Because a bare cupboard and an empty fridge are sad sights to behold, the Urban Forager hunts through food & wine shops bringing home tasty morsels that make your kitchen table the best place to eat in town.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Back to School

Yesterday when I was driving to and from work, the radio discussion during both commutes was about school lunches. Kids need to eat healthier, they need more fruits and veggies, they need more real food. I agree with all of this, and I’m a huge fan of a pioneering program in Berkeley, The Edible Schoolyard, that introduces kids to growing and cooking fresh food. So why, then, when I started thinking about school lunches could I not get Tater Tots off my mind?
The Tater Tot, in all its greasy splendor, is a food that brings me instantly back to Badger Mountain Elementary.The aroma of the greasy little potato morsels even hovers around my memories of high school and could probably be bottled and sold as “Eau de School Cafeteria” . The Tater Tot never disappoints. It is always as starchy, greasy and salty as you remember it being. Last night I bought a bag in the freezer section (100 tots for only $1.99!), baked ‘em in the oven and dipped the little taters in a healthy portion of ketchup. I probably won’t crave them again for another year, but man, did they hit the spot. For the record, the salty snack pairs much better with an ice-cold vodka martini than it does with a half-pint of school milk.
You may know this food by another name such as Potato Puffs or Spud Puppies. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest it was always Tater Tot, as coined by a “local” Oregon/Idaho company called Ore-Ida (now owned by Heinz) that trademarked the name in the fifties. Tater Tots may have even been invented in the Pacific Northwest when the workers at Ore-Ida were trying to find a way to use the scraps left over from their French Fry production. Sure, we exported Microsoft and Starbucks and and Pearl Jam, but Tater Tots? Now that’s something the locals can really be proud of.
On a school related side note, if you’d like to mark the beginning of the school year in a way that is much classier and substantive than Tater Tots, I highly recommend A Class Apart, a fascinating book written by a good friend who also happens to be an award-winning journalist. Twenty some years after graduating from Stuyvesant high school in Manhattan, Alec Klein went back. His non-fiction account of the students who currently attend the ultra-competitive school is inspiring, humbling and thought-provoking. I highly suggest it as a fall read and expect the book will attract a great deal of attention - you heard about it here first!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Chilling Out

The thing about drinking wine is there are too many rules. Drink red with this and white with that, age this wine, serve that wine in only this specific glass; its enough to take all the fun out of it. The other night, feeling rather rebellious and more importantly, extremely hot and sweaty from a day of 100 degree heat, I put a bottle of red wine in the refrigerator for an hour before opening it. And you know what? It was delicious! This wasn’t an expensive bottle – I wouldn’t recommend putting a $40.00 Pinot Noir from Oregon in the fridge – but for my $7.00 Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon, it was the perfect solution. I didn’t feel like drinking white yet I wanted something refreshing, and since in your own home there aren’t any wine police that will come rushing out when you break a wine “rule,” why not chill a red a little? After all, there are some reds, like French Beaujolais,, that do have a tradition of being chilled which proves that even the French aren’t entirely opposed to the idea. In fact, Americans are often accused of serving red wine too warm and white wine too cold. Keeping a bottle of white submerged in a bucket of ice or stored indefinitely in your fridge can kill any delicate nuances of flavor. Serving red wine at room temperature, as is common practice, means serving it at a temperature that is below 68 degrees. I guarantee you, my house the other night was well above 68 degrees, so that poor bottle needed some time in the fridge. A co-worker I once had at a wine store swore that the best thing to do with a cheap, red party wine was to put a slight chill on it. The reason? You know how you’re always being told to bring cheese up to room temperature before eating it so the flavor will be more pronounced? Well, the opposite of this theory can be applied to wine. That $7.00 Cabernet I bought is a decent wine and one I drink often, but not every flavor in it is absolutely amazing. In this case, I don’t mind if some of the wine’s flavor is toned down a bit, and chilling it does just that. If you try chilling a red at your next dinner party, be prepared for people to start whispering and throwing disapproving glances your way. They’ll try to make you feel like your doing something wrong, but don’t listen to them. They obviously have no idea how to live outside the rules and have a little fun.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Strange and Hairy Fruits

This week I was not exactly in the countryside, but while house-sitting for a friend with a backyard I found I could trick myself into believing I was. Butterflies and hummingbirds pollinated bougainvillea, squirrels stole figs from a tree, a raccoon dared to cross the patio in the middle of the day, and lemons and mint were begging to be picked and made into lemonade. After living for so long surrounded by the concrete and noise and rush of city living I’d forgotten how amazing mother nature really is. I discovered yesterday, however, that you don’t necessarily have to be in nature to appreciate her. A stroll through the produce section at a grocery store can be awe inspiring as well when you happen across a strange fruit called a Rambutan.
The Rambutan I bought was from Guatemala, but Rambutans are native to Malaysia and commonly imported from southeast Asia. Loosely translated from Malay, Rambutan means “hairy” and this is an apt description of the fruit. Its hairy tentacles are apparently edible, but its more palatable to cut the outer skin away and go straight for the fruit inside. Slightly more palatable anyway. I’ve posted some of the more G-rated photos of the opened Rambutan, but, how can I put this delicately . . . there’s something oddly erotic looking about this fruit when you cut into it, but not in an appetizing way. It is, however, a completely fascinating specimen, from its hairy exterior to the soft lychee-flavored fruit that is wrapped around a surprisingly large pit. While I won’t be snacking on them regularly, I may buy Rambutans from time to time. When the world starts seeming dull and dreary its good to have a fruit like a Rambutan around to remind us how truly amazing this planet we live on really is.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Growing Grapes

During a quick trip to Santa Barbara wine country this weekend, I was filled with grape envy. I didn’t necessarily want to become a winemaker, I just wanted those beautiful rows of vines to come home with me, giving me something to gaze at out of the window of my city dwelling.
While a grape trellis isn’t exactly a vineyard, its not a bad substitute for anyone with a little bit of outdoor space. With proper, regular pruning and lots of patience (it can take a few years for the vines to produce fruit) you will be plucking amazingly sweet, perfectly tart, fruit right from your back porch. This cluster of grapes was plucked from a friend’s backyard trellis and I can vouch that they taste better than any grapes bought in a store.
Grapes will grow pretty much anywhere in the U.S. as long as you plant the right variety for your region’s climate. I’m all for leaving winemaking to the experts, but if you do have aspirations of making your own version of Two Buck Chuck, make sure the grapes you plant are in the Vitis Vinifera family. Grapes in this family have the higher sugar and acidity needed for turning grape juice into delicious alcohol. This can make them tasty to snack on too, but wine grapes are also seedy and have tough skin. Table grapes have lower sugar, but they also have lower acidity, which balances their flavor and makes them good to eat. Vitis Labrusca is a North American species meant for snacking but not necessarily winemaking (if you’ve tasted Concord wine, you know what I mean.)
If you’re a city dweller with a small deck it’s possible to grow a grape vine out of a single a pot, then train the vine to grow up a post and/or across a trellis. Don’t expect beauty right away. For the first year or two your vine will basically look like a thick branch. See the big stick growing up out of this pot? That’s the vine. When it eventually grows across a trellis, it becomes leafy and green and produces the lovely cluster you see hanging here. There's nothing like sitting on the deck of a winery gazing out at acres of vines, but you shouldn't underestimate how happy a few clusters hanging off your back deck might make you.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Micro-Greens and Sprouts

During the summer, time moves at warp speed (can anyone believe today is August 1st?) This feeling of life passing by too quickly is ironic, since the heat of summer seems like it has the power to slow everything down to a leisurely crawl. One thing I do know about time: no one likes to waste it slaving away in a kitchen on a beautiful summer evening. Salads are the best route to a quick, easy meal in the summer and I've been eating plenty of them, but a girl cannot live on lettuce alone. To keep things interesting I’ve been digging deeper into the produce aisle and experimenting with Micro-Greens. Micro-greens are nothing new: think back a few dozen years and who among us did not have, or covet, a Chia Pet? Although Chia is actually packed with nutrients, its not a Micro-Green you're likely to see often in the produce aisle. You will see, however, Micro-Greens of cabbage, arugula, mizuna, radish, and numerous other vegetables and greens. When a plant is growing, the micro stage is the first point at which tiny leaves become visible. If the plant is harvested at this very young age, it is called a Micro-Green. Micro-greens are visually interesting in salads, adding different variations of color and texture, and often have more flavor than regular old lettuce. You can use Micro-Greens in the place of lettuce, or try adding them to other types of cold summer salads. I mixed chilled orzo pasta with feta, cucumbers and mint, then put a ring of Micro-greens around the outside of the bowl. The dish looked beautiful, and the Micro-greens added a little bit of texture and additional flavor to the pasta salad. Feeling that I had mastered Micro-Greens, the next week I delved into sprouts. Unlike Micro-Greens, which are grown in soil, sprouts are grown in water. For a long time the alfalfa sprout was the only one with name recognition, but now sprouts are readily available in all sorts of shapes and flavors. In the produce section or at the farmer's market look for broccoli sprouts, clover sprouts, sunflower sprouts, you name it, and its got a sprout. I tried Pea Sprouts, which have a similar flavor as alfalfa but have more of a "crunch" - kind of like alfalfa sprouts with a backbone. I roughly chopped the Pea Sprouts and added kalamata olives, baby tomatoes, avocado, and lemon and olive oil. When The Husband took his first bite of what I still claim is a delcious salad he said, not unkindly, "These Pea Sprouts taste like dirt." Now, I would have chosen the word "earthy," but what can I say. Sometimes one person's delicious culinary discovery in the produce aisle is just another person's dirt salad.