31 August, 2011

"I'm A Chiquita Banana And I'm Here To Say..."

 ...bananas are more than just a phalic-looking breakfast food from the tropical regions of the planet. There's an intriguing story to them too!

Bookcover of work by Dan Koeppel who was interviewed for this story. Image courtesy of npr.org.
One of my favorite radio interview shows Fresh Air from WHYY with Terry Gross has been broadcasting a special food series for the last week in August called Fresh Food: The Science, Politics and Culture of What We Eat, so obviously I'm doing a little happy dance in appreciation! Check out this neat story on bananas, their dubious production history, a little humor in recalling the cliché-ridden Chiquita Banana song sung by the Brazilian Carmen Miranda, and how industrial banana farms today are a blatant example of the dangers of food monocultures (only growing one type of plant on a massive scale because it is thought to be more profitable, yet thereby sets itself up for failure if infected by an incurable disease and why so many pesticides have to to be used in this kind of agriculture). For another story on this inevitable dooms-day scenario, go to this other one in the Fresh Food series called "How Industrial Farming 'Destroyed' The Tasty Tomato." Scary, but important to know AND make change!

25 August, 2011

A Sauerkraut Maker I Am!

Me at the SF Ferry Building.
My paternal grandmother's parents hailed from what is now Slovakia and my grandfather's people came from Hungary, so growing up I consumed A LOT of slow-cooked Kielbasa sausage and sauerkraut with mashed potatoes at their house (see photo below). I also ate, and still eat (see image to the left), sauerkraut on any kind of sausage or hot dog. Like many first generation Americans, especially of my grandparents' generation, they attempted to assimilate into their new culture by acting "American." For my grandparents, that meant going to the grocery store to buy prepared foods in cans and jars that were produced in big plants instead of prepared at home using traditional methods brought over from the Old Country. In Post-Cold War United States, what could be more patriotic (and convenient) than eating mass-produced foods made by hard-working citizens in factories where bombs and other weapons were once manufactured?
This homemade recipe I made used green kale mixed into the sauerkraut!

But I digress...The point of my story is that I sadly never got to watch my grandmother prepare homemade sauerkraut the way her parents made it when she was a kid by shredding cabbage, mixing in salt, stuffing it into some kind of crock, and letting it ferment for a few days to a few weeks. That food tradition I have learned on my own and been trying to spread the word of the miracle of fermentation ever since. I often add celery, carrots, garlic, or beets to my cabbage (either red or green), and sometimes other natural additives like dill seed or weed, mustard seed, caraway seed, or thyme. I make my sauerkraut in a Japanese pickle maker which is made of durable plastic and has an internal press that, combined with the chemistry magic of salt,  gradually squeezes out all of the liquid from the vegetables and creates a brine that allows for a probiotic cocktail to come about.

Image courtesy of wisementrading.com.
I have been looking for a replacement container lately because I want to make much more sauerkraut and quite frankly, the one I have is too small. In my search I came across this video on CHOW that features a goofy guy and fellow blogger named Mark Frauenfelder who co-writes the science-geek blog Boing Boing, and is the Editor-in-Chief of DIY-obsessed MAKE Magazine. In this video Mr. Frauenfelder gave me a valuable suggestion as to what new contraption I should use to ferment my sauerkraut: the Picklemeister! This cool website called Wise Men Trading and Supply out of Alabama has the best explanations of the Picklemeister plus other product options for pickling containers if you choose to go another route. It is also good for pickles, kimchi or other such goodies. I bought the gallon one because that one and the half gallon one are the same price. Besides, if you're going to go for it you might as well go whole hog, right!

18 August, 2011

I'm Nuts Oh Nuts For CocoNut Water

Coconut whacking in actionThe first time I had the water from inside of a fresh, green coconut I was in Costa Rica. I was living there as a student doing a university study-abroad program. Like so many other inexperienced, "Gringo" people from the Northern Latitudes, I assumed that "coconut" equaled those shredded, white, sugary yet almost leather-like pieces of goodness that topped a cake or pudding. To be honest, I encountered "coconut" most often in the form of scented body lotion that reminded me of a cream pie. Then when I lived in Brazil, worked on a boat, and exposed to salt water and sun everyday, I drank the water on a regular basis after learning that coconut WATER is like (semi) healing liquid, containing tons of electrolytes (those minerals you might find added to your Gatorade bottle or in those little flavored packets of Emergen-C) that hydrate your body. It tastes good too! 

Fresh coco waterCoconut water also apparently acts like a saline solution when mixed with human blood plasma, which has lead many coconut water companies that bottle the stuff to publish "research" saying that the liquid is the only known substance that can be taken administered intravenously. While these claims do have some truth to them, don't go thinking that coconut is the Fountain of Youth in a hard, green shell found in a palm tree in Paradise. Like anything else that has undeniable health benefits, nothing is a miracle cure. Read this article from GOOD to get more background info on this. True, some coconut taken after a long night of salty tortilla chips and salsa, and sugary alcoholic Margaritas WILL help to hydrate you and stabilize your blood levels, but liquid gold it is not. On the other hand, I do feel pretty rich and pampered when I am on a tropical beach, laying on the sand under a palm tree sipping from a fresh coconut! I may not get that same experience while drinking coconut water out of a plastic bottle, at a table in my house in the middle of my normal day in a busy, cosmopolitan city, but a gal can pretend...right?

Scooping out the flesh of the coconut
Another important use for fresh coconut is to scoop out the soft flesh (it has the consistency of thick pudding or soft cheese at this stage before it is dried) when you are finished drinking the water.

15 August, 2011

San Francisco Garden Districts

SF's three major growing zones according to San Francisco Magazine (page 38) and what kinds of goodies they suggest a person should grow in their dirt.

The "Fog Belt," "Transition Zone," and "Sun Belt" are the micro-ecosystems that exist within the boundaries of the city, or at least that is what a neat map in the August issue of San Francisco Magazine has labeled the unique, often annoyingly quirky climate zones here. According to this map, each of those respective "belts" and "zones" point out what kinds of crops grow best under such conditions and thereby give residents the opportunity to utilize their soils to their utmost growing potential. This all may seem a bit, well, "Bay Area" to assess whether one should plant Brandywine heirloom tomatoes or purple Thai basil in their 5X5 (feet, not acre) backyard plot. But it is actually quite insightful since a law was passed back in April of this year that redrew the city planning code in order to legally grant San Francisco residents permission to embark on a form of farming called "urban agriculture," or the right to sell produce that they grow on their own land (even if it's just a rental). Makes you wonder what other kinds of green plants folks might try to start growing for profit. Hmm...

08 August, 2011

Some Days A Gal Just Needs An "In-N-Out" Burger!

The drive-thru line with "walk-up" waiter service (note guy on right-hand side with hat).
As a woman not born in California, or on the West Coast for that matter, I was not raised on certain restaurant food traditions that out here are considered institutions. In Cincinnati, Ohio we have long-standing chain restaurants such as Frisch's Big Boy (Cincinnati's first year-round Drive-in since 1948), and the iconic Gold Star Chili  (since 1965 and of Jordanian roots) and Skyline Chili (since 1949 and of Greece roots) that the city is famous for, but I have rarely seen such devotion and local rock star status as what In-N-Out Burger evokes in its fans. In 1948 it became California's first drive-thru hamburger joint, has a sorta old-fashioned Drive-in feel to it, has a "waiter" with a headset and clipboard standing outside at the drive-thru to get car orders and keep the line moving, and has become stuff of Pop-Culture legend ever since it opened. 

I was doing a video/photo project recently out in the hills above Stockton, CA this week and on our way back to the Bay Area, my colleague and I knew we would be passing by an In-N-Out location and could not resist its allure. In fact, we talked about it on the drive up there and then on the way back as the restaurant neared, got as giddy in anticipation as kids on a school field trip. This is especially uncharacteristic of me as I am not what you would call an advocate for fast-food chains, but In-N-Out is one of those special cases that I allow myself to indulge in. I rationalize my indiscretion because they use 100% beef (without weird fillers), avoid preservatives, and do not reconstitute anything from frozen blocks of what used to be food. They also have a "secret menu." "What is that?" you may ask. Well, the secret menu is one of the novelties - some say urban legends - that has made In-N-Out such a draw in recent times. It basically is an unadvertised list of cooking instructions and condiments that customers have to already know and request at the register when ordering. There are some simple add-ons that are published on In-N-Out's website, but other menus compiled and tested by die-hard connoisseurs have also sprouted up.  Here and here are two of my favorites and what gave me the suggestions that I used when I ordered. 

And what did I get? As you can see above, I got two (one on left in the photo with cheese and one without) hamburgers "animal style" (a "mustard grilled" patty, extra Thousand Island-type spread, extra pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, and grilled onions that are saturated in the beef juices). "Mustard grilled" is when mustard is literally grilled into both sides of the patty while its sizzling on the grill! On the advice of the DIY secret menus, I also added spicy chopped chilies (what looked like yellow banana peppers) to mine and SHIZAAM, they were friggin' delicious! Admittedly, I only ate one hot and saved the other for the next day (something I normally would not do with a burger), but since it requires a road trip for me to get to the closest In-N-Out, I was willing to make an exception. Anyone else have other menu choices they would like to contribute? If not, take a look at mine and let the cravings begin!


05 August, 2011

Leaving On A Jet Plane...Heading To Slims To Get Some Darn Good Food!

Slim's in SF
Image courtesy of kaylan3.
No, this is not an ode to the John Denver song, but it does involve a little music. Slim's, the live-music venue in the SOMA neighborhood of SF (and my former employer where I worked as a bartender for five years), has started operating "pop-up" restaurants on Monday nights in August when no music shows are scheduled. "Pop-up" you may ask, "What is that exactly?" According to the Pop-Up Restaurants group on Facebook, it is "A venue that is turned into a restaurant featuring a chef and culinary team that is normally not in that kitchen or venue for a limited period of time." It's sort of like saying that the humans who run a restaurant, own a personal catering business, and/or are a freelance chef go moonlight at someone else's establishment as a one-off thing. 

The Jetset Chef (right) with sous chef Michaela Rahorst.
This can take the form of a small stand outside on the sidewalk in front of a permanent restaurant that charges like a temporary booth would at a festival. It could mean a rotating group of people who regularly get together at a non-residential warehouse space or someone's house and charge a set price "entrance fee" for the meal. It also means that an up-and-coming chef who previously had a set cooking gig working regular hours in a kitchen, has decided to buck that trend and go the freelance route. The latter scenario is the story of Alex Marsh, the chef who hosted Slim's very first Pop-up restaurant on the 1st of August. Marsh, also known as The Jetset Chef, has quite the resumé of professional cooking positions (Brick, Solstice, Delfina, Campton Place, Redwood Park, One Market), but it was the work he did and experiences he had when he left the States and went on the road to toil away in random places in other countries that he seems most proud of. It is not that he had to put aside all of the technical skills and formalities acquired in American kitchens, but if you just show up unannounced at the backdoor of a restaurant in Spain and ask nicely to help work the line for the night - and they say Yes - you better be ready to go with THEIR flow! When I chatted with Marsh at the Slim's Pop-up, it was obvious that, like myself, he had been bitten by the international travel bug and would never be complete unless he could continue to venture out of bounds of his home country. Clearly, if his creativity and adeptness in the kitchen is any reflection of the side effects of needing to travel the world in search of food, he has indeed benefited from this affliction!

"So what about the food," you wonder. Chef Marsh and his sous chef Michaela Rahorst (formerly of Frances restaurant and now about to head off on her own travel adventures in France) offered five options that night. The menu was as follows with photos of a few of the dishes:

Nectarine & Artichoke Salad with Greek yogurt, basil & lime – $6

Frito Misto (batter-dipped & fried) of Baby Vegetables with fennel, Torpedo onions & aioli (a fancy mayonnaise) – $6

Scallop Crudo (raw) with Artichoke with lemon, mache (a kind of lettuce), fennel pollen – $10

Scallop Crudo with Artichoke

Braised Lamb Cheeks with broccoli rabe (a thinner broccoli shaped more like asparagus) & lemon gremolata (chopped herb condiment) – $10

Braised Lamb Cheeks

Honey Glazed Pork Short Ribs with tea-smoked leeks, citrus jus (a thin sauce made from the meat's juices) -$10

Honey Glazed Pork Short Ribs

As you can see, we ate well that evening! The lamb cheeks melted in your mouth and were not as "gamey" as you might expect (even though I do not mind that kind of strong flavor), and the slight bitterness of the tender broccoli rabe complimented well. The thick pork ribs were a crowd favorite with their salty sweetness that formed a bit of a crust from the honey, and I appreciated that the ribs were saturated in seasoned liquid, not coated in gooey sauce. And the scallops - how fresh-looking and beautifully plated are they? I washed everything down with a light Pinot Noir, good conversation with friends at my table, and the ambient sounds of DJ Rex Parfait. It made what is a side project for Slim's and Chef Marsh, into a proper night out on the town for me. Cheers!

To find out where you can find the Jetset Chef next, check out his website here (he has a great blog there too). To see who will be popping up at Slim's next week, look at their August schedule here.

Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch...

...You know I love, love, LOVE me some honey (especially when it was harvested from my own backyard)!

My household received a surprise today in the form of a bowl brimming with freshly harvested honey comb. Even more delectable was that this particular nectar came from the hives that live behind our house! I could talk about honey's antibacterial properties, unparalleled longevity as a foodstuff (honey has been found nestled among other treasures buried with ancient Egyptian mummies, and it is still good enough to eat), beauty applications, the recent vaccines that the FDA is about to approve that can inoculate humans against certain types of seasonal allergies, or how buying it from producers that sell honeys found within the vicinity of where you live, can do the same inoculation trick because ingesting small amounts of local pollens will build up an immunity to such sensitivities. I could start a discussion about all of these aspects of honey…or, I could just pick off a piece of the comb and savor it like a piece of natural chewing gum - gum filled with liquid sunshine!

01 August, 2011

Unexpected Pairings (1): You Put WHAT In My Pancakes?

...In this case, the unexpected answer would be sarsaparilla, to be exact! For those of you scratching your heads at just what "sarsaparilla" (also known as "sasparilla") is, it's the what most people would consider old-fashioned root beer. Technically, the Smilax regelii plant (a tropical vine) is one of several ingredients in real root beer (no, not the kind with high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors in it, but the beverage that actually uses roots in its preparation, hence the name). Sarsaparilla has also had a role in folklore and herbal medicine as a tonic with antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, not to mention associations with enhancing one's libido! Another ingredient in traditional root beer is sassafras, a tree found around the United States, which is where sarsaparilla gets its name. Sassafras unfortunately may be difficult to be locate in the US due to a potentially toxic compound found in it (though is only dangerous if consumed in large quantities) that as you might imagine, frightens some people off of stocking it on their shelves. So now that I've scared you off from ever brewing your own root beer, I would like to show you an alternate use for sarsaparilla...PANCAKES! On a lark I went to the Sunny Side Café near my university's campus on a recent Sunday afternoon for a quiet solo brunch with a book, only to have my meal rocked by the unexpected flavor combination of sarsaparilla and fresh Bing cherries mixed into pancake batter. All I can say is, BRILLIANT!!

Two other unexpected pairings I have had recently were drinks. The first one is a locally brewed, non-alcoholic frosty beverage that I had at a lovely café in Napa Valley, CA as a drink accompaniment to a delightful pulled pork sandwich. It was called Taylor's Tonics Mate Colada Natural Sparkling Tea and is a mixture of yerba maté tea, coconut water and pineapple juice. I used to live in Argentina and adore their yerba maté tea served hot, so I was intrigued when I saw that someone had combined it with chilled liquids. That being said, since we had been frequenting several wineries while in Napa, anything with bubbles and hydrating coconut water was greatly appreciated and the true reason for this selection. I honestly think the pineapple gave it a sort of saccharine-like taste that could have been improved upon by instead using something a little less "candy" in flavor, like grapefruit perhaps. It did the trick nonetheless and I like the vibe of the company that makes the drink. Their website also has a great page that utilizes their sodas as mixers for creative cocktails with a bulletin board where visitors can post their own creation's recipes. Nice!

Lastly, I want to show you an unexpected pairing that I have become thoroughly addicted to since I tried it: coffee and lavender flowers! Years ago I experienced the Italian innovation of lemon peel in espresso and it introduced to me the idea of putting floaty bits in my cup of joe. At a local favorite coffee shop called Philz, they like to put fresh mint in their coffee and it was a revelation the first time I tried it! The man himself, Phil Jaber, apparently wanted to add something green to his coffee and so went into his backyard and picked some mint that was sprouting up there, and a bright idea was born! That inspired me to look in my own backyard where there is lavender growing and give that a go. Now I don't want to call my pairing miraculous, but it IS awe inspiring and I highly recommend you try it yourself! You will never allow lavender to be reduced to a common potpourri component again!