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.