Thursday, April 29, 2010

Put Some Spring in Your Step!

Green.  For me these days, it's not a political position, environmental effort or trend.  It's spring, kiddies, and it's what I'm cooking.  Asparagus.  English Peas.  Fava beans.  Spring onions, ramps, fiddleheads, cimi di rabe, nettles, radish tops- oh, it's just the beginning!  The sun comes out, the soil loosens and in just a day, you can see the growth of something that could be on your plate three days later.  

The joy of cooking in season is that if you focus on what's fresh and in the market, the ingredients do the rest.  

So, how about from the sea?  The radiant striped bass is in season right now and couldn't be more vibrant or delicious.  Quite simply, the stuff available locally right now is superior quality, unequaled in the best sushi restaurants.  Soft-shell crabs just landed recently, pretty right-on schedule (Mother's day usually), though the market is still a little iffy with temperatures changing dramatically.  They scream for a lardon of smoky bacon or pancetta to set off their sweetness, or just a few stems of nutty arugula to punctuate their briny goodness.  

Brook trout, Nantucket Bay scallops, or tiny sweet Northern Shrimp, known as "pandalus borealis", become center-of-plate items.  Supporting ingredients that come to mind include ginger, tarragon, saffron, almonds or pine nuts, buttery potatoes and yeasty brioche.  Ahhhhhhh.

Traditionally, lamb and veal are "what's next", seasonally speaking.  Their delicate flavors and texture are an appropriate segue into the full-on, anything goes season of summer.  I speak, of course, as someone who isn't traveling!  Sure, I'd love to be in the Caribbean eating lobster right now; but, in this particular parallel, I'll cook and eat what sings the song of Spring, most.

When the weather breaks a little, I also change my taste for libations, as well.  Jeez, we just had a little hot-spell recently, and instinctively, I ran to the wine store for rose!  There were only a couple 2009s available, and they did the trick.  Rose wants to shine young.  Perky notes of strawberry, tart fruits and hints of just-born tomatoes rein, while bracing acidity wins out over lingering sugars.  In other words, close your eyes- it could be a beaujolais were it not for the color or temperature.  

Wheat beers, riesling, and a general proclivity for anything with Campari in it call my name when choosing a beverage to warm-up or settle-down with in Spring.

Strawberries also begin to take center stage, as they hold title to the most popular fruit in Spring, with the Ugly Betty cousin, RHUBARB, taking a close second, out of two.  Bitter, sweet- sweet, bitter- do you begin to see the connection both literally and metaphorically?  Spring is a season of transition, and the foods of the season remind us of both what has passed and what will come.  Today's lentil soup could be out of place when you smell the fresh clippings from the neighbors lawn.  Yet, herbed veal breast braised for hours on a Sunday's afternoon draws us back to the hearth, but doesn't fill our bellies enough to skip the berry shortcake for dessert.

It's funny, sometimes domestic food legends like Martha and Ina get all the props for showcasing seasonal ingredients and traditions that would make Norman Rockwell want to hand in his oils for a can of spray paint. But, if you  pick up the cookbooks of Craig Claiborne, James Beard, Deborah Madison and Sheila Lukins, you'll find that they were singing the praises of American seasonal and regional cuisine long before there was a market for self-promotion.  They showed us how to cook what was available to us.  And that, my friends, is what this is all about.

Put your trust in what looks good, smells good and sounds good.  Trust in your ingredients, your sense of what is enticing and your confidence to create a meal and memory that will last for seasons to come.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

F&C Rewind: The Sunday Playlist

My "holy" day has always been, and always will be Sunday.  I live in a world that doesn't observe a traditional seven day week.  You know, a beginning and an end?  So, when Sunday arrives, I really would rather not play restaurant, and take a few steps back and behave (however naive) as a civilian.  

Rituals are ok, mind you.  I'm not that OCD to freak if I don't get all my goodies.  But, if we're gonna go there, I need my NYT crossword and from the moment I rise, there needs to be music.  It matters not what else is going on- just keep it playing.  

I'm partial to Beatles early in the day, because of my attachment to Brunch with the Beatles on 98 WOGL.  But, I'm also sentimental for Syd Marks' Sinatra show.  And, then from my days of working brunch at the Virginia in Cape May, I love the sounds of Donald Fagan and Steely Dan, as well as VH1 faves like Annie Lennox, Mazzy Star and The Cowboy Junkies.  I love the early radio sounds of Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.  I dig 80s ballads from artists like Aimee Mann from Til Tuesday and Bryan Ferry.  And, give me a bossa nova, and I may never get up from the couch. 

The requisite for making it to the ever growing Sunday playlist is songs that make you NOT want to leave your chair.  I may hit the "genius" button every once and awhile on the Itunes, but I've been accumulating a play list for Sundays that allows the likes of Autour de Lucie to mingle with the likes of Tony Bennett and Herbie Hancock.  

Bagels or muffins?  French toast or pancakes?  Bacon or sausage?  Is there a wrong answer?  No.  They are all just variations on a wonderful theme.  Six hours of bliss.  It's the only time when it's legal to walk around in your PJs at 2pm or eat eggs as your first meal at 1pm.  How about just stumbling outside to garden with not a care if the phone rings or if the front door is locked? 

What are your Sunday rituals?  What fills your soul on a Sunday morning?  And, lay it on me- what's in YOUR Sunday playlist?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Taliban Approves of Your Child's Lunch

Here's a good one.  CNN reports that 27% of young adults (17-24 years of age) are ineligible to join the armed services...because they don't meet the physical requirement.  The study says that obesity is the number one cause.  Retired generals and military types called the youths "too fat to fight"; but, rather more disturbing is that "75% of young Americans between the ages of 17 to 24 do not qualify for the military because of failure to graduate [from high school], criminal records or physical problems."

Let that sink in for a sec.

I clicked on the article because the teaser was about how school lunches are "a national security risk".  I am very passionate about the subject of school lunches, but more generally, how we feed our kids.  I can see where they were going with that link, but it's kind of a stretch.  I'd say the bigger threat to national security is education.  Clearly we need an overhaul of lunch programs so that kids are fed meals that don't double and triple load on carbs, rely on frying to give flavor and will provide actual nutritional value that isn't cooked completely out, say when broccoli becomes the color of an army jeep.

The "give a man a fish" rule of logic is in effect here.  If children have access to the knowledge they need to feed themselves in a safe and healthy manner, they'll develops good eating habits.  Don't just give 'em tuna on wheat and call it a day.  I remember when I was in school, the class called "health" was not about dietary tips.  If it was, maybe no one remembered because the subject competed with the more popular subject of "how to lose your virginity".  

But, the onus is on the school system to make sure kids have access to these options.  Pfft- scrap that- the onus is on the system to provide only healthy options.  If Junior wants to bring the belly-buster special to school five days a week, let him: at least the schools would be doing their part.  But, then comes the next important part: parent accountability.

Twenty years ago, who taught you about using a computer?  I can tell you the answer was NOT your parents.  To assume that parents have the inherent knowledge to provide good tasting, nutritious meals, is just assuming too much.  Again, it's back to education.  The mass producers of "easy" and "quick" meals of all sorts have done their homework, gang.  They know how many meals a week we don't cook.  They know how busy we are, how much money we spend on take-home meals and they provide hundreds upon hundreds of products that are supposed to make our lives easier.  Yeah- a hot dog and chips is easy, too.  

Ahhh, but there's the rub.  I live in absolute guilt that I allow my daughter to eat a "Lunchables" meal because she spotted one at the store and at only three years of age, recognized it is something "fun" that she wanted.  No one told her what it was, no cartoon characters on it; it was at the right height with the right colors on the box in the grocery store.  She swiped it off the shelf and ran away with it. Since birth, she has always eaten all the foods we eat.  Roasted and braised meats, fresh fish, cheeses, root veggies, grains of all sorts, and just about every vegetable I'd ever turned my nose up at when I was a kid.  But, all it took was one time to cave in and say, "oh- it's just for fun, it's no big deal" (said the crack user to his pusher).  

So one day, when I decided to lay down the law, I took a ring mold cutter and cut real cheddar cheese and real baked ham into little circles and put in some simple crackers to see if the little Oscar Mayer meth-head would notice.  She did not.  The next month, I discovered Grammy sent home some Lipton noodle soup in a packet with her.  I was rushed, it was convenient, I made it, and she ate the hell out of it and asked for more.  Checked the label, sodium level was at 29% of RDA and in contained MSG.  They got me again.  

And don't get me started on ketchup: gateway drug.

See, I'm not getting preachy, but even if we choose to not feed ourselves well, we need to get the kids we bred to a point in their lives where they can make informed, smart decisions about the future of their health.  I'd very much like to see new generations learn how to properly cook vegetables and enjoy them as much as any fried potato.  I'd like to see proteins from meat and fish become an equally shared portion of the plate, not the main event.  And, I'd like to see restaurants and grocers that specialize in this kind of trend flourish, profit and grow to a majority.  

If you don't think you can fight the big corporations, or if you think you don't have a choice or a voice, just think how McDonald's would react to losing a market share to people eating healthy.  They wouldn't like it, not one little bit.  And, so they would be forced to win-back what they lost to that ever-growing segment of the population who want more variety and more nutritious options.  No?  Maybe the Colonels were right then.  Maybe we are too fat to fight.


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