Sunday, September 27, 2009

Calling Up a Bluegrass Festival

Kiwis, orange sherbet, and Earl Grey Tea, what do these have in common? When I was a couple months pregnant with my son, I had the usual malady—morning sickness. It’s the kind of icky sensation where you feel like there would be some sort of flavor, some kind of tang, some type of tart food that would make it all better. I’m positive that is where the “pregnant women craving pickles” idea came from. Along with kiwis, orange sherbet, and Early Gray Tea, I tried pickled cauliflower mix, pickled wax peppers, lemonade, and Sprite. The pitiful thing is, none of it really works. The one thing that did come out of it was that I cannot eat kiwis, orange sherbet, or Early Grey Tea without feeling a little queasiness. Science knows that aromas (and flavors are mostly aromas) bypass the common sense part of your brain, hitting the expressway straight to the emotions. That’s why a particular perfume can jerk you back to an old romance, a pungent cooking smell to a childhood experience. We let this happen to us by accident all the time. Pumpkin pie just usually happens to be baked at the holidays. A whiff of it baking can make us feel the warm glow of Thanksgiving or Christmas. Smell some wood chips burning and you may instantly be transported to camping trips. Just a taste of Jolly Rancher Watermelon Stix and I’m back in high school hanging out with my friends.Last week, while getting ready for the Bluegrass Festival at Plymouth, CA, I was thinking on the feeling tones of aroma and flavor. What a great thing it would be to purposefully introduce a food that I could associate with a Bluegrass Festival later on! This unknown food item would unlock all those great feelings of being around friends, jamming all night, meeting new people, hearing great music. All I had to do was come up with just the right food.The biggest considerations: it couldn’t be something I already made on a frequent basis, it couldn’t be connected with something else, and it had to be really good.To understand my first attempt at this, you have to understand how much I love cinnamon rolls. I love the big fluffy yeast ones, with dripping cinnamon sauce and drizzled white glaze. I love the crispy-edged ones my mother used to make from sweet biscuit dough on Sunday mornings. I even like the canned ones, but have rarely made them. So I assigned canned cinnamon rolls to be my festival psyco-food. No oven? No problem! Even better, since cooking them in an oven is common, would be to fry them in butter. My daughter was my accomplice. This is the same daughter who, in our desperation for a dessert at the Old Time Campout, helped me create the birdseed-trail mix- applesauce late-night goody. We both like to eat healthfully, so we carefully avoided reading the list of ingredients on the tube of cinnamon rolls. At least butter has only one ingredient—butter. I heated up a cast iron skillet and melted a pool of butter. I peeled off each poof of spiced dough and dropped it in. As they sizzled and browned, I knew I’d made a mistake. They were so thick, they would take awhile to cook, but the dough was so sweet and light, they were browning out of control. For the next 10 minutes, I kept trying to turn down the flame, lift the skillet up and down as a sort of thermostat, turn the rolls from side to side and edge to edge to edge so they would be a uniform shade of black, all the while dropping pats of butter in the pan to keep them from marrying the bottom of the skillet. Melinda was my tester, since I was too busy juggling with both hands. Finally she pronounced them “not too doughy.” We each had 4 apiece, dunking them in the little plastic cup of glaze included in the tube. Surprisingly, they weren’t too bad. That is, until we had each eaten all 4 of our portion. The most common sentence heard in our camp for the next 2 hours was, “I’m REALLY full!” So now I fear that a tube of cinnamon rolls is going to be something that reminds me of buttery gluttony instead of a Bluegrass Festival. But I have another chance. Hobbs Grove Bluegrass Festival is going on this weekend, and I am anxious to see how my next experiment works with Calling Up a Bluegrass Festival.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Secret Snacks (or Dog Food Eaters Anonymous)

“Hello, my name is Carolyn, and I used to eat dogfood.”

How many others of us are out there? I think we’ll never know because of the stigma, the horrible adult realization of what you were actually eating when popping kibbles. Sometimes it just makes us want to forget.

We all had our preferences. I tended towards the canned, my older sister always had a pocket full of dry nuggets. Personally, I found those to be too gritty and dry. We always had dogs around the place, and I don’t remember specific brand loyalty when buying the dogfood. Knowing us, it was probably the cheapest. The only brand of canned I recall is Skippy. Such a cute name! Skippy; if I’d have thought about it, I would have tried to name one of our dogs Skippy. The whole process of preparing the food is a three-dimensional memory. I can feel the weight of the can as I twist and twist the little can opener until the lid is free. The lovely meaty aroma begins to escape. Then I turn it over carefully, holding the loose lid in place with my finger and open the other end too. Turning it over the dog dish, I then get to do the fun part. Kkshuuush! I push on one lid and the can-shaped mass slides out intact into the bowl, like a cylindrical Jello mold. Only brown. Little white dots speckled the creamy “meat,” and I could never figure out what they were, but now I tell myself that it was probably rice.

Some of the kids snuck big slabs to munch on, but I contented myself with a bit here and there. After all, it was the dog’s rightful meal!

I still remember giving my mother the best complement I could think of on her cooking. “This meatloaf is great! It’s almost as good as dogfood!”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

You Say “Keen-Wah”

At least, that’s what my niece told me when she introduced me to quinoa. It is a charming little grain that hails from South America, and it was brand-new to me. It is intriguing and worth trying because it has more high-quality protein in it than the rest of the grains. And it looks so innocent! Little white round beads that pour like silk into the jar.

I didn’t have a real recipe, so I treated it like rice, except used less water, 1 part quinoa to 1 ½ parts water.

Now if you try this, the first thing you are going to notice while it is cooking is the smell. Not nice. Not even sort of grainy. Just sort of “ugh.” Perhaps that is because it isn’t a “true” grain, but more closely related to beets, spinach and tumbleweeds. It reminded me, just a little, of the other thing I have cooked that made a bad smell. And I mean a REALLY bad smell. And that is … tripe.

I made menudo from scratch some years ago. We usually bought the canned stuff, but I figured I could do a better job. So I found a likely recipe and assembled the ingredients. Hominy, chili powder, oregano, lemon juice, some other stuff, and the biggie, tripe. Otherwise known as calf stomachs. In blissful innocence I cut up the tripe and put it on to boil. Warning, it may taste good in the end, but don’t plan on having people over who you are trying to impress on the day you cook it.

Thankfully, it doesn’t take hours to cook quinoa, only about 10 minutes. There was still water in the pan, so I took off the lid and cooked it a few more minutes to evaporate it. The off-putting smell is gone by then. But, to the uninitiated, there is one more disturbing detail about the grain. Have you ever seen frog eggs?

When I think of frog eggs, I think back on when I was a kid along with my 2 sisters and brother. We lived in the country, and were “babysat” by the neighbor up the road who had a boy 4 years older than my oldest sister. He was sort of like Tom Sawyer, and I think he was tickled about having 4 little kids as accomplices in his adventures. This particular time was a very wet spring. Their cow pasture was flooded at least a foot deep. “Tom” took an old gate-type door and made a raft out of it. All day he poled us around the strange new swamp, collecting buckets of frog eggs. I can see him, arms buried to the elbows in stringy frog eggs as he lifted and stirred the mass that was in the conveniently located outdoor sink his mother used to wash her garden vegetables. (He got in trouble for that too.)

The quinoa in the pot now looks like albino frog eggs, but without the slime. The starchy part has become translucent, and the germ shows a little curled thing wrapping up the side of the grain. Ideally, you have cooked it just enough to not be crunchy, but not be mushy.

Quinoa is very flexible. I scooped out some and made a salad. I added some fire roasted red pepper (from a jar), some kalamata olives, marinated mozzarella, oregano, lemon juice, and olive oil. Very tasty! I may do a stir fry with the rest, or even try it with cinnamon and honey for breakfast.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Tasting in Napa

Oh how quickly the lowly have risen! I, who was once content with a bottle of $2.95 Foxbrook Cabernet, am now elevated to appreciating Fine Wines enough to not flinch when forking out the money to get a bottle. I am not sure if that is a good thing.

I had a system. Open the bottle while cooking. Pour a glass to sip on. Splash a little in the food. Pour another half glass to drink with the meal. Next day or so, pour a goodly amount in the beef roast or beef stew, have a short glass. Some days later, mix what is left with 2 parts orange juice blend over ice for a pleasant beverage. But with the $34.95 bottle of Fenestra Cab, we savored every sip. I even saved the last inch and a half to share with my daughter the next day. But I wasn't sure I saw that all happening again.

Last weekend, we visited with my sister and brother-in-law who live in Napa, California. And I don't think it takes a highly intelligent person to know where you go for a field trip in Napa. Wine Tasting! G. and V., being members of these wineries and on first name basis with many of the folks behind the counters, were escorted to the special room. Trying to act nonchalant, my husband and I trailed along with them.

The whites were great; the reds were fantastic. The other three in our party had driving to do and places to go, so they were utilizing the artsy clay jugs at each side to tip out the rest of the taste. Me? I wasn't going to be operating any heavy machinery or try to impress anyone, so I just enjoyed it all. I did find myself wondering what kind of a house wine the clay jugs contained at the end of the day.

There were several "Wow!" reds that I didn't bother to remember the names of, because even though I'd been softened up by drinking a bottle of $34.95 wine, that didn't extend to $80 a bottle wines. The most amazing taste at the first winery, Pine Brook, was the last. Rich, smooth and buttery, with all those flavor descriptions people learn how to do after they get more of a wine education. Of course, it was a cabernet savignon. $140 a bottle. It's a good thing I was getting a little relaxed, or I would have been calculating the cost of each sip.

We did end up buying a bottle of 2005 Cabernet from Rutherford Hill Winery. I remember at the end of the tasting, my husband putting 2 glasses in front of me: "This, or this?" I was like being at the optometrist where they spin the lens dial in front of your eyes while you are looking at the chart. "Is this better? Or this?" And they are so close, you can't really tell, so you keep having him repeat the operation. So I said something like, "Well, this one is more mellow and this one is more exciting." And he made some sort of decision based on that, apparently, because we ended up carrying out a wine bag.

I'm not giving up my Foxbrook, or the wine-in-a-box yet. There will never come a day when I'll splash a little of these goods in my cook pot, and not every wine glass is a worthy celebration. But I do enjoy having this in the cupboard waiting for that special time.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Fine Wine is Better than Cheap Wine

Really, it is. And I know that by experience now.

I have been accused of being cheap. But I prefer the word "thrifty." Though I try not to sacrifice quality, I see no reason to pay more than I have to. I'm not very knowledgeable about wines, but I do know a little bit.
Cheap Sauvignon Blanc is undrinkable.
Cheap White Zinfandel is either too sweet or too sour.
There is not a whole lot of difference between cheap Merlot and less cheap Merlot.
You can get a well-made cheap Cabernet S. that tastes about the same as a lot of less cheap Cabs.
If you don't want to pay a lot, you can't afford to be snooty about screw-off lids.
Inexpensive wine-in-a-box is usually decent, but never surprisingly good.
Less cheap Chardonnay is always better than cheap Chardonnay.
If you ever get stuck with undrinkable white, you can always make wine coolers.
If you ever get stuck with undrinkable red, you can always make Sangria or beef stew.

A few weeks ago we went wine-tasting with some friends at Fenestra winery in Livermore. We must have sampled two dozen wines, white, red, and dessert. It was fun to compare them and decide which ones seemed better. Then... I tried a Cabernet that left me speechless. It was dark, rich, smoky, smooooth, complex, interesting from start to finish. I made the mistake of raving about it before I checked the price. $34.95 a bottle. Gulp. My husband would not obey me and went over and bought me a bottle.

Did I mention that I've never spent over $10 for a bottle of wine? My rate schedule is Cheap- $2 to $5, Less Cheap- $5 to $7. Expensive- $10.

I took it home and saved it for something special.

Something special came up when it came time for my daughter to move to the university where she was transferring. It didn't really matter whether we were celebrating her brave new adventure or the fact that now I could finally have my own office/sewing room. (you guess) So I bought things for a special celebratory meal for my husband and I; lamb chops, spring salad mix, Gouda cheese wheel, and rice pilaf. I set out the special wine with 2 thin crystal wine goblets. I was secretly afraid that I had misrembered the incredible flavor of the wine, but I need not have worried. It was excellent. It was gorgeous.

I divided $35 by $3 (the current price of Foxbrook, my favorite Cheap Cabernet) to get 11 and a half. I think that it is possible that I could consider not buying 11 and a half bottles of Foxbrook, holding out for one bottle of very good wine.

I think I will have to add that to my list of known facts about wine.

"Fine Wine really is better than Ceap Wine."