Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving

Wow, it's been awhile, hasn't it. I've been consumed by NaNoWriMo, a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. I've finished, so can now think about things like blogging again. If you're interested in my NaNoWriMo experience you can check out my other blog. I wrote about it a little there and will be writing more in the next few days.

Right now, I want to write about Thanksgiving. If you're not a denizen of the US, Thanksgiving is our November harvest festival. You can read the background here. What it's come to mean for many American families is a gathering in one home with enormous amounts of food prepared by one harried family member. The feast is eaten, then everyone sits around in a stupor. This year, I was the harried family member.

It's the first time I've hosted Thanksgiving. It went well. I'm still exhausted. But boy, was it yummy. I made all the traditional stuff - giant roasted turkey, stuffing (three different kinds), cranberry sauce, gravy, potatoes, green beans, etc etc. My favorite dish was among the simplest. It's comforting, easy, smells and tastes great and is nicely symbolic of the bounty of the season.

Roasted Root Vegetables
(Please note I've not included proportions here. Use the amounts that seem yummy to you.)
  • Fingerling or baby potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Parsnips (yum!)
  • Whole peeled garlic cloves
  • Other root veggies you could include: turnips, carrots, beets, etc
  • Rosemary sprigs
  • S&P to taste OR a seasoning blend with salt that you love
  • Olive oil
Wash the potatoes (all varieties) and other root veggies. Leave the potatoes whole but cut everything else except the garlic into chunks about the size of the potatoes.

Put it all into a roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil and toss. Sprinkle with seasoning blend and toss again, being sure to coat everything evenly. It should be somewhat oily. Stick the sprigs of rosemary here and there. Cover with foil. Roast at 350 for about 45 minutes then test for tenderness. Roast until done. Eat. Mmmm....

I also roasted whole onions separately, just wrapping them in foil and putting them in oven. When they were soft to the squeeze they were done. Let them cool for a little while then peel and eat. They become soft and sweet. Yummy.

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy November!

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Cool, crisp...

It's been awhile since I've written here, not because I've not been eating (ha!) but because I've not had anything that really inspired me. While on a recent trip to Vancouver BC I had some wonderful food - a great bowl of Chinese noodle soup, wonderful cod and salmon, so on and and so forth - but it didn't inspire me to write. I'm not sure why. Since coming home I've cooked a little of this and a little of that, all good, but not stunning.

It's taken a cucumber to inspire me to write.

I had leftover hot and sour soup for dinner. It was takeout from a local Chinese place, one I've written about before, so it was pretty good, but I found myself still munchie. I looked in the pantry and considered popcorn. I thought about heating other leftovers, maybe the chicken mushroom stew from last night. And then I remembered I had a cucumber in the crisper and all my prayers were answered. Or at least some of them, the prayers of the moment.

Peeled, sliced (I love the feel of the knife moving through the cucumber, the resistance as it hits the seeds), and arranged on the plate, then sprinkled with salt, it was everything I wanted.

Cucumbers are a fruit, contrary to common expectation. They have a nice array of nutrients though aren't really a nutritional powerhouse. You probably know that slices of cucumbers placed on the eyes can reduce swelling (though honestly I think that's a waste of a yummy cuke) and it's said that sleeping on a bed of cukes will cure fever. You can guess that they're a fertility symbol.

All of this and they answered my craving for something cool and comforting this evening. Rarely do I have a craving met so thoroughly and with such ease.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Glop

I'm a decent cook. Some days I consider myself a good cook; every once in awhile I'm inspired. And when I'm inspired as often as not it's for a meal that's cooked in one pot. You might call it stew or soup. I usually call it glop and no two glops are the same.

Last night I was inspired. I made what was essentially a chicken mole but kept playing with it. I dredged chicken in a mixture of flour and mole seasoning, sauted it, then added onions, garlic, potatoes, a can of black beans, more spices (including more mole, pepper, salt and some adobo) and water. I let this all cook for awhile and then tasted it. I found it to be a bit flat, so I added a little more pepper and the magic ingredient: molasses.

Once it cooked down it was wonderful. The sauce was rich and savory, wonderful to eat by itself with bread, while the chicken and beans were tender and delicious. I'm feeling pretty smug about the whole thing. It could have been disastorous, but ended up delightful and perhaps reproducible.

When I die I'll be remembered for my stories and my glop. That's not such a bad thing.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day - Poverty

You're hungry. You haven't had a good meal in who knows how long. You're cold and tired and just worn out. You don't have access to a computer to read this blog - or to look for a job, or for a recipe if you had enough money for food anyway.

Poverty stinks.

On Blog Action Day bloggers around the world unity to make poverty history. You can too. Donate. Give time, give money, give your good spirit. Thanks.


Monday, October 13, 2008

Fair Food and its remedies

This past weekend my sweetie and I went to the Topsfield Fair, a large agricultural fair. It was full of everything you'd expect - barns with beautiful livestock (it's good to remember where the meat we eat comes from)(there was one cow who was, I swear, a ham. She loved having her picture taken and got sulky when no one was nearby), giant pumpkins (the winner was over 1,400 lbs, yikes), a midway with games and rides, infomercials everywhere, and of course, food. Cider, fried dough, hot dogs, turkey legs, french fries, on and on and on.

My favorite bite was a hot cider donught and a cup of hot cider. The worst was a texas onion ring, covered with so much slightly-off batter I couldn't finish one. The smells were overwhelming.

When we got home all I really wanted was something clean and simple. The next day for dinner I made a butternut squash. I quartered it (actually, Kevin chopped it up with a cleaver for me - those suckers are tough), scraped out the seeds, then put it in an inch or so of water with salt and pepper. I microwaved it for about 12 minutes until it was tender then scraped out the flesh and called it done. It tasted clean and fresh, like autumn. The kitchen smelled like something pure. Not frying fat. As I ate it I imagined the long green vine that it grew on. The sound of the barkers voices faded form my mind, the texas onion ring finally left my palate. The fair was fun, but this, oh this was home.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Fasting

Today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday of repentance. While there are many aspects to the observance of this Holy Day for the purposes of a food blog there is really only one point need to make.

Today we fast from sundown to sundown. It's a powerful ting, fasting deliberately as an act of sacrifice, so we understand deprivation. I felt my stomach growling, felt the emptiness, and remembered how lucky I am to have plenty.

At sundown I broke my fast with apples and honey, sweetness for the new year. I am cleansed, my mouth is sweet and I am reminded of the riches that surround me.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Stone soup

There is a popular fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm that tells of a soldier, on his way home from war, who stops in a village and asks the townspeople for a bite to eat. They all refuse to share anything with him though they clearly have plenty. He is a wily man, so in his desperation he finds an old pot, builds a fire in the middle of the town square and heats the pot filled only with water and a stone. One by one the townspeople who had refused him come by to see what he’s doing; he tells them he’s making stone soup, the most delicious soup in the world. None of them want to admit they’ve never heard of it so all agree that yes, stone soup is exquisite. For every visitor who agrees with him he then sighs and says that his stone soup would be better still if only he had some carrots. Or cabbage. Or onions. Or… And one by one each of the villagers says that they have carrots. Or cabbage. Or onions. Or… They run back to home to fetch their ingredients for the pot. By the end the whole village has collaborated and made a pot of delicious soup that feeds not only the hungry soldier, but the entire community.

My family and I start every soup with a stone. We routinely host stone soup parties, where we provide the pot, water and stone while our guests each bring an ingredient. At worst, the soup is interesting; it is usually delicious. And whoever ends up with the stone in their bowl gets to make a wish.

While most of my soups vary considerably based on what I have in the larder, I have a basic recipe that is pretty much no-fail. This is a great recipe to cook with kids so they can experiment with their palate, tryng new ingredients in new combinations. They can also pretend to be different villagers as they add each ingredient to the soup.

Stone Soup
(all amounts are approximate, of course)
  • 1 soup stone (see below for some thoughts about selecting your soup stone)
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 2 stalks chopped celery
  • 2 chopped carrots
  • 2 mashed cloves of garlic
Heat a little olive oil in the bottom of a soup pot. Sauté the veggies in the oil until onion begins to become translucent. Pour enough broth or water over the veggies that they are covered plus an inch or two. If you want to make more soup, add more veggies. Add a bay leaf, salt and pepper. Cook until veggies are tender.

From this point on you get to play and I’d recommend you do so, this soup will be much better with more stuff in it. I always add more stuff. Make sure you have enough liquid that it remains soup and not stew.

You could add:
  • chopped cabbage, kale, or other greens (cabbage adds a tremendous amount of flavor to soup)
  • sliced chicken, beef, pork, tofu, leftover grilled meats, etc.
  • chopped fresh or canned tomatoes
  • peppers, mild or hot
  • turnips, celery root, or other root vegetables
  • rice, barley (which takes a long time to cook), pasta, corn, or other starches. If you plan to add a starch make more broth initially
  • different spices. Be daring, sniff them and imagine what it will taste like
  • on and on. Use your imagination. Pretend you are a village collaborating to make soup.
If you choose to use a stone for your soup pot I would make a few recommendations.
  • make sure it’s a hard stone that won’t dissolve with use
  • it should be large enough that it can’t be swallowed
  • it should be fairly smooth so it’s easy to wash (soup does tend to get in the cracks and crevices).
Save your stone. Use it again and again. Tell the story. And make soup together.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Monday, September 22, 2008

Spontaneous Celebration

Before I go any further in this post, I need to tell you that the name is borrowed from a wonderful creative space in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Spontaneous Celebrations is a multicultural home for art and creativity. Check it out.

My own spontaneous celebration happened this weekend. I believe it's important to live big, but know it's hard to do so; this weekend was a good example of the weekend conspiring to help me. I've blogged about the weekend as a whole in True Stories, Honest Lies.

On Saturday my friend Serene called and asked if we would like to have dinner with her husband and herself. For once we could easily say yes and invited them for dinner. My initial thought was to order something in, but it's hard to eat healthy food when it's delivered. It is, at best, quick food. So I decided to cook.

I wanted to use what I had in the house as much as possible, and I admit, I got a little excited.

The first course:
- dried apricots with a dab of chevre and almonds
- shrimp cocktail
- veggies with hummus
- tzatski dip (recipe below)

The second course:
- yogurt marinated chicken (recipe below)
- steamed chard
- red rice

It was lovely.

Tzatski is a greek yogurt dip. I first had it in Crete, sitting in a small ocean-side restaurant. To me it tastes of relaxation and the timelessness of the Mediterranean.

Peel, half and seed a nice sized cucumber. Mince the remaining flesh, then put it into a colander to drain. It should produce a fair bit of liquid. Mash it around from time to time to push more of the liquid out - you don't need it to be dry, but it shouldn't be dripping. This will take at least five minutes.

Take two cups of good yogurt - none of this fat-free stuff. Use a nice, thick yogurt. Put it in a lovely bowl - I used one of iridescent black stoneware. Add several mashed cloves of garlic (I used six, but I like garlic). Add the minced, drained cucumber. Add a little salt and some fresh pepper. Stir.

Let this all sit for a little while then eat with veggies and sliced pita bread. Mmmm....

Yogurt marinated chicken is tender and succulent. Any spices you add to the marinade are pulled into the meat and utterly permeate the finished product. This is an Indian method of cooking but one that can be applied to other seasonings.

I used four cups of fat free yogurt (you don't need to use great yogurt here, but it should have a nice tang) and added maybe 6 cloves of mashed garlic, a tablespoon of salt, several tablespoons of purchased garam masala, a little extra cinnamon and pepper. Once this was all mixed together I added in the chicken and made sure it was all well coated. I let it marinade for a couple of hours then grilled it, garnished with some cilantro. That was it! Delicious and reasonably healthy to boot.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Friday, September 19, 2008

Martha Stewart would be jealous

I should have taken a picture, but I didn't, so you'll just have to take my word for it. I made the best pork roast last night. It looked as good as it tasted. And I used herbs from the garden!

I don't know how much the roast weighed, so you'll have to improvise.

Take 1 boneless pork roast, the kind that's tied with string. It should have some fat on at least one side. Rub the inside (between the two halves) with a mixture of salt, pepper and a little sugar.

Peel and roughly slice an entire head of garlic. If your fingers are garlicky afterwards you can always rinse them in lemon juice, that helps. Tuck maybe 12 pieces of garlic, four rosemary sprigs and at least four sage leaves into the roast, between the two halves. It will look nice if a little of the rosemary is sticking out.

Preheat the oven to 450.

Poke at least 15 holes in the less fatty side of the roast. Shove a garlic slice into each hole. Rub this side with the salt, pepper and sugar blend. Pull a rosemary sprig under the strings, shove a couple of sage leaves under the strings too. Flip the roast over and do the same thing to the fatty side.

Put into a roasting pan, fatty side up. Put into the preheated over for 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes pour 1/4 cup of white wine over the roast, lower the oven heat to 325. From this point on pour 1/4 cup of wine over the roast every 15 minutes until you've lavished a total of 1-1/2 cups of wine over the roast (six bastings).

Once the roast reaches an internal temp of 150-155 remove from the oven and let sit. Make sure the final basting was at least 15 minutes before you removed it from the oven, so if the temp hits 145 before you finish the basting, cease the libations.

Let the roast sit, the internal temp will continue to rise. While the roast is sitting deglaze the roasting pan with a little more wine or with some broth.

Admire how beautiful it is. Eat. Enjoy. Watch out for rosemary twigs. You may want to remove them before you cut the roast. Or not.

Take that, Martha.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Monday, September 15, 2008

Theories of heaven

I had a luxurious weekend. My friend Amy visited from the wilds of Maine and requested, nay demanded Chinese food. We met in Chinatown and began to eat our way into oblivion.

We had lunch at Peach Farm, a restaurant with great food and the ambiance of a speak easy. It's a basement locale with no windows, some mirrors to lighten the space and formica tables. But the food.... oh, the food. We shared spicy salted shrimp with heads (they had been alive ten minutes before we ate them) and green beans with pork.

The shrimp were oh-my-god-I'm-in-heaven good. They were crisp on the
outside, succulent on the inside. Each one was a pink crunch of crispy sharpness in my mouth, followed by sweet and saltiness. Some people are put off by eating them with heads, but really they are the best part. Crunchy and flavorful. They looked something like this.

The string bean with shredded pork was a wonderful accompaniment and allowed us to pretend we were eating something healthy. It was at least green. This was slightly spicy, the beans were fresh and the pork tender. There were also a few wonderful chunks of black mushroom in there. I love black mushrooms.

The next morning we were joined by Kevin and Jim for dim sum at China Pearl in Woburn. While the Woburn outlet isn't quite as good as the Chinatown location, it's still very good, ladies in carts walking through the room, singing out their offerings. I stuffed myself on dumplings, more kinds than I can list here. I don't want to think about the caloric content of that meal.

When I die and go to heaven (a big assumption there, I know), there will be trees that bear dumplings for fruit, and flowers with salty spicy shrimp petals. I'll be able to eat all of this luxury without shame, weight gain or intestinal consequence. I'm sure of it. After all, heaven is what we make of it and I will make mine tasty.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

I scream

you scream, we all scream for ice cream.

Last night I went to Toscanini's for a storytelling event. While I listened to some good tales I had one of my favorite decadent ice creams - butter chip. No, it doesn't have chips of frozen butter. Well, kind of no. Let me start at the beginning.

Tosci's makes luscious ice cream. The building is cool and hip, it doesn't smell too sweet as do many ice cream places, the music is good and the furniture is comfortable. And did I mention the ice cream is out of this world? They used to make my favorite ice cream topping in the world, burnt caramel sauce, but not anymore, oh well. I still go for the 'scream. Their flavor selection changes regularly, but they often have some kind of spiced ice cream (cinammon, cardamon, etc) some kind of beer ice cream (Guinness) and all the standards. It's very rich and creamy, just the way ice cream should be.

Except for butter chip. Imagine the best chocolate chip ice cream you've ever had. The chips are large, but not too large, bittersweet chocolate. The ice cream is a dense sweet cream, not vanilla. But it's been over churned a little, so the butterfat just started to condence out. It's ever so slightly lumpy. When you put a spoonful in your mouth, the flavor coats your tongue and palate with a micro-smooth layer of fat as it melts and you crunch into the chocolate pieces. You can feel your heart go ka-thud, both from bliss and from the cholesterol.

It's astonishing that something this contradictory - ice cream that isn't smooth - is this good.

I only have this maybe once a year. But oh. Oh. Oooohhhh. That's enough.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Home, sweet, greasy, home

I started this blog thinking I would write about transcendent food. I'm finding myself writing about comfort. About history. About the meaning of what I eat. And so often what is meaningful seems to be what isn't quite healthy. What that says about me may be transparent but I'll choose not to investigate it.

I was in Philadelphia this past weekend, helping out a friend. I grew up in Philly, though I left 20 years ago. It's a city with a distinct cuisine, one I miss even though I have certainly embraced the cuisines I've moved to.

Steak sandwiches. Soft pretzels. Hoagies (no, not subs or grinders or heroes. Hoagies). This is the local food of my hometown.

Sure, you can get a steak or a hoagie anywhere. But it's not the same. Maybe it's the air, the water, the accent of the cook. I don't know. But local foods - should I say regional foods instead? - need local flavor to taste right. A steak anywhere else just isn't as good.

When I moved to Boston so many years ago I went looking for a hoagie. I was given a grinder, which is similar, but not identical to a hoagie. I looked for a Philly cheesesteak and it just wasn't right. The soft pretzels in Boston have (get this) sesame seeds instead of salt.

This weekend I ate the foods of my youth with relish. Okay, no relish. But the hoagie had hots and mayo and oil and oregano. The steak had whiz (as in cheez whiz) and was drowning in ketchup, pretty much the only time I really like ketchup. And the pretzels were warm, then rapidly stale, but full of salt and carbs and the taste of the ancient oven. Heaven.

I ate my hoagie one day and my steak the next, the pretzels throughout. I remembered who I have been.

I was 8 years old and sharing the biggest steak in the world with my dad on a day he kept me out of school so we could play hookie together.
I was 11 and sitting in the backyard listening to a ball game with my mom while we ate an easy summer dinner from the local steak place.
I was 16 and trying to not get grease all over my face while I flirted with my first boyfriend.
I was 18 and home from college for the first time, eating a pretzel slathered with mustard while I wondered just who the hell I was becoming.

And I was me, now, enjoying all of those tastes and textures, visiting a place I have been away from for longer than I called it home. My mouth knew the truth. In those tastes was my whole life. There are other, newer, healthier loves. It's our first loves, our first groan inducing bites that first tell us who we are. If we're lucky, when we revisit them, they still fill us with deep, tasty satisfaction.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Food fashion 2

Oh, this is embarrassing, but those things that offer us the most comfort often are. I have a friend who, in her darkest times, still sleeps with her teddy bear even though she's in her 40s. I have another friend who watches Sesame Street and counts along with the Count, even though he's been out of college for many years.

And me? I could tell you quite a few secrets here, all the embarrassing comfort things I do. I won't. Instead I'll just tell you about dinner last night.

I was tired. I was cranky. And I wanted something really easy. All the leftovers were just too... leftover. You know what I mean.

I made Hamburger Helper. I didn't improvise with browned ground beef, fresh herbs from the garden with noodles and tomatoes and other yummy stuff. I didn't create some lovely faux stroganoff. No. I pulled a pound of ground beef out of the freezer, I grabbed the box off the shelf and I made dinner in 15 minutes flat.

It was salty, gooey, unhealthy, comforting and yummy. It wasn't what I want to eat every day or even with any regularity, but boy... for right then it was just right.

I know we all have our embarrassing comfort foods and rituals. I was kind of surprised to find that one of mine was out of a box and so easily created; usually I happily lose myself in chopping and stirring and measuring. So much for sophistication, but then again, when is sophistication as comforting as, say, a teddy bear, Sesame Street and a bowl of Hamburger Helper?

(c) Laura S. Packer

Monday, August 25, 2008

Spicy brownies

Can I just say I *love* sweet and spicy or sweet and salty?

Thanks. I needed to say that.

This past weekend I made brownies for a potluck. I used my current favorite brownie recipe (the one on the Baker's Unsweetened Chocolate package) and then added spices.

Oh. Oh oh oh were they good.

I often add a bit of chili powder but this time I added Indian spices and the brownies filled my whole mouth with long, lingering flavor and heat. Almost everyone at the potluck liked them, a few people thought they were too much, that's okay.

Roughly speaking, here's what to do:

Make a batch of brownies.
When the batter is ready add a spice blend, including:
- Cardamom
- Cinnamon
- Cloves
- Black Pepper
- Ginger
- Nutmeg

- Chili (not much)
I can't tell you how much of each I added, I kept pouring it into my hand, blending and adding the mix about a teaspoon at a time. Alternatively, buy some Indian tea spice powder and use that.
Keep mixing it in and tasting it.
Bake as usual.
Enjoy. Mmmmm.....

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Food fashion 1

When I was in first grade we were asked to name our favorite foods and television shows. I unfashionably answered, "Liver and creamed spinach and NOVA." (For those of you who may not know, NOVA is a science program on PBS.) It took years to live that down. I still like unfashionable food and television.

Among my old favorites are beets. They seem to be having something of a resurgence now, but for a long time people would squinch up their faces at the thought of them and say, "Yuck." I love them. Their ruby stain on the cutting board, the earthy taste and smell. They speak to me of health and time and old ways of doing things. As a kid we'd eat cold bottled borscht with a swirl of sour cream and it was heaven. I'd let it stain my clothing on purpose, watching the color run.

A few nights ago I roasted beets from our farm share. They were wonderful.

Roasted beets. One version.

Take a bunch of beets. Cut off the tops and save them for later. Scrub the bulbs, cut off the very top and bottom and peel. You may want to save the peels for soup, you may want to toss them out.

Admire the stain on your fingers. It will mostly wash out, but not entirely. That's okay.

Cut the beets into thick slices, maybe 1/2 inch thick.

Toss them with olive oil and kosher salt. Add some roughly chopped fresh rosemary and a dash of black pepper. Add a little mroe rosemary. Really.

Wrap this all in foil and roast it at maybe 350-375 for about 30 minutes until the beets are tender.

Enjoy!

(ps. Yes, the beets will have certain digestive effects (write to me if you don't know what I'm talking about). Don't worry about it, this means you're eating something really good for you and it won't last.)

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Home made

I've been traveling for the last week, sleeping in a hotel room and eating in restaurants. I like eating out, but the town I was staying in didn't have much of anything I cared for. It was a tourist town and everything was quick food. Even the better restaurants were marginal.

I'm home now. When I come home from long trips, I need to cook. It's one of the best ways I know to center myself, to feel as though I'm truly at home. By spending time in my kitchen, working with spices and good food, I re-establish myself in my own space.

As I write, chicken is roasting. I've stuffed organic garlic slices under the skin and rubbed it down with salt and pepper. Brown rice with thyme is simmering. In a little while I'll chop and steam the chard I picked from the garden. 

When I eat dinner tonight it will be good food, made with own hands in my own time. I'm home.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Monday, August 4, 2008

Listening to my body

This past weekend I rode my bike in the Pan Mass Challenge, a fund raising ride for the Dana Farber Cancer Center. It was a long ride and truthfully, I wasn't prepared. You can read about the ride on my other blog.

What was interesting and relevant to this blog was trying to figure out how to feed myself during the ride. Endurance sports have specific nutritional requirements - carbs, lots of hydration, some protein. And I had no appetite before the ride, so I was riding on very little fuel. I made myself eat the best I could, but nothing, and I mean nothing, tasted good. For those of you who know me, you know how odd that is.

Midway through the only thing that tasted good was cantaloupe. Sweet, wet, orange and exactly what my body wanted. It occured to me that I might be able to eat and thus finish the ride if I just shut up and listened.

I generally try to listen to what my body tells me it wants. Sweet, salty, savory, crunchy, soft, etc. It can be hard to really hear what my body is saying, amidst the cacophony of all my cravings, but when I manage to listen I learn so much.

This weekend was a great example of the need to listen to what my body was saying. Yes, this is food. No, that isn't food. By listening carefully I was able to determine what I most needed in a given moment and complete the ride.

And afterwards? Mmm... Saltycrunchy. Smoothsweet. And lots and lots and lots of gatorade. Funny what tastes just right sometimes. Funny how, when you listen, you surprise yourself.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fried bananas. Oh my.

This past weekend I went to the Lowell Folk Festival. There was a lot of great music and performance and Lowell, MA is a neat town. And there was food. Many of the local civic associations set up booths to highlight their cuisine. Lao. Cambodian. Polish. Thai. Portuguese. On and on.

The single most amazing thing I ate was a Philipino fried banana. Wrapped in a lumpia wrapper (like a thin eggroll skin) and deep fried, it was simply ecstatic. And very hot. This is the closest recipe I could find, though I don't think the one I ate had cinammon. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

Turron (Banana Lumpia)

4 firm, ripe bananas
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 lumpia wrappers
Oil for frying


Cut bananas lengthwise into thirds. Combine sugar and cinnamon. Place two banana pieces on each lumpia wrapper; sprinkle sugar mixture over banana pieces. Wrap like an envelope, sealing edges with water. Heat oil and fry lumpia until golden brown. Drain on absorbent paper and serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Yowza.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Dinner

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Peaches

When I was a little girl we would go for long drives in our VW van around Pennsylvania and New Jersey (NJ is more than the Sopranos, you know). Sometimes we would go for camping trips with our old canvas tent, look at the stars and stop off at farm stands. Sometimes we'd go to some farmland we owned in rural Pennsylvania. 

At the farm stands we would get tomatoes. Real tomatoes. Red and heavy and tangy and god! were they good. I still have not recovered from my love of Jersey tomatoes bought at farm stands. And peaches. A bushel at a time. We just couldn't resist them. They were so lovely and coy and cheap. The car would be redolent with that scent, warm and sweet. 

As soon as we piled back into the van we would start to ask each other, "What are we going to with all those peaches?" But we knew. We would go back to our campsite or home and eat. I would press the fuzzy flesh to my lips, letting it tickle just a little bit and smell the dusty summer scent. My teeth would press into the fruit and finally break it open in a cascade of juice that ran down my chin and my whole self would be filled with that rush of what it was to be a peach. Yellow and red and wet. 

We'd eat more peaches than we should, until our bellies were round. The bushel basket would still be full of fruit, so we would again ask, "What are we going to do with all those peaches?" But again, we knew. We would bring the peaches back home and make peach butter. More accurately, my mom would make peach butter while I would watch and try to help.

I've had peach butter since. It's never been as good as that my mother made from the bushels of peaches we bought from roadside stands. 

Florence's peach butter recipe. She says she got it from a farmer's wife in Columbia County, PA

Peel your peaches. Give the peels to your waiting child to nibble.
Chunk the peaches. Put them into a heavy-bottomed pot. Toss the pits.
Mush the peaches up and measure them. Add an equal amount of sugar. Cook until everything is soft and smooth. Buttery, you might say. 
Pour the peach butter into sterilized jars and seal (you can find out how to can stuff elsewhere on the net). 
Mmmmm.... Now you have summer all year long.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Friday, July 25, 2008

Mmmm... rice. I mean sushi.

Last night I indulged in sushi. I went to my favorite local sushi joint, Sushi Corner in Melrose MA. It's a pretty basic place, but they have very good fish, well prepared and nicely presented. More importantly, they have excellent rice.

The more sushi I eat the more I think it's about the rice. The fish, as you undoubtedly know, must be fresh, well chosen and well cut. The fish matters tremendously. Most people who are unsure of sushi are hung up on the raw fish aspect; I'm not going to try to convert you, but trust me, it can be wonderful.

But the rice is the foundation of sushi. The word sushi refers to the seasoned rice, not to the rice and fish in combination (nigiri and maki refer to rice with stuff in different formations). If the rice isn't well cooked, well seasoned and well shaped, the whole thing just falls apart. Here's a quick look at each aspect and why I was so happy last night.

Cooking. Let's face it, undercooked rice is crunchy and annoying. Overcooked rice is mushy and gross. And I have trouble cooking sticky rice just right. Last night it was firm, resistant to the teeth but not mushy, each grain was detectable. The rice patties held together when lightly dipped in soy and it wasn't so sticky that I made a mess of my chopsticks or fingers.

Seasoning. Sushi rice is seasoned with a mixture of rice wine vinegar and sugar. If the mixture is off it can be overwhelming, too little and it's bland. It should complement the fish. I would have eaten this rice plain, it was delicious.

Shaping. The rice patties weren't too big (I could eat it in two bites) nor too small (the fish wasn't overwhelming it). They held together so they had been formed with care.

All of this makes me want to try cooking sticky rice again. It was a lovely experience, subtle in the mouth, prepared with care and attention. And I was amused by the sushi master's amusement at my obvious enjoyment, yummy noises and all.

If you have a chance, go there. It's worth the trip.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Arugula

Somedays I love arugula. Other days it just seems harsh and bitter. No metaphor here, move along, this is a food blog, that's all.

Today is one of the days where it tastes as though it's biting me back, too tart for my tongue. Other days I love it, the rich, robust earthiness of it. Funny how one day to the next, taste can change. Too, I think the plant itself varies considerably in it's flavor. Maybe this batch grew in soil where it was mocked by nearby plants and some of the bitterness seeped into its leaves.

Arugula is also known as rockette, maybe because the wrong bite can set your mouth in fire.

According to various foodlore sources arugula kills intestinal parasites, so can cause violent reactions when eaten. If this blog entry breaks off suddenly you'll know what happened.

I'm looking forward to another batch of arugula that I love, one that isn't at war with my taste buds. For now though I can at least simply enjoy the word - arugula. Say it. It feels good and lumpy in your mouth. Sometimes the language of a food is sustenance enough.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Monday, July 21, 2008

The trap of quick food

I eat too much crap. I'm not alone in this, most people I know do, but jeez... the eternal conflict between time, nutrition and yumminess is a tough one.

I've read the books - Real Food, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Slow Food, etc etc. I know the arguments for eating well, taking your time when preparing a meal, savoring what you eat. I believe this is a better way to live. It's better for body and spirit. But I don't always have the time. I have trouble believing anyone - alright, anyone who has a job - does.

I try to eat food that honors the earth and my body. And I often fail.

When I can, when I have the time, I cook good meals; I use good ingredients, I think about what I put into my body, I close my eyes and savor my bites. But when I'm getting ready for work in the morning I'm in a rush. I need stuff I can deal with quickly, pack easily, eat at my desk without much fuss, mess or aroma and it's off to the races.

If I'm careful I pack fruit, cheese (real cheese cut from the block), maybe a little sandwich, some yogurt, celery, stuff like that. And if I'm not careful it's cheese sticks (I think they're called "cheese sticks" because they stick around inside you for so long) some crackers or nuts, and enough money for something at the cafeteria.

Admittedly, this kind of quick food isn't as unhealthy as fast food, but in some ways that makes it all the more insidious. I feel bad when I eat fast food - McDonald's and the like. I know it's bad for me because of how it makes me feel, so I avoid it. With quick food I eat it without thinking, without acknowledging the time and labor that went into it, without taking the time to taste it and honor my body as I eat it. All it becomes is caloric intake to get me through the day. If asked I have to struggle to remember what I ate, even if it wasn't unhealthy. But it doesn't make me feel bad, so there isn't that much impetus to change what I'm doing, for all that my mind and spirit are telling me it's not such a good idea. My body is chugging along and I have more time to get stuff done (the mantra of the modern age). Quick food lets me get more stuff done.

It's a shame I keep forgetting that one of the more important things I should get done is stopping. Slowing down. Savoring the present, the world around me, the taste of the moment.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Palm heart salad

When I was in Rio a few years ago I was served a slab of palm heart, bark still attached, in a fancy restaurant. I was told it was a salad, though it looked kind of like a tree to me. I ate it with some initial trepidation, not quite sure how to eat a tree, but found it had a wonderful taste and texture. I felt like a panda might feel upon finding a particularly delicate bit of bamboo. I remember slicing into the ivory flesh in that dim space, surrounded by voices full of silibant Portuguese and knowing I was someplace very far from home.

I have become fond of palm heart salad since then. It's as much a textural food as a taste food and, while I can't duplicate the slab-o'-tree, with canned palm heart and good olive oil I can pretend I'm in the tropics again, surrounded by heat, humidity and possibility.

Palm heart possibility salad

Drain one can or bottle of palm hearts. Give them a quick rinse in a stream of cool water, but don't let them soak or linger in the water. You want them to retain some of the salty-sour taste of the brine, and they will fall to pieces if the water is too forceful.

Lay the palm hearts down on the cutting board, wood if possible, as like calls to like. Admire them and marvel that this whiteness comes from inside a tree. Using a sharp knife slice them into pieces, no more than 3/4 of an inch long or so. Bite size. Put them into a bowl.

Sprinkle with a little olive oil. Fruity and sweet is good for this.

Add some freshly cracked black pepper. And maybe just a little more salt.

You can add any of the following, though it's not necessary:
  • minced chives
  • minced parsley
  • other light-tasting green herbs. You don't want to overwhem the palm hearts (they might become shy).
Gently mix it all together. You'll notice the center will fall out of some of the palm hearts. The middle is much more tender than the remaining ring, but both serve their own purpose.

Eat. It shouldn't be too chilled, you want all the different flavors evident. Dream of palm trees and thank them.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Monday, July 14, 2008

Rumination on chinese food

I love chinese food. This is not a short-lived, little fling, no, not this love. This is one of the great passionate true loves of my life. Actually, let me clarify. I love good chinese food, not cheap suburban overcooked, too-greasy, chinese food cooked by people who have forgotten the history and mystery of the land that spawned the cuisine.

I know saying chinese food is a misnomer. China is a huge place, encompassing many different languages, cultures and foodways, but at least in America when we say "chinese food" we're referring to a general type of cooking. It's likely the food is cut into pieces small enough to be handled with chopsticks, there is a wok in the kitchen and white rice is served. And for me, it includes comfort, variety of flavor and texture, potential adventure and more.

A few nights ago I had wonderful spicy dumplings from my local chinese restaurant, Fuloon. I'm fortunate, this place is within walking distance and is very good. I don't need to go to Chinatown for a fix, though I still love to go. Their dumplings are coated in a spicy sauce composed of szechuan peppercorn oil, some soy sauce, a bit of red pepper and maybe a little vinegar. The szechuan peppercorn has a typical characteristic of both burning and numbing the mouth that is just exquisite, while the dumplings are soft and tender. I can't eat too many at any one time, I'm not that inured to hot food, but it is wonderful. I think of this as intermediate-to-advanced eating.

The first time I ever had chinese food, my beginner meal, was when I was maybe 8 or 9. My parents took me to a place in Philadelphia, one of the one-from-column-A, two-from-column-B kinds of places. I remember being suspicious. I remember the table was round, the restaurant seemed cluttered. And then I tasted sweet-and-sour pork for the first time, in spite of its orange color. There was no going back. While I'm sure, now, I would consider this to be a mediocre example of the dish then it was utterly exquisite. I remember the soft crunch and tear, then the flood of tart sweetness and the oily coating in my mouth. I remember closing my eyes so I could taste it better. My mother laughed when I went "mmmmmm...." as I chewed, unaware.

I still close my eyes and make yummy sounds when I eat something especially delectable.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Tomato cucumber salad

This is what made me decide to start this blog. In my other blog I was writing about the afterlife and declared that I hoped there would be tomato-cucumber salad there. I included the recipe, though it wasn't quite relevant for the conversation. Here it is again, just for fun.

Tomato-cucumber salad
Inspired by various Mediterranean chopped salads, made up by me. Perfect for a summer day. Or when you want to be reminded of summer.

Take a couple of lovely, heavy, ripe tomatoes. Cut them in half and scoop out the seeds. This will sting if you have any scrapes or cracks in your hands. Chop the tomatoes into small pieces. Put it in a good sized bowl. A pretty one.

Take a cucumber. I usually peel it some, but not entirely. Slice it in half the long way and run your thumb down the inside, scraping the seeds out. You can use a spoon, but this is more fun. Chop up the cucumber and add it to the tomato.

Find an onion that seems non-threatening. Peel it, dice it and add it to the bowl of veggies. If you cry a little no one needs to know. Some tears are a gift.

Take a bunch or parsley, flat or curly, your choice. rinse it and shake it dry. Chop it up until you have what you think is enough, then add some more. Add it to the bowl.

Sniff it all. Mmmm....

Take a nice, ripe lemon. Cut it in half and squeeze the juice out from both halves over the veggie mix. You may want to use two lemons.

Add salt and pepper to taste; it may take more salt than you're expecting. Mix it all up well. Eat.

(c) 2008 Laura S Packer

Friday, July 11, 2008

Hello world

Fine. I did it. I'm starting a food blog. I've been resisting writing about food in my other blog because that's supposed to be about writing, storytelling and life. But I keep wanting to. So here. I've given myself a place to write about eating, cooking, chopping, smelling, stirring, spices, etc etc.

What finally launched me was that salad I made yesterday.

We belong to a farm share, a way to get fresh, mostly organic veggies that are locally grown. It's a great idea, but means we end up with a lot of radishes (or other stuff) sometimes. It can be hard to use everything and I hate to see it rot.

So I made this last night. Like most of my recipes, all amounts are approximate.

Miscellaneous chopped salad

Mix in a bowl:
1 kholrabi, peeled and julienned
4 salad turnips, peeled and julienned
some tender bok choy stems (8? 9?) chopped
6 or 7 radishes, chopped
a bunch of scallions, chopped

I imagine you could also add: water chestnuts and other crunchy not-too-sweet veggies.

Toss the veggies together.

Dressing:
1T white vinegar
2t sugar
2T EVOO
salt and pepper to taste

Whisk the dressing together, pour over the salad, mix and eat. Yummy!

I loved the patience required to peel and chop, peel and chop. I loved the sound of the knife on the board (I love wooden cutting boards). And the resulting salad was really good.

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer