Thursday, July 30, 2015

Zucchini Season

I have it on good authority that it's zucchini season again. I can get zucchini all year 'round here in California but only at this time of year does it look like it just came from the garden rather than from far, far away. The long, dark green fruits are shiny with health and firm to the touch. The stem ends are green and fresh. Zucchini is at its best in mid-summer and, happily, the harvest is good for several months.

My Beloved is coming to an interesting season in his life, too - he is planning to retire. After 40+ years in the business world, he has decided he's ready for some time off. He was away this past week at his last industry trade show, letting his sales managers and his long-time colleagues know the good news. He always comes home from trade shows a little hoarse from telling stories and hailing friends for all three days, leg weary and footsore from standing on hard convention center floors, and sleepy from not resting well in hotel bedrooms - but he loves it all and will miss those activities when he retires. They are perhaps his favorite part of being an independent representative.

So, while he was gone and I was casting about for something to fill the time, I decided to make a zucchini stew with the best, shiny, beautiful zucchinis I have seen in my market. There were nice summer squashes, too, and gorgeous red tomatoes - a bonanza!

For this stew, which I have always called barbouille (I just googled that and in French it means to have an upset stomach!  Where did I get that name??), all I do is cut up a good-sized onion into wedges through the root end and chop a big shallot, and sauté those in some good olive oil. When they are clear and starting to brown, I dump in three or four chunked zucchinis, two or three chunked summer squashes, two or three chunked ripe tomatoes, two bay leaves, and several sprigs of thyme. I leave the thyme leaves on the stems, as they will fall off during the cooking and the stems are easy to remove at the end. I mix up a "sauce" of red wine (about 1/2 cup) and tomato paste (a big squirt, as I use the kind in the tube), and pour that over the vegetables, cover the pot, and let it all simmer on lowest heat for about an hour. There is nothing in that pot that even a vegan wouldn't approve of.

Everything gets very soft, and only the green rind of the zucchini retains much integrity. The colors dull a bit and the dish looks messy. The flavors meld together. I may mix it up once for twice during the hour, but even if I forget, this turns out well. I spoon it up into a bowl for dinner - I don't even add cheese. It is delicious warm and, to my mind, even better at room temperature. You can ladle it over pasta if you're pretty hungry, or just enjoy it as is.

It's a good accompaniment to time alone, when you are thinking about what changes this decision to retire will make in your lives. It's somewhat contemplative to make - all that chopping and chunking - and easy enough that you can be a little distracted without making a disaster. I guess everything is an adjustment, even something as joyous as the end of work and the start of those long-awaited "golden years."

This fall, we are planning a cross-country trip to celebrate his retirement. We will drive our little VW station wagon, stopping to visit friends and monuments along the way, parts of our vast country we have never seen. We expect to be gone for several weeks. So, about the time that the zucchini season wanes, we will be away on our travels. Until then, I will be making this stew more than once.

Monday, July 27, 2015


Welcome to the most serene dining room in the Bay Area. That's how I always feel whenever I am treated to dinner at Rivoli on Solano Avenue in Albany/Berkeley (the border between the two towns is unclear to me). I love the smooth, matte wooden tables, the gorgeous Heath pottery of the table settings, the wood ceiling with square apertures for the soft round light fixtures, the soft browns of the walls and seats, and most of all the huge glass window that looks on to a secret garden.

To get to this room, you must traverse a narrow passage past the kitchens and the wine racks. As you enter, the maitre d' calls "Guests in the hall!" to alert the servers that there are novices on the way down. You get a tantalizing glimpse of gleaming bottles and busy kitchen before the passage opens up into this calm, inviting dining room. Whoever designed the restaurant understood that juxtaposition of busyness and peacefulness, and how it sets the mood immediately for leisure and relaxation.

This time, we were seated in the far corner away from the window in a comfy corner banquette, which I really loved, as My Beloved was close and we had the whole view of the dining room to enjoy. We were walk-ins this time but even when we make a reservation, I will ask for that table. We arrived early on a Wednesday evening, but by the time we left every table was filled and the hum of conversation was lively. One of the pleasures of the dining room is that all the tables are well spaced - no shimmying through to sit down, and conversations can be private if you like.

The menu is all about what's fresh and local today. I won't bore you with a complete rundown; suffice it to say that every entree featured something summery, and likely it will have changed by the time you go, anyway. 

I chose the gougères as my starter, since I can't seem to make them well at home. They were light as a cloud and oozing a little Gruyere cheese, resting on a pool of sweet corn mornay sauce. Subtle flavors, but perfectly complementary, and beautifully cooked.

I chose chicken, shrimp, clam, and mussel adobo with paella rice as my main dish, but the "salad" that came in between was truly the highlight of the evening. Nothing was wrong with the adobo - it was wonderful and the portion so large I had to bring home half - but this salad of fresh green beans, lightly roasted marcona almonds, and ripe peach slices was simply perfect. 

The green beans had just a little crunch left in them before they were tossed with a tart-but-not-overwhelming vinaigrette. The almonds were roasted (I suspect) with just the oil they come in - there is something about toasted almonds and green beans that just sings! Add to that the slices of yellow and white peaches, perfectly ripe and sweet, and resting on a little puddle of today's ricotta cheese. Oh.My.God. This salad is something I will make at home for guests - it's easy enough, and it would make a satisfying lunch all by itself. The genius was in knowing that these ingredients would all work so well together, and in preparing each element perfectly.

Let me digress for a minute to tell you about My Beloved's gazpacho salad. I had trouble deciding between it and the peach salad but, happily, he chose the gazpacho and gave me bites. Actually, to say he gave me bites is to neglect to tell you that I commandeered his bowl after the first bite and scraped up the last little bit, it was so good. I'd have licked that bowl if I hadn't had my mother's ghost on my shoulder whispering "Remember your manners!" 

That's another dish I will try to replicate at home. The gazpacho was puréed finely and poured into the bottom of a soup bowl, then large chunks of heirloom tomato, cucumber, pickled red onion, and garlic toast were placed on top. We loved the contrast of pureed soup and chunky bites on top, and the whole dish was so fresh and "now" that I'd swear everything was picked that morning.

I asked for a menu as a keepsake, but the truth is that I didn't want to forget a single ingredient when I try to replicate those two salads at home. 

As if those weren't good enough, the sommelier actually found good wines to go with dishes as diverse as these salads, a fish course, and chicken adobo - a rosé for him and a light red for me.

If you live in the Bay Area, or are coming for a visit, I can recommend a trip to Albany/Berkeley to sit in that lovely dining room and consume a wonderful meal. And, on the way out, don't forget to stop in the hallway by the kitchen and tell the young chefs how delicious everything was. Their faces light up with smiles of true delight, almost as wide as the smile on your own face.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Liver Lover

So, if you are one of those who wrinkles her/his nose and says, "Ewwww" at the word "liver," stop reading now and come back another day. This post is for liver lovers.

Chicken livers are a favorite of My Beloved and, every now and then, I like them, too. Whenever I roast a chicken, I pan fry the liver for him as an appetizer - his face lights up when he sees what's on the little plate.

Preparing them for the pan is a drag - even my rather strong stomach is tested when I remove the connective tissue - but the final result is worth a little "ick" time.

Inspired by the idea of the classic liver, bacon and onions, I found a recipe on that used calves' liver, but it sounded good, so I adapted it for chicken livers. 

Each of the ingredients is sautéed separately, so the bacon gets crisp, the onions get nicely browned in the bacon fat, and the livers are still a little pink inside. You use the same pan for all those steps, keeping each ingredient warm as you go, so the pan has a nice layer of extra flavors at the bottom by the time you add the mixture of chicken broth and sherry vinegar to make a pan sauce by swirling up all those flavors into the sauce as you reduce it a bit. Pour the sauce and top the livers with bacon bits and fresh parsley and you have a classic.

The vinegar brightens what might otherwise be a very heavy dish, and I liked the tang it added, but next time instead of an equal chicken-broth-to-vinegar ratio, I'd cheat in favor of the chicken broth so it was 3-1, instead of 2-2. 

Still, for liver lovers like us, it was a solid A-, and we'd happily make it again. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Homemade Romance

Four days after our sixteenth wedding anniversary and I'm still high on the success of the celebratory dinner I made!  Such are the little pleasures of life. 

My Beloved had been working hard the two days previous, so I offered that rather than go out to a restaurant or our usual anniversary weekend getaway, I would make a "romantic dinner at home." He assented with some reluctance, not because he doesn't like my cooking but because he does like spoiling me. I like that, too, as a general rule, but it just seemed like a good reason to have some homemade romance.

My most beautiful china came out of the cupboards, along with crystal for water and champagne. I even unearthed my "real" silver from its nest of silver cloth and dug around in drawers for the sterling bottle coaster that is the prettiest one we own. Set out lacy placemats and embroidered napkins, the ones that must be ironed. They are a pain in the neck but nothing else makes such an elegant showing.

I thought and thought about what to make. Courses, for sure! Shrimp cocktail with a fiery sauce, a perennial favorite for us both. Green salad after the main course with a tangy vinaigrette, since there's always room for salad. And a fabu dessert, my mother's killer chocolate mousse. But, what to do for the main course?

Happily, I had another package of pheasant breasts in the freezer, thanks to my pal Ray and his hunting buddies - yes, of course! As if they weren't special enough, I wanted to embellish them, just as I did the table. A little research on the interwebs turned up a fair number of recipes that sounded good but not quite it. Improvisation is more fun, anyway.

So, I made pheasant breasts with a bacon/mushroom/shallot/sage cover and topped with a slice of Brie-style cheese, baked in a puff pastry crust. All we could say was, "Wow!"

We rolled our eyes and made little soft moans of pleasure at the first bite, nodding emphatically over our pretty plates as the tender breasts and flaky pastry yielded to our forks. Easily the best thing I have ever "invented." And the champagne was a lovely accompaniment, a little astringent to counteract the buttery crust and sumptuous ingredients.

I made four of these bundles but we couldn't possibly have eaten more than one each, so I hustled the other two next door to our neighbor, as I couldn't imagine them being any good heated up the next day. I am gratified to report that they, also, had the moan-and-nod experience over their plates.

It will also be a great dinner to make for a dinner party, since it can all be done ahead and just baked in the last few minutes before serving. I can hardly wait to make it for friends. I may need to appeal to my Michigan pals for more pheasant breasts, but I expect you could make it with chicken instead. It would turn ho-hum chicken into something romantic and sexy, just right for a celebration.

Pheasant en Croûte, serves 4

4 pheasant breasts, skinned and "tenders" removed. (Save the tenders for other meals)
10-12 crimini (brown) mushrooms, minced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 large shallots, peeled and minced
2 strips smoked bacon, cooked but not browned, and minced.
8 leaves fresh sage, minced
2 Tbs butter
4 slices Brie-style cheese, about 1/4" thick
1 package puff pastry (I use DuFour brand, as it is made with real butter) thawed in the refrigerator
Salt and Pepper
1 egg + 1 Tbs water for egg wash
A baking sheet lined with parchment paper

In a wide pan, sauté mushrooms in the butter until well browned and reduced. Add shallots and garlic and sauté until shallots are clear, taking care not to burn the garlic. Set aside.

Cook 2 strips bacon until just lightly golden. Remove and drain on paper towels before mincing. Add to mushroom mixture.

To assemble, unfold and cut thawed pastry into four equal pieces along fold lines. In the middle of each square of pastry, sprinkle 1/4 of the mushroom mixture, lay a thin slice of the Brie on top, then sprinkle with 1/4 of the fresh sage. Lightly salt and pepper. Lay a pheasant breast on top of the sage. Fold up the pastry, gently stretching to fit and pinching to seal the seams. Turn over so the seams are on the bottom.

Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet a few inches apart. Brush with egg wash and put into the refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap, for about 20 minutes (or longer).

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F while the bundles chill. Slide baking sheet into the oven and bake for about 25-40 minutes, until golden brown. Serve immediately.

Great with sugar snap peas!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Summer Reading

When I was in college, I couldn't afford the time to read anything but my biology and chemistry textbooks. The rest of my classes were easy enough to do well in, but the science was just plain hard. Of course, they were also the most compelling and fascinating of my classes but, brother, were they ever demanding!

So, because I'm a lover of novels, and particularly "women's fiction," I'd buy those books as I found them and stash them up in my top closet shelf, just waiting for the last exam to be written and the last grade posted. Then, like a kid sneaking up to the cookie jar, I'd haul down my summer reading cache and wallow in the stories and people and imagination rather than the facts and figures. They weren't just easier reading, they were also more human stories, stories with warmth and humor, stories that appealed to my non-science side.

In the same way that I still love following the advances of science, I still love women's fiction and I guess I always will. But, I do like to sprinkle through my light and solid reading books that are in the middle - well-written and filled with interesting science-related ideas as well as compelling characters and stories. For this reason, I love Michael Pollan's books, especially the one on architecture, but all of his are interesting to me.

Orchard House another such book. It's a great summer read, in that it's accessible and open, but it also is filled with interesting people to whom I think everyone can relate (unless you had an Ozzie-and-Harriet family life) and scientific ideas such as agriculture and permaculture. It's about gardening, but it's also about cultivating a family. 

Tara's lyrical prose is a delight - her  descriptions remind me a little of John Muir when he rhapsodizes about his First Summer in the Sierra. Her stories about the work it takes to cultivate both garden and family are real - they don't flinch from the sometimes-tough parts of being in a family. And her openness in sharing her stories is inviting.

This summer, when you find a little time to snuggle into a window seat or lie in a shaded hammock, make sure you have a copy of Orchard House nearby. Tara won't mind if you spill a little homemade lemonade on the pages.

P.S. Sorry about the sad cellphone photo, snapped at Book Passage (wonderful independent bookstore in Marin) during Tara's warm and funny book talk.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Fish Tale

Have I told you about this before? I have a vague memory that I wrote about this salsa that makes fairly bland fish into a feast, but I can't find the post, so here we go again.

Browsing the seafood offerings at my local market, I spied some fresh, wild swordfish with the green tag that means it was sustainably caught. Because swordfish is one of my very favorites, I snagged a big piece for dinner that night. I broiled it since the weather was not conducive to grilling outdoors, and topped it with this fresh, light salsa that, to me, is the essence of summer cooking. 

I found this recipe on a million years ago; it's a perennial favorite. It enhances any mild, white fish and flips it from boring to happy in an instant. The cucumber lends a juicy, crisp crunch, the onion a savory layer, the mint a hint of summer, and the vinegar-sugar a sweet-tart vibe that dances on the tongue. It's cheerfully colorful, too, which is an improvement over plain, white fish.

Oddly, I think it might be good on  grilled pork tenderloin, too, and maybe even lamb chops; gonna try that soon. Stand by.

Mint Cucumber Salsa, adapted (stolen) from

3/4 cup peeled, seeded, and diced cucumber (the easiest way to seed cucumber is to slice it in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon)

6 Tbs minced red onion

3 Tbs fresh chopped mint leaves

1 Tbs white wine vinegar

1.5 tsp olive oil

1.5 tsp sugar (or less - I usually use just 1 tsp)

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and set aside to "mingle" for a few minutes. Can be made up to 2 hours ahead, kept at room temperature.

Grill or broil (or even steam) firm-fleshed white fish such as mahi-mahi, swordfish, halibut. Top with salsa and serve. Easiest recipe ever, and it's a winner!