Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Not-So-Friendly Skies

A quick note to say: what is going on with airline food today?

I didn't take my first flight until I was nearly twenty years old. By then my expectations had reached mammoth heights, and I spent weeks before my trip imagining the glories of air travel. Turns out there isn't a single glamourous thing about winging your way from one coast to another, and the least glamourous thing seems to be the food. I mean, honestly, what's going on? Bankruptcy, for one, meaning that United (and other airlines, I'm sure) now make you pay for boxes of snacks with kicky names like "The Jumpstart" which contains a whole bevy of overprocessed, under-vitamined, overpackaged garbage.

But I think there's a bigger problem here. The setting: a boardroom somewhere. The players: Airline execs in power suits. The lunch served in meeting: Vitamin water, anemic cookies, wrap sandwiches. The subject: what food translates well to the friendly skies.

In a situation like this, the only meals you would expect them to dream up are salisbury steak and vegetarian meals that consist only of fruit and bottled water. In my fantasy I imagine that once Alice Waters finishes her worthy crusade against shitty school lunches ( she wields her influence against the good people at the FAA, demanding that they improve the quality of plane food. Unfortunately, unlike the school lunch initiative, there's no government funding for our inflight dinner, so I suspect my fantasy will remain just that.

In the meantime, I encourage savvy jetsetters to pack their own bento boxes filled with fresh and delicious treats, guaranteed to make those sitting near you very, very jealous.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

In case you ever want to go home again

Some things change a lot, and other things never do. I went home to Vermont for the first time since moving to California in April and was pleased to discover that my mother's kitchen is exactly as I had remembered it. The occasion was my father's 60th birthday, which required lots of great food and a big cake, of course.

My mom is a cook, too, and messing around with food seems to be in our blood. We like planning menus and parties, and we really like cooking good things for people we love. Friday morning found us brainstorming the menu for the next day's festivities-- shrimp on the grill, deviled eggs, fried chicken, corn salad, broccoli and cauliflower salad, biscuits, bean salad with walnut vinaigrette and the cake--a four-layer white cake layered with whipped cream and my mother's homemade raspberry-chocolate jam. It was summer picnic at its finest, cooked in the wretchedly humid East Coast weather.

Fried Chicken truly brings out the best in humankind. It's stinky, greasy and annoying to make, but so wonderful to eat--frying up a big batch is culinary shorthand for "I love you." There's a lot of good information about fried chicken out there (I happily defer to the great John T. Edge, Southern food writer extraordinaire, and his seminal book, Fried Chicken and Apple Pie) and plenty of good recipes. When I'm at the cast iron skillet, I keep it simple: flour seasoned with salt and pepper and cayenne, chicken soaked in buttermilk, vegetable oil for frying. A friend that grew up in Arkansas turned me on to the wonders of double battering, in which you take the chicken out of the buttermilk, dredge it in the flour, back into the buttermilk and one more turn through the flour. This is very good, if you're in the mood for lots of crispy coating.

At any rate, all of the fried chicken was eaten, the guests and the guest of honor relished the meal, and our heroine discovers, happily, that home was just where she left it.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Good, The Bad, The Overcooked

I found myself on San Francisco's Clement Street on Friday night, a kind of mini-Chinatown that springs forth from the middle of the Richmond. I purposely went without any recommendations on where to eat--I figured that I'd follow my nose, peer in windows, look for signs of life (and dumplings). My dining companion and I lingered in front of many a window, retraced our steps a few times--you don't want to make a mistake, here--and finally settled on Taiwan Restaurant.

It wasn't the decor that drew us in, I promise you that, but rather the chef in the window manning two enormous steamers, with barbequed pork buns and elegant pinched dumplings on deck. We ordered the gingery chicken dumplings and the pork dumplings and then tried to pick the perfect time to eat them, before they cooled down but after they pass through the stage where they burn your mouth, thereby ruining the rest of your meal. We also enjoyed a very fine plate of braised green beans topped with a handful of ground pork, lots of garlic and some Chinese pickled vegetables. All of this is just build up to what I really want to tell you about, though: the Taiwan spare ribs.

Now, I'm not really a spare rib kind of girl. But my curiousity was piqued, and the waiter gave an appreciative nod when I ordered them, like I was in the club. A huge platter of riblets appeared minutes later, braised, then deep fried, then rolled in the sublime sauce, which had hints of five spice powder and pineapple juice. I ate lots of them with great gusto, thinking of my friends Julia, who loves meaty things on the bone, the messier the better, and John, who confessed to me not too long ago that he doesn't like a) meat on the bone and b) onions in his food. More for us, John.

That's the good news. The bad news is that Sunday morning I had an absolutely dreadful brunch. At a respectable place, too, the kind of place that sets you back $50 for breakfast. The kind of place that is great at dinner, but at brunch turns into a place that you should warn your friends about. Luna Park, 18th and Valencia. I'm not going to say that it was a disaster--wait, that's exactly what I'm going to say. A trainwreck, disguised as breakfast. I ordered a chickpea stew with poached eggs and merguez sausage, and what I received was a bowl of underseasoned, undercooked chickpeas in a thin tomato broth, with a soggy square of bread in the middle, topped with two poached-to-the-point-of-hard-boiled eggs. And grizzled dry bits of merguez. Four grizzled bit, to be exact, each about the size of my thumbnail. When I alerted the waitress to the fact that the eggs were way overdone, and asked that she replace them, she did--with a bowl of poached eggs so UNDERCOOKED that the whites weren't even set. Actually, they were brought out by another waitress; I didn't see ours again until she brought us the check.

I suppose I could have been more aggressive about it, but I kind of thought that my entirely uneaten breakfast would send a signal. Wrong again. And the final straw? $2.75 for a cup of coffee that wasn't refilled a single time. I'm over it, I swear.

They should go take some lessons from the folks at Taiwan Restaurant.