My Advice Regarding Food Politics

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“Is organic food better? Is it worth the extra cost?” – Michael Pollan, My Organic Industrial Meal

The power of curiosity is weak in the food industry. Families across America are sitting down at their dinner tables and eating their servings of Brussels sprouts and homemade tomato sauce atop a mountain of pasta. Balanced meal? Or blasphemy?

Grocery stores, designed to be like mazes in which we are practically forced to go through every aisle in order to find what we need and for stores to maximize their sales, have made shopping remarkably easy and efficient. They are found in shopping malls (for the most part), and have sales, and are local. As consumers, of food and of products, we expect whatever food or product year-round, and with the same level of quality each time. This is why eating the aforementioned balance meal can be blasphemous. Tomatoes and Brussels sprouts grow in opposite seasons. So why is it that we can buy them from the same store at the same time?

This question has bothered me just recently. Prior to a year ago, I cared little towards where my food came from or why it came from where it did. I was fortunate enough to get a wake-up call. I was introduced to the concept of eating seasonally. In Michael Pollan’s essay, My Organic Industrial Meal, the debate of organic versus non-organic foods is raised. It is based on his discovery that in his attempt to cook an organic side of winter vegetables, an expensive, non-organic, bland serving of asparagus made it onto his table. I, on the other hand, held on to the concept of “winter vegetables,” not on the concept of eating organically.

Pollan discusses his journey to Greenways Organic and hours of investigation and research, he reached the conclusion that consumerism and capitalism are the driving forces of the food industry. This is a huge topic, and while I think that organic food is an interesting topic, I also think that the only reason why organic foods are trending today is because we are slowly realizing that not all the “fresh” foods bought in our local grocery stores are being raised, grown and shipped to us in an ethical way. I think that although this is a powerful problem to tackle, not all of us are equipped to go to battle to change the food industry. Being a broke college student, with loans, bills, and the need for a life away from my homework, I wanted a way that I could eat well in a more considerable fashion.

I began buying my veggies from farmer’s markets as often as possible. It’s cheaper, it supports seasonal eating, more fun than being in a crowded store, healthier (at least when I don’t binge on the kettle corn while I’m shopping), and it benefits the farmer. How awesome, right? The curiosity of where my food comes from is finally answered. All I have to do is ask the farmer in front of me. Eating seasonally wouldn’t be possible without questions. My advice to anyone in regards to food is to be curious about what you’re eating and ask questions. If it tastes good, find out why. If it doesn’t, there’s probably a reason for that too. Be curious!

Who Fed Me and Why? – An Interview with My Grandma

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Growing up with both my parents working, my mom odd hours at her job as a cashier for a Lucky’s supermarket, and my dad’s 9-5 as a banker in San Francisco, my diet was left in the hands of my grandmother. Having raised my mother all on her own gave my parents to confidence to 100% trust her with decisions based on how to feed me. As an immigrant family from Peru, our ethnic culture was strong and present throughout my entire upbringing, especially with our diet.

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I remember that while my best friend, Bailey, was eating PB&Js, I was on the other side of the dinner table eating “Arroz con Pollo,” a Peruvian specialty – cilantro and basil rice with braised chicken in a cilantro based sauce. In an interview with my grandmother, the person who has fed me the most out of anyone I know, I learned that her job was not just to feed me, but to also nourish me with culture.

I asked her, “what did I love eating,” and she said, “lettuce.” Lettuce? Yeah, lettuce, she said. During my teething stages, it was nearly impossible for my family to feed me because of my constant fussiness. This was a time before Orajel figured out a way to give a numbing solution in a tube for parents to rub all over their kids’ raw gums in order to ease the discomfort.

“We would just give you half a head of lettuce for you to gnaw on. You would go at it for hours!” she recollected.

“Didn’t it get really dirty?” I wondered

“Yeah, but you were a kid. You liked things dirty,” she said.

I proceeded to ask her if what she cooked was mostly catered to me or if I would just eat what the family was eating.

“You always had your own soup to eat. I still make soup for you when you’re sick. I concentrated the broth with vegetables so that you got all the vitamins you could, and then I would take out the ones you didn’t like so that you never knew they were in there in the first place,” she said.

I guess she catered towards me, but not in the form I imagined. She understood that kids are picky eaters and that it was worth it most of the time to modify her cooking in order for me to get the most out of what was for dinner. I guess it’s better than letting me decide what I wanted her to cook me.

I then asked about her expectations of cooking for me. Was it what she thought it would be like? How was I compared to cooking for my mother when she was a kid? Who was harder – me, my sister, or my mom?

“Ali (my sister) was the hardest! She is the hardest! Your mom was the easiest, but that’s just because she ate what I was eating. Most of the time, in Peru, it was looked down upon catering the cooking towards the child. I was single so it didn’t matter much, but my sisters (older) took care of Carmen (my mom) a lot, so I couldn’t be too specific about what her diet was,” she said.

“What did you expect feeding me was going to be like,” I asked.

“Well, cooking in the United States is much different than cooking in Peru. I still can’t find certain ingredients here. But by the time you were born, my cooking had already changed since having your mom. I knew that soups would be the best way to nourish you with the vitamins you needed, and that everything else was just about filling you up. When Bailey would come over, it was hard for me to cater to her eating habits because I wasn’t familiar with making Kraft Mac and Cheese, and PB&Js. You started imitating her and only eating foods like that, so I had to learn,” she admitted, “ When you went to school, it was the same thing. You wanted Lunchables and chips, instead of sandwiches I made and leftovers from dinner. I didn’t want you to be embarrassed so I bought you Fruit Roll-ups and Gushers. You diet changed completely.”

I thought about how the influences of school had on me and I realized how much everyone else’s lunched affected my views on cultural or ethnic food. Now I appreciate my somewhat diverse palette, but before I was sometimes ashamed of it.

Sriracha + Chocolate Pudding Mix + Chili Powder = Mole

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After only a few minutes to think about it, I figured out there was only one dish appropriate for my chocolate and spicy food combination – Mexican Mole.

I started off with sauteing onions, garlic, and red bell peppers. Then, I added the chili powder (Chopped-inspired ingredient #1), cinnamon, and cumin. I added a can of diced tomatoes, 1 1/2 chicken broth, 2 chipotle peppers, the chocolate pudding mix (#2), a tablespoon of peanut butter,  and the sriracha (#3). I simmered for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently to make sure that the peanut butter dissolved and that all the spices were incorporated. I proceeded by pureeing the entire mixture in my blender until in became a silky sauce.

Like all sauces, it needs something to absorb it. So, in a frying pan, I cooked chicken breasts until golden brown, and then put it into a casserole dish, and covered the chicken with the mole sauce. While in the oven for 1 hour and 45 minutes, I toasted some tortilla chips with salt and oil as a quick side. Finally, after the long wait, the mole was finished, and it was time to dig in.

I could still smell the warm, nuttiness of the peanut butter. The spiciness of the sriracha and chipotle peppers gave the sauce a kick, and the tomatoes made for a familiar Mexican sauce. The chicken was moist and have absorbed the complex flavors of the sauce nicely. The chips added crunch and saltiness. Even with all of these positive implications that the mole sauce was tasty, I was not a fan of it. Perhaps because there were too many ingredients for my liking. My grandmother and boyfriend were fans though, and they proceeded to finishing off the chicken and dipping the homemade chips in the mole sauce. At least they enjoyed it.

The Gourmet Ghetto, Berkeley

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The Cheese Board Pizza Collective

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Walking just blocks away from the original Peet’s Coffee and Tea, close to The Local Butcher Shop, and the beloved cupcakery, Love at First Bite, resides the mother of co-ops, The Cheese Board Pizza Collective. This is the home of meatless pies, 30 years old sourdough culture, and trendy Berkeley natives noshing on the slice of the day.

Next door is the bakery and cheese shop, and just down the way (across the street) is the renowned Chez Panisse restaurant that pioneered the Gourmet Ghetto in this college town. But this establishment too, has made a name for themselves. It is obvious that the crowds keep coming for a good reason, and that reason can only be one – they make darn good pizza!

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The slice of the day was a cremini mushrooms, mozzarella cheese, basil, parmesan, pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil pizza. Just with a quick glance of the outside patio seating, I saw that everyone was having this masterpiece. At first, the knowledge of a 30 year old sourdough culture spooked me. I thought, maybe this will be to sour? Will it overpower the rest of the flavors? Then, I was worried about the mushrooms, since mushrooms and I haven’t always had the best of relationships.

I tried it anyway, and I’m so happy I did. The crust was crispy and savory. The cheese – there was so much cheese, but so satisfying. Slightly burnt top, but warm and creamy once you bite in. The slice was thin, but with a punch of flavor. This business prides themselves on using the freshest ingredients and it truly pays off. The nuttiness of the parmesan compliments the meatiness of the cremini mushrooms. The basil allows for a pleasant first wiff, and the olive oil wraps the whole package up with a sweet, full flavor.

It was a dangerously good slice of pizza.

 

A Japanese Treat

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Set in the center of San Francisco lays the historical Japantown. From the outside, much of the buildings are simple, gray, and out of date, but the inside of these boutiques and restaurants are filled with personality. Some of them are eccentric with bright colors and interesting items that are reflections of the modern Tokyo we know from movies and TV. Other locations are grounded by Japanese traditions and modeled after true San Franciscan architecture.

One of stops on our Japantown Food Tour was at such aforementioned classic San Francisco style buildings – Benkyodo Co.  It resembled a familiar diner, with stools at a counter, a corner booth covered in red upholstery, and windows that covered more space than the low, thin walls. “Confections that win affections,” is their saying. It is one of two places in the nation that still makes Mochi by hand and in-house. The back counter is really a display case decorated with these meatball sized confectioneries. Small signs describe what is what – white lima bean paste, smooth red bean, and whole red beans. But really, the colors are what describe the personality of each delicate sphere of Japanese tradition.

Benkyodo Co.

Being the ashamed picky eater that I am, I chose the one that looked the plainest. It was mostly white, almost translucent, with a pink dimple on the top. It looked cute almost – like a child’s toy. I had to just point to what I wanted to the lady on the other side of the counter because of the language barrier. It made me believe even more that what I was about to bite into was especially authentic, despite what our tour guide already told us.

I poked it a few times before in order to gain some courage to take my first bite. It was like a marshmallow covered in powdered sugar. If I were ever able to touch the top of a jellyfish, then this is what I think it would feel like. Soft, but not mushy. My nerves about trying something new were not going to get the best of me this time. I’ve heard people rave about Mochi, and I didn’t want this opportunity to slip away. This was the fresh stuff, the real stuff, the good stuff. So, before I knew it, my mouth was open and the Mochi was centimeters away. The rice based treat tasted just like it looked. The creamy white lime bean paste coated the roof of my mouth like peanut butter, and the powdered exterior became sticky once hit with moisture. The sweetness was subtle, but the richness of it all allowed me to understand why most enjoy this Japanese delight.

mochi

A Steaming Bowl of Corn Liquid: My Own Personal Kitchen Disaster

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Assignment #3 – 1/17/13

As I stared down at my steaming bowl of yellow, clumpy liquid that I dared to call Corn Chowder, I realized one important thing I forgot – the recipe.

Being that I religiously watch the Food Network and, now, the Cooking Channel, and am always being gifted cookbooks, cooking utensils and nifty kitchen gadgets, it is safe to say that not only do I have a passion for food, but I also have a passion for cooking it, too. I even have a knack for watching a cooking show, and then re-creating the dish by memory (with a few of my own adjustments, of course). This confidence drove me to try out a Corn Chowder recipe that I only once glance over in a magazine. I thought that I was crafty enough, as well as knowledgeable enough about food, to try this out for the first time and manage to make a decent chowder that I would eventually perfect with practice. I was far from expecting to come out with this unappetizing-looking “soup” that would make me question whether or not I could stomach a slurp of.

My first mistake was that I forgot to make the rue. How dumb was I? I mean, seriously, what  was I thinking? How did I think this thing would thicken? Dumb. Such a dumb oversight. My second mistake – canned corn. Again, what was I thinking? Perhaps I watched far too many episodes of “Semi-homemade with Sandra Lee,” that it corrupted my thoughts on cooking efficiently. I love cooking with fresh ingredients. Even if prep time is longer and grocery shopping can be more challenging. I guess I through this “love” out the window when I thought to myself, “Hey, canned  corn could work.” The concoction was far too sweet and it still tasted like it came straight from an aluminum vessel. Yuck!

My third mistake was a culmination of a few things. Like most corn chowders, potatoes, celery and onions are included. I, too, added these ingredients, but failed to cut the potatoes small enough for them to cook along the same time frame of the celery and I also didn’t saute the onions long enough prior to adding liquid.

Ultimately, the so-called corn chowder was a disaster. Next time, I’m following a recipe. For those of you that have made a successful chowder – kudos.

Here’s a recipe that I plan on following next time I attempt this – if I ever get enough courage. Brought to you by one of the Food Network’s veterans: Ina Garten.

Cheddar Corn Chowder

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces bacon, chopped – Why didn’t I think of that?
  • 1/4 cup good olive oil
  • 6 cups chopped yellow onions (4 large onions) – Remember to saute until TRANSLUCENT!
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric – Great idea, Ina!
  • 12 cups chicken stock
  • 6 cups medium-diced white boiling potatoes, unpeeled (2 pounds) – key word: diced.
  • 10 cups corn kernels, fresh (10 ears) or frozen (3 pounds) – Note that canned corn is completely out of the question.
  • 2 cups half-and-half
  • 1/2 pound sharp white cheddar cheese, grated – cheese makes the world go round 🙂

Directions

In a large stockpot over medium-high heat, cook the bacon and olive oil until the bacon is crisp,  about 5 minutes. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and reserve. Reduce the heat to medium, add the onions and butter to the fat, and cook for 10 minutes, until the onions are translucent.

Stir in the flour, salt, pepper, and tumeric and cook for 3 minutes. Add the chicken stock and potatoes, bring to a boil, and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. If using fresh corn, cut the kernels off the cob and blanch them for 3 minutes in boiling salted water. Drain.  (If using frozen corn you can skip this step.) Add the corn to the soup, then add the half-and-half and cheddar. Cook for 5 more minutes, until the cheese is melted. Season, to taste, with salt and pepper. Serve hot with a garnish of bacon.

Fin.

Corn Chowder - 3

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