Monthly Archives: May 2010

FAKE CAN BE JUST AS GOOD

Right now, it’s Sunday. Sunday morning. In other words, BRUNCH BRUNCH BRUNCH. BRUNCH!

But I have a confession to make (please don’t hurt me): I loathe brunch.

My idea of the perfect breakfast? A huge cup of coffee, a lot of water, a piece of fruit, maybe a piece of toast or some granola. Followed by a gigantic lunch four hours later. And in my perfect breakfast world, fake meals like ‘brunch’ don’t even exist. I don’t get hungry for at least three hours after I wake up, and when I am coerced into eating 4 eggs, scrambled with butter and cheese and whatever else, 2 pieces of soggy buttered toast, 5 pieces of bacon (actually, I like that bit), and lots of processed sugar and weak coffee, it makes me feel a bit ill. And the idea of going to a restaurant and paying twenty bucks for eggs and milk and bread also makes me feel ill. Also, I don’t like drinking alcohol in the mornings. You can’t make me. I love light, little breakfasts. When I was in Europe last fall, I fell in love with my friends’ tidy breakfasts of espresso and white toast with jam. That’s it. Americans are addicted their decadent, super rich, super expensive breakfasts and it makes me want to freak out. And want to take a nap.

Growing up, we never had brunch. Maybe twice a year, on Easter and Mother’s Day, and they were both buffets, so I would just eat a plate of bacon and honeydew melon and call it a day. But our breakfasts stayed the same, even on the weekends. Even now, my parents eat breakfast together every morning — they drive to Whole Foods, get coffee, sit in a booth, and share a piece of fruit and a muffin, or maybe some bread and cheese. Isn’t that perfect? It’s so simple and sweet.

So, anyway, it’s Sunday, and this is my idea of a “big breakfast,” or “brunch.” 1/2 cup whole wheat couscous with harissa paste and vegan bullion stirred into boiled water. Assortment of leftover vegetables gone into oven to roast at 425 for 25 minutes: A handful of Brussels sprouts, one floppy carrot, one potato, diced, dotted with pats of butter and lemon zest and fresh chives from my garden. Two clementines. Strong coffee.

Am I being harsh against what is decidedly the most popular meal in Portland, and an iconic meal for many Americans? If anyone has an argument for brunch, please let me know. [My Manhattan-based best friend loves brunch, for example]. I want to be a convert. I want to do the right thing. I just don’t know how.

DRIVING BY INSTINCT

A lot of people ask me what recipes I use, or how I decide what to make, before I post it here on Popcorn Plays. The truth is, I don’t use recipes anymore.

I used to cook exclusively using recipes, slavishly following every step, down to the amount of oil or time spent in the pan. Most of the time, what I cooked tasted pretty amazing. I was still in college, and it was pretty unusual for broke students to be hosting elaborate dinner parties with sundried tomato bruschetta and homemade walnut pesto and cold peanut noodles, even though all of that stuff seems painfully easy to me now. People seemed to admire it then, and I thought I was pretty good at what I did. I tried “grown-up meals” like seared Filet Mignon and lime-soaked Pad Thai. I baked cookies, grilled pizza, and sauteed salmon. I felt like a chef. I felt pretty great.

[Penne with diced tomatoes, red onion, parsley, garlic and red pepper flakes; cold lentil salad with mint, beets, lemon juice and honey]

Back when I had cable television, I was hooked on the Food Network. I LOVED cooking shows (I kind of still do), and my mom would buy me cookbooks by all of the famous ‘celebrity chefs’: Nigella Lawson, Ina Garten (still adore her), Giada De Laurentiis, Ellie Krieger (woo, Cornell alum!), even Rachael Ray. I would google things on Chowhound or Epicurious like “roasted potatoes” because I wanted to be sure to do it “the right way.” I could barely make couscous without double checking the water-to-grain ratios like a complete OCD-addled freak. It had to be perfect. I would copy recipes from the books onto tiny yellow post-its, and keep them stashed in a drawer in my kitchen and refer to them when I was ready to cook. This was especially important for things that really intimidated me, like soups and braises and weird sauces.

But after a while, I used recipes less and less, until I stopped entirely. I can’t even remember the last time I replicated a recipe exactly. (Actually — I can! It was for Ina’s indescribably perfect roast chicken. But then again, she’s perfect). It’s just not satisfying to me anymore. Even though a blogger’s recipe or a memorable meal at a restaurant often will serve as valuable inspiration, copying one is almost like plagiarism: It feels stilted and wrong and not me.

[Local greens with half moons of carrots and manchego and pickled beets, dressed with my homemade champagne vinaigrette; Moroccan chickpea and lamb stew with carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, golden raisins and a million spices and golden pats of butter; couscous with lemon zest, toasted pinenuts, cilantro and shaved parmesan]

Don’t get me wrong — I’m still addicted to reading recipes. (And if I had a television, in a perfect world, it would always be tuned to the serene vibes of Barefoot Contessa). I spend far too many hours every week poring over my favorite food blogs (of which there are many) or drooling at the food porn on Tastespotting or Foodgawker. The only magazines I still subscribe to are food magazines (RIP Gourmet). I impulsively buy esoteric used cookbooks at thrift stores and Powell’s and spend mornings and evenings reading them like some people enjoy novels or tabloids. I remember once trying to explain to a friend how soothing it was to read lists of things — ingredients, amounts, steps, process — and got a couple of blank stares and condescending pats on the back. I like to think that all of that information seeps into my brain like osmosis, just waiting patiently until I need to activate it. POW! Perfect bechamel sauce.

But at this point, for me, it’s just information. The only thing that dictates what I cook? Whatever it is that I happen to be craving in my brain, and whatever it is that’s available when I happen to be at the grocery store (or Farmer’s Market, or vegetable stand, or you get the idea). That kind of freedom? Exhilarating.

[Tragic potato 'latke' disaster; leftover lentils with chopped spinach and nutmeg; hearts of romaine salad with cubed beets and rice vinegar with oil]

I feel inspiration soaking into my soul from absolutely everywhere — from the blushed silk of the roses on the sidewalk to the medallions of raw radishes at a restaurant to the tang of harissa from a soup to the mention of wild mushrooms by a friend during a phone conversation. Often, what I envision myself to make before I set out to cook is very different from the final product. Sometimes, what I end up with on my plate is surprisingly, happily better than what I thought was going to happen (usually butter is involved). And occasionally, there are epic dinner disasters (the most notable instances of the last two weeks involve the gummy latkes pictured above and undercooked falafel. They were, to put it kindly, not pretty. But maybe I needed some friendly guidance for what were, I realize now, both deep-frying recipes — something with which I am a true novice. Oh well). But that kind of uncertainty — the mystery, the ambiguity, the guesswork, and the infinite unknowability — is also a kind of intoxication.

Over the last 5 years, I realized that the best cooks — like Sasha has mentioned many times, and has herself, in spades — have the finest instincts, the most sharply honed intuition. What to throw in the pot at the last second. Chopping without measuring. Salting without tasting. Intuitively matching ingredients without knowing the outcome. Peering into the skillet, and understanding the bubbling language below. Someone I know recently paired fresh white trout with a sauce of butter, bone marrow, and Bordeaux. He said it was astonishingly good. But I’m also not surprised.

That same person also helped me figure something else out: that sometimes the best cooking is also the most minimalist, and that the key to a memorable dish is sourcing the very best ingredients you can find. We’ve all had good buerre blanc, for example — the best fish, the freshest lemons, expensive white wine, shallots and salted butter — at a restaurant, but it’s just as easy at home. It’s basic assembly. It really was a breakthrough moment for me, the idea that a hands-off approach would do the most honor to the final dish.

I love cooking — and its potential for freewheeling, decadent creation — more than almost anything else in the world. The act of preparation, the ritual of consumption, the gesture of sharing something precious and beautiful with people you care about, are powerful feelings. Cooking is something with which I happen to take a great deal of pride and thought. Not to toot my own horn, but feeling like my instincts — perhaps my culinary intuition — have coalesced to a point where I can imagine something in my head (mint-spiked purple fingerling potatoes, braised pork shank in red wine, smoked paprika and cinnamon) and then somehow, without a recipe, without any other guidance than my hands and my nose, result in something unquestionably delicious is something that I feel very proud about. I think my food is very humble (see also: beet addiction), but I also think it tastes really good.

I have miles to go, still — eggs terrify me, for one; I hate baking with very few exceptions, for deuce — but that’s equally exciting, also. To imagine the journey, the transformative quality of food, the eternal quest, and the boundless, infinite love.

WILLFUL CREATURES

[Image via Root Strata blog]

I continue to be entranced by the expanses and secrets of the open palm…

BOTTLED UP

Picnics are a way to execute decadence and luxury on a small scale. I hosted a croquet picnic at our neighborhood park and it was a wealth of visual riches, complete with ratty blankets and fire hazard votives. I am drawn to clutter and chaos and snacking is my favorite way to eat; lots of people came and went, dropping off little treats and drinks to add to the feast. I provided the bulk of the dinner, including bottles of champagne, rose and limeade. Besides a red leaf lettuce salad with feta and walnuts — and an amazing rice, raw kale and asparagus salad that my friend brought — mostly everything else was finger food, including cured meats, a million cheeses, plump dates stuffed with goat cheese, roasted beets, clementines, strawberries, grapes, ginger snaps, baguettes and whole wheat breads and crackers, lots of jams and jellies, roasted nuts and pickled vegetables. Oh, and peanut butter M&Ms. Because no picnic is complete without dessert.

But for future picnics, I will remember to bring plates.

BED OF ROSES

90% of the time when I envision the perfect lunch, it is a soup and a sandwich (and a salad, too, ideally). This lunch was a melange of leftovers and very nearly perfect.

THE SOUP. Heated leftovers from an overly ambitious dinner party. I’ve been itching to make a version of this carrot soup ever since I went to Laurelhurst Market and was craving a home rendition of my own. But my made-up version — saffron roasted carrot and potato soup — had a baby food texture that I blame on the unwilling food processor that mostly pushed ingredients around with its flimsy plastic blade rather than pulverizing it into a silky mass.

Anyway: roast 2 lbs of organic carrots and 1/2 lb of red skinned potatoes toasted in olive oil and salt and pepper for an hour in a 400 degree oven. Meanwhile, saute 1 red onion and 5-7 cloves garlic in huge stockpot with lots of butter (optional but worth it) and olive oil. Then, I added the roasted vegetables and lots of aromatics: ginger, tumeric, cumin, garam masala, a few strands of saffron, bay leaves, chili powder, cayenne. And the zest of 2 limes. Anything and everything that enhanced the gorgeous orange hue. Added 6-8 cups water and amazing vegan bullion I found at New Seasons and brought to a boil. I let it simmer for an hour and then, a failed attempt at puree. Meredith and I ended up mashing as finely as we could with some wooden spoons, even though I was really envisioning a creamy puree. Topped with 1/4 cup minced cilantro and parsley and eaten piping hot with crackers or naan.

[Note: we took this on our road trip to Bend and it is even better cold.]

THE SANDWICH. Basically antipasto assembled on toasted baguette: leftover roasted beets, artichokes marinated in lemon juice and olive oil, sliced brie, prosciutto, salami, and mustard. A million flavors, all intense, in every bite.

THE ROSE. Stolen from the sidewalks of Portland. Embarrassed to admit that I just found out the nickname for Portland is ‘City of Roses.’

YOU CAN’T TAKE A PICTURE OF THIS. IT’S ALREADY GONE

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-DShnvNNv0&feature=player_embedded#]

Reposted via Leibrary.

Sorry for being so MIA this past week — friends in town visiting coupled with weekend getaway to Bend, Oregon meant sad lack of posting. And tonight, LOST comes to its inevitable conclusion. Reconciling with the finale of the series has been akin to going through the Kubler-Ross grief cycle. I’m finally at acceptance.

THESE DAYS

Some assorted lunches — I think I’ve been getting less and less ambitious with my cooking. I need to step it up a notch! That’s not to say these aren’t delicious meals… they just seem to be getting more and more simple.

From top: Romaine lettuce with beets and feta; spinach salad with lentils and tumeric-scented rice; skillet potatoes, more cubed beets and white beans wrapped in corn tortillas with lettuce and lime guice. I soaked the beans overnight and stewed them in white wine and balsamic vinegar and one whole onion, and they were tart and firm and perfect..

COOL MY DESIRE

I know, I know. Another beet-related post. But! A heart-shaped beet! Heartbeats. Heartbeet. Beet still, my heart.

Another easy lunch, minimal time in kitchen so as to maximize time spent lolling in grass outside: seared asparagus bullets doused in lemon and black pepper, piled on top of a warmed baguette half smeared with creamy chevre. The other half, the same but different: leftover lentils (from the random spinach salad I have pictured up there) heaped high, served alongside spicy baby arugula lightly dressed in vinegar and oil. I tried pressing both sides together for a sandwich: sandwich fail. Open-faced only, this one is.

I have dear friends from New York are visiting tomorrow! I’ve been keeping a running a list of vegetarian dishes I liked for my veggie pals. The top picks: the pickled asparagus and mushrooms at Saraveza (super crazy bottled beer selection too); the tiny red radishes smeared with French butter and sprinkled with salt at Navarre (thanks, Jennifer — you were right, the place is outrageously good); cardamom-scented French pressed Extracto coffee at the Wolf & Bear’s cart outside of my house; roasted cauliflower and green onion sandwich at Bunk (slowly eating my way through the entire menu there); sweet peppers and onion pizza at Apizza Scholls (recommended by just about everyone on the planet, but first by my dear pizza-loving pals at Flipped Out Records); the beet salad at Sub Rosa; the baked grapefruit at Broder (MMM); smoked trout and capers at Savoy (okay, not vegetarian). And that’s just the vegetarian stuff that I absolutely, bottom-line loved.

Would be remiss not to mention the one non-veggie thing I indulged in this past week: a medium-rare hamburger with sharp cheddar and pickled onions on brioche at Clyde Common, located in the Ace Hotel downtown.

MOMENT OF ABSOLUTE ECHO

Korean photographer Jungjin Lee takes photos that are macabre and deeply textural and even a little dramatic. They have a slightly enigmatic, narrative quality to them. I think they are extraordinary. I love the idea of wind as a ‘character’ — after all, Woman in the Dunes of one of my favorite movies ever. From Aperture Foundation:

Known for her laborious, textural photographic process, Lee brushes liquid emulsion (“liquid light”) onto the surface of handmade mulberry paper. The texture of the paper and the gestural marks of the brush stroke create a unique painterly effect, which is beautifully reproduced in this, Lee’s first trade monograph.

Wind captures the ethereal quality of its namesake in a series of landscapes dominated by windswept expanses and foreboding cloud formations—panoramas that reveal an adventurous spirit, yet resist casual entry. Man-made objects, such as a dilapidated school bus, an old ruin whose ceiling is open to the sky, or wind-blown prayer flags, frequently appear marked by powerful, invisible elements. Metaphors for an internal state of being and the forces that shape it, Lee’s Wind landscapes are imbued with an elemental vastness, at once powerful and serene.

Liquid light! From Lee:

The images in the Wind Series represent my introspective states and thoughts. Out in the field, in the forest, or in the village, I am ready to press the shutter release when the scenery stirs my emotions and imagination. This moment of ‘absolute echo’ within myself travels through infinite time and space. That is, ‘Wind’ becomes my energy of free spirit. Vanishment and transformation. Sadness – yet another change. Wind is invisible and it contains more of inner thoughts than an actual fact or a definition. I don’t try to make my definite direction of wind in my works. That is why I like the title Wind. They are just landscape pictures

[Images from Aperture Foundation via American Suburb X]

DOUBLE DOWN

Twice baked potatoes, you guys!!! Ultimate comfort food maybe?

One gigantic potato, scrubbed, pricked with a fork, tented with foil and roasted in the oven for an hour at 400 degrees. Sliced lengthwise, scooped out mushy insides, and mashed with some cooked black beans, grated cheddar, red onion and hot sauce. Stuffed back into aforementioned potato and finished off for 15 minutes. Topped with minced parsley and plenty of scallions and cracked black pepper. The  easiest, most comforting lunch. Also so easy to make for one person. I think I liked this way more than I logically should have.

Okay — off to the UFO Fest. My weekends in Portland keep getting weirder and weirder…