Friday, August 31, 2012

Dignity Be Damned

I was in the mood for tacos but we had eaten beef dinners more than once this week, so I wanted to lighten up just a bit. So, instead, I made chicken tacos and they were a big hit with My Beloved. Our friend Cassie, of Garden Girl Farms, had made a wonderfully onion-and-cilantro-filled fresh tomato salsa, which she gave me last time I went for eggs, and I picked up the rest of the ingredients, including a little box of Spicely fajita spice, from our local corner market.

The chicken I coated with the fajita spice and cut into strips to grill on the Jennair since it was another windy, cool day. Outside on the Weber grill would have given extra flavor but I wasn't in the mood to brave the elements. As each strip was finished, I shredded it with two forks and set it aside.

The rest was easy since I indulged in some convenience foods. Already-shredded cheese and corn taco shells from a box. Inauthentic?  You bet! So, sue me. We tucked chicken, green onion, cheese, salsa, black beans and lettuce into the crisp shells, and put the bottle of Cholula on the table. I like sour cream or crema on my tacos, so that's the white stuff in the picture. My Beloved is a purist - he eschews gloppy white stuff.

This meal is a day-brightener, and no fooling. There's a reason why kids love tacos. You simply can't be miffed about our cool, windy summer when you are biting through crisp corn into moist middles - believe me, I have tried! I defy you to retain a grump with tomato juice running down your hands and pieces of your taco are showering down on your plate to be chased later with a fork. Dignity be damned, it's just plain fun.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Homemade Cake

It's marvelous enough to have homemade strawberry sponge cake for dessert but when that cake is assembled by a charming couple in one's own kitchen, well, that's just plain heaven. 

Naomi and Sam came over to introduce us to their new family member, Hobbes, their rescued greyhound, and to have a little dinner. We walked the dogs down to our local dog park and watched them enjoy it each in her/his own way. Cora, of course, raced around barking and trying to get the other dogs to run so she could chase them. Hobbes, being a much more reserved and dignified sort of dog, only ran when Sam ran with him. Still, they both had fun and we enjoyed watching them interact with the other pooches in the park.

Back home, before dinner, we sipped champagne from a bottle Naomi and Sam brought to mark the occasion.  After dinner, we settled in to watch Naomi construct a lovely dessert for us. 

She used a recipe for buttermilk sponge cake from the Joy of Cooking, 2006 edition. It's not in my much earlier edition, but I'm sure a little searching on the interwebs will bring one up for you. She had baked the cake in a single pan, so split it with a knife into two layers before slathering the bottom layer with cream that had been whipped with generous lashings of Grand Marnier, covering the cream with fresh, sliced strawberries and topping that with the second layer. More whipped cream and, after I took the picture, a garnish of a few more berries.

When we tasted this beautiful creation, we found there was lime zest in the cake for extra flavor. Even though it looks and tasted decadent, it was light and fresh, just perfect for a summer sweet. Let's hear it for homemade cake!

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Bonus

Our bonus chicken from the Best L'il Porkhouse came home with us in a paper clamshell lined with waxed paper, a goodwill gift from Ken Flach, the owner/chef of the Porkhouse. We'd have been happy just to sample his beef and pork barbecues, but he insisted that we had ordered chicken, and chicken we should have. Nice guy, but we could barely finish the platter we ordered, so we brought the chicken home.

It made for a splendid dinner that I didn't have to cook. We just grilled a couple of ears of corn and steamed a handful of sugar snap peas to go alongside while we zapped the chicken to warm it in the microwave.

This is sweet, sticky, smoky heaven. Even reheated, the meat was moist with a kiss of lingering smoke under the sauce. The sauce was spicy enough to give our lips a hum of heat but not overpowering. Goldilocks would have pronounced it, "Just right!"

Our thanks go out to Pat Fusco for recommending the Porkhouse and to Ken Flach for making lip-smacking, finger-licking food.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sticky Fingers

On Pat Fusco's mention, we hellied on down to the Best L'il Porkhouse in San Rafael to sample their barbecue. Pat Fusco's recommendations are always worth a trip over the bridge and, in this case, more than one trip. The father-and-son Flach team has roots in Missouri, Tennessee and Texas, and produces the kind of barbecue that keeps 'em coming back.

The Porkhouse is tiny, with about four tables, and clearly caters mostly to take-out orders. We made our order, snagged a table, and enjoyed the casual style of the place. Silly western signs on the walls warn patrons that the place is frequented by pickpockets and women of ill repute. Bottles of sauce grace every table advertising a range from "Sweet" to "Spicy" to "Spawn of Satan." Clearly, they take their sauces, housemade or bottled, seriously. We both agreed that our pal Chilebrown would need to visit this place. They take their meats seriously, too, using Mary's organic chicken and Painted Hills grass fed beef. 

There is a little napkin dispenser on the counter but the roll of paper towels on a spindle bolted to each table tells the real story. Sticky fingers are the norm.

While we were there, a local lady stopped in for a salad topped with barbecue, which she said was delicious. I would never have thought of putting barbecue on a salad but I might like salads more if I tried that.

We asked for the STL (Saint Louis - sweet and smoky) style platter that came with two kinds of meat, our selection of two sides from a list of about ten, and a big slab of Texas toast. We decided to split the order, and that was a wise choice - we were both nicely full by the time we finished.

Our "platter" arrived in a plastic basket lined with cheerful red checked paper, pork on one side and beef on the other. We had actually ordered chicken and pork on Pat's advice, but Ken Flach gave us brisket and pork by mistake, so he threw in the half chicken for free as a gesture of good will. Needless to say, it worked for us!  After we ate the platter, we needed a to-go box for the chicken.

Both pork and brisket were falling-apart tender, smoky with that deep-down smoky essence that doesn't come in a bottle, and moist with a little drizzle of their sweeter sauce on top. One of my pet peeves with barbecue is that so often it comes smothered in sticky, overly sweet sauce that is laced with "liquid smoke." I have no idea what "liquid smoke" actually is but it should be a banned substance. The smoky flavor of meats should only come, as these did, from a long, slow sauna with some hardwood smoke. We just rolled our eyes in pleasure.

My Beloved's onion rings were lightly battered and crisp (yes, I stole a few), not greasy. My cole slaw was creamy and crunchy at the same time, made with nicely fresh cabbage and carrots. Texas toast was a new concept to me - a thick slice of firm white bread that was grilled on the flat top - rather like a grilled cheese sandwich minus the cheese. It was piping hot, crisp, and a very nice accompaniment to the soft meats. 

I think you can tell that we will come back again and again to the Best L'il Porkhouse. Their name is no idle boast. This will be my treat whenever My Beloved is out of town on business - and he will take fewer trips knowing that he will be missing a jaunt to the Porkhouse whenever he goes! I'm already planning another visit to taste the other barbecue styles Ken makes - North Carolina, Kansas City, and Texas. My prediction is that he will need a larger restaurant very soon - this is going to be a hit.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

On My Mind

Nachos. I have had nachos on my mind for a week now. I'm not sure why but it has been a true craving. I don't currently know of a restaurant that serves really good nachos (suggestions are welcome!) so I had the idea to make my own. You have probably done this many times before but it was a new idea to me. I put some ingredients on my shopping list and hurried out to the store.

Here's the result. I used medium sharp cheddar cheese and nuked it onto the tortilla chips in the microwave, then piled on chopped onions and green onions, blops of bottled salsa (Newman's Own is good - chunky and a little spicy), a scatter of black beans, and halved cherry tomatoes. In subsequent iterations, I have found it best to load up all the ingredients and put the cheese slices on top before microwaving, as the cheese helps to stick the other things to the chips. Life is a learning experience, is it not?

Such a beautifully colorful plate didn't last long. My Fairy Godson was up from LA for the weekend and My Beloved came up hungry from his home office, so the three of us polished this off in record time. The next day, we made another plateful, adding avocado chunks that time, and drops of Cholula when the salsa wasn't quite spicy enough.

Nachos. What started as a craving could easily become an obsession.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Easy As Pie

Writing a food blog for five years without using a cliché is simply not possible. Or, at least, not possible for me. I can avoid most of the pitfalls but sometimes the oldest, most hackneyed way of describing something is the best. There's a reason why they become clichés, after all - it's because they are so darn apt!

So it was with this fresh peach pie I made with the first of this year's crop of peaches from our little tree. 

This year has not been what I'd call ideal for our peaches. Our tree has some shriveling leaves that I suspect are the dreaded Peach Leaf Curl. Plus, the weather was rainy while the flowers were wide open and making kissy noises at the bees who were too wet and too cranky to accept their blandishments. And it has been breezy as all get out in our little cove, where the circling winds toss the branches so hard that some of the peaches have skid marks from hitting the side of the house, or grazing each other. The resulting crop has been meager but the few that remain are real troopers.

Each year, I look over the edge of the balcony to see if the fruit is ripe on the tree down below - they turn a vibrant pinkish-red on the sunny side and bright yellow underneath when they are nearly ready.  This year when I checked there were already one or two on the ground, so I scrambled down the hill with a canvas bag to pick as many as I could before the thrashing branches launched them on down the hill. When peaches are perfectly ripe, they literally drop into your hand - no pulling, twisting or tugging is needed. If you have to pull, it's not ripe yet. When they are ready, you just wrap your fingers gently around the fruit and the slightest pressure drops it into your palm.

Thirty seconds in boiling water loosens the skins so they peel easily. They are easy to slice, as my tree makes freestone peaches, and so ripe that the juice runs down the knife onto my hands. A little shake of sugar to sweeten, as these are old fashioned and not terribly sweet. A dash of cinnamon (not much!) and a fresh grating of nutmeg, mix and let stand for a few minutes while you roll out the crust.  

I made this one with a single crust into a croustade, the easiest possible pie. Pour the fruit into the center of the crust that you have rolled out and placed on parchment paper on a baking sheet, fold up the sides, seal any holes in the pastry and, magically, you have a pie. It may be a little "rustic," a polite way to say messy, but it will taste wonderful anyway. 

You can brush the crust with an egg wash if you want but I say it's a waste of a perfectly good egg. Just let the oven brown it for you. If you like that shine, once the pie is cool, you can dip a brush into the juicy interior and paint it onto the crust, but I'll warn you that you must eat the croustade quickly if you do that as the pastry will get soggy fast - but it does look pretty.

I baked this one for about 30 minutes at 425 degrees, cooled it on the baking sheet before moving it to a serving plate and cutting slices. 

This is where the cliché leaps to mind - it was easy as pie.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


When summer fruits are at their perfect peak, we usually just eat them plain for dessert. There is nothing more delicious than ripe, seasonal fruit. The berries are so juicy that most of my clothes have berry stains on them and I'm continually having to wipe nectarine juice off my elbows. Why mess with perfection?

But, every now and then, I do make a fancier dessert - like this little tart that I made because my Fairy Godson was in town. I had some DuFour pastry dough left over from the tomato tart, and it needed eating; because DuFour uses no preservatives, their pastry only lasts a day or two in the fridge. Best to use it up quickly.

If you are looking for a summer dessert that looks like you gave it serious effort when you really didn't, this is the "recipe" for you. 

All you do is lay out the pastry on parchment paper on a baking tray; with a sharp knife incise a line about 3/4 of an inch in from the edges but not cutting all the way through; lay down slices of fruit in some sort of decorative pattern inside the incised line; brush the edges outside the incised line with egg wash (beaten egg); brush the fruit with a little melted fruit jelly (I used blackberry in this case); and sprinkle a tiny bit of coarse sugar over the egg washed parts. Into the oven for 25-30 minutes at 375 degrees F and what emerges looks like a pro had a hand in it when it was really just little ol' you.

The crust outside the incised line rises to hug the fruit and browns to a rich mahogany. The bottom crust, thanks to the buttery nature of DuFour pastry, stays wonderfully flaky and light. The fruit is ever-so-slightly sweeter than nature intended and the whole thing glistens. 

I had thought to serve it with a little whipped cream on a pretty plate; this one didn't even make it off the parchment paper onto a serving platter - we cut it up and ate it out of hand, standing up around the kitchen counter. 

My Beloved pronounced it, in the current argot of the youth, to be "Sweeeeet!"

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Faith Restored

The other day, I stopped in to Little Louie's in Point Richmond for a breakfast sandwich after swimming for a vigorous hour with my Masters team.  Swimming that hard for that long builds a heck of an appetite and Little Louie's staff makes the best breakfast sandwiches I have found since I retired and left Em's in the San Francisco Civic Center behind.

Toasted whole wheat bread, scrambled egg, Swiss cheese and bacon is a killer combo.

As I headed off for swimming, I tucked money into the pocket of my jeans, figuring to buy a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich on the way home. When I had placed my order and poured myself a cup of coffee, I went to fish out that money and it was gone!  I looked all around the restaurant, thinking it might have fallen out - but no luck.

Did someone steal it from my pocket while I was swimming??  I do leave my clothes (usually ratty old ones) in the changing room while I swim and no one had ever taken anything before. I was most upset, feeling let down by the whole human race and particularly by some sneaky little rat who rifled my clothes while I was working out.

I made my apologies, bolted home and got more money, then raced back down to pay for my breakfast. As I hopped out of my car, there on the sidewalk was my five bucks, lying right where it fell.  Not only had no one stolen it, no one had even taken it from outside a busy restaurant in the time it took for me to drive home, get my wallet, drive back, and find it.

My faith in human nature is restored. I scooped up my money, paid the bill and relished my sandwich down to the second-to-last bite.  Cora always hopes for the very last bite and, filled with gratitude, I shared it with her.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


I can hear your comments already - "WTH? She's posting about a plain old roast beef sandwich??" 

Yes, but there's a reason.

To me and My Beloved, roast beef sandwiches have special meaning. 'Way back when we were youngsters, we had our first "date" over a roast beef sandwich at Michael's, a beloved neighborhood watering hole in his home town of Scarsdale, NY where they made rare roast beef sandwiches that make this one look wimpy; they know how to make real sandwiches, thick, juicy sandwiches, in New York. 

He had been deputized to keep me company during Christmas break of my first year of college. My Dad had gotten emergency orders at Thanksgiving to take over command of the Navy's Seventh Fleet off Vietnam when that war was at its height and the previous commander had fallen seriously ill. 

At first, my Mom thought the rest of the family would stay stateside for Christmas but, in a surprising move, she packed up the household, gave away my cat, and headed for Japan to join him, all in the space of two weeks. I heard about these plans in a letter she sent, which arrived the day she was moving. She farmed out my sister, who was engaged to be married, to one aunt and me, who was in my first year of college, to another. Nancy was happy to stay behind. I was emphatically not.

So, before I arrived at my aunt's house for Christmas, she sat her two sons down and told them both to include me in their activities. My Beloved, being the knight in shining armor that he is, took her admonitions to heart and invited me to go with him to Michael's that very first night.

He had always been my "big cousin," the one a few years older than me and the one who, as we grew up, was more interested in hanging out with his older friends than with some pesky little girl. He did teach me to water ski, but then went off laughing with his pals. There's a big difference between 11 years old and 14; there's a lot less difference between 18 and 21. I was surprised that he invited me, but I went anyway.

We had a fine time together that vacation - he'd set me up for dates with his friends and none of them clicked, but it was fun talking them over with him afterwards. We stayed out too late, went into New York City to bars with peanut shells or sawdust on the floors, and thought we were very cool and cosmopolitan. He took me down to the Bowery to see the bums and hustled me home in a hurry when seeing those lost souls made me weep. It only slowly dawned on me that I didn't love his friends, but I did love him.

And he loved me back, to our parents' dismay. I'm sure they had visions of Habsburg chins or Romanov hemophilia; their objections were not personal to us, only to our genetic relationship. I won't go in to all the lectures, tears and heartache that followed, nor the buried emotions we felt over the years after our parents' pressure finally prevailed and split us up. I'll skip over the intervening 30 years by telling you that My Beloved and I eventually married other people and had good lives - he had two beautiful daughters, too. 

But, when both of our marriages were crumbling, through what I can only deem a miracle, we found each other again and have been together ever since. We have our happy ending now. 

So, when we eat a rare roast beef sandwich, it's more than just a plain old roast beef sandwich.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Too Many Tomatoes

Each year, when ripe tomatoes come spilling out of baskets at the farmer's market, I always buy too many. We are only two here but I buy for an army. Irresistible colors and flavors. 

When I end up with an abundance, I start to think, as they soften day by day in the bowl on my counter, of how to use them up. When I read about a simple upside down tomato tart the other day on La Tartine Gourmande, I knew I had found my salvation.

For this tart, you soften the tomatoes in a pan first with balsamic vinegar, then transfer them to a tart pan, top with a buttery crust, and bake in the oven. When it comes out, you flip it and, magically, the crust is on the bottom! 

Béa's was much prettier than mine, but then she's a famous food stylist and I'm just a happy home cook. Mine tasted just as good as hers, mind you, except for the crust, which got a bit soggy as the tart cooled. (I didn't use her crust recipe, so it's not Béa's fault.  My advice would be to take her advice).

Still, those lovely, sweet, soft tomatoes, steeped in balsamic vinegar, fresh herbs and summer color!  I have to go out now and buy too many tomatoes again, just for the chance to repeat this.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Reward

And here's the reward for learning how to make homemade bacon. 

BLT on lightly toasted bread with ripe tomatoes, fresh lettuce, and bacon to be proud of.

Summer sandwich heaven.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

When The Student Is Ready

When I decided to try making my own bacon, I enlisted the help of that well-known bacon lover and newbie mentor, Chilebrown. He coached me through my first attempt, patiently answering my many questions and giving freely of his long expertise.

The curing salt that I used, Pig Salt Spice Company brand that Chilebrown gave me, was composed of brown sugar, Kosher sea salt, sage, garlic, onion, and Prague salt (pink salt). The Prague salt adds nitrates to the bacon to retard spoilage; the rest are there as flavoring. Chilebrown informs me that I didn't need the Prague salt, as I was using a hot smoke - only cold smoking really needs the Prague salt. Next time, I'll leave out the Prague salt.

I only had to pour off the juices accumulating in the pan once. After a week in the fridge, I rinsed the belly and soaked it in two changes of water for half an hour each to remove most of the salt, since we like lightly salted bacon, dried it and put it back in the fridge on a rack for 24 hours to form the mysterious pellicle. In bacon lore, that means the surface dries out a bit, allowing the smoke to stick to the meat.

I used hot smoking technique on his recommendation, and it worked a treat. I loaded up the Weber grill with a pan of water one one side and coals on the other side and first cooked our lamb roast for dinner while the coals were hot and then, when they were cooler, put the bacon over the water in place of the lamb, added the smoking chips, and covered the grill.

The smoking was immediate and intense, with big, billowing clouds of white smoke wafting away on the wind. The temperature of the Weber stayed low (as advised by my teacher) and in about 45 minutes the temperature of the belly had risen to 150 degrees.  

Here's the result. Smoked bacon!  

I removed it, let it cool, and sliced it with my electric slicer into perfect, thick rashers. We fried up the end pieces right away, unable to wait for an actual meal, and found them to be lightly salty, very lightly sweet, with the perfect amount of smoke. Delicious!  And I did it myself!

There is an old Zen saying: When the student is ready, the teacher appears. My Sensei appeared in the form of Chilebrown.  Thanks, Sensei, you're the best.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Berry, Berry, Berry Good

We are currently in a glory of fruit. This year, the melons, the nectarines and the berries seem sweeter than ever, and so abundant that our funny little farmer's market has become the quintessential cornucopia. The plum trees in the neighborhood are bent down with sweet fruit and people are even leaving their bounty on our doorstep anonymously. Who knew that cool, overcast and windy summers = bountiful fruit?

Last week, at the farmer's market, my favorite berry vendor, Juan, who works for Rodriguez Brothers Farms, had plump blackberries and tangy raspberries as well as the sweetest strawberries this side of Heaven. We bought our usual three-pack of organic strawberries, then added a basket each of blackberries and raspberries. That's a lot of berries for two people to eat in three days (they are so ripe, they only last three days) but we usually give a basket or two away to friends (like Chilebrown, who gave me the curing salts for my bacon) or to neighbors.

When we got them home, I wasn't in the mood for the egginess of clafouti, but I remembered a post on Hungry Dog that talked about a berry-filled cake so I searched it out and made it one afternoon in time to serve it warm for dessert. 

This one is a keeper. It's called Blackberry Upside-Down Cake, from I followed the recipe except I used a mixture of blackberries, raspberries and strawberries. It was pretty easy to make and quick - I preheated the oven while I mixed the cake and actually had to wait a few extra minutes for the oven to come up to full temperature. You use only one bowl, a single cake pan, a beater, a measuring cup or two and a couple of spoons - not a lot of dishes to wash afterwards.

Having never tasted the full-on blackberry version, I can't compare the two, but I can tell you that the mixed-berry version was berry, berry, berry good.  Topped with vanilla ice cream, it went all the way to transcendent.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Bacon School

It was another cold and foggy morning outside Catahoula when I met Chilebrown and his darling wife, Ms. Goofy (he calls her that - I don't) for another food swap. They were on their way to another barbecue judging and he was in a hurry for coffee, so he thrust a plastic bag into my hands, showed me the contents quickly, mumbled a few directions, made an offhand crack about my inability to follow directions, and fled inside to the warmth.

I'm in bacon school.  Chilebrown assures me that the lesson is easy and that the results will convince me never to buy supermarket bacon again. He supplied me with enough curing salt, applewood chips and directions on a little card to get me started.

I took the stuff home and spread it out on the counter with the slab of pork belly that I bought at 99 Ranch. As far as I know, my slab has no pedigree other than that it's pork from, uh, the belly.

The instructions were simple enough - spread the salts on the belly, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 7-10 days, "draining liquids as necessary." That last phrase sounds a little ominous but, otherwise, it seems like something I can do. Out of curiosity, I tasted the curing salt before spreading it on one side and then the other - it tasted salty and sweet. For all I know, it's just salt and brown sugar.  I'll have to do a little research...

So, anyway, that's where we are today. My belly is curing like mad in the fridge. So far (day two), it has not become necessary to pour off any liquids. 

Stand by for an update. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

"You Can Tune A Piano...

but you can't tuna fish!" 

That's a line my Dad would have loved. He had a really, really corny sense of humor and chuckled over groaners like that. No kidding.

Which has little to do with tuna sandwiches. Recently, over at Tea and Cookies, I saw one of the most stunning food styling photographs it has ever been my pleasure to view - the ingredients for a Pan Bagnat deconstructed onto a dark table. Brilliant. I'm often struck by Tea's photos, but this one was even more stunning than her standard gorgeous ones.

The sandwich spoke to me, too. I do enjoy a good tuna salad sandwich in the American tradition, but this French version was something I had read about but never tried. A tuna sandwich without mayo was a new concept, but the rest of the ingredients sounded so good that I just had to try it. So, I went about gathering the ingredients and made one for lunch last week. I won't go into a lengthy description - Tea already did a super job of that and you can find it by clicking on the link above - but I will say that the addition of marinated artichoke hearts to the sandwich and Herbes de Provence to the garlicky oil and vinegar dressing were both to our liking. 

Earthy, tangy, garlicky and bold, this is a sandwich for the ages. All ages. No kidding.