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Archive | food

Just a Fever

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I’m running a series of posts from the past while I’m traveling this week. Have you seen “Food, Inc.?” It will change the way you think about what we think is food…

Liam stayed home from soccer camp for two days this week. He came home Monday and seemed fine, but woke up early Tuesday morning with a fever, aches and pains; he said his head hurt, his spine hurt, his knees hurt.

So okay, you do what you do, right? No need to freak out, it’s just a fever, probably a summer cold combined with the physical strain of his first week of soccer camp: running hard for six hours a day, eating not enough lunch (because it’s more fun to run around playing more soccer), becoming maybe a bit dehydrated because the sun finally came out and stayed out.

His feeling achy and tired is normal, I said to myself.  He’s a kid, kids get sick, they stay home and rest, then they’re better and life goes on.

Unfortunately for my peace of mind, however, on Monday night I had gone to see “Food, Inc.,” a documentary about the food industry, directed by Robert Kenner, and suddenly, Liam’s fever didn’t seem so innocent – I entered the state that Judith Warner calls “Perfect Madness.”

The “perfect madness” is that condition known to parents (particularly first-time, somewhat older parents) in which a child’s every cough may be the beginning of a deathly illness; every electrical outlet a source of death; the cabinets walk-in tombs. To be a parent, Warner says, is to no longer live without fear. The trick is not to get so paranoid that everything becomes potentially lethal. Usually (I think) I manage to avoid paranoid parenting, but Kenner’s movie set a whole new set of thoughts whirling in my head:

Liam probably has just a summer cold unless the tacos we made for dinner Monday night out of hamburger meat (organic, expensive Whole Foods burger meat, but still, burger meat) gave him some kind of slow-moving but ultimately lethal food-borne pathogen.

Or the little patches of grey in Liam’s hair, and the light-skinned patches on his knees are a sign of an auto-immune deficiency that no doctor has yet managed to catch.

Or his tiny lungs inhaled so many toxins in the weeks after 9/11 that in fact he’s got pulmonary disorders which will soon incapacitate him.

Or the almost nine years of avoiding green leafy vegetables, with the exception of what I can squeeze in, Sneaky Chef-style, have so compromised his system that he’s got anemia or a B12 deficiency.

See what a little imagination and a powerful documentary can do? Kenner’s movie brought together many things that will be familiar to readers of The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Fast Food Nation, but the power of his visual story telling (let’s just say: hidden cameras inside a slaughterhouse and leave it at that) hit home in a way that neither of those books did–which is to say that two things have happened: I’m now seriously freaked out by how a few multinationals can control our entire food supply from seeds to supermarket, to use the movie’s phrase.The second thing that has happened, I’m afraid, is that I’ve officially become boring about food.

And maybe it is boring for people around me (okay, mostly Husband) to hear about all the bad shit that’s in food (and a lot of that bad shit is, quite literally, shit), but the movie is anything but boring. It’s a terrifying testament to what happens when the fox is put in charge of the henhouse (as when various executives of Monsanto, Con Agra, and Tyson are appointed to the USDA, FDA, or the Supreme Court). Take the despearately sad story of Kevin Kowalcyk, a two year old boy who ate a hamburger while on vacation with his family. Twelve days later, Kevin was dead: he’d eaten a hamburger tainted with E. coli. The plant that produced those hamburgers, the family eventually found out, had failed not one, not two, but at least three USDA inspections.

Kevin’s ghost lurked in the back of my mind this week, as I put cool cloths on Liam’s feverish  head. Liam dutifully swallowed his ibuprofen (comprised, as near as I can tell, from a dab of medicine and a bunch of inactive chemical compounds all derived from corn) and after two days he happily hopped on the bus back to soccer camp.

Just a fever. Nothing to be afraid of.

Except Kenner’s movie suggests that not only should we be afraid of what’s happening to what we eat but also that we should all be paying a lot more attention.

Continue Reading · on August 20, 2013 in Children, food, Kids, Politics

if this is how a twelve year old gives compliments, how will he do insults?

Yesterday around dinner time, I asked Liam if he wanted chicken in a tortilla or just plain chicken with rice (I know, what a dazzling array of options. Don’t tell Ina Garten; she’d just feel threatened).

Liam, sprawled on his bed in his fuzzy bathrobe, surfaced out of the book he’s reading (The Name of the Wind, which is apparently the Best Book Ever in the History of Words).

“You know, mommy,” he said, bleary eyed from reading, “lots of families get take-out, like, all the time. But you…You just…take a little of this and a little of that and then the next thing you know you’ve made chicken tacos like from Dos Toros. I mean, I never could’ve imagined, Dos Toros tacos, here, in Abu Dhabi. You’re amazing.”

Dos Toros, for those of you not lucky enough to live in Manhattan, is a stupendously good taqueria that used to be around the corner from our apartment.  They do real cooking.  Me? I put chicken in a pan with some magic dust (Blue Smoke’s magic dust), slap the chicken bits into a corn tortilla with some Mexican rice from the marvelous Maria. No cheese, no sauce, no guac, no tomato, no beans. Dry as hell but the kid thinks it’s some kind of haute gourment special, so who I am to disabuse him?

Perhaps fueled by his love for chicken tacos, the twelve-year old flung his arms around me. “You’re just so great and nice and helpful, and you find me great books–or your students suggest great books–and you help me with thinking and ideas and everything and I just love you! You’re such a helper! You’re so good at so much and help me with everything.”

I am basking. My pre-teen son, gushing about how much he loves me? Oh be still my beating heart.

There is a long pause. Liam keeps his arms around me, then looks up.

“I mean, except in math. You can’t really do anything in math that’s useful to me. I mean, in math you just really have to, you know, how to do it. And you just, I mean, you just don’t.  When will dinner be ready?”  He picks up his book and dives back into the story.

From the heights of glory, I am cast down to the valleys.

I shuffle into the kitchen to make the tacos, wondering who will help me count out how many tortillas I need.

 

 

 

Continue Reading · on March 3, 2013 in Books, family, food, growing up, Kids, Parenting

Monday Listicle: Food

Mid-December and the madness is upon us: students trapped in end-of-semester zombie-state, with circles under their eyes down to their jawlines; piles of (as yet ungraded) papers; emails from Grandma asking what the boys want for Christmas presents; a round of holiday parties (some a pleasure, some an obligation); and of course the requisite dementia-inducing Christmas music being piped into all the malls.  The cognitive dissonance of standing in the grocery checkout line at the Australian-owned grocery store next to a woman swathed in black abaya and sheyla as my groceries are rung up by the lovely Filipina at the register … and Bruce Springsteen howls “Santa Claus is comin’ to town…”  Sometimes the world seems much flatter than other times.

But. Holidays. Holidays in almost any culture means sharing and eating food. Cookies, cakes, pastries, soup…all the recipes come out at holiday time.  So Stasha’s listicle this week–suggested by Bridget at the always funny Twinisms— asks us to think about food, and I thought that maybe I’d list my favorite recipes or favorite holiday treats, but let’s face it: I am a competent cook and only a so-so baker, so my recipes aren’t going to be that much fun.

Better, I thought, to offer you all a list bounteous with schadenfreude: you can read my list of food fails and feel better by comparison. Consider it my holiday gift to you.

You’re welcome.

1. My new favorite cocktail, the French 75.  A delicate drink that packs a whammy: gin, simple syrup, fresh lemon juice, champagne. I read the recipe, thought “hey, that’s easy,” and mixed up a cocktail for myself and Husband.  Who knew you weren’t supposed to put the champagne in the cocktail shaker with the other ingredients? Do you know what happens when you put champagne in a jar and shake it? Yes. Expensive French fizz pretty much all over.  Expensive French sticky fizz. The drinks looked pretty (although a tad foamy), but apparently you’re only supposed to top off the glass with champagne. Who knew?

2. Baked brie. Who doesn’t love a baked brie? Gooey warm cheese wrapped in flaky pastry (courtesy of Pillsbury, natch) that gets spread on yet more bread. Dee-vine.

Now I’d like you to imagine the top of that delicious-looking treat completely charred. Yep, blackened, as if the instructions read “cook Cajun style.”  In case you’re wondering, blackened baked brie is not a taste treat. Not even if you try to slice off the burned top and flip the thing over. Then you get something that resembles smushed bread floating in goo. Unappetizing in the extreme.

3. Pizza with goat cheese, spinach, and carmelized onions. Yum. You can serve this for supper or cut it into small pieces and use it as an appetizer. Use pizza crust, or boboli, or flatbread, then spread goat cheese, sauteed spinach, and carmelized onions on top. Heat the pizza a bit so the goat cheese gets warm and melty.  Do not flip it over onto the bottom of the oven as you try to take it out of the oven. If, perchance, you should flip the entire goddamn thing onto the bottom of the oven, make sure no one sees you scoop the toppings off the oven floor and attempt to re-arrange them on the pizza crust.  Should someone see you do that, you can assure them that it’s okay because you never clean the oven, so it’s not like they’re going to be tasting any chemicals along with their goat cheese.

4. Very Important Realization (VIR): checking the expiration date on the package of yeast is always a good idea. Otherwise, your pizza crust dough might look something like this:

We went out for dinner instead.

5. Birthday cakes. Ah, birthday cakes. I want so badly to be that parent, the one who lovingly crafts perfect confections for the little darlings. Erin, over at the Sisterhood of the Sensible Momsshe is that parent:

If she weren’t so funny and kind, you’d sort of have to hate her.

My birthday cakes don’t look like that. They’re more…um….let’s say they exhibit a charming DIY sensibility, shall we?

Another VIR?  Frosting is the spanx of baking. It can make anything look good. Or at least okay.

6.  And yet a third VIR?  Find friends who cook, and cook well.  Their recipes and advice (and samples!) are invaluable. I’m lucky to know Sean over at Big Poppa Eats, with his cobbler, and Lily, Abu Dhabi’s very own Queen of Tarts. And of course, the Sisterhood of Sensible Moms (when I’m not feeling intimidated, cakely speaking)…

7.  My foodie talent might run in the family. During our growing-up years, when we asked my mom what was for dinner, she’d say “chicken glop” or “hamburger glop” or, basically, whatever form of protein she’d purchased mixed with some cans of tomatoes and spices. Usually it tasted good but the concept of “glop” remains in my head, whenever I confront the dinner hour, with one kid who does not like sauces, another kid who loves sauces, a husband who will eat pretty much anything, and me, who would happily be a vegetarian but lives in a house of carnivores.  That’s why I often find myself in what I call three-way chicken hell, even though I vow (pretty much monthly) that I will not cave in to all these separate preferences.

8. Shopping for food in a country not your own always presents challenges. For the most part, I can find food we’re used to here, or at least versions of what we’re used to. There is bacon, for instance, although it’s hideously expensive and requires doing the walk of shame into the pork room at the grocery store. But then there are those jarring moments when you realize, as you browse the shelves, that you’re in a country that caters to a palate very different than your own:

9.  This:

Would someone please explain A) what is a “malt loaf” and B) what it means to have “squidgy energy”?

10. Okay. I will make one gesture towards recouping my culinary sense of self.  I have learned how to make a pretty kick-ass cinnamon roll. And the smell of baking cinnamon rolls is like a holiday all in itself.

Continue Reading · on December 12, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, food, Monday Listicle, UAE

food for memory

I left most of my cookbooks in New York when we moved out here. With epicurious and all the other food websites (dinnerdujour, anyone? or the fantastically named ezrapoundcake?)  I figured I could use that space to pack more of Caleb’s important Sticks and Rocks. I did, however, bring my binder.  A binder with recipes in it, not women (thanks Mitt, for an image that will never, ever die).

At some point before we moved, in a fit of organizational madness, I got tired of all the random bits of paper floating around the cabinet where I kept my cookbooks, so I bought a binder and got all Martha Stewart, with little dividers and thematic details (all the tomato recipes clustered together, for instance). I even had a section for “wine,” a hopeless thought if ever there were one. Mostly I buy “that stuff I had that one time at the place with that tapas.”  And that selection process is a significant step up from purchases made on the basis of whether or not I liked the design on the label.

So I had this binder, jammed full of random bits (because the Martha-method of organization didn’t last more than about six months), and I brought it with me. Before we moved, I weeded out the recipes (was I ever really going to make a seven-layer cake? Not if my life depended on it. Ditto fondant. Ditto anything that involves large quantities of anchovies), and so when I arrived in my new dun-colored Abu Dhabi kitchen, the binder had become a collection of greatest hits, tried-and-true, and the occasional Pulling Out All The Stops (beet napoleons from Cooks Best Illustrated).  I still get recipes off the internet but more often than not, I turn to the binder.

Thanksgiving, of course, requires a lot of binder-time. Thanksgiving, more so than Christmas or birthdays or any other holiday, is when I feel furthest away from my regularly scheduled life in New York. The reassuring – and rather bizarre — idea that everyone (or most everyone) is sitting down to eat some version of the same food, for the same reasons…it’s not easily translated to other countries, most of which lack a parallel holiday. Luckily, we once again this year were invited to a Thanksgiving feast by the friends who took us in last year – and once again, I offer up hosannas in praise of colleagues and friends who are also excellent cooks. It wasn’t my good china on the table and the babies clambering around weren’t related to me, but nevertheless it felt good to be cradled in the comfort of ritual.

As I puttered around my kitchen making my mother’s dill bread, Suzanne’s carmelitas, my aunt’s vinaigrette – all recipes from the binder – Liam wandered into the kitchen and begin to flip through the binder pages, which are transparent sleeves into which I’ve slipped emails with recipes, clippings, jotted recipes gathered from friends.

“This isn’t really recipes,” he said. “It’s like a whole book of memories.”

Maybe that’s the real reason I left the cookbooks in New York but brought along the binder. The cookbooks are just recipes but the binder is history.

As my special Thanksgiving present, the recipe for Suzanne’s oatmeal carmelitas (which for all I know, came from the back of a package somewhere, but in our house, they come from Suzanne):

14 oz bag of light caramels (your basic Kraft are fine); 1/2 cup evaporated milk or light cream; 2 cups each of flour & quick cooking rolled oats; 1 1/2 cup packed brown sugar; 1 t baking soda; 1/2 tsp salt; 1 cup melted butter; 1 cup semisweet chocolate bits; 1 cup chopped pecans (optional)

Heat caramels in heavy-bottomed pot with cream, then let it cool slightly

Combine rest of the ingredients, except for chocolate chips (and nuts if you’re using nuts) in a large bowl to make a crumbly mixture.

Press 2/3 of mixture into greased 13×9 pan. Bake at 350 for about 10 minutes (slightly browned at edges); remove pan from oven

Sprinkle with chips and nuts, pour caramel over top of chocolate chips, then sprinkle top with the remaining oats mixture. Bake 15-20 minutes.  Let cool on a rack for 10-15 minutes, then chill for 1-2 hours before serving (do not attempt to cut these into slices until they’re really cool, or they will ooze into a gooey (but delicious) mess.

If you can’t find caramels, which is weirdly hard to find in the UAE, you can make your own caramel sauce or use dulce de leche sauce from a jar.

 

 

as you sit there, still reeling from tryptophan, why don’t you click over and see what’s cooking in the yeahwrite kitchens? 

Continue Reading · on November 25, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, expat, family, food, lost in translation, NaBloPoMo, UAE

drinks all ’round…

The other night, schedules finally meshed, and a friend and I arranged to meet for a drink at a hotel near the soccer field where our kids were having practice together. It’s been one of those ridiculous logistics things – the night that I could have a drink, she’s busy, and vice versa. Meeting for a drink, in Abu Dhabi, means going to a hotel because Abu Dhabi is, technically, a dry country. Liquor goes against the teachings of Islam. There are no dive bars down the street or a corner pub where you can stop in for a pint. So if you want to meet a friend for a drink, you end up sashaying through some hotel lobby to one of the hotel restaurants or bars.  I’ve been in more hotel lobbies in the fifteen months I’ve lived here than if I worked for an escort service.

Anyway. So this mom and I finally found a night when we could meet for our long-discussed drink; I dropped the boys off at practice; found my friend, and then we tried to find the terrace bar of the hotel: up an elevator, down a long hall, up another elevator, out a side door, and then: a lovely terrace on a beautiful evening.

“Oh no, ma’am,” said the waiter. “It’s Islamic New Year. No alcohol for twenty-four hours. Try our lovely mocktails, ma’am.”

I’m not a mocktail gal. Give me the real tail, or give me nothing. I had Pellegrino. With a twist. What a way to ring in 1434H.

Quite a change from the States or the UK, where almost any celebration is an excuse to drink your face off.

And yet, I think I drink more here than I did in New York. In New York, if we had a dinner party or something and friends brought over a bottle of wine, we might still have the bottle (unopened) two, three, five months later.

Here, in “dry” Abu Dhabi, I always have a bottle of white wine in the fridge; the cabinet in the living room bulges with booze. It’s weird. Is it the vague sense of taboo that fuels consumption? Is it that we have a friend whose day job is philosophy professor but whose hobby is making exquisite cocktails? Or is there some genetic trigger lurking in the blood that flips to “sauvignon blanc” when placed in the petri dish of expat-ness?

There are liquor stores in Abu Dhabi, but to shop there one needs, ostensibly, a liquor license. The license is free; you order it online, provide some verification (mostly that you’re non-Muslim and employed), and then in about a month you get an imposing package:

All you need in this package is this little card, which looks like an ATM card but has your picture on it:

Your monthly allotment is supposed to be some percentage of your salary, although the reports from friends of who gets to spend how much at the liquor store varies so widely that it’s hard to figure out what’s what. And then, of course, there are those shops where if you just pay cash, you can “forget” your license and nobody says anything.  I mean, so I’ve heard; I don’t mean I’ve actually done that.

The license only gets used in liquor stores; it’s not used in bars or restaurants.  Yes, yes, I can hear what you’re thinking “that’s like Big Brother watching over you; they know when you’re buying booze…”  I guess that’s true. “They” do know, here, when I buy liquor. Of course, Amazon knows when I’m buying god-knows-what on their site – to the degree that they send me messages telling me what else I might like to buy; and so does iTunes; and so does pretty much every other online shopping emporium. Let’s face it: we’re all watched, mapped, dissected. If you have any doubts about that, just email David Petraeus. He can give you the low-down on being watched in cyber-space.

The drinking-and-driving laws here, I will say, are ferocious. Get into even the tiniest fender-bender and if you’ve got even a whiff of wine on your breath? You’re toast, dude. Thank god people don’t drink and drive, is all I can say. The driving here is bad enough without tossing drunks into the mix. Basically everyone I know adheres to the same principle: planning on a drink or two? Then cab it to your destination, cab it home.

And yet, because we’re in Abu Dhabi, irony capital of the world, the last time I went to the liquor store, where I had to order several cases of wine for a business party we were having, the cashier rang up my purchase on my credit card and then swiped my liquor license to see how much of my quota I’d used that month.

“Congratulations, ma’am,” she said. “You used up your limit, so you get a free bottle of wine.”

 

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Continue Reading · on November 15, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, expat, food

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