Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Rolled boneless chicken roast

Fancy and impressive, without fooling around with forcemeat and curing.

The chicken is prepared like a gallantine, except that the thighs and legs are left attached, although they could be just as easily incorporated into the main roast. I like leaving them since it gives a visual clue that this was once a chicken. Similar to a gallantine, it's braised with cold chicken stock - only in the oven instead of on the range so that the skin will brown. Unlike a gallantine, I didn't use any forcemeat, although a bit of prosciutto would have been a nice garnish to lay over the meat. The flavor was good enough without it and the cost was certainly lower.

This is something rather unusual for most people, so it's fun to carve it at the table, removing the trussing and slicing into half inch thick rondelles. If you're being fancy, plate it as described below. If not, go family style and pass the platter. This was enough for eight people, after they had already enjoyed a first course and some hors d'œvres.

  • 1 whole chicken
  • Sea salt
  • Fresh sage & rosemary
  • Garlic, finely chopped
  • Marsala wine
  • Chicken stock
  1. First, debone the chicken, removing the wings but boning out the drumsticks (leave the thigh and drumstick meat though. Lay it flat, skin side down.
  2. Flap the breasts meat over so it covers the space between the breasts.
  3. Make a paste out of the rosemary, sage, garlic and some of the salt. Adjust the quantity of herbs according to how strong an herb flavor you want and how big the chicken is. 
  4. Spread the paste over the chicken meat, and stick a bit in the hole left by the drumstick and thigh bones. Lightly sprinkle the Marsala over the chicken, being careful not to wash off the paste. You could also add it to the paste, but this seems to distribute the wine better over the entire bird.
  5.  Roll the chicken up tightly, leaving a minimal overlap at the edges.
  6. Truss the chicken, starting with the drumstick end.
  7. Carefully place the chicken into a baking dish, pour cold chicken stock around the bird so it comes up around an inch. Liberally sprinkle salt over the bird and place in an oven preheated to 375°F. 
  8. The chicken will take about 90 minutes to cook - it's done when the meat at the center of the bird reaches 168°F (use a thermometer to check).
Family style serving: If you opt for the potatoes (below), arrange the spuds around the edges of a serving platter and layer the sliced chicken pieces down the center. 

If plating individually, fan out the potato slices, overlap with slices of chicken. You can also pour some red or orange pepper coulis on the plate under/around the main ingredients for color and add a fresh basil leaf for a garnish.

You can accompany the chicken with sliced Yukon Gold potatoes:

  • Yukon gold potatoes (about four), scrubbed and sliced into 1/2" half-rounds.
  • Salt
  • Rosemary
  • Black pepper
  • Chicken stock
  • Olive oil (or duck fat if you're being extravagant)
  1. Toss the potatoes, herbs, salt, pepper and oil. If using duck fat, you may need to heat it a bit to get it liquid.
  2. Place the slices in a shallow baking dish, pour about 3/4" of stock into the pan - the tops of the potatoes should not be submerged. The stock will evaporate during cooking, leaving nicely browned crispy yet succulent potatoes.
  3. Place in a preheated 400°F oven or bake next to the chicken. Check that it's browning - if the chicken is ready but the potatoes aren't browned, you can place it under the broiler to finish. The potatoes are done when you can easily poke them with a fork.
Serve with a nice ciabatta or rustic French bread, a light red wine and maybe a garnish of fresh basil and you've got a great summer meal.

This could probably be prepared ahead and served cold for a cool summer meal.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Slopppping the Humans

It can't be this easy to be a caterer, can it? I attended an event, and it really looks like all you need is an inspected, commercial kitchen, some trucks and that's it. Yes, I deliberately left out cooking skills. Apparently they're overrated. Unlike restaurants, nobody attends most events for the food. Just make it safe for human consumption, within socially acceptable and legal norms, and shovel it out for guest victims to devour like uncaring animals.

It started with the crostini: one choice. With walnuts. It was apparently too much trouble to make some non-allergenic ones or heaven forbid, several different types for variety, interest and prestige.  Asking if they had any other type got a blank look, a forced smile that stopped at the corners of the mouth and a "No. Sorry".

The other appetizer was smoked salmon. I know you had an image in your mind when you read those two words. Perhaps a canapé coated with a thin layer of dill-yogurt-cucumber sauce topped with a luscious, iridescent slice of salmon. Could it have been a bite-sized wrap rolled with chipotle-mayo sauce, finely chopped green onions and cilantro with an attractive pink spiral of salmon inside? Maybe the spinach and salmon kind tucked into luscious little puff pastry shells...

Well, you're wrong. It was blobs of gray protein stuck through with skewer sticks à la Yakitori, dipped in something that looked like an inept blend of corn starch and soy sauce. Was the salmon a sustainable wild Pacific variety? Doubtful. Asking, "Do you know where the salmon comes from?" got the same blank stare, but now with a quantum of annoyance mixed in. Same answer, though: "No. Sorry.". So, that leaves me to suppose that it came from a polluting, ultra-crowded salmon farm where lowest price was the foremost criterion. That would go far to explain why it wasn't even pink. It had so little salmon color that I mistook it for chicken. (Fool! The chicken is pinker!)

The event was ecologically oriented, so if you stuck to your guns about sustainable seafood you went hungry on the fish (probably a good thing, considering...). If you were allergic to nuts too, well you suffered until they took the lid off the main course.

Eventually the pre-appointed time came, the lids were removed from the steam trays and everyone lined up for their main course: pasta salad vinaigrette, another cold salad with walnuts, and thin "grilled" chicken breasts. Yes, they were grilled at some point - there were marks on them. After that, they were tossed in sauce gluante sans âme and left for dead on the steam trays at a safe temperature, over 140°F no doubt. Unless the fire went out under the tray... oops.

Dessert was mixed cookies and strange brownie-like objects.

So, I thought. This is all it takes to be a successful caterer. Food quality, flavor, originality and enthusiasm are useless. Churn out cheap, bland food without any planning of how the event meal goes together. Hire people who don't know anything, don't care, probably cost less per hour than renting a power tool at Home Depot, but who will put the food out and clean up the mess afterward. Secure your permits, pay your taxes, maybe donate some of your excess profits to a local charity for good will.

Turning my back on the artistry of making quality food just to churn out a belly stuffing mixture of proteins, fat, salt and carbohydrates for uncaring masses is exactly why catering does not interest me. More often than not, this swill is par for the course at this kind of event, yet only one person complained. I'll leave it up to you to guess that person's identity. Hint: it's the same person who asked the caterer if anyone actually planned the menu (nuts only, probably unsustainable fish, two cold salads... hello?).

Let's face it - nobody was at this event for the food. This is true of most events. Still, did it have to be that poorly planned and executed? Is bland, dry chicken coated with a gluante sweet-salty sauce with no redeeming characteristics really what these people deserved? Was brining the chicken really not an option, or did it aspire to become shoe leather despite this process?

Our local Culinary Arts program at ARC has a catering class. I've even volunteered for some events. The menus were planned, some with central themes others by flavor combinations. We had vegan, spicy, exotic, seasonally fresh and overall interesting food every time. There were even French garlic sausage corn dogs at one event, and thanks to Chef Ray's artistry there were a lot of happy people rubbing their distended bellies after it was over. So, catering can be done well. It can make people smile, surprise them with new tastes, rattle their sensibilities, tear down preconceptions... just like any well planned and executed meal.

Can catering be a rewarding profession? Does the torturer's rack of lowest cost force anyone embarking on this venture to submit to the formula of cheap ingredients and mediocrity, sacrificing originality, interest and good food on the altar of profit? Does one become a mindless drone bereft of pride, left like the Cheshire Cat with only a fatuous grin and some kibble? Must one murder their culinary muse, silencing her forever by shooting her through the heart with a greasy skewer coated with proteins of dubious origin? Do the food movements so hot in restaurants not cross the catering line? Where are slow food, sustainable seafood, locally sourced ingredients, seasonality... certainly all were M.I.A. at this event.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Which Port in a Storm?

Since we had to write a paper for a class, and I needed an excuse to organize and type my notes from a recent trip to Porto, Portugal, this was a great way to kill two birds with one stone. I have no idea how well (or poorly) my papers have been received in this class, since I never got one back graded, marked up or commented on. Nor did I get confirmation via e-mail that they were even received. Ever. Talk about instructor apathy! So my other motive is insurance: it will be difficult to say I didn't finish on time if the paper is sitting right here on this server two full days before it's due.

This version was edited slightly because I can't post something without rewriting it at least a couple more times to correct, clarify and hopefully improve the text.

Port now comes in Pink. It’s new, it’s colorful and you can even make cocktails with it. Pink probably won't dethrone our favorite Ruby and Tawny Ports here in the United States, but it's probably more accessible for younger drinkers. White Port is also starting to make an appearance, and should do well here since it's lighter than the reds and is served chilled - a better option for summer.

All varieties start as wine, made from grapes grown on schist soils around the Douro Valley. Red grape varieties include Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) and Tinto Cão. Many of these are the same varietals as used to make Douro wines. There are also white varietals but they don’t seem to be considered important enough to list by the producers. Presumably they use the same varietals as for white Douro wine: Codega, Rabigato, Donzelinho, Viosinho, Cercial...

Fermentation is stopped after about two days by adding 77% alcohol spirits that kill the yeast and preserve the sugar in the beverage. The final result is Port, with an alcohol content of 20%.

Crushing, fermentation and blending with spirits takes place outside of Gaia, with much of it done in Regua about an hour’s train ride up the Douro from the coast. Most Port is blended, aged and bottled in Vila Nova de Gaia, after being trucked there from Regua or elsewhere up the Douro Valley. Those interesting boats loaded with barrels floating on the Douro are just for show; they can no longer compete with trucks for efficiency.

Port prices run the gamut from around $10-$15 for whites and rubies, $15-$40 for tawnies, $50 and up for Vintage. Select vintage Ports can run over $400 and even $500 on auction at Christie’s. The saying in Porto is “the older the better” and the price reflects this.

Sorting the types of Port can be a bit confusing, since prices do overlap and non-vintage (NV) tawnies can be priced by age, creating an overlap with true vintage and LBV Ports. Whites, Rubies and Tawnies can also be reserve selections.

White Port
As its name suggests, this is an amber colored liquid. It’s still somewhat sweet and at 20% alcohol it’s best as an apertif. Unlike red Port, it’s served chilled at 8°-10° C (46°-50° F). It can be extra-dry or extra sweet, and some wineries, such as Ramos Pinto, make a variety of styles. Many spend some time on oak.

Pink Port
The new kid on the block, Pink Port seems to be quite the rage among producers. At Croft, it never sees wood at any point in its production, being made exclusively in stainless steel. It’s served chilled like white port and is marketed as a component in cocktails like The Runaway or the Sunset. Croft suggests drizzling it over fruit sorbet with a mint garnish, mixing it with jasmine tea, or using it to make Sangria.

Ruby Port
Typically, ruby Ports are not barrel aged, since the goal is to keep a bright ruby color. They stay in a cask for three to five years, and are blended across years. These wines are less complex than Tawnies, with more fruit and less woodsy tones, placing them between whites and Tawnies. This wine will keep for weeks or months once opened.

Tawny Port
This wine gets some barrel time. Most are non-vintage and blended across years. Tawnies are also sold by age, although since they’re a blend this is somewhat subjective. These Ports develop woody, caramel, honey notes and nice complexity that (hopefully) justify their higher price. These should be served lightly chilled at 16° C (60° F). Once open, the wine will keep for weeks or even months. Colheita Tawnies get six years in barrels.

Late Bottle Vintage (LBV)
Ruby Port from some years is judged of better quality than average by a single producer and is given the LBV designation, with all wine from a single year. It’s typically aged six years at Croft, four at Sandeman - so apparently there’s no hard and fast rule on aging time. Some, such as Quinta de Ventozelo, are unfiltered and should be decanted before drinking. These wines may mature somewhat in bottles.

This is the high end stuff, with vintage years officially declared by the Port Wine Institute. These exceptional years happen on average but a couple of times per decade.
Many are foot crushed, apparently to smash out as much tannin from the skins as possible from the outset of the crushing process. Since this happens in a shallow area, there is probably also a lot of aeration going on to help the yeast.

These wines are typically unfiltered and need careful decanting prior to drinking. These wines mature in bottles, and like LBV, should be stored on their sides so that the cork remains wet. These wines are still good after 100 years, and 15 years aging is considered a minimum, with Sandeman’s tour guide saying that 25-30 years’ aging is preferred.

These wines have a ruby color during their first five years in the bottle, aging gradually to a more amber color.

Once you decide to open a vintage Port, you have two days to drink it before it degrades. Invite friends, since at 20% alcohol you’ll be doing your liver a favor by not drinking it all yourself.

Nobody can visit the Porto region without stopping off for some tasting. Considering the number of producers offering their wares, we decided to limit our exploration to two wineries.

The Sandeman Don looms over the city of Porto. He’s everywhere, more ubiquitous than Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. He’s the mysterious figure dressed like the tour guide, holding a glass of Port that seems to float magically over his shoulder.

Like most ports, the Don is really English. Sandeman, Croft and many others are owned by British companies and have been since the 18th century.

You wander idly about the museum, gazing at the history of Port in general and Sandeman in particular. The dim lighting and rough wood finishes give the impression of being inside a cask,  or perhaps an ancient sailing ship transporting Port wine to England.

The tour will begin in twelve minutes, by consensus in English. You grasp your € 4.00 entry ticket, waiting for a short woman dressed in  black to lead you forward. Everything seems calculated to burn the house’s logo, the Don, into your brain: he’s plastered on all major axes of circulation, printed on your ticket, explained in the house museum. The guide, a very serious young woman, bears his costume, a wide-brimmed black hat and black cape that absorb the little light present in the cellar so that she almost disappears when she turns her back to the audience.

She beckons, and the group advances, speaking French, English and German in hushed tones as they walk across the wood pavers that line the floor. The pavers are for humidity control and to allow the barrels to be easily moved, the guide explains.

We move down a long corridor lined on both sides with barrels. Vertical cages packed with bottles rise behind the barrels on the right, marked with hanging signs indicating the year they were bottled. These are o meior, vintage Ports. A sign indicates 1957, and I wonder what manner of elixir their contents have become after sitting so long in this dark cave.

The corridor terminates in an array of towering casks, each holding over 20,000 liters of Port.
A wood cutout of the Don reminds everyone where they are, in case the memory dimmed during the three minute walk from the entrance.

The tour proceeds past a small, azulejo-lined pond complete with goldfish (why not cave fish, I wonder). The pond is functional, to maintain humidity.

Flexible pipes crawl across the ground, used to move the Port from the casks to wherever they see fit. In the distance, workers move about, but it’s not clear what they’re doing in this place where the chief asset to quality seems to be time. Time to age the Port, allow it to become imbued with the essences of wood and grape, to mature into something wonderful.

Eventually we pass out of the cellar into a small viewing room, where after a series of slides urging us to drink responsibly, we learn about the regions where the wine is grown, fermented and held prior to arriving in Gaia for aging.

After the presentation, we taste. Today we have a white port and a ruby.  The glasses, already filled and counted, await us at rustic wood benches next to a store where we can purchase Port, T-shirts and all kinds of swag imprinted with the image of the Don.

The white port was a medium amber color and had a sweet note, followed by fresh-sawn oak. Maybe a bit of raisin for fruit. On the tongue, a bit of acidity to balance the sugar, and a caramel finish. A much lighter, perhaps more approachable drink than a red Port, probably with enough sweetness to appeal to younger drinkers. White Port is served chilled, so probably a better choice in summer, too.

The ruby had a better showing of fruit; cherry, maybe blackcurrant, some vanilla, and a bit of caramel. A sip confirmed this impression. This was a much more complicated wine, yet finished cleanly with lingering caramel.

After Sandeman, we decided to head well upslope from the Douro to Croft. They produce the same three kinds of Port as Sandeman, plus one other. They make the traditional wood-aged Tawny, the fruitier and less-aged Ruby, White and only recently, Pink. Think fortified White Zin or rose and you’ll get the picture. Something pretty, easy to drink and new.

Croft tour guides dress more like flight attendants crossed with matadors. Tours are in English only. It doesn’t matter if everyone on the tour is French. They’ll adapt. They’d better, since closing time is fast approaching and nobody wanted to remain any longer than necessary.

Croft grapes are hand picked, and grow on the same slopes with fast draining schist soil that gives such great flavor. The vines’ roots can reach down twenty meters looking for water, and this lack of moisture concentrates flavors in the grapes.

Their vintage Port, only made in truly exceptional years, are crushed by foot. Presumably more ordinary years have to settle for mechanical presses. It’s not clear why feet are better, nor what the cost differences are between the two methods.

The floor at Croft is covered with gravel, something like road base. No wood pavers here, but things seem to work just fine nonetheless. The system of casks and barrels is the same as Sandeman, too. The main difference here is that the visit is free and you receive a complimentary glass of white Port at the end. You can also purchase any other type of Port for tasting.

I found the two white Ports quite similar, since I wasn’t able to taste them side by side. We bought a glass of Pink. The first thing I noticed was a strong hit of alcohol, followed by some fruity notes. Other than that, I don’t have a great recollection of what it tasted like since I forgot to take notes and it was late afternoon.


White Port
We did a bit of testing, and decided that blue cheese and even chocolate (to a lesser extent) do work. So do ripe apricots. Pistachios work well enough, but the apricots and cheese were better.

Ruby Port
Melon and Prosciutto works with the fruitiness of the Port. Cheese (notably blue) and chocolate are also suggested.

Tawny Port
The classic pairing, at least in France, of melon and prosciutto works with Tawny Port as well as Ruby. Sandeman suggested walnuts, blue cheeese (presumably Stilton), chocolate (and chocolate-dipped strawberries). We often serve pistachios with it, too.

One Port producer suggests almond tartes and cream pies to accompany their Tawny Port and dark chocolate for their aged Tawnies.

Recipes for these tapas feature on another producer's site. Note that many of them revolve around blue cheese, cured ham and melon. Blue Cheese Baby Burgers, bruschetta with dried meat, tomato brioche bread with Serrano ham, Four Seasons toast with Valencay goat cheese, melon balls and Prosciutto, and a creamy verrine with avocado, crème fraîche, salmon mousse and Ricotta cheese.
Another producer adds ice cream to the list, without specifying a flavor.

Vintage Port
Apparently, the consensus is that vintage Port is something you savor on its own. However, it pairs with chocolate, cheese or melon like other red Ports.

Oysters: If I can get them, how come...?

 There they are! Right there, not even 100 miles away

 I'd show you how tasty they look, but oops! They got eaten!

I'd show you the wonderful greenish-gold color of the wine, but it's gone too

Any person can just drive over to Tomales Bay or Point Reyes, walk into the store at an oyster farm, and buy as many as they want (if you want hundreds, calling first is a good idea). You can just put them in a cooler on ice, bring them back, and enjoy super fresh seafood. All in less than a day's time.

I suppose there might even be fishermen along the Northern California coast, not too far away, doing  sustainable harvesting. If they're going out in day boats, their fish should be cleaned and iced right after it's caught so when the boat arrives the fish is in prime condition ready to prepare.

California has Dungeness crabs, and there might even be tasty shrimp that could be trap caught too. We've bought live crab in Bodega Bay, and it was fresh and snapping.

So, this all seems obvious, doesn't it? Go to the coast, give someone money, bring back absolutely fresh seafood, prepare it, eat it. Simple. I can do it. You can probably do it. So why can't supermarkets do it?

The last time I was at our local supermarket, the fish looked like it was one step ahead of being made into fish sauce. It was limp, slimy looking and lay flopped over the ice like a beached jellyfish. The trout was bloody, with sunken eyes. The salmon was farmed, colorant added, yet looked mushy. The shellfish looked like it expired while frozen, gaping open.

Can't something be done to make the seafood counter an anticipated destination? Seafood is more expensive every day, yet the quality is dropping faster than you can say bathyscaphe.

I, an individual, can go to the coast and buy what I want. But I can't get it here in the supermarket. Huh? These are supposed to be professional food distributors and sellers, yet they can't manage to stock their cases with anything worthy of accompanying a simple Entre-deux-Mers?

What about an online ordering system, where people could pay in advance and the seafood would be shipped as fresh as possible for the delivery date? What about not stocking limp, flaccid stinking trout? If the fish is borderline, why even bother selling it? How about doing away with all that non-sustainable farmed salmon altogether and telling people to wait for the real stuff in to come into season?

Why have a seafood counter at all, when half of it is just thawed out sea protein. Might as well just leave the stuff in the freezer! Have people grown as flaccid as that half-melted tilapia fillet, that they can't even thaw their own shrimp? What if the seafood case really had only the best quality fish, and the rest of that crap they're selling were sold off as cat food (don't make a habit of it though - mercury isn't good for kitties, either).

Maybe you're reading this thinking that fish normally smells like someone forgot to clean the aquarium. Maybe you think it should rival California's famous Banana Slug in sliminess. Maybe dull, sunken eyes and brown (or missing) gills don't tell you anything. So, here is (another) quick review on how to select fresh fish. (If you're an expert fishmonger or piscivore you can stop reading here and get back to the mise en place for your beurre blanc.)

Is that fish fresh? Check this:

  • Firm flesh, briny odor, not fishy
  • Smooth, but not slimy. Your fingers should come away from the fillet with a light coating of fishiness, not coated with slime.
  • whole fish should have bright, shiny eyes that bulge. Not dull, sunken pits with black holes in the center.
  • The fish's gills should be light to medium pink. They should still be attached to the fish, not missing. If someone cut them off, was it because they were deep red and slimy?
  • For fish with scales, the scales should lie flat on the fish and not have gaps.

  • Clams closed, or will close when tapped. No, you can't check this by tapping the case, so it's not too practical. Same for mussels.
  • Shrimp: buy them frozen (unless they're alive), from a sustainable source, preferably wild. Thaw them yourself.
  • Oysters? Well, I've never been brave enough to buy these in a supermarket. Obviously, they should stay tightly closed. So tightly that you need a special knife and some skill to open them without exploding the shell and spewing particles of shell all over the meat.
  • Squid: buy it frozen. It probably arrived at the store that way.
If you want to see really nice, fresh fish head for Sunh Fish in the Asian Foods Center on Broadway or Oto's Marketplace. When it comes to fish, those guys don't mess around. Be aware that both sell non-sustainable fish, so do your homework or arrive with your Seafood Watch card in hand. Or if you're geeky, there's an app for that, too.  Just click here.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Your mission, Mr. Phelps: Vanquish the Supermarket

Avocados: $1.99 ea 2/$3.00 $1.49 ea

People look at me strangely when I shop at the supermarket. I stand, basket in hand, staring at the offerings. So many words! Price drop, Super Saver, Ad Special, Special Purchase, Compare with, Two for... Yet, the prices don't seem to reflect anything special. The price drop item could be more expensive than it was two weeks ago. The Super Saver might be a brand that's much more than the item next to it - and the next week the situation could be reversed.

We live in difficult times. The government works for money, big industries and special interests. The same companies that control what you eat, what you watch, how much it will cost to see your aunt Tilly in Livermore. Supermarkets, especially large chains, like virtually every other company, prey on their customers. Instead of clear, honest offers and simple pricing they resort to every ploy available to wage psychological warfare on their prey. There is one chain that seems reasonably clear and straightforward, but they're not located near where I live, so I'm stuck playing stupid mind games dreamed up by evil corporate bean counters.

You've spent enough to save at the market's gas station... seven miles away. That's fourteen miles, almost three quarters of a gallon for a round trip, just to save a few cents per gallon. If their price isn't already higher than more local gas station.

Hot special this week! Avocados, two for $3.00. Formerly $1.49 each. Buy now and save!

Paper towels: compare these: $1.23 per roll,  $0.17 per square foot, total square feet in package (three rolls): 16. Exactly how does this help me in my efforts to get the best price? Ah, but if I buy two rolls of Brand A, I'll get a 1/2 off coupon for Brand B, which happens to be twice as much as Brand A.

I put the special meat at the end of the refrigerator in my cart. It looked like a good deal, but... I decided to check the regular meat section in the middle of the aisle, against the wall. Hey! This is a roast of the same exact thing as the "special" but it's $1.20 per pound less. Yet all I have to do is slice it into pieces the same size as the "special" to get... the same thing as the special.

How about the sale where there's a boneless pork roast on sale, next to the bone-in version? If you buy the bone-in version, congratulations! You just paid the meat price for the bones!

How about some orange juice? Two for $5.00, so I have to buy two for this price, right? Scan at checkout: ORANGE JUICE: $2.50 each. Huh? I could buy one for the same price, despite the implication that two gets me a deal and one leaves me poorer.

Where exactly does that pre-marinated fish come from, and why did it need to be marinated? Now it smells of Thai lemon grass and kaffir lime... but what odors would I detect if it were bare, sans added fragrances?

Why does tilapia fluctuate from around $9.00 per pound down to around four? It's farmed in ponds, in places that don't really have seasons. Do they feed it something special to justify the higher price? Marinated salmon perhaps?

Why does whole chicken normally cost around $1.40 per pound, then suddenly plummet to under $1.00 per pound for a short time, often without even a sale notice? How can boneless chicken be cheaper than whole chickens?

Novelist, poet, food writer. Huh? What's a food writer?

You ARE a writer!

That was perhaps the main message from a three hour seminar I attended last Saturday on food writing. Although the official title included "What Makes Good Food Writing," I wondered more about what makes food writing good, but that's more philosophical. I also wondered if anyone else in the room actually writes regularly, since if you don't write, you're not a writer. Writers write, ne?

Food writing. It's really just writing, though. Same rules. The ones I'm breaking in this paragraph, in fact. It can be academic, fiction, non-fiction, humorous or deadly serious. And yes, it can be mortally boring if not done correctly.

This genre may not even explicitly name the food, its preparation or even delve into culinary depths.  Then there are works like Como Agua para Chocolate that are all about food, but aren't really. The food and social interactions just carry the main story line. Are they food writing or social commentary? How many literary genre tags can you slap onto something before they start to blur into a haze of meaningless babble?

According to the lecture, this genre of writing goes back a long way, with an illustrious history. Hemingway himself was mentioned as being a food writer. I guess the Old Man and the Sea really was about food since he wasn't in that boat for a whale watching expedition. Right? What would Hemingway have thought about being named a food writer, right up there with Betty Crocker?

So, a short essay. Food writing or not?

The boy sat on a weathered log as the sun sank beneath a far-off ridge, carefully unscrewing his last Oreo. He scraped the frosting off with his new upper teeth, savoring the grainy cream as he chewed slowly. He bit into the chocolate, now a bit stale after two days in his pocket. As night fell, he moved back into his shelter in the rocks, hugging his jacket tightly. Once again, he asked himself why he had to leave the trail to chase a dragonfly.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Thirteen Little Words of Boredom

The food writing seminar named thirteen Boring Food Writing Words to be avoided lest someone would think you an untalented hack. Pretty impressive. George Carlin only got seven. Out of about 171,476 words in active use in the English Language, these thirteen gained this distinction. So, here they are. Please try to stay awake.
delicious, good, nice, tasty, bad, went, yummy, small, beautiful, great, very, many, big

I pity these words. I think that it's up to the writer to make any word interesting. It's like art. How you put the colors together is really what makes a painting interesting, isn't it? So, a challenge: can these words be used to write something entertaining? You be the judge.


My companion and I arrived at the table after twisting our way through a maze of tables and booths arrayed in a random pattern. The decor was Early James Bond. A mixup of rustic farm and secret Evil Scientist laboratory. The hostess looked just like Judy Jetson, reinforcing the effect.

It was my first night out with Lizzy after meeting at a noisy Yipe event two weeks earlier, and I was starting to realize that some people are much different in a group of loud, intoxicated people than they are solo and sober.

"Welcome to Comfort Eats, part of the big, happy family of AgriBusinessHoldings! My Name is Wendy and I'll do my very best to make you happy tonight!" the waitress squeaked as she arrived at our table, full of energy.

She wore a yummy, tight-fitting uniform that left little to the imagination, it went from her shapely calves, over her delicious thighs, climbing upward in an eye teasing ascent that culminated with a view into her limpid blue eyes. Great. Lizzy noticed. Note to self: jealous type. Got to wear sunglasses. Dark ones.

"Uh, nice uniform," I stammered. My prospective friend noticed, too. So far, the "comfort" concept was not working well.

"Isn't it beautiful?" Wendy replied, "The designers wanted us to look high tech, like AgriBusinessHoldings, yet also have an earthy Farmer Bob feel." She leaned over and whispered, "I think a lot of this food actually is vat grown from genetically modified algae, but it tastes delicious. So really, most ABH employees don't actually work on farms full of smelly fertilizer and are more Mr. Wizard than Farmer Bob - but the uniforms still rock."

I wondered if the CEO looked like Dr. Evil, but somehow resisted asking.

"Good. Well, I think we're ready to order," said my companion, "I'll have the small plate special. They really are small, aren't they? I don't want anything big, and the last small plate I had could have fed very many hungry people. It was not very tasty, either. Kind of like something that never grew in the earth or saw the sun. I gave them a really bad review at Yipe, where I'm an 'eleet'. One star. My review was so bad that the owner sent me a crazy rant, but I published that too and now he's probably very sorry he wasn't nicer to me"

"Wow. Well, the small plate special is a Good choice, and you should be able to give me a whole six stars. It's that good! They're very small. Minuscule, even," Wendy said with a smile. "And you, sir?"

"I'll have the Big Bad Juju Ribs with a side of Diabolical Sauce and Suet-Fried Potatoes with crunchy salt, please".

"Beautiful! That's one of my favorites!" Wendy squealed, bouncing in a manner that earned me another smoking look.

"And anything to drink?"

"I need a YummyGreatBigBeautiful MegaBad Martini," I said. "Make it a double," I said.

"I'll have water. Lots of ice," hissed my date.

"Excellent! I'll get that order in and be right back with your drinks," Wendy exclaimed, adding a swing to her bounce as she departed.

"Nice," growled my companion.

This was going to be a long dinner.


Yes, this is a piece of fiction. Any resemblance to anyone or anything is purely coincidental. I don't even know anyone named Lizzy, and the vat-grown food is still in the testing, pre-production stage. Your children will probably eat it, though.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

SactoMoFo: So many trucks, so little time

Just after noon, lines stretched across the park. That's public demand!

It was mo' crowded than this, but I got tired of drawing.

The scene was like Tron's lightcycle race, where each bike laid down a line. Except these were lines of people stretching across Fremont Park. Even the Whole Foods truck had a line. Go figure, since it would have been faster to drive to their store and order there.

The trucks offered a wide range of enticing foods. Filipino. French. American. Mexican... Interesting stuff, with at least as much variety as Sacramento's restaurant scene.

The prices were reasonable, too - why they can't have something like this at the State Fair? I'd definitely go if they had food like this and similar prices. Maybe a Food Truck Weekend? This event could have easily supported double the number of trucks (thereby halving the line length) - although Fremont Park was almost too small to hold all the people.

So, the question now is how will the Sacramento City Council rationalize their ban on food trucks after getting enough petitions heaped on them to smother a roast ox? Will they go so far as to change their silly law, or are their egos so large that reversing course would show a lack of fortitude and perseverance? Will whoever lobbied them into enacting this law in the first place maintain their death grip on Sacramento's street food artery? Will Second Saturday ever have street food? Imagine... but don't get your hopes up, since Sacramento's city council is much better at maintaining the status quo and shunning innovation than bringing more life to the city.

If you attended and did not sign a petition, then may you be forced to work in a building in Sacramento next to a five star restaurant. Brown bag or pay through the nose, that's what the City Council wants!

As to what I tried, well... Since each line looked like about a forty-five minute to one hour wait and the event only lasted three hours, it was obviously impossible to try more than four things without coordinating with friends. I didn't see any friends, so I decided to try Plan B: go to Chando's while everyone is here, and maybe there would be no line there.

Arrive at Chando's. Long line. Drat. Go home, eat some pretzels and work in the garden.