Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Watermelon Diet

All this because I couldn't fit into size Medium yoga pants at a snooty Pacific Heights fitness boutique?

I will be back making ragu and tagliarini again in a day or two, but meanwhile I would like to expound upon the glories of the crackpot watermelon diet, invented by me. It's a one-day diet endorsed by no medical experts. That is my official disclaimer; please don't sue. 

Here's how it works:

1. For one day you consume only coffee and watermelon. I have done it many times and swear by it. Watermelon keeps you full and time passes quickly, but only a big, sweet watermelon will do. I have cut into fruits that had no flavor and promptly went out and replaced them. Coffee -- once in the morning, once during the afternoon slump -- gives you optimism and stamina. Milk is permitted. 

2. Take a sleeping pill. This might be controversial, but it is, in my opinion, crucial. At 11 p.m. you might be tempted to break your watermelon fast with a slice of Italian fruitcake, a bowl of popcorn, a peanut butter sandwich. You can do this. All will not be lost. But better yet, swallow an Ambien and lie very still. Soon you will be too sleepy to walk to the kitchen.

3. You lose weight instantly. Some killjoys call it "water weight," but I call it motivational.

4. You feel amazing the next day. I can't explain this. See #3, but there's also something physiological. 

Ok, I probably can explain it. If you've been eating like a billy goat and drinking like F. Scott Fitzgerald, you're going to feel better as soon as you stop.

I've never stayed on the watermelon diet for more than one day, and I wouldn't recommend it. Basically, I'm of the portion-control school of dieting. But I find the 24-hour watermelon fast indispensable for breaking gluttonous patterns.

And if you are looking for incentive, I recommend finding an exclusive little yoga boutique in a rich neighborhood and trying on some pants. If you live in the Bay Area, I can even give you an address.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Tipsy Baker Shopping Expedition

That's not food!

No, it's not. But it's related.

In addition to baking fruitcakes, one of my favorite activities is exercising. So for Christmas my spouse bought me a gift certificate to a fancy little fitness/yoga boutique in San Francisco.

Given that I never buy new exercise clothes, I was rather excited. Today, I made my way to the petite shop where I gathered up a generous armful of pants and tank tops, all in size Medium. 

I do not know how to describe what happened in the dressing room. Hilarious? Sobering? Horror show?

The clothes were miniature. It was as if a buffalo had stumbled into a boutique for gazelles, a St. Bernard into a shop for whippets. It would not be quite accurate to say I am a size 4, but today I was wearing a size 4 skirt. I checked the label just to be sure. Yes. Size 4. It's a little snug, but I am definitely not a St. Bernard. More like a well-fed labrador retriever.

I stood there gazing silently into the mirror, shocked and perversely fascinated. How are normal people supposed to exercise if exercise shops only sell clothes for people who are already tiny? I briefly considered venturing out and gathering up everything in a size Large or X-Large but it was a small place, the hovering clerk was a young male, and I just sort of knew nothing here was going to work.

I really just need to get the money back and head to Target, or K-Mart. This shop was in a posh neighborhood and trudging back to my car, puzzled and disconsolate, I realized that most the women I passed really did resemble gazelles. Rich gazelles, with Botox, great hairdressers, and big, slouchy leather purses.

Needless to say, I also instantly began a diet. Since leaving the shop I have consumed only watermelon and coffee. I feel more gazelle-like already.

Speaking of labrador retrievers, I took Owen to see Marley & Me. Not as terrible as I had feared, but midway through the film there is a terrifying cameo by the once-svelte Kathleen Turner in the role of an obese dog trainer. 

I took that as another sign. 

Watermelon. Coffee. 

Monday, December 29, 2008

Splendid Table: The "Keeping Cakes" of Winter

I'm sorry I have been neglectful. Of course, I'm even sorrier that no one seems to have noticed, but I shall assume my small, loyal readership has been too busy shopping the crazy sales and seeing lumbering holiday movies (like Grand Torino, what a lemon!)  to complain.

I never got around to writing about the Christmas Eve cakes, but having just eaten a sliver of the leftover Certosino, I'm newly inspired. 

In The Splendid Table, Lynne Rossetto Kasper writes a two page essay on the "keeping cakes" of winter. According to Kasper, all regions of Italy and many throughout Europe boast traditional holiday fruit cakes into which are baked "the preserved treasures of the autumn harvest." I would like to taste every single such cake as I am somewhat obsessed with fruitcakes and the versions I baked over the last few weeks were so extraordinarily delicious.

I made all three recipes included in The Splendid Table and served them on Christmas Eve. I'm not sure everyone was as wild about them as I was, but at least one of us was deliriously happy. 

We had:

1. Spongata di Berceto (far left in photograph.) This is the cake of Parma and Reggio, and is actually more of a tart. The cookie crust enrobes a nutty, nubbly filling reminiscent of baklava. Some people pronounced this the "best" cake, but I think they were basically fruitcake-haters and were gravitating to the least fruity option.

2. Certosino (middle). The Christmas pastry of Bologna, and my hands-down favorite. A dense, incredibly complex melange of fruits, chocolate, almonds, pine nuts and spices that you glaze with melted honey and festoon with large chunks of jewel-like candied fruit. A bit like panforte.

3. Pampepato (right). The Ferrara cake, sealed by "a full cloak of chocolate." Much like Certosino, but blacker, more intensely chocolate.

I love these cakes and their layered flavors -- of citron, fruit, chocolate, spice, nut, honey -- more than I can say. I honestly do not understand why there was so much left over.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Splendid Table: Christmas Eve

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
People were wrapping, not presents but tortellini
Tortellini that were truly and maddeningly teeny. . . 

Ok, forget it. On Christmas Eve we hosted a lovely family dinner with all the usual suspects (Justine, Michael & Stella, my mother) plus Marina and Philippe. The fire was poked, wine drunk, holiday traditions in France and Guatemala discussed, marzipan fish exchanged, and everyone eventually enlisted in the laborious tortellini-making project. Approximately 140 rounds of very thin pasta had to be wrapped around the most petite dabs of meat paste, a process that tested the patience of even skilled pasta artisans like my mother. But the resulting tortellini in brodo -- made, like everything else, out of Lynne Rossetto Kasper's Splendid Table -- was worth it.

Sadly, the rest of the meal was kind of bad. I have no explanation for this, since Kasper's book has never let me down before. The January roast pork was dry yet damp. Yes, this is possible. Just imagine a dry piece of meat covered in a thin, watery sauce. It was almost as if the pork steamed in the oven rather than roasted. A mystery.
The green beans Bolognese were overcooked and soggy, the mashed potatoes with Parmesan and basil a heavy, exceedingly rich mistake. 

I sound crabby, but I'm not. The desserts were fascinating so I'm leaving them for a subsequent post. And, really, the only thing wrong with the evening was the food. It was otherwise a very sweet and merry Christmas celebration.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Baking Night

Every year, Isabel and I pick a night in mid-December to bake until we run out of butter. Then we package the cookies and cakes as gifts. 

We did well this year, though nothing like this. I think our palette was a little drab.  

Anyway, here's what we made, starting with the brown cookie on top  of the Christmas tree and moving clockwise:

Essential Chewy Oatmeal Cookies (King Arthur Cookie Book) Worthy and unsurprising.

Coconut macaroons (King Arthur) Great.

Brewer's Blondies (Baked) These are kind of exciting because they contain chopped up Whoppers. 

Baked Bars (Baked) Layer after layer of delicious things (graham crackers, nuts, chocolate, coconut) that are destroyed by a heavy application of artificial-tasting butterscotch chips and a tsunami of sweetened condensed milk. Vile. If I actually have the nerve to present these as gifts, I am going to enclose a disclaimer.

Essential Sugar Cookies (King Arthur). Isabel's perennial favorite. Even when baked they retain the flavor of raw cookie dough.

Gingerbread (Cookies Unlimited) The usual.
Freckled Fruit Shortbread (King Arthur) Excellent.

Chocolate chip cookies (Baked) The usual.

Mother Kroll's lebkuchen (Joy of Cooking) Citron, spice, lemony icing. Would like to know more about Mother Kroll.

The cut-out cookies in the middle are Alice Waters' butter cookies and they are, of course, perfect. Do you think I can say that the kids applied the garish decorations when in fact they didn't?
We also made two kinds of fruitcake, but they didn't fit on the plate.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Splendid Table: Impromptu Party

Impromptu party the other night. Justine and Michael brought over their majestic jamon serrano and a shaker full of bourbon cocktails. The jamon is always a treat, but I was not delighted by the latter contribution. For me, bourbon is a roguish old sweetheart whom I no longer let in the door. But when he tags along with people like my sister, well, who wants a scene? And once he crossed the threshold it was like a Dolly Parton song. Couldn't resist.

But I am happy to report that while I may occasionally backslide, bourbon doesn't fool me anymore. I don't expect him to be anything but dark, fascinating, and basically evil. Yes, bourbon, you are EVIL!!! I've since had similar epiphanies about vodka, who is also banned, but he's the cold, silent type and was much easier to dump.

No, I'm not blogging drunk. I'm blogging exhausted/manic because we just got back from a day at the mall (there are some crazy bargains out there), at the San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker, at Safeway, and now we are transitioning into our annual holiday "baking night." 

But I was writing about a party wasn't I. 

Along with the jamon and bourbon, Justine, Stella, and I made this exotic pasta dish from Lynne Rosetto Kasper. Official name: Thumb pasta and tomato braised beans Piacenza style. It's a thick bean soup into which you toss small discs of homemade pasta (see little brown items in photograph at top) that contain breadcrumbs and are hence slightly crunchy. A lot of manual labor, hearty, nourishing, will probably never make again.
Dessert: ciambelle, another dry, lemony Mediterranean pastry, this one filled with apricot jam. Simply lovely.

Must now go bake.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Splendid Table: Risotto

Stir, stir, stir, stir. That is risotto. I never order it in restaurants because, however tasty, it is not exciting to eat. Every bite is the same as the last, like porridge. 

While stirring and stirring Lynne Rossetto Kasper's classic white risotto last night, I was mentally preparing a crabby essay about risotto, how it's overrated, not as good as pasta, gruel with a pretty Italian name. And so on. 

Except this risotto was (of course) beyond delicious. Beyond beyond. Credit goes to the broth I simmered for 14 hours, plus the mountain of Parmesan cheese that I grated by hand. One of the most hateful kitchen tasks, hand-grating a mountain of Parmesan cheese.

But worth it. It doesn't matter if every bite of risotto is just like the last if you can taste, in every bite, meat broth, butter, onions, and Parmesan cheese, enormous flavors all somehow contained within each plump little grain of rice.

Miracle dish.

Also, in case anyone was worrying, I found candied citron. Cal-Mart the supermarket of my childhood, had some stocked high on a remote shelf. I had to ask a surly grocery clerk to bring a ladder and get it down for me. He seemed very put out. At this time of year, shouldn't the glaceed fruits be prominently displayed? Cal-Mart is where the preppy seventysomething matrons of Pacific Heights all shop and if even ladies who wear plaid skirts and headbands in their graying bobs have given up on fruitcake, is there any hope at all? 

Friday, December 19, 2008

Splendid Table: Citron Shortage

I've never had trouble finding candied citron before, especially around the holidays. But I've now visited all five of the markets in town and none is carrying citron this year. The closest I came was a display of green cherries (um, disgusting) at Safeway.

This bodes ill for the fruitcake, which saddens me. I understand why fruitcake fell into disfavor, but think it has more to do with the pitiful quality of candied fruit in this country than the cake itself. A few years ago I discovered some juicy, gorgeous Australian candied fruit at a shop in New York City and am convinced that if we baked fruitcakes with THAT there would be no more jokes. Plus: panforte? Why is no one laughing? Perhaps because it contains no green cherries and is delicious?

Every year I plan to throw a fruitcake-tasting party, but every year, flake. Mark your calendars: December 2009. 

Back to citron: How are you supposed to make German Christmas cookies without citron?Moreover, there are three Christmas cakes in The Splendid Table, all of which call for citron, all of which I want to bake.

I'm going in to San Francisco today so this means I'll be making the rounds of the supermarkets there. Such a wise use of my time. 

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Splendid Table: You Really Do Need a Pasta Machine

Lynne Rossetto Kasper believes that rolling out pasta with a pin is better than using a machine. She's a purist, and I wouldn't want her any other way.  "The pebbly texture of hand-rolled pasta combines beautifully with sauces," Kasper writes in The Splendid Table. "For example, a juicy ragu melts into and joins with hand-rolled tagliatelle but slips off the slicker surface of machine-thinned noodles." 

I'm sure she's right. But unless you're an elderly Italian peasant in a black dress, rolling out pasta by hand is maddening.
We didn't choose to hand-roll our tagliatelle last night, but the pasta-attachment to the mixer expired. My mother and Isabel spent 45 minutes rolling and rolling and rolling out the dough and then cutting out long ribbon-like noodles which they then tried to roll some more. 

The resulting tagliatelle with Prosciutto di Parma was tasty, thanks mostly to the rich sauce. The thick, chewy noodles themselves -- the pasta-makers were the first to admit this -- left something to be desired. Buying a new pasta machine today.

We also made sweet cornmeal biscuits (gialetti di Romagna) which you should file under WHY ITALIAN WOMEN ARE SKINNY. Gialetti are severe and gritty cookies full of raisins and pine nuts, very delicious but you really don't want to eat a dozen of them all at once. One or two, a tiny espresso, you're done. Ready to go boot-shopping or meet your lover, or whatever it is that chic Bolognese ladies do with their afternoons. I doubt many of them are hand-rolling tagliatelle.

Gialetti aren't the kind of cookie kids usually appreciate, but Isabel loved them. It makes me a little wistful to admit this, but she is no longer exactly a kid. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Splendid Table: We Like It!

Haven't been keeping up with the dinner diaries, but for the record, Lynne Rossetto Kasper's Splendid Table has been feeding us magnificently. Three dishes to call out.

Green beans with balsamic pesto were fantastic. Rich pesto deliciousness coupled with the virtue and crispiness of vegetable. 

Also amazing: brodetto -- "the king of Romagna's seafood stews." I've always been unnerved by recipes for bouillabaisse and cioppino that call for making a stock with bones and heads of fish to which you add pounds and pounds of expensive crustaceans. Kasper's brodetto was affordable and super-easy. You start by simmering chopped onions in red wine vinegar until "rosy" and soft, then add olive oil and fry. In go canned tomatoes, a bottle of white wine, garlic, and a few pounds of whatever seafood you like. I used calamari, shrimp, rock cod, and clams -- all in the sub $6.99/pound range from Whole Foods. A kingly seafood stew that can be enjoyed by the bourgeoisie.

Must also mention the popular Torta Barozzi, a cake whose innate elegance is not captured by my photography.

Here's Kasper: "Torta Barozzi is to chocolate cake what a diamond is to zircon. It looks like yet another flourless chocolate cake, but one mouthful banishes any sense of the mundane. This is a chocolate essence, moist and fudgy, with secret ingredients known only to the baker. "

Secret ingredient: peanut butter. Probably better to tell this secret.

I don't share Kasper's unbridled enthusiasm for Torta Barozzi, but I am notoriously unreliable on the subject of chocolate. Everyone else went completely crazy over it.

Splendid Table: Flour v. Flour, part 2

We have a clear bakeoff winner. Wasn't even close.

As I wrote the other day, I decided to bake two batches of Lynne Rossetto Kasper's Modena Mountain Bread, one using  organic flour, the other using conventional. Kasper is quite the nag on the subject of organic, stone-ground flour and I wanted to decide for myself.

While the organic starter sponge was livelier than the conventional, it soon lost its edge. And when I mixed the two batches of dough, the results were indistinguishable. Both doughs rose magnificently -- broad and fat and tall.

Baked them simultaneously in steamy oven and two beautiful, golden-brown loaves emerged. The organic loaf (see top left) kept its shape a bit better. I can't attribute that to the flour with complete confidence. 

Isabel served as blind taster. I sliced the loaves and after taking a bite of both, she immediately picked the organic bread for its flavor. She couldn't put it into words, but was very definite. Mark also chose the organic, but when I told him, he immediately recanted. (Mocking organic food is a point of pride with him. Long story.) 
The organic bread has a lovely, assertive flavor I've never tasted in a bread baked by me. The best adjective I can think of is "grassy." Or maybe "flowery" -- not perfumey like a rose or a jonquil, but fresh, like a daisy. Subtle and delicious. I felt sorry for the poor conventional bread, which, when tasted side by side, had no flavor whatsoever. I mean, it's homemade bread and therefore pretty great, but there is really no comparison. Organic flour = much, much better bread.

So now we have two mountainous loafs of Italian bread and just now, as I type, Isabel walked in eating a piece of toast made from store-bought sandwich bread. "WHY AREN'T YOU EATING THE HOMEMADE BREAD?" I cried.

"Ask Daddy," she replied.


"It's too hard to cut into toast-sized pieces."

Am hyperventilating. Please email recommendations for marriage counselors, asap.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Splendid Table: Stock-making

I hate making broth and always have. But a super-rich meat broth is integral to Lynne Rossetto Kasper's recipes in The Splendid Table so I dutifully rounded up 3 pounds of beef bones, 8 pounds of turkey wings (so cheap!), added water and vegetables, let it bubble gently in a giant pot on the stove for fourteen hours, filling the house with the fragrance of dog food.

Sorry, sorry, sorry. That was a repulsive thing to say. But true. I have just strained the broth and now have all these slippery wet bones. What to do with them? Can't dump them in the blackberry bushes (meat=vermin) and if I leave them in the kitchen they will reek by tomorrow and if I put them in the outdoor garbage pail the raccoons will go berserk. And there are too many bones to fit in the freezer for storage until garbage day.


Meanwhile, the Modena Mountain Bread experiment proceeds. This morning I mixed the two doughs (one with organic flour, one with conventional) and at this point can see no difference between them. Both doughs have risen mightily and will be ready to bake in a couple of hours. 

Monday, December 15, 2008

Splendid Table: Flour vs. Flour, Part 1

Reading Lynne Rossetto Kasper's Splendid Table over the weekend I became increasingly irked by her repeated calls for "organic, stone-ground" flour. Instead of mentioning her preference once in the introduction and then letting it go, she specifies "organic, stone-ground" every time a recipe includes flour. This struck me as preachy and pushy. But Kasper insists that the "vitality" of organic flour "adds much" to breads.

Well, I thought, we'll just see about that. 

I decided to perform a test and bought specialty flour to pit against my Gold Medal standard. I couldn't find stone-ground white flour, but decided Bob's Red Mill would do the job, as it is both organic and unbromated. Unbromated? I have since learned that this means the flour has not been treated with potassium bromate, a carcinogenic additive illegal in many countries, but not this one. I know. Sorry to darken your day with grim factoid.

In any case, this morning I made two versions of the starter sponge for the Modena Mountain Bread, which I will bake tomorrow.

Three hours in, some interesting results. The bowl of organic sponge has risen measurably higher than the slothful nonorganic. I'd give it a good two inches, plus there are dozens more bubbles. I was sort of rooting for the Gold Medal because I'm cranky, but now I'm just thrilled that there's any difference at all. This counts for high drama in my world.

Hope you're all suitably impressed by how productively I'm using my time during this first day of official unemployment. 

Artisanal Cocktails

In search of one of those gushed-over, super-trendy artisanal cocktails made with homemade eucalyptus bitters, organic huckleberry syrup, yuzu juice, and the rarest bourbon, we went to Nopa last night. The drinks were very, very nice.

But you know what? In the end all they really do is get you drunk.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Splendid Table: Splendid Start

Stella ate one bite of Lynne Rossetto Kasper's Salad of Tart Greens with Prosciutto and Warm Balsamic Dressing. Owen ate one bite. But for adults, the first dish prepared from The Splendid Table was splendid. Last time I will use this adjective to describe something from this book. Swear.

Sadly, though, I wasn't kidding in my last post. I miss being
hungry, which is a disgusting, spoiled American thing to say, but true. If you've been eating leftover stuffing and tenderloin and brie and roasted nuts and smoked salmon for weeks, your appetite becomes sluggish and dull and how then do you truly appreciate the prosciutto and shards of Parmesan fortifying a warm, salty, crispy, altogether stupendous salad? 

Dessert: Modena Crumbling Cake (Bensona di Modena). Nice cake! Easy, too. You start out as if you were making a giant, sugary, buttery pie crust, then add eggs and milk and shape it into a fat "S" and bake until golden.

Kasper: "Dunking the crumbling cake in glasses of sweet wine is a favorite way of eating Bensone. The cake breaks up in the wine and is eaten with a spoon."

We didn't do that for several reasons, first being we didn't have sweet wine. Second: does it really sound appealing?

Eaten dry -- like soft biscotti -- the cake was lovely. Kasper again: "Its crust is craggy, and the melting sugar on top looks like molten crystal. Bensone is never too sweet. It looks and tastes homemade -- like a sweet, slightly crumbly biscuit."

Elegant, restrained, Italian.

Here's the sad part. There is a tin of Christmas cookies sitting on the counter, and after a wedge of the not-too-sweet Bensone, I ate a couple of definitely-too-sweet, too delicious American chocolate chip cookies.
No one to blame but myself. 

Appetite vs. Hunger

"The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite," A.J. Liebling wrote.

True enough, but I'd put it slightly differently: The primary requisite for writing well about food is hunger. 

It's entirely possible that Liebling was still hungry after eating 10 dozen oysters, three swans, and a suckling pig smothered in sauce Mantua -- or one of the other enormous repasts described in his books -- so I'm not sure we disagree. But while I always have an appetite, I don't have much interest in writing or thinking about food, much less cooking, unless I'm truly hungry. As in: I had 1/3 cup of Grape Nuts for  breakfast, a light Yoplait for lunch and WHAT THE F*** IS FOR DINNER AND IT HAD BETTER BE AMAZING.
When I'm hungry, food becomes much more fascinating, as anyone who has ever been on a diet will attest. Since Thanksgiving I've been eating my way through the remains of one feast  or another and have been so amply fed on turkey sandwiches, Ajwain cashews, leftover tenderloin, pecan pie, and tuna mousse that I haven't been hungry for more than 90 seconds.
Trying to correct that. Tonight: The first meal from Lynn Rosetto Kasper's Splendid Table, for which I prepared by having a tiny sandwich for lunch and eschewing the free cheese samples at Whole Foods.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The National Appetizer Crisis: A Retraction

Alright, there is no "national appetizer crisis." I've been trying to concoct some b.s. theory just to save face. Can't. 

That said, I do think there's a black hole in our cuisine where the shrimp molds, cheese balls, and canapes used to reside. I have two mental images of a cocktail party circa 2008:

1. The fancy catered affair at which crab cakes and hamachi are passed on silver trays by attractive servers in black pants.
2. The homey party where you'll find a bowl of guacamole on the coffee table along with other mismatched and dippy ethnic dishes, like hummus and tapenade.

What happened to the middle ground? What happened to the tidy, pretty, make-ahead hors d'oeuvres that the 1960s hostess carried into the sunken living room to be consumed with a pitcher of martinis? 

That was what I was after: tidy, pretty, make-ahead.

I wasn't thrilled with what I served at Justine's surprise birthday, but for the record, here's the menu:
-Smoked salmon rolls. Mark Bittman's recipe from the New York Times. Couldn't get the fish to roll neatly around the lemony ricotta so made a few messy little roll-ups and quit. Threw newspaper into the fireplace.

-Ajwain cashews from My Bombay Kitchen. Good. 

-Spiced pecans. Good.

-Date nut bread from Martha Stewart. Originally intended to top with cream cheese and chutney, but after sampling decided it was better plain. Good enough.

-Benne wafers. More dessert than cracker. Good.

-Fig tapenade. Served on baguette rounds. Not bad.

-Cheese straws. Long, skinny, breakable. Good.

-Chicken liver pate on toast cut into flower shapes. Martha Stewart's recipe. Better to look at than eat.

-Sausage rolls. Miniature sausages wrapped in a buttery yeast dough and baked, a.k.a. pigs-in-blankets. Recipe courtesy of my brother-in-law's mother. Served with bowl of catsup. Got more compliments on these than anything except the meat (see below). 

-Tuna mousse. Made by my mother in a copper fish mold with a pimento-stuffed olive to resemble bloodshot eye. Served with crackers. Silly name, but delicious.

-Avocado toasts. Mashed avocado and lemon on garlic toast. Similar to guacamole but neater and tastier.

-Aged beef tenderloin

Pictured here is roughly 5% of the meat that the very celebrated butcher shop convinced us we needed. Swindlers. So expensive. How expensive? I'm ashamed to say, but my mother paid and it was worth every penny. (I hope she thought so too.) Velvety and rich, this was the tenderest beef I have ever eaten. Served with rolls and 

-Macaroni and cheese which seemed easier than potatoes au gratin and pleased the children.

Dessert was a bakery cake. 

Just typing this out I am completely exhausted. 

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Busy, Busy, Busy

That is me, trying to finish my last EVER assignment for current job, file for unemployment, order bargain-priced kid-size Crocs in time for Christmas, and, of course, solve the national appetizer crisis. The only difference is, I have long hair and a portable phone.

In any case, I will post very soon. Thank-you anonymous commenter who lamented my absence because you made my day.

Also: Happy Birthday to Isabel Aida! Our girl is twelve years old today.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Surprise (Not) Party

Was it a surprise? She says yes, but I have my doubts. If she'd really believed we were going to the French Laundry would she have worn the jeans? 

Matters not. Justine had a big birthday, we threw a big party, people ate, people drank, people listened to Yaz and Donny & Marie and Emmylou Harris on our fabulous sentimental mix CD. Kids ran around with grimy handfuls of baguette and my mother (pictured above in striking ropy necklace) worked the crowd, one of her brilliant gifts and one that I sadly did not inherit. 

I hereby declare the event a smashing success!!!

I've been wanting to post about the menu-planning machinations for several long, lonely weeks, but for obvious reasons could not. There is more to this story --  the most expensive meat purchase of my life, uncharacteristic anxiety & copious tears, our national appetizer crisis, Martha-Stewart-to-the-rescue! etc. -- coming soon.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Eat Me: The Last, Anguished Gasp

There are dozens of words to describe Kenny Shopsin's Blisters on My Sisters, but they are all unprintable. 

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Get the Lady a Salad

An editor-turned-friend treated me yesterday to lunch at Perbacco where everything is fantastically delicious from the skinny breadsticks to the wine to the agnolotti dal plin. Agnolotti dal plin: tiny pinched tortellini-like pasta packages filled, in this case, with sausage. Ok, they were filled with blood sausage but trust me: scrumptious.

Here's my small complaint, to be filed under "princess and the pea:"

The waiters (handsome!) at fancy Italian restaurants always bring you bread and bread and bread. When you first sit down and are ravenous, bread is precisely what you want. But as the meal progresses and you're midway through your hearty entree, what you really require is salad. I'm not talking about the fussy salad you order as a starter, I'm talking about plain lettuce salad. Ideally they would bring you bread AND salad, but given the choice, I'd take the salad. Trying to put away a plate of blood-sausage agnolotti, even a trencherwoman could use a few leaves of refreshing, stamina-enhancing lettuce. A bite of pasta, a bite of salad, a bite of pasta, etc. until it's all gone. Or you could put some buttery pasta and vinegary salad on the fork at the same time. . . .
It was a fabulous lunch and made me wish I were cosmopolitan and Italian and rich so I could eat that way more often. But with salad.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Chocolate & Salami

I was in Della Fattoria yesterday, one of those lovely overpriced Italian-inflected cafes of which we have so many in Northern California. The bread is chewy, the eggs all "farm," everyone sits at harvest tables reading the New York Times, quietly smiling whenever they see an allusion to president-elect Obama. I was famished and ordered the pressato of salami and fontina. I think it was fontina. Anyway, the whole ordering decision was based on a blur of treat-like images: salami, cheese, baguette, pressato

I should have known better. I did know better! But I was in starving, go-for-all-the-delicacies mode. Here's what was wrong with that $12 (yes) sandwich.
1. Certain cheeses, particularly "good" ones, shouldn't be melted. Something terrible happens in the minute it takes for expensive cheese to go from solid to semi-solid, something that makes it too powerful, too rich. Is it related to the way the fat beads on the surface? I don't understand this phenomenon, but repeated disappointments making grilled cheese with sharp white cheddar have taught me that the better the cheese, the worse the melting experience. 
2. Strong cheese and salami are too much of an exciting thing. Salami -- especially thick-cut Fra Mani salami which this was --  needs a sweet, unctuous foil like mayonnaise to set off the garlicky meat. Salami can handle Swiss cheese, which is kind of thin and sarcastic, but basically mild. It was sadly overpowered by the fontina or havarti or whatever they melted on this fancy sandwich.

Upshot: wrong sandwich made with right ingredients. I blame both the person who put it on the menu and the greedy one who ordered it.

Okay, now the happier story of the chocolate gingerbread magnificence pictured above.  

After resounding success with chocolate pumpkin bread I started looking for chocolate-spice recipes with the idea that my chocolate problem might be solved by giving the ingredient something lively to play with, something that can aggressively push back. A few years ago I made Nigella Lawson's awesome chocolate gingerbread and decided to try the chocolate gingerbread in Dorie Greenspan's Baking

I would need to taste Nigella's and Dorie's cakes side-by-side for a scientific analysis of which is more delicious (party concept?!) but have meanwhile decided that, generally speaking, chocolate gingerbread is better than either chocolate cake or gingerbread. Chocolate and ginger and dark sugars belong together, unlike salami and fancy cheese. I am groping blindly towards some larger culinary theory here and maybe in a few decades you can read about it. 

Meanwhile, gratuitous picture of my beautiful niece pensively eating chocolate gingerbread:

Must Go: More Nigella

She makes illustrating a blog post easy, doesn't she. 

But I'm DONE opining on Nigella's looks and am going to opine today, albeit briefly, on her writing and her Bang Bang turkey, a fabulous minty/spicy/peanutty Asian salad that uses up three cups of leftover turkey. Writes Nigella: "I know it's a bore having to get hold of the Chinese vinegar and chilli-bean sauce but it's these ingredients that set off the glotally clotting gooeyness of the peanut butter."

Glotally clotting gooeyness. I'd never have come up with a phrase like that -- too glotally clotting and gooey -- but I know exactly what she means! I envy the lack of inhibition. She's an effective communicator, Nigella, and that Bang Bang Turkey was so delicious I may risk ptomaine by eating the rest of it today for lunch.

Do you think she dyes her hair to achieve that black licorice color? Is it flattering, or would she be better with something softer? 

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Nigella Lawson: The Tipsy Baker Warning

She's smart and impertinent and saucy and funny and her recipes are wonderful. Her pistachio macaroons will change, possibly ruin, your life. There is so much to admire and love about Nigella Lawson but her books are dangerous. Sisters, you know what I'm talking about. The woman is unbelievably gorgeous and fleshy and you see a photo of her licking the cake batter off a beater and the temptation to delude yourself becomes almost overwhelming. Enough with this weight watching nonsense! I'm going to let myself get bountiful and bosomy and beautiful just like Nigella! 

Wouldn't that be lovely? I certainly think so.
Except, as we all know, the ways we ladies fatten are as many and varied as the colors of our skin. Some of us become husky, others stout, others adorably plump, others unadorably plump. There are those whose legs stay slim as their bellies balloon, and there are women who grow mountainous from the neck down but somehow retain the sculpted visages of Renaissance madonnas. And then there are the Tipsy Baker and her kin, who, fifteen pounds up, begin to resemble hearty Irish peasants, thick of ankle and calf, round-faced, fond of a pint.

Which is to say, not the type that someone like Charles Saatchi would ever marry. 

Not that we'd ever want Charles Saatchi to marry us (though we don't actually know this for a fact) but I'm making a point here! 

No, Saatchi and other discerning billionaire alpha males opt for the Nigellas, who only become more stunning, more bodacious, more lusciously upholstered with every forkful of spotted dick. Kate Winslet is another of this enviable breed, as is Mad Men's  Christina Hendricks. Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe.

But not Elizabeth Taylor. No, for Liz and the rest of us, sadly, less is usually more.

I attach no moral virtue to being slender. Our culture is crazy and boring and pathetic on the subject, and if you want to eat ten pounds of Nigella's sticky toffee pudding pancakes right this instant, bon appetit! But please understand that you're not going to look like Nigella when you're through. I have succumbed to this delusion myself, and it is my only warning about the otherwise divine works of the Domestic Goddess.
Now that's settled, let's move to the whole point of this staggeringly shallow post: Nigella's North American salad. What an efficient pantry cleaner! Plus, easy. In roughly four minutes the salad took care of leftover turkey, the remains of a box of wild rice, plus a handful of prunes which I substituted for the called-for dried cranberries. The tangy dressing was sweetened with leftover cranberry sauce, and there were some pecans for crunch. 

Frugal and delicious.

Didn't eat too much of it, however, as I was mentally composing this post and found my appetite strangely diminished. 

Friday, November 28, 2008

Must Go: What a Turkey

Not a gorgeous bird, but I had to bury that poor-little-matchgirl post in which I referred to my "sad, soon-to-be-unemployed self." 

Thanksgiving: wonderful, though perhaps Owen could have thrown one or two fewer tantrums. And perhaps I could have been a little nicer when Isabel turned up wearing my new shoes. Fire crackling then finally roaring. Nuclear family plus Grandpa John. The turkey: a non-organic 15-pounder from Safeway roasted Barbara Kafka-style at 500 degrees. Alas, the high-heat method did our turkey no favors. Coal black in places, brown and leathery in others. The pan drippings burned and the resulting gravy: inedible.
Fortunately, turkeys are big birds and there was still lots of beautiful dark meat tucked away. It's hard to ruin a whole turkey and we feasted like drunken pilgrims. 

Isabel made the pies, crusts and all. Not to boast about my girl, but, wow. The pumpkin pie was excellent, another annoyingly perfect Alice Waters recipe. In the pantry-cleaning spirit Isabel made the pecan pie using a can of Steen's cane syrup that came into our home sometime during the Clinton Administration. Conveniently there was a recipe on the back of the can which yielded a delicious, swarthy, craggy pie. It wasn't the kind of pecan pie with a pale, jellied interior (which I happen to love, thank-you Karo corn syrup) but a dark, rich, complex dessert. I wish I'd taken a picture of the handsome pie instead of the can of cane syrup. Fortunately, I did capture the baker.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Everything Must Go

I'm doing the next book as a gift to my sad, soon-to-be-unemployed self. I've owned  The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna by Lynne Rosetto Kasper for years but never cooked a single dish because they all look so elaborate and extravagant. Perhaps not the right choice for straitened circumstances, but if I don't do something kind for myself soon I may start drinking during the day and you'll never hear from me again. Homemade pasta and the occasional roast capon seem like sound investments in mental health.

But first another investment in mental health. We have to clean out our refrigerator. Too many half-used jars of chili sauce, bags of rice flour, olives, pistachios on their way to becoming rancid, 5-year-old bottles of Madras curry paste. I'm allotting a week and have been making excellent headway. A swathe of crisper reclaimed from sprouting carrots, useless barley flour rendered useful in banana bread, and so on. Exciting times.
God, that is depressing.

But I am thankful we have food at all. 
The light at the end of the tunnel: tortelloni of artichokes and mascarpone.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Eat Me: The Earnest Summation

Entertaining, it certainly is. Also, cantankerous, funny, smart, and original. The "forget-all-rules" approach to cooking is right-on, and the brazenly ugly photography a relief in a world of gauzy food porn. I highly recommend Kenny Shopsin's Eat Me.

But when you spend hours and hours cooking from a book, you make some interesting discoveries. In the last couple of weeks I've found that I'm actively hostile to Shopsin, a dynamic that has made it hard for me to fully embrace either his food or his odd, brilliant book.

What went wrong between Shopsin and me? I offer two theories that probably say as much about me as they do about him.

1. Kenny Shopsin is skeevy. I'm not solidly behind this hypothesis, just throwing it out there as a possible subconscious influence. I don't really enjoy hearing about anyone's sex life, and Shopsin, who could play the father of a fat kid in a Judd Apatow movie, is no exception. Do I want to imagine him masturbating? God no, but he makes allusions. Do I want to think about his orgasms? No, but again. And then there's the raw sausage picture. If you have the book, you know what I'm talking about. Keep it out of my kitchen, dude! 

I thought the off-color stuff was thoroughly amusing when I first read Eat Me some months ago. But, as I've said, you develop a deeper relationship when you're cooking from a book night after night, and though I never consciously recoiled, I'm not sure I'm down with the looking-up-skirts remarks.

2. Kenny Shopsin is a jerk. While I admire candor and eccentricity, you can be candid and eccentric without being uncivil. And yes, I think it is uncivil to kick people out of your restaurant because you don't like the way they look. (Shopsin: "We can usually tell if someone is going to work out the minute he or she walks through the door -- or even sooner.") I have come to imagine Shopsin's diner as a grimy little fiefdom where he makes outlandish unwritten rules, yells at people who innocently break them, then smugly boasts about it.

I don't enjoy being humiliated and I don't enjoy watching others humiliated, whether or not they deserve it. Borat, for instance, made my skin crawl. Shopsin comes off as a small-time tyrant who relishes power and humiliation then tries to pretend it's all about values. 

I could be completely wrong -- Shopsin might be a lovely guy -- but this is my impression based on the evidence I have to go on. 

Alright, now the food.

I made 26 recipes out of Eat Me:

Worth the price of the book -- 2 (lemon ricotta pancakes, egg cream)
Great: 4
Good: 10
So-so: 6
Flat-out bad 4

Impressive tally, given how negative some of my writeups were. Clearly, it's about so much more than food. Fascinating experience.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Eat Me: Shopsin Breakfasts

I know, I know, we're done with this whole dreary Shopsin's business already, but this one comes in under the wire. I almost forgot about all the Eat Me breakfasts I'd cooked. Nothing even borderline repulsive here, so carry on without fear. Sadly, we never got around to the mac n' cheese pancakes, though I have heard they are excellent.

1. Crepes. Or "crepes," as they're actually flour tortillas dipped in a mixture of egg, cream, and vanilla. Imagine tortilla french toast. Or maybe better not. Shopsin writes: "I have had several French customers tell me that mine are the best crepes they have had outside of France." I think those customers were just sucking up to the scary New York guy. You could easily convince people that these are real crepes, especially if you loaded them up with fillings, but served with just cinnamon sugar they have a distinct chewiness that brings to mind, I don't know, a flour tortilla.

2. Slutty cakes. Already written about these, though I was perhaps prematurely dismissive. Both Isabel and I found ourselves craving Shopsin's odd peanut butter/pumpkin hot cakes later that day. 

3. Ho Cakes. Why "ho cakes?" Just general Shopsin-style smutty humor? I know it's a play on hoecakes, but why? To make ho cakes you cut up caramel candies and put one piece in the soft side of the pancake as it cooks along with some pine nuts. Flip and cook until done. Made as directed we found the caramel too isolated in the middle of each hot cake and in subsequent batches scattered tinier bits of candy throughout. Better! Still, not worth buying a bag of caramels just to make.

4. Lemon Ricotta Pancakes. Here's Kenny: "My editor, Peter Gethers, insisted on only one thing when he asked me to write this book: that I include the recipe for these pancakes." Thank-you Peter Gethers. A moment of silence for the lemon ricotta pancakes, which are airy, tangy, delicate, and great.

5. Bread Pudding french toast. See photo at top. Cool way to use up stale baguette. Cut it into chunks, macerate in eggs and cream (or less fattening dairy product of choice) then dump the whole mess into a skillet of butter and fry until golden. Delicious.

6. Pumpkin pancakes. Bright orange batter that smells just like pie and is sitting in a bowl on the counter waiting for everyone else in my house to get up. 

Monday, November 24, 2008

Eat Me: Wrapping up

I have disastrous chemistry with Kenny Shopsin and the more time I spend with Eat Me, the more hostile I become. I don't collect cookbooks because I love to hate them, I collect cookbooks because I love them and I want to find more to love, not more to mock. So I'm done with my curious Shopsin antipathy project.

But before the final write-up, here's a different perspective from Melvil Dewey, who has had happier experiences cooking with Kenny. His triumphs include the so-called Auntie Scramble (photo above by Joseph T. Smoyer) as well as:

French Toast

I've always felt that French toast (or Freedom Toast, as I will continue to call it until January 20 out of deference to our commander-in-chief) is one of the things you can always safely order in a restaurant, no matter how bad the place may be. It's hard to ruin it, and even the worst version of it is pretty good. That said, Kenny Shopsin's version is superb. I was feeling guilty about tweaking his chili mac, so on this recipe I followed his instructions to the letter--even using a pizza cutter to halve the slices.

Well, almost to the letter: I couldn't find Fox's vanilla syrup in the grocery store, so I substituted Torani syrup. Shopsin's version of French toast varies from others I've made in that it doesn't include any cinnamon, and the ratio of eggs to milk (or cream) is much higher in Shopsin's. I've been using Mark Bittman's recipe for the past 10 years or so, and it calls for two eggs to one cup of milk; Shopsin calls for six eggs to a quarter-cup of cream. So, as you would guess, the "batter" for Shopsin's French toast is much, much thicker and more eggy. The two children who tried it loved it, and demanded (somewhat politely) that I make it again today. In fact, since we had a double sleepover last night, we ended up with five little kids eating breakfast, and ALL of them liked it. A miracle.

Patsy's Cashew Chicken (a second opinion)

It has come to this: Kenny Shopsin is like a third person in the Dewey marriage these days, and all culinary sins are laid at his feet. For example: Today I made a quick macaroni and cheese from scratch for Michael's lunch. Having no crackers or bread crumbs, and feeling a bit more free-wheeling in the kitchen since reading Shopsin's cookbook, I instead crushed up some parmesan Goldfish crackers and put those on the dish. Michael was displeased and complained to his mother, who said, "Oh, it's because Daddy's obsessed with making Kenny Shopsin's recipes." I had to clear Shopsin of any involvement.

Tipsy Baker's review of Patsy's Cashew Chicken from Eat Me made me nervous, but I had already bought the ingredients. So I decided to make a half-recipe of Shopsin's and a half-recipe of Nancie McDermott's "Chicken with Cashews" from her Quick and Easy Chinese. Dueling cashew chickens. Everyone loved both, but in the voting Shopsin's was the top choice of three diners (me, Ms. Dewey, and Henry), while Joseph and Michael chose McDermott's. The salient differences between the two dishes: Shopsin's chicken is dredged in flour and gets only soy sauce, lemon juice, scallions, and chicken broth as additions; McDermott's dish includes celery, garlic, and ginger, as well as a sauce of sherry, soy sauce, sugar, and corn starch. I thought both were delicious, and Ms. Dewey exclaimed, "Let's have this for Thanksgiving!" But the ideal dish would combine the two: the flour coating from Shopsin with the sauce from McDermott, and maybe some additional sugar. I'm convinced that the secret ingredient in most of the Chinese dishes I like (as interpreted in the U.S.)--Kung Pao chicken, crispy beef, sesame noodles-- is an assload of sugar, and neither of these dishes has enough.

Crazy talk on that cashew chicken, Melvil. Are you serious? A recipe tally tomorrow, then it's a wrap.

Eat Me: Kicked out of Shopsin's

I'd been feeling sheepish about harshing on Kenny Shopsin's more disgusting recipes. No longer. 

Here's Calvin Trillin's "isn't New York full of hilarious eccentrics" take on Shopsin's. And here's an email a friend sent over the weekend after he heard I was interested in the restaurant: 

When a friend moved to L.A. for three months, he asked me to housesit his place in the West Village. Or, rather, he allowed me to house-sit because I actually didn't have a place to live that year. I had bounced around cat-sitting here for a few months, cat-sitting there for a few months. 

He lived on Carmine Street, right next to Shopsin's. I literally had to walk downstairs, take a left, and walk 10 feet. So, one day, my father decided to drop by and take me out to brunch. It's not something he normally did, but he had a son who lived in the Village, so he clamped down and did it. 

We agreed on Shopsin's. I told him while we waited in the line that always appeared on weekends that Shopsin's was a special place. They had a very large menu. They didn't abide talking on cell phones and the wait staff was pretty ornery. He seemed -- seemed -- to understand this. 

The two of us are finally allowed entrance. I say it this way because the waiters would lock the door between letting people in. The restaurant was full. A table would get up to go. A new table would be seated, and the door would be locked. My father and I get in and we're seated at this one table away from the main dining room. I didn't mind because I was starving. But for some reason my father thought it wasn't good enough for him. So he asked, nicely, "Hey, is there a way we could get a table over there?"

The waiter turned to him and said, "Hey, listen, you see that line of people out there? They all want to eat in here. So if you don't want to sit here, then get the fuck out and I'll let one of them take the table. 

My father's a correction officer. A prison guard. He worked on Riker's Island for 20 years, so he's not used to taking shit. Of course, then, he responded, "What the fuck? I was just asking a question. You don't have to be an asshole. 

I literally -- literally -- pulled my hat down over my eyes and tried to calm the situation down. It didn't work. 

"Did you just call me an asshole."

"Yeah, you're being an asshole. If you can't seat us over there, that's fine. I was just asking a question.

"You know what, fuck you."

"Fuck me? Fuck you! This is how you treat your customers, motherfucker?

And on and on. The waiter had the last word. "Get the fuck out of my place now. Get the FUCK out." He unlocked the door. I slunk out. My father strutted out, and we ended up going to some shitty breakfast place down the block. He was stunned that I was angry at him, that I wasn't defending him against the asshole waiter. All I could say was, "Dad, I told you the staff was pretty ornery. . ."

Over the next few months, I only went one other time. I was afraid they'd recognize me and kick me out again. So I waited until I had a good amount of facial hair, until I was so flu-ridden that I was sweaty and dumpy and not looking at all like myself. Then I went back. And the food was delicious. 

I fucking hate the Shopsin family.