Thursday, March 31, 2011

Wanting Wontons

Ever since making wonton soup for my Hawaii relatives, I've been wanting to make it again. It's fun, it's not too complicated and it tastes really clean and delicious. Another rainy day was good incentive to work on my wonton soup technique.

This time, I made them with ground pork rather than ground turkey and I spiced up the insides rather dramatically with fresh grated ginger and pepper. I also sauteed green onion and minced mushrooms along with the pork, so the filling had more character than last time.

The broth was better this time, too. I used boxed broth but thinned it half-and-half with water for a milder flavor, then stirred in about a tablespoon of white miso while it was heating gently.

After filling, folding and sealing the wontons with a little egg wash, I dropped them into a pot of boiling water and cooked them just for a very few minutes, perhaps five in total, until they puffed and floated to the top - the filling is already cooked, so you needn't worry about food poisoning. I didn't bother to gather the ends into a pucker this time, just left them as triangles and I actually like them better this way because it showcased the delicacy of the wrappers.

To plate, all you do is put some frozen peas and uncooked, sliced green onion in the bowl, ladle in some of the chicken-miso stock and then add your wontons, perhaps three or four per serving. The hot stock will thaw and cook the peas just enough and heat the green onion to a brighter color.

The whole thing used only about 1/16th of a pound of ground pork, so it's a very economical dish as well as a wholesome, filling and delicious one. Even if you make it with spendy organic ingredients, as I did, it's still a bargain for that much flavor and nutrition.

As with all things, the more you do it, the better you get. My wonton technique improves with each repetition. I might try war wonton soup next, My Beloved's favorite.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Afternoon Delight

Rainy day lunch. My Beloved detests hot dog buns, those gooshy, tasteless, squishy breads, so when I want hot dogs, I find other ideas for clothing his dogs.

I've been to Acme and purchased some of theirs, which are quite good, but it was raining (again!) and I didn't feel like a 20-minute jaunt in the car to stand in line in the rain (they really do need a canopy), even with the temptation of Café Fanny next door, so I improvised.

Cut hot dog lengths out of last night's sourdough baguette, grilled stripes into them, split the killer Coleman's hot dogs in half, and heated up some tomato soup from a box.

My Beloved has a great smile that really lights up his face. I got the smile when this hit the table.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Just Ducky

Shameful confession: I've been afraid of duck. I know I'm old fashioned, but the idea of rare poultry was a turnoff. Just couldn't get my head around it - or was it my heaving stomach? Anyway, duck breast is a non-starter for me.

I also sampled some potatoes cooked in duck fat - I have to admit that the heavy flavor did not appeal to me, although I realize that my more goormay readers are wincing as they read those traitorous words.

The only other duck-based product I have tried was that orgasmically delicious tea-smoked duck that I ate at Harmony - but it was really more about the tea and the smoking than about the duck - when it arrives at the table all you can smell is tea smoke. And then there was the disastrous episode when I tried to make tea-smoked duck myself... my Dutch oven still smells of smoke and I can't get the melted ceramic off my burner.

I have read about duck confit in many places and all are enraptured but, again, the idea of duck cooked in quarts of its siblings' fat just didn't seem appealing. Maybe once it's immersed in with all those beans and sausages in a cassoulet but, all by itself? Don't think so.

However, on impulse, I had purchased four duck legs, thinking to widen my culinary horizons, then hastily stuffed them into the freezer where they languished for a couple of months, shaming me each time I rummaged past them for some more familiar ingredient. Finally, I could stand the humiliation no more. I pulled them out to thaw and went looking on the interwebs for some duck wisdom.

Again with the confit! Lots of recipes for that.

Then I stumbled across this recipe for duck legs that seemed not only simple, it didn't involve immersing the meat directly into its own fat. Rather, it is suspended on a bed of mirepoix while it cooks. Okay, now we're talking! I followed the recipe except the part about lemon grass, which I couldn't find that day either and the ginger, which I grated rather than minced.

Basically, you just season the duck legs with kosher salt and pepper, then coat them with a serious layer of Chinese five spice; make mirepoix (adding minced ginger and lemon grass to the traditional chopped onion, celery and carrot) and tumble it into an ovenproof pan, drizzle the veggies lightly with canola oil; and lay the seasoned duck legs on top. Into a 350F oven for 2 hours. No turning, no basting, no nothing for two hours! My kind of recipe, leaving plenty of time for kitchen cleanup, reading, working on that hellish jigsaw puzzle that pal Wenirs sent, and walking the dog, all before the duck comes out of the oven.

Now, the recipe did suggest deboning the duck when it emerges and mixing it back into the veggies after pouring off the inordinate amount of duck fat that renders into the bottom of the pan but one look at those poor, tired, fat-soaked leavings changed my mind. I simply plated the legs next to some wild rice and broccoli and never looked back.

The duck was perfect.* It was tender and moist with a crisp, crackling skin that tasted of the five spices. The Amateur Gourmet (new blog to me although it has been in existence since '04) promised that this recipe would be a keeper and he wasn't kidding; it's definitely going into my recipe file for lots of future meals. It's good enough to serve to guests, an easy and relatively unusual party dish that would leave me free to spend time with my friends instead of frantically stirring things in the kitchen.

I'm still not okay with rare poultry but I am liberated. I am no longer afraid of duck.

*I made this again subsequently and came up with two cautions:

First, it's worth it to go looking for the lemon grass and the ginger - they add a lot of flavor.

Second, be careful when the recipe says you can walk away for two hours once the duck legs are in the oven. The first time I made the recipe, that was fine; the second time, I nearly burned the legs and the mirepoix was definitely toast. Next time, I'd start checking at 1.5 hours. I wouldn't have eaten those fat-soaked veggies, anyway, but if they had burned they would have made a mess of the legs and, as it was, the legs were just a tad on the dry side.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Cab Caraway

Feeling like I'd missed the boat on St. Patrick's day, when I saw a small corned beef at my supermarket, on sale no less, I grabbed it and brought it home to prepare. True to tradition, I boiled it for hours (perhaps even a little too long, as it fell apart in shreds rather than carved into nice slices) and served it alongside some steamed yellow fingerling spuds.

I pressed the potatoes with my thumb to half-crush them, a trick I learned from Jamie Oliver; it gives them a little more texture and visual interest than mashing. A little dab of butter, a sprinkling of chopped parsley and they were ready.

You gotta have cabbage with corned beef, right? It's tradition. It's proper. It can be ever so boring. So, I decided to re-think the cabbage part.

First, I had purple, not green, cabbage in the crisper and it needed eating. Second, I thought onions would improve it immensely. So, I hauled out my little pot of bacon fat, sautéed the onions first briefly in that, then added the shredded cabbage - but the stroke of genius came when I was remembering my soda bread from St. Paddy's day and wishing I had some to go along with this meal.

Caraway seeds!

I sprinkled about a tablespoon of those tasty little brown commas throughout the pan of cabbage, ladled just a tablespoon or so of the cooking water from the corned beef into the pan and steam-stirred it until the cabbage changed in color from dark orchid to true amethyst. It still had it's crunch but it was a quieter crunch than before. Man, that was good!

I must admit that the color combo on the plate was perhaps not the prettiest I've ever made but the flavors were happily complementary and that Cab Caraway was "the berries," as my dear Irish father would have said.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

It's All About The Goozle

When I set out to make a shepherd's pie with a topping of squashed kabocha instead of mashed potato, little did I know it would be all about the sauce.

I sauteéd cubes of lamb London broil in a little bacon fat, set them aside in the baking dish, then repeated with two green garlics and a leek in the same pan. Added chunks of skinny little new carrots in three colors, and frozen peas with pearl onions, cooking just until the carrots were tender and the peas thawed. Dumped all of that into the baking dish but, before adding the squash, I thought, "That looks dry. How can I keep it moist in the oven?"

If you are a regular reader here, you know that I don't know from gravy. I wasn't raised by a gravy-lovin' mother so I don't really even know how to make it, but gravy is exactly what this dish needed, so here goes!

I considered chicken broth but decided beef would be more compatible with the lamb (oh, for a little lamb broth!). Just as I was about to wash the pan, I realized that the best flavor in the whole dish was languishing at the bottom of that pan. Bacon flavor! Lamb drippings! Oniony stuff!

So, I added just a tad of butter to the pan to get things moving, sprinkled it with a modicum of flour and cooked those together for a few minutes, then blended in a squiggle of tomato paste from a tube, before adding beef stock little by little, stirring like a mad witch until it all smoothed out, deglazed the pan, got shiny and turned a very homey brown. I poured the resulting gravy, if you can call it that, all around the lamb chunks and veggies, and patted the squash blanket over the rest. Dotted it with a tad more butter and slid it into a 350 degree oven to heat.

The veggies were fine and fresh, the squash was sweet and buttery, the lamb was tasty but, kids, it's really all about the goozle. It was so packed with flavor that it cast the rest of the dish into the shade. We chased that last bit all around the plate, refusing to leave even a smidgen (oh, for a nice piece of bread!). I've coined a new Irish blessing:

"May your meals be filled always with plenty of goozle."

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Green Green

Continuing on with my decision to try again those foods I detested as a child, I discovered kale a while back and have enjoyed it ever since.

And never more than this past week when I bought another big bunch of dino kale, so dark a green that it reminded me of the Black Hills of South Dakota, which are clad in that same rich color. A little further down the produce aisle, I spotted some green garlic. I had been asking and asking the produce manager to get in some green garlic, so I snagged three bunches to show him that I put my money where my mouth is.

The kale actually brightened in the pan where I had sautéed the green garlic in some butter, then laid in the chopped kale with just the water clinging to the leaves after washing. I covered the pan and let it cook gently for about 15 minutes, until the kale relaxed and the green garlic sweetened.

It was so good, I wished I had bought more and served it as a main course - who needs roast game hens and potatoes when you have serious meatiness in a vegetable dish? This is one of the admittedly few times in my life that I have seriously considered vegetarianism as a possible lifestyle.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Reframing Dinner

I have to tell you, I was not, not, not looking forward to another dinner of plain old pork chops this week. Between the world events and the weather, I'm feeling pissy and those pork chops, although nicely thick with gratifyingly robust tenderloins, just didn't do it for me. I've had enough pork-and-fruit this winter to last me a while.

I needed Cher to come and yell, "Snap out of it!"

I reframed.

I imagined them on a platter instead of a plate. I have no idea why that made things better, but it did. Maybe it was the sharing aspect, or just the slightly more formal-than-normal way of serving? Perhaps it was the play of colors with the platter that made it seem new. Whatever - it was better. It just was.

So, I got to work slicing a smallish kabocha squash in half and setting it, seeds and all, onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Into the oven at 350 for half an hour.

(Worked on the diabolical jigsaw puzzle that my friend Wenirs sent me for my birthday while that got going.)

After the squash was tender when pierced with a sharp knife, I set it aside to cool a bit and sliced a great big onion thinly, sautéing it in a wide pan. Pushed the onion aside when it was clear and laid the chops into the oniony pan to brown.

While the browning was going on (and, incidentally, the onions got brown, too, but slowly, at the edges of the pan), I coaxed the seeds and strings out of the squash with a wooden spoon and scooped out the rest into a small pot with a knob of butter, the zest and juice of a small tangerine and a small thumb of microplaned fresh ginger. While that gently heated and mingled on the back burner, I prepped the broccoli and quickly steamed it.

The standout was the roasted-and-doctored kabocha squash - ginger and tangerine did wonders for it, and a little butter never hurts. The chops were good, too, richly brown on the outside, lightly pink and juicy on the inside, and deeply satisfying on their slippery bed of caramelized onions.

When I brought the platter to the table, My Beloved said, "Ladies first," as he was trained to do as a young man; I selected my portion from the platter and passed him the serving utensils, handles first. Those little acts of politeness reframed the whole meal and reminded us that we are genteel people, the kind of people who remember to say please and thank you. The kind of people who realize how incredibly lucky we are to have this beautiful dinner, this dry and warm house and each other.

Attitude is everything.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Signature Sandwich

From our earliest days together, when we would stumble into the kitchen starving hungry from spending too much time in the bedroom (oh, my!), My Beloved would make this for me, his signature dish.

Fried egg sandwich.

It's quick, it's filling and it fuels one for whatever comes next. There is nothing to it - toast some bread and butter it, crack a couple of eggs into a small frying pan, pierce the yolks so they spread and cook more quickly and evenly, flip sunny side over and they're done. Assemble and eat, wiping your chin if a little of the yolk runs out.

I love a guy who can really cook. Enough said.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fancypants Pasta

Along with cousin Jan, My Beloved and I attended the March meeting of the Homegrown Marin market. We wandered around the transformed fencing school and tried almost everything there from chocolates so rich and spiced that they sang on the tongue to kimchee (my first ever) and lamb sausage sliders. The invitation said to come hungry and we took them at their word.

I brought home a few things from that foray - the chocolates, of course, and Jan bought some cupcakes, but the most expensive item I bought was handmade Baia pasta. The nice guy with the Italian accent who sold it said that they call it "vines." Made from Durum wheat, it's a little different in color than the usual store-bought kind. It's S-shaped in cross section, all the better to capture the flavorings in those long, bendy grooves.

We bubbled it up the other night and topped it with kale sautéed with green garlic (note to self: next time, much more green garlic) as I still had a craving for that left over from the last time I made kale. We grated small, snowy hillocks of ricotta salata over it at the table and enjoyed every bite. Once again, no meat was needed - the filling pasta, satisfying kale and salty cheese were plenty.

We enjoyed our culinary explorations at Homegrown Marin. They are having another event in April. Maybe we'll see you there.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Grillwich

When we staggered out of the DOG event, filled to our brims with great Dutch oven food, Chilebrown pressed us to take along a big hunk of his Jalapeño Cheese Bread. At the time, I was sure I could never eat again, but I took it to be polite.

Two days later, my appetite had recovered nicely and I was eyeing that bread, wondering if it reheats well. A quick email to The Master - he suggested making grilled sandwiches. We had leftover chicken in the fridge, so it was the work of a moment to construct a masterpiece.

So, this is just to alert you. If you make that bread, and you'd be crazy not to, use the leftovers for grillwiches. The cheese melts out of the little pockets in the bread, oozing onto the hot grill to become crusty, crisp flavor-enhancers while the jalapeños add gentle spice to the whole. A plain old chicken sandwich becomes something else entirely, something with a hint of warmer climates and sunny skies, where people in colorful clothes flirt from behind black lace fans. If you think I'm being too fanciful, try it yourself and get back to me. Olé, baby!

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Divine Intervention

Okay, goshdarnit, I'm sure the blankety-blank reservoirs are filled to overflowing by now! When the fearmongers on the TV news in California haven't mentioned the threat of drought for three months, I know the old water table is doing just fine. So, it's time to turn off heaven's spigot, already! We surrender!

Whining over too much rain when the Middle East is exploding in revolution and the poor, stoic Japanese are staggering under a hideous one-two punch - not to mention other human and natural disasters happening around the world - seems downright childish.

Still, my spirits have been down a bit lately, what with all the news from afar and my own family concerns plus the unending rain, so I decided to reverse the trend by volunteering as a reading tutor at a local charter school, Richmond College Prep, and making an avocado salad. Small things, but I Iike to think they both make a difference.

And what a difference they made! If you've never been hugged by 15 four- and five-year olds in a delicious scrum of excited, wriggling little bodies, you haven't lived. And the shy smile on a child's face when you praise her improved reading is worth a million bucks. I am giving a little time; I am getting so much more.

Oh, right, this is a food blog! If you don't have time to volunteer for some heart-filling activity, try avocado salad instead. Get yourself a ripe avocado (Fuerte, if possible), slice it in half, take out the pit, fill the cup where the pit rested with supremes of pink grapefruit (which is just a fancypants way of saying grapefruit sections without the membranes that divide them) and squeeze the rest of the juice of the grapefruit over the whole thing. No dressing needed or, even, wanted.

The juice will keep the avocado from turning brown and the sweet-tart grapefruit is the perfect foil for the rich, unctuous avocado. You get a shot of Vitamin C for your whiny immune system and a pampering treat for your childish side, all in one sweet package. Eaten separately, they are delicious; eaten together, they ascend to divine. And we could all use some divine intervention right now, couldn't we?

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Soup Riff

You've all heard the old adage, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." A bit of folk wisdom that doesn't help one little bit when life really is dishing out the sh*t, but cute when all is going well.

It ran through my mind as I was sitting down to my fabu bean soup.

I made it from the soup base that I had begun so hopefully and worked so hard on - and that ended up being more or less tasteless.

To remedy things, all I did was sauté a little chopped onion in a tad of butter, dump in a can of Navy beans and about three can's worth of soup base, then cut up one of my favorite Coleman's hot dogs and immersed the pieces in the soup. When it had all simmered together for long enough to heat the dots of dog and spread their smoky goodness through the soup, it was ready.

It was honestly very, very good. The soup base gave it rich texture and heft, the beans added mild flavor and the hot dog pieces lent their smoky, salty, meaty goodness to the whole. The perfect rainy-day soup, hearty and wholesome and comforting. When life gives you lemons, make bean soup.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Irish As Paddy's Pig

This year, St. Patrick's Day sneaked up on me and caught me ill-prepared. No spuds in the house, and no cabbage, except the purple kind which, as we all know, simply won't do when green is the color of the day. Not even a nice cut of corned beef, although they were for sale in all stores this week - I just somehow missed the boat. You'd think my Irish ancestors had missed that boat, too!

They didn't, bless their hearts. They sailed in the same enormous wave of immigration as so many others did, three from southern Ireland and one from the north. Only one of them had any education - my paternal grandmother's father had graduated from Trinity College in Dublin. (He was the only Protestant). They went to work in the woolen mills in western Massachusetts and we'd all still be there if my grandfather hadn't taken it into his head to join the Navy. He went to Annapolis, class of 1900. I have a photograph of him in his uniform, complete with exaggerated epaulets and fore-and-aft hat like Horatio Hornblower.

(By the way, whatever happened to Ioan Gruffudd? He was so charming in that role and I've never seen him again. Must look him up.)

Anyway, there I was at 4pm on St. Patrick's Day without a single Irish thing to eat in the house. Then, I remembered Irish Soda Bread and was saved! Just enough flour in the cupboard, just enough caraway seeds and - wonder of wonders! - we even had milk that had not yet soured. Raisins, baking soda, butter, salt. That's all you really need to make two fine cottage loaves of fragrant, crusty soda bread. I adapted this recipe from epicurious.com; I hate vegetable shortening and I love butter; did a quick substitute of the hated one for the loved one and the bread that emerged from my desperately dirty oven half an hour later was a true tribute to my Irish heritage. While it was still warm, I wrapped two of the halves in napkins, added a twist of silly shamrock ribbon and took them over to my neighbors so we wouldn't eat them all ourselves.

The half we kept was so homey, so simple that it just warmed the heart from the inside out. Crusty on the outside, we couldn't resist breaking off little bits here and there before it even cooled. The raisins made sweet, jammy pockets and the caraway seeds surprised us with the depth of the flavor they lend to the whole.

I had to search my closet for something green to wear to the St. Patrick's Day party our uphill neighbor gave. As I sipped my Irish coffee at the party and nibbled on a cookie shaped like a shamrock, I swapped stories of Irish heritage with the other guests. And I left that last half of soda bread for our hostess as a way of saying thanks for giving me a chance to remember my roots.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Basic Soup

I was so excited about my veggie soup, so full of goodies that I anticipated a wonderful flavor. To some nice chicken broth, I added sautéed onion, garlic, leek, (at this point, I was thinking Potage Parmentier), a whole head of cauliflower, (or maybe cream of cauliflower?), fresh thyme, a couple of spuds and a small roasted kabocha squash (that soup was delish - maybe I'll head over there?).

Perhaps all that indecision was the flavor killer but it ended up tasting like... actually, it ended up not tasting.

Oh, maybe there was a little veggie-ish sort of a hint, but it was basically blah. When I added salt and pepper to wake up the flavors, it tasted like salt and pepper. I was discouraged. Disheartened. Downhearted. I had a whole enormous pot of nuttin'.

But then I thought, "Wait a minute!" This will make a great base for future soups, soups into which I will add whatever ingredients my appetite is craving at that moment. It will be like having canned soup on hand, only home made and frozen in small batches so I can resurrect it as needed. Soup base - what a great idea! A blank canvas on which I can create a future masterpiece.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Look Out!

This blogging thing is funny.

I started Zoomie Station originally just to keep my writing skills up and my mind active in retirement, but it has become so much more than that. A way to make friends from far away and close by. A way to be more thoughtful and adventurous about the food I cook. A way to access family memories. A peculiar form of artistic expression. And, sometimes, it's just plain silly, good for a belly laugh.

Take this photo, for example - our dinner a few nights ago when I didn't feel much like cooking. A couple of my favorite Coleman's hot dogs snugged next to some doctored up Boston baked beans from a can. I snapped the photo as usual and sat down to dinner.

This morning, when I was uploading the photo, I noticed the little kid in yellow shirt and black shorts on the plate, playing with his dog. He looks up at me with a startled expression - "Look Out!" I thought, "you're about to be crushed by two giant logs!" Maybe his dog is trying, like Lassie, to warn him of impending danger. Silly stuff.

Re-Doctored Beans and Hot Dogs

I usually make my mother's recipe for doctored baked beans but not only do they take hours of cooking, they also include maple syrup and, as much as I adore maple syrple, I've been thinking they are just too sweet. But, I have always loved the citrus she added to them, so I decided to try doctoring them myself and this is the result. My Beloved took a bite, unenthusiastically as he was expecting the usual, and got a pleased smile on his face. "These are the best baked beans I have ever eaten," he purred. That's good enough for me!

1 15 oz can of B&M baked beans (I like this brand - the beans are small and tasty)
1/2 chopped onion
1 orange, zested with a micro-plane zester
1 tsp butter
4 Coleman's hot dogs

In a small pot, melt the butter and sauté the chopped onion until clear. Add the beans and the orange zest and heat together for about 5 minutes. (I was going to add the juice of the orange, too, but the inside of mine was nasty so I'll try that next time). Lay the hot dogs on top of the beans, pushing them down until they are about half-covered. Heat until the hot dogs are done, about an additional 10 minutes.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Crixa of the Matter

Meeting a friend for coffee.

Just writing those words brings to mind such pleasurable moments. Hot beverages and friends just somehow go together. There is time, then, to catch up and to slow down, to hear all about one another's worlds and to connect face to face. No email, no texts, no tweets; instead, a smiling face across a tippy little table.

And, when you meet the friend in a new-to-you bakery that serves decaf coffee that actually tastes like hi-test and pastries that are so decadent or so flaky that they melt in the mouth... well, now you're talking!

My friend Naomi introduced me to Crixa Cakes in Berkeley. It's a tiny shop just a stone's throw away from the dreaded Berkeley Bowl (the original one) and it specializes in Hungarian baking. They did have tiramisu and other non-Hungarian delights, too, but their hearts are Hungarian.

Naomi enjoyed their traditional poppy seed and walnut cake, of which she shared a bite. It seemed to be made almost entirely of poppy seeds - as if they had replaced the usual flour with those tiny black dots. Very nutty, in a good way.

I fell for the color of this rhubarb pie. Thiebaudesque. That rosy pink just called to me and, when the server offered to put a dollop of whipped cream alongside, well, who am I to refuse? Sweet and tart all at the same time, with a crisp, flaky crust, it was the perfect accompaniment to their full-bore coffee.

As we chatted and tasted, the tiny place filled with people, to the point where they actually brought out additional folding tables and chairs to try to accommodate the rush. When shops are this popular, there's a reason, and it's not just the proximity to Berkeley Bowl. Deeply tasty coffee and killer pastries and a good friend to share them with. That's the Crixa of the matter.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Avocado Heaven

When we went to Fresno to meet our friend Jeanne, we took her packages of nuts from Valley Pistachio, the shop we call Pistachio Heaven. We discovered Pistachio Heaven several years ago on a different trip to Fresno (we call it Fres-yes) and have stopped there ever since. They advertise with large signs along the freeway that count down the miles to their store, an old fashioned marketing gimmick that still delights me.

It's one of those shops that typify for me the best of American commerce. The pistachios are grown right near by, they package their own and the varieties and flavors increase every time we go - they are always trying out something new. The shop is immaculate and so is the little garden outside. They are friendly folk who share stories of their lives with us. They never fail to give Cora a pat as she waits patiently for us, tied to the front porch railing.

They are happy to ship nuts around the country, too, so we usually take a minute to choose some of their mixed varieties to send to friends or family back east. My Dad used to love getting his pistachios as a surprise. This time, we noted that they have expanded to a small winery on the property, too. They are enterprising people.

Anyway, this is what Jeanne brought us in return - heavenly avocados from her mother's tree in southern California. Fuertes, the very best. As much as we enjoy Pistachio Heaven, we know that we got the best end of that deal!


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Monday, March 14, 2011

Dutch Masters

When My Beloved and I got the call from the masters of Dutch oven cooking, you can bet we got our buns over there in short order! We hastily mixed up some guacamole to take along as an offering to the DOG gods.

These guys are amazing. Black iron pans predominated, although there was a gorgeous dark red one, too, and the food that emerged a short time later was wonderful. We oohed and aahed over Guy's chile verde, Cameron's rabbit stew, Chilebrown's spatchcocked chicken and veggies, and Abram's smoked tri-tip. Those meaty men can really dish up some serious eats.

Although I sampled and approved in a deeply personal way all the meats, for me the standouts were the breads. Cam made a wheat bread that kicked a** and took numbers - crusty and crisp on the outside, with an airy crumb as light as foam and deep flavor from long rising. All it needed was some butter to make it perfect.

But the big winner in my opinion (and I'm not just saying this because he paid me to) was CB's signature Jalapeño Cheese Bread. I approached it with caution, knowing that CB loves spicy food and being a spice wimp myself, but I needn't have worried. Hearty and moist, with little pockets of melted cheese and chiles throughout, it was crusty and rich with flavors without being scorching hot.

The day was gloriously sunny but cool enough not to mind having several charcoal fires going at once. The company was convivial and the conversation almost entirely of barbecuing. My Beloved and I drove home to serious food coma - no dinner that night and I wasn't even hungry the next morning. I can't think of anything better.

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

On Top Of Spaghetti

When I was a bus-riding school kid, sometimes we would burst into song, usually on the way home - kids are like that. Typically, the song was some silly ditty about the number of bottles of beer on the wall (counting down from 100 - drove the bus drivers to drink) but occasionally, it was this, sung to the tune of "On Top Of Old Smokey":

On top of spaghetti
All covered with cheese
I lost my poor meatball
When somebody sneezed.

Now, I find that some enterprising soul has actually put the whole of the lyrics on the web. I don't think I knew all the words until now.

Anyway, I was reminded of that song the other night when I made spaghetti and, finding that my ParmReg had grown a fine crop of fuzz, decided to substitute ricotta salata instead. It was good, salty but good. It won't replace ParmReg in our universe but it made a nice change of pace and it brought back a silly memory and a smile - spaghetti is like that.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

You Deserve a Medal(lion)

Pork tenderloin is one of our favorite meats. We love it just about any way you'd think to cook it, but perhaps sliced into medallions and sautéed is our favorite. You get all that lovely caramelization on the top and bottom, and juicy pink pig in between. I discovered these when I was still working and needed a quick but scrumptious dinner.

I'm always inventing sauces for the medallions, usually riffs on the fruit theme, since pork loves fruit. This time, I combined chopped apples, onion, Dijon mustard, plain yogurt and a little mayo into a honey of a sauce. Tangy and sweet at the same time, with lots of texture and pizzazz, it was apple sauce for grownups.

It's a simple preparation and the whole meal takes just minutes to throw together, especially if you have some leftover rice or spuds. Here's the deal:

Mustardy Medallions

1 pork tenderloin, cut into medallions about 1-1/2 inches thick
Small knob of butter
1/2 large onion, chopped
2 apples, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped (I used Pink Ladies, because I had them)
1 Tbs mayonnaise
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1/4 to 1/2 cup Dijon mustard (depending on your preference)
2 tsp fresh thyme leaves (optional) or 1 tsp dried thyme

In a wide pan, sauté the medallions in a little butter until they are nicely browned on both sides. Keep warm and set aside.

In the same pan, sauté the onion until soft and add the apples. Cook together for a few minutes while you mix the next three ingredients together. If you are using thyme (and why wouldn't you?), add it to the apple-onion mixture and let them cook together until the herb is bright green. Pour in the mustard-yogurt-mayo mixture and stir together for a few minutes to heat through. Spoon over the medallions to serve.

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Friday, March 11, 2011

Hugged The Box

Are you one of those people like me who hesitates to buy for themselves the very thing they want most? I know, it's a little crazy. I have wanted a hand blender ever since I used the one My Beloved's daughter, Sarah, has in her kitchen. I've seen them on the cooking shows and, although they seemed pretty sexy, I couldn't justify them to myself - after all, I have a perfectly good stand blender.

But, once you've used one, you're hooked. Not only does it do an efficient and speedy job of blending soups and drinks, etc., it also saves you from washing yet another pot.

My birthday was nearly a month ago but it took some time for us to hook up with daughter Katie, the bearer of my present from both girls. When she passed the brightly wrapped and ribboned box across the brunch table to me, I had no idea what to expect.

When I unwrapped it, I was so excited, I hugged the box. I know, it's a little crazy.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Finalists

***EEK! I previewed this post and it looked as if it lined up, but now the alignment of photos and text are all over the place! I hope you can read the text and understand which photos they go with - each is sequential, even tho' they don't match up! Apologies!***

I really shouldn't have eliminated myself from the Ugly Food Photo contest - I took this one, for example. That is not plastic wrap over my baked-egg-and-duxelles. Need I say more?

Anyway, I made the rules so I guess I have to stick to them. Scroll down to find the official entries in the contest:






Here's a beauty from our lurker who has not yet started a blog of her own, The Evil Empress. Her photo of guacamole in a bowl belies her claim that it was truly delicious. By her own admission, it looks like glistening green vomit.



Or, how about this from Nancy over at Chez NamasteNancy? Not only is the chicken curry lightly green in this light, the placemat is off-center, the plate doesn't look too clean (I'm sure that's just steam from the hot food, right? Right??) and the drops of sauce on the rim don't add to the overall beauty, do they?


The judges were quite impressed with this entry from the Mad Meat Genius. It's cole slaw. No, really, it's cole slaw! Paul didn't explain why it looks wormy as well as slimy - we'll leave that to your imagination.






Kitt over at The Kittalog submitted this nightmarish fruit terrine photo. I gather there was a problem with the gelatin. There's a texture that I, for one, would pass up on a buffet.



Some of our contestants actually published their photos online and sent us links. The judges felt that they deserved extra points for sheer chutzpah. Here are the shameless entries, the ones that actually saw the light of day:

From Ali at Green and Lean, a roasted carrot and garlic purée mixed with brown rice medley risotto. Ali at least dressed up the photo with a glass of wine and a pretty utensil but does that really retrieve the dish from true visual ghastliness? See the final photo in the series if you dare.

From Cookiecrumb, who usually wows us with her photography as well as her writing, a pan of meatloaf that looks pretty dry and dull, with mad splatters on the white pan. She calls it butt ugly. We would agree.

From Nancy over at Chez NamasteNancy, we have two submissions, both pretty darn ugly. Her chicken curry photo (above) was bad enough, but then she included her Jolly Green Glop picture, too. I defy you to decide which is worse.

After serious study and careful consideration, the judges have reached a verdict. While all these entries have merit, only one can actually take the prize. The brand new kitchen implement goes to....

may I have the envelope, please?...

... fumble, fumble with the envelope....

...finally remove the card with a flourish...

....and announce the winner is....

THE EVIL EMPRESS!

That stingy blob of vomitous green at the bottom of a too-large bowl was truly stomach-turning. The photo is off center, and not in a good way. The focus is (mercifully) a little fuzzy on the guac. And what's with that little red thing on the side; to us, it looks ominous. No chips for dipping, mysterious background with stray crumbs. Overall, a true winner. Congratulations, (I think?), to the Evil Empress for the 2011 Ugliest Food Photo! Her brand new kitchen implement will be on its way to her forthwith.


***A bonus! Ms Mouse of Dancing Mouse declined to enter the contest this year but she found a link to a whole site of nothing but really revolting food photos. If you are looking to degrade your photographic technique so as to win next year's contest, go here if you'd like to disgust yourself even more. So far, as bad as we are, we are more or less bush league by comparison with these guys!



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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Big Valley

When most people drive through central California on Interstate 5, their memories are not fond. The highway is as straight as a stretched string and passes mostly through a landscape so flat that any little rise in the road or shift of lanes is a reason to look up from one's book or knitting. Only an artist as talented as Thiebaud could make you look twice at this landscape.

Drivers complain of drowsiness in the sameness of the terrain and vow never to drive that way again. Mothers plan car games for young children to keep them from becoming bored and fretful. The first time My Beloved took me on that highway, he was apologizing for the landscape before we ever got to the freeway, certain that he would have a bored and cranky woman on his hands in short order.

I was fascinated. I loved it from the very first. With the velvety, undulating coast hills on the right - as green as Ireland in the winter and richly golden in the summer - and the most amazingly vast quilt of farms on the left, it is tailor-made for someone who is fascinated by farming.

When I lived in western New York, I learned to appreciate farming. Having been at one time an enormous swamp, the land around Rochester was drained to make the most wonderfully fertile farms you can imagine. Between mid-June and the end of October, the entire area is an amazing cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, each more flavorful and more beautiful than the next. When I first moved there, I would visit the farm stands that lined nearly every country road and, having spent no more than five dollars, take home more groceries than I could comfortably carry in two arms. During the harvest, enormous trucks filled to overflowing with peas, or tomatoes, or onions would rumble along the roads, headed for the canning or freezing factories and shedding ripe produce along the way.

The San Joaquin Valley, through which I-5 travels, makes western New York look puny by comparison. The farms are much larger and the crops far more various. The valley is more than 400 miles long and 50 miles wide. If you can't grow it in this valley, it must be tropical; everything else thrives. Fruit and nut orchards are vast monocultures, as are the fields of cotton, strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes - well, I could pretty much name any crop and you'd find it out in that amazing valley.

Now, I do realize the issues inherent in that scale of farming - the use of pesticides and petroleum products, the concern about crop diseases and insects, the disputes over water rights and land use - and I think about those issues as I drive down the valley, but none of it spoils for me the interest of witnessing the tilling, the planting, the pruning, the harvesting, and of trying to guess from the shape of a tree or the color of a plant what the crop might be.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe about this trip - how come the farmers don't post signs to tell us a little about the crops? I'd love to know more about each field - why was it chosen for plums instead of peaches or grapes? How long has this farmer been working this land? How long has the land been in the family? What the heck is that crop? How much water does it take to raise a head of broccoli or a bushel of almonds or a head of cattle? Not only would it make driving back and forth to Los Angeles more interesting, I think if they provided us with more information, we'd have more sympathy for the hard and worrisome work they put into producing our food.

Anyway, I have coined a phrase for people like me, city people who know little about farming but love it anyway and enjoy sightseeing in farm country - agri-nerds. I'm an agri-nerd, and proud of it.






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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fruit Futures

My Beloved and I spent last weekend checking out an investment in futures - fruit futures.

We whiled away an afternoon with our friend Jeanne, driving the Blossom Trail through towns such as Sanger and Fresno, Reedly and Centerville. At this time of year, all the orchards in central California - cherry, plum, peach, nectarine, apricot - are in full bloom, covered in pink and white blossoms.

The orchards are immaculate, trimmed and raked, trees planted in soldierly rows, but there were never soldiers as airy, as blowsy, as free-form as these. These trees are not taking orders from anyone but Mother Nature at the moment, wantons that they are. They are peeping from behind lace fans with flirty little curtsies, clearly soliciting sex. Don't be fooled by all that bridal white and baby pink, these gals are on the make and the bees are their cupids. They will happily fling off their wedding dress finery in a few weeks, carpeting the ground with petal tulle, once the unions have been consummated.

The square, multicolored beehives are stacked in place at the ends of the rows and the little winged matchmakers are hard at work assisting the miracles. Brown earth is being translated into juicy fruits using sheer magic.

The investment looks promising; I predict a bumper crop.

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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Aw, C'mon!

C'mon and enter the Ugly Food Photo contest. You might win a nifty kitchen implement and, besides, it would be fun. Aw, c'mon. Don't be chicken!

If you want some artistic inspiration, check this out - last year's entries, including the winner.

I promise not to enter this one, because it would sweep the prize and then everyone would moan that the fix was in, since I and My Beloved are the judges. This is my icky version of cream-braised Brussels sprouts, the dish I wrote about here. It was delicious but it looked as if a nursing baby had thrown up on some overcooked sprouts. That's what happens when you get distracted while cooking and reading a potboiler at the same time and the cream curdles from too much heat. As if that wasn't bad enough, once again I forgot that that particular angle in my particular kitchen leaves a deadly gray shadow on the lower edge of the photo.

Anyway, I just know you have some truly ugly food photos, too, that you'd like to enter into the competition. So, c'mon, dig 'em out and post a link to them in the comments of this post or the first invitation blog a few days ago. You can also email me the file if you are understandably reluctant to post it up on your own blog; no one wants to scare away readers. Send it to PamelaHyland@comcast.net, if that's the case.

The deadline is Monday, March 7th, so don't delay. We are looking forward to seeing how truly awful food can look.

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Friday, March 4, 2011

Beef Booty

All this rain got me thinking about Wellies, which reminded me of the Duke of Wellington, which brought me to Beef Wellington.

My mind just rolls that way.

Anyway, I realized that I have never eaten, much less made, Beef Wellington. Neither had My Beloved, as it turned out. Gotta try it, right?

My online and cookbook research showed several variations of sublime beef baked in puff pastry until it is perfectly pink on the inside, with various goodies enclosed to flavor the meat. The suggested goodies included, but were not limited to, duxelles, paté, proscuitto, English mustard and thyme. This being my first attempt and Julia Child being my ultimate heroine, I decided to go with duxelles and paté.

The recipes called for either phyllo dough or puff pastry as the container for all that crazy deliciousness, but what I had in the freezer was Star dough, so I thought I'd try that. That's why you see my beef busting out of the pastry in the photo above - take it from me, it's puff pastry that you want. Puff pastry is by nature elastic; pie dough is not supposed to be. We live and learn.

I made the duxelles the day before, then trimmed, browned and cooled the meat and assembled the Wellington the next morning, layering the pastry first, then the paté, the duxelles and, lastly, the two filets mignons, wrapping it all tightly in the pastry and letting it chill all day in the fridge. Brushed it with a little egg wash and baked it in a 425 degree oven for just 25 suspenseful minutes.

While it baked, My Beloved enjoyed his dainty appetizer of the carefully trimmed and minced raw beef left over from cleaning up the filets for the Wellington. He's got a little bit of the cannibal in him; he loved it.

The Wellington came out of the oven sadly broken but beautifully browned of crust. The paté almost melted into the duxelles, making for a shroomy sort of lightly liverish paste that was amazing all by itself. Then, the carefully trimmed beef took over and wowed us with its refined and delicate pinkness. Swoon City!

Would I make it again? In a heartbeat! I will save it for a company meal or a very special occasion as the ingredients are 'way spendy, but having frozen in little packets most of the duxelles I made for this meal, I have the most time-consuming part already covered.

I can already envision my guests' pleasure when I bring out the golden brown pastry on an elegant platter, surrounded by bright vegetables. I think I will go with my fanciest china and crystal but maybe use my stainless steel everyday flatware, suitable for a Duke dining in muddy rubber boots.




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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Toast

I can't think of anything offhand that I enjoy more than simple buttered toast. It makes a great breakfast, or a worthy substrate for other foods, or a sustaining snack. I applaud whoever first took a slice of bread and held it over a fire until it turned lightly brown, then slathered it with butter. Whoever she was, she invented something so comforting, so universal that it ranks right up there with chicken soup in the pantheon of comfort foods.

When toast is made with bread like this, it surpasses good and goes straight to great. Cousin Jan gave us part of a loaf that she got from the estimable James Sartain, along with the recipe. I haven't made the bread myself yet but I have partaken of it and it comes recommended with several stars.

It's a no-knead bread, too, so even easier to make. I have to admit to being so wonky that I actually enjoy kneading bread, but even I rejoice when something this tasty doesn't require heavy work to produce.

Here's the recipe* - let me know if you make it and how it turned out. And don't forget to toast and butter a couple of the slices.


MASTER ARTISAN BREAD RECIPE

This recipe makes enough for four 1-pound loves and can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Bake it unadorned as a Crusty Boule, or roll ingredients into the refrigerated dough to create sweet and savory loaves.

*James Sartain left a comment and mentioned that he added 1/2 cup of his sourdough starter to the ingredients below, to give the bread added chewiness. If you have starter, you might want to do that, too.

3 1/2 Cups lukewarm water
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
4 teaspoons coarse salt
7 1/4 cups (2 lb. 4 oz.; 1027.67 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour (measure using scoop and sweep method)
1) Combine water, yeast and salt in large bowl. With spoon (or mixer with paddle attachment), stir in flour (dough will be wet)
2) Place dough in 5-quart lidded container; cover with lid (do not snap airtight). Let rise at room temperature 2 hours.

Refrigerate overnight or up to 14 days.

CRUSTY BOULE

This crusty European-style loaf has a crisp and hearty crumb. It's perfect as an everyday bread to serve with soups and salads or just a slice of cheese.

1-lb. (grapefruit-sized) portion of Master Recipe (above)

1) Hold dough and dust top with flour; quickly shape into ball by stretching surface of dough around to bottom on all four sides, rotating a quarter turn as you go.

2) Place dough on pizza peel or baking sheet liberally sprinkled with cornmeal or lined with parchment paper; cover loosely with lightly floured plastic wrap. Let stand in warm draft-free place 1 hour or until dough is slightly puffed and no longer chilled.

3)Thirty minutes before baking, place baking stone on center oven rack; place empty broiler pan on bottom oven rack. Heat oven to 450 F.

4) Dust loaf with flour. With serrated knife, make 2 or 3 (1/4-inch-deep) slashes in top of laof. Slide loaf (with parchment paper if using) onto baking stone. Immediately pour 1 cup of hot water into broiler pan; quickly close oven door to trap steam.

5) Bake 30 minutes or until deep golden brown and loaf sounds hollow when topped on bottom. Cool completely on wire rack.


1 (12-slice) loaf.
PER SLICE: 80 calories, 0 g total fat (0 g saturated fat), 2.5 g protein, 16.5 g carbohydrate, 0 mg cholesterol, 135 mg sodium, .5 g fiber.

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