Monday, August 20, 2007

Deconstructing Dinner

Remember when I used to cook? Seems like lately nearly every post is about a restaurant or a bake sale (more on the latter below). The last couple months, the best you've seen me muster up is a sniffly soft-boiled egg. Kinda lame, really. Well, there are 2 things going on: for one, there has been some cooking that's gone undocumented, that we'll get to one of these days. But more to the point, I'm being fed so generously on a day-to-day basis that I hardly have room for more.

You see, I haven't talked about it much here, but I started a new job back in late April. After a 4-month hiatus from the world of visual effects, computer programming, and paychecks, I fell back into it, with a job at Dreamworks Animation. Believe me, I struggled with the thought of leaving languid mornings of half-grapefruit and green tea for breakfast, followed by a walk through my neighborhood. Not to mention the impromptu meet-ups with my niece and nephews (and their mother, of course), the consistently clean room, the afternoon naps -- just because I felt like it. And oh so much writing.

But, then, on the other hand, after meeting some of the people at Dreamworks, and visiting the gorgeous campus, how could I resist? The work environment (laid out like a Mediterranean villa -- complete with courtyards, fountains, and bougainvillea everywhere), the smart, personable potential coworkers, and the work itself, all seemed like an eerily perfect fit.

And then there was the food. Man, free lunch ain't the half of it. For breakfast, the commissary serves a wide variety, including fresh fruit, a different baked good every day, eggs, cereal, yogurt, and more. For lunch, a hot entree (tomorrow is Argentinean flank steak with chimichurri), a vegetarian entree, an extensive salad bar, an equally extensive sandwich bar, and for the summer, daily barbecue outside. Still hungry? Well, there are desserts, snacks, frozen yogurt, slurpees, an espresso machine, and the entire collection of Tazo teas, even the Darjeeling they don't carry at US Starbucks (!) -- it's endless.

So, you can imagine how, by the time I get home, I'm simply not that hungry. Certainly not hungry enough for a full meal. So a few weeks ago, I devised a system: I'm simplifying dinner, scaling it back to its most basic elements. My new dinner plan has 3 items: some fruit or vegetable, simply prepared, whole-grain bread, a small hunk of cheese. The end.
It may seem meager, but let me tell you, it's a revelation. It's certainly enough food for me, and on these balmy summer nights, no one wants to cook much, or eat anything heavy, anyway. Now, sometimes there is cooking involved, and sometimes there is variation: the whole-grain "bread" may be buckwheat soba noodles, "cheese" might be butter or yogurt, or maybe even hummus, but the endless variations keep me excited with this deceptively simple diet. I buy the produce the day I'm going to use it, because my schedule is unpredictable, and leftovers sit around until they rot. And, unfortunately, I keep fresh herbs to a minimum -- again, because I use about 2 sprigs and the rest turns to sludge in my fridge. You see, this isn't totally about slow food; it's about finding a way to make eating dinner at home work for me.

I think it's not just me. There seems to be a move towards simpler, cleaner meals. Over at Orangette, a commenter and a trip to France got Molly thinking about paring dinner down, and at the New York Times, Mark Bittman, self-proclaimed minimalist, gives us 101 meals to make in 10 minutes -- an impressive list in which, over and over, he comes up with inspiring meals of just a few ingredients.

My own list includes the following:
  • Grape tomatoes sauteed with basil (the frozen pellets from Trader Joe's -- not the same as fresh, but better than nothing) over fresh spinach with multigrain bread and a hunk of Maytag blue cheese.
  • Frozen peas in a garlicky-lemony broth with parsley (more pellets), topped with fruity olive oil and parmesan, served with more multigrain bread to dunk in the broth.
  • Purple corn (regular will do, but what a find -- so pretty!), just barely cooked and served with crumbled cotija and Tapatío.
  • Baby bok choi sauteed with garlic, ginger, and sesame seed oil, served with soba
  • My first taste of morels! sauteed in butter and served over multigrain bread. (When portions are small, and there's no meat, you can splurge on individual ingredients.)
  • Skinny asparagus, roasted in the toaster oven, with lots of salt and pepper, and a sprinkle of parmesan.
  • A mini Margherita pizza on whole-grain dough (from Trader Joe's, natch) baked in the toaster oven.
  • And tonight, nothing but bread, Bosc pears (leftovers from the pear and yogurt cake I made for the bake sale), and a sliver of brie I found in the back of the fridge.
When it comes to dinner, turns out, less is more.

And a note about the bake sale, quite frankly it was awesome in every way. It was such an outpouring of goodwill from far and wide: from Tai at Scoops, who after seeming minorly flustered by the hubbub in the morning, offered by the end of the day an open invitation for future events, to the random stoner dude who came out of nowhere to offer our stalwart sign painter a pillow to kneel on, from bakers coming one after another to drop off their delicious handiwork, to a team of volunteers that I simply can't say enough about. Even the parking attendant looked the other way at about 10 cars parked illegally so they could get some sweets and help the kiddies.

And then there were the consumers. The woman who heard us on Good Food as she was driving on Melrose, made her way to Scoops and bought up a bunch of stuff, then reappeared in the afternoon to snag a gorgeous coconut cake from Lark bakery (amidst a round of applause from us!). The one who read about us on DailyCandy and brought her daughter, who naturally chose a pink cupcake. Coworkers from long-defunct companies who I haven't seen in six years and who now live in Phoenix. Lovely Catherine, another LA blogger who stopped by after teaching a hoop dancing class! And plenty of friendly vegan bicyclers. Thanks to this sprawling network of support, we were able to raise over $1300 for Share our Strength. Rad.

[also.. pictures coming soon!]


  1. Hooray for the bake sale! I was thoroughly impressed by everything about it (except maybe the scorching oven of Los Angeles). I can't wait for the next 'sale' you produce - will it be Persian patries or dim sum delicacies? Salty Spanish tapas or scrumptious sandwiches? Your readers demand more!

  2. I'm so happy everything worked out! I was so sad that I only had enough time to snag some of the last of the Persian baklava and some cookies before running off to a meeting. You guys were such troopers in that 100-degree weather - bravo.

    Hopefully there will be more of these fun-raisers (hehe); I think everyone was happy to help out a good charity and also EAT at the same time!

  3. Maybe your next cherity event should involve liquor and sushi and donate proceeds to impoverished ex-pat Californians seeking to come home... CONGRATS on the tremendous fruits of your labors! You could do this for a living...

  4. hooray for brad! thanks for baking with us: in the ranger cookie sense, in the freaking hot sun sense, in the pot-smoking sense. ok maybe not the last one.

    and nancy, i didn't even know you stopped by! thanks for coming -- i wish we would have crossed paths!

    and you know annie, i have actually been to a sushi/cocktails charity event, and the take-home lesson is that i'd rather pay more for better sushi.

    and all of you waiting for the next event, i will tell you that my next project involves cleaning my room, paying my bills, and doing laundry. you are more than welcome to volunteer and support the cause. hmm, maybe i'll make a myspace for it...