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.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Eat Me: Gloppy Joe

Couldn't do it, couldn't subject you to a picture of Kenny Shopsin's ignoble chili burrito which, however tasty in its thrown-together way, was not a proper burrito. Plus, hideous, at least as executed by me. 

Instead I bring you this handsome photograph of La Taqueria where they make world-beating burritos and know how to wrap them. If you are ever in San Francisco: 2889 Mission Street. Order the carnitas and a cantaloupe drink. 

I'm not sure I have the mental stamina this morning for an essay on culinary integrity, and I realize I'm reversing myself, because while I'm fine with Shopsin dumping sugar in his marinara and omitting chili powder from his chili, I'm deeply offended by his burrito.  

So take this for the personal bete noir that it is: While I admire and enjoy Kenny S., he has no business with burritos, which he uses as a vehicle for his leftover black bean soup and (some would argue) fake chili. He instructs us to "plop" leftovers in a pan with some pre-shredded cheese, heat, then mix with a spatula until "homogeneous." After this: "Pick up half of the glop and lay it down in a line down the center of one of the tortillas."

Glop it is.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Chocolate & Pumpkin

Going off-book today. Some delicate flower told me that my descriptions of Kenny Shopsin's food make him queasy, so I'm foregoing full write-ups of the noisome Senegalese soup (chunks of apple and chicken floating in curry-flavored cream) and Carmine Street enchiladas and taking a short time-out.

A few weeks ago I bought a copy of a dessert book called Baked after a friend described its recipe for Sweet and Salty cake. While I haven't found the occasion for S&S cake, I made the chocolate chip pumpkin bread last night with canned pumpkin left over from slutty cakes.

As I've said before, I don't like chocolate, the Bea Arthur of flavors. Its bossy personality and booming voice drown out everyone else at the party -- butter, vanilla, brown sugar. Only mint can overpower chocolate, and that's because mint is so freaking mean.

So I hesitated before introducing chocolate chips to pumpkin bread, but being a compulsive recipe-follower and cookbook worshipper, finally threw in the whole bag. 

You'd think dominatrix chocolate would mop the floor with pumpkin, who is hearty and fat and jolly and dull. Except pumpkin's fellow travelers are cinnamon and allspice, powerful little operators with a streak of cruelty. . .

Anyway, enough of this nonsense. Upshot: pumpkin bread is amazing with chocolate chips. 

Eat Me chronicles resume tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Eat Me: Without Chili Powder is it Chili?

Man, that's a beautiful picture. How does she do it.

Melvil Dewey and I both recently made Kenny Shopsin's Chili Mac. Here's Melvil's report: 

Shopsin's recipe for chili is one of the simplest I've ever seen. It's essentially chopped up beef with marinara and, interestingly, some coffee. But I found it, cooked as written, a little bland and overly dominated by the marinara. The recipe notably omits chili powder which I would have thought was as fundamental to the dish as meat is to meatballs (The Joy of Cooking's recipe for chili con carne, for example, is about the same size as Shopsin's and calls for a half cup of chili powder.) Shopsin admits in the headnote, "My chili changes from day to day." I took this as license to add a couple tablespoons of chili powder, as well as some of Shopsin's GA Barbecue Sauce, and the result was much more pleasing. One of my children really wished he could have his chili straight up, without the macaroni, but the other two seemed to enjoy the combination, as did I. I served it with shredded cheddar cheese, avocado slices in lime juice, cilantro, chopped sweet onions, and sour cream as optional additions. Really yummy, and a dish that will be making a return appearance in the Dewey family meal rotation.

Like Melvil, I was shocked by the lack of chili powder. But unlike Melvil, I LOVED the chili exactly the way it was -- sweet, rich, orange, a little oily. Much like the zero-alarm chili my grandmother made. Not sure what the coffee added, though it's fun to imagine it supplied a certain je ne sais quoi.

Melvil, did you make Shopsin's marinara recipe, or use something from a jar? I made his marinara, added the full 2 tablespoons of sugar, and though Marcella would have a stroke, thought it was swell. Why does everything have to be austere and authentic?

"Traditionally, Chili Mac is made without cheese because it is a poor man's dish. . . " Shopsin writes. Screw that. I covered the casserole with shredded cheese, baked until bubbly. Served with salad. 

Verdicts, condensed:

Isabel, picking off cheese: "It's not that flavorful."

Mark: "Elementary school cafeteria food. Mediocre."

Tipsy: Silence. Intently eating.

Owen: Silence. Intently eating.

I asked Owen this morning if Chili Mac is now his favorite dinner. He hesitated, then said no, he prefers steak.

The boy's going to have a shock when we really do start topping everything with breadcrumbs.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Eat Me: Enchiladas

Kenny Shopsin's wife, Eve, died in 2002 and he dedicated Eat Me to her. Here's how Kenny introduces his recipe for pecan chicken wild rice enchiladas:

"This was Eve's favorite dish at Shopsin's. . . . Eve liked to recommend it to her customers so she could eat whatever they left on their plates." (Tipsy emphasis.)

I made these enchiladas last night and they were good. But holy hell, not THAT good. Shopsin is eccentric in ways that can not be faked and apparently Eve was too, though to be fair, she's not here to defend herself. Even if she did eat leftover scraps off customers' plates, would she appreciate Kenny writing about it in his book? Thoughts?

I just asked Isabel to help me describe the enchiladas:

Tipsy: So what did you think of those enchiladas last night?

Isabel: They were fine. 

Tipsy: What did you like about them or not like about them?

Isabel (shrugging): I don't know. 

Here's what they were like: Creamy, a little crunchy, super-rich.

 I also made hamburgers for the kids. Stella polished off her own hamburger and then ate what Owen left on his plate

Monday, November 17, 2008

Eat Me: Indefensible Food

There are recipes in Kenny Shopsin's Eat Me that I'm convinced he only included to show off how contrarian and bohemian he is, how unconcerned with all our prissy, bourgeois rules of diet and tastefulness. Go for it, Kenny! I'm never going to make your chicken-fried hamburger, but I admire the spirit.

That said, last night I cooked something only marginally less horrifying: Shopsin's taco fried chicken, which sounded like an exotic twist on chicken fingers, the favorite food of my younger child.

Here's how you make taco fried chicken: Take chicken breast fillets, dip them in a mixture of heavy cream and eggs. Roll them in crushed tortilla chips then deep fry in peanut oil. Serve with a sauce made of equal parts Tabasco and melted butter.

Got that? Poultry dipped in dairy fat, coated in crispy fat, fried in liquid fat, doused in spicy fat. 

Quite tasty, but I hold crass junk food to a higher standard of deliciousness than I do steamed broccoli. I have tried calculating the calories in taco fried chicken and am stumped by how to account for the oil absorbed in frying. Supposedly it is less than one might think, but who knows. So I'm going with the intuition of one who has been dieting since Herman Tarnower recommended dry toast and lamb chops. My guess: A serving of taco-fried chicken is roughly equivalent to one-and-a-half amusement park corn dogs.

Corn dogs are better.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Irrational Exuberance

Robustly caffeinated and the only person awake in the house, I've been plotting various projects I will finally have the time to pursue once I am officially unemployed and never again have to slog through another crummy James Patterson or Stephenie Meyer novel. Many and varied writing endeavors, an ambitious high-minded reading program, more piano, contemplative nature walks, deeper involvement with community, cleaner house, catch up on Mad Men, skinny, etc., etc., etc.

Obviously I'm ignoring the no-money part of this equation, but shut up! Don't rain on my parade. 

Since this is a cooking blog I'll only list upcoming food-oriented projects:
1. Build an earth oven. Don't know if this is exactly the model of what we'll end up with, but I've wanted an outdoor wood-burning oven for many years.  I hope it's not against the law. I'm recruiting my engineering-genius/ceramicist mother, to help me. Are you reading this, Mom?

2. Backyard orchard. We have a decent start (thriving apple, thriving plum, two moderately healthy figs, moderately healthy Meyer lemon and Bearss lime, languishing persimmon, deer-ravaged baby loquat, and pathetic Babcock peach that I will uproot this winter. Done with peaches.) Goal: more figs in deer-accessible areas, two healthy persimmons (one hachiya, one fuyu), one apricot, a pear (espaliered?), a kumquat, a Kaffir lime, a quince, maybe more plums because they love it here, maybe another variety of apple, and what else? Grapes all along the fences. Trying gooseberries again, plus raspberries. Currants? I'm recruiting my horticulturally-gifted father to help me. I hope you're reading this, Dad.

3. Vegetable garden. Okay. Boring. But going to happen again when they restore the gravel pit to its natural dirt state. 

4. Curry leaf plant. Do not know where I can find one of these, but want one.

5. Bees. Thinking about it. The only problem is that I am really scared of bees. So maybe not, unless Mark wants to take charge.

6. Chickens. Thinking about it. Too Clampett-like for Mill Valley? Should I care? Must check the county ordinances to see what we're allowed. Are we really chicken people? Are eggs expensive enough to merit the hassle of building a chicken coop? How do you build a chicken coop?

I may erase this post later when I am feeling less irrationally exuberant. I am also concerned that my spouse will read it and have a small heart attack. So enjoy while you can.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Some Big News

Waiting for my flight from Portland back to California, I bring you my "big" news. See arresting graphic at left.

I've been going around for the last week or so saying I've been "fired" because it sounds dramatic and I don't like mealy-mouthed euphemisms: pink-slipped, down-sized, laid off, etc.

But I should probably resist this exciting conversational bombshell as it suggests I was caught stealing company Steno pads or copying dirty pictures on the Xerox machine. The truth is much more depressing and mundane. The financially ailing magazine for which I have worked for the last five years laid off a quarter of its employees last week, and I was one of them.

Surprisingly, I haven't felt much anger or bitterness, two of my emotional specialties.

What I feel is relief. I had a wonderful job and I never, ever would have quit. But it had become an oppressive weekly grind, I was completely burned (burnt?) out, and I am not sorry it's over. I'm happy.

There. I typed the awful words. Zeus will now strike me down. Sacked in one of the worst economic crises in 70 years, and she's happy?

Foolish woman.

But there we are.

I work for another month, then I'll probably start posting on Tipsy Baker fifty times a day and you can watch me eat crow.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Eat Me: Slutty Cakes

This morning we made "slutties" -- one of the Shopsin family's more amusing pancake fantasias.

"Slutty cakes were my daughter Melinda's idea," Shopsin writes in Eat Me. "She wanted to achieve that dry, crumbly consistency of the peanut butter in a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup inside a pancake, and she discovered, surprisingly, that she could get close by mixing canned pumpkin with peanut butter."

Did she? I didn't experience that "dry, crumbly consistency" from my "slutty." What I experienced was a nice pancake with a moist blob of pumpkin-flavored peanut butter in the middle. Or was it peanut butter-flavored pumpkin? 

Eat Me: Tortilla Soup

Just when I thought I had my take on Kenny Shopsin -- admire his philosophy but his recipes are kind of disgusting -- last night I made his chicken tortilla avocado soup.

Shopsin writes at length in Eat Me about his contrarian soup-making technique. He doesn't believe in long-cooking to meld flavors. In brief: "My soups are actually sautes floating in broth." 

Sautes floating in broth

Scraps floating in dishwater?

I don't know. I did not find this concept appealing.

I made fresh chicken stock to give Shopsin's soup the best possible start in life. (And I really, really hate making chicken stock, an aversion bordering on repulsion.) 

Then I grilled a couple of chicken breasts, cut them into strips, and added them to a pan in which I'd fried some cabbage, onion, and peppers. Put in some black beans, cilantro and the broth, simmered for a couple of minutes and poured over a bowl of tortilla chips. Adorned with avocado. 

Sensationally delicious. 

Here's Shopsin: "I stole the idea for this soup from the Mexican restaurant at Epcot Center. Surprisingly, the food there was pretty good. I guess you could say that is my specialty: taking pretty good food and stealing it under the assumption that if I were to do a few things differently, it could be really good." 

It is.

Ugly, though.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Eat Me: Why should I?

That's Patsy's cashew chicken from Kenny Shopsin's Eat Me, the most ornery, odd, charming, and disarming cookbook I've read in ages. I love the curmudgeonly voice; I love the unglamorous and unflattering food photography. Most cookbooks, aspirational by nature if not definition, take pains to show us how we should be living and eating and cooking and what darling vintage china we might consider keeping on hand for serving our grass-fed Angus tenderloin with organic Blenheim apricot beurre blanc. 

None of that in Shopsin's book. Again and again, he tells us, with words and pictures: I'm schlubby and slobbish and eccentric and lazy and I favor Aunt Jemimah pancake batter and pre-shredded cheddar cheese and plastic dishes I bought on eBay. Take it or leave it. Now, go figure out how YOU like to live and eat and cook, and do that. 

Excellent advice. 

The recipes? 

There are two ways a recipe can be awful.

1. A recipe can contain an obvious mistake, in which case it is truly a "bad" recipe. Examples: Shopsin's tragically oversalted coleslaw, or the failure to account for the potato in the huevos rancheros, per Melvil Dewey's writeup

2. A recipe can make an awful dish. In which case it's technically a "good" recipe for something that one does not want to eat.
Patsy's cashew chicken, for instance is the crudest interpretation of a Chinese stir fry I've ever encountered. Chicken + soy sauce + cashews =  stir fry. I'm all for shortcuts, but eating this was like trying to ingest a plate of Kikkoman. 

But I'm pretty sure this is exactly what Patsy's cashew chicken is supposed to taste like. And I believe Shopsin enjoys eating it. Good recipe for what is, in my humble opinion, a crappy dish.

I'm okay with that. Shopsin and I may disagree, but at least we're communicating. 

Eat Me: Huevos Rancheros

Melvil Dewey and his wife have also been working their way through Kenny Shopsin's Eat Me, and Melvil sent this report:

There is an emerging consensus among the adults in our house that while Kenny Shopsin's cookbook is immensely entertaining, his recipes could stand to be more detailed and more carefully vetted. I have to assume one of the problems is that it's challenging to scale recipes down to normal family size when you've been making everything in restaurant size batches for years. Fortunately, Shopsin, like Mark Bittman, gives his readers the freedom to tinker with the recipes as much as they wish, so one can use the recipes in the book as a template or starting point.

First example of the problem (and the solution):

Huevos Rancheros. The end-product of this recipe was delicious (and maybe that's all that should really matter), but the production process (for my wife, who made this dish) was fraught. First, the list of ingredients calls for a diced potato, but the text of the recipe doesn't mention the potato. One can fairly easily figure out what to do with the potato, but this kind of ingredient discontinuity can be disorienting (and occasionally disastrous.) 

Second, the recipe calls for no seasoning at all - not even the obligatory "salt and pepper to taste." I have to assume Shopsin himself would add salt and pepper to the dish. 

Third, Shopsin's method for cooking the eggs separate from everything else in the dish did not turn out well. Ms. Dewey, who (unlike me) has made huevos rancheros before, much prefers the Cook's Illustrated method in which you just crack the eggs into the top of all the other stuff, cover the pan, and let the heat and steam from the other ingredients cook the eggs. After Shopsin's method resulted in a jumble of broken yolks and egg whites arc-welded to the bottom of the frying pan, Ms. Dewey defaulted to the Cook's technique, and everything turned out beautifully. As she summed it up afterwards, "I think Kenny Shopsin probably would benefit from a little Christopher Kimball, and maybe vice-versa."

Eat Me: Okay, I will

I hope you're reading this, Kenny Shopsin. Do you have a Google Alert set up with your name? Awesome. Your coleslaw recipe sucks. A full tablespoon of salt for half a head of cabbage? Are you fucking with us?

I'm not generally a profane person, but 

a. Kenny Shopsin is, and I spent three hours last night rereading his fantastically entertaining book.

b. He ruined my coleslaw.

I halfway rescued the coleslaw by adding more cabbage and gobs more mayonnaise, then moved on to the Gulf Pride sandwiches. (That picture up top? Intentionally ugly a la Eat Me, which is full of grubby snapshots, food-styling courtesy of a chimp. Which I kind of love.)

The Gulf Pride sandwiches involve cheesy garlic bread (incredibly delicious)

topped with spicy shrimp

plus chunks of avocado. Tasty, but not as tasty as my fried-green tomato sandwich. I'm just saying.

But here's the kicker. I had a few big glasses of red wine last night and what with the wine and the supersalty coleslaw, I woke up at midnight with a bit of a thirst.

So, I made one of Shopsin's egg creams. Drank it down. Made another. Worth the price of the book. 

Monday, November 10, 2008

Eat Me: An Introduction

This is one demented book. I mean that in the nicest way.

The notoriously irascible author, Kenny Shopsin, has for many years run an idiosyncratic downtown Manhattan restaurant that became widely famous after Calvin Trillin wrote about it in the New Yorker.

A lot of Shopsin's recipes (banana guacamole) and photographs (the naked butts of his children when they were small) are kind of unappetizing. Though I warmly reviewed this book on its "literary" merits a while back, I wasn't highly motivated to test-drive the recipes. 

The hyperarticulate Melvil Dewey persuaded me to give it a try. Here's a transcription of Melvil's recent email:

I'm into Kenny Shopsin's book up to my hips. And I love it. He combines Mark Bittman's relaxed attitude with a consistent preference for strong flavors, a very funny authorial presence, and an irreverent, sort of 'Fuck it!' attitude. And he clearly loves the food he makes, which is inspiring. The lack of an index notwithstanding, the book is so GENEROUS -- generous headnotes, generous helpings of photos, generous dispensing of lore and advice. I really wish now that I had talked to him when I went into his place in the summer of 2006, but based on reading Calvin Trillin's article I was scared shitless of him. But really, how would it go if I tried to talk to him?

Me: I just wanted to say I love your cookbook. My kids love your mac n' cheese pancakes. So do I.

Kenny: Get the fuck out of here, you little yuppie.

Me: But wait, I'm a big fan of Calvin Trillin! I like Chowhound too!

Kenny: Don't let the door hit you on the way out, dickweed.

So far I've made: 

1) The GA BBQ sauce, which is really just a very hot, yummy hot sauce. (Kenny Shopsin can call his sauces anything he wants to, but when you put two hot sauces together with an assload of ground pepper and a smidgen of cider vinegar, that's not a BBQ sauce -- that's an augmented hot sauce.)

2) An adulterated version of his egg guacamole (delish!)

3) The "Auntie" scramble: avocado, blue cheese, and spinach (related in its DNA to guacamole, I think)

4) The mac n' cheese pancakes, which are sublime. Joseph and I loved them. No one else would try them. Losers.

I hope Melvil will stand by his promise to contribute to the blog during the Kenny Shopsin phase. And I hope this "Joseph" person -- apparently the only non-loser in Melvil's orbit -- will weigh in as well. 


Sunday, November 09, 2008

Fried Green Tomato Sandwich

The kids were out, so Mark put some cheese and bread on a cutting board, reheated three pitiful fried green tomatoes he'd saved from the other night, and brought this strange melange to the table for our dinner. 

What happened next wasn't quite a Ruth Wakefield-invents-the-chocolate-chip-cookie moment, but close. I put a warmed-over fried green tomato on a piece of baguette spread with goat cheese. Took a bite. Wanted to call Mario Batali and tell him to get Tipsy Baker bruschette on the menu at Babbo, stat.

Today at lunch I fried some more green tomatoes and repeated the experiment. This time I made a true sandwich and added some apple chutney for "zing." 

It was indeed  "zingy," and molto delicious.

If you can call this a recipe, here it is: 

1. Take green tomatoes that have been fried using any formula that results in a crispy, salty-peppery cornmeal crust enrobing a tart, juicy tomato. If they're cold, reheat them. 

2. Split a baguette and toast.

3. Spread baguette with soft goat cheese.

4. Spread a super-thin layer of chutney (I used homemade apple chutney, but storebought mango or any other kind would work) on the goat cheese. You don't want a dominant chutney thing going on here, just a hint of fruit and spice. Ignore the picture above; I put on too much.

5. Top with green tomatoes.

6. Top with lid of bread.

It's not worth frying green tomatoes just to make this sandwich, but if you have fried green tomatoes leftover, it's worth saving them.  

Garden Plans

Isn't it lovely, my bountiful garden? 

If I think about it too much, I will cry. When we came back from vacation a year ago July the construction crew had bulldozed our garden. Gooseberry bushes, raspberries, artichokes, a pink lemon tree (yes, there is such a thing), sorrel, epazote, all kinds of herbs, rhubarb, rose geraniums, strawberries, miniature roses, a dwarf orange tree, and much more, all of which I planted myself, had been smothered, crushed, or ripped up by the roots. In its place, there were trucks, crumpled Subway wrappers, empty 7-11 cups, and several tons of gravel. 

But, like they say, spilt milk.  

I'm paying someone to turn that grim parking lot back into a patch of dirt, in which I'm going to replant our garden. In anticipation, I started some herbs in a pot on the deck. 

They're cute. I try to be philosophical. This is the cycle of life and construction projects. But thinking about that old garden really does break my heart.


Such a ravishing and voluptuous fruit, even (especially?) when tired and bruised. With their golden leaves and flame-colored fruit, persimmon trees are one of the glories of Mill Valley in the fall.

I planted a persimmon tree a few years ago, but it appears destined to become kindling this winter. The trunk is still roughly the circumference of my ring finger and it hasn't borne a single persimmon. 

Though I haven't resigned myself to a life without a persimmon tree of my own, I probably don't need one as we get pounds and pounds of fruit from family and friends every autumn. Don't really love to eat persimmons out of hand, but they make fabulous ice cream and a wonderful pudding. 

I wish I could type in the pudding recipe I tried the other day from Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters because it was so damp and nutty and delicious, but there are those irksome copyright laws. Having said that, I've made a lot of persimmon puddings, they're all pretty similar and you can find dozens of recipes online. My only recommendations, should you ever want to make persimmon pudding: 

1. Forget about flaming. Overrated.
2. Use yellow raisins, which are juicier and tastier than the dark ones
3. Serve warm with a lot of whipped cream. Hard sauce: bad.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Charleston Cuisine: The Earnest Summation

I don't know Louis Osteen. I've never eaten at one of his restaurants (though I've tried), and given that the last one standing (Louis's Las Vegas) just closed, I may never do so. 

But I really like the guy. Just look at him. If you walked into a restaurant and saw him behind the stove wouldn't you grab a seat? The man clearly loves food, a gusto that comes through in some of the nostalgic headnotes to his recipes. 
That said, he's not a great cookbook writer. Charleston Cuisine feels contrived, like an agent or editor spotted an amiable semi-celebrity chef and decided to cash in on the Low Country mystique. 

Or maybe Louis looked in the mirror one morning and said, hey, Mario and Wolfgang and Charlie and Alice all have cookbooks, why shouldn't I?

Well, I can tell you why, Louis: Because you're a smiley, intuitive chef, not a miserable ink-stained wretch. And you didn't hire one to ghost your book. Mistake! We do have our uses.

I've pointed out some of the volume's shortcomings in earlier posts, and there were others I didn't record. There were peanut-molasses cookies that would have been infinitely better (maybe even too delicious) if the recipe had called for a teaspoon of salt. There was a bean soup that lacked any kind of zest. And there were ridiculously calibrated portion estimates that left you with either far too little, or far too much.
To be a brilliant cookbook writer you have to be slightly compulsive. You have to care about every detail of every recipe. You have to care about translating the ephemeral experience of cooking and eating into a permanent, precise, and possibly even poetic, document. 

Which Charleston Cuisine is not.

I made 29 recipes from Charleston Cuisine:

Worth the Price of the Book: 0
Great: 5
Good: 17
So-So: 7
Flat-out bad: 0

Not a disastrous tally, but not distinguished, either. Keep in mind that it's not that difficult for a recipe to be "good," and that of those 17 "good" recipes there's not a single one that I feel compelled to make again. 

But I devoutly hope Louis opens a new restaurant one day, and that I can go eat there. 

Charleston Cuisine: Fried Green Tomatoes & Grits

"It's hard to imagine a better introduction to one of our region's most cherished staples than these fried grits, " Louis Osteen writes in Charleston Cuisine. "Crispy on the outside and creamy and succulent on the inside."

Also, bland. For this I blame Louis's slapdash recipe-writing. I'm convinced that the qualities that make a great, intuitive chef do not overlap with those that make a great cookbook author.

Just looking at Louis's image on the cover of his book -- fat, beaming, and holding heaping platters of biscuits and something yummy-looking with bones -- I can tell he's not the kind of man to obsessively pore over a notebook worrying about teaspoons of salt and pepper. 

I served the bland grits with the last of the preserved duck. This is how much duck Louis suggests serving eight people:

Fortunately I was only serving three people, so there was almost enough.
Per the excellent suggestion of Layne, I also made Louis's fried green tomatoes. "Crispy-on-the-outside" -- and tart and juicy on the inside. Fantastic.

A few weeks ago I decided I would no longer fight about food with Owen. So when he set up a howl at the prospect of the meal described above, I shut him down by saying he could fix himself whatever he wanted. . . .

Am I on the right path here? Is he ever going to come around on his own? Is he going to end up with scurvy or rickets or something? 

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

It's Over. Thank God.

Well, that was cool. That was really awesome. The last eight years have been pretty lonely and sad for us latte-sipping, arugula-eating Blue State types. But we're one with the "real" Americans again! We're on the same page with Indiana and Virginia and (probably) North Carolina! I feel like whipping up some biscuits and gravy to celebrate, except I still don't have a recipe.

Oh, and we're back together with Nevada. Despite the gambling and hookers and Las Vegas, I have always had a soft spot for Nevada. And New Mexico! Thank-you, New Mexico. I love blue corn anything. And fry bread. Or is that an Arizona thing?

Much mental energy now freed up to worry about other stuff. Like the fidgety nocturnal animal that has taken up residence inside the wall beside our bed. Like the fact that my favorite Lucky jeans are falling apart but I don't want to buy new ones until I lose ten pounds. Like the fact that I think I'm about to lose my job. Like what to do with all those green tomatoes I told my father to bring me from his garden.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Charleston Cuisine: Birthday Dinner

Okay, that picture is staged all wrong. It looks like baking soda played a role in the cocktail, which it did not. 

But that cocktail (the newspaper featured recipes for political drinks; this one's voting Obama) definitely played a role in today's lousy mood and bleak outlook on life. 

Had a little birthday party for my father last night. Served Louis Osteen's BBQ pork rillettes in which this

 becomes this

and then you spread it on rounds of baguette to make appetizer toasts. I'll turn it over to Osteen himself: "Rich and spicy, they stand up to all drinks and at the same time add a little fuel to the belly, lessening the possibility that the next drink will sneak up on you."


During a break from the rain we fired up the new Weber barbecue for the very first time

 and grilled a tasty marinated flank steak.

On the side, I served Louis's spoonbread (cornbread meets creamy pudding; grotesquely fattening; popular) and his rich, homely, and clumpy grilled pear, spinach, and blue cheese salad

Louis's cakes weren't quite right for this event. I was tempted by his rum cake with caramelized bananas but it calls for almost three cups of rum. Stella is still in pre-school and a bit too young to start down the road to ruin. So I made the double-apple bundt cake from Dorie Greenspan's Bakingwhich was brown and cinnamony and fine. Only fine.  

Overall, a very sweet birthday party despite my father's repeated attempts to goad me with his cynical political commentary. 

Trudging off to vote.