Monday, August 31, 2009


During the latest public television begathon, Himself and I watched a very early episode of The French Chef in which JC made bouillabaisse. She seemed to think skinning an eel is a lot more fun than I do--of course when I did it in culinary school to make waterzooi, my eel was just a shade past its prime. Not surprising to me that there aren't tons of Belgian restaurants around. Maybe I just haven't had waterzooi under the best of circumstances yet.

See that steam rising from the clay pot filled with moqueca, and all those ripples in there? It continued to cook for several minutes after arriving at our table.

Anyway, this weekend we ventured into a Brazilian restaurant at Oxnard Harbor and ordered the dish for which the restaurant is named, Moqueca. This fish stew is essentially the Brazilian version of bouillabaisse, a hearty fisherman's stew. It was loaded with mussels, clams, shrimp and rings of calamari. The clay pot was so hot that the stew continued to cook for several minutes after the dish was set on our table. I imagine that just before it was brought to us, the broth was poured into this rippin' hot pot and raw seafood stirred in. By the time it arrived, the seafood was cooked but not overcooked. No rubber band stew for us, thankfully! The seafood was tender and delectable, the broth robust and flavorful. We ladled it over a bed of rice and seasoned it with pirão, a fish gravy, and pimenta malagueta, which was some serious sinus clearing stuff. I rank it in the "see God" category of peppers. Just the tiniest bit stirred into our moqueca enlivened the dish and added a lovely dimension to an already fine stew. I discovered later that moqueca is made with palm oil, an African influence, which is probably even less healthy than lard. So much for our feeling like we were getting a lean and healthy meal with all that seafood! Well, as long as it's an occasional splash of palm oil and not a regular thing...

Moqueca is another example of dishes that are more or less the same, being prepared in different parts of the world, using the local ingredients. This fisherman's stew was traditionally made of whatever was left after the morning's catch was brought in and sold. There does seem to be disagreement over whether or not adding coconut milk is legit, but essentially, this stew of fish, tomatoes, seasonings and fish stock sounds a lot like bouillabaisse to me. While you serve moqueca over rice, with pirão and malagueta for a boost of flavor, you serve bouillabaisse over grilled French bread and season it with a fiery rouille. These two dishes are at least cousins, I'd say, along with Portugal's caldeirada, Italy's cacciucco, San Francisco's cioppino--and even Belgium's waterzooi, I guess.

This stew is so important that these people named their restaurant for it! All around, it was a wonderful meal served by a gracious staff. Obrigado, Moqueca! We can't wait to return and sample more great Brazilian fare.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Addendum to the freezer blog:

While writing in my most recent blog entry about the freezer back home on the family farm, I mentioned the pressure canner. And that got me reminiscing about it, because it was a honking huge fixture of my childhood. Most things that were large when I was a child shrank when I got grown, things like candy bars and Girl Scout thin mints. But that dang pressure canner is just as big and imposing and scary as ever.

I'd mentioned it being a cross of Tin Man and Frankenstein’s Monster. But it's more like Frankenstein’s Monster and Iron Giant. Sorry I don’t have a picture of it to post. Next time I’m in Tennessee, I promise to photograph it in all its gartantuan, dull metallic glory. For now, this drawing* will have to do:
*I don’t have the deluxe 64-color crayon set, so a combination of brown, navy and black are having to substitute for gray.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Significance of a Full Freezer

Our freezer, with the ever-vigilant Cosmo making sure all is right and proper

When I was a kid, my mother once kept a whole mallard duck in the freezer--feathers and all--looking as if he were perched on a frozen pond, awaiting the spring thaw. She was painting a winter landscape with ducks in it, and Mr. Frosty McDuck, Esq. was her model. She'd pull him out and paint for a few minutes, then rush him back to the freezer before he began to thaw. I don't remember how long she kept him in there, but it seemed like forever that I had to push him out of the way to find one thing or another. He never made it onto the table as anything more an artist's model, but we ate plenty of duck each winter, so I don't recall his sacrifice for art depriving us too terribly.

A full freezer was an ever-present reminder during my growing-up years that we were going to be well fed throughout the winter months (artist's models excepted). Each autumn we had a steer and a hog butchered, with those dozens of neatly wrapped packages of potential meals divvied up amongst my parents and various other family members. We'd stash our share in what my folks called the "locker," a giant treasure chest of a freezer that dominated the room connecting the house and the garage. After all the meat was packed in--except for the hams and slabs of bacon, which were suspended from the rafters of the smokehouse--the rest of the space in the locker was devoted to whatever fruits and vegetables that had not been relegated to canning. I can still see the topnotch of that ginormous pressure canner dancing atop a geyser of steam, its bulk and hardware reminding me of a cross between Frankenstein’s monster and the tin man. But I digress.

Most freezers I peer into these days are packed with pizzas, frozen dinners and ice cream. It's all about convenience. But my freezer doesn't say, "Hey, let's eat now." Rather it says, "If you've got the time, I've got the ingredients." While I make and stash plenty of sauces and soups, my freezer harbors a collection of raw materials for constructing something yummy:

√ pint containers of homemade beef and chicken stock
√ the skeletal remains of a chicken I fabricated and from which I'll make more stock
√ homemade demi-glace
√ boneless, skinless chicken thighs--my secret weapon (they have great texture and flavor, and the meat doesn’t dry out)
√ hog jowls, another secret weapon, which I stash in my luggage each time I return from a visit back home in Tennessee
√ chunks of parmigiano-reggiano rind, which I toss into the soup pot to give it extra richness
√ bags of assorted nuts and dried fruits, which keep much better there than in the cabinet
√ frozen cranberries, so that I can cook and bake with those tangy gems when it isn’t November or December

Notice that lone box in the freezer? My one concession to pre-made is puff pastry dough. I actually did make pâte feuilletée a few times after culinary school, but dang! That's a lot of work. I guess you just have to decide what you do and don't have time for. Oh, and frozen croissants from my favorite French gourmet market. 19 minutes in the oven, and they're the best I've had outside of Paris.

So those are my freezer secrets. It’s not as revealing perhaps as a peek inside someone’s medicine cabinet or bedside drawer. But with that cache of foodstuff, I feel prepared to make a meal that I’m not ashamed to serve anyone.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Don't Say They Didn't Warn You!

On our way into a restaurant today we spotted this notice--let's call it a warning. You just can't be too careful about what you eat. Neither can you be too careful about what you serve or how you present that option to the public.

We opted for sandwiches, just to be on the safe side.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Low On the Hog Is High On the Hog

Andy and I love eating at Palate, because we never know exactly what will transpire, what we'll get to sample and who we'll be privileged to spend a pleasant evening with. This past week's dinner party brought together people from an array of backgrounds with a common thread--we all love good food, good wine and good conversation. And we had plenty of all the above.

We sampled an array of sublime French cheeses and wines--essentially, whatever Todd set in front of us disappeared down our happy, grateful gullets--followed by a succession of small plates from the CUI category, that is, Cooking Under the Influence of Cheese. We had ricotta gnocchi, scallops with fennel and a rich croque monsieur with a layer of "salumi butter" inside. Each of these three dishes was nestled under a blanket of delicate summer truffles shaved so thinly they had only one side. It's a good thing we were all sitting down--we were swooning and giggling like preteens at a concert.

Just when we were beginning to feel that life couldn't get any better, what should show up on our table but a juicy, succulent, flavorful pork belly, overlaid with a golden, crisped skin. You'd think that with Los Angeles' international population and its cultural and culinary diversity, this type of meal would be fairly easy to have. But until Palate came along, pork belly was nigh impossible to find here. Accompanying it was a generous dish of succotash of beans, potatoes, zucchini and corn freshly snipped from the cob, flavored with the internal organs of the very pig who's belly we stuffed into our own. It was inspired and inspiring, both soul food and soulful food.

Of the seven of us at the table there was overlap of acquaintance, but no one person knew everyone else when we all arrived. Sharing that amazing meal was a great ice breaker. It gave us something more significant to talk about than the weather, safer to discuss than politics and more fun to ponder than the latest celebrity shenanigans. The owner stopped by our table to chat, and throughout the evening so did the executive chef, the wine merchant and the cheese guy--completing the circle of those who planned the feast, those who prepared it and those who enjoyed it. We talked until well after the food and wine were gone, lingering until we realized that it was a weeknight and we all really did have to go home.

This is a typical Palate experience: Often the unexpected lands on your table, and you never know who will drop by to chat. No matter how often we go there, we're always surprised by something--and always in a good way.
We look happy, eh? Don't worry--we shared!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

BLT, Hold the Bread

Not to slight the bread, but sometimes just having the stuff in the middle is all you really need to be satisfied. BLT in a bowl with a little avocado and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano is a lovely thing.

Okay, I confess. I toasted the baguette and had it on the side...

Monday, August 3, 2009

Treasure Trove...

Thank you Ann! Thank you Ann! Thank you Ann! for the freshly-picked, homegrown tomatoes, the products of a community garden tended by many diligent and loving hands and nourished with homemade compost.

What shall I do with these lovelies? Make salad? pasta sauce? sorbet? Part of me just wants to fall face down on them and wallow in their summer freshness.

Okay, so that last part sounded really weird. But after pawing over my spindly, dried-out tomato plants and having to settle for their measly offerings that have split and become dehydrated by the harsh desert sun, and after going to the market and facing too many insipid hothouse tomatoes and flavorless tomatoes that were shipped in from another hemisphere, these really do inspire me. (If I don't get on the stick early on Saturday morning, my local farmers' market packs up and leaves before I get there, so I'm stuck with the offerings at the grocery stores.)

I tried growing heirloom tomatoes in large pots this year, so I could drag them around the yard until I found the degree of sun they preferred. What I didn't take into consideration is how badly they dry out and that watering them every single day still isn't enough to satisfy them and help them produce anything much larger than a ping pong ball.

The wee little cherry tomatoes are doing fine and taste great (usually I eat them all while I'm out there watering everything else). But it takes an awful lot of cherry tomatoes to provide a sufficient crop for everything I'd like to do with a mess o' tomatoes. So I must depend on the kindness of friends and neighbors until I learn the secret of growing tomatoes in the desert. And when that day comes, I in turn will be sharing them with those who have yet to figure it out!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Avocado Ice Cream

Ever since I discovered how yummy the avocado shakes are at a Vietnamese restaurant back home in Memphis, I've been keen to try another sweet application for avocados.

So this weekend I made avocado ice cream, and I'm pleased to report that it's pretty good stuff. I couldn't lay my hands on any Haas avocados--which have the creamiest texture--so I used the Santa Cruz variety. They have a watery texture, but still, they work just fine. The result is wonderfully creamy, with a light, fresh flavor. Himself complained that the ice cream tastes a bit "green" and "planty," and I know what he means. I think it needs more lemon juice to balance out the intense avocadoness (how's THAT for a new word?). We drizzled a good balsamic vinegar over it (yeah, it looks like chocolate sauce in the photo), and the acid, extra sweetness and added oomph! of the rich balsamic really made the ice cream sing.

I'm going to tweak this recipe and keep working to devise an ice cream that will become a summer staple (I've just spotted another recipe that calls for coconut cream--sounds like a worthy experiment). With the huge fuerte avocado tree we have in our backyard that will soon begin pelting us with its bounty, we'll be able to make it often, without paying $2 per avocado. And the fuerte is creamier and more flavorful than the Santa Cruz. We may not miss the Haas at all...