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Before you winos get up in arms, a bit of a disclaimer - I love wine. I love wine with my food. In fact, I prefer wine with food. Taking two different components, seemingly disparate, and pairing them together to create a third, mind-blowing flavor. It's not a compromise of two tastes so much as the birth of a new star. A supernova flavor bomb that makes you go "wow, that's what food is all about."
But it's not wine alone that can create such an experience. Here's where the wino rage might come in. Beer is unbelievably good with food, too. I'm not talking post-hike thirst-quenching PBR-reaching moments. We are talking beer made as expertly as the most prize bottle of wine by people who can wax poetic about microbes, yeasts, and fermentation.
Beer and food pairings are brilliant. Beer + Cheese = Liquid bread to meld with the kaleidoscope of flavors to be gotten from goat's, sheep's, and cow's milk. Beer + Chocolate = Another reason to chuck overpowering red wines, especially with good dark chocolate. Beer + Food in general = A revelation.
Quality matters here. (Quantity is another discussion to be had since beer is equated with frat house decadence and mind erasing shenanigans.) The beer whether you call it craft brew, microbrew, home brew - it's made because it tastes good (and yes, it sells) and is awesome by its lonesome and magically wondrous with food.
Same goes for the food. Granted, a good drink can even turn a greasy spoon burger into a milestone meal (cue that scene from "Sideways" where Miles ditches his bestie's wedding reception to crack open his cherished bottle of red to drink from a styrofoam cup with a diner burger) but good food and good drink make for foolproof good times.
Some restaurants are getting into this notion, even in Utah (home of great craft brewers, FYI). Even in Utah County. Communal Restaurant hosted quite possibly the city of Provo's very first beer pairing dinner. Epic Brewing Company was along to pair with dishes and in some cases (as with a stour jam for a meltingly good pork belly) be the ingredients in the dishes themselves.
The pairings were stellar, subtle, and complex. The crowd dug it. As should you. Catch a beer pairing dinner in your neck of the woods or try that Schneider Weisse Hefeweizen with some Thai take out or curry made from scratch. Or an Epic Pumpkin Stout with a spice cake. If you've taken wine pairing courses, the fundamentals are the same.
One caveat: Just as the wine world has the wine douche that can irritate a crowd like a corn flake caught in your throat, the craft beer world is full of them, too. If you think wine snobs are insufferable, just brace yourself for the craft beer douche as he talks about his own "phenomenal" home brewing experiments, his favorite breweries you've never heard of and yet manages to order an oatmeal stout before A BEER PAIRING DINNER wherein the first course is a beautiful light pickled peach salad with candied mustard paired perfectly with a saison.
He's a connoisseur don't you know? Nothing to do but shrug and sip the saison and take another bite of peach.
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I'm not ashamed to admit that I have a thing for boxed macaroni and cheese. I've had since I was the mini sumo wrestler 2nd grader who looked forward to mom fixing up Velveeta shells and cheese or the Kraft cheese and macaroni. The "cheese" came first because it was supposed to be so cheesy. When you're 7 and demanded the caloric intake of a 6' 7" athletic superstar it was just that. I couldn't get enough. When my mom would place a modest portion in front of me I'd look at her indignantly.
"Where's the rest?" I'd ask in my best squeaky Korean.
"You can have that and save the rest for later," my mother would plead, willing the obesity out of me.
We talk passionately about vine-ripened tomatoes and the tender peaches whose juices run down our chins and arms. But what of corn? Especially when it's whole, intact on what we call the cob. Corn for the most part has come up in news and current events in the form of high fructose corn syrup, genetically modified crops for animal feed. Gourmet.com even weighed in, with transcripts from editors on whether or not corn is a bad thing.
For me, it's a no brainer. Corn on the cob is just as valuable to me as the heavy Brandywine, deep purple raspberries or juicy Suncrest peaches. I can't imagine a warm season without it. Along with my love of automotive self-autonomy, my love of corn is rather patriotic. Most of the world sees it as a grain to grind and transformed into delicious flatbreads or simply as fodder for swine and other animals. Speaking purely from a glutton's point of view, they're missing out. If anyone insists on debating corn's ethical place in the food chain, let's talk it over a grilled cob or two.
Certain recipes are versatile in that they adapt themselves to life. Mood dictates everything. At least for me, it influences my cravings and what I choose to tinker with in the kitchen. These recipes aren't long, sordid affairs. On the contrary, it's usually a flash of activity to clear the mind or work out the latest bout of angst.
The motions of chopping, pounding, sauteeing, stirring help; but it's also the scents working up your nose and the prospect of seeing something through to the end, at which point, it's time to feed yourself something good. The fruits of your labor also serve as the consolation prize or a friendly offering to a lover, friends and guests.
This is such a recipe.
[I use A LOT of chocolate. To put into recipes. And to stuff into my face. Above, chopped dark goodness for a drinking chocolate recipe.
Gotta love an article that begins: "People who eat chocolate regularly tend to be thinner, new research suggests." At least, so reports this piece on BBCnews.com.
First, it's good for your heart. Now it might be that cathecins (also found in that magical magical green tea) in dark chocolate can help promote lean muscle mass as opposed to weight gain normally associated with higher calorie food like chocolate.
Just goes to show - eat for pleasure. Savor the damn things. And if it makes you feel good, then don't stress about it. Save that anxiety for when you've polished off an entire bag of Dove chocolates by your lonesome, because a.) That's a lot of chocolate, b.) The chocolate was most likely crap, and c.) ew, Dove? Really?!?
The New York Times is curious. So am I. There's no end to the ethical argumentation by vegetarians. But what do we as omnivore/carnivores have to say? Say your peace. Even I know it's more than just about tasting good.
While I draft a response (maybe), I'll be taking some inspiration from these gems I found on the interwebs.
1.) Meditation #1:
I never learned this in Vacation Bible School.
Mark Bittman. New York Times columnist. Food expert. Food lover. And all around bad ass. The latest reason? An opinion piece on why local food is NOT elitest.
The kids can have their halloween candy. My sweet fix needs to be something a bit more comforting, a bit more cold, creamy, and ideally, something that need not be rationed out or, even worse, shared.
I make no secret about my love of desserts. I make it a priority in any special dinner out. And when life can be especially tricky or the mind needs a bit of comforting, my dessert of choice is ice cream. More often than not, dessert often becomes the meal. Which in a way is a good thing, considering that I can easily put away a whole pint by my lonesome.
Nutritious? No. But comforting, completely. That is, it usually is.
"Haagen-Dazs" and "sucked" are words I don't usually use together. After all, who am I to argue with their dense offering of Dulce de Leche, Cookie Dough, deeply flavorful Mint Chocolate Chip, Coffee, even a plain but stunning vanilla? It's a go-to. An easy fix when the craving strikes. And it struck hard the night of Halloween.
Like an addict I made a night time pilgrimage, long after the Optimus Primes, Vampires, and Slutty Cops had retired from public viewing, to my dealer. In this case, a supermarket with a paltry ice cream selection. But there it was, Haagen-Dazs Limited Edition Blueberry Crumble. It was supposed to be so good. "After slowly simmering ripe blueberries," it says, "we fold them into dense blueberry ice crea with rich, buttery cobbler crust and crumbles." They even include a flavor sheet on the side of the pint to prepare for the flavor bomb about to unfold. Flavor bomb me.
I should have figured from the air-light pint something was amiss. The "dense blueberry ice cream" was a cloud, a sad whimper of fruit thanks to high overrun (air churned into the ice cream custard) and slightly freezer burned from bad temperature control. The blueberry crumbles, nothing but texture that left an oily film on my sad sad tongue.
Oh, Haagen-Dazs Blueberry Crumble, where were my simmering ripe blueberries? Where was my bursting fruit flavor, my top note of bright ripe blueberries? This was supposed to be my treat, my guilty pleasure. Turned out to be a trick. Empty calories never turned out to be more true.
There was nothing guilty about you except for the fact that you sucked. I want my money (and calories) back.
It's a bittersweet thought. The sheer pleasure of lazy Sunday mornings. So lazy that the morning seeps into the afternoon. Pajamas are suitable all-day attire. The paper or an unfinished book must be finished, with each page savored. There's always a pot of coffee or tea ready to be poured. And perhaps most importantly, breakfast can be served at any time of the day.
It's a bittersweet thought, that this feast of an omelet and a stack of homemade pancakes, this joy (like so many other sources of joy) is a luxury nowadays. It is rare, which makes its occurrence so sweet, like the appearance of the first strawberry blossoms on a long-given up plant or finding or the weekday cocktail before you even think about dinner.
An oldie, but a goodie. In honor of those of us in less-blessed and more earnest climates, I offer something to use up the proliferation of greens. As much as one enjoys sauteeing, sometimes, a bit of creamy texture is necessary to break up all that roughage-monotony. A food processor is your friend here - one of the few gadgets I will forever and ever extoll. - Vanessa
The solution for professed vegetable-haters is to make something vegetal appear distinctly not. Case in point, a sauce of broccoli and spinach for a jumble of linguine. Not that I have issues eating any matter of vitamin-suffused roughage, but there's only so much steaming and sauteeing a girl can take on the plate. And given the blossoms on the branches, the warmer temperatures and sporadic rain, it's a nice dish to make on a quiet night-in, to thank the stars it's finally spring.
Let me preface what I'm about to say with "I love creative, adventurous food. Cooking and dining, give it to me."
But after a marathon of 5-page recipes and multiple mini courses of culinary-combination genius, I dare you to find anyone who would say no to a simple roast chicken or a heavy bowl of lentil lamb soup.
Simply put, we underestimate the power of simplicity.
I've often been in kitchens of friends and friends of friends who slather on their impressive skill and relish in a 3-day orgy to create a good cassoulet. I've been asked for recipes for a "complete" dinner. When I hand over a first course of nothing but good charcuterie (awesome cured meats), I get a disappointed frown as if I had let them and every other home cook down. Poser, their looks seem to say.
It is not my job to stress over what I cook for myself and friends. Yet, we've all become rather pros at it. Nevermind the orchestration of technically-challenged and awe-inspiring dishes for your book club. I'm talking even getting a meal on the table to foster conversation flowing around it.
So we "do" take-out. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy my pastrami burger and gyro as much as the next person. But, the stuff is not the sustenance of a life. We think it's easier to commute, order, pick up, and serve. We think if we have to cook, we have to sweat considerably.
My delcaration to you all now: THAT. IS. SOOOOOOO WRONG.
The best cooks I know are the relaxed sort. They aren't harried when you come over. They take their time in the kitchen and dig it when you join them there as they prepare cheese and dried fruit plate for the sliced baguettes. Voila. An appetizer.
They don't tarry about finding toothpicks to secure neatly rolled bacon dates. They're aren't half-assed in listening to you bitch and moan about the latest batch of middle-class troubles.
They are fully invested in the moment of having you around. Fully invested in their glass of wine and still mindful of the cauliflower roasting alongside an untrussed chicken.
They believe that a good meal can be nothing more than a piece of fruit with all the ripeness nature can truly muster, a hunk of good bread, and perhaps some cheese or prosciutto.
To them and those who have inspired me in my lazy eating, therefore lazy cooking, I owe every dinner party and self-indulgent meal.
I cannot even begin to tell you about the bliss of radishes, fresh from my friend's garden and their greens still rugged and wrinkled, simply washed and piled onto a plate. Serve them with another small plate of room temperature, cloud soft butter, the best you can get your hands on, and a mound of coarse salt. Dip, sprinkle and crunch. If this is the bulk of your meal it's nice to have a baguette around. My friend, the pastry goddess known as Amber, likes to thinly slice hers and shingle them daintily atop a sliced baguette already slathered with butter. Sometimes there is herbage involved. Sometimes not. But always, the sandwich is enjoyed.
If you insist on some sort of gussying, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt before going into a hot oven revealed a treat I have only recently known -- roasted radishes.
Radishes and butter are the most unusual and satisfying pairing, the herald of a season characterized by lazy cooking. Assembly is more like it when you have the bosomy vine-ripened tomatoes, just snapped beans and ears of corn that should really be categorized with candy. When we proceed to eat these things there should not be a trace of shame for not having done a step 1, 2, or 3 in order to enjoy it.
Some things are so simple, so pure and too good to embellish with flair and ego. Food tastes better without anxiety, even if it is nothing but a meal of fresh radishes and amazing Italian butter.
A few other such virtuous recipes ...
LENTIL LAMB SOUP * simple summer joys * PANDORO FRENCH TOAST * german pancake * SOFT BOILED EGG & BUTTERED TOAST * spicy anchovy greens * corn on the cob slathered with feta and many things * CREME FRAICHE * feta biscuits * ROASTED APRICOTS WITH BRIE * ajvar cracker * CHOCOLATE CROSTINI
The lentil and the lamb. The humble and the meek. Or at least, that's what they have supposedly represented. But to me, the lentil has long been the stuff of easy luxury. Hearty, filling, but a lot more elegant than boiled potatoes. Likewise, lamb has a distinctive gait across my tongue. The good stuff has trodden green, green pastures under the sun or trampled the cold-packed dirt of a milder winter pasture. It tastes of the earth in cycle and I love any cut of it. The obvious loin chops, shoulders for sauteeing or braising. But I have a soft spot for the shank.
This is a cavegirl's cut (they had to eat, too, right?). The centerpiece being a sturdy leg bone fat with marrow that along with the meat around it can be coaxed into the most unctuous tenderness.
Often, I do just that. Lentils and lamb shank into a pot. Add water and simmer. It is a lazy means to a luxurious result. And it is ideal for weather that straddles the line between heavy wool sweater and light pink cardigan/
I make this with Laurie Colwin in mind. How many times she literally made her beloved lentil soup. Always with onion. Sometimes with bacon. But yes, she, like me, extolls the addition of lamb. It is because of her I have no problem sousing my soup right before serving with a good glug of cognac, brandy and even dry sherry. It is because of her I have tried this soup at all.
The most appealing virtue about it is that it is entirely personalized according to your mood, pantry and disposition. Add some tzatziki (cucumbers shredded into thick yogurt), pita and perhaps a plate of fresh radishes with crazy good butter, and well, I call that my Monday night feast. Mondays are days where I often make the time to spend at home at my table. Usually there's the Voracious One and a good friend or two (they always show up at dinner time). The friends are even better when they arrive with a bottle of wine.