Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Monday, October 26, 2009

When Food Hurts

It happens without you realizing it. Things are hunky dory, life is better than you could ever have expected it could be, and then... you reach the line. Sometimes in the heat of passion, often fueled by alcohol or starvation, you're three miles in before you even realize it and then there's no turning back. Other times you cross it knowing full well what you're doing but praying that maybe this time, maybe today... it won't be so bad. But it is. It always is. Its worse than awkward sex because it lingers and it adds rather than subtracts calories from your already substantial thighs. Its that feeling of eating WAY TOO MUCH.

I'm there right now. Smutty Nose Pumpkin Ale and three... yes, three.. helpings of Savory Pumpkin Pie. There was no need, and no amount of whole wheat crust will ever set things right. Overeating on weekday nights is tantamount to shooting up heroin in some people's minds. I'd venture to say in most. Overeating on the weekend or on vacation or at food events is a relatively harmless offense, often a cause for celebration, an achievement, its fun! But when you cross the line any time from Monday to Friday its the end. You had no business drinking in the first place and who told you to make something so decadent anyway? That's a WEEKEND meal.

Don't get me wrong, it was good. Very good. Even though I burnt the pumpkin and the crust was too thick in places and it tasted mostly of cheese and onion (as if this was bad), the bits of pumpkin that did shine through were intoxicating, and once you cross the one stick of butter threshold you know you're in a good place. So why do I feel guilt ridden and sick?

Heroin. I can picture skinny model-type girls in Gestapo uniforms breaking down the door of my den of decadence and grease, taking away my kitties, while I sit strung out on cheese, too busy shoving homemade quiche and muffins down my throat to stop them. One of them helps R up, takes the pancakes and bacon out of his hands, hell, out of his mouth, gone slack from an intense food coma. She determines his waistline is still salvageable. Handing him a piece of celery and a small container of low-fat Ranch dressing, he crunches down greedily, his lovehandles deflating almost instantly. His eyes come back to life, cleared of the haze of fat and sugar. He smiles. So R and Ms. Skeletor walk merrily out the door holding hands, happy to be rid of the odor of smoking oil and spilt beer.

OK, maybe I'm being just a bit melodramatic.

I've already covered this topic in various manifestations, from how the French do it and stay beautiful, to the place gorging on food holds within all important events and celebrations. In light of both extremes its impossible to miss why the weekday binge becomes such an unpleasant hiccup in the landscape of your self-image. A plague worse than swine flu chokes this great nation of cheeseburgers and French, pardon, Freedom fries.

Obesity hangs heavy and menacing over our heads, threatening like a vulture to inflate an ear, a foot, a nose, a tummy to gargantuan proportions, if ever we neglect to pay attention. Here in New York the dangers of obesity are spoon fed to us, so to speak, in Bloomberg's subway ad, in the calorie-counting menus of chain restaurants, in the food blogs. As New Yorkers we figure we're safe. Just stay out of McDonalds, we say to ourselves, we'll never be fat, we say, chomping down on a bagel with cream cheese and lox, we walk everywhere, we tell ourselves, our mouths full of perfect chocolate chip cookies six inches in diameter, we shop at Farmer's Markets and Whole Foods. That can't happen here.

In California its worse. They ritually purify themselves of their desserts on treadmills and in

weight rooms, exorcising any suggestion of flab from their perfectly toned bodies which threaten to let loose, droop, and swell if ever you dare miss an appointment with your trainer. Everyone knows you die then, alone, hated, judged. The people of the coasts, we walkers, joggers, yoga-addicts, we young and beautiful foodies of the coasts have declared war on this affliction and confined it to the center of the country, to the fat states where the clown and the Colonel to reign unchecked, a lawless land of fried chicken, high fructose corn syrup, and MSG. We beautiful, young foodies turn our noses up at the fat tourists who take up what could've been our seat in the subway, self-righteously congratulating ourselves on losing more and more weight the longer we remain standing, holding onto the pole with out muscular hands. We are the true martyrs of America.

OK, I'll stop right there. I know overeating once in a while is not the fast ticket to death, isolation and obesity. But doesn't it sometimes feel like it, though? It must be those ads on the subway. They make one feel fat. But I know I'm OK because those pumpkins... they came from the Farmer's Market so its OK. Everything will be OK.

***While the first picture is from Flickr and was now taken by me, it resembles the final product that I made. I promise to start taking pictures again.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Baked Goods, Cheese, and Peanut Butter- Eating Alone

My dinner tonight has been the simplest I've had since.... since last time R went away for a video game convention.

Hmmm, what a coincidence.

I ate the remains of meals pasts. Biscuits I baked this morning for our spending-the-weekend-apart breakfast, cheese I bought for a quiche I made for a dinner at the apartment, and some wine leftover from earlier this week when a friend came to visit. I won't go so far as to say I was looking to relive them or found any special nostalgia in these relics of time spent with friends, with R, with the stove. While over the past couple of week meals have involved hours of slaving away, allowing to rise, and special ingredients from Murray's cheeses, whenever R goes away, and I don't have friends over to make up for it it, I usually make due with some baked goods, cheese, sometimes peanut butter, and whatever alcohol is left in the house (no, I don't need it, I prefer it). That's what I eat when I'm alone.

During the summer, reviews were everywhere for Deborah Madison's "What We Eat When We

Eat Alone," a cookbook and story book about the liberties people take with their meals when they are eating with no one to judge them and no one to impress. My approach to eating alone is very similar to my friend Marc's who, upon moving into his apartment in Greenpoint shortly after arriving from France, barely had furniture, slept on a mattress on the floor, and lived on ramen, cheese, and peanut butter. When I asked why he has such a spartan diet he explained: "I ate it and then I wasn't hungry anymore." What I realized is that during the past year, whenever R was away, which was often, I usually made due in a very similar way. A slice of pizza on the way home happened frequently, as did a solitary beer at Think Coffee, bread and hummus was a classic, recently a loaf of banana bread and a jar of peanut butter became breakfast and dinner almost every night for a week. The most elaborate solo meal I fashioned was a fake fettucini alfredo and I even went so low as to buy a can of Mushroom Cream Soup. I can't be bothered to stew a chilli or sear meat or chop garlic when the only ones who are going to watch me eat are Tito and Spider, specially since they've eaten already. But it wasn't always like that, which is the funny part.

My love affair with cooking started in my little kitchen in Madrid. I began to experiment with recipes, ingredients, flavors, and cooking styles in order to save money. The semester before I lived in Prague, dining out almost every lunch and dinner, drinking at bars and clubs several times a week, and luxuriating as 25 crowns to the dollar. But when I did my little stint around Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest, and ended up flat broke in Paris at the wrong airport, then flat broke in Madrid with a three day wait for my flight back home, I learned a powerful lesson about my relationship with money: I suck at handling it. So when I went back to Madrid for the next semester, I turned a new leaf. I got a part time job tutoring the inimitable Angel Aragones twice a week for 100 euros, and packed my lunch almost every single day, splurging on drinks and food twice a week with the theater class and only one night per weekend. I guess I should also mention that was my brief stint as a vegetarian (Spain fixed that pretty quickly, though) so it was a necessity for me to provide alternatives to the countless menús del día that included jamón serrano and chorizo.

So I began making rice dishes with vegetables and curry, simple pastas, chilli, baked apples in lettuce leaves (disastrous), roasted potatoes and vegetables, even tortilla española every so often. Not much compared to what I pull off now, but then it was revelatory. When I came back to the world of carnivores, I went so far as to make chicken breast cooked with white wine, tomato sauce, and cheese. I learned to cook alone, cooking for myself. When I began cooking for others my little bubble was shattered, but also my repertoire expanded.

When R is alone all day with the cats, I know exactly what his diet is like: cereal with milk,

pastrami sandwiches from the deli, leftovers from dinner that I remind him to heat up and eat, eggs, and every so often he calls me at the office and asks, "What should I have for lunch today?" and I look through my mental inventory of available ingredients, discuss possible preparations and combinations, and reply, "I'll email you the instructions." When I create this instant recipes I go back to that time in Madrid when I could invent something on the spot with whatever was on hand, some spices, and a frying pan. I can only imagine that I'm able to do for him what I don't for myself anymore because by writing out the recipe for him to follow and asking him how it turned out (usually burned or "not as good as when you make it"), it is a form of me cooking for him but through him.

And just so you know, while I wrote this post, I finished off half a bottle of wine and several spoonfuls of peanut butter. Why can't I have a boyfriend who calls me and offers me a recipe?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

They Need Me to Feed Them

One morning I woke up surrounded on all sides by the three most important men in my life: R, Tito, and Spider. Looking at the three of them all cuddled up to me I realized: I have to feed them every day. They rely on me for this.

There was something strange about that realization because while its a given that cats have to be fed, its odd to think that my human does as well. But its really not that strange, Hispanic and an aspiring foodie I insist on feeding everyone who comes over, like it or not. I've spontaneously made cookies, beer bread, and muffins, the occasion being we had another person in the house. And alternatively, when R goes away on a trip for even as long as three days, unless I have guests over, I eat out my lunches and have toast with cheese and jam for dinner every night. Cooking just doesn't seem worth the trouble. Even making a simple pasta seems a tediously long process during those times. Yet when I have someone to cook for I go all out, like last night: rotini al telefono, braised bok choy, cornmeal cookies with lime glaze, and the dough of a quiche tart. I went to bed at 1:30 am and I'm up at 7 am. Why? My cats demanded to be fed.

Recently I was chatting with my friend Mario about why we cook. A newly minted Culinary Institute of America student with lofty dreams of a Momofuku-style restaurant empire, he and I differ quite a bit in terms of our approach to cooking but are bonded by it (and our mutual love for R). The chef of Savoy Cabbage in South Africa explained it best in an article he wrote for Gastronomica: its the difference between men and women. For men its about showing off what they can do, for women its about making sure people are well-fed and satisfied. This symbol seems to be a motif but its no less true, its yin and yang. Mario and I embody that. He cooks
the way artists paint and actors perform. For him cooking is more than just nourishing, feeding, and palatal pleasure, its spectacle, presentation, and above all experimentation. So I asked him why he cooked, having recently discovered my own reasons for it. Forget about passion and love for food and creativity, if anything that's a given. The question was, what is the driving force that makes you want to cook?

Mario loves working in restaurant kitchens, loves standing around in a small cramped space all day with people yelling. He loves the kind of food you can only get at restaurants, specially the ones that use chemicals to transform them into something completely different from what they were or could ever be in nature. He loves the hierarchy of the restaurant, the chef's coat, and went so far as to admit for him being a chef is a power thing. He loves standing by the table and having people looking up at him, he loves that whole culture of fine dining and innovative cooking. And at 22, he's rather good at it. But at the end he put it quite simply: "I cook to be loved."

For me, restaurants are not my bag. The hierarchy intimidates me, I can't take the structure and prestige of it too seriously because I can't shake the feeling that at the end of the day, its just food, except when there's a business and stocks and employees and benefit plans involved its not just food. Maybe because I don't go to restaurants often, because I don't have a sense of presentation, because I'd rather control my kitchen than be part of the kitchen factory. While I consider culinary school and cooking professionally on a daily basis, an idea borne of the philosophy of making a career from what you love to do, the more I think about entering the restaurant world the less appealing it sounds to me. I like that in my kitchen there are no rules, no pressure, I'm alone and free to do what I want. Its how I unwind and express myself creatively. I cook because I enjoy feeding people and eating good food, but I like sitting at the table with them and eating with them. I'm the home cook to Mario's restaurant chef.

If you boil it down, though, we're not really that different. I had a telling moment a few days ago when my friend D was here. He stood in front of me as I offered R a taste of something I was making for the first time. He says my eyes widened in anticipation in this please like it sort of way, something I wasn't conscious of doing. I'm sure I make that face every time I ask R if he likes what I've made. At the end of the day Mario and I are still cooking for the same reason, even if we approach cooking very differently. Like him, I cook to be loved.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Disaster and Redemption

I've had a few disasters happen in the kitchen, and though none involved fire, broken limbs, or deep, hospital-enducing burns, none has ever been quite as disastrous as my attempt to make Day of the Dead Bread. I've tried making pumpkin fritters that disintegrated, I've made bread that tastes like yeast, I've burned onions to the point of being inedible, those would all qualify as run of the mill "fails." This sweet bread was what the internet calls an "epic fail," a train wreck in slow motion, and I knew it had the potential for failure from the very beginning yet I held out hoping beyond hope that it would work out. I figured if it failed to be bread it could at least be cake, at least it can taste sweet and delicious even if its rocks hard and dense. No, I was wrong.

The problem was two-fold and it involved the yin and yang of cooking: heat and cold. My first mistake was to mix scalding hot milk milk fresh off the stove with delicate, vulnerable active yeast. I never read this but learned through osmosis from my boss that high heat kills yeast yet all recipes
involving yeast require lukewarm water. I failed to put these two pieces of information together and ended up trying to get a three from the equation 1+1. I had unwarranted faith in my two packets of yeast, I believed they would fight and prevail, like when you go to a holiday dinner and promise yourself you won't overeat or drink too much. There's certain thing that science simply does not allow. The second mistake was an honest one and once again, my boss called it. Following the advice of my now two most trusted cooking gurus, Bittman and Smitten, and in consideration of limited weekday time, I decided to let it rise "overnight" (
while I was at work) since I've heard doing that allows the dough to absorb flavors better. I don't think that works with this bread, granted it would've been nice if it had rising agents to begin with. But when I took it out of the fridge and felt the cold sticky dough I knew I'd put the
last nail into this experiment's coffin. I went through the motions, fingers still crossed, I even pretended to let it rise one more time, glazed it, baked it. We didn't cut into it until next morning because I needed to photograph it for F&F. While very pretty on the outside, inside it looked like something dead. It seemed to have not cooked through so the innards were an uneven, white-ish-yellow-ish color even though the exterior had browned. It was cold, too, and damp. R wanted to try it, also hoping that maybe it would taste good, but I didn't even let him. It didn't taste like anything, cardboard maybe. I threw it out.

I think the epic fail of this dead Day of the Dead bread inspired me, though, to make something bigger, better and also very time consuming and hard to make. A winter squash was sitting in my fridge for a couple of weeks asking me to do something with it, throwing out suggestions like soup, sautee, beans... But at the end I decided I wanted to stand in front of a stove for an hour stirring rice.

Squash Risotto.

Luckily I had a helper. No, not R, he would make guest appearances whenever I yelled at him
across the apartment to come cut the parsley or grind some cheese amid protests of I'm almost done with my work (lies). No, there's a reason kitchens are mostly staffed with Hispanics. My friend D, who inhaled a quesadilla in front of me while I sliced into the squash with the biggest knife I own. ("It's like cracking open a skull," said D, his face covered in cheese and guac, "just straight in and then down." I've cracked skull before, thank you very much.) I designated half of the squash to the rissotto and the other half to Tortitas de Calabaza, or Pumpkin fritters (in PR we think squash is pumpkin, but that's OK).

A word on Tortitas de Calabaza. For some children it was freshly baked cookies, for others hot cocoa, or a warm pie, or something else you can buy in a box and heat up. For me-- and I know I'm not alone in this because I got the recipe from a close friend of mine-- it was Tortitas de Calabaza. They're basically fritters: fried dough, except these are made with "pumpkin," brown sugar, and cinnamon. As I mentioned earlier, my first attempt at making these was disastrous. I was inventing the recipe and had no idea what I was doing. The dough disintegrated in the hot oil and I had throw away the whole mess. Flour and egg yolk are key, I discovered. I mean who needs nutritional value when you have a crispy exterior and a chewy interior and its fried? Its my childhood, dammit!

But I digress. D and I were in the kitchen for almost two hours making these two squash-laden dishes. The risotto took twice as long as it normally would and about a chicken's worth of chicken broth because I made the mistake of using brown rice. It really does seem the moment you try to add nutritional value to anything traditional it just ruins it somehow. People in China worked very hard to eat white rice for a reason. But it was the choice between long-grain risotto and short-grain brown rice risotto, we all have our choice to make in life. The consequence of this was that the squash almost completely dissolved into the sauce, thickening and sweetening it to astronomical proportions. It was almost too sweet at the end, though still delicious, and it was the first time I was the one to grab salt and pepper and doused something I'd made with it. Balance is important: heat and cold, sweet and savory, healthy and awesome. And yes, the tortitas were perfect-- can't go wrong with white flour, egg yolk, and sugar fried in oil, specially when there's squash involved. D fried them to their precise color, a dark, golden brown, some developed shapes like hearts or ghosts, they were sweet without being overly sweet, the perfect side dish dessert. (In case you were wondering, yes, I was fat as a child.) Between the three of us we ate an entire winter squash in one dinner. It was glorious.

My previously mixed feeling about the fall-- cold, short days, too much clothes, the official beginning of the eating season (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas)-- have been giving way to a true appreciation of it. The days are brisk and chilly which for the first time in my life I'm genuinely enjoying, the seasonal produce is outstanding, and its the official beginning of the eating season (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas). I think after this dinner I've officially been converted to loving fall. Winter is going to take a little more effort.

** Note: None of the pictures are mine, they were pulled from the web.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

5 am: Thinking About Anise

I woke up around 4:30 am and could not go back to sleep. There's a somewhat ambitious project coming my way later today which is keeping me up. It involves 4 hours of work (ok, 2 1/2 of those require me to do nothing and I could even just let the thing happen overnight, but still, 4 hours!!!), it needs to be photographed and then written about, and then eaten. It involves a spice that is all but new to me, anise seeds. I've only ever known anise as a liqueur used in Spanish cooking so the the smell of these little seeds brings me visions of Roscón and Easter and the taste of sweet licorice embedded in a warm sweet bread encrusted in sugar and dotted with dried fruit and almonds. Spanish cooking at its very best. What I plan to make is only once removed from that. Its a Mexican sweet bread called Pan de Día de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead Bread). I'll post about it tomorrow when I make it.

Now I'm not doing this for myself. Squash and blue cheese pizza, I do for myself. Homemade whole wheat bread, I do for myself. Apple crisp, I do for myself. This is a project for work, which is another reason I'm up thinking about anise. I'm mentally writing my article, having decided on a new approach to this once annoying, now approaching cool website I work for called Fabulous & Frugal. At this point its smeared with enough of my writing that I'm starting to care for it. I'm particularly proud of my beer article and Part Two of the Student Loans trilogy (I don't pick the titles). So I want to start applying what I learned during my food writing course and start to incorporate structure into my articles as mindfully as I would if I were writing something for the New York Times (no, I'm not comparing Fab & Fru to the New York Times, one is my current place of employment, the other an aspiration, ok?). Lede, nutgraf, body, close.

While thinking about the lede I realized something that makes Day of the Dead Bread particular, specially when made within the context of American culture: its sweet (and it contains anise, but that's what makes it particular to me). Even Jewish Challah and Americanized French Croissants don't quite make it to the sweetness level inherent in Iberian and Hispanic sweet breads. Roscón is a classic example. My best friend's mother, originally from Galicia, makes these bread cakes every Easter and every Three Kings Day. The texture is bready and flaky but the intensity is that of pastry glazed with granulated sugar and liqueur because even confectioner's sugar would be too light. Not that confectioner's sugar doesn't have its place. Take the Puerto Rican majorca, even when you eat it with ham and cheese its still sprinkled with white dusty sugar. The Portuguese have their own sweet bread, Massa Sovada, and like Roscón and Day of the Dead Bread, its baked mostly for Easter and Christmas. I would say, though, that Massa Sovada is closer to Puerto Rican Pan Sobao, a bread that's sweet but still more bread than cake. In any case, both are still sweeter than anything found in the American spectrum of breads. [Correction: I glanced at the backcover of my latest issue of Cook's Illustrated and prominently displayed was the Louisiana King Cake, an American version of Roscón doused in sprinkles for Mardi Gras.]

Since bread-making has become my new thing lately-- so far I've made two pizzas, 5 loaves of 100% Whole Wheat Bread and all but one have been light, sweet, and very good, two loaves of beer bread, and two loaves of something that wanted to resemble a baguette but wasn't sure how-- now I'm going to enter that netherworld of the cake-bread hybrid. Luckily, I'm not starting with the ones I know and love, the ones from home for which I have high expectations that can never be met (its me, not the recipe, take for example my disastrous experience with Sazón, the Puerto Rican restaurant that although good, wasn't up to snuff with my expectations; even the coffee I make here doesn't taste like coffee back home even though my mom ships me Yaucono and my favorite gourmet stuff that comes straight from the plantations in Yauco and Lares). When entering undiscovered territory you might as well go all the way so I'm starting in Mexico, with a tablespoon of anise seeds.