Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Snap Out of It: Food memories serve as effective writing prompts

Kim O'Donnel  (© Clare Barboza)
I recently registered for a webinar for writers plagued by procrastination. Frustrated participants described both their creeping anxiety and fruitless coping strategies. Some seemed on the verge of tears.

While following the presentation on one monitor, I was drafting an article and responding to email on another. When a text message chirped on my cell phone, I picked it up and replied. When my desk phone rang, I muted the livestream to take the call.

After about 20 minutes of this, I had a light bulb moment: While I can think of a thousand reasons to not do things I don't like doing, I rarely put off writing. Procrastination is not my issue, though inspiration sometimes is.

"Snap Out of It," a workshop at last week's 2013 International Food Bloggers Conference in Seattle, served as a effective reminder of the power of words and, by extension, the power of writers to assemble them in ways that resonate with readers.

"Writing is a process. We need to attend to it and nourish it," says presenter Kim O'Donnel, a hard news reporter who transitioned to a successful food writing career. Last year, the former Washington Post and USA Today food columnist released her second book, The Meat Lover's Meatless Celebrations. An essay the West Seattle resident wrote about a local farmer is featured in the soon-to-be released anthology, 2013 Best Food Writing.

"To me, food is the entry way to everything that connects us to the human experience.  It inspires the emotional, the personal, the political and the irrational," she says. "It's a way to make sense out of chaos. It's important. It helps us connect, not only with our own lives but what is going on around us."

O'Donnel's message was inspiring and persuasive. Bloggers gathered for her workshop ranged for beginners to those with established followings and revenue-generating websites.  Everyone participated in the same timed drills designed to "re-ignite the fire."

"We all have memory and we all have to eat," O'Donnel says, directing us to take five minutes to jot down a series of single sentences referencing specific food memories. Several were read aloud and earned praise from both teacher and peers for their creative promise.

An additional 10 minutes was dedicated to expanding a chosen sentence with rich detail. Some of the examples were so evocative that it was hard to believe they were cobbled together in no more time than it takes to cook pasta.

To demonstrate the detail necessary to write a recipe that can be recreated by others, the group was tasked with defining how to prepare a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The variety of approaches and degree of specificity was enlightening. Nearly everyone left out some essential detail, though many made their recipes sing with graceful phrases that revealed a great deal about the writer's personality.

"The point is that we have the power; we have it all within our own reservoirs, even when we feel we don't," O'Donnel says. "We always have something to write about."

I was glad to be among a cluster of bloggers who didn't realize the task was meant to simulate the experience of meeting the high standards of a cookbook editor. Several of us left out measurements entirely, using a broader brush to draft a narrative in the manner of an extended head note. Here's mine:

The Secret to a Good PB&J
Everyone knows how to make PB&J, but there usually is an extra step when it's made in my kitchen. The expected jar of peanut butter often has vanished from the cupboard. My husband says it calls to him in the night, beckoning like a Siren until he is compelled to get up and eat a few sticky spoonfuls to restore peace and quiet. He says this with the solemn duty of one who braves the piercing scream of a smoke detector that hungers for a fresh battery.

So, first step, locate the hidden jar of peanut butter from the rotating list of secret places where your preferred brand is stashed. Withdraw it silently, slather some across a slice of fresh bread, and quickly replace it before anyone enters the kitchen. Select any one of perhaps a dozen jars of homemade jam in the fridge - or tiptoe upstairs to grab one from the closet - and generously coat the other slice.

Press slices together, tuck into a napkin and immediately leave the kitchen. Consume somewhere with good ventilation, preferably outdoors, where the tell-tale whiff of peanut butter will be carried away with the wind.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

IFBC offers irresistible combination of food and family in Seattle

As a child, I could imagine no career more appealing than being a stewardess. You got to wear really sharp clothes and tell people important things, like how to behave in those tiny space-age bathrooms. 

You were in charge of the rolling beverage cart, whose adorable little bottles seemed to make grownups so cheerful. And you could magically quiet most children by piercing their new travel outfit with a flight wings pin with sharp metal points that looked just like the ones worn by reassuringly handsome pilots. We knew they were good looking because they'd often brush back cloth curtains to move about the cabin, chat and give lucky kids a pack of  airline-emblazoned playing cards.

Best of all, you delivered fancy meals to people who were leaving behind cold New Jersey winters to go to Florida to visit their grandparents. I mean, really. Did it get any better?

The role of flight attendants has grown a great deal more serious, of course, and one bite of a barely thawed snackwich makes it hard to believe that fine dining and hot towels were once as standard as screening passenger sneakers for explosives. 

As with the course of airline amenities, my journey also veered in a different direction: I have been a working writer for more than 30 years, first as a newspaper reporter, then as a state government communications director, and now as an editor (PhilanthropyJournal.org) and freelance food writer.

And yet, at the mid-point of a cross-country flight to attend the International Food Bloggers Conference in Seattle, I find myself considering similar obsessions. Food and drink will be a big part of my four-day visit, including a tour of one of Washington State's premiere wineries, Chateau St. Michelle. Instead of being awed by the flight crew - our stout male attendant was cheerless and stingy with the Biscoff cookies - I am giddy at the prospect of meeting keynote speaker Dorie Greenspan and presenter Kim O'Donnel. And I am eager to connect with food writers I know by social media avatar but wouldn't recognize if we  bumped while reaching for the same sponsored food sample.

And while my long-gone grandparents will not be there to greet me, I will be met at the baggage carousel by Jennie Schacht, a first cousin I discovered by chance via Facebook about two years ago. The author of several successful cookbooks, she is the granddaughter of my grandmother's sister and my grandfather's brother - that's right, two sisters married two brothers. I never met or knew much about this close branch on the family tree due to a mysterious, almost 70-year rift that we think we've pieced together. 

There are lots more Schachts, mostly on the west coast. I have been invited to have dinner with Jennie's parents, who are still stylish and vigorous in the 90s. I am bursting with anticipation. I will have been up about 18-plus hours (on three hours' sleep) by then and hope that I do not spoil this long-awaited moment by doing something goofy.

I've talked myself out of attending other costly food conferences but didn't even try with this one. The attraction of family, food and food writing - and in a great city like Seattle - was too much to resist. An IFBC survey indicates that many of the more than 300 registrants are just like me: writers with blogs and and big dreams.

In the past year, I have been fortunate to leverage my blog to land steady freelance work, first and most frequently with the award-winning alt-weekly INDY Week, which has a terrific editor and loyal readers. My slice of the food section includes personality profiles, quirky topics and the occasional restaurant review.

More recently, I have written a few pieces for The Local Palate, a lively new food and culture magazine out of Charleston, SC, and Our State, the beloved 80-year-old glossy that celebrates the best of  North Carolina. I hope to eventually see my name on the pages of Edible Piedmont, which has been recognized  for excellence by the Beard Foundation.

As a former newspaper reporter, I am comfortable with deadline writing and am especially looking forward to participating in IFBC's live blogging workshops. I'm interested in advice on how to beef up my blog and and make it  a more effective resource for reaching new readers and editors. I trust I won't be the only one in renowned New York Times food photographer Andrew Scrivani's workshop with an aged point-and-shoot digital camera. Actually, I'm hoping it will be somewhat skewed to camera-phone technology as I'm considering upgrading soon to have better still- and video-image options.

And, needless to say, I look forward to the tasting events where sponsors will show off their products and services and, fingers crossed, want to make connectionsi with new voices. Upon recommendation of folks who have been to IFBC before, I have packed lightly to allow plenty of room for samples, swag and business cards.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Empanadas: A pie by another name

Sandra Gutierrez will be the guest speaker for Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina's (CHOP NC) launch of its fall event season at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 18, at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. Snacks will be provided, including samples from Gutierrez's new book, "Latin American Street Food" (UNC Press).

Empanadas often feature savory ingredients, but this
simple recipe yields tender hand-held pies with
a filling of melted cream cheese and fruit paste.
A confession: I would sooner have pie than nearly any other dessert.

I spent hours, maybe weeks, cumulatively, gazing greedily at sweets featured like sparkling jewels in rotating display cases near the hostess stand in the diners of my New Jersey youth.  I was especially intrigued by the impossibly tall slices of lemon meringue pie and felt respect – no, giddy affection – for servers who managed to extricate slices without losing a single curl of toasty browned goodness.  

Today, I’m more inclined toward seasonal, two-crust concoctions stained with the volcanic eruptions of fresh fruit and sugar – not too much sugar, but just enough to leave a sticky trail on a plate that, if one is at home, one may lick clean without worry that some may tint the tip of one’s nose.
Another confession: I am a pie cheater.

No matter which respected chef or cookbook writer tells me how easy it is to make pie dough, I just don’t see the point. Mrs. Pillsbury has long been one of my dearest friends, followed closely by Mrs. Harris Teeter. With their able assistance, I have baked many pretty pies and rustic galettes that didn’t last long enough to fret over whether or not to refrigerate.

Now that we’re all friends, imagine me comfortably tucked into a stackable white plastic garden chair at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, where I arrived early last week to attend a launch event for my friend Sandra Gutierrez’s second cookbook, Latin American Street Foods: The Best Flavors of Markets, Beaches and Roadside Stands from Mexico to Argentina (UNC Press). Since I couldn’t daydream at the pie case, I pondered what I might write about for today’s #LetsLunch theme of pie. Now imagine my delight when I heard her describe empanadas – for which she’s currently drafting a definitive compilation to be published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang – as hand-held pies.

See where this is going? Follow me. As soon as I returned home I flipped through my copy of the book, which is beautifully photographed by Fred Thompson. I found what I was craving on page 234: Guava and Cream Cheese Empanadas. Si, mi amiga. Muy bien.
This is my kind of pie. It requires just four ingredients, two of which you likely have in your fridge. Instead of refrigerated pie dough, this calls for a visit to the freezer case for frozen pastry dough; ie, Mrs. Pepperidge Farm. Do not be confused or tempted by the phyllo dough, unless you want to repeat my crazed attempt to corral all those papery sheets and roll them into a 12-inch square. La gringa es loca.

While this no doubt would be heresy in Cuba (and most of Latin America), I substituted fancy packages of fig and plum paste I had hoarded in my cupboard for the guava. Be sure to crimp the triangular packets well to ensure that the fruit paste and cream cheese stays inside the pastry while baking. Mine leaked prodigiously, creating a surprisingly tasty mess that could be lifted in ribbons to top the meltingly delicious empanadas. Not the prettiest result, but hey – it’s all good when you’re eating pie.
Guava and Cream Cheese Empanadas (Empanadas de Queso y Guayaba)

Reprinted with permission of the University of North Carolina Press from LATIN AMERICAN STREET FOOD: THE BEST FLAVORS OF MARKETS, BEACHES, AND ROADSIDE STANDS FROM MEXICO TO ARGENTINA by Sandra A. Gutierrez. Copyright © 2013 by Sandra A. Gutierrez. 
In this classic Cuban turnover, nectarous guava paste meets tangy cream cheese and flaky puff pastry. Guava paste has a consistency similar to softened gumdrops—a bit pasty, very thick, and truly luscious when it melts. In a pinch, use the more readily available guava jelly. Make these pastries ahead of time and freeze them before you bake them; there is no need to thaw them. If in the middle of the afternoon you’re secretly craving one (or two or three!) of these decadent empanadas, simply throw them in a toaster oven, bake, and eat them to your heart’s content. It will be our little secret.

Makes 18 empanadas.
2 ready-to-bake puff pastry sheets (1.1-pound package), thawed according to package directions
10–12 ounces guava paste, sliced into 2-inch-long by ¼-inch-thick rectangles (see note)
10 ounces cream cheese, sliced into 2-inch-long by ¼-inch-thick rectangles
Egg wash made of 1 large egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 400°F. On a clean, lightly floured surface, roll out one puff pastry sheet to form a 12-inch square; using a sharp knife or pastry wheel, cut it into 9 (4×4-inch) squares.
Brush a pastry square with egg wash. Place one piece of the cream cheese on top of a guava paste rectangle and place the stack on the diagonal in the center of the pastry square. Bring the two opposite corners of the pastry together to form a triangle; seal the edges with your fingers and then crimp the edges decoratively using the tines of a fork. Repeat with the rest of the ingredients.

Place the filled empanadas on the prepared sheets and brush the tops with egg wash. Bake until golden, about 15–20 minutes. Serve them warm or at room temperature.
Note: If you’re using guava jelly, you’ll need 1 tablespoon for each empanada.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Turkey, Sweet Potato and Black Bean Enchiladas

My husband has declared war on our pantry. Until items can be withdrawn without making others tumble forth - and, ideally, until what's in the back can be seen from the front - there is a moratorium on the purchase of staples.

Frankly, this is a good thing. Our cupboards reveal me for the sort of spontaneous shopper that supermarket designers dream about. I cannot resist a display of  unfamiliar grains. Cans of heirloom whatever seem to magically spring from the shelf to my basket. And let's not forget the multitudes of home-canned goods upstairs, which Tim frequently observes "will get us through a nuclear winter."

A forced assessment of one's stockpile can be an invitation for easy, creative dinners. When I first described this one to Graham, he gave me a look that suggested he might instead sup on any one of a dozen cans of soup on hand. He later declared that it look great and tasted delicious. A cook once, eat twice recipe, we finished it for today's lunch.

The only thing I had to purchase for this meal was fresh ground turkey and a package of tortillas. It can be easily tweaked with whatever you've got stashed in your pantry and fridge.

Turkey, Sweet Potato and Black Bean Enchiladas  
Six servings.

1 tbsp. vegetable oil
3/4 cup onion, diced
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2/3 lb. ground turkey, preferably thigh meat
dash of red chiles
1 pint black beans, rinsed
1 15-oz. can sweet potato puree (or pumpkin or squash)
1 ear of corn, cut (or about 1 cup frozen, thawed)
1 8-oz. package shredded mozzarella
6 large tortillas
1 15-oz. can sweet potato puree (or pumpkin or squash)
Shredded cabbage or salad greens
1/2 avocado, diced
Hot sauce and lime wedges

Preheat over to 400 degrees.

In a large skillet, sauté onion in oil over medium heat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook until translucent.

Increase heat and add ground turkey and dash of red chiles to the pan, breaking up turkey with a heatproof spatula. Cook until no turkey is longer pink; do not drain. Remove from heat and cool 5-10 minutes.

Transfer rinsed black beans to a large bowl, lightly mashing about half of them. Add sweet potato puree, corn and cooked turkey mixture, stirring well to combine.

Dampen each tortilla with drops of water then place on a microwave safe dish and cover with plastic wrap. Cook on high for 30-45 seconds, or until warm and pliable.

Arrange about 1/4 cup shredded mozzarella and generous 1/2 cup mixture down the middle of each tortilla. Roll each snugly and tuck seam-side down in a 9x12-inch casserole dish lightly coated with vegetable oil spray. Pour enchilada sauce evenly over stuffed tortillas. Add about 2 tablespoons of water into the sauce pouch, swish, then pour along inside long edges of the casserole pan. Top with remaining mozzarella cheese.

Cover with foil and bake about 15 minutes. Remove foil and cook about 8-10 minutes more, until cheese is melted. Serve over a bed of shredded cabbage or salad greens and top with diced avocado; offer hot sauce and lime wedges on the side. Remember to take a picture before it's all gone.