Friday, April 24, 2009

Portland's the pretty one

***Sorry I've been gone so long, but traveling for play and for work took over last week... look for my regular posts and tangents coming soon!

I hate to admit this, but I think Seattle's little stepsister may just have her beat.  I don't think I've ever seen so many smart, stylish, local and seasonally-focused restaurants packed into a few square miles in my life.  And the Portland Saturday farmer's market? Don't get me started.  There are some smart people in Portland, and it seems as though they all love food.

It didn't help, of course, that I was there for a few days to visit my foodie friend Kim who I met while waiting tables years ago in downtown Chicago.  She is one of those rare friends who finds as much infinite enjoyment as I do in walking for hours all over the city, pointing out every new dining hot spot and sneaking into hotel lounges to check out the cocktails and the atmosphere... who will insist on rounding the giant farmer's market at least fully twice before making any final decisions on the ingredients for dinner.  She's one of the few others in my life who considers grocery shopping a recreational sport.  

I hadn't seen Ms. Kim in over two years - and we had so much to catch up on.  We knew this kind of conversation was going to take large amounts of wine imbibed in an atmosphere full of intrigue (like our love stories) and warmth (like our friendship).  "I know!" Kim blurted out, "let's go to Ned Ludd!"  It was her new little Portland dining secret.  Now, I warn you, if you go to Ned Ludd, you must like meat and especially pork products (but I cheated and had the trout - genius!)  The guy who owns the place butchers and cures all his own meats, and uses a wood-fired oven to cook absolutely everything.  Nothing modern and fancy here, folks.... thus the name Ned Ludd.  I had no idea who this Ned fellow was before Kim filled me in, but after dinner I wanted to stand up and proclaim to the world that I too was a proud Luddite.

 bitter greens salad with radishes

So the next time you're in Portland, I would highly recommend dropping into this modern - yet - old school place, a museum of old world style set inside a sleek steel box of a building on Portland's MLK Boulevard. 

No good foodie would leave Portland without experiencing good beer and good coffee.  I had both.  The beer came to me within hours of crossing the Washington-Oregon border.  My traveling friends convinced me into stopping at the Portland Laurelwood Brewery before heading into the Pearl district to meet up with Kim.  So glad I did.  The Hoppy Monkey IPA is worth the 3.5 hour drive from Seattle.  Fantastic.

beer + sunshine = pure hoppiness

The destination for coffee came the next day, when Kim and I did our urban hike around the city.  One of the first stops was the famous Stumptown Coffee.  Even in Seattle this coffee has made a name for itself, but I wanted to experience the real thing, complete with shots pulled in the original location by guys with flannel and beards and girls with black locks and cool jeans.  The space was far from alt-grunge.  It was open, airy and minimal with an espresso machine sleek as a Ferrari (and probably just as expensive.)  My cappuccino was just as a cappuccino should be.  You don't need the plane ticket to Italy, trust me.

I left Portland feeling as though my stay was at least cut two days short.  That's how long it would have taken to get in at least two more Stumptown cappuccinos, a lunch at Blossoming Lotus, cocktails and dinner at Urban Farmer and an afternoon bike ride around the city to work off a Voodoo doughnut.  

I have some plans for Portland.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tangential Tuesday - HFCS

Welcome to my very first official Tangential Tuesday.  Ahem, we will begin this session with a single question that, after answered in tangential detail, will lead us down a path of political and nutritional enlightenment. We will pose "Why do I see the ingredient High Fructose Corn Syrup listed on every freaking package of food that I buy from Earl's General Market?"  Deceptively simple, this query - but great question! (patting my readers on the back.)  

There has been so much hype in the media about this one ingredient, and it's implication for our health and our waistlines.  HFCS is ubiquitous these days, found in everything from soda to 'healthy' yogurt products.  It's being blamed for rising rates of obesity by researchers and nutritionists, with the industry fighting back with some fairly lame commercials.

We will divide this answer into three segments.  The first segment will an explanation of what HFCS is.  The second segment will be political.  The third we will explore societal and commercial reasons.  I will then conclude with my little Nutritionist rant that will hopefully prove to be more than a little entertaining.  Enjoy, and keep the topic suggestions coming.

What is High Fructose Corn Syrup?
HFCS is sugar.  Well, maybe not exactly what we think of as sugar - that white grainy stuff that (hopefully) comes from cane (and not GMO beets... but I won't go off on a tangent) and that we put into our favorite batches of cookies.  HFCS is corn sugar that is extracted from kernals of corn in which sugar and starches naturally occur.  You surely remember biting into an ear of buttery, sweet goodness in the summertime. Banish all thoughts of sweet delicious goodness.  The majority of this sugar comes from GMO corn of a type that you wouldn't think of buttering up and sinking your teeth into.  This corn comes from depleted soils, is covered in pesticides and is not sweet at all in flavor.  If you think I'm being dramatic, you can yourself sneak into a Midwest field late at night and steal an ear or two.  Yuck.  Not like I've done this before or anything...

The starchy corn they (Cargill to be exact, but not to name names) turn into HFCS by exposing the corn's starches to specific enzymes which change them into a fructose product.  The fructose is then mixed with glucose to produce HFCS with differing percentages of these two sugars: glucose and fructose.  In nature, glucose and fructose exist together in varying amounts, but glucose almost always outnumbers fructose molecules in things like apples or oranges.  Fructose is so named because it is the sugar that is found in many fruits.  So if it is found in fruits, then why is it so bad?  And why do companies want fructose and not glucose? Why don't they produce High Glucose Corn Syrup?

First of all, fructose itself never killed anyone.  However, we must consider that fructose is never found in such high ratios with glucose in naturally sweet fruits.  Secondly, fructose tastes much sweeter to our tongues than glucose does, so fructose is a more potent sugar to our senses.  Thirdly, fructose does not go directly into our bloodstream as sugar, it must first pass through the liver and then be converted to glucose.  Some fructose is converted directly to fat.  This my friends, is the big sticking point for many health researchers.  Obesity is pandemic in the USA... is it due to the amount we eat, the sugar we're consuming which gives us extra calories, or the type of sugar we choose to consume?  The answer may lie in all of the above. 

In the USA, our government decided long ago that in order to secure our nation's food supply (which was subject to all kinds of price variability from weather and other factors) they would offer something to farmers called subsidies.  These subsidies are payments from the government which assure that farmers have a reason to get out on the plows every year.  Subsidies make sure that farmers make enough money to stay in business - no matter what.  The higher your yield from a crop of wheat, corn, etc. the more money you make  In this way subsidies also act as incentives to produce more (thus securing a steady and abundant food supply).  These subsidies mean that farmers who choose to produce the cereal grains, wheat, corn and soybeans among others, that these subsidies cover will be rewarded with job security, a steady income, and an incentive to intensively farm the land to squeeze out as high a yield as possible from the tired and depleted soil.  With the help of pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified seeds, huge machinery and acres upon acres of land, farmers in the US produce more wheat and corn than you can shake a stick at.  A large portion of these crops are fed directly to cattle and other livestock to fatten them up properly (even though cows aren't suppose to eat corn and get sick when they do.)  Even after the corn is thrown at the animals, there is so much left over that we actually have to invent uses for it.  Even if we don't eat the corn directly in products - which we do anyway in large amounts, we end up eating it in some form in corn starch or a hundred other strange and non-corn-like sounding compounds which invade our processed foods.  

This is how you make gold from garbage.  You take a product, process it, and then sell it for more than you could have sold it in its original form.  This is what has happened with High Fructose Corn Syrup.  We've made something desirable (sugar) from something unexciting and absolutely worthless because we have so much of it.  

Why do we put it in everything?
Well, why do we put sugar in everything to begin with?  Sugar makes things sweeter, more desirable (from an evolutionary standpoint, humans with access to more carbohydrates for energy have stamina for the big hunt) and makes us want to eat more of it.  This is great for companies who want you to like their product and, naturally, eat more of it.  These days it seems that everything we eat is sweet.  Our tastebuds have gotten used to all kinds of extreme firework displays of salt and sugar on our palate - so that when we taste something naturally sweet such as plain rice, we don't taste the sweetness at all.  The more we deafen our tastebuds, the more sugar is required to tell us "this is sweet".

We have gotten used to processed foods where sugar is added in large quantities to give the food flavor. Because the actual food itself is of low quality and not fresh, it doesn't have much flavor.  To solve this, we add salt and sugar.  Sugar also acts as a preservative in foods so that it has a longer shelf life.  Sugar is a substance which is 'hydrophilic' or 'water-loving' meaning that it steals the water that bacteria and molds would use to grow and proliferate.  So why do food industries use HFCS instead of sugar?  Simple answer:  it's cheaper.  And as mentioned in the first part, it's also more bang for their buck because it's sweeter.  

A dear friend of mine from Russia was telling me how much she missed her beloved Russian rye bread and how she couldn't find anything comparable to it here in the states in regular stores.  She asked me, perplexed, "why is all the bread here sweet?  Bread isn't supposed to be sweet!"  Sure enough, when you look at every single loaf of bread in the supermarkets you'll see HFCS listed on the label.   

Nutritionist Rant
The question comes down to "Would you eat this?  Why or why not?"  In my personal and professional opinion, HFCS is in theory unappealing and in reality very much so.  Have you ever seen HFCS sold in bottles in stores?  There is a reason for that... because it's disgusting.  It is a sloppy grey mess which I've heard doesn't smell very good.  I have an obvious bias against it because it's what I call 'industrial food' and it won't enter into my diet because I don't eat processed foods very often.  When I make cookies, I use minimally processed cane sugar.  When I want to sweeten my plain yogurt, I use honey or agave nectar.  You don't see me dumping mono and di-glycerides into my bread when I make a loaf - why would I use industrial additives in my foods?  Where the heck would I get them if I wanted them?  If it doesn't naturally occur in nature... if I can't make it myself in my kitchen, then no thank you.  

Us human beings are always thinking we can somehow improve upon mother nature.  We think we can make food in ways that mother nature can't, and then sell them to each other to make money and in the meantime keep us fed and healthy.  Well, we can't.  There is a reason that human beings have evolved as they have over time, in genetic harmony with nature.  We eat nature's foods, our genes and our bodies respond the way we should because we're part of that nature we're consuming.  Our bodies don't like industrial food... just like cows eat grass, not GMO corn... and we get sick and obese and cows get sick and fat.  We just give the cows antibiotics and then enjoy their well-marbled meat.  We also get antibiotics and then have to shop in the Plus Size section in Wal-Mart.  You can't fool nature.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Spring Sourdough

Oh my goodness, Thank  you.  Thank you thank you to whomever is ultimately responsible for the color returning to my city.  We had little intimations that it was coming, slowly ambling on it's way, and now I do believe it has finally stopped knocking, walked in the door, set down its traveling bags full of worms and bugs, flowers, tank tops and sandals.  Spring, you're welcome to stay for as long as you wish.   

On my Sunday morning run through the little back streets of West Seattle, my face smiled at the sunshine.  The lawnmowers were buzzing in yards filled with tulips the color of cheap drugstore lipsticks.  The apple and cherry trees lining the sidewalks are now filled with fluffy pink and white flowers making each branch look like sticks of cotton candy.  The air now actually smells like spring too.  There is so much opening up right before me.  The green buds on trees, the tiny purple flowers that open and spread thick like carpets across flower beds. Everything is opening up and stretching toward the sunshine, and I think I'm opening up too.  That same excitement and energy that I felt weeks ago in San Francisco is sneaking back in.  A feeling of freedom spring gives you, so that all the things you left behind amidst the gloom and cold rain may slowly creep back in.  

Everything's sprouting around here - even things on countertops.  My alfalfa sprouts have made their warm weather comeback, sprouting green tops out of little brown seeds in glass jars.  I'm now looking longingly out at our new yard, edged with areas that could hold tomatoes or kale.  My energy is increasing with the daylight hours, and things which seemed a bit cumbersome before now look fresh and compelling.  With all of this growing going on, why don't I grow myself some sourdough bread starter?  This was something I hadn't done since moving to 35th Ave.  At the bamboo hut, the molds in the air there made it impossible to produce a nice yeasty starter (which I found out quickly after a couple of strange-smelling flatbread experiments).  What?  You don't know what a sourdough starter is?  Well, that doesn't surprise me.  Not many people do this sort of thing anymore.

You see, a long time ago (don't click away, I promise this will be interesting - albeit - food-geeky)  when you wanted to make bread, you didn't buy those little packets of yeast from the store.  No, a long time ago nothing came in little packages.  Your bread coming out tall and light and well-textured relied on your cultivating the yeast yourself.  Where does the yeast come from?  The air.  Bacteria and yeasts are floating through the air in your home, outside, in your car, in your bathroom (especially there), everywhere.  You just have to capture them somehow and use them for your own delicious ends.  To capture them you have to give them a place they want to go to eat and multiply.  You must make the perfect yeast trap.  Some flour and water will do the trick, along with open air and 60 seconds of your attention every day (yeasts eat a lot and must be fed regularly).  At the end of one week you will have a jar full of yeasty, bubbly flour bacteria soup.  Yum!  The starter you make will be unique to your location.  Different types of yeasts inhabit different cities, neighborhoods, houses... that's why San Francisco got so famous for it's sourdough bread.  Their yeast strains make a wonderfully sour and desirable loaf.  

As the sun came up this morning, over the mountaintops and streaming into our front room, I had my routine cup of strong black tea with soy milk.  Right beside, on a glass plate sat sourdough toast with butter and sea salt. Spring mornings are now bright at 6am, pushing me out the door and onto my bicycle to begin my day.  It's a bit easier now to peddle fast uphill and look forward to walks outside at lunchtime.  Maybe next week I'll try making my own yogurt, or go foraging for wild nettles!  

Anything's possible. 

Sourdough Starter

Ladies and gents, this is local food at it's finest.  The yeasts that come from your kitchen?  You can't get any closer to home.  When you get behind in your breadmaking, take a cup of your starter and give it to a friend - spread your bacteria all over the place!

1 cup white, wheat or rye flour
enough water to make it fairly soupy
leftover cooked grain (optional)

To make your starter, start with a large wide mouth jar or a medium glass bowl that you can cover easily with a cloth.  Add the flour and enough water to make it fairly soupy - the consistency of heavy cream.  If you have some leftover cooked grain, feel free to add a bit as well, just keep the starter soupy.  Cover the dish with a cloth and place in your kitchen out of the way.  Each day for about 7 days, add about a 1/4 cup of flour and enough water to maintain consistency.  You can add cooked grain each day too.  The liquid may also be water from cooked plain pasta or potatoes as this will have lots of good starch for the bacteria to feed on.  When the mixture finally turns bubbly and begins to rise out of the container, you're done!  Now before using it all in your loaf, reserve 1/4 cup of the starter and add some flour and water to begin the starter all over again.  If you take care of it and speak kind words, your starter will last you forever.  It's alive.  Kind of creepy, huh?    

There are many recipes out there for sourdough bread - but I just wing it and throw all kinds of unmeasured things together.  I would recommend doing some research yourself, or check out for some nice recipes.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tangential Tuesday

Short and sweet, Chrissy.  Keep it short and sweet.  This little phrase goes 'round and 'round in my head some days when, feeling particularly wordy and/or food geeky, I want to throw the whole of my being into describing in excruciating detail the amazing particulars of  a single ingredient that goes into certain cookies/stir-frys/muffins/snacks.  Does anyone other than me and Harold McGee care about the structural differences between seeds from the Leguminosae family versus the Gramineae?  Does anyone else find it fascinating that the same Mexican cactus that gives us agave nectar also gives us tequila?  Amidst my talking about the sensual pleasure of this or that food and how it nourishes us spiritually and emotionally to the core of our beings in order to connect us to the cycle of birth and death... I just wanna get out my lab coat and go all Alton Brown on 'ya.  Truthfully, I never liked physical science all that much until I started to learn about food.

So from now on, Tuesdays will be 'Tangential Tuesdays' where I allow myself free reign to geek out on any ingredient of my choice.  This will serve the dual purposes of keeping my posts on other recipes 'short and sweet' while giving you (hopefully) something to make you go Hmmmmm.... we'll save the MMMmmmm's for Sundays.  Promise.

**please comment if you'd like to suggest a particular ingredient to geek out on for next week... I simply ask that it be something less like 'Velveeta' and more like 'Mozzarella di Bufala' ... wait, I take that back.  I'm really not above discussing how wrong this cheese-like substance is.  As long as you let me name the post something catchy like 'Vile Velveeta' or 'Velveeta Revealed'.  But would probably rather stick to natural food science and not food science applied to make non-food substances something food-like.  Okay, off on a tangent -  my work here is done.  Happy Tuesday.  

Monday, April 6, 2009

A Taste of Freedom

I stepped off the plane on Wednesday afternoon, into the airport with all the other bustling travelers who couldn't wait to get back to wherever they were going.  I went out curbside from baggage claim, excited to see Mark's face again after 5 days gone.  The rain was falling, the sky was the color of non-color.  What you would imagine nothingness to look like.  Man, why didn't I just stay in San Francisco?  I wondered this for two whole days after getting back from my trip.  Why don't I live there, after wanting to live in San Francisco for almost ten years?  I moped around the house, longing for the 75 degrees and sunshine I left behind.  I remember where I left it, on the table, streetside at Cole Coffee (drip coffee by the cup, ground and made to order!) in Berkeley.
More of this please

I looked out the window, at the relentless downpour that happened all day Thursday.  I convinced myself, with no small amount of guilt after finding our perfect place in West Seattle, that I wanted to move to San Fran ASAP.  Those five days were the dreamed-for balance of fun, exercise, food, wine, fun, and rest.  For just five days I left behind the chill and the wet, the worries of my life, and entered into a vibrant summertime - removed from place and time.  I left a little bit of my serious self behind in Seattle, and had a taste of freedom in the sunshine.  The company I kept left me little time to slip back into that serious gal... there was too much laughter going on.Carly and Adi, Caro and me - we were the fabulous foursome (and truly have been since college.)  See photo below for proof.  I'm the fabulous one behind the camera.

 The weekend began, after gushing over our bride-to-be Carly and her wedding dress at a fitting , by having Dim Sum in Chinatown.  How long has it been since I've sat down and had numerous little plates of hot food shoved in my face?  Well, too long.  This was just a foreshadowing for all the good food to come that weekend.  We had all kinds of little things that all rhymed with or sounded like Chow.  That was good enough for me.  The Chinese broccoli was delicious, with a sweet sauce and a sheen of oil that had us all flipping the slippery stems into midair with our plastic chopsticks.  Hm, plastic chopsticks.  That's classy.  

After lunch we walked and walked, stopping in so many shops in Chinatown.  I bought sunglasses and a scarf for a song.  Adi bought her first box of Pocky with encouragement from Caro and I, the Pock-aholics.  By late afternoon we somehow, strangely and through absolutely no fault of our own wandering tourist legs, ended up in Ghirardelli Square.  What to do?  I staunchly refused to participate in the grotesque American obsession with sundaes as large as minivans (another grotesque American habit) and milkshakes that rival the ounce-age of a 7-Eleven Big Gulp.  As my travelling partners decided to load up on dairy fat and government subsidized high fructose whatever, I sat there self-righteously, pious and disapproving as a concerned parent while they relished the sweetness of cold mint and espresso chip milkshakes on a hot day.  Okay, I'm totally lying.  I broke down immediately and dug my spoon into that milkshake in front of Carly.  It was sooooo good.  Stolen bites always taste better.  I could never finish one all by myself anyway.

The only way to end this day was with a few more decadent bites.  If you haven't done the Berkeley restaurant scene, then I would highly recommend it.  I personally wanted to hit that mecca Chez Panisse, but thought better of it after reminding myself of a student's budget limitations.  Instead, we headed to A Cote.  I cannot imagine a place with more attention to detail and flavor in the smallest of dishes (and they were small).  We probably had just as much wine as we did food.  The Basque sheep's milk cheese of Ossau Iraty is always a favorite of mine... but I think the $8 all went toward the pile of nuts in the middle.

Now, on to Sonoma.  What else can I say?  If I try to say anything at all about the rolling hills of vines and the sun-kissed landscape it will all sound trite.  I'll let the pictures do the talking.  Me and wine?  We get along.

On Sunday morning, Caro and Adi had to say goodbye, leaving Carly and I a few more days of visiting.  So what did we do?  We made soup.  The Berkeley farmer's market on Sunday lent a helping hand.  In went mixed dried beans, carrots and squash, kale and generous pinches from a million little tins of Spice Mix This and Spice Mix That tucked into the deep recesses of Carly and fiance Mike's kitchen cabinets.  Mike opened up a bottle of wine nabbed from the corner store, and we called it dinner.

Monday I headed out to the Ferry Building to do some food tourism on my own.  What a carnival of delicacies, smells and pretty little things to buy.  Didn't buy the pretty little pig parts.

My last stop before heading home was to take care of a bit of friend business still left undone.  Eric + Mara + Food + Wine = memories always.  This equation has never let me down.  I've known Eric for a long time, through thick and thin we've been friends.  Mara his girlfriend is a new friend - but what a pair we are!  She too is one of those people who stirs her big pot of vegetables slowly, with quiet reverence.  She too gets excited when discussing nutrition stuff and detox stuff and ways to eat to complement your yoga practice.  What a gem.  So glad they found each other.  So we had Indian food at Roti near Twin Peaks.  Check it out.

A bit blurry... must have been the wine

For us, eating is a thoughtful sort of activity

So now?  I'm back.  The clouds and rain have been swept away finally.  The sun is shining in Seattle and it's 73 degrees here in West Seattle today.  I guess I'll stay.  I guess I'll stay right here in my life, for now.  I pledge, after 5 days of leaving it all behind, to approach things a little differently in the sunshine of Spring.  I'll hold onto that feeling of freedom - because it was always there to begin with. 

Sheesh, that San Fran does it to me every time.