A Space Between a Hard Rock and a Soft Place

Food Politics. Who would have ever thought there is just as much injustice within the food industry as there is within the larger world? I could honestly go on and on about this topic due to the deep passion, but I will keep it brief. Food justice is not only for myself, but for the greater good of humanity.

I believe our bodies are our temples. Why on earth would I ever want to put some scientifically concocted chemicals in my body? Well, I don’t but today it is hard to escape the artificially man-made ingredients for they are in just about everything we eat. Backing it up a bit from “natural” or artificial flavors, the way food, such as fruits or veggies, are made today is completely different than a few decades ago. Crops such as wheat or corn are genetically modified for faster growth, fuller flavor, or anything to get us American people addicted and fat and attempts to make farmers more money. I was horrified to find out that the agricultural revolution really did not do the people any justice. Not only are our bodies trying to digest these genetically manufactured foods, but what are they doing for the ones that are harvesting them? Nothing either.

Remember the line from America the Beautiful, “amber waves of grain,” depicting lush rows of grains growing. That image destroyed by the way those crops are treated to grow. People truly wonder why there are such increases in diseases such as Alzheimer’s, ADHD, and even psychological disorders that are affecting a large population. Take a look at what we eat people!

Going gluten-free was one of the best decisions I ever made for myself (not that I had much choice after learning that I am allergic and having horrible allergic reactions to it). For the longest time, I resisted changing my diet, but after I started researching what the protein gluten does to the body, I quickly learned I made the right decision. There is a lot of chemistry based science involved that goes way over my head, but there were a few outstanding point that anyone without knowledge could understand. just for an example, the crops that grew back when our great-grandparents were around are not what they are today. Going back to my previous point, these wheat crops are genetically modified. Meaning they are not good for us! Take a look at people who are from other countries, they are not overweight carrying their wheat bellies around like most Americans are. Gluten and wheat that we have today in just about all of our food, breaks down in the body to visceral fat (Aka: that nice doughnut of fat around the midsection people are always trying to get rid of).

Being gluten free is difficult in this world. Many things such as deli meats, hide that pesky gluten. If all someone takes from this is a second look at what they are stuffing their face with, I will be happy. Okay I will cut the sarcasm a bit, but really take a second look at what you are putting into your body. Your body will love you for nourishing it with good food.

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Pleasant Surprises in Oakland

ImageWhen I heard I would be trying Ethiopian food during my Oakland food excursion, my stomach rumbled in discontent. Not so much scared of different flavors, but I am very aware of what I put into my body. I had no idea what Ethiopian food even consisted of. When entering Abesha Ethiopian Cuisine, we were told to wash our hands because the food is not eaten with any utensils, which I found a bit odd. My own gluten-free roll of a spongy bread sat in the basket in front of me. A variety of sauces made their rounds around the table in small black kettles. The different types of sauces included a split pea mixture, some greens, and a lentil blend were piled on top of my spongey bread. Due to my nervousness regarding the food, the lentils seemed a safe choice. The soft lentils in a semi-spicy sauce reminded me of my grandpa’s basic pasta sauce. The sourness of the roll allied with the lentils created a good friendship.

A short walk next door brought me to Sacred Cheese, a sort of punk rock themed cheese shop, provided a modern spin on comfort food. The restaurant used only local cheeses and products. There was a wide variety of ever changes choices. A cup of tomato soup with beer was the special of the day. Yes beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon in fact. The tomatoes within the soup were a freshness that could be tasted. In the first bite, the beer valiant against the tomatoes, but faintly dimmed away after more bites. One of the foods I truly miss the most with being gluten intolerant being a plain old grilled cheese. I was unsure if I was more excited about the soup or sandwich. I first ate the cheese that was melting out of the bread. The cheese used inside tasted anything but a store bought cheese. The soup and grilled sandwich sealed my longing for comfort food.

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According to Mom

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Family and cooking are synonymous. No one will disagree that fact. Many people learn how to cook, recipes, and traditions through family members. There is a special bond which entwines family members together.

What I did not expect though is how cooking traditions have shaped my family greatly. Upon interviewing my mother, I soon found this out.

I have always known my Nana (aka grandma, but she believes grandma sounds old so we call her Nana) to be a good cook, baker, and warm fuzzy homemaker. My whole life she would make us breakfast, dinner, dessert or really anything we wanted. What I did not know was how she shaped my mom’s cooking.

When I asked my mom the simple question of how she learned to cook, she responded:

“I learned a lot from watching my mom cook when I grew up. I would actually help her bake more than cook but that made me comfortable in the kitchen. I was a really good baker!  But cooking took awhile and I learned a lot more living on my own after college. I picked up some cookbooks and would try things on my own because I enjoyed cooking for friends. I would often call my mom to get recipes and tips even before getting married.”

Learning this was a bit funny. I myself have called my mom for recipes or how to properly cook a dish. I also realized I may have taken my mom’s baking for granted. Around Christmas time is when she does the most baking. Because  this is something she does this every year, I did not realize that she really does have a knack for it. I have great flashback memories of my mom making homemade bread. The aroma of yeast would float through the house.

I then asked my mom what some of her favorite dishes were growing up. Again the influence of my Nana really paved the path for what my mom later made. She answered:

“My mom was a very good cook and I loved her chili, her enchiladas and especially some of her Croatian dishes of sauerkraut, pot roast pasta, cabbage rolls, and polenta with fish.”

My Nana has a colorful background mostly of Croatian and Portuguese decent, but she is also married to my grandpa who originates from Argentina. Her mastery of a variety of ethnic dishes was also passed on to my mom. For dinner, my mother would switch up dishes with different ethnic backgrounds. One night we could have Italian, another German, and another night Mexican.

I was curious to what my mom would consider her “signature” dish, but part of my thought I already knew. I was right about the first dish and pleasantly surprised about the second.

“I love to cook holiday dinners and like it when I have time to try one new thing to add to the menu but I don’t think that’s happened the past few years!  A signature “dish” would be my clam chowder that I fix every Xmas eve and rarely any other time of the year.  It’s something I first started making without a recipe and even though it doesn’t take a lot of ingredients, have modified them to make it my own and everyone seems to really enjoy it.  I also have a Mediterranean Chicken Marbella Dish that I like to fix, full of garlic, parsley, kalamata olives, capers, wine and brown sugar.”

For about as long as I can remember, the tradition of Christmas Eve has been my mother’s clam chowder. I had no idea that she began without a recipe; just trial and error. Simply it was a creation of hers. It truly is something that the family raves about every year. Clam chowder is also one of my favorite meals she makes! The second dish she smentions is one that I do not think I have had. I will be bothering my mom to make this when I come home next.

To tie this interview back to some of my early food experiences, I asked the question of what I was picky about when I was younger. Her answer:

“You weren’t really picky except for the smelly things like tuna, fish, broccoli, cauliflower. You would eat them if they were incorporated into pasta or a casserole, otherwise you didn’t need to have foods prepared a particular way. You didn’t have trouble with the texture of foods so I could prepare things different ways. You were a lot more open to trying all kinds of things once you were 11 or 12 years old even if they didn’t smell good. I still see you smelling your food once in a while before taking a bite!”

The funny part being she is totally correct. I absolutely smell everything new before I eat it. If it does not smell good, why would I want to eat it right? I did not remember being so adventurous about food. I am not very adventurous now, which is also a bit comical. Usually the opposite occurs with people: when you are young children tend to be picky and as they grow older the pallet develops and expands. Maybe I am just an exception.

Something New with a Bit of Old History

Excitement built upon walking up to the peace plaza signaling the shifting of cultures and atmospheres. Before tasting any food, the tour began with a bit of history going back to word war II days with interment camps for Japanese Americans. When entering a slice of area with set culture, information regarding customs or even struggles of the people enhances the environment.

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Excitement and nervousness then set in. I have eaten sushi, ramen noodles, and other Americanized Japanese food. What I was going to encounter would be more authentic with a possibility of being very different than anything I had ever had before.

Sake Onigiri. Something I had never even heard of. This seaweed wrapper triangle, shaped as a paper football I would make in middle school, stuck to the rice encapsulating warm salmon inside. The cook wrapped this treat by hand very intercutly. The favor of the seaweed potent against the mild white rice. Once I got down to the salmon, I was able to taste the lightly seasoned fish. I do not like strong fishy flavors, but the lightness to the salmon created a faint fishy, salty end.

The last stop, Dosa provided a southern Indian taste. Due to the lack of good Indian food I previously tried, my mind was set that I did not like it. Until then. A dosa, a burrito looking wrap with warm yellow turmeric flavoring inside, changed my mind. Accompanied by two chutneys: a green coconut chutney and a spicy tomato chutney. A vegetable soup also with a bit of spice was the last piece of the dish. Dipping into the different chutneys changed the taste of the dosa. The coconut chutney provided a light coconut tropical spin, where as the tomato added Indian spice and tomato.

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Ready, Set, Cook!

photo-2Pasta. Cheese. And Green Apples. The first two ingredients go hand and hand on a daily basis, but the third is a bit odd to throw in the mix. Luckily, I did not get any ingredients that were completely off the wall. My family posed as my audience and tasters in this Chopped like challenge.

In order to break up the fight between hearty, heavy pasta and the crisp sour green apple, I decided to try using a mediating cheese. I do have a bias against cheese, it is not one of my favorite ingredients. The fact that cheese is born of molded milk creates a mental block I struggle to overcome. I decided to use Brie cheese due to its mildness. When melted, Brie flows into a silky smooth river of sweet buttery, goodness. That type of cheese fit my criteria for this dish.

Once the water came to a rolling boil, the pasta was dumped into the pot. After about fifteen minutes, the pasta was soft yet firm.  I cut the brie cut into strips and added it to the steaming pasta. My hope was for the cheese to melt like butter when mixed into the pasta, to create a savory sauce.  I slashed the tart green apples into little bits small enough for a small child to eat.

The goal: to create a dish in all its simplicity. Peering down at my creation, the melted cheese either laid over or was tangled within the warm pasta. Every couple bites, a piece of crunch surprised my mouth thus signaling the apple entering. The mixture of these specific, different ingredients actually turned out to be compatible with each other. My family also agreed on this one.

A Slice of Diaster

ImageMy younger sister, Paige came to stay with me after she much needed a break from home. I had been cooking more often and wanted to show off some of my culinary skills. Even though my simple breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs, hash browns, and some bacon, the task seemed foolproof. I even took a short cut by buying frozen hash browns to grill on the skillet.

While warming the skillet in order to reheat the hash brown patties, I worked on pulling the patties apart. These specific hash browns resembled the golden ones from McDonalds, but without all the gunk and grease soak within them. They have a crisp outer potato shell with soft with warm chewy insides. In the packaging, they are laid on their side and stuck to each other from being in the freezer. Who would have thought they stick together like glue? So, I grabbed the sharp silver santoku knife in a frustrated attempt to pull them apart. The hash browns indeed separated with the misuse of my knife, but at the same time sliced deep into my thumb.

Instantly I ran to the sink in a panic. I had never cut myself before to this degree. I called for help, but my sister was still obliviously sleeping. Luckily, my hero of a boyfriend walked into the door to swoop me to the hospital. Even with my thumb taped up, I was still able to come back and successfully finish my breakfast venture.

http://www.mcdonalds.com/us/en/food/product_nutrition.breakfast.117.hash-brown.html

Food with History

As I arrived in the mission district of San Francisco on a cool brisk morning, I was immediately hit with the multicultural atmosphere. The excitement was brewing from in me. I knew that the day held new knowledge of culture and some unique tastes. The first stop, Mission Minis, sold cute, tiny, two-bite sized cupcakes. Due to my gluten intolerance, I unfortunately had to pass. The next stop, a modern restaurant called Local Eatery gave a fusion of dish of chicken with flavorful red onion, a mixture of regular and golden sweet raisins, a subtle taste of curry, and parsley as a garnish. The blends of sweet, savory, and a bit of spice complimented one another in a magical way. The next two stops also presented some savory bites. Wise Sons Delicatessen prepares their own pastrami. The salty, meaty food is made in house along with their own pickles and mustard. Pig and Pie cooks up homemade sausages, sour kraut, also their own mustard. Sausage I have eaten in the past seems filled with who knows what, and often tastes heavy and oily. These house made sausages were fresh, light, and juicy.

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The next two stops consisted of Mexican food inspired by the surrounding culture. Mexican food is my all time favorite type of food. I would eat it everyday if I could. Huaraches were served at La Palma. These flatbread type dishes consisted of a corn or flour tortilla type with beans hidden inside. Crisp lettuce and a spicy sauce sat on top. The spicy sauce made my nose run a bit, but to be honest, I love the burn. The next Mexican inspired stop was at Taqueria El Farolito. This taqueria was busy, a good sign of good food. The traditional tacos consisted of el pastor meat, lettuce, and some onion gave a powerful punch of flavor. The last stop at Humphry Slocombe an adult geared ice cream shop presented many unique flavors, including one called “Jesus Juice.” This unique and odd flavor was described as “wine and coke.” The ice cream tasted just like that.  A dessert was a great way to end a day full of culture and food.

A Sneak Peek to Paradise

           One evening during the fall of 2010, my mother insisted on my presence at dinner that night. She was making a special new dish that consisted of meat and rice; that was all I knew. Upon entering the house, the smell instantly hit my nose. The mixture of sugary sweet, savory meat, and tropical islands were swirling through the air. In the kitchen in a crock-pot were short ribs cooking and rice on the stove simmering. My mother informed me that we were having a Hawaiian style dinner. That very fact should have been my first clue, but I overlooked it. I was more focused and excited to be having something different for dinner other than the usual pasta, meatloaf, or baked chicken.

ImageOnce we sat down, my dad did a simple, “Cheers,” and we began to eat. I first ate the white rice, which was still steaming hot. The rice was so tasty, with a subtle hint of coconut could be tasted, but just enough to not make it too sweet as if it was a dessert. The short ribs, I ate next. The meat slipped off the bone once my fork gently began to separate meat from bone . It was a perfect balance of sweet and savory. I first ate the pieces separate to give each the chance to taste their flavors for their own. The tastes whirled around my mouth in a match to the death to win the most flavorful completion. Instead, the milky sweet rice and heavy but light meat were mutually respected.

After about ten minutes, my dad and mom spoke. They told us that we were having this special dinner for a reason. We would be spending Christmas in Hawaii! Smiles and wide excited eyes appeared on my sisters’ faces, and I could feel the excitement brewing within me. The meal we had was a prelude to the announcement of what would be the best family vacation. It was not necessarily the food itself, but the combination of great food and memories that made the meal one I still remember today.