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Thursday, March 31, 2005

Singing The Bluhs

I was becoming more obnoxious than Charlie Trotter at a Foie Gras fest hosted by Rick Tramonto. So I had to stop drinking.

I'm now self-medicating with a chunk or two of Roquefort Carles each night. It's an expensive habit that's hard to break, but at least it doesn't make me say or do anything stupid.

Blue cheese is the new chocolate, at least in my little corner of the world. I can't get enough of it, especially French blue cheeses. What I'm talkin' bout Willis is a little style of blue, or bleu (which when you switch places with the e and u, becomes "bluh"), cheese called Roquefort (say "roke-FORE").

As you know, not all cheeses are created equal and even good cheeses can be spoiled by handling, age, and exposure. So it's been quite a challenge to find a good, imported blue cheese. Whole Paycheck is my source for cheese since I live close by, but I've been meaning to check out a few other places in the city.

If you were to ask me what my favorite blue cheese is, it would have to be Roquefort Carles, followed by Roquefort Societé, then Bleu d'Auvergne, then Gorgonzola (not really maker specific yet). Roquefort Carles isn't really "blue", but is speckled with pockets of green mold, is creamy, but easily broken into chunks, salty, and sometimes slightly watery. Societé comes close, but the bold, sophisticated flavor isn't as pronounced, though it is less salty. I often think of Societé as a poor man's Carles, since it's usually less expensive. Bleu d'Auvergne is semi-solid, hardier cheese, but with the same classic blue cheese punch. While Carles and Societé are bone white with specks of green and made from sheep's milk, Bleu d'Auvergne, made from cow's milk, has a yellowish tinge and a rind, while the other two are protected by tin foil.

Roquefort Carles (L), Bleu d'Auvergne (R)

The only problem I've experience with Bleu d'Auvergne is that sometimes after I've purchased it and brought it home, it has a slight ammonia flavor. That doesn't mean it's "bad", and I've found that letting it "air out" uncovered and then discarding the old wrapping, re-wrapping it in new plastic wrap, will clear up the problem. I usually serve Roquefort Carles or Societé to friends as a postprandial delicacy, that is, when we actually have company (it's getting rare). Or when I need something really comforting late at night, I reach for the Roquefort Carles instead of the ice cream. Bleu d'Auvergne is a great cheese used to flavor things like salads, on pasta, on toasted bread, etc. And it's swell on its own (which when you switch places with the w and the n, becomes "on-wuh").

Really, you have to believe that I would'n't have spoken this way about blue cheese several years ago.

Growing up, I had the same aversion that many people I know have towards blue cheese. This was unfortunate, since my only real taste of "blue cheese" at that point was Kraft blue cheese dressing, which seemed so alien to my Thousand Island-laden taste buds that I put it on my food enemies list without thinking twice. One of my earliest food memories is sitting in an elementary school cafeteria in Morganton, North Carolina mixing a packet of ketchup and a packet of mayonnaise together to dip my French fries in to. This was my gerry-rigged Thousand Island dressing. Now that I'm an adult, I don't drown my salads in Thousand Island dressing (it's rare that I even touch the stuff), or despise Mac and Cheese, or vomit at the thought of Cole Slaw. And now that I know what real blue cheese tastes like, I don't hate that either. In fact, there are so many foods I wouldn't touch as a kid, that now I love.

I mention this only to highlight my own values change in food. Yes, we do have food values, and I've found that values you place in food often correlate with values you hold in general. Often our food values represent the values of the dominant culture. That culture loves the flat, convenient, reptilian-brain flavors that invokes a beloved Aunt, but distrusts cerebral, complex, assertive flavors that invokes a French commie with a lisp. Some folks (often stupid men) will burn their mouths (and later on, other things, things I like to call "the ring of fire") with fiery chili by engaging in a common form of gastro-machismo and half-hearted sadomasochism. But then these same "tough guys" cower, like shrinking violets, at the thought of raw fish on their tongue. Some even brand certain foods "un-American" (Freedom Fries, anyone?). This is truly food poisoning. In fact, it's a real pain in my Middle American Trench.

I believe more and more that how we think of food is how we think of the world, perhaps even how we think of ourselves. Do we only eat the food of our particular ethnic tribe, reflecting our own brand of isolationism, or do we refuse to eat foods of other ethnic groups to reflect our racism and/or xenophobia? Do we always want to be comforted with the "safe", the bland, and the known, prompting us to choose Subway over the small business owner who makes her own unique sandwiches? Or do we see ourselves as constantly seeking knowledge, about food, about others, and about ourselves?

For a look at those who think and eat like the latter, come to San Francisco and be proud. Today I was in a new boulangerie called the Brioche Bakery eating what most tough chili eaters would complain about as being too strong: a "brioche pizza" with gruyere, anchovies, carmelized onions, and water-cured black olives. Sitting by the window, I noticed how many people came in, just out of curiosity. Though I could tell that most were locals, mostly office workers, you could call them gastro-tourists or even gastro-adventurers.

Brioche Bakery/Boulangerie

Many were fully excited about trying something new and all who came in bought something to try, no matter how small. As well, if they hadn't, I would've recommended that they should, because it is a truly nice development in that part of Columbus and the baked products look (and taste) exceptional. The Pain au Levain is a flavorful, whole-wheat (and I think rye and white flour) loaf with a dark brown, chewy crust and a soft, slightly moist and cool, airy, crumb that smacks of goodness. An apple tartlette (a mini Tarte Tatin) there will convert all but the most extreme of apple tart haters. The cheese croquettes, baked cheesy hollow dough balls, are addictive. And I can't wait to try more. But, I'll definitely be back for the apple tartlette, and maybe I'll bring a little Roquefort with me to sprinkle on top!

Ummm, just thinking about it….


Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Artichoke Soup

Saturday started off overcast and stayed that way most of the day. Yet the schizophrenic weather didn't dampen our spirits the way the rain has dampened my exposed head walking home for the last several weeks. Note: Got to remember to bring umbrella.

Bruce, Debbie, and I, having previously planned a get-together, decided to drive down to San Gregorio and Pescadero for a little road trip. Debbie thought one of her friends was playing music at the San Gregorio General Store, so maybe would could swing by and see what was going on. Debbie is one of those people (and Bruce and I know a few) who can't throw a stick without running into someone she knows. That's what's great about her; that, and she's just a cool individual to begin with. She also takes great photos (see below).

The drive was beautiful down Highway 1, as we passed fields of young brussel sprouts and vegetable stands. Did find some red onions at 59 cents a pound, but a pound of baby artichokes (which are grown in the area) were $5.00! Perhaps this is because most of the spring produce is being vacuumed out of the state, causing the locals to pay national prices. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the artichokes for sale in the little Farmer's Daughter stand outside of Half Moon Bay had been to Florida, New York, Mexico, and back to within a 100 feet of where they were picked, selling at a price that covers mostly the gasoline costs. Of course, I'm just speculating.

It's been a while since I've been to the San Gregorio General Store, and while it's a nice place to visit, I was hoping to see more local produce for sale. From what I hear, there is usually some near the door, but being a produce stand is not what they are known for because, well, they are a "general store", boy howdy, with a functioning bar, café, convenience store junk, cookbooks, preserves, pickles, clothing, and lots more. While at the General Store, Debbie ran into a guy who use to play for a band called Boxed Set and she chatted with him while Bruce picked out postcards and I tried on hats. To the un-amusement of the stone-faced cashier(or was it just vacant?), this Cityboy left with new Cowboy hat on head, probably as so many weekend, wannabe-rural, poseurs have done countless times before. It probably didn't help cultivate a rugged image that I put it on my card. On that note, we high-tailed it out of San Gregorio and set a course for Pescadero.

Pescadero is a very small town with a bakery/deli, a goat farm, a restaurant, a church, and a couple of banks. That's it. No MickeyDs, no Starbucks, no cafés, nothing really too froo-free, unless you count the few craft stores. If there was ever an artichoke festival, this is where it should be. Pescadero is in the heart of artichoke country and the local foods reflect that.

By the time we rolled into Pescadero, we were famished and desperately wanting the artichoke soup Debbie and Bruce so fondly remembered eating at Duarte's. At Duarte's we chatted with the hostess/cashier a little before being seated. We asked how far Phipps Ranch was and while she gave directions, she also let us know about the local goat farm that sells its own cheese, which was right down the road. By the way, I also noticed that Duarte's sells their own preserves, some of which, like the Ollalieberry jam, looked kinda interesting. We were seated at a wooden table under dim lights near the divide between the bar and the restaurant. The ambiance/interior design of Duarte's restaurant can pretty well be described as "crab shack", while the bar looks like it's been dragged through the centuries, with the residue of various decades trailing behind. The various portraits of cigar-smoking, pool-playing, dogs illustrates my point, I hope.

After perusing the menu, Debbie ordered the artichoke soup, and Bruce ordered the green chille soup, while I had the deep fried smelt, which were not as large as I've had at other places. In hindsight, I probably should've ordered something different because I think we were all under the assumption that we would be sharing and it didn't occur to me that I was the only one at the table who eats fish with the heads and tails on. Oops. I sometimes forget that my taste in seafood goes beyond what some people find appetizing.

Duarte's began as a stagecoach stop in the late 1800s and has been inebriating and feeding the locals since, well, dogs learned to play pool. In 2003, it was awarded a James Beard Foundation award for being an American Classic. There's a lot of history and a lot of pride with Duarte's, and the people who work there, and the staff were more than happy to engage us in friendly conversation. The food's not bad either. Of course, everyone raves about the artichoke soup. I tried Debbie's and liked it, but for my taste it could've been a little more artichokey. That's ok, because it did inspire me to search out recipes on artichoke soup, which I am doing now and will let you know if anything good comes up. Actually, the best dish at Duarte's, at least as far as our table was concerned, wasn't a dish, but the hot sourdough bread brought to our table. It's funny because this is the second time lately that I've been to a restaurant and thought the bread, which is usually to tie you over until your meal comes, was the real star. This was true at Duarte's and L'Osteria del Forno (wonderful foccacia).

Pescadero Road Trip

Speaking of bread, we skipped dessert, since all of us wanted the artichoke bread Debbie mentioned to us earlier. We walked from Duarte's to the Arcangeli Bakery, which is another old Pescadero institution. The bakery is actually a small grocery store with a deli attached. Inside were jumbo artichokes for sale at 99 cents per pound and all sorts of freshly baked French/Italian bread, sourdough, and varieties of artichoke bread. Much of the bread they sell is partially cooked, with instructions of the bag's label which tell you what temperature and for how long to finish baking it. Cool, huh, even if it is sort of "Papa Murphys-ish". As I perused the store, Debbie called me over to the bread aisle and said, "you've gotta feel this". It was the garlic artichoke bread that had been fully baked and was still warm. The smell of it was divine. I picked up a loaf and without skipping a beat, went straight towards the checkout. It was all I could do to wait for Debbie and Bruce to meet me outside before I devoured this piece of manna from heaven. Once assembled, we ceremonially removed the bread from its bag and held it, no, we presented it, to the friendly spirits and forces of good in the universe. Then, as if partaking in communion, we placed our hands on the loaf and broke it in half. To my astonishment were large pieces of artichoke baked into the bread that were now exposed for the eye to see and the mouth to salivate. To say we were giddy as we jumped in the car and began munching on the bread is an understatement. In fact, I think we may have veered off the road in a few places as we drove under the garlicky wafting influence of this bread.

Luckily we didn't have to drive far, since the goat farm was right down the road. We knew it was close when we saw the wooden, painted, cutouts of a girl and a goat, at the intersection of two roads, which were pointing in the direction of the farm. In no time at all, we found ourselves outside of Harley Farms. Something I didn't know, Harley Farms has been around for 14 years, but I believe recently (last few years?) entered the fresh goat cheese business. Another thing I didn't know, their cheeses have won 6 blue ribbons in the last year from the American Cheese Society. The farm includes a milking shed where you can watch the goats being milked twice a day (5 am or 5 pm; guess when we were there), a small retail shop built inside of an old barn, and a rustic dining room above the shop that has been converted from the old hay loft. In fact, we were all ready to head out the door when Dee Harley, the owner, mentioned that we should check out the upstairs. Upon reaching the top of the stairway, I think I said something to the extent of "OH MY GOD!" It was so cool! As soon as I saw it, all sort of thoughts and fantasies passed through my mind of waking up on a crisp summer morning and sitting at the wooden table in the wooden chairs, with the wide barn doors open, smelling the fresh grass, while sun burned through the cool fog, and goats and birds and "things" began to wake up, make noise, and come to life, while I sat sipping hot tea and eating a big English breakfast (and not having to be to work!). Ah!!

Harley Farms Goat Dairy

Harley Farms is run by Dee, a transplant from Yorkshire, England and Wil Edwards, a transplant from NYC. Dee, in addition to making and supervising the making of the cheese, also hand-decorates the tops of the cheese with edible flowers and/or dried fruit, which look, as the British say, quite lovely. In the store you can sample all of the various goat cheeses they make. Debbie and I noted that the apricot-topped cheese and the cheese balls in olive oil were extremely good, as was the chive roll, which I snagged for home use. This particular cheese, if you like goat cheese (of course you do), has a complexity that is often lacking in the fresh goat cheese you find in the store. This cheese isn't flat or metallic-y like some, but tastes full and round, and the tang, while certainly present, isn't so sharp that you feels as if you just bit into a lemon.

What's also really nice is the openness of the farm. From what I could see, and you could pretty much see the whole operation, there were no grotesqueries like that you see in some of the cattle feed lots. In addition, I noticed that the workers seemed happy, that there were no obvious unsafe working conditions (other than stepping in goat poop), the goats looked healthy and lively, and everything looked well-managed and sanitary. Finding Harley Farms was a very, very pleasant surprise to all three of us, and we were so happy to have "found" it. I'll definitely keep my eyes open for their cheeses here in San Francisco.

Harley Farms Chive Chevre Log

Wow! Artichoke soup, artichoke garlic bread, goat cheese, all within a couple of miles, and now we were heading to Phipps Ranch, which is a produce stand/nursery that sells rabbits, plants, chicks, veggies, spices and herbs, fresh, fertile eggs, and an amazing variety of dried beans. In fact, the dried beans are worth the trip alone. I'm not a big bean eater, but the amazing, beautiful, and diverse display of beans and lentils was enough to make me reconsider. Phipps Ranch is the corner market you dream of, minus the malt liquor, "Miniature Rose" crack pipes, cigarettes, and porn mags. Unfortunately we arrived right as they were closing and instead of buying beans, I spent my last 3 dollars on fresh eggs instead, which is, like, the opposite of Jack and the Beanstalk when you come to think of it, so maybe I shouldn't complain. Anyway.

Pescadero was an awesome day trip, and awesome day trips, good food, and goat farms are great when you have a good friend to drag along, especially one who doesn't mind that you order deep fried smelt and wear a cowboy hat, and who actually encourages you to do so.

Thanks Deb! You can hang with us anytime!


Friday, March 25, 2005

Should I Stay Or Should I Go: Part I

More than once has the San Francisco Bay Area been at the center of culinary trends. Sure, we all know about California Cuisine as perfected by Alice Waters, Judy Rodgers, and Jeremiah Tower. But what of those dishes of old San Francisco? You know, the old standbys that come and go, and go. Those recipes that conjure up the images of gentlemen in top hats, ladies in white gloves, dusty old photos, the first wave of immigrants, and the nouveau riche of the first economic boom. My curiosity posits the question: cioppino, green goddess dressing, celery victor, etc, are they worth keeping? Or are these just portals of the past. Well, I've set myself to testing out a few recipes to see for myself.

Green Goddess Dressing: GO

Most of us have never even heard of, let alone tried, Green Goddess Dressing (GGD). It seems as though this dressing lost favor many years ago, not just on fancy menus, but on supermarket shelves as well. Despite this fact, it appears to have been kept alive by many home cooks who remember eating it on salads as children. It also appears to be having a minor comeback if its appearance in Michael Chiarello's and Thomas Keller's kitchens (though not in its original form) is any indication.

Personally, I've never touched the stuff, until now. I've done some research on it and from what I've been able to gather, it's a mayonnaise dressing with garlic, anchovies, and tarragon. The tarragon is an odd ingredient for such a famous San Franciscan recipe as tarragon doesn't grow easily, if at all in San Francisco. Most local tarragon growers have to trick the plant into thinking it's gone dormant for the winter in order for it to come back in the spring, and it's highly susceptible to disease.

Lovely, innit.

When you Google "Green Goddess Dressing" you sure do come up with a lot of recipes, and everyone seems to tweak it a little. I wanted the original one, so after various Google combinations, I found one. You know, one thing I found very odd in most of the references to GGD, is that many writers repeat the lore of how it was invented, and where, and for whom. Some even write in depth about the play and the actor. But almost noone credits the chef who invented it. Don't you find this odd?

So, while I was still searching I decided to ask a librarian, and sure enough I received a reply. You have to hand it to the friendly librarians at SFPL for being so dang helpful!

Heroic Greg Kelly, librarian at the San Francisco History Center at the Main Library, writes "I have searched high and low for the answer to your question and kept coming up with the same information which was just short of what you were looking for, namely, the chefs name. Then in the article I just sent you from the San Francisco Chronicle there was the answer:

'Sue Walford of Sonoma reports that a Polytechnic High School classmate gave her the recipe about 1930. He was, he told her, the son of its creator, hotel chef Philipe Bromer.'

This may be true. I also called the Sheraton Palace and spoke with the concierge who is going to try and find out the answer. When he gets back to me I will get back to you."

You see folks, libraries and librarians do make a difference! Now, if only the good people of Salinas would realize this.

While Greg was busy looking for an answer to my question, I actually found a news article online that mentions the chef's name, only they have it listed as "Philip Reomer". So, while I wait for a final answer, I made the salad as described in the Post-Gazette article.

First, I made the dressing.

Mix together in a bowl:
2 cups mayonnaise (this was homemade)
1 mashed garlic clove
4 minced anchovy fillets
1 chopped green onion
2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons chopped fresh chives
1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon
1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar (used white wine vinegar instead)

1. Mix well and let stand to blend flavors.

OK, got that part. Next, I steamed the artichokes. Because I was extremely lazy, I bought pre-cooked, thawed shrimp (ahh!), which were completely tasteless, so just realize that this part of the recipe is screwy. Once the artichokes were cooled, I assembled the plate.

1. Dress with Romaine lettuce.
2. Scoop out the insides of an artichoke that's been cut horizontally in half (removing the top part of the leaves). Topped hollowed-out artichoke bottoms with a "bounty of shrimp".
3. "Cherry tomatoes added color and shape around the perimeter."
4. "The plate was liberally doused with Green Goddess dressing, a mayonnaise blended with spinach leaves (?), parsley, green whiffy herbs (tarragon and chervil, both contributing a subtle licorice flavor), anchovies and shallot."

My victim: Bruce, who actually said he like it (the dressing), and really, it wasn't that bad. But, I don't know. It didn't do much for me and it seemed a little too heavy. The flavors (anchovies, vinegar, garlic, tarragon) were just too strong for a salad. Maybe as a dip or something, but my stomach wasn't happy (raw garlic sometimes does that).

Nice, but it's gotta go

While it seemed quaint and like I was stepping back in time, I didn't find this salad or dressing worth preserving, at least from my first try. However, I concede that maybe I could've done things a little more different (like letting the dressing sit overnight probably would've improved it), but in the meantime, it's gotta go.


Thursday, March 24, 2005

Finger Lickin' Bad

Hearing that news about Wendy's chilli surprise has me contemplating buying up bowls of the stuff to search for wedding/engagement rings. I mean, what incentive is there to look for the golden ticket in Wonka bars when you can find rings, Italian charm bracelets, and fancy press-on nails? Just think of the marketing opportunity: Wendy's chilli is the new Cracker Jacks box, and I for one have some chilli eatin' to do. I figure that after working just so far down the finger, we're bound to start hitting the bling.

OK, you know I'm just kidding. The whole event sounds absolutely horrifying, and absurd, and surreal, and God (I hate to admit it), but in it's horrifyingly, absurd, surreal way, funny. Really though, wasn't it nice of the woman to announce to the restaurant patrons to stop eating immediately, right before she started to vomit uncontrollably, multiple times? I want to know who in the restaurant thought, at first, she was some vegan warrior protestor? Who thought, "Oh geez, here we go". At least she could've said, "Aaahhh, there's someone's missing finger in my chilli", then, at least, they could've said, "oh, she just found a human finger in her food. Honey, grab the kids, we're going to Carl's Jrs". And what's with asking the employees to show their hands to see if anyone was missing part of a finger? Like, someone would just hide it in the chilli, like some lazy kid sweeping dust under the rug? "Oh, I was looking for that. My bad. Can I go on my lunch break now?" I've worked in fast food restaurants before and trust me, no one is that stupid or high, though barely, to just ignore the fact they've chopped off the tip of their finger.

Haven't people like Eric Schlosser and the people who produce Frontline and many, many others been telling us for years about the dangers of the meat processing industry and how fast food comes with its own risks? And yet, we continue to ignore them. We eat at MickeyDs and all of the other joints while ignoring all of the warnings and ignoring everything we suspect is true.

Since the publication of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair in 1906, little has changed for meatpacking workers; those folks who help put the cheeseburgers in your kid's Happy Meals. In fact, it's worse, because production speeds have increased, making meat processing more dangerous. Today, meatpacking jobs are among the most dangerous jobs in America, up there with armored truck drivers and 7-11 cashiers. Losing a finger is the least of your worries if you work processing meat. In fact, losing arms, losing your mobility, and losing your life are more common. Many, if not most, workers are immigrants and/or poor, who lack higher education or mastery of the English language, and who are often divided by culture and race. The employers often use this to their advantage in crushing efforts of the workers to organize a union. Many times, they break the law and fire union organizers while the federal government turns a blind eye. Some meat processors run fiefdoms where workers are harassed, and even jailed, for organizing by the company's own private police force.

These working conditions wouldn't be unusual if they were occurring in Central America or Southeast Asia (you know, where your clothes come from) but the reality is that they occur everyday in our own little Third World in the First World, that area of America we call "The South", where Boss Hogs and Cooters have been knocking workers' heads in the name of profit since those workers were in bondage. But neither do we have to go far into the nether regions of cornbread eaters and Bible-Belt beaters, when in our own backyard, farm workers and food processors suffer the same fate, especially if they are "illegal". But why even stop there? Just look into the kitchen of any restaurant in America and you'll see the same type of low-paying exploitation going on.

Our food prices are kept low, and profits for the bosses are kept high, because we skimp on treating people fairly, and we don't need to be given the finger from Wendy's to know it.


Monday, March 21, 2005

Noodling Away

This food blog business is getting out of control.

It's getting to be that anywhere you go, there's some dude or dudette snapping pictures right and left of bunches of cardoons or of their hot pot fixings. At least, that's what I saw this past Saturday at the Ferry Building Farmers' Market. But then, if you were ever to see a food blogger (flogger) anywhere, the FBFM would definitely be up on the list.

I can't help but wonder what the food producers think of this fad, phase, trend, or whatever it is/has become. Does it worry them that a negative post could hurt business? Do they think we're insane? Do they fear stalkers? Will floggers begin to be treated like regular (God forbid!) journalists, thus forcing us to go underground to review a restaurant or food retailer? Seriously, now that everyone knows what the floggers look like from that Chronicle article, will their reviewing integrity become as compromised as Michael Bauers? (Though, kudos to Sam for at least donning the sunglasses and trench coat. You looked fabulous!)

And speaking of, I wonder what real effect it will have/does have on the established food critics who potentially see us as stepping in on their turf. Actually, for the food critics whose newspapers publish on the web for anyone to freely read, I think that the presence of food blogs helps keep them edgy because they face competition, not from other for-profit publications, but from the general public. Those who publish in online newspapers/magazines that charge a subscription fee, I think, are worse off, because print readership is declining while Internet readership only grows. And unless you work for a high-profile publication, most people will vote with their checkbook and head towards the free sites before they head to yours.

However, it's very possible that we're just riding a wave that will eventually peeter out as soon as burnout sets in, and if you take a look at some of the other, older, food blogs, that's what we are beginning to see. If that's the case, the establishment food-writing world has nothing to worry about in the long term. But if food blogs cease being a fad and become a steady trend, then I think we'll all benefit, even the establishment food-writing press, with better writing, better reviews, a greater level of sophistication and advocacy.

Not that you'll find any of that stuff on this blog. This blog is just pure, unadulterated filth.

Speaking not of filth, my jaunt in the rain down to the FBFM on Saturday morning (sans cartoons and KQED cooking shows) yielded some new and positive things. The first was cheese from Achadinha Goat Cheese Company, which is a relatively new cheese outfit of an older functioning dairy farm in Petaluma. There were three items for sale at their stand: Goat Summer Sausage, a semi-soft cheese, and a harder (though not really a grating cheese) cheese. The sausage wasn't all that special, though it was unique from pork sausage in that it had the goat-y, game-y flavor. For my taste, it could've been a little more seasoned.

The two cheeses, however, were really good. The semi-soft cheese, called Broncha, was slightly dry but creamy, mild and delicate, with a very slight tang. This cheese, as well as the other, was not at all what I was use to in a goat cheese. The other cheese, the Capricious, was excellent. It was firm, but easily broken off. It had a rich, mildly salty, tangy, almost floral flavor to it that snuck up the back of my throat and filled my sinuses with an aroma I knew but couldn't put my finger on. This was a fine cheese that was cut fresh from the wheel to order and apparently is cave aged. This cheese would've been great to serve with a little balsamic vinegar, a few marcona almonds, and some great bread.

My other purchases that day were Marin Sun Farm eggs, Acme Sour Batard, and a new bottle of Bariani olive oil. The eggs are truly free-range and do have a more eggy taste, if only because the yolks are much bigger than supermarket eggs. Bariani's oil this year is clearer and has a more grassy, peppery taste because, according to Sebastian Bariani, the olives were harvested earlier this year because of frost. The cloudier oil of last year, which I prefer, comes from the riper olives, while this year's olive oil picked from green olives is clear with more sediment settling on the bottom. Of course, the riper the olives, the less assertive the oil. But, green or ripe, I still love Bariani's oil and definitely consider it the finest olive oil produced in California, not only because of its great flavor, but because they date the oil on the label, the prices are fair, and they don't bottle it in clear, square bottles, which annoys the crap out of me. By the way, guess how many olive trees goes to produce Bariani olive oil? Give up? How about 17,000. According to Sebastian, the oil is produced from Manzanillo and Mission olives grown on their Sacramento grove. That's a lot of table olives, which by the way, we could see Bariani start producing in the near future.

Clockwise: Acme Sour Batard, Bariani EVO oil, Achadinha Capricious goat cheese, Achadinha Broncha goat cheese, Marin Sun Farm hard-boiled egg

Since I had some new eggs, I thought I would make some fresh egg pasta, which I haven't made in some time. It's pretty easy and fool proof and if you've never done it before, you should try this recipe out. Fresh pasta like this is really filling and easy to prepare. It literally cooks in seconds. I usually dress it in a simple butter/garlic sauce, although it's great with any red or green sauce. Also, this pasta is a lot chewier than dried semolina pasta, which you may or may not like. I like, and we like, so I make. OK. Must not speak in broken English. I use a food processor to mix the dough for the pasta, but you can do it on a work surface as well.

This pasta makes enough for 2 with some left over. You could stretch it for 3 if you had a side or two. Take 2½ cups of flour and sift it into the food processor. Sifting is important because it produces a smoother dough, while kneading it significantly makes it more elastic. Add to the sifted flour a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of olive oil. Turn on the food processor and through the feeding tube (sans the actual tube), crack open one egg and add. Pulse for about 30 seconds, then add another egg. Repeat. Occasionally, open the top and with a rubber spatula, push down anything that has accumulated on the side. Continue to pulse or mix until the dough forms a ball. If this isn't happening (which is common), add a little cold water, just a teaspoon at a time while the machine is running. Continue to do this until the mixture forms a ball.

Remove the dough and transfer to a floured surface. Knead the dough by folding it in on itself repeatedly and well, I don't know, you know how to knead, right? Just pretend you're trying to smother your worst enemy with a pillow, only they won't die because they're the evil undead. When about 5 or 10 minutes of killing has passed, form the dough into a ball and cover with a bowl. Let it rest for an hour.

Well-Hung Pasta

When that hour has passed, separate the dough into 2 or 3 pieces. With a rolling pin (or if you're lucky to have a pasta machine), roll the dough as flat as you can get it without tearing and roll it into a rectangular shape. If rolling by hand, this part is usually work intensive, but hey, I know you can do it! When that sucker is about as flat as you can get it, hang it somewhere to rest. I usually take a broom and rest it horizontally between two points. I also cover the handle with paper towels just to be sanitary.

When you are finished rolling out the dough and the resting dough has a leathery feel, then take a piece and from the bottom roll it up. Once rolled, use a sharp knife and cut the roll into half-inch pieces (thinner or wider, your preference). Then, unravel each piece, until you have 4 or 5 laying side by side, and loosely wrap the bunch around your hand and place on a floured surface.

Rolled and Cut

Continue until all of the pasta has been cut and loosely rolled in little bundles. Let the pasta sit like this for around 30 minutes and then cook or refrigerate. Cooking the pasta, in boiling salted water, will only take a minute, so it's best to prepare your sauce before hand. You should eat this pasta as soon as possible, because it doesn't keep long and it doesn't freeze well.

And despite the temptation to whip someone in the eye with one of these hearty noodles, you must resist.

Ready to Cook


Friday, March 18, 2005

Hush, Puppy

This week, for the most part, has not been worth a culinary moment of your time and, try as I do to amuse you, this past week was about as interesting and amusing as the Star 101.3 playlist I've heard a dozen times at work. How many times can one hear Madonna's "Live to Tell" and not want to go berserk? We've got to change that station, "til then, it will burn inside of me".

Yes, it's been pretty much feast or famine, hand to mouth, making ends meet, burning the candle at both ends, and other tired clichés, but I have a feeling things will begin to look up pretty soon. Bruce's niece just completed her final piano recital and she's almost complete with her college course work. Our friend Dax, who plays in the band Subtle, and who was in a terrible car crash, is beginning to make progress and can now talk on the phone. And yesterday, I saw two people in love, standing chest to chest, whispering sweet nothings into each other's ear before they had to be to work.

That kind of stuff is sweet. That's puppy dog love. You can tell puppy dog love when you see these intimate public displays of affection. And hey, I'm not dogging it, but sometimes I've been tempted to yell out "get a room!" Folks who've been together any significant period of time don't engage (at least very often) in these displays of affection. There's too much water under the bridge. They've seen each other's dirty laundry. They've heard the same stories repeated ad nauseum.

If you think of love in food terms, puppy dog love is like a quick, spicy stir fry. It's exciting, it could be new to you, it makes you sweat and your heart beat fast. It's a quick thrill that packs a punch, but lacks significant depth. Puppy dog love is like curry and beer. It's like a funnel cake and a Coke.

The other kind of love, I hesitate to call it "real" love, but the other kind of love is deep. Deep love is like a pot of stew that has simmered for a long time. One that has mellowed over time, but retains a rich character. It is concentrated down from the puppy dog love ingredients and has developed into a smooth, delicate stew that warms your bones and satisfies your soul. Deep love is slow cooked. Deep love is barbecued. Deep love marinates. Deep love ferments like sourdough bread, where two essential organisms come together and build a culture that, once started, becomes strong and resilient against outside bacteria and other pollutants.

Speaking of stir fry, my puppy dog love with DPD is still going strong even though they've raised (!) their prices since last week.

OK, who spilled the beans?


Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Devil and Mr. Chicken

At various protest events, there are groups of kids who dress in all black clothing, wear bandanas over their face, run from street to street, proclaim the joys of anarchy, and generally annoy the police. These kids call themselves the Black Bloc. I *heart* the Black Bloc. In the FiDi (Financial District), there are another group of black bloc'ers, only these are seemingly pacified women and men trudging on their way to various office jobs. What is with office workers wearing all black all of the time? Is it more sophisticated than green? Funkier than beige? I can only assume it's a) they are in constant mourning due to hating their crappy jobs and/or b) they are really anarchists. And what's with the term "blue collar"? Last time I checked, half of the white collar professionals in the FiDi wore blue shirts, while the doormen, limo drivers, and Corovan movers all wore white. Perhaps it's time to re-evalute our terminologies.

Meanwhile, when I'm not contemplating the burning non-issues of the day...

Lately, I've been seeing whole chickens for sale at Safeway that are obscenely underpriced, mostly because their expiration date is drawing near. We're talking about 5 pound chickens for under $3. When chicken is that cheap, it just makes sense to buy one for stock. Having fresh, real chicken stock in the freezer is great, and it really improves the recipes you use it in.

That's how I began my day Saturday. Making the stock is really easy, and it makes the house smell great (though it drives the cats crazy). It does take 5 hours, but most of that time is spent letting it simmer unattended.

Basic Chicken Stock

To make the stock, take a 4-5 pound chicken and cut it into pieces. Place the chicken in a large stock pot and cover with water until the chicken is just submerged. Bring to a simmer (usually by cranking the heat, then lowering it before it really starts to boil). Simmer for 3 hours, skimming the gunk off the top with a mesh strainer. After 3 hours, add an onion, largely diced, 3 bay leaves, and 2 teaspoons of salt. Simmer another 2 hours, then pour through a strainer to separate the meat/bones from the stock. Next, the part I hate…degreasing. You can try whatever method you do best. You can use a fat separator (mine cracked), or you can pour it all into a container, stick it in the fridge, and let the fat rise to the top and congeal, which when cool, is easier to separate. That's what I did. Afterwards, in a hot water bath, I brought the gelatinous stock back to a liquid state and divided it into plastic containers, measuring about 1½ cups, then stuck them in the freezer.

Le Stock

Although I was planning on making the stock anyway, I ended up using some of it in a variation of a dish I found in one of our cookbooks. The recipe is for Cream of Watercress soup, which I modified to be Cream of Nasturtium soup. Nasturtiums are members of the cress family of greens and have that bold, peppery flavor that watercress has. Since they grow wild around here and since we've had so much rain and sunshine, I figured I would experiment and try to use them in a soup. Early in the day, I went to my nasturtium location and began picking the tender leaves. Unfortunately, with the way nature works, there were no flowers (as of yet), which would've made a great garnish for the soup.

Washed Nasturtiums

I noticed that when picking the leaves, size doesn't matter. What matters is how tough they are and whether they're beginning to yellow around the edges. Also, my location is inaccessible to dogs and far from traffic, so I wasn't worried about toxins. Filling a plastic Safeway bag yielded half a pound. While I was there, I also picked some tender fronds of the wild fennel plants growing nearby. These I'm going to use in a chicken salad using, you guessed it, chicken used to make the stock.

My hands are guided by the spirit of Serge Gainsbourg

Crème De Nasturtium
Adapted from French Regional Cooking by Anne Willan

½ pound of nasturtium, washed
6 tablespoons butter
1 medium potato, peeled and sliced thinly
1½ cups chicken broth
salt & pepper to taste
1½ cups milk
¼ cup heavy cream
pinch of grated nutmeg

1. In a large pot of boiling water, blanch the nasturtiums for a couple of minutes. Then drain into a large colander and run them under cold water. Squeeze them dry and set aside.
2. On low heat in heavy saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter and sauté nasturtiums for 2-3 minutes.
3. Add the sliced potato, broth, and salt and pepper and bring to boil. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15-20 minutes or until the potatoes have softened.
4. Pour the soup into a food processor and puree. Then run it through a fine mesh strainer or work through vegetable mill to further refine the soup.
5. Return to the soup to the saucepan and add the milk; reheat. Add the heavy cream and bring just to a boil. Season with additional salt and pepper (to taste) and nutmeg.
6. Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the remaining butter. Garnish with flowers, nasturtium leaves, or a little dab of cream and serve hot.

This soup isn't like any I've tasted before. It really has a wild, grassy, field greens taste to it that could've been great with a fruity white wine. This soup was a first for Bruce and I and it's made me confident about using other wild greens in recipes.

Creme de Nasturtium

On Sunday we took a trip to Mount Diablo and the surrounding area. Wow! What a perfect time to be there. The weather was great and the wildflowers were in full bloom. Everything was so green and lush. Granted, I expected lakes of fire and tortured souls, since Mount Diablo means Mount Devil, yet any indication of the Great Horned One was nowhere to be found. I had never been to Mt. Diablo until Sunday and what a surprise. There is still so much open space, with rolling green hills sprinkled with California Oak Trees and native plants. On our trip I had three goals: one was to just enjoy being away from the city and to be out in "nature". The other two were lying in the grass (it's funny how you miss the small things), and trying to identify edible plants, though, not necessarily at the same time.

The drive up to the summit is along a narrow, two way road that doesn't have side barriers to prevent you and your little family from plummeting over the side in a fiery ball of death, and because of this, I had to look away a few times and pray that we wouldn't fall off. There are, however, breathtaking views of the delta to the north and of the hills looking to the south.

Mt. Diablo

There are many areas to pull to the side and step out of your car for the mandatory goofy picture, as well as picnic areas that are pretty well kept and which have trails that jet off into some interesting areas. We brought along some snacks and found a secluded spot in a picnic area called Rock City. Contrary to the title, this Cit-ay wasn't a series of vendor tents at Ozzfest, but an area dotted with large boulders jettisoning out of the hillside. I can imagine the stunned faces of many a mullet-headed, raging-hormonal, adolescent at this discovery. "Awww, Mom! Why did you lie to me, again?! Dude, nature sucks." At Elephant Rock, which looked more like, well, a rock, we dined on salt-cured black olives, slices of Gruyere, apples (Granny Smith and Braeburn), sourdough bread, and iced tea. To our disgust were some beer bottles, a 2-liter bottle of 7-Up, and a Cheetoz bag some brain-dead fools had discarded less than 100 feet from the nearest trashcan. There is a special place in hell for these morons, and it looks nothing like Mt. Diablo.

Mt. Diablo State Park has a wonderful diversity of plants and wildlife; actually I seem to remember foolishly wishing to see a rattlesnake or mountain lion. That's what I love about California, the abundance of fanged, poisonous, killer creatures (we did see a black widow!! Yay!). Of course, there are also an abundance of poisonous plants, so I don't recommend picking and eating willy nilly, even though I did bite into a California poppy flower to see if it was an appropriate salad ingredient. The answer is a resounding No; way too bitter. Growing in many areas next to the bright orange poppies was sagebrush, which has a bold, cool sage aroma that I immediately rubbed my hands with. Sagebrush grows abundantly around the area and I imagine it can be used in a variety of culinary and household ways.

Sagebrush and Poppy

Miner's lettuce was growing most abundantly in shaded, moist areas where the leaves grew large and dark green. The taste is relatively mild and somewhat resembles spinach. Of course, California bay trees were everywhere and their fresh leaves have a terrific aroma. Bruce says his family use to take bay branches and throw them on the grill, which would infuse whatever they were cooking with an intense bay flavor. The leaves can also be dried and used just like you would regular bay leaves. Buckeyes were also abundant as well as acorns. Both of these are poisonous eaten raw, but with leaching can be used to make soup or crushed into flour. Native Americans of the Bay Area use these two ingredients often in traditional recipes. Some of the wildflowers, I believe, are also edible. The couple I could identify were purple lupine and black mustard.

There were also wild cattle. Well, not really. And yes, cattle are not plants, but I did notice Mount Diablo has a ranch. We passed some grazing on the green hillside, to which my stomach immediately grumbled and I let it be known that I bet those cows taste really good. We drove in to Mt. Diablo State Park from the Danville side but left through the Clayton side, passing more ranches and even a dying olive grove, which broke my heart. Once we passed through Sprawlville/Community-In-A-Box, we had a wonderful drive down Marsh Creek Road, passing more horse stables and farms. We were driving towards Brentwood to scope it out, since beginning in April/May the pick-your-own farms begin to open. That part of the drive was awesome; the landscape was like a cross between the Santa Cruz area and Napa.

We turned onto Walnut and headed into Brentwood, and after passing a few farms, things started to look noticeably different. In fact, it began to look Diablo. For one, what's with all of the super annoying road signs spaced 50 feet apart for over 2 miles? Second, much like the Central Valley, there is farmland that suddenly turns into soulless subdivisions. We had gone about two stoplights into Brentwood before we decided there was nothing left to see, and many more things we didn't want to see. So we headed back, but this time out Vasco Road, which was another driving gem, though much more in a "highway" sense and less in a "country road" sense. Nevertheless, we drove past green hills, California Happy Cows (free range Holstein and Angus), sheep, lots of sheep (or as some say "sheeps") that dotted the hillside like little white boulders, thousands of windmills, and a country barn with an American flag painted on the side. Then we hit Livermore (see Brentwood).

Mt. Diablo Wildflowers

Chicken Salad with Wild Fennel

Back home, I took some of the fennel fronds I had picked the day before and made my chicken salad. You know, after simmering for 5 hours, chicken gets really flavorful and breaks down so much that there is no shredding involved. It's really just a process of separating the bone and cartilage from the meat. Added to the chicken was homemade mayonnaise.

You know, it's not as easy as you think to make mayo. First of all, everyone who says you can make it in a food processor must either be Gandalf the Grey or full of shit. I have tried at least 4 times to make it in a food processor and had nothing but a liquidy mess that ruined a lot of good, expensive olive oil. It's also not very easy make it by hand, though I know it's possible. But I did make it and here's what I've learned.

First, you have to emulsify the egg yolks. That means, at least I think, you have to whip enough air into them for them to hold the oil/egg mixture in a semi-solid state. This can't happen with the blades of a food processor. You have to use a hand mixer or standing mixer with the whisk attached. You start off with two egg yolks (no whites) and 2 teaspoons of lemon juice and you whip them until they begin to look creamy. That's when you gradually, slowly add in your oil (around a cup and a half to two). I've found this is easier to do with a standing mixer, since you aren't trying to juggle two things at once. Slowly drizzle in the oil until all of it has been absorbed and then season. That's pretty simple, pretty easy, which is why it frustrated the crap out of me every time I attempted it in the food processor. Chalk it up to trial and error.

Back to the chicken salad…you know, you have flavorful chicken, fresh fennel, and freshly prepared mayo; what else do you need? Mix the mayo (to your preference) into the chicken, then the fennel (about 2-3 tablespoons of minced, young fronds). Salt and pepper, maybe a little apple cider vinegar (about a teaspoon), and you're partying with the devil.

Kick it down a notch and leave out the other crap.


Friday, March 11, 2005

Fish DO Fry in the Kitchen, Beans DO Burn On The Grill-a

My cooking skills are getting better.

This is considering that they weren't much to begin with. Even now I can manage to whip up some frightful creations. My knack for putting together disparate foods to create something remotely (as remote as the interior of Borneo) edible can be traced to my early childhood. At that time, my eating habits occasionally ranged from dirt, to charcoal, and whatever else was under the kitchen sink. The bright side is that being a former charcoal eater has allowed me to appreciate the finer tastes of such nationally renowned chains as Red Lobster, the Olive Garden, and Applebees. I feel for those who grew up without this dining experience as they sit in the OG trying to understand what it is that they're eating.

Later, after I joined the latch-key youth movement of the late 70s/early 80s, I would come home and raid the fridge and upper kitchen cabinets for anything, anything, that would cease my hunger pangs. Once, it was a whole jar of tartar sauce, which made me so sick that I didn't touch the stuff until 20 years later. Another time was when, in sheer desperation, I took uncooked spaghetti, dipped it in Crisco, and ate it very, very al dente. To this day I will never forget the taste and the crunch of uncooked pasta. Hum, I also seem to have some loose memory of uncooked pasta and Elmers glue, but perhaps it's better if that remains un-recovered.

A seminal, evolutionary jump in my cooking skills can be placed all on one event and one dish: stuffed baked tomatoes (I think stuffed with ground beef, onions, and spices). I was lucky that when I was around 11 years old we had a big garden in our back yard. In it, we grew corn, yellow squash, watermelons, cantaloupe, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Around the same time, I sort of just discovered my Mom's small cookbook collection that featured a Time Life series that dedicated each edition to a different food group. In the vegetable edition, I found a recipe for stuffed tomatoes, which we just happened to be harvesting.

Let me just say this about tomatoes. There is nothing on Earth that resembles the smell of a ripe tomato on the vine. The smell it imparts on your hands and clothes after picking them is earthen. The taste of biting into one in the late afternoon, after it has been in the sun all day, and is still slightly warm, is sensual. Bruce has the same memory, only it's of peaches. Because of these memories, we both have reservations about buying peaches and tomatoes in the supermarket.

Anyway, the stuffed tomatoes I cooked for my parents that night represents my initiation into the world of cooking. Looking back, I realize that I had taken a big leap forward. The next step wouldn’t be until much later, long after the countless fast food jobs, the pizza and subs gig, and the cookie catering segway. It's really been in the last few years that my skills as a home cook have gotten to the point were I don't always need recipes. Not that I don't use them often, but some of the skills and techniques have been absorbed. Granted, I still have a long way to go, but I'm gaining the confidence to achieve that awesome ability to cook on the spot.

Cooking on the spot has long been a goal of mine. To me, it says that you have some knowledge; that if you were stranded on an island with a truck driver, a stockbroker, and an ex-marine you could deal with taro root and seaweed. What I've figured out so far is that the hardest part of learning how to cook is unlearning how to cook. It's unlearning how to taste. It's unlearning how to shop. And I readily admit, that for me at this point, it's a journey, not a destination. And if all of this stuff sounds like New Age crap, well, it could be. But in my case, it's not.

I think part of the popularity of the blog, 101 Cookbooks, comes from the fact that it speaks to the vast majority of us who truly value a good cookbook and who didn't grow up with parents who were great, or even functional, cooks. I know that I'm not alone when I, we, asked our parents how to cook certain things, they didn't know. Or that the meals they cooked for us, even when they were "semi-homemade", were an assemblage of packages. Whatever vegetables we had were boiled to death and then covered with a packaged sauce to add back flavor. Even when my Mom was cooking using packages and canned vegetables, it was much better than after the microwave crash-landed in our kitchen. After that, my memories of good food ceased to exist, like my mouth had been hit by a truck and gone into a coma. It's no wonder that I had no problems converting to vegetarianism at 19; what was there to lose?

Last night, we had pork chops and pureed parsnips. This is a meal I wish I grew up eating, even if it was made occasionally. All in all, it took about 45 minutes to cook. I had no recipe, only a little knowledge. I had no long list of ingredients to buy. True, I did immediately go to a cookbook to look up bone-in pork chops, but I couldn't find anything. So I used what I had learned from Harold McGee and Cooks Illustrated. I knew that pork chops on the bone tastes better than off and to fry them on medium so that the outside doesn't constrict. I learned that when frying meat, turn it often so that it cooks faster and more evenly. First, though, I cut my peeled parsnips into chunks and threw them in a pot of boiling water. When they were soft, I threw them in the food processor using a slotted spoon, along with some melted butter, olive oil, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. I pulsed it until thick, then added a little water from the pot to give it the consistency I wanted. Next I threw on a little bit of chopped parsley and closed the top of the food processor.

At this point I had to rest because my arm was tired from all of the throwing.

Then I proceeded to cook the chops. First, I rinsed and dried both sides. These chops had a good ratio of fat to meat. I lightly salted and peppered both sides. When the skillet was hot (on medium), I added about a tablespoon of vegetable oil, swirled it around and placed the pork chops in. After turning a few times, I stuck an instant-read thermometer inside of each chop. It was 145 degrees. I knew that once you take pork (or any meat) off heat, you have to let it rest so that the juices will be reabsorbed. While they are reabsorbing the juices, the temperature in the chops keeps rising, bringing them finally to a safe temperature. While they were out of the pan, I deglazed it using some dry sherry, then a little water and a little bit of cream, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan to release the browned bits (aka "the love"). When that had reduced a bit, I added a little lemon juice (yes, pre-squeezed, but unadulterated), took it off the heat, and finished it by stiring in a tablespoon of cultured butter. This made a creamy, slightly lemony sauce, light in color. When plating, I added the pork chops to the plate. The juices that had accumulated on the cutting board, I quickly incorporated into the sauce, which I then poured over the chops. I then blended the parsley into the parsnips and placed them around the chops. The sweetness of the parsnips (well, they had sat in the fridge a little too long) went great with the chops and the sauce. I probably could've done some things a little differently (used fresher parsnips), but the end result was pretty good. Everything was hot, it was easy, and it took less than an hour.

There are people who say that cooking is an art form. While others say it is a science. When people speak this way, it scares the people who could benefit the most from learning how to cook. It makes the love of good food seem snobbish, bourgeois, and intellectual. Nonetheless, those who say that cooking is an art and a science are right. Cooking benefits from some creative thinking, but without knowledge and forethought, creativity is likely to land you at about the same place I went the other night with a fried bread, linguica, chicken, avocado mush monstrosity. Creatively thinking about your food is hearing and seeing combinations and tasting them by memory before you prepare them. Cooking is a science based on physics, but that doesn't require you to make pea soup foam for dinner, nor is there the need for fancy equipment and a rocket science PhD to cook well. Even those who say that "love" makes a good meal only have it half right, since I've put a lot of hate into my cheesecakes and they've always seemed to come out ok. I know that if I can go from eating dirt, raw Crisco spaghetti, and charcoal to eating simply prepared, tasty, wholesome foods without packages, anyone can.

It just takes time.


Thursday, March 10, 2005

Stripping For Pizza

You notice tourists more when it's sunny outside.

And if you were ever thinking about visiting San Francisco, today was the day to be here. The weather is hot! It's 75 degrees.

Go ahead and laugh, but for San Franciscans, these are the days we love to complain about. However, after so many weeks/months of cold, rainy weather, even the bitchiest among us would struggle to complain about the weather. (I did entertain the thought, though, after practically being blinded as I walked out of my building.) On my lunch break, I took the opportunity to take my book and sit in Washington Square Park; sitting on a bench in the shade with my shoes off, exposing my mismatched grey/darker gray socks, one turned inside out. As you know, I've been reading "The Taste of America" by John and Karen Hess. After finishing the first chapter, I started the next and said, "well, eh, why don't I just skip to the good stuff". So I started with the chapter entitled The Gourmet Plague.

So far, my favorite quote from the book isn't even by the authors, it's by Harriet Van Horne. In an article entitled EDUNT ET VOMANT (translation: They have eaten and let them vomit.), she writes, "no journalistic caprice has, in my memory, set off such a shudder of distaste…This calculated evening of high-class piggery offends an average American's sense of decency. It seems wrong, morally, esthetically and in every other way." She was commenting on a 1975 fluff piece in the New York Times describing a Parisian dinner Craig Claiborne and his partner, Pierre Franey, had. The NYT story makes much to do about the $4000 meal for two that featured 31 dishes and 9 wines. Meanwhile, as Claiborne was licking his decadent fingers, the rest of America was stewing in an economic recession. The Hess's included Van Horne's quote to further elaborate on the gourmet absurdities of the time which elevated overpriced, tasteless food, (canned foie gras, canned truffles, "cottony" chicken breasts in a floury velouté sauce), championed by those like Claiborne, who lauded expense as a barometer of taste.

I'm not sure that going in the extreme opposite direction cost-wise that I'm upholding the Hess's standards any more than Claiborne and Co.'s $4,000 extravagance. As soon as I finish reading, I put my shoes back on and head back to work, walking up Stockton Street past women in linen Capri pants drinking white wine at outdoor Café tables. God, I am so jealous.

Instead, I am making my way to Cable Car Pizza on Broadway where I'm going to scarf down a $3.50 slice of pizza. My co-workers never go here. They call it Stripper Pizza since it's surrounded by adult video stores with quarter booths, titty bars, head shops, and of course strip clubs. It's really not that bad, although the term Stripper Pizza conjures up images in my mind of finding a kinky pubic hair floating in a pool of grease on top of my pepperoni and cheese slice. But this is really unfair, since I've never even seen a so-called stripper in the place. Of course, you're asking, "how would you know?", but trust me, I have a radar for these things.

I ask for a slice of pepperoni, green bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms and I ask the guy not to heat it up. I figure that if you're going to eat pizza hot, you eat it fresh out of the oven. Otherwise, you eat it cold. What does re-heating it do other than make it hot? It's not going to have the same flavor as fresh out of the oven pizza. It's going to taste better cold the first time than hot the second. I try to explain this to my friends, but I usually have a hard time getting through when they see that I've put mayonnaise on my slice. Fortunately for the appetites of the other patrons, Stripper Pizza doesn't offer mayo as a condiment for your slice.

As far as pizza goes, it's ok, well…no, it's bad. I mean, it walks a tightrope on edible. It's greatest crime is its lack of character. This pizza just doesn't stand out. To riff off an earlier quote by Gary, my co-worker, sometimes pizza is just pizza. It's salty, greasy, with a flimsy crust. The slice is big, but as we know, quantity can only overwhelm quality to the chintziest of penny pinchers. "If only a stripper would show up", I think while staring out the window, "Wouldn't that be interesting."

I really should start bringing my lunch from home again.


Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The New Kids On The Block

I have favorite street characters that I pass daily, to and from work. The first, and my favorite, is Frank Chu, whose "12 Galaxies, Quadrogonic Hibernation(s), Economist, Technogonic, Exacerbated Charismatic, Aberrations" haikus can be seen the length of Lower Market Street and at every political demonstration I've been to in the last 5 or so years. Then there is my new favorite, someone I call the Angry, Black Militant, Saxophone Player, who in between smokin', kick-ass performances harangues people passing by about not giving the Black-Man-Who-Built-This-Country a break.

As of late, there have been some new kids on the block. Literally. These are whom I refer to as the Girl Scout Cookie Extortion Racket. Every year they don their monochromatic uniforms and boots and storm the streets, malls, and shopping centers scouting for easy marks. Their form of panhandling is quite insidious; one that is more psychological than physical threat of bodily harm. You've seen the other kids selling candy bars, and your heart has broke knowing that a life of selling candy bars on the street is no life for a child. In many ways, they've entered into an indentured servitude the GSCER will never know. The candy bar sellers are out there braving the cold mornings and hot afternoons by themselves. Whereas Girl Scout Troops, when not engaging in street to street fighting, push their cookies through a sophisticated, underground network of religious, business, and political connections. Think of each troop more as a cell. Often, they bring along their own bodyguards, whose menacing looks between angry, Tammy Faye mascara and pinched lips is enough to make Gotti roll over.

The Girl Scout propaganda is quite efficient at temping the easy mark into buying several dozen boxes of cookies. But let us engage in a little investigation, shall we?

The box says: Strong Values, Strong Minds, Strong Bodies.

I'm tasting: Double Dutch Chocolate Chip Cookies
(In order of quantity)
Enriched Flour
Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and/or Cottonseed oil
Milk Chocolate
Semi-sweet Chocolate
Caramel Color
Natural and Artificial Flavor
Leavening agents
May contain traces of tree nuts

The box says: Strong Spirit, Strong Skills, Strong Community.

I'm tasting: Trefoils Shortbread Cookies
Enriched Flour
Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and/or Cottonseed Oil
Sweetened Condensed Whole Milk
Artificial Flavor
Baking soda
Soy Lecithin
Caramel color

Now, truthfully, I have no problem with the Girl Scouts as an organization, at least that I'm aware of. The Boy Scouts, on the other hand, can go to hell. I realize that selling cookies is a fundraising thing, but these bland, trans-fatty laden cookies baked in an industrial plant can't be good for the girls or the people who buy them.

Can you build a strong mind or strong body eating Girl Scout cookies?

I don't think so.

Wouldn't it be nice if Girl Scouts made their own cookies and sold them on the street corner? Imagine if every Girl Scout troop was unique in the types of cookies they offered? Imagine if you went to Troop 5 for the best Peanut Butter cookies, while Troop 11 were known for their kick-ass Chocolate Chip? Imagine if there was a Girl Scout cookie bake-off once a year that attracted thousands of people, gave prizes that built self-esteem and rewarded teamwork, and raised a ton of money for the troops? Imagine that Girl Scout cookies were made from ingredients purchased in their community and helped support the local farmers, dairies, etc? Wouldn't that be a great civic thing to do? Wouldn't that build strong skills, teach strong values, and foster a strong community spirit?

I know so.

For example, here is a recipe for Bruce's Great Big Oatmeal White Chocolate Chip Cookies, using some ingredients from local producers.


These are best right out of the oven – aren’t most cookies? I make them big…really big. Maybe just less then ¼ cup in size – they cook-up to about a 5 inch disk – that way I can say I only ate two. Blueberries are the popular favorite at our house (I like cherries too) but you could use any dried fruit.

I don’t wish to sound like I own stock in this company but I highly recommend if you don’t already have one, you go out and blow about $20 on a "Silpat". It is a nifty, rubbery, rectangle-y, thing you put on top of your cookie sheets whenever you back cookies, biscuits, mochi or any other cookie-sheet-baked-goods. I have always had to hide at least one batch of six cookies – one sheet full – due to burned bottoms. Since I got a Silpat every cookie has been perfect. My advice…buy one…or two.

Makes about 18 large cookies – about 3 ½ dozen tiny wimpy cookies.

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature (Straus Family Creamery)
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
3 eggs (Marin Sun Farms)
1 teaspoon real vanilla
1½ cups all-purpose flour (Gold Medal/General Mills)
1 generous teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
a pinch of mace (optional)
1 slight teaspoon salt
3 cups Quaker Oats
1¼ cups white chocolate chips (Ghirardelli)
1 cup dried wild blue berries

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Beat together butter and sugars until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well. Add combined flour, baking soda, spices and salt; mix well. Mix in oats, white chocolate chips and blue berries; mix well
3. Drop by huge rounded tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet. (Use your new Silpat!)
4. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown. Cool for about 1 minute on cookie sheet; remove to wire rack.


Besides better cookies, what the Girl Scout organization desperately needs is an Extreme Makeover. I can see it now: tears of joy through blackened eyes and chipmunk cheeks. Porcelain veneers. Some queen saying "Let's look in your closet little girl. Gasp! What are all of these cheap (vomiting sound) Kelly green, polyester-blended, burlap sacks? This is child abuse! Burn that beret this instant! No, we're going to do you up in all-natural fibers, faux fur trim, accessories, and short, sassy hair. Now, can you walk in Manolo's? Well, don't worry, you will. There are badges for that now."

Speaking of makeovers, a place I given up on has had one, and the results are muy positivo. It's a tiny restaurant on the corner of Jackson and Kearny called DPD Yong Ming Restaurant. A co-worker recommended it before, but when I went, I was so grossed out by the restaurant and the food that I never thought twice about going back, no matter how cheap it was. But lately, as I've been passing it on my way to get my haircut, I noticed the inside has a fresh coat of paint and an older man waving through the window gesturing passersby to come in. "Eh, what the hell", I thought. "I'm broke and I want Chinese food."

The walls have been freshly painted a bright orange. I mean, a bright, bright orange. What is the deal with orange and lime green on everything nowadays? Imagine a troop of Girl Scouts inside DPD and you have this season's colors at Target, K-Mart, ad nauseum.

My co-worker Gary says they have a new chef, and the last time he went there the food was too salty. I went in and ordered the Dry Braised Fish with rice to-go; total $4-something. Everyone in the restaurant, the owner, the waiter, and the chef were super friendly. I mean really friendly, so much so that if they were any friendlier we have to be wed by the polygamist sect of the Mormon church. While I waited at a table for my food to cook, I was served hot tea. Inside of the tiny restaurant was a large table of older Chinese women who had just finished up a huge lunch, and sitting behind me was an elderly gentlemen working on a large plate of fried noodles. When my order was ready, the owner brought the to-go container out opened, and presented it to me. The cook came out all smiles to see my reaction. When I asked for a to-go menu, they were practically jumping out of their skins to give me one.

The dry braised fish was good. I'm going to hold back on saying it was great, but it was exceptional. It was a little salty, but since I was eating it with plain rice, the rice helped tone it down. The fish, flaky and white (probably cod), was fried in a light crisp batter, along with sauteed zucchini and onions, in a sauce that tasted like a combo of bean sauce, soy sauce, and a touch of garlic.

Dry Braised Fish

Gary, who's originally from Taiwan, and I were trying to figure out what style of Chinese food DPD was. I quote: "So Gary, do you think DPD is Mandarin cuisine?"

"You know, sometimes Chinese food is just Chinese food, unless it's a specialty cuisine. There are some Northern things on the menu such as sweet soy milk. I was listening to them and they spoke a mixture of Mandarin and Cantonese, plus some dialect I didn't understand. Most Chinese you run into are from Hong Kong, but I'm not sure where these guys are from. I liked their old chef. Hopefully this new one is good."

Here are other interesting DPD menu items from the to-go menu (their phrasing, not mine):

Bean Wrap with Mince Pork
Sea Cucumber Tofu
Sauteed Spinach with Garlic Sauce
Preserved Cabbage Yellow Fish Soup
Jelly Fish with Cucumbers
Kao Fu (??)
Chicken with Wine Sauce
Preserve Egg and Pork Porridge
Eight Treasure Porridge
Sauteed Shrimp with Pepper Salt
Seafood Hot Pot

Now that DPD has a new chef and a new makeover, it's very possible that it will become my new standard for cheap Chinese food in Chinatown. Most of these items are $4.00 and under, which makes them a steal. And, if it matters, they are open til midnight. Considering there are so many crappy Chinese restaurants that serve bland food for higher prices, this makes the new and improved DPD a welcome sight.

Sam Wo's, eat your dead heart out.


Monday, March 07, 2005

Salad Days

When I was 19 or 20, I converted to vegetarianism. This conversion happened on a weekend trip up to Washington DC in what was to be a "Punk Percussion Protest" at the Supreme Court, complete with a free concert featuring Fugazi and Bikini Kill. Nothing particularly convinced me to become veg, except for the fact that it was just "punk". In that scene that strived to break from normality, being a veg was as normal as circle As (anarchism) and circle Es (equality).

My conversion wasn't particularly hard, since at the time I didn't have many happy food memories of meat. As soon as I returned to the house I shared in Tampa, Florida, I felt like a changed person. Actually, judging from my hairstyle, I was (think: self-imposed male pattern baldness).


I remember vividly, standing in my kitchen, a sink full of moldy dishes and dishwater (I think months had passed since they were done) listening to Fugazi and opening my first package of tofu. I cut it into chunks, and piece by piece ate it raw, believing this is what vegetarians do. Repulsed, my foray into the meatless unknown began as I became what is commonly known as a junk food vegetarian. In fact, you see them all over the place. I see them all the time at Rainbow Grocery and Whole Paycheck. They are the folks who keep the evil-incarnate Tofu Pups from disappearing into the hellish abyss they crawled out of.

During the infancy of my junk food vegetarianism, I practically lived in the Taco Bell drive-thru, bringing home bags full of bean and cheese burritos. After leaving Ybor City on a Greyhound bus with $200 in my pocket, I came to live with other veggies in North Oakland. From punk house to house, every veggie household had its own specialty. The Pill Hill house was a total Ramen totalitarian state. When I lived with squatters/travelers in the basement of some kid's parents house, the specialty was green split pea mush with lots of cumin, made in a plug-in wok. When living with them, I was introduced to what I call my "punk rock sandwich", a combination of avocado, almond nut butter, cream cheese, and alfalfa sprouts in between 3-seed bread. I still serve this as an appetizer at parties, and while most folks at first think it sounds disgusting, almost all change their mind after one or two bites. When I lived as a student in a martial arts dojo, the speciality was mounds of spaghetti in a "sauce" of nutritional yeast and soy sauce. A real treat in those days was "Soy Dream" ice cream.

Citizen Fish at the Hofbrau, now Luka's Taproom, in Oakland. Photo by Murray Bowles.

As I moved into South Berkeley, my appetite was appeased with Food Not Bombs (aka the Punk Rock Soup Kitchen) mystery vegetable stews and rice chaos, while sublementing my diet with the fabulous creation known as the Mission burrito, "Super Vegetarian". One recipe from those days I wish I still had was a mushroom tofu pie that, despite initially sounding bad, was pretty dang good.

Skip ahead a decade. I eat meat and I'm unemployed after being laid off twice in the same year. I spend several days a week at the UN Plaza and Ferry Building farmer's markets. I've been converted again, only this time it's to the Alice Waters/buy local/eat seasonal school of thought. Again I'm forced into new terrain as my first taste of bitter melon is as revolting as my first taste of tofu. But, still I trudge through. Luckily, I trudge through with some minor success. It's at this point that I began to value the salad spinner I had bought for Bruce 5 years earlier.

A lot of bizarre food combinations, indicative of California Cuisine, have been brought to fruition with the help of that spinner. The strainer part of the salad spinner was invaluable when lye-curing olives. Shortly after that, I was washing arugula in the spinner, and as if by instinct, I picked up the strainer basket, dumped the water out of the spinner, replaced the strainer basket into the spinner, and spun the arugula dry. At this moment, I had one of those moments of clarity, the kind that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck; when you feel as if one of those cartoonish light bulbs suddenly appears above your head.

Without missing a beat, I suddenly blurt out "What would I ever do without a salad spinner!" It was an ecstatic moment of crystal clarity, like instant enlightenment. And while I've had these outbursts over a few other things, never has a salad spinner or any other kitchen gadget been at the center. It's these sudden outbursts that I believe causes the neighbors on one side of our building to look at us strange and avoid eye contact. That's ok, because I've smelled their cooking, mmm-kay (head rolling side to side). Get where I'm coming from?

Keeping in tune with my unshakable love of punk music, the spinner makes its own loud noises, somewhat resembling a motorcycle engine. And what better symbolism of "the pit" than your salad greens moshing around inside of that spinner harder than a bunch of straight edgers at a Youth of Today reunion. And I love the feeling of accomplishment you get after spinning some greens and seeing that tablespoon of liquid puddle in the bottom of the container.

You know, it's the small things in life, right!


Sunday, March 06, 2005

Fertility is the New Black

Around the same time, for the last several years, we've had Morning Doves shack up on our deck, get biz-zay, and have babies. We didn't realize until a few years ago that our potted plants were the bird equivalent of king-sized, red satin sheet covered beds complete with mirrored ceilings and a Barry White tune playing softly in the background. In fact, it's almost creepy to wake up hearing their early morning coo-cooing, knowing that in people terms they're probably saying "Who's your daddy?"

Is this why they call them Morning Doves?

When I walk outside I feel like the third wheel at a sex party. It's just downright naaaasty.

Need a cigarette?

As if I needed to be reminded, Spring is the season for baby-making, baby-having, and hopeful fertility, so that that Life will keep on doing whatever it is that Life does. Easter, that time when rabbits do it like rabbits, and we hunt for "the egg" (gee, I wonder what that means), is coming up and nothing says Easter like Peeps, chocolate bunnies, and Linguica and Eggs.

This box of Peeps, parasitically sucking the lifesblood out of our fridge, has been attached since the early zeros.

Ground control: We have linguica. The linguica we made ourselves. Although we've been nibbling on it since Wednesday, this morning was the first chance I had to try a new recipe for linguica with eggs, which is a very common way to eat linguica for breakfast.

This whole linguica-making incident has sucked me into learning about Portuguese American culture and food. Since our linguica-making affair, I've been thinking a lot about 3 foods/beverages I saw at the event: linguica, homemade Portuguese wine, and hot red pepper sauce (which I later learned was something called Massa de Malagueta). Since then, I've been Googling Portuguese American food and culture, checking out cookbooks, and downloading Fados and Pezinhos.

Freezer Full of Linguica

One cookbook that I've checked out twice before is Portuguese Homestyle Cooking by Ana Patuleia Ortins. While I had browsed through this book before, it never really made a lasting impression until I experienced the food first hand. Many of the recipes are Azorean and it even has pages which discuss making linguica and wine. The recipe for the hot pepper sauce we had last weekend is in there, as is a recipe for linguica and eggs. Unfortunately, two dishes I had last year at a bullfight in Newman, deep-fried smelt (Peixes) and octopus stew (Arroz do Polvo), were not in the book (though there is one for baked sardines). But beyond that, many good recipes are in the book and in hindsight I should've paid closer attention before.

The recipe for the hot pepper sauce is extremely simple. In fact, when we were making it, Bruce said "is that it?"

"Yeah, that's it."

It is, I'm guessing, a way of preserving the peppers with salt, while the salt draws out water, changing the composition and flavor of the peppers. After 8 consecutive days of stirring, the paste is eventually stored in a jar with a topping of olive oil. Done this way, it keeps in the fridge for half a year. This sauce is often used in making linguica and on linguica as a condiment, as well as many other Portuguese dishes.

Insert rude comment here.

Yesterday we bought the red finger-sized peppers (I can never remember what they are called, but they weren't jalapenos or the smaller Asian chillis) at Ranch 99 in Daly City, a large Asian grocery chain based out of Southern California.

On our way out, guess what we found in the parking lot???

You'll never guess.

Ok, we found golden chantrelles!!! They were growing on an island in the parking lot that was bare except for a few scraggly plants and the woodchips the mushrooms were growing in. By the time we saw them they were too dried up, and who knows what dogs had been rehydrating them in the last few days, so we couldn't take them home to eat. But it amazes me that no one picked them when they were fresh, especially considering they were growing in the parking lot of an Asian market, where folks come from cultures that are less fungo-phobic than ours.

Day One: Hot Pepper Sauce.

Massa de Malagueta
(Hot Pepper Sauce)

1 pound of hot red, finger-sized, peppers
½ cup of kosher salt
1 tablespoon of white wine vinegar
1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil
Rubber gloves

1. Wash and dry the peppers. Remove the stems and the cap. Now, for ultimate hotness, you should leave the seeds. Or you can discard half of the seeds from the peppers or include only a teaspoon if you are really concerned. However, before you do, it is advisable that you protect your hands with rubber gloves. You may also go without the gloves, as long as you wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water. And don't be touching any sensitive areas, like your eyes, while making the sauce. Otherwise, you'll feel like a left-wing protester peppersprayed by the police.
2. Section the peppers in half down the length, then again down the width. Place inside of a food processor and pulse until you have a consistency that is finely chopped by not pureed.
3. Transfer the peppers to a medium bowl or tupperware container and mix in the salt and vinegar. Cover and place in the fridge.
4. For 8 days, stir the mixture several times a day. At the end of 8 days, place inside a sterilized canning jar or container and top with olive oil. The sauce will keep this way in the fridge for 6 months.

Linguica and eggs is a pretty common breakfast item in a lot of restaurants in California. Incidentally, most of those restaurants are not Portuguese restaurants. It's really like going to a Denny's and seeing huevos rancheros on the menu. And right beside huevos rancheros will be a linguica omelette. As far as I know, this is the closest most non-Portuguese Californians get to Portuguese dining. The strangest thing; while there are many Portuguese in California, there are less than a handful of Portuguese restaurants and bakeries. To my knowledge, there is only one restaurant that serves Portuguese food in San Francisco. Though there are plenty of Brazillian restaurants, and while the two cultures intersect, they are not the same. In the San Joaquin valley, you can find Filipino restaurants, Mexican restaurants, Italian restaurants, but no Portuguese restaurants. If you want food made for Portagees by Portagees you really have three options: festas, bullfights, and marrying/befriending in.

A note on this recipe: linguica is often served this way for breakfast, a way that is similar to a very well-done omelette. However, Bruce says his dad and his uncles would also eat the linguica with fried eggs on the side. Also, I made this recipe with only 4 eggs, when it should've contained one more. I've made the correction in the instructions. Also, this recipe works best with a non-stick skillet.

Slightly Mise en Place

Ovos con Linguica serves two
(Linguica with Eggs)

2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 half of a small yellow onion, minced
2 fairly large links of linguica, cut into ¼" pieces
5 eggs, beaten
1 small handful of flatleaf parsley, chopped
1-2 teaspoons salt

1. Heat the oil over medium high heat and fry the onions. As soon as they start to brown, add the linguica and stir. Cook the linguica for about 5 minutes or until browned. Once browned, lower the heat to medium-low.
2. Add the chopped parsley and salt to the eggs and mix. Pour this mixture over the eggs and lightly stir. Then cook without stiring for another 10 minutes or until the eggs have set.

This could've used one more egg.

From this point, you have two options, you can either invert the omelette onto a plate and then back into the skillet to cook the other side, or you can take the whole skillet and place under the broiler to finish cooking the top. It really depends on how you want to present it. As you can see below, I did mine the skillet, plate, skillet way and it really isn't an attractive presentation, even if it does taste great. I suggest you play around with this recipe and if you are a pro at making these type of omelettes, I suggest you go with your own technique. However, my personal opinion is that liguica goes best with eggs cooked with the linguica, rather than off to the side.

Tastes better than it looks.

Now, about those chantrelles…