Thursday, June 30, 2011

Turkish Pide and a Hot Air Balloon Ride

In Turkey, I discovered bread is flat bread and the earth is rocky.
Like a 15th-century explorer, I traveled halfway across the globe and found pide. This Turkish flatbread, similar to its pita bread cousin of the Middle East, is also the name for their pizza. And like a cartographer, I mapped out this cart
in front of the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul.

These canoe-shaped offerings were not to be confused with the boats across the street.

These vessels were shot from the Galata Bridge on the Golden Horn that separates both sides of the city. The New Mosque is in the background, and the Spice Bazaar is directly to the right of it.

These boats were docked inside the Spice Bazaar, but my stomach was saving itself for the next leg of the journey.

The region of Cappadocia in central Turkey rocks with surreal landscapes and caves. We stayed in the town of Goreme.

They rolled out the red carpets for our arrival. Nothing says "welcome" like a sales pitch.

Except maybe the veggie pide I ordered while charting this lunch course.

The next morning, this was the scene from our cave hotel window. So I decided to fork over my life savings.

The following day I arrived at the launch pad before sunrise.

I highly recommend standing in a crammed shoebox with 11 strangers ogling X-rated rocks.

It quickly turned into rush hour on the 405.

Luckily they were more courteous drivers than in LA.

These rock formations from volcanic ash are called "fairy chimneys." The valleys were once a refuge for Byzantine Christians and monks.

Some monks have more passionate priestly pursuits than others.

After an hour, we were spent like next month's rent.

Cheap champagne awaited us at 7 am. Where was that famous monk, Dom Perignon?

It may have been touristy, but it was a real high point of the journey.

This pide also rose and was full of hot air. But not as much dough.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Lick-Your-Bowl-Clean Plantain Banana Split

One of my favorite food bloggers, Greg Henry of Sippity Sup, asked me to write this guest post as part of his “Savoring Summer” series in which guest bloggers reminisce about their childhood memories of summer. After reading my reminiscence here, I hope you'll click over to Sippity Sup to read the recipe, the rest of the series and Greg's terrific blog.

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Don’t hate me because I’m white trash. Just ‘cause a young Texas girl liked Dairy Queen banana splits, that doesn’t make her a hick. I don’t even have an accent, y’all. Some people just have humble beginnings.

Back when gas was cheap and skies were blue, my parents would take us three kids on summer vacations in our gold Oldsmobile Delta 88. From Dallas, we’d drive somewhere every year—west to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or the Rocky Mountains; east to New Orleans or the Smoky Mountains; or maybe north to Lake of the Ozarks. The USA was our playground, and we valiantly marked our turf. En route, we’d stop at some oases along the highway like Stuckey’s—you know, the place with the big yellow sign with red type that said, Home of the World Famous Pecan Log Roll. I wondered just how world famous it really was. Would a Zulu tribesman know of this cylindrical, nut-encrusted treat? Once in a while we’d venture into a Howard Johnson’s restaurant for some ice cream. My favorite flavor was the apple strudel with pie crust in it. That was a novelty, before the advent of the mix-in. I should have seen it coming. But more often we’d stop at that southern fixture known as Dairy Queen.

Home of the DQ Dude chicken-fried steak sandwich, a Dairy Queen always seemed to be there when you needed one (Sorry, deep-fried dude, but nobody needed you.). In ice cream weather, you could always count on their Dilly Bars and banana splits for a cool respite from the Lone Star sun. The other burger franchises only had milkshakes, but a banana split was a belt notch beyond. A banana, three scoops of ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream and a cherry was the stuff of kid lust. (Hmmm, that sounded a little creepy. Delete thoughts of Pete Townshend and Roman Polanski.) Yep, there was something about a banana split from Dairy Queen that said, Go on now…clean your bowl…be a hog. Welcome to Tejas! So clean our bowls and loosen our belts we did. It was a summer rite of passage.

When we ate ice cream at home, I always wanted to lick my bowl clean to get every last drop. If I did it at the table, my dad would grimace, and in that tone of his, tell me to stop. Then mom would overrule him by chiming in, “Go in the other room and do it.” So I’d take my bowl into the den, and like a cat, lap up every microscopic smidgen of sweetness before returning with my fully sated belly and sparkling-clean bowl. Who needed a dishwasher with me around? Yes, mom and I were partners in cream. I was the butter pecan perpetrator and she was my witting accomplice. Somehow, she would ingrain in her daughter both good manners and a deep, abiding don't-ask, don't-tell policy toward sweets.

Now after living in California for half my life, I can’t recall the last time I went to a Dairy Queen or had a banana split. So I asked myself if I would even like one today, with those subpar ingredients and me being an esteemed gastronomer and all. So to prove that a Dallas girl can go from the hot Texas sun to haute California cuisine, I concocted an upscale banana split with caramelized plantains, vanilla bean ice cream, bittersweet chocolate sauce and roasted pecans. With both states’ proximity to Mexican plantains and a nod to Texas pecans, this reinvention seems only fitting. But after licking my bowl clean, that’s the only thing fitting. Some things never change.

Note: I've never licked my bowl in public, and I swear l'm not white trash.

Get the recipe for the Lick-Your-Bowl-Clean Plantain Banana Split.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Last Meal on Earth: Rest In Pizza

After my first slice, I knew that if I were ever on death row, this would be my last meal. Some people see rainbows and unicorns ahead. I see a wild mushroom pizza and death by lethal injection. I decided this Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton masterpiece from Pizzeria Mozza would be my digestive swan song to the world. I would bid the earth adieu after the glorious notes of this pie played an aria upon my palate. Oh, divine crust, so thin and gorgeous with your heavenly, brittle bite. Oh, fontina and taleggio cheeses with your delicate tang, bubbling ethereally ever after. Oh, quartet of warm chanterelles, shiitakes, oysters and creminis in contrapuntal harmony, how you have filled my esophagus with song. Never mind that Emperor Batali was full of himself that time I met him at Mozza. He can glare at me all he wants through that one-sided glass as I receive my comeuppance. I will be happily sated from his pizza without bearing witness to his bombast.

A death sentence will be worth not having to wait a month for a reservation. Sheesh. A person could die of hunger. And this time I won't have to bring along a Tuscan peasant to translate the menu for me. I already know what I’ll be having for my last meal on earth. The funghi misti, fontina, taleggio & thyme pizza. Say the name with me: fun-gee mis-tee. And since it’s my last meal, maybe I'll splurge and order something with meat, too. I've been such a conscious culinarian, maybe this once, karma could cut me some slack. What about veal? You know, those young calves that have to live in the dark that I haven't eaten in 25 years? I never said I didn't like it. Do they serve foie gras? The sick way they stick those feeding tubes down the ducks' throats to fatten them up? I hear it's to die for, and frankly, I've been holding back. But really, what's one less duck's happiness? Hey, it's my last freaking meal! Haven't I accrued enough points? I swear I'll only have a few bites, and I'll donate the rest to charity. I can't eat too much anyway—I'm watching my weight. I don’t want to look fat at my funeral. I hate that bloated feeling. Sure, I'll have a makeup artist, but I'm pretty sure they won't have a liposuctionist on staff.

On second thought, screw it. Give me one of everything on the to-go menu. Who cares if my shroud is a little snug. You only live once. In fact, maybe I should have Batali and Silverton create a special to-go tasting menu for me. That way I won’t miss out, and if I really like something, I can order it in my next life. And for my final request, bury me in the pizza box on top of that grease stain—my soulmate. Oh, and FYI: if I do end up on death row, it'll be because somebody took a bite of my funghi misti pizza. Hey, we all gotta go sometime.

Related Links:

Friday, June 10, 2011

M Café’s Scarlet Quinoa Salad

Johansson. O'Hara. Fever. This is way better than those Scarlets.
My scarlet quinoa may not be a blonde bombshell, a fictional southern belle or a hideous disease, but who needs those Hollywood types or a temperature when you could have this scarlet starlet? Thanks to beets, quinoa is transformed into one gorgeous grain that's ready for her close-up.

M Café is a macrobiotic spot in LA that used to be near my office, so I had a chance to eat this salad on more than a few occasions. Eyeing me from inside the deli case with her exotic color, she wooed my peepers and then my palate. Her intensely unique flavor was hard for me to figure out. I’d have scary, Sybil-like conversations in my head about the ingredients. "I taste dill and a touch of lemon," I'd say, rather civilized. "It's an umami flavor," I'd bark back, all Sybilized. Ashamed that my uberachieving Extra Sensory Palate couldn't solve the mystery, I knew I’d have to seek professional help. Where was Dr. Sigmund Food when I needed him? Then one day the recipe appeared in the LA Times food section, and the sneaky culprits were revealed. The umami flavor was from umeboshi plum vinegar and pickle juice. Repeat: plum vinegar and pickle juice! I'm pretty sure even America's Test Kitchen couldn't have solved that.

One thing all of me agreed on was how refreshing this scarlet quinoa salad is. Beets, cucumber, dill and lemon make her a natural for the limelight. Give her a starring role in your next brunch, and frankly my dear, she'll be gone with the wind.

M Café’s Scarlet Quinoa Salad Recipe (adapted from LA Times)

Total time: 45 minutes, plus cooling time for the quinoa

Servings: 6

Note: Umeboshi (plum) vinegar can be found at Whole Foods and Asian markets.

Umeboshi-lemon dressing

2 teaspoons umeboshi vinegar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons dill pickle juice

1 tablespoon best-quality olive oil

In a medium bowl, whisk together the vinegar, lemon juice, pickle juice and olive oil. Cover and refrigerate until needed.

Scarlet quinoa and salad assembly

1 cup quinoa

1/2 cup finely diced red beets

2 cups vegetable broth or water

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/4 cup diced Japanese or Persian cucumber

2 teaspoons chopped chives

1 tablespoon chopped dill

1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest

Umeboshi-lemon dressing

Salt (optional)

1. Wash the quinoa under cold running water in a fine strainer. Drain well.

2. In a 2-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the beets, vegetable broth or water, olive oil and lemon juice. Cover and bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Stir in the quinoa, then cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook the quinoa until the grains are translucent and tender and the germ has spiraled out from the grain, about 15 minutes (be careful not to overcook). Remove from heat and drain any remaining liquid.

3. Fluff the quinoa with a fork, let cool slightly and refrigerate the grains, uncovered, until completely cool.

4. Fluff the cooled grains and place them in a large bowl. Gently stir in the cucumber, chives, dill and lemon zest. Stir in half of the dressing, then taste the salad and add additional dressing or salt as desired.

Each serving: 146 calories; 4 grams protein; 22 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 5 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 220 mg. sodium.

Notes: My photos show two different batches. The darker color in the top two photos, which looks more like M Café's, is made with fresh beets I steamed first and vegetable broth for the quinoa. The lighter one is with pre-cooked vacuum-packed baby beets from Trader Joe's and water (I used the whole 8 oz. package). The Times' recipe doesn't specify whether to cook the beets first, but mine were precooked in both instances. Fresh and packaged work equally well. I prefer using water, as the broth made it extremely rich. Chives are optional (I didn't have any). I used all the dressing and no salt.

Related Links:

Starving Artist Series: Beet Hummus

Orange-Infused Beets with Walnuts

My Therapy Session with Dr. Sigmund Food (#1: The Salad Bar)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

My Wine is Cuter than Your Wine

I may not know a Chateau Lafite from a Chateau Marmont, but according to my wine rack, I am a connoisseur of cute. When I got home from Trader Joe’s with a bottle of Rabbit Ridge, I noticed all my wines had animals on the labels. Am I that big a sucker for soft and furry that I’d choose a wine for its terrier over its terroir? Hey, I own a wine rack. Shouldn’t that make me enough of a sophisticate to be impervious to subliminal marketing messages? Clearly my subconscious, with its uncouth taste in libations, can’t distinguish couth in advertising.

Once I got wind of my pattern, I decided to take a little trip to the zoo, or the wine section of Trader Joe’s, that is. There were kitty cat cabernets, gazelle grenaches, Shetland pony petite syrahs, muskrat muscats, and the wine glass menagerie went on and on. I was getting thirsty just looking at this adorable brood. Was it cockatoo hour yet?

So after doing a little research, I discovered there’s a category in the wine industry called “critter labels.” Apparently, after the introduction of Australia’s successful Yellow Tail brand with its colorful kangaroo for about $8 a bottle, wine marketers figured out that animals on labels sell. Now the market is oversaturated with these fun, friendly labels designed to make wine accessible to more people. Just who are these people that wine marketers are targeting, and what animals are they using to lure them in? Well, I put my drinking cap on and came up with this Lentil "critter label" breakdown:

Hello Kitty Enthusiasts A baby animal on the label gives these innocent worshippers of cutesy an excuse to down a few puppies all in the name of awwww. As their baby talk seamlessly segues into slurring, no one will even notice that they’re sloppy drunk. Label: kitten, baby bunny or any freaking adorable young animal

Cat Ladies The perfect accompaniment to a Saturday night dinner at home, they think of the cat on the label as a new male suitor. Label: domestic cat

Boone’s Farm Drinkers These low-budget drinking folk are used to the Farm, but if a John Deere salesman makes a big sale and wants to celebrate in $8 style, an animal on the label lets him venture out while staying in his creature comfort zone. Label: any farm animal

Jocks A fast animal on the label gives them a sense of speed and a winner mentality. It also makes them drink faster which means they’ll buy more wine. Label: cheetah, puma, ocelot, leopard, gazelle

NRA Members Some wild prey on the label creates an instant feeling of superiority over the animal kingdom without actually having to kill anything but the whole bottle. Label: deer, antelope, caribou, elk

Carnivores A picture of the animal they’ll be having for dinner tells them that this wine will pair nicely with their meal. Label: cow, pig, chicken, sheep, lamb, calf, goat, rabbit, buffalo, game fowl, fish (cat and pony, not so much)

Vegetarians The wine is a welcome reminder of their moral superiority for letting an inanimate printed animal live cage-free on a label. Label: See carnivore

PETA Members The label empowers them to fervently proclaim this wine to be cruelty-free as they get sloshed and plan their next let’s-spray-paint-a-fur fashion show event. Label: chinchilla, mink, fox, rabbit, seal, bear

Sierra Club Members Inebriation masquerading as solitude washes over them as they commune with their new wild life. Label: any animal

Bird Watchers They get an instant thrill from spotting a rare bird on the label without even donning their binoculars. Label: any endangered bird

Lotharios and Tramps An aggressive animal on the label gets these sexual predators all revved up and ready to conquer. That, and the alcohol, of course. Label: dog, tiger, wolf, fox, viper, vixen

Party Animals The label gives them carte blanche to be wild and crazy. Meanwhile, the drunker and hornier they get, the less women want to be around them. Label: badger, horny toad, dog

40-year-old Virgins Any animal gives these repressed nervous Nellies the confidence to act on their impulses without overthinking it. Until they start thinking about having to find both a designated driver and a willing recipient of their newfound sexual abandon. Then it’s a just a buzz kill, but they’re ok with that. Label: chicken

If you Like this article, follow me on Critter.

Related Links:

What Lettuce Type are You?

An Overthinker’s Guide to Saving the Planet

What’s Your Diet I.D.?