska and other frivolously retro desserts.

10. Make something with dried lavender flowers.
Yes. Made a lavender vinaigrette to serve with a goat cheese and candied pecan salad.

Here's hoping that you are content where you are now in your life. I also hope you're thrilled with all the possibility the next twelve months hold.