Saturday, February 28, 2009

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Tempeh chili & saffron ice cream

Mark was not fond of Mark Bittman's tempeh chili, which he deemed strange and too spicy. He decided he would rather have a bowl of cornflakes, and did. I thought the chili was terrific, and ate his leftovers, then dished the rest of the pot into little tupperware containers, labeled them and put them in the freezer for future lunches. I am always putting things in the freezer and almost never take them out. Let this not be the fate of the yummy tempeh chili.

I do have doubts about tempeh. I liked its nutty flavor and I didn't miss meat in the chili at all, but the packets of tempeh I bought (wrapped in two layers of naughty plastic) cost more per pound than premium Whole Foods beef. While I understand that for vegans and vegetarians tempeh is a valuable source of protein, does it really makes sense for the rest of us?

Kids came home from Spaghetti Bingo (fun! everyone was there!) in time for dessert, which was saffron ice cream, a buttercup-yellow ambrosia that I kept patting myself on the back for producing. 

Mark thought it was "weird." 

Friday, February 27, 2009

Tempeh Chili or Spaghetti Bingo? That's a tough choice.

So efficient tonight. The cornbread is ready to bake, the saffron ice cream base is mixed, and I was standing there at the stove a few minutes ago stirring Mark Bittman's tempeh chili when the phone rang. (That's tempeh -- a.k.a. fermented soybean cake -- in the photo.) It was Isabel's best friend inviting her to Spaghetti Bingo at the community center. Before I had even set down the phone, my sister called, inviting Owen to. . .  Spaghetti Bingo. 

What is up with Spaghetti Bingo???? In all my years living in this fancy pants town, this is the first I've heard of Spaghetti Bingo. And tomorrow night there's a crab feed at the retirement home down the hill. A crab feed. What next, a pancake breakfast?

Bizarre. I love it! Isn't Spaghetti Bingo what they did in the Depression, when people hung together and had good values? Or was that soup lines? 

I should have scrapped dinner and gone to Spaghetti Bingo, but I'm just not spontaneous like that. So here I sit in an empty house awaiting a husband who is riding the commuter bus as I type and will be delighted beyond all measure, I'm sure, to come home to a bubbling pot of tempeh chili.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Fettuccine Alfredo & Raw Beets

I borrowed that picture from Disney, but they can have it back any time they ask. It's a caricature of Alfredo di Lelio, the Roman restaurateur who invented fettuccine alfredo in 1914 to soothe the stomach of his pregnant wife. Or so says the internets. 

Very proud of last night's fettuccine alfredo dinner, which I made from scratch using Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Two reasons for pride:

1. Spinach pasta. First time ever, huge hit. It was a little gnarly rolling this out because the dough was super-sticky even after copious additions of extra flour, but we muddled through and the results were a brilliant grass green and ridiculously delicious.

2. Wicked alfredo sauce. I've never had an alfredo this good. I attribute its excellence to the eggs that Bittman has you whisk into the warmed pasta bowl along with cream and a mountain of Parmesan. Yes. Horribly fattening. But great.

I also made Bittman's raw beet salad because I had this vision of a painterly red-and-green meal. My expectations for the salad were low, as I think of raw beets as a food people ate out of desperation while hiding from Nazis in Ukrainian barns.

But it turns out that raw beets you shred in a Cuisinart and dress in a mustardy vinaigrette make an earthy salad that is as tasty as it is bright. 

At least I thought so. I was the only one in the family willing to try it. 

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is an awesome book. I appreciate it more every day. While I don't feel any healthier and I'm definitely not slimmer, our food bills have dropped noticeably and precipitously during this meatless period and we've been eating really well.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Granola

Lovely, fragrant crunchy granola from How To Cook Everything Vegetarian. Sadly, my children do not love it. 

Sadly, I do.

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Honey Sorbet

Mark Bittman loves to show how ingredients can be combined in infinite variations. So, instead of giving you discrete recipes for five different sorbets in How to Cook Everything Vegeterian, he provides a bare-bones chart with roughly 30 different sorbets formulas. 

The formula that caught my eye was the honey sorbet, which calls for melting a cup of honey in 2 cups hot water. That's it. Then you freeze it in your ice cream maker. 

I admit that my motivations were impure when I decided to make honey sorbet. I thought: This can not possibly work. And when it doesn't, I can analyze what such a clearly offhand, bad recipe, casually thrown into a chart, says about the work of Mark Bittman. 

Instead, I'm writing about one of the weirdest, most thrilling desserts ever alchemized in my kitchen.

At room temperature, honey is somewhat translucent; water is completely translucent. You mix them together and you have a see-through amber syrup that you envision freezing into an amber slush, probably not very delicious.
Not so. Churned and frozen, honey and water transform into a rich, opaque cream. See above. Doesn't that look like ice cream? No! Sorbet.

You have to really like honey and you won't want to eat a lot of this at one sitting, but it was altogether exquisite. A dazzling little jewel of a recipe that Bittman just inserted into a chart.
He's definitely casual, but not in a way I can criticize.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Indian Food

Here's an obvious criticism of Mark Bittman to balance out my rapturous review of this book: He's a know-it-all and -- surprise! -- doesn't actually know it all. 

The more specialized cookbooks you own, the less useful you'll find his work. 

For instance, if you want to make some snappy little crackers, Bittman supplies a serviceable recipe -- but you'll have better results with a dedicated baking book. Ditto for bread. And if you're planning an Indian banquet, he can help -- but his recipes won't be as delicious or varied as what you'll get from a volume with the words Bombay or Calcutta or Krishna in the title.  

On Oscar night, I served this passable Indian dinner from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian:

-Fresh cheese, spinach and yogurt (saag paneer). The homemade cheese was too dense and chewy. I've cross-referenced with Julie Sahni and hold theories as to why. Anyone truly interested can email me and I will reply at technical, didactic length. Also, the flavors in the spinach were off and Bittman has you create what amounts to a roux, which left a grainy brown film on the greens. Did I do something wrong? Maybe, but I was just following directions.

-Flaky Indian bread (paratha). I don't know where in his concise instructions Bittman errs, but I've made better flatbreads. Perhaps it's the concision that is the problem? These quasi tortillas were popular, but only because people love a homemade bread, however tough and drab and unflaky.

-Pineapple chutney. Juicy, hot, delelctable, tangy. Get your mind out of the gutter, people, I'm talking about a relish. Sheesh. Actually, I don't have any complaints about this. A yummy condiment I'd make again, unlike the rest of the meal.

Conclusion: Everything would have been better if I'd turned to Julie Sahni or Madhur Jaffrey or Niloufer Ichaporia King. I know this because it has been better.

BUT. . . I have rarely made anything quite so strange and magical as Bittman's honey sorbet, which we ate for dessert. More on this mysterious dish to follow.

Monday, February 23, 2009

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Tuiles

So fetching, chocolate tuiles. See how cunning and sophisticated with the crushed pink peppercorns? Mark Bittman's idea. 

Too bad these weren't just a little more delicious, a little crispier, a little less leathery. 

That's the thing about glamorous food styling -- it's so often a lie

I'd rather eat a graham cracker. Trust me, so would you.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Crackers

Very stoked about Heath Ledger's Oscar win. Not so stoked about Mark Bittman's crackers. They were like a stale tortilla torn into random pieces, chewy and raggedy and kind of lame. Occasionally Mark Bittman is a bit too casual, but we can cut him some slack. After all, he's trying to tell us how to cook everything. I just don't feel this basic cracker recipe was his highest priority.

Problems: First, he says to roll the dough (flour, butter, water, salt) to 1/4 inch thick. But crackers need to be incredibly thin -- you know, wafer thin -- and anything close to 1/4 inch is too chunky. I rolled my crackers much, much thinner. Then he calls for baking at 400 for 10 minutes which barely warms even skinny crackers. 

It's kind of exciting to try to recreate a ubiquitous, taken-for-granted foodstuff you've always purchased in a box. I decided to compare the King Arthur Baker's Companion recipe, as one would think crackers would be a priority in a flour company company cookbook.

And so they were, though King Arthur mysteriously omits salt. I corrected this oversight. They properly advise rolling the dough to 1/16 of an inch, cutting in shapes, and baking for 25 minutes at 350. See tidy, superior crackers at left.

We had a lot of crackers.

Here's the crazy thing. I can't sell cookies or cake around here to save my life, but my children devoured the crackers, both kinds of crackers. It's hokey to gush about how much your kids loved a dish, but: oh well. Isabel ate maybe a dozen crackers. Owen had friends over and they ate crackers like popcorn while screening the 12 Farts of Christmas on YouTube.

Good times. 

Saturday, February 21, 2009

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: A perfect cake

It needs a new name, but Mark Bittman's olive oil cake is one of the best, loveliest, simplest cakes I've ever baked, moist and fresh and brightly flavored and basically incredible. I served it for dessert after last night's fiasco of a dinner, and it really did make us all feel better.

Odd how I seem to be collecting these amazing cake recipes (cardamom cake, nutmeg cake, vanilla chocolate layer cake) because I never thought of myself as a cake person. So much for self-knowledge.

Here's Bittman's recipe, in my words:


1. Preheat the oven to 350 and grease a 9x13 inch pan. 

2. In a bowl, combine 2 cups flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Set aside.

3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil with 3/4 cup sugar until creamy. It will be a beautiful celadon green color. Add 4 egg yolks and beat until thick and fluffy -- 7 minutes or so. 

4. Mix the dry ingredients into the batter, along with 1/3 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice and 2 teaspoons grated orange zest. 

5. In a separate bowl, beat 4 egg whites with 1/4 cup sugar until soft peaks form. Now stir this gently but thoroughly into the batter. It's not really possible to "fold" the egg whites into the batter, which will be very dense and heavy. You'll worry about losing all the air in your egg whites, but just do your best and it should be fine. Pour into pan, and bake for 35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. 

6. Meanwhile, make a glaze by mixing 1/4 cup fresh orange juice, 1 1/2 teaspoons grated orange zest, 1/4 teaspoon vanilla, and 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar until smooth. As Bittman puts it, this "should be about the consistency of thick maple syrup." If it's too thin, add a bit more sugar, if it's too thick, a bit more juice.

7. Let the cake cool for a few minutes, then pour the glaze over the top while it's still in the pan. Cut into squares. Serves 12-16. 

I've got it in my head that I want to try a grapefruit version of this cake. And tangerine.

So, this is the first real recipe on Tipsy Baker. I was worried about copyright infringement, but a few weeks ago a newspaper food editor told me it's permissible to replicate a couple of recipes from a book when writing a review. I sure hope she's right. I was tempted to post the recipe for Bittman's excellent vanilla-chocolate layer cake, but had some issues with the frosting and wanted something really perfect on which to spend my recipe allotment. This cake is really perfect.

Friday, February 20, 2009

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: There is still tofu under his chair

Last night was sad. I'm no longer permitted to photograph my children crying, a most proper rule, but I'm still allowed to describe such events. Owen pitched an epic fit over Mark Bittman's Provencal tofu. There was much sobbing, histrionic self-pity, haranguing, spluttering rage. I thought I'd remember his choicest lines because there were some beauties, but have forgotten everything except: "I'll have tasted every food by the time I'm TWENTY. I want to eat NORMAL foods, but you cook me things that no one else in America has even HEARD of." Spoken between gales of weeping.

I do feel for him. I realize I've occasionally been horrible and borderline abusive in the cooking department and I regret that. But last night's meal was tasty and truly inoffensive -- cubes of mild tofu in a sweet tomato-and-pepper sauce. I just wanted Owen to try one tiny cube! I want him to grow up and be big and strong! Like Popeye!

Anyway, he slyly dropped the chosen tofu cube under his chair when he thought I wasn't looking. He apparently doesn't realize I invented that trick.

I wasn't going to punish him; I thought it was funny. But his pride was so wounded at being caught that he grew hysterical, and once he starts down that slide he stays for the whole ride and all we can do is watch and make sure he doesn't swallow his tongue. Poor little guy.

Like I say, the tofu: lovely. Isabel had seconds. Easy, inexpensive, healthy, and I'd make it again except, see above. 

Bittman's recipe for polenta was even better and will henceforth be my standard. By far the best polenta I've ever cooked was Barbara Kafka's recipe that calls for stirring a cup-and-a-half of cream into the cornmeal. Breathtaking, but you really do feel, to quote Rhoda Morgenstern, that you might as well spread it directly on your thighs. Bittman makes his polenta with a modest amount of milk mixed in with the cooking water, just enough to transform the dish from austere gruel into something you might actually crave.

Dessert was so fabulous it's getting its own dedicated post.

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Vanilla finally stands up for herself

Doesn't look like much, especially as iced in sloppy manner by me, but this was a marvelous and fascinating cake. 

Mark Bittman's chocolate vanilla layer cake contains both cocoa powder and a whole chopped up vanilla bean. I have never chopped up a vanilla bean, and when I read the recipe had to try it immediately. As I've said before, one of my problems with chocolate is that it overpowers all other flavors, especially shy ones, like vanilla. 

But maybe vanilla is not so shy as we had thought! The flavor of this cake was spectacular. It was definitely chocolatey, but there was this intense, warm vanilla presence unlike anything I've tasted before in a cake. Bittman describes it as a "perfumey and musky aroma" and I guess that will have to do, though I'm never sure about using the word "musky."

The cake contained little bits of soft vanilla bean that some people took for raisins. I think if you ground the bean in a food processor you could avoid this, though it wasn't really a problem.

I am now eager to chop up more vanilla beans and throw them in sugar cookies and shortbread and ice cream and if I buy them from amazon, I can actually afford to. No, I'm not shilling for amazon, I'm just shocked at how much cheaper they are in bulk from amazon than at the supermarket. I wonder if the amazon beans are any good.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Ravioli & frozen yogurt

Another Wednesday, another pasta night with my mother. Yesterday, she taught me how to make a whisky sour and showed Isabel how to stomp on egg shells until they're the perfect consistency for the worms in our new worm box. She's a great mom. 

Mark Bittman's pasta dough is supple and lovely, the filling for his spinach and ricotta ravioli superb. If we'd just made a butter or tomato sauce, all would have been well. But I was determined to make the walnut sauce which Bittman describes as "a rich, bread-thickened nut sauce that's unbelievable with stuffed pasta."

Mistake. The sauce was super-garlicky and rich and totally overpowered the delicate spinach ravioli. Don't know what he was thinking.

For dessert: blondies (identical to recipe in How to Cook Everything, but with a small amount of whole wheat flour subbed in) which were fine, and frozen yogurt.
Isabel and I are slightly obsessed with replicating Pinkberry frozen yogurt. If you've never had Pinkberry, imagine a tangy, snow-white cream with a pure, very sour yogurt flavor. Bittman's recipe calls for some yogurt, a little milk, sugar syrup and lemon rind. We omitted the lemon rind and you would think the resulting dish would taste purely of yogurt. And it did. Which is when I realized that Pinkberry tastes more like yogurt than yogurt does. How is that possible? An internet search quickly revealed things I didn't really want to know about Pinkberry

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Soon we will purchase a loom

Isabel, the cheesemaker. 

Now I just need to acquire a cow, and she can become a milkmaid.

Here's a crazy fact: miniature dairy goats are legal in Seattle -- yes, Seattle, where they invented coffee -- but not in my own backwater suburb. Is it not wrong that one can own three slavering, barking Rottweilers, but not a pair of tiny, bleating ungulates who trim back the fire hazard brush, fertilize the earth, and provide both milk and old-fashioned chores for 21st century children?

Well, obviously it is wrong.  

Back to the cheese. This was our second outing with Mark Bittman's ricotta. This time we made it with Straus organic whole milk, as opposed to supermarket 1%. Definitely softer and creamier, and again the flavor was vastly superior to the ricotta you can buy. Last week we did a side-by-side tasting with a tub I bought at Whole Foods and there was no comparison. Fresh homemade cheese is hard to beat.

Here's how you make ricotta, in my own words, based on the Bittman formula:

1. Slowly bring to a boil 1/2 gallon of milk (preferably whole), stirring constantly. Slowness and stirring are important because it will save you from having to scour scorched milk off the bottom of the pot, an ordeal that could turn you off ricotta making forever.

2. When the milk starts to rise up in the pot as if it's going to overflow, pour in 2 cups of buttermilk. Take off heat. Stir. Add a pinch of salt. 

3. The cheese will separate into curds and yellowish whey within 30 seconds or so. Let it get nice and clumpy. Pour into a strainer that you have lined with cheesecloth or a piece of clean white pillowcase.

4. Let the whey drain away gradually. You will have roughly 3 cups of excellent cheese to use in lasagna or ravioli or cake.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Cheese souffle & maple cookies

That picture is such a cop-out, but my single photograph of last night's tawny souffle was problematic (too much hand in the shot) and when I tried to crop out the ugly, squished fingers, I completely ruined the composition:

See what I mean? 

This food styling business, an ongoing ordeal.

Now, to the cookbook at hand and the meal it yielded.

Mark Bittman doesn't invent recipes, he collects and adapts the recipes of others. Far from a failing, this is is the power of his work. He takes all the recipes that we know and love from celebrity chefs and our mothers' kitchens and tradition and cookbooks and then makes them a little more straightforward, excising the frills and fussy extra steps.

His cheese souffle from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is basically Julia Child's, though his makes a larger quantity and is considerably more concise. And like Julia's cheese souffle -- and every other souffle I've ever baked -- this one was easy, frugal, handsome, and tasty. As far as I can tell, it was a perfect souffle.

The trouble is that my children do not eat even perfect souffle. My husband is not crazy for perfect souffle. And even I would rather eat a perfect grilled cheese sandwich. The recipe is great; the problem is souffle. Or us.

Desserts have never been Bittman's forte, and its the weakest section of his otherwise outstanding How to Cook Everything. I was initially dismayed by the thin selection of sweets in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, but on closer examination -- exciting! Many of these recipes incorporate unusual flours and alternative sugars, which I find fascinating. For dessert, Isabel and I made Bittman's maple snaps which were sweetened with syrup and contained both wheat and rice flours. These were neither crisp nor "snappy" as Bittman had promised, but cakey and incredibly delicious.

Plain-looking, though. Would a little geranium flower garnish have helped the shot? Yes, I can now see that it would have.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

As my friend Lisa says . . .

You know you are in an expensive hotel when they charge for wireless. 

Isabel and I were on a brief shopping-and-eating trip to Los Angeles with the aforementioned Lisa and her daughter, Juliet. I couldn't bring myself to pay the Loews Santa Monica another dime, so I didn't have internet for a few days.

Highlights from trip: 

1. Lunch at Spago, where we saw Wolfgang Puck in the worn, middle-aged flesh. The calzone with four cheeses was the best single dish I tasted the whole weekend and has inspired me to buy the Spago cookbook.

2. Pinkberry frozen yogurt. More than enough rhapsodies have been composed about this sublime, tangy frozen yogurt, all of them true.

3. Looking in a mirror at the Beverly Center I realized I was dressed exactly like an orthodox Jewish woman, except with an uncommonly lustrous and natural-looking wig.

Actually, #3 was a low point. I do find the modest attire of orthodox women -- the long skirts, flat shoes and dark cardigans -- appealing and elegant, as I do the clothing of the Amish. But I don't remember when, exactly, I chose that as my own particular fashion statement. 

Because I didn't.

Today: Rethinking my look, and picking up where I left off with Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian

Friday, February 13, 2009

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: I have been remiss

We've made Mark Bittman's pizza and his mint chocolate chip ice cream and his pancakes. I attempted the recipe for fresh ricotta (yes) for use in his vegetable lasagna. The ricotta was amazing, but the real secret to great lasagna: homemade pasta. Bittman's recipe worked just fine.

(Ed. note: In future, crop out wine bottles that seem to regularly appear in unstaged shots, especially those featuring small, cherubic children.)

I also baked Bittman's pineapple tart, which was lovely and exotic, and this morning served his overnight waffles, which were even lovelier and not exotic. 

Having now crashed out my notes on recent cooking activities, however perfunctorily, I feel better. I was starting to procrastinate. Just the fact that I've kept this blog fed and watered for 9 months gives me faith in my own lazy, procrastinating self. The world doesn't really need the blog, but I need the faith.

(Ed. note: "Perfunctorily" is an ungainly word. In future, pls. avoid.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian

In the interest of economy and nutrition, the next cookbook I will be testing is How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman. The children were aghast, but I won them over by making Bittman's pizza and mint chocolate chip ice cream the other night. 

Bittman is one of my heroes and it's all been very tasty so far. I am looking forward to experimenting with his recipes for tempeh, seitan, and parsnip gnocchi.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Platter of Figs: To be continued

I won't do a full wrap-up review until I've cooked David Tanis' spring menus, but in the last two weeks I've made 21 dishes from Platter of Figs:

Worth the price of the book: 0
Great: 2 
Good: 12
So-so: 3
Flat-out bad: 4

Consider: By some measures, the Best of the Best of Alaska -- a kitschy, Jell-O mad, spiral-bound featuring the "cuisine" of a state where nothing grows but moose and blueberries -- scored better, with 2 recipes that were "worth the price of the book" and fewer repulsive failures.

Shocking, given Tanis' pedigree (Chez Panisse chef) and the glowing reviews (Gourmet, New York Times) that I read for months before finally getting my hands on this book. 

Obviously, the pedigree has something to do with the reviews. Also, I'm not sure how much cookbook reviewers actually cook from books before offering their opinions. I did some searching and found a third disinterested party, besides Philomere and myself, who made Tanis' chicken tagine and found it wanting

And, to be fair, most the recipes were "good," which means they were pleasant and they worked. 

Two things I appreciate about the book so far:

-The photographs are gorgeous.

-Lovely and thoughtful writing. You come away liking David Tanis for passages like these:
"Now, about cooking for friends. At my house there always seem to be at least eight of them and I've designed all the menus in this book for a table of eight or ten. That should not be daunting. And most recipes can be easily halved, or increased (as in add another potato to the pot). What matters is that you do it."

Sweet and true, if not worth the price of the book.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Laurie Colwin's nutmeg cake

I'm giving this nutmeg cake its own post because it is one of the loveliest, simplest things I have ever baked. It takes five minutes to mix, calls for ingredients often found around the house, was devoured in one sitting. Look closely at the photograph. Can you see there's a buttery, sugary crust? A bit unorthodox in a cake, but having eaten it I wonder why more cakes don't have buttery, sugary crusts.

You can find the recipe here. For the record, I left out the cloves and baked it in a standard 9-inch pan. 

Monday, February 09, 2009

Platter of Figs: He mostly redeems himself

I scored abysmally in my predictions about David Tanis' "Tapas Party" menu. 

I also made one horrible, lewd, cringe-inducing joke at last night's dinner. Justine and Michael, I'M SO SORRY. Ashamed. 

The food was a hit, anyway, starting with the . . . 

Octopus salad. An ordeal to acquire the animal, which had to be special ordered and came frozen in a perfect gray sphere the size and shape of a volleyball. $15 for a 3-pound cephalopod -- such a bargain! Like butchers, fishmongers appear to enjoy special ordering weird stuff and discussing. I have been persuaded to someday grill an octopus, but this one was simmered gently for two hours, chopped into chunks, dressed with olive oil, dusted with smoked paprika, garnished with pickled red onion. "Octopus salad is one of the most delectable things I know," Tanis writes, and he is right.
Potato tortilla. Hispanophile Justine is helping me appreciate tortilla as a steady, mild-mannered foil for spicier Iberian dishes and garlicky mayonnaise. The Jeff Daniels of tapas. Tanis' version was big, gentle, rich, very tasty.

Scallops a la Plancha. I thought these would be the highlight of the meal, but ultimately felt the scallops were just an expensive vehicle for green sauce. Delicious, delicious green sauce (cilantro, garlic, hot pepper, roasted cumin, oil) which would be good on almost anything so why pay for scallops.

Black paella with squid and shrimp. A typical paella, only uglier. The squid ink (ninety-nine cents for a tiny envelope at The Spanish Table) tinted pearly bomba rice the color of topsoil. Is that really a good thing? No squid to be had; substituted clams.

Manchego and membrillo. Breathtaking. Like melon and prosciutto, one of those miraculous salty/sweet combinations. Could have eaten the whole plate all by myself and almost did.

An altogether excellent menu that begins to make up for recent disasters. As Alice Waters might put it, "a little masterpiece." 

Having cooked all six of Tanis' winter menus, I'm taking a break from Platter of Figs to resume after March 20 when I'll try his spring meals. 

Platter of Figs: She just can't stop herself.

Wait, did I not just write about how the blog wanted to be prettier?

I wasn't going to make David Tanis' "Tapas Party" meal as I have issues with almost everything on the menu. I'm going to come clean about those feelings and we'll see how the dinner meets (or defies) expectations:

-Octopus salad with pickled onions and Pimenton. This strikes me as a "look how edgy and eccentric I am that I'm serving OCTOPUS" recipe rather than a "this is incredibly delicious" recipe. I inflict weird dishes on my loved ones in the interest of science, not to show off how quirky I am. I think. Prediction: It'll be so-so, chewy, there will be a lot left over.

-Potato and Salt Cod Tortilla. Leaving out the salt cod as it's impossible to track down in suburbia and Tanis says it's optional. But my real concern: What is there to love about bland Spanish tortilla? Willing to be enlightened. Prediction: It'll be so-so, there will be a lot left over.

-Sea Scallops a la Plancha. Scallops are horribly expensive, therefore I never cook scallops and did not want to cook this menu. Prediction: It will be delicious, there will be none left over.

-Black Paella with squid and shrimp. See potato and salt cod tortilla. Never understood the fuss over paella. Willing to be enlightened. Prediction: It will be good, but there will be a lot left over.

-Membrillo and Sheep's Milk Cheese. Sounds great!

Now I have to go pick up the octopus.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Oh, the peer pressure

You know what my blog wishes? She wishes she were cuter. Isn't that sad? Just when I've gotten comfortable* with my own skin and shape, I have this sassy little Ms. Personality blog that suddenly wants to be pretty.


My blog wishes her mother didn't always dress her in earth tones and accessorize with dumpy snapshots and creepy art. She wishes her mother would please just get over this "looks don't matter, it's who you are inside" thing and take her to Abercrombie. A Juicy sweat jacket would also be awesome.

Poor blog. 


**What a tacky bag. Would you let your blog carry that bag?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Platter of Figs: I'm just doing what he tells me

Here's the Alice Waters blurb on the cover of David Tanis' Platter of Figs: "Incomparable menus, each a little masterpiece."

Hieronymous Bosch painted some masterpieces. 

I've said more than enough about the pig's ear salad.  What saddened me was just how badly the rest of Tanis' "peasant fare from a Parisian kitchen" menu turned out.

The complete bill of fare:

-pig's ear salad with herb vinaigrette
-duck hams with French lentils and celery root remoulade
-chilled prunes in Beaujolais

The duck hams sounded delicious. Per Tanis' instructions I brined, braised them, then baked them with lentils and vegetables. Ordinarily the meat on duck legs is loose, rich, and tender, but in this case the flesh clung tightly to the bone and the flavor was off.

I don't entirely blame Tanis. He says you should brine the duck legs for several days or "up to a week." And while I suspected that "up to a week" was a bit of casual imprecision on his part, I went with it because after I put the duck in brine, it took exactly a week to get those freakin' pig's ears. The duck wasn't a disaster, but definitely a disappointment.

And dessert. Cold little prunes in a thin, inky sauce, like something you'd get at Hogwarts or a nursing home. I speak as one who is fond of the prune, but there's nothing nice to say about this dish except that it's not pig's ear salad. 

Am I the only one who thinks that even on paper this is a hostile menu? Forget the pig's ears for a minute. Can you really imagine inviting someone for dinner and serving chilled prunes?

One theory: This is Tanis' "epater la bourgeoisie" moment after all those years cooking natural lamb and organic baby vegetables for people who think eating at Chez Panisse is a political statement. 

I've made five out of the six winter menus from Platter of Figs. I was going to skip the last one, but now feel compelled to follow through. It does involve octopus and a packet of squid ink, but also yummy expensive scallops and Spanish cheese.

Today I'll try to track down an octopus.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Live blogging the pig ear salad, pt. 5

He thought it was "bacon salad." I don't generally approve of lying to children, but oh well. What's done is done. In any case, he spat it out. I also spat it out, though in a more quiet and ladylike fashion. The smoky, jellied, cartilaginous nature of David Tanis' pig's ear salad was extremely challenging.

My father's opinon:  "I was the only one brave enough to eat it. Lousy texture, lousy taste, slimy, slightly crunchy."

There we have it. Insane stunt complete. Full report on the rest of the meal tomorrow.

Live blogging the pig ear salad, pt. 4

In high school my father worked at a slaughterhouse, first as a herder, then as a "stunner." No mystery why he thought my sister and I were pansies, with our little tutoring and babysitting gigs.

He has sliced the ears into "ribbons." They are like velvet! I'm deputizing him right now as my guest blogger:

The correct title was "stunner and shackler."  Petunias captures it better than pansies.  I must say that the pig ears raised real feelings of nostalgia for the Swift plant, the blood, the money.

Live blogging the pig ear salad, pt. 3

I left the ears at a (very) low simmer while we went to piano lesson. The house did not burn down, but it is now permeated by a powerful, meaty fragrance that is not entirely nice.

Ears are cooling in their broth. 

Father's arrival imminent. Must go clean, set table, cook.

Live blogging the pig ear salad, pt. 2

Are we enjoying this piece of absurdist performance art? 

You can't really see them, but the ears are simmering in that back pot with a bunch of onions and carrots. In the front are the prunes, poaching gently in red wine. 

There's definitely something hostile about a menu that begins with pig ear salad and ends with poached prunes.

Live-blogging the pig ear salad, pt. 1

The listeners have landed.

I don't want to repulse anyone, so if you're not interested in seeing the package above unwrapped, skip the rest of this post. 

As promised, the pig ears -- to be used in David Tanis' pig ear salad from Platter of Figs -- were waiting at Mill Valley Market's butcher counter.

Punk butcher: This is so cool, I'm so glad you ordered these. I'm going to take the extras to use in my blood sausage. You cook 'em for a long time and they turn all creamy 
and gelatinous.

African-American butcher: Are you going to fry 'em?

Me: No, braise them and make a salad.

African-American butcher: Anything with the pig is good.

Older butcher: It's funny, I've never, ever seen one of those before.

Me: It is my goal in life to bring interesting new experiences to everyone I meet.

You got me. I didn't really say that. I just took the pig ears, got some olive oil and lentils, paid the cashier, and drove home. 

You've been warned, squeamish ones. Here are the listeners: 

They look much ickier in the photo than they do in life. I have since salted them heavily and put them in a bowl, where they will sit for the next several hours. 

A mixed marriage can work. I think.

That's our freezer as of this morning. I had to pull aside some weird foil packets of "organic chicken bones, 11/08, for soup" to show the dogs to full advantage. 

Back all those years ago when my husband and I were courting, I found it charming that he loved Fritos. What a great, unpretentious guy. He introduced me to Lunchables, which if you are not familiar with them, well, here: 

Such a discovery! 

Today, I would as soon eat dog food.*

Isn't that the way with courtship? The things that first attract you.

Getting back to the freezer. Every time I pull open the door Mark's corn dogs call out to me. They call out: "Please throw us away. We take up precious space and we're unhealthy and fattening and cheap and disgusting except at a rodeo or state fair. Also, your husband didn't re-seal the box so we're all freezer-burned."

But it seems both wasteful and disrespectful to throw away a spouse's corn dogs.

Mark and I argue about food constantly. What comes into the house, what goes into the kids' lunch boxes, the tearful, years-long battle over hormone-free vs. cheap generic milk, canned soup vs. homemade.

Perhaps, I could simply forbid him to bring Pop-Tarts and off-price Jimmy Dean sausage into the house, though I don't know how you "forbid" an adult. Or, I could do all the grocery shopping myself. 

Hmm. Dictator or Betty Draper.

I do think I'm gradually winning the war, though Mark has been incredibly, maddeningly stubborn. This is certainly not the rout I observe with envy in the refrigerators of my friends. 

Maybe they're just married to girly men

*not really