Friday, November 25, 2005

Giving Thanks

Boy, that was a real cliffhanger, wasn't it? I didn't kill the yeast. The Parker House Rolls rose and were a lovely part of our Thanksgiving dinner, a groaning table of beautiful food prepared by new and old friends. We ate chicory salad with persimmons and pomegranate seeds, mashed potatoes and gravy, brussels sprouts with roasted chestnuts and a brozed Narragansett heritage turkey. 5 years ago there were only 400 of this breed of turkey alive--now the population has boomed, a bird saved from extinction.

The bird was smaller than the broad-breasted turkeys that have become the Butterball norm, almost resembling an oversize duck, with big thighs, wings and drumsticks. Our friend Zack roasted it to a deep, even brown, a broad expanse of crispy skin with succulent meat that actually had flavor.

There is a great deal to be thankful for.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Rollin' Rollin' Rollin'

We have a situation here. Mere hours from Thanksgiving I'm having some major dinner roll problems. Let me set the scene for you. In Bangor, Maine, there's a little bakery by the name of Frank's Bakehouse. It's on Main Street, not too far from the Catholic church, and they make all sorts of down home baked goods, like whoopie pies and superlative doughnuts (rumor is they still use lard.) But the crowning jewel of Frank's are their dinner rolls. They are the pull-apart kind, yeasty and a little sweet, with a nicely bronzed cap. They come in white or wheat and they are the definitive roll, the benchmark bread.

I'm a long way from Bangor. So I decided that I would make rolls myself. With only a small number of ingredients and very few variables I figured I could probably make some Frank-esque rolls on my own. I was wrong. Last year I tried some sweet potato rolls using a recipe from the most excellent cookbook, Home Baking, by Jeffrey Alfond and Naomi Duguid. They weren't bad, but they weren't Frank's. This year I decided I would use a recipe of my own creation, a mixture of challah and brioche techniques and ingredients. I baked them last night, and they were pretty good. Not Frank's. In desperation I called the bakery and asked them for the recipe. They were at first reticent, then said that they could give it to me, but it was a recipe that made 30 dozen. No problem! I'll rescale it!! Then they said that they were actually too busy to give out the recipe just then--could I call after Thanksgiving?

Clearly they don't understand my situation. After Thanksgiving? The woman at Frank's was kind enough to tell me the ingredients, which she claimed were just the usual: flour, butter, sugar, eggs, yeast. Yeah, that's right--the same ingredients I used. So now I'm stumped. This morning I decided I'd do a second batch of just plain old Parker House Rolls (did you know Ho Chi Min worked at the Parker House, as a busboy?) but I think that I might have killed the yeast with a too hot milk-butter mixture. Fulled formed, in a warm, draft-free place, they haven't risen at all. I know this is a bad sign, I'm just not ready to admit it, yet.

Will midnight find our heroine mixing yet another batch of dinner roll dough? A full report on Friday.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Promises, Recipes

Loyal readers, do you remember my promise to track down the recipe for my mother's apple cake? I deliver forth the goods. I made it last night (it took about 5 minutes, literally, to put this baby together. The recipe is so simple that it can hardly even be called a recipe. What a delight.) and found it just as good as I remembered. I served it with a dollop of whipped cream, but it'd be nice for breakfast or tea or as a little afternoon snack. There wasn't any leftover, or I would be having that little snack right about now.

So here goes:

A Simple Little Apple Cake from Mrs. Stimets

2 cups diced apple (peeled or not, doesn't really matter)
1 cup sugar (white sugar or a mix of white sugar and light brown sugar)
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 egg, beaten
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup nuts, toasted and chopped (I used walnuts)

Mix the sugar with the apple cubes and let stand until most of the sugar has dissolved. Mix together the dry ingredients. Add the dry ingredients to the apples. Stir in the egg and the oil. Mix well until incorporated. Add nuts. (At this point the batter will not look promising. It will look like there isn't enough batter relative to the apple cubes. You will be feeling discouraged. Don't worry.) Pour the batter into a greased 8 inch pan (square or round) and bake in a 375 degree oven for about 30 minutes, until nicely browned and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Hot Dates

This morning I made a date relish to accompany our braised chicken dinner. The relish is a simple combination of sliced fresh dates, cilantro, lemon juice and olive oil and should be a good compliment to the spicy braise.

Dates are definitely an undervalued American fruit. In most supermarkets the only dates available are those odd desicated bits that make their way into GORP and fruitcake. Even when you do occasionally see fresh they are usually the most common Medjool variety which, while quite tasty, are only one of the dozens of varieties available, ranging in size from tiny to more substantial, from slightly sweet to pure maple syrup, from Barhi to Deglet Noir and back again. Plenty of other countries use dates liberally, including Australia, where sticky date pudding is practically a religion and throughout the Middle East and North Africa, where they are eaten out of hand and cooked alongside savory meats.

I always think about dates this time of year, with Thanksgiving fast approaching. Not only does their complex flavor pair well with fall fruits, rich caramels and bitter chocolate, they also always played a starring role at our Thanksgiving table. My grandmother, who otherwise was not a good cook, would make her famous stuffed dates every year for the holiday. The dates, which are stupidly simple, are very rich and very delicious and are just the thing to serve alongside your pies or as an accompaniment to that lazy fireside glass of port. In our house, the bowl usually appears on the coffee table just after the Macy's day parade cheers in Santa Claus and they are steadily consumed throughout the afternoon, which may account for our lackluster performance at the dinner table. Each date must be wrapped in a small square of tin foil; the foil keeps the filled dates from drying out, and it makes each one seem like a little gift.

To make these dates, pit a whole mess of fresh dates by slicing the side of each one and carefully extracting the pit. (Medjool dates are actually good for this recipe because they are firm and can be easily stuffed.) In a small bowl, combine softened cream cheese with powdered sugar. (How much? That depends on how many dates you have. You want the filling to taste a bit like not-very-sweet cream cheese frosting.) If you are feeling fancy, you can add a little lemon zest to the filling, too. (N.B. Grammy didn't do that.) Using a teaspoon or your fingers, pinch off a little of the cream cheese mixture and stuff it into the date. Squish the date around the filling, and top the hole with a toasted walnut. Wrap the date in foil. Repeat.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

French Breakfast

About four years ago I spent a summer working at La Varenne cooking school in Burgundy, France. Anne Willan, the owner and founder of the school, is a prolific writer and publishes a new book almost every year with the help of various recipe testers and editorial assistants who clamor for the opportunity to spend a summer in France. She has a wealth of arcane cooking information (do you know the traditional garnish for babas au rhum? Well, do you?) and is a demanding and exacting boss. I won't sugarcoat it--some of the chores were terribly dull and aggravating. Other chores, like picking fruit from the ancient potager (made famous by Amanda Hesser's book The Cook and the Gardener) and turning it into jams and jellies, were great satisfying work.

Though Anne and her husband know and like great food, it always appeared that they had very few vices. While we stagieres would sneak pieces of chocolate and potato chips, Anne stuck to the basic French doctrine: lots of vegetables, some cheeses and the occasional dessert, red wine and long walks after lunch. But being British, she did love her shortbread. Every week one of the kitchen minions would be assigned the duty of producing a weeks worth of French sable cookies, which we would then individually wrap and give to Anne. She would keep them in her bedroom and she and her husband would each eat one every morning. We all adopted the habit of a sable with our morning coffee, though often times ours would be the packaged variety made by Bonne Maman. The French word sable refers to the texture of these cookies, sandy, meaning they are so tender that the crumble delicately when you bite into them.

I got thinking about all this because I bought a shortbread cookie from Berkeley's Cheeseboard Collective yesterday, thinking that I would have it for dessert. But I forgot about it, only to remember this morning when I saw the butter stained bag on the counter. The cookie, alongside my morning cup of coffee, took me back 6,000 miles and 4 years to a big chateau in a little French town. It remains one of the finest breakfasts imaginable.

Anne's basic sable recipe:

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
7 tablespoons butter

Sift the flour onto the work surface and make a well in the center. Put the salt, sugar, egg yolks and vanilla in the well. Pound the butter with a rolling pin to soften it, add it to the other ingredients into the well and work them with the fingers of one hand until throughly mixed and the sugar is partially dissolved. Using a pastry scraper, gradually draw in the flour then work the dough until smooth. Chill at least 30 minutes (you can keep the dough in the refridgerator for up to a week, provided it is well wrapped.

Roll the dough out to a thickness of 1/4 inch and cut out shapes using a round or decorative cutter. Transfer them to a baking sheet and brush with an egg wash or a little heavy cream. Bake them in a 375 degree oven until lightly browned, about 10-15 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

For Spacious Skies

My parent's have been in town visiting over the weekend, which meant lots of exploring and recreational eating, two of my favorite things. Friday night I took them to Los Jarritos on 20th and South Van Ness, a Mexican restaurant owned by the Reyes family. It's a step up from many of the Mission District spots, both in decor and in food. Their Friday night special of posole (a brothy tomato based soup studded with bits of roasted pork shoulder and tender hominy) and the housemade flour tortillas are particularly worthy of note, though they make a fine chile rellenos and the service is kind and efficient.

Saturday morning the road trip began, with a quick stop at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market so my folks could marvel at California's bounty and we could load up on provisions. An hour later, laden with Acme's ham and cheese turnovers, a crostata from Frog Hollow, strip steaks from Niman Ranch, Cowgirl Creamery cheeses (a gruyere and a local goat), mushrooms, greens and just-picked carrots, we returned to the car and the road ahead.

Our destination was the wilds of Yosemite, a place I had never been and was anxious to see. It was, in a word, breathtaking. The road rose to the sky and every turn afforded vistas, granite monoliths and giant sequoias. We greeted the cool evening with wood stoves cranked and steaks off the grill, topped with sauteed mushrooms and roasted potatoes. As the sky darkened the stars appeared in earnest, brighter and closer than back here on earth. I can't wait to return.

Still, it felt like a shock to leave the park and, some 4-odd hours later, be sitting in the swank bar area of The Slanted Door. A day of hiking left us sleepy but hungry, and the bright, clean flavors of chef Phan's food--a mix of Vietnamese, French, and California ingredients and technique--were just the thing to perk us up. I have to admit I was hesitant to eat there, having heard reports of overpriced, not as good as when it was on Valencia Street, too large to serve good food, etc. It was an excellent meal. Standouts included the green papaya salad, a brilliantly balanced combination of ingredients, the manila clams with crispy pork belly (which I wasn't sure I would like but found myself lapping the bowl) and yellowtail with a soy-chili dipping sauce. They also offer an addictive japanese eggplant dish, with the rich flavor of coconut milk and green chiles. I was pleased to see that the dessert menu didn't offer too many gimmicks of the lychee, green tea or mango variety so commonly seen in "Asian" restaurants. Rather, it was an edited assortment of fine flavors--a pumpkin bread pudding with apples and chestnuts, a pear tart with pear sorbet, a fine creme brulee and Chinese cinnamon ice cream.

The whirlwind California tour now complete (my parent's are, as I write, winging their way back to Vermont), we'll have to return to our former routine. I began the day, as I always do when there isn't anything better around, with a bowl of yogurt sprinkled with grape nuts. It's back to the grind, I suppose. Sure is nice to know, though, that 4 hours away there's a little piece of paradise waiting.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

We're from the country--and we like it that way

To me, California still seems like a vast uncharted land. There are still places not all that far from my home that feel completely untouched by development and I find it easy to imagine the landscape that early explorers must have discovered upon hitting the coast. Thanks to mighty preservation Route 1 winds along a coast dotted with trees instead of houses, rocky outcroppings instead of tourist shacks. It's so gorgeous that you can't understand why every road isn't choked with people, clamoring for the view.

We spent the weekend up in the Anderson Valley, which is quickly becoming (or has already become) the home of some very fine wine, produced by some very nice folks. The cosy valley offers just the right climate for grapes, including pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot gris and syrah and the area is dotted with top-notch wineries that eschew Napa's snobbery and tasting fees in favor of nice, neighborly banter and generous pours. We arrived at Navarro Vineyard's tasting room just before closing, but still had time to enjoy a flight of their wine. I think the Kahn's are making some superior wine, none of which sell for more than $30 a bottle. They are easy drinking wines that stand up well to food, and their gerwurztraimner is this year's Thanksgiving wine: dry, complicated, hinting at apricots, maybe. Hinting at delicious, for sure.

Navarro's 2003 pinot noir accompanied the dinner we enjoyed a few hours later at the Boonville Hotel. We stayed in the hotel, a ten room affair just off the main road, with a lovely patio and gardens and roosters crowing in the wee morning hours. The hotel is owned by the Schmitt family (the folks that sold the French Laundry to Mr. Keller) and the kitchen is overseen by Johnny Schmitt. His parents own the Apple Farm, just down the road in Philo, an organic orchard that produces cider and fruit, as well as offering lodging and cooking classes. I have heard the cooking classes, taught by Sue Schmitt, book a year in advance and are well worth it. Apple Farm's organic apples, most unusual varieties that grow well in Philo, are brought to the ferry building's Saturday farmer's market.

The Boonville's food was exceptional, made doubly so by the roaring fire in the dining room and the cool air outside. We ate Sonoma duck with polenta and olives and Niman Ranch pork with roasted apples and braised radicchio and found that they were both enhanced by the local wine. Dessert was a coffee pot de cream and hand-churned ice cream, the latter served with delicate Mexican wedding cookies and pecan shortbread dipped in chocolate. The best part was that we only had to totter up a flight of stairs to reach our room.

The next morning found us at the Meyer Family Winery, just down the road in Yorkville, where 10am was met with glasses of port and Scharffenberger chocolate. Matt Meyer is a friend of a good friend, so he showed us around, explained their wine and port production, and generously spent his time with us before sending us down the lane with some of their ambrosial port, just the thing to cap off holiday meals. Currently their distributorship is quite small and limited to the West Coast, but it's definitely one to keep your eye out for. The flavor is sweet and rich and well-balanced--though port is high-alcohol you never feel like you're being overwhelmed.

Not only did Boonville and the Anderson Valley feel like a great break from the city, it also felt like home. Here's hoping it stays that way.