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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.

Dessertes de la Table: a Fancy French term for “Leftovers”

27 Dec

It was SUPPOSED to look something like this. It didn't.

It’s easy enough to eat the leftovers from successful parts of Christmas dinner, but what about the spectacular failures I came up with?  What was I to do with the giant vat of Southern Style Mac & Cheese, (henceforth the “Rubber Style Mac & Cheese”)?

What is it they say about the best intentions? Something about paving the road to a rubbery culinary Hell, I think.  The dish was comprised of bypass inducing ingredients like Manchego Cheese, cream, butter, and Corn Flake crumbs. Before I put it in the oven, I couldn’t keep my spoon out of the bowl.  This dish was giving the Hot Boyfriend a run for his money—I was about to remove my clothes in front of the oven and run my hands all over this creamy, cheesy delight. But then, something happened in the oven. Something that would change all of us forever… OK. Perhaps I’m being slightly hyperbolic, but the damn thing really did go from Hot Stuff to Trailer Trash in no time flat.

Southern Style Mac & Cheese is usually comprised of some mixture of cooked macaroni, milk, cheese, and egg, breading on top and then baked in the oven for a short while.  It tends to be pretty fail-proof.  Not in this kitchen.  My best guess is that I used an extra large size macaroni and that, due to its size, it expanded even further in the oven and sucked up every last bit of liquid from my delicious sauce like some dirty, trailer park boy drinking a 40 oz.

So, how was anyone supposed to make leftovers, or Dessertes de la Table as the French would say, of such a poor dish? Was it destined for the garbage disposal? Actually, we had friends over (they brought pirojkis and they were outrageous!) and they took two bags of this rubbery stuff home (that’s right, Ziploc bags…there was NO chance of it leaking) and made an interesting breakfast dish: they chopped it up into small bits, mixed it with a bit of egg and butter and fried it like pancakes. Genius!

Looks pretty. Tasted decent. But it apparently didn't stack up to the Danish Grandmother's version.

As for the rest of the evening, there were 2 successful dishes (my carrot and beet relish and the Danish Grandmother’s *poppyseed cake) and one dish that offered up a foodgasm to everyone at the grownup table; even the vegetarian had some… it was the Danish Grandmother’s Super Ham Balls.  Dear. God. I begged the Hot Boyfriend, I pleaded with him, I offered him favors I can’t mention in a public blog.  But, alas, I cannot give you the recipe.  He accused me of trying to ruin a sacred childhood memory.  He threatened to break up with me if I told anyone the recipe.  So the best thing I can offer is for you to google ham balls. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll try one of the 3 or 4 recipes I found that were similar, and you too will have a Holiday Foodgasm.

*A sidenote on the poppyseed cake: the Danish Grandmother’s recipe (which I can’t share either) called for sifted flour.  It was supposed to have 3 layers.  I couldn’t figure out why I only had enough batter for 2 cakes, and then I realized that perhaps there was a reason to say “sifted”.  If you don’t sift, you end up with too much flour.  The cake was good, but according to the Hot Boyfriend, not as good as Grandma used to make it.  Ouch.

And finally, I must share my favorite Christmas gift with you:

The Wusthoff. Henceforth, "Ex Calibur"

She’s everything you could ever want in a woman: she’s sharp, has a cutting wit, and she’s beautiful.  I have named her Ex Calibur.  I’m going to have a special knife block made for her that looks like a big stone. Happy Holidays.

Christmas In Exile and Dreams of Jamon Serrano

6 Dec

Imaginary Jamon Seranno Tapas:

1 small loaf of artisan bread

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, warmed in a pan

1 package *jamon serrano, or prosciutto ham

20-30 salt cured Moroccan olives

Thinly sliced Manchego cheese

1 tsp each of rosemary, crushed red pepper, and sea salt


*I can’t get jamon serrano in Fairbanks, but I can get moderate quality prosciutto.

1. Warm the bread in the oven.  Don’t toast it. Just warm it.

2. Warm the olive oil on the stove. Again, just warm

3. Drain and slice the Moroccan olives (you may have to pit them first–I do) and mix into the olive oil.

4. Add the rosemary, pepper and salt to the olive oil.

5.  Let the Manchego sit until room temperature.  Slice thin.

Serve the bread, cheese, ham, and the olive and oil mixture separately.  I prefer to eat mine with bread on bottom, a small spoonfull of the olives and oil, the cheese, then the ham on top.  Drink beer and eat this until you remember what it’s like to be in the sun, wearing sandals.

We are down to 4 hours and 16 minutes of daylight.  I woke up to -24F this morning.  It’s warmed up a bit, maybe it’s -10 now.  I can handle this.  I’ve handled it for 15 years.  What’s one more?  Last December wasn’t so bad; it was my first Christmas after the Great Divorce and my kids and I went to San Diego for two weeks.  Traveling in December helps Alaskans survive the darkest, and often the coldest, month of the year, and most Alaskans are ex-pats of one sort or another so they go home to see family in the Lower 48.   However, this year, due to an unfortunate series of events, I can’t travel, and my ex-husband and his new wife will have my kids for Christmas.  This means I will be spending my first Christmas alone.  And when I say alone, I mean ALONE.  All of my friends and colleagues are leaving for the break.  Any sane person would.

Before you break out the tiny violins, let me just say that I have a plan.  Plans to keep myself insanely, obsessively, remarkably busy so that despair doesn’t have even the smallest moment to sneak in and ruin what little sanity I have this time of year.   Most of these plans revolve around food and imaginary trips to Europe.

Imaginary Trip #1: Seville, Spain

Seville, Spain

That’s a picture of street on which I was supposed to live for a few weeks this summer.  I visited Spain once as a young girl.  It was one of the formative aesthetic and gustatory experiences of my life.  Due to those unfortunate events I mentioned above however, I won’t be traveling this summer either.  But if three year olds can pretend lions and tigers live in their closets and insist that I feed them, the by golly, I can pretend to spend Christmas in Spain.  That’s why God gave us Google Maps‘ Streetview.

This photo was taken by my Aunt on one of her many trips to Spain.

And what will I eat?  I will start here, in a market like this one. I will gather up a lovely selection of ingredients, perhaps to make a paella, my favorite Spanish dish.  Then, I will ask this handsome young man where I might find some tapas and a bit of coffee.  He will point me towards a bar down the street and an older man with a dapper moustache will say to me, “You see. It must stick to the plate like this” he will say.

And we will eat and drink until it’s time to go to a bullfight.

 

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