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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Witness

If it’s true, as has been noted, that we marry in order to have someone bear witness to our lives, what Steve and I have witnessed is a whole lot of food, to say nothing of food talk, between ourselves and our friends.

It should have been apparent from the beginning that we would be about food. We met on the beach in an area of Long Beach called Belmont Shore which is a city neighborhood but has a small town feel. It was within two years after my divorce and shortly after his. We were both sunbathing that April day, enjoying the onset of warm days. Our beach towels were in close proximity so we got into the kind of aimless conversation typical to relaxed situations such as that. Since I had moved there from out of the area and he was more familiar with it, having grown up there, we spent some time discussing the differences between the more suburban area I had come from and the city in which I was now living.

In the process of comparing Orange County, where I grew up, and Long Beach, it seemed natural that amenities such as restaurants would come up in the conversation. Steve then took it to the next level and mentioned a knowing a great restaurant, a Mexican place he regularly visited, to which I responded, that I knew one that had to be much, much better. Being of Mexican descent I felt I would be the more qualified to judge something like that, and said so. We decided to put it to the test; I would treat him to mine, out in the “suburban wasteland” that was Orange County, and he would take me to his in the urban core of Long Beach. Oh sure, it was a ploy on his part, but it worked. One date led to another, and the rest, as they say, is history.

For the record, neither one of us was particularly impressed by the others’ restaurant choice. He felt mine was too trendy and unauthentic, since it was in Laguna Beach and because my favorite thing to have there was Nachos. And I felt his was too ordinary and unauthentic, being a typical “Americanized” style characterized by too much red sauce and cheese. However, even with that large philosophical disparity, we somehow managed to strike an accord on how we approach food. I’m just guessing here but I suspect it really wasn’t about the restaurants at all.

We met at a time in our lives when raising children (mine) and consuming business travel (his) were, for the most part, behind us. That put us in the position of being ready to settle into a comfortable place in life and as it turned out, to have someone to share it with. We both had demanding jobs that kept us engaged and required long hours. For me, it meant not having a lot of energy left for anything else on a daily basis. Steve was still doing some traveling and also doing work that sometimes required long days and/or weekend work.

Early on we realized we liked to have dinner out since it was one way to relax and not make one person be responsible for food preparation. With two decent incomes, it was possible to go out regularly and, since the eating out was as much for entertainment as it was for sustenance, we sought out interesting restaurants.

I don’t think we have ever, then or now, looked for restaurants that were fancy or glamorous. That said, both those things are desirable, under the right circumstance, for example, like an anniversary or post-theatre dinner. But for the most part, good food in nice settings was all we looked for. Small places and personalized service was and still is, highly desirable. This type of attitudes sometimes collides with some realities. The first Mexican restaurant he took me to was good in those two things. Unfortunately, the food was not. Strike that one. The restaurant I touted had a beautiful location going for it, it’s hard to fault Laguna Beach, but that was all. Admittedly it was a great date destination, but sooner or later, even when starry-eyed, you crave real food. Both of us gained weight in the first months of the relationship I theorize, because when you’re newly in love everything looks wonderful, tastes wonderful, and you don’t think beyond the moment. Living in the moment may be a lovely philosophy for life in general but really plays havoc with your weight and probably your health too. Fortunately we were still young enough where that was not yet an issue. And after a while we did get over the novelty.

At some point we realized that a lot of the dishes we enjoyed out consisted of fresh ingredients prepared inventively. We became intrigued by what we saw and tasted. We would enjoy something at a restaurant and come home and look for the recipe. As a lot of what we liked was Italian, specifically pasta dishes, we started exploring that type of cooking. A good thing since it is more easily mastered than, say, a crown roast. In those pre-internet days, you had to buy cookbooks and cooking magazines to find recipes. So buy them we did. I discovered that reading cookbooks in bed was a great way to relax. The pictures are beautiful and when I fall asleep beautiful photos of food are the last images I see.

It turned out there is a negative side to all this culinary appreciation. We found that many exceptional recipes we so enjoyed and were able to do at home were not available at restaurants. This was especially true of many of the pasta dishes, since if you have access to a store that carries good pasta, they are fairly easy and gratifying to make.

It is something of a loss but these days we seldom go to Italian restaurants, choosing instead to cook those types of things ourselves. I lean towards chunky vegetables types of recipes with ingredients like roasted eggplants or cauliflower, and Steve prefers the smoother sauces and has become something of an expert at risotto. We seldom venture too far into one-another’s specialty space but occasionally have been known to wrangle over who saw that appealing-looking recipe in the newspaper first. Some things just look too good to pass up but whoever “loses” of course really doesn’t since we get to eat the finished dish.

This pasta recipe falls into that category, having a creamy cheesy sort of sauce that Steve typically prefers. But, I called it first, made it and it is delicious. And easy. I know my limits. I invariably go for easy.

Ricotta Orzo

Ingredients:

½ lb orzo
1 cup fresh ricotta
4 strips bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 tbs olive oil
1 ½ cups chopped leeks, rinsed well
½ cup fresh or frozen peas
½ tsp salt
½ tsp fresh ground black pepper
½ cup whole milk, warmed
1/3 cup grated parmesan
1 tbs chopped fresh dill or other fresh herb
like chervil, chives, parsley



Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons salt and the pasta. Cook according to package directions. Drain and rinse well. Set aside.
While the pasta is cooking heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add the leeks. Cook until leeks are tender and bright green, about 3 minutes. Add the peas, salt, and pepper and cook for 1 minute. Add the orzo, ricotta, and bacon and toss well over medium heat until warm, about 3 minutes. Add the milk, Parmesan, and dill/herbs and cook for 1 more minute. Serve hot.

Serves 2 as a main course and can easily be doubled for more.
Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Favorite Foods

Steve has a story he likes to tell about his birthdays when he was a kid. He grew up in the 1950’s when, in his opinion, kids weren’t coddled and catered-to as they now are, he says. And as the oldest in a family with five kids, in those pre-credit card years he knew money was carefully allocated for necessities. So on his birthday, there weren’t parties or dinners out. Instead his mother would prepare his favorite dinner in his honor. At this point in the story someone will usually ask “and that was?” to which Steve replies, “I don’t know”. But mom knew, and that’s what she prepared for him.

I always enjoy this story for a couple of reasons. One is that in the 50’s Father Knows Best timeframe, in this case mother knew best. But mainly I like it because I enjoy thinking of Steve as a little kid with a favorite food, though it apparently changed from year to year. But if his adult choices are any indication, probably included were those 50’s staples, macaroni and cheese, and meatloaf.

This made me reflect on the fact that I have no favorite foods, other than bread perhaps. Did most people have favorite foods, or have them now, as adults, I wondered? I decided to question some friends and family about that, if they had any and what they were. In thinking about possible responses, I had my own bias, thinking that women seem to obsess far more about weight and looks than men seem to so therefore they (we) weren’t as food-centered as guys.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. The only thing my admittedly unscientific sampling revealed was – surprise – most people like what we have come to know as comfort foods. Pizza, man n’cheese, soup, and yes, meatloaf. Sensuous foods like avocados and artichokes also were mentioned, as well as custards, puddings and ice cream. Some surprises to me were French fries and also fresh tomatoes, although come to think of it what’s not to like about French fries. The fresh tomatoes mentioned were described by their admirer in such ardent detail that I immediately had a craving for them.
This is not to say that everyone eats their favorites all the time. In fact, I suspect many things may have become favorites because of the lack of them, coupled with a bit of nostalgia for what we used to be.
Notable by their absence as anyone’s favorites were things like grilled vegetables, tofu products, and nouvelle cousine, even though the strong presence of these things in many stores and restaurants would indicate otherwise. Perhaps the children of today will someday see them as their childhood food, or, having been exposed to so much more than the previous generations, will have a more global approach to, and acceptance of, various types of fare.

These days Steve determines his choices and so knows what his favorite foods are, and yes, meatloaf is one of them. If I cooked meat I might be able to provide a good recipe. But you may just have to get by as he does, which is to have it when we go out, or alternatively, get it from Trader Joe’s. He says their turkey meat loaf makes great sandwiches and who am I to argue?

But my favorite result of this musing has to do with the tomatoes. We are just starting to come into the season when flavorful tomatoes become available, if not in our back yards, at least at the farmers markets. So we will all be able to enjoy them at their best, and perhaps get as much pleasure as my friend Alice does. This is how she describes them.

Alice’s Passionate Tomatoes

Home grown summer tomatoes, so juicy and delicious you can pull them off the plant warm from the sun and eat them standing in the garden (provided no pesticides have been applied!)
Or, slice them and have them with a little salt, or put thin slices on bread for a sandwich so drippy you have to stand over the kitchen sink to eat it.

Alice’s all-time favorite pasta recipe
Diced summer tomatoes in olive oil, garlic, fresh basil and red pepper flakes.
Marinate at room temp overnight
Toss with hot pasta and grated Fontina cheese
Enjoy!

Thanks Alice.
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