Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Blood oranges are her passion

Before serving you add whipped cream and chopped almonds.
On Monday my father emailed from a flight to Los Angeles to tell me that, according to Sky magazine, Suzanne Goin’s favorite ingredient right now is blood oranges. That my father reads in-flight magazines is more surprising to me than Goin’s fondness for blood oranges.

Because what ingredient doesn’t Suzanne Goin love? 

From The A.O.C. Cookbook

“I have a very emotional and seasonal attachment to kumquats.”

"This time of year I cannot get enough kabocha squash.”

“I can’t remember where and when I first came across farro all those years back, but it was a life-changing moment for me.” 

“I just cannot, in good conscience, let spring go by without making fave been puree.”

“Broccoli, broccoli, how do I love thee?”

“Pomegranate seeds are the jewels of fall, and I just can’t help spooning them over everything in celebration of cooler, shorter days. . .”

Massed together like that her effusions sound silly, but woven into this big, exuberant book they are charming and infectious. Her headnotes are a delight, long and generous and full of personal stories that always somehow circle back to the beloved ingredient at hand, whether it's the morel mushrooms that remind her of a trip to France with her late father, or fresh English peas that inspire a little tale about hating Birds Eye frozen peas as a kid, trying one straight out of the freezer, and thereafter always eating her peas frozen. Suzanne Goin is great, chatty company in the kitchen.

I’ve been moving steadily through the easy recipes in The A.O.C. Cookbook. “Everyone, including me, loves a chopped salad,” Goin writes in the introduction to her recipe for the dish. I don't know about everyone, but I sure loved this particular chopped salad. It looks like a giant bowl of confetti and contains enough romaine, endive, apple, blue cheese, walnuts, and bacon that I couldn’t even taste the offensive radicchio. It took about 20 minutes to make and the leftovers keep for a couple of days without going soggy. (By day three the salad has definitely begun its decline.) The recipe is here and while it's not exactly the same as the version in the book, it's close enough.

Goin’s crushed fingerling potatoes with creme fraiche and chives are also lovely. You boil little potatoes, drain, smash them  against the side of the pot, roughly mash with butter and salt, then top with cool creme fraiche. As Goin writes, “This is one of those go-to recipes you just want to have in your repertoire." I agree. 
I wish I could blame this on the drought.
Her long-cooked cavolo nero is also very, very good. I used collard greens which cost half as much as kale on Sunday at Whole Foods. Kale price creep. Grrr. The recipe is yet another variation on the blanch-then-cook-in-olive-oil formula for dark, leafy greens. You can find it here.

But Goin isn't only enthusiastic about produce, she also appreciates junk food like Foster’s Freeze “magic shell."  Her vanilla pot de creme with dulce de leche involves a scoop of dulce de leche (made this way) that you place on the bottom of your ramekin and then top with super-rich vanilla custard, a layer of homemade magic shell, whipped cream, and chopped Marcona almonds. This dessert was fabulous, though the chocolate "magic shell" as made by me could not be broken with a spoon.

I’ve now cooked six A.O.C. recipes and will try a few more because I like this book a lot. My new rule for approaching a cookbook is: at least five recipes, then see how I feel.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Some conflict, some cooking

These are the good old days, but those were just a little bit better.
I’m not saying this has ever happened in our household, but it must be bracing to start the day with a high decibel fight with your teenaged son during which you threaten to take away all his privileges forever and do so at the top of your lungs, to which he responds by threatening to throw the nice baguette and brie sandwich you just made for his lunch across the room and you can actually see the realization flicker in his eyes that this is the suburban kid’s version of cutting off the nose to spite the face and so he just smacks the sandwich back on the counter really, really hard and storms off to feed the goats.

And I’m guessing that if you’ve had such a morning you might later feel contrite about the yelling, even though you were 100% in the right, because you remember your own mother yelling before you headed off to be lonely and awkward all day at middle school, and even though you’d actively provoked the yelling and she was 100% in the right, it made you feel bleak and terrible, so you decide you’ll go pick the teenager up from school instead of making him trudge home up the hill and you’ll take him to Woody’s for frozen custard where he’ll needle you the whole time about your bad temper and be semi-intentionally irritating in every way he can think of, but you’ll still feel better because at least you’ve reached out with that olive branch, even if all he does is use it later to tease the cat while refusing to practice trombone which will make you want to . . . 

There’s a handful of easy recipes in The A.O.C. Cookbook by Suzanne Goin and I believe I’ve now flagged them all. It appears I’d rather spend an hour identifying and sticking purple Post-it notes on easy recipes than actually cooking. 

The lamb meatballs in spiced tomato sauce is one of those easy recipes. It’s also a really lovely dish -- the meatballs are tender and perfectly spiced and I can’t think of a single criticism. It might be perfect.

The recipe isn’t online and it’s not mine to share, but in brief: ground lamb mixed with cumin, cinnamon, salt, chopped onion, Aleppo pepper, egg yolks, cream, breadcrumbs, parsley. You don’t have to pre-fry the onions or anything annoying like that and Goin tells you exactly how much salt to use, which saves you the trouble of cooking little sample meatballs to figure it out. You brown the meatballs in a skillet, place them in a shallow casserole, cover with a simple tomato sauce, and bake. Top with fresh mint and feta. You can eat these on their own, but I served them with overcooked whole wheat macaroni. Bread, properly cooked pasta, couscous, or rice would also work. It’s one of those solidly great recipes that makes you trust a cookbook and want to explore it further.

Unfortunately, I subsequently made the mistake of opening Goin’s first book, Sunday Suppers at Lucques. A.O.C. contains some intriguing recipes, but Lucques is a barn burner. Page after page of dishes -- Portuguese pork, chorizo and clams; grilled skirt steak with artichoke-potato hash; hazelnut brown butter cake; caramel nut tart; a date milkshake -- that made me want to quit A.O.C. immediately and start cooking from Lucques.

Forbidden, though. One book at a time.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


The galley isn't a thing of beauty, but the hardcover book is a knockout.
Some facts about Suzanne Goin, author of The A.O.C. Cookbook: She was born in Los Angeles, graduated from Brown, worked at Al Forno and Chez Panisse, and opened the restaurant Lucques in West Hollywood in 1998. The Lucques bar was so lively and popular that in 2002 she opened A.O.C. to “recreate that energy." This second restaurant serves wines by the glass and a menu of Mediterranean small plates. Her business partner, Caroline Styne, writes that  A.O.C. is all about “noncommittal” eating.

In a 2013 review of A.O.C., here's how Jonathan Gold describes Goin's cooking style: 

strong flavors, puddles of broth and extremely seasonal produce; slivers of lemon peel where other chefs tend to use zest; lots of olives, fennel, thyme, chiles and other hints of the Provencal palette even when the dish in question comes from elsewhere. 

Goin, who is in her forties, is married to a man whom she describes as “salty” and they have three children. I think she's a dead ringer for the actress Genevieve Bujold.

That's Goin. Now to the cookbook.

Of The A.O.C. Cookbook Goin writes, “This is not the easiest cookbook you will ever use.” Spend a few minutes flipping through its pages, and you'll agree. Almost every recipe is for a compound dish, as in: black bass with fennel puree, winter citrus, and green olives in green harissa

Or consider her recipe for s’mores

1 recipe graham crackers (recipe follows) 
1 recipe bittersweet chocolate ganache (recipe follows)
1 recipe marshmallows (recipe follows)
1 recipe caramel popcorn (recipe follows)
1 recipe  chocolate sorbet (recipe follows)

But you can’t fault her for any of this when she’s been so clear from the outset. A.O.C. is a sophisticated restaurant and she’s giving us recipes for sophisticated restaurant dishes that take time and effort to recreate and if that’s not what you’re up for, well, you’ve been warned. 

I’m up for it, but as usual, I went straight for the lowest hanging fruit: balsamic glazed brussels sprouts. You cook whole sprouts in oil and butter, add chopped pancetta, cook some more, add garlic and shallots, cook some more, add balsamic and veal stock, cook some more. Serve. 

Veal stock. I don’t do it. I substituted vegetable stock and it worked fine.

Not so fine was the balsamic vinegar. Goin doesn’t specify what type to use and I only had a fancy, superthick California balsamic, the kind you’re supposed to apply by the droplet to strawberries and aged ribeye steak. Heavy, rich, and sweet, it threatened to overwhelm the poor little sprouts. Did I choose the wrong vinegar? Possibly. Did I fail to reduce the glaze sufficiently? Possibly. Was the dish tasty nonetheless? Yes. Mark ate one sprout and Owen ate none, so it appears that Isabel and I ate almost the entire pound.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The wrap on Roy Choi

camera-shy teenagers with ramen -- arguably worse than no image at all
In the final chapters of his memoir/cookbook, L.A. Son, Roy Choi attends culinary school, works at some high-end restaurants, gets fired, hits professional bottom, and rises from the ashes with his now-famous Korean bbq taco trucks. He ends the book at this pivotal moment when everything comes together in his cooking, career, and life. It’s a great finish. I wanted to know more about Kogi, but to go beyond its founding would have ruined the arc of Choi's story. 

I don’t think Choi seriously intended for people to make his perfect instant ramen. I think he threw the recipe into the book as a statement about who he is: a guy's guy who can make a mean beurre blanc, but also appreciates the crassest junk food. 

I had to try this ramen. Too easy, too cheap, too intriguing. And sometimes you just have to call a cookbook writer's bluff.

Here’s how you make Choi’s ramen: prepare instant ramen, complete with the flavor packet, and when it’s almost done drop an egg into the broth to poach. A minute or so later, pour everything into a bowl -- gently, so the egg yolk doesn't break. Top with roasted sesame seeds, a tiny piece of butter, and two slices of American cheese.

Yum? The cheese and egg provided a rich foil to the noodles, an improvement on plain, starchy ramen. Once those noodles were gone, though, it was another story. Gazing into that disturbingly creamy bowl of broth I realized that the very thought of hot water mixed with flavor powder, melted American cheese, butter, and egg yolk has a place at the top of my personal gross-out list. Just typing that last sentence turned my stomach. The broth didn’t taste bad at all, but after one bite I had to stop.

The other humans who were fed this ramen -- Mark, Owen, and Owen’s friend Max -- were also unsettled by it. No one actively disliked it, but no one could finish. I think this must be one of those dishes Choi favored during his heavy drinking days. A unique dining experience and good fun. Not to be repeated.

I didn't get around to Choi's Pillsbury biscuit donuts, so the ramen marks the end of my run with L.A. Son. I ended up making nine dishes from the book, not five, and the stars were the broccoli rabe and kimchi brussels sprouts. I had a good time with Roy Choi and loved his story. The recipes? Mixed bag. My overall feeling about L.A. Son: Yes. 

I hoped to cook next from Momofuku by David Chang, another rule-breaking, trendsetting Korean-American chef.  But there are only a handful of dishes I can make from that book without special ordering ingredients and visiting a Korean grocery. That's not going to happen in the next few days, so until it does I'll be cooking from The AOC Cookbook by Suzanne Goin. Like Roy Choi, she's an esteemed Los Angeles chef -- but one with a very different voice and cooking style.

Friday, January 17, 2014

I wonder if Roy Choi's dad ever washed his mouth out with soap

Her hard work deserves our respect, Roy.
I’ve now read about how Roy Choi became a low-rider, scrounged pizza crusts from trash cans on Hollywood Boulevard, and spent a week smoking crack in New York City. I’ve read about his gambling addiction, how he stole from his parents, endured crappy service at Campanile, drank, got in fights, almost died in fights, and was reborn one day while watching Emeril on TV. Where I left off he's about to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America. He’s crazy as hell and L.A. Son is a crazy engrossing book. I recommend it.

I have qualms about the recipes, however. To start with, the selection is bizarre. I don’t want recipes for French onion soup, creme brulee, cobb salad, or pancakes from Roy Choi. Why would I? Why would anyone? He appears to have slotted innocuous mainstream recipes in there as a backdrop to stories from his past and most of them have no interesting twist or Choi touch to recommend them.

Then he goes and issues ridiculous instructions like calling for 1 1/2 eggs in those pancakes. He wants you halve an egg! In pancakes! The world is full of excellent pancake recipes that don’t require mixing an egg in a little bowl and throwing half of it away. I made the pancakes just to see what was up with that halved egg. Nothing was up. The pancakes were not special in any way. Do you know what fits of profanity this idiocy would elicit if I had the mouth of Roy Choi?

My father did wash my mouth out with soap when I was a kid. I said, "God damn you!" to my sister and was scraping flakes of soap out of my back teeth for the rest of the day.

Choi's pork and bean recipe -- an homage to the canned beans of his youth -- calls for pork belly and three tamarind pods. First of all, pork belly. You can’t just walk into any supermarket and buy it, you have to call around or find an Asian grocery. When you do get your hands on the pork belly, Choi's recipe doesn't do it any favors, rendering the cut gray and fatty. I would have preferred pork shoulder or no pork at all. To get the tamarind pods I had to make a special trip to a Latin market and that would have been fine with me if the tamarind pods had made the beans sing. They didn’t. The beans, like the pancakes, were totally undistinguished.

I made Choi’s chicken piccata because commenter Melvil Dewey, whose opinion I respect, mentioned that it was delicious, the sauce in particular. It was delicious, that sauce. But better than other chicken piccatas?  

What I want from Choi’s book are recipes for the kind of dishes he sells off his Kogi trucks, food that is alive and spicy and exciting, drawing from different traditions and recombining flavors to create something new and delicious.

Alongside the chicken piccata I served brussels sprouts with kimchi and they were terrific. You cook the sprouts quickly in oil then add minced kimchi and finish with butter, French-style. Sprouts + kimchi + butter = unexpected and really good.

I also made Choi’s kimchi and pork belly stuffed pupusas and they were a hit. That pork belly in its brick-red sauce of chili paste, pear, lime juice, and sesame oil had incredible flavor. I kept snacking on it as I was making the pupusas and realized I was far less interested in the food itself, than the flavor, if that makes sense. Such rich, strong, complex, amazing flavor.  

Ok, so I had a little trouble with the pupusa stuffing. Not easy and Choi's directions are vague. I think this is what you’re aiming for, but the only way I could get my pupusas to work was to pat out two thick tortillas, place some filling in the middle of one, top with the other, and try to seal. I would have much preferred Choi include pupusa-making diagrams in his book than the boilerplate recipe for a club sandwich. Or a caesar salad. Or pecan pie. 

I'll finish L.A. Son today and cook one last Roy Choi meal tonight. Owen is having a friend over and I'm "tackling" Choi's ramen with American cheese, followed by his donuts made from Pillsbury biscuit dough. I think I have the perfect audience for this finale.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Man, I thought it was spelt "homey," that's how uncool I am

In case you don’t know already,  Roy Choi -- author of L.A. Son, the book I’m cooking from for the next few posts -- is the founder of the Kogi Korean BBQ taco trucks in Los Angeles. He’s all about profanity, pork belly and big, loud flavors, be they Korean, American, Mexican, Salvadoran (e.g. kimchi and pork belly pupusas), whatever. I’m about 50 pages into his cookbook/memoir and the narrative has all the pungent vitality that Cowgirl Creamery Cooks lacks. The Cowgirls sanitized their personal stories. When Choi’s narrative slumps for even one second he throws in a “mothafucka” or some Korean ladies sitting around stuffing dumplings and uttering lines like: "That ho been tricking for a long time and now she finally got a sugar daddy and thinks she's all that." 

But things don’t often slow down. Here’s what’s happened so far: Choi was born in 1970 in Seoul with a cleft palate (successfully repaired) and two years later his parents moved with him to Los Angeles where they opened a liquor store, closed a liquor store, sold jewelry, worked in a wig shop, drank, smoked, smacked him around, opened a restaurant, watched the restaurant fail, and restarted their jewelry business. Choi’s hero is Fonzie and where I let off he’s maybe ten. 

Rip-roaring story. Fifty-fifty on the recipes so far.

On Sunday, I made Choi’s chili spaghetti. According to his headnote, the dish was inspired by the meals he used to eat at Bob’s Big Boy with his parents on nights when they all went to to the movies. Choi: “My parents took me to some raw-ass movies: The Deer Hunter, The Exorcist, Dog Day Afternoon. Man, I was only five years old, homie!” 

You get the flavor of Choi’s prose. 

The flavor of the chili -- ground beef spiked with cumin, crushed pineapple, two cans of tomato paste, and four iterations of hot pepper -- was superspicy. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great, I wouldn’t make it again. 

But Choi’s broccoli rabe was so simple and amazing that I’ve made it twice in two days. Don’t stop reading if you think broccoli rabe is bitter! So do I, and this broccoli rabe wasn’t bitter. Maybe it was the particular bunch of broccoli rabe or maybe it was something magical about the recipe. Hopefully the latter. I didn’t serve it to my family (duh), but made it for myself for breakfast one morning and today again for lunch and it’s my ideal solitary meal: healthy, delicious, easy. Listed in order of how important those qualities are in my head, in reverse order of how important they are in my life.

I haven’t just adapted the recipe, but memorized it. Choi squeezes lemon all over his broccoli rabe but I forgot both times and it’s still fabulous. Try this.

1 pound broccoli rabe
1 tablespoon (or more to taste) olive oil
red pepper flakes 
1 cup ricotta

  1. Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil. While you're waiting for it to boil, fill a bowl with ice water and place in the sink. Cut off any particularly gnarly stems from the broccoli rabe. When the salted water is boiling, drop in your broccoli rabe and set a timer for 3 minutes.
  2. After 3 minutes, remove the broccoli rabe from the boiling water and put it into the ice water to stop the cooking. Drain. Pat dry. You can now proceed with the dish, or put the boiled greens in the fridge and save them for later. Or, like me, you can cook some of them now and some of them later.
  3. Pour the oil in a skillet and heat. When it’s really hot, add the broccoli rabe and pepper flakes. Cook the greens until they start to get dark in spots. With the back of a spatula, press them into the pan. You want them as hot and oily as you can manage. Salt to taste.
  4. Put on a plate and scoop some ricotta on top or on the side.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Struggling to be a decent person, chapter MMCCXLV

That's persimmon, not bell pepper.
What I learned from the winter salad greens with persimmon vinaigrette and Mt. Tam from Cowgirl Creamery Cooks is just how much better Fuyu persimmon is when diced very small before it's tossed in a salad. I’ve added persimmon to salad in bigger pieces, but tiny is the way to go. The little cubes are crunchy and bursting with sugary juice -- the pomegranate seed effect, but without the irritating seeds. That's all I learned from this salad. I think the purpose of most salad recipes is not to be original, but to get you to make salads. 

The Cowgirls’ cottage cheese pancakes recipe planted in my mind (accurately or not) an image of light, fluffy, cheesecakey pancakes and I planned to make them on Friday morning. But when I went upstairs to cook them I discovered Mark had eaten the cottage cheese that I had been saving for this purpose. It's a special person who can easily resist lemon pie, apple cake, bourbon cocktails, sugar cookies, gumbo, peanut butter cookies, creme brulee, clam pizza, French onion soup, Dungeness crab, and 1,022 other renowned delicacies, but is helpless before a carton of Clover cottage cheese. That’s my man. He’s always been a fool for cottage cheese and in the past I’ve found it endearing but at 6 a.m. on Friday morning I was intensely irritated because I wanted cottage cheese pancakes.

You can yell at your mate for unwittingly eating up all your earmarked cottage cheese, but it’s sort of lousy p.r. for your personality. I was so mad about the stupid cottage cheese that it took an act of will to gently close the refrigerator and stomp back downstairs to fume in the solitude of our bedroom where only God and I were witness to my rottenness. My thoughts went something like this: That was MY cottage cheese/JFC I’m selfish/but I really wanted those pancakes/What a spectacularly petty person I am/why couldn’t he have asked if I had plans for the cottage cheese?/all those people who haven’t liked me over the last 47 years? Onto something. 

After about 20 minutes the fever broke and I was so glad I’d chosen the route of solitary fuming because I don’t actually begrudge Mark a bowl of cottage cheese and in the fulness of the morning decided to buy cottage cheese on a regular basis because it’s such an easy way to make him happy. Pettiness and selfishness only become definitive statements about who you are when you succumb to their power. They’re feelings, they quickly pass, and you should lock yourself in a room until they do. I wish I could tattoo this on my brain.

Later that day, I made the Cowgirls’ creme fraiche, lemon and ginger granita. I’d never before made granita and it was probably a mistake to start with a cream-based version because it wasn’t icy, pure, and crunchy like I imagined granita.  It was more like an undistinguished lemon ice cream with a chalky texture.

That’s a wrap on five recipes from Cowgirl Creamery Cooks. I wanted to finish this post with an eloquent summary review of the book, but don’t have the steam tonight. Tomorrow. Meanwhile, on the stove bubbles the chili for chili spaghetti from Roy Choi’s L.A. Son, the next book on the list.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

There's many a slip

cottage cheese factory
As I was reading the Cowgirl Creamery Cooks recipe for cottage cheese dumplings in parmesan broth yesterday afternoon I thought, “I sure hope these don't turn out to be fragile dumplings that disintegrate when you slide them into simmering broth.”

As I was mixing the batter for cottage cheese dumplings a few hours later I thought, “This sure looks damp, like it’s going to make fragile dumplings that disintegrate when you slide them into simmering broth.”

Not long after that I watched a fragile test dumpling disintegrate in simmering broth.

So I took a big scoop of flour and mixed it into the wet dumpling batter to made stiff dumplings that held together in simmering broth and we ate a soup that was, to quote Mark, “Pretty unsatisfying and insipid.”

As cooked by me from the Cowgirls' book the dish flopped, but I should point out that it is much adored by patrons of their Sidekick cafe

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Fromage blanc: oui ou non?

Thanks, public domain.
I should mention here that thirteen years ago I interviewed Sue Conley and Peggy Smith (the Cowgirls) for a story I wrote to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of Chez Panisse and celebrate its legacy. It was a miserable story to report because Alice Waters was icy and her assistant an unspeakable expletive and although I believe Waters has been a powerful force for good in the world, I can’t see a picture of her without rolling my eyes.

But you know who was great? Sue Conley. Peggy Smith wasn’t not-great, but she told me a few stories about Chez Panisse and then had to go somewhere. Conley, though, sat and talked to me on a patch of grass by the old Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market and patiently explained how the flavors of milk change seasonally if you buy from small, local dairies like Straus in Marin County. Because they let their cows graze on wild pasture, the milk is grassy one month, floral the next. Big producers, on the other hand, feed their cattle a bland diet to ensure the product always tastes the same. She convinced me to start buying Straus milk which I have done sporadically (it’s expensive) ever since. It’s beautiful milk, unhomogenized so the cream rises to the top, and it comes in bottles that you send back to be re-used, which is more efficient than recycling plastic. Also, organic, local, better for the cows, etc. 

Yesterday I read the milk section of Cowgirl Creamery Cooks and remembered that pleasant conversation because the book lays out the facts in pretty much the way Conley did back in 2001. If you read it you’ll understand why a person might pay extra for milk from producers like Straus. I need to get Mark to read it.

I made recipe #2 from Cowgirl Creamery Cooks last night: Kate’s grilley: stilton and cheshire on walnut bread. “Grilley” is what the Cowgirls’ former colleague, an Englishwoman, called a grilled cheese sandwich. I hope it doesn’t catch on. To make this sandwich you combine fromage blanc, crumbled Stilton, and grated fontina (or another cheese of similar texture) in a bowl, spread the mixture on walnut bread, and cook in skillet. 

Everyone in the family liked these sandwiches except me. The cheese did not so much melt as liquefy and it was everywhere and nowhere at once. It lost all body and seeped into the bread and onto the frying pan and while you could smell it and taste it, you couldn’t find it. Do you know what I mean? Has this ever happened to you with super-soft cheeses? Is this how the sandwiches are supposed to be? Did I do something wrong? I don’t know. No one else minded. What they minded was the walnut bread. That was the only part I liked. 

But here’s my question: Is calling for fromage blanc in grilled cheese sandwiches -- even your most basic grilled cheese sandwiches -- a food professional-home cook disconnect? My gut feeling is yes, but I could be persuaded otherwise.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The discreet Cowgirls

I didn't take this picture of some Cowgirl Creamery cheese. 
After reading this pieceI had the idea that Cowgirl Creamery Cooks by Sue Conley and Peggy Smith was a hybrid cookbook/memoir and decided to read it cover to cover. But it turns out the book isn’t a memoir at all. The narrative backstory is roughly eight pages long, which is a shame because there's enough spicy material crammed in here for ten Tom Robbins novels. 

See if you don't agree: After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith spent six months driving cross country in a baby blue ‘67 Chevy with $700 cash in their pockets. They stopped at county fairs and music festivals and along the way picked up a jazz singer named Rhiannon who invited them to crash with her in San Francisco where she lived in an old Victorian with a circus juggler. They arrived in 1976 and the two young women threw themselves into the nascent Bay Area food scene. Sue worked at one of the last Basque boarding houses in San Francisco and then opened a diner in Berkeley. Peggy became a chef at Chez Panisse. Eventually the pair started making cheese in an old barn in Point Reyes Station, one of the prettiest places on earth. Their cheese is renowned and they have been hugely successful.

See? Interesting. 

But they clearly didn't want to write in any kind of detail about their lives. I respect that, but, as a reader, I'm sorry. Cowgirl Creamery Cooks isn’t a memoir/cookbook. It's more of a cheese primer/cookbook. 

And as a cookbook, so far so good. Yesterday, I made recipe #1, a deconstructed French onion soup that they call “panade with gruyere and onion-garlic confit.” Fancy name for a super-easy soup. You saute onion and garlic until soft and then simmer this with some parmesan broth. When it’s hot, pour the soup over bread and shredded gruyere. It’s very similar in principle to the boiled water soup I made a few weeks ago.

Here’s how it went over:

4:45 p.m. - text from Isabel: What is for dinner?
4:46 - text to Isabel: Onion soup
5:40 - text from Mark: I’ll be back at 6:40 and am hoping to watch college football finish. 
6:15 - decide to eat on my own since Mark will be watching football and Isabel hasn't surfaced.  Invite Owen to join me. He isn’t hungry. Eat soup. Like soup. 
6:50 - serve Mark and Owen soup. Hear that Isabel has to decided to dine at Cheesecake Factory. Retire to bedroom to read NOS4A2
9:15  - go upstairs for a cold drink. Ask: So what did you think of the soup?
Mark: It was ok. It was kind of hard to eat.
Me: Hard to eat? In what way was it hard to eat? 
Mark: The way onion soup is always hard to eat. All the bits. Kind of slippery.
Me: Onion soup is not hard to eat. 
Mark: Ok, don’t get annoyed. You asked what I thought and I told you.
Me: What is this? (full bowl of soup atop which other kitchen scraps have been tossed)
Mark: That was Owen’s attempt with the soup.
Me: He didn’t eat any of it!
Mark: He said it was too “sharp.”

There’s no disputing tastes, but in my opinion the onion soup from Cowgirl Creamery Cooks is neither “hard to eat” nor “sharp.” It’s very tasty and if you like French onion soup, you will like this. I’m not sure how crucial the parmesan stock is to the soup’s success, but to make parmesan stock you need one cup of parmesan rinds. This is easy to come by if you run a restaurant or cheese shop, as the Cowgirls do, but collecting those rinds could take an ordinary cook months or even years. I haven’t explored the book thoroughly enough to know whether this kind of disconnect is pervasive. To be continued.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Yo, happy new year!

You need hair and eye protection when baking pizza in a cob oven. It makes me look 10x hipper than usual.
For the first time in over a year (and the second time ever), I fired up our pizza oven on Saturday, inspired by a class I took from Kristin Ferguson Smith when we were in Los Angeles last week. I learned so much crust technique in that class I can’t even begin to cover it here. Plus, to paraphrase Aam Gopnik, there’s no bore like a bread bore. (Read his piece if you haven't already; it's wonderful.)   Here’s what I will say: We drove home from L.A. and I went straight to the refrigerator to revive my languishing sourdough starter. I fed it twice a day for three days until it was active and bubbly and then made pizza dough. Kristin’s recipe is similar to the Mozza recipe, but she calls for sourdough starter and has you knead the dough for roughly 8 times as long. Like, up to 45 minutes in the mixer. Does that shock you? It shocked me. But it works. You knead the hell out of that dough and only when it passes the windowpane test can you quit. I have never made better pizza crust. It’s possible I’ve never eaten better pizza crust.  

As for the oven, it performed beautifully. I plastered it a few months ago but ran out of plaster before it was completely covered, so there’s a little patch at the back to tackle soon. Maybe in 2015. The oven’s dimensions are wrong for optimal burning and there are some funky cosmetic details, but I am proud. I am also proud that I didn’t burn the house down while igniting the fire on Saturday without matches or lighter. How did I manage this? I’ll let you use your imagination. What I did was breathtakingly stupid, but I got away with it and will never, ever do it again. 

It was Mark's birthday, so my sister and her family came over to celebrate. Justine and I stood out there in the dusk and talked and made pizzas while our husbands happily watched football upstairs and foolishly complained that they don’t like clams on their pizzas and our four kids decorated Mark’s birthday cake. It was a perfect evening and I don’t say that very often. 
 While I like to think Justine is gazing up at me with the admiration of a younger sister,  there are other possible interpretations.  I bought the goggles for making soap a few years ago, but am never going to make soap and now use them primarily for chopping onions, a useful tip from Smitten Kitchen. For pizza purposes, sun glasses work just as well, but goggles make you look more impressive (or something.) The oven's doorway is too big. I made a mistake in the planning and when I realized what I'd done, it was too late. This tormented me for a while, but now I'm ok with it. Even if it doesn't retain as much heat as it should, the oven works fine. It was a hard project, but ultimately very satisfying. 

Tonight, I will begin cooking five recipes from Cowgirl Creamery Cooks, which Mark gave me for Christmas. It’s a new book, both to me and to the world. The parmesan broth is already made.