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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Realities of Dining Out

do i have my serious discussion face on? good

Options for gluten free dining are probably very limited where you are. I feel I can safely assume this because I live in a veritable mecca of gluten free & the options here are still very limited (granted my options are further limited by a dairy intolerance). I'm not complaining. I've always enjoyed cooking for myself & Celiac Disease is another very good reason to do just that.

But, you might say, there are lots of joints that offer gluten free options on their menus where you live. Well! I'm here to tell you (in a very pedantic & condescending tone [you're welcome]) that those options probably aren't good enough for you.

The state of the food service industry regarding its knowledge & treatment of gluten free food & labeling is far from perfect. Even the FDA hasn't come to a complete conclusion on how to handle gluten free labeling. It's a hotly debated issue right now, right here in the Northwest (see the gluten free/gluten removed debate surrounding Omission Beer).

I've held a few jobs in the food service industry (so I'm an expert authority) & I can say that in my experience a decent understanding of Celiac Disease/gluten free food was extremely uncommon. To be honest, it's pretty rare in anyone I've met who isn't struggling with the disease. (I'm aware of a  few "gluten intolerant" people who can't or don't want to really commit to eating gluten free. They don't read labels on processed foods! I've even run into to this with well meaning friends & family members [sorry folks]). I've worked as a busser & a dishwasher, so I've seen the front and back end of the business & I've found that there are means for serious cross contamination that just might not occur to you or the people preparing & serving your food. For instance, at one restaurant where gluten free toast was served, it was toasted in the same toasters as all the rest of the bagels & bread. That might be okay for some gluten intolerant people (as I understand there is a spectrum), but will definitely make someone with Celiac Disease very sick.

On the other hand, I have worked with some people in the industry who were particularly cautious because they had a serious allergy themselves & even if their knowledge of Celiac Disease wasn't very comprehensive, they were well versed in the necessities of food allergies (e.g. preparing food with clean tools on clean surfaces & double checking with their guests regarding uncertain additives or ingredients). I have also been to restaurants where the labeling was very honest. They called their food gluten friendly (an absolutely ridiculous term, but more accurate than gluten free) or they had a "gluten free" menu with a very big disclaimer that detailed the precautionary measures taken to ensure that the food is as removed from contamination as possible.

All of that can be quite helpful. However, if it's not a gluten free facility, there really is no guarantee you wont get sick. Restaurant kitchens (and kitchens in general) are messy places & gluten is the kind of contaminant that can easily be everywhere. Flour is practically an airborne contaminant. Gluten can sneak into your meal in the form of food additives & sauces, if labels aren't being carefully read. Even the most sympathetic servers & cooks with the best intentions may lack some specific knowledge regarding a preparation or ingredient & its suitability; they aren't nutritionists. So at best, dining out is a crap shoot.

I'm not sure what my point is here. I guess this is mostly a cautionary tale & a paranoid rant & an alienation of friends and family (sorry again folks). Basically, you have to be very careful with what you eat if you're eating out. Ask a lot of questions (call ahead if you can). If the answers don't seem certain & satisfactory, don't eat. Bring your own food. It's a shitty situation. Food is so fundamental to our lives; it's such a communal thing & it is definitely deeply tied to our emotions. I know how difficult using caution can be. I feel rude just asking about the preparation of the food at a restaurant where I'm paying to be served, forget about trying to bring it up to a friend or family member who's invited me to dinner (I think my case may be somewhat extreme as I have a serious complex involving putting anyone out, asking for special consideration or hurting people's feelings). It's rough, but we have to do it! Our friends and family will understand if we take the time to explain our situation to them. I hope.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Slow Smoked Barbecue Spare Ribs

The sunshine, the outdoors, the grill, the fire and smoke, the patience, the discipline, the testosterone, the unmitigated voracity, the carnivorous high. It's a spectacle without comparison, equal parts meditation and mayhem, an affirmation of masculinity and gluttony and meat. It's a veritable manstravaganza (doesn't that sound like some rugged fun?)! I'm providing less a precise recipe here than a lengthy set of superficial instructions (no instructional photos), basically a description of what I like to do/has worked for me. No one taught me how to grill. I just do it. Because I'm a man.

Barbecue Spare Ribs

2 racks pork spare ribs (trimmed St. Louis style)
Basic Barbecue Rub
Homemade Barbecue Sauce
hardwood charcoal (briquettes or lump)
green or soaked wood for smoking (green limbs from an apple tree cut to 3 inch lengths are my preference)*

First thing you need to do is light your grill. Realize that this is going to be at bare minimum about a five or six hour process with at least a four hour cook time. So light that grill now! You have time while your coals ash over to do some prep.The ribs you can get trimmed St. Louis style for you at the butcher or if your feeling dangerous, you can buy full racks and hack at them yourself. Even if you've had them trimmed, you're probably going to have to get your hands dirty taking the membrane off the back. Note: the membrane is very tough when cooked (we may be tough, but we like our ribs tender). Now rub those ribs like you mean business.

When the coals are good and ashed over, spread them out into one half the of the kettle and drop a couple handfuls of wood directly on the them before you put the actual grill in place. Put your ribs on the grill opposite the coals and lid it. Close the vents on the grill to less than half open (on the lid and the bottom if you've got 'em).

In half an hour or so, pop the lid and take a look. Rearrange the ribs to make sure they're cooking evenly and peak in at the coals to make sure they aren't going out (adjust the vents if they need more oxygen or if it seems like they're burning too fast). Check the ribs this way every hour or so for the next three to four hours and add more wood and charcoal as needed.

When the ribs are looking just about done, generally in the last hour or two of cooking (it's an imprecise science), we're ready for the sauce. Use a sauce mop, pastry brush, or the back of a spoon, whatever works. Apply as much or as little as you like to both sides. I do a thin layer and serve my ribs with a bowl of sauce on the side so people can apply as much as they want to their own.

After another hour or so take 'em off the grill, cut 'em up and make an obscene, barbarous, gluttonous, glorious mess.

*The nice thing about green apple limbs is that they'll slip through the space between the bars of the grill so you don't have to lift the grill up to add more when it's loaded with meat.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Catching Up & Some CSA Alternatives

our basket on 7/8

Our last few CSA pickups have been last minute and unplanned, so I have had more trouble documenting our weekly veggies. Once summer gets into full swing, schedules seem to fall by the wayside. Perhaps to make up for the divergence from the schedule, we got blueberries in our last produce bag!

While I am not really troubled by the changing plans with our CSA pickups, I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about some alternatives to CSAs for those who are still interested in fresh, locally grown produce (I wrote more in-depth about some advantages here and here).
One of the make or break concepts of the CSA is "shared risk," which means that all the investors are sharing the risk of a poor season with the farmer. On the flip side, there is of course a shared benefit if the farm has a good season. For me, I like the idea of shared risk, because I believe it really helps people reestablish the connection between food and the land. I also hope that poor seasons would be a time when the investors would "rally around the farmer,"and really build a community for the experience. However, this might not be a great option for those with tight budgets and families to feed.

In case you are curious, over here Gus & I generally use a combination of our CSA, Whole Foods, and a regular grocery store to feed ourselves. The majority of our food probably comes from the CSA, but we supplement with Whole Foods meat and coffee, and fruit, avocados, eggs, and onions from Fred Meyer. We probably stop at a co-op once a month for indulgences like raw cocoa and expensive curry paste. Oh, and some Costco coconut oil. It's not a perfect system, but it's (kind of) affordable and seems to work so far.

For some more information on shared risk, check out this article from Organic Consumers. NPR also ran an interesting article today about how large a CSA can grow and still be sustainable. There are some interesting facts about CSAs in general included.

 our basket on 7/15

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Basic Barbecue Rub

the rub

It's grilling season and we're ready with a slew of (or maybe just three) recipes. We like to kick things off with a basic dry rub. There's nothing crazy in here, just seven simple ingredients. You'll notice sugar is omitted from the list for a few reasons: it burns (although if your slow cooking your meat right, it shouldn't burn even if it's candy coated), it's not nutritious (I guess), and most importantly, it muddies the flavor of the meat (well, that's my opinion).

Dry Rub

2 tbs dry mustard
1 tbs smoked paprika
1 tsp celery salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp salt
½ tsp cumin

Before you light your barbecue, combine all ingredients in a bowl. It couldn't be easier. Then just lovingly massage it into every crevice of whatever meat you're about to grill (or do it a day in advance). Yep. It gets real creepy.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Trail Guide: Memaloose Lake

One of my favorite things about Portland is that it only takes a 45 minute drive to completely abandon the urban atmosphere and get lost in the wilderness. On this particular hike, the drive to the trail head turned out to be more adventurous than the hike itself.

The trail is outside of Estacada, a rural suburb of Portland. Beyond the main highway are unfinished roads and dirt paths; note, this 10 mile route takes about one hour to drive. Lining both sides of these rough roads are large carved out shooting ranges, where, at least when we made the trek, locals come to test out their arsenals. I grew up seeing my father's hunting rifles tucked into the closet, but I must say, the presence of so many assault rifles in the hands of strangers was a bit unsettling.

The trail itself is rather mild and tranquil, aside from the threat of errant bullets. (Just kidding... I hope). There's a steady climb through a beautiful alpine landscape, dodging the occasional fallen tree. For trail side diversion, we hunted for salamanders among the rocks.

We arrived at Memaloose Lake in under an hour. It's a small shallow lake surrounded by Douglas Firs that would be perfect for swimming, if you are so inclined. There are a few campsites around the lake that would be a nice stop for a short backpacking trip.

Beyond the lake, there is an unmaintained trail up South Fork Mountain, where there is a view of nine Cascade Range peaks. We didn't elect to head up South Fork because it was getting late in the day, and we weren't thrilled at the idea of heading out after dark when the armament enthusiasts may be inclined to try out their night vision goggles. Next time, we will get an earlier start and hopefully summit South Fork.

Directions: Coming from Portland, take I-205 S towards Oregon City. Take exit 12 and head east for 18 miles toward Estacada. East of town, take Highway 224 for about 9 miles. Turn right onto a bridge to Memaloose Lake Road 45 (between mile markers 33 and 34). Follow Memaloose Lake Road for about 12 miles (this is where the hour in the armory starts), keeping right until you come to the marked trail head on the left.

Note: We did this hike a couple months ago, so there is probably less snow but a lot more people around the lake right now.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Good enough to drink: Homemade Barbecue Sauce

homemade barbecue sauce

Burgers, ribs, chicken, sausages, mushrooms, whatever you're in the mood to grill, this sauce makes a great finishing touch. It's packed with flavor (the tamarind has the perfect kind of tang for barbecue), but it's not as sweet as store bought stuff; so it doesn't burn as easily on the grill*.

Homemade Barbecue Sauce

2 cups Unsweetened Tomato Ketchup
½ medium onion (minced)
4 cloves garlic (minced)
½ cup worcestershire sauce
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
1 tbs tamarind pulp
2 tbs molasses
1 tsp black pepper

Combine all of your ingredients in a small sauce pan, and put it on low heat. We're going to simmer this sauce slow. Again, as with the ketchup, leaving the lid on slightly askew is advised during the simmering to keep the eruptions under control. Let simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally. That's the sauce.

If you like it spicy, you can always add heat with a half teaspoon of cayenne, some red pepper flakes, minced chipotle pepper, or a few dashes of your favorite hot sauce.

*Generally I apply my sauce around the last half hour to hour of cooking and afterward I keep it off of the direct heat to keep the sauce from charring.