The other day, I moseyed on up to Petaluma to have lunch and to poke through the thrift shops with my cousin Jan. We have a thing for thrift shops. I have found more cool stuff in thrift shops than you can imagine. A solid brass silent valet. The desk I use every day. And, this time, a pair of bamboo tongs priced at $1.50 but on sale. I spent $.82 and had a fine day. What more could one ask?
And, on to lunch!
I love hot dogs - in fact, one of the main reasons I go to baseball games is to get hot dogs. So, after the shopping, we went for lunch at a place that the darling Rebecca Sartain had told Jan about, Roy's Chicago Dogs @ the Yard, a small restaurant in the Petaluma stockyard. Mercifully, no sales of sad animals the day we were there. I love hot dogs but, call me wimpy, I don't want to see the pigs they come from while I'm eating them.
Roy's serves great hot dogs and Polish sausages with an amazing variety of toppings available. If you are in doubt about what to order, several suggestions for unusual combinations are written by previous customers on the walls. I ordered a classic dog with mustard, ketchup, and their neon green relish on a poppy seed bun. It was everything I always hope a hot dog will be. But, the real reason I went is that they serve bacon milk shakes.
Yes, you heard that correctly. BACON shakes.
I had to try one.
And, there it is, up there in the photo. A vanilla shake topped with whipped cream and bacon bits. As I sipped my way through the shake, little bits of crisp, salty bacon came up through the wide barrel of the straw, embedded like journalists with the Army.
It was good, but it could have been even better. Next time, I'm going to ask for a coffee shake, with extra coffee syrup, hold the whipped cream but keep the bacon. I'm going to call it Breakfast of Champions, and this one's going on the wall.
Several years ago, I visited Charlevoix, Michigan in the company of most of my favorite people on earth, and we ate smoked whitefish paté on crackers. Lake MIchigan still has a population of one of the world's loveliest fishes, the Lake Whitefish, swimming around just waiting to be made into memorable meals.
I mention this because if you are ever in Charlevoix, Michigan and there is smoked whitefish paté on the menu, you should try it. It has remained in my memory all this time because it was so unexpected and so darn good.
So, with memories like that dancing in my head and saliva pooling in my mouth, I pulled the second half of my smoked trout (a calabash relative to the hallowed Lake Whitefish) out of the fridge thinking to make paté with it.
I consulted with My Beloved over the idea and he suggested trying chicken broth to add a little moisture while I thought that a drizz of olive oil might do the trick. Compromise is the foundation of a good marriage, so I did both.
To my small amount, perhaps 1/4 cup, of flaked trout pieces, I added about two tablespoons of chicken broth and about 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil and set to work with my immersion blender.
It worked pretty well. I did have to stop and clear the blender blades once or twice to get a smooth paté, but in about five minutes it was ready to be packed into a little glass container and refrigerated until time for hors-d'oeuvres.
Our doc has been recommending more veggies and less starches, so I sliced raw carrots into ovals and we spread the paté on the carrot "crackers." I expect that rounds of cucumber would have made a yummy substrate, too, or just about anything roughly cracker-sized.
The chicken broth made it just nicely spreadable without leaving behind any flavor of its own. The olive oil made it a teeny bit richer, but not noticeably so, just sort of greased the skids. We gobbled down the whole thing as I prepped dinner and I had to hustle through the prep in order to get my fair share. My Beloved has discovered that he adores smoked trout paté nearly as much as he loved the whitefish variety.
And I'm thinking about smoked salmon paté for the next time I plank some salmon - these piscatory patés are an unforgettable sensation.
Little Bones, Big Flavor
Cassie Dingwall, of Garden Girl fame, is a Renaissance woman. She can build chicken coops, make any plant on earth grow and thrive, bottle some of the best jam I've ever tasted, pour concrete, raise several varieties of poultry, rescue little dogs and abandoned baby pigeons and, best of all, catch and smoke trout.
When she was over last week to size up a concrete project she is doing for us, she brought with her a trout that she had smoked herself. It was in a kind of heavy duty shrink wrap, so I had a couple of days to decide how best to use it. When she mentioned that it makes a killer salad and we had a nice warm day on tap, that seemed like the best possible use for it.
I carefully boned half of it and shredded it over a crisp salad of all kinds of stuff from the veggie drawer and plopped on dime-sized drops of a creamy lemon dressing. To say that this was one of the best salads of all time is a pathetic understatement. The mild but smoky fish is the perfect foil for fresh greens and crunchy vegetable matter.
The only drawback was the bones - the big ones come off easily when you tug gently on the spine. A beautifully spare lattice of bones comes neatly away to be discarded. What I didn't know is that trout are absolutely bristling with tiny, almost hairlike bones that end up stuck between your back teeth or triggering your gag reflex. They are very fine and small but when scientists or engineers need an incredibly strong, flexible substance, tell them to investigate trout bones for a clue.
Let me say right up front that it was worth it. Taste and texture both were amazing and I'd happily wrestle with smoked trout again. But next time, I'll know where and how to find and extract those nasty little bones. The big flavor is well worth it.
Romancing the 'Cue
When my trusty old Weber grill came to the end of its useful life and we bid it fond farewell as it disappeared down the alley in the back of a friend's pickup truck, headed for the recycling center, we felt a momentary sadness that was quickly banished by the thrill of a shiny, new grill arriving the same day from a local home improvement store. The new one was big and hunky, weighty and imposing, a lusty, muscular sort of grill compared to the refined, efficient beauty of the Weber when it was new 15 years ago. Even the new name had authority - Char-Broil 940X. I was smitten.
Beauty is as beauty does, however, and our relationship did not run smoothly. He was cranky, he was hungry, he was temperamental, and he was a quitter.
I tried everything I could think of the coax him to life. Spraying his lid and grates with Pam to keep them from sticking, using the best charcoal, adjusting his grates, lining his ash tray with foil - you name it, I tried hard to please.
If I didn't get the vents adjusted just right, he pouted and refused to perform. If I fed him real wood charcoal, he sulked and refused to get hot. If I gave him too little fuel, he simply shut down, the sinking needle on his thermometer a clear indication of his mood.
Several ruined meals later (those oysters still haunt me), I was ready to break up with him. The selfish bastard, I had done all I could and he still wanted more, more, more! More time, more charcoal, more patience. I was fed up to here with this effing prima donna!
But, he was beautiful. And sexy.
I decided to give it one more try.
This time, I bought a huge bag of "competition briquets" from those guys whose name everyone knows. It was so heavy, I could barely get it into the trunk of my car and My Beloved had to carry it out to the deck. I filled the charcoal starter chimney right up to the top, a hefty load of fuel by anyone's reckoning. I lighted the newspaper to get it started, muttering dire threats if it refused to start, and left it alone while we took Cora on her nightly walk. No more coddling! Last chance, Big Boy. Fire up or get the hell out!
When we returned, the coals were perfect. I poured them into the firebox and positioned the grates. My beef ribs had been marinating all day in a haphazard mixture of Sartain's marinade, catsup, Worcestershire sauce, tomato mustard, pressed garlic, minced ginger, and honey Dijon mustard. They were ready.
Those briquets did the trick - the fire was so hot, I had to put a protective layer of foil under the ribs after the first sear and move them off the direct flame. Smoke billowed out of the vents, just as it was supposed to, and the sounds of sizzling could be heard even through the closed lid.
An hour later, the ribs were done - and delicious! Another time, I'd tweak a bit but, hell, I was just thrilled to have actually produced a decent meal from this thing! I'm still a little pissed with the fact that I had to punish and threaten him to get my hunky new grill to perform but maybe he has brought out my inner dominatrix.
This is a promising start, baby, but let me down one more time and your ass is grass!
The other day, I was reading on Cookblog about Peter's way of getting more veggies into his kid. He serves an hors-d'oeuvre course of veggies while the kid is hungry, assuring that he'll eat every bite. Cool idea, but the part that intrigued me was the way he sliced and served the leeks in rounds. A simple thing, you'd say, and that's true, but something that I had never thought of doing. I was inspired.
And there were lovely, fat leeks in my grocery store that very day!
Usually, you have to wash leeks carefully to remove all the sandy soil in which they are grown but, when you slice them in rounds starting at the root end, you can easily see when the dirt starts to show up toward the top. Those few rounds that have dirt can be easily peeled down to the dirty part and then rinsed - much easier than leaving them long as I always have in the past.
Now, Peter, for all his virtues (and they are many and varied), gets too fussy with food for my taste. He rarely sets a plate on the table without using at least two homemade vinegars, three exotic spices (most of which I have never heard of), six herbs that he grew himself in his extensive home garden, and two molecular gastronomic cooking techniques. I'm sure his food tastes much better than mine but, honey, that's just exhausting! So, I did what I often do with his recipes - I simplified it.
I hope he's not reading this, because I reduced the ingredients to the bare essentials - leeks, olive oil, and sherry.
I browned the leeks lightly on both sides in the olive oil, poured in a healthy dollop of sherry, turned the heat to low, and put a lid on the pan. The leeks steamed to silky perfection in about ten minutes, going from the crisp white of a summer dress to the golden yellow of old book pages. They made a dynamite accompaniment to barbecued beef ribs and fresh steamed asparagus, a meal that sang of the warming days of spring, when barbecuing is a pleasure and local asparagus and leeks are in abundance.
So, thanks, Peter, for the inspiration and the new technique! This one's a keeper.
Although we are very fond of fish, we don't eat as much of it as our doctor would like. It's easy enough to fix but, unless you are convinced of its freshness, you have to eat it the same day as you buy it, whether or not you are in a fishy mood. Last week, I had my annual physical and, although all systems are good to go, the doc did suggest more fish and more exercise. What else is new?
Anyway, I dutifully bought salmon and halibut the next day at the grocery store and hauled them home. I have no trouble deciding what to do with salmon - we love it poached if it's raining, or planked if the weather is fine, so no problem there.
The halibut, however, is a bit more of a challenge. We love the mildness of halibut but it can be so dull that one actually begins snoring in the middle of dinner. I needed something to jazz it up a bit. I opened the fridge door, hoping for inspiration.
What I saw there was perfect, a fat bunch of local asparagus and two lonely strips of bacon left over from a previous meal. Why not try it? After all, as everyone knows, bacon makes everything better.
I made lardons of the bacon, cutting the strips into 1/4" pieces before crisping them in a frying pan. When they were golden, I lifted them out to paper towels, poured out the extra bacon fat and added a couple of tablespoons of water to the pan before laying the fish in gently, skin side down.
After the fish had bacon-steamed on medium-low heat, covered, for a few minutes, I flipped it and removed the now-loose skin by sliding a spatula between the skin and the flesh. I covered the pan again and started the asparagus in a separate pan. By the time they were tender and bright green, the fish was finished, flaking lightly with a fork but still moist and just barely opaque.
Plated on top of the asparagus, sprinkled with the bacon lardons, and drizzled with the pan juices, it was fresh and bright and delicious right down to the last bite.
I'm pretty sure my doc would frown at the bacon - he's a nice guy and he has our best interests at heart - but we think there's more to life than ascetic austerity. As Mary Poppins will tell you, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down; I can endorse a little bacon for making the fish go down.
At the tag end of our Inverness weekend, we stopped by the Marin Sun Farms store just outside of Point Reyes Station to pick up some provisions for the freezer. Their meats are no cheaper out there but they are always favorites, so we bite the bullet and pay the price.
As I was waiting for our order to be wrapped, I noted a small container by the checkout, the kind of container with which enterprising retailers hope to attract you to reopen your purse for an impulse purchase. Often that space is filled with candy or magazines, batteries or disposable razors - this one was filled with dried chicken feet.
I stood there for quite some time wondering what in the world one uses dried chicken feet for? Soup stock? Practical jokes? What?
I considered buying some for our dog, Cora, but discarded that idea because of the bones. The guy behind the counter, however, discounted my fears, reassuring me that they do no harm to dogs, so I bought two. The counter guy popped them into a small brown bag separate from our other order and we headed out to the car.
Cora hardly let us put them away in the truck, sniffing the bag with enthusiasm and giving us her most winsome looks, head cocked, ears eagerly forward and tail waving. We decided to wait until we got home, just in case the combination of chicken feet and swaying car was too much for her stomach. As soon as we arrived, she hopped out of the car and, putting on her best pointer imitation (not easy for a dog whose heritage, while unknown, seems by all appearances to lean toward the collie/shepherd family), followed those chicken feet closely into the house.
She sat nicely for her treat, accepting it gently from my hand and carrying it to her favorite spot on the corner of the area rug in the living room. Enthusiastic crunching was heard and no vestige of chicken foot was left on the rug. She licked her lips and looked for more.
I thought about tasting the second one, just to see what it was like, but I was chicken. She got that one, too.
To Love And Paella
There are lots of ways to show one's love, and one of my favorites is dinner. I'm of that school of thought that believes that making food for someone is a true act of love. If cooking is the way to a man's heart, I say, "Move over, men! I'm hungry, too!"
So, when pals Sari and Jeff, newly engaged to be married (!), invited us over for dinner, we were thrilled. We got to admire Sari's lovely new ring, just picked up from the jeweler the day before, to toast the happy couple with champagne cocktails made with a splash of Chambord drowned in pink champagne, and to watch as Jeff concocted on his Weber wok the most sumptuous pan of paella it has ever been our pleasure to enjoy.
Jeff says it's easy. I'm not so sure, but his description did sound a lot like making a simple risotto, only adding the shellfish and the peas at the last minute. According to his recipe, you just soften chopped onion in olive oil, add the saffron rice to cook for a few minutes, then start ladling in chicken broth until it is all absorbed. He added chunks of spicy, dry sausage and chunks of skinned chicken to the mix at that point, giving the chicken a few minutes to cook and the sausage to warm through. You can put it aside now to await the guests, if you want. He sprinkled frozen peas on the warm rice mixture, to give them a few minutes to thaw.
Once we had enjoyed our cocktails, and oohed and aahed over the ring and a photo of her dreamy wedding dress, it was time to finish the paella.
Jeff put the pan back over the fire and, stirring constantly, added the shrimp, clams and mussels that he had scrubbed earlier. As soon as the shellfish popped open and the shrimps turned a soft pink, he served it in big, open bowls, topped with fresh chopped parsley.
We heard the funny story of his anxious visit to her father to ask for her hand, his proposal, and the wedding plans as we plucked plump clams and mussels from their shells and nibbled on the delicate little shrimps. The rice was flavorful and filling and the sausage gave a little zing of heat and salt to the dish.
Replete, we sat back and contemplated all the love flying around that room. Sari's ring sparkled in the evening light, the nearlyweds cast loving gazes at each other across the table as they described their wedding plans, My Beloved and I were thrilled to see our dear friend Sari so happy, and we were all filled with Jeff's paella love.
A toast to Love and Paella!
I wish I could tell you that I had something as romantic as writer's block but the truth is I just haven't been eating/cooking anything very interesting this week. We have eaten well and enjoyed it all, but it just hasn't been novel.
We've also been busy, but mainly with projects like weeding our garden patch and shoveling out the walk-in wastebasket that was My Beloved's office, definitely NOT things I want to rant about or you'd care to read about.
So, here's a pretty picture of the moon playing hide-and-seek through some wispy clouds and I hope that will suffice until I have more to say.
First, Sift Out The Ants
Invited to Easter dinner at daughter Katie's house, with a chance to meet niece Molly's baby June, I felt the least I could do was bring dessert. I had planned on a big platter of fresh fruit but, despite it being late March, I still hadn't found any strawberries worth buying (no hint of strawberry scent to the ones in my market) and good strawberries are usually the anchor for any fruit plate worth its salt. Hmmm...
I resolved to bake a cake instead. I had seen a recipe in Sunset magazine that sounded intriguing to me, a cake made with whole oranges whacked up, peel and all, in a food processor, then added to the cake batter. Citrus is still at its height around here, so I was assured of rich orange flavor. The article promised that the cake would not be too sweet and, knowing my audience, that sounded just right for the assembled family group.
When I got to the glaze, however, I was stunned by the amount of confectioner's sugar needed for the glaze. Holy cats! I consulted with my visiting dessert expert, my Fairy Godson, and he agreed that that was 'way too much glaze, so I planned to make about 1/3 of the recipe and drizzle away.
When I poured out my confectioner's sugar, I noticed little black specks in its pristine whiteness. Puzzled, I dipped in a finger and pulled out - an ant! A poor, desiccated ant who had apparently found his way into the sugar but died in sweet glory, a victim to the preservative power of sugar. In the olden days, people learned to preserve things like fruit in dense sugar, as it draws out the water from any living thing, be it bacteria or ant, and leaves a sad little husk behind.
So, step one of the glaze recipe should have read, "First, sift out the ants."
We had a good laugh over that one as we did, indeed, sift out that ant and his few brethren. We didn't really think a little formic acid would make much difference to the taste, but the little black specks were less than appetizing. It's ant karma, really - they bug me every winter when they invade my kitchen, so it's only fair that my sugar take its toll on the ant armies.
When the cake was finished, it looked sadly plain, not richly golden with stripes of white icing as the one in Sunset, so I dressed mine up with some of our Easter jelly beans and foil-wrapped chocolate eggs for a more festive look.
We cut the cake after dinner - it was moist and very dense, like pound cake in its avoirdupois. A slender slice was plenty. The rich orange flavor was lovely and we all liked the bits of orange peel in the crumb that kept it from being overly sweet, but we also think it would be even better with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream alongside.
Interestingly, I added the jelly beans just for decoration, but every single one, plus the chocolate eggs, were eaten as well as the cake. I didn't tell anyone about the ants.