Archive for the ‘food flotsam & jetsam’ Category

Lettuce Eat Kale Has a New Home

April 14, 2010

Welcome to the new home of Lettuce Eat Kale. As with any move, there are a few annoying administrative details that require action:

  • If you normally subscribe to this blog via email, you’ll need to sign up again. Ditto if you receive LEK posts through your RSS feed. Please take a minute now to do that. Click on those handy dandy little buttons in the sidebar on the right for that very purpose. If you haven’t taken either of these steps in the past, I recommend you pick one of these options now so you don’t miss a post.
  • Not yet following my pithy snippets on Twitter (and why not)? Please click to follow my tweets for bite-sized info on food subjects and stories.

This move was a long-time coming. Change is hard. Lettuce Eat Kale was perfectly at home over at for its first year. But it was time to enjoy the benefits that come with a blog’s own URL and do some sprucing up both in the front and back of the house. For behind-the-scenes assistance, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Stephanie Stiavetti, a self-described freelance food & lifestyle maven. Stephanie also knows loads about all that techno stuff — with acronyms like HTML and SEO — that I barely have a handle on. She was not phased that the actual blog migration, planned in advance for last weekend, was in progress while I was in the E.R. (Post-op infection, highly unrecommended:( This WordPress wiz just went about the business of shifting everything, we texted between treatments, and she even offered to swing by with something appetizing and edible, which the hospital couldn’t provide. Cheers, Steph. Thanks as well to my friend Felicity Crush for her fresh take on my blog banner — along with all manner of kindnesses, especially over the past month. She tells me that astrologically-speaking I’ve chosen an auspicious day to launch a revamped LEK, since there’s a new moon in Aries. Who knew my timing was so good? Some tweaks still to come before we’re comfortably settled in this space. I’ve been warned that techno glitches following a blog shift, like post-operative infections, are a common occurrence. So please let me know if you have any challenges navigating the site. And thanks, in advance, for your patience as we clean the house of any bugs. Finally, I have to ask: What do you think? Chime in with your thoughts on the new digs.


Lettuce Eat Kale Celebrates First Birthday

March 31, 2010

Humor me here, dear readers, as I take a moment to look back on a year of lettuceeatkale.

Can you believe 12 months have passed — give or take a day or so  — since my first post?

LEK has gone from birth to barely sitting up, to crawling and walking. No night terrors along the way. Just one post shy of 100 and over 1,000 comments.

Slowly but steadily I’m building an audience for my musings on school foodkids and cooking, urban homesteads and growing greens.

As well as posts on food in books, films, politics, on the street, and in our homes. Food foraging, food justice, frugal food folk — all here as well. And giveaways too. And a bunch of other stuff.

Fittingly, yesterday I saw my traffic reach it’s highest numbers yet. I suspect my post on Jamie Oliver might have had something to do with that. Timely and all. My pieces on choosy chowhounds and lunchbox suggestions have been popular. So was my defense of Alice Waters against unfair attacks in The Atlantic.

But sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to which blog offerings attract a following. Musings on granola, favorite food films, and how to be a good dinner guest generated a wave of interest. Go figure. (‘Fessing up to food indiscretions, on the other hand, people eat that stuff up.)

I’ve had fun writing about my friends, making new ones in the food and blogging world, and meeting food folk doing worthy, interesting, and downright groovy things.

Since I started this online experiment I’ve been asked to contribute to the food politics blog Civil Eats and the hyper-local site Berkeleyside.

I’ve received kudos for posts on persimmons, growing the next generation of chefs, and professionals who pursue their culinary passions after hours, among other subjects, over at Food News Journal.

The New York Times Bay Area Blog even had nice things to say about me.

Enough horn tooting. I’m sure some of my posts have missed the mark but let’s not talk about those today.

Today, we celebrate. You can start singing now.

Coming this year for Lettuce Eat Kale:

  • My own hosted site. Honestly. Truly. Any day now. Just you wait and see. You’ll be the first to know I promise.
  • A Lettuce Eat Kale Facebook Fan Page (Mostly so my professional friends don’t have to wade through photos of my kid to get to the food stuff.)
  • A six-figure book deal, movie contract, and my own reality TV show. Doubtful. Just making sure you were paying attention.

Now it’s your turn. I’d like to hear (I think) what you have to say about this site. Why you come here, what you’re looking for, what you like, what’s missing, or what you want to see more of.

Not fishing for compliments here (though I’ll happily, and hopefully graciously, accept them) just want to spend some time mulling over how my baby might look a year from here, with a little help from my friends.

Blowing out the candle now…

A Culinary Confession

March 23, 2010

I blame Bakesale Betty.  If the blue-haired Aussie-American Alison hadn’t lured me into her store with lamingtons and sticky date pudding I would never have succumbed to the charms of her legendary fried chicken sandwiches, which cause perfectly sane people to line up on Telegraph Avenue in North Oakland. For a sandwich. I kid you not.

It also doesn’t help that Bakesale Betty is on my way home from my editing gig and I’m often ravenous as I drive by, doing a quick scan to see if there’s 1. a line snaking down the street or 2. any parking.

If the parking gods and queue karma are on my side, I’m in and out with one of her sandwiches before you can say hello hypocrite.

Let me explain. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 17, when I gave up meat in what my mum, a good cook, viewed as just another one of my rebellious teenage acts. Despite growing up in a meat-loving land, where the backyard barbie rules, I became a greens and legumes kinda gal.

For more than a quarter of a century, I lived the veg life. To be precise, I guess I’m technically a pescatarian, as I sometimes eat seafood. Especially in my hometown, Sydney, because — news flash — fabo fish to be had Down Under peeps.

So how to explain the recent chicken sandwich obsession? What can I say? I think I’m having a middle-aged meat crisis. Some 20 years ago I introduced the man who would become the father of my child to the virtues of a vegetarian diet. Hell, I married him at Greens. My 11-year-old kid has never, ever eaten an ounce of animal flesh.  (His choice. I’m no zealot.)  My blog is called — duh — Lettuce Eat Kale. I’ve watched Food, Inc. I frequent farmers’ markets. You get the idea.

I should be a poster girl for a pro-produce life.

And yet…a couple of years ago around a certain time in my cycle I began craving protein. No worries, fish usually did the trick. Then I started to slip a bit when sharing food at ethnic restaurants around town. Chicken raised with love, care, good feed, and bucolic views began to find its way into my mouth. What the heck was happening?

I wasn’t sure, but I suspected hormones played a role. I also knew I wasn’t dealing with this particular omnivore’s dilemma on my own.  My friend Connie was a vegetarian — until she got pregnant with her first kid 16 years ago. Then it was off to the steak house for her and she’s never looked back.  My dance instructor, Amara Tabor-Smith, eschewed animal protein for decades — she didn’t like the texture — and is now tentatively getting reacquainted with meat.

I’d always assumed, along with many others I suspect, that vegetarian cookbook superstars Deborah Madison and Mollie Katzen didn’t eat meat. Not so, I discovered in the past year during chats with both chefs. Mollie describes herself as a “meat nibbler,” and Deborah’s not opposed to the occasional piece of grass-fed, local beef.

Their most recent books, Get Cooking by Mollie, and What We Eat When We Eat Alone by Deborah, include meat recipes. Still, both women favor a diet where greens, grains, and legumes dominate the dinner plate.  Mollie supports the Meatless Monday campaign and both believe most meat eaters would do well to eat less animal and more plant foods.

Eating meat after years — or even a lifetime — of a solely plant-based diet seems to be something of a trend. For people who chose vegetarianism for ethical or environmental reasons, sourcing meat sustainably is now often a viable alternative to factory-farmed animals, and so some have decided to include it sparingly in their diet.

(Bucking this seemingly female shift, is wonder boy writer Jonathan Safran Foer, who dabbled with vegetarianism for years but fully committed after he became a pet owner. He will probably convert masses to the cause with his description of chicken fecal soup and other horrors of industrial animal slaughter in his recent book, Eating Animals.)

In this confusing time, I feel I’ve found a kindred spirit in Tara Austen Weaver, the warm and witty writer who blogs about meat and many other food matters at Tea & Cookies.  I can so relate to the mental tug-of-war that underlies her recent book The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis.  Tara didn’t have a choice in her vegetarian childhood — she was raised that way by a Northern California hippie mama.

Several years ago, she started exploring eating meat for health reasons.  Her descriptions of buying, prepping, and cooking meat resonate with me because I haven’t actually ever gone and purchased a chicken or, um, chicken bits and made dinner. That notion makes me feel nauseous, to be honest. I don’t even like looking at raw meat.

I know, I know, I’m the worst kind of turncoat. I leave the house to get a bit of hot flesh on the side. When my son stopped by home unexpectedly the other afternoon, I found myself hiding aforementioned cluck, cluck sandwich before opening the door. Clearly, I have some conflicted feelings about my dietary changes.

So what to call myself: A lapsed vegetarian?  A vegetarian who cheats?

I thank the funny Adair Seldon of Lentil Breakdown for introducing me to the term flexitarian, which seems to fit for now, loathe as I am to saddle myself or anyone else with a label.

For the record, I seem to have no desire to move on to “harder” meats, like beef, pork, or lamb.  (An aside: Why isn’t it cow, pig, and sheep? I suspect it’s a way for many of us to remain in denial about where meat actually comes from.) Speaking of denial: No pics of meat in this post! The hypocrisy continues.

And I’ve never had any interest in eating creatures I see on hiking trails such as ducks, rabbits, quail, deer, elk, and the like. But since chicken is becoming a somewhat regular fix (once or twice a month), I’ve learned never to say never.

My vegetarianism stemmed in part, from my inability to kill an animal, hence my healthy respect for folks like Novella Carpenter, who don’t flinch at taking responsibility for ending the life of an animal they’ve raised for food. I feel cowardly in the carnivore arena by comparison.

Penning this post has probably blown my chances of ever writing for Vegetarian Times or VegNews (though I do think this topic is one such mags would do well to cover.)

But you won’t find meat recipes on this blog, although I’m sure some veggies will unsubscribe in disgust at my wishy-washy vegetarianism.

That would be a shame. Because I am still the girl who obsesses about eating greens. Nothing makes me happier than a meal packed with produce. I am, to borrow a term Mollie Katzen used in a recent Civil Eats story, very much a pro-vegetable person, a vegetabilist.

And I view healthy eating in much the same way I see sexuality.  In my mind, most humans are basically bisexual, it just depends where on the spectrum you fall in terms of how you define your sexual orientation.

Similarly, we’re probably all on an omnivore continuum, with some of us falling firmly on the carnivorous end and others of us way down on the other end of the line very much in vegetarian or even vegan territory.

In the end, come dinner time, it’s a personal choice what we put on our plate and the justifications we make with ourselves and our sometimes contradictory culinary choices are our own to live with as we figure out our place on the food chain and what our bodies need to stay well.

I welcome your thoughts below.

How to Host a Dinner Party so Everyone Enjoys It

March 17, 2010

Who knew that a post on a drunken dinner guest would garner so much attention — and elicit both hilarious horror stories and great tips?

Several readers, including regular Ruth Pennebaker, suggested that a host has responsibilities as well to ensure an enjoyable evening for all.

Below, find advice gleaned from regular dinner-party throwers, etiquette experts, and personal experience.

(Note: It’s never a good idea to put your hand in the blender while it’s still running, no matter how much of a hurry you’re in to make the pesto before the guests arrive.  Even if these guests are family, trained nurses, don’t mind staunching the blood flow, or checking to see if stitches are needed. I still have the scar as a memento from this night when I was, indeed, the high-maintenance host.)

Think of these suggestions as hints from Henry, not Heloise. And, as always, feel free to add your own. Here’s to stress-free entertaining.

1. Relax. Easier said than done, my anxious self knows, but no one really wants to spend an evening with a friend who is freaking out about what’s going wrong in the kitchen. Truth be told, it’s the pleasure of your good company — undistracted and attentive — your posse crave, not so much what you’ve got cooking.

2. Give the guest list careful consideration. Do we even need to go there? (See post on this subject for details.) I so appreciate Sean Timberlake’s sound advice on this score. Here’s what the man who writes a food blog called Hedonia, for heaven’s sake, and frequently flings open his doors to diners, has to say about a good guest mix:

For a dinner party of 8, we generally include one couple from our regular rotation (our “anchors,” we call them) who can help set a tone of familiarity; a second couple with whom we’ve socialized but perhaps not entertained frequently; and a final couple who are relative if not total newcomers, but whom we feel would be a good match. And we insist that couples not sit next to each other. This makes for a fun dynamic.

I would add: Think beyond couples; singletons like to eat too. And pay attention to balance. A dinner party consisting of work buddies talking shop all night may not induce yawning, but too many friends prattling on about one aspect of your life can get a wee bit tedious for those who don’t share your passion for stamp collecting. I’m just saying.

3. Plan ahead. Give some thought to menu, guests dietary constraints, shopping, and house tidying a day or two before your dinner. Then you can spend the day of focused on prepping and cooking, thus having a better chance of achieving #1 status. Commonsense, yes, but how many of us have waited until the last minute to figure out what to make, realized an ingredient isn’t on hand at the 11th hour, or recoiled in horror at what’s growing in the loo and run off in search of the toilet brush right before the guests are due to arrive?

4. Keep kitchen time to a minimum. That’s especially true if this room is cut off from the rest of your home and there’s nowhere for guests to hang out and chat with you while you whip up a souffle or whatever you’ve got going on.  Of course, completely ignore this advice if the whole point of your dinner party is to cook together with friends. In such cases, I appreciate having a job (anyone who knows me will tell you I’m an obsessive veggie chopper), if the host is the kind of casual soul who’s comfortable with her guests helping out.

5. Think simple. I’m the type who likes to prep and cook as much as I can before anyone even sets foot in my door. I like order, quiet, and concentration when I’m cooking. It helps me reach that #1 state. If you’re the sort who can whip up an eight-course meal while yakking away with your pals without getting flustered, good for you. And where’s my invite? For the rest of us, a couple of courses, one-pot dishes, even accepting an offer from a guest to bring salad or dessert is perfectly acceptable.

6. Save the experiments for later. As a general guide, a dinner party is usually not the time or place to try a new recipe. It can be hard to aspire to that #1 state when you start flirting with disaster with an unfamiliar dish. Know what I’m saying? Anyone?

7. Pace yourself. Learn from the pesto incident. Give yourself ample time to cook. Leave yourself a window in which to shower, dress, or even take a minute to chill before the doorbell rings. You don’t want to be worn out when your guests arrive.

8. Designate a wing (wo)man. No host need go it alone.  Solicit your partner or a fellow guest (save this task for close friends).  Check in ahead of time so this person knows it’s his/her job to freshen drinks, clear clutter, include an introvert in the banter, or whatever else you think you’ll need help with over the course of the evening.

9. Set the tone. Introduce guests, offer drinks and nibbles, and get the conversation started. Once things start flowing you can attend to last-minute details.  Hosts who fret about the food or the red wine stains on the white carpet don’t put guests at ease. Remember, it’s just stuff.

10. Have fun. No one wants tension over the table. The best thing you can do to ensure everyone has an enjoyable evening is to have fun yourself. Be your gracious, good self and people will have a good time, which, after all, is what throwing a dinner party is all about.

Professionals by Day Pursue Culinary Arts by Night

March 12, 2010

This is the first in a series of occasional posts profiling people with regular day gigs who pursue their culinary passions after hours.

This week, two Bay Area men who hold down demanding day jobs and craft high-end sweet treats in their down time.

Meet Anand Chokkalingam, UC Berkeley professor by day and chocolatier by night.

This cancer epidemiologist pursues his passion for high-end confections in his off hours and puts his scientific sensibilities to sweet use by hand-crafting artisanal chocolates with top-notch ingredients. He says the skills he brings to his day job — scientific rigor, preciseness, attention to detail — also stand him in good stead in his chocolate-making operation.

Anand is a Sanskrit word that refers to a state of pure joy and divine bliss, which is an apt description of Anand Confections.

Parlaying a fondness for making sweets into a chocolate following that started by word-of-mouth, Anand’s small-batch business got a boost last December when Town & Country paired one of his exotic candies with a tawny port.

This writer discovered his inspired offerings at a recent bakesale benefit for Haiti. Anand enjoys playing with flavors from his Indian heritage, which give his concoctions their signature tastes, such as cardamom and saffron, and Darjeeling tea.

He cites legendary local chocolatiers Michael Recchiuti of San Francisco and Alice Medrich of Berkeley as early influences on his own creations.

Anand, 37, concedes it’s tough to find extra time to devote to his nascent chocolate business. A father of two young children, early on his wife set ground rules around how many hours he could spend in the kitchen to protect both his health and family time. These included not working past 1 a.m. more than three times a month during high production times, such as in December’s busy holiday period, when he made some 5,000 pieces, each one cut by hand. They sold out.

And it’s also a family affair: His youngest daughter is a taste tester; his school-age child likes to help in the production process. His wife helps with all aspects of the business. Family and friends lend a hand during peak production times. Sometimes, like prior to Valentine’s Day this year, traditionally a chocolate makers prime retail period, life and work intervened and scaling up production just wasn’t possible.

Anand is mulling over what business model could work well with his current life. He’s toying with the idea of a chocolate club, similar to a wine club, shipping his tasty tidbits to subscribers every month or two. That way he could have some control over the hours he devotes to his chocolate obsession, experiment with new flavors, and continue to enjoy his craft. Currently his confections are available online.

“I love working with my hands and the sense of order I feel creating chocolates,” he says. “My desire to create sweets trumps everything else in the kitchen.”

Read more about Anand in my Berkeley Bites column today over at Berkeleyside.

During a routine business day Michael Winnike works long hours as a paralegal specializing in patent law for top San Francisco firm Fenwick and West.  Off the clock, the 26-year-old churns out goat milk caramels under the Happy Goat label.

These unique goodies with all natural ingredients were a big hit at the recent Fancy Food Show in San Francisco and can be found in upscale confectionery stores around the Bay Area and beyond. Happy Goat caramels are also available online.

“I fell in love with goat milk as a confectionery ingredient. It elevates a simple treat into something more complex and savory,” says Michael, who lives in San Francisco’s Mission District and describes himself as the founder and chief executive goat of his fledgling business.

Another self-taught sweet chef, he began focusing on his cooking hobby about three years ago after falling for a friend’s sheep milk truffles. He started gearing up on the goat milk caramel front about a year ago.

Michael and his partner Kyle Pickering (he calls himself a strategy dork by day and director of marketing, media, and, ah, braaaaanding by later that day) have outsourced the making of their tangy treats to keep up with demand. But Michael still presides over the batches of bubbling caramel to ensure quality control. By year’s end he says he hopes the caramels will be available in 100 stores nationwide.

Michael admits that being single and unencumbered helps with his second job, as he’s free to keep his own schedule with little time for extracurricular activities. It’s not uncommon for him to quit his “day job” around 10 p.m. and then work in the kitchen until 2 a.m. on Happy Goat business.

He doesn’t hide his budding after-hours business from his employer as he’s careful to make sure one doesn’t interfere with the other.  And he reaps the rewards of making tempting morsels at his workplace. “Sure, it can be tiring, but I get a lot of pleasure out of creating these delicious indulgences — and my coworkers love them.”

[Photo Anand Chokkalingam: Radha Seshagiri. Photo Anand Confections: Guy Poole. Photo Goat Milk Caramels: Courtesy of Happy Goat.]

Dinner Guests: What Makes a Good One?

March 10, 2010

Regular readers of this space may recall that my New Year’s resolution was to host more dinner parties. Heck, host a dinner party. Check.

We’re talking a casual soiree with an interesting mix of adults around a table dining, wining, conversing, laughing, and generally having a convivial time of it.

That was the idea. Let’s just say that it didn’t prove to be the reality for my first attempt at dinner party fun in 2010 and leave it at that, okay?

How boring. Let’s not.  Where to begin? It started with a health scare, cold feet, a dropped dessert, a man shortage, and angst on my end when I realized I’d be feeding three really good cooks, one of whom showed up almost an hour late (to be fair she did call), thus seriously messing with the meal timing.

So by the time all my guests arrived I was just grateful that this group of women made it to my house.  And I had a hunch they’d all like each other and hoped they’d overlook any deficiencies on the food front and we’d all just have a good time.

My mistake. The latecomer asked if she could bring a friend. Feeling generous and in the spirit of growing community I said yes.

Here’s the kicker, and there’s no way to sugar coat it: The ring-in showed up absolutely hammered. Who does that?

We’re not talking tipsy and chatty, we’re talking unable to see straight, about to pass out in the plate, please-don’t-throw-up-at-my-dinner-table kind of plastered.

It was uncomfortable and awkward, with my confused friends wondering why I would invite such an inebriated soul to my home for dinner.

I’d like to say I went all Miss Manners and ignored the situation. That would be a lie. I had a brief, terse exchange in the kitchen with my friend who’d brought the offending guest. I said something compassionate and understanding like: “What the %##& were you thinking?”

After devouring almost all the hand-made toffees (but who’s counting?), burping several times at the table (truthfully, yes), and announcing she didn’t feel well (oh, no!), my friend had the good sense to skedaddle out the door with her woozy, boozy buddy in tow. (To be fair, she apologized repeatedly the next day for her friend’s inappropriate behavior.)

Their departure was followed by a sigh of relief, much giggling, and, natch, a discussion about what had just transpired.

Here’s what we learned from the experience: More than food, music, and mood lighting the most important ingredient to a successful dinner party is the guest list.

I’m not the only one in my circle who has had misadventures at the table. At a recent dinner hosted by a friend we’d both tried to redirect conversation when a couple who were a tad boorish talked about themselves a little too much.

While such mishaps make for good blog fodder, we’d all like to avoid such scenarios again.

So my friend and I started mulling over what makes a good guest — aside from arriving without too much alcohol on board.

Here’s our list:

1. RSVP. Do let your host know in plenty of time that you’re delighted to attend her dinner party. Not responding makes meal planning tricky and can hurt feelings.

2. Arrive on time. That means not too early and not too late. As a guide, if you’re asked to come at 7, then, ah, 7 is good. Later than 7:15 and you should call. Earlier than 6:50 expect to find your host scurrying around in her skivvies doing final prep and be prepared to fix your own drink and amuse yourself for a few minutes.

3. Bring a hostess gift. And choose something that doesn’t make work for the hostess. Wine, chocolates, homemade preserves, are all lovely. Flowers are also fine but offer to arrange them, as my friend did, while your host is busy with the business of looking after her guests. Or drop them off the next day as a thank you gift.

4. Offer to help. Dinner parties = lots of dishes so be prepared to pitch in. But do take no for an answer from folk who like to control clean up in their own kitchen.

5. Explain dietary restrictions in advance. Even if your host forgets to ask she’d much prefer to know ahead of time if you’re a lactose-intolerant, gluten-free, vegan, who shuns root vegetables and has a nut allergy. Honestly. She really, really, really wants to know this stuff before she plans her menu.

6. Take a polite bite. Unless you’re going to go into anaphylactic shock, be at odds with your god, or suffer an immediate, unpleasant reaction to what’s put in front of you, then your job is to try what the host may have spent hours making for the night. Or at least cut it up and move things around the plate. You don’t have to eat it all but you may actually find that those veggies you thought were disgusting — say, mushrooms or brussels sprouts — can taste divine when cooked well.

7. Come with an appetite. If you have an event in advance or after that precludes your partaking in the meal, take a raincheck for a time when you can eat what your host has gone to time and effort to prepare.

8. Avoid critiquing the chow. Trust me on this one: The cook will know only too well if the potstickers are a tad burned, the rice a little on the crunchy side, the soup overspiced…you get the idea…find something complimentary to say like “I love butternut squash,” and move on.

9. Show your best self. Plan on having fun. Hold up your end of the dinner-time banter, avoid too much work talk, don’t dominate the discussion, and include everyone around the table, especially shy types who may need some encouragement to join in.

10. Give thanks. A gracious thank you at the end of the night is the least a guest can do. A follow-up phone call, note, or email is extra nice, especially if you mention something specific about the evening that you found enjoyable.

Now it’s your turn: Do you agree with this list? What would you add or subtract? Bonus points for sharing stories, good, bad, or downright ugly. Oh, and if you have words of wisdom about what makes for a good dinner party guest mix, bring ’em on.

A Daughter’s Memories of a Beloved Father’s Food

February 24, 2010

Dear Readers:

In my last post I asked you to share a favorite family food memory. I received this response from new friend and frequent Lettuce Eat Kale commenter Julie Cleeland Nicholls, a fellow Australian living in Singapore. I met Julie through my oldest friend in the whole wide world Jane Rogers, who was wise enough to say yes when I asked her whether she wanted to be my best mate in second grade.

Julie wrote this homage to her father and his food on the second anniversary of his death. I’m sure you’ll agree it is a lovely remembrance of a man and his meals.

It is an honor and a pleasure to publish it here as the very first guest post on Lettuce Eat Kale.

I’ve retained the Australian spellings in Julie’s prose. A couple of cultural references explained: A magpie, for those who may not know, is a noisy black-and-white bird native to Oz.  Max Brenner is an over-the-top chocolate shop originating Down Under.

Julie grew up in Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, Australia. Her father, Peter Robert Cleeland was an Australian Labour Party politician, a doting dad, and an awesome cook, an unusual feat for an Aussie bloke of his generation.

“I miss my Dad every single day,” Julie tells me. Read on to learn why.

Dad’s Kitchen Song

Special Guest Post by Julie Cleeland Nicholls

When I reach back for memories, I invariably remember food…It’s the food itself, the taste of things shared and, most often, the meals the dead used to prepare…Death has its particular relationship with food. It is, by its nature, symbolic and metaphysical. The dead are beyond succour and hospitality. We eat, and particularly drink, in remembrance.A. A. Gill

Dad never cooked for us when we were little; that was Mum’s province. From the vantage point of later years, after Dad revealed himself as a talented cook, this division of labour seems odd, because Mum disliked cooking.

After a hard day teaching, she’d hastily direct her children to assemble strange concoctions with some very borderline ingredients indeed. “Just cut that green bit off the chicken, Julie,” she’d say.  “It’ll be fine when it’s cooked.” Mum’s approach combined a breezy tendency to scoff at use-by dates, and bursts of desperate creativity, resulting in memorable dishes like her infamous sausage and curry casserole. I eat now at the dodgiest roadside stalls around the world without fear of illness and attribute this to my early food experiences at my mother’s hands.

When my Dad set up home for himself at a later stage in his life, he took to cooking, discovered he was good at it, and realized he liked it.  And he shared that discovery with me. Now some of the warmest memories I have of him are in the kitchen. The soundtrack to these memories is provided by Dad himself, singing loudly and with emphasis, “As I WANder along through the hills, MAG-gie, where once the roses BLOOMED.” He didn’t know any of the other lyrics, so he’d just repeat, pause, and then hum the rest of the tune while he chopped, sauteed and basted. We called it “Dad’s Kitchen Song” and it was always a harbinger that good things were on their way.

What would Dad cook?

  • Lush winter soups with a rusty silk wash of paprika and spices skimming the surface.
  • Sweet roast spring lamb with root vegetables: “I love parsnips; not everyone does. I don’t know why not. They’re so earthy. Here, Jule – smell this,” and he’d present a specimen he was peeling so I could share his pleasure in its good, raw scent.
  • Wonderfully fragrant Thai curries. He fussed about finding authentic ingredients, tracking down bitter little pea aubergines and grinding his own spices. He experimented with frozen, imported kaffir lime leaves before he and his wife Jan decided to grow their own. They tracked down a nursery in New South Wales that grew kaffir lime trees and on their next trip to Sydney to visit me, they spent the better part of a day driving to the outer Western Suburbs to buy a tree. Successfully transported back to Melbourne and nurtured it in a sheltered corner of their windy garden till the leaves were ready to harvest whenever they needed.
  • Dad’s Christmas specialty was a whole salmon poached with sliced lemons picked that morning from his garden tree, and big handfuls of dill, coriander, and any other fresh herbs that took his fancy. It was the centrepiece of the family lunch – enough to feed his and Jan’s blended families, their spouses, and growing numbers of grandchildren. The salmon was moist, cool and light on the days when it was a sunny celebration; and when the Melbourne Christmas weather turned grumpy and unseasonal, its slick and melting texture was a fine consolation for the spattering rain outside.  Dad would stand watchfully over the hooded barbeque, wine glass in hand, making sure the fish was cooking perfectly. At the same time, he managed to remain front  and centre of every passing conversation going on around him; the perfect example of a holiday multitasker.

For Dad, a meal wasn’t complete without a vigorous debate going on at the same time; words, food, wine, and ideas were the ingredients he most valued at a family feast.

On the first Christmas after his death, my husband Andrew agreed to supervise the salmon, following Dad’s bit-of-this-splash-of-that recipe as well as he could. The pressure was extreme, and Andrew admitted to some feelings of fishy inadequacy in the lead-up. But with advice, input, and cheerleading from the rest of the family the task was accomplished.

We ate the Christmas salmon as we’d always done – with just one great and terrible difference: The creator of the dish was missing from around the family table.

I learned respect for the ingredients that make up a meal from Dad. He loved markets, frequently shopping at Preston Market in the northern suburb of Melbourne, where he’d grown up. In addition to debating every green-grocer and deli owner who’d engage in repartee with him, he took deep delight in the smells, sounds, and sights of Melbourne at its most multicultural.

From the second-generation Australian shopkeepers selling Italian, Greek, and Turkish foods; to first-generation arrivals from India, Vietnam, Africa, and the Middle East, he’d talk about how wonderful it was to shop in a place where the cultures, languages and cuisines of the world came together to take part in the everyday yet transformative miracle of choosing, preparing, and serving good food.

The last meal I shared at my father’s table was not cooked by him. In the final days of his swift and fatal six-month illness he couldn’t walk and had increasing trouble moving his arms. He was sensitive and proud about not being able to eat with ease, so we carefully didn’t watch him as he painstakingly maneuvered the sushi that Andrew and I had brought over for lunch. With the meal, we opened bottle after bottle of red wine from his “cellar” – really just a converted corner of the laundry.

He joked that his goal was to finish every bottle before motor neurone disease had its inexorable way with him. That became one of the few life goals that Dad didn’t fulfill. We’re still drinking wine from his cellar two years later.

After the sushi, I opened a box of hand-made chocolates from Max Brenner to have with coffee. I’d included each of his favourite flavours, and was rewarded by his smile. He managed to eat a couple then, and I hope more after we left.

There’s a photo taken from that day, I’m standing behind my Dad’s chair with my arms around him after we finished our meal. I’m smiling too brightly, and Dad’s eyes are their usual beautiful, denim blue but his smile is tired. Even the simple act of sharing lunch had exhausted him. On the empty plate in front of Dad is a smear of soy from his sushi, and you can just see the corner of the chocolate box, still a quarter full.

For Dad, the art of selecting, cooking, and sharing food was an extension of his enthusiastic, generous, and big-hearted personality. As with everything he did, he expected acclaim and extravagant compliments to be showered on him as he presented his meals. But the results of his efforts were always shared with such hospitality and joy that this demand for approval was simply part of his incomparable charm.

The praise was always given to him, unstintingly, sincerely, and with love. I hope that made him as happy as his kitchen songs made us.

In memory of Peter Cleeland, May 31, 1938 – September 16, 2007

Valentine’s Day Dining Out: Just Say No

February 12, 2010

Allegedly, this coming weekend is a good one for amore.

That’s debatable, of course, depending on how your love life is looking.

What’s indisputable: It’s a great weekend for restaurants. This year, Valentine’s Day falls on Sunday, so presumably there’s a wider window (tonight might be a tad early, but tomorrow or Sunday works) of possibilities for the coupled to express their devotion over dinner.

If you’re not part of a dining dead duo (have nothing to say to each other, for those unfamiliar with the term, illustrated above) or go solo while you sup, then the thought of taking your main man (or woman) out for a bite to eat this weekend has probably crossed your mind.

I have three words for you: Don’t do it.

Here’s why:

  • High-expectation holiday  = Recipe for disappointment. No restaurant, no matter how fabo, can live up to this kind of pressure.
  • Restaurant kitchens and wait staff tend to be stretched thin on Big Night Out nights. Too much tension in the air. Who needs it?
  • Chances are you’ll wind up spending more than you would on a regular night out. You just will. Trust me on this one.
  • Food served up on a major holiday night tends not to taste as good as on a garden-variety evening. Little time for that careful attention to detail.
  • Lingering over a meal may not be possible if an eating establishment is trying to squeeze in two or three seatings for the night.
  • Tables tightly crammed into a small space to accommodate more people can preclude intimate conversation.
  • Other diners may engage in behaviors you’d rather not witness, be they proposals or displays of passion.

So stay home. Cook. If you can’t cook, serve an awesome cheese platter and a stellar bottle of vino, spread a blanket on the floor and call it a picnic. Or find inspiration for special dishes for the day by entering the words “Valentine’s Day recipes” into the Food Blog Search directory.

Spontaneous. Private. Mood managed. What could be sexier? And what says I (heart) you more than taking the time to plan a celebratory meal for the person you (heart)?

Don’t take my word for it. Restaurant industry insider and food service professional Food Woolf says V Day dining out is a really bad idea.

Canada’s Globe and Mail reports that restaurant wait staff consider V Day one of the least romantic evenings of the year with more bickering, hostility, awkwardness, and tension on table 2 than on other nights. Not to mention the fact that some fellow diners perform sex acts others would rather not see. So sez the paper. I kid you not.

Are you a lover or a hater of dining out on Valentine’s Day? Got a V Day eating out story — good, bad, or ugly that you care to share? Bring it on.

Garlic Gadgets: Cool Tools or Waste of Space?

February 3, 2010

So I need to come out. I am, indeed, a (gasp!) garlic press user. Not sure when this habit started or why I can’t kick it.

But, well, I used just last night. Okay, I know I’ve probably lost any pro chefs who have stumbled upon my posts. I’m probably losing some of you savvy home cooks too.

Here’s the thing: I’m not a gizmos gal. I don’t own a food processor, microwave, toaster oven, or other large kitchen appliance. In theory I’m down with the idea that all you really need to whip up a feed is a good knife, cutting board, and a pot.

And yet somehow I find myself reaching most nights for that unwieldy metal object that’s a pain to clean and takes up too much room in the drawer where I store the veggie peeler, can opener, and the like.

Who knew what a culinary faux pas I’ve been committing all these years? Or that so many people had such strong opinions about the usefulness, or lack thereof, of this kitchen aid.

I’ve had a crash course in the whole discourse around the garlic press, viewed by some as an unnecessary, ridiculous, pathetic, even heinous addition to any cook’s toolbox, in a recent story by food writer Felicity Cloake in The Guardian.

Cloake quotes a bunch of culinary big guns on the matter of mincing over pressing.  Anthony Bourdain, for one, doesn’t hide his disdain for the press. “I don’t know what that junk is that squeezes out the end of those things, but it ain’t garlic.”  Cloake’s conclusion? Crushing works well for salad dressing but for all other purposes…carry a big knife.

Judging by the loads of comments — 135 and counting — the Brits take their garlic mincing, chopping, or pressing very seriously. Many reveal their scorn for the offending implement.  Some admit to a preference for a grater, microplane, or mortar and pestle. A few brave souls speak out in favor of the humble garlic press.

One man even ‘fesses up to owning “the most effete garlic gadget imaginable…it’s a poncey little pipe of silicon rubber in a nursery shade of blue, its ends apparently trimmed with pinking shears.” Most of you real cooks won’t have a clue what he’s on about. Alas, I do, because I own one of these as well — at least mine is clear — and find it the handiest dandiest device. Here’s how it works: You pop whole cloves, skin and all, inside the tube, give it a roll and a press under the heel of your hand, and hey, presto, out pop perfectly peeled cloves ready for pressing. I mean mincing.

So, dear readers, where do you stand on the great garlic debate? Do tell.

And do you have any other kitchen gadget lurking in a drawer that you’re actually ashamed of and only get out under the cover of darkness?

Just curious. Your secret is safe with me, no culinary judgments here.

Let’s face it, anyone who owns an egg slicer and a garlic press has no business sniffing at the kitchen tools favored by others.

Serving People, Serving Food, Days of Service: Help Haiti

January 20, 2010

Seem to have a food-related volunteer theme emerging this week. Not my intention but just going to run with it.

If ever there was a time to ignore the imperative Think Global, Act Local, this is it. Don’t you agree?

As I explained to my son on this week’s MLK Day of Service, we’re thinking and acting globally and locally. How can you not help Haiti?

For ideas with a food focus, check out my friend Nani Steele’s blog here or Kim Severson at the New York Times. Or learn more below.

But first, some background. Not a fan of government-initiated calls to duty. It’s my rebellious spirit. Still, the Day of Service I can get behind.

Last year, the event got a huge, historic turnout, fueled by almost-Prez Obama. But we arrived home from a trip Down Under that day, jet-lagged, discombobulated, and, basically, no use to anyone.

This year, I vowed, things would be different. We’d step up and do good.

I’m not new to volunteering. I used to read to kids in hospital when I first landed here. One child, David, was in a coma following a car accident.

Notes above his bed instructed his “book buddies” to read Dr. Seuss, his favorite author. At first it felt odd reading to a kid who couldn’t respond or move. But nonetheless every Monday night I read to that beautiful little boy, even though I doubted he would get better.

Well, of course, he did. I got to enjoy his sweet smile when I tickled him, by request, with a peacock feather. And I was, frankly, a teensy bit devastated when he was moved to a rehab hospital. I never knew what happened to him. He’d be 24 now.

Years later, following another major life change, this time back across the pond to my homeland, I took on another volunteer gig.

I lived in Sydney and taught English to a new mom, who happened to be a former art critic for a Korean daily paper.

I don’t know if her English improved but I know she appreciated contact with a local, chats about journalism, cultural differences, and where to find food from home.

Upon our return to the States I began volunteering in Berkeley public schools, including, as noted previously, at the Edible Schoolyard.

For the record: I’m not some charity groupie with too much time on my hands and no need to, you know, earn a living. On the contrary.

I’m a self-employed writer; code for often anxious, underemployed and underpaid. Major plus: flexible schedule. Mostly works. Except the anxious part, due to under bits.

And honestly folks, it’s not a huge time investment. Less time than most people watch TV in one day. Ninety minutes at Edible; two hours tops if I stay to help with clean up.

This may be my last year in my child’s classroom. What middle school kid wants his parent hanging around? SO EMBARRASSING. And so I am savoring the task assigned by his teacher, a departure from previous years, when I’ve helped small groups of kids with the 3 Rs.

I’m working one-on-one with a child to help improve her comprehension and reading and raise her confidence so she believes she can do both these things. Small success last week had us both jazzed. When it works well, giving feels good on both sides of the equation.

While I know I’m modeling worthwhile values that I hope my son will pursue, I also want him to directly participate in charitable acts.

Back to: What to do on this year’s Day of Service? I got inspiration from an unlikely source, none other than George Bush Jr. Finally heard something come out of his mouth I could agree with: “Lots of people want to send supplies to Haiti. They need money. Just send money.”

So we did. We did the text thing. Took barely a minute, hurt a little (there goes the allowance), and that was our global contribution.

Then we bagged up pantry goods to take to a local food bank, along with a bag of Meyer lemons from our abundant tree. You know that many food banks will take fresh produce, right?

This Saturday, we’ll combine global & local at a bakesale benefit for Haiti, organized by chef Samin Nosrat and hosted at Oakland restaurant Pizzaiolo, which, as you might imagine, makes a mean pizza but also divine donuts. (Two other participating Bay Area locations: Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and Gioia Pizzeria in North Berkeley. All $$$ goes to Partners in Health.)

Because when all is said and done, it is money that matters most to the people of Haiti right now. Much of that for critical medical care to stave off death. But, equally important, for sustenance to live.

So what better way to funnel money where it’s so urgently needed than connecting cash to another basic human need. To eat. Food.

What say you?