Saturday, January 24, 2009

Food Musings Part Two - Virginia, The Press Room

As mentioned in the last blog post, we traveled a bit over the holidays. Our travels took us to Virginia for the first time to speak at a conference at the Airlie Center, which was an honor and so much fun! We also took the opportunity to visit with good friends of ours, Shawna DeWitt and Attila Agoston and their baby Ruby. They farm at Mountain View Farm at the Blue Ridge Center in Purcellville (just outside Harper's Ferry), which was gorgeous the first morning we woke up there - an ice storm had coated the world in ice for the first few hours of the day, and it was beautiful. They have a CSA, and farm with some pigs (super cute small wooly black guys), chickens and goats as well as growing vegetables. We spent the time at Shawna & Attila's relaxing, exploring their surroundings, and eating. One super-fun bonus to the visit with them was that they have 3 dogs, one who looks just like Bullet! Her name is Critter, and the two hit it off like long-lost cousins! So much fun! Spencer and Shawna went to middle school together back in the day - who knew that these two kids from the Park Hill neighborhood in Denver would become organic farmers? It boggles the mind, but it was so fun to reconnect and learn about each other's different paths to farming. One really great thing we did was go out to dinner at The Press Room in Shepherdstown, WV. It was a phenomenal eating experience - it was a little upscale, but so accommodating to us four hungry adults and 7 month old infant. Our waitress was amazing and was able to recite all of the specials (there were several) and take our orders (with no mistakes) from memory. Nice level of professionalism, and very rare from recent experiences. Now, on to the meal itself.
I must pause here to admit to you that I have been watching many episodes of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, and Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations recently. On top of that, I just finished Bourdain's book, A Cook's Tour. It was this book that was dancing in my head as I perused the menu at The Press Room. The platter of a variety of oysters on the half shell was calling my name. It was the experience of eating an oyster in a fishing village in France as a child that made Bourdain interested in food. He still waxes poetic about that experience to this day. I wondered what all the hullaballoo was about. I have come a long way from the girl that once "warded off all bivalves" back in college (vegetarian days). We ordered them and loved every slurpalicious one of them! The Virginian ones (chincoteague) were particularly fantastic! I have never eaten oysters on the half shell, but I gotta tell you, it was a seminal experience for me. They are not remotely fishy, but instead they essentially are the distilled elixir of the ocean. I can't describe them any differently. The image that popped into my mind unbidden as my first oyster slid down my throat was that of a beautiful mermaid beckoning me to try more. Weird, but true. After such a great appetizer, my hopes were piqued as I uncharacteristically ordered something as pedestrian as spaghetti and meatballs - it was one of the several specials of the night, and like that mermaid beckoning me to try more oysters, all I could hear in my head was Gordon Ramsay berating some second rate chef on his show in a recent episode we had watched saying, "Every good chef knows how to make a good batch of meatballs, and you can't even do that, you idiot!" I wanted to see if this chef could make a good batch of meatballs, I guess. First off, the platter came with 3 gigantic meatballs (we're talking small clementine orange sized!) and the best smelling red sauce ever poured atop a pyramid of spaghetti. I thought for sure there was no way that my stomach would allow that much food inside of it. Well, I was wrong. I thought for sure that I had never tasted something so satisfying as these meatballs in my life. The sauce was nice and garlicky, but not too chunky, either. In a word, perfect. I was really enamored with the texture of the meatballs - fluffy almost, but savory and meaty as well. MAN! They were soooo good! I have been thinking about those meatballs for the past three weeks, and so you can imagine my joy when we returned home finally from our travels to find my January issue of Gourmet Magazine with a delicious picture of spaghetti and meatballs on the cover! I took the obvious cue last night and made them. I made the whole recipe, too - the recipe made 70 meatballs! I figured, why mess around? Let's do this thing for real. Let's make a gigantic batch of meatballs! I checked our well-stocked freezer for the meats, and I had ground beef, veal and pork from Boucher Family Farm, so we were in business! We still have garlic and onions from our farm as well, not to mention the 5 quarts of stewed tomatoes that were required for the recipe. The result? Incredible meaty yumminess! One change I would make is that I broiled the meatballs in the oven on a baking sheet - frying them seemed a litte too oily to me, but I would actally fry them next time. I think the overall browning would have been better and made the flavor a little deeper. I would also cut the pork in half - they were just a tad too porky for my taste, and the salt should be cut in half throughout the entire recipe. These really are minor changes and the recipe is incredible. The texture is what I had hoped for, even with broiling them. We didn't eat all of them, though we shared the meal with our friends Doug & Jennifer and their kids and still had enough left over to split the batch between our families for freezing. You mean we can have meatballs more than once in a while? What a treat! I have the link here to the recipe page at Gourmet, if you wish to try your hand at this quintessential comfort food. I hear the recipe is easily halved, so you don't have to commit to having 70 meatballs in your house, though it's a great excuse to have a house full of friends! I certainly am glad to have this recipe in my reperetoire now. Thanks, Press Room for the inspiration, and the reintroduction of bivalves to my diet!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Food Musings Part One - Mexican

We often get asked what our favorite places to eat are, and specifically what do we like to eat when we go out.  Recently we've been away (hence the fewer blogposts) to Denver to visit family for the holidays, and then driving on the way back home, we spent some time in Virginia - visiting good friends of ours in Purcellville and then speaking in Warrenton at the Airlie Center.  Well, busy travelers still need to eat, and dining out happens to be a favorite pastime of ours, so the research began and so, if you're ever in Denver or near Warrenton, VA - we've got some fantastic finds that we were pretty excited about!  This first installment is on one of our favorite all-time topics, Mexican food.
In Denver there are 4-5 main restaurant stops that must be made by us to ensure a good visit home: Las Delicias, Tommy's Thai, Ethiopian Restaurant, Saigon Bowl or New Saigon Restaurant.
Being from the southwest and being weaned on beans and chile, going out for Mexican is a no-brainer.  What is a challenge, though, is finding a great consistent restaurant that will be around for generations so that you can share it with your loved ones in years to come.  This is food memory at its best.  Where we come from, it is crucial to have a good Mexican restaurant in your back pocket to return to time and again so that you can order that good old standby: for Spencer and me it's always the bean burrito, smothered with green chile, topped with lettuce and cheese, occasionally with a side of a single chile relleno.  For Spencer's dad it's always the Mexican hamburger, for my dad it was always a bowl of green chile with 2 warm tortillas and a side of guacamole or bean tostadas.  The pitcher of house margaritas is also something you want to be able to count on.  Nothing is worse than going to a restaurant that you know and love, get addicted to a dish, and return to find that something has changed.  In the words of Mario Batali, "As a chef, it's important to be consistent.  If you choose to be an inconsistent cook, then you are a d*ck."  My father lamented the loss of a good Mexican restaurant like a bad breakup with a girlfriend that he was sure was "the one."  One case in point was the iconic Denver Mexican restaurant standby La Hacienda.  
My dad ate there with his dad.  He grew up on that food.  It was a divine pleasure for him to be able to take me and my siblings to La Hacienda as soon as we could be trusted in a restaurant.  This was done with reverence, there was an expectation that we would love all the same dishes he loved, and perhaps there was a chance we would order something the grandpa we never knew had once ordered.  It was possible, it was genetic.
One of my dad's favorite sayings was, "No wonder we both like it, we're related!"  We 
were always striving to connect through food.  I'll never forget the day that we went to La Hacienda for our youngest sister's first La Hacienda experience.  There was so much hope and expectation built up for my dad, he could barely contain himself.  "Ooooh!" he'd say, "Maybe she'll like the bowl of green chile like me" or "I bet she'll really like tostadas!"  What he didn't expect was that there had been some major menu restructuring since the last time he'd been there.  It began with the new menu arriving at our table, "This looks different" my dad said quietly.  There was a moment of panic when he couldn't find his favorite dish on the menu, but then found it in the a la carte section, to everyone's relief.  The meal took a turn for the worse when the margaritas came, and after dad's first sip, "Something's not right here, a little watery maybe".  When the waiter brought our meals, my dad got a very sad expression on his face as he looked at his bowl of green chile.  He could tell at the first glance that the recipe had changed. "There's not enough chile in here".  
What started out as a jubilant feast of hope and possibility ended in the saddest meal I've ever seen my dad eat.  There could have been a country song written about it, or better yet, a mariachi ballad with lots of sobbing and mentions of "mi corazon". 
 I always saw it as my dad's personal mission to keep the Mexican restaurants in Denver honest.  
One that comes close to his impossibly high standards for us is Las Delicias.  Consistency is their main commodity, that and the Special Nachos.  This is the Mexican restaurant of Spencer's childhood - he's been eating there since he could eat solid food.  With the demise of La Hacienda, I latched onto Spencer's family tradition and so we go there every time we're in town.  I don't think my dad liked Las Delicias very much, apparently their beans weren't up to his liking, but we like them just fine.  Las Delicias has those traditional great Mexican restaurant markings: murals on the walls, a velvet painting or two, dusty old sombreros hanging on the walls, plastic pseudo-straw baskets for the chips, and the classic, ubiquitous red plastic tumblers for your water or pop, preferably with the Coca-cola logo emblazoned on it; yep, it has all of these things as well as crowds at all hours of the day.  While we're socked away deep in winter here in Vermont, and Spencer wants Mexican food, what he really means is that he wants Las Delicias' Special Nachos.  Of particular fascination for me is the popularity of the place.  They have 5 locations all over Denver, and the beauty of the thing is that the Special Nachos are identical at every single location! 
 This is culinary wizardry in my book!  That kind of thing is reserved in my mind for places like fast food chains.  However, at every Las Delicias location we've frequented, we swear it's the same family working there with the little grandmas in the back making chile.  Amazing.  And pretty darn delicious!  The last time we went to Las Delicias, we had a brief "freak out" moment when the menus came, they were different.  Slicker.  Updated.  Flashbacks to my dad's La Hacienda meltdown were dancing in my head.  But, no worries, the Special Nachos were still special, and the waitress still asked if I wanted lettuce and cheese on my burrito.  But, more importantly, it tasted exactly like it did last time!  Yum!  Click here to check out their homegrown website to see their 5 locations.  Next time, some new favorites in Virginia!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day Metamorphoses

It is a big day for change so how can I help but think of Ovid as we enjoy the spectacle of swearing in Barack Obama, our first NF personality president!  (I am obsessed with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, and am an Idealist INFJ.  Mara is an ISTJ Guardian.  Read More here)  We were discussing these personality and change relataed issues on our long drive back from Denver for the Holidays and while visiting friends in Virginia.  We also spoke at a conference at the Airlie Center on January 9th and as always enjoyed thinking about our farm goals and activities in a different light.  With all the talk about economic crisis and the many comparisons with the Great Depression, I keep trying to think about our farm in a historical context.  I think that the comparisons with the Depression of the Thirties are rather disingenuous, at this point.  The level of poverty and desperation at that time is far beyond what anyone is experiencing today.  Over 90% of the American workforce at that time was in agriculture, compared to less than 1% today.  It seems that the economic crisis today means that money is no longer available for free with a home equity loan or an overpaid white collar service job.  But all the talk of crisis makes me think of the peasants who have been the ones who weather the economic ups and downs of nations for centuries.  I don't know if the U.S. has an equivalent to the peasant population of ancient Rome, but in many ways we have a similar misty-eyed reverence for our hard-scrabble, live-off-the-land ancestry.  While studying Classics at the University of Colorado, I was often frustrated by the lack of context in which the scholars viewed both the Roman peasant and the Roman view of their peasants.  We know very little about peasant life from the historical literature.  Like today, the practical life of poverty was something to be escaped from and yet admired from a distance.  As Mara and I talk about our farm's emphasis on gourmet and specialty vegetables, I can't help but notice that much of what we grow and sell are likely the foods that the peasant would have access to.  Our vegetables are labor-intensive, but the home gardener would not be as likely to calculate the labor cost of her own produce.  As we pour over the seed catalogs and cookbooks and cooking magazines at this cold time of year, I come to the conclusion that what is now gourmet and specialty is mostly a return to the peasant foods of our agricultural past.  Only now, in the economic age of calculating the cost of our labor, we find that these foods are in fact worth so much more than they were originally given credit for.  As one piece of evidence, I turn to Ovid's Metamorphoses.  In book VIII, there is the one story, that of Baucis and Philemon, in the whole work that describes a meal in a peasant home.  This is a rare glimpse in Latin poetry into the life of the poor Roman household.  I started thinking about how this story would be translated in the style of a travel story in a modern day cooking magazine.  Here is my attempt to describe the meal.  
  "The old man pulled up chairs for the visitors and invited them to sit and rest, Baucis threw a coarse cloth over the seats and then adding bark and leaves to yesterday's fire, fanned and blew on it until it caught fire.  She then took brush and twigs that were hanging from the roof and added them under her small bronze pot on the hearth.  Philemon gathered some fresh vegetables from the well-irrigated  garden and Baucis prepared them, stripping off the outer leaves.  Meanwhile, Philemon lifted down a smoked pork back from the blackened rafters and cut off a small piece of the precious meat, adding it to the bubbling soup, and boiling it until it was tender.  As they did this, the old couple talked welcomingly with their guests, to keep them from noticing the wait.  They took a beechwood bowl, hanging from a nail by its curved handle, and filled it with warm water for the guests to refresh themselves.  For the meal they set a cushion, stuffed with soft sedge grass on a couch made of willow wood, covering it with their finest linens, which even so, were old and cheap, matching the quality of the couch.  The guests took their place for the meal.  Baucis set the table and pushed a shard of old pot under one of the legs to keep it from shaking, then wiped the table off with stalks of fresh mint.  The first course was semi-ripened brambleberries, wild cherries preserved in wine, endive, radishes some cheese, and fire-roasted eggs.  These were served on clay dishes and wooden cups lined with beeswax.  The soup, hot from the fire was next, and a young wine was passed around.  Finally, there was dessert, nuts, figs and wrinkled dates and prunes, plus fragrant apples in wide baskets, and freshly harvested black grapes.  In the middle of this was set a shining honeycomb, but above all, there was a cheerful atmosphere and a skilled and rich goodwill."  Metamorphoses, Book VIII, lines 638-678
This scene is one of my favorite stories of all Latin poetry, a moment of elegy in a long epic poem, a grounding in reality.  It is easy to imagine with all the travel and food shows and articles out today, a glowing description of this scene as a food writer journeys through the Italian countryside.  I am still working on the big picture lesson from this, but meanwhile, even in the midst of economic crisis, it is good to have an example of living well with less.  Yes, we can.
(For the 1 classicist out there who may read this, I am aware of the commentary and context of this story and the typical tone of the Latin poet idealizing the Golden Age.  I have much more to say on that, but will not say it here.  The translation takes some liberties.)