Friday, July 29, 2016

These happy almost-golden years

I would be insulted if I were Julia Roberts.
Our children have been gone for weeks and weeks. Mark and I flew down to Phoenix last weekend, like the peppy middle-aged couple enjoying their almost-golden years that I guess we are. Damn. I don’t like the sound of that one bit. But the reality isn’t bad at all.

So, Phoenix. It turns out to be a cheap destination in July. Can you guess why? We had two goals and accomplished them both with ease on our 30-hour vacation. Both were delightful experiences that I highly recommend should you ever find yourself in that hot and lunar city. 
Goal #1: Eat at Pizzeria Bianco. I reported a story about pizza several years ago and the sources kept mentioning Chris Bianco in Phoenix as pioneer/guru/forerunner of American pizza. His pizza was reputedly amazing. Amazing pizza in Phoenix? This was like hearing that the best pulled pork can be found in Anchorage, or the best Thai food in America in Las Vegas. The latter is actually true, or used to be. But it’s bizarre.

We headed to Pizzeria Bianco straight from the airport. We went to the branch in an open-air mall. (There's another downtown.) The restaurant was pleasant, unfussy, and uncrowded, with flea market paintings and mismatched school chairs. It was surprisingly feminine for a pizzeria, but not at all precious. 

I hate describing pizza. I’ve been forced to do it in the past and finding new ways to say that pizza is delicious will drive a writer to verbal extremes that contradict the uncomplicated essence of the thing itself. Here’s a description of a Chris Bianco pizza from an Eater story: “the crust’s lip was full but not puffy, more Julia Roberts than Angelina Jolie, and the lacy mozzarella, butterscotch-tinged onions and hunks of fennel sausage showed a generous hand.”

The second part of the description is fine. The first part? Points for effort.

We returned the next day on our way back to the airport and ordered two more pizzas, including my favorite, the Rosa, an austere pie topped with Parmesan, red onions, rosemary, and pistachios. To quote from the Eater story again, there was an “intricate chemistry between the stinging red onion, the piney rosemary, and the earthy-sweet pistachios.” 

That works, though I think “intricate chemistry” is a stretch. It’s pizza! 

Freaking great pizza. 

Other than a donut, pizza was all I ate in Phoenix. Mark might have also eaten a banana.
Goal #2. Taliesen West. This was Frank Lloyd Wright’s live-work compound for the winter months, a magnificent network of stone buildings in an expanse of cacti, rattlesnakes, javelinas, and rock. There are a few pools and some Chinese pottery integrated into the design, as well as a small auditorium and screening room, but the angular structures were designed to meld with the stark, sere landscape. Gorgeous and strange. I know nothing about architecture but have always loved touring FLW buildings. Mark and I decided that a project for our dotage will be to take short trips to tour FLW sites in Wisconsin, Chicago, and Pennsylvania. At least one of them even offers a senior discount.

Incidentally, we stayed at the Phoenix Biltmore, a stunning hotel that Wright helped to design. Very affordable this time of year. We thought we’d go cool off in one of the many Biltmore swimming pools, only to discover that even pool water is hot in Phoenix in late July. So we sat in lounge chairs in the shade where I drank diet Coke, Mark drank frozen margaritas, and we read our books. 

It’s fun and peaceful being a couple without kids around. You forget. 

In other news, last night, I made this zesty pasta to deal with the cherry tomato bonanza in our backyard. It’s a delicious dish with the gutsy, swarthy flavors of mint, garlic, Pecorino and caramelized sweet tomato. Intense, but not overwhelming, more Robert De Niro than Al Pacino. . . 

Biltmore statuary

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Who are you and what have you done with Jennifer?

Nigella would call this "temple food."
Had I carefully read and considered the recipe for the dish pictured above I would never have made it.  I would have thought: vegan, steamed vegetables, grains, “clean,” no one will like it. 

But I didn’t carefully read or consider the recipe, made it, and as clever readers have already surmised from this set-up, we loved the dish. Mark finished and said, “Wow, what a great dinner.” 

To put that in context, the night before last Mark finished the dinner I had served, a Thai beef stir fry, and loutishly announced, “I give that a B.”

The recipe for this bowl comes from Bowl by Lukas Volger. Given my recent enthusiasm for bowls, the book caught my eye when I was at the library. 

Given my longtime enthusiasm for Laurie Colwin, this recipe caught my eye when I was idly flipping through the book:

The dish is simple: mixed grains topped by steamed vegetables, quick-pickled radishes, toasted walnuts, and a sauce that consists primarily of leaves.

Sounds dreadful, at least to me, but that sauce is improbably magical. Four ounces watercress, 1/2 cup leafy herbs (basil, cilantro, parsley), 1/3 cup olive oil, 1 clove garlic, the green part of a few scallions, and a pinch of salt go into a food processor or blender. Puree until satiny. I used arugula as I couldn’t find any watercress and added a little extra olive to make the sauce smoother. You could serve this powerhouse sauce on plain steamed vegetables and be very happy, but if you aren’t on a low-carb diet, I would go for the full-carb package. I’d never made mixed grains before, but I will be making them again: 2/3 cup medium grain white rice, 2/3 cup millet, 2/3 cup quinoa. Rinse, put in a pot with  3 1/2 cups water and a big pinch salt, bring to a boil, cover, lower heat to bare minimum, and cook for another 15 to 20 minutes. It’s fluffier than quinoa or millet and has more protein and character than white rice. 

This is an early version of the recipe that appears on Volger’s blog. It’s a bit different from what you’ll find in the book, but not in any important way. (The sauce recipe I gave above reflects the changes in the book.) For topping I went with steamed broccoli, steamed yellow squash, and steamed sliced sweet potato, along with some quick-pickled radishes Volger provides a recipe for. I loved the sliced sweet potato, liked the broccoli, was indifferent to the squash and the radishes. Avocado would work well as would some zestier pickle. Good stuff.
so depressing

Thursday, July 21, 2016

This and that, part XVII

So much to talk about today. Topics: a pretty Japanese movie, unfrosted brown cakes, tomato-mayonnaise pie, turmeric lattes.

* The new film Our Little Sister follows the daily lives of four Japanese sisters sharing a rambling old house over the course of a year or so. Minor romantic complications arise, festivals, arguments, cherry blossoms, soccer games, tears, hugs. Plot-wise it’s not exactly, I don’t know, The Shallows. But the characters are lovely, their intertwined stories absorbing, the way the sisters take care of each other moving. A major theme running through the narrative is food. The sisters pile whitebait on toast, they cook seafood curry the way their mother taught them, but above all, they make, drink, give away, and talk about plum wine. The making of plum wine is beautifully rendered. We watch the sisters pick hard, green plums from their tree, prick them with a needle in unique designs, then place the plums in crocks that they store in a cellar with wine made by previous generations. I have so many unfinished projects going that I dread the appearance of a new one, but I hope I can make plum wine happen here next spring.

Mark found the film slow and overly delicate. I can’t say he’s entirely wrong. From my description you can probably tell whether you’d enjoy Our Little Sister or not. Obviously, I did. 

*Speaking of sisters, I told mine that I’d bring dessert to dinner the other night and while I intended to make a pie or layer cake, I ended up bringing an unfrosted, one-layer, brown cake. As always. You know the kind of cake I’m talking about. Marion Burros’ famous plum torte falls into that category, as do Marcella Hazan’s great walnut cake and Laurie Colwin’s nutmeg cake, to name but a few among thousands of unfrosted, one-layer, brown cakes. 

While the cake I brought was delicious, I felt vaguely sheepish about it. I realized that the unfrosted, one-layer, brown cake has become my lazy default dessert. I can tell myself I make these cakes because they are understated, elegant, vaguely European, but I know in my heart that these days I mostly make them because they are easy. The unfrosted, one-layer, brown cake has begun to feel like the home baker’s equivalent of an Eileen Fisher tunic: comfortable, neutral, tasteful, middle aged. Not that there’s anything wrong with Eileen Fisher tunics. There’s nothing wrong with unfrosted, one-layer, brown cakes, either. But what about the occasional trifle? Baked Alaska? Lemon meringue pie? 

I need to get out of this rut.

I’m not sure the previous paragraphs did anything to sell the Food52 rhubarb almond crumb cake, which is the unfrosted, one-layer, brown cake I brought to my sister’s. I’m sorry, because it was a winner. (Someone even described it as ambrosial.) It’s a basic butter cake with rhubarb folded in and a crunchy almond streusel topping.  You could use more fruit, you could change the fruit, you could change the nuts, you could swap out the almond extract for vanilla, you could experiment with different flours. If you have a crazy rhubarb patch like I do, bookmark this recipe. It’s a really handsome tunic. You can wear it anywhere.

*On July 4, 1996, nine days before we got married, I baked a tomato pie that Mark has talked about ever since. I know the date because it is written in the margins of Laurie Colwin’s More Home Cooking next to the recipe for tomato pie. It’s a bizarre recipe, involving a double biscuit crust with a filling that, in addition to cheese and tomatoes, includes a big dollop of mayonnaise. Mark loved this pie and wanted me to make it again immediately. I was displeased with this pie as it was very soupy. A cook doesn’t like serving a soupy pie. It feels like failure. 

not for company
This past Tuesday, six days after our 20th wedding anniversary, I made Mark a second tomato pie. I used a recipe in Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year that looked a lot like Colwin’s, but I hoped would be less soupy. Reichl’s recipe does away with the top biscuit crust, reduces the cheese, and quadruples the mayonnaise. If you lived through the low-fat mania of the 1980s, slathering that cup and a half of glistening mayonnaise over sliced tomatoes might give you palpitations. 

How was the pie? Very good. As good as it was fattening? Not in my opinion. Would I rather have pizza? Yes. Was it soupy? Yes. Did that bother me? Yes. Did Mark love the pie? Yes. The recipe is here. I followed Reichl’s instructions exactly, though skipped the “little flurry of chopped parsley” in the biscuit dough.

*We are living in the golden age of the experimental latte. I for one feel very lucky. I want to try them all. A couple of weeks ago I went to a restaurant that listed something called a misugaru latte on the menu. The waiter explained that misugaru was a kind of Korean cereal and convinced me not to order it. I’ve regretted listening to him ever since. One of these afternoons, I plan to drive into San Francisco and try a sweet potato latte. I was hoping that afternoon would be this one, but today’s blog post has taken too long to write, damn it.

Naturally, I was fascinated by the recipe for a turmeric-ginger latte in Tess Ward’s Naked Cookbook. I tried it yesterday. You toast some turmeric powder, ginger, and cinnamon in a little skillet, combine with steamed almond milk and an optional 1/2 teaspoon honey. I was suspicious of that meager “optional” 1/2 teaspoon honey and rightly so. The latte wasn’t even slightly sweet and I had to add a lot more honey to make it so. Unless you’re on a strict no-sugar diet, you should quadruple, maybe even octuple, the honey. A bigger problem with the latte, though, was the fact that the turmeric powder did not really dissolve. It settled thickly on the bottom of the cup so that as I got towards the end of the latte a bitter sludge of turmeric filled my mouth and guess what? It was yucky. A cheesecloth-lined sieve would solve this problem, but next time I’m going to try the Goop turmeric-ginger latte which looks more delicious anyway.

Goop is such an ugly word. Why did Gwyneth choose it? I don’t even like typing it.

blueberry mochi from Benkyodo in San Francisco

Thursday, July 14, 2016

When will there be good news?

talk about hideous
The news has been relentlessly hideous. I’d feel like a simp if I launched into a chipper post about marrow bones and broccoli soup without at least mentioning how wrong and unstable everything feels, and by “everything” I mean Turkey, Orlando, Donald Trump rallies, bickering about bathrooms, shootings of civilians by cops, shootings of cops by civilians, inflammatory rhetoric on both the right and left, irritating smugness in certain quarters, intolerable racism in others, the stupid, stupid politics of sushi, self-pity, self-righteousness, speeches full of empty pieties, speeches full of utter nonsense and nauseating bigotry. Everything.

And as I was writing this, Nice. 

The world is coming unglued. 

Like a lot of people, Ive been darkly obsessed with the news lately. Now, I shall proceed with the aforementioned chipper post about marrow bones and broccoli soup. 

*If you have only ever ordered marrow bones in restaurants, you need to try roasting them at home. Five bones made an easy, curiously luxurious meal for two and cost less than $5. I used the marrow bones prep method in Jennifer McLagan’s Bones: Soak the bones in water with 2 tablespoons of kosher salt for 24 hours. Change the water (and salt) every 6-8 hours. Pat bones dry. Salt and pepper. Roast on an oiled baking sheet at 450 degrees F for about 25 minutes. Serve with gremolata and crusty bread. Delicious.

*The same day I bought the marrow bones, I also bought beef cheeks, which were also unbelievably cheap. I’d never seen them in their uncooked state and they really do look cheeky -- round, plump, red. The meat requires the same long, slow cooking as short ribs or chuck, but is softer, the shreds finer, the flavor subtly different. I used the cheeks to make these terrific rich, dark barbacoa beef cheek tacos from Food52. I used a guajillo pepper instead of the ancho (no reason, that’s just what I had), forgot the peanut butter, and recommend patting dry the cheeks before searing. Otherwise, I followed the recipe as written, including making the excellent pickled onion accompaniment. Highly recommend. 

*Since that meat extravaganza, it’s been all vegetarian food from Love & Lemons, a book I will own in a few days if the librarian thinks it looks damaged. I’m afraid to say that the book might, to a very discerning eye, look damaged. I would probably say it looks gently used but will not argue if asked to replace it. I should have been more careful.

While I don’t buy cookbooks anymore, I’d be happy to add this one to my collection. The dishes in Love & Lemons are great. I’ve liked everything I’ve tried, particularly the light, lovely chickpea- carrot ribbon tacos. I think of this as young people vegetarian food. Millennial vegetarian food. Love & Lemons is full of bowls, grains, nut milks, miso, lemon. Lots of mixing of raw and cooked ingredients, everything bright, breezy, and streamlined. I worked my way through the entire soup chapter of one of the Greens cookbooks (Baby Boomer/Gen X vegetarian) in the late 1990s and I would be chopping vegetables for hours to make one pot of soup. In Love & Lemons you cook a few vegetables quickly, puree them with nuts or miso or coconut milk, and you have dinner. Here’s the recipe for a  Love & Lemons broccoli-coconut soup that we liked a lotI used an onion instead of a leek and chicken stock instead of vegetable, but if you follow the recipe exactly, it’s vegan. I’ve got a super-easy cauliflower soup in the works for tonight, freeing me up to spend even more time reading about current events and muttering to myself.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Are we a melting pot -- or a bowl?

hippie food

Lord, I love a bowl. Rice bowl, quinoa bowl, ahi bowl, teriyaki zen bowl, any kind of nauseatingly trendy bowl, bring it on. I feel like a twit every time I use the term “bowl,” but the thing itself -- an assemblage of raw/cooked/pickled/creamy/crunchy/spicy/leafy ingredients with some kind of starch and unifying sauce in a single vessel -- I love unreservedly. I know Asians have been eating one-bowl meals forever, but when did bowls become a thing (to use another term that makes me feel like a twit), in the United States? 

I like to eat bowls in restaurants because they often feature the Asian flavors I most love. Just yesterday, Mark and I stopped for lunch at KoJa Kitchen on Clement Street in San Francisco, a windswept counter-service Korean-Japanese restaurant with a lot of delectable bowls full of rich meats and zesty sauces on the menu. I ended up ordering a so-called KoJa, which was a warm sandwich between crispy-crusted rice cakes, but I thought about getting a bowl.

All the dishes at KoJa Kitchen look like bowls even when they're not. The waffle fries at right are topped with barbecued beef, kimchi, mayonnaise, red sauce, and scallions -- totally a bowl!
But while I love restaurant bowls, the most exciting application of the bowl concept, I think, is at home.  What brought all this to mind was the roasted carrot and grain bowl I made last night from the new and very pretty vegetarian cookbook Love & Lemons.  
That's not a bowl on the cover, it's a salad.
This recipe was healthy, moderately easy, cheap, and damned good. Into a bowl (obviously) you put cooked millet, roasted carrots, roasted tofu, avocado, chopped almonds, and lettuce. Now, toss some chunked raw carrots, garlic, oil, tahini, lemon juice, and orange juice into a blender, pulverize, pour over your bowl, and go watch Broadchurch.

Did I mention that bowls are ideal for eating in front of the TV? 

It wasn’t the best bowl I’ve ever made. The best bowls I’ve ever made were from Ed Lee’s Smoke & Pickles, but then of course they were. Ed Lee is a restaurant chef and his bowls contain elaborate remoulade sauces and ingredients like salmon and pork belly. They are super-fattening and take forever to make, unlike that nice roasted carrot bowl.

I fell asleep last night inventing bowl recipes and spent a half hour this morning looking up bowl recipes online. Some of those recipes don’t meet my exacting definition of a bowl. What is my definition of a bowl? A bowl must contain some warm ingredients, and some cool. It needs a variety of textures, and some crunch is absolutely essential. Starches (rice, farro, quinoa) seem standard, though I could imagine a bowl without one. There should be a fatty treat in the bowl; if it’s a vegetarian bowl, that probably means cheese and/or nuts. There has to be a fantastically delicious sauce to bind everything together, of course, and a bowl must contain at least one vegetable. The vegetable is the whole point. There’s so much happening in a bowl, you don’t even realize you’re eating vegetables. If there’s no vegetable in the bowl, you might as well go have a burger. 

Speaking of burgers, happy 4th of July! Everyone is pretty grumpy about this country right now, including me, but what do I really have to complain about? Nothing. We’re not having bowls for dinner tonight. Two middle-aged people eating bowls in front of the TV on Independence Day seemed sad. We’re not having burgers either, though. Two middle-aged people grilling burgers on a deck in the fog all by themselves also seemed sad. So we’re having roasted marrow bones and peach ice cream in front of the TV, which seemed weird and fun. Now I have to go make it happen.

I'm on a quest for a great peach pie recipe. This wasn't it.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

The summer to-do list

Waikiki Beach wasn't as bad as I'd been told. In fact, it wasn't bad at all. In fact, it was gorgeous.
I’ve been all over the map. First, in Honolulu, to celebrate my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary. We swam in the sea and (some of us) ate warm, salty, delicious Spam musubi.

I understand why people resist, but once you try Spam musubi you will crave it forever.
Then the big family party moved to Maui, where we swam in the sea and ate Costco food prepared in condo kitchens. My brother-in-law made a fresh pineapple pie so delicious that I must replicate it within the week. More on that coming soon. My kids and their five cousins . . .  frolicked? Cavorted? Stupid words, but ones that begin to capture that combination of horseplay, confiding, pina colada-drinking (virgin, they said), snorkeling, card games, and utter nonsense that seven boisterous teenagers who have known each other since birth get up to when they’re reunited on a tropical island.

not that long ago
Now. Cuties, all of them. 
I had an ambitious eating list for Hawaii, but the trip was for celebrating David and Mary, not running around to bakeries and shave ice stands, so I was uncharacteristically at peace seeing gastronomic ambitions thwarted. It was a lovely, lovely trip even if I never got to try poi donuts. I am very grateful to have married into this warm, close family. 
David and Mary were, and are, an adorable couple.
I did come back with a fixation on purple sweet potato-haupia pie, a confection that a local person described to me and which I looked for everywhere and never found. I have to bake one if I’m ever going to taste one. So along with pineapple pie, that’s on the summer to-do list.

The day after we got back from Maui, I flew to New England to install Owen at summer school. I swam in another sea and ate a couple of lobster rolls and stayed in my cousin’s house in the town of Rumford, Rhode Island, birthplace of Rumford baking powder, and got the kid all set up in his dorm with junk food and laundry detergent, only one of which will be put to use, and said good-bye for 6 weeks. 

I flew home a few days ago to an empty nest.  My inglorious return to cooking after this long hiatus featured a pea and cashew soup from the latest Bon Appetit. The recipe came attached to a vivid story by pastry chef Brooks Headley about why there’s a role for frozen vegetables, even in summer. Have you read it? The story doesn’t really track, but it’s lively and the gist is that fresh summer vegetables, like sugar snap peas, are amazing -- but they’re too expensive to use in something like soup. Instead, you should eat them whole and fresh and turn to cheap frozen peas when you make soup. Headley has a recipe: “You are going to blend a bunch of (frozen) sugar snap peas into creamy submission, but the soup is still going to have, as Fonzie would say, ‘a snap in its trunks,’ and it’s going to be very delicious.”

I don’t remember Fonzie saying that and I’m not sure what that line even means. Is it dirty? In any case, the soup interested me. In addition to sugar snap peas, it contains onions, celery, garlic, brown sugar, and cashews, and it looked like it would be healthy, substantial, and easy. It was healthy, substantial, and easy. What it wasn’t, was good. The first bite was tasty, the second bite was less tasty, and a whole bowl was almost vomitous. I ended up throwing away the rest of the pot, and it was a big pot. Way too sweet! Sugar snap peas are already pretty sweet, so why the sugar? And in combination with the sweet, unctuous cashews -- blecch. Imagine a hot, sweet, green, liquidy pudding. 

Then I remembered that Headley’s book, Fancy Desserts, which won the 2015 Piglet, was packed with vegetable desserts, including a pea cake. He clearly isn’t as uptight about sweet-savory boundaries as I am. I also remembered that the cashew gelato from Fancy Desserts was glossy and divine, so if you have a copy of Fancy Desserts (and dextrose powder), you should make it. I looked for the recipe online and never found it, I’m sorry, but I did come across this 2012 story about ice cream that mentioned an innovative banana split at the Ice Cream Bar in San Francisco, a place I’d never even heard of. I was horrified. I pride myself on keeping track of bakeries, ice cream shops, and clever restaurants in my region. Big fail. The Ice Cream Bar. Something else for the summer to-do list. 

I have been trying to grow hydrangeas for years and was on the point of giving up. For next summer's to-do list: blue hydrangeas.