Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Christine Jagolino

Christine Jagolino is ready to eat, Jakarta, Indonesia, Sept. 2010.
I know Christine Jagolino as a fellow tv producer, so when I received her message from Hong Kong I wondered what she was shooting there.  It turns out that Christine (or "Jag" as she was known in the world of television) has reinvented herself since I last saw her and her new life is an enviable one.  I normally take great pleasure in writing biographies of the people I profile on this site, but because I haven't seen Christine in a while I asked her to fill me in on the details of her life in the past four years.  
I moved to Hong Kong three years ago during the writer's strike, and made a career switch from tv to fashion.  While on my perpetual quest to eat my way through Hong Kong, I've been lucky enough to taste Bangkok, Thailand; Saigon, Vietnam; Manila, Philippines; Chengdu, China; Jakarta, Indonesia; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Macau; and for balance Rome & Florence, Italy.  There is no greater way to learn about a culture than through food.  There is no greater way to make a friend than by sharing a meal.  To even out all this indulgent eating, I spend my free time playing dodgeball, rock climbing, hiking, racing, watching as much tv as possible, and playing the harmonica.
I've attached a picture of me dining in Jakarta, Indonesia - Sept 2010.  I was taken to this restaurant by a vendor, and just as we were seated food was being stacked in front of us three plates high!  This is obviously too much food for 3 people, and later we found out we only paid for the items we ate.  I'm not sure what happened to the dishes we didn't eat, and I prefer not to think about that.  Perhaps it was an Indonesian version of a buffet, except all the dishes are brought to you.
When I last talked to her, Christine was on her way to a private Sichuan dinner and she promised to report back on it.  This led to a discussion of the incredible diversity of Hong Kong cuisine and before I knew it, ESD has it's first international correspondent.  I am, at heart a researcher, and I'm excited to expand the blog into the world of international cuisine.  

In her new role as ESD's Hong Kong Correspondent, Christine will file regular reports on Sunday dinners in Hong Kong, and any other places she happens to visit.  She is also available to answer questions related to Hong Kong cuisine and the international rules of dodgeball.

The Official Sunday Dinner Questionnaire

1.  What is your favorite food to eat?  Why?
This question is like Sophie’s Choice.

The easy answer is avocado.  If there is avocado somewhere on the menu, there is a 99% chance I’ll order it.  I guess I really am a California girl!  My mom also makes avocado shakes, and that tastes like my childhood.  

I like a lot of variety.  Different cuisines.  I spend a lot of time thinking about food.

2.  What is your favorite food to cook?  How often and under what circumstances do you make it?
Other than a plate of veggies, I don’t cook that often because 1) my kitchen here is the size of my coat closet in LA (no joke) 2) “western” groceries are expensive 3) eating “locally” is cheap.

I guess my favorite food to cook (always for others) is comfort food.  It makes people happy.  Especially here where we don’t have homemade meals that often, and we Americans are away from home.  I’ve made sweet mac and cheese many times, but it’s one of those dishes that you can only have once in a while.  I probably make it about once a year, and I’ll serve it when hosting a party.  I used to make it for my annual Sunset Junction pre-party.  And I made it in Hong Kong once when I had access to an apartment with an oven.  I’m planning on making it for Christmas.

3.  Who or what is your greatest culinary influence?  Why is he/she/it an inspiration to you?
My parents!  My mom knows what she’s doing in the kitchen.  My dad has no idea what he’s doing in the kitchen and comes up with something brilliant.  Both of them work full time and then some, but they always managed to put something on the table for me and my sis.  

When my mom worked nights, my dad would style really simple dinners for us.  Bologna with rice scooped from an ice cream scooper and a fancy cut orange.  We got a big kick out of this.  

My parents love to eat and take much pleasure out of food.  Anything goes with them.  I once called them during dinner and found they were eating mom-made tacos and matzo ball soup.  That’s a pretty accurate reflection of their house.

4.  What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?
Not a utensil, but I have to say ovens.  Hong Kong apartments are not equipped with them.  Sometimes not even a stove top, although just that would be sufficient for a Hongkonger’s needs anyway.  Dining out is much more common than eating in, and I don’t blame them, especially if your family of four lives in 600 sq feet.  

After 7 months of living here, I moved from a serviced apartment to a grand apartment of 400 sq feet.  It’s a great place, great location, but can be challenging with the closet and kitchen situation.  It was weird, immediately after moving in I freaked out because I had no oven.  I quickly purchased a turbo countertop convection oven and now can sleep at night. 

5.  What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?
I was traveling last weekend and my Sunday dinner consisted of cupcakes.  They were really delish.  I would have had a proper meal after that but didn’t need it.  Just some wine to follow.

6.  When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal that brought your friends and family together on a regular basis?  If so, what you you eat?
Growing up we had dinner together every night.  No tv.  Just conversation.  This was very important to my parents and that’s just another reason why they are my greatest culinary influence.  There was never any extended family close by so it was just us four, but for special occasions, birthdays, and holidays we’d get together with family friends.

On an average night, we’d have meat, vegetables, and rice.  Always rice.  My parents get a little nutty if they don’t have rice every day.  Pork chops, chicken adobo, meatloaf…

My mom’s special occasion menu has evolved.  I don’t really remember what was involved in the earlier years but I’m sure there was lumpia, chicken salad, and spinach dip.  The chicken salad has evolved too.  Hers has apples in it, and now it has grapes and nuts.  It’s really good.  Now the menu would have Chilean sea bass and/or carne asada.

7.  Do you have a garden?  If so, what do you grow in it?
I wish I had room for one.  But I have inherited some plants.

Growing up we had an apricot tree, and we’d end up with more fruit than we could ever eat.  So we made jam and gave it as presents.

8.  What is your ultimate food fantasy?
A career in travel & food writing/photography/tv!  

9.  If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be?  What would you want to eat?
I want to come up with a smart and fun answer, but best I can do is Prince William.  He likes to cook for his lady but manages to catch the kitchen on fire.  I think it would be a fun time.  And perhaps my only chance to intercept him before the wedding.  The menu would be gentleman’s choice.

10.  Fill in the blank:  "The most important element of a good meal is_________." 
I stand by the obvious answer.  Good company and good wine.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Who Wants to See Moldy Cakes?

Birthday cake past it's prime at the LA County Fair, September 2010.
I do!  But I still wonder why there isn't a time limit on keeping baked goods in the display cases at the LA County Fair.  I've been mulling this issue over since I visited the fair in September and I've developed a few thoughts on the subject.
Display case full of award-winning cakes and quick breads at the LA County Fair, September 2010.

Cracked bread in display case, Sept. 2010.
From a distance, the baked goods all look so beautiful, but when I get up close, all I can see is the ooze, the slime, the cracking, and the mold.  It's so unappealing.... and so fabulous.  And yet there's something wonderful about seeing these award-winning (and losing) baked good fester away in display cases, attracting flies and deterring visitors.  Except for me.

I love visiting the moldy baked goods.  It's the highlight of my annual visit to the fair.  I always plan to go to the fair on the final weekend so the baked goods are in their prime, at least as far as I'm concerned.  Seeing cute baby animals is nice, but it's the moldy cakes and quick breads that steal my heart.
Ooze from a cake attacks a sugar mouse, September 2010.
I'm sure part of the attraction is my morbid fascination with decay.  But there's more to it than that.  There's something very funny about seeing rotting food labeled with a blue ribbon.  This may say something very dark about my personality, but I choose to think of it as finding surrealist magic in the unassuming display cases of the Grandstand building.

The oozing and cracked baked goods also say something very dark about Los Angeles and the limitations of creating and maintaining a large community.  This is an indirect way of saying that it's nearly impossible to create a vital, healthy community if that "community" is over a certain size.  Once the community becomes so large that the people in it no long know each other-- and everyone can't get to the fair in a single week-- then, on some level, it ceases to be a real community.   Personally, I don't care who wins or loses the baked good competitions because I don't know any of them.  I don't think I would enjoy viewing the festering remains if I knew the contestants.  It would be too sad to think how hard my friend or neighbor worked on her cake only to watch it rot under hot lights.

Don't get me wrong-- I love the LA County Fair and I think there are many opportunities for real engagement with the people who grow our food here in Los Angeles.  My family had a great experience watching the goat milking, although trying to participate in the process was a bit of a bust.  (When you're less than two feet tall a goat udder can be pretty scary.)

But if something's not working, why shine bright lights on it?  Why not take the rotting cakes OUT of the display cases?  Add another round of competition halfway through the run of the fair.  Host a jam-boiling on the final weekend and display the prize-winning jars.  Do anything else with the space.  Leave it empty if you must.
Viewers' Choice Winner of Tablescape Competition.
I'd rather see the vacuum as an opportunity to do something new.

Maybe like adding a diorama version of the tablescape competition.  If you've never heard of the tablescape competition, you are seriously missing out.  It's easily my second-favorite part of the fair.  Mostly because it's so crazy and serves no useful purpose.  Just like some of my favorite art.

Tablescaping is exactly what it sounds like.  Participants set a standard-size table following a theme of their choice.  It can be anything from "The Wizard of Oz" to "Sunday Dinner at Grandma's House".

In my dream for the new diorama tablescape competition, each tablescape must fit in a shoe box that is no taller or wider than a shelf in the baked goods display case.  Participants may built their dioramas using any material that does not ooze, mold, crack or otherwise decay.  I wonder if the LA County Fair officials are taking suggestions for new competitions?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Secret History of Country Ham, Part Two

Tim Evans-- writer, tv producer, jackleg historian, and my husband-- wraps up his two-part series on The Secret History of Ham today.  And just in case you missed the original report, be sure to check out Part One as well.

The Secret History of Country Ham, Part Two
By Tim Evans

Some food writers claim that the Roman version of ham – the ham so prized by Roman emperors -- is identical to the Spanish Seranno and Iberico hams of today… the most expensive and highly prized in the world.  (Of course, those food writers tend to be Spanish.)

If this is so, then the same breed of Roman Empire Pig made its way to the New World in 1540 with Hernando DeSoto, the Spanish Conquistador.  DeSoto brought with him 13 Spanish pigs to feed his troops… and the pig herd grew rapidly as DeSoto’s explorers traveled from Florida to Georgia to the Appalachians and Tennessee.  Along the way, DeSoto’s swineherds left behind colonies of pigs to run wild… and feed future expeditions.  Many historians and archaeo-zoologists trace the Southern Razorback Hogs directly to DeSotos’s Conquistadors.  There are no existing accounts of DeSoto’s swineherds.  Sadly.

It’s intriguing that De Soto left pigs behind in EXACTLY the same region that became famous for Country Ham… but that may be coincidence.  Most food historians think the source of American domestic pigs came from Jamestown

European pigs arrived in the first English-speaking colony with Captain John Smith in 1607 – six decades after DeSoto’s piglets were left to run wild.  The Jamestown Pigs soon became so plentiful that the colonists took most of them to an island in the middle of the James River and just left them.  They bred so quickly and so plentifully that “Hog Island” became a communal larder – and colonists and Native Americans alike could just paddle over and grab themselves a fresh pig whenever they wanted.

The Jamestown pigs not only gave the colonists fresh pork… but the salty, dense, incredible substance called Country Ham.  The English colonists had a long history of curing and preserving meat.  One pig and a whole lot of salt could preserve good protein through many colonial “starving times.”

And that brings us back to “Country Ham.”  The food that today is called “Country Ham” was just “Ham” until the invention of refrigeration in the early 20th Century.
A cured country ham ready to be boiled, April 2010.

In fact, there is no written reference to “Country Ham” until 1944.  Country ham wasn’t new in 1944 – the other versions of ham were.  So you had to come up with a name for the thing everyone used to call “just ham.”

By the early 20th Century, technology allowed Americans to inject fresh pork with salt, instead of covering it with salt and letting it hang in the basement.  You could put pork in cans, you could freeze it, you could do all sorts of interesting and tasty things with it… and none of them involved two years immersed in salt.  So the substance I always THOUGHT was ham was “wet-cured” pork shoulder… injected or immersed in brine AFTER they’ve been cooked.  Most of the things called “ham” in the supermarket are fully-cooked and salty versions of pork… bland squares of sliced protein that would never last over a Jamestown winter… or sit in a basement in the Shenandoah Valley for a year or two  before it was deemed ready to eat.
Country Ham is ham the way it should be.  The way our Neolithic forebears liked it… the way the Jamestown colonists tasted it when their very survival was at stake.  In each crusty bite of the dense, salt-laden, molar-cracking swineflesh lies the history of western civilization.

So if, like me, you are familiar only with the damp, honey-flavored, paper-thin globs of pinkness passing as ham at your supermarket, you need to taste the real thing.  If you can’t marry into a ham-curing family (and so few are that lucky, nowadays), find yourself a real southern-style grocery store or contact folks with an international reputation like Turner Hams of Fulks Run, VA and get yourself some of the real stuff.  You owe it to your taste buds.  And to your Neolithic ancestors.

Especially the ones who were swineherds.

Ed. Note:  The folks at Turner Hams are cousins of mine (of a sort).  If you're in the neighborhood, be sure to pick up a ham roll from their refrigerated section.  It's the best fast-food in the world!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Secret History of Country Ham- A Guest Column

The next two posts are guest blogs from frequent reader Tim Evans-- writer, tv producer, and jackleg historian-- who also happens to be my husband.

The Secret History of Country Ham
A Guest Column by Tim Evans

As a guy growing up in Southern California, I knew nothing about ham.

Except, of course, that in its natural state, ham was a bland, square, sliced meat product that came wrapped in various forms of plastic.  Later, I discovered that there was a damp, soggy, sweet-flavored version of ham that could be found in cans.  So I knew ham existed.  But I had never heard of any distinctions beyond brand names.

Then I married the host of this blog, and discovered the sublime and mysterious substance called “Country Ham.”

Country Hams are not just hams.  They’re not Western Hams.  They’re not canned, spiral-cut, boned, rolled, or “ready-to-eat” hams.  They are a specific and unique American food tradition that became endangered in the mid-20th Century… and some of its last specimens can be found in small farms, local grocery stores and Virginia basements.

Like the basement of my father-in-law.
Country hams cure in the basement of Winston Lutz, 2000.

Winston Lutz was born on the family farm in the Shenandoah Valley, and though he’s been “off” the farm since he left for college and med school, he likes to preserve some country hams in the basement, using the secret recipe of his Uncle Elwood.

Winston’s country hams are nothing like the meat product I knew growing up.  Salty, hard, dry, chewy… and so well-preserved that some people soak them in water for days before consuming them.  Country Ham is an acquired taste, but once acquired – nothing else will satisfy your pork cravings.

Winston Lutz’s hams are the last of a long line of disappearing traditional American pork products.  Rather than talk about the taste, quality and preparation of country ham, though, I’ll delve into a brief, little-known history – a secret history – of country ham.

Country ham is at least 4,000 years old. Not the ones in Winston’s basement, of course – though they may look like it.  But the concept of country ham has been part of Western Civilization for more than four millennia.  Pigs were first domesticated in the Middle East over 7,000 years ago.  But recently, geneticists applied DNA studies to the concept of country ham.  It turns out that those Sumerian/Babylonian pigs migrated westward over a few millennium to wind up in Europe… but the Europeans began to interbreed them with the fierce, monstrous wild boars that plagued the forests of Germany and France.  From this breeding project (the mind reels trying to imagine the first time some hungry Goth tried to bring the two sub-species together) came the first European pigs, around 2000 BC.

Pigs are the perfect farm animal.  At least to this city-bred guy… and I suspect to Neolithic farmers as well.  You don’t need to do anything with them… you don’t even need to FEED them!  You just toss a couple of baby pigs into the forest, leave ‘em for 5 months, then go get ‘em and eat ‘em.  Pigs fend for themselves. Even in mid-20th-Century Appalachia, mountain farmers would mark the ears of the piglets and let ‘em run off into the woods, then round them up in the Fall, with absolutely no money spent on care, feeding, tending.  That’s my kind of farm work.

You may need to throw a swineherd into the mix – just to keep the locals or the wolves from eating the piglets.  Neolithic farmers apparently discovered that youngest sons are perfect for this since, like the pigs, they’re cheap and somewhat disposable.  Hence, four millennia of folktales involving swineherds and youngest sons – from The Odyssey to the Welsh Mabinogi to the Disney version The Black Cauldron.

The first WRITTEN accounts of ham were circa 200 BC, when the expanding Roman Republic discovered that those smelly barbarians to the north and west were taking pig flesh, salting it, and letting it sit around for a year or two.  The Romans became enthusiastic fans, not only eating it and writing about it, but commemorating the delightfully salty flavor in ham-shaped COINS.  How come America doesn’t do that?  Why isn’t there a giant, freshly-sliced Smithfield ham on the back of the Virginia Quarter?  Just asking…

Coming up in the next post... how The Emperor's Pigs Came to America... and how they wound up in the basement.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The "Mother" is Dead...

The Bloated "Mother" on Day 8.
And I killed her.  She was so demanding, so needy.  I just couldn't deal with feeding her every five days and making bread every ten days, even on a busy work day.  Any reasonable jury would have called it justifiable homicide, especially if a member of the jury had ever been saddled with a starter for Amish Friendship Bread.  In fact, I don't know anyone who's made Amish Friendship Bread who hasn't eventually done the same thing.

I tried to find another use for it when I knew I couldn't keep going.  I should have made waffles or pancakes out of it.  After all, thanks to The Amish Friendship Bread Pancake Challenge, I have some great recipes.  But I forgot to feed the "Mother" a couple of times and by the time I remembered I was afraid she'd gone bad.  It didn't seem worth poisoning my family out of guilt about throwing away 27 cents worth of ingredients.

I remember this "Mother" fondly.  Thanks to her, I made some bread my family loved and I had a great time hosting the challenge event.  It was a wonderfully kooky version of Sunday dinner which did exactly what Sunday dinner is supposed to do.  It brought family and friends together to enjoy each other's company and eat good food.  And the "Mother" provided a great topic of conversation.  While she lasted, the "Mother" made life fun for everyone, except me.  The Mother.  As mothers often do, this "Mother" worked hard for the benefit of her family and we ate her alive.  My mistake was that we didn't eat ALL of her when we had the chance.  It would have been so easy to mix up an extra batch of waffles.  I could have stashed them in the freezer for some easy kids' breakfasts in the future.  (Yea, we DO eat frozen waffles.  And they're always homemade.  Wanna make something out of it?)
Waffles made with the "Mother" from Amish Friendship Bread.

As you can tell, I feel a little defensive about the "Mother".  Producing guilt can be a mother's greatest triumph.  Or her downfall.  We can all learn a little something from the "Mother".  I know I did.

Palaczinta made with Amish Friendship Bread "Mother".
If you've ever killed the "Mother" for Amish Friendship Bread, I'd love to hear about it.  And I want details...  How long did you have it?  How many batches of bread did you make?  How many "Mothers" did you manage  to give away to unsuspecting bakers?  And how long did you let the "Mother" fester before you finally gave up and threw her away?

If you've got a "Mother" bloating up in a corner of your kitchen right now, don't feel bad about putting her out of her misery.  But if you have the time, make pancakes... or waffles, or palaczinta.  You don't really need the "Mother" to make these recipes, but using up the "Mother" in such a delicious way will help you remember her with love.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Heirloom Foods: Our First Taste of Homemade Calabrian Olives

Bland, But Grand:  Our First Taste of Homemade Calabrian Olives, December 1, 2010.
My husband warned me not to title this blog post "Bland But Grand" because nobody would read it.  I have to say I already regret listening to him because it's a perfect description of my homemade olives.

I started making Calabrian-style olives a month ago and we've been waiting to try the finished product ever since.  I got the recipe (and the raw olives) from my friends Lisa and Louis, and they sent amazing instructions on how to do it, including video tutorials!  I figured I couldn't go wrong.  But my initial results were disappointing.  We tried them the day I jarred them, but they were so tasteless that we declared them "unfinished" and decided to let them fester in their juices for a while.

Ever since I published the complete recipe, people have been writing to me to ask how my olives turned out.  I've been embarrassed to admit that my husband said they "tasted like cellulose".  When I finally told Lisa that I thought I'd done something wrong, she said that when made correctly, Calabrian olives are "bland, but grand" and have a subtle flavor.  So we decided to try them again.  

My version of Calabrian olives have been soaking in a mixture of garlic, salt, red pepper flakes, dried oregano, garlic, and olive oil for a little over three weeks.  I figured that with this aromatic combination, they certainly must have absorbed some kind of flavor.  They did!  My Calabrian olives are indeed "Bland, But Grand".  Louis suggested that I spice my olives conservatively, which seemed like a reasonable idea, but now that I've tried the finished olives, I think I'll experiment by adding different amounts of each ingredient to each of my six jars of olives.  I may even give a few of these "experiments" as holiday presents.  It will be like a Russian Roulette of olive-curing.  Who knows which batch will be great and which will be fit for the dogs.  (Sorry dog-lovers.)  I don't think I have the nerve to give them to Lisa and Louis.  But they wouldn't want them anyway.  They already have over 70 pounds of their own Calabrian olives stashed in their refrigerator.