Sunday, August 26, 2007

Parlor Tricks and Bellyaches

Sometimes I think it's ridiculous that everyone goes on and on about a certain breed of New Orleans restaurant. We went out last night to a goodbye dinner for a friend at Clancy's, an old Creole place tucked into an uptown residential neighborhood, the faded sign hanging outside suggesting low-key friendliness, the lack of music and packed tables more about a happy cafeteria than fine-dining. But fine-dining it is, with entrees priced around $25.

Aperatifs were good, and the appetizers were very good, although harbingers of what was to come. Fried eggplant sticks with aioli (the eggplant had little flavor, but the aioli was dynamite), oysters in brie, fried green tomatoes in hollandais, and maybe the best thing, creole tomatoes and a perfect buffalo mozzarella.

Unless you're eating a steak, the quality of which is very high in a place like Clancy's, (and of course I'm not eating steak), then you end up eating something that falls into the category of culinary cheap parlor tricks. Tons of chefs down here are guilty. Take anything, an old rubber ball, cook it in butter and serve it with cream. It would taste great! All of the old creole places do this sort of thing. Antoine's, Galatoire's, you name it. The food tastes good and is masterfully prepared, but shows no culinary artistry.

But the experience of dining is more than eating something that tastes good. It's about anticipation, gratification, and a sort of post-coital food bliss where one should not feel as though one has been punched in the stomach, but simply content. On top of that, good conversation, stimulated by good wine, makes the meal. By the time I got through my eggplant, which reminded me too much of bar-food mozzarella sticks to take seriously, I could only manage a bite or two of a heavily salted/buttered/creamed lobster risotto. Everyone at the table conversed with the person or persons they arrived with. We might as well have had dinner on our own, someplace better and less ungodly expensive, and walked away with a fine food glow.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Colons and Groundnuts

I meant to post this yesterday, as it turned out to be a fantastic success. It's another one of them Cooking Light recipes: African Ground Nut Stew with Sour Cream-Chive Topping (by the way, ground nuts are peanuts). A simple, straightforward recipe for something that tastes really good cold and eaten out of the pot the next day because you made it the night before but ended up going out and eating barfood instead of dinner. Once again, I used Tofutti sour cream, used more peanuts than they called for, and I tossed in a half-can of coconut milk, which always makes things better.

Last night Dan and I decided we would check out World's Healthiest Pizza over on Claiborne Avenue, which has pegged itself as a healthy and still tasty alternative to other pizza places around town (one of which I work at, so it felt like I was cheating). I admire their mission to educate people on what's good for them and what's not, as well as to provide something for people who want to eat pizza but don't want to eat all the things that come in pizza. We picked up our medium Mediterranean and I spent the ride home reading out loud about the dangers of osteoporosis and calcium uptake (we were both horrified to find out that by the time you're in your mid-20's, you're basically done building bone density and all you can do in the future is prevent the loss of that density - why would your body do something as stupid as making you responsible for it during the least responsible segment of your life???), and colon health. Strike one - I'm not so sure I want to directly associate colon health with my food in that way. Maybe a brochure in the store, but on the box?

We got home, popped in the totally bizarre 1960's British horror film Peeping Tom, and proceeded to down our pizza with a bottle of chianti. Strike two - because they use no salt in the crust, it doesn't taste great. Nonetheless, the list of ingredients that goes into it is certainly impressive, including quinoa, amaranth, and spelt among others. So, I knew it was healthy for me and so that made it taste better, but in terms of overall pleasure, I'm not sure they top Reginelli's. I still think that I'll order from them again, because I think they have a good idea and I'd like to support it, because the pizza still tasted good, and because who doesn't want a happy colon? Right? Right? Er...

Be sure to sign up for their coupon email list, we got $5 off a pick-up order, so the price is right.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Food Religion

"Mr. Lively adheres to a diet he believes Jesus followed. Like Mr. Wiesenfeld, he says the Bible prescribes that he use organic methods to respect the earth, treat his workers decently and treat the cattle that enter his slaughterhouse as humanely as possible."

From Of Church and Steak, NY Times August 22, 2007.

This is something I want to write more about in the future. Why food? Why now? Why are alternative food movements so appealing right now? More to follow...

Curried Cashew Cream Sauce and Stuffed Eggplant

NY Times Article on tomatoes...So Many Tomatoes to Stuff in a Week.

In yet another step towards the type of domesticity that I tend to abhor, Dan and I are actually now 'menu-planning' for the week, and discovering, with great shudders, that it makes things easier. We're doing four day chunks, during which he'll cook two meals, and I'll cook two. My first this week was tempeh with a curried cashew sauce, and the next will be an African peanut stew, both of which I got from the now defunct 'inspired vegetarian' section of Cooking Light magazine (which my dad got me a subscription to!). Regarding the vegetarian section, I am planning on writing a strongly worded letter, or maybe postcard, as I'm too cheap, to the magazine to complain.

I have had mixed results with tempeh. Tempeh is made of fermented soybeans with a rhizopus mold starter, giving it a sour, nutty, mushroomy flavor. It originated in Indonesia, and I must say, the tempeh that I ate in Indonesia this summer was far superior to any that I buy at Whole Foods. I ate tempeh burgers in Jogjakarta, tempeh with vegetables and noodles in Bali, tempeh whenever I could get it, and all of it was good. My biggest tempeh success was the 'Notso Bucco' recipe that I got from Vegan Yum Yum, and I strongly recommend trying it out for yourself. My cashew tempeh did not work out so well. The tempeh flavor contrasted poorly with the delicious sauce, and the texture If I ever tried it again, which I won't, I would slice the block of tempeh in half, so that I get two, thin, slabs of it.

Dan's eggplant was awesome, though. The recipe for Aubergines Stuffed with Sweet Potato came from a book that his mom gave us on Caribbean, Central and South American foods, and thus far it has not disappointed. 'Stuffed' is kind of misleading, as what you end up doing is taking slices of eggplant and rolling them around mashed potato. The potatoes are mashed with cheddar cheese - he used a chipotle cheddar that we got at W.F., and the spice added a great complexity to the otherwise sweet potatoes. He topped it with cilantro and Tofutti sour cream (according to doc, I'm not supposed to eat dairy, and besides, it tastes close enough to the real thing to not know the difference, and it's healthier). In the future, I want to make it with corn added to the mix.

Here is maybe the most awesome hint regarding cooking eggplant. Once you slice eggplant, salt the slices lightly and let them sit for 10-15 minutes. The salt helps to draw out the moisture, so that when you start frying, they hold their consistency and I think, retain more of the flavor you want. Wipe the salt off before frying.

Anyways, so here it is, submitted for the approval of the midnight society...

Aubergines Stuffed with Sweet Potato
from - The Food and Cooking of the Caribbean, Central and South America by Jenni Fleetwood and Marina Filippelli
(for four)

8oz sweet potatoes, peeled and quartered
1/2 tsp fresh thyme
3oz cheddar
2 tbsp chopped red and green bell pepper
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 large eggplants
2 tbsp plain all purpose flour
1 tbsp spice seasoning
olive oil, for frying
butter, for greasing
2 tomatoes, sliced
salt and pepper
chopped fresh parsley

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cook the potatoes in a pan of boiling water for 15-20 minutes until tender, then drain and mash.
2. Add the thyme, cheese, spring onion, peppers and garlic. Mix well and season.
3. Cut each eggplant lengthways into four slices. Mix the flour and spice seasoning on a plate and dust over each slice.
4. Heat a little oil in a large frying pan and fry each aubergine slice until browned, but not fully cooked. Drain and cool. Spoon a little potato mixture into the middle of each eggplant slice and roll.
5. Butter two large pieces of foil and place four rolls on each. Top with slices of tomato. Wrap up the parcels and bake for 20 minutes. Serve hot, garnished with parsely.

And here's how to make Curried Cashew Sauce...

1 tsp olive oil
2 tbsp coarsely chopped unsalted cashews
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 tsp curry powder
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup 2% milk
2 tbsp hot water
1/8 tsp salt

1. Heat oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add cashews to pan; cook 2 minutes or until lightly browned. Add onion to pan; saute 3 minutes or until tender. Add curry powder and garlic to pan, cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Stir in milk.
2. Place cashew mixture, 2 tablespoons hot water, and salt in a blender. Remove center piece of blender to let steam escape. Replace it, and start blending, but allow steam of escape every five seconds or so.

Serve over tofu, rice, or even chicken.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Vegetarian Spaghetti Carbonara

Ever since I was a little girl, I knew that my favorite food in the entire world (and what I figured would be served continuously at heaven's cafeteria, or even better, heaven's room service), was and is spaghetti carbonara. The etymology of carbonara leads back to carbone, meaning coal, suggesting that it was originally popular among coal miners, or that it was a dish favored by the Carbonari, an anti-monarchist secret society (1).

A traditional carbonara combines pasta, cream, cheese (usually parmesan or the like), ham, and at the point of serving when the pasta is steaming hot, a raw egg which then cooks directly on the noodles. My dad made it best, using carmelized onions and crispy bacon instead of small chunks of ham. One ex-boyfriend added chili powder for a little kick. Since getting off of the ham-wagon, I've sorely missed this, my number one favorite, and I've wondered whether it could be pulled off a la vegetarian.

It turns out, Lightlife's Smoky Tempeh Strips, though not matching the texture of bacon, go a long way in matching the taste. The hickory flavor combined with the slightly sour, grainy flavor of tempeh, work very well with the onions and egg. Dan made some string beans from his dad's garden, and all of was delicious.

Spaghetti Carbonara
(for four)

3/4 package of spaghetti
1 package of Lightlife Smoke Tempeh Strips, crumbled
1/2 yellow or vidalia onion, chopped
4 eggs (one per person is the best) (you can separate the white and yolk and only use the yolk, or use both).
grated parmesan to taste
3 Tbs cream
Butter for cooking the onions, or you can use Earthbalance

1. Boil and salt water. Sautee the onion for as long as it takes to brown (usually longer than you think, about 10 minutes or more).
2. Set aside the onions. In the same pan, add the tempeh. Try to get it as crispy as possibly, so if you need to add olive oil, do so.
3. Cook your pasta, al dente. Drain.
4. While still steaming hot, add the egg and mix thoroughly. Add the cream, tempeh, and onions. Serve with freshly ground pepper.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Toast to the Big Sleazy

We got back into New Orleans yesterday morning at 5am and as soon as we dropped off our incredibly obnoxious (as in Ignatius J. Reilly obnoxious) rideshare freak, made for Igor's where two tall, double, perfect bloody mary's set us feeling straight after that 17 hour drive from Pennsylvania.

I wish that I'd been able to record some of the awesome meals that I've had since leaving Singapore, starting with our last dinner there at the excellent vegetarian Original Sin in Holland Village. The absolute best was the Bosco Misto, incredibly inspired tofu, spinach, and feta patties rolled in crushed almonds, topped with mushrooms and asparagus in plum sauce, firm but there any way I can dream of recreating this? I hope so. Feta is so underrated. We made a pasta up in Pennsylvania the other night using zucchini, squash, and tomatoes picked that day from the vegetable garden in Dan's backyard. Usually we do it up with garlic, olive oil, basil and parmesan, but adding crumbled feta makes a huge difference.

A few days before the pasta we were in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, hanging out with some of Dan's childhood friends who now run a record shop cafe called Eat Records, where, aside from having an amazingly bizarre assortment of all types of records, serve up some great things on their menu. For example, an open faced sandwich with a great, moist bakery-fresh bread, avocado spread, sesame oil mayonaise with halved cherry tomatoes and kalamata olives on top, or what I'd definitely get next time, ricotta, figs, and honey on cranberry toast. They have a good selection for vegetarians.

Unfortunately, The Delachaise on St. Charles and Delachaise here in New Orleans does not. However, what they do have to offer is amazing. First of all, it's a great little French bistro wine bar, housed in what feels like a classy old train car and oozing the feel of a dark Parisian brasserie. Second, their selection of wines is fantastic, and their specials make you feel less like a cheapskate and more like a curious and willing connosieur. Third, when it's not horribly overcrowded (which it tends to get with the afterwork yuppie crowd, and definitely on the weekends), it's a great place to eat. Their kitchen is now open until 3am, and chef Chris Debarr is undoubtedly a culinary puppeteer, pulling the strings so that smoked goose, bacon, and penne pasta tango together. Of course I didn't have that, but I did munch on the 'Father Pat's' grilled cheese, brilliantly composed of Cahill's Irish porter, a powerful cheddar flavored with beer (and considered to be a truly vegetarian cheese, as it's made using a vegetable rennet), pear butter, and a dark 'Dakota' wheat bread. Back in my meat-eating days I also used to love the pate plate, composed by my all-time favorite New Orleans chef, Pete Vazquez, formerly of Marisol's and now doing the backyard Sunday dinners at wine-shop Bacchanal's in the Bywater.

On that note...

In the news, a new disease in pigs is currently spreading in China. The main reason I'm a vegetarian is that I'm absolutely physically and morally repulsed by the abhorrent conditions in which most animals spend their short lives before the slaughterhouse; conditions that are highly conducive to the development and spread of these diseases. Hoof and mouth, mad cow, bird flu, and now 'blue-ear' are made possible by the cramped quarters that animals are forced to live in; often healthy animals are made to live, eat, and sleep adjacent to or even on top of diseased, dying, or dead animals. It's the perfect place for a rapidly evolving virus to rapidly evolve into something that can spread to humans. China is one of the worst, and it comes as no surprise to me that many of these diseases are coming out of there. These things have a huge impact on people - when I moved to Egypt two years ago it was just after poultry sellers were forced to turn in all of their birds to the government to be destroyed (to the best of my knowledge they were told they would be but were never reimbursed). Thousands of people lost their livelihood, and those who wanted to keep their birds often hid them inside their apartments, resulting in scores of bird flu cases.

Point is, there ain't nothing wrong with not eating meat, and in fact there are plenty of things right about it. I loved Michael Pollan's new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma (you can read the introduction and first chapter here), but agreed with his Times critic that he could have been more critical of what was going on around him (I felt the same way when he was eating Monsanto potatoes from chemical-soaked fields in Idaho in The Botany of Desire, though that's a great read too). What I appreciated about his take on not eating meat, or better yet, on eating meat, is that there's nothing wrong with wanting to or enjoying eating meat, and that looking at our evolutionary history we know how natural it is, and simply in terms of our place in the natural world (not as dominant or higher up on some sort of solipsistic evolutionary ladder, but simply our place), how natural it is. What he rightly points out is that most people are eating incredibly unnatural meat from animals who never experienced anything of what their genes are telling them to do, animals stuck in tiny spaces wallowing in their own feces, pumped full of antibiotics to combat the inevitable infections they get. And because they don't know about it, they don't care, and that if they knew what their food actually went through to get there, they would certainly change the way they eat. That's what I did, but I'm not sure if I could even eat something that lived happily and died humanely. Anyways, save that for Dan.

So that's what's been happening on my plate and in my head for the past week or so. I'm eager to eat more around town (World's Healthiest Pizza, for example) visit the farmer's market, and get back to drinking mojitos.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Last Night in the Sling

That's right, tomorrow takes us far far away, and a day in Brooklyn, a few in New Hampshire, a few in Lancaster, then the long haul southward with bags of spices, strange concoctions, rolled Iranian carpets decorated with roses, silk batik dragons, and all the trappings of an opium-inspired orientalist's daydream (not that anyone in this century would claim to be an orientalist, aside from Bernard Lewis, but there is a certain undeniable romance to it. But I digress). Tonight we're going out to Original Sin at Holland Village, a vegetarian-Mediterranean restaurant that I've been longing to try. It will be my last meal in Singapore, so there are certain expectations that if not met, and met with gusto, will disappoint sorely. Meals are really a combination of much more than good food and good drink, but of company and context as well. Virginia Woolf said a few things about dining that I have always appreciated, and have recognized in my best meals. In fact, the only thing I remember from reading A Room of One's Own in high school are the moments when she is seated at a table with friends. So she wrote, "We have proved, sitting eating, sitting talking, that we can add to the treasury of moments." While that seems cheesy in the way only 19th century English writers can acheive, I believe it. Perhaps even better is, "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, is one has not dined well." I'm hoping that tonight, the meal with my family lasts for two hours for all the right reasons.

On an entirely different note, this article in the New York Times is worth drawing from.

Friday, August 3, 2007


"Eaters must understand...that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used."

Due to internet troubles, I didn't get a chance the other day to write about Indian food in Singapore and Malaysia, and about the excellent curbside meal that Dan and I had in Little India a few days ago (mixed pakoras with tamarind jam, sauteed okra stuffed with garum masala, yellow daal, aloo gobi, salt lassis and steaming naan). Now my thoughts are elsewhere.

I'm already in the mindset of being back in New Orleans and what my plans are for the rest of the summer. Dan's father's backyard vegetable garden in Pennsylvania is already birthing more than he can possibly consume, so we'll be taking all sorts of fresh vegetables and even better, seeds, with us. From planting, his cucumbers are ready to eat within 60 days, so as long as it stays warm (which it will) we'll be well-fed.

Between work and school, I also want to volunteer with the New Orleans Food and Farm Network, an organization believing that healthy locally-grown food should be easily accessible and affordable for everyone, and not just the perusers of Whole Foods' glistening aisles. They have all sorts of interesting projects, including one encouraging the development of urban food gardens and even farms. Considering the often toxic nature of New Orleans' soil, I'm sure there's a lot of work to do to make anything that comes out of it safe to eat... In any case, now that the local food movement is really picking up, growing one's own food seems like a logical next step. One of the things that I always lament is the disconnect between our generation and those that came before, in the sense that we know so much, and are aware of so much, but in terms of specific practical knowledge we are frustratingly deficient. Our breadth of knowledge suffers for a lack of the depth of theirs. A practical education on what it actually takes to support ourselves, from mending a button to growing tomatoes, should ideally empower people.