Sunday, June 12, 2016

The kreme, carnitas, and plum ice cream diet

day #1 of the diet
A week or so ago I decided to go on a little diet. I try not to say the word diet too loudly lest I immediately start wanting to eat everything in sight. So I whispered the word diet. I’d weighed myself for the first time in months and it was exactly as I had predicted, down to the pound. That’s one beauty of middle age: I know my body so well that I don’t even have to step on a scale to know precisely how much I weigh, I just have to gently squeeze one of my arms. The only other person I know who shares the infallible arm-feel barometer is my sister. It’s one of our special genetic endowments, the sturdy arms, and I like to think it suggests we come from strong, cabbage-picking stock. I’m not trying to make you feel bad. I’m sure you have other things going for you.

full of good stuff, though the nifty cardboard cover is easily stained
So I sat there on the morning I intended to start my diet and flipped through The Naked Cookbook, an attractive volume by food blogger Tess Ward. It’s a wellness-oriented book with recipes for almond milk, coconut yogurt, and ginger-turmeric lattes, as well as information about things like wheatgrass and your adrenals.  
To me, those look delicious.
It had come in the mail. It isn’t the type of book I’d ordinarily buy as I do not have a wellness-oriented personality. And yet I found myself drawn to it. The pictures are so pretty and the desire to be someone you’re not not dies hard. Perhaps someone like Tess Ward. . .

Also,  I had recently made a very delicious riced cauliflower dish (riced cauliflower, goat cheese, lemon, pumpkin seeds, favas/peas) from the book and I wondered what other nutritious and dietetic gems it might contain. 

I was sitting there looking through Naked when Isabel came down and said, “What’re you doing today, Mom?”

“Nothing,” I said. "Want to do something?”

She said, “What should we do?”

“We could go to a movie.

She said, “I don't like going to movies in the day.

“Hmm,” I said. “What about a Bay Area food crawl?”

After movie, that was the first thought that popped into my head on a sunny June morning in California. Not hike, not bike ride, not spa day, not shopping trip.  Food crawl


“Sure,” said Isabel. “When should we leave?”

“Twenty minutes?” I said. 

You might think I decided to postpone my diet for another day. I did not. I decided to embrace, yet again, the small portions diet, the only diet that will ever work for me. It’s not the most miraculous diet ever, to put it mildly, and if you can handle something more restrictive and badly need to lose weight fast, you should. But until I get a personality transplant, the small portions diet is the diet for me.

In case you’re planning a trip to the Bay Area soon, here is our food crawl itinerary. I wouldnt recommend either the first or last leg of the crawl, which means that this account yields but a single restaurant recommendation. As Isabel put it later, our day was short on food, but long on crawl. 
Stop 1: Crixa Cakes in Berkeley. I can’t remember where I read about this Russian-Hungarian bakery, but it’s been on my list forever. The atmosphere was chilly and a little stiff, not cozy, and the woman behind the counter was stern, like the woman behind the counter of an Eastern European bakery should be. We ordered a miniature Boston cream pie (photo at top) and a kreme, which is a mighty brick of vanilla custard held between a few shards of pastry. The kreme was delicious and hard to stop eating, though I did so after a few bites and we got a box for the leftovers. The Boston cream pie turned out to be wonderfully resistible, the ratio of cake to pastry cream far too high. If you are in the vicinity, you could do worse than a trip to Crixa, but we did not adore this bakery.

According to the internet, cukraszda means sweet shop.
Stop 2: A few years ago, a friend of my father’s recommended El Paisa, a taqueria on International Boulevard in Oakland. The neighborhood is not the greatest, unless you consider piles of trash and mattresses on the street the greatest. But inside the taqueria, all was humming and cheerful and wholesome. We were the only non-Hispanics. Big line, Latin families from babies to frail grandparents all there for their midday Saturday feast of tripe tacos, brain tacos, horchata, chorizo burritos, chicken burritos, et cetera.  Isabel ordered two dainty carne asada tacos and I ordered one not-dainty carnitas quesadilla. It took titanic will power not to eat every bite of that fantastic quesadilla, even after I was stuffed. So good. But I dutifully put half of it in a box to take home. That might not sound like dieting to you, but trust me, it is. It could have been so much worse.
Sadly, Isabel did not inherit the arm barometer.
I highly recommend El Paisa for both the outstanding food and the fun cultural experience. Like going to Mexico without getting on a plane or worrying about the water. 

Stop 3: We drove from El Paisa an hour south to the Mitsuwa Marketplace in San Jose where I was hoping to find fresh dorayaki, a fixation ever since I saw the film Sweet Bean last month. Have you seen Sweet Bean? It’s a gentle Japanese movie about a morose dorayaki maker and the old woman who turns up at his cafe one day looking for a job. It’s a very pleasing story and a tiny bit sappy. I loved it. Among other things, it will make you want to eat dorayaki, which are small golden pancakes filled with a jammy sweet bean paste. Alas, Mitsuwa, a huge strip-mall chain grocery store, only sold packaged dorayaki, which did not appeal. We bought some cream mochi instead. 

We also bought some intriguing donut-shaped mochi.

Yuck. Bitter disappointment. It was easy to eat small portions of the mochi because they were intensely perfumey and artificial tasting, especially the fruit flavors. I think we chose poorly. I hate throwing food away, but we threw away our leftover mochi and that was the end of our food crawl. It doesn’t sound like much, but it took all day. I loved driving around with my girl.

I have consulted my arms and in the last week I have not lost weight, but not gained either. I consider that a win. 

Now, a recipe. 

Our plum tree went into overdrive this year and I couldn’t figure out what to do with the bonanza of fruit. I don’t make jam anymore (no one but me in this house eats homemade jam) and while I’d love to bake with plums, these are the kind of plums you can’t slice because they burst when you break the skin, the flesh collapses, and the juice runs all over the cutting board. I decided they might make a good ice cream, though, and I was right. I used David Lebovitz’s plum ice cream recipe from The Perfect Scoopwhich was easy and delicious. Because you puree the sour plum skin with the flesh, this ice cream has that sweet-tart magic of plum jam, plus the lovely pink color. It tastes like sorbet, but is definitely ice cream. Small portions, for sure! 

Lebovitz suggests cutting up the plums, but I just stewed them whole and removed the pits when the plums were cooked. You could use little wild plums for this. Make it. You’ll like it.

Plum ice cream

Stew a pound of whole plums in a pot with 1/3 cup water until the plums disintegrate completely. Remove the pits and stir in 3/4 cup plus 2 TBS sugar (180 g). Cool. Puree with 1 cup cream and (if you want, though it’s not necessary) 1/2 teaspoon kirsch.  Chill. Churn. Makes about a quart.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental

The couple agreed on a lot of things, maybe even most things. They agreed about religion and they agreed about politics. They were both punctual to a fault and didn't care that their cars were held together (literally) by duct tape. Neither of them liked camping or theater, both loved road trips, Wyoming, donut shops, used bookstores, clam shacks, and the fifth season of Girls. He made her laugh all the time. She made him laugh when she sang. They tried to live by the Golden Rule and expected the same from their children. You could say they shared the same values, at least when it came to the important stuff. 

Or should we say “important” stuff. 

One fine May morning, the wife walked into the kitchen and found her husband at the counter cutting beautiful, big, sweet, crunchy cherries she’d bought at the farmers’ market into little raggedy pieces. He put these sad cherry filets into a Tupperware container for inclusion in their son’s lunch bag. 

What a tender and caring father, thought the wife, to make his 15-year-old son’s lunches.

And what a barbarian, thought the wife, to cut gorgeous cherries into limp pieces. 

He probably didn't know any better. After all, he hadn't been raised in a fruit-worshipping household as she had. She decided to treat this as a teaching moment. Gently and benevolently, she said, “You know, you shouldn’t cut up the cherries. It ruins them. They lose all their crunch.”

The husband, whose favorite fruit might well have been the banana, said, “Ok. I didn’t know that.” He finished cutting up the cherries and snapped on the Tupperware lid.

The rest of the day passed peacefully.

The next morning, the wife went into the kitchen and there her husband stood at the counter making their son’s lunch again, mutilating cherries.

“What are you doing?” the wife cried. “I told you yesterday, cherries are supposed to be kept whole.”

“I heard you,” said the husband. 

She said, “But. . .”

He said, “Let it rest. Don’t push it.”

“But you’re ruining the cherries!” the wife said. “And you’re sending the message that cherry pits are a huge when they’re not! You’re turning our child off to cherries!” 

 Possibly she sounded a bit shrill. One would have to ask the neighbors.

“Didn’t you hear me?” the husband replied. “Don’t push it.” 

There was a hard, warning edge to his voice, an edge the wife didn’t hear often but knew she should heed. Still, the wife would have pushed it. A tendency to push it was one of her very few character flaws. Mostly, she was perfect. Mercifully, at that very moment the wife’s sister called. The wife left the kitchen and whispered her frustration about the cutting of the cherries to the sister, who shared her dismay. Or pretended to. The sister agreed that yes, it was wrong, like someone putting an ice cube in a glass of great red wine or ordering a dry-aged New York steak “well done.”  The conversation calmed the wife, who did not renew her ridiculous argument with the husband about the cutting of the cherries, even though she knew she was 100% in the right.

The rest of the day passed peacefully, as did the rest of the week.

But the wife’s thoughts kept wandering back to the cherry contretemps. It was funny that a couple would fight about cherries. Not money, not sex, not Sanders vs. Clinton, not laundry, not the remote control or asking for directions or self-destructive habits, but cherries. It seemed to her that in twenty years of marriage she and her husband had basically fought just one fight, over and over again. Broadly speaking, it was always about cherries. That is to say, it was always about the proper role of eating in daily life. Even when an argument was about chickens or goats or the garden, it was somehow about the proper role of eating in daily life. The wife cared a lot about cooking and food. In fact, she was preoccupied by cooking and food. The husband wasn’t. In fact, he was actively hostile to food. When they were courting, he had said that he wished he could consume nourishment in a pill -- and she had found this bizarre, but charming. At the time.

Sadly, while presidential elections came every four years, meals happened three times a day.  

Were they ever going to stop bickering about cherries? The wife couldn't see how. They'd both dug in their heels. While cherries weren't going to end their marriage, there was no question cherries made their marriage slightly less delightful.

On Sunday morning, to the wife’s surprise, the husband asked if he could join her at “the fruit fair,” which was his name for the farmers’ market. The husband almost never accompanied her to the fruit fair. He would glower at the prices and the silly people who exulted over dainty little bunches of organic baby carrots. What was wrong with the 5-pound bags from Safeway? The fruit fair could ruin the husband's day. 

But if he wanted to subject himself to the fruit fair, the wife was happy for his company. It was a beautiful morning and the fair was crowded with people carrying baskets and pushing strollers and tasting blueberries. The couple strolled past the organic creamery and the goat butcher, the honey guy, the waffle truck, the organic apricots and peaches and the crates of Little Gems lettuces and basil. They talked about their children, who, they agreed, were both shaping up nicely. They talked about what movie they should see later that day and chose Maggie’s Plan. They decided they would like to go to Mexico City for a long weekend, but not this summer. The wife did notice that her husband periodically vanished. When she would turn around to ask if she should buy some strawberries that she'd been hovering over, he would be gone. A minute or so later, he would reappear and take any bags she might have acquired.

Finally, she asked him where he kept wandering off to.

“I walk away whenever it looks like you're going to pull out your wallet,” said the husband.

He did not say this in a sarcastic, accusatory way. He said it in a calm and kindly way. He seemed to be in an extremely good mood. 

It hit her suddenly, the way it did from time to time, what a good man she had married. As much as it annoyed her when her husband cut up cherries and filled the freezer with Steak-Umms and made caustic jokes about the meals she cooked, it had to bother him just as much, perhaps more, to see her lavishing money on wild salmon, a curry leaf tree, white corn, organic pea shoots, cookbooks, preserved lemons, and so on and so on, year after year after year, a river of precious cash flowing into the pockets of people producing things like Vita Mixes and sunchokes and mizuna, the purpose of which he would never in this lifetime understand. Never. 

When she looked at things from his point of view, she shuddered. 

But there he was in his baseball cap and Birkenstocks, amiably carrying bags of expensive foodstuffs that she wanted and he absolutely didn't. By simply wandering away when it looked like she might pay $6 per pound for Utah giant cherries, he had figured out how to keep his cool. Couldn't she find a way to hold her tongue when he cut those cherries up into little pieces for their son’s lunch. Yes. Yes, she could. Of course she could. They could get past the cherry fight and this was how. It was all about quiet acceptance and accommodation. She’d seen the light!

Unfortunately, one of the depressing lessons that it had taken her decades to learn was this: You keep having to see the light over and over again. The same light.

But for now, this week, this spring, she could see it. And on the following Wednesday night when he made a caustic remark about the delicious riced cauliflower with pumpkin seeds and goat cheese she’d served for dinner, she just smiled.