Saturday, January 31, 2009

Platter of Figs: He's no Claudia Roden

A tough crowd, my toughest. The other night I presented them with David Tanis' North African Comfort Food menu which consisted of:

-carrot salad
-chicken tagine with pumpkin and chickpeas
-walnut cigars

They were surprisingly tolerant. For once, I was the meal's harshest critic, disappointed by the tagine, which I felt needed something starchy to soak up the thin, copious sauce. Tanis is supposedly the master of the "harmonious" menu, so why no couscous or bread or potato buds? 

I'm dying to hear Philomere's thoughts and will withhold some of my larger theories about Tanis and this book until she has weighed in.

The walnut cigars were basically deconstructed baklava and very tasty.

No more bananas?

Barbara Kingsolver is very anti-banana because of the fossil fuels required to import the fruit from tropical plantations to North American consumers.

If it is a travesty to buy Chilean blueberries in winter, which I believe it to be, how are bananas different? We shouldn't eat blueberries in winter and we shouldn't eat bananas. . . ever?

I'm conflicted. 

On the one hand, of course we shouldn't eat fruit that has traveled thousands of miles. And if we do, its price should reflect the true environmental cost.

On the other hand: Cheerios without sliced bananas? No more banana bread? Banana cream pie? Elvis' favorite sandwich?

I'm curious how others feel about this and have put up a poll on the right side of the page.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Platter of Figs: The pig ears are on the way

Because I know you were all wondering.

Like I say, butchers are the best. We had a little adventure here, me and Butcher Mark. He found a Sonoma slaughterhouse that will send him a pound of ears. Apparently they're popular smoked, as dog treats. 

And people treats?

We'll find out on Wednesday. Save the date.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Platter of Figs: Give me a pound of listeners

Butchers are great. How bored they must get, endlessly parceling out ground sirloin and boning chicken breasts when they have this amazing arcane knowledge of bellies and trotters and livers and cheeks. Whenever I make a strange request they seem positively exhilarated by the challenge. One of my fears is that all the butchers will disappear and we'll be forced to buy our meat from the refrigerator case at Safeway. This is such a depressing thought that I have just this instant made a resolution to henceforth only buy meat from a human butcher.

So, I just phoned the butcher shop at Mill Valley Market, where I have successfully acquired weird animal parts in the past. I requested pig ears and had to say the words twice, enunciating carefully: PIG EARS. 

Admittedly, it was tempting to ignore David Tanis' recipe for pig ear salad with herb vinaigrette, but what am I, a quitter? Squeamish?
It turns out that Mill Valley Market's meat supplier does not supply pig ears. Butcher Mark is exploring other avenues. "Let's not give up," he said. "Call me tomorrow morning. I have an idea."

And I have an ally

Must learn to bake this at home

Apricot ginger bread from the Noe Valley Bakery. Incredible.

Platter of Figs: Europeans are better, I get it already

I believe that the Europeans have a more civilized food culture. I do. But I am sick of hearing about it. No one needs to tell me one more time about the leisurely three-course dinners with wine and cheese, the modest portions, the reverence for fresh produce, the love of terroir, the horror of McDonald's.

I just finished the part of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in which Barbara Kingsolver rhapsodizes about her Italian holiday, wandering through those dreamy farmer's markets, discovering divine little restaurants, marveling at the glorious landscapes and gracious Italians. Something happens to smart people when they write about Italy and their brains turn to polenta. 

One European custom I want to debate: the three-course meal. In restaurants, yes. But at home?

Last night my mother came over and I made David Tanis' menu "Feeling Italian, part III" from Platter of Figs. It included: 

-Orecchiette al forno 

-Lamb osso buco with orange, lemon and capers

-Persimmon pudding, for which I substituted white chocolate ice cream made from David Lebovitz's Perfect Scoop because there are no persimmons to be found in late January.

Quite an endeavor, bringing those three courses sequentially to the table. Quite a lot of food.

For the orecchiette, you cook the little discs of pasta, toss with homemade (yes) fennel sausage, ricotta, and broccoli rabe. Bake. What a hit! The orecchiette was sitting there on the table for some time as we waited for the lamb shanks to finish cooking, and we kept picking at it, like the greedy and barbaric Americans that we are.

Except, does anyone really want lamb shanks after a delicious pasta? Shouldn't you just eat your fill of pasta along with some salad and call it a meal? That's the American food culture -- everything on the table at once like in a Norman Rockwell picture -- and is it really so wrong?

It felt unnatural to bring out lamb shanks after the pasta. Or maybe it was just these lamb shanks:

I hesitated to include that unlovely photograph, but it gives you the idea. This dish was fine in its gamy, bony, shanky way. But none of us had trouble behaving with admirable European restraint.

The white chocolate ice cream was another story.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Platter of Figs: The braise goes on

David Tanis's "Slow Beef" menu from Platter of Figs:

-watercress, beet, and egg  salad

-braised beef

-mashed celery root and potatoes

-roasted apples

A few thoughts:

1. Beets. Why do they scare people? No, the juice does not look like blood. It doesn't! My beet-hating husband saw the salad -- beets on a bed of fluffy watercress -- and started to make a "humorous" remark. I silenced him. Jokes are not helpful in the culinary education of our children, both of whom remain surprisingly open to the beet.

2. Braised beef = pot roast. Is there something new to be said on this subject by an august chef like David Tanis? If so, he didn't say it here. In my experience, the only thing you can do to screw up a pot roast is to undercook it.

3. Celery root is one of the few really positive additions to mashed potatoes, probably because you can barely taste it. Isabel had seconds. Also: I bought creme fraiche to make these potatoes, but don't like the extra expense and didn't think it made an appreciable difference.

4. Roasted apples. Just a more appetizing name for baked apples? Seems to be. These were handsome and austere, just apples and sugar (no butter) baked/roasted for 45 minutes until the skins split and the fruit exuded its own lovely, fragrant sauce. Mark said he'd rather eat a fresh apple, but Isabel and I were both kind of charmed.

Have so far braised pork and beef from this book with good, if not dazzling, results. Tonight: lamb. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Platter of Figs: Lots of braising ahead

"The dinner table is the cornerstone of my family's mental health," Barbara Kingsolver writes in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle* a book with which I am currently so obsessed that I have put "learn to make cheese" on my to-do list.

Mine is a reasonably happy family but the dinner table is not the cornerstone of our mental health. If anything, it is the cornerstone of our misery. Isabel and Owen do not delight in the "song of the stir fry," as Kingsolver puts it. They poke at the stir fry with barely concealed distaste. 

So, when home cooking romantics like Kingsolver start preaching to me about the glories of the family dinner, I'm deeply conflicted. On the one hand, yes! I agree! Tell me again how wonderful it is in that promised land of homemade frittata and family happiness! 

On the other hand, do you take me for a chump? I've been cooking for a family for more than a decade and when you present my particular children with virtually any non-white, non-starchy foods they will whine and bargain and protest and finally wail and you can either turn it all into a raging fight complete with slamming doors and maybe even (shhh!) a little spanking or you can shrug and pour another shot of Old Crow.

In either case, the experience is no cornerstone of mental health. **

For the first "harmoniously simple" David Tanis meal, I did his New Mexican menu. The centerpiece is a green chile stew (pork, carrots, chiles, chicken stock) which you supplement with avocado quesadillas (good enough, but I've made better) and pickled vegetables (good enough). Everyone who tried the stew (Owen opted out) liked it, though as an aficionado of braised pork shoulder, I have to say that I prefer a more substantial sauce. This one was thin and brothy and didn't quite balance out the rich meat. 

Dessert: bizcochitos, an anise-flavored cookie that Tanis insists must be made with lard or vegetable shortening, never butter.

I'm not wimpy about lard, but it's hard to find.  I'm definitely snobby about vegetable shortening, but it's easy to find. I took him at his word and used shortening. The cookies, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar were, as he warned, addicting.

*That is close to what she said. We're listening to this book on CD and I was driving when I heard it and couldn't pull over to copy it down.

**Having said all this, Isabel has recently become a great sport and will try anything, if only in lentil-sized tidbits.

Splendid Table: Earnest Summation

Fat, gorgeous, generous, erudite.

I was a little intimidated when I first opened Lynne Rossetto Kasper's Splendid Table because it is so crammed with historical discursions and antique illustrations that you suspect this might be a book for the library (doesn't everyone have one?) rather than the kitchen. Not so. Kasper writes clear, detailed and elegant recipes for some extremely complicated dishes. Each recipe includes useful advice for working ahead, buying ingredients, and fitting the dish into a larger menu. Kasper anticipates every question and potential glitch. Do you know how rare this is? 

Looking through the book just now I was tempted to give it another month as there are dozens more dishes I want to try -- the chestnut tortelli, the risotto of baby artichokes and peas, the wine-basted rabbit.

I made 38 recipes from The Splendid Table:

Worth the Price of the book: 5 
Great: 10
Good: 14
So-so: 6
Flat-out bad: 3

I probably would have put the three "bad" recipes in the "so-so" category if these hadn't been three dishes (dry-yet-damp pork loin, soggy green beans, overpoweringly rich potatoes) that I cooked on Christmas Eve when I wanted to show off. I'm still holding a grudge, but may eventually relent.

There were so many more gems: espresso mascarpone semifreddo, the spectacular oven-roasted radicchio, garlic soup Brisighella

Hard act to follow.

A Platter of Figs

"Trying a new recipe is as exciting as going on a blind date," Barbara Kingsolver writes in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Obviously, many of us do not find blind dates exciting, we find them terrifying, boring, and/or hellish, but I know what she means. It's how I feel about starting a new cookbook. David Tanis's exceedingly handsome Platter of Figs, which has been glowingly reviewed everywhere, is divided up into four seasonal sections and since we're all so very seasonal now, I'm going to cook the six winter meals and move on to another book. In spring we'll do spring, and so on.

Tanis, who is the head chef at Chez Panisse half the year and lives in Paris the rest of the time, presents his recipes in the context of complete meals which I'm going to try to cook in their entirety. Here's Alice Waters in the foreword: "David's menus are incomparable. Whatever the occasion, they all share a certain quality of harmonious simplicity uniquely his." 

I worry that "harmonious simplicity" will make me feel messy and overcomplicated, but am otherwise looking forward to this blind date.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

My day in NYC eating, a sad story

The goal yesterday was to sit on the sofa and read several thousand pages in preparation for today's meeting, but at noon I had to briefly vacate the borrowed apartment for a realtor to show his client. Who can afford to buy a beautiful apartment in Manhattan today or ever? Perhaps a Merrill Lynch executive who received a taxpayer financed bonus?  To kill time, I boarded a Q train for Brooklyn to visit the famous pizzeria, Di Fara's.

Digression: New York subways. Miracle! For $2 you can ride anywhere in the vast metropolis and you don't have to feel guilty for polluting or pay attention like you do at the wheel of a minivan. As you are whisked about the city you sit back and study your cuticles or daydream about Jon Hamm or read a novel in utter serenity, especially when your children are in California. I left NYC in 1993 and one of the few things I miss is the subway. 

Another digression: New York City itself. Even greater miracle! Consider the number of people and the diversity -- the anorexic models and the Pakistanis and the black kids on the Q train saying N***** this and N***** that and the Puerto Ricans and the rich white guys in fancy loafers who received taxpayer-financed bonuses from Merrill Lynch and everyone colliding and somehow, mostly, getting along okay. I love my homogeneous California town, but what kind of civilizational challenges do we really face? 

Di Fara's. I've wanted to eat here for years, but after 45 minutes emerged from the subway in dumpy middle-of-nowhere Brooklyn to find a cardboard sign in the pizzeria window indicating that due to medical emergency they are closed until February. Deeply bummed. Looked around. An Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The Walgreens featured Hebrew letters and everywhere were cowed-looking women in demure skirts and exceedingly pale, bearded men wearing black top hats and ill-fitting suits. I've noticed that Orthodox males have an incredibly aggressive way of walking. They puff out their chests and barrel forth, scowling, and honey, you'd better step aside! I could see the little boys already acquiring the gait, preparing to trample their bewigged mothers.


After strolling around for a while -- very interesting neighborhood -- I boarded the train and returned to the apartment which I have not left since. The rest of the day and night involved reading and consuming cold leftover Chinese food and tortilla chips. Like I say, a sad story.

Eat Me: I ate a Jewboy at Shopsin's

After my long wrangle with Kenny Shopsin's fascinating and problematic Eat Me last fall, I could not come to New York without visiting his infamous diner. I was hard on the book, and I'm not going to recant. But I see it all a little differently having now enjoyed the full, strange Shopsin's experience.

The restaurant is crammed in the corner of the grimy Essex Market -- a place to come if you ever need pigeon peas or smoked pig tails -- on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Shopsin is notorious for shouting at customers and evicting them from his restaurant for talking on cell phones or if he doesn't like their looks. I'm sorry to report that nothing like this happened to me today, except of course I'm not sorry at all. I would have died of embarrassment.

One of Shopsin's sons seated us and while he used the word "fuckin'" three times in a single sentence, he did so in a friendly way. Kenny S. was hulking and frowning in the background, lumbering slowly between a chair and the kitchen, talking to various customers who appeared to be his friends. A grizzled and morose-looking mountain of a man in a dirty t-shirt and suspenders. I think I got as close to him as I needed. 

We ordered:

-a Jewboy sandwich consisting of beef, grilled onions, and cheese on a soft Kaiser roll

-fried pickles

-macaroni and cheese pancakes, which come with both hot sauce and maple syrup.

Everything was intensely delicious, the kind of food that you continue eating even after you've had to unbutton your skirt. The place itself is definitely funky, but also comfortable, personal, rather wonderful. The woman next to us pulled out a cell phone and talked for a few minutes which made crazy with anxiety, but no one seemed to care. 

Sadly, very little that I cooked from Shopsin's book was delicious; some of it was vile. And Shopsin's crabby descriptions often make his restaurant sound like a hostile little fiefdom, a place you visit at the risk of being publicly humiliated because you're wearing the wrong sweater. 

Several people disagreed with my negative assessment of Eat Me, but I realize now that all of them had actually been to the restaurant, which completely changes how you read the book. But shouldn't a book hold up on its own? I may have been wrong about Shopsin as a phenomenon, but I am more convinced than ever that I was right about his book.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Thoughts while preparing to leave B&B

1. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle on the brain. Wondering why all these restaurants in California's Wine Country sell European wine. Last night at dinner, roughly half the wines by the glass were Italian. Why would anyone order Chianti in the Alexander Valley? Isn't that like drinking Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay in Bordeaux?

2. Tripe. Yummy, but a little goes a long way. 

3. The Old Crocker Inn, which we are about to depart, has vaulted to the top of my list of favorite hotels in the world. Not swanky or particularly luxurious, but peaceful and beautiful and cozy. The proprietors are lovely

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Some thoughts while lazing around in a B&B

One of the consolations of my profession is that while I don't make much money, every now and then "working" involves traveling to some pleasant spot and writing about it. Which is why I am in Geyserville for the night with Isabel. After exhausting the attractions of downtown Geyserville, we have retired to our B&B where we are lying under the giant duvet reading our books and being very lazy. A lovely day.

Some thoughts:

1. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. A library audiobook I picked up for the drive that is obsessing both of us, and we are only on disc 2. The book describes Kingsolver's attempt to feed her family only local, seasonal foods for a year, and it is beautifully written and poetic and funny and inspiring. I am now more determined than ever to plant a big garden, to eat more locally, to order seeds, acquire chickens, bees. . . 

2. But why has it taken me so long to act on my beliefs with regards to the industrial food chain? It's not like I didn't know all this before.

I've decided it has to do with growing up in Northern California where, throughout my childhood, everyone was always on kooky food regimens. Sugar was hateful and replaced by honey; chocolate was out, carob was in. My best friend's sister went on a diet of wheat berries and goat milk in high school, and that was all she ingested, besides the LSD. (Sadly true.) One of my mother's closest friends declared herself allergic to beef, dairy, wheat, corn, and soy, insisting that they depressed her. Of course there are real food sensitivities -- peanut allergies, celiac disease -- that are not in the least frivolous. But somewhere along the way, both my sister and I decided, independently of one other, that we weren't going to be crazy food people. We weren't going to be the superior vegetarians who made the hostess feel bad that she had cooked meatballs. A perfectly respectable, sensible decision at the time, but I think I can set some higher standards for myself without becoming a complete jerk. Need to work on this. 

3. Has anyone noticed how the mozzarella on fancy margherita pizzas lacks flavor? It's like artisanal cheese-makers are trying to outdo themselves with milky blandness and whenever you get a "good" pizza you need a salt shaker and pepper flakes so it actually tastes like something. Had that experience today. Actually Isabel pointed out, so she deserves credit.

4. Wine-tasting. I hate it. Absolutely hate it. Lord knows I love wine, but I feel like an idiot making conversation about "residuals" (???) and oak barrels and having the person behind the counter watch expectantly as I sip the Viognier, then the Cab, then the Pinot, forcing me to repeatedly mumble "delicious." Then I stumble out into the bright light of day, a little muzzy-headed and disoriented and move on to the next place. I dutifully made the tasting rounds of Geyserville today, but I just don't like drinking standing up with no food, feel awkward and shy. It helps a lot to have an adult companion, but even then it's never been my thing. I may erase this shortly because if the nice people who give me these gigs ever read it they won't give me these gigs anymore, and aside from the wine-tasting part, I do love the wine country. 

Splendid Table: Good soup, evil vodka

They're hard to please those 6th grade girls, especially when they're together. I don't even try anymore because I know that after Isabel and J. poke at their dinner and look wan and grim and ask to be excused, they go get out their secret stash of crappy candy which they eat all night while watching Grease on the portable player. I know, because I find the wrappers on the floor of Isabel's room every Monday morning. When they don't have any candy, they have been known to pull out the baking chocolate. You can see the toothmarks. Why even try? 

But of course, when you stop trying -- when you stop caring -- that's when you succeed. The girls were unexpectedly enthusiastic about Friday night's little tile-baked hearth breads and garlic soup Brisighella. Also, I served dinner late because I was sitting around drinking martinis with J's mother and everyone was sort of shocked and worried that hot food wasn't on the table at 7 o'clock sharp for them to disdain. 

Let's start with the little tile-baked hearth breads. You make a basic yeast dough, let it rise all afternoon, roll it into twenty little pancakes and cook slowly in a hot skillet. Lynne Rossetto Kasper includes a recipe for a "condimento" made of finally chopped raw pancetta, Parmesan, garlic, and rosemary to put atop your bread.  Some of us ate the hearth breads with the ravishing condimento (you can guess who), others ate them plain. The next morning when I got up looking forward to leftover hearth bread toast, I discovered they had all been consumed.

That is unusual and a mark of great success hereabouts.

The soup was one of the best recipes I've tried from The Splendid Table. "This cross between a soup and a creamy puree is as healthful as it is delicious," Kasper writes. "An old Romagna cure for colds, the soup has been fed to babies and the elderly for generations." 

I can see why.  You poach two whole heads of garlic in water, peel, add them to a pot of homemade stock along with some onions, olive oil and sage leaves. Cook a bit, puree, and you have a rich, and  soothing elixir unlike anything I have ever made before.

I am still on a frozen dessert kick  after the recent success with semi-freddo. Kasper says her recipe for frozen chocolate pistachio cream comes from Eletta Violi, who owns a trattoria in the Parma hills: "A blooming rose of a woman, Eletta is as generous as her food."

Wouldn't it be nice to be described as a "blooming rose of a woman," live in the Parma hills, and invent recipes like this amazing, airy mousse?

Alas, after the martinis I was an old, wilted carnation. Evil, chilly vodka. I hate you vodka. Yesterday, I never got dressed and lay on the bed all day drinking water, complaining about my headache, and reading a book. Fortunately, it was a really good book. I'm going to finish it right now and then get dressed because today I might actually be a blooming rose of a woman.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Splendid Table: Tagliarini & frozen zabaione

That's my sweet, zany mother feeding pasta into the machine last night. She is also author of this lovely email I received today:

"Checked TB to comment on last night's delights and you hadn't written yet. The tagliarini was truly amazing. I think you are turning me into a foodie. I loved the unique texture, the lemony sauce, the lightness. We do a great job with that pasta.

"On the dessert, which I thought about after (as an emerging foodie), I think the problem was that it was just plain bland. Not bad, not unpleasant, just no character. Not nutty, not rich, not sticky, not creamy.

"Just started some sourdough bread this morning and wondered whether you should consider doing a 'sourdough thing' at some point. Just an idea."

And a fine idea it is, Mom. 

But you need details on what we ate last night. We made tagliarini, a super-skinny egg noodle much like spaghettini, for which -- to atone for recent tuna extravagance -- we prepared an ascetic sauce (from Lynne Rossetto Kasper) with ingredients already on hand: lemon, anchovies, parsley. 

The lean sauce, as one would expect, was no great shakes, but the pasta itself -- like satin! I just consumed some leftovers cold from the fridge and they are almost as dreamy the next day. You do not get results like this from factory-made pasta, and don't let that bossy Marcella Hazan tell you different.

The "bland" dessert to which my mother alludes: Kasper's hazelnut zabaione with warm chocolate marsala sauce. 

Sounds and looks luscious, doesn't it? Isabel and I were hoping this would resemble the crazy delicious semi-freddo of the other night. But no. Our labors were rewarded with an inert block of hazelnut cream overwhelmed by harsh chocolate sauce. Typical overbearing chocolate behavior. Sheesh.

Don't know how much longer I should stick with The Splendid Table, which is an absolutely stupendous cookbook, in case you were wondering. While there are several dozen more recipes I want to try, next week makes a natural stopping place. (Business trip.)

So, what next? Rachael Ray? Ina Garten? A Platter of Figs? Sourdough? If there's a cookbook one of you is liking  (or disliking) it would be fun to collaborate. I get lonely doing this all on my own.

The world is crumbling, I tell you

I've been thinking about adding a feature to this blog in which I periodically write about an item of truly reprehensible food that I can not quite banish from my otherwise wholesome diet. Coca-Cola when ill, Subway sandwiches, Golden Grahams, Juicy Fruit gum. 

Exhibit A was to be the Keebler cheese & peanut butter cracker. Although my mother espoused the dietary principles of a back-to-the-land hippie, she was strangely convinced that garish cheese-peanut butter crackers made an excellent and nutritious snack. Something to do with protein. I actually don't know what her rationale was and suspect she was wrong, but I developed a taste for these things early on. There was a period a few years back when I used to eat a packet of cheese-peanut butter crackers every afternoon, one of many crackpot diet stratagems -- three crackers at 1 p.m., three at 4 p.m. -- and they really were satisfying.

By now you all have heard the sorry news, that cheese-peanut butter crackers have been recalled due to possible salmonella contamination. Wouldn't it have been hilarious if I'd already written a little paean to the cheese-peanut butter cracker a day or two ago and then had to take it all back?

The idea that there could be salmonella in a package makes my skin crawl. I had assumed that food hermetically sealed in plastic was dead and sterile and therefore safe. (Yeah, that last sentence reflects a cockeyed attitude towards food but you know what I mean.) This is somehow worse than salmonella in a chicken, where you expect to encounter slime and pathogens and proceed accordingly. I handle raw poultry like a Grey's Anatomy character departing the O.R., using elbows to open doors and turn on faucets, then scrubbing my hands for seven minutes under scalding water and refusing to pick up the phone. All those precautions for a chicken and there's salmonella in mass market peanut butter. Wow.

Maybe in a few weeks my urge to write affectionate tributes to junk food will revive. By then cheese-peanut butter crackers will be fine again. Or as fine as anything that color ever really was to begin with.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Splendid Table: I am never cooking tuna again

Listen, I know tuna is expensive. I know it should be expensive. But who are the people I live and walk among who are buying ahi at $24.99/lb?

Ordinarily, Whole Foods has a cheaper tuna option. I tried this once and the fishmonger warned me it was not to be "seared" but cooked all the way through. I hate to think why, but that was the plan, so no problem. That was the plan again yesterday, except when I got to the fish counter there was only the fancy "searing-grade" ahi. Rather than change the menu (uh, rigid?) I bought it. From the moment I was handed that tiny piece of fish wrapped in brown paper, I felt like a sucker.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper's recipe for tuna Adriatic style is fine, a basic formula for a quick saute of fish with tomatoes, onions, and olives. The tuna, however, was awful, fishy in the bad way. A friend told me I could have soaked it in rice vinegar to take care of this problem, but should you really have to doctor such expensive seafood? It would be interesting to return to Whole Foods today and see if I could get my money back. But what if there's a scene, or even just an embarrassing exchange, and I can never shop there again?  

Here's the happy news. I also made Kasper's oven-roasted radicchio, for which I had the lowest of expectations. (I'm scraping the barrel, as we're coming to the end of the vegetable recipes in The Splendid Table.) You toss radicchio with olive oil, salt, and pepper, then roast for an hour, which magically turns a tough, bitter, and crimson vegetable into a crispy golden delicacy. The outer leaves acquire the papery texture of a wasp's nest while the cores become meltingly soft and the flavor is that of a fried artichoke. It was quite incredible and almost made up for the tuna fiasco.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Splendid Table: If I cooked this every night they would be happy

"I don't like this, Mama, I'm just eating it because I'm hungry," Owen told me at dinner.

Lovely. The child will not admit to liking something I cook even when he so clearly likes it. How did we come to this?
Everyone loved Lynne Rossetto Kasper's chicken cacciatora, a homey and tender braised bird with red peppers and tomatoes. Some polenta to soak up the juices would have been nice, but polenta. . . so much stirring and then there's the pot to scrub and my children do not eat polenta, which is crazy.

Here's a question: Reading at the dinner table. Do we allow it? Doesn't often come up around here, but last night Owen was engrossed in his latest MAD and sometimes at the end of the day peace seems to matter more than principle. Not exactly the Alice Waters vision of the family dinner, but at least there was no yelling.

Splendid Table: Espresso and Mascarpone Semi-freddo

What a hit!

I've almost exhausted all the foolproof rustic cakes and tarts in Lynne Rossetto Kasper's Splendid Table, so what to make for a sweet? I was essentially forced to tackle one of the trickier desserts. Because Mark loves anything coffee-flavored, I chose the espresso and mascarpone semi-freddo and when Justine threw a pizza-making birthday party for Michael last night, I contributed semi-freddo.

First of all, it turns out that semi-freddo (at least this one) isn't tricky at all. You make a simple coffee custard that you enrich with mascarpone, then lighten with Italian meringue. The whole operation takes about 20 minutes. Freeze, then thaw just a little before you serve. 

The resulting dessert was like nothing I've ever made before. Like an ambrosial ice cream that generates its own opulent sauce, the icy cold bits cloaked in a velvety cream. 

Worth the price of the book.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Club Waziema

As I wrote in my last post, Mark's aunt is visiting us from Fairbanks, where there is apparently a dearth of good Ethiopian food. Nancy's one culinary request while in town: To track down some injera. I know nothing about Ethiopian restaurants in San Francisco, but after a few minutes of online research discovered a fondly reviewed spot called Club Waziema

I stole that picture at left and I would like to steal another of the interior but can't find the right shot to capture the red velvet flocked wallpaper, the sparkly pebble dash ceiling, the slightly grimy, louche atmosphere of this bizarre and rather wonderful place. 

When we walked in, the jukebox was playing the Pogues (or something fast, Irish and Pogues-like) and the Ethiopian hostess seated us across from the bar, underneath a television set. There was a pool table in the back and Mark is always happy to be in an establishment with a pool table, even if he doesn't get to play. Nancy ordered white wine and I ordered a manhattan, which made me instantly festive and I began eavesdropping on the conversation of a nearby table where three chunky young women in small, rectangular glasses were earnestly discussing "sexuality." That's all I kept hearing: "sexuality." It's a kind of terrible word, no**? I realized that no one my age ever uses the term except in the rare nightmare scenario when a husband (or wife) discovers his (or her) true "sexuality." And even then the conversation is less about "sexuality" than the marital horror show.

We ordered two combination meals -- one vegetable, one meat -- that arrived on a single enormous round platter. We each got our own smaller plate upon which was neatly folded some sour, spongy injera for scooping. There were maybe ten little piles of mushy stew on the platter -- potatoes, lentils, collard greens, chicken. Mushy in a good way! Until. . . 

I happily popped what I thought was a chunk of potato into my mouth. It cracked between my teeth. I had bitten into the knobby end of a chicken drumstick.

Everyone is squeamish about something. I will cheerfully eat steak tartare, tuna heart, cheese-peanut butter crackers from a vending machine, liver. But chicken bones, particularly drumsticks, make my skin crawl. 

I spat the knob of drumstick out, and had to remove every last bit of bone from my mouth. I'm sure it was fun and appetizing for my companions to watch, but there are times when you just can't be ladylike. As it was too dark to know that I wasn't going to inadvertently pick up another bone, I stopped eating. But I don't hold it against Club Waziema! Most people are not freakishly repulsed by chicken bones. I want to go back, and next time will only order vegetables.

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: Terrified that I might be branded a prude, I feel compelled to explain that it is not the topic of "sexuality" that I resist, it is the icky word, which seems academic and euphemistic. Sometimes one or the other, often both. It seems to me that one is always talking about something more interesting and specific than "sexuality" when one talks about "sexuality" so why not be more interesting and specific?

Friday, January 09, 2009

Splendid Table: Artusi's Delight

I admit that I'm partial to the clean shave, but ponder for a moment all the creative opportunities lost with the disappearance of the mutton chop, the fu manchu, the walrus. Such lemmings we are.

Pictured above is Pellegrino Artusi, author of a legendary 19th-century Italian cookbook from which Lynne Rossetto Kasper borrowed the very fine meatball recipe I made last night. I always cook meatballs (and patties, which is technically what these are, but I love the word "meatball") too fast and they acquire a rough, dark crust. (It's a temperament problem.) But even with their unfortunate crust, Artusi's Delight were tender and rich inside -- full of pancetta, pine nuts, spices. Kasper suggests finishing them with a quick sauce of broth and balsamic vinegar, and so I did. The excellent dish was consumed with enthusiasm and pleasure by all.

On the side, I served Parma-style asparagus (blanched, sauteed, topped with Parmesan, pretty good) and  oven-roasted potatoes. which were too crispy to absorb the delicious Artusi's Delight gravy. Didn't strategize properly on the always-crucial food pairing.

Dessert: Nonna's jam tart, in which a sweet shortbread crust is filled with an exceedingly tangy apricot "jam" that you make with dried apricots and wine. 

My latticework could use some help. 

I used to wonder why all crusts weren't sweet. Why make a pie crust when you could make a cookie crust? With age comes wisdom, though apparently not to Nonna. I now understand that you (generally*) want a bland crust to serve as a noncompetitive foil to your filling. Nonna's crust was too delicious, and it was tempting to scrape off the distracting jam and eat only shortbread, which is precisely what some of us did.
This unusually grand meal was cooked in honor of Mark's aunt, Nancy Smoyer, who is visiting from Fairbanks, Alaska, making a quick stop on her way to Bolivia. 

Having spent a week in Fairbanks last February, I understand why she chose the southern hemisphere for her winter holiday. 

*Cookie crumb crusts work because they are usually paired with super-sweet, creamy fillings (chocolate, key lime.) But I have started wondering within the last few minutes if a graham cracker crust might not be amazing with a baked peach filling. Or apple. Much to think about. I might be wrong about all of this. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Avgolemono & Honey Cake

Still feeling peaked from the flu, I didn't have appetite or energy to cook from The Splendid Table last night. I'll be back on task shortly.

Instead, I made my favorite chicken soup, which is avgolemono, the recipe for which comes from Diane Kochilas's Food and Wine of Greece. I've made this soup a dozen times and hew to Kochilas's simple rules, though I add extra lemon juice. You poach a whole chicken for two hours, strain, discard bones, add meat back to broth along with a cup of rice and cook until the rice is tender. Add two eggs and the juice of 2 (or 3 or 4) lemons and whisk until creamy.
My mother never made this soup. In fact my mother never made chicken soup at all, unless it was Lipton's. Her restorative soup for the ailing was an unusual potato soup strongly flavored with olive oil that came from Guatemala by way of my Guatemalan grandmother. Now that I am typing this I realize I should do a post on that soup, and will. But where was I going with this? I was talking about avgolemono soup which I find extremely comforting, although I am not Greek. A cross between soup and porridge, full of rice and soft chicken, it is neither challenging nor spicy, but because of the lemon juice, never bland.

I also baked a honey cake, after craving cake all day long. The words "honey cake" are so beautiful I can't get banish the luscious image they call up, even though all the honey cakes I've eaten have been disappointing, tasting like slightly tough spice cakes.

This one -- from Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters -- smelled like honey as it was baking, and tasted powerfully of honey. Perhaps too powerfully. The recipe calls for "mild" honey but I only had amber-colored wildflower honey.  No shrinking violets, those wildflowers! Quite an amazing cake. I just had a small slice for lunch and have never tasted anything quite like it. I think I love it, but I'm trying to figure out how much.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Why Tipsy Baker is not Cooking

Books and experts all warn you that your life will change after you have children -- that you will sleep less, see fewer movies, lose your girlish figure, and so on.

But they never mention the stomach flu, for which small and medium-sized children serve as flypaper. Is this not worth even a footnote, Dr. Sears? That following the arrival of your dear little infant, roughly once a year for the indefinite future your happy home will become a vomitorium? 

We've all succumbed over the last few days, but Isabel was hit first and hardest and is lying on the sofa as I type. Last night she was languishing in bed and said she wanted a "happy" book. She requested Laurie Colwin's More Home Cooking, which, if you haven't read it, is one of the loveliest, happiest cookbooks ever written. 

While it might seem perverse to read a cookbook while recovering from stomach flu, it isn't really. The way you think about food changes in fascinating ways when you're nauseated, your aversions and cravings intensifying sharply and unpredictably. Yesterday, I found myself desperately craving pancakes, while Isabel, after reading Laurie C.,  is now craving biscuits topped with sliced nectarines. 

Poor kid.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Writing in Cookbooks

My mother used to inscribe brief, declarative comments in her cookbooks along the lines of "SUPER!!!" Or "NO." She used a pencil and has a naturally neat hand.

I thought this was just the coolest thing. I don't know why. Maybe because I fetishize books, especially cookbooks, and writing in them implied a more active, passionate relationship than what is usually available to the passive reader?

For thirty years, I have written in all my cookbooks. They are not "lightly used." They are trashed. About ten years ago, I considered desisting -- how would I, or my heirs, ever sell my growing collection if I had defaced all the books?

Well, there are many answers to that question. First of all, most of my cookbooks aren't worth much to anyone but me, and I don't write in my (few) valuable, antique volumes. And I think cookbooks are meant to be used. How would I ever remember what I thought of a dish unless I wrote it down? 

I can read my life story in these annotations.  From (picked at random) prim middle-school notations when I was trying to be just like my mother:

 to effusive, sloppy adulthood:

I'd be interested to hear how other people relate to their cookbooks. Do you keep them pristine on cookbook stands? Do you use them as cutting boards? Is writing in them a sacrilege?