All you can eat

My husband hails from Europe and is constantly pointing out the cultural differences between his homelands and mine. (Really, he’s always bragging about how much better Europe is than America, but that’s another blog entry entirely…) One item we often discuss is the general weight and health of Americans as compared to Europeans. If you’ve ever read “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” you know what I’m talking about. The puzzling conundrum that allows these svelte ladies to regularly consume wine, cheese, cream sauces, foie gras, croissants and creme brulee in bulk, yet still manage to look like they just stepped off a fashion runway. 

The keys, my fellow foodies, are all things in moderation and building more physical activity into our lifestyles. It’s simple advice and we’ve all heard it before, but how many of us really adhere faithfully? The American foodscape makes it difficult, to say the least.

My dad, bless his heart, is old school in his thoughts on food. When he goes out to eat, it’s all about getting the most bang for his buck, and anything over $10 a head or so is stretching his tolerance. For him, that means quantity, not quality. We almost dread his invitations to go out to eat when we visit because this invitation will mean one of two establishments – Golden Corral or the local Chinese buffet. If it’s really a special occasion, possibly a place called Welliver’s that offers a more upscale buffet including endless peel-and-eat shrimp, but it’s got to be something fairly extraordinary to merit such an upgrade (I’ve been to Welliver’s two or three times in my entire life that I can recall). My dad also hits KFC every Tuesday without fail because it offers a $2.99 country-fried steak dinner special. He considers this a healthy meal. Sadly, I’d venture to say my dad is in the majority of most Hoosiers, if not Americans, when it comes to his views on food.

It must run in the family – my brother will always groan and roll his eyes whenever my dad suggests Golden Corral, but he will always go along and eat like it’s his job, coming home saying “never again.” Until the next time. For my crazy uncle Dave (my dad’s brother), eating is barely short of an extreme sport. He dines out constantly, can put away an alarming amount of food in an alarmingly short amount of time and make it all seem funny. And no matter how much he’s had to eat at a restaurant, he will come home and polish off a pint of ice cream. When I was living in Los Angeles, Dave decided to introduce me to sushi. I knew this was going to be a mistake of monumental proportions when we pulled up to a sushi buffet. We sped through the line with Dave throwing things on my plate right and left – “try this! Ooh, you’ve gotta have a couple of these!” By the time I sat down and unwrapped my silverware, Dave had already finished his fish and was up for round two. I have no idea what I ate that night, but it didn’t taste terribly fresh or good, and I haven’t been for sushi since. 

At the risk of sounding like food snobs, hubby and I cannot for the life of us understand the fascination with all-you-can-eat smorgasbords. What’s the point in loading up your plate with a bite or two of a dozen different foods (half of which will be mediocre at best); forcing yourself to eat two or three such plates to get your money’s worth; then go home complaining about how sick and stuffed you feel? Personally, I’d rather pay more for one decently portioned plate of one good-quality item I know I will enjoy. Anyone who takes me to an all-you-can-eat buffet is going to lose money if they’re expecting me to make two or three trips to the trough. Every time, I will select one salad, one entree, a couple sides and possibly a small bite of dessert. That’s it and I refuse to apologize.

Several years ago, hubby and I completed a 12,000 mile road trip around the U.S. on a target budget of $100 a day. During this trip, I must mention that on several occasions, we actually sought out Golden Corrals because we knew that a) we could at least get a salad there and b) it was relatively cheap and offered plenty of choices. It was on one of these visits that hubby coined the phrase “salad dodgers.” Looking around, we observed that the majority of diners in these establishments are overweight, if not obese. We also observed that even though there are healthy items available on the line, these items are often avoided entirely in lieu of the bad-for-you stuff. No joke, on one of these visits as Patrick and I ate our salads, we glanced over at the rather robust couple at the next table over. Not a veggie in sight, they were each working their way through plates filled to nearly overflowing with chicken wings and unrecognizable greasy deep-fried badness. As an appetizer. For the sake of research, we subtly kept an eye on our fellow diners throughout our meal, and hardly any ventured anywhere near the salad bar the entire night. Take a look around next time you’re at one of these places, and you know you will be. You’ll see what I mean.

My question is this: Why is it so difficult to get healthy food at a competitive price in America? Why is it so much cheaper and easier to swing through a McDonald’s drive-through than it is to hit up somewhere you can get a fresh salad or grilled meat and two veg? And don’t tell me that McDonald’s sells salads and such – when’s the last time you thought about ordering anything at McDonald’s without fries? And what does it say about our collective mentality that we think all-you-can-eat buffets are the be-all, end-all of dining out? 

Ok. I’ll get off my soapbox now. On this point, I must admit, hubby’s got a point. Score: Europe 1. America 0.

Table for one

I don’t know why so many people, especially women, have such a hangup about dining alone. In this day and age of empowered women, there should be no stigma about a single lady enjoying a nice dinner or lunch by herself. So why does one still exist??

Last month, I enjoyed a few days on my own in Chicago. My husband had been away for work most of November and felt he owed me a little “me time,” an offer I gladly took him up on. I spent two days downtown, sightseeing, reading, just walking around, sleeping in and enjoying some great food. While some of my female friends expressed jealousy at my short-term escape, a few others said “Oh, sounds like fun, but I could never do that.”

My question is – why the heck not?? I suppose being single and living alone for nearly a decade before I got married at age 35 conditioned me to be comfortable in my own company. Nearly all of my friends married and had kids long before I did, so I grew accustomed to them not being able to drop everything on a whim to come meet me for a spontaneous (or even planned) drink, meal or movie. Therefore, I got to the point where if I wanted to do something and no one was available to join me, it became a matter of either going alone or sitting home seething because I was missing out on something I’d really wanted to do. I became quite adept at solo dining, even taking in the occasional concert or trip as well, and I grew to relish and enjoy it.

So, in Chicago, I decided to treat myself to a really posh meal on my last night there. I had originally planned on a juicy steak, but changed gears at the last minute and opted for Italian. I asked the concierge at my hotel for a recommendation – somewhere I wouldn’t feel like a sore thumb without a companion, but somewhere I could partake in a great meal and a glass of wine. I took his suggestion and caught a cab to a place called La Madia.

La Madia was a little trendier than I usually go in for, but classy and the staff made me feel welcome, not like a social outcast. I was seated at a two-top near the window with a view of the gas fireplace and bustling bar scene. True to the concierge’s word, I didn’t see any couples on dates, just happy hour groups and a few Sex-and-the-City-style duos and trios of single women out for drinks, apps and gossip.

The server made it his mission to keep an eye on me and keep me happy, making recommendations and checking on me just frequently enough to see how I was doing (more often than his other busier tables, I might add). The wine he suggested was fabulous, and the gnocchi with sausage and spinach in a brown butter sauce divine. The dessert was the high point of the meal, though – some kind of outrageously rich chocolate cake that was sweet but not too sweet, dusted with powdered sugar and topped with crushed pistachios. All in all, a lovely dining experience. I happily paid my bill, tipped big and left feeling on top of the world.

Here’s the thing about dining out alone – it forces you to slow down, take a deep breath, and just be in the moment. No one’s asking you to cut up their meat or converse about how you spent your day. It’s uninterrupted, quality you time, and really, couldn’t we all use a little more of that?!? If you can resist the urge to crack open a book or magazine, it makes for excellent people watching and eavesdropping opportunities as well.

My tips to pull off a successful solo restaurant visit: Firstly, dress well. There’s a aura of mystery surrounding women who dine alone and like it. Let people wonder what your story is… are you a foreign expatriate in town on business? Perhaps a food critic? An up-and-coming television star eager for a few incognito minutes away from your entourage? Just don’t wear sunglasses indoors. Unless you’re in Los Angeles, which is the only place you might possibly be able to get away with it.

Adjust your attitude. It’s all about confidence. If you look and act like a pathetic loser who has to eat alone because you have no friends and no life, that’s what people will think you are! Suck it up and embrace a short respite of solitude, for God’s sake! Are you telling me your husband and kids can’t live without you for an hour or two, and vice versa??? Come on! Get over yourself!

Work the situation to your advantage. Sometimes it may even buy you some special treatment… you don’t have to be overly friendly, just smile and act coy. I ate dinner alone at the hotel bar my first night in Chicago, and the bartenders swung me an extra-full glass of wine and plied me with free snacks the whole time I was sitting there.

So I issue a challenge to bold women everywhere – demand a free night from your significant other, throw on a dress and some lipstick and take yourself out on a dinner date sometime soon. Scared? So what! It’s good to do things that scare you sometimes, just to prove you can. Pick somewhere nice, don’t just slum it at a fast-food place, wolfing down fries as fast as you can to get the experience over with. Slow down, unwind and sit with yourself for an hour or two over a delicious meal and a drink. And don’t skip dessert. Do it! Tell ’em I sent you…

La Madia:

Happy new year!

New year, a new resolution – 2009 finds me making a career change. After nearly two decades of toiling away in one form of journalism or another, I’m now embarking on a new pursuit – gainful employment in the field of culinary arts. Since moving around and motherhood have curtailed my plans for a formal culinary education, I’ve decided to wing it and trust the training I’ve had thus far (combined with a passion for all things food) will carry me through.

A little about me – I’m a 38-year-old, sane (I think) wife and mother living in Indianapolis. Married to a wonderful Irishman for three years (Patrick the Paddy), I have an adorable stepson named Isaac and Michael, my gorgeous baby boy. Patrick works in auto racing and likes to move around. A lot. We have lived in Indiana and Sonoma CA, survived a 12,000-mile road trip together across the U.S. and Canada, completed a six-week trial cohabitation in Germany, made several journeys to visit my in-laws in Ireland (the site of one of our two weddings), and taken short trips to England, Wales and Scotland. Whew. It makes me tired just writing all that.

But back to the food… I love to cook, I love to eat, and I love to write about it. Outside my passion for writing, the only other thing I could see myself pursuing careerwise is something related to cooking. With the current state of print media, my freelance writing clients are dropping like flies, so here I am. Ready to get this cooking party started. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m pretty good at it. My catering business cards are in the works and my first recipe sampling/networking party is in two weeks, at which time I will attempt to harangue my friends into hiring me for business lunches and bridal showers. In the meantime, I will amuse myself by chronicling my thoughts on a variety of food-related issues as I wait for those lucrative cookbook contracts and/or television deals to start rolling in.

So, let’s get started. The other day, hubby and I had brunch at one of my favorite Indianapolis eateries – Zest! Exciting Food Creations. Four words. Crème brulee French toast.

Now, let me preface my review by saying that I’m a sugar-in-the-morning kind of gal. Muffins, donuts, pancakes — bring it on, and Zest’s French toast is an ideal way to get my sugar buzz up and running for the day.

Zest snuggles into an unassuming little strip mall just off the Monon Trail on 54th Street. We ambled in around 11:30 a.m., baby in tow, just in time to beat the post-church crowd. Each table is covered with sheets of white butcher paper and holds a small glass cup of crayons, allowing hungry patrons and their kids to a chance show off artistic skills while waiting for their food. A charming touch.

I’m in the middle of sketching what I consider to be a rather disarming self-portrait when it arrives, looking and smelling absolutely decadent. I give Patrick’s quite respectable breakfast panini a courtesy glance and a “hm, that looks good,” but really, all I want to do is get a bite of that steaming French toast into my mouth as quickly as possible.

This isn’t like any griddle-cooked French toast I’ve ever had before, rather, it’s two slabs of pillowy, custardy bread pudding-like confection. A shatteringly thin glaze of burnt sugar gives the whole thing a crunchy crust to offset the creamy mouth-feel of the dish. A couple slices of thick bacon come alongside and, as if any more sugar is needed here, a small cup of maple syrup to really gild the lily.

Patrick’s fork sneaks its way toward my plate to see what all the fuss is about. Then again. I swipe a bite of his eggs to get even, but he’s too busy savoring my food to notice. (When we were dating, Patrick insisted on making me order for him in restaurants because he said whatever I got usually turned out to be better than what he’d chosen on his own.)

Patrick always eats faster than I do, then freely helps himself to whatever’s left on my plate, whether I’m finished or not. He polishes off his sandwich, then reaches over and cuts off a large wedge of my remaining French toast for himself. I give him a dirty look as I proceed to polish off every remaining crumb. He looks at me with a somewhat sheepish expression.

“I didn’t think you were going to be able to eat that much,” he says.

It’s not so much that I’m that hungry, it’s just that it’s that good. Try it and see for yourself.

The evening marked an experiment in bread making. Pizza dough, more specifically. There are several food items I would like to perfect my skills in making, bread being one of them. I kneaded out a batch of dough by hand (no bullshit bread-o-matic machines in my house, thank you very much!), let it rise in a bowl on the warm stove, then punched it down and rolled it out. There’s something wonderful about the sight and smell of rising bread dough. It’s reaffirmation that things are naturally working the way they are supposed to and all is right with the world.

The pizza turned out well, in spite of me rolling out the crust a little bit too thin, which turned it soggy under the weight of the sauce and other schwack. (Next time, I’ll precook the crust a little before adding the toppings.) I attempted to recreate the pizza salamis we enjoyed while living in Germany… thin-crusted pies with a scant coating of tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella cheese, crispy salami slices broiled on top and torn fresh basil. Although my version didn’t quite look like what we got abroad, it still tasted pretty darn good.

Happy 2009! Cheer and bon appetit!

memories of Germany...

memories of Germany...