26 March 2007

Food and Movies

Not the food you take TO the movies, not even the food you buy AT the movies (can you call that food really?). No, I mean the food IN movies.

In movies like
Like Water for Chocolate
Fried Green Tomatoes
Under the Tuscan Sun
and plenty of others I don't recall right now, food features. Food may as well be one of the main characters, a protagonist of sorts. How did it come to be that food features so prominently in film? Maybe it all started with the slapstick pie-in-the-face of silent films.

How can entire movies be about food? I guess they are not so much about the food itself but what the food signifies. And what does food signify? Both in real life and in the movies, food is ...
creative, an outlet for creativity
love, a display of loving
lust, desire, sexual
giving (not just the food itself but also giving of one's own creativity)
family, home
a reason to gather together
comfort, comforting
sharing (as in sharing the experience of eating good food)
relating to one another, individually or across cultures, through food
memory (do you have childhood memories about food?), history

Most of my memories (the good ones at least) are about food. Actually, I have a bad one about food, too: Too much watermelon, throwing up on the kitchen floor, having to clean it up. In the movie The Witches of Eastwick, do you remember the scene about the cherries? I couldn't eat cherries for a few years after that.

Food is one of those things that you use most of your senses for. (You see it. Is it visually pleasing? You taste it. Does it have a good flavor? You feel it in your mouth. What is the texture? You smell it. What's the scent? When you cook, you also hear it. Is it boiling, is it searing, is it crackling, is it still? ) And maybe since we all eat, it's one of those things we can all understand and appreciate in our individual experience, whether limited or broad. And maybe that universality is why food is so well used in film as representing all those various aspects of life.

What do you think? What are some other movies where food features and what does it symbolize?

It's been nearly a month already

Time flies, not only when you're having fun. Time just flies. Since I last posted, I went to Santa Monica on a business trip and managed to see the inside of LAX, the inside of a hotel, the inside of an office building, and that was about it. My hotel was about two or three blocks from the ocean and the pier and I never even saw the water. So I can't even say that I ate anything particularly good on that trip either because I ate room service while I was working through dinner. Overall, the trip sucked -- although productive from a work sense, it sucked from a culinary, seeing and doing sense.

We went to The Who concert at the Verizon Center downtown. It was a fabulous show. I've never seen so many people my parents age having such a good time, screaming out the words, and just being thrilled to be there. The band performed some of their most well known hits and had some super graphics in the background. You'd never guess that Daltry and Townsend are in their 60s based on the performance they gave us that night. With classic moves from swirling the microphone to the windmill arm motion on the guitar, they delivered the whole package and gave a real crowd pleasing performance.

Saint Patrick's Day came and went. We skipped the corned beef and cabbage and green beer and Irish soda bread. In fact, I think we went out for Vietamese food that night. We live very close to Eden Center in Falls Church, which is a community of stores, services, and restaurants/cafes catering to the very dense Vietnamese population in the DC metro area. We love the grocery and several of the eateries and have made good acquaintences and friends since we started frequenting them nearly seven years ago.

Daylight Savings Time came and went. The first day of Spring came and went. I usually think of March as a long month. Wonder what happened this year.

We had the fascia, soffits, gutters and downspouts all replaced on our house this month too. Ah, the expenses of home maintenance.

All during that time, our Aerogarden was growing and we were clipping and all of a sudden we had enough to make a mixed herb pesto to coat a flank steak. I had clippings of cilantro, mint, sweet basil, purple basil, dill and chives. I put that in a food processor with almonds, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper (left out the cheese), and had just enough to slather my flank steak and broil it. Yum. About a week or so later, I had another bunch of clippings and made a stick of herb butter. We had a pat or two of that on steamed asparagus one night.

Last night we had three parents over for dinner. I made an hors d'oevres platter of 3 cheeses (brie was the most popular, an aged smoked gouda, and gruyere); almonds, walnuts, and dates; and canapes of thin pumpernickle squares smeared with a mixture of dijon mustard and cream cheese, then topped with a piece of smoked salmon, a sliver of cucumber and a frill of dill. We served a Touraine Sauvignon Blanc. For the main course, we had chicken roasted over a bed of root vegetables and a side of steamed broccoli. Wines with the meal were Tavel rose (semi-dry) and a Languedoc red (young, fruit forward, light red). For dessert, I made a chocolate panna cotta with homemade whipped cream to top it off and store-bought almond (not marzipan) biscotti (from Whole Foods, so they may as well have been homemade, they were delicious). I didn't serve any dessert beverages -- I didn't want the folks to not be able to drive home!

The chickens were not quite three and half pounds each from the Lebanese Butcher. I got two of them thinking about having left overs for another night this week. They were beautifully barely pink and super fresh (I didn't really want to know HOW fresh), not yellow like the Perdue factory ones. I stuffed them each with half a lemon and a big handful of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (apparently I was going to Scarborough Fair). No trussing. No roasting rack. I stuck my hand under the skin of the breast and rubbed a little pat of the herb butter in there and on top, then set the two chickens atop a bed of baby carrots, fingerling potatoes, chopped parsnips, and chopped onions (all the veggies had been tossed with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper beforehand) in a roasting pan. Shoved that in the oven at 400 degrees Farenheit for approximately an hour, hour and 10 maybe. I set the chickens on a cutting board and covered them with foil while I dished up the root vegetables onto the platter and dished the broccoli up. Then I cut the chicken (leg and thigh pieces, wings, breasts) and laid the pieces on top of the root veggies and we tucked in. The chicken was juicy and the veggies just giving to the fork.

Chocolate Panna Cotta
2 C heavy cream
half a vanilla bean, split
2 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder (more if you like a more choco flavor)
3 Tbsp granulated sugar
orange zest - about 2-3 pieces using a vegetable peeler (optional)
1 pkg powdered gelatin

Combine all ingredients except gelatin in a small sauce pan and bring to barely a simmer. Remove from heat and allow to cool about 7 minutes. Add gelatin (about 2 tsp of gelatin powder, not quite a whole large packet) and warm again over very low heat until gelatin dissolves. Do not boil. Strain through fine mesh into a vessel with a spout (such as a liquid measuring cup). Pour the strained liquid into 4 ramekins or espresso cups and chill in the fridge at least one hour (or up to 1 day ahead). Top with fresh whipped cream. So much better than plain old chocolate pudding! This is very rich so make sure your portion size stays small or your guests won't be able to eat it all and it's too good to go to waste.

Saturday night, not wanting leftovers because of the mini dinner party with the parents on Sunday, I dug out a package I had put in the freezer of 8 small lamb ribs. Seared those very simply seasoned with salt, pepper and rosemary and served with butternut squash (simmered and then mashed with a little finely zested orange and a drizzle of maple syrup), and braised brocoli di rape. Very satisfying and no leftovers.

Well, that's mostly what we've been eating and drinking and doing. How about you? Eat anything good lately?

01 March 2007

What we've been eating

I've been wanting to tell you for a couple weeks now that I made some really good homemade pumpkin and spinach ravioli in a sage brown butter sauce with a dollop of fresh ricotta on top . The reason I haven't written about it yet is because I keep forgetting to write down for myself how I actually made it so I could edit and share on the blog. We've invited a couple to dinner this weekend, one of whom is vegetarian, and I think this pasta dish will be perfect... which means I need to re-create it.

Using Chinese wonton wrappers (I'm tellin' ya, these little noodles are handy for more things than you can swat a broom at) - specifically the yellow kind that are made with eggs - place a teaspoon or so of filling between two of them, boil them in a very gentle boil, and then toss them in the brown butter.

For the filling, 1 can of organic unseasoned pumpkin, 1 bunch of washed and spun spinach with the tough stems removed, very finely chopped 1/2 small onion, garlic to taste, nutmeg to taste, brown sugar to taste, salt and pepper to taste, a handful or so of grana-padano (substitute parmesano-reggiano or pecorino-romano depending on if you want stronger or milder or using up whatever you have already), a smidge (couple tablespoons maybe) of half-and-half.

Wilt your spinach and set it aside.

In a pan, heat a little butter or olive oil, wilt the onion and garlic, add the pumpkin, brown sugar and spices until warmed through. Add the wilted spinach and mix well. On low heat, add the half-and-half (or use cream or milk if you prefer more or less fat) and stir to blend it in. Take the mixture off the heat and mix in the cheese. Set the mixture aside.

Prepare a floured surface. Beat 1 egg. Set out your wonton wrappers, keeping extras covered with a damp towel. Place filling on each round wonton wrapper, coat the edge of your wrapper with egg by dipping your finger or brush into the beaten egg, lay the second wrapper on top and seal the edges well while trying to squeeze out any extra air. Set each ravioli onto the floured surface while you continue to work quickly. Drop a few at a time into very gently boiling salted water. When they come to the surface and the wontons look cooked, take them out with a slotted spoon and glide them into your pan with the brown butter sauce.

The brown butter sauce takes patience -- unsalted butter over low to med-low heat. I added sage and red pepper flakes but don't if you don't want to. You don't want the butter to separate but just to slightly turn color. Once it starts to turn, it will turn quickly so watch it very very carefully and take it off the heat once you've achieved your color. If you mess up, hey, it's just butter. Toss it and start again. Toss the cooked ravioli in the sauce, turn onto a pasta dish and put a dollop of fresh ricotta cheese on top for serving. This amount of filling should make about 36 ravioli I think.


The other night I made a Greek salad with baked chicken -- I know it sounds pedestrian compared to some of the other things I've written about but when you marinate the chicken and make your own salad dressing and add all the right ingredients to your salad, it's better than eating out!

I prefer boneless, skinless chicken thighs to breasts but if you prefer white, this recipe obviously still works. In a ziptop bag or other container, place chicken pieces, garlic to taste, dried oregano, salt and pepper to taste, pour natural plain yogurt or buttermilk to cover, and mix. Let rest at room temperature about 20 minutes. In the meantime preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake until about half done, turn over, and cook the rest of the way. Can't give you times because it will depend on the thickness of your pieces of chicken. You could instead broil or grill this. Baking makes it easy and gives you more time to chop up everything for the salad. When your chicken is done, let it rest, then slice it for topping off your salad.

For the salad I use romaine lettuce because I like the variety of the leafy green part with the crunchier white parts. Slice a yellow bell pepper (cored and seeded) into rings. Use good quality kalamata olives and feta cheese (if you have a choice, choose fetas which are stored in water, these will have a better brinier flavor). You don't need to, and in fact shouldn't, use too many olives or too much cheese. A little bit goes a long way with some of these stronger flavors. Chop a good handful of walnuts (I always think of walnuts going well with Greek food, maybe it's the astringency in the walnuts). Add very very thinly sliced red onions. If they are strong, put them on a separate dish, squeeze fresh lemon juice over them and allow them to sit while you finish putting things together. At the last minute, rinse the onions of the lemon juice and dry on a paper towel before adding into the salad. You can't have a Greek salad without cucumbers and tomatoes, so chop up some of those and toss in. If you have a jar of them hanging around, add a couple of those little pickled green hot peppers. You can find them in any grocery in the pickle aisle. (If you didn't want chicken, because sometimes you ate chicken 5 nights in a row already, treat yourself to a good quality canned tuna packed in olive oil, or better yet a fresh piece of grilled tuna, to top off this salad.)

For the dressing: a little red wine vinegar (we make our own which is unspeakably easy), fresh squeezed lemon juice, a little water, a very little good quality honey (clover honey is often just sweet without a good rich honey flavor - go for something like an herbal or wildflower honey which is not too expensive but has a little more depth, which you can tell by comparing colors). Add a little chopped garlic (unless you put too much in your chicken already), dried oregano, salt and pepper, rosemary (optional), and finally whisk in some good quality extra virgin olive oil. Your ratio of oil, acid, and water should be approximately in equal thirds. If you like a thicker dressing, reduce the amount of oil and whisk in a dab of yogurt.

Finally, I made "from scratch" buttermilk biscuits and ground my own pork country sausage a few days ago. I'll write about that some other time. Admittedly, it wasn't stunning, so you're not missing anything. :)