Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Dining Chez Martin

Perhaps some of you have a lot of complicated thoughts about food the way I do. It's hard to believe the way we eat has changed so much since I was growing up. I look back on my culinary odyssey with fondness and bemusement, longing and confusion. I also realize I spend WAY too much time thinking about food. But I've been working on it. More on that later.

Growing up, we had some atypical food habits, but still plenty of what I call "mom food." Stew, meatloaf, spaghetti, etc. My mom did a lot of cooking, but when she needed a break (and with 6 kids in the family, how could she not need a break?) we ate Hormel chili and rice or English muffins with ham and cheese and canned pineapple. Don't get me wrong--we loved these meals. She also had some fancier staple meals that we loved that we never had at anyone else's house...chilaquiles, Mediterranean beef noodles (with canned black olives!) and some sort of pinwheels made of creamed chicken wrapped in dough.

For all the people she had to feed, I think my mom did a good job of balancing the amount of food she made from scratch with more time-saving prepared foods. Treats made a very infrequent appearance in our home, and our lunches contained very little in the way of processed foods. It was not unusual to find an entire half of a bell pepper in my lunch bag. And a juice box or Capri Sun? Forget about it! My favorite childhood foods were the simplest, and often the ones I prepared myself...the perfect grilled cheese made of sharp cheddar on sourdough bread, or a fried egg on a flour tortilla doused in La Victoria medium spicy taco sauce.

Going to spend the summers in Las Vegas with my grandma exposed me to new flavors. Her Spanish mother had grown up in the Philippines, and she enjoyed all sorts of Asian foods. One of my greatest regrets is that I never learned to make steamed barbecue pork buns from her. Thanks to my grandma Tony (Antonia) I got to try deep-fried flour tortillas topped with cheese and salsa, egg rolls and won tons (which she would spend all day making by the hundreds, assembly-line style, with any family members she could talk into doing it), watermelon rind pickles, and homemade beef jerky. She used to serve us iced coffee with milk and sugar, doubtless the origin of my obsessive love of coffee.

Though I'm pretty sure I never tasted a fresh herb in all of my formative years, there WAS an arena in which I was exposed to the finer things. My mom took the trouble to bake bread and desserts for special occasions from scratch, and they were always delicious. At every extended family get-together, she had to bring the desserts. Her fudge was not grainy. Her cheesecake was silky. To this day I'd rather not serve dessert than buy it from the grocery store.

Well, when I went off to college the only major revelation I had was that things like cheese sticks and fried zucchini existed, and that ranch dressing tastes good on all things fried (onion rings, french fries) and all things cheesy (mozzarella sticks, pizza, grilled cheese.) Oh--I also learned that iceberg wasn't the only kind of lettuce that exists. There's romaine too.

During my junior year in college I spent a semester in Germany. We lived at a youth hostel and the food we had there was German "mom food" extraordinaire. But we DID take a trip to Italy. And it was there I learned how sublime spaghetti is when coated with the lightest of buttery tomato sauces. Served as an APPETIZER. And I was hooked. A foodie was born.

More trips to Europe only deepened the love. And I learned I liked Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food. I loved the Indian food in Fiji. I tried Spanish food at Cobras & Matadores in LA, thanks to my sister. Thai food--delicious. I couldn't believe that all of these cuisines existed! All so different and wonderful.

Which brings us to today. I can buy artisan bread in the grocery store. Cheese and wine from all over the world, if I'm willing to sell my first-born to pay for it. Fresh herbs! I almost fell on the ground the first time I actually chopped up some fresh basil, well after I graduated from college. Coconut milk, lemongrass...I just can't imagine that all of these things were readily available when my mom was feeding us.

Here's my problem. I know food can be wonderful, so I want it to be. All the time. But I've finally realized that not every meal has to be the most delicious thing I've ever eaten. For one, I want to eat healthy foods. I also hate meal planning and grocery shopping. And all those cheeses that I love really add up. I know it's possible to make healthy, great-tasting, uncomplicated food, but it's not something that comes naturally to me.

So here's what I've done about it. You'll laugh, or, if you know me, be horrified or bewildered. I've subscribed to something called The Six O'clock Scramble. This service sends you a weekly newsletter with five entrees and suggested sides and provides the grocery list. I LOVE this! Yes, it's mom food, full of shortcuts and utilizing the occasional can. But it's actually pretty healthy. Most meals take 30 min or less, and use few ingredients, including great things like beets and Swiss chard. And there are only two meat recipes a week, which keeps it pretty inexpensive. Sometimes the side suggestions are things like "celery and carrots with hummus." Now, that's the kind of thing that I would never deem "special" enough to serve with my dinner, but it's just fine if someone else gives me permission to do it! And the recipes make enough that I don't have to buy separate lunch food.

Some of the recipes sound really odd. I fixed burritos with pinto beans and wilted spinach this week, and they were delicious. Somewhat less successful was the tomato spaghetti sauce with beets blended in. But it was a lot better than I expected it to be, so I was pleasantly surprised. The important thing is that I'm using a lot more foods from the produce aisle than I do when left to my own devices. There's only one shortcut that I've decided to draw the line at. No more garlic from a jar, no matter how convenient. It just doesn't taste the same.

My life is much happier now. I'm already fixing three different things for lunch and breakfast, so I really need dinner to be easy. We've cut WAAAAY back on the takeout. And, of course, when we have company, I bring out the delicious food, like this all-time favorite recipe for chocolate chip bread pudding with cinnamon-rum sauce.

I want to enjoy food, but I want it to have a properly ordered place in my life. I'm glad my kids will grow up familiar with sweet potatoes and beets and brown rice and mulligatawny stew. And I can hardly wait until they have families of their own and they roll their eyes over the salad of mixed greens, goat cheese, dried cranberries, pecans, and homemade vinaigrette that their mom was always serving.


ahdrew said...

I like your writing, and I like that you like to cook, because I like to eat what you like to cook.

Ariana said...

Hi Gypsy! I just discovered your blog. I loved this entry. I like that you think about food way too much! I can definitely relate, and it was fun to read about.

Hillary said...

Well, you've finally done it. As much as posting comments for all to see terrifies me, I can't resist commenting on food. Yesterday, I had the most pleasant surprise day off. I found myself in Santa Monica after a job interview that ran so long I couldn't make it to work (darn!). The Wednesday farmer's market was in full bloom. I walked down the street drooling over green garlic, fava beans, spring onions, English peas, artichokes. There really are seasons in LA. You just have to look closely. My friend James came running out from behind his stand to give me a big hug and insist that I take three bunches of the most gorgeous yellow daphodiles. His hands are forever shaking and his face flames red with too much alcohol, but he still manages to make people feel good. The strawberries were itty bitty and all so sweet (one good thing about the lack of rain.) So, with my afternoon free, I headed home and sauteed fava beans in butter with mint and green garlic and made shortcakes for my strawberries and was so very very happy to love food.

gypmar said...

Well, Ahdrew, you Hamiltons set a high literary and culinary standard that does spur one on. (That's different than tying one on, and I will leave everyone to draw their own conclusions as to our respective skills in that arena.)

Hi, Ariana! Nice to know I'm not alone.

Now, Hillary, taking us vicariously to the Santa Monica Farmer's Market is borderline cruelty. I've never had a fava bean. Sigh.