Saturday, September 25, 2010

Delicious Denmark

I had a lovely lunch on Friday with Denmark's reigning "crime queen," Sara Blædel, to celebrate the acquisition of her books for the American market. I decided to take her to the 21 Club in midtown, very "Americana" and a New York classical, although I will come right out and say it: the food is WAY to rich and buttery. It is a favorite of Vronsky's family, so I eat there a fair amount, usually around the holiday season, but lord did I forget about that little tidbit. Everything there has butter, and too much of it at that. The Dover sole was swimming in it. My vegetable risotto was so oily with it it wasn't even clumping up. The burger is literally marinated in it. It's a shame, but I always walk away from there feeling slightly nauseous, although my plum-almond tart was a shining gastronomical delight on the whole affair.

To top off the fact that Sara is an incredibly delightful, charming woman (she and her husband, Lars, could charm the fur off a dog), she brought me a huge bag full of traditional Danish food after hearing through her agent that I ran this here little blog. It was the sweetest gift I'd ever gotten and I dove into this veritable bag of goodies the minute I got home and my meal of butter had subsided.

This bag was like Mary Poppin's carpet bag. Lovely things just kept coming out! A box of chocolates from a Copenhagen chocolatire, some Danish gummy candies, two huge jars of delicious pickled herring (which you MUST eat with slices of raw onion), lovely smoked salmon, and a loaf of thinly sliced black rye bread on which to eat said herring and salmon, and some Akvavit (a strong liquor drink served EXTRA cold).

Pickled herring has been a traditional Danish staple since the Middle Ages, and to this day, it is traditional to have some pickled herring (with onions atop Danish-style rye) for Christmas lunch before any hot dish is served. Herring is referred to as the "gold of the sea" and is also very popular when smoked (but doesn't travel as well as the smoked salmon).

And a note about this Danish rye bread: it is the only thing with which the traditional Danish open faced sandwich (smørrebrød) can be served. It is incredibly dense and sliced very thin and takes more than 24 to prepare and bake. It has a strong smell but it sets of the saltiness and "slimy" texture of the fish to perfection. Don't get me wrong...I love smoked salmon and pickled herring, but it definitely has its own "unique" texture.

Vronsky and I already worked our way through one packet of smoked salmon and half a jar of the pickled herring the next day (I ran out to Trader Joe's and got a giant onion) during the Bowling Green-Michigan game (21-65 Michigan, whee!!). Nothing like a super salty, omega-3 laden brunch to off set Vronsky's birthday party festivities from the night before...I think a trip to Copenhagen is now in order!

But where to find such yummy things in NYC when I've depleted Sara's generous stash? I did some mosey-ing around Whole Foods and Trader Joe's and found some smoked salmon, although I don't know how it will compare to Sara's yet. Pickled herring might be a bit trickier, but there is a shop on 7th Ave. just south of 58th street connected to the restaurant Petrossian that sells caviar and herring and other gastronomical sundries. It is Russian in style, so it will be a bit different from the Danish version, but I have yet to find a place that is more Nordic in focused. Regardless, always eat your herring with raw onion!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cheese, cheese and more cheese!

I love cheese and crave it on a regular basis. Hard or soft, creamy or stinky, I have rarely met a cheese I didn't like. Blue cheese on my salad or on a cracker with some walnuts. Camembert. Manchego. I'll eat feta straight up. I just finished munching on a bit of hard, crumbly asiago. There is always something new to try and I never tire of browsing the cheese aisle at Murray's Cheese down in the Village (whenever I rally and get down there from my apartment, otherwise it is Trader Joe's) or thumbing through my monthly Zingerman's catalog. There is an entire UNIVERSE of cheese out there, people. British, Italian, French, Spanish, American...goat, sheep, cow...chesire, blue, gruyére, zamorano, cheddar, stilton...the list goes on! I insisted on trying ever cheese I came across when Vronsky and I were in France, gladly forgoing dessert for the fromage plate. (OK, sometimes I just ordered both...)

People become "cheesemongers" I suppose the same way that people become "wine-o" or oenophiles, if you want to get technical. Cheese, like wine, is alive. And great cheese, like great wine, should be variable. It changes over time. It ages and matures. No wheel should be the same, just as no bottle should be exactly the same. You can get so much from just smelling it and it can evoke anything from freshly mowed grass to nuts and fruit.

In her brilliant and informative The Cheese Chronicles, Liz Thorpe takes the "aliveness" of cheese to an entirely new level. She anthropomorphizes the cheeses that sit in Murrays's case--sitting there like little people--and agonizes that some of the fresh cheese might spoil before someone takes them home. But I can't blame her. She knows who makes these cheeses, from quirky and spunky women in Oregon to accidental goatherds in Vermont, and the intense labor and love that goes into ever wheel.

There are several families of cheese, no matter what kind of milk they are made from (cow, sheep or goat).

Fresh: a high moisture style usually eaten within days of its production. They have a creamy texture, no rind, and a milk, neutral smell.

Bloomy: Classic examples are brie and camembert but include all exterior-mold-ripened cheese. As the cheese is ripening/aging, the spores actually bloom like microscopic dandelions on the outside of the cheese, hence the name "bloomy," although you'd rarely see this by the time the cheese reaches you in the store.

Washed Rind: These are the stinky cheeses. They get their smell from the regular washings in brine (salt water) that can be fortified with booze, yeasts, even butter milk.

Then you have your true rind cheeses: uncooked pressed, cooked pressed, and blue. Uncooked press cheese are aged for two to eight months and are semisoft to firm in texture. Spanish manchego, Italian pecornios and English cheddar are examples of this kind of cheese.

Cooked pressed cheese means that while the curd is being stirred it is cut into tiny pieces and cooked in a vat making it smooth and elastic in texture so that it can age for the long haul. Swiss cheese, gruyére, and Parmigiano-Reggiano are made this way.

Blue cheese is a whole family of cheese, not just the kind that goes on your salad. Like bloomy cheese, the family of cheeses has mold introduced in powder form duringcheesemaking, and it needs oxygen to grow. It is only after the cheese is pierced after it ages that the mold starts to grow and the cheese gets its taste. There are so many "blues" out there outside of mass produced Maytag, so feel free to sniff and experience!

And this is only scratching the surface! I can't even begin to tell you all that I learned reading Liz' book, so go on amazon and get it for yourself! Maybe you'll be inspired and sign up for Zingerman's Cheese of the Month Club. Or buy it for me as a gift....either way, explore cheese that isn't mass produced. We left boxed wine behind in college (at least until New Years, anyway), now it is time to explore the wide, wonderful world of cheese!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Peanut Butter Noodles

I admit, whenever I eat pad Thai, I am really just using the noodles, lime and mungbeans as a vehicle for the peanut sauce. And yet a lot of pad Thai just isn't peanut-y enough to satisfy my craving (and often, it is a very strong, irrational craving) and so finally, my dear friend Kathleen provided me with a delicious recipe for peanut butter noodles that I can easily make in my own kitchen whenever the mood strikes.

Take half of a box of thin noodles and bring to boil/cook in pot as usual.

For the peanut sauce, you'll need:

2 tbs of soy sauce (the real stuff...not that low sodium imitator)

1 tbs rice vinegar

1 heaping table spoon of peanut butter (make it the delicious Cream Nut don't need the extra sugar/preservatives for this)

1 tbl Hoisin sauce (this is pretty standard fare now in most grocery stores, but if not, google the nearest Chinese/Asian supermarket!)

1 tsp sesame oil

a drop of chili oil (a little goes a long way otherwise it will get very hot)

1 garlic clove (minced)

Mix all by hand or in a food processor.

Add on chopped ginger, sesame seeds, and chopped scallion to taste.

Then take the whole sauce mix and add to pasta, which by now should be cooked in your pot. Strain, put back in pot, and add this peanut sauce to the hot pot of pasta. The heat will help it coat the noodles evenly. Yummy and quite nutritious.

Serve with some crisp veggies (snow peas is a good choice with shaved carrots and water chestnut) and enjoy!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Pre-Tri meal

Time to carb-load and fuel up for my triathlon tomorrow! And what better way to do it than a trip to Wegmans, which has taken the DC area (or at least my house) by storm. My mom, dad, sister and I came back with freshly made hummus, French-style salami, lo-mein, bourbon chicken, sauteed green beans, fresh broccoli, cherry tomatoes and cauliflower (for dipping in the hummus, duh), beautiful crisp local apples, marcona almonds and so much more to nosh on as I fuel up for tomorrow morning.

Why stuff my face now? Well, I sometimes tend to get this little thing called "G.I. Distress" before/during long runs and lordy forbid I get one during a race, because G.I. Distress is a very sterile term for a very nasty thing. Anyway, having it tomorrow would really put a crimp in my spandex so to speak, and half the fun of triathlons are swimming/biking/running in a all-purpose spandex uni, so I tend to keep it very simple and fairly light the morning of.

That means a piece of whole-wheat toast with a bit of butter, a glass of OJ and a banana when I leave the house and then nothing but my Accelerade (the most effective sports drink powder that doesn't taste like chalk...I like the Lemon Line and drink it all through my training as well as on race day) and those gummy chews "Blocs" that are organic and made with brown rice syrup for a bit of last minute carbohydrates right before. And water. Lots and lots of water. The Accelerade makes it a bit easier to gulp down so much water during transitions without feeling nauseous, and all the electrolytes, etc. it has in it helps too.

But for tonight, we feast! I'm busy eating matzoh bread with the delicious Cream Nut peanut butter I love so much, plus a bit of honey. It's making the pugs crazy but they are getting fat so my mom says they are not allowed to have any more treats....I might let them lick my peanut butter spoon later though when she isn't looking!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Roger Ebert: Courageous Soul with a Rice Cooker

Many of us probably best remember Roger Ebert for his film reviews in the Chicago Sun Times and when he retired, probably never thought anything of him ever again. Well, regardless of what you may have thought of his media personality or his criticism, you cannot help but feel a tremendous amount of respect for his courage and joie de vive in how he has handled his battle with jaw cancer as portrayed in this New York Times article last week.

You see, Ebert had to have his entire lower-jaw removed due to a malignant tumor, and while he is no longer able to speak or eat despite several attempts to rebuild his jaw, he has now turned to food writing and is an avid cook in his Michigan home. "Food for me is in the present tense," while "eating" is in the past. He says he has a "voluptuous food memory" that is growing ever day, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that he can now no longer taste anything. Shortly after he was no longer able to eat for good, he found that his taste memory of certain things were surprisingly strong and peculiar. He had an intense "root beer" period, followed by candy cravings, and every meal he ever at at the "Steak N' Shake" of his childhood.

Ebert did not have the proverbial "last meal," because he didn't know at the time that the doctors would not be able to restore his ability to taste and eat, but for me personally, I don't know how he (or I) could ever choose the "last meal" you could ever taste. And would it really matter? I would probably choose my mom's spaghetti with green peas and fresh watermelon and blueberry pie , all things I have had countless times before and already have extremely vivid memories of, both in terms of taste and broader nostalgia.

And that is what Ebert actually really misses. The wider context of eating. Laughter, jokes, earnest conversation. The camaraderie of eating. Because food as an experience is so much more than taste, it's who you're with, where you are you, perhaps even the peripheral smells. Crisp pink lady apples on an equally crisp fall day? Your memory of that moment will be forever intertwined with that specific autumn smell of burning fires, fallen leaves and whatever else gives that time of year that wonderful aroma. If I could bottle it I would! And of course, perhaps your tromping through the crunchy leaves munching your apple with someone special. Or a furry friend.

Ebert might not be able to enjoy this camaraderie in the traditional sense, but forever undeterred, he's persevered in the most incredibly inspiring way possible. He has written a book (always an A+ move in my mind) about his rice cooker. That's right, people. He has not just written an ode to his write cooker on some blog, he has written an entire book called The Pot and How to Use it: The Mystery and Romance of The Rice Cooker. You see, when Ebert was on the road writing in his early days as a critic and journalist, he got sick of eating crappy room service food and/or the same old diner food every week, so he got creative and started hauling his "pot," or rice cooker, along with him, and learned to cook a myriad of meals in his room while he worked. Plus, it's a hell of a lot healthier, too.

It's a wonderful machine and even I am shocked as to how many different things you can prepare in "the pot." Ebert has a devoted following on Twitter and Facebook and has learned even more recipes from his readers and fans, giving him back a bit of that camaraderie he misses. He still cooks meals for his friends and family in his pot because he's made so many meals in it over the years, he knows the recipes by heart and does not need to depend on tasting and smelling as he goes, something all of us home cooks surely take for granted. He makes everything from sauces to soup, stews and full scale entrees.

At the close of the article, he's preparing some sort of pork dish while his wife, Chaz, a lawyer who also loves to cook, prepares Ebert's Isosource, the nutrient mix that keeps him alive via his feeding tube.

While he’s in the chair "eating," she tends to the pot. After about 15 minutes he walks out and scribbles her a note asking if the pork was cooked properly, followed quickly by an apology.

“I come across as a tyrannical chef because I never speak and am in a hurry because of my shoulder.”

No worries, chef, she says, and lifts the lid from the pot. He pours a little spicy Saigon Sizzle sauce from a bottle and stirs it in. He gives the thumbs up, and it is time to eat.

I could not have said this better myself

I read a wonderful article on Svelt Gourmand this morning that completely echos my own sentiments with regards to sustainable eating/ethical meat/humane/organic/grass-fed...all those terms that are bandied about these days. What exactly does it mean for the rest of us, who enjoy food but are not necessarily made of money and live in an urban environment?

This wonderful post on Svelt sums it up perfectly:

Basically, eat less meat day to day but buy better quality when you do, be it for your own cooking or in a restaurant. It is healthier for you and for the earth and it sure as heck is better for the animal, not to mention the fact that it is tastier too. In essence, take a minute to think before putting those eggs in your shopping cart. Cage free or not? Murry's versus Purdue? Am I short on cash? Maybe just skip buying chicken this week and make something with beans instead. A lot cheaper and a nice batch of refried beans are delicious and gives your body more of what it needs than a piece of factory chicken. Eating meat less frequently is a great way to explore other options, from beans and veggies to fruit and mushrooms, and expand gastronomic horizons.

And we're not all perfect. I will certainly order a sloppy BLT from the deli that is neither organic nor humanely raised at some point in the near future. But it always begins with "a day of small things" and the more I think about where my meat and eggs are coming from, the more likely I am to make different decisions when I sit down to the table or enter the kitchen. Silly pun aside, it really is "food for thought!"