Thursday, March 10, 2011

a favorite cookbook

My mom gave me my first cookbook when I was 16 years old. It was Christmas 1995 and my mom made them for all the young girls in my family. Each one was an assemblage, a scrap book of sorts, of recipes my mom had collected from magazines from way back in the day. She compiled the recipes according to how much she thought each of us liked to, or didn't, cook.

I was considered "the lazy one" in my family; I was always too lazy to clean up my room, too lazy to help with chores, too lazy to cook, even when I argued it was not laziness but a young feminist resistance to homemaking duties.

My cookbook reflects my mom's assessment of my dislike for cooking. Recipes are mostly "Light & Easy," "Cooking for Two" (or just one), in addition to campy americana recipes from the 60's and 70's. (My suspicion is that the good recipes from the 90's are in my sister's cookbook.)

But the best part of the book are the blank pages in the back, space for me to write my own favorites recipes, in the case my taste for cooking developed. Little did mom know then, (but maybe she suspected?) I have scribbled recipes in a handwriting I can no longer recognize as my own,

I have glued recipes from newspaper clippings, magazines rip-outs, and have copied recipes from more contemporary, fancy cookbooks.

It's funny, this is the cookbook that has the least information (especially when compared to The Silver Spoon, Chez Panisse or The Joy of Cooking) but it is the one infused with the most love. I look into it frequently and feel transported not only to 1995, but to the decades living bound by mom's labor and now my own.

Thank you mom for my cookbook. I will always have it. I love you.

Friday, March 4, 2011

A long overdue post: Vegetarians in San Francisco

Back on April 6th, 2010, communion hosted its last dinner in San Francisco. Yes, it has taken me a very long time to discuss this, and I am very sorry for that. I realize now that that dinner was more loaded than I wanted to admit at the time or than I wanted to address. I can appreciate now a bigger picture of its complexities and nuances.

It was a vegetarian feast for vegetarians. The only two omnivores were Jacob B. and I, who cooked the meal. I wanted to have a vegetarian meal that was delicious and filling, but also one that went beyond the basic pasta primavera. In that way, it was a challenge for us doing the cooking. But furthermore, I wanted to converse about the personal journeys the vegetarians at our table had travelled. I wanted to know how did vegetarians become so and what sort of memories informed their decision then and sustains it now. But though I did not want to frontally admit this, my curiosity was hidden in a veneer of judgement, where vegetarians are a breed of the self-righteous and inflexible, and who exercise an incredible amount of privilege. It has taken me a while to contest my judgements and finally feel ready to recount our findings here, without any tongue-in-cheek bullshit.

Our first course was a purée of spinach soup, along with stories of how they first decided to be vegetarian. One of our guests recounted having to work in a meat processing facility as a teenager, not even with direct slaughtering, but packaging and shipping beef outside Berlin. Though he told his story with cool composure, it was clear how impressed and disgusted he was handling meat. He told of unhygienic premises, an assembly line layout, and a basic emotional detachment working with flesh; the impact was so big and long-lasting, he had been a vegetarian for over two decades.

The second course was one I was very happy with, especially considering my reluctance to making a savory dairy-free meal: a warm quinoa pilaf with asparagus and three-way peas. We used english peas, with their shoots and leaves, blanched baby carrots and asparagus, with walnuts and a sprinkle of minced carrot tops. We asked diners to share a moment of frustration when having to defend their diet, and most stories were of recent vegetarian converts having to stand firmly in their decisions especially with family members and loved ones. Other stories were of traveling, especially alongside carnivores and the conflicts that come up when restaurants don't offer a vegetarian option.

The third course, a leek soufflé, was a major flop. I had been practicing my soufflé techniques for weeks with pretty good results. But this time, the leeks exited the oven high and puffy, but in traveling ten feet from the kitchen to the dining room they deflated to a sad-looking blob. At least, the conversation was good: how do you manage integrity with practicality and hunger? I think this is an especially important question because in the moments where hunger pangs are the most intense, we can make the worst eating choices. A diner told us of a time he ordered a vegetarian burrito on his way home from a long day at work. As he got home and unwrapped
his dinner, he saw a huge chunk of carne asada staring at him. What to do----either get up and return it (and wait and additional fifteen minutes more) or turn a blind eye to the meat in front of him fueled by growling hunger. Not only did he spit out the food in his mouth, but he returned to the taquería for a remake.

The fourth course, grapefruit granitas with créme fraîche ice cream with questions of whether their commitment has ever wavered. It has. One diner told us of traveling to Mexico, where after starving for days, she finally succumbed to eating a turkey sandwich on a plane. The funny tidbit here is that she was on the plane alone, given she would have never done it within the gaze of her fellow vegetarian travelling partner. She broke her rule when she knew no one could see her.

Our fifth and last course, a milk and caramel tart with toasted hazelnuts. This is a dish that would convert vegans, I think, because the crust is ever so-flaky and wonderfully buttery that whoever denies themselves that gift is just plainly an extreme ascetic. But instead of asking where diners stand on the scale of vegetarianism, we asked what vegetables would they like to be. A beet: good for you and aggressive; a mushroom, which can grow overnight, and a wild mushroom, tasty or poisonous?; a carrot, unassuming and rewarding; rainbow chard, pretty and good for you; a dandelion, surprising; an eggplant, 'cause you gotta know how to treat it.

It was a fantastic dinner. Delicious, yes, but also difficult. It was one of those moments in which I, a food scholar and a proud omnivore, had my beliefs and my pride tested. And, like a note scribbled on our tablecloth said, I do always end up with picky eater friends. Thanks everyone for sharing.

communion is BACK!

Sorry for the very very very long absence. A combination of factors ---a new city, a masters program, procrastination, insecurities and blah blah blah have kept me from moving this project forward. With a new set of goals, renewed stamina and enthusiasm and commitment, I return to communion.
There are new plans, among them a communion dinner in new york city for venezuelans living here. But first, a long overdue post from our last San Francisco dinner especially made for vegetarians.
Read on.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

about new city, a new kitchen and styrofoam dishes

I have not written a word in a really long time. This time, I do not blame my procrastinating lazy self so much, but instead logistics: I have been working my butt off since March, when I got accepted into a Masters program in Culinary Anthropology at NYU. That's right, I decided to move across the country and deal with all that comes with moving. I had to edit my belongings to what I wanted/needed to keep, give notice at the most fantastic job I've had so far, Range, leave my beloved rent controlled Victorian home with awesome housemates, say goodbye to longtime friends and break up with my boyfriend so that I could move to the east coast. Yeah.

I have been living in Brooklyn for a week and a day. And frankly, it's been the hardest week of my life. I miss the Bay everyday and I even wonder whether I just made a huge mistake. New York is busier, angrier, dirtier. I also don't really know my way around it. But I also don't have my stuff yet.

Cooking is one of the things in life that grounds me the most and brings me peace and calm. And since I moved to this new apartment north of Prospect Park, I have felt so challenged it has threatened my sanity. First, I had to deep clean the ENTIRE kitchen, since there were inch thick lines of mice droppings around and in the stove. YUCK. Second, no gas for five days. No bueno. And then, despite the fact my movers had promised to deliver my stuff within the week, it has been no such thing. I had prepared to live minimally for a few days until my things arrived, but since eating out adds up, I have had to purchase surrogate cookware, a $5 knife, plastic silverware and styrofoam dishes so that I can use my new kitchen.

This sucks.

I know it's all a matter of perspective. I know that once my homebase looks and feels the way I want it to, the rest of the world will be seen through the same set of lenses. I know NYC will rock my socks off, but until I have proper dishware and cutlery, I will only resent the city for keeping from me the things that give me sanity. I want my blender, my baking stone, my fucking favorite coffee cup, my fruit baskets. And though I am trying to practice the Buddhist principle of non-attachment, this time I think I am warranted an exception: I just moved cross-country, left my loved ones and my comfort zone---could my kitchen be the way I want it?!

Yet tonight, I made risotto. Comfort food at its best; direct access to carbohydrates, or happiness. I went to the Park Slope farmer's market last week and bought an assortment of king trumpet, pioppini and crimini mushrooms. A little white vino, a little parmesan. Done. Yum. Happy. Drunk. Sloppy blog.

I am starting to feel different about my kitchen.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Superbowl or Sushi Bowl?

I love it when business owners admit that sometimes staying open is a waste of everyone's time and money. so I loved it when my bosses decided to close the restaurant for superbowl sunday. It is a rare opportunity when all of my co-worker friends and I coincide having the same day off. We had to celebrate it. The question: what do a bunch of women who care next to nothing about football do on the most glorified football day of the year? How do we rebel and have the most anti-football day celebration?

Thanks to Jiwon Park, sous chef at Range, pan-Asian food lover, and come to find out, ex-sushi cook, we got everyone at my house for a sushi making party. I did not have the slightest idea on how to go about making sushi, but I guess that's why one follows the suggestions of such an immensely talented woman.

I joined Jiwon on a shopping trip to a supermarket in Japantown, where I felt so alien and illiterate and she navigated the aisles with graceful ease. We purchased dehydrated shrimp shells for soup stock, glazed unagi, fresh dungeness crab, raw yellowtail, nori, red miso paste and Kiri Ichiban (on sale!) along with assorted veggies. Back in the kitchen, I could only help in the neutral tasks: cutting avocado and cucumber, or handling Jiwon stuff from pantry (rice vinegar, sriracha) or random tasting for too much heat.

Once we had everyone gathered and all the food prepped, we got to rolling. And though it looks easy enough, it isn't. I have never been good at rolling a burrito, or a joint, for that matter. I always overestimate how much filling they can hold before the wrapping falls apart under pressure. I wanted to learn how to do it right. I wanted the bonding experience of friends assembling their food over a table. But I could also see how much more effective (read: how sooner could we get to eat) if we just let Jiwon do the rolling. So we did. We still gathered over the table while we oohed and ahhed over Jiwon's food.

I loved this rare opportunity to dine with my co-workers; they are wonderful, intelligent, solid women who love food as much as I do. Move over Tsunami!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A note on picky eaters

Those who know me are aware that I have a distinct aversion towards picky eaters, though I do forgive those who justify their dislikes with a strong argument. A good friend of mine explained that she did not like olives because when she was a child she chewed on a pitted olive hidden in a dish and chipped a tooth. She was traumatized and now is weary of olives. It is not that she dislikes their inherent saltiness but that there is a disagreeable emotional component to the way she sees olives.
A few nights ago at work, a diner asked me if we could remove the bones in the chicken dish, because she "did not want to touch it." She said our menu was short and limited because she didn't eat pasta, she didn't eat fish; steaks are too fatty and the soup sounded weird. When her date, who seemed to ignore her fastidious behavior, asked what exactly was escarole and then ordered the escarole soup, she ordered one too.
I struggled with this table, not only because I dislike fussy people but because I am uncomfortable seeing people's awkward incompatibilities over the table. Especially while on a date, I think it a serious shame when a couple rules out the flirtatious element of sharing food: "my fish is decadent, would you like a bite?" Though he ordered three courses, and she a soup and a salad sanz dressing or cheese, I proposed an off-beat pacing of their food so that both were eating at the same time.
I wondered why this woman was such a picky eater: did she ever chip a tooth on a bone, or once choked with her lunch that she is now a reluctant eater? Or is this bigger, the product of a damaging self image wherein food is just a necessity, not a pleasure? I then wondered about the man, and how important could food be to him that he seemed not to notice or care when his date proved to be such a picky eater?
Either way, I know I'm getting too wrapped up in someone else's issues, but it got me to thinking about the choices we make when we decide to eat or not eat a certain food. About the restraint and discipline it takes to avoid and decline a food we have decided we a) don't know, b) don't like, c) can't eat, or d) won't eat. I think whoever picks option A is lacking the human gift of curiosity, but I'm open to hearing the arguments behind why people don't like, can't or won't eat certain foods.

Sure, my nephew and DW, the Picky Eater, are allowed up to a certain point to be picky eaters because they are children: their palates are simple and like MFK Fisher said, kids "can taste bland delight in dishes that would sicken [read: bore] older men." But grown adults better have an articulated sophisticated argument to why we eat the way we eat. There is nothing wrong with saying "I'm on a diet" or "I don't like the mushy texture of oysters" or "I will not eat a previously living being," but since we made such a choice we are responsible for defending it and for doing a little research before we take ourselves out to eat. More importantly, we are required not to make our waitress feel responsible for our choices.

That said, I'm thinking of another Communion, one where guests have made a choice of diet and lifestyle they must uphold everyday of their lives. I would love to get some vegans around the table, but I think I would be an utter failure as a vegan cook, since I can't live without butter, cream and cheese. But a vegetarian Communion sounds like a true possibility. Now, where are the self-professed vegetarians?!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

i want cookies!!!

Everyone in my family is a cookie monster. Isa, my sister, is the cookie making instigator in my family. If I could use one adjective to describe her, it would be 'ambitious'; she woke me up today in a cookie frenzy, ecstatic about all the goodies she wanted to make, despite their difficulties. She wants to make the old-school candied fruit and pecans 'slice & bake' cookies we used to make when we were children, taken from a November 1985 edition of Woman's Day; the more traditional chocolate chip cookies, to which my sister always thinks the more chocolate chunks, the better; oatmeal and cranberry cookies, my favorite; sugar cookies with sparkly sprinkles; and the fastidious marmalade trenches, which though they are good and like shortbread, they crumble a bit too much for my liking. She even wants to make these peanut butter surprises, chunky sugar cookie sandwiches with a peanut butter center, ALL IN ONE DAY, but I will try to convince her not to.
So then, Isa wants to make cookies, and because we all want to eat them, we let her go nuts. My mom and I sit around the kitchen, handling eggs, and sifting flour, giving advice, reminiscing on what went wrong last time we made these or those cookies, or like me, mostly sitting on the side acting like the supreme cookie judge. What happens is that like me, Isa is a scattered, distracted, too-ambitious baker/cook that once she starts and sees how much work she really has to do, and how high the pile of dirty dishes will be, she wavers. We all try to pull it together, watching the oven when she takes off to talk on the phone or to attend her laundry, or chiming in when the sugar cookie dough isn't as elastic as she'd like it to be or when she thinks she didn't put it enough chocolate chips.
The conversation is pretty hilarious. Gossip. Bitching. Plans. Cooking related chit chat. Gossip. Bitching. Sometimes all at once. We are often interrupted by my father, raiding the recently stocked cookie jar, or my brother-in-law being an affectionate husband, or a ringing phone.
But eventually we all get back to baking, with Isa's ambitious plans seen through by the collective whole.

I can't say it any better than the Cookie Monster: