Entry-Level Eating

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Is this what it means to be a food snob?

matchbox is the restaurant where the characters from Lost in Translation might meet awkwardly three years after their life-altering Toyko dream.

It endures as one of DC's trendiest restaurants--two years after it was voted best newcomer. In a city of geeks and political junkies, it's what passes for trendy. On weekends you can wait more than 2 hours for a table: the logo contains only lower case characters! And two colors! Just listen to the mod lounge music on the website!

I waited an hour to be seated for dinner tonight, another hour before the waiter delived my 10" smoke&fire pizza.

My pizza, was, as promised, spicy, but the thin slices of smoked gouda didn't stand up to the chipolte-laced pizza sauce. The basil, spicy and fresh, would have worked better on a plain margherita slice. The mini-burgers (which I didn't try, Kanishk), blushingly tender, still pink and rare at the center, did look appealing.

Dining with virtual strangers that could one day be friends, I was hard-pressed to search for common, charming conversational ground. After work, after waiting, being abandoned at a stark table while the pizza oven works through the sizeable list of order not only rankles but saps wit and any desire to make friends.

Everyone else seemed to enjoy it.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

"What did Alice Waters do?"

I don't know how I missed it, but last month Vanity Fair published the tell-all exposé of Chez Panisse's first years. It's a story in the mode of "fairy tales can come true": charming, though chock full of that specific Berkeley snobbery, unassuming in its West Coast way, yet beastly in its exposition of good taste.

Jeremiah Tower, who served as the restaurant's chef as it gained national attention, comes off well. The article devotes most of its narrative structure to setting him up as the secret to Chez Panisse's success. Alice Waters appears as a ghost, flitting nervously around the margins of the article. She is quoted once. The most thorough detailing of her describes her boyfriends, and in one episode recalled by an ex, she sits on an overturned pot in the kitchen, struck blind by her overwork. It takes her an hour to recover.

Tower has to be the focus of the article--without this conflict of influences and importances, who would be interested another article about Alice and her wonderland?--but his apparent power over the Chez Panisse kitchen in its ascendence raises legitimate questions. Is the chef in the kitchen necessarily the source of a restaurant's genius? Or can the owner and founder dominate, even from the front of the house?

The piece, though straightforward about its interest in Tower, quietly casts him as the source of the will towards pairing local ingredients with local recipes. Considering I spent the evening, while quoting the article aloud, identifying Alice Waters to my roommates as "the woman more or less credited with every idea you have about buying seasonal, local ingredients," that seems a bold claim. The article is also the second in the magazine to make an argument about misassigned genius. (VF excerpted from Isaiah Wilner's The Man Time Forgot, which calls Henry Luce out on having willfully erased Time Magazine's co-founder, Briton Hadden, from the magazine's history and masthead.)

Are these articles righting the wrongs of accepted cultural history? N.B.: My roommates, who are preternaturally interested in food--our kitchen is in a constant state of cooking--stared at me blankly when I started shouting gleefully about Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. At this point, it's fairly irrelevant who started the revolution; we won't be reading the collected writings of Tower or visiting Waters' embalmed corpse on the UCBerkeley campus. To claim that one person inspired our country to the current local, organic, slow food craze is probably hodgepodge no matter what. I agree with the end of the article, which returns to Alice Waters. She loved food, and she "made that place continue and continue and contineu, no matter who left. And everybody left. But she didn't."

There's one answer: it doesn't matter who is in the kitchen. What matters and what works is loving food and losing oneself in food as good as is possible, or available...in season. Eventually it will be spring, or summer, and the bounty of beautiful vegetables will overflow, and those who are still there, who are still paying attention, will benefit the most.

The best eggs

I made eggs, light, with cheese. I didn't think I would be making them, but then I did and they were the best eggs I've made yet. Soft.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Better Burrito

My mother and my little sister once went behind the back of the man who cuts their hair. Another stylist's scissors touched their heads, and although they were both happy with the results, their happiness was marred by the creeping guilt they felt from cheating on their hair guy.

It was like cheating--trading in someone who has been good to you, who you've loved and chased after for someone new and exciting, in hopes of finding that spark, that excitement. But, for me, in a new city, getting my hair cut by a new stylist, I can feel good about that. This small, transactional relationship, I can recreate in a new place, a new city, with new routines and new hair salons.

But not all such relationships are so easily replicated. This week I also bought my first DC burrito, and that I did not feel so good about. Although they certainly don't care, I felt like I was cheating on the New Haven burrito guys.

The burritos we ate in New Haven began with portabello mushrooms and juicy onions, which even devoted meat-eaters might choose, over beans and rice. Then, the cooling, fresh tomato salsa, flecked with green cilantro, and what must have been the secret ingredient, a crunchy cabbage slaw. Plus cheese, and from the squeeze bottles a spurt of sour cream and chipolte hot sauce. Guacamole was almost, but not always, unnecessary.

The burrito cart guys wore big black pants patterned with bright red chiles. One taught certain customers to say "es una noche hermosa" on fall evenings. One, a devoted socialist, was dating a girl who went to one or two of the same parties as my friends.

The best burrito cart I've seen in DC boasts its own traditions: a choice of beans (black, refried, or both--black and tan), an arsenal of hot sauces (there are fifty--hotness on a scale of one to ten; fruity or not fruity), and a free York Peppermint Patty mint. It is, I will say, a respectable burrito, perhaps the best burrito I've had outside of New Haven.

During one stint away from school, I experimented with other burritos, with cilantro rice or a medley of veggies, with generic hot sauce or no hot sauce at all.

I might have been eating Indian food, so far from my burrito were these other rice-and-bean based wraps. That the New Haven burrito and other burritos similarly contain beans, rice, vegetables, cheese, tomatoes seems as much a necessary coincidence as that a human and an antelope are built of the same fundamental particles. The building blocks may be the same, but the end result could not be more different. Southwestern TexMex? The New Haven burrito came from some other source of inspiration; it substantiated one day on the corner of York and Broadway as if unaffiliated with any other culinary idiom.

Is it worth ever eating again tasting a burrito? Once accustomed to a most successful version of a classic idea, why let less Platonic forms the dish impose upon the accumulated experience of the dish? Or to put it more simply, can I continue cheating on the best burrito I've ever had?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Leftover Suprise

My pseudo-matter paneer made delicious leftovers, due not least to the pleasant surprise of opening the Tupperware this morning to discover the brilliant red of the tomato-based sauce and the creamy white cubes of cheese tucked inside. I made good food, I remembered. What an encouraging thought in the first hour of the morning.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Time is on my side

My roommates are good roommates, and I don't mind coming straight home after work to be here with them. If I'm home, I might even accomplish something. And I'll be home for 6 hours before I fall asleep. Minimum.

I have no responsibilities rigth now, besides those I make for myself. So when I decide I want to spend time cooking, I have the time to spend time cooking.

I made a curry from Duguid and Alford Mangoes and Curry Leaves a Kashimri dish whose main components are tomatoes and cheese.

In my youthful ambition, I wanted to make fresh paneer, but the Giant failed to cough up cheese cloth. (The Giant, while it has better produce than Safeway, is a tease in terms of fun ingredients. I had to wait about a month to find yeast on their shelves.) With frozen, "deep fried" panneer and upwards of three hours, I simmered a beautiful dish into existence.

Indian food is so comforting. It's a staple of my college experience--Sunday buffet brunches at our favorite local restaurant (it looked like a diner, inside a chrome box, decorated with portraits of Hindu gods and bright, multi-colored Christmas lights). At the magazine I helped edit, we would order pounds of curry on production weekends, and my apartment would keep the quickly failing plastic containers.

The Kashmiri paneer curry had the same heaftiness to it that Indian buffet dishes enjoy. I always assumed those to be tragically greasy, but I knew how much oil I'd put into this business, and it wasn't much. Slow sauteing of the onions-garlic-ginger, then a long simmer of that sweet-smelling mess combined with crushed tomatoes, additional spices and water thickened to a sauce recognizably...take-out Indian food. I added the paneer and let it thicken some more. Frozen peas probably would have added a welcome spike of color. The hot pepper I added, plus the cayenne overdose, left the dish just spicy enough to convince me I'd made Indian food. I'm still intimidated by this cuisine--most of the dishes I'm interested in are little more than mushy, over-spiced veggies, but to make it good? Mm, that's an assignment I'd gladly take on.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Kitchen Ambitions

My plans for this week were big, and almost thwarted before they started.

I desparately want to be a baker and in theory Sunday is my day to froth yeast and knead shaggy dough.

This Sunday morning, instead of coffee, the book review and a baking adventure, I enjoyed a pile of junk food about a foot high at the office working overtime. Yum.

So yesterday night, the yeast came out. My first recipe from my bread book (<--a blatant lie--I've made the standard white bread and the pizza dough, but it was over a year ago in a different state...doesn't count.).

The hardest part of making dough, I feel, is keeping count of the 1/2 cups of flour that are incorporated into the dough. They go in one after the other and while worrying what the dough is supposed to look like, I forget how many should go in, thus confronting the problem originally fretted about: well, I'm sure the dough seems ready, but is it? Is this a shaggy dough? Is it just letting go of the sides of the bowl?

The answer to all these questions apparently was no. I had a soggy puddle of dough on the counter. I was only able to master it after disgracefully dumping a pile of flour into the dough three or four times. (Only after I had attacked the nearest roommate with the mitts of sticky dough covering my hands.)

The hardest part of making bread, I feel, is judging when the dough has "doubled" or "tripled" in size. My geometrical skillz are just not that good. This loaf (it's a raisin bread) didn't seem to quite double....I put it into the oven expecting a hard dense loaf.

Twenty-five minutes later, it's warm dome was peering triumphants a good two inches above the edge of the pan. What a cheeky loaf!

Trimphant, indeed. It was warm and moist, and made good breakfast today. There's a slight bitter tast to it, though. I can think of at least three different factors that might have contributed to that, so I won't try to pin it down.

I'm hooked, though. If I can't get around to baking on weekends, Monday will be Bread Day.

GM 4eva

Over at Salon, the second installation of Eat & Drink pits Catherine Price against omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. Like a fat, eager fish (a natural source of omega-3), Price swallows hook, line, and sinker the case for enhancing our diets with omega-3s.

She admits that the fat fad is a "prototypical example of the modern food industry in action: Identify a nutriet that food processing has removed from our diet, build hype around it, and make consumers pay to get it back. " But by the end of the piece, she's popping capsules of fatty fish oil as if they were Flinstones vitamins.

Price is giving a omega advocates free publicity with her article. A scientist in an industry that spent $50 million dollars to produce, essentially, powdered cod liver oil, gushes ""You're not going to alter the way animals are fed because when you have millions of cows, where are you going to find all the grass for them to feed on?"

In our house, we can't quite afford grass-fed beef, so we're not asking anyone to go that far. And I'm still a part-time vegetarian...flexitarian...anyway, mostly I eat veggies. But why spend millions of dollars on inseting miniscule beads of fish oil into our food instead of either 1) inserting it into the corn we feed the cows, since its genetic code has been screwed with so much already or 2) creating policy (maybe kill some corn subsidies?) that encourage a better, balanced diet for the cows and chickens? The cows, at least, won't complain about what they're being fed.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Redwall warriors

I am in the living room. I hear a sound. My roommates are not home, and so I wonder. Into the kitchen--the sound is coming from a roommate's pantry.

I slowly open the door. On the first shelf--a good two and a half feet off the ground--two mice, duking it out for all they are worth over her prepackaged goodies.

They looked at me in shock. I looked back. I made some half-coherent threat. They scampered away (jumped down?).

Mice have invaded our kitchen. I scrubbed every surface I could at the end of the day, put all the food away, and took out the trash. The exterminator's already been here.

Any suggestions for how to fix this problem?