Friday, December 31, 2010

Food and her-story and a Happy New Decade

When I was little, I'd beg my mom to let me mix the cake for dessert. I loved cooking, as far as I understood it, but as a busy college student with six kids (mostly teenagers), Mom didn't have a whole lot of time to help me learn. By the time I was old enough to do it on my own, I was too lazy. Easier to watch my grandmother make her incredible soft jelly-hearted molasses cookies than to help her bake them. Now, I wish that I had. I'd give a hell of a lot to hear her tips and hints, though I know (cliche as it is) that the care she put in was the ultimate flavoring. Still, I cut out recipes that looked cool to me, at 15, 16. Obsessed over how to make my favorite omelet. Bought utensils for my someday grownup life. Tried to make a cold Champagne Peach soup for Valentine's when I was crazy in love. And finally started helping Mom out a bit in the kitchen.
At 22, keeping my own house and cooking for myself and my man, (and a little for the families I worked for as a full-time, salaried nanny), I lucked onto a wonderful resource-- Food and Wine magazine. My boss was a subscriber, and I fell in love with the glamorous gourmet dishes and exotic (to Buffalo) ingredients. I got my own subscription, needing to own those gorgeous soft-lit color photos of chocolate fondant and bitter salad with duck cracklings. It was a pretty steep learning curve for a girl that didn't know there was a difference between a dry and a wet measuring cup! But I tried out what I could afford to, dreamed about making the rest-- and learned in the process that I was a Foodie (as no doubt a good portion of readers here are; when I get some). Good food is the lens I view the world through; learning the nuances of what a given population eats is how I best absorb and understand their culture. It's all about the unimaginably wide world of taste. But there weren't many other foodies in my life; I had the wrong job, the wrong income, the wrong education.
I was the wrong age, as well, and being raised pretty poor hadn't prepared me for using expensive ingredients generously. Through the 20-something years since then, I've evened it up as far as education, neighborhood, understanding. The income has gone up and down, but now I know better too-- I don't have to serve a fifteen course meal for twelve to be a gourmet or love good food. I don't even have to serve meat, or heated food. The quality of the meal, the enjoyment of planning it, preparing and serving it, are there no matter if I make a salad and homemade bread, or a multi-course feast. I can make a simple pear crisp or a four layer tiramisu trifle, and it's always an extension of my personal aesthetic. My friend Abby would just say, "MMM. Mari food." Yes, it will be that. I have my certain standards, my ideas of how each bite should balance comfort and freshness, and they come through in whatever I prepare. Transitioning from a fairly plant-filled diet to a plant-based diet helped me solidify that habit. Cooking in restaurants and as a personal chef took it up a few notches further. And I've always read cookbooks the way some girls read love novels-- slurping up every hungry word, even the index.
So I've been cooking for 25+ years, a veghead for 15+ years. By feeding people without lecturing them, I appear to have influenced a few folks into joining me in the plant life. (Yay)
Let me say up front: I don't care what YOU eat. That's your business. At my house, you'll eat well, and heartily, and it will be made of plants. If you call yourself veg but eat certain kinds of animals, I don't care about that either; it's not my decision. I do care that you don't make a point of saying Vegetarian at restaurants, and then eating chicken-based soup or a fish fillet, because it makes getting a good meal at restaurants harder for me. Selfish, I know, but it's not like they hand out gold stars or weekends on the beach for being vegetarian. They mostly hand out ill-phrased questions and misunderstanding, with a side of suspicion. And until we all* eat nothing but fruit that's fallen from a tree and stop breathing in those poor airborne germs, there's no point in playing More Vegetarian Than Thou. I just want to be able to get some good soup once in a while, that I don't have to make for myself. Hey, I DO love to cook, but not every single bite I eat forever and ever amen.
That's my food history in short, and you don't want the long. Feel free to ask me anything, and I'll answer as I can. Please comment, discuss, chat, argue, and be nice.
Have a Happy New Decade!

And eat something good tonight. We're having nutball heroes (recipe follows) and a green salad. Peace, Mari

*Check out the Buffalo Vegetarian Society @ for food and veghead fellowship. I myself will be joining any month now-- soon as I am more mobile.

Nutballs in Tomato sauce (adapted from Rose Elliot's THE COMPLETE VEGETARIAN CUISINE, by me and also Amvyn from the CLBB)

Prepared or homemade tomato sauce
Generous 1 C raw brown nuts** ground fine in FP or blender
1 Tbsp EVOO
1 med to large onion, chopped fine
1-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp fennel seed
scant 2 Tbsp fresh herbs, such as rosemary, sage, basil, or marjoram (optional)
1 tsp dried oregano, or 1 tsp fresh oregano or parsley
1 large tsp tomato paste
1/3-1/2 C grated Parmesan, Romano or Cheddar cheese
2/3 C fresh breadcrumbs
1 egg
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter or oil a small baking dish.

Saute onions, garlic, fennel and dried oregano in EVOO over medium heat until soft. Let cool a bit, then combine all ingredients EXCEPT tomato sauce in a large bowl with your hands, being careful not to compact mixture too much.

Form into eight small balls, place into pan so as not to be touching each other, pour over enough tomato sauce to cover the bottom of the dish, and bake at 350 F for 25-30 minutes.

Mari's notes: Serve hot over pasta or rice, crumble into sauce, or best of all, serve warm topped with more sauce and more cheese if desired for a Nutball Hoagy. Add your favorite spices in place of mine-- more fennel and some sage makes it more sausage-y-- rosemary is more Italian, etc.

For a vegan version, omit cheese and egg, and add 1 Tbsp peanut or cashew or almond butter. You may not need/want the tomato paste here, either. Adjust salt as needed. This version is delish; I make it just as often as the other; it depends on mood, menu, and what I've eaten that week. Originally it was from Rose Elliot, British Veg Queen, but Brits don't use enough seasoning for me.... And just as often I double the nuts and seasonings and leave the rest as is.

I've been making this so long, there's no measuring anymore, just blending with my hands till it holds together. Use more or less crumb, onion, whatever.

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