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Friday, November 24, 2006

Food Porn Friday - 6

Thanksgiving Dinner at Karen's Bed, Breakfast, and Beyond

Bruce's Pumpkin Soup with Pumpkin Seeds and Grated Gruyere Cheese

Everything, other than Lori's Green Bean Casarole, lovingly prepared by Karen: (clockwise from top left) Candied Yams, Green Bean Casarole, Herbed Dinner Roll, Stuffing, Roasted Winter Vegetables, Roast Turkey and Gravy, Mashed Potatoes.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Steal This Brie!

Holiday Greetings, Bacon Press Readers (Bill, Mark, Sam, Karen, Sean, Kelly, Molly and Dr. Biggles)!!!

It's Thanksgiving week, which means tons of turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, and candied yams on Thursday, followed by tons of cursing, road rage, and rabid shoppers stampeding the gates of big box super-stores at 6 AM the following Friday.

Ah, yes. Black Friday.

A fitting title, no? It actually refers to the profits (symbolized by black ink in symbolic accounting books) that retailers plan to make on the first day of the holiday season that, in part, celebrates a guy who gave up everything he owned, lived in poverty, and championed the rights of the poor, the abused, and the outcasts of society.

On this day of conspicuous consumption, one might be inclined to cynically ask, "What Would Jesus Buy?" However, a better question would be "What Would Jesus Gank?"

Although it violates one of the Big Ten – if put into this situation and finding himself at his local Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, or Whole Foods - would Jesus roll with the Five Finger Discount?

I don't know. I'm not a theologian, but there is sufficient evidence that shows Jesus was capable of anything, often to the shock and awe of the people hanging around him. Jesus was a loose cannon, for sure, and probably the craziest Jew in all of Galilee. Jesus might just go meshuganah on your ass, and you'd never see it coming.

Hidden securely underneath one of those long and flowing robes, the possibilities of local artisan wine, line-caught wild Alaskan Salmon, and organic unleavened gluten-free bread swiped from the local markets are endless.

I should know. I am a former shoplifter.

It started when I was a child, let loose in the toy aisle of Kmart, trying to steal bubblegum from one of those toy dispensers. During my early teenage years, my life of crime progressed to stealing condoms from convenience stores (what I needed them for I'll never know).

It didn't help that at around age 15 and 16 I hung out with a bunch of young hoodlums whom I'd sometimes accompany in their futile and bumbling attempts to rob Coke machines and newspaper racks in order to get up enough money for drugs and alcohol. Or that said hoodlums and I once walked into an Army Surplus store and back out brazenly wearing the bomber jackets we'd just stolen.

We were lucky that our stupid asses didn't get shot – especially in the redneck South where I grew up.

By the time I had moved down to Florida, I was living with runaways who would steal CDs from chain music stores and re-sell them at the independent shops. While I didn't think stealing piddly little CDs was worth the risk of getting busted, I did pull off the occasional Gas-N-Go. In fact, I'd forgotten that I use to do those until an old friend from Florida reminded me that I'd pulled one the first time we met. He thought it was "punk", and of course that's exactly what I went for in those days.

Eventually, I sold that gas-guzzler and rode a Greyhound bus across country to Oakland, California, where I discovered a new breed of petty criminal – the gourmet gankster. It bears acknowledging that the Bay Area's food obsession even extends to those so inclined to stuff imported cheese down their socks when no one's looking.

However, think I need to point out that the few, truly successful, gourmand ganksters I knew were white, from middle class families, and were either college-educated or attended UC Berkeley. It's a sad but true commentary on the state of our society that, even now, if your skin is dark or you're an "undesirable" white, you'll be followed and watched in any store, while the real culprits – you know who I'm talking about – literally walk out of the store with hundreds of dollars in merchandise.

Thirteen years ago I lived with a couple in Oakland – let's call them Brent and Leticia – who were like this.

But while Brent and Leticia looked like your average, clean-cut, attractive, white 20-somethings, they were hardly ordinary. They were adrenaline junkies to the extreme, always pushing their limits – as well as the limits of the people around them.

Leticia would often bring home hitchhikers (like the ex-Marine war criminal and his pregnant girlfriend) or people she met while driving long hours in her junker pick-up truck back and forth to Ukiah. Brent was usually attempting to kill himself while speeding recklessly through red lights on his motorcycle, falling off tall buildings, and fighting pitched street battles with police in violent European anarchist demonstrations.

Shoplifting food was perhaps the most conservative of their escapades. They had several routines to make off with the goods; all of them practiced and carried out with precision. Brent would sometimes walk with ease into a Cost Plus World Market and back out with several cases of alcohol.

One of Brent and Leticia's schemes was to walk into an upscale supermarket and get into a "fight". As Leticia began to weep and divulge uncomfortable (but completely made-up) details about their relationship, most shoppers and store employees would avoid them or look away out of embarrassment. At this point, they made off like bandits – well, not "like" – they just did.

One of the biggest hauls they liked to brag about was when they once walked out of Andronico's in the middle of the afternoon with 2 shopping carts loaded with food. That was the surprising part – that they could just fill up a shopping cart or two and walk out without anyone stopping them.

However, while the exploits of these two may fill you with either awe and/or revulsion, I would like to note that the bulk of theft at any business comes not from the clientel, but from the staff – with the guys at the top often stealing the most.

I'm not making an excuse for theft, but it should be considered when passing judgments about any small time petty criminal.

Anyway, besides Brent and Leticia, I knew other folks (mostly young punks) who stole food, sometimes through shoplifting but often by price switching. The price switching thing is fairly easy, and more than a little tempting, in places like Whole Foods where you're expected to label your bulk food items. In fact, this is how I got busted.

Not that I was really into shoplifting or stealing. For the most part, I didn't need to. Even when I was practically homeless, I could still subsist off of dumpster diving, table diving, food stamps, and free meals in People's Park. And while most of the people around me at the time had a political slant to justify their shoplifting ("it's ok to steal from corporations since they steal from us"), I was beginning to feel – for the first time – that the justification of theft (even if it was against corporations) would lead down a slippery moral slope to the eventual justification of any personal wrong, so long as it was done in the name of a "greater cause".

However, that was a lesson that would come later. In the meantime, I got busted at the Berkeley Whole Foods for switching prices on a bag of organic lentils. Total value of stolen merchandise (the difference between conventional and organic): $1.31.

Pathetic, isn't it?

For that horrendous crime I was handcuffed to a chair in the employee break room by the store's undercover* flatfoot (an off-duty Pleasanton police officer) who threatened me with a weekend in jail unless I signed an agreement not to enter the store again. They also took a Polaroid of me, which I wish I had now since I looked pretty good back then.

I can claim for certain that the only reason I was a "suspect" was because I had, at that time, a mohawk. Ironically, it was the only time in my life that I looked stereotypically "punk" – and my hawk wasn't even cool. It was like one of those bad Mr. T faux-hawks - I was not rocking the Wattie hawk.

How embarrassing.

In the end, petty price switching wasn't worth the risk of getting busted again, nor did I find it politically appealing. Stealing brie from the "rich" and giving it to the poor, while it sounds appealing, wasn't so glamorous when I, in fact, was "the poor" it was intended for. And, in fact, I became more politically active after I stopped stealing – likely since I could focus my energies on political change I could see, not just imagine. I know it sounds cliché, but maybe I also just grew out of the whole shoplifting thing. Eventually I stopped altogether.

But while I've been clean as a whistle ever since, I have to admit - there are times when browsing through my neighborhood Whole Foods that the occasional thought crosses my mind: "This cheese, this chocolate, and these almonds would all look so much better in my pocket".

How about you?**

Come on! Fess up!

(Happy Thanksgiving!)


*Ironically, I later worked in Berkeley - doing what else? – busting shoplifters (which I was very good at.) I quit that job because I grew sick of sending teenagers to jail.

**Feel free to comment anonymously with your stories or experiences.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Food Porn Friday - 5

San Francisco* Sourdough Starter

*South of Market, to be precise.

Out with the old...

...in with the new.

See you soon.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

DIY Roast Coffee

Being able to roast my own coffee is the most exciting thing that's happened in my life since Hair Bands ditched the lipstick and hairspray.

Okay...Maybe not that much!

It's one thing to preoccupy your time imagining the meteoric drop in sales Cover Girl had when the band Poison went all plain Jane. But just imagining all of the ways and types of coffee you can roast at home will have you singing "Cee Cee pick up that guitar and, uh, talk to me!" The best part is – you don't have to go out and buy a fancy, expensive coffee roaster to start roasting at home. In fact, you can use a popcorn popper.

Yes! I said a popcorn popper!

The best popcorn poppers to use are second-hand ones, like the West Bend Popper II, which you can find for several dollars in a thrift store.

Yes! I said a thrift store!

You could also find one on Ebay, but then you run the risk of getting into a bid war - and bid wars, whether you win or lose, suck. Besides, don't you agree that Ebay has taken the fun and magic out of bargain hunting? Remember the days when you scored that cool whatever-it-was and left that shop, flea market, or sidewalk sale just radiating pure joy?

You can't radiate like that online – no matter how many emoticons you use.

Of course, every rose has it's thorn and these older poppers are sometimes banged up and missing parts. They probably don't roast as well as, say, a 5 or 600 dollar Hot Top Drum Coffee Roaster, but hello, it's a frickin' popcorn popper!!

You can buy one of those $500 roasters, plus the unroasted green beans, from my favorite new small business: Sweet Maria's.

I love these people! Not only are they super friendly, but - if you can keep a secret - they threw in a little swag when we went to pick up our order from their West Oakland warehouse. We also picked up our order (twice) without giving them much notice (I have a small problem with instant gratification), yet they were very accommodating and good-natured about it.

Sweet Maria's has a huge variety of unroasted coffee beans sourced from all of the main coffee growing regions, with many of them hand-selected by Tom, the Pop of this Mom-and-Pop business (the Mom being Maria, of course). The cool thing is that not only is Sweet Maria's a certified organic coffee handler, but they also deal in certified Fair Trade coffees as well. Many of the beans they carry come from coffee farms they have personally visited - farms like the woman-owned, 10 hectare (roughly 25 acres) San Antonio farm in Nicaragua.

From this farm came one of three coffee beans I decided to start my newfound roasting endeavor with. The other two came from Mexico and Guatemala, respectively. With these, plus a bag of cheap Vietnamese robusta to test on, I began experimenting with roasting times using my hot-air popper.

Since I'd read that roasting coffee produces a lot of smoke, I called my neighbors to warn them to close their windows, and then I set up in the air-well/side exit next to our building. In reality, roasting didn't produce as much smoke as I had expected, although I still wouldn't want to roast coffee this way indoors (unless I built one of these).

With the neighbors warned, I proceeded to get out my popcorn popper, beans, and other roasting accoutrements, including: a metal colander, a large spoon, an oven mitt, a digital timer, a container to catch the chaff (in this case, a wok lid), and several ramekins to hold the freshly roasted coffee, labeled by country of origin.

Using the crappy Vietnamese beans, I started my first roast, nervous about whether the popper would get hot enough and whether it would get past the "first crack". In some of the do-it-yourself coffee roasting literature, they tell you to judge various roasts by timing of the first and second cracks. Actually, I came to find out that the first "crack" is actually the first cracking – or series of soft to loud cracking sounds, like that of, yes, popcorn.

I roasted the first batch of beans for upwards of 10 minutes and ended up with a light medium roast. I didn't hear any "loud crack", and this worried me considerably. For the second batch, I added a few more beans so that I had a rounded half-cup of beans in the popper. This time I heard cracking and witnessed my first whiffs of smoke.

Starting to feel better now.

This next test batch gave me blackened beans in just under 8 minutes. I can only surmise that the initial problem was that the popper, like the ambient temperature, was cold and needed to warm up.

My next roast was for real, and I began my foray into home coffee roasting with a rounded half-cup of the Guatemala Antigua Peaberry "Maria Especial". This began to noticeably roast and crack around the 2 minute mark and, like the coffees that would follow, to smoke around the second cracking 3 minutes later.

While the coffee was busy roasting, my wok lid was busy catching the chaff that was blowing out of the popper.

Eventually I was able to get a dark roast within 6 minutes. I roasted a half-cup of each coffee for the same amount of time and noticed that the FTO Chiapas, whose beans were slightly larger, roasted more darkly compared to the smaller beans.

Once the roast was completed, the next step was quickly cooling down the beans. It helped that it was slightly cold outside since the beans must cool down quickly right after, otherwise they keep on roasting. It also helps to cool them down by agitating them in a large metal colander.

Intense aromas of freshly roasted coffee came out during this stage.

Then once the beans were just warm to the touch, I transferred them to the appropriately labeled ramekin. Labelling was necessary since later I would be testing each roast for flavor.

Once all of the coffee was roasted, it was time to get the ol' kettle a-boiling on the stove. I ground the coffee using a whirling blade grinder (I now have a burr grinder, which may make a noticeable difference). Grinding it as fine as possible without it becoming an espresso grind, I proceeded to get my filter and cups set up.

The technique to using a Filtropa filter/filter holder is to fold back the edges of the filter before you place it in the holder. Then, under a faucet, soak the inside of the filter/filter holder with water and pour out any excess. For each 10-ounce cup of coffee, use 2 rounded tablespoons of freshly ground coffee (some people suggest 3 instead). Bring your water (preferably good tap, or mineral water if you tap water tastes off) to a boil. Once it's boiling, remove it from the burner and wait 30 seconds before soaking your coffee grounds with the hot water.

I usually fill the Filtropa holder three-quarters of the way up to the top edge – keeping the grounds constantly wet.

Once the coffee was made for all three varieties, it came down to seeing which one stood out. The results: All three, while very good and bright – with a smooth finish – were virtually identical. There were 2 notable differences, however. The first difference was that, in order from left to right, they progressive got more assertive.

Starting with the Guatemala, this coffee was mild and subdued. As my assistant coffee tester (one guess who) and I progressed to the Nicaragua, we noticed a subtle chocolate aroma and taste and it had more of an assertive presence than the first coffee. By the time we reached Mexico, the coffee had become even more assertive, although it still had basically the same taste and finish as the other two.

I now chalk this all up to the roasts being basically the same. I'm pretty sure now that these coffees should be roasted at different levels, other than Full City Roast+, to attain their best characteristics – and that's what I'll do next.

In the meantime, I'll be roasting and learning and roasting some more. As to what to do with the beans I test-roasted on: well, can we say "blend"?

Yes, I said blend!


Monday, November 13, 2006

Garden Gourmand

The heating in the building I work in has been off all day today and I swear if it gets any colder our office plants are going into dormancy.

Speaking of, last weekend, Bruce, Bill, and I went to the Fall meeting of the Bay Area Carnivorous Plant Society, or BACPS, at the Berkeley Botanical Garden (BBG). The BACPS's quarterly meetings alternate between the Berkeley Botanical Garden meeting room and the Randall Museum in San Francisco, and this was the first meeting I'd been to in at least 3 years.

While the Randall Museum is cool, and definitely a place you should check out, I love the Berkeley Botanical Garden! As a San Franciscan, I'm partial (of course) to the Conservatory of Flowers and various gardens in Golden Gate Park. But while the Conservatory has that instant "wow" appeal, the BBG is a plant geek's paradise. The amount of species the BBG has on display is mind-boggling and very well presented in various sections of the garden.

The BBG has been the best place to see carnivorous plants, or "CP", in Northern California (other than Peter's nursery) for many years. In fact, one of the caretakers of the garden, Judith Finn, has a Nepenthes cultivar named after her, as she has done much to promote carnivorous plants both at the BBG and in the wider community of horticultural and botanical enthusiasts. How cool is that??!

The Conservatory of Flowers also has a small but decent display of CPs and word has it that they are ditching the lame "Butterfly Zone" and expanding their CP collection.

About time.

While Bruce and I still grow a large number of carnivorous plant species on our deck and inside in tanks underneath fluorescent lights, I no longer feel the overwhelming urge to be part of the "CP community". However, after watching Barry Rice speak about his latest book and his field trips in Montana, Massachusetts, Idaho, and Texas, I could be persuaded to rejoin it.

Dr. Barry Rice is one of the coolest, funniest, people I've ever had the chance to see and meet. His incredible sense of humor makes sitting through a 3 hour slide presentation on fens, floating sphagnum mats, and bladderworts virtually painless and highly enjoyable.

In addition to being a well-respected botanist and Dim Sum connoisseur, Barry is a staunch defender of preserving wild habitats with a particular axe-to-grind for invasive species, whether they be man, animal, or plant. In regards to dive restaurants, I also am a staunch defender of wild habitats (Taqueria Cancun) with a particular ax-to-grind for invasive species, whether they be man (yuppies), animal (yuppies's dogs), or plants (gardenburgers).

And regarding carnivorous plants: are not the various species of Drosera, Nepenthes, Dionea, Sarracenia, Pinguicula, and Utricularia the ultimate Slow Foodies?

You can't get any more organic, free-range, and sustainable than a plant eating a bug. Although, I wouldn't necessarily call it "cruelty-free". When it comes to trapping and killing thier own food, these plants are blood-thirsty sadists.

But if the sights and sounds of insects struggling to break free of a beautiful pitcher plant isn't your cup of tea, there are plenty of other fascinating plants on view at the BBG. Even if you mildly consider food, drink, and all things food-related interesting, you will find plenty of things to keep you pre-occupied.

For instance, you probably could figure out that any decent botanical garden would have an herb garden, but Berkeley's herb garden features not only a large number of cool and poisonous Chinese medicinal herbs, but herbs once commonly found in insanity-inducing drinks of the past.

Herbs like Wormwood.

Which was once the active ingredient in the "green fairy" drink known as Absinthe. Absinthe was once the drug of choice for 19th century European poets like Arthur Rimbaud and is said to have inspired many good, but mostly bad, poems - the latter of which were thankfully destroyed at the Bad Poetry Burning Fest of 1896, an event whose resurrection has been recently suggested due to the glut of aging Def Poetry Slam contenders and lesbian, junior-year, UC Santa Cruz students.

Of course, being Berkeley and all, one would expect a little sumpin' sumpin' to be growing in this herb garden, but once again Berkeley proves that, when it comes to weed whacking, they just can't hang with SF.

I mean, how can you compete with a town whose sole newspaper of record is called "The Chron"?

Anyway, it may just be that many of the herbs in BBG herb garden are just dormant right now, since there didn't seem to be a lot of active growth, other than this Borage and Sorrel.

And finding plump, juicy, and super-sweet dates on this Phoenix dactylifera was a fruitless endeavor.

However, this Beavertail Cactus was fruitier than a Castro Street gay bar on Pink Saturday.

If only I had blender, a pot of boiling water, some canning jars, and a Barbra Streisand CD!

But if you want to step into the real garden of culinary delights, you must go to the Tropical House.

Inside, you'll find large-leafed plants and dozens of orchids and tilandsias and it's warm and humid and you're thinking you might hear the sound of a monkey howling "hoo hoo haa haa" while from around the corner steps a stick-wielding, doe-eyed, 4-foot-tall Indian with a bowl haircut, a lip-disk, and nothing on except a tattered "Drink Coke!" t-shirt.

But, alas, he's just an exchange student - originally from Southern California - and his name is Neil. And you're standing on the subject of his senior thesis.

But look over there, past Neil, and you'll see Vanilla planifolia, otherwise known as the orchid from which the vanilla bean comes from.

It doesn't look like much, but this climbing orchid produces the fruit that becomes the pod that houses the seeds that flavors everything from ice cream to cookies to cheesecake to people's mundane sex lives.

And near that is Coffea arabica, or the coffee plant.

Ummmmm, I detect the aroma of crisp bacon, naugahyde seating, and Aqua Net Extra Superhold Aerosol spray from my waitress's tightly coiffeured hair just looking at it. I swear, if I heard a gravelly, manish voice say to me "what'll you have, hun" right now chills would shoot down my spine.

Over there, right underneath the vanilla orchid, grows Curcuma longa, aka Turmeric, or what I use to give my pickled eggs their golden color.

The radiantly yellow spice actually comes from the roots of the plant, in case you were wondering. The rest of the plant looks somewhat like any typically boring office plant, the kind you might look at day after day after day, kind of wishing it would just die already – or at least do something interesting. Low-light plants in this visual genre include Spathiphyllum cochlearispathum, or the Peace Lily – which is marked by its tired-looking green leaves and large white flower at the end of a long stem, remniscent of the white flag of surrender. Complete surrender to the enemy is the attitude anyone bound to work in an office environment should have, making this perennial plant the perfect reminder that you are, indeed, fucked.

Moving on.

Hey! Is that what I think it is? Why, I think I may be looking at Theobroma cacao!

This is a fairly small Theobroma cacao, but a nice example nevertheless. Too bad it's only one and rather small. If you had many of these, say enough to fill a whole city or maybe concentrated pockets of a metropolitan area, you could have what is commonly known in America as a Theobroma cacao City.

Can I get it on the good foot?

The flowers of the Theobroma are awfully small here, but eventually they will produce pods growing from the stem of the plant that are the size of large potatoes.

Inside of these pods are beans that, once fermented with tons of other rotting fruit, and then conched like a mofo, produce that melt-in-your-mouth confection that makes most women's knees buckle at just the thought of it.

Straight guys: dump that nasty-ass cologne you're wearing; women don't respond to it. Rather, always keep a bar of dark chocolate in your pocket. Whereas women – keep a pumpkin pie handy, just in case you get low on available wood.

On that note (yes, I do enjoy leaving you on high notes), I recommend you check out the Berkeley Botanical Garden for yourself. Besides the few plants I named, there are thousands more, including many more plants of culinary interest. It's up above the campus and is accessible by car or bus (or bike), but it's a fairly long walk, so take that into consideration if you decide to get there that way.

Oh, and if you do go, take a lunch. There are many great places to sit and eat up there...just watch out for the mountain lions, since they've been known to hunt down foodies and give a whole other meaning to "tartar".

Speaking of carnivores!


Friday, November 10, 2006

Food Porn Friday - 4

Roast Duck, D'Anjou Pears, and Shallots with a salad of Fennel, Olives, and Parmigiano Regiano

First, ravage the pears and embarrass the onions, then molify the complexion of the duck with organic, hand-churned butter, and sensitize with wind-dried salt.

Disenfranchise your duck into the serving dish...

Like mussing the hair of that Italian language student. A casual mess.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Victory To Savor

"To those motherfuckers at the Golden Gate Restaurant Association: FUCK YOU!"
- Sarah Low Daly

Here! Here!

Congratulations, Chris!!!


UPDATE 11/9/06: Okay, now I'm really interested in which restaurant owners are backing the actions of the GGRA.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Food Porn Friday - 3

Sardines in a Can

Who the fuck let these motherfuckin' SARDINES in this motherfuckin' CAN??!