Thursday, May 29, 2008

Pasta Puttanesca

Some friends and I met for dinner last weekend in the North End. Although I accidentally ordered sausage-stuffed, bacon-wrapped chicken (our server was new on the job...), I did try my friend's Swordfish Puttanesca.

It wasn't good. The thin swordfish steaks were overcooked and fishy, and therefore, so was the sauce. So, I set out to make my own, which we ate just an hour ago. (Dinner was done by 6:45pm—this meal is a keeper!)

I just learned that this is not a traditional Italian dish, so, in contrast with my last post, it was not developed in response to seasonal ingredients. I also learned that "Pasta Puttanesca" means "Pasta the Way a Whore Would Make It." Ours was a slutty whole wheat penne, I guess, and it was darn good. I basically modified Wolfgang Puck's recipe so that it took about 20 minutes to make, substituting canned diced tomatoes and kalamata olives, adding white wine, and eliminating the oregano, parsley, and parmesan.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Spam Alert: The Theft of Simplicity

In my mind, the following ideas seem related. I am hoping that this post actually makes sense once I put it in writing.

During my morning commute into Boston, I read the first half of the Boston Metro (saving the Entertainment and Sports sections for my evening commute home). On two different pages of yesterday's paper were callouts that I found disturbing, particularly when juxtaposed:

Callout 1

Callout 2

Not to oversimplify here, but it does seem as though the rich are getting richer, while poor people are turning to mystery meat in attempts to meet financial, dietary and time requirements.

It was about seven years ago that I began to experience a gradual food-related awakening. (For this, I feel I should give props to two people I really hate—Rachael Ray and my ex-boyfriend—both of whom underwent frightening personality changes during that time, but both of whom also made real food and cooking accessible to this kitchenphobe.) I am quite sure that my taste buds finally gave in to a steep 25-year learning curve at that time, as well. All good things (in retrospect).

I became very aware (read: judgmental) of other people's groceries that shared the conveyer belt with mine, because I understood that cooking with real ingredients did not have to consume significantly more time than heating a frozen processed meal. I also discovered that real food tastes better, that there is great satisfaction in preparing a meal, and that being completely in control of the ingredients in your food is fundamental.

fundamental (adj.): serving as a basis supporting existence or determining essential structure or function (Merriam-Webster)

Our society has become numb to the existence of processed foods—they are ubiquitous in the American grocery store—and, in our buy now-pay later culture, we are rarely concerned with the long term health and environmental effects of artificial and unnecessary ingredients. (Instant gratification always comes at a cost. See? Judgmental.) Similarly, we have become oblivious—perhaps even disrespectful—to the amazing process of growing food. We have been given an essential, reusable gift from a source far more creative than we are. I mean, who could have thought this up? Here, I think oversimplification is appropriate: if you shove a tiny piece of a plant into the ground, that spot in the ground will provide you with said plant—only bigger and better! That's craziness! (This, from the girl who can't keep plants alive.) Essentially, apart from the water and sun provided by nature, all you need is patience.

Ah, patience... This is something I am very good at (my mom will happily tell you that I wasn't even in a hurry to get born), though I find that most people are not. On a larger scale than the anticipation of a single plant's fruit, we aren't able to wait for seasonal produce to grow. Eating local, seasonally-appropriate produce is not a new idea, but we have been conditioned to the point where it is an inconvenience. If I want to bring homemade pumpkin pie to a Fourth of July picnic, then, dammit, I'm gonna bring pumpkin pie!

Here is my point: we have gradually had natural, healthy foods and food-processes stolen from us. I mean this both literally and figuratively—most of us are unable to grow our own food, and most food has to be physically transported to us over great distances. The majority of products carried in our neighborhood food stores are far from what we should be eating, and the proliferation of these overpackaged, overprocessed "convenience" foods (driven largely, I believe, by the need for two working parents in a household) has destroyed our human connection with real food. (Don't even get me started about breastfeeding perceptions...)

As more people have realized this, a business opportunity is born: Whole Foods. I love Whole Foods (which is certainly not the first of its kind) in the way that most women seem to love Coach, and I could have bought many a "luxury lifestyle handbag" in place of the food I have purchased at Whole Foods. But the idea of paying more (thereby decreasing accessibility) for a less processed, more natural product is absurd—it has been touched by fewer hands, has required less machinery, and is closer to its natural state! Real food has become a luxury item, and somehow, the desire to eat real food is seen as elitist and...white? (Oh, how great. You can buy the book now.) Something is fundamentally wrong with this model.

Yesterday, I met with a nutritionist at Harvard-Vanguard. John and I have pretty much been adhering to the Weight Watcher's Core plan, which involves eating whole grains, lean proteins, lowfat dairy, and all the produce you can consume. I had been keeping a food log for the two months prior to my appointment, and as the food shopper and meal cooker in our household, I wanted to make sure that I am forming good habits. We talked quite a bit about the benefits of cooking meals at home, avoiding artificial ingredients. (I visited the Spam website yesterday, and was a combination of amused and appalled. Is it possible to take Spam seriously? Should shaped meat in a can be taken more seriously?)

Coincidentally, yesterday was the opening day of the Boston Farmers Market at City Hall Plaza. These opportunities for local farms to sell their products directly to the consumer—a great alternative to buying from corporations—seem to be proliferating. They seem novel (especially with an urban backdrop), despite the fact that they are a throwback to times of sensible food distribution.

There weren't many vendors at the market yet, but I was able to purchase several convenience foods: potted basil, dill, and my first tomato plant. What could be simpler than growing my own food? I'm doing what I can.

Addendum: I just wanted to add that Jamie Oliver's new show on the Food Network, Jamie at Home, is a great example of cooking simply (he has a fire pit!) with a few basic home-grown ingredients. It is, in my opinion, a wonderful show...with a great promo.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Kala and Rob's Berkshire Wedding

I was, well, honored to have been asked to be Matron of Honor in the beautiful wedding of my friend Kala last weekend. As I blog, she and her new husband, Rob, have another week remaining of their Mexican honeymoon—nice!

The title of my blog looks strange to me—only because both Kala and I are Berkshire County natives. It seems like it should just read "Kala and Rob's Wedding." (This reminds me of a friend's question to me after I returned from a trip to China—he said, "So, do they just call it food there?") Anyway, the Berkshires actually played a significant role in this wedding. The hills offered a picturesque backdrop, and the crazy Berkshire weather did have an effect on the planned outdoor ceremony (this did not diminish the smile on Kala's face in the slightest!), but perhaps that was to be expected. Less expected was the decision of the bride and groom to name the tables after the famous cottages of the Gilded Age that populate the county. Researching this information and creating the table name cards was one of my (few!) duties as Matron, and I learned a lot of Berkshires history in the process. Mounting the cottage name and information on thick antique gold paper was a shiny, money-saving alternative to the copper frames we were originally planning to use. Below is the card from our table, The Mount—Edith Wharton's foreclosure-facing estate and gardens:

I also designed the programs for the ceremony, which incorporated both Italian and Jewish wedding traditions.

Many of the Jewish traditions were explained in the program, and I wanted to use the actual Hebrew words next to their English counterparts. This was unexpectedly problematic, basically due to a coding incompatibility between Unicode and InDesign. Although I had several Hebrew fonts on my Mac, and Wikipedia was a great source for the Hebrew words I needed (and my friend, Meira, knew enough Hebrew to make sure that Wikipedia got those words right), each word I cut from the web pasted in reverse letter order—not a mirror image—in InDesign. So, for example, the word "blog" pasted as "golb." It's an easy fix when you speak the language, but shuffling foreign letters around can be scary. This was further complicated by the accent-like vowel marks (nikkudot) that separated from the consonants to which they were attached when I tried to move them around. Oy vey! I solved this problem by converting the type to outlines (losing ability for edits), carefully rearranging the letters, and placing the new type image next to the English type. Perhaps there is an easier way?

This wedding provided the opportunity to participate in one of my strangest projects so far. The mother of the bride broke her foot not long before the wedding day—this, we thought, was tragic for a woman that was a constant presence on the dance floor at three other weddings this year. Of course, there's nothing that a few painkillers and some sparkly fabric can't cure! (Note: I am waiting to receive a photo of the glammed-up immobilization boot - in the meantime, here's the mother-of-the-bride's ceremony get-up...too funny!)

2008 HOW Design Conference

My company was kind enough to send me last week to the 2008 HOW Design Conference, which was conveniently held in Boston at the Hynes Convention Center. At this conference, I picked up both typography ideas (which I will likely not be able to apply to my pharmaceutical-related work) and a conference-branded bag filled with paper sample books and tchotchkes. (Yep, that's how you spell tchotchkes.)

Clearly, this is a large event, but I was shocked not to run into a single person I know.

Little Bell Challenge: Bring 'Em On

I was thrilled when my bell choir director asked me to move to a new bell position a few weeks ago. I was just starting to feel as though I got the hang of my D5-E5 bells, when I happily took on the challenge of playing the smaller C6-D6 bells and chimes:

Playing smaller bells, I've discovered, means acquiring new skills and confidence—confidence that at least one person in the choir has verbalized she does not have in me, which is unfortunate. I am doing just fine with my little bells, and am starting to get the hang of playing two bells in each hand. At the same time, I have had to get used to finding my new notes in our shared music:

And these new notes are much more prominent in the music we play. Although I have been playing in the choir since September, it was only after our performance this past Sunday that a regular church member praised me for having just joined the choir. We performed "How Can I Keep From Singing," the exact version of which is on YouTube (although hard to hear). It was lovely.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Back to Basics: Scrambled Tuesdays

Tuesday nights at the Murphy house are, indeed, a bit scrambled. I get home at about 6:15pm, but need to cook and eat dinner before leaving the house again at 6:45pm to make it to my 7pm piano lesson (and find parking).

For the past three weeks, we have implemented a great solution—scrambled eggs. We have had them with combinations of mushrooms, bruschetta, spinach, and cheese and they come out great (and fast!) every time.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Abby Road

Not Abbey Road (don't even think about stealing our street sign—a frequent occurrence), but Abby Road.

Since we spend many of our weekends "vacationing" in the Berkshires (my hometown area), I thought it made sense to create a little post featuring the street where I grew up.

The weather was beautiful this past weekend and after John went for an early morning walk across the street, I decided to follow him with my camera.

Down Abby Road... the farm...

...until I saw him on his way back up the hill.

The old farm fence (waiting for John):

Dandelions can be pretty (waiting for John):

Engrossed in my photo adventure (while waiting for John), I suddenly noticed that a llama had run right over to me! I'm sure he thought I had food, which I didn't, and it didn't matter anyway because this llama was very resourceful. He noticed the long grass on our side of the fence, and shoved his giant lips and teeth under the fence, chomping grass and weeds at warp speed.

He seemed to be paying no attention to us, so I moved closer, checking out his crazy llama hair:

After I snapped this photo (my last photo of the weekend), the llama lifted his long neck, looked me right in the eye, took a big breath in, and threw up on me. Well, at least I thought so. What I had seen as giant yellow goobers flying at my face was, in fact, dry pieces of grass. John had a perfect profile view of the whole incident. I don't like llamas anymore.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Helen's Bean and Potato Stew

I have now taken three cooking classes through Helen's Kitchen: her invaluable Pasta and Gnocci Workshop, the wonderful Tender at the Bone meat class, and my first cooking class ever, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Her RSS Feed spills into my iGoogle page whenever she creates a new post on her blog, and I was very excited to discover her recipe for Proven├žal Green Bean and Potato Stew last week.

Gotta give props, right?

This was a particularly wonderful discovery because, apart from the quantity of olive oil, this delicious vegetarian stew was Core to the core—although, I confess, I treated myself to a second helping (not so Core).

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Pea Soup and Seared Scallops

I am trying very hard to plan meals that comply with the Weight Watchers Core Plan. This plan differs from the WW points-based plan in that you are restricted to eating the following foods (in an unrestricted volume, within reason):

• Vegetables and fruits
• Non-creamy soups
• Whole wheat pasta, brown rice, potatoes and grains
• High fiber and other cereals without added sugar
• Lean meats, poultry, fish and eggs
• Fat-free milk products
• Healthy oils
• Condiments
• Coffee, tea and sugar-free beverages

This "diet" is so sensible—really, it's a framework we should always have in mind when meal planning and eating. I was having great success on the Core Plan until I came down with appendicitis (unrelated, I'm sure) almost two years ago. Somehow, that little surgery threw me off for almost 2 years! So, we've implemented the plan again in the Murphy household.

We have been eating nuts (in moderation), and the plan does allow for a certain number of points per week that can be used to enjoy things like ice cream sandwiches (with which I suddenly have an obsession) and the cream and sugar that I find so essential in my morning coffee. I also refuse to eat anything that's unnaturally fat-free—I mean, what is that stuff? And, I might have to break down and have a slice of pizza very soon.

One of my favorite Core-friendly meals that I can grab near my workplace is from Boloco. I love their burrito-in-a-bowl option, and their Summer Burrito (chicken, rice, black beans, mango, cilantro, cheese and mango) is awesome. Substitute brown rice and eliminate the cheese, and you've got a perfect Core meal. However, I came down with the stomach flu after recreating this meal at home several months ago, and hadn't been able to eat this fine burrito again until today. (I think they were happy to see me.)

Anyway, I'm struggling as I plan each week's dinners, and am completely open to ideas and suggestions! Last night's meal seemed a good solution—only, apparently, I don't like pea soup as much as I had envisioned. (The pea soup was creamified with lowfat plain yogurt.) This was my second attempt at pan seared scallops, and I think I've got it down. And, I have lost a little over five pounds!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Somerville Open Studios

I lived in Somerville for two years, and was never able to take advantage of the Somerville Open Studios, at which hundreds of artists with studio space in Somerville open their doors to the public. I finally ended up here because of a scheduled Boston Cooking & Baking Meetup at Taza Chocolate.

As it says on their website, Taza is a bean-to-bar chocolate maker located in Somerville, producing small batches of minimally processed bars of dark (60-80%) chocolate from organic, directly-traded beans. They are the only maker of 100% stone ground chocolate in the United States, and they have fit their inspiring business in a relatively small space—this is no big factory. And to prove it, here's where they hand-wrap their bars (apparently while wearing giant headphones—like mine!):

I listened to one of the founders speak about his small company (next to the red roasting machine), the start of which was inspired by a single trip to Oaxaca, Mexico and the stone-ground chocolate they make there. From great idea to tasty reality, I'm glad I was able to experience this company (and their chocolate).

In the same building as Taza is Albertine Press, a wonderful little letterpress studio at which I hope to take a class soon!