Archive for July, 2008

Postcard from Page

[Recipe: Basic Vinaigrette]

Seems everyone’s reporting on idyllic picnics lately, on petite tarts with ambitious stacks of marinated summer vegetables sliced thin, on picturesque salads and scenery.

Here, then, is my contribution, a report on an unintentional roadside picnic, a picnic that was never meant to be any kind of production. There was no tablecloth. No brilliant containers. Just an open car door revealing disposable Tupperware and white paper napkins and an assortment of plastic utensils I’d scrounged from an out-of-sorts drawer.

Still, it was a photogenic picnic. We were surrounded by Kodak moments, despite the fact that we were eating on the side of a two-lane highway because we were stranded in totally stopped traffic, 22 miles south of Page, Arizona – which was supposed to have been our picnic destination.

But in an uncharacteristic move, I hadn’t packed my camera.

Why, oh why, didn’t I bring my camera? Because I was determined to pack light, that’s why. Because it was supposed to be a less-is-best kind of weekend, an up-and-back road trip, a jaunt requiring little more than a duffel stuffed with a change of clothes and trail runners.

Never mind that we’d be covering 1,800-plus total miles. I’d seen these miles flash before my windshield many times before, and never have I cared to photograph them. It’s the desert; it’s red rocks and red dirt, dust and scrub the color of sage. Big whoop.

But as we – my husband, our daughters and my younger sister – all sat on the side of the road, dinner in hand, things suddenly looked pretty. It wasn’t the rhythmic flicker of emergency vehicle lights, or the steep swoop of the helicopter indicating we’d be parked there a long while. It was that when necessity demanded that our picnic change venue and we started losing daylight, we made lemonade, so to speak.

We propped the cooler open in the backseat and used the lid as a surface to prep a pasta salad of whole-wheat penne, sliced olives, chopped cucumber and tomatoes, crumbled feta and basic vinaigrette. We put together sandwiches of smoked salmon and goat cheese on whole-wheat rolls.

And we ate.

It was still a picnic, even though we consumed it standing, plastic plates perched on our open palms, a meal enjoyed under a round sky full of summer storm clouds.

I’m admittedly unoriginal when it comes to description, but let me try to describe the scene for you, the images I would have captured if only I’d brought my camera: Silhouettes of jutting red rock formations against a plummeting sun; my five-year-old’s hands, clutching her sandwich; shafts of light through shifting clouds; the sunset meeting the desert floor, and the expansive sky it left behind. And then there was my sister, attempting while standing to stab her pasta with a dull plastic fork at the same time she was texting on her cell phone.

Basic Vinaigrette

This is my go-to vinaigrette. It can dress everything from pasta to vegetables to fish. Let your whims rule: add a teaspoon of your favorite mustard or some chopped herbs.

¼ C fresh lemon juice or white wine, red wine or balsamic vinegar

1 tsp honey

1 small shallot, finely minced

½ tsp kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

¼ to ½ C extra-virgin olive oil

Whisk together the lemon juice or vinegar with the honey, shallot, salt and pepper, to taste. Add the olive oil in a steady stream, whisking until emulsified.

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Eat by spoonfuls

Don’t say I didn’t warn you: The following idiosyncratic food pairing may gross you out. Then again, it probably won’t – you likely have your own quirky snack habits that make other people wince, the details of which you pull out in social situations, as a way to alternately wow and entertain old friends and new acquaintances alike.

In fact, you may very well crave taste combinations that render the following about as disgusting as PB & J, and if that’s the case, put it here. I want to know all about it.

Anyway, here it is. My high-school aged sister is visiting, and as I was unpacking groceries, she moaned something to the tune of, “Mmmm, cottage cheese.” Then she started to sheepishly-but-confidentially tell me that she likes potato chips in her cottage cheese. I stopped dead in my tracks, spun around from my station organizing the dairy products in my refrigerator, and asked her where, exactly, she learned to dip potato chips into cottage cheese.

And was she sure – absolutely, positively sure – that she didn’t learn it from me?

Because in fourth grade, at my BF Michelle’s house, I became privy to the winning fusion of not just potato chips, but barbecue chips and cottage cheese. Sometimes we were dippers, yes, but most of the time we used this delightfully violent (for nine-year-olds) method: Place chips and cottage cheese together in a bowl, then, using the tip of a spoon, shatter the chips until pieces are the desired size (taking care not to miss a single chip, nor to let chip pieces fly, in the process).

Eat by spoonfuls.

Reason number one this is gross: It involves chips, period. I don’t, these nose-in-the-air days, regularly partake of chips. I cop to enjoying a small smattering of processed foods now and then, but chips have zero redemptive qualities. Zero nutrition. Blah, blah, blah…

And yet, I was inspired to tuck a bag of popped barbecue potato chips (that’s right, the innovation is popped. “Never fried. Never baked,” the bag promises) into my cart at Trader Joe’s. If I couldn’t be the one to introduce little sis to the concept, at least I could be the one to instigate her barbecue-version coming-of-age.

Now, with my grown-up sensibilities in tow, I’m trying to figure out why barbecue chips and cottage cheese taste so dang good. I’ve concluded it can’t be nostalgia alone; if I were the nostalgic type, I’d still be eating Twinkies and inhaling powdered Jell-O from the bag.

It’s a balance thing, I’m sure. If you take it apart, you’ve got a mix of textures and flavors that tend to befriend each other across the food spectrum. You have crunchy with creamy (think pralines and cream, crunchy peanut butter, tempera-flaked California rolls). You’ve got the spicy-salty-sweet thing going on (the same examples, and more, apply). And there’s the added bonus of tang, reason enough to prefer barbecue to plain potato chips in this case.

What I really want to know is, can I use my adult knowledge of flavor and texture to justify liking this stuff? Or is it regression, plain and simple?

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Sneaking it in

[Recipe: Fried Rice with Tofu and Vegetables]

Witnessed: One of my fellow co-op members giving away her onions. And not because she was in the mood for sharing, for being charitable. It had nothing to do with that and everything to do with the fact that, as she proclaimed loud and proud, she and her entire family are solidly not in the onion-loving camp.

Poor left-out, picked-out and despised onions. It’s so unfortunate, don’t you think, this bad rap that onions are always and forever getting? Not unfortunate for the onions, necessarily, because, much as they can make us cry, they don’t have feelings of their own. They probably don’t notice the routine snubs, the fact that they’re always the shunned ones, the kids in the back who, competent though they may be, are never picked for dodge ball just because they may smell a little funny.

So while the onions don’t mind, the humans who are repulsed by them, gently or not, are the ones who are missing out. Now, if you’re one of those onion maligners, please know that I’m not exactly here to talk you into onions (I wouldn’t appreciate anyone trying to talk me into chicken). But I would like to make my case that onions are not just pungent and piquant solo artists. In fact, they’re often at they’re very best when joining their particular talents with those of other ingredients. Take the layered flavors of risotto or soup or stir fry, for example. They often start with that pariah, the onion.

That’s how I use an onion in this fried rice. It’s probably the most surreptitious offering of onions in my repertoire – when chopped and mixed with rice, tofu, eggs and vegetables, nobody even suspects the onion is there. Not my younger sister, who is visiting for the summer, and not my girls, who have been known to refuse a meal solely on the basis of what they perceived as a strong onion presence.

Fried Rice with Tofu & Vegetables

Serves 4.

Brian used to make a version of this for me in our early days. I’ve since refined and codified it (sort of), so that now – onions notwithstanding – it’s a family favorite. It’s a super-easy dish that can come together in the flash that often represents weeknight dinner prep time. It can also be made at a more leisurely pace, step by step, while flipping through the Pottery Barn catalog and waiting for your diners to arrive home, then assembling it all just before serving.

1 C short-grain brown rice, cooked

Canola oil

1 med. onion, chopped

1 block extra-firm tofu, drained and sliced or cubed

3 cups steamed-but-firm vegetables (Leftovers are great, but this also works well with whatever’s in your frozen stash. Try any or all of the following: broccoli, peas, snow peas, mushrooms and peppers.)

4 to 6 eggs, lightly beaten

Sesame oil

1/8 C soy sauce, plus extra for serving

Fish sauce (optional)

Toasted sesame seeds (optional)

In a very large skillet, heat 1 tbsp. canola oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté gently until soft. Add tofu, along with more oil if your pan requires. Raise the heat to medium high and cook tofu, stirring only occasionally to allow browning. Lower the heat to medium, pushing the tofu mixture to one side of the pan or removing from pan entirely. When pan is cool enough, add the eggs. Stir eggs until curdles begin to form. Add cooked vegetables, rice and tofu mixture to pan, stirring eggs into the other ingredients until cooked. Finish with a couple drops of sesame oil and fish sauce (if using), soy sauce and a tablespoon or so of sesame seeds. Serve with additional soy sauce on the side.

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Strong feelings

So I had an organic strawberry this morning, a pre-breakfast, pop-in-the-mouth nibble that I snuck while cutting up said strawberries for my girls’ breakfast (because we all know those kids come first, no matter how ravenous we are). I popped, and then I chewed, the way I always do. But then I paused my hurriedly masticating ways, stopping to actually taste what I was tasting. Was it? Could it be? A strawberry whose taste matched its very form: A strawberry that tasted unequivocally like a strawberry.

I admit it’s been a while since I knew what strawberries were supposed to taste like. Other berries – the blue-, the rasp-, the black- — are more or less essential to my happiness, but strawberries rarely leave much of an impression. They often taste like sour little nothings, bred more for size and color than taste and texture.

I know that strawberries are listed as one of the foods you should always buy organic* (and not just because they taste better). For a while I took a turn as a dogmatic, strictly organic strawberry purchaser. But then I got swayed by all those 2 for $5 deals, and I just couldn’t shell out near seven bucks for a quart.

Well, consider this the official death of my strawberry slumming period. Now that I’ve tasted those organic strawberries again and realize they bare those other, conventionally grown strawberries for the frauds they really are, I’m not going back. Surely we’ll have strawberries with much less frequency and have to watch for specials, but if my girls grow up knowing strawberries that are deserving of their name, then it will be worth it.

And we won’t stop there. I think I’d also like some dirty carrots – the more to rinse off, the better. Maybe some lettuce I have to wash and dry, wash and dry. And apples, the kind that thankfully don’t glint a waxy shine.

*For a list of produce and “pesticide load” scores, see www.foodnews.org.

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Rhetorical question (but I’d love an answer)

Overheard at Target, a (not-of-healthy-weight) mother talking to her (not-of-healthy-weight) daughter:

“So, we ate at Burger King last night for dinner. Where do you want to eat tonight? McDonald’s or Wendy’s?”

I don’t know what to say. Not that there isn’t anything to say about that, because there are volumes. There’s just so much wrong with it that I wouldn’t know where to start. I suppose I don’t really need to go off at all — eloquent arguments abound out there against that kind of eating, against those kinds of eating establishments.

Why, then, do people — mothers, of all people! — remain unconvinced?

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