Monday, January 30, 2006

Finding Comfort Near the Sea

I find January to be an unsettling month; a time of in-betweens, of anxious pauses and long moments of melancholy. The holidays are over, and spring is still just a dream. The rains come down, and people hunker inside their houses. I hunker inside, too, but I pace the floors, feeling strangely restless and cross. This is the season of waiting, of seeds burrowing deep within the ground, slumbering patiently.

If only I could relax into it with greater ease. I feel a sense of shifting, of undefined changes swirling in the not-too-distant future. I toss; I turn; I wonder.

Around noon today, on my way back over the bridge from the restaurant where I spent the morning taking inventory and placing orders, I impulsively turned off at the Alexander Avenue exit. The wind was blustery, and the driving rain made a mockery of my windshield wipers. I had a distinct urge to be in view of the ocean.

I remembered reading a review about a restaurant in Sausalito called Fish, and decided to stop by. When I dialed 411, the man who picked up the phone told me to drive to the far end of the yacht dock area on Harbor Drive. Sure enough, there it was, tucked into a rather obscure corner.

The space is open and bright, with high ceilings and polished wood tables. Chalkboards on the wall display the specials. There is much on the menu that begs to be sampled, but as I was by myself, I couldn’t order with my usual abandon.

I settled on a cup of New England style clam chowder and a salad made with grilled calamari. “Fresh from Monterey Bay,” the man at the counter told me. “Small and delicious.”

While I waited, I sat near a crackling fireplace and looked out at the ocean, taking solace in its vastness.

The clam chowder was warm and full of potato chunks. The clams were pink and bouncy. I dumped the whole packet of oyster crackers inside and happily munched away.

My salad arrived just as I was finishing the soup. It was served in a deep bowl, a pile of baby greens tossed with shredded carrots and pomegranate seeds, all dressed in a perfectly balanced vinaigrette. The calamari lay across the top, purplish-red cone-shaped bodies with tangled tentacles like miniature fountains. They bore tiny black flecks of char from the grill. They were tender, with the slightest bit of chewy edge. They tasted of deep, dark water and the mysteries of the sea. I finished the entire bowl. I nearly picked it up and licked it at the end.

And drove the rest of the way back to Novato feeling the slightest bit more hopeful.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

High on the White Stuff

The month of January finds many of us craving simple, healthy foods after the indulgences of the holidays. Sam at Becks & Posh has created a low sugar challenge, while Molly at Orangette is finding respite in the humble cabbage.

Meanwhile, the New York Times is running a series of articles on the rampant spread of diabetes in the United States. Diabetes is a truly devastating disease. I would guess that each of us have been affected by it in some way, whether directly or indirectly. And those effects are growing…

Each of the NYT articles has made me feel a combination of sadness and anger. A couple of things in particular have jumped off the page and smacked me in the face:

“Type 2 can often be postponed and possibly prevented by eating less and exercising more. But getting millions of people to change their behavior…will require some kind of national crusade.”

And this quote from a Dr. Thomas Frieden, the New York health commissioner: “

I will go out on a limb, and say, 20 years from now people will look back and say: 'What were they thinking? They're in the middle of an epidemic and kids are watching 20,000 hours of commercials for junk food.' "

And yet another sad fact:

Patients have trouble securing a reimbursement for a $75 visit to the nutritionist who counsels them on controlling their diabetes. Insurers do not balk, however, at paying $315 for a single session of dialysis, which treats one of the disease's serious complications.

The Times series has made it very clear that diabetes isn’t going to go away. Its causes are embedded in our culture, and we must figure our way out of the illness we have created. I personally have no doubt that refined sugar and highly processed foods in general have played a huge role in the spread of this disease, and yet most Americans are still acting as if they’re harmless, the equivalent of striking up the band while the ship is sinking.

I was in the Novato Target yesterday to pick up toilet paper and bottled water, and decided to take a stroll through the food section. I was greeted with an end-cap display of variously flavored chips in enormous bags; just behind those, an entire row was dedicated to soda of every flavor you can imagine. Candy bars now come in “family packs,” as do microwaveable snacks of every kind.

It’s so easy! Just grab it and go…

The pharmacy is conveniently located just to the right of the ice cream cooler. Your local mega-store is, after all, committed to being your partner in diabetes care.

Getting off the white stuff is a true challenge in suburban communities like Novato. If you live in Novato, you will have to drive farther than you might like to find healthy food choices; you might, like I did, have to tailor your schedule in order to hit farmer’s markets and other places where fresh, local food is available only at certain times. You’re going to have to be creative. And you’re going to have to cook a home a fair bit.

Eating healthy in the suburbs isn’t hard in the way that climbing Mount Everest is hard, but it is hard in the sense that it is an everyday thing that you must be diligent about. If you don’t plan ahead, and you’re coming home late, and you’re starving, and every hundred yards you see another drive-thru sign winking out of the darkness at you, what will you do?

We have not designed our communities with health in mind. Instead, they are full of quicksand-like traps made of white sugar and refined flour. They are minefields of pizzas to go and chicken in a bucket.

I worry that eating right on a consistent basis isn’t happening because isn’t practical for busy working parents with kids. Or for people with limited mobility. Or for people who are just stressed out and over-committed, which is most of us at least some of the time.

So how much of this is our collective responsibility? And how can we help suburbia to become healthier?

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Christmas in Novato, Part Two

I will return to my growing obsession with the plight of suburban communities, just as soon as I finish posting my Christmas pictures.

As you can tell, we ate quite well on December 25th. Dined like kings, you might say. I left off at the cheese course in the last post... Here is the rest of the menu.

Christmas Dinner:

• Duck Roasted Two Ways:

1) Glazed with freshly squeezed orange juice, black tea and honey, with a clove-spiked orange in the cavity while cooking

2) Marinated for 36 hours in a paste of white miso and black mushrooms, and wrapped in a lotus leaf

• Tarragon Potato gratin w/ Gruyere & crème fraiche

• Brussels sprouts shaved and sautéed with toasted hazelnuts and tossed in a maple-syrup butter

• Orin Swift's 2004 Prisoner

• Mario Perelli-Minetti's 1998 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

May I simply say that the duck was so extraordinary - both of them, but especially the miso-marinated one - that we were quite literally silent as we ate. I am now besotted with duck. I plan to try a confit next... and perhaps a rillette, or a proper pate. Ah, the possibilities!

If you haven't yet made brussels sprouts shaved, then you must try it immediately. The flavor is entirely different than when you leave them whole. I love them pretty much any way, but this dish was superb. If you need inspiration, Boulevard is serving them as a side with some of their entrees this season.

Other thoughts: the 2004 Prisoner is delicious, but the 2003 was better.

Dessert Course:

• Panacotta infused with mulling spices and drizzled with a light apple-caramel sauce and toasted walnuts

• Gingerbread bread pudding topped with cognac-macerated cranberries and finished with a vanilla crème anglaise

The gingerbread (made by Adam, whose genius in the kitchen cannot be underestimated) was the most incredible gingerbread I had ever tasted. Dark as chocolate cake, so moist it melted in the mouth, rendolent of cloves with the gentle kick of ginger... it tasted of Christmas, pure and simple.

By the time we finished, it was nearly eleven. We eat well on a regular basis, but this day was so over the top that we all looked at each other at one point, spoons in hand, and burst into happy, contented laughter. It wasn't so much that we had eaten a tremendous volume of food - each person only had a few bites of each dish - but the flavors were so intense, and the combinations were so delightful, that we felt immensely satisfied.

Ants notwithstanding, it was a tremendous way to usher out 2005. Happy New Year, everyone! May you be blessed with happiness and love in the coming months.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Christmas in Novato, Part One

The holiday season this year was about staying close to home. It was enjoying the company of family and friends; it was going to bed early and sleeping in late; it was sipping cups of tea while watching the birds outside peck away at the seeds in the feeder. It was playing fast and furious games of Dutch Blitz; it was lighting candles and playing Johnny Cash on the iPod; it was watching Johnny Depp on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and shouting, all together: "Mumbler!"

It was being thrilled and grateful that, for the first time in three years, I was preparing Christmas dinner in my own kitchen instead of greeting guests at the door of a restaurant.

Here it is: an assortment of pictures and a menu.

Breakfast, Christmas Morning

• Pomegranate mimosas

• Marco Polo tea from Mariage Freres

• Poached eggs served over buttered English muffins w/ dill Hollandaise

• Smoked Salmon w/ freshly cracked pepper, caper berries and creme fraiche

Mid-day Meal

• Shallot consommé with sage, thyme and chantrelle mushrooms

• Salad of shaved fennel, Fuji apple and red radishes with Dijon vinaigrette

• Sautéed foie gras with a fig-balsamic chutney

Late Afternoon Nibbles

• Roasted chestnuts, served hot

An Assortment of Cheeses:

• Point Reyes Blue
American Cow's Milk Blue Cheese, Full Flavored And Creamy
• Le Grand Rustique
Camembert Style French Cow's Milk Cheese, Semi-Soft Smooth And Creamy
• Pecorino Stagionato
Italian Sheep's Milk Cheese, Semi-Firm, Nutty and slightly herbaceous
• Dutch Gouda
Nut-like flavors with an open body and is semi-soft to hard in texture

• Fresh grapes, red and black

• Cuvee of marinated olives

It was also battling an ant infestation. To keep it real.