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Does This Blog Make My Butt Look Big?

3 May

Caution: food writing creates a set of self esteem issues you probably haven’t seen since the 10th grade. Once word gets around that you write about food, people start acting funny. When a friend recently heard I was attending a small get together for which he was cooking, he remarked “Oh great, now the pressure’s on. Why does she have to be there?” He was half-kidding (I think) seeing as how I was clearly standing within earshot, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard this sentiment. His blackened chicken fettuccine was remarkable, possibly better than one I could have concocted. His error lay not in thinking that his food wouldn’t meet my expectations, but that I had any expectations at all. I was just glad that someone else was doing the cooking for a change—sometimes cooking is a real joy for me, but it’s often the same utilitarian pain in the neck that it is for most people. He could have made a bowl of Cheerios and I would have thought it was pure genius.

A few times I’ve been mistakenly referred to as a “food critic” by friends, and I could see people get nervous, like they were thinking “Do I know anything about food? Should I bring up truffles? Can I cook? Am I going to have to feed this woman at some point?” My friends probably just lacked a better term for what I do, but food critic is off the mark. I don’t review restaurants for a living, and when I do write about restaurants, I’m not making value judgements most of the time. The idea of critiquing a restaurant and becoming a Taste Maker doesn’t really appeal to me. “Critic” implies that my taste somehow matters, both economically and socially, and it doesn’t. Trust me, restaurant owners aren’t pasting my photo up in their kitchens so that I’m given good service and good food every time. I get bad service and bad food just like all the other patrons in town. No cafe will be made or broken by the number of stars I dole out. Most importantly, the word “critic” seems to imply a sinister ulterior motive that I do not possess. I think food is too interesting and too much fun to ruin it by calling myself a Food Critic, donning some black rimmed hipster glasses, and taking notes every time I sit down to chicken wings at Big Daddy’s.

The insecurities food writing induces in the writer herself, however, are perhaps the worst; the dry, cardboard-like corn bread I took to a New Year’s Eve party… I knew everyone was whispering in the corners: she’s a food writer? really? this is terrible… I could make a better cornbread in my sleep. And really, they could have made a better cornbread than mine. It was awful. The macaroni and cheese I served at Christmas? A petroleum byproduct at best. The garbanzo bean salad I made for a friend’s recent dinner party? The silence was deafening. I would say I could only hear them chewing, but truthfully, they may have been swallowing each bite whole so that they wouldn’t have to taste it. That’s not to say that all of my food is bad. Obviously, I knock it out of the park on a fairly regular basis, but that doesn’t lessen my anxiety when it comes to preparing food for other people. I’m always worried if people will like my food, if I deserve to be writing about food. I worry that I won’t be able to live up to the impossible standards that I imagine other people have for me. 

And my failures in the kitchen aren’t even the worst of it—I can’t even begin to tell you what I don’t know about food. I had honestly never tried lamb until three weeks ago. Never. I’ve never eaten foie gras or truffles. Not that I don’t want to try these things, I just haven’t yet had the opportunity. I don’t own a food processor. The ex kept my old one in the divorce and I’ve never bothered to replace it. I don’t own Silpat or a single piece of Le Creuset.  And so I wonder sometimes, do I have a right to be writing about food?

Yes. Eating and cooking and then about food is, for me, a process of discovery: discovery of my own limitations and promise, discovery of the heritage and hospitality of my friends, discovery of what is good and fun and delicious in a town that is often hard to live in. And it’s a way for me to get to know my own insecurities and see past them. I have learned that my friends love me because of my mistakes, not in spite of my mistakes. They love the fact that I have a sense of humor about my failures, that I learn from them, and that I’m more human than foodie.

One of the mistakes I consistently make is that, in an effort to impress people, I will try something new and exciting. This is good. Courage and experimentation are necessary tools in the kitchen. Otherwise you’ll just make the same Hamburger Helper every night for the rest of your life. But if you’re going to make something new, don’t go too far; experiments fail. They should fail until they succeed. And you don’t want to try your first failure out on someone else.

The following is a recipe for something very simple. When your experimental cornbread recipe fails, you can whip this up in seconds, and for most of the year our local markets have plenty of heirloom tomatoes around.

Heirloom Tomato and Mozzarella Salad

If you want to be fancy call it: Heirloom Insalata Caprese

  • 8-10 heirloom tomatoes (different sizes, colors, and types)
  • 1 8-12 oz package of mozzarella pearls, drained
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
  • salt and cracked pepper

Directions: Chop the tomatoes into broad chunks and mix them with the other ingredients. Add a bit of green (cilantro, spinach, parley, etc.) if you so desire.

A Food Blogger’s Manifesto with Carrot & Beet Salad

5 Apr

“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.”

—M. F. K. Fisher, Gastronomical Me

When people ask me what I do for a living, I have a number of possible answers I can give them: I’m an artist. I’m a teacher (sometimes I use the phrase “adjunct professor” if I want to look like I’m wearing Fancy Pants). I guess I can also technically claim to be a food columnist. However, I never answer “I’m a writer,” even though I’ve spent large swaths of time over the last twenty years doing and that very thing. And although I’ve never really felt driven to publish anything, I have a tiny menagerie of accidental publications: one poem and one short story in minor journals, two book reviews in an Australian literary journal, a few newspaper articles, a now defunct blog about my painting life, and, of course, this blog. In one sense of the word, I am a writer—I spend lots of time writing, people sometimes read what I have to say, and a University trusts my writing skills enough to let me teach others how to do it, ergo… I’m a writer. So why don’t I claim to be one? I’ve had friends say “Oh, you should turn this into a book or write for a magazine or something,” but, alas, no. I know too many writers and artists, and I know the suffering that “Being a Writer” brings with it.

Rainer Maria Rilke, in the Duino Elegies, says “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.” If you see the job of the artist or writer as tackling Beauty, in all its terrible forms, then to commit oneself to this profession is terrifying: the uncertainty of ever being able to do it well, the economic instability, the possibility that everything you do will fall on deaf ears or be cast before the blind.  The dirty truth is that I’m terrified of being a failed writer. As long as I tell myself that I’m not trying to Be a Writer, then I won’t have to suffer the potential failure to be one. I ran into this problem when I decided to Be an Artist. I never felt comfortable with the title of Artist until I’d sold a few paintings and rented a studio. I had landed a few solo shows, won a few contests, made some significant money, and then one day, I put my paint splattered pants on, get some acrylic beneath my fingernails, and thought “Hey, looky, I’m an Artist.” But then my main gallery closed its doors, my sales dropped, I had to get rid of my studio, and now when I claim to be an artist, even though I have the credentials and I’m still painting, there is a voice in my head that says “No, you’re a Failed Artist.” It’s exhausting, trying to defend myself against myself.

Once I say “I want to be a Writer,” I create two possible futures: one where I’m a Successful Writer and the other where I’m a Failed Writer. Even if I accomplish the former, I will always live in fear of the latter. It’s the second Noble Truth of Buddhism: desire is the root of suffering. So, no. I don’t want to Be a Writer. I like writing about food and hunger and eating and I like doing it in the low-stakes environment of this blog—it’s a creative outlet, a way to exorcise my verbal culinary demons so they don’t distract me from the job that pays my bills.  But I’m not sending out any query letters. I’m not looking for an agent. I’m not entering contests. There are no book deals, nor any freelance aspirations. This is fun. The minute I try to turn it into a career, it will become an unrequited lover, always beyond the reach of my lusty, anguished fingers.

Call it cowardice if you must, but really, I’m just trying to keep my relationship with words on an even keel. Once I bound painting up with My Identity and My Career, it never fully recovered from the performance anxiety that Being an Artist produced. And so my creative passions have found other means of escape, through the valves of language and appetite.  So be it.  Jonathan Franzen reminds me that this is enough: “To write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them: Isn’t this enough? Isn’t this a lot?” The medium is less important to me than the message and less important to me than the act of communion that results from great art. Whether I choose paint or words isn’t the point. If it’s true that a God sculpted us in his own likeness, the relevant fact is not so much that he made something from clay and water, but that he made something at all.

Lest you leave my table sated with words but hungry for food, let me offer one of my more creative dishes, a Carrot and Beet Relish that I invented on the fly late last summer. A friend had given me some delicate, nearly transparent carrots from her garden, and I also had a few beets left from the greens I’d made the night before. I hadn’t yet decided what to do with the beets, and I was told I would have dinner guests only hours before they arrived. I didn’t know if it would be good, and was relieved when my guests like it.  The recipe is more like a guess-ipe because I’m not exactly certain of the amounts.

Carrot and Beet Salad

  • 3-5 medium carrots, finely julienned (aim for toothpick-sized, mandolines are helpful tools for this kind of cut, but I use a knife…it just takes a while)
  • 3-5 medium beets, finely julienned
  • 1-2 finger-sized portion of fresh ginger root, finely julienned
  • 1-2 lobes of shallot, julienned
  • 4-5 tablespoons of a good quality orange marmalade
  • 2 teaspoons of white pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of coarse sea salt
  1. Cook the carrots and beets in separate sauce pans, adding enough water to cover them, and only cooking them until they lose their crunch, but not until they are mushy. They need to retain their shape and separate colors.
  2. Lightly saute the ginger and shallot until they become limp and transparent.
  3. In a serving bowl, combine the marmalade, ginger, pepper, and salt.
  4. Shock the carrots and beats in cold water, rinse and strain, and add them to the bowl.

Finally, as M. F. K. Fisher would say, serve it forth.  You can also check out the blog, Chocolate and Zucchini, for their recipe for grated carrots and beets, or Bon Appetite‘s recipe for beet and carrot salad.

Hom Big-Jon: Thai Inspired Hoppin’ John

31 Dec

Black eyed peas for good luck in 2011.

This year I’m making a couple of traditionally inspired dishes for New Years Eve.  The first dish is called Hom Big-Jon, a play on Southern Style Hoppin’ John.  It’s supposed to have a penny somewhere in it for the lucky person who finds it in his bowl, but I can never bring myself to add one.  Hoppin’ John is a very traditional Southern New Years dish and like everything else, it’s been transformed by my life here.  Most obvious is the Thai influence on the dish (see the ingredients).  And Thai folks apparently like nicknames: “Hom” means “pleasant aroma” and a “Big-Jon” is a “big, big man who lies at the bottom of a disused mineshaft” according to a fellow named Boonie who lives in Thailand.  So this Hoppin’ John landed himself at the bottom of a disused mineshaft (or Fairbanks in my case) and let me tell you, Hom Big-Jon smells delicious.

Hom Big-Jon

  • 3 cans of black eyed peas, rinsed and drained
  • 1/2 of a red, yellow, and orange pepper, diced
  • 1/3 – 1/2 of a red onion
  • 1 finger of ginger, minced
  • a handful of cilantro, destemmed and partially chopped
  • 1/2 cup of olive oil
  • 1/2 cup of Marukan citrus marinade (or the juice of 1 lime)
  • 1 cup of seasoned gourmet rice vinegar (Marukan)
  • 1 tsp salt

Let this sit overnight if you can. The flavors really mellow and sing after it marinates. Actually, if it sits for two or three days, it’s pure genius, or so the Hot Boyfriend tells me, but he might be biased. Wait, no. It’s genius.

I'm hoping for more color in my Snow White World.

The other dish is Plain Ol’ Beet Greens, which hopefully represents more money in the new year, and I pick beet greens because the red stems remind me of passion, a thing I always want in my life.  But, there is another reason why I’m cooking this dish—I really shouldn’t eat the Hom Big-Jon.  The rice vinegar is loaded with sugar and, well… I have a confession: I don’t eat sugar or flour.  Ever.  OK, I’ve slipped up here and there in very small amounts, but for the most part I studiously avoid those two things.  The recipes you see here that use either of those ingredients are things I cook for my family and friends; I never eat them myself.  I rely on others to tell me if a dish is good or not.  If my son’s eyes light up and he asks for more of the Danish Grandmother’s Sugar Cookies, then I know the recipe is worth something.

I stopped eating sugar and flour almost 4 years ago when I was diagnosed with something called Polycystic Ovarian Disease.  Once I changed my diet, the ugly symptoms that go with this disease virtually disappeared. It’s no coincidence that my obsession with food began around the same time; I’d always been a food connoisseur of sorts, but it took on a life of its own when I began to cook all of my own food. Processed food is just out of the question on this kind of diet, so I had to start cooking every day and I had to be very creative about it. And I refuse to call my foodways “Low-Carb” or “Gluten Free”—I have a maniacal distaste for those monikers.  Good food is good food and I just happen to eat the kind with no sugar or flour.

OK, so another confession: those “slip ups” I mentioned earlier tend to occur in close succession between November and December.  I may have had some stuffing at Thanksgiving.  And mashed potatoes.  And over Christmas I may or may not have eaten the Danish Grandmother’s Foodgasm Inducing Super Ham Balls (which had more than one ingredient I’m supposed to stay away from). But of course, you can bank on the fact that every New Year’s Resolution tends to involve being more conscientious about what I put in my mouth.  Which means that my recipe for Plain Ol’ Beet Greens is legal fare.

Big green leaves for money (I'm spending mine on plane tickets) and red stems for passion.

Plain Ol’ Beet Greens

  • fresh greens from 6-8 large beets, remove the larger part of the stems
  • 3-4 cups of water
  • 1 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 4-5 pieces of bacon and drippings
  • 1/3 of a sweet Vidalia onion

Rinse the beet greens and remove the woody stems. Chop the greens in to bite size pieces and in a large pot, combine the greens, water, and vinegar.

In a frying pan, cook the bacon and remove it once it’s done.  There should be 2-3 tablespoons of drippings left.  I usually have some extra in the fridge, but that’s my Southern upbringing at work.

Saute the onions, and once the greens are dark and limp, use a slotted spoon to remove them from the water and add them to the saute pan.  If you want, chop up the bacon and add it to the greens.  Sometimes I’ve already eaten the bacon while the onions are sauteing.

Eat it until your wallet grows fat, or until you do from all the bacon grease.

Also, use the remaining vinegar and water to cook the beets.  Delicious.  More so if you let it reduce before serving.

How to Fatten Hansel in Order to Eat Him for Winter Solstice

20 Dec

Woodsmoke rising in the winter sun.

Solstice is the cul du sac of winter, a place where the disappearing sun goes to turn around and return home.  Winter solstice is a psychological balm for those of us living in Alaska. It marks the end of loss.  Tomorrow we will begin to gain daylight, slowly at first, but by late March the Great Hibernation will be over.

However, I was disappointed this morning by -30°F.  Again. I have no alternative but to treat these months as Festival months.  I will celebrate Solstice, Christmas, and New Years with a Mardi Gras-like fervor.  I will hang lights, decorate my table, and feast like the Bacchanals. Mircea Eliade, in The Sacred and the Profane, explains that festivals are a way of maintaining our connection to the Divine:

“In imitating the exemplary acts of a god or of a mythical hero, or simply by recounting their adventures, the man of an archaic society detaches himself from profane time and magically re-enters the Great Time, the sacred time.” Mircea Eliade

Last night, I realized that I had a jar of artichoke hearts in need of eating.  I opened them a few weeks ago and realized that they were a good choice for a dark winter’s night… they are in season in spring and last sometimes into the fall.  I decided to make a meal that represents my faith in the return of spring.  But what to pair them with? Well, in honor of my desire to remain a “Spring Chicken,” I saw chicken as a hopeful choice.

I will give you the recipe on the one condition that you never tell the Hot Boyfriend what’s in it. He asked me if I was trying to “fatten him up” and we joked about the Witch’s desire to consume youth (the Hot Boyfriend is considerably younger than I) in “Hansel and Gretel”. He wondered if I was going to actually put a half a stick of butter in the sauce (the remaining half was lying conspicuously on the counter) and I said “No way!”  I hadn’t yet gotten the heavy whipping cream out of the fridge.  I thought, as I stirred the thickening sauce, that if I were going to fatten him and eat him for my Solstice meal, this would be a good dish on which to do so.  I mused on humanity’s love of fatted animals: Kobe beef, foie gras, pork belly, the Fatted Calf of the Old Testament. And I mused on the pleasure of feeding men, specifically the man in my kitchen.  Once he begins training hard again in the spring, I won’t resort to such underhanded methods of pleasure, but for now you must remain complicit in my crimes if you want the recipe.

"Hansel, stretch out thy finger that I may feel if thou wilt soon be fat."

Fatted Hansel Chicken: or Braised Chicken Tenderloin with Asparagus and Mushroom Sauce

  • 1/2 cup shredded Manchego cheese
  • 1 cup diced mushrooms (shiitake and crimini)
  • 1 cup artichoke hearts (roughly chopped)
  • 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup half and half
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • white pepper
  • 1 clove minced garlic
  • Sacrificial Virgin Olive Oil
  • salt, seasoning
  • 8-10 pieces of chicken tenderloin

In a saucepan, on medium head, add the butter, mushrooms, white pepper, and garlic.  When the mushrooms and garlic begin to smell really good, add the cream, half & half, artichokes, and cheese.  Cover and let this simmer while you prepare the chicken.

Pat the chicken tenderloins dry and dust them with seasoning (I used a rosemary, garlic, pepper blend). In a large oven-proof skillet on high heat, add the olive oil.  Sear the outside of the chicken on both sides (this shouldn’t take long for small tenderloins). Finish the chicken in a 400° oven.

Serve it forth to Hansel.  Feel his finger to see if he is fat.

Cabin Curry: How to Avoid the Outhouse at -25F.

19 Dec

The outhouse at the Kitchen Vixen's cabin.

Thai Curry, Round 2: Last night I visited my friend, a well known (but paradoxically private) poet who will henceforth be known as the Kitchen Vixen.  The Vixen lives, like many people in Fairbanks, in a cabin with no running water and an outhouse.  I love cooking with her in the cabin because, although there is no water, there is a phenomenal collection of cookbooks, old issues of Gastronomica, and plenty of Le Creuset cookware.  I brought over some of my booty from the Asian Market in the hopes that I could make another Thai curry, and that, this time, it would not send my American intestinal tract to the outhouse.  Especially since it was -25°F last night.

Yellow curry in a delightful bowl from the Tanana Valley Farmer's Market.

Here’s the recipe we managed to throw together:

Yellow Thai Curry with White Shrimp and Green Beans

  • 15-20 peeled, raw white shrimp
  • 1 small, finely julienned ginger root
  • 3-4 keffir lime leaves
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced
  • 1 large handful of fresh green beans, ends removed, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 large lobe of shallot, julienned
  • 1 can of coconut milk
  • 1 tbsp of yellow curry paste (I used Mae Ploy brand)
  • 1/4 cup peanut oil
  • 1 tbsp Marukan seasoned gourmet rice vinegar

1. Get the peanut oil extremely hot (peanut oil is preferred both for taste and because it has a high smoking temperature, which means you can get it super hot before it begins to smoke and subsequently catches your cabin on fire).

Slightly more than caramelized? Maybe.

2. Add vegetable ingredients except for a smidge of the ginger and 1 or 2 of the lime leaves.  Turn the heat down when the ingredients begin to caramelize.

3. Add 1/2 the coconut milk, curry paste, and the peeled shrimp.

4. Let it simmer while you throw another log on the fire.

Chop wood. Drink wine.

5. Add the rest of the coconut milk, ginger, and lime leaves.

6.  Serve over rice, or, if you forgot to bring the rice (like I did) eat it as is.





Caveats: First of all, let me say that this recipe is good, but I’m not going to claim it’s genius. I have a lot to learn about the proportions and cooking order of Thai ingredients.  Also, I’m the kind of cook who thinks cooking from recipes is The Man trying to stifle my creativity; therefore, I have to learn the hard way sometimes.  And that often means making food that can be improved upon. By all means, if you have suggestions for this recipe, fire away.

In other news: It turns out the Hot Boyfriend couldn’t get home for Christmas, which means I will have company for Christmas.  He’s hoping I will cook his grandmother’s  Ham Balls, which I will share with you so long as I don’t utterly destroy a cherished family meal because I refuse to follow directions.

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