Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Shout-Out To Edible Los Angeles

I'm so very proud of everyone involved in putting together the winter issue of Edible Los Angeles. I edited this issue, and I must say having good writers and good photographers really made the work smooth sailing.

If you haven't seen Edible Los Angeles, do check it out. You can find it all over town (town being the Los Angeles area, of course!).

I'm excited to also be editing the spring issue. With its seasonal focus, this magazine keeps me attuned to the seasons as nothing else has since I was a kid growing up on the farm.

I just love it when work is fun!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bacon in the Fudge & Other Kitchen Adventures

My favorite words when others are eating something I've made and given them: "I don't usually like xxx, but I LOVE yours!"

xxx may = peanut brittle or fudge or whatever. In fact, I've heard xxx equal both peanut brittle AND fudge in just the past few days, as I've been making and stockpiling sweets for the holidays. One friend who claimed not to like peanut brittle--and who watches her weight and exercises assiduously--confessed she'd wolfed down TWO bags of the peanut brittle I'd made. She was shocked by her eagerness to keep right on eating it, especially since she thought she didn't even LIKE peanut brittle.

My peanut brittle includes a bit of cinnamon and cayenne, which I think helps tame the cloying sweetness of too much sugar. Depending on the intended snacking audience it will contain just a dusting of cayenne or perhaps a healthy spoonful. I believe it was the addition of spices that put her over into the "love it!" column and seduced her into eating beyond the one small, politely sized bite she'd intended to take just to be nice.

mmm, bacon fudge . . .

As for the fudge, it has bacon in it. Bacon in the fudge?! When people hear this, most turn up their noses and do the "ewwww" thing. The more adventurous ones--and the ones who love me--will give it a try. And then they'll keep eating it, long after manners or weight considerations tell them they should stop. With that light sprinkling of sea salt on top and the toasted walnuts nestled in with those crispy, smoky bacon lardons, they find themselves powerless to exercise good judgment.

No, I don't want others to overindulge to the point of hurting themselves. But I love it when people find such delight in something I've made that they're compelled to step beyond their usual response and truly enjoy what I'm feeding them. This isn't just about candy--it can be brussels sprouts or meatloaf or any food.

And there IS delight in this, at least for me, because others have surprised me by serving me something I thought I didn't like, only to find I really did. Or at least I liked it as presented to me by someone whose rendition of that dish I was just discovering. I love it when this happens. Some people seem to have an affinity for preparing particular foods, and I try to keep this in mind. "So-and-so does wonders with favas . . . Wonder how he'll treat lima beans?"

Of course, it's easy to forget this sometimes, especially when I'm faced with something I'm sure I don't/won't like (I still have an "ick!" reaction just thinking about all those squidgy, overcooked lima beans from my childhood). But, who knows? Maybe the person who prepared it knows just how to make it a food I WILL like.

And an ever expanding list of foods on the "okay" list is fine by me.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Giving Thanks For the Food of the Gods

Since we're West Coast transplants, we typically try to find others like ourselves who aren't surrounded by family here and invite them over for Thanksgiving. This time we hosted Peter and Julie, an Australian couple, people we met at church who had experienced Thanksgiving fare the previous Sunday. So we decided to treat them to a Southern American feast, since Southern cuisine is one of the few distinctive cuisines in this country and one our Aussie friends had never sampled.

We fired up the smoker out back and laid in the dry-rubbed pork spare ribs for a long, slow cooking and smoking over charcoal and hickory chips. Pork fat carried over into preparation of collard greens (garnished with slices of hard-boiled egg), black-eyed peas and cornbread, all of which are much tastier when made with bacon drippings.

We also had ambrosia, with its delicate shreds of coconut and fresh orange slices. This dish, which should never contain miniature marshmallows and which should always be served in a lovely cut-glass bowl, was traditionally a special wintertime treat, rare and exotic in rural Tennessee. And sun tea, with a mildness that only a slow steep on a sunny day can provide. For dessert we had pecan pie and homemade vanilla ice cream.

(The only thing that would have made this meal better would be if I could have scored a jar of my Cousin Lelabelle's wonderful rosy relish. I finally got her to shake loose the recipe after I'd lived in Los Angeles long enough for her to realize I'd never make it back in Tennessee and steal her tasty thunder. Problem is, I have a devil of a time growing tomatoes in this deserty backyard of mine, so it's really difficult to get the green tomatoes required of this lovely relish.)

Buying the ingredients in Los Angeles bumps the price up, but essentially, this is basic Southern fare, what country dwellers had on hand. Pork ribs were some of the leftover bits from the better cuts the wealthier people got. Black-eyed peas and collard greens you grew in your own garden. Cornbread was, well, cornbread, cooked with hot bacon drippings in your granny's well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Even the pie would be made with pecans from your own trees. (These days I get mine at the Toluca Lake Trader Joe's, a long way from the pecan thicket that separates our farm from the main road.)

There was much to be thankful for on Thanksgiving this year: A cozy house with a roof that doesn't leak, thanks to the work of Andy and our friend, Jeff (someone else to be thankful for), who repaired it just before torrential rains began. The rains themselves, which rehydrated our desperately dry yard. Lovely new friends from Down Under.

And feasting on this simple fare made me thankful that good food doesn't have to be either expensive or fussy.

Ambrosia may be "food of the gods," but to my thinking, they'd be clamoring for those smoked pork ribs, too. And they'd have to fight me for them!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

(Time) Traveling in the Kitchen

These days my blog is sighing in loneliness. I've been busy as guest editor of the winter issue of Edible Los Angeles. It's taking up a lot of time, but I'm having a blast, so blog, just deal with it!

One of the articles I assigned for the issue is "What's In Your Pantry?" I'd asked food writer and culinary historian (and legendary Rolling Stone editor) Charles Perry to write the piece. Typically the writer will interview a chef or some other noted food person. But I knew that Charlie would have the most interesting pantry in town, so I asked him to write about his own stash of exotic flavorings accumulated over his many years of travel throughout the Middle East.

Yesterday, our amazing photographer Tony Molina and I went to Charlie's for a photo shoot and some dajaj mutajjan, a dish from 13th century Baghdad. It's made of really basic elements, so anyone could make it, but because it vanished from the Iraqi diet centuries ago, if you visited a restaurant in Baghdad now in search of it, they wouldn't have a clue what you were asking for!

It was rich and savory and wonderfully flavorful. It was also healthy, easy and fairly quick to make. And it filled the house with the smells of exotic lands and bazaars and my head with dreams of faraway places.
We enjoyed dajaj mutajjan cooked up in this soapstone pot, which, like cast iron, heats slowly, but cooks evenly and oh so well. This dish was made with chicken, but Charlie assured us that goat works really well, too.

Food history may sound like an odd or quaint area of interest to some, but it has the power to transport you to another place and time in a most wonderful way, because you can savor the smells, flavors and textures that reveal how people lived in different times and places. Visiting historic sites is important, no doubt, but sampling the food of other places gives you a truly personal way of experiencing the culture as those who live there do (and as their predecessors did).

Language experts like to say that Latin isn't dead--only the people who spoke it are. Well, these ancient cuisines aren't dead either. But the taste buds that have never tried them are sound asleep.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cheese Fell Down . . . Went Boom!

It turns out that success in the water-bath cooking portion of cheese making is crucial in getting the curds to hold together. After 24 hours of pressing--that's 12 hours on one side, flip and 12 hours on the other--when we removed the curds from the mold and attempted to peel away the cheesecloth, the curds crumbled to bits.
So we're back to square one. Buy two more gallons of whole milk and begin again. But that's okay. This is how you learn. Sad to say, but usually your own mistakes will teach you more than the mistakes of others. That's not so bad when you're talking about mistakes in the kitchen, but devastating if you're talking about something like, say, war!

The good news is, that mass of pressed curd tastes yummy. In a scant 24 hours, it has already gained the sharpness of a good cheddar. So we'll enjoy it, crumbled into omelettes and over frittatas. And right off the board, eaten with our fingers.

How many of life's mistakes are this good?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Blessed Are the Cheese Makers

Andy and I bought a cheese making kit yesterday and spent this evening fashioning our inaugural cheese, a farmhouse cheddar.

As we worked, Cosmo and Blaze both danced around under our feet and paraded about the kitchen, meowing their admiration for shared milk and milk products. They got samples all along, just like we did.

As the curds cooked slowly in their water bath--which is pretty tricky for a beginner to manipulate properly--Andy gently broke them up so they didn't turn into an unruly mass. (In case you're wondering, the apron says, "Don't make me poison your food." We don't tend to wear that one when we have company over for dinner.)

Ladling the curds into the cheesecloth for draining. After all these years of using cheesecloth, it's cool finally getting the chance to use it for the purpose for which it was originally created!

Draining the curds to get rid of the extra whey--which we will use to make ricotta. It's great getting a second cheese from this enterprise.

Mixing fine salt into the curds. If you're a seasoned cheese maker, you'll note that these curds are too small. Beginner's mistake--we let the water bath get too warm too fast. We'll see if this affects either flavor or texture in the long run.

The curds in their mold rest under 20 pounds of pressure--actually, a little more. Yes, those are hand weights and a can of tomatoes. It's smart to use what you have on hand before investing in a proper cheese press, just in case you discover you really don't enjoy making cheese.

While the future-cheddar did its initial draining, we simmered the remaining whey, skimmed the second batch of curds and made ricotta from that. The first taste told us it would be great for breakfast, so we mixed in some sugar seasoned with vanilla, cinnamon and cardamom and popped it into the fridge.

Of course, we dirtied up every implement in the kitchen and got in each other's way and probably did at least a dozen things in the least efficient way possible, but that's okay. This is our foray into cheese making. The more you do anything, the better you get at it. And we both feel like this is something we'll want to do again and again and again . . . So eventually, we'll streamline the operation and--we hope--begin producing cheese like pros.

As the mass of curds sits beneath its homemade press overnight, we keep sneaking peeks at it, resting securely in the laundry room, so the cats can't get at it. It's
like a first time bread baker admiring the dough as it rises.

Ah, there's such wisdom to be gleaned from The Life of Brian. Andy and I do feel blessed to be trying something new, that promises to yield a tasty and rewarding product in the end. And we feel blessed to be having a good time working on this project together. Yes indeed, blessed are the cheese makers!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Getting Autumn the Best Way We Can

Here in Southern California we don't get much change in the leaves until AFTER Christmas. And seeing nature's orange, red and gold confetti in January sits a little oddly--it's like seeing Christmas decorations in April or lots of American flags at Halloween. (Of course, with the general election falling just four days after Halloween this year, I guess we will be experiencing the orange & black/red, white & blue eyeball disconnect soon.)

This past weekend, Andy and I cruised up the coast to enjoy a change of scenery and celebrate our anniversary away from the crush of LA busy-ness. Along the way we stopped at Underwood's, our favorite place to pick up fresh produce when we're making a jaunt to the country.

They do a good job this time of year of making you think it's actually autumn, or at least the kind of autumn people get in other parts of the country. The kind of autumn I really miss. So stopping here was necessary, even if we didn't need to buy anything (of course, we brought a cooler and packed it with fruits and veggies).

The place was covered in pumpkins, Indian corn (do they call it Native American corn now?) and gourds of all types, including some quite peculiar ones, the likes of which I've never seen.

I just had to bring some of them home. These two look rather like birds nesting in my bumble bee bowl. They're curious enough that I might have to keep them around even after the harvest season has passed. Maybe I'll make tiny Santa hats for them to wear . . .

This trip was one of those we occasionally indulge in with a full tank and an empty agenda. Only after we started our drive did we decide to do some wine tasting in Los Olivos, in Santa Barbara County's Santa Ynez Valley. This hamlet has a number of tasting rooms to choose from, so we stopped at the one with the sleeping cat on the porch. To my mind, that's a better indicator of a good place to sip wine than simply picking one with any mention of the movie Sideways posted outside. (Yes, there are still people who visit the area looking for a tasting room that will allow them to recreate the film's infamous spit bucket scene for their camera-wielding friends.)

Of course, tasting led to buying, which led to planning meals with which to enjoy the wines we selected. The syrah we'll pull out next time we put pork ribs into the smoker. That should happen soon, now that the evenings are getting cool, and smoky rich flavors beckon. The riesling was a surprise purchase, because neither of us are fans of sweet wines. This one is unusual, though, because it's sweet and yet minerally. We're eager to see what kinds of foods it will pair well with. I'm betting it will be pretty versatile. And the port, well, we went back and forth with the port. I leaned toward the tawny, which would pair well with salty cheeses, and Andy leaned toward the ruby, with its chocolate-loving potential. Finally we settled on the ruby, since we knew we had some tawny left at home.

One of Los Olivos' galleries has an outdoor sculpture gallery, which includes this fine lass in all her whisk-haired splendor. I don't think L'Oreal can help her, even if she IS worth it.

After prowling the business district with its abundance of galleries, we went for dinner, which finished the job of putting us in the mood for fall. Andy's pumpkin papardelle with duck confit, toasted walnuts, dried mission figs and sage beurre noisette helped us bid goodbye to summer's light salady fare. The heft of the duck, pasta and figs and the richness of their flavors paired well with the warm syrah in his glass and the cool stirring of the autumn air around our table out on the restaurant porch.

Mushrooms always remind me of cool weather, so the portobello layered with pecan caviar and gruyerre, baked in a crust and served on a bed of wilted spinach with a port jus, was just what I required--sweet, salty and earthy with a slight kick from the jus and a grating of lemon peel. And it looked so amazing that I heard each diner who passed behind me ask their server, "What IS that!?"

It was a good meal, a good drive, a good day and a great way to spend time with my favorite person. Autumn excursions always seem to be the best. We tend to luxuriate in the golden light and linger over wine and conversation, talking about trips past and things we'd like to do--or do again. The walks seem more leisurely and the times, somehow more special. I don't know what it is about autumn that makes these things so, but it does, at least for me.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Grape: From Soil to Sip

This past Saturday, the last of September, was a great day for getting into the wine spirit. I started by trekking up into the Santa Monica Mountains early that morning to visit the vineyard of a local winemaker, someone who actually grows wine grapes within Los Angeles proper. I’m discovering that, as it turns out, a number of people do.

The angle of various aspects of the mountains to the sun and their proximity to the ocean create varied micro climates which produce an array of wines in a relatively small area. Backyard vintners are beginning to craft wines that, while not on the production scale of the big boys in the outlying areas and upstate, are artfully done and quite special. And, truthfully, these people are not interested in competing with the big boys. This is an enterprise of love.

Cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapevines hugged the steep mountainside as the sun bore down on them--and on us--with the intensity of a summer reluctant to depart. The grapes we sampled were sweet and juicy and filled with the more complex flavors of grapes that are NOT intended for juice production. Our host instructed us to press the grapes in our mouths with our tongues and push the seeds to the side. After we'd savored the grapes, he told us to bite into the seeds themselves to register their bitterness on the sides of the tongue. Adequate bitterness and astringency in the seeds, he explained, are the real indicators of whether the grapes are ready to harvest. They still had just a bit of time to go before picking, he said.

Peek-a-boo! Netting over the grapes prevents birds and most bees from getting to the fruit, while allowing the sun, soil and vine to work their magic.

Row upon row of these veiled vines have a wacky hillside-full-of-Miss-Havishams look about them.

This was an admire-the-vines visit, not a tasting visit. I'd mentioned to one of my fellow visitors, Susan, that Andy and I planned to do some wine tasting that afternoon. She immediately suggested Palate, a new restaurant in Glendale. It turns out her husband Octavio is the chef/principal. By the time Andy and I arrived at the door a couple of hours later, he and wine director Steve were waiting for us!

Palate is not just a restaurant, not just a wine bar and not just a wine store. It's all of the above, along with wine storage facilities and even a food and wine library!

It was a lazy Saturday afternoon, and we had the wine bar to ourselves, as most people converge on the place at dinnertime. Steve, who is filled with equal parts wine knowledge and wine passion, clued us in on the pedigrees of the wines we sampled and later selected to carry home.

Andy & I appreciate a wine bar where you can consider the offerings on the chalkboard while you're sipping and sampling.

We spent a pleasant couple of hours sampling their wines, which were all appealing, decidedly eclectic--and affordable!--and munching on a variety of artisanal cheeses, salumi, Berkshire pork rillettes, delicately pickled vegetables and homemade butter. (If you've never given butter a second thought, just go looking for the good stuff. You won't want to bother with smearing it on bread--you'll want to eat it right off the plate with your fingers!)

Homemade butter, homemade bread . . .

Pork rillettes, pickled onions and pickled lemon cucumber, backed up with buttered, toasted bread sliced so thinly that it seemed to have only one side!

These guys even feature lardo on their charcuterie plate.
Why would anyone ever trim away the fat--except to showcase it like this!

Chef Gary Menes stopped by with an armload of salumi for his appreciative audience. We ooh'd and aah'd respectfully as thinly-shaved slices of porky heaven melted on our tongues. (Sorry! I'll try not to wade so deeply into Ruth Reichl's food porn territory!)

Chef Gary and enough spicy, cured pork
to keep L.A.'s food enthusiasts purring for awhile.

After sipping and sampling and chatting with Steve, Octavio and Gary, we made our wine purchases, and then trundled home for our postprandial snooze. We didn't eat anything the rest of the day. We didn't need to, as we were quite satisfied with the quality and quantity of our midday meal.

From grapevine to wine stem, it was a good day to be a wine lover.

P.S. I spotted a bucket of wine corks sitting on a window ledge and had to shoot a couple of pix. This is the new desktop photo on my computer.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cookbooks Are Great History Texts

Today I had the pleasure of examining some cookbooks from the 1800s through 1904, all newly purchased by the Culinary Historians of Southern California for donation to the Los Angeles Public Library's cookbook section.

Cookbooks of any era are marvelous eyepieces for glimpsing into a particular time and place and for gathering clues about how people lived, cooked and ate. I'm glad I had the presence of mind to shoot a few photos of what was in front of me--I just wish I'd taken more. These books are treasures, not just for their recipes, but because they provide a unique form of time travel.

Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen, published in 1873, was written by a woman whose name we do not know. Identified as Mrs. B.C. Howard, we are only sure who she married. Some of the recipes are quite simple, as in the instructions for roasting pheasant: Roast the pheasant the same way you do a chicken. The implication is that everyone already knows how to roast a chicken, an assumption you can't make today.

Other recipes are for dishes you just don't see on menus and in cookbooks nowadays, as in "Veal Bewitched":

The recipe notes that veal bewitched tastes like boned turkey. These days turkey costs much less than veal, so during the time in which this book was written, veal must have been the bargain meat, and this description would have encouraged cooks to give the dish a try. Speaking of things you won't find in a menu or a cookbook these days, the words "meat" and "jelly" seldom appear on the same page, much less in the same phrase.

The 1904
Blue Grass Cook Book by Minnie C. Fox (well, this is a step in the right direction, as there's no indicator this time of marital status) includes a collection of photos, not of particular dishes or ingredients or even kitchens. No, throughout the book are photos like this one:

I doubt it was the author's intent to make us all cringe while looking through her cookbook (she probably never envisioned someone from 2008 even finding it). But it's difficult not to, when you see images like this with captions like this. I have to keep reminding myself that this is simply the way it was then. This is history preserved for our consideration.

Her recipes include instructions that few home cooks have to follow anymore: "Kill your hogs when the wind is from the northwest." If you are unsure about how to cook your ham, on account of its age, you're instructed: "Never bake a ham under a year old." If it's an old one, you're instructed: "Scrub well and soak an old ham in plenty of water for 48 hours."

It includes instructions for opening and dressing a terrapin. How many people today even know what a terrapin is without googling it? (And how many people 104 years from now will know what "googling" means in this dusty old blog that somehow has survived?)

By the way, I just love the author's name, Minnie Fox. Wonder if she was petite, with red hair, pointy features and a fondness for barnyard fowl?

One particularly rare and valuable cookbook was set down by hand in a most beautiful pen. No one writes like this anymore:

I'm guessing Esther made an A in penmanship.

This cookbook is in two volumes, one of which includes an index of recipes. I'd say our scribe had a thing for organization. Unfortunately, I can't read Spanish, beyond the rudimentary (abierto, cerado, baños), so I must leave the secrets of history locked in her recipes for someone else to discover.

I began this line of thought back in the summer with a blog that mentioned my 1930s New Orleans cookbook. Makes me want to revisit it (if you're interested, take a look at my blog of July 30, 2008, "Hand-Wringing Over Neck-Wringing"). There's a world of New Orleans history inside that tiny tome on cooking, just as there's a world of history inside most every cookbook.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Backyard Treasure Chest: avocados are my emeralds

The few, the proud, the un-nibbled . . .

I’m in my free-food excitement mode again. Well, yes, technically we paid for the avocado tree when we bought the house, but since it isn't a Haas, I've never given its yield much respect or much thought. Also, most of the avocados have bites missing, courtesy of the squirrels who nibble-and-toss, nibble-and-toss, leaving the ground covered with avocados every day and making the territory under the tree a hardhat zone. (I’ve been conked on the noggy before by an avocado-chucking squirrel, and believe me, it HURTS!)

I’m thrifty, but you have to draw the line somewhere. I will NOT carve off the squirrel gnawings and eat the rest! The idea of squirrel cooties just doesn't sit well with my appetite.

It irks me to have to throw away so many avocados. So if I find any on the ground that have dropped of their own accord and have no bites missing, I grab them up and trot inside with them. Since I can gather so few for our own use (occasionally I manage pull one off a low branch with the edge of the hoe), it's as if they're a wild plant that I've happened to run across. And if you’ve been following my blog, you know that I also get excited about harvesting and eating things like nettles, dandelions and chickweed that grow wild in my yard.

Okay students, let's review: the young dandelion and the chickweed just starting to grow in and among these chives are as important to me as the chives themselves.

I recently found a book on avocados and ID'd the type that of tree grows in our yard. It's the fuerte, so named because of its vigorous nature. It turns out that you really can do a lot with this variety. The book even suggests roasting, which I’ll have to try.

Considering how expensive avocados are, and increasingly so in this economy, I'm going to have to develop a taste for our variety. It's nice not having to drop lots of green on this quite pricey green.

Hmm, let's see, dips, shakes, soups,
sandwich filling, salad ingredient, omelet topping . . . This could involve more avocados than I can rescue from the greedy little paws of the squirrels we collectively call Chunky. Perhaps squirrel stew with an avocado garnish? . . .

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sandwich Thieves Beware!

A quick note:

Check out this clever new way to protect your lunch from thieves. The Anti-Theft Lunch Bag
is a great idea for throwing off those with sticky fingers who might be inclined to steal your lunch. One look and they'll move on to someone else's stash in the fridge at work.

Funnier and more legal than rat poison.

Bravo to the creator of this one!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

WWGE? (What Would Granny Eat?)

"Don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize."

This is one of Michael Pollan's primary tenets in The Omnivore's Dilemma that help cut through all the confusion about which foods to eat and which to avoid.

Traditionally this has been sound advice. If you ate something in my maternal grandmother's kitchen, she'd made it. In my paternal grandmother's kitchen, about the only food you'd find that she hadn't made was ice cream, so this advice holds pretty well for me.

But how about people who were kids in the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, the 00s? Problem is, we've had enough years of fast food and junk food that these days grandmother and great-grandmother most likely recognize all sorts of unhealthy pseudo food options and possibly feed them to their grand kids. Life's busy, and fast food's convenient. It fills the hollow spot, but at what cost? How many things do we spend time on that are actually more important than taking good care of ourselves and our families?

Now that granny knows her Ho Hos, her Ring Dings and her Yoo-hoos, it's becoming ever more crucial that we follow the advice of nutritionist and molecular biologist Marion Nestle in her book What to Eat, and shop only around the periphery of the grocery, where the fresh produce, meat, dairy products and eggs are. These are all things that even a modern, multitasking granny would recognize. Well, I'm from rural Tennessee, so maybe not the starfruit or the ostrich steaks. But you get the idea.

I admit it, I love Cheetos, but a small bag every now and then is not the same as supplementing a meal with them on a regular basis. Who decided that a sandwich had to have chips next to it to make a meal? Whatever happened to carrot sticks? or even a pickle?

If you have to ease into wiser food choices, that's better than not doing it at all. So if you're stuck on your machine-extruded faux cheese slices wrapped in cellophane (which no cow would ever own to having helped produce), at least snuggle them into a couple of pieces of whole wheat bread with some lettuce and tomato. That's not so very difficult. Next time you might even get adventurous and find yourself some real cheese. And guess what? It will taste worlds better than that stuff you used to eat.

Real food for real people. How about it?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Uses For Overripe Tomatoes, part 2

While rummaging about in the fridge for the makings of today's lunch, I found a way-past-its-prime tomato hiding in the bottom of the veggie bin. Not moldy and unsafe, just soft and a bit leaky. It was one I'd gotten from my friend, Ann, who lives in a community where they compost to beat the band and grow an amazing garden full of great vegetables, including some intensely flavorful tomatoes. What it was doing in there I'm not sure, since I don't usually refrigerate tomatoes--that environment is tough on them.
Rather than toss out the sad specimen of my neglect, I puréed it on the grater and used it as the base for a salad dressing. I whisked in some banyuls, a splash of garum, some chopped shallot, salt, pepper and olive oil. Of course, this is completely open to interpretation--it would still be good with sherry vinegar or balsamic, a bit of anchovy paste, a touch of dijon, maybe even the yolk of a boiled egg and some smoked salt.

When there's a really good tomato at stake, why toss it out? It's loaded with flavor, and that would be a pity to waste. Using a grater is the way to go with this, because it's a quick, easy clean up, and since you're not mechanically puréeing the tomato, you don't have to worry about the bitterness of its seeds. And the skin stays in your hand while the flesh goes into the dish beneath the grater.

The tomato dressing was great on my salad, and I mopped up the remaining juices with a piece of crusty bread. I just can't let any of the good stuff go to waste.

As much as I appreciate the anarchy of the occasional food fight, I've never understood what takes over people in Bunol, Spain, who annually engage in a citywide tomato tossing frenzy. I'd rather fling something I'm not so crazy about (I once accidentally instigated a food fight in my college cafeteria when I chucked a dish of fried okra at someone, but that story's for another time.)

It would be okay by me if the tomatoes they throw in Bunol's "Tomatina" were of the hothouse variety. However, I have a feeling that if I were to blow into town during that event, I'd be mopping the streets with loaves of bread. And I'll bet that if the citizenry of Bunol were ever forced to eat hothouse tomatoes, that's the only type they'd ever throw.

Canning tomatoes is good, but could you canonize one?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Slow Food Nation in Retrospect

I attended Slow Food Nation in San Francisco over Labor Day weekend and am still processing the experience. I belong to Slow Food but have had a love-hate relationship with it all along. Love its great intentions but strongly dislike (perhaps hate is too strong a word) the self-importance I perceive in of much of its hierarchy.

My impressions from the weekend? There's more to love than to hate, as there typically is with most things in life. I was glad to find such an array of people interested in the work of Slow Food--not just food professionals and not just the wealthy. I was surrounded by everyday people who appreciate good food and who realize that you won't find it in a fast food restaurant or in the local mega-grocery with its canyons of processed, oversalted, oversugared, partially-hydrogenated, artificially colored and high-fructose-corn-syrup-injected body rotting tastelessness. (But tell me, Carol, how do you REALLY feel?)

We talked about and explored good food, from how to grow it, make it, prepare it and enjoy it, to how to teach kids about it, push for legislation to ensure it and make it available to everyone.

I met some really inspiring people. Among them: a young man who works as an engineer but who enjoys curing meats in his free time. He makes his own pancetta, bacon and the like, in his tiny apartment. He says they taste vastly better than what the grocery offers and cost a fraction of what the grocery charges. And I met a woman who tired of a career in information technology, so she's opening a gourmet store in a rather smallish town in the Midwest. I found similar stories again and again.

It amazes me how many professionals decide at some point to ditch their careers and plunge into some aspect of food. Perhaps it's more than the desire to eat something tasty and healthy. Perhaps they crave the social aspects of it and the goodwill you generate when you share good food with others. I don't know. But I DO know that that works for me.
Slow Food Nation's Taste Pavilion, along with workshops and author readings, took place at Fort Mason on San Francisco Bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

In the end, I appreciate that Slow Food provides an outlet for learning about and sharing responsibly produced food. Decent food shouldn't be exclusive or out of reach for anyone. And insofar as Slow Food is able to chip away at the problems in providing an adequate, safe, nutritional food supply for all, I'm on board.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Nuclear Soup

This time of year a lot of attention is paid to putting up fruits and vegetables for the winter. Since I live in southern California with its year-round growing season, it doesn't seem quite so crucial, although the nesting impulse is always there that makes me want to put things back for a harsh season that just never seems to materialize out here in the land of endless summer.

No, now that summer is winding down, it's about time to pull out the stockpot and make chicken and beef stocks. It's great having both in the freezer--along with a bit of demi-glace--for making great soups, stews and sauces during the coming months, especially when holiday cooking time rolls around. But I employ that giant stockpot for another reason--to make what we in our household call "nuclear soup."

Looks mild mannered but it packs a punch!

Nuclear soup has no set recipe. Essentially, it is a chicken and vegetable soup that includes grain--sometimes barley, sometimes brown rice, sometimes something else--and that's loaded with as much garlic, onion and cayenne pepper as I dare put into it. This stuff is purely medicinal. Whenever one of us starts to sneeze, cough or feel the familiar malaise that signals the impending arrival of a winter cold or infection, we thaw some nuclear soup and shovel it in. It has the power to loosen the tightest head cold and ease and warm the passages from skull to chest.

I don't know if there's any hard science behind it--although for many years garlic has been touted as Russian penicillin--but I just know what happens when one of us eats it while we have a case of the winter miseries. Or the summer miseries--my husband, Andy, is suffering with a summer cold right now, which feels particularly bad when the temps reach into the 90s.

We're out of nuclear soup, so I just popped out for some chicken to make a new batch, enough to last us through this cold and, I hope, through several more. Each batch is different, depending on what's on hand, but I prefer to base the soup on lots of dark chicken meat, because it has better flavor and doesn't dry out. Sometimes I use a whole chicken, so I get the stock-enriching benefits of the carcass. I always have carrots and celery to go with the onion and garlic. Today I'm adding fennel and leeks, because they're languishing in the veggie bin, and farro, because I have a new bag of this grain and I've never made soup with it before. Sometimes I toss in potatoes, parsnips, turnips or rutabagas. As I said, whatever is on hand will do (well, maybe not gummy bears or miniature marshmallows!). I'll also add a fistful of fresh herbs from the garden, just to jazz it up.

The idea isn't to kill the person you're trying to nurse back to health, so I try not to get stupid when it comes to the cayenne, but rather I seek a balance between reasonable and bold. As for the smelly stuff, I typically use one large onion and one full head of garlic, sliced or minced.

It's possible to make nuclear soup so that it's both tasty and health restoring, so I do taste as I go. Once when Andy had a particularly bad cold and his head was completely blocked, he started into a bowl of nuclear soup, and by the time he was halfway through, everything opened up. After an extended nose-blowing session, he resumed his meal and then said, "Hey, this tastes good!"

And so it should. Being sick is punishment enough without having our tastebuds dulled by whatever it is that's responsible for such evil.

Soup's on, and Andy's home, so it's time to feed him and burp him and put him to bed.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Garden Roll-Ups

I've officially gotten tired of Cosmo swiping the cherry tomatoes off the kitchen counter and making cat toys of them. So I've begun eating them in the yard, never even bringing them into the house.
While they're good on their own, I yearned to do more with them. So one day while watering out back, I devised what I call the garden roll-up (okay, so I was hungry, too). I hosed off some cherry tomatoes and some sorrel and Swiss chard leaves. I layered the leaves, added a bit of oregano from the herb bed and rolled it all around a cherry tomato. It made a great little snack while I was watering the garden.

You can do this with most anything that's available in the garden, as long as it fits in a rolled leaf. This rules out watermelon. And anything that requires cooking, like eggplant. But still, it's a nice way to enjoy fresh garden flavors with absolutely NO work.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Heirloom Heaven

Tomato-Basil-Balsamic Sorbet: I've gotta find a shorter name for it!

I’m loving myself again after momentarily hating myself.

The first time I ever heard of heirloom tomatoes, I made jokes about finding wrinkly, old, dried out veggies stashed in grandma’s attic (my grandmother kept EVERYTHING, so that was a possibility). But with the first enticing bite, I knew they were something extraordinary with which I was destined to become good friends. They typically set me back about $7 or $8 a pound, so for reasons of both economics and sheer pleasure, I refuse to ever let one go bad.
By yesterday, however, I had let several go seriously soft (I never refrigerate them, since the extreme cold damages both flavor and texture.). So after I kicked my own tush around the house for a few minutes for being a lazy, wasteful git, I decided to try making sorbet with those too-soft-for-anything-else specimens of culinary indulgence.

I’ve seen plenty of tomato sorbet recipes and always thought they sounded interesting, so this was a great opportunity to give tomato sorbet a try. Technically, the tomato is a fruit, right? So it stands to reason—to me, anyway—that a really well developed, fresh one would have great dessert potential.

With the heirlooms, I knew there would be loads more flavor, so I wanted to build my recipe carefully and take maximum advantage of them. I dug up a basic sorbet recipe and then—as I always do—changed it entirely. Mainly I look to recipes as a starting point, just to get the basic ratios right. Then I climb into my cockpit, toss the recipe over the side and start executing all sorts of mid-air acrobatics. It’s great fun playing in the kitchen, isn’t it?

For a sorbet, I knew it would be essential to use only really really ripe tomatoes—and never hothouse. I needed a few extras to complete the full two pounds, so I grabbed a couple of tomatoes a friend with an organic garden had given me. They had that intensity of flavor that improves whatever they’re near. I made up the simple syrup, and while it cooled, I peeled the tomatoes, which handle beautifully when they’re this ripe, and put them through the food mill.

I’m convinced that this was one of the factors in the sorbet turning out so well. The mill doesn’t thrash everything to death the way a blender or food processor does, and it expresses maximum pulp and juice without letting the seeds pass through. I also strained every last bit of juice that remained after the peeling and seeding, and even squeegeed the juice from the cutting board—I wanted it all.

Then I chopped the fresh basil finely, so there would be no strands catching on the mixing arm of the ice cream maker. And I used a really high-quality balsamic vinegar. Not the extra vecchio traditionale I’d spent a mortgage payment on in Modena, but something almost as exceptional. It was sweet, smooth and complex, without the tonsil-seizing aggressiveness of the cheap (and fake) stuff. And I added the barest pinch of salt, something I never see in sorbet recipes. It’s a great flavor balancer, so I figured, why not give it a try?

The resulting sorbet is something I’m exceptionally proud of. It has a wonderfully complex flavor, the most sophisticated thing I’ve ever conjured up on my own. Complex but not kitchen-sink busy. The natural sweetness of those overripe tomatoes, along with the sweetness of the balsamic, rein in the one-dimensional sweetness of the sugar. In spite of all that sweetness, it’s not too sweet. And in spite of there being both tomatoes and balsamic vinegar in the sorbet, it isn’t terribly acidic. The flavors are well balanced, and the sorbet has a nice harmony on the tongue.

Plenty of tomato sorbet recipes call for basil and perhaps balsamic, but I think four things helped me produce a really great sorbet: using heirloom tomatoes, including a primo balsamic, adding that hint of salt and gently milling the tomatoes.

Maybe extreme cold is damaging to a fresh tomato, but when I took that same tomato and made sorbet from it, something wonderful happened. Because of the cold? In spite of the cold? I’m trying not to overanalyze it. I want to simply enjoy it.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Ernest Hemingway . . . Foodie?

When I think of Ernest Hemingway, I think of an economy of prose bordering on the miserly. He certainly was not one to waste words, most likely because of his training and background as a reporter. And while he seemed fond of topics including war, fishing, war, hunting, war, drinking, war, screwing and war, the man could write about food.

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
 Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

While I first read A Moveable Feast ages ago, I just recently noticed this passage, and boy am I impressed. I’m there with him, chasing those briny oysters with a dry white wine. But it’s not just food talk. This combination seems to lift his character (most likely Hemingway himself) above the cold, rainy day and remind him there’s something better beyond it. Sometimes the perfect food, beverage or combination of the two can transport you this way, so that you move beyond mere sustenance into, what, optimism? Yeah, I think so.

I don’t believe he’s talking about depression-inspired gorging. After all, do those who eat this way ever actually TASTE the food they’re gorging on? And do they feel happy afterward? If they did, I’m sure there would be at least a dozen bestsellers written on it. “Eat Your Way Out of Depression.” “Pigging Out for Dummies.” “I Gorged My Way to Happiness and So Can YOU!”

Maybe this would be an instructive exercise to try next time I’m down, to find a great food and a great wine to pair with it, then set the table with linen (no paper napkins allowed!), pour the wine and eat and drink slowly, deliberately and with attention to detail. Even if it doesn’t actually lift me from the funk, it would give me something to blog about. And maybe that’s all I really need—something to get me outside of myself. I’d say that’s worth a few calories.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hand-Wringing Over Neck-Wringing

One of my favorite cookbooks is New Orleans Recipes, a wee tome originally published in the 1930s. While the book contains authentic Creole recipes, it also reflects a distinctly different sensibility, complete with cringe-inducing, Aunt Jemima-type cover art and a way of preparing food that’s quite removed from today’s comestibles that too often are: 1. heat-and-eat 2. dump-into-a-bowl-and-stir-in-a-cup-of-water or 3. pick-up-at-a-drive-through-window-from-a-surly-teen.

The cooking fat in this book is typically lard, and as for precision of measurement, you’re instructed to “get a knob of lard about the size of a walnut.” Occasionally it will tell you to fry something “in a heaping tablespoon of butter.” A chicken recipe will tell you to go out and get a chicken that weighs about two or three pounds, and of course, that means stepping out your door and selecting the appropriate chicken from amongst those pecking around in your yard--and killing and cleaning it--before you ever get started on the recipe. (It goes without saying that dieters and vegans were not considered a part of the cookbook-buying public in those days.)

This was a reality of my mother’s growing up years in the country, but since she helped my grandfather with the farm chores, my grandmother was the one who always took care of chicken detail. My mother knew this was something she should learn to do, too. So one afternoon she attempted to dispatch a chicken using the same fling-n-twist action she’d seem my grandmother perform. Unfortunately, she succeeded only in tearing the skin away from the neck, so that it pulled down over the chicken’s head. Then she lost her grip, and the chicken got away from her and raced blindly around the yard, as if it had a turtleneck sweater pulled over its head. Finally, my grandmother had to run out and catch it and put it out of its misery. (While my mother has always been willing and able to take on difficult chores, that remains one of the few times she has ever attempted to wring a chicken’s neck.)

To the average cook these days, the most difficult part of preparing chicken is buying a whole one and having to break it down. (Of course, with rising food prices, it’s a skill that can save you some money.) Largely, we’re spared such chores, so most everyone forgets that dinner started out as a sentient being, minding its own business in the farm yard. It’s much easier to eat meat when you don’t do battle with it first.

Not that I want to slaughter every piece of meat I set about to eat, but having spent my early years witnessing the cycle of life and death on the farm makes me appreciate it all the more. One thing I hate most is having to toss out meat that I’ve left in the fridge too long. It seems disrespectful to the animal it came from.

There are some who see any meat consumption as inherently disrespectful of the animal, but I agree with Fergus Henderson, Tony Bourdain and all the other chefs who talk about respect for the living thing that died so you could eat: The best way to show your regard for these critters who are raised to feed us is to take full advantage of all they have to offer. That’s what Fergus’ nose-to-tail cooking and eating is all about.

And as for that neck-wringing business, I'd say those chickens lived a pretty fine life pecking and scratching around on the farm up until that final moment, and in the hands of my grandmother, the pro, the end was quick and merciful.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Change in Choice of Beverage

My friend, the lovely and talented Missi Pyle, sent an e-mail this morning announcing the release of her new album, It’s OK To Be Happy. (plug plug plug) I’d just poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down to listen to it online (and to BUY IT, I promise, Missi!). About 30 seconds into the first song, the house began to shimmy like mad, and the cats all flew into the back and—I assume—under the bed. I couldn’t fit under there and had to settle for crawling under the table. We’re all still pretty jittery. Of course, I joked to Missi that it was the impact of her music that made it seem as if the whole earth were moving . . . It was really odd listening to her singing away while I was crouched under the table, wondering when the house would quit shaking.

At times like this, you just don’t need coffee. After the earthquake was over, I traded the java for a slug of Jameson’s. And then another. Now I feel much better, although adrenaline and whiskey make for an unsteady combination, especially since I was too shaken up to eat lunch. I must admit, though, a good Irish whiskey trumps supermarket coffee any day.

Well, good luck with the album, Missi! I'm hoisting the Jameson's bottle in your direction. See you soon. xoxo

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dream Omelet

God bless The Onion! Those guys can make me snort soup through my nose every time.

Check out Chef Cooks 'Dream Omelet' From Recipe That Came To Him In A Dream. It's a great antidote for all those years of cooking demos we’ve endured on the morning television "news" shows.

Bon appetit! And if you're not going to eat those keys, may I have them? I'm starved!

(And if you're in the mood for more Onion-styled, food-related silly business, check out their news report
Domino's Scientists Test Limits Of What Humans Will Eat.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

We’ll Always Have Paris

As I read the blog of my colleague, Jackie, who just returned from eating her way through Paris (Jackie, I hope you packed your stretchy pants!), I’m recalling my visits there and wishing I’d been blogging in those days.

Well, it’s a toss-up. If I HAD been blogging then, I’d have spent precious time at the computer instead of exploring. But blogging forces you to pay more attention to what you’re seeing, eating and experiencing. Also, you can sit in an Internet café and capture your experiences at the keyboard when your feet have had all of the Louvre or the Great Wall of China or (you fill in the tourist-must-see) they can handle for one day. (Sometimes being in the Internet café becomes the experience itself. Once I was caught in a blackout in one with an array of people from all over the world during a fierce thunderstorm in Siena, Italy. Being inside that stone maze of a town with the thunder rolling through, I felt as if I were a pin in God’s own bowling alley!)

On my most recent trip to Paris, this time with my husband, Andy, we stayed in a great bed and breakfast in Montmartre, in a neighborhood where we lived as temporary locals. We saw tourists and other Americans only when we ventured beyond the few blocks where we bought our groceries and typed our e-mails. The shopkeepers were startled to see us, and many spoke no English at all. But our curiosity about authentic local foods and our willingness to try to communicate in French—as pathetic as we were at it—melted any negative feelings they might have had about tourists. They treated us graciously and with hospitality.
Tomatoes like this will make you want to dodge the supermarket forever after.

“Bonjour! Je voudrais deux baguettes, s’il vous plaît” (pronounced badly) began to come to me easily (In case you have even less French that I do, that’s, “Good morning, I’d like two baguettes, please.”) We shopped for our food the way Parisians do—bread from the boulangerie, cheese from the fromagerie, fruit and veg from the sidewalk stands and sweets from the pâtisserie. This made for great snacking, picnicking and eating at home when we were just too tired to leave the flat after a long day of prowling. Eating this way was also less expensive, but, more importantly, it allowed us to get an idea of how Parisians go about their daily lives.
The street view from our window: the meringue-like basilica of Sacré Coeur and
the intriguing cemetery of Montmartre were a quick stroll away.

While we ate our share of meals out—always looking for places where the locals dined—we took many of our meals in our B&B, a flat we had all to ourselves in one of the many Haussmann-styled buildings that give Paris its seven-stories-with-a-balcony-covered-in-geraniums look. (They don’t call ’em “French doors” for nothing!) Each day while we were out and about, our hostess, Francoise, would sneak in and leave a round of creamy camembert for us in our tiny kitchen, a bottle of wine, or, once she decided she liked us, a jar of her mother’s wonderful homemade strawberry jam.
Our kitchen window offered an array of fresh herbs and
a view of the neighbors’ kitchen windows and THEIR fresh herbs.

Jackie rhapsodizes in her blog about the macarons at Ladurée and Pierre Hermé—and the pictures she took certainly back her up--at least visually. While I haven’t made it to Hermé yet, Ladurée was a revelation in the way Parisians take their time and take their afternoon repast. And yes, I, like many food-obsessed visitors to Paris, have since tried to make macarons, with varying degrees of success.
My first attempt at making macarons—trickier than a soufflé, they are.

And she apologizes for misspellings, since she’s typing on a different keyboard. That’s a travel frustration I find intriguing—what are all those extra characters on the keyboard? And where did they move the @ sign? When you’re blogging or e-mailing from a foreign keyboard, you find yourself fumbling as if you’re back in Typing I class. After awhile, you peck out a hasty “sorry for the typos” and keep right on going, because you’re under the gun, spending both time and money (as in by-the-minute Internet charges) so you don’t want to waste any of either.

So what if it’s been almost two years since our last visit to Paris? There's no blogging statute of limitations, is there? One of the pleasures of travel is that by looking at photos and recounting to others what you did while you were there, you continue revisiting a place for years to come. We'll always have Paris, as Monsieur Rick says. He's right. And so is Hemingway. Paris IS a movable feast, but the urge is strong to return and plunge once more into its sights, sounds, textures, tastes and aromas . . . its Paris-ness!
Where else would you find door handles made of copper pans and lids?

To whet your appetite with great pix and commentary, check out Jackie’s blog, Foodie Reflections. Welcome back, Jackie!

And if you want to see some of our meals and get a feel for our visit, more photos of our trip to Paris are located in the Tours section of my website, Hungry Passport Culinary Adventures. Just click on the Eiffel Tower photo on the right hand side.
Maybe by the time I return they'll have that leaky-sphynx problem taken care of!

Some things are just too odd not to shoot a picture of.
(I just noticed our reflection in the glass in front of this poster!)

Au revoir!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Fun with mathematics & small, round food

100% of my cherry tomato harvest disappeared from the kitchen counter last night.

While we slept, the cherry tomatoes metamorphosed into cat toys. When I got up this morning, I found a lone tomato sitting in a shaft of sunlight on the kitchen floor.

Cosmo heard me in the kitchen, so he raced in and took up the game again, smacking the tomato this way and that.

Then he ignored it for awhile. After all, he IS the superior one.

The tomato tried to make a break for it but was captured in the end.


I don't like refrigerating tomatoes, as it destroys much of their flavor and delicate texture. So I guess I'm going to have to start keeping them in the microwave, along with the bread (see "The Bread Thief," April 25, 2008), so Cosmo doesn't make off with any more of the produce from our meager desert garden.

As for that tomato harvest, truthfully, there were only two tomatoes, since that's all that were ripe. But when you use percentages, you can make anything sound more dramatic, profound or whatever you need it to. (50% of the harvest is still missing!)

Another example: a squirrel made off with 25% of our tangerine crop last winter. We'd just planted a new tree, which had four tangerines on it, 25% of which dropped off through our clumsiness during planting. We later harvested 50%.

Gee, isn't math fun?!