Superspark

a year in food and life

Tagged- 8 things you didn’t know about Superspark August 30, 2007

Filed under: Diversions — superspark @ 8:21 am

My first tagging…does this mean I’ve “made it” as a blogger? Jill tagged me several weeks ago and her “8 things” was so cleverly illustrated with photos that it made me want to blatantly steal her idea and run with it. Or if not, to come up with some new and creative spin for my own “8 things”. Weeks later, with all the intervening things that have happened along the way, my ambitions have fallen and simply getting this post done seems to be the priority. Plus having just returned from a mini-vacay in Maine and Boston, I haven’t cooked a lick in a week. So on that note, apologies to those who just wanted to see some food…

Eight things you didn’t know about Superspark

1) I lived in Norway while doing research for my dissertation. I was above the Arctic Circle. Way above it, so far north that my friend Amanda used to say I could circumnavigate the globe by running around in a circle (get it? ha!) There were reindeer and Northern lights and oh so much snow. More snow than you could imagine and all the way into June. One of my more unusual adventures during my time in Norway was a trip to Kautokeino (a town in what Americans know as Lapland), where I was “hired” to help out with a festival of Sami film and culture. Among our other duties, we constructed an ice cinema (yes, that’s right, benches and a huge screen made of ice!) and did roadie work for a joiking version of American Idol (called “Sami Idol”, no less). Good times…

2) Given that this is more-or-less a food blog, it only seems right to at least mention food. Though I love cooking and my horizons have grown year by year, I still remain a pretty darn picky eater. Among the things I would really rather not consume, if I can help it: mushrooms, capers, olives, dates, and beets. If you feed me any of these things at a dinner party, I’ll probably politely eat them (if I can’t find an easy way to hide them in my napkin), but I won’t like it!!!

3) I met my husband in junior high school. Which is not to say we were high school sweethearts- he was sort of theater-y, I was…well, who knows what, and truthfully, we were little more than acquaintances. Fast forward 15 years or so, our 10 year high school reunion was approaching, e-mails from long-lost classmates were circulating and in the midst of the hubbub, Dylan e-mailed me to say hello. Three years later, we’re happily married and I think some of our high school friends are still in shock.

4) While I’m a pretty fit person, I’m by no means athletic and yet somehow I found myself playing rugby in college. This never fails to surprise those who meet me, given that I seem to land on the girlier end of the spectrum, but I spent three years tackling, pushing, and sweating with the best of them. I was lucky to escape with no worse injury than losing a toenail, but needless to say, never again. These days my athletic pursuits rarely venture beyond the treadmill or the weight room at the gym.

5) I’m an anthropologist by training. A biological anthropologist, to be exact. Very broadly, that means I studied human evolution, but more specifically, my PhD thesis examined how evolution has shaped the female reproductive system to respond to ecological cues, like food availability and workload. Unfortunately, though I found my own research interesting (at least in theory), I quickly found that I had a hard time feigning interest in those creepy non-human primates and that the world of fossils is not nearly as interesting as the movies and television would have you think. So I guess I’m best classified as a lapsed anthropologist who has transitioned into public health. These days I’m doing research on women and children’s health, with a particular eye towards how prenatal and early postnatal development affect health later in life.

6) I just pulled my first all-nighter ever. Yeah, that’s right. I managed to make it to age 31 never having stayed up all night. Admittedly, I’ve stayed up until the dawn on the rare occasion (almost always for fun, not work), but have never found myself having to stay up all night and into the next day, skipping sleep altogether. It finally happened this week when, with a big deadline looming, the rest of my work team seemingly vanished into thin air and I was left to do the revisions to an $18 million dollar per year grant proposal on my own. Sort of nerve-wracking, especially for a perennial student like me who’s new to the working world, and I ended up plugging away through the night- at an office that wasn’t even mine, no less! Mouth fuzzy, eyes bleary, we submitted the revisions the next day at noon and though I never want to find myself in that position again, I have to admit there was a little part of me that was impressed by what I can do when I put my mind to it. (As a side note, added after I wrote this, 2 days later I had to stay until 4 am for another round of revisions- I really don’t get paid enough…)

7) I can read while running. Lest you picture me running through the streets, dodging traffic with a book in hand, I should clarify that I only do this on a treadmill and only when I’m extremely bored and my iPod has died. And never when running faster than 6.5 mph. Nevertheless, I’m told this is unusual and that I must have exceptional nuchal ligament stability. Go me.

8 ) I play a mean game of “celebrity”. My favorite thing to do on a weekend is a dinner party followed by games and one of the ones that always seems to stir the masses is celebrity, partly because it’s a different game each time, shaped by the participants. And you need nothing more than paper and pens (and well, at least 5 friends) to have a rousing evening of entertainment. For those who are intrigued, one version of the rules can be found here. If you’re like me and have an embarrassing love of trivia, especially of the variety that might be found in, say People magazine or US Weekly, I think you’ve just found something to do this weekend.

 

Urban garden update July 2, 2007

Filed under: Diversions,food — superspark @ 8:05 pm

first-tomatoes.jpg

We picked our first tomatoes of the season this past weekend, which means we’ll have lots of fabulous tomato-ful dishes in the weeks to come. Very exciting (it’s the small things, you know). It only seemed right that the first couple would go into a caprese, letting their sweet, fragrant flavor shine through.

And in other news that’s thrilling to newbie “gardeners” like us, some of you might remember a post I wrote in early March about planting fig clippings that we took from a tree overhanging my friend Jill‘s yard. At the time they were pathetic, stubby little bare branches, as seen below.

fig-clippings.jpg

And look at our babies now!!

fig-bud.jpg

Not only are they incredibly lush with those big leaves distinctive to the species, but we noticed what appear to be the tiny buds of fruit starting to grow on the plant. How amazing is that? Within less than four months, we’ve managed to go from a stick to a fruiting tree. Will wonders never cease?! I know that our “harvest” this year will be small (and that assumes that they reach maturity while the season is still right), but how great will it be to savor our first homegrown figs this summer or fall? Mmm…

 

Cupcake throwdown May 13, 2007

Filed under: baked goods,food,Restaurants,television — superspark @ 8:19 pm

auntie-ems.jpg

photo from the Auntie Em’s website 

Imagine my delight last week when Amanda e-mailed me to tell me that not only would the latest episode of Bobby Flay’s Throwdown tackle cupcakes, but that he was challenging Terrie Wahl, the baker at my all-time favorite cupcake joint, Auntie Em’s in Eagle Rock, CA. I’ve written (or I should say, RAVED) about Auntie Em’s before on Superspark and was thrilled to see that it would be recognized on national television.

Thanks to a poorly attended event Dylan and I held earlier this year which resulted in lots of leftover cupcakes, I’ve sampled each of Auntie Em’s flavors and thus feel that I’ve done enough research to avow that though her flavors are pretty classic and standard (chocolate, carrot, coconut, and red velvet), Terrie Wahl makes an outstanding cupcake. (And not only delicious, but GIANT and smothered in fabulous frosting!)

For Throwdown, Terrie decided to go with the red velvet, which apparently is the most popular cupcake at Auntie Em’s, selling 5 times more than any other flavor. I LOVE red velvet cake, but I actually have to say that the red velvet at Auntie Em’s is not my favorite. The cream cheese icing is downright amazing, but the cake itself was just a little too vanilla for me. Now I realize that red velvet is essentially a vanilla cake with a touch of cocoa, but that said, there’s a lot of variation from baker to baker and I tend to prefer the ones that are a little on the chocolatier side of the spectrum.

So what would Bobby Flay do to compete with the beloved Auntie Em’s cupcakes? After discussing how people often don’t pay enough attention to matching the cake and frosting parts of a cupcake, Bobby came up with the inspired combination of gingerbread cupcakes with mango-vanilla buttercream frosting. Intriguing…Clearly the two chefs had slightly different approaches, with Wahl rejoicing in the red food coloring and kiddie-sprinkles that adorned her red velvet while Bobby talked up his fresh mango and imported vanilla beans. While hers had a down-home appeal, his was more exotic and unusual.

In the end, the judges (who included the head chef at Sprinkles, LA’s best-known and trendiest cupcakery) agreed with me that the red velvet just wasn’t quite chocolatey enough and awarded the competition to Bobby’s more unusual offering.

What I would have liked to see, though, was how the outstanding carrot cupcake, which pairs that amazing cream cheese frosting with a fabulously moist and flavorful carrot cake would have fared in the competition. It’s my favorite of the bunch and apparently, it’s Terrie’s, too. I think she could have taken Bobby with those carrot cake cupcakes, but I guess we’ll never know. I’m just delighted to see Auntie Em’s on the L.A. cupcake map AND in even better news, the recipes for both Auntie Em’s red velvet cupcake and Bobby Flay’s gingerbread-mango-vanilla cupcakes have been posted online at the Food Network.

Auntie Em’s Kitchen:  4616 Eagle Rock Boulevard; Los Angeles, CA 90041; (323)255-0800

 

Urban farming- fig trees March 9, 2007

Filed under: Diversions — superspark @ 12:19 pm

fig-clippings.JPG

For years I thought I hated figs.  Hated, loathed, despised them.  My repulsion was so strong that my father once offered to buy me a CD of my choosing if I would just eat an entire dried fig.  This was, of course, way back when the promise of a new CD was exciting enough to make me contemplate his proposal.  (Which I’m sure I must have ultimately accepted, choking down my dry and chewy nemesis.)

Little did I realize that dried figs are as different from fresh figs as night and day (old cliche, I know…work with me here, I no longer have the time to think up clever similies.)  When travelling in Slovenia a few summers ago,  we found ourselves at a farmer’s market in Ljubliana where Dylan convinced me to try a fresh fig.  In the throes of new love, I barely put up a fight, not wanting to share my admittedly juvenile anti-fig neuroses.  What a revelation! These fresh figs were juicy, dense with flavor, and warmed by the sun.  I couldn’t get enough of them and ate them throughout our trip around Eastern Europe.

Luckily, I find myself living in Southern California now in just the sort of Mediterranean climate that best suits figs.  And apparently fig trees are easy enough to grow from clippings that we thought we’d give it a shot.  We took clippings from the tree overhanging our friends Jill and Gavin’s yard and potted them last weekend, hoping that at least one might take root.  In fact, at the farmer’s market a few weeks ago, there was a vendor selling potted figs some of which were only about 2 feet tall but had already fruited! With any luck we’ll have a tiny crop later in the summer…

 

A non food-related diversion- Meez February 28, 2007

Filed under: Diversions,websites — superspark @ 8:17 am

Yes, this is Superspark in the digital flesh, enjoying one of her favorite activities, a picnic in the park. Even if I look like a 10th grader skipping 6th period trigonometry or more to the point, a Bratz doll.

Obviously this is a day on which I don’t have to go into work as I was easily persuaded by a message from Daily Candy in my e-mail inbox to create my very own free digital version of myself at a new site called Meez. I think the idea is that you can then use your Meez on your blog (ahem), as a screensaver, or even a MySpace page if you’re young enough that you actually have one. One aspect of this site that is neat verging on horrendously tedious is just how personalized you can make your Meez. There are dozens of hair styles, eye colors, nose shapes (!?), accessories, clothes, scenes…I intially had my Meez doing the moonwalk in front of the leaning tower of Pisa, but started getting dizzied by the constant motion. You can pose on the red carpet in your pajamas, do the Thriller dance in a ball gown, or even jetski in a soccer uniform. The possiblities are endless, as is the potential for wasting time. What did we ever do before the Internet?

 

Window box herb garden February 18, 2007

Filed under: Diversions,food — superspark @ 11:49 am

thyme.JPG

Last weekend we worked on starting our herb garden anew after it was killed off last summer during Southern California’s heat wave.  I don’t have much of a green thumb (even for house plants) and having lived in cities my whole life, my gardening experience is pretty remedial. But last year when Dylan suggested building window boxes to grow all sorts of herbs, I was game.  After all, how annoying is it to spend a few dollars on an herb for a recipe only to use a tablespoon and have the rest go bad? Enter the idea of filling our tiny terrace with all of our favorite herbs.  And although I was nearly turned off from the whole enterprise when we pulled out one of the starter plants only to find huge earthworms embedded in its soil, I love the final product.  Right now we’re growing thyme (shown above), dill, mint, cilantro,  rosemary, and parsley.  When it warms up a bit more, we’ll take over some of our communal courtyard to restart our potted tomatoes, zucchini, arugula, and baby greens.  Yum…

 

On ballooning and babies (literal and Dutch) February 12, 2007

Filed under: baked goods,Dessert,Diversions,food,Musings — superspark @ 9:21 am

What a weekend we had planned! As a work-related excursion, we had been invited on a hot air ballooning-wine tasting retreat. How cool is that? We would get up very early Saturday morning and drive to Temecula, where we’d be whisked away on a balloon tour of wine country. The rest of the day would be spend tasting and touring at the various vineyards, with breakfast and lunch stops at carefully selected restaurants. I’d been looking forward to the trip for weeks.  Maybe you can already sense that my excitement about this excursion was soon to be squelched. On Friday afternoon, we found out that because the forecast for Southern California was for rain on Saturday, the whole trip was cancelled. Waaaah! And if that weren’t bad enough, when we woke up on Saturday morning, it was gorgeous and sunny and lovely. I can only hope there was a monsoon over Temecula.

Perhaps, we thought, we’d drown our sorrows in some homemade strawberry ice cream. But somehow Dylan, who is an ice cream pro and tends not to give much thought to silly things like recipes, managed to curdle the milk with the acid from the strawberries, leaving us with a brew of hot strawberry paneer. Yegh.

Luckily things started to get better on Saturday night, when we headed out to babysit. Clearly we have no children yet, for only the childless could look forward to spending Saturday night with an eight-month old while his parents go out for a romantic birthday dinner. But just spending an hour with a delightful, sweet-tempered baby can cure any foul mood. His chubby legs, wide-eyed startled look, and baby head smell had us wondering whether it would be fair to keep him up past his bedtime so that we could play with him more. (We didn’t, but it was tempting.)

Spirits lifted from babysitting, we returned home and whipped up a batch of cinnamon ice cream to put the cap on what ended up being a not-altogether-terrible day, even if it was not what we had thought it would be. The ice cream was amazing, but as the premier ice cream maker in our house, Dylan gets dibs on blogging that one. He’s been experimenting with a new recipe for the base that produces incredibly smooth and non-eggy results.

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Instead, I’ll just mention the dutch baby (or variation thereupon) pictured above that we made for brunch on Sunday. Having drooled over The Wednesday Chef’s Sow’s Ear pancake ever since it was posted here in mid-January, we finally decided to make one. I think, in looking back at the recipe, that it may have been intended for dessert, not breakfast, but doesn’t that seem unnecessarily restrictive?And I won’t even begin to ponder how anyone could manage to get six servings out of this glorious apple-y goodness. Let’s just say there’s nary a scrap of pancake left at our house today. (And wow, wouldn’t it have been good with a little cinnamon ice cream on the side?! I’m almost embarrassed that that didn’t dawn on me until just now!)

You can check out the original Sow’s Ear recipe as posted by the Wednesday Chef here or for a couple of interesting variations…

-Dylan has made slightly smaller, individual-sized oven-baked pancakes that are nearly the same as the sow’s ear pancake. We loved the peach version, but were slightly less wild about the fresh fig version . One neat thing about Dylan’s recipe is that the pancake really climbs up the side of whatever baking dish you use and can take on crazy and interesting contortions.

-Just this morning, Erin of Erin’s Kitchen posted a completely ingenious version of a baked apple pancake in which she substituted powdered chai latte mix for the sugar in the recipe. Brilliant!

 

Kitchen Confidential February 6, 2007

Filed under: Books,Diversions,food — superspark @ 9:06 am

kitchen-confidential.jpgI’m not a person who likes to join clubs. Most of the things I like to do in my spare time are not activities that I want to do with a whole host of people, many of whom are virtual strangers. Yes, I gave in and joined some clubs in high school, told that I wouldn’t get into college unless I relented. But they only reinforced my perceptions that clubs are kind of a waste of time and ineffective. And if I’m going to waste my time, wouldn’t I rather do it among friends, without having to meet under some pretense?

Then in the last ten years the whole book club phenomenon erupted and finally, I saw a glimmer of hope for a club that I might actually want to join. Reading is one of my favorite things to do and I liked the idea of being introduced to some books, authors, or genres that I might otherwise not give a second thought. Plus I also really like drinking wine, which seems to be a requisite of any bookclub aimed at 20- and 30-somethings.

So somehow I find myself having joined not one, but two bookclubs in the last year. As I had imagined, I have read a lot, both good and bad, that I would never have picked up before. But wow, trying to keep up with two bookclubs a month doesn’t leave a lot of time for other recreational reading. It is a rare and delightful moment when I find myself caught up with the bookclub selections but with a week or two before I get roped into the next month’s “required” reading. This past month, in a fortuitous coincidence, not only did I find myself with extra time, but my friend Amanda (who loves to pass along books and magazines and is one of the postal service’s most frequent and dedicated patrons) had just sent me a shipment of books including Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Fast-paced and punchy, with no actual plot, it seemed the perfect antidote to an overdose of high-minded literature.

Kitchen Confidential will be most interesting to those who have worked or aspire to work in the food business. I certainly don’t fit into that category, but as someone who is interested in food in a more general way, I still found the book entertaining. Some parts were certainly better than others…I loved the early chapter about what chefs order (or don’t order) in restaurants and why. Did you know that brunch tends to be a way for restaurants to get rid of the old food that they haven’t yet sold over the weekend, covering up the age of the food with sauces? Or that swordfish is so often riddled with three-foot parasitic worms that many in the industry avoid it? Yeah, I had no idea either. Equally interesting was the chapter entitled, “How to cook like the pros,” in which Bourdain discussed the techniques, tools, and ingredients that you really need as an at-home chef. The list is shorter than you might think and he even gives recommendations as far as brands that are best for an interested amateur.

I was less interested in the “color” of the book than I might have imagined. There were many chapters chronicling Bourdain’s rise in the cooking industry, from culinary school to early kitchen jobs to head chef. I definitely have a better understanding of what goes on behind the scenes, but after reading several chapters about sex, drugs, and the rock n’ roll lifestyle of chefs, I got the picture and wanted to move on. I think I was just less interested in this as a biography than as an expose. But that might just be because I get the impression that I wouldn’t really like Bourdain a lot as a person. (That said, I thought he was a terrific guest judge on Top Chef this past season and would love to see him return as a permanent fixture, in place of Gail Simmons from Food & Wine, who really doesn’t do a lot for me.) The swaggering, macho, over-the-top persona that he adopts in Kitchen Confidential became almost too overbearing and calculated for me at times. Still, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who’s interested in food, restaurants, or cooking.

 

Tom Colicchio, you mystify me January 25, 2007

Filed under: food,Musings,television — superspark @ 9:51 am

I am most definitely a cook, not a chef. I like the security of a recipe, I like flipping through cookbooks, and I am not particularly good at whipping the odds and ends left in the fridge into a gourmet meal. Nevertheless, I can’t help but like Bravo’s Top Chef , even if, as a semi-vegetarian, I wouldn’t eat half of what they cook. I certainly watch my fair share of television (including, guiltily, reality television) and there is something remarkably compelling about watching people compete at a task they love and consider their calling. The fabulous Project Runway started this trend and though it is still foremost in my heart, Top Chef is pretty great, too.

Last night, the final four chefs in the competition (Sam, Elia, Ilan, and Marcel) headed to Hawaii, where they were told that two of them would be eliminated and two would go on to the finals. They were instructed to make a traditional Hawaiian meal, but to put their own personal twist on it and modernize it. The four judges agreed that each of the finalists stepped up to the challenge and made a great meal, but they were left to decide which two contestants made the best meals. There were reasons to choose, or not choose, each of the contestants- Elia, for instance, put so much of her own Mediterranean flair into the meal that its Hawaiian roots were virtually unrecognizable.

From practically the first episode of the season, Dylan and I agreed that Sam was the one to beat, and watching him cook each week only strengthened our convictions. His dishes were always creative, visually appealing, and apparently, delicious. But beyond that, he seemed to have an intuitive grasp on food and rarely made a misstep. Beyond that, with the exception of his outburst at Marcel, he showed a maturity and responsibility that made the others look like a bunch of sophomoric hotheads. So when Marcel and Ilan were chosen to continue to the finals, while Sam and Elia were told to pack their knives, I was astounded. And from the sequences and conversations that were included in the final cut, I got the sense that judge Tom Colicchio had strong-armed the decision. Padma Lakshmi (the host and Salman Rushdie’s wife -wha?!?!) looked like she was about to cry when she sent Sam packing.

I will agree that based on the dishes they cooked last night, Sam’s were no better (though maybe no worse) than Ilan’s or Marcel’s. (Elia seemed the clear loser in this bunch, based on that meal.) And presumably the judges are supposed to based their decisions on that round of cooking alone, not their prior accomplishments. But I would be shocked if Sam wouldn’t have easily beaten either Marcel or Ilan in the finale. So why send the best chef of the group home? Is anyone with me on this? Did they forget that Sam has been the strongest competitor throughout the many weeks of competition? That said, Sam’s career will probably flourish regardless of the fact that he didn’t win the competition; he seems like a chef you would want in your kitchen, not one who is going to lose it under pressure or rub people the wrong way.

So while I’m still looking forward to the finale, I’m a little disappointed that the top chef has already packed his knives.

 

Movies- Shattered Glass January 17, 2007

Filed under: Diversions,Musings — superspark @ 12:55 pm

I’m not sure where I was when the whole Stephen Glass scandal at the New Republic went down, but I had only the faintest memory of it until watching Shattered Glass last night.  I knew he was a journalist who had committed some serious ethical breaches, but I would have been hard pressed to distinguish between Glass and the other recent notorious journalist, the New York Times’ Jayson Blair. (I still don’t know much about the latter, but am now pretty interested in finding out more.)

In any case, I really liked the movie. Part of it was my amusement at how similar the fledgling writers played by Hayden Christiansen, Chloe Sevigny, and others were to the handful of real-life budding journalists I know.  But more importantly, the story was just incredibly compelling.  If I hadn’t known it was an account of an actual media scandal, I might have said it was altogether too outrageous and preposterous.  How could any journalist, no matter how green or overly ambitious, think he could get away with writing articles that were partially (or even entirely!) fictionalized? The story that led to Glass’ downfall,”Hack Heaven”, described him meeting a teenage hacker hired to work for a large software company after successfully infiltrating their files.  Turns out not only was the hacker a fictional character, but even the software company was a product of Glass’ imagination.  And that was only the start of the fictions and the trail of lies and deceptions he then perpetuated to cover his tracks.  I guess it just perplexes me, with my rudimentary knowledge of journalism, editing, and fact-checking, that a writer could have the audacity to publish such a piece. Even if his editors didn’t catch the lies, wouldn’t someone, somewhere in the readership know enough to call him out on it? Or am I giving us all too much credit?

Anyway, I’ve been sufficiently intrigued by the whole thing to do a little more reading on the subject this morning and I’m even finding myself curious to read some of the pieces that are still online. I suppose I should ask myself why I’m more interested in reading these false stories than say, actual, fact-checked pieces in the New Republic (which I have never once looked at).  And I’m having a bit of a moral dilemma as to whether it would be okay to read Stephen Glass’ “novel” based on the story, The Fabulist.  The reviews on Amazon largely skewered it and of course, I don’t really like the idea of buying a book from an author who is well-known primarily for fleecing the public.  Maybe a used copy would settle those qualms? I find myself morbidly curious about how one tries to redeem oneself and reestablish a career after such public ignominy.

 

 
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