Thursday, August 24, 2006

The future's so bright...

There's a Chinese food restaurant here we like to go to. The menu is exactly the same as those of the other seven (yes, really) Chinese places in town, and the food is what you think when you think Americanized Chinese: bathed in grease, most of it served in pools of unnaturally red sweet sauce.

But homemade kim chee comes out first. And the pork potstickers are homemade and thick and browned to a crisp on the bottom. And because we ask, we get hot oil and a soy and green onion sauce to dip them in.

W. and I always go in the afternoon, on a whim, when the place is nearly empty and the owners have time to show us the pictures of their last trip to China. He cooks; she waits tables. They worked 11 hours a day, seven days a week until last year, when they decided to take Tuesdays off.

They know what we like and always bring us an extra cup of hot-and-sour soup, even if we only order one early bird special. (That's $3.95 for soup, wontons, fried rice or chow mein, and entree--so hold the early bird special ridicule.) When asparagus is in season, they sometimes bring us plates of it, fried like onion rings and sprinkled with salt.

We drink tea, read the United County realty brochure, and dream of buying 100 acres in small-town Iowa.

But yesterday's lunch was a little disturbing. My fortune cookie had no fortune. I had a brief moment of utter panic when I snapped the cookie in half, like this was a portent of some terrible thing.

W.'s cookie? Also fortune-free.

Quick superstitious visions of car crashes, fires. "At least we'll go at the same time," W. said.

But instead, we thought, maybe we are heading for something so new, so unknown, that there are no signposts, no clues. Just the blank page of the unknown.

Or maybe our cookies just happened to be fished out of a bunk bag and half the town is worried about their future.

(Can't say I'm not still just a little creeped out.)

Friday, August 18, 2006

Good idea, cheap vodka

Between my creative career and W.'s late academic re-entry, the funds are in short supply--for now. If there were tracks in this town, we'd live on the other side of them.

We've gotten good at at optimizing eBay usage to stay in the kind of jeans we grew to love behind the Orange curtain. Our cereal doesn't come in a box, and our beans are scooped from a bin. Coffee is made at home 99% of the time. We wash and reuse the Ziploc bags. It's gotten to be a challenge, how to live the best with the least. And we're good at it.

I recently tried to be thrifty-clever, coaxing the last bit of flavor from a mango pit by infusing a so-cheap-it's-worth-the-risk vodka with it, some lime zest, and a couple chunks of piloncillo sugar.

It looked pretty, tasted like rubbing alcohol.

We used it in a vodka gimlet. Rubbing alcohol.

We shook it with strawberries and lime juice and sprinkled the whole thing with coconut and promised never to speak of that drink in public. And even the frou-frou didn't cut the burn.

So vodka made it to the list of things that aren't worth the skimp--along with Parmesean cheese, irrigation piping, shovels, bacon, and bikini waxes.

We've tried it, so you don't have to.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Spaghetti's siren song

I did succumb. Then, with the taste of semolina still fresh in my memory, I did it again. I had to. I had too many tomatoes pilling up in the kitchen, screaming for a long, slow roasting and a quick toss with some spaghetti.

And, for those of you who haven't had the pleasure of a long chew on gluten-free, wheat-free, brown rice noodles, let me just say that sometimes only wheat will do.

But I won't be doing that again any time soon, and I'll spare you the details. And until next time, I am eating my roasted tomatoes with my breakfast fry-ups, or with pecorino romano cheese and salami, or tossed into hot rice with basil, cubed fresh mozzarella that gets all lovely and stringy, and a tiny pour of balsamic vinegar.


Wash your tomatoes and cut out the hard core. Quarter the big ones and halve the smaller ones so your pieces are roughly within the same size range. Pack onto a cookie sheet with edges or a roasting pan, skin sides down.

Chop a bunch of garlic and sprinkle over tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil. Be generous. Then sprinkle with salt.

They will look like this (except, hopefully, with better lighting and more foreground focus):

Put the pan in a low oven, about 200 degrees, and roast all day (usually 5-8 hours, depending on size and juiciness of your fruit), checking every couple hours. If the bottoms start burning--not just carmalizing and darkening a bit, which is good--turn the oven down to the lowest setting. If they don't seem to be drying out at all, turn the oven up to 250.

When the tomatoes have collapsed into themselves somewhat and are nearly dried out, they are done. There should be a core of moist, concentrated tomato-ness that spurts a little when you press or bite into one, but no thin juice.

They keep well for a couple days or so layered in Mason jars in the refrigerator--just fish out as needed to put in sandwiches or pasta or assorted creative wheat-free snacks. I pull off the skins before eating these.

For those of you who can eat pasta with impunity and who have too many tomatoes, try this:

Working over a big bowl and using your hands, tear the skins off roasted tomatoes and discard. Break them up drop into the bowl until you have enough sauce to cover the amount of pasta you plan to make. Add olive oil and salt as needed and a generous amount of slivered fresh basil. Toss room-temperature or warmed-up sauce with hot spaghetti and top with creamy goat cheese.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Shopping in foreign countries

When I was in high school, my family took a summer vacation to San Diego. We took in Tijuana and stared with awe and sadness at the gorillas at the Wild Animal Park, but the biggest attraction was the 99 Ranch market. We were coming off a lard-intensive visit of a Mexican bakery, but this stop was the ultimate. 99 Ranch is an enormous Asian food superstore. And yes, grocery shopping IS the kind of thing my family likes to do on vacation.

The produce section was just about the size of our hometown grocery store. Men in waders sloshed around in knee-deep aquariums to catch that night's fish or lobster meal--in one motion flipping them out of the water and dispatching them with a quick blow. Two whole aisles and one refrigerated case were devoted to noodles.

But the thing that I remember most vividly, the thing that made my and my younger sisters' eyes widen in horror, the thing that made my mom and aunt choke on their giggles and try, desperately, to play it cool, was the beef pizzle. There it was, "Beef Pizzle," lying in a plastic-covered butcher shop tray like, well, a detached, um, pizzle.

"Is that--—?" we said.

"Yes," my mom whispered.

And, like the good cultural ambassadors we hoped to be, we acted like we ate beef pizzle for dinner every Saturday and went on to browse the selection of miniature dried fish.

But we sure did giggle about it later. After all, we were young and not quite ready for pizzle.

And in that spirit, since I am clearly older and more mature, some inappropriate humor: