“Cultural” Diplomacy

My office recently hosted an analytical exchange with our Australian plans and assessment counterparts. I had a number of parts in the presentation, but, with my affinity for food {and my Costco card}, my office called on me to play a large part in another presentation: the presentation of food throughout the exchange.

My father had a saying that he picked up through years of traveling, meeting with people from all over the world, and designing industrial kitchens with them – the best diplomacy begins around the kitchen table. I firmly believe it, and that played out in spades throughout the exchange, as we discovered that instead of just sitting around a conference table staring at PowerPoint, it’s a lot more fun to discuss our ideas over food. Whether it’s a tasty snack with tea, dining out at a favorite local restaurant, or just taking that moment to relax over lunch, it makes a huge difference in the way we treat each other and the way we interact.

It turns out there’s actually a word for that, and it’s a beautiful, exciting word: gastrodiplomacy. It means exactly what it sounds like – diplomacy through food. The idea is that a nation, ethnicity, or people’s food is an extremely important aspect of their culture, and sharing in that aspect opens up a lot of venues. How wonderful is that?

When you see successful meetings or summits, people generally chalk up their success to the dialogue and communication. While those are huge components, people forget to credit the attention to detail shown in things like the food. If you read reviews of hotels and other accommodations, airlines, and large-scale events like SXSW, not too many people will complement the food if it’s good – but everyone will complain about it if it’s bad or if they aren’t served. A good meal puts everyone in a good mood, establishes comfort, provides a little bit of context and understanding if it’s prepared and served properly, and enables a successful event. A bad meal or a non-existent meal destroys an event.

For us, providing food and meeting around meals not only relaxed the group and provided ready ice-breaker discussion topics, but it opened a number of unforeseen connections and built some camaraderie we might not have gotten to otherwise. There are a few of us in the office who are big aficionados of fine dining and everyone knows I love to cook, but it turned out, I wasn’t alone at the table. Some of our visitors were also big fans of cooking, and we were able to trade recipes and recommend restaurants. I now know a dozen different restaurants and food styles I absolutely have to try if and when we ever get around to visiting New South Wales again.

Most diplomatic efforts rely heavily on figuring out ways to bridge cultures. Half the time, I think we’re picking the hardest ones to bridge. Instead, we should investigate some better cultures – as in those in a fine cheese, a delicious crusty bread, or a hoppy beer. There’d probably be a much friendlier outcome to difficult diplomatic summits if the attendees could enjoy them over a nice frothy glass of each other’s “cultures” instead of making half-hearted efforts to understand each other.

KCS

 

Pear, Gorgonzola, and Pecan Tartlets

I’ve gotten better at listening to my body as of late. Instead of just going by the clock – as in, “Hey, it’s 12:00, I guess I should have lunch!” to determine whether or not I need to eat something, I’ve started tuning out the clock. I work on projects, I walk, I run, I do whatever I feel like doing throughout my day, and then pause. Am I hungry?

When the answer is somewhere between “No” and “A little,” I start putting something together, because “A little” turns into “YES!” pretty quickly. Especially when you run a lot. And as I’m training up for a half-marathon next month, I am running a lot lately.

Still, sometimes the answer is “Just a little” and it stays that way. And ignoring that need for a tasty mid-sized morsel is what usually gets me into trouble. When “Just a little” means that and only that, there needs to be a happy in-between size snack to sate that “Just a little” and not a full sized meal just for the meal’s sake. That never works out well for anyone.

The tartlet is that perfect happy in-between, and I have a lunchtime/teatime/suppertime tartlet that I’m absolutely head over heels in love with. And it’s surprisingly easy. And I can Oxford comma the heck out of it. What’s not to love?

Pear, Gorgonzola, and Pecan Tartlets

Makes 8 tartlets

What you’ll need:

  • 1 pkg puff pastry 
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup Gorgonzola
  • 2 tbsp cream
  • 2 tbsp milk
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 2 pears
  • smoked paprika
  • pure maple syrup

How to make it:

1. Preheat your oven to 400F.

2. Chop everything. Seriously, it makes your life so much easier. Chop the pecans, whip the egg in a small bowl, smash the Gorgonzola into little chunks with a fork, and slice the pears into thin strips – I core them, quarter them, and then cut the quarters into three or four pieces.

3. Time to prep the pastry. Roll out a sheet of puff pastry and cut it into four squares {should be about 4″x4″ each}. Trim and roll the edges to make a border, and brush the border with the beaten egg. Press the cut edges together.

What you want is for the tart to puff up and create a border so that the filling you’re about to make won’t spill out over the edges, burn to the pan, and make the tart impossible to peel off of the pan. You learn some amazing things during trial runs of recipes, let me tell you!

4. Combine the cream, the milk, the Gorgonzola, and the paprika together in a bowl until they’re soft and creamy. You still want the Gorgonzola to be a little clumpy so don’t mash them too much.

Pour the cheese mixture into each of the tartlets. This becomes your base layer.

5. Sprinkle the chopped pecans over the cheese layer. Layer the pears over the pecan layer. Then drizzle the whole thing with a little bit of maple syrup, and add just a tiny sprinkle of pepper.

6. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the pastry is nicely puffed up and browned. Let the tartlets cool for at least 5 minutes before serving – that syrup makes everything really, really hot! But really, really tasty.

There are so many flavors in here that Scott and I weren’t sure what to pair it with at first. We tried three different experimental pairings – a chilled off-dry Chardonnay to balance the sweetness, a port to enrich the sweetness, and a chilled sparkling red that would hopefully balance it all out. We called it right with the sparkling red! We have a special fondness for Rosa Regale, which we were introduced to originally on our Alaska Cruise last summer.

I didn’t realize it would be so much fun to try pairings by taste along with a dish the way we did either – nibbling on the tarts and tasting each of the wines in small tasting pours. It really made us focus on the flavors in the dish, but it ended up being a lot of fun to talk about what we were tasting in each of the wines and in the tarts, and what pairings we liked the best.

If I wasn’t already pretty sure that wine tasting is a great couple date-night idea, this would have made the point in spades.

Have you tried an at-home wine pairing or wine tasting project? Do you choose drinks to go with the food or just choose the ones you enjoy?

KCS

Jambalaya Rice Cakes

The internet is immense and voracious. Sometimes it devours things completely. Like some of your favorite recipes when you decide to move from WordPress.com to a self-hosted site.

I don’t know how it all happened. All I know is when I opened up my shiny new site in self-hosted land, half of my favorite posts were missing, pictures lost, and links broken. I started to rebuild. I apologize once again for all the re-uploaded posts I’ve spammed my lovely readers with while trying to restore them to their homes. After a while, I gave up on trying to restore them and have just been diligently working on them, waiting for a chance to let them see the light of the Internet again.

One of these is the backbone for the star of what has become one of my favorite collaborations – making variations on an Eggs Benedict Theme with The FarmGirl Cooks – the jambalaya rice cakes sitting beneath that beautiful Cajun Eggs Benedict that kind of stole the show. I keep looking back at these pictures in amazement. Kasha, you and your fresh grown greens and gorgeous plates are all rock stars. We need to do this again!

As I’ve been looking through the pictures from our shoot, I’ve been craving the sweet sticky jambalaya rice cakes at the bottom of it all – and as luck would have it, I not only found the pictures I originally shot of this recipe, but I found the recipe card itself. It was buried in one of my cookbooks instead of in my notebook or in my recipe box along with all the rest of them.

Since we were talking about tasty, budget conscious food earlier this week, this is a good recipe to carry on that discussion with. Jambalaya, like a lot of Cajun food, was made to stretch a budget by taking a small portion of hearty, healthy ingredients {the shrimp in this case} and beefing them up with a lot of fillers {rice, onion, broth} that would be tasty and keep you full. It’s pretty inexpensive, nice and filling, and on top of that, in both its regular form and in this rice cake form, it’s pretty tasty!

Jambalaya Rice Cakes

What you’ll need:

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 2 shallots, diced
  • 1/2 cup bell pepper, diced
  • 4 1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 tsp Old Bay seasoning
  • 2 cups cooked rice
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • oil for frying {yes, I keep mine in recycled wine bottles}
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped cooked shrimp

How to make it:

1. Melt the butter in a large skillet and while that’s melting, go ahead and chop everything that needs chopping. There’s a lot of dicing to be done, and trust me, the earlier you get that done in a recipe, the better.

2. Start by sautéing the shallots. I don’t know what people imagine when they think of the smells of heaven, but I think there are two top contenders – the smell of fresh lavender and the smell of shallots sautéing in butter. Oh. My. God.

3. When the shallots are starting to get soft, add the bell peppers and let them soften just a little {cook about a minute}. You want them to be fairly crisp when you add the other ingredients or else when you add the rest, they’ll get mushy.

4. Add the chicken broth and Old Bay Seasoning and let the whole mixture come to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and then add the rice. Stir it occasionally, and let it cook down for about 20 minutes.

5. Let the rice mixture stand for about 30 minutes or until it has cooled completely.

6. Combine the rice mix, eggs, flour, and shrimp together in a large bowl until it makes a nice doughy mass. Roll the mass out on a cutting board and cut it into cakes with a biscuit cutter {and as you might know, I think there is no better biscuit cutter than a mason jar}. Place the cakes on a baking sheet, cover with parchment, and chill for 30 minutes so that they set up nicely.

7. Heat the oil in a large pot until it’s nice and hot and bubbly {translation: about 375F}. Fry the rice cakes for about 3-4 minutes each side or until they’re a nice golden brown.

8. You can serve and enjoy…

…or you can place it on the freshest of fresh arugula on a nice antique plate, top it with a fresh egg and fresh made Hollandaise, crack some salt, pepper, and paprika over it, and take a pretty awesome photo.

And when you finally lose control, stop photographing it, and devour it, you’ll discover it’s damned delicious.

Who’s feeling gourmet now? Anyone cooking anything interesting? Please share – I love to look at and try new recipes around here, whether they’re simple and clean everyday cooking to downright fancy for special occasions!

KCS

Good Food for the Busy and Budget-Conscious

I get a lot of comments and questions from friends, family, and readers in general on all the recipes and dining that goes on around here and I feel really fortunate that most of those are positive. But every once in a while I get the inevitable money and time questions. How can we afford to eat the way we do? How do we have time to cook meals just about every night? I work – a lot - and even though my husband works from home, he spends the majority of his day crunching out digital models on the computer under the gun of an east coast deadline. We. Are. Busy.

The truth is that at face value, home-cooked meals can seem like the realm of the elite foodie with flexible hours. I’ve been reading a lot of studies that cite the price of organic and healthy fruits and vegetables, the problem with affordable transportation, and the amount of prep time a healthy dinner can take.

However, eating fresh and healthy food doesn’t have to be a luxury. You can eat healthfully and well on a budget, without having it devour all your time! Healthy, natural food has never been more available, both in variety and in price. And food doesn’t have to be full of luxury ingredients or exotically prepared to be good.

Here are just a few tips and tricks I’ve learned – from being a creative gourmand who is definitely, thanks to paying off debt and loans and trying to renovate a house for sale, on a budget!

1. Meal plans are your friend!

If you don’t learn how to do anything else on this list, learn how to make a good solid meal plan. There are plenty of apps that can help you with this, but really you can just do it with a calendar. I do our meal plan in a free calendar our insurance company sent us. Still, when you plan your meals out, you put more thought into what you’re eating, make sure you get good nutritional variety, and save money at the grocery store – both because you’re not just impulse purchasing but because you won’t have to throw out as much stuff later because you forgot you had it.

I plan out as many of the “meal plan disruptions” as possible – social engagements, either for work or with friends, travel, and the days that we’re planning a date out or a restaurant review. Then I pencil in the rest of our meals around that. It helps me balance eating at restaurants with lighter meals at home, make sure we have a healthy amount of nutritional variety, and figure out how to best plan the shopping for the month. And yes, I generally try to do it on a by-month basis.

2. Multi-purpose your meals.

When making your meal plan, you need a good balance between nutritional variety and multi-use items. You don’t want to eat the same thing every time, but you want ingredients you can use in several meals throughout the week. That will not only help you benefit from buying in bulk, but will make sure you can make good use of leftovers. For example, if I’ve grilled chicken at the beginning of the week, I can grill extra and serve it up through the week reheated with vegetables, chopped over a salad, mixed into pot pies, thrown into a casserole, or a dozen other things. Likely, those other things will have similar vegetable combinations in them as well. This also saves time, because when I’m cooking and re-using items, I don’t have to start from scratch.

That being said, left-overs are a great thing and so is your microwave. Forget using your microwave to make TV dinners. Reheat your own home-made TV dinner, or even cook some things from scratch. Seven minutes and you’ve got a fresh baked potato! This is magic.

My dad has a whole rhythm where he only really cooks a couple times a week. He just makes many more portions of the meal than he and my mom actually need, and the extras go into the freezer. He can do that with a number of entrees and just make fresh vegetable sides to go with them later on – and when he’s got a decent stockpile going, he and Mom can go a couple weeks without cooking and still have variety.

3. Figure out your shopping rhythm.

How often do you need to buy bulk items? How often do you shop for fresh items? A meal plan definitely helps with this, but so does really taking the time when you move to a place to figure out what you can get where, and when it pays to shop in bulk.

We buy a lot of our staples that can be stored in the pantry or frozen at Costco. That’s a car trip for us probably twice a month, and each time, we usually come away with a huge bag of chicken breasts, a bag of fish cutlets, packages of grass-fed ground beef, potatoes, freezable greens, and probably the best deals on wine ever. I laughed once when I saw a Mark West Pinot Noir on a restaurant menu for $45 a bottle – we get it at Costco for about $9.

We make smaller trips to the grocery about once a week to get smaller amounts of more perishable items, and the nice thing is, it’s only about a mile walk from our house, so we can walk there with our canvas bags and get some exercise while we shop. It’s a good way to nab the cream, cottage cheese, yogurt, and other things we need to use more quickly.

Finally, we hit up our farmer’s market once or twice a month. This is more of a treat than anything else, but occasionally, we do find some great deals. That’s kind of a unique situation to Hawaii, though – we get a deal on locally grown things at the farmer’s market because we’re not paying the cost of mainland shipping. On top of that, our purchases from the farmer’s market last longer – we’re not dealing with losing freshness time on them due to the time it took to ship them from somewhere.

4. Stock your pantry.

Potatoes, onions, and carrots last a long time, even with that shipping time. They’re also the basis of dozens of different soups and casseroles. Best of all, they don’t take up fridge space – you can just stick them in a box in your pantry or cupboard.

Then, let’s not discount canned things. Don’t be afraid of cans. You can recycle cans, and the things in them might not be farmer’s market fresh, but they’re still pretty close nutritionally and if you’re using them in something baked or simmered like a stew or casserole, you won’t even notice. I tend to save the fresh things for meals where I need the ingredient to shine. In a pot pie or shepherd’s pie, I’m using canned veg. And I know that shattering sound I just heard was your illusions. I’m sorry.

Still, try heating up Campbell’s heart-healthy beef stew and pouring it over mashed potatoes and tell me good food is hard and expensive to make. It’s darn tasty, under $5, you can feed four people with it, and you can make it in under 20 minutes.

5. Stock your freezer.

While it’s really nice to have fresh vegetables, fruit, and herbs, the frozen varieties are really just as good for you when it comes down to it. I stock up on bags of frozen vegetables at Costco, or I buy the bulk ones there as well, slice off what I need for the immediate future, and bag the rest in the freezer. The same goes for meat. Again, Costco is my best friend. I buy a large pack of chicken breasts, mid-grade stakes, or fish, parcel them out into packages, and separate out what we’re using that week and what goes into the freezer.

Honestly, I think I spend more time bagging groceries and freezing them than I do cooking them. Set aside enough time on a weekend, though, and you can put whole meals together in freezer bags that you can either cook up when you get home or throw into this great time saver…

6. Put your crock pot to work.

A crock pot is this busy girl’s favorite invention, next to the microwave. You can make soups, stews, casseroles, and pretty much any one-pot recipe you can find in a crock pot. If you prep everything the night before, all you have to do is throw it in the next morning and set the timer, and your food will be ready by the time you get home! You can usually find a good model with a timer for under $60.

Back when we were living in Sleepy Hollow and making ridiculous commutes, I even made ravioli in the crock pot. It was a little dry but it wasn’t bad, and I’m tempted to try it again, just for the heck of it.

7. Get motivated to cook.

Telling yourself that you’re going to do a better job of cooking isn’t enough. It’s a lot easier to make eating a healthy meal a priority if it is a priority, more than sitting on the couch and watching TV or whatever else happens in the house at the end of the day.

Food is fun, or it should be. Blogging recipes and sharing them with my husband and friends has majorly motivated me to expand my culinary abilities, and after practicing and stretching my creativity, it takes me no time at all to chop things up or whip something together. Either that, or it just doesn’t feel like that much time, because I really enjoy it.

Whatever motivates you, whether it’s saving money by not dining out, cooking for friends and getting compliments on your food, tackling a new recipe, or trying a healthy eating regimen, grab onto what keeps your energy up and pushes you to practice your cooking. If you find the fun in it, you won’t mind heading to the kitchen after a long day, and it will become a lot less tempting to phone for takeaway.

8. Treat the meal like an event.

I get my husband in the kitchen with me every once in a while and it’s a lot of fun for us to make something together, especially if it’s a tasty treat or dessert for a special occasion. When we have friends with kids over, if the kids are interested in helping or learning about cooking, I give them things to do suitable to their age level. With a little instruction, pretty much anyone can shred lettuce or herbs, grate cheese, or knead dough.

Sharing good food is one of the warmest, most social things we do as a species. I’ve been in so many business meetings or negotiations that seemed tense, until someone brought in the food, and it never fails to amaze me how a good meal can diffuse a situation. It’s really hard to get up in arms at someone when you’re breaking good bread with them.

Staying away from overly processed foods and eating healthfully doesn’t mean you have to be Julia Child. It also doesn’t mean you can only shop at the organic market or get your food from the CSA. All it takes is some good solid planning and the motivation to do it. And sooner or later you’ll figure out that you can get a good, tasty one-pot meal for four for less than the price of a meal at McDonald’s – and a meal that actually has flavor and nutrition to boot.

Did I miss anything good out there? What are your tips and tricks for eating well on a budget?

KCS

Sunday Currently, vol. 36

Currently…

Reading…Management f-Laws by Ackoff, Addison, and Bibb. One of my professors back at UVa recommended it to me ages ago, and I read it back then but kind of forgot about it. Now it’s clicking in a whole new way.

Watching…the TV version of The Transporter. It’s good campy fun with lots of action and beautiful cars. By the way, I probably should mention I have a major thing for sleek, fast luxury autos. Still, the couple of episodes I’ve watched haven’t been so much about the action and cars as they have about the people Chris Vance’s transporter character Frank meets on his journeys.

Listening…to the rain and wind from another tropical storm that tried to be, and then met the massive mountain known as Mauna Kea. We don’t take storms lightly around here, but they don’t often survive the mountain.

Smelling…the beautiful scent of coffee. Our old Hamilton Beach brew station finally died so we went out and picked up a new coffee pot last weekend. Nothing fancy, just a plain old-fashioned model, but it does a wonderful job!

Wishing…that it snowed here. Okay, I know I’m weird. We were watching Living Alaska on the DIY Network the other day and they showed a gorgeous cedar house with a huge fireplace and enormous bay windows giving views of glittering snow, and I just felt heartsick. It’s been summer for me for a year and a half now. I. Need. Seasons.

Wearing…running shorts, tank top, socks. Because if this rain lets up for two seconds, I’m throwing on my shoes and I’m out the door. I’ve got the running bug today!

Loving…the feel of the holidays coming up. I’m really looking forward to seeing family. I don’t know why, but I’m definitely getting island fever right now, and I need some family time and some cold weather, pronto.

Wanting…to stop feeling island fever and actually enjoy the islands. We’re almost at the halfway point of this tour in Hawaii, and I really don’t want to wish it away!

Feeling…pricklings of stress. I don’t know why, but it might be all the upcoming travel we have or the impending holidays. “The pressure of Halloween? You never know what to go as.” If you haven’t seen My Blue Heaven, well, it’s nothing spectacular, but it’s Steve Martin and Rick Moranis in their prime and it was filmed in my home town.

Pictures from This Week…

From top left: 1) Asparagus and goat cheese breakfast tarts. 2) Buffalo fried deviled eggs at REAL a gastropub. 3) Someone thinks he’s getting scraps from the kitchen. 4) Gorgeous morning moon. 5) Pulled pork sliders at REAL a gastropub. 6) A beautiful day at the Mililani Farmer’s Market. 7) Margherita Pizza from Bonfire Pizzas at the Mililani Farmer’s Market. 7) Pear Gorgonzola Tarts with maple drizzle – recipe coming soon! 8) Out at Orchids for brunch.

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