Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In the mood for take-out

I have a million things to do right now, but I think I'm in the mood to do a post instead. I haven't updated in awhile, because I have been traveling and busy. I have a lot to catch up on.

In this post, I leave the kitchen. I mean, you can't cook everyday, and I love take out as much as the next guy. But the containers...oh the multitude of non-recyclable foam containers. I used to just turn my brain off and shove them in the garbage can, but those days are over. On my last trip to my favorite Thai restaurant, Titaya's, I brought my own containers with me.

I had seen a guy do this before at Titaya's, and my friend Jason was successful in his efforts at containerism at a Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle. I figured it would be fine, since everyone at Titayas is really sweet and friendly, but I was still a tad nervous. Language barriers...blank stares...holding up the line...ugh. There's a reason most people don't bother to do this kind of thing. No one wants to be the center of attention in any kind of retail or customer service setting. (Well I guess some people do. There was a guy who faked a heart attack in the head honcho's office at the University Bookstore in Seattle where I used to work, just to get attention.)

Another disadvantage to the whole bringing-your-own-Tupperware thing is that you can't call ahead. How long was this going to take?

I went up to the counter with my bag o' containers. I had three. I figured one for Scott's entree (pad praram, a simple chicken and veg stir fry with peanut sauce) and one for mine (som tam, papaya salad, details to follow) and one for our rice. I ordered, and then took the containers out of my bag and gave them to the ladies at the counter. They were extremely cool about it. One woman debated a minute, deciding which container would be best for which food, changing her mind a few times before settling the matter and taking them into the kitchen. I sat down on the bench to read my book. A mere ten minutes later, the food was ready.
As you can see, there is one foam container. That's because Scott prefers his peanut sauce on the side. Next time I'll have to bring one more.

Besides my smug sense of self satisfaction, I discovered other advantages to using my own containers. On the drive home, I did not have to worry about spilling. (Maybe this makes me look like a horrible driver, but once on the drive home from Titaya's I made a quick turn, the bag tipped over, and I got curry sauce all over the floor. Repulsive.)

Another bonus: in the excellent movie In the Mood for Love, which takes place in Hong Kong, the protagonist often goes to a noodle stand to get take out. She brings this really cool thermos with her. So even though I was wearing my grody gym clothes and feeling rather filthy and unattractive, I imagined that I was Maggie Cheung, wearing a gorgeous silk dress and hot shoes, and carrying my own noodle bucket.

So here is what I ordered, som tam. This is one of my favorite Thai foods. It is shredded unripe papaya, peanuts, tomato and green beans with fish sauce, chiles, garlic, sugar, and lime juice. I first ate it in Thailand, where it is made pretty much the same way, but with tiny dried shrimp. They don't use those at Titaya's, probably because most Americans don't care for them, myself included. I also don't like the green beans they use (long beans, but they are always tough) so I always order it without. Anyway, you might think the salad is sweet, but it's not--the unripe papaya is crisp and bland, kind of like cucumber. It is supposed to be very good for digestion.
I can't get enough. Plus, low fat.

So there we have it. Easy, tasty, Maggie Cheungesque take out extravaganza.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

You are a better cook than Paul Newman, I promise

Homemade tomato sauce is a big source of drama and mystique for many people. As my beloved Marcella Hazan says, somewhere in Marcella's Italian Kitchen--but I can't find the exact quote so I'll have to paraphrase--"there is nothing so false as the image of the old Italian matriarch, stooped over her hot oven for hours, stirring a simmering pot of tomato sauce." While there are some slow-cooking and complicated sauces, a tasty and basic tomato sauce can be made with little fuss. There are even delicious uncooked tomato sauces.

However, my method should not be mistaken for a Great Italian Masterpiece, either. One thing I have learned about Italians in my years working on a cooking magazine (and being half Italian, and visiting the country several times) is that they are very opinionated about food, to put it really mildly. But at the end of the day, we're all just people trying to turn vegetables into something healthy and tasty with a minimum of fuss. I believe my sauces accomplish that, and that you can make good sauce too.

To begin: the most important thing, and any Italian would agree with me, is quality ingredients. There are a lot of different kinds of tomatoes, and where they grow and how ripe they are really determines their flavor. The store can be overwhelming--which ones will be tasty? which ones are going to be mealy and flavorless?

Sometimes I luck out and sometimes I fail. I can't really guide you towards the best varieties because I just don't know. My only advice would be to not think a tomato will taste good just because it looks great--some of the scary looking heirloom ones are the best (but some are gross)-- and buy something locally grown, which will mean totally different kinds for different regions. Local tomatoes will be fresher, and it's nice to support your community. (Eating local is a big subject that deserves more attention but...later...and anyway, it's pretty well covered in the food press right now.) And, maybe your local tomato actually won't be that great, but hey--at least it didn't have to fly all the way from Holland just to suck.

(We are not going to discuss San Marzanos or other canned tomatoes here, but I can tell you more about them if you are interested.)

Whatever tomatos I buy, I like to let them sit around for a few days--at room temperature. NEVER refrigerate your tomatoes. Don't do it. And don't buy tomatoes that are in the refrigerated section. It totally messes them up and makes them spongy and bland. Let them sit around on the counter for a few days. If they get wrinkly, no problem. I've actually seen recipes that call for wrinkled tomatoes. This is one that I got at the Triangle farmer's market after it sat for a couple of days.

One more thing. Before I started my sauce, I tasted the tomatoes. These were really acidic. Good, but wow. Tongue searing. Good to know, as I would add some sugar to the sauce later. So, taste.

Along with tomatoes, a sauce can have just garlic, basil, and olive oil, and/or onions, and/or celery...whatever you want. Of course you can read and try different recipes, but at the end of the day, it's your choice.

I've learned that I really like my sauce with onion, garlic, celery and carrot. Not too much carrot, just one small one or less. It also gives a nice bright color. But if I don't have carrot or celery, that's OK. But I HAVE to have garlic and onion. That is the bare minimum. So chop your stuff up...(I used half this carrot) (garlic not pictured for some reason) (I was out of celery):

And put it in a pot with some olive oil.

Some recipes will say that onions and garlic should go first, then carrots, or whatever but--I just put it all in together. You know the other night while I was making this sauce I was also making a turkey meatloaf for Scott's lunches, and granola for the week. I have to be efficient.

Cook all your stuff up in olive oil over medium heat until it's soft. Stir often so it doesn't stick and brown. Maybe about 15 mins depending on if you have carrots or not (they are slow). And..oh...olive oil. Another ingredient where you need to consider quality. Sorry, no room to talk about it here. Just make sure you like the flavor of the olive oil you are using. "Lite" olive oil really has no flavor (that's what is "lite" about it) and I do not recommend it.

(Side note: of course onions, carrots and garlic all should be chosen carefully and taste good too, but as they aren't the star ingredients, it's not so important to spend time on them here.)

When the onions etc are soft, add your chopped tomatoes. For this amount of stuff I did...I don't know maybe a pound and a half of tomatoes. Some recipes say to seed and skin the tomatoes, but I don't do this, surprise surprise.

Let it all cook up for awhile. Lower the heat so it's not bubbling out of control. Add salt and pepper, and sugar if you think your tomatoes need it. Don't go hog wild with adding all kinds of spices from the spice rack. Choose a fresh herb or two and add that toward the end. If you don't have a fresh herb, well, I don't know what to tell you. Maybe you can use dried spices to come up with some combo that makes it really "your" sauce, and that is fun.

Lately I have been really into using rosemary, which I used to only do in the winter but am now doing all the time (until I get sick of it). I had some basil plants all summer, but I recently let them die. They really struggled in the heat, I had to water them constantly, and after awhile they just didn't taste that great. So instead I just sneak down to my neighbor's apartment and snip a length of rosemary while the tomatoes cook. It grows everywhere in Austin, which I found truly magical when I moved here (but, I think it is common like, everywhere but New England where I grew up).

Of course, I pushed it all the way in, this is just so you can see it.

If you are using basil, don't add it till the very end. Rosemary I think needs a longer simmer. But the flavors of basil really pop if not cooked too long. Throw in some chopped or whole leaves right at the end.

Let the whole thing simmer about half an hour. When the sauce is done (which I determine somewhat arbitrarily and by it smelling really good) you can fridge it, as I did, or use it right away, or put it in the blender to make it really smooth (which I did the next day before reheating) (take out the rosemary if blending or before serving, too!). You can also stir in a little tomato paste, which is kind of a cheat to the no packaging experiment, and I didn't do it but...I do have a jar in the fridge. It's like a shot of tomato essence and can be a nice touch. This rosemary sauce also is nice with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, per Marcella. I didn't do it this time though.

So that's it for sauce, for now. There really is so much to say, and there are books written on it and everyone makes a big fuss about having"the best" sauce, and having grandmas secret recipe for "gravy" and blah, blah, blah. All that stuff is fun, but it shouldn't put you off making your own. All you have to do is love and respect your ingredients and enjoy your time in the kitchen and you'll do just fine.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Cheese sandwich with deep thoughts

This is a cheese sandwich made with homemade cheese, roasted hatch chiles, olive oil, and ten-grain bread from Central Market. It is toasted. I have included this photo and description simply to make the rest of this entry less boring, because there is no more food talk or photos. But doesn't this sandwich look great! it was. MMMMM don't forget the salt!

Meanwhile. The weeks of no packaging are long over. Here are some thoughts on the experiment.

1. It's not over. I'm still sticking to it as best I can. I have this idea to transform my refrigerator and cupboards into entirely name-brand-free zones. As I run out of condiments, I will make them and you will get to read about it. There is still so much fun to be had.

2. I realized that when I feel accountable (thanks readers!) it's really very easy to never forget your shopping bags or containers, and to think ahead a little bit. It was a little more effort, but what isn't at first? And for me, this effort isn't the same as "work." I love being in the kitchen with NPR or some music to sing to while I chop, chop, chop. But, this brings me to my third point:

3. It's not for everyone. But, we can all do something for the environment. For me, it's very easy to reduce my packaging and waste overall. But maybe it is not so easy for you. Maybe you are a busy mom and your kids really love Shark Bites. Maybe your job is very demanding and time in the kitchen is just more work, no matter how you look at it. I hope things can change, and that people can build stronger connections to the foods we eat and where they come from, but still, I totally get it. Major cooking is not for everyone. But what can you do?

Let's first consider an area where I majorly fail in environmental stewardship: exercise. Physical fitness and I have a very tenuous relationship, and in order for me to not be morbidly obese, I have to make it easy for myself. I drive eight miles to one of Austin's best gyms and use the machines, when I could just run around the neighborhood. I drive to yoga class when I could do it at home. Yes, I could have a major attitude more disciplined, learn not to feel embarrassed when people drive by and I'm out there sweating like an animal and tripping over tree roots; not get distracted by my iPod and run into traffic; vacuum enough that I'm not doing downward dog into a carpet covered in actual dog hair... but if I'm serious about staying in shape, these things aren't going to happen. Just like most of you are not going to make your own Saltines.

We all have changes we can and can't make. Play to your strengths, I say. If you are someone who loves exercising outside, maybe you can ride your bike to work instead of driving. If you love growing flowers, maybe you can learn to grow some veggies, too. If you love meeting new people, maybe you can go volunteer to pick up trash with KAB (Scott and I did this once, and it was fun, but not as much fun as cooking and dancing to Thriller). Few of us can do ALL of this...but all of us can do something, and make it fun.