The Menu Journal

I have a bit of an issue with food blog photography. While I love taking pictures of food, I am often too focused on the process of actually eating or cooking to remember to pause and set up a good shot. Plus my digital camera recently broke, I lost my Ollo Clip for my iPhone, and said iPhone has decided to insert a bright purple lens glare into the corner of almost every shot. So the pictures I am taking aren't necessarily the best anyhow. And as it will be awhile before I can afford the sweet DSLR I have my eye on, I find myself at a loss for what to do in the meantime. Because photos of food don't just act as pretty eye candy for the blog posts -- they also serve as memory-jabbers to help me recall what I've eaten and how the process came about.

Thankfully, the good people over at The Kitchn posted this a few weeks ago, and Hark! I had my solution! A Food Journal. I have tried to keep food diaries in the past, ones that counted all the calories and fiber content of everything I ate over the course of a day. Those diaries never made it to Day 3. And I have a recipe book, where I will write down a recipe of something once I have made it several times and it warrants recording for posterity (read: future disinterested grandchildren who don't even know how to read a real book with two covers and paper in between.) But this cookbook doesn't really capture all the little joys of my everyday cooking and eating.

So I got a fresh Leuchtturm notebook ( the BEST notebooks on the planet, far superior to Moleskin) and dubbed it Die Speisekarten, which is German for The Menus. I'm including meals I make at home in my sweet little Dollhouse, as well as particularly memorable meals I eat out in restaurants.  I started it off with what we ordered on our venture to the recently re-opened China Village in Albany, which was truly delicious, save for the Spicy Sour Chitlin Fun. (Ugh. I shudder at the remembrance of the smell of that one.) And since then I have been filling it with my Dollhouse dinners, and it has been very informative to see which ingredients get repeated and re-purposed. For instance, I made a Chive-Basil Pistou one night that, when mixed with some tahini and champagne vinegar, became a lovely salad dressing the next night. Since I don't write recipes for salad dressings ever, it's helpful to have some sort of record of this happy accident for future inspiration purposes.

So the problem of remembering what I have eaten seems to be solved. Now on to figuring out what to do with the mediocre iPhone food photography... Maybe I will just turn to illustration instead!

Authentic Taco

My papa makes a mean taco. When I was little, I would scarf down as many as I could before the feeling of fullness could overpower my will to consume. Apparently my grandmother got the recipe from a Mexican gardener who worked at her Southern California house back in the 50's. Of course, I'm not so sure about the authenticity-- they do seem awfully Americanized. But it's no matter, as they actually are authentic to me. Authentically Johnston. The day before Taco Day, my dad will get his meat mix ready: 1/2 ground beef to 1/2 crumbled chorizo. The meat needs to be mixed the day before, in order to allow the flavors to mingle and marry. Again, not sure if this holds up in the land of real life and absolute necessities, but we follow the rule religiously.

When the day does arrive, it's time to set out bowls of chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce, diced raw red onion, thick sour cream, and hot sauce. Oh, and a LARGE amount of shredded cheese. In the past, we'd get bags of pre-shredded "Mexican" cheese and chop up whatever tomatoes were available at the market. Now I reach for a good aged cheddar and combine with with melty jack, organic Straus sour cream, and in last night's case-- the first heirloom tomatoes from the market!

Papa is the only one I trust to do the frying. The oil can't be too high or low, or hot or cold, but in the Goldilocks zone of juuuust right. The meat, now nicely folded in its pliant corn tortilla envelope, begins to hiss and sizzle and I simply can't wait to get my hot little hands on one. Inevitably, I hover too close and am rewarded with a fat explosion of an oil pop that lands right on my arm.

Once they are out of the pan, the crispy shell is piping hot, and needs to be carefully opened to prevent cracking (and steam-burnt fingers.) The debate still rages as to the proper order of the fillings, with everyone only agreeing on the irrefutable fact that the cheese must be placed upon the meat first, in order to allow it to melt.

And then we eat.

Now that the old man is retired, I can only hope that Taco Day comes even more frequently. Authentic or not, they will always be wholly, and totally, ours.

A Georgian Feast

Did you know that in the tiny country of Georgia, they drink wine out of little clay bowls? Did you know that they also make excellent wine in this strange little land of east meets west meets north? And who would have thought that the most amazing collection of Georgian wines outside of Georgia lives in a tiny wine bar called The Punchdown in Oakland, CA? Well, I now know all of these things, plus I was lucky enough to get to participate in a Georgian feast hosted by said wine bar and The Satellite Republic, famous for delicious Georgian eats and a moped-driven tandoori-style oven.
Georgian wines are rustic, earthy, and full of a tangible minerality. The cuisine is diverse, unusual, and ever bit as exciting as one could hope for. If you ever get a chance to sample either, it goes without saying that I heartily recommend it. Especially if you are surrounded by charming people in downtown Oakland.

"Asparagus in January"

Unless you've been living under a rock in the mountains of Tibet, you've no doubt seen the beginnings of the great revolution of our time: The Food Revolution. If you've heard recent mention of the words organic, local, sustainable, biodynamic, non-GMO, horomone-free, free range, grass-fed, or pastured, then you've heard of it. It can be difficult to sort out what each of these words mean, and indeed there can be many varying definitions within each word itself. It's far too much to describe in one humble blog post, so I will just focus on the most important of words: revolution

We tend to hear revolution and think of historical wars within nations, like the French or American revolutions. It conjures up visions of battlefields and raised fists and shouts of freedom. In a way, these images could be appropriate for the Food Revolution as well-- except we're fighting to be free from the industrialized food system that is threatening our health, our environment, and our collective conscience.

But at the core of the word revolution is the word revolve, or "to turn over" or "roll." This word comes from the Latin revolvere, or, "to  roll back" or "cause to return." And here we see the true roots of the modern organic, local, sustainable movement-- it is a return to a world where our food system is not being run by large corporations, super mega-markets, and fast food chains. A return to a world where people used to buy their food at the village market or grow it themselves. The Food Revolution embraces technology and innovation while remaining true to the principles of producing and consuming food that were standard from the beginnings of human existence. 

The Food Revolution is thus both a desire to return to our roots and a revolt against the destructiveness of our current and fairly recent industrial food system. The disconnect most people have from their groceries is something we've only really seen in the last few generations. The convenience of the modern supermarkets and the influence they wield is nothing short of amazing. 

We can enter a Safeway or a Lucky's on any day of the year and find tomatoes, lemons, green beans, or shrink-wrapped packages of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. We've simply forgotten that the tomato or the green bean were once seasonal products and only available for a few months of the year. And just because we can get them in the dead of winter doesn't mean that we should. They don't taste as good and they're more expensive.

This notion of eating seasonally, even if we have access to produce from other far-off regions is by no means a new concept. The point is made quite clearly in a dialogue excerpt from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, first published in 1866: 

"...the way I see it, the great thing for getting on in the world is, always keep to the seasons; if you don't insist on having asparagus in January, you keep your money in your purse!"

And while keeping money in our wallets certainly is at the forefront of our minds in this economy, we must also remember the costs we do not see every day-- the costs to our health, our land, air, water, and animals. It can be so tempting to bury our heads in the sand and buy the Oscar Meyer or Smithfield Farms package of bacon instead of the pricier Niman Ranch or local farm stuff. But if you take five minutes and read just a little about what the big corporate pig farms do to their animals and how they are simply and blithely destroying the environment, you might just think twice about buying that "cheap" bacon. 

Click here for a short explanation of some of the issues surrounding factory farming from sustainabletable.org. This website is a fantastic resource for information on all sorts of issues relating to the Food Revolution. Take a few moments from your busy day to explore some of these concerns.

There are also some incredibly enlightening books out there that are very helpful in understanding our current food system. The most popular, and probably the best, is Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Delimma. Click here for a synopsis. 

The Food Revolution is here. It is up to you to educate yourself and ask yourself where you stand. After all, it's just food. It's also money, the environment, our health, animal and laborer rights, a whole host of issues. But at the end of the day, it's what we buy, prepare, cook, store, serve, and consume. So ask yourself-- what exactly do you want to eat?

Simplicity Itself

It forever amazes me how it is so frequently the simplest things that make the grandest impressions. Take a simple homemade vinaigrette, for instance. A little lemon, some thyme and shallots, champagne or white wine vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil, and all of a sudden you've got the dressing that takes some basic mixed greens to a salad of dizzying heights. Or perhaps a roast chicken, with crackly golden skin and a hint of rosemary. So simple, yet so incredible. This is precisely how I feel about flavored butters.  Mix butter with herbs, garlic, and freshly grated parmagiannio reggiano, slather it on a baguette, and you've got the makings of a delicious garlic bread. Mix butter, lemon zest, and chopped capers to take an ordinary filet of fish to a restaurant-worthy entree. Or mix butter and honey to server to guests so they can dress up biscuits at brunch. 

It takes almost no time to whip up a batch of flavored butter, and yet the end result always elicits praise and satisfied lip- smackings of delight whenever I serve some up. It's awfully fun to create new ones to go with whatever I'm cooking that day, and I do secretly love getting the compliments from my pleased guinea pigs I get to practice on. 

The other night we were having a small barbeque, and I'd just picked up some incredible corn from the farmers market. I decided to make up a new butter to go with our Southwestern-themed dishes to give our farm fresh corn some pizzaz. 

I like the clean tasting quality of fresh herbs, so I used some chives for their crisp sharpness and some cilantro for some Latin bite. I also used a heavy hand with the smoky chipotle chili powder , and since I use cayenne in just about everything, I applied a few liberal shakes of that too. 

Slathered on our in-husk grilled corn, it was pure heaven. It took five minutes to make and it elevated the meal to an even greater status. Next time perhaps I'll add a finely chopped and seeded habanero for even more heat. For that is the fun part about flavored butters-- they're almost impossible to mess up and so easy to enjoy! 

When cooking, putting together a meal to be shared among ourselves and others, it is often the smallest touches that spark a smile. Though our busy modern lives have cut down on our time to prepare and even to eat our meals, it's almost always possible to add a little extra touch that can turn our ever-present need to eat into something much more special.

Southwestern Butter

2 Sticks of softened (room-temperature) butter

1 small handful of chives

1 small handful of cilantro

1/2 - 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 - 1 1/2 teaspoon chipotle chili pepper

Finely chop herbs. Add to a bowl with the softened butter and mix well with a fork. Make sure the butter is very soft, otherwise it will not incorporate well. Mix in spices as well, adjusting if you like more or less heat. Add salt and pepper to taste. Be careful is you use salted butter-- you may not need to add any salt at all! 

* A note about recipes:

Unless I am baking something, I tend to shy away from using exact measurements or following a recipe exactly. If I am making something totally new, I'll canvass multiple recipes of the same dish to get the general gist of it. My recipes that I post here should also be used as guidelines--feel free to substitute something if you feel it might work. After all, how else do you think those master chefs create new dishes!

*A note about ingredients:

I always try to use organic ingredients from local sources whenever possible. It's always worth the extra effort to seek them out or just a little more money to know that what we eat is better for our bodies and the environment. More on this soon.

Spargel Zeit!

There is a time in Southern Germany that is the highlight of any two weeks in a true Bavarian's calendar year. Oktoberfest, you say? The international celebration of all things oh-so-Bavarian: Beer in huge mugs, pretzels, lederhosen, and girls overflowing out of their lacy, aproned dirndls? Ah, no. Or possibly it is at Christmas time, during  Nuremburg's famous Kristkindlmarkt, where one can enjoy hot mulled wine, full of cloves and brandy, or snack on a wurstchen and a little roll while watching the snowflakes float down all around? Charming, but no, not quite. No, the time I am referring to is a time of anticipation, of rebirth and new beginnings. It's a time known fondly, simply, as Spargel-zeit.  As the time of the asparagus is painfully brief, the Bavarians celebrate it to excess for the entire fortnight or so. You know the magical time is at hand when the ladies begin whispering its predicted arrival date over their baskets at the outdoor maret in the fresh May mornings. 

"Perhaps in the next week or two, leastways that's what Frau Meier said."

"Really? Well, I've heard from Hanna that Frau Beck said it might be in as little as five days!"

Chefs and home cooks begin dreaming of recipes both new and old, and debate the merits of the arguably most perfect preparation of these tender white stalks.

Spargel
Spargel

Though it is possible to discover green asparagus here, it is far more likely that you will encounter the more delicate flavor of the white variety. You can find either type year-round in the grocery super-store, but you'll have to be content with the tinny, slightly off flavor and mushy texture that comes from  canned produce. No, best to enjoy the Spargel like a true Bavarian: seasonally, locally, preferably with hollandaise.

Ah yes, the hollandaise. While the pale yellow sauce may have originally been a French creation, I have no doubt that the Germans would take the lead in any competition of the hollandaise-making persuasion. They consume it with a staggering variety of dishes; over meats, chicken, fish, potatoes, "foreign" foods like dolmas or Spanish rice, and vegetables, of course including the near-holy asparagus. In fact, most Spargel enthusiasts will argue that a simple presentation of lightly steamed asparagus, with salt, pepper, and a generous ladling of smooth, rich hollandaise is the ultimate way to enjoy the perfection that is Spargel-zeit. 

This magical two-week mini-season is truly feted. Every restaurant of any decency will offer a special separate menu, the Spargel Karte, in addition to its regular menu.  The Spargel Karte can have as few as three or as many as thirteen items on it, all dishes featuring the glorious white asparagus. Asparagus soup, asparagus salad, asparagus pizza, asparagus with local fish, asparagus with eggs and ham, and of course, asparagus with hollandaise. 

Home cooks and hausfraus will scour the local markets every morning searching for the finest most delicate spears. Once they've selected their favorites, they'll scoop them up in kilos. With a glass of crisp riesling, or a small mug of beer, the glorious Spargel is the toast of spring. 

And then, as quick as it began, the asparagus begin to disappear from the markets, and the Spargel Karten become scarcer or with fewer selections. The time of the asparagus is over, and the Bavarian, sated and peaceful, begin to gear up for morning hikes and afternoons at the local swimming pool. The brief summer of Central Europe is at hand, hot and sticky and full of sun. Bearing the standard every year is the mighty and glorious asparagus. 

Egg Quest, Part I

I can probably trace my obsession with eggs back to my childhood summers spent deep in the heart of Bavarian farm country. Breakfasts there always included a soft boiled egg, scooped up warm right out of its shell. I was continually startled to find the bright orange yolks that tasted so different from the ones back home. And it was these rich, ridiculously fresh eggs I longed for when back in Marin County, where breakfast was a pop tart, usually inhaled in the car when rushing off to school. What I didn't know then was why these eggs were so much better than our eggs back home. Now I know that it wasn't that they were German, its that they were from chickens raised in an entirely different way from our industrialized process. Chickens here are crammed into wire cages, kept under flourescent lights and stuffed full of antibiotics and feed of questionable origin. Even our "free range" or "cage free" chickens rarely see sunshine or grass as they're packed tightly in huge barns. The pastured chicken, common throughout Germany and the not-so-distant past in the United States, eats a mixture of organic, chemical-free feed and grass. They're allowed to forage, move about individually, eat yummy grubs, and lay their eggs in peace. This is why their yolk is so rich and why their flavor is so exquisite. They're what eggs are supposed to be.

bowl of eggs

Now, I know these eggs don't just exist in Europe. They can be found here, right here in Northern California. At least I hope so. I've tried the farmer's markets in the City, and though I've found organic free range eggs, they're still not quite it. I have to go to the farm, find the source itself. The egg quest has begun. 

The best place to start seems to be Petaluma, a po-dunk town in the North Bay that is everything agrarian and quaint. It also used to be the "Chicken Capital of the World." The other day, Chris and I were up there, randomly, on a mission to find some cherries from a roadside stand. Our mission had proved, er, fruitless and we were headed back on a one-lane highway home. Suddenly I spotted a small, hand-painted sign stating "Eggs for Sale" in red paint. I instantly perked up and we turned around in search of the driveway. 

A few passes up and down the highway and we finally discovered a gravel lane with an even smaller sign, this time with just "Eggs" written on it. A short way down the lane led us to a narrow dirt driveway, marked with a sign with just a red painted arrow on it. At last here we would find some really truly farm-fresh eggs!

languid cows

We passed a few languid cows on the way in, and then we were rapidly greeted by five very vocal little dogs. Exiting the car, we spied a healthy vegetable garden with a handful of ducks waddling about. We heard the chickens before we saw them. Squawking and clucking, there they were, milling about in the coop. Utterly enchanted, I turned to Chris and breathily exclaimed, "Oh, Honey. How darling. Let's move out here and get some chickens!"

Being the imminently more sensible one of the two of us, Chris just smiled and went off in search of the proprietor of the lovely little farm so that we might purchase our eggs. I wandered about, daydreaming of my own vegetable garden and year-round sun. Rather quickly though, we soon realized no one was home. We circled the property, admiring the rusty farm equipment and an old trampoline by the fence. As the yappy dogsn hadn't ceased yapping since we'd arrived, and no one had answered our calls, we ascertained that we were alone, wandering around a stranger's property, and utterly eggless. 

First the cherries and now this! Disappointed, we piled back in the car and headed back on the long road home. Chris rationalized that we could always come back another day, or try to track down their phone number. Glumly, I agreed with him, but I couldn't help feeling like a kid who'd been promised an ice cream cone only to find the ice cream parlor was closed. Sure, they'd re-open the next day, but I wanted my ice cream now! 

This is what beautiful, fresh, delicious, humanely-produced eggs will do to me. Though I haven't found them yet, I feel very certain to very soon. The egg quest shall continue. 

Chicken coop

Heritage of Herring

For many a year I have praised the virtue of the seeming ubiquitous Russian markets here in my San Francisco neighborhood of The Richmond. These corner shops stock all sorts of Eastern European goodies: Russian spirits, Polish sweets, German mustards, and Hungarian paprikas. They also usually carry a fairly decent selection of basic corner store necessities like milk, butter, fruits, vegetables, bread, and meat. My favorite, Royal Market on Geary Avenue, has the entertaining addition of four flat-screen televisions blaring Russian variety shows and music programs at all times. And though it's loud and I understand nary a word of what is being said or sung, I feel strangely at peace wandering the aisles and fondling the strange objects on the shelves. I suppose it's something in my traveler's soul that doesn't ever feel quite at home unless I'm surrounded by the unfamiliar.  Needless to say, Royal Market abounds with a certain charm. It's bright and shiny, yet strangely mysterious at the same time. The black leather jacketed proprietor stands heavily behind the register, either yelling into his cellphone or thumbing his way through last week's Moscow Times. Little Russian ladies squeeze past each other in the narrow produce aisle, poking at the leeks, potatoes, and onions. And of course there's the young people of the neighborhood, brought out here by the cheap (for San Francisco) rents, perusing the incredible variety of jams, cookies, and naturally, liquors. Each Russian market is different in its own small ways, which just adds to the unique allure of them all. 

So for years I have been a happy advocate of these small markets, gleefully parading around my tiny culinary discoveries. Most of my friends and roommates over the years respond with indulgent smile and mild pats on the back, as if to say, " Yes, yes Kitty, it's very wonderful. Can we please go to Whole Foods now?" So imagine my slightly confused delight when my boyfriend Chris burst through the door late one evening with a huge paper bag of groceries and a beaming smile, fresh from his first solo adventure at Royal Market. As it was past nine PM and he was rather late for the dinner I'd planned to make, I thrust my hands on my hips and greeted him with my best withering stare. 

"Hi honey, I know I'm late, I'm sorry. But look, I was down at that Russian market you love and I got you a surprise! It's awesome! The guys at the store were so friendly and cool, and they said that this was the best dinner ever!"

Relaxing my stance a bit, I moved towards the kitchen to see what he was unpacking. Salami, brie, a Spring Hill pepper jack, and a bottle of cabernet came tumbling out of the paper bag. This was my surprise? We had four different cheeses and two kinds of salami in the fridge already -- though one can never have too much of either, it still seemed a bit anti-climactic, as far as surprises go. I returned my hands to my hips. 

"No Kitty wait! When I was chatting with the owner, I mentioned our trip to Eastern Europe, and he said I just had to try this before we went, so I know what I'm getting myself into. And then he made me buy this awesome stuff to go with it. So this, Baby, this is going to be great!"

With a triumphant flourish, Chris reached into the bag and produced his surprise. Of all the I'm Sorry For Being Late presents he's come up with, this one was truly a unique surprise. No flowers or chocolates here, no way. Chris likes to push the envelope on creativity and he certainly succeeded this time.I looked into his eyes, then looked at his proud purchases sitting on the counter, then back to his face again (I can never look into those hazel-y green eyes without swooning just a little.) I couldn't possibly restrain the laughter that burst out of me. Strong and stalwart they stood: a jar of pickled herring and a bottle of Russian Standard vodka. 

Seeing that my laugh was one of enjoyment and not one of ridicule, Chris set about making us a grand smargasboard of cheese, salami, and herring. With the bottle and some shot glasses in in one hand and the heaping platter of of goodies in the other, Chris' grand entrance just made me laugh even harder. I felt the need to warm him just a bit, however. 

" You know, this is a very Eastern European snack. Herring is beloved in Germany, Russian, even places like Sweden and Norway. You know I've grown up with it, due to my German mother and all, but I'm interested to see how you take to it. It's kind of an acquired taste for most people. " Though I didn't want to dampen his spirits, I also didn't want him to be disappointed if he didn't care for the briny, fishy, vinegared flesh. Undeterred, he replied,

" Well, I'm German and Polish, so it's gotta be in my blood or something!"

And with that, Chris took his first bite of traditional pickled herring. After a few seconds of thoughtful chewing, my fears had been laid to rest as he smiled broadly and exclaimed,

"Wow. That's exceptional! It's slippery and briny. Really interesting flavor all-around. Hey, I bet it's awesome with the vodka!"

Never one to shy away from a bit of high quality vodka, I heartily agreed. "Na zdorovye!" And so we ate and drank our way through a blissful Russian evening. Which, I might add, would not have happened if Chris hadn't have stumbled upon my beloved market and let himself be taken in. For perhaps that's the reasonwhy I hold these markets so dear to my heart-- going into one for a while to do a bit of shopping isn't the end of the adventure. When you have a real conversation with an owner or an employee, when you let yourself try something unusual, something authentically different, you are actually experienceing the thrill of the new that we usually only experience while travelling. The whole experience throbs with adventure. 

As both of our family histories are tangled up throughout Germany, Austria, Poland, and the rest of Eastern Europe, Chris and I feel a sense of kinship with our Russian neighbors in the fogged-in avenues of San Francisco. After all, the taste for herring is in our blood.

Butter Brezen

When the homesickness grips me, I always find that it is triggered by food-- the strange fermenting smell emanating from behind a bar that I could swear was sauerkraut, or the sound of a crusty bread being ripped apart. It is the latter that sparked today's wave of memories, though it is not actually bread that I long for. It is for authentic Bavarian pretzels slathered with rich butter. The Butterbrezen is nothing like American pretzels. It's large, perfectly salted, with an intensely crispy exterior and an inside that's billowy soft to the touch. Sliced lengthwise while still hot from the oven, with lusciously thick pats of butter stuffed between the slices, it's a butter-pretzel-salt sandwich of insane depth. 

My favorite Tante, displaying an enormous Brezel
My favorite Tante, displaying an enormous Brezel

Wrapped in wax paper, the Butterbrezen is quite a handy snack. It seems not so long ago that I was gripping one in my fingers, trying not to let the melting butter slip onto my train ticket to Straubing. The Munich Hauptbahnhof was awash with travelers, as the summer holidays in Bavaria had just begun. Jostled by the crowds, I kept a fierce grip on my snack with trying to balance myself on my improvised suitcase-seat. I still had fifteen minutes before the train was set to pull in, but I was anxious to leave the city crowds for the achingly rural small town on the Danube. I longed for the fields, the little open air market in the city square that sold all kinds of produce and little livestock, cuddly yellow baby chicks and all. I wanted to walk the safe alleyways and visit my favorite pastry shops, the glorious Konditorei of Straubing.  While Munich's crowds and wide boulevards were appealing in a different way, eventually one longs for the simplicity of the small town. Much like the Butterbrezen I was munching on, Straubing isn't made up of much. This however, makes it all the easier to thouroughly enjoy each element and notice how wonderfully they all complement one another. 

As the train whistle pierced the shouts and calls of milling travelers, I wiped the buttery crumbs from my mouth and fingers. Already I felt calmer, even in the midst of my tense excitement, the flurry of activity all around, and the everyday thrill of the two-hour journey before me. 

It is amazing to me how a simple sound or smell can trigger such distinct memories in the fleetingest of moments.