Tradition: Sourdough with Butter, Watermelon Radish, and Salt

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

-As tasty as they are pretty to look at.-

"Your mom will eat slightly spicy food right?" I probably should have asked before I ground up the Tien Tsin chili pepper, a Chinese pepper known for its incindiary flavor. One is enough to add piquancy to any dish along with a slap of cheek-blushing fire. "I'm just using one of the Chinese peppers for the whole pot so it shouldn't be too bad." Assuming, of course, that no one counted the teaspoon of crushed Sichuan peppercorns I added, which, really, aren't even spicy-hot as they are tingly-hot.

"Yeah," BF called out, "she should be fine."

BF's mother is a somewhat picky eater discretionary consumer in alimentary situations, so I was doing my best to address her likes and dislikes accordingly. Cooking for in-laws can be somewhat stressful as any of you who have can understand.

Of course, it wasn't really an issue as I didn't mind cooking around peoples preferences. When cooking for my own mother I've learned to avoid certain dishes. Last Christmas when I cooked for the whole family for Christmas Eve, giving my mom her first Christmas Eve dinner off in thirty-five years, I learned of her total disinclination and disgust towards butternut squash.

-These radishes are in season in Winter and on through early Spring.-

"What do you mean you don't like butternut squash?" I said incredulously. In my entire memory I couldn't recall ever hearing my mother say she disliked any particular food.

"I mean, I don't like it," she turned her head towards me as she sat on the couch and made a face.

"Since when?"

"Since ever. Why don't you think I ever made it for you guys when you were kids? I hate squash," she made a little shudder at the thought of it.

I thought back to my childhood and realized it was true. Not once could I recall a single instance she served us any sort of Winter squash. Summer squash and spaghetti squash steamed to a grey, immoral, nearly unconscionable mess, sure, plenty of times. It was why still to this day I never eat them. Never Winter squash though, and as an adult I ate those all the time. Apparently, my love of them was proof enough to the fact that she never did cook it, otherwise I would be just as terrified of pumpkin and butternut as I am of zucchini today.

"Well, I've bought it and already cut it up. I'm making it and your trying it." Good lord, I thought to myself, I'm turning into my parents with my parents. I decided to ignore the meta-psychological implications and continued to chop up the butternut. "You just have to try a bite."

"I won't like it," mom said and she turned back to her magazine.

"You haven't had it the way I make it. It's roasted in brown sugar and butter. You just have to try one bite. If you don't like it you don't have to eat it." I rolled my eyes and continued to work.

"Fiiiinnneee." she moaned. I could hear her sigh.

I brought my mind back to the present and added some chopped scallions to the slow cooker before popping the top on and setting it for 10 hours. "I'm sure your mom will like it," I said to BF, but also to myself.

-Even the pickiest eaters will love this recipe and these radishes.-

I looked at the rump sitting in the crock pot. It wasn't the family flank steak recipe, but, then again, this wasn't a usual holiday. This would actually be my first Christmas without any of my family. Due to work at the bakery, a profession that doesn't really take holidays into consideration except that you might get more hours than normal, I wasn't going to be able to make the trip to Southern California. The whole situation was a bit depressing. Sure, I had had Christmases away from most of my family where just my mother or brother came up to visit, but never had I actually been without a single person from my side of the family. It was a break in tradition for me.

Instead, I would be spending it with BF's family; absolutely lovely people whom I adore and who would be arriving in just a few hours. BF and I had insisted that we prepare Christmas Eve dinner. Christmas Eve dinner was the biggest holiday event for my family, but for BF's family it wasn't so. So this season would be a mix of old and new for everyone. For me, a big family get-together without my side of the family, and for them a big get-together on a night usually spent inconsequentially.

Normally, Christmas Eve dinner is defined by my Grandmother's recipe for flank steak. When she passed it became my mother's job to prepare it, and the last few years the task was passed down to me. Unfortunately, the recipe really requires a barbecue, something that neither BF nor I have. Hence, the slow-cooked, Sichuan-spiced rump roast.

At this point, I figured, one might as well throw out tradition all together and go crazy. For some, the idea of doing away for tradition, even for just one season, is simply inconceivable. Traditions, especially holidays ones, can only be experienced one time a year. They're something we look forward to. They embody memories and family history, and we cherish the significance they posses. Traditions are part of what define who we are.

-It's not so much about breaking traditions as it is about starting new ones.-

But let's be real for a minute. Really, will one year without dad's famous mashed potatoes really kill us all? One Thanksgiving without a turkey? "But Garrett," you may cry, "Thanksgiving is the only time of year we have turkey!"

Well, why is that? Turkey is delicious any time of year. Dad can always make mashed potatoes tomorrow. Why not make those special dishes a different night or different season of the year? Why relegate them to just one meal? It might seem odd, even radical to consider the act of breaking with tradition, but it offers that chance to create new traditions. New foods and activities may become family canon or they may become canon fodder, but who knows until you try?

This Christmas Eve dinner there was no flank steak. No Marian's green bean casserole. No salads made at the last minute or pumpkin pie picked up from the store. No family from Southern California coming up to visit.

Instead, Christmas Eve dinner was rump roast slow-cooked in Sichuan spices, Brussels sprouts sauteed in duck fat, cranberry sauce with vanilla and tangerine, and potatoes au gratin. The meal would be finished with an upside-down cranberry walnut cake flavored with orange bitters and a chocolate-toffee cheesecake. Not just a break in culinary tradition for everyone at the table, but a total shattering of it. Yet once everyone started eating there wasn't a single complaint to be heard.

The meal began, however, with something incredibly simple and flavorful: slices of freshly baked sourdough bread, buttered and adorned with wafer-thin slivers of appropriately named watermelon radishes, topped with a small flurry of Fleur de Sel.

-These are also great in salads, sandwiches, and on a cheese plate with a creamy Brie.-

It's a simple preparation that has a huge following in France and parts of Canada, but exists in near total obscurity in the United States. The salt and butter sooth the raking flavors of the radish and make for an outstandingly flavorful snack. Watermelon radishes, an heirloom variety that can be found at nearly any Farmer's Market in the U.S. and some specialty grocery stores, has a sweeter snap to it than most other varieties of radish and can be eaten raw without any hesitation. When sliced open its colors are simply breathtaking. The obvious name, watermelon radish, is well-deserved for both appearance and flavor.

There is no real recipe to this dish; more of just a method. You can use any bread, but I find sourdough to best match the bitter flavor of the radish. Any variety of radish is fine (except, perhaps, black radish) as the harsh, sulfuric flavors will be mellowed by the salt and butter.

I encourage you to use this recipes the next time tradition calls. Try something new. Try anything new.

Sourdough with Butter and Watermelon Radish

Spread some unsalted butter at room temperature over slices of sourdough bread. Using a mandoline or a very sharp knife, thinly slice a watermelon radish and lay on top of the bread. Sprinkle with a good quality salt like Fleur de Sel or Sel Gris and serve.

Craft: Yuzu Gin Fizz Cocktail Recipe

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

-A contemporary twist on a classic cocktail.-

Blair, a friend of mine from college, was the first person to teach me what a real cocktail was. He was one of the few people I knew who was taller than me, and he had the build of a guy who you could guess wrestled in High School. I always thought he looked exactly like the ideal image of what someone of Scandinavian decent must look like, icy eyes and blond hair as soft as his demeanor. I don't recall exactly how we met but, regardless, he quickly became a part of my life and was eagerly welcomed by my circle of friends. Soon part of our clique we were spending every weekend together watching bad horror movies and whipping together new cocktails. The boy was simply sweeter than honey and as naturally endearing. He still is, in fact.

Blair, like everyone else who first came to my apartment, was staggered by the liquor cabinet my roommates and I had assembled. The cabinet, more of a set of display shelves inlaid into a small inset of living space wall, was packed full with bottles; everything from Anejo and Midori, to Amaretto and Gin. We had it all, and our collection could rival many small bars. Freshmen would look upon it in awe and realize they had come to Nirvana with a swizzle stick. To most college students it was akin to coming across a burning bush and hearing God's voice come out of it. Only, in this case, it was Captain Morgan's voice coming from behind a bottle of Cinnamon Schnapps.

The imbibing impetus for this collection was a small book on cocktails that we had. Every weekend my friends and I would look through the book and decide to concoct something new from its pages. This more than likely meant that we would have to stop at the liquor store for more spirits on our way back from picking up a copy of "Revenge of the Killer Tongue" or other B-horror flick. This meant every single weekend, for about four years, we bought one to three new bottles of liquor. By senior year our bar was beyond epic.

At the time, none of us had any inkling of using fresh anything in our cocktails. This was clear when you realized that we had raspberry, lemon, vanilla, cranberry, and apple vodka sitting on our shelves. For the most part, I think that this is pretty common amongst college students. Home bartending for the student is a means to an end and not a craft. To us the art of craft was saved for Sarah's epic nights of spinning yarn, Andrew's leather working, or my afternoons at gymnastics and fencing. Cocktails were merely flavorful and creative ways to get toasted.

-Small fruit on a tree with huge goddamn thorns. Seriously, be cautious when picking these.-

Unlike my other friends Blair didn't see it this way. With a near limitless supply of liquors and spirits he saw brushes and canvas and near limitless colors with which to paint. On one of his first nights over I watched the way he carefully looked through each and every bottle. Every so often he would pull one down and try to tell us what he had learned about the liquor; where it came from, what grain was used, or the details of the infusion process. If he didn't know he would go online and research it and read aloud what he found. "So that way we know what we're doing when we mix it," he would say before grabbing the shaker and some ice. We would simply nod then go back to scaring ourselves with the newest Silent Hill video game. We would only pause a few minutes later when Blair came back with a round of expertly shaken drinks.

Cocktails were craft to Blair, and everyone was happy to have met someone who saw it that way. It made me happy to see someone who enjoyed his mixology - that was what Blair called it, a term I was at the time unfamiliar with - and took pride in it. His commitment became evidently clear when he arrived one night with a bag of lemons. I liked the way he shooed me away when I presented him with a bottle of lemon vodka and he genially pecked me on the forehead, spun me around, and smacked me on the bum to get me out of the kitchen.

So, from the other side of the counter that separated the living space from the kitchen, I watched Blair begin his preparation. It was thoughtful, the way Blair was about everything from what he picked from a menu to simply which road was the quickest to the gas station. I think I was the only one who realized how serious he took this process. Blair was always smiling his broad smile that made you think that the next sentence to come out of his mouth would be a laughing "Aww, shucks." When mixing drinks this smile faded into pursed lips pressed so hard they went from pink to white. He was concentrating so hard that disturbing him, which I probably did a lot of, became taboo. I reasoned that he was dealing with booze and so this was the self-inflicted curse of any viticulture and eneology major.

Crafting simple syrup, spritzing oils, carving off thin twirls of lemon peel, juicing lemons with an actual lemon juicer, and deftly rimming glasses with sugar seemed so easy for him. He scraped and shook and cut and poured until, finally, he presented me with a Lemon Drop.

-Floral and fragrant the smell of yuzu is reminiscent of tangerines and grapefruit. Dwarf yuzu grow great in cold climates and dwarf trees run about $30.-

I sipped and was dazzled. Life became lemon; sweet and sour and no hint of alcohol burn it slipped across the tongue and screamed of citrus candy. I looked at Blair, "Oh. My. God."

"That's what a lemon drop is supposed to taste like," he said.

I've taken these lessons to heart and heightened my cocktail crafting. With the exception of a few artisan, small batch flavored vodkas I always rely fresh fruit to flavor drinks.

A year ago I potted a dwarf yuzu tree on my patio. Yuzu is a type of citrus hailing form East Asia and is used in primarily Korean and Japanese cooking. It is incredibly aromatic and has a flavor profile of mandarin and grapefruit.

One of the prevailing and most valued qualities of yuzu is its use in cooking. While many other types of citrus juices burn easily in cooking - especially in stir fry - and become bitter the juice of a yuzu can withstand high heat and retain its fragrant sweet-sour flavor. It's also a key ingredient in ponzu sauce.

However, the amount of juice per fruit is sparse - about one teaspoon. The interior is mostly seed. However, the skin is packed with yuzu oil. As such, the skin is often candied or zested into baked goods.

-I love citrus and I love gin. Thus, I love this cocktail. I also love Blair for teaching me to use fresh produce for cocktails.-

My tiny tree gave me three fruits this year and all of them are fragrant and bursting with flavor, as if someone crammed and entire citrus stand into a single sphere.

I decided to tip my hat to Blair and use one in a cocktail. The bright yuzu pairs well with nearly any liquor, but I went with a floral gin that complimented the citrus. Considering how little juice is in a yuzu I had to muddle the whole fruit so hard my hand cramped but the work was well worth it as the oils were coaxed out to mingle with the gin. A small squeeze of lemon added a bit more sour to complete the drink. The result was a yuzu gin fizz that highlighted the sunny citrus fruit.

If you find a yuzu be sure to treasure it and use it wisely. Same goes for your favorite amateur bartender in your life.

Yuzu Gin Fizz Cocktail
2 ounces Gin
1 yuzu
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon sugar
carbonated water

Cut the yuzu into quartes and place in a shaker with the gin. Using a muddler or a pestle grind and smash up the gin and yuzu together until very well mixed. Add the sugar, lemon juice and some ice and shake vigorously. Pour and strain into a highball glass and top with ice and carbonated water.

Overcoming Trauma: Poached Quince Recipe

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

-Oh, the drama of trauma.-

Before I met BF I wasn't looking to date at all. In fact, I wanted nothing to do with men. Previous experiences had left me burned out. My first long term relationship ended in a fit of exploding meth labs, identity theft, running for my life from a giant sumo-like bouncer armed with a pipe, and a mohawked pornstar trying to ring me into an orgy. Of course, this is just the stuff that I was able to take in stride. The rest is simply unfit to publish on a food blog, or probably any blog for that matter.

To say I was traumatized would be the same as calling RuPaul only slightly eccentric. The idea of trying to let someone into my life was somewhat daunting. For the most part dating turned out to usually be a total waste of time and only left me with colorful stories to regale friends with.

Having been horribly immersed in the dankest cesspools of gay culture by my ex I had, apparently, gotten a bit of a name for myself. Infamy isn't exactly a hard thing to wrack up in a small city with a small community. Yet, at least - or so I was told - I was talked about in good light. Though I was with the sketchiest crowd I was informed that I was considered to be the smart, responsible, trained in first-aid and CPR, good guy of the group. That is assuming you actually wanted to hang out with anyone from the t-drudge. But, then again, why would you?

I chose to remove myself from the social world for a good year before dating in earnest. It gave me a chance to disappear and then reemerge forgotten. That's the great thing about social circles, people cycle in and out so often that there are always new people who have no idea who you are. Those you do know eventually forget everything about you except some vague recollection that you met at that one guy's party. We met before, right? I don't recall everything, but I remember liking you. What's your name again?


Still, I was a bit nervous about trying to romantically engage with someone for the long term again. I pushed myself to continue dating based on a fear of a future where I ended up a photography subject for Daine Arbus after decades of spinsterly, single living. The dating pool, however, sucked. Until I met Collin, that is. Or Jason. Depends on who you talk too. I knew him as Collin.

-No, the picture isn't fuzzy, but the quince sure are.-

I met Collin online. We had had some witty banter and after a few weeks of talking we decided to hook up one fateful night. It was amazing. Fireworks. Epic nights under the covers (and on top of them, and once or twice on the staircase, oh, and once on the kitchen table) that sent vibrations though us both and left us glowing and rattled for days after.

I didn't give much thought to what it was. I simply assumed he was a friend with benefits. If we were both free he would come over and we would have sex, then afterwards we would spend a few hours just talking in bed naked before getting up and going for a bite to eat. Our meals would go for another hour or two and we would make each other genuinely laugh. It was quite wonderful really. It was like having a boyfriend without actually having a boyfriend. No commitment or responsibility on either one of our parts.

A few weeks later I got sick though. Working with children all day I was constantly surrounded by whatever the newest strain was and while I was normally resistant to them one particularly nasty bug took me down hard. Collin called and asked if I was free. I explained that, no, I was not and that I was sick. I apologized and told him to call in a few days.

An hour later there was a knock on the door. Before I could get up I heard it open and then heard Collin calling my name. I was surprised and walked down the stairs to meet him standing there soaked from the rain and carrying a thermos. "Chicken broth. I made it myself," and he smiled.

As I stood there, flush with cold, unshowered for two days, and clothed in little else but old flannel pants and a blanket I smiled back. So that night, as he sat with me in bed while I ate homemade chicken broth, he became my boyfriend.

-Vanilla bean, cinnamon, and star anise flavor these rosy quince. Oh, and a bottle of Riesling.-

Things were good for the four months we dated. I never went to his place. He said he had a roommate and that they both had an agreement not to bring guys home. I found it odd, but simply accepted it. His work, something about creating firewalls for government computer systems, a job that required frequent travel, kept him out of town three or four days out of the week. When he was in town it was just us. Nothing else in the world. He would make me laugh and surprise me with nights on the town. I secretly learned how to cook a few Italian dishes so I could surprise him with his favorite foods. We became that horribly, damn near insufferable lovey-dovey couple you just hate.

I was overjoyed to discover that I could be this happy again and my faith in the male sex was revived.

Then one day at work my personal phone beeped and a text message from an unknown caller popped up. "Cheat!" was all it said. I assumed it a wrong number and deleted it. A moment later another message appeared, "Why?" I looked down and wrote back that my name was Garrett and that they had the wrong number. Almost immediately my phone rang with the same incoming number. I picked it up. "Hello?"

"Why are you trying to destroy my marriage?" said the voice.

"Excuse me?" I replied with total befuddlement. "Look, I think-"

"You're sleeping with Jason. I know it," accused the voice.

"I don't know a Jason." I composed myself and began to explain in a calm voice, "Sorry, but you have the wrong number. I'm dating someone named Collin. I am going to hang up now."

"Collin is Jason's middle name!"

I paused, "What?"

"Jason is my husband and I want to know why you are trying to rip our marriage apart!"

-Quince are in season from mid to late Fall, but you can still find a them in December if you keep an eye out.-

Over the next two hours I learned that Collin's name was actually Jason. The voice belonged to his husband who had become curious of Collin/Jason's overnight work meetings in Reno (translation: sleeping with me) and strange behavior. I learned that Jason had not only lied about his name, but also his job, what pets he had, his mother being dead, his hometown, college, and job. Everything. The person I was dating, Collin, did not exist. Only his true to life doppleganger in disguise, Jason. Through the entire discussion I could feel my entire insides collapse on themselves like a dying star, the light going out, and my body barely able to support itself. I had to sit down.

I explained that I had not known any of this. (The husband even asked if I had never looked him up on Facebook to which I replied that I didn't have one.) As his husband cried and sobbed I did my best to reassure him that I never, ever knew this and that I wish that I had known i would never had even met with Collin, or, I meant Jason. I couldn't figure out which name to use.

After a while, the husband told me he was going to leave Collin. Jason. I promised that I would cut all ties. I hung up the phone and crashed on my bed (I had left work shortly after the revelation in order to deal and freak out in the privacy of my own home). I texted Collin. No answer. Normally he texted back in thirty seconds. For the first time ever the phone was silent. I sent e-mails, phone calls, more texts, all looking for an explanation. Still, no answer.

Frustrated, I finally went online to Facebook and looked up Collin under his real name, Jason. There it was. Jason. There with his picture and real name was his whole life. Husband, honeymoon in France, a golden retriever, job in downtown Sacramento with a mortgage lender, and an adopted child whose paperwork was just being finished. Jason's whole life. Collin was a lie. I cried.

Later that night my phone rang again. It was the husband. "He denies everything you told me." I could hear him choke back the tears and anger.

I was more furious than I had ever been in my life. At that point the only thing that mattered in my life was hurting Jason as much as possible. He had to be destroyed.

"Did he? Look, I know you must be hurting, but your husband is a fucker and an asshole. You need to know just what kind so that when you divorce his ass and you can get everything. What's your e-mail?"

He gave it to me. With it I sent a copy of every text message, sexy photo, and romantic e-mail I could find. I even scanned and sent a copy of a sweet morning post-it note he left for me when he had to get up early one morning. I signed the e-mail, "Have him disprove this. Sorry you have to see this, but he's a liar and you should know. I know you hate me, but please know I did not know you even existed. I am so sorry. If you kill him make sure it hurts. He broke my heart too."

I never heard from the husband or Collin ever again. No apology or I am sorry was ever given. The last thing Collin said to me was, "See you tomorrow," before kissing my forehead and leaving for work.

-Alice Waters approves of quince, but probably not of cheating on your spouse.-

I didn't go out much the next few months. The exception was the doctor's office when I went to get an STD test. We had been safe, but who knows how many other people he had been with? I was embarrassed, angry, and heartbroken that someone who could lie that much could even exist.

"Screw the world," I thought to myself. I was convinced there was no love in it. Cheats, twinks, losers, and druggies was all that out there.

Then, one day, I ran into an old friend I hadn't seen in years. We got together for dinner and had a wonderful time.

It's almost two years later and BF and I are as happy as ever.

Trauma can certainly make you weary to try something out again. Why wouldn't it? We don't want to suffer the shame and horror we faced before. It's common sense.

So it is for me and quince as well. Maybe not as dramatic or nearly as full of heartbreak, but my first quince experience was traumatic all the same.

The first time I picked them up I was so eager to get them home. I decided I would poach them so I could best get an idea of what their core flavor was.

-Not pictured: Worms of the wriggly or human kind.-

I grabbed my knife and crunched in through the mantle of the fruit. It was fibrous and hard, like cutting through a raw butternut squash. Applying a little more preassure the knife slowly made its way through when suddenly it slipped right through the core of the quince with an unappealing squishing sound followed by the tap of the knife hitting the cutting board. I pulled out my knife and saw it was covered in murky-colored juices. Now, I had never worked with quince before but I knew this wasn't right. I opened the two quince halves and gasped in terror. The entire core had been eaten out and turned into a writhing colony of worms. There had to be nearly a hundred of them and I had just cleaved through their tangled mass. Their ichors streaked down the fruit and onto the cutting board as their still wriggling halves angrily flailed for their missing parts.

I never bought a quince again. I was too put off and disgusted. The bad experience left me without any desire to wade into the world of quince. Who needed it?

However, last weekend I ran into a friend, Kira O'Donnel, a smart woman who knows her pies, at the Farmer's Market. She noted that she was planning to buy some quince. I told her my aversion and she insisted that I had simply had one bad experience. She took me to a vendor and pressed some quince into my bag and sent me on my home with instructions to poach them in Riesling and spices.

I decided to get back on my pomme horse I did as she instructed. Perfumed and heady with spice the quince tasted ethereal, like the very idea of fall and winter softened and warmed in a kettle. I had overcome my quince trauma.

Sometimes, after something truly awful happens, you just have to stick it out and try again because what happens as a result can be and taste absolutely amazing.

-Store in the poaching sauce to deepen the floral flavor of the quince. Reduce the sauce into a bitchin' syrup for cocktails or pancakes.-

Poached Quince
4 quince
3 cups Riesling
2 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1/2 vanilla bean, split and seeded
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup sugar
peel and juice of 2 tangerines

1. Place the Riesling, water, vanilla, cinnamon, star anise, honey, sugar, and tangerines in a sauce pot. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.

2. While the pot heats peel, cut and core the quince into eight pieces. Slip each into the poaching liquid. Cover the pot with a round of parchment paper with a walnut-sized hole cut in the center and place it on top.

3. Simmer the quince (do not boil) for at least an hour, until the quince are cooked through and can be pierced with a fork. Serve warm.

-Dear Collin/Jason, seriously, if I ever see you again I will kick you in the balls. Love, Garrett.

The Results of Impulse: Hungarian Heat Hot Chocolate Recipe

Monday, December 6, 2010

-Hot chocolate with smoked paprika, cloves, and white pepper.-

The thing about impulse decisions is that you never really know where they're going to lead you. Sometimes they take you into situations that you never really thought yourself being in. They can be absolutely terrifying and horrid situations where you realize you've gambled everything away on a lark and that, in fact, following that impulse was one of the greatest mistakes of your life. Of course, other times, these decisions can lead to the grandest adventures that fill your days with excitement. On these decisions you realize that you would need infinite notebooks and a never-empty pen in order to chronicle each colorful detail and exquisite memory.

Then there are simply those delightful times where you simply taste something really great and get to share it with friends. This is the one I plan to focus on today.

During a recent blogging conference Casey, Sarah, and I found ourselves all crashing together with our food blog buddy, Stephanie, whom many of you know as Wasabimon. We had all met in Mexico and during a week of sand, surf, and more tequila that is normally proper before 10 AM we had bonded and become quite close friends. This conference was a chance for us all to come back together and have a small reunion

-Melted chocolate doesn't really look that appetizing in a pot, but darn if it still doesn't make you hungry for it.-

It was our first big night together and we wanted to go out and spend it having fabulous food. As we were in Oakland, Stephanie's stomping ground, we relied on her to be our guide. Now, contrary to belief, Oakland really isn't all that bad. Some of the food there is absolutely amazing. Its Farmer's Market is lush and expansive with more protein and produce that you can count or identify. Plus, hot food trucks and stands line the entrances so the intense perfumes of potatoes and chilies from piping hot samosas mingle with the cinnamon-sugar scent of freshly made kettle corn. The restaurants here are ethnic and intense. Many immigrant groups gather in Oakland and they don't pull any punches when it comes to their food. If you want to find cuisines that haven't been Americanized, well, Oakland is a good place to go.

Our original plan was to have lamb burgers and poutine, but sadly the woodworked restaurant we dropped in on had taken them off the menu. Never ones to admit defeat, especially when it came to our dinner, we all piled back into Stephanie's car and looked for something else appetizing. We peeled around a few quarters of the city before seeing out of the corners of our eyes a place called I Squared. It looked sleek and modern, and it was open at 8:30 on a Thursday night, so it was already leading the pack for choices.

"It's fusion Iranian and Italian food," said Stephanie. "I've heard that it's really good."

As none of us had ever experience Iranian food - let alone Iranian-fusion - we all eagerly voted yes for I Squared. A quick, slightly illegal U-Turn and we parked a block up. We piled out and began to meander over to the restaurant. Immediately, suddenly, we were enticed by the muted smell of chocolate under the crisp Bay Area air.

"Oh my God," moaned Stephanie, "I love Bittersweet."

"What's Bittersweet?" I asked.

"It's a local chocolate shop in Oakland. They make the most amazing peanut butter hot chocolate."

"We're stopping in," I said. Before anyone could protest, and regardless if the restaurant might close soon, I opened the door to Bittersweet and went in. Homey and winsome, it smelled of chocolate and baked goods. The curtains were hand made, and the floor was a bit beaten, which only added to the charm. The menu consisted of various pastries, chocolates, and holy-crap-the-special-of-the-day-is-salted-caramel-hot-chocolate!

I'm pretty sure I said that out loud at the time, too.

-...or else!-

As I'm a huge hot chocolate fan I immediately made an impulse decision to buy some and share it with the girls. There were other options such as the peanut butter hot chocolate or hot white chocolate, but hot salted caramel sounded just right on a cold night.

The hot chocolate was warm with the taste of good salt and burnt sugar. The flavors just enrobed your tongue in thick ribbons of chocolate. Truly epic stuff.

We left the store and made our way to I Squared where we had a truly delicious meal. We learned about Iranian food, got a lesson from the chef about preserved black limes, and discovered the most amazing dish called fessenjoon. (However, that is a different post.)

As we waited for our order to come though we continued to pass and sip the hot chocolate. "I don't think this would be hard to make," noted Casey.

"No, it would be easy. Just make a wet caramel, add some fleur de sel or sel gris, and then add it to some bubbling milk and melted chocolate. Done." I took my sip and passed the cup to Sarah.

Sarah put her nose over the cup and inhaled deeply. "Oooh!" she perked up suddenly, "We should all try to make this at home and each make a post about it!"

"That would be great," Stephanie said impulsively.

"I would!" said Casey eagerly.

"It would be boring if we all did the same recipe," I said. Not intending to be too much of a wet blanket I clarified, "I mean we should all do a hot chocolate post, yes. I think, though, that each of us should do a different recipe and only one of us do salted caramel."

-Canadians, Hungarians, Austrians... what is it about cold weather countries that make them love paprika the way they do?-

And, so, we all agreed. It was an impulsive decision for sure. I agreed to post a day early. I'm breaking my routine here, people! This is huge for me. Impulsive and crazy we are here at Vanilla Garlic. This blog likes to spice things up, and because of that we spiced up some hot cocoa.

This recipe comes from Michael Turback's book, Hot Chocolate. It is one of my favorite cookbooks. While I'm normally not a fan of such narrowly focused cookbooks I do love hot chocolate and Turback has done an excellent job of collecting recipes from famous chefs world wide in this one. All types of hot chocolates are here: classic, modern, spiced, boozey, frozen, baked, white, dark, bittersweet; it's all contained in this little book. Turback also did one better by adding plenty of recipes for various cookies, marshmallows, and whipped creams to enhance the hot chocolate experience. It's a fabulous little text that you can buy cheaply and love forever. (I found mine for $6 at Borders. One of the best scores ever.)

This recipe, Hungarian Heat hot chocolate, comes from Joanne Morgridge, a chocolatier from Bowen Island, British Columbia, Canada. It's a bit odd that she didn't call it Canadian Heat as all the spices involved in this recipe are loved by Canadians. (Seriously, the Canadian side of my mom's family loves their paprika and cloves. Still, Hungarian Heat has a pleasant alliteration to it.) If you want to try a hot chocolate recipe that's vigorous with spice and wholly different from any hot chocolate you've had before than this is a recipe for you. Be impulsive and give it a try.

Hungarian Heat Hot Chocolate
adapted from Joanne Morgridge, via Michael Turback from Hot Chocolate

4 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon smoked paprika or Hungarian hot paprika
1/2 teaspoon finely ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
7 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

In a saucepan over medium-low heat combine the milk, paprika, white pepper, and cloves together and heat until almost boiling. Add chocolate and stir in with a wooden spoon and continue to stir until the chocolate is fully melted. Whisk to a froth and serve immediately.

Here are everyone else's hot chocolate recipes. Be sure to check them out.
Gingerbread Hot Chocolate with White Pepper by Sarah Olson, A Beach Home Companion
Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate by Casey Barber, Good. Food. Stories.
Peanut Butter Curry Hot Chocolate by Stephanie Stiavetti, Wasabimon
Hot Chocolate Primer, over at Simply Recipes

-Also, photographing hot chocolate is a total bitch. Try it sometime!-

Once More Unto the Breach: Parmesan Herb Muffins

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

-"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead" (King Henry V, Act 1, Sc. 3, 1-2). It's actually a pretty appropriate quote if you're one of the seasonal workers that Best Buy hired this year.-

"So here's the plan: Be sure to get to bed early tonight because we'll begin operations at 0300. Arrive at destination at 0400. Our chart has already been mapped out and the target items identified. This will be an in and out operation. No side tracking. No extra stops. We want to make this as fast and painless as possible, got that?"

"Right," replied Janelle. "I'll put some muffins in my purse now so we'll have something to eat."

"Excellent. All right, see you in the morning," I replied.

I hung up the phone. Operation: Black Friday was go. For the most part I avoided this unofficial holiday; a holiday when humanity abandoned all concepts of fair play, cordiality, and pleasantness and became worshippers to the cult of consumerism (at a new, unheard of low price!).

I usually started my Christmas shopping somewhere in September, but that doesn't mean I wasn't picking things up all year round. If I saw something in a store that just seemed absolutely perfect for someone I would just get it then and there. Once home I would hide it in my closet and stick a little label on it in case I forgot who it was for. By December 1st, my shopping was usually complete.

However, only days ago, I had read in a newspaper ad that black pashmina scarves were going to be on sale in one of the department stores at the mall. It was something I knew my mom had been wanting for a few years now but had never seemed to find one that was high quality and affordable. The scarves advertised were Hermes. Black Friday sale price: $100. Completely and totally unheard of. It seemed that I would have to brave Black Friday.

-Lucky for you, you can get these things at great deals even when it isn't Black Friday.-

I had heard the tales of Black Friday. The insanity and carnage. People abandoning all appearance of civility in order to get what they wanted. If these people were crazy enough to camp in front of a Best Buy all night, then it was doubtful they would have any compunctions about shiving you in the kidney for the last flat-screen television at %75 off the sticker price. People got trampled to death at Black Friday. Think about that. People died in the pursuit of Christmas shopping. That's messed up.

I knew that to brave the war zone alone would be foolish, so I called my best friend Janelle and asked for her to assist me. Fortunately for me the GameStop was having a sale on a new video game and the company that made it had expressed last week that their production wasn't going to meet demand that holiday season. She knew that there would have to be blood over this and she was damn sure it wouldn't be hers. She was in.

It was 40 degrees outside and still dark when we arrived at the mall at exactly four in the morning. Surprisingly, the lot wasn't as filled as we had expected it to be. Given, it was 1997, and the Black Friday mania hadn't quite taken the hold it has today. In fact, this was the first year that the mall had advertised that many of its stores would be opening this early. Regardless, Janelle and I steeled ourselves for the fight.

The plan was simple: get inside to the first floor of Nordstrom and split up to look for the scarves. Once one of us found them we would grab one and call the other via cell phone. The other would meet up with the finder so we could affirm that the target had been acquired. Afterwards, we would eat our muffins as we moved through the throngs of people to get to GameStop for the video game. Once all missions were accomplished, hopefully by 0500, we would leisurely go for Breakfast at Denny's for a plate of Moons Over My Hammy.

We arrived a minute or two after the doors had open. Again, this wasn't the Black Friday craze we're used to seeing on the news where people are literally trampled to death. However, the crowds were thick and moving through them was tedious, it reminded me of leaving a sports stadium or concert theater after a huge event. You can't really move on your own but, rather, you pulsate and meander in a specific direction as one part of the crowd. You're no longer an organism of your own, but a cell of a bigger one.

-Another option: Allow the muffins to go stale and then use them to strike other shoppers in the head to gain a competitive edge.-

Janelle went off one way and I another. I did my best to cut my way out of the crowded department store pathways and weave through the racks where there were fewer people. Before I could go far I could hear Janelle calling me. She had found the scarves far faster than I had expected either of us to do so. I found my way towards her, dodging old ladies and irritant tweens, and past a pile of Calvin Klein denim to a stack of black Hermes scarves.

"Sweet! That was easier than I anticipated!" I picked one up and looked at my prize.

Suddenly another hand grabbed at it, "I need that!" I looked up and saw a prim woman in a knit hat, shawl, and obviously pricey winter wear that I assumed she picked up not from any high-end department store but from the shops of the actual designers. Her face was a little worn and was done up as well as anyone can put on makeup to cover the fact that they woke up at three in the morning.

"Excuse me?" I said.

"He was already holding it," huffed Janelle in my defense.

"I saw it first. It's mine," the woman demanded.

"Okay, lady, no. I already had it in my hand. Also, if you look down for a moment you'll see there are still plenty left on the table," I replied. I did my best to give her my I-will-punch-you-in-the-throat stare, but at eighteen I still hadn't perfected it yet. Still, she backed off and looked down at the table where a messy pile of black cloth was quickly reducing under a tangle of fast hands.

She turned, grabbed one, and left without apologizing. She had been caught up in the Black Friday zeal and was now under the sway of greed and consumerism. I was always under the impression that it would take war or a zombie apocalypse for people to start acting like crazed lunatics. Turns out that Christmas shopping can do it too.

Wasn't this supposed to be a season of good will and cheer?

-Cheese and herbs are a good way to arm yourself against in the merchandise fueled holiday armageddon.-

I made my purchase. Janelle and I whisked ourselves off to the game store where we nabbed the last copy of the game. (This, incidentally, caused the teenager behind us to actually throw a fit at the department store clerk who had helped us.) As we made our way out of the store Janelle whipped out the muffins from her purse. They possessed the dull, one-dimensional, cold taste of muffins bought from a big box store. Still, they were fuel. We looked into each store as we passed by and watched as people frantically grabbed and clawed at, well, everything. We even witnessed a verbal fight break out as we passed a shoe store.

We laughed and pointed, and made snide comments. We critiqued how the world had fallen into such disarray in the way that teenagers who think they know better than everyone else in world often do. Of course, we realized we weren't much better. We had gotten here earlier than most of the people in the mall. What did that say?

These days I do most of my shopping the same as before. I purchase items throughout the year that I think would be perfect for others. I make jams and jellies as gifts. I'm probably Amazon's best customer. I refuse to go into the mall come between late-November and all of December. It's insane to do otherwise. I'd rather point and click at home.

The muffins I make for these arduous online shopping runs are much better as well. Nothing mass produced or uninspired. They're simply tasty morning muffins. Filled with herbs and grated Parmesan they're bright and nutty. The cheese melts on the top and forms a delightfully, slightly crunchy crust. Smeared with butter these perky muffins are an appropriate shopping food be you braving the stores or shopping from the couch.

This year, as I watched the news reports of more injuries people incurred from rushing stores as they opened the doors, I ate my muffins in peace. I looked down at my computer screen and clicked "Proceed with my purchase."

"Well, that's done." I muttered to myself, ripping off another piece of basil scented bread and popping it into my mouth. "I should really send Janelle this recipe..."

Parmesan Herb Muffins
I've used both dried and fresh herbs for this recipe. If you use fresh then use maybe 1/2 teaspoon more of the herbs.
Makes 12

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon thyme, chopped
1 teaspoon rosemary, chopped
1 teaspoon basil, chopped
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1-1/4 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup canola oil

1. Preheat the oven to 400F. Line a muffin tray with paper cups.

2. Whisk together the flour, Parmesan, sugar, thyme, rosemary, basil, salt, baking soda, and baking powder. In another bowl whisk together the buttermilk, oil, and egg. Pour the liquid mixture into the dry mixture. Mix together until gloppy and all ingredients have just come together.

3. Spoon into baking cups and bake for 20-22 minutes. Cool in pan on a wire rack for a minute or two. Serve immediately.

-"It's dangerous to go alone! Take this," (The Legend of Zelda). Also an appropriate quote.-

That Christmas Cheer in Late-November: Chipotle Gingerbread Cookie Recipe

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

-Classic gingerbread cookies with a delightful, Mexican-inspired kick of chipotle chilies.-

I went out and bought a Christmas tree today. Not a live one, but a good quality fake one. To be honest, I prefer it that way at the moment.

I grew up going to the tree lot every winter with my family and getting a real one. We would go the day after Thanksgiving while everyone else was at the mall fighting to the death over Tickle-Me Elmos and half-price cashmere pashminas. My brother and I would race down the tight coniferous alleyways, slapping into branches and inspecting every Douglas and Blue Spruce in order to find the fattest, tallest, and fullest tree we could. Eventually, we would find it and call over our parents to come see and approve. Then the tree would be hogtied and strapped to the roof of our car. Dad would set it up inside and we would all begin the lavish decoration.

However, these days my dad isn't here to do the heavy lifting. He also isn't crawling under the tree to water it every morning. My mom isn't vacuuming up the fallen needles or cleaning up the bits of tinsel the cat has thrown up. Honestly, I don't have the energy for any of that. It's a pain in the ass.

Personally, I love a good fake tree that can be stored in the closet during the year and be propped out during the holidays. These days you'll find that a high quality fake tree is nearly indistinguishable from a real one. It's almost shocking. My mother went and got a fancy one that, swear to God, unless you touch it with your fingers you would never know it didn't grow in the ground from humble little seed. Given, I do miss coming into a room on a cold morning and having it smell like winter in the high Sierras, but it's a sacrafice I am willing to make.

-The smell of these cookies is just as good as the scent of fresh pine.-

And, yes, I am aware it's November and that it isn't even Thanksgiving yet. I grew up putting the Christmas decorations early so it seems natural to me. I'm like WalMart, I begin to think of stringing up lights and mistletoe before the Trick-or-Treaters have even knocked on the door. BF hates it, but that's his business. At least, there aren't fuzzy, Santa-faced toilet seat covers in the bathroom. Not like when I was a kid. It was like Chris Kringle hosted a Yuletide orgy at our house. Candles, bells, crystal angels, throw pillows... we went all Christmas'd out. I loved it.

Now that all the kids are out of the house both mom and dad do it a bit more tasteful now. Christmas chic. Martha would be proud of Mom's giant tree covered in white lights and designer ornaments and ribbon in gold, cream, and mauve in its many tasteful shades that I didn't know mauve had.

Of course, the reason I had to buy a tree at all this year was because of the fire. It's the only thing I hadn't replaced yet. The fire had happened two days after Christmas so the tree had still been up. It was also a fake one, a high-quality one, with the ornaments and garland in a trendy color scheme of key lime, navy blue, and teal, which I was ecstatic over for the fact that it matched my living room. When I wandered into the wreckage the next day I found my tree smashed onto the floor. Bent and broken, then firemen had knocked it over and in order to get upstairs had continued marching over it. I don't blame them as they were just doing their job, and a plastic tree isn't something they're going to concern themselves with when the roof is on fire. Anyways, everything was destroyed that night and the tree was just another casualty.

As I stood there in the husk of my old home, the carpet black and wet from ash and melted water pipes, I carefully bent down through the wrecage and moved some of the collapsed ceiling off of the tree. I found that a few of the ornaments were still intact. Somehow, miraculously, these big delicate objects had survived the carnage. I picked up one of the big teal glass balls and blew some of the debris and dust off. A little rub and it was shiny as ever, and I could see my fisheyed reflection looking back at me.

-If you want, you can also poke a tiny hole into each cookie and hang them from your tree as ornaments.-

I hurled the ball as hard as I could against the nearest wall. The explosive pop was exciting. The shards tinkled in the air, like diamond dust, and fell to the ground with a hushed applause. I picked up another and hurled it too. And the next one. I laughed as each one burst like a miniature fireworks. My own little bombastic display. It was fun, and I laughed with each one.

It was cathartic. I guess. I'm still not sure what I was thinking then. I know that part of it was enjoying the simple act of wanton destruction. In that roofless room it didn't really matter what I did. I could be a small engine of pure ruination. I reveled in the sound of each delicate sphere crushing into a cloud of colored dust and cheap glass. It felt great to be so damn careless.

How often do we really get to experience something like that? Probably not often enough.

Normally, I wait until after Thanksgiving to put up a tree. This year, I did it earlier. The tree was the last part of putting my life together as it once was. Maybe, I'm just poorly psychoanalyzing myself but that's how it feels. This year, I just needed the tree up and I needed it now.

-Quite spicy, these are best served with a tall glass of milk.-

Still, part of Christmas for me isn't just the tree in your home or the people you enjoy it with. It's also the food. Not every year, but some, my family would make gingerbread cookies. One or two would get decorated and I would pierce the top of the cookie with a ornament hook and hang the cookies on the tree. Edible decorations that added the scent of spiced bread to the room. I loved those ornaments, but I loved the cookies that we saved to eat even more. (We also lost a freshly made plate of cookies in the fire. Ugh.)

These cookies are an adult version of the classic gingerbread cookie. Something a bit more daring and adventurous. A cookie for those with a trendy tree who want to take a small step outside of the traditional holiday treats. This gingerbread cookie is spiced with a hint of chipotle chili powder, a small suggestion I picked up from renowned rock-n-roll baker, Elizabeth Falkner. The chipotle adds another layer of heat and a slight smokiness that enlivens the gingerbread and warms the palate.

The base recipe comes from Kate Washington, a local food writing celebrity here in Sacramento. She, in turn, got it from a random woman named Mrs. Morrissey, whom she met in line in a grocery store. Encouraged that this was the best recipe ever, Mrs. Morrissey gave Kate her address and told her to stop by her home and pick it up. Kate did, and she has never used anything since. I can see why too, it's a flavorful cookie with a snappy texture. A perfect cookie for lighting up the holidays (you know, in a good way).

Chipotle Gingerbread Cookies
Makes 4-6 dozen, depending on size of the cookies.

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup molasses
1 egg, beaten to blend
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. In a stand mixer cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in molasses and egg, being sure to scrape down the sides and bottom, until light and uniform.

2. Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and spices. Mix in the dry ingredients to the butter mixture until the entire thing comes together in one uniform batter.

3. Divide the dough into two equal parts and put them on a swath of plastic wrap. Roughly form each piece into a disc. Wrap well in plastic wrap and chill for three or more hours. The dough will still be somewhat soft for a chilled dough.

4. Preheat oven to 325F. Generously flour a flat work surface and the dough and roll out the dough to 1/4-inch thick; cut into shapes and place on a cookie sheet, preferably lined with parchment paper. Bake for 12-15 min; do not let brown. Cool on the sheets for a minute or two before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

-A little fiery kick to help one finally recover from a fire.-

Good Dates and Bad Dates: Date-Nut Bread Recipe

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

-A good cure for a bad date. Though giving the date a swift kick to the shin is equally good.-

There had been a few warning signs, sure, and normally I would have ended the date by now. However, when your friends chastise you for being too damn picky you have to try your best to be a bit more tolerant. Then again, when you first meet someone its hard to tell what parts of a person are simply quirks and what might be the characteristics of a wacked-out, Xenu worshiping, has a skin suit sewed from his victims psychopath.

I had only ended a four year relationship about ten months before and had recently decided that it was time to put myself out there and see who the world had to offer. Of course, it had taken a while to get to a point where dating felt right again. Well, as right as dating ever can feel. I had learned a few months earlier that I wasn't ready when I had gone out to meet a friend for lunch and catching up. It was a semi-date of sorts. We had been friends for seven years and always had a mutual attraction towards each other. Considering that we were both now single we decided to give it a shot. The semi-date ended when in the middle of getting to second base on my couch I broke out into a bout of uncontrollable sobbing. Hardly a turn on, but definetly a sign that at the time I wasn't ready to move on.

A few months later, sobbing and emotions now in complete control, I was ready to broach the dating scene. I was all spiffy and raring to meet the men this time. I was slick in some new clothes, had begun to style my hair a bit differently, and began to embrace some aspects of my old social life that had been yearning to breathe in my claustrophobic relationship the past few years. I was ready to conquer the world, or so I said in my online dating profile.

Of course, I learned quickly that most online meet-up sites simply aren't gay relationship oriented. In fact, probably about 99% of them are geared towards finding a guy in the closest proximity who is looking to get off. I found that using these sites weren't conducive to finding someone who likes long walks and isn't tied down, as much they were to finding guys who like long shlongs and being tied down with rope. Not that that wasn't useful some nights.

-Deglet Noor dates have a delicious root beer flavor and are perfect for baking. Brown sugar-y Medjool dates are more widely available though.-

Still, the dating scene wasn't exactly filled with hopeful prospects, like cracking open eggs and finding each and every one rotten inside to the point where you dread the foul possibilities contained in the next. Sure, there would be the occassional date where there was simply no connection. A fine situation I simply accepted, though I was fortunate enough that a few of those people are now good friends.

Then there would be the ones where after a few dates I realized it wasn't going to work. I admit I was an ass in those situations as my usual tactic was simply to completely cut off all lines of communication. This meant never returning calls, e-mails, or text messages. The person simply stopped existing to me.

It was only after a guy I was interested in did the same to me that I realized how much it hurt. Not like a sharp sting when someone simply ends it or turns you down at a bar, but a dull pain like a day-old bruise, purple and mottled. I vowed from then on to always end things in person.

Every so often there would be a truly bad date. At a food conference in Napa my friend Ashley had planned to set me up with a friend of hers at an exclusive after party. It would be my first blind date and while I was eager and nervous, and though all my gut instincts told me to tell her no, I went along with it. After all, shouldn't everyone experience the social phenomenon of the blind date at least once in their life?

The answer is no. No, everyone shouldn't. The guy was nice enough but after three minutes we realized that we had absolutely nothing in common and nothing to speak about, nor were we physically attracted to one another. As it was, we both spent the next three hours doing our best to socialize at the complete opposite corners of the very tiny room.

Of course, there were other bad dates. Many bad dates. So many that at one point I had decided to never go out again. I would raise my standards so high that they would put Japanese high school entrance exams to shame. This was both good and bad. It was good in that the number of bad dates I went on reduced dramatically. However, it was bad in the fact that I now became almost impossible to please.

My friends pointed out that I was being a bit impractical. It was unfair to not call a guy back because he had a bad haircut. Possibly, it could have been cruel to dump someone over the fact that they didn't know what the capital of South Korea was, a factor I interpreted as not being geopolitically aware. Maybe it was mean to end a date early with a lie that my dad was in the hospital because my date insisted that the Spice Girls were overrated during the nineties. (I'm still not willing to bend on that one. A boy has his standards.)

-Perfect in the morning with some English Breakfast tea.-

To quell the insistent lecturing of my friends I decided to be a bit more lax. I would lower the bar a bit and maybe pass some people that I might otherwise reject. Plus, I realized I really was being a bit too finicky and cooking for one was beginning to get a bit tiresome as leftovers truly do lose their charm after you start eating the same curry for the fifth day in a row.

His name was James, the date in question that started this post. We had met through a mutual acquaintance at a party and after some time chatting he asked me out. James was an event planner and he wrote the astrological forecasts for the local paper. To me both of these were red flags. At the time I considered event planner as simply a job that one developed after graduating college in Communications. (A wedding planner friend of mine has proven me quite wrong in this regard.) As for his firm belief in astrology, well, I have trouble believing that giant balls of gas billions of light years away that sort of make a shape if you squint and use your imagination have any feasible bearing on the condition of your life, and that basing your decisions on them is silly at the least and irresponsible at best.

Putting my first impressions aside however, I decided to go out on the date. James seemed nice enough and he was handsome in an outgrown hipster sort of way with his over-bleached hair and jeans so skinny they looked like they were his natural skin.

He arrived to pick me up from my apartment and surprised me with a few gifts. A bundle of incense sticks and a hexagonal mirror covered in Chinese symbols. Again, red flags to me, as anything that remotely resembles what my dad would call "out there ideas" like healing crystals or UFO trackers seemed a bit too crazy hippie to me. However, I realized that both were just kind gestures. These were a personal and new age bouquet of flowers. I was touched, if not a bit confused, and thanked him for the gifts. I put the mirror, apparently one specially designed in a feng shui manner, above the door in order to block negative chi. I secretly gave the incense to my roommate as incense smoke often made me sneeze uncontrollably.

-Thankfully, I no longer have to date anymore. Nowadays, I just have to try and get BF to stop playing video games long enough to help me clean the apartment.-

As we were about to leave he asked to excuse himself for a moment. Wondering if I had done something to scare him off he insisted that he just had to have a quick smoke and I told him he could use the patio outside. He thanked me, went outside, and, rather than open a pack of cigarettes, he proceeded to whip out a pipe and a bag of hash and quickly huffed down a bit of Hawaiian Skunk. A strain, he told me later, that could run $120 an ounce.

This would normally have ended the date right then and there. Honestly, I don't care if a person smokes tobacco or marijuana. However, I consider smoking a bowl right in front of your date to be just plain rude. I doubt such a situation is covered in any guide on etiquette, but I was sure that Emily Post wouldn't have approved his actions.

We went out to dinner, a nice place for Moroccan food in downtown Sacramento that I had always wanted to go to. As we talked we began to chat about our jobs and hobbies and all the stuff you go on about when you first get to know someone. All seemed to be going well and I had put the minor reefing incident aside and decided that maybe this wouldn't be so bad.

That was until he excused himself again. "Bathroom?" I asked.

"Just going to smoke another bowl real quick in my car," he replied.

"Oh! Uh, okay."

What else could I say? So I waited by myself at the table. I sat down and began to nibble furiously at the plate of dates that we had ordered. It was, I think, the first time I had ever really eaten them, as an adult. My dad chopped them up into oatmeal when we were kids but I never really focused on their flavor before. I marveled at the silliness of eating dates on a date, but was more intrigued with their butterscotch aroma and root-beer flavor. These particular dates had been filled with cheese and wrapped in bacon, then quickly grilled so that their sugar caramelized to compliment all the salt. I doubted if this was authentic Berber cuisine, but I was happy none the less and the dates took my mind off my date's absence.

He came back, a little more pungent than before and we continued eating and talking. Twenty minutes later he excused himself again. Just for a quick joint he told me.

-I had another bad date once where the guy's boyfriend called him in the middle of our dinner. I just got up and left after that.-

All and all he ditched me eight times to go smoke out in his car. This wasn't simply someone who smoked every now and again; this was full-on, hardcore addiction. Most smokers can go an entire meal without having to break for a cigarette. This guy was huffing down pot like there was a pot of gold at the end of each roach.

When I asked him about it he got defensive. I let it go and tolerated the rest of the awkward meal. Once the check was paid I requested that he take me home and that I drive since I simply didn't feel safe with him behind the wheel. After a small argument that ended with him walking into a glass door, he handed me his keys and I drove his ancient Ford Pinto back to my place. At home I thanked James for a lovely dinner but explained that I didn't think this would work out. He called me stuck up and left. I assume to buy more pot.

My roommate creeped out from his room after hearing the commotion and asked how the night went. "Not a total loss," I replied. "That date may have sucked, but I found plenty more that I can't wait to have again."

The following morning I went to the store and picked up some dates and began to cook and bake with them with vigor. They seemed to cure my dating woes and spice up my meals, giving them a richness I never knew they lacked before. Chicken cooked with lemon and dates, date and buttermilk pie, and good old fashioned date-nut bread. A simple comfort that helped adjust me to what seemed might be a longer single life than I had imagined, and that was okay.

However, it seemed the mirror was helping out a bit, too, as the number of bad dates I had dropped dramatically. I guess there is something to reflecting all that bad chi. Well, and the bad dates.

Date-Nut Bread
This recipe is from the ever effervescent Dorie Greenspan, who is as sweet as the dates used in this bread. I have yet to find a better recipe for date-nut bread. This came from her epic tome, Baking: From My Home to Yours.

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
3 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup (packed) brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup dates, chopped
1 cup walnuts, chopped

1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 325F. Grease and flour a 9X5 loaf pan and place the pan on an insulated baking sheet.

2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

3. Beat together the butter and cream cheese for 2 minutes on medium-high until light and fluffy. Add the sugar and beat for another 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for a minute each. Add the extracts and beat another 30 seconds. The mixture will look curdled but don't fret. Reduce mixer speed to low and add the flour mixture. Mix together until just combined. Fold in the dates and nuts and turn into the pan.

4. Bake for 40 minutes. Then cover the top loosely with a foil sheet and bake for another 40 minutes, until the top is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before taking the loaf out of the pan and cooling completely. Best the next day once the flavors have melded.

The Company You Keep: Kiwi-Lemon Jam Recipe

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

-A simple Saturday breakfast without a side of crime.-

We’re judged by the company we keep. Some may argue that it’s unfair that we be ancillary critiqued based on the actions and words of those we associate with. However, it stands to reason that if we willingly befriend people who can hardly be considered upstanding, then we too must be. Why else would we be friends with people unless we we approved of their actions or behavior? We pick our friends because they possess traits we enjoy and admire. Judging someone by the company they keep, then, is completely practical.

Shortly after turning eighteen and graduating high school I found myself at UC Davis for freshmen orientation week. It was a chance to familiarize myself with the campus and its resources, take placement exams, and learn how to pick classes using the incredibly complicated class guide. More importantly, it was a chance to socialize and make friends. Most everyone was coming from all corners of California, others from various other reaches of the U.S., and a few from overseas. People from practically every race, gender, religion, sexuality, ability and so on were present causing some people to engage with individuals of certain communities whom they had never interacted with before. It was week of social mixing and everyone was a little awkward.

-Kiwis are best when their skins are wrinkled and the fruit is dark green. November is the season for them so hit up the Farmer's Markets. I got 3lbs. for $3.-

Of course, the first person I bonded with was my assigned roommate for the week in the dorms. I can’t recall his name but I recall my interactions with him and the people he quickly associated with and, thus, I associated with. They all seemed normal enough. We spent the first night at the dining commons talking about our potential majors and backgrounds. Who had a girlfriend, if we thought we placed well in the chemistry placement exam, and if there was a decent coffee house nearby were all fair topics. Nothing anyone would red flag.

The group seemed normal enough, though we seemed to have established ourselves as the popular kids (I understand now that no such thing exists on a college campus) and as expected began to act in condescending manner towards the other students. Nothing extreme or too offensive, more along the lines of picking out who was wierd and making a point to convince every other freshmen how that person should be shunned else their new collegiate reputation be tarnished.

Having been one of the super-weird people in high school who had been on the receiving end of this sort of treatment - I played the flute in marching band and founded the anime club - this should have been the first warning. Still, I was in a new environment and, gosh darn it, I wanted to find some friends and fit in. If some poor shmuck with a bad haircut who climbed trees in the middle of our campus tour had to suffer our roundtable mocking, so be it.

-Buttered bread is equally tasty. Either way, though, you'll end up snarfing it down like a starving wolf.-

Later that night we ventured into downtown not looking for anything in particular. We eventually meandered into a convenience store for what I assumed was something to drink. It was dark out and I had no idea where in the town I was so more than anything I was just trying to get my bearings.

I have an intense need to know exactly where I am at all times in foreign places, and not having a map I was more concerned with landmarks, star positions, and street names than whatever the others were doing. While downtown Davis is set up as a grid, if you aren't familiar with the town every block looks exactly the same. Compound that on top of the fact the campus itself was a strange maze of mismatched and awkwardly placed buildings and that it was dark out I realized I was totally lost. I certainly wasn’t paying attention to what anyone was buying or, in this case, not buying.

The group moved out back to the street and we meandered over to what seemed to be a park.

“Walk faster,” said my roommate in hushed panic. I just looked at him curiously.

“Why? We don’t have to be back for a while.” I looked up ahead to the rest of the group and called out, “Hey, does anyone know where the hell we are?”

“Dude, shut up!” hissed the guy with the punk-look ahead of us, pink hair in spikes and boots that looked like the belonged to The Starchild. I couldn’t recall his name, and had begun to address him as Punky.

This was the point when I knew something was up. It was the same feeling you get when you find a letter in the mail that can only be bad news, or that split second after you hear your car make a sound that you unequivocally know will cost you $300 to fix.

“Dude, hurry up!” said my roommate. He, Punky, a blonde girl, and the German guy we met a lunch began picking up speed.

Suddenly, a few blocks away, we saw a police car turning the corner.

“RUN!” someone called.

So, I ran. The reaction was automatic. If someone suddenly yells “Heads up!”, you look up and brace for falling objects. If you see people crowding around on the street, you’re likely to investigate in order to see what's going on. Humans are creatures that are good at following the pack and taking directions in a primal sense, especially when our brains tell us it’s for self-preservation. So, I ran. I took off like scared teenager in a horror film, which wasn’t too far from the truth.

-This should be the first lesson in orientation.-

We were in the park by now and there was zero lighting nearby thanks to the City of Davis’ aggressive light pollution policy. (You can see the stars, just not the serial rapist hiding in the bushes ahead.) Following the lead of the people in front of me I leaped over a stone wall and took cover, flattening myself against the ground. The others were doing the same, all of us still as statues and no one breathing a word for fear that the slightest whisper would sound like a siren. A few minutes later we heard the car drive up, pass us, and slowly drive away. We hadn’t been seen. Even more, I realized that they weren’t even looking for us.

“What the hell?! Why were we running?! Why am I dashing two city blocks and hiding in shadowy corners from the cops?!” I yelled.

“Dude, we stole some beer and Jack from the store,” said Punky. My roommate looked at me and smiled. He grabbed the bottle of Jack and offered it to me. I looked at it in my hand and stared down at the Captain, a knowing look in his eye as if to say, "See, yer' a pirate. Just like me. Arr."

"You stole liquor? On our first night in college? Wait. No. College orientation?" I stared at them all. I was shocked and horrified that people really could be this stupid. "Just how much crack did you smoke before we went out tonight?"

"Dude," said my roommate, "it's fine. It's just a bottle."

"And beer!" I screamed louder than I had probably intended.

"It's just a small adventure. Nothing to freak about," said the blonde.

"You made me run from the cops! I've never run from the cops! I like cops!" I looked back down at the Captain. Without any thought I unscrewed the cap and put the bottle to my lips and began to drink.

And, then, continued to drink. And drink. And drink. This was my first drink ever, in fact. Conicidentally, it was also the first time I felt I ever really needed a drink.

"Whoa! Don't take it all," cried the roommate.

I ignored him and continued. I could feel the peppery liquid sear down my throat and burn my stomach. Pain as punishment.

Finally, more for the desire of air than rather to stop, I put down the bottle and gasped. My body began to violently cough and my back arched over as it reacted to the burn. My lungs attempted to suck in air as quickly as possible. I put my arm out in a gesture for someone to take the bottle away. The blonde grabbed it and whined about a third of the bottle being gone or something. At that point I didn't care. I got up and meandered in what seemed to be a familiar direction. I just hoped that my young, healthy liver could process this and that I could find my way back to the dorm.

-Combined they equal pure awesome.-

The next day, my side sore and my head pounding, I befriended the strange tree climbing lad. We hit it off fabulously. By the end of orientation week he and I had made arrangements to become roommates in the dorms once the school year started. We celebrated our arrangement with other new friends who weren’t thieving bastards with a simple picnic in the quad of fruit, cheese, and bread picked up at the Farmer’s Market.

It was during that picnic that I learned the importance of association when it comes to food as well. My new friend, Sarah, showed me how to pair fruit with cheese, particularly slices of fresh seed-studded kiwi on chunks of bread smeared with chèvre. Food, too, can be judged by its pairings, friendly flavors that highlight and encourage its most endearing and exciting qualities.

At that picnic I found foods I was happy to mix together, but even better I found people who supported me . These friends were company I was happy to be judged by.

This kiwi-lemon jam is just as easy to judge through association. It also reminds me of some of the lessons I learned in that first week of college. A wild, somewhat precocious accountrment on a cheese plate this jam is sure to garner attention while simultaneously fawning over anything else your serve. Tangy chèvres and triple cream, ultra-buttery cheeses like Délice de Bourgogne or Red Hawk mingle best with it. It's particular perkiness lends it self well to waffles, yogurt, and ice cream as well.

Of course, this jam shouldn’t be judged by association alone, but on its own merits as well. Bright and sunny, it’s not the kind of jam you expect Fall bounty to produce. The kiwis’ tropical, almost strawberry-ish flavor is best if you can find them at peak ripeness when the skins are wrinkled and the flesh is dark emerald green, which means the fruit will be sweet and aromatic. Ripe, soft kiwis are a whole different flavor than hard, pale green ones that offer too much tang and too little flavor. The strong suggestion of lemon offers a slightly sour compliment to the beryl fruit.

Kiwi Lemon Jam
Adapted from The Art of Preserving
Makes 2 1/2 pints

1 Meyer lemon
3 cups sugar
3 lbs. ripe kiwi fruits

1. Cut off the ends of the lemon. Quarter the lemon lengthwise and remove the seeds. Place the lemon and 2 cups of the sugar in a food processor and process until well pureed Transfer to a nonreactive bowl and let stand at room temperature for four hours or overnight.

2. Peel the kiwis and slice them into thick rounds, about 4-5 per kiwi. Gently toss with the remaining cup of sugar. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 3-4 hours.

3. Transfer the lemon mixture to a large nonreactive saucepan and place over medium-high heat, stirring frequently until the sugar is dissolved and the lemon is translucent. Add the kiwi fruit mixture to the pan, reduce the heat to medium, and cook uncovered, stirring frequently, until the jam is thick. About 15 minutes. (This will be a loose jam. Overcooking it until it become very thick will scorch the kiwi fruit.)

4. Ladle into sterilized jars and process. Processed and canned it will keep for a year in a dark, cool place. Otherwise, place in the fridge and use within two months.

-Easy and affordable, this is a good starter jam for you canning newbies.-

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