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Organic Cooking with The Notorious RRZ

2004-08-24 - 4:59 p.m.

Sorry it's been a while; I've been busy up here.

For one thing, I decided to cook. Not just for myself, mind you, and not just "Open can and heat," although there was plenty of that going on as well. No, this involved ingredients. Chopping them up. Mixing them together. Using more than one dish. And it wasn't just for me and another person, a romantic evening fueled by delicious cuisine. I wish. No, I was cooking for more than a dozen people. I was cooking for my fellow first year English graduate students, on our first day of orientation. Because I am a masochist.

Once upon a time, I did this sort of thing more often. I loved having people over and feeding them, particularly when I had a hand in the preparation. However, I rarely had more than a hand in it, because I had a mother who was a ready, willing, and able cook. It was rare that my friends didn't have leftovers at least to munch on at my house, and it was far more frequent to see them dining on fresh made flautas or salpicon, even ceviche when the mood took her. Then there was, of course, the night of my prom, when we spent two days cooking up the dishes described in Laura Esquivel's famous novel, Like Water for Chocolate, for a whole slew of my friends. It was fabulous. They ate rich moles (that's pronounced mol-ays, in an Anglicized sort of a way), decadent chiles enogadas stuffed with meat and fruit and drenched in walnut creme sauce, and the piece de resistance, cornish hens in rose-petal sauce. This was a singular treat: hens browned in butter and then baked in a sauce made from garlic, honey, crushed almonds, anise, sherry, and dried rose petals. It was a night that no one there will ever forget.

However, my friends are just as likely to never forget my mother's migas. Those who have never had migas are missing out. I'll even give you the recipe: pour enough oil to barely cover the bottom of a large frying pan into said large frying pan. Turn it up to medium heat, and while the oil is heatin up, mix about 4-6 eggs in a bowl with seasonings of your choice (I recommend garlic salt and tabasco). Once the oil is hot, pour in enough tortilla chips to fill the frying pan almost to the top. Stir them a little and then add your eggs. As you stir things up, feel free to add more chips or eggs if you need to adjust things. Then cover the mixture with shredded cheese, monterey jack for the traditionalist, cheddar for the Americanized, and colby jack for those in the middle. Stir it in and add more cheese as needed. Finally, drizzle on as much salsa as you want, keeping in mind that crispy always beats squishy in this case. Stir a few more times and then serve.

That's the easy part. The tough part comes if you care to make your own salsa, which my mom always did, and that's not a recipe I pass on to just anyone.

So, seeing as we were having orientation events starting in the afternoon, I decided to host a brunch for my fellow incoming graduate students. It was the first time I was to play host like that in years, having rarely had people over for food in college or in the past years in Austin. Naturally, I wanted to get everythin just right, and to go out of my way to make people feel welcome in my home.

This meant the best food possible, and that meant the Berkeley Bowl.

The Berkeley Bowl is the local organic grocery store. I'd heard tales of the place but decided to stick to Whole Foods, having heard that the Berkeley Bowl already gets crowded 15 minutes after it opens in the morning. My cohort, however, deserved organic food.

The Goddess was with me, and I found parkin right away. I took a cart, went inside, and was immediately amazed by the glut of people. It was usually more convenient for me to leave my cart in strategic locations in order to pick up farm-fresh jack and cheddar cheese (ungrated, meaning that I would have to find a cheese grater), free-range eggs, and the most succulent vegetables. I found more varieties of tomato than I had ever seen and bunches of cilantro that were so vivid a green that I kept expecting the color to rub off in my hand. I even felt ambitious enough to consider the possibility of any vegan and score some vegan chorizo and potatoes, in an attempt to recreate my favorite Whole Foods breakfast taco.

So I spent most of last night cleaning up, laundering my tablecloths and making sure all the noteworthy pieces of trash were off the floor. While my sheets were in the dryer, I decided to try to get a jump start by peeling and dicing the potatoes.

I learned two very important things in the process of preparing the potatoes. First of all, few adages have proven more true than "You get what you pay for." I learned the problems that come from buying a vegetable peeler at a discount store. My peeler took one look at that large, robust, organically grown russet potato and took its own life, so that when I tried to peel the damn tuber I couldn't remove more than a nickel-sized piece every three minutes. Eventually, I took out an actual knife and began to peel, carving of large chunks of potato as I did so and not caring. This lesson was further reinforced as I tried to dice the potatoes with a newly acquired eskimo-style cuttin board (with the half-moon blade) and wound up with some pieces lare enough to be made into french fries and some that couldn't be seen with the naked eye.

The second thing I learned was that the French word for potato--pomme de terre, meanin "apple of the Earth," is an apt on, because when I went to the fridge this morning the diced pieces had turned an unappetizing brown. Cooking the pieces may have changed things, but I decided that I had my hands full already, and so would stick to the migas and whip up the vegan chorizo if any vegans came along.

Then it was time to make the salsa. Now, I'm used to making my salsa with good ol' pesticide infused Texas cilantro, which is lucky if it manages a grass green hue. This time, I was dealing with California oranic cilantro, as green and mighty as The Hulk, and after a few spins in the food processor my usuallly brick-red salsa was a gorgeous shade of emerald, like the kind of salsa they must serve in Oz. However, it tasted terrible, and so required more juggling of ingredients to return it to its Texan glory.

The people I'd asked to help set up began arriving about this time, so after a small freak out session (before opening the door) I let them in and immediately ushered them back out the door: it was time to go to the store to buy one of the few things I still needed: a mop. Unfortunately, I forgot one of the other things I still needed; sugar, which became a problem after coffee was made. This time, I did something I never usually do: I trusted someone with my car. Those 10 minutes my friend spent down the street at Andronico's Market were long ones, I tell ya.

Despite recipe readjustments and the inevitable side-dish abandonment, I felt quite the Iron Chef. Everyone enjoyed the food, and we all had ood coversations. I have a wonderful cohort, full of varied and interesting people who are already beginning to play off each other well. Even if we all prove to be pretentious bastards when we start class, we'll at least have had a good meal to make us tolerant of one another.

This entry goes out to the late great Julia Child, who famously dropped a turkey on national television, picked it back up, dusted it off and said, "And remember: you're the only one in the kitchen."

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