31 August 2011

Is elitism a bad thing?

Sass-mouthed celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain is in the news for picking on sweet, down-to-earth little ol' Paula Deen.  He is the edgy, former druggie who brought you such bedtime classics as Kitchen Confidential (in which you learn that, yes, sometimes cooks put pubic hair in your food) and No Reservations, a culinarily adventurous television program in which he sometimes eats anuses. She is the Georgia peach who taught us how to embrace our love of butter on The Food Network and in her many cookbooks.

So the gist of the argument, in case you have been living under a rock, is that Bourdain has said some not-so-nice stuff about Paula Deen being fat and practicing unhealthy cooking habits.  He does not lie.  He also got personal and said her food was crap, and maybe that didn't help his argument much.  But his major complaint is that, in a country gripped by an ever-increasing obesity epidemic, perhaps it is not helpful to push fried chicken and biscuits and gravy up close o the tv camera, no matter how much we like them.  Paula has retorted with a very populist defense, reminding Bourdain that not everyone can afford fancy menu ingredients and that she is cooking for real people, not the elite minority.  You can follow some of the juicy details here.

What Deen has not come out and said, but it seems to be lingering in the air, is that Bourdain is an arugula-eating (remember that gem from the last presidential race?), homosexual socialist.  Or something like that.  OK, Bourdain is abrasive in his use of language, which is a major part of his celebrity persona, but is he wrong to point out that we should stop eating junk all the time?  Meals made of various shades of tan with no green or red on the plate ARE helping to degrade the health of many members of American society, and this is a problem.  First lady Michelle Obama is struggling to tackle this issue on a national level, and despite her sweet, nurturing rhetoric, she has been painted as an enemy much like the swaggering, f-bomb-dropping Bourdain.

This pseudo-populist rhetoric, adopted by the mega-rich Bush regime of the early '00s (QUESTION: who would you rather drink a beer with? ANSWER: the guy who gives rich people tax breaks!) and equally mega-rich Paula Deen, whose stardom on The Food Network has led to a culinary empire worth undisclosed millions, is ridiculous.  Perhaps she is reflecting the taste of poor people in Georgia, but she has no right to wear that badge of honor as if she was one of them.  And she certainly isn't doing anything to help them by improving their fatty recipes.  When her very expensive physician tells her that she is suffering from  lard-induced heart disease, she will be able to pay the best physical trainers and nutritionists to get her back on track and nurse her to health; what of her "regular folk"?

There is more fresh produce and healthy food available at reasonable prices in this country than ever before (and if the government ended subsidies to the dairy and beef industries, who knows, that stuff might be cheaper yet).  Why not teach regular people, many of whom currently live without health insurance or regular doctor visits,  how to make healthy food taste good in an economical way?  I am an unrepentant cheapskate, and I do it almost every meal.  By pretending this fight is about snobs vs. the "little guy", Deen and her ilk somehow present diet-induced heart disease, obesity, high cholesterol, and premature death as the American Way.  This attitude is illogical, patronizing, and painfully transparent--she waves the American flag in order to sell you more cookbooks, fatty salad dressings, and speckled enamel bakeware.  Don't be fooled, regular folk: Anthony Bourdain doesn't hate you (well, maybe he does, but you can ignore that part)--he just wants you to put down the rum cake.

26 August 2011

Recipe for Green Chili

This is how they do it at the Greeley
Farmer's Market
I celebrate my eighth year in Colorado this month, and I can definitely say that I have grown as a diner since coming out West.  It’s hard to remember a time when I didn’t know old women rolling suitcases full of homemade tamales down my street, dried mangoes dusted in chili pepper, and my personal favorite, green chili.  As a Midwestern girl formerly accustomed to a spice rack consisting solely of butter and salt, I could not be more grateful for the rainbow of flavors available in Colorado and New Mexico.  And I know this is coming from a transplant, so you don’t have to trust me if you don’t want to, but as a thank you, I would like to humbly offer my own version of green chili.  I go to my local farmer’s market and buy roasted chilies from some dude I can’t understand (because I’m just that damn lucky), but you can get respectable tubs of chopped, roasted Hatch chilies in the freezer case of most supermarkets, too.

Green Chili Deluxe

Serves 8

1 pound cubed pork (optional) (or you can use leftover shredded chicken or pork from another meal)
3 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons white flour
1 can (14.5 oz.) crushed tomatoes
12 oz. vegetable or chicken broth
2 ½ cups diced green chilies (about 20 Hatch chilies)
½ cup frozen corn (optional)

Lime wedges, sour cream, and warm flour tortillas for serving

In a large Dutch oven, sauté the pork, garlic, onion, cumin, and salt over medium heat.  (If you’re skipping the pork, use about a tablespoon of oil to sauté remaining ingredients; if using cooked, leftover meat, use the oil and keep the meat in reserve for now.)  When onion is soft and garlic is fragrant, slowly add the flour and continue to cook, stirring continuously, until flour begins to brown.  Add some of the broth and scrape up all the onion mixture, incorporating into the liquid.  Add the remaining broth, tomatoes, chilies, corn, and cooked meat if you have it, stir, and cover the pot.  Reduce heat to medium low and allow to simmer, stirring occasionally, for at least half an hour to allow flavors to blend.

Serve with lime wedges, sour cream, and flour tortillas on the side.

24 August 2011

Creamy Pasta with Mushrooms

The creaminess in this sauce comes from goat cheese, which instantly melts into the hot pasta.  Once you've made this ridiculously simple, super-flavorful meal, you’ll never want to fuss with heavy, gloppy Alfredo sauce again!

Serves 2

2 cups whole grain rotini pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ yellow onion, sliced into thin half-rings
8 oz. cremini mushrooms, cleaned and roughly chopped
2-3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/8 cup frozen peas
4 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs 
Salt and pepper to taste
2 oz. goat cheese
2-3 tablespoons toasted walnuts 

In a medium saucepan, bring salted water to boil and cook pasta al dente.  

Meanwhile, heat the oil over medium heat in a large skillet.  When it shimmers, add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they are soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes.  Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, until they soften and become watery.  Add the garlic, herbs, and balsamic vinegar, reduce heat to medium low, and cook until garlic is fragrant, about 2 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.  Toss in the peas and heat (don’t let the peas get mushy--they should remain green).  

Drain the cooked pasta and stir in the goat cheese to make a creamy sauce.  Fold the pasta mixture into the mushrooms in the skillet and incorporate thoroughly; season with more salt and pepper if you like.  Garnish with toasted walnuts or serve in a small bowl alongside the dish.  

Try it with Sangiovese or a Chianti.

19 August 2011

Sexy Italian in Seattle

And I do mean sexy...mood lighting, low music, Victorian building with lots of window seats, and most importantly, amazing food.  If I lived in Seattle, I would be as big as a house from eating at Al Boccalino...

I can't say enough about how fantastic my experience was here. Beautiful, artfully done food made with fresh ingredients and minimal fuss; knowledgeable, friendly, yet unobtrusive service; and a cozy hideaway feel right in the heart of Pioneer Square, which is no easy feat. 

The menu is "al fresco", which means you roll the dice on what's fresh and available that day.  I love the adventure of an ever-changing menu, anyway--the best test of a kitchen is to let them do their thing unimpeded, I think.  But even the more cautious diners in my party were pleasantly surprised that just about everything offered that night (and it wasn't a skimpy menu) sounded amazing.  Our patient server had to come back twice before we were ready to commit to our entrees.  The gnocchi was delicate (?!) and perfectly dressed in a tomato sauce that tasted and looked like freshly pureed tomatoes with herbs and olive oil.  The lemon-dill salmon was mid-rare and beautiful.  The mussels in tomato-saffron broth had us all swooning. And the wild mushroom ravioli tossed with homemade pesto hit the spot.  Oh, and did I mention all pastas and desserts are homemade on-sight? 

I know I keep raving about the restaurants in Seattle, but it's because there are so many great places.  And Al Boccalino might be the best I've tried yet.  

12 August 2011

Fish and Chips, baby!

  • I visited Alaska a couple of weeks ago expecting to find all kinds of creative new uses for seafood.  I didn't find any.  What I did find was a whole bunch of smoked salmon and tasty fish and chips.  (BTW, Hangar on the Wharf, while touristy as hell, really does know what they're doing.)  Now I'm back in Colorado, where people have only had access to acceptable fish with which to cook for about a decade, and I am starting to miss the beautiful simplicity of a nice batch of crisp, fried cod and potatoes.  Ironically, this is the "seafood" I grew up on in Chicago, as well.  It seems that no matter where I go, people recognize that this is it.  Do whatever exotic things you want to your seafood--it might not ever get better than this.  

  • Easy Fish and Chips

Serves 6-8

  • 4 medium russet potatoes
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • 2 tbs chopped rosemary
  • 1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cold beer
  • 1/2 cup cold water 
  • Vegetable or canola oil, to deep-fry
  • 8 small fish fillets (I prefer cod)
  • Lemon wedges or malt vinegar, to serve

  • Preheat oven to 450°C. Cut unpeeled potatoes into thin wedges. Place potato in a medium bowl with olive oil and rosemary. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and gently toss to combine. Arrange potato on two greased oven trays. Bake, swapping tray positions halfway through cooking, for 35 minutes or until brown and crisp.

  • Meanwhile, sift flour into a medium bowl. Use a whisk to gradually whisk in beer and enough water to form a batter the consistency of thickened cream. Whisk until smooth. Set aside for 20 minutes to rest.

  • Place enough oil in a large, deep saucepan or wok to create a depth of 5 inches. Place over medium heat until you see faint wisps of smoke. Dip one fish fillet in batter and carefully lower into hot oil. If it sizzles and fries, you're ready to go.  Do not overcrowd skillet; cook two or three at a time.  Cook, turning occasionally, for 4-5 minutes or until golden brown and cooked through. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a plate lined with paper towel. Repeat in three more batches with remaining batter and fish, reheating oil between batches.

  • Serve with lemon wedges.

05 August 2011

Cocktail Time!

I love the idea of combining flavorful alcohol with fresh ingredients from the garden, and I wanted to come up with something creative by myself.  It seemed beyond my amateur palate's abilities at first, but once you start experimenting, you figure it out.  This one uses very common household ingredients but seems all fancy and gourmet or whatever.  I've already had two, so shut up.

Blueberry Tonic

Makes 2 drinks

¼ cup blueberries (fresh or thawed)
2 tablespoons sugar
4 oz. gin
2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons lime juice
Tonic water (optional)

Place basil leave and sugar in a cocktail shaker and muddle with a wooden spoon.  Add blueberries and crush fruit into herb mixture.  Add the gin, lime juice, and plenty of ice and shaker vigorously to incorporate.  Strain into 2 old fashioned or Tom Collins glasses over ice and top with tonic water.

I hope that the lovely cartoonist Natalie Dee
won't mind being associated with this post.