Friday, August 20, 2010

Eat Your Heart

I grew up in the Age of Wonder. Bread. It was truly wondrous, especially in the way it could mimic the dental moulding paste the orthodontist used. Equally fascinating were the compartments of Swanson’s frozen dinners, the Hostess Cupcake with its peel-off frosting and the drink of astronauts, TANG. Lest this start sounding like free advertising for the giants of prepared foods, I say all this because this is what we were eating in the 1960s. And, let me tell you: I wanted it. I even came home one day after being at a friend’s house and asked my mom to make me hamburger stew (hamburger combined with one package of Bird’s Eye frozen mixed veggies). I wanted it because, even though I grew up in a tract house in suburbia, I didn’t grow up in the house where hamburger stew was served.

I grew up in the house where bitter melon was growing in the backyard and dried salted fish was perfuming the garage (quite malordorously on those 100+ degree summer days). My mother is Chinese. There is no such thing as a prepared food outside of a restaurant. There are preserved mustard greens and dried scallops and oyster sauce but no “prepared foods.” Not in those days. For my mother, food is connection--to your history, to your culture, to your family. How on earth could your meal be prepared by a machine or in a factory? What would that make you?

It would make you an orphan.

I learned quickly that cooking was the way you connected to people. You couldn’t be a slapdash cook who didn’t care for the process or what was on the plate. But equally, your food didn’t always have to come out perfectly. That said, I admit to feeling pretty crappy when I do cook a meal and something is too dry, too salty or just… underwhelming. I feel like I haven’t said “I love you,” the right way.

I know now that when I cook an old favorite, I am saying to my eaters, “I know you and want to give you what you love.” When I make a Persian quince and lamb stew or a tartiflette from Alsace, I bring the world into my home and, I hope, arouse not only tastebuds but an incipient understanding of someone else’s reality. Perhaps my most recent lesson is that when I cook something I have never cooked before, I connect to my own vulnerability and put it out there for others.

My mother is now 82, and my aunt who lives with my parents is 88. The traditional greeting in Cantonese is “Sihk jaw fahn, mei ah?” Have you eaten yet? In their age, they do not have the stamina they once had for cooking. So they ask instead, “What do you want to eat today?” and we go off for Korean bbq or an Indian thali or hummus schwarma that they have determined to be “the best,” and we connect to one another and to the world. With a slurp, a chew, a sip, we say what we cannot use words for.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Striptease or Strip Sirloin?

One day, I was angsting to a chef friend about an upcoming dinner party. I wasn’t so sure I was a very good cook. He told me to remember that cooking was seduction.


Okay, that made my angst shoot to Woody Allen levels. Here I was thinking I could master some techniques to get me through the evening but now he’s telling me it’s “not all about technique” but something more indefinable? I needed to become the Dita Von Teese of the kitchen?? Really????

Once I climbed down from the ledge, I thought about what he meant. All right, I can see where this might be going… seduction is enticement. Literally leading someone astray. But from what to what? Making pork belly so good your kosher vegan friend goes for it? Getting the Lipitor-taker to indulge in the potatoes fried in duck fat? Holding crème brulee under the I’ve-got-10-more-pounds-to-lose dieter’s nose? This is sounding more S & M than seduction.

Wait. Hold on. I’ve got it. I’ve been going in the wrong direction entirely! Maybe he didn’t mean seduce the people. Maybe he meant seduce the food. Like:
--Gently coax the food into giving up its secrets. (Take time with the short ribs; don’t rush them.)


--Get the ingredients to go where they haven’t gone before. (Introduce foie gras to rhubarb.)

“Don’t I need [ahem] technique to do be able to do this?”

“It helps but, as with anything (anyone) you’re wanting to seduce, what’s more important is attitude. You need to let it know you want it. Not something else, it. In other words, celebrate the apple; don’t wish it were a plum. And you are going to help it be its best in this moment, in this dish.”

Sadly for me, he didn’t actually say any of this. He really did mean I should seduce my dinner guests. Not with sex or even food, exactly, but with charm and confidence about the food. Ugh. I need a foolproof, kickass recipe or some pointers and he gives me admonitions to be charming and confident. Oh, right, I forgot; let me get them out, I keep them with the silver and good china.

He meant well, and he's right. But, I think I’ll try seducing the food. After all, food has been seducing me for all these years, time to turn the, uh, tables. (Ba-dump-bump)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Summer Fling Season

Some of you may remember (because you were following that closely) that I had a major fling/crush last summer. Yes, it was on a bakery. Of course, calling Tartine simply “a bakery” is like calling John F. Kennedy Jr. “some guy named John.” Sigh. (Major digression: I once had the opportunity to stay overnight with John when he was at Brown. I was looking at colleges and one of my childhood friends had gone to prep school with John; she arranged for me to stay with him while I visited. But she never told me the friend was John-John, and I ended up NOT going to visit Brown. My life could have been so different. So might his have been. Sigh again.)

Anyway, I am back in the city of San Francisco where the opportunity to fall in major food lust happens ever few blocks. I am beside myself with anticipation. There are simply not enough meals in the day. I even subscribed to Twitter so I could follow where certain food carts—selling everything from adobo to whoopee pies-- might be. It feels slightly stalker-ish except they want you to know where they are. I don’t know why I bother trying to figure out where they are (the thrill of the hunt?) when there are so many brick and mortar places to try. My new favorite trawling spot for good eats is 24th Street from Mission to Hampshire. Serial food dating at its best.

Given that I am trawling solo for a few days, I decided to try out the places without plates. First, I went to Humphry Slocombe, the ice cream place that was profiled this past weekend in the New York Times Magazine. First, I gotta love a guy whose favorite flavors are salt, meat, and booze. Now there’s a manly palate! I had already had his signature “Secret Breakfast”—bourbon ice cream with cornflakes—and the fabulously balanced Vietnamese Coffee. But I had to try “Elvis: The Fat Years.” The guy wins for the best ice cream flavor name… EVER. (I bet Thomas Keller wishes he thought of that.) I want to go back to try the Peanut Curry, Peach Miso, and, perhaps, the lard caramels. (I apologize to any vegans who may be reading this blog…wait, if you’re a vegan, why are you reading this blog?) Then, this morning, after repeated viewings of their website, I went to Dynamo Donuts. Holy Yeast, Batman! I love when you bite into a sugar-dusted donut and you get the double crunch that comes from the sugar crystals and the lightly crisped dough. You release your bite and are rewarded with the springy texture and heady fragrance of a yeasty interior that is the hallmark of a perfectly raised donut. I bought one filled with dulce de leche and banana, which is basically tropical sexuality conceived as pastry filling.

I’ve got to take a rest after that donut. It was all too, uh, sensual. They say this dating thing is hard work. They’re not kidding.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Trip Begins... (a blog preview)

Barcelona, Spain, March 2010

I exit customs control, laden with little bags because I don’t own a proper suitcase. I’ve got a small, wheeled number, a bulky suede overnight bag hoisted over one shoulder and a computer/book bag slung over the other. My walk is ungainly as I try to tug, roll, and keep my balance. Of course, none of the bags matches: one is royal blue, one brown and the piece de resistance (or the Peep de resistance) is Easter candy lilac. Who let me out of the house like this?! Did I not say I was going to Europe?! Like my mismatched bags, my flow-y yoga pants do not suggest chic but at least they show some planning (unlike the bags) in that they were chosen for comfort. (Gawd: I sound so American when I say that.) I do not look like a world traveler, more like a busker who makes balloon animals. Which is perhaps good because my traveling companion, who is waiting for me on the other side of the barrier, looks like a homeless person.

He sees me as I come through the cordon and smiles that sheepish smile/smirk of his. “I am not going to let on that I am happy to see her,” he is thinking. Somehow to show that would mean he’s given up some emotional control and he is loath to do that. Of course, he could just be laughing at how ridiculous I look. He is your basic twenty-something backpacker who has spent a month working on organic farms in Normandy and Brittany and who has just flown in from a week mini-tour of Eastern Europe. His hair is greasy and his jaw is sprouting reddish tufts last seen in a Dr. Seuss book but which he calls his beard. His clothes have that ground-in dirt sheen and he wears a mustard yellow knitted scarf that, I am later to learn, has not been washed since he got it several months ago and was worn throughout all of his farm chores, including the birthing of a calf. He is my son. And we are about to embark on a two-week journey together.

The next few blogs will be dedicated to my dinners with Andre… in Barcelona, San Sebastian, Lyon and Paris. If you’re thinking about traveling with your adult child, you might want to read these before you hit the “submit” button to purchase those airline tickets.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

We Jammin'

“The rule is jam to-morrow and jam yesterday but never jam today.”
The White Queen, Alice in Wonderland

Jam is so cool. I love jam. I love to open a jar of apricot jam and enjoy a too large dollop of it atop my levain toast spread with sweet butter. Sadly, after I put the jar back in the fridge, I tend to forget all about it. It’s sad because jams are so intensely flavorful and so very much the essence of the fruit that I’m really missing out on one of the glories of the breakfast table. And I’m not kidding about the missing out: my breakfast is natto on nori (fermented soybeans on seaweed sheets—kinda like beans on toast, Japanese style). Despite my rather suspect bonafides with regard to jam-eating, I was invited back to the kitchen with Cardinal Baker Nicola and Chef Beatrice on Friday. They had decided to take advantage of the perfect June strawberries offered by Nancy at Middleton Farms (Healdsburg, CA) and make jam.

“Make jam.” Sounds so quaint, so easy. In the old days, they used to say “put up.” I think that is a more apt term for all that jam-making entails. Nicola first bought pints and pints of berries. (At least I think she did. Do I measure? No. So details like this escape me.) Then she bought cute mini-mold Weck jars, the glass and rubber gasket kind with the strawberry stamped into the lid. Mind you, they HAD to be Weck jars. Remember, this is the woman who will not give me any of her recipes because I do not follow the letter of the law. I didn’t know her commandments extended to glassware as well but at least she's consistent. I do admit the jars were cute and jam is a cute food, so it works. Then she spent all evening stemming, hulling and macerating the strawberries. By Friday morning, she was anxious to put them up.

We arrived at Chef Beatrice's midday. Just as she had done with the shortcake trials, Chef Beatrice had the multiple cookbooks out—Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc, Alice Waters Chez Panisse Fruit and some English cookbook from the 70s or 80s; the computer was opened to a site dedicated to trouble-shooting canning problems. This, of course, made me envision the canning version of the Geek Squad--those guys who travel around in their little black and white VW bugs providing computer support: the Out of a Jam Team (or the Pickling Posse) would arrive in a gingham painted Honda Element, brandishing candy thermometers and botulism pamphlets to help you get to the… Jellying Point!

Little did I know that we might need such a team. Beatrice and Nicola chose a strawberry jelly recipe from this obscure English cookbook. It promised a clear, jewel-like jelly with the fruit tantalizingly suspended. The comrades in cuisine were practically in a reverie, entranced by the idea of holding the jelly-filled jars up to the streaming sunlight and seeing a cranberry-colored Chartres pectin window dotted here and there with a perfect, barely cooked berry. They cooked the berry juice to a syrup, removing and reintroducing the whole berries (in order to quickly remove the berries’ moisture and allow each berry to retain its shape). The time came to bring the jelly to 105 degrees Celsius. 10 minutes later, the candy thermometer still registered 98 degrees. Another 10 minutes and no mercury movement. More time passed, and with each degree of centigrade unmet, the comrades’ hopes began to fall: the color of the jelly turned as the winedark sea. (Or a glass of Zinfandel if you haven’t read The Odyssey lately.) Cardinal Baker Nicola turned up the heat but quickly turned it down again as foam formed on the top, threatening the clarity of the syrup. Nicole began to frown and pace but tried to show that all was under control. After all, she had made many jars of jam. Chef Beatrice turned to the computer looking for answers, and then she re-read the recipe. “Rapidly boil. We need to rapidly boil!” It was like the ER surgeon realizing what would save the trauma patient. The heat went to high. The syrup boiled vigorously and—hallelujah--came to the jellying point. As the jelly rested for the requisite 10 minutes, we retired to the living room, Nicola's and Beatrice's frayed nerves calling out for a glass of wine. But the jam was not done.

Back into the kitchen we went to put the hot jelly into the sterilized, hot-out-of-the-oven jars. The jelly was clear but dark, dark like oxblood, with the berries clustering like platelets. I thought the jars were beautiful but the comrades were not pleased. The jelly didn’t look like how they imagined it. Uh, but how does it taste? We each dragged a finger across the sticky puddle left in the pot. “Too sweet,” Beatrice announced. “Like a Popsicle,” Nicole offered. Not what they were going for. Beatrice made notes in the margins of the recipe and both Beatrice and Nicole thought the recipe, by not indicating that the syrup must be boiled rapidly, had let them down. The author had let them down, and she would not have their trust so easily the next time. “Next time we make the apricot jam,” Beatrice announced in her get-back-on-the-horse fashion. “But we’ll use another cookbook.”

And, so, it came to be that it was jam tomorrow but never jam today.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Short on Shortcake or the Triumph of the Stove

I have two friends who have recently formed their own Cook’s Illustrated alliance. That is, they are cooking in search of the best recipe for... whatever. One week it was for a galette (which later morphed into quiche) and another it was for vegetable stock. Both are wonderful cooks but different in temperament. Nicola is an artist by training and profession. She loves the details. Once she gave me a chocolate chip cookie recipe. I made it with lots of substitutions because I couldn’t be bothered to get the exact sugar she recommended or let the dough sit for the exact amount of time. The cookies came out good but not great, definitely not like hers. When I told her about the substitutions, she was aghast. I had just committed heresy in the Church of Saints Butter, Eggs and Flour. She excommunicated me, telling me she would never give me another recipe as she could not trust me to follow it AS IT WAS WRITTEN. And, yes, she did use capital letters when she wrote me this, just as I am sure Moses did when he was carving out the Commandments. My other friend, Beatrice, is a bit more like me in temperament in that she doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Well, at least she didn’t before she went to the Cordon Bleu. Now she is into measuring and weighing. She even got drawer organizers when, for ten years prior, the whisks and spoons and graters and ravioli molds all lay together in a tangled mess of steel cuneiform. Anyone who doubts the life-changing impact of education clearly has not been schooled at the Cordon Bleu. Beatrice was always an amazing cook but now she has become a chef by anyone’s account.

So, last week, Cardinal Baker Nicola and Chef Beatrice decided to test shortcake recipes for strawberry shortcake. Even though I’m not much of a shortcake fan—-too dry, too bready, just gimme the whipped cream—-I went over to see what these two kitchen sisters were all about. Cookbooks crowded the countertop, kitchen island, and dining room table, each opened to a shortcake recipe (and, unaccountably, a Pavlova recipe?). Nicola was bent over some pages, her glasses perched at the end of her nose, her gaze unwavering--she reminded me of an apothecary concentrating on the formulation of a secret elixir. Beatrice was already rolling and cutting her first batch of biscuits made following the Tartine recipe. Zoe, Nicola’s daughter and baking novitiate, was reading a Dorie Greenspan recipe aloud while her boyfriend Steve ceremoniously emptied the dry ingredients--plop!poof!-- into a stainless steel bowl as each powdery substance was intoned.

Daunted by all this baking, I busied myself with cleaning up. All those measuring cups and measuring spoons! Sheesh. Flour everywhere. Not a knife or a sauté pan to be seen. (As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I am not a chef. I cook, yes. Sometimes pretty well. But really my forte is the eating department.) I was a bit unsure of how to make myself useful amidst all that cutting, rolling, flouring, oven-opening-and-closing. Then Chef Beatrice mentioned that the Tartine recipe had a caramel sauce that went with the shortcake. Music to my ears! Butter, sugar, heavy cream and a stovetop, you say? I’m there, baby. You don’t really think I would enter into the competitive foray of shortcake making, do you? Unh, unh. Do the thing no-one else is doing, do it relatively well and you are, like the caramel, golden.

After multiple batches made from four recipes—Michael Mina’s, Edna Lewis’, Tartine’s and Dorie Greenspan’s—we sat down to evaluate. (Oh, did I mention I also made a strained berry sauce of blackberries and strawberries flavored with drizzle of balsamic vinegar and a splash of Cointreau? Again, done at the stovetop; no measuring spoons were de-nestled for the making of this.)
We all had a different favorite depending if we were looking more for flavor from the shortcake or a particular texture to go with the berries and cream. We decided the Edna Lewis biscuit really needed to be slathered with honey butter (or the Apricot Vanilla Butter from June Taylor) rather than serve as the stage for berries. (Aside: have you noticed how often "slathered" is used to describe butter on a biscuit? And rightly so...) The Tartine shortcake was the hit flavor-wise; it's the one we could have eaten on its own, though Chef Beatrice also really liked the Michael Mina recipe for that. A few of us put the Dorie Greenspan dropped (rather than rolled out) shortcake recipe to the top of our list as its crumbly texture and crunchy tops provided a nice foil to the loftiness of the cream and juice of the berries. There was, as Chef Beatrice noted, no clear winner. Well, not with the shortcakes, anyway.

One thing everyone agreed on: the caramel sauce was the best.

Sometimes you don’t need to go with four recipes. Just do one and execute really well. No-one will even bother going to look for the competition.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

La Vie en Rose (Macarons)

I just got back from seeing “Julie and Julia.” As a self-professed foodie of a certain age, how could I not? The film provoked many questions, like

-How did low level diplomats get such fab Parisian lodging?

--Why does a dinner party in 1950s Paris--with wasp-waisted women and sharply suited men swilling martinis and taking drags on cigarettes-- look so damned appealing?

---Where are the loving, incredibly supportive (indulgent, doting) men of food-obsessed women to be found? (Sign Me Up!)

----What kind of blogs and bloggers get book deals???

Mostly, though, the film took me back to the beginnings of my own love affair with French food.

The first restaurant meal I can remember was at a French (or, in those days, Continental) restaurant where I downed an entire plate of escargot. This was at age two and a half. My first proper cookbook was not Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking but a slim volume on French food that was part of a series on world cuisines. I loved making the crème caramel recipe and, as a pre-teen cook, it quickly became my “signature” dish. (I had looked at the Italian volume but it didn’t speak to me they way the recipes in that French volume did; those recipes alchemically transformed eggs and cream into unctuous manifestations of the lick-the-plate divine.) By age 10, my favorite cheese was Camembert. My sister would curl her nostrils when I took it out of its box and tell me it smelled like “death,” but, then again, her favorite cheese was Velveeta.

By the time junior high rolled around, I knew I had to take French rather than Spanish language class. I endured three years with M. Summer-- an oversized Hercule Poirot, his chubby nail-bitten fingers methodically combing his 70’s ‘stache as he thought of how best to insult you for your ‘ideous pronunciation or stupid! ridiculous! grammatical mistake. But I endured that soul-squashing language teacher because I knew that, one day, I would speak my language of love: the language of la cuisine francaise.

My parents, as with all things gastronomical in my life, are to blame for this obsession with French food. We didn’t have much money when I was younger and as I got older it came in great hailstorms punctuated by long droughts. No matter what, my parents spent their disposable income on going out to eat. We went almost exclusively to French restaurants. I cannot remember the restaurant’s name but I do remember a place in the eastern SF Valley, its exterior painted with the tri-color scenes of Paris, and driving back happily sated in the warm night air of an LA summer. (That my father had a 1959 white convertible T-bird that we drove slowly down "The Boulevard"—a.k.a. Ventura Blvd, the main artery of the San Fernando Valley—is a good part of the memory as well). Then there was René’s and the Seashell and, later, La Serre. At René’s I was introduced to pâté au compagne and those gorgeous, addictive pommes soufflés—airy and crisp and salty. At the Seashell, I ordered fish--which I never ate at home or anywhere else, because it was bathed in butter and sometimes butter, cream, AND shrimp. At La Serre, I always started with the Feuilleté aux Quatres Champignons (and so my love of morels began). Somewhere I was introduced to Oeufs à la Neige. Clearly I was child cream addict. Beyond that, though, is what I really loved about French food: its ability to balance in perfect Taoist contradiction the extremes--rustic and earthy was also refined; luxurious was also delicate; simple was complex.

I finally made it to France at age 36 or 37. It did not disappoint. The apple pastry from Poilane, its crust so rich in butter that the paper bag was soon stained with a Rorshach of ecstasy. At the gilded Laduree, the sublimely delicate rose macaron filled with rose ice cream. In Normandy, the vergers and their simply perfect farm lunches of duck rilletes, goat cheese, salad, and cidre. And, of course, there was the CHEESE. (Next up will be a blog-ode to Vacherin de Mont D'Or!) In Dijon, at Restaurant Jean-Paul Thibert, I had the most memorable meal of my life: a 12 course culinary narrative that lasted four and a half hours. On my return to Paris, I immediately called my mother to tell her about the meal, mouthful by surprising mouthful. I knew she would understand my giddy reverie.

Perhaps I will make it to France next year. I hope so. Almost as good is that my son heads out to France next week for a four month stay in Lyon. I cannot wait for that "guess-what-I-just-ate?!"phone call.