I didn’t make the food in this picture… And it doesn’t even contain chocolate…. But it symbolizes an important part of BonBonBar’s development… not to mention ritual, and I think that it qualifies as part of my work.
As I never fail to mention, the business keeps me either busy or tired almost all week long. During the weekends especially, which are filled with sprints of production, and Mondays, when I package, I barely have time to eat, so after I go to the post office and UPS as late possible in order to protect the packages from heat for as long as possible, I’m usually very hungry and tired.
I usually go to California Chicken Cafe (CCC; which is mercifully near UPS) to get a Low-Cal Chicken Caesar Salad to take home, eat, and then digest while taking an evening nap. I happen to like that salad a lot, and in a good way, it always reminds me of the weekend that I got overwhelmed preparing orders for Valentine’s Day.
I was extremely tired and hungry after that difficult weekend, and I went to Urth Caffe for a green salad with grilled chicken. As I sat there, alone at a sidewalk table, I remember feeling hyper-aware — in a comatose-sort-of-a-way — of every sensation that I experienced… the feeling of the most wonderful fresh air against my face… the initially-cold metal chair that was in contact with as much of my back and legs as I could manage in order to support them… the lacing sunshine and shadows covering the tables and sidewalk… the varied voices of the patrons around me, discussing business and pleasure… and most of all, the way that the lettuce in the salad snapped, so refreshingly and satisfyingly. I found myself eating the pieces of lettuce one by one, savoring the cool crunch of each bite. A bite with chicken meant a little chewiness, a new flavor, a welcome occasional addition.
I knew I must have been quite a sight — tired, probably disheveled, and marveling at each bite with a stupefied smile — but I didn’t care — and don’t care how weird it may seem to write about it now — I can still feel that sense of relief and goodness that I knew that early February evening, eating that salad.
Salad can easily get short shrift. Some people see it as the go-to healthy option, but it’s often not — because it’s often drenched with dressing. But if dressed lightly or not at all, it really is a way to savor fresh ingredients; or if you like a ton of dressing, like I sometimes do, that’s great, but not healthy. I think of Suzanne Goin as the master of salads. In her cookbook, you can see how salads become a way to combine fresh, individual ingredients so that they can be appreciated for their flavor, texture, and color individually and in combination with each other. Part of her genius method is to arrange salads on plates, instead of bowls. I think it makes a huge difference. A bowl of food is something like an inverted pile… and I tend to plow through those without much thought (they are, in fact, my own staple, fast meals). But a salad of fresh ingredients laid out on a plate — again, not as a pile — has a striking poetry to it. You can’t help but taste it.
The beauty of the CCC Low-Cal Chicken Caesar Salad is that it has squares of toasted pita in addition to the lettuce and chicken. The dry crunch of the delicate pita, the bursting wet crunch of the lettuce, the cushion of chicken, the “sauce” of dressing… really, it’s quite luxurious. I always thought that cubes of croutons were too harsh to put in a salad, so the thin pieces of toasted pita are just brilliant to me. Oh, and the low-cal caesar dressing is salty… wonderfully salty. Others have railed against the mediocrity of the chicken caesar salad, but when done right like this, I love it — with layers of so many textures and flavors.
Anyway, since that V-Day weekend, I usually have a half-size Low-Cal Chicken Caesar Salad as my meal on Monday, and I’ve also made it a point to try something new — a pastry or variety of fruit, usually — every week as a way to be inspired. I haven’t really taken pictures or blogged about it, but it’s something that I take seriously. A year ago, I would have thought that only one inspiration a week is… well… weak… but when you’re busy, it’s just enough to avoid overload — and non-blog-posting guilt.
So… this week, I got a bad CCC salad — overdressed with NON-low-cal dressing (ie, regular Caesar dressing). Despite some popular sentiment, I don’t think that fat equals flavor. It can maintain heat and carry some flavoring, but often, I think it mutes flavor… and makes me feel greasy besides. Plus, the dressing wasn’t as salty as I liked. It was just a bland, limp, fatty salad.
When I woke up the next morning, I felt that my weekly inspiration shouldn’t just be a pastry, it should be a meal. So, I drove out to Square One Dining… and had just the most perfect experience ever. I was tired and wasn’t planning on taking a picture, but after I took a bite of the grits with cheddar and bacon — and experienced the slight pop of the cheese-inflected grits surrounding a piece of perfectly crunchy, smoky bacon — I just had to capture the memory.
And then there was the French Toast with Butter and Maple Syrup. Amazing… the airy brioche, with a curiously light and flavorful eggy batter as a coating. Again, I was in my signature hyper-aware-yet-slightly-comatose state, and I tried to figure out how they did it without asking (though the staff was super-friendly; I just felt like solving a puzzle, and as a backup, had a vague memory that someone asked for the recipe in the LATimes).
And you know how I’m not a big fan of sweet, eggy dishes… but this french toast didn’t taste like eggs… It tasted like heaven; it didn’t at all need maple syrup or butter, except as occasional novelty. I saw little black flecks, and deduced that maybe they infused the cream/milk for the french toast with vanilla beans before adding the eggs to the batter. The result was a combination that was a balance of eggs and vanilla that produced almost a new flavor — not quite one or the other. And incidently, they use local/organic whenever they can, and they use same eggs that I do for my pecan nougat — Mike & Sons.
When I got home, I found that the LATimes had indeed posted the recipe… and that the eggy batter was actually a creme anglaise! In culinary school, we were taught that eggs shouldn’t be cooked twice, so I’m a bit impressed at how Square One so flagrantly QUADRUPLE cooks its eggs in this dish — technically, the eggs in the anglaise are cooked twice and the eggs in the brioche are cooked twice.
It was also the first time that I’ve asked to take home leftovers from a breakfast-based meal, because I couldn’t imagine letting it go to waste. I thought that the leftovers would pale in comparison to the fresh version, but amazingly, they were delicious — cold, and then heated for under a minute in the microwave. Quintuple-cooked eggs… yum…(!)
And what does this have to do with candy bars and marshmallows? Well, I should mention — I’ve come a long way since that V-Day weekend, three months ago. I’ve sent out orders much larger than that weekend, still all by myself, with much greater ease, but I still feel humbled — and in a way, appreciative — of that experience… Even though now, frankly, I’m feeling a little fierce, or at the very least, more able. The new summer-related challenge is to make sure that they don’t melt after they leave me, but with fingers crossed, I’m feeling up to it.
And the inspiration of new food is so important. I taste my confections constantly because the process of making them has so many variables, but I’m always aiming for each to taste like one thing… and that can be a little confining, no matter how delicious. There are so many flavors and textures — that is, products — that I still want to explore and make. Consistent inspiration and quality is vital to me… and my company.
And Tommy, if you’ve read this far, I’ve finally thought of my Six Word Memoir:
She Tried To Do Things Right.
(with full awareness that “right” is subjective… after all, I’m not tagging anyone with this, b/c I just tend not to :))