Monday, June 30, 2014

And now for some Flour

misshapen but delicious
In Flour, Joanne Chang writes that she grew up in traditional and "fairly strict" Chinese family where, aside from the occasional plate of sliced oranges, sweets rarely appeared on the table. She was exposed to cakes and cookies at her friends' homes and at a young age developed a "full-blown obsession" with desserts and pastries.

Chang:  "I pored over baking books and food magazines; I read and reread dessert descriptions wherever I found them. I lingered at pastry cases at the supermarket. Most of the time I never tried the desserts I was dreaming about. Instead I could only imagine how they must taste: Turkish delight (I read about it in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,) snickerdoodles (Good Housekeeping,) sticky toffee pudding (The Joy of Cooking,) double-crust apple pie (Little House on the Prairie,) New York cheesecake (first spotted at a Safeway in Houston!)"

I completely relate. Her story supports my theory that childhood dessert deprivation can lead to an almost romantic ardor for sweets. The longer and more hopelessly you pine, the brighter those gorgeous and mysterious desserts glow. I should say that I don't view this is as a problem. Ardor is not the same thing as compulsive bingeing. Chang has built an amazing career from her passion and certainly looks like she exercises healthy restraint.

As I mentioned in the last post, Chang majored in math and economics at Harvard, then got a job at a big international consulting firm right out of college. After a couple of years, though, she decided she really wanted to spend her life baking and quit her consulting gig to do so. She opened her Boston bakery, Flour, in 2000. Her yardstick for a dessert: Would you serve this to your mother?

I'm not a complete newcomer to her book. Chang's banana bread is the only banana bread I make anymore and her oreos were the basis for the oreo recipe in Make the Bread, Buy the Butter. I can take no credit whatsoever for those incredible cookies. I would have happily served both Chang's banana bread and oreos to my mother. 

Last week, I made her brioche and the recipe is a masterpiece of clarity and detail. I've baked a dozen or so different brioche recipes over the last few months, and this is my favorite, simply because the whole process went so smoothly. I used half the dough to make a loaf of bread and half to make her chocolate brioche buns, which contain not just bittersweet chocolate, but a lovely layer of pastry cream. I baked three of these beauties (see photo at top) and froze the rest to bake later. My mother would have flipped for the chocolate brioche buns and been very pleased with the tender, buttery brioche.

I'm not quite as sold on Chang's so-called luscious cheesecake, which I baked yesterday for our weekly extended-family dinner. It wasn’t quite dense or tangy enough for me and the reviews were curiously contradictory. Mark declared it the best dessert I’ve ever made, while Isabel said that homemade cheesecake is always “kind of gross.” Seriously?! My sister commented on its "caramelly" flavor, which is odd because it contained no caramel. Maybe the top caramelized in the oven? Or did the caramel notes come from the thick graham cracker crust? I would have served this cake to my mother and she would have praised it extravagantly, but I probaby wouldn’t have served it to her again. 

I do have to mention a couple of Ming Tsai recipes I also tried last night, just to keep up.

His shrimp lollipops from Blue Ginger are a variation on a Vietnamese dish that consists of spiced shrimp paste that you mold onto the end of a stick of sugar cane. Tsai has substituted lemongrass stalks for the sugar cane and has you present these tasty appetizers with a spicy almond pesto. The lollipops were very, very good, but there was general feeling that some mayonnaise, bland and rich, would have been a better foil than that spicy pesto. You have to really love the flavors of lemongrass and Kaffir lime not to want them cut with a little mayonnaise. The recipe is here. (FYI, the lollipops in the book are pan-fried, not grilled, and there are some small differences in the quantities of several ingredients.)

I told my father to hold up a lollipop for me so I could take a picture 

and my sister cried out, "No! I'll do some food styling for you." 

I don't know. Her shot is definitely better, but maybe food styling doesn't run in our family. 

I also made Tsai's napa slaw which is not a refreshing salad, as I'd expected, but a relish, very pungent and sharp, full of fish sauce and vinegar. We ate it on burgers. I would not make it again.

On another subject, Owen texted me from camp requesting pictures of the goats and I took some shots this morning. I hesitated, wondering how it would go over in New England, the goofball from California showing off homely pictures of goats hanging out in a dust bowl. But I sent them. I'm including this picture to illustrate the stark difference between a yard with goats and one without.  It's like the border between North and South Korea. We're the North.
First they eat all the plants, then they grind the earth into talcum-fine sand with their little hooves. Currently, they spend hours every day trying to get through the fence into the neighbors' yard so they can continue with their mission of global destruction. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Overpriced produce, Blue Ginger, and Ronnie Lott

You'll pay almost 3x as much to buy identical sprouts directly from the farmer.
Does $8 per pound for organic brussels sprouts seem like a lot to you? That’s how much a woman is charging at our local farmers’ market. Meanwhile, non-organic sprouts cost $1.99 per pound at Safeway and organic sprouts at the Community Market (a store) were $2.99 a pound on Friday. 

I think it’s reasonable to expect to pay more for organic, locally produced food at a farmers' market. But how much more? Slightly more? Twice as much? Three times as much? Four times as much? I might (might) be able to see the rationale for a 400% mark-up if you’re talking about a fragile, highly perishable, super-delicious peach. But a brussels sprout? You’ve lost me there.

Prices seem increasingly out of whack at the farmers' markets around here. I have a theory about what's going on and it's very simple and obvious, but for some reason it's deemed tasteless and cynical to question the prices farmers put on their wares. So I'll be tasteless and cynical: While it's true that people don't become farmers in order to get rich, farmers are not saints and they're not stupid. When they see a river of Michael Pollan readers streaming into the market, people who consider it a moral obligation to pay more for their food, it's only natural to figure out exactly how much more they're willing to pay. The farmers will take whatever they can get. Wouldn't you? 

So the prices keep going up and up and up, buoyed, I guess, by a very thin tranche of very rich, well-meaning shoppers. While I suppose this is good for the vendors in the short run, in the long run it hurts the whole farmers' market cause. Eight-dollars-per-pound brussels sprouts give farmers' markets a bad name and loyal, long-standing customers will eventually get annoyed and stop going. I know this, because I'm one of them. 

In fact, I'm writing this on a sunny Sunday morning in June when, historically, I would almost always be at the San Rafael Civic Center farmers' market. But I'm going to do my shopping later today at the store. 

Ok, back to the cookbooks at hand. Ming Tsai, author of Blue Ginger, went to Yale and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Joanne Chang, author of Flour, went to Harvard and graduated with a degree in applied mathematics and economics. Make of this what you will.

Blue Ginger has been a success so far. Tsai's recipes draw from different Asian cultures and I made a Japanese grilled fish, a Thai soup, and a Chinese stir-fry this past week. All quick and easy.

-Tsai’s salmon teriyaki involved marinating the fish in soy sauce, brown sugar, ginger, and orange juice before grilling it. Very tasty, but not sweet enough for my taste in teriyaki and I’d give the recipe a B. Commenters on the Food Network site were more enthusiastic.

-Tsai’s stir-fried beef and asparagus was terrific. I’d give this recipe an A-. 

-But my favorite meal was his Thai spiced soup with mussels. You spike chicken broth with chili peppers, ginger, kaffir lime leaf, and fish sauce, then add mussels and shredded leeks.  This recipe gets an A. Sadly, I was the only person who got to taste the delicious soup. The first night I was going to make it, Mark had a migraine. The next night was the NBA draft, which meant he had to work late, and I ate alone in front of the TV.

An interesting report card had come in the mail, one that necessitated a sedative beer.
I decided to use this opportunity to watch something from the Netflix queue that Mark wouldn't be into, which turned out to be Bridegroom, an interesting, moving, somewhat syrupy documentary about a young gay man mourning the death of his lover. There was too much on-camera weeping, but I liked the film. The trailer will give you an idea whether this is your cup of tea. It wouldn't have been Mark's.

We're very different, Mark and I. I couldn't name a single player in the NBA draft and he wouldn't buy a brussels sprout at any price or appreciate a movie like Bridegroom. Last night, I dragged him to the Central Kitchen in San Francisco, a newish restaurant where everything is made in house, from the seaweed pasta to the crackers. When the waiter brought the jam jar of chicken liver mousse, he let us know that we were allowed to swipe it out with our fingers. Yuck. No thanks! Mark is usually sarcastic about playful, trendy restaurants and as he sat down, said, "Oh my God." I thought he was launching his schtick before even glancing at the menu, but what he'd seen was Ronnie Lott at the next table. He was so star-struck and distracted that he couldn't be bothered to mock the restaurant and actually praised the food. We spent the whole meal trying to figure out if anyone else in the dining room recognized Ronnie Lott. The answer appeared to be no. A great evening. I think Mark actually ended up liking Central Kitchen more than I did.

My progress in Flour will have to wait until the next post. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Flour and Blue Ginger

breads from the lovely Clear Flour Bakery in Brookline, Mass.
Since last I wrote, Isabel went to Chicago with her friend’s church, did good works, returned, and enrolled in a summer dance program. Owen graduated from 8th grade, got a smart phone, had all his baby teeth pulled, and is now at a camp in Massachusetts where I installed him on Saturday. I put sheets on the bed, explained how to do laundry (glazed eyes, not going to happen), bought him a fan, stocked the bureau with a few dozen homemade Chips Ahoy and Biscoff cookies (from Jennifer Steinhauer's Treat Yourself), and chatted with the counselors while he pretended not to know me. Who is this weird lady who’s trying to hug me? Thank God she’s leaving! Perhaps she’s homeless. So sad. 

I stayed with Mark’s parents at their home in Cambridge while getting Owen settled. Cambridge = gorgeous and exotic to a Westerner like me. Every time I went outside there were people sculling on the river and the New England architecture and foliage remain mysterious and fascinating. Hostas? Never seen them in California. No clay tennis courts or old colonial houses either, and no Dunkin' Donuts, though apparently that's about to change

The short trip helped me decide which cookbooks to explore next. 

Someone had given my mother-in-law, Mary, a few slices of a simple, elegant chocolate tart made from a recipe in Joanne Chang's book Flour. She cut the slices into slivers and we all got a tiny piece for dessert one night. That tart was sublime. I plan to replicate it today or tomorrow and decided this is the moment to "do" the Flour cookbook. Five to ten recipes, no more, no less. 

Because Flour contains few savory dishes, I'm also going to be doing Blue Ginger by Ming Tsai, a long-ago gift from my father-in-law. Again, five to ten recipes, no more, no less.

Have you heard of Blue Ginger? It's the name not just of Tsai's cookbook, but of his celebrated Wellesley, Mass., restaurant. I've been wanting to eat there ever since I read a New Yorker profile of Tsai many years ago and have schemed to do so practically every summer that we've gone back to visit Mark's family. To no avail. Sunday, though, the stars finally aligned. Owen was launched at camp and my father-in-law wanted to watch the World Cup and shout at the TV, so Mary and I drove out to Wellesley to dine at Blue Ginger.

Given its glowing reputation and high prices, I expected glamour, but Blue Ginger is casual, situated on a placid suburban street next door to a saddle shop. There were many tempting items on the menu, like a Korean-style fried chicken, but I'd decided in advance that I needed to try Tsai's famous miso-marinated sablefish. It did not disappoint. The white fish separated into big, sweet, tender flakes reminiscent of Nobu's legendary miso-marinated black cod. In fact, I began to wonder if it wasn't identical to Nobu's legendary miso-marinated black cod. According to wikipedia, sablefish and black cod are the same animal and I couldn't detect any difference in the flavoring. Later, I found Tsai's recipe and it's not quite identical to Nobu's, but it's pretty damn close. I guess you could call it a clone.  

Anyway, it was fabulous. But there was a problem.

It was too easy to eat! With a steak or pork chop the same size, you'd be salting, cutting, and chewing for half an hour. Eating this soft, sweet fish was about as challenging as spooning up some custard. A knife wasn't required, and probably not even teeth. Meanwhile, Mary had ordered a dish that contained roughly a pound of noodles plus a busy curry sauce and various interesting crispy and crunchy garnishes. I'm not a fast eater, but I dispatched with my fish in about four minutes and proceeded to consume every crumb of bread in the basket while Mary tried to make a dent in that mountain of noodles. She didn't come close and left with a giant box of leftovers. 

We both agreed that this was a real glitch in our otherwise excellent dining experience. Life is very hard. 

I flew home last night to discover that someone who shall remain nameless had left the gate open and our goats had spent a few hours in the part of the yard where beautiful things  -- bougainvillea, roses, Shasta daisies, two young princess trees, pelargoniums, grapes -- had lately been growing. Not anymore. Gone. Like they were never there. It will be a few days before I can speak of this with composure.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Best rice ever

Hands down my favorite recipe from Louisa Shafia's New Persian Kitchen is the rice with yogurt tahdig, which I made last night. This is called "stuck-pot rice" in some quarters because you cook your rice in such a way that it forms a hard crust (tahdig) caked to the bottom of the pot. I'd heard of it before, but, to quote Deb Perelman, "I guffawed a bit, because who needs a recipe for that?" I used to have this great picture of my mother lounging with a glass of wine on the living room floor in her pottery clothes. It was tacked to my wall for years and my private caption for it was: “Mom, letting the brown rice burn.”

There’s a recipe for curry-spiked stuck-pot rice in The Essential New York Times Cookbook (this is it) and here's Smitten Kitchen’s lentil-fortified take on the dish. I want to try them both, but at this point can only vouch for Shafia’s unspiced yogurt version. It is fabulous and easy and you need to try it.

Here’s how it works: Cook basmati rice in rapidly boiling salted water for 5 minutes then drain. Mix some of the rice with yogurt to form a paste. Heat oil or butter a wide skillet until sizzling hot and spread the paste across the the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle with salt and flatten with a spatula. Now mound the rest of the rice on top in a soft pyramid shape. Cover and cook for 10 minutes at medium-high heat. Put a clean towel under the lid, reduce heat to low, and cook for 50 minutes more.

The rice on the bottom formed a crispy, salty, delectably oily brown crust and directly above the crust was a softer, tangier layer. Above that, was a mass of fluffy white rice. Shafia: "When made well, tahdig looks like a perfectly caramelized disk, and it can be detached from the pot and served whole, or broken into jagged, golden shards." I think it must look like this

I didn’t even try to unmold the rice and keep the crust intact, just scooped out individual portions. Shafia describes the crust's flavor as "somewhere between fried chicken and popcorn," which captures it perfectly. Her full recipe is here. For her yogurt version, just add 3 tablespoons of Greek yogurt to the 2 cups rice and mix to form a paste.

When I handed him his plate, I explained to Owen that the brown crusty pieces were a feature not a bug. This made him suspicious/rebellious so he ate everything but the crust. Irritating! But also cool because it meant more of the good stuff for Mom. Reverse psychology is always the way to go these days. 

Thank you, Louisa Shafia, for this extraordinary recipe and a lovely book.

Monday, June 09, 2014

I'm into The Persian Kitchen

You'd need a magnifying glass to find a female in that fruit market, and even then I don't think you would.
I’ve now read The New Persian Kitchen and it’s a gem, a lovely, intelligent cookbook that brings us a cuisine as filtered through the sensibility of its author, Louisa Shafia. If you’re looking for an encyclopedia of authentic Persian recipes, look elsewhere. Like maybe here . This is a different kind of book, a boutique not an emporium.

And what will you find in this boutique? Shafia’s favors the simple, delicate, tart, and fresh. Her photographs are springy and bright, full of mint leaves, rosy pink rhubarb sorbet, dates, and pistachios. Her voice is gentle and courteous in a way that I consider (stereotype coming) feminine. It’s a refreshing change from the trendy “our way or go fuck yourself” style of Roy Choi and David Chang.

She’s very health oriented, offering versions of classic Persian dishes in which meat is replaced with tempeh and tofu. She limits fats, is sensitive to gluten issues, favors whole grains, and, above all, shuns white sugar. 

This isn’t really my thing. I grew up on honey-sweetened whole wheat desserts and I’m not personally interested in replacing sugar with natural sweeteners, or white rice with brown. Does this detract from my appreciation of the book? Not at all. I like lots of different viewpoints in my cookbook collection and Shafia gives clear, beautiful voice to who she is. Like I said, the book is a gem.

The recipes are clear and reliable. I hosted our weekly family dinner last night and gave it a Shafia-style Persian twist. Big success. Here’s what I made:

-lamb kebabs. Marinate chunks of meat in ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses. Skewer and grill. Very, very tart and flavorful. Delicious. Recipe here.

-grilled lamb liver with cumin and garlic. Ah, well, what did I expect? My father and I were the only ones who ate this and I think he only did so to appear manly. You marinate the liver in cumin and garlic, then grill. Shafia’s instructions for eating: “Stuff a piece of bread with several basil leaves and a few pieces of warm liver. Season with lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper.” I thought it was divine -- creamy, meaty, rich. My 8-year-old niece said the yellow jackets would probably stop pestering us once they tasted the liver. 

-watermelon and cucumber salad. Put two watery pieces of produce together and you will have a watery salad. Not my favorite dish. Personal taste.

-saffron rice. Basmati rice cooked then tossed with butter and saffron. Absolutely great. 

-Persian grilled corn. Dip cob in hot salt brine, grill, dip in hot brine again, eat. Not noticeably salty which was a big disappointment. I might try this again with even saltier water. 

Technically I’ve cooked my Persian Kitchen quota, but I already have the peaches and chicken breasts to make another Shafia dish tonight. In fact, I must post this immediately or we won’t be eating dinner.

Friday, June 06, 2014

This is what's up

This was sad. 
Some work came due and life has gotten busy with end-of-school year open houses, concerts, and dance recitals. Cooking has been sporadic, unfocused, and slapdash. A few days ago I accidentally omitted the brown sugar from a promising maple pecan chiffon cake. Two nights ago I burned (entirely my fault) the stuffed artichokes from Louisa Shafia's New Persian Kitchen. Our chickens eat all my mistakes so at least we’ve been saving money on layer crumbles. 

I did successfully make the New Persian Kitchen lamb meatballs and they were minty and delicious. And Shafia’s watermelon tonic is pretty and tasty, though I'd recommend making it for a party rather than everyday drinking.

I will fully engage with this lovely book soon. I swear. 

Other than that? I've been listening to Michael Pollan’s Cooked in the car (I agree with this review), reading an interesting book about alcoholic writers called The Trip to Echo Spring, and eagerly awaiting my copy of Jennifer Steinhauer’s Treat Yourself. Owen dragged me to X-Men: Days of Future Past and it was surprisingly not terrible. One word: Magneto. As a trade-off, Owen agreed to accompany me to Fed Up, which I hoped would convince him to cut back on his three bowls of afternoon cereal and the orange soda that he buys with his own money, but it’s left the theaters. What edifying movie should I make him go see instead?

We have dozens of tiny green figs forming (finally) on the three fig trees that I planted years ago, scores of plums about to ripen all at once, a couple of rose buds, and two broody hens. We put the goats up in the front yard every evening for a few hours and I love watching their progress eating down all the Scotch broom and blackberry brambles. Once they’ve consumed every last twig I hope to find someone to do some landscaping. This is what it looks like when you stand in the front doorway:

Very rugged. I don't actually mind it that much, but when we sell the house years or decades from now we’ll have to plant pretty shrubs, and terrace, so we might as well do it now and enjoy. 

I forgot to mention that I made these cookies from Kate Zuckerman’s Sweet Life.The recipe doesn’t tell you when to add the oats, but I added them right before the chocolate chips and raisins and the cookies are sensational. 

For now, that is all.