This Guy

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Native son to the American Deep South - now living in Portland, OR. Lover of people, sustainability, justice, culture, writing, history, cuisine and coffee.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

braised is beautiful.

My last meal was somewhere between my mom’s pot roast with mashed potatoes and gravy or buffalo wings with chili cheese fries.

I will, till this day, lean towards the pot roast. I don’t know what it is!

Well…I guess anytime you cook a big chunk of meat over a long period time it almost always results in a good thing. I’m such a huge fan of braised dishes (pork shoulder, shanks, roasts, etc…)

Now those unfamiliar with braising should know it’s a super easy concept and process. I guess a more technical definition would mean to “sear the meat on all sides and slowly cook in liquid for an extended amount of time till it’s ‘fall off the bone’ tender.” So, after you recover from that terrible definition, let me try to explain my favorite pot roast recipe and what I do most of the time I braise a nice piece of protein. (In this case, beef and/or beef shank with some nice marbled fat.)

Fat = flavor



I reckon’ I’ve taken a more “beef bourguignon” technique when making it – though I don’t use nearly the amount of ingredients the traditional and “classic” French versions require. What I’ve taken away from beef bourguignon is the red wine. Yes. Yes. Yes. The red wine makes all the difference. You ever see folks drinking red wine with their big ole’ honky-tonk steaks? It’s because it tastes really, really good together.

But, as I’ve yet to have red wine capture my palette, I generally just cook with the stuff and let other folks who may or may not live in my house finish it off. :) Some grocery stores sell it in tiny bottles for cooking purposes.
Wine gives beef this incredibly rich taste, not to mention it leaves your final product looking reduced to a gorgeous dark brown glaze.

So alas, here is how I like to make it and hope you get to try it sometime!

Ingredients:
3-4lbs chuck roast (will probably just say, “Great for pot roast!” or something…)
2 cups yellow onion, diced
4 carrots, peeled and chopped in 1” pieces
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1-2 quarts of beef stock (depending on how much meat you have)
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 cup red wine
salt
pepper

Directions:
In a heavy bottomed pot (such as a Dutch oven, which is how I usually cook mine), drop about 1-2 tablespoons of canola oil and heat till it just starts to smoke. While the oil is heating, make sure your roast is cut into 2” hunks and is seasoned with salt and pepper (somewhat generously).

When the oil is hot, sear the meat on all sides (about 1-2 minutes a side), but just until it gets to be a nice dark brown – not black!! Make sure not to overcrowd your pot while searing, or the meat will not brown as it should.
When all the meat has been browned, drain the fat and oil into a bowl, and place about 1-2 tbsp back in the pot. This is when you add your onions. Toss them in and scrape up that good “fond” that should be lodged to the bottom of your pot. This is where a lot of your flavor is. It’s also where I add a little pinch of salt to help the onions break down a bit.

Once the onions start turning soft, I add the red wine and scrape up any remaining bits from the pan (also somewhat known as deglazing). Let the wine reduce a bit with the onions to cook out the alcohol. When it has reduced for a few minutes, add your carrots and garlic and give it a good stir.

Now it’s cool to add your meat back into the pot, along with the beef stock (enough to almost cover the meat), bay leaves, Worcestershire and a few pinches of salt and a couple of teaspoons of pepper.
I’ll bring it all to a boil, then reduce to a simmer on medium-low heat for a good 2 ½ - 3 hours – or until the meat can easily be pulled apart with a fork.

It should serve about four people -- or two, really, really hungry people.

I love eating pot roast with boiled or roasted potatoes and greens – but I wouldn’t cook your potatoes with your pot roast…I tried it once and it came out really soggy, but to each their own!
You can add mushrooms to this dish as well (when you add your carrots and garlic) and it would turn out even better – that is, if you like mushrooms.

Pieces of meat like the shank will probably take a little longer because they are a bit tougher, but if you braise anything long enough, it’s sure to come out tasting fan-freakin’-tastic.

Here’s to honoring our ingredients,
Take care, my friends.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

respecting the food you eat

I’ve devoted much of this past year to cooking better. I suppose everybody needs a hobby, so I figured I’d adopt a more useful one. {Not in any way to dismiss your dog sweater-knitting group…}

Now, before you picture a scene from Julie & Julia or something, I need to emphasize that it started in an ideal foodie city that supports and praises its hospitality industry. I came to the realization that I needed to learn how to cook better. I’ve always loved cooking, but found myself cooking the same thing over and over again in different forms. The world just seemed to offer so much good stuff and I found myself limited in skill and technique.

I took a knife skills class. I learned how to properly cut an onion and why certain knives are important to have around.
What it came down to was honoring the food we bought and cooked. It really shifts the way you think about food and what you buy with your hard earned dollars. I was tired of messing up simple things. I grew frustrated with wasting great pieces of meat/veggies with too much salt or mixed them with any bad assortment of things.

With this, I’ve been sticking my nose in books that dive into the world of the professional chef and investing in some really incredible [albeit, intimidating] cookbooks. I can’t often afford great ingredients, but it makes it so much more worth it when you can and actually do it well. I feel like honoring our food is important.



For instance, we roasted a chicken a few weeks ago…and found ourselves saying, “Thanks chicken…for feeding us and tasting so good!” It was funny as we caught ourselves talking to a piece of meat, but for what it was worth, it felt good. It felt good to know we didn’t waste it…that we used it again to make stock that fed us a week later.

If anything, cooking gives me much peace. The kitchen is a great comfort to me because it has allowed me to constantly learn new things and feed others in the process. So, there was nothing more to do than just dive in. Stretching our limits as far as culinary skills go, felt important. It’s something that I’m affirmed in, perhaps coming from a deep Southern heritage of good and simple cooks who love to sit around the table to share a meal.

I saw the joy in feeding others and in return, found that it fed my soul.

And in the end...that's all that matters.

That...and a belly full of good food.

Friday, October 22, 2010

what you eat (and my conviction)

I decided to take a different route today, but perhaps a more pressing one, at that.

Coming from a Southern brotha, talking about healthy food is not something I care to dive into…but as of lately, it is something I can’t get away from.
It’s not so much about healthy food, as to what kind of food we’re putting into our bodies. And before you say it’s the pot calling the kettle black, I am saying that my eating habits are not very good. But, they’re better than they used to be.

So, I write this as some form of encouragement and not conviction…to help better ourselves as people as we grow together with our family and friends.

Eating well is something I’ve been learning to do. And by “eating well”, I hope you don’t assume that I mean “eating A LOT” or even eating expensive, dainty ingredients. Eating well means eating things that are good for you and even the things that aren’t good, in careful moderation.

I’m not one to skimp on butter or bacon or the occasional deep fried delight, but I do choose carefully when I want/need to cook and eat these things. I am not a nutritionist, but I am seeing the cause of much obesity and as a Southerner, many people I see just can’t say no, nor do they even try something different. Hell, you don’t have to be from the fattest state in the nation to see that all the U.S. has major food culture issues.

Stay away from McDonalds…Wendys…and BUM!BUM!BUM! SONIC! (Except the occasional strawberry limeade… :P) It’s hard when you’re on the road, and what the hell…eat it if there’s nothing better…but try to resist the urge for a quick fix. You know you’ll regret it. I’ve never met anyone who felt good after eating McDonalds…that stuff is so chemically modified -- it’s almost hard to consider it food. That goes for much of fast food culture, or in the words of Mr. Bourdain, "T.G.I. McFunsters".



(Considering I don’t have kids, I will stay away from my opinion, because I know each family differs…but I do hope as families grow, they feed each other well. Kids learn to eat what the adults eat and if they don’t, then they can do what we did…either eat or don’t eat. I know I had to be a stubborn kid and ask [“whine”] for chicken nuggets and pizza all the time…and I’m sorry for that, mom. :)

I’m even talking about packaged meals. Dried noodles in bags with that powdery cheese/herb crap. There’s no way that’s good for you. I’m sure it’s loaded with salt as well…just check your ingredients and see if you want that stuff in your body. (No MSG!!)

I will go ahead and say I will NEVER be too good for any kind of food. I don’t ever want to be picky or judge someone by how they cook...and especially if they’re doing something for me. Never. Never. Never. Like I said before…just encouraging our friends and family to cook from scratch if they can…and buy good ingredients.

I know it takes more time…but it’s so…so…worth it. Regardless of what you’re cooking at home, you know what’s going in it…therefore it’s automatically better for you.
I’m learning more and more that we need to be careful with what we put in our bodies. The things the world tells us to eat is often marketing and economics...fight against it.

Meat consumption. I love...love..love meat. But it is important to love it in MODERATION. You don't have to have meat everyday. It's expensive and probably pretty sketchy unless you get it farm direct. Too much of it can't be a good thing. If you want, take it old school and use meat as a flavoring for a dish, instead of the main course. It's how the majority world does it...and I think we're going to start seeing the price of food sky rocket. We might as wall start learning how to cook with the bottom of the barrel...

Eat greens! Beans are super good for you as well...whole grains...use olive oil instead of butter to help cook what you got goin' on in that pan.

But again, I'm new at all this, so I'd love some feedback as to what kind of foods you eat that are or at least, seem healthy and taste super rad. Feel us in!

It is important that we eat well...for our kids...for our friends and families future.

And most of all, it is important to be a better world.

Bacon,
Josh

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Ole' Larder!

I like to pretend that I know what I’m doing in the kitchen. Granted, I’ve spent the majority of the past year or so learning to cook better…write better…live better…so I’ve picked up a lot of helpful things.

I watch this video blog sometimes called, “Working Class Foodies”. There was an episode that was devoted to what this person kept in their pantry (though I’m thinking “larder” sounds so much cooler than pantry these days).

It was helpful to see what kinds of things people kept on hand – especially if you find yourself cooking more so than eating out or buying pre-cooked food. I thought it’d be cool to share some things I’ve found useful in my recent excursion of learning to cook well.

First, I’ll start off with kitchenware – knives, pots, pans, etc.
I love my Dutch oven. It’s not the best brand, but it works just fine. It’s great for stovetop braising like making pot roast and pulled pork. It also works just as good in your oven. It’s an incredibly versatile piece of kitchenware that every cook needs. There are beautiful ones out there on the market, just make sure it’s big enough to cook whatever it is you like to cook.
A roasting pan is really helpful as well, but not super necessary.

I also love my stock pot. It's pretty self-explanatory, but stocks are the base for any good soup, stew or braising liquid. Stocks are fun to make as long as you have a few hours to roast bones and skim the top for oil and fat. And like the pros will tell you, DO NOT BOIL YOUR STOCK. Keep it at a light simmer. Reduce. Skim. Strain. Reduce. Skim. Strain. The more you reduce, the better it'll be.

Knives! I like Global knives. They look super rad and are all forged with one piece of stainless steel. The bolster and the tang are right on the money as far as how I hold my knife. I think it's important to have good knives...it'll help you cut better and look much sexier doing it... :P
I have a 5in. cook's knife, 6in. flexible boning knife, paring knife, and a 6in. Santoku.
I also have an F. Dick offset serrated knife. It's great for cutting bread and slicing tomatoes.
All these knives serve different purposes, but really all you need is one good knife and I'd recommend a 6-8in chef's knife. They're all-purpose and look damn good in your kitchen.

I’m still in the process of switching to all nonstick pans to more “all-clad/stainless steel” type kitchenware. Nonstick pans are pretty sketchy to begin with and you should throw them away immediately if they start to chip off that black stuff (which unfortunately is NOT pepper.) It’s good to go with stainless steel if you can. Always keep around at least one or two smaller nonstick pans to cook eggs with or else it can become quite a pain in the ass to clean.

Mixing bowls. I used to think I had too many, now I don't think I have enough. They really come in handy when I have to store dough in the 'fridge, or epic amounts of leftovers. Never underestimate the power of the mixing bowl.

If you ever want to bake your own bread, it’s pretty crucial to have a baking/pizza stone. As the name suggests, it works great for pizza dough and breads all alike. It generates good, even heat that helps give your bread crispy crusts and even cooking.



Tongs are great. They’re perfect for grilling and come to the rescue when you’re figuring out how to turn that hot piece of food. I’ve seen some chefs recommend not using them as much because they can squeeze a lot of the juices out of your food. But I’m sure if you go at it with ease, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal.

Now on to the pantry/stock items! (I know you're so excited!!)

This is my list of "favorite" things I try to keep on hand at all times:
garlic. (Two heads)
onions. (At least two. One yellow and one red.)
shallots (A few should last you a bit, depending on how often you cook with them.)
sea salt.
kosher salt.
black peppercorns
white peppercorns (two different tastes -- white peppercorns go great in just about everything -- black pepper I use more for finishing a dish)
Tony Chachere's (Of course!)
apple cider vinegar
white vinegar
bay leaves
louisiana hot sauce
worcestershire sauce
unsalted butter

olive oil (and lots of it!)
vegetable oil
milk
eggs
red potatoes
chicken stock
beef stock
white sugar
brown sugar
bread flour
all-purpose flour
yeast
pastry flour
baking powder
baking soda


I know it's a lot of stuff, but once you have it all, you really don't have to buy it all that much. I really can't shop unless I know I have all these things in my cabinet. You really only need a few ingredients to cook once you have all these things.

Good luck, my friends and happy cookin'!!
I'd love to hear what you can't cook without - feel free to post it in a comment or on that handy-dandy Facebook page.

Cheers!
Josh

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Two Fat Ladies [Finally a new post!]

There was this brilliant show in the late 90s called, “The Two Fat Ladies”.

I remember my dad watching it on occasion, giggling and moaning, while the “oohs” and “ahhhs” fell out of his mouth like saliva from Pavlov’s tormented dogs.

Watching them nearly a decade later, and with a strong curiosity as a newly birthed gastronome, I totally dig it.
You can safely gather by the name of the show that yes, they are fat and they are indeed ladies. And by watching the show, you can see why they claim such a build.

They cook with the good stuff.

Now, I assume they cook old school.
Meat. Potatoes. Parsley. Garlic. Lard. (…aaand end scene!)

If you have never watched their show (which you can get on Netflix), they basically drive around England in a badass Triumph motorbike with a sidecar. They explore beautiful countryside and dig around in rustic gardens. Both with incredibly strong personalities, share small stories and switch back and forth with recipes, banter and fun little songs and prose. Surely they would have never been picked up for long by the Food Network.

They cook at monasteries, nunneries, campgrounds, restaurant kitchens and do so with a variety of stoves, pots and pans. They use heavy old Dutch ovens and always seem to cook in the most amazing kitchens that are garnished with fresh herbs, spices and lots and lots of fat.

And by fat, I mean bacon…lard…drippings…the usual barrage of cholesterol heart-clogging goodness. “Look at all that good fat…” they’d say.

The food is most definitely English, which means…there’s not much to it. It’s mainly potatoes…tomatoes…cabbage…and again, lots of bacon and fat. There are the things like fish gelatin molds, bean and egg salads and “strawberry breasts” that come off as quite unusual. I suppose I find them a bit more odd than the average Brit.



I assume England has very nice game. [Lots of little birds that are good for eating, but don’t have too much going on as far as taste goes.]
For example…Cornish game hens are rather dry and bland unless you jack them up with something good. In typical TFL style, they would stuff the bird with herbs [rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, etc.] and probably some other type of meat like ground pork or something else fat-tastic. THEN, they’d tightly wrap the game hen in bacon and bake it for a couple of hours. And so this goes for several recipes. Cover with bacon [fat] and cook.

“None of that streaky American bacon”, they’d say. “You must get that old country bacon…”

At the end of each episode…they’d take a sit down…one smokes a cigarette and both hold a glass of gin as they tap glasses to the setting sun and wish to one another “good health to you, daw'ling!”
“Here! Here!” and “Cheerio!”

As I read a few days ago, one of the ladies died in 2000 of cancer – most likely from smoking and a bad diet. I believe though, she enjoyed the life she had and most definitely ate very, very well.

So, here’s to you, two fat ladies for singing your own theme song, showing us how to properly cook with fat, and giving us one helluva’ show…

Cheers!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

On Cooking Well

My essay for Anthony Bourdain's new book, "Medium Raw".

Growing up between the southern lines of Louisiana and Mississippi, I was a product of red beans and rice on Monday and potluck casseroles on Sunday. It was here that I found communion with the food I will always be able to call my own. Collards, black eyed peas and fried chicken – the Holy Trinity.

My appreciation of good food was not always so. I didn’t know where ham came from nor did I really care. I just knew it tasted good between two pieces of Bunny bread. But please, just mayonnaise and maybe some of that yellow cheese we call “American”.

Cooking well in the South was not something attainable by average folk. It was something we watched Bobby Flay and Emeril do on our center-pieced television sets. To cook well took time, money and skill. It involved more than canned green beans, cream of mushroom soup and a box of french fried onions. Eating well was a privilege for those who could afford it.

Like many aspiring bohemians and curious 20-somethings do, I moved to Portland, Oregon. Here, along with marrying my wife, I got a job doing what most Portlanders end up doing; I started working in a café. I was trained to make coffee by (arguably) one of the best roasters in the US. I fell hard into the ebb and flow of the food and beverage industry.
I serve food and drink to wealthy patrons of one of the more high-end districts of Portland. I’ve put my hours in cleaning toilets, washing dishes and digging cigarette butts out of coffee residue. I have painfully smiled away disrespectful and demeaning customers when they find it necessary to ruin your day at all costs.

The people I work with behind the counter have become family. We talk shit and give each other a hard time for messing up an order. We grow enraged over messy eaters and bad tippers. And so it goes, the usual talk of disgruntled workers who rely on tips to pay for their earned rations of cigarettes and beer.

It was here in Portland that my palette changed. I began to respect food culture. Who knew Swiss chard tasted so good in an omelet? And not just any omelet, but one made with eggs from free roaming hens! Yes, they do taste better. I grew to learn, along with my belly, that eating well connects you to a location.

Eating well forced me to cook well, and I loved it. I took a knife skills class and learned how to properly cut an onion. Cookbooks give me hot flashes. Now, obsessed with local food culture and pork belly, I have developed a philosophy of my own. I want to cook well for my family. There is a great calm in being able to do that. I resonate with the words of Justo Thomas, "I got a good job. A good family. I live in peace."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Medium Raw Essay Contest



Hey y'all! So I wrote an essay to be entered into this here contest...I would love your support!
I will be putting up the essay as a blog post later on -- thanks so much for your help!!

Josh

Monday, July 19, 2010

farmer's market!

Oh yes.
Portland in the summertime, though the way we've been having overcast and "cooler-than-usual" weather, it wouldn't seem like it.
But, regardless of the temperature, the local farmer's markets are alive and well. Around our neck of the woods, they happen every Sunday. We make sure we're around so we can take advantage of the goodies brought to us from local farms and co-ops.

When the sun is out, you can smell it from a few blocks away - the basil and other herbs warming in the sun...the sound of people conversing on which stand to buy tomatoes from and as always, some folk guitarist singin' and strummin'.
It is what Portland thrives on in the summertime.
It's our time to indulge in the best tasting and most fresh produce of the year.
Direct trade from farmer to consumer.

It generally is not cheap, but it's not really supposed to be. In order for our farmer's to make a living, they deserve to charge what they charge. They work hard so we can cook and eat. It is our honor to pay them fair prices for their hard labor and worries.
From what I hear, the produce this year has suffered because of odd weather patterns in the PNW -- so our hearts go out to the farmers who suffered their usual plentiful yields and our hope is that we can take care of them somehow.

My wife and I went this past Sunday and picked up some beautiful and tasty goods. Here are a few pictures but please, don't get too jealous. :)













I always feel a great sadness as the markets come to a close and we are left to hunker down for the colder season. It is how the world works, though. It is worth it for me to not eat something all year until I know it's just right.
Once you've tasted the way a certain fruit or veggie tastes in its prime, it's really hard to ever want to it again until its season comes. I think that's the way it's supposed to be.

We generally try to buy some meat from farmer's markets, but this past weekend our funds were not as sufficient, so maybe next time. They offer lots and lots of free ranged animals - granted, they are pricey, but for the peace of mind, it is worth it and as always, tastes so much better.

I encourage you, if you have markets in your area, to HIT. THAT. UP.

Support your local economy, and they will support you. It's as simple as that.

Fresh food.
Happy belly.
Good times.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

PORK!!

I remember when the Food Network was in its early days and all people ever wanted to watch was Emeril Lagasse.
It was the Oreos in the freezer and his passion for Southern style cuisine that pulled me in.

I mean, the guy keeps sleeves of frozen Oreos. *Swoon* My herooo..
But Emeril had this saying,

"Pork fat rules."
[..and the crowd goes wild!]

And at the time, I brushed it off. "Yes," I thought, "..fat is bad...very bad."
Pork? Who eats pork? I mean, I like pork chops okay...
Oh, ham too? I forgot and was ignorant where those pink bits between my slices of Bunny bread came from.

Society told me that pork was kind of gross. Many cultures and religions forbid you to eat it...and understandably so.
It is a dirty animal - wallerin' around in the mud all day, eating God knows what.
[I have a buddy who wants to feed a pig strictly hazelnuts, to butcher of course. Though I'm pretty sure he's kidding. I think.]

I know, I know. Animal cruelty.
The thing is, I rarely buy pork these days unless I know where it came from.
I go to a local grocery store that purchases all their pork from a farm in Washington state, which is not too far from us here in Portland.

So, as I've grown into learning the culinary aspects and the various respects of food, pork is becoming my favorite meat.
This is nothing new to millions of others who love the pig because of its versatility.
I mean, you have pork chops, belly, loin, shoulder and all the other odd and tasty bits that I've yet to get my hands for the sake of grossing out my friends.

All I need to say is one word...
The one word that will slowly pull you into the wonderful world of all things pork.

Bacon.

Oh yes. Crispy. Salty. Cured and smoked. The perfect ratio of fat and meat.
And as we should know where most meat comes from on an animal - bacon comes from cured (and perhaps smoked) pork belly.



Also, if you take the belly of the pig and roll it up like a sleeping bag, [gross analogy, I know] you have pancetta. That delicious and often "too fatty for me" but buttery and delicate slice of cured belly. Great with cheese, bread and wine.
The same goes for dry-cured hind pig leg, as most of the world calls Prosciutto. (Which can run you really expensive...but is also where ham comes from..) Definitely not something a person eats everyday unless you're just absolutely obsessed or live in a place where it is daily life. Granted, those kinds of lifestyles can be better for you than eating fast food everyday.

I guess you can pick your poison.

I do realize that animal "for food" culture in America is severely messed up.
I don't however, buy pork from mega-markets where there is hardly a label stating where the meat is from. If it's not local, it's generally from a place that shoves pigs into small sheds and has them eat, sleep and die in their own shit. And this, is nothing ever to be proud of. Our meat culture is dangerous, and has been for some time. But I hope, we are changing. There's no doubt, one of these days, meat will be more expensive and we will be using less of it.

I ask of you, to buy more local, if you can. If you absolutely can't, try eating less of certain product - or eat something that is more seasonal. Happy animals, treated respectfully and given the space to grow, just taste better.
And I also ask of you, vegans and vegetarians, to forgive me. As I have abused animal food culture in the past, I don't generally eat it unless I know where it came from, as I said earlier. Let's work on this for everyone.

As the pig is versatile, it feeds many people of all lands and is rarely wasted.
My favorite ways to cook pork are generally low and slow. Pork shoulder or belly is my favorite when it comes to this method.
Who doesn't love pulled pork?
Or pork tacos?

And there's no doubt Southern culture has an extreme love for this animal.
My recent trip to the South contained a lot of pork. Stemmed much from its roots in African American culture and how that influenced Southern cuisine, we find it in most places and very often on our plates. You can get a lot of flavor for decently cheap parts..

So yes, Emeril, I get it now.
Pork fat does rule.
It brings much to a plate of food and a culture that relies on its versatility and taste.

Mmm.
I'm hungry.

You?

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

cooking.

I was recently watching this documentary about a zen priest who happened to be a chef -- it wasn't actually a good documentary...at least to me. The guy was kind of full of himself and really impatient with the folks he was teaching.
He did though, share some interesting thought on the art of cooking.

It was at least something I felt the need to remember.
He said something along the lines of, "When you cook, you put yourself into the ingredients...in the end, it becomes a part of you.."

Set aside the cheesiness and you have something good to work with.
I think for the most part, people who love to cook feel somewhat therapeutic about it all.
There's the cutting, the mixture of spices, the attention to detail and the timing.

Somehow, this works in my head. There's that challenge of having three for four things cooking at the same time, and determining how to make them come out evenly.

However, because I like to cook doesn't mean I'm great at it.
I have my things, like everyone, that I'm good at cooking. Mostly because I cook them so often, I've gotten better and better. This goes the same with cooking in general. I believe the more you do it, the better you'll get. There's so much out there to learn from...cook books and those addictive food network shows. If they inspire you to cook, do it!

This past weekend, I had loads and loads of free time. I decided to try my hand in making bread. Baking, unlike most stovetop cooking, requires careful measuring. It involves yeast and warm water. Timing and mixing. Resting and kneading.

All are so very crucial to the final product. My first few attempts were epic failures. The bread did not rise and tasted like salty flour. Of course, I was trying to make my favorite kind, ciabatta, and there's a lot that goes into it.
The recipe I found that showed the best results [and had creepy Youtube commentary], called for the dough to sit for 18 hours. Good bread is definitely something you should think about a good day and a half before hand. It takes time, and that's what is important.

There's something quite humbling about baking bread. The elements of time and temperature - all for something so simple as a loaf of bread.

This is something that has become so dear to my heart.
Knowing that whatever I'm cooking, I'm putting myself into it. In turn, it is feeding others.
No, I'm not feeding others my soul, that sounds mostly creepy, but I am putting love and who I am into what I cook.

And I hope for your sake, it tastes good.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

beans and rice.

I used to hate beans and rice with a passion.

It seemed boring and lacked what I needed as a kid to be considered an exciting meal. [Which was either chicken nuggets, pizza and french fries...]
Now my mom, bless her heart, would generally buy some Popeyes chicken to go along with it, just to make us happy. I never fully appreciated the means of a hearty portion of beans and rice.
My mom, as most southerners who cook beans and rice, cook it down with some beef sausage or pork sausage. Sometimes incorporated in the beans, other times served on the side.

It's only in the past couple of years that I have begun to regain my roots of this soulful dish and the history it has with my people.

It is a tradition in the South, mainly in Louisiana and Mississippi, that you eat beans and rice on Mondays.
I was confused as to why Monday constituted a day for this simple, but hearty meal.

I recently bought this "soul food" cookbook that has some pretty decent things, but it was the story of why we eat beans and rice on Mondays that caught my attention.

Apparently, it's due to the meal you eat on Sunday - which consists of many things cooked with lots of fat -- but mainly, a ham. The ham fed the whole family. Sort of your typical "meat, taters, veggies and bread" Sunday meal.
When the meal was finished, you'd take what is called the hambone - which is exactly what it sounds like.

You take the hambone and submerge it in a big ole' pot of red beans (or kidney beans). I reckon' depending on if you're cooking with dry beans or canned, you still need to cook them for a while.
Dry beans take a while unless you soak them in water for an extended amount of time.

So, you have your beans and your hambone cooking on a low heat all throughout the night and into the next day. Anybody who loves things cooked low and slow knows the goodness of this science. The juices from the ham and the flavor of the bone incorporate into the beans, filling them with that good salty pork flavor.

There ya have it.
Beans and rice on Mondays.

Now, these days, I don't have the time to cook beans that long, so I buy canned kidney beans.
I saute' some onions, garlic and pork sausage in a skillet till the onions have caramelized a bit.
I drain most of that goopy liquid from the can of beans and dump them into a decent sized pot.
I fill it with water till the beans are slightly covered. Then I add the onions, garlic and sausage.

Lately, I've been buying some raw bacon ends from a local market and cooking that down with the beans as well.
I mean, it's bacon. You don't have to say anything to justify it's part in this meal.
We don't typically eat a huge ham on Sundays here in the Harrod-Casper household, so bacon does the job just fine.

I add some hot sauce, **tony's, salt, pepper, and the usual barrage of whatever it is you like to taste.
I let simmer till the beans have soaked up all the water [typically about an hour -- depending on how much you're cooking] and are a bit mushy when stirred. This is how I like them, anyways.

Make some cornbread. [which could also go several ways.]
Boil some rice and voila.

I want to make this a tradition with my family, someday. I want to learn to make them good and I want to appreciate the value of this cheap, simple and flavorful meal.
Every country has their version of this, and this is mine -- so I'm learning to hold it near to my soul.

After all, the food you make is a reflection of who you are. It's spiritual and most likely, tastes really, really good.
Cheers!

**Tony's is short for "Tony Chachere's".
It's a spice mix I've used my entire life. I guess it's considered a cajun seasoning, but I put it on mostly everything. You can find it at any grocery store in the South, and so I've found, any grocery store in Oregon. Including Safeway and Fred Meyer. **

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Working Class Foodie

It's true.
I've turned into a foodie. [I mean goodness, I have a blog..sigh*]
A full blown gastronome. I don't know if I like it.
Foodies are often obsessed people...who watch Food Network religiously and would consider a show on cheeseburgers to be a kind of "food porn".
(But luckily for me, I don't have cable.)

There's nothing wrong with loving food, especially if you're like me, and you're wanting to learn to cook more for yourself, friends and family. It's important to love the food you cook and eat. It's good practice for the future (for folks like me who don't yet have kids) where I'll most likely try to cook as much from home as I can.

Though I don't have cable, I do have the internet. This means I spend lots of downtime watching indie cooking videos and maybe an episode or two of Bourdain's, "No Reservations". Yes, Yes. Slightly obsessed. But, I feel most foodies are quite obsessed with Bourdain. He knows what's up...

I came across a cooking/"how to" blog called, "Working Class Foodies" and was immediately ecstatic. Hey, I'm a working class foodie...or at least in the working class. I'm still working on the foodie part. There's a lot of food I still have a hard time coming to terms with...but I love the idea of cooking for others...and cooking well at that.

This small webisode/cooking video blog captures the essence of cooking on the cheap. That is, finding locally sourced goods that are decently priced with the intention of bringing everyone into a knowledge of good, fresh food.
The videos are also really well done...and I just like them. Plain and simple.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Tacos de Lengua


Roasting a Chicken


Pig Butchering/CSA Info


Stocking Your Pantry


Enjoy.
And here's to us, the working class foodies.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The State of Hospitality

I believe, as a born and raised son of Mississippi, that we have in us the innate responsibility of hospitality.

I know, I know. Your state is hospitable too. Kind folks...welcoming homes...but come on, Mississippi IS the hospitality state. (Go ahead, Google it.)

Now, what does being hospitable have to do with food?
I think it has everything to do with food.

My mom, for example, is a shining beacon of hospitality. She raised me in the same philosophy. If you have friends and family over...you cook good for them. You make them feel comfortable...you feed them their favorite things.
Now, I didn't have people over too often. Generally, someone bleeds or gets hurt or ends up inviting way too many people over and it calls for a late night and an aggravated parent.

But we did have people over when we could afford it.
If it was my friends: pizza. fried chicken. dorritos. fudge brownies. cookies. mountain dew. coke. You know, the usual barrage of fat, caffeine and sugar filled goodness. No wonder we never fell asleep before 2am...

This is simple food. Granted, it's junk food, but it is food and we ate it up.
My friends would send compliments to the chef, being my mom and I believe she always liked doing it. Sometimes to the point where she would ask why I wouldn't have people over more often. [Mostly because, when I'm tired, I can go home...not have to somehow kick everyone out...ha!]

I know it's the responsibility of the parents to always have food on hand, but I can remember my sister's friend group never seemed to catch on to the idea of feeding your guests...that is, unless they came to our house in which my mom would bring out the goods again. [Yeah, my mom is quite the hospitable ass-kicker extraordinaire]

I say all this, to paint a picture on how it all rubbed off on me.
This is why cooking and food have become such a joy to my life.
Being an introvert, I'd much rather feed people with love from a distance at times...and cooking is great excuse for this.
When people come over...I feel the need to impress, or at least satisfy their bellies and palates.
I'm not comfortable unless people are snackin' on bits or sippin' on somethin' good.

Sometimes, conversation feels empty without food and drink. Like communion at the holy table -- I think these things are spirit filled -- important to our communion with each other.

And I think that's what it's all about. We correlate food with something that makes us happy...at least if doesn't for you, it does for me. I would never want to take food for granted -- it should always be something celebrated.
This is why being hospitable is important to me.
It's about going out of your way to care for your guest.
It's love in the form of taste and experience and conversation.

It's love for another.
Hospitality is in my blood and I dare not take it for granted.

My G.G. always had a pot of coffee going for her visitors and relatives - a brown bag full of whole pecans and something sweet on the table. [And if you were really special, maybe some fried okra.]

It runs deep down like a river.
So next time you come over...let me put on a pot of coffee and we'll catch up.

[and if you just so happen to bring mountain dew or fudge brownies, I would hardly complain...]

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cooking Techniques with Bourdain

I've watched this episode several times over and found it to be incredibly useful. I don't recommend watching when you're hungry as it will only deepen your sense of hunger pangs. :P

So many of these things are simple, yet easy to mess up. Bourdain and some of his chef-buddies let us in on their techniques and I found it all to be very enjoyable.

(I'll hopefully update with a real post tomorrow. And by real, I mean with words. And...maybe pictures. :)





Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Taco

I grew up, like most in the US, eating hard shelled tacos made from taco seasoning mixes and with those kits you can buy at the grocery store.

That is all I knew of the taco.

I knew it was hard to eat once you hit the top ridge - and they were completely unstable, especially if you cooked the shells for too long.
Generally it was filled with ground beef. You cook a pound or so of ground 80/20 beef - drain the fat, add a little water and the "seasoning" packet and Voila! You have homemade Taco Bell in 15 minutes!
And God, I did love these things.
I still do.

Until...I moved to Portland.

It wasn't until I dived into my first "legit" taco that I became a fan of one my all-time favorite meals.
The taco-truck style taco.

I was unfamiliar and nervous.
A food truck...generally in the parking lot of some other random business with a few picnic tables and various bottles of hot sauce and condiments.

And cheap.
$1.75 for an asada taco or pollo or lengua or carnitas or anything braised and falling off the bone.
I found salvation in this food.
So simple. So good. It found a home in my heart.

They generally stuff your meat of choice in between two layers of white corn tortillas [never flour] and topped off with a few pinches of chopped white onion and cilantro.
On the side generally comes a few wedges of lime and some sliced radishes...(Usually depending on the season).

There's something about that combination of crunchy white onion, cilantro and lime that infuse all layers of your palate.
The best part is, I've learned to make this dish at home, and I think you should try it.

First, you gotta figure out what kind of meat you need.
For me, it's always pork. Pork has this delicious salty fat that I think brings out a better braising situation. It's also a meat that tends to be a bit more moist in the final product.

I generally buy a 1-2lb pork roast. (Depending on how many people you're feeding) If you can, buy it with the bone. I think it tends to be a more flavorful cut of meat.
1 - Yellow Onion (for braising with the pork)
1 - White Onion (for garnishing your taco)
2-3 tbsp chili powder
2 cups beef broth (if you don't have broth, water works fine.)
A tiny bunch of cilantro (depending on how much you'll use to garnish)
1 1/2 tbsp salt
1-2 tbsp pepper
3-4 cloves of garlic
The juice of two lemons & a few limes for garnish later on.
A bag of white corn tortillas

I use our 4-quart dutch oven, but any big pot with a good tight lid should work fine.
I cut up the pork into 2-inch pieces and drop them into the pre-heated pot with a little olive oil for browning.
I go ahead and throw in the yellow onion, medium chopped.

After the onions have browned a bit, I add the two cups of beef stock and fill the rest of the pot up with water until you barely submerge all of the pork in liquid.
This is also when you add your dry seasonings; salt, pepper and chili powder.
You can also, at this point, add the lemon juice and the cloves of garlic.

The rest just takes time.
I put on the lid of the dutch oven and let it cook for a good 2 1/2 - 3 hours. Check every now and then to make sure the meat isn't sizzling to the bottom of the pan.
After a couple of hours, the liquid will start to reduce, leaving the meat tender enough to pull apart with a fork. And you'll actually want to pull it all apart with a fork and give it a good stir to pick up all those bits from the bottom of the pot.

After the meat is done, I just warm the tortillas up in a pan by sprinkling them with a little water and heating each side for 15 seconds or so. (It's easier if your pan is pretty warm...)

Prepping is pretty straight forward. Place your meat in the tortilla - top with cilantro, onion and squeeze a couple of slices of lime (to taste) and indulge your palate in a wonderful barrage of simplicity and culture.

You should have an end product that looks something like this:


I'm not good at writing recipes, so bear with me if they are super confusing. It's definitely harder than it looks to explain to someone how to cook without actually being there to show them.
There are tons of recipes on the internet and youtube, so don't be intimidated.

Bon Appetit! [...hence my lack of spanish -- which would seem more appropriate than French... :P ]

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Cappuccino

Since working with coffee, I have fallen in love.

The traditional 5.5oz cappuccino.
An obsession. An art form. A badge of honor.
The perfect ratio of espresso, steamed milk and foam.

And by foam, I'm not talking about globs upon globs of airy frothed milk, but a velvety and creamy crema layer that is in perfect harmony with the other two parts.

While we're on the topic of milk, your cappuccino should not be hot enough to burn your tongue. The pros generally drink it just when it becomes warm to the touch...and that's just the way I like it.
The hotter you steam the milk (or have your preference of steamed milk) the less sweet it becomes.
So every time you order your 24oz Startbucks cappuccino extra hot, a barista looses their tattoos...(and we don't want that to happen!)

Any barista competition has you making the following: two shots of espresso, a cappuccino and a "specialty" espresso beverage.
Therefore, the cappuccino is an important drink to make right if you're any sort of serious barista. I know people who spend 3-4 hours a day practicing the double cappuccino...because there is a very fine line. You're always one second away from either making it too foamy, or two hot. The variables are quite timely.

Here in lies, my obsession.
But I'm not the only one.

This trailer seemingly tells the story of what America's "fast food" culture is doing to this beloved beverage -- and why it's important to stay away from damaging coffee culture.



Another video, showing Kyle Glanville. He was the 2008 US Barista Champion and all around coffee nerd turned rock star. He knows what's up and does it well.



And though, it is only coffee, it IS a livelihood for so many of us.

Ultimately, it's about the farmers.
There is justice in good coffee.
There is justice in good coffee buying.
It's when farmers are able to afford healthcare for their babies.
It's when they can put food on their table and be treated with dignity by being paid fairly.

To me, this is what making good coffee is about. The things we do only take away from the product they pick with their weathered hands.

There is respect in making their products with dignity.

So, after all, I do not feel ridiculous for loving this drink and striving to make it better for others. It is a product that comes full circle and we give thanks to all who are involved in the process...

[except for those gas station cappuccino machines...what are those anyways??]

Sunday, April 25, 2010

cafe work. [and why it's addictive to be a barista]

I never knew coffee culture to be so interesting or have so much power in a city.
As I moved to Portland, I was gratefully given a job at a certain cafe [which I help manage today] with no prior coffee knowledge and a very short lived history of food and beverage service. (Well, minus the Wendy's stint that I talked about a while ago and that I wrote about a while back.)

When I mention to folks in other places that I manage a cafe, more or less, am a barista in the PNW, it's met with, "Oh..that's cool.."
But, I feel sometimes that description is inadequate.
No, it's not some Starbucks or coffee joint that names their sugar filled espresso drinks after movie stars or weather systems.

This is the life of a professional barista.
And this is why I'm addicted to making coffee.

We don't just made damn good coffee...we wake up early in the morning because we know what we make comes from East Africa and South America and Indonesia.
We know that what we make can only damage or mess up the beautiful product of the green coffee plants.
What we do, is find ways to make our products with the least error possible...and this isn't easy.

There are factors.
Temperature. Pressure. Technique. Clean water. Good milk. Passion. Experience.

So goes the ebb and flow of a barista in PNW.

The newspapers wait outside our locked doors. Usually it's news on the economy or well, more news that's somehow related to our hurting economy. I don't read them much. Usually too depressing. But I'm glad we sell newspapers. It's generally nice to see people still reading them....sifting through the garbage that pays the printers bills in order to get to a good piece of writing.

I check around the store and look to see if things are out of place...or dirty. Usually, it's fine.
I hear the espresso machine clicking and hissing and filling itself constantly with water.
I turn on some music. Generally starting out with some slower like Bon Iver, Jose Gonzalez and The Album Leaf...cranking it up mid-day to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Arcade Fire. [Also depends on who's working...]

Music is important to cafe life. I don't like making coffee or food if there's no music. It feels awkward. Like having to dance to something with no rhythm. I believe it goes the same for customers. Customers are more comfortable when there's a little more noise...something to chat with so they don't have to whisper to their friend, business partner, lover, blind date or some combination of the two.

You do your random assortment of tasks...putting away pastries...making eggs...putting on the soups.
If you're on "bar", which means pulling shots and making drinks, you season the espresso machine.
Before you do that, you gather your "mise en place" of barista work - a few towels...one for wiping away moisture and grinds from the previous coffee puck and the other two you keep wet for wiping off your steam wand and cleaning off your tamping area.
Our machine has three groupheads (aka, where the portafilters tighten into) and I pull shots on each grouphead two times to season the spouts. Once I get around to the third 'go' at seasoning the machine, I test my shots.

I taste to check bitterness...overextraction, underextraction.
With our Hairbender espresso blend, we're looking for sweet chocolate, caramel and jasmine. Once I'm satisfied, I move on.

I fill milk pitchers. Nonfat. Whole. Half&Half.
Our customers drink Half&Half like it's goin' out of style.
Can't blame them, it's good.
Damn good.

If you do like a bit of milk in your coffee, I'm right there with you. A little splash of half&half in a hot cup of coffee is next to perfect after not having any milk in a good cup of french press.

I move on to making our drip coffee, which is our Hairbender well, ground for drip.
Then, me grind our single origin coffee (which right now is from a small farm in Guatemala.) for French press.
French press obviously requires more time and more attention.
Grind 7oz for a 12cup press [and we make two presses per airpot]
Fill with hot water [nearly 200F] a little above halfway, and set timer for four minutes.
We give the coffee one minute to bloom, which it will bloom quite a bit if it's freshly roasted releasing those good gases that show us it's fresh.
Fill it to the nozzle and let it sit for the remaining three minutes.
Timer goes off, press the pots, dump into bigger airports and there ya have it.

I crack the doors open, place our sandwich board near a lonely fire hydrant and wait for those first few customers to come in for the coffee...and maybe a bagel with cream cheese. Nothing that takes too long.

And so it goes, as we see the regulars and start making their goods before they tell us what they want...
I catch up with the vendors like Doug, my boy from Sunshine Dairy.
I poke fun at his inability to park his huge delivery truck and it goes back and forth.
I made him toffee nut mocha because he has a sweet tooth and it's common courtesy to treat your vendors well.

You treat your vendors well, and they'll do the same for you.
If your vendors start missing deliveries and are late, you gotta stay on their ass.
I can't be havin' late bagels or messy orders.

A rush comes about 8:30 when all the 9am workers have to be at their desks...
Then we get the folks who do business at our cafe. Constantly walking outside on their cell phones and picking away at their keyboards.

Then you get the few socially awkward customers that force conversation down your throat like some bitter pill.
I hate this.
I know it's good to know your regulars, but some folks...I try to hide in the stock room.

After a while come the folks that hug the counter and look at their watches as you make their drink. You feel their stare and it doesn't help me your drink any faster. You look at me like it's my fault you're going to be late. I know how to do my job quick and right.

And one of the most important things...
Don't mess with folks that make your food.
No we don't spit or feed you things off the floor..but it doesn't make us want to serve you our best.

The customer is NOT always right. The employee knows when they messed up.

Tip.
If you can afford to be a regular or eat out - TIP!
I can usually correlate tips by how much the ticket is.
Higher tickets tip less.
Some people drop 24 bucks on cafe fare and leave 50 cents.
Some people drop 2 dollars and leave a dollar tip.

For those of you who tip your waiters and cafe workers well, thankyou.
I think I'd like to call it bad attitude tax.
We take a lot of mean attitudes because most cafe workers are young and not always at their best.
This is no reason to be angry. If we're working hard and there's a line, you should probably relax and notice we're doing all we can.

If you yell at one of our employees for no good reason, I'm not gonna give you the benefit of the doubt. I know my employees and I know they're all sweethearts.
If I get fired for it, I'm goin' down with the ship.
It's an injustice to treat customers like they're kings if they treat you like garbage.

All of this aside...all the crap you take from people...the heated rushes and crazy customers...it comes down to the love of doing what you're doing. Making food. Making coffee.
Making people feel comfortable and known.

Even when you've had a bad day, you can always rely on a consistently good cup of coffee.

And this is what I do.
Day in and day out.
I love it.
Well, most of the time.
I love the rants with fellow employees that makes the day go by quicker...and legitimize that yes, that person was an asshole.

Oh, the world of hospitality and customer service. A never ending battle of ups and downs.

And always, with everything we do, we give thanks to people who support us and grow our food and teach us how to be better.
Thankful.

Yes. Thankful...

and way over-caffeinated.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"FrosTop" [most guilty pleasure of the South]

Cheeseburger + chili + dripping roast beef + "fixins'" = Frostop's infamous, Eli Special.

I came across the Eli Special somewhere near my junior year in high school.
It's found at one of the best greasy, little po'dunk joints in my hometown of Picayune, Mississippi called, "Frostop" [Pronounced: Frost-top/Or as my wife has been known to say, "Fro-Stop"]

Whatever you call it, it's damn good.

I had the distinct pleasure of getting one of these babies a few days ago as I visited my native land for a friend's wedding.
Attempt to eat with your hands, but I prefer using the oh so convenient plastic knife and fork. (and plenty of napkins)

What I also noticed was their prices - like, ridiculously cheap. $1.10 for a single burger, .90 for an ice cream cone and a couple of bucks for a hotdog po'boy.
Yeah, you heard me.
Hotdog poboy.
Po'boy bread (generally a more airy french bread - hard to find unless you leave in the deep down south, or find somewhere that makes it legit)
Mayo
Lettuce
Tomatoes
Roast beef gravy
and of course, those cheap red hot dogs bursting at the seams.

Most folks don't come here for a hot dog poboy, but for that infamous Roast Beef Poboy.
It's similar to the Debris Po'boy but not as ripped to shreds.
The juice runs down to your elbows as the bread is soaked to bits.
And there's the usual barrage of po'boy love like shrimp, catfish, crab, and cheeseburger. [Cue saliva glands..]

These are sandwiches that make the gods angry for not being human.

They have some epic french fries too.
I love fries...especially if they're done right. Crispy on the outside, soft and mushy on the inside. Perfect. (and cheap as well..)
They most likely have this stuff down to a science.
I've always noticed this one older woman who does all the grill work. When the line is out of control...she always seems calm and collected. I'm sure she's been doing it for over 30 years - nothing much has changed accept her hair-do, which she keeps so tightly bound in her hair net...which I'm sure isn't so necessary these days.

Great sodas with crushed ice.
I'm convinced crushed ice like they have makes things taste better. Maybe it's colder. Maybe it's texture...maybe it's awesome.

This place is sentimental for me. It's a place I went to with my family for junkfood binges and high school excursions. It is dear to my heart and I hope they stay where they are for some time to come. It's not often you can feed three people for 13 dollars. Maybe that's not a good thing...

But there's something in that food [besides fat] that keeps me happy.
Maybe it's the memories...the warm and fuzzies of comfort food..

Or probably...because it just tastes...really...really good.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Conviction [in a bowl of Vegetable Soup]

My wife and I have been on a kick of sorts... watching Jamie Oliver's: "Food Revolution".
Jamie is an English chef who is more so an advocate than famous TV chef personality.
But, it is what it is.

Jamie completely revolutionized the school lunch menu in England. This show, he sets out to do the same here, in the US.
I absolutely love this show and without a doubt, support what he's doing.
His current "revolution" is taking place in Huntington, West Virginia. The nation's most overweight city. [As they correlate Gov't statistics to death by heart disease, diabetes, etc..]

And, it is, absolutely heartbreaking. Hearing children's stories of their parents dying due to weight related issues. It is, most definitely, a silent killer.
Now, I'm not one to always advocate for healthy foods or alternatives.
I love starches. Pork fat is amazing and Coca-Cola may be the nectar of the gods.
But, these things are generally not so good. Nothing new there.

Also I want to say, it's good to eat starches and some fats in good moderation. Our bodies need what the earth produces. [They just don't need it all.]
I'm writing all this to express my own convictions of our food culture...especially in our schools and what we don't know is feeding our kids.

There are strict rules and regulations school cafeterias have to follow. There has to be a certain amount of veggies and fruit and bread. Most often, these veggies are french fries and terrible looking salad creations we all know, we won't eat.
Milk is generally chosen in its most chocolate flavored form, which tends to have the same or more sugar than soda!

And understandably so, we cook food for those kiddies out of convenience with what's easy to cook and easy to serve. But, this "stuff" is killing younger generations -- it's killing our generation. I mean, who doesn't want to stand in the french fry line?
Kids are not being taught what food is and where it comes from. I wasn't taught in school - I didn't know the difference between a potato and a tomato when I was in first grade.
Teachers these days have such strict material matter they can teach in order to make high on those state tests - no wonder they don't have the freedom to teach kiddies about food and how it helps them to grow. (Or, if you're a teacher and you are doing this, thankyou, thankyou, thankyou.)

I am becoming an advocate for food knowledge. As my palate shifts from salty and greasy, to bright greens, reds and earthy browns, I sense a shift in our view of food culture.
I recently took a culinary knife skills class - just cutting up veggies in different ways and at the end, we made a veggie soup out of our hacked up goodness.

Now, maybe it had just been a while since I had veggie soup, but it hit my soul [real good]. Simple, delicious and so good for you.
And there, as I was slurping up that heavenly broth and soft vegetation, I understood what it meant.
It's about outlook.
Veggies are like...the math of the food world. It's great and necessary and all, but most of the time, intimidating and we tend to see them as...not very good. [At least in US culture.]

At least, I did. And, still do, most of the time.
But, I'm learning.
Learning to uh, "Eat those vegetables!"

Because something needs to change. Somehow...we need to shift how we grow up eating food. And I do know that some economic and lifestyle circumstances hinder us from eating fresh food, but not if we all demanded it. The people in those big white buildings make a living off of us and will shift towards what we buy and demand.

If we want crap food, that's what we're going to get...and boy, are we getting it.
Limit choices. I feel like, if you put a piece of pizza or a piece of baked chicken in front of a little kid, they're probably going to go for the pizza.
If only we knew how privileged we were to have more than one choice.

As I learn more and more about what food does to my body, the more my views shift on what food means to me. It changes the way I cook food...and my thirst to learn more.
This food we're pumping into our bodies is so..so important. And I speak more so to myself, than anyone else, that something needs to change in our diets. Or else, we're going to be seeing a lot less life...and it may be yours.

So, here's to a good conviction, in a bowl of soup...that we work for that change. May we stand in our kitchens and cook our own food and give a deep thanks to this earth that gives it to us; the farmers that nurtured them and the folks of many miles who handled them. Eat more local. Think more sustainable.

And uh,
EAT YOUR VEGETABLES!!!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Moving Your Life. Bringing Your Food.

One thing I love about big cities, is the massive amount of different food cultures. Within a few miles...you can find Ethiopian, Indian, Mediterranean, Southern and French. It's sometimes a bit overwhelming and makes your ham sandwich look awfully lonely and boring.
Hey, I enjoy ham sandwiches, unfortunately, I'm not talking about them today.

I am referring to this comfort of having your tastes of home when in reality, you are far away from what you grew up eating [and coincidentally enough, what yo' momma cooked for you your whole life]. When you are displaced [or have moved] from your own country or part of the country, you crave a little bit of normalcy among something so foreign.

I'll take India for example.
When I traveled to India, I had never had Indian food. At least, I don't think I had ever tried it. I don't think I was too worried about it. I think I liked curry, or at least I knew I could handle it.
Luckily for me, my host family cooked very gently for us, supplying us with an everyday breakfast of toast, a couple of fried eggs and a banana. {With the exception of the occasional and celebrated potato & puri - a very heavy breakfast consisting of fried bread with a potato curry mash] I actually, really enjoy Puri - though it's awfully heavy for breakfast.

When Lata Didi finally got our breakfast down, after many uneaten mutton sandwiches (which I felt very bad about not eating - it was just too much for steamy Calcutta mornings) we were met with a nice place of familiar foods. It became very, very comforting. Eggs. Toast. Banana and Cha [bengali chai].

Among the comforts of my time in India, were KFC, Pizza Hut and Subway - though it was rare we would eat at these places.
Mostly, at a joint called Blue Sky Cafe, that had excellent fried fish and chips and grilled cheeses.

I found little bits of familiarity in those pieces of fried chicken and overly-glamoured Pizza Hut pizzas.

I'd imagine that same feeling hits displaced and new implants of American culture - when down the street, they have markets that provide them with all the essentials. And though the sounds and sights and smells have changed, they have one important thing that makes life better: food and each other.

And this is what's important - this taste of home, of childhood and of Momma.
It's finding Gulab Jamun and spinach peneer down the street or freshly made Injera from a local market.

So I love...and encourage this - to try these places within your cities and communities - the local mexican taco stand or restaurant - the hole in the wall or the place that sells words you've never seen before.

It is here that you'll find a piece of what the rest of the world calls...home.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

cooking is liberation.

There's this movie called, "Julie & Julia".
It's lighthearted and funny, involves lots of cooking and lots of cooking with butter.

More importantly, there's liberation.
For Julia, there was learning to cook in a world where men dominated professional cuisine. [And, because she loved to eat.]
For Julie, it was hope and joy -- needing some direction and inspiration when most of her days brought her to an exhausting sense of mediocrity. [And, because she also loved to eat.]

I think liberation is a good word for me.
I don't quite know where this switch turned on. I have this urge to understand why things cook the way they do, and how to debone a chicken or how to make a good hollandaise.
There's nothing revolutionary about any of these things, but there is...liberation.

When I find myself cooking, there is this sense of creation and of coming to a final product. There's rhythm and sounds and smells that I just can't get away from.

I recently signed up to take a basic knife skills class and I'm super pumped about it. Yeah, I can cut things okay, but I wanna learn how the chefs do it, ya know?
I've watched them press the knife against their knuckles so they wouldn't chop off their fingers, but I just can't figure out how they do that! It seems so simple - so, I needed a little guidance.

I can't bring myself to pay for culinary school. Portland has some good ones, but they are {Good-Gracious-Heavenly-Jesus} expensive. A 21-month program at Le Cordon Bleu costs about 41,000. Yep. I told you.
So I've been looking around and finding local cooking classes.
My knife class was $45 for a two-hour course. Not bad. Something I can do.
Other classes are a bit more expensive, say up to $70-100. They teach how to cook various 4-5 course meals. And really good meals, at that.

I find these to be worthwhile - even if it's just to get ideas. I think it's worth it. I'll keep y'all updated on that...because I know how excited you are to know about my knife skills. :P
Let's just hope I still have all my fingers.

There is also liberation in knowledge.
It's good to not be intimidated, but to also not be afraid to mess up. Because, you're going to.
It's nice to know people enjoy the food you cook. It makes you feel good -- especially when they want it again.

There's this freedom when cooking. Anything can happen and hopefully, when we do fail, we learn and make it better and better.

In every essence of cooking, I find this peace. I thank the people who grew it and somehow got it to the store where I bought it. There is a story in everything -- and it's up to us to make those stories fill our hearts and our bellies.

In the words of Miss. Child and most french speaking nations [as I insert the last effort to make the reader chuckle],
Bon Appetit!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Where We Find Each Other

I love to watch people eat.
Not gawking awkwardly at strangers or constantly asking someone, "How is it!? Is it okay? What could be better!?"

I just like to watch people fill their bellies...and appreciate it.
There's just something unholy about eating crap to get full. Granted, we all do it because we're busy or bored or waiting on our next paycheck to come through.

But there's something odd about shoveling food into our mouths like cattle in a field. There's no thanks, involved. There's no gratitude to the ones who cooked our food (which hopefully more than others, should be yourself..) and more importantly, the ones who grow our food.

There's this odd sinking feeling whenever I drive through a fast food line, which just rarely happens these days. But it does happen. Usually...it's Popeyes. That stuff is like crack! Not that I've had crack, but I'm assured it's heavily addicting and bad for you - So yeah, the same as fried chicken. :D But I do love the stuff.
Back to the drive-thru.
There's not much in that food...well, as far as love and passion goes. In other ways, there's a lot in that food. But, I don't want to go there for the sake of my own bad habits of the fast food world. And when I say fast food, I might as well include most supermarket produce and meat. It's all generally done by the same philosophy as fast food.

When someone hands me a bag through a window...I know it's probably going to taste good [momentarily]. But the folks at the window do this for a living. They don't care about the food their stuffing into paper bags...as long as it pays a few bills, they'll be doing it and I don't blame them a bit. Why should they care? Most people I have known that work in fast food never actually eat the stuff they serve. They know...they know.

My short stint at Wendy's was a glorious expedition of most things unholy.
A good friend at the time got me a job there. I was stoked to wear the hat and shirt. On my second day, I got yelled out right after finishing my training video to tuck in my shirt. The heat was on.
I was hurriedly trying to open a massive amount of pickles with a big knife and nearly cut my pinky off. Then I got stuck on drive-thru burger assembly.
This meant, I had to call out to a guy on the grill making burgers, "Single!" or "Double" and yes, "Triple!" - and said so in my shaky adolescent tone. Apparently the guy at the grill had been in jail for some time and I didn't feel the need to ever offend his ears.
After almost getting stuck in the walk-in refrigerator, I was done. I came home to my mom discouraged and in tears. I couldn't handle it. I had such a sensitive heart and an odd history of people I rarely knew personally yelling into it. You feel flawed and unnatural. Perhaps I should have given it more time...
I'm glad I didn't.

I say all of that, to remind myself of what food represents. Culture. History. Comfort. Familiarity. Mom.
The cooks love to watch others enjoy their food. If you have ever eaten in a village, or have been invited to eat with a family who can hardly afford to feed themselves...you will understand their need to watch you eat...and enjoy it! They love to keep adding rice to your plate....and I love this. Of course, I have been made fun of for not finishing my own plate and regretfully having to push it aside...[Ex. "You eat like Village woman!] I understand now, that I need to finish. There's respect and honor in finishing that plate. Dignity and Pride.

Anytime I have someone not finish something I cook...or turn down an offer, I feel a bit offended. I'm not sure why.
They may be vegetarian or vegan or really healthy - but, I just feel out of place. Like, I have offended them by cooking...it's an odd feeling. And maybe it's something I need to get over. Maybe.
Maybe not.

Either way, we find love in our food. We find respect and at those most important times, we find each other.
Sitting across the table. Sharing a story; sharing a life.

sharing in each other

Friday, March 5, 2010

Your Last Meal? [An oddly weighted question...]

Granted, if I were going to die (knowingly) the next day and I had one meal to eat, I probably wouldn't be that hungry.
So, in my head, I separate myself from this and generally take a different look at this favorite conversation piece of mine.

If you were to eat one last meal before spending the next year eating nothing but rice, bread and water, what would it be?

I love this question because I think it reveals a lot about the people you ask. It generally brings about warm emotions of home, family and the love of all things taste related.
I recently asked this question and got some great feedback. "Wine and good bread...with prosciutto, dried meats and good cheese" and "Chicken curry with vegetables with a Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar"

I think your last meal changes throughout your life. I'm sure when I was 8 years old, all I would've wanted was chicken nuggets and french fries...and possibly a coke, or something.
And surely enough, it hasn't changed much since then.

When the question finally came around to me..this is what I said...

Buffalo wings. Medium. [Preferably old school, 3 Dollar Cafe style in Atlanta, GA. or from Fire on the Mountain here in Portland.)
Chili Cheese fries. Not just canned chili, but CHILI. Not just Velveeta, but hot and melted cheddar topped with green onions and sour cream.
And to drink?
Yes. An ice cold Coca Cola. {and was laughed at, understandably}
For dessert,
A warm pecan pie and good cup of coffee.

{*insert heavy gratifying sigh*}

I wasn't kidding when I said my tastes have yet to change.
Granted, I love-love dried meats and am learning my way around cheeses and my palate appreciates beer and wine more and more these days.

There's just something about that "burn", as my mom would say. It just hits you and "burns oh so good..."

I love hearing peoples' meals. I feel like it says so much about who they are on the inside. Simple meals, mostly. Meals that feed majority world countries and is generally affordable, minus the uh, prosciutto part. {Unless you make your own, which is another story...}

So, whoever out there reads this silly blog, let me in on your last meal.

Tell me why it tastes so good and how it slowly pulls you into that place of gastronomic nirvana.

The table, my friend, is yours.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Blooming Palate [How the World Grows]

One of the great things about living in Oregon, among many things, is the freshness and variety of local veggies, fruits and meat.

My palate has most definitely been challenged and has changed since living here in the best of ways.
Perhaps it is my infatuation with cooking shows and the lives of chefs that I find so intriguing -- the people that devote their lives and stresses to making the best thing possible.

Food is a big part of who I am. My southern drawl comes out more when I talk about food. [Especially fried chicken, but that's for another day.]
I generally enjoy a good meal - but especially find appreciation in a home cooked meal. Those require love, attention and time. They require putting thought into what the other person or persons would enjoy. That means a lot to me.

I love to watch others eat - I love to watch others enjoy what they're eating. I think I got that from my Gran. Usually, as we would start eating dinner, she would look around at the table and say, "Is it good yet?" As we would always nod an agreeing, "Oh yeah, it always is..."
Food is universal. It speaks a clear language - one that curls the eyebrows to begin that disgruntled look that eventually ends in a satisfying grin. I love it.

Food speaks deeply into the history of who we are.

When we share a meal with others, we share our soul and our stories. You learned to cook from someone, or you at least watched - there is story in that. What was comforting about the way your mom or dad cooked? We all know our mommas make the best of everything.

I used to hate onions. Now, I love them. Especially those of the red variety. They're not so good for breath, but in taste and moderation, can accentuate the flavor of whatever it seems to accompany.
I'm learning to love tomatoes. I still have a hard time fully enjoying the amount of water and mush it tends to bring to my palate - though they are some of the most beautiful and wonderful things ever to grow out of dirt. (Not to mention, somewhat easy to grow in a small backyard garden or in pots, as we have in the recent past. I believe it's now time to plant those suckers...get to it!)

Mushrooms..hmm...well, I'm workin' on em'. :)

I have a few cousins that refuse to eat lots of food. One being cheese...the other mayonnaise - understandably, mayonnaise but it is a wonderful thing. (Of course, in moderation...hah.) And also, some of the best Mayo in the world is Blue Plate and I believe that's only a southern thing.

I would hope that we continually be adventurous with what we choose to consume. Start out small, and work your way into ordering the most bizarre item on the menu.

My hopes for all this ramblin', is to somehow approach the idea that food is universally celebrated. In seeing how the poor invite you to their table and cook the most heartwarming and amazing meals you have ever eaten. It has to taste good -- there is love and dignity in it -- these lessons are a gift to us. When you eat on the smallest of budgets, you want it to taste good and you want to benefit from it in the best ways possible.

The world has so much to offer.
Our tables bring us community -

let us fill their seats with beating hearts, and empty stomachs.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Food and Justice for All [Like Sheep through Genetically Modified Pastures]

I sit here overwhelmed with the vast amount of knowledge that confirms just how messed up our food system really is.

Documentaries full of data and stats tell us that our bad food culture stems directly from fast food culture. From fast food culture stems loads of other things - a convenience culture at best. Supermarkets and megastores destroying local farms and economies.

We know these things - and I can't stress enough how important it is to follow through.
We vote everyday with what we buy. It is a consumer driven market. The folks in the big buildings know that their income and well-being comes from our crippling ability to be bought off with cheap prices and modified food items.

I don't think food is supposed to be cheap. I think we all should be paid more - if that makes sense. Here in Portland, it works. I believe it works because you have a population that truly loves its city. We want what's best for our farmers because we actually see their faces - we see their farms - we see their families. There is love in this food.
We are also equally aware that corporations like Monsanto brings farmers to their knees if they decide not to use their products. It's a filthy, filthy system and it simply breaks my heart.

When it comes to food - smaller is better. I wish to see more specialty stores - butcheries, fruit and vegetable markets, etc. What I love to see is people who have devoted their lives to making the best of their product, not someone else's.
This is why, when you go to Thailand, India, Spain, France, etc - the food culture is brilliant - even for the poor. It's affordable - I mean, it has to be. You can eat for .25cents on the side of the road and it's good. food. It's local and keeps it affordable.

I haven't been to Thailand, Spain or France - but I do know there are lots of things about their food culture that is inspiring. (Like the rest of the world, minus the good ole' USA) Small markets, butcheries, bakeries - things made fresh and when they run out...they run out.

I would love to buy things from people who put their name and pride into something. Like, this is MY cured meat, MY bread - I kneaded and baked this bread with my bare hands at 2am - it's the best bread you'll ever eat. I think to myself how wonderful a system such as this would be and how well it works in Portland. Especially in the summertime.

I wish other parts of this nation would adopt some of these practices, if possible. I understand how convenient Wal-Mart is -- but there is a reason their prices are so low. Food should not be this cheap. Someone is being cheated and exploited and we are eating our way into a culture that everyone will come to despise.

As I make the occasional run to Costco (basically Sam's Club) for my work, I am met by folks eating at the little cafes (or whatever they call em'). We simply shovel food into our mouths and leave - without even regarding what we just ate - other than the fact that it was hot, salty and...it's food.
But we surely don't appreciate it...other than the fact that its cheap and it fills us up.

I say this understanding that we all can't afford good, fresh food - but what I am trying to say is that we should. We SHOULD demand fresh vegetables, fruits and humane products. Instead of buying canned green beans, buy fresh green beans. I used to hate fresh green beans because all I had ever eaten was canned. Of course, I also don't have three hungry kids to feed and I understand having to cook and buy this food takes time...but I believe it's worth it. It's worth it to show our kids how to eat well and more importantly, how to cook.

I spend more on food these days - not because I have the money to, but because I feel better eating more locally sourced food. I look for more cage free options when coming to eggs and chicken. Read the labels - chicken breasts aren't supposed to be that big - they are merely pumped full of hormones and water solutions. Good chicken should taste a little gamey and will probably shrink a lot more when you cook it - at least, that's what I've come to find.

It's these little decisions that will change the way we live. If we, as consumers, demand better ingredients, these companies will have to change.
We have missed keeping them accountable - and this idea goes for most things that are wrongheaded (as Dr. Perkins would say...) Our government hasn't been held accountable and in return, we have been lied to and led like sheep through genetically modified pastures...

As the saying goes, "Think Global. Act Local" It rings true in our hearts that we, as lovers of humanity, make sure we are treating each other well...thinking local and eating local.
Whether this means eating in season so we don't have to buy foods that are grown in warehouses - or simply boycotting sugar companies until they change their business practices.

These choices are in our hands.

We are far more powerful than they'll ever imagine.
Everyone deserves good food. Everyone deserves a fair wage and fair treatment.

Let us listen to the Earth.
Let us listen to each other.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mardi Gras Revisits the PNW

One of the first times I visited Hannah in Portland was about this time a good two years ago.

I told her I wanted to cook for her friends.
I felt like maybe it was one of the best ways to win over their hearts - considering I'm a somewhat quiet guy, food often speaks louder.

I made them fried chicken, jambalaya and some kind of garlic/mozzarella french bread combo. You can't really go wrong with cheese, garlic and bread. Nope, ya just can't.

My first impression was that they were a little cautious. They were Hannah's best friends and I was the boy she met in India who had decided to come to see her. This food was my only alibi at the time.
I felt like though, I had offended them with how I make my fried chicken. [Though all was in good humour - I still hope.]

I soak it in a typical egg wash, that of just milk and a couple of beaten eggs. More often up here, you meet vegetarians. I respect that lifestyle, but get a little nervous when the pompous attitudes come out. [I tend to side with Anthony Bourdain's logic on vegetarians... :P] They were quite disturbed of the fact that I soaked chicken in milk and egg before frying. If anyone knows anything about frying, it is to have a good egg wash. It helps the batter stick and makes the breading extra crispy.

Needless to say, I have a huge respect for vegetarians. I believe they are the voice of reason in a country of over-consuming meat eaters, unfortunately at times, like myself.

But, this was about feeding their hearts. Fried chicken is a labor of love, I often say. You get messy, along with everything you touch. Your fingers are caked with flour and you have to turn everything on with your forearms, as if you were going into surgery.

The chicken had been fried and jambalaya fluffed and perfect - people were fed and all seemed satisfied. I believe I changed 'many an opinion' that day...

so the tradition continues...

Last year, I created our 1st Annual Mardi Gras Ball. It's an excuse to eat lots of comfort foods, dress up nice and act well, somewhat sophisticated. I had only been in Oregon for a few weeks and thought it would be a great time to get everyone together and to again, let the food speak louder than I could.
This time, I added fried pickles, hushpuppies and that infamous crab boiled pot of potatoes, corn, sausage, onions and garlic.

It was simply brilliant, though I was exhausted as it was my second day of work learning my new job and I had tripped over the washing machine and busted my ass. "Nothin' but my pride", I said..."Nothin' but my pride.."

This year, we up'ed it once more as we entered Mardi Gras season.
Hell, the Saints had won the Super Bowl and we had more than enough reasons to celebrate my Beloved South.

I cooked up all the usual from the prior year, but added to it Veggie Gumbo. I had argued with Hannah that it wasn't gumbo unless there were crab legs and shrimp heads stickin' out - but she wouldn't budge [not that we could have afforded it anyways, hah...]

I set out to cook my roux - which is a basic gravy involving about one part flour to two parts vegetable oil. I had never made a roux before, so after 45 minutes of stirring it to a medium-brown, I decided to let it be. I dropped in the holy trinity [which is celery, onion, and bell pepper] and was introduced to an inverted deep frying lesson when the veggies went in with an uproar of a sound. I was quite frightened, but it turned out okay. I started cooking it at 10:30pm and finished at about 1:30 in the morning. Again, a labor of love.

I love introducing Northwest folks to Southern culture...for all it's worth. "What's Zapps?" or "Abita...hmm" - and let me say, Oregonians are freaks (in a good way) about their beer. Not that Abita can hang with Portland microbreweries, but I'd say Abita is in a class all of its own.
That's the good thing about Abita - you can drink it with spicy food. It's a perfect creole couple.

Friends walked around, holding their bellies -- gravy induced rice dishes meeting deep fried goodness was the perfect combination to an almost drunken fullness.
Again, it's the food of the poor folks like so much. Greens, rice and leftover bits. Deep fried flour and chicken. Veggies cooked into submission along with everything else in the same pot. There's nothin' like it.

In all of this, is my Southern pride. To know and understand that this food is my culture and in my blood has allowed me to make some great relationships. Everyone leaves full, satisfied and ready to go to bed.

I believe the way to most people is through their bellies...

and after all, this food speaks loud and true to who I am...

a native son to the American South.