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