Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Bird by Bird

I could blog about Thanksgiving...but aren't we all tired of that, by now? I like listening to people talk about their Thanksgiving meals, though, kind of checklist fashion. Turkey? Check. Gravy? Uh-huh. Mashed Potatoes? Oh, me too. Well, no kidding, folks. Have you noticed that everyone eats essentially the SAME dinner? Except the woman in front of me at the post office. She was gabbing on her cell phone about a Persian Thanksgiving. What could that be?

But enough turkey talk. I want to tell you about my new favorite kitchen tool. Well, it's not a tool, really--it's a bird. Can you guess what it does? It's little birdie back lifts up, and you can place a slice of lemon or lime in there, then press it down, and the juice come out the bird's spout, which has little holes to catch the seeds. Genius, eh? I saw this gadget for the first time at a friend's summer home, where all the kitchen gear has that wonderful, odd, vintage beach house feel (as in, it's mostly stuff used to make cocktails or boil lobster). I'd never seen one before, but I coveted it immediately, so much so that I kind of wanted to swipe it from her house. But I didn't. No, really! I didn't.

Instead, I went to Cookin', a gem of a store here in San Francisco. The taciturn owner has a great shop filled to the rafters with finds--enamelware, molds, pot de creme cups...and though it's completely chaotic and seemingly disorganized in there, the owner knows where everything is. So when I asked, on a lark (get it! a lark! so punny!) if she had a birdie squeezer, I was only a little surprised when she walked over to a huge glass jar and retrieved one for me. There may be more there! You could go get your own birdie cocktail aid! It is, after all, the holiday season--high cocktail time. And it would make such a cute little stocking stuffer.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The bounty of autumn: Ham Bone

Hey! It's fall! Even here on this temperate little peninsula, there is a carpet of brown leaves on the sidewalk, and last night it was downright chilly. I pulled out a hat and scarf for the first time this season--the changing seasons always make you remember things you've forgotten about: a favorite sweater, a familiar smell in the air, and, of course, good foods that should only be cooked when it's chilly and you need to turn on the oven, braise some meats, roast some squash, roll out pastry for apple tarts.

I had the good fortune to receive a ham in the mail last week, sent from the good people at Snake River Farms. They're one of a handful of companies in the States who are selling Kurobuta pork--an heirloom breed of pig (the Berkshire) raised according to strict specifications that guarantee deliciousness. Berkshire hogs were the pig around the time of Oliver Cromwell, and the British government gave Berkshire hogs to the Japanese as a diplomatic gift, which is how they came to be known as Japanese Black Hogs. (Hmm, pork as a diplomatic gift. Well, it wouldn't work in Iraq, but what about North Korea?)

The ham was delicious, marbled with fat, and a deep, rosy color. It had a rich, porky flavor that you don't find from the Honeybaked hams of the world. This kind of quality doesn't come cheap, (a half-ham, about 9lbs., will set you back about $90) but with the holidays fast approaching, no other roast will be so simple to prepare and will certainly be a crowd-pleaser. You can order one from www.snakeriverfarms.com They also sell Kurobuta pork chops, too.

The segue between fall food and ham may seem vague, but here goes: Ham=ham bone. Ham bone=soup. Split-pea soup is the ultimate fall food, and is the natural follow-up to a fine ham. To make it, do this: chop up an onion, a couple of carrots, a couple stalks of celery and a couple of cloves of garlic. Heat a couple glugs of olive oil (glug, glug, that's about 2 tbsp.) and cook up the vegetables over medium heat. Stir in 1 cup of split peas, plop in the meaty ham bone (if you aren't fortunate enough to have a ham-bone to spare, you can always use a meaty ham hock), pour in 8 cups of water, some salt, some pepper, a bay leaf....then simmer that baby until the peas are tender. If you have some surplus ham, chop it up and stir it in. Serve it with some cheese, some bread....and wait for the Trick-or-Treaters. Dessert, of course, will be fun-size candy bars. Of course.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Maine Event

Yet another computer melt-down (HP, now is the time to offer me a free machine in exchange for some shameless grassroots promotion) is responsible for some of my recent silence, though the rest can be attributed to a week spent on vacation in the great state of Maine.

And what a week it was! If my inability to comfortably button the top button of my new tight jeans is any indication, I ate pretty well. It was all in the interest of research, which is why I happily wolfed down whoopee, chocolate cream, blueberry and rhubarb pies, local hard-shell lobster (including the 4 pounder my friend Julia bought and then had to hammer apart on the front stoop) and Glidden Point oysters, in addition to a few fried fish sandwiches, some fine cheeses, enough bottles of wine that I was embarrassed to bring the empties to the redemption center and a couple of squares of seaside-town produced fudge.

Here in San Francisco, good food isn’t particularly hard-won. Bay Area natives seem to consider pristine produce, excellent wine and local fish a birthright. This is, generally speaking, a good thing, to have so many nice people interested in good eating. But sometimes it can get a little tiresome. It can make you think, “Is there anything new under the sun?” Any good eater worth their San Fran salt knows about Chez Panisse and Marin Sun Farms, Frog Hollow peaches and Straus cream.

So it’s exciting to go to Maine, where folks aren’t making such a hoopla. In understated New England fashion, they are just doing their thing. At Primo, in Rockland, they are feeding their guests with food grown about 20 steps from the kitchen door, and raising piglets that are plate-bound. At Morse’s Sauerkraut, in North Waldoboro, they keep right on making sauerkraut and pickles and bockwurst, just as they have since 1918, and it’s no big thing. The Glidden Point oyster vendor at the Boothbay Farmer’s Market tells me that her kids eat the oysters—who wouldn’t like something so sweet and tender? And across the green from her stand, the “Maine-ly” Poultry man keeps a cooler of chicken pies, rabbits and whole roasters. He doesn’t bother to boast and brag that they’re organic, or that they have access to the great outdoors. How else would you raise a chicken? Drive by the farm in Warren and you can see them scratching around the yard.

After living here, I wondered if I could ever be satisfied, culinarily speaking, with the East Coast. Now I’ve no doubt. Sure, there are months when your freshest vegetable is likely to be a rutabaga. But the seasons balance one another out, and the abundance I experienced last week made me think that it’s a rich region only growing richer.

Want to read more?
For Morse’s, visit www.morsessauerkraut.com
For Glidden Point Oysters, check out www.oysterfarm.com
For Primo, www.primorestaurant.com

Sunday, August 13, 2006

From Coast to Coast, Farm to Table

A frenzy of peach production has yielded nine quarts of canned peaches, two pints of peach chutney and many, many bags of sliced, frozen peaches that are awaiting a rainy winter day when they'll reemerge in peach crisps and crostatas. My day at the farm was spectacular, and David Mas Masumoto is one of the most generous and kind souls I've ever met. He's also an excellent writer, and the magazine section of the Sunday Times features an article he wrote about life on the family farm (and some recipes, too.) Check it out here: http://www.nytimes.com/pages/dining/index.html

Since the farm visit I've been on the move, and I just returned from a whirlwind weekend in Vermont, a trip to attend the wedding of an old friend. It was a lovely day, and I was struck by how lush New England looks in August. After only two summers here in the Bay Area, I've become accustomed to the scrubby brown and gold grasses, the spiky yucca and agave. It was a treat to spend a weekend in a place where summer means brilliant green, overgrown, aggressive agriculture. Food-wise, the highlight was an ideal BLT made by my friend Matt (ok, it was just a BT. Who needs the lettuce, anyway?) and a vegetarian feast prepared for my arrival by my mother, the world's greatest home cook, celebrating the bounty of August in Vermont.

I know I promised some pictures here, but there's been a technical difficulty. So close your eyes, and imagine sitting beneath the pleasant canopy of a fine old peach tree, juicy fruit in hand.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The new addition to the family

Big News! We've adopted!

No, not a child--a peach tree. Not just any peach tree, though--nothing less then an organic Elberta peach tree organically grown under the expert guidance of Mas Masumoto, a family farmer with an orchard in Fresno and also the author of the superlative "Epitaph for a peach: Four Seasons on a family farm."

Two trees were adopted in January by Slow Food Berkeley (I told you they were doing cool stuff) and the concept is pretty simple. Mas raises the trees and then the adoptive parents and their friends come and harvest the 200 pounds of fruit one weekend in late July or early August. We've finally received news that our crop is nearly ready, so I'll be heading out to the farm next Saturday to hand-pick my ten pounds. It's an unbelievable value, too--a one year adoption is only $250. You have to sign up well in advance and they only have a limited number of trees up for adoption, but it's something you might consider doing with your friends. Then, on the best weekend of summer you, too, could head to the farm and fill up your basket.

I'll post a full report upon my return, and some pictures and recipes, too.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Pozzi Perfect

I know I've disappointed my very small base of loyal readers, and I'm sorry. What can I say? Life got in the way, big and bossy, and I've been spending a good deal of time working on all sorts of new life projects. The good news is that overall I am much happier then I have been, so those who still check this blog from time to time will be rewarded with Feed and Supply 6.0: The Return.

And what better way to return then to tell you about the good work of Slow Food? To be completely honest, I've never been a huge Slow Food booster. Of course I love the idea of returning to artisanal food, of paying more attention to what we eat and of celebrating our farmers and growers. Good stuff, all. It's just that I've been to a event or two over the years and they have been decidedly not exceptional. One was a salt tasting. 10 different kinds in one sitting! Curious as I am about salt, that was too much even for me.

But yesterday was different. The day opened bright and beautiful, high sun and a touch of breeze. We got in the car and headed up over the Golden Gate Bridge, through Marin county and into Sonoma. We turned off at Petaluma, drove straight through the historic downtown and headed deep into the fields. Our final destination was Pozzi Ranch, a lamb farm on a gorgeous tract of land not far from the ocean. These are some lucky lambs, let me tell you. The ranch is all golden grasses and rolling hills, and in the center of it all was a meadow filled with beautiful tables and a massive grill.

As guests arrived they were treated to Aqua Frescas and local cheeses, while the cooking team, headed by the inimitable Michelle Fuerst of Chez Panisse, prepared a bevy of delights, from braised Pozzi Ranch lamb shoulder and grilled leg of lamb to grilled flatbreads and vibrant herb salads. A host of condiments accompanied the lamb--spicy harissa, rich yogurt with mint and garlic, fresh fava beans with new garlic, an herb jam with black olives--good stuff, all. Needless to say, it was a most beautiful scene. Under the hot Sonoma sun people who care about food heaped their plates high, dipping liberally into the "bounty of the county."

After everyone had eaten their fill of lamb we shaved ice for snowcones (with a blackberry syrup made from blackberries Michelle picked herself) and indulged in waffle cones with an amazing ricotta-honey ice cream.

By 3:30 we were headed back to the city (after a brief stop in Bodega Bay for peanut butter and molasses salt water taffy), sun-kissed, very full of delicious food and with a renewed enthusiasm for the good work of Slow Food. Don't believe me? See for yourself: www.slowfood.com You can join your local convivium and then tell them that you, too, want to celebrate local foods by eating snowcones on the best summer day.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The raw and the cooked

First things first: I don't even really like baked apples. I like apple crisp and apple pie, apple cake (as you loyal readers will remember, I posted an apple cake recipe a while back) and applesauce. But baked apples always kind of seemed like, well, kind of a lame dessert. So it's only fitting that I've been asked to develop a baked apple recipe for a magazine.

Two days ago, I would have told you that baked apples were NO BIG DEAL. In my head I was already strategizing what I would fill them with, and deciding on an abundant amount of the tantalizing ingredients that normally top a crisp. No raisins, thank you, no scanty filling of butter and brown sugar. These, I imagined, would be the perfect union of apple crisp and baked apples, with loads of that delicious streuselly topping that would blend perfectly with ice cream.....

Well, it isn't exactly working out as I planned. The bit of topping that's poking out at the top of the apple is getting nice and bronzed, but the stuffing that's deep inside the apple refuses to cook. Needless to say, this is neither a delicious or successful outcome. They still taste good, mind you, in that kind of gross uncooked cookie dough kind of way, but not exactly the kind of recipe that I'd want to send out to legions of home cooks. So it's back to the drawing board, I'm afraid, but if anyone wants to stop by later for a baked apple, please do--I have quite a few rejects kicking around.

Monday, May 08, 2006

How does your garden grow?

Last post, I promised to tell you more about the little garden I've built out back. Last summer it was mostly toil--I moved lots of dirt, built two stately raised beds (a project that involved pounding stakes, moving more dirt, and some aggressive drilling) and fought a courageous battle against aphids and rose rust. It was satisfying work, in the way that hard physical labor can be satisfying.

But this summer I'm angling for the satisfaction that comes from watching your plants--planted early enough in the spring to enjoy a full, productive growing season--grow and bear fruit. So what is back there? One bed is devoted to herbs, some of which carried over from last year, despite all of the rain. I have two types of parsley, chives, basil, tarragon, sage and three types of thyme, plus a small pot of mint. In the other bed I've planted spinach, mixed salad green, gorgeous blue lake beans and lots of tomatoes. To encourage the beans, I made some little trellises so they could climb high. It's so pretty. Then I planted some icicle radishes, tucked into little six-packs in some fluffy well-nourished soil.

My Meyer lemon tree, as if to show its enthusiasm for its new neighbors, has put out loads of fragrant blossoms. When each blossom falls off, you can see the baby lemon there, ready to grow. I'll post pictures soon, but in the meantime I think that everyone should get out there in their own yard, whether a postage stamp patio, a city balcony or rolling acres in some small New England town and mess around in the dirt. Plant a little rosemary bush, or put a cherry tomato plant in a pot and nibble off of it all season. Mound up some dirt and throw in some watermelons or some zucchini, or build a little tripod from bamboo stakes and watch your beans reach towards the sky. Growing your own food is not only good for your body, it's good for your soul, too. And that's good enough for me.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Rituals of Summer

It's here! The brilliant sunshine, the long days...gosh, if I didn't know better I'd say summer has arrived here in San Francisco. Oh, I know, I know--soon it will be foggy and cold in the evening (that's a Bay Area July for you) but for now I'll just take what I can get.

Summer has its own set of rituals, its own rules. Growing up, one of our summer routines was to go to Tozier's restaurant, in Bethel, Vermont, on the hottest days of the year. It would be too hot to cook, too hot to move, so we'd pile into the car and drive across the mountain to the restaurant my mom went when she was a girl. I love, love, love Tozier's. It is a low-slung, pine-paneled restaurant with long wooden tables and paper placemats that list Vermont attractions in green ink. On those hot days they have some tall old-fashioned fans circulating the air, but it stays cool because the restaurant is under a grove of trees near a little brook. They serve water in little waxed paper cones set into sturdy metal bases, and hot dogs on well-buttered buns, and fried clams. And outside, next to the main restaurant, there's a walk up counter where you can get ice cream cones and hot fudge sundaes. It is the perfect August restaurant. Just perfect.

But a different venue calls for a different routine. While we haven't yet found our favorite seaside seafood shack, and there don't seem to be any pine-paneled brook-side restaurants here in San Francisco, we did make the most of yesterday's sunshine. After a day planting in the backyard (beans, tomatoes, herbs, flowers...but more on that next post) we started up the grill, opened some cold Mexican beer and grilled some pizzas. Grilling the crust gives it the delicious blackened bits that you can't get in your oven (even if you have a pizza stone and the oven is cranked up all the way, filling the house with smoke) and it's great fun to assemble a platter of toppings so everyone can customize their pie. After the pizza, when the sun was still high enough to warm us and the coals had died down to a nice, slow burn, we toasted marshmallows and made S'Mores, and I had the wonderful pleasure of introducing our English neighborhood to the very American treat. Her quote? "Well, I like these very much indeed. They're quite good." Perhaps the start of a new summer routine?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

One year gone

It's hard to believe, but I've lived in San Francisco for nearly a year now. After twelve months in my adopted city I find that I still miss things about my old home, namely good friends around the corner and slices of vanilla loaf cake from Hi-Rise bakery. Oh, and their blueberry lime cakes. Good stuff. In the first few months here in California I thought about the East Coast almost every day, and I couldn't imagine that there would ever be anything that I liked about living here more.

But sometimes things sneak up on you. Now, a year later, I know that if we moved back East there are lots of things that I would miss about this side of the world. I'd miss the taco shop, La Cachanilla, where they serve no-frills tacos from a window at the end of our block. I'd miss the pizzas from Chez Panisse, the crust blackened from the wood oven, the toppings refreshingly spare. I'd miss the farmer's markets, which even in these bleak swing months are full of great things. I'd miss the walnut bread from Acme bakery. I'd miss the croissants at Tartine (oh, yeah, their cream pies, too) and when my birthday rolled around, I'd miss the carrot cake cupcakes from Noe Valley Baking Co. I'd miss living in a place where lemons--meyer lemons--grow so readily that people let the fruit drop to the ground.

When you love one place the most, it's easy to know what you should do. But when you love two places, things get a little muddy. While I think we'll probably head back East eventually, there are still loads of restaurants to visit, tamales to eat, sunny days to enjoy in the meantime.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Spring Fling

Easter Sunday is one of my favorite days of the year, marking the beginning of Spring and the end of months of snow (or, in my case, rain). It seems a day of possibility and a celebration of new beginnings, and it's filled with lots of great things: brightly colored eggs, bunny-shaped chocolates, lemon tarts and ham, to name a few. In my house, Easter is not so much a religious holiday as it is a gastronomic one: after months of potatoes, winter greens and braises, we eagerly cook up the first vivid green stalks of asparagus, shell the first tender spring peas, roast the first baby legs of lamb and make a big feast, a giant hoo-rah to say thanks, again, for the thaw. Thanks for the opportunity to join around a table, together, thanks for novelty chocolate, thanks for warm spring sunshine, thanks for the delicate blades of grass greening up outside.

There are lots of darling Easter traditions, though perhaps none is as beloved as the egg hunt that leads to the basket of treats. The Easter basket is so beloved in our family that it continues on, despite the fact that there are only adult children around now. Instead of Peeps and Brachs jellybeans we all try to source excellent "grown-up" chocolate from some of the best chocolatiers around. That means that my parents will pick up some sweet items from Burdick's Chocolate and my mom will order her traditional giant egg filled with little wrapped treats from Lagomarcino's in Moline. We'll swing by the See's store before heading the airport, guaranteeing that our East Coast relatives will have the opportunity to taste the Mallow-Caramel eggs that we're so wild about. Back when we lived in Boston, we'd stock up on the irresistible eggs from Venchi chocolate, an Italian company, conveniently sold by my former employer, Formaggio Kitchen. For those staying on the left coast, a little bird told me that Scharffen Berger is selling some chocolate bunnies this week. And let's not forget Hammond's Candies, in Colorado, offering floppy-eared bunnies, marshmallow filled bunnies, "debonair cream eggs" and hard candies and pastel ribbon candy for all of you odd ducks out there who don't like chocolate.

Now, I'm not going to pretend that these little items won't cost more then a bag of Reese's eggs from Walgreens. They will. But wouldn't you rather eat a few choice chocolate eggs than a whole handful of waxy, tasteless ones? I rest my case. All of these chocolates can be shipped to you in time for Easter Sunday, so get going!

Monday, March 27, 2006

The City of Angels

Swimming Pools! Movie Stars!

Feed and Supply has just returned from a wonderful whirlwind weekend in Los Angeles. To be honest, I've never been that interested in L.A. Too many cars, I thought, too much smog, too much urban sprawl. But guess what? Turns out I love Los Angeles. Sure, the traffic is crazy, and there's a lot of fake stuff (breasts, especially) and some extraordinarily ridiculous cars, but there's a rich soul of a city there and some good food, too.

The highlight of the many meals that we crammed into our three day stay was our Saturday night meal at Lucques, Suzanne Goin's warm restaurant in West Hollywood. We ate lamb tartare (really!) with fried chickpeas, a wonderful assiette composed of romanesco (that wacky vegetable that looks like lime green cauliflower) paired with jamon serrano, burrata cheese, and bagna cauda breadcrumbs and the quintessential green salad with Spanish blue cheese and walnuts and a sherry vinaigrette, which reminded me how great that salad can be--oft imitated, usually unsuccessfully. For our main courses we had rich, robust short ribs and the most MARVELOUS SUCKLING PIG.

This pig was legendary. Roasted for 12 hours, submerged at some point in duck and pork fat, the shredded meat was crowned with a crisp flag of skin, which was spread with a sticky sweet mustard and quince paste mixture. It was an amazing dish. It was an amazing meal.

And Los Angeles? A pretty amazing city.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

From Russia with love

Does anyone remember Project Harmony? This was a BIG DEAL in my middle school years--an exchange program between Russian and American students intended to foster goodwill after the old iron curtain came a tumblin' down. I was so envious of those kids from my school who went to Russia, returning with ziploc baggies filled with pins depicting Stalin and the hammer and sickle, nesting dolls, brightly colored shawls and tales of grocery stores that sold no groceries and stewed cabbage and strong tea served in tiny, gracious St. Petersburg apartments.

I still really want to go to Russia, and I daydream about vodka and big fur hats, the Kremlin's dome and traditional Russian food. For those of us who were raised in the era when Russia was a have-not nation, images of bread lines firmly planted in our subconscious, it might come as a surprise to learn that the Russian imperial cuisine was some of the finest of its time. While countryfolk might have survived on potatoes, kasha and cabbage, the royals commissioned French chefs to invent dishes (and then name them after the royal family!) that today are considered traditionally Russian, like borscht, koulibiaca (salmon encased in pastry) and kissel, a puree of red summer fruits thickened with cornstarch and arrowroot and served with whipped cream for dessert.

Today, inspired by the story of my friend spying Mikael Baryshnikov at a recent charity dinner, I dusted off an old recipe for a Russian classic, beef stroganoff. This simple dish, which combines filet of beef, onions and mushrooms in a veloute with tangy sour cream, mustard and dill, is a new favorite. It's dead simple, very satisfying and rich, and full of bright flavor. Served over egg noodles, it's a lovely little thing to add to your repertoire.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Cheer Up Sleepy Jean

Well, life isn't always the easiest now is it? I try and eat enough fiber, exercise, brush and floss, be kind to others, read novels and the New York Times, take my multi-vitamin and stay in touch with old friends. But sometimes it gets to be too much. And that is when you need to pop the top on an ice cold bottle of Cheerwine.

Yup, Cheerwine! Haven't heard of it? Cheerwine is a Tarheel Tradition, a soft drink with a "rich burgundy color" and a refreshing black cherry flavor. Cheerwine was born in Salisbury, North Carolina, in 1917, and has been a family business ever since. Old-fashioned sodas are in vogue right now, and Cheerwine is slowly making inroads throughout the Southeastern states, bound for a market near you. In the meantime, you can mail-order a sixer of glass bottles--drink a couple, then log on to the company's website, www.cheerwine.com, and try some of the Cheerwine recipes (no, really--Cheerwine ice cream, anyone?)

The vintage advertisement above is from www.cheerwine.com

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Use a recipe?

Sorry, friends. Where have the last three weeks gone? Here in my kitchen I've been using these February days to dust off some old cookbooks and get to work in the kitchen. I'll admit it, I have a tiny little problem with collecting cookbooks. I have dozens and dozens of books and can't stop myself from getting more. I don't actually cook from most of these books, mind you, but I do use them as a barometer of current food trends and as inspiration. As my mother wrote in a recent card she sent, thanking me for the gift (yes, OK, it was a cookbook) I gave her for her birthday, "the reading is as much fun as the cooking." Indeed.

But lately I've been feeling a little guilty about all of the books that pile up next to my bed, patiently waiting for their turn. And while I can make a decent meal for myself without consulting any of them, I have to admit that my repertoire was getting a bit stale. So in the last three weeks I finally tried out a whole host of new recipes. I began with the stuck-pot rice recipes that Mark Bittman wrote for the Times (see my post about Indian food for the link)--except that I didn't have all of the required ingredients for either of his recipes, so I made a little amalgam of the two, using the basic technique he describes and adding some toasted almonds and currants because, well, why not?

Then we had some friends over for supper, and I pulled out the Zuni Cafe cookbook and actually followed a recipe for roast chicken, accompanied by a fine bread salad. Since one of the guests was a vegetarian I dusted off my copy of the Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook and made a fine little twice-baked green garlic souffle. Except that I couldn't find any green garlic (why aren't the farmer's markets ever on the days you really need them?) so I made a leek-scallion-plain old garlic twice baked souffle. Decent stuff.

Buoyed by the new things coming off my stove, I then made some vanilla bean cake, using a recipe from Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte (ugh) by way of Rene Becker, the owner of Hi-Rise Bakery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I dream about this vanilla cake, and not having the opportunity to eat it at least once a week is a significant drawback of living in San Francisco. Though I've had the recipe clipped and ready to use for some time now, I was afraid it wouldn't taste as good as the original and discouraged because it requires 5 whole vanilla beans--an expensive proposition. But it does make two loaves, and now one is happily resting in the freezer, awaiting our next brunch invitation.

Tonight, because I bought some fresh ricotta at the local Italian deli and had no plans for it other than eating it straight from the container, I made some ricotta gnocchi. Despite my slavish attention to the recipe (another from Zuni Cafe) these little puppies were, to put it mildly, rather tempramental. While I was at the stove making them, my beloved Sarah was practicing the music for her weekly choir rehearsal. She mumbled her way through the music while I fumbled my way through the gnocchi, each of us cursing from time to time before finally figuring it out. In Sarah's case this meant replaying the same bars over and over on her practice CD--in mine, I decided it was time to deviate from the recipe and add a little flour to the mixture.

So these last weeks, my silence, have all been a result of an old dog being taught some new tricks. Accept my apologies--and let me know when you're coming to dinner. I'll make something from one of these books.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A list of things

My dear friend and fellow blog-keeper Amy has respectfully requested that I follow through on a tag--a list of questions to be answered that will offer you, the reader, some greater insight about me. But since this is a food blog--and I'm really, really trying to keep it that way--I'll answer the questions that are somehow relevant to that subject. Here goes:

Four Jobs I've Had:

1. Clerk at a health food store. Even today, if I walk into a crunchy grocer (like, say, Rainbow Grocery, the crunchiest of the crunchy--a collective, even) the smell of nutritional yeast and bulk foods takes me back to my high-school days.

2. Cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen. You don't know the lengths you will go for a job until you are covered in the stinky rind that has rubbed off of a wheel of Italian taleggio.

3. Receptionist at an art museum--the high point of that college work-study gig was the opportunity to cook a dinner for Sally Mann, one of my favorite photographers. What did I make, you ask? Lemon tart, and chicken.

4. Private chef. Not as glamorous as it sounds, folks.

Four Places I've Lived:

1. Woodstock, Vermont

2. Cambridge, Massachusetts

3. Burgundy, France

4. San Francisco

5 places I've vacationed:

1. Rome and Tuscany, where we ate, and ate, and ate

2. Montreal (Don't leave that city without trying the smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz's)

3. Provence, where the markets overflowed with goat cheese, olives and lavender

4. Playa Negra, Costa Rica

5. St. John, USVI

5 of my favorite dishes:

1. Grilled Niman Ranch Fearless Franks

2. Sarah's Chocolate Chip Cookies

3. Anything my mom makes

4. The Hoffman Farm chicken and polenta combination at Universal Cafe in San Francisco

5. Shanghai Soup Dumplings--someday, I hope someone will challenge me a soup dumpling eating contest. It will be a great day, particularly if it is a rainy and windy winter day at Joe's Shanghai in New York City. Watch out, challenger, my appetite for soup dumplings is boundless.

Four places I would rather be right now:

1. In a palapo watching the waves roll into Playa Negra.

2. Back East.

3. Trolling the aisles at the Grande Epicerie in Paris, a cook's paradise, awaiting the first bite of a little French macaron.

4. On a nice hike in the Marin headland with Olie and SP.

So, there. Now you know.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Treacle Time

On January 15, 1919, 2.5 million gallons of molasses exploded from a tank on Boston's harbor, cruising down the streets of the North End at 35 miles per hour, crushing everything in its path. By the end of the day, 21 people had died in the flood, an elevated railway had collapsed and dozens of buildings were filled with sweet treacle.

I only mention this because today I was thinking about the era before refined sugar, when molasses was the preferred sweetner for cakes and pies. My grandmother used to butter a slice of bread and then drizzle it with molasses, and as I age I find that I, too, have a penchant for the iron-rich syrup, which I keep on hand for gingerbread but sometimes spoon out of the jar. There are three types of molasses: unsulphured, which is made from the juice of ripe sugarcane, sulphured molasses, made from the juice of unripe, or green, sugarcane, and blackstrap molasses, the liquid that remains after nearly all the sugar has been boiled out, which has a strong, bitter flavor and is used primarily in animal feed. (I once made a cake with blackstrap molasses, which wasn't a good idea. The resulting moist cake, beautiful in appearance and nearly black in color, was acrid and most unpleasant to eat.)

Even in our sugar-obsessed culture, molasses has fallen out of favor. While artisanal honey is all the rage, there's not much clamor about molasses. The Southern Colony that eventually became the state of Georgia promised early settlers 24 pounds of molasses for every man, woman and child should they survive their first year America--imagine, molasses as a bargaining tool! And while once all sorts of sweets and cookies were once made with molasses, now it's the province almost exclusively of gingerbread, molasses cookies, and baked beans.

For those of you who are interested in a molasses recipe:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 egg
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Sift together the dry ingredients, then beat in the egg, sugar and molasses. Stir in the vegetable oil and the boiling water. Turn into a greased 8 inch square pan and bake for 30 minutes, until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Serve with whipped cream.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

We call it mush

Sometimes I think that I lived a former life as a Southerner. How else can I explain my love for pimento cheese, fried chicken, okra, shell beans and biscuits? How else can I justify the strong cravings I get for fried peach pies, a delicacy I only enjoyed once at a joint in Nebraska? Why else would I spoon up grits with my runny eggs?

Well, I've got an explanation for that one. I'm Italian. Somewhere, buried deep in my DNA lies a prediliction for cooked cornmeal that is culturally non-specific. Call it grits, call it polenta, call it mush--it's all the same animal. Along with buttered baked potatoes, grits are the comfort food I turn to when I'm tired, sick, hungover or cold. I like my mush on the softer side, long cooked in a good pot so the edges get a little crispy, then garnished with a flurry of freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano. I like it under things, too--beneath some braised brisket or short ribs, under slow-cooked rapini greens and sausage, nestled beside poached eggs with some crispy strips of bacon poking out here and there. But I think I like it best in a bowl by itself, so steaming hot that you have to hold the first bite in your mouth for a minute before swallowing, regretting being so greedy.

Like a lot of good things in life, polenta takes time. Though the demons of convenience have delivered us quick-cooking polenta, nothing compares to a big pot of good mush that has cooked for an hour or more over low heat. Quality is important, too. Cornmeal is cheap stuff, so it's worth paying a few more dollars to get cornmeal that has been stone-ground, perhaps at a little mill in the American South, or maybe in the North of Italy.

I especially like the stone-ground organic cornmeal from Anson Mills, in Charleston, South Carolina (www.ansonmills.com) and the cornmeal (choose from white or yellow, fine or coarse) produced by Mulino Marino, in the Langhe region of Italy. Their product, which is also organic, can be ordered online from Formaggio Kitchen (www.formaggiokitchen.com). Cornmeal mush is perfect winter food--so get cooking!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Mandarin Mania

This could be old hat, and I'm imagining the food loving public rolling their eyes at how hopelessly far behind the culinary times I am. But for those of you who don't get out that much, or live far away from citrus trees and swimming pools, allow me to introduce my new favorite fruit: the Kishu mandarin.

This darling little citrus, about the size of a large walnut, has an unparalleled sweetness, no seeds and the benefit of being so darn cute that, when faced with a big bowl of them, you discover that you have eaten ten or so without giving it a second thought. For those of you who have always wondered about the difference between a mandarin and a tangerine, Jim Churchill of Churchill Orchards in Ojai, California, has finally set the record straight: there is no difference. Mandarins are called Mandarins because they were said to have originated in Asia, Tangerines were a direct import from Tangiers, in North Africa. As it turns out, both stories are true: the citrus are native to Asia but made their way to North America via North Africa. Everybody wins.

Though it's hard to imagine life before those big crates of clementines from Spain crowded the market at Christmas time, I'm here to report that growing up in Vermont we didn't see those crates until at least the mid-90's. Before that, my knowledge of mandarins, clementines and other small seedless citrus was limited to the supremes of mandarin orange that came swathed in heavy syrup in a small can (which, of course, we kids loved).

Now, as is the case with most everything, citrus has gone boutique upscale. The aforementioned Churchill Orchards was shipping out crate loads of Kishus until last week, when the supplies dwindled (except for a few crates they reserve for restaurants, like Chez Panisse, who serve the Kishus nudi--whole, in a copper bowl, accompanied by some local dates), but the season is just beginning for their Pixie and Page varieties, and you can find more information about their harvest at www.tangerineman.com (the above kishu photograph was taken directly from the Churchill Orchards website, and credit must be due. Look, so tiny!)

Friday, January 13, 2006

From India, with love

These are trying times, dear readers. Due to some, uh, technical issues that ended in a a complete computer system restore I've been off the grid for a few days. Suffice to say I learn, once again the hard way, that I'm not really that techno-savvy.

I just finished reading a great memoir, Monsoon Diary, written by a woman named Shoba Narayan. She's a South Indian who writes about the experience of growing up in a food-focused culture, coming to America for school (like me, she's a Mount Holyoke alum) and then returning to India and feeling caught between two cultures. I have almost no experience with India or Indian cuisine so the book was an exciting education. Now I'm looking to head to the nearest Indian grocer to pick up dal and curry leaves and get cooking.

Wednesday's New York Times food section featured an article by Mark Bittman about "stuck-pot rice" which uses the Indian technique of first par-boiling the basmati then tossing in in a saucepan with oil and other spices, covering the pot first with a cloth towel and then with the lid, and cooking it over low heat until the bottom crisps and the rice takes on that perfect pilaf quality, redolent with the spices and with addictive crispy bits. Once, convinced that I could replicate the rice biriyani I usually ordered from the take-out joint, I followed Julie Sahni's explicit directions in her seminal book, Classic Indian Cooking. It involved soaking the rice for thirty minutes, then rinsing it until the starch had washed off (in no fewer than 8 changes of water) then proceeding with the par-boiling, etc. described above. I loaded mine up with toasted pistachios and raisins and a host of spices and it was the main event, accompanied by a salad of cucumbers, onions and tomatoes tossed with thick yogurt, salt and pepper. It was a wonderful meal, but for some reason I only made it that once time. Now, emboldened by the recipes in Monsoon Diary, I'm dreaming of udli and dosas, fragrant dals and spicy rasam. I'll let you know about my adventures.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Fueling Both Body and Big Rig

There are a lot of restaurants that I like a lot, scattered in cities and little towns all around the world. I love Pied du Cochon, in Montreal, where they serve massive pork chops, poutine (or, as we non-Canadians know it, gravy fries) and rich red wines. I feel perfectly happy when I'm eating at Primo, in Rockland, Maine, where big organic gardens supply the kitchen all year long. One of my favorite take-out joints has to be L'As du Falafel, on Rue des Rosiers in the Marais district of Paris, where you can get a falafel sandwich loaded with garlicky roasted eggplant, spiked with chile and sauced with tahini and lemon juice. In San Francisco, I'd happily eat at Universal Cafe at least once a week, especially when they're serving roasted Hoffman Farm chicken with polenta. At Keeper's restaurant, in Brownsville, Vermont, I always order the crisp, well-dressed iceburg and blue cheese salad, and when I'm in Boston I like to stop in for a rich plate of chef Ana Sortun's moussaka at her eponymous restaurant, Oleana.

But when I'm in Bangor, Maine, there is only one place to go: Dysart's. Dysart's is a truck stop off of I-95, a place to fuel both body and big rig, to catch a shower and eat a meal. The no-frills dining rooms looks just like you would expect a truck stop dining room to look, with bad art on the walls and formica tables. The menu is massive, the breakfast legendary, the breads and cinnamon rolls made fresh right there. Dysart's is a family business that opened in 1967. When Dan Dysart, the founder, died, over 100 truckers escorted the hearse from the truck stop to the cemetary, and then his children took over the business.

The food is good, but that's not even entirely the point. It's Maine food, camp food, and every day there are baked beans and brown bread in addition to burgers and fries. The point is that Dysart's never closes--24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on holidays and weekends--the truck stop stands as trucker's only chance of a good meal between Augusta and Fort Kent. The portions are big, the waitresses are friendly, the coffee is marginal and you feel right at home.