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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

People Think We're Weird

Last night, all eyes were on me, for about five minutes, mouths were hanging open, and confused faces were pointed in my direction.

"What? No restaurants? At all?"
"Man, that sucks."
"You're weird."

I was at a pot-luck dinner held quarterly by the Boyscouts, an event known as "Court of Honor" where the Boyscouts are promoted, awarded and praised in front of their peers and loved ones. Enjoying a meal I hadn't cooked, (but was homecooked all the same) I moaned, "Oh this is nice."

That's where it all went down.

Someone asked if I don't eat a lot of fried chicken, and from there I started explaining that I don't cook a lot of typical "American" foods and that since we can't eat out for a year, no. I had to open my big fat fried chicken mouth.

"What do you mean, a year?" she said.

"Well, so, the typical American family eats out at restaurants and fast food establishments more than ever. We're in the convenience food trend, and I wanted to see if it would be possible to not eat out for an entire year." I went on to explain the rules of our challenge, and that's when I was assualted with the comments above. Someone even taunted me with a Subway sandwich. As if.

So why you, dear readers, have remained supportive, if not down right encouraging to our venture, it seems as if to the general population, our experiment in home-based eating is neither inspirational or desirable. It's just plain weird.

Humph! I'll show them, and their little Mcnuggets too.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Dreaded Chicken Pot-Pie

When you hear "Chicken Pot-Pie" warm sensations enter your belly, visions of buttery crust, luscious creamy sauce, tender chicken, warm potatoes, bright carrots, sweet peas all do a little dance in your mind. Well, that's you. I'm the chick that has to make the damned thing.

Chicken Pot-Pie is one of my signature dishes. Not because I love making it, but because I'm good at it. I grew up on the Marie Calendar's classic, loving the small crisp pie that fell out of the cardboard shell onto my plate, steaming when cracked open with my fork. As I grew older, I in turn served those very pies to my own kids. That's when I saw them for what they were. Compressed, tough "chicken" mixed with very few vegetables in a very salty sauce with not enough crust to please crust-hungry folks like us. I decided to learn how to make them myself, starting with how the heck pie-crust is made.

That's right, I'd never even made a pie crust before then. I googled multiple recipes, some calling for egg, some not. The basics I realized were this: keep it quick, keep it cold. Then, while reading a short-story collection, "The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted and Other Small Acts of Liberation" by Elizabeth Berg, a quote stood out. In it, a former maid and nanny says in a letter to her long grown up charge, "When making pie crust, never let it know you're afraid." (Or something to that effect.) And that was all I needed to know. I never let my pie crust know I was scared shitless of it.
The ingredients of a great pie crust are few. All purpose flour, salt, ice water and very cold butter. Not margarine. Not lard. Butter for this baby. After the initial flops, too much water, too much salt, never ever add garlic to the crust, I finally found my groove. It involved my food processor and a little something I'd found along the way, patience. After grinding the pre-crust together, you bring it into a somewhat tight ball, flatten it into a disk, wrap it up and set it in the fridge to calm-down. While it unwinds and relaxes, I do the same. I still don't know if the crust will be good at this stage, and since there is nothing I can do about it, I just let go and allow the process to happen.

Since pot-pie-procreation takes time, it's good to start on the other steps, like the vegetables. Here's another lesson I learned the hard way. Raw vegetables, no matter how small they are diced, do not cook all the way through in the oven, inside a marvelous butter crust. Par-boiling the vegetables before adding them to the pie ensures success each and every time. Also, here's another place where adding garlic ruines your pie. I love garlic, if you didn't know. I'd add it to ice cream if I could, but it really throws the creamy, rich, home-style flavor of a classic pot-pie way off the mark. Add it if you like, but I'm telling you, it wasn't good.
For the veggies I use a mix of peeled and cubed Russet potatoes (for 2, 9-inch pies, I use 2 large Russet baking potatoes) 1 1/2 cup of frozen baby sweet peas, about 5 large carrots (also peeled and cubed) and if I feel like it, about 3 stalks of celery, thoroughly washed and chopped. All my veggies (minus the peas) are cut into similar size pieces to keep the cooking even. I boil the potatoes and carrots (and celery if using it) in salted water for about 8 minutes, until just tender. Then I drain them and set them in a bowl to wait for their jacket of creamy chicken-gravy to coat them later on.
By now my crust has waited patiently for it's time to shine. I clean my counter top (with water, you don't want Lysol to perfume your crust...yuck.) and then coat it liberally with more all-purpose flour. By now I've also chilled my rolling pin to help keep the dough cold while I beat it softly into pie-submission. I divide my dough disk in half and roll the halves into balls. I flatten each into a disk and rewrap one, placing it back in the fridge to wait it's turn. The other disk, I place on my floured counter and roll from the center outwards, turning the disk 90 degrees each roll. I make sure to lift the crust repeatedly, so it doesn't form a permanent bond with the counter-top. I never, ever stretch or pull the crust either. This will cause it to shrink when cooked. For my pie, I like my crust kind of thick. At least 1/3 of an inch, maybe half an inch if I'm happy. Once it's the right size (big enough to go inside the pan and hang over the edges for that delicious edge crust we all break off and eat first) I stop rolling and put it in the pan. I place the pan in the fridge. Then, I walk away. That's right. Walk away.
Later, when I've gathered enough strength to continue, I begin the process of killing and plucking my chicken. I'm kidding. But can you imagine the poor women who did have to do that? I'm pretty sure I would not be writing this blog about chicken-pot-pies if that were the case for me. No, I unwrap my pre-cut boneless skinless chicken breasts and place them on the cutting board. For 2 pies I usually use about 4 breasts. I cut them into about 1/2 inch size cubes and get a skillet on medium-high heat. I sprinkle the chicken with a decent amount of cracked black pepper and salt and then add some olive oil to the pan. Once it smokes, I add my chicken, spreading it out so it's in one decent layer, and then I stop. I don't touch it. This is really important.
If you stir and stir the chicken, you're robbing it of flavor, and you're royally screwing the future pan-sauce. So, back up, walk away from the stove, keep your spatula down and wait. Give the chicken a good 5 minutes on one side, possibly lowering your heat just a notch so you don't burn it, and let it do something magical, carmelize. When you finally flip those little lobs of meat over, they should be a rich, woody-brown color and smell heavenly. Allow them to cook for a few minutes on the other side (3-ish) and then scoop the meat out, leaving the gorgeous brown stuck-on bits of flavor in your pan. This is where your gravy's life begins.
To the brown bits in the pan, add about 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Allow the butter and oil to melt. Then, add in, slowly, while whisking the butter-oil in the pan, about 4 tablespoons of all purpose flour. You are making something called a roux. This roux will create the thick creaminess needed for the pot-pie. If you did this in a clean pan, without brown chicken bits to melt into it, your gravy would be bland and boring and flour-y. I forgot to tell you, it helps if you take about 4 cups of chicken stock and bring them to a simmer on the side. You'll need to slowly whisk the stock into your roux and cold stock can make your flour lump up into little turd-balls that never go away and ruin your sauce. Yes, I said turd. Move on.
Whisk the stock into the roux, allow it to come to a boil, watch as the stock transforms from a clear-ish gold liquid to a thick, brownish colored gravy. Allow the bubbles to come faster and faster, until the sauce is so thick, it looks too thick. That's when you add the rich, velvety heavy cream. This is what turns this sauce into something other-worldly. Taste for salt and pepper. Add some more. I like a lot of cracked black pepper, but you may not. So do as you will to my sauce. But treat it kindly. Once the sauce is ready pour it over your vegetables and then stir in the chicken (and any juice that settled in the bowl with the chicken) and allow the mixture to sit. If for some reason there isn't enough sauce, well, you can make some more. But, it won't have the brown chicken bits and will be dull and boring. So maybe don't.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Pour half of your mixture into the pan with the pie crust at the bottom. Pour the other half of the mixture into a large zip-lock and seal it up, and freeze the bad boy. Save it for another day you want to make a pot-pie and only feel like making the crust.
Take your remaining dough-disk out of the fridge and roll it into a pretty top crust. This time, make it about 1/4 inch thick. Cut a few slits into the crust, (air vents) and you can use your creativity here. I like to make a slit-flower, but for some reason that just sounds dirty now.
Place your top crust over your pie. If the innards of the pie are mounded high, that's ok. Don't be alarmed. It looks better and will taste great, so stop stressing. Pinch and squish your bottom crust and top crust together, to create the glorified "edge." Bake in the oven for about 45-60 minutes. The crust will be crusty, (no doughy wet spots) and the pie will be bubbly and hot inside, maybe even oozing a little on the sides.
Take it out, and somehow, find the courage to let it sit for about 20 minutes. If you cut right into it, your pie will be all over the place. It'll taste good, but it'll look more like goulash and less like a pie you've spent nearly three hours making. So wait. Just wait.
Now, here is the time you sit down and watch your family inhale this pie and congratulate you. Then, they'll ask for it all the time. Then, you can send me hate mail. I understand.
Today, I am making the dreaded pot-pie. Once you go homemade, it's hard to return to the freezer isle.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Losers Can Be Winners, Too

I didn't make it. There, I said it. I found out for sure at about 5:30 this morning. I fell asleep the night before full of anticipation, keeping my iPhone handy to check every thirty minutes to an hour throughout the night, hoping above all hopes that my name would be listed on the magical list of finalists who would be flying to Napa Valley to compete for the big bucks. Then I read it, the news that the finalists had already been notified via email/usps mail, and that I was a stupid idiot for waiting up all night, excited. But what took the sting away was reading other people's disappointment with the news. You know, the other "losers." As they say, misery loves company. I was a little bit in love with each contestant who failed to meet the Better Burger standards, as I had done.

My friend Christy and I celebrated my loss with an aptly titled, "Loser Burger Party." I made my official "Losing Burger" and we gorged mindlessly, not needing words to comfort us, but the sensual sabotoge being played out on our taste buds. We laughed at the end and reminded one another that is was "their loss," hoping to ease the burdon of did I? could I have? should I have? assualting my brain. But as the feeling of fullness wore off, I was still left knowing that I lost. It was buried under beef and mangoes and bacon, but it was there, burning a hole into my creative hopes of being something more than me, of becoming a burger goddess in the eyes of everyone I knew.

The most amazing thing happened through this loss. Friends came out of the woodwork to say, "Hey there, friend, pick yourself up and shake yourself off. You'll get there." And so I was moved without expecting to do so. The Great Burger Drama has played itself out thus far. No, I didn't reach the hieghts of greatness with my recipe. No, I wont be famous for my tasty creation. But even as I retire the buns, the ground chuck and ground sirloin, I am left feeling like I did accomplish something. I inspired a group to come together and nurture the heart of someone who tried to achieve a little something bigger, a little something better, and a little something burger. Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Did We...Cheat?

I woke up this morning in a bit of a panic. Yesterday flashed before my eyes. Shredded pork, two scoops of rice, salad with ranch dressing, slices of greasy pizza...Oh My God. It wasn't a dream. I ate food from a vendor, food that, gasp, I didn't make at home.

Yesterday my sons and I went to an annual event at the Marine Corps base called Bayfest. It's basically a carnival with a major headline band performing at night. The band ended up being The Black Eyed Peas. So the whole base was pretty stoked about it. There was a catch, once you go in, and have your ticket scanned, you cannot leave. Well you can, but you lose your wristband and will have to repay full price for the concert. So, once we were in, we were in. Also, they didn't allow food to be brought it. They did a bag search for all patrons and we were stuck inside the carnival for eleven hours at the mercy of the vendors selling deep fried, greasy, reheated goodies.

So we ate. We ate and we ate. I even bought a deep fried twinkie. Don't ask me why. I abhor the whole idea of a twinkie, but the sound of "deep fried twinkie" took on a somewhat delicious ring in my ears and my mouth was eager to try it. It wasn't that bad, but it also wasn't that good either. Not worth the $4.00 for one greasy, powdered sugar coated snack cake. So, yesterday, for some unknown reason, I didn't think twice about what I was shoveling into my mouth. It wasnt until this morning when I realized, my sons and I may have just incurred strike one on our Restaurant/Fast-Food Sabbatical.

I will leave it up to you readers, let me know: Did we cheat? If the concensus is yes, then $70 will be deducted from our vacation fund and my children and I will incur the wrath of one strike against us for the year. (Remember, we only get 3 and after the 3rd - we lose out on New York, New York for the end-of-the-road celebration.)

I'm nervously awaiting your decision...And remember, if you live nearby, I can cook a delicious chicken-pot-pie. So be nice. (I think I may have just commited bribery.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Build a Better Burger 2009

How is it possible that one, little burger can cause such a fuss? Well, if you are aware of Sutter Home Wine's annual Build a Better Burger competition then you already know the answer. Since 1990 Napa Valley has been home to one incredible burger recipe throwdown, with the grand prize for the best beef burger a whopping $50,000.00! Another prize for the best alternative burger sits at $10,000.00!
I entered the beef competition.
The funny thing is, I'd never made a beef burger before I decided to enter. I know what you're thinking. (Well, maybe I do.) You're thinking, "What makes her think she could win with ZERO burger experience?" Well, you're right. But then, maybe not! When I set my mind on something, I give it my all. I went through a good twenty lbs. of ground beef, and another 5 lbs. of ground tenderloin butt (that's filet mignon!) experimenting my rear off with flavors, textures, cooking times and styles. If it makes you feel any better, I've gained about 10 lbs of cattle-weight.

Finally, after flopping the umpteenth burger I'd made, an idea hit me. What about something featuring Sutter Home Wine's sweet, tropical Chenin Blanc white wine? Bright, clean, crisp were the notes that danced on my tongue. Mango, mint, habanero and micro greens all came together in a bun to create a delicious masterpiece of a burger that had no name to speak of. Missing elements, like crisp, salty bacon and creamy smoked gouda cheese were invited to the party and viola!, the burger I would enter into the competition came to life. The final name, Smokin'-Spicy Mango Bacon Gouda Burger of Paradise.
I held numerous tastings and always received positive reviews. Surely my burger will win, they said. Now, as the announcements are an arm's length away, I am hoping they were right. To date, there are six days left before they announce the five beef-burger finalists who will be flown to Napa Valley to cook their burger for a panel of judges. Head judge James McNair stated in a podcast that they have wittled three-thousand entrants down to thirty, and will narrow it down to the last ten, five beef and five alternative. He also said that about half of the entrants were automatically disqualified for not following the rules. Yikes! I am on pins and needles wondering if I even made it to the preliminary judge's table.
Until August 20th friends. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Can Good Food Be Cheap?

I, like so many other hungry Americans, am broke. My wallet is not just empty, my bank accounts not just zeroed out, but my pride is slowly leaking down the drain as well. Money is tighter than ever, and my biggest fear is being realized--no more fancy eats. Gone are the days of filet mignon, fresh ripe mangosteen and lychee, and wedges of Spanish manchego and French Brie. I'm barely able to afford the organic, free range chicken that I've come to consider a "must-have" after reading about the horrible happenings in the poultry industry of America. Our family's debt has reached it's boiling point - we cannot get any hotter than this. So, in an effort to scale back, I am trying to rethink what it means to eat well. Does good food equal exorbitant cost? Can good food be cheap?

I grew up in a typical American home where the standards, Spaghettios, Ramen, Hamburger Helper etc. were always on hand. When I left home I knew I would never, ever, eat those foods again. Not only are they nutritionally inferior to fresh food, but on a personal level, they don't taste that good either. For the most part, I've been successful in avoiding the canned and boxed food trap. Convenience food is limited in our home to frozen pizzas, microwave popcorn, instant oatmeal, cereal and bagged chips. Other than that, I make it. (And before my sabbatical from restaurants and fast-food joints, we would go out to eat it.) Now, as I am trying to find ways to feed the family on a smaller budget, my options seem limited. It is definitely cheaper to eat poor quality food, but what if I want to eat delicious, fresh food without spending a small fortune?

I am one of those people who support the organic food movement. I do feel that the word organic has been manipulated by mega-corporations to get the average grocery shopper to buy a pricier product in the belief that they are doing something good for themselves and the environment. However, any food made with minimal processing and no chemical additives is definitely better for the body than not. The only problem with organic is that it's expensive. Take bananas. I can buy a stalk of bananas for about $0.45 a lb. However, if I want organic bananas (and this means they are not only grown without pesticides, but they are not pumped with Ethylene to ripen them quicker) I have to pay nearly three times that amount, $1.20 a lb. For the organic chicken breasts I buy, I am paying a whopping $6.99 a lb! That's right! For two chicken breasts (an average pack) I usually pay about $7.50. That's pricey for anyone, especially the average blue-collared shopper like me.

So how on earth is anyone in this economy supposed to cook the food delights of Bobby Flay or Ina Garten when their income to spending ratio is smaller than ever? I would love to make lobster pot-pie Ina, and Thai grilled shrimp salad with some fancy cocktail Bobby, but frankly, I can't afford it. As it is, I am spending, for a family of four, around $800 a month on groceries. This number doesn't just need to go down, it must. Now remember, I live in Hawaii, and it is more expensive here than on the "mainland" of the U.S., and I also buy high-quality, often organic food.

My main concern is that I don't want my children (or myself!) to eat nutritionally deficient crap. So I open the door to my readers and hope that someone out there knows the answer to this provocative question. Can good food be cheap? Can the average shopper eat high-quality food for a fraction of the cost? Do you have any tips, tricks or secrets that can enlightened the grocery-disabled? I'm excited to hear what you have to say.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Day One...What Else Could I Call It?

I've successfully completed one-going-on-two days of my personal "One Year of Abstenance" restaurant/fast-food challenge. Let me tell you, I almost forgot and went out with my husband for some rare beef phö. But, I promise you, I didn't. Just look at that picture - doesn't it look amazing? It is, sigh, it is.

Instead, we started the day with some of my famous homemade, Lemon-Coconut pancakes topped with a slightly tart fresh blueberry sauce. They turned out, ok. I won't gloat or pretend that these were my best pancakes. I didn't use enough sugar and the batter didn't foam up as much as I liked, making the pancake a little denser than normal. The blueberry sauce was somehow left unattended on the stove for a little longer than normal, creating more of a "Blueberry Jam" than a syrupy-sauce that I like.

I am not even sure I ate lunch yesterday. I do know that last minute I ran to the store, bought my sons a cantelope, two frozen pizzas, a package of turkey hot-dogs and whole-wheat buns, and a bag of generic Capt'n Crunch cereal. The hot-dogs survived my sons' death grip as we practically ran to the theater to see the almost new Transformers 2. We also ate peanut butter M&M's. I'm not proud. (But, I did buy them at the store, so I feel safe in that omission of poor food choice.)

Determined to make something tasty and moderately healthy, I came home, washed the dishes and dug through my fridge. There were two Hawaiian sweet potatoes (they are white inside if you've never seen one) that were sprouting, a half empty bag of carrots, some green beans, a few tomatoes, frozen peas, and the standard aromatics: garlic, ginger, onion and chile. I decided to make a vegetable curry of sorts with the above mentioned, and spent about thirty minutes peeling and chopping said vegetables. That resulted in a lovely callous at the base of my index finger on my left hand. I feel like a true elbow-greaser! After I was done chopping, I spotted a hidden bulb of fennel that I then dissected as well.

I sauteed the onion and fennel in extra virgin olive oil until lightly golden and caramelized. I then added garlic, ginger and a few dried red chiles to the pan and sauteed them as well. While they sizzled I combined a spice mixture of turmeric powder, fennel seed, cumin seed, coriander seed, black pepper, cayenne pepper, salt, chile powder, paprika and garam masala in my spice grinder. I poured the spice mixture over the sauteeing aromatics and stirred. Then, I drained my vegetables (I'd placed them in a cool water bath to prevent the sweet potatoes from turning brown) and added them to the pot. I then added about 2 cups of chicken stock I had almost let go bad in my fridge. (I tend to keep opening new ones, forgetting I have old ones needing to be used up.) I let the whole thing come to a boil, then reduced the heat and let it simmer covered for about an hour while I worked on making chicken curry - my version.

For my chicken curry I prefer chicken breast, and this is in no way standard, as in India the whole bird is used. To start, I finely minced onion, garlic, ginger and green serrano chiles into separate piles. I blended my top secret (oh ok, I'll tell you!) mix of curry spices: coriander, cumin, turmeric, clove, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, paprika, cayenne, hing (asafoetida), fenugreek, fennel and garam masala. Sometimes I add a pinch of Persian saffron. And I also included fresh coriander (cilantro) leaf as well as curry leaves, finely chopped. I blended a few tomatoes and set them aside, and then chopped my chicken into medium bite-sized pieces.

I sauteed the onion first in olive oil, but I've been known to use Ghee (clarified butter), mustard oil and even coconut oil. I let the onion get deep and gold, letting all the natural sugars come out. Once this is achieved, I add my ginger, garlic and chiles. I sautee them for about 2 minutes and then add my spice mixture. This is how I cheat - I fry the spices in the aromatics for a few minutes instead of toasting the spices before I grind them. I know, I know, this is not what the purists do. But, it's what I do and I will add that I make a pretty bad-ass curry if I do say so myself. In addition to the ground spices, I add 2 whole cinnamon sticks, 6 whole cloves and 5 whole cardamom pods, slightly crushed. Once the spices have fried I add the raw cubed chicken and coat it in the spice/aromatic mixture. I let the chicken begin to brown, but I don't cook it all the way through. I add in my blended tomatoes, curry leaves and about 1 cup of water. I could substitute chicken broth, coconut milk or even cream for the water and all would taste equally delicious. I stir and bring to a soft boil. Only then do I taste the liquid, and salt accordingly. I let the mixture simmer over medium heat for about 30-45 minutes until the chicken is not only cooked through, but tender and the liquid has concentrated itself by half.

I should add that normally, I turn on the rice-cooker and have basmati rice steaming away while my curry is simmering. This time, I thought it would be fun to serve whole-wheat bread with it. It wasn't. I missed the gluttunous delirium of swallowing wads of spicy-sauce-soaked rice with my curries. I thought I was doing something good for the body, but then neglected the good of my mouth. I won't make that mistake twice.

We rounded out the night with a few glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon and fell asleep watching Iron Chef America. I wont say the day was a flop, because it wasn't. Will this challenge get any easier as I fill out the new full-time cook position I've promoted myself to? I hope so. Only time will tell where the journey ahead will lead us. I will tell you that right now, Taco Bell owes me either a Taco Supreme or my money back, and it is taking all of my free will to not walk in there, shades on, hair wrapped in a silk shawl, looking behind me with paranoid jerks of the neck, and get that taco. I'm doing this for you, readers. This is my taco-sacrifice.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Restaurants Really Suck - So I Quit!

That's it! I quit! I am disgusted with the quality of food (rather lack of quality) served at so called "fine dining establishments." Today, my husband and I celebrated our eleven year wedding anniversary by snorkeling at a lovely beach, watching a fun movie with the kids, and ending the night at restaurant in town.

We knew we weren't in for a four star meal, no Jose Andres for us, but at least we wanted a hot meal that tasted kind of good. Wrong! Without naming names, this jewel-encrusted day of the week (Diamond Wednesday's...not quite) managed to piss me off and rob me blind in one sitting. We had burgers and fries, soda and salad bar. That's it. Nothing extra. Nothing fancy. My burger was sopping wet, and my fries were cold. My husband's meal came out a good ten minutes after our food was served, and my poor son's mini-burgers had to be sent back not once, but twice, to correct his incorrect order. The total for this half-ass meal? $90 including a less than fifteen percent tip. McBurger, my arch nemesis, was sounding rather desirable after paying that tab.

Previously, I had endeavered to go one year without patronizing any eatery, opting rather to prepare fresh meals at home. I had become disenchanted with the high price of bad food in my state, and felt like I could find some sort of meaning in the food I ate if I just made it myself for a year. All of it. Now, I enjoy cooking quite a bit, and have an adventurous spirit when it comes to new foods. However, like any working/student mother-military spouse will tell you, sometimes grabbing a bite to eat takes a load off the shoulders. My plan lasted two weeks. Two sorry weeks before I caved. It wasn't what you think. I wasn't hungry. I wasn't doubting my resolve. No, I was on vacation with some girlfriends in the island of Kauai and stuck in a position where cooking my food wasn't a possibility.

So, I cheated. I didn't think it would count, but the following week after my return home, my in-laws paid a visit. Don't get me wrong, I cooked my little Paula Deen heart out. My mother in law was afraid I was cooking "too much," but I aimed to impress with my culinary skills. Even so, in the week they were here, we did manage to eat outside the home twice. Once to show them the amazing flavors and textures of Vietnamese cuisine, and another when my father-in-law felt so bad for me that he demanded he buy pizza for the family to give me a kitchen-break. The vow had been broken, and once again, I was going through the drive-thru ordering this and that, squeezing my guilt into the backseat for another day.

Then, today happened. Today I kissed almost $100 away for $25 worth of food. Today I watched my husband's browl furl in contempt when his credit card was swiped and a smiley face was scribbled on top of the merchant's copy. And today I remembered why I took that oath in the first place. Because, I dare say, restaurants really, truly suck.

So, my husband, kids and I talked. We talked about how shitty it feels to throw hard earned money away. We talked about how easy it would have been to cook a meal ten times better. Then we talked about how we could commit to the one year challenge once more, and make it stick. Then my son said the most beautiful thing I have ever heard.

"Mom, you know. I've always wanted to go to New York."

New York! A vacation to the culinary capital of the world. Well, at least our world. With the money we'd been spending each month on dining out, we could instead save for a trip to the Big Apple. Everyone seemed pretty excited about the idea. But, with all good ideas, there needs to be a little punishment attached to really make your point. Our rules were simple, according to the state of California, three strikes and you're out. Oh, and the Boy Scouts too. Even though we're in Hawaii, we felt that we could borrow freely from other good ideas to help ours along. So, three strikes is all we each have. If one of us cheats more than three times in one year, that person doesn't get to go to New York. And I mean it. If it's the kiddos, they will be staying with some old, miserable babysitter who knits and believes boys should do hard labor to develop a good work ethic. If it's one of us so called adults, the same rule applies, sans the old babysitter. Also, one other hitch -- each cheat results in a deduction from the vacation fund.

And then we did an all hands cheer, in front of people, at the mall, and felt sort of dumb afterwords. But we did it, and starting tomorrow, August 9, 2009, the Salazar family begins our odyssey into the strange and very un-American territory called "home-cookin'." We hope to make it out alive, and will be documenting our journey right here, for all of you to laugh (or yell) at.

This is no "Julie/Julia" -- I have no clear goal for the kind of food I'll be making, and doubt I'll be having lavish fancy parties with lots of booze and butter, but I think it'll be fun. And maybe, as author Michael Pollan has suggested, I will leave the crowd of bystanders and return to an ancient sport, one long forgotten in America, called "cooking."

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Playing Favorites

World, we have a problem. And this is no small issue, let me be clear. This is a problem of epic proportions. Epicurean proportions, that is.

While sitting at the table today, enjoying leftover Chicken Cioppino with toasted baguet stuffed with melted cheese, I was trying to picture the perfect dish. You know, the perfect meal, that "last supper" that I would die for, metaphorically speaking of course. And I, lover of food like no other, came up blank. What the hell is wrong with me?

So, in a panic, I began retracing my dietary steps. Cioppino last night, Vietnamese phö the night before, turkey submarine sandwiches, Mexican pot-roast with fresh salsa and tortillas, orzo salad with lemony-herbed chicken and feta, bbq'd burgers with tuna-farfale...The list goes on and on. Yet, not one of those meals, and all were delicious, stoked me enough to say "That's the one."

Suddenly picking a favorite meal felt like picking a favorite child, like commiting to a marriage when there were so many other men to date. Like saying cambozola is better than manchego. I shudder at the thought. I waited for my sons to return from school, hoping to glean a clear food-winner from their ever hungry mouths. My oldest son Jr. responded with a clear and unwaivering, "I dunno. My teacher asked me that too, and I wrote, I dunno. Cuz I dunno. I like a lot of things." And when I turned to my youngest, a mini-me when it comes to the glorification of all things food-related, I was sure an answer I would find.

"Jorge," I said. "What is your favorite food ever?"

"Thirds," he answered.

Further clarification yielded more of the same. He couldn't pick because there were "just so many good things to eat." My husband was no help either. When asked his favorite food, his response was "Chicken Curry?" Notice the question mark? That's because he asked me. Come to find out, he has the same problem we do. "That'd be hard to pick just one," he said.

And then fear set in. What do you call a foodie with no favorite food? A culinary adventurer with no culinary roots to call home? A maker of things that taste yummy, with no clear-cut winner? A fraud. I was a Phony-Foodie. A Crook-Cook. Martha Stewart facing a grand jury.

What would the greatest of greats say? Does Tony Bourdain subscribe to just one favorite meal? Did Julia Child have one butter-laden dish that she could find finality in? Am I so wrong to love so many foods? Or am I stuck in the sin-pot of polyamorous foodieism? Will I burn in Hell's Kitchen? Or does true food-love mean a lifelong love of one meal?

I'd love your opinion readers! What's your favorite food ever?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sexy Food

There are some foods that I cannot avoid. They are lucious, they are sinful, fatty and rich and so damn good. At night, when my husband's warm body is pressed to mine, I am filling my head with dirty thoughts. Thoughts of chocolate ganache running down my tongue, the melting meaty taste of steak au poivre filling me with ecstacy and breathless gorge of a buttery toasted bread piled high with gooey French cheese. I am a bad girl.

Sexy food uses all of our senses. The sound of it sizzling on a hot pan, the steam escaping its withering body delicately caressing our skin. The way it seduces us on the plate with its naughty smile, beckoning us to dive in, the baby smooth to firm and deep textures in our mouths to the taste that signals "yes, yes, yes!" to our brains. It shares this amazing ability with one other carnal desire --sex.

Sexy food doesn't have to be elegant. Some of us like it rough, a textural warehouse of sensations. Crisp asparagus with creamy feta and sweet, slightly tart balsamic vinegar. Crunchy popcorn with smooth caramel and salty peanuts. Grilled cheese with crisp bacon.

Sexy food doesn't have to be cooked or even prepared. Ripe mangosteen when cut mirrors the soft inner flesh of a woman. The bitter pungency of arugula tickles your tongue and heats your body. Even powdered sugar can be sexy.

So to continue my food-lust I decided to list some of my all-time favorite sexy foods. The fun being that what's sexy to one may be different for another. Feel free to add your own favorites, and don't be shy --even if you are still a food-virgin.

Sexy Foods:

Cioppino (A rich seafood stew with a spicy wine and tomato broth) served with toasted crusty french bread - great with a glass of cabernet or merlot.
Kabob, because eating meat off a stick is always sexy.
Roasted chicken with roasted root vegetables. There is something carnal and lusty about roasting foods that can only be expressed with grunting and sighing.
Pizza (thin crust, of course). Don't question me. I'll whip you.
Ice cream - I'm not even going to explain why licking ice cream off a spoon out of a pint container is such a turn-on.
Cheese - preferably the gooey, runny kind that have unusual smells. Serve with sliced dried meats, toasted breads, and wine.

And I'll have to stop here. I've reached my sexy-food limit and must call my sponsor before I relapse into non-stop-sexy-food-indulgence.

Recipe Contests = Life Coach?

I did it. After nearly 14 years of not letting a single drop of red meat pass my lips, I not only caved into omnivorism, I entered a beefy-burger recipe competition. I've really strayed from my lacto-ovo roots. I think it may have been a slight play of destiny. Because, had I never began my romance with beef after such a long divorce, I never would have fathomed a beef-burger recipe possibly worthy of $50,000.00. Oh, yes, I failed to mention the huge grand prize. That's right, $50 THOUSAND dollars. (Fifty thousand reasons to start loving beef again.)
I spent weeks perfecting my recipe, testing and retesting. Tasting and retasting. Sweating strange-beefy sweat. I learned things about ground beef in the process. I learned that mixing too much "stuff" into the beef makes it as busy as a floral print shirt, and over-handling the meat really does make it tough. (I didn't believe it either, but it's true!)
I learned that ground tenderloin butt, (that's filet mignon for all you non-beef officianados) makes a delicious gourmet burger. I also learned that eating beef burgers for breakfast, lunch and dinner is dangerous for your digestion. And forget the skinny jeans, I mean, go amnesiatic about those - they aren't happening. Most of all, I learned that my friends love my cooking.

And then they started appearing everywhere. No, not the friends, the contests. Everywhere. Money for recipes, BIG MONEY for recipes. And I was caught, like a kid picking her nose at church, I knew I was in deep. Build a Better Burger is just the ice burg. Well, maybe more like an ice shelf. Better Homes and Gardens is hosting their annual Prize Tested Recipes contest, the Washington Post just wrapped up their annual Best Tomato recipe and trust me, there's more.

So my life has taken a turn for the kitchen. If I loved cooking before, I dream cooking now. Recipes fill my mind like sardonic come-backs fall from Stewie Griffin's lips. And finally, without realizing it, I found passion again. Passion for doing something better than anyone else. Passion for waking up, for trying hard, for doing my best. And that was definitely an unexpected treat.