Monday, July 30, 2007

How I Used Food to Get Married

Some foods are naturally linked to romance. Some are even reported to be powerful aphrodisiacs. For me, cooking and food has always been a way to open social doors and get dates. It even played an important role in helping me get married.

In my last post on food and dating, I mentioned how I used a particular marinara recipe as a way to entertain dates. Italian food is wonderful but, if I was going to turn My Future Wife (MFW) into my bride, I was going to have to up the ante. I resorted to one of the most powerful cuisine's I know - Chinese.

After dating MFW for a couple of years, we were both wondering where the relationship was going. What were we doing? We were both single, out of high school, and were expected to start making something of our lives. I had already served in the military and, although the opportunity for serving a mission for the LDS Church had been offered me, I wasn't jumping through hoops to sign up. I was too busy courting a lovely young blonde. Getting her to drop all semblance of common sense and marry me seemed to be the only way to make sure she tayed around.

So, I made my plans.

'Making plans' is really pretty deceptive. It makes it seem like I had taken several hours to come up with things, all down the last letter. Nothing could be further from the truth. How quickly this came into my head, and how quickly I executed it, would make your head spin. It had certainly made mine spin. I pretty much decided I wanted to marry her, and asked her as much, on the same date.

I had taken her to a local Chinese restaurant, the 'Canton Village.' (Sadly, it's no longer in business.) It was on the way to that restaurant that the decision to ask, and the plan itself, came nearly fully formed into my head. No, this wasn't a spiritual impulse from on high. I blame it on my infatuation with her and my natural impulsiveness. I've lost a lot of that impulsiveness over the intervening years. Some days I wish I had it back.

Right after being seated and placing our orders, I started into my act. I patted my pockets and said, "Oh, no. I forgot my wallet. Wait here while I go get it, okay?"

She gave me a look of concern but, as I'd never dumped her with the check before, she was probably safe to let me leave for a moment.

Instead of leaving right away, I stopped and spoke with the manager. I scribbled a quick note on a small piece of paper and tasked him with part of my quickly formulated, but super secret plan. MFW naturally assumed I was explaining the whole "forgot my wallet" thing to the manager and had no idea the real deviousness of my intent.

I left the restaurant and drove down the street about four blocks to 'The Flower Patch,' a flower shop I had used in the past. I ordered a dozen violet roses in a vase. (I was young. I didn't want to do traditional white roses. I wanted to be different.) They didn't have any long-stemmed ones, so short-stemmed would have to do. I was on a schedule.

Driving back to the restaurant, I secreted away the roses on the floor of the car, on the passenger's side. I knew they'd be the first thing she'd see when we got back to the car.

As I walked back into Canton Village, the manager greeted me with a conspiratorial smile, told me the preparations were in place, and I went back to dinner with MFW.

It was a very nice dinner. I love Chinese food. We had egg rolls and I think I ordered Mu Goo Gai Pan. It was all I could do to makes small talk without revealing myself. The food helped keep me occupied, thank goodness.

When the time came around for the bill, and the fortune cookies, they brought the cookies out on two separate plates - one for each of us. I don't remember what mine said, but MFW will always remember that hers read, in my horrible pencil scratch, "Will you marry me?"

MFW's eyes lit up. She gave me a broad smile, took my hand from across the table, and said, "Yes! Yes, I'll marry you!"

Then it was my turn to smile.

As I went to pay for the meal, the manager, and the rest of the staff, we're all huddled around, looking eagerly at me. "Well? What did she say?" my co-conspirators asked. I was glad to report the mission had been a success, and they seemed glad. I suspect it's not often that they got to help a guy propose.

Back out at the car, MFW found the roses, and hugged them all the way home.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

How I Used Food to Get a Date

Some people say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I think the same can be said for a woman’s heart. Nothing says ‘I love you’ like cooking a good meal.

In my last post, on how I became a Mormon Foodie, I mentioned a recipe book that the local Relief Society had published. There was a recipe in there for a killer marinara sauce that I used to make for the girls I was dating, including the one I married.

With her, I went all out.

I was twenty-two and had come back from military service about a year or so prior. In order to pay my way, I had become was a licensed EMT, working at a nursing home, and was getting ready to go to college. At the time I was also living with my parents, paying them “rent” money. As long as I was going to school they were fine with me living there and helping out. Who was I to argue about such a sweet arrangement?

My Future Wife (MFW) and I had met on a blind date set up by her brother, and had been dating for a while. One day, I called her up asked if she’d like to go to my favorite Italian restaurant, and then to a movie. Her common sense having somehow left her, she agreed to go out with me.

When the time came, I drove to her house to pick her up. She was her typical vision of loveliness – blonde hair, green eyes. She was to 'sigh for' in a nice blouse and pair of slacks. I’d told MFW we were going someplace special.

After seating her in my car, an old grey Chevette hatchback that I thought was much cooler than it really was, and took her back to my house. I had arranged for my folks to be out of the house and we had the place to ourselves.

Taking her into the house, I revealed the ‘restaurant.’ I had set up a card table in the living room, complete with candles and a checkered table cloth. I set it with the best china my parent’s had. MFW gave me a look somewhere between, “This is interesting.” and, “What have I gotten myself into?”

After seating her, and making small talk, I told her I needed to go check on the waiter. I scurried away, took off my sport coat, donned an apron, a false mustache, and grabbed the menus I’d created for the evening. Heading back I acted like the typical Italian American stereotype, speaking in a really bad Italian accent and waving my hands like a madman. I offered her the menu, and asked where her boyfriend had run off too. She gave me ‘the look’ again, but played along.

The menu only included the things I had prepared for the meal, or course. Spaghetti with marinara sauce, green salad with her choice of dressing, and some kind of sherbet based dessert. That’s all I’d done so she’d have to take it or leave it. I even wrote that in the menu.

After pouring some water, the ‘waiter’ went back to the kitchen and ‘I’ reemerged. We chatted a bit about the ‘waiter,’ and, after she’d made her selection (given the range of her choices this didn’t take very long), I went off again to ‘find the delinquent waiter.’

This went on a few more times, with the ‘waiter’ complaining to her about how her boyfriend was a louse for leaving her alone in such a crowded restaurant, and ‘me’ wondering why the service was so slow.

The meal was a hit! It turned out very well and MFW complimented me at all the right times. After cleaning things up a bit (I didn’t want to leave a mess for my folks to clean up), we took off for the movies.

We both had a great time but, to be honest, I don’t remember what movie we went to see.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

How I Became a Mormon Foodie

The story of my transformation from a mild mannered Mormon kid, into a raving food maniac, is a long and sordid one. I like to blame it on my mom, because she's such a good cook. Truth be told, she just sowed the seeds of my ... well, not really destruction but, you get the idea.

The Mormon part of the equation is pretty simple. Or rather it's complex. No, wait. It's simple. No . . . never mind. I was born into the LDS Church. I grew up in what used to be a suburb of Salt Lake City, and lived a pretty mundane life. Years later, as all rational thinking people do, I began questioning my actions and beliefs. I tried out various philosophies and religions ranging from Zen Buddhism to Scientology. In the end, I came back to my LDS roots. Even though I was born in the LDS Church, I still feel like there was a time in my mid-twenties when I was actually "converted."

So much for the 'Mormon' part of being a Mormon Foodie.

The Foodie part is a little stranger. I think it started with food as a source of comfort. It's very easy for parents to try and "fix" their children's problems by offering them a treat. As an adult I've begun to realize that it's more like a bribe. "Please quit screaming and I'll give you a cookie." For me it wasn't cookies, it was cold cereal.

"It's time for bed, John." my mother would say.

"But I'm hungry!" I would whine.

Rinse and repeat.

After a while, my Mom got tired of it, I'm sure, and just gave in.

"Fine. Pour yourself a bowl of cereal and then go to bed."

So, I grew up doing one of the things they tell you never to do (and to this day I still do way too often): eating just before bedtime.

Later, in fourth of fifth grade I think, I had another dose of food love. Through a school book program, I bought my first cookbook: "A Peanut's Cookbook." I loved the comic strip, so how could I pass this up? There were actually some pretty cool recipes in there (I still love the simplicity of 'Red Baron Rootbeer'), and I got a little weird about them. There was even a recipe for dog food (which my mother never let me make).

There was one recipe I remember called 'Sally's Scrambled Eggs." One day I got a little weird. I was too young for my mom to feel comfortable with me at the stove. I egged her on (pun intended) to make me eggs according to this recipe, and none other. She warned me they were going to be too salty (she was right), but the texture was light and fluffy. I'd never had scrambled eggs like that before.

Score one for cookbooks.

The Relief Society had something to do with me being a Foodie, too. Many ward Relief Societies are obsessed with doing various home craft projects from time to time, including, but not limited to, making cookbooks. Growing up, my home ward was no exception. At some point in my early teens, they combed the ladies in the ward and compiled a book of favorite recipes. I remember going through it and finding all kinds of weird dishes I'd never heard of. I'd seen them on TV and in magazines, but I'd never actually eaten them. My father's tastes in food stretched only so far, and so our typical family fair was, well ... pretty meat and potatoes based, with limited seasoning. Anything beyond salt and pepper was suspect.

For some unknown reason, I decided I was going to learn to cook. I already knew how to make toast and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, so I was good to go. How hard could it be? So I decided to start trying some of the recipes. Much to my parent's chagrin, I decided to make a cheese soufflé.

Okay, that probably wasn't the best choice, but it turned out alright. I thought it tasted good. It was light and fluffy, and vaguely cheesy. My parents ate it without making sour faces, so that was a good sign.

One odd thing I remember about it, though, was that my Parent's weren't at home at the time. Maybe I was trying to avoid them subconsciously, I don't know. My Dad was at work, and I don't remember where my Mom was. What I do remember, though, was calling my neighbor, Mrs. Sloane. I didn't know how to separate egg yolks from egg whites, and the recipe said I needed to. She thought I'd gone mad, but she was nice enough to come over and show me how.

Later on I used that same cookbook to get dates, or rather to entertain them. There was a recipe for a slow-cooked marinara sauce that I still think is the best I've ever had. On more than one occasion I cooked this up for the girls I was courting, including the one who became my wife.

But, you'll have to wait until later for rest of the story.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Do You Relax in Your Kitchen?

I found a great article (and video) over at Dr. Mercola is a naturopathic physician (N.D.) and has a pretty cool a website. This article was written by one of his associates, Lucy Lock.

Lucy asks us, "Who's Inhabiting Your Kitchen?" It starts by talking about how much time we spend in our kitchens, vs. the rest of our house. What it really brings up though, is the idea of cooking as a form of relaxation.

Cooking to relax is an interesting idea to me. My friend, Mark Hansen, says that's why he likes cooking in his Dutch oven. It's a way to unwind a bit and get away from the pressures of work and family. I'd always nodded my head and, to a degree, understood it. I mean, I like cooking as much as I like eating. But I've never thought of it as relaxing. I always feel like I'm a little pressured when preparing a meal for my family, to get everything timed just right and on the table at the same time.

What this article proposes - and I think it's a good proposal - is to treat cooking as a relaxing activity. We should take the time to get into the process, and experience it fully.

For just one meal a week, take the time to really enjoy cooking it. Go slowly. Enjoy putting the ingredients in. Enjoy the smell and flavor of each one. I promise you, after a while, you will find it very relaxing, and it will really help you get rid of some pent-up stress. And don't we all need to do that?

I know I certainly need that. So, trying to more fully understand my friend's experience, I'm going to try this suggestion. I'm going to try and slow down a bit in the kitchen, fully inhabit it, and turn my love of cooking into a time of relaxation, as well as recreation.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Secret Life of Wooden Spoons

My friend and fellow Foodie, Mark Hansen (of the Black Pot), commenting on my last entry about kitchen tools, told me that he liked wooden utensils for stirring things. I have to agree. I've always liked wooden spoons for dealing with cookie dough and certain stages of bread making.

Wooden spoons have been around since time began, it seems. The earliest ones I've found information on date back to 250 B.C. with the Iron Age Celts. They're not just used for cooking and eating, either. For over 200 years the Russians have been painting them, in some pretty amazing ways, as decorations (and now as tourist kitsch).

Before electric mixers came along, wooden spoons were used for to cream butter and sugar. Today they are used stirring all kinds of things from beverages, to casseroles, to risotto.

Wooden spoons offer several advantages over metal ones. First, they don't scratch up your non-stick pans like metal does. They also don't transfer heat very well, so they're great for dishes where heat is a concern. Top it all off with the fact that most wooden spoons are incredibly inexpensive to buy, and you've got a great product.

Of course they also tend to absorb strong odors, so be prepared to have them smell like onions and garlic (or worse) if you use them for that sort of thing.

As nice as all this sounds, wooden spoons lead a secret life that's made me wonder if I should keep using them or not. This secret life is literally that, life. They can be a safe haven for germs.

Washing wooden spoons in really hot water, certainly at the temperatures needed to kill harmful bacteria, can damage the spoon, hastening your need to replace it. If you don't wash it in really hot water, though, some of the bacteria may decide it wants to take up residence.

With the cost of new ones being so cheap, it's not like it's a big deal, but it's still given me pause. My kids broke my last set of wooden spoons, and I've not replaced them yet for that very reason. I'm considering some plastic ones, but I've not found any I really like, yet.

Maybe some of you know of some plastic spoons that can replace my good ol' wooden ones.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Top Ten (or so) Kitchen Tools

There are some kitchen tools that I find so useful I just can't imagine trying to cook without them. Now, I'm not talking about a stove, oven and refrigerator. There just a given, in my book. We're talking about all those other smaller utility tools that are just too useful to do without.

Here's my top ten:

1. A sharp, heavy duty chef's knife.
2. A really good serrated bread knife
3. A large hand grater.
4. A small hand grater.
5. A set of good mixing bowls.
6. A heavy duty wire whisk.
7. A vegetable peeler.
8. A good can opener.
9. A heavy bottomed non-stick sauté pan that can take being put in the oven.
10. A heavy bottomed stock pot (that can also take being put in the oven).

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, let me give you a few more that I though of. Sure, it makes 15, but “Top ten” just sounds cooler.

11. A heat resistant plastic spatula so I don’t scratch my sauté pan.
12. A rubber spatula for scraping bowls and jars.
13. A heavy cutting board.
14. A decent, but not too heavy, rolling pin.
15. A pair of heavy duty bread pans.

Hmmm. I just thought of a couple more.

16. A set of linen dishcloths.
17. A set of large pot holders. (I hate oven mitts. They never fit me right.)

Feel free to add your own.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Johhny Utah

Browsing through some of the food blogs I discovered this bit from the restaurant blog Eater.

It made me blink. Several times.

This month, someone is opening up a Southwestern steakhouse called Johhny Utah's on 51st street in New York. It's going to be at the Rockefeller Center Hotel, no less. The menu sure looks good.

As a Utah Foodie I find this fascinating. I'd never thought of Utah as being a bastion of southwestern cooking, but I've been wrong before. Given the fact that my first name is John made this all the more surreal. I've never been to New York, but I'll have keep up on this to see how it goes. I only hope it’s not somehow connected to the main character in this horrible movie.

I can admit it. I'm jealous. I wish it really was my restaurant instead of just sounding like it.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Dutch Oven

dutch ovenIf you've every come to Utah and talked with a Mormon about food, you're bound to run into a discussion on Dutch oven cooking. I don't do it, myself, but those who do treat it like a sub-religion unto itself. Dutch Oven cooking is so popular here, that the Dutch Oven was declared Utah's Official Cooking Pot in 1997.

For the uninitiated (like myself), the Dutch Oven looks like nothing more than a large cast iron pot. How they got the name "Dutch Oven" is anyone's guess. In his book, Dutch Ovens Chronicled, Their Use in the United States, John G. Ragsdale presents several theories. They seem as plausible to me as any reason I could make up off the top of my head.

The name, so says Mr. Ragsdale, has been applied to several cooking appliances dating back to early 1700's. In 1704, a guy named Abraham Darby traveled from England to Holland to inspect Dutch casting processes. Returning to England, Darby experimented a bit, and eventually patented his own casting that improved on the casting smoothness. Eventually he began casting his own pots and started shipping them to the new colonies and throughout the world. In this scenario, the name "Dutch Oven" may have come from the original Dutch process for casting metal pots.

Other theories include early Dutch traders or salesmen peddling cast iron pots giving rise to the name, while still others suggest that the name came from Dutch settlers in Pennsylvania, who used similar cast iron pots or kettles.

Whatever the real reason, the Mormon pioneers that came and settled the Salt Lake Valley used Dutch Ovens quite a bit. Pioneer trains, gearing up for the trip from Independence, Missouri, were given a list of essential supplies, and a Dutch Oven was up at the top of the list. Mormon handcart companies included them as well. It's no wonder that the International Dutch Oven Society counts Logan, Utah, as one of its headquarters. Some Utahans use Dutch oven cooking as a way to connect to their Pioneer ancestors.

My opinion is that the Mormon Pioneers suffered through it all so that we, their decedents, don't have. Why would I want to sully that effort by digging a fire pit in my back yard and cooking over an open flame, instead of inside with a perfectly good modern oven?

That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

The people who do "go Dutch" get some really good results, though. My current High Priest Group leader will take the rest of the quorum out to his back yard from time to time and treat us to his own Dutch Oven cooking. I can't complain. I've enjoyed stuffing my face ... erm ... participating with the quorum... with his Dutch oven chocolate cherry cake on more than one occasion.

Modern Dutch Ovens have been made available for use in a conventional kitchens by the addition of a ceramic coating over the cast iron. I've heard of these pots being referred to more often as French Ovens than Dutch Ovens, though. I don't know anyone who actually uses these, here in Utah. The Dutch Oven enthusiasts I know still prefer the open fire, and the raw iron, three legged variety over the pretty ceramic coated ones.

If you want to know more about how to use these heavy black things in cooking, I'd recommend heading over to Mark's Black Pot, a Dutch Oven blog run by one of my friends. He's got quite a few interesting recipes. I may have to try a few in a covered casserole dish.

Of course, I might get accused of blasphemy for it by the Dutch oven enthusiasts, but I don't care. No matter what you say, It's still not something I'd have to confess to my Bishop about.