Wednesday, February 29, 2012
My geezer birthday was an extended week of fun, thanks in large part to My Beloved, who gathered my friends into three big surprises.
The first was a pizza lunch at Rosso where seven friends surprised me with silly gifts and funny cards to usher me into geezerhood. We shared their swoon-worthy Dungeness crab pizza. Even the staff at Rosso all signed a birthday card for me and our waiter showered me, literally, with hard candies in lieu of a birthday cake!
The second was lunch at Homeroom where my pals from my years at Hastings College of the Law met us for mac and cheese and more silly gifts and funny cards. Because most of them are attorneys, you'd expect a tad more decorum, but a big part of the reason I love these folks is that they aren't at all typical. They teased me unmercifully when I ordered the "Trailer Mac," mac and cheese with hot dogs cut up in it and topped with potato chips. Irene's dish, however, mac and cheese with just a hint of jalapeño, was even better. And their homemade Oreo cookies... we had to take them home as we were too full to finish even one.
The third was opening our hotel room door in Santa Barbara, where My Beloved took me the following weekend to continue the celebration, to find my Fairy Godson and his mother Wendy, my oldest and dearest friend on Earth, standing there. Wendy lives in Michigan, so you know how very complete was my surprise. I just hugged her and wept for joy.
We had a splendid weekend together, visiting the Santa Barbara mission, the wonderfully decorated Court House, the delightful carousel (yes, they allow geezers to ride as well as children), the endless beach, the East Beach Grill (a must on a sunny morning), and a day trip to Ojai.
I had heard about the Ojai Valley from an art student many years ago when I worked at the San Francisco Art Institute. He extolled the beauties of the valley and the quaintness of the town in such glowing terms that I made a mental note to get there some day. Now, I can check that one off my bucket list. I might even go again.
Ojai is, indeed, very quaint and delightful, not only the main shopping street, which clearly caters to the weekend getaway, but also the shaded streets and pretty parks where water splashes into a fountain in which dogs are allowed to wade and where men form a drum circle that sends lively reverberations throughout the town. On a mission to find an elusive yarn shop, we instead found some little girls selling lemonade and cookies. That should give you a feel for life in Ojai.
What has all this to do with Leap Year? It's my understanding that on Leap Years, women can ask the men of their dreams to marry them. I'm going ask My Beloved to remarry me. Anyone who makes such a fine birthday celebration is a keeper.
Monday, February 27, 2012
The World's Best Lunch
Some people might say that Peanut Butter & Jelly is the best lunch. Others might vote for chicken noodle soup. In summer, millions could ask for nothing better than a Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato. My submission to the World's Best Lunch competition would have to be a perfectly grilled cheese sandwich.
So plain, so pedestrian, so completely delicious and satisfying.
It's harder to achieve than you might think. The pan must be hot enough to brown the bread but not so hot that it burns the butter before the cheese melts, and not so cool that the bread is still pale when the cheese reaches that perfectly divine stage of ooziness.
The ingredients matter, too. Oh, sure, you could just slap a couple of slices of Velveeta between two planks of Wonder Bread and grease the pan with margarine, but the resulting sandwich would be an insult to real grilled cheese. Instead, you should choose a firm bread, a bread with strong shoulders, but not too thick. The cheese can be just about any kind that gets melty and stringy in heat. The butter should be sweet.
Now, it doesn't seem so plain and pedestrian, does it? There is magic in a grilled cheese sandwich, lunch magic.
Saturday, February 25, 2012
For about five years I worked as a floral designer in a wonderful shop in Greece, NY. I loved it all - the colors, the scents, the reasons people came in, the challenge of design, the hard work, the blessed air of the cooler on a hot summer day, the teamwork into the wee hours to get the holiday orders ready. There's real comraderie in a florist shop around just about any holiday.
Valentine's Day was the very busiest. Because it's a single day and not a season like Christmas or Easter, everyone wants her/his order delivered on that single day. And everyone wanted red roses, even if they ran in 10 minutes before closing because they didn't think of their sweetie until then. My birthday was a blur of arrangements, harried customers, and tired feet. I still think back fondly on those years, even though they were hard work, and miss those people every time I arrange fresh flowers in my house.
Still, my life moved on to higher education, to divorce and relocation to California, and to a new and fulfilling life with My Beloved. Over the years, he and I have discovered that it's better to celebrate my Valentine birthday at home. Restaurants are always slammed on Valentine's Day, just like florists, so they are often noisy and overcrowded, and the food suffers. It all seems to have the strained air of New Year's Eve, where everyone is determined to have a good time, whether they like it or not. Better to eat at home.
Better to eat lamb burgers with homemade sourdough buns and a slice or two of Love Apple to set the mood. Better to set your own table with lacy mats and red napkins. Better to get out the heart-shaped napkin rings that were a gift from cousin Jan and pour a glass of red, red wine. Better to toast your new life and each other.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
Because Greg asked for it... more about Bouchon.
My Dad's favorite roast was leg of lamb, but he liked his well done, something that drove my Mom around the bend! She liked it pink.
She would have swooned over this meal. The lamb slices were no more than 2" across. The Swiss chard was tiny - couldn't have been more than 3" leaves, before wilting. Crisp garlic chips added a little texture. And the whole thing was soaking in a transparent sauce so deep with flavor that I was amazed that there was virtually no fat. How do they do that??
This is bistro fare, but elevated to an amazing level of finesse. Whenever I want a very special meal (at reasonable prices, considering the excellence), Bouchon will come to mind.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Stewed In Its Own Juices - and someone else's
You must never, ever, under no circumstances, no matter what, throw away any goozle. It is forbidden, from this time forward.
Because of this stew.
I know that good cooks everywhere already subscribe to the Ultimate Goozle Rule, but it was hammered home to me yet again last week when I made beef stew.
I'm not going to go into all the steps of beef stew - you probably have your favorite, anyway, and there are plenty of killer recipes on the web. What I am going to do is witness that, if you have some goozle, any goozle, left from a previous meal, you can add it to your stew and take it by that simple action, to a whole new, higher and finer plane.
A case in point: the juices that I saved from the lamb shanks that I made a few days before. We thought the shanks were as close to ambrosial as it is possible to be but, in fact, this stew was even better.
I saved that carnal, lusty goozle from the bottom of the crock pot and, after the usual browning stages of stew construction, added it to the red wine-and-simmering stage. The resulting stew was, quite simply, the best I have ever tasted or ever hope to taste. Oddly, it didn't taste of lamb - it just tasted like SuperBeef, as if I had doubled down on the beef in the stew, when in truth there was less meat than usual.
Stewed in its own juices, and those of the lamb, well, oh heavens, it was as close to erotic as one gets, fully dressed.
Friday, February 17, 2012
In the latest issues of Bon Appetit magazine, they are featuring Southern cooking. Because I didn't grow up in the South, I have been woefully ignorant of this kind of cooking.
This has nothing to do with a certain celeb TV chefess who espouses high fat, high sugar cooking, then cleans up with the drug companies by endorsing diabetes drugs.
This is down-home good cooking from generations of people who made the highest and best use of ingredients available to them. Several of the recipes spoke to me but one in particular called my name, Potlikker Noodles with Mustard Greens.
Reading a little about potlikker (pot liquor) taught me that it is high in Vitamin C and that some people actually sip it as a cure for the common cold. Me, I just loved it for the taste. In fact, I considered making enough to bathe in, it was so good. I halved the recipe since there are only two of us and changed the mustard greens to Swiss chard because I had the chard in the fridge.
Now, usually My Beloved and I have very similar tastes in food; this dinner was the exception. He felt the greens were too bitter for the dish - he pushed his aside. He usually likes Swiss chard, so that's a puzzle.
For myself, I thought it was so delicious that I'd have served it proudly to company. The rich goozle of the pot liquor was out of this world, lightly salty from the ham hock and rich with onion and the stewed stems of the greens. Shredding the meaty part of the ham hock and adding crisped bacon to the wide noodles and slightly bitter greens made me slow down, carefully taste and savor. And I'm not embarrassed to admit that I tipped up my bowl to slurp up the last few drops of that amazing goozle.
It's a homey dish, warm and filling and full of goodness. I found myself cooking more of this kind of food this year while we helped to support our next door neighbor and his wife while they adjusted to his mortality. This kind of comfort helps to get through tough times. He was a fine neighbor and a good man - his tragedy brings up the question, "Why him?"
Even if you aren't in need of that kind of solace, this is a lovely dish and well worth the extra time it takes to make it.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Down To Earth
Because we had been eating pretty high on the hog recently, when planning the weekday dinners, I was happy to find squirreled away in the freezer a nice big turkey pot pie that I made from our holiday bird.
Back then, we thought that one more meal of turkey would be enough to turn us away from that noble bird forever. We had roast turkey for Christmas dinner but there were only five of us at that meal, so we had mucho left over for sandwiches, Tetrazzini, soup, more sandwiches, world without end, amen.
So, I piled the last of the bird under a crust with some nice gravy and a few veggies, and froze it for a later date. It's amazing how welcome turkey is after a month-long hiatus. We tucked into our down-to-earth dinner with happy appetite. When My Beloved's first bite results in his sitting back in his chair and humming with pleasure - well, it's just a grand thing to witness.
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Welcome To Geezerdom
My friends are all celebrating my 65th birthday in style. I think they are concerned that otherwise I will fall into a funk at entering geezerdom.
So far, I have been treated to a spectacular homemade beef bourguignon dinner, a pizza lunch at Rosso amongst cousins and friends, a mac and cheese lunch with my Hastings pals, and a fancypants lunch with My Beloved at a Yountville bistro.
Can you detect the theme? Comfort food.
Happy Birthday to me.
And Happy Valentine's Day to the rest of you.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
You would have loved my neighbor, Peter.
We met when he and his wife bought the lot next to ours and began building their dream house. I have to admit I was not happy about having what was a lovely wildflower meadow turned into a big, modern house. I stewed and steamed at the inconveniences and noise of construction, but finally gave up and went over to make peace. I'm glad I did, as I found Peter and Doreen to be really sweet and good neighbors. We allowed them to get their electricity from our house during construction, a small favor which has been repaid many times over.
He was a helpful man - quietly fixing my rickety wooden steps without telling me, hiring the team that mows our hillside so we won't have fires, making a friendly little sign for our street that said, "Time To Slow Down," so the kids and pets on the alley would be safe.
He was a handsome man, and I have to admit that running into him each week was not a hardship; I've always enjoyed that. Even when he lost his hair to chemo, it didn't diminish his good looks. He was always well dressed - even his work shirts were pressed. A meticulous and lovely man.
He was a generous man - he adopted a stray cat and kept a box of dog biscuits for all the neighborhood hounds. He volunteered as president of the neighborhood council and gave freely of his spare time to make our town an even more enjoyable community.
While he was ill, we couldn't visit much, as he was undergoing preparations for a bone marrow transplant after two rounds of chemo couldn't vanquish his cancer, but I would cook or bake extra and take it over to them, leaving my goodies on the back porch and taping a sign to the window to say, "Peter, we send love." His response, sent via email was this photo of him enjoying my offerings and holding a little sign saying, "Mmmm-Mmmm!"
Once he was out of the hospital, we visited more, keeping him company while Doreen took a break or did the marketing. He was sleeping peacefully the last time I saw him, after we had some belly laughs watching Mel Brooks' irreverent "Blazing Saddles" on their TV.
I left home yesterday for a few hours and, hearing the normal house sounds from next door, I thought all was well, but he slipped quietly away during the afternoon. Doreen called us this morning with the news.
Typing through tears is the pits so I'll just say, Bon Voyage, Peter, and godspeed. Everyone who knew you will miss you greatly.
Saturday, February 11, 2012
Last week, My Beloved and I introduced Naomi and Sam to the Tennessee Valley trail in Marin on the prettiest day of what has been a wonderfully sunny winter.
It is one of our favorite walks, just about four miles round trip. The trail winds through the hills with beautiful views on either side until you reach the high point of the trail, where you get your first glimpse of the deep turquoise of the ocean.
Then down to the coarse sand beach to hear waves crashing and gulls calling and children screaming with delight and freedom. You won't be alone on this walk - it's a popular hike - but exchanging oohs and aahs with your fellow hikers is part of the fun. Sometimes, they point out wildlife, too - a seal bobbing up off shore or a bobcat intent on hunting for lunch.
Back at the parking lot, you start to think about lunch, too. We contemplated going to the Pelican Inn a few miles up the coast but decided on such a lovely day that only Murray Circle would do. On a warm day, to sit on the porch there with the Golden Gate bridge so high and red and close is a fine afternoon's enjoyment after a good morning's workout.
At Murray Circle, they put a lot of thought into presentation. Potato chips served with sandwiches come standing upright in a little mound of dip. The stoneware is all from Heath ceramics a few miles away in Sausalito. The glasses are clear and thin, a pleasure to sip from. And lobster is served on a bed of ice with citrus wedges embedded, seaweed scattered, and the two halves of the crustacean placed nose-to-nose.
We all nibbled on the lobster while contemplating the magnificence of the bridge and the pleasure of relaxation after a four-mile walk. The whole day, from valley to ocean to bridge to table was the perfect presentation of a California winter day.
Thursday, February 9, 2012
I have encountered a puzzle and I'm hoping you can help me with the answer.
Why is it that macaroni and cheese tastes cheesier with mild rather than with sharp cheddar cheese? It seems to me as if the opposite should be true.
I tasted the sharp cheese I purchased for this dish before using it and it was quite zingy and tangy. But, in the finished dish, there was very little cheese flavor, even though I used fully half of the block of cheese.
The rest of the recipe was the same as I always do - soften chopped onion in butter; add an equal ratio of flour-to-butter to thicken; whisk in milk to make a white sauce; add sliced or grated cheddar cheese until melted smoothly; add cooked macaroni; top with crumbs, in this case, crushed garlic croutons; bake for about 45 minutes-1 hour in a 350F degree oven.
Usually, this process produces prodigiously cheesy results. I'm going back to a mild or medium cheddar after this, but I'm puzzled. Any thoughts?
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
The Bun In The Oven
Having sourdough starter in the house is like having a baby - it needs constant attention or there will be accidents. I received this generous gift from my blog pal, Jim Sartain of Sartain's Sauce fame, but it has been a mixed blessing.
For one thing, you have to feed it. If you don't add more flour and water more or less daily, it dies. You can refrigerate it and that slows down the need to feed frequently, but the possibility of it being shoved to the back and forgotten is very real, at least in my house.
For another thing, it grows. You start with a cute little container of starter but adding flour and water daily adds quickly to the bulk. Before you know it, you have breadzilla on your hands, foaming and bubbling away on the counter, chuckling to itself and plotting like HAL. You keep moving it to a larger and larger container unless you bake daily. For a gal strictly raised on "Waste not, want not," just throwing the extra away seems sinful. I have offered some to all my neighbors but it's like zucchini season - they run and hide now when they see me coming.*
In desperation, I decided to make hamburger buns for our simple burger dinner, knowing that I could freeze part of the yield for another day. On a visit to Chilebrown's house to meet, fondle, and fall in love with his beautiful new baby, a soft and sweet puppy, I asked him for a recipe for sourdough buns. He didn't have one but his advice was Nikean - "Just try it." he said. "The worst that can happen is you have to throw away some." Good point - an honest failure is a good excuse to use up some of the ever-growing starter.
I went online. What else does anyone do when they have a baking question? I found several sites that offered recipes, but none seemed just right, so I kinda-sorta made up my own. I mixed and rose, punched down and shaped, and rose again before baking. Because I forgot to use an egg wash to brighten and brown the tops, my finished product was a little plain jane but it's the texture and the taste that really matter, right?
The recipe made substantial buns, not light but not leaden either, using a combination of white and wheat flours. The taste was quite complementary to the burgers and the fresh, yeasty smell in the house was a bonus. All in all, they were a nice success. If that seems like damning with faint praise, I will admit I was aiming for somewhat lighter buns - I may have added too much flour or not given them sufficient time to rise. Anyway, they soaked up our hamburger juices in satisfactory style and I will use the ones I froze rather than offer them to the NHL as hockey pucks.
But, as in making the decision to have a baby, accepting sourdough starter is a commitment not to be undertaken lightly.
Sourdough Hamburger Buns
1 cup sourdough starter (let me know if you need some!)
1 cup milk
1/8 cup honey
1 large egg
3-4 cups whole wheat flour, divided in two
1 teaspoon salt
2-3 Tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
I dumped all but two cups of the flour into my Kitchenaid mixer with the dough hook attached and started it on low speed, adding more flour when the dough came together too sticky. I added all the extra flour little by little and, in retrospect, it might have been better to settle for a slightly stickier dough in order to get lighter buns, or to let them rise longer. Makes 8 buns.
*Since writing this, Chilebrown relieved me of half of my growing starter. He is currently my hero.
Sunday, February 5, 2012
I feel like I fed the entire Clan of the Cave Bear this week. Lamb shanks always make me think of caveman food - that big bone just begs to be used as a handle for gnawing.
I did some tweaks this time that I thought might interest you.
Tweak #1: After browning the shanks and the onions, I added coarsely chopped garlic cloves to the pan and, after a few minutes of cooking, deglazed with red wine and put those ingredients in the crock pot with a couple of carrots, peeled and hunked.
Tweak #2: I made some beef stock with a nifty product called "Better Than Bouillon." It's a thick paste of highly reduced beefy flavor that you mix with boiling water to reconstitute a nice stock. It keeps a long time in the fridge, tastes very good and comes in a glass jar so no worries about what the lining of the can contains. Nice. I added about four cups of the beef stock to the ingredients in the crockpot, clapped on the lid and simmered it all together on "high" for four or five hours.
Tweak #3: Toward the end of the cooking time, perhaps an hour before dinner time, I dumped in two cans of drained Navy beans to heat with the rest. I didn't have dry beans, or I'd have simmered them along with the rest in the goozle. Still, a big thumbs-up!
We ended up with lovely, flavorful lamb shanks on a bed of beans. This is the Alley Oop and Oola of winter meals - a happy courtship. The beans loved the cooking liquor and the lamb loved the beans. Two shanks made dinner for both of us for two nights running, plus at least two lunches. Each time we reheated the dish, it got a little richer and the goozle got a little thicker until we were left just lambyonionygarlicky juices that jelled in the fridge, they were so brawny. I haven't decided yet what to do with the goozle but rest assured it will reappear here in a subsequent post.
Now, if I can just find a fur loincloth for My Beloved...
Friday, February 3, 2012
My friend, Jim Sartain, whom I have never met, by the way, sent me via Cousin Jan a little container of sourdough starter. I may not know him by sight but anyone who gives you sourdough starter - twice! - is a friend in my book. Because he had done this once before and I killed it with neglect, this time I was determined to erase that sour start by trying new things with it and keeping it alive for a little while at least.
So, when pondering what to contribute to pal Sari's cheese party, I thought of that sourdough starter and decided to try Tarte Flambée made with a crust of sourdough pizza.
In addition to the sourdough crust, I tweaked my recipe a little, dotting the crust with goat cheese after brushing it with olive oil, and topping that with pre-sautéed pancetta lardons and pre-caramelized onions. I heated my new pizza stone in the oven and slid in my masterpiece once the stone was hot.
The tarte baked to crusty, tangy-sweet, oniony, meaty perfection in less than 10 minutes. It even got a little blistery around the edges, and that may just be my favorite part. I let it cool on the counter for about half an hour while I showered and changed for the party, then transported it right on the pizza stone, which kept it warm on the trip to Sari's.
At the party, I cut it into small wedges, which disappeared in a twinkling. I may have had a sour start to working with sourdough but it's all sweetness and light now.
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
A Thing Of Beauty
A pizza stone may not be worthy of a Keats poem, but it is really tickling my fancy on these winter days.
I started by cracking my old pizza stone in half. I'm not sure how that happened. I put it into the sink to cool, as I always do, but when I came back to wash it, it was two half-moons instead of one full moon. Looking at the broken edge, I could see that it had partially cracked some time ago and just finished the job now.
This was particularly untimely, as I had promised to bring a Tarte Flambée to pal Sari's annual cheese tasting party, and Tarte Flambée works best on a pizza stone.
So, I decided to give myself a birthday present. I recently became eligible for Medicare, so you know which birthday is fast approaching and why I felt justified in giving myself a serious pick-me-up.
Off I went to the local giant emporium of all things culinary to search for a new pizza stone. When I got there, I found that there are several kinds: the low-rent one I had before; a higher-priced model made in China that promised not to crack but that also included some mysterious polymers that would retard cracking (I don't know about you but, these days, cooking gear made in China gives me pause, what with exploding Pyrex, melamine in the dog food and lead in the toys); and this gorgeous thing, pointed out to me by a very helpful salesperson.
Made by Emil Henry in France, this pizza stone is ceramic like my last one, but glazed with a high-fired and beautiful glaze that keeps it from sticking. They come in three colors - black, olive and this wonderful rich Tibetan red that makes me smile each time I see it. I probably paid too much for it - it will have to amortize over many years - but it is not only beautiful and functional, with flared handles that make removal from a hot oven much easier, it also cooks pizza like a dream. Pre-heated in the oven, it turns a dark red-brown as it gets hot. It quickly sears the underside of the pizza, baking it fast so the toppings have no time to make it soggy.
At the party, everyone oohed and aahed over it - my friends appreciate such things and gave me satisfying expressions of envy.
And cleanup is a snap - warm, soapy water is enough to loosen even baked-on cheese. The pizza itself slides right off and the glaze is strong enough that you can cut the pizza right on the stone. Best of all, it keeps the pizza warm for a long time, as it retains heat well.
So, poetic or not, I'm thrilled with my thing of beauty.