Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Melon Season

Summer isn't summer until melons are ripe. This week, we've had not one but two watermelons. Both were the seedless variety, which often break my heart, yet I buy them again and again. Why? Because I can't stand the waste of the much larger seeded melons. There is no way that two people (well, actually, just me because my husband does not share my enthusiasm for the juicy, crisp, sweet red flesh) can eat a whole seeded melon before it goes horribly south. With perseverance, though, I can finish a seedless melon, if it lives up to expectations. Plus, in the summer, I'm lazy and I don't want to deal with the seeds. Even as a kid, I could never spit seeds, and now that I'm an adult, I don't want to contend with the mess.

That brings me back to this week's melons. Because it is still very early in the melon season, I was skeptical, but it was hot, and the melons were on sale, and I succumbed to temptation. Against today's wisdom, I popped it into the refrigerator as soon as I got home (evidently, watermelon holds its nutritional value better if left on the counter). Before long, though, the siren song called me. With the heat, we didn't feel like eating, but watermelon sounded just right. That is, if the melon itself was just right.

I put the melon on the cutting board, pulled out my biggest chef's knife, and thrust it into melon's heart. It split easily in two, revealing perfectly red flesh. It looked delicious, but looks can be deceiving. I cut one half in half again and began pulling the flesh from the rind, cutting chunks into a huge glass salad bowl, restraining myself. If it was wonderful, it would keep, but for the time being, it was better not knowing. When I topped off the bowl, I finally succumbed. One taste told the tale.

Summer had arrived. The melon was chilled to perfection, the texture was crisp, and the taste was sweet, the taste of summer. Ahhh!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Food from the heart doesn't have to come from the kitchen

Last Thursday, my brother's family returned from Richmond, VA. They had made settlement on their new home, and they were waiting for their furniture to arrive. I wanted to cook something special for them, but my house was one of the 200,000 plus residences still without power after the storm that barreled across Chester and Delaware counties. Even with a gas stove, I depended on electricity for the spark and for temperature controls. I was despondent. I mean, if my family can't count on me to bring sustenance to a life-changing event, what good am I? I couldn't bake a cake. I couldn't make a pot roast. I couldn't even boil water for iced tea.

After a while, I put on my thinking cap and realized that perhaps food doesn't always have to come from my kitchen to come from my heart. I made a trip to the grocery store and ordered a variety of lunch meats and cheeses. I bought Italian rolls and a loaf of marble rye. With some chips, pretzels, and bakery cookies, I rounded out the picnic basket. I tossed paper products and beverages into my cart. From home, I added butter, mustard, and mayonnaise, pickles and olives, a sharp knife and a big box of plasticware. I had the ingredients for a meal that was easy to prepare and to clean up.

Since there are plenty of boxes left to be unpacked, I can still make a casserole to relieve my sister-in-law of kitchen duties as she gets settled into the new house, but in the future, I'll know I have other options if my kitchen is out of commission!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Institution Food or How We Eat at the AP Reading

There is nothing like the smell of Sterno to remind me of the taste of institution food. This past week, that scent was strong. Let me backtrack. I spent the last eight days in Louisville as a guest of the College Board reading essays for the Advanced Placement Language and Composition exam. To get any doubts out of the way, yes, it is insane, but it is also a wonderful opportunity to meet other equally crazy English teachers and to share with them best practices in the classroom and our favorite books and movies. However, whenever anyone tries to feed close to 2,000 people at a crack, the food is not going to be what your mother made, unless she was the cafeteria lady of a large high school.

Institution food suffers from trying to feed many people in a reasonable amount of time. The many people part means that the choices are driven toward the taste of the masses. You are not going to find Brussels sprouts being served, for example. You will find chicken breasts and sliced turkey, beef in barbecue sauce and poached mild fish. Basically, you'll find anything that keeps reasonably well in a chafing dish, but the food is never quite warm enough and always too salty. Unfortunately, the only seasoning used IS salt. Correction. We were served mixed vegetables that were heavily seasoned with oregano. While I love oregano on pizza, for my money, it doesn't enhance broccoli mixed with carrots and corn.

The salad bar suffers from the opposite problem: it is difficult to keep the greens crisp and cold in this environment. The toppings look tired after the third day. And I'm a dressing snob. At home, I drizzle only the finest extra-virgin olive oil into a bowl that I have rubbed with the cut side of a clove of fresh garlic, then I add a smidgen of red wine vinegar (made in small batches and sold in one of my very favorite stores in Philadelphia's Italian Market), a dollop of dijon mustard, and a generous sprinkle of chopped fresh herbs. The dressings in the cafeteria line were mass-produced, gelatinous, overly salty, and probably very bad for anyone with high cholesterol.

The foods that are most successful for a crowd are the very foods that I should be avoiding: the starches (they serve a wide variety of potatoes and pasta salads) and desserts (the brownies were out of this world). It is far to easy to justify dessert when the rest of the meal felt unsubstantial. However, the bottom line is that calories, whether they taste good or not, are still calories. Did I need that slice of cake? Of course not. I am no where close to starvation. Yet, somehow it jumped onto my tray and disappeared.

As an adult, I feel silly jockeying for position in a cafeteria line, juggling a tray, eating off of plastic plates with plastic forks that break before the meal is over. I revert to my adolescent whine as I criticize each bite I put in my mouth. However, even as I complain about the mystery meat and the wilted lettuce, there is a part of me that appreciates the fact that I did not have to plan the meal, shop for the ingredients, or cook.

And now I have to figure out what to make for dinner tonight. Hmm. Is there any cheese to go with this whine?