Thursday, December 20, 2007

Raw milk and browned butter

In an end-of-the-year fit of organization, I'm cleaning out my email inbox and finding purpose for languishing but interesting bits of information. Kathryn sent me these two articles, a few months apart, united by a common theme. Cow.

The first article was about raw milk. I've been thinking about raw milk lately because when I was planning for the holiday tea, I discovered that the only true way to make clotted cream is with raw whole milk.

Article: The Udder Truth
Summarizing quote: "In the end, it seems, raw milk is a lot more complicated than the FDA and the AMA would have consumers believe. Like sushi, raw milk is a nutritionally rich food that can be contaminated if it's not fresh and prepared in an immaculate, sterile environment."

The second article was about browned butter. I've been seeing browned butter crop up in a lot more new recipes this year, and I'm a pretty big fan of the nutty, rich flavor. My favorite sole meuniere (thanks Cooks Illustrated) recipe calls for it, as does this brown sugar cookie recipe (thanks again, guys) I've become addicted to this year.

Article: Liquid Gold
Summarizing quote: "Brown butter, I quickly figured out, made everything taste better."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Raclette party

Finally, after years of talking about buying a raclette machine, Kathryn and I made the plunge and got one! You can see it in the middle of the table in this photo (thanks Ross, for the photo). The idea is that since no one actually needs a raclette machine on hand at all times (even Swiss shepherds), we can share it.

Its first party was in (low-key) honor of Alexa and A.J.'s upcoming journey to South America. May cheese smooth their travels. I think it's an old Armenian saying.

We did it up. Swiss and French racelette plus a bit of emmenthal in case anyone didn't like raclette (the vegans brought their own cheese with the label that boasts, "It melts!"), three kinds of baby potatoes (white, red, and purple), veggies for the grill top, charcuterie, fresh pepper, parsley. The giant coffee table came in handy (10 people fit around it).

Ah raclette, we'll be seeing more of you this winter. And on the flip side of the grill is a crepe surface! This thing truly brings the party.
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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hosting a holiday tea

The photo has nothing to do with the post, except that it was one of the only photos I took during the holiday tea I hosted this past Sunday. I totally meant to take food photos, but ended up with only this one of Alexis (in the hat) and Nico (with the ears).

Holiday tea has been a tradition in my family for more than a decade. I think we must have started because my grandma loves tea, and though as a family we're not great with tradition, we've managed to stick to it for all these years. Originally, we went to the Compass Rose tea room, but that was replaced with Michael Minna, so we moved around for a few years, trying out different tea rooms, and eventually settling on Lovejoy's in Noe Valley.

But this year, we completely forgot to make reservations. So I decided to host it myself. I'd been wanting to try out some recipes that I was thinking about using for Kathryn's bridal shower next spring (which will also be a tea), and it would be a good excuse to use, for the first time, the china we inherited from Joel's grandmother.

So I did it up. I made a rich, sticky sherry cake (I'll post the recipe later this week), mendiants (here's a recipe, though I was using the one from Alice Medrich's Bittersweet, a cookbook that I got for free and have found frustrating to navigate), and scones, plus ham salad (from a recipe that Joel's mom gave me), salmon with dill marscapone and chive butter, and cucumber with tarragon butter tea sandwiches, all on decadent Acme Pain de Mie bread.

I also tackled clotted cream two ways. First, I bought one of those absurdly expensive $8 jars of imported clotted cream, but it was so disappointing that I didn't eat more than a bite. Slightly better was the fake clotted cream I made. Last year, I tried out the Alton Brown clotted cream recipe, which involves straining cream through cheesecloth, and it was a bust. This year, I opted for a recipe that tried to approximate the flavor of clotted cream with other ingredients. I had relative success with the first recipe here, which calls for heavy cream, sour cream, and a bit of powdered sugar. And Kathryn brought some homemade organic strawberry jam we made last summer in Placerville. Go team.

Then it was just a matter of ironing the tablecloth (thanks Kathryn!), setting the table, finding a hat (black and white with a bit of netting), and boiling water. I served a really yummy vanilla red tea from Mariage Freres, a Darjeeling, a black-and-green blend my mom brought over, and a passionfruit tea from India.
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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Throwing pizza dough

And I caught it, too! Uncle Paul would be so proud.
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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Sauteed figs

Such pretty sauteed figs. Such a nice camera that I got to borrow to take photos of Thanksgiving food.
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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Roasted autumn vegetables

Ok, this dish doesn't really have a name yet, though I would make it again, so maybe I should come up with something. This is the product of liking that galette I wrote about a few weeks back so much that I decided to make the filling as a stand-alone Thanksgiving vegetable dish. In fact, the promise of this dish inspired me to forgo my usual desserts and breads post for the big meal and head into the uncharted territory of vegetables, usually the domain of my mom, who last year rocked a root vegetable roast which I'd like to make sometime soon, if she still has the recipe.

To make it, I tossed the butternut squash cubes in a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper, then roasted at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes, until it was soft and golden. Meanwhile, I caramelized the onions and, at the end, added a dash of cayenne to keep things interesting. As per the brainstorm after the original galette, I went to Monterey Market and went crazy in its impressive mushroom section. I ended up roasting a mixture of chanterelles, baby shitake, oyster, and crimini mushrooms.

I combined those three ingredients, added some salt, pepper, and fresh chopped sage, and sampled. And loved. It didn't need anything else, though tasting it after it had been cooling for an hour made it clear that I would have to reheat it before serving it. And I did, and it was a favorite. Success!

That's the pain about making vegetables for Thanksgiving though, that to find the oven and stove-top time to make sure it ends up hot on the plate is a real trick. I had to compete with two turkeys, stuffing, gravy, and bread for space. But it worked out, and I think it was one of the most delicious Thanksgivings to date. I can't wait until next year!
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Monday, November 26, 2007

Cranberry sauces

The two dishes in the foreground are Joel's great-grandma's (Mamo's) raw cranberry sauce (on the left), and my family's traditional cranberry salsa (on the right). I love both of these for different reasons. The Mamo cranberry sauce is made from apples, cranberries, a whole orange, and some sugar. You just blend it up and voila, cranberry sauce. And the cranberry salsa provides just the piquant kick that the Thanksgiving plate needs, that palate cleansing wake-up when things get a little slow.
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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Cookies as a meal

On Sunday, I made chocolate chip/oatmeal/pecan cookies using Joel's great-grandmother's recipe. Since then, I've been trying to exercise restraint, and as a result, there are still probably a dozen left.

Growing up, we had no cookie jar in the house because cookies never, ever made it that far.

Cookies are one of the only things I can think of that bait the angel and devil to take a shoulder perch. But they reason through everything, so maybe they're not so much angel and devil as little lawyers. In tiny blue suits.

Angel/blue suit #1 argues that cookies are dessert and meant to be eaten in moderation, as dessert, after a meal. It also points out that breakfast dessert and lunch dessert are not actual things.

Devil/blue suit #2 states that it knows the ingredients in the cookies, and that really, these cookies are not so different than breakfast. In fact, forget breakfast dessert, these cookies border on being proper breakfast food. There are two cups of oats, nuts and eggs for protein, and yes, there's butter and sugar, but what do you put on your toast, and have you looked at how much sugar is in even regular breakfast cereals lately?

This battle goes on a few times a day for as long as there are cookies in the house. Or at least until a couple of days have passed and another, distinct, tiny lawyer/devil/angel pops up to say, "Oh my god, those things are full of eggs and they've been sitting out on the counter for how many days? Forget worrying about whether or not they're breakfast or dessert, you're totally going to get food poisoning from those things." I get kind of an ambulance-chaser vibe from this last guy.

Butternut squash galette

Butternut squash is a contentious gourd around here. Joel isn't a huge fan but I am, so I'm always looking for ways to make it irresistible. Two surefire ways? Add a fantastic pastry or crust, and incorporate cheese. So I was intrigued when I found this butternut squash and caramelized onion galette on the SmittenKitchen blog.

Oh yes, it was good, and oh yes, Joel liked it. So much, in fact, that after dinner we started talking about making the filling as a vegetable dish. The gist of it is this: cut squash up into tiny cubes and roast until they're tender and brown. Caramelize onions and then add a bit of salt, sugar, and cayenne. Mix squash, onions, fresh sage, and fontina cheese together. Then, if you were to follow the recipe, you'd pile it all into the waiting crust, fold it over, and bake.

What I'd like to try, for Thanksgiving I think, is to add some sauteed or roasted mushrooms (Monterey Market has an extra-amazing mushroom selection right now. The other night I made spoonbread (to be detailed soon) with chanterelles and baby shitake). I'm not sure if I should keep the cheese or not. It might be a little heavy with the rest of the Thanksgiving meal, and it also might mask the flavors of the vegetables.
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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Fang Cat and One Eye- two pumpkins

Though I can only take credit for scooping out their insides, these are still the best pumpkins I've ever been related to! Joel totally worked the scraped rind angle for the teeth too. This is way better than my usual triangle eyes and circular mouth default.
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Some very fine roasted pumpkin seeds

In an effort to get trick or treaters to brave the two flights of steps it takes to reach our front door, we carved pumpkins last night to set out as beacons to all the passing children, a promise that we will give them candy if only they drag their tired and costumed legs up our steps. I don't actually like the carving part of the pumpkin, so I cleaned them and then roasted the seeds while Joel made the best two pumpkins I've ever been related to (I'll post a photo of them too).

I wasn't sure about temperatures, so I looked through my cookbooks, but there was nothing about roasting pumpkin seeds, even in the olde timey ones (there sure were a lot of recipes for pumpkin chiffon pie though), so I turned to my old friend the Internet. That's where I found these three exciting recipes for toasted pumpkin seeds.

I opted for the curry and the butter and black tea recipes. The curry one was perfect, and the butter and black tea (that's the black tea in the mortar, my first use of my very own long-coveted kitchen tool) was good, but this morning when I went to try them again (I'd let them cool and then stored them in an airtight jar), they were rather soggy, which is contrary to the desired crunchy nature of toasted/roasted pumpkin seeds. If I made it again (and I would, because, black tea and butter? Now that's a combination), I would make sure they were going to be eaten that night, I'd cook them a bit longer, and I'd cut down on the amount of butter in the recipe.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Applesauce grows up (and now it never calls/writes)

Applesauce is a decidedly unadult food. And just how do you sophisticate a dish that seems made for the preverbal set? As far as I can tell, there are two routes: add booze or give it an opinion about Harold Pinter. I tried the latter, but it was going nowhere, so I resorted to alcohol, and the results were good!

I haven't included a photo because, well, it still looks like applesauce. Shiny mushy yellow stuff in a cup. Wait, I can do better. A shimmering golden puree. Mmmmm...

So I added a few tablespoons of Calvados as I was cooking the apples with a bit of water, some perfectly fluffy lemon zest produced from the miraculous edges of my super-duper microplane, some sugar, and Golden Delicious apples that Dick and Carol next door brought over from their tree.

The other element that helped class it up a bit was the heat. It was still warm, so it evoked apple pie, not Mott's school lunch.

Monday, October 22, 2007

How do you create a cooking library?

I'm missing a grand theory when it comes to cookbooks. I don't have a ton of space on my current cookbook bookshelf (the smallest Ikea Billy bookshelf available- I obviously wasn't planning ahead), and most of my current cookbooks were given to me by somebody, either as a gift or because they were clearing out the cookbooks they no longer wanted and thought of me.

So my library is not directed in quite the way I'd like. Not yet anyway. But I'm not sure how to turn it into the cooking library I yearn for. I also collect a lot of recipes online, and have a large (but increasingly not large enough) binder for storing recipes I print out. My third primary resource is the magazine collection, mostly Cook's Illustrated. That's the least convenient source, since it tends to take looking through five or six magazines before finding the one with that one recipe I'm looking for.

I like finding the best way to organize things, but I'm totally at a loss as to the best way to organize the recipes I like most.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The chicken fire

Last night, we had my mom and Alexis over for dinner. To try and get to the bottom of her health issues, Alexis is on an elimination diet and her food options are few, so we decided to make grilled chicken with an optional marsala sauce, jasmine rice, and hashed brussels sprouts. For dessert, Joel and I got two Masse's tarts (chocolate pecan and frangipane fig) on our way back from the Spice of Life Festival down the street. Alexis couldn't eat them, but the rest of us could, and Alexis found some coconut macaroons on her safe list, so she was not without something sweet.

Everything seems simple so far, right? Joel and I were preparing food, my mom and Alexis showed up, and then Joel took the chicken outside to grill it. He put it on the grill and came back inside. My mom was sitting in the kitchen nook and happened to notice a lot more smoke than usual billowing out the back of the grill. I came over to see just in time to witness the smoke turn from white to smokey gray. I told Joel, who was busy on the other side of the kitchen cutting up onions. He said, "It should be fine. It's too soon for anything to burn."

Then the smoke turned from gray to black and completely obscured the view of the back yard from the window. At that point, everyone but Joel started insisting that something was wrong. Joel finally looked up and then ran outside, flung open the grill top and saw that pretty much everything was on fire. The chicken pieces were little fireballs, and flames shot out of the grill's underside. I grabbed the fire extinguisher that the previous owners had left under the sink, but it took Joel a good two minutes to get all the fire out.

Once everything had cooled down, Joel started to piece together the incident. The drip pan thing looked fine, but I guess the pipe that leads from the grill to the drip pan was rather clogged with grease and other flammable fats, so it must have created a reservoir for the fire.

It seems like the stuff in fire extinguishers might be pretty toxic though, so I'm not sure what to do now that we have a cooking surface coated with it. Anyone know?
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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

In praise of Cheeseboard Pizza

Let's just take a moment to celebrate the five-day-a-week glory of Cheeseboard Pizza.

A short and organized singing of the praises:

- The crust is a Goldilocks dream: not too thin, not too thick; crispy but not a cracker; and with a crust that makes you take a step back from the pizza as a whole and savor, for two or three bites, the perfectly baked product of a really nice dough.

- It's almost always cooked to perfection, with a golden browning of the cheese and a perfect crisping of the crust.

- Even though there's never meat, I never ever think of it as vegetarian pizza. As an added bonus, it means there's never ever chicken, an ingredient that really has no place on pizza.

- It's generally not loaded down with toppings, but out-of-the-oven, last-minute seasonings such as garlic- or lemon- olive oil and fresh herbs create complexity and draw out the flavors of the pizza.
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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mint julep ice cream

During the summer, I'd made, at separate times, fresh mint ice cream and bourbon ice cream, and on the first day of fall, I melded the two to make mint julep ice cream. Should I be invited to or have a Derby Day party next year, this will be as necessary a party accessory as a big hat.

Last time I made the recipes was back when I had that large cookbook library access and had borrowed the Chez Panisse desserts cookbook, which I love, especially for ice cream. But I'd long since returned the book, so I set out to find myself my very own copy. At Black Oak, I found a first-edition hardback copy for $75, but it's not for collecting, it's for coating in sugar and cream, so I kept looking. At Pendragon, they had a bunch of different Chez Panisse cookbooks, but not Desserts. I called over to Mrs. Dalloway's, but they didn't have it either. I looked on Amazon and found a copy, but I'm conflicted about buying from them, so instead I did a web search and found a Lindsey Shere vanilla ice cream recipe. I didn't add the vanilla bean, and after it had turned to that perfect custard consistency, steeped fresh mint leaves in it for 15 minutes, and then after chilling it added the bourbon. I had to add a lot more bourbon to meet the strong flavor of the mint than what I remember the original bourbon recipe calling for, but it didn't seem to impact the freezing process at all.

So how did it taste? Really good. The interesting thing about these two flavors together is that you can get them at the same time. It's almost as if they're playing at different taste octaves, so both can exist simultaneously. It's different than what I think of as complexity in flavor, because complexity builds on the relationship between flavors working towards a new taste. In this case, you got both distinct flavors as separate but very complementary. I think it's what they call harmony, and it tastes so right.
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Friday, September 28, 2007

Taco night

On Saturday, Christina, Nate, Ross, Scott, Alexa, and A.J. came over for dinner. My first idea was to do a first-day-of-fall barbeque, but it was supposed to rain, so then I went dramatically in the other direction and started thinking about soups and cheese and bread, but then Joel pointed out it that it was all a little premature, which was a fair assessment, since it turned out to only rain in the morning and was in the high 60s or low 70s in the afternoon.

So I decided on tacos. Easy to adjust amounts for a crowd and for specific food preferences or dietary restrictions. Plus, I'd already made salsa from some tomatillos Kathryn had given me from her farm box.

I made three fillings: a sort of sweet and spicy chipotle chicken; a garlic, onion, and cilantro shrimp; and simple sauteed green, yellow, and red peppers and yellow onions. In addition to the tomatillo salsa, there were sweet, delicious cherry tomatoes, chives, green onions, sour cream, pieces of avocado, cheese, guacamole, and mango.

And then I made a watercress, citrus, and avocado salad with a limey vinaigrette.

But the best thing was dessert. For the vegan and the lactose-intolerant, lemon sorbet. For the rest of us, mint julep ice cream. More on that in another post.
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Monday, September 17, 2007

Salad of haricots verts, tomato tartare, and chive oil

Time intensive, small, composed of many parts, I thought I'd make my first French Laundry cookbook experience representative, and chose this lovely dish.

The major thing I noticed was that it demands a different approach to cooking. It's not just necessary to read ahead but vital to have a series of bookmarks to make it easy to flip between the ancillary recipes that make up the final product. The many small tasks required a slow, meditative approach.

In the introduction, Keller acknowledges this in a simple way, "Say, for instance, you intend to make a barigoule, a stew of artichoke hearts braised with carrots and onions, fresh herbs, oil, and wine. You may look at your artichokes and think 'Look at all these artichokes I've got to cut and clean.' But turning them--pulling off the leaves, trimming their stems, scooping our the chokes, pulling your knife around its edge--that is cooking. It is one of my favorite things to do."

I just finished reading the Alice Waters and Chez Panisse book, and this quote reminds me of the number of times the author notes that, in the kitchen, the chefs take on much of the slow, repetitive prep work that elsewhere is relegated to helpers. Even when the completion is not near, even before the fire, the assembly, the final tastes and touches, it is cooking.

The French Laundry recipes are distinct in other ways as well. The portions of each of the separate elements are small, so small that I was worried whether or not I'd have enough to make the seven I needed to fill each spot at the table on Saturday night, when Phil and Kathy joined us along with Matt and his parents. But I did have enough for seven perfectly proportioned small appetizers, which reflected the credo, also laid out in another of the cookbook's talky bits, "What I want is that initial shock, that jolt, that surprise to be the only thing you experience...I want you to say, 'God, I wish I had just one more bite of that.' And then the next plate comes and the same thing happens, but it's a different experience, a whole new flavor and feel."

The elements of this dish were: a chive oil, which was really fun to make, and involved pouring hot water over chives to eliminate the "chlorophyll taste" (which I recall from the time I tried to eat a handful of freshly chopped wheat grass) , blending for an extended period, and eventually, straining through a cheese cloth. There was also the rich tomato tartare, composed of oven-dried tomato flesh, chives, shallot, and balsamic. And the lightly cooked haricots verts with a heavy cream and red-wine vinegar dressing, which unfortunately I made too fluffy, but which no one complained about. And a twist of frisee on top.

Additionally, the text of the recipes assumes a relatively high competence and understanding, which I like, but after years of reading very clear, deliberate instructions, is intimidating.
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Verjus sorbet and poached peach

I'm working backwards here, starting with dessert, but as with meal planning, so with meal descriptions. This is the verjus sorbet and poached peach dessert from the French Laundry cookbook. The split in the peach is accidental (I forgot I was cutting the peach into thirds and not halves), but I think the rest of it looks about right.

Here's the thing about poached fruit, I like it, but I don't love it. But we already had these large peaches, and I wanted to make something seasonal, especially since the days are growing shorter and the mornings are chillier and it's only a matter of time before the summer fruit disappears and daylight savings time ends. And, I was very curious about the sorbet.

First I looked for verjus at Monterey Market. The guy (I think his name is Marty? I can't remember now) who stocks the vinegars said they didn't carry it, but that lately he's been getting more requests and is going to look into getting some. Next I stopped in at Magnani, hoping that they might carry it, but alas they did not, and then at the Coffee and Cheese shop, where my favorite woman there told me they didn't have it either.

Walking back, I called Nancy, who suggested the Pasta Shop down on Fourth Street. I called down there, and they had it! In fact, they had two kinds, one was a Sangiovese verjus and the other (the one I bought) was the regular kind.

From the back of the bottle and the introduction to the recipe, I've discovered the verjus was a Roman invention that was popular in French kitchens in the 14th and 15th centuries. Made from unripened white grapes, verjus is an acidulant like vinegar or lemon juice, but milder than either, and doesn't mask the flavors of the dish that it's added to.

The taste is singular. It's tart and particularly fruity but not sweet at all, a grape flavor stripped of sugar. It was really a bit of an object lesson, because after tasting it, I found it suddenly easier to see where the complexity in wine comes from. It has an appealing scent; if there were a verjus perfume, I would consider wearing it.

The sorbet was simply verjus and corn syrup chilled then processed in the ice cream maker. The result was a slightly tart, perfumy, delicate ice. And in appearance it slightly resembled a cloud. Speaking of which, I found a recipe for a French macaroon type cookie nicknamed "little clouds." Expect to hear more about that one soon.
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People cooking!

Alert reader Matt pointed out recently that there are almost no photos of people cooking here, and on Saturday night, as Joel was slicing grilled pork tenderloin and I was micromanaging and scooping rice, Matt grabbed the camera and documented an act of cooking.

Joel takes grilled pork very seriously, as you can see.
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Friday, September 14, 2007

I just got the French Laundry cookbook

A while back, I sold some books to Pendragon and ended up with a large credit at the Solano store. I have a habit of selling books for credit and hanging onto the credit for years, thus the tattered pile of credit slips sitting on my desk right now, many of which are at least six years old. In a few cases, I'm not even sure the bookstore still exists.

So I decided to use my credits, and even read some fiction reviews before heading down to structure my spree. But then I happened to glance over at the cookbooks section. The remainders table, where I found some pretty but not particularly useful options, lured me in, but the used cookbooks shelves behind it were the true find.

I notice a bright white, very tall spine on the top shelf out of the corner of my eye. I look up to discover the long-coveted French Laundry Cookbook glowing, beckoning, from the top shelf. I once borrowed the book from Nancy, but became so overwhelmed by the world within that I ended up not cooking anything at all and just gave it back.

Having now experienced a selection of the recipes though, everything seemed a little more approachable. Or maybe I'm motivated by the memory of the tastes to take the extra fussy steps, get the equipment insisted upon, and throw myself into the series of small, precise steps it takes to make even the simplest of the dishes.

It was marked down from $50 to $30, and was in good condition. My guess is the person who owned it last couldn't live up to its demands, cracked under the pressure, and had to sell the book.

Now I just need willing diners and to make sure not too attempt too many complicated things in one meal. Especially if the meal is not the only activity of the evening.

My first attempt will be on Saturday before the first Berkeley Rep play of the season. Now I just have to choose. I won't do a main meat course or anything, I'm not that brave/motivated/crazy. Yet. I'm thinking an appetizer or salad or maybe a dessert. There was a salad that involved tomato sorbet, and if there's any time of year to turn a perfectly good tomato into a bizarre taste experience, it is now before the cold sets in.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

This is a delicious-looking cloud

I saw this cloud as we were driving west through the mountains on the 80 right near Emigrant Gap. As we came around the corner I gasped and said, "That cloud looks delicious." Joel made fun of me and then handed me the camera.

But seriously, this cloud fills me with a desire for a dessert I can't quite name. This is a different instinct than the one that comes over me when I'm at the aquarium and can only think of sushi, because I'm not yet sure what would taste as good in the same way as this cloud looks.

Coconut macaroons aren't right because they're too angular and sweet. Foam isn't it because clouds aren't gimmicky. Meringue won't do because it's too dry when baked, and even a lightly baked meringue isn't quite right--though it's closer--because it's not a stand-alone, fully contained dessert experience. Though I once made a brunch dessert (I like the challenge of a brunch dessert because it can't be too heavy and it has to be able to sneak by as part of the meal, in case people don't believe in dessert with every meal) out of little baked spiral meringue disks topped with a dollop of whipped cream and a few pomegranate seeds, and that at least is working towards the right shape, and offers a bit in the way of the cloud.

But really, it's something that has to be billowy, pyramidal, and moist. Plus, it has to have all the implicit taste of this cloud: slightly creamy, mildly sweet, and not rich but definitely distinct.
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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Elderberry-blackberry champagne cocktail

For Kathryn's engagement party, she wanted to offer a cocktail in addition to beer, wine, and champagne, but not one that was going to lead to drunken toasts, uncles falling into the pool, and other elements that add up to a woefully unforgettable debacle. So, aiming for a pleasantly tipsy but coherent crowd, she thought a champagne cocktail might be the way to go.

Nancy (making the first cocktail of the party in the photo above), who served a really great champagne cocktail with vanilla-bean-infused vodka and something else I can't remember last Christmas Eve volunteered to come up with one and went to Cafe Rouge, her source for good champagne cocktails. There, they told her about this lovely, refreshing, and very pretty cocktail: Put two or three blackberries in the bottom of the glass. Add an inch or so of elderberry liqueur (she found it at a liquor store in San Francisco), then fill the glass with a dry champagne. It was a perfect drink for a celebratory summer day. I hope we have some more of those soon so I can have it again.
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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Kathryn making jam

I wanted to post this photo to show the jam-jar dipping tool, which is totally one of those things you'd find at a garage sale and wonder what its use was and continue to be mystified by until a) one day you wandered into a grandma's house and saw her carefully lowering jam jars down into the hot water bath or b) read about it in that Cook's Illustrated column in which they identify arcane kitchen tools.

In my case it would have to be option b, since the likelihood of my grandma making jam is on par with the likelihood of her skydiving drunk.
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Nathan's mom and grandma are dead serious about making jam, and so when Kathryn decided jam would be a good wedding party favor, she turned to the expertise of Team Placerville. We went up there on Sunday and had a full-day jam-making extravaganza, and by the end of the day we had approximately 115 jars of jam.

Before we arrived, they'd already made fig, fig-rhubarb, apricot, and peach jam. We canned the peach jam, then made blackberry-apple and strawberry jams.

The only other time I've participated in jam-making was in Romania when the neighborhood kids were climbing over Doru and Mona's 10-foot wall to steal peaches, so one evening Doru went out and picked at least 100 peaches off the tree, and then Mona made jam as well as those canned peaches that come in fruit cocktail, and after that peaches became the third part of the tastes-of-Romania triangle, along with pork and garlic.

I've always been intimidated by the long-term storage and bacteria factors of jam making, and also by the giant pot, but after the crash-course, I think I could attempt it on my own, as long as we were working with the jars that make the pop to let you know they're sealed.
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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Tacos: Mijita

After too many tacoless days, it's the return of the taco project! Today, I find fault with tacos with a view.

Mijita in the Ferry Building has Bay views on its side, and as seems to be the case with many ocean-view restaurants, it ends up being a liability in terms of the food.

Certain aspects of it were good. The tomatillo salsa was great. The cilantro and onions were fresh and added nice flavor. And the meat was fine. And yet, everything was a little cold, and even after eating half the filling off the tortilla, I still couldn't pick it up. It was basically an all-meat tostada, which if you're Joel, you'd probably argue is a good thing, but I wasn't feeling it. And by the time I did get to the tortilla, it was a soggy mess.

This mediocre taco experience inspires me to create a rating system. I give Mijita 5.9/10.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Rhubarb wine

A few weeks ago Joel and I were up on Whidbey Island in Washington, and we stopped in with my aunt at the Whidbey Island Winery. We tasted about six wines, a few of which I really liked. The wine I liked most was made with a grape I'd never heard of called Madeleine Angevine. What a nice name. It sounds delicate and tragic. And the wine—I would do a better job describing it if I opened one of the bottles we brought home right now, but no, I couldn't do that. It's a weekday and not yet after 4:00 p.m.—the wine was very light, slightly herby, and the tiniest bit citrusy. It was like drinking the shade of a summer afternoon.

Looking over the list of wines we hadn't tried, I saw they made a rhubarb wine. I asked what it tasted like but couldn't get a good sense of it beyond, "It's unique." So we bought a bottle, and then the other night we opened it to drink with a dinner of grilled pork chops with a lemon, caper, parsley sauce and new potatoes steamed and dressed in white wine and olive oil. The experience was, as promised, "unique."

First Joel tried it. He sipped and then made the face that I make whenever I try Campari. A face that indicates a total disbelief that the liquid in hand is anything but toxic. And then he said, "It tastes weird." So already I'm getting some cognitive dissonance, because the face and the comment don't jive. So i try it. And it tastes...not so bad. Almost like grape wine but a little earthier.

Oh, I'd also made a experimental dressing for the salad using the grapefruit I'd used to show how awesome the microplane is, and along with the grapefruit vinaigrette, the lemony sauce on the pork, and the white wine on the potatoes, the flavors and pitches of the food made each new sip of the wine taste completely different. My last sip, taken just after a bite of salad, tasted really bad: bitter and sour, sort of like rhubarb that hasn't been all tarted up yet. I've never had the experience of a flavor that changes so much with each new sip.

The next day I took the rest to a picnic to see what other people thought of it. Most people avoided it, but those brave few who took it on reported that it, "Was ok, but not something I'd rather drink more than wine," and "tastes pretty much like fermented rhubarb." But one person, A.J., sought it out and kept drinking it, and insisted that he actually liked it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

I love this zester

For a long time, I got by without a microplane. I zested in half-assed ways ranging from skimming a sharp knife over the top of the lemon and then chopping the peel to using a cheese grater than inevitably scraped off more of my knuckles than the lemon. In food, citrus was never an essence, it was a chunk of something you'd bite into every once in a while.

But I recently got a microplane zester/grater (pictured above) and I can't believe I ever thought it would be a frivolous purchase. I was a convert from the first second I zested with this thing. It's amazing. I mean, look at that zest! It's uniform, it's light and fluffy, it's pith-free, it's glorious!
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Mint-basil chocolate chunk ice cream

Last night I went to Nancy and John's for dinner. Ok, really I went for dessert, but I also ate dinner there.

John had tweaked the mint-basil chocolate chunk ice cream recipe from the new Scharffen Berger cookbook, and what he came up with was so good, I blew past seconds and went straight into third-and-a-halfs.

He added egg yolks, because he believes, as I do, that ice cream texture is much better when you start out with an egg custard base. He also said, and I think he was speculating but maybe he read it, that the recipe omitted eggs because it was so intent on giving the ice cream a bright green color (the recipe calls for a bit of spinach leaves to brighten the color), and the yolks would dull the green.

I've had basil-lemon ice cream before, as well as basil-something-else-I-can't-remember, but I've never had basil and mint together, and I really really have never had basil and chocolate together. The combination worked though. Really well. The basil and the mint played off each other and each kept the other from being one-dimensional. I'm not sure I ever realized how complimentary the flavors are, at least in this context.

The basil worked along the mint theme, but created all these other nuances that built a complexity that could hold its own against the chocolate. But in a delicious way, not a confrontational, rumble-in-your-mouth way.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Cupcakes: Delessio

I was first (and second, and third) introduced to the glory of Delessio cupcakes at parties thrown by Danya. Her friend from Delessio would always show up with full-size versions of the mini-cupcakes sold in the resto. And then Kathryn and I would hover near the plate, deliberating far longer than was appropriate about which cupcakes to try, striking deals with other guests to share so that we could increase the overall number of tastes, and so on.

I dream about these cupcakes. Delessio has been making them since before stores devoted entirely to cupcakes started opening, and I think they do them better than most. The cake tends to be moist and the flavor combinations are interesting and delicious. And those, to me, are the keys to a good cupcake. Simple in theory, apparently nearly impossible in practice.

Yesterday Eva, who is passing through on her way back from Sufi camp, and I stopped in for a mid-afternoon treat. We got three cupcakes: a lemon with coconut (the cupcake above with the wrapping off; I got ahead of myself and only just in time remembered to take a photo), a chocolate raspberry, and a denser brownie cupcake with fresh mint butter cream frosting (the one with the sprinkles).

Applying the rules of wine tasting, we decided to have the lemon cupcake first. The cake had a nice density and spring, and had a lemon custard vein that moistened the surrounding cake. Neither the frosting nor the coconut were too sweet, and the lemon flavor was pronounced without being either cloying or sour.

We then had the chocolate mint cupcake. Now, I love (love) fresh mint ice cream, but I wasn't as crazy about fresh mint frosting. Maybe it's a difference of texture (the ice cream is smoother and more roundly creamy but not quite as dense) or temperature, but what tastes bright and refreshing in ice cream came across as a bit too earthy here. I still liked it, just not as much as I expected to. And the cupcake was indeed more like a brownie, and a good brownie at that.

We finished off with the raspberry cupcake. It was traditional, though the unsweetened cocoa powder dusting on top was a nice unexpected touch. The cake was moist, and again we got a stripe of raspberry through the middle, and the frosting was sweet but not sugar-coma-inducing.

All this talking about cupcakes makes me think that the best way to review the various cupcake options is to have a taste-off. All fresh, all at the same time. I think I know some people who might be willing to participate.

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Monday, August 6, 2007

Strawberry caprese in Ashland, Oregon

This is the first time I've ever had a caprese salad with anything but the traditional ingredients. And while I thought this one—made with strawberries, fried basil leaves, very fresh buffalo mozzarella, and a sticky balsamic reduction sauce—was better suited as a dessert than an appetizer, I really liked that it was both novel and well done. If I do make it as dessert in the future, I'd try using marscapone and might marinate the strawberries in port first.

But back to the photo. Yes, maybe the combination of balsamic and balsamic squirt-bottle pattern is making you flash back to 1997, but I think balsamic has survived its heyday and ensuing culinary nadir and has reemerged as a perfectly respectable classic.

I had the strawberry caprese in Ashland, Oregon, last week when I was there with Joel and his parents. Based on all the food I ate there, and all the menus I looked at, I think that Ashland really has its own thing going on with food. I knew ahead of time that it had an absurd number of restaurants for the size of the population (100 restaurants; 20,000 people), but I figured it would be expensive without being exceptional (or possibly even good).

Now maybe it's because all the chefs are actually frustrated actors trying to find new creative outlets, but there is some pretty successful free-thinking going on in restaurants there. I wish I'd written down some of the examples I came across, but I was busy trying to record sounds for an upcoming podcast. Without many examples, the best way to describe the phenomenon is to say I found myself reading menus and saying, "Huh, I never would have thought of that together, but it sounds good," pretty often. Not all the time, of course, but way more than I usually do. And it doesn't seem to have much to do with other current food trends. There wasn't a lot of Salumi bragging; they really seemed to be doing their own thing, just sort of riffing on interesting and unexpected combinations without losing sight of that all important endpoint of pleasing taste.
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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Sauteed balsamic figs

My parents have this giant fig tree in their backyard, and for the first 26 years they lived in their house no one ate the figs when they ripened in mid-summer. Well, for a brief period my Grandpa ate them, but he was really the only one. The rest of us, I guess, were used to purple figs, and so figs that started out green and stayed green upon ripening were suspect. The birds, however, were in on the secret and happy enough to have them all to themselves.

But a few years ago, my mom caught on to the fact that the figs were not only edible but delicious, and so now we all (or at least she and I) look forward to the summertime fig harvest.

And, even though I now know how the figs are supposed to feel when they're ripe enough to pick, I always play dumb so that my mom will say, "They should feel like balls." My mom is from Michigan, but I'm not sure that explains the accent she has pronouncing certain words, "balls" being foremost among them. She pronounces it more like "bawls," as if she's hung out with my Brooklyn dad for too many years.

My favorite thing to do with the figs is to wash them, slice them in half lengthwise, melt butter in a pan, add the figs open-side-down, add some salt and pepper, and saute them until they're warm. Then I flip them over, add a dash more salt and pepper, and saute them until the green skin gets a few golden patches. Then I add a tablespoon or two of balsamic, flip the figs back over (so that they soak up the vinegar a bit), and wait about 20 seconds (for small batches) until the balsamic vinegar thickens into a sauce.

If I'm feeling fancy, I'll slice some Prosciutto ribbons to put over it, but most of the time I just eat them alone. They're nice appetizers, too, though I'll also eat them for breakfast.
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Monday, July 23, 2007

Tacos: Cactus

Welcome to the first installment of the Taco Comparison Project. I will be eating tacos (preferably crispy, some soft) and reporting on my findings.

First up: Cactus Taqueria

To me, this is what a taco should taste like. They take the corn tortilla, stuff it with chicken and cheese, and deep fry it. Then when the chicken and the tortilla are all delicious and crispy and the cheese is melted, they take it out, drain it, and stuff the empty space full of guacamole, lettuce, and pico de gallo. At this point, the crispy taco is passed to me, and I squeeze lime on it, ready myself with four to five napkins per three taco plate, and take that first perfectly crunchy, hot and cool bite.

You know how according to research, you stop being able to taste the true flavor of whatever food you're eating after three or four bites because your taste buds have acclimated to the textures and flavors? This taco is designed to combat that phenomenon. The collection of textures (rich and creamy guacamole, crispy lettuce, crunchy taco shell, melted cheese, and hot grilled then fried chicken) and flavors (just reread that last parenthetical) makes every bite a revelation. And the lime, ah the lime, dare I call it the salt of the taco, bringing out the flavors but also lending a citric lightness to the whole thing.

After years of extensive research, I have determined that the Cactus on Solano is superior to the Cactus on College, at least as far as the crispy tacos and the chocolate chip cookies go. The College Cactus churns out food, while the Solano Cactus prepares individual dishes, and you can taste the difference.

Another great thing about Cactus is that they use better meat options: Sonoma Select chicken, I think, and Niman Ranch beef and pork.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Atget project

Ever since I was a history-of-photography-obsessed college kid, I've loved Eugene Atget's work. He took a city that was already iconic and captured a rare version of it. He brought out the ghost in a heavily civilized place. He took a loud city and made it quiet.

He was often the last person to look, really look, at entire neighborhoods before they were destroyed to make way for the new Haussmannian Paris. He would go out with his camera just after dawn, when the city was still mostly asleep, and capture a last look.

His photography was a generous act, but also a morbid one. He stripped these moments in architecture of all distractions and said, through his photographs, "Just look." And then, just as you're almost finished looking, comes the whisper: "This is already gone."

So that's the main reason I love his work. But he did this other thing that I like to. He obsessively documented groups of things. Hundreds of horse-drawn carriages, of stairways, of courtyards, and so on.

I'd like to do something way less cool, but somewhat structurally similar. As an exercise in eating, comparing, and organizing information, I'm going to choose a particular food (everything from tacos to croissants), eat a whole bunch of it from different places, and then write about it.

Mint Julep ice cream

I'm pretty sure it's a great idea. The bourbon ice cream was great. The fresh mint ice cream was great. Will the combination translate as well as its individual parts do? I think it might.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Garlicky (and oniony) greens

Here's a photo of the garlicky greens (red chard, purple goosefoot orach, and lamb's quarters) with onion detailed below.
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