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Seuol Sushi Cafe Dessert

9 Dec

Just FYI, if you show up on an evening that’s a little slow, and if you appear to be enjoying the food, the chef will probably send over a little extra…
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9 Dec

Without a doubt the best food in Fairbanks: Seoul Sushi Cafe. The chef is consistently creative, as in these tuna tacos, the food is consistently good, and the service is consistently quirky and pleasant.  My only complaint is that I can’t eat there often enough.

Gratitude in a Pilgrim’s Hat

23 Nov

(This piece was originally published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner)

Of all the Thanksgiving traditions I inherited from my family, “Always invite someone new” is my favorite. Over the years, this tradition has created some memorable feasts: I’ve reconnected with old friends, made new friends and watched as the “someone new” drunkenly unraveled a tearful prayer of gratitude to all who would listen.

Last year, despite the fact that my entire family was valiantly battling what I’m convinced was the superflu, my mother decided she would stick to the tradition and invited someone new. We were all terrified that this person would botch the evening, but she turned out to be a delightful and eccentric woman who spoke five different languages and sang a Chinese song for us, accompanied by sign language, about gratitude.

In my early days in Fairbanks, I knew a woman (I’ll call her Julia) who was a fantastic cook, and I loved having Thanksgiving with her around. What little I know about baking bread, I know from her. Julia is a sweet and generous woman. When I hosted my first Thanksgiving, she asked to invite two guys she knew from college. I happily obliged and just before they arrived, Julia pulled me aside and said, “Listen, I sort of told these guys a bit of a fib. I told them that you were really into Thanksgiving dinner and that you like to dress up in Pilgrim costumes and that you make your guests do it too.”

As she’s telling me this, there is a knock on the door and, lo and behold, there are two nice fellas dressed in construction paper Pilgrim hats. One was even wearing black dress shoes with large buckles he found at Value Village expressly for this event.

They were a little confused, to say the least, when they realized that we were all wearing modern attire. They were very good guests and made my first Thanksgiving memorable.

It turns out inviting people you don’t know to Thanksgiving is an old tradition. The original Thanksgiving in 1609 was a three-day feast that included Pilgrims who identified themselves as “Saints,” other Dutch settlers they called “Strangers,” and the surrounding Wampanoag people who had saved all of their starving behinds the year before. Actually, there were far more Native Americans at this feast than settlers, and it has always seemed sad to me that years later, the Wampanoag must have regretted sharing anything with the people who eventually hoarded the land one which they had lived for thousands of years and, well, you know the rest.

Yet that’s the true sense of generosity we should be celebrating at Thanksgiving. Giving freely of your home and table to strangers should be risky, otherwise it isn’t real generosity; some people reciprocate generosity and others take advantage of it. If you’re inviting strangers to dinner, there is always the chance that your guests won’t reciprocate, but there is also the chance that they will.

In the spirit of the season, and since I cannot invite you all to Thanksgiving, I’ve decided to share with you the Thanksgiving advice that others have been sharing with me over the last few days. I put out a call to family and friends to offer up their best Turkey Day feasting tips and they were more than happy to share:

1. Don’t forget to take the giblets out before you cook the turkey. (This was by far the most common piece of advice. I think it must happen pretty often.)

2. Give the turkey plenty of time to thaw (24 hrs per 5 lbs) and if you can prepare anything the night before, then do so.

3. Put out sand or gravel on the driveway (in case your guests are litigious).

4. Pre-program your playlist (I’m always Last Minute Sally on this one).

5. Put snacks out so that the wine doesn’t go straight to anyone’s head (especially the cook).

6. Remember to get ice.

7. If you have a dog, don’t use the back porch as another fridge, you may lose your pies.

8. Those who cook the least, clean the most.

9. Keep hot chicken stock within reach. You will inevitably need it.

10. Clean your cupboards of all those lidless pieces of Tupperware and the jars you’ve been collecting. Put foil on the Tupperware and send leftovers home with guests.

11. Try a new dish every year. Failures make great stories for next year.

12. Never let the most intoxicated person in the room say grace.

13. “Easy Mac.” This was the only piece of advice I got from my boyfriend’s twenty-something little brother. I guess if all else fails …

14. Invite someone new, or, if you can’t cook, try to be the “someone new” for a person who can.

15. Be generous. Be grateful.

Stinky, Glorious Cheese

30 Sep

(This piece was originally published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner)

In 1993, I returned from a brief stint as a nanny in France with a suitcase full of stinky cheese. Nineteen-year-old girls should bring home kitschy black berets or sleek leather handbags, maybe even a snow globe with the Eiffel Tower inside, but I brought cheese.

The suitcase also contained a pack of Galois and a bottle of wine, since at the time I thought cigarettes and booze would be clear evidence of my having acquired a certain cultural sophistication while living abroad. The cheese, however, seemed silly and I remember being rather embarrassed about it at the time. Over the years, I’ve searched in vain for a wedge of brie that might transport me back to my stay in France, yet the domestic brie in your average American grocery aisle has never really compared.

So imagine my excitement last week when, in the chaos of the Fred Meyer West renovation, I found three large cases full of imported cheese in the new deli — from far-flung locations like Italy, Iberia and, best of all, France. I turned over wheel after wheel of soft and hard cheeses and there was not one English word to be found. My heart was literally racing.

As long as human beings have been herding animals, we’ve been making and eating cheese. The fourth stomach of a ruminating (grass eating) animal contains something called rennet, an enzyme that causes milk products to curdle and separates the curds from the whey. Then, specific starter bacteria are added to create the flavor peculiar to each cheese, followed by a number of techniques such as stretching or washing to create the texture.

For instance, in a mozzarella the curd is stretched and pulled while warm in order to convince the protein (the casein) to form a lattice structure, which is why the cheese on your pizza stretches in that gooey delicious way.

Those are just the rudimentary basics. I know little compared to today’s cheesemonger (a job that actually requires a formal education), who can explain much better the difference between the nearly 500 types of cheese recognized by the International Dairy Federation.

So what was I to do with this sudden influx of choice? How could I get my kids to eat stinky imported cheese? I resorted to a technique taught to me by my mother: hors d’oeuvres night. To have one of your own you can either break out the pigs in blanket, sliced vegetables, and pepperoni dip (my mother once went on a pepperoni dip bender, but that’s another story) or go stinky cheese style like I did.

Stinky cheese hors d’oeuvres night

2 kinds of bread, sliced into approximately 1 inch by 1 inch squares and lightly toasted

Unsalted crackers (the cheese will usually provide enough salt)

3-4 kinds of cheese (try a mixture of hard and soft for variety)

Fig jam or honey

Grapes or apples

Sliced vegetables (I used marinated tomatoes, olives, sautéed onions and cherry peppers)

Chopped, fresh herbs (I used thyme and basil)

Sliced deli meat (Soppressata for me)

Arrange everything on a big cutting board and then let everyone stack their own. It’s fun.

The results: My kids didn’t like what they called the “back taste” of the brie, but they really loved the young goat’s milk brie (which had a less silky texture than aged brie) as well as the French mimolette, which looks a little like a sliced melon and tastes like a slightly sweet, buttery cheddar.

The Heart is a Muscle

24 Aug

(This piece was originally published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner)

People are sometimes surprised to find that I don’t own a blender, or a food processor or a spring-form pan. Recently a friend of mine was so appalled that I didn’t have what she referred to as a “proper spatula” that she bought one for me and left it conspicuously in my utensil caddy.

I once owned all of those things, but a divorce reduced my kitchen wares by fifty percent and there are a few things I’ve never bothered replacing. I want a kitchen (and a life) unfettered by complicated gadgets that require high maintenance, elaborate cleaning rituals or any kind of ball bearing. I like the idea of a simple space, filled with sturdy objects that are functional and beautiful.

Life is transient. Most of my generation was raised on a diet of planned obsolescence, disposable income and moveable roots. That transience seems even more potent at thirty-something, when loss becomes a more frequent occurrence.

So when that same spatula-weilding friend left a $100 gift certificate for a local kitchen supply store as a thank-you for a favor, I knew immediately what I wanted — something grand and permanent, like a Le Creuset 7.25 quart French oven with Flame enameling.

If you don’t cook much, and if you don’t often cook stews or casseroles or no-knead bread, a Le Creuset French oven is pretentious overkill. It’s the kind of artisan object that hipsters buy because it’s artisan and because it’s expensive. And when I say expensive I mean it carries the kind of price tag that makes the frugal type get itchy all over.

But this thing could theoretically protect me from nuclear fallout if I could ever fit my casserole-eating rear end into it. It weighs 13.2 lbs. The first thing I made in it was a batch of Jasmine rice and I swear not a single grain stuck to the bottom. You can bake bread in it for goodness sakes. The “Flame Orange” color is right up my alley, too. Cadmium, the source red pigment for the original flame-colored French oven from 1925, was not only the latest and brightest pigment on the market, but when added to glazes it raises the temperature the cookware can withstand. It’s the same pigment used to paint racing engines so they can take the heat. Not only did Armand Desaegher and Octave Aubecq, the original creators of Le Creuset, create a beautiful piece of enameled cast iron, but the cooking capabilities were actually improved by its beautiful orange-red enameling.

There are other brands that I think would have sufficed just as well. Le Creuset is the brand that happened to be carried by the kitchen store, but I also have a Lodge-brand enameled cast-iron skillet that is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. What appeals to me most about this object isn’t the name it carries (although it has a sturdy reputation), but that it is just what I need right now: Something simple, and beautiful, and functional, and permanent.

This French oven won’t break, it’s wires won’t short out, and it won’t ask me to clean a complicated network of blades and gears long after the party is over. It’s a gorgeous workhorse, and I think it’s going to be around for a long time.

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