Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Alaska: Seward

This is the not-so-great part about our stay in Seward, Alaska: The Van Gilder Hotel. It is historic and pretty in an eccentric European way, but I would rather sleep in a really sterile Holiday Inn Express, or better yet, a super-expensive Marriott. People cook in the communal kitchen and the reek of fried onions reaches all the way to the third floor, where we have been staying. The "extra" beds for the children are tiny Murphy units that fold out over the bureaus. It is VERY crowded in our small rooms. The first night, we had to use a communal toilet. I have become SUCH a princess in my middle age. I am trying to remember when I became fussy about hotels, and I think it dates to a story I edited about five years ago, which I do not recommend you read if you are at all suggestible.
However, a 90-second stroll out the shabby front door of the Van Gilder and you are facing views like this one. There are snow-capped mountains and glaciers everywhere you turn, and sea otters and seals flopping around in the bay. It is a little austere, cold and marine for me -- I prefer Denali and its meadows and lakes -- but the Kenai Peninsula is undeniably beautiful. Yesterday, we walked to a glacier. Today, we're heading out on an all-day cruise that will take us to more remote glaciers and fjords. 

As for the cuisine. . . I had a caribou medallion for breakfast yesterday. It was delicious! This morning: elk.

Monday, June 23, 2008


We are on vacation in Alaska, hence the dearth of posts. I haven't been cooking or drinking so what can I write that belongs in Tipsy Baker?

Alaska is amazing. I could type a long list of clicheed superlatives that would express my thoughts and feelings about this incredible state. But I'll skip the list; you've read it before.

I have but a single complaint: The food in Alaska is expensive and absolutely terrible!  

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Cuisine of California: Lost

If you have seen this cookbook, please call 415-388-1780. Ask for Jennifer.

After I made Diane Rossen Worthington's sour cream coffee cake yesterday morning, I somehow misplaced my copy of her book. Perhaps in the recycling bin? Or maybe one of the carpenters "borrowed" it? As you can see, it had split in two during recent heavy use, but I would still like it back, if only for that lemon rice recipe.

Isabel graduates from elementary school this morning and we are flying to Anchorage this evening. In between, we have to pack everything in our whole house into boxes so the painters can paint and the floor guys can finish floors while we are gone. We also have to pack our suitcases for the trip. We are in really big trouble here. Plus, I have to pick a few more paint colors. I am drawn to food names, of course. Lemon sorbet. Pistachio. I think I like Praying Mantis green better than Pistachio but I'm not sure I can paint a room Praying Mantis.

Most importantly, I have to finish a long overdue revision of a story about Sebastopol and that is what I am going to do RIGHT NOW. Top of my to-do list at 5:14 a.m.

Do you think anyone has done a blog that consists entirely of daily to-do lists? It could be fascinating, especially if it collected the to-do lists of anyone who wanted to contribute. Preferably with photographs of said lists scrawled on the back of Safeway receipts, typed on heavy stock paper by a secretary, written upon the human hand.

Procrastinating. Sebastopol.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Cuisine of California: Triumph at Last

Last night's was the best meal I've cooked since I started blogging. We took a family vote, and it was unanimous. I'm still a little breathless. 

And to think just a few days ago I was about to give up on the Cuisine of California.

The menu:

-Halibut with apples, ginger, and cider vinegar. The sauce called for a cup of whipping cream. Very '80s, but very effective. Owen ate a half pound of this, then said, "More chicken please." 

-Sugar snap peas and red peppers. Flavored only with butter and salt. Isabel had fifths.

-Lemon rice with capers and parsley. Buttery, tangy, capery.
-Cheesecake souffle. Pictured above, lavishly decorated by Isabel. Okay, maybe not the best cheesecake ever -- this was from the school of sweet and fluffy as opposed to dense and tart. Still, it was pretty awesome.

But what really made the dinner memorable was this: No one cried, or shouted, or stormed upstairs. No one complained, or pushed their food around their plate. Everyone sat there. Everyone talked. Everyone ate. 

The Cuisine of California: Father's Day

Above are the baby red potatoes with caviar from Diane Rossen Worthington's maddening book. At left, is her watery orange and kiwi salad

I went to Whole Foods yesterday to buy the ingredients for our Father's Day party in Petaluma. I was standing near the cheese case when I saw a woman -- fortyish, killer white eyelet blouse, pretty hair -- snapping photographs of the olive bins. I thought: A kindred spirit! A friend! She's taking pictures for her food blog!

I asked, "What are you taking photographs for?"

She gave me a dark, sidelong look and said, "Evidence."

My quest for a Mill Valley soulmate is as frustrating as my attempt to find one excellent recipe in The Cuisine of California.

After my encounter with the shutterbug, I bought this rather expensive caviar to put in the little hollowed out new potatoes. As Worthington says, "the caviar garnish adds an elegant touch." 

These were fiddly to make -- first you roast the potatoes, then you slice in half, hollow out, brush with olive oil, bake again until crisp. You mash the potato flesh with salt, sour cream and chives, put it back in the potatoes and top with the "elegant" caviar.  I took them to Petaluma. They were liked. They were not loved. After tasting one, Michael actually went to the supermarket and bought an additional appetizer -- barbecued ribs. In a plastic to-go container. Jerk.

How could caviar go wrong? 

As usual, Worthington throws a lot of delicious things together and instead of becoming more delicious, they blur. Baked potato with sour cream is earthy, rich, blandly creamy; it puts you in mind of dinner at the Sizzler. I mean that in a nice way.

Caviar is sharp, super-salty, and special. All those little tiny crunchy beads, and you want to savor every precious one of them.

Caviar and baked potato. Together, they are confusing. You want more caviar; you want less potato. You reach for a rib. 

The salad was a disaster. Green salad is not improved by kiwi and sliced oranges, weeping watery juice. Fortunately, the burgers supplied by Michael and Justine were most excellent.

And dessert: Almost too sad to talk about. I baked the brown butter fruit tart fifteen minutes longer than Worthington directed, and still, it did not quite set. When I delicately arranged the kiwis and strawberries on top, they sank to the bottom. Soup in a crust. 

So, Michael and Justine went out and bought It's-Its. 

You can't really beat an It's-It.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Cuisine of California: More on Chocolate

I'm not done with my chocolate bashing

"This is a creamy, nutty, rich chocolate ice cream," Diane Rossen Worthington enthuses in the characteristically treacly headnote to her chocolate-hazelnut ice cream recipe. "Hazelnut liqueur is added for a special touch."

Well, that special touch is wasted. You might as well pour your lovely Frangelico straight down the drain. You can't taste the liqueur against all that chocolate, which is the problem with chocolate: It overpowers every other flavor. Only mint can stand up to chocolate -- because mint is a mean, ugly bully. The thing is, everyone knows that about mint while everyone thinks chocolate is just so great.

A while ago I wrote about how foods have characters, like people, and that we subconsciously transfer our feelings about certain kinds of people onto their analogous foods. I know this sounds wacky and maybe I'm the only one who does it. But I doubt it. 

In any case, I like hazelnuts. I think hazelnuts have something interesting and thoughtful to say, and I want to hear it. But then chocolate -- that pathological attention hog --  starts talking and the polite hazelnut is silenced. Hazelnut and vanilla can have a fascinating conversation. But it's always ALL about chocolate. And I resent that!

Growing up, I was always a hazelnut. Actually, I was probably a walnut, which was even worse. 

Down with chocolate! Up with walnuts! 

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Cuisine of California: Calzones & Chocolate

A classic 5th-grade girl expression -- amused, skeptical, about to be extremely sarcastic. But I think they were in earnest when they said they liked the dinner, prepared, of course, from Diane Rossen Worthington's Cuisine of California.

Worthington's calzones with prosciutto and Sonoma goat cheese were a modest hit. Owen shaped them, some of us ate them, others picked at them, but we were are all more or less enthusiastic, which is unusual. The crust was a lovely, oily, toasty brown. The filling had chevre tang, mozzarella stretchiness, and a little salty meat. (I bought the less-expensive domestic prosciutto, and even buried deep inside a calzone, it tastes like less-expensive domestic prosciutto.)

I love how random it is that I'm cooking out of this 1983 book. I think it would have mouldered on the shelf untouched forever if Isabel hadn't pulled it out the other day. All the recipes call for a few too many ingredients, the culinary equivalent of putting giant shoulder pads in an otherwise elegant blazer. But I'm holding out for one vintage gem I can add to my repertoire. A delicious pasta salad. A kiwi dessert.

To end the meal, I made Worthington's chocolate hazelnut ice cream. Overwhelmingly chocolatey -- superrich chocolate ice cream studded with chunks of cold chocolate. Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate doing its overbearing chocolate thing. What a diva. Honestly, I'd rather have Hunanese lotus seeds. 

But then I have never appreciated chocolate. Everyone else thought it was great.

The Cuisine of California: Doldrums

Yesterday, I wrote a post about our unhappy, high-pitched morning (Tipsy: Owen, please bring your cereal bowl to the sink. Owen: You're treating me like a SLAVE! Waaah!!!) and then thought better of it and took it down.

I'm having a blogging identity crisis. I started out wanting to write only about cookbooks, and have ended up writing extensively about family life. For a while I thought I had the balance worked out, but lately I've become terribly self-conscious. Maybe because I no longer have dramatic Asian meals to describe, only Diane Rossen Worthington's humdrum pots of vegetable soup (being eaten, if not with great enthusiasm, in photo above) and olive oil and pine nut bread (she puts white wine in her bread dough, so very '80s.)

This morning I made a big bowl of country garden pasta salad (also very '80s) for the kids' lunches. Isabel just took a bite and said she "doesn't like the idea" of it sitting in her lunch box all morning.


See? I couldn't even stick to cookbooks for the duration of a single post.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Cuisine of California: An Auspicious Beginning

Outtakes from the first Cuisine of California dinner.

Mark serves himself a giant scoop of penne with chicken, tomato and leek sauce: "I'm elated. The end of my Chinese diet."

Tipsy: "Owen, come to the table please."

Isabel: "I can't believe we're having strawberry sorbet tonight and not fungus!"

Tipsy: "This three lettuce salad is really good. Have some salad, Isabel."

Isabel: "Okay okay okay! You don't have to be so insistent."

Tipsy: "Owen, come to the table. I made pasta and you're not even at the table."

Owen: "I want to show you my thumb mold."

Mark: "Oh my God, I can't believe I forgot Isabel's orthodontist appointment this morning."

Tipsy: "I made too much pasta."

Mark: "How did I forget that orthodontist appointment?"

Tipsy: "Maybe if you take some for lunch in a Tupperware. . ."

Mark: "You know what's amazing, I didn't even remember about that appointment until just now."

* * * * * * *

I bought The Cuisine of California for 50 cents at a used bookstore many years ago because it had appeared on some list of essential culinary texts. I can't remember whose and I've never cooked from it before. Published in 1983, the book shows its age. The pasta was trying too hard
in a very '80s way, with not just poached chicken breast and leeks but pancetta, thyme, heavy whipping cream, marinara sauce. Overkill! But very yummy.

The salad -- radicchio, arugula, butter lettuce and toasted hazelnuts -- was terrific. The strawberry sorbet, well, it was strawberry sorbet. Not really my thing, but a lot more enjoyable than Hunanese lotus seeds.

The Cuisine of California: Why?

I'll be cooking from The Cuisine of California by Diane Rossen Worthington for the next week or so. To eliminate the hint of tyranny that was creeping into our mealtimes, I decided that everyone should have a turn choosing cookbooks. This was Isabel's choice.

Tipsy Baker: So, Izzy, why did you pick The Cuisine of California?

Isabel: Because I was interested to see what you'd think. I wondered if you would do it, if you would say no, give me something harder, that's not interesting enough. Also, you usually pick cookbooks from places thousands of miles away from here and I wanted to see what these kinds of things tasted like.

TB: Any dishes in particular catch your eye?

Isabel: They all sound good. Also it's sort of normal and it's probably not so spicy.

TB: Do you think our family dinners will be happier now that I'm cooking "normal" food?

Isabel: I think Owen will sit at the table more, though I don't really care if he sits at the table. But I don't think food affects the mood. I don't think anyone will be happier or sadder because it's more normal.

TB: What do your friends eat for dinner?

Isabel: Juliet's mom cooks dinner sort of like you. I know Montana has a lot of pasta and her mother doesn't like to cook. And Emily, I guess they have a lot of meat.

TB: Is there anything I make that you hate?

Isabel: Cheese souffle.

TB: Do you like family dinners?

Isabel: Yes.

TB: Why?

Isabel: Because when you have dinner it gets everyone together around a table and usually people don't get up and jump around. You're forced to be sitting there and that's usually when you talk about things.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: An Earnest Summation

There were some pre-dinner hysterics, and one member of our family skipped the meal, preferring to retreat upstairs and nurse grievances involving. . . everything. These pre-teen miseries seem to balloon instantly from the very specific (Owen left his Transformers on my bed!) to the all-encompassing: No one UNDERSTANDS!

Honey, I totally understand. You're driving me nuts, but I do, totally, understand.

In any case, there were only three of us there to somberly eat the final Fuchsia Dunlop banquet.

Highlights included:
  • Braised Beef and Potatoes (like the darkest, most intense pot roast you have ever encountered; verging on too spicy)
  • Pounded eggplant with green peppers (mild, agreeable)
  • Homestyle tofu (another Mao favorite; bright red; verging on too spicy)
  • Fried rice with Tianjin preserved vegetables
Pretty good food! Nonetheless, Owen -- perhaps empowered by his temporary status as 'easy' child -- made a bid for toast and yogurt. I was too weary to argue. As I write this, he is energetically dismantling our living room. I am too weary to argue.

But tomorrow, kids, watch out.

So, the earnest summation of Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook.

I made 32 dishes from Dunlop's book:

Flat-out bad: 6
So-so: 9
Good: 13
Great: 3
Worth the Price of the Book: 1

Not an awful performance, but not terrific. As I've said before, I love Dunlop's writing, love her spirit of inquiry -- but I think the recipes could use some polish.

Now I intend to hang up my wok for a while and move on to a new cuisine. The next cookbook was chosen by Isabel, and includes recipes that call for exotic ingredients like heavy cream, lettuce, Parmesan cheese, chocolate, and hazelnut oil.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

And the Winner Is. . .

Niloufer Ichaporia King for My Bombay Kitchen!!!!!

Give the girl a cardamom cookie for calling it. 

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: The Big Night

So, the James Beard Awards are tonight and the event will be "live blogged" by the charmingly foul-mouthed Julie Powell, (see left) author of Julie & Julia and the original genius cookbook blogger.

I once interviewed Powell and wrote a cute little story about her, though upon rereading I wonder if it is entirely correct for a writer to use the term "Rabelaisian" without having ever read Rabelais. Thoughts?

I also wonder why Powell can get away with throwing the F-word around and come across as hilarious and hip and I can't. Thoughts? 

And who was the bozo who named the Cheesecake Factory? Aside from the Dress Barn, is there a business on this planet with a more unappealing name? Thoughts?

I have definitely had too much coffee.

Tonight marks the end of my 6-week "bakeoff" between the three Beard Foundation nominees for best Asian cookbook of 2007.  I will wearily prepare one more dinner from Fuchsia Dunlop's Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook because I already did the shopping. But for the record, I am not at this moment craving pounded eggplant with green peppers

I finished reading Dunlop's intelligent, vivid, and extremely impressive book last night. Unlike her fellow nominees, 
Niloufer Ichaporia King and Cecilia Chiang, Dunlop (pictured, right) is a professional journalist who gamely set out to explore an intimidating foreign cuisine, one that includes dishes like ox penis hotpot and fried dog. Her prose is topnotch -- crisp, sensual, funny, evocative. She overuses certain adjectives, an occupational hazard I struggle with myself so Lord knows I'm not criticizing. Just saying.

And she did awesome amounts of research, providing fascinating anecdotes and histories of various dishes originating in the Hunan province. As a work of culinary anthropology, Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook is invaluable; as a cookbook, it can be maddeningly nonspecific, the recipes mediocre -- and worse. Apparently, other people who have cooked their way through this book have not had such a rough experience, so it might just be me. 

I'll provide an earnest summation of the volume in a bit, with a tally of how all the recipes worked.

However, since the awards will be announced before we consume the aforementioned pounded eggplant, let me project the winner.

I don't think Chiang stands a chance, not because The Seventh Daughter isn't good; it's great. In fact, it's better than Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, more polished, more consistent. But Dunlop has an exotic hook; she is revered in the food world; she's young; and she has broken new ground in the literature on regional Chinese cooking. She might well take the prize.

But she she shouldn't. My Bombay Kitchen is this year's Asian masterpiece. Hands down. 

Friday, June 06, 2008

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Homestretch

Another dinner etc etc etc I minced some ginger etc etc etc and then I heated peanut oil and deep fried some etc etc etc and Owen didn't eat any etc etc etc and then someone had a tantrum etc etc etc thus and such was delicious etc etc etc

The litany of dinners continues. I need to figure out how to write about all this -- cookbooks, cookbooks embedded in a life -- without just describing mealtimes. Ideas?

This was our penultimate Hunanese dinner a la Fuchsia Dunlop, and my father drove down from Petaluma to partake. He is one of the gamest eaters I know which was fortunate as there were some mighty challenges on the menu. 

Let's start with Dunlop's stir fried zucchini with salty duck egg yolks. It was. . . what is the word I am looking for. . . repulsive? Yes, I believe that will do. The photograph of this dish in Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook is incredibly seductive, slivers of green-skinned zucchini cloaked in a nubbly gold crust. Gentle reader, I will spare you the close-up of my rendition. 

"Salted duck egg yolks are a fabulous ingredient," Dunlop gushes, "with a rich umami taste that enhances the most mundane of vegetable ingredients."

Truly dreadful.

I was also irresistibly drawn to the Scraped Jelly Ribbons in Hot Sesame Sauce on the strength of that name. Some people would have the opposite response, but I love both sesame and slippery noodle-like dishes. To make this one, you submerge brittle, papery sheets of Tianjin bean starch in hot water, watch them collapse into sort of rubbery translucent noodles, then tear into pieces and toss with a pungent sauce. Tasty but weird. Or weird but tasty. Haven't decided yet.  

There was more, but the checklist of dishes is boring. Isn't it? I'll just mention the entirely successful General Tso's chicken  -- fire-engine red, just like you get in a restaurant! -- and the Hunanese Lotus seeds with rock sugar

"Not good," my father said after his first bite of lotus seed. Then he kept eating, which was how he was raised. A compulsive plate cleaner.

This dessert really wasn't good. It tasted of nothing but sugar, despite the starchy lotus seeds, feathery silver fungus (completely bland) and garish wolfberries floating around in the syrup.

That said, it was rather beautiful, don't you think?

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Cumin Beef

Aside from an unfortunate incident involving an excitable boy, a water gun, and a glass of Sancerre, we had a swell time last night at an impromptu dinner party with the Reese-Cushings. Stella devoured the Changsha cold-tossed noodles, made from a recipe that Fuchsia Dunlop credits to "Mr. Yao, a gruff-voiced street vendor who had set up a stall near Tianxinge, the pavilion that stands on the last remaining section of the old Changsha city walls."

Sentences like this make me ache to go to China. 

I also cooked what is now my favorite recipe from Dunlop's estimable volume: Beef with Cumin. It's an emphatic, gutsy dish -- slices of juicy sirloin deep fried then tossed with bounteous quantities of chopped garlic, hot chiles, ginger, and, of course, cumin. 

Not so popular were the cucumbers with purple perilla. I've never cooked a cucumber before, but was dismayed to watch my favorite crispy, refreshing vegetable morph into. . . zucchini. Then there was the perilla, which had a thin, insinuating flavor that I didn't like at all. Not an herb I shall be seeking out in the future. 

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I had a non-serious dilemma about my invitation to drink some prosecco with my piano teacher, Elenor. Of course, I went. Of course, I accepted a glass of prosecco. And it was lovely and civilized and fine and the right thing to do. Elenor put preserved hibiscus blossoms -- crimson, sweet, ravishingly beautiful -- in the bottom of the champagne flutes, a neat trick that I intend to try out on guests one of these months.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A Dilemma

For Christmas I gave my piano teacher, Elenor, a bottle of Prosecco. Every few weeks she asks when I can come over and open it with her. Yesterday when she invited me for the fifteenth time, I agreed to stop by for a little glass. A split second later, I remembered I'm supposed to be on the wagon until August. 

Should I . . . 

a. Cancel our 8 p.m. appointment 

b. Go to Elenor's house, let her open the bottle of Prosecco for herself, then request a cup of chamomile tea (which will make her self-conscious)

c. Warn her before she opens the bottle that I won't be imbibing so that she, too, will feel compelled to sip chamomile tea (which will make her all sad and dreary)

d. Have a polite glass of Prosecco and break my 90-day pledge -- but go back on the wagon tomorrow

e. Split the bottle of Prosecco with Elenor, buy a jug of Old Crow on the way home, and scrap the pledge

Advice, please!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Mao's Belly

I vowed to post no more photos of hideous beverages, but this basil seed drink was so eye-catching I decided to make an exception. For the full effect, click on the image to enlarge. It's a product of Thailand, purchased at the Richmond New May Wah market. Faintly banana-flavored, sweet, quite tasty. Just think, if I were still pounding Negronis, I would never have discovered it.

The question of the day: Can braised pork belly play a role in a sensible weight loss plan?

No? I feared as much. Last night I attempted Mao's Red-Cooked Pork -- cubes of pillowy, succulent belly meat braised in a thin, lovely sauce of sugar, star anise and cinnamon. It was a much humbler dish than the version I prepared using Cecilia Chiang's cookbook, as would befit the pork belly of a great communist leader. According to Fuchsia Dunlop, Mao was basically a nut for red-braised pork belly. In China, the dish is reputed to enhance both intellect and beauty.

As far as I can tell, it is only enhancing my BMI. But it is indeed very, very delicious. 

In other news: Our dinner hour is vastly improved since the construction crew removed various tarps and we can now eat in view of windows, light, the outside world. There have been no tears at the table for the last few evenings, and considerably less cursing. So things are looking up! And as soon as I am done with my unwieldy work project, I think our lives will be absolutely perfect.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: More Ribs, Pock-Marked Ma's Tofu, Insanity

Work has descended on me like a plague of locusts, which is actually a better simile than it initially sounds because the work in question is a massive cloud of tiny, persnickety write-ups that have been devouring every spare minute and brain cell.

Well, not quite every spare minute. I took a little time last night to cook from Fuchsia Dunlop's Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, specifically her hot-and-fragrant spareribsPock-Marked Ma's tofu, bok choy with chestnuts, and some Yueyang hot-dry noodles.

It was all pretty good. Sorry, friends, pretty good is about all I can muster right now. I am experiencing extreme adjective fatigue.

Meanwhile, the plastic tarps are all gone and my house is undergoing radical transformation (see above), I am getting pudgier by the minute (peanut oil + pork = Hunanese food) and now I must leave you to dredge up something pithy, witty and kind to say about The Lovely Bones.