Monday, February 1, 2010

Pot Pie Night

Thursday nights at the Valois restaurant in the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago was known as pot-pie night. The Valois is just a hole in the wall cafeteria near the University of Chicago, but it is locally famous for its outstanding food, especially the pot pies. The restaurant is also academically famous from a sociological perspective because it is featured in the book, "Slim's Table" by Mitchell Duneier. The Valois is a very popular eatery, and with only a few tables, it is necessary for patrons to share a table with strangers, which by the end of a great meal, your new dining companions are more like family than strangers.

During out days in Hyde Park back in the 1980s, we enjoyed many wonderful and filling meals at the Valois, especially on pot-pie night. The recipe was rich with heavy cream, perfectly cubed chicken breast, and an assortment of vegetables. The bowl was topped with a buttermilk crust that had a maple sweetness that I've never tasted anywhere else. It's been twenty-five years since I've had a good pot pie, but that long dry spell is over. The other day, on a whim, Vee made pot pies that captured the glorious richness of the Valois pot pies. She used her crostada pastry dough recipe for the topping and sprinkled it with cinnamon sugar to give it that mysterious sweetness. Wow!

Food is like a time machine. It can transport you back to the distant past with a clarity and immediacy that is almost supernatural. Perhaps more than any other sense, the sensation of taste can recreate a time in your life that you haven't thought of in years.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Huile d'Olives Magnifique

What is it that makes French olive oil so creamy?  There is a richness to the French oils that is fundamental to the taste, regardless of whether the dominant flavors in the oils tend toward the nutty, the fruity, or the earthy. If you're looking for olive oils that will give your salads the richness of a great slice of cheesecake, then you have to look to France.

If you are lucky enough to live in a city that has an O & Co. store in your area (Boston, New York, Denver Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco), you should stop reading this post and head over there right now.  If you're planning to visit one of these cities soon, put O & Co. on your list of places to check out.  When you visit an O & Co store, they have a tasting bar set up so that you can sample every olive oil and balsamic vinegar offered in this growing year.  If the sales clerk asks you if you want to try anything, just say "Absolutely, I want to sample everything."  An olive oil tasting session in which every oil is extraordinarily good allows you to tune into the subtle differences between the oils cultivated in various regions.  

O & Co. does most of the leg work for you in terms of finding the interesting regions and making deals with producers to bring the very best olive oils to you.  In France, they concentrate on the Picholine, Acolana, Tanche, and Verdale regions. It is through many years of cultivation and manipulation that these olive oils are so distinctly rich and creamy.  European olive trees are quite hearty and can thrive in very dry soil.  They also have a lifespan of hundreds of years. In France, harvesting of olives for oil usually takes place in November or December, so as we speak, the great oils that you'll be using next year are in production. Freshly picked olives are immediately ground into a creamy paste and then cold pressed to separate most of the water from the oil. After pressing, the oil is decanted in a process where the oil rises to the top and is again separated from the remaining water in the mix.

We usually buy at least a half-dozen olive oils from various regions, which lasts quite a while.  It's nice to mix it up, having some that are spicy, some that are subtle, and some that are flavored.  When you're making close to 400 salads a year, it's good to invest in diversity.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bread and a Palindrome...

When we first started eating salads in the afternoon, we noticed some remarkable metabolic benefits from day one.  Our typical salad of greens, fresh fruit, with a few cold cuts on the side immediately supplied an invigorating surge of energy that propelled us right through the day.  We were astonished that we no longer felt any kind of mid-afternoon drag that often results from eating a big sandwich.  

Don't misunderstand me, we were huge fans of "the great sandwich."  We spent a considerable amount of time thinking about combinations of ingredients that would make the perfect sandwich.  Years ago, when we ran a business in Baltimore, we hired a talented young man with a culinary flair to make us sandwiches.  As we ate his remarkable sandwiches, the most frequent and most heated topic of discussion was about bread.  When you make a sandwich, if you don't have the right bread, you've got nothing.  Moreover, the bread that you do have on-hand literally determines the sandwich that you're going to build.  There's an uncompromising tyranny to bread that really pissed us off, until we discover some really great bread, and then all would be forgiven.

A few months ago, on a whim, we bought some Tandoori Naan from the grocery, and suddenly, bread was back in our diet.  More than that, bread was back to dominating our lunch, where each salad was made to compliment the rich flavor of the naan.  I'm not sure how they did it, but every bite of this naan tasted like they had somehow infused it with a full stick of butter.  Heated in the toaster and  served warm with our salads, we came to realize that a salad without a few squares of Tandoori naan might not be worth eating.  For a couple who swore off the evils of bread at lunchtime, bread was back, and it had immediately claimed its old position as the center of the meal.

This naan was so good that we didn't care about the carbs.  If I found myself staring at the keyboard at 4:30 in the afternoon, trying to remember exactly where home row might be located, I would have to concede that the naan was more important than mental acuity and boundless energy.  If a carb crash was the price to pay, so be it.  But strangely, the crashes never happened.  There was enough balance in the salad to offset the bread.  Eating a meal that consisted mostly of greens, fruit, nuts, and the side of turkey was able to hedge the metabolic gamble of eating a few pieces of naan.  Blood-sugar levels remained stable with a salad, whereas with a sandwich, it was just a little off, just enough to cause a crash.

I will leave it to the professional nutritionists to explain the chemistry of blood-sugar balance, and how the combination of bread with a well-rounded salad is good, while cold cuts and bread with a huge dollop of mayo is bad.  But irrespective of how it all works at the chemical level, we're really grateful to have our bread and eat it too.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Honey Crisp Season

Several years ago, we were loading up the rental car with supplies, preparing for a trip to Monument Valley, Arizona.  We recently discovered that we could enjoy the national parks, yet we could stay in decent hotels (we don't camp), and we could bring plenty of liquor to accompany us on those legendary starry nights in the American west.  What could be better?  

On our way out of town, we stopped at Whole Foods to pick up some fruit and cheese for the ice chest. While shopping, we spoke to an enthusiastic produce clerk who turned to us and said, "Have you tried these?" She handed each of us a neatly carved slice from a Honey Crisp apple.  We'd never heard of Honey Crisps before.  We'd just adopted Gala apples a few years before, and we weren't necessarily looking for a replacement. But, it took only one bite of the honey crisp to realize that our produce consultant had steered us right.  We bought a few dozen honey crisps and headed west.  

Our honey crisp apple supply, which seemed vast when we left Austin, was completely depleted before we crossed the New Mexico border.  True, it's 650 miles to El Paso, but we found ourselves mainlining these apples as if we were eating popcorn at a double feature.  It didn't help that we were taking turns reading "The Botany of Desire" to each other as we drove, and in that book author, Michael Pollan, has a long essay on the apple.  His notion that Johnny Appleseed was welcomed into the frontier communities not so much because he was bringing apples, but because he was bringing apple seeds, which would grow the fruit needed to ferment into liquor, was an insight into the legendary figure that we didn't hear about in grammar school.  But we could understand it completely.  Our trunk was filled with hiking boots, camera equipment, and liquor, all the gear needed to handle the frontier.

But the interesting thing about apples that Pollan points out is that the seeds from a truly great apple, like a Honey Crisp, will not yield a tree that produces honey crisp apples.  The DNA is different, and the fruit from that seed will taste nothing like the apples we were enjoying.  On the one hand, this is the apple's way of protecting itself against ever-changing environments.  On the other hand, this caused a slight sensation of panic in us.  The supply was remarkably finite.  While in El Paso, we found a grocery store and restocked our cache of honey crisps.  These apples were natural and organically grown, yet they were also a genetic and scientific miracle that didn't seem to perpetuate itself.  Human beings had to step in and preserve this DNA, to make sure that we had more of these things. We were co-dependent.

After spending 14 days on the road, our trip home was a little sad on many levels, not the least of which was that honey crisp season was over.  Our fears had come true.  The supply was exhausted.  We had to wait until the following October for next year's crop.  

Today, honey crisp season lasts much longer than two weeks, but it is still finite.  It is one of the events we look forward to about the fall season, and adding sliced honey crisp apples to a salad gives it a transitory sweetness that is a metaphor for Autumn itself.  We suggest adding some roasted pecans to your honey-crisp salad for an added touch of fall flavor.  And as a salute to Johnny Appleseed, we also recommend a nice stiff pour of your liquor of choice.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

New Beginnings

Over the last month, there have been very few salads on our table.  No, we haven't given up on the salad, but extenuating circumstances have forced us into a different pattern of eating.  

I'd never given much thought to process before, but the act of making a salad can be labor-intensive.  Moreover, you need the proper gear to mix, to cut, to spice, to serve, and to eat even the simplest salad.  The last six weeks have been consumed by our move to Seattle.   As the kitchen items were carefully protected by tissue paper and bubble wrap, and then placed judiciously into boxes, we found ourselves without the equipment to make a salad.  And, working to complete the move under a very tight deadline, we began eating fast food, just to get through the meal and then get back to the task of packing the house.

On the road, we took all our meals in the car.  With three cats sleeping in their makeshift row houses in the back of our VW Beetle, we didn't have much time for fine dining on the 2600 mile road trip.  But, after weeks of no salads, and then eventually moving into a new apartment without any of our stuff, one realizes that a simple salad is quite a production.  Our first visit to the Metropolitan Market to replenish our salad supplies filled the entire cart.  True, we had to buy bowls and utensils to make the salad, since our stuff was still in transit (and would be for days to come), but even so, restocking everything, including all your olive oils, balsamic vinegars, spices, fruit, greens, was an eye-opening experience.  Yes, it takes a lot of ingredients and a full compliment of gear to mix a salad, put it on a plate, and eat it. 

But, after six weeks of "anything but salads," it was great to be back.  There is an uplifting energy to building and enjoying a great salad, particularly after a long and difficult layoff.  In the grand scheme of things, building that first salad in a new place is also the perfect way to say, "this is our home!"

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Delightful Surprises

The other day, I came home to the most delightful aroma emanating from our kitchen.  I don't mean this in a bad way, but our daily salad isn't something that hits your senses full on as soon as you open the door.  However, on this day, I was completely swept off my feet.  The secret ingredient that made the house smell like an Italian bakery was the fresh croutons that were heating on the stove.

The twist was that the croutons were made from spelt bread.  We had been buying bread at Whole Foods made from spelt wheat at the suggestion of our acupuncturist to eliminate traditional wheat from our diet.  Spelt is an old crop with a history that extends back to the Bronze Age, and because it has been in our collective diet for generations it metabolizes differently from modern wheat.  At first, the taste was a little overwhelming, but eventually we grew to love it, and now it is the bread staple of our house.

The crouton recipe is very simple.  You start by trimming the bread crusts and cutting the remainder into cubes. Season a skillet with olive oil and butter at medium heat.  Toss in the bread cubes, letting them soak up the oil and butter.  Spice with O & Co sea salt and herbs for pasta dishes, and add some ground black pepper.  Cook the croutons until crisp on the outside, but make sure they are not hard or overly dry on the inside.  

You can add these croutons to any of your favorite salads with stunning results.  It's funny, but I was never much of a fan of croutons in salads until now.  Who knew that you have to make them yourself, and that your choice of bread makes all the difference.  Spelt has a naturally sweet and nutty flavor that result in a dazzling crouton.  I'm sure that any of your favorite breads will work, but if your feeling adventurous, try the spelt bread.  You, and any of your neighbors with a discerning sense of smell, will not be disappointed.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Peeling back the layers

What does it say about us that our favorite salad ingredient, the artichoke, is a conundrum, wrapped in a riddle, shrouded in mystery.  After painstaking preparation, you need to peel back the layers in order to get to the heart, which happens to be the perfect delivery mechanism for a great vinaigrette.  

Lately, the ingredient list in our standard salad has been pretty consistent.  Here's how we start:

  • Red romaine
  • Blueberries
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Red seedless grapes
  • Artichoke hearts

The differentiating factor in these salads is the balsamic vinegar, the olive oil, or the spices that cling to the artichoke hearts and make the salad a unique expression of the day's alchemy.