Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Durio zibethinus

my durian
I’d long been curious about durian, the famously smelly Southeast Asian fruit, but never quite curious enough to taste one. David Quammen’s description in his book Spillover pushed me over the edge. He eats durian with a bat researcher when he’s visiting Guangzhou and describes the experience with relish:

“It is a large spiky thing, a durian, like a puffer fish that has swallowed a football; pried open, it yields individual gobbets of glutinous creamy pulp, maybe eight or ten gobbets per fruit, and an unwelcoming bouquet. The pulp tastes like vanilla custard and smells like the underwear of someone you don’t want to know. We ate barehanded, slurping the goo between our fingers as it oozed and dripped. . . .”

I could not get to the Chinese market fast enough. 

More about the durian from The Oxford Companion to Food

“'Duri' is the Malay word for spike, and the tree takes its name from the hard, spiky shell which the fruit develops. A full-grown fruit may weight 2 kg (5lb) or more. Since the tree may be as high as 30 meters (300') and the fruit drops off when ripe, it is wise to take care when walking near such trees in the durian season. Death by durian is not uncommon. Another hazard at this time is the appeal the fallen, split fruit has for tigers. . .”

I paid $35 for my durian at the Richmond New May Wah and the cashier wrapped it in some Chinese language newspaper. It was already cracked and appeared fragile, so I carried it carefully in my hands to the car. According to The Oxford Companion, people have compared the aroma to “sewage, stale vomit, onions, and cheese,” which is why the fruit has been banned from trains and buses in places like Singapore. 

Exciting! But in my small car on a hot afternoon I could smell nothing but a faint, fruity perfume that wasn’t at all unpleasant. Was something wrong with my sense of smell? I held the durian up to Owen’s nose when I got home. He didn’t smell anything either. I googled “odorless durian” and read that scientists have figured out how to breed the aroma out of the fruit. I must have ended up with one of the odorless durians. So disappointing. Like getting a bottle of mezcal without the worm. 

I pulled open the durian with my hands along the cracks in the shell. It’s divided into sections, each one with its lobe of soft, sickly yellow flesh. How did it taste? “Vanilla custard” is too kind, not to mention off the mark. My durian was sweet, but there was something in the flavor that kept it from being entirely fruity. Something assertive, sour, and vegetal. Slightly fermented. It was reasonably tasty and the texture was pleasantly creamy. The only thing I found off-putting -- and I found it very off-putting --  was the larval appearance of those pale, wet lobes. The word that kept springing to mind was “grub." 

Having read a bit about durians, I now know that there are different breeds and flavors and mine may not have been of the finest quality or at the optimal ripeness. Having tasted just one durian, I’m not a hater, but I’m not a fan. Not yet, anyway. According to The Oxford Companion, the 19th century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace loved durians so much that he wrote: “To eat durions (sic) is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience.”

I wouldn’t go that far, but it was well worth $35 and the fifteen-minute drive in to San Francisco.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What IS my cooking?

happy homework days are here again
On our last night in Wales we were sitting under an umbrella in the garden of a grotty pub waiting for our fish n’ chips as hundreds of shrieking sea gulls wheeled overhead. (“We’re not responsible for what the gulls do,” the dour barman had said before suggesting we sit under that umbrella.) Looking anguished, Isabel said, “I really can’t wait to get home so I can eat food I like.”

 “Aha!” I said. “So you do miss my cooking!”

She studied me for a moment then replied, “You never make the same thing twice. I don’t even know what your cooking is.”

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth. Isabel wasn't being 100% fair, as I pointed out to her. I make the same green salad almost every night and the same kale salad every couple of weeks. Same pesto, same brownies, same popovers, same carnitas, same cole slaw, same cornbread, same pancakes, the list is long. But there was truth in her words. When I started this blog, I became obsessed with trying new recipes. And it's been big, big fun.

Since returning home from vacation, I’ve cooked only recipes that I've tried before. As an experiment and to silence critics. Is it a coincidence that I’ve only written one blog post in two weeks?

Here’s what I’ve learned:

A lot of the dishes I tried once and chirped about in recent years didn't sit well on second making. A short list of recipes that didn’t survive round two: Ed Lee’s piggy burgers from Smoke and Pickles, Smitten Kitchen’s gnocchi in tomato broth, Smitten Kitchen’s red wine velvet cake, Smitten Kitchen’s Mexican-style eggs. There were no outright failures here, but for whatever reason, we changed our minds about all of these dishes.

A few recipes held up beautifully. Smitten Kitchen’s immense and cheesy eggplant calzone was even more popular the second time than the first. Also great: The cocoa-cumin tri-tip from Eat Good Food and Dorie Greenspan’s chocolate gingerbread

You don't really know a dish until you've made it a few times. I didn't really know any of these dishes and it makes sense that some of them lost their luster on closer acquaintance. It was only when I started mining the deep past that I began consistently digging up treasures. Pre-blog, I had what some people call “a rotation.” Easy, reliable dishes that I made again and again. Unsurprisingly, everything from this pool of recipes has been fabulous. Roughly once a week I used to serve Marcella Hazan’s famous chicken with lemons. How did I live without it all these years? I made it last week, I’m making it again tonight, and if you've never had it, you must try it. Rub a roasting chicken all over with kosher salt (under the skin, on the skin, in the cavity) and let it sit in your refrigerator overnight. Then proceed with Hazan’s recipe

I also took another pass at Hazan’s messy, time-consuming eggplant parmesan, a dish I loved in the 1990s. I reminded everyone in my family of how much they enjoyed Smitten Kitchen's eggplant calzone and referred to this as "eggplant lasagna." Despite my efforts, it didn't go over well. I sat there crowing about how good it was while they all tried to separate the eggplant from the cheese, which is like trying to enjoy an omelet without consuming any egg. The recipe is excellent, you just need the right audience.

More popular was the mulligatawny soup from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking. No complaints from any quarter, despite the fact that it contains parsnips and lots of curry powder. Last night we had Yunnanese pork from The Seductions of Rice. That was a big favorite back in the day and I would say it's a big favorite today. Try it. There are few easier dinners. 

So why haven’t I felt compelled to post about any of this? I'm not sure. Maybe it's that I find it a little boring. Where's the adventure? Where's the learning curve? I like novelty and excitement and growth, which is great. But on some level my relentless kitchen experimentation over the last eight years has been very selfish. This is part of what Isabel was saying and why it made me defensive. What I need to do in the future is find a better balance. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Welcome back, Bob

2013: our most recent (and probably last) goat babies

Nothing to do with cooking, but here's a book recommendation: David Quammen's Spillover, about diseases that jump from animals to people. Sounds deeply unpleasant, but it's not at all. I grabbed it after we got back from vacation to try to understand what's happening in West Africa and it pretty much took over my life for a few days. I read until it fell from my hands at night and picked it up in the morning before getting out of bed. I can't justify writing at length about Ebola and SARS on a cookbook blog, so I'll just tell you this: Quammen is curious not just about ghastly emerging diseases, but about the scientists who track them down in African bat caves, Australian horse paddocks, and the forests and high-end hotels of Southeast Asia. He's written an engrossing, illuminating, and thoroughly excellent book with more plot twists than most detective novels. It's even funny, in places. You should read it. 

Friday morning, I got to the section on Lyme disease. It turns out that small parcels of land, like residential lots, are ideal habitats for the tiny mice that carry Lyme. Why? Because they're poor habitats for the mid-size predators (foxes, coyotes) that eat those tiny mice. I had just read this and was silently agreeing about the importance of predators when -- uncanny, uncomfortable coincidence -- our chickens began to shriek. 

I ran outside and found outraged, screeching hens in the trees and on the rail of the deck and the roof of the coop. I followed their collective gaze and found a bobcat in the corner of the yard. We haven’t had a bobcat in the yard in over a year. It's been wonderful because the chickens can range freely and safely. It's been bad because: rats. We don't have an infestation or anything, but every week or so. . . During the spring of 2013 when a bobcat was paying daily visits, we didn't see a single rat. It was striking.

I'd like to pretend otherwise now, but it was too well documented on this blog: I hated that bobcat. He (or she) killed three chickens in a single day before I could lock them up. He used to strut around our yard and eye me contemptuously as I yelled and threw things at him. We were waiting for Natalie to kid and I could well imagine what this animal would do with newborn goats. I considered many options for getting rid of the cat, but before I could follow through with any of them he abruptly stopped coming around and all was well.

I ran this new bobcat off, then coaxed the chickens into the run with some leftover chiffon cake and latched the gate. It must have been a young cat because it hadn’t managed to kill a single hen. Standing there, I realized that all my feelings about bobcats had changed. We don't have any pregnant goats and I could do with fewer rats. I could do with no rats. Plus, I'd just read Spillover.

Most importantly, though, I'm finally ready to stop with the free-ranging chickens. Really ready. I know it's nicer for chickens, but I need a break. For the last six years, hens have had the run of the place, digging up my ranunculus bulbs, laying eggs in the ivy, eating the rhubarb, "decorating" the patio. We gave up trying to grow any vegetables. A few chickens invariably tried to roost in the trees and bushes which meant fishing them out at night, but we couldn't always find them and every few months something gory and noisy happened at 2 a.m. and Mark and I went running outside, half asleep, to chase away raccoons or skunks with a shovel, the hose, rocks, whatever was handy. I once threw a can of paint at a raccoon. We nursed more than one savaged chicken back to health with nothing but Neosporin and little bowls of yogurt while keeping her in a box in the kitchen. Talk about zoonotic disease risk. 

This is just a long-winded way of saying that I've been wanting to confine the chickens for some time, but lacked the heart. The bobcat was the excuse I'd been looking for. It's for their own good!

So, that's a change. More changes afoot, bigger changes. Isabel is applying to colleges this fall and tomorrow Owen joins her at the high school. Already nostalgic for our easy summer.
Back to cookbooks in the next post.

Friday, August 08, 2014


bara brith

On Tuesday night, I read a line in Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, a copy of which I found at our last B+B: “Albert collected good days the way other people collected coins, or sets of postcards.” 

Albert also had a “gift for happiness.” 

It’s fair to say, I don’t have a gift for happiness and it’s never occurred to me to collect good days, but Albert was inspiring and I got up on Wednesday and said to Mark, “Let’s try to make this a really good day!” He looked at me like I’d sprouted antlers.

But it was a good day, a really good day, the kind of day that justifies the expense and hassle of flying halfway around the world with teenagers. The four of us walked around Conwy, the walled town in North Wales where we’d been staying, and stopped at a bakery to buy Welshcakes, which are essentially dense, flat scones, floury and severe and much relished by me, if no one else. We had tea in a cafe where they served bara brith, a sweet, fruity brown bread that I want to try making at home. We toured an Elizabethan house with a hearth big enough to roast a mastodon and wandered around a ruined castle where there were pigeons everywhere -- perching atop walls, hopping around and pecking up bits of debris, cooing and nesting in crannies. At one point, Owen burst out: “Pigeons are so cool! I love pigeons.”

Owen has a gift for happiness. That, or he’s crazy.

Later, Mark and I took a walk through the countryside and in the course of an hour encountered sheep, hedgerows, a medieval church, meadows, pheasants, Peter Rabbit, forest glens, and gurgling brooks. It was almost sickening, how beautiful it all was. I always thought I had an overly romantic image of the English countryside from poetry, novels, and Masterpiece Theater, but no. Very realistic.

After our walk, the whole family went out for fish n’ chips at a pub. Did you know that fish n’chips are often served here with a plate of bread and butter? Along with deep-fried fish and a pound or so of fried potatoes, you will be served a couple of slices of downy white sandwich bread and a few foil-wrapped packets of butter. As an American I’m in no position to cast stones, but it seems like there’s room for improvement in the British diet.

It would have been a day for a collection of good days, if I had one. We fly home today.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

A British ceremony, some British cookbooks

apologies for awful photo, I have a very old phone 
Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and last night we went to a candlelight ceremony outside Cirencester's fantastic and wild medieval church, where various dignitaries read war poems and letters from soldiers at the front. A choir sang. There were prayers. It was solemn and powerful and at the end the officiator said, very calmly, “That concludes our simple ceremony. I hope it was alright for all of you. Those of you who have been in the military service are invited back to the Horse, for a drink.” 

And the crowd dispersed. Mark and I walked back to the B+B where our kids’ lights were still on. They wouldn’t go to the ceremony. Too much happening on their iPhones. I’ve lectured them until I'm hoarse and it does no good. I've thought about throwing the phones out the window of our car. 

The dollar is weak and I could spend all our money on British cookbooks and go into debt shipping them home. I’m keeping a list of the irresistible books and will track them down back in California, either at a cookbook shop or online. There are two titles solidly on the list right now: The River Cottage Cakes Handbook and Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding by Justin Gellatly. (Gellatly used to work at my least favorite restaurant, St. John, but the book is so beautiful I can get past that.)

I did buy two used cookbooks (see photo) at a charity shop because they were practically free. 

Laurie Colwin once wrote about her love of Josceline Dimbleby and Dimbleby's recipe for chocolate pear pudding, an improbably great dessert that I've made several times. On the strength of that recipe, I decided to give Dimbleby's book a chance, despite the plethora of scary ‘80s flavor combinations: passion-fruit and fresh lime flan, lychee lime ring, pumpkin and goat’s cheese lasagne with yogurt and cardamom. . . 

We shall see! 

Gary Rhodes’ book, published just nine years later, feels totally contemporary. He’s not trying to concoct sexy new dishes, but reviving long-neglected classics, like Lancashire hot pot, jam roly poly, and raspberry cranachan, which appears to be a sort of Scottish toasted oatmeal cream pudding. Very enticing. I was feeling kind of uninspired and unmotivated in the kitchen, but this break has revived my enthusiasm. Four more nights and we’re home. Today, though, we go to Wales.

Monday, August 04, 2014

The Bed and Breakfast: Yes or No?

every morning -- plus yogurt, fruit, and toast.
Do you like B+Bs

In Banbury, we stayed at an immaculate B+B in a bland housing development a 30 minute walk from town. The proprietor was a brisk, friendly woman named Jan and the rooms were right there in the middle of her spotless home. I liked cheery Jan, but could imagine her making note if you'd put your glass down on the nightstand without a coaster. I felt like a house guest. I was a house guest, a paying house guest. When I was at the Banbury market it briefly crossed my mind that I needed to buy Jan a jar of gooseberry jam as a thank-you gift. I squelched the impulse. A wave of relief washed over me when we finally backed out of her driveway.

Our second B+B is in the Roman town of Cirencester (love!) and it’s not someone’s home. The lovely, easygoing manager lives in an adjacent cottage. 
It’s not exceedingly clean and has some quirks, but I can deal with hitting my head on the ceiling beams much better than feeling like a house guest. 
People must have been shorter in the 17th century.
So, in answer to my own question: I like some B+Bs.

We’re having a great time. 

Sunday, August 03, 2014

We have house sitters, thieves, just to be clear

The baked goods in the UK are stunning -- and not just at Harrods, where the pictures in this post were taken. 
Priorities for our time in London: 

Owen: see Transformers 4 on an IMAX screen

Isabel: go to Top Shop

Mark: visit the Courtauld Gallery

Jennifer: eat at St. John restaurant

something off with that slice
Everyone got their wishes, depressing though it was to grant Owen his. Everyone was happy with their wishes, but me. Our dinner at St. John was memorably dreadful. Fergus Henderson, the founder of St. John, has been a leader in the nose-to-tail/whole hog eating movement and I own one of his cookbooks. I’d made a reservation weeks in advance and prepared my timid family for the challenges they might find on the menu. 

The place was airy and cold, with wood floors painted gray and stark white walls. It felt, as Owen put it, like an asylum. That didn't have to be a problem, but the staff reinforced the chilly mood. The service seemed actively designed to make you feel unwelcome, uncool, and uneasy. Mark: “Lots of waiters are supercilious, but only a few manage to be supercilious and inattentive.”

I tried to illustrate the many ways in which we were ignored and condescended to by the staff but the blow-by-blow narrative sounded like a self-pitying Yelp review so I deleted it. You’ll have to take it on faith.

How was the food? The bread was outstanding, dense and sour. My beef mince on drippings toast was delicious, but zero attention was put into presentation and it was hideous, a lumpy brown puddle that covered the entire plate. Isabel’s forbidding salad, an unadorned tangle of stringy greens, resembled a ball of tumbleweed, while Owen's pale, flabby poached chicken came with grainy white beans so poorly cooked that even I wouldn’t have served them. Mark’s slices of tepid roast lamb looked and tasted like dinner at our house the day after Easter. We would have ordered dessert (blackberry trifle and Eccles cake) but our waiter let us sit there with the fat congealing on our plates for 20 minutes before he finally wandered over to see what we needed and by that time we were ready to go. 

It makes sense that a restaurant dedicated to serving ox heart and lambs kidneys might be one where they take few pains to make people comfortable. Or are they actively trying to make people uncomfortable? It was a contemptuous and punishing restaurant and I wonder if there isn’t a streak of masochism in contemporary food culture that has made this place such a hit.

Donuts are everywhere in London, though we only tasted one, a leathery miniature cronut.
I love the detail on the pecan pie crust. That, I could do.
We left London and went on to Banbury, a town you might know from the nursery rhyme or as the birthplace of the Banbury cake, recipes for which date back to 1615. Tasting Banbury cake was item #1 on my Banbury agenda.

Believe it or not, it's a bit hard to find Banbury cakes in contemporary Banbury and I had to ask around to find a bakery that sold them. My first Banbury cake was a flat, flaky, oval pastry with a thin currant filling, heavily dusted with sugar. It was about the length and width of a croissant and had the spicy antique flavor of mincemeat. It was lovely. Later that day, we went to lunch at a cafe and for our shared dessert I ordered a Banbury cake. This one was a lot fatter -- more like a dumpling --  and packed with spiced raisins and candied peel. It came hot with whipped cream and I urged Isabel to try it. She frowned and began a little speech about how raisins “shouldn’t exist.” I said to Mark, “C’mon, try it!”  He took a flake of pastry from the top and said, “I did. If something was actually good it would have made it to the United States by now.” 

The cream came from a canister and the caesar salad arrived with a bottle of supermarket dressing on the side. When in Banbury!
They’re a wonderful family in other ways, but as eating companions, hopeless.