The Delicious Dish

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Commentary: Inside the Foodie’s Brain November 16, 2012

June 3, 2016

The peas are blooming in my roof garden, and I have realized why it is that I love them so.  Shakespeare created the character, “Peaseblossom” for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – a sprite who served the fairy Titania.  It was delightful to think of the sprite flitting about the woods in midsummer, doing the bidding of this goddess of the season and of love.  Peas hold a special place in my heart.  My grandmother, Norma Tice Racine, grew them every year;  they were a feature on the farmhouse dinner table.  As a child, I most likely would have been given the job of shelling them – I would be sent out into the yard, with a pan for the shelled peas and a bowl for the shells to be composted.  I would eat plenty, raw…but would manage to get enough into the pan for supper.

After Gram cooked them with a little sugar, they’d get a lump of butter and some salt and pepper – no more – and onto the table they’d go, featured with the mashed potatoes, the ham or roast chicken, and the homemade biscuits.  Life was simple, and while the bees buzzed around the honeysuckle outside the kitchen window, I sat next to my cousin, Linda in her high chair and fed her peas, one by one.  It was perfect.

Now I find myself eagerly waiting for those peas to produce.  I’ve got old tomato cages around the plants so that they can climb up, and I’m thinking that in two weeks, the payoff will begin.  Meantime, I’m starting to make a list of everything I want to plant in the lower garden and realizing that it’s way past time to get things going and make use of that space.  The strawberries are getting ready to produce, the herbs are already waiting for harvest, the garlic scapes have appeared, and there’s just not enough time for it all.

Summer is glorious for all these experiences, and so many more.  I’ll be back out tomorrow if the anticipated rain lets up – and my head is bursting with all the recipes I can invent with the goodies that are about to show up – life’s promises fulfilled!

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June 21, 2013

It’s strawberry season.  I’ve got them in my garden – regular sized berries and the little, alpine ever-bearing type that are like little pops of deliciousness, sweet and tiny.  Every time I taste strawberries, I think of my grandmother, Norma Racine.  She lived in a farm house in the Delaware Water Gap area — on property that one of my cousins still owns.  her back yard, such as it was, had a cleared area under some catalpa trees that provided welcome shade as the summer sun beat down.

But behind it — between the house and the barn where the cows would be brought in twice a day to be milked — there was an open field that was full of wild strawberries.  When my cousins and I needed to be diverted or shooed out of the house, gram would hand us each a pan and tell us to go pick strawberries.  Off we’d go and lickety-split, we’d be sitting in the tall grass, eating more berries than we put in the pan.  At some point we’d actually start picking the berries so that we could go inside with results to show Gram…and the results would be tossed with sugar, put over homemade bisuits, topped with fresh-whipped cream, and served up for dessert along with Gram’s homemade iced tea, steeped with lemon and fresh mint and sugar.  It just didn’t get any better and it said ‘summer’ to us every time we carried out the ritual.

On other days, we’d be sent out with the same pans and a basket of peas in their pods, told to shell the peas for supper.  Sure enough, plenty of the peas would end up in our mouths rather than in the pan — sweet as sugar, even raw — but we’d do our jobs and carry our work in soon enough.  Then Gram and her daughters — our mothers, Edith and Vera — would make mashed potatoes, a roast chicken, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and onions with a splash of vinegar, more biscuits or rolls, and we’d all sit down to supper.

It’s no wonder that I loved to come visit my grandparents and cousins, and no wonder, I suppose, that I turned into a chef.  The instruction happened at Gram’s knee, and the experiences began in June, during strawberry time.

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December 3, 2012

Several weeks ago, I laughed myself silly – as did a number of my friends and cajillions of you — over the scathing New York Times review of Food TV’s megastar Guy Fieri’s new restaurant in New York.

As a foodie, I watched “The Next Food Network Star” and was somewhat astonished when, in the second season, Fieri took the prize.  And since then I’ve seen him on more Food TV shows and hosting game shows on major networks, for heaven’s sake.  In the main, he seems to focus on walking into a local eatery, stuffing his face with the biggest, messiest thing he can find, and then he shouts, “Man, that’s off the hook!” — and cut to commercial.

I am not naive enough to think that every food show has a host who’s a fine chef.  But as a caterer and better-than-average cook, I really admire chefs like Bobby Flay, Michael Symon, and Alex Guarnischelli, all of whom really DO know how to cook, how to teach others, and how to convey what they are doing in language that involves something other than screaming.  Although I grew up in New Haven (home of the best pizza in the world, as far as I’m concerned) and love dives as much as fine restaurants (I have been known to go into rapture when munching down on a hot dog with real Coney Island – aka Michigan – sauce) I also know good food when I see it.

And I think I know blowhards and bravado when I see them, too.  Fieri’s California restaurants are called “Johnny Garlic” and “Tex Wasabi,” and even the name gives me shivers.  Does everything have to be that clever, and do we have to slather every darned oversized thing on the menu with sauce and five strips of bacon?  What ever happened to grilled fish, carefully seasoned and plated with beautifully prepared sauteed spinach and garlic and a rice, lentil and quinoa pilaf?  If you need more fat and jazz on your plate, add a tomato-goat cheese gratin.  I rest my case.

So to me, Fieri got his comeuppance in the New York Times when they skewered his restaurant. I don’t think he should have been surprised, and neither should we.  Restaurants serve too much food, the focus has been too much on ‘big’ rather than ‘best.’  This holiday season when I’m dining out, I’m all for ratcheting down the size of the serving, focusing on the ingredients…and, oh yes…turning off the sound when Guy pops up on the screen.

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November 16, 2012
I’ve decided to start a page of commentary on food.  This is not (for the most part) about the food I make;  it’s about my encounters with food.  And at the moment,my recent trip to Europe – and my gastronomic misadventures — is on my mind.

I recently came home from a trip-of-a-lifetime to France and Italy (we were in Monaco too, but so briefly, one can hardly mention it).  I went anticipating brilliant cooking.  I have adored French food since I was a kid;  I know that Italian cuisine is considered one of the world’s greatest – so I thought, “This is gonna be great.”  Well, not so much.

Not all the time, at least…and sometimes, not at all.  The food I encountered in France was pretty much terrific on a regular basis.  When any bistro you walk into has fabulous Croque Monsieur and the best homemade french fries and beautiful salads and really delicious cheap house wine, life isn’t bad.  The bread was consistently exceptional, I noshed on moules frites (mussels with fries, practically the national dish of Belgium), beautifully prepared fish, had an Ile Flotante (floating island, a terrific dessert) to die for.  When breakfast is delicious coffee with hot milk, fresh-squeezed orange juice and the best croissant you’ve ever eaten, your day is going to be a good one.  Happy, happy.

We left France and traveled to Italy and…it all fell down.  While we had some reasonably good pasta and yes, good pizza, it just wasn’t all that wonderful and sometimes, it was downright bad.

I admit it:  I am a pizza snob.  I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut where (as Roadfood founders Jane and Michael Stern will tell you) pizza was introduced to the U.S. from Naples.  It doesn’t get better than Pepe’s or Sally’s Apizza in Wooster Square in New Haven, so I was not very interested in eating pizza in Italy.  Panini?  Been there, done that.  I had fritto mista in Venice that was so terrible I couldn’t consume it.  I had chewy ravioli with sage butter.  I had veal saltimbocca so salty and tough it was beyond chewing.  And the salads were composed, mostly, of lettuce, tomatoes, shredded carrots, and olive oil and balsamic vinegar (fabulous balsamic, I’ll readily admit).  The bread was mostly awful although the house wine continued to be terrific and cheap.

But it wasn’t what I was hoping for.  It felt…monochromatic, of one type.  This got me thinking about whether one of the things we’ve come to expect from food in the U.S. is the variety that comes when so many cultural groups come together in one area…and whether that just isn’t as much the case in Italy.  On a given night (like, last night) I’m serving my family homemade baked beans, fried green tomatoes, cole slaw, dilled steamed carrots, biscuits, and baked ham.  That’s a mixture of New England food, farm food, southern food, on one plate.

Now I’m hoping that I just had a bad run in Italy and that some of you readers have had very different experiences with Italian food.  Heck, maybe Mario Battali or Lidia Bastianich (both of whom I respect greatly) will read this and let me know!  What is it that I missed on my trip;  what is it about American food, in all its varieties, that keeps us coming back?

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