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Archive for the ‘Food Culture’ Category

Look at those wriggingly fresh mopani worms plucked right from a tree in the African bush. (Photograph by Marius Coetzee; Check out more of his stunning wildlife photography at: www.mariuscoetzeeafricanphotography.blogspot.com/. )

When I asked my South African friends to suggest a recipe I might share on the blog I had no idea I would have to eat worms not once, but TWICE! For some Africans mopani worms (really more like caterpillars since they turn into butterflies) are a delicacy, for others they are a common, tasty nosh, especially yummy during a night of drinking. My friend Sam told me I would love them.

Here are the worms in dehydrated form. First the gooshy centers are squeezed out, then the carcass is salted and dried. The crunchy buggers have a briney and musty taste. After the flavor dissipates, you are left with a sensation that I imagine is very similar to chewing bark.

Dried mopani worms go best with World Cup viewing and cold beer, preferably Castle.

Mopani worms are more than bar food: Sam says the most delectable way to eat them is rehydrated and flavored with tomatoes and chiles.

While rehydrating the worms in a cup of boiling water, saute onions, chiles and tomatoes in olive oil.

Let those worms plump up while the tomato mixture softens.

Add the tomato mixture to the worms and stir.

Cooked, the worms are more flavorful and meaty – the rehydration process plumps them up a lot. Still, you’ve got to love to gnaw if you go for mopani worms.

You only live once!

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All cooks have secrets: Licking brownie batter off a spoon and sticking it back in the mixing bowl; The quick dust-off of a biscuit that rolls off the counter, declaring it good-as-new; Passing off purchased items as homemade.

You know what I’m talking about. They don’t know what you’re up to in there.

Here’s a quandary: When does non-disclosure creep into ambiguous moral territory? When does protecting a chef’s secret enter the hazy area we associate with a president invoking executive privilege? The what YOU don’t know will be better for BOTH of us mentality.

How might executive privilege be brought to bear on entertaining? Not telling a vegetarian that the pie crust they are devouring was made with your coveted supply of lard. Assuring a vegan that the Humbolt Fog Blue is actually a new vegan “cheese alternative.” Promising a teetotaler that “all the alcohol burns off anyway,” to ensure harmony over a boozy dessert in the offing.

And what moral boundaries do you dare flirt with when feeding your most food-saavy friends? Do you tell your grass-fed-free-range-only buddies that you just served them the feedlot special?…And, by the way, that juicy hen you’re slathering with gravy did not enjoy its final days pecking organic, vegetarian feed, the Pacific breezes fluffing its feathers. Can you disclose that the seared beauty of a lamb chop resting on your pal’s plate is more processed, frozen (ew!) than contented, Irish ewe?

I’m not about to serve Panda burritos or anything but I wonder what people should and do try to get away with. When, if ever, is it okay to invoke executive chef privilege? When is the invocation morally unjustifiable?

No doubt I raise an eyebrow when a server assures me that the chilean sea bass on the menu is NOT the kind hooked via albatross-killing longlines. Yeah, right. So long as that vexatious albatross can be removed from the diner’s neck, he can order and eat guilt-free.

The cook’s and the diner’s dilemma is that once you decide to care about these things you risk being unsettled all the time, unable to make food choices without deep investigative journalism. So, you hope and trust that your server is telling you the truth – but you kinda know she’s not.

Is it in a food-lover’s best interest to live in ignorance about the origins of her food? And if you’ve choose to learn and care about the facts, are you ready, willing and able to follow your convictions? At some point, while navigating the menu of choices and moral quandaries – if you don’t just give up along the way – you eat something.

Because at some point we get hungry. Then we eat.

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The term food paparazzi has arrived. It refers to people (let’s be honest – bloggers) who storm restaurants, often arriving in groups with fellow food documentarians, snapping photos of their meals. Tales of setting up tripods and flash-pops going off in sedate dining rooms give bloggers with cameras a bad name. Some fine restaurants have even forbidden picture-taking.

Photographing in restaurants always makes me self-conscious. And so seldom do the images turn out well. You could be about to enjoy the most delicious meal you’ve ever put in your mouth but the photo of the meal will, invariably, not do it justice. It isn’t easy to take great photos of food, especially in a dark restaurant where every dish ends up looking like brown lumps of some amorphous substance. Not a good look. And not fair to the chef.

I’ve hesitated from blogging about restaurant visits because I lacked pictures that I deemed good enough to accompany the post. Plus, snapping photos while sitting down to a great meal isn’t exactly relishing the moment, which is supposed to be the whole point, right?

If I believe that my experience is one that others might find interesting or enlightening or helpful I should be able to find another way of sharing my culinary adventure. Taking pictures of meals may be, at times, desirable, but the photos do not necessarily have to be of the food and not necessarily taken in the midst of an intimate dinner with my companions. Literal pictures cannot always translate an experience accurately. So, I aim to find ways to share my experiences without joining the paparazzi.

I don’t want to be that blogger when a live sweet shrimp scampers across my plate and throws my camera back in my face.

Here are some of my best/worst photos from my brief former life as a food paparazzo:

This was a succulent beyond succulent cassoulet that I enjoyed in the Bordeaux region of France. A family restaurant with long-cooked deliciously complex and heart-warming food in an old rustic space, serving fabulous wine. Would you want to go there based on this photo?

Same restaurant below. I guess I am glad to have this reminder of the barely-cooked tomatoes with mild grilled chiles – I like the idea of this dish. Maybe I’ll try it at home. But it was so much better than this lame picture.

I don’t know what this next one is or where it was taken but based on this photo I wouldn’t want to go back.

Ok, this one isn’t TOO bad; However, I felt stupid taking it because I was in Paris at a lovely sandwich shop and everyone else was just enjoying their meal with elegance and I was busy worrying about getting a good shot.

This is next one represents one of the best food experiences of my life. My husband and I arrived at this little inn, Auberge Basque, in the Basque region of France starving and exhausted. This is a highly regarded food inn run by chef star Cedric Bechade. We had a room reserved in the inn but no reservation that night for the restaurant. We sat in the bar and the chef INVENTED (!) this soup to warm our bellies. We had no idea how lucky we were. You can’t just show up without a reservation and be served anything at this place. We wept with our good fortune and the most remarkable soup we’ve ever enjoyed. But this picture, while I am glad to have it, is not going to give you even an inkling of our experience there. And I think the sommelier was giving us the hairy eyeball while I “subtly” readied my camera phone.

I like this one better. I clearly have a yen for pastry.

This is another amazing meal we had in the Basque region – this time in San Sebastian, Spain. Looks like a giant mess to me. I am sure it was lovely.

This risotto looks dirty:

I like this one of me perusing the tapas selection better.  I am thinking, “Chorizo… cheese…smoked fish. Ok, five of each!”

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Spotted this unusual training technique at a horse show last weekend.

My mother recently received a letter from a student in Malawi, Africa in which he expresses some concern about my mother’s horse, Special Agent. He writes:

“I’m somehow confused with the following questions about ‘The Special Agent.’ I just hear that it is very difficult to look after a horse in tems of the quantity, quality and kind of food it needs, so how do you manage to take care of the Special Agent as it looks very big? A horse is an animal that may sometimes get tired, how do you make sure that Special Agent adapts to this situation when you are having a long journey? And what happens when he suddenly gets tired while someone is riding him as he is very tall, I mean in terms of protection to the rider when the horse falls down?”

African horses must be a fragile lot.  He makes a valid point: I fear for the rider in the photo above if and when the horse nabs the donut. Sugar highs and lows may be annoying in a toddler but are almost certainly horrifying in a horse.

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On the GoGo

You have not heard much from me because I’ve been trying to fit second tier jet-setting in with doing five days worth of work in only three. The fun part is—I’ve been traveling a bit which, like cooking is something I find myself prioritizing into my life. This usually means that I sneak in long weekenders whenever possible. In fact, I started writing this in the air while considering the parallels between cooking and traveling. These are my musings:

1. Life fills up and the time (if not money) goes fast. You have to make travel happen. So, get it on the calendar (or in the budget). Once it’s there it becomes real and all the other activities fill in around it. You will not regret it. Do the same with dinner; plan on it because getting together with friends or family enriches us more than striking a few more things from our never-ending to-do lists.

2. Keep it simple except for special occasions. Doing something simple well is usually more spectacular than doing something grand. Think about it, when we plan that “trip of a lifetime” or a super involved menu there are a lot of expectations and with the bar set too high one of two things can easily happen; (a) We accept mediocrity because we have so much invested or (b) We are disappointed. Not good. Keeping it simple with travel can mean only visiting one city/neighborhood/street or not meeting up with everyone you may know in a particular place but only meeting up with the most intimate of friends. The simpler the ingredient list the more you will taste the flavor.

3. Bring only what you need, it will go further than you expect. I know someone who travels only with “outfits” and I see that as the same as shopping for exactly planned meals. Keep your packing light, preferably with a color theme so that you can mix and match your clothes. Do the same at the market, buy what interests you and then support that with other complimentary things i.e. potatoes+chives, strawberry+rhubarb, avocado+lime. Looking in your fridge or suitcase will be much easier to navigate when it’s not overflowing.

4. I will be frank about this one: airports are not fun. Some can be downright de-humanizing, so take whatever joys you can in the experience (true also for car/train/bus). For me that means remembering I can be whoever I want to be in the airport. Sometimes I am sporty chic, or dressy or flowing in a comfortable get-up but no matter what I see myself as the person that I want to be that day. Viewing myself as a character makes the whole thing a lot more fun. No matter which look I’m donning my characters all have similar traits: she talks little, is very efficient, complains little and is prepared but not overly so. My character remains calm. Before you call the headshrinker, hear me out on this one: Feeding oneself (or a family of selves) is not always fun. It can be stressful and sometimes feel a bit oppressive. However, looking at the bigger picture seems to make the effort worth pursuing. In life I believe in eating real food, the kind most often prepared at home. You may have your own mantra, just like you may have your own travel character, the basic idea is to keep in mind your greater awareness and implement it.

5. Enjoy the entire journey. For travel: Put on music while you pack, allow plenty of time, put on your headphones while walking at the airport (the first time I listened to Seam play Aloha Spirit while walking through the airport changed my perception permanently). By all means, think about food before you go (these photos are an example of what can happen if you don’t), I rarely have time to prepare something portable so stop by Zinc Café for a sandwich beautifully wrapped in white paper. The same idea, but applied to cooking: Put on music or a podcast before you even get your hands dirty, don’t fuss about time to the point that you don’t enjoy the process, have good tools (even if you only have three knives make sure they are always kept sharp). You get the idea—do whatever you can to enjoy the process.

6. Take it easy, relax and enjoy.

Now go somewhere and see someone you love (even if they are only in the kitchen).

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An astute friend recently told me that finding a mate is a lot like ordering at a restaurant. It is easy to get your heart set on a certain dish (read person). You peruse the menu (read dating) and, after some time to consider all the options, you know what you want. You are eager to place your order, asserting your finely honed sensibilities and tastes. You obligingly listen to the specials, knowing that nothing could alter your decision. But sometimes there is that one special special that you just can’t resist. Je ne sais quoi, as they say.

A recent Sunday out in NYC I had my order pretty well sorted. Until I heard the litany of specials. Something interesting caught my ear. Something that I normally wouldn’t have put “on my list.” Like taking a chance on love, I ordered the appetizer special: A fried egg over shaved asparagus, fava beans & morels. (You will find this especially shocking when you learn that I generally don’t care for either eggs (!) or mushrooms (!).)

Now, I want you to picture a fried egg. Ok, now look at the picture below. Does it match the image in your head?

Mine either.

Of the myriad ways eggs are prepared, I’d have to say that hard-boiled is my least favorite. But hardboiled, and then, fried? Interesting. New to me.

The combination of flavors was nice, spring-timey, luscious. The fried hard-boiled egg was, well, a hard-boiled egg with a not-that-satisfying crust. Had I found my soul mate? No. One of the all-time great country-western lyrics ran through my head, “It ain’t love, but it ain’t bad.” Definitely worth ordering outside of my comfort zone.

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The photo below shows me taking a picture of me standing in front of Langer’s Delicatessen in Los Angeles. (I was looking rather cute that day and I wish you could see just how cute but it’s not a great photograph.)

If you look at the reflection in the glass, you can see that this Jewish deli is now in the heart of a Latin American immigrant portal. Spangly Latin music blasts from the little shops, and you can pick up an illegal ID and some matzo-brei in the same trip. (Incidentally, an online search will yield dozens of recipes for Mexican matzo-brei.)

The dichotomy puts me in mind of the Pentecostal-raised, gay, Hindu, Mexican theater director with whom I once worked. Prophetically, he cautioned against the dulling effects red meat can have on the mind and body. Unfortunately, I only just now recalled that conversation. True to his point, the ambulance behind me foreshadows my impending physical deterioration.

I’m not discovering anything new here and it isn’t even Langer’s that I want to discuss, although it is a wonderful place. The hot pastrami is amazing. Unreal flavor from the “costly spices” which the menu boasts it contains. The pastrami melts in your mouth and, sandwiched between two slices of rye bread with a crispy crust and doused with spicy brown mustard, it is truly the king of sandwiches. Which brings me to my point: The hot pastrami is so amazing, in fact, that I couldn’t stop eating it and I couldn’t stop eating the crinkle-cut fries and I couldn’t resist from ordering a chocolate milkshake to top it off.

Langer’s is not a kosher deli, yet as I ordered my milkshake I reminded myself of the Talmudic prohibition against consuming meat and milk together (Please note, however, that the most popular sandwich at Langer’s is a hot pastrami on rye with Russian dressing and a slice of Swiss cheese.) I may have been the only goy reflecting on kosher law at the deli; Nevertheless, I was self-conscious about the milkshake order.

I aim to be respectful because I have penance to do: In college, my roommate and I sauntered into the Center for Jewish Life and tried to order the “hushpuppies,” which I now know were falafel, and which today I would never confuse with hushpuppies in any way. To prove how far I have come: I recently patronized L’As Du Falafel, the famous falafel stand in Paris, ordered confidently in French and felt quite smug.

Now back to Langer’s and my declining physical condition: I felt tick-full while sitting in the booth sucking down the slushy dregs of my milkshake but became seriously impaired upon standing and, literally, walked bent-over to the cash register to pay my bill and then continued the doubled-over-shuffle down the block to my car. I proceeded to get so groggy while driving that I had to pull over and sleep in my car as the sun shone through the window, drugging me further.

When I finally rolled into my afternoon meeting, my friend looked at me with pity, “Red meat in the afternoon is not a good idea.”

I thought it was a great idea and still do. Red meat, dairy, carbs. I’d had it all. The wisdom of the ages and the advice of my friends will continue to go unheeded.

Weigh in:

Is there a meal that you can’t stop eating once you start, no matter how full you are? A dish you just can’t resist even after you’ve already had, like, a Thanksgiving dinner?

The Verdict:

There is a time and place for everything. When faced with a succulent hot pastrami sandwich one should never opt for restraint. And if “milchig’ mit ‘fleisch” means nothing to you, then by all means order the milkshake.

An interesting site run by two journalists who moved into the heart of MacArthur Park: http://macarthurparkmedia.com/

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