Holiday gifts for food (and drink)-loving travelers

gifts for food loversHoliday shopping is easy if the people on your list like to eat and/or imbibe. If they’re into travel–be it armchair or the real deal–the options are endless This year, think beyond the predictable bottle of wine or pricey “artisan” cookies and give reusable, portable, eco-friendly gifts or small-batch edibles that are the taste equivalent of a trip abroad.

As for where to get these items, look at farmers and flea markets, street fairs, specialty food shops, wineries/distilleries, and boutiques. One of my favorite spots to shop: foreign supermarkets.

For the green at heart

An inflatable wine bag is ideal for wine and spirit-loving travelers. They’re multi-use and work equally well for olive oil, vinegar, or other fluid specialty products.

A logo tote bag (preferably made from recycled materials) from a specialty food shop, winery, etc. is great for practical recipients. A co-worker recently brought me a signature navy blue number from Neal’s Yard Dairy, a famous cheese shop in London. In two months, it’s traveled to South America and across the U.S., doing time as a souvenir satchel, laundry and grocery bag, and all-purpose carry-on. When I don’t need it, i just roll it up and stash it in my duffel bag or day pack. Love it.

Gift a wine key (opener) salad tongs or bowl, chopsticks, or other kitchen utensils made from local, sustainable materials such as wood, antler, bone, bamboo, or shell. Do a quick online search or ask (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: phrasebooks) about the origins of said object. If you have any qualms about the eco-aspect, don’t buy it and let the shopkeeper know why.

[Photo credit: Flickr user noramunro]gifts for food loversDrink coasters are always appreciated. I’ve picked up woven palm versions in Indonesia, as well as purchased colorful Portuguese azuelos tiles for this use. If the country or region you’re visiting is famous for its leather, woodwork, ceramics, or even recycled metal handicrafts, you’ll probably find a nice, inexpensive set of coasters. Again, be sure they’re made from sustainable materials.

Vintage kitchenware–even if it’s not functional–can be a great gift, especially if your intended is a collector. Salt-and-pepper shakers, wine openers, cheese knives, a set of Melamine bowls: hit up antique stores or street fairs, because you’re sure to find treasures at affordable prices.

For the adventurer

A pocketknife or plastic folding knife from a famous cheese shop or winery is indispensable to hikers, campers, foragers, and DIYer’s who enjoy a good picnic while on the road. Just make sure your loved ones aren’t the type who don’t check their bags when they fly. A mini-cutting board of wood/bamboo or slate is also a nice gift.

Know someone who’s into mountaineering or other high-altitude pursuits? Coca leaf tea (or for a less effective but more entertaining option, caramels or hand candy) really works, and it’s legal.

For the locavore

If you have a friend of the “Eat local/Support family farms” variety, a gift from your travels can still fit the mold. Whenever and wherever I travel, I make a point of purchasing local, handcrafted foodstuffs: jam or other preserves, honey, cheese, candy. What I buy depends upon where I am and whether or not I have to abide (cough, cough) by customs regulations or have access to refrigeration.
gifts for food lovers
If customs and temperature aren’t an issue, consider a gift of cheese, charcuterie, or even some spectacular produce (A would-be suitor once presented me with a tiny disc of goat cheese and one perfect peach before I departed on a flight; I wasn’t into the guy but loved the thoughtfulness of his gift).

If you you’re looking for a shelf-stable product, some suggestions: leatherwood, manuka, or tupelo honey (from Tasmania, New Zealand, and the Florida Panhandle, respectively); sea salt (I love the red alaea salt from Hawaii); Argentinean dulce de leche; drinking chocolate; real maple syrup; dried chiles or posole from New Mexico; palm sugar from Indonesia; spices from India or Morocco; Spanish saffron or paella rice–look for Calasparra or Bomba from Valencia; Provencal chestnut cream; Italian tomato paste or canned sardines (canned tuna from overseas is very often not from a sustainable fishery); barbecue or hot sauce; heirloom dried beans; stoneground grits…

I particularly like to buy items grown/produced by farmer co-ops but unless they’re manufactured for export or are a dried good, beware. A jar of manjar (the Chilean version of dulce de leche) I purchased from a tiny bakery wasn’t sealed properly, and was contaminated with mold when opened. Botulism or other foodborne illness is not a thoughtful gift (although I suppose it’s better to give than receive…), so make sure you’re getting professionally packaged goods.

[Photo credits: wine opener, Flickr user corktiques; honey, Laurel Miller]

On a tight budget this year? Make your own edible gifts based upon your recipient’s interests, favorite holiday spot, or ethnic heritage. Check out the below clip for an easy holiday recipe; bonus points if you know where Moravia is.

Moravian Spice Cookie Wafers

Video of the day: a goaty guide to pronouncing foreign cheeses

The holidays are Cheese Season. At no other time of the year are cheese and specialty food shops as thronged by dairy-seeking customers. They’re hungry for a fix or searching for a gift, recipe ingredient, or the makings of a cheese plate. Cheese is love, and one of the easiest, most elegant ways to kick off a cocktail party or conclude (or make) a memorable meal.

With that in mind, the folks at Culture: the word on cheese magazine (full disclosure: I’m a contributing editor) have produced this clever (and utterly adorable) video to aid you in pronouncing some of those delectable but tricky foreign cheeses from France, Spain, and Switzerland. Happy Hoch Ybrig, everyone!


Five foods of fall

fall foodsIt seems like summer had just begun (that’s because a few weeks ago in Seattle, it had), and now we’re in the throes of early winter fall. It’s actually a beautiful time, what with the trees turning color, cutting through the gray and damp. The weather is crisp and on rare days, the sky is cerulean. There are worse places to experience the change of season.

Living in such an autumnal environment makes me crave the colorful foods of fall. The region you live in determines when exactly certain ingredients make their way in and out of local farmers markets, true. But there’s a general timetable for these foods, so start looking for them now. As some extra incentive, these foods are high in nutrients like beta carotene, vitamin A, and antioxidants, and most make for beautiful additions to the holiday table when piled in a shallow bowl, or added to a cheese plate.

1. Persimmons
A traumatic childhood experience with an unripe persimmon led me to give this fragrant, glossy orange fruit a wide berth for over 20 years, and not until I began working as a vendor at the Berkeley Farmers Market did I work through the pain and overcome my aversion. If you’ve never tasted an unripe persimmon, it’s like biting into a mouthful of metal filings. They’re so astringent, they literally suck all of the moisture from your mouth. Tough, tough stuff. Happily, I’ve grown to love (ripe) persimmons for their cheerful appearance, intriguing texture, and sweet, spicy, perfumed flesh redolent of apricots, cinnamon, and allspice.

Persimmons are indigenous to Asia, but grow well in temperate climates. The two most common varieties are Fuyu and Hachiya. Fuyus resemble squat tomatoes, and are ripe when they turn bright orange but are still firm to the touch. I enjoy eating them out of hand or sliced into salads. Try them sliced with bitter greens, toasted walnuts, and fresh or soft-ripened goat cheese, with a Sherry vinaigrette.

[Photo credit: Flickr user caryn74]fall foodsHachiyas have an elongated, acorn-like shape, and are soft and gelatinous when ripe. Their sweet, pulpy flesh makes them an excellent addition to baked goods such as cake or tea bread, or try them in sorbet or a steamed pudding topped with unsweetened whipped cream. They’re also delectable for out-of-hand eating: simply cut off the top and scoop out the jelly-like flesh with a spoon.

Hachiyas are high in tannins, and the astringent substance that makes them so unappealing when unripe is also corrosive, so be sure to avoid using aluminum cookware or foil when working with them.

Dried Hachiyas are also delicious and diverse in the kitchen. Choose fruit that is soft, but not so ripe you’re unable to peel it. After peeling, pass a wire through the calyx, or stem end, bring the ends of the wire together to form a circle, and hang it on a line in a cool, dry place. You’ll need to massage the fruit periodically to help break down their internal membrane and to release moisture. Enjoy them for snacking, baking, or in porridge or oatmeal. They may develop a harmless fine, white powder on the surface.

2. Winter squash
The much-maligned winter, or hard squash is a nutritional powerhouses, high in iron, riboflavin, and vitamins A and C. With their thick, durable shells, which come in a breathtaking array of hues, textures, shapes, and sizes, they can last up to a month without refrigeration, as long as they’re kept cool and dry. You can compost the skins and pulp, and dry their seeds so you can grow your own squash next year.

I find even the names of different varieties of squash tempting: sweet dumpling, acorn, Cinderella, sugar pumpkin, cheese pumpkin, buttercup, butternut, delicata, red curry, kabocha, and hubbard. Note that carving pumpkins are not meant for eating; the flesh is too stringy and the flavor inferior, although the seeds are delicious when roasted.

There are literally hundreds of heirloom varieties of squash out there; get to know some of the growers at your local farmers’ market and find out what they recommend for your purposes. When selecting squash, choose ones that are heavy for their weight, with no soft spots.

While most hard squash have sweet flesh, there’s still a range of flavor complexities between varieties. Some are more watery while others have a more pronounced squashy flavor or firm or creamy flesh. You may want to experiment to see what works best for your specific recipes, but the most common varieties work equally well for sweet or savory dishes.

Use leftover roasted squash in stir-fries, tossed in at the end of cooking with toasted sesame seeds, soy sauce, and bitter greens. Roast peeled slices until they’re lightly caramelized and serve them with a handful of fresh arugula, candied pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds) or crumbled bacon, and shaved pecorino cheese, and a vinaigrette of roasted pumpkin seed oil or good-quality balsamic vinegar. Use squash in baked goods like tea breads and cakes.

3. Grapes
Unless you shop at the farmers market, you’re likely unaware of just how many table grape varieties are out there: Bronx, Golden Muscat, Niabell, Ladyfinger, Black Monukka. Some are winey and intense, others slip their skins and have a squidgy texture, similar to wine grapes.

The beauty of grapes is that they require no more than a rinse and they’re ready for the table. I use them halved and paired with fresh or grilled chicories and shavings of a dry, semi-firm cheese like Manchego for salads, or roast them with a bit of olive oil and serve them alongside wilted greens like Lacinato kale and grilled sausages. Feeling lazy? Pile them in a pretty bowl, pour a glass of dessert wine, and pop in a DVD for a low-key evening with friends or your main squeeze. Spitting seeds isn’t sexy, so do ask for a sample before purchasing.

4. Brussels sprouts
Poor things. Dissed by children almost everywhere, and equally unloved by many adults, Brussels sprouts get a bad rap due to poor cooking technique or old product. Like all brassicas (the genus of cruciferous vegetables–members of the mustard family–that includes broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower), these guys can get seriously sulfurous and nasty if overcooked or past their prime.

Look for tiny, tightly-closed sprouts (you can also purchase them on the stalk at farmers markets and some grocery stores) the size of large marbles. The shouldn’t be gargantuan, or have yellowed, withered outer leaves or be opening up like a flower in bloom. You’ve been warned.

Get your fresh sprouts home. Heat up some bacon fat or olive oil, and saute them over medium-high heat until the outer leaves just begin to open, and they’re slightly caramelized (this is the key step). Finish things off with some minced garlic cooked until fragrant. Toss sauteed sprouts with crumbled bacon, crisped prosciutto, toasted breadcrumbs, or grated pecorino or Parmigiano Reggiano. Try a combination of the above. Spike them with chile flakes, chopped, toasted nuts, or drizzle with walnut or hazelnut oil (don’t try to cook them in these; their smoke point is too low and the oil will scorch). If for some crazy reason these ideas don’t make you a convert, just do what a friend of mine did as kid: sneak them into the bathroom and flush them down the toilet.
fall foods
5. Pears
European pears (as opposed to the crunchy, apple-like Asian varieties) possess a refined elegance that calls to mind the days when they were cultivated for French nobility.

The year-round availability of domestically grown varieties of European pear can be attributed to their affinity for cold storage. Pear season is usually over by the end of November, and unlike apples, European pears require a period of cold storage at 32 to 35 degrees before being ripened for several days at room temperature prior to selling. They’re just simply delicate for picking and shipping when ripe.

To further ripen them at home, place in a paper bag on the counter. If you can’t use fully ripe pears immediately, refrigerate them or they’ll get mushy.

I prefer pears poached in red or white wine or a simple syrup spiked with vanilla bean, ginger, or spices like cardamom, cinnamon, and star anise. As a dessert, this showcases their elegant shape, and makes for a sophisticated finale to a dinner party. Remember to slice a tiny piece of the bottom off of each pear before serving, so they’ll stand up on the plate (you can also use a dab of whipping cream, creme fraiche, mascarpone, or creme anglaise to anchor them in place). Serve with a healthy dollop of same, or vanilla or honey ice cream. Hello, autumn.

[Photo credits: soup, Flickr user Tammy Green aka Zesmerelda]

Why Brussel Sprouts are Healthy

Dropping the F-bomb: why “foodie” needs to go away

foodieLife used to be so easy. You ate to live. Then, man discovered fire and realized mastodon tastes a lot better with a nice sear on it. Around 500,000 years later, Homo foodieus evolved, and now it’s impossible to go out to eat without camera flashes going off at the tables around you.

Mercifully, there’s a Foodie Backlash taking root in America, and I feel the time is ripe (Did you see how I tossed two food puns into that sentence? Annoying, isn’t it?) to go public with my loathing for this odious word and the obnoxious behavior that too often goes with it.

I realize I’m setting myself up here. I’m a food journalist. Don’t I perpetuate all of this silliness, getting readers in a lather over the Next Big Food Thing? Don’t I eat at nice restaurants and drink expensive wine? Well, yes. And, no (and to that latter hypothetical question, less often that you’d think in this economy).

I like to think that through (most of) my work, I promote importance of understanding where food comes from, and urging localized food security. I’m concerned about protecting the environment, public health, and genetic diversity in plants and livestock; conserving natural resources, and finding more humane ways to raise and slaughter livestock.

Does that make me the culinary equivalent of Mother Theresa, or absolve me of my written transgressions that are less pure in culinary intent? Hell no; I can be a hedonist, too. But I’m trying to make a point here. I realize that my bordering-on-obsessive hatred of “foodie” is really about the culture it’s perpetuating. That said, the word itself is infantile, idiotic, and meaningless, and makes me want to poke my eyes out with a larding needle. Can’t people just say they love food?

My biggest issue with foodie as a concept is that it’s detrimental to the remarkable, burgeoning food culture we’ve finally achieved in the United States. In a mere 100 years, we went from agrarian society to culinary wasteland to possessing identifiable food regions. We established a world-class artisan food, sustainable agriculture, and fine dining scene in certain parts of the country.

What went wrong? We paid $200 (for a bottle of estate olive oil), and instead of passing “Go,” we became a cult of food elitists. It’s the antithesis of why many of us got into the food business in the first place. Yes, care about what you eat, but food shouldn’t have a sense of entitlement attached to it.

Do you really need to be on a first name basis with the person who sells you fava beans? It’s a wonderful thing to develop a relationship with local growers but the posturing and farmer name-dropping one-upmanship I’ve witnessed while working at farmers markets in recent years is over the top. Real supporters of sustainable agriculture–of real food–don’t go trolling for discounts or freebies, because they understand just how hard farmers work for a living.

In a perfect world, everyone should have access to fresh, wholesome, local, delicious food, especially children. Thanks to the good work of organizations like the Chez Panisse Foundation and the increasing number of school lunch programs, community gardens, and other food security initiatives across the country, this isn’t an impossible goal for Americans to achieve, nor is tackling our obesity epidemic in a one-two punch.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to spend disposable income, if you have it, on costly ingredients or dining out. But the fetishizing of food, the pissing contest that is the hallmark of the archetypal foodie is what I cannot abide. This is what’s at the heart of foodieism; the need to belong to a special club, with a language all its own. In our status-obsessed society, we need to separate ourselves from the plebes who think that the Olive Garden is serving “Italian” food.

Eating well (not necessarily synonymous with eating “expensively”) is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and cooking for other people and joining them at the table sustains us in ways that go beyond filling our stomachs. Every food lover (see? doesn’t sound so bad, does it?) has a deep, fundamental reason for why they’re so moved by the act of eating.

foodie
For me, it’s the cultural aspects of food, its intrinsic relationship to travel, as well as the people who grow, forage, raise, catch, and make food on a small, sustainable scale that I find captivating. These are things that I was fortunate enough to experience in childhood, and they made an indelible impression on me, as well as fostered my culinary career.

Good food–be it a ripe peach, a great street taco, or a lavish, multi-course meal–brings me joy. For what it’s worth, however, my parents aren’t “food people.” I grew up on a ranch, but I also ate a lot of frozen vegetables and TV dinners, because my mom had two kids to raise, dislikes cooking, and for her, the ’70’s with its advent of guiltless convenience foods was a godsend.

There’s also the bad manners perpetuated by foodie culture. On what planet is it okay to “just pop into the kitchen” during a packed dinner service to talk to the chef…especially when s/he’s a total stranger? Yet my boyfriend and I witnessed this scenario, while dining at a certain famous restaurant.

After three hours of listening to the ten-top beside us discourse on the merits of Brittany sea salt purchased at the source versus approximately 12 other kinds of hand-harvested salt, we were ready to clobber them. Look, if you want to spend your money on that shit and then have a debate about it, that’s your perogative. Just don’t hold a small, intimate restaurant as captive audience. Few things are more deadly boring than foodies in a feeding frenzy.

We watched their lengthy progression of courses congeal and grow cold as they scurried around the table snapping food porn. At meal’s end, the ringleader hopped up and made her foray into the kitchen. And, because it was a small, intimate restaurant and my boyfriend and I were seated nearby, we heard the following words come out of the mouth of the extremely irate sous chef who blocked her path: “Lady, we’re in the middle of fucking service. Get the hell out of here!”

Cue applause meter.
foodie
Foodies should also remember that while home cooking, traveling, and dining out most certainly give you an education about food, they don’t, in most cases, make you an expert. Yelp serves a purpose, to be sure, but it’s often a means of settling a score or self-promoting. Or, in the case of food blog reviews written by foodies (as opposed to, say, writers with actual journalism and culinary credentials, both) a way to say, “I’m a food writer too!” One food blogger I stumbled across while researching this story had written on a recent post, “I think [foodie] is a very serious title. It’s like calling yourself a writer or an artist. It means you have to have the knowledge, talent and experience to back it up.”

Um, please get over yourself. Knowing about food, winning a Pulitzer, being the greatest chef on earth…at the end of the day, it’s just effing food. Not the cure for cancer or achieving world peace.

I think esteemed food writer and author Amanda Hesser said it best when she was quoted in a Chicago Tribune article last year: “Having more people interested in good food is never a bad thing,” she said, but what she can’t abide is eating dinner with people who “only want to talk about food and every place where they ate, like, doughnuts or something, and where the best doughnuts are secretly found. Knowing a lot about food culture is a good thing. That cataloguing of food experience is becoming tiresome. I’m pro-food experts. I’m just not so sure I want to have dinner with them or have them judge me on the coffee I drink.”

Amen.

[Photo credits: mushroom cloud, Flickr user Juampe López, poster, Flicker user Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com]

Fall festivals: five delicious ways to celebrate

fall festivalsThere’s something really depressing about seeing the last of the tomatoes, corn, and stonefruit at the farmers market, the withering vines in my neighbor’s gardens. But fall is also an exciting time for produce geeks, what with all the peppers and squash, pomegranates and persimmons.

If you love yourself some good food and drink, here are five reasons to welcome fall. No matter where you live in the North America, at least one of these is guaranteed to be coming soon to a town near you.

1. Hit a harvest festival
From the hokey (corn mazes, hay rides) to the downright debaucherous (late-night live music and beer gardens, camping in orchards), harvest festivals are a blast, no matter what your age. A great harvest festival will include delicious food; local craft beer, cider, or wine; farm tours and seminars; a children’s area and special activities; live music, and, if you’re lucky, a beautiful, bucolic setting in which to experience it all. Some festivals run the span of a weekend, providing an opportunity to take in more of the educational offerings.

Below are some of my favorite festivals, all of which have an educational component to them. Should you find yourself in Northern California in early October, it’s worth a detour to attend the famous Hoes Down Harvest Festival (Oct.1-2) at Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley, near Davis. It’s one hell of a party (there’s also a top-notch children’s activity area, so little people will have fun, too); definitely plan on camping in the orchard and bring your swim suit; the farm is located beside Cache Creek.

Other great celebrations of fall: Vashon Harvest Farm Tour (Sept. 25), Vashon Island, WA; CUESA Harvest Festival (Oct. 22), Ferry Building Farmers Market, San Francisco, CA; Annual Harvest Festival, Sustainable Settings (mid-Sept.; date varies, but mark your calendars for next year!) Carbondale, CO.

September 22nd, from 7:30-9pm, the 16th Annual Harvest in the Square is being held in Union Square; online tickets are still available until tomorrow at noon for what is one of New York’s premier food and wine events. Some general admission tickets will be available at the event for a higher price.

[Photo credit: Flickr user zakVTA]fall festivals2. Check out Crush
In North America, the wine grape harvest is held in September or October, depending upon weather patterns. In Napa Valley, “Crush” has just started, and with it, fall colors on the vines; barrel tastings; special winery tours, wine-and-cheese pairings, and up-close-and-personal views of the Crush itself. Even if you’re not an oenophile, it’s by far the most beautiful time to visit Napa and it’s neighboring wine region, Sonoma Country. For Napa wineries and event listings, click here. For California’s Central Coast wine region events, click here.

Check out wine harvest events in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Washington state’s Yakima and Walla Walla regions, and British Columbia’s Fraser and Okanogan Valleys (go to Wines of the Northwest for events calendar on all of the aforementioned); for New York’s Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley, and other regions go to Uncork New York!

3. Go apple pickingfall festivals
With apple-growing regions scattered all over North America–from Virginia and Pennsylvania to New York, Washington state, British Columbia, and California–there’s no shortage of opportunities to attend festivals or U-picks. This traditional fall pastime is a fun activity for kids and supports the local economy and foodshed. Put up apple butter, -sauce, or freeze a pie for Thanksgiving, but be sure to save enough for winter (all apples and pears are placed in cold storage once the growing season ends, so the fruit you buy later in the season won’t be freshly picked). Store in a cool, dry, dark place. P.S. Don’t forget to buy some cider doughnuts if they’re available.

Please note that due to unusual weather patterns (aka “global warming”) this past year, the harvest is delayed in many parts of the country, including Washington. Check with local farms before heading out.

4. Visit a cidery
If you prefer your apples fermented, there are some excellent craft cideries throughout North America. The tradition of craft cider distilling hails from Western Europe, but domestically, the hot spots are the Pacific Northwest (including British Columbia), parts of the Midwest, and the Northeast.
fall festivals
5. Feast at a farm dinner
For food lovers, few things beat dining outdoors in an orchard or pasture, surrounded by the people and ingredients that made your meal possible. Farm dinners are a growing national trend; they may be hosted independently by the farm (Washington’s Dog Mountain Farm, Colorado’s Zephyros Farm, and California’s Harley Farms Goat Dairy are my picks) or hosted by companies like Portland, Oregon’s Plate & Pitchfork and Boulder’s Meadow Lark Farm Dinners. Many farm dinners are fundraisers to help protect local agricultural easements or wetlands, but your participation also supports the farm and local foodshed.

Farm dinners are also held at wineries, distilleries, craft breweries, mariculture farms, and creameries; a tour should be included. The best part, however, is when the guests include everyone from the local cheesemaker, rancher, fisherman, or winemaker, to the potter who made the plates. It’s both humbling and gratifying to meet the people who work so hard to ensure local communities have a safe, sustainable food supply.

[Photo credits: grapes, Flickr user minnucci]

Wine Tasting Room Etiquette