Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Goodbye, Tomatoes

Even here in NOCA, where we have a nearly year 'round growing season, we get lousy tomatoes in the winter. Even when shipped with a Sasquatch-sized carbon footprint from distant lands where summer is in full sway, they taste like cardboard, their color is pink rather than red, and they simply aren't worth the cost.

So, as I sliced the last of my little round, late-season red beauties for a tomato tart, I was bidding a fond farewell to summer. I was lucky they lasted this long.

The idea of making a tomato tart sprang into my head just before Thanksgiving and, when I looked on the interwebs, I saw that it was far from an original idea. So I cobbled together a hint from here and a treatment from there and came up with my own version which, if the rave reviews when I took it to Thanksgiving dinner are any indication, was a huge hit.

Those of you Down Under can try this right away. Those of you in the Northern Hemisphere who have preserved some of last season's harvest can probably make a good approximation. For grasshoppers like me, we have to wait until summer rolls around again.

Ripe Tomato Tart

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

1 package frozen puff pastry, thawed (I prefer DuFour brand because it is made with real butter and, thus, tastes better)
Dijon mustard
6-8 small ripe tomatoes, sliced
Feta cheese, coarsely crumbled
Fresh thyme (or oregano, or whatever herb you especially like with tomatoes)
Honey
Fresh fennel flowers

Unfold the puff pastry to a single layer on a baking sheet; it will measure approximately 14" x 8". With a sharp knife, score around the perimeter about 1/2" in from the edge but don't cut through the pastry; this part will rise and form a barrier to errant juices while the middle stays relatively flat.

Spread the middle of the pastry sheet inside your incised line with Dijon mustard to taste - I laid it on fairly thickly. Arrange tomato slices in a single layer on the mustarded part, sprinkle with feta cheese, again to taste. Strip the leaves from the woody stems of the thyme by running your fingers backwards along the stem from tip to base - you don't want the woody stems but if the tip breaks off it's okay to add that.

Drizzle the top very lightly with honey - no need to overdo this step, just a light striping is plenty.

Slide into a 375 degree oven; DuFour brand pastry does best at this heat. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the rim rises and browns, the tomatoes have sagged and softened, and the cheese is lightly browned on top.

Remove from the oven and add the fennel flowers scattered where everyone gets a taste of them.

I cut my tart into sizes easily eaten by hand as an hors d'oeuvre for 10 eaters, but if you plan to serve it at the table, it would make a nice first course or even a light lunch for about 6 people.





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Monday, November 29, 2010

Thanksgiving Experiment, Part Two

Because I wasn't hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year, I had some time to play around with new side dishes, looking for the next classic in my repertoire. This colorful melange of winter root veggies seemed particularly appealing when Tara posted about it just prior to the big day.

Tara's blog, Tea and Cookies, is one of those that I visit as much for the photography and the writing as for the recipes. Tara is mostly a vegetarian and if you read my blog frequently you'll know that I'm anything but. However, Tara writes so beautifully that she tempts me to try all kinds of veggie delights. Look at this, for example - spectacular!

This dish does require a bit of chopping of root vegetables but, once you get going, you're on a roll. The roasted veggies are mellow, almost sweet, and as colorful as a plate full of gemstones. I used thyme rather than rosemary just because my thyme plant is going strong and I had no rosemary in the house and even my mother couldn't force me to eat rutabaga, but I'm sure it would be equally good just the way Tara envisioned it.

While we are enjoying it as a side dish (it made a huge pan of veggies, so we are slowly eating our way through it), I'm thinking it would make a great substrate for other foods. For example, I think it would be dynamite with a poached egg on top, a jewel-toned vegetarian hash. Can't you just imagine the orange yolk of a fresh egg adding its color to the brilliance of this tumble of red, orange, yellow and cream?

Thanks to daughter Katie and her Main Man for hosting and giving me time to experiment for next Thanksgiving's hit parade.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving Experiment

I wanted to be a traditionalist this Thanksgiving by including sweet potatoes on the menu. However, not having been raised on the ones mashed and topped with browned marshmallows, I have to admit I can't face that dish. Just too sweet. So, when I saw on Mark Bittman's site that he wraps spears of blanched sweet potato in a blanket of prosciutto and bakes it, I thought that more savory approach might just be the ticket.

Let's just say that I love the concept but not the reality. I think I must have skipped an important step or something. Our experience was that the potatoes had an unpleasantly mealy texture, the prosciutto became leathery and the sage, which has never been my favorite herb, should perhaps have been replaced with thyme. Another time, I'd parboil the sweet potato longer and I'd cook the wrapped spears for a shorter time. Oh, and I'd switch to thyme.

Still, they have promise and I might try tweaking this idea next time I'm feeling experimental.

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Crabicide

Life is full of funny little deals, even in our dollar-based economy. Someone does a favor for you and you return it with something you can contribute. I walk your dog and you tell me about a novel-writing challenge that will be fun next November. You pick up the newspaper when I'm gone for a weekend and I roll out your trash cans when it's your turn to be away. Favors can be fun, especially when they involve Dungeness crabs.

We were walking Cora down to town to get a cup of coffee when we ran into our friend Ron. Ron is a builder who has always done beautiful work on our house and he's a nice guy, so we always enjoy seeing him. On one job, we traded with him for his building services and he got a terrific birthday present for his wife out of the deal. Win-win.

On this day, we chatted about his vintage 1965 Volkswagen and he was remarking that he doesn't use it enough to keep the battery charged. We have a trickle charger we don't use, so we offered to drop it off at his house. When we asked where he was headed, he said he was going crabbing with a friend. We left the trickle charger on his front porch and, a few days later, four lovely Dungeness crabs landed on our steps in a big white bucket.

We called our pals Janie and Jack to see if they were in a crabby mood; they confirmed that they were. We spread out newspapers several layers thick on the dining room table, laid out the nutcrackers and picks, set out wine glasses and plates of butter. They brought the wine and the sourdough baguette; we supplied the crabs and the venue.

I had never cooked crabs myself - normally, we buy them already cleaned and cracked. I didn't even have a pot big enough for four healthy specimens. So, while I was out grocery shopping I stopped at the local hardware store for this stainless steel monster; it holds something like 16 gallons of water. When the salted water had come to a rolling boil, we committed four counts of crabicide. While the crabs were cooling in the kitchen sink, we watched a YouTube video about how to clean and crack them (don't you just love YouTube?) and we were good to go.

Easily one of the best deals we have ever made.




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Friday, November 26, 2010

Hamneggs

Ever since we discovered the Fra'Mani uncured, smoked ham, I've been adding it to all kinds of dishes. The salt and the smoke add so much flavor to, for example, plain old scrambled eggs, turning them into a memorable breakfast.

The ham is a small one, so the slices are no more than 4 or 5 inches across, thin as construction paper and so flavorful that just opening the package gets my juices going. Two thin slices was plenty to flavor beautifully four large eggs.

As always with eggs, care in cooking pays off. I minced the ham and set it to warm in a small frying pan before thoroughly scrambling the eggs with a fork until the white and the yolk were one. Reduced the heat and eased those babies into the pan with the ham - they sizzled a little, but didn't sputter. Patient stirring while they made soft curds around the ham. Rescued from rubberization by removing while they were still moist and tender. Turned out onto warmed plates sidled up to a toasted English muffin.

If every day for every one on Earth started with hamneggs this delicious, we would have World Peace.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Arthropoda

I love Wikipedia. While I wouldn't trust it for medical information and sometimes I find it to be laughably incorrect, I do go frequently to the website for a quick lookup of some half-remembered fact that I need to verify or learn more about. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about arthropoda, currently my favorite animal phylum:

"An arthropod is an invertebrate animal having an exoskeleton (external skeleton), a segmented body, and jointed appendages. Arthropods are members of the phylum Arthropoda (from Greek ἄρθρονarthron, "joint", and ποδός podos "foot", which together mean "jointed feet"), and include the insects,arachnids, crustaceans, and others. Arthropods are characterized by their jointed limbs and cuticles, which are mainly made of α-chitin; the cuticles of crustaceans are also biomineralized with calcium carbonate. The rigid cuticle inhibits growth, so arthropods replace it periodically by molting. The arthropod body plan consists of repeated segments, each with a pair of appendages. It is so versatile that they have been compared to Swiss Army knives, and it has enabled them to become the most species-rich members of all ecological guilds in most environments. They have over a million described species, making up more than 80% of all described living animal species, and are one of only two animal groups that are very successful in dry environments – the other being the amniotes. They range in size from microscopic plankton up to forms a few meters long."

All I can say is, thank heavens this is not molting season. Molting season is when it's illegal to catch crabs as they mate, rather like us, when they have taken their clothes off and it's only fair to leave the poor darlings alone when they are making undersea whoopee.

By November, however, their shells are hard again, their dizzy days of salty sex are over, and they are fair game. On the TV news, we watched with avid interest as the crabbers came ashore with the first catch of the season, thousands of wriggling, protesting crustaceans sliding out of the crab pots and into the boiling water. I was astonished by the wealth of the catch, the sheer numbers of crabs out there looking for the crabbers' baits. Better writers than I have written about the bounty of the sea - it is simply mind boggling. That we humans are fully capable of exhausting that bounty amazes and sobers me, too.

Today, however, I'm happily ranged among the consumers. My Beloved brought home two nice, big Dungeness crabs, all cleaned and cracked, as a surprise for me last night. We toasted the start of crab season with a glass of La Crema rosé and feasted on the sweet, sweet meat. A few newspapers and slices of sourdough bread and butter are all we need. When seafood is this fresh, it needs no embellishment whatever.

My Thanksgiving wish for you is at least one meal from the phylum Arthropoda this season.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Putting The Ham In Hamburger

My Beloved adores hamburgers. Freshly ground, he will happily eat the beef raw. He also loves it cooked, but just barely - the top and bottom should be seared but the middle can still be chilly, as far as he's concerned.

He likes cheeseburgers, mushroom burgers, burgers with a slice of raw onion on top - you name it, he loves it. Just last week, I found a new way to tickle his taste buds - adding the ham to hamburger.

I had purchased some uncured, shaved Fra' Mani ham for sandwiches and, while I was forming our hamburger patties, that ham came to mind. I minced a couple of the thin slices with a sharp knife and worked it into the ground beef before pan searing the patties in the usual way. The smoky, salty essence of the ham really enhanced the beef - they tasted like they came off the barbecue that I reluctantly covered up when the rain began.

Nestled into Semifreddi sandwich rolls with the bready middle hollowed out and replaced with sautéed mushrooms, topped with a frill of lettuce and anchored with fresh tomato slices and dabs of June Taylor's ambrosial catsup, this was finger food for the gods.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Childhood Fave

I was raised by an earnest mother who took nutrition seriously. She so wanted her children to be healthy that we never - and I'm not exaggerating -had things like potato chips or soda in the house. She wasn't a fanatic: we did have cake and ice cream at birthdays. We did get candy at Hallowe'en and Easter. Let's just say she was consistent in her message and leave it at that. Her mantra was "It's good for you."

So, bologna was simply NOT on the menu. It didn't meet her criteria in any way - it wasn't tasty (at least, not to her), it wasn't healthy and, in those days, it was generally served with mayo and iceberg lettuce on the gooshy white bread that was advertised on Howdy Doody. As far as she was concerned, it had nothing to recommend it.

Then why did I love it so much? I can still recall, roughly sixty years later, the first bologna sandwich I tasted at a friend's house. Initially suspicious of its pink newness, I only tasted it to be polite. That first bite was one of those table-pounding, nostril-flaring gustatory experiences. I also had potato chips at that meal, another revelation for me. My mother's spell was broken.

Every now and then, perhaps once every other year, I remember bologna and all of a sudden I'm craving that sandwich again. I cruise happily down the aisles of my market, picking up iceberg lettuce and a package of bologna, happily anticipating that first bite. My Beloved shakes his head in disbelief. The crisp give of the lettuce, the smooth, slightly salty unctuousness of the lunch meat, the tickle of mayo on the tongue. Eye-rolling pleasure. Now that I'm adult, I can no longer face the Wonder Bread but the rest is 1952 authentic.

Do you have foods like this, foods from your childhood that have become guilty pleasures? If so, go out today and indulge your craving. It's good for you.

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Holiday Giving

I wasn't going to talk about this before Thanksgiving but, hey, all the Christmas crap is already in the stores, so what the heck?

My Beloved and I shop all year 'round for holiday gifting. We grab intriguing stuff that we know our family and friends will like when we see it, then stash it in baskets marked with their names until it's time to wrap. We usually haul the baskets down off the closet shelf around this time of year, check to make sure we have something cool for everyone on our list, and plan to shop for the few holdouts.

I thought you'd be amused by the way the guest room looks at this time of year. Ordered chaos. The big winner this year will be our granddaughter - what else is new? She loves books so those will be her main presents but there's a kit for making tiaras and a couple of silly games, too. I plan to make tiaras with her myself but we may let My Beloved join in, too.

Soon, the wrapping begins. We each have pretty big families but, still, what were we thinking?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Serious Squash

Here's the kabocha squash soup I made from the rest of the squash crescents I roasted along with dinner a couple of nights ago.

To enhance flavors, I softened a chopped onion in a little butter before adding the peeled, cubed, roasted squash and chicken broth to cover. After simmering for about 30 minutes, I let the soup cool overnight and blended it smooth the next morning.

All it needed was a little salt and pepper and a gentle heating to make a lovely, dark orange soup to accompany the pumpkin pecan muffins at brunch. I can't say I could taste the sausage but the soup was splendid nonetheless. A serious squash meal.

We busted out the antigue china for this event - how often do you get to consult with your daughter over her choice of wedding dress? We call that an occasion!

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Muffin Man

When my most excellent house guest, Mister, was here he brought me a package of muffin mix from Williams- Sonoma. Pumpkin Pecan muffin mix, to be exact, prettily packaged. Then My Beloved's daughter Katie offered to come over and model one of her wedding dress selections for us last weekend; I countered with a promise to make muffins for a brunch. Win-win.

We had fun admiring the possible dress and looking on the internet at several other candidates before sitting down to eat. The muffins were delicious, lightly sweet with lots of flavor and light "pumpkin spice," if you know what I mean - orange, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg. The mix made nine big muffins and a dozen of these mini muffins in the silicone muffin "papers" I had purchased at Kamei years ago but had never used.

The silicone cups are the berries - not only gayly colored but the muffins slipped right out. No sticking and they are dishwasher safe as well as oven proof (although how you'd put them in a dishwasher without having them fall through to the bottom is a mystery).

We sat out on the deck on a unseasonably warm November afternoon discussing the pros and cons of the various wedding dress candidates and soaking up the sunshine while we devoured most of the muffins.

All thanks to Mister, the Muffin Man.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Agneau Hachis Avec Riz Blanc

I know this looks like a dog's dinner and, in fact, it is. Ground lamb cooked with white rice. Nice and mild for Cora's upset stomach.

I mix it with a little of her kibble, pour chicken broth over the whole mess and stir.

Her toe is healing nicely, thanks, but she still can't get a good jackrabbit start when she chases the crows. She hops again on three legs after those attempts so I know it still smarts. Most of the time, however, she walks and trots without a limp.

We're going to have a tough time weaning her off the gourmet food and back onto plain kibble after the past two weeks. Maybe I can think up a fancy French name for plain kibble.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

I Did It Again

I was so turned on by the kabocha squash roasted with mild Italian sausage that I made a few days ago that I decided to do it again, this time with all the rest of the fairly large kabocha and chicken apple sausages. There was method to my madness - I wanted to cook enough squash in the sausage drippings to make dinner plus a pot of roasted squash soup.

I can definitely recommend this with the chicken apple sausage - just as good as the Italian - but the links were much smaller so I browned then removed them, added the squash to the browning pan, roasted the squash in a 350 degree oven until nearly done, then added the links back in for a few minutes so they'd cook through but not become dry.

That combo of squash and sausage - oh, yes.

Nailing two meals with one roasting, also a big yes.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It All Started When I Caught Cold...

It all started when I caught a cold flying back from the East Coast. That's what you get for stuffing yourself along with 300 strangers into a metal tube and projecting yourself across country at unnatural speeds. Flying doesn't scare me but it almost always gives me a cold.

So, when I roasted a chicken for dinner, I saved the bones for cold-beating chicken soup. I simmered them in water with a coarsely chopped onion and some carrot tops until the veggies yelled "uncle!" and the bones all but dissolved.

But then Cora broke her toe and the medicine the vet gave her to reduce inflammation in her toe gave her a serious case of the collywobbles, and she needed the chicken broth more than I did.

So, I tried the broth to settle her stomach, but it didn't work.

So, I cooked some rice to mix with the chicken broth - all I had in the house was arborio rice for making risotto but I figured, what the heck? It didn't work, either.

So, I took her back to the vet and he gave her a med and cans of bland food to stop her vomiting, which worked. At last. After we had run out of carpet cleaner and had to go buy two more bottles. If you are looking for a good stock in which to invest, here's a hot tip - buy stock in the Resolve carpet cleaner company. They will be declaring a dividend any day now, based solely on our recent purchases.

So, there I was left with chicken broth, chicken pieces picked before I brothed the carcass, and white rice. All I needed to add was salt, pepper and green peas to make a great lunch to serve with a ham and cheese sandwich.

I may never fly back east again. It all started when I caught a cold.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Falling For Kabocha

Where did I read about this idea - to brown sausages (I used mild Italian sausage this time) in an ovenproof pan, then add squash slices to the same pan and slide it into the oven until the squash is tender? I'm having a senior moment. If you are out there, please weigh in and take credit, for this was not only easy it was heavenly.

The sausage renders some fat to coat the bottom of the pan - not too much! - and cooking the squash in that elixir of sausage lends it all kinds of flavor. I did sprinkle on some of my favorite Herbs de Provence for added zest, but it would have been lovely just plain, too. I didn't even peel the squash - once it's tender, it's easy to remove the rind.

I used the lone kabocha squash left in my little market because they had no butternuts, and it was a revelation. I have tried kabocha squash before but this application is perfect for it. I wish I had roasted the whole squash this way, as the leftovers would have made for a wonderful roasty soup - I may actually have to serve this again this week just so I can do that.

For an easy and tasty fall dinner, try this sausage-and-squash combo; I think you'll fall for it, too.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Delightful, Delovely, DeYoung

Okay, I know the new deYoung gets a lot of flak for staging blockbuster shows that rake in the cash for the museum and cater to the middle-of-the-road art lovers. Even I can admit that one more fashion design show will be two too many. However, I have to admit to enjoying thoroughly the two latest blockbusters, parts one and two of the Impressionists from the Musée d'Orsay.

Not only is the art amazing and the staging of the shows informative, they've got the lunch thing down to a science. In a clear vinyl bubble that lets the sun in but not the chilly San Francisco winds, they serve the overflow of thousands of people daily and the food is pretty darn good. Cousin Jan enjoyed the grilled salmon plate, pal Barbara is still ooohing and aaahing over her potato soup and I tucked into a lovely salad.

Here's the Chicken Provençal salad I ordered when we went to take in the second half of the show. Stacked in the salad were greens (mainly arugula), steamed artichoke hearts, radicchio, pimento, dressed chicken breast strips, olives, crumbled bacon, cherry tomatoes and chives, served on a pure white plate with a breadstick exclamation point. The food was as crowded together as we viewers in line for the show were but, like the viewers, it was a cheerful crowding. We all knew we were in for a treat.

After being overwhelmed by the show (are there fully twice as many masterpieces in this half of the show as the first, or am I imagining things?), we stopped into the alcove that holds the elevators for the tower to visit the collection of Ruth Asawa's splendid sculptures. It's a must for me every time I visit the museum - her work is simple and amazing.

So, we went home with our heads full of beauty and our stomachs full of good food. The new deYoung may be controversial but count me among its boosters.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Dwarfs' Dinner

This cold has made me think of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In fact, I think I've actually been at least four of those dwarfs, myself, this week - namely, Grumpy, Sleepy, Dopey and Sneezy. I think I need to stop being Bashful and just call Doc! Once this cold has passed, I'll be Happy.

Okay, now you see how sad my condition is, when I'm reduced to actually working at finding ways to incorporate all seven names into my opening paragraph. I even thought it was clever. Truly pathetic.

Anyway, I've been playing around with pasta dishes while I've been ill and I think I hit the Holy Grail last night. I had some halibut fillets in the fridge and a single mild Italian sausage left from my earlier attempt and, somehow, to me the combination of the two seemed really appealing, although very strange. What the heck, I couldn't taste much with a stuffy nose, so why not try it? If it's a disaster, so be it.

My Beloved and I sat down with some trepidation to the finished bowls of capellini topped with fish in a soupy, tomato-y, spicy broth but the first taste was like a divine revelation - nothing short of enlightening. Hallelujah! Halibut and sausage were made for each other!

This is easily the best dish I've made in a month of Sundays. It cleared my head with its fragrant heat and the flavors melded perfectly. We slurped it down 'til there was only a little red goozle in the bottom of the bowls. I should have served some good, rustic bread with it so we could have sopped up the last few drops - as it was, I just tipped up the bowl and drank the last bit. My very proper mother would have been appalled.

The next morning, I awoke with a clear head - no more sniffles. Apparently, this dish is also a cold remedy. I can't say I'm looking forward to my next cold but I know for sure what I'm going to cook up when it comes. Snow White would be proud.

The Dwarfs' Dinner

1 Italian sausage, about 10" long
2 cloves garlic, minced
Olive oil

1 can fire-roasted, chopped tomatoes
1 leek, light green and white parts only, coarsely chopped
2-3 fresh roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2 cups chicken broth
Microplaned zest of one lemon, plus the juice of the lemon
1Tbs. Sartain's Menu sauce (this is a smoky, spicy sauce)
Black pepper to taste (you won't need salt as the sausage is salty)

Capellini pasta (or your favorite), cooked al dente

2 halibut fillets, skin removed, if necessary
Green onion, sliced, for garnish

Using just a slick of olive oil to coat a wide frying pan (you won't need much as the sausage will provide plenty of fat), squeeze out dabs of the sausage from its casing to make perhaps two dozen tiny meatballs and brown them on both sides. When the fat has rendered from the sausage and the meat is well browned, add the garlic and cook carefully, so it softens but doesn't brown. Add the next seven ingredients, stir to mix, and cook over a low flame for about 10 minutes. It will be very liquid and soupy and it will smell like the open door to Heaven.

In the meantime, bring your pasta water to a boil with some serious salt and add the pasta. Drain and remove pasta to soup or pasta bowls. Be sure to set the table with a big spoon and a fork - you'll need both.

After simmering, turn the heat to low and push aside the ingredients in the pan to make a well for the fish fillets. Cover the pan and poach the fish in the sauce very gently, just until it is white rather than clear and it flakes apart, perhaps five minutes depending on the thickness of your fillets, turning it once gently if the fish is thick.

Serve the fish over the pasta, topped with the pan contents and garnished with the green onions. Serves 2-4.


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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hamburger Heaven

I had heard about this burger from my pal Irene, she who knows all the best restaurants a month before anyone else. I think she's channeling Michael Bauer. Or maybe she's his secret dinner companion? In any case, she's always in the know so the rest of us follow her lead.

When the monster burger came to the table at Murray Circle, where I was lunching with two of my longest-standing friends in the world, my first thought was, "Geez, I'll never finish that!" My second thought was "The fries are undercooked."

Wrong on both counts. I did pack in the entire gigantic pillow of lovely, medium-rare chopped beef topped with a savory cheese and the fries were delicious, if pale. Crisp and herbal on the outside, creamy on the inside - just the way I like 'em.

So, if you are wondering where to meet your pals for lunch, once again I can recommend Murray Circle. It's a little spendy but for food quality, service and atmosphere (where else can you get such a dramatic view of the Golden Gate bridge?), it really can't be beat.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Cold Comfort

No, I haven't resorted to eating pasta cold out of the fridge. Rather, I have a cold and seem to be craving the comfort of pasta. This cold seems also to have stimulated my improvisational gene - I've been trying all kinds of weird combinations.

This one was the best so far. Italian sausage and rehydrated wild mushrooms from the big bag I brought home from Cape Cod in a rich, garlicky, tomato sauce dotted with garbanzo beans. Oh, and the Secret Ingredient.

I used all the usual Italian indicators - garlic, basil, red wine - but improvised with the Secret Ingredient - a tablespoon or two of espresso powder to darken the flavors. It was molto bene! So good, in fact, that I plan to use espresso powder in all my tomato pasta dishes from now on.

The fragrance elicited memories of passing coffee houses on Italian streets on a hot day, when I was sixteen and young men called after me as I passed on the street, declaring undying love and devotion, if only I would stop and chat. Holding their hands over their hearts or out in supplication, their shiny dark curls glistening in the sun, their sincerity was compelling, if fleeting. When, scandalized and secretly thrilled, I didn't stop, the next girl who came along got the same treatment.

But, when you are feeling very sorry for yourself, both because your head is all stuffed up and because you didn't stop and chat all those years ago, this pasta brings some small comfort.

Cold Comfort Pasta

1 mild Italian sausage (or you can use spicy, if you prefer), about 8-10 inches long
6 cloves of garlic, diced finely
olive oil
1 can fire-roasted chopped tomatoes
1 can whole peeled tomatoes
2 cups red wine, divided
1 can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
2 Tablespoons dried basil
a handful of mixed, dried wild mushrooms rehydrated in one cup of the red wine
2 Tablespoons freeze-dried espresso coffee powder
Your favorite pasta - I like capellini
Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
Green onions, sliced

Immerse the dried mushrooms in one cup of the wine and leave to rehydrate, perhaps half an hour. When the mushrooms are softened, in a wide pan heat a drizzle of olive oil over medium-high heat and squeeze the sausage out of its casing, dropping about 12 one-inch meatballs into the hot oil. When the meatballs have browned on one side, turn them over and add the garlic. Watch carefully - you don't want the garlic to burn. When the garlic is fragrant and softened, add the tomatoes (chop or squish the whole ones with your hands), the second cup of wine, the mushrooms now softened and the wine in which they rehydrated and the rest of the ingredients. Cook over low flame for about 15-20 minutes. Serve over your favorite pasta, topped with fresh green onions and grated Parmesan cheese. Serves 4-6.








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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Frugality

I guess it's because my mother, who was a child of the Great Depression, taught me well that I hate to waste food. If we left food on our plates, she would invoke the starving millions and urge us to finish it up. She used butter papers to grease pans and saved minuscule portions of leftovers, thinking fondly that she would actually use them in future meals.

Toward the end of her life, I would jettison a couple of these suppurating packages a day when I visited her - if she caught me cleaning out her fridge, I'd get yet another lecture about wasting food, even though the food I was throwing away was far past edibility for anyone but cockroaches. I was always terrified that she'd actually serve those fuzzy unrecognizables at dinner some night. You can see that I come honestly by my frugality.

Last week, I had half a loaf of sourdough baguette left from an earlier meal that I couldn't bear to throw away. I was roasting a chicken that night when I had the idea to cut the bread into chunks and add them to the roasting pan in place of potatoes. I tossed them in a very little olive oil, sprinkled them with herbs de Provence, and roasted (actually, toasted) them alongside the yardbird. They came out crisp and crunchy, nicely flavored with herbs and a dash of caramelized chicken juice. Delicious!

The only change I'd make next time is that I'd add them about halfway through the hour of roasting - they were crunchier than I expected. Next time, I'd like the crisp outside to give way to a chewy interior. But, for a frugal alternative starch, I was pleased as punch, given that I couldn't very well send that bread to the starving millions.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Good Guests

What makes a good house guest?

Well, one who doesn't hog all the hot water. One who appreciates the accommodations the host provides and the amount of effort it took to prepare for his arrival. One who spends most of the time available with the host, i.e. doesn't use the house as a hotel. One who comes prepared to have a good time and adds to the fun by his presence. And, while it's not necessary at all, it doesn't hurt if he brings the hostess a nice present, does it?

So, when My Fairy Godson arrived last week with his pal in tow, guess who passed muster as a great house guest! Yes, the buddy, whose name is Mister.

Here is half of what he brought by way of hostess gift - a fun pumpkin and spice muffin mix with a jar of pumpkin pecan butter cleverly packaged with four colorful rubber spreaders and tied with a pretty bow. I can tell I'll be making muffins or pumpkin spice bread for Thanksgiving. His timing is impeccable; so are his manners. He even left a nice thank you note for me to find on his pillow when I went to change the sheets.

My Fairy Godson has good taste in friends; a guest like that is welcome any time he cares to come.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

There's A Fungus Among Us

In fact, there are six kinds of fungus among us, at present. I finished the fresh button mushrooms in the fridge last night. But, I have this marvelous bag full of mixed dried 'shrooms that I carted all the way back from Cape Cod, only to find that Atlantic Spice has a sister living here in San Francisco.

My problem is that I can't decide what to do with them. Mushroom risotto? Chicken Cacciatore? Mushroom and rice timbales? Sautéed mushrooms on toast? Under poached eggs? It's a nice big bag, but I don't think it will stretch to all the ideas I've been mulling over.

I guess the first step is to re-hydrate them, then decide. Any suggestions from the Peanut Gallery?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Vegetable Bias

Here's my tip for dealing with veggies that are perhaps just a tad more mature than you might like. If your greenie beanies have been on the vine a day or two too long and gotten meaty and stringy instead of crisp and lean, if your carrots have been in the fridge just a shade too long and have lost some of their sweetness, cut them on the bias.

Cutting the beans on the bias allows the starchy seeds to fall out, leaving just the sweeter pods behind. It also exposes more of the bean to the heat, which softens it quicker without losing color.

Carrots cut on the diagonal cook quickly, again retaining color, and somehow they taste a little fresher. Vegetables prepared like this cook in less than five minutes in just a few tablespoons of water, so you don't lose what vitamins are left by pouring them off in the cooking water. And, if you add just a tad of butter while they steam in a covered pan, you can use far less butter for the same rich flavor than if you wait to add it at table.

All in all, I'm biased in favor of diagonally sliced veggies.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Spun Up

Stocking up in our little grocery market at the bottom of the hill, I noted that they had some really lovely small zucchinis, still shiny and dark green. This little market has chancy vegetables - some days they are all wilted and sad, other days you can score fresh zucchinis that look just-picked from the garden. I was there on the right day.

So, I took three of them home with me, as well as two big bunches of flowers - recently, the market has been offering huge bouquets of fresh flowers at an amazingly affordable price. I have no sales resistance for beautiful flowers, having spent six years as a florist.

Anyway, with the school bus yellow sunflowers and pale pink mums decorating different corners of my house, I set to work to make a fresh pasta dish out of the zucchinis. I chopped and sautéed, simmered and tasted, and it was all good - just not stellar. So I kept adding things I found in the cupboard or on the counter and ended up using tomatoes four ways and alliums three ways.

First, I chopped an onion and minced three cloves of garlic, and sautéed them in olive oil. I had some leeks in the fridge, which had survived our absence, so I chopped two of those and added them to the allium mix, as well.

Next, I added a can of peeled tomatoes (I'm feeling lazy after our ten days of travel and tending small children). Then I had the idea to add a couple of fresh tomatoes for extra flavor. Still not satisfied with the taste, I added a big spoonful of sun dried tomatoes to ratchet up the richness. Finally, a big squeeze of tomato paste from the tube in the fridge, and that did the trick. Mixed in with the other three kinds, it added the serious tomato taste I was seeking.

A little wine, a drift of Herbes de Provence, a little time on a low flame, a drizzle of olive oil and a snowfall of parmesan grated fresh at the table and it was as tasty a vegetarian pasta as I've ever spun around my fork.

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Saturday, November 6, 2010

On The Doorstep

Sailing along the Mid-Cape highway on Cape Cod, headed for Provincetown, we detoured into North Truro to visit an herb shop that our hostess had heard about, Atlantic Spice Company.

It's an amazing store, as big as your average barn and filled with shelf after shelf of spices, herbs, teas, gadgets for kitchen and table, cookbooks and assorted miscellany, mostly to do with cooking. The prices are good, the ingredients are fresh and the service is friendly. What more could one ask?

Maybe a branch on the Left Coast? As I was paying for my purchases, the cashier inquired about my origins - they see a lot of tourists on Cape Cod and have obviously learned that people like to be asked this question. I said we're from San Francisco and he exclaimed, "Oh, we have a branch in San Francisco!"

http://www.sfherb.com, just in case you don't want to travel to Cape Cod for your herbs and spices. Sheesh!

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Friday, November 5, 2010

Lobsters

While we were in Boston, we ate lobsters at every opportunity. Lobster rolls, lobster bisque, lobster salad and, the best of all, boiled lobsters with a dipping sauce made with champagne.

Every time I eat lobster, my first lobster memories come up. My Dad was a Naval aviator, and to keep up his flying hours when he was assigned to duty in the Pentagon (he always hated that), he would check out an airplane and fly to some remote destination to stay in practice.

One memorable time, he flew from Anacostia Field in Washington, DC to Maine and came home with a basket full of lobsters nestled in seaweed. In those days, the largest claws were pegged at the hinge to keep them from pinching but the smaller claws often were unpegged so the lobsters came out of the basket wildly flapping their tails and snapping their claws in an impressive threat display. Sadly, it didn't work for them - they were popped green into boiling water and emerged bright red and delicious just a few minutes later.

This trip, we ate equally lively lobsters with My Beloved's brother and his wife in their home on Cape Cod. In their dreamy kitchen, they boiled an enormous pot of water and served the lobsters simply with nutcrackers and picks at each place, along with a bowl of champagne dipping sauce.

The sauce is lovely - it is lighter than drawn butter but still rich enough to complement the sweet lobster meat. I recommend you try it next time you are lucky enough to find lobsters on your plate. I'm going to try it with Dungeness crab as soon as our local season opens.

Champagne Dipping Sauce

1 bottle of dry champagne (use an inexpensive but drinkable brand)
Leafy tops of 3 ribs of celery
3 shallots, minced
3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
Salt and pepper

Bring champagne, celery tops and shallots to a boil in a medium saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until reduced to 1 cup, about 20 minutes. Removed and discard celery. Reduce heat to low and slowly whisk in the butter one tablespoon at a time. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm. Serves at least 4 and perhaps 6-8.

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hallowe'en

What is it about Hallowe'en that is so thrilling? Maybe it's being out after dark, something that all mothers, including my own, discouraged - even forbade. Maybe it is being out after dark with your friends? Certainly, the assumed identities add to the fun - even if it's just a sheet with eye holes poked through. The bad candy is definitely a part of the thrill, too, but for me there was also a certain amount of delicious terror in approaching strangers' houses to beg for treats. Who knew what might happen?

Whatever the components, it all adds up to an awful lot of fun. We just returned from spending Hallowe'en with our granddaughter. She was dressed as a flamenco dancer, all red flounces with black polka dots - her Daddy brought her that outfit when he made a business trip to Barcelona recently. Her hair is too fine to hold a comb and a mantilla, but she has natural spit curls on her cheeks, so she really looked the part. She told anyone who asked that she was a flamingo - the nuances of costume may be lost on a three year old.

It was snapping cold and already dark by 6:30 in Boston where she lives. She and her three pals (a fireman, a dragon and Snow White) went Trick or Treating to perhaps six houses, netting a goodly amount of candy for such a short outing. We kicked through drifts of dry leaves on the sidewalks and shivered in the moonlight, catching glimpses of older children running from house to house - ghosts, axe murderers, vampires for a night.

Things have changed since I was a kid. Most of the costumes are no longer made at home. Most of the kids are escorted by their parents, even the older ones. Most of the treats are store bought, not made at home. The "Switch Witch" now trades most of the candy for toys while the children are asleep to save the parents from the inevitable sugar high the next day. But, the fun is the same. The novelty of being out in the dark and the thrill of the free loot haven't changed at all. I'm grateful for that.

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