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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I promise I'll stop talking about ice cream as soon as summer is over

...or at least that I'll stop talking about ice cream so much. But I'll probably talk about soup and maybe chocolate croissant bread pudding way more.

To celebrate the first day of the Tour de France, I invited cycling enthusiasts over and made bourbon ice cream. Here's the thing about bourbon ice cream: it's really, really good. I'm not a huge fan of bourbon; I don't have the palate and I'm not into pretending to be in a 70s political-intrigue movie, nor am I an Aaron Sorkin character. But as it turns out, if you add bourbon to a creamy custard and then freeze it, well then I love it.

Some of the smokiness remains, but the sweet cream somehow expands the flavor upwards and outwards. The only way I can describe it is that I experience bourbon mostly as a lead marble being dropped into a bucket, but that bourbon ice cream is more like a wide raft with a sail. Probably not helpful, but it's the best I can do.

I made little langue du chats (langues du chat?) as disks and then shaped them into tiny bowls in which to serve the ice cream. The only problem was that there was a slight storage miscommunication, and in an attempt to hide the cookies from the animals while we were out of the house, Joel refrigerated them, which made it so they never crisped properly.

I used the Eagle Rare Single Barrel Bourbon that Jerm and Liz brought to the housewarming and the bourbon ice cream recipe from Chez Panisse Desserts. Sadly, tomorrow I have to return all the cookbooks, as their owners are arriving back home.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The produce challenge

My sister Kathryn gets a CSA box every week that's packed with both usual (lettuce, broccoli, strawberries) and unusual (cardoon, purple goosefoot orach, lamb's quarters) items. But occassionally, she can't keep up, and that's when she starts passing off her extras to me.

Recently, she did this twice in two weeks, and I got a little taste of the pressures of eating fresh and local in large volumes.

To digress briefly, right after college I lived in the Oakland Hills in one of the few houses on a street that hadn't burned down in the big fire in 1991. The fire story explains how bunch of young 'uns could afford the rent. Well, that and the fact that the owner had illegally developed the basement so that four to five people could live in what records indicated was a two-bedroom house. This house had a huge backyard with loquat and meyer lemon trees and a bunch of sunny open space, and one fine spring day we decided to build raised beds and plant a huge garden. I loved this garden and tended it carefully until the day it started yielding vegetables.

This didn't make any sense, because I enjoy fresh vegetables and really liked working in the garden. But once the tomatoes from the seven plants, 12 green bean stalks, and carrots, squash, and other veggies started ripening, I became so overwhelmed that I refused to even go in the backyard anymore. Ripe produce is an unstoppable force. You either stay on top of things and harvest, cook, and eat it as fast as it demands, or you create this cycle of waste and guilt. I couldn't handle the pressure, and I couldn't handle the guilt, so I gave up.

I'd like to think that if I had that garden today, I'd do a better job enjoying the harvesting and eating part. But receiving a bunch of veggies all at once induced that familiar panic. But I'm older and wiser and cook more, plus my kitchen is way less nasty than the one at the Oakland hills house (water had leaked into the wood under the plastic veneer of the counter tops, which made the plastic cave in and filled the whole kitchen with the aroma of rot. Incidentally, this is also the house where someone made a package of Top Ramen and only after they had eaten half the pot of noodles noticed that there were boiled maggots floating on the top of the broth. These are the associations I have with that kitchen).

So first I ignored the veggies for a few days, which was easy enough to do because I recently got some of those cloth produce bags, and since they're opaque the vegetables couldn't stare out at me and wilt accusingly in plain sight every time I opened the fridge.

But I knew they were there. So finally I took them all out, laid them on the counter (there were so many it took up most of the space), and stared at them. I knew I needed to assert my authority over this produce, but I wasn't sure how. I began to move them around, to think about how the flavors might taste together and what might go well with what. After a few minutes I had three neat piles. A salad pile, full of various lettuces, carrots of many colors, and radishes. A greens pile, with red chard, lamb's quarters, and purple goosefoot orach, plus some kind of heirloom onion. And a squash pile, full guessed it.

I put each of the groups in a bag, and over the next few days cooked, prepared, and ate my way through the groupings. It was nice to be able to pull out a bag with all the primary ingredients already assembled. And next time Kathryn gives me veggies, I'll know what to do right away.

Here's an altered and summarized version of the Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook Garlicky Kale recipe I used to prepare the greens:

2 pounds greens
4 garlic cloves
1 tropea onion (that's the one that Kathryn gave me. It was a young, torpedo-shaped purple onion)
Red wine vinegar

Remove thick stems from kale, coarsely chop leaves. Wash and drain, but do not dry. Heat a large saucepan, add 1/4 c. olive oil and enough kale to cover the bottom. Cook on high heat while stirring until greens wilt. Add more greens as the leaves wilt until you've got them all in there. Season with salt, cover, and reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally until tender. Add a splash of water if the leaves start to scorch. When the leaves are tender, remove the lid and allow the extra liquid to cook away. Push the greens to one side and add a bit more olive oil, and the chopped onion. Cook it for about two minutes. Then add a bit more olive oil, the garlic, and a pinch of red pepper flakes to the bare spot. Just as you smell the aroma of garlic, stir it into the kale. Turn off heat, add a splash of vinegar, and correct the seasoning.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Ice cream ends the egg saga

To summarize the now-ended saga of the three dozen eggs: most went to the two batches of ice cream and the rest to Eva's poached-egg-and-soldier appetizer.

More about the ice cream

I had a ton of cherries (Rainier) because I initially thought I'd make a clafoutis, but then I was looking through the Chez Panisse Desserts book and found a recipe for cherry ice cream with kirsch. The cherries were simmered then blended, but I left them a little chunky. The kirsch went in right before blending (not because the recipe called for it, but because I didn't have any in the house when I was making the ice cream custard). The final product was good, but I actually think I don't love cherry ice cream. Maybe if I had used bing cherries, the flavor would have been able to stand up to all that dairy, but I felt like, as it was, it sort of lacked personality. The kirsch gave it a nice kick though.

I also made salted caramel ice cream. I used this David Lebovitz recipe, but left out the praline. Sometimes when I'm making caramel, I have trouble getting it to achieve that perfect brown, but this time it was no problem. Is that because I was using TJ's organic cane sugar that was already a little bit tan? I have no idea. But since it worked so well, I'll use it again in the future.

This ice cream was the all-around favorite. It was very rich and sweet--best eaten in small scoops with a crunchy cookie--but opinions differed on whether the caramel praline would have made it too sweet or just added a nice texture.

I'll certainly make the salted caramel ice cream again, but I may look for ways to pare down the sweet just a little bit. It was turned up to 11, but I think it would be better at about 8. Adding the salt doesn't have a super-dramatic impact but it does give the sweet something to play off of, and adds some depth to what would otherwise be a pure sugar bomb. Or in this case bombe? Sorry.

Monday, July 2, 2007

One more Eva recipe

I'm not sure I have retained the list of all the ingredients, so I'll have to check with Eva when she returns to civilization after her high-desert, BYO protein Sufi retreat, but as a sauce for salmon, she took mayonnaise and mixed it with chopped capers, white-wine vinegar (I think), lemon, and salt and pepper. It was delicious. A little heart-attacky, but delicious.


I love soldiers! Those crustless slices of toast that you dip into poached or soft-boiled eggs. As the wait-for-Joel-to-come-home appetizer, Eva lightly cooked some asparagus, and topped it with a poached egg and some cheese shavings (she said Parmesan tastes best, but all we had was myzithra, which tasted good too). All served with Acme Pain de Mie (a true cake among breads) soldiers. I keep meaning to make this for myself, but it would require a new loaf of Pain de Mie and I don't trust myself to not eat it all in one day.

Secrets of the potato

My friend Eva was here from London until Thursday, and while she was here I learned all sorts of yummy tricks. Here are a few about potatoes:

  • Boil new potatoes with mint and then serve with butter and salt and pepper. I haven't tried this one yet, but it sounds good.
  • To achieve potato crispiness, boil new potatoes until they're tender, then roll them in olive oil and stick them in a roasting pan in a 425 degree oven for a bit, turning them once or twice, until they're crisp. Salt and pepper them at the very end. I have tried this one, along with salmon and these really good green beans that I'll also write about.
She also promised a potato recipe from her uncle, who owns a pub, and therefore I'm guessing, really knows his pub food. Roasted potatoes included.

Green beans

It's not difficult to prepare green beans well, but the way Eva finished her steamed green beans made them extra delicious.

After the green beans were done, she put some butter in a pan, then added a bit of minced garlic, cooked it for about 10 seconds, and then added a bunch of chopped flat-leaf parsley and more butter. Then she added the green beans, turned off the heat, and tossed them with the garlic-parsley butter and some salt and pepper.


Houseguest and very ill dog, all at the same time.