Monday, May 31, 2010

Remembering Pork: bbq, old road trips and "the chinese guy".

I have been thinking a lot about food lately.

Real food, fake food and good food. Just food. It’s Memorial Day weekend and most folks consider this to be the start of summer, so lately BBQ food has been coming up a lot.

I am a California girl, where it is summer 350 days a year. The other 14 don’t count. We can fire up the grill whenever we want. I have been known to do it in the rain.

Like most kids growing up in the 50s and 60s California (ouch!) we used our built-in BBQ a lot. Chicken, pork beef—everything could go on the grill and did. Once my Dad brought home a small live goat—well you know the end of that story.

Outdoor cooking was a big part of family dinners. Family beach parties often involved cooking over an open fire using an old refrigerator grate. I have the best picture of my brother and me, and while that is another story, the picture is too good to pass up.

But it was never BBQ. Really. My family is Italian, and open fire cooking did not involved anything as complex dry rubs and slow cooking pork for hours. BBQ’d chicken was brushed with a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and salt. The “brush” was made up of rosemary, just picked and tied with string.

Pork was rolled with herbs and garlic and cooked quickly. You’re getting the picture. Handmade pasta, big wheels of Parmesan and handmade olive oil from the neighbors were every day food to me

While I was thinking about this just before Memorial Day, I was trying to date when I had REAL BBQ and where was I ? I think it was Austin 1988-I was there to celebrate my friend Joe becoming the President of Houston-Tillotson College. As I thought about all of us sneaking away from these very formal activities to scarf up spicy saucy BBQ, I remembered another, much earlier event where open fire cooking and pork played a big role.

During my childhood, whenever my dad went hunting and he passed thru Sacramento delta area, he always stopped to pick up some pork from “the Chinese guy”. I think maybe I was 13 when I first tasted this pork. Spicy, and well marinated, it melted on to the grill, the outside becoming crusty and the inside moist and tender. This pork was loin, covered with a fine layer of white fat on one side. He kept it in the marinade in a barrel.

A small wooden wine barrel I recall, and he picked it up out of the thick dark sauce, and let it drip, then put it in foil and wrapped it tight. As a teen, it tasted, well, exotic, to me. It would be almost a decade later when I finally learned what the flavorings and spices were. But I never forgot the taste of it, and on and off have worked at recreating that flavor for my own marinades.

Another event that I remembered this weekend about that same pork loin was this: late fall 1969 or 1970, and my then husband and his best friend, just back from Viet Nam, and I were going hunting with my parents up near the Idaho border. We would then meet our friend Tim in Boise for a few days. It was the first time that I had taken any time away from our almost year old daughter, so it was an EVENT.

I am sure that there are other tales to tell of that trip. Losing a favorite quilt in a motel in Alturas CA. Meeting up with Tim in Boise and the hilarity that ensued there. But the thing that sticks out is the pork loin we cooked outside over a pit fire.

The three of us shared sleeping in a modified VW bus (of course) and my folks in their camper a ways away. We ate with my folks the first night in camp, and after a fruitless second day of deer hunting, we built a cook fire and decided to drink some wine and cook the pork loin we had brought. We were going off to Boise the next morning.

We drank a lot of wine, and although I don’t remember what else was on the menu that night, I do recall to this day how good that pork tasted. Threaded on a crude spit, and fire roasted, the marinade forming a wonderful crust, it may have been the best thing I had ever eaten—up to that point. We ate it with our fingers and finished all the wine. Life was good.

Could have been the wine. Could have been the fire and it could have been the pork, but that was the night I really fell in love with BBQ pork. And unlike the marriage, have never fallen out of love.

So it made perfect sense to me that when Jacqueline Church, Twitter handle @LDGOURMET, web site said she was looking for guest bloggers to do some BBQ cookbook reviews for her blog, I jumped at the chance. You’ll see my review on her blog later this week, and a riff on that well remember inspiring marinade from long ago. Stay tuned and I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, tell me about your first time with BBQ.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Real Food, Eggplant and Cooking for One

I live alone.

I say this not for sympathy, but to set the stage.

This is not a food blog, but food is a great deal of my life-so this musing is about that. Food.

Discussion recently is loud and long for feeding your family real food, taking the time to cook, growing your own, etc. I take no exception to any of these, and welcome the company in that point of view.

There is no question in my mind that the best way for every family to eat is to eat closer to the ground. Sometimes that hard, and it can’t be done all the time. However, I can tell you from personal experience that just planting one or two vegetable plants can excite any child, and add to the family table. And anyone can do that on a window sill. A whole garden? The neighborhood comes alive.

In my neighborhood, 65 years ago, all the households planted gardens, front and back yards, meridians, everywhere. They shared the harvest. But I digress and that is worthy of a post on its own.

But I live alone, and what I don’t see among all the posts and chats is how damn hard it is to cook for one. I love to cook, and am damn good at it. My favorite meals to cook are what is now known as Sunday Dinner, and that can be any night of the week when I can grab an ever-evolving cast of family and family-friends and cook.

When you cook for one, it’s pretty hard not to get bored. It hard not to just eat cereal every night. It’s hard to think of what you can do differently with ONE chicken breast. Give me dinner for 12 any day. Really. I am a child of the 60’s-we invented real food eating AND dollar stretching!

I cook everyday-well, almost everyday because I like to eat. And what tastes better to me are those meals created from fresh ingredients, and the best are the ones are from ingredients I grow myself. But, you got it now, I live alone and for the past 10 years haven’t been home enough to maintain a garden. So with some herbal exceptions the big vegetable garden is more than likely a thing of the past. Not sure, but think I will live my vegetable garden fantasies though my daughter.

These tomatoes? They are from one day in my garden circa 1997.

Now that I am home again full time I can think about meals and what I can cook with more creativity, and less feed-me-fuel attitude.

This past Sunday when marketing at my favorite independent grocer with my favorite only daughter, I spied the MOST beautiful eggplant. Dark purple, glossy and firm-is there anything prettier?

I was consumed by a craving for eggplant caviar and decided then and there I would make and can a batch. Yes, I can “put up”. It’s a craft that any food lover should learn. You can have your garden right there in January.

Eggplant caviar has as many recipes as there are people that make it. Thomas Keller makes one, and so do I. And you can too.

This is a snack that doubles as an entreeat the drop of a hat. There is no limit –I think, to what you can do with this versatile food. What follows is my recipe for eggplant caviar, and one of my favorite pasta dishes that I make from it.

Eggplant Caviar

5 firm eggplant
1/2 red onion fine dice
½ red pepper fine dice
½ green pepper fine dice
Garlic to taste (I used about a tablespoon minced)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Squeeze or two of lemon juice

Placed eggplant on a foil covered cookie sheet and poke several time with a fork. Roast at 400 degrees until they collapse. Remove and cool. When cool, take a sharp knife and split the eggplant as you would a baked potato. Scoop the inside into a bowl. Take a sharp knife and run it thru the soft eggplant to “chop” it coarsely. Set aside.
Take the oil and juice that has come from the roasted eggplant and put into skillet with about 2 Tb of olive oil, heat to medium.
Prepare the remainder of the veggies. I use the food processor and just pulse a few times. Put the processed veggies in the heated pan and sauté for about a minute. Throw in the garlic and sauté for another minute.

Combine the eggplant with the sautéd veggies and salt and pepper to taste. Add a squeeze of lemon juice to brighten if need. You can refrigerate for up to a week in a sealed container—if it lasts that long! Or you can process in small jars. Follow normal canning instructions.

Shells and Caviar

1cup cooked small shells
½ cup eggplant caviar
Fresh grated Parmesan
Salt and pepper

Cook the pasta and drain. Add the eggplant caviar and toss, add cheese and season to taste. Eat.

If you make some Eggplant Caviar, let me know your favorite way to use it.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Florence Above the Arno: Mother's Day & Irises

Florence May 09, 2010
On a hill high above the Arno River is a garden. Its gate is almost hidden protecting it from all but the most resourceful.

Terraces that fall for a thousand or so feet are joined together by twisty flagstone paths. The terraces are peppered by ancient olive trees draped by old rugosos. This garden has a single purpose: to be the ode to the bearded iris. Open only 19 days each year during May, it houses over 2000 varieties and colors of this majestic flower.

The air is heady with their scent.

The paths are lined with sage and rosemary plants and friendly benches. Poppies spring up everywhere vying for attention. They don’t stand a chance against the riotous colors and elegant shape of the irises.

My mother loved irises. She would throw them in the ground and they would magically spring up every year, responsive to her cavalier gardening habits. But she wasn’t really, cavalier, that is. She tended them lovingly as she did all of her garden, preening them constantly, and they responded to her, with enthusiastic and lon blooming periods.

Today is mother’s day and it is fitting that I am here, in Italy, looking at irises and thinking of her.

She would have loved this so. But as much as she would hav eloved this garden and hearing all the Italian being spoken around her, she would have been anxious to get back to her real, one and only love. My Dad.

My father would have been 90 years old tomorrow, May 10.  Together they were a pair not to be reckoned with. Seldom apart, they hated any separations from each other, and their last parting only separted them by 90 days. Mother's day and Dad's birthday, like them inseparably joined together.