Thursday, April 4, 2013

It's all about the bread

Bread is a basic staple that doesn't need to be reinvented. There are so many varieties that it can make anyone happy, except for those poor souls who are trying to keep it out of their diets...I feel sorry for you all.

One of my most vibrant gastronomic memories has to do with a warm loaf of bread coming out of a family oven in the French Basque Country. During that trip, I was so enamored by all of the haute cuisine gracing my plate, that I was actually told that I said in my sleep one night, "Oh my god, that was so delicious!" I wouldn't doubt that for a minute.

On this trip, my lovely roommate from Austria invited me into her family's home to celebrate the New Year. Of course we took a little day trip to Perpignan to have champagne on the beach at midnight, while throwing an around the world party with sample dishes from whatever country you dressed up as (I brought a Quiche Lorraine, dressed as a French woman...I know, how ironic). Then the rest of the trip was spent frolicking around the Basque Country, which is akin to the Shire for all you LotR fans, and much French-style celebrating was had.

It was one of those magnificent trips where you genuinely feel right at home, even though you don't speak the language, have a very limited knowledge of their traditions, and are worried which cheek you should kiss first--at some point you're just going to have to accept the fact that you will kiss someone's sister on the lips, as the pattern changes per village it seems. The family was warm and welcoming, they complimented my preposterous attempt at French, and they kept the fresh bread and cheese plate coming without fail. Oh yes, and they served tea afterwards in beautiful bowls that warmed both of your hands while you enjoyed the infusion--thank you.

Aside from the homemade fois gras from my roommate's grandmother, the perfectly cooked duck confit, the terrine of celery root and carrot, the fresh salads, and the little sips of wine, there was the bread. Let there be bread, I say, as it shines its warm glowing happiness all over the place. Sliced beautifully, offered liberally, and thrown on the tablecloth next to the plate for easy access. This bread came in a new form everyday because it was baked fresh everyday. Perhaps it was my lack of French, or perhaps it was that I felt like I was in a dream until we landed back in snowy Austria (another great story), but I neglected to get the recipe...ANY recipe before I left. Silly me.

However, three years later I am still dreaming of that trip. I finally got around to asking for the recipe, so I could try to recreate that magical moment on this side of the Atlantic. And my friend's mom kindly obliged! The result was a deeply flavored double-rise bread with a crispy, but not hard crust, and a beautifully spongy inside, perfect for sopping up sauces, absorbing olive oil, or melting sweet butter into its pockets.

It's reassuring to know that I can carry my friends around in my memories, and that they are always going to be there for a good catch up and some recipe swapping. A warm slice of this bread really does taste like that time of travel and adventure. What a powerful product made from four simple ingredients and some heat.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Fresh spring start...

A chef in her whites and checks, and another in his stripes and whites having a well-deserved brewski at Garage Bar during Yappy Hour. We brought little Puff, my sister's mini Australian Shepard, with us to delight in the sunshine we were sorely missing. Seeing all the little pups making friends with each other, everyone stretching out under the rays, and good food popping up on those fuzzy recycled turf topiaries, was a landscape to marvel. I am definitely one for eating al fresco, and it seems that that's the trend of our fair city as well.

Spring has sprung, and so has my appetite, so I'm back with a new approach to the Louisville Lady Gourmet. This is still a continuation of my love affair of food, but instead of making you all endure my already minimalist approach to recipe writing, I'm just going to document my experiences with food, the way it was or I think it should be made, and then we're going to see if it flies.

There is something special about people's relationship to food. It is the primary activity we all share, aside from birth and death. Everyone likes their food to taste good, to come from the earth instead of a tin, and to provide nourishment enough to make it to the next meal. Beyond all of that, we find ourselves seeking out meal companions to share these moments with, when we can all sit down for a little break and enjoy the same activity no matter who we are.

We are lucky enough to have a great neighbor across the hall, who is willing to try out my food experiments, and offer an equal (and often greater) exchange of goods. So, one day I had some okra in the fridge, as I do now in fact, and I decided to whip up some fresh okra and corn fritters with a little red onion and garlic. I think fried okra is my favorite food, but these fritters hit the spot and stayed true to the delicious Southern tradition. I guess as long as corn meal and okra are paired, you can't go wrong. Not long thereafter, I shot a call across the hall to see if there were appetites to be assuaged, and what do you know? There were! So we trucked on over with our plate of fritters and soon we were eating them and drinking cold beers, with some pork cutlets and garlic rice thrown on the fire for our second course.

Homemade gnocchi
Post-thanksgiving turkey croquetas
Pooling food resources is a practice that I got into when I was living in Austria and I had 6 roommates and 10 other neighbors who loved to throw together food from all of our cultural backgrounds to feed everyone. We delighted in crêpes, bacalhau, tortillas, profiteroles, turkey dinners, croquetas, cornbread, Korean pancakes and glass noodles, muffins baked with fresh fruit, hot cereal with cinnamon and cardamom apples, gazpacho like you wouldn't believe, and so much love and big appetites around the table that we couldn't get enough. I remember those moments whenever good food passes my plate, which is to say quite often. We all ate--normally 2-3 times a day for us lucky ones--but coming together made something quite different...making cooking and eating, for me, completely irresistible.

This continued on my journeys in Spain, arguably the place where my most intense and rewarding adventures in food were. I have a dear friend, whom I am sure I've mentioned before, who also liked the idea of sharing food resources. I have a penchant for cooking whatever I have left in the pantry at the end of the week, and making a few courses of interesting combinations with nothing left to waste. She has the gift of blissful conversation, engaging rhetoric, and great friendship. This served us well on adventures with frushi (strawberries from Huelva rolled in sushi rice), grilled romaine hearts with dressing, beans and rice, fish, salads, omelets, basically anything that could be created from our laughable leftovers.

Jamón Ibérico
Finally, on the adventures with my now fiancé, we went back and forth along the entire country of Spain and well into Portugal, eating gigantic meals with loving family and friends, seeking out hidden paellas in beach villages outside of Barcelona, traveling to Bar Tomas (not actually the real name, but that was the owner's name) for the best patatas bravas in the world, moaning over tapas as big as our head in Granada, finding secret outdoor grills on Portugal's southern coast that offer no menu and will feed you until you burst with food that just jumped out of the sea, and making our own creations from the exaggeration of fresh markets that generously open their arms to fill my empty bags. I always found myself eating and cooking with people I loved, stranger or friend.

These experiences have made me into the person I am. I make food everyday that transports me back to these moments in time. I guess this slice of the virtual world is used to immortalize those moments and to remind me that they never really go away.

Today, with the language classes I teach, I am bringing my students into the kitchen and inviting the real world application of preparing food and kitchen conversation into foreign language acquisition. I've had some great response to it, both from my students' satisfaction and their progress. I don't know why I didn't act on it sooner. Most recently, I gave a Spanish class in which we prepared chiles en nogada, a traditional Mexican dish. A few weeks before that I prepared cactus, which is a staple to many people, but rarely eaten here. And of course I had to go back to my roots by whipping up some sopa de garbanzos, patatas bravas, and ensalada con queso cabrales.
Chiles en nogada with Mexican rice
Perhaps that is enough for today. Hopefully this has inspired you, dear readers, to go out and seek your own great food journey, alongside hungry friends, neighbors, or family. It has brought and continues to bring me infinite happiness. I'll continue rambling later...I have lots more to come!