Monday, October 31, 2011

Nothing Spooky

When I made Chilebrown's hamburger buns, they were baked by eleven in the morning, cooling on a rack on the counter. They looked perfect and smelled even better. I had made them for our hamburger dinner but they were sending out olfactory invitations that I simply couldn't resist.

Luckily, the recipe made eight buns, plenty for dinner, the freezer, and a summer sandwich, too.

Is there anything better in the world than a ripe tomato sandwich? If there is, you'd have to convince me. And, if you can make it with a freshly-baked soft roll - well, now you're approaching nirvana.

Go ahead. Make the rolls and slice the tomatoes thickly. Slather on a little mayo and don't forget the salt and pepper. It's even better if you have a lemon to squeeze over the tomatoes, but even without that embellishment, it's going to be one of the best sandwiches you will ever eat. At least, until next summer.

Nothing spooky, here. Happy Hallowe'en!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Firm Buns

Okay, I admit it. I used that title in the hope that it will draw in more readers. They may be a little disappointed when they learn that this blog is not usually oriented toward buffed body parts, but when they read about Chilebrown's hamburger buns, I'm convinced they will return again and again.

I have long been an admirer of Chilebrown's baking; he makes all kinds of breads and rolls, some in a Dutch oven and others in a regular oven, but they always look and sound wonderful. He also makes it sound easy.

And it was. My Beloved bemoans storebought hamburger buns, declaring them to be made of sawdust and air. I was planning hamburgers for dinner so, on the spur of the moment, decided to try making buns from scratch.I used his recipe for buns made with 1/3 whole wheat and 2/3 white flour.

These buns use ingredients you will likely have on hand - they are not at all complicated. They take a little time as they rise twice but the recipe is simple. I started them in the late morning and they were more than ready by supper time.

They have a sweetly nutty flavor and a beefier texture than the packaged buns, but they are airy enough that they soak up the hamburger juices like a tasty sponge. We toasted ours lightly on the grill to bring out even more of the nutty flavor and enjoyed them greatly. At last, buns as firm as My Beloved's.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Estate Sales

Did you know that there's an entire etiquette of estate sales? Mostly, I have just gone to small ones, like Janine's, where nothing is priced and the agents just eyeball your selections and hazard a guess. They are usually willing to take less, if you dicker a bit, too, although I didn't learn this until after I had been to a few.

Some people actually watch the paper for estate sale notices and shop there every weekend, buying everything from bed linens to brick-a-brack. At the last estate sale I attended, I met a woman who does just that. She was very chatty and open about her hobby, more than willing to clue in a newcomer.

I met her in line - yes, estate sales usually have a long line of hopeful buyers waiting to get in - and she took me under her wing. You have to get here early, she said, and be among the first to go in. Otherwise, you wait until someone comes out, then the next in line can go in. It makes sense, really - otherwise, there might be the kind of chaos one finds at after-Christmas sales but we waited nearly an hour for our turn.

It's also nice to be tidy, according to my estate sale teacher. If you open a drawer, for example, don't just paw through the contents, but look carefully and replace things nicely. I was astonished to learn that one actually opens drawers in someone else's house; it seems so intrusive and rude. She just laughed at my naiveté, and told me I must open all drawers, look up high and down low, even opening medicine cabinets in search of treasures.

I don't think I'm cut out for the cutthroat world of estate saleing. I felt squeamish opening up someone's drawers and walking through their garden. I did find a few treasures, like the sturdy baking rack pictured above, which holds a full dozen of cookies, but all in all, I think I'm more comfortable with garage sales. I won't be checking Craigslist weekly, as she does. But, I'm glad to know the etiquette should I ever go again.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Just when I think we have skipped summer altogether here in northern California, October rolls around and brings us lovely, warm days. Just when the rest of the country is donning sweaters, we are pulling out shorts and flipflops. I don't need a long, sweaty summer but I do relish a few weeks of hot weather to make me grateful when the cooler days arrive for good.

We've had quite a foggy, cool "summer," so it was a huge pleasure to have a day so warm that I remembered with excitement that I had a cucumber in the fridge. Cucumber sandwiches almost define summer for me.

I get out my mother's ancient Slice-a-Slice, so well used that the wooden stop at the bottom is splintered from decades of cutting, and make bread so thin as to be lacy. A scrape of mayo and thick slices of cuke are all that is needed. The cukes always fall out, lubricated by the mayo I suppose, but I patiently put them back in and relish the result.

Sometimes, I challenge the seasons and make this sandwich in midwinter, just to remind myself that summer is coming, but it's always better when I can take it out onto the deck under a tree, wearing shorts and flipflops.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Cover Crop

If you haven't been out the Fairfax in Marin county recently, you might want to go. I had lunch there recently with a friend of mine who lives in west Marin, and we enjoyed a lovely afternoon of poking through the shops and catching up.

You must certainly pop your head in to the Fairfax Variety store. I discovered it a few years ago and whenever I'm feeling down in the mouth, I go there to be cheered by the most amazing jumble of wonderful things. It's like an old-time five-and-dime store, only slightly updated. They carry everything from cooking utensils to greeting cards to Hallowe'en costumes but the kids' aisle is the best part. If you need bubble stuff or a fridge crawler or silly, gruesome finger puppets, you can find them all there - and much, much more.

Outside the Italian restaurant on the main street was a shady tree. In most towns, you'd see a metal grating around the base of the tree, or maybe just bare earth. In Fairfax, they have a unique cover crop - hundreds of wine corks.

If you haven't been out there, you might want to go. These seem like fun folks, don't you think?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Chez Panisse Again

The first time I had dinner at Chez Panisse, frankly, I was disappointed. It wasn't that the food wasn't good - it certainly was - but the experience didn't live up to its stellar reputation. We were seated in a small room with a loud party at the next table and while all the food was well cooked and presented, only the desserts were spectacular. That was ten years ago.

So, when Naomi's parents were in town and wanted to treat us to dinner at Chez Panisse as a way of thanking us (completely unnecessarily) for our kindness to their daughter, I nearly suggested we go somewhere else.

I'm so glad I took General Eisenhower's advice and kept my big mouth shut!

We started with a salad of Asian pear slices, quartered figs and rocket in a light dressing of sublime perfection. Everything complemented everything else - a little sweet from the fruits, a little bitter from the rocket, all smoothed with a dressing that brought it brightly together.

My main course (sorry for the photo) was a sort of gnocchi, but nothing like I imagined gnocchi to be - for one thing, it wasn't boiled. Our waiter warned me that it wouldn't be like any gnocchi I had ever had before and when I confessed that I was trying gnocchi for the first time, he declared that I would measure all future gnocchi against this one. He was right. This was lightly sautéed, slightly crisp on the outside but savory with cheese and the airiest possible cloud potato on the inside. Topped with sautéed chanterelle mushrooms and Parmesan shavings, it may well have been the best thing I have ever tasted.

Accompanying the gnocchi was a light green salad and a pair of beautiful little roasted pimientos, richly cinnabar red and black with bright green stems. I'm not usually a lover of all things pepper, but these little gems were a whole different story. Tender and rushing with internal juice, they were mild and sweet.

For dessert, smooth, unctuous raspberry ice cream topped with intense little fresh raspberries, the tiniest and the most flavorful ever.

Perhaps the best part is that we weren't stuffed by the end of the meal. Everyone certainly had plenty but the portions were just the right size to satisfy but not to overfill. The waiter was attentive and extremely knowledgeable but also willing to ask someone else when he didn't know the answer to our questions.

If I have a complaint this time, it would be with our table. We were seated directly across from the ovens in a three-across-three booth which made conversation awkward, service difficult and we were all uncomfortably warm by the end of the meal. Had I not thought to bring a fan with me, I'd have melted.

But, I'm just nitpicking here; it was small price to pay for an ambrosial meal and a remarkably generous gesture by our charming hosts. They are British and we rather expected the stereotypical reserved English people; nothing could have been further from the truth. They were open and friendly, giving California-style hugs and double cheek kisses upon arrival and openly sharing stories of their life in England and South Africa. The entire evening was delightful, so much so that I felt vaguely guilty at being thanked for something that had been nothing but a pleasure.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Chestnut Chicken

I have been making this particular chicken dish forever. In fact, I may even have posted about it before - I'm too lazy to scroll back through nearly five years of posts to confirm or deny. It is always delicious, even though it's an old chestnut.

The secret is in the browning. The chicken pieces, the mushrooms and the onions all need to be well browned before you proceed, or you'll get a dish that looks as if it needs a transfusion.

I'm an impatient browner. That's a lowering confession from one who prides herself on her cooking skills, but it's the truth. Browning is boring. Because it takes so long to do it right, I usually start reading a book and end up almost blackening, which is nearly as bad as wimpy browning.

You, of course, will never have that problem. You will heat your skillet, drop in to sizzle the olive oil and butter, and brown the chicken beautifully, removing to a plate each piece to rest as it reaches golden perfection. Then you will brown your mushroom pieces (I like chunks) and your peeled pearl onions in that same lovely chickeny pan. When your mushrooms have a nice crust and the onions are dark in spots, you'll add back your chicken pieces and any juices that have collected, nestling them down amongst the vegetables, and you'll add your garlic chips stirring for a few seconds, your chopped tomatoes and a glug of white wine. You will add some herbs, too, either fresh or dried - if you're like me, Provençal herbs will be featured strongly, but bay leaf is a nice addition, too.

You will cover the pan and lower the flame to simmer for about 20 minutes, perhaps lifting the lid once or twice to baste the chicken with the pan juices and to fill your kitchen (and your entire house) with scents designed to bring your significant other in from another room and your dog to hover under your feet. Even cats become attentive and eager to please when this chicken is cooking. You may leave the lid off for the last several minutes to concentrate the sauce before plating.

Make it now, while there are still ripe tomatoes to be enjoyed. It may be a chestnut but it's a golden oldie.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Prettying It Up

I made bean soup the other day, with no clear idea of how I wanted it to taste - I was just hungry for beans and I had about six cups of smoky chicken stock made from that same, well-loved chicken.

After soaking the flageolet beans overnight, I sautéed the usual suspects together (onion, garlic, celery), added the beans and the chicken broth and set them to simmering. Simmered for perhaps an hour. The color was an uninspiring yellowish brown. The taste was pretty, but not yet gorgeous, so I added some corn, chopped carrot and frozen peas. As it got lovelier, it also got tastier.

Sip, taste, still not beautiful, so I chopped a couple of chicken apple sausages and added them. Better, but still lacking a certain style. A healthy squirt of sriracha helped quite a bit and a sprinkle of fresh cilantro got us nearly there. The pièce de résistence was the juice from a quarter of a lime squirted into the soup at the table, partly for its flavor but also for the extra color.

Fabu soup for eye, tongue and tum.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


In our twelve years of marriage, My Beloved and I have owned perhaps five toasters. I think my parents, in more than fifty years of wedded bliss, owned one. What is it with toasters these days?

When I moved to California, I left my toaster behind. Moving only my most cherished belongings was already horribly expensive, so the toaster had to go. I figured I'd just buy another one on the Left Coast. And that's what I did, the first of several that just didn't do the job.

It seems that with modern toasters there is no setting between "anemic" and "charred." At first, I thought I had just bought the wrong toaster so when I got Toaster Rage for the nth time I would go out and buy another, more expensive toaster, always hoping to find the Cadillac of toasters. Nothing worked. My toast was still either pale and pliant or rigid and blackened, unless I watched it carefully and popped it up manually when it was done. An ongoing mystery.

Then, last week, I purchased on a whim a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread, the kind of raisin bread I recall with pleasure from my childhood, what my mother would have called "gooshy bread" in a bright red plastic bag. This raisin toast was a rare treat in our household - it probably cost more, delivered less nutrition, and almost certainly was eaten up faster, something my frugal mother would only occasionally allow.

I got out the butter, dropped a couple of slices in the most recent of our long line of toasters, set it to a medium heat, and up popped perfectly toasted bread, nicely browned but not burned. For once, my toaster performed perfectly. Hallelujah!

And, finally, the penny dropped with me about toast - it's not the toasters, it's the bread! I don't normally buy national brand breads. Most of the toast I make is from leftover "artisan" bread that we had with dinner the night before, breads that no mainstream toaster is designed to toast. All along, I've been blaming the toasters when all I had to do is give them gooshy bread and they would have toasted like a champ!

Now, if you are a toaster engineer out there who happens to be reading this, would you please design a toaster that loves hearty, dense, handmade breads? I'd be your first customer.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Crusty, Smoky Story

I had big plans for that smoky pastured chicken - it may have been expensive initially but I was going to reduce the cost/meal ratio dramatically by using it all up.

After our initial meal - which was ambrosial, by the way - I decided to pick the meat off the carcass for another go at chicken pot pie. I was pretty sure that smoky flavor would be transformative to that lowly dish. I was correct.

I made two pot pies out of the leftover chicken, one for us and one for my neighbors, who are experiencing a very busy time right now. If I had wanted to be just slightly less generous to the neighbors, I could have squeezed three pot pies out of the remainder of the chicken and no one would have felt cheated. I added the usual veggies - sautéed pearl onions, garlic, diced carrots, peas (next time, I'm going for mushrooms, too) - sauced it as usual, and topped with the scraps left over from the show-off crust on the neighbors' pie.

I don't cook with salt so it needed a sprinkle at the table but, otherwise, it was splendid. The smokiness made everything else taste new and unexpected, almost exotic, if one can say that about so pedestrian a dish. Scheherazade might have served this to Shahryar as she spun her tales for him, and he'd have spared her for her pot pie alone.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Chicken Races

I purchased this chicken at Baron's Meats in Alameda. It is apparently a former racing chicken. What else would explain the leggy, lean style? It was the normal weight for a frying chicken, but taller, leaner and, well, racier. It was the Amanda Beard of chickens.

The package stated that this chicken was raised in a pasture with a place to roost for safety at night and a place to get out of the rain (what rain? - it's a local chicken raised this summer) but with freedom to come and go, to chase bugs in tall grass and to take dust baths, so I was happy that it led a normal chicken's life before it ended up on my plate.

I planked the chicken on a cedar shingle over hot coals after stuffing it with a chunk of onion and one of lemon. The skin darkened to this mahogany color and the meat roasted to a deep, smoky deliciousness. We simply carved and enjoyed it the first day with veggies on the side, and reveled in the lean but juicy flavor.

But that's not all I plan for this bird - I'll fashion at least two other meals from it. I'm off to the (chicken) races!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sweets To The Sweet

My Beloved has a favorite cake. Pineapple upside down cake makes his day. He can't recall when he obtained this particular addiction but he's had it as long as he can remember.

When his birthday dawned without my having a single idea for presents, I decided to bake him his favorite cake. Off to the grocery store for a can of Dole pineapple rings; I already had a jar of maraschino cherries left over from the Alley Rats party.

A little online research revealed Betty Crocker's recipe for upside down cake - it looked easy and, best of all, so very apropos for such an old-fashioned dessert to be following Betty's instructions. I had to make some changes to the recipe - to substitute real butter for the margarine (that stuff always seems evil to me), to change out the brown sugar for maple sugar (which is less sweet, spoon for spoon, and adds an interesting flavor) and to bake it in a heart-shaped pan. Oh, and rather than use a cake mix, I just made a quick yellow cake batter I found on the interwebs.

The cake batter ran over and made a mess of my oven, the cake tried to stick to the pan and I had to rearrange the pineapple on top once the cake was out of the pan, but you can see from his reaction that none of that mattered. He was tickled pink with his birthday cake.

The old expression, "Sweets to the sweet" has never been more appropriate.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thanks, Steve

Yes, that's an Apple laptop amongst the clutter on my desk. I'm sad that Steve Jobs is gone.

In the early '80s, when I was back in college as an adult student finishing my long-delayed Bachelor and then Master degrees, I used to write my papers long hand, putting down ideas in any order, then literally cutting the pages apart with scissors, taping them back together in a logical sequence, then polishing and laboriously typing them. At that time, I was typing approximately 10 words per minute. You can imagine my delight when a much younger fellow student introduced me to my first Macintosh computer.

I was initially skeptical of this whole computing biz, so she started me on their "MacPaint" program where I played with the tools and learned to love the funny little square Mac with the smiley face that greeted me each time I turned it on. Then, she showed me word processing where all that laborious cutting and pasting, and corrections, were done with a few simple keystrokes - it was truly a revelation. I was hooked.

I bought the top of the line Mac at a huge student discount, hooked it all up by myself in an hour, and was learning programs that first day. That computer lasted 12 years and saved my ass in more classes than I care to remember. It made me look good. Oh, occasionally, I would get the "bomb" screen and lose all my work, but it was reliable for the most part, easy to use and even a little fun. Finally, one day as I was emailing a friend, the screen went dark and a little wisp of white smoke wafted out of the back.

That was the first of several Apple computers I have owned and loved. Currently, I'm enjoying my MacBook Pro for all the same reasons and more that I loved my first Mac. And for Christmas last year, My Beloved gave me Paddy, my iPad. I'm an Apple lover from 'way back.

So, when I heard that Steve Jobs' screen had gone dark and his little wisp of white smoke had wafted out, I was sorry in a very personal way. There will be lots written about him this week but I needed to add my two cents' worth. Thanks, Steve.