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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Flying on the American Plan, Bring Your Own Food

Tomorrow we're taking our son, Michael, on a college tour of East Coast colleges: Lehigh, NYU, BU, Northeastern, Tufts, and Wesleyan. It'll be exciting for him to walk around the campuses he's been reading about. We'll fly from LAX, rent a car and take a road trip from Philadelphia to Boston. Packing for a plane trip these days means not only clothes and something to read, but food. Only a few years ago, the idea of making food for a plane ride would have seemed obsessive. Not that the meals in Coach were ever very good--the vegetables were usually overcooked, the meat dry, and everything was over-salted--but all the airlines served meals that included a salad, a roll with butter, a hot entree, and a piece of cake. Those were the good old days. Now you're lucky to get a bag of peanuts or pretzel bits. Trying to capture a sighting of the elusive "in-flight meal," airlinesmeals.net posts photographs sent in by passengers from around the world.

When we were at a friend's birthday party last week, I caught up with Carlin Benjamin, who has a unique perspective on good dining. When she was a young woman, she was a West Coast Eloise, living in the splendor of the Ambassador Hotel. The other guests were the rich and famous, politicians, and movie stars. Currently writing a book about growing up in that Privileged Age, Carlin draws on her incredible memory and describes in great detail the culinary pleasures of an earlier period. When I told her we were traveling to the East Coast, she sent me a mouth-watering description of the menu served in the Pullman Dining Car, as it traveled from Los Angeles to New York. I don't envy how long that trip took, but I certainly would have liked to try the food.
Around 1888, Fred Harvey and Santa Fe decided to include dining cars on some of their trains. Mr. Harvey asked my grandfather to set up the Santa Fe dining car system. The idea was to give guests the feeling of a traveling hotel. An example of a menu from the Pullman Dining Car "Alhambra" out of New York includes all of the following for $1.00. Hard to imagine how all this cuisine could come out of a train kitchen.
Mock Turtle soup, Consommé Victoria, Salmon a la Chamborg, Parisienne Potatoes, Boiled Beef Tongue, Boiled Chicken with Egg Sauce, Roast Beef with Browned Potatoes, Roast Leg of South Down Mutton with Current Jelly, Young Turkey with Cranberry Sauce, Salami of Duck, Banana Fritters with Port Wine Sauce, Roast Saddle of Antelope with Current Jelly, Lobster with Mayonnaise, Lettuce Salad, Spanish Olives, Chow Chow, Pickled Onions, Girkins, Boiled and Mashed Potatoes, Baked Sweet Potatoes, Stewed Tomatoes, Squash, French Peas, Succotash, Mince Pie, Apple Pie, Coconut Pudding, Fruit, Cakes, Ice Cream, Roquefort and Edam Cheese, Bent's Crackers, Cafe Noir.

The practice of offering a fixed price for an entire meal was known as the American Plan
Since the airlines have abandoned us, we have to provide for ourselves. In just a few minutes you can assemble good snacks for the plane: fresh fruit, cut-up carrots and celery, sunflower seeds, trail mix, a selection of candies and cookies, and some good teas. Sandwiches are good too, although on a long trip, they can get soggy. After a lot of experimentation I discovered a simple salad that holds up well on the long flight.

Chopped Parsley Salad

Lettuce wilts, but Italian parsley doesn't. Grilling caramelizes the broccoli. The carrots add crunch. The feta and avocado pull the other flavors together.

1 bunch Italian parsley, washed, dried, stems removed, finely chopped
2 carrots, washed, peeled, finely chopped
1 bunch broccoli, washed, stems cut off, florets separated
5 radicchio leaves, washed
2 scallions, washed, ends trimmed
10 olives, oil curred or split green, pitted, finely chopped
1 small avocado, washed, peeled, finely chopped
¼ cup feta, crumbled
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon reduced balsamic vinegar
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Put the broccoli florets, whole scallions, and radicchio leaves into a mixing bowl, drizzle with olive oil, season with sea salt and pepper, toss to coat well, then grill on a bbq or roast in a 350 degree oven until browned on all sides. Be careful not to let the vegetables char.

Remove and let cool. Roughly chop the scallions and radicchio. Put all the vegetables, feta, and chopped olives in the bowl. Finish with olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar. Toss well. Taste and adjust the seasoning with sea salt and black pepper. Put equal amounts in two pint-sized deli or Ziploc lock containers. Seal well. Pack forks and napkins.

Serves 2. Preparation Time: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 10 minutes.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Soup or Salad? Thai Chicken Coconut Soup Gets My Vote

I remember playing a game when I was a kid, a variation of the "If you had to choose, which would be worse: being blind or being deaf?" Only, in my food-centric world, the choice was, "If you could only have one food to eat forever, would it be soup or salad?" I couldn't imagine denying myself either, they are both so essential to good eating, but in the interest of influencing the vote to the soup-side, I'm offering up a Thai Chicken Coconut Soup recipe that was sent in by Susie Fitzgerald and Kristy Hake.

A few of the ingredients can be difficult to find: kefir lime leaves and lemongrass. Most Asian markets carry both, but if you can't find either, the soup is still delicious without those ingredients. You can also try growing your own. Susie planted a kefir lime plant she bought from a farmer at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market. The lemongrass in our garden came from a cutting I planted years ago.

There may be some nurseries that carry lemongrass plants in their herb sections, if not, you can grow one from the stalk you buy at the market. Growing lemongrass is really very easy. Buy lemongrass stalks that still have their root ends intact. Cut off the bottom 2" of the stalk and put it into a container with well-mulched dirt. Water well and keep in a sunny spot. Within a few weeks, the stalk will begin growing a root system and put out a new shoot. After a month, the roots should be well enough established for you to transplant the plant to a sunny part of your garden or into a larger pot. In time, the stalk will throw off many shoots. Then, when you need some lemongrass for a recipe, cut off the stalk just above the root, that way a new shoot will grow from the old roots. Lemongrass is self-renewing.

Susie Fitzgerald and Kristy Hake's Thai Chicken Coconut Soup

The only change I've made to their recipe is to suggest that the chicken stock be homemade. I prefer homemade because the salt content of prepackaged chicken stock is very high. Another suggestion: when using coconut milk, try to find brands like Trader Joe's and Thai Kitchen that don't use preservatives. Suzie and Kristy clearly like their soup on the hot side. If you prefer yours milder, use less of the jalapeno pepper and Thai red chili paste.

4 cups homemade chicken stock
2 chicken breasts, boneless, skinless, washed, cubed
1 can (14 oz.) coconut milk
2 stalks lemongrass, washed, the white part cut into 2" pieces
2" piece of ginger, washed, peeled, grated for the juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
8-10 mushrooms, washed, thinly sliced
4-6 limes, juiced
4 fresh kefir lime leaves, washed, roughly sliced
5 cilantro sprigs, washed, stems removed, leaves only
1 jalapeno pepper, washed, seeded, thinly sliced lengthwise (to taste)
1-2 teaspoons Thai red chili paste (to taste)

Add the chicken stock, lemongrass, ginger, fish sauce, lime juice, mushrooms, and kefir lime leaves to a pot and simmer for 5 minutes. Increase the flame, bringing the soup to a boil, add the chicken, and cook 2 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk and chili paste. Reduce the flame, and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the cilantro just before serving.

Serve over Basmati or Jasmine rice.

Serves 4. Preparation Time: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 15 minutes.