February 14, 1938 — February 5, 2013
It is an understatement to say this year, particularly this summer, has been stressful. My life has been turned on its head with family illness and virtually everything has taken a back seat to dealing with that.
I have had to cancel dinner gatherings, including the Julia Child dinner I mentioned in a previous post. I have declined invitations to others’ dinner parties. It’s been over a year since I have hosted a Tavolavila dinner.
I miss cooking.
Granted, I have been cooking a lot. But it’s the perfunctory sort of cooking—the kind whose mission is simply to have something nutritious on the table.
The other kind of cooking has been survival cooking for my mother—anything with high calories that won’t get her sick. For years she has suffered from a lack of appetite, but this summer it has become acute with her chemotherapy treatments. And I have gone through the desperate exercise of trying to entice her with flavorful tidbits that will get her weight back up—cream soups, french fries, fresh protein shakes, eggs in every format. It takes the wind out of your sails to cook for someone for whom nothing tastes appetizing.
But neither of those scenarios are what I mean when I say I miss cooking.
I miss going to farmers’ markets, and pouring over cookbooks for menu inspiration. I miss the meditative process of chopping, prepping, timing. I miss watching the clock as it ticks toward the hour when guests arrive. I miss creating an event and a dining experience, of the debate over whether to open yet another bottle of wine.
I’ve been in such a high state of alert for the last few months, just focusing on the crisis at hand, that I hadn’t thought much about cooking. But for my birthday last week I got a compilation of cookbooks by Elizabeth David. They’d been on my list for some time and I was thrilled to peruse it.
Then this weekend I came across this site for a cooking school in Burgundy, and the full longing came to bear. As I read this site, I am reminded of my dream second life—to run a similar type of school in our own California wine country.
But for now, I will concentrate on my current “second life,” one made up of oncology appointments, infusion centers, and emergency departments.
August 15 will mark the 100th anniversary of Julia Child’s birth. I did not appreciate Julia until I read her autobiography, which chronicled the painstaking process she took in developing and testing recipes for The Art of French Cooking. She wanted to ensure the recipes were fool-proof for anyone who wanted to attempt them. Anyone with that kind of dedication deserved to be revered—particularly when you consider the slapdash approach of many “celebrity cookbooks” nowadays. Many of them are tested by professional testers in commercial kitchens, not home cooks.
In reviewing her recipes, some can seem dated (aspic, anyone? really? meat-flavored jello…). She preferred small dinner parties, serving food family style instead of the faux-restaurant plating that many overambitious (moi included) home cooks do.
I have a four CD set of her program “The French Chef,” and I was amused with this mash-up of scenes from that show:
Perhaps what I love most about Julia was her casual approach to cooking. She encouraged nervous home cooks that they could make these great dishes, and she didn’t take herself so seriously.
So we are planning a little exclusive dinner here in honor of her birthday, and I’m having a blast pouring over my collection of books and videos.
As a practice run, however, here is a picture of a recent souffle I made for dinner:
It’s been a while since we’ve posted here, and we apologize. Our sous chef (aka, “mom”) has been struggling with her health so we haven’t done much cooking. This Easter was the first time that I made Portuguese sweet bread entirely on my own. Although she did sit with me and poured the melted butter over the dough as I kneaded it, and she got up with me at 5 AM to watch me make the loaves. These were sweet, quiet moments that I will always cherish.
And here are the results of my labor:
It’s been a while since I’ve written–too busy with the daily work. Here’s our menu this Thanksgiving. Recipes to come when I can confirm success:
Gougeres with smoked salmon
Winter salad with persimmons and cranberries
Heritage breed turkey two ways: Black truffle roasted breast, braised legs and thighs
Wild mushroom bread pudding
Homemade rustic bread rolls and butter from Gilt Creamery
Pumpkin souffle with bourbon sauce
I haven’t heard from our sommelier what we’re drinking. Probably a Pinot Noir from Sonoma County. But he could surprise me.
I picked up a new book a couple weeks ago, A Mediterranean Feast, by Clifford Wright. It’s a combination history/cook book, and I can’t put it down. It traces the history of food through the Mediterranean. I’ve seen a number of other “cook the book” Web sites and I’m considering undertaking this one as a project. But the 500-recipe tome is intimidating.
For a few years now I have been interested in learning more about the ancient history of Portugal, primarily the Moorish and Arab influences on the architecture and religion of these other cultures. This has drawn me to an interest in Morocco, even though I’ve never been there. Combine this interest with my cooking hobby and now we’re on to something!
People always ask me what kind of food is my specialty. I have pretty vague answers, mostly concentrating on what some people call “wine country cuisine.” This means not only foods from my home in Napa Valley, but also foods from other countries where wine features prominently at the table.
While I’ve always loved foods from the Middle East — hummus, falafel, kebobs, etc., this last year my interest has increased. Yes, I am well aware that the cuisines of Muslim cultures are decidedly not “wine country” cuisine given their frowning upon alcohol.
Last night I threw a dinner party featuring what I’d learned so far…that the Arab influence over what we generally refer to as “Mediterranean cuisine” (including Greece, Italy, northern Africa, southern France and Spain) can not be overemphasized.
Leg of lamb marinated overnight in ras el hanout, then chopped up to make a savory stew. The result was pretty tasty. In a later post I am going to discuss dry vs. wet cooking methods for meat and where I’m landing in terms of personal preference.
Hand-rolled couscous — I bought m’hamsa brand from tebourba for a try. It’s larger than the typical couscous you get at the supermarket, but it’s not quite the “Israeli-type” couscous you see.
Side note: a year ago a dear friend gave me a generous gift card to Sur La Table. I was paralyzed in my decision on what to buy. It was a toss-up between a huge paella pan and a couscousiere, two culinary indulgences I would never pay for myself. I went for the latter, pictured here:
I prepared the lamb stew in the bottom chamber and placed the couscous on top. After 1.5 hours of steaming, the couscous were not nearly ready for eating. I had to dump them into the ratatouille juices (after removing the vegetables) and added another 3 cups of water before they were edible.
Needless to say, my first attempt at this device did not yield the results I wanted. Granted, the couscous were dry, rather than freshly made from coarse semolina. I’ll try again with regular couscous (and cheesecloth so they don’t all fall through the perforations) and with home made, and report back.
Ratatouille — I bought gorgeous eggplants, peppers and tomatoes at the farmer’s market. I carefully followed Julia Child’s recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And I ended up with mush. I still have some raw ingredients left and I’m going to try roasting the vegetables in the oven, then tossing them with a little olive oil. Perhaps a drier version will be more to my liking. Like the lamb, this has inspired a missive on dry vs. wet cooking.
Falafel — I used a combination of recipes, from Greg Malouf’s Artichoke to Za’tar and Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook. They’re virtually the same basic recipe: rehydrate dried fava and garbanzo beans (aka, chickpeas) overnight. Chop in a food processor with an assortment, in varying amounts, of spices, fresh parsley and cilantro. Add water until you get a paste. Set aside. Make uniform balls. I like to flatten then to make patties. Deep fry until golden brown. I like to use safflower oil for deep frying. Olive oil imparts too strong a flavor and burns easily. These were a huge hit. All gone and now part of my regular repertoire. They didn’t taste oily at all. The trick, ironically, is to use plenty of oil (hence the phrase deep frying) at the appropriate temperature. You’re not fooling anyone by trying to saute them in less oil. It takes longer to cook and you defeat the purpose because they absorb more oil.
Baba ganoush — I forget the source of my recipe. But this was also a huge hit. The key was to scorch the eggplants on the outdoor grill. There may have been a slight overemphasis on the lemon juice, but after letting it sit out for a few hours that seemed to have mellowed.
Caramelized almond tart — this was from Lynne Kaspar’s The Splendid Table. Technically, this was not a recipe from the Mediterranean, since Emilia-Romagna is in Northern Italy, closer to the Adriatic. But I wanted something that used honey and almonds, both decidedly Arabic. As the recipe goes, it did what I wanted…but I wasn’t wild about it. I’m also not a fan of pecan pie for Thanksgiving. I prefer custards, souffles, etc. for dessert.
Burnt honey ice cream — Greg Malouf’s book also had this recipe in it. It’s basically a caramel ice cream that uses honey instead of sugar to make the caramel. The recipe says it serves four. So I doubled it for our party of eight. Now I have enough ice cream to last a year. I have no idea what Greg was thinking when he suggested the serving. I should have known by the measurements. Also, he neglects to mention what a dangerous proposition it is to dump boiling caramel into a pot of hot cream and milk. I already knew this, but a less experienced cook might get a serious burn if he or she is not careful. Anyway, it was quite yummy and a nice accompaniment to the tart.
I had invited our guests to bring some Syrah wines for tasting and sharing. There are unsupported folklore stories that there is a connection between Shiraz, Iran and the Syrah grape. So I thought it would be an fun to pair with the menu. Here is what we drank:
There’s a joke that Cook’s Illustrated should actually be called “Brining Illustrated” because they are such evangelists of this technique for preparing poultry. I am an apostle myself. Here is my brining recipe, adapted from their original. But, first, a few other thoughts on brining.
I was shocked (SHOCKED!) to find brining bags at our local market for $8 each. Eight bucks! You are JOKING?! Williams-Sonoma has brining bags ($16 for four), which seemed a bit more reasonable. Bed, Bath and Beyond has one for $5. But, again, Cook’s Illustrated has an even better idea: Zip Lock’s “Big Bags.”
Although designed for storing sweaters and pillows, Ziploc Big Bags XL ($5.79 for four) are foodsafe and, at 2 feet by 1.7 feet, they’re the perfect size for turkey brining. In addition, the flat bottom keeps the bag steady during filling, and a handle provides a tighter grip on the slippery plastic.
NOTE: DO NOT BRINE YOUR TURKEY IN A GARBAGE BAG. It’s not food safe.
I suppose if you’re totally uncoordinated you can buy a pre-packaged brining kit for $10 at Amazon. Or for $13 at Bed, Bath and Beyond. Or for $18 at Williams-Sonoma. Or you can make it at home for a few cents. Whatever. By the way, the Williams-Sonoma one has some interesting ingredients: coarse dried apples, juniper berries, lemon peel, Spanish rosemary and other herbs, plus large black tellicherry, sweet Indian green and Madagascar pink peppercorns. I may consider adding some of these to my homemade brine.
You can brine up to 24 hours. After that the meat gets mealy. If you’re roasting a kosher or self-basting turkey, do not brine it; it already contains sodium.This is for a 12-hour brine.
1/2 cup of salt per gallon of cold water (two gallons of water is usually enough)
4-6 whole allspice, smashed
3-4 large garlic cloves, smashed with the skins still on
3-4 whole cloves
1-2 tablespoons brown sugar
10 whole peppercorns, smashed
The only vegetarian coming to our Thanksgiving dinner is the turkey. But I have received several requests from friends for vegetarian recipes. Many of the food magazines and food sections of newspapers are coming up with their own collections, so I am going to post them here. I can’t vouch for any of these, as I haven’t tried the recipes, but some of them look mighty tasty.
Cooking Light’s No Meat Thanksgiving, courtesy The New York Times
Some foodies consider Thanksgiving what New Year’s Eve is to experienced drinkers–amateur night. Butterball has run a Turkey Hotline since 1981 and receives about 200,000 calls each holiday season. We don’t host Thanksgiving every year, but this is the year that we’re on. It will be a small gathering (seven adults, one child), so easily manageable, particularly in comparison to the multi-course extravaganzas of Tavolavila and “The Last Supper” dinners on New Year’s Eve that we occasionally host.
But the questions are starting to roll in on what we’re doing.
We have splurged again this year to order a heritage turkey from Avedano’s Holly Park Market in Bernal Heights, a local butcher that is our go-to spot for special occasions. The turkey comes from Mary’s, but I’m not sure whether it will be a Narragansett or a Bourbon Red.
We choose heritage turkeys for a number of reasons:
If you are fortunate enough to live near a butcher from whom you can order a heritage bird, do it! If you don’t have this advantage, you can still mail order your bird. But hurry.
The years when we do make dinner, I take notes on what was popular, and what had a lot of leftovers. The temptation is to make tons of side dishes, mostly from starch (potatoes, rice, stuffing, etc.). This year I have promised to stick to two starchy side dishes and two vegetable side dishes.
Here is our menu:
Hors d’oeuvres: pumpkin chutney and goat cheese in filo cups
Roasted turkey (yes, we brine 24 hours)
Cranberry orange jam
Spinach salad with roasted bosc pears, dried cranberries and toasted hazelnuts
Roasted green beans (or glazed baby carrots; still deciding)
Buttermilk mashed potatoes with chives
Wild mushroom bread pudding
Fresh rolls (yes, we make them from scratch)
Individual pumpkin pies
As a project manager by day, my skills have translated to the kitchen in terms of planning how to prepare for a dinner like this. When you consider the turkey will take about three hours in the oven, you have to work out an oven schedule. You would be surprised how much can be done in advance. This week, for example, I’m going to make the crust for the pies and freeze them. I am also going to make the beef stock needed for the wild mushroom bread pudding. I’ve also already shopped for all the non-perishable staples this weekend.
Judging from the bursts of laughter in the dining room (including the conspiracy of the women at the table to go to Las Vegas for the weekend, and chef’s need to drive a guest home) last night’s Cozinha Portuguesa was a great success. Special thanks to guest GA, who was kind enough to bring both a 1963 and 1958 Sandeman Vintage port for the crowd. It was a fabulous opportunity–and an incredibly gracious offering from our guest.
On the menu for our “pork to port” dinner:
Presunto Iberico de Bellota (technically, from Spain just across the border; I can’t get Portuguese presunto here. But it’s made from the famous black pig and was amazing)
Sardinhas grilhadas (sardines on the grill; marinated in olive oil and lemon first. We removed the head and tail cuz ‘mericans are a little funny about that sometimes; this is one of my favorite dinners when combined with Portuguese corn bread)
Pastel de funcho (caramelized fennel tart; not technically Portuguese but uses a commonly-used ingredient in Portuguese cuisine)
Caldo verde (kale soup made from a particular type of kale from my mom’s–aka sous chef–garden; we used homemade chicken broth; then we grilled housemade linguica and placed a little bit in each bowl)
Bacalhau a Gomes de Sa (another ‘national dish’ of Portugal; an acquired taste, this salt cod baked with potatoes and topped with slices of boiled egg and chopped black olives)
Bolinhos de bacalhau (salt cod fritters; I rolled them in panko crumbs before frying; great contrast with the creamy interior)
Lombo de porco com bivalves (common Portuguese combination: clams and pork; we roasted a pork loin and separately made a sauce of mussels and clams)
Pork confitado (pork confit…a little dab’ll do ya)
Cheese course: Serra da Estrela (guests asked for seconds on this amazing creamy cheese from the Northern parts of Portugal); Sao Jorge, a cheddar-like cheese from the Acores. Served along with mom’s marmalada, or quince paste, which is similar to Spain’s membrillo.
Pasteis de nata (homemade puff pastry tart with a lemony custard)
Pudim de ouro (a gorgeous confection made by chef’s mom…called gold pudding, made in a bundt-like mold and gently baked in bain marie for an hour)
Again…things get too hectic for pictures when you have eight guests waiting.
Maybe next time I’ll hire a photographer…anyone willing to photograph for food? I think bartender/barista/front-of-the-house husband snapped off a few pictures. I’ll check to see what he came up with.
A great MANY thanks to JJ, who flew up from San Diego to help out in the kitchen and, importantly, in the post-mortem clean up. The house is all back to normal like nothing ever happened.
Now, gearing up for another one (this time a “commissioned dinner”–a request by group) on May 8.