Thursday, November 29, 2007

Making compromises

We're all familiar with the axiom that when getting something done, there is inherently a choice involved between three options: having it done right, having it done quickly, and having it done cheaply. Most human endeavors line up pretty well within this paradigm, managing one or two of the options, either fast and cheap but not quite right, or executed perfectly and cheaply but taking ages.

A recent change to my commuting strategy has taken me on a brief walk every morning into the Mission District of San Francisco, where I'm now taking BART instead of the slow slow Muni (an acronym for Mostly Useless Not Improving, but that's a rant for another blog). My twice-daily trips into the Mission have opened my eyes up to some food options that I wouldn't otherwise have considered, and it's got me thinking about what kinds of compromises they present.

Along Mission Street, there is a meat shop that serves as a fishmonger and a butcher, with large open tanks of crabs and crawfish squeezed into a narrow shop along with glass cases full of the usual cuts of beef, pork, lamb, and poultry, along with an astonishing supply of offal and feet and tongues. It's amazing. Just a few shops down is a little independent bakery, with Mexican specialties on the menu but Chinese being spoken behind the counter. And between the two shops is a minature produce market, with cases of freshness displayed on the street a la Amelie.

The distinguishing feature of all of these markets is that, despite their inherent charm and appeal they represent to the food-obsessed, they are not being targeted at that crowd. And thusly, by serving the local community of the Mission, and not the fleece-wearing biodiesel crew at the Ferry Building, the prices are just plain stupid low.

I've begun doing some selected food shopping here now. I bought a whole chicken the other day for $6. Six. Dollars. And a morning apple turnover from the bakery, still warm from the actual oven that baked it, for a dollar. I saw little baguettes for 50 cents.

So clearly, I'm beside myself with joy at my new culinary discovery, but I'm forced to wonder what compromise I'm making. Those apples aren't organic, I'll bet you that. And the six dollar chicken probably goes against all of the animal welfare principles that I've developed and adhered to as much as I can elsewhere. But, I insist to myself, it's locally-owned! It's a neighborhood market serving its neighborhood! And for that alone, it's winning points against Whole Foods, whose profits go back to the corporate coffers in Austin instead of staying here in San Francisco.

Do we only get two of three food options? Or can't our food be ethically sourced, sold by local businesses, and inexpensive? I'm still looking, but I'm also very happy to have found a new compromise in the Mission.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bastard children cookies

My quest to deconstruct and remake everyday 'component' foods continues, this time with some undesired results. The target this time? Graham crackers.

Store-bought baked goods have a lot of special-interest groups to appease, like shelf life, shippability, sturdiness for
packaging, and uniformity. Now I know that graham crackers are probably one of the best candidates to be mass-produced, because, well..they're just crackers, and by their nature, easily shipped and stored. But part of this little food crusade involves getting to know foods from their birth onward, so it's as good a target as any, and probably an easy way to start, right?

Not so much. My first attempt resulted in some pretty, umm.. grim crackers. It seems those conniving cracker crafters with the factories are more clever than they look. Let's look at grahams, shall we? Here are the store-bought, genetically pure little snack clones:
And here are my grisly deformed little embarrassments, which should be hidden from public view like Rosemary Kennedy Graham for the shame they bring the family:

Oh the shame! It should really be removed humanely from this world, but it soldiers on, soggy and puffy and gross. What a sad sight.

Graham crackers, incidentally, were invented as part of
Mr Graham's attempt to cure people of lustful carnal urges. No, for reals. My little guys aren't up to such puritanical tasks, I'm afraid, but they might leave you too grossed out to do anything naughty.

So where did I go wrong? I used the following recipe, stolen in good faith now from a little blog called Baking Sheet:

Homemade Graham Crackers
1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 3/4 cups whole-wheat flour

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 cup cold butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoon molasses

1/4 cup cold water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a food processor, mix together the flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Add the cold butter and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about 30 seconds or so. Add the honey, molasses, water, and vanilla. Mix until the dough startes to come together in a ball, another 30 seconds. Scrape dough out of the mixer. Between 2 sheets of waxed or parchment paper, roll the dough 1/8-inch thick. Chill for at least 1 hour, until firm
Preheat oven to 350F. Retrieve dough and roll it a bit more if it is not yet 1/8-inch thick. With a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut into 2-inch squares. Arrange the crackers on parchment lined baking sheets. With a toothpick, prick several holes in each cracker.
Bake for 15 minutes, until lightly browned at the edges. Remove from the oven and let cool on the pan.

My diagnosis of the graham-tastrophe is that I made these on a weekend whim, and left too much to chance. I used too much leavening, and then used a sheet pan without raised edges to contain the grahams, which left me with an insufficiently spread dough.I didn't fully separate the grahams before baking. And now I'm left with sad moist molasses-laden little atrocities. They're actually kind of tasty, in a not-sweet-enough-to-be-a-cookie way, truth be told, but grahams they are not, so I enjoy them secretly, when nobody's watching.

So I'm on to the second round, during which I'll re-consult on the recipes, invest in some proper grahaming equipment, and report back with results. Watch this space for a historically-accurate recipe and some scientific scrutiny of the matter.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A patty melt is not the same thing as a burger.

One of my co-workers is a very nice British person who, sadly, grew up without the joy that is the patty melt. Today we went to lunch at Taylor's Automatic Refresher in San Francisco's own Pantheon of Food Goodness, where he was introduced to this wonderfully quirky sandwich and its rye-grilled onion joy, but, despite my best attempts to explain, refused to understand that there exists a critical difference between a patty melt and a hamburger.

They have common lineage, but they are so very different! It's on rye! It doesn't come with any vegetables, save the onions! It's entirely different! And it is not, as he claims, simply a burger on toast.

My illustration sums up my point of view quite well, thankyouverymuch. Look here: