Belly Up to the Bar

I should know better than to do this. I really should. I’m better educated than this. I know I am. But it’s time that I admitted it to the world at large.

I eat at salad bars.

I know, you’re all shocked and dismayed and hurt. I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth as I type.

When I lived in New York, I avoided them like the plague, which isn’t entirely an erroneous metaphor. A lot of those salad bars and steam tables are not so affectionately referred to as “bacteria bars”. Food left out in the open air for hours at a time with little to no covering to keep the food fresh. The cold food never stayed cold and the hot food never stayed really hot. They were Petri dishes with egg rolls and iceberg lettuce. Yet every now and then I would grab something at them. Even after I graduated from culinary, I still made the occasional pit stop at one. My choices were a little more selective (no mayonnaise based products) and only if I had no other choice.

Lately though, I have been working in a neighborhood that has a pretty decent salad bar in it. The amount of food that they set out is limited and the tubs rest directly on ice. The sneeze guard is big enough that it’s actually awkward to get to some of the items. The store seems to have one person dedicated to keeping it stocked and clean. Also the food moves quickly at lunch-time so I feel a little better about eating it.

Yet the question remains why I eat it at all. I could save myself a small fortune by cooking lunches, or even making sandwiches for myself. I could have a broader range of lunches and therefore more control over my diet and nutrition.

That also of course would be too easy.

I frequently barely have enough time to make myself a real dinner let alone lunch too. Breakfast? That’s a big mug of steaming brown stuff with a sugar to liquid ratio that supports a small Central American nation.

This probably stems from a childhood trauma. My mother had sent me to school with a container of fresh food. I ate it for lunch and then threw it into my locker…. where it stayed until the end of the school year. When I cleaned out my locker I extracted what had become a major feat of biological diversity, all within the container that had held my lunch all those months before. I’m sure if I had left it alone it would have either formed a single new life form or spawned a society and culture that would have taken over the world and eradicated humans. When Todd Kowar snatched it out of my hands and then opened it….. well, I don’t like to think about it. The avoidance of packing up my lunch is probably something I need to address with a therapist rather than just admit I’m a lazy shmuck.

Yet I rationalize it. Salad is good for me. I need to eat more vegetables and lean protein anyway. Besides, I don’t eat the heavy dressings. I douse my salad in olive oil. Oh and red wine vinegar! None of that faux balsamic sludge for me. I even ponder what could make the salad bar better. Some fresh herbs over here! And a broader selection of vinegars and oils! OH and can we please get some REAL bacon instead of those things that are essentially bacon flavored pop-rocks? I get to feeling mighty proud of myself until I go to pay for it and more digits than I should.

My guilt really manifests itself when I think about all of the plastic forks and salad trays I have sent to landfill. OK, so now I take my salad back to the office and use of the regular forks from the pantry, but the container still gets dropped in the trash to disappear over night. A container that gets used once and that will not decompose until long after this planet is recognizable anymore.

My guilt gets stronger when I realize that I’m spending almost $60 a week on salad. ON SALAD! This not caviar folks! What we have here is a convenience that has gotten out of control.

I think, no wait, I know I will have to start bringing lunch with me and just admit that salad or not, I can’t afford to be doing this. I could spend the same amount of money buying the ingredients for a week’s worth of salads myself that I would have spent on one salad from the salad bar. I could then get real creative (or anal retentive depending on your point of view) and create a tracking spreadsheet to see how much money I save over the course of a month like I did with cigarettes. It could be all colored lines and stuff.

Now if only I could get past the image of Todd Kowar throwing moldy Tupperware at me…

Table Side

There was a moment last nigt after I had set down the umpteenth plate of tapas that it hit me between the eyes. I love doing this.

Standing by a table of friends looking at their food pacified faces is just really satisfying. Knowing I’ve got more up my sleeve is also really pleasurable. Listening to the conversation come to a screeching halt, and glancing at them eating, blissful smiles on their faces is one of the more rewarding things I can do for myself.

Dinner yesterday, in case you can’t tell, went really well. The food came together and I was actually well ahead of schedule over the past 4 days so I wasn’t running around like a girl scout on crack. The food behaved the way I expected it for the most part. Best of all were the lamb chops that performed an architectural feat of magic that until I put them down in front of people, I wasn’t sure would hold together. Of course sometimes the simplest presentations are the best. Four tartlettes of caremelized balamic onions on home made puff pastry, baked and then sliced in half and served along with a sundae glass of creme fraiche eleicits grons of pleasure from the table. I hadn’t bothered with any creative plating because I knew they could stand for themselves.

That’s not to say that I didn’t learn a very large lesson this week end.

Saturday I went down to the Farmer’s Market at the Ferry Building and did most of my perishable food shopping. At the top of my list were the cured meats from Mastrionni’s (I think that’s the name) Deli. I got some really nice prosciutto and was really tickled to see a gorgeous sopresetta. I picked my order from the fish guys. Mussels (Diana Ross not withstanding), Ahi tuna and crab meat. From there I stopped by Acme Bread and snagged olive loaf, walniut bread and an herb slab. From there I headed over the Golden Gate meat company. I picked up the filet mignon, the lamb rack, the bacon and the specialty sausages.

At this point I was getting pretty loaded down but I went out back and started getting vegetables here and there, reverberating aroudn the market and feeling pretty damned pleased with myself. At one point though I realized I needed to get something to help me lug it all around. I briefly chastized myself again for not having a driver’s licence and therefor a car to toss it all into. I got a bag and as I was loading everything into it, I noticed something was missing. The bag of meat was gone.

OK, I stayed calm. I knew I wasn’t dumb enough to lose $100 worth of meat. I unloaded everything thinking it was just burried. Uh-no. It wasn’t anywhere in my posession. So I back tracked. Hit all 5 stands where I’d been since I had bought the meat. No one had seen anything. I really didn’t expect them to. It’s a busy market. Soemone probably saw it sitting by itself and took it home. The other option is that some one saw me struggling with everything else and while my back weas turned buying vegetables, they grabbed it. Who knows what happened?

All I know is that between $100 and $150 worth of food was gone. Just gone. No way to get it back.

I felt like a fool. An unprofessional fool.

I decided to head home and bite the bullet. I could have gone back to the Golden Gate Meat Company but I didn’t have enough cash to cover that. So I went to Safeway and got lesser quality, but the same volume. I wasn’t happy about it, but I got it done.

So what did we learn? We learned to bring that rolling shopping bag we bought a few weeks ago and keep everything in that instead of trudging around like a refugee. Especcially when you’re buying raw meat and seafood this is a good idea because ice packs are a good thing.

Despite all that, everything came out fine. The guests were intrigued, surprised, and above all happy.

And again, that’s why I do this.

Sunday Dinner

A friend from New York is in town for the week end, and I’ve been asked to make him a birthday dinner.

Tapas Served Family Style
Assorted breads
Kalamata Olives Seasoned with Lemon Zest
Balsamic Caremalized Onion Tarlettes with Crema Fresca
Lamb Chops with Mint Gremulata
Steamed Muscles with Lemon Grass and Sake
Platter of Cured Meats with Three Mustards
Tuna Tartare on Black Rice Squares
Red Leaf Spring Rolls with Ponzu Sauce
Crab Cakes with Curried Aioli

Soup Buffet
A Gazpacho Bar – Chilled Tomato Soup with Assorted Garnishes

Main Course
Filet Mignon with a Roasted Potato Hash and Bleu Cheese Port Wine Sauce.

Dessert
Home Made Ricotta with Fresh Berry Coulis and Organic Honey on a Baked Wonton