My Secret Lust For Spam

IMG_8832I have a confession to make. It took me forty years to experience the exquisite epicurean substance that is SPAM. I realize that in some sectors of the foodie world (aka the high falutin’ snobbery circles of haute cuisine) this might be an advantage. I realize that in other worlds (aka the ultra hip and trendy hot pot universes that Roy Choi dwells within) this might be sacrilege. I also realize that I am really not in either world, but that the main thing that has kept me from trying the famed, square lump of mystery meat has been a traumatic overdosing of other mystery meats in my lifetime.

Remember the Vienna sausage? There was actually a time in my single mother, female toddler raising life where those plump little mushy fingers reminiscent of baby hot dogs equaled dinner. And what about devilled ham? That strange pink concoction in a can that was slightly hammy and slightly smoky that made for a filling meal spread lavishly on wheat bread or as a white trash appetizer on enough saltine crackers to sate a young family. We all have our less than savory memories of times in our college years or early twenties where budgets for food were slim enough to justify these strange and unseemly purchases thus my reason for staying away from anything resembling meat in anything resembling a can, even tuna.

So imagine my surprise when I started dating the Cute Gardener whose food taste is nearly impeccable (nearly being the key word, just like mine) and opened his cupboards nosily one day to spy a slew of SPAM cans sitting in a neat and orderly row. Imagine my deeper surprise the first time he ever made me his version of fried rice (a hybrid of Asian and Hawaiian) incorporating yummy, crunchy bits of starchiness with fresh green peas and carrots, a buttery dash of soy and the tiniest bits of salty SPAM. I fell in love instantly with the odd culinary delight and have consistently begged him to make me something incorporating its magic ever since.

Recently I was delighted by an open-faced egg sandwich on slightly toasted sourdough with the slimmest slices of SPAM, slivers of purple string beans and the last remaining kernels of sweet corn for the summer from our garden. Realizing that I really like this product and wanting to have some justification for it in my non-boxed, bagged, canned or packaged manifesto-wielding food world, I researched what SPAM was made out of and discovered: pork shoulder meat (! one of my favorite things), ham, salt, water, modified potato starch as a binder, sugar, and sodium nitrate (basically a salt) as a preservative. I think I can continue eating the CG’s fabulous concoctions with this product guilt free and with my foodie integrity intact. In moderation of course, like all things pleasurable.

Sanam-Spiced Coconut Rice Veggie Medley

IMG_8834I have been on a mission for the past year to make macrobiotics my main style of eating. Aside from the times the Cute Gardener and I eat out, I have been successful in transitioning over to this lifestyle, which in simple terms looks like this daily:

Whole Grains 20-30% of diet
Protein, including animal protein, tempeh and beans 20-30% of diet
Fresh seasonal vegetables (mostly lightly cooked) 30% of diet
Dairy, eggs and fruits 5-10%
Fats and oils including olive, sesame and ghee 2 %

Sticking with these ratios tends to be very easy when one cooks for one’s self and doesn’t rely on grocery store packages to fulfill one’s food goals. Sticking to the periphery of markets where the fresh stuff resides keep temptation to a minimum.

IMG_8833With macrobiotics, meals tend to center around a base of lentils, beans or rice mixed with vegetables, greens and spices. This foundation is then accented by sauces, dips and fermented condiments like kimchee and sauerkraut.

Although at first the possibilities seem endless, it can be intimidating to procure, prep and make fresh meals every time I am hungry. So I take some time on the weekends or the beginning of the week to prepare certain things for seven days ahead including:

  • sprouting beans like mung in jars for snacking and salad toppings
  • making large pots of rice, lentils or beans to keep in the refrigerator that can be used to make a variety of fun, hot lunch bowls or cold breakfast porridges
  • soaking peppers in vinegars for spicy sauces or vegetables in pickling liquids
  • cleaning and chopping hearty greens like kale and collards and then massaging with sea salt and olive oil to soften in the fridge for use in salads, sautés and side dishes

Then during the week I stick to a simple recipe that works for any meal I am attempting whether breakfast or lunch:

  1. Pick a cup’s worth of a bean or grain.
  2. Pick some fresh, seasonal greens and vegetables to chop up.
  3. Saute that all together with olive, sesame or coconut oil, spices and/or herbs of your choice.
  4. Throw in a sweet, savory or spicy vinegar, dressing or sauce.
  5. Sprinkle in some creative and nutritional additives like dried fruits, nuts or seeds.
  6. Voila, you have a meal.

IMG_8831I am currently at work on a collection of recipes that encompass the most successful results of my experimentation in this vein. The first one marries my love of exotic spice with my addiction to coconut. It also incorporates vegetables gathered from my very own garden, which the Cute Gardener cultivates with an amazingly green thumb. The surprising marriage of raisin and eggplant turns into a warm, buttery texture in the mouth similar to creamy Thanksgiving stuffing.

IMG_8835Sanam-Spiced Coconut Rice Veggie Medley
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 Japanese eggplant cut into small cubes
6 green beans chopped up into quarter inch pieces
1 small Anaheim pepper, minced
One cup cooked organic brown rice
1 tablespoon dark raisins
1-1/2 tablespoon of sanam chili vinegar (recipe below)
Salt and pepper to taste

Over medium high heat, melt the coconut oil. Saute the eggplant, green beans and red pepper until fork tender about five minutes. Add the brown rice untill warm. Toss in the raisins and sprinkle in the Sanam vinegar. Pour into a bowl and enjoy!

Sanam Vinegar

Take 1 ounce of dried East Indian Sanam peppers and chop up. Place chopped up peppers and seeds into 8 ounces of your choice of vinegar in a jar with a lid. I used red wine vinegar for this recipe. Let the jar sit in on your kitchen counter for one week. Then strain and put the liquid into a container in your fridge to use at will.

Effortless Shank, Neck and Ears

IMG_8759Although I fancy myself highly zoophagous, I am not your typical meat eater. I love a good bloody petit filet at a high-class steak house now and again, (although not in the form my most recent steak house venture took) but I prefer to get my animal fat in the form of funky and creative bits. I will pick a good lamb shank over a New York strip, order a fabulous veal piccata instead of a chunk of beef tenderloin or opt for pig in every form over a chic and shredded short rib. In fact, the recent three-year-long pork belly fad in Los Angeles has been sweet nectar to my deepest desires.

To drive home this point, all I need to do is present a list of my favorite meat dishes I have eaten over the past year or so:

lamb neck at Bestia
-lamb shank at Root 246
-braised veal belly at Chi Spacca
-pig ear at (the now unfortunately defunct) Pigg
-headcheese at Gorge
pork belly on blue cheese mashed potatoes at Tinderbox

The problem with all of these items though, and the reason I have yet to master or whip them up at home, is that I will inevitably discover upon asking a waiter/waitress that the dish took some exorbitant amount of time and energy to prepare. Oh, that neck was braised for 18 hours on low heat to get that texture. Oh, those pig ears were brined for days in a top-secret solution of rare pickling spices we had to trek over mountains to procure. That kind of thing.

Luckily, I have a boyfriend who is not at all intimidated by the challenge of manipulating tenderness and poignant flavor out of meats and who knows a thing or two about cooking in his encyclopedic mind that those lesser foodies, like myself, might never sign up to try. When I moved in with him, he had one of those odd contraptions called a pressure cooker in his cabinet of tricks, and over the past year I’ve learned that it doubles as a supreme meat making machine.

My own experience with a pressure cooker was trying once to braise some short ribs when I lived alone in a beach bungalow. Let’s just say that evening ended badly with steam clouding my windows that did not stem from the ocean, a burned thumb, a charred hunk of meat, a horrible smell and only a bottle of wine for dinner after I had rendered just about everything in my stainless steel pot into baby lava rocks.

But the Cute Gardener, who does sane things like read directions, utilizes his pressure cooker to make the kinds of funky meat meals we don’t have time to slave hours over the stove for. Let’s face it, in today’s world of convenience and time as commodity, even patient foodies like us need to be able to whip up luxurious things on a whim. So far I’ve fallen for his Asian chicken stock pot, his braised beef ribs with falling apart marrow-soft bones and a few weeks ago, the be all – end all of my dreams –a Game of Thrones worthy lamb shank. Although it came to my table all in one piece, looking ready for battle between a caveman and a dinosaur, the minute I put my fork to its form, it easily shred into musky, dark pieces full of flavor that sublimely melted on my tongue.

Who needs to expend that much time and energy on technique and scientific heating strategies and temperature supervision over a whole afternoon on a week night when you can get the same results from a pressure cooker at one third the amount of all those resources? It may seem like a cheat or a lowbrow brother to the almighty crock-pot, but I am pretty sure I can still hear the hunger pangs and complaining of all those snobs who are still waiting for their supper while I am already digging in.

Steak with a Side of Discrimination

IMG_2325The Cute Gardener and I eat out at least once a week dabbling from low brow to high brow across the Los Angeles food spectrum. Dining together is one of our biggest joys in life and in fact, one of the contributions to our love. We consider ourselves the perfect customers. We never raise a stink if a water glass has droplets on it from the dishwasher and are typically forgiving if service is less than par preferring to give a restaurant or a waiter the benefit of a doubt. I also prefer to write about pleasant experiences when I pen culinary essays and articles and will traditionally eschew a negative review, replacing it with a humorous essay or simply write about something else every time we are left with a bad taste in our mouth. But some things in life need to be stated, even when they are difficult, frightening, uncomfortable and awkward, and today is one of those times.

A few weeks back we had a reservation at Mastro’s steak house in Beverly Hills to fill a long awaited craving for high-class filet mignon and New York strip. We made our reservation as usual through Open Table and were looking forward to shelling out a large chunk of money for a special night of world class meat and all the typical fixings found in a joint esteemed as such: sides with lots of cream, cocktails that could hold up to a rich lobster bisque, classic appetizers of rare beef, an impeccable bread basket and pristine customer service — all things one would expect after having similar experiences at places such as Fleming’s, BOA, and Ruth’s Chris.

When we arrived at 5:30 (extremely early for Los Angeles thus presenting us with a non-packed restaurant) we were quickly seated in an odd side room containing less than 15 tables near a glass case storing wine bottles. We were a little stunned as we had been excited about the presence of a grand piano in the main dining room, knew it was so early that the dining room couldn’t possibly have been filled already, and had made our reservations through Open Table which typically assures great seating and preferred treatment to loyal food scene patrons. But we shrugged off our confusion still excited about our meal.

Within a half-an-hour our room was almost full and as we looked around at our other dining companions, we realized that every party contained one or more Asian people except for the lone table of two African American folks. My boyfriend who is Asian American looked at me askance and asked, “Hmm, do you think there’s something racist going on here?”

Hearing someone I love ask that question made my heart sink; especially the CG who is one of those guys who is always perfectly diplomatic when others run hot under the collar. For him to notice or think something like this was huge and it made an instant stamp of ire on my guts. As I looked around the room, and continued to see the same occurrence throughout the rest of the evening (only minorities seated in our room while many white people and extremely hot, plastic-enhanced women continued to be seen standing in the waiting area but inevitably seated elsewhere) my stomach continued to sour. We bit our tongues and ate our over-the-top and indulgent food but inside my thoughts were racing.

Really? Was this really happening right before my very own eyes? Racism in Los Angeles in a restaurant in 2014? In a city known for its sophisticated eaters of all nationalities? In a city that prides itself on being a cultural melting pot? In Beverly Hills where celebrities of every color drop hefty amounts of dough on a daily basis? I didn’t want to believe it … and when a younger white male pair was finally seated next to us I felt a momentary rush of relief until I saw them holding hands beneath the table as one of them received a slice of birthday cake and I realized that they, too, were considered a side room worthy minority for being gay. Whether you call it racism, preferential-ism, homophobia or just plain blatant segregation –something was clearly going on right in front of our faces and no one seemed to bat an eye.

When we left, we noticed a hefty white woman in her fifties with her pre-teen daughter standing on the curb waiting for their car service and joking with the valet as if she were a regular customer, saying “You know I never miss my $500 blow out appointment for my hair!”

I couldn’t sleep that night. I have never been privy to this kind of treatment before. I am your average American white girl — a blue eyed brunette mutt with a little German, French and Dutch thrown in. I have experienced preferential treatment on the other end of the spectrum as a woman, getting perks or let into bars first because of my gender and single status, but never the opposite. My soul hurt for my partner who, unfortunately, has been exposed to racism at various points in his lifetime. I felt enraged the next morning thinking about the nearly $400 I had given to this establishment. I also felt a little bit scared, like I wanted to scream something from the top of a mountain about this treatment, but because I didn’t have actual physical evidence or proof, it was something I could scream but that could potentially be squashed out, ridiculed or disbelieved. Then I felt ashamed and embarrassed at myself that I was even questioning these things. I was clearly a part of something very wrong yet I was afraid to open my mouth? I went through the rigmarole of submission, shame, and repression — all being the very emotions designed to perpetuate this kind of inappropriate and wildly backwards behavior in the first place. The next night I had dreams of the rich, white mafia of Beverly Hills taking out a hit on me and even felt a little afraid of talking about my experience.

We went online and researched to see if there was anything else written about this in the world of online reviews. We actually found a few things:

Disability Discrimination

After multiple conversations with the CG, I asked him, “How is this really possible in this day and age? I understand that racism and other isms exist but in a restaurant setting in a bustling metropolis? I mean, how do seating and wait staff get told to perform this kind of obvious segregation?”

“It’s just like when you see a line at a club and one is for all the common people and one is for the VIP,” he said. “They probably get away with this kind of separation by saying only let in our rich, white customers into this area who expect a certain kind of treatment and make sure their experience is filled with like-minded people just like a club stresses letting the prettiest, most sexy people in first. Because there are sports stars and celebrities of every color, they will certainly get seated in the good room thus allowing Mastro’s something to point out to prove they aren’t doing what they so deliberately are.”

Regardless of whether or not we could explain to ourselves why or why not this behavior could be happening right under our noses in our liberal city, we were still both bothered a week later and decided we needed to say something. He put up a very short and simple Yelp and I posted a similar piece on my Facebook page. By the end of the day, I had a large showing of support and was encouraged by many friends and family to write about this on my food blog. Normally not a place for political rants or personal essays that step out of the confines of food, I felt the issue was important enough to merit mentioning. My life in food is documented here regularly and is full of whimsical and joyous prose on my adventures in eating with the love of my life. But this experience made me realize that sometimes things are worth stepping out of the box for and that includes sharing authentic stories that reflect our common humanity. I didn’t ask for my steak to be served with a side of discrimination but that’s what I got. I wouldn’t want anyone else to experience the same thing that I did and there are plenty of other upscale steakhouses in the world that I would rather give my money to in the future.