Wednesday, September 23, 2009

'e' is for explorateur cheese

How can anyone govern a nation with 246 different kinds of cheese? ~ Charles de Gaulle

Explorateur cheese is out of this world. Invented in the late 1950's, it was named for the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, and the awesome little rocket still appears on the packaging today. Explorateur was created by Fromagerie Petit-Morin shortly after 'triple cream' cheese was officially defined as cheese containing at least 75% butterfat. To put things in perspective, double cream cheese has 60% butterfat, and butter has 100% butterfat. Because it's, you know, butter. A high level of butterfat is achieved by adding lots and lots of cream to the milk and the result is, of course, a rich and gooey delight. Explorateur's soft, creamy interior is coated in a light, velvety rind that breaks open ever so gently to reveal the oozey goodness inside. Its flavor is decadent and mild, with a subtle woodsy undertone. Simply put, it's the dreamiest of cheeses.

In related news, cheese has been linked to nightmares. But you'll be relieved to know the British Cheese Board has refuted this notion. In 2005, they studied the effect of cheese upon sleep and dreaming and discovered that cheese had a positive effect on sleep. The majority of the two hundred people tested claimed beneficial results from consuming cheese before bedtime. In fact, six types of cheese were tested and it seems the dreams the subjects experienced were entirely dependent upon the type of cheese consumed. Post-cheese-consuming dreams were described as colorful, vivid or cryptic but fortunately horror-free.

Just in case you are silently doubting the existence of The British Cheese Board, you can find them on Twitter! It's true! Recent Tweet: Cornish Yarg, a cheese coated in nettle leaves, came from a recipe book found in a farmer's attic-his name was Mr Gray (Yarg spelt backwards!) 11:57 AM Sep 30th from web.

I'm so happy right now. :)

Anyhoo, if you are as old as I am, you may remember the sheer joy and excitement you would feel upon shuffling, bleary-eyed into your 8th grade history class and having your teacher announce you were going to have a film that day. That's what they were called back then - films. And they really were too - films wrapped around a real-live-reel that that would sometimes break or otherwise go awry and would often sputter and skip and crunch along, but still. There was nothing so awesome as knowing you'd soon be sitting in darkness - no lecture, no notes - just you - with your head resting blissfully on your folded arms watching flowers blooming in fast motion or insects mating in slow motion or, maybe, one time, this.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

'd' is for dill

You may be thinking, 'hey, that's not dill, it's a dill pickle!' I know. But I really wanted to draw a pickle for Mimi, so there you have it. Dill is a member of the parsley family and is indigenous to southern Russia, the Mediterranean, and western Asia. The word “dill” comes from the Old Norse “dylla”, meaning “to lull," which may be why dill tea calms colicky babies, soothes insomniacs, and is thought to have been effective in ridding ill-willed witches of their desire to harm. Dill tea was also known as a cure for hangovers. Not that I would have any use for that sort of thing.

Which brings us to the dill pickle. Oh how I love big-city delicatessens and their giant dill pickles! The more vinegar, garlic, spices and salt the better. I'm particularly fond of the ones fished out of big glass jars and wrapped in paper. And don't even get me started on the deep fried pickle. I'm certain there is a vigorous debate raging somewhere regarding the sanctity of such a thing, but could there be anything more spectacular than a dill pickle spear clad in a coat of golden, crunchy, deep-fried goodness? No. I didn't think so.

My first pickle memory involves a McDonald's cheeseburger. Not a particularly highbrow food memory, but still. When I was young, I was a plain cheeseburger girl. Meat. Cheese. Bun. My heels were dug in on the matter. This used to drive my father crazy because 'fast food' establishments back in those days (a really really long time ago) were not used to customizing orders. Their food came one way and that was that (until later). If you wanted something different, you could order it, but were then required to pull out of line into the parking lot and wait say, 20 minutes, for your special, annoying little order to be executed. This pulling-out-of-line-waiting-in-the-parking-lot-experience was super awesome for my family on our driving vacations and was typically accompanied by a sea of rolling eyes and harumpfs. One time (I was probably about 6 or 7) the cheeseburger I received in the parking lot was not plain, but the garden variety standard cheeseburger. It had ketchup and mustard on it. And two pickles. Doom! But since we had already pulled out of the parking lot and there was no chance of returning, I decided to give it a try. I will never forget how good it tasted. I was transformed! I felt so grown up and sophisticated. Please stop laughing, I was 6. Anyhoo, the pickle encouraged me to become a more adventurous eater, which was a very good thing indeed!

Have you ever heard of the Dill Pickle Club? Far from an association of pickle-lovers, according to Marc Moscato in his essay The Tradition of Non-Tradition: The Dill Pickle Club as Catalyst for Social Change, its members were academics, social workers, hobos, prostitutes, socialists, anarchists, and con men. The club was formed in 1914 by John A. "Jack" Jones in prohibition-era Chicago and its members gathered weekly to share plays, poetry readings, and dance performances (and probably a good deal of forbidden spirits too - let's hope they had some dill tea on hand the next day!). The club was part of a bohemian social movement at the time that combined art, intellectualism and activism. A sign inside their meeting place read "Elevate Your Mind to a Lower Level of Thinking." I think I would have fit in just fine there.

In closing, I would like to leave you with this uplifting and delightful ode to the dill pickle. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

'c' is for champagne

I drink champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty. ~ Madame Lily Bollinger

Hooray for Champagne! My love for the bubbly substance began early and runs deep. You should know that my mother's parents were my favorite people in the universe. My grandfather was a former opera singer and larger than life. Always dressed up (ascots, cuff links, starch), he made grand entrances and meaningful friendships with everyone, especially waitresses and cab drivers. My grandmother had a wicked sense of humor and was very smart and glamorous (leopard skin, red lipstick, big sparkling rings). My grandparents used crystal and sterling silver every day and had large oriental rugs and decorative porcelain things. Vats of champagne flowed freely and fancy cheeses were served on fancy little plates made specifically for such purposes. They had interesting, smart, lively conversations until the wee hours and were perpetually joyful and elegant. I later discovered this whole display of extravagance took place in a tiny little apartment in Los Angeles after my grandfather had lost his fortune (not that substantial really, nevertheless lost). But to me at the time, it was the most vast, wonderful, magical place in the world.

It's hard not to love the fizzy stuff of engagements, mergers, marriages, bon vivants, bon voyages, and new beginnings - everything all hopeful, romantic and full of promise. But the beverage that so often accompanies joy arose from a history of sadness and strife. Champagne vines grow in France near the city of Reims, which was plagued by invaders and clashes over the centuries from Attila the Hun to the Napoleonic wars to World War II. By the 17th century, the city had been destroyed at least 7 times. While champagne as we know it originated with Benedictine monks, it flourished at the hands of grieving widows. Veuve (or 'widow') Cliquot, Madame Lily Bollinger and Madame Louis Pommery were widows who, upon the death of their husbands, stepped in and took over their champagne houses. They proved to be hard-working and extremely savvy business women, and their brands flourished under their guidance and leadership. Viva les Veuves!

Guess what? The bottle opening technique called 'sabering', is thought to have originated during Napoleon's time. Soldiers on horseback were sometimes given congratulatory bottles of champagne and, in lieu of fiddling with the cork and so on, they would simply lop the top of the bottle off in one fell swoop with their swords. I know! Could there be anything more swashbuckly or romantic? For surprisingly dead-pan, matter-of-fact, flourish-free instructions on how to do this at home (although I'm officially advising you against this) see here.

Maybe it is the combination of grief and joy, hardship and hope, that gives champagne its revered place in my heart. All I know is when I think of champagne (and all of its sweet promises) I think of this. :)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

'b' is for blackberry

As we get to know each other, you'll learn I'm not much of a dessert person. If a dessert cart rolls by in a restaurant I'll think 'how beautiful!', but won't necessarily want to eat any of it. A little chunk of dark chocolate here or there, or maybe another cocktail, but not a triple-layer, syrup-soaked, coconut-coated piece of cake. Especially if it's on fire. Lest you think I'm all high-horsey about the evils of high-calorie foodstuffs or about any particular food category, let me assure you if the same cart rolled by with bread, cheese, a shot of alcohol (even if on fire), or anything deep-fried on it, I'd be beside myself. So I suppose the "sweet" in my "sweet. bitter. tart" blog name is more applicable to my disposition (okay now stop that snickering!) than my gastronomic leanings.

I'm actually a little ambivalent about certain types of fruit too, with the primary exception being berries (in general) and the blackberry (specifically), which is far and away my favorite fruit in the whole entire world. The lore surrounding the blackberry is intriguing and poetic. In literature, it is associated with “remorse.” That alone is enough to endear me to it for life. The devil is said to have fallen from the sky smack-dab into a blackberry bush after having been booted from heaven. I'm not a big fan of the devil, but have fallen from grace into far less desirable places. The Greeks are believed to have used blackberries as a cure for gout, which may take on increasing significance for me down the road. The bush itself is rather thorny and the idea of risking personal injury in the form of scrapes and cuts to obtain its sweet bounty is nice (see: ‘rose’ or ‘worthwhile things in life’ or 'artichoke hearts' or 'cute, rough boys clad in leather jackets who smoke and mumble incoherent responses to enthusiastic inquiries and seem really awesome in the beginning but then later, no'). Okay maybe not that last one. But still.

Blackberries are full of contradictions. They are regal in appearance with their lush purple coats and little golden crowns. But they are also incredibly low maintenance, which is a good and infrequent combination – fabulousness and ease. Just ask any girl who has ever tried to apply false eyelashes or wrangled with that bra you are supposed to be able to wear 100 different ways but if you try to wear it more than say, two ways, ends up in an unfortunate tangle of straps around your neck. Blackberries grow in the wild, sort of helter skelter, and can be picked and enjoyed straight from the bush by unruly, barefoot children. But, they can also be made into elegant sorbets or provide perfect toppers for the meringue napoleans and fluffy panna cottas served to people in ascots or gowns. See?! They really do have it all!

Since they ripen on the vine, blackberries are perfect right out of the gate and can be devoured when the mood strikes (within a day or two). Other fruits like plums or peaches are more demanding and problematic. They are so delicious when they're just right, but are often either too juicy or too dry. To ripen properly, they must be placed in brown paper bags and the ripening almost never happens on cue and many times happens while you are at work or visiting your Aunt Helen. So you are inevitably confronted with a Green Hard Inedible Thing or a Black Oozing Inedible Thing. Either way, boo. Pitted fruits provide their fair share of obstacles for those of us who don't live near trees with pitted fruit on them or know people who live near trees with pitted fruit on them. And, alas, I am one of those people.

You may be relieved to know I have much warmer feelings toward citrus. :) But that's a story for another letter of the alphabet, dear readers!

Monday, September 7, 2009

'a' is for artichoke

Greetings dear readers and welcome to my little project! It's called a:z. In my effort to become a more educated and, hopefully, more skilled cook, I plan to learn about the history, lore, and characteristics of as many individual ingredients as possible - vegetables, spices, fruits, etc. - from 'a' to 'z'. Which is why the project is called a:z. Clever, no? Ultimately, there will be more than one food item featured for each letter of the alphabet, but I'll try to be somewhat consecutive in the beginning so we don't all get confused and dizzy. All original drawings will be by yours truly. :)

It's fitting that as my culinary journey begins, the a:z project begins with the vexing and perplexing artichoke. First, let me just say there is nothing I love more than artichoke hearts. Whether they are grilled, sauteed, fried, pickled, or marinated, I love them like wild. But when presented with a whole artichoke, I freeze. I've read, scratch that, painstakingly studied the step-by-step instructions and understand the process for peeling an artichoke in theory. I'm just completely unable to execute. I choke. Or I guess in this case I arti-choke. :) More than once I've ended up with a huge pile of artichoke leaves at my feet and nothing else. Well okay the wounded pride. But still. Before we arrive at the letter 'z', my dream is to confidently and skillfully whittle one of these guys down to its delectable little heart. (Oh, and I also want to be able to make my own pasta, but thankfully we are not discussing the letter 'p' today or I'd probably just give up right now and start drinking wine.)

Anyhoo, the artichoke is native to the Mediterranean. One of the oldest known cultivated plants, it is actually the edible flower bud of a thistle-like plant of the sunflower family. The sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, which has nothing to do with anything but since I live in Kansas City, I felt compelled to point this out. My address is in Kansas City, Missouri, though, not Kansas City, Kansas, which confuses everyone and is a longish story so perhaps this little tidbit of Midwestern geography can be addressed in another post.

Okay so where was I? Ah yes, the artichoke!! The artichoke was introduced to England in the 1500's. According to Elizabethan folklore, the artichoke was born when a beautiful, ill-tempered woman made the gods so angry that they turned her into a prickly thistle, which they believed more appropriately aligned her looks with her disposition. Wouldn't it be interesting if this happened to people in real life? And there's even more racy lore! Considered a powerful aphrodisiac, the artichoke was available only to men. If a woman ate an artichoke it was considered uber-scandalous. Some believe Catherine de Medici may have introduced the artichoke to France when she married Henry II at the tender age of 14. Catherine was thought to have eaten artichokes right out in the open and in substantial quantities. But since Henry II was rumored to have many mistresses and was evidently not even the tiniest bit keen on Catherine, she clearly wasn't thinking things through.

Did you know that Castroville, California, is the artichoke capital of the world? It's true! Every year they hold an artichoke festival, which has a queen (or a king). And in 1947 (or 1948, accounts differ), their very first artichoke queen was none other than Marilyn Monroe. I know! But before you get too excited, the king a couple of years back was that guy from American Idol who sang 'She Bangs' off key and was famous for like a week and then, evidently, became an artichoke king in Castroville where he continues to reign today (okay I made that last part up).