Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Looks Can Be Deceiving

This cake
smelled so good when it was baking. The combination of fennel seeds, cinnamon, cloves and honey gave our house that toasty, cozy, wintertime smell. It rose beautifully, the top shiny—I couldn't wait to cut into it.

Well, you know where this is going, don't you? It just wasn't that delicious. Oh, it was fine and all—mildly sweet, mildly spiced, mildly moist, but it wasn't all that I was hoping it would be, which was a quick-cooking alternative to the laborious pain d'epices I so enjoyed in Burgundy, France, a bread particularly well-suited both to tea time and as a transport vehicle for thin coins of foie gras torchon.

So no recipe, today, either. Not because I don't care about all two of my readers, but because I simply can't bear to disappoint you. And, to show you that to err is human—sometimes I make crappy food, and we use the remaining loaf to hide pills for the dog. I'll be back soon, with something you can cook.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In This I Believe

I think I've told some of you about this book project I'm working on with Charles Phan, chef-owner of the Slanted Door here in San Francisco. It is taking up a lot of time and brain space, but in the most excellent way. I'm so happy to be here. I'm learning so much (although not all lessons are good ones--yesterday I popped a cube of fermented red tofu into my mouth, having never tried it before. For others unfamiliar, I caution you--bad idea).

Once or twice a week, I head down the Slanted Door kitchen, where we work on recipes, shoehorning our Dutch ovens filled with sizzling pork belly right next to the pastry cooks and their nice, polite, coconut tapioca. I think they love it. Yesterday we worked on this recipe, above, for beef stew fragrant with lemongrass and star anise. We used brisket, cubes of carrot and daikon, and a knob of smashed ginger.

Some of our recipes fail on first attempt. Some fail on the second. Some we decide aren't worth the work necessary to make them great, so we replace them with something better. But sometimes, when the Gods of recipe development are shining brightly upon us, a recipe works brilliantly the first time around. I get so happy when that happens, not only because it means we'll have less work to do but also because I imagine someone cooking the recipe and making a really great dinner and feeling pleased as punch. And this stew will do that. We tasted it, and we loved it, and then we topped it with Thai basil and minced Thai chilies and I loved it even harder.

When this recipe debuts in the fall of 2012, people will be so glad. And there is no sweeter reward for all this work.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Darkness in the Kitchen, Lightness on the Plate

Is it dark in your kitchen by dinner time? We're getting there. It's feeling less and less like summer, though there are still some tomatoes, peppers and eggplants at the market, and more and more like early winter. For some reason, I'm not minding the change of seasons this year. I feel ready to hibernate.

The next few months are going to be busy, but I love the bustle and excitement of a year winding down. I've got tons of projects going on, and this dish—a modern take on a root vegetable salad—is for one of my assignments. To make it, I combined shaved fennel, leaves of variegated radicchio, fingerling potatoes, radishes, blanched carrots and super sweet golden beets, along with a handful of chopped parsley. I made a warm dressing that is basically bagna cauda, the Italian "dip" for vegetables that is comprised of good olive oil, garlic (sliced Goodfellas thin), a pinch of red pepper flakes and some mashed anchovy filets. It's a nice (and pretty) antidote to all the roasted root vegetable salads that debut this time of year.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Great Food Packaging

This is in no way a product recommendation, since I have yet to try and of the things contained in these tubes (three types of German mustard and an Italian anchovy paste). And the reason why I haven't tried them yet? Because the packaging is too.damn.cute. I happen to be a sucker for things in tubes. So handy! So space saving! You can use without dirtying a knife or spoon! Given that Americans may well be the laziest cooks in all the world, it seems like tubed condiments would have caught on here like wildfire, but it reality the only tubed thing I see regularly is tomato paste and, occasionally, harissa. What gives?

Incidentally, the packaging is the same reason that I want to plant my non-existent vegetable garden with Franchi Sementi seeds.

Not only does Bergamo, Italy-based company offer an irresistible array of heirloom varieties, the seeds are sold in these simple, well-designed seed packs. Wouldn't an assortment of these be a great gift for someone who does have a "back forty?"

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

This is what I've been doing

Lest you think I've just been completely slacking off, or that I was on summer vacation, let me set the record straight. I was working. On this story, about the state of fine dining in San Francisco. Please take a minute to read it and let me know what you think. (photo by Frankie Frankeny).

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Whoopie Pies!

It's a good thing that I take photographs of the things that I cook and eat. Most of the time I forget to look back at them, remembering only when (ahem) I have failed to blog for two straight months. But on those not-so-rare occasions, it's great to have a little trail of bread crumbs to help me recall what I've been doing in the kitchen.

My wife sent me all of the vintage food pictures off our camera, commenting that there was "nothing great" but that maybe I'd be able to work some magic with the images. Clearly she has become jaded, because just look at those miniature whoopie pies that she made for our housewarming party! Those are something great, that's for sure. Since Sarah was raised in the great state of Maine, birthplace of the whoopie pie (and don't let anyone tell you different), I deferred to her when it came to making these. Ordinarily the filling is marshmallow, or some Crisco-stiffened frosting-like business. We thought we could do one better using good, all-natural sweet butter and clouds of confectionary sugar. Without delving into the specifics, suffice to say that it didn't really work—turns out vegetable shortening does have its place. I'm sure some of you are now horrified and distrusting, and let me assure you that I am not the type to use shortening in place of any natural fats. But in this case ...

You certainly could make these full-size, but the petite version is great for a party, a potluck, anytime there will be a lot of food around. The cake is moist in the way that the sandwich part of an ice cream sandwich is moist, sticking to one's fingers. Using good cocoa is a nice idea here, and be sure to err on the side of underbaking, lest you end up with dusty pucks. And the Crisco? Yes, trust me about the Crisco. Now that I have you excited, I must report that Sarah has been a little slow to type up her secret recipe, which was an amalgam of a few different recipes, including one from the Dysart's cookbook, published by a truck stop restaurant in Bangor. (For real. You should buy it.) But once I have Sarah's secret, time-honored recipe, I will amend this post.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Andrew Carmellini's Squid Salad

It's such an enormous pleasure when a recipe works the first time through. Having written and tested my fair share of recipes, I can't tell you how many times I'll cook something, only to realize midway through that there is no way that's it's going to turn out OK. There is twice as much batter as there is space in the pan. Cooking it for 20 more minutes is going to result in incineration. Holy hell, there are a lot of bad recipes out there. And it's just not fair--if you're going to spend time and money making something, it should turn out right. The first time. No fussing.

Which is why I'm so thrilled about Andrew Carmellini's Urban Italian book. Not only is it filled with recipes that I can't wait to make, the two that I've tried so far have been total slam dunks. A few weeks ago I saw fresh, wild squid at the market (a total bargain for $3 a pound if you're willing to do the inky work yourself, something I find kind of fun). I cleaned the squid, cooked them in simmering (not boiling, as that would turn it to rubber) water, chilled it fully and then combined it with thinly sliced celery and red onion and chickpeas. I dressed the whole thing with harissa, a mess of lemon juice, good olio nuovo and lots of salt and pepper. And then? I couldn't stop eating it. I had it for dinner, then again for lunch, and lunch the day after that. It's the perfect salad for this shoulder season, while we wait for the rest of the spring vegetables to appear but we still need something more substantial for supper.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

New Beginnings

Now that this blog is part of my finally-launched website, I'm going to try and join you all more often. It's spring, the season of fresh starts, and I'm giving it a go. And while some of us are still enjoying the glories of a new season (or waiting expectantly for it to begin at all) others of us have quickly, if lovably, lost sight. My wife Sarah announced three days ago—on March 21—that she was “sick of asparagus.” As in, she’d already had her momentary fill, thank you, and couldn’t we have carrots? Or spinach? Or spring onions? I did what any of you—any of you in places where your yards are flooded, your ground still frozen, your trees still leafless—would do. I ignored her, and I cooked two fat bunches of spears until browned, the tips crispy, and following a recipe from the A16 Food + Wine cookbook, I mixed up some walnut crema to go with them.

But my very favorite way to have asparagus this time of year is to roast it and serve it topped with a fried egg, yolk still soft, and a flurry of freshly grated Parmigiana-Reggiano and lots of freshly cracked black pepper. Though some prefer the pencil-thin spears, I like to choose the fat ones, which you can roast until crispy without worrying about desiccation. With toast on the side, this is a variant on my much beloved breakfast-for-dinner, but it feels more sophisticated then the usual—and in the fleeting season when sparrow grass feels like a special treat, a very fine celebration of the season.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Feast

It has been so long that I hardly know where to start, but then I found this image and knew that there was a beginning here, someplace. This was taken in Little India, Singapore, in late November, on one of hottest and most humid nights I've ever experienced. Just before we arrived at the restaurant it started raining like crazy, and we ducked under the eaves of an Indian temple while the storm passed through. When there was finally a pause in the deluge we made a break for it, running past dozens of shops selling gorgeous gold jewelry, to the restaurant.

I've eaten plenty of Indian food, but this menu was all new to me, featuring South Indian specialties I'd never seen before (and some, like appam, I have been looking for, without luck, since arriving back home in December). A woman waiting in line to order guided us through the options. We settled on a few things, but then we ordered more when something got our eye. It was a great and glorious feast, and I'm quite certain it cost less then ten American dollars. I owe you more than this, I know, and we'll get to that. I've been cooking some good things in this New Year and I'm looking forward to sharing them with you. But in the meantime, here's a snapshot of a meal I meant to tell you about sooner. Thanks for waiting.