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.

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.