Thursday, October 20, 2005


Last night, someone at work (my part time job, mind you, and nothing glamourous--I'm the reservationist) brought me a doughnut fresh from the fryer, a little experiment by one of the cooks in pastry, drizzled with a little confectionary sugar glaze. It was, of course, delicious.

Doughnuts are a food that I can get really emotional about. When I was a kid, my father once drove me to a friends house on a snowy Sunday morning. Our Pontiac station wagon (the kind with the faux bois decals) couldn't make it up the back road, wheels spinning on the ice, so I offered to get out of the car and walk. After all, the house was just up over that rise, past a small pond and to the right, an old Vermont farmhouse.

Hours later, my friends mother called my dad to see when I was coming over. My father realized that he'd dropped me on the wrong country lane, where I had been walking, and walking, and walking. What he didn't know was that after I had walked for a few hours and it had started to snow a little old man pulled up in a Jeep. It was the first and only car I had seen since being dropped off, so I followed my 8 year old instincts and took a ride with him to his house where his wife, I swear to god, was making doughnuts. From scratch. It was like the best kid's dream, ever. I don't remember wanting to go home, but I do know that when my father finally arrived in a borrowed truck to rescue me, the old man's wife sent me packing with a brown sack of fresh sugar donuts, the grease staining the bag.

I only mention this story so that you will understand my stance on doughnuts. Despite years living in Boston, I've come to the conclusion that Dunkin' Donuts are NOT GOOD DOUGHNUTS. To me, a plain doughnut means a plain cake doughnut, unglazed, unsugared. The fluffy kind with sugar coating? That's a glazed doughnut, having nothing to do with plain doughnuts. My favorite of all, though, which are nearly ubiquitous in apple country this time of year, are apple cider doughnuts. The spicy, dense cake, when fresh from the fryer, has an outer crust that crunches slightly when you bite into it. So far, in San Francisco, I have found no traces of cider doughnuts. The closest doughnut shop, Happy Donut, must be a front for some other type of operation, because they give you a bags worth of donuts for the price of one. They are decent, super sweet, but no cider doughnut.

The origin of the doughnut is difficult to determine. Variations on the fried dough theme were popular throughout Europe long before the signature doughnut as we know it came to American shores. One of the first mention of doughnuts is in Washington Irving's "History of New York" published in 1809, where he describes balls of dough fried in hog's fat that resembled oversize walnuts (the nut in doughnut, presumbably). And a small plaque at a home in Rockland, Maine, identifies that spot as the birthplace of the doughnut hole (1847), the brainchild of a Maine seaman.

At any rate, one of my favorite spots for cider doughnuts is the Cold Hollow Cider Mill, in Waterbury, Vermont. Though you cannot order their doughnuts online (a freshness question, I'm sure, though I'd take a stale one of their doughnuts over many others) you can order their cider donut mix. I can't attest to the quality, but if you have a hood fan and a dream, I suggest you try it out.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Birthplace of the Noodle

An archaelogical dig in Northwestern China has unearthed some new culinary information: China is the birthplace of the noodle. Chinese archaelogists found an overturned earthenware bowl containing noodles, preserved under layers of ash. The noodle bowl was found at the late Neolithic site of Laija, a site dated at 4,000 years old. The discovery conclusively proves that it was the Chinese who first supped on noodles, not the Arabs or the Italians as previously considered.

The noodles closely resemble the hand-stretched wheat noodles that are currently eaten throughout Northern China, though those found at the dig site were made from millet, a crop that grows well in the semi-arid climate of Northwest China.

In honor of this discovery I suggest you all go out for Chinese tonight.

Into the Kitchen

Recently I've had friends confess that they read my blog as a procrastination technique, a break from the daily grind. Nothing could make me happier, as reading other people's food blogs comprises a large portion of my work days, too. But I've found a much more effective way to avoid the chore of trying to sell stories to people that don't want them: cooking.

We're having some guests for dinner tonight, new friends. It's only a Tuesday but I've settled on an elaborate menu that requires lots of advance preparation. I'm trying, in a small way, to impress them, since they know that I cook a lot and write about food and I'm sure they are expecting something more than spaghetti and meatballs. Making a meal like this goes against everything that I ever advise people who are nervous about cooking for guests. "Make something simple," I always crow, "and make it really good." I'm the queen of the roasted chicken and mashed potatoes, the grande dame of soup as dinner with bread, cheese, and salami, and maybe a salad to round things out. Generally, when I go to other peoples houses for dinner, I'm relieved to hear that we are having a simple meal and nervous when they announce they have purchased something they have never cooked before. The words you don't want to hear as a dinner guest: "What do you usually do with squab?" Uh-oh.

Today I'm at a frustrating place with my working life, so I made up this menu as a way to excuse myself from the computer legitimately. I couldn't write! I was cooking! To further justify my slackerdom, I tried to pick some new things to make (along with some old things) so that I'd at least be learning something along the way. So, for tonight, it's garlic toasts with braised greens (kale, broccoli rabe and spinach), a little gorgonzola and a poached egg, tiny roasted squash tortellini with sage and brown butter, pork loin with garden herbs, roasted potatoes and a little cherry tomato salad, and something chocolate (TBD) for dessert.

Now, back to the kitchen.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Nota Bene

My dining companion on that Italian voyage (and on nearly all voyages before or thereafter) reminded me that at that same restaurant in La Spezia we also had a first course of nearly perfect pesto, made with local Genovese basil and good parmigiano, tossed with fresh pasta, tiny cubes of potato and blanched green beans. A true taste of the Ligurian coast. How could I have forgotten?

A few days ago I accused Sarah of never remembering meals (well, meals that I make), an accusation that stemmed from her apparant lack of reverence for some brisket with tzimmes that I made for her brother's return from Iraq last spring. She kept calling it pot roast. I kept reminding her it was brisket. Then, she would feign remembrance: "Oh, yeah, the one that you made in the dutch oven with the potatoes." Nope, the one I made in the roasting pan with carrots and prunes, the one that I browned a piece of cow the side of New Jersey for, using only our warped roasting pan and my Yankee ingenuity.

Well, it's not really life or death now, is it? The point is that there are lots of good meals to be had, in seaside Italian towns and right at home. The point isn't brisket or top round, just that eating well with good company is one of lifes greatest pleasures.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Ciao, Chow

Today I started daydreaming about some time that I spent in Italy a few years ago. A good friend rented a massive house on a hill in a sleepy Tuscan town as a birthday present to herself. Over the course of two weeks friends came and went, and house dinners were collections of food finds we had each discovered on our respective journeys through the countryside. One night I provided porchetta I had bought at Dario Cecchini's butcher shop in Panzano, the famed butcher who recites Dante and plays opera while slicing your meat. Another night, my contribution was a nicoise salad, made with Italian canned tuna in olive oil.

One day we planned to meet my friend Nicolas, a Belgian who works for the Italian chocolate company Venchi. Venchi's chocolate is very, very good, and I have a particular place in my heart for their Cuor di Cacao, tiny squares of ultra-bitter chocolate. Nicolas was a new transplant to the company headquarters, in Cuneo, Italy, near the Alps, and didn't know much about the great Italian villages. We checked a map and agreed to meet halfway, in a seaside town called La Spezia. After lots of wrong turns in Tuscan towns, we finally arrived. La Spezia, as it turns out, lacks all the character, charm and beauty of the nearby tourist hot-spot of Portofino. It's a working town, a port city that still boasts a very active port--and not much else. The pink buildings lining the waterfront were black with grime, the streets were almost completely devoid of people and I saw a rat the size of a small dog emerge from a trashcan. Bella Italia this was not.

We wandered for a while looking for a place for dinner. One shack on the water looked promising until we walked closer and the smell of rotting fish brought tears to our eyes. Finally, we settled on an ordinary restaurant with an unsurprising menu and a surly waiter.

We ordered the fish for two, a whole fish roasted over vegetables. For the first time since arriving in La Spezia, we were pleasantly surprised. The whole fish, of name unknown, arrived in a broad copper pan, gently laid across thinly sliced potatoes and cubes of tomatoes, seasoned simply with fennel and red pepper flakes. The potatoes were crispy of the edges and silky where the fish had protected them from the heat. The fish was tender, moist and perfectly fresh. It was a great meal, made more so because our expectations had been so low. Though Nicolas had forgotten the promised chocolates, much to the dismay of the gang back at the house, we were able to find the autostrada home, cutting our four hour voyage down to a mere two. Though we vowed never to return to La Spezia, here I am, years later, recounting a splendid meal in a town hardly worth another thought. Bella Italia, indeed.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Tagged! Prunes, they're what's for dinner

There's a weird phenomenon called "tagging" in the blogosphere (a pretty strange place in its own right) in which one blogger "tags" another. A tag means that you have to find the 5th line of your 23rd post and extrapulate something interesting from there.

Since I don't want to be a spoil-sport, I'm responding to a recent tag. My 23rd post, 5th line reads,

"But prune juice also has high levels of acrylamide, and black olives and wheat toast."

That bit of hard-hitting journalism was written in response to a Times article about the high-levels of cancer causing acrylamide found in fried potato products, like fries and chips. On another vaguely related note, I made one of my favorite fall dinners the other night, and it contains both prunes and olives. It's a nice, simple braise from the very important book "All About Braising" by Molly Stevens. If you don't already own this cookbook, you should certainly go out and buy it. The recipe is simple---you dredge some skin-on chicken pieces (I cut up a whole chicken, though you could use all thighs and legs) in flour, heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a dutch oven, brown the chicken pieces then transfer them to a platter. Pour any accumulated fat out of the dutch oven and add a cup of white wine, 1/4 cup of white wine vinegar, a crushed clove of garlic, a nice strip of lemon zest, two cloves, 1/3 cup pitted green olives and 2/3 cup pitted prunes. Return the chicken pieces to the pot, cover, and let the whole thing simmer gently on medium heat for about 35 minutes, until the chicken is tender. Serve over mashed potatoes or egg noodles.

Worth the acrylamide.

America, are you out there?

I read a lot about the death of American culture and American food and I think some of it is true. The American fascination with homogeneity, big business and inexpensive goods has led to some dismal outcomes. Now, you can go to Paris in Los Vegas, eat a Mcdonald's meal in Sheboygan or Los Angeles that will taste exactly the same, and pay a ridiculously low price for meat that is raised in a factory farm on cheap feed using cheap labor. But I do think that indigenous culture remains, that there is more good food than we think in America, and that if we can just find a way to make some of the good things about American life accessible to average American, we will be on the right track. It's merely a matter of recharting our course.

Yesterday we drove thirty minutes outside of San Francisco down Route 1, oohing and awing at the vistas and the Pacific Ocean. We hiked in the redwoods, breathed in the fresh eucalyptus scented air, and felt miles away from the city. Of course, a day trip is never complete without a food find, and this trip yielded two. A stop at the Phipps Country Store, in Pescadero, yielded pumpkins and a huge selection of dried beans that they grow on the property, big ones, small ones, with names like "Jacob's Cattle" and "Chestnut Runner." Recently Phipps has gotten attention for their heirloom beans, and now they're shipping them all over the country. But you wouldn't know it by looking at the funny farmstand, which sells gummy candy and has cages of iguanas out back. They'll ship their beans and have a website:

We left Phipps with lots of beans and a big bag of salted peanuts in the shell and munched them as we headed further down Pescadero Road into the forest. On the way home we stopped at the San Gregorio General Store (, looking for a cup of coffee and maybe a sweet treat. We walked in to the sounds of a bluegrass trio and were thrilled to find a short wooden bar, a wide selection of cast-iron cookware, and a couple of plastic cake stands filled with cookies. The standouts were the date nut bars, tender pastry enclosing a thick layer of date puree studded with chopped walnuts. I'm going to call for the recipe. In the meantime, I suggest you pay them a visit, preferably on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon when you can drink a beer, listen to the music and watch the locals come and go.

Who says American culture and American food is dead and gone? In Pescadero and San Gregorio, the music plays on.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Will the nightmare ever end?

This just in: Rachael Ray will host a day-time talk show beginning in the fall of 2006, backed by none other than my beloved Oprah. Please! Somebody stop her! I could go on and on and on about the various things I find irksome about Ms. Ray, but I'll just mention a few of the things that really burn my biscuits.

1) Her aggravating, chirpy way of speaking, replete with acronyms ("evoo"), abbreviated words ("delish") and rhetorical questions ("how good does that look?").

2) Her thirty minute meals that often rely heavily on pre-packaged junk, like grocery store poundcake, frozen peaches and whipped topping.

3) The lame shit she does on her $40 a day show that no normal, self-respecting diner would ever do, such as using a coupon, during happy hour, at a bar, when you're drinking only water. It further annoys me because she has such a tremendous platform, and, oddly, such a large viewership, that she could be using this $40 a day to champion the small farmers, producers and restauranteurs that are preserving great American food traditions. But no, they don't take coupons.

4) Her nearly nude spread in FHM. I mean, come on. One look at their website, and you'd think the magazine was porn.....hey, wait just a second. It is porn! Rachael, did you know that?

And those are just the things that I can think of off the top of my head. Now a day-time show. Genius.

The Announcement of her new show can be found here:

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The spices in your neighborhood

It's become clear that Spain is, at least culinary speaking, hot right now. After the surge of upstart Amero-French bistros and brasseries transformed our dining landscape (and left us with such civilized French trappings as cheese for dessert), chefs moved on to the next big thing: Spain. There has been a lot of hoo-ha about El Bulli, Ferran Adria's laboratory of gastronomy hours from civilization in a Spanish coastal village, and food folks are equally excited about the Arzak family, in San Sebastian, where father and daughter work together to create mind-bending food that is both art and science. Years back, on the aforementioned trip to Alsace, I had the enormous pleasure of meeting Ms. Elena Arzak. She stands at roughly five feet tall, but is a true powerhouse and a generous spirit. While the rest of the chefs (notably the Parisians---sorry, but true) ignored me, Elena graciously joined me at table for the aforementioned beer soup.

While Arzak and Adria are all good, I'm really interested in the foods of the Basque region, the stretch of land that blends all things French with all things Spanish. It's a happy marriage, at least as far as the food is concerned, with the cheeses (look for Bleu des Basques and other sheep's milk cheeses, among them Erhaki, Ossau-Iraty and Petit Basque) of particular note. But perhaps the best thing to come out of Basque country is Piment D'Espelette. This dried, powdered red pepper resembles true Spanish paprika, and shares with paprika a warm, smoky, rich flavor. Underlying the mild heat is sweetness that reminds you that the peppers used in Piment D'Espelette are picked when dead-ripe, then sun-dried for two to three months to concentrate their flavo, after which they are quickly broiled and ground to a powder. Like a lot of great European foodstuffs, true Piment D'Espelette has been awarded with D.O.C status (Denominacion d'Origine Controle). D.O.C status means that Piment D'Espelette can only be produced in certain areas, during certain times of the year, and that production must adhere to standards that dictate everything from how ripe the peppers can be before harvest to how they must be dried and powdered. Giving a product D.O.C status protects its integrity and tradition, but it also keeps a lot of cheap imitators from producing inferior product and claiming it's the real thing. Currently, only 10 Basque villages are allowed to produce piment.

Espelette Pepper, also known in the Basque dialect as Ezpeletako BiPerra, is the ideal spice for fish and potatoes, for scrambled eggs, for little garlic crostini with white bean spread, for roast lamb...basically, it's the ideal spice. Best of all, unlike loads of kitchen tools, ingredients, and gadgets, a bottle of Piment is relatively inexpensive and will last for a long time in your kitchen, enlivening lots of formerly drab meals. At the end of October each year, a Piment D'Espelette festival is held in the Basque region. Having never seen it myself, I can only imagine that it's an unparalleled culinary event.

San Francisco chef Gerald Hirigoyen has a Basque restaurant here in the city, aptly named Piperade. Below, his recipe for--what else? Piperade! Piperade could be considered the building block of all Basque dishes, and it highlights the regional foods of Basque country--tomatoes, garlic, and piment.

Gerald Hirigoyen's Piperade

1/2 cup olive oil
1 small onion, finely sliced
6 anaheim chiles, seeded and finely sliced
6 garlic cloves, sliced
6 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 tsp. sugar
1/8 teaspoon Piment D'Espelette
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper

Heat the olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions, chiles and garlic and cook for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, sugar, piment d'espelette and bay leaf, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, then reduce the heat and simmer 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Discard the bay leaf and serve warm, alongside eggs for an elegant brunch, or with fish, lamb, or chicken.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Mr. Bond's Culinary Capers

I've been thinking a lot about my friend Jason lately, a very talented chef who has taken his talent of the wilds of New Hampshire, to L.A. Burdick's restaurant in Walpole. Burdick's is best known for their handmade chocolates, particularly their tiny chocolate mice with almond ears, but soon enough, I'm sure, their restaurant will begin diverting attention away from those mice.

Jason has proven himself an eager and willing dining and cooking companion, and I can't help but get nostalgic thinking about all of our culinary triumphs and experiments. There were roasted pumpkin seeds at Halloween, fruitcakes at Christmas (we had a blind fruitcake taste test one year, his mom's vs. my mother-in-laws), and a particularly trying gastronomic vacation to Alsace where, as guests of the board of tourism, we ate cabbage and pork knuckles for a week, washed down with local beer. We even had beer soup.

Jason singlehandedly cooked the meal for my wedding, a feast of modest proportions that consisted of boudin blank, flank steak and pork loin (heretofore referred to as "mixed grill"), bowls of sliced summer tomatoes with sea salt, corn salad with feta and herbs and a spicy peach chutney. He also cooked a meal for my very-important guest, the cookbook author Anne Willan, back when he was chef at a restaurant in Boston. Anne is a woman who takes her dining very seriously, particularly French food. So when Jason turned out pate a choux with black truffles and a rabbit dish with a sauce made from the bunny's own blood....well, let's just say it was a job well done. Of course, who can forget the time he pulled into the driveway with a whole baby lamb wrapped in plastic sheeting in the trunk of his car, then proceeded to make an Easter dinner that would make any Greek proud, replete with lamb two ways, braised and roasted.

Along the way, of course, were failures. What friendship is without them? There was the New Year's Day morning when Jason waved a tin of kippers under my nose, sending my champagne-weary stomach into knots. There was the red velvet cake I made for his birthday, a monstrosity so sweet that eating it was an act of deep friendship. There was the cake he made for our friend Sarah, scorched beyond recognition, but baked in a heart-shaped pan.

If a friendship can be charted by gastronomic highs and lows, ours is complete. I raise my glass to you, Mr. Bond, and the empanadas, galettes, sausages and cocktails still to come.