Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How I eat

(Originally posted on MySpace on Saturday, March 31, 2007)

Food is a very important thing to me. I sometimes wish I wasn't such a foodie because of my constant struggles to keep my weight down to a fairly healthy level. But there's nothing I can do about it. I love food.

I was struggling with my weight when I was a kid. But I was very different about food back then. I didn't really like a lot of things. I wouldn't eat fish at all, except tuna. I didn't much like meat, although I would eat hamburgers and hot dogs. I hated almost all ethnic foods. Mexican food would make me gag just by the smell of it. (I think this had to do with my grandmother, RIP, who loved to make tamale pies and then force me to eat them.) But I did love all vegetables. My parents thought it was a bit weird for a kid to love veges they way I did. I loved them all. Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, lima beans, beets…you name it, I loved it. I loved salads too, but I have to admit, I liked them drenched in lots of fatty salad dressings. My favorites were ranch and green goddess.

As I grew older and struck out on my own, I ate a lot of fast food. Going out to eat for me was a meal of a couple of hot dogs at Der Weinersnischel with a large order of fries. I didn't break this fast food habit until recent years after I read the book "Fast Food Nation". It wasn't the slaughter of animals that bothers me. I accept the fact that that is something that has to happen if we are to eat meat, and I do believe mankind was meant to eat meat. What bothered me were the sneaky ways the food manufacturers, both wholesale and retail, would get around the health code rules. I truly believe that we're right on the brink of a major heath crisis in this country and when it happens it will be traced to the fast food companies. So, I just don't eat it.

It wasn't until I met Skip in 1979, when I was 25 years old, that I became aware of real food. Skip was a bit of a gourmet and it was with him that I first discovered the pleasures of French food, Chinese food and slowly began to grow fond of Mexican food. He did this by getting me tipsy (and sometimes down-and-out drunk) and then offering me the food to taste. I would have never had eaten something like escargot if I wouldn't have been a little out of my mind. But once I tried them, I found I liked them and I wouldn't have a problem with that particular food again. The last big stronghold for me was seafood. There were some light fishes that I would eat, but I hated the taste of the ocean and just couldn't deal with the little bones that I would sometimes find in fish. Bones also kept me away from things like fried chicken.

Then I started touring Europe with Thin White Rope and everything rapidly began to change. Traveling the world was a very important thing for me and I realized that if I was to experience other cultures, I had to put all my reservations behind me and just try new things. I also knew that when people were taking us to their favorite places for food, it would be rude of me to refuse things. So, I just held down the bile and took a bite out of anything that I was given to eat. And I found that I liked most everything I was given. Granted, I was horrified when first presented with octopus or many kinds of organ meat. But with some few exceptions, I found that it wasn't as bad as my imagination had led me to believe it was.

And now, 27 years later, I'll eat just about anything. Even the fishiest of fishes, anchoveys. I find something I don't like much every now and then. Recent items I've tried and may not try again are Burmese sour vegetables (like a big stinking pile of horse manure), pig's feet (I didn't mind them, they just didn't thrill me) and sea cucumber (I may try this again when I find someplace I can trust to make it the correct way). I say that I MAY not try them again because I know that my tastes are always changing. A decade ago, in Holland, I hated eel and swore never to try it again. About three years ago, I had some eel at a high-end sushi bar without knowing what it was. I loved it and have been eating eel ever since. I'd like to go back to Holland again just so I can try those eels-on-a-stick that are so popular at traveling fairs.

Some of my favorite things to eat now are things that I would have never eaten even a decade ago. I adore monkfish liver. I'll kill for uni (sea urchin roe). If its prepared correctly, I think tripe is a wonderful thing. Fried crickets were a taste sensation, although I didn't like the stewed ones much. And despite all the animal rights successes in banning it, I think foie gras (fatty duck or goose liver) is a real thing of beauty, and I don't believe it's cruel at all. And so on. I'll eat anything that people put in front of me now. If I don't like it, it won't kill me and the odds are that I'll discover a new favorite food.

There're some things I still need to try. My friend Camille, in Thailand, told me about giant spiders and scorpions on a stick. I need to try more insects. I still haven't eaten brain, although I love sweetbreads (pituitary glands at the base of the brain). As a matter of fact, there's still a lot of organ meats and offal I haven't tried. But that's because most of which I have tried hasn't thrilled me, although I have been surprised every now and then. Someday I'd like to try blowfish if I can trust that its prepared correctly because that just might kill me. And I still haven't gotten up the courage to eat an eyeball, although I've been told by people that they're really good once you get beyond the texture.

I watch TV shows like Anthony Boudain's shows and "The Thirsty Traveler" and I get so damned jealous. Those would be my dream jobs. Travel the world and eat everything. I would be in heaven even when it was hell. Anthony Bourdain especially has become my hero. I'm reading his book "A Cook's Tour" right now and I have his newest one "The Nasty Bits" next in line. In fact, I have a whole pile of food related books all lined up and I'll be reading one right after another (with the exception of a break for the new and last Harry Potter book when it comes out). I have "Sound Bites" by Alex Kapranos in line after the Bourdain books. He's the singer in Franz Ferdinand and his book is all about eating on the road with the band. (Why didn't I think of that?) Then there's "The Gospel Of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong" by Barry Glassner. After that is "Don't Try This At Home: Culinary Catastrophes From The World's Greatest Chefs" edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman. And I also have "Heat: An Amateur's Adventures As Kitchen Slave" by Bill Buford and "Africa Uncorked: Travels In Extreme Wine Territory" By John and Erica Platter in that pile as well.

We spend way too much money on food, but we find its usually worth every penny for us. To try to put things in perspective, we don't always have to eat expensive food to love what were eating. There are many cheap places around this town that serve some of our favorite food. Zankou Chicken is an amazing Lebanese chicken place. There are a ton of great and inexpensive Thai places along Hollywood Blvd. And you can't get much better Mexican food than at La Cabinita on the Glendale/Montrose border. But we will not eat at chain or fast food restaurants, with a few exceptions. (I actually love the hamburgers at Hamburger Hamlet.) A meal at the Olive Garden or Cheesecake Factory or even at Dennys is just too damned expensive for the crap you get there. I would rather pay $36 for a piece of salmon at Spago than salmon as prepared at any chain restaurant for half the price. The Spago price is worth it for us. The Olive Garden price is not. Some of my favorite meals have taken place at expensive restaurants in Chicago, New York and Paris. But some of my favorite meals have also taken place at small, cheap restaurants in Italy, Hungary and New Orleans.

This last month was Skip and my 27th anniversary together and our third anniversary of getting married (although that was annulled a year after it happened by our wonderful, free and inclusive government). It usually doesn't take much of an excuse to get us to drop everything and head to a great restaurant. And we hit a few this month. Let me talk about a few of them.

Providence is probably our favorite restaurant in the LA area. Chef Michael Cimarusti opened this restaurant a few years ago after an extremely successful run at Water Grill in downtown LA. It's a seafood restaurant and the three meals we've had there have all been extraordinary. We were attracted to go back there after reading a review in the "LA Weekly" about their new dessert tasting menu. Dessert is a very important thing to me. I believe that a meal is not a meal without dessert. And the idea of a five course dessert tasting menu paired with dessert wines was just too much to pass up. But a meal that consisted of nothing but dessert was a bit offputting to us. So we decided to have a few small appetizers first and then dive into the desserts. We split three small plates.

The first was a uni sabayon. This was sea urchin with a bit of vermouth and black truffle in an egg sabayon (an Italian custard). It was light and absolutely dreamy. That was followed by squid and shredded pig's ear in a piquillo pepper sauce with marcona almonds. It was very Spanish in style and extremely earthy and delicious. And we ended the regular meal with a lump blue crab risotto with sweet peas, ginger, cilantro and basil. This was a bit salty for me, but was still delicious. Then we dove into desserts.

We went with the full five course tasting with wine pairings. There is also a three course tasting offered. The first course was the only one not paired with a wine. This was a white chocolate lollipop filled with blood orange syrup and rolled in cardamom. I love white chocolate and this was just heaven. The next course was a litchi-shiso sorbet with a passion fruit gelee and soy-coconut soup. Floating in it was a sprinkling of basil seeds. I've never quite had anything like this. It was very Asian in flavor and was sweet and savory at the same time. It would have been my favorite if it wasn't for the next course. That was a butternut squash polenta with marsarpone cheese and candied pecans in a maple syrup sauce. It was the ultimate in comfort food and would have made a great Thanksgiving Day brunch item. And pairing it with a 30 year tawny port carried it completely to another dimension. This wasn't just the best dessert of the evening, but it was one of the best desserts I've ever had. The fourth course was a pear ice cream with almond cake in a cranberry and rosemary sauce. Simple and wonderful. And the final course was another one that was unlike anything else I've ever had. It was a chocolate-chipotle ice cream served on cinnamon dusted corn tortilla chips with candied pineapple and an avocado sauce. I was a bit put off when this was set in front of me. I was uncomfortable with the avocado sauce and I couldn't imagine using corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas. I thought the corn would overwhelm the flavor and the avocado would just be weird. Add on to that that while I love white chocolate, which really isn't chocolate at all, the brown chocolates really don't do anything for me. I like chocolate, but it isn't one of my favorite things. But I needn't have worried. This was one of the best uses of chocolate I've ever tasted and everything blended together into a wonderful flavor with a bit of a bite, courtesy of the chipotle peppers. I was in heaven and we were stuffed. I don't know if I would do something like this dessert tasting very often, but it was a great thing to do at least once.

Then there was Cut, Wolfgang Puck's new steak house in Beverly Hills. We ended up eating there twice this month. The first time was right on our anniversary. We planned to eat there with a group of our friends. Unfortunately, a couple of those friends got stuck in traffic for the Christina Aguilera concert and showed up at the restaurant over an hour late. This restaurant is one of the hardest seats to get in the city at the moment and we lost our reservation. So we sat in the bar for a couple of hours while we waited for them to find another table for us. And in the bar we drank, so by the time we did get a table, we were so plowed that it's hard to remember the meal. I do remember that we had a great time though.

So this week, Skip and I went back by ourselves to fully experience the place. And I must say, it's quite an experience. I opened with an Austrian oxtail bouillon with chive blossoms, chervil and bone marrow dumplings. Skip had the lobster & dungeness crab "Louis" cocktail with spicy tomato-horseradish. Both were perfect openers, light and flavorful, preparing us for the main course. Our main course was something we always wanted to try. That was a true Japanese 100% Wagyu beef rib eye steak from Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan. This is otherwise knows as Kobe beef here. Kobe beef is a special beef where the cows are pampered and fed all sorts of good things. The beef is amazingly marbled with fat in a way normal beef could never be. And fat always means more flavor. You can get American Kobe beef just about anywhere these days. But the true Japanese stuff is extremely expensive, very hard to come by here and a thousand times better than the American version.. In fact, I know of only two places in the USA that serves it. And Cut is one of them. So we decided to split the steak since ordering one each would be way too expensive unless you're Donald Trump. And in retrospect, I'm glad we did split it. The steak was amazing and was probably the ultimate beef experience. But its also extremely rich and one steak each probably would have made us sick. As it was, we were feeling a bit queasy a few hours after the meal because we just aren't used to that kind of richness. We also ordered some sides: sauted wild mushrooms, spring peas and ramps, and fingerling potatoes with bacon. And the Italian wine recommended by the sommelier made everything perfect. For dessert we split a strawberry sorbet and vanilla ice cream "baked Alaska" that was just wonderful and a perfect end to the meal. And we were stuffed.

So this is how we eat. At home we diet, eating prepackaged, low-fat food and once a week or so, we hit a great restaurant and enjoy ourselves. It balances itself out. In fact, I tend to lose a pound or two every week. Food helps us enjoy ourselves and our lives. It gives us something to look forward to (along with the next mega-coaster and the next once-a-decade mega-vacation). I could never go back to the person I was. Good food, even great food has become too important to me. And I don't regret it at all.

PS: We keep an active list of restaurants around the world we would like to eat at. So if any of you have any recommendations, please send them along. We'll be sure to eat there if and when we make it to your city or country. Thanks!

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