Monday, October 13, 2008

Read on.

To continue reading, please check out Chef Reinvented.

We have a winner.

Dana Cree, friend, blogger and pastry chef at Poppy, is the winner of my informal poll to come up with a new blog name. Her name suggestion? Chef Reinvented. I love it. It's perfect. Her prize? A life-time supply of egg-free, gluten-free, dairy-free sorghum and millet cupcakes with soy milk and hemp frosting. Congratulations Dana. May you never need a bowl of Colon Blow to get you through your day.

(Please read here for some hilarious suggestions people wrote in...)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Chef Comma Interrupted

My bff came up with the name Chef Interrupted and I loved it immediately. It sounded sort of familiar because it reminded me of this novel turned movie I watched years ago called Girl Interrupted. It had this edginess to it that resonated with me. Turns out it was familiar because I had heard it before. There's a popular cookbook called Chef, Interrupted and a colleague of mine has a blog (I just found out) called Cookus Interruptus. They are not the same words exactly. Shoot there's a comma in the book, and the other's in faux Latin but all the same, it sort of sits in my gut like a chunk of raw garlic.

I plan on writing in this blog for a long time, so I'd rather start off on a truly original note. I have put the bug in my friend's ear to come up with some alternatives and I'll throw some of my own out there, but please feel free to weigh in. The name doesn't have to be specifically food allergy related as I plan on writing about all things food, whether or not I can eat it, damn it. Some themes I'm thinking on relate to my skinnyness (Sac of because it seems to be a favorite topic of my students and clients who can't fathom why I don't weigh 400 pounds or to garlic itself, perhaps going with the vampire chef theme. My friend suggested (Syncopated Ideas?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Eat me crunchy

I imagine all manner of snickers and innuendo when reading the title of this entry, but we'll keep this blog g-rated, mmm-kay? I've provided you with a quick visual to clear up any lingering questions about my meaning.

Today's entry is a tribute to the wonders of human invention. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. First, some background. Like most Americans who grew up in the 70's and 80's, I'm a product of our instant gratification culture. What was started in the late 50's - namely, convenience foods to make the lives of housewives "easier" - was really coming into its own in the 70's, highly advocated by my busy father who raised us along with the help of Louise: our Jamaican nanny/housecleaner/cook/friend and mother-substitute.

Weekends were a time for scrambled eggs and Bisquick pancakes, but weekday mornings we found succor in the pantry. Oh, that tall double-doored cabinet to the left of the refrigerator (I still reach out for it in my dreams). Within, we could almost hear the jingles we learned on t.v. "If you like cookies..." as I reach for the brown box, "you'll love Cookie Crisp!"

My father raised us right. My brothers and I appreciate things, take nothing for granted and work hard for what we have. But when it came to nutrition, my father turned a somewhat blind eye to the contents of our Grand Union shopping cart. In went the Double-Stuff Oreo cookies, the Fritos, some clam dip, and boxes after boxes of sugary, teeth-chatteringly sweet cereal with negligible nutritional value. And how we loved him for it.

I was an extremely picky eater as a child and had (and have) a sweet tooth that is beyond compare. Cereal made me happy and there were hardly any I wouldn't eat, although I was drawn -through clever targeted marketing and shit-tons of high fructose corn syrup- to the sweet ones. The crunchier the better, as my pickiness would rear its ugly head if my cereal were to turn even the slightest bit soggy.

My father had a love for the Frosted Mini-Wheat, the big kind that would bob along in his milk like some abandoned log waiting for rescue. To overcome its powdered snow-like sugar coating, Kellogg's claimed, "Surprise!... they're good for you!" After bowls and bowls of empty calorie, chocolate chip cookie breakfasts it surely would be a surprise if any cereal with that much sugar could actually be good for you.

I wasn't the only one to prefer our cereals sweet and crunchy. I'd say it was around 1978 or 79, a late summer morning and we're all sitting around the breakfast cereal munching away; there were no less than 4 gi-normous boxes on our table at any one time. Behind each box was a member of our family sleepily reading everything and anything printed on the packaging while we ate. We watch for a moment as our father pours his Mini-Wheats into his bowl and tops it with ice-cold whole milk. We tuck our heads and resume our reading just as my father screams and jumps back from the table. Seems as if a family of New Jersey born and raised black ants also had a thing for Kelloggs Frosted Mini-Wheats and chose my father's bowl to make their debut to the family. From that day forward, we examined our boxes and bowls vigilantly for any sign of movement not created by our own spoons.

Captain Crunch was a personal favorite because they seemed to understand how important it was to manufacture a cereal that wouldn't get soggy. Sure, the roof of your mouth was shredded in the process, but you never had to deal with a limp, disgusting Corn Flake plastered like so much Elmer's glue to the side of your bowl.

Today we eat much healthier cereals. Before I had to go temporarily wheat free I was a big fan of Nature's Path Organic Optimum Power Breakfast Flax Soy Blueberry Cereal (a name as verbose as Life Cereal is succinct). These days I'm liking Perky's Nutty Rice (another funny name) with soy milk, dried strawberries and sliced banana. No cereal name, however, past or present ever rivals the fake health cereal of SNL fame - known the world over as "Colon Blow".

I may have grown out of my love of non-nutritive sugary cereals, but I will still gag, retch and complain if my cereal goes limp. One day, I saw this cereal bowl on some random British website that claims it prevents soggy cereal. One deliriously happy customer reported, "eating cereal is no longer a race against time!" I sent the link to the wine goddess saying... "hey check this out - for the prima donna who has everything."

3 weeks later a package arrived in the mail for me, postmarked from England.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Love letter

Pike Place Market at dusk

It was exactly this time of year 13 years ago when I first laid eyes on Seattle. Oh, what a looker she was on that day; a day so remarkable, the cloudless sky and razor sharp edges of two mountain ranges made a girl feel woozy taking in all of the beauty. I had been living in Washington, D.C. at the time and came out West to visit an old friend who was on a one-woman mission to make Seattle my home.

Two experiences led up to my decision to go back to D.C., call U-Haul and get packing. First, I carelessly left my wallet in a cab. When I realized what I had done, I called the cab company and asked them to keep an eye out for it. Three hours later the phone rings. A passenger in the cab turned it in to the driver who insists on personally driving back to return it to me; does he need my friend's address? "Not at all," he tells me, "I remember where I dropped you off. I'll be right there." When he arrived, I gushed with gratitude and tried to slip a $20 into his hand to thank him. He handed the money back, smiled and wished me a lovely stay in Seattle.

Baby artichokes at the Ballard Sunday Farmer's Market

The other experience that sealed the deal was when I was walking with my friend along a quiet street in Madrona. It was early fall and the sun hit our faces at an autumnal angle, close enough to warm but far enough away to feel the crispness in the air. As we walked, my friend casually picked fruit off of the trees that lined the streets. She handed me an Italian plum with dusty white-purple skin that shined up after a few passes on my jeans. "Is this illegal?" I ask her, scanning the streets for security cameras. She tells me there are oodles of overflowing fruit - too much to eat - while she lazily kicks at the rotting plums in the grass to make her point. On the next block she tugs a perfectly ripe pear off a branch and now I know she's just showing off. I move my line of questioning to personal health, "What if it has pesticides all over it?" "I doubt it," she tells me, "people care more about their food here." And by way of explanation she states simply enough, "It's Seattle."

A vision of the "Soviet Safeway" where we shopped in Adam's Morgan, D.C. comes to mind, so named for the perceived scarcity of quality produce in certain inner city neighborhoods. After years of living in dirty urban areas, it's hard to adjust to eating a piece of fruit right off the street. You'd have to be totally out of your mind to contemplate eating anything off the street in most urban areas, unless it's a hot dog or a pretzel or you are supremely hungry. Let's be real - you're not even given the opportunity in most urban areas. Unless you are in Seattle or a similar Urban-Eden, there would be no chance to earn those blackberry scars on your arms, shallow, pencil lead-thin scratchings from joyous forays into the heart of the bushes come August. You wouldn't have to contemplate whether or not to gather up spring nettles in one of the city's numerous public green spaces to make soup. You wouldn't know that figs, heirloom apples and Rainier cherries could be so abundant, falling at your feet as you walk the streets.

Cheese squash (white), Hubbard (green) and unidentified (orange)

Now, after so many years, I know these truths intimately and it's hard to remember a time when the word "city" meant something very different to me. Today, Seattle, I send you a love letter for opening my eyes and teaching me that a city can be rich with beauty and generosity, natural and man-made.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Marbles and flowers

I was finishing up teaching a cooking class the other night when I get a text from my wine goddess. "I'm making you dinner!" it says. This might not seem so strange but to put this into context, in the time we've been together, there has only been one other occasion I can remember when these particular words have ever been strung together and uttered from her lips.

No. Scratch that. It was a lunch she made me that time. I had never heard these words before.

To further contextualize the moment, imagine you were with a chef and you were deciding what to make them for dinner. No one wants to cook for me save for my best friend and, to be fair, the wine goddess and I both work nights, rendering dinner together rare in the first place. When we do have a night off I'm more than happy to whip something up or go out.

I'm actually, surprisingly, easy to please. I love a simple grilled cheese sandwich and some tomato soup. I love pasta. I swoon over everyday things, like mac and cheese and anything grilled. Just throw a steak on the grill for a minute and I'm perfectly happy. Cheese, bread, tomatoes, steak, pasta.... none of it I can eat right now. However, now is when the wine goddess decides to make me dinner. "You're getting too skinny!" she says, "I need to DO something!" It's such a sweet gesture that I rush home excited to be cooked for, happy to sit down and let her serve me a meal.

On the top step of our landing, I smell the food of my ancestors: chicken in a broth, carrot, celery...a touch of... but wait, what is that? Something Indian? Floral?

I walk in the front door and a moment before I hear her voice I see a wooden spoon standing straight up out of our small pot on the stove. Like a funereal chopstick defying the laws of gravity, it seems to signal something ominous. "I think I screwed up the rice!" she yells down the hall.

My wine goddess is a walking encyclopedia of all things grape, music, and pop culture. She can sing like an angel, charm the pants off anyone and do a mean Cher impersonation.

A cook she is not.

This is not to say she hasn't mastered a few things in her time here on earth: popcorn, fried eggs, bacon, toast and a strong cup of coffee are her culinary calling cards. When she cooks, she cooks by feel. She loathes directions and poo-poos recipes. She moves through life lifting her nose to the wind and sniffing out her next move. I use the word "sniffing" in strictly a metaphorical sense as allergies leave her actual sniffer at times compromised.

Times such as now.

When she noticed that the rice seemed bland and mushy, intuition moved her to my spice wall, where magnets hold little containers of unlabeled spices with see-through windows so that I can identify what it is I'm grabbing for. The bright color of turmeric caught her eye and several tablespoons made their way into the cooked rice, garishly transforming it before her eyes. Not entirely satisfied, she reached for what she thought might be thyme (but she's not entirely sure). "This will teach you to LABEL your spices!" she teasingly scolds me later. As a final flourish, she added a pinch of my truffle salt and hoped for the best. That's when I walked in the door.

We sit down to eat and I'm grinning from ear to ear, touched by her obvious love and effort. On our plates: baked chicken legs with sage, steamed broccoli, carrots and celery. I'm forcing back a smile at the sight of the rice, a yellow beacon of a pile, heaped up high against its chicken fence. It takes all of the love in my heart to swallow my bite of rice down. In that long moment from pulling it off the fork (no easy task) to my hard swallow I realized a few things. First, she doesn't have ANY rice on her plate. Second, it dawns on me what that overwhelming floral scent is. The "thyme" she thought was thyme was lavender. Lots of it.

What does Turmeric and Lavender rice taste like? Imagine eating ground marbles and dirt mixed with soap and flowers. I can't help but think the analogy rivals some of her most esoteric wine descriptions. I offer her a small bite. She forcefully shakes her head, smiles and says, "HELL no!"

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Soy sauce is so totally last month

Perhaps I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. I don't believe in heaven but if I did it would look distinctly like a sushi bar. My bar stool would have a gilded hamachi hand roll on the back. The place wouldn't be called "Cheers" - that wouldn't be right. It's in Tokyo, after all. Perhaps "Kampai!" and yes, everyone would know my name.

So when I sat in my naturopath's office waiting impatiently for the "list" while he danced around the food allergy elephant in the room, all I could think about was sushi. I believed in that moment I could go without a lot of things for 3 months: friends, money, shelter, no problem. Could I go without sushi? I didn't think so.

There's this magazine for food allergy folks. It's got this very sad little name. It's called: Living Without. I first learned about this magazine when I was hired as a consultant to a family with many food allergies. They wanted help with recipes and resources. I almost couldn't stand to point them in the direction of a resource called Living Without. That was in the halcyon days when I was naively awash in Living With and thought that it was terribly depressing of the publishers to focus on the Without. Then my doctor tells me I can't have vinegar or soy sauce because they are fermented with yeast. Rice vinegar is what makes sushi rice so yummy. Soy sauce is the ketchup of Asia! Damn my doctor.

No matter! I can devise a work-around and work around I do!

It goes like this: I order a take-out deluxe sashimi dinner from my local sushi bar. Miso soup please, no onions thank you. When I get home my lab and cocker spaniel run to their invisible marks at my side, acutely aware of their roles in this now semi-weekly play. I feed the lab the egg and the cocker the snapper-ish/bass-like fish that I haven't been able to properly identify and my limited Japanese is no help. I throw the pickled ginger and the daikon radish in the compost and try not to sigh when doing this. I pull out a bag of my own nori and cut it into quarters. I take the side of plain steamed rice they give you and make my own sushi rice by adding a few capfuls of apple cider vinegar, some sesame seeds and sea salt and a little bit of agave syrup for sweetness. Next, I grab a small bowl and squeeze half a lemon into it and stir in some sea salt. Now it's show time. I grab the nori and make my own hand rolls. Some rice, some hamachi, a little bit of shiso leaf, a smear of wasabi and I roll it up like a big fish cigarette and dip it into the lemon-salt.

It's fabulous.

It's so fabulous I hardly miss the soy sauce and its inherent wheat and yeast. After all, everyone knows Lemon Salt is the new Soy.