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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