Juicy Olive

The quest for “the good life” should never be complete but it should definitely begin now.

California Dreamin’ March 26, 2009

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This time tomorrow I’ll be in northern California – enjoying a glass of wine with great friends and plotting our antics for the coming days.

I’ve got a small love affair in my mind with that area of the country. Everyone appears to be healthy. They love Mother Earth. They appreciate great food. They know their wine. Farming is a way of life that coexists with mountain bikers, gourmet chefs, options traders and hybrid cars. They don’t fight the weather and, in return, they’re rewarded with a mild climate that’s tough to hate.

Whenever I’m returning to a place I love, I get nervous. What if I love it so much that I don’t want to leave? What if I will forever compare my life in Chicago to the fairy tale life I’ve created for myself as a goat farmer in Sonoma? (It should be noted that in the latter I have a gorgeous husband who is quite handy and loves to give me killer scalp massages. My fake life also features an on-call spa and a personal cook to grease the wheels of my oh-so-strenuous work.)

Eventually I assuage my anxieties by remembering that IF the goat farm was mine, it’s true I’d have access to killer chevre all year round. But I’d also be tethered to my life there, and I’d be unable to take all of my grand adventures. I also have to admit that I love the four seasons we get here in the midwest. I could do without the severity of January and February, but I’m also so glad for variety.

Could it be that my California Dream is unattainable and unrealistic? Is it possible that I concoct these fantasies as a means to escape from the reality of the daily grind? Yes and Yes. But here’s the thing – isn’t that why we scrimp and save and plan for a getaway? To do just that – get away and escape?

Realizing this, I’m less nervous that I’ll channel my inner Little Bo Peep while I’m driving through the Russian River Valley. I’m now more excited that I’ll get to entertain myself by playing make believe for just a little while.

And you have to admit that giving into your dreams is a lot less messy than cleaning up after a herd of goats!

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Getting it out of my system (in advance?)

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My parents went to school in New Orleans. For as long as I can remember, they’ve regaled us with tales of life in the Big Easy. Even though it has been decades since they graduated, the NOLA experience is clearly top-of-mind.

The classic muffaletta - who could ever finish a whole one!?

The classic muffaletta - who could ever finish a whole one!?

No matter the context of our discussions of their days at Tulane, my parents always return to the legendary food in Louisiana. They’ve told us about long lunches at Galatoires, garlicky shrimp at Mosca’s, po-boys at Domaliese’s, muffelettas at Central Grocery and icy cold oysters at Acme. We’ve discussed in-depth brandy milk punches, hurricanes and the banana daquiri that my mother swears was her first ever alcoholic bebida.

Mom and Dad close each menu recital with veritable groans – hands over stomachs and some kind of masochistic smile on their face about how painfully full they would become. They’d talk about our grandparents coming to visit them and needing to spend days afterward fasting just to return to a sense of normalcy after the gluttony.

Urban Dictionary defines a food coma as ” The feeling of listlessness, bordering on sleep, that one feels after eating a large meal.” We all love the indulgence, but said feeling can be downright miserable, and bouncing back can feel like torture.

That’s why I’m adopting a new practice: the pretox. (No – not that kind.) Sure, we’ve all heard of the detox – after you have a food fest that would make my parents proud, you switch to salads, water and several dates with your on-again off-again lover – the Elliptical machine. Doesn’t it make sense to give your body a healthy head start to offset what you KNOW you’ll be submitting it to in the coming days?

As I head into a weekend in California (yay!),  I’ve guzzled about a gallon and a half of water a day recently. I’m exercising like a fiend and just spent 45 minutes on a real Stair Master (you know – the kind with the revolving set of steps that is hard as hell on your thighs?). I’ve even been upping my fruits and veggies.

Will these extra efforts eliminate any glutton coma? Probably not, but they may reduce the intensity of the aftermath associated with wine tastings and every meal out. And, if they don’t is it that bad to have had a healthy week? If I keep it up, this Juicy Olive may just be bound for the Big Easy sooner than later.

 

Learn from the Locals March 23, 2009

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During her trip to Italy, my friend Stephanie took a cooking class. For her, it wasn’t so much about learning to prepare a bangin’ bolognese sauce, but rather that she left the class understanding the cultural idioms and nuanced practices that make the Italian people so special. Stephanie said that she’ll always take a class in a foreign destination from now on.

With that tenet in mind and my trip to Morocco around the corner, I began my research and came across Souk Cuisine. The  class promised to convey the intricacies of Marrakchi culture. It did not disappoint.

The day of the class came, and I met seven other tourists at Cafe la France. We split into groups to shop. My team was assigned to buy herbs, oils, grains and vegetables. Remarkably, this simple grocery list became the most unique cultural syllabus of my journey to North Africa. Through the two hour shopping trip, our guide took us to stall after stall of food vendors – each selling something different: preserved lemons, cured meat, fresh mint, giant pumpkins and dried beans – to name a few.

This gentleman sells numerous kinds of mint - each with a different purpose. The green bags hanging overhead contain dried mint - just add water (and a ton of sugar) and you've got yourself "Moroccan Whiskey" (also known as sweet mint tea.)

A mint vendor - each variety with a different purpose. Fresh for cooking and dried for "Moroccan Whiskey" (AKA sweet mint tea.)

We learned that the Moroccan women awake early each morning and make an extensive trip through the markets to buy all of the food for the day.

Lunch is the primary meal. Served in the early afternoon, it is a huge feast and includes multiple courses. The women begin preparing it each morning while their husbands leave the home and their kids go to school.

Moroccan cuisine is based on such few ingredients: cilantro, mint, cumin, paprika, cayenne, salt. Tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, carrots and onions. Raisins, dates and apricots. Couscous, lentils and bread. Chicken, fish and lamb. Yet do not underestimate the power of such a simple shopping list. The wondrous and varried meals that can be concocted with these items can make any mouth water.

Our shopping continued, and I learned the proper way to barter and the times when you just give in and pay the $1.50 for a huge bag of salt. I learned that butter sits in enormous vats in the open air, and olive oil is dispensed to the truly savvy into the clay vessels they bring to the vendor. 

Grain Souk

Grain Souk

I tasted the salty-bitter tang of preserved lemon and watched in wonder as a man pulled six fresh eggs from a chicken cage (feathers and gunk still attached to the shell!) and plopped them into a plastic baggie for transport. I marveled at the way the spice sellers knew not only how to measure the perfect amount of tumeric onto the scale, but also how to prescribe homeopathic remedies with the same herbs and spices.

Perfect Pyramids of Juicy Olives

Perfect Pyramids of Juicy Olives

Being a person who is sincerely interested (perhaps obsessed?) with the process of food going from farm to table to mouth, I knew this was going to be fun for me. But it became instantly obvious that this was a special experience for anyone partaking in Souk Cuisine when we joined the other groups in the kitchens. Everyone was abuzz with tales of whom they had met and what they had seen in the labyrinthe-like food souks. We talked about whether we felt we had recieved the best deal on squash and what it was like to watch the fishmonger quickly skin, fillet and mince the sardines right there on the wooden board. We all agreed that witnessing the lamb meat being lowered into the subterranean ovens was fascinating and that the remaining sheeps heads were exciting and repulsive at once.

Over the next two hours, we prepared a multi-course luncheon that included several vegetable salads, including my favorite, Zaalouk – an eggplant puree heavy on olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and cilantro. We made a couscous with carrots, onions and raisins and sardine meatballs, which were surprisingly flavorful.

Simple cookies and sweet lemon-mint tea. A lovely close to a gorgeous meal.

Simple cookies and sweet lemon-mint tea. A lovely close to a gorgeous meal.

And we baked two different cookies – my favorite being a sesame shortbread. Our hard work was rewarded with eating the incredible food on a sun-drenched terrace. We sipped rose wine and lounged on pillows on the warm terracotta tiles.

I learned virtually more in those six hours about life in Morocco than I did throughout the rest of my vacation. I gained an immense appreciation for the concepts of family and commerce and gender roles – just by buying groceries, preparing and eating lunch. I spent time with Moroccan women who firmly imparted their knowledge of good food, cultural mores and simple traditions. I think I shall never forget the image of one woman carrying a steaming tagine full of our couscous royale on top of her head. I’ll probably never chop cilantro again without recalling how another woman scolded me for not being precise with my knife. I may always look at lentils and want to dip my warm hand into the cool underlayers of those smooth, pebble-like legumes.

Should you find yourself in the position to journey to a unique locale, don’t forget to learn from the locals. They will teach you something a guidebook never can, and you will appreciate the destination so much more!

Cooking instructor or cultural guide?

Cooking instructor or cultural guide?

 

Yummy food…yummier friends. March 22, 2009

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Decktop dining on a spring afternoon. Perfect for a French rose, junky magazines and lots of tasty nibbles.

Decktop dining on a spring afternoon. Perfect for a French rose, junky magazines and lots of tasty nibbles.

They say that birds of a feather flock together. For my girlfriends and I, at least part of that equation must be our love of food, drink and conversation. As the years have rolled along, we’ve strolled from one delicious table to the next, forging bonds and swapping secrets over cold glasses of rose at the lake, grilled chickens in Mexico or a homecooked meal around the dining room table.

Last night was no exception. I met the gals for dinner at Turquoise in Roscoe Village. Nestled into the busy strip of Roscoe Street just west of Damen, this is a destination for thoughtful and authentic Turkish food. Our hungry group of eight women began our feast with appetizers including mujver – zucchini fritters with a creamy yogurt dipping sauce; patlican salatisi – smoked eggplant dip; and lahmacun – flatbread with a thin layer of ground beef and tomatoes garnished with red onion, parsley and lemon juice. Flavorful, unique and (all things considered) pretty healthy.

The piles of food were a welcome sight, as we had unfortunately had to wait for nearly an hour to be seated – this after our very organized friend Lindsay had made and confirmed our reservation…evidently they had accidentally cancelled it! And, it was good that we got the apps, as it was yet another hourlong wait for our entrees.

What kind of wine IS that? We probably should have ordered a beer, but the odd bottle made this a worthy sipper.

What kind of wine IS that? We probably should have ordered a beer, but the odd bottle made this a worthy sipper.

Improper timing aside, the food continued to impress us – my entree of pan-seared grouper on sauteed spinach and a lemon garlic sauce was light and fresh. Lexie and Courtney split a gorgeous mixed grill kebab platter with salmon, lamb, chicken and some very spicy grilled peppers. Robin’s lamb and onion kebab with a pomegranate sauce was the star – rich, pungent and decadent.

In all, I’d give Turquoise a B. The food was very good, and it was clear that the staff was committed to providing a dining experience true to their Turkish roots. I’d like to return and determine if the sluggish service was just a fluke, or a symptom of a larger imperfection in this team’s talent.

Even if the entire experience isn’t top-rated, I’m always fulfilled by a fun time with our friends. And, to be fair to the dear team at Turquoise, we were a handful last night. Unlike many evenings, this one was short on wine-infused philosophy but big on laughs. We entertained each other with silly stories that had us roaring with laughter until our sides hurt and tears were streaming down our faces.

Three budding chefs? Maybe, maybe not...but we had fun anyway!

Three budding chefs? Maybe, maybe not...but we had fun anyway!

Was it ladylike for us to be giggling like children who had uttered their first naughty word? Probably not entirely. But if you can’t  find true humor in tales of digestive issues in Little India on Devon (no bathroom in sight besides the cramped loo at Patel Brothers’ Grocery – uh oh) or the obvious rationale for utilizing a platform driving shoe (keeps you further away from the airbags!), then you’re not having fun. And, yes, it’s true that our lovely server had to kindly tell us to keep it down. But I’d venture to bet that they were partially entertained and partially envious, too, of the way this great group of women are able to take pleasure and find humor in daily life.

The moral of the Turquoise Tale? For me, it was about relaxing and enjoying my time with a great group of smart, sophisticated and downright entertaining friends. It actually made me so grateful for the lethargic service. Without it, I wouldn’t have learned all of those funny tales and more (several not-safe-for-blogging) about the people who are so important to me. For that, I’d give the night an A+.

 

Flexibility March 20, 2009

Filed under: Friends — juicyolive @ 9:48 pm

The other night my good friend AGS and I practiced the art of rewarding flexibility…and we didn’t even have to set foot in a yoga studio.  After our respective hectic days, we met at Trattoria Merlo on Halsted for a pre-Steppenwolf meal. After one glance at me (frenzied, still responding to the crackberry, racing in after being in client meetings all day), my gal Allison (who had been waiting patiently for nearly 30 minutes) knew that we needed to bypass theater and proceed directly to indulgence in apps, pasta and vino. In a miraculous moment of simple thinking, she called the box office and explained that we just couldn’t make the show. Lo and behold, the box office kindly offered to reschedule for us.

Just like that. Ask and ye shall receive. Only five minutes beforehand, I was stressed about having enough time to eat and relax before a play and secretly wishing we could do this on a less stressful night. And by simply making a single phone call, it all was worked out. Why did that phone call and that decision seem so intimidating when the result was so rewarding?

Good for the heart and (that night) the soul!

Good for the heart and (that night) the soul!

Allison and I had a great evening. We devoured the special appetizer: a tuna pate on crostini and split an incredible bottle of Super Tuscan – just the right amount of sangiovese. By the time our perfect portions of pasta arrived, we were well into our gossip on dating, jobs and travel.

What I loved most about that night is that we were open minded. We had written “Dinner at 5:45/Steppenwolf at 7:30″ on that date on our calendars weeks beforehand. But when the night actually arrived, it was clear we needed to shift gears.

I have a tendency (as many of us probably do) to feel married to my schedule and committed to the silly stuff. It is a relief to realize that it’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to put yourself and your needs at that moment first. I think I have been programed (or did I program myself?) to honor commitment so much that I put that age-old calendar item first, instead of truly listening to myself.

Resetting my thinking on the matter of how flexible I can and should be has been a work in progress. But I can confidently say that I’m a reformed scheduleholic, and I now focus on keeping my own peace and health top-of-mind instead of my daily planner.

The other theme here, though, is that without friends who give you perspective and know you so well, maintaining that balance is impossible. So, a shout-out to my old friend Allison, who was flexible enough to indulge me in a gluttonous evening of deep conversation, dream weaving and outright R&R.

 

The Best Five Minutes March 16, 2009

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My thoughts exactly...

My thoughts exactly...

There is something exhilarating about fresh air and the promise of springtime. I always feel more capable, more energetic and more positive when the chill begins to subside and the sun begins to truly cast warmth on my face. And it seems like everyone agrees – take a look at Chicagoans’ status updates on Facebook today, and you’ll see that everyone is thrilled about the weather.

That’s why I was surprised with my co-workers’ reactions when moments ago I asked them  if anyone wanted to step outside with me for a five minute break. I just wanted to breathe some fresh air, soak in that Vitamin-D enhancing sunshine and receive Mother Nature’s promise that winter is almost finished. Not only did they decline, they all looked at me as if I had two heads. “Leave the desk and my flat-screen monitor? Are you nuts!?” one person’s glare told me.

Their loss. During those five minutes, I stepped outside, strolled around the block, called my mom for a quick hello and zipped into a cafe for a mint tea and lemon knot cookie.  Then I returned to my office in the Loop.

While I hadn’t missed a single voicemail or email, I gained a few moments of quiet (albeit “cityfied”) and some much-needed fresh air. Aaahhh.

 

What’s In A Name?

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Last month I went on vacation to Morocco. It was glorious. The sights, the sounds, the smells and the people all mesmerized me and put my senses on overdrive. In the coming days, I’ll post more about the trip, but for the time being it’s important to note how influential it was over the decision to start this blog.

For years my friends have told me that I should share my experiences with the rest of the world. I suppose I always felt it was grossly self-important to be pontificating about my daily adventures, when there are so many other groundbreaking issues to learn about. While I was in Morocco, however, I realized that I had found myself in a place where many others never think to voyage, and that’s a shame. It is a gorgeous country full of kind and interesting people. As a woman travelling solo, many were concerned about my safety – however I can confidently report that I felt very safe and secure in Morocco.

What I think made my vacation “successful” was that I was thoughtful about where I was going, what places I would visit and what I wanted to achieve. I had an idea in my head about what would make me happy once I got there, and all of my planning was centered around getting to that ideal.

My lightbulb moment came to me at Cafe Arabe. After a morning of bargaining in the souks, I was ready to have a relaxing lunch. I found my way to this gorgeous, chic terrace that had a cozy lounge-like feel. As I sat down to a chilled half-bottle of Moroccan white wine, the waiter brought me a lovely little bowl of olives. Using the toothpicks provided, I scouted through the bowl looking for the perfect first bite. I wanted it to be flavorful, firm and – yes – juicy. The hard work paid off, and the treat was delicious.

The perfect juicy olive?

The perfect juicy olive?

 

By the time my b’stilla lunch arrived, I had savored a few more olives – each one a delight.

Yeah, yeah…leave it to me to compare my philosophy of life to food, but it’s something to consider, right?  What if we all focused on using our proverbial toothpicks to find the perfect, juicy olive. Attaining our ideal experiences may not be that hard. Great experiences might be had by hunting around for the exact elements that will get you there.