On Saying Little and Thinking Much

Just lately I have been thinking about how I have a lot to say.  Or at least I think I have a lot to say, which is a different animal all together.  But where to say it?  Then I remembered – I have a blog.  I’ll say it there.  Of course when I sit down to write something interesting or at least some part of what I’ve been thinking lately my mind goes blank and all I can think about is lunch.  So, unsurprisingly, I will say something about food.  I just learned that the research is showing that the best way diet can affect blood cholesterol levels is as follows:  1) take out saturated fats (think animal fats), 2) replace them with monounsaturated fats (think nuts, seeds, fish), and 3) limit sugar.  There are other important things – eat lots of fiber, get good sleep, exercise regularly, take a multi-vitamin.  But the removal of one fat and replacement with the other has been found to be pretty significant.  So I’ve been trying to eat less sugar, less cheese, and more seeds, nuts, and fish.  It isn’t hard – a handful of sunflower seeds in our dinner coleslaw, a little extra salmon in the lovely smoked salmon pie, peanut butter on toast for breakfast.  Lunch time – fish pie anyone?

A Short Restaurant Review and a Little Ditty on Bad Service

My mom, my sister, and I have a little tradition: once a year we have dinner out together at a fine restaurant during First Bite Boulder week.  (www.firstbiteboulder.com)  Each year we choose somewhere we haven’t been together, that has a good reputation, and where the menu appeals to all of us.  This year we ended up at Arugula (http://www.arugularistorante.com/).  I had heard only good things about it from several people and was eager to try it.  Alas, my disappointment far outweighs my pleasure on this one.  I want to start by giving the following disclaimer.  There is never an excuse for bad service.  Never.  But there are things that make it harder.  Our dinner party did not present any of them: no small children; we arrived on time for our reservation; we had a reservation; we were not drunk, too loud, badly dressed; we did not have a list of dietary requests or problems; we did not ask to substitute or leave out any ingredients; we were not difficult.  And yet, we got bad service.  The ambience, menu, prices, decor, ingredients, attitude, and service ware all would suggest and imply that you should expect great service.  And I did expect it so was doubly disappointed when our server tried to take my order first.  Seriously?  Did no one ever train him on service etiquette?  I was the youngest person at the table, and although it might not be clear which of us, between my sister and me, is younger, I am clearly CLEARLY younger than my mom – and the waiter heard me refer to her as the give-away clue name, “Mom”.  So when he tried to take my order first I replied that I would rather if he took her order first.  Well, clearly that upset his mojo because he entered our orders into the kitchen in the wrong order so that as each course was brought to our table by the runners (whose one job it is to get food to the right people, based on the servers’ instructions) our dishes were mixed up and served incorrectly.  The same waiter forgot to bring us bread, forgot a soup spoon, little things like that.  So, one strike against Arugula. 

As for the food – it ranged from amazingly delicious (the mahi-mahi entrée, the heirloom mushroom caprese, the Hazel Dell mushrooms with gorgonzola) to pretty good (the vegetarian lasagne, the gnocchi with pear and gorgonzola) to poor (the lamb stew with soft polenta).  I cannot believe that a restaurant whose kitchen can produce a simple, elegant, delicious little salad like the above mentioned caprese can also turn the out the plate of tough gristle, hard vegetables, and congealed polenta.  Strike two against Arugula. 

I will probably go back and give them a second shot – someday.  But considering that my husband and I very rarely spend that kind of money on a meal out (think an easy $50 for two before looking at wine, dessert, extras) we will go somewhere we know we can get great food and, at least, good service. 

As for bad service, why is there so much of it in Boulder?  Seriously, I don’t understand why restaurant owners and managers don’t spend more time vetting and training front-of-house staff.  First of all, I am not a guy.  If I am with my husband, we are not guys.  My mother and I are never guys.  You probably don’t really even want to refer to a group of men as guys if you are trying to effect fine dining service.  Second, if someone pays with cash do not ask if they want their change.  Give them their change and let them choose to leave you a tip.  It may seem like a minor thing but, believe me, it is better this way.  Third, fess up if you mess up.  If the food is delayed, if there is a mistake, if you brought the wrong thing – acknowledge it, accept responsibility, apologize, move on.  Do Not Ignore Your Customers if something is wrong.  Fourth, learn the etiquette of who orders/gets served first.  In a bar, in a burger joint, in a casual place this is not as important (although it goes a long way to making people think you are paying attention) but in fine dining it is essential.  I could easily go on and on but will stop here. 

Thanks, Mom, for dinner.  It is really the company that matters and tonight that was 5 star.

Beets

There are few vegetables that get as much negative press and hatred as beets (okra and eggplant might share top billing with beets).  I must admit that I was once of the haters.  Beets seemed a food that only old ladies ate, as I mostly remember my great, great Aunt Mabel eating them (and she died when I was still quite young) and they always seemed to ba sliced, slightly slimy, and pickled sweet.  Then I went away to college and one semester the food service ran out of money served only iceberg lettuce, canned beets, frozen peas, and cottage cheese on the salad bar for several weeks.  As the main dish was boiled pork (sometimes with horrifying “Hawaiian” sauce) I started eating beets by the plateful.  And lo and behold, they were delicious – or at least I could see the potential when they were topped with olive oil, a dash of vinegar, and plenty of salt.  Now, many years on, I love beets.  Boiled, roasted, baked, marinated, raw, in salads, pickled, in soups; however you do it beets are neat.  Try this salad.  Even confirmed “not a beet person” people like it.  And it is really, really good for you.

Beet and Carrot Salad with Tahini Ginger Dressing

  • 2 packed cups grated beets
  • 2 packed cups grated carrots
  • 2 Tbs tahini
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  • 1/2 inch fresh ginger root, peeled
  • 1 small clove garlic

In a large bowl mix together the carrots and beets.  In a small bowl mix together the tahini and olive oil, then add to the beets.  Using a microplane grater, grate the garlic and ginger.  Toss well to mix everything thoroughly.  Taste, season with salt and pepper as needed, mix well.  Eat.  Yum.

If your problem with beets is aesthetic – if you, like my husband, hate that beets dye everything on the plate the same color – then try the other, non-red beets.  Chiogga beets are red and white striped, like a candy cane and golden beets are lovely.  Try mixing them half and half with potatoes, some chopped dill pickle, green onion, a bit of sour cream, salt, and pepper for a really special potato salad.

On Life With Food

In some cultures times of great import, life-cycle events, are marked by drink.  In some they are marked by fasting or gift giving or chanting.  In mine they are marked by food.  The factors that shape my personal culture are mainly three and are so closely linked as to be inseparable:  my family, my religion, my personality.  Each of those dictates that food is the key to any celebration or time of hardness  or mourning.  I can tell you exactly what was served at the house after each of my grandparents died just as I can tell you what food was served at birthday parties, weddings, baby namings, circumcisions, and other important happy occasions.  We cook, we bring food, we share food, we eat.  That’s what we do.  So, when my husband accomplished something impressive this week I made a special meal:  homemade challah, salad with mini-falafel and crispy rice noodles, dijon green beans and sliced yellow beet, garlic basil roasted chicken and potatoes, rustic apple gooseberry pie.  And we ate it.  It was wonderful.  Here follows the recipe for the pie. 

Rustic Apple Gooseberry Pie (or Peach Blueberry or Nectarine Cherry…)

for the crust:

  • 1 cup (8 oz) butter or margarine, cold
  • 1 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1 Tbs sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • 3 Tbs cold water

for the filling:

  • 4 cups trimmed gooseberries (tops and tails removed)
  • 2 peeled large apples
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbs brandy, whiskey, rum, or vanilla extract
  • extra sugar for sprinkling

Make the crust first.  Put the flour, sugar, salt, and butter in the body of a food processor and pulse until you have coarse crumbs.  Add the egg and the water, 1 Tbs at a time, until the dough forms a ball and holds together.  It should not be sticky but also not crumbly.  Wrap in plastic or waxed paper and put in the fridge while you prepare the filling.  Grate the apples into a bowl with the liquor in it.  Add the gooseberries and sugar and toss well.  Split dough into two equal parts, put one aside for another time.  Roll the other piece, using flour to keep the dough from sticking to the board, into a rough circle.  Crust should be 1/4 inch thick.  Place dough in the middle of a well-greased cookie sheet.  Pile filling into the middle of the dough to within 1 – 1 1/2 inches of the edge then fold the dough up around the edges.  The finished pie should have an open space in the middle.  The dough might crack a little, this is ok as long as there aren’t big gaps around the edges where the fruit is.  Sprinkle with granulated sugar.  Bake at 350 for between 45 minutes and an hour, until dough is starting to brown and fruit is bubbly.  Some of the juices will leak out onto the pan, this is also ok.

Variations:  Substitute pitted cherries and sliced or chunked nectarines for the fruit, omit alcohol and add a pinch of ground cardamom instead.  Or peeled sliced of chunked peaches with blueberries.  You can also use raisins or dried cranberries that have been soaked in water or brandy to plump them with peeled chopped apples and a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg.  Use your imagination!

Fresh Bread and Chick Pea Stew, Oh My

Putting vegetables into every possible dish is a popular theme these days.  It is also a good idea.  I am a big proponent of maximizing consumption of fruits and vegetables.  So, in such an effort here are two recipes that use vegetables in expected and unexpected ways and are delicious.  Enjoy!

Loaf Bread with Whole Wheat, Zucchini, and Pumpkin Seeds 

  • 3 cups very warm water
  • 2 Tbs molasses
  • 1/4 ounce yeast
  • 5 cups unbleached white flour
  • 1 Tbs salt
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 small zucchini or yellow squash, grated
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 3 1/2 – 5 cups whole wheat flour
  • oil for the bowl

Put the hot water, the yeast, the molasses, 1 cup of the white flour into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade and pulse to mix.  Allow to stand a few minutes then add in the rest of the white flour, the salt, the oil, the zucchini, and the pumpkin seeds.  Run the machine until the pumpkin seeds and zucchini are chopped up very fine.  Then add in two or three cups of the whole wheat.  At this point you will need to take the bread out of the food processor and add the rest of the flour by hand, kneading it in.  You want a dough that is not sticky, add flour as needed until you reach that point, mixing each addition in well.  The dough will be somewhat tacky, which is fine, just not sticky.  When you have the dough just right put a teaspoon of oil in the bottom of a big bowl then put the dough on top of it.  Turn over so all the sides are oiled then cover with plastic wrap and allow to sit in a warmish place (like the kitchen counter) until the dough is doubled in size.  Punch down, cover the bowl tightly with the plastic wrap, and put in the fridge.  Leave there overnight.  When you are ready to bake the bread remove the dough from the fridge and punch down again.  Allow to come to room temperature and rise again, this will take at least an hour.  Punch down and then divide into three equal parts.  Shape each third to fit in the bottom of a bread pan and put each piece into a bread pan.  Allow to rise at least half an hour then bake at 350 until bread is lightly browned and sounds hollow when knocked, at least 25 minutes.  Remove from oven, let stand a few minutes then remove from pans and allow to cool.  If you need to loosen from pan use a plastic knife or spatula, don’t scrape the bread pans with a metal knife.  This bread has all the benefits of whole wheat and the fiber, vitamins, protein, and flavor of the squash and seeds.  It makes excellent toast.

Now this stew is full of vegetables, tastes delicious, smells great, is very quick and easy to make, and goes great with toasted whole wheat bread (see above) or rice (or both).  Use a combination of the vegetables you like best or have on hand from the italicized list below.  If you use tomatoes with salt added you might not need any more but if you use salt-free tomatoes you will need to add some salt to the pot.  This is such a fresh and simple summer stew that it doesn’t need any added spices, herbs, or vinegar – let the flavor of the veggies shine through, you won’t regret it.

Chick Pea and Vegetable Stew

  • 2 Tbs good olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped small
  • 1 large carrot, grated
  • 1 large can chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tomato can full of water
  • 1 regular size can chick peas, drained
  • 20-30 fresh green, wax, yellow, or purple beans
  • 1 small zucchini or yellow squash
  • 2 cups fresh spinach, baby leaves or chopped big leaves
  • 2 small beets, chopped small
  • 4 small Japanese turnips, chopped small
  • 2 cups chopped kale or chard
  • 1 cup shelled peas
  • 1-2 ears corn, cut off cob
  • 1 small bell pepper, chopped
  • 1-2 potatoes, chopped small
  • 1-2 cups shredded cabbage

In a soup pot heat the oil over medium-high then add the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic.  Cook a few minutes, stirring to keep the vegetables from browning.  When they are starting to soften add the tomatoes, water, chick peas, and whatever other vegetables you are using.  Stir well, bring to a low boil.  Cover the pot and cook over medium heat for 30-45 minutes.  Taste, season with salt if needed.  Serve hot.  Eat.  Eat more.  Enjoy.