Tuesday, November 10, 2009

12 books/9 months

Everyone who knows me in real life understands that, while I may be a reader, I'm not much of a reader-of-classic-books. An old college professor once said I had an impressive breadth of knowledge of contemporary fiction and it's true - at the expense of the classics.

And that's always been fine with me. I could recite Baudelaire in French at 18, tell you the important American literary contributions of the 1930s and I once studied a blackboard in a classroom for 5 minutes then said "huh, I wonder whose class is reading Owen Meany..." And I'd kinda had enough of other people telling me what to read, so I went to college somewhere where I could pretty much do what I wanted and avoid reading the classics. A class in Victorian lit here, a little Romantic poetry there but pretty much unscathed.

I'm taking a break from all that now. I've set an ambitious reading project of 12 books to read by my next birthday, which is a big one. They're 12 great books, or 12 books by great authors and while it's certainly not an all inclusive list it does address some of the larger gaps in my education. I can't help but think of David Denby's book project, taking lit 101 classes at Columbia in his adulthood and feeling filled with the ideas of Machiavelli, Locket, Socrates, etc. etc. Will I feel anything differently reading these great texts? Will I come to understand our present time (writingwise or livingwise) in a different fashion? Will I still be the type of person who dislikes reading great books? Am I a type?

The list, in no particular order:
1. the canterbury tales/geoffrey chaucer
2. something by vladimir nabokov
3. middlemarch/ george eliot
4. walden/henry thoreau
5. a room of one's one/virginia woolf
6. don quixote /cervantes
7. ulysses/james joyce
8. anna karenina/leo tolstoy
9. something by william faulkner
10. something by charles dickens
11. moby dick/herman melville
12. robinson crusoe/daniel defoe

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Farewell to a food mag

Last week magazine published Conde Nast abruptly announced that it would be closing Gourmet Magazine with the November 2009 issue, marking an an end to the 69-year old magazine that has stunned many in the food world.

Speculation of such a move has abounded in the food industry for the last few months, with readers noticing slimming monthly issues of both Gourmet and Conde Nast's sister publication Bon Appetit. Fewer pages, fewer ads and less content to attract readers.

Conde Nast made the decision to kill Gourmet (along with yuppie parenting mag Cookie and Modern Bride) rather than Bon Appetit because the latter has approximately 250,000 more subscribers and has lost less advertising revenue.

The move has caused even the likes of Anthony Bourdain to offer solemn, heartfelt words on what the shuttering means to those truly passionate about food and eating.

I will be posting some thoughts on what Gourmet meant to be as a cook and reader and welcome anyone reading this to submit their impressions for publication here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

food mag report 1: Sauteed Kale with Kohlrabi

I always love it when my new issue of Gourmet arrives each month wrapped in its protective plastic. Sure, the issues have gotten thinner lately but the photography is absolutely stunning. The magazine has started focusing on close-ups of the food, pointing out those little things that most people don't even realize unless they're paying attention. The September issue features a close-up of a quince on the cover, so tightly shot it looks like cheese, or mold, or a fresh-baked boule or artisan bread, except it's not.

So, anyway, Gourmet. I purged all my magazines except for the odd New Yorker and my good mags, which left me with a pile of Gourmets, Saveur, Edible San Francisco, the odd Food and Wine and Edible Brooklyn or Edible Boston that I'd picked up along the way. After I pore through the magazine I've so eagerly awaited it goes in a drawer, where they've apparently multiplied a la dust bunnies. Because they deserve a little better than that, I decided a couple of weeks ago to cook one recipe per month from my stash (minimum).

First up to bat was a vegetable dish from the September Gourmet, Sauteed Kale with Kohlrabi, chosen because I've actually never eaten a kohlrabi and had been seeing them at the market lately. Taken entirely from the pages of epicurious:

Sauteed Kale with Kohlrabi, serves 8
  • 1 1/4 pound kohlrabi, bulbs peeled
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated lime zest
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2 pounds kale (2 bunches), stems and center ribs discarded
  • 5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup salted roasted pistachios, chopped

Whisk together lime juice, lime zest and most of the olive oil, plus a pinch of salt and black pepper. Finely grate the kohlrabi using a mandoline and place in a bowl with the lime dressing. Remove the center rib from the kale and chop finely. Sautee the garlic in remaining olive oil until aromatic, then add kale and sautee 3-5 minutes or until tender. If you're not sure how tender it is, fish one tendril out and taste it. When properly cooked, transfer to the bowl with the kohlrabi and top with pistachios. The original recipe asks for the kale to be cooled to room temp before being combined, but we were eating it hot and it was refreshing and hearty.

giant kale by bhamsandwich

Friday, September 11, 2009

good times for chocolate

So, not only is there this cutesy place in the East Bay but there's another new choco shop opening up in the old Joseph Schmidt building. San Francisco, you outdo yourself.

I'm exhausted. Wrote novel synopsis, had too many crazy conversations today plus a deadline dropped on me. Have ripe pears for pie, must make this weekend.

Some thoughts on chapter one

Chapter one, chapter one, it's such a weighty word. Not like, say, chapter 17 where hopefully you'll know what you're doing or, if not, your readers won't care. Chapter one needs to be good, it needs to set the tone for the rest of the story, it needs to communicate who your characters are and what, pray tell, might happen to them. All of that and more, and still be entertaining, well written and unusual yet not gimmicky.

Enough to make you wonder why anyone would want to write a novel, right?

In preparation for my upcoming novel workshop, which I'm kinda terrified of due to a bad experience in grad school, I did a little meditating this afternoon on my on chapter one, which I don't love, but nor do I hate. I'd always thought it was kinda of necessary for the book - it had a setting that was important, it introduced the two biggest characters, it set out a quiet conflict that was in the same vein as a later, larger conflict. But it was kinda boring. And I didn't think that I'd done a good enough job with my details really. And I figured other people would not love it, because in comparison to chapter 2 and 3, and so on, not much exciting happens. It's pretty quiet.

That's all true, still. I haven't raced back into the chapter determined to give it shiny new wheels. I'm okay with it being somewhat boring for now. I do think that the events of chapter one need to be told in some fashion...if the crisis in chapter one changes, that's fine, but there'll be another crisis of the same sort, just a better one. The characters' differences are clear, the setting is clear, the stakes such as they are on the face of things are laid out. The chapter could be much more directly ominous, and hopefully it will be, but I think more of the stuff that needs to be said at the outset is being said at the outset than isn't. Only, of course, in a nondirect way.

About my being so nervous about this workshop, I shouldn't be. I should remember that grad school was frustrating at very many times and this class in particular was a waste of my time and effort, and think that also I could have done a better job in my work and been more professional myself about working with a bad teacher. My professor did not like my work and she made it clear, and she also didn't like me and she made that clear. That was unprofessional of her, but I didn't take my out to drop the class when I could have (why, I don't remember).
I found an old workshop draft of one of those chapters that I'd given a prior writing workshop and the comments on those papers were much more supportive than in Waste of My Time's class. Sometimes your work doesn't reach its intended audience. Sometimes you need to be humble in order to make your work better. we all have different tastes. I remember being horrified in workshop in college when one of my peers HATED, but hated James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room.

{That was the first Baldwin book I read, and he's still a favorite author to this day. So rich. If you haven't read him, do.}

I was lucky and/or spoiled in college to work with wonderful writing professors, people who I still keep in touch with.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

too much writing!

I have too much writing to do.

I'm taking a novel-writing workshop that begins in a couple weeks, but before (and during) I have this blog, two other blogs and three freelance clients needing regular work. Oh, and my novel.

I get up in the morning, brew some get-me-awake coffee and dash of a couple articles for client #1 while I'm doing this. Then if I'm lucky I'll throw something together for one of the blogs, post that, move on to something else in my day, toss a draft of something for client #2 together in a late afternoon coffee break, cook dinner, play some lexulous online, research something for another blog, remember I've got to start work for freelance client #3, spend a few minutes reading a friend's blog, work on some other things, think guiltily about the novel, spend ten minutes writing my book, decide to read a bit and go to bed, wake up and do it again.

It sounds so concise in paragraph form, but it isn't. There is so much research that goes along with writing--and blogging--and so much thinking and trying and procrastinating about writing that goes on when writing a book. So - basically - I live most of the time stressed out writing or thinking about writing or avoiding writing and it's hard to justify writing something I don't get paid for rather than something I do.

Oy vey.

I'm glad there are people who pay me to write. It's nifty. I just had a flash fiction piece accepted for publication in a journal earlier this week, and that only fuels my desire to work on my writing and submit to journals and so on....and if my dog chased his tail I'd feel like him, instead I just feel like organization is necessary, or something.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

permission/aimee bender and selected shorts

This intro to a beguiling episode of Selected Shorts featuring work by Aimee Bender and Etgar Keret, written and read by Aimee Bender, struck me as one of those things that's both honest and inspirational and, of course, like most things writers write about writing, a little confessional. I found it so on the mark that I transcribed it and am putting it here, for you.

If for any reason you are either unfamiliar with Aimee Bender or Selected Shorts, both are well worth your time.

I wrote my story Drunken Mimi while working on my 1st book of stories, and largely it was coming from a feeling of grand freedom and permission. Finally I'd been encouraged enough to try using the words and structures of fairy tales for my own purposes, and even the idea of using a mermaid as a character, even to put the word mermaid on the page in a serious story, felt to me like running free in scarves thru the streets.

I had previously thought of stories as objects that had to conform to many rules. As rigid as jam jars. But I'd been thinking then that maybe the form was a little more flexible than I had realized, for example, I had not thought a story could be considered a real story unless the people in it were all people.

As with Etgar I think both of our stories tend to be about the playing out of consequences. You set up a skewed world and then you see what's in it. You mess with the logic, and then you follow the logical consequences of the change. It's both out there and also not. Everything doesn't go. There are rules always beneath the story structure. For me, by bending the usual rules I'm trying to access a feeling I can't quite get to otherwise. Often I'll feel inhibited trying to get to reality on the page. The page isn't reality anyway, it's a bunch of words, so a writer's job, I believe, is to try to be honest and pinpoint a genuine feeling or idea, to put on the page something we can look and and discuss. The reader can feel this.

Realism or not isn't what's important, what's important is what the captured or what the writer's trying to capture. The sincerity of the butterfly net. So in that way I see both Etgar and myself as trying to grab onto something ineffable, to frame a feeling with words, to hold it inside the inner working of a story and to tell it in the only was we know how, which is often thru a very strange lens.

You know that feeling when you're walking around in your day and you're maybe going to get a coffee and there's a faint remembrance of last night's dream that floats thru your mind? Sometimes it's so faint and wispy you can't quite catch it. That territory interests me quite a bit and Etgar's not here, he wanted to be but he couldn't be, but I bet it interests him as well. Trying to slow down the speed of thinking, to catch that butterfly of a memory or thought or image and to turn it around and look at it. This wisp of a thought is as much a part of who we are as the coffee we drink and the to-do lists we make, even once it has drifted back down into the darkness and the recesses.

Friday, August 21, 2009

staff meal hits and misses

Staff meal, family meal, family, comida. No matter what you call it the food is usually the same. A salad, if you're lucky, something to get some sort of vegetables in your diet. Especially if you're a pastry cook. Some kind of meat since, as someone I used to know put it to me, most of the restaurant prep and line cooks are Mexican and if you don't feed them meat they will go somewhere else to get it since many are working two jobs anyway.

If you work normal-people hours of nine to five you'll likely hit two staff meals of the day. If you come in the early afternoon, depending on the restrictions at the restaurant and your familiarity with the line cooks you may be able to sneak a snack or a free lunch meal. If you plan on doing this and you are a pastry cook it really helps to give out free dessert at the end of the night. Those cookies that sat out for ten hours of service and won't keep? Give em to the line cook you ask for chicken sandwiches.

I had one job where half the pastry staff all day long would ask the line cooks for flatbread and fava bean dip. Food cost pretty minimal for favas, and since we were making the flatbread dough half or all of the time anyway we felt kinda entitled.

For those outside the restaurant industry reading this, family meal is what you feed your cooks and servers before they spend normal dinner/lunch hours on their feet hard at work. From an owner's perspective family meal is also where you use up your scraps. Fish on its last day or tomatoes slighlty gonig rotten on one side. Feed it to the family. There are plenty of restaurants that supplement their cupboard with goods just for staff meal--cheap pasta instead of expensive stuff, rice, ketchup, hot dogs. While staff meal is rarely expected to be great, an inspired staff meal can lift the cooks, servers and busboys to all work just a little harder to make everyone's night great.

You can turn to Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential for a number of truly awful staff meals, or you can call out any restaurant that segregates family meal by day - Wednesday pizza, Thursday sausages, Sunday eggs.

I expected there to be more standouts but in the end the meals that stick out are surprisingly few and far between. Staff meal successes that I can recall include, over various years and cities, from the hands of sous chefs and line cooks and caterers:
Fried rice with vegetables and eggs. While most people loved this one cause we worked at an Italian restaurant and it wasn't pasta, it also had a super low food cost and got rid of any leftovers.

Fish tacos. Same resto. The Mexican prep guys would make hot sauce and pico de gallo and bring in tortillas. You had to get there right on time for this one or you'd get nothing.

Make yr own burrito bar. This actually before my time in Cali. Guac, pico de gallo, cheese, refried beans, salad and meat. Fun, cheap, not too much work.

Thanksgiving leftovers. Multiple places, same agenda - turkey, potatoes, all the sides. A little hard to work after this one.

Sweet-hot chicken wings. A line cook made these super good one day kinda by accident, which unfortunately meant we never got to have them again.

staff meal c noii

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Shawangunk Mountain Wild Blueberry & Huckleberry Festival

If you find yourself in the vicinity of the Gunks this coming weekend {which is to say, somewhere between the Catskills and Westchester, or, say, at the CIA or if you even changed to be in Binghamton, you could get there too, yessir}

then please go to the huckleberry festival.
go in my stead.

gunks photo c i eated a cookie
On the west coast they would have you believe that the only true foraged huckleberries come from the pacific northwest. This is simply incorrect as I found out last week while passing thru sleepy Ulster County. What little literature there is on this rad event says

"A celebration of the Shawangunk Mountains: music, BBQ, all-blueberry bake sale and pie judging contest, crafts and cultural area and art center, 9:00AM-4:00PM." Held somewhere in the town of Ellenville NY.

Huckleberries have been a foraged crop for hundreds of years, possibly dating back to 400 AD if you believe geologists.

If you're lucky you'll catch the eyes of an old-timey huckleberry picker who used to pick crops when the only roads between sleepy Hudson Valley towns were dirt carriage roads.

If you miss the festival you can still pick some huckleberries {now, not so much later} on the Minnewaska trails and elsewhere, though you might have to find a friendly local to share her berry spot.

Huckleberries are challenging to find commercially and expensive when you do find there because you're most often paying for a forager to traipse after them. Hunkleberries are smaller than blueberries and give a more complex flavor, though there are plenty of other differences too.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

why servers should pay attention at line-up and in tastings

true conversation from dinner last night...

me: we'd like to get dessert but we can't decide between the corn crepes with blueberries an the pink peppercorn vacherin with strawberry ice cream
server: well i'd really recommend the vacherin. it's a meringue cookie topped with strawberry ice cream and pistachios and there's strawberries too, and we make the ice cream in-house
me: oh...so you don't make the corn ice cream in house?
him: no, we do, we make all our ice cream in house
me: well how do you prepare the blueberries for the crepes?
him: we render them down in the pan
{at this point i shoot my friend a worried look. i don't believe the word "render" should be used in connection to food unless it's meat. it sounds kinda gross otherwise}
me: how's the lime caramel
him: zesty and delicious

It went on like that for a bit longer before we ordered the vacherin. The server did send us the crepes on the house, which was a nice touch especially since we hadn't complained about any aspect of the meal. Seems like he was just being nice.

Servers don't seem to realize that the restaurant actually makes a lot of money on dessert. Compared to that dungeness crab or rabbit meat the cost to the house of preparing a plate of dessert is very, very minimal whereas the cost of the meat, vegetables and other ingredients going into a main course is vastly pricier. The server, likely, is thinking that $8 on a dessert won't make a lot of money on his tip whereas that $12 app would be a bigger upsell.

What the average server does not realize is that most people get happier when they eat dessert. They relax, they linger and they're in a more generous mood when they're putting that tip out. Plus, the dessert money does add to the bill. It's the role of the server in this course more so than others to really sell the food. Whereas you might sit down in a restaurant and "be in a fish mood" and have two choices, you'll not likely be "in a pie mood" or "in a bread pudding mood" when it comes time for dessert {chocolate mood, maybe? but there'll always be warn choco cake for you}

Patrons are often more indecisive when it comes to desserts and they'll look to you, lil server. Do them, do your tip, do your boss and do the kitchen a favor and steer them toward something that'll taste really good. Do you need some tips on how to do this? Ok, well for starters:
1. Don't tell them to get the last thing the kitchen put up for you at line-up because it's the only thing you remember the taste of. This is silly. If you tried something new and it was awesome, that's fine, but if you can only remember the one thing then you're not doing your job because there's likely 4-5 other menu options.
2. Learn a new vocabulary. Words like "render" and "zesty" and (yes, even) "housemade" don't actually communicate anything at all. They don't tell me what it's going to taste like. Tastes like homemade? Great! For these prices I'd hope you actually make it. Seriously...
3. Learn how to describe something unique about the option. I should get the vacherin because you make the ice cream in house and it's got strawberries in it? Would you urge me to get the heirloom tomato salad because it contains purple tomatoes? Would you have me eat the scallops because they're pan-seared?

What you can do is say "our crepes are made fresh to order" {which they're probably not} or "the blueberries have an awesome flavor right now" or "the vacherin is coming off the menu soon so you might want to try it." Do you see how these phrases are different? They communicate something to me. A freshness, a quality, even a sense or urgency {try it NOW, it's going AWAY}. If nothing like this comes to mind and someone asks you to help them choose between two options, tell them why you like A and why you like B. Here's an example: "I love how crispy the meringue is, but the corn ice cream is unbelievable and you should really try it."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

desert oatmeal raisin cookies

I had a craving for cookies a couple nights ago and had most of the ingredients at home. Problem was, there wasn't anything to put in them except for my roommate's oatmeal and some old raisins I had. So I improvised a little and can up with these Middlde Eastern-inflected oatmeals, which are slightly sweeter and more sophisticated than the American classic. I'm not sure how many cookies it actually makes, cause I'm keeping the dough in the fridge and baking off a tray at a time, and cause my roommate keeps eating spoonfuls of dough. She's declared it the best.cookie.dough.ever

Desert Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
{makes a standard batch of drop cookies}

soft butter 4 oz/1 stick
brown sugar .75 cup
white sugar .5 cup
salt 1 large pinch
egg 1
vanilla x splash
AP flour 1.25 cup + 3T
baking soda .5 t
baking powder .25 t
walnuts .5 cup to .75 cup
dates .75 cup
golden raisins .5 cup
brown raisins .5 cup
regular oats 1.5 cup
orange flower water splash

Rehydrates raisins in hot water, adding your splash of orange flower water. remove pits from dates and break up into pieces with your fingers. Cream butter, salt and both sugars together. Add egg and vanilla x. Add flour and leavening. Next add oats and dates, and drain your raisins and add them too. Chill dough for half an hour before baking. Bake at 350 until golden brown and crispy-edged.

Monday, July 20, 2009

monday canning dates

For the last couple of weeks I've been having Monday canning dates with Ace. We fell into canning together sometime at the end of last summer when I was trying to preserve some peaches and made an excellent plum rose jam, and then we gained a windfall of apples and pears from the Apple Farm last September. Last week we made a nice plum chutney that came out okay -- not to my tastes but Ace was pleased with it.

Today she made a dapple dandy pluot jam and kept the skin on all her pluots. The flavor was nicely apricot-y and not too sweet.

I bought a bunch of white nectarines for a white nectarine-cardamom preserve. I don't love the flavor of white stone fruit (because usually, it has NO flavor, just sweetness) but I'd made something last season with white fruit and cardamom and remembered really liking it. I added half a lemon juice and peel with the idea of having to add more because the fruit was really sweet. It took one and a half lemons but I'm quite pleased with the results. The flavor is complex, though in a far different way than the pluots. The first taste you get is lemon juice, bleeding into cardamom. The peaches and sugar come through at the end. And the color is just beautiful! I left them at Ace's house to finish sealing but I'll try to get them and post a picture later.

I'm trying to find recipes for low-sugar no pectin jam that features stone fruits, but so far I'm not having much luck. Most of the low-sugar recipes call for lots of pectin and the standard recipes of equal parts sugar and fruit. This one is pretty good and does manage to taste sweet without tasting exclusively of sugar. I used about 10 ounces of sugar for 4 lbs of whole fruit. The pluots by contrast had a little less than three cups of sugar and tasted less sweet...but then, they're totally different than nectarines.

white nectarine-cardamom preserves

nectarines, whole 4 lbs.
cardamom pods 10-12, lightly crushed
sugar 1-1.5 cups
lemon 1.5, juiced and rinds thrown in pot
makes 4 8 ounce jars

peel and chop white nectarines. combine all ingredients in pot and let sit 30 minutes. bring to boil and let cook 30-40 minutes or until jam-like. this will be a loose mixture. taste as it gets thick for acidity, sweetness and spice. when the preserves are thick enough, you should can them (you can do a freezer test if you wish. i did.) or you can store them in the fridge for a good month or two.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

effing amazing strawberry jam

I made this last week with Ace because my roomie brought home a flat of strawberries. I love this jam because it brings out the exact flavor you associate with a perfect, intense summer strawberry.

It's like eating sunshine. It brings out the very best red juicy splash of sweetness without any of that acid (though I'm sure you could kick it up with a couple lemons if you felt like you wanted acid).

Also, it's really easy! All you need are four cups of sugar, three pints of berries, one vanilla bean and one pot! De-stem the berries and cut them in half. Toss berries, vanilla bean and sugar in pot and let macerate for half an hour, then start cooking over medium-high heat. To reduce the foam, skim some of the syrup off the top once the sugar has melted and the berries are releasing juice. Save this stuff for a rad strawberry syrup for italian sodas, fancy martinis or an ice cream topping. Continue to cook the jam until the berries are cooked down and you've got a syrupy consistency.

Want more specific instructions than that? I understand. But I'm not an exact person when it comes to compotes, jams and the like. If you prefer your preserves with larger chunks of fruit then you can do something like this

Currently I'm listening to You Tube Magnetic Fields videos from love shows and working on ch 5 (five!) of the manuscript while drinking this stuff after a night at sfmoma seeing the awesome Avedon exhibit. Can't imagine a collection of things more appealing.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

haagen daaz five, and other notes on ice cream

Do you know why Haazen Daaz new Five campaign is such a brilliant idea? Five ingredients are all you really need to make most flavors of ice cream. Five simple ingredients:

egg yolks
real flavoring: see vanilla beans, zest, coffee beans, cardamom pods

Oh and, sure, a pinch of salt will amp up the flavor balance on most ice creams. For chocolate ice cream you'll need some combination of cocoa and chocolate (or butter and chocolate) so that is more than five but you get the point.

Ice cream relies on a certain amount of fat for its creamy taste. The fat can be composed of egg yolks, cream, milk or half and half and every chef has a recipe they prefer. For a long time I was stuck on Claudia Fleming's ratio of one cup cream, three cups milk and twelve yolks, but the amount of sugar she calls for was too high for some flavors.

Gritty or icy tasting ice creams may not have a high enough percentage of fat, they may contain shards of fruit that attracts ice molecules when freezing, or they may have melted and refrozen to give it a strange texture. Companies like Ben and Jerry's add emulsifiers to the ice cream so that you'll have a fairly scoopable product the minute you take it out of the freezer. If you've ever wondered why Haagen Daaz is always rock hard, it's because there are no emulsifiers in the product. Emulsifiers for the most part aren't creepy or bad or gross like other additives to processed food. Some are made of seaweed.

Some people add things like milk powder or gelatin to ice creams or sorbets to improve the texture. Gelatin affects the sorbet or ice cream base while spinning and prevents the formation of ice crystals. You can "cheat" the natural formula by reducing the fat content and adding gelatin to ice creams to prevent the crystallization that happens when not enough fat is present in a base. You can also cheat by adding a couple tablespoons of alcohol, which will keep the ice cream softer.

I like to keep my ice cream pretty simple and only booze it up if I'm going for a boozy flavor. Ice cream can be deceptive with all those additives. You can't taste gelatin in a product, though you can sometimes taste milk powder if the ice cream is a pretty weak flavor.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

soup-making: the true test of a cook

If you want to see how good a cook's skills are, have her make you some soup. It's industry wisdom that it takes a savvy cook to layer the depth of flavor and seasoning that will meld the ingredients of a soup into something you can get excited about. And it's true. Try it.

Me, I like making simple vegetarian soups. I make them mostly with water-based stocks, as you'll see Michael Ruhlman suggest many a time (and if you haven't read Ruhlman on soups and stocks, why not?) though I do have a pile of turkey stock cubes in the freezer from last Thanksgiving's carcass. (I tend to forget they're there).

Today's soup was a yellow split pea, inspired by Heidi's recipe at 101cookbooks. I found the peas took a lot longer to cook, maybe almost an hour but I wasn't keeping track of time. That's another soup lesson: time is kinda irrelevant. When the peas were halfway done, I sauteed an onion until lightly browned, then slid the onion into the soup to let the flavors meld. I added salt, the juice of half a lemon, and rooted through my cupboard for the sumac because I knew I'd want a little touch of acid.

I did not have any olives on hand--they're too expensive for my budget--but I did whip up a nice tsatziki with some leftover yogurt.

The soup came out great, once I got the peas properly cooked. I actually didn't puree it at all, just kept adding liquid to get the peas cooked and then a little more to thin it out. I made some cheesy toast and had a full meal and felt refreshed and full as only soup can make you.

I love how the raw garlic in the tsatziki contributed its own flavor, much more pungent than cooked garlic. I think I put a little more sauce then I would have wanted, because too much yogurt cut the delicate flavor of the soup, but then that's the beauty of soup. It is what you make of it altogether. I could spread my tsatziki on something else entirely and roast some heirloom tomatoes tomorrow and pop them into my soup.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Pizzaiolo: beautiful dining room, beautiful people, but the pizza part?

I went to Oakland's Pizzaiolo for dinner recently with old FH friends. We got there around six and the room was hopping, but there were still a couple of tables left so we didn't have to wait.

I absolutely loved the space. The adorable retro touches, like the vintage lights above the line that probably don't offer much in the way of light. The buttery yellow tiles on the wall, the red oval tiles on the pizza oven, the hardy wooden tables. It was clear that the chef, Charlie Hallowell, had put a lot of his time and his self in that room and it was clear watching the cooks on the line that it was a place people--not just customers, but cooks too--wanted to be.

I started with a glass of the housemade vin d'orange, a fortified wine with vanilla, vodka, seville orange and warm spices. The wine was indeed strong, and the seville orange and vanilla dominated the promised black pepper flavor, but overall I was happy with it.

We split two "antipasti" and a pizza:

Star Route lettuces, burrata with olive oil and Acme bread toast, pizza with stinging nettles and pecorino

The lettuces were sweet baby leaves lightly tossed with oil, salt and pepper, simple and refreshing although a couple of whole or nearly-whole peppercorns snuck past the garde manger cook and onto our place.

The burrata was actually my favorite course. Maybe it's almost time to revise that oft-used phrase I utter (you know, the I don't like cheese one). Perfect slices of lightly charred Acme levain and a chunk of burrata drizzled with olive oil. The consistency was strange, sort of like the first spoonfulls of cream-topped yogurt, slighlty resistant but then all creaminess. It was great to have the lettuce and the burrata at the same time for the textural and flavor contrast.
this is the burrata. photo by inuyaki.com

Our pizza came streaming hot with a blistering crust. Given that, I would not have expected the center crust to be soggy and slightly wet, which made it impossible to eat out of hand without resulting to all kinds of New Yorker folding strategies. There was something sweet--distracting because I couldn't place it--and there were (unmentioned in the menu listing) slightly crunchy red onions on the pizza. The nettles were wilted nicely and well cooked, except the long stems had ben left on and those were stringy.

I really wanted to like the pizza. I have the feeling if we'd ordered a different (read: nettle-less) pizza, it would have been better (no stringiness). But we were dining with a vegetarian and that was the one that leaped out at all of us. What we ordered was enough food to feed three people comfortably, which was nice. We walked out of there happy and not too full.

We actually didn't get dessert. Fairly full on what we ate. It was clear from the menu items, the menu language, the presentation and the dessert that Pizzaiolo is one of those ex-Chez Panissey places. The servers assemble the desserts themselves, on the restaurant floor side of the line. Drizzle of verbena anglaise, puff square, sauce with apricot compote, dust with 10x. Interestingly, most tables did seem to order dessert and the ice cream was a popular choice.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Bay Area pastry chefs just can't catch a break?

Tough times to be a pastry chef. Not only are patrons tightening their belt (and their budget) when it comes to fine dining and desserts, but this morning Michael Bauer kinda called you boring.

Part of the reason is that my expectations are low writes MB after admitting that he routinely gives restaurants with poor dessert choices 3 stars, giving GMs, head chefs and owners the impression that it doesn't matter who's making their pot de cremes and seasonal fruit galettes.

It's also challenging to review desserts, claims MB, because those darn restaurants could be bothered to send him a menu. Do they even give him the PC's name? From the blog:

When we call for menus each week for restaurants I'm reviewing, we have to specifically ask for a dessert menu, otherwise there's a 50-50 chance we won't get one. Even now we sometimes have to call again, which suggests that many restaurants aren't invested in the sweet course. That's probably the reason I see many unbalanced offerings: too many creamy puddings or too much chocolate, for example. I can't even estimate how many restaurants I've been to that have an ice cream component in every dessert.

This isn't the first time MB's complained about the sweet fare out here.

My suggestions for the Bauer? Well, I'd love to see him champion the desserts we DO have. Imagine if he were using his powers of suggestions to offer up examples of success rather than lambaste the options? Also, it seems like Bauer's talking to chefs about desserts but no one's talking to the diners. Chefs are picky. Chefs want to play with toys. Chefs have been making creme brulee for their entire damned career and probably want something new. True. I support all of that.

But let's flesh out the idea that Bay Area people aren't some bizarro boring-dessert lovers, shall we? I mean, Creme Brulee Cart man seems to be doing pretty well.

And let's take a second to think about the many fine bakeries in this city who do offer something a little more interesting. The continued success of places like Kara's Cupcakes proves that people will go out of their way to pay a little more money for an item that's organic and tasty (though they could use some new flavors!)

Friday, June 26, 2009

sweet life bakery, eugene, or

It was a craving for diner food that made my friend and I pull off the I-5 in Eugene OR. First the iPhone sent us to a creepy town across the river from Eugene, the kind of town that can only be the setting for that old fiction topic The Stranger Comes To Town. Well, we were the strangers and we rode out.

In Eugene we found a newfangled diner and purchased elaborate burger sandwiches and fried goods. Tempted by the sign on the door that read Pie Happy Hour 3:30-5 we asked out server to explain, which is how we found out about the Sweet Life Patisserie, who supplied Happy Hour pies.

thanks gina pina

It would be open till ten or eleven. We would fine a line outside the door, she assured us. And it was not to be missed! So we paid, crossed town to the bakery, and waited in a very long line. Maybe you've never been to Oregon or maybe you are one of those people who only goes to Portland, so it bears explaining here: the majority of rural Oregon has a problem with the gays. Sure, Eugene is a college town, but we'd seen neither hide nor hair of queer culture and a whole lot of fundamentalist bigot radiom and the only gay bar in Eugene had closed down 2-3 years earlier.

Once we made it into the Sweet Life we tried to decide between the gelato, chocolates, cookies, cakes, creme brulee, pies and other items. When bakeries have a lot of items I tend to get nervous, because you can't reasonably expect one chef to excel in all those areas.

I went with the mixed berry pie (blueberry, blackberry, ollalie and marion, which prompted a discussion on Marion Berry...my friend thought it was a joke) and he got the chocolate strawberry cake, basically a chocolate version of strawberry shortcake (whipped cream frosting, ganache, strawberry compote). Coffee drinks to go.

My pie was great. They heated it up for me and gave me a generous slab (for $4, I'd hope so), although they didn't offer whipped cream or anything I guess you could buy ice cream to get it a la mode. The cake was moist, the berries flavorful.

Here's what was so exciting about the Sweet Life: it offered a place for the smart kids, the geeky kids, the gay kids to go and hang out in a town that didn't seem like it had much cultural escape to offer. The cashier at the sweet life was totes gay. And the day before our visit, the Sweet Life bakery had participated in Bites for Rights, a fundraising program that donated 15% of the day's sales to Basic Rights Oregon, an equality organization.

As if being progressive on the issue of equality isn't enough of a reason to love Sweet Life, here's another:

the bakery is super conscientious of those with food allergies and dietary restrictions. Vegans and gluten-free girls, little signs in the case will tell you which products you can eat, so you don't have to hold up the line asking.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

amazing apricots 1

I remember the first time I ate an apricot. It was my first time in California, I was visiting family in Woodside, and I bought an apricot at the local market because it felt so California to me. And also because I'd never seen a fresh apricot.

I experienced what many people experience when they bite into a fresh apricot. The flesh was mealy, the flavor underwhelming, the skin spongy. I did not eat another fresh apricot for about six years and I gave them another try only grudgingly.

If you've ever thought these apricot things are so mealy and yucky...i contemplate eating them because i really want a fresh peach and the peaches aren't ready, well then, this post is for you. see, apricots deepen in flavor when cooked, and the mushy complaint of their texture turns soft. How, exactly, you say?

image by max xx

Close your eyes and think of a peach pie. You know how the peaches are bright, how they taste like you think yellow would if yellow had a taste? How they're probably one-dimensionally sweet from all the sugar added in the pie? When you cook apricots like this, don't be surprised if you turn down the next piece of peach pie someone offers you.

Pit and halve a bunch of apricots. Put them in a pot with some sugar and a splash of water. If you have a vanilla bean, you can throw one in. Apricots and vanilla really sing. If you've got a good honey, you can use some honey. What else could you use? Chamomile, dark brown sugar, brandy, lemon. This is not a list of ANDs, however. It's a list of ORs. Any item on this list will complement the apricots, but so that you understand the beauty and complexity of an apricot once it's cooked, choose sugar plus one, or even a rich type of sugar like muscovado or maple or demerara. Something special.

Cook the apricots plus sugar plus water (plus extra) over medium heat. Let's say you have six to eight apricots. I would add 1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar. You can always add more sugar but you can't take it out. The fruit will start to break down and release its juices. Continue cooking until the juices thicken. I'm not going to give you a more exact recipe than that, but I will answer questions. You will be left with a delicious compote that I like to serve warmed over vanilla ice cream.

Learning how to cook apricots will change your life. If you're lactose intolerant, spoon them over soy yogurt with granola for breakfast, and if you hate sweets grab a nice cheese and good bread because this compote is versatile, easy, cheap and delicious. Promise. If you get inspired to try this and make a new, fun combo, let me know.

stuff that's keeping me happy lately

I've been so busy traveling. There's a lot that I want to tell you about but it's going to take a while. In the meantime here's a teaser of stuff that I've been into lately:

  • pilot books, seattle
  • amazing apricots
  • breaking news: harvard lays off 275 employees --> THIS IS NOT SOMETHING I LIKE
  • molly moon's, seattle
  • finding a gay friendly bakery in eugene or
  • inner sunset farmers market, sf
  • modesto jr. college egg farmers
  • being so close to the end of chapter 3, phew!

photo by James Callahan

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Andre Dubis-isms

While searching my hotmail inbox for a recipe for rosemary-soy chicken wings, I unearthed an email from a grad school professor that contained a list of anecdotes about the esteemed writer Andre Dubus Sr.

Known among writers as "Andre Dubus the father," so as to distinguish the subject from his son, the Andre Dubus who authored The House of Sand and Fog, the elder Andre Dubus is known primarily for his rich and haunting short stories. Dubus is one of those people described frequently as a "writer's writer."

What does this mean? Certainly it ranks up there with the haughty-yet-cliched terms bandied about by teachers and students of writing in MFA classes and advanced-level college workshops. Both curse and blessing, being a writer's writer is like being crowned prom king AND valedictorian. Your writing is layered, rich, resonant (oh, cliche!), your endings are earned, your characters' dialogue is never petty nor trite.

Joking aside, what this means primarily is that you are someone aspiring writers need to have in their toolbox. You have something to teach writers--how to tell a good story--as well as readers. If you are a writer's writer, you might not be well-known by the general reading public.* You might not have a bestseller, or financial success. You are a rocks glass of smoky scotch beside a fireplace while soft snow settles onto the eaves of an old house. You are special.

Another of my professors was an old family friend of Andre D's, and had the pleasure of sitting through many a Red Sox game with the old man. He used to tell us stories of Andre's adoration for the gummy New England accent, and the hardworking-hard-drinking working class baseball fans you can encounter at Fenway.

While his Andre stories were more character-driven, the list of Dubus-ism I found portray not the man himself, but the quirks of a writer and the instructions in a practice.

  • Andre Dubus (father) wrote 100 pages to "find" the seven pages of his story "Waiting." It took him fourteen months.
  • Andre Dubus always recorded how many words he wrote each day. And everytime he said "thank you." -- "28 words, thank you." OR "1200 words, thank you."
  • Andre D was at a party once where there was a fistfight over whether something falls to "earth" or to "the ground." Carver was for "ground."
  • Rick Russo said of Andre D's prose style "Once you are a Catholic you will be using that language the rest of your life, even if you don't believe in the dogma anymore."
  • Russo said that reading Andre Dubus and Richard Yates when he was in an MFA program at the Univ. of Arizona saved him--because at the time everyone was reading Gass, Coover, Hawkes, Vonnegut, etc.
  • Rick Russo quoting a friend: "Just becasue it didn't happen doesn't mean I can't remember it."

*Dubus the father's short story Killings was adapted into the movie "In the Bedroom."

Friday, June 12, 2009

the three strikes bakery rule

When trying out a new bakery, I almost always follow the three strikes rule: no matter how I feel about something on the first visit, I'm not allowed to rule it out until I've made two more visits. There are so many variables that could affect the initial impression, ranging from my mood or the weather to an overly salty batch of dough the kitchen made or a slightly stale cookie.* I might visit with a friend and try a few items; in that case, I'll relax the rule a bit.

Last night in the Castro, I told my friend something vaguely upsetting as we were walking back from dinner. Surprising, no. Upsetting, yes. He clutched my arm and, rather than respond to what I'd been saying, demanded cake at that very moment. Let's Go Into Cafe Flore, he said, pointing at the Castro landmark.

image from aweigend.

I've been to Cafe Flore many times, and quite enjoy it for a lingering coffee with friends on a rare sunny-AND-warm San Francisco day, or for late-morning brunches. The eggs are always good, and I respect a tiny postage-stamp of a kitchen that can stay on top of their game. Over the years I've had a couple of their desserts and been lukewarm, most notably for the chocolate violet souffle cake that tastes nothing like violets. Chocolate cake does not need violets, no, not at all. So if you are going to create a violet-chocolate cake, please make sure it actually tastes like something? ok?

We skipped the cheesecake, considered the chocolate cake, and decided to share a slice of the banana foster pie.

What looked like a simple custardy confection ended up being a four-layer pie that, if slightly too sweet, was rich and creamy and perfect for sharing. Deep cookie-crumb crust got a layer of caramel, and another one of rum-vanilla custard. The pie finished with a banana cream and a caramel drizzle. The pie was one of those occasions something tastes better than it looks, the flavors rising above the ho-hum prissy bakery presentation that we all groan over. Lucky for Cafe Flore, this was my third visit.

I'm often considered a snob about food and other things, and I am, sure. That said, there's a place for the ok, the humble, the merely good. The pie was as good as some items I've had from places like Tartine and Citizen Cake. Sometimes we don't want to think that way. It helps, when paying Tartine prices, to believe you are getting the absolute best there can be. There are days when all you want is a sweet and uncomplicated piece of pie, a little sunshine, an outdoor table, and a dose of queers.

*Note to cooks and kitchenworkers: it's actually really important to taste everything you sell every day (sauces and such, maybe every 2 days, unless they're fruit-based). I've seen anglaise go bad in the squeeze bottle during a service. I've also worked at restaurants that serve, day in and out, horribly stale versions of Claudia Fleming's brownie cookies, which is not only gross but completely disrespectful.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

heading out of town

see you in a while, cali! it's cold and foggy here and i'm in need of some time to relax. i've got a new stack of library books. i'll pack my prepster shorts, charge the ipod and fly out tonight.

see you soon, herrell's, jp licks, hi rise, sofra? doughnut plant, i'll catch you on my travels too, and il lab, and maybe momofuku?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

what we talk about when we talk about food

Lately I've been thinking that I wouldn't have this blog if I were starting it today. Right now the market seems saturated for this sort of thing, and while that wasn't any less true (probably) three years ago, I had fresher eyes for the genre back then.

When Francis Lam wrote about his quest to make a perfect omelet, he's writing about the sense and muscle memories, and the intuition that make a good cook. When Michael Ruhlman wrote about driving down Route 9 in a blizzard for his culinary exams, it certainly wasn't the test that was on his mind, but the necessary sacrifices of time and will that you are required to make if you play the game. He understood it was a test of character. When Molly O'Neill wrote about learning to butcher and cook fish in a Provincetown kitchen, she was really talking about grit and integrity, about the differences in a kitchen between insider and outsider, and how we permeate those boundaries. As well as the need for the flavor of the fish to dictate the cooking method, and the importance of seasonal and local ingredients back before our country really had a culinary movement. Carol Blymire's posts at Alinea at Home are about the fear of failure and the comfort and courage that food offers us, as much as they are about xantham gum or agar. And when Ruth Reichl portrays Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters in the early days of California cooking, it isn't the food, though it's evocatively described, so much as the passion and vision of these young cooks before they were culinary figureheads.

What we talk about when we talk about food isn't food. This is a balancing act that is difficult to execute consistently. Oh, it's tempting to get caught up in describing the flavor of a rare ingredient or fresh heirloom produce gently coddled in the hands of some culinary idol. It's exciting to talk about the atmosphere of anticipation that surrounds the diners-slash-audience embarking upon a tasting menu. It's easy to write about food--and to write something interesting--only on the level of the food itself. But it's not satisfying. And it's not transcendent.

It's good to remind myself of these things, because I've been struggling to write about food, and I've been slightly checked out of the food debate, catching only faint whispers of SF rumors and trends, rumbles about Bruni's replacement and so on. In my own writing I've been stalling, researching, and committing that crime of writing about food only on the surface.

I've become so tired of the way we talk about food, either in the present media moment of here in SF. Recently Robert Beringela (pseudonym) serialized a "food noir" tale in San Francisco magazine that, while at first glance amusing and pointedly thumbing its nose at this tiny-city-of-food-cliche, eventually revealed itself to contain no more substance than the ubiquitous beet/goat cheese/mixed green salad that's grown so offensive round here.

I've had the dubious fortune to be at two restaurants during opening review process, so experienced the MB hype, stressful service, and inflated prose {for the record, when a critic's in house, we most often know it, at least by dessert!}, plus the anticipation of waiting for review. But parsing the sentences of a Bauer review isn't wholly satisfying, in parts because MB can play favorites with his chefs, and to a lesser extent with styles and trends.

More than ever it's important to support the places where real, honest conversations about food are taking place. I'm talking about your local farm markets and your organic bakeries, and Gourmet and Saveur, but not the other food magazines, your specialty stores and restaurants, and your own kitchen, your own cooking. Make it count for something.

The food scenes in my writing are actually the more difficult ones to write, because while my writing brain wants to put something down and go ahead, the cook in me begins to parse the dish. Is it good enough? What cooking techniques are necessary? What's the mise look like, and whose station's it coming off of, what's the fire time? Why would the chef choose these things? What am I really trying to say?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

vanilla bread pudding with stone fruit

I used to be a little snot (used to be, you say?). One day during the course of my stage at Oleana, I told the pastry chef, Maura, that I wasn't a fan of bread pudding. I hadn't yet learned that you don't tell this to cooks; that claiming not to like something ends with you being prodded or strong-armed into trying their adaptation of it. Sometimes, when we say "don't like," what we mean is don't understand or aren't impressed by or, as my french chef used to say, "it is not very interesting."

I worked at the time at a bistro in Boston that served chocolate bread pudding with whipped cream (side note: it really irks me when people call it chantilly on menus...it's whipped cream people). We made four hotel pans of the stuff, using leftover house bread (baked by me & my boss) plus the supplementary bread we got on the weekends. The night guys usually cut the bread for us, two large fishtubs, but occasionally we'd have to top it off, then make the custard. I'd be up to my elbows in the stuff, tossing the bread, letting it soak. Then I'd have to portion it into the four hotel pans, bake them in barely-there hot water baths consisting of the 1/2-1 inch of water I could pour on the full sheet pan and, when baked, pull these same suckers out of the oven without spalashing hot water all over myself and burning the mitts. So I was usually pretty clumsy and usually made a mess (big surprise, right?). Suffice to say I'd had it with bread pudding and I felt that I was pretty well informed on the topic.

Well it only took a couple bites of Maura's bread pudding to change my mind. Hers was made with homemade brioche, pretty standard, and I had excellent results baking it with Acme pain de mie as well. Maura soaked her bread in a mixture of custard plus simple syrup; her theory was that the simple syrup prevented the bread from getting too heavy and resulted in a lighter final product. I'm not sure whether that's true but I know the results are certainly delicious.

This version below features stone fruits, with cherries just coming into season! We don't have peaches yet but we do have apricots, which are delicious baked or roasted. As promised a long time ago, here is the bread pudding recipe adapted from Maura's supremely wonderful brown butter bread pudding with mulberries and milk jam at Oleana.

vanilla bread pudding with stone fruit:
{makes 1 lg. deep dish pan (9x13) +/- a few extra ramekins}

custard base:
eggs 9
sugar 2.5c
cream 4c
milk 2.5c
vanilla bean 2, split and seeded

for soaking:
simple syrup: 1c
cubed bread: 8c
custard base above

fruit, to add:
pitted cherries: 2c
peeled, sliced peaches: 2c

Warm dairy with vanilla beans and infuse 30 minutes. Whisk eggs and sugar together. Add cream and milk. Place bread in large bowl, coat with simple syrup and then with custard base. Let soak 1 hr or until most of liquid is absorbed, tossing bread every so often. Add cut fruit to soaked bread and mix. Pour into baking pan, using ramekins for any overflow. Cover with foil and bake at 325 for 35 minutes. Remove foil and bake 15 more minutes or until top is lightly browned. Center should be set. If not, keep baking.*

*I worked somewhere where we baked bread pudding FOR THREE HOURS once.

in other notes:
*huge burn blister on my finger with goo bubble the diameter of a caper. it needs to go away.
*valrhona cocoa powder, how i have missed you.
*i should do a post on ways to infuse vanilla beans, maybe i will.
*i ate the second half of my burrito for dinner and now i have nothing to look forward to at work tomorrow.
*claudia fleming is still awesome.
*i've been reading a book a day, about.
*my car is not dead and gone forever. hell yeah! road trip seattle anyone?
*i'm contemplating a series of podcast essays. main problem: i'm not interested in the sound of my own voice, unless i'm pretending to be claudia gonson. second main problem: that just sounds gimmicky and slightly pretentious.
*i need to learn to say no, sometimes, and stop doing everyone a favor all the time.
*i chopped orange peel for a long time today and it was really theraputic and zenlike. i recommend it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

flaky lemon shortbread

Shortbread is a taken-for-granted kind of cookie. It's usually ho-hum, buttery, sweet, nothing too special. It's versatile. You can add spices, citrus zest, vanilla bean, cocoa nibs. Some people really enjoy buttery, flaky cookies and my mother is one of them, so this is what she got for Mother's day. For the record, it shipped well and did not break. Always useful information.

This particular shortbread is flaky, tall, and soft. (There are other chewy shortbreads that are delicious too and this is not one of them). It's adapted from the Tartine cookbook. I've tried it out a couple of times and it's critical to do it by hand, with the butter at a supersoft consistency. As if you've left it out on a humid July day while you went to the corner store for some eggs, ran into your neighbor, chatted for fifteen minutes, and came back home to find squeezable, malleable butter.

If you'd rather make this shortbread, orange, vanilla, (orange-vanilla), fennel, baharat, or anything else, you go right ahead. How do you do this? Add some flavoring (seeds from 1 van. bean, 1 t spices, etc), and then taste the dough. Start small...for obvious reasons.

Lemony shortbread:
(makes one 9-inch round, to be cut into 8-10 wedges)

soft butter: 9 oz.
salt: 1/2 tsp. + pinch (reserved)
lemon zest: 1-2 large lemons*
rice flour: 1/2 c. + 2T**
granulated sugar: 1/3 c. + more for topping

Paddle softened butter with a spatula by hand until creamy. Work in sugar and lemon zest. Add rice flour and mix until dough comes together. Pat dough into baking tin and smooth to level grade. Top dough with granulated sugar and reserved pinch of salt. Bake in 325 degree oven 30-40 minutes. Should be just slightly golden but cooked through in center. Let cool before cutting.

*I used Eureka lemons.
**Cornstach can be substituted for rice flour.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

so sorry

About two years ago, I received a comment on a short story I wrote that was published online. Apparently.

I just noticed this comment tonight.

Someone named Tricia begged me for the recipe for the brown butter bread pudding with milk jam from Oleana, the beloved Cambridge restaurant. How Tricia knew I'd spent time in the Oleana kitchen is a mystery...maybe she read the story, googled me, found the blog? Or the other way around?

Anyway, Tricia--who I'm sure will never read these words, not unless she's still out there googling toward Oleana's decadent yet homey brown butter bread pudding, I'm sorry. I do have that recipe tucked in a tiny pink notebook. I used to make that bread puding at Frog Hollow all the time, a brown butter version with pears and dried fruit, and a vanilla custard version with stone fruit. It was pretty universally loved.

I've got the recipe for milk jam also, a Middle Eastern confection similar to dulce de leche, made on an all-day slow simmering stove. I haven't made milk jam since those days, but I know that I will one day.

Three weeks and counting til I get to go to Sofra myself and maybe, if I'm very lucky, they'll have a version of that bread pudding for sale. In the meantime, two years too late, sorry.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

thought stream of revision

{or, some of the junk that goes through my mind}

One of the things I try to do each time I'm working on revisions is give myself the time to re-read the current draft before diving in, especially if it's been a while. It's always great to have writing work that *feels* like writing, but the main reason for this is so that I can spend some time (re)remembering what I wanted to write about in the first place. Usually I'll try to get all the way through without listening to the editor in my head, but when I do let the editor's voice shine, it tends to go something like this:

1. weak beginning...OMG, takes two pages to get to the meat of the story! no bueno!
2. do we have a pretty good sense of who the protagonist is and what he wants by page 2, at the latest? why not?
3. what is the particular problem in this story? is that clear to readers? {usually, in an early draft, the answer is NO}
4. is the landscape clear? {not only the physical landscape/geography, but the other characters that help my MC define himself}
5. insert time-honored/exhausted workshop tropes. pick your favorite, which may include what's at stake? there's not enough tension in this piece. the dialogue/characters is/are flat. and you haven't earned the ending.
6. remember the things that are your weakness. for me, it's an overuse of exposition. which sucks, because I like a lot of exposition, and I'm willing to put up with a lot of it if the writing is good. however, exposition for its own sake is no longer popular in today's literary fiction...and who am I, just another writer, right? right.
7. remember that you are standing in your own way: that your pride, or your adoration for minor character #7 (the one with the harelip and the broken umbrella), or your determination that you know exactly what the piece is about, or your brilliant wit in paragraphs 3-5...if you are going to have a finished, polished piece, most of the things you love will die or mutate.
8. get real quiet and listen.

last night i learned that i totally forgot to convert one page from first to third person, so, sorry brooke, don't be confused when you read the excerpt i sent you. i learned that there's not as much exposition (yes!) as i remembered and nearly no backstory (double yes!), that my characters are still sickly thin, that the madcap caper tone of the chapter isn't being read through the agonizing level of detail i invested trying to make the plot believable, and that what will make the plot more believable is rounded characters stuck in a conflict.

who, what, where, when, why? and why now? i try to be kind on a first raft. i don't have high expectations. and when i'm going through this process, i'm certainly not doing it with a little checklist beside me. to date i've spent, oh, 6-8 years workshopping pieces? i know how to ask these questions, whether it's about your piece or mine. to know what to change, you need to make a series of quick, frequently subconscious decisions. it's wrong because it is. the dialogue reads awkwardly, and when you say it aloud you'll hear. we know when something doesn't sound right because most of us have been reading for what feels like forever.

that, when you think about it, is pretty significant. what else have we been doing all our conscious lives, other than eating, sleeping, losing our tempers, and discovering things to love and find beautiful? ok, and watching television. play kitchens turned into real ones, stuffed animals became pets, and the other games of childhood fell away unless we play them with our children or other people's. i'll stop now before this gets too fever pitch {the movie, not the novel...i actually can't stand nick hornby. sox win, btw!} but consider the implications...what sort of people still care about the same things they did when they were 7?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

how to use a pastry bag, and other things they don't teach you on food media

piping shot by lens envy
Cooks make pastry bags look awfully easy to use, don't they? Cupping giant bags in rounded palms, slapping used bags on the countertop, squeezing miniscule quantities of sauce down the skinny tube...it can't be that hard, right?

It's a lot harder than it looks. Sure, anyone can use a pastry bag. There are lots of little tips you can learn to avoid mistakes...and if you're wondering what could possibly go wrong you've certainly never cut a hole too large, causing the tip of your bag to shoot off across the room, and your sauce/frosting/etc to spill all over the table. Or squeezed a bag too hard, causing it to burst (see above). Or tried to warm an emulsion on top of the oven and broken it (thereby ruining your product).

First off: why use a pastry bag at all? They're impossible to clean if you use cloth ones, and if you're using plastic, you're wasteful.

Any delicate, ethereal macaron you've ever eaten? Piped with a piping bag, and almost always filled with one as well. The prettiest cupcakes and wedding cakes? Ditto. Meringue for lemon meringue pie, or baked alaska? Sometimes. Likewise for hors d'oevres, canapes, and other party snacks.
macaron by acme
If finesse is required, a pastry bag comes in handy. It's classy. Though it sometimes looks retro-chic, yes.

So, should you find yourself in need of a pastry bag, here are some tips:

1. Don't buy a Wilton's one, or whatever brand you find in your supermarket cake-decorating aisle, especially if it's got some sort of plastic screw tip. This will almost certainly fall apart.

2. Less is sometimes more: when you're filling your pastry bag you have a choice between a less-full bag that's easier to handle, and a chock-full bag that you won't have to refill often (if ever). I'm partial to a less-full bag because not only is it easier to control your piping, it's less likely to make your hands cramp up/give you repetitive stress injuries.

3. If you do go for a bag bag, keep your non-dominant hand at the top of the bag, twisting the bag shut. Squeeze the bag 3-4 inches above the tip with your dominant hand. You're turning the unwieldy cone into something manageable; by only working with a small amount of product, you are allowing yourself to have control over how much you release and where. If you've got something that's stiff, like cream cheese frosting or not-quite-tempered ganache, this is almost a necessity. When you run out of product in your zone, squeeze it down. If you've got a big bag of whipped cream, sure, top-down is fine...there's no resistance.

4. Remember, your hands are warm. The heat of your hands will warm up whatever product is in the bag. If it's ganache, be careful it doesn't overheat and separate. If it's ice cream, work fast and make sure you are piping into frozen molds. If you're finished with a product but might need it again, chill/freeze it if necessary.

5. For best piping, even pressure is key. Slow, even movements will get you the best results. If you're nervous, practice on parchment, the counter, or whatever's nearby.

6. In a pinch, you can make a pastry bag out of a ziplock. Fill the bag, pinch shut, turn 45 degrees so bottom edge is pointing directly at floor, then cut a hole.

7. Re: cutting holes: err on the side of smaller rather than larger, and hold the bag upright with one hand and cut with the other to avoid a mess. You can lay it on the table, but it might squirt out.

I personally think my tips are way better than these tips. If you need guidance on filling the pastry bag, go here.

If you need a really small amount of something (chocolate or frosting for writing on a cake) you can make a cornet...also known as "a small cone of parchment paper." But that's a lesson for another day.

Monday, April 27, 2009

busy (all the time)

hi, lil foodies.

i am very much aware of my neglect of food in this-here space lately. i'm kicking around a couple of ideas but to be honest, i have not felt very inspired on the food-front lately. could be because i've been writing so much, but hey...that one took a sputtering back burner for the last THREE YEARS, alright already? I'm trying to re-negotiate my relationship with food, which is linked directly to my satisfaction with work/living spaces. In the last year I've baked a lot less...because I've had no freezer space, a very unreliable oven, and now a toaster oven.

(yes...I do decide what to bake, if I'm baking at home, by what pan will fit in the toaster oven. yes...i am aware this is ridiculous)

so I'm just gonna leave you with two things:

1. new category in the overcrowded sidebar of other pieces I've written. currently this just contains other blogs I contribute to, but as I get new fictions published they'll make their way over there. I'm not going to put the old ones up, but you can find them if you want to without too much trouble.

2. I've got all my seeds started and I'm scoping out a couple more plants, but here's this year's sunset garden lineup:
early girl tomatoes
yellow pear tomatoes
some kind of determinate cherry tomato whose name escapes me
romano beans
red beets
mesclun mix
rainbow swiss chard
chantenay carrots
french breakfast radishes
lemon verbena
lemon basil

The apple tree and blackberry bushes are flowering. I'm contemplating letting my third shade bed get overrun with spearmint.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


marshmallows in the fridge! they're setting tonight, to be folded into brownie batter tomorrow...

because i am a good big sister.

homemade marshmallows are a luxury, if you haven't tried them. pillowy, playful, and not at all like those supermarket puffs.

{has anyone out there tried to make agar marshmallows? or xantham gum (so fun, but so creepy if you touch it)?}

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

oh please

from the craigslist "writing gigs" section: famous poet seeks intern

"famous poet/sculptress {insert URL here}. She has read with Charles, Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg. She also dated Charles Bukowski for five years. This your chance to learn from someone who learned for the greats. She have rare books from the 70's that need to be complied in a 'complete works' book. Please email me your resume and I'll be in-touch."

so many things to say but let's start with these:

1. Charles, Bukowski? no...alphabetizing goes last name first
2. Do we want to know your sex life to get a job with you? Do we need to?
3. "learned for the greats"
4. sounds like someone's books are out of print and she wants a vanity pressing, eh?

Happy Poetry Month. At least we know why it's unpaid....

Saturday, April 18, 2009

one more

oops...i forgot to tell you the best story in that last post! in a way it's about hustling, too, and in a way it's strange and sad, but i find i keep turning it over in my mind.

i have never been the sort of person to look outward for inspiration for stories, but this one, there's something about the mystery in it that i might just borrow it one day.

so, a while back i ran into someone i used to cook with. we chatted about workplaces and he gave me the rundown on who was still working at the restaurant {turnover. always} and who had moved on.

a skinny slip of a cook with intense eyes and a quietly cocky manner simply disappeared. he was married {i thought he was gay...eh...} and he left. left work. gave no notice. skipped town or not. changed the phone number or not. vanished.

i wonder if he took his possessions, his knives, his bicycle, his chefwear. i wonder if he's returned. in my mind he's on the line in some distant city, but what thoughts are possibly going through his head as he flicks the saute pan?

on a different note: i worked 32 hours in the last 3 days. give or take.

on a related note...i'm kinda totally in love with editing my manuscript. it's so scary and so wonderful. part of me wants to tell everyone i know and part of me wants to keep it all to myself. i know it's a very, very long process and i know there will be so many moments when i hate it and am discouraged and think i am not so good at this and want to go out into the world and do something else. but for right now it's such a rush...familiar yet totally not. i'm trying to trust it--the process, the voice, my skill, something. it makes me want to call up writer friends and have long intense conversations. it's somehow made writing feel new again.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

it ain't where i been/but where i'm bout to go

cooks are all hustlers. if you work in a kitchen long enough, you become one. {i'm not implying we all start out that way}

maybe it's because kitchens are such transient places, and we meet at the intersections between revolving doors, the borders of stations, in the walk-in.

i've been running into cooks and other restaurant i used to work with over the last few days. the questions are always the same:

where are you working now? or me? how's that going for you?

they tell me about the jobs they want/need/left/think i should get, or vice versa. they tell me about the other people that have moved on, ask who i am still in touch with.

cooking is a tiny community in this town, and a cook worth his salt usually has his ear to the pipeline. maybe he's pulling doubles working for his friend's new place, or he knows they're hiring, and hey, you need a coupla shifts? he'll hook you up. maybe he's afraid his gig is gonna go south, and he needs the hookup.

hey, you know this place? oh i saw their ad on craigslist. you should apply.

hey, i need a good pastry person, did that girl you used to work with find something?

it's the hustle. in an unlevel playing field, information is currency--especially in this economy--and so we trade it in whispers on street corners, sliding back from the group to catch up before moving on separately.

i'll call you we say. or i'll stop by. in through the back door.

i get phone calls, occasionally. people trying to pass on information or pick up information, people trying to hustle me into something that suits us both. there's no meanness about it. it's just the game. in this town.

bacon n eggs by orin optiglot

Saturday, April 11, 2009

revisions, revisions

I got stuck on a chapter last night. I can usually tell when I'm stuck because I'm avoiding writing, or when I try to write I get nothing done (but sometimes I get so little done even when I'm not stuck). Last night I was trying to revamp a scene in a chapter that needs lots of work.

Group scenes are really hard for me. Parties. Crowded rooms. That stuff is a touch easier in first person because it's all being streamed through one voice. Third person, though...even if it's fairly limited, it's still something I have a hard time working with. All those bodies, what are they doing? I wrote a scant paragraph but no more.

Then I took a walk. Getting up and leaving the room is dangerous. When you're struggling to write, sometimes it works best to push through it, whether by giving yourself an arbitrary word count (500 more, = 2 pages) or by giving yourself an arbitrary time you must write until. I tend to try to stay in the room, even if it's not doing me any good. Even when I give into the urge to google this or that information that I really need to know, really before going any further. Getting up and leaving the room brings the danger that I won't sit back down at all. And leaving writing dissatisfied doesn't make me want to sit back down the next day.

Sometimes it also works to close the computer and let everything marinate overnight. If I've taken my characters up to the edge of a cliff, but not over the cliff, if I've started a new scene, gotten everyone into the next room, then I've got something to mull over and I've got a jumping-off point for the next day. This wasn't going to work because I knew the room they were entering, and they were all bottled up in the hallway.

So I took a walk with my dog, down to the public garden. I thought about the scene I was struggling with. I thought it through enough that when we got home, half an hour or so later, I made a few notes on a post-it and got back to work, and finished the scene.

By and large, characters make rational decisions. They might not be rational to you, the reader; if so, the writer didn't do her job well enough. Stylistically, sure, sometimes we choose altogether unreliable, irrational characters. Logic will always play a role. If I choose an unreliable narrator, I've got to use my logic to demonstrate her total unreliability at some point in the story. If my narrator is confused, heartbroken, manic, earnest, what-have-you, but otherwise trustworthy, he or she will make a rational decision. Additional characters will react in time. Raymond Carver is so skilled at showing these decisions with such sparse language. Writers who clutter their pages (Dave Eggers comes to mind) likewise have to justify their decisions. I walked through the garden at night, took away my fear and frustration and anxiety, and laid everything out straight. What did my character want? Who was going in that room with him? What other characters would hover on the periphery? How could I introduce tension, foreshadowing, doubt, anything for his to react against? How could I introduce information about minor characters that could be useful in future chapters?

Sometimes, but very rarely, we need to leave the room and walk about. That scene is finished, almost. Tonight on my drive home I realized I need to spend a little more time on something. Always writers have to think about how we can raise the stakes, introduce more tension, cut closer to the bone.

That is, if we're writing about something honest and true that we care deeply about. It is infinitely easier to put words on a page if our hearts are not behind them. They lose a degree of power. Choices get abstracted.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

schmidt happens

Hershey’s may not have spelled out their reasons for closing the plant to the employees, but the employee guessed that making artisan chocolates was too expensive and labor intensive for a such a large corporation.

“That’s why not one truffle looks like the next, even the special boxes are hand made and decorated,” she said. The truffle boxes are hand dyed on paper maché and individually decorated using the batik technique. “That’s what Joseph Schmidt is known for. A lot of people hold on to their boxes.”

Production costs for artisan chocolates may be high, but Hershey’s had a good 2008. Net sales in 2008 were $5.13 billion dollars, up from $4.9 billion in 2007. Hershey’s 2008 net profit was $311.4 million dollars, a significant increase from 2007’s $214.2 million.

“Working here was a good experience. I’m so sad. It feels like a death in the family,” the employee said.

The above comes from an interesting article on the last few days of the Joseph Schmidt factory in SF. Joseph Schmidt, along with the Berkeley ScharffenBerger plant, is being closed by parent company Hersheys.

People, don't sell your boutique chocolate shops to Hersheys.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

random thoughts, tuesday afternoon

exhausted in mind, not body.
delicious candied cocoa nibs for afternoon snack.
not feeling the tea cinnamon thing. plus it was weirdly gummy. humph.
LROD hasn't been appearing in my rss feed...that makes me sad.
my dog is a champion at unmaking the bed.
i'm really not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing that my boss didn't get back to me today...but i know i'll find out later in the week.
i'm reading this e-book on my computer (really, it's a pdf file, so am i supposed to call it an e-book or a pdf?) and it's in two columns per page, which annoys me immensely.
i feel like a lot of the publishing blogs lately (cause of the kindle?) are having the same conversation that i was having eight to ten years ago (ebooks, the death of print publishing, the flicker of the screen versus the turn of the page)...which makes me wonder if so many voices are just now joining the dialogue, or if we've been having the same conversation for ten years now.
i'm supposed to be checking out a new writers group on thursday but so far haven't received anything to read for it.
my dog has the cutest smile on his face right now.
i need to cook my bergamot.
michael ruhlman has a great post on lemon squares and you should read it.
there are 59 comments on this post, which makes me think i'm not the only one who likes lemon squares.
i'm really very possible about to train my fourth coworker in 2 months...3 months...can't remember.
i'm nervous i won't like the new brand of coffee i bought at the andronicos.
i've been getting a bunch of rejection letter on this piece of flash, but none of the letters have been interesting.
i feel like apricots are right around the corner and that is very satisfying.

last night a fellow grad student came up...she's had some books out, appeared on npr recently. she was a pub kid and not an mfa-er, so i didn't know her very well, but someone who was out with us said that she thought this woman wrote books she thought would sell, as opposed to books she wanted to write. it took me a microsecond to acknowledge that i'd rather have a book that meant something to me, that i wanted/needed to write, than a book that i produced from a more flippant place.

but i do wonder, does it make it easier to write a book if you're not attached to the story you're telling? by attached i mean with your whole heart? if i were writing a book like this blog post where it didn't matter what sentence followed the next, per se, where i was writing it for someone to read it...or my name to be known...

and who do you write for? (or cook for?)

yourself? who you'd like to be? who you were?

what is the most satisfying audience you can imagine? do you know when you have a good audience? do you recognize apt criticism? does it still sting?

i wrote, when i was a kid, out of some vague hope for fame. then i wrote cause it was smart. i read always, without thinking about why i read.

Friday, March 27, 2009

boredom in the kitchen

I was talking to a fellow cook today about boredom. I kept checking facebook every five minutes. and twitter. I was so bored.

I'd had a pretty busy today at work before heading over to sweat a few more hours in someone else's kitchen, and a lot of orders to fill. Logically, there wasn't cause to be bored. Monday things are pretty slow, I can expect to have a short day, and since it's the end of my work week, I should expect that most things that need to happen that week have happened. I expect Mondays to be boring. But Friday...Friday would be my busiest day even if I didn't have somewhere else to be after work.

Part of it is being alone. No one to talk to. Part of it is the nature of the job.

A former line cook friend told me some time ago that if I was going to continue cooking, I needed to get used to boredom. I am sure this was in response to my complaints about having to work service during a slow night/month/season. I never liked working service (but that's another post), not least because--especially in an open kitchen, where you are constantly being watched--there is not a lot that you can do. Sure, you can start infusing that spice for an anglaise, but who is going to stand there and cook it for you if you get a ticket? Working service is, literally, waiting for the printer to spit out your tickets. Working in pastry, you are the wallflower of service, the last asked to dance.

I wanted to be busy all the time. Cakes in the oven, dough to sheet, chocolate melting over a double boiler and an infusion going. The kind of busy where you leave at the end of the day and realize that every single person eating dessert that night will be eating something that you made. You're exhausted and energized.

There'll be times when you're just chopping stuff for two hours, my friend said. Hulling strawberries. Because it needs to be done. You're going to be bored and that's part of the job.

pans by cseanburns

I shouldn't be surprised at boredom, but somehow I constantly am. Another cook once said to me that it's only after you pass through that phase {actually, in her words, it was only after you'd spent a year somewhere, but some places have steeper learning curves than others} that you begin to see under that layer to everything else going on, and you learn so much more. Take your pick of advice; get back
to me on it.

kumquats by orphanjones

Monday, March 23, 2009

&you are?; an ingredient list

shamelessly stolen from chef, though I did him the courtesy of letting him know.

butter is from litlnemo

a list of ingredients, techniques, methods that are meaningful to me:

black peppercorns
pink peppercorns
apples {esp. northern spy, stayman winesap, pink pearl}
sugar {white, brown, demerara, muscovado}
middleton gardens fraises des bois + mara des bois + raspberries
lemon verbena
plums {italian + french prune plums, mirabelle, and the small plums i used to sell here}
vanilla bean
malt powder
new england blueberries
ice cream
citrus {meyer, eureka, yuzu, bergamot, kumquat, tangerine, grapefruit}
rosewater and orange blossom
salted almond
walnut + black walnut
sb 70%
valrhona equtoriale + jivara lactee
brown sugar
butter cake
roasted banana
black tea {lapsang souchong, darjeeling, earl grey}
korean mint
root vegetables {parsnips, baby beets}
brown butter