Saturday, July 26, 2014

From Gate E6 at Logan

pretty and pink, like Quik strawberry milk
In the last 56 hours I’ve swum in the sea, eaten 3 lobster rolls, and tried my first and last raspberry fizz at the Oxford Creamery in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts near my in laws’ summer house. The woman at the counter made it sound like a tasty berry-flavored egg cream (milk, soda water, syrup), but it was a bland and watery waste of (not very much) money. I can’t recommend the fizz, but can recommend the Creamery’s lobster roll if you're ever in the area. A couple other things to recommend:

-The Betty Ann Food Shop in East Boston. Five minutes from Logan Airport and ideal for when you're just off a miserable redeye. Miserable redeye -- redundant? The Betty Ann Food Shop opened in 1931 and still feels like 1931 inside, where donuts cost 80 cents and the woman behind the counter calculates your bill on an ancient cash register. Apparently they used to sell other baked goods, but the cases were empty on the morning Mark and I turned up. Just donuts, and they were wonderful -- delicately spicy, coated in crusty sugar, and still warm. My favorite was the jelly donut. As Serious Eats put it, they're “heavy for the size, like good grapefruits.”

-These. I don't know what to call them -- peanut butter-cup-stuffed Oreos? Such a mouthful. Isabel made them with her aunt and cousin and they were waiting when Mark and I arrived in Massachusetts. Delicious and so rich that one bite sufficed. But what a bite.

One of these summers I need to dedicate myself to exploring New England coastal cuisine. On the surface it all looks so mainstream -- chicken fingers, buffalo wings, chili -- but then you look closer and see the kale soup and chicken Mozambique. 

Next year. We collected our children from their grandparents and tonight we're taking another redeye, this one from Boston to London, for the second part of our vacation. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

It was a short affair, but passionate

Bread is in the eye of the beholder.
June 10: The recipe for a “life-changing” gluten-free bread appears on Food52. Gazing at the picture, you shake your head. Calling this brick of nuts and seeds "bread" is like calling soy paste shaped into a cylinder “sausage.” You write a note to a friend: “I would eat this -- it looks very crunchy and tasty -- but it's not bread. In 30 years we'll be scoffing at the ridiculous things we cooked and believed about nutrition in 2014. It's the honey-sweetened carob brownie of our era.”

You tell ‘em, Jennifer. What a snot. But you grew up on health foods and look where that got you? You’re no healthier today than all your friends from the 1970s who got to eat real brownies.
July 15: You stop by your sister’s house to drop off the DVDs of Borgen. She says, “I want you to taste this strange health bread Margi (friend) made.” She toasts and butters a slice of dense, seedy bread and presents it to you. You take a bite. It has a complex texture and nutty flavor with just a hint of underlying slime. The slime doesn’t bother you at all, just adds to the complexity. You say, “Oh my God, this is amazing bread! I love this. Where did Margi get the recipe?” 

Justine: “Food52.”

Sigh. Of course.

July 16: Why are all the people who work at Whole Foods so young and groovy and all the people who work at Safeway so . . . not?  Do the managers at Whole Foods look for fabulous people with nose rings who are saving for a trek through Nepal while the managers at Safeway look for downtrodden lifers with kids? Honestly, you prefer Safeway, but for today’s errand -- buying the ingredients for that delicious bread -- you must endure Whole Foods. You search around and finally have to steel yourself to ask one of the groovy clerks: “Where can I find the psyllium husks?” It turns out they're about 2 feet away from the chia seeds, also on your list. Then, so the cashier can be sure you’re a real nut, you grab a bottle of a coconut probiotic drink from the refrigerator case. 

July 17: You mix the dough, which isn't beautiful and springy like yeasted bread dough, but a damp, rough, swarthy paste. You let it sit for a few hours and then bake the paste. You cut a slice. Divine. It has the rich flavor of coconut oil and that pleasant hint of slime -- from the psyllium husks? the flaxseeds? -- plus lots of gentle crunch. Perhaps it’s a bit crumbly, but you can fix that in future loaves. 

July 18: Mark was skeptical but loves the bread. He calls it “birdseed bread” and toasts it for breakfast and dinner. You eat a piece with butter for your afternoon snack. YUM! A new staple for the household. You don’t personally care that it’s gluten-free, but appreciate that it’s so full of fiber and Omega 3 fatty acids from the chia seeds. You’re not sure exactly what fatty acids are or why Omega 3s are good, you just know they are. 

July 19: You have a piece of the bread for breakfast with some avocado. Maybe the coconut oil flavor is a bit unctuous. Perhaps there's still a place in your life for the occasional Acme baguette.

July 20: You have another piece of the bread with butter for a snack. Today, it brings to mind an under-seasoned veggie burger. You can't finish your snack.

July 21: You think about having a piece for breakfast. You stare at the remainder of the loaf, oily and coarse, and try to think how you can make it palatable. Peanut butter? Jam? Yuck. No. What happened? You adored this bread only three days ago! Mark looks at you looking at the bread and says, I'm done. It’s bread you can only take in very small doses.” 

You take the remaining chunk of bread down to the dung pit, a.k.a. yard, for the chickens, but the goats head butt the birds out of the way so they can have at it. Bullies. If they'd asked nicely, maybe you'd let them keep it. Instead, you take the bread away from the goats and crumble it into tiny pieces that you scatter all over the yard. The chickens devour the crumbs, which means their eggs will be full of Omega 3s, whatever those are. You just know they’re good for you.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

College trip, spudnuts, 18 years

Four hours later I started googling diabetes. That's how terrible I felt.
I took Isabel to look at colleges in the Pacific Northwest last week and she found two to which she will definitely apply and would happily go. I’m glad I’m not the one applying to college in 2014 because I’d never get in. I’m not being falsely modest. Three words: high school calculus. 

It was a beautiful trip and I’m already sentimental about our time together. How many more trips will there be for Isabel and me? There was fierce heat, lots of driving, lots of talking, lots of listening to The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which was on the “suggested reading” list issued by my school every summer when I was growing up and therefore of less than zero interest to me. I'm glad I got over that, because it's gripping and wonderful and I highly recommend the audio version for a long drive.

In terms of food, the Spudnut Shop in Richland, Washington was the highlight for me, not because the spudnuts were so fabulous (they weren't), but because I've had a thing about spudnuts for 25 years. Do you know about spudnuts? They're donuts made with potato flour and there was once a chain of spudnut shops across the United States. Only a few dozen remain. You may be wondering what makes a spudnut special and I would say: nothing! Nothing at all. Maybe they're marginally lighter and fluffier than an ordinary donut. Maybe. Marginally. But the name and concept caught my fancy when I was young and impressionable and now I get excited whenever there's a chance to visit a spudnut shop, so when we found ourselves 40 miles from Richland, we made the detour.

You don't need to go.
This place was a total . . . let’s just say it was cluttered and "real." The donuts were pale inside, pillowy, and yummy, but not significantly better than what you'll find at your local supermarket. I'm still glad we made the pilgrimage. It gave me a momentary thrill and now I can cross it off the list.

We ate some other tasty things on our sojourn: the strawberry birthday cake ice cream, wonderfully rich and jammy, at Salt and Straw in Portland. The cream-filled donut from Voodoo in Eugene, which might have been Isabel's favorite food of the trip. A humongous tub of buttered popcorn at the movie theater where we saw Maleficent. How bad for you is movie theater popcorn? I can't bring myself to look. 

The day after we got home, Isabel flew off to visit Mark’s family in New England. Since then, Mark and I have been on our own. Half the time I'm blue and filled with dread of the coming empty nest, half the time we're having fun. So much more fun than usual. It turns out that constantly nagging people to start their homework, feed the chickens, and put their dirty socks in the hamper is stressful. Who'd have thought. We celebrated our 18th anniversary this past weekend by going to see Venus in Fur (**) and Life Itself  (***), then dining at Tommaso’s, a dated and lovable Italian restaurant in North Beach. We ate clams and veal saltimbocca and Mark drank a cup off coffee with the meal and I drank a glass of wine and felt very happy and very lucky. 

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Sorry, but there's just nothing like a pretty face

This morning I read a review of a restaurant called Trou Normand written by Michael Bauer, the veteran San Francisco Chronicle critic. I stopped when I got to this paragraph: 

The food embraces you like a warm hug. The space is alluring, but not altogether comfortable - it's like a woman who doesn't have the prettiest face but still attracts attention for how she puts herself together.

Gag. Couldn’t continue reading. There are thousands of unpaid, unedited restaurant bloggers who would die of shame if they published a paragraph so trite, muddled, and offensive. Do newspapers have a death wish? 

Flour kept me busy this week. There are two types of coconut macaroon: rich and lean. Rich macaroons call for egg yolks and/or sweetened condensed milk and tend to be sticky and heavy, while lean macaroons involve little more than coconut, egg whites, and sugar and are generally snowy white and a little grainy. Joanne Chang's are some of the best I've made in the "rich" category. As you can see in the photo, they got a little singed, but that didn’t diminish our love for them. Highly recommend. Recipe is here.

Even better than Chang's macaroons: her coffee ice cream with cacao nib brittle. (Chang says it's one of her favorite recipes in the book.) The recipe is here and you should try it.The cacao nib brittle is great, but a big hassle and not strictly necessary so I probably won't include it next time. Coffee is Mark's favorite ice cream flavor and I've tried a number of recipes. This is our #1. I might stop here.

Finally, Chang’s almond-anise biscotti are good, though they're the dense, floury type of biscotti and I prefer the kind that are super-brittle and porous, like coral. Do you crave biscotti? I don't. I think that's the beauty of biscotti. They're not addicting. You can stop at one, which isn't the case with, say, chocolate chip cookies. I'm not sure whether desserts should really be "irresistible." Do other cultures know something we don't?

I finished up Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger, but that’s for the next post. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

And now for some Flour

misshapen but delicious
In Flour, Joanne Chang writes that she grew up in traditional and "fairly strict" Chinese family where, aside from the occasional plate of sliced oranges, sweets rarely appeared on the table. She was exposed to cakes and cookies at her friends' homes and at a young age developed a "full-blown obsession" with desserts and pastries.

Chang:  "I pored over baking books and food magazines; I read and reread dessert descriptions wherever I found them. I lingered at pastry cases at the supermarket. Most of the time I never tried the desserts I was dreaming about. Instead I could only imagine how they must taste: Turkish delight (I read about it in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,) snickerdoodles (Good Housekeeping,) sticky toffee pudding (The Joy of Cooking,) double-crust apple pie (Little House on the Prairie,) New York cheesecake (first spotted at a Safeway in Houston!)"

I completely relate. Her story supports my theory that childhood dessert deprivation can lead to an almost romantic ardor for sweets. The longer and more hopelessly you pine, the brighter those gorgeous and mysterious desserts glow. I should say that I don't view this is as a problem. Ardor is not the same thing as compulsive bingeing. Chang has built an amazing career from her passion and certainly looks like she exercises healthy restraint.

As I mentioned in the last post, Chang majored in math and economics at Harvard, then got a job at a big international consulting firm right out of college. After a couple of years, though, she decided she really wanted to spend her life baking and quit her consulting gig to do so. She opened her Boston bakery, Flour, in 2000. Her yardstick for a dessert: Would you serve this to your mother?

I'm not a complete newcomer to her book. Chang's banana bread is the only banana bread I make anymore and her oreos were the basis for the oreo recipe in Make the Bread, Buy the Butter. I can take no credit whatsoever for those incredible cookies. I would have happily served both Chang's banana bread and oreos to my mother. 

Last week, I made her brioche and the recipe is a masterpiece of clarity and detail. I've baked a dozen or so different brioche recipes over the last few months, and this is my favorite, simply because the whole process went so smoothly. I used half the dough to make a loaf of bread and half to make her chocolate brioche buns, which contain not just bittersweet chocolate, but a lovely layer of pastry cream. I baked three of these beauties (see photo at top) and froze the rest to bake later. My mother would have flipped for the chocolate brioche buns and been very pleased with the tender, buttery brioche.

I'm not quite as sold on Chang's so-called luscious cheesecake, which I baked yesterday for our weekly extended-family dinner. It wasn’t quite dense or tangy enough for me and the reviews were curiously contradictory. Mark declared it the best dessert I’ve ever made, while Isabel said that homemade cheesecake is always “kind of gross.” Seriously?! My sister commented on its "caramelly" flavor, which is odd because it contained no caramel. Maybe the top caramelized in the oven? Or did the caramel notes come from the thick graham cracker crust? I would have served this cake to my mother and she would have praised it extravagantly, but I probaby wouldn’t have served it to her again. 

I do have to mention a couple of Ming Tsai recipes I also tried last night, just to keep up.

His shrimp lollipops from Blue Ginger are a variation on a Vietnamese dish that consists of spiced shrimp paste that you mold onto the end of a stick of sugar cane. Tsai has substituted lemongrass stalks for the sugar cane and has you present these tasty appetizers with a spicy almond pesto. The lollipops were very, very good, but there was general feeling that some mayonnaise, bland and rich, would have been a better foil than that spicy pesto. You have to really love the flavors of lemongrass and Kaffir lime not to want them cut with a little mayonnaise. The recipe is here. (FYI, the lollipops in the book are pan-fried, not grilled, and there are some small differences in the quantities of several ingredients.)

I told my father to hold up a lollipop for me so I could take a picture 

and my sister cried out, "No! I'll do some food styling for you." 

I don't know. Her shot is definitely better, but maybe food styling doesn't run in our family. 

I also made Tsai's napa slaw which is not a refreshing salad, as I'd expected, but a relish, very pungent and sharp, full of fish sauce and vinegar. We ate it on burgers. I would not make it again.

On another subject, Owen texted me from camp requesting pictures of the goats and I took some shots this morning. I hesitated, wondering how it would go over in New England, the goofball from California showing off homely pictures of goats hanging out in a dust bowl. But I sent them. I'm including this picture to illustrate the stark difference between a yard with goats and one without.  It's like the border between North and South Korea. We're the North.
First they eat all the plants, then they grind the earth into talcum-fine sand with their little hooves. Currently, they spend hours every day trying to get through the fence into the neighbors' yard so they can continue with their mission of global destruction. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Overpriced produce, Blue Ginger, and Ronnie Lott

You'll pay almost 3x as much to buy identical sprouts directly from the farmer.
Does $8 per pound for organic brussels sprouts seem like a lot to you? That’s how much a woman is charging at our local farmers’ market. Meanwhile, non-organic sprouts cost $1.99 per pound at Safeway and organic sprouts at the Community Market (a store) were $2.99 a pound on Friday. 

I think it’s reasonable to expect to pay more for organic, locally produced food at a farmers' market. But how much more? Slightly more? Twice as much? Three times as much? Four times as much? I might (might) be able to see the rationale for a 400% mark-up if you’re talking about a fragile, highly perishable, super-delicious peach. But a brussels sprout? You’ve lost me there.

Prices seem increasingly out of whack at the farmers' markets around here. I have a theory about what's going on and it's very simple and obvious, but for some reason it's deemed tasteless and cynical to question the prices farmers put on their wares. So I'll be tasteless and cynical: While it's true that people don't become farmers in order to get rich, farmers are not saints and they're not stupid. When they see a river of Michael Pollan readers streaming into the market, people who consider it a moral obligation to pay more for their food, it's only natural to figure out exactly how much more they're willing to pay. The farmers will take whatever they can get. Wouldn't you? 

So the prices keep going up and up and up, buoyed, I guess, by a very thin tranche of very rich, well-meaning shoppers. While I suppose this is good for the vendors in the short run, in the long run it hurts the whole farmers' market cause. Eight-dollars-per-pound brussels sprouts give farmers' markets a bad name and loyal, long-standing customers will eventually get annoyed and stop going. I know this, because I'm one of them. 

In fact, I'm writing this on a sunny Sunday morning in June when, historically, I would almost always be at the San Rafael Civic Center farmers' market. But I'm going to do my shopping later today at the store. 

Ok, back to the cookbooks at hand. Ming Tsai, author of Blue Ginger, went to Yale and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Joanne Chang, author of Flour, went to Harvard and graduated with a degree in applied mathematics and economics. Make of this what you will.

Blue Ginger has been a success so far. Tsai's recipes draw from different Asian cultures and I made a Japanese grilled fish, a Thai soup, and a Chinese stir-fry this past week. All quick and easy.

-Tsai’s salmon teriyaki involved marinating the fish in soy sauce, brown sugar, ginger, and orange juice before grilling it. Very tasty, but not sweet enough for my taste in teriyaki and I’d give the recipe a B. Commenters on the Food Network site were more enthusiastic.

-Tsai’s stir-fried beef and asparagus was terrific. I’d give this recipe an A-. 

-But my favorite meal was his Thai spiced soup with mussels. You spike chicken broth with chili peppers, ginger, kaffir lime leaf, and fish sauce, then add mussels and shredded leeks.  This recipe gets an A. Sadly, I was the only person who got to taste the delicious soup. The first night I was going to make it, Mark had a migraine. The next night was the NBA draft, which meant he had to work late, and I ate alone in front of the TV.

An interesting report card had come in the mail, one that necessitated a sedative beer.
I decided to use this opportunity to watch something from the Netflix queue that Mark wouldn't be into, which turned out to be Bridegroom, an interesting, moving, somewhat syrupy documentary about a young gay man mourning the death of his lover. There was too much on-camera weeping, but I liked the film. The trailer will give you an idea whether this is your cup of tea. It wouldn't have been Mark's.

We're very different, Mark and I. I couldn't name a single player in the NBA draft and he wouldn't buy a brussels sprout at any price or appreciate a movie like Bridegroom. Last night, I dragged him to the Central Kitchen in San Francisco, a newish restaurant where everything is made in house, from the seaweed pasta to the crackers. When the waiter brought the jam jar of chicken liver mousse, he let us know that we were allowed to swipe it out with our fingers. Yuck. No thanks! Mark is usually sarcastic about playful, trendy restaurants and as he sat down, said, "Oh my God." I thought he was launching his schtick before even glancing at the menu, but what he'd seen was Ronnie Lott at the next table. He was so star-struck and distracted that he couldn't be bothered to mock the restaurant and actually praised the food. We spent the whole meal trying to figure out if anyone else in the dining room recognized Ronnie Lott. The answer appeared to be no. A great evening. I think Mark actually ended up liking Central Kitchen more than I did.

My progress in Flour will have to wait until the next post. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Flour and Blue Ginger

breads from the lovely Clear Flour Bakery in Brookline, Mass.
Since last I wrote, Isabel went to Chicago with her friend’s church, did good works, returned, and enrolled in a summer dance program. Owen graduated from 8th grade, got a smart phone, had all his baby teeth pulled, and is now at a camp in Massachusetts where I installed him on Saturday. I put sheets on the bed, explained how to do laundry (glazed eyes, not going to happen), bought him a fan, stocked the bureau with a few dozen homemade Chips Ahoy and Biscoff cookies (from Jennifer Steinhauer's Treat Yourself), and chatted with the counselors while he pretended not to know me. Who is this weird lady who’s trying to hug me? Thank God she’s leaving! Perhaps she’s homeless. So sad. 

I stayed with Mark’s parents at their home in Cambridge while getting Owen settled. Cambridge = gorgeous and exotic to a Westerner like me. Every time I went outside there were people sculling on the river and the New England architecture and foliage remain mysterious and fascinating. Hostas? Never seen them in California. No clay tennis courts or old colonial houses either, and no Dunkin' Donuts, though apparently that's about to change

The short trip helped me decide which cookbooks to explore next. 

Someone had given my mother-in-law, Mary, a few slices of a simple, elegant chocolate tart made from a recipe in Joanne Chang's book Flour. She cut the slices into slivers and we all got a tiny piece for dessert one night. That tart was sublime. I plan to replicate it today or tomorrow and decided this is the moment to "do" the Flour cookbook. Five to ten recipes, no more, no less. 

Because Flour contains few savory dishes, I'm also going to be doing Blue Ginger by Ming Tsai, a long-ago gift from my father-in-law. Again, five to ten recipes, no more, no less.

Have you heard of Blue Ginger? It's the name not just of Tsai's cookbook, but of his celebrated Wellesley, Mass., restaurant. I've been wanting to eat there ever since I read a New Yorker profile of Tsai many years ago and have schemed to do so practically every summer that we've gone back to visit Mark's family. To no avail. Sunday, though, the stars finally aligned. Owen was launched at camp and my father-in-law wanted to watch the World Cup and shout at the TV, so Mary and I drove out to Wellesley to dine at Blue Ginger.

Given its glowing reputation and high prices, I expected glamour, but Blue Ginger is casual, situated on a placid suburban street next door to a saddle shop. There were many tempting items on the menu, like a Korean-style fried chicken, but I'd decided in advance that I needed to try Tsai's famous miso-marinated sablefish. It did not disappoint. The white fish separated into big, sweet, tender flakes reminiscent of Nobu's legendary miso-marinated black cod. In fact, I began to wonder if it wasn't identical to Nobu's legendary miso-marinated black cod. According to wikipedia, sablefish and black cod are the same animal and I couldn't detect any difference in the flavoring. Later, I found Tsai's recipe and it's not quite identical to Nobu's, but it's pretty damn close. I guess you could call it a clone.  

Anyway, it was fabulous. But there was a problem.

It was too easy to eat! With a steak or pork chop the same size, you'd be salting, cutting, and chewing for half an hour. Eating this soft, sweet fish was about as challenging as spooning up some custard. A knife wasn't required, and probably not even teeth. Meanwhile, Mary had ordered a dish that contained roughly a pound of noodles plus a busy curry sauce and various interesting crispy and crunchy garnishes. I'm not a fast eater, but I dispatched with my fish in about four minutes and proceeded to consume every crumb of bread in the basket while Mary tried to make a dent in that mountain of noodles. She didn't come close and left with a giant box of leftovers. 

We both agreed that this was a real glitch in our otherwise excellent dining experience. Life is very hard. 

I flew home last night to discover that someone who shall remain nameless had left the gate open and our goats had spent a few hours in the part of the yard where beautiful things  -- bougainvillea, roses, Shasta daisies, two young princess trees, pelargoniums, grapes -- had lately been growing. Not anymore. Gone. Like they were never there. It will be a few days before I can speak of this with composure.