Friday, May 14, 2010

Little people, Big quality

This time, I’m getting practical. Taking a break from philosophy, and getting down to business. The way I shop for produce has been changed recently. I stumbled upon a great, reliable produce market. Marina Farms is located in Culver City, about a mile away from my place. I randomly drove by it, intrigued by the overflowing boxes of fruit. Whatever errand I was running at the time, instantaneously turned meaningless, in face of yet another irresistible grocery shopping opportunity. Keep in mind this is May, end of spring, not summer time yet. Quite a problematic time of year as far as produce is concerned, where the tomato has not yet naturally ripened, and the avocadoes have gone into their summer hibernation. That been said, my expectations stepping into this experience, were taken with a grain of salt.

Still, there was something magical about the fresh produce at Marina Farms, first off, from a visual standpoint. The fact that nothing is arranged in a geometrically perfect pyramid (what if I want the middle nectarine??), the wooden boxes in which they lay, the relatively tight space, the overall lack of pretentiousness. This place exudes simplicity. I don’t need polished apples; I need tasty ones. No fancy lighting, or overly clever consumer-tested marketing arrangements of any sort will make that apple taste better, or in any way more attractive, if you know what you’re looking for in an apple. That is why I appreciate this type of simplicity. Let nature’s creations shine, as they did on the tree or on the ground in which it grew, or moments after they were picked, at most.

Second observation -- smell. This place, from moment of entry, smells like it should, fresh. Natural scents fill the air, no Febreezing the lettuce here. Natural odors rules here, in the best way possible.

Third, price vs. quality. Hands down, cheapest tomatoes I’ve found. Anywhere. (Since leaving Israel, of course…). And, for May, they smell fantastic! Seal of approval – I love this place. Fast forward, 20 minutes later at the house, a simple tomato salad with good olive oil, feta, salt, pepper and some fresh oregano -- yes, best tomatoes I’ve had in a long time.
A few other hidden gems found here: A great spice rack. Things I haven’t found anywhere and, fearfully said, have forgotten about. First and foremost -- Sumac. This wondrous spice is found in abundance around the Middle East, especially in Lebanese cuisine. It has an earthy sourness to it, and is often used in place of lemon as a tangy addition to a dish. At home, I came up with sumac-sage crusted scallops over crispy scallions. The tanginess popped and made this a keeper recipe. Second -- Azafran en Flor. Basically, this is a poor man’s version of saffron. And when I say poor, I’m talking about 79 cents for ¼ oz (!!). True, this is not the real deal, just dried safflower and not the stigmas used for real saffron. However, some experimenting at home (infused some of it in hot water, and made some rice with the liquid) resulted in a comparable flavor. At the end of the day, until I have the great honor of making paella for Ferran Adria, I might as well save up and use Azafran en Flor.

Also, there is a great section for Mediterranean canned goods such as Spanish sardines and octopus, middle-eastern pickles, olives, and other gourmet condiments.
Overall, a great culinary treasure chest, well hidden behind giants such as Whole Foods, Bristol Farms and such, but does not lack in quality and, first and fore most, integrity. What you see is what you get, and that, non-coincidently, is exactly what I want.

In short, this changed the way I approach grocery and produce shopping. Being a meditative, relaxing and most enjoyable experience for me, grocery shopping is something that I take seriously. True there are farmer’s markets all around, but those lately have gone the commercial route, as well. High-end grocery stores offer quality in the expense of... well, expense. The message from all this is to invest in some basic research and spend some time wandering around your local area; find a place you like and that delivers good quality in a reasonable price. You’d be surprised that price and quality, in this case, are barely correlated. The one-stop-shop concept, convenient as it may be, will not deliver overall high quality, and will stumble in some aspects for sure. Spread your “eggs” in several baskets. Find your produce lady, your meat and seafood man, your bread person. You’re bound to develop great relationships with those people, based on your appreciation for the hard work they do, and the struggle they face when trying to compete with the goliaths of the food world. That’s how restaurants get their great products -- personal connection with their purveyors. Again, reflecting back to the French Laundry Cookbook: it is partially dedicated by Chef Keller, to his purveyors at the restaurant, including a full page spread on each one, from his oyster lady, to his hearts of palm guy. Respect the small people, and they will return the favor with great prices and quality that is never worse and often better.

Marina Farms -- 5454 S Centinela Ave,
Los Angeles, CA 90066

Thursday, May 6, 2010

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Find out what it means to me to roast a chicken

We are rulers of the earth! We are the conquerors that planted our flag on top of Food Chain Mountain! We have the ability to farm, grow, harvest, butcher and delightfully consume any and every product of Mother Nature. And we do it so well, in so many different ways, feeding mind, body and soul all at once. The world’s culinary greats throughout the centuries have created delicacies out of all that nature has to offer. The pig provides bacon and prosciutto di Parma; The Tuna fish swims onto plates of irresistible Toro sashimi; the goose lives to give its liver. Sounds like a taste bud orgy to me! BUT -- Being on top of the food chain comes with a huge responsibility. All nature demands in return is -- respect.

Thomas Keller, undoubtedly one of the greatest American chefs today, in his French Laundry Cookbook, talks about “The Importance of Rabbits”. He explains his experience of killing rabbits, and the switch in approach, once the act of taking a life is performed. No longer is it merely a loin, or saddle that you sauté or braise. Keller took the rabbit’s life; heard the screams at the slit of a throat; felt the resistance of the skin, refusing to leave the muscle tissue bare; and carefully selected the most beautiful rabbit saddle, to glorify the plates of one of America’s greatest culinary meccas -- The French Laundry. That connection, the bond between raw product and processor, between taker and giver, changes the way we assume our role as the food chain’s last ones standing.

One of the most comforting and satisfying things to cook in a home kitchen is a whole roasted chicken. It fills the house with scents and warm emotions. The chicken was purchased, optimally, at an organic food market, or alternatively, was commercially wrapped and placed on a shelf at the local grocery store. It did not grow there, however -- not at the market, not at the store. Whether it was farmed in a tightly packed pen, or was free to roam its surroundings while still capable of flaunting its feathers, it gave its life to serve a purpose. The chicken was brought to this earth to satisfy our need for comfort, our hunger, and to bring back childhood memories from grandma’s kitchen. All we must do in gratitude is pay all the respect deserved to the chicken that bring that type of happiness to our lives.

How do we respect the parts of nature we consume? Easy. We listen and we learn. Like in any relationship, communication is key. The chicken will tell you what she wants you to do with her. She’ll ask to be taken out of the fridge for a bit cause she’s chilly. Brrr. Then she’ll want to rinse off, just water nothing more. She’ll ask to be wiped down till she’s nice and dry. After that, she wants to be tied up!! Don’t look at me -- she asked for it! So do as she says, and truss her. She’ll want to put on a gown of salt, pepper. And don’t just toss it on -- rub it in and massage her like the beauty that she is. After that she’ll be ready to head out to the 450-degree sunshine to get nice and crispy tanned. Don’t bother her; she deserves her alone time. After an hour more or less, she’ll return with the sexiest bronze tan, she just needs a 15-minute nap, and to quench her thirst (bathe her with a cocktail of melted butter and thyme) and then she’ll be all yours to barbarically devour! After she wakes, she’ll be more than willing to remove her bikini to reveal perfect tan lines, and separate flesh from bone, head to toe, till glorious satisfaction. You both lay there, intoxicated, and mutually blissful. Now that’s respect.

----- Take a deep breath, and we move on… -----

All living things, including plants and crops for that matter, though some sexier than others, demand the same amount of consideration and admiration. An orange, or any other citrus fruit, is a great example: try to Supreme (separate flesh from rest of fruit) a lemon, orange, grapefruit. There is only one way to do it, and that is because the fruit was born a certain way. The sections can only be extracted using one approach. Auguste Escoffier didn’t decide that or make that up. The orange did. The cow, with it’s many different cuts of flesh, is much more complicated and demanding. She has to have each and every part of her treated differently. If she’s going to visit the health spa, every body part will occupy a separate treatment room. High maintenance gets a whole new definition with this one. The ribs want to be smoked and BBQed slowly; the shoulders want to be stewed; the hip muscles want to be roasted; the lower back area demands a grill or sauté pan application. In return, she’ll come out as the most beautifully treated supermodel you’ve ever seen, every inch of her is perfection!

Bottom line is, we must be grateful and admire the abundance of culinary wealth that surrounds us. Learn from the product you use, how it wants to be prepared from start to finish. What we eat and how we cook it is not up to us. We are in the mercy of nature, which is something that we must gracefully applaud and religiously praise every single day in the kitchen, or at a dining table, whether at home or at a 3-star Michelin establishment. Listen to your products, respect them, love them and embrace the fact that they gave life to serve you. The least you can do is pay the same respect back to them. And make them perfectly delicious.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What is it about food (...and sex)??

Food has been on our minds since the dawn of time. We consume it, discuss it, go to war over it, kill and get killed for it, fall in love with it, and because of it. Food brings out the best and worst of mankind. If I am hungry, I am admittedly intolerable by others. I'm sure I'm not the only one, and readers across the globe can sympathize. On the other hand, when I'm having a finger-licking delicious meal, I am on top of the world, and a sense of incomparable bliss surrounds me. It's like the perfect drug -- and I NEED my fix!

So, what is it exactly that makes food so intoxicating? Something that holds such a spell on us must be greater than, and far beyond our understanding. The natural need for food is embedded in us, the same way that the need for sexual interaction is. This goes way back to our pre-historic days, and brings us closer to the animal kingdom we belong to. This phenomenon is common among all living creatures -- we MUST eat. We MUST procreate. Man doesn't eat = man dies. Man doesn't have sex = man is extinct; or – Rhinoceros doesn’t eat = Rhinoceros dies. Rhino… You get the idea. Us humans, we were smarter than the rhino. We decided to perfect food, as well as sex. Au revoir, hunter-gatherer cuisine! Sayonara, missionary position! Humans took on the mission to enjoy the two instinctual habits to the fullest. The innate human pleasure derived from eating, and from sex for that matter, come from the same cognitive place. If these culinary, or sexual experiences were intolerable, I sure as hell would not want to engage in them. However, the fact that both are extremely pleasurable gives birth to these undying desires.

In order to not get too sidetracked, and as a sacrifice of potential traffic through this blog, I will leave the bedtime tales for a different occasion and place. This will be the platform discussing everything that is food; from the most decadent of culinary masterpieces, all the way through to the basics. Why we eat what we eat; how to make it at home; where to go for the best [fill in the blank]; history/philosophy/anthropology/anatomy/math/physics/chemistry of food. It’s all fair game and all on a fun, approachable level.
A foodie extravaganza for the senses! By the people, for the people!

Please feel free to share your honest opinions, contribute as much as you want and spread the word!