Time to Roll Up Our Sleeves for Some Serious-Play...with Our Food!

Mother and Father used to tell us not to play with our food. But chefs, small children, and "epicurious others" know that food was made with so much texture, color, taste and variety, it must be enJOYed...seriously, playfully, and as often we healthfully can. The folks at Whole Foods Market have lots and lots for the most creative Art Spirit's pallet and pantry.

During my last stop there I found an artichoke-spinach hummus made by Cedar's (they spell it, "hommus," at their website) that is perfect -- great texture, not watery at all, and so fresh you'd swear you watched them blend-in the veggies before packing it yourself. Beyond all that, the seasoning is delicious. Whole Foods also stocks the softest creamiest horseradish cheddar you can imagine, if you don't already know. I'll get back to the cheese momentarily. First let me tell you how I first experienced it.

The best I ever tasted (with all the emphasis and sing-song enthusiasm of every one of Huell Howser's pronunciations of "Ehhh-ver!") was on a Thanksgiving holiday camp-out at Joshua Tree National Monument, Southern California. Our planned few-hour hike began not far from our tents and sleeping bags, at a sign marking the trail-head on a sunny November morning. Unfortunately, the journey didn't end until after dark, with four of us lumbering into, then out from the back of a compassionate local's old, shag-carpeted van. We were under-dressed for a desert nightfall in November. So we were more than mildly cold and hungry when it was all over.

One who had survived cancer was dealing with the after-effects of the disease and its treatment, and was not fit for the "extended adventure." Another had lost several pounds through a year's worth of digestive issues. Even before the sun went down she seemed nearing hypothermia and hypoglycemic shock. For most campers, it may only have been a chilly November night in the desert. But for us, it was teeth-chattering freezing and, given our fears for the health of two of the four of us, and the safety of all of us, it had become somewhat frightening as well.

I was the novice of the group. Yet, even I knew enough about the desert to understand that getting lost there is never good. There were times before we found help, as the dismal reality of the scenario settled over the group in a somber silence, when I must admit I said a soft prayer or two. Truth be told, it was probably my intrigued story-probing that distracted our leaders and got us lost in the first place. The embarrassment for some, in addition to getting LOST only a short jog from our campsite, was the undeniable fact that none of the seasoned campers and hikers in our troupe wore the right clothes or brought along a compass or decent flashlight, or enough of anything in the way of water, provisions, gear or extra clothing. We broke the first, second and third rules of the trail, and I'm guessing a few more.

Among my compatriots were the homegrown cancer survivor, a Kiwi ex-pat, and another from South Africa, all of them serious women of the wilds. These were strong adventuresome types whom I quickly came to admire. They had attained the summits of peaks even many hardcore mountain men only dream about, had literally fought off a bear to protect an attacked comrade, snorkeled in shark-laced waters, and had even been home hospice nurses in the roughest patches of the gnarliest towns where neighborhood gunshots were not uncommon sounds. One night after compassionately caring for a hospice patient in his home, one of these women stoically walked outside to find her car up on blocks and all the tires gone. Still, getting off the van that night, with our exposed knees knocking, and our cheeks blazing from sunburn and the cold air (and a good helping of humble pie), hugging ourselves in our little T-shirts and thin blouses, we must have appeared like anything but the strong outdoors women at least three of us were.

Speaking of pie. After washing up and donning heavy jackets and thick pants, a tray of that horseradish cheese I was telling about earlier was waiting for us at our campfire under the stars, with huge mugs of homemade hand-blended tomato soup from the impromptu (yeah, right) recipe of a very gifted and serious-food-player among us who had fortuitously stayed back at camp that day. She'd kept the soup hot for our late arrival in a caste-iron pot over the fire. Of course we were as starved as you might imagine, so no cheese, or soup, or croutons, or chardonnay will probably "Ehhh-ver" taste better.

Still, wonderful sandwiches are made with that horseradish cheddar. Yesterday my beloved, doing a little serious-play of her own in our kitchen, created brilliant grilled cheeses with it and the artichoke-spinach hummus for a spread, another sharper cheddar for added robustness, tomatoes (hot-house variety), whole wheat bread...and, of course, just enough butter to add a little sweetness to all that tang and fire. Melt-on-our-tongues WONDER-FULL.

Back to a tamer adventure in Whole Foods Market the other day. On the snack aisle there I found new "Food Should Taste Good" Multigrain tortilla chips that are really crackers, made with flax, sunflower ("funflower") and sesame seeds, oat fiber, brown rice, quinoa, and soy. Tasty enough to make your mouth water by themselves -- quite a feat with a corn chip/cracker in it. And the assortment of herbed goat cheeses at Whole Foods is as good or better than any carried in more pretentious stores around town. Grass fed, hormone-free, rotisserie chickens at the deli are a main draw for me. They're a great deal for the nutrition and taste without having to cook a whole chicken when the weather heats up. Not salt-injected, either. The literature promises only humanely raised and processed meats are sold in these markets. So if you're concerned about that, you may rest a bit easier enjoying the bounty available there.

The purchasing staff at this grocer is doing a great job for local value, taste, and creative serious-play in this economy! To acknowledge members of a team: the cheese girl, vitamin lady, butchers, and deli boys (all there at 3:00 pm at my store on weekdays) are sincerely helpful and informed. Next time I think I'll stop at the deli and pick up some vegi-lasagna. It's stacked five inches high, gooey-resplendent with cheeses, and vibrant with asparagus, sun-dried and fresh tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, spinach and more. Or perhaps I'll finally try those fat potato pancakes I've been eyeing.

Now, what's in your pantry? Isn't it time for a little Serious-Play with your food? For those who have enough, mangiare bene! Eat well, please consider what it might feel like to be very hungry, cold, lost, or frightened...and remember to SHARE a little more than you think you can.