Monday, January 18, 2010

Chocolate, Chili, and the Difficulties of Travel

Matt and I flew out of town for the weekend -- an impromptu romantic getaway to Louisville, courtesy of Southwest's 72-hour $25 ticket sale, more on this below -- so I apologize, I have a few days to catch up on.   

After my week of wholesome but uninteresting eating alone in the apartment, I was ready when Matt arrived Thursday evening, setting out a decanter of Layer Cake shiraz (one of our favorites), some artisanal cheeses I picked up at Whole Foods, and a bar of Theo chocolate, as recommended by more than one reader.  The chocolate was beautiful; laced with orange, it was fragrant, dark, aromatic.  The crackers in the center of the plate were a Chicago local, "Nikki's Divine Crackers," flavor: "Oh, for the Love of Herb!".  The ingredients list reads like how I'd cook crackers in my home (wheat flour, salt, dried onion and garlic, etc.)  Nikki's picture is on the back, along with her website, email, phone number, and home address.  This strikes me as a bad idea on her part, but perhaps the best testimony to the quality of her crackers; if anything ever goes wrong with them I KNOW WHERE TO FIND HER.  

On the other hand, I'm currently considering sending a bouquet because they are just that delicious, which is maybe what she's banking on.  

As a midnight snack, the food was so simple, clean, and delicious.  Matt had eaten on the road, but by the time we'd finished the wine, I was nonetheless cutting us more cheese and chocolate.  

The following day, our last in town before setting off, Becky was over again.  Margaret had commented on my last blog post suggesting we cook a big pot of chili, so as Becky and I worked at casting the law school musical, my loving sous chef tossed back a couple beers in the kitchen and diced onions, green peppers, and zucchini for a garden vegetable chili.  

The recipe is one of our favorites: 

Dice an onion and mince a couple garlic cloves; cook in a large stock pot in a couple teaspoons of olive oil until almost tender.  Season with a little salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes (if you like it spicy!).  Add one pound ground beef, a diced green pepper and diced zucchini.  

Once the beef is browned, stir in a large can of peeled tomatoes, a can of black beans, a can of red kidney beans, and two cups of beef broth. (We substituted vegetable broth for Becky's vegetarian version.)  Season the pot with three tablespoons chili powder, two teaspoons cumin, a pinch of cayenne, and more salt to taste.  

Bring to a boil, turn down the heat, and leave it to simmer for an hour.  

We served ours up with finely diced yellow onion and shredded New Zealand grass-raised cheddar, alongside a beautiful ciabatta loaf from Whole Foods (ingredients: organic white flour, water, salt, yeast). 

In sum: ohhh, YEAH.  Thanks, Margaret ... BEST. IDEA. EVER. 

So, after a week of light eating and these delicious meals of beautiful whole foods, we went on vacation, where I discovered myself somewhat at sea.  Travel always presents a serious challenge to any notions of healthful eating that I may have -- why does the McDonald's at the airport smell so much better than anywhere else?? -- but part of the draw of Louisville was its reputation for a strong local foodie culture.  I imagined finding fresh, local, whole foods at reasonable prices in boutique restaurants run by young, tattooed chefs; the sort of chefs and restaurants I imagine losing contestants on Top Chef going on to be and run. 

Okay, yeah.  Well.  When we arrived in Louisville on Saturday at midday, we walked several long blocks in a direction we thought was towards the Mayan Cafe, before discovering that A) it was much farther away than we thought and B) it wasn't open for lunch on Saturdays.  So we walked back the other direction, discovering cafe after cafe closed until dinner.  Eventually, stomachs growling and somewhat gloomy about our prospects of finding the afore-mentioned Top Chefs, we came upon a local Mexican restaurant cum sports-bar kind of place and, out of sheer gratitude that it was open, went in.  Matt's fajitas were fine.  My burrito was doused in some mysterious cheese-like substance that formed a crust as it cooled.  

One block later, we discovered Proof, open for business and serving salads of local mixed lettuces, pork brisket sandwiches with house-made krout, and house-made sausage "cotechino". Kill/self.

We'd researched and made a reservation in advance for dinner Saturday night, at the fancy-shmancy Brown Hotel restaurant, The English Grille.  The food was beautifully crafted and presented, the service (over?-)attentive, and the wine lush, but we agreed afterward (midwesterners that we are) that the steaks had too much sauce on them.  Let the meat speak for itself! 

We breakfasted yesterday at Proof -- where the food was everything the menu suggested -- and spent a leisurely day exploring the art at the 21C museum/hotel and wandering through the historic Old Louisville district, hoping to see a ghost.  Struggled again to find a restaurant open for dinner on a Sunday night, but this time our search ended well, at Volare.  Fantastic, satisfying house-made pastas, topped off with approximately the greatest thing I've ever eaten: a flourless chocolate cake created by their in-house pastry chef, surrounded by gorgeous mixed berries and topped with a fresh, vanilla-bean ice cream. 

I've had this dessert at almost every restaurant I've ever been to, but sweet heaven, this one was just in a category of its own.  Matt declared he was done eating anything else.  I considered remaining in Louisville for good.

Of course, we had to leave, in the end.  And of course, we woke up late and failed to get breakfast this morning, leaving us hungry again as we arrived at the airport.  Before I really thought about it, I was facing down a sad airport restaurant version of a roast beef sandwich with "au jus" and a pile of greasy Ruffles-like potato chips.  

So I'll admit; I had more than one "exception" meal this weekend.  Worth noting, however, is that those two meals were the ones I least enjoyed.  Eating unprocessed while on the road takes research, preparation, and sometimes a willingness to go hungry an extra block or two, but in the end the food is just SO MUCH BETTER than the alternative.  Pollan writes in "In Defense of Food" about the difference between dining as a human and feeding like an animal, and we could tell that difference in those two meals.  I hate that my "exception" meals weren't foods I was truly craving and savoring, but rather were sorry substitutes that I chewed and swallowed on appeal from my stomach.  

As a final note, apologies for the lack of pictures!  We ran late on our way to the airport, decided there was no time to go back and grab the camera, and then SERIOUSLY REGRETTED THAT DECISION throughout the weekend in beautiful Louisville...


  1. 1) You're welcome.

    2) Romantic getaway in Louisville? I had to laugh...I must be missing something about Louisville.

    P.S. Following your diet will be AWESOME and easy in nyc! We will start researching restaurants now...Here's one that Rachel found when our friend who works on organic farms came to visit: xoxo

  2. you know, if you visit me in berkeley, we can have a michael pollan scavenger hunt...