Thursday, March 31, 2005

Think Globally, Eat Locally

Earlier this week, I received in the mail the newsletter from the local independent book store. (I love that place! It even has its own cats.) I was struck by the little blurb on page 3 about supporting local businesses, citing statistics from the recent Andersonville Study about locally-owned versus chain businesses:

Generally speaking, when you spend money at a chain store in your city/town, over half of the money you spend ends up leaving your community. If, on the other hand, you spend money at a locally-owned business, over half of the money you spend stays in your community, thus encouraging the growth of the local economy and perhaps even other local businesses.

Sounds like a pretty simple equation to me. And when your local community is trying to revitalize itself, like mine is (rather successfully, I'm pleased to say), in the face of encroachment by big chains like Wal-Mart, wouldn't you rather spend a little more to support those local businesses and keep them in the area?

I read once something attributed to Bill McKibben that espoused the "one-store" philosophy: wherever possible, support the single store instead of a chain, even if it means higher prices, because the people involved in that single store are more rooted in the community and committed to keeping the money within the community.

I think that's a worthwhile philosophy to apply to eating out as well as to shopping. We have some pretty terrific places to eat here in this town: a French-style bistro that serves locally-grown produce or locally-raised meat, a good Greek restaurant, a Chinese restaurant with a weekly vegetarian buffet that rocks my world, a superb coffee house that beats the pants off of Starbucks any day of the week, a delightful Hungarian pastry shop and coffee house, and a handful of other places that serve good food at reasonable prices. While I don't go out to eat too much (since you know how much I love to cook), I feel very fortunate to have such a good selection at hand to satisfy almost every craving. (Though I do have to find friends to join me for excursions for Indian or Thai or Ethiopian food, but again, those aren't chains... and those friends are always willing.)

The bonus to a number of these locally-owned eateries is that more and more of them are trying to support local growers and bakers in buying the food they prepare or offer. And in light of some of the reading I've done recently, I'm all for supporting those businesses that support local food supplies. And when summer comes, I plan to spend every Saturday morning hiking down to the local farmers' market to support those suppliers directly.

It does make a difference.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Couch Potato

I'm starting to feel a little more like myself again after That Flu... my energy is slowly building back up, my voice is gradually returning to its usual register, and I don't have the urge to hack up a lung every hour or so. Unfortunately, my taste buds are still off, so there are very few foods that truly appeal to me right now, which makes eating well to stay well a tricky proposition.

But there's one thing I'm really craving right now...


(The lovely Phoenix and my Granola Girl can well imagine me singing the Potato Song at this point.)

When I got home from work yesterday, I proceeded to make a potato pancake as big as my face for a snack, topped with plain lowfat yogurt. Oh my goodness, I have never tasted anything so satisfying.

Potato chips, fried potato slices, baked potato... you name it, I want it. It's probably the only food that is keeping me going at this point.

Is it the Irish blood in me? Is it the lingering "couch potato" tendency after being wiped out for a week? Or is it because potatoes are probably the only food you truly could live on for extended periods of time? I don't know, and as long as I have potatoes in the house, I don't care.

Yes, I will have fries with that!

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

You Need Gingering Up!

I love British comedies, I do. And over the years I've come to understand more and more of the delightfully colorful colloquial phrases that pepper the dialogue in many of my favorite shows. But I never quite understood the phrase "he needs gingering up!" in reference to a sick character in "As Time Goes By."

Until this weekend.

That flu laid me flat out for the better part of a week (or perhaps I should say, the worse part), and all I could do was keep forcing fluids. Luckily, I consulted my herbal tea book and found a delightful remedy for the flu: ginger tea.

Now, I'm pretty keen on the herbal blend that Lipton is now producing that combines ginger with citrus and herbs. But for serious sickness control, you've got to have fresh ginger and plenty of it... peeled, sliced, and bashed up a bit. Then you add the juice of half a lemon (or in my case, half a lime), top it off with hot water, and stir in a hefty dollop of honey.

What bliss!

On occasion, I was able to switch over to my favorite Irish breakfast tea, but that ginger tea was still the best thing to ease my cough and lift my spirits. Not a whole lot else tasted good, though I ate lots of toast to get me through the rough spots. (And special thanks go out to Beaker's Mommy for making a lunch run for me on Saturday... I've never had a sandwich and chips taste so darn good!)

It will be a while before I'm back to full steam... and it will certainly be a while before I make brownies again or cook anything that would merit rapturous mention on these pages. But I will keep drinking my ginger tea to chase away the germs and the exhaustion, and I'll be back in the kitchen before you miss me too terribly much.

Don't you need gingering up, too?

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Feed a Fever?

I can't decide whether I really hate or really like being sick.

On the down side, if I'm taking a sick day, I must be feeling pretty miserable. Chances are that I can blame it on a respiratory infection that leaves me with an achy head, a sore throat, a horrendous cough, and/or a deep husky voice reminiscent of either Lauren Bacall or the bass from a do-wop group (not that I'm usually up for singing "Goodnight Sweetheart," but you get the idea). I also probably don't have much of an appetite and just want to slurp down pots and pots of honeyed tea. Generally, I tend to pull the covers over my head and pray fervently for oblivion.

On the other hand, if I have half an ounce of strength, a well-stocked larder, and a couple of good books, then I'm all for a day of peace and quiet.

It's a pick'em.

So when I came down with the annual early spring sickness this week, I felt fairly wiped out, but not completely bereft of hope. I still had plenty of herbal teas and honey, a few servings of leftover eggplant curry lurking in the fridge, and two quarts of homemade vegetable stock.

Normally when I get sick, I want my favorite soup (tofu sea vegetable) from my favorite Chinese restaurant on the hill. But since I had plenty of stock on hand, it seemed silly to ask friends to run out for me when I could make a variation of the soup for my lunch (based on the delicious ginger-lime dipping sauce recipe I use with potstickers and scallion pancakes).

The soup turned out thin, which was actually what I was going for since I didn't want anything too substantial, but it had just enough of everything (garlic, ginger, red pepper flakes, shredded carrot, cilantro, etc.) to satisfy me. And it had enough heat to banish some of those nasty germs.

Of course, this effort was followed by a nap. (My energy lasts only so long.)

The verdict is still out. A day or two of rest is always a good thing. I'd rather not be too miserable to enjoy the time off, but if that's what I have to do to get better, then so be it.

I just hope the cupboards are full.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge

My actual experience in the food service industry is minimal: a one-night catering stand (a bat mitzvah; oy) and a summer's worth of prep and cleanup at a local family restaurant/Irish pub. It was enough to confirm my belief that this line of work was not really for me, and that the people who did choose to make a career out of it deserved my understanding and respect.

Of course, that belief was reinforced by the Chef Mother, who not only worked in kitchens but also spent over twenty years training future chefs, wait staff, and restaurant managers. She knew what was required to present a good meal to a customer, and she also knew the perils of ensuring that the customer had the best possible dining experience. She had zero tolerance for clueless wait staff, dirty utensils, poorly cooked meals (including improperly heated buffets), or any of those other pitfalls, and if the service or the food was distinctly below par, she had no hesitation in informing the manager.

(The Chef Mother also had other, more creative ways to express her displeasure, such as mustard and ketchup packets surreptitiously squirted on the ceiling. I didn't say she was perfect. But the restaurant had to be pretty bad for her to go to such lengths.)

Much to the relief of an easily embarrassed daughter (yeah, that would be me), the Chef Mother also had no hesitation in informing a restaurant manager when a meal or the service was exceptionally good. As someone who worked with budding cooks herself, she knew that it could really make a manager's day to hear his or her staff complimented by a very satisfied customer. The chances were also pretty good that that praise would filter down to the staff in question, thus giving everyone that warm glow of a job well done.

I've always liked that way of sharing positive feedback, whether in the food service industry or in other walks of life. So many times we work and work and work and never really know if we're making a difference, and a little word of praise can go a long way.

So when I made my "special" fudgy mint brownies this week, I knew a few needed to go somewhere in particular. After running my errands downtown yesterday afternoon, I stopped by my favorite coffee house and talked with the owner, letting her know how much I appreciated My Favorite Barista and one of his cohorts, and asking her to pass the brownies on to them. A big smile lit her face as she thanked me, and I suspect those two young men are going to get a little extra appreciation from her. It's all good.

So what are you waiting for? Go ahead... make someone's day.

Monday, March 14, 2005

The Reviews Are In

The last of my fabulously dark and decadent extreme chocolate brownies have finally been distributed, and the fans have spoken:

"I think this is the best brownie I've ever eaten." --one of my Opera-Loving Friends

"You are a genius, my friend. Pure culinary genius." --the incomparable Spicyflower

"You are eeeee-vil.... Mom wants to know, can you send more?" --the fair Titania


"Do NOT lose this recipe!" --My Favorite Barista

"It's eating chocolate ambrosia.... If you own that recipe, copyright it!" --an Appreciative Colleague

"I haven't told your uncle about these yet, and I might not!" --my Fabulous Aunt

Ahhhhh, yes. Music to my ears. And I'm not going to argue with any of the above comments... those were truly the most amazing morsels of chocolate bliss I've ever tasted or created.

Will I make them again? You'd better believe it. I just don't know when.

It's good to be da (Baklava) Queen.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Coffee Break

How sweet it is... a snowy Friday morning, and I don't have to go into the office, thanks to a meeting elsewhere. So what am I doing instead? Not sleeping, oh no.

That's right, folks. I'm hanging out at the local coffee house, enjoying a cup of Papua New Guinea and the wireless connection.

You tell me a better way to start a workday. What's that? Oh yeah, right, you can't.

I love my life.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

A Drinking Habit

Yes, it's true, I have a drinking habit. I usually get through a whole bottle of water each day. And some days? I even drink caffeinated beverages.

Last night I enjoyed a good cup of homemade hot chocolate made with vanilla soy milk, a yummy double chocolate organic hot cocoa mix, and my homemade chocolate mint liqueur. I admit, I wasn't sure how this would turn out as the liqueur has always walked a very fine line between being terrific and being more like mouthwash. Fortunately, the richness of the hot chocolate made the mint flavor less potent, so it was simply laced through with the freshness of mint from the garden. (Yes, I did still have to brush my teeth afterwards.)

This morning, after another wickedly early wake-up (and a quick PMS cocktail at home), I had a serious slam of caffeine down at the local coffee house as I sampled what is known as a chai charger: a tall glass of warm and spicy chai with a shot of espresso dropped into it. (That's what I get for telling My Favorite Barista to "surprise me!") I know, it sounds strange, mixing tea with coffee, but it was really quite good, and it sure as shootin' set my feet on the floor with a resounding thud. I'm awake! I'm awake!

But I am definitely going back to that bottle of water now.

Friday, March 04, 2005

A Date to Remember

Dear Readers, if you are expecting me to dish about some exciting romantic encounter from my vacation, you may be sorely disappointed!

If, however, you remember (and love) that I'm here to talk about food, you will be most envious of my brief sojourn amidst the date groves of California's Imperial Valley.

Date palms are wonderfully exotic and majestic looking on their own, but to see large groves of these beauties (with sizes ranging from tiny to towering) is impressive. Can you imagine groves like this in the Middle East, perhaps with camels wandering through?

Thanks to the Chef Mother's insatiable curiosity about places she visits, I learned that dates have to be harvested multiple times from the same tree since they don't all ripen at once, and the pickers have to climb up (somehow, don't ask me how) and harvest the fruits by hand. (You couldn't pay me to do that job... those trees are really tall!)

Anyway, we stopped at the Imperial Date Gardens for one of their most delectable treats: a date shake. Just finely chopped dates blended with milk and vanilla ice cream... so simple, but so rich and delicious! It was very filling, too, thus keeping me from being too tempted by all the fresh dates and other date snacks for sale.

But don't you worry... I did pick up a small package of date rolls to share, and my folks have agreed to go back and buy me a larger box of fresh Medjool dates before they come home. Apparently dates can be frozen, so I can stock up!

That way, I'll never lack a choice of good dates.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Mixed Feelings on Mixed Greens

The Imperial Valley, straddling Arizona and California, is an area of enormous agricultural production, and Yuma itself is known as the "Lettuce Capital of the World" for the vast quantities of leaf, red leaf, and romaine lettuce grown here.

In driving around the area, I've been able to see much more clearly how this large-scale agriculture is managed, and while I don't claim to know every detail of farm management for this area (far from it!), what I have learned leaves me with mixed feelings.

The fields are clearly laid out to promote efficiency and maximum production: square fields with perfectly spaced and aligned rows, planted in exacting succession so that one field can be fully harvested just in time to move on to the next. The rows are separated by narrow ditches into which irrigation pipes can be directed to water the crops in their early stages, after which the pipes can be moved into the next field.

At harvest time, trucks are taken directly into the field and equipment set up so that multiple rows can be cleaned out at once, and boxes and bags are brought out to speed the packaging before the produce is shipped to cooling plants and then across the country to various markets. The fields are then plowed under and reshaped/respaced, and different crops are planted (alfafa, corn, wheat, strawberries) to continue the land's productivity.

A fairly efficient process and one that results in pretty cheap produce, yes? And yet, thanks to the reading I've done recently, I have my misgivings about this method of farming.

First, given the quality of the soil around here otherwise (read: sand), I have to wonder how these fields have been fertilized. How many chemicals have been applied to make these fields produce... and then to keep the crops free of pests? And how many varieties of these vegetables are planted (and will they therefore become more susceptible to pests and disease over time)? How much water is being diverted from other uses to support this agriculture?

And then there's the question of labor. I am guessing that these fields are generally tied to corporate distributors instead of individual farmers for the most part, so who profits? And how much of the harvesting is done by migrant labor, and at what wages or with what benefits?

Once the produce leaves the fields, it goes to huge warehouses for refrigeration and then onto refrigerated eighteen-wheelers to ship all over the country. How much additional energy is consumed in this process? And is that cost truly reflected in the price you pay for lettuce at the supermarket?

A lot of questions... and I don't know the answers. Granted, that's an awful lot to consider when you sit down to eat a simple salad. Most of us don't want to think about our food in that much detail because we might never be able to eat anything again. And aside from saying that we should all eat as much locally and organically produced food as possible (easier said than done, I know), I don't know what else to say.

Is technological progress, efficiency, or cheap food worth all this? I don't know, but I have my doubts, unresolved though they are.

It's true... the more you know, the more you know that you don't know.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Diner Food

I do try to prepare and eat healthy meals, and generally I think I succeed very well. But sometimes nostalgia takes over my appetite, and I want good ol' diner food (with the standard side order of grease).

If there is one truly national cuisine here in the United States, I think it must be what you find in those classic roadside diners: burgers and fries, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, basic sandwiches, malts and sodas, and pie for dessert. (Pie. Oh my. Don't get me started.)

Best of all (in my book, at least) is a good hearty diner breakfast. Really, you can't go wrong with pancakes, and I confess that in my younger days I was a huge fan of biscuits and sausage gravy.

So imagine my delight when I visited the restaurant next door to my hotel this morning and discovered I'd stepped into a gleaming send-up to a 1950s diner, complete with chrome seats, vintage signs, and yes! reasonable prices.

I sat at the counter (one of the thrills of traveling and dining alone) and went for a variation of my favorite diner breakfast: a Spanish omelet (with tomatoes, peppers, onions, and green chiles... this IS the Southwest, after all) with a side of salsa; crispy hash browns, two fluffy biscuits with butter, coffee, and orange juice. I tucked into that meal like a dockhand who'd been hauling cargo since well before dawn, and I'm sure that the quiet fellow who waited on me was amused to see me demolish that enormous breakfast so quickly and appreciatively. (What can I say? I don't eat much on days when I travel, so I had to make up for lost time.)

Granted, I don't eat like this every day. A three-egg omelet for breakfast seven days a week? I don't think so. But once in a while, it can be an incredibly satisfying treat.

And the best part? I'll be back at the same hotel in a couple of days, so I'll get to have dinner at the diner (nothin' could be finer!), too.

Maybe I'll get a chocolate malt.