Saturday, August 28, 2010

Planning

Although I keep a well-stocked pantry and can usually cook a meal without needing to run to the store for one specific ingredient, I won't be able to do Game World Dinner Night meals without plenty of planning. I've been thinking about my bacon cheeseburger and how I want to do it.

The first thing I thought about is what a bacon cheeseburger consists of. The standard diner burger is bun, burger patty, bacon, cheddar or American processed cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and sweet pickles. I'm not making that burger. I'm making an homage to that burger because I don't particularly like the traditional diner bacon cheeseburger. I never order it when I eat out. There are too many more interesting burgers on restaurant menus these days.

I'm starting with flavors I'm in the mood for. I considered Mexican, Asian and Italian. Asian doesn't really go with bacon and cheese, so I'll use those flavors in another meal. I've been eating a lot of Southwestern spicy food the past week, so I decided to go Italian.

I come from an Italian background. My Italian-born grandmother was a superb cook, but alas, not really a teacher, so I only have the memory of the food she made, not the recipes. Traditional Italian flavors include garlic; basil; tomatoes; olive oil; and various cheeses, particularly Parmesan, mozzarella and provolone. When Americans think "Italian" they first think of pizza and pasta, particularly spaghetti and meatballs with tomato sauce. These days, pesto and Alfredo sauce are also common.

I could make a pizza burger or a calzone, but that strays too far from the original diner burger and defeats my purpose in doing this challenge. I want to make a bacon cheeseburger with a twist, but it has to be a burger on a bun.

Baking bread is one of my passions, so no store-bought buns for my burger. I'm thinking either a bun with semolina flour, which is what they make pasta from, or cornmeal, which is what polenta is made from. The final choice will most likely depend on the other flavors in the burger and on whether I do a pasta salad or a polenta dish as a side. The other Italian ingredient I plan to use in the bun is a hard cheese--Parmesan, asiago, or pecorino romano. I'm leaning toward asiago, which you can get as a hard cheese, which would be lovely grated in the dough, and as a softer cheese I can shred and top the buns with.

The burger itself is easy. Some cookbook writers use blends of meat. I have one recipe that's actually a grilled meatball, and it's not my favorite. I like grilled meat without eggs, bread crumbs, and other binders that are used in meatballs to prevent them from falling apart while they simmer for hours in the tomato sauce. The burger will be made from a simple lean, but not super lean, ground beef to which I will add Italian flavors.

Toppings come next. One no-brainer for me is to replace the lettuce with fresh basil, since Paul has a great container herb garden growing on our terrace. I'm replacing the bacon with pancetta. The cheese is a sticking point. I can't decide whether I want to make a pasta salad with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes or use the mozzarella in the burger. If I do the pasta salad, I'll top the burger with provolone.

The remaining ingredients are red onion, tomato, and sweet pickle. I don't think the sweet pickle will go very well with the Italian flavorings. However, I have a jar of pickled peppers leftover from an antipasto platter. I can use the red onion with sun-dried tomatoes in a pesto to replace the traditional ketchup/mayo/mustard condiments that really won't work with my burger. I'll also add the pickled peppers to the pesto because if I slice them and lay them on top of the burger, they'll tend to fall off. Things falling off my sandwiches is one of my pet peeves when I eat in restaurants and I try to create mine so people can eat them with their fingers and not have bits land on their shirt front.

I think I've got the basics for the burger. It meets my goals of making a burger on a bun with the same type of ingredients as the diner burger and using flavors I prefer to the original--the Italian twist. In my next post, I'll be figuring out the side dishes and refining the herbs and spices in the burger and pesto.

The following post will be devoted to dessert, which is a challenge because it seems the only things people can come up with are tiramisu and more tiramisu, with a side of spumoni ice cream or a canolli. Occasionally you might find a panna cotta on a menu. I need to do research because I know Italians make more than those four things for dessert and I want to do something a bit different from the usual thing. I can't look to my background, though, because my grandmother made American desserts like peach pie. The only Italian dessert I remember her making is grispelli, a fried-dough topped with powdered sugar that's like a doughnut, except you drop spoonfuls of batter into the hot oil. When it's done it looks like two attached balls of dough with little bits hanging on around the edges.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Whimsical Idea

I had a whimsical idea, which is precisely why I like it. It's a purely for fun idea. It lets me play in my kitchen. And I can't think of anything I'd like to do more. It's not serious, like my special project. And I can do it without a lot of planning or designing and creating a web site. So, I'm going to change the look of this blog to a more whimsical one, just so it fits a bit better. Besides, all that green is hard on my eyes.

I'm a big fan of social network games. I don't care whether you like or don't like Farmville and its cohorts. I think there's room in the world for people who like to play and room for those who don't. When Facebook added the ability to hide apps without hiding everything my friends post, that solved the "you're game is spamming my page" problem. If you don't like to play, hide the app and don't whine about me and my friends enjoyment. I'm sure you do things for fun that don't interest me and that's fine.

I'm currently playing Cafe World, with a small group of people who play occasionally. A lot of people I know play Farmville. And some have discovered Frontierville. A lot play other games, but I haven't explored many others because I don't have time. While playing, I get some time to think while I wait for the game to finish various things or load pages, and so on. I was playing Cafe World when I started wondering what the food you make for the cafe would be like in real life.

I thought, "Why don't you try making it?" I couldn't think of a reason not to, so I'm going to slowly cook my way through the cookbooks and recipes in the games I play. And using the food you grow in Farmville or grow/collect in Frontierville. Some things are purely imaginary, so I'll have to come up with an "Earth equivalent". I doubt I can summon Mystic Pizza or bring Sirius Sorbet down from outer space. I also doubt my ability to find bear meat and some of the other things used on the frontier in this game that imagines a more palatable frontier than it was really like.

My schedule doesn't have time available to do something as ambitious as cook one recipe every day. Many of the dishes will have to be created by me. Others will have to be researched because I have no idea how to cook them, or even if they're real dishes. Some, like the baked goods in my Farmville Bakery, have weird combinations of ingredients and it will be a challenge to figure out how to use them in a way that creates a dish worth eating.

I decided that Saturday night will be Game World Dinner Night. I'll cook one dish from one of the games I'm playing. To help keep track of them, I'm going to create a schedule that rotates through the games, cooking or baking the dishes used in each game. Farmville and Frontierville have the added interest of growing crops and fruit trees. I want to use those fruits, grains, vegetables, herbs and spices in my finished dishes. I hope to use as many as I can, skipping only those that are not easily available.

The other criteria is that I don't want to just cook the standard "fast food" type dish that is often what appears to be the basis of the images they use. The hash browns in Frontierville look like a breakfast hash brown patty from Mickey D's. And the macaroni and cheese is the orange stuff from a box we all grew up with. I don't cook that way and I don't eat that way. So the challenge is to make the food the way I'd make and serve it if I were running a real restaurant, farm, or feeding my family on the frontier.

The first recipe you get in Cafe World and the first one in their cookbook is a simple bacon cheeseburger. It's on a plain bun with a slice of orange cheese, lettuce, and tomato. It's amusing that the cover of Bon Appetit this month has a hamburger that looks like the one in the Cafe World cookbook. But it's probably nothing like the hamburger the Cafe World designers were thinking about when they created their graphic. Bon Appetit's hamburger has three different cuts of beef, beef suet, and bone marrow in it. Plus red miso. Cheddar cheese. Tomato. Red onion. Watercress instead of lettuce. And a recipe for Red Vinegar pickles and spiced ketchup to go with it. But, interestingly, the buns are not made from scratch.

I cook somewhere in between those two extremes. I'm obviously not a person who doesn't care about the quality of her food, happily scarfing down the latest offering from the local fast-food joint. Nor am I a pro chef looking for the ultimate, perfect burger. I'm somewhere in the middle, a foodie home cook who wants to make food that's made from fresh ingredients, that can be made by a home cook without equipment you can only get at restaurant supply stores, and that tastes as good as I can make it.

Looking at the calendar, my first Game World Dinner Night will be Saturday, September 4. The menu will be Bacon Cheeseburger with appropriate accompaniments. I will post my recipes as I develop them. And my son lent me his old camera, so I can post pictures. YAY!!

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Mishucalanza

I haven't had time to post much lately, so this post is a mishucalanza of topics.

Birthday Parties for Kids

My husband and I were at Santana Row recently. We saw a white limo driving down the main drag. That's not unusual. People cruise Santana Row in exotic cars; cars with thumping music that screams, "Look at me;" and the regular folks, in their regular cars, cruise around seeking the elusive parking place. The new parking garage has helped tremendously with the latter, especially if you're willing to park at the top. But, I digress.

The limo had a sign on the windows in pink writing. It said, "Happy 8th Birthday!" Peeking out of the moon roof were several little girls. Obviously, a ride in a limo on your eighth birthday is not over-the-top in some circles. But how do you top this kind of excess, year after year? And how do you instill the idea that it's nice, and special for a special occasion, but you're not entitled to this? And in this economic climate, how do you teach children who are raised with this level of expectation about material goods that it can all go away with one sentence: "I'm sorry, but we're laying you off?" How do you give children this kind of excess and teach them life's realities? How do they learn to cope when their every whim is granted? Or when they know you have the resources to grant it, but won't? I'm glad I didn't have to deal with those questions, but I wonder sometimes whether parents who do even ask them.

My Secret Project

I'm slowly making progress with it. I think I have a name. I need to do a bit of searching with other starting points besides Google, but it's based on something we made up as a family and I've never heard it used by anyone else, so it's likely no one else has anything with a similar name. I have a logo, too. It's in my head, but I know what it's going to look like. And, I borrowed the camera David's not using so I can practice taking photos for the blog.

I need to design the look of the site. I need to figure out the scope of it and create a backlog of posts. I need to figure out a realistic schedule for new posts. And I need to launch it. It may take a while, but I have a reasonable plan. The main hitch is how much time I have, since my work schedule is not steady. Sometimes I'm really swamped and other times it's slower so I have more time to spend on personal projects.

Vegan Food

I have a cookbook called The Conscious Cook by Tal Ronnen. It has amazing food in it. I am looking forward to trying a lot of the recipes and techniques taught in the book. They look absolutely wonderful and with our budget taking a nosedive as Paul's income becomes his unemployment check until he finds another job or builds that business he's working on, we need to cut back on meat and dairy, since they're the most expensive things I buy. I don't want to cut the overall quality of ingredients I use, so using the most expensive ingredients less often, or in smaller quantities, whenever possible, will allow me to cut the total amount we spend. We're going to eat more vegan and vegetarian meals.

On the other hand, the book also highlights some of the reasons, aside from the fact that I like honey, meat, fish, poultry and dairy, why I don't want to eat exclusively vegan. He uses a lot of food I consider "fake food" because he's trying to mimic haute cuisine without using any of the above list of ingredients. I'm not talking about foods like the cashew cream or cheeses made from nuts he includes recipes for. I'm talking about purchased products like "meat" made from wheat or soy. It seems to me that vegan food should be a celebration of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, not an attempt to mimic the omnivore diet so as to convince people they can switch to a vegan diet without substantially changing the way they eat.

It's been my experience that foods created to substitute for other foods usually fail because they taste like a pale imitation of the original, or are simply completely unpalatable. Something is always missing. Nonfat mayo or salad dressings taste awful. Low-fat and nonfat cheeses are like rubber. But people convince themselves they're good because they think they're getting health benefits from eating those foods. As they eat them, they forget what the real thing tastes like.

But I'm not sure that we really know what a healthy diet looks like. There are a lot of people that make a lot of money selling us on the health benefits of the fake food they're trying to get us to buy. Yet people thrive on a wide variety of foods, including many that are on the experts' current hit list. As long as researchers take the easy way out and study nutrition by taking food apart and studying individual components, they'll never really know the answer to "what's a healthy diet?" because we eat foods in combination and that makes a difference.

Case in point--the glycemic index thing. When you eat a food high on the glycemic index chart by itself, it digests quickly, creating a spike in your blood sugar levels. However, if you eat them in combination with other foods, particularly adding a bit of fat, it slows down the digestion of that food and you don't get that huge spike. So, as an example, the "rule" that you shouldn't eat potatoes because they're high on the glycemic index is not accurate. The rule should be, don't eat a plain baked potato all by itself. Eat it as part of a meal, particularly one that includes some fats. Perhaps our penchant for adding butter and/or sour cream to baked potatoes shows instinctive nutritional wisdom on our part, but we tend to go overboard and put too much. So we overreact and instead of putting a smaller amount, we decide we should forego it altogether.

An example of "fake food" vs. the real thing: I read recently that when you eat salads with no-fat dressing, you don't get the full complement of nutrients from the vegetables when your food is digested. But when you use regular dressing, you do. And again, I think the problem people have when they use any dressing is the amount they add. One other thing that I think makes a difference is making it yourself because when you buy a bottle of salad dressing, it doesn't taste that good, so you tend to use a lot of it. When you make a vinaigrette, which takes about five minutes, it has more flavor, so you can use less and be satisfied.

So maybe the future will look a little like Woody Allen's film, Sleeper, where he wakes up and all the food that was considered bad for you is now considered healthy. However, I doubt we're ever going to get to his exaggerated prediction where vegetables are unhealthy. Good thing because vegetables are amazing. I think the real key to eating healthy is to prepare food from raw ingredients as much as you can. And carefully choose those you do buy prepared, like sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, olives, and so on.