Monday, January 29, 2007
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. A very interesting article from yesterday's New York Times magazine about food versus nutritionism, in which celebre-chef-like writer Michael Pollan makes the case that by separating so-called "nutrients" from the foods in which they are contained, we are doing ourselves a huge and potentially deadly disservice. Long, but fascinating, and it just reinforces my longstanding belief that nothing in this entire world is more evil than Lunchables.
After reading Pollan's short epic, I felt like I needed to cook something tasty and wholesome, so I made these banana bran muffins (with pecans, not walnuts). I've been trying to do more baking lately, and for the past year or so have done fairly well at avoiding processed baked goods. (Mostly because I don't need all that dessert, but also because they're all made with something called guar gum. What is guar gum? I don't know, but I sure don't use it when I bake, so I can't imagine it's something good.) I made some bran-wheat bread a few weeks ago (real loaves of bread, like with yeast and rising and punching down and everything), and not only did the bran make it taste good, but it also, uhh, made my, uhh, it uhh, yeah. You know what bran does. That's what it did. And it was okay, because I think I dropped a pound or two. Anyway, I still had a lot of bran left, and these muffins looked like they'd be good for breakfast, because after reading that article, I kind of felt silly for eating breakfast cereals with mascots. Anyway, the muffins are good and not too sweet, and would probably be best with jam. It would probably be best if that jam were homemade, but please: one step at a time here.
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Thursday, January 25, 2007
If you're interested in trying a new grain, I would like to recommend trying some kasha. It's not available everywhere, but if your local supermarket has one of those culturally-conscious quote-unquote international aisles, there's probably a little shelf of Jewish-type foods, and on it are probably things like matzo, gefilte fish (which I also like), jars of shav (which is so ungodly gross that I don't even want to think about it), and kasha. Or, your local vegetarian-friendly co-op type store might have whole kernel buckwheat in bulk. Cook it like rice (two to one ratio of water or stock to dry kasha) for ten minutes, and I think you will find it nutty and delicious. And grandma will be so proud.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
I wasn't going to admit this, but now that New York Magazine's approval matrix has given it some street cred (if you consider New York Magazine "street" and it's designation of brilliant as "cred"), I will no longer be embarrassed to declare the following: I like VH1's The (White) Rapper Show. Yeah, that's right. I like it. And I'll bet you like it too. Although I have to say, I think they could have found a better host/judge/ than MC Serch from the somewhat laughable '80s white rap group 3rd Bass of "Pop Goes the Wease" diss track fame. Really, if your only hit is a diss track, how good can you be? And they were dissing Vanilla Ice, perhaps the easiest target in the history of hip hop diss-ability. So I do get kind of annoyed when he's on the show and all like, yo, I'm a hip-hop legend! Because really, he's not anything close to a hip-hop legend. He's just another white guy who thought Vanilla Ice was a joke. But still, it is a good show, and even though it is shockingly low-brow (in my own estimation as well as New York Magazine's), I like it. So there.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Umm. Right. Back to the saganaki. So yet, you order the stupid saganaki, and they're all like, hey everyone, someone ordered saganaki! Let's shout in Greek and light it on fire! Forget it. I'm not interested.
But I had lunch at a local Greek-ish place today with some co-workers, and they of course had the saganaki on the menu, and one of my co-workers wanted to get it, and I wasn't about to argue, because who am I to tell people what they can and can't order? So we ordered it, and our server came over with the plate of cheese and lit the damn thing on fire and put it on the table, and that's when I confessed to my tablemates that I'd never had it before. I didn't tell them why, because I didn't want to sound like I was putting them down for wanting the flaming cheese, so I just said something like oh, I just haven't had it, that's all. So then they were like, omigod, you have to try it. I was skeptical, because I just thought it would taste really bland and uninteresting, because why else would anyone try to sell something by making a big deal out of it and lighting it on fire? But I tried a piece, and you know what? It's really good cheese. It's just really salty and warm, and it has a good chewy texture, and the flavor is tangy but not overpowering, and I guess I liked it. I don't know if the whole lighting it on fire adds to the flavor (my guess is it does not), and I don't know if I'd order it on my own, but going on just flavor and enjoyment, I guess I now like the stupid flaming cheese. Dammit.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Monday, January 15, 2007
Outside of New York state and my own kitchen, whenever I've ordered a calzone, even at seemingly-authentic Italian places, I basically get a pizza turned inside out. You know: a ton of mozzerella, red sauce, add-ons, and barely a sprinkling of oregano. I'm all for pizza, and I have nothing against pizza turned inside out, but in my opinion, they have no business calling those things calzones. I think technically they may be stromboli, but I don't know for sure. To me, the whole beauty of the calzone is the ricotta cheese. It's rich but not overly so, and it's not all stringy and stretchy. It's very soft, and when you stir in some dried oregano before putting it in the bread, all the cheese gets that oregano flavor when you bake it. And, when you cut open a calzone that is filled mostly with ricotta, the 500-degree sauce doesn't squirt out and hit you in the face, because there is no sauce inside it. And you don't have all that giggly hot cheese stretching and pulling when you try to eat it, because there's just a tiny bit of mozzerella inside, rather than a whole brick.
If you make pizza at home, I strongly recommend you try making calzones as a nice change of pace. They're very easy to make. You take your pizza dough -- homemade is always best, and my favorite dough recipe is in the giant yellow Gourmet cook book that came out last year, even though all pizza dough recipes are pretty much the same, but if you have to buy pizza dough, make sure you buy uncooked pizza dough and not one of those greasy Boboli shell abominations -- and portion it out. I don't know if there's an actual method for doing this, but my guideline is, however many people would be able to eat a pizza made from that amount of dough is how many calzones you can make from it. For example, when I make pizza dough, the resulting pizza feeds Paul and I for dinner very nicely, so to convert it to calzones, I just split it in half. Then you prepare your toppings. I like onions and chicken sausage, fresh spinach if I have it, olives, banana peppers, and tomatoes, but use anything you might put on a pizza. Or, if you're a purist, don't use any. Then prepare your cheese. I like to use skim milk ricotta (not as heavy) mixed with dried oregano, dried basil, salt, pepper, and a handful of shredded mozzerella. I had half of a 16-ounce tub, and that was enough for two calzones.
Okay, then you take your dough and flatten it into circles as if you were making pizza, one circle for each calzone. Then you put a big spoonful of the cheese mixture on the lower half of each one. Don't put it in the middle, or you'll have a hard time closing it up. Then put your add-ons on top. The trick here is not to overstuff -- maybe a few olives, a few tomatoes, some meat if you like, and so on. Then put a bit more of the cheese on top, just to weight it all down. Then grab the (empty) top half of each circle, pull it over all the insides, and use your fingers to close it up. You don't have to go overboard with this; just make sure it's closed up and it will bake together nicely. At this point you can brush it with a beaten egg if you like a nice shiny crust, but I think I prefer mine plain, so I don't. What you absolutely must do is cut maybe two or three one-inch slits on the top of each calzone. If you skip this step, the steam built up on the inside won't have a place to get out, and it will kick and push and force its way out, and you will have a messy oven like you've never seen, and all the EZ-Off in the world won't be able to help you, but if you're stubborn, you might try to use EZ-Off to clean the resulting mess, but the fumes will probably make you sick and land you in the hospital, and I'm pretty sure you can't get a good calzone in the hospital. Moral of the story? Cut the slits.
Now, put your calzones in the oven, which you preheated to 500 degrees before you even started assembling them. The best way to do this is on a baking stone that's been preheating inside your very hot oven, but if you don't have one and don't want to get one (why don't you want to get one?), a baking sheet will work. Put them in the oven for, oh, 15 minutes until they're nice and brown. It might take a bit more or a bit less time; I just watch mine and don't really time them. Then take them out of the oven (careful, they're hot!), put each one on a plate, and serve each with a ramekin of hot marinara sauce. You've been heating up a pot of marinara sauce, right? Okay, good.
So that's how you make a proper and delicious calzone. If you live in New York, especially in New York city, you probably have no reason to do this, as proper calzones are insanely cheap and extremely plentiful. But if you don't live in New York and you want a calzone, do not go to your local Italian restaurant and ask for a calzone, because what they give you will not be anything like this. You want a proper calzone, and if you follow the directions above, you will have a proper calzone. And even though you have to make it yourself, you will love it.
Sunday, January 14, 2007
The kind I bought was the green tea. It's flavored with "real fruit pieces," and the picture on the box looked like an orange. I took out a bag to make some tea, and it really was a nice 3-D pyramid. It smelled orange-y, but kind of fruity in a generic way too. And there was real tea leaves in the bag, rather than the powdery stuff in typical tea bags. That was a good sign, I thought. The only thing that bothered me was the nylon feel of the bag, because it really didn't feel biodegradable. A few years ago, that probably wouldn't have mattered to me, but Paul has since shown me the beauty of composting (well, maybe not beauty, but importance and usefulness, let's say), and used tea is really good in compost. Normally I just toss my used tea bags in the bin; they're papery and break down just as easily as the lemon rinds and carrot peelings and apple cores. But I don't think this nylon will break down. I have an email in to the people at Lipton asking about the bags' biodegradability.
But anyway, the tea! While it's maybe not the best tea I've ever had, it's by far the best Lipton tea I've ever had. I'm not knocking Lipton or anything, but their teas always taste just sort of un-special, I guess, is the best way I can put it. I like some People's Republic of Tea flavors, and the loose house tea from Bodum is really amazing, but Lipton is just kind of...there. But this stuff was really good, especially for the price: good tea flavor, and enough fruit to make it interesting, but not so much that it tasted like hot Kool-Aid. I think I've had four cups of it in the past 24 hours, and I can see myself going through a box of 20 bags very quickly indeed.
Still, the potential earth-unfriendliness thing bothers me. As good as their tea is, I can't say that I'll definitely buy it again if I get a reply saying sorry, no, that tea bag will be around for the next million years because we just couldn't make it out of biodegradable materials. And that would be a shame, because it really is very good tea, but it would not be the end of the world, because there are other teas out there. But it would definitely present a big internal conflict: good tea at a good price, or do good things for the earth? Let's hope the bags will break down in the compost bin.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Monday, January 8, 2007
Saturday, January 6, 2007
In January, The Resolutionists come in. They've decided to "take charge" and "do something" and "be healthier" and "get in shape." So they join the Y. I'm sure the Y loves it, and I'm sure they get at least half of their new memberships in January alone, but for those of us who are regulars, it's annoying as hell. The Resolutionists come in and don't know how to work anything. And they don't know what they want to do, so they try everything for five minutes, don't wipe any of it down, and then go buy a Gatorade. They sit on the Nautilis equipment and rest for ten minutes instead of using it. They have constant conversations and tell one another, yeah, so I'm going to the gym now, and they say it with a mix of weird self-pride and an attitude that you know they're using to try to convince themselves that they're a gym person now. Oh, and they don't get how the tvs work either. There are four tvs in the cardio room, and the unspoken rule is that if you want to change a channel, you point to the tv you want to change and look around. You can change it only if no one says they're watching it. But these people just change away without asking. And, they don't get close enough to the tv they want to change (none of these new people seem to understand how vectors figure into remote control usage), so they point the remote at one tv but end up changing three of them. And they always seem to want to watch either Animal Planet or Fox News. And then they walk away after having changed the channel on three tvs to Animal Planet, and like six people are yelling that the same thing's on three tvs, and how come they didn't ask if they could change the channel, and can you please just put Oprah back on? It gets frustrating because not only do we regulars have to put up with that stuff, but to make matters much worse, we now have to wait for equipment. All the treadmills are full, all the bikes are full, and all the ellipticals are full. Oh, and there are no towels either. I sweat a lot, and when I have to exercise without a towel because some frosty haired chubby lady wants four, I get sweaty and pissed.
Don't get me wrong here: I am all for people getting in shape. A lot of people who come in to the Y in January for the first time are usually a bit out of shape, and they could usually stand to lose 20 pounds, and I am all for that. A healthier you means lower insurance premiums and co-pays for me. America is overweight, I am trying to do my part, and I think everyone should do the same. And yes, I've bitched about The Resolutionists not knowing proper Y etiquette, but I do of course realize that they can and will learn how to use the equipment, and they can and will learn not to use the quad press as a chair during a 15 minute conversation, and they will finally get that they have to ask before putting Animal Planet on the cardio room tvs. But the problem is, very few of these people actually stick with it. They come in all fired up after New Years, and they're all pumped, and they come to the Y three times a week for four weeks, and then that's it. I'd say out of 100 new members who join the Y each January, maybe two or three are still using the Y six months later. And they all adapt, and learn the rules, and they lose weight, and it's actually very cool to see how much progress some of them have made. (One woman who started two Januarys ago has lost, by my estimation, around 100 pounds.) But the rest of them? They suck.
So that is why I hate this time of year. I hate The Resolutionists who take over the gym. And I'm sure it's not just my gym; I'm sure this happens at every gym in the country, if not the world. I usually just grit my teeth and get a little pissed off at the gym during January. The one thing I keep reminding myself is that they'll be gone by the first of February. And that's just three and a half weeks away.
Thursday, January 4, 2007
After discussing a few options, just about all of which I can't seem to remember, we agreed that a no-repeat theme would be a good twist, a worthy challenge, and if nothing else, would force her to try some pretty interesting food. (December, by which time the standard and sub-standard and sub-sub-standard fare will have already been consumed and checked off the list of things to eat, should be very very interesting indeed.) So here we are, 2007, and here it is, Soup To Nutz. You will notice that "Nutz" is a play on "Walnutz," which is what some of us call her, though, curiously, never to her face.
One more twist, if I may: since this idea came up while we were waiting for a piece of carrot cake that never arrived, I think carrot cake should be the last thing Andrea eats this year. It might be like a nice way to close it all out.
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
Well, real soon comes around pretty fast, and since this is the time of year for resolving things, I decided to try and recreate the only venison dish I had ever tasted: venison stew. Back in grad school, a friend of mine from Nebraska, who really did look corn-fed and had been reared on a steady diet of field crops and wild game, brought a pot of venison stew to a potluck I was hosting. I was curious, I tried it, and I thought it was pretty tasty. But that's the only venison I had ever eaten, and that was about nine years ago.
Now, you may be asking yourself: why the hell did you ask some kid for venison if you've barely eaten it and never prepared it? Well, that's a good question. I guess first of all, I'm curious about new food, and I knew that I didn't completely hate it. It's maybe a little weird to me that the meat comes from deer, but then I remind myself that I eat chicken and fish, and I'm okay again. And, deer hunting, and consequently venison eating, is popular around here, so in a way it was a shot at assimilating and feeling like part of the community. While I have mixed feelings about hunting, I do think it's good that if you're gonna eat meat, that you've earned it yourself and didn't have to rely on some gross corporate farm where they inject the animals with all sorts of who-knows-what. You get like 70 pounds of meat from one deer, which can feed a family for the winter, and when you consider that 70 pounds costs the price of a license and the, umm, butchering of the animal, it's good fresh protein at a good price. And, quite honestly, I didn't think the kid would actually bring me any, let alone eight pounds. So that's why.
Anyway, I looked at some venison stew recipes yesterday before creating a hybrid out of several I saw on the Food Network site. I cut up carrots, celery, an onion, some potatoes, and two turnips. I got a can of diced tomatoes and a carton of chicken stock, then uncorked a bottle of cheap Cabernet and poured myself a glass and about a cup for the stew. I got a sprig of fresh thyme and a few inches of fresh rosemary from the yard. Then I cubed up a package of venison chops, tossed it in flour, and got to cooking. Sear the meat, add the veggies, salt it all, pepper it all, deglaze with wine, add tomatoes and stock and herbs plus a few bay leaves, and let 'er go on the stove for a few hours.
And it was actually kind of good. Not great, and maybe not something I'd make again, but really very definitely kind of good. I made some egg noodles and we ate it, and Paul agreed that it was very kind of good. I had some more for dinner tonight, and it was maybe a little better than kind of good, which I think usually happens with stews and slow-cook dishes. I will probably have it for lunch and dinner tomorrow, and still think that it is not fantastic, but really very kind of good.
So maybe I'm not a big venison fan, but you have to give me this: you have to admit I tried. I will finish up most, if not all, of that stew in my fridge, and I'll find a way to use up the rest of the venison in my freezer, because I don't want to waste food, and it was awfully nice of my student to give me so much of it. But yeah, I think I will stick to poultry and fish and just good ol' beans and rice and veggies and pan-Asian noodles from now on.
Tuesday, January 2, 2007
As I was waiting, a big lady with big fuzzy hair and loose clothing walked in briskly. She gave me half a look, then blew past me as if I weren't even there, let alone perhaps waiting to use the bathroom, didn't even consider that maybe there was a reason why I wasn't using the handicapped stall with the open door, and didn't even stop to ask oh, hello, are you in line for the restroom? No. She walked into the handicapped stall, closed the door in a way that was almost a slam, and before I could insult her in my head for being rude and inconsiderate, she proceeded to (how to say this...must choose words carefully so as not to be too crass...evacuate her bowels? eliminate digestive refuse? oh fuck it) take a giant crap. (Please, instead of asking me exactly how I know this, just use your imagination. That's what she was doing.)
So I, of course, know that she's gonna be in a bad spot very soon, but luckily, just at that moment, the little girl in one of the occupied stalls walked out. I went in fast, peed quickly, flushed, washed fast, and was on my way out just as I could hear the big lady poking at the empty toilet paper rolls and muttering to herself.
Monday, January 1, 2007
When we got off the train, we noticed that the line of families waiting to get into the Art Institute stretched a good ways down Michigan Avenue. That was no problem, because we had already decided to go uptown a few miles to the Chicago History Museum. We checked in at our hotel, gaped for a few minutes at the expansive and colorful dome in the lobby, and took off for the museum. When we arrived, it was surprisingly uncrowded. It was also a really good museum! I learned all about the Chicago fire (about which I had previously known very little, pretty much that there once was a fire in Chicago, something about a cow, and that's it), and there were exhibits on Chicago-based businesses, design, music, sports, and big news items. We also had a lot of fun in the interactive children's part of the museum, even though I think we were the only ones in there without kids. The Chicago History Museum was a really great stop, and we even congratulated ourselves a bit on avoiding the tourist-heavy lines at the Art Institute and also at the Field Museum, where King Tut is on display for just a few more weeks. A museum like this one in Chicago makes me want to visit its New York counterpart.
After leaving the museum and walking around a little and downing a Goose Island (good beer!), we had dinner at The Frontera Grill. We got there a few minutes before it opened, and already there was a line out front. I guess that's to be expected at a big-name chef's restaurant. What I didn't expect was to look through the window and actually see Rick Bayless walking around, in full chef's whites and everything. (As we later found out from our server, he's there every day and doesn't do the big money thing that a lot of big-name chefs do: put their name on ten restaurants in ten different cities and not cook at any of them.) While I didn't think the food at Frontera was as good as the food at the Signature Room on top of the Hancock Tower, it was pretty fabulous. I loved the house ceviche of lime-y marlin, and because we were there early, they still had orders of chilles rellanos available. (I had read online that they make fewer than ten orders of this dish each night, even though they are very very good and they get more than ten requests for them each night, and while we were initially cynical and thought the low nightly quanitity was a ploy to make them more desireable, our server, who put up with lots of our questions, explained that they simply didn't have the room to store more than a few orders each night; the restaurant was small, so we thought this sounded honest enough.) The rellanos were good too, and the corn breading made them almost like pepper tamales. We also had some apricot ice cream, which Paul really wanted and I was indifferent bout; when we tried it, I thought it was excellent and Paul thought it was just ehh. I also had the top-shelf house margarita, and while I usually think nine bucks is too much to spend on a drink, I have to say that it was about the best margarita I've ever had. Even Paul, who is usually not a fan of margaritas, thought it was fantastic. We liked it so much that it even inspired us to make some margaritas last night, and you know what? Ours were not good at all, despite being made with Patron and Cointreau and fresh limes. There's a reason why a good margarita is nine bucks.
After a very comfy night in our hotel room, which had one of those new marshmallow-y beds that some hotel chains put in within the last year or two and that make sleeping less of a necessity and more of an experience, we grabbed a quick breakfast and walked around Millennium Park for a little while. The city has made some excellent improvements to its lakefront property in the past few years, and the best part is that they benefit everyone, as opposed to the kinds of lakefront improvements that benefit only those who can drop a few million on a luxury condo and its associated fees. There is a large, albeit crowded, public ice skating rink, plus two striking installation-type art things: a big reflective sculpture officially named Cloud Gate but colloquially referred to as "The Bean," and a gi-nor-mous multimedia thing called Crown Fountain. There's also a big ampitheatre-type space designed by Frank Gehry, and lots of grass (which was unfortunately roped off for the winter season). We spent a lot of time there walking and looking and snapping pictures, and it was good to see so many people outside doing the same thing.
After more walking and a little shopping, we caught a late afternoon train back home. And that was more or less our excitement for the weekend. Last night was quiet, as is today, and that's fine.
I'm also making a resolution right now, in front of god and everybody, to be better about writing. Writing here, in particular. That's the whole reason I started this thing: to write. I should probably be doing it on a daily (or somewhat daily) basis.
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