Unorthodox Foodie’s Kimberly Nichols is currently featured on Eat Your World with a special piece on Congee, Old and New. Enjoy!
Unorthodox Foodie’s Kimberly Nichols is currently featured on Eat Your World with a special piece on Congee, Old and New. Enjoy!
When I met the Cute Gardener (oh, going on about six years ago now), one of the most delightful things about him was the fact that he didn’t like to celebrate birthdays or Valentine’s Day or other so-called “special” occasions. He felt that every day should be great, and why should we designate certain days to take a break out of our lives to revel in happiness when we could just live happy? Well, that fit my M.O. to a tee, which is why we are super compatible. I am the girl who forgets your anniversary but will buy you a souvenir on a whim in Mexico because it reminds me of you for no reason at all, other than I love you!
So, this means that pretty much every night is a reason to celebrate existence. Most nights, the CG cooks for me, as readers of my blog diligently know. But the one time a week that I cook, I go all out. Complex recipe… Multiple store shopping…. ¼ of one month’s budget in one day expended. That’s traditional. The only thing that gives me a little grief in those instances is that I have to plan a whole meal around one item that originally grabbed me. Sometimes I see a starter I want to make, or a dessert, and then I have to go through the mental machinations of figuring all the rest of the components out. As an artist, that kind of strategy isn’t exactly something that flows.
So, I was delighted this week when I could just say to the CG that I wanted to make a salad and he could say to me in return, “Fine, I would be happy to stay outside and smoke some meat without having to worry about side dishes in the kitchen.”
We may have found our groove. Because what resulted was an incredible night of my favorite kind of funky, fatty grilled lamb alongside a superfood-esque, co-opted panzanella salad and our equally beloved petite sirah from Santa Barbara’s Jaffurs winery.
Panzanella Salad with Asparagus Instead of Tomatoes for Two
(adapted from a Food and Wine recipe)
Preheat the oven to 350. Put the eggs in a saucepan of water and bring to a simmer over moderately high heat. Simmer for 6 minutes. Drain the saucepan and fill it with cold water. Crack the eggs all over and let stand in the water for 1 minute. Peel and thickly slice the eggs; the yolks will be barely cooked but not runny.
Spread the bread pieces on a baking sheet and brush lightly with olive oil. Bake for about 12 minutes, until crisp.
Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the asparagus until just tender, about 3 minutes. Drain, cool and cut the asparagus in half lengthwise.
In a small bowl, combine the 1/8 cup plus 1 tablespoons of oil with the vinegar; season with salt and pepper. In a large bowl, toss the asparagus, toasted bread, greens, onion and cheese. Drizzle with the dressing and toss. Garnish with the eggs and radish and serve.
The smoothie has come a long way since it first hit the trendiness scale in the late 1980s. I remember the day when my stepfather brought home a fancy schmancy blender and started making us the newfangled and so-called “healthy milkshakes” involving frozen bananas, real vanilla ice cream and high caloric protein powders for dessert or before we would hit the treadmill post-homework in our equally trendy home gym. The fad lasted for about a month before the blender ended up gathering dust in the cabinet above the fridge like many other good intentions in our household.
Nowadays, the smoothie has morphed into its new incarnation as a truly healthy way to disguise and suck down super foods daily, super foods having become the craze of my generation. We want to eat our kale and chia seeds, we just don’t want to taste them. Therefore we have created yet another way to hide the vitamins in something that tastes good in order to ingest them in the amounts we are told we need them.
A day does not go by in my household where I don’t fire up the Nutribullet early morn with its cup stuffed to the brim with ingredients designed to keep me well, glowing and vibrant. Because it can get a little boring to have the same old smoothie, or variations thereof 365 days a year, I am always on the lookout for new recipes. My neighbor recently went to New Zealand and found a little gem of a shake from a street corner vendor that we both swear actually does taste like an oatmeal cookie. I spiffed it up with some organic maca and pumpkin puree for the holidays to make it my own.
NEW ZEALAND NUTTY
1/2 frozen banana
1/2 frozen pear
1/4 cup pumpkin puree
1 tsp. organic maca powder
1-1/2 cup almond milk
1 tbs. soaked chia seeds
Handful raw walnuts
Cinnamon to sprinkle on top
Put everything except for the cinnamon in a blender and blend. Pour into a glass and sprinkle cinnamon on top.
I 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.
The 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:
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.