Sunday, June 21, 2015

Pa had promised Laura and Mary the bladder and the pig's tail

my town
Mark and I went to Tosca the other night, a venerable San Francisco bar with red leather booths and opera on the jukebox that is now an April Bloomfield restaurant. (April Bloomfield = revered chef of the Spotted Pig in New York City and author of the cookbooks A Girl and her Pig and A Girl and her Greens.) We'd been to the old Tosca on a few memorable occasions, one so memorable I have only hazy memories of it. Although Tosca is definitely more glamorous now, we were pleased at how little it had physically changed. I sat down at the bar and asked the bartender what he would do if someone came in and ordered a pink squirrel. He said he would have no idea what to do, he had never heard of the pink squirrel. I had to put on my glasses to read the drinks menu and ordered a negroni. Mark ordered a pink gin. We were both wrecks the next day. The new normal.

As to the food, we started with the coppa panini, a small, hot pressed sandwich that came wrapped in paper. It was salty, gooey, wonderfully greasy and delicious. If you ever go to Tosca, order that for sure.

We also ordered the crispy pig tails. I had to, because when I was six I read Little House in the Big Woods over and over again. The book contains this unforgettable passage:

Ma opened the front of the cookstove and raked hot coals out into the iron hearth. Then Laura and Mary took turns holding the pig's tail over the coals.

It sizzled and fried, and drops of fat dripped off it and blazed on the coals. Ma sprinkled it with salt. Their hands and their faces got very hot, and Laura burned her finger, but she was so excited she did not care. Roasting the pig's tail was such fun that it was hard to play fair, taking turns. 

At last it was done. It was nicely browned all over, and how good it smelled! They carried it into the yard to cool it and even before it was cool enough they began tasting it and burned their tongues. 

They ate every little bit of meat off the bones and then they gave the bones to Jack.

Can you blame me? At Tosca, the experience was less magical. The waitress brought us a plate of small, chunky vertebrae, each one with a tiny morsel of meat, a lot of fat, some rind, and, above all, bone. This was an extremely bony experience. I can not recommend it, but I understand if you need to satisfy your curiosity anyway. Laura Ingalls Wilder was one powerful food writer.

Other than pastas, I think there were four entree options, one of them being grilled lamb heart and another a roasted chicken for which you needed to wait an hour. This meant there were actually two entree options, fish and a pork chop. I had the pork chop, which was crispy on the outside, juicy and almost pink on the inside and so, so good. Mark had some rich, cheesy pasta shells. I think we consumed about 4,000 calories each. An excellent meal.

Isabel and I leave for Asia in almost exactly 16 hours. I'm at that point where I wonder why I ever thought this was a good idea.
I bought several pounds of 50-cent paperbacks at the library sale yesterday with the idea I can leave them behind in Burma and Thailand when I'm done. A lot of my choices, as usual, were aspirational. If I get on the plane to Yangon with only Clarissa, maybe I'll finally read it! Or. . .  maybe I won't. Maybe I'll end up watching Adam Sandler movies and anything else they're offering on China Airlines, anything at all, to avoid formidable reading material. It's happened before.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just funny how we humans keep striving while knowing full well that we will almost surely fail. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Is this the little girl I carried?

Isabel, Owen, Julian Assange
Isabel graduated from high school last week. I'm very wistful. We still have Owen, but I've started flashing forward a few years and, you know, things aren't looking good.

For the graduation party, I served chocolate-covered strawberries from the Joy of Cooking.
going for documentation, not art
How do you feel about chocolate-covered strawberries? I love the idea of them, but have decided they're subtly stressful to eat. You never know when you pick one up if it'll be juicy and nectarous or bland and watery because you can't visually assess the fruit under the chocolate. It's part of the fun of eating fruit, studying the dimensions, shape, color, et cetera, and then taking a bite and finding out if you were right, if that really was a good one. You don't get to play this little game with the chocolate-covered strawberry; it's all up to chance. Plus, when you take that bite, the chocolate falls off in shards and if you don't eat quickly, melts on your fingers. Then when you're done you have to find a place to deposit the damp, scraggly stem.

Yep, life is really hard. Chocolate-covered strawberries don't help. Down with chocolate-covered strawberries.
puffy, buttery perfection
David Lebovitz's madeleines are the opposite of stressful to eat. Soft and pillowy, they're subtly calming. I believe I've raved about these lovely little cakes before. I served them warm from the oven to accompany the berries. Impeccable recipe. 

But the most delicious thing I made for the party: brandy alexanders. The picture I took of my brandy alexander is so atrocious I couldn't post it. That's pretty bad because my standards, as we all know, are not high. This is what brandy alexanders look like. Beautiful.

The history of the brandy alexander is murky, but the cocktail seems to have been invented by someone, somewhere, roughly a century ago. It has been much written and sung about ever since and if you've never heard the Feist song, you should fix that. If you've never tasted a brandy alexander, you might think about fixing that as well. This is a rich, suave, complex and utterly delicious concoction.  Recipes vary considerably and the one we made was heavy on the brandy: 2 ounces brandy, 1/2 ounce creme de cacao, 1/2 ounce cream, shake with ice, strain into glass, shave lots of nutmeg on top. I found it a bit stiff and added more cream. Later, I discovered that I was on the right track as most recipes call for equal parts brandy, creme de cacao, and cream. For a perfect brandy alexander I'd go with 2 parts brandy, 1 part creme de cacao, 1 part cream, plenty of nutmeg.

Now I just need to try a pink squirrel, a zombie, and a Singapore sling and I can stop drinking altogether.
Mark bought this for the party. Not half bad.
In other news, I've cooked a number of bland dishes from The Hakka Cookbook and there's not much I want to say about them because bland=pretty boring. As result of all that Hakka food, though, we've ended up with a mountain of leftover white rice so last night I made the ginger fried rice from Genius Recipes by Food52's Kristen Miglore.

trying out a library copy before I buy
This may be the only fried rice recipe in the world that was specifically engineered for people who don't have leftover rice on hand. According to Miglore, freshly cooked rice won't fry properly (it gets clumpy and soggy), but if you follow this "genius" technique, which she credits to Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman, you can get good results anyway. Fry some bits of ginger and garlic until crispy, then reserve. Soften sliced leeks in peanut oil, add your your fresh rice and cook until warmed through. Scoop it into bowls, drizzle with soy sauce and sesame oil, top with a fried egg, and sprinkle with pre-fried bits of garlic and ginger. These provide the crunch your freshly cooked rice lacks.


Nah. But a very easy, cheap, and tasty meal. I often have leftover rice and would not make fried rice if I didn't, so the wizardry of this dish is lost on me. But I did really love those pungent, crispy pebbles of garlic and ginger. They'd be a great addition to any fried rice. I'm making this again tonight. Recipe here.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Prom, Cookie, Cookie, Selfie, Stinger, Audiobook

immature cookies
I brought the big, brash birthday cake cookies from Ben Mims's Sweet and Southern to Isabel's prom potluck last weekend.

sophisticated ladies
I was pleased with this contribution until I put the tin on the table and took a good look. Nope. You serve cookies like these at a kindergartner's birthday right after the clown finishes up, not to a flock of delicate 18-year-old gazelles in 7-inch heels. Although the cookies were fantastically delicious, no one touched them. Wrong occasion. I will provide the recipe shortly, but I need to iron out one kink in it before I do.

Interesting fact: Isabel and her friends went to prom without dates. 

Cause they're a buncha wallflowers, obviously.

Seriously, though, things have changed since I went to the prom. (Like no one says "the prom," it's just "prom.") Exuberant, eminently presentable girls like these would have had no trouble getting dates and if for some reason they did, they would have stayed home. Girls certainly did not go off to prom in big, boisterously happy packs. What does this all mean? Explain it to me!

A few nights later I brought jammy dodgers made from Justin Gellatly’s excellent Bread, Cake, Doughnut, Pudding to Owen's band bake sale. 

Jammy dodgers are a British butter cookie sandwiched with, as you probably guessed, jam.  I've made a few versions, but Gellatly's is the best and easiest: you put all dough ingredients into the food processor and push the button. Refrigerate dough. Roll it out, cut shapes, cut a little hole in half the shapes, spoon jam onto the other half, sandwich, bake. The cookies sold out. Recipe here. You should try it. (Apologies, but you do need a scale for this. If you don't have a scale, you should think about getting one even if you don't want to make these cookies. Once you start baking by weight you won't want to go back.)

And now for something completely different.
If only I'd taken off that apron.
A few nights ago I mixed my first-ever stinger, a classic cocktail that is made of equal parts creme de menthe and brandy. I decided to take a picture because it was such a cool-looking, Scope-colored drink, but when I saw the blurry shot I forgot all about the stinger, so dazzled was I by my own youthful allure. Boy, was I pleased! The smudged camera lens had taken decades off my age.

The blurry photo gladdened my heart and gladdens my foolish heart as I look at it now, even though I know exactly what I really look like. This is called "willful delusion" and I highly recommend it to anyone who is starting to feel bad about her neck. I have given this some thought and decided that at a certain age it's perfectly ok to embrace the blurry photos and erase the realistic ones. I also believe it's preferable to remove your glasses before checking your make-up in the car mirror midday; you really don't want to see yourself that clearly. And I'm sure everyone can agree that it's essential to detach any satanic magnifying mirrors you installed in your bathroom when you were 30. Be on the alert for these horrible mirrors in hotels, especially expensive ones, and drape with a hand towel promptly lest they ruin even one minute of your vacation. In short, there is nothing to be gained from close, realistic scrutiny of one's visage after age 45 and much to be lost, like high spirits, self confidence, and money. If you only ever see blurry pictures and are careful about your mirrors, you will have more bounce in your step and never require Botox.

Do I really mean this? I just might. Full manifesto coming soon.

Back to the stinger. I made it after reading the cocktails chapter in the endlessly intriguing and irritating Prune. Gabrielle Hamilton's conceit in the book is that she's addressing her restaurant staff, and at the end of the stinger recipe she writes: "Give me a heads up if anyone orders this; it's rare that anyone does but I'd like to meet them."

One day I will go to Prune, order a stinger, and see what happens.

I enjoyed my homemade stinger, but one was definitely enough. In a cocktail, that's a feature, not a bug.

I'll finish with an audiobook recommendation: David Rakoff’s rhyming novel, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perishis a small, sui generis masterpiece. Characters include a lonely girl, a horrid socialite, a mistress, a spurned husband, and a gay cartoonist. Topics range from romantic anguish, to art, sexual liberation, the culture wars, and AIDS. The narrative voice is by turns silly, highbrow, bitchy, tender, furious, funny, and rueful. David Rakoff's actual voice (he narrates) is hoarse and weary, but he delivers his lines with a relish and poignancy no actor could ever match. He died of cancer at 47, something like two weeks after he finished recording. Such a loss. Such a strange, lovely audiobook. I've listened to it twice and will probably listen to it again before the week is done. Highly recommend.