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.

Traveling in Place

We dream of traveling to far off countries filled with things exotic and unusual. We long for experiences unlike that which we have encountered before. Even something as simple as market day in an unknown land is rich with newness and unique sensations. When we are prevented satiating this hunger for the unknown, we can often feel confined and lonely—as if somehow the trappings of our everyday existence stifle us and make us feel less like ourselves. If our true self only emerges when we are exploring, how are we ever to feel at home?

This is when we must turn the act of exploring to something more local. Familiar though this territory may be, we can put ourselves in the boots of those traveling here - see what they are seeing for the first time. While it may not be so fresh to us as we are now, trapped in our mundane masterpiece of monotony, it can be wholly new to us—the renewed adventurer.

For me personally, the Point Reyes shoreline is well-known and beloved. But on a typically foggy day, with wines in tow from both local Sonoma County and distant New Zealand (a memory of previous adventures), Hog Island Oyster Company is fresh and new when taken in as a distinctive experience. Never again will we have these particular succulent divinities known as oysters paired with these particular cheeses that near mystic experiences. Never again will these wines from these vintages be open together with this simple yet delectable feast.

And we are, right now, wholly joined in laughter and contradictory ponderings. We can share this inimitable moment and yet still be lost in our own dreams and longings.

When the worlds of responsibility, economics, obligations, and frustration collide to keep us tethered against our will, we must survive by exploring that which might be less unusual to our personal identities—yet can also be exceptional in its imaginative freshness. And we can do it together or alone, as we somehow always are, no matter the company we keep or where we are in the world.

Local New Zealand

One of the greatest ways to move oneself out of a rut is to travel. And one of the greatest travel destinations in the world must be New Zealand. How lucky for me then, that we had an opportunity to spend three full weeks in the land of Kiwis and Lord of the Ring filming locations. Feeling creatively stagnant before this trip, I'm thrilled to be exploding with new ideas for poems, articles, recipes, photos, general life-plans. It helps that this trip came right at the beginning of the new year, when the excitement of New Year's resolutions hasn't worn off to grim resignation or shamed defeat yet.  I will eat less cheese! I will drink less wine! I will eat more leafy greens and less cream and more root vegetables! I will do yoga every day and some sort of cardiovascular activity at least 2-3 times a week! Right?! 

Of course, one must not attempt all these things when on holiday, that would be detrimental to experiencing the most a country has to offer, the totality of the national culture. So we've been on a hiatus from the grey, dreary weather as well as those pesky resolutions.

Thankfully, we were able to explore New Zealand, through hikes in the mountains and along the beaches, through restaurants and street food, farmers markets, grocery stores, and wineries. Though we weren't  huge fans of most of the local beers, we did love some other things uniquely Kiwi.

IMG_1007
IMG_1007

For instance, at a local Saturday market, we were able to sample a whitebait patty, which seems to have consisted solely of eggs, butter, and tiny little briny fish. Fairly mild, it's served on a buttered slice of white bread. Though it is not quite "gourmet," it was delicious and savory, perfect for nibbling on while strolling in the hot New Zealand sun. 

When the heat turned into a heavy humidity that wouldn't be stirred by the slightest breeze, I turned to Real Fruit Ice Cream. Advertised by wooden placards as we drove through small towns, it was irresistable in its cooling, frozen-fruit and chocolate-y way. I haven't eaten an ice cream cone in years, and this was well worth a break in the fast! You are asked what ice cream you want (I chose plain frozen yogurt) and then a fruit (raspberries) and if you would like chocolate added (obviously yes.) Then the whole thing gets whirred up in a big stainless steel machine until its almost totally blended, leaving you with the tiniest bits of frozen fruit and chocolate chunks. Creamy purple goodness! 

There were lots of delicious morsels and great meals, including a three-course meal we created using only local New Zealand ingredients! It featured lamb three ways (meatballs, a braise, and roasted rack of lamb,) local cherries, potatoes, eggs, yogurt, herbs, greens, cheeses... It was fun to be able to reach for summer ingredients in January and not feel guilty! 

But now we're home, and I'm back to making rich winter stews and using only canned tomatoes. Sigh. At least I have the memory of the warm sun and dramatic mountains to sustain me until we reach summer here, or I embark on another excursion. And thankfully this trip has provided me with bucketfuls of inspiration that will hopefully also sustain me creatively as well. 

NZ mountain
NZ mountain

"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.