Monday, August 17, 2009

What I Miss

Yes, it'd be nice to cook a perfect Beurre Blanc or Bavarian Creme. It'd be swell to wrap a boned duck in pastry decorated with little frills or crank out sheets of fresh pasta and make ravioli. All that, cooking, eating, is wonderful.

But when I think of the best meals I've had, I often can't remember what I ate. It was the people, the laughter, the big group gathered around the table, maybe on a summer night in France deep in the heart of the Auvergne, or last Thanksgiving at my moms, or even a bunch of cater-waiters, giddy from a long shift hunkering down with plates of leftovers at someone else's wedding, commiserating over this annoying guest or making obnoxious comments about the maid of honor.

I think that's what's missing from this whole food equation, for me personally. I'd rather have a pizza with two or three people I genuinely love, or at least who make me laugh- then vichysoise
done to perfection all by myself.

Is this me angling for a dinner invitation? Absolutely.
I'll bring wine and dessert.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

best 20$ taco ever

This goes out to my reader Tim-Dog Redmond.

No you didn't spend 20$ for a taco at one of the new boutique eateries that are springing up everywhere all the time. You made it at home and it was so good if you had it on your menu at your boutique eatery it could easily fetch a Jackson without making a Blackberry toting patron blink twice. Adjectives: spicy, juicy, dripping, fresh, filling.
Here's how it happenned:

Last Friday at your favorite market, the Latin supermarket Mi Tierra on San Pablo, you got a pound of their pre-diced pre-marinated Adobo pork, 3 bucks a pound fer that. This morning you noticed the following bits in your fridge;

-one slightly ragged last big flour tortilla
-like a 5th of an avocado starting to look a bit too wizened
-chunky salsa (bottled)
-crema ( liquid, pourable sour cream, sold in blank containers at the same joint, 2.77 a pound)
-a few random slices o' pepper-jak cheese.
-aforementioned pork

You placed the cheese on the tortilla, popped it in the oven, sit right there on the rack, don't go anywhere.
You sauted the pork in your thinnest iron pan till it started to burn a little and you got a whiff of "is someone grilling next door?" Of course you sprinkled browning meat with Smoked Paprika you got at the Spanish Table because everything tastes better with Smoked Paprika.

You put hot meat on tortilla when cheese was melty, added Avo, green stuff, salsa, salt, poured cream all over, your tortilla is crisp and cracks a bit when you folded the molten mass into a taco. You ate this for a late breakfast thinking "why does anyone ever go out?"

Imagine substituting carne asada for this next time?

Mmmm. You got filled again, for cheap.


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

64 Words on Ranch Dressing

Easy -As hell.
Good -On everything.

Two parts buttermilk, one part mayo.
Salt and pepper. Few dashes of vinegar.
Small crushed garlic clove. Mix.
Gets better each day in fridge. No MSG or 4.79$ price tag.

Eat with: Left over chicken shredded and tossed on a salad, spread it on sandwiches, dip for veggies, great with apple slices.

Hidden Valley can suck it.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Tips For Eating Out Smarter

1. Don't go to restaurants for great food:
Cook that at home. (Read some of my other posts for inspiration) Go for the exciting atmosphere, maybe a beautiful bar or room, (the round bordello-red room at Ducca in SF) a terrific chef who you can chat with about what he's cooking and is happy to share jokes and tricks with you (Anthony at Sea Salt's grill station counter in Berkeley). Think about restaurants no longer as places to go when you're hungry, but special occasion places to go for energy, entertainment, revivifying, inspiration.

2. Once you're there, order smarter.
I go to Sea Salt and order from the bar snack menu (usually available from 3pm on) wonderful small and eclectic plates of things like Deviled eggs with smoked salmon, Duck Tongues, sauteed Maine shrimp etc... These plates can be as low as 5$ - order four for the price of one entree and you have a diversified feast. (It's just like in the Stock Market baby: Diversify.)
I've gone to Ducca twice in the last week. Yesterday I went at 1:30 in the afternoon and oozed myself onto the red leather circular banquette in the Red Room. Looking up at the glowing red chandelier I totally zoned out. I could watch the big screen TV in the distance over the bar or just enjoy the quiet. The bartender was washing glasses and I ordered an espresso and Cannolli (which came beautifully presented on a porcelain raft with shards of meringue studded with roasted Hazelnuts, chocolate sauce was Jackson Pollacked nicely over the whole deal, the Cannolli itself- well, come on, it's Cannolli, it doesn't get better than that.) An hour later I had figured out what I was going to do with the rest of my life and faced only an anemic 10$ check. Fonda, on Solano Ave. in Albany also has a late night menu where great food and premium cocktails are in the 5$ range from 9 till 1 in the morning. (try the "Que Sera, Sera": British Gin, lime juice and thin slices of Serrano Chile, wicked good.)

3. Portions are way too huge at some places: Take Advantage.
Going to that place that where you always leave food on the plates? Okay big guy if you can't resist the big ticket entrees, order them and take home half in a doggie bag and plan on eating it for lunch the next day. But only if you're actually gonna eat it. That twenty dollar entree just became two meals, nice. Little bits of left over BBQ from T-Rex in Berkeley are great when I shred them and toss them into a salad, I even use the left over sauce for a weird but tasty lil BBQ vinagrette, sounds odd but try it.

I'm sure i'll think of more later. Let me know any I missed that you thought of, thanks..


Friday, April 3, 2009

Berkeley Bowl

Shopping or Zombie Death March?

Apologies to my faithful readers in Dubai and Lichtenstien, but I'm gonna write a little locally today, I'll try to keep you filled in enough to get my point.

Cambodians have Angor Wat, Indians have the Taj Majal, Jews have the Wailing Wall; foodies in Berkeley California have the Berkeley Bowl.

Berkeley Bowl is a vast supermarket with seas of citrus, miles of meat, and lots of everything else. The produce section itself is the size of a modest supermarket. A whole landscape of yellow, orange, red, purple, green and brown hills, peaks and plains of every apple, pear, plum, grape, leafy or root vegetable that is being grown anywhere on the planet. In the heart of February tiny glistening red tomatoes from Mexico are 79c a
pound . Star Fruit, Dragonfruit, Chermoyas, Juju Bees, even giant armored Durians emanating the fetid odor of shit, and ten other fruits you've never heard of are there for the taking.

Three aisles of food in bulk bins, enough vats of white powder to bring back Studio 54 flashbacks: Sea Salt, Fine Sea Salt, Cake Flour, Organic Cake Flour, Arrowhead Organic Pancake Mix, Garbanzo Flour, Tapioca Flour.

True, navigated carefully, great bargains can be found. I recently fought with several short Hispanic woman over some 99c clearance bags filled to bursting with tomatoes, eggplant and sea green grapes. I managed two bags before getting elbowed out by a guy in a blue oxford shirt.

But here's the rub; shopping at Berkeley Bowl is like being an extra a zombie film. The shoppers and myself are the senseless zombie hordes hurriedly clanking our oversized carts down the aisles, jostling into each other in the search not for brains, but something equally urgent to our survival, like say, seaweed salad or sustainably farmed Loch Duarte Salmon. And there is no director to yell "Cut!"

The zombie quality is palpable. A ninety pound woman in Crocs with frizzy hair , eye glasses and a blank stare (is that drool?*&!) knocked her cart into my kidneys and continued down the aisle without a backward glance. A dreadlocked white guy with a cart full of Tofu gives me a hungry glare as he reaches for a cheese sample ahead of me. It's bumper to bumper in front of the wall of Lettuce, traffic ground to a halt, and we all stand there stupefied, no one has the initiative to make a move as herd-thought takes over.

Depression overtakes me as I start to feel I'll never get out, or never get out with the best apples if I take the time to look at all forty-seven varieties. By the time I get to checkout, I'll be too late to pick up my kids from school.

Then you see the lines.

They stretch, half, even three quarters of the way up into the aisles themselves. This is not uncommon. And what is even stranger is that the people waiting in them are resigned to this thirty minute wait. No one seems upset or looks down the line with a frown or even a "hurumph".

Listless and quietly we wait. If a register opens up we all turn our pale faces slowly in that direction.

Brains... Brains... Brains...

Some of us, the stronger ones, move toward it. Others stay, calculating a shorter wait now.
I want to abandon my precious Chilean Pears and grassfed Beef from Argentina, but I am slouched over and tired. Stay with group now. Stay with group. Must buy. Must buy.

Soon I will see the sunlight again. And next time I'll go to Grocery Outlet.

It is spoken of with awe and reverence, Berkeley Bowl. True, it is not a chain, the workers are unionized, and good prepared foods may be enjoyed in a seating area.

And compared to the Whole Foods I recently visited near Lake Merritt in Oakland, in which each potato seems airbrushed to Penthouse-page perfection, it seems like a corner store.

Where are we going with all this? It is baffling, such scenes of plenty, but what is stranger is that in these cornucopian halls of total copiousnesness, that we do not marvel in wonder at everything. That is the strangest part really. How all of us are so numb to anything -no matter how wonderful or peculiar- that we see too much of.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

10 Complaints About The Farmers Market

1. A woman ahead of me in line, wearing tight yoga pants and Prada sunglasses fondles a one dollar tangerine and asks "what varietal is this?".

2. Twenty five people wait in line for a two dollar cup of coffee. (And you ask why we are a nation of debtors?)

3. It is not hard to find a loaf of bread for six dollars.

4. Half the people are eating from prepared food stands like crepes or Thai- wasn't the point of this to cook affordable and seasonal food at home with our friends and families?

5. Damn, I missed the "cosmetically challenged" box of apples, SHIT! I coulda saved like two dollars. Too late now.

6. Customers 95.3% white and upwardly mobile or bearded (both sexes) and totally off grid.

7. I'm broke and can't afford a three dollar fruit turnover from Frog Hollow.

8. The Hog Island oyster guy has no cocktail sauce or limes anywhere in sight (oysters the one thing better to eat on the street- see Montclair farmers market in Oakland for that.)

9. Girl with tattooed arm bands and dark curly hair way too hot to see this early in the morning, I look like fuckin' boxcar Joe right now and I have no game- SHIT.

10. I can't think of a tenth. If you can, let me know.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Electric Stoves: Far Superior!

I'm f%#ing kidding fer chrissakes.

Yes I have a janky electric stove circa 1950 in my little two bedroom apartment. The kind with the funny coils that glow orange. This is the kind of thing you can't even admit around foodie folk, so I'm confessing this to you.

So I can't modulate the flames, but I have found a few useful things.

Always start it on High no matter what, or else you'll be standing and staring down at the thing for half an hour.

That done, with iron skillets or steel pans, "HIGH" becomes frickin HOT, so get ready to go down to MED HIGH and MED, then back up to MED HIGH often. And if things start to smoke and your deep frying oil is about to ruin your nice stainless steel All-Clad with that polymer burnoff thing, just REMOVE PAN FROM HEAT. Another seemingly obvious but-never-really thought-about-it-that- much thing I learned at Kitchen on Fire. Things getting hectic, oil burning while you chop that garlic you shoulda prepped? Just take the pan off the heat... No big deal. Remove pan and breathe.

So before I fall asleep tonite, for all my poor fellow electric stove brethren, i'll brag about the grilled cheese sandwich I made tonight on mostly the MED and then LOW settings.

1. Melt a pad of butter on HIGH, the after it sizzles, turn down to MED HIGH

2. Put sandwich in. Then turn to MED, then LOW. Slow and low, slow and low is the key to a perfect grill cheese.

3. When side one is golden, lift out of pan, plop in more butter, turn up if you need to for it to melt and sizzle, replace sandwich. Wait, slow and low, Do some dishes so you're not tempted to mess with it. LOW... When the second side is golden brown, it should be nice and oozy inside.

So the moral of this one is, use what you have. Life gives you a nice AGA gas range? Flambe your damn cherries with Kirsch and roast your red peppers on the open flame. Me, I'll make another grilled cheese for now.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Awful Offal

Enticed by the new and untried, I ordered three pounds of kidneys from the butcher. I saw a recipe in Tony Bourdain's Les Halles cookbook for "roignons a la etc.." and decided to try it. Of course in English it would've been "Kidneys in Mustard Sauce" which doesn't sound so cool, but I was intrigued.

The call sounded conspiratorial, like a spy talking in code: "you're kidneys are in". I picked up a big hunk of a package, brought it home, unwrapped it and found several vaccum packed packages of Caravaggio colored little balls of flesh.

They taste like liver. Unless you like liver, I wouldn't mess with kidneys. Of course, it could always be the chef, and not the ingredient. But I think I treated them well enough. I browned a bunch of onions and garlic, set them aside. Dredged the organs in flour and browned then too.
Deglazed the pan with red wine, squeezed in a bit of mustard, stirred it around till there was a nice gooey pan sauce, then put everything back in the pan...

I did eat it all, some inner-50's housemom urging me on in red heels and pearls (so hot) "finish your liver, dear", but I can't say I enjoyed anything but the fact I was actually eating something new that I'd wanted to try for a while. The sauce was great over rice, the meat was okay, nice and pink in the middle of each little ball. A kidney is a cluster of about 6 or 7 little nuggets, all tied together by a strip of fat.

Maybe, I'm discovering, there's a reason you don't see Fergus Henderson clones all over the place serving nose-to-snout menus filled with kidneys, livers, pancreas, tripe, and tongue (ignore that last one, tongue is ALWAYS good.) The kidneys were 3.99 a pound. At the same butchers they had lamb shanks on sale for 4.99. I was really missing those lamb shanks as I toothed those little fists ' o kidney.

Maybe you have prepared kidneys in some delicious way, if so please let me know. I'm sure they're good for you.

I had 2 and a half pounds I had left, and though I debated tossing them out, I made a kidney
stew. With a whole bottle of red wine. I can't bring myself to eat it. My dad might. We have a date to cook kidneys this Saturday. I either have to pretend to be sick or buy some lamb shanks.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Why That Burger Sucks

"What's done cannot be undone"

I think Shakespeare said that somewhere, and it's very true of cooking. You can't unsalt that dressing once you've oversalted it. Once you've roasted your chicken to the moisture point of the Mohave, that's it.

Likewise, I recently discovered that I was ruining every hamburger I made, just by doing one stupid thing that can't be undone.

I'd flip the burger, once or twice, then press it down with the spatula so it makes a nice sizzling sound. It always seemed like the chefy thing to do... Don't you see the guys at the stainless steel grill at the local diner put some sort of weight on the burger patties?

Yes, you do. And that's why most burgers you get are flat, grey, dry and knobby. I have been pressing all the nice juicyness and airyness out of my burgers just to hear them sizzle. Duh.

I'll be brief:
1. When you make your patty, don't massage or sculpt the damn thing, just tear off a hunk and squash it a bit. Make it just a big flatter than you want it to look like on the bun, (but no frisbees) and with your thumb, make a nice little dimple in the center on one side. Get the pan really hot.

2. Plop it in the pan, on either side. Gently turn when the first side is nice and browned. A nice caramelly crust helps to keep those juices in.

3. Let it be for god's sake, no pressing. The biggest cooking mistake people make at the stove is bothering the food too much. You'll notice it's puffing up a bit, why? Lot's of nice juiciness, that's why.

4. Optional.. At this point I take a little tin foil and make an incomplete top or seal for the pan. I don't want to steam it and end up with that greenish thing from your college cafeteria, I just want it to cook through a bit without burning the crust. I just give the burger a little hat. Adding your thin cheese slice is a good idea now.

5. Is it done? Well you could hack into it and give it a big scar while you let some juice out, or give it the finger test I learned at Kitchen on Fire. Press the center with your finger. Mushy? then it's pretty rare. Gives back a little bounce? Then it's done.

Respect the meat.

Be gentle. Just because it's a burger, it still came from the same steer as the Filet Mignon or Crown Roast, don't go crushing it, and don't put it on a cutting board or any other holding station. Your animal spent a few years eating grass (hopefully) so you could enjoy and be nourished by this experience; why let those juices go to waste when they could soak nicely into the bun?

Once you've made a juicy burger like this for yourself or your friends, you'll forget all about sizzle, because you've got steak.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sloppy is as Sloppy Does

I was at my mom's house, in her vegetable garden, complaining, "no, please, I love when you watch the kids, 'cause you leave the kitchen spotless. When dad watches them I come home and the place is trashed, so can you watch them this Thursday?"
"Well, that's the way he always was," she says. The she adds very casually, "you're sloppy too," and continues carefully re-potting a geranium.

I didn't really know what to say. She didn't say it accusingly or harshly, but still.
My mom called me sloppy.
We figured out the childcare logistics I needed to deal then I went home in a self-righteous sour puss mood.
I'm busy! I have two kids! I can't clean up after myself all the time for gods sake. My older brother Aaron, the financial advisor is and always has been compulsively and effortlessly neat. He also has the dough to hire a cleaning lady. Mom obviously loves him more and thinks he's better at everything, which is probably true. Last Thanksgiving morning, trying to plan who would carve the bird later, she looked right in my eyes and said, "Aaron's probably a good carver right? "
I got home and looked in the kitchen. There was a little brown pool of slime in one corner of the counter top. The yellow Formica dinner table had a few days tea stains on it. A large mountain of dirty silverware was cross-polinating in the sink. I didn't have anything I was gonna do that afternoon but go on Facebook and avoid looking at the girls page who just dumped me last week. Or watch the songs go by on Pandora maybe, that's always fun.
Mike C from Kitchen on Fire always cleaned while he cooked and never really stopped to eat until the kitchen was spotless. "Clean as you go! Clean as you go!" he's say.
My old greek freind Nike would burst up and clean her creaky old coal-fired New England kitchen perfectly before heading up to her freezing bedroom. And by that time she'd smoked a pack of Carletons and had two Jim Beams and four glasses of wine. Whisking her tiny five foot frame around the cavernous room, organizing silverware in what had been the butler's closet several generations ago, she'd continue busily conversating as she scrubbed the deep old slate sink, talking about the novel she was writing or her early days in New York and how her husband had bought a painting for 60 dollars in 50's from a neighbor in East Hampton who needed money for whiskey. "It was Jackson Pollack, and we lost it our someone stole it or something I was just furious at Robert about it..."

So three morals to this story.

1. Don't be gross. Respect the food and the cooking and clean as you go. That could be some fucking Ebola sprouting in that little pool on the counter.
2. Your mother may sometimes be right about you.
3. Eat alone as rarely as possible. Then you have someone to talk with while you clean.

Yes I clean up the kitchen almost every time we cook and eat. I make my kids do dishes as well. It actually makes things taste better. Look, I hate doing dishes, but I love doing them at other people's houses. I like to feel useful. So invite me over, feed me, and your work is done.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

My Fennel be Bangin'


I know, it's February and you've eaten so much fennel you want to puke right? No? Good. Then read on.

I'll make it short, since it's a quick recipe and my boss is lurking around somewhere.

Here's what I did:

Cut a fennel bulb in four quarters, each chunk had two nice flat sides. Throw in some of the pubes too, (the fronds) those will soak up the goo nicely.

Into a small hot saute pan I poured in the last little ooze of some anchovy vinagraitte left over from my dad's birthday dinner, (see last blog) but you could just pour in two fingers of olive oil and one of vinagar.

When that was bubbling I put in the fennel, flat side down. When that side started to carmelize, switched it to the other flat side... I had one glass worth of red wine left, I poured that in the pan, then sorta half-assed covered it in tin foil, turned down the heat and forgot about it...
(If you have any dying carrots at the bottom of your veg drawers, add those around now too)

What I ended up with was this amazing sweet purply soft braised fennel that even my daughter ate, she of the only-white-starchy-dishes-please persuasion. The fennel pubes act as a nice mop for the sugary winey stuff left at the bottom as really all the wine cooks off in about 10 minutes.

Mm mm good....

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Life is Dolce

It hit me at two in the morning, the missing link. Something else from the sea, but what?

I had the menu, and most of the cooking already figured out. Six courses for my dad's 71st birthday dinner, Six guests. Small plates. Check it out:

1) Sauteed warm mixed olives, thin sliced fennel salad, and re-marinated anchovies.
2) Mixed greens piled onto a butter lettuce leaf, topped with marinated baby octopus and roasted, marinated red pepper.
3)Linguini a la "b.l.t" with baby arugula pesto, smoked bacon and roma tomato.
4) Braised lamb shanks in olde vine zinfandel, served on fried bread with roasted baby carrots, brussell sprouts and very tiny baby yellow squash. (Marrow bones to suck on request.)
5) Cheese Plate "four cheeses from four countries" Gorgonzola Dolce from Italy (holy shit it was good), blue veined Stilton from England, Manchego from Spain, and Queso Fresco from Mexico. Served with a strawberry/balsamic and black pepper jam, and bourbon-soaked prunes and kumquat confetti.
6) Carmelized apple clafouti served with melted ice cream (flavor: Salted Caramel from BI-Rite creamery)

-My brother literally bowing his head in silence, then shaking his head slowly and smiling stupidly. "Damn, that cheese with the jam..." The gorgonzola was as soft as cream cheese, sweet and nutty and just ridiclous slathered on the dark brown Cranberry Walnut bread from Acme Bakery.
-My dad saying "you know, this is the first time anyone has thrown me a birthday party that i didn't ask for or plan in some way." And the fact he cleaned out two marrow bones the size of Tapioca Drink straws from Chinatown.
-The Stilton.. Blue veins in a creamy but just sliceable cheese the yellow hue of pages out of old books in a smoky library. Stuffing some inside a prune and digging the sweet and earthy collision of flavors.
-The fact that the salted caramel ice cream was the best fucking ice cream i've ever had and that i took it out an hour before plating the dessert so it was melted and frothy and soupy and salty sweet to pour over the custard.
-the fact that we got up and danced to some song on Pandora after the pasta course, and realizing it was probably the first time I had ever danced with my stepmother in all of the thirty-plus years I've known her.
-My ex-wife who doesn't eat anchovies or lamb and how she ate both and practically licked her plate. (I soaked the anchovies in milk first to leech out thier old oily-saltness, then put new clean olive oil over 'em... and the lamb sat in an airtight bag overnight with garlic, rosemary, olive oil and a little red wine vinegar before cooking)

And the missing link, the surprise not-listed-on-the-menu first course. One perfect prawn, sauteed in hot butter for 1 minute forty-five seconds and served only with a tiny lemon wedge. A sweet Georgia prawn from Monterey Fish market ("Don't cook it for over two minutes or i guaranteee it will be bad"), juicy and pink.

Dare to be Simple.

There's always so many reasons to be depressed. You're single, it's raining, you have no friends and you can't pay your rent. But honestly, who the fuck cares about all that when you have a different wine paired with each course and your bread is soaked in buttery gravy that smells of wine and rosemary, I mean come on.