The fine art of dating and dining

I recently started dating again, and it occurred to me the other day how important restaurants are to me in this process. I love food – cooking it, sharing it with others, finding new restaurants, reading bento blogs, learning about nutrition, and admiring other people’s (more successful than mine) vegetable gardens. So it’s no surprise that it would matter in this part of my life too. I’ve noticed that I use choosing a restaurant as a sort of test, well, not exactly a test, but a way of learning about someone. What’s important to them, what they enjoy, what ambiance they’re most comfortable in.

For example, I have a college friend that visits every couple of months, and we always go out to dinner. He routinely chooses small but excellent ethnic restaurants of every variety tucked into little corners of the city. I have no idea how he finds these places, but it’s perfectly indicative of his creative, quirky, and independent mind. Another dinner date was mainly concerned that the food be fresh, healthy, and free of additives. That tells me a lot about what matters to him right there. Fortunately, there is no shortage of such restaurants in Olympia.

Another friend recently proposed to show up quite inappropriately dressed for a particular restaurant (not really realizing it). His comment was, “it’s the person I’m with that matters more than the restaurant.” So I was trying to figure out why the restaurant DOES matter so much to me. It may be because I’ve spent the last 6 years going out to restaurants by myself, for the most part. I’ve never wanted to deny myself the pleasure of a really good home-cooked meal or a fine dining experience, just because I’m single. If I’m going by myself, the restaurant really has to shine – whether it’s the hole-in-the-wall but very authentic Thai place or the finest Northwest fusion-Continental cuisine. The food should be excellent, and something I can’t make myself. The ambiance should be relaxing and enjoyable, with knowledgeable, friendly waiters, and in the best places, a chance to talk with the owner about the food.

I have a couple of favorite restaurants like this that never fail to leave me feeling relaxed and glowing with good food, wine, and attentive, friendly wait staff. Maybe my thing is, if I take a man to one of “my” places, I want him to enhance the experience, not detract from it through inappropriate appearance or behavior. Show up in shorts and a T-shirt, or talk loudly on your cell phone in a quiet restaurant, and you can bet you’ll never get another invitation from me. Know what to wear, be comfortable in your surroundings, love the food as much as I do, and appreciate the experience the restaurant is working to create for you, and that will earn my respect. Of course, intelligence, good conversation, ecofriendly social consciousness, and just plain sexiness will help too :D

Happy Earth Day!

and it is, too :) It’s a beautiful sunny spring day outside, that’s pretty much perfect where I live. The trees are that light green budded out color, and some – the apples and cherries and dogwoods are flowering. Our native dogwood is one of my favorites. Most people don’t know that we have a beautiful native cherry as well, that is much taller (more like a forest tree) than the ornamental garden variety. Baby blue eyes, Lily of the Valley, Solomon’s Seal, azaleas and camellias, and (almost) lilacs are blooming. The fluffy white clouds and patches of blue sky make a pretty backdrop to the not-quite-leafed out trees.

The day started off not so auspiciously with a dentist’s appointment, but even though he had a cavity to fill, it went quickly, without any pain and suffering. At home, I made my lunch bento, made up a big batch of cole slaw, and made plans for Asian Cornish game hen to marinade overnight. Then, I glance out at my raised beds, which have been busily sprouting weeds, including the ubiquitous and hard-to-remove geranium that grows wild here. Time to really do my Earth Day chores!

So, out I went into the lovely afternoon to rid my beds of weeds and prepare them for planting, noting the green onions, rosemary, and sage that had prolifically survived the winter. Once the beds were prepared, I added the chives, chard, tarragon, and cilantro starts I picked up at the farmer’s market. In a couple of weeks there should be more of the summer herbs and veggies available, like peppers and basil. I’m not sure what else I’ll experiment with this year – maybe plant some garlic and shallots and summer squash. Last year the eggplant didn’t do anything, but neither did anyone else’s (due to the weather), sooo … maybe I’ll try it again. I do like eggplant.

They don’t look like much right now, I know. But they will!!

More bento pics, for those who aren’t bored of them:
Bento #1 – Yogurt and fresh fruit in the small section, rice with smoked salmon and green onions in the larger section
Bento #2 – Tomato, goat cheese, basil, and balsamic vinaigrette in the small section; rice, sushi soy sauce, and nori furikake (seaweed, sesame seeds, garlic, and sea salt) in the larger section

Weekend bento prep

I’m finally back from a bunch of traveling and settling down to a more “normal” lifestyle. The bento lunches worked really well at my conference, especially since the little cafe at the conference venue was closed unexpectedly and there was nowhere to get anything to eat. Thus encouraged, I decided to put together some bento ingredients today (which somehow seems easier than cooking entire meals, since you don’t have to figure out in advance how they will all go together).

This morning I hard-boiled a couple of eggs for lunches, which can be combined with various things or made into egg salad. I then tried making a traditional Japanese one-egg omelet, called tamagoyaki. These are the rectangular, many-layered eggs used in sushi and bento, that are typically firm and slightly sweet. Mine came out close, at least for a home-made version. I used sushi soy sauce, which is slightly sweeter than regular soy sauce, and didn’t add sugar. Next time I’d add a tiny bit of sugar to get a more traditional taste. I also added chopped green onions, a fairly typical variation. Once the little rectangular omelet is made, you slice it across the width for bento, showing the layers.

I then made some Japanese rice, which came out perfectly. The trick is apparently to buy the right kind in the first place, and then wash and drain it enough times that the water runs clear. I left half as plain rice and made the other half into sushi rice, put some in the fridge and froze the rest for later use. Then I blanched a big batch of spring asparagus and put some of that in the freezer too, vacuum-packed.

I made my lunch bento from what I had so far, including the Japanese rice and tamagoyaki on the bottom layer, sprinkled with a reddish-black Japanese condiment called ume-shiso, made from shiso leaves, Japanese plum, and sea salt. This was very tasty, but a little goes a long way. On the top layer was warm asparagus sprinkled with asiago cheese. The two were good separately but didn’t quite fit together. I’ll have to work on that.

Later, I headed out to the farmer’s market, which I missed the opening of last weekend, to see what I could find. There wasn’t much in terms of fruits and vegetable yet, mostly leafy greens, asparagus, apples and pears, and some early garlic tops. I already had the winter fruits and didn’t really need any of these, but picked up some spring herbs and greens for planting, including chard, green onions, tarragon, and cilantro. The meat, seafood, dairy, and bakeries were in full swing, and I picked up a bit of freshly smoked salmon, thick and juicy.

At the grocery I got various staples, more eggs, yogurt, cashews, and makings for shrimp shumai. I’ve made this before, and it’s fairly simple – throw a bunch of ingredients into a blender and presto, instant filling made of cabbage, carrot, green onion, cilantro, soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, shrimp, and a dash of hot sauce. Put little balls into wonton wrappers moistened along the edges and making 30 of these takes almost no time at all. It was dinnertime by now, so I put 8 of these in the fridge for steaming up tomorrow and the rest to freeze individually on a cookie sheet, to be bagged up and used later. They can be steamed, cooked in broth, or fried in a bit of tasty oil in a pan (or deep-fried, but not in my kitchen).

Happy with what I got done today, dinner was relatively simple – rice with about 2 oz flaked smoked salmon, and cold asparagus with sushi vinegar. Not pretty enough to take pictures of, but yummy all the same :)

Bento to the rescue!

While we were on vacation, there was much foodie geekiness. Santa Fe had great food, and we continued the quest in Olympia when we arrived here, which has many exceptional restaurants also. In between, we geeked about Gretchen’s fabulous home cooking, farmer’s markets, sustainable organic food, gluten-free recipes, and the virtues of bento. This last had me up late at night reading Just Bento, among other things. Gretchen has been making bento boxes for my brother to take to work for quite a while, which you can see pictures of here. They’re amazing. And healthy. Brad is very happy, Gretchen’s having fun making them, and all their friends are jealous. Not to mention that they’ve both lost weight.

Bento is sort of the ultimate portion control, since you can only eat what fits in the box, and you can buy boxes that are the right size for your needs. As long as you don’t put ridiculous things in there (like fried foods or chocolate cake), you can pretty much put in whatever you want, and it will work – no counting required. I’ve thought for a long time that the Japanese diet is pretty much right for me – low-fat, about half carbs, plus fruits and veggies, and small amounts of protein, mostly in the form of seafood, veggie protein, and eggs. To that I add high-fiber cereal, nonfat milk, and espresso in the morning, and I’m good to go.

So the more I talked with Gretchen about it, the more I thought this could be really fun. Not only is it healthy, it would get me to be more mindful about my food and have more fun preparing it. I would have more different things in each meal, unlike my current habits, which are kind of make whatever is easy and eat that one thing (sometimes for several meals). We talked a lot about how to have a variety of different things always available to put in each box, even though the boxes themselves are really tiny. Another goal is aesthetic pleasure and color contrast, which also contributes to the healthiness of fruit and vegetable mixes.

A good proportion is 1 cup or so of some kind of starch, typically sushi rice, other kinds of rice, pasta, roasted new potatoes… lots of choices. That goes in the larger side of the box, and just about fills up that side. There can be other tidbits of things in there to pretty it up and add flavor. The other side of the box has protein and veggies, and fruits if it will fit. Brad’s lunches are bigger than mine, which are 600 ml. But my dinner box will be slightly larger at 750 ml, so I may be sticking mostly to carbs, veggies and fruits for lunch, and adding protein for dinner.

Here’s my first day’s lunch bento (not the best photo, but I’m still learning my camera!):

We had just gotten back from vacation and had no time to shop, so this was an experiment with whatever was in the house. The larger side has leftover couscous with chickpeas and roasted root vegetables, and the smaller side (which stacks above the other side) has a lettuce, beet, and goat cheese salad. Just a couple of days later, I am headed to a conference where there will be lots of lunch meetings and little opportunity to get lunch anywhere. I decided to try bringing everything I would need for bentos for the three days, since I have a small refrigerator in my hotel room. Here’s the lunch I had today, which I have also packed for tomorrow on the way to the conference, since I need to use up the ingredients:

This one has a slight variation on the salad above, which is beets, goat cheese, and green onions (no dressing needed). I really like this one, so don’t mind eating it twice in a row. There are also strawberries on that side, in the cute little silicone cups that are ubiquitously used in bento (they can be baked, frozen, and are largely nonstick – very handy). In the lower half is a store-bought (but well-made) sushi roll, since I did go shopping today, mixed with fresh snap peas. For my lunch tomorrow I’ll use up the rest of the roll (it’s all cooked, so safe if kept cool) and add in the pickled ginger and soy sauce packets from the store for traveling. This picture also shows the top of the box, which stacks over the other two layers and has a black elastic band to hold it all together.

For the other two days’ lunches, I made mushroom risotto and carefully measured out two cups to take (one per day), then froze the rest for future use. For the other side of the bento I have a clementine orange and strawberries with yogurt, and a mix of snap peas and water chestnuts – all things that will keep well. I’m kind of pleased that this was all easy to put together and I won’t have to be running around trying to figure out where to get lunch. This conference is stressful enough without that.

I’ve been traveling so much lately that I’ve inevitably put on weight (three meals a day out for a month in New Zealand didn’t help). This should be a big help and fun too. Hope you enjoy the pictures as much as I enjoy making them :)

Ants and grasshoppers and caterpillars (in a tortilla), oh my

Well, I’m an adventurous eater, and figure I should try anything once. So when I found the innocently named “Tortillas Azteca” on the menu and looked up the ingredients (none of which I recognized) in the handily provided translation guide, I decided I should give it a shot.

It’s rare enough that a menu in Spanish has anything I’m not able to translate, but ant larvae, caterpillars, and grasshoppers are definitely among them. These were or are all considered high-protein delicacies in various parts of Mexico at various points in history, much like in Africa.

In this dish, each of these three items is provided in its own little bowl, accompanied by dried oregano, onions, a spicy brown sauce, and small but very thick corn tortillas, from which you assemble your choice of fillings. I was a little concerned that the couple sitting next to me would want to move once they saw what I was eating, but thankfully they turned out to be curious and pleasant dinner companions.

The dish turned out to be a mixed experience. The ant larvae were not recognizable as such, and were crunchy, round, and tasty. The grasshoppers were predictably spiky, very crunchy, and spicily prepared, but were surprisingly quite good in the chewy, thick corn tortillas. The caterpillars, well. I ate just enough of them to determine that they were edible, but they had nothing particular to recommend them in terms of flavor or texture, and were much too obvious in appearance!

In any case, I enjoyed the strange experience, and am considering it payback karma for all the bugs that continually bite me no matter where I am. I found the thick corn tortillas very filling, especially after salad and bread, so was chagrined that I couldn’t eat more of it (even though I would have) – because I’m sure the waiter though it was just too weird for me :)  Macho eating at its best, LOL.

Not much else to say at the moment except that I had a very nice massage this morning – one of the best I’ve ever had, which I tried to get in before it got really hot. Now I am indulging in an iced latte and getting ready to wash my clothes. Sadly, the birding guides that I had hoped to use appear to have folded or moved on, so I’ll have to find another option for getting out to the nature reserve later in the week (hopefully on a day with some cloud cover)!

A cheese and pickle sandwich

One of my favorite topics of discussion is food – whether it be food sustainability, the eat local movement, organic and environmental issues, consumption/dieting, or cooking – it’s all there, in that thing we do at least three times a day. Today I was thinking about food appreciation. It’s so easy to buy meals these days and make or cook them instantly that we just don’t appreciate what we have, and we take it for granted (which global warming may change someday, but don’t get me started).

Everyone has those “throw-together” meals – the fall-backs for when you’re just too busy to figure out what to eat. The makings are always in the fridge or the cupboard just in case. Aside from mac & cheese, one of mine since college has been the very strange cheese and pickle sandwich. It sounds odd, I know. But to me, it’s enjoyable, easy, and has only four ingredients (or even less, if I’m skipping the mayo). The other day I was eating this sandwich and realizing that even this lowly food item that I slap together and could eat just about every day for lunch on auto-pilot, has so much to it. Never mind something as complex as an actual multi-course dinner, or a typical American processed food item like a frozen dinner.

Let’s look and see what we’ve got:

– 2 pieces of bread
– a couple of dill pickle slices
– a couple of slices of cheese
– Kraft olive oil reduced-fat mayo (or alternatively, Dijon mustard)

Simple, right? Well, let’s see. That slice of bread – I’m kinda  partial to the multi-whole-grain with oats kind, which means its got at least four types of flour and grains in it, if not a lot more. That’s at least four individual farmers growing their individual crops, worrying about the weather and waiting all season for my grains to ripen, harvesting them, milling them, selling them to the bread or flour companies, along with all the transportation and energy that goes into all those steps. Someone bakes and delivers the bread – I try to buy local, so that part of it probably isn’t very far away; maybe a bakery within 20 miles of where I live. Every now and then I stop in at that bakery for a latte and treat, and watch them making bread, rolls, and pastries.

Dill pickles – eek. Well, I know it starts with cucumbers, and I like kosher dills. So there’s probably not TOO many ingredients. Let’s see… vinegar, salt, natural flavors. Yep, not too much in that jar. But again, someone somewhere grew the cucumbers, who knows where. Then another business went to the trouble of being certified kosher. The salt – who knows where. Normally I buy from a more local company, but was at a different store this time. My jar says, ack, “made in India” !! How very strange. Kosher dill pickles made in a Hindu/Muslim country all the way across the world, shipped to Portland, OR, then distributed to a local store near me. Given the source of the pickles, the cucumbers probably came from northern Africa, based on what I’ve been reading lately, and the salt and vinegar from the middle east or the Mediterranean. Oh, and don’t forget conveniently sliced at the factory the better to fit on my sandwich. Sheesh. I wouldn’t have bought these if I’d seen that “made in India”. Not that I have anything against Indians making a living. Just that it’s a heck of a long way and a big environmental footprint just to have pickles.

Cheese… Trader Joe’s. No point of origin specified, which makes it hard to identify whether I’m meeting my buy local goals. They are a west coast company, so one hopes they’re buying from someone here, since there are multitudes of dairy farms from WA to CA. Let’s pick Tillamook, just for fun. I’ve actually seen that factory, on the coast of Oregon. They buy from local dairy herds, make the cheese in their factory with natural ingredients (although they are not certified organic, why I’m not sure). And again, presliced. Lazy, lazy, I know. I don’t usually do that. Not sure how I ended up with it this time, except that TJs had a wider variety of reduced fat cheeses than most stores, which actually taste good. So I may be buying it again. Here we must not forget the dairy hands getting up early to milk the cows… hmm. Does anyone still do that, or is it all by machine?? Paint me woefully ignorant about this part of the process. Most likely I really do not want to know.

Last, mayo. I don’t eat much of this, but recently found this olive oil version that I like – again, lower-fat but tastes just as good. Let’s see what’s in it – well, this is a long list. Three different kinds of vegetable oils, vinegar, sugar, eggs, starches, salt, onions, garlic and the seven or eight other random ingredients that every processed western food seems to have in it these days. Focusing on the “normal” ingredients – at least 5 crops in there, along with the other seasonings, starches, and eggs. So now we’ve added chickens to the mix and another multitude of farmers – some of which are highly likely to be in other parts of the world (olives, soybeans). And chemical companies for all those funky food additives =/

All those people growing crops, raising chickens and cows, milling, cheese-making, pickling, packaging, transporting, processing, mixing, baking, storing, never mind the containers, labels, advertising, trucking, wholesalers around the world, buyers and grocers – all so that I can make and eat one sandwich in under 15 minutes and never give it a thought…

Which brings us to the slow foods movement – if we really thought about what we eat and the impossibility of personally creating it ourselves, gave thanks to all the people who brought it to our table, all the animals, crops, weather, and nature that made it possible along with the manmade infrastructure, we’d appreciate every meal, no matter how lowly. We’d stop and think about what we are eating, how complex it is, how far it came, and whether we want all of those attributes in our food. We might slow down, eat less and with more gratitude, and be healthier. Next time you eat your favorite comfort meal, give it some thought!

This year in the garden…

I really NEED to get my digital camera working – I’m so bad with things like that but I’d love to be able to show you the pile of produce on my counter today. In any case… Here’s how things went this year:

– Lovely piles of herbs (always seem to be the easiest to grow) – with basil, rosemary, sage, and tarragon doing the best, along with chives. Cilantro and dill went to seed almost immediately, and I am still trying to convince the basil that it doesn’t want to go to seed yet.

– LOTS of peppers, mostly the long green ones. I also planted some smaller bell-shaped varieties, I thought they were supposed to be red and yellow but it seems I am only getting a couple of green ones.

– Broccoli, hmm. Supposed to be easy to grow here. The plants and stems did seem very strong and robust, but the heads were small and spindly. I did have lovely yellow flowers though :D  The broccoli was quite bitter, I found.

– Eggplant, another disappointment. Had pretty purple flowers but then nothing happened. From discussions at the farmer’s market it appears I am not alone – the particular rainy weather we had in the middle of July is likely responsible for this. They need just the right temperatures to set fruit at just the right time of flowering, and it didn’t happen.

– Squash, yum. I am growing what I thought would be small yellow patty-pan squash, but they’re BIG yellow patty-pan squash, probably eight inches in diameter. Perfect for grilling and broiling and with a very nice flavor.

– Lemon cucumbers – I am getting lots of these. I was surprised to find that they had uncomfortable little spiky points all over them, but they easily scrub off. These have a nice flavor but the rind is a little hard.

– Butter lettuce – really nice clumps of perfect, yummy lettuce. Definitely met my expectations. The spinach, on the other hand, flowered (!) almost immediately and I never really got any. I was late starting this year and both of these crops probably should have been started earlier. The chard from last year lived through the winter, and had I trimmed it back better, it might not be so spindly. I’ll see how it’s doing next spring.

All in all, not bad. It’s fun to try new things each year – but I’m glad I didn’t bother with tomatoes. Too much trouble and not enough gain here in the Pacific NW. Next year I’ll try to get started earlier and see what else I can grow – strawberries might be nice!