Foodie Tuesday: A Balanced Diet

Photo montage: Fun with Fruit & VegetablesI appreciate good health and all of the dietary elements that can determine whether I’m healthy, and if so, just how healthy I am. I know that diet includes not only the things I eat but how I combine them, when I eat, how much I eat, and many more factors that interact to create the ever-changing state of good health I seek. I realize, too, that nutritionists and scientists and other dietary mavens are always learning new things, and nearly always getting new ideas, too, some of which they can prove and others, not so much. That doesn’t stop tons of people, including me, from becoming obsessed, however temporarily, with the latest dietary trends and tweaking our diets without always considering whether those new, however ingenious seeming, ideas have anything to do with how our own bodies operate best.

Huh.

Yeah, I’m always thinking of new and better ways to make my diet more seemingly ideal for me, and I have some goofy thoughts on the subject at the best of times, and that’s the truth. What I can say in my defense is that among the relatively few things I have managed to learn in my lifetime thus far is that there is a whole lot more involved in my health and well-being than food.

I love when I can find the balance I need in any day by eating when I’m hungry, stopping when I’m no longer hungry, and focusing on getting not only a reasonable apportionment between protein and fat and carbs and vitamins and minerals and all of that dandy stuff. I love when it’s satisfying to my taste buds as well. Most of all, I love when that’s all fitted into a balanced diet of being with loved ones, going wonderful places, learning new fun things, and not least of all, of making art. There are always going to be theories, guides, charts, Rules and expectations about what constitutes the ideal way to eat, from the old spa cures that had people eating nothing but blandness or drinking rather large quantities of vinegary-dry white wine to the FDA-approved Food Pyramid, to the various independent dietary regimes from Scarsdale to South Beach, from Paleo to the Perfect Health Diet. I’ll outlive some of them, and many more will follow me. My budget and schedule, my taste preferences of the moment, and the company I keep, will continue to change my dietary wants and needs as well.

As long as I can keep listening to music, writing and drawing, and surrounding myself with great and interesting people, I will feel well fed.

Photo montage: Another Balanced DietI need to tell you that there’s one sure way to have just the right diet, at least if you happen to be me and visiting Vienna. You just wend your way down a couple of funny little narrow byways and find the welcome that waits for you behind the door of the Gösser Bierklinik. That’s right: a clinic dedicated to beer. If that doesn’t make you feel better, you don’t know a healthy diet at all, wink-wink. Hail, Austria! It’s really a lovely old, old restaurant—don’t miss the neatly labeled Türkenkugel, the cannonball reputed to have been shot into the place in 1683 and still enjoying the pride of place where it sticks out of, or into, the wall.Digital illustration: Bierklinik Highlights

But don’t get hung up on ancient history too much, or you will miss out on one of the best Wienerschnitzeln I’ve had anywhere, and I am a fan, so I’ve enjoyed a few. The Bierklinik’s is tender inside, lightly seasoned, crispy on the outside, and unadulterated with anything other than the requisite lemon wedge for squeezing a drop or two of extra sunshine on it. Fabulous. Combine that with some ordinary but blazing hot fries and a bracing drink of anything from water to the titular beer, to what our server assured me was the ‘ladylike’ way to have a beer, a Pfiff mit Schuss, or beer spiked with elderflower cordial—I can’t speak to the waiter’s assertion, not being so incredibly ladylike myself, but it was a light and sprightly accompaniment to the Schnitzel, and given the perfectly convivial group with whom we were dining on the evening I tried it out (my husband and I were with three delightful friends, but also joined eventually in conversation with the marvelous German couple and his parents who were sitting at the next table), it was no more, and no less, effervescent than the conversation. Schnitzel, fries, a good drink and excellent company. Sounds like a perfectly balanced diet to me!Photo: Gösser's Schnitzel

 

Foodie Tuesday: Been There, Eaten That

Travel: good. Travel while eating delicious foods along the way: fabulous. Puerto Rico last week: a joy.

We went there for a specific reason, to attend the wedding of loved friends. But if one, well, has to go to an island paradise for any reason, one might as well enjoy as many other  aspects of said island as possible during the visit. So we did that, too. Good excuse to try out a few of the classic traditional foods of the place, enjoy a few modern additions, and relish the marvelous atmosphere that makes it all taste so wonderful.

Photo: Bacalaítos

Bacalaítos (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacala%C3%ADto) are a delicious small bite, fried seasoned salt cod that is often served with a dipping sauce to complement it—for example, here, a buttery garlic sauce; elsewhere, a sweet-bright guava sauce. When beautifully made, as tender and light as the most fabulous fish cakes or fish-and-chips cod anywhere.

Photo: Kitty Cat Fried Eggs

While we did sample our way through the trip, we couldn’t manage to eat *everything* on offer. I was left wondering what precisely this menu item was, if not eggs produced and cooked by felines, but it amused me to ponder on it all the same.

Photo: In Lieu of Ginger Ale

If what’s requested isn’t available, sometimes what you get might be even more fitting for the occasion. No ginger ale? Coconut soda suits a casual meal of Puerto Rican treats just fine!

Photo: Fried Pork Luncheon

A delicious lunch of fried pork, beans and rice, and tostones goes down ever so nicely and makes perfect fuel for a busy afternoon of exploration in San Juan Viejo, especially when eaten with a massive side order of mofongo.

Photo: The Apotheosis of Limeade

The current crisis of the Mexican lime crop notwithstanding, the fabulously refreshing limeade at Cueva del Mar is jammed with both limes and flavor.

Photo: Egg-Battered Shrimp

Seafood reigns supreme in island culture, and with good reason. The egg-battered prawns my spouse ordered were fresh and sweet and tender. Better yet, they were plentiful enough he was willing to share some with me. Hurray for seafood!

Photo: Conch Empanadillas

I, meanwhile, opted to get my first taste of conch. Also tender and flavorful! Diced up and seasoned as they were, they reminded me a little of something about halfway between ham and clams. And all the way delicious.

Photo: Yummy Little Fried Pies

I started with shrimp and mahi-mahi empanadillas, because despite the server’s assurance that my initial choices of conch and crab were her two favorite varieties, the kitchen was entirely out of them at the moment. Turns out they were *all* tasty little fried hand pies.

Photo: Mamposteao

One of the clear favorites in the dish derby of our trip was Mamposteao, the glorious beans-and-rice concoction originating as leftover bean stew mixed with rice and cooked in a hot pan until it develops a crisp crust around its tender and succulent insides. (https://www.google.com/search?q=mamposteao&client=safari&rls=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=z16BU7r7GdWVqAakwYLgBQ&ved=0CEEQsAQ&biw=1328&bih=763). We ordered it more than once, and I think I could eat it more than once a *week* if given the chance.

Photo: Madame St. Germain

A lovely drink, the Madame St. Germain; simply add a splash of St. Germain (elderflower) liqueur to a flute of Prosecco, and splish-splash, you have a sparkling glass of sunlight at any time of day or evening.

Photo: Chocolate Grilled Cheese

As it happens, the Madame St. Germain goes beautifully with the chocolate grilled cheese sandwiches at the magical Casa Cortés ChocoBar, made of brioche, cheddar and cocoa-blended butter and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar just in case you didn’t feel delightedly decadent enough already.

Photo: Swiss Pastries

Even with my seemingly boundless appetite, sometimes there were actual items I couldn’t quite manage to eat. It didn’t stop my wandering, food-lustful eyes from enjoying every bit, though, as in the Swiss bakery where we went with our friends to pick up a birthday cake. Because having a big wedding celebration for his sister and the opening of his new brewpub wasn’t quite enough celebrating for one fantastic man.

Photo: the Wedding Cake

There *was* a glamorous and deliciously moist wedding cake, should you wonder, and I assume it came from that same phantasmagorical bakery. So beautiful, so happily massacred by the hungry after-wedding crowd.

Photo: Pork, and All the Trimmings

But first there was the buffet of roasted pork with all of the trimmings: an unfussy and freshly crisp salad, more delicious rice and beans, what I believe were pasteles (a sort of tamale cousin—http://www.theawl.com/2012/11/puerto-rican-pasteles) and, oh yes, more pork.

Photo: The Pig in All Its Glory

All of the wedding feast was magnificent, but the star is and was, as it should be, the roasted pig in all its shiny, juicy, crackling-skinned glory.

What, you want more? Of course there was more, and plenty of it, beginning with a scrumptious party at the bride’s brother’s brewery (try saying that trifecta after a couple of glasses of his spectacularly creamy Scotch Porter style beer, infused with just a touch of Puerto Rican rum!) with all kinds of pizza made on the spot, my favorite of which was bacon and sweet plantains. We succeeded in eating more than was necessary, but not more than was enjoyable, on every single day of our visit, not counting having to get up at 4:30 on the last one to get to the airport on time. And I will certainly get right on board, fork in hand, with the opportunity to revisit the island and all of its culinary kindnesses any time I get the chance. You probably should, too.

Foodie Tuesday: Drinks are on Me

CafeculturaWhy is it that it often takes getting together with friends to remind me what a welcome refreshment it is to spend even a short time sitting down for a break with a drink in good company? It matters little whether the liquid in question is a glass of water, a cup of tea or coffee or cocoa, icy soda or lemonade, vintage wine or a crisp cocktail. The venue isn’t the most important factor either, though I’ll readily admit that I think sitting in a gleaming Art Nouveau patisserie over cafe au lait et un petit morceau de gateau beats the Ouefs a la Neige out of drinking a cuppa Joe in the kitchen over a back issue of Home Plumber magazine. The length of the interval isn’t entirely the deciding factor, for that matter, though the stretchier it can be, the better the chance of full recovery from what ails me, whether it’s a minor moment of annoyance or full-on encroaching grouch-itude. Clearly, different occasions require different libations, too.

The primary determinant of the break’s quality and value, not to mention its memorability, is the company in which the break-with-a-sip is taken. No one I know would argue against the existence of occasions wherein the best (even the only acceptable) company is one’s own. But often, even when I think I desire nothing so much as to be alone, I discover that the finest of respite is found in the sharing of a drink in good company. So whenever you and I find ourselves coming together in the same place at the same time, let’s sit down for a moment or two and savor life over the liquid renewer of choice, if you please. Good for the corporeal fluid levels; better for the soul.Enjoy Cafecultura

Foodie Tuesday: Mixed Grill Girl

I’m married to a person whose fondness for vegetables is, shall we say, somewhat limited. Fruits, yes; starches, yes; seafoods and meats, yes and yes. Veg, not so much. He’ll eat some quite willingly, but he’d make a fairly poor version of a vegetarian. Me, I love many kinds of vegetables, along with all of the other foods, but I am a pescetarian and carnivore as well, so I don’t mind having the occasional festival of meat kind of meal.photo

We had a friend join us for dinner today, a person whose leanings are not far different from my spousal-person’s, so it seemed like a fine time to indulge in a freezer-freeing festival of the mainly meat sort. I had a small but solid hunk of grass-fed beef waiting to be enjoyed, a quartet of all-natural bratwurst all ready for a taste test, and the goofy woven square of bacon lying atop my cheesy potato-mash dish in the freezer drawer in quiescent quiet to prepare for use as well. Now I have a lot of space that I didn’t have in the freezer. Of course, I’ve got quite a bit less space in my innards at the moment than before. Yup.photo

So we had our mixed-grill meal together and had fun. Bratwurst, simmered for a long time in a bottle of Shiner Bock, until the beer was syrupy and the sausages fully cooked. The potato mash was quickly heated through and ready to go to table. The beef got cut up into small steaks and pan-seared in avocado oil, with just a little sea salt. Yes, we did in fact have a vegetable, too: peas. Tiny peas, steamed and served with lemon-mint butter, sweet salted butter mixed with minced fresh mint leaves and grated lemon zest.

All of this certainly sated the hunger for savories. That can, in turn, trigger the sweet tooth response. So there was dessert. Probably the richest version of a chocolate pudding I’ve concocted to date, dressed with honeyed peach slices.photo

Rich Chocolate Pudding & Peaches

Pudding: blend 3/4 to one cup each of whole milk yogurt and coconut milk, about 1/4 cup of raw honey, a pinch of salt, a splash each of orange liqueur (homemade months ago from mandarins, juice and zest both, with toasted coconut and brown sugar and vodka), vanilla and almond extracts, and three large eggs, and cook them gently until thickened. Add a bunch of yummy dark chocolate pieces and melt them down. I used 14 pieces of Dove dark chocolate, and just let the residual heat of the thickened custard melt them as I stirred. The coconut milk left the mixture just a tad less than perfectly smooth, so I used the stick blender to make it all silky. A stint in the fridge before dessert time finished the thickening and glossing and it was all ready to serve.

With topping. I took 2 cups of sliced frozen peaches and cooked them gently with a pinch of salt, 2 tablespoons each of butter and honey, a teaspoon of almond extract, and spices to taste (I used allspice and cardamom). Spooned at room temperature over the chilled pudding, they gave just enough brightness and freshness to jazz up the rich pudding and fool me into thinking I wasn’t overindulging in dessert after overindulging in dinner. My style entirely, and I think you do know what I mean. Sorry? Not the teeniest whit.

Foodie Tuesday: Texas Tapas

photoA more accurate name for this food would probably be something about snacking-as-dinner or Gustatorial Grazing, but it doesn’t have quite the same, erm, kick to it. The concept simply goes back to my perpetual preference for offering a wide assortment of things to nibble and letting everyone at table—or wandering around, as is the usual case when we have a houseful—choose his or her own combination of things to eat. Saves any tough decisions on my part and eliminates the complexity of trying to accommodate each person’s allergies and dislikes individually, as long as I don’t have any tiny persons of no discretion on hand and able to lay hands on everything.

I’m particularly fond of the ease of this approach when, as aforementioned, I have a big gathering of friends or family, but it’s also a convenient method for getting up a meal in a heartbeat when last-minute plans evolve. I found out the other day that we had a chance to see an old friend from Washington who was in town for one mere day; thankfully, he was here to consult with a good local friend, so the two of them wrangled their schedules to make it possible to take a dinner break with the two of us. Instant party!

I know that our visitor, while we’d not seen him here, has been to Texas before, but I didn’t know how much he’d had the typical local foods. As the weather was warmer and sunnier than expected, it seemed fortuitously apropos to put together something that had a hint of picnic, a touch of barbecue, a dash of Southern-ism, and a little Tex-Mex character, all in simple forms that could be served at room temperature and combined into whatever ad hoc plates-full we chose, and we could be as casual as we liked with our good friends.

I started with a quick cheat: pre-assembled jalapeño poppers I’d bought at the grocery, seeded jalapeño halves filled with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon. I roasted them in a cast iron skillet in the oven, knowing that this would also preheat the oven for much of the rest of the meal’s roasting.

I bought an array of vegetables, cleaned them and cut them into rough chunks, steamed the hard root vegetables partway ahead of time, assembled all of the prepared parts in a couple of big baking dishes, and loaded them up with butter and a bit of salt before they all went into the oven to roast together. Russet and sweet potatoes, carrots and beets all got the pre-roasting spa treatment of the steaming, and went into the ovens nestled with fat asparagus, whole ears of sweet corn, small bell peppers and chunks of lemon.

While all of those were roasting, I cut some skirt steak into fajita-sized pieces, seasoned them with cumin, smoked paprika, smoked salt and a little granulated garlic, and seared them before a nice braise in a bottle’s bath of Shiner Bock (a good Texas beer), cooking it all in until it candied into glaze at the last. Those went into a bowl to stay warm, and I took the skillet that was still filled with spicy bacon fat from the poppers and lightly cooked up the beet greens in that. When they were not quite cooked, I just took them off the cooker and let them steam in their own heat, covered. Meanwhile, the first dish of the meal was the last to be prepared: pimiento cheese. There would be salsa and crema on the table for dipping or saucing any and everything, but pimiento cheese seemed like a perfectly good addition to this melange of a meal.

Those who know the southern tradition of pimiento cheese know that the classic White Trash version of it is likely to be a combination of shredded Velveeta (something that is called cheese but bears little resemblance to it, in my book) and diced canned red bell peppers in a lot of mayonnaise, possibly with a little bit of cayenne and salt to season it. Like many regional staples, though, every household is likely to have its own variant, and many of the modern ones use cheddar cheese, the most meaningful improvement in the recipe I can imagine. I kept my own version simple but used lots of cheddar, a largish jar of canned pimientos, and a mixture of about half mayonnaise and half whole milk yogurt. I seasoned it all with only a touch of salt, a good dash of cayenne, and a teaspoon or so of dill. Not bad, if you ask me, on crackers or crisps or tortilla chips or, dare I say it, probably even in the great white trash loveliness of making it a sandwich on slices of squishy super-processed white bread. Y’all, let’s eat.photo

Foodie Tuesday: I’ll Have the Usual

photoThere are times when only the familiar favorite will suffice. The lucky socks worn for every winning match must be worn for every match thereafter; once found, the chair in the aural sweet spot of the venue must be sought for every concert to come. And there are a whole lot of us who, once we find a favorite food at a favorite eatery, are hard pressed to keep from going there over and over, ordering the same dish every time we walk into the door. This tried and true preference can be so strong that even if, like me, you’ve eaten other delectable items on a place’s menu before discovering your special favorite, you can’t go back to rambling around the menu any longer but are forevermore committed to that new-found love.

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When you’re not on your home turf, ask the locals for their favorites.

Naturally, there are places we discover that become go-to favorites in general, too. Places where we know we’ll be able to find an assortment of meals and dishes that please us no matter how many times we visit or even how much we vary our choices from the menu. For a lot of people, I suspect that the most likely such places, menus or dishes will always be familiar and comforting ones representing our own backgrounds, our personal histories. That’s how I end up visiting the same joint every chance I get when I revisit a particular town, and sit there feeling as contented and reassured as though I were sitting at the table with my cousins or siblings, or the neighbors or schoolmates of my youth.

photoAnd it’s no disparagement to think of it all this way; this stuff becomes sanctified in our memories and preferences most often because it’s really and truly delicious. It doesn’t have to be one kind of thing or another, neither fussy nor simple, extravagantly doctor-frightening nor miraculously healthful, decorative nor homely, to have this mystical power.

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Whether you call it Prime Rib or Poor Man’s Roast Beef, if it’s well made it’s all good!

The truth, I suspect, is that it doesn’t have to be our own history and comfort that the food and the atmosphere represent, but someone’s honest spaces and spices, and that’s quite compelling enough. There’s room for new favorites all the time when we visit different cities and towns or are introduced to their favorite corner booths and bar stools by our friends. After all, the company and the occasion are probably the most significant ingredients for making any eating experience a favorite. I think I hear a few places and meals calling my name right this minute!

Foodie Tuesday: Wine, Dark & Light

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Close observation magnifies everything, both the good and the bad.

One day in the wine aisle of the local store I had occasion to observe a striking study in contrasts.

As I drifted along in search of a couple of bottles for an upcoming dinner party, I couldn’t avoid overhearing two twenty-something guys as one told the other quite volubly that he was hoping he could fine a lawyer good enough to negotiate him out of Resisting Arrest charges if he pleaded guilty to the Driving Under the Influence charge. There were a whole slew of reasons I was horrified to hear this conversation. First of all, it was yet another example of the loss of social inhibition that saddens and frustrates me these days; how is it acceptable to discuss personal, legal, private matters in normal tones and in great detail in a public place like a grocery store?

I was privy, however unwillingly, to details like the confessor’s noting his level of drunkenness as having been so profound that three hours later when he was having blood tests in the hospital he was still unable to speak clearly, and his friend’s commiseration for apparently having had a similar experience. What I did not overhear, not once, was any indication of regret, remorse or contrition. This was all discussed pretty much in the same manner as they might have recounted a tedious everyday hassle at the office. No sense anywhere in this that the guys themselves could’ve been killed or maimed, or property been damaged or destroyed, let alone that they had opted to put everyone in their proximity at the same risks by choosing to get behind the wheel.

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Of course, when seen so clearly, some things, and people, turn out to be just a bunch of drips.

Talk about, no pun intended, a sobering time.

But I drink alcohol, too. It’s just that I find the idea of drinking past where it’s for taste into where the drink starts making my decisions for me repugnant. I drink specifically to taste.

So it was a startling, and rather refreshing, change of pace when the offending fools finally vacated the aisle and I was approached by a very gracious young woman who asked me politely for advice to a neophyte on choosing red wines. Her adorable toddler daughter sat cheerily and peaceably in the shopping cart throughout what turned into a fairly lengthy conversation, because of course I was suddenly acutely aware of all sorts of questions I’d not considered in a long time. It seems that this lady had a companion who was encouraging her to broaden her horizons and join him in his enjoyment of red wines, and she was accustomed only to cocktail liquor. That’s admittedly a pretty big leap for a palate, whether you’re used to straight vodka or mixed drinks with it as an ingredient.

What could I say that would be of any use to her at all?

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Wine choosing is so hard to learn. Is it *true* that eggs and wine are *always* terrible companions?

Start, yes, with the idea that wines have enormous range in terms of flavors, intensities and affinities–there can be something for nearly every taste and occasion. This, coupled with the personality of wine being perhaps even more of an acquired taste than fruity, herbal or spicy cocktails even when those are made high-octane with something like vodka, is hugely intimidating. Wine snobs do nothing to dispel the fears, with their wacky vernacular of nose and legs, drinkable cement and tar and leather, and huffiness toward anyone drinking anything not Serious or trendy enough.

Finally I did think to tell her that the only really useful and non-terrifying way I’ve learned about red wines other than over a long, long time is to turn to that friendlier set of ‘experts’, those who have an interest in selling you wines. I rarely think of salespeople as my first choice for information resources, but in the (pun intended, this time) case of wine merchants, their vested interest in selling their wares and further, in making them appealing and accessible to a wide audience, makes them a bit more willing and artful educators on the subject than experts who have only themselves to please.

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I mean, sheesh, there are so many red wines; what on earth is my ideal one to drink with a grass-fed skirt steak?

That’s what moved me to tell the nice lady not to risk her hard-earned cash on bottle by bottle experimentation but to seek out the local venues that offer wine tastings. A series of sips, and any amount of snob-sanctioned spitting that it takes to keep sanely sober and free of swallowing swill, is a far quicker way to get a hint of what one actually likes than any other.

Get thee to a wine tasting! My palate is far from sophisticated, but I’ve learned enough over time about what I do and don’t enjoy in wines that I can choose–red or white or any other color, still or bubbly, dry or sweet, or distinct in any other way–with some confidence that I’ll enjoy what I taste. One good glass at a time. Meanwhile, don’t forget to read, too. Not only can articles and even wine labels themselves tell you a lot of useful stuff you might find helpful in your search for deliciousness, as any of you reading this blog would undoubtedly know, being veteran web researchers, there are now a huge number of online resources devoted to oenophilic wisdom.

Most importantly, trust yourself and do what suits you. You might find, after all of the effort and education, that wine is simply Not Your Thing. Why on earth waste time and money (and, potentially, healthy sobriety) on something that doesn’t suit you! You may very well find, if you do like wines that the wines you enjoy most aren’t those that the critics and suave sophisticates admire and tout. If so, feel free to come slumming with me. I’m sure I have a bottle or two in my tiny collection that would make any expert swoon with horror, yet I am more than content to keep sipping at what I like because I like it. And I have been through a few wine tastings, done a bit of reading, and spent plenty of adult years getting the experience that has taught me what I do like, and that it’s perfectly okay to like what wines I like and drink them, no matter what anyone else thinks. Including having a cocktail or beer instead, if that’s my mood.

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Two drink-related things I *am* pretty sure about involve salt: 1, avoid that hideous abomination purporting to be ‘cooking wine’ that is really just cheap vino with salt added to it (as wiser folk have admonished, if it ain’t worth drinking, it ain’t worth cooking with it); 2, salt can, conversely, be quite friendly with tequila or beer if applied properly. See also: Margaritas, Coronitas…