Tuesday, May 27, 2008

When in California...

Research. Preparation. Nerves. These aren’t the things you’d expect a nice dinner out to include. But the dinner Andrew and I had Saturday night wasn’t just any dinner. It wasn’t just any meal out. It was our long-awaited, struggled-to-get-a-table-for, expectations-through-the-roof dinner at Chez Panisse.

Chez Panisse—for all you non-foodies out there—is more or less considered the birthplace of “California cuisine,” as well as the harbinger of the now-ubiquitous practice of eating locally and in-season, frequenting farmer’s markets for the freshest produce, embracing all that is artisan-crafted and lovingly made rather than mass-produced. Founded by foodie doyenne Alice Waters in 1971, Chez Panisse is still located in the bungalow on Shattuck Avenue where it made culinary history—and ultimately underwent a transformation from a cozy local hangout to one of the most famous and lauded restaurants in the world. Its claim to fame? Food that tastes, exquisitely, of exactly what it is. No fancy treatment, no kitchen alchemy. Just great food prepared simply, with respect.

In November, friends gave us a gift certificate for Chez Panisse—along with a copy of Alice Waters’s most recent cookbook, The Art of Simple Food, as a wedding gift. A month ago, I began the 45-minute, constant-redialing process that—luck of all luck!—actually procured us a table in the downstairs restaurant (versus the more casual upstairs café) for a Saturday night. And so our preparations began. We bought and read Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, a biography by Thomas McNamee. We rented and watched the first in the Fannytrilogy by French director Marcel Pagnol, a character in which is the restaurant’s namesake. We made a hotel reservation. Andrew bought Red Sox/Oakland A’s tickets for Sunday, to make the weekend complete. A week in advance, we held our breaths and checked the website—the downstairs restaurant offers only a prix fixe menu, and the selections are posted a week ahead of time.

Does this seem like a lot of work and obsession for one dinner out? Most certainly yes. But for us, going to Chez Panisse was an event, not just a dinner, the centerpiece of our exploration of Berkeley and a small celebration of this time as West Coast residents. Stomachs aflutter, we opened the door to Chez Panisse and stepped inside.

Chez Panisse did not disappoint. The interior is all gleaming, golden wood, lit to perfection; we were greeted warmly, and led to a table in a room full happy, chattering patrons. Fresh cherries and fava beans were displayed on pedestals. We selected a bottle of wine. Soon, our waiter poured our aperitif—cava (a kind of Spanish champagne) with Malaysian lime juice—and presented a small plate of gougères (cheese puffs).

Soon the progression of courses began. Up first: sea scallop carpaccio, tuna tartare, and some garden-fresh greens. Second: risotto with spring peas, fava beans, and spring onions, with a basil pesto. Third: grilled duck breast with morel mushrooms, pickled cherries, and polenta. And, finally, dessert: a lemon ice cream meringue tartlet with a few fresh strawberries.

The entire meal left us giddy with satisfaction. The bill—a personal record for us, but we’d been prepared. It was a true California experience.

Alice Waters

Thursday, May 22, 2008

It's Only a Trend If We ALLOW It to Be

Andrew alerted me to this article today on a site called Trend Central. It discusses the rising popularity of social networking sites for "tweens," which apparently stretches all the way back to six-year-olds, an age I foolishly thought to be firmly in the "kid" category. As usual, kids can create "avatars," "chat" with each other, "rate" each other's thoughts and contributions, and, of course, "buy" things with fake money--which you have to pay REAL money to be able to "redeem."

It's a total scam, and an outrageous assault on childhood. It's also, unfortunately, a trend. Rise up, people! It's only a trend if we allow it to be! Until its unprofitable for companies to develop these sites, things are just going to get worse!

Rile yourself up by reading the article here: http://www.trendcentral.com/WebApps/App/SnapShots/Article.aspx?ArticleId=7366

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Larger Variety of Kinds

Humanity. It’s what was on display yesterday at the Bay to Breakers Race in San Francisco, when 65,000 runners gathered at the Embarcadero for a cross-city trek to the ocean. Andrew and I had expected costumes and craziness (Andrew went prepared with a ridiculous hat, a chicken with its legs hanging down by Andrew’s cheeks). But we had underestimated San Francisco.

When I say things like “race” and “runners,” I use the terms loosely; though there were some (more or less) serious runners involved, the truth is that this race is actually more of a parade, an excuse for San Franciscans to devise amazing costumes, indulge their exhibitionist tendencies, and throw tortillas. And devise, indulge, and throw they did.

Each costume was better than the last. A crowd of forty or fifty runners decked out in hammer-and-sickle t-shirts as the Cold War Olympic Team…

A man wearing full-body, skin-tight green spandex, covering even the eyes…

Plenty of Vikings, grass skirts, lingerie, and wigs:

A group of runners were dressed as protestors—protesting running. They carried signs saying things like “Runners probably eat babies” and “Secondhand running kills.” That’s the Bay to Breakers race in a nutshell:

And oh, the exhibitionism. We had heard there was nudity, and was there ever. Groups of men and women, and some single runners as well, wearing nothing but socks and sneakers. There were a few young-ish men, but most of the naked runners were grizzled, long-haired former hippies, striding nonchalantly through the streets. “These people have been taking their clothes off since the sixties,” observed a woman next to me. I’d post a few pictures, but I’m sure your imagination will suffice.

The tortillas? It’s apparently a Bay to Breakers tradition to hurl tortillas, Frisbee-style, into the meandering, non-running crowd. Andrew said tortillas were flying madly at the start of the race, and I saw them soaring through the air at my perch at Howard and 2nd. Runners sometimes caught the tortillas and just threw them back at the crowd.

As for Gatorade and water stations, well, this was—obviously—a different kind of race. Kegs were pulled on wagons, boxes of wine swung at runners’ sides, plastic cups of beer were tucked into bras and waistbands. Some runners strolled by with Starbucks cups.

It was an amazing spectacle, something that could not have happened in any other city, in quite this way, and it made me love San Francisco even more than I already did. There’s something spiritually satisfying about being part of a crowd of thousands, just having a good time, full of good will and acceptance and humor, seeing all of humanity there on full display. A little girl standing not far from me, her eyes wide as saucers, asked her mom why people were dressed (or undressed) as they were. “Honey, it takes all kinds,” her mom said. “And San Francisco just has a larger variety of kinds.”

I don’t think it’s ever been said quite so well.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Word from the Heart of the Furnace

It's over a hundred degrees here....I'm melting....But I just wanted to pass along a piece of desperate, sweltering advice: If you envision making ice-cold fresh-fruit smoothies on a hot afternoon, and read that a frozen banana is the ideal smoothie inclusion, PEEL THE BANANAS before freezing them. Not that I'm speaking from anything that has recently happened to me, or anything, but freezing bananas with the peel on turns everything into scary brown mush.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Life Lessons from the Kitchen

Here are a few life lessons I’ve learned in my cooking recently that seem worth sharing:

1. Despite the fact that they are the same color, cayenne pepper is not a good substitute when the recipe calls for a decorative dusting of paprika and you happen to be out of that particular spice.

2. If you happen to under-boil an egg, and discover its under-cooked-ness only after slicing it in half, you should not put the halves in a bowl and microwave it. The egg will literally explode and create a mess so enormous that the thought of cleaning it up is cause for mild-to-moderate despair.

3. If you’ve married wisely, your husband will peer over your shoulder at the vile microwave and say, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll clean it up.”

4. Despite what your farmer’s market cookbook says, a paste of food-processed lettuce leaves does not make a tasty sandwich spread. In fact, it’s much like eating mouthfuls of grass clippings.

5. No matter how delicious the end result, it’s hard to make a good case for hovering over a hot stove making risotto when the temperatures are in the high-80s, even if it is the Pope’s Risotto, a recipe you found in the Times.

6. It’s fun to say “Dinner’s almost ready!” and watch your husband’s face sink in horror as you toss a pile of cabbage leaves into a pot of boiling water, as though it’s a kind of witch’s brew. (It’s not. It’s stuffed cabbage, and you will both enjoy the meal.)

7. Uncooked beans are not a good substitute for cooked, canned beans when you’re trying to make dinner. You may have known this, and even soaked the beans for several hours, and had strong suspicions that the beans were simply not going to soften no matter how much you boiled them; and you may have implicitly understood that continuing to boil the bean-and-leek soup would rob the leeks of all their flavor; and yet you will still feel unreasonably angry when you must throw an entire pot of soup in the trash.

8. Aioli is more involved than simply mashing together garlic and olive oil. See previous post, “An Attempt at Aioli.”

Friday, May 09, 2008

An Attempt at Alioli

Last night Andrew and I decided to make a Spanish meal consisting of albondigas (meatballs) and alioli (a garlic and olive oil dip). We bought a mortar and pestle specifically with alioli in mind, and we found a recipe in a tapas cookbook Molly and Ian had gotten us for Christmas. The instructions seem simple: crush four cloves of garlic in the mortar, and continue stirring slowly with the pestle as you add one-and-a-half cups of olive oil (!) in drop by drop. It’s a labor-intensive, time-consuming process, but the cookbook chef assured us that eventually, the garlic and olive oil would fuse into a fluffy, rich paste.

We stirred. We added and stirred. Yet after thirty minutes of stirring, the crushed garlic and olive oil mixture was still liquidy—the magical, alchemical reaction was, it seemed, not in our future. It was still tasty (we just drizzled it over our albondigas and fingerling potatoes), but definitely not alioli. Andrew suspects our olive oil was to blame, a cheap grocery store brand and not high-quality Spanish extra-virgin. Time to upgrade, I suppose, before we attempt the alioli again.

A Life History, Captured in Grapes

Andrew and I have done something that feels, to us, particularly California: we've become members of a wine club. This isn’t a wine-of-the-month club or anything like that; all wineries around here offer clubs, which usually get you twelve or so bottles of wines a year in shipments of two or three or six, and many of the selections are available only to members. A few months ago, we found a winery whose wines we love; and we finally took the plunge and became Priority Release Program members.

The first shipment of six bottles arrived yesterday. In the box came a lengthy description of the included wines, with suggestions like “Enjoy now, or cellar for 10-15 years.” We likely will not be cellaring any wines (that’s a new verb for me—I like it), for reasons such as these: we don’t have a cellar, we don’t know enough about wine to confidently know the difference between a new wine and a fifteen-year-old wine, and the thought of trying to transport a wine collection when we inevitably move again kind of gives me hives. (I’m not sure I’d trust a wine collection in a ReloCube.)

Along with the wine descriptions were details about when the grapes for these particular wines were harvested. For example, I now know that the grapes for our 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon were harvested from October 22-25, 2003—about six weeks before I even knew the existence of an Andrew Littell. The day we left for Marrakech in October 2004 was when the grapes for the 2006 Zinfandel were pulled from the vines. And the grape harvest for our 2007 Sauvignon Blanc took place between August 23 and September 14, 2007—right around the time when Andrew and I were living in Citrus Heights without any furniture, planning our wedding.

Anyone who’s seen Sideways has thought about the fact that wine is a living thing, and that rain and temperature and sun in any given month or year determine how a particular bottle of wine will taste. These ideas never really registered with me, and I’m still a long, long way from being able to differentiate one vintage from another; but now, living so close to Napa and Mendocino and the Anderson Valley, I’m finding a new appreciation for understanding where wines come from, and when. They’re like little time capsules, literally holding a taste of the past.

Some day, when we’re a long way from Sacramento, we’ll wander into a wine shop, find a Mendocino pinot noir, look at the label and say, “2008? We were living in California then.” And I suspect that wine will taste different simply because we were there: in the staggeringly bright October sunshine, in the chill mornings of March, in the warm April afternoons. And perhaps we’ll be glad we’d been there, as we clink glasses in whatever city has become our home, having left northern California behind.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Down with the Internet

In the past week or two, I’ve come across several articles about a growing phenomenon: the rise of social networking sites for children. By “children,” I don’t mean twelve-year-olds; I mean pre-schoolers. Pre-schoolers! What on earth could a pre-schooler have to social-network about? Or even five- to eight-year-olds? The whole thing makes me feel full of unexplicable rage and horror. I don’t feel I’m overstating things to say I find the idea revolting.

I speak, of course, from the perhaps uninformed position of as-yet-childless observer. I speak from a position of having gleaming, idyllic ideas of what I want my future children’s childhoods to be like, a vision that not only does not include social networking sites, but also does not even include a computer. Who wants to spend time staring at a screen, reading horrid, incorrectly punctuated-and-capitalized user-generated content, when one could be outside—planting a garden—bike-riding—drawing with chalk—and reading high-quality children’s literature?

I ask you: What is wrong with people?? And do the developers of social networking sites for toddlers (yes, toddlers) feel any kind of moral compunction about what they’re doing? Doesn’t anyone feel it’s inappropriate for four-year-olds to fiendishly seek “money” in their “virtual worlds” with which to “buy” things for their “avatars”? Doesn’t anyone see the threat to robust imagination posed by pre-established storylines and bland online activities for toys that come equipped with “web access codes”?

The depressing thing is that all of my future children’s peers will likely have “profiles” on social networking sites aimed at their very young, very vulnerable age group—and my future children will probably want to have “profiles” too.

That’s why someone just has to put a stop to all of this, and simply make it unprofitable for site developers to continue on in this vein. In other words, send the kids outside instead of online; buy them nice wooden toys, art supplies, small woodland animal figurines. It's all going too far, much too far. Is nothing sacred?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Miss Fitness

I'd just finished my workout: a circuit of weight-lifting, a series of ab work, and a run on the elliptical. "Here you go, Miss Fitness," the gym employee said, handing over my membership card. Miss Fitness! The gym employee was referring to me. I was stunned. No one, ever in my life, has ever referred to anything related to fitness or athletics in conjunction with ME. Yet here I am, referring to "weights" and "run" and "ab work." Who am I? Miss Fitness, apparently.

I suppose I can understand his error. I've been at the gym about four times a week for the past month or so, ever since a little mishap with a Watermelon bridesmaid's dress that I ordered two months ago and then--horror, oh horror--could not fit into when it came in, prompting a frenzied return to David's Bridal and an even more frenzied seeking out of a dress, any dress, that would arrive before Molly's wedding. (Please see previous post for possible sources of this problem.)

Anyway. Miss Fitness. Are you happy, California?? Are you happy now??