Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My Father and the Crockpot

It sounds like a musical, doesn't it?

I'm thinking about my father this morning, and have been thinking about him a lot lately. Every person I know seems to have a favorite dish that her mom made. (I do too; that's where thai curry comes from.) But it seems like dads hardly ever get cited as the creators of childhood food favorites.

This is kind of weird to me, because both my dad and my stepdad (and even my grandfather, who I lived with when I was little) have had huge impact on my food preference to roughly the same extent that my mother (and my crazy grandmother, who mostly ruined foods for me) has. My stepdad's largely responsible for introducing me to restaurant food. He grew up in New York City, the child of a famous photographer and an opera singer. He was exposed to a LOT of good restaurants at an early age, and I think that gave him a lifelong hunger for more. We lived in a town with very, very, very few restaurant options, but he would drive hours away to try something new. Despite my vegetarianism*, I was STILL considered the least picky/most adventurous/least whiny of my siblings foodwise, so I often got to go along with him and my mother on these restaurant quests. And so he passed on the love of restaurants (and even more importantly, the love of trying new foods) to me, and I'm thankful for that.

Also, like my mother, my stepdad cooked in restaurants and bars throughout my childhood and helped expose me to the kitchen life. He's where I learned most of what I know about kitchen knives from, and also responsible for teaching me how to put out grease fires. (In fact, I think it was the second or third time I met him that he taught me to put out grease fires. That would've made me... eight?) And I credit his and my mother's smoking with turning me into a pepperhead... their dulled taste buds meant that everything was super super hot. I grew up eat sriracha out of the bottle... and here I am now. So, yeah, pretty clearly formative.

My dad's a very different case. At first glance, you might wonder how on earth he's had any food-related effect on me. He doesn't particularly like to cook, I don't think. He likes to eat, but no more so than the next person. His interest in ethnic foods is extremely limited... I know he likes Korean food a lot and that he'll eat ANY kind of sea food, but other than that, he's a strictly sweet'n'sour pork kinda guy. He loves takeout food and generally dislikes going out to eat immensely, especially to places he's never been before. He is hands down one of the most repetitive eaters that I know, and likes to have a sort of schedule of eating. For instance, when I was little, he would take my sister and I to MacDonald's on Friday nights. Sunday nights, we got pizza. We could NEVER have pizza on Friday and MacDonald's on Sunday. Later, when I was in high school, we'd get hoagies from the local pizza place on Tuesdays, sure as anything.

In some ways, we're polar food opposites. You know me, I'll eat anything, provided that it's not made of animal products or lima beans. (Actually, I'd eat lima beans if someone other than my grandmother cooked them.) I love ethnic food of all varieties, and I love eating new things at new places. I cook for fun, and I love food more than roughly anything else.

On the other hand, I often fall into repetitive food patterns. (See: the amount of toast I've eaten over the past few months, the bagel I always order at the local bagel place, etc.) I like having a sort of food schedule. I love takeout food (though I prefer delivery, which more or less doesn't exist in Santa Cruz).

But we share something that goes beyond any of this. We are both intensely lazy about food. Okay, let me explain on my dad's behalf... overall, he's not a lazy guy whatsoever. Dude works overtime basically every day. He goes to work at 4 or 5 in the morning and comes home around 6 at night. He goes to work on Saturday mornings and occasionally on Sundays too. He never misses work for anything except for the anniversary of his father's death. (They were very close, and it hits him really hard every year.) He is an extremely hard worker.

Which's why, I think, he wants to do NOTHING when he gets home. Insofar as I can surmise, his ideal post-work evening involves sitting in his comfy chair, reading a book, drinking a beer, and watching the Daily Show. (This is actually disturbingly close to my ideal evening.) Eating is almost an annoyance... it's just something that has to get done so he can enjoy the rest of his evening relaxing. Which's not to say he wants to eat something he doesn't like for dinner... he doesn't want to. But he also doesn't want to put much effort into what he eats.

During the school year, I feel exactly the same way about 90% of the time. I'm so freaking stressed out from working all the time that I just want food to BE THERE. I wish I had a magic food fairy who would make it for me, but I don't, so I tend to default to eating whatever is around that involves little or no effort, just like Dad!

This brings us, finally, to the crockpot. As you might guess from my description of him, my dad didn't cook for us a whole lot when we were kids. He only saw us one or two days a week (Friday and Sunday nights for awhile, then Friday night and all day Sunday, then sometimes all day Saturday and Sunday) until we moved in with him**. We mostly got takeout food or had sandwiches or something. But sometimes he would cook, and when he did, it almost always involved the crockpot.

Oh, man. You know, I don't miss meat at all and never have. But I miss my dad's barbeque pork from the crockpot. It was so... not even recognizable as meat. Just thick, rich, onion-y barbeque sauce smothering super soft, tender bits of stuff that fell apart and almost melted magically in the mouth. We'd eat it with slices of bread with margarine and maybe some potato chips (give my dad sour cream and onion or give him DEATH) and it was, oh, all I'd ever wanted in food. When I think about crockpots, that's what I think of... this magical transmutation of food I don't particularly like on its own (onions, which I could only eat if they're cooked so far as to be unrecognizable as onions... I'm a bit better now, but still can't eat them raw; pork, which I didn't like; barbeque sauce, to which I was and still am largely indifferent) into the most delicious and comforting food ever.

Did I mention he sometimes made sandwiches out of this stuff? Oh yes. After 10 or 12 hours in the crock pot, the barbeque was hot enough that you could just slap it on bread and put a piece of cheese over and the cheese would melt beautifully without any further effort.

Really, I think I still think of this simple act of crockpot cooking as a sort of magic. I remembering wondering why the hell no one else I knew cooked stuff in a crockpot, and I remember wishing that we could go to dad's more often on crockpot days. I'm sure he must have made something other than that barbeque in the thing as he used it ALL THE TIME, but I can't remember what.

Anyway, anyway. Back to the present day. I've been longing for a crockpot lately, as lazy food is what I need right now and magically delicious lazy food is really superior to toast. I saw 4 qt one the other day for 15 bucks and was like SCORE! I'm kind of in love with the thing... so far I've had sloppy lentils and black bean soup in it. Today I'm embarking on barbeque tofu. While it's necessarily going to be pretty different than my dad's version, I'm still very excited about it... almost too excited. It's an experimental recipe, so who knows if it will even be any good. Oh, who am I kidding? EVERYTHING from the crockpot is good.

This one definitely goes out to my dad, though, tofu or no. Maybe I'll call him tonight after it's done. I'm feeling all sentimental about that cuddly old curmudgeon.

Slow Cooked Marginally Korean Barbecue Tofu
serves 2-4

1 tbsp olive oil
1 white onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch ginger root, peeled and minced
1 persimmon, chopped
1 bottle vegan Korean barbecue sauce, such as Wonnie's
1 14.5oz can of crushed tomatoes
20oz super firm tofu, cut into 16 wedges***

1. Turn the crockpot up to high and add the tablespoon of olive oil and the chopped onion. Stir to coat. Put the lid on and cook for 20 minutes.
2. Add the garlic, ginger, and persimmon, stir to coat (again). Put the lid on and cook for another 15 minutes. At this point, everything should be softened a bit.
3. Now add everything else (barbecue sauce, tomatoes, and tofu) and stir again so that it's all coated. Reduce the heat to low and replace the lid.
4. Cook for 6-8 hours.

*Though my stepdad's a staunch meat eater (and the only person I know who has even been truly HAPPY on Atkins), he's always been willing to try vegetarian food... and anything else. Dude just loves food.

**My sister moved in with him when she was 14, then I followed suit when I was 14. Then she moved back out a yearish later, and I stayed.)

***For me, this is one package... for most brands of tofu, this is about a package and a half... also, just plain firm is fine, but press that bad boy.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Cornish Pasties: A Love Letter

Amazing how much good food will make me forget.

Tonight I made vegan cornish pasties from the Vegan Lunchbox cookbook. We're talking awesome whole wheat pastry wrapped around a savory filling of vegan sausages, shallots, turnips, and potatoes, seasoned with a bit of Marmite (?! I am AMAZED to find a context in which this is edible) and lots and lots and lots of black pepper. Oh man, SO GOOD.

That I love food like this probably points to my heritage-- I'm half Irish, a quarter German, and a quarter mystery. (Really, my grandmother on my father's side was found in a field in Canada when she was a baby. Who KNOWS what she might be?) It's really not surprising that I utterly adore such ridiculously western European foods as pasties. Of course, my bizarre American food habits instruct the actual preparation of such foods...

I sometimes think about my ancestors and what they'd think if they could see me now. Consider that as recently as the 50s, big supermarkets like Safeway were a sort of MARVEL to normal people. Imagine! You could have tomatoes ANY time of year! Etcetera. Definitely a dream come true... I feel like those people must be sad now to read about us hippies who only want to eat in-season tomatoes from local farms. But of course, I can't help what I am...

Veganism and vegetarianism used to be things you HAD to go through for one reason or another: it was war time, you were poor, your teeth weren't good enough to chew meat, etcetera. In a way, it is pretty incredible that we are privileged enough to choose this lifestyle.

Anyway, I'm rambling. All I wanted to get at, really, is that I LOVE these pasties.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Oh, rosemary

Hello! It seems like it's been forever since I posted. School has been beating the life out of me three ways from Thursday and I have mostly either been not eating or eating broiled tofu or eating toast. Mostly toast. Toast accounts for seriously like 65% of what I've eaten in the month of November, though.) So much for breaking that habit via MoFo, eh? :/

Tonight I am actually making pasta. I think my first MoFo post was about my red sauce that isn't much like your typical red sauce at all. I'm making another variant of it this evening, which made me think to post. But what really got me here to write was rosemary.

Oh, rosemary. Fresh rosemary. How I love you! I really feel like rosemary may be my favorite herb. (Tarragon, too, but I haven't had fresh tarragon in years.) It seems like most vegans are all about thyme, but I really feel pretty ambivalent about old thyme. It just can't compare to my rosemary.... sweet, pungent, delightful, beautiful rosemary.

It's supposed to be more or less impossible to kill rosemary. I've found the stuff growing wild on the tops of Californian mountains in zones of 110 degree full sunlight.

Inspired by this and my love for the herb, I tried to grow it over the summer. It flourished nicely for about a month and then abruptly took a turn for the worse. All the needles turned brown and fell off. Such misery.

But tonight I have several stalks of lovely fresh rosemary from my CSA. I've probably put way too much of it in my sauce... as if there could be too much rosemary. I ate some on toast with tomatoes this morning. Nom nom nom.

The timer's going off, and I've forgotten where exactly I was going with the rosemary thing, so it's off to eat. Yay!