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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Consider the Oyster



No doubt...everything that needs to be said about The Oyster, has been said, and probably more eloquently, more poetically and with more whimsy than what I am about to share.

I am a late-bloomer in many ways and eating oysters is no exception. I don’t recall having anything to do with oysters as a child. (I mean really. What child would?!) As an adult I occasionally ate them, but always cooked. There was an oyster stuffing we tried one year at Thanksgiving, but it seemed a bit disappointing…the oysters lost and overwhelmed by the rest of the stuffing ingredients. I did enjoy them fried, in a Po’ Boy sandwich, on a trip to
New Orleans. Then – again in New Orleans – a rather convincing case for eating oysters raw was made at a wedding we attended.
Unlike any other wedding I’d ever been to, there were no assigned tables…no place cards…no torturous imprisonment next to someone’s college roommate from Michigan. Joy!
At this wedding, one could roam among the elegant buffets serving oysters and other New Orleans specialties…fill up a plate, and then sit, or stand, wherever one liked. It was heaven. My mother seemed miffed. My father and I were thrilled!
The oyster possibilities seemed endless…every possible way to eat oysters known to man was featured, including the very delicious, Oysters Rockefeller.

On occasional wintertime trips to Paris over the years I became obsessed with the extravagant, intimidating Plateau de Fruits de Mer (translation: platter of fruits of the sea) served in the winter months in most of the Parisian brasseries. You'd see them everywhere... at the center of a table among a group of convivial friends, chattering away, and digging in to three-tiers of plates filled with ice and shellfish stacked high. I was enthralled. Intrigued. It all looked so glamorous …a raw oyster, plucked from a glistening plate of ice and lightly sprinkled with lemon juice, followed by a sip of white wine...it was so chic, in a way.

So, you see, I've been converted.



That said, I recently dragged my husband, and the dog, on an oyster field trip disguised as a visit to the beach. (You can do this sort of thing here in Northern California.) A quick, yet spectacular, one-hour drive north of San Francisco delivers you to the Point Reyes National Seashore, which is breathtakingly beautiful, and while I could get carried away here about the natural beauty, I know you're thinking, yes, ahem, but what about those OYSTERS?? Yes, right...there is an area near Point Reyes called Tomales Bay...a narrow slip of salt water, sheltered from the currents of the Pacific (oysters like their peace and quiet).





My mission was a visit to Hog Island Oyster Company, which was started by three former marine biologists who believed in sustainable aquaculture. Their Kumamoto is my favorite -- petite, creamy, delectable and on the menu at many restaurants here in San Francisco.

We brought along a cooler filled with ice for the two bags of oysters we bought right there by the bay. In back, a large patio was filled with happy people eating their oysters--you can reserve a picnic table in advance at Hog Island. I even saw several communal barbecue grills available if you wanted to grill up a dozen right there.



Just a short while later we were settled in at our kitchen counter with a bottle of wine, a baguette, our beautiful oysters and a bottle opener (the ideal tool for shucking, according to Julia Child). Simple is key with oysters--my husband prefers a squirt of lemon and I like a traditional Mignonette Sauce of vinegar, shallots, a pinch of sugar and black pepper. We tried two varieties--Kumamoto, and the larger Sweetwater--both were wonderful.



So, no poetry, or witty quotes...all I can say is when you stand at your kitchen counter, eating a freshly shucked oyster, just hours out of the water…slurping the briny goodness from the shell, and then taking a dreamy sip from a glass of crisp, tangy Chablis there’s…well, a bit of an epiphany. A feeling of well-being washes over you…here is simplicity itself, and it is stunning.


Mignonette Sauce
adapted from The Barefoot Contessa by Ina Garten
2 shallots, minced
3/4 cup good Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh green herbs such as parsley, dill, and/or chives

Place the shallots, vinegar, and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook uncovered for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Add the pepper and herbs and serve with the raw oysters.
Yield: 1/2 cup

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

In The Name of Love



It appears the humble cupcake is having its fifteen minutes of fame.

Bakeries exclusively devoted to cupcakes opened last year in my neighborhood back in Chicago, featuring, um, ‘interestingly’ flavored cupcakes…green tea, chocolate port, persimmon, etc…Fancy grocery stores are offering cupcakes in their bakery departments…right next to the pretty fruit tarts, and chocolate mousse cakes. Celebrated restaurant pastry chefs are making cupcakes and at least one restaurant I know of has a cupcake “flight” available for dessert. They are all catching on to something I’ve known for some time now.

A cupcake is a powerful thing.

In the early days of our marriage, I asked my husband what he wanted me to bake in celebration of his birthday. A cake? Maybe I could try my hand at a chocolate mousse? Or, maybe a cheesecake? (Cheesecake was big back then.) He immediately answered, “cupcakes”. Not a second of hesitation. His directive was simple: Yellow cake. Chocolate frosting. No funny stuff. A small amount of colorful sprinkles were acceptable, but not necessary. Candles were ok.
So, the night before his birthday, I made a batch of cupcakes using a Duncan Hines cake mix and pre-made frosting from a container I’d picked up on my way home from work.

The joy those cupcakes gave was something to behold. (Despite their lopsided appearance. I’d used those thin, paper cups, which couldn’t seem to contain the batter very well…or maybe I’d overfilled?) My husband was beaming with happiness. The man was thrilled. I was a Baking Goddess. Who knew?

Years went by, and each birthday brought the same request: cupcakes. Seeing the happiness they created, I made cupcakes for children, for co-workers, for anyone who was about to celebrate something.

I was loved by all.

How can something so small, you ask, have such power?

The answer lies in the simplicity of perfectly moist cake, and rich, creamy frosting, in exactly the right amounts…a few delicious bites.
The beauty of the frosting’s ying, to the cake’s yang, existing in perfect harmony.
I’d say that a good cupcake has the amazing ability to transport one back to a simpler time. Most definitely before the time of ‘super-sizing’, and I suspect that French Women Who Don’t Get Fat would approve of eating one, dainty cupcake in celebration of a birthday.

I admit this next part sheepishly…I continued using prepared cake mixes and frostings for years. What was not to like? The cake was always moist. The frosting was chocolate-y. And, besides, there was something daunting about making real cake batter. Wouldn’t that mean measuring and mixing all sorts of separate ingredients?? (I thought the same thing about pancakes, but that’s another story.)

Finally, not that long ago, I made the leap to baking from scratch.

There were a few misfires along the way to Cupcake Nirvana. (Like the yellow cake recipe which required a cup of white wine -- huh? -- but seemed to come out stale, right from the oven.) Then, a couple weeks ago, a curve ball. September is birthday time around here and the man asked for Red Velvet cupcakes. Seriously? Red Velvet? But, I haven't even come close to finding the perfect yellow cake/chocolate frosting recipe! Oh, the things one does in the name of love...

Research revealed a couple options. A New York Times article on red velvet included recipes for cake and frosting (...enough for a three-layer cake. I was going to be halving the amounts for sure…) and the Williams-Sonoma web site offered the super-easy Sprinkles cupcake mix. It was like the little devil on one shoulder saying “Get the mix! Get the mix!” and the little angel on the other side urging me to “stick with scratch”. Sigh... I went in search of red food coloring...


It's odd that something so strange-looking, could be so delicious. They were incredibly moist and rich and , umm, incredibly red. The batter was almost disturbingly red and included an exciting final addition of bubbling combination of baking soda and vinegar, but the main winner in my mind was the frosting -- a heavenly blend of whipped cream, mascarpone and cream cheese. I would frost carrot cake, pumpkin bread and pretty much anything I could get my hands on with this frosting.



My husband proclaimed them "the best cupcakes ever". That's the thing about them...cupcakes are almost universally greeted with complete awe and acclaim and are pretty much guaranteed to win over the snootiest adult or a cranky child. Which brings me to the essential truth here.
Men. Women. Children. All become putty in your hands after consuming a cupcake, or two. And, the world is catching on, so it seems.

So, go ahead. Stop by that cute bakery you keep walking past, or pick up a few cupcakes from the grocery store (maybe even during a holiday when you know they’ll have those corny decorations we all secretly love), or take a Sunday afternoon, make a batch and share the love.



Note: I halved the recipe to make a dozen and half cupcakes and what still seemed like a ton of frosting. Next time, I'll split each cupcake and put a layer of frosting in the center!

Red Velvet Cupcakes

Adapted from The New York Times and "The Confetti Cakes Cookbook" by Elisa Strauss


1 1/4 cups cake flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch process)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup canola oil
1 heaping cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons red food coloring
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon white vinegar.
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place cupcake paper liners in a 12-muffin baking pan.
Whisk cake flour, cocoa and salt in a bowl.
3. Place oil and sugar in bowl of an electric mixer and beat at medium speed until well-blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. With machine on low, very slowly add red food coloring. (Take care: it may splash.) Add vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk in two batches. Scrape down bowl and beat just long enough to combine.
4. Place baking soda in a small dish, stir in vinegar and add to batter with machine running. Beat for 10 seconds.
5. Pour batter in muffin cups, place in oven and bake until a cake tester comes out clean, 20 minutes. Let cool in pans 20 minutes. Then remove from pans and cool completely before frosting.
Yield: 18 cupcakes

Red Velvet Cake Icing
Adapted from The New York Times and “The Waldorf-Astoria Cookbook,” by John Doherty with John Harrisson (Bulfinch, 2006)

1 cups heavy cream, cold
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
6 ounces mascarpone
½ teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted.
1. Softly whip cream by hand, in electric mixer or in food processor. Cover in bowl and refrigerate.
2. Blend cream cheese and mascarpone in food processor or electric mixer until smooth. Add vanilla, pulse briefly, and add confectioners’ sugar. Blend well.
3. Transfer cream cheese mixture to bowl; fold in whipped cream. Refrigerate until needed.
Yield: A LOT of frosting!!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Farmer's Market Redux


Pinch me. Because there are literally moments when I can't believe I have found myself in a place like this. It is the very beginning of August and heirloom tomato season is in full swing here in Northern California. Last Saturday's visit to the local farmers market yielded the picturesque basket of goodies above, but also a supremely exciting moment for this food nerd.

A few months ago, one of my favorite bloggers, Smitten Kitchen, was rhapsodizing about her discovery of a web source for dried beans -- Rancho Gordo. Now, if you're like me, you see the words dried beans and you think "uh, yeah, great in theory, but, like, I HAVE NO TIME". I'm a canned bean girl. Always have been. I'm also an I'd-love-to-make-chicken-stock-from-scratch-but-there-are-not-enough-
hours-in-the-day-for-that-sort-of-thing". But, people... the perfect storm has been brewing.
First, I've been reading. (uh-oh...)
Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma
...he of the often-repeated quote:
"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
And then,
Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything Vegetarian
. Years ago, Bittman's earlier book, How To Cook Everything, replaced
The Joy of Cooking
in this cookbook junkie's heart. And, now--don't be alarmed--his vegetarian book is on my nightstand. He makes a very persuasive argument for the intense flavors and textures of dried beans vs. canned and the benefits of soaking and cooking up a batch on the occasional Sunday -- and as you may, or may not, know I am a huge fan of cooking on Sundays.
He also points out that the beans' cooking liquid is deliciously flavorful in its own right (as opposed to that nasty, metallic-tasting goo that canned beans sit in) so they require very little cooking to taste spectacular.

So, there we were...wandering the cornucopia of the San Francisco Ferry Terminal Farmer's Market, and I spotted a sign that looked familiar. Rancho Gordo. Imagine that!! The very same beans Deb at Smitten Kitchen was raving about...and having to mail order, are grown in Napa and available at the market! I was giddy! The beans were ready to go, packed in clear, one-pound bags and came with recipe cards. There were multiple varieties with lovely names...Borlotti...Flageolet...Scarlett Runner...Black Calypso. They were beautiful. I wanted them all. I thought about it a few minutes. What were typically the most disappointing, icky canned beans? Ha. Easy. Cannellini. I've tried virtually every canned variety of this classic Italian white bean and the quality, across-the-board, is dismal. So, I brought a pound of dried Cannellini beans at the market, brought them home and followed the recipe card instructions the very next day...a Sunday.





At the risk of sounding like a total kook, I will tell you the beans were close to life-changing. They had a nutty, robust flavor and meaty texture unlike any canned variety I had ever tasted. It was an epic moment. I immediately formulated a bean-stockpiling plan...one Sunday a month, I will cook up a batch of beans...eat half, and freeze half ( a Bittman suggestion). That way, I'll have a "pantry" full of beans, in my freezer, at the ready. As my husband likes to point out..."you love a project".

That evening we enjoyed my version of Beans-on-Toast...or, maybe one could call it Extremely Hearty Bruschetta or even This Would Tickle Any Tuscan.
Buon appetito!



"Beans-on-Toast" Tuscan-Style
serves 4-6

2 cups cooked--recipe below-- (or canned) white cannellini beans
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced

1 cup grape/cherry tomatoes
1 bunch arugula, washed and dried
sliced, toasted ciabatta
fruity/peppery extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar for drizzling

1. Heat the olive oil in pan over medium heat, and saute garlic until barely golden. Add beans and some cooking liquid and saute until warmed through. Taste for seasoning.

2. Slice and toast the ciabatta.

3. Plate a handful of arugula and scatter some tomatoes over. Drizzle with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

4. Top with a couple spoonfuls of sauteed beans. Drizzle a tiny bit more olive oil and garnish with toasted ciabatta.


To Cook Dried Beans
There are numerous ways* to cook up some beans. Crockpot (uh, sorry, not enough counter space). Pressure Cooker (traumatized by a couple pressure-cooker debacles in my mother's kitchen in the '70s, I say, no thanks -- too scary.) Standard, stovetop. (I'm in!)*

*Go to Rancho Gordo's web site, or anywhere on the web really, for advice on using alternate methods. I'll tell you about the stovetop method I used here.

Check the beans for small debris and rinse in cool, fresh water. Cover beans with two inches of water and soak for 4-6 hours. NOTE: They will look shriveled and kind of scary. Don't worry -- they will plump back up during cooking.

The soaking puts people off, I know. The lady at the Rancho Gordo stand told me that overnight is basically too long of a soak. Their beans are pretty fresh, so they only need about 4 hours, so it really is perfect for a Sunday. Put them in around lunch time or in the morning and you're ready to cook at dinner time.

In a large pot, saute some/or all of following veg, finely chopped, in a tablespoon of olive oil until soft:
one yellow onion
one stick of celery
one carrot
one clove of garlic

Add the beans and the water and make sure the beans are covered by at least one inch of water. Bring to a hard boil for five minutes and then reduce to a gentle simmer. Once soft, add salt. Beans can take from one to three hours to cook, and you can't rush them. You also can't pinpoint an exact cooking time. Start testing and tasting after an hour or so to see how they're doing. Slow cooking (only gentle bubbling) over low heat works best. When they are tender, salt to taste and then, if you're going to freeze, let them cool in their cooking liquid and then place in plastic containers and freeze.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Snapshots from a Road Trip



A man. A woman. A dog. A small-ish, overstuffed hatchback.
Driving cross-country has its challenges, only one of which is: what will we eat?

CHICAGO to MINNEAPOLIS
Our first stop was Minneapolis, to visit my brother. He has always been an excellent
cook. Even as a kid, when my mother would let us make tacos...his looked like a food stylist had been involved.


For dinner one night, he roasted a large pan of lamb (ribs), rubbed with olive oil and simply seasoned. Heavenly.

I was in charge of the sides, so I made a quick Greek Salad to go along with the lamb, and grilled some eggplant in the simplest way possible..(a recipe I make over and over again from Faith Willinger’s book about Italian vegetables). It was a near perfect meal...and it lingered in my mind, a warm and happy memory, in the days that would come...





MINNEAPOLIS to RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA



Ummm, would it be harsh to say, this was, er, dining "badlands"?
This leg of the trip was the start of what we eventually called "the Burger-a-Day Diet". It’s not pretty folks…there were burgers at Dairy Queen (resulting in post-burger queasiness) and burgers at Wendy’s (disappointing, and well, yes, that queasy thing again…) but, there were some redeeming moments…a nicely made, simple bison burger at a small restaurant inside Badlands National Park, and, just when I thought I couldn’t eat another burger…a supremely delicious Montana-raised, grass-fed beef burger at Montana Ale Works in Bozeman, Montana.



One of the highlights of driving through South Dakota is that you are treated to a Wall Drug billboard every couple of miles. They are quirky, clever and usually set off in a field, alone. Mile after empty mile, the billboards keep appearing on empty hillsides and reminding you that they offer free ice water, western apparel, homemade doughnuts, and also coffee for a nickel.
Let me tell you, friends, they work. I was enchanted by the signs…eagerly searching the horizon for the next Wall Drug billboard.

By the time we reached the middle of the state, I was adjusting our itinerary and planning a stop. Good thing we did, because we were rewarded with some of the best chocolate cake doughnuts ever. And, yes, the coffee was a nickel, and it was excellent.


I wish I had not been so ravenous that I had remembered to pull out the camera later that day for a picture of our picnic lunch not far from Mt. Rushmore. We were in a parking lot across from the Safeway in Rapid City, South Dakota, and sitting in the front seat of our car, Steve was carving up a rotisserie chicken... with a plastic knife.

Later that day, on our way to Billings, Montana it was back to burger land. There are not many choices out in that section of Big Sky Country, so there we were, at the Wendy’s mentioned above. Even Henry, the Labrador, looked disappointed by our choice.


Most of the meals in this portion of the country seem to include Velveeta, or some kind of orangey-yellow processed "American" cheese product. At one motel in Montana, there was even a large pump mechanism, designed to squirt the cheese product on your scrambled eggs. At night, I dream of cheeses...ripe and fragrant Brie, Morbier, goat cheese crottins, and Cowgirl Creamery's Mt. Tam. The orange cheese stuff makes me sad. I wonder aloud in the car, is this our American "peasant" food? Orange cheese that can be pumped?


BOZEMAN, MONTANA
A couple days with friends in Bozeman restored our spirits -- especially an incredible grilled shrimp dish with a Moroccan sauce, whipped up by our ebullient hostess, from the pages of the current Cooks Illustrated summer grilling issue.

BOZEMAN, MONTANA to JACKSON, WYOMING


More hiking than driving. (Hooray!) Hiking in Bozeman. Hiking in Grand Teton National Park.
Our post-hike beer-of-choice became
Moose Drool Brown Ale.

JACKSON, WYOMING to SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH
Low expectations.
Potato chips eaten straight from the bag become replacement for actual meals.
Grocery store deli sections provide sustenance.

But, the restaurant at Hotel Monaco in Salt Lake City is a shimmering oasis in a culinary desert. Good wine. Beautiful plate of beef carpaccio, followed by a perfectly cooked piece of halibut, nestled on a zesty summer "chowder". No photo due to complete exhaustion.

A few observations: Utah feels enormous. Nevada is hot. My left arm has a white stripe where my watch is, from driving with the sun beating through the windshield.
We drive through to Lake Tahoe, stopping in Elko, Nevada for gas and some fried chicken from the deli at the local Albertson's supermarket. It's pretty good -- hot and salty and greasy, but I am ready to be home.


TRUCKEE, CALIFORNIA TO SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA
This town on the northern side of Lake Tahoe, is a delight. The Cedar House Sport Hotel is lovely. We are welcomed by an incredibly kind manager and invited to have some munchies on the terrace...a kind of a happy hour, I suppose. I don't remember a gin & tonic tasting so wonderful in a very long time.


The next day we share some not-very-good fish tacos for lunch before we hit the road. I decide one should try to avoid not-very-good fish tacos, if at all possible.
Undeterred, we agree...we must plan a return trip.

Tired and happy we cross the Bay Bridge into San Francisco a few hours later...relieved, tired and hungry.

The first order of business -- find the takeout menu for our favorite local Thai restaurant and place an order.

There's no place like home.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Transition


tran - si - tion |tranˈzi sh ən; -ˈsi sh ən|
noun
the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another

I knew it would be daunting, when I said yes to the job offer. Moving is never pretty...and that's just when you go from one house or apartment or neighborhood to another. This move -- Chicago to San Francisco -- involves thousands of miles and a myriad of details. The "transition" was going to be, umm, challenging.

But, I am a producer. And, producers handle details. Lots of 'em. Up for the challenge, I smiled, said, yes, thank you, and there you have it. We are moving to San Francisco!

Yes, it is as lovely as you are picturing...apricots and fresh lavender in June at some of the most glorious farmer's markets I've ever encountered. Incredible vistas in every direction...my favorite being the brick red of the Golden Gate Bridge standing out from the green of the hills of Marin in the background. Fog that sometimes rolls, slides, creeps or drops in over the hills to the west of the city. People--total strangers even--who will discuss food and restaurants with you in an wonderfully obsessive manner.
And, don't even get me started on how one city gets to have so many incredible bakeries.

I was going to start out and tell you how invigorating change is, and how wonderful it is to be learning new things, and experiencing all new, all the time. It is. But then I thought of a recent flight back to the West Coast where I bumped into a friend's brother on the plane. Someone I knew! A familiar face. I almost cried I was so happy and then I realized... sometimes, so much change at once and so much new is exhausting too.

Happy. Sad. Tired. I am in
tran - si - tion |tranˈzi sh ən; -ˈsi sh ən|

a passage in a piece of writing that smoothly connects two topics or sections to each other.

Smoothly connecting two sections of life (the Midwest chapter and the West Coast chapter is what we are calling them) is what I am after.
I'm realizing that patience is key.

There is cooking and eating going on, but not much blogging about it at the moment. This producer has multiple lists going, things to be done, here and in Chicago, a huge road trip to be planned, and so, despite many blog postings written in my head as I stand at the kitchen counter eating a juicy peach in early June (oh, how I love California!!), few are actually making it into the blog.
Soon, I will be reunited with my cookbooks...my heavy, industrial stand-mixer...my fancy knives...my silpats...but, for the time being I will have to stick to the super simple. It's been like that for several months now and I'll tell you that's not a bad thing when you have the incredible range of produce that is available here. (I keep thinking to myself, "these people are so spoiled here"...and then, with a start, I realize, I get to be one of "these people" now and I become giddy with joy.)



So, here's something I put together recently after seeing fava beans in the local California farmers markets. A childhood friend tells me she has never cooked with favas...she says her only frame of reference for them is Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. Bummer. My favorite fava memory (ha), is a summer weekend spent in (relatively) quiet New York with my dearest friend, Elizabeth. We pledged not to venture north of 20th Street that weekend, and so we ended up having dinner one night, outside, at Da Silvano. I vaguely remember random celebrity sightings and many women who looked like supermodels as we sat there on a balmy summer night. There were perfect vodka gimlets, cool and refreshing. Then a starter that etched itself in my memory: perfectly blanched favas with small chunks of pecorino, drizzled with a fruity green olive oil and a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper. It was perfection.

I recreated this dish at home in Chicago, whenever I was lucky enough to find favas at the green market. The season seemed extremely short to me...just a couple weeks at some point in July, and I won't even tell you how many times I would get up at 6 AM, pedal my bike to the market, with the express plan to buy favas, only to be told the supply had been completely cleaned out by some local chef.



People grumble about favas being too much work. This makes me a little cranky... really, if you want no work at all, then microwave something for heavenssakes. This is about cooking something verdant and green and incredible, and it's really not that big a deal.
First, you shell the beans (and the pods really are fascinating...lined with a beautiful, white, soft padding.) Drop the beans in boiling water for one, two minutes, tops. Drain and drop into cold water and then pop the beans out of their skins. For super-tiny beans, you can pretty much eat them without this step. For this relatively minimal amount of work (I mean this is NOTHING compared to roasting duck or making bouillabaisse people!) you are rewarded with the sweetest, brightest green nuggets of goodness that just shout "IT'S SPRING"!

And, my favorite part of it is...from now on, I get to have them whenever I want.



Fava Beans with Pecorino
Serving note: So, given the "work" involved for a relatively small yield, I would suggest making this for yourself, or two people, max.

Several handfuls of fresh fava beans, shelled
Pecorino romano cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler
fruity extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
freshly cracked black pepper

1. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil and blanch the shelled beans for approximately 1-2 minutes.

2. Drain the beans and then plunge into a bowl of ice water for 2-3 minutes.

3. Drain the beans again and arrange on a plate. Top with shavings of romano. Drizzle with olive oil, top with cracked pepper and serve.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Dynamic Duos

The cheese menu was impressive. Four or five offerings were listed and I was carefully contemplating them all as I enjoyed a post-gnocchi sense of well being at a local San Francisco institution: Zuni Café. My friend, JB, made a little face (well, it was actually a little face, accompanied by a dismissive shrug--as if to say, "so passe") when I mentioned going to Zuni for a meal. Ignoring the shrug, I braved the hordes of Zagat-toting tourists and grabbed a single table in the bar a few weeks ago. A gorgeous beet salad, followed by ethereal ricotta gnocchi made me a fan forever. The server offered pitch-perfect service. After the gnocchi, we discussed the cheese menu. I asked what Dori’s something-or-other was. He said, with a totally straight face, “Dori is a goat on this farm in Northern California. The cheese is made with her milk…hence…” and here is where I nodded and chimed in as we finished together “Dori’s cheese”. We laughed. I ended up choosing a Gorgonzola, (sorry Dori) which was drizzled with a local honey, and a glass of Sauternes. It was a happy, happy pairing. The salty cheese doing a sultry tango with the chilled, sweet wine. There was perfection in the balance of flavors.

Think about it….oranges and chocolate… bacon and eggs…(here I go with the cheese again…Stilton and walnuts. Beets and (more cheese!) goat cheese. French fries and mayonnaise. Oh, I could go on and on. More often than not, it's the yin/yang combinations in food that make things memorable.

So here’s one pairing that isn’t quite on everyone’s radar, but is one of my favorites. My friend, Didier, introduced me to this combination and it has become something I crave on a regular basis.
Salmon and lentils. Don’t ask my why, but it works. Beautifully.
The earthiness of the lentils, typically dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette, stands up to a fish like salmon, which is no shrinking violet, and the combination is one of the most delicious things I can think of. It’s one of those meals that you can eat in virtually any season. Hearty enough in winter and, if you chilled everything slightly, a perfect meal on a hot day. Now, granted lentils are not really pretty, but gussied up with a handful of fresh herbs, they more than hold their own against the “pretty-in-pink” salmon. In fact, I ate them straight from the fridge, right out of the plastic, leftover container the other day while standing at the counter and I swear they were even better than the night before. Throw some steamed asparagus on the plate, if you want to be fancy and spring-like, but just know that the asparagus may feel a bit like a ‘third wheel’, because salmon and lentils are a perfect match.


Slightly-Asian Salmon
for one serving

one fillet of salmon, per person
1 tablespoon bottled Teriyaki sauce of your choice
(I like the Soy Vay brand--it's got nice flavor and sesame seeds), but you could also easily substitute miso here

Brush the salmon with the marinade and broil to desired doneness.

Lentils in Vinaigrette
serves four


1 cup dried lentils, preferably de Puy--the tiny, dark green French lentils,
sorted and rinsed
1/2 onion, in one chunk with root end intact
1/2 carrot
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons olive oil--the good stuff
2-3 teaspoons sherry vinegar, or you can use juice of 2 lemons if you prefer the lemony version
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste
handful chopped fresh herbs of your choice--I like chives and parsley

1. Put the lentils in a medium pot and cover with water by an inch. Add the onion, carrot and bay leaf and bring to a boil.
2. Cover and lower the heat so the lentils bubble gently.
3. Cook approximately 20-30 minutes, until tender.
4. Mix the remaining ingredients in a small jar and shake, or whisk in a small bowl.
5. Drain the lentils, pick out the onion, carrot and bay leaf and discard-- mix in the vinaigrette.
6. Salt and pepper to taste -- taste and adjust the seasonings. I usuall add an additional heap of mustard.
7. Stir in the fresh herbs.

To plate -- make a nice bed of lentils and then place the fillet of salmon right on top. Serve with steamed asparagus, or a mixed green salad.

LEFTOVERS:
oh-so-nice with a hard-boiled egg and some tossed green salad and toasted baguette.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Vegetable Bliss


I think it was my friend Jane's husband who pointed out that doughnuts are acceptable if one is a vegetarian, and so I cheerfully mentioned this to my dear friend, Bijou, when she told me she had become a vegetarian. We've been friends since high school and she is, and has always been, The Artsy One. Supremely talented with just about every medium I can think of, she made an incredible silk screen of Mikhail Baryshnikov, in a dance pose, our junior year, that I think we had transferred to t-shirts at one point. We were nerdy. We thought he was cool, and, err, umm (this is embarrassing)... hot.
Teenage girl silliness. What-ever...

A couple summers ago, Bijou (so nicknamed during her jewelry-making phase) decided to take a welding class, and I have a wonderful photo of her in full welder gear (steel-toe boots, overalls, gloves and those cool, gigantic helmets) with her two young boys, off to the side, looking impressed, and maybe even a little awestruck. My friend, Bijou, The Welder Goddess.


I think it was last month that she mentioned that she had become a vegetarian. This is what I love about my dear friend...always embracing something new. I told her about a recent visit to the most incredible vegetable emporium I've ever seen,
The Berkeley Bowl. Almost like an indoor farmer's market, but better, I nearly wept as I wandered the aisles. A dozen types of radish...
my beloved escarole to be had...the citrus section alone put every regular-store fruit and vegetable department to shame. I'd really never seen anything like it. It filled me with Midwestern envy. It would be SO simple to be a vegetarian here in Northern California, and even better if you lived near The Berkeley Bowl! (That's the general consensus. After the first visit to this remarkable store, one begins to plot a way to live close by.)


So, as Bijou and I discussed her new vegetarianism, I got to thinking about a couple of meatless recipes I am simply addicted to. In fact, our talk reminded me of one that had cycled through my regular rotation for years, only to drop out for no good reason.

It may sound a little '80s-pre-carb-backlash when I tell you about it, but don't hold that against this perfectly balanced, harmonious pasta dish. I was so happy I remembered the Pasta with Goat Cheese and Greens, that I went ahead and made a bowlful for my self that very same evening. Yes, all the beloved chi-chi-in-the-80's ingredients are here. Goat cheese! Sun-dried tomatoes! Arugula!
And, their delicious flavors meld together in the most beautiful way. The bonus, I have to tell you, is that it's the closest thing I know of to a true "pantry" supper. Pasta. Ha...always in our cabinets...I used orecchiette the other night, but originally made it with penne (rigate, of course), as a knock-off of a tasty pasta I had once in a beloved, Chicago restaurant where we are regulars, Mia Francesca. Caramelized onions are the base--not a problem, most of the time. Jars of sun-dried tomatoes are easy to keep in the pantry. (I favor the Trader Joe's julienned variety.) Goat cheese keeps really well in those little vacuum-sealed logs (another Trader Joe's good buy). As for the greens, I usually have a bag of pre-washed arugula in the fridge, or even spinach works well here. And, for a delightful little crunch, toasted pine nuts. Mine live, year-round, in a sealed plastic bag in the freezer.

The onions are cooked to a gorgeous state of caramel-sweet golden-ness, and then the tomatoes are added to warm up towards the end. Add the hot pasta, some crumbled goat cheese and a couple handfuls of greens (the arugula, for a bit more bite, or some fresh spinach) and watch it all melt together. (I keep a little cup of the hot pasta water to the side in case the sauce needs a little loosening up. Sometimes, I add grated Parmesan to give it a little dimension. But, really, that's it. Toss in a handful of toasted pine nuts, for a sassy bit of crunch and you're set.

A glass of red wine and the '80s music of your choice would complete the experience.



Goat Cheese, Sun-Dried Tomato Pasta with Greens
Serves 4


1 lb. pasta, penne rigate, farfalle, or orecchiette
2-3 tablespoons of sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil
1 small log of goat cheese, chevre, crumbled
2-3 small onions, sliced into half-rounds
1 tablespoon of olive oil
2-3 handfuls of arugula, or fresh spinach
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

salt and pepper to taste

2-3 tablespoons grated Parmesan, optional

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil for pasta. Cook pasta according to package directions.

2. In your largest saucepan, saute the sliced onions in the olive oil, over medium heat until soft and golden brown.

3. Toast the pine nuts in a small skillet over medium heat. Tossing occasionally for even browning. Set them to the side for garnish.

4. When onions are ready, add sun-dried tomatoes and stir to warm. Keep over very low heat until pasta is ready.

5. As soon as pasta is cooked scoop about a cup of water out and set aside for loosening the sauce, and then add drained pasta to the pan with the onions.

(NOTE: if your saucepan is not large enough, do the reverse and use the pasta pot to combine everything after draining.)

6. Stir the past and onion-sun-dried tomato mixture together and add the crumbled goat cheese and handfuls of greens. Continue to stir while the cheese melts and the greens wilt a bit.

7. Add optional grating of Parmesan. Garnish with toasted pine nuts.

8. Salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sunday Dinner


So, I moved last weekend. From one temporary apartment, to another. By taxi.
(I'm assuming this will be the first, last and only time THAT's ever going to happen.)
Left behind my quirky-kitchen-with-the-giant-Viking-range and traded it in for a small, yet new, ubiquitous-granite-counter-cherry-cabinet model. The range is electric. Sigh.
Not my favorite...(so annoying the way things go on sputtering in the pan, long after you've turned off the burner...)

After getting settled, I decided I would make some dinner. It was Sunday after all.

‘Sunday dinner’ stirs up a mix of memories. My husband’s grandmother, for example, had a cute little wooden sign that said KITCHEN CLOSED ON SUNDAYS. Point taken. A dear friend tells me that Chinese food delivery was her family’s cherished Sunday ritual. When I was a child, Sunday was a day my mother would happily relinquish the kitchen to anyone interested in throwing something together. She’d sit calmly in our Very 70s TV room working on some needlepoint, or knitting a sweater, unperturbed by the mayhem generated by my father’s attempt to create an authentic Beef Burgundy or my brother and I arguing over our Old El Paso taco extravaganza.

Over the years, Sunday Dinner took on a mythical quality for me. Maybe it was a glimpse of a Norman Rockwell painting somewhere? More likely, it was a compilation of Sunday dinner tableaux merged in the imagination of a lifelong reader. I had always pictured Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth sitting down for Sunday Dinner with Marmee at the head of the table, in Little Women. But really, the only cooking in the book was done by Hannah, the servant. Well, and that one meal by Jo, which was disastrous as I recall. Diane Johnson’s books, often set in France, describe Sunday dinner for the French – you go to your mother’s house or your mother-in-law’s house – and you bring flowers. There you eat perfectly roasted chicken. I have witnessed part of this Sunday tradition on trips to Paris…everyone in a hurry, dressed nicely, carrying stunningly arranged bouquets. Watching them always made me feel left out as I vainly searched for an open restaurant.

So, I propose that we bring back Sunday Dinner. Or, umm, maybe we re-introduce it, or just introduce it…whatever. Sunday dinner with friends. Or family. Or without.
The point is…cook something.
Why? Because, Sunday is one of the best days of the week to put together a meal. You've got the luxury of time…sip your coffee, read the papers, and lazily ponder what you’d like to eat for dinner before sauntering to the grocery store. And, you'll have the extra bonus of leftovers, for Monday. There's nothing better than arriving home after a long Monday, to delicious leftovers simply waiting for you, ready to go.

Sundays are also excellent for having people over. Some of the best meals to share are ridiculously easy to put together? (WHY is it that meals for six or eight seem SO much easier to cook?) There’s something cozy and comforting about having friends over on a Sunday. If you live in a chilly climate, there’s nothing more lovely than puttering in a warm kitchen, maybe an old movie, or the radio on in the background, with the aromas of a stew, or something meaty roasting drifting through your home. The idea is to choose something that's mainly doing its work in the oven, while you put your feet up (enjoying the enticing aromas drifting from your kitchen) and read some more of the Sunday paper.

Last weekend, I decided to go with a tried and true Sunday favorite...
Fake Tandoori Chicken.
This is a Laurie Colwin classic which has been in my rotation for years, and it never disappoints. For anyone who hasn't heard of Laurie Colwin, I beg you -- go to the library, to Amazon, wherever, and get one of her books. You'll thank me. The beauty of this dish really is in its simplicity and ease of preparation. Marinate chicken pieces in a yogurt paste overnight, or for the day. Bake in the oven. Voila. Something about the yogurt gives the chicken an almost-velvety texture and it's delicious hot, or cold, making for ideal Monday Leftovers.

Part Two is another favorite: Israeli Couscous Pilaf. I should work on a better name for this dish. Somewhere, I fell in love with this more robust couscous and I've never gone back to the standard version. Maybe because it is more pasta-like? Who knows, but this stuff takes whatever you feel like tossing at it, and always looks sophisticated. Cooked in chicken broth, mixed with any variety of nuts, dried fruit and herbs, then finished off with a kind of vinaigrette, it adapts to any craving you may have. It's this sort of improvisational cooking that makes me feel like a confident, good cook.


And there you have it. You, or you and your friends, will be impressed (any time cooking or entertaining looks this easy, it’s impressive), you will have created your very own Norman-Rockwell-like Sunday dinner, and maybe even a tradition to call your own.


Fake Tandoori Chicken
adapted from an 80's essay by Laurie Colwin in Gourmet magazine

serves 4

4 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts, (I usually halve these)
or 6 thigh pieces, or a mix
1 small container of plain yogurt
1 clove of garlic, minced or pressed
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon paprika
several pinches of salt
lemon wedges for garnish

1. Sprinkle salt on the chicken pieces, and layer in a glass baking dish.
2. Mix yogurt, chili powder, paprika and garlic together.
3. Spread paste all over the chicken pieces, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or in the morning.
4. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 425 F. degrees.
5. Line a baking pan with foil and arrange chicken pieces. Bake for approx. 40 minutes.
(You may need to pour off some of the juices midway, if you want the chicken to stay crispy on the outside.)
Serve on a platter with lemon wedges.

Israeli Couscous Pilaf
serves 4

1 cup Israeli couscous
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup water

1/2 cup nuts -- sliced almonds are good--toasted, as are pistachios
1/2 cup dried currants, or cranberries, apricots or raisins
1/2 cup chopped parsley, and/or chives

1 tablespoon of olive oil
juice of half a lemon
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat the chicken broth/water mixture in a pan with the couscous. Bring to a brisk simmer and cook for approximately 8 minutes--testing the couscous. Do not overcook -- it gets gummy.

2. Drain and toss with nuts and dried fruit. Replace the lid on the pan and allow everything to sit for three or four minutes.

3. Toss with olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper. Stir in fresh herbs and serve.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

So...About Me



I love those moments when someone you think you know pretty well, says something which surprises you. Or, maybe surprise is not the best word. Maybe it's more like...
someone you think you know pretty well, tells you something about themselves that is unexpected and charming.

Last week, my dear friend, Jane, said 'tag, you're it' in the classic meme, Eight Things About Me. In her list, she utterly delighted me with (#7) the story of a poetry submission to Seventeen magazine when she was a teenager. This confirms the feeling I have for so many people I've befriended as a grown-up...I would have loved them when I was a teen.

So, here you go:

1. I was born in the U.S., but did not learn English until my immigrant parents sent me off to pre-school. I learned Croatian first, and then they figured, I'd pick up the rest along the way. My mother says the first day she picked me up from school, the teacher mentioned that I was "painfully shy and very quiet". Uh, yeah..

2. Always, always, always, potato chips over tortilla chips or pretzels.

3. I think horoscopes are silliness, but that whole thing about certain personality traits attributed to specific astrological signs...oh, they're on to something with that.
And, I am a Leo.

4. Reading is like breathing to me. I can't imagine life without it. It's precious and magical. And, yet, my first grade teacher was an awful woman, who will remain nameless here, so obviously frustrated at the rate at which I tore through those early reading primers, that I shudder to think what could have happened if I had cared what she thought.

5. I pretty much melt into a puddle when I see a Labrador.

6. I love to think about The Perfect Meal. Mainly it should be simple:
Some hand-made salumi, an assortment of cheeses, a true baguette, and a salad dressed with good olive oil and balsamic vinegar. C'est tout.

7. Give me a British-production, period costume drama on tv any day, and I'll show you utter, rapt attention.

8. There's really nothing quite like a beautiful pair of shoes.

The bookcases in the photograph are one of the best things about home.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Just a Little Help



After too many days spent on airplanes, going here and there...listening to people sniffle, cough and sneeze all around me (eeew!) I arrived back at my little
San Francisco outpost with the quirky kitchen, ready to actually cook something. I'll admit it. I've grown a little lazy, folks. Having to think through the logistics of making a meal (for one) with limited kitchen stuff has at times overwhelmed my eagerness for home-cooking. (How did I become so Cooking High Maintenance?!) It's so easy to stand there in front of the Whole Foods prepared sushi section and think...sooo simple. No dishes. Just eat and toss the little container when you're finished. I've been weak, people!

But then my inner Italian Girl sat up and said, enough! (Well, she said 'basta'!, but you know what I mean....) It doesn't have to be complicated!

So, I went with my current strategy. Ask yourself, "what do you feel like eating?"
Umm, beans. In some kind of broth. With some veggies.
If I was in a restaurant, that's what I'd be looking for...some kind of
Tuscan Bean Soup.
Soup is terrific...like a really good friend. Flexible and forgiving, comforting and good-natured...it comes through when you need a pat on the back or a hug. You can do the long, slow-cooked variety, or you can put together something pretty good, in a snap...with a little help. In the words of Dr. Seuss...Oh The Places You'll Go...if you have some good, canned (or boxed) chicken stock!



Orangette, one of my absolute favorite food bloggers, posted an escarole salad recipe last year, and that's when my love affair began. I would be absolutely content to eat this salad every single day, and came close to doing so for a while there. Escarole is exceptionally delicious in said salad, but equally at home giving a little kick to a bean soup which would be dull without it. But alas, my beloved is often absent from the produce section, (why?! oh, why?!) and so...I improvise. I'll admit to a pang of jealousy this week, after I couldn't find escarole, yet again, when I saw that yet another favorite food blogger, Deb at Smitten Kitchen had access to escarole for a wonderful looking soup with orzo and meatballs.

My plan the other day, was to stop by a cozy, local grocery store, Bi-Rite Market to pick up the elements for my soup. I almost strayed...Bi-Rite has perfect, smallish portions of fish and meat, marinated and vacuum-sealed in packets, ready for cooking. Pure genius...but, another time. So, of course...no escarole. I decided to go with two handfuls of fresh baby spinach, instead. A can of white canellini beans, the previously mentioned box-o-chicken broth, a head of garlic and a loaf of ciabiatta went into the basket. On a whim, I picked up a small container of pre-made pesto. Might be nice as a garnish.

Back "at home", as the garlic and onions sizzled away in the pan, I realized how much comfort I derive from the mundane...the zen of chopping, the wonderful smells wafting through the kitchen.

The soup itself is nothing fancy, it's beans, sauteed briefly with some barely caramelized onions, and carrots, if you like, to which you add some stock. More, and it's "soupier", less and it's like a thick porridge. Right before serving, toss in your greens and stir. My garnish idea was perfect. The little teaspoon of pesto on top, melted into the soup giving it a zingy kick.
Sigh. Beats a plastic container of sushi any day.



Tuscan Bean Soup
serves two


1 medium onion, sliced thinly
1 carrot, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 can cannellini, or other white beans, rinsed and drained
1 - 1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 cup, or 1-2 handfuls of washed, roughly chopped escarole, or leaves of baby spinach
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon of prepared pesto, for garnish
grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish

Sautee onion, garlic and carrot in oil until golden and almost beginning to brown.
Add beans and cook for one or two minutes.
Add chicken stock and simmer for five minutes.
Stir in greens, until wilted...about a minute or two.
Salt and pepper to taste.

Serve garnished with pesto and grating of cheese.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Unfamiliar Kitchen Dispatch #2


Putting together a meal in a kitchen not your own has its challenges, only one of which is:
the local grocery store.

Sometimes you land in a place...maybe a beach town, and the choices are somewhat limited. I have already shared the story of the memorable seven-dollar peach on Martha's Vineyard, and yet I have very fond memories of wonderful meals prepared there over the years. Amazing local fish, simply grilled, smeared with herb butter and served alongside tossed greens from the local farm stand a short bike-ride away. I loved the stand. It was a deserted, weatherbeaten half-structure, where you selected your produce and left your money in an old fishing tackle box, taking change if you needed it. A very distinguished, very large bull sat in a meadow across the way, keeping watch over the transactions. He seemed straight out of a Disney film.

We once spent a long, autumn weekend in a small town in Door County, Wisconsin where there was a surprisingly small and not-very-well-stocked grocery store. Yet, it yielded the simple ingredients for a hearty lentil soup welcomed by a large group of very hungry people on a cold, damp evening. (No doubt the homemade cherry pie purchased from yet another farm stand helped memories of that meal.) Wandering the cramped aisles of that little grocery store, reminded me of wonderful article written by one of my favorite writers, Laurie Colwin, years ago, which prefaced a recipe by pointing out that all the ingredients could be found in even "the nastiest grocery store".

Of course, there's the other end of the spectrum as well. Cooking in a perfectly outfitted, yet tiny kitchen in a rented Paris apartment on a street where one of the best cheese purveyors in the city is a handful of storefronts down from one of the finest patissiers in the city, and around the corner from La Grande Epicerie--Le Bon Marche department store's answer to the famous Harrod's food hall. An almost overwhelming selection of incredible food to work with.

So, here in San Francisco, in the cozy neighborhood of Noe Valley, I'm finding that being flexible is key. As my friend, Jane says..."think of it as camping".

Which brings me to my hero over the course of the past few weeks: the humble egg.
I purchased a doze on my first night here, at the somewhat nasty, miniscule corner store in the neighborhood, along with some milk, a loaf of bread a tiny, outrageously expensive jar of Hellman's mayonnaise, a can of tuna and a block of orange cheddar cheese. Dinner that first night was a cheese omelette. A few nights, and a small bag of broccoli, later, there was a frittata. We know I love frittata.

This past weekend, the weather here was magnificent. After a day spent outdoors, in the bright sunshine and near-70 degree temperatures (sorry all you East Coast and Midwest people!) I didn't really feel like eating, or cooking, anything hot.
Earlier in the day, I had picked up some incredible artisan rolls from a local favorite,
Acme Bread Co. and thought: egg salad.
(May I just say, I simply can't get over how much astonishing, fantastic bread there is in this city?!)


I had that four-dollar, micro-jar of Hellman's just waiting to be opened. Garnished with some arugula for a peppery crunch, and a couple thin slices of sweet red bell pepper, which upon reflection, were a bit much.



It was homey and comforting...and didn't generate too many dishes, or pots...my unfamiliar kitchen has one more quirk--no dishwasher.



NOTE: I love to hard-boil eggs, the Cook's Illustrated way. Place eggs in pan, with cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, and immediately shut off the heat, put a lid on the pan, and set timer for 12 minutes. Plunge eggs into ice water. Let cool for a few minutes, after which eggs are ready to peel.

Egg Salad
serves one


2 eggs, hard-boiled and roughly chopped
1-2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt & pepper to taste

OPTIONAL ADDITIONS: love love love to add chives, if you have them or can find them
also, a tiny bit of chopped Italian parsley or fresh dill

GARNISH: lettuce or arugula

1. chop eggs and mix with mayo, mustard, salt and pepper
2. spoon onto bread of your choice.

Yes, I a blessed with access to Acme Bread at the moment, but at home I like to use pumpernickel.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Unfamiliar Kitchens


It's a no-brainer. Someone in San Francisco offers you a six-week project...beginning in January and stretching through the worst of a Chicago winter and you say yes. Enthusiastically. Eagerly. You pack all your normal person clothes, oh and maybe a raincoat. No parkas. No long underwear. No ten-pound snow boots and big, silly-looking hats. You leave those behind. Give the husband and dog a kiss. Then zip out to the airport and get on that plane--fast. Before the next snow storm rolls in.

So there you have it. I'm in San Francisco for the next month or so. Living in a short-term rental and you all probably know what that means. Most people have experienced The Unfamiliar Kitchen at one time or another. It could be a beach house, a cabin in the woods or even the home of a friend or family member. You open drawer after drawer, hunting for utensils. You wish the cheese grater was more like the one you have at home. You use a wine glass as a measuring cup
(a trick I saw once on Naked Chef).

The kitchen here is, umm, let's say it's interesting. Kind of vintage. A linoleum floor and an old kitchen sink unit, like maybe from the 50s, with built-in metal drawers and cabinets on one side of the room. On the other, a gigantic Viking range, with an enormous hood. I can grill french toast for twelve, if I should feel the need to do so. The pots are in sad shape. The largest (missing a handle) and a smallish, sort-of-non-stick omelette pan are the ones I am using the most.

Which brings me to the sort of cooking one does in situations such as this. It requires, an adjustment. Omelettes. Yes. Pastas, yes. Salads. Yes. Easy sautes. Yes. Baking? Not gonna happen. (No mixer! No Silpats!)
Soups. Eh, I'm guessing no. Now, grilling would be a big yes, but, alas, I have no grill.

There's something freeing in a way about all this. I don't have my bookshelves full of cookbooks to cling to, so it's really about the ingredients. Eating at home has been simplified. (And for balance, I have all those amazing San Francisco restaurants out there, waiting to be experienced!)

So, the plan? Ask myself, "What do you feel like eating?" Then, cook it and embellish very little.

I feel more confident saying all this now that I stopped at Bed, Bath & Beyond last night and bought:

two Riedel "O" glasses (The wineglasses in the cupboard here bear winery logos. Call me weird, but I find this cheesy.)
a bamboo cutting board
a serrated, no-sharpening-required knife
a set of my favorite OXO tongs. (Quite possibly the most useful tool in any kitchen.)

I plan to make an egg salad one evening and I'll let you know when I do. It's an underrated meal.



Tonight, I made one of my favorite salads ever. And it's mainly because I stumbled across some pre-cooked, peeled beets at Trader Joe's. When I make this at home, I wrap fresh beets in foil, and then roast for an hour or so, before cooling and peeling and tossing with the rest of the ingredients. But here were some beets, ready to go! (Why are the Trader Joe's out here SO much better than at home? A mystery...) Combined with some crumbled goat cheese and toasted walnuts tossed with a mix of arugula and spinach in a balsamic vinaigrette-- this made me feel pretty happy after a long day. And, it was an absolute snap to put together. There's nothing like the nutty, toasty fragrance of walnuts in the oven to make one feel at home.



Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Salad
serves 1

2-3 tiny beets, sliced or diced
3 tablespoons crumbled goat cheese
1, or 2 handfuls toasted walnuts (toast in oven for 10 minutes or so at 375 degrees)
large handful of washed baby arugula
large handful of washed baby spinach

Balsamic vinaigrette--your favorite brand

Arrange greens on a plate. Sprinkle with walnuts, goat cheese and beets.
Dress with the vinaigrette.