Thursday, August 19, 2010

Popcorn is almost a Socialist Food

You know, I grew up in the Reagan '80's, a time when the Red Scare was on high. To boot, I was in the Midwest, where it was probably even higher than in many other parts of the USA. So imagine how weird the above notion is.

All the more ironic when you consider that Illinois, the state of my birth, boasted corn as its staple crop, and capitalism as its staple economic system. So popcorn abounded along with anti-communist and anti-socialist sentiment. And I used to blissfully order it at movie theatres, without (added) butter, never making the connection.

Fast forward twenty-five years: On Tuesday, I sat at the kitchen table with my family. My husband had just made a big bowl of PopSecret in the microwave, and was diving into it, when our younger son made a beeline for the bowl and stuck his little hand in to eat it. Hubby initially didn't want to share, but eventually, he yielded when I promised to make another bowl. Then older son's hand went in. Then mine. So we ended up pecking like a group of chickens. I guess that's why they also call corn, "chickenfeed".

And this isn't just a family thing. Think of the times you go to the movies with friends and automatically offer them your bag or bucket. You share. It's sort of socialist in ideology, really. Everyone sort of gets some. You give everyone some, because that just seems like the thing to do. You don't care who bought it, it goes into a common pot. In fact, it's more fun that way. You can eat popcorn alone, but somehow that isn't as much fun. And everyone seems to like it, too: The wealthy, those strapped for cash, South Asians, Africans, Europeans, you name it. It is an affordable, plentiful food. Ok, maize originated in the Americas, and popcorn itself has been around for quite a while. I read a kid's book that said some popped kernels had been found and dated at over 5,000 years old, a statement backed up by Wiki Answers.
It's casual, affordable, and yummy, a signature snack food of the USA.

I had the ultimate Socialist Popcorn experience at the movies when we went to a local Arts Cinema. One of the managers was eating out of a huge bucket, and as he passed us in the foyer, he remarked, "Here, I got too much", and upturned his bucket into ours. That proved to be a bit much for me. I concede to everyone's right to share, but Not In My Own Bucket. Maybe he meant to be nice, but that was over the line. I don't know where he'd been! Apparently the staff realized this when I went to the counter to request a new bucket, and they sheepishly told me, "Sorry, he said he thought about that after he did it." But after my initial shock subsided, I acknowledged that, after all, he was acting on a generous impulse. He didn't steal mine; he gave me HIS popcorn. Now that's altruism.

But it is also mildly disgusting, in my opinion. It's like that custom from the Soviet Union wherein a coke vending machine held one glass cup, which was for use by everyone who used the vending machine. Perhaps it was well-meaning, and saved resources, or at least supplies, but...ick. Those folks who brought their own cups to use were called "unkulturen", or "uncultured". I call them smart. Or at least, hygienic.

Back to popcorn, though. Come to think of it, we don't worry too much about other people's hands when we share it, as long as we sort of know who they are. Which is unusual, for Americans. We are usually so hyper about cleanliness, and there is Bob who just gripped the armrest held by dozens of folks over the course of the week at the theatre, and he is diving right into our bucket. S'ok with us. Why is this? Because we are watching a movie? No I don't think so. We do this even at home. It might not be all of us drinking from the same cup, like they did in the former Soviet Union, but really, it isn't all that far off.

Capitalism and industrial food growth being what it is, popcorn now comes in different brands (PopSecret, Orville Redenbacher, Newman's Own), flavors (Cheddar Cheese, Chocolate, Caramel, Butter, Plain), and styles (Airpopped, Kettle Corn). But the impulse to share it? Ongoing. Almost socialist. And if you don't share it, you are seen as stingy or weird. It would be weird to see someone pouring popcorn onto a person's dinner plate in some measured, individual portion. Not to mention, no fun. And how nutty if we "split the cost" -- how do you divvy it up? $1 per 30 kernels?! No, that's not worth the trouble, so nobody does it.

Anyway, it's just one of those things I was thinking about. I guess it really doesn't matter. I just love the stuff. Especially the kind that the Boy Scouts of American sell, and we just ordered 2 big boxes of it.

You know what? I bet I was eating it while on a family trip to Wisconsin, watching Red Dawn, a film about a would-be Soviet invasion of the USA. Scary. But I was so freaked out by the movie, I forgot to offer it up for sharing.

And I hope you realize this was all tongue-in-kernel-filled cheek.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lemon 2: The Frosting Was Pink, My Face Is Red

It’s been quite a delay since my last post. In those 8 weeks, the snow has melted away, the DC cherry blossom trees are in their peak bloom, and we had a very relaxing Spring Break in Siesta Key on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Good thing, too. Between the blizzards of February and kids’ illnesses and tax preparation of March, my husband and I were more than ready for a break.

Now, I must confess to something. As embarrassed as I am, I will fess up and tell you: I misplaced the recipe for my lemon cake. Blame it on Attention-Deficit Disorder, fatigue, or what have you. I could kick myself, because it was a really really good cake, too. Light, delicious, and free of that vaguely artificial background taste most folks can detect in store-bought mixes. I thought about winging it here and throwing in any old recipe. But if I owe you anything, reader (at this point, Bill!), it is the truth. So there you have it.

The one thing I do remember is that I took a recipe from the internet that was fairly straightforward. That is, the basics involved eggs, butter, and sugar, but nothing like shortening or sour cream. This recipe looks to be the most similar. I added a few drops of the aforementioned lemon oil, and I baked the cake in a Bundt pan at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. I prefer Bundt pans because all my cakes bake more evenly all the way through, without the thick corner crusts of a regular cake pan. When the cake was finished, I drip-frosted it with the pink icing my son whipped so meticulously.

If I find the exact written recipe, I promise I will post it. I think I got it off, but as I say I cannot be sure. Now that Spring has arrived, lemon is the perfect flavor for meals, whether as an accent to vegetables, fish or chicken, or as a dessert flavor. And please, feel free to contribute your favorite lemon dessert recipes here. I’m going to go whip myself now...100 lashes with a wire wisk.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Two Stars and a Lemon

How did I end up in such a fix this past Sunday? I had committed to making lemon cookies for a teacher's luncheon, that's how. And I just had to decide to bake from scratch instead of a mix, didn't I? My plan was to use this recipe I had found on one of my favorite i-phone apps, Allrecipes. Incidentally, my multi-talented friend The Nervous Chef., also described a partiality to allrecipes.

Now, I love to cook, but my feelings about baking are more reserved. Baking can be great creative fun, but I find it less forgiving than a lot of cooking, and doing it requires some acts of faith: once the dough is made, I have to shove it into the dry oven heat and relinquish control, waiting for the final results. Also my main priority these days is feeding my family of four. So my baking plans seem less practical, and they often get shelved along with the flour and baking powder. Yet, every few months, I get this inexplicable urge to tackle some floury, sweet treat from scratch. Maybe it relates to some of those early warm memories I associate with Maria: Waking up to the delectable smell of warm buttermilk biscuits on weekend mornings; trying to shape the sticky, playdoh-like dough of corn tortillas into flat circles; and painstakingly trying to shape raw ladyfingers into uniform crescents before sliding them into the oven, all under her patient, amused tutelage.

Anyway, for whatever reason, my committment to the teacher's luncheon sparked a desire to create from scratch. So here are the results:

Attempt #1: A disaster. I tried for lemon cookies and got a Big Goopy Lemon of a dish. Within five minutes of the little round dough balls sitting in the oven, they all melted down into a runny, buttery pond. What the heck happened?! I tried frantically to reconstruct my mistake as I pulled the trays out of the oven and peeled the bubbling mess off the parchment paper. (Hint: parchment paper makes clean-up a lot easier!) I consulted the recipe again, and realized that in my haste, I had followed the "suggestions" posted under the original recipe, but it wasn't complete. I had left out the eggs, and had added not nearly enough flour. But I was a woman with a mission and a load of silly pride, so I kept going.

Attempt #2: Better. This attempt yielded little lemon scones that were surprisingly not bad. My husband adored them, which took the edge off my frustration. OK so that is what happens when you add too much flour, and 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder. Good to know, but I really needed cookies. One more try.

Attempt #3: Finally, cookies! I added not as much flour, and didn't bother with the baking powder at all. Plus, I added a few drops of Boyajian Pure Lemon Oil* purchased last week at Dean & Deluca in Georgetown, and reduced the lemonade concentrate to about 2 tablespoons.

In addition, I tweaked this lemon-icing recipe, substituting the lemon oil again for the lemon juice, but still adding 1 drop of red food coloring to give it a pinkish hue. My oldest son stepped up to the plate and beat the lumps in the icing into submission. (Children can have an amazing amount of patience for such tasks. They would make any 17th-century chef proud.) The result was a satiny-smooth icing. I poured about half of it over the cookies, storing the remainder in the fridge.

By this point, about 2 1/2 hours later, my kitchen was a wreck, and I was spent. Plus it was past the kids' bedtime by about 30 minutes. But I felt my mission for luncheon cookies was accomplished.
Now, what to do with the remaining icing? Hmmm...
To be continued!

*This oil is unparalleled for a pure, rich lemon scent and taste.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Seeing White -- The Sequel

At the rate the snow is falling, I will be able to manufacture industrial quantities of snow cream and sell it. Since my last blog entry, yet another blizzard began yesterday (Tuesday, February 9th), and the white stuff is still falling hard today. The entire DC area has broken all of its snowfall records at this point. Frankly, we are running out of places to put the snow. At least we still have power! *Knock wood*.

Today as I set my metal mixing bowl on the blanket of fresh snow outside, I set my sights on the goal of making snow cream from a different recipe, just to vary the repertoire. Today's recipe is as follows:

1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
3/4 cup sugar
4 heaping tablespoons Hershey's Special Dark, Dutch Processed Cocoa Powder
14 cups snow

Yes, folks, I had a chocolate org*sm. This was an impossibly thick, dark, rich chocolate snow cream. In fact, the recipe was so rich, 8 cups of snow only yielded a dark brown sludge. So I doubled it, and the result was an incredible triple-chocolately dessert, very smooth and scoopable. The only minus was the occasional bitter-chocolate lump in the mix. But overall, it had the consistency of a soft sorbet.

Having tried recipes with both condensed and evaporated milk, I prefer the latter. The evaporated milk provided a more neutral flavor which allowed the intended snow cream flavor to stand out, whereas the condensed milk, while tasty, seemed to compete with the added flavors for dominance. So my final vote is for this recipe. Please note, though, if deep dark chocolate repulses you, you might want to reduce the amount of chocolate to 1 or 2 tablespoons, and use Milk-, rather than Special Dark, chocolate flavored cocoa powder.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Seeing White

How can snow fall for this long? I am looking out our windows in disbelief as I ask this question. The snow started falling yesterday, mid-morning, and it has fallen steadily since then. It is now 4:15pm in the afternoon on Saturday, and the world outside is a blur of white: white snowflakes swirling, a steadily rising blanket of white covering what used to be our front yard, white as far as the eye can see. I understand why the Inuit have over one dozen words for snow*, and they use clever eyeshades to prevent snowblindness. I could use such an apparatus myself. This is looking to be the worst snowfall on record for the Washington, DC area, at least since records have been kept.

There's nothing like extreme weather to shatter our illusions of control, is there? Not that we haven't tried to control what we can. We grabbed the shovels like bulls by the horn and have been steadily shoveling the driveway every 2-3 hours or so since yesterday. But...what if the snow keeps falling? What if we hurt our backs? What if...well, we can't live by imagining the worst. We can just do our best, be thankful for the good stuff, and roll with it. And if the snow does nutty horrid things, there will come a point where ya just have to laugh. In the meantime, we need to keep shoveling and look at the up side of snow.

Enter snow cream.

"What the heck is that?" I wondered, as I read about someone's childhood memories of making this with her grandparents during snowfalls. I figured it was something creamy, and probably sweet. Ice cream made with snow? When I plugged the term "snow cream" into Google, up popped hundreds of entries. Most of the sources confirmed that snow cream is indeed ice cream made with snow and other ingredients. The notion of making a food with snow is, not surprisingly, very old. Yet in the USA at least, the concept appears to have taken hold predominantly in the South. The article, Desserts that Fall from the Sky by Eliza Barclay, cites some intriguing origins and variations. I can therefore add snow cream to my list of Southern foods I have discovered since moving from my native Chicago to Virginia almost two decades ago, along with grits and turducken. I picked this snow cream recipe and planned my strategy.

I did my best to observe the general rules of snow hygiene upon tackling this project: wait for the snow to fall for at least two hours, because it takes about that long for pollution to clear the atmosphere. And of course, pick a clean area free of animal tracks or other products (no duh) from which to collect the snow. Place a metal bowl down and let the snow collect in it. I did all these things to the best of my ability. After about 2 hours, the bowl was full. (This gives an idea of how strong the blizzard has been, too!)
Indoors, I mixed the ingredients of vanilla and sweetened condensed milk together. Then I brought the snow in, measured 8 cups of it into a large bowl, and poured the cream mixture over it. I rapidly mixed the whole thing together, and voila! Snow cream.

The verdict: this stuff is delicious! The color is darker than store-bought vanilla ice-cream, more like a rich tan. But our younger son and I ate it up, and loved it. Maybe tonight I will try another variation of it, like chocolate or cinnamon, as noted on the internet. Also, the consistency of snow cream when made with this recipe comes out more like ice milk or sorbet than ice cream. If you prefer the more creamy, smooth, almost elastic consistency of Italian gelato, add only 4 to 5 cups of snow. However, I noted that it kept well in the freezer overnight, in a Tupperware container. (But I wouldn't store it for too long, for fear of bacterial growth.)

Also, maybe next time I will try to use a simple heavy cream base with sugar. While the condensed milk tasted divine, it tastes so rich and distinctive that I couldn't do too much to alter it. I tried adding some Hershey's chocolate syrup to the already-made snow cream, but my son said "it still tastes like vanilla". So much for me trying to make a Chocolate Cheat version.

Ok, now that I have partaken of Mother Nature's bounty in a dessert, I will go mitigate her effects on our driveway. Back to shoveling more snow.

* debunks the myth of the Inuit having hundreds of words for snow.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

McGuffins, Medallions and Bread, Oh My!

Way back this winter, my husband and I also went to a French Restaurant in Georgetown. Over a delicious meal of beef medallions, warm croquant bread, and other tasty sundries, we got on the subject of movies about food. As he enthusiastically recalled Ratatouille and No Reservations, I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat. Time to fess up my feelings.

"They sort of leave me cold", I admitted.
"But I thought you would enjoy them!" Andy exclaimed, disappointed. (See how my hubby thinks about me? What a sweetie.)

So I got to thinking about this. His expectation was that I would love these movies because they center around food, one of my favorite things in life. So why did I have this reaction? Some films involving food I adore, but why not these?

Don't get me wrong. All of these films have their good moments. Ratatouille's most touching moment for me came at the very end, involving a touching personal memory. (No spoilers provided here!) And I laughed hard when Catherine Zeta-Jones stormed out of the restaurant kitchen and knifed a thick cut of redmeat into the table of a dissatisfied patron, demanding, "Raw enough for you?" in No Reservations. These films were definitely watchable and fun. But they didn't hook me, didn't linger in my memory, once they were over.

I think this has something to do with the purpose that the food serves in the lives of those who prepare it. When food is a McGuffin, does it work for me?
The food, or more precisely, the act of preparing food, is used in different ways in these films. In Ratatouille, an animated film, the MacGuffin is the finely tuned nose of a rat who lives with his fellow creatures in a sewer. His passion for creating tasty food drives him to the Big City of Paris to cook under cover, literally: He hides under the hat of a young guy who has absolutely no feel for cooking, and hilariously directs him around the kitchen, preparing wonderful dishes. It makes for a great animated film. The action moves at a frenetic pace in a prestigious restaurant kitchen, where there is cutthroat competition among chefs to create the perfect dish. The pace is probably realistic, but it left me exhausted. Ratatouille is really a story about being true to one's identity and following a dream in the face of difficult odds and disapproval. But it was too "Type A" and driven for my taste. *
This is the same feeling I get when I watch TV shows like The Iron Chef...not that I have too much time for TV these days!

In No Reservations, something similar occurs, in that the film is truly about finding one's path in the face of tragedy. But again, food is secondary, subservient to this goal. The chef, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, is in therapy, then her sister dies, leaving her as her niece's guardian. She essentially hides behind her trade to avoid life. Why is this the case? What happened in her childhood, that her therapist tries to touch on, but she waves away? These questions go unanswered. Too bad, because then maybe I would feel more of a connection to her as a character. And most frustrating for me, as someone who loves the taste, texture, smell of food -- I found the movie really devoid of that very sensory experience. This movie touched on food, but didn't reveal what it symbolizes for the main character. Ok, they showed us spaghetti, but not what went into making it -- either the labor of chopping vegetables, or what this particular dish meant to the chef making it. So food felt too much like an obvious prop for the Corporate American Dream come true.

In contrast are the films that left a mark. These I want to see again and again. The most personally touching for me is Like Water for Chocolate. Cooking is Tita's only form of personal expression, given the tightly controlled life she must live under her mother's strict and bitter eye. Heartbroken when she is not allowed to marry her true love, she pours all of her passion into her dishes. Throughout the scenes, the years, we see the labor of love, of desire, that her dishes are for her. This is done in such a poetic, sometimes humorous way, with the magical realism of Mexican cinema. Close-ups of the food, of her family savoring or rejecting it, of the warmth, emotionally and physically, of the kitchen, reminded me so much of my own memories of kitchen-dwelling days with Maria. One of her recipes, the quail in rose-sauce, comes to her through the voice of her now-deceased nanny, Natcha. Food reveals Tita's attachments to the people in her life. It does not feel like merely a prop, but an essential piece of her life, for better or worse. I get the sense that the author, Laura Esquivel, has a passion for cooking, because she includes recipes in the book.

And the movie Julie and Julia skillfully weaves between the lives of a modern-day young woman and her idol, Julia Child, through cooking. Cooking gives the main character Julie an anchor and focus on life, and of course, Meryl Streep is an amazing Julia Child. Not to mention those recipes look mouthwatering, and I really appreciated the cooking tips sprinkled throughout the film.

Another film that touches on this is Spanglish. The main character, a chef and dad played by Adam Sandler, feels sadly alienated by the trajectory his life is taking. A truly sage moment comes when he says that he dreads getting a star-rating of 4 stars for his restaurant. He describes how that rating "took the heart right out of the place [where he used to work as a cook]"...then upon seeing the fateful 4-star rating in the morning paper, he exclaims, "F**K YOU!" In short, he wanted food to continue to be a labor of love, a personal passion, not a vehicle for prestige. And somehow, I can relate to that. Maybe it's why I never want to open a restaurant. The pressure really freaks me out. And I wonder, how do the really successful folks, chefs and musicians and such artists, do it?

Even in films where food is not the central subject, it, or characters who prepare it, can still evoke powerful moments. Think of the Flan scene in Real Women Have Curves. Or the Noodle-Chef in Kung Fu Panda.

So my pattern seems to be, I lean toward films in which food underscores a personal quest, or one in which it appeals to the sense of smell, taste, and touch. These are the McGuffins I want to follow.

Favorite "food books":
Garlic and Sapphires
Strudel Stories
The Language of Baklava

Favorite Food Movies:
Like Water for Chocolate
Julie & Julia

On my list:
The Minimalist Cook

I welcome any further suggestions you may have for me by way of creative works and food.

* though in the link, the reviewer adores the film. It somehow did something for him that it did not for me. Like the character of the critic in the film shows, maybe it really is fundamentally our own issues and preferences that makes a meal, a film, or any creative work, of interest...or not.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A night out in Georgetown

This past Saturday my husband and I went out for a much-needed dinner-and-movie night out. Both of us were craving a departure from the general rhythms of suburban life. So we went to the city, or more precisely, to Georgetown , an eclectic neighborhood made up of restaurants, used and rare bookstores, and Georgetown University. The beauty of this area of town is the plethora of restaurants up and down the main drags of M street and beyond. We could walk around and pick a place willy-nilly. As we were to find out, this has its benefits and drawbacks.
Our pedestrian wanderings took us into some wonderful bookstores, fun shops, and finally, to a strip of 3 restaurants altogether: One French, one Mexican, and one Indian. We stopped in at the French restaurant first, but sadly, they only took reservations. So we decided, Ok, it's been a while since we have had Indian. We decided on Taj of India, a restaurant of Northern Indian cuisine which we had been to a few times over the past decade, including one dramatic summer evening in 2003, during a wild lightning storm. I recalled the restaurant being a pleasant experience with reasonable good food. I was hoping for a similarly good experience.
Fortunately, this restaurant seated us fairly quickly. It was around 7pm, just before the crowds arrive in the DC area on Saturday nights. The waiter seated us in a corner table close to the bar. We shared one order each of naan bread, the soft, thick yogurt-and-flour-based bread basic to Indian cuisine in the USA; and vegetable samosas. Also chaat papri, an appetizer of crisp bread, yogurt, chick peas and spices. Both of us went for our old standby, chicken tikka masala. This dish is really not traditional Indian, I found out a few years ago, but a later invention made up for Western palates with tastes for milder, creamier versions of Indian food. In England it is more commonly known as butter chicken.
The vegetable samosas were very mildly spiced, almost not at all. However we enjoyed their take on the breaded outer layer: Rather than the oily, crispy layer that it usually is, this samosa bread was soft, thick, fluffy. The chaat papri was adequate, hugely dosed in yogurt and a barely detectable amount of curry. The naan bread held the telltale standard, softly triangular shape of a chain-produced item, ie, not made on site. I cannot be sure of this, but I just had a feeling.
Then came the main dish. Now, while I realize tikka masala is already a pseudo-Indian dish, I was surprised to see the sauce look almost entirely creamy, slightly saffron-colored, with very little if any tomato-and-curry/chili spice. This is my pet peeve with many Indian eateries, be they formal or casual: they pare the taste down too much, presumably because they assume Westerners cannot, or wish not, to handle the hot factor or "different" ingredients in their spices. I adore Indian spices of curry, cumin, chili powder, and the richness of turmeric and saffron, and I like my dishes much hotter. Some conscientious places will inquire first before providing us with the milquetoast version of their dishes, but I have seen this practice dwindle over the past decade, as Indian food is consumed on a larger scale in the United States. The current recession may also be driving this practice, as restaurants attempt to save on costs. However, the chicken itself was very tender, the rice just so. The quality of the ingredients used, in other words, was good, but a "Westerner's version" seemed to pervade its preparation.
Now a word about the service: from start to finish, our waiter stood around long enough to take our orders, but his mind was obviously on other things. He kept swiveling his head to look at the table next to us, the kitchen, the door. Often we had to repeat our orders to him. I was tempted to ask him if he was expecting something, and sorry we were such an interruption. When he and a helper brought the dishes, they were plopped on the table indifferently. For dessert, my husband and I ordered mango kulfi (Indian ice cream) and rice pudding, respectively. The rice pudding was predictable yummy, but regrettably devoid of pistachios, cardamom, or any of the other flavors that make Indian desserts so distinctive and memorable. And when it was brought out, the waiter plopped my small dish of rice pudding on my side of the table and informed my husband that they were out of kulfi. In my experience, it is good etiquette for waiters to inform their patrons of what is available before bringing their companions food, so no one is left out. My husband declined dessert and we asked for the check.
Soon the restaurant began filling just a bit more, and indeed, I could see the source of our waiter's attention. He swiveled his head once more, looked to the next table, and perked up as it began filling up with a large group. The manager or owner eventually stopped by our table and graciously apologized for the lack of kulfi and tried to persuade my husband to order something else. We thanked him very much for his courtesy, but hubby declined. The attentiveness of the manager would have made a vast difference in our experience, had our waiter expressed some level of interest beyond plate-plopping. But sadly, it was too little, too late. The sense I get from this restaurant is that it is banking on the general public's interest in Indian food, plus the fact that it has location, location, location. It has good potential, but it either had a weak night, or it has lost touch with consumers who want a more memorable experience of Indian food. On the other hand, the dinner was reasonably good, filling, and we reliably had a table and a meal in Georgetown without a loud crowd -- an undeniable plus.
So overall, this restaurant was a satisfying dining-out experience, if a bit disappointing in "fine Indian cuisine".

Question: Can folks recommend some delicious Indian fare in the DC Metro area? Or any other part of the country, the world? What Indian dishes do you like, and why?

Star rating: **

Taj of India
2809 M Street, NW, Georgetown
Washington, DC 20007
(202) 965-4266
Fax: (202) 965-3305

Friday, January 22, 2010

A food court diamond in the rough

Do you ever have one of those days when you are going about your business, and you stumble upon something new and unexpectedly wonderful? Especially wonderful, because had you not been in that particular place and time, you never would have found the unusual little gem that you did?

Well, I had such a day today. Food-wise, that is.

I had spent the entire morning at the Honda dealership in Alexandria, Virginia, having my car serviced. By the time my car was ready, it was 2 1/2 hours later, and I was rather peckish. I did not feel like driving right back home -- after 2 weeks of being cooped up nursing first myself, then my family back to health from a yucky cold/bronchial infection, I had way too much cabin fever to simply head home. So I decided to head to Landmark Mall about 1 mile up Duke Street, for lunch and some retail therapy. Not too much retail therapy, mind you -- after a car maintenance bill and other similar expenses, I was going to mostly window-shop. But hey, I figured I deserved to get out of the house.

After about 20 minutes of looking for a coat on sale for my younger son, I was quite ravenous. It's never ever a good idea to make a decision on an empty stomach, so I dropped everything and headed for the food court. Once there, I could see the signs of a recession economy: half of the food court stations were closed down, boarded up. Only about 4 stations were open. Most were run-of-the-mill standard food-court options, like Chick-filet. Not bad. But not great, either. Certainly not what I had hoped for by taking myself to lunch.

Then at the far end of the food court, I saw something that looked unusual. First off, the sign: "Asanka Delight". Hmmm, not something I had ever seen before. Then I looked at the display photos hanging overhead: bits of meat in brick-red sauces. Round breads. Intriguing starchy dishes. Was it Indian food? "I could go for that", I thought. I wanted some rich spicy dish to perk up my winter-weary tongue. I walked over to get a closer look. Very few people were milling around, but I saw someone tasting from a small plastic bowl in orgiastic delight. No, this wasn't Indian food. What was it? The dishes had foreign-sounding names: Banku with grilled tilapia. Kokonkey with Peanut. Um, sort of African-sounding, maybe?
"Is this West African food?" I asked the main vendor.
"Ghanian", she answered, smiling.
"Excuse me," I asked, turning to the woman sampling. She was now having a styrofoam carton piled up with a variety of foods from the hot metal serving trays. "Can I ask what that is? It looks good."
"Oh I don't even know!" she said, laughing. "I just asked for a sample of everything, because it looks so good.
"Oh OK!" I turned to the vendor again, and said, "I'll have what she's having!" (Is this like a movie scene?)

The vendor-- I assume she is Asanka, but I didn't ask, being too intent on lunching -- generously allowed me to sample a variety of the dishes before I loaded up my main lunch vittles. She named the dishes: rice with beans. Spicy rice. Spinach and Egusi stew. Baked plantains. Beef stew. I avoided the fish, just because I did not feel like fish today. And this fish was fried with the bone-in, and frankly, I did feel up to the task. As I tried each dish, I exclaimed, "Oh!" (It has been awhile since food has given me that startlingly pleasing a reaction.) Especially, the beef stew sauce. That had some real...shall I say it? Zest. Vim. Vigor. Tacky words, but they fit. No, no, I mean something else. Moxie! A deep, burnt-umbre-colored sauce, with the deep chili-spice kick of many Indian dishes, but somehow more full-bodied. This was not watered-down food meant for mainstream unadventurous palates. If food court meals are typically a walk in the park, this food was a trek in a wild Ghanian forest. (Do they have forests in Ghana? I must look into that.) This food was homemade. I felt I had stumbled onto a great secret when your close friend says, "here, I am going to share a secret!" And maybe that was part of the appeal. So I made my food choices:

I chose the beef stew (of course!), the spicy rice, spinach with black-eyed peas, the plantains, and then "Asanka" threw in a container of sauce. "Just so you know, make sure it is OK, it is shrimp sauce," she cautioned.
"Good that you mention it, in case of allergies", I remarked.
"Oh yes, I know about allergies. I was a nanny before", she said. A plus, in my opinion.
My food carton was completely loaded, like an overzealous grandma had piled it that high. For that, plus a bottled water, the price was $10.68 -- not bad for such a wild experience!

So I made my way to a table and plopped down with my find. And began eating. The raves, I had already mentioned. The food was such a delicious combinations of textures, flavors, and I was so hungry, that I began eating with real gusto.
After I was about one-third of the way through, I began to slow down, and notice that my gosh, this food was very heavy, too. The meat was cooked very tender, but a bit fatty. The spicy rice, a bit too greasy. But delicious still! I took a bite of the beef stew, and felt something small, loose and hard. I fished it out: a small bone. Yikes! This is not food to gulp. I instantly understood why Americans eat the way we do: our dishes are very ground down and processed. This food, frankly, would be unsafe to eat that way. Then I ate some of the spinach dish, and I wonder if that somewhat fibrous, leafy sensation when I swallowed wasn't a piece of bay leaf? Which, I had read, should always be cooked whole, then removed upon serving, because people can get it stuck in the throat. Needless to say, I slowed down. I continued savoring my food, but with more selectiveness, the way an Alaskan bear begins eating only the choicest bits of salmon once they have filled up on countless whole fish and get full.

I sat back at a little over the half-way mark -- only a huge man could've finished everything in that generous portion, anyway -- and observed the dish. A layer of oil was now slicking the top of the stew and spicey rice. I was reminded of my husband's stories of his own nanny, an affectionate, wiry Russian woman, who for years, made soup with huge amounts of oil and proudly served it to the family. They all found it wonderful, but very heavy, and yet they did not have the heart to tell her this critique amidst the intense pride she took in her travails making it. So his mother would instead awaken late at night and sneak into the kitchen, take the soup out of the refrigerator, and quietly, painstakingly, remove much of the top layer of oil. But not too much, because then Russian Nanny would know and be upset. It sounded like an artform, perfecting this dance of oil removal. Thus I felt about this dish.

Yes, honestly, it was too greasy for my taste. I certainly couldn't eat it every day. And I would recommend that the cook herself warn folks of the bits of inedible parts lying amidst the savory stews. And yet, she was so generous in her time, the portions, and dang, it was really unique and delectable! It truly felt like I had eaten home-cooked food, sampled a labor of love. I didn't have the heart, when asked how I liked it, to say it the way I am saying it here. I told the truth:
"It is really delicious, but a bit heavy because I am not used to oil", I said.
"Oh, ok", she replied.
"I loved it though" I quickly added.
She smiled again. I asked, "what is that dish up there?" and I pointed to a dish with a pleasingly caramel-colored stew with what looked like dumplings.
"Peanut butter chicken. I make that one on Saturdays!" she said proudly.

OK, I actually know that dish. A friend of mine from Ghana prepared it for my roommate and I almost 2 decades ago. I remember it as very delicious, filling, mildly sweet. So now I definitely have to come back on one of these Saturdays! Plus I'll try the boiled rice balls and bread dough then, too.

Star rating: **1/2

Asanka Delight, Restaurant and Catering Services
5801 Duke Street #G340
Alexandria, VA 22304
(Landmark Mall Food Court)
tel: 703-300-9249

Friday, January 15, 2010

Harvest Hash

Winter is a magical season, yet harsh. It's cold outside and gets dark early. Our bodies crave carbs and warm comfort foods. In theory, sure, I want to stay healthy and savor fresh simple foods, especially fruits and vegetables. In practice, though, I really don't feel like coming in from the cold and eating a salad. Ech.

So what to do? Well for starters, find recipes for warm vegetable dishes. That means cooked, but not over-processed. Here are two of them.

Harvest Hash
The inspiration for this recipe came from an article in The Washington Post Food section by Bonnie Benwick, entitled, "Her Italian Accent" (November 11, 2009). (The Washington Post site has this and other archived articles available for purchase). Featured was a Georgetown woman who had lived in Italy for years and accumulated the Italian way of cooking, using what is fresh and in season. Use what you have on hand, keep it simple, and improvise, she advised. With this in mind, I came up with Harvest Hash, a cold-weather dish of turkey bacon, broccoli, and butternut squash.

5 slices Turkey Bacon (Louis Rich or similar brand)*
1/2 pound peeled butternut squash, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 crown of fresh broccoli, sliced into small pieces
1 teaspoon sage powder or 4 leaves crushed fresh sage
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup chicken broth
2 tsp. vegetable oil

Heat up large skillet on medium-high. Add 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil, spread around, and place turkey bacon on skillet. Cook 2 minutes to a side; set aside.

Add the remaining teaspoon of oil, butternut squash, and broccoli. Sautee lightly, then add 1/3rd of the chicken broth. Bring heat down to medium and continue to sautee the mixture. Add sage and gradually add the white wine and the rest of the chicken broth. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes or till vegetables begin to soften. Put turkey bacon slices back into the pan and mix everything together for another 2 minutes. Cover, turn off heat and let pan sit for a few minutes. Serves 2 people as a main dish, 4 as appetizer or side.

Serve with hot pita or naan bread, or by itself.

* Substitute ham if needed, cubed or deli-sliced.
The beauty of this dish is that you use many subsitutions: Zucchini for the broccoli. Any yellow or orange squash/pumpkin for the butternut.

Cheesy Zucchini Pockets
This dish is super-fast and easy.

2-4 medium or large zucchini, sliced lengthwise into thin slices, tips removed.
shredded mozzarella cheese
grated parmesan (optional)
cooking oil spray (ex: Pam)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray it with cooking spray. Place zucchini slices onto the foil, about 1 inch apart. Carefully sprinkle mozzarella cheese shreds onto the zucchini till just covered (more if you like it really cheesy). Sprinkle a bit of parmesan on top of each slice. Bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes or until cheese is golden brown on top. Serves 4-6 as appetizer, 2-3 as a side dish.

I wish you all a comfort-filled winter! As you sit at your table, no matter what is on your plate, take it in and enjoy. I also want to remember my fortunes and send the help that I can for the Haiti Earthquake victims from earlier this week. We might be far way, but we are all connected.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Post-Holiday Food Phase

Ironic, isn't it, that I haven't posted a thing since just before Thanksgiving? The holidays are that busy time of year for food and drink. This is precisely why I have not posted, because I've been so preoccupied with organizing my family, preparing the home, hosting, traveling, etc. With the holidays ending and into this New Year of 2010, I feel I can finally reflect on that positive yet hectic cluster of weeks.

I will start with an observation. My husband and I are huge fans of the TV show Heroes, and I watched amused as Noah (Jack Coleman) met up with his former covert-op colleague in a grocery store. They discussed Thanksgiving preparations, and she advised him not to buy a frozen bird "unless you want to wait till Christmas (for it to thaw)"...then she guided him through the myriad traditional Thanksgiving recipes and preparations. This struck me as implausible, that a career spy such as this woman, who is young and consumed by her job, is such an expert on large-scale, from-scratch food preparations! OK, perhaps she has a 'hidden' past...the older sister who had to help parent several siblings, or she threw herself into domesticity after high-school/college before deciding on a career in espionage. But really, this is unlikely. And if that is NOT the case, how did she gain such know-how about Thanksgiving meals? Wow. Speaking for myself, it took me years -- YEARS!-- of cooking for myself, then my family, of consulting recipes, developing techniques, and hours in the kitchen and grocery store, to develop any knack for roasting a bird and preparing stuffing from scratch. I don't say that to tout my own horn, but to ask, where and how did she find the time?! If anything, her friend Noah, a married family man for years, would possibly know more than her on that count. At least he would have heard his wife grousing about defrosting the turkey on time, right? Hmmm...or maybe since she is a woman she learned through gender osmosis? I know, it's just a TV show, and a minor point, but I couldn't help find it funny.

Having said all this, I should bring up a point that negates that very assertion: plenty of world leaders, politicians, etc. love to cook. Even more of them love to eat. But the chefs among them often grew up in a family of cooks, and that is where they picked it up. More food for thought, no pun intended. Ok enough on that. Now that I got that out of my system, I'd like to hear your own thoughts on this. And move on to another subject.

Speaking of food preparation, I have discovered that cooking for myself or my family is one thing: entertaining for a larger crowd with diverse tastes, ages, and appetites is another. So this year, I did the American thing and outsourced most of the Thanksgiving meal. I focused mainly on preparing the turkey, and bought most other dishes ready-made. This allowed me to have one centerpiece dish in which to pour my passions, and focus the rest of my energy on serving and presenting the food. Way easier on my body.

Thanksgiving Turkey
My method for turkey has evolved over time, but it works for my family. At least it must, because they ask for it yearly. Generally I buy a 15-18-pound bird, organic and free-range. I prepare it on the Wednesday/day before Thanksgiving. I place 2 4-foot sheets of heavy-duty aluminum foil in a large roasting pan, letting about 2 1/2 feet hang out (so I can later fold it over the bird for cooking). I fold the wings back into "sunbathing" position, then manually separate the breast and leg skin from the flesh. Don't forget to open the giblet package, rinse and place in the pan too! Then, pack a mixture of crushed and chopped fresh rosemary, fresh sage, fresh thyme, oil, garlic powder, worcestershire sauce inside that skinflap and rub it around. Add sliced raw yellow onions to the skinflap and cavity. Douse 1/3 of a bottle of good-quality cognac in that flap, in the cavity, and around the outside of the bird. Cover with the foil, place in a fridge or cold garage shelf, and marinate for 24 hours. Then, at about 12noon on Thanksgiving Day, I put the bird into the oven and add about 2 cups of water to the pan. Bake on a convection current at 350 degrees (Fahrenheit). Baste every 20 minutes or so, for the next 4-5 hours. During the last hour, I uncover the bird so it can brown nicely. The bird will be very tender.

While the bird cooks, I do make a low-fat stuffing with pepperidge-farm cubed stuffing and low-sodium chicken broth. And a fresh green salad, and cranberry sauce, because it is very simple to make. The rest of the side dishes and desserts, such as sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, peas, I buy ready-made from a store of my choice. I prefer the sides from Whole Foods, but the apple and pumpkin-pies from a local bakery. Outsourcing works for setting the table! Have a family member do it, and thank them profusely. No need to be a martyr -- accept help. That's my philosophy right now. Voila, a dinner is made, and I have not fallen from exhaustion.