Saturday, January 30, 2010

Cheese Profile: Devil's Gulch

-Aroma that's sweet, pungent, and Brie-like. Plus it's totally super-purty.-

Pungent and earty, it affronts the nose and let’s you know that when it comes to cheese you’re in No Man's Land now.

However, the temerity of this cheese belies its soft demeanor, a tough front outside protecting a more sensitive personality. What appears to be the rough cheese, vicious and biting, is truly a sheep in wolf's clothing.

Such is Cowgirl Creamery's new cheese, Devil's Gulch. It's definitely a twisted cheese, one that's vibrant in its newness but relies on the producer's classic methods - those seen in their Pierce Pt. and St. Pat - to deliver a delightful new artisan product. The milk comes from Jersey cows and the end cheese is crusted in roasted spicy pepper flakes which mellow them out. The result it a potent and appealing bloomy rind.

-Pairs well with bread, and with apples or pears. Wine wise we enjoyed Pinot Grigio which balanced the spice.-

The inside of the cheese had two strata: its mantle is soft and squishy surrounding a thick core one might consider to be clotted cream’s crazy aunt with too much make-up and who always takes another slice of cake.

Crisp, sharp apples like Gala or even Granny Smith might be called for in order to ensure you don’t suddenly cream-keel over. Indeed, minutes after my first tasting I was buried in the fridge taking a big swig of pomegranate juice to temper the taste of the cheese. Not only will fruit help balance the cheese, but the pairing will let the flavors of the milk really reveal themselves.

Rich or not, a few hours later I went back for more. That feel good cheese seemed to beckon me for another taste. I took a small wedge, crumpled from the pressure of the knife against the giving softness, and placed in on a wide slice of pear, and let the rind tingle my lips.

-Triple creamy goodness. I suggest eating only a small portion at a time.-

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dining Out Alone?

Pulling from the archive because between painting, putting furniture together, and so on I haven't had a big chance to post much. Still, I find this topic always brings up some interesting ideas and self reflection in people. ~Garrett

For some reason people have this intense aversion to dining alone. We feel that we stand out as some kind of social pariah, freak, or curious pervert of sorts. We think we are being judged when 10-1 most people don't give us a second thought, or even notice us.

There is apprehension from waiters about if they will utter the phrase "Is the rest of your party coming?" to which we must reply, "No," and hope that the smile they return to us doesn't belie a commiseration for our single dining selves. Or, even worse, pity.

Why is that? Why are we so terrified to dine alone?

Let me clarify that by dining alone, I mean alone with just your thoughts and eyes and inner dialogue. No bringing a book or work as armor, feigning that you're far too busy to be bothered by people. Indeed, the power-intellectual lunch for one is revered, but without these guards we fear being judged by complete strangers.

An interesting thought: How often do you go for a walk alone, rent a movie for a night by yourself, relax with a book in the library, or enjoy a cup of coffee with no one else? How, especially when in a public setting, is this so different?

Probably because we are raised to think of food as a communal thing. Eating lunch with co-workers is the modern potlatch.

Food can be communal, but it doesn't have to be. And does one really need company to treat themselves to a nice meal on the town with no one else?

Not to say I'm immune. I too feel this strange apprehension pull me back from dining alone. It at times feels lonesome and empty, and for some reason part of me is concerned about what others think of me. I know I might give a wayward thought (but little else) if I saw someone in a restaurant just mulling in his own head and noshing away.

I know others who refuse to eat out alone at all, fear and tension wracking them at the mere thought of it. We fear judgement. The word "loner" carved into our foreheads. The lone diner - a spectacle and oddity who must obviously lack the most basic social functions. No one wants to be seen as that.

Still, I think in the next few weeks I'll have to make a reservation for someplace swanky with white tablecloths and see if I can figure this out.

Any thoughts? Ideas?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Kindness of Strangers (and Friends)

-The first step in rebuilding a kitchen.-

When the character Blanche DuBois said, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers," I thought she was plum crazy. Or at least the product of another era where people kept their front doors unlocked and welcomed weary travelers over for sandwiches and a tall, perspiring glass of refreshing sweet tea.

For the most part strangers leave me addeled; they cut you off in the road, walk slowly in front of you at the market, spit, swindle, and generally are a wholly unpleasant bunch.

Stranger danger is an appropriate phrase because so often in life we find it to be true. We warn children of strangers telling them, "They'll take you away!" to inflict the right amount of fear. We walk back to our cars from the bar eyes searching for strangers, and fingers wrapped tightly around car keys or a can of mace ready to go for the eyes.

Yet, since the fire I have been proven utterly and totally wrong. I've been rocked at the total outpouring of sympathy and compassion from strangers and, particularly, from you readers.

I cannot express how much it has meant to read your comments and e-mails. I've learned so much about all of you; heard tales of your own fires, earthquakes, and other disasters. Many of you shared how to best deal with complications such as insurance policies, or how to simply begin putting life back together as it once was.

Your words expressed joy at how such events can be a blessing in disguise. More than a few of you have noted that there is a certain ecstasy in the unbridled, somewhat gregarious, and at times obscene amount of shopping you're encouraged to do afterwards to replace things (I think I dropped a few G's in one day replacing all my crappy old furniture that was destroyed with new, shiny furniture).

I was amazed at how many people, total strangers, offered to send me books, spices, pots and pans to help replace what was lost and it brought me to tears and made me realize just how many truly, amazing, generous people are out there.

The other night I was out at Onespeed, a little place in Sacramento known for good pizza (to be honest, it had the best pizza I've ever eaten in the U.S.). A guy who worked there came up and said hello to me and wanted to express his sympathies for the fire and all that had happened. My mind flew into a panic at who this person could be to know my personal life. I couldn't recall his name or face. I didn't know this guy. I was a bit freaked out. Who is he? How does he know my life!?

Because I put it on a blog. And apparently he's a reader. And then he comped BF and me beer while we waited for our table. I was moved by this small gesture (and a little tipsy as I was on an empty stomach at the time) as it meant so much after a day of painting and plumbing. Duder, you rock my socks.

Of course, it isn't just strangers. Fellow bloggers have been willing to help me rebuild my kitchen.

-Will do!-

When I lost all my cookbooks to water damage a few years ago Kalyn immediately sent me a copy of The Joy of Cooking. After the fire she raided her spice cabinet and sent me a veritable boon of spices. She says she got them as trials or samples; I think she raided a Turkish caravan on the Silk Road and left no survivors. How else does she explain sending me over twenty full jars of spices? Hungarian and smoked paprika. Garam Masala. Curry powder. Rosemary. Even marjoram, a spice I have never used and could use some advice on. Kalyn is the definition of kindess and, possibly, a spice bandit.

The ever poignant Ruhlman, a friend I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time drinking hanging out with in Mexico, sent me an extra scale. One that had seen the tests and trials of his landmark cookbook, Ratio. I have a piece of culinary history in my kitchen now.

And, of course, I have to thank my best bud Elise Bauer. She, whom I called at 2 in the morning, crying as I watched my roof literally go down among flames and the rasping roar of firemen's chainsaws. Who gave me, my cats, and my roommate a place to stay. When we came in reeking of smoke and trailing ash and mud into her door she simply smiled and gave us made beds and a place to shower. Who put us up for a month and gave us free reign of her home. Elise, I don't know how to ever repay you.

Too many others have all pitched in to help, and you know who you are. Thank you.

So in all this I have learned to never underestimate the kindness of strangers - strangers no longer - and the kindness of friends.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Star Anise for Effort

-You could eat this straight. But then again, there's a lot things you could do but shouldn't.-

I had just made beef stew with lemongrass and star anise, a recipe from Andrea Nguyen’s cookbook Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, a stellar and informative book that’s made Vietnamese cooking more accessible to me. As such a few of her recipes have become my own and are now a regular part of my everyday repertoire – simple for me but often seemingly fanciful for guests as if I had spent the day scrounging through Little Saigon.

Now for the most part I try to pick out the bay leaves, lemongrass stalks and star anise, but in the thick stew it’s easy for a few points of the anise to become lost within a sea of savory juices.

I’m usually good at warning people about things like chunks of galangal and so on, but every so often I forget due to being lost in fragrant bliss or because I’m wolfing down the food like some meat-starved barbarian (Andrea, you know what I’m talking about with that stew). Thus, once in a while a guest bites into something inedible and has to spit it out. I apologize, we laugh, the meal continues.

Anywhose, midway through a meal with BF…

Me: Oh! I forgot. I wasn’t able to fish out all of the star anise points, so if you come across something really crunchy just spit it out. They’re inedible.

BF: They are?

Me: Yes.

BF: Huh…

Me: What? …Oh, no. You didn’t?

BF: *stare*

Me: You ate one!?

BF: I thought it was a little woody. *he says this with complete nonchalance before taking another spoonful*

Me: How!?

BF: Well, it was softened up after simmering for a few hours. It was just a little tough to chew.

Me: My old roommate once ate two bay leaves by accident, let me tell you, he was not a happy camper afterwards.

BF: I’ll be fine.

Me: Yeah. Well, get back to me in a few hours.

The ending of this story is predictable, and kind of funny.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Fresh Start

-Happy to no longer be living in a cold garage. Also, they want to know where dinner is.-

Back from Mexico and now it's crazy time to put the new place together. We just signed the lease and I am waiting for my insurance to get a check to me so I can replace my, well, everything.

Here's a quick snapshot of my kitchen. You'll immediately notice that it's not on fire.

Now the crazy ride of re-acquiring food, utensils, appliances, spices, alcohol, oils, plates, pans, pots, tupperware, and so on begins.

...Oh sweet lord, can I just go back to Mexico?

On the plus, side we now have a garden space. Our first initiate, or my roommate's as my hands are that of the Reaper when it comes to plants, is a humble little blueberry bush who will soon be planted when the weather lets up. Next will come some rosemary, mint, and - most awesomely - a dwarf yuzu tree and a dwarf makrud lime tree.

-Hopefully, these little flowers will become blueberries. Since they aren't under my watch I have hope.-

Wish me luck in rebuilding. Here is to the beginning of an even better home and the start to a hopefully promising decade.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Zihuatanejo Market - A Short Tour

-Fish freshly caught and ready to be sold. They just scream "Eat me!" (Or, most likely, "Holy crap, I'm not in the water anymore!")-

Club Med, Ixtapa is a place of all-inclusive isolated luxury. The outside world simply doesn't exist here where even the most work obsessed can leave their wallet, phone and watch in their room. Released from the grip of news or internet you become perfectly comfortable in being cut off.

Yet once outside the gates and after a thirty minute drive you're overwhelmed by the cacophony of sound, and the color of the buildings and signs is dizzying. You're swept up into the everyday hustle of the crowd, waves of people crashing down and carrying you through the currents of the market alleys. Just a short walk away you're lulled into a blissful stupor of the marina where pelicans lazily waddle past you in hopes of a dropped yellowtail snapper.

-"You have fish for me?"-

Our tour of the markets started at a dozy beachside fish market where fishermen laid out their catches on woven hemp and coconut mats. Stooped over a checkerboard, yellow and white bottle caps cleverly reutilized as pieces, they studied the game with the same quiet analysis they applied to locating schools of fish and hand sewing their broken nets.

The piles of freshly caught fish glistened and each face popped with a look of surprise from their last little fish breaths. Red Snappers with their wide bodies and sharp little teeth grimaced mincingly, while smaller fish that looked like overgrown sardines that our guide called "silversides" were piled high in long rows and were a popular fish for the locals due to their rich, dark meat; a quality in fish that most foreigners find too strange after years of flaky white bass and pink salmon.

-The fish docks of Zihuatanejo, where the sand sparkles from the glassy shimmer of fish scales.-

We soon moved through to the market, a maze of corridors lined with strange and familiar produce, long strings of firey red and bright green chorizo of all kinds, and flanks of meat that were set out to dry. Everywhere the smell of freshly cut offal, nose burning chilies, the salty smell of fish, and sulfury onions strong enough to make you weep assaulted the senses.

Diane became the de facto culinary leader in our little group. She would buy up any inviting meat or bread then before you could react shove it into your hand with the command to, "Try this!" She'd then photograph your smiling reaction as you sudenly discovered food you had never before encountered, capturing you and that perfect taco de lengua con chili verde forever.

-Mincing block at a taco stand. Be sure to watch your fingers.-

We trailed through the covered, crowded aisles tasting and smelling, each of us electrified and overstimulated. At one stall a savory pork and potato stew bubbled in a clay pot. The woman stiring it would then take a small loaf of crusty bread and rip it open then spoon in the stew, pinching the bread shut. The result was a hot, filling sandwich that trickled down your arm and dripped onto your feet. A somewhat contained mess that encouraged you to lick and slurp every warm morsel and crumb off every part of you.

Next was a hot sample of chorizo negro, black chorizo, dark from the use of chipotle chilies smoked until the color of charcoal, a flavor so rich and powerful from the smoke you coughed incessantly. When you breathed back in your lungs and nose filled with pungent smoke and heat, waking your entire body up.

-Tiny berries that are easier to eat than they are to pronounce.-

Fresh arrauanites, berries that looked like green blueberries but tasted like guava and apples dotted the stalls as a snack and palette cleanser. Star fruit that had the taste of Granny Smiths charmed your curiosity. Freshly brewed hot chocolate stirred brusquely with cinnamon was readily available. Each food called you like some sweet and savory siren encouraging you to crash onto the rocks and enjoy them forever.

Finding someone to hack open a fresh coconut was easy. After they poured the milk out in a cup, the inside was deftly sliced away and bagged with rhythmic movements so clean and hypnotic one might normally associate such precision to that of a violinist. Next to them sat bags of sliced green mango sprinkled with sea salt and chili flakes which highlighted the teeth clenching, delightfully sour taste of the fruit.

-Do not get between a group of food bloggers descending upon a plate of mole. We're like piranhas devouring a cow.-

"Everyone come here! Try this!" becokoned Diane once more as she shoved us all into a small booth where soon plates of steaming hot chicken covered in pitch brown mole were served up. The mole was dark and fragrant with chocolate, the rugged punch of cumin and garlic belied a teasing heat that made the chicken somehow glow when you ate it. It was the definition of a perfect food - one you happily drown in and that you realize will set the bar for all similar food the for the rest of your life. The flavor left you radiant in a way no new religion, massage, or hours of sex and yoga could ever do.

-Sweet, delicious, red hot, lip numbing death in a bowl.-

To the side was a bowl of chopped dried chilies, tossed with garlic and oil their fiery color attracted the eyes like a roaring campfire with all the same heat. The taste was intense and my lips and tongue tingled and burned. I was molten and drugged, covered with sweat and in a delirium where pain and pleasure blended into one. I began to dip fresh tortillas into the less spicy mole and then used it to slather up Mexican rice and black beans to help alleviate moments of the joyfully searing oil.

-Beef tacos with onions, cilantro, and lime. Served, of course, with beer.-

Within an hour we were full to bursting, all of us sweating more from the stomach searing spices than the wilting humidity. Still, we were all eager to make last minute purchases of more coconut and green mango to help sooth the pin-prickly sparks of spice that lingered.

-This woman had this fish that was roughly the size of a 10 year old, and easily double the weight, broken down in about 15 minutes.-

The food of the market had unwound us all. We gazed listlessly through the city, walking the rest of the city in a haze marked by bright trinkets and textiles, worsened by many educational tequila tastings and heady musks of Cuban cigars.

As much as I tried to take notes of everything in the most assiduous manner possible I couldn't. Zihuatenejo doesn't do high strung or attentive. It's a town that encourages you to unfurl and engage. You have to simply repose, relax, and let the food unwind you.

-Fresh coconut milk and flesh being prepared. Perfect for fighting off the heat of the food and the weather.-

Monday, January 11, 2010

Constants (And Tequila)

-This, right here, explains why this is called a Sunrise.-

“I’m going to leave this window open a crack. Is that okay?”

I replied to Brooke that it was. The mosquitoes, having devoured my legs and leaving them so marked any passerby might assume I had contracted some advanced form of small pox, had finally gone to bed wherever mosquitoes go to bed. The sound of the lolling waves was hypnotic, a seamless constant that helped rejuvenate my faith that some things in life are always reliable.

Tequila, like the sound of crashing wave in Ixtapa, Mexico, is also a constant. One I depend on, and at times enjoy more than the waves.

It’s strange here. The drinking is sort of an all day affair here at the Club Med Food Blogger Camp, and considering the circumstances of the past few weeks my camp mates have been more than encouraging.

After a long and rousing swim through the ocean followed by trapeze lessons (of which, I might add, other bloggers have video proof of me doing backflips off of which I will post when I can) rounds of drinks were well in order.

A shot of tequila and a Tequila Sunrise seemed more than apropos. But it wasn’t just a shot glass of tequila. This was a huge shot glass, bigger that the bullets found in automatic military grade firearms. A super shot glass. A master shot glass of smooth, easy on the way down, no burn tequila.

Simple and lovely. Totally photogenic.

-A beautiful picture by Brooke of me realizing that shot glasses in Mexico are grown bigger than the ones back home.-

Of course and let us not forget the tequila sunrise. Sweet, fresh squeezed orange juice that, I swear, tastes like the concentrated experiences of being seaside in Mexico with friends.

How the addition of grenadine gives the drink that soft blush like a coy flirt across the room whose easy smile belies a stronger, more assertive personality that throws you down to the bed for an unexpected, more exhilarating night that you first thought.

A Tequila Sunrise at sunrise. Or sundown. A Tequila Sundown is fine too. As is the lesser-known Tequila Midday Sometime After Lunch.

I’ve always been a tequila boy. We’ve never had any arguments or tussles. We go well together and now that I’m on vacation we’re getting a little bit reacquainted after so, so long.

Tonight, a bit more tequila and I’m taking a few more bloggers down with me. I mean, someone has to get the “after shots” with their camera.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Changing Eating Habits via Circumstance

-Why, hello there little sammich.-

Animals in the wild rarely change their eating habits by choice. They stick with what’s available and what’s in season keeping themselves aligned within their proper spot in the food chain that the universe has decided to allot them. Animals are very obedient this way and, arguably, lucky to have had such decisions made for them. They know what to eat, when to eat it, and how much to eat (Eat Beast being a special exception in each regard).

However, when taken out of their normal place or given extreme circumstances they may be forced to change their diet and not for the better. They may resort to pica (eating of earth) or binging on plants, animals, or decomposing matter which may fill them up but their systems may simply be unable to handle. Furthermore, no creature enjoys having their diet forcibly altered to something that they aren’t used too.

When I interned at the Long Beach Aquarium way-back-when I was tasked with wading into the ray pool and feeding them their bits of fish and chum. One day when we had to change the composition of their food, the rays lets me know their dissatisfaction with the food by slapping me with their tails. These adorable puppy like fish suddenly became little divas snubbing what to them was slop not meant for any self respecting manta, and they let me know it. The proof was the red whip like marks that streaked my ankles, like I’d been flogged in a Turkish prison by a limp-wristed guard.

I finally get why those rays were so pissed.

If I eat out again, or eat another sandwich, I may start slappin' the everlovin' hell out of people myself.

-The salami just sits there. Mocking me. Watching my gustatory suffering. Screw you, salami. Screw you to hell.-

Due to the fire my eating habits have been uprooted and thrown apart. My usual diet of salads, homemade Chinese, Thai and Middle Eastern food has been forcibly supplanted with eating out and lots of sandwiches. Now, mind you, I like both of these things, but I like them in moderation. Eating out every night loses its novelty after your twelfth sushi roll.

My body isn’t really used to things like fast food or processed food. I’ve trained it well. Suddenly, this onslaught of junk food I’ve shoved down my gullet, storming my own Bastille, is not going well. I feel funky. Slightly sick. Slow and sloth-like. I feel like I could cut open a good artery and use a spoon to scoop out the cholesterol and spread it on toast.

Sandwiches are great and all, but to mix it up on a regular basis you have to buy a lot of food. Have you seen the prices they charge for basic sandwich makings? Criminal, I say. $5.99 for six (six!) slices of gourmet deli meat? Lord Almighty, for a few more bucks I can go and buy a ham, cook it myself, and have thicker, much tastier meat for my samiches and get a lot more than six measly, deli slices. Who the hell do these deli meat makers think I am, Oliver Twist? Working the factory twelve hours a day for a crepe paper-like leaflet of cured turkey breast? No, no, Oscar Meyer. You can take your cold cuts and shove ‘em. Bastards.

Now, it’s not like this everyday. I’m still trying to cram in a few salads. Bake some chicken thighs. Eat some more normal fare. I’ve been drinking wine like there’s a prize at the bottom of the bottle as if it were a box of Cracker Jacks (not so much as to be alarmed, but hey, right now it's a perfectly acceptable time to drink two glasses a night).

Still, it’s trying. I’m looking forward to signing a lease somewhere soon and getting an address, a place where I can finally start stocking up my larder to it’s once former glory. A place where I can cook freely and regularly.

Until then, however, more sandwiches and eating out.

-I would mug a girl scout if it meant I could get a panini press out of her. At least my sammiches would be more awesome then.-

Monday, January 4, 2010

Attempting Normalcy

To begin I figured I would try to take you through what the old apartment looks like and guide anyone curious through what happened with the fire and how.

-This is the bathroom which, as you can see, was totally engulfed. In here you can see the bathrooms of the other units in the four-plex. Note the lack of walls or ceiling. When I opened the bathroom door the night of the fire this was all aflame.-

-This is looking through the non-wall to the other apartment. As you can see, you and the person in the neighboring unit can now take tandem baths. No more lonely nights for you!-

-The landing upstairs. As you can see there is no ceiling. Just tarp. Very leaky tarp. The ceiling is scrapped in the patio outside. You can't see it here, but the floor is covered in debris and ash. These stairs were already a super steep death trap now they're wet and crowded too.-

-My kitchen. It's totally flooded due to the copper water pipes melting. The cabinets on the far wall look okay but inside everything is melted or exploded. That hole leads to the other apartment where the fire started in their kitchen due to a stove (due to it being faulty or old or just due to someone cooking inappropriately, I have no idea.)-

-Looking through that hole in the previous picture you can see the starting point of the fire. The stove is gone, taken away for investigation I guess. The fire started here, traveled up the vent into the attic, and then spread back down into all the walls.-

So as of now I am currently still residing with Elise. Still meeting with adjusters. Still waiting to hear back from apartments (stupid holiday weekend delay). So on and so on.

Right now I'm doing my best to keep my mind preoccupied. It's actually not that hard because when you encounter something in your life that's all encompassing like a death or natural disaster I think your mind tends to avoid mental and emotional conflict. Contrary to what your therapist might say avoidance and transference are comforting tools.

I've been cooking to keep myself busy. Elise and I made jam the other day, and while it wasn't wholly successful it seemed to bring me back to a place of life before the fire which is welcome. This and copious amount of video games and sleep consume this drawn out weekend in which I can't get anything done due to everything being closed.

Almost everything that is. I did take the cats to the vet. I wanted them checked out for smoke inhalation and they needed their shots. Right now they live in a cold garage which I'm depressed about as I wish I could treat them better. Had the cats not woken me up the night of the fire I might not be writing this. My vet in in Davis, a good half hour away from where I'm staying but it's a veterinarian I trust.

-This bread is the embodiment of all that is right with the world. Also, notice the lack of the bread being burned down due to a faulty oven in the unit next door. Always a plus.-

Afterwards, I quickly swung by the Farmer's Market for a few things for dinner. Comfort foods. The Davis Village Bakery makes a delightful garlic and Parmesan bread that is, quite frankly, one of my favorite foods on earth. Pungent, sweet, and attached to many fond memories it is a food that I happily stuff myself with until sick.

-Purple Haze carrots. While earthy and sweet, I'm a bit bummed that they don't give you a buzz as I could use it. Stupid lying pothead scientists.-

Another plus of this particular market is the appearance of interesting produce. Being so close to UC Davis, a major agricultural and biotech university, all kinds of new produce are being developed. The seeds and given to local farmers and then the shoppers get to purchase and eat them. I picked up a new variety of carrot called Purple Haze (only in Davis, well, maybe Chico or Berkeley) and am told it tastes like a cross between a carrot and a beet.

I wish I could type something a little more engaging or clever. Right now I'm sort of tapped out of reality. I'm in Borders again, using their Wi-Fi to check my email and other such things. I'm just trying to attain some semblance of normalcy.