Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Modified February "Food Week"

Each year around this time, restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul prepare pre-fixed, coursed menus for lower prices, as part of a wonderful event called Food Week. Maybe it is a way for restaurants to strut their stuff a little, to lure in customers who are normally Applebee's-goers, or simply to provide one bright moment at the end of a claustrophic winter.

Chef Matt and I used to attend Food Week, pre-kids, but have dropped off somewhat in the past few years. Nevertheless, we still like to peruse the Food Week menus online and sigh at little at the amazing concoctions chefs present for this fantastic week of local cuisine.

Although we cannot attend the official event anymore, we managed to create a Food Week of our own. Last week, as I acknowledged the passing of another year of my life, we scheduled a series of delicious meals, both restaurant-made and homemade, and decided that Food Week on your own terms can be almost as fabulous as the real thing.

We started with Valentine's Day, a holiday we do not usually celebrate. But other people do, so coupons for cheap food abound. With the kids at daycare, we split a giant plate of barbecue and a steamy bread pudding over lunch, because nothing says romance like "Hey, you have barbecue sauce all over your face."

Two days later, we called in a grandma and went to a local swanky steakhouse that, luckily for our checkbook, is in the same family of restaurants as Matt's. The server wheeled out the cuts of meat on a cart, including one actually named a "Bludgeon of Beef," and I sensed a small twinge of something feral deep inside as I ordered 24 ounces of steak, just for myself. I felt a little like a rich man's wife that night; that is, until I packaged up half of the food we ordered and silently began to plan how I could use the leftovers in several meals at home.

On my actual birthday, my parents made a February-Thanksgiving feast, with turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and encouragement to eat more. And finally, in a culmination that is becoming tradition at our house, Matt made homemade gnocchi, a pillowy potato dumpling with a hint of the potato-graininess amidst an otherwise smooth, chewy texture. He tossed the gnocchi in a cream sauce with lobster and peas, and for that moment of bliss, February in Minnesota melted away and we were eating four-cheese gnocchi at a dusky restaurant in Rome.

It is certainly not plausible, or healthy, to eat this way every week. But once, or twice, a year, a personal Food Week is a welcome getaway from the drudgery of the usual ... especially if you can get it for cheap, or free at your parents' house.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Second-Trimester Love Letter

Dear Baby,

It's your mommy again. By this time, you are more aware of me around you, and I have felt your little kicks and punches for weeks now, mostly when I am very still. It is always a comfort to me, every time I feel the little popcorn tumbles within.

Second trimester is somewhat of a honeymoon period for both of us. You still have room to swim, and I still have room to breathe. These are the months sandwiched between the sickness and dry cereal, and the swollen ankles and unsightly waddle. You are behaving more and more like you will in the outside world -- swallowing and blinking and sleeping for long periods -- and I can take great pleasure in this miracle, while still able to put on my own socks.

As your taste buds form, your little memory will begin to store away the flavors that you will later recognize while perched in your high chair. Sometimes I look at your sister and brother and wonder if their wild love of bananas stems from my daily intake of the lovely yellow fruit, or if their stubborn refusal to eat plain white rice was born of my preference for potatoes.

I hope that you will not only absorb a taste for all the foods that I love, but also a love for food in general. For your sake, I will eat a thousand different things so you will have an experienced palate coming into this world. The first time your sister tried lamb, wrapped in a warm pita and drizzled with tangy tzatziki sauce, she devoured it like she'd eaten it every day of her life. Your brother, first presented with scrambled eggs, could not get them in his chubby little hands fast enough.

It won't be long until I am too big to fit anything in but juice and applesauce. Until the third trimester arrives, though, your early culinary education will continue to include courses in French, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Mediterranean and American. When you are old enough to eat such things on your own, when the days of rice cereal are over, I will be sure to look for the gleam of recognition in your eyes the first time you taste a spoonful of lamb ragout and hope, just maybe, that you will fall in love with it, too.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Eating Our Way Through the Great Vacation Spots of the World

Last weekend, we flew to Phoenix for a family get-together and spent three days plucking fresh oranges from the trees and soaking up a bit of much-needed Vitamin D. In the depths of January, Arizona and its cerulean sky were a welcome distraction.

"Vacation" means something different to everyone, whether it is simply not being at work for a few days or a year's worth of planning for a grand three-week European tour. For us, most vacations involve some sort of family event, usually because we can crash in a guest room and spend the weekend digging through someone else's refrigerator. Any other type of vacation, as far as Chef Matt and I are concerned, should be driven by the local cuisine. Amazing landscapes and national monuments are a secondary perk, ranked behind the foods that lend cities their character and culture.

Before I met Matt, I traveled to New Orleans for a few days to visit friends. I spent a sunny morning sipping coffee and eating powdery beignets at Cafe du Monde, one of the treasures of the Big Easy. We ran the gamut that weekend, sampling decadent gravy cheese fries, hideous but delicious crawfish, spicy homemade jambalaya, and an amazing concoction called alligator cheesecake.

During our honeymoon in Italy, we tackled all the Italian classics: margarita pizza, caprese salad, fresh pasta with arrabiatta sauce, bolognese, gnocchi, tiramisu, gelato, and melty prosciutto and mozzarella paninis.  We wore paths between restaurants and street vendors, pausing between to take in the David and St. Peter's before seeking out the next cheesy, saucy, creamy miracle of cooking. 

Vacations will be few and far between in our future, but sometimes, when we sit and dream about the places we have not seen, our dreams begin and end with the menu. Boston will be a race to consume as much seafood as possible, Charleston will be plantation tours sandwiched between fried green tomatoes and spongy biscuits, Austin will be plates of barbecue eaten to a soundtrack of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Paris will be a weeklong orgy of bordelaise, fine chocolate pastries, and boeuf bourguignon. 

Cuisine is a defining characteristic of most places on earth, and reveals much about the people and history of those places, in ways far different than art and architecture and music. Food illuminates the soul of a city. Seeing the Eiffel Tower is a grand thing, but doesn't it look that much more incredible while clutching a crepe and anticipating a plate of ratatouille?