The Panini Press
The Diner’s Dilemma
By Denise Koek
Our waiter approaches the table,
He’s young and well-groomed, with a smile,
“How’re you doing today?” he inquires,
—It’s clear he intends to beguile;
“I am your server, Eduardo,” he adds,
“And I’ll make your visit worthwhile.”
My friends, clearly charmed by his sparkle,
Lean closer, towards him and the aisle.
Only I grimace in terror,
Listening to my own heartbeat,
I have no idea what to order,
I don’t know what I want to eat;
The menu is long and confusing,
The “atmosphere” too dark to read,
I can’t understand the descriptions,
“I don’t know yet!” I long to plead.
Eduardo extends a sheet to us,
It’s laminated, blue and gray,
“Have you seen these yet?” he asks with a wink,
“These are our specials today;”
“Here’s Soup Du Jour, here’s our house wine,
“Here’s our shrimp, fresh from the bay,
“You can have prime rib or pasta,
“Or Great Northwest salmon filet.”
I try to enjoy his sharp patter,
But I’m not having fun—not one bit,
I try to stay calm and focused,
I try not to run, but to sit:
The reckoning time approaches,
I feel it in my stomach-pit,
The pressure is building, as the clock ticks,
And I’m not ready to commit!
Tonight is the night to be daring,
I’ve promised myself to be brave.
Tonight I’ll try something exciting,
That would make any food critic rave;
Like a Foodie, I’ll savor my dinner,
Like an expert gourmet I’ll behave,
Tonight I will throw aside caution,
I’ll give in to whatever I crave.
I see Eduardo’s done speaking,
He’s asking me what I will drink,
I need more time to figure it out,
I feel my cheeks flush, hot and pink;
My friends ask for beer, wine and soda,
I feel myself pushed to the brink,
I take a deep breath and clear my throat,
And say, “I’ll just have water, I think…”
As our server walks back to the kitchen,
To bring out the drinks we demand,
I try to assess this dense menu,
To seek the best option at hand;
Do I want savory, salty or sweet?
Do I want spicy or bland?
Do I want migraines, or ulcers?
This isn’t quite what I had planned.
My friends chatter on, oblivious,
Decisions come easy to them,
They don’t agonize over quinoa,
Or risotto, or cornish game hen;
They just don’t care if their meat is too rare,
Or their ravioli is not pumpkin,
They don’t feel compelled to impress,
They’re undaunted, authentic women.
Insecure in my image as “Diner;”
I long to be more culinarian,
Tease the waiter with a good one-liner,
To seem fluid and fluent and tasteful,
And not like a fraidy-cat-whiner,
I know that I’m low-class and boorish,
I’m aspiring to be something finer.
Eduardo returns with our drinks now,
Accusing me with his dark eyes,
He knows that I do not belong here,
He sees through my customer-lies;
I fight the panic and gather my thoughts,
To conjure a meal-time surprise,
I slam shut my menu and choke out the words,
“Could you bring me a burger and fries?”
Should Auld Acquaintance Be Well-Fed
by Denise Koek
New Year’s Eve is a time for celebration and renewal of spirit. It’s a time to come together with your dearest friends and relatives. And it is a time of prayer—when you pray that you’ll have enough food for everyone.
I experience an overwhelming fear of running out of food, whenever we host a party. I’m not alone in this phobia. All my relatives, and most of my friends, suffer from the same condition. There’s nothing more embarrassing than exposing your formally attired guests to a brazenly naked buffet table.
Is any social situation more awkward than arriving at a party hungry and realizing that there isn’t enough to eat? Do you stay an appropriate amount of time, ignoring the raucous rumblings of your stomach, or depart ASAP for an emergency reconnaissance mission to the nearest burger joint?
It simply confounds me that such a societal atrocity is allowed to occur. Nothing kills a party faster than the absence of chow. You have got to have enough.
Deciding what constitutes “enough” is a whole different subject. Before every get-together, I consult with my friends to establish the ratio of rations to revelers. A gathering of adults calls for a fairly large amount of food, taking into account the fact that the men will stereotypically consume more bread and meat and the women will consume more veggies. A party for children will require a much smaller and peculiarly weighted combination of snacks, meals and desserts, since the wee ones will merely pick at their lunches, in order to save the required space for their all-important cake and ice cream. A get-together for a bunch of ravenous teenagers necessitates the same volume and type of provisions one might provide for a traveling circus—pull out your pitchfork and furiously shovel munchies and slabs of raw meat in their general direction. The same rules apply when the teamsters union drops by for bite. But, if you are entertaining a group of Hollywood starlets, one box of wheat thins and a head of lettuce will suffice.
The equal and opposing sin of offering your guests too little is concocting so very much that you end up wasting food. When I was a child, my parents often reminded us kids of the poor, starving children in China, who would give anything for the lonely left-over crusts of Wonder Bread that lingered upon our selfish-Yankee platters. (To this day, I’m not convinced that their healthier palates would have even accepted the various processed foods I neglected to polish off. In fact, I’m pretty sure that boiled hot dog I couldn’t finish would have turned their little stomachs. Still, my folks remained convinced that the young people of Asia would be more grateful than us spoiled Americans.)
But I digress… Getting back to the topic at hand, as a host, you must consider your menu quite carefully. You don’t want to serve foods that are so labor intensive (a.k.a., Triple-Layered Chocolate Torte) that they impede your ability to generate enough. You don’t want to serve something so prohibitively expensive (Beluga caviar, for example) that you can’t possibly afford to buy enough. Similarly, you want to avoid serving things that come in such tiny sizes (Petit Fours, anyone?) that you have to buy 10 times as many, in order to satisfy your guests.
A good host is always cognizant of how much he or she places upon each plate. Nothing is as annoying as a server who doles out miniscule mouthfuls of each flavorful course in a misguided attempt to conserve their foodstuffs.
Portion control is a wonderful and important concept. But, to be effective in any way, it must be imposed from within, rather from without. When you decide to limit what you eat, you feel strong, virtuous and healthy. When someone else decides to limit what you eat, you feel seriously pissed off!
One of my closest friends has a conservation-minded daughter who made the commitment, a few years back, never to use more than one paper towel in a public restroom. This is a principled and admirable stance. But when the owners of said public restroom make the same decision on your behalf, by setting the paper towel machine to dispense post-it-sized paper towels, that stance is neither principled nor admirable. That behavior is cheap! I don’t know about you, but I end up using about twenty of their micro-towels to dry off, rather than the one bigger one I would have chosen for myself. That kind of defeats the purpose.
Recently, I attended a fabulous soiree at an elegant venue. During the cocktail hour, the guests were encouraged to stroll from station to station, sampling various artistically assembled hors d'oeuvre. At each petite table, an impeccably outfitted chef tastefully arranged the allotted serving and handed it to us with a flourish. One hors d’oeuvre consisted of a crisp half-a-cracker topped by an eighth-of-an-inch square of exotic cheese. Another was a single pumpkin ravioli, the size of an aggie marble. The last one was comprised of three gourmet kettle chips, fried to golden perfection. Each nibble was beyond delicious; they were edible masterpieces. But they reminded me of Barbie doll-food, those tiny, beautifully crafted pieces of plastic that—even if they were fit for consumption—couldn’t sate the appetite of a self-respecting Polly Pocket toy. It took all my strength not to march to the head table, small plate in hand and pipe up “Please sir, may I have some more?”
Imposed-starvation is never a winning party theme. A wise gourmet once noted that “Food is theater.” And yet, there remain stark differences between the two. The time honored showbiz dictum of “Always leave ‘em wanting more!” is appropriate for a broadway play—it’s not a good guideline for a dinner party.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Muffin
by Denise Koek
Giving gifts of food during the holiday season is a lovely tradition. It’s generally a less expensive way to go. It’s more warm and personal. But it’s also a tad confusing.
First off, it’s hard to know which foods fall into the approved gift category. People are allowed to give canned hams and sausages wrapped in red cellophane but not chicken wings. We are fine boxing up assortments of fruit and cheese but not jars of sauerkraut. Handing out popcorn is good; corn nuts, not so much. Blueberry muffins are appreciated; bran muffins are not. A fresh apple pie is acceptable, a 99-cent moon pie, less so. Everyone enjoys a box of fine chocolates but no one particularly cares to receive a box of sea weed snacks, no matter how tastefully packaged.
Then, there are the challenges of actually transporting your present. More than once, my mom lovingly packed home-baked cookies and sent them across the country to us, in zip-lock bags, crinkly tissue and old aluminum tins. Yet never once did she see fit to mail us a jello-mold or a bowl of pudding. My father-in-law has, on numerous occasions, returned from Holland with elegant candies but, shockingly, he has neglected to bring us rookworst or herring. (Sure, he’s offered flimsy excuses about his dish of “Hutspot,” or his crock-pot of “Snert” being confiscated by Homeland Security. I’m not buying it. I think he just doesn’t want to share his “Boerenkoolstamppot!”)
By the way, why is it okay to distribute expensive bottles of wine but not jugs of moonshine? You could offer them up in fancy holiday gift bags—it’s not like you’d be required to wrap them in the traditional brown-paper bags employed by the connoisseurs of Skid Row. I think a bunch of bums drinking out of colorful, metallic gift-bags would add a festive quality to your local shanty town.
And, as long as we are on the topic of alcohol as a holiday present, there’s something I’ve never been clear about. Why is it absolutely okay to make cakes out of rum—and even share them with your under-age children—but it’s frowned upon to devise desserts with cough syrup? The alcoholic content is probably the same. And—to my unschooled taste buds—the taste is the same.
Let me interject here: my children love those little rum cakes. In fact, the kids have been cited by our neighborhood watch committee for roaming the streets, reeking of rum cake, throughout the holiday season. I suppose, at some point, I risk an intervention from Child Protective Services if I continue to ply them with these spirits-infused treats. I have obviously succumbed to the temptation to be “the Cool Mom,” by shamelessly enabling their rum-cake habit…
But I digress. I have recently concluded that the very fact of some foods’ deliciousness makes them appropriate no matter how they are created, packaged, or delivered.
For example, I’ve been the honored recipient of a peculiar hybrid treat called “The Saltine Toffee Cookie.” Some industrious baker had the inspired idea to slather low-brow, salty crackers with melted semi-sweet chocolate, brown sugar and butter. The improbable result of this Frankenstein-like food combo is a yum-tacular snack! (You’d be astonished at how the same concoction dresses up a slab of cardboard-y, Passover matzah.) Ergo, a batch of these crackers is an acceptable present.
However, you should be forewarned, your uncle will be bitterly disappointed if you send him a gift of saltine crackers covered in processed spray cheese.
Some holiday foods are so unique to a certain culture or region that those of us from more basic, boring cultural backgrounds have never previously experienced their inexplicable deliciousness—much less heard their names.
My college roomie’s mom used to send her all manner of tantalizing baked goods on a regular basis, including one remarkable item called “a Christmas Stollen.” It was half-way between bread and cake (a delightful continuum if ever there was one) and packed with raisins, currants, and tart cherries. It was like Fruit Cake’s waaaay cooler younger brother. I’d never heard of this carb-o-licious miracle before glimpsing my roomie’s stash. However, soon after I’d become acquainted with this seasonal treat, a significant portion of the Stollen was mysteriously stolen. (By me. I can admit it now—it was too tasty and exotic to resist. By the time this article is published, I am hoping that the Stolen Stollen Statute of Limitations has elapsed. If not, I hereby retract the entire preceding paragraph…)
Therefore, you need not have prior knowledge of a food’s existence in order to deem it a good gift. Still, you must exercise caution—an air-mailed crate of Rocky Mountain Oysters is unlikely to enthrall your second cousin.
Maybe I’m over thinking this. Perhaps the purity of your intentions is the only thing that counts when you’re delivering baskets of scrumptiousness to your neighbors or office-mates. It’s possible that the goodness of your soul is more important than your gift-wrapped package of baked sole. With the right sentiment, even that bag of pork rinds may be considered apt. Let’s celebrate this holiday season by establishing a new rule of thumb for food-giving: Any gift is proper if you give it from your heart—without heart-burn.
Around the World in 80 “Deli”s
by Denise Koek
When I watch the Olympics on TV I invariably experience a combination of awe and intimidation. It doesn’t matter what sport I’m watching. I know that I cannot do what they are doing. Be it Gymnastics, or Bicyling or Basketball or Quidditch (that’s a real sport now, right?), I can’t. Okay, I can fence a little—and by “a little” I mean I took one semester in college, umpteen years ago. (That’s not quite enough to defend myself in the face of an imminent challenge to a duel but certainly enough to list on my resume, under “special skills,” for the rest of my life.)
To be honest, I don’t think I’m even athletic enough to last five minutes in the annual Hot Dog Eating Contest. Just watching those people stuff hundreds of pounds of sausage casing and processed meat down their throats makes me gag. (And by the way, can anyone within earshot tell me why/how those gluttons are all so improbably skinny? Every summer, size zero women and men with waists smaller than my right thigh have the audacity to consume ten times their respective weights in cured mystery meat without gaining an ounce. Surely their superhuman gastrointestinal abilities constitute some kind of threat to national security. If they can swallow that much chow without coming up for air, what’s stopping them for eating nuclear war-heads and transporting them across the country, one state fair at a time?)
So, to review, I cannot manage athleticism of any recognizable kind. Yet, “Major League Eating” aside (yes, that is the name of the governing body of the piggy-people,) I believe that there is one arena in which I can compete. That is marathon eating. Granted, it must be amateur marathon eating. (See above.) But I can linger in multiple restaurants for multiple hours over the course of multiple days. How do I know that I am capable of this Herculean feat? Well, I’ll tell you….
Once a year my husband and I drag our kids back to our Midwestern homeland, to see as many friends and family as we can possibly cram into a one- or two-week time period. This allows us a rare and precious opportunity to catch up with all of our far-away loved ones. It’s always fun and never relaxing.
When my mother was still alive she would host a lovely “Open House” for all of our friends and family during the first or second day of our visit. Thirty or forty or our nearest and dearest would fill my parents’ home, to nibble on Lox, Bagels, Tuna Salad, Egg Salad and scads of sinful baked goods. We were able to visit with quite a few people in the course of one day.
Those happy days are long gone, since my mother’s death. My mother was the social director on her matrimonial team and a house-full of ravenous relatives is more than my father can comfortably handle, nowadays. (Further complicating matters, we ethnic types tend to consume a good deal more than our WASP counterparts. So if my dad were ever to attempt such a banquet, he would have to provide two or three times the amount of food required by a clan descended from Queen Victoria’s lineage. That’s a lot of lox.)
Due to our current inability to shoe-horn all our hungry family members into one groaning-at-the-seams location, we inadvertently snub a notable amount of relatives during each annual visit. (Till now, at least, they’ve thankfully forgiven us, seeing as how we’re family and they’re stuck with us, either way…)
Since the bulk of people we visit are not on vacation, we try not to troop into their homes demanding to be fed and entertained. Instead, the best option for this familial speed-dating is setting up as many breakfast, lunch and dinner dates as is humanly possible. Every day becomes a blur of colorful menus, minimal elbow room and seductively fragrant bread baskets. (In Chicago, the majority of restaurants still set out baskets of fresh rolls and bagels on each table, no matter what you order. It is a delectable remnant of my childhood—something rarely seen in Los Angeles. I can’t imagine it’s a good thing for people like myself, who would rather eat a fresh-baked roll than a slice of birthday cake. But it makes me ridiculously happy. At least until I return home to the disapproving looks from my bathroom scale….) Often, my husband and I will divide and conquer. He’ll meet one relative at one spot and I’ll meet a different relative at another. Sometimes we’ll re-unite at one of those two restaurants and have an extra dessert, just to be sociable. It’s a week-long merry-go-round ride on the Chow Hound’s Express.
When we return to the Midwest, we eat only one meal a day—it starts at 7 AM and ends at 11 PM.
My kids take this endless consumption in stride. They’re teenagers—they need to eat at hourly intervals in order to avoid rusting-over. They eat in the car, they eat while they’re walking, their favorite place to eat is standing over the island in our kitchen. (The other day, my older son coined a phrase, to describe this phenomenon. He told me that dry cereal was an “over-the-counter snack.” I retorted, “As opposed to a prescription snack?”) The upshot is that my kids do not seem overly affected by our annual, self-imposed comestible contest.
In contrast, my husband and I need to train for this repast parade. A couple of weeks before each trip we practice sitting on our butts and shoving food into our mouths. With enough practice, you’d be surprised how easy this becomes.
The last week before we go, we sit at the kitchen table for long stretches. This is more difficult for my husband than it is for me. I am, by nature, more adept at the European style of dining—three hours per meal is no sweat for me. (Or maybe I just like to eat slowly and talk a lot.) My hubby favors the traditional American model of “gobble and go.”
Like any good athletes, we struggle to overcome individual obstacles and fight through the pain. (Antacids are a good training tool.)
By the time we arrive on the fertile soil of the heartland we are prepared for seven to fourteen days of epic ingestion. We are fearless feasters. We are warriors of waist-band- loosening. We chomp our way across Illinois and Wisconsin like driven, focused seven-year locusts. We plow through deep-dish pizza, char-broiled bratwurst, stacked corned beef sandwiches and juicy Italian Beef with the abandon of long-distance runners, crossing that coveted finish line. Nothing stops us in our quest for deli domination. No one can impede our determined dash to vittle victory. Against all odds, we triumph over that cautionary full-feeling in order to stuff ourselves into over-satiated comas.
And a week or so, later, we invariably return home, tired happy and nauseous, looking forward to 7-14 days of vegetables, rice cakes and water.
The V Word
by Beth Shields
So it’s true confession time: I am newly vegan – which, as I’ve discovered these past few months, is akin to saying I am a cannibal or I am volunteering to become the fifth Sister Wife. Who knew people would get so pissed off when you talk about vegetables?
Eating a plant-based, whole-foods diet (which is the politically correct way to say “vegan”) can be a huge pain in the a@@. Breakfast in this country means eggs parked on your plate next to some form or other of [usually pig] meat. Lunch sandwich menus rarely have all veggie options. Cut out mayo, and your choices are even more limited. And don’t get me started on dinner. It’s forced me to be creative, but it’s also forced me to make some truly crappy eating out choices, especially with my diner-loving hubby.
And while we’re on the matter, let me just clarify: I am not a tree hugger. I do not advocate nor did I use cloth diapers. I love animals and understand how truly yummy some of my friends and family find them. I just have decided not to eat them in an effort to be thinner, healthier and live longer. So sue me. But I digress. Back to the diner.
The first week of my plant-based switch found me at Forest Diner up on Route 40 in Ellicott City (which we LOVE) with a meat-based menu in my face, sporting what was undoubtedly a stupid look. What the . . . am I going to eat? So being the health-conscious person that I am, I ordered the BLT minus the B with French fries and ketchup. Now THAT’S nutrition!
Oh, boy. This may be harder than I thought.
The following Saturday we opted for the Greek diner Nora’s up on the opposite end of 40, thinking they would have more options. My very cold veggie sandwich was complemented by my very hot French fries. Anybody sensing a theme here?
Finally, after about eight weeks of eating this way, I’ve gotten smart and realized that there are two choices for me for vegan diner breakfasts: an egg beater omelette with lots of veggies, or a grilled veggiee wrap sandwich, which you can find at any larger diner like Double T.
Never mind that I was about five bites into it before I realized I was eating the wrapping paper on my veggie wrap. Seriously, I thought it was phyllo dough.
At any rate, if you are working on going vegan, you’ll just have to wing it for awhile like I have until you an figure out how to meet the technicalities AND have a healthy meal. Even if you’re dead set on going all veg and dreaming about a burger as you read this, consider adding more veggies to your diet. Study after study has shown that the more vegetables you eat, the better health outcomes you have. As for me, I’m still working it all out, including trying to find a happy substitute for my beloved sour cream and abstaining while continuing to cook meat for the rest of my carnivorous family.
Tip for the day: Try adding veggies to your sandwich, side dishes or even meats. This is one instance where our Mom was right. Eat your vegetables, it will make you stronger!
And stay away from wrapping paper.
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