Sunday, March 28, 2010

The best food I ever ate

Warning: This is long. And you could walk away hungry.

Every now and then, you come across a meal that is so good, you know that if you were to walk outside the restaurant and get hit by a bus, you could die happy. Yesterday, I had such a meal.

I was in Louisville to meet up with my long-time good friend, Jessica Bratcher. We were without our husbands and I decided to introduce her to the magic creations of taste that are the meals at Sari Sari, a Filipino restaurant, on Frankfort Avenue.

Derek and I have eaten at Sari Sari several times and the food is always great, the service fantastic and we often leave wondering how on earth we got away with such great food for such reasonable prices.

Don't bother asking me what's good, my response is the same: EVERYTHING! The menu itself offers up some exquisitely tasty food (from Pork Adobo, my husband's favorite, to the Butterfish Inoong-Onan, my favorite). But each day, Sari Sari also has dinner specials that will, I promise you, knock your socks off, they're so damned good.

Last night's specials:
1) Combo Plate: Grilled Chicken Fajita, Shrimp Chipotle Adobo Taco, Sweet Corn and Cheese Quesadilla with Rice, Beans and Lemongrass Mung Bean Soup.
2) Ginger Seafood Sitr-Fry: Shrimp, fish, calamari and scallop with Rice, Beans and Spicy Chicken Soup.
3) Lemon Fried Fish Filet of Sole with Vegetable Fried Rice and Beansprout Coconut Spinach Soup.

Lourdes - the food magician in a very tiny kitchen - also routinely offers different takes on her Pinatubo Pancake, and last night it was the Pancake with Shrimp. There are no flour, sugar and milk involved here. This is a specialty of Lourdes' involving bean sprouts, walnuts and eggs, among other things. We ordered one before we even sat down.

Are you drooling yet? You should be!

The Combo Plate was my pick for the night, betraying my normal order of the Butterfish. Jess opted for the pork adobo. We both had the ginger lemonade (a must have - not to sweet, not too sour, and the perfect palate cleanser).

Jess was enamored as soon as she took a bite of the pancake (which came with homemade lime soy sauce), declaring it a meal in and of itself (she's right). Then came my soup, followed quickly by my plate.

When the waiter, Tony, brought out my plate (pictured above), I declared myself the winner of the night. Jess' pork adobo looked almost whimpy in comparison, but don't let appearances decieve you - her dish was great. It was tough to know just where to start on my own plate... so I started in the 12 o'clock position with the sweet corn and cheese quesadilla.

I savored that first bite - the corn was fresh, sweet, delicate. The tortilla surrounding it was crisp and light. Surely, the rest of the plate couldn't be as good as that first bite of quesadilla. Jess took a bite. "WOW!" was all she could say.

I was wrong, by the way. I moved next to the Shrimp Chipotle Adobo Taco (on soft corn tortilla). Nope, nope, THIS was the best bite on the whole plate. I offered some of the filling to Jess, who at this point had swiped a piece of the quesadilla ("I can reheat this at home,"she said, gesturing to her pork. "But THIS," waving the piece of quesadilla, "I can't reheat this one."). "WOW!" The taco was gone in short order, and I dipped it alternately in the chipotle sauce and salsa cups that accompanied the meal. While they added to the flavor, the taco was just fine on its own without any additional sauce. Now it was time to tackle the fajita.

Rolled almost like a burrito, I thought surely this can't be as good as the taco. I took a bite. I was wrong again. In fact, I damn near fell out of the chair onto the floor in a full blown food-gasm. I was officially having a love affair with my food, and I didn't care who knew it. This thing was out of this world good. While I reveled, Jess stole a piece of the chicken, and entered a similar state of semi-conciousness. "WOW!"

Though both of us were rapidly approaching the "stuffed" stage (we sped right by pleasantly full), we ordered desert. The pineapple flan sounded particularly interesting - we overheard Tony describe it to a family seated by the window: "It's got pineapple on top, but bits of pineapple in the flan itself, too." SOLD!

For the first time in a very long time, I talked to my food. Tony brought out the flan, and I had to force myself to put the fajita down. "I'm sorry," I told the fajita, "But I have GOT to stop eating you now. There's flan!" Even Tony joked about me not wanting to give up the fajita for the flan, as I hugged my plate closer to me to make room for the desert.

The desert was fantastic and not quite the kind of flan you're used to. It wasn't the smooth single cup stuff they bring you at Mexican restaurants. It was baked in a rectangular pan, and was solid, with, as promised, bits of pineapple laced throughout. We lost ourselves in the flan's custardy goodness, and Tony brought the carryout boxes. There would be no trip home for the flan - we devoured it.

As I transferred what remained of my dinner (enough for another dinner, I should say), I apologized to my soup. "I'm sorry, I didn't get a chance to eat you. There were quesadillas!" I offered joint custody of the remains of the pancake to Jess, who politely declined and granted me full custody.

Rarely does a meal make me want to run back to the kitchen and hug the genius who created it. Last night was such a night. Each time Tony came by to ask us how the food was, we gushed. Finally, I told him it was the best meal I'd had there, though the food is always good. A couple came in, having spotted the tiny restaurant from the street (there might be four or five table tops inside, making it quite crowded when the place is full, plus a couple of tables outside).

I praised the joys of the Combo Plate to them, saying that as a regular, I considered it the best meal I'd ever had. Jess told them she was a first time and that everything she tasted so far was amazing. They stuck around, and had their dinner on one of the outside tables.

We packaged up our carry-out, marveled at how we got such great food (and so much of it!) at such reasonable prices. As we strolled down Frankfort Avenue back to my truck, I contemplated taking a nap on the train tracks. I could die on the spot, and I'd be happy, with the best food I've ever eaten in my stomach. Though I ate entirely too much food, I didn't care. I'd happily gorge myself on that feast again. We're coming up on 18 hours after the experience, and aside from finishing off the chicken fajita somewhere around 11 p.m. (it was almost as good cold as it was hot), I'm still not hungry.

Though I've prattled on here for quite awhile, words simply cannot do this meal, or the restaurant, justice. Sari Sari has, I think, the best food in Louisville, period. It's simple, it's fresh, it's wholesome. Lourdes works with spices the way a painter works with shading. The flavors she creates are incredible.

Please go. The hours are somewhat limited, and when you go, go hungry (and in comfortable, expandable clothing!) and take your time to savor every bite. Be prepared to leave with leftovers. If it's particularly busy, it might take awhile to get your food. Be patient, it's well worth the wait. It's also worth whatever drive you have to make to get there.

This, my friends, is soul food.
Sari Sari is located at 2339 Frankfort Avenue in Louisville.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"Is that a Mallowmar?"

With every camping trip, there is a story. Usually, a rather funny one. It generally involves quotes that make the story teller snort, slap their leg and wheeze from laughing so hard.

A couple of standouts for me are the "Johnny, don't pee on that tree ... pee on that one over there," and "HOLY SHIT IT'S A BOBCAT!!!!" (both from the same 2008 trip to Jackson Washington State Forrest in Indiana), and "Alllllright. Straightenerup!" (2008 at General Butler State Park in Kentucky).

After this weekend, I have a new one to add to that list.

Generally, I prefer to take Rufus with me camping becuase he likes just laying around the campsite, or sniffing around whatever he can reach on the dog tie. Cookie? She whines, a lot. It took almost 3 seasons worth of camping before I figured out why - we're outside, we're supposed to be walking. Cookie's also a big girl, and as she gets older, I worry about hip or leg problems on long hikes. Rufus is proven on long hikes - he takes 'em like a champ.

After a nice long hike at Red River Gorge yesterday, we chilled out at camp site #48 in the Koomer Ridge Campground. It was still mid-afternoon, and lots of folks came and went from the trail head (right next to our camp site). Around 5 or so, I'm happily nomming on Mountain House Pasta Prima Vera (it's quite tasty), as hunger finally hit (I'd burned well over 4,000 calories on the hike, and had consumed only 400 before I had my dinner). Then a fella comes tromping out of the woods, and pauses by our site.

"That's a pretty dog," he says. I thank him - just about everyone we passed on the hike commented on how pretty Rufus is (he IS handsome). Folks, especially the male college students, marveled at his doggy-pack (except for the folks we passed with a black lab/pit bull mix who ALSO had a pack - and in all fairness, they WERE surprised to see another dog with its own pack).

Anyway, the fella pauses for a second. "Is that a Mallowmar?"

I look from the dude to my food and back to the dude. Wow, must have lost his mind on Lung Buster Hill if he thinks I'm eating a Mallo....... oh, wait a minute, I wonder if ....

"Oh, you mean the dog?" I ask him, hoping to clarify my own confusion. He says yes. "Oh, no, he's a mut. Part pitbull and part German Shepherd."

We make small chit chat before he saunters on.

I giggled to myself for quite awhile ... does my dog look like a cookie? Truth be told, I would have LOVED a Mallowmar at that moment. All chocolaty and sweet and gooey. But, no, Rufus is not a Mallowmar. Nor is he a Malamute, the breed of dog this guy was thinking about. Rufus doesn't even resemble a Malamute. Not even close, as you can see from the photo (that, by the way is Rufus, who could have been mistaken for a dead dog, he was so bushed from the hike).

I think I'll just refer to him as my Mallowmar from now on. But he's getting old, and nothing that old is good for eating. :)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dinner delayed

We made good this evening on a November vow between Courtney Willis and myself to get our respective selves and husbands together for dinner at some point over the winter.

Though the farm figured far more important in my life last year than I could ever have imagined, Derek had not yet been there. Various factors prevented us from going to the spring and fall potlucks at the farm.

The drive to the farm was a nice relaxing sojourn from the last couple of hours spent on the Interstate heading into and out of Louisville. The smell of the fields - the sweet, earthy scent of dried grass and hay - seeped into the truck through slightly open windows. We arrived at the farm just before 7, with enough light left for Derek to see the place I've come to know and love. He was captured, as I was the first time, the moment we went up the driveway. And to think - nothing is green yet.

Courtney greeted us from the hoop house, and invited us up to take a look at the newest members fo the farm - some chicks that are, I believe, about a month old. In a relatively adolescent stage for chickens, the chicks were in what I dubbed the "adorably ugly" stage. It's a fitting description really, as the poor things are rather awkward looking - midway between baby down and adult feathers, and gangly legged, but still chattering in the sweet peeping sound that only chicks make. They're cute in the weirdest of ways.

Back in the house, we prepared for dinner - roasted chicken and roasted winter vegetables. My contribution was homemade chocolate chip muffins baked in a cast iron pan. They hadn't turned out quite as lovely as I'd hoped - I didn't allow enough time for making them - but they were tasty just the same.

Dinner was an adventure, as we laughed through the, ahem, "carving" of the dinner bird - a task that proved more amusingly difficult than anyone imagined. I'm getting used to the task of carving up a raw chicken for making stock or dinner, but a cooked chicken is, well, a different bird. Later, we decided that the difficulty helped to break the ice a little, as Derek and Carden got several giggles out of our combined efforts.

But the effort was well worth it. It's been a very long time since I've had a REAL chicken. The Harvestland whole chickens I get in the stores are a better alternative than Tyson, but it's still ... different. You see, a chicken raised on a farm and nurtured into laying eggs lives a longer life than one that winds up in a grocery store cooler.

Chances are it's had more of an opportunity to run around - and on a time table according to the bird's instincts. Chances are it's lived longer, and has found its way to the dinner table because its egg production has diminished. Chances are it has eaten what chickens are supposed to eat.

The first thing you're likely to notice is that the dark meat is truly dark. The drumsticks were a little tough, yes, but still very tasty and had a stronger flavor than a commercial chicken. The white meat of the breast was tender and juicy, and too had a stronger flavor than the palid meat that passes for chicken breast in a grocery store.

I wondered briefly which one of the chickens I had photographed over the summer was sitting naked on the table, cooked to a golden brown, drumsticks in the air, waiting to give us sustenance. Internally, I said a little thank you to the chicken. It gives you a different perspective on dinner when you know you've met the animal that you're about to eat.

The dinner conversation, as lunch conversations were throughout the summer, was relaxed and full of laughter. I could tell that Derek was quite comfortable, as he was already telling stories and asking questions, where otherwise he might be quietly observing. "They're good people," he said on the drive home. "Really, really good people."

And they are. It was wonderful to see good friends again, and we hope to make dinner with them a more regular affair. It's our turn next, and I suspect Indian food will be on the menu.

Chocolate Chip Muffins
Heat oven to 350

1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup melted butter
1 cup milk
1 cup chocolate chips (I recommend DARK)

1. Blend dry ingredients well in medium/large bowl
2. Add milk & butter and blend well. Batter may be lumpy.
3. Add chocolate and blend.
4. Fill muffin pan (lined or not, it's up to you) cups to at least 2/3 full.
5. Bake 15-20 minutes, maybe longer depending on your oven.
6. Remove as soon as you can handle the muffins, and cool on a wire rack.

* If you have the pleasure of owning a cast iron muffin pan, lube up the cups with melted butter (but don't overdo it - a dab'll do ya, too much will give you soggy muffins), and heat the pan while you're mixing the batter.

These suckers are nommalicious while still warm and melty. :)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A piece of heaven

It's almost time. Spring is so close I can feel it in my toes. The first weekend of Spring will be celebrated with some manner of camping trip. And after that? After that it's CSA time.

Words cannot express how much our CSA means to me. I truly, truly cannot do it justice. I've started this post half a dozen times.

Our CSA — A Place on Earth CSA — is run by Carden and Courtney Willis, a couple of late-20-somethings who started their CSA about six years ago. They plan each year for 75 shares, and last year, I signed up to be a working share.

That meant that instead of the full price, we paid a fraction of the full share cost in exchange for working on the farm once a week for four hours. And, since I worked the day the boxes were packed, I picked up our share there, knocking a little more off the price. If we could have afforded to pay

But money? Money's not important here, except to say that it was the best money I've ever spent. Every week I brought home a box of (practically) organic, locally grown food that I helped to grow, weed, thin, harvest, wash and/or pack. The farm isn't even 10 miles from our driveway, so the produce is as fresh as it can be without being grown in our own back yard.

Very quickly I learned that the experience was about far more than great, locally grown food purchased at a discount in exchange for a few hours of labor. It was about the relationships formed on my farm days. Working along with me were John, Marissa, Carol, and others. And then, of course, there were Carden and Courtney.

The stories told and experiences shared while we spent hours, and I do mean hours, weeding carrots, or picking cherry tomatoes, or sorting tomatoes in the barn, were priceless. John and I talked endlessly about books and reading. Carol educated me on the raw food movement. Conversations about politics were plentiful. Each week, Courtney seemed to enjoy some of the more colorful tales I had from the rough and tumble world of weekly newspaper editing.

Each day, we'd gather, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 p.m., for an always fantastic lunch after a morning spent outside, in the sun, in the fields, enjoying the sites, sounds and smells of summer. The food. My GOD the food. It began with Courtney's roasted vegetable pizza (don't laugh, it was excellent) and stuffed shells made by Marissa's mother, and continued on throughout the summer with a variety of foods. Pesto. Vegetable Vindaloo. Homemade bread. Sweet potato quesadillas on homemade tortillas (made by Carden and the meal that finally urged me to purchase the cook book Simply In Season).

The best lunch came on a day when, as we later found out, Courtney had no bread in the house. That morning, I showed up with a loaf or two of sourdough. Carol showed up with a loaf of bread, and I think Marissa may have brought one as well. We feasted royally on tomato sandwiches. Oh, sweet summer, the tomatoes.

Just looking at this tomato picture conjures up memories of the smell in that barn where we sorted tomatoes. Nothing compares to the smell of a fresh tomato. And please, don't kid yourselves, those red round things you find in most grocery stores aren't tomatoes. Not really. They pretend to be. But they're not. They can't compare to that pile of red, yellow, orange, green and white orbs. On more than one occasion, Courtney delighted in my own expressions of tomato-worship. I couldn't stop smelling them, and praising their beauty. I can't help it. I love me some tomatoes.

My farm days were the best therapy a girl could ever ask for. It was, and is, good honest labor, performed with good, honest folks. I was very sad when the end of the season approached, and actually cried thinking about the last farm day - which was spent tossing hay bales from the back of John's truck. It was hard work, yes, but God it was fun.

Courtney reminded me, as we lounged outside after lunch that I didn't have to wait for the CSA season to start before I come back. Any time I wanted, or needed, I could come out. When she e-mailed me this week to say she'd received my subscription form and payment, she reminded me of that - and of an agreement we made to get together for dinner during the winter months.

The upcoming season has me so excited, I'm having a little trouble getting to sleep. And after that first weekend of Spring camping trip, I'll start up again with my farm time. No sense waiting until May for something that is so soul-fulfilling.