Last night the kids were at a sleepover and Mike and I went to see Julie & Julia. I had read great things about the “Julia” part of the movie, and I was vaguely interested in the “Julie” part, as my friend Lola had followed the blog way back then and really enjoyed it. Alas, like everyone else said, that part of the movie was pretty “blah”. Julie looks for a gimmick for getting rich/famous as a writer, lucks into a good one, gets rich/famous as a writer while spouting some nonsense about being saved by Julia or becoming a better person through Julia. A pretty weak dramatic arch, if you ask me, and one that the actual Julia Childs does not seem to have bought into. Indeed, she seemed to think, correctly IMHO, that it was just a stunt. But hey, more power to Julie, right? Too bad she didn’t wait until Julia was at least dead so as to not mock her on her face. But as Julie herself acknowledged in the movie, she is quite the egocentric person.
The Julia part, as everyone said, was wonderful – and yes, I hated not seeing Meryl Streep/Julia, more on the screen. I thought that Mery Streep was great in mimicking Julia’s accent and joie de vive, though I’d like to have seen more complexity to the character – which I’m sure could have been shown if they’d cut the Julie story out of it.
In all it was a sweet movie, nothing if not fluffy, but enjoyable enough. I did not get out of it wanting to cook or eat French food (the way you drool over Mexican food in Tortilla Soup), though that duck at the end seemed like a fun challenge.
I’ve been enjoying watching Top Chef Masters – in particular this last show, in which the winners of the last six previous episodes competed against each other by making each other’s signature dishes. Part of what I’ve enjoyed is getting to know the chefs, some of whom were completely unknown to me.
I’ve been rooting for Hubert Keller, the chef-owner of Fleur de Lys, a restaurant that I’ve gone to a couple of times. I loved the food last time, though the service and timing left much to be desired. In any case, Hubert is local and seems like a very cool guy, he has these big, puppy dog eyes and gives an aura of happiness. He is also clearly very secure on himself and his cooking, clearly he has mastered both technique and flavor profiles, and yet you don’t ever see him boast. I think he is the true master.
And yet, I was very surprised on how well Rick Bayless has done. I’ve seen some of his shows and I have not been particularly impressed by him. Part of it is that I’m prejudiced about a non-Mexican becoming the voice for Mexican food in America – mostly through his television programs. It seems sort of unfair. It’s difficult to believe that there aren’t Mexican chefs that are just as accomplished. I’m also prejudiced against the true cooking abilities of television chefs. Clearly there are some who are marvelous cooks, such as Jacques Pepin – his techniques are so beautiful and effortless, you know the end result must be great. But others seem too young, too inexperienced to be the experts they proclaim themselves to be. And of course, some are truly grating (Joanne Weir in particular). Until this show, I would have put Bayless in that category. He seems quite arrogant about his knowledge of Mexican cuisine and enunciates too much when he speaks. But seeing him in the last two shows has made me change my mind. For one, I learned that he was in Mexico working on his PhD in Anthropology when he fell in love with cooking. That indicates to me that his primary interest is, or at least was, on the Mexican people – that he wants to know about them (even if through their cuisines) and that he probably does have a respect for Mexican culture that was not apparent to me before. In other words, maybe he is, indeed, paying an homage to Mexican cuisine by bringing it to this country, instead of just stealing it for fame and profit. The other thing that impressed me is that he clearly is a good cook who understands the fundamentals of cuisine. He won by making an Italian dish, after all, something you wouldn’t expect from him.
My suspicion of TV chefs also made me wonder about Michael Chiarello; but I’ve been impressed by his modesty (even though he did say he was going to win the show). Clearly he understands his own limitations (while Keller, for example, doesn’t seem to think he has any).
I was happy to see Anita Lo do so well. I hadn’t heard of her before the show started, but it’s nice to see a minority woman do so well (in particular given this). Her food seems really interesting as well. I think it’s really hard to do fusion food well, it requires an intense knowledge of several cuisines, great technique and creativity, which I think many fusion chefs don’t have. I’d love to go to her restaurant.
I have little opinion of the other two chefs. Suzanne Tracht didn’t seem to have much of a personality. I loved Art Smith’s personality, but I think I may be partial to teddy-bear gay guys.
Anyway, I can’t wait to see what happens. And I’m still rooting for Keller.
Alice Waters has gotten into pr trouble by stating that she’d want her last meal to be shark fin soup – apparently unaware that sharks are caught, had their fins cut off and then are thrown back into the sea to die. Now that she knows, she’s changed her mind.
It seems a bit surprising that she wouldn’t know about the horrible treatment of sharks in the first place, but then again – how much of the food we consume is from animals that have been horribly treated? Sometimes I think the only ethical choice is to be a vegetarian – too bad I don’t like vegetables.
I would never have guessed that they have cooking videogames, but apparently there are several out there. The skills they “teach” seem to be quite basic (e.g. how to shake salt into ground beef to make a hamburger), and I wonder how they can be in any way more helpful than watching a food show on TV. But hey, to each its own.
I was just thinking that one of the reasons that I like cooking so much is that I am a very careless person. I rarely pay much attention to the world outside me (a horrible trait for a mother), and I’m the opposite of meticulous. That means that I often skim through a recipe, missing ingredients and steps. Indeed, I seldom look at the directions for a recipe before I start cooking (I guess this also means I’m pretty confident in my ability to do anything the recipe would call for). And often I just glance at the ingredients, forgetting to buy one or two. Sometimes I send my husband to buy them (poor buy), others I just improvise or do without.
But cooking is forgiving, often very forgiving. Often times a missing ingredient will not make a huge difference, same thing for a missed step. Forgotten spices can be added later, salt fixes a thousand mistakes.
Baking is not so forgiving, some people insist that it calls for exactitude and sometimes that’s true. But a few weeks ago I made a cheesecake that called for five packages of cream cheese and I forgot one. It was just as good. Still, I enjoy cooking much more than baking.
I’ve always wanted to have an herb garden. Herbs are impossibly expensive at the supermarket (usually around $2 for a package, and you can’t buy them in smaller units) and you don’t tend to use them that much. But I’m a terrible, neglectful gardener – or rather, I’m not a gardener at all, so I’ve just mumbled and grumbled about wanting an herb garden and never really did anything about it.
Then, a few weeks ago, my 7-year-old daughter Mika started saying she wanted to plant vegetables. I figured if she was planting, I could be planting too, so I cleared out a section of dirt by the front porch and planted some rosemary, sage, chives and basil, plus some thyme and oregano in a pot I already had. The kids, meanwhile, planted some veggies in the back yard.
We’ve been meticulous about watering them every day – and they are finally paying off. The herbs are doing beautifully and actually starting to expand. Hey, the moment may come when they fight each other off 🙂
Here are some pictures I took this morning. We’ll be cooking with our herbs all week long (tonight I’ll be making some pesto). I’ll post recipes, if warranted.
And here are some of Mika’s veggies & fruits:
And finally, some blackberries we’ve let grow:
The last issue of Food & Wine magazine has an article about the “best new chefs” and a picture of 11 of them in the cover. Mika, my 7-year-old, took a quick look at it and noticed “there is only one girl”. And indeed, she’s right. There are also no noticeable minorities. Do you need to be male and white to be noticed as a chef in America? Or are only white men becoming chefs?
Top Chef, the Bravo TV reality series, seems to have little trouble finding a good number of women and minorities for its show (though most winners have been white males) – so I don’t believe that good, new women & minority chefs are not there, perhaps they are just not cooking at the “bistro”-style restaurants where many new chefs establish their reputations. Or perhaps they are cooking more ethnic cuisine.
Food & Wine Magazine has an article in its latest issue on the question of whether meats should be salted before they are cooked. There are few issues that are as controversial in the area of cooking. Some cooks are convinced that if you pre-salt meat, it will dry out. Others think that pre-salting greatly enhances the flavor. Harold McGee, the food scientist author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, for his part, states that while lots of salt will dry meat, “the small amount of salt used to season food has a hydrating effect: Salt helps the cells hold on to water”
But that’s all theory. What’s actually the truth when you hit the skillet? Food writer Oliver Schwaner-Albright set to find out. He got some meat, salted some a day ahead, and the other right before cooking. Then he roasted chicken and pork ribs, seared steak and braised lamb shanks. The results? Inconclusive.
The pre-salted chicken was more flavorful and moist while the pre-salted ribs were awfully dry. There was no consensus on which steak was better, but the pre-seasoned lamb was definitely more delicious than the other one. So no golden rules, it seems that what works best will depend on the type of meat and preparation. Oh well, I’ll have to continue salting by instinct (or recipe) 🙂
I had been looking forward to my short trip to Barcelona almost as much for the food I was going to taste as for the places I was going to see and the people I was going to see. With the advent of restaurants such as El Bulli (where I have not been and which does not serve Catalan food) and Manresa (in the Bay Area), Catalan cuisine is achieving some sort of recognition in the US. My sojourn through Catalan cuisine was quite successful and I now wanted to see what Catalan dishes would taste like when cooked right. Alas, I ended up being disappointed, not as much as in the cuisine, as in my own experience with it.
The first problem was that for whatever reason I became a bit stomach sick after arriving in Barcelona – whether the culprit was airline food or a Burger King burger from Kennedy airport, I will never know – but the fact was that I didn’t feel like eating anything my first day in Barcelona. A small lunch at Restaurante Taxidermista in Barcelona’s Plaça Reial was my first introduction to Catalan food – but its brief menu only allowed me to taste pa amb tomaquet (bread with tomato) and some Catalan sausages. They were both very good, however.
I didn’t eat again until the next day, when I ended up by accident (i.e. telling myself “I’ll sit down at the next restaurant I find”) at a Galician restaurant somewhere. Here I had some more pa amb tomaquet, some ravioli with sauce and some grilled quail – neither of which impressed me. Once again I skipped dinner that night.
The next day was the start of the meeting I was attending. I had lunch with my colleagues at Restaurante Mango, on Aveda. Diagonal 635, very near my hotel. Mango does not actually serve Catalan food, instead concentrating on pizzas, salads, pastas and paellas. I had the Tropix pizza (E12) and it was good, though nothing special. My colleagues seemed happier with their salads and pastas – so maybe pizza is not the way to go here.
That evening we had the buffet dinner at Restaurante Contraste, the restaurant of the Hotel Princesa Sofia, where we were staying. This was probably the best buffet dinner I’ve had. Though the selection wasn’t terribly broad, everything they had was fresh and great tasting. I had a simple salad (beware that there are no ready-made dressings, though) and then two of the three pre-made entrees. I think one was cannelloni and the other some stewed meat, very good though a bit salty. There were plenty of desserts, I tried the crema catalana which once again did not impress me – but most of the other bites were quite good. They also have a grill station which I didn’t try, my suspicion after several meals is that Spanish/Catalan beef is not particularly good in the first place. Other people seemed quite happy with their selections, though. I think the buffet is about E45-50, but we got a special group rate. In any case, if you want to eat at the buffet you may want to inquire whether it’s cheaper if you pay for it when you register.
The next two lunches were at the University, where we were served 3-course meals which included wine! Leave it to the Catalans 🙂 The food was quite good though not terribly exiting. Our second dinner was at a popular restaurant in the Gothic quarter – unfortunately I don’t remember the name. We had popular Catalan tapas/appetizers such as croquettes, tomato bread and several things I didn’t recognize – but everyone seemed quite happy with them. I had the veal with brie, which seems to be a popular dish in Barcelona, and it was nice but also not too exiting – the veal wasn’t as tender as you’d wish. I ate it assuming that baby cows are not mistreated in Spain the way they are in the US – I hope that’s true.
Our last dinner was at La Botiga, also close to the hotel. It was also quite good.
So, what am I left with? Well, my impression now is that Catalan food as randomly served in Barcelona is good and solid, but not magical. My standards, however, may be too high – I’ve been cooking a lot of really good Mediterranean food lately (you’d be surprised at how many “C” cuisines are in the Mediterranean), and, if I say so myself, I’m quite a good cook, so it takes a LOT to impress me.
Mika made pancakes all by herself this morning! It’s the second time she makes them, but last time she wasn’t very clear about directions/proportions. She didn’t relize that 1/4 cup of sugar was different from 4 cups of sugar 🙂
This time we took out all the ingredients together (good thing, because I put something in a jar that looks very much like coarse sugar – I don’t know what it is, but I suspect a dangerous chemical), and we went over the proportions (what is a cup, what is a tablespoon and what is a teaspoon). The result was that she did very well – she even remembered that we needed to include sugar, which I’d left out when I copied the recipe!
The pancakes came out great, very fluffy and great tasting! We didn’t have any maple syrup (a visit to TJ’s is in order), but we ate them with a strawberry sauce and whipped cream. The strawberry sauce was great, all I did was put a bunch of washed, cut strawberries in the blender, add a little bit of water and some sugar. How much of each will depend on your strawberries (how sweet they are) and blender. Mika really liked the sauce (I did too)! By itself, is also healthier than maple syrup – and cheaper! I learned the “recipe” in a cooking class on sauces I took at the Castro Valley Adult School.
This time I actually cooked the pancakes myself, I’m a little weary of letting her cook by herself now. She’s still a bit too short to comfortable see and handle pans on top of the stove and, like her mom, she can be a little clutzy.
She wants us to have a tradition of Saturday morning pancakes. I know that traditions are really important for kids, and our lives are pretty disorganized, so that may be a nice thing to do.