grade A upgrade

perhaps one of the most important kitchen tools, as far as blogs go, is a camera. of course not nearly as important as a sharp knife, a good cast iron skillet, a reliable gas stove, or a kick ass food processor. though some would probably argue this point, preparing and especially EATING the food we make is far more important than blogging about it. documenting and finding clever things to say about our meals is fun and rewarding, but the cooking comes first.

however, since i do find myself in the casual business of publicly sharing the culinary part of my life with all who care to read and view, it's nice to feel like i'm doing it with some style. up until very recently, i felt severely limited in this respect by my pedestrian point-and- shoot digital camera. even the best lighting scenarios i could muster - even just nice daylight by the window sill - never seemed to do the food, or the labor i put into it, justice. what's the fun in reading about food without some visual evidence? i thank you all for bearing with some seriously less than stunning photography.

however, all this is about to change! tuesday was my 29th birthday, and bestowed upon me was an incredibly generous, thoughtful and totally out-of-the-blue gift from ryan and my mom:

hello, beautiful

this slick digi SLR beast is all mine, and it's just killer. i hate to brag
, but i'm just so stoked on it and wanted to share with you all! i feel like i just graduated, or something. anyway, from this day forward, expect a serious upgrade from the VR photography. except maybe for photos taken outside of our house - i am still too nervous to bring my new camera out into the harsh world!



the bitter end

back in the days of collective living in west philly, one of the all-time best housemates, mary maker, bought a bottle of campari for our house bar. perhaps it was for a special cake flavor, as she was wont to experiment with, or a brief flirtation with before-dinner cocktails - the reason isn't as important as the fact that, unlike every other form of alcohol to grace the shelves in our house, this one wasn't sucked down within moments of entering the building. and because i can't bear to throw out perfectly good booze, i've spent the last few years lugging the half full bottle of crimson, syrupy liquer from one rental to another. an ounce or two has been sipped, but for the most part it has stood quietly amongst the other, more popular inhabitants of our liquor cabinets.

campari, like most bitter flavors, is foreign to the average young drinker's palate. the flavor profile isn't one we're introduced to often as children, and when we are, we're generally conditioned to equate these tastes as "medicinal," or just "gross." while i still don't think a glass of straight campari is my tipple of choice, i've come to appreciate a dose of bitterness in my older age. maybe this can be attributed to the fabled every-7-year-taste-buds-changeover (when foods and flavors you used to despise are suddenly tolerable, or even enjoyable). or maybe it was my stint at the 40th street Capogiro, whose italian-centric liquor selection included amaro of many shades and strenghts that i cautiously sampled throughout my time working there. i found that when i really gave these strange new flavors a fighting chance, instead of just assuming i wouldn't like them, some of them were really quite wonderful.

and so lately, the ancient bottle of campari in my possession has been slowly but surely disappearing. finishing the bottle - which at one time seemed like an insurmountable feat - is now immanent, and when the last drop is gone, i just might buy another. the "negroni sodi," as i've dubbed it, is my new favorite apertif of choice: just the right amount of astringent to rev up the old appetite before dinner.

Negroni Sodi - a lovingly bastardized apertif
~makes 1 cocktail

1 ounce good quality gin (or, whatever, you can use crappy gin if you want to)
1/2 ounce dry vermouth
1/2 ounce campari
slice of orange (optional)

- fill a rocks glass full of ice cubes.

- pour the gin, then slowly add the vermouth and campari.

- top with cold seltzer water, and stir gently. garnish with an orange wedge if you want to go the extra mile.

- imbibe. but be prepared! this manner of cocktail really does stimulate your appetite, so if dinner isn't for another hour or two, have some little snacks on hand!

for fancier times, the gin/vermouth/campari can be topped with sparking wine - a negroni royale! i've always love the fact that champagne or sparking wine added to almost any beverage makes it a "royale." sound so much classier than "spritzer," don't you think?



evil twin

on a whim the other week, i brought a nice cache of fresh fennel back from the superfresh (goddamn, i miss the farmer's market). once breaking two lovely bulbs down, i realized it was just too much fennel for one dish. well, it would've been the perfect amount for tomato soup with two fennels, but we were in the midst of a spell of warm weather, and i was feeling kinda souped out.

so in the interest of diversification, i tried two very different approaches to preparing this licorice scented beaut. the first was a crunchy, tangy salad that plays the clean, citrusy flavors of grapefruit off the clean, sharp flavors of the fennel. a handful of thinly sliced red onion added a pungency which popped against a backdrop of tender lettuce leaves. i then dressed this pink and purple melange with a light shower of orange juice, mild honey, red wine vinegar and xvo. this salad brought a fierce brightness to the plate, which is just what a winter salad should do. it would be a great compliment to a rich entree of stew, pasta, or braised protein.

i reserved the other half of the fennel slivers for another night, which, in typical spring fashion, was as cold and rainy as the previous night had been warm and breezy. so, i decided to take a totally opposite direction, with an easy, fuss free recipe from the stellar The Essential NY Times Cookbook by amanda hesser. the fennel is steamed for just under ten minutes, and then sauced with a chile-infused olive oil, and a touch of salt and pepper. i lined the plate with a bed of arugula in a half assed attempt to squeeze some more greens into my diet.

i really love vegetables that are equally good cooked and raw, and fennel really wins in both cases. it's so hard to imagine when eating it in its sweet and crunchy raw state that it can also be transformed into a silky version of itself. these two wildly different treatments of fennel reminds me of that always enthralling narrative theme - the evil twin. like, the raw fennel salad is cheery, sweet and straightforward, while the spicy, steamed fennel is mysterious, rich, almost musky. ok, i'll stop personifying my food and just get on with recipe already.

Steamed Fennel with Spicy Olive Oil
adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook by Amanda Hesser
~takes about 15 minutes~

1-2 fresh fennel bulbs, trimmed and sliced thinly (i mean, really you can make this with as much or little fennel as you'd like - just adjust the amount of olive oil)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1-2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes, depending on how much spiciness you enjoy

- place the fennel in a steaming basket over a pot of gently boiling water. steam until tender, 5-7 minutes.

- in the meantime, put the olive oil in a small pot over a very, very low flame. after it is gently warmed, turn the heat off and swirl in the red pepper flakes. set this aside. if you are in the habit of making your own olive oil infusions, this would be a wonderful opportunity to skip this step entirely and use your ready-to-go flavored oil.

- when the fennel is done, plate it as artfully or messily as you care to. gently drizzle the infused olive oil over it, and sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper, to taste.

while you eat it, listen to this song and think about all the awesomely dangerous, selfish and lascivious things you would do if you had an evil twin.



can't trace time

i'm sitting here in the kitchen, finishing a simple dinner of roasted purple potatoes and oyster mushrooms with sun dried tomato & parsley pesto, and a nice big side salad. the radio is playing softly in the background, but i'm not paying much attention. maybe it was the long, heated discussion i had with my friend carrie earlier today about food and american culture, but i'm feeling a little sentimental tonight.

how things have changed since i swore off meat in 1996. that the words vegetarian, vegan, raw, gluten free, and locavore are even present in the mainstream vernacular is something spectacular. at the dawn of my vegetarianism, the only people publicly meat-free that i knew of were my fellow politicized punks and hardcore kids, hippies, and people motivated by religious doctrines. foods that are now relatively easy to find in regular groceries (tofu, organic produce, ancient grains, carob, etc.) were only available in my hometown's small natural foods co-op, which smelled funny and was certainly not a place for one-stop-shopping. this was before whole foods moved east, before isa had cookbooks for sale on amazon, before farmer's markets were in every public park on saturdays. it's weird to say this, but they really were different times - barely 15 years ago! i'm not sure exactly who to thank (i'm sure an accurate list would include tens of thousands of names), but the foodscape i face now as a vegetarian is a million percent more accommodating then when i first embarked on this personal culinary journey.

this was driven home even more while i was walking around reading terminal market on monday, killing a bit of time before meeting mom and sis at the philadelphia flower show. while cruising the many stalls hawking both edible and non-food wares in this most excellent philadelphia institution, i veered off into a cook book store. while browsing, i came across a sight that made my heart swell:

this was only about 1/2 the shelf, too!

an entire shelf dedicated to vegan cookbooks! the vegetarian and produce-centric books took up almost another two shelves, as well. even in this snapshot, there are vegan tomes for every taste: the calorie conscious (i.e. "skinny bitch"...i want to hate it but must ask - is it better than nothing?), the time-strapped ("fresh & fast vegan"), the conscious parent ("vegan lunch box"), and the post-punk warrior ("veganomicon," i will never tire of thee).

and so while the world is still riddled with problems, and most americans' diets are somehow worse than ever, there is a silver lining. many people who used to have no clue, at least know what veganism means, however vaguely. businesses and stores that specialize in vegan, vegetarian, and natural products are flourishing. it's becoming normalized to spend time thinking and talking about how our diets affect agriculture, animal cruelty, the environment, the economy, and of course, our health. for sure, i could go on about this for many more paragraphs, but i'll just leave it at this: there are so many things about the current state of our world that scare me shitless. thankfully, one thing that bolsters me and helps me feel brave is knowing that, as far as personal diet choices go, i am less alone than ever before.