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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Buddha's Hand

Sadly, many weeks have passed since my last trip to LA, where I frolicked under the ungodly California sun, drank wine and danced in a honky tonk in dusty Santa Barbara, and felt up every piece of produce in the farmer's market and then subsequently sliced and diced it up for my dinner. Of course I had to have a relaxed, LA style dinner party with some rising stars in the food and entertainment world, whatever that means. But first I had to navigate through the poorly designed Whole Foods in West Hollywood.

Yes, I'm spoiled. I have my pick between two Whole Foods, one is the size of an airplane hangar, abundant with free samples, with broad, well organized aisles, an attractively laid out cheese and wine shop, and a salad bar that could serve the incoming freshman class at Harvard. Side note: do not be fooled by the overpriced, flavorless prepared foods at Whole Foods, which will always end up disappointing your wallet and your stomach, except for the sushi (but I'm sure my LA friends will want to weigh in on that).

Then there's what I call Le Petit Whole Foods, which is a postage stamp, but convenient for those last minute ingredients, and if you want to avoid extra calories from free sampling, because they have none. Also there's a Shaws, but in general I avoid it because I hate being asked for my Shaws card, and I end up buying too much soda and junk food just because it's there.

And really, let's not forget about the Harvest Co-op, which in its prime was a hang out for patchouli smelling, anti-globalization, hobo-esque trustafarians, and self styled hippie millionaires on paper, vegetarians who don't mind fly swatting rotting vegetables, goody-two shoes who enjoy schlepping their reusable containers to stock up on flax seed oil. I do, however enjoy browsing the community wall displaying the psyche of my 'hood, wallpapered with ratty flyers offering promises of a new shiny racing bike, a way to find my inner animal soul, a poetry reading honoring someone's private parts, and sleep studies that can make you rich, and sick, very quick. Recently they have installed a slick looking cafe with a preachy, but forgettable name and all too narrow entrance, which appears to have been designed to prevent people with wheelchairs from rolling in to get their vegan muffins. I admit I have not tested this theory out, but I have had the coffee and for $1.90 I expect it fresh brewed, and hot. No such luck.

Just behind the Harvest on Mondays in season there is a lovely farmer's market, which is the closest thing replicating the multicultural David Vichter murals that adorn the buildings of Central Square. My downstairs neighbor, Fi Fi, a graceful Ethiopian lady who has worked at the Middle East Restaurant for at least several decades now is on one the murals. The other day I ran into her in the breezeway, told her I was trying to be happy, and she told me in earnest not try too hard. Point taken. I will have to have her over for dinner to get the lowdown on how to be happy without trying. Maybe then I will be depicted on a whirling dervish mural exemplifying how happy I am to be a swath of color on an endless rainbow.

Trust me, I've seen worse stores. Even still, last summer in New York, with some quick thinking I was able to whip up a lovely summer meal from a grocery store in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, where the Notorious B.I.G. probably traded food stamps for disappointment back in the day.

But there's hope for me yet. My little store across the street is an Indian spice store where a my neighbor "Singh" presides over the delicious Chai and Newport Cigarettes. We have a ritual. I order chai. He asks me if I want sugar. I say no, I'm on a diet. He shakes his head at me, and then proceeds to add 3 spoonfuls of sugar, while looking me straight in the eyes. This has been going for years.

Around the corner is a Trader Joe's, which is great for a single gal like me. There I stock up on cheap, decent wine, yogurt, almonds, and sad, but well packaged frozen goods that I would not be caught buying anywhere else.

In past seasons I have frequented the two farmer's markets in Central Square and Cambridgeport, always visiting my Jamaican farmer Al, for callaloo and local honey, just to hear the lilt in his voice. He is my human scale, telling me if I'm fat or not, and depending on my level of fatness he will pare down or pump up my order. Then there's the Hmong herb stand, with an abundant selection of Thai basil, mint, bean sprouts, pea tendrils, and cilantro.

Sadly, I must lament the closing of my favorite Japanese grocery store, Yoshinoya, where I was a card carrying Yoshinoya reward points member. One day it was there, stocked with individually wrapped sweet Japanese cucumbers, stacked of bright jars of kimchee, shiny slabs of sushi grade tuna, seductive looking candies, mylar wrapped shumai dumplings, and earthy tubs of miso that sent signals to that heavenly Zen center in my clouded brain. And suddenly it was gone. Always the reward points, never the reward, I say.

Unlike in LA, I can walk to all of these place within 5 minutes and feel at home in the world. But I did not feel at home in this haphazard (Hollywood up to No good)Whole Foods. I wanted to make a deconstructed chacarero consisting of grilled flank steak, chimi churri sauce, and snappy green beans. First setback--there was no flank steak to be had behind the butcher's counter. I searched around the store with my over-sized and under-filled cart, looking for Abby to hep me do some damage control--my entire meal was in jeopardy. We stood in front of the butcher for 10 minutes trying to coax him out of that little piece of flank steak, that we were convinced was must have been hidden and overlooked in the walk-in in the back. In truth we were being annoying, pushy, East Coast girls who needed their meat, like yesterday. Well, I was at least. Resigned, we bought some other cut, hoping for the best. My plan B for these situations is to get everyone really wasted before dinner so they don't notice the lack of Flank in my tank. I bought a Buddha's hand citrus as a gift for Katie, because I thought it was beautiful and meaningful. But even I know that beauty and meaning are not for sale, and when we arrived at the bottlenecked register I wasn't even in the mood to browse through Shambahla Sun and Yoga Today magazines like I normally do. Instead, my Buddha's hand was holding up the impatient line growing behind me, while the clerk made small talk and called over the intercom for a price check on my piece of citrus. In the mean time, a group of guys recognized my friend Camille and I started mentally comparing the contents of our grocery carts, satisfied that we were destine dot have a better meal than they were.

Back at the ranch, I was feeling nervous cooking for people who I did not know very well. Even though I get all preachy about being fearless in the kitchen, I still get temporary moments of nervousness. Cooking is a pure expression of myself, it's how I see the world, it's my joy, my pain, and my love all laid out on a dish. I can be an exacting perfectionist, and sly dominatrix in the kitchen, which is such a contrast to my normal demeanor. My point is, once I cook a meal for you, we are no longer strangers, and there's no turning back.

Camille's kitchen is a cook's dream. For starters she had good knives, a thick butcher block, a sensible layout and shiny, expensive pans. Abby and I decide to do a very simple, quick marinade with our meat consisting of olive oil, garlic, tons of salt and pepper, and a little Worcestershire sauce. Good meat does not need much more than that.

Inevitably when someone comes over for dinner they ask to help, but don't really mean it. At first I was reluctant to ask Michael "Terry" Thomas, a chef who had been on the Food Network and the Tyra Banks show, to help. But pretty soon we were all having fun, blanching green beans and then plunging them into ice water, concocting micheladas, and collectivley wondering if the olive oil had turned rancid. It had.

The crux of my dish was chimi churri sauce which is essentially a Chilean "pesto" made with cilantro, parsley, garlic, shallots, chilies, and lime juice. I had eaten many times, but I had never in my life made it before, so I did what I do best--I just winged it. A week later, I receive a text message from Camille: " By the way is it bad that i'm still using the pesto sauce" My response was something like this: "No but its chimi churri sauce its freakin cold here"

Michael "Terry" Thomas was safely installed on grilling duty in the backyard. Always seizing upon teaching moments he demonstrates how to cook meat to temperature by pressing on various parts of his palm. I am pressing my palm right now, and I'd say the whole thing is pretty medium-rare. He shows us the manly way to tenderize meat and starts beating it with the blunt edge of his tongs while grease and gristle fly everywhere, like the way spit gets in your eyes when you're conversing with a close talker. By the way, I secretly create a file in my head for anyone that mentions the word gristle while eating meat in my presence. Camille comes up with a great solution for all of extra fat that came with the non-flank steak I purchased. She lovingly cut it up for her adorable pooches, which was true to her sweet and thoughtful nature. And sure enough, the meat was perfectly tender and tasty.

After dinner, Abby and I have some fun styling a photo shoot of "food in decline" a la Irving Penn, with photographers Eric Blackmon and Richard Guaty. These two are funny, amiable, and really into taking pictures. Loaded with their high powered cameras they intensely snap pictures of the remnants of our meal and analyze their shots in lingo I don't understand. Stuff about lighting, shutter speeds, angles and props.

At one point they both aim their cameras and Abby and I. They pause to review the photo, shake their heads, quietly consult with each other and say, "One more." Again, they pause, look at the second photo, and then tell us to do the old kiss each other on the cheek pose. Later on Abby and I laugh about how pathetic we are that two professional photogs couldn't take a good picture of us and then had to resort to the classic two girls kissing pose.

And then we all immediately fell into a group food coma...

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