Saturday, July 24, 2010

A couple that rarely dines out dines out

The other night we went to Commis, a popular restaurant that San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer called "a slick, minimalist stage for rising star chef James Syhabout." There was no sign on the restaurant and only when you looked closely at the storefront could you see people moving around inside the small, stark room.

Husband: "I file that under 'precious.'"

Tipsy: "I'm reserving judgment."

The deal was: $59 for three courses, with three selections for each course.


- cool eggplant soup
- new alliums
- zucchini tartare

(There was more detail about each dish, but I didn't memorize the menu.)

Husband: "For $59 I think they should give you more options."

Tipsy: "I'm getting the alliums."

Husband: "Which do I hate less, eggplant or zucchini?"

Tipsy: "Get the alliums!"

Husband: "You're getting the alliums."

Tipsy: "We can both get alliums."

Husband: "I don't even know what alliums are."

Tipsy: "They're like garlic, or onions, something like that. I'm not really sure. They'll be good."

Husband: "So pompous. They have to make up new names for everything."

Tipsy: "You know what? I'll get the zucchini."

Husband: "But you said you weren't going to get the zucchini."

Tipsy: "But you're right, we should get different things. I want the zucchini."

I didn't want the zucchini, but wanted cool eggplant soup less.

"Here's an amuse bouche for you tonight," said the waiter, and set some bowls on the table. Husband gave me a look. I looked back. Yes, it's a twitty term, but what else are you supposed to call it? In any case, it was dazzling: a soft-boiled egg yolk swathed in an opulent, lukewarm onion puree, the whole thing designed to look like a perfect fried egg. It was even more delicious than it was beautiful and it was exceedingly beautiful.

Husband: "I think that dish would be better without the egg yolk which obscures the good tasting stuff underneath."

Tipsy: "You are entitled to your wrong opinion."

Then the alliums came, accompanied by multiple garnishes including some raw tuna that was more luscious and fantastically delicious than any sashimi we'd ever tasted. Bauer describes a similar tuna he sampled at Commis as "so finely chopped it practically melted like snow."

The zucchini had been thinly shaved into ribbons, rolled into coils and plated with chunky porcini mushrooms and assorted vegetables. I gave it 2 Weight Watchers points, which, aside from the mushrooms, was the only great thing about the dish.

My entree: "slow-cooked" Duroc pork, both loin and belly, which arrived in a painterly ensemble with cauliflower foam, new potatoes, and tiny halved turnips. The pork may have been cooked sous vide, as it was suspiciously tidy, tender, and intensely flavored. I have never made pork that delicious. Husband ordered quail, which was tasty, but scant, and came with beets.

Husband: "What I don't understand is why they whipped up your cauliflower but they had to give me plain beets. You're not supposed to eat these things plain unless you're some kind of a farm animal."

Before dessert the waiter brought shot glasses containing rose geranium-blueberry soda and even my husband couldn't think of anything withering to say about the lovely drink.

For dessert, he ordered chocolate brioche and I ordered peach cream. Again, lots of stuff happening on the plates: purees, ovals of sorbet, chunks of fruit, cake, foam. The best garnish of all were some roasted strawberries, which were meaty and fragrant. Roasted strawberries have so much more character than virginal uncooked strawberries and would make an amazing ice cream. Maybe I'll try making it one day.

The check appeared along with two petite, bright green absinthe gelees -- tender cube-shaped confections that tasted like licorice.

Husband: "They're like off-flavored gum drops."

So I ate his.

The dinner was expensive and we probably won't go back, but I felt we got our money's worth.I can cook Chez Panisse food. I can cook Big Sur Bakery food. I can braise short ribs, mash potatoes, make a goat cheese salad and bake a rustic peach crisp. But I can't make foam or nest coddled egg yolks in bowls of puree or assemble multi-part desserts and follow up with absinthe gelees. I enjoyed the kitchen wizardry and my husband got to exercise his caustic man-of-the-people schtick.

We ambled into the night.

Husband: "That was fun."

Tipsy: "Yes, that was really fun."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Id and superego saw Eclipse and guess what? They disagreed.

If Betty MacDonald had seen Eclipse she might have said nicer things about the Native Americans of Washington State.

I walked out of the theater yesterday, called Isabel and told her how much I enjoyed Eclipse. She replied, "Didn't you think it was STUPID?"

I was so proud of her! I said, "Of course it was stupid, but I also loved it." I wanted to tell her that if she were in Bella's shoes I would twist Edward's pale undead head off with my very own hands and insist she get with the werewolf. But it didn't seem appropriate. Time magazine's excellent review -- Mary Pols calls Edward a "maiden"-- says everything I want to say about this berserk movie, but says it better.

One of my favorite bloggers, Kacy Faulconer, recently exhorted sheepish Twilight fans to stand up for themselves. "If you like it, you think it's good, right? I mean, if you think it's dumb then why do you like it?. . .You don't get to love it and be above it at the same time."

I hate to disagree with Kacy, but you totally do! Ambivalence may be the only appropriate response when confronted with a "work" such as Eclipse. While I was scoffing at this movie (man, this is dumb -- the wooden dialogue? the army of glowy-eyed vampires marching out of the water? Jacob never puts on a shirt?) I was also loving it (those vampires marching out of the water! Jacob never puts on a shirt!) Above it and also loved it, which is how I feel about Kenny Rogers, Grey's Anatomy, and Jell-O instant vanilla pudding.

I didn't cook anything yesterday except a grilled cheese sandwich. Tonight we are going to a special (we hope) dinner here. What I am not ordering: zucchini tartare.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Me and The Egg and I

It would be impossible for me to exaggerate how much I love this book. My 1946 library copy had to be retrieved from "in storage" by the librarian, which is a shame. How does anyone ever find a book that's "in storage" if they're not actively looking? This book is worth actively looking for. Don't be deceived by the dated and saccharine jacket photo: Betty MacDonald's autobiography is as vivid and tart and edgy as anything I've ever read.

MacDonald is probably best known today as the author of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series for children. But she was more famous once upon a time for this best-selling memoir about the early years of her first marriage, when she and her husband Bob moved to a chicken ranch in the mountains of rural coastal Washington, miles from their nearest neighbors -- who happened to be Ma and Pa Kettle. Yes, that Ma and Pa Kettle. Here's MacDonald's description of her initial visit to the Kettle home:

"Mrs. Kettle, a mountainously fat woman in a very dirty housedress, waddled to the corner of the porch and called cordially 'Come in, come in, glad to see you!' but as I drew timidly abreast of the porch my nostrils were dealt such a stinging blow by the outhouse lurking doorless and unlovely directly across from it that I almost staggered. Apparently used to the outhouse, Mrs. Kettle kicked me a little path through the dog bones and chicken manure on the back porch and said, "We was wonderin' how long afore you'd git lonesome and com down to see us," then ushered me into the kitchen, which was enormous, cluttered and smelled deliciously of fresh bread and hot coffee."

While that's not the most generous or flattering description (see criticisms of MacDonald below), she develops genuine affection for the Kettles and her portrait of the couple is, I thought, curiously sweet. She has little use for her other neighbors, however, even less use for the chickens, and, one begins to suspect, no use at all for Bob. I make her sound sour and negative, which she isn't. She's smart and funny and outward-looking and has such a genius for describing scenery and people that it came as a surprise when I realized she is also writing about loneliness and a deeply unhappy marriage. The book is breezy and full of "high humor," but it is also quietly sad.

I was so taken with The Egg and I that I went and read all sorts of background material. It turns out that not everyone loves The Egg and I.

Two lines of dissent:

1. Some readers think MacDonald is a snob. They are absolutely correct. She thinks she's smarter than the Kettles and every other bumpkin she meets, and you know what? I'm pretty sure she was. I can see why some readers are annoyed, but her attitude did not bother me. I give her a pass on this one.

2. Some readers think MacDonald is a racist. Sadly, her depictions of Indians are indeed hideous and boil down to: dirty, drunk, shiftless. She was narrow and unsympathetic and stubborn in her prejudices and though she doesn't write much about Native Americans, when she does it will make you flinch. There was one passage that almost made me put down the book.

That said, it's not fair to judge her by contemporary standards. People of her generation did not reflexively try to understand the social and historical factors that might lead to, say, an epidemic of alcoholism among Native Americans. They did not refrain from making racial generalizations. If MacDonald's ethnic biases are going to drive you crazy, which they might, you should definitely skip chapter 16.

Other than that, it's a great book. The Egg and I: A-.

Thanks to the two people who missed me enough to write comments. I am touched. My children have been in New England forever and they will be in New England for weeks yet to come. While at first it was restful, I am now bereft. I will try to dredge up material to write about because losing my children AND my blogging rhythm is just too much to bear.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Even worse food styling than usual

This is how I eat when my family is not around. 

This is how I drink when my family is not around: not at all. Last night I opened a bottle of beer, drank a few sips, realized I didn't want it, and poured it into the cyclamen. Who wants a foggy head when you get to spend the evening on the sofa in a TOTALLY SILENT HOUSE watching In Treatment DVDs, one after the other, until you realize you loathe every single character, most especially Melissa George and Embeth Davidtz? No one. Bliss. I would have made a great spinster.
But without my family, I've had no one to cook for, no one to inspire and aggravate me into writing my blog, hence the inactivity.

My children and husband are on the New England seashore eating lobster rolls and french fries. They sent me a picture:
He comes back tonight, but the children will stay for a month with their grandparents and cousins, an annual tradition they look forward to for the other 11 months of the year. As do I -- almost as eagerly as I start looking forward to their return a week or so after leave. I won't be cooking much from Stir until they get back, though I did make Barbara Lynch's citrus cured salmon, which is rich beyond belief. More on that irresistible, sickening salmon later.

In other news, here's my review of Allegra Goodman's new novel The Cookbook Collector which wasn't really about collecting cookbooks. I was sorry about that. While I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I also completely agree with this amusing review by a critic who didn't. 

Friday, July 02, 2010

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Do you think I could stretch it into a novel?

 I like to manage expectations. Below you will find an uneventful First World slice-of-life story with no sex, no violence, no dialogue, and one character. 

Once upon a time, there was a woman who had been cooking a lot of fantastic stuff out of Barbara Lynch's superb book Stir for her family. Specifically:

-torn pasta with shrimp polpettini. (See above.) This involved cutting homemade pasta into odd, raggedy shapes, cooking them, then combining with a sumptuous sauce of white beans and poached shrimp dumplings. You can not imagine a more breathtaking pasta -- and it would work almost as well without the shrimp.

-fresh pasta with green beans and potatoes. Exactly what it sounds like and quite tasty. However, the woman and her daughter agreed that pesto made with Lynch's formula had too much bite. 

-pasta envelopes stuffed with Epoisses cheese and tossed with a sauce of celery and apple. This dish was both labor-intensive and expensive, as Epoisses cheese, rich and stinky, costs $26 for a 9-ounce round. The woman's daughter and husband thought the cheese was too stinky. The woman thought the cheese was delicious, but that her unsightly homemade Taleggio was just as rich and stinky and delicious, and cost a lot less. How much less, she did not compute. 

-risotto with aged gouda. A porridgy crowd pleaser.

-yogurt panna cotta. A puddingy crowd pleaser.
The woman wrote a cookbook review blog and she took her unpaid work seriously. She kept meaning to post about each dish as she cooked it, but this was an altogether frantic, anxious time. She had some intense paid work projects to complete, was worrying about settling her recently deceased mother's estate, and got up very day at 5 a.m. to bottle feed warm milk to baby goats. The goats had never once said thank-you. She was also driving children to and from various camps and lessons almost hourly, which made her a 21st century parenting clichee. Sometimes her daughter said thank-you.
Whatever. Boring. Everyone was busy. It was the fashion.
One day, in between chauffeuring her children to enriching activities, the woman ran a tedious errand in San Rafael and spotted a cafe she'd heard about called Brazil Marin. In this small ethnic supermarket/diner, a couple of slouchy men were watching the Brazil-Chile game on TV. The woman decided to stop; she never stopped. At the counter, she ordered a "cheese bread" and served herself some stew, rice, and beans from the steam table buffet. On top of it all she sprinkled manioc and vinegary salsa. Then she took the plate outside to eat in the sun and read her novel.*
The cheese bread was so delicious it almost made her faint: pale and crusty on the outside, borderline glutinous on the inside, chewy, super-cheesy. She started trying to figure out how to make it at home and then thought: Why? Like she needed more chores? She stopped trying to figure out how to make Brazilian cheese bread at home.
Then she began eating the beans and rice and stew. Objectively speaking, none of it was as "good" as the pastas she'd recently made from Barbara Lynch. Still. It was so overwhelmingly pleasant to be sitting in the sun, eating homey food that someone else had cooked, that, to her complete surprise and bemusement, the woman burst into tears. She cried off and on for the rest of the day. Then she was okay.

The End.

Questions for discussion: What did eating rice, beans, and stew mean for this character? Was it about missing her "recently deceased" mother? Or was she simply feeding too much without getting fed? Is that a problem for women in our culture? Would the story have been more exciting if the woman had flirted with one of the Brazilian men watching soccer instead of buying lunch? Do we really believe the cheese bread "almost made her faint?" Discuss.

In other news, Isabel and I made a light, nearly perfect cupcake, using many of your suggestions: oil, cake flour, yogurt.
The cupcake has a macaroon-like top crust that is actually very tasty, but not technically ideal. Still, this is close! Research continues. Thank-you.

*Amy & Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout. Whew. Strong stuff. The Epoisses cheese of Elizabeth Strout novels. Recommend!