Archive for April, 2009

Food or Art? Do I really eat this?



What is the world coming to, where certain festive food preparations are so intricate and elaborate that our guests are afraid to sink their teeth into them, for fear they will disturb a masterwork of fine art? A trade publication aimed at caterers arrives in the mailbox every month, laden with glamorous photos of the latest and greatest trends in celebration foodstuffs. Many of these companies must have legions of prep cooks spending days, even weeks, manipulating food into incredible shapes, forms and colors. The novelty of it all is an obvious draw, but somehow, behind this eye-catching façade, the food looks somehow tortured. It is as if it is screaming to get out, begging to take its original form.
The food scene today is a mirror of affluent society. The public persona is far larger than life. Everything is engineered to be exceptional, flawless, or at least appearing to be, morphed into a garish sameness. Our homes, our cars, even our bodies and our faces are rearranged to fit the girdle of current fashion. The same is true of our food. Food has become a lifestyle accessory. Magazines urge you to be the first on you block to try the latest restaurant, to prepare the ingredient of the moment, to host the party of the decade. It is as if we are all supposed to have an army of food stylists in our pantries, turning out dishes that would make Martha Stewart green with envy! Chefs are the new stars, with televisions shows, signature endorsements, fan clubs and even sporting events. Leisure time is spent pursuing the latest darlings of the food and wine publicity machine. As a chef and food writer, I can’t help but wonder which item from my compost bin will become the new ingredient du jour. This spring it is fava bean leaves, yes, fava bean leaves! Now how am I going to augment the nitrogen in my garden beds if my fava bean sprouts are going into the salad rather than being hoed back into the soil? My gardening catalogs call it “green manure” and I am sure that this label is not going to be showing up on restaurant and catering menus any time soon! Nor am I saying that these little green tidbits are not delicious in their own right, but what angst-ridden chef, attempting to create yet another new menu extravaganza came up with this one? I read today that Thomas Keller of the French Laundry never repeats an ingredient more than once in a menu, with the exception “…of course…” of such luxury staples as the truffles, lobster, caviar and foie gras on which his restaurant’s reputation is built. Try that at home? I don’t think so.
Below the surface, economic rumblings are echoing across continents and oceans. Can we continue to feast on the latest and greatest while Rome (or Wall Street) burns? It has been portended that this recession may reset the sensibilities of our nation and the world, ending the mad rush of unconscious consumerism and waste. In this spirit, I would like to challenge the food world to go back to its roots as well. I would like to call for an end to food as entertainment; and a return to food as nourishment and pleasure. I would love to see one of these glossy lifestyle magazines speak of entertaining and eating for personal enjoyment, rather than as an outward manifestation of an idealized life. To that end, I have chosen to take the path less trodden, breaking my own way as if wandering across a meadow full of spring grass. The menus I will develop for this summer’s catering season will reflect food for food’s sake. Rather than steaming, pureeing, freeze-drying and reforming a carrot into a sheet of paper in which to wrap carrot tops, I will trim them and roast them whole with a sprinkling of warm spices reminiscent of North Africa. Rather than cutting my potatoes into perfect ¼” dice and poaching them in goat butter with fennel fronds, I will toss them, unpeeled, with new olive oil and kosher salt, and bake them until their skins are crisp and the insides are creamy, splitting them open to absorb a light dressing of mustard vinaigrette. Instead of braising my carefully turned artichokes for hours in lobster stock and mashing them through a drum sieve with mascarpone to stuff ravioli, I will steam them, halve them and sear them on a griddle until caramelized and sweet. Spring onions and leeks will not be transformed into thin green ribbons with which to wrap a terrine of foie gras, but will actually be grilled and dipped in a spicy, smoky Romesco sauce, to be eaten whole.


The menus themselves will be patterned after what the Italians call “la cucina povera,” the poor foods. These are not the recipes of the de Medicis and the Renaissance, but the recipes of the villages, the farms, and the fields of the Mediterranean. In keeping with the economic times, these menus will also be more affordable and accessible. In order to understand our future, we must understand our past. Often the simplest preparations are the most flavorful. 
When I brought the heaping platters of carrots and onions to an event recently, eyebrows were raised and heads wagged. Yet when the wrappings were removed, the aroma of roasted vegetables and savory spices filled the room. The guests’ first bites were tentative, almost afraid to believe that something so simple could possibly be satisfying, much less exciting. Yet one by one, their faces lit up. Smiles stretched and eyes rolled up in pure bliss.  Lips were licked and words were offered up like “wow” and “incredible.” The food transformed those who ate it from bystanders to participants. Fingers were finding their way into people’s mouths as they wiped the last specks of sauce from their plates. A small crowd gathered around the platters, not dispersing until the last morsel was gone. The beauty of these foods were in their honest simplicity, recognizable, and yet in no way mundane. Somewhere, in the back of people’s minds, memories were awakened; a warm tomato eaten while standing in the garden, a slice of freshly baked bread, still hot from the oven, the first bites of the season’s earliest sweet corn. Basic foods, honest foods, satisfying and nurturing foods and, if we are honest, the foods we remember when all else fades away. These are the foods we can choose to prepare and to enjoy, and most of all, to share.


Post by Julia Conway on April 11th, 2009




Working my way through a creative block was not really how I wanted to spend the first warm Saturday afternoon in April, but the work is what pays the bills these days. It is over 85F on my back deck, and I am grateful for the laptop computer that facilitates my working outside. With three menus pending, I am reaching high and low in my consciousness for delicious seasonal appetizers that don’t cost the customer their first born child and several body parts. Being between seasons here in Northern California does not help. I walked the aisles of the produce department for some inspiration and just can’t seem to find my way. All of the winter vegetables look tired and spent, save for the mountains of kale and greens in the organic section. It is too early for Mediterranean favorites like fava beans and baby artichokes, and the promising asparagus spears still seem to be hailing from points south of the border. Out here in the Adirondack chair, I surround myself with stacks of books and my visual journal, a large scrapbook full of collages formed from random images of food that I have torn or cut from the myriad of lifestyle magazines that litter the coffee table.
I have been trying to prepare these menus all week, and nothing seems to sound right. The items I have come up with either seem too contrived and fussy, or they seem mundane and repetitive. I recognize the symptoms of spring fever; that fuzzy, disjointed condition in my brain that tells me that a walk along the ocean bluffs is a better idea than preparing menus for clients. One of the parties will be in mid-May, the second is slated for August. The last menu is simply the two to three items I must serve this Thursday at a Chamber of Commerce showcase, intended to pique the interest of the wedding planners and winery hospitality managers that will be walking the aisles, selecting their favorite caterers for the season. For this event, I am torn between the “wow” factor of something precious and visually arresting, and the “mmmm” factor of comfort food taken to a new level. Last year, I served crab cakes and sausage roll puffs from the freezer, but this year, I have no such reserves. Complicating the situation even more is the fact that I have an olive oil demo scheduled for most of the same day as the showcase, so whatever I choose to prepare will have to be completed the day before.
My eyes keep coming back to a particular image, a platter of baby carrots with part of their tops still on, roasted in olive oil and middle-eastern spices. In pondering the impact of this image, I remember an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” where he visited the Catalonian countryside. Thumbing through one of the cookbooks in the stack, I am rewarded by the recipe for spring onions, charred slowly on an open fire, and served with a robust and complex romesco sauce. The mental image of Bourdain eagerly slurping down these regional spring delights and licking the sauce from his fingers resonates at a deep level. I can picture the platter, my bright turquoise Mexican bubble glass, heaped with vibrant green spring onions, beautifully caramelized and blackened, and a large white bowl of the terra-cotta colored sauce for dipping. On another of the platter, I see a huge mound of the roasted baby carrots, again, perfectly browned and glistening, sweet and spicy at the same time, resting on a large pile of their raw green tops. A tentative theme of southern Mediterranean crudités begins to coalesce in my mind’s eye, and I see an edible tablescape of rustic breads and cheeses, tall green glasses filled with homemade grissini with flake salt and large platters of caramelized seasonal vegetables with colorful and flavorful dipping sauces. I can almost smell the fragrant spices and the unmistakable scent of slow cooked onions and peppers that would accompany such a display of pastoral abundance.
As I write, the tension begins to ease and my mind slips back into that receptive place where ideas flow freely. The block is broken, and an entire meal begins to emerge around this central theme. Not only have I developed the necessary appetizer menus, but I have expanded them to an entire farm dinner concept. I begin to mark recipes with paper clips, to be copied when I return to the office. Sometimes the slightest change of scenery or environment is all it takes to jump start the creative process. I am extremely grateful for my back deck and its exquisite views of the garden and the redwoods. The little dog stirs at my feet as the sun begins to brush to tops of the tallest trees and cast a shadow that will creep across to where I sit. Before long, it will be too cool to remain here, as it is still only April, but the promise of the warm sunshine transported me beyond the limitations of my imagination, at least for an afternoon.
Post by Julia Conway on April 4th, 2009