Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Stop It, Rachel

I made a pot roast yesterday.  No real reason, just had a chuck roast in the oven and I wanted to know what a traditional pot roast was all about.  I don't remember ever eating it in my youth, only in "upscale comfort" restaurants when they were all the rage.  We had brisket at Passover and other occasions when 'company' was present.   They are similar cuts with similar preparations, and likewise, are a similar litmus of what kind of cook you are.  Braising a tough cut like a brisket or pot roast will make you celebrated, or infamous. 

 This was a recipe for "Yankee Pot Roast" from Molly Steven's All About Braising, a book I've had a lot of success with (except for the instructions for tying a roast--don't bother if you can't give  halfway clear instructions!).  It has you brown the meat, braise it with stock and onion, and the only seasonings are salt, pepper, bay leaf, thyme and clove.  Later you add some root vegetables.  Though the seasonings are spare, the result is a refreshingly plain and unadulterated pot roast, probably served best the next day.

After braising, cooling, and de-fatting the pot roast, I had no ideas on what to do with it.  I am, after all, only one human, on a diet, with a sizable piece of meat.  I made a meal of a few slices, ate most of the vegetables hot, and then cold, with a little fleur de sel, and then froze the rest of the meat with the help of my trusty foodsaver.  With it safely stored in the freezer and out of reach of my grazing paws, I started searching for ideas for leftover pot roast.  A google search for "leftover pot roast recipes" was pretty standard: soups, hashes, and stroganoffs, which I think is wrong.  Since the cuts are similar and I have fond memories of eating a brisket lasagna a few years ago, a "leftover brisket recipe" search was also implemented.  Again, the results were about the same which made me realize I need to stop google-searching everything I come across and simply experiment.  Stay tuned for the pot-roast ravioli post on a later date. 

 Something did catch my eye in the brisket search though, something very wrong that became the impetus of this post.  Rachel Ray's Egg Nog Bake.  This is, as close as I can tell, a noodle kugel that calls for enough nutmeg to make it 'distinctive' at best, but I'll put my money on 'off-putting.'  Hey, I love nutmeg; I come from the nutmeg state.  I use a touch of it in my bechamel and it's the secret ingredient in one of my favorite cookies, the walnut hermit.  And most importantly, I love eggnog.  But it's not ok to wield strong flavors willy-nilly, in the name of a "new twist" on a classic.  It's liable to turn you off to nutmeg, eggnog and noodle kugel in one foul swoop.  And it's one of the reasons why I am just one more person who can't stand Rachel Ray.  

Rachel Ray.  To some extent, my resentment of her stems from jealousy.  For starters, she has my initials which I find sooo irritating.  Then, there is the matter of her rise to fame, which dates back to shortly after I tabled my cooking show, Eat Me.  Granted, my cooking show was about a dominatrix chef, who also happened to be a witch, who had a fictional cooking show which is what the cooking show as about.  But the recipes were real, and the inspiration came more from a deep love of cooking shows and an inexplicable need to make things as weird as possible.   I have to hold on to the belief that if I had taken out the leather and aliens, Eat Me would have found a place on cable television.  Or perhaps it was always a bad product that didn't see the light of day for a reason.  As much as Rachel Ray did for the popularity of cooking shows, she's also contributed to their degradation.  Watch an episode of The French Chef with Julia Child and you will see what I mean.   Julia teaches us the art of making a perfect omelette. Rachel throws together schlockily-named dishes under a ticking clock. 

Obviously, I am not her audience.  I grew up loving Julia, Graham Kerr and even poor Jeff Smith.  Now a new generation of cooking show hosts show us how to get dinner on the table as quickly as possible with the aid of a host of prepared foods.  If she is getting more people to cook, great.  But it seems like these days we could use someone reminding us what good food is, not someone convincing her public that a noodle kugel would be better if it reminded you of eggnog.  

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Goodbye, Acorn

10 days, ago, we had our last day of business at the Acorn cafe.  Today I packed up just about the last of the inventory that is not a part of the sale of our assets, which includes cd's, silverware and the cadmium yellow mugs that held the perfect americano.  Tomorrow, with any luck, Jeff and I will sign the papers releasing these assets to a buyer.  Soon, all of the debt we incurred from opening and accrued in operating the Acorn will be paid off and soon after that the phase of my life as a business owner will come to an end.   It will be an enormous relief and also a sad day when I say a final goodbye to the success of one brand and the failure of another. 

  So today I was taking down all of these filled-out coffee cards and wondering what to do with them.  Every card has space for your name and you filed your card alphabetically, or however you wanted to.  When you came in and ordered your coffee, the person behind the counter marked your visit and after ever 10, your eleventh drink was free.  Simple.  I look at this wall and it breaks my heart.  Every card belonged to a participant in a creative experiment that began as a dream to make a little more money and then turned into the symbol of economic and personal failure.  Unlike Half & Half, Acorn never had the commanding presence of a boss.  Everyone and no one was the boss.   The scope of creative expression by the Acorn's real owners, the employees and loyal customers, are evidenced by the handwritten signs, notes and clippings affixed with scotch tape that tattooed the shop and that I spent the better part of my morning scraping off the new owner's walls and equipment. 

If I had the time and the thoughtfulness I would have asked people to come in and take what they wanted of this giant collage, but my house and life is already full of mementos I don't have time to honor, so everything went into a blue recycling bin.  I wasn't going to take pictures but I'm glad I did.  I think these are the only that I have of the Acorn in it's almost 2 years of operation.  

Friday, December 26, 2008

Starting My Diet (Tomorrow)

I wonder how much weight people gained during Arctic Blast 2008, which was approximately 11 days of snow, ice and freezing rain that resulted in 18-25 inches of snow in my neighborhood.  Now, even as the temperature hangs around 40, the slush, snowbanks and un-shoveled sidewalks render driving and even walking mostly useless.  Really, there has been little to do but eat, watch tv, troll facebook, blog a little, eat some more, take the dog out, watch another episode of the Rockford Files and try unsuccessfully not drink/smoke pot/pop pills on a nightly basis.  

I think I've gained 2 or 3 pounds since the 16th of December.  That day I had counted on working out during lunch, but upon finding my nano out of juice, decided to skip it.  Approximately one hour later I threw my back out moving from a seated to standing position and for the next 4 days was essentially immobile.  Luckily I had enough food at home to insure I wouldn't starve.  There was nachos and casseroles, cookies and plenty of chocolat, and then there were the 2 Christmas dinners I had to attend.  

Today I went to the doctor for my back and faced music on the scale.  The running joke in all of my dad's email correspondences is that he's going to start his diet next week.  He's got type II diabetes and recently nearly died as a result of an untreated strep throat turning into a raging blood infection.  I do believe it was his lifelong disconnection to his body that almost killed him.  I'm not my dad, but I'm hardly a pillar of health.  So today I signed up for Weight Watchers  for the 3rd time in my life.  The first time was when I was about 10 and my mother made me start going to meetings.  That didn't go very well.  The second time was earlier this year where I lost a couple of pounds before I decided that I wasn't getting my $16.95 a month's worth.  So, maybe the 3rd time is the charm.  Maybe I'll at least lose the Arctic Blast weight.  

Monday, December 22, 2008

Foods of Arctic Blast

 As I write this, we are in our 8th straight day of The Arctic Blast that set in last Sunday, Dec. 14th.  Snow flurries, freezing rain and wind that is common enough during Pacific Northwest winters for a day, two at the most, has dug its heels.  Last week a recurring back injury kept me out of work for 2 days, so I've really spent the better part of the last week indoors, with my cat Louise and my dog Victor.  And my 42 inch LCD flatscreen television and many episodes of The Rockford Files.  But hey, I started this blog! 

Naturally, I've done some cooking.  I made what is quite possibly the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies I've ever encountered, and I've developed my very own.  This is better.  I made meatballs (defrosted from a batch I made the week previously).  I made a vegetable curry.  I made a warm kale and potato salad with feta (instead of Parmesan) and tahini that wasn't good until I mixed with rice and chicken stock the next day.  I made some nachos, and I made a great root vegetable, mushroom and barley soup, with bacon, which made it complete (added fresh mushrooms to the recipe and had no potatoes or lemon. Really good). 

Tonight what I thought was going to be regular old chili turned out to be one of the finest casseroles I have ever put together.  Casseroles are a much maligned food, for no good reason other than they're stupidly good, always.  Whether it's ziti with sausage, tomatoes and fresh mozzarella or tamale pie made with all Kraft products, chances are you're going to clean your plate.   My friend Storm shares this and he's frequently emails me tipsy missives from his explorations in The Bake.  Currently, we are both fascinated with making chilaquiles as a casserole. 

Whenever I have a cold, I crave macaroni and cheese, despite the obvious drawbacks associated with dairy and mucus production.   I'm on my 6th day of cold.  And a snow day like this naturally calls for ski-lift chili; mildly spiced ground beef with onions, beans and a tomato base. I started the day off thinking I would stick to chili, but the inspiration for a casserole seized me and would not let go. 

I cooked off some pintos and started browning ground beef in a skillet.  When it was nearly cooked I added onions and then garlic, followed by cumin, chile de arbol, and some mysterious chili powder that I think in fact is Korean and not spicy at all.  I had half a can of El Pato jalapeno salsa left and added that, along with some crushed tomatoes.  Now, I feel the need to say this is not how I make real chili.  Real chili involves roasting and toasting and pureeing, slow cooking and usually no tomatoes.  But in this case I want something less complex and more acidic to cut through the pasta and cheese that I have decided to envelop the chili.  

I made a bechamel and used a little white wine, this time to cut through the heaviness of the meat.  The only cheeses I had were some jack (nachos), some Parmesan and a heel of a hard stinky cheese leftover from a party.  The pasta was salad macaroni from a jumbo bag leftover from Half & Half days.  After the pasta was cooked I tossed it with about 3/4 of the cheese sauce.  I layered half the pasta in the bottom of a casserole, then a layer of meat, then the remainder of the pasta.  Poured the rest of the sauce on top and baked in a 400 oven for 30 minutes until the dish was bubbling and the bechamel layer was brown in spots.  The result? Surprisingly, and delightfully, much more like a pasticcio than your run-of-the-mill chili mac casserole.  I'm not the biggest fan of cinnamon with my meats, but the cumin and mild chile give the beef enough spice to keep it interesting.  The beans, which don't belong in pasticcio, macaroni and cheese OR chili con carne, were cooked perfectly and provided a nice texture balance between the meat and the pasta.  This is quite possibly one of the best casseroles I've ever made and it shall now be known as...
Mexi-Pasticcio Bake
for the chili
1 cup pinto beans
bay leaf
1 lb ground beef (or grind it yourself)
1 small onion or 1/2 large onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp chile de arbol or 1/4 tsp cayenne
2 tsp. mild ground chili (Ancho, California) 
1/2 can El Pato Jalapeno Salsa 
1/2 can crushed tomatoes
1 can crushed tomatoes 
2 tsp red wine vinegar
salt and pepper

Having soaked the beans, place in a saucepan with the bay leaf and bring to a boil.  Skim the scum and cook at a simmer until beans are cooked about 30 min.  Or cook your beans however you prefer, even if that means opening a can. 

In a wide, heavy skillet, brown the ground beef, breaking up with a wooden spoon.  If the meat is very fatty, drain it before adding onions. Cook the onions in beef until they become translucent and then add the garlic.  You don't need a lot of heat and you don't need to watch the skillet too closely.  When that becomes fragrant, give the meat a good grinding of black pepper.  Move the meat to one side of the skillet and move the skillet so the empty part of the pan is under fairly high heat.  Add the cumin and chile powders and stir, toasting the spices a little.  Add the oregano and combine with the meat.  Add the tomatoes and eventually the beans.  Cook this mixture in its entirety for about 10 minutes, letting most of the juices cook off. Taste for salt and spice.  
for the Pasta and Bechamel
10 oz pasta (macaroni, ziti, penne,etc...)
 2 c. milk
1 1/2 T. butter
1 1/2 T. flour
salt, pepper, nutmeg
2 T white wine
2 T minced onion
8 oz grated cheese (preferably a mixture of some mild and interesting flavors)

Cook the pasta to al dente.  Heat milk in a saucepan or microwave until hot.  In another saucepan, melt butter slowly and add flour.  Stir this roux for about a minute--not long, and add the hot milk, whisking constantly until bechamel is thick.  Add wine and onion and continue to cook at a low heat, adding salt pepper and just a teesy bit of nutmeg to taste, about 4 more minutes.  Stir in the cheese and take off the heat. Combine the pasta with most of the sauce, reserving about 1 cup for the top.  Preheat your oven to 400.

Oil a 9x13 pyrex dish and pour half the pasta in the bottom.  Spread the meat on top, and then finish with the rest of the pasta.  Spread the rest of the bechamel over the top of the dish and bake, uncovered for 30 minutes until browned and bubbling.    Should be served with a salad but if you're snowed in I'm guessing you might be out of greens by now.   

The Olden Days

In 1996 I started keeping a food journal. It was a spiral bound book, with a heavy craft cardboard cover and a wood-cut of 2 chickens. It's a little corny, but then again this was in 1996. At the time I was journaling a lot, mostly while drunk, but this was designated to be my 'food only' journal. It was a short lived stint, which is a shame because I've done a lot of cooking in the 12 years in between then and now, and I'm not likely to remember much of it. I still don't own a digital camera!

So I thought I would open up this old notebook and see what I was up to back in 1996:

Sept 15, 1996

Brooke, Bob Read and myself were up in Seattle visiting Heather Larimer and Jud.
Sunday we walked down to the Pike Place Market. Bought about 2 1/2 lbs fresh Copper-Something-Salmon (sic) which they filleted there. We also bought small (not baby)
artichokes, white-rose potatoes and chanterelle mushrooms. And thyme and
elephant garlic. I had this idea of stuffing the whole salmon with a mixture of
wild mushrooms, garlic and breadcrumbs, and then steaming it. In retrospect I
don't think that would have worked so well as the stuffing would have probably
just sogged up. In the end I wasn't so happy with the fish because I went too heavy on the stuffing and it was weird and it would have been nicer with some fish fume and also
there were no lemons. The potatoes were perfect and the artichokes not bad.
In the future that mushroom breadcrumb mixture would make a nice stuffing
for artichokes. Bob was really wonderful and appreciative of the whole thing.
Mike Kinney was there too, he just drank cabernet and grew tiresome.
Later we went and saw Buffalo Daughter and Butter 08 at Satyricon.

Many interesting things (to me) about this passage. First of all, I had barely lived in Portland a year and didn't yet know about Copper River Salmon, but then again I wasn't buying it in season. That I referred to fish fume as an on-hand ingredient reminds me that I was, for a time, making fish stocks regularly. And I'm glad that I tried stuffing a fish with breadcrumbs once in my life because I have never again since. I went to college with Bob, Brooke and Heather. Brooke and I were living together, Bob was living in Boulder but in love with Heather. Mike was a co-worker of Brooke's from the Willamette Week, a lovable fuckup who Brooke and I, oddly enough, both dated. He OD'd on methadone a year later.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Taylor Court Nachos

Taylor Court Grocery is one of my favorite things about the neighborhood I live in.  It's run by a couple of Log Cabin Republicans, Errol and Mel.  They are the soul of an otherwise unremarkable, quiet Portland Neighborhood.   There are 3 aisles in about 500 sq feet of store, but that's not counting the walk-in beer cooler.  Their wine selection is crap, but they have a good variety of  fancy sodas, organic jams and dog treats. Taylor Ct has provided me with eggs, cheese, potatoes, celery, onions, garlic, carrots, avocado and apples when I've needed real ingredients.   And Kettle chips, Pepperidge Farms cakes (!),Smartfood and Good Humor bars when I haven't. Every time I walk in thinking they're not going to have something, I'm usually proven wrong.  This week it was a glue stick.  2 weeks ago, it was buttermilk.  Today I noticed that they have contact lens carriers and belgian waffles for sale. 

Errol and Mel naturally cultivated a collection of regulars of which my old boyfriend was among their favorites.  I know this now because the day I told Errol that Jeff had moved out, I got a look of utter disappointment that only my mother could have topped.  Jeff was a nice even-tempered Midwesterner with whom they could talk business or Blazers scores and who never outstayed his welcome.   His usual run was at about 7:40 (they close at 8) when the reality of a bare pantry had finally set in.  Jeff never tried to break me of my nacho obsession and developed this totally passable nacho 'recipe' with all Taylor Ct. ingredients.  

Taylor Court Nachos
aka Poor Man's Nachos 
1 bag corn chips (you won't use the whole bag)
1 can Nalley Vegetarian Chili*
8 oz Tillamook cheddar (any sharpness) or Monterey Jack cheese
Sour Cream
1/2 (or more) can El Pato Jalapeno Salsa or other jarred salsa 
Optional: scallions, avocado, fresh lettuce, onions or tomatoes.  

preheat oven to 375.  Use a 9x13 hotel pan or pyrex dish (or cookie sheet) and spread out your chips.  Heat chili on the stove before spreading it over the chips.  I also like to add a little salsa to the nachos before I put them in the oven.  Finish with cheese and bake for about 12 minutes, until cheese is melted and bubbling.  After removing, dot with sour cream, more salsa and the optional fresh vegetables if you have them.  I really like the texture of shredded lettuce on my nachos, it gives them that "american taco" spin. Eat in front of the TV

*I am not a vegetarian but I do draw a line at canned meats

Before I was a successful entrepreneur...

Not everyone who loves food and cooking dreams of having their own restaurant.  Half & Half was not the culmination of all my culinary and power-wielding desires, it was a way to be self-employed.  And it just so happened that food was the logical vehicle for a sliver-sized commercial space in a great area of downtown Portland.  

I did have a few food related business ideas before opening Half & Half.  In college I studied film and literature and wanted to be Pauline Kael, only I just wanted to write Lacanian critiques of Antonioni films, only I wasn't really that smart.  So, why not open a movie theatre that shows indie films and serves great food?  This idea was hatched back in Colorado and probably around the very day that the McMenamins brothers rehabbed their first theatre. 

Later on, I had an idea for a restaurant that only served leftovers, my favorite way to eat food. You could make really delicious lo-mein noodles and serve them cold in cardboard boxes, spaghetti in tupperware, etc... OR, you could have a refrigerator at every table. Diners can just raid theirs individually.  A horrible idea, but later on when we opened Half & Half I still wanted to put cold pizza on the menu.  

After I was living in Portland for about a year, my friend Marti convinced me to buy the outdoor vending cart she had recently purchased.  Her business was going to be "Generalissimo Marti's Smoothies and Cigars".  A computer programer with a BA in Math, Marti wanted to do something fun with her life but ultimately couldn't bring herself to launch a smoothie and cigar cart.  I, however, as a college grad with a BA in English and Film, a day job at a bakery and a public access cooking show called "Eat Me", was the perfect candidate for this kind of gig.  

I named my business "The Wandering Jew" and I was going to sell latkes, knishes, matzo ball soup and other Jewish soul food on the streets of downtown Portland.  I just needed to find the perfect sidewalk, a commissary kitchen, and the chutzpah to do it all myself.  At the time I was 23-24 and full of many things but business acumen was not among my riches.  Also the idea of schlepping soup and grated potatoes around and standing outdoors in downtown Portland all day lost its luster by the minute.  The Wandering Jew never surfaced.  After sitting in storage for years, I finally sold the cart to a guy who paid a small deposit and stiffed me for the rest. Maybe I didn't find my success as The Wandering Jew, but I did dispel at least one stereotype.   


It's Nacho Post

I'm a little obsessed with nachos, you could say.  It wasn't always that way.  I'm sure I liked nachos as a kid but they didn't trump, say, stuffed potato skins or good old Ruffles and onion dip as a coveted party food.  It wasn't until I was just about 30 that I "started seeing" nachos, and all the possibilities that they held, suddenly and completely.  Almost overnight, I wanted nachos ALL OF THE TIME.  I wanted good nachos with freshly fried tortillas and homemade salsa, and I wanted shitty nachos with stale chips and lukewarm processed cheese.  I started ordering nachos at any restaurant that served them.  Even places where I may have been "burned" before with inferior ingredients or poor nacho composition would see me ordering nachos again, in the hope of redemption and the insatiable hunger for the perfect chip.  

I have been on a quest for the best nachos in Portland since and I take no pleasure in saying that I've found more bad than good, but there are some gems out there and I'll take the opportunity to tell you about them in a later post. 

These days, I'm quite fond of the Nacho Party format.   Several years ago I suggested this for my friend David's birthday. There we had $100 nachos (fancy ingredients), spa nachos (baked chips, lots of yogurt and lettuce) and hamburger nachos (ground beef, American Cheese, ketchup, mustard and relish.  quite good) among others.  A year or so later I decided I really wanted to explore Nachos further and I held my own "It's Nacho Birthday" event, only this time it was a competition, and I was the sole judge.  The goal was simply to get as many people as possible to make many different kinds nachos, just for me.  

The Categories Were: 
Classic Nachos
World Beat Nachos
Krazy Nachos
Dessert Nachos
Local, Seasonal and Sustainable Nachos. 

this picture is a little out of focus but from left to right we have:  Southern Nachos (Category:Krazy. Ingredients: potato chips, chicken strips, country gravy, tabasco),  Classic Nachos, and Classic Nachos with a nice touch: "Robin" spelled out in fried Tortilla.  The bowl of yellow is hot queso for Stadium Nachos. 
Here, we have someone sampling Henry's Reuben Nachos: Corned Beef, Sauerkraut, Swiss and Russian dressing over rye melba toast.  

Left to right we have Korean and Jewish nachos.  The Jewish Nachos are, naturally, served on matzo with cream cheese, lox, tomatoes and scallions.  Julia made the Korean nachos with sesame leaf, some bulgogi beef, kimchi and shrimp crackers.  Delicious.  There were many outstanding nachos at this party including Irish Nachos, Traditional Stadium Nachos, several dessert varieties and a really stellar offering in the "local, seasonal, etc..." category with handmade tortilla chips, locally raised pork, fresh corn, roasted chiles and Oregon cheese.  

The party was success but there was room for improvement.  I have to admit that being the sole judge was more of a burden than an abuse of power.  Next time, I recruit a panel.  By the end of the night I thought possibly, once and for all, I sated my craving, but can the powerful combination of contrasting textures and flavors--the crunch, the chew, the unctuous ooze, the salty the tangy, the sweet and spicy--ever be enough?  There is a whole world of nachos still ripe for exploration, and I intend to bring you on this journey.  

Hello, new friend

Welcome to Chronic Mastication, my cutting-edge food blog. I am one of those people who never stops thinking about food...what my next meal is going to be, what to serve at a party next month, what to eat for lunch tomorrow.  I used to run a cute little cafe in Portland, OR called Half & Half. Then I opened a second place.  Then I left everything and took a job in advertising.  This is my story, as told through my oral fixations and self-indulgent meditations. Bon appetit!