We Thank Thee For This Crab
Talk about feeling thankful!
First Dungeness crab of the season.
My Beloved had learned about a new-to-us fish market, Tokyo Fish, in Berkeley, so we went over on the second day of the crab season to see if perhaps they had a few. I had driven past that store a thousand times but never thought to stop in. I will be stopping in on a regular basis, now! They not only had a few crabs cooked and ready for cracking, they had a huge aquarium full of lively ones awaiting a certain doom.
We asked for two of the already-cooked to be cleaned and cracked, which was done in a trice and very gently - no finding pieces of shell wedged into the sweet meat. They made a sumptuous meal paired with a nice, buttery white wine, fresh sourdough baguette with unsalted butter, and nothing else.
Normally, I serve crabs on newspapers that I spread on the table and we just dump out the crab pieces and help ourselves. This time, however, we forgot and threw away the paper so deep in the recycling bin that I couldn't reach it. So, I hauled out our two largest platters, arranged the crab on one end with implements of war, and left the other half free for shells. It worked well - maybe not as minimalist as newspapers that can be simply rolled up around the shells and thrown away, but still very few dishes to do.
Even though I'm not religious, I do love Thanksgiving as a time to reflect on all one's blessings. I think of myself as the luckiest person I know, so I always have a great deal to be thankful for. My Beloved, my Cora, my family (and this includes my Michigan family), his family, our friends, our life together and, yes, Dungeness crab.
Happy Thanksgiving to you all!
Who Knew? Bacon Bits, Take Two.
Who knew that those cute little pumpkins that I have always used as fall table decorations were edible? I learned that from a blog friend, KatieZ, who was making all kinds of lovely dishes with them a couple of weeks ago.
So, when my Hallowe'en table gave way to a Thanksgiving decoration, I cut open two of them, scooped out the seeds, and roasted the bottoms and their lids alongside the kabocha squash I talked about in my last post.
They keep their shape and their distinctive orange color, even while the oven softens them to velvet. I stuffed them with a rice stuffing I made quickly with chopped, sautéed shallots and mushrooms added to some leftover brown rice and another rasher's worth of bacon bits. Quickly stuffed, I slid them into a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes to heat them through. Next time, I will add some thyme or perhaps rosemary to the rice mixture, but they were quite tasty as they were.
Not only did they look adorable on the plate, they were quite filling. In fact, they would almost make a whole meatless meal if you were looking for such. We enjoyed them alongside some slices of grilled chicken breast and came away from the table quite full.
Tiny Pumpkins Stuffed with Rice
2 tiny pumpkins, tops sliced off, seeded, and roasted until tender in a 350 degree oven
About 1 cup brown rice, cooked
1 rasher bacon, cooked and finely chopped
5-6 crimini mushrooms, coarsely chopped
1 large shallot, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons olive oil
In a wide pan, sauté mushrooms in the olive oil until browned, then add shallot and cook until softened. Add rice and bacon bits, and mix thoroughly. Stuff rice mixture firmly into the pumpkins, cover with pumpkin lids (some rice will fall out), and bake for about 20 minutes in a 350 degree oven.
Bacon Bits, Take One
Portion control. That's the ticket. We are finding that we can eat just about anything we want and we won't gain weight if we exercise a little control over the portion sizes. We eat well, we just eat too much.
So, when you practice restraint, you end up with all kinds of interesting leftovers. For example, if you cook but don't eat the entire quarter pound of bacon that you bought (Nueske's bacon!) at Baron's Meats, you have some rashers left over for future meals.
Like soup. Kabocha squash, carrot and shallot soup.
With bacon bits as the garnish. As a garnish, bacon bits have no equal. They are the epitome of garnish, the king of garnish, the zenith.
I'm digging this portion control thing.
Roasted Kabocha Squash, Carrot and Shallot Soup
1/2 kabocha squash, halved, seeded, and roasted in a 350 degree oven until tender, then scraped out - about 1-1/2 cups squash.
2 big shallots, chopped
2 big carrots, thickly sliced
1 Tbs olive oil
2-4 cups chicken broth, depending on how liquid you like your soup.
1 rasher of crisped bacon, finely chopped
It may seem like a lot of work for a bowl of soup, but you can do it in stages, roasting the squash a day or two before and refrigerating it until you are ready to make the soup. Also, once the soup is made, you can refrigerate it until you are ready to serve. Then, heat gently to piping hot (better not to boil it), and add the bacon bits.
In a large pot, heat the olive oil, and add the chopped shallot, cooking just until the shallot begins to brown on the edges. Add the squash and the carrots, and cover with chicken broth. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes, until all the veggies are very soft.
Remove the pot from the stove and cool until it is safe to use an immersion blender or a regular blender. Purée the soup, adding more chicken broth if needed until it reaches the desired consistency.
You can do this much ahead and refrigerate for a day or two if need be, then gently reheat the soup to piping hot, sprinkle on the bacon bits, and serve.
Stylin' At School
When I was a kid, I was plunked into Catholic school whenever there was that option near our various duty stations. My parents had what was called in those days a "mixed marriage," my mother being Protestant and my father Catholic. Mom had promised to raise us as Catholics in order to marry Dad, and she kept her word. If we didn't have a Catholic school nearby, we went to catechism class. All this effort only worked on two of their four children, but if that was a baseball score, they'd be in the Hall of Fame.
Of course, I hated the regimentation, the emphasis on sin and almost certain Hell, and the fierce nuns but the thing I hated most was wearing a uniform. All Catholic schools seem to revere the uniform. At Duchesne Academy in Omaha, Nebraska, we had blazers and plaid skirts in the fall/winter, and they were donned when school started, no matter how hot was the inevitable Indian summer. We had pastel cotton dresses, always well below the knee (and measured daily by those nuns) during the brief spring and, naturally, we donned those on a chosen day, too, no matter how late the winter lingered. Any discomfort was a gift for us to "offer up to God."
Oh, and then there were the plain black dresses with celluloid collars and cuffs, and thick black stockings with black "beetle crusher" shoes that we had to wear at Most Holy Rosary School in Freshwater, near Argentia, Newfoundland. It was enough to put a teenage girl off God for life!
So, when I started tutoring second graders at a local charter school, I was somewhat dismayed to find that they are required to wear uniforms. Being California, it's a pretty easy uniform - pale blue polo shirts and navy blue chinos for both boys and girls - but it's a uniform nonetheless, and it is carefully policed by the wonderful and fearful Principal of the school.
Of course, the children find all kinds of ways to express their individuality - you've never seen such a colorful array of jackets, sweaters, backpacks, barrettes, ribbons, and shoes. The students mostly adhere to the uniform dictates, but everything else about what they wear screams personal preference.
And, every now and then, when their uniforms are dirty, or lost, or somehow missing - then their true style struts out. While I understand the reasoning behind requiring uniforms and I applaud the effort to keep fashion consciousness to a minimum in a school setting, especially among elementary school students, I must admit that I love to see the many ways the children find to show their style at school.
I guess that rebellious teen lives on in me, doesn't she?
I think I'm related to Garfield. Not the President, rather the lazy, hedonistic cartoon cat. We have similar views on life, love, and food, he and I. We are spectacularly lazy upon occasion, we don't suffer fools gladly, and we both love lasagna.
I set out last week to make some vegetable lasagna, as I have done and reported about before. I did much the same things with this batch, but the only tweak I made to the original recipe really made a difference - a delightful difference! - so I wanted to tell you about it. I'll be doing it this way from now on.
In the original recipe, I mix in a package of thawed, chopped spinach into the ricotta/parmesan filling before spreading it in layers between the noodles and the sauce. This time, I had a big bunch of fresh basil on hand from the gnocchi recipe we had made earlier, so I thought rather than use spinach, I would make a chiffonade of basil leaves to mix in instead.
I cut off about twenty five of the leaves, stacked and rolled them together, then cut them crosswise with a sharp knife. The whole kitchen was perfumed with basil scent, probably the best scent possible on earth. Fluffed, they make a nice little mound of basil, which you can chop even finer if you wish. I left mine in fine strings.
If I do say so myself, it was pure genius. Instead of just greenery, I got extra rich flavor from the basil, which you can see as little green threads on the left side of the photo. I wouldn't have thought it would make such a significant difference, but it really does.
I should really box up a serving of this and send it to Garfield. He'd love it.
Franks And Beans
I grew up in a house with an elegant mother. She was the kind of woman who actually changed clothes for dinner, who ate with her sterling flatware every day, who used her best china daily, and who insisted on good table manners from her brood of somewhat less elegant children. She often despaired of her four heathens.
I was the worst.
I have always preferred a big steak to petit fours. Give me meatloaf rather than soufflé. I like spare ribs, finger-lickin' chicken, and corn on the cob.
And hot dogs. Especially hot dogs. I am a hot dog connoisseur.
Last weekend, we drove down to Alameda with a threefold mission. To deliver some Hanukkah gelt as a surprise for Sari and Jeff (Thanksgivukkah is fast approaching). To explore the dog park there with our buddy Cora (she had a fine time barking, chasing the dogs who were chasing balls and frisbees, and just generally being a dog for a change instead of our beloved child). And to go to Baron's to select some freezer meats - we love Baron's.
Our errands completed, we were in search of some lunch. I noted a sign on the meat counter that pointed down the hall to a small seating area - Baron's has added a sandwich shop! With the promise of a Black Dragon sandwich, we hurried down the hall to place our orders. Black Dragon is their signature spice rub, usually offered in a marinated tri-tip roast that causes major swooning among our guests when we serve it. It is made up of many different spices, reportedly including pepper and coffee.
When we got there, however, we noted other even more delightful offerings so we ordered those. My Beloved ordered their hot roast beef sandwich with caramelized onions and, to my delight, they had their house made hot dogs so, of course, I had to try one. That hot dog was really delicious, snapping with juicy flavor and served on a fresh, firm bun from the Feel Good Bakery in the same building.
But I also ordered some baked beans.
Now, you and I know what to expect from baked beans - sweet, soft, nice-but-not-spectacular, right? Well, not in this case - these were Black Dragon beans, dark, reddish-brown beans seasoned with the same flavors as that eye-rolling, tongue-tingling tri-tip. They were not at all sweet, just deeply spicy and grown up. If regular franks and beans are for kids, these are franks and beans for really big kids.
My elegant mother would probably have turned up her nose at "tube steak" and beans. And she'd have been missing a treat.
From The Ground Up
When you start with a package of ground lamb, you can go any which way with it. Lamb sliders with goat cheese, for example. Or shepherd's pie. Or, when you have colorful bell peppers in the fridge, stuffed peppers, which is what I went for last week.
With shallots, and summer squash, the last of the season. And brown rice from Massa. And thyme, lots of thyme. I actually meant to top them with cheese, too, but forgot. Roasted in the oven for just long enough to make the peppers relax a bit, they made a meal all by themselves. My Beloved got one orange half and one green half, and so did I.
Turns out, they are rather filling. We each saved one half for a later meal.
Did I tell you I got a new camera?
Oh, yes, now I remember! I did tell you.
Well, the new camera, a Canon G16 is still a point-and-shoot, but it's a much nicer one than my old Canon Elph. Better sensor, more features, longer zoom.
And it takes wonderful photos - it seems to deliver what my eye actually saw. I have enjoyed some so much that I actually uploaded them to my Flickr account to show them to the wider world.
It makes me a better photographer, and what more could I ask of my camera?
Gnoc, Gnoc, Gnocchin' On Heaven's Door
Having invited our young friends, Naomi and Sam, to come to lunch and to bring their new baby Isobel with them, I was churning over some ideas for what to serve. Naomi and Sam love good food and they love to cook - in fact, Naomi offered to bring dessert and she's a champion baker so I happily assented - so I wanted to make something interactive. Even with young Izzy and their rescued greyhound, Hobbes, along, I was hoping they'd have time to get their hands dirty.
Then, just when I was thinking about some kind of quiche, I read a recipe on the blog A Cup of Jo that sounded relatively easy and that would also introduce me to the mysteries of gnocchi production. I had never even tasted gnocchi so it would be fun to try it out. Plus, the recipe used flour rather than mashed potatoes, so it promised to be easier to make.
Disclaimer: we changed up the recipe as we went along - it ended up being different than the original. And we all agreed that we'd make even more changes next time. Having said that, it was quite delicious - everyone had second helpings.
While Naomi was busy with the baby, Sam and I whipped up the gnocchi in fairly short order, mixing the ingredients (quick, easy), forming the gnocchi (we made them quite a bit smaller than the recipe suggested), boiling the gnocchi, and then gently sautéing them to a golden brown in butter (the recipe called for olive oil but Sam is a big browned butter fan).
Topped with a good bottled marinara sauce and a generous chiffonade of fresh basil, they were not as "pillowy" as I imagined they should be from descriptions I had read - these were more like kneeling pads. Substantial. Filling. But lovely, too, just not the texture I expected.
So, what would we change?
First, I'd definitely doctor the bottled marinara sauce, adding sautéed mushrooms and more herbs.
Second, I'd try the olive oil, as I think the browned butter was a little lost under the marinara sauce. If browned in butter, they might better have a lighter sauce.
Third, we added a good deal more fresh pepper than the recipe called for and I liked that - the pepper flavor shone through in each bite.
Fourth, I wouldn't forget next time to offer more Parmesan cheese to sprinkle over the top. Oops!
Fifth, I'd make the gnocchi even smaller than these teaspoon-sized ones - maybe half-teaspoons next time for a higher sauce-to-gnocchi ratio.
What a fuss-budget I'm becoming! Take a perfectly delicious meal and analyze it to death! It may not be heavenly just yet, but we are getting there.
I'm having trouble letting Hallowe'en go. Oh, I know the marketers are working hard to make me move on into Thanksgiving and even Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa already, but I'm not there yet. I'm still enjoying the black and orange candles with hairy spiders on my dining table and the spider webs and big, black bat above my door. I'm like the parents who are wrenched when their children are old enough to go off to school - just not quite ready.
Hallowe'en is one of my favorite California holidays because everyone, grownups as well as children, really gets into the wearing of disguises and costumes. It's playful, and I love playful.
In the same vein, this year the Richmond Municipal Natatorium (better known as "The Plunge") put on a really fun Hallowe'en event. Our local pool is always a delight but float a whole bunch of pumpkins in the water and dress the lifeguards up as skeletons and you add a whole other layer of nonsense. You've heard of bobbing for apples but who knew you could bob for pumpkins?
Or even that pumpkins would float!
The little kids had a fine time fishing out their pumpkins and the parents seemed to enjoy seeing their kiddos so happily entertained. We enjoyed watching all the silly fun, even though we didn't get wet this time.
So, the turkey and the presents can wait another week or so until I get into the mood for their brand of fun. For now, I'm still stuck in the netherworld of Hallowe'en and loving every minute.
This fall, I seem to be all about the bean. And I'm reading about beans everywhere. The book I just finished, "Mastering the Art of French Eating," has a cassoulet recipe that takes days to make. All my magazines have bean recipes and this week's Sunday Chronicle served up a story about turkey cassoulet, as well.
When on a recent outing I found a package of Rancho Gordo Tarbais beans, grown locally from seeds imported from France, I decided to give in to my cravings and try making cassoulet. I followed a general outline but substituted some important ingredients, as well. I'm not a huge fan of duck, and especially not confit, so I used chicken thighs instead. We had some garlic sausages so those went in, too. The beans were rinsed and soaked briefly since they were pretty fresh, then cooked in chicken stock. The meats were well browned separately in my enameled cast iron pot, then set aside until I combined them with the beans. Over three days, I reheated the casserole to make the much-desired crust on top, finally serving the dish on the third evening.
It seems like a lot of rigamarole for a single meal (actually, it made several meals for us - perhaps a few too many for My variety-loving Beloved) but the idea is to blend the flavors and to cook the beans to velvet without turning them to mush.
When you serve it, each spoonful rolls off the spoon glistening with its own gravy, each bean separate but velvety and each of the meats cooked to moist softness. This is hearty fare and a small serving is plenty, but be sure to give everyone a little chunk of sausage and a piece of the chicken along with the beans.
Another time, I might break even more with tradition and add zucchini to the final cooking, just to lighten the dish and add a tiny bit of bitterness, but even this way it was warming and filling and perfect for a crisp fall evening.
I saved a few of the Tarbais beans and I'm going to plant them in the garden next spring to try to grow my own. I have no idea if this will work but I couldn't resist trying. Now off to the Interwebs to see if I can find out the best way to store my beans until I'm ready to plant. Hoping to be beaned again next year.
Of Steaks and Brothers
Whenever we go to Paris, we have dinner at Le Relais de Venise, a small restaurant that serves nothing but steak, salad, and frites. The only question they ask you is "How do you like your steak cooked?" They smile broadly when My Beloved says one of the few French words he knows, "Bleu." Which means he likes his steak briefly seared and still "blue" in the middle. My response is "Sanglant," (bloody), but not as raw as his. They give a little shrug and a moue of disapproval, as only the French can, when a customer says "Bien cuit," (well done).
My brother Jay, who has extensive experience in Paris having been posted there twice in his career, advised us to order the house red wine when we went there and, as usual in wine matters, he was right. The wine arrives before the steak and, as a sipping wine, it's a little rough around the edges, astringent and slightly harsh. But, paired with the steak, it sings! It cuts the richness of the steak while the steak itself gentles the wine. It's about as close to heaven as one can get this side of death.
Fast forward to last weekend when My Beloved's brother and his wife were in town to visit their newest grandchild, the so-adorable NoaJane. They had a day out together at a couple of wineries and brought us home this bottle, which we served with a Black Dragon (bleu-to-sanglant) for dinner. I was transported back to the Relais de Venise when I tasted this wine - a little craggy and raw. But, drunk with the tri-tip, it was perfect, rounder and fuller than the wine is by itself.
I don't know a great deal about wine pairings, but I do know when one works perfectly, as this one did. If you can scare up a bottle of this, I'd recommend it with your next slab of beef. It's great with steak!
Do you like cilantro? I gather you either do or you really, really don't. I didn't, at first. It is ubiquitous in California, served with all kinds of foods, not just Mexican. To me, it tasted like soap. In fact, I nicknamed it "soapwort," and carefully picked it off or out of anything it was served with. Not my favorite herb - in fact, it ranked just off the bottom of my list of faves.
Slowly, over the years I have learned to appreciate it. I now love it in guacamole - that wonderful avocado dish just isn't quite complete without it, in my view. It's also good in a variety of dishes from soft tacos to salads.
But it has a drawback - it's not an easy keeper. I can't tell you the number of times I have looked for mine in the vegetable drawer and found a plastic bag full of slime instead. Ugh.
Last week, I bought a new bunch and it was honestly so fresh and lovely that I couldn't resist filling my prettiest vase, a gift from my pals Wenirs and Mark, with water and sticking the cilantro in it to enjoy on the kitchen counter. It is of the springiest green and those lacy leaves let the light pass right through them.
Lo and behold! it lasted a full ten days on the counter. Not wrapped. Not refrigerated. Nothing but water added to the vase once or twice to keep its feet wet. I'm tickled pink with this discovery. I got a two-fer, pretty leaves to brighten the kitchen and fresh herbs to brighten my meals for a week.
Seventeen Years Ago
Roughly seventeen years ago, I was treated to lunch at Oliveto in Oakland. I forget what I ate but I will always remember the feeling of being cared for and given a treat. I had recently moved away from New York where I had lived for 20 years, left a marriage that had become lifeless, and was looking for a job - always a hard thing to do. To be treated gently and listened to intently was an even bigger treat than the food and the ambiance.
We sat at the counter upstairs and talked and talked and talked. It was more or less My Beloved's and my first date.
Last week, we returned. We had been to a doctor's appointment for him, a semi-annual checkup for prostate cancer. His seems to be a very mild form and his PSAs are stable, but it bears watching so he goes in faithfully each three months for a blood test and six months for a checkup. So far, so good. Still, it's not a fun thing to do, so we treat ourselves afterward to lunch out.
He ordered a lamb sausage plate and gave me a bite - wonderful! I ordered the cheese plate and, although the photo doesn't do it justice, it was lovely.Three different cheeses arranged artfully on a gray glass plate. A blue which reminded me forcibly of the wonderful Roquefort dressings we used to eat on salads in the bad old days, creamy and tangy at the same time. A semi-aged cow cheese from Nicasio Valley called "Reserve." And a Sao Jorge Portuguese from Matos Cheese Company. A few pear slices, a little bread, a small cube of honey still in the comb, and the nicest little salad I've eaten in a long time completed my meal - and it was plenty to share.
The people watching in Oliveto's is fun, too - everyone from big guys in plaid flannel shirts to ladies who lunch to businessmen meeting over a plate of spaghetti.
And out onto College Avenue, bustling with BART riders and commerce. Rockridge is a lively section of Oakland, alive with shoppers and lookers, we walked hand in hand just like seventeen years ago.