Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Thanks, Charlie

My mother once gave me a cookbook for Christmas, and the inscription inside read, "to a lifetime of good food and its community." Working in the food business is hard. You're cooking when most people are eating, spending weekends, nights, holidays on your feet and behind the stove. You miss a lot. It's no wonder they call the meal served to staff before their shift family meal--most cooks see more of their saute pans then they do of their loved ones. So it's only natural, necessary, even, that you build a community into your work. And a community of food loving coworkers cum friends is the best kind. Restaurants are all about hospitality--you're in the business to make folks happy, and your friends are the lucky benefactors of this spirit of generosity.

All of this build-up to say: I had a great dinner last night. I accompanied some good friends to the newly opened restaurant of their good friend, Charlie Hallowell. They're all Chez Panisse alums (a community with a fine pedigree, no less) and Charlie's new spot, Pizzaiolo, on Telegraph in Oakland, California, is just the greatest.

Maybe it's the warm wooden booths and tables, the communal table in the back room, with photos of his two children on the wall, the exposed brick and the buoyant, happy feel that the room has. Well, it's probably the food. Long cooked romano beans with an anchovy vinaigrette, a crisp toast slathered with aioli and topped with little cherry tomatoes, manila clams with chickpeas in a perfect broth--and pizzas, with buffalo mozzarella, broccoli rabe, sausage, and toasted crust, salty enough, with little blackened spots. It's affordable and wonderful, with a nice wine list and good desserts. All of which means that it feels comfortable and good, and I'll have to come back often. Thanks, Charlie.

You can check out pizzaiolo's menu at

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Just for the Halibut

Our friend Faith just arrived from the wilds of Alaska for a visit. I didn't think to ask her to bring any regional culinary specialties (think salmon jerky and pickled beaver tail) but she did bring a copy of the Anchorage newspaper, which tells the story of a 365 pound halibut caught by a fisherman from Orange County, California (that's the O.C. to you, pal.)

My first thought was that it is sort of sad that the second largest recorded halibut caught in Alaska wasn't caught by an Alaskan, but my next thought was, when's dinner? Growing up in landlocked Vermont I developed an early aversion to creatures from the sea, with particular ire directed towards lobsters and fried clams. I've now come to think of this fish phobia as the folly of youth. Now I'm making up for lost time, and halibut has become my new best friend.

But we're talking about 365 pounds of halibut, and the mind reels with possibility. Even poor Hal's stomach contents included a dinner for 6; a four-pound cod. Halibut can be marinated in soy and ginger and served with Asian vegetables, or cooked with feta, tomatoes and black olives for a Mediterranean meal. I like to cube it, toss it in olive oil and lemon juice and grill the cubes on skewers. Then you can place the skewers onto a big salad, loaded with farm greens, maybe some blanched haricots verts, cooked corn cut from the cob....well, you get the picture.

Better still, Alaskan wild halibut is on the environmental defense short list of approved fish--it's plentiful in the Pacific and doesn't have to be raised in polluting pens on farms. For more information on responsible seafood choices, you can visit the

To read the story of the lucky fisherman (and see a picture, too) who caught the giant fish, check out

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Delfina Divine

We popped into Delfina (18th and Guerrero, San Francisco) at 8pm on Friday night, hungry and a little cranky. We didn't have a reservation because we hadn't planned on going there--we were going to try this other place called chow, but they don't even take reservations, and one look at the dozens of hipsters queued up on Church Street and I knew it wasn't in the cards. The hand of fate steered us towards chef/owner Craig Stoll's fabulous Italian food. It was impossible to resist the fried squash blossoms, filled with lemony ricotta, and the housemade salame was divine: slightly gamy pork, with a rich flavor and great chewy texture. The beans with tomato and bacon were great, too.

Then a tagliatelle with pine nuts and zucchini, the pasta so fine you could nearly see through it. Finally, local halibut with potatoes and artichokes sott'olio (cooked in olive oil) for me, slow-cooked pork shoulder with farro for Sarah. A good bottle of dolcetto. A shared plate of profiteroles with espresso ice cream and a rich, bitter chocolate sauce (Scharffenberger, maybe?) A really fine meal.

At home, real summer food now. Sweet yellow corn on the cob, bean salads (I tried the canned white kidney beans from Trader Joes and was happily surprised--big firm beans that weren't overcooked and falling apart!) dressed with simple vinaigrette and some toasted nuts, grilled fish dotted with homemade pesto. With such good ingredients, it's best just to try not to muck things up too much.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Hot Tamales

I want to talk about tamales. Back when I was living in Boston, I'd eat a tamale once in a blue moon at a mediocre Mexican restaurant. Usually it was filled with a not-so-tempting mystery meat, replete with bits of skin and sometimes, if you were lucky, bones too.

But I really like food in little packages (see my Shanghai Noodle Shop post) and I always thought that tamales could be really, really good. I tried my hand at making them, once, and it was laborious and worth the effort, but it's not something I'm apt to do too often. But here in this great city of San Francisco, particularly in the neighborhood I'm living in, tamales are everywhere. There's a woman who sells them outside the Safeway on Bryant Street, a kind man who shows up outside the Bi-Rite Market on 18th Street on Saturday and Sunday evenings, cooler packed with the most wonderful pork and green chili tamales, and taco shops and bodegas everywhere that have them all the time. For $1.50. No joke.

I have come to the conclusion that they are the greatest snack food ever, and I'm wondering now why other cities haven't caught on. Hello, Boston, I mean you! Where is your tamale cart? Since I'm still unemployed, I have started having visions of becoming the East Coast tamale woman, with a squeeze bottle of hot sauce, a roll of paper towels, a cooler filled with hot tamales and a dream.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Lard and Peaches

Today I decided that my fear of naturally hydrogenated animal fats was standing between me and the greatest pie crust of life.

I have been trying to find the ideal pie crust recipe for awhile now. I limited my pie crust experimentation to varying amounts of butter or vegetable shortening and different techniques, hoping to stumble on the perfect balance that would lead to a sublime crust--the search would be over.

After consulting James Beard's American Cookery and the new Gourmet cookbook, I settled on a recipe. Today was the day I would make a peach pie to be remembered. So I bought lard at the corner store (at $1.50 for a quart, a bargain) and brought it home. I opened it and took a deep sniff. It smelled like bacon fat. I was hit by a sudden moment of uncertainty which led to a last minute modification: half butter and half lard. Ok, I was cooking now.

Peeled peaches--and a simple crust strategy: flour, butter, lard, cold water, sugar and lemon juice. The dough smelled like roasted meat. It rolled out like a dream and baked to a lovely golden brown. The result? Pretty good, my friends. Flaky, with a rich butter flavor, not too meaty or weird. Not perfect, but I think I'm on to something. More experimentation to follow.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Birthday Cake

It's my brother's 29th birthday!

CHOW magazine (, a new San Francisco-based food magazine for the young and not-too-serious, has a portion of this month's issue devoted to recipes that should become part of any cook's repertoire. It also has a few nice looking recipes for cake, in a separate section of the mag. I would argue that a good birthday cake should absolutely be part of a good cook's repertoire--it's probably the one thing I'm called upon to make most.

But I love making them. You instantly become an important part of the celebration, and most people (smart ones, at least) really like cake. My favorite birthday cake recipe comes from my aunt, who got it in a packet of recipes that was put together by the parents of elementary school students in the East Fairfield, Vermont school. It's really Tommy Torbett's mother's recipe, so credit is due to Mrs. Torbett, wherever she may be.

Her Black Chocolate Cake is an instant hit. It's kind of a chocolate cake recipe for children, but adults eat it with reckless abandon, particularly if it's baked into cupcakes. I have made this cake dozens of times, always with great results. My aunt (and I) like to frost it with a classic vanilla frosting (butter, confectionery sugar, vanilla) but you can use any frosting you like, provided it's not that insipid stuff from a can. Don't do it! If I were in Boston today for my brother's birthday, this is what I would make him:
Tommy Torbett's Mother's Black Chocolate Cake
2 cups flour
2/3 cup cocoa
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking soda
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup shortening
2 cups boiling water, divided
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 large eggs
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans or one 9x13-inch pan. Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. Add shortening and 1 cup boiling water and stir to combine. Add the vanilla, eggs, and an additional 1 cup boiling water, and stir until well mixed. Transfer to prepared pans and bake for 20-30 minutes. You don't want to overbake this one, so set the timer for 20 minutes and check it, adding additional time as needed. If you make cupcakes they won't take as long to bake, so check at 9 or 10 minutes and add additional time as needed.
Once cool, frost with frosting of your choice. No canned frosting! I'm serious!
Happy Birthday, David!

Friday, June 10, 2005

Laurie Colwin's Tomato-Corn Pie

I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that this tomato-corn pie is one of the best summer foods, ever. Moving from the East Coast to the West Coast has left me a little mixed up when it comes to seasonal eating, since here it's already time for cherries, decent tomatoes and sweet corn. At first I resisted making this pie, thinking that it was too early in the season, but then I changed my mind, thinking first of how delicious it is and then thinking it was the perfect dish to serve the vegetarian coming for Friday supper.

It's described briefly in Laurie Colwin's genius book, More Home Cooking, where she mentions having lifted the recipe from James Beard. Whatever its origins, you should make this pie as close to immediately as possible.

Here, I'll even give you the recipe.

Laurie Colwin’s Tomato and Corn Pie

2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 ¾ teaspoons salt
¾ stick (6 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes, plus 2 tablespoons melted
¾ cup whole milk
1/3 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 ¾ lbs. tomatoes, peeled (or not—it doesn’t really matter) and sliced ¼ inch thick
1 ½ cups corn (from about 3 ears) coarsely pureed in a food processor
2 tablespoons finely chopped basil
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
7 ounces coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese
salt and pepper

Whisk together flour, baking powder and ¾ teaspoon salt in a bowl, then blend in the 6 tablespoons cold butter with your fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add milk, stirring until mixture just forms a dough, then gather into a ball.

Divide dough in half and roll out 1 piece between sheets of plastic wrap into a 12 inch round, about 1/8 inch thick. Remove top sheet of plastic wrap, then lift dough using bottom sheet of plastic wrap and invert into a 9-inch glass pie plate, patting with your fingers to fit (there will be just enough dough to line plate without an overlap.)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees

Whisk together mayonnaise and lemon juice. Arrange half of the tomatoes in crust, overlapping, and sprinkle with half of corn, half of the basil, half of the chives and salt and pepper. Repeat layering with remaining tomatoes, corn, basil, chives, salt and pepper. Sprinkle with one cup of the cheese, pour the lemon mayonnaise over the top and sprinkle with remaining cheese.

Roll out remaining piece of dough into a 12 inch round in the same manner, then fit over filling, folding overhang under edge of bottom crust and pinching edge to seal. Cut 4 steam vents in top of crust and brush crust with 2 teaspoons melted butter.
Bake until the crust is golden and filling is bubbling, 30-35 minutes, then cool on a rack.

Eat! Yum! Nice light dinner with green salad. Also good the next day, but there is never any leftover.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Shanghai Dumpling Shop

It was foggy last night (a shocker here in San Francisco) and kind of damp and dreary, so I gathered some friends and we embarked on a fruitful exodus to Shanghai Dumpling Shop. Because I'm still new to this city, every drive requires a map and a keen attention to detail, particularly in the areas that are further afield. This restaurant qualifies as 'further afield,' located as it is way out in the Richmond part of town, on a not-very-hopping stretch of Balboa (3319 Balboa at 34th Avenue).

Oh, but the Shanghai soup dumplings! The Green Onion pancake, crusted in toasty sesame seeds! The baby bok choy with bean curd skin! The one dubious dish were the Lion's Head Meatballs, these giant pork balls sitting in a bowl of five-spice seasoned gravy. They tasted good but seemed like the kind of thing you might regret, if you are the type of person that regrets eating pork meatballs the size of softballs. I am not, so I ate them with relish.

This place offers nothing for ambience, but that's hardly the point. The point is, when Shanghai soup dumplings of this caliber arrive at your dinner table, you should cease conversation and devote several minutes to eating them while they are piping hot--you owe them that much.