Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Night the Lights Went Out at Fresh Market

I haven't shopped much at the Foody Falooty since Trader Joe's came to town, but a handsome birthday gift card arrived just in time for deadline-weekend fridge stocking.

it looked like this.
No sooner had I filled my rush-hour cart with a variety of precocious artisanal lettuces and free-range eggs freshly hatched by hens who lounge about their coops listening to NPR all day when, without warning, the lights went out. One minute, I'd been musing to myself that $17 seems high for popcorn, the next, we were all plunged into utter darkness.  No generator clicked on reassuringly. Nothing.

My first thought, naturally, was "I've gone blind."
As my eyes adjusted, my second thought was, "light bill?"
My third thought, as my brain caught up to processing the available information, was "what was it the Mayans said? Was that today?"

Soon, they would finish the artisanal cheese, and feast on my flesh
And finally, acceptance. "So. This is how the end comes. Dying with rich folks."  I turned on my iPhone flashlight-app and began reluctantly tweeting pics of potential looters and the coming zombie apocalypse.

I was contemplating my options. Is a proactive approach best? Do I grab the Voss Water bottle from my cart, shatter it against a nearby shelf, and then brandish the shards at my fellow shoppers who have probably not seen as many episodes of Walking Dead (or for that matter, Oz) as I have? I am confident I can take out at least one aisle of soccer moms and a few Junior Leaguers before impromptu alliances are formed.

See the popcorn in my cart? I found out later it had been recalled.
"Shit's about to get real, mthrfckrs!" is the phrase I'm practicing in my head when one of the cashiers announces from somewhere around the front of the store "CASH ONLY!" and somehow wrests open the automatic doors (luckily, before someone heaved a cart through it -- and by someone, I mean me, because claustrophobia is only the tip of my iceberg of phobias). It was at that point, that the moneyed masses scattered as if Martial Law had suddenly been declared, obviously ill equipped to transact such vulgar currency.

Now we were down to survival of the fittest, and a new set of options presented themselves. Aside from the gift card, I think I might have some leftover emergency pool-cash (in case a hot dog presents itself) stashed in a secret pocket of my keychain (I'd left my purse in the car, precisely so it wouldn't be snatched from my buggy while I browsed), but I don't know for sure. I do know I definitely do not have enough on me to cover the contents of my cart. As I try to recall Maslow's Hierarchy of Need and its impact on the social order, I idly wonder if I can gnaw through $437 worth of Ossau-Iraty before the lights come back on.

I'll never know, because it was then that the lines began to move. I survey my prospective purchases and decide that the freshly-hatched-NPR-eggs are the only thing worth potentially dying for, and I sadly abandon the rest.

As shoppers ahead of me struggle to make exact change, a convivial nature, almost Amish, seems to take over. There are no price checks. Everyone's word, and guesstimation, is taken as gospel. When my turn comes, I proffer my two dozens eggs across the counter. "Do you know how much these are?" the cashier chirps. "I know I have five dollars," is my honest answer (and also, I decide on the spot, the title of my upcoming made-for-Lifetime movie).

"Sold," she says sunnily.

As I emerge into the daylight, rubbing my eyes blearily, I think, it could have been worse; it could've been Disco Kroger, with only Velveeta to sustain us. I pause in the parking lot, blinking in the sun -- relieved not to see soldiers swarming the streets --  to post a few final tweets: "


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How to Make the Perfect Gazpacho

At its best, gazpacho is an improvisational dish.

The first time I tasted it was at a swanky garden party, decades ago -- served in a big crystal square punch bowl and ladled into little square shot glasses. I immediately asked the host for the recipe, and he said, "oh, I don't have one. I just know what goes in gazpacho, and I put it all in, until it's done." I didn't have that level of confidence as a cook or a host, so I spent years (and years) looking for the perfect recipe (Moosewood, Martha Stewart, Barefoot Contessa), and none of them tasted as good as his did.

He was right. It's better without a recipe, but that isn't helpful to someone who's a novice like I was when he told me that. I spent years of trial and error perfecting my version.

Here's the how-to of the batch I made last weekend, including a few secrets I've learned along the way.

Start with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers in about a two-to-one tomato-to-cucumber ratio. I go for tomato varieties with high acid, and a lot of tang, not sweet. (Sometimes I will use all-yellow tomatoes and peppers and make Golden Gazpacho; it's a little sweeter.)

A lot of recipes suggest insane amounts of tomato prep (peeling, seeding, dicing, etc). I don't do any of that. I core them, and cut them into rough wedges (no precision necessary.)

I do peel the cucumbers, and I scrape a few of the seeds out with a spoon (I certainly don't exert myself though.) They get a rough chop.

Here is secret number one: in the Summer, I always have cucumbers prepped  in the fridge, in a little bit of white vinegar, salt, whole (tellicherry) peppercorns, and a sprig of fresh dill. We call them table pickles. This is no place for fancy balsamics -- the plainer and whiter the better. (Fresh vinegar-soaked cucumbers in orange Tupperware were a staple on my grandmother's summer kitchen table my entire childhood, and I've stuck with this tradition -- they are the perfect base for a lot of chilled summer soups, which would likely strike her as a waste of a perfectly good cucumber.)

I chop everything on a big plate -- not a cutting board -- and then dump everything, juice and all, into a giant Tupperware pitcher as I go.

Whatever peppers I have on hand, I seed and rough chop a few, but nothing of any real substantial heat -- poblanos or anaheims are good. Key Largos are the best. Bananas will do too. I chop and add a stalk or two of celery. If a guest says they don't like celery, I chop and add a stalk or two of celery. Gazpacho does not have the right consistency, or flavor, without it.

For herbs, I assemble about a handful of whatever I'm growing in any given summer (and I have small hands; you might need less or more):

basil (I have lemon basil; lime basil; and regular basil -- any or all will work; I also have Thai basil and cinnamon basil, and those would not work)

cutting celery (I grow it; celery leaves will work fine if you can't find it)
garlic chives
flat-leaf parsley

To this handful, I add scallions -- then I hold the handful over the pitcher and snip it all up with scissors (no fancy chiffonade or anything). When I get down to the stems, I stop snipping.

I zest a lime over the pitcher (with a wood rasp).Then I roll the lime on the counter, quarter it, and squeeze in all the juice. (Cut the lime vertically, not horizontally, and you'll get more juice.)

Secret Number Two: I use an entire bulb of garlic in about a one-gallon pitcher, BUT I roast off the garlic ahead of time (one bulb, olive oil, salt, pepper, in foil, about an hour in a low oven, until it squeezes out like butter) -- like the table pickles, this is something I tend to prep on the weekends so I can use it all week. If you want to use raw garlic... well, I wouldn't. Not in this. But if you did, for God's sake don't use a bulb. Maybe less than a clove.

If I have it on hand, I add a drop or two of fancy honey (no more), and a drop or two of fancy olive oil. If I don't have the fancy stuff, I leave it out. The flavors here are pretty delicate.

Secret Number Three: I blend the pitcher with an immersion blender. There's no setting on the regular blender or a food processor that will get it to perfect gazpacho consistency -- when it turns pink and foamy on top, it's done, and is ready for salt and pepper. Tomatoes eat an insane amount of salt; it has to be done to taste.

If it needs thinned at all (it probably won't), Secret Number Four is, I add a drizzle of vodka. This is not like the Celery. If I have guests who are alcoholics, I absolutely leave this step out. A little club soda is fine. Then into the fridge.

Secret Number Five isn't a secret at all; it's clearly visible in the pictures. I rim glasses in lime juice and dip those in herbed salt and pepper.
The herbed salt and pepper is: any fancy finishing salt or kosher salt; fresh ground pepper; lime zest; any leftover herbs and cutting celery; celery salt.

I garnish with anything I'd use to garnish a bloody Mary (a lime slice, a Rick's Pick, mean beans, an English cucumber spear, etc).


Why I Hate Paula Deen 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Everybody's Reading 'Bastard' (I am reading Bitch)

Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) has new short work out, "Everyone's reading Bastard."

Bastard! is the title of the new column Charlie's ex-wife Elaine has begun banging out at the newspaper where she works.

"He didn't read the Sunday newspaper that Elaine worked for, not any more. He'd had to stop. Elaine wrote profiles, features, and columns, on the face of it about current affairs and the arts, but over the years, Charlie had come to feel as though her only real subject was him."

He initially thinks he will withstand the worst of it -- most of her stories have long been part of the family narrative anyway. "Everybody laughed. That's what family stories were -- amusing accounts of the messes and the fuckups. Take away the love and the laughter, narrate the stories as if the characters had acted with malice and self-absorption, and everybody was in a bleak independent film about alcoholism and schizophrenia and child abuse."

Then he realizes it could get worse. It get always get worse. "Bastard! introduced a new and terrible idea...what if Elaine had, despite all appearances to the contrary, actually been reigning herself in? What if their marriage had been inhibiting her? Was it possible that Elaine was only just now taking the gloves off? He thought again about the timing of the request for the divorce. He was beginning to feel as though he'd been drawn against Bobby Fischer in a school chess tournament."

He meets a new woman. "Bitch." Her ex-husband is writing a facing column about her.

Is she a bitch? Is he a bastard? Who knows? As Charlie points out, "it was easy to be nice to an attractive woman over a dinner table. The despair came later, with children and tiredness and the shreer drudgery of marriage and monogamy."

The landscape has just changed now that everybody has a microphone. "Now everyone could get access to something -- a cable TV show, a free newspaper, a digital radio phone-in -- as long as they were prepared to say something stupid and provocative, with no expectation of money."

His mother advises he'd be well served to not make the same mistake again, but he doesn't know what the mistake was, but tells her, "I'll bear that in mind in the unlikely event that I ever fall for someone with her own newspaper column an an insatiable desire to expose all."

An excellent story for Writers and the Unfortunates who love 'em.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Bye Bye Blackberry, Hello iPhone

"I did what I always do with technology: first I resist it; then I embrace it; then I act like I invented it; then I go forth like a zealous preacher to convert the masses."
--Reality Truck, February 15, 2010

My first BlackBerry arrived as a Valentine in February 2008. I have a troubled relationship with technology and it wasn't an easy transition, but I am nothing if not loyal. It has taken four long, arduous, co-dependent, passive-aggressive years, but this was the weekend they finally drove me to iPhone.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why I Hate Paula Deen

"If you're comforting yourself with the dictum 'Never trust a thin chef,' don't. Because no stupider thing has ever been said. Look at the crews of any really high-end restaurants and you'll see a group of mostly whippet-thin, under-rested young pups with dark circles under their eyes: they look like escapees from a Japanese prison camp -- and are expected to perform like the Green Berets."
--Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw

I have never eaten in a Paula Deen restaurant and have no plans to. I have never bought a Paula Deen cookbook, or prepared a Paula Deen recipe. (I have eaten Paula Deen pies prepared by others, and they were delicious.) I have certainly seen her shows, and I cringe every time I hear her food referred to as "Southern," as I have noted her fond over-reliance on Southern cuisine's trashier cousins, Velveeta and canned soup.

My mother (a virtual prototype of her target demographic) despises her, because when she and my stepdad ate at her Savannah restaurant, a staffer there told them that whenever a meal had to be comped (for whatever errors or complaints), that comp ticket came out of the staff's paychecks. Now, that might or might not even be true. That could've been a rogue employee who was just mouthing off about his boss. But it left a sour taste in my Mom's mouth; screw with the help at your peril.