Friday, February 24, 2006

Obligatory Skating Entry - Not at all About Food

Ok. This has been the saddest ass Winter Olympics EVER. Here's my impression of what happened last night at the Ladies Free Skate. Sasha - I don't want the gold medal, YOU take it. Irina - I don't want the gold either, YOU take it. Shizuka - Oh fine. I'll take the damn medal. When the silver and broze medalists fall on one jump and seriously flub another, it's a sad ass Olympics. The gold medalist, Shizuka Arakawa landed five triples and no triple triple combinations. Michelle Kwans 1998 program would have kicked that program's ass. Michelle's half-hearted 2002 program WOULD HAVE GIVEN HER SILVER at this Olympics.

It's not like any of the other disciplines were any better. Plushenko gets a gold by skating back and forth for four minutes with no choreography. Jeffrey Buttle falls twice and gets a bronze. The Zhangs in pairs end up blow a throw jump to the point she is doing the splits on ice. They get silver.

I am not watching the exhibitions tonight because I don't want to be reminded of two weeks of crappy skating. My next post will be about food. I promise.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Feeding New Mommies

So three weeks ago, little baby E was born to Pleather and Leeanne. We gave the happy family some time to themselves but couldn't resist inviting ourselves over for a peek at the mommies and baby E. Like every other person in our lives who had a baby, Pleather and Leeanne were well stocked with every baby thing you could imagine, including the most fashionable baby sling in the world. What I've learned from Lady Lancaster is the best thing we could do for the new family was to give them food. When you are focused on feeding the baby, your own eating habits fly out the window. Being food focused that I am, when I first found out about the birth of Baby Lancaster, I went to the Yes, Natural Market and got a gallon of water and a half gallon of Odwalla orange juice to bring to the new family who were in the hospital because Baby Lancaster had a bit of the jaundice and was being tanned like a rock star. Lady Lancaster let me know all of the brain friendly foods with lots of folic acid that would help Baby Lancaster turn into a genius. So I roasted a chicken, made pumpkin bread with walnuts and raisins, made an asparagus quiche, and spaghetti and meatballs (where I put ground walnuts into them).

Visitng Pleather and Leeanne, I made two caramelized onion and pancetta quiches. I learned another bit if information in the feeding and care of new mommies. Finger food is good. Soup is bad. You see, new mommies are often holding their new babies so trying to eat a hot liquid can be a challenge. Food that doesn't require utensils makes eating easier. I'm already thinking in my next visit, I will be making spinach balls, homemade chicken nuggets, and lots and lots of cookies. For those readers who have children? What did you eat in the weeks after you gave birth?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

"Sure Neil, We'll Dance the Pachanga" Chimichangas

Chimichangas, done well, are an exercise in texture and flavor. The crispy-to-soft ratio of the tortilla's outer and inner self, the flavor dance of spice and sauce and savory fillings and cheeses, the presentation - whether hidden under ladles of cheesy saucy goodness or left bare and simply toastgolden. It all adds up to one of my favorite treats.

Last night, T was deep in his beer bread and tofu with tomato sauce and I had a taste for some Tex-Mex. ("This is my cooking space, this is your cooking space.") This is often the case with hunger and I. Tex-Mex, Mexcian, Cal-Mex - we have been friends for so long, they are the guest I can have over pretty easily that I don't have to dress up for.

Making chimichangas, like many dishes, can be broken down into just a few decisions about ingredients and processes. We have an outside, an inside, and a cooking method decision. My version last night may have been slightly Semi-Homemade, but it was lovely. It's worth mentioning that these are pretty cheap to make. You won't lose your wallet getting your changa on and, if you are making them with a group, you might just have the time of your life.

"Sure Neil, We'll Dance the Pacahnga" Chimichangas (makes 2ish)

Inside:

2T vegetable oil or canola
3 cloves garlic, chopped
Onions - 2 small or one large, cut in slices and cut in 1/2 or diced
red pepper (1) julienned or chopped
about 6 oz. Chicken breast cut in strips and grilled (or bought that way)
about 3/4 a cup of your favorite salsa (yes, you can make this yourself)*
Soy sauce (mini-dash)
juice of one juicy lime or two or three of those stony rough ones
dash of black pepper
dash of chili powder
mini-dash of salt

Outside:

Delicious flour tortillas that feel more of flour than plastic or sheen
4-6 oz. grated mozarella, jalapeno jack or cheddar cheese (optional)
1/4 -1.2 cup salsa

Pre-heat your oven to 450.

In a medium-sized pan heat oil to warm and throw in garlic. Let it start to break down. As the smell becomes more enjoyable and delicious, add the onions. Onions should begin breaking down and head towards being transluscent.

Transluscent might be a bit too soft, so after a minute or so, add the lime juice, soy sauce and spices. The sweetness of the onions plays well with the citrus tang of the lime and the soy sauce brings it all down to earth a bit while hitting the flavors with some salt. Think of it as waking up the onions and dressing them for the evening.

After another minute or so, add the peppers and let them start to cook down. Again, the goal is for them to break down enough to start sharing their flavors with the others. Once they get going, add the chicken.

We want the chicken to take in the onion/lime/bit-of-soy and pepper flavors. Give that several minutes. Make sure it is cooking through.

At this point last night, I actually added some water to the pan. Probably 2 TBSP. It just needed some more moisture to get the flavors moving.

Add your salsa and mix thoroughly. Depending on the liquid content of the salsa this part can take anywhere from 2 to 5 or more minutes. The goal here is to steam out enough of the liquid to make sure the chimichanga is not a soggy mess. Cook the filling mixture until most running juices have thickened.

Now it does not need to be a desicated mass of dryness, but if it's trickling more than a bit, you might run into problems later. But no worries, the worst that would happen is a slightly wet changa. I like my changas all different ways, so if you are cooking for me, I'll be just fine, thank you very much.

Once that is ready, turn off the heat and get ready to fill.

The Outside

The key to a good chimichanga is a good tortilla. You can get by with variations from Mission, as I did last night, but there are a few avaialble that will be better. Mission's Handmade tortillas are harder to find but better. Trader Joe's now offers a handmade version as well. By all means, get the totrtillas you like the best. Can you make this with corn tortillas? I suppose, but damn if I can make one fold the right way.

Tortillas can be heated in a foil pack in the oven, one by one in the skillet, or in the microwave. I prefer throwing it on the open gas flame and flipping it until it is soft and pliant. That's the goal, a workable tortilla.

Place your warm tortilla on a plate and put just about 1.25 times as much filling as your would for a thrown together fajita or taco down the center length-wise. Do not Overload! Fold two sides just an inch or so over the mixture (think about the opening and closing of a burrito) and then fold the longer side over the mixture and roll once. You want to make sure it is pretty sealed up.

(If this is confusing, I'll come over and show you. Basically, two tiny flip-overs create the sides you would eat from. Then take the side closet to you fold it over the mixture, pulling the mixture tight and making sure the ends don't open. Flip the portion closest to you, now enveloping the filling and this should create a seam at the overlap that cooking will seal).

Now you are ready to cook.

I bake my Chimichangas. I do. I swear by it. Yes, it is a different mouth and forkfeel. I love it though. Place the chimchanga(s) seam-side down on a baking sheet and pop in the oven for about 8 minutes.

If you prefer to fry them (like at Kellerman's), put about 1/4 inch of vegetable oil in a pan and put the heat on medium high. When it reaches temmperature, place the changa seam-side down and allow the heat to seal it. Give it about 45 seconds or so and then flip it over. Be careful! The oil has a tendencey to splash. Cook it for about 45 seconds again and you should be good to go.

(Now some people secure their chimichanga with toothpicks, etc. I have not had to do this, but feel free to spear the corners so they stay closed in the oil. Don't forget to take the toothpicks out!)


I had mine bare, but some will like to top them with more salsa and some cheese. In the case, throw those on and pop them in the oven for another 3-5 minutes. That sould be enough to bring them up to temp and have the cheese get nice and gooey.

Dessert Suggestions: I would suggest cinnamon ice cream if you have it on hand. Last night I had a taste of baklava which was delicious. One time I made these and someone had carried a watermelon for several blocks to the party I was at. It didn't seem to go, but we ate it anyway so she wouldn't feel embarassed.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

I am now Tarting it Up

If you haven't already, check out Tarting it Up. Good reviews and recipes with great pictures and creative writing style. Love it.

And if we don't link to you but you read here and have a regularly updated food blog, please holler back so we know.

Thanks! -J

Thursday, February 16, 2006

I am an Expert in Whine

But my sister is an expert in wine. My beverage expertise is focused on make an excellent fruity cocktail. She finally put fingers to keyboard and is willing to share some of her vast knowledge on wine.

From sister T:

Here are some wine notes for your blog.

Welcome to the first in a series of occasional wine notes!

My friend Tracey recently introduced me to Malbec, a varietal grown primarily in South America. I went over to her house for a Shiraz tasting and left with a buch of Argentine malbecs.

I was impressed. They are food-friendly, and fruity but not flabby. Malbec tends to be less tannic than sangiovese, the primary grape in chianti wine. Good with meats, Italian and Mexican foods.

I had the Amancaya Cab/Malbec blend with a risotto: Amancaya
It's definitely drinkable now. No cellaring necessary.

Last summer Mike and I went to Monterey for Fourth of July weekend. The Carmel Valley is becoming a destination for wine-lovers who are seeking to avoid the crowds of Napa and Sonoma. The climate there is warm enough to grow merlot grapes, yet due to its coastal location, it is also cool enough for chardonnay and the notoriously finicky pinot noir grape. We tasted some excellent examples of each.

Highly recommended are the 2002 Logan Pinot Noir from Talbott Vineyards, a steal for under $18 per bottle. Unlike many wineries which strive to be everything to everyone, Talbott only produces chardonnay and pinot noir. The Logan pinor noir is one of the best California pinots I've tasted. Elegant yet full-bodied, it pairs well with turkey, salmon or pasta. Unfortunately, the 2002 is sold out but the 2003 is coming soon. http://www.talbottvineyards.com/wines.html Their they do not have wide distribution, you can sometimes find their wines at www.wine.com or specialty retailers such as Wally's in Los Angeles.

Another find is the Georis 2002 Arroya Seco merlot, a rich, velvety wine that bears no resemblance to the insipid mass-produced California merlots produced by some of the larger labels. At $22 per bottle, it rivals wines that cost twice as much. It pairs well with heartier fare such as steak, venison, sausage, and lasagna. Georis, a tiny producer with limited distribution, is exceedingly hard to find, so snatch it up if you can.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Gushy Valentine's Day Imagery

Just in case you thought I was a complete softy, I wanted to let you know a longstanding Valentine's Day tradition. For almost a decade (starting freshman year of college) I made a heart shaped cheesecake for Valentine's day. With a butcher knife sticking out the middle of it. And strawberry sauce oozing all over the butcher knife and the gash the butcher knife made in the cheesecake.

In Praise of Hazelnuts and Love

So for the Opening Ceremonies get-together, I decided to forgo the nutella pizza and just add some hazelnuts to chocolate chip cookies. That was the best decision I have ever made, not including marrying J. The big disappointment of most nuts is that they don't taste like their liquers. YOu don't get that heady aroma from almonds that you do from ameretto. Pistachios don't really have that great pistachio ice cream flavor. With hazelnuts, it's a completely different story. They are redolent of that hazelnut aroma that flavors frangelico. In a cookie, it pairs perfectly with chocolate chip. It was like eating a nutella cookie. For any kind of dessert, I highly recommend hazelnuts as an aromatic finish.

And because it is Valentine's day, I wanted to include the lyrics to the song that J and I walked into for our wedding. It's a poem written by a Uraguayan poet Mario Benedetti about love and justice. My two favorite things. It captures exactly how I feel about J and the world we live in. Thanks J for being my lifelong Valentine.

I Adore You

If I adore you
it is because you are
my love my partner and everything
and in the street arm in arm
we are much more that two

Your hands are my caress
my agreed daily affirmation
I adore you because your hands
Work by justice

Your eyes are my spell
Against the bad day
I love you by your glance
that it watches and it sees future

Your mouth that is yours and mine
your mouth is not mistaken
I adore you because your mouth
Knows to shout defiance

And by your sincere face
and your vagabond step
and your weeping for the world
because of this I want you

And because our love is neither famous
nor innocent
and because we are two
who know we are not alone

I adore you in my paradise
it is to say that in my country
People live happily
although they do not have permission

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Eating Out: Splitting Up

Recently, we enjoyed a delicious meal with a large group eating out together for the first time in this particular configuration. When the bill came, we all put in "what we owed" and came up $60 short. Now, I pride myself on eating with folks I know to come up with the cash and a good tip on round one and this is almost always the case. It was weird.

I knew we were already in for $10 extra on top of throwing in for a birthday guest (who under almost no circumstance should be paying for her own meal) and after adding in for an appetizer that I did not order but tasted. Someone who left early had left extra as well. One couple put in significantly more than they thought they owed too. Something was not right.

By the end of it all, we went in for a full $20 more than we owed (again taking into account $ for the birthday guest, tipping more than the 18% required of groups, etc.). I'm not bitter, just wondering why it is such a conundrum to figure out the check. This happens to lots of people and there are really just three possibilities.

1. People are underpaying for their food, wine, chipping in, tax, and or tip.

2. People forgot what they ordered or can't be bothered to remember.

3. The server is screwing us. (I am sorely against blaming servers unless there are cold hard facts. They are on the other end of so much abuse sometimes it is ridiculous).

So that is occasional group dining irritation number one. I seriously can't remember the last time it happened, but it was strange. The sad part is that it can create weird tension. I know some folks at the table make less than others, one person recently lost their job, etc. And of course, the person left holding the bill feels pressure.

To some this may make the argument for splitting evenly. I think people really think this avoids hassle. It would not have solved much in the recent instance with such a wide variance in what people had to eat and drink.

I find this fascinating. The scorn by those who think splitting is always the best for those who don't, the silence, the challenge it presents.

There are several camps here. One says, don't even talk about it. Another says, if you have a concern, pipe up. I personally think its lame to put the onus on the folks who ate less. Listen, are those the folks hollering that we should all split evenly? This was not part of our recent excursion, but has come up several times. If we all eat in a similar range (you know within five or six bucks), of course it makes sense. But beyond that, it can get weird.

I tend to be the one that brings it up in thee instances. I think we can let such challenges be in the light and have been thanked three times by diners who would have paid upwards of triple their meal but who did not feel like it was ok to say something.

To be fair, I think to some folks, it really feels like everyone at the same amount and price-level of food. They just want to be done with it. But, more often than not in my experience, what people actually owe varies widely.


The real challenge for me is, are we all not able to pay responsibly after calculating what we owe?
Can we not deal with a little tension to make it to where those on a budget feel respected and like their food choices matter?

Also, it can come into play that people at the table know and see everyone on a regular basis. Those more in the "group" may feel it makes sense to take on more of a financial risk because they will see others soon. Likewise, those who make more money may be more inclined to say it is a bother to deal with the check, etc.

The prices are obvious, we all know what we had and, last I checked, everyone at the table was pretty darn adept at basic math. You know if you ordered drinks and appetizers and desserts and you know if you didn't initially but shared, etc.

I've been both the person eating the seafood, having drinks, trying appetizers and going all out and the person with the stomach problem eating very lightly and not drinking or having dessert. In neither case did it make sense for those barely eating to pay for my expensive food or for me to subsidize those eating more elaborately. To be fair, I have also been at the table with a group where it was obvious we all had about the same amount of food and drink and splitting was easy and the few bucks here and there was irrelevant.

Let's look at some numbers:

Case #1: Now, if we are talking about a few bucks here and there, I think that we could handle it, but in Case #1, my meal was $35 + tax and tip and there were two people at the table whose meals were $8.95 +tax and tip. The average for the table was $27.50 + tax and tip so about $34.00 per person. Do people really think those at the table who were consciously ordering one dish, no appetizers, no desserts and no drinks should pay nearly three times what they owe so it can be easier or so I can taste everything I want and indulge for the night? Seems silly to me.

Case #2: A birthday party at a Thai restaurant. This was for someone we know but not that well. Our dishes, $11.95 each. No appetizers, no drinks. A table with about 20 people, some of whom, I kid you not, had 5 and 6 drinks, ordered multiple appetizers and desserts, etc. The average for each person was $40. Our "bill" was closer to $80 instead of $24 + tax and tip. Again, why am I paying for people who are really out to get smashed (which is fine) when I am out for a simple dinner. Is it really that hard? So it gets tense for a minute. We will all be ok. That one we ended up paying for because we just didn't know folks that well. I had to stretch my paycheck a bit because of this. When I gently raised the issue, we were treated like pariahs. Again, this was for not wanting to pay nearly $50 more than what we had ordered. Is that really something people think we should have done? Why?

In the "$60 short" scenario, one person had suggested separating the bar tab and having people pay that and then split the rest. If the bar tab had been separated, it would have been close to $150 and this might have helped with the confusion.

The thing is, it's not like I am cheap. I have paid for folks on hard times many times and not sought or cared about reimbursement. I've always thrown in more than I owe because of the mysterious gap that sometimes happens between what is owed and what ends up in the first round of paying. If I drink a lot, I am clear that others should not have to pay for that.

Arggh. Ok, so here are some thoughts:

When Splitting the Check Evenly Makes Sense:

1. No vegetarians who didn't have alcohol.

2. No $60 bottles of wine.

3. No one at the table with a history of asking to split the check evenly after
ordering every course and drinking a gallon of liquor.

4. No one at the table obviously needing to economize (lost their job, just bought a house, works as an intern,etc.)

5. No one opting out of expensive choices due to diet, religious, health reasons.

6. When you see the people with enough regularity that it is sensible that you will take turns being the big/little spenders.

7. When you've really had a reasonably equitable experience.

When it Does Make Sense:

1. We ate family style.

2. We made decisions together about ordering and did some tasting of each others dishes, things were passed around.

3. Our dietary restrictions match up well enough that we should share.


One thing several sites suggest
(see part 2): Split it,but if you were over the top tell the table you are paying more or be the one to encourage the table to pay what each person had.

Even folks who are squarely in favor argue for a standard of reasonability here. $$$ bottles of wine, lobster dishes, desserts, apartifs, etc. Did most people have these? Just a few?


All in all when it comes down to it, I think it is possible to have a meal be enjoyable and reasonably fair. What do you think?

Friday, February 10, 2006

That Other Superbowl

What are you all doing tonight? Because it's the big gay superbowl, otherwise known as the Winter Olympics. The Opening Ceremonies are tonight and we're having folks over. How could we not? As is my duty as a gay man, I am a huge fan of figure skating. I know what good edging looks like. I know the difference between a lutz, flip, loop, salchow, and toe loop. I know all about Irina Slutskaya's heart condition and Michelle Kwan groin injury. And I know that Johnny Weir designs his own outfits. We will at be getting together to mock the faux Cirque de Soleil opening ceremonies and critique the outfits of the delegations. I am hoping that there will be a fashion show as part of the Opening Ceremonies. They had one at the closing cermeonies in Salt Lake City to preview the fabulousness that is Italy.

To go with the Northern Italian location of the Olympics, we're serving Northern Italian style food. Fried polenta with a gorgonzola dipping sauce. Pesto crostini with roasted peppers. And a sugar cookie pizza with nutella and hazelnuts. And taquitos that we saved from last weekend. It IS a sporting event after all.

For those of you who are getting tired of my Brain food stories, too bad. I have another. This week's session was on eggs. The two recipes were somewhat involved and required some thought and planning. The first was crepes stuffed with chicken and asparagus. The second was eggs benedict. What I find hilarious about the students is how specialized they all are. They find one thing and do one thing well. For example, there was saute girl. She LOOOOVED to saute. She got angry when someone started sauteing the chicken without her. And then there was crepe boy. He REALLY wanted to master flipping crepes. He tried the flipping-in-the-pan method. The plate-over-pan-and-flip method and finally, he was most successful with the two-spatula method. Because we had fewer students than usual, we decided to make the recipes one after the other, as opposed to at the same time. Since the crepes seeemed to be more involved, we decided to make them first. The students were really antsy to make hollandaise. All night long, it was "can I make the hollandaise NOW?" Who knew that hollandaise was the hot new thing?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A minor request

For those of you in DC with REAL writing skills, can I ask that one of you write a thinly veiled roman a clef about evil DC executive directors and their false assumptions that the world revolves around them and that their completely insane behavior is somehow endearing? If Devil Wears Prada made a gazillion dollars, I think a Devil Wears Seventh Generation could bring in a quarter of a gazillion. Just a thought.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Ten Things About my Superbowl Experience

1. J and I hosted a Superbowl party. It was totally last-minute and we actually made food to take to another Superbowl party that was cancelled.

2. The stuff we already made was caramelized onion dip, baba ganouj, and fake meat won tons.

3. Being the hosts, we decided to supplement that haul with some Valentine's Day caramel kisses, pigs in blankets, and taquitos.

4. It being Super Bowl Sunday, there was a run on Little Smokies AND Crescent Roll dough. I had to substitute the Little Smokies with Little Bratties (miniature bratwurst) and had to fight for the last can of crescent roll dough.

5. Little bratties make VERY good pigs in blankets.

6. We LOOOOOOOVE the Burger King Homage to Busby Berkeley. Clearly the best commerical so far.

7. OH MY GOD. I can't stop crying because of the Dove self esteem commerical. I truly start losing it when the little Asian girl looks all sad because she hates her body.

8. Engaged Boy comes bearing a pizza. With onion dip, pigs in blankets, and pizza, we have officially entered guyland. J and I did a high five when Pittsburgh scored a touchdown.

9. Damn. The Burger King ad was the best ad. To the advertising industry, STEP IT UP. And Jay Mohr is really irritating.

10. Due to the timely arrival of pizza, taquitos were not eaten. BUT, how is it possible that five people can go through a bag of ruffles and onion dip, a double batch of pigs in blankets, a pizza, a double batch of won tons, a big bowl of baba banouj and pita bread, and a bag of Hershey's kisses in one evening?

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Inspiration from the Brainfood Gig

So I rushed home yesterday after my Brainfood volunteer gig to make J a chicken pot pie. This week the students are learning all about meat and today it was fun with turkey. The two recipes on deck were turkey pot pie and turkey meatballs. At the start of the class it was the two Chinese girls and me and the staffer. Each girl took a different recipe and I ended up helping the one making the turkey meatballs. I love how the students are trained to clean as they go and make sure all the ingredients are available first. Surprisingly, we had to work on reading the recipe to determine what ingredients went into the meatballs and what ingredients were for the sauce. In making the meatballs, she had this wonderful one-handed method that I am still trying to master. The meatballs turned out wonderfully. The one mistake was on my part. The recipe simply said to serve on top of hot buttered noodles with no amounts. As usual, I made too much and the meatballs and sauce didn’t fully coat the noodles. However, it still tasted good. J is so tickled by this volunteer project as I am required to give advice without being directive and telling the students what to do in the kitchen. It’s hard to give up the control freak but I do it for the children.

The hit of the evening was the pot pie. It was SOOOO delicious. Finely sliced fennel, carrots and turkey are poached in chicken broth. A b├ęchamel sauce is made with milk, a bit of the broth, fennel seeds, and the true kicker, lemon juice. It’s all baked with a puff pastry crust. The lemon juice really gives the filling a kind of wonderful lightness and freshness without changing the basic comfort foodiness of the dish. The puff pastry was fun for the student to work with. They made wonderful leaves with the extra puff pastry. However, I was scandalized when one of the students declared her hatred of puff pastry. That made my head explode. Does she hate butter? Flour? She loved the filling though.

Anyway, I rushed home to make my own pot pie with a puff pastry crust. My filling consisted of chicken, onions, peas, carrots and sweet potatoes with a chicken broth gravy and tarragon. Not as lively as what we made in class but fulfilling nonetheless.