Friday, January 30, 2009

Back to the Basics

So, I find that I'm not motivated by this new international theme going on. I'll still be doing the international recipes every monday, so you can definitely look forward to that (kicking off Middle East/Africa on Monday). But I have trouble finding the motivation to carry the theme through the whole week, which you can probably tell since this is my first post since monday.

So, starting next week, we'll have monday recipes, then the rest of the week will go back to the way it used to be - wednesday exercise, friday rant/thanks, and tuesday/thursday whatever I feel like.

See you next week!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Italy - Manicotti

Here's our last week in Europe and we're traveling this time to Italy. Italian food is just as varied as French food is, with each region having a different focus or tradition (I'm feeling too lazy at the moment to write them all out, but if you're curious, you can check out this site). It's supposedly a popular food in Italy because it's easy to make, but seriously, this took me all afternoon! Maybe it's just because it's unfamiliar to me. I forgot a couple of the ingredients (the eggs and the parsley), but it still came out pretty well. I had a bunch of the meat and ricotta mixture left over, so I made an impromptu lasagna using ratatouille instead of tomato sauce. Between the tomato sauce for the manicotti and the ratatouille for the lasagna, my freezer is now down to nearly half full (or empty). I would, however, use more tomato sauce than what's listed below next time.

The other problem I had was keeping the manicotti together. The pasta ripped apart and it turned into manicotti casserole instead. I don't mind, it still tastes as good. It just doesn't look quite as pretty. If any of you have tips for how to keep it together better, I'd love to hear them.

And if you're anything like me, you're going to have to do dishes three times, I used that many pots and pans.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 tablespoon salt, or to taste
  • 10 oz chopped spinach
  • 1 (12 ounce) package manicotti shells
  • 2 cups ricotta cheese
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 3 cups spaghetti sauce, divided
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons chicken bouillon granules
  • 2 cups half-and-half
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Saute onions until translucent. Saute garlic for 1 minute and stir in ground beef. Cook until well browned and crumbled. Season with salt and set aside to cool.

To the ground beef mixture add the cooked spinach and ricotta cheese. When the mixture is cool, add the beaten eggs. Spread 1/4 cup spaghetti sauce in the bottom of a 9x13 inch baking dish. Gently drain the manicotti shells and carefully stuff each one with the meat and cheese mixture; place shells in prepared dish. Lightly cover the dish with plastic wrap or a clean, damp towel to prevent shells from cracking.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

Prepare the white sauce by melting the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour and chicken bouillon. Increase heat to medium-high and cook, stirring constantly, until it begins to bubble. Stir in half and half and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in parsley. Pour or ladle the sauce evenly over the stuffed shells.

Stir the basil into the remaining spaghetti sauce. Carefully pour or ladle spaghetti sauce over the white sauce, trying to layer the sauces without mixing.

Cover and bake for 40 minutes. Remove from oven, uncover and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Bake, uncovered, for 10 minutes more.

Cook spinach according to package directions. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add manicotti shells and parboil for half of the time recommended on the package. Drain and cover with cool water to stop the cooking process and prevent the shells from cracking.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Friday Thanks - Lost and Found

So, following on my experience at the inauguration (which was awesome!), we had another... adventure on Tuesday evening/night. Let me set the stage.

N's 25 year old brother (M) is special needs. Not severely so, he's very independent, can communicate just fine (in French), and is basically happy and singing and goofing off a lot of the time. Because he's 25, he wants to assert his independence, so when we'd be walking around, he would head off out in front by himself, but he'd always come back. Until Tuesday.

After the inauguration and our relaxing stint at Starbucks, we headed back to the Mall to watch the parade on the jumbotron. The two boys headed off down the Mall, P and I walked about a block away to see if we could see the actual parade, and N wandered around a little bit closeby to wait for the boys. P and I went back to the Mall (12th street) to wait for them, found some chairs, and sat over a steam grate to get a little bit of heat. N and her younger (11 year old) brother soon showed up, so we all sat there a bit on the heating vent. M still hadn't shown up, so we decided that we'd meet up at 5 or 6 at a sandwich place where we had lunch the previous day, and P and I headed to Chinatown. At this point, my cell was running low on battery. We checked in with N a couple times. The first time, there was still no word from M and she was still waiting (it was dark by that point, and cold). The second time, she said he'd been found on the Metro, and they were going to pick him up, so we arranged to meet at the Metro stop in Maryland near where we were staying. P and I had dinner and then headed out to the stop. They weren't there. I called, using the last of my battery, and she sounded awful. She was at the police station, M had never come back and he hadn't been at the Metro. P and I headed back to my cousin's house so I could charge my phone.

When I got back, I had two messages, one from M, and one from an sergeant in the park service (I'm going to give his full name: Craig Monahan. He did an awesome job helping us, so I wanted to give him his due, as well as hats off to officer Yurico). I called him back, and he said they had tracked M's Metro card use from l'Enfant Plaza to Greenbelt (our Metro stop), but I told him I hadn't seen him there. Then I realized...they were tracking my card. N had owed me money from dinner the night before and had purchased my Metro card along with their three. So they were tracking my card the whole time, and that's why M "disappeared" from the l'Enfant stop. He was never there. We found out later that the Metro services center that was doing the tracking hadn't bothered to check the other cards, just the one with the most recent usage.

P and I had picked up dinner for N in Chinatown, so we loaded it, a cell phone charger, snacks and water into the car and headed in to the city to get N from the park service station. We drove around the city, stopping in bars and restaurants that were still open (it was midnight by this point) to ask if they'd seen him. We stuck to areas mostly that'd he'd been to before because we figured he'd go where he was most comfortable. Then N decided she had to walk, so she got out to check the local ATMs (since they're out of the cold) and P and I drove over to where we'd gone to Starbucks earlier in the day, just in case he ended up there. He hadn't. By the time we reconvened on the Mall, it was almost 3a and we'd been awake for almost 24 hours. My vision was starting to get a little blurry around the edges, so we headed back to Maryland.

N tried to reach her mother in France, but wasn't able to get through. We all did our best to sleep. At 5 or 6a, N's mother called me. My cell phone ring isn't quiet, so my heart was yammering in my chest, because I thought it might be the park service who'd found him. But it turns out that he had been found. The only thing he had in his possession was his Metro card (N had held on to everything else to keep it safe), which was one of the reasons we were worried - he had no money to get food. He used his Metro card to get to the airport (I don't know which one), found an employee there who spoke French (and who was kind enough to buy him a coffee). And somehow, he found a way to phone his mother in France, who then called us. We called the park service, who went to the airport to pick him up (N talked to him on the phone to tell him how exciting a ride in a real police car would be, so he was psyched up about it). We were to pick him up in the morning (or, later in the morning I should say). N woke us up at 9:30 to say that he was at the house, and we should sleep in. A wonderful police/park service agent named Elizabeth (I don't remember her full name) dropped him off all the way out in Maryland.

It turns out the reason he never came back was that he got confused about the Mall...he had come back, but instead of returning to 12th street were we were, he went back to 7th street and didn't find us.

We were really worried while this whole thing was going down, because we didn't know whether he was stuck out in the cold, if he'd run into some unsavory characters, or the like, though we were hoping that all would turn out for the best. And it did. The park service had some wonderful people on staff who did all they could to help us, and they did so in a very friendly and compassionate way. My cousin also was wonderful - she normally goes to bed early and gets up early, but she picked us up at 9:30 at the train, and she woke up when we got home at 4 (I still don't know how she heard us) to find out if everything was ok. She also made fresh bread for us every morning in her bread maker and let us stay an extra day (to get sleep after the long night).

It was a tough situation, but with the five of us working together with the authorities, we were able to pull through it and M came back safe and sound. If you're ever in a like situation (which I really hope you're not), I hope that you have the luck that we had to work with as many wonderful people and to have the situation resolve as well as ours did.

Definitely a Friday, or a whole week, of thanks.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inauguration: Day 2

The day dawned bright and early (or should I say dark and early?), alarms ringing at 4:45. And we thought that that might actually be a bit late to start out, but we couldn't bring ourselves to get up earlier. A long day ahead! We got to the last stop on the metro around 6:30a and there was a mass of people milling about outside, like a tidal wave flooding into the station. The metro definitely made a boatload of money off the day, as everyone had to buy passes (unlike Boston where they generally make events like First Night on 12/31 a free subway day). The passes created a bottleneck in the station, because everyone had to feed their pass into the turnstile and go through individually. At first, we didn't understand why they couldn't find a way to make it go more smoothly (whether by opening the gates or what have you), but it turns out that they really thought it through. When we got on the subway car, there were only a few of us on it. But by the time we got off, it was packed solid. If we'd all packed the car at the end of the line, then nobody at the following stops would've been able to get on and it would've been a nightmare.

When we arrived at L'Enfant Plaza (which is one of the big central stops right near the Mall), the people on the platform were packed right up against the outside of the car already, before we got out. The train had to sit for a few minutes before we could even think of disembarking. Once we got off and the train pulled away, there were a few very nervous moments, as we were balanced precariously at the edge of the platform and the next train was pulling in. There was one escalator going upstairs (and they had thankfully stopped them all so we wouldn't crush into each other, everyone just walked up). I took this photo at the top of the stairs (top - you can't see it well, but that whole bottom level is covered in people), and this one at the escalators going outside (bottom):

Once outside, we headed to the mall. This was about 7:00 by this point, and man was it crowded! Romny left me a message saying that the line for the metro at some point during the morning was seven blocks long. We got there, found a spot, and then I headed off to find a port-a-potty, and N's two bothers headed to find them as well, but we were quickly separated. And when I got back, I couldn't find N or P to save my life. We brought walkie talkies, but we didn't get much on them except static or other people talking. Cell phones worked but were spotty. So wandered around a bit, and was able to reach C on her cell phone, so I tried to find her up a the next jumbotron (which was about a block away). Our conversations went something like this:

me: I'm opposite the carousel on the left side of the Mall
C: which left? facing the Capitol or facing the monument?
me: left facing the Capitol. Do you see the red pom pom waved overhead?
C: yes! I see the red pom pom! I'm closer to the Capitol.
me: how much closer? how many trees up from the pom pom are you?
C: oh, wait, maybe I don't see a pom pom, I think that was a hat...
me: how about the video camera being waved overhead with a stick?
C: hmmm, I'm not...(call lost)
I finally reached P and we met up at the Carousel (yay! Everyone was very friendly, but I didn't want to spend the next four hours with strangers only...). So, when I left N and P, and N's brothers hadn't come back, she went looking for them. Then none of us came back, so P was left alone. Right before she found me, N came back with her brothers (she had stood on top of a trash can to find them and was yelled at by security). So P and I were set to meet her ten people back from Leaf Man (pictured above). Next time I go to anything crazy like this, I'm definitely bringing something I can wave overhead!

We found ourselves a nice little area in the midst of the crowd craziness - there were three or four mega-tall people in a row, creating a large open space behind them, so it wasn't as tightly packed as elsewhere. That's where we stayed until the inauguration feed began. While we were waiting, they played clips from the Sunday afternoon concert, and I recorded Pride (In the Name of Love) because I love U2 and it was just an energizing song, but can't get it to upload this time.

They started showing the people walking onto the Capitol steps around, I dunno, 11. They had the inauguration committee, the Supreme Court, the senators (I saw both of mine there -Kennedy and Kerry), the governors (didn't see Patrick), the appointed cabinet, the past presidents and their wives, the past VPs and their wives, and pretty much anyone else of importance in politics. And they actually started on time with the ceremony (this whole thing was planned wonderfully). First was Biden's swearing in, and there were tons of cheers and flag waving and hoopla in the crowd. Then came Obama's time. You can't see it well, but the photo on the left is of Obama taking the oath. A man in front of me in the crowd lit up a cigar as the rest of the crowd cheered and screamed and waved. One woman was able to record the whole speech on her cell phone. As he talked, the chorus of "Amen" and "Mm hm" around me was resounding, and the woman standing next to me was nearly in tears.

After his speech, the crowd started to move fairly quickly (as we were leaving, the Poet Laureate was reading her poem, and I was fascinated especially by her calling words both "spiny" and "smooth"). We headed to 12th street to try to get up to the parade. No dice. So we headed up to 14th street. Still nothing. Down to 7th. We were starting to feel like rats in a maze, coming to dead ends. The jumbotron recommended heading to 14th to catch the metro, but we knew it would be insane right about then. We tried our hardest to get to the parade but couldn't, so we headed over to the other side of the Mall and just started walking where there were the fewest people. At this point, we were tired and freezing and were looking for a cafe of some kind to warm up. But it was all Federal Buildings. We ended up behind the Mandarin Oriental hotel, which is a five star hotel (they hosted one of the galas last night), but the doors were locked to the outside. As we were walking away, someone exited, so we raced in to hear an employee call security down to the doors (because there were many of us coming in). We walked through the hotel and found a Starbucks on the other side. This was the perfect Starbucks to go to. We waited in line for about an hour, I got my London Fog tea latte and some chocolate, and we went out the other door, which led to a little closed hallway where we set our stuff down, peeled off layers, and basically began the slow process of feeling human once again with the warm drinks, the warm air and the rest. We heard a rumor that they closed l'Enfant Plaza because someone fell on the tracks, but I'm not sure about the veracity of that.

After about an hour or an hour and a half, we decided to head back to the Mall. And there they had the parade playing on the jumbotron. So P and I decided to go over and see if we could get to it now that the crowds were less. We managed to get up 12th to the street before the parade, the staging ground where all the marchers line up before they head now Pennsylvania Ave. We saw women in tiny costumes (I hope they had skin-color insulation, because man was it cold out there!) and marching bands then we headed back to watch more of the parade on the jumbotron.

We ended up in Chinatown, which is where all the vendors ended up. The atmosphere was wonderful down there. Lots of people walking around, looking through the vendor's tables, shopping the sales in the stores. And there were also tons of people running around in tuxes and dresses and heels, heading to various galas, from the military ball to the regional balls to the official one (I hear that Obama went to something like 7 or 10 balls on Tuesday night).

By the time we headed back to the metro around 8:30, there were many fewer people there and it was practically normal traffic levels.

The inauguration was a wonderful experience. I saw one lady with a bunch of the free pins Pepsi was handing out (the ones we were chasing yesterday that were so elusive) and asked her where she'd gotten them. She was wonderfully sweet and gave me one of her pins that she had two of (Yes You Can) and her friend gave P her only pin (Hope). That's the kind of spirit that was out on the Mall yesterday. When I was lost, I was talking to people in the crowd, and one couple told us that if I couldn't find my friends, then I could stand with them. Everyone seemed supercool with all the crowded craziness going on (except for the few people sitting who got made when people tripped on them). One lady took our pictures because she wanted pictures of people from all over the place. There was a lady wrapped up in yellow and red fleece, a lady where heart-shaped sunglasses with Obama written on them, and a plethora of Obama hats and pins and random gear. It was a very positive atmosphere, and given the hard economic times we're facing, that's exactly what everyone needed. A few moments to stand back from their troubles, to feel like there's someone up there who's working for them, to feel hope again.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Inauguration: Day 1

So I'm at the inauguration! There's definitely a buzz in this city. On Sunday, we visited the White House briefly, but couldn't see much because the really good view was blocked off in preparation for the parade tomorrow. We walked around a bit, then headed out.

Today we decided to get in to town in the morning, but not too terribly early. So we headed to the train station around 10:30 or so to buy our tickets. The paper tickets they're selling have Obama's face in black and white printed on them, and you can also buy a commemorative hard plastic card (it looks rather like a Back to the Future style to the card) for the metro. We waited in line:All in all, the line was not long at all. We waited not even ten minutes (despite the number of people this looks like, it really wasn't long at all). Plus, they had a metro employee up at the machines helping (and thank goodness, because I probably would've ended up with tickets to Baltimore or something). The line was backed up all the way to the subway turnstiles, so it seemed much denser than it actually ended up being. I don't have a picture, but when we emerged at the end of the day, the line was just as long....except that when you left the station it extended another block or so down the street. Yikes! Am I ever glad I bought my tickets this morning instead of waiting until later on! Looks like everyone stopped by the station tonight to get their tickets for tomorrow morning and ended up stuck in an hour's long line.

When we got to the Mall, there weren't too many people milling around...I was actually surprised, because I expected more. The weather was beautiful. Cold and crisp but not biting like it was yesterday. But that could've had more to do with my nifty sleeping bag jacket than any objective take on the weather. And all the layers I wore to keep warm: exercise pants under jeans, a long sleeve shirt under a thick sweatshirt hoodie and my sleeping bag jacket, gloves, and thermal socks. I had those heat packets (that you use for skiing) on hand in case they should be needed and thankfully today they weren't (actually, not entirely true....they went to a good cause because C forgot her gloves so I put the hand warmers in her pockets). I'm thinking I could set up a brisk business selling the rest of my handwarmers to people at the inauguration tomorrow, there were plenty of vendors doing the same thing today!

You want to know the problem with wearing so many layers? I'll give you a guess with this picture:

And just imagine, there are lines of these EVERYWHERE in the city. It's rather amazing in fact. The Mall is lined with them end to end. There are so many, I really don't envy the people who have to come out and empty them. Because I came across a couple that were already full, and it's not even inauguration day yet!

So then came the vendors. There was everything from the people with a cause (and honestly, they had the best t-shirts out on the Mall, in my opinion), the people with a message (black power, Yes We Can, change is coming, what have you), the people with a fight (P has a great picture which I haven't gotten yet, but there were several ultra-conservative religious types with placards which both promoted Christianity and denounced homosexuality, abortion and sports nuts in the same breath), and the people with a talent (from handmade bags to buttons to hats). It was fascinating looking through the merchandise, and the people buying the merchandise. There were people from every corner of the country. From the students from Utah who were actually able to get inauguration tickets (because how many people are going to want them in such a red state as Utah?) to my friends from France, from the Floridians shivering in the cold to the DC-ites with a slightly shell-shocked glaze in their eyes.

The great thing about this election is that it's brought so many people together, and it's really brought politics to everyone, especially the youth, in a way that it just hasn't been before. Sure, we've had plenty of elections, but this is the first I've seen (and this is the fourth election I've voted in) in which the election really ignited people's passions and emotions more than their sense of civic duty. People here are excited. Any time they see a button or a bag they like, they'll run over and ask you where you got it. In fact, we spent a good amount of time chasing the elusive Pepsi truck...the mysterious truck which was giving away free "Hope" bags and pins, but which always seemed to be beyond the next street. Given just how many people are crushed into the city, I didn't see any tempers flying today. I saw a lot of cooperation and a lot of compassion, a lot of excitement and a lot of hope.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Lethological goes to Washington

So bright and early tomorrow morning I'm off to Washington for the inauguration. I'm traveling with my friend P, meeting up with C and her family, and N is flying in from France. France! Woohoo!

I'm bringing my camera and plan to take pictures and write blogs posts. So politics are going to overtake the Gourmet webpage for the next few days.

The regular deal will be back late next week, followed closely by Italy week the week after next.

Hello freezing millions, we'll warm up the capitol with our cheers!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dodge Dip Duck Dive Dodge!

In the summer and fall, there's kickball to get my social sports fix. In the winter, there's no kickball sadly. I suppose they'd rather we not all get frostbite playing in the snow. One of the great things about kickball, in addition to playing the game, is going to the bar afterwards and socializing (whether it's talking, playing flip cup, beer pong, or what have you).

So, in the winter, there's dodgeball. This is my third year playing dodgeball. Last year and the year before, the league I was in wasn't very social. Everyone went to the games, spiked balls at people with super intensity, and then went home. Very little bar socializing. Definitely more exercise than kickball though. Most of the exercise in kickball comes from jumping up and down and cheering.

This year, we've switched to a new league, which is wonderfully close to home. The only thing I knew about it going in is that we play in sock-feet. This seemed rather strange to me - I pictured a hardwood basketball court and people sliding around in their socks like on a skating rink. Could be fun, right? Actually, it's a padded floor that's pretty springy, so skipping is mandatory (at least in my book). It's a tiny room, so one of the strategies it cuts down on is this - tossing the ball really lightly high in the air, as a means to tantalize the opponent, make them focus on that ball, and then pegging them with a fastball while they're not looking. You can still do that, just not floating it really high, as the ceiling's only about 8-9 feet high.

The other great thing about it is that they have refs provided. In the old league, we had to ref our own games, which led to anywhere between snippy exchanges to out and out arguments with the refs over calls. In this game, there's a lot of the stress taken out because the reffing is consistent and objective.

And music, can't forget that. They pipe in rock, techno, and pop music to pump you up while you're playing. It's awesome.

So here are the basic rules:

1. No more than six players on the court at a time. Of those six, no more than four can be guys (but you can play six girls).

2. Each team runs for the three balls on their right side of the court. We used to all run for the same balls in the center and man did that lead to some serious face offs (and ripping balls when people both grabbed the same one).

3. If you get hit by a ball, you're out. Unless you're pegged in the head, in which case your ears are ringing, but you're still in the game.

4. If you catch a ball, the person who threw it is out and one of your out teammates can come back in the game. I almost caught a ball with my thighs once. If I'd made that catch it would've been totally awesome. But I didn't, so I don't know why I'm mentioning it.

5. You must go to the bar after the game. Ok, so, not an official rule. But it should be! Dodgeball is awesome and fun, but we're really there to socialize, right?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


My mouth is watering just thinking about it. I've only been out for Tapas four times in my life. Each time was a little different, but they were all spectacularly yummy.

Basically, tapas is a series of appetizers. The table as a whole will order them and you have a little bit of each one, which eventually adds together to make up a whole meal. It's even better when you're there with several people, because you can order tons of them. This is great if you have menu ADD, where you look at the menu and want to order every single thing on there.

First of all, there's the sangria. In my opinion, meals can only be made better by sharing a pitcher of sangria. Then there's the wide variety of tapas. There are cold and hot ones, meat and vegetarian, spiced and simple. Something for everyone. I'm going to list some of the most interesting tapas from one of my favorite local tapas restaurants, Dali:

Patatas Ali-Oli | Potatoes in a Homemade Garlic/Caper Mayonnaise
Pulpo a la Vinagreta | Octopus Vinaigrette
Mejillones con Aguacate | Green-Lipped Mussels w/Avocado
Queso de Cabra Montañes | Baked Goat Cheese w/Tomato & Basil
Gambas al Ajillo | Garlic Shrimp
Gambas con Gabardina | Saffron-Batter Fried Shrimp w/Mojo Sauce (oooh, someone put their mojo in this recipe! Must be good!)
Vieiras al Azafrán | Scallops in Saffron Cream
Ravioles de Mariscos | Lobster/Crabmeat Ravioli w/Langostino Sauce
Costillas de Vaca | Beef Short Ribs in Rioja Wine Sauce
Pato Braseado | Roast Duckling w/Berry Sauce Conejo
Escabechado | Braised Rabbit w/Red Wine, Juniper and Garlic
Caldereta Genoveva | Braised Lamb w/Almonds & Mint Essence

Interestingly, they also list Sopa de Ajo, which is the garlic almond soup I made over the weekend and didn't like. It's apparently from the Pyranees.

Now I'm hungry. Seriously. I want tapas now. Mmmm.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Spain - Catalan Salmon and Almond Garlic Soup

This week kicks off Spanish week on the blog. I haven't ever cooked Spanish food before, but I just got a Spanish cookbook at the holiday book sale, so I figured I'd give it a go. There were a ton of recipes using chorizo (sausage) and some with red meat, but as I did lamb last week for France, I wanted to change it up a bit. I ended up making salmon, and the recipe was wonderfully easy to make.

One thing I failed to take into account was that the recipe called for 8 fillets of fish, and I was only cooking two. So I ended up with a huge bowl of sauce left over. No matter! I took some chicken out of the freezer, dumped a few spoonfuls of sauce into the bag and put it in the fridge to defrost. Dinner tonight, mmm! For the rest of the sauce left over, I took an ice cube tray and filled eight of the cube-holes (is there a name for those cube-holes? There should be...but then, maybe there's is, this is the "Lethological" gourmet, so not remembering words is par for the course). I then stuck the tray in the freezer. And it did, in fact, freeze solid. So now I can take out one cube at a time and have some yummy marinade!

I'm putting the salad recipe below too. It's not Spanish, but it was yummy, so I decided to include it. And for once, I actually tossed the salad with the dressing. Normally I make salads at work, and I don't have a big bowl the mix it in, so I just plate it and put the dressing on the top. But it's soooo much better tossed! And the fig vinager I found at Whole Foods, while damn expensive, really ended up being wonderfully tasty (if you're curious, it's from l'Olivier, and it's fig pulp and vinager mixed together).

The Almond Garlic Soup I didn't like at all. I'm not sure if it's the recipe or if it's an acquired taste, but to me it tasted like salad dressing (too much vinager). I'm including the recipe anyway, just in case it's my taste buds, and to give you an idea of what it is. I must say, I was really surprised that there was bread in the soup, and that it wasn't cooked at all.

Catalan Salmon (Catalonia is the Barcelona region of northern Spain)
8 salmon fillets (or you can make 2 and have extra sauce)
3 avocados (1 avocado works for two fillets)
1 1/3 cups of olive oil (plus 2T)
1/3 cup sherry vinager
1/3 cup orange juice
1/4 cup orange zest (I didn't have exactly that, I used the zest of two oranges)
3T capers, drained and chopped finely
salt and pepper, to taste

Rinse the salmon and place it skin-side down on a baking dish (or grill). Brush with 2T of olive oil and bake (I don't know the exact timing, but I put it on about 350 for, I don't know, 15-20 minutes). To know when it's done, take a fork and pull at the flesh a bit to make sure it's light salmon (cooked) instead of deep orange (raw).

While the salmon is cooking, whisk together the oil, vinager, orange juice, zest, capers, and salt and pepper. Also, cook up your favorite grain (I used quinoa). Slice the avocado (I finally got to use my nifty avocado slicer (left), which didn't work as well as expected, but I was still excited to try it). Plate the quinoa and avocado side by side and top with the salmon. Spoon enough sauce over top to lightly cover the salmon and avocado. Enjoy!

Salad with Fig Vinegar Dressing (I'm not going to give quantities on the veggies, depending on how much you need just make enough dressing to cover it all)

baby spinach
red bell pepper, cut into small pieces
apples, with skin and cut into small pieces
grapes, halved

1-1.5 parts olive oil
1 part vinegar (either balsamic, white balsamic, or fig)
dollop of dijon mustard
salt and pepper

Garlic and Almond Soup (this is apparently a speciality in Spain, though I'm not sure if I'm making it correctly here. If any of you have made it and can see where I went wrong, please let me know!)

3c blanched almonds
4c fresh country bread, cut into 1" chunks
3T coarsely chopped garlic
2/3c sherry vinegar
2/3c olive oil
3T salt
6-7c water
sliced almonds and halved grapes for garnish

Put the blanched almonds and garlic in a food processor and process until grainy. Add the bread, vinegar, oil, salt, and 4 cups of water and process until paste. Pour into a bowl and add the remaining water. Chill for four hours. Stir thoroughly before serving and add sliced almonds and graped to the bowls after plating (I forgot the grapes).

Friday, January 9, 2009

French cheese....and Friday rant

I know I've ranted about the state of cheese in the United States before. But I'm going to do it again, and go more in detail about the cheese itself.

The United States does have some very good hard cheeses. Like cheddar. I love me some sharp cheddar, great for a snack, and it can still be made pretty tasty even when lower in fat than the regular kind. We also make the world's worst cheeses, including Cheez Whiz (cheese in a can? Seriously? And yes, I did eat this as a kid, I will admit it) and American cheese (I'm convinced that cheese-flavored is as much a euphemism as is watermelon-flavored for Jolly Ranchers. I love Watermelon Jolly Ranchers, but seriously, they don't taste like watermelon. I don't love American cheese).

France, however, has some of the best cheeses. Ever. Part of the reason for that is the use of raw milk in their cheese (not pasteurizing, which is the heating of the milk to a certain temperature to kill the bacteria). Now, pasteurizing was invented for a reason. Hell, my high school was on Avenue Louis Pasteur, so it's a major step in science. But I have to say that cheese that hasn't been pasteurized is oh so yummy. I'm not a big fan of the moldy cheese, like Roquefort or Gorgonzola, but the rest are very tasty. Here are some examples:

Brie is ubiquitous in Cheeseland. Every party you go to has it. Now, here in the States, Brie has a fairly bland, rather ho-hum flavor, and to me seems more like spreadable cheese (preprocessed) than real cheese (brie here, even if it was made in France, tends to be pasteurized). It can still be tasty, depending on the batch, but it's a shadow of tasty. Now, compared to other French cheeses, brie does have a very mild flavor. But it's got more flavor than the stuff here.

One of my favorites is camembert. This is also a wheel and looks rather like brie. But it's got a much stronger flavor. I've heard people say that you know the camembert is ready to eat when it smells like stinky socks. I've also heard that it was a great cheese for poorer families because you take out a slice, leave it to sit for a little while, and the soft cheese will fill in the area you sliced out (though I imagine this would reduce the overall size of the cheese). Camembert is also available in the States, often pasteurized, and on the grand scheme of things is relatively mild (though stronger than brie).

Chevre (goat cheese) is one of my absolute favorites. My local farmer's market has a stand which sells goat cheese in various flavors (citrus lavendar, orange cardamom, chive, pepper, etc), and it's still yummy even though the flavor of the cheese isn't very strong. In Paris, I had slices of goat cheese on baguette, topped with a softer cheese (I'm not sure if it was parmesan or what) and then baked in the oven. Absolute heaven!

Comte (com-tay, I don't have accents) is a hard French cheese which is rather mild but also fairly nutty in flavor. It's great on a stiffer bread than baguette, like a rustic loaf of some kind. The cheese was originally made to nourish shepherds who were on the road for long periods of time, so the cheese would stay good for months (can you imagine?! I should go buy some of this, if they have it, because it takes me a long time to eat cheese!)

Emmental (Swiss) is a cheese I've never really gotten behind. At least, in the US incarnation. I know tons of kids loved the holey cheese on their sandwiches, and I was just never a fan. It's still not one of my favorites, but I at least find the real emmental to be palatable in small doses (ringing endorsement, isn't it?).

Roquefort is the characteric moldy cheese that scares a lot of people. We've been conditioned by evolution to avoid mold and nasty-looking stuff to safeguard our health. But the French have figured out a way to harness the mold in a tasty way. It's also known as the "King of Cheeses" but maybe that's just because the bright blue/green mold will scare away the other cheeses, or cow them into submission. I now feel like I should go back and try it again. And hey, a little penicillin couldn't hurt, right?

There are so many more French cheeses, it's not even funny (there are about 500 different kinds). As much as France is known for wine, it's known for cheese. Here's a wikipedia page listing a bunch of them (though it isn't an exhaustive list). One of my favorites when I was in Toulouse was a hard mountain cheese that for the life of me I can't remember the name of (except that it started with an M), but I had the impression it was more of a local cheese, so I don't think I'd be able to find it around here.

I understand the reasoning behind the laws against raw milk. They don't want people to get sick. But seriously, millions of people every day in this country eat McDonald's, which is even worse (yeah, cheese has bacteria and saturated fat, but McDo's has tons of chemicals on top of the saturated and trans fats). I think we should be able to make raw milk cheese in this country (though given we don't have a culture of it, it probably wouldn't be as good as European cheese for a good while), and just put labels on it saying that it could potentially be dangerous. I mean, hell, that's what we do with cigarettes. There are warnings on cigarettes that they could kill you or give you cancer or whatever, there are warnings on alcohol to warn pregnant women about its effects. If people disregard those warnings, that's their own problem.

My two cents. Finis.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Life ish good, ishn't it?

I know I promised a cheese post for today, but I'm putting that off for tomorrow because it's going to have a little bit of a rant in it, and Friday is rant day.

Today is about that wonderful stuff we imbibe so freely this time of year...alcohol. And because this is French week, let's take a tour of the alcohol in France!

France is basically one big wine basket. Most of the regions in the country support it, and just by drinking wine, you take a tour of the country. Bordeaux wines from the Bordeaux region of southwest France, bubbly champagne from Champagne in mid-France (and the requisite brou-haha that goes along with Champagne, and only Champagne, being able to use that appellation for their drink), Riesling from Strasbourg, Burgundy reds in Bourgogne (also known for their Dijon mustards). Honestly, I like wine, but I'm not much of a conoisseur. I haven't yet achieved a taste for all the subtleties of fine wines, so their mysteries still elude me a bit.

On a more unusual note, the area of Normandie (northwest France) is known more for their apple and pear trees. So you can see the riot of colors at Monet's home at Giverny, and take in the scenery with an apple tart and a tart cidre or poire (cider is often calvados, and is sometimes poured overtop of the apple tart, and I haven't tried the poire (there should be an accent over the e, poir-ay), but I imagine it's much similar, just more pear-flavored). I did try the tart with the calvados and man was it strong!

Lorraine, which is in northeast France, hosts a delicious plum which is used to make Brandy (did you know brandy was made from plums? I sure didn't! Color me surprised). And Cognac comes from (quel surprise!) Cognac...but I've never tried it, and honestly I have no idea what to do with it. I think it's drunk straight in this area, though one website mentioned that it could be added to any number of cocktails. This shall require some research.

The north (Picardie, Pas-de-Calais) seems to have a goodly number of artisanal breweries making excellent beer. As I didn't start drinking beer until last year, I didn't try any of them when I was there, but I love the idea of having beer from a small artisanal brewery. I'm still acquiring a taste for beer, which means that I'm stuck on the mass produced stuff like Miller Lite until I can acquire a taste for the more flavorful, microbrewed types.

Grand Marnier, which I should have known was French (given the name), but had never really thought that much about it, is from the Ile-de-France, which is the central region which also hosts Paris and Versailles. The orange liqueur is great added to orange tea (I'm told it's great for colds, though I've never had luck with that), simosas (dangerous! doesn't even taste like alcohol, until you feel the kick), or biscotti.

To round off the list is pastis. Pastis was created when absinthe was banned in 1915. Basically, they took out the wormwood and added in more aniseed flavor, making it very licorice in taste. It's mostly popular in the south of France.

So that's my alcohol round-up for the day. Any I missed that are your favorites? Or does it not matter, just mix 'em all and deal with the hangover tomorrow? ;)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Exercise isn't just for gym rats...

So I know there are a lot of people who just hate the gym. Whether it's because of the meat market atmosphere some of them have, or the smell, or the sweat, or the funky machines that look like torture devices, or what have you. Gyms aren't for everyone (or maybe they are, you just have to be in the right frame of mind).

But here's the in the States, I feel like many of us have gotten so lazy in our daily lives, that if we don't go to the gym, we get no exercise whatsoever. I've seen people drive to the gym (admittedly, it was in an area where you have to drive because it wasn't a walkable city), then park illegally near the entrance because they couldn't walk THREE extra minutes by parking on the other side of the lot. To go to the gym. To exercise. That baffles me.

I think a lot of people view exercise as an all or nothing thing. You go to the gym (or on the bike trail or whatever), pound out of sweat, work really hard, or you just sit on the couch or hang with friends. There's no middle ground.

Well, for all you New Year's resolutioners out there, there IS a middle ground! And it's called walking, and stairs, and ice skating, and snow shoveling. Exercise in a gym helps strengthen and tone, but if you're not able to get there, then there are functional activities that can get you moving.

Now admittedly, this time of year isn't great for working out outside. I really miss my morning walks to the subway in the morning, but it's just too damn cold out now. And the cyclists this time of year must have a death wish with all the ice and slush on the roads.

But I can't tell you how many people I see every day taking the elevator to the second floor of my building at work. The second floor! Now, I realize that some people can't climb stairs, but honestly, these people looked perfectly capable, just a bit on autopilot. Granted, I used to work on the third floor, and I've been taking the elevator, so I'm a bit of a hypocrite. But I also do go to the gym a lot, so I feel entitled to a little bit of relaxation (and yes, I realize that could be what these people are doing too).

Something else I noticed...I walked out my front door onto the open air walkway last week, and the walkway was covered with snow. The snow ground into my boots, and when I stepped into the tile stairwell, my boots went everywhere. And I thanked my lucky stars I've taught gliding because as I was walking down the stairs, one foot kept shooting out to the side, just like the gliding skating that I used to teach. So I was used to the sensation, but I'd never actually found a functional application for the movement before. Coolness of coolnesses!

You can even get your weight lifting through functional exercise with all that wonderful drifting fluffy stuff outside. Shoveling snow is great exercise for your back, shoulders, biceps, legs, all that stuff (as long as you shovel properly and don't overextend your back), and it gets the heart rate up as well. So one of these days, if you don't have a mega-long stretch to shovel, break it out old school instead of the snow blower.

Since this is French week, I'll close this post in France. When I was there, there were very few gyms around to join, and even fewer classes. My impression (from both books and talking to people) is that the French don't really like to sweat that much, and high intensity exercise isn't as common as it is here (Tour de France not withstanding). But man do they walk everywhere, and they're much more likely to take the stairs than the elevator (if there even is an elevator). So there isn't as much formal exercise, but there's more movement in day to day life. And honestly, I think that's the way to go. Because if it's incorporated into day to day life, then you don't even notice you're doing it, and therefore don't need motivation, since it's just normal.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

France - the wonderful power of chocolate

You can't really talk about France without mentioning chocolate. And since this is French week, well then, here's my chocolate post.

When I studied in Toulouse (southwestern France), I found the 4th best chocolatier in the country on the main shopping drag. It was a cute little store (I don't remember the name) that had any kind of chocolate you wanted - bar shapes of dark chocolate with anything from ginger to fruit to nuts, little chocolates under glass, like the ones you get in boxes of chocolate, gift boxes of chocolate, all that good stuff. As at the time I didn't eat dark chocolate, I would settle for a big honkin' hunk of milk chocolate. I'd bring it into the movie theater with me and gnaw on it until my teeth hurt. I brought some with me on vacation to Great Britain, and bought a bunch of tea, which I stored in the same pouch as the chocolate. The chocolate took on the flavor of the tea, which was rather strange and not all that pleasant, given the large variety of teas I had. I miss that chocolate.

Then there's the hot chocolate, which is just called chocolat there. You can ask for a chocolat chaud but it just sounds funny to me. If it's morning and you go to a cafe and ask for a chocolat, you'll get a bowl of hot chocolate that's very yummy. And yes, it comes in a bowl. I went to see a movie last year where the character drank their hot chocolate from a bowl. The American I was seeing it with thought that they were using a bowl because all the mugs were dirty, and was amused when I said that no, that's really how the French drink it. The taste of the hot chocolate there? It's good stuff, but honestly, I'm a child of the Swiss Mix generation, and I have trouble really getting on board with the good stuff.

You can't talk about French chocolate without talking Nutella. Sure, it's not really chocolate. It's like Cool Whip is whipped cream - it tastes like chocolate, it's called chocolate, it has chocolate as an ingredient, but it's a mass market product. But even given that, I have to tell you that I love the stuff. I wasn't always on board. It always struck me as rather strange to spread chocolate hazelnut frosting on bread, and I've never been all that big on chocolate with breakfast. But then I bought some and started putting it on my morning toast at work. And man, I'm a convert, yes sirree I am.

What with the European Union's regulations, there's been a lot of talk in France (at least there was several years ago when I was there, I honestly don't know how they've worked it out) about how the globalization was going to hurt the small artisans. Because anybody could call themselves a chocolatier even if they didn't undergo the same standards as the original French version. Same thing with cheese (as well as the standards to try to reduce the amount of raw milk used, which also reduces the amount of yummy taste. Cheese post coming up on Thursday). But I don't have the time or wherewithall at the moment (between blowing my nose and coughing) to do all the requisite research about the chocolate appellation process and the current regulations, so I'll just leave with the vague impressions I was given 8 years ago. But the whole issue of globalization is an important one, in that it affects the individual process of products.

So off with you, have a candy bar today, and if nobody sees you eat it, then it doesn't count!

Monday, January 5, 2009

France - Provencal Lamb Stew, Rosemary Fougasse, and Saffron Garlic Dip

Welcome to 2009! So here I am embarking on my five month journey around the world. Every month I will focus on a different continent, and January is Europe. So France is our first stop, Provence (southeast France), to be more precise. I decided to go with Europe first because it is a relatively cold region, like ours, so it would go well with our cold weather in January. So while there are plenty of summer-weather Mediterranean dishes, I'll be more likely focus on the heavier dishes for the moment. I may revisit some of the lighter fare in May when I'll have miscellaneous month (for what I didn't have time to get to).

Foods from Provence tend to be rich in spices, citrus sun-ripened veggies, and abundant in fish and seafood. French food in general tends to focus on fresh ingredients, rich flavors, and local foods (they once tore apart a McDonald's to protest globalization).

When I spent a semester in Toulouse (southwest France), one of my favorite breads was Fougasse, a southern fisherman's bread. I've taken a chance and added rosemary to it, just to see what it's like (and because I bought waaaay too much rosemary). I also chose this olive oil dip because I had some saffron from my trip to Egypt that I wanted to use. Saffron being as expensive as it is, you could either leave it out or substitute it with another spice you enjoy.

I must say in all honesty that I'm not a big fan of how the lamb stew turned out. It's ok, I'll eat it, but I wouldn't make this particular recipe again. The dip came out absolutely wonderfully, and the bread very tasty as well. If I did make the stew again, I'd reduce the number of carrots, and add potatoes and mushrooms, and possibly some other veggies. Also, the original recipe called for a rose wine, but I used red since that's what I had on hand. Probably affected the flavor.

I know that people used to make bread every day fresh, but for me, I've only ever gotten fresh baked bread at stores, restaurants, bakeries, that kind of thing. So on the rare occasions I actually make it, I can't quite believe that I've really made bread. It's kind of the same feeling I have when I go to a baseball game - I know I'm at the game and I'm seeing the real players, but it takes me several innings to get over the fact of how 3D they are.

Agneau confit au miel et au vin rose (Honey and wine lamb stew)
1 shoulder of lamb about 3lb, boned (I also removed as much fat as I could)
1/4 cup of rosemary honey (I didn't have this, so I used regular honey and added rosemary)
fine sea salt and freshly gound black pepper to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2lb shallots, finely chopped
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
lb carrots, peeled and sliced (or put in a food processor, my favorite kitchen appliance)
2 celery ribs, diced
20 boiling onions, peeled
tsp grated fresh nutmeg
a few sprigs of fresh rosemary
5 1/2 cups infusion de romarin

Infusion to romarin
2 bunches fresh rosemary sprigs
4 bay leaves
8 juniper berries (I couldn't find these, so I just left them out)
2in piece of dried orange peel (I used more than that of fresh peel)
1 bottle rose/red wine

To make the infusion: Put the rosemary, bay leaves, juniper berries, and orange peel in a saucepan with 5 1/2 cups of boiling water. Reduce heat to very low and cook 15 minutes or so to infuse the flavors. Add the wine, increasing heat to medium-high and cook until liquid has reduced by one third. Strain infusion. In addition to use in the stew, it can also be used as a marinade.

To make the stew: Cut the lamb into small pieces, cutting off as much of the fat as desired. Brush the lamb with the honey and rosemary and season lightly ith salt and pepper. Put lamb in a large saucepan with the olive oil and cook until meat is browned all over. Add the shallots, garlic, carrots, celery, and onions. Stir well and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Continue cooking, partially covered, over very low heat for 10-15 minutes. Ladle in the rosemary infusion and stir to keep the lamb just covered with liquid as it simmers. Cook for up to 2 hours, stirring from time to time and adjust the seasonings.

Rosemary Fougasse
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 package active dry yeast
1 cup whole wheat graham flour
1/2 cup buckwheat flour
2t salt
T olive oil
sprig of rosemary, herb removed from its branch
2-3 cups bread flour

Combine water, yeast, whole wheat flour, buckwheat flour, rosemary, salt and oil in a large bowl. Beat until combined. Cover and let rest for about 15 minutes, to allow the yeast to develop. Add 2 cups of the bread flour to the yeast mixture and beat until thoroughly mixed.
Add enough of the remaining bread flour to make a firm, slightly sticky dough. Knead for about 12-15 minutes, adding more flour as needed to keep the dough manageable. When the dough is smooth and elastic, lightly oil the surface, place the dough in abowl, cover and let rise in a warm place for about an hour (or until doubled in bulk). Once risen, punch down the dough to work out the larger air pockets. Divide the dough into 2 equal pieces and spread each out in an over 1/2" thick. Place on a baking sheet (or two, if needed). Using a sharp knife, make four or five parallel slashes, starting about 1 inch from the edge and going across the bread to within 1 inch of the other side. Cover with a clean towel and let rise 30-45 minutes until almost doubled in size. About 15 minutes before the end of rising time, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bake bread for 25-35 minutes, or until it sounds hollow when tapped. Remove from baking sheets and let cool on wire racks.

Saffron Garlic Olive Oil Dip
3 garlic cloves, smashed
coarse sea salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
small pinch of saffron strands
1/2t cayenne pepper
1/2t paprika
2 medium egg yolks
1 cup olive oil

Using a mortar and pestle, grind together the garlic, salt, pepper, saffron, cayenne, paprika and egg yolks until fully mixed. Let the mixture rest for five minutes. Gradually add in the olive oil. Refrigerate 30 minutes.

I was originally just going to eat it this way, until I realized this was raw egg yolks. So I spread it on slices of the fougasse and popped it in the oven to crisp up (about 4-5 minutes).