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Monday, April 27, 2015

Ruined

It's called Wonder Bread
But when you take a look at it, you'll understand that the name is a funny bonus, because though it truly is a wonder, it bears absolutely no resemblance at all to that other Wonder Bread.

The thing that makes me a little sad about bread is how it's gotten a bad rap over the past five or six years.  
Sigh...so many bread haters out there...for various reasons, of course. Some, most legitimately need to stay away from bread for health reasons, but others, “the lemmings”, let's call them, just follow whatever the current food fad. Paleo, gluten-free, all-kale, juicing, etc...you know them...and they've proclaimed bread to be “bad”.

So, first off, let me say that I LOVE bread, but in a very finicky, highly selective way. You see, there is so much bread out there in the world that should be ignored and bypassed. The strange and spongy “french” bread (really? French??) I see at my parents' local grocery in the Midwest. The stale pita that tastes like cardboard you get along with a salad at the airport. Sad dinner rolls deposited on your table in many ho-hum restaurants. These are the times you should ignore bread.

But, the bread here in San Francisco?
It has ruined me so that I've become an insufferable bread snob.

The thing you should know about San Francisco is that it feels like the very epicenter of a bread making renaissance. I remember first moving here almost seven years ago and being introduced to AcmeBread.  (Cue the hallelujah chorus.)
Their baguettes (both sweet and sour) and their pain au levain tasted like the real deal you find in France. I even loved the story of how Acme came to be.  The founder had been a busboy at the legendary ChezPanisse, and became obsessed with breadmaking after a trip to Europe. His bread project was serious and he experimented and refined his technique in the back of the restaurant's kitchen. People must have loved what he was doing because he eventually took over supplying the restaurant with his bread when their regular supplier couldn't meet demand. He was eventually encouraged (nudged) to head out on his own when his operation grew too large for the restaurant's kitchens. Now there is Acme bread in almost every SF area grocery store (applause!) and my favorite location: a small storefront in Berkeley at the main bakery, where there is a perpetual queue of bread lovers (carbs?! Bring 'em I say!). I typically grow giddy with indecision when I reach the front of the line there and am standing in front of an array of Acme's breads and delectable baked goods.

There's more amazing bread in this town than you can shake a stick at, but I don't want to shake a stick at any of it...I just want to slather it with butter and eat it. And by the way, there is not much that's better than a slice of a beautifully made loaf of bread spread with some nice butter.

There are intensely handsome loaves of bread baked by Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery.
 

Tartine's breads come out of the ovens in late afternoon because that accommodates the baker's surfing schedule (bravo!) but also happen to work perfectly with the idea that you pick one up on your way home from work and enjoy with your dinner. I've always wondered why one of the food magazines hasn't picked up on the success of People magazine's Sexiest ManAlive, or Most Beautiful Woman series with a version that selects a cover bread named Most Gorgeous Bread! each year because if they did, I would immediately nominate Tartine's Country Bread.

More humble in the looks department, yet splendid in its own way is the house bread at Outerlands, a restaurant in the outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco. Order their grilled cheese made with the house bread and you have achieved bread-lover nirvana. The house loaf has more the look and shape of a sandwich bread and incredible flavor. Word to the wise, ask if they have extra and take a loaf home for yourself. (Extra bonus: your car will fill with the delectable aroma of bread.) Toast it up in the morning and see what all the fuss is about. You're welcome.

And, speaking of toast, this brings me to Wonder Bread.
I can't remember exactly how I first heard about it...maybe in one of the local food blogs I read from time to time?

JoseyBaker (insert obligatory joke about is-that-his-real-name? here, and, yes, it is.) started out just fiddling around in his kitchen at home in his spare time, making bread and then giving it to people. The bread was good. The sourdough starter he was using came from a friend's grandma or grandpa. How could it not be?
Friends, neighbors...they all wanted more. If I remember correctly, he started a subscription service so people could get his bread on a regular basis with him delivering his bread, on a bike. (It's a perfect San Francisco story.) He connected with a local coffee roaster and they opened up a place where he mills his own flour and makes his incredible loaves...You can get toast there...coffee, of course...and even pizza on Monday nights. Note to self as I was reading that article: find your way to this bread-happy place at some point.

Last winter, I was wandering the bread aisle at my favorite local,worker-owned, food co-op (power to the people!) I saw they had started to carry some of his bread. Happy day! Incredible, artisanal bread available at my go-to market. Life is good. So I grabbed a loaf of Wonder Bread. Shaped like a sliceable, sandwich loaf, it smelled “wonder”ful. Yeasty and nutty and bready...intoxicating, for this bread hound. This is bread with character, people. It has a gorgeous, dark brown top and it's as far from a white loaf of the other Wonder Bread as you can imagine.

A slice right when you get home is delicious. It's a kind whole wheat, but the crumb is beautifully fine and dense. Super tasty. But I also encourage you to wait until morning. (I sometimes fall asleep with a smile on my face because I'm thinking of my morning toast.) Because that's when you want to cut yourself a nice, thick slice and toast it. That, my friends, is when the true magic happens. Toasting does something amazing to this bread and if you sliced it thick enough, you get this perfect ratio happening: a wonderfully chewy interior that perfectly balances the warm, crispy, nutty crust.
Be smart and slather some almond butter on that, and then, maybe a little jam.  Take a bite and behold the wonder.
You too can be ruined by good bread. Just don't tell the paleo crowd...this way there's plenty of bread for us snobs.

*          *          *

For those not inclined towards almond butter, another idea if you come across some outstanding bread is what I call California toast, and no it's not mushing some avocado on toast, though I do get why you might think that.  

California Toast
serves one

one thick cut slice of  a tasty sourdough loaf, toasted 
(Acme's Walnut Levain is particularly nice here)

a couple spoonfuls of good ricotta
honey

You know what to do.





Monday, April 6, 2015

Table for One

Is it me or does it seem like it takes a bit of moxie to dine out alone?


Less so at lunch time, my preferred solo dining time slot, than dinner.  Eating alone at lunch feels more casual for sure.  Regardless, both options offer a fine opportunity for people watching, and my other favorite pastime...inventing stories and backgrounds for the occasional passerby. (Oh, look, a group of girlfriends at a a table together...a Sex in the City assortment of friends?  no, they seem extra animated and the wardrobe's been dialed up an extra notch.  It's graduation/reunion season...they all went to college together.  That's it.  Now, the one on the left...she seems quiet...she had an affair with her friend's boyfriend...yeah...)

But eating at home, alone.  That's a different category.
There's the comfort level.  Your favorite slouchy jeans, pj bottoms or, dare I say it...sweatpants.  A t-shirt and the ratty old dad sweater.  Check.
Dog trailing your every move with laser beam focus.  (She's headed for the kitchen.  Things are looking good. )  Check.
There's the thought of eating while sitting in front of the tv.  All god.  Your mother's not here, you're an adult and you get to do whatever you want!  Wheeeeeee!

And then there's the question of food.
Some of us experience a certain giddiness when faced with the idea of eating whatever we want without compromising our cravings for the sake of our partners, significant others, roommates, etc...  S., a friend at work, sat down across from me at lunch the other day with the most delicious-looking curry and naan.  You know it...Indian food leftovers because her spouse, who emphatically does not like Indian food, had been away on a business trip.  Another friend, dials exuberantly for local Chinese food takeout -- Beef with Broccoli -- whenever her partner, a vegetarian, is away.

I know for a fact that given an evening home alone, my husband does not even begin to think about what he is going to eat until he has already unscrewed the lid to the jar of peanut butter, his go-to form out nourishment.  To each his own.

Me, not so much a "cold food" person.  A sandwich is not going to happen as my solo dinner.  Unless that sandwich is a grilled cheese.  And it comes with a cup of tomato soup...straight out of the box.  No shame in that.

The thing is, I LIKE to cook something at the ned of a long day.  It helps me unwind.  And eating alone wallows a certain selfishness free reign.  If YOU want to eat a banana split for dinner, then so be it!  Livining with a vegetarian?  I think a juicy steak is in order!  Partner can't take heat?  Use jalapeƱos with abandon!

Judith Jones, Julia Childs' legendary editor at Knopf, has even devoted a book to creating perfect meals for yourself.  In The Pleasure of Cooking for One she makes the very excellent point that you are free to experiment when cooking alone.  You are free to fail and it doesn't have to be perfect.  If things don't go as planned, there's always takeout and the best part:  no one is the wiser.

My solo cooking escapades are burly based on in-the-moment cravings.  Steve likes to tell the story of being away on a golf trip and calling me during dinnertime.  He and his brothers were getting ready to head for a burger.  I, in the meantime was steaming a single lobster and had opened a beer, having already pulled the TV up closer to the dining room table.  (You don't want to be cracking lobster claws sitting the floor eating on the coffee table!)
Solo dining perfection!

A regular favorite now that asparagus is in season, is to plate up a raft of steamed asparagus, drape it in Serrano ham (or prosciutto...your preference!) and top it with a soft-boiled or poached egg.   A lovely piece of toasted bread rubbed with a garlic clove while still warm is optional and gives you an excellent tool for mopping up the egg yolk.

The closest I'll get to a "cold" meal is reserved for those nights when, teetering on the brink of complete exhaustion...the best I can do is stop by my favorite butcher shop/charcuterie, The Fatted Calf, for some help with a cheese and cracker plate.  A couple nice cheeses, oh, and maybe some zippy salami with a few olives and those little pickled pappadew peppers make for a perfectly relaxing dinner for one.  Cue last week's episode of Modern Family, please.

Which brings me to tell you about a recipe I've been obsessing over recently.  It's the cover shot of this month's Bon Appetit:  a gigantic seared beauty of a Porterhouse steak.  With little captions that tease (ten minutes ago this porterhouse was frozen solid).
Zoinks!
Another headline above the recipe reads:
We wouldn't tell you to score, season, chill, freeze, fry, slow roast, baste and refry a steak if it wasn't worth it.

Gah!  That's like every possible cooking technique known to man, applied to this piece of meat!  Things get curiouser and curiouser!  You can read more about it here.  My brain's been humming ever since I set eyes on this craziness.  Steve is not as much of a beef lover as I am...and the calendar shows potential...(his next scheduled beer-with-the-boys night!).  This crazy steak experiment WILL HAPPEN!

Is this indeed crazy?
How does one stand a giant porterhouse on its side, upright, in the freezer?
I have 'fear of frying'.  Will I be able to overcome it with this quest?
Answers to these questions...and more...soon.

I'll report back.