Monday, December 21, 2009

Never Too Old to Learn

I went to the local supermarket for a couple of disparate things the other day. Ketchup, Plochman's natural stone ground mustard and candied fruit. I must mention that I rotate brands of Ketchup. I will buy Heinz even though after years of buying only Heinz I was pretty sick of it's predictability even if it is very good. Then one day I walked into the store and there was Hunt's, and I bought that. It was nice to have a change. The next time I needed Ketchup I bought DelMonte. I loved the change and also the idea of not being petrified in my ways. The problem is that big supermarket chains have changed their ways--more store brands and fewer national brands. Now in the ketchup department they will have only two or three brands, which means the house brand, Heinz and either Del Monte or Hunts but not both. Also everything that is not on sale is pretty expensive. The Plochman's mustard costs twice what it did just a few years ago. So I walked into the local national chain supermarket and was hit with the usual smell of rotting fish that has gone along with this supermarket under the last three mega supermarket chain owners and when I say that the Plochman's was $5.99 I thought who need this? And I went to another national chain which didn't have Plochman's at all, and when I asked what appeared to be the manager where I could find candied fruit, she had no idea what I was talking about. She looked very puzzled, and finally said "Dried fruit?" Then I went to the local supermarket chain where the rich people shop. It smelled like food rather than garbage and they had everything I wanted. The Plochman's was the same price as the place that stinks like fish. I learned a lesson.

I'm a little late with this but I give these biscotti to people for the holidays. And actually I always add the candied fruit, not the stuff with red and green, which is too garish, but the candied orange peel, citron and lemon peel.

Biscotti Monte d'Oro

4 ounces shelled, freshly toasted almonds
2 1/2 cups flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
3 large eggs

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two or three large steel cookie sheets with parchment paper. Don't use aluminum cookie sheets and don't use Pam or other cooking sprays for this
recipe they don't work.
2. Place the nuts on an ungreased cookie sheet and toast in a 350 degree oven, tossing once to
turn, until golden. Allow to cool and then chop half of them.
3. Mix together the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and soda. Beat in the eggs and then the
4. Knead the dough for about two minutes. If it is still sticky, knead in a little more flour.
5. Roll into logs an 1 inch or less in diameter. Cut into sections about 3/4 as long as your cookie
6. Place two dough logs on each of the lined cookie sheets. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, until the logs are lightly browned and the tops are firm when gently touched. Don't turn off the oven.
7. Roll the loves off the parchment and onto a cooling rack. Allow to cool for at least 10 minutes. Using a serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion, slice each one diagonally into cookies about 1/2-inch thick.
8. Arrange the slices on wire racks and return them to the oven. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until
the cookies are crisp and firm. Cool completely before storing in a tightly covered container.
9. These biscotti not only keep for several weeks, but their flavor improves and deepens over

Variations on the basic recipe:

1. Substitute walnuts, pecans or pignoli in place of the almonds.
2. Add 1 tablespoon or more candied orange or lemon peel.
3. Add 1 tablespoon of anise seed.
4. Add 1/4 cup chopped candied citron, orange peel, or lemon peel.
5. Chocolate-dipped biscotti: When the biscotti are cool, melt a bar of chocolate in the top of a
double boiler. (I use a loaf pan placed in a pan with boiling water ) Dip one flat side of each cookie in the chocolate, then set it, chocolate side down, on aluminum foil. After two hours peel the cookies off the foil.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Holiday Gift Idea

My friend David Johnson, who married my kindergarten sweetheart, is an artist who specializes in fruit and vegetables. He produced this calendar with Leslie Stiles who is a caterer and demonstrates at Bay Area farmers markets. You can order it at or write to 2358 Banbury Place, Walnut creek, CA 94598 or by phone at (925) 935-3422.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A lasting aroma

This reminds me of an earthquake we once had. Other than losing a lot of beautiful Italian hand painted plates and homemade preserves the most lasting effect was I never put garlic in any chutney I made after the quake.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fantasy is the Best Reality

I readily admit that I am very lazy about this blog. But occasionally something sets me off. Today I was reading the advertising section of the local newspaper when I came across an ad for a "Bella Cucina electric knife with carrying case." I thought, wow, if I had a Bella Cucina (beautiful kitchen) electric knife carving it would transform my life. Not only would it be so easy and quick to carve the Thanksgiving turkey, but it would turn my two kids (neither of which are planning to eat with us on Thanksgiving, let alone provide us with grandchildren) into a very large Italian family with dozens of grandchildren who adore their grandparents and hang one their every wise word. Since my entire life would also be transformed, we would be celebrating the festività on our estate on a terraced hillside overlooking olive groves in a warn part of Italy at a long wooden table in the shade of a il fiore ha coperto l'armatura -- flower covered arbor. The grandchildren would be laughing and chasing each other around. A cell phone would never ring, in fact nobody would even have one. We would bask in the beautiful day, delicious food, and the warmth of one another's admiration.
When I looked at the reviews for some of the Bella Cucina kitchen appliances I actually read that one person was attracted to the slow cooker, waffle maker, toaster oven, pannini maker, electric knife, table top roaster, or whatever, by the name Bella Cucina. Some of the reviews were great, like the slow cooker, and others like the convection oven were terrible. Actually as I read the reviews of the convection oven the image of my terraced Italian hillside turned into cardboard refrigerator box under a bridge. Try as I may I can't think of an appliance that has transformed my life...for more than a few months.
Now we live in a small house and space is at a premium. When we were preparing to move we got rid of about 15% of what we owned. Another 30% of our possessions went into boxes and into our garage--as I feel that renting at an off premises storage facility is real a sign of defeat. This was compounded by a genetic disposition toward a refusal to throw anything away in our children. One child has left behind camping equipment, childhood electronics, and a crate of vinyl LPs for the last 10 years. The other occupies about 15 to 20% of the garage space with kitchen appliances, crafts items, books and all the detritus of everyday life. Unfortunately our own things tend to accumulate as well and on the rare occasion that I actually want to peel and de-seed tomatoes I have to go to the garage and find the machine that does that; or if I want to grind my own coffee I have to go out to get the grinder in the garage. I am not sure why I keep those huge salad bowl and gigantic stock pots as we would no longer have a place to seat more that 8 for dinner, and even that is a squeeze.
While we are not spending Thanksgiving at home this year nonetheless I am still cooking the turkey, making the stuffing and gravy, and the cranberries.

Really Good Turkey Gravy (and Lots of It)

½ cup turkey grease or butter
½ cup white flour
6 cups or more reduced turkey broth
¼ cup good jam, preferably homemade apricot
turkey giblets, cooked and minced
ground sage
dash of Tabasco or ground hot red pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
¼ cup Marsala or Madeira
salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Cook the flour in the turkey grease over low heat for several minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not brown.
2. With the burner still on low, add the stock a few spoonfuls at a time, stirring vigorously. Once two cups of stock have been stirred in, add the remainder a cup at a time. If lumps appear, use a wire whisk to break them up and make the gravy smooth. (But don’t panic if you just have a few small lumps—the giblets and jam you’ll be adding will disguise them.)
3. Stir in the jam, giblets, sage, Tabasco and thyme.
4. Add the Marsala or Madeira and turn the heat up. Bring the gravy to a brisk simmer and cook off the alcohol for a minute.
5. Add salt and pepper and adjust the other seasonings as needed.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cooking Without Cookware: It’s In the Bag

Linda C. (full name not given to protect the semi-senile) has lost this recipe again. Her solution was to email me (the nearly fully senile) and ask that I send it to her a third time. I couldn't even remember ever publishing such a recipe. But the meal is a memory as clear as the sound of a bell. (But, of course I am nearly deaf.)

If you’ve never made a turkey in one of those translucent Reynold’s Oven Bags you don’t know the pleasure of a basting-free Thanksgiving. You get less drudgery, plenty of crispy skin, and very little risk of the turkey drying out. I’ve cooked my turkey this way twice now, and both times it was delicious and even moister than with my basting-every-15-minutes method.

Now I’ve applied the same basic method to cooking pig, and was it ever good!.This recipe for pork shoulder may seem like a lot of work because it has a lot of steps, but look more closely and you’ll see that it will only take you 10 minutes, three times, followed by several hours in the oven completely unattended. Then all you need to do is cut it up and chow down.

What we’re doing in this recipe is getting the maximum amount of flavor into and out of a very cheap cut of meat. We’re brining it and then dry marinating it (think of it as aroma therapy), and then essentially braising it with the same aromatics that it chilled with overnight. The result is a large, very tender, very juicy piece of meat with crispy edges that give it a little bit of crunch in places, plus lots of delicious stewed carrots and light gravy. I served it with boiled potatoes browned in duck fat. I assure you nobody would have complained if I had browned them in butter instead.

Unless you have 16 at table you’ll have plenty of leftovers. Lucky you! Fry some of the leftover meat (no fat need be added) and top it with Curtido, a tangy Salvadoran cabbage salad. I first had this slaw in a little hole of a restaurant, served over crisp fried yuca and “oven-fried carnitas,” of which my pork-in-a-bag could be called a variant. Served this way, the leftovers are almost better than the original dish.

Pork Shoulder Braised in a Bag with Carrots

8-10 pound pork shoulder, bone in
generous ⅓ cup salt
2 quarts water
1 bunch thyme
1 head garlic, peeled and crushed
1 extra-large Reynold’s Oven Bag
2 tablespoons flour
8 carrots, peeled and diced or cut in chunks
1 leek, washed and sliced, white part only
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup white wine

1. In the morning the day before serving, trim the skin off the pork shoulder but leave on some of the fat. Dissolve the salt in the water in a large glass or food-grade plastic container. Add the pork shoulder. Refrigerate until the evening.
2. Discard the water. Dry off the pork and place in a glass dish with thyme and crushed garlic under and over the meat. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until four hours before dinner.
3. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
4. Put the flour into the bag and shake well. Add the remaining ingredients and then the pork, fat side up, with the thyme and garlic. Seal the bag according to package instructions and cut 6 small slits in the bag.
5. Roast in the bag for 3¾ hours.
6. Remove from oven and allow to rest for 15 minutes. Carefully open the bag, slice the meat, and serve.

(Salvadoran Cabbage Salad)

boiling water
½ head cabbage, shredded
1 large carrot, grated
½ onion, finely minced
2 tablespoons fresh or 1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons grated red bell pepper
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar
⅓ cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup water
red pepper flakes , to taste

1. Pour the boiling water over the cabbage and carrot. Drain immediately.
2. Add the remaining ingredients and mix. Refrigerate for several hours before serving.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

When is a Plum not a Plum?

Years ago I went to the farm of an elderly fruit farmer. I said I wanted Italian plums with which to make my grandmother's recipe for plum tart (Zwetschgenkuchen). She gave me a funny look and said "You mean fresh prunes, and you don't want Italian because they are not sweet enough to make dried prunes that can be sold. You want a sweeter variety like French prunes or Sugar Prunes." She handed me a paper bag and directed me to an orchard.

Silly me. A plum is not necessarily a plum. It wasn't that day that I learned the difference between a plum and a fresh prune. Plums originally come from Asia and prunes come from Europe. A plum is usually rounder and redder, inside and out, than a fresh prune which is blue or purple on the outside and yellow on the inside. For Asian plums, many of the newer varieties were bred by Luther Burbank, think Santa Rosa, Satsuma, Mariposa, Kelsey, Red Beauty. For European plums or prunes or whatever you want to call them, think Damson, Italian, French, Sugar, Stanley, and Imperial. With the European varieties no matter what you call then someone could argue that you are using the wrong term, so I vote for telling them to shut up and eat.

You might have already guessed from my mention of a paper bag into which I was supposed to put the fruit: that old lady is dead and her farm is a housing development. And that is progress. I can still get fresh prunes, but no variety is indicated, and I now sprinkle a little sugar on the cut fresh prunes before I put it into the oven.

Zwetschgenkuchen (Plum Tart)

2 cups flour
2/3 cup sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) sweet butter, cut in chunks
1 teaspoon grated fresh lemon peel
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
2 pounds Damson (prune) plums

1. Place flour, sugar, butter, lemon peel and cinnamon in food processor and mix until grainy.
2. Add the egg and the yolk and process until the dough forms one large ball. If it doesn't, press it into a ball by hand.
3. Allow the lump of dough to sit uncovered for an hour. Then roll out on a floured board and transfer to a torte base form.
4. Cut the plums into quarters. Remove and discard the pits. Cover the tart base with plum quarters, overlapping slightly, starting with a ring of plums at the outer edge and filling in toward the center. Sprinkle on a little sugar.
5. Bake at 350 degrees until crust starts to brown and the plums start to bubble, about 50 minutes.
6. Serve at room temperature, with whipped cream.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Meal of a Lifetime

My daughter used to love the Italian, German, and American food I made. The process of growing up turned her away from her heritage and turned her East. No, not Poland or Russia from whence the remainder of her gene pool came, but Far East. She spent months trying to figure out Korean broth while living in Ireland, she missed her favorite Korean restaurant in Oakland, California so much. Finally we went to the restaurant and got the recipe for her. She was in heaven. She still loves Korean food, but a trip to Japan caught her palate, and the other day when she got off the plane in San Francisco after coming from London she planned a stop for dinner at a well thought of ramen restaurant before we made our way home. The ramen at Santa Ramen in Santa Clara was delicious but I was not as delirious about it as she was. Other meals ensued, but finally we got to the meal for which I had been waiting for 30 years. The one she cooked for me.

A while ago while on her way to India for a conference her job sent her to, she took a few days off in Thailand, and took some cooking classes. I know all this because she sent me a picture of herself wearing a apron and holding a knife. The frame around the picture advertises a cooking school in Thailand. And she also gave me a Thailand durian refrigerator magnet.

When she said she would cook for us I expected Korean, but when she decided on Thai I was very pleased as we do not go out for Thai several times every time she visits us. So a trip to the Pan Asian food mall nearby ensued. After filling up a basket with all sorts of chilies, lemongrass, coconut milk, and Jasmine Rice (I got a 5 pound bag of Jasmine brown rice, figuring I'd substitute Jasmine for the regular brown rice I use when I make the twice monthly batch of dog food I cook up for the dog I never wanted.) The since we couldn't find it there, we went to a nearby Japanese market looking for Kefir Lime leaf. They didn't have it either, so we picked up a tray of fresh sashimi for an appetizer, a six pack of Sapporo, and another six pack of Mango Mochi. We went on to the local hippy "natural food" store. They lacked Kefir Lime leaf as well, so we got some chicken and went on to another little market. We didn't find it and gave up, went home, and she made her green curry without kefir lime leaf. Nonetheless it was absolutely delicious, the best green curry I'd ever had. She says while ready made curry paste is very good, making it yourself makes your curry even better. What makes my curry even better is having her cook it for me. I told her the day will come that she'll have to cook for me every day and change my diapers. She just made the next flight back to London.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Nonna's Day in Italy

Just the thought of a “Gluten Free Italy” convinced me that I needed a gluten filled Italy. Hence my absence from for the last month. A while ago I came across a Google map of Northeastern Italy someone had made in 2008 of Slow Food’s Osterie (taverns) d'Italia, and I immediately started think about a road trip. Traditionally Italians have three categories of places to eat: Osterias--the simplest, Trattorias--still informal, and Ristoranti--formal. In actuality the categories are not so clearly defined anymore, and I think a more modern definition of Osterie would be "eatery" encompassing all three. While I don't think the limited addition of McDonalds and other fast food has changed anything, it sure has changed Italy as pointed out by some Italian friends. It has added a decent supply of easily accessible free public toilets.

My experience with Slow Food's Italian guide is that without being able to read a word of Italian you can pick a recommended restaurant at random and have a really great traditionally made meal for about $50 per person including a delicious local wine from a carafe. And don’t scoff at carafe wine. Usually the chef grew up in the area, and the meal is designed for the local wines. At my very first random restaurant pick from Slow Food I had the chef’s wife warn me that the wine list was for tourists and to drink the local carafe wine. Now we have eaten it this wonderful place since the early 1990s and now the local wine is bottled with the restaurant name on it. (And the owners' son, who was a little kid on our first visit, is 18 years old.)

I preplanned a heavy eating trip, with one important meal a day, and a light sightseeing tour of Northern Italy. We met our friends in front of a car rental counter in Milan’s Malpensa airport. We had already been in Paris for 10 days, but they had just landed after about 20 hours with two plane changes. So I’d scheduled a light day of driving, and zero touring. I drove this leg and as I hadn’t driven stick shift in about 35 years managed to convince everyone in the car in about 5 minutes that I shouldn’t be the driver. Nonetheless, I did pretty well once we got on the autostada.

One of our friends had never been to Italy (imagine that,) and the other had not been since before I had last driven stick shift. So our first stop was one on memory lane, for a light lunch snack at an Autogrill, many of which were built as classical mid-century futuristic restaurant bridges which span the highway. I had a plate of proscuitto and salami with a roll and a bottle of Pellagrino. It was sort of amazing when I think about truly nasty overpriced fast food you get at the food stops on The Garden State Parkway.

Afterwards, we drove on to a "Locanda" (inn) which my wife and I had been to before. It was in the middle of nowhere, with no website or email address, in an area which is much too uninteresting to appear in guidebooks, but beautiful and peaceful nonetheless. When we arrived it was less than peaceful, it being Mother’s Day afternoon and everyone within many kilometers had taken their Nonna out to lunch at this place. There was exactly one space available, and waiting for our car in the unpaved parking lot shaded by chestnut and olive trees.
Italian friends, with whom we had eaten at the inn once before had made the reservation by phone for us. We walked in, the open kitchen off to the right had a open wood grill as a center island with a huge hood over it to exhaust the wood and grilling smoke. I could see beef, veal, horse, chicken, and guinea fowl grilling. The aroma was incredible. Sadly we spoke no Italian, but it wasn't long before the staff figured out who we were, we got our rooms and our jet lagged friends crashed for a couple of hours. While they rested we unpacked and looked out a window down on a park like area with numerous Italian families standing around talking. My wife said she half expected them to break out in opening choruses of Cavalleria Rusticana. At that moment not speaking or understanding Italian wasn't so bad. The magic of the moment would have been ruined it if we had understood the everyday conversations below us.

We went into a nearby town and sat down at a café and drank what everyone else was drinking: an Aperol Spritz. Aperol is a concoction made of bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb, and cinchona, and 11% alcohol according to Wikipedia. Don't bother asking because I have no idea what gentian and cinchona are. An Aperol Spritz which is slightly bitter like Camparri, adds ice, Prosecco, soda water, and a slice of orange, and it ends up less alcoholic than a glass of wine. While a bottle of Aperol sells for about $11 in any Italian supermarket it runs about $27 here in the U.S.A. (naturally.) It was served with potato chips and peanuts on the side. At every café we went to on this trip about three quarters of the people were having this florescent orange spritz.

By the time we got back to the inn the parking lot was empty as all the nonnas, mothers, children and grandchildren had gone home. We had dinner on the large terrace of the inn, which was set under a canopy of chestnut trees overlooking the countryside. It was warm, and quite spectacular. But the dramatic countryside scenery was a minor thrill compared to the food. We started out with a large platter of Salumi, paper thin excellent cold cuts, salami, coppa, pancetta, proscuitto, and mortadella. The best of Italian traditional meat curing is so simple and straight forward, so unlike American with added sugars, artificial flavorings and chemicals, that it was hard to get enough of these melt on your tongue, palate pleasing, naturally moist and sweet cold cuts. The "antipasti" was followed by "primi", a bis, two pastas. The tortellini, for which the nearby town, Valeggio sul Minico, is famous, was served in a small amount of the pasta's boiling water and butter. The hand made egg pasta was very thin, about half as thick as the fresh tortellini you get in the U.S., and was filled with a delicious stuffing made from the local cured meats and others were filled with cheese. They made the tortellini one gets in America seem like they are created out of cardboard and filled with canned pet food. The other pasta was also a thin egg pasta rolled with very thin ham and served with butter and sage. It was hard to decide which I liked better, they were both so good. We followed the pasta absolutely delicious "secondi." Some of us had grilled T bone veal steak and others grilled homemade sausage, and of course we traded so everybody got to taste everything. There were vegetables as well, all of which were undistinguished except for the delicious fried potatoes. I sometimes think vegetables in Northern Italy are for the tourists as well. We have noticed the wait staff is always slightly surprised when we ask about Verdura. As our Italian friends mother once told us, "We ate enough vegetables during the war." In all the whole meal went perfectly with the 2 liters of local, light, bubbly red wine. To be honest I can't even remember the desserts, but I see from the bill that there were 3 of them and my best guess is that I did not have one. Fortunately, we only had to walk upstairs and fall into bed.

Locanda Belvedere
Santa Lucia ai Monti, 12
Valeggio sul Minico, Italy

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Prince Harry and the "royal" family

I saw a picture of "Prince" Harry playing polo in New York. And while still working on a post about eating in Italy I thought it was time for a preview.

But first I wanted to make clear my thoughts about the "royal" family.

The queen--a pathetic, but pompous prisoner of the State.
Phillip--of limited intelligence, and needs a muzzle and a choke chain collar to go with his short leash.
Charles--means well, but looks absolutely desperate.
William--"the ugly but sensible one."
Harry--the village idiot, needs a DNA test to prove a relationship to the queen, but I think it just lovely how the royal family protects the virtue of Diana after her death.

Delicious Puledro Tartaro at
Antica Trattoria "al Bosco" Saonara, Italy

Monday, March 30, 2009

Translate as "I'm a very secial person."

The other day while dreaming of the days when I was able to afford to travel I noticed a book being offered, The Gluten Free Guide to Italy. I supposed if I had a gluten allergy, and I were going on a trip to Italy I might just try to avoid gluten as I probably would be doing anyway, all of the time. In fact, ultimately I would eat the food groups I normally do, and in Italy I would be ordering polenta and risotto rather than pasta. What's the big deal? Would I need a book to figure this out, or would I need the book to make me feel special as I flashed it around?

Someone I know does not eat tomatoes or eggplant or anything else from "the deadly nightshade family." She read in some crackpot health food journal that eating foods from this family encourages arthritis. And she is concerned with acquiring debilitating arthritis. The fact that nobody in her family has ever even complained of arthritis is of no interest to her. She very concerned.

By the way, I consider "scientific research " crackpot, particularly if there is any profit motive involved. Take for example the consistency with which how very profitable drugs seem to plagued by "recent research" just months before their patent protection expires. They are found to be deadly and banned moments before generics are produced in mass quantities. But that same drug company has a replacement drug just coming out which does an even better job than the newly banned one. Though while scientific research is crackpot it makes more sense to me than religion based pseudo-science which seems closely associated with the Republican Party.

For 20 years people avoided eggs like they were the black plague, because they were so high in cholesterol, even though there is still no study that shows that if you eat foods high in cholesterol your cholesterol will go up. But then decades later they discovered that there was a testing error on that egg and they decided to waste another egg. Now instead of one egg a week you were allowed to eat three or four a week, even though they have still not proved that vital link. Nonetheless people who's 90 year old parents suffer from high cholesterol avoid eggs and take cholesterol lowering drugs.

Even worse than crackpot scientific research are allergies. My attitude as a cook and a host is if it just doesn't "agree" with you, and doesn't make you go into anaphylactic shock, just shut up about it, and eat around it. I am completely sick of hearing "Garlic doesn't agree with me," and "I can't eat onions." And I find it outrageous that if the crew on Jet Blue is told that someone has a peanut allergy the don't serve packets of peanuts on that flight at all. Oh, wait a minute, do they even serve anything anymore or have they installed vending machines along side the pay toilets?

And vegetarians are a total turn-off. Who even knows what the word vegetarian means? I do know what herbivore means, and it seems to mean what people only on rare occasion mean when they refer to themselves as a vegetarian.

I have heard:
"I'm a vegetarian, I eat shrimp, fish, chicken breast, cheese and eggs, but don't talk about chickens walking around with no breasts or I won't eat it. And I will eat a pastrami sandwich if I am visiting my cousin in Miami."
"She says meat disgusts her but she ate wild boar at Madonna's favorite restaurant in Tuscany."
"I eat no poultry or mammals, but I eat shrimp and seafood, and those chopped salmon patties from Costco, but not gefilte fish. And I think I am off of cheese because of the animal rennet."
"I eat no fish, mammals, poultry, eggs or cheese. But I do eat Parmigiano Reggiano grated on my vegetables."
"I'm a vegan and I eat no meat, poultry,cheese or eggs. I don't drink milk or use cream or butter, or eat ice cream. But I will eat a cookie made with butter and eggs (if it is made by my mother-in-law.)"
I'm waiting to hear, "I'm a vegan, but I eat ham on Passover."

It does seem a little like a obsessive, but not very compulsive disorder: I put my left sock on first, followed by my left shoe, followed by my right sock and then my right shoe, and then my underwear, unless I forget.

But there is one kind of "vegetarian" of which I do approve. Ones who keep their mouths shut, and don't obsessively throw their disability in your face. I have a friend who eats no meat, poultry, or fish, but will happily eat a beef stew, eating the vegetables and potatoes but not the chunks of meat. Hey, since I love having a double meat portion, and she is satisfied with a double vegetable portion, it works for both of us. (She also eats garlic beef salami from Chicago when the opportunity presents itself.) Not surprisingly, she isn't a religious fanatic, or any other kind of fanatic either. I find people who take themselves too seriously, in general are very tedious.

So, I am much less resentful cooking a vegetarian dinner for this woman than I am for someone who is a totally rigid except when they have a yen. And the last time she was here I did cook a "vegetarian dinner" But perhaps she isn't really that easy going at all. perhaps she just knows how to work me.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Bottom Feeding: Take 2

Bakesale Betty's
5098 Telegraph Ave.
Oakland, CA
(510) 985-1213
Tuesday - Saturday 7am - 6pm
Sunday - 7am - 3pm. Closed Monday.

Bakesale Betty's is a corner bakery with a line out the door at lunchtime. Everything Betty produces is great. Real home style treats. But what the crowds are lined up for? Among other things, Betty's fantastic fried chicken sandwich. It is a fried chicken breast on a thick bed of spicy hot Cole slaw, on a Acme torpedo roll. The roll is so full it takes two or three hands to manage the sandwich without getting it all over yourself. The chicken is fantastic, but the Cole slaw is alone is brilliant. A vegetarian I know goes for the slaw by itself. Now you can make Betty's slaw at home.

Betty's Coleslaw

The vinaigrette:
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

The coleslaw:
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced
1 cup red wine vinegar
2 jalapenos, seeded, cut in half and sliced crosswise
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/2 green cabbage, core and outer leaves removed, and very thinly sliced
Kosher salt

For the vinaigrette: Combine mustard, vinegar and salt in a bowl. Slowly whisk in olive oil until well blended.

For the coleslaw: Macerate onions in red wine vinegar, and let sit at least 20 minutes. Remove onions and discard vinegar. Toss onions with jalapeno, parsley, cabbage and salt. Toss with vinaigrette until evenly coated.

Cafe Con Leche
424 Amsterdam Ave
Between 80th & 81st St
New York, NY 10024
Daily 8am-Midnight

This is real Cuban food. They serve Cubanos, which is a Cuban sandwich of roast pork, ham, cheese, pickles on a Cuban roll. We used to get Cubanos at the movies when we lived in upper Manhattan. In the back of the lobby of this theater there was a counter that went through the wall into the sandwich shop next door. That theater pretty much only showed Charles Bronson movies dubbed into Spanish with English subtitles. It was always full and there was lots of audience cheering, booing, gasping, and, babies crying and general hubbub. It made theCubano taste even better. Cafe con Leche also serves crispy fried Dominican chicken and other lovely Cuban favorites. Sides include red or black beans, and plantains. For me a trip to New York is not complete without aCubano, and a pastrami sandwich from Fine & Schapiro.

Fine & Schapiro
138 W 72nd St.
New York, NY 10023
(212) 877-2721
Daily 10am to 10pm

They call themselves the quintessential kosher Jewish delicatessen. I don't know about that as I usually have the pastrami sandwich so my experience is limited. The pastrami and pickles are good as is the slaw. Because it is kosher you will not get a Reuben here (no cheese). I do have to mention that generally the rye bread in New York is of pretty poor quality compared to Los Angeles or Berkeley. It has insufficient substance. It is too light. I wonder who makes it and how they get it so fluffy.

Malecon No. 2
764 Amsterdam Ave
New York, New York 10025
Between 97th & 98th St
(212) 864-5648
Daily 6am-11pm

As you walk up to Malecon No. 2 you are confronted with a window full of rotisserie chickens. The chickens seem to fly out the door as the place's business is so successful. It's inexpensive and delicious.Malecon is one of numerous Dominican restaurants on New York's Upper West Side, and in addition to the rotisserie chicken which they serve with a lemon juice-garlic-cilantro dipping sauce, they also servemofongo which is a mixture of mashed plantains and chicken formed into what looks like a squat inverted clay pot. I've not had it but the name intrigues me. They also serveCubanos, There is a Malecon (No. 1), but I have never been there even though it is in the neighborhood I lived in 30 years ago. That upper Manhattan neighborhood was a combination of elderly German Jews, Columbia Presbyterian medical school students, Dominicans, Salvadorans,Puerto Ricans , and Cubans. And evidence in the park across from our apartment 30 years ago indicated that people were ritually sacrificing or slaughtering animals at night. TheMalecon No. 2 area is not nearly as exciting, but maybe that's good.

Zaki Kebab House
1101 San Pablo Ave
(at Dartmouth St)
Albany, CA 94706
(510) 527-5452
Daily Noon to 9pm

Very nice home made Middle Eastern food. The falafel I've had and very good Baba Ganoush. The heavily spiced rotisserie chicken is Delicious. The meat they use is Halal. The owners are delightful, bringing tastes of other things to the table-- like you had gone back to the old country to visit relatives you have never met before.The daily specials are not regular items from the menu, but rather dishes which are too labor intensive to make every day. The one I had was really delicious and I suspect that they are always very good as they get a lot of attention from the cook. Music Saturday nights No alcohol sold or allowed to be brought in.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Not food for the Poor: Beef and Beet Borscht

I don't know what bee got in my bonnet but I had to have borscht. I think it might have been the 7 inches of rain spread over two weeks and our cold (because I'm so cheap) house. Or it might have been the thought that you eat cabbage and lots of root vegetables during a depression. So I went to the market looking for beef with bones--and for various health reasons, or neurotic obsessions, (I'll leave it for you to decide) we don't buy regular supermarket beef. I like grass-fed the best. But when I went to the eccentric market we frequent the only organic, grass-fed or non-feedlot beef choice with bones was short ribs. I would have preferred shin, but the shin came from a feedlot you can start smelling 4 miles before you even get there. So I got grass-fed short ribs, and I spent my heat money for a week on the better beef. But when I looked at the label and saw $17.50 for 2.5 pounds I nearly panicked. After completing the cooking process I fed the eight people who ended up around my dinner table one recent Thursday night. And there was enough left over for another dinner for the two of us. We had radishes with butter, salt and sour rye bread to start, and salad after the rich thick meaty soup, and one of the guests brought a French pear tart from a terrific little patisserie up the street. So the damage was not so bad, and I figure I'll get at least one or two invitations for dinner out of it and when I do, I turn the heat down before I leave the house.

Russian Beef and Beet Borscht

2 ½ pounds beef short ribs with bones
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 large yellow onions, coarsely diced
12 cups water
6 ounce can tomato paste
juice of 4 lemons
6 cloves peeled garlic or more, halved
handful minced fresh parsley
3 tablespoons minced fresh dill
1 teaspoon dill seed
1 teaspoon celery seed
2 bay leaves, preferably Turkish
pinch of cayenne
1 whole clove
14 ounce can diced tomatoes
1 ½ pounds peeled beets
5 carrots
1 large green pepper
½ small cabbage
4 stalks celery
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

for serving:
more fresh dill, parsley, sour cream and hot boiled potatoes

1. Cut the meat off the bones and into 1 inch cubes. Don’t worry about the meat, cartilage and fat that remains on the bones, it won’t be wasted, it will end up in the soup.
2. In a large kettle brown the meat and bones, adding salt and pepper. When they are just starting to become golden add the onions. When the onions are somewhat translucent add the water and the tomato paste. Add the lemon juice and the garlic, parsley, dill, dill and celery seeds, bay leaves and cayenne clove and canned tomatoes and simmer for 90 minutes covered.
3. Julienne the peeled beets using the safety handle on the small julienne blade of the Börner slicer into a large bowl. Add the carrots sliced on the large Julienne blade, not trying to slice the last 1 ½ inches, just throwing them into the bowl whole or eating them yourself rather than trying to slice them down to the nub and adding a slice on “long pig” instead. Slice the green pepper on the slicer, and then cross cut a few times to dice. Same for the cabbage, and finally the celery, again eating the last 1 ½ inches.
4. Saute the vegetables in the oil in a large pan until wilted enough that they actuallly fit into the pan.
5. Skim the surface of the kettle to remove the fat. Then dump the vegetables into the kettle. Simmer for another 30 minutes.
6. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Allow to cool and refrigerate overnight. Dig out the bones, bay leaves and clove if you can find it. Warm adding more fresh parsley and dil, and serve with a hot peeled boiled potato in each persons bowl and a dollop of sour cream.

This is a Börner slicer. It is a low priced version of an expensive French mandolin. It is just as effective and it can be just as lethal as I learned one of the first times I used it and tried to push a piece on onion through with my finger. A year ago my son begged for one for Christmas. I wrote to him as it arrived. “Be very careful. “I sliced my finger the first time I used it.” My children have always had to learn for themselves. Shortly after that our son announced that he had to learn to type with 5 fingers on his left hand and four on his right hand. I believe he has gotten back some of the feeling in the right index finger which he choose to shorten rather than listen to his wise old scarred dad. My daughter is smart enough to know she should never own one.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Fried Chicken: Good, or Better

"Let's meet for a meal." A simple statement but for months now I've been trying to get an excuse to go to my favorite fried chicken place. This past week I was already booked to go there on Saturday, but nonetheless I was trying to sneak in lunch the Tuesday before, sadly it didn't work. Wanting Fried chicken twice in five days; clearly I have a little problem with fried chicken.

One of the people who had turned me down for that Tuesday lunch is another fried chicken addict. With her it is a genetic pre-disposition toward the addiction as she is a genuine Daughter of the South (DOS). With me it was free choice and it is my drug of choice. I have no genetic draw to anything other than crackpot left-wing political opinions.

But in the process of discussing, via email, the possibility of sneaking a Tuesday fried chicken meal (Tuesday being that glorious day of the week when they always have macaroni and cheese as the special daily side dish) DOS, who had just gotten a new stove, wrote, "I made fried chicken the other night, experimenting with cooking at a lower temperature - 320 degrees. I used peanut oil, bacon fat and duck fat. Just the basic buttermilk marinade. It was very crunchy and moist."

I responded, "And how long did it take to clean up the new stove after you made the fried chicken?"

She replied, "I cooked it in my electric skillet!"

Me, "What a concept! I never thought of that. I suppose I classistly thought one couldn't have one of those unless one lived in a home with wheels. But we did have one when I was a kid and it was a new thing. I think in the wild n' crazy 60s I turned it into a candle making device, never to return to the kitchen."

DOS, "I was inspired to get one during a visit to North Carolina."

Showing just how pathetic my addiction is, I spent the next several hours searching and for the perfect CCD (cheap Chinese device). Now bare in mind, I have taken this 30's style depression to heart (I wonder how long it will be before I am selling pencils or apples on the street) so, CCD is not a pejorative racist acronym, but rather an expression of admiration, desire, and consumer respect. Nonetheless, I held off, thinking such a device at $25 is almost exactly the price of a fried chicken dinner for two. Also, I thought if I came home with chicken parts and a new electric frypan, just three days before we had a date to go out for fried chicken, my skinny, but obsessed wife would have gone directly from her weight watchers meeting to a lawyers office and filled out the papers to file for a divorce. To be honest, I can't say she would be wrong in this situation. And since they don't make a small enough electric frypan small enough to cook chicken for one I held off on the idea. And of course there is the problem of where I would put it in my kitchen, which is so filled with rarely used tools that I can't even find them when I do want to use them. The solution to my desire for an electric frying pan is say an electric frying pan if I am ever asked what I want for my birthday or Christmas. Usually I only get one or two chances a year since we don't celebrate many gift giving holidays, especially after moving into a 985 square foot house.

I was primed for the big Saturday event. I'd been thinking about it for weeks. The day before I walked my wife to the train and as I was walking back I smelled fried chicken. I was under the elevated train tracks on a path that was adjacent to a supermarket. I was pretty sure the aroma was coming from the supermarket. I'd never had this supermarket's version, and I imagine that it is not very good as my previous experiences with supermarket fried chicken have not been great. Of course when it comes to fried chicken even bad fried chicken is good. But further into the shopping center there is a fried chicken wing place that was just preparing to opening. I thought, to the extent that I could actually think with that delicious smell in my nostrils, maybe the place has opened, and perhaps I could get just one crispy wing. So I made a detour. Sadly the detour took me out of the range of the aroma, and the "Opening Soon" sign was still in place with the windows still papered over. I did manage to sleep that night

I provide the original recipe that DOS gave me many years ago. The creds of this recipe is that it came from Bobbie Lee (pronounced Bobbahlee) the woman who cooked the fried chicken for events at the church where DOS's father preached, first in Montgomery and then in Atlanta.

Bobbie Lee’s Fried Chicken

1 frying chicken, cut into 7 serving pieces
2 cups buttermilk
3 cups flour (preferably bleached)
½ tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper

1. Put the chicken pieces and buttermilk in a self-closing plastic bag. Refrigerate and let marinate overnight.
2. Combine the flour, paprika, salt and pepper in a brown paper grocery bag. Remove the chicken from the buttermilk, shaking off any excess, and place a few pieces in the paper bag. Fold the top over and shake well to completely coat the chicken pieces. Repeat.
3. Remove the chicken pieces from the bag, shake off the excess flour, and place on a baking sheet. Let sit for at least 30 minutes for the coating to set. Discard the buttermilk.
4. Heat enough Crisco in a large cast-iron skillet or chicken fryer so that the fat is a little less than an inch deep. When the chicken is put in you want the fat to come up just a little more than half way up the chicken pieces. Heat over medium-high heat. Test the heat by dropping in a bread cube and see if it fries brown.
5. Place the chicken pieces in skin side down; do not crowd them. Cook for 10 minutes, then cover and continue cooking for another 5 minutes. Remove the cover, turn the chicken and cook for 5 minutes uncovered and then 5 minutes covered. Remove the cover and cook for 5 more minutes to crisp. Turn the chicken only once during the cooking process. Remove from the pan and drain well on paper towels before serving.

Note: I never fried chicken until I was in my 50s. The KFC original recipe is very good and I was always satisfied with it. Without soiling the memory of Bobbie Lee or the memory of her chicken I do things a little differently. I only use thighs because they are my favorite and I find when we have guests, serving myself last I never get a thigh. Anyone who prefers breasts should go to KFC. I add a little cayenne and sage to the flour mixture. I love the crust, and sometimes I shake off the excess flour and let it sit on a rack for 15 minutes and then dip it in the flour again. And I don't put more than 1/2 inch of oil in the pan to start with. And finally, when is appears the right color. I put it on paper towels with tongs and then after several minutes put it on a rack in the oven for 30 or 40 minutes at 225 so it doesn't get any browner but is definitely done on the inside.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Photos Provide Evidence of a Real Recipe

Top left: Greek (left) Italian Oregano (right; Middle: Browned; Right: with garlic etc;
Bottom left: parchment; Middle: done and out of the oven; Right: deglazed with a basting brush

More than once has my wife clipped a recipe; kept track of the clipping for 15 years; finally gotten around to making it; and decided it wasn't any good. Last week's prize goes to Marian Burros' recipe for Spinach Fettuccine with Lentil Sauce from the April 20, 1994 New York Times. I cannot believe that if Marian had cooked that recipe she would have published it. 5 cups of water in the sauce? Why not 50 cups plus a 2 pound box of Madagascar sea salt? After we ate it, and decided it was noth worth making again, let alone the first time, I read the recipe and not for the life of me could I figure out what my wife found so appealing about it. But then I not as adventurous as she is, and don't like munching on chicken feet in a Chinese restaurant, and am no longer willing to even try tripe unless I'm in Italy. And I know for a fact that French cooks, at least the ones Au Pied de Cochon, that Paris 24 hour a day tourist trap, don't make it so I would eat it, but then what I chose wasn't so good either. Adventure for me is doing a tasting of 5 different salumeria's mortadella in Bologna, not choosing between 5 different snake soups in Shanghai. So the other day when she pulled out three cookbooks and opened to the lamb shanks recipes, I got nervous. The first thing I said was, "Do you want to make this, or would you like me to? It's time to post something to the blog." Perhaps that was her purpose in pulling out the cookbooks, but in any case I got to eat what I wanted to make didn't have to endure the shanks cooked with soy sauce and star anise or something creative.

Lamb Shanks with Garlic and Greek Oregano
for 2, double, triple, or quadruple for more

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 lamb shanks
salt and pepper to taste
juice of one lemon
14 large cloves garlic, peeled
1 sprig Greek oregano, Italian, or teaspoon dried crumbled
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup water
1 disk parchment paper

1. Brown the lamb shanks in the olive oil in a Le Creuset style dutch oven on the stove top without the lid over medium heat.
2. Remove from the stove top, squeeze in the lemon juice, add salt an pepper, the oregano of your choice, and then add the garlic cloves.
3. Cover with a sheet of parchment and then the tight fitting lid.
4. Put the dutch oven in a 350 degree oven for 1 3/4 hours.
5. Add the wine and return to the oven for another 15 minutes.
6. Adda 1/2 cup water to thin the intense liquid, deglaze the sides with a basting brush, and if the shanks were fatty skim off some of the fat. And finally mash the garlic cloves into the sauce.
6. Serve with Bulgar, or orzo.

Note: I say Le Creuset, but I only accept Le Creuset as a gift; I buy the cheaper versions from Target, Ikea, or a garage sale.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Winter Dinner in Less than an Hour

It's been raining on and off all week and since we really need the rain I'm not complaining. But I wanted something hot and comforting for dinner. In addition, I wanted to stock the fridge with some fairly low cal lunch protein. So I went to the supermarket, where I rarely go anymore, and what a great time I had. I saw things I had forgotten existed, like Spaghetti Os, French's Mustard, and Mon Cheri chocolate coated maraschino cherries. After I congratulated myself on my great idea and adventure I got down to work and chose a couple of whole boneless skinless chicken breasts, and then I was sort of stuck on what else I should fill my basket with since I had been to the vegetable market the day before. I ended up adding a couple of cans of brisling sardines, a can of mackerel, and some bananas. Odd choices but I guess that I have forgotten how to shop in a supermarket anymore. It was a slightly embarrassingly weird basket I realized as I headed for checkout. I know I am a very judgmental person, particularly about people's supermarket carts, and I can tell you why. When I was writing about food for a local newspaper many years ago, someone came up to me, looked into my cart, and said "Lots of gourmet treats?" At the time we had a little very pale skinned skinny 6 year old who never ate anything that wasn't white, except for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner and the cart was filled with it because it was on sale. I still remember the snide look on my reader's face. So ever since when I go food shopping I look at people, make a snap judgment about them, and then check out their cart and based on it's contents I decide if my judgment was correct. I was ready to cruise the aisles for more on the sardine and mackerel day when I saw that this was a market where they let you scan the items yourself. That meant I didn't have to have a checker assessing me.

Quick Chicken Stew

1 double chicken breast (I made 2 and saved one for sandwiches)
2 teaspoons herbs de Provence mix
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
water to cover in a covered medium sized sauce pan
1 tablespoon butter
3 carrots coarsely chopped
2 ribs celery coarsely chopped
1 red bell pepper coarsely chopped
1/2 onion coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons flour
cayenne pepper to taste

1. Simmer the chicken breast in the water with the herbs, salt, and pepper until done. About 20 min. Set aside
2. In a covered glazed cast iron casserole saute the vegetables in the butter until the onions and bell pepper are soft.
3. Add the flour and stir to moisten with the butter and cook for a minute.
4. Remove the chicken breast to a cutting board and add the broth to the flour and vegetables. Stir with a whisk to blend the broth and flour and bring back to a simmer.
5. Cut up the chicken breast into 1 inch chunks and add to the stew.
6. Season with the cayenne, additional salt and pepper to taste, and let it simmer for another 20 minutes.
7. Serve over cooked brown rice.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Pain au Levain

When gasoline dropped in price I thought the round of price hikes was over. But today I went over to Acme Bread to get a loaf of Pain au Levain, a slightly sour french loaf, half the reason I moved to this area, and some might say the love of my life. The price of my dear loaf had skyrocketed from $2.95 to $3.05. My wife buys a bread which is heavy on the "fiber" which I think means wood plus soy, wheat, and oat chaff, but is half the calories of real bread for $4.69 a loaf. Don't laugh, lumber has really gone up in price. Of course, if you toast that stuff it is remarkably like brown cardboard. Whereas my favorite bread will show nicely against any bread in the world. Last time I was in Paris I went to the original Poilâne just as the sun was coming up, and tore into their famous bread. I was disappointed. It was not at all the moving experience I was expecting. A few days later I heard that this original bread baker was practically the first shop in Paris to put up a sign that said "No Jews Allowed" when the Nazis took the city. Now when I go away, the one thing I miss is Acme's Pain au Levain. Even at $3.05 I think I'm getting a bargain.
Acme Bread Co.
1601 San Pablo Ave
Berkeley, CA 94702
(510) 524-1327

Friday, February 6, 2009

Seville Orange Marmalade: Now or Next Year

During the Great Depression one did without Seville orange marmalade. But this time around, since they have started growing Seville oranges in California that isn't necessary. They are near the end of their season so this is your last chance to get Seville oranges this year.

Seville Orange Marmalade

6 Seville oranges
Juice of 2 small Moro Blood oranges
10 cups water
pinch of salt
8 cups sugar
12" x 12" square of 4 layers of cheesecloth rinsed and wet

1. Take the damned stickers off the oranges, wash them and dry them. Cut each orange in half as for juicing. I hand juice thoroughly on an old fashioned glass juicer as I can't find the machine since we moved. Pour all the juice including the blood orange juice in a wide kettle.
2. Then pull the membrane out from the rind and scrape away some of the pith (remember Seville, not Dresden, don't be obsessive with the pith) and put all the innards including the seeds in cheesecloth lined bowl. Tie it all up in cheesecloth or muslin very securely. and toss it into the kettle.
3. With a very sharp knife slice all the rind into very, very thin slices. The cross cut the slices about the length you would like them in your marmalade.
4. Add the water, pinch of sea salt, and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat so that it only simmers. Simmer until the peels are translucent, about 25 to 35 minutes. It is very important that they be translucent as they do not become much more translucent after you add the sugar, and you don't want white pieces in your marmalade.
5. Add the sugar and bring to a full boil, then turn the heat down to a vigorous simmer. Simmer until the jam passes the "Spoon Test:" Scoop up a small amount of jam in your cooking spoon and let it run back into the pan. First it will pour. At the end when the jam is ready, it should form two large drops which will merge into one big hesitant drop.
6. Remove the seed and pith packet and put in in a metal wire strainer set over the pot. Press to squeeze out any remaining jam and pectin with the back of the cooking spoon. Careful as this is very hot, indeed. Then dump the seed packet directly in the garbage.
7. Remove the pot from the heat or leave it on the lowest setting. Fill and seal the jars. Turn them upside down and let them sit for 5 minutes. Then turn them back right side up. Let cool, label them and put them in your larder.

Bottom Feeding

I'm cheap. And I love cheap food, which is why I cook so much. Just moving an 8 ounce steak costing $10 at the butcher into the kitchen of a fancy restaurant turns it into a $30 steak. Add a 30 cent potato and 6 string beans and it's a $40 entree. So when I go out I want my food more labor intensive that I am willing to do at home, and cheap. Cheap dives are transient, so you have to use them while they are there and then move on and try to keep the regrets at a minimum. My favorites at the moment are:

House of Soul
1526 Solano Ave.
Vallejo, CA
(707) 644-3792
This place has the only cast iron pan fried chicken in the San Francisco Bay Area that I know of. But they won't start it a fryin(g) until you order it, so don't expect to get served in five minutes--it's not Colonel Saunders. But the chicken, collards, mac n' cheese are great. Great unsugared cornbread. Mostly a lunch place, but it is open in the evening. A rule of thumb is that you go to a soul food place for the chicken and you go to a barbecued ribs place for the ribs, so don't order the ribs. No matter what any web sites say this place is never open on Sunday because it is Mama Soul's ministry. The Martin Luther King family portraits on the wall made it a nice comforting place even before the Obama era.

Mi Tierra
324 S. Van Ness Ave.
San Francisco, CA.
(415) 252-8204
Very good Salvadoran food. I'm not expert on papusas but this place seems great to me. I also love their fried yuca (cassava) with curtido (coleslaw). My wife likes something that looks like a collapsed loofah. Usually empty in the evening

El Taco Zamarano
4032 Foothill Blvd.Oakland, CA 94601(510) 536-3146
This is my favorite semi local place at the moment. It is in dangerous East Oakland, but because the Hell's Angels headquarters is across the street it is safe. Hell's Angels generally seem like very nice old guys. Someone once pointed out that you often see them in Zamarano sipping on Diet Coke, and speculated that they are diabetic recovering alcoholics, a funny image, but they seem to be loyal customers. I love Zamarano's burritos which are the size of a large premie and are easily a meal for two. The dinners are equally big, and I usually go for carnitas plato, and my wife goes for the seafood or octopus cocktail and then we split the two. We used to try eating the whole thing but now I unembarassedly ask for a carton to take the rest home. Did I mention that their corn tortillas are home made, and that the have Modelo Especial (beer)? Booths make it a very comforting, if loud place

Vik's Chaat Corner
726 Allston Way
Berkeley, CA
(510) 644-4412
This place started out as distributor of ingredients to Indian restaurants and stores. Then they started serving lunch so it is located in a warehouse. But soon, in April 2009 they say they are moving (to another warehouse, I think). I go there for Masala Dosa a huge crispy pancake wrapped around a potato filling with Dal a lentil sauce. But all the food is great but at this chaotic, loud place. It does not have a single ounce of gemutlichkeit.

Bauerntanzgäßchen 186150 Augsburg, Germany
This is real Swabian farm food that has been around forever--Mozart's grandfather ate here. I love the place particularly in October or early November for the goose a with huge Swabian softball sized dumpling. The venison with schupfnudlen, which are small torpedo shaped dumplings fried in butter or goose fat and served over sauerkraut which had Riesling and bacon in it, was delicious. The Kasespatzle are transcendental and will have you smiling with satisfaction for days, but I could see where they would become addictive. This is the cutest, most ambient place I have ever eaten. You regret leaving.

Osteria Ardenga
via Maestra 6
Diolo di soragna
near Parma, Italy
0524 599337
This is not really bottom feeding, but is isn't expensive either. How could I not love a place where they tell you to drink the local wine (6 euros) as the food is designed to go with it. "The wine list is for tourists." Take an Italian food dictionary with you but everything will be good. Ardenga is out in the country and the building has been a restaurant for 300 years. We started with antipasti of really good fried polenta cubes, pickled zucchini, cauliflower, carrots, haricot vert, celery, chipolini and red peppers. Also a plate of the local prosciutto, salami, and culatello; all of which were just perfect. They really wanted to show off all their pastas so we got tasting plates which seemed like 4 half portions instead of quarter portions. They included pumpkin ravioli which were the best Ive had, green ravioli filled with force-meat and in a walnut sauce, chestnut gnocchi with chestnut and truffle sauce, and some simple cheese and chard ravioli in butter. We've been twice and were dazzled both times. We plant trips to Italy around this place.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

An Envelope-Free Curmudgeon Begins

It’s been a full year since I discontinued publishing The Curmudgeon's Home Companion, my monthly food-and-opinions newsletter which after 15 years was beginning to feel like a duty rather than an adventure. I was suffering from a recurrent nightmare of myself stuffing envelopes on my deathbed, licking an envelope and dying like George's fiancee in Seinfeld. After 15 full years, 180 issues, and over 100,000 envelopes stuffed, I went cold turkey.

I stopped for several reasons. First, I was sick of inventing and trying new recipes all the time. I'd lost my lust for the new and wanted some of the old stuff. Second, I had moved to the Berkeley (California) area, where there are amazing independent markets and I could get ingredients that I only dreamed of when I lived in the chic but exceedingly boring Napa Valley. At $39.50 a pound at the local Napa supermarket, chanterelles were way out of my reach. But in Berkeley at the Monterey Market this past fall, chanterelles were between $7 and $8.50 a pound. In Berkeley I can get grass-fed beef, exotic cheeses, and an innumerable other foods not available in wine country. While I was living in the valley and writing the newsletter, I knew my readers in Austin, Ottawa, and Appaloosa couldn't get all those foods either, so it worked out pretty well. When I moved down to the East Bay I felt burdened by the obligation to write for them and use ingredients they could get at the Safeway. But I wasn't shopping at Safeway anymore. Now I can go to a guy who makes pasta for the fanciest restaurants and also sells to the public. So spinach lasagna doesn't have to be a rare treat anymore, unless I'm worrying about calories. And I can choose porcini pasta if I want to make a wild mushroom lasagna. Foodwise it's another world here, and it's a world I like.

As for the the third reason I quit: I'm half German and in 15 years the only time I was late with an issue of the newsletter was when we got flooded out of the house. Every time we went on vacation I had to precede it with a crash effort to make sure I got the newsletter done. I was really tired of being on a rigid schedule to produce what was beginning to seem like a millstone.

Going cold turkey was the smartest way to go. Granted, I would have liked to write about the election, but I knew I would have been rabid to the point of drooling. Oddly enough, I only lost two readers when I called Arnold Schwarzennegger Nazi spawn. I think those Napa subscribers were such dim bulbs that they didn't realize that I was calling his father a Nazi, which Arnold himself admits. And the presidential election just past offered plenty of fodder. But I could have not hidden my disappointment and ultimately unmitigated disgust that there were a mere 6.3 percentage points between the winner and the loser. Though after reviewing the events of the last few months and particularly the first week of the Obama presidency, maybe I should say between the loser and the other loser. It started when Obama voted for FISA immunity for the law-breaking telephone companies, and now his decision to cut the family planning money is out of the stimulus package to please the Republicans, who then gave him not a single Republican vote in the House, makes him look like a chump. Alice Waters said she voted for the first time in 40 years; I think I may have voted for the last time in as many years. Since I knew Obama couldn't help but win in California, I regret not writing in Bill Ayers. Still, I remain hopeful that part of "picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off" has to mean war crimes trials for George, Dick, Don, and Alberto. It worked in Germany, where the Nuremberg trials made the people feel so much better about themselves that they created the famous "economic miracle."

Nonetheless, I regret that I didn't get to speculate about Sarah Palin's diet, even though the dogpile on her didn't need to get any bigger. And poor Cindy McCain was so thin I thought she might disappear completely, leaving just a puddle of venom behind. I was disappointed that none of the candidates seem to have any interest in food. But as I think back we have had quite a run of Presidents who showed no relationship with food, except maybe Bill Clinton, who didn’t care what it was, as long as it was junk and there was a lot of it. I suspect John F. Kennedy was the last president who ever ate a paté without thinking it was under-reheated meatloaf. I can just see Bush Junior saying, "And what's with those tiny pickles? I'm President--why don't I get a big one?"

Well, I can still find solace in food and a few other things for which I still feel real affection. My lovely daughter has come to California from dreary London for a week and has proven her love by setting up this blog (finally). And as a trade I've made a favorite of hers, Lasagne Verdi, and wild mushroom crostini for her and a group of her friends tonight.

Wild Mushroom Crostini recipe

1 onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound wild mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (see note)
1/2 teaspoon freshly chopped rosemary
splash of Marsala
salt and pepper to taste
freshly grated Romano cheese (about 4 tablespoons)
a narrow baguette, preferably sourdough
1. Saute the onion and garlic in the oil until soft.
2. Add the mushrooms, rosemary and Marsala. Saute, stirring often, until the mushrooms are soft but quite dry. Add salt and pepper to taste, remembering that the Romano that comes later is salty.
3. Slice the baguette into rounds 1/4 inch thick. Pile the mushroom mixture on top of the bread rounds.
4. Place on a non-stick cookie sheet and sprinkle with the Romano. Bake at 300 degrees for about 8 minutes, until the cheese is melted but not brown.
note: If it isn't possible to get wild mushrooms that won't kill you possible, mix regular brown or white mushrooms with shiitaki.

Lasagne Verde recipe

Italians would serve this as a first course, but I usually make it the main dish; this recipes serves 8.

Spinach Pasta
1/2 10-ounce package frozen spinach
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 whole large eggs
or 6 bought 10x13 sheets of spinach pasta

1. Cook and cool the spinach. Squeeze out all the liquid. Chop in the food processor. Set aside.
2. Put the flour into the food processor. Break the three eggs into the flour. Add the chopped spinach.
3. Process until the eggs and spinach are blended. At that point you want a ball of quite dry dough, but you may end up with either grainy green flour or a sticky blob. If it is sticky add a little flour and process for a few more seconds. If it is grainy, pour it out and press it together into a ball, then process for a few seconds to knead it together.
4. Turn the dough out of the processor and knead for a minute, or until the dough is smooth and silky.
5. Set the rollers of the pasta machine to the widest opening. Take a chunk of dough and cover the remaining dough with plastic wrap.
6. Run the chunk of dough through the pasta machine once. Fold in half and repeat. Fold again and repeat. Each time it should become smoother and more square and even. Then narrow the setting and run through once or twice without folding. Repeat until you reach the second-to-last setting. (On my machine this is number 6, but some machines only go up to 6; in that case stop at 5.)
7. At this point you will have a green ribbon about 4 to 5 inches wide. Dust it lightly with flour, lay it on a clean, floured surface and cover with a clean dishtowel. Repeat until all the dough is rolled out.

7 cups milk
14 tablespoons butter (1 3/4 cubes)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
salt to taste

1. Bring the milk almost to a boil. Set aside.
2. Melt the butter in a saucepan. When it begins to foam, add the flour, stirring constantly.
3. Let the flour cook in the butter for about 2 minutes. Stir constantly and do not let it brown.
4. Add the milk and begin whisking. Continue to whisk until the sauce becomes thick and smooth. Taste and add salt as needed. (Remember, you’ll be adding salty Parmesan cheese later.)

Ragu Bolognese
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 large onion, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely chopped or grated
1/4 pound pancetta (Italian bacon), finely chopped
1 pound skirt steak, ground
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups canned tomato puree
1/2 cup water
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup heavy cream

1. Cook the vegetables in the olive oil until soft. Add the pancetta and the beef. Cook until the meat is no longer pink, but keep heat low.
2. Add the white wine, tomato puree and water. Stir in the salt, pepper and nutmeg.
3. Simmer for 2 hours, uncovered. Turn the heat off and add the cream. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper. If the sauce is not silky on the tongue, add a lump of butter or a little more cream.

To assemble:
3 cups freshly grated Parmesan
1/2 cup butter

1. Butter the bottom and sides of two 9 x 13 x 2-inch glass, ceramic or metal pans.
2. Bring a pot of water to the boil. Cook the noodles one or two at a time, as they are needed, leaving them in the boiling water for only 15 seconds. Remove and allow the water to drip off the noodles.
3. Place a layer of noodles in the bottom of each pan. Lightly spread with a little ragu and bechamel (about 1/2 cup each per layer). Sprinkle with about 1/4 cup Parmesan and cover with another layer of noodles. Repeat until you have 6 layers of pasta and toppings, ending with ragu, bechamel and Parmesan.
4. Dot the top with the remaining butter and bake at 350 degrees for 60 minutes if you just put it together. If you refrigerated the lasagne before baking, allow an hour will work as well. Let it sit for 10 minutes before serving.

Spinach Pasta recipe

1/2 10-ounce package frozen spinach
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 whole large eggs
or 6 bought 10x13 sheets of spinach pasta

1. Cook and cool the spinach. Squeeze out all the liquid. Chop in the food processor. Set aside.
2. Put the flour into the food processor. Break the three eggs into the flour. Add the chopped spinach.
3. Process until the eggs and spinach are blended. At that point you want a ball of quite dry dough, but you may end up with either grainy green flour or a sticky blob. If it is sticky add a little flour and process for a few more seconds. If it is grainy, pour it out and press it together into a ball, then process for a few seconds to knead it together.
4. Turn the dough out of the processor and knead for a minute, or until the dough is smooth and silky.
5. Set the rollers of the pasta machine to the widest opening. Take a chunk of dough and cover the remaining dough with plastic wrap.
6. Run the chunk of dough through the pasta machine once. Fold in half and repeat. Fold again and repeat. Each time it should become smoother and more square and even. Then narrow the setting and run through once or twice without folding. Repeat until you reach the second-to-last setting. (On my machine this is number 6, but some machines only go up to 6; in that case stop at 5.)
7. At this point you will have a green ribbon about 4 to 5 inches wide. Dust it lightly with flour, lay it on a clean, floured surface and cover with a clean dishtowel. Repeat until all the dough is rolled out.