Monday, September 24, 2007

Eating the Amish

Food is the great equalizer. Everyone needs to eat to stay alive, everyone experiences hunger. However, we all eat different things. Food is very indicative of the customs, traditions, and belief systems of different cultures and I find it simply fascinating to learn how/what other people eat. That being said, I decided to take a little adventure out to Pennsylvania Dutch Country this weekend to accomplish two things: ride in an Amish buggy and eat traditional Amish food. Check and check.

I had done extensive research (read as: checked a few web pages at work) on what the Amish eat. They eat foods that are laden in calories and fat in order to sustain them when they are hard at work in the fields. Vegetarians and the health conscious beware. But apparently the Amish have long life spans, so they must be immune to the artery-clogging that plagues the rest of us unfortunate Americans…?

They are a hearty people and so is their cuisine. They are of the fried chicken and potatoes persuasion, but it was the desserts that particularly interested me. Pie seemed to be the Amish dessert of choice and we had quite a selection that ranged from all the fruits to other denser, sugary fillings. With names like woopie pie, bear claws, and shoo-fly pie, how could you go wrong? Though there was an unfortunate deficiency of chocolate in Amish grub, sugar and sweets abound in traditional bakeries that seemingly present themselves every few feet on the road.

Our fearless group indulged in shoo-fly pie, an almond bear claw, and a sugar-free cranberry loaf for good measure. The Amish are best known for their shoo-fly pie, which is a simple, though fulfilling, dessert. It is basically a pie that is stuffed with no more than dark molasses and sugar, which oozed out of the side of the crust with the consistency of glue. Though I was initially hesitant about how it would taste, I found that the gooey, molten molasses was actually quite tasty (though very sweet). It had a very flaky and crumbly crust that broke easily, but it was easily harnessed onto my fork thanks to the paste-like consistency of the molasses.

Although I left Lancaster, PA with a stomachache, I think that the lesson here is clear: if you are going to eat your way through Amish country, do not eat a bar of chocolate for breakfast before you go.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Success and Failure--Cheesy Style

I simply adore my new neighborhood. I love Philly anyway, but, I swear—this is true love. The tree-lined streets, the three-story houses, moms and dads pushing their kids on bicycles to schools…it’s simply lovely. And it really has the feel of a real neighborhood. One where you learn people’s names and recognize them on the street, instead just joining the faceless thousands of people who walk the streets of Philadelphia.

Did this all of a sudden become a different kind of blog, you ask? Are these two girls not going to discuss food anymore? Don’t worry. It’s still about food. The friendly nature of my new neighborhood got to me—that and the fact that my room is mostly put together now—and I entertained for the first time. My lovely blogging counterpart Queesy came to my house for an “oops, we’re Jewish and missed the high holidays!” dinner.

Our menu was not ambitious, not ambitious at all. My lovely counterpart brought apples and honey so we could celebrate a sweet new year as well as a cucumber and a beautiful perfectly ripe tomato for an Israeli inspired salad. I was going to do one of my favorite things: roast a chicken. I was also going to reach back to my Southern roots and make cheesy, creamy, oh-so-delightful grits. We also made a quick side trip to my neighborhood wine and spirits store and bought a bottle of Chianti. Not so much for the pairing, just because we both like red wine and wanted to explore the Chianti world.

So we had the wine, the apples, the unambitious menu. I prepared the chicken and put it into the oven, seriously tempting fate as this was the first time I had tried this oven out. We ate the salad: the cool cucumber and the juicy tomato tossed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar with salt and pepper. It was heavenly—just the right fresh start after a long day. The coolness also suited us as the oven heated up the kitchen while the chicken roasted.

Everything was going great…until the grits came. Up until this time, I worried mainly about the chicken. Why would I need to worry about the grits? I’ve been eating them for years. Until I remembered that I always always used measuring cups and spoons whenever I made grits. And I don’t have any in my new apartment (believe me, they’re on my list now). Grits do not lend themselves to ‘winging it.’ Instead of being hot and creamy, tangy with pepper and sharp cheddar cheese, my grits were watery, runny, and ultimately inedible.

Thank goodness my roommate had made rice and was willing to share.

To add insult to injury (in a sulky way), there was no reason that I should have worried about the chicken. None at all! It came out beautifully. The skin was crisp and golden and melted like butter (admittedly, that’s essentially what it was) in your mouth. The meat was tender and juicy, and the whole bird was essentially divine. I wish I had time to boil it down for stock, but this week is a little busy for me. I am, however, looking forward to making chicken salad tonight for tomorrow’s lunch.

The moral of this story? Don’t trust a transplanted southern girl when she says she knows how to makes grits. Because—at least in my personal experience—she might be lying to you.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Cheesy Family

My family, like my counterpart’s, is rather entrenched in the culinary arts. Take my immediate family, for example: my mother has been cooking amazing dishes for as along as I can remember and my father, after decided to live an organic, vegetarian lifestyle, taught himself to cook in ways that are healthy and environmentally friendly. My older sister was making soufflés and a mean crème brulee at a very young age. I was actually a late bloomer where cooking is involved—it took me till after my 3rd year of college to really get into it.

Then there’s my extended family. My aunt and uncle down in Georgia will cook multi-course meals at family reunions (there’s between 30 and 50 of all us!!). My father’s sister collects different kinds of salt and uses them to brine the turkey at Thanksgiving (it goes so well with the potatoes mashed with mascarpone cheese). My bubbe (my paternal grandmother) made the BEST noodle kuggel I’ve ever tasted. I know that every good Jewish girl says that, but this time it’s true. I swear.

Then there’s my grandfather—my mother’s father. We called him Grampy-Dad. Did he have some cooking stories! All of us grandkids used to sit down with him in the TV room of my grandparents’ house in Annapolis, Maryland and eat Fritos and dip and watch TV and nap. On Sunday mornings, he would make pancakes and dried beef gravy. I have never eaten dried beef gravy that can even come close to Grampy-Dad’s. It was creamy and savory with the salty bite from the dried beef to counteract the sweetness of the pancakes. He would stand over my mother’s shoulder—and mine when it was my turn last year—and make sure we roasted the Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys just right. He was an adventuresome cook sometimes, but almost always returned to the food that he was raised on. Good Southern home-cooking with lots of grits for breakfast.

Grampy-Dad also had his idiosyncrasies and quirks when it came to food. He abhorred carrots. He had a strong appreciation for good French cooking, especially vichyssoise. He once spent an entire summer trying to make a watermelon pie—he was ultimately unsuccessful.

“You know why?” he asked me when he told me the story.

“Why, Grampy-Dad?” I replied.

“Its too damn watery!” (This said with a grin of impish delight).

But what I remember most vividly was his choice of beverage—one that I’ve inherited. Almost every evening that I’ve ever seen, Grampy-Dad sat down to a Beefeater gin martini with 3 olives on the rocks. No vermouth. Nothing but ice, cold gin, and green olives. I remember eating those gin soaked olives as a child and I also remember when I was finally old enough to join in this ritual. It was almost like a rite of passage. I remember my mother telling me about when Grampy-Dad finally let her join him. While it was a casual enough situation, I felt like I was following in the footsteps of my mother when I took that first, bitterly cold sip.

Grampy-Dad passed away last Thursday night in his sleep. The fibrosis of his heart and lungs had been getting pretty bad—he was frailer than I had ever seen him when I joined him to celebrate his birthday in early August. I spent the weekend in a whirlwind of family: eating, drinking, mourning, and remembering. My grandfather was a good man—an amazing, intelligent, and warm-hearted man. As we ate his favorite foods and drank his favorite drinks this weekend, I realized what was missing.

So last night, on my walk home from work, I picked up a bottle of Beefeater. I poured it into a tumbler with ice and 3 green olives and then I sat down at my kitchen table and drank Grampy-Dad’s martini and remembered him.

I miss you, Grampy-Dad. May you rest in peace.