Sunday, May 29, 2011

Marfa Part I: The Place.

Last weekend my sister Anne flew into town, and we hopped in the car and drove 6 1/2 hours out to nowhereland West Texas, to a very special place called Marfa. Marfa is located far, far away from everything. It sits more than an hour off of any major highway, and hours and hours away from any significant city. The city population is somewhere around 2,000, which is smaller than many high schools!

Marfa exists today as sort of a modern artists colony, pioneered by renowned minimalist artist Donald Judd. In 1971, Judd moved to Marfa from New York City and started to permanently install his art. Eventually Judd acquired decommissioned Fort D.A. Russell, and began transforming the fort's buildings into art spaces. Judd's vision was to house large collections of individual artists' work on permanent display, as a sort of anti-museum. Today, the legacy of his work is a big part of the town. The Chinati Foundation and Judd Foundation work to maintain Judd's legacy, and they do it very well. We took the Chinati two-hour tour and saw several amazing art installations. Plus, signs of the art and respect for art dot the entire place.

Marfa felt like an amazing place for so many reasons, the most important of which is that I was on a sister-only trip with my friend and sibling Anne. But, Marfa is an amazing place because it thrives as an active and engaged community in a place that should be, by all logic, desolate and sad. There is an interesting aesthetic that comes from combining a stark West Texas landscape with a minimalist art movement, and combining an old sheep ranching community with a bunch of hipster infused residents. Doesn't sound like it would work, but it does. And it somehow makes it really magical. And perhaps most , I think the entire town has some secret pack to only use Mrs. Meyers hand soaps in their bathrooms. Seriously, every place was stocked with geranium, basil, lemon verbena, and lavender hand soap.

We spent only about 48 hours in the town, but did our best to pack in all the sites and culture we could.
We caught a stunning sunset on our way to dinner the first night that caused us to drive an extra few minutes out of town and park along the deserted highway to take in the colors and light.

We took a walk down their quiet main street, a combo of small town Art Deco architecture and vintage Texas town square style- some restored and some crumbling and abandon - with hardly any cars or people to obscure the view.

We ate dinner at a charming cafe, but a friendly, modern, minimalist, gourmet cafe. I had cauliflower with capers and tarragon, we ate lentil fritters in coconut chutney, and we had shared chicken and waffles then a piece of ginger root cake for dessert.

We took a two-hour tour of the Chinati Foundation, including the famous metal box sculptures installed in the old artillery sheds. The light against the angles of the art against the dessert plains background was beautiful. It made Anne want to sing and dance around the room. Judd believed that the prevailing model of a museum, where art is shown for short periods of time, does not allow the viewer an understanding of the artist or their work as they intended. Therefore his installations are permanent.

We also saw a light installation by Dan Flavin built out over the course of six renovated barrack buildings, made up of angled neon lights meant to be viewed from many vantages. We had to leave the building and enter from another side to get the full image of the art. Anne loved them.

After our Chinati Foundation tour we stopped at Marfa's sole food truck and had pulled pork tacos and a falafel burrito, sitting in the shade by the train tracks at the old railroad stop. I understand they used to load wool and livestock onto the cars in this space. Even the soda cans are vintage and artsy to fit in.

The day we left we rented vintage cruiser bikes, rode to breakfast, rode to a tiny farmers marker near the railroad track, and then road along the almost silent highway past Judd's cerement block sculptures at the Chinati Foundation. The landscape, the atmosphere, and the company made the place feel special.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Bean dip, or how to make people think you're a genius.

I have been stupid busy these past few months. I started a new job, a much more demanding job than my last, and it is keeping me working longer hours and then sleeping in my free time. I'm exhausted. There's not been a lot of cooking, not a lot of sewing, not ever a lot of keeping up with other blogger's cooking and sewing. So now more than ever, I think it is the right time to share a fast and dirty secret. It's time to share a culinary masterpiece so delicious yet so simple it feels like you are swindling your diners. The secret... bean dip.

If you want to make friends quickly, be very popular, and also have people think you are a culinary genius, serve them bean dip. Seriously. The masses, they love it. They fawn over it. They gobble it up with looks of admiration in their eyes. They will even ask you how you made it, lingering a bit in the question as though worrying it might be too hard for them to reproduce at home. And when they ask, my answer is always the same:

"Open a can of refried beans. Mix with a bunch of salsa and a handful of shredded cheese. Add another handful of cheese to the top. Microwave until molten hot. Serve with chips, preferably the generic brand. They are saltier."

Yep, that's it. My highly coveted bean dip is that easy. That accessible. And it's about as far from culinary masterpiece as fast food is. And yet, every time I whip up a batch, I swear folks think I am a genius.

Plus, on those long work days when you are exhausted (like I am every day), or for those times when you just didn't get to the store for the prosciutto and figs appetizer ingredients like you meant to, this is a fabulous go-to. It hits the spot every time.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Earth Day the organic way.

A nice guy named Craig emailed me on behalf of my FAVORITE grocery store - Central Market - and asked if I would like to review some of their Central Market brand organic products on the blog. Of course I said yes. Actually, I say "Yes! Please! Pretty please!" After all, I am already a fan of the store and the brand. And what wannabe foodie doesn't desire an opportunity to try new flavors and product and give her opinion?

A few weeks ago, my package arrived, chocked full of delicious things, including:
Central Market Organics Agave
Central Market Organics Coffee
Central Market Organics Tea
Central Market Organics Peanut Butter Dots Cereal
Central Market Organics Oatmeal
Central Market Organics Vanilla Almond Milk
Central Market Organics Rice Vanilla Milk
Central Market Organics Almond Preserves

The first thing I opened was the Peanut Butter Dots Cereal and the Vanilla Almond Milk - a delicious combo. I must admit that the cereal tastes incredibly similar to the name-brand, non-organic version of sugar cereal found on most shelves. Except of course it was organic. So, if your organic aspiration is to sub out what you like in the regular non-Michael Pollen aisles of the grocery store with something a little more earth friendly, this is your bet. The almond milk was tasty. I myself am a dairy girl - love me a tall glass of skim milk a day - so almond milk is not something I indulge in frequently. This version was light, appropriately sweet, and good with the cereal. I myself prefer the high protein, low sugar attributes of organic milk over the nutritional and flavor aspects of almond or rice milk, but if you are looking for a substitute this is a good choice.

I love toast, and both the agave and the Apricot Preserves suited bread well. If you are not familiar with agave nectar, it is produces from the agave plant, which looks much like an aloe plant and comes from Mexico and South Africa. Agave nectar has a much lower glycemic index and glycemic load than table sugar, which basically means it is a better sweetener option for those limiting sugar consumption. Fun fact: gave sap can be fermented, and by distillation it becomes a spirit called mezcal , the most widely know version being tequila. but this nectar is far from tequila, and closer to honey. Very sweet and fluid, it coated a toast snack nicely in moderation (agave nectar is about one and a half times sweeter than sugar).

Both the coffee and tea in the basket are tasty and meet my standards for high quality beverages. Nothing novel to report, but I do feel good knowing both my coffee and tea were grown organically. The tea is nice because it comes in a fabric pouch in a pyramid shape, rather than the standard "pillow" shaped tea bag.

Fair disclosure, I haven't tried the oatmeal yet because I have some Bob's Red Milled Oats open in the pantry already. I just can't bear to have two packages open at the same time, but I am swearing an oatmeal-only breakfast diet this summer so it won't be long until I get there. By the tastes of things, I am in for a pleasant bowl of oats when I get to it.

Overall I am a big fan of the Central Markets Organics brand. I like the packaging. It's clean, tidy, and shows the food accurately. Sometimes organic packaging can be the worst - it's either too hippy-dippy (making me think the food will taste like dirt), or too frou frou (making organic seem pretentious and snobby). This hits the spot and is easy to find on grocery shelves.

I can't comment on pricing, as the gift basket was a gift to me, but in general I find the Central Market brand organic products I purchase on my regular shopping trips to be fairly priced. I usually buy milk, olive oil, butter, crackers, microwave popcorn, canned beans, canned tomatoes, and other pantry staples in the brand. Pricing is usually a bit more than non-organic, but more affordable that other organic brands.

I have head debates back and forth on the value of organics. In fact, Penn and Teller even did a Bullshit episode on it in which they determined that from a consumer perspective, there is not much value in purchasing organic over commercial. But still, I value organic options in my grocery store and I will continue to be a customer of the Central Market's Organics brand. I like knowing that organic foods are products that are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as pesticides and chemical fertilizers. I like knowing that my food does not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives. I also like when my food tastes good. Not only does the Central Market Organics stuff taste good, it feels healthier, and I consume with just a tad less guilt than usual knowing I am limiting the impact on the environment during my food's growth and preparation. As the packaging touts, "By choosing organics, you’re helping to reduce the chemical runoff in our ground water sources and to reduce the use of environmentally harmful artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides commonly used on conventional crops." And it's true.