Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Cookie Time!

It's that time of year when the house should smell of baking. I think I used to have more time for this--I know I did when I was self-employed and didn't own a horse. I'm not giving up the horse to spend more time in the kitchen, though.

When I do have the time, I like to make cookies which have been made in my family for as long as I can remember (with the exception of Mexican Wedding Cakes and the Fudge Crackles, which I added along the way.) The most of the recipes came from my Italian-American grandmother, but a notable one came from my Czech-American grandmother, and both were filtered through my mother's kitchen. My mother has this habit of leaving out key notes, so one year I went home for the holidays and watched her do things, making notes in my little blue book the whole time.

I've rarely found recipes in traditional cookbooks for these sweets. I don't know if it is because the names I've got are in a dialect rather than in formal Italian or Czech or some other reason. They all tend to be time-consuming undertakings and I don't have help in the kitchen to make them, unfortunately.

The Italian Cookies:

Tarella are hard anise cookies which we dip into a frosting and sometimes decorate with sprinkles or colored sugar. They are good dipped in coffee or hot chocolate. I remember getting the recipe to make in home ec in junior high. My mother neglected to give the correct amount of flour, which varies depending on humidity. We were scraping dough off everything, it was so sticky. I'm better at it now.

Pizzelles are made on a special waffle iron and are very much affected by humidity. They take a lot of eggs and it is slow going because you can only make two at a time. My grandfather used to eat them with wine.

Ceci are half-moon shaped fried cookies filled with a chickpea-honey-orange rind filling. The finished cookie is springled with cinnamon & sugar. I'm sure that ceci and some of the other fried dough Italian Christmas cookies (the names of which I can't recall right now) owe something to Jewish cuisine in Italy. They just seem like they'd be right at home at a Hanukkah party.

While not a cookie, I do make panetone for the holiday. It is a bread with some preserved citrus rind and pine nuts that is traditionally baked to look like a chef's hat. I tend to make it as a boule. I like it toasted with jam. It is easily purchased at Italian food emporia this time of year, but when I was growing up, the only way to get it was to make it. It isn't that difficult. Really.

The Czech Cookie:

Kolachki are Czech, with a delicate, flacky pastry enclosing a nut or fruit filling. They are probably akin to rugalah, but not as dry. They are absolutely addictive, but so labor intensive I rarely have the time to make them. The pastry is Crisco and flour, rolled in powered sugar to keep it from sticking. It is very difficult to work with under the best conditions. After filling and sealing and baking, the cookies are dusted with more powdered sugar, which I think must have the addictive power of another white powder. The other reason I don't make them more often is that I would eat all of them. It's the one recipe I've got from my namesake grandmother and making them on the Hoosier kitchen top always makes me think of her.

The Other Cookies:

I found a recipe for Mexican Wedding Cakes in the Washington Post soon after I moved to Northern Virginia many years ago. It was the recipe that convinced me that margarine is no substitute for sweet butter, no matter what the cost or health risk. The small round cookie is made with pecans, lots of butter, flour and powdered sugar and after baking it gets two more coatings of powdered sugar. They melt in your mouth.

Fudge Crackles use three kinds of chocolate and get their name from the shiny cracked surface. They are best barely cooled from the oven. The recipe came from a holiday cookbook I own and was worth the price of the volume. A plate of fudge crackles and Mexican wedding cakes makes a lovely presentation.

If I'm really good, I'll get up on Christmas morning and make a batch of scones from the Ticky-Boo Tea Shoppe Cookbook. The recipe is in a post I made back in July. I don't think I've got time to make lemon curd, but that's easily purchased at Trader Joe's.

Have a Merry Christmas or whatever winter festival you celebrate. There's lots of good things to eat at most of them.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

New Mexico Cuisine

I traveled to New Mexico back in November to work on election protection. I decided to take the train because I really like traveling by train, I don't like to fly, and it was too far to drive by myself. By taking the train, most of the trip was overnight and it took about as long as it would take me to drive. Instead of a hotel, I had a roomette. And I could eat without stopping for an hour.

Food on the Southwest Chief is not the culinary experience I remember from either the Broadway Limited (Chicago to New York) or the Southern Crescent (Washington, D.C. to New Orleans--but I got off at Atlanta.) Those trips were 20 or more years ago, and things have changed. My meals were included in the fare going to New Mexico. They were extra on the way back, when I didn't take a roomette.

While service was generally pleasant, and the company fascinating (because you are seated with strangers), the food was pretty disappointing. Microwave was the heating method of choice and the fish dishes suffered for it. They did make excellent brewed iced tea, however.

In New Mexico, there were two places on my must-eat list: Tomasita's and The Shed, both located in Santa Fe. My friend and hostess Melinda introduced me to the latter, but Parris McBride took me to Tomasitas on my very first trip to Santa Fe and she joined the two of us for dinner there the night before the election.

Tomasita's makes the best sopapillas ever, eaten with a drizzle of honey to cut the hot of the Christmas (red and green) chile I had with my entree. The only restaurant I've had them at outside of New Mexico was a New Mexico-style hole-in-the-wall in Vienna, Virginia, the name of which escapes me now (although it may have had a woman's posessive name and was located near--but on the opposite side--of Magruders on the main drag through town.) Tomasita's was the first place friends took me to when I visited New Mexico on my way to Los Angeles almost 20 years ago, and it's the place we all go to at least once when I visit. I only regret that I was driving the night we went this time, and had to get up before the crack of dawn to get to my assignment at the San Filipe Pueblo, so I couldn't have a margarita with dinner. Next time.

The other must-eat is in the heart of Santa Fe, The Shed. It is located about half a block off the Plaza, tucked in behind an adorable Christmas store, and usually has lines of people snaked out the door.
The restaurant is noted for its brightly colored interior and its red chile.
I had the posole, on the left, and Melinda had the corn chowder, on the right. Both were delicious.
Last year, I made posole from leftover Thanksgiving turkey. Traditionally, it is made from pork. Melinda gave me a lecture on the proper way to prepare the hominy, which I will need to review before making posole again. Here's a link to the Rachael Ray turkey version of posole I used. Posole is traditionally served on New Year's day.

One of the problems with Santa Fe in the winter is that many of the restaurants are closed on Sunday. That's rather strange to anyone coming from Los Angeles, but it meant we didn't have much of a choice for dinner the night I arrived. I took Melinda out to an Italian place she recommended, but I think we were both disappointed with dinner. Perhaps the regular chef was off that night.

I had one other must-do while in Santa Fe, and that was to visit the Nambe outlet. There are now two, one near the Plaza and one on a street with a number of art galleries. My Nambe collection started with a wedding gift from Parris and George R.R. Martin and Melinda has given me several pieces as well. I've added to it by haunting flea markets, where pieces go for a fraction of their retail prices.

I found a wonderful 5 quart single-handled bowl, asymetrical, as is often the case, at the down-town outlet and it makes a great centerpiece as well as a serving bowl which keeps things warm for a long time. I could spend a fortune in the Nambe store, so I was thrilled with this piece I found on the discontinued shelf. Packing for the return trip was a little tricky, but I got it into my checked bag and it arrived without damage. I may have Melinda pick up another piece I saw and bring it out to me when she drives out next month. I wonder if one would have difficulty getting Nambe on a plane in carry-on. You could do a lot of damage if you hit someone in the head with a piece of it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving Prep

For my birthday in July of 2007, Len promised me a new dining room set because I've always hated the This End Up trestle-table which was part of his bachelor furniture (which is still most of the furniture we have.) It looks like a picnic table, and would be fine out doors. It seats six, but no more comfortably, because it doesn't expand.

So, I've been looking for a table which would accommodate our large Thanksgiving crowds (we've had up to 23 people) but possibly take up a bit less space when at rest. In the past, I've configured lots of folding tables to make a banquet of 60"x 144" or more. It's rather like fitting a square peg into a round hole to make sure it fits in our living room.

I really like round tables, but I don't have room for a round table which seats the 17 people who are coming this year. I saw a spectacular round table that goes from 6 people to 12 people with beautiful wood inlay and a creative twist, but it was $13,000 and it would take over the house. I'm sure King Arthur would wonder where it went.

I found some lovely tables on line with split pedestals that could expand to seat upwards of 22 people (with 12 12" leaves) and close down to a 48" round. They even came in cherry, which is my favorite wood. But they would have to ship from Michigan and god knows how long it would take to be made. The cost for a table alone would be close to $4500, which is not a number Len would have liked.

While I was on-line last week, I found a possibility at a local oak-specialty furniture store I've visited a number of times, Barn Furniture Mart. There was a 10% off coupon which I could print out and take in. So I squeezed in a stop on Saturday morning and I found a 54" round with 6 18" extension leaves. They had it on display with 16 chairs. Even better, they could deliver it the next day. It's a Mission design (very California, right?) and the price was a lot less than the table I saw on-line. I didn't get the chairs shown in the picture. First things first.

I had a hard time figuring out how I was going to break the news to Len, since I had been waiting for 15 months for him to actually make a move toward getting the promised dining room set. I could hardly sleep on Saturday night because my stomach was so upset. On Sunday, I started moving furniture around to make room (under the guise of getting ready for Thursday and bringing in the folding tables.) After we got back from the farmers' market and I heard Len make a remark to a friend about my making changes to the house while he is away, I had the opening to tell him. I said we needed to have a talk and that he might want to sit down. He went a little pale with the news and said "but I thought we'd pick it out together." I told him I'd been waiting 15 months for him to do anything, and I would have waited until next week while he was at the convention, but I thought we should have the table for Thanksgiving. I did say I'd let him help pick out chairs to go with it. No hurry on that. I've actually got 12 really nice, high-back chrome folding chairs which will do nicely for now and furniture is the modern 17th anniversary gift. (We're celebrating that anniversary on December 25.)

We moved the old table out onto the patio. The new table was delivered within the four-hour window as promised. It is heavy, and the delivery guys had to roll it on its side to get it in the front door. It looks really nice and the Sunday Night Supper Squad made appropriate noises.

So tonight, after I make my pie crust, I've got to make a table cloth to cover the entire thing (extended, it is 162" long, and the longest tablecloths I could find were 144".) I couldn't find two 70" x 86" table clothes to sew together (the ideal solution), so I'm taking a 70" round, cutting it in half, and sewing a half to each end of a 70" x 120" oblong. It will work. I'm sure it will work.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tomatoes and Basil

I tried the Pappa al Pomodoro recipe. I didn't get the bread-to-tomato ratio quite right, but Len liked it a lot. I ate some of the leftovers last night, and it still tasted pretty good. It was a lot more mushy than at Angeli. Next time, I'll do better.

The farm stand located on the corner of the Pierce campus gave away a basket of tomatoes to each Pierce employee who bothered to stop by. There were about 8 huge ripe tomatoes in my basket, and I've had several wonderful tomato salads and sandwiches with fresh mozzarella and basil. Truly the best taste of summer. If I had the time to throw eggplant slices on the grill, I'd be making tomato, eggplant, mozzarella, and basil sandwiches on my home-made artisan bread for lunch.

When I was growing up, my mother's cousin Mike had a fantastic tomato and vegetable garden in his back yard in Queens. His secret: horse manure. I have never smelled or tasted more flavorful tomatoes in my life and I loved eating tomato sandwiches with mayonnaise for lunch when I visited.

For years, the Pierce has been disposing of horse manure by spreading it across the fields which are now under cultivation for this privately-operated farm stand. I'm pretty sure our soil is an excellent growing medium.*

The farm stand was also selling huge bunches of basil for $2 each, so I bought several and perfumed my house by putting them in a vase before using. I have trouble growing basil because it gets so hot and bolts easily around here, although I noted that the plants I put in among my few cherry tomato plants has thrived. Love that companion planting thing.

I've made several batches of pesto so far and there's some in my refrigerator now to throw on pasta for a quick meal. Nothing could be easier:


2 large cloves garlic
2 packed cups sweet basil leaves
1/2 C. pine nuts
1 C. grated parmesan cheese
3/4 good extra virgin olive oil
Kosher or coarse Sea Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Purist will use a mortar and pestle to make this. I don't own one, so I use my Cuisinart.

Turn on the food processor and drop the garlic through the tube until it is chopped. Add the basil and pulse until chopped. Turn on the machine and drop the pine nuts in to be chopped. Add the cheese, salt, and pepper, and drizzle in the olive oil while the machine is on to make a paste of your desired consistency. This keeps well in the refrigerator (I add a layer of oil to the top to prevent discoloration) or freezer. Some people like to freeze it in ice cube trays and pop them out as needed to add flavor to food.

*I have been told that horse manure needs to be well-aged before use as fertilizer or it will "burn" plants. I'm told that means three or four months before you put it around your plants. I'd suggest turning it into the ground in the fall, so that it will be ready for spring planting. I also use it around my roses, which my friend Melinda swears is the best thing for them. God knows, I've got a constant supply of horse manure to haul home.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Taste of Tuscany Close to Home

Sometime after I returned from a trip to Italy where I took a two-week workshop in food photography from Aldo Tutino, the photographer who had created the images for many of the Time-Life international cookbooks, I found a copy of Cucina Fresca. Written by Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman, the recipes reminded me of the food I ate at Tuscan restaurants during my three week adventure. The food is simply prepared and served cold or at room temperture, as the book announced on its cover.

I knew that Evan Kleiman still owned Angeli Caffe on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, but in all my years here, I never made an opportunity to try the place. Several months ago, my friend Karen and I were talking about places to take cooking classes and I said that I knew Evan Kleiman taught cooking classes in Italy. Karen told me that she also teaches them at her restaurant here and that Angeli had periodic "family dinners" which required being on an e-mail list for notification. She gave me the e-mail address and, on Thursday, Len and I headed off to our first family dinner at Angeli.

We were not disappointed. For $35 a person, excluding tip and wine, we were treated to a garden harvest bounty of Italian food. The announcement asked the indulgence of not providing a menu because the food would depend on what Evan found fresh at the market. Seating was in long tables of eight diners, so we would be meeting other foodies. Evan walked around greeting diners and explaining the food. It was very much like having dinner in Italy, except earlier in the evening.

We were given a lovely loaf of rustic bread to start, while we waited for our tablemates to arrive. We had four others at our table: married couple David and Cynthia and friends Glory and Amanda. Everyone had a connection to the entertainment industy. David and Glory were actors, Amanda was a producer, and Cynthia worked for a production company. David, it turned out, had spent time at the Cleveland Playhouse. So the table conversation was lively.

Dinner began with the best tomato soup I have ever eaten. Called Pappa al Pomodoro, The flavor was intense. It was served warm, not hot. It was love at first taste. There were a number of antipasti--clearly it was a good day at the farmer's market. There was a salad with parmesian, zucchini and onions; a bean dish made with beans brought back from Italy; grilled red peppers; and a pizza with fresh corn that had an amazing aroma. We were served a platter of perfectly steamed shrip. The pasta course was a triangular shaped tube pasta with pesto and clams and mussels. For dessert, we had fresh figs with zabaglione drizzled over the pieces. Heavenly.

David and Cynthia had been to these dinners before. Sometimes Evan serves food from other culinary traditions, like Indian, Thai, or Indonesia. She's even done a sedar in the past. I'm looking forward to going to another one of these dinners in the future.

When I got home, I pulled Cucina Fresca off the shelf. Much to my delight, the recipe for Pappa al Pomodoro was in it. The cookbook recommends using only the best extra virgin olive oil with a strong fruity flavor and cautions against even trying to make the recipe without a good loaf of country bread.

Pappa al Pomodoro
(from Cucina Fresca by Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman, ISBN 0-06-096211-9)

2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
3/4 cup fruity olive oil
1 bunch fresh sage leaves, stems removed, or 1-2 T. dried sage leaves
1 1/2 pounds day-old country bread, cut into small thin slices
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and pureed, or a large can (28 oz) tomatoes, pureed with their liquid
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Grated Parmesan cheese for garnish

Saute the garlic briefly in the oil in a saucepan on a high flame. Add the sage and bread to the pan. Mix with a wooden spoon until the bread turns golden to medium brown. Add the tomato puree, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add just enough cold water to cover the bread-tomato mixture. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over a low flame, stirring 0ften, for at least 30 minutes or until the "pappa" achieves its unique consistency, somewhere between thick and runny; it should grab the spoon. Serve the soup tepid and pass Parmesan cheese. Serves 4-6.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Road Food

We just took our first real vacation in quite a while. Naturally, this involved a considerable amount of eating out. Yay!

Our first stop was Santa Barbara. There's a fine New Orleans style eatery just off State Street called The Palace Grill. Len and I ate there for dinner one night when we drove up to Santa Barbara to see 1776 on stage. I wasn't sure it would still be there--after all restaurants have a very high failure rate--and I didn't know the address. By coincidence, the parking lot we stopped in was right across the street from the restaurant and it was open for lunch!

Len decided to try the artichoke po'boy (above) and I went for the soft-shelled crab po'boy (below.)

My tolerance for being in New Orleans is about 3 days--after that I want food that isn't fried. But for a change of pace, it is terrific, and the po'boys at The Palace Grill did not disappoint. We also liked the version of fries--sort of like deep fried country potatoes with Cajun accent.

We continued north on U.S. 101 to San Luis Obispo, which has a very large farmers' market on Thursday evenings. We stopped and walked the entire market, picking up some very yummy, freshly fried mini-donuts. I like the powdered, Len got his with cinnamon sugar. They were a bit of warmth against the settling off-shore dampness.

I bought locally produced vinegar in raspberry and blackberry flavors and then we stopped for an olive oil tasting at a permanent shop on Higuera Street calld We Olive. (We returned to the shop on our way back south to actually buy a couple of small, expensive bottles of California-produced olive oil that we did not want to submit to possible overheating in the car on our trip.)

Dinner was pretty much forgotten as we continued north until we found a place for the night in Paso Robles. We read that there would be an olive festival on Saturday, but we had a party in Salinas to attend. There are both vineyards and olive farms to be found in abundance in this central coast area. We were told repeatedly "where there is good wine, there is good olive oil" because the plants like the same kinds of conditions. I did notice how many more vineyards were planted along the 101 than I recall from my first road trip between L.A. and San Francisco in 1990.

We found our hotel in Salinas, unpacked, and headed north to Gilroy for the factory outlet mall and a stop at Garlic World, a place to find wine, olives, and, of course, garlic in its many forms. There was a huge selection of hot sauces, most of which contain garlic. I'm a sucker for label design, and I loved looking at the selection set up by the windows. I've made purchases here in the past, but these things last a long time in my house.

Len and I used to go to Bristol Farms on Sunday mornings for our weekly religious experience of looking a packaging and sampling the food. Now the nearest Bristol Farms market is in Thousand Oaks and the Whole Foods market doesn't have the same kind of bakery.

Saturday afternoon was the event for which we added 900 round trip miles to the odometer: my friend Terri's surprise party. It was held at the home of the daughter of a close friend of hers only a few miles from Terri's place in Salinas. After being punked by our GPS ("you have arrived" turned out to mean we were about 300' below the house and had to continue down the road and twist our way up the hill), we parked and socialized with a house full of strangers until the birthday girl arrived. The look on her face when she saw me was worth the entire trip.

The party was catered by The Inn at Tres Pinos. The food was wonderful. In the cast-iron pot in the foreground (below) was a chilled appetizer containing seafood, to be eaten with the freshly fried tortillas. Then there was chicken with a mole sauce, a beef dish, and vegetarian chile rellenos.

I confess, I had never eaten chile rellenos before, since the sauce and cheese didn't appeal to me, but I really like these a lot. I suppose it had something to do with the grilled corn that was included. Below is another look at the chicken mole.

The cake was a work of art, covered with shaved white chocolate and included a mouse-like layer of chocolate. I discovered I had shed quite a bit of the white chocolate on the living room floor, which was embarrassing. It was one of the best cakes I've had in quite a while.

We did several meals at diners or diner-type places on the trip. Len really liked the Black Bear Diner next to the Laurel Inn where we stayed in Salinas. I'm really glad most places have learned to substitute fruit for fried potatoes with breakfast. The decor was rustic, with artwork of bears everywhere, including carved bears and photographs. At Margie's Diner in Paso Robles, I had a huge platter of fruit in what was identified as a fruit salad. I took some of it with me. Our last full meal on the road was at Pea Soup Andersen's in Buellton, where we had the requisite pea soup, even though it is a dish better suited to the winter than 100 degree days in August.

In addition to stopping at the olive shop in San Luis Obispo, we stopped at the flagship location of House of Bread, a bakery which has only recently opened a location in Chatsworth. I pass it every time I go to see the Arabian Prince, but I hadn't had a chance to try it in the few weeks it's been open. We picked up a loaf of blue cheese and walnut bread to take home. It is quite flavorful, but I like a crustier bread. I suspect that either the plastic packaging or the moisture in the cheese prevents a crackling crust. I will try some of their other offerings when I don't have time to make bread at home. Right now, Audrey III is trying to take over the refrigerator, so I'm good.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


A few weeks ago--about the time the Olympics were a few days old, our friend Jim Newman called to say he had come back from Wisconsin with rhubarb from his family's home and that he'd like to share his grandmother's rhubarb custard pie recipe with me. The catch was that Jim doesn't have a good oven, so he needed to make the pie at our house. The hitch was that Jim didn't make pie crust. He was perfectly happy to buy a frozen crust, but I said I'd be more than happy to make one for the pie.

I'm not a great pie crust maker. My mother is. But I muddle along and I've learned to do a pretty good job with a recipe from the 1975 edition of the Joy of Cooking. I use it for my apple and pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving, which is usually the only time I seem to get around to baking these days.

We had a rhubarb plant in our garden at my parents house--it was there when we moved in. I've since learned that rhubarb is also called "pie plant" in some parts of the country. I've tried to plant it here, but so far I haven't gotten it to take. I'm going to try planting the crowns again this fall and hope for the best. Once established, the plants grow forever and thrive on neglect--my favorite kind of gardening. Be aware: the leaves are poisonous, and must be trimmed off. The stalks are incredibly sour, so a generous amount of sugar is necessary when cooking rhubarb.

Mom would make stewed rhubarb (great over ice cream or by itself), rhubarb pie, and strawberry-rhubarb jam. I had never heard of rhubarb custard pie, but it was as good as Jim promised it would be. Jim said I could share the recipe here, so I will, along with the pie crust recipe I use (which Jim has just requested from me.)

Basic Pie Crust from The Joy of Cooking (1975)

Sift together 2 cups all-purpose flour and 1 tsp. salt.
Measure and combine 1/2 cup chilled leaf lard or shortening (I use Crisco) and 2 T. chilled butter. Cut half of the shortening into the flour mixtue with a pastry blender until it has the grain of cornmeal. Cut the remaining half coarsely into the dough until it is pea size.
Sprinkle the dough with 4 T. water. Blend the water lightly into the dough. Lift the ingredients with a fork, allowing the moisture to spread. If needed to hold the ingredients together, add an additional 1 tsp. to 1 T. water.
When you can gather the dough into a tidy ball, stop handling it. I find it helps to chill the dough before rolling, and I would divide it into two slightly flattened portions before wrapping it and putting it into the refrigerator. This recipe makes enough pastry for a 9" double-crust pie or a single crust pie with a generous lattice or two 9" single-crust pies.
Filling for Jim Newman's Rhubarb Custard Pie

Beat slightly, 3 eggs.
Add 3 Tablespoons milk
Mix and stir in 2 cups sugar, 1/4 cup flour, 3/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Mix in 4 cups sliced rhubarb.
Pour into unbaked 9" pie crust.
Bake 50-60 minutes at 400 degrees.
The pie should not jiggle too much in the center when you take it out of the oven.
Jim e-mailed me today saying he had scored some more rhubarb at a farmer's market. It makes me want to go out and get some to make jam. The recipe really couldn't be easier.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam

4 Cups Sugar
5 Cups Diced Rhubarb
1 Cup Crushed Pineapple, drained
1 3-Ounce Package Strawberry Gelatin

Mix rhubarb, pineapple, and sugar in large pot. Let stand for 30 minutes. Bring slowly to boil and cook 30 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add gelatin. Stir until dissolved. Pour into sterilized jars and seal with wax. Recipe can be doubled, but if doubled, use three packages of gelatin.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Staff of Life

I'm a big fan of Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery: Recipes for the Connoisseur. That subtitle is totally accurate, because baking almost all of the breads in the cookbook take 2-3 days--and that's after you've gone out to the garden, cut down a bunch of grapes, and spent two weeks developing your own, personal sourdough starter. The results are totally worth the effort, but I no longer have the time to feed Audrey Two like clockwork or the money to keep myself in enough flour to keep her healthy. It is much easier to go to Costco and buy two loaves of the wonderful rosemary and olive oil bread for less than $5 and bank the time.

A couple of months ago, I was perusing food blogs and came across references to Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. It sounded intriguing. I called my friend Karen, who, aging hippie as we both are, has gone back to school to study baking because she wants to open a bakery when she and her husband finally move up to their land near Sequoia National Park. (Karen was a second career trademark attorney and spends some of her spare time weaving. Her husband is a litigator who relaxes by turning wood into beautiful pieces of art.) She was familiar with the technique discussed, but hadn't heard of the book.

Len bought me a copy for my birthday, but I didn't get a chance to try it out until 2 weeks ago. That's part of the charm: you make up the dough, let it raise once, and throw it into the refrigerator. Then you can pull off parts of it and quickly make fresh bread over the course of the two weeks the dough lasts. And yes, it works.

You can find links to Jeff Hertzberg's and Zoe Francois' blogs in the list on the right side of this page. Below are the before and after baking photographs of the loaf of bread I made while doing laundry for our vacation. I got a slice, but my son gets to eat the rest while we are gone. The technique is so simple, even my husband could do it if he wanted to. Except for a baking stone--and what kitchen should be without one?--there's no specialized equipment. The basic recipe is good for four one-pound loaves. I'll be mixing up another batch as soon as I get home. It will be really good with the artisan olive oils from the Central Coast of California.

The dough after it comes out of the refrigerator and has been shaped in about 30 seconds before a 40 minute raising time:

The dough after a 30 minute bake in my 450 degree oven on a baking stone:

I'm going to try some of the variations next, because this is just the basic white sourdough. The book has all kinds of wonderful goodies, including pecan sticky buns. Yum.

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day is available in hardback from Amazon.com.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

ISO the Perfect Crab Cake

We've been back from San Diego for more than a week and I can't believe I haven't done a food write up about it. San Diego Comicon is as much about eating as it is about comic book business, as far as I'm concerned. All we seem to get to do is eat and do business, often at the same time.

We stayed at the Marriott right next to the Convention Center. While the rooms are a bit more shabby each year, it is convenient for almost everything. It also has a nice breakfast buffet, which is a good choice for meeting friends before hitting the convention floor. I think we had breakfast there three of the five days we were in San Diego, one morning with Len's friend Stan and his wife Ruth and their son, another with Connie Willis and her daughter Cordelia, and one with Ray Feist.

Taking tea in San Diego was a washout this year. Because of Len's schedule at Comicon and the wonderful things I wanted to attend (do you think I would miss being hugged by Hugh Jackman in order to go to tea?) I couldn't commit to being away from the Convention Center for an afternoon.

Instead of tea, the quest became one for crab cakes. It didn't start that way, but it did evolve over the course of a few days. We got to San Diego around 2 on Wednesday afternoon, so we were able to check into the hotel, get our badges and those of our guests, and run out to get a quick lunch at Dick's Last Resort, just a couple of blocks away in the Gaslight District.

Dick's is a place we've eaten at a number of times, more for convenience than anything else. The food is o.k., but depending on whether you are seated outdoors (recommended) or indoors (not recommended) you will find the waitpersons friendly or mock-surly and the noise-level bearable or beyond noisy. As it happens, we ate at Dick's twice that day, and got the full Dick's experience. Afternoon out doors was fine, dinner indoors, with a loud (not so great) band and the screaming waiters was unacceptable. It was a toss-up as to whether Peter David, Melinda Snodgrass, or I would be the first one to deck one of the waitpersons. Peter wound up screaming back for them to shut up.

I ate crab cakes for both meals at Dick's, or, more correctly, crab cakes for lunch and crab balls for dinner. They were o.k., more filler to crab ratio than I like, but better than having to settle for grilled chicken (since I don't eat red meat.)

On Thursday, we gathered up a group of friends including Gillian Horvath, Bob Skir, David Wise, Audrey Taylor, and Melinda Snodgrass to go to Harbor House along Shoreline Village, a short walk from the Convention and Hotel. There the crab cakes were part of the appetizer menu, so I had a salad to go with them for my meal. The crab cakes were almost all crab with a crunchy coating, which I liked very much. I don't understand why crab cakes aren't an entree at more fine restaurants, since I think they make a perfectly good main course.

In addition to the food, the other plus for Harbor House was that we could carry on conversations with each other and not have to shout. There were almost a dozen people in our party, but that wasn't a problem. And there was enough light to actually see our dinner (granted, we got there while there was still plenty of light coming through the large glass windows, but it was dark when we left) which seems to be a rarity these days (see below.)

On Friday night, we didn't actually have dinner. We went to the Eisner Awards, since Len was nominated for the Hall of Fame and had been asked to hand out some of the writing awards. There were appetizers, from which we wound up making a meal. Good thing, because the award ceremony didn't end until almost midnight, leaving no possibility for an actual dinner.

Saturday involved having two dinners: the annual Writers Guild Animation Writers Caucus reception (there were crab cake bites) and dinner at Cafe Sevilla, a tapas restaurant in the Gaslight District, with the Bloodfire Studios crew. The restaurant had a few items which aren't traditional Spanish dishes, including, I suspect, the crab cakes which I ordered (photograph below.) They were made with lump crab meat and a small amount of filler, and were quite good. The problem with Sevilla is that it is so dark it is almost impossible to read the menu and pretty difficult to actually see your food. It is another restaurant which is ruined by decor which amplifies sound, rather than muting it. I'm just not a fan of excessive noise with dinner.The best place to go for crab cakes--and crab in any other form--has got to be Baltimore, with Seattle a close second. I suppose it depends on what kind of crab you want to eat. I would run into Phillips' Harbor Place Restaurant anytime I had to make a trip to Baltimore, especially if it was the season for soft-shelled crab sandwiches. I may have eaten those sandwiches for lunch every day the last time the World Science Fiction Convention was in Baltimore.

Road Tasted, with Bobby and Jamie Deen did a segment on the Market Inn Restaurant crab cakes which made me want to get on an airplane. The Market Inn is located in southwest Washington, D.C. and, fortunately for those of us who are flight-impaired, offer a mail-order service for its crab cakes. By going to the link, you can also watch the segment on the Road Tasted show.

I have a recipe for crab cakes from The Junk Food Cookbook by Lydia Saiger, which I really like and which aren't all that hard to make. I don't know if the cookbook is still in print (my copy is almost 30 years old) but it has recipes that approximate a number of fast food places with healthier ingredients--in so far as that is possible.

Maryland Crab Cakes from The Junk Food Cookbook

1/4 C. Butter
1 small onion, minced
2 T. green pepper, minced
1 pimiento, minced
3 T. flour
1/4 C. clam juice
1/4 C. cream or milk
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
Dash Tabasco
8 oz. crab meat
1 1/2 C. bread crumbs
1 tsp. chopped parsley

Heat 3 T. butter in frypan; fry minced onion, green pepper, and pimiento until soft. Add flour; cook and stir for a couple of minutes. Pour cloam juice and cream or milk into pan. Cook until thickened, stirring constantly.
Mix egg yolk in well, blend in Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, crab meat, 3/4 C. of the brad crumbs, and parsley. Chill for at least 2 hours, then shape into 4 cakes, each about 3" in diameter and 1" thick. Roll in remaining 3/4 C. bread crumbs. Heat remaining 1 T. butter in frypan. Brown cakes on both sides; lower heat and cook for about 6 minutes. Serve with Tartar Sauce.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mozza on My Birthday

I managed to get a riding lesson in before rushing home to shower and head out for our 8:45 reservation at Osteria Mozza on my birthday. Anticipation is a wonderful thing, and I've wanted to go the the restaurant since I first read about it in the building stages. I'm a huge fan of Nancy Silverton's breads from the La Brea Bakery and who doesn't enjoy watching Mario Batali on Iron Chef America?

First of all, the food and service at Osteria Mozza was wonderful. You could fill me up on the multi-grain bread any time. And the margarita, made with agave nectar, lime juice, and a pure agave tequila, hit me like a sledge hammer.

The decor was lovely. The sound, not so much.

As my friend had warned me, it is very noisy. When I'm spending that much for dinner (or watching someone else spend that much) I'd like to be able to talk to my dinning companion(s). It was almost impossible. I suppose if we were sitting next to each other at the mozzarella bar, we could have whispered in each others ears. But we were sitting opposite each other at a dining table. Pity. The sound was the only drawback to the evening.

I had the better view for watching what was going on in the room. The place was hopping and it served dinner quite late. If it weren't so expensive, it would be a good stop for those nights after a trip to the theater. The place is also quite hip, judging from the youngish crowd in cool clothing (where do they get the money?)

Dinner started with a complementary amuse bouche of heavenly ricotta on toast. Len ordered the burrata with bacon, marinated escarole, and caramelized shallots. Burrata is a very creamy, fresh mozzarella--and quite "in" these days. It was wonderful. I had the equally good prosciutto di Parma con melone--the melon tasted like a childhood memory. I would have ordered the mussels or something with eggplant, but I promised Len I would order food he would actually taste.

We split the egg and fresh ricotta raviolo in brown butter--a large raviolo with a whole egg nested in ricotta. This is a pretty impressive presentation and I marvel that it was done with the neither the pasta nor the egg yolk breaking, but I'm not sure I'd bother a second time. There were a number of pasta dishes I would like to try instead. For the main course, Len had the pan roasted pork loin and I had the crisp duck al mattone. His pork was fantastic. The duck skin was indeed crisp and wonderful, but I'm not sure I liked the duck flesh as much as I would have liked the striped bass or the grilled orata, neither of which Len would want to try. Next time. Whenever that is.

We didn't do dessert. We were too full from dinner and nothing appealed to me. I might be convinced to go by for coffee and dessert some time, just as I would like to try Pizzeria Mozza some night.

It was definitely worth the wait and I'd go back, but I wish Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton would turn down the noise. The room has lots of hard surfaces, which makes everything bounce around and contributes to the cacophony. I like quiet conversation with dinner, which was one of the big draws of the old Paul's Cafe in Sherman Oaks (in addition to its great food and low prices.)

Osteria Mozza is located on the southwest corner of Highland and Melrose Avenues in Hollywood. Pizzeria Mozza is located one door south on Highland. Reservations are definitely needed for the Osteria, but I don't think they are taken for the Pizzeria.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Strange Concepts

On the fourth week of Next Food Network Star, the contestants were given some god-awful choices of things to pull together for a meal. The winning dish wound up on the menu at Red Lobster. I had forgotten this until we got to Red Lobster for dinner with our friends, Harlan and Susan Ellison, and Dr. Who writer James Moran and his wife, opera singer Jody Kearns (I hope I spelled that correctly), on holiday from Britain. There on the menu was the Macadamia Crusted Tilapia in White Chocolate Beurre Blanc, which had been concocted by contestant Kelsey during the challenge.

Len nudged me into ordering it, when what I really wanted was the steamed lobster. He wouldn't order it because he won't eat white fish that could possibly have a pin in it. All I can say is that the other meals from that night's competition (some of which had to incorporate marshmallow creme or caramel) must have been pretty near inedible if this was the winning dish. Well, that's not all I can or will say.

The contrivance of having to add white chocolate is the downside of this dish. The fish itself, with the macadamia crust is pretty good. It's the buerre blanc that didn't work for me. If it had been a normal buerre blanc, with a goodly amount of lemon, or perhaps even a lemon caper sauce, I would have really enjoyed it. I did not like the sweetness at all, and it was an overly rich dish which sat heavily in my stomach for hours.

I really liked Kelsey, whose bubbling personality was absolutely engaging. She was the one contestant I thought I'd like to see on a repeating basis. But this dish is not one I'm going to make at home, ever. If you want to give it a try, the name links to the Food Network website with the recipe in full. Personally, I'd deep six the white chocolate and the coconut cream.

I did get to take home the leftover lobster from the table, which I turned into lobster salad sandwiches on Sunday night. It was pretty easy to do. I chopped up some fresh tarragon (do you know that means "dragon's tooth" in French) from my garden, finely diced two stalks of celery, added some scallions and mixed it together with a few tablespoons of mayo and sour cream. I think it may have needed a little more salt and some lemon, but it made a nice dinner on a really hot day.

Friday, July 18, 2008


I'm pleased to say my husband does read my blogs--all of them--and he's made a reservation to take me to Osteria Mozza on Monday for my birthday. While the menu looks like something you'd much rather have an expense account paying for, I refuse to feel guilty over a rare treat. Needless to say, I'll write about it next week.

Also coming up next week is our annual trek to San Diego for Comicon International. 125,000 fans looking for autographs and a chance to discuss the physics of Nightcrawler's "bamffing" ("we make this stuff up, there's no science involved" says the spouse, who created the blue-skinned one.) While Len gets to be "The Famous Len Wein" on the convention floor, I will engage in one of my favorite activities: checking out the tea rooms of San Diego.

For the past two years, the group of wives of the not-so-rich-but famous, have gone to Tea on Chatsworth for their unique offerings. This year, I'd like to try the newer tea room over on Del Coronado Island I've read about.

This all started when Len and I used to stay at the Horton Grand, an old Victorian Hotel which served a wonderful Victorian tea. I gathered up a group of friends and we went there for high tea annually for three or four years. The woman in charge of the service dressed and looked like Jean Marsh in Upstairs, Downstairs, the food was wonderful and the scones were great. Then, one year she was no longer there, the goodies were less good, and the service less transfixing. We went looking for other tea rooms. We did the Westgate Hotel one year and the U.S. Grant Hotel a time or two, but they didn't have the same cache we felt in the early years at the Horton Grand.

Ten years ago, we found a fantastic place in Carlsbad called "Ticky-Boo Tearoom," with a totally Victorian decor, including the dress of the servers. The scones were the best I've ever had, served hot from the oven. Before we left, my friends bought me the self-published cookbook with that recipe. We are all really glad they did.

I stopped at Ticky-Boo again about six months later on a pilgrimage to the Mary's Tack and Feed Annual February Sale in Del Mar (I also always go to Mary's during Comicon weekend because they have things I can't find in my local tack stores.) It was as wonderful as it had been the first time, with the added treat of a male server in a kilt (the owners were quite proud of their Scottish heritage.)

The next summer, the Comicon group made plans to go to Ticky-Boo. In fact, it was going to be a meet up for those of us who were already in San Diego and those who delayed the trip for a couple of days, since Carlsbad is about 30 miles north of San Diego, just off Interstate 5. To our horror, it was gone. According to other shop owners on the street, it disappeared literally over night! The original founder had died and left it to her two daughters to run. But running a food establishment is really hard work with long hours. After carrying on for several years, something went wrong. We still don't know what. But at least I've still got the recipe for the best scones ever, and so can you:

Ticky-Boo Scones

2 C. All-purpose Flour
1 T. Baking Powder
1/2 tsp. Salt
1/3 C. Sweet Butter
1/4 C. Vegetable Shortening
1/3 C. Heavy Cream
Splash of Water

Place baking sheet in oven and preheat to 450 degrees F.
Sift the measured dry ingredients together, twice.
Dice fats into the dry ingreients, then lightly rub with cool fingertips or pastry blender. Make a well in center and stir in cream. Lightly mix with a fork untill a soft dough forms. If dough is dry, add water, sprinkling a little at a time until the dough is perfect for kneading.
Turn out on a well-floured board and knead very lightly for about 1/2 minute for a loose smooth dough. Roll out with a rolling pin or pat with hands to approximately 3/4" thick.
Stamp out with a cutter or cut into triangles with a sharp knife. Knead together any trimings and stamp out again, continuing until all the dough is used.
Lift with a spatula onto the preheated baking sheet, placing them 1" apart. Brush tops only with beaten egg or milk (optional--I don't.)
Bake toward the top of the oven for approximately 10-15 minues or untill well risen and golden brown. Remove and turn out onto a wire rack for cooling. Best served warm with clotted or Devon Cream and jam or curd.
This basic recipe may be adjusted to add currants, raisins, cheese with sage and walnuts, chocolate chips, dried fruit, or any other spice or variety you choose.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Hell's Kitchen Winner

Christina, my favorite contestant on Hell's Kitchen this season went home with the big prize: a job at London in Hollywood, Gordon Ramsay's new restaurant. She seemed to be the brightest and most diligent of this season's crop of chefs, even if she had less experience than most of them. As Ramsay said in his concluding remarks, she seemed to have the most potential. I'm sure she'll do just great.

It was great to see that Corey was able to overcome her own disappointment at not being a finalist to dig in and make a big effort to see that Christina won. This was in sharp contrast to Jen, who wound up on the other team (thank goodness) and couldn't get past her resentment at not being the winner. She even had the nerve to ask for a letter of recommendation from Chef Ramsay while she was supposed to be working.

I'd love to try the restaurant, but I expect that reservations are hard to come by right now.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Corn Crazy Redux

I am happy to report that the recipe for Roasted Corn Dip was a huge success at the July 4th barbecue at my friend Gillian's house. I prepared everything up to the point of putting it into the oven to heat at home, and when I got to Gillian's house we heated it to bubbling and everyone dug in with tortilla chips. Trader Joe's roasted frozen corn worked really well and shortened the preparation time.

The fresh roasted corn that Gillian served was also really good. She had leftovers. I suggested she use them to make another batch of the corn dip.

Gillian had specifically requested that I bring macaroni salad, because she likes the way I make it. It really comes out a little differently each time I make it, depending on what's in the kitchen or what I remember to pick up at the store. The basics are:

1 lb. dry, small elbow macaroni, cooked in salted water, drained and cooled
3 hard boiled eggs, chopped
1/2 C. finely chopped white onion
2 T. sliced green onion tops
1 C. diced sweet peppers (I like to use several colors)
1/2 C. drained, pitted and sliced black olives
1/2 C. diced celery
1/2 C. shredded or diced carrots
3/4 C. mayonnaise
Salt & black pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl and add additional mayonnaise until the desired consistency is reached. All measurements are approximate. I generally just fiddle around with the basics until the color and mix tastes right. I also usually make this for a crowd, so I'm starting with 2 pounds of dried pasta and upping the other ingredients accordingly. If I've got the right kind of bowl, I might slice some eggs to decorate the presentation and sprinkle paprika and more sliced olives on top of everything.

This couldn't be easier and beats the hell out of anything you'll find at a grocery store deli. I like having the leftovers for lunch or dinner on these hot summer days. You could toss in some drained, canned tuna or cooked salmon to add some more protein.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Corn Crazy

Corn is definitely one of my favorite things. I remember happy moments when I was growing up in the Catskills where we'd head off to Jackson's Farm to buy corn which would be pulled off the stalks while we waited and then we'd run home to a boiling pot of water to toss it in.

I'm not happy to learn that most of it is being planted for fuel these days. What a scam. I've had to buy ethanol when I've been in Iowa (my sister and nieces used to live there) and my mileage wasn't any better and the price wasn't any lower. I'm worried about world wide famine being increased because food corn is being repurposed.

I'm nuts for fresh or green corn tamales. It's a treat I discovered after I moved to Los Angeles. I can't remember if it was a night we went to El Cholo with our friends Karen and Michael or a night at El Coyote with Harlan and Susan Ellison. As good as those tamales are (and El Cholo claims to have originated them), it wasn't until I tasted the green corn tamales from Corn Maiden at a farmer's market that I found food for the gods. For one thing, Corn Maiden does not stick cheese or peppers in the green corn tamales (except for the ones sold at grocery stores.) I usually eat mine with a mild tomatillo sauce and it is just heavenly.

Corn Maiden has a booth at most of the larger farmer's markets in Los Angeles. It has booths at Calabassas on Saturday and Studio City on Sunday. There is always a Corn Maiden booth at the Sunday morning farmer's market in Hollywood (see picture), which I attend regularly (there's also a place selling roasted corn on the food concession row.) I like to eat mine while I shop, but I sometimes buy them for the freezer and steam them at home. While I've got a recipe, it's a labor intensive affair that I doubt I will ever try. It is so much easier to buy them, and Corn Maiden does have an on-line mail order business in Culver City.

(I will note that El Torito markets a packaged corn cake mix to which you add a can of creamed corn. It tastes very much like a green corn tamale and will do in those moments when I've just got to have one. I try to keep a package on hand for just such emergencies. I can find it in the Mexican food section of some of my local grocery stores, such as Von's.)

What I am willing to try is a recipe for a Roasted Corn Dip. It seems like a swell idea to take to a 4th of July party this weekend. We had a wonderful Roasted Corn Dip provided by Bite Catering Couture at Larry Niven's birthday party two weeks ago. While I didn't ask for their recipe, I found the one below at Emeril Lagasse's website. It reads like it will taste very much like the one I had (although I don't recall the olives.) I'm a little lazy, so I plan to use some of Trader Joe's wonderful frozen roasted corn (thawed, of course), which will make things go a little faster:

Roasted Corn Dip

  • 4 medium ears of fresh sweet corn, shucked
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 cup minced onions
  • 1/4 cup small diced red bell pepper
  • 1/4 cup small diced yellow bell pepper
  • 1 medium jalapeno, stemmed, seeded and minced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 1 cup homemade mayonnaise
  • 1/2 pound grated Monterey Jack cheese
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped green onions, (green part only)
  • 1/4 cup chopped black olives

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Rub each ear of the corn with the oil. Season with salt and pepper. Place the corn on the grill or either on a open flame. Cook the corn for 1 minute on all sides. Remove from the heat and cool. Using a sharp knife, remove the kernels from the cob. In a large saute pan, melt the butter. Add the onions and peppers. Season with salt and pepper. Saute for 2 minutes. Add the corn and continue to saute for 2 minutes. Add the jalapenos and garlic. Continue to cook for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and cool slightly. Turn the vegetable mixture into a mixing bowl. Stir in the mayonnaise and half of the cheese. Mix well. Stir in the green onions. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the mixture into a greased 6 cup ovenproof oval baking dish. Spread evenly and top with the remaining cheese. Bake for about 10 to 15 minutes or until bubbly. Garnish the dip with the chopped olives. Serve warm with tortilla chips.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Hell's Kitchen Nightmares

We are addicted to cooking shows. Before there was the Food Network, our Saturday default was the PBS cooking line-up. Now we've got all food, pretty much all the time.

It took me a while to start watching Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen show. Len had watched it for a while, but I don't think I watched the show until last season's finale. Between then and now, I got hooked on Kitchen Nightmares (both the BBC America version and the FOX Americanized version) and The F-Word (thanks to my friend Gillian.)

Gordon Ramsay is probably an acquired taste. While the "F" in the television show stands for "food," the "F" coming out of his mouth in his various shows is bleeped and blurred. I've always found that Brits have a lot less trouble with that word than we do here, but I guess you don't say "bloody" in polite company over there. Ramsay is a perfectionist and quite brutal to those working around him. It doesn't surprise me at all that there are often tears on his shows.

Kitchen Nightmares is a show which can really put you off from eating out. Some of the kitchens Ramsay's visited are nothing short of disgusting. One wonder where the food inspectors are. Here in L.A. we can decide if we want to go into a "C" or "B" rated restaurant, but that doesn't seem to be the case in New York or Great Britain. Ugh. Many of the restaurants in the American version of Kitchen Nightmares were shot in the greater Los Angeles area: one was in Moorpark, one in Burbank, and one in Pomona. The one I was most interested in visiting, because it is in an area where we used to visit a row of antique shops, closed before the show aired. It had lost too much money to survive the nice makeover. The pizza place in Burbank had an owner whose attitude just put me off. We did wonder we should find the place and see if the changes had been kept. The place in Moorpark is out of the way of our usual travels, so I haven't suggested we try it.

So this season, I was ready and waiting for season four of Hell's Kitchen to start. I am totally invested and I am dying to try Gordon Ramsay's new L.A. restaurant, London. (But not before I get to Mozza.)

Last night was the penultimate episode in the series. It's down to a 47-year old man and a 25 year old culinary school graduate who's won 9 of the competitions, either alone or with her team. That's a record for the show. She's smart and hard working. Last week, when the remaining three chefs were surprised by a visit from family and a meal prepared by Ramsay, she was the only one who realized there was something afoot and she and her mother both worked on figuring out what ingredients were in the dish. The other two contestants were oblivious. She did win, and I'm rooting for her to win the whole thing. She may be young, but she's got what it takes to survive in a business that's got something like a 98% failure rate in the first two years.

I found that most of the men in the competition were obnoxious, sexist pigs. You'd think we'd be past that, but no. The word "bitch" was used a lot. Of the women, there was one who was so obnoxious that we rooted for her to lose despite some of her obvious competencies. I was extremely disappointed that all of the chefs seem to smoke. Much as I can't understand why Liza Minnelli would risk ruining her voice by chain smoking, I can't understand why a chef would destroy his or her palate by smoking. I also fear finding cigarette debris in my food.

The show ended last night with the choice of the final cooking team members up in the air--the six most recently eliminated chefs were brought back to help in the kitchen. The 47-year-old Petrozza had first pick and they are now down to the guy who had something of a nervous breakdown and the woman I'm afraid will try to sabotage Christina.

So, if you need to speak to me next Tuesday, don't call while the show is on. It's almost as exciting as the last episode of The Amazing Race.

Despite my reservations about what the Brits know about food (except for high tea), I'm intrigued by Gordon Ramsay's insistence that the chefs he helps look for local, fresh ingredients. So, for Len's birthday, I bought him a copy of Gordon Ramsay's Fast Food. I haven't had a chance to actually go through it myself, but I'm looking forward to a few minutes alone with it this weekend while Len's out of town.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Making Cakes Special

I know it didn't start with Ace of Cakes on Food Network, because I had booklets showing how to make cute cakes when I was growing up. In fact, I think I remember cakes that incorporated dolls for birthdays or showers. I insisted that most of the sections of my own wedding cake, a zillion years ago, be chocolate (scandelous!) Imagine what the people who went to my first, long-ago wedding would think about the armadillo on the top of my friends Lisa Jane and Andy's wedding cake.

Yet today, cakes look more interesting than they used to. There's an extreme cooking challenge show that had a bigger-than-life sized sock monkey cake with pyrotechnics on it this season. We went to our friend Mel Gilden's birthday party last summer, and he got a cake that looked like a volcano with all kinds of dinosaurs around it. By mixing a little dry ice and water in the tube in the center, smoke rose out of the cone and down the sides of the mountain, an effect lost on the still shot I've got here. It was still fun, especially for a 60th birthday. We and our friends have never grown up.

I haven't really seen one in person, but there's a printer that can print on a cake with edible inks. My husband has gifted me with several such cakes: one had a photograph of my horse on it, another had Len's variation on last year's Harry Potter title, which was released on my birthday. In our area, Bea's Bakery in Tarzana can print from provided photographs.

I had a very simple cake made for Len's birthday earlier this month. Yellow cake with chocolate icing celebrating his 60th birthday. It wasn't until it was too late that I actually thought of some interesting graphics to pull together in Adobe Photoshop--although I might run into some copyright problems when I go to the bakery. There was a sign at the counter of the Von's bakery that indicated there could be no changes in the superhero cakes because of licensing restrictions. My choice would be a cake with both Wolverine and Swamp Thing on it, and that's an unauthorized Marvel-DC crossover, I'm afraid.

Marilyn (a.k.a. "Fuzzy") Niven was absolutely inspired when she ordered a cake for her husband's 70th birthday party, which we attended on Saturday. Using the cover of one of Larry's books, the spine celebrated the 70th edition and the opened cover of the book revealed spun sugar creatures and worlds based on Larry's stories. It was quite wonderful, as you can see from the photographs. The spun sugar elements had been sprayed with some sort of preservative, so they weren't actually edible. They might make an interesting addition to someone's crystal figure collection until they melt in the forthcoming heat.

West Valley Occupational Center, which is located in a block between where I live and where I work, has a cake-decorating class which a couple of my friends took. I don't have the time to do it this summer, but it might be a temptation when I have a little time. It's just that I'm so clumsy and I'm a bit too much of a perfectionist to want to take on something at which I'm likely to be miserable.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Cookbooks and Gamers

I have never been a role-playing gamer (RPG), so this wouldn't mean much to me except for the fact that my son, who also works as a video game tester, is. Actually, we know a lot of people who are into gaming and eating, but not cooking. I got a link to a commentary piece which, if you picture cookbooks subject to the continual updating of software, is pretty funny. Here's the link to Killjoy Cooking with the Dungeons and Dragons Crowd by Lore Sjoberg at Wired. Thank goodness that, unless you are a lawyer, your paper books are not subject to updates which can upset your life if you don't get them. As I said elsewhere, the 1970s version of the Joy of Cooking is my kitchen workhorse and the recipes still work just the way they should--even though it's been updated twice since my edition.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Birthday Dinner at Roy's

I'm very particular about whom I trust for restaurant reviews. I'm not taking about newspaper reviews. I'm talking about social acquaintance reviews. There are some people who simply cannot tell good food from bad and frequently think that quantity equates with quality. I've had some of the worst meals of my life with these people.

It was therefore with great trepidation that I made a reservation for Roy's, an Hawaiian-fusion chain with a location only a couple of miles from our house, for my husband's birthday last week. Len had expressed an interest in going based on the recommendation of friends who ate at the original Roy's in Hawaii. All of my alarms went off because I've been greatly disappointed by recommendations from these people in the past. I guess you can't be wrong 100% of the time.

The food and service was quite good. The only down-side was that we were seated in a booth next to the open kitchen, and the noise made it almost impossible to talk for a large part of the meal.

We stuck to the prix fixe menu, which had two choices for appetizer and dessert and four for the main course. Len and I had the crispy duck spring rolls (honestly too much for one person) and Michael ordered a fish dish. Both were excellent. I shared my spring rolls with Michael, whom we used to call "Marabunta Boy" for his voracious appetite and skinny frame.

For our main courses, Len got the filet of beef with wasabe mashed potaotes, Michael got the beef short ribs, and I had grilled prawns stacked over a small serving of pasta with a lemon-caper cream sauce. Since I no longer eat most read meat (I quit one day after looking at a new-born calf in the eye,) I didn't sample either of my guys' dishes. I hear they were excellent, although the wasabe cleaned out Len's sinuses. My prawns were just fine.

For dessert, we all had the molten chocolate souffles, which Michael described as a brownie with hot fudge sauce inside. It was served with vanilla ice cream, which I really appreciated. The staff also presented us with a family photograph, since it was a birthday dinner. That was charming--along with the "happy birthday" wishes on arrival, at seating, and when leaving.

The prix fixe was $35 and it would have been hard to get three other courses on the menu for less than that. We didn't have drinks, so the experience wasn't bank-busting by any means. The decor is modern deco, the staff attentive, and free parking was plentiful in the evening. The restaurant is located in a medical-professionals office building at the corner of Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Victory Boulevard in Woodland Hills. Reservations can be made on-line for any of Roy's locations nation-wide.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Joy of Cookbooks

One can never be too rich or too thin--or own too many books. One of my mottoes is "a room without books is as a body without a soul" and I used to be able to quote it in Cicero's original Latin. We own one of those houses where people ask "have you read all these books?" Harlan Ellison's response to that question is "No. Who wants to live in a house filled with books you've already read?" The truth is, each of the three of us has read most of our own share of the books which reside with us, leaving plenty more to try on a rainy day.

The first time I stepped into Phyllis C. Richman's office at the Washington Post, I knew I wanted to have a cookbook collection like the one I saw there. My collection was only a shelf or two at the time, but it has grown substantially. Most libraries and bookstores don't have as good a selection. I buy them new, but I've had pretty good luck haunting thrift stores, antique shops, flea markets and yard sales in order to expand it.

There are frequently cookbooks on my nightstand, along with the other books I'm in the process of reading. Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes did one of his commentaries about cookbooks and couldn't understand why people would have more than a few and certainly didn't believe people actually read them for pleasure. We do.

There are certain cookbook writers I collect like I do some fiction writers. Marcella Hazan is at the top of that list. I think I own every one of her books and I use them repeatedly (Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, which combines two earlier volumes is the best Italian cookbook I own.) Julie Rosso and Sheila Lukins, together and alone are big favorites (it is possible to throw an entire party using the two Silver Palate Cookbooks) and Viana La Place, Julie Sahni, Madhur Jaffrey, and Nancy Silverton also rank. For my husband, Len Wein, it is Rachael Ray--Len probably owns every one of her books. What he didn't buy, I bought for him. I also collect cookbooks on certain topics: Italian food is the big one--without counting I know that dominates my shelves. I'm also prone to picking up books on baking bread, Indian cooking (even though Len can't eat it) and other ethnic cuisines, dim sum, holding tea parties, appetizers and other finger-food.

For my son Michael, I keep looking for cookbooks which will make him want to investigate the kitchen, not just the refrigerator. I've bought him Alton Brown's books (which are largely about the science of cooking, which Michael can relate to), some on Japanese cuisine (he's a Nipponophile), and some aimed at kids in college (I had The Campus Survival Cookbook when I was in grad school which I just loved and have passed on to him.) So far, he makes a nice banana bread.

After September 11, 2001, I spent a year working my way through Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery. This book is not for the faint of heart, which is why I probably had it on the shelf for four years before I tried it. I started by cutting grapes from my arbor to make sour dough from scratch. After several aborted attempts to learn to make sour dough, Nancy Silverton's method actually worked. The smell of fresh bread brought comfort to me when things were crazy. Of course, Len took to calling the sour dough starter "Audrey Two" since I was constantly having to feed it and I never quite got the knack of keeping it dormant in the refrigerator. So I had lots of it bubbling away in a six-quart tub on the counter for a long time. It lived several years before I finally screwed up. Now, if I need starter, I call my friend Karen who is planning to open a bakery when she finally moves out of Los Angeles. She's doing some contract baking and she always has starter available.

I wouldn't be without my 1970s edition of the Joy of Cooking. Although it is on my shelf, I find the more recent update impossible to read--it uses a kind of type which is not kind on my old eyes--and it just isn't as friendly as my falling-to-pieces one. This is the book I go to every Thanksgiving for its reminders on the right way to roast my turkey and a great pie crust for my apple and pumpkin pies.

I love well-photographed cookbooks. One of the most beautiful cookbooks I've ever seen is an over-sized coffee-table book called Jean-Louis: Cooking with the Seasons. It was shot by Fred Maroon, a photographer of my acquaintance in Washington D.C., and written by Jean-Louis Palladin, a great character who died too early. I met him several times while working with Phyllis Richaman, and though I couldn't afford to eat at his restaurant at the Watergate Hotel, I did get to sample his food elsewhere. Because I am not inclined to take on French cuisine, the book is not in my personal collection. I do hope to have a copy one day, just to be inspired by the pictures.

The most valuable cookbooks in my collection are the notebooks where I've collected family recipes since I was a teenager. There should probably be a lot more, but I concentrated on the Italian holiday sweets. I discovered that some of the recipes didn't really work when I tried to make them on my own, so I had to go back and watch my mother in action in order to make notes to get them to come out right. I'm not entirely sure she was intentionally deceitful, but Mom often doesn't measure when she cooks and there was a lot more refinement needed in the quantities to make things work. Since I'm a by the book kind of baker, I'm surprised there weren't more disasters.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Nanny's Kitchen Table

Food plays a far too important symbolic place in my life. That's the kind of thing that interferes with dieting and really argues against the Weight Watchers' mantra of "nothing tastes as good as being thin feels." Not true. Not at all. Food is about family and friends, good conversation, great times, and comfort.

My mother's mother died when I was 10. Before that, she was the person who watched over us while my parents worked. Some of my earliest memories are of watching her cook for her extended Italo-Americano family in a long kitchen with an old stove and refrigerator. She had six children, a husband, and a mother-in-law who died only a few years before Nanny did. There were always lots of people around, the married children dropping in for the weekend, along with nieces, nephews, cousins, and the inevitable grandchildren. While most of the family would head out to Sunday mass, Nanny would be in the kitchen from dawn, preparing a massive mid-day meal that everyone would eat before heading home--often to New York City or Long Island.

When I think of my maternal grandmother, I always smell flour and eggs. She was constantly making pasta--or "home made macanoni" as the first of my brothers called it--on that Formica-topped kitchen table which could not have been as big as I remember it. Noodles and cavatelli, all made by hand, were a daily occupation. I still sit in wonder at the idea that she cut her long noodles evenly with a knife after rolling them out with a rolling pin. I've got a pasta machine for that, thank you. I've never really been able to master the cavatelli, rolling the little balls of dough and doing the three-finger drag that create the elongated shape that curls into itself of sufficient thinness that it cooks evenly and doesn't taste of raw flour when it is done.

My other grandmother and namesake, Nanny Christine, was Czech and had a whole different culinary heritage. I've heard tales about how she could hand-stretch a strudel dough paper thin on a table. She died when I was seven or eight, so I don't remember her well. I do have her recipe for kolachki, a time-consuming, filled-pastry cookie which I sometimes make at Christmas.

I also own a piece of furniture which came from Nanny Christine's family: the bottom half of a Hoosier kitchen. It has an enamel top which is the best surface for working dough short of a marble counter-top, I suspect. For many years, my cousins used it for storing clothes or toys and then my mother managed to get it from one of her sisters-in-law. I honestly don't remember where she had it in the house, and I'm not entirely sure how I managed to wrangle it away from her around 30 years ago, but I am awfully glad I did. It is my favorite prep space because it is about 6" lower than the kitchen cabinets' surface and I can get much better leverage when kneading bread or rolling pie crust. I sometimes wish I had the upper cabinet for storage, but if it was a choice between them, I'm glad I've got the lower half.

Homemade Pasta

2 Cups Semolina
3 Large Eggs
Pinch of Salt

Mix the semolina and salt in a mound on a clean work surface. Make a well in the middle and break the eggs into it. Using a fork or your fingers, work the semolina into the eggs until there is a mass of dough. Knead the dough until smooth, sprinkling the surface with flour as necessary. (Depending on the size of the eggs or the humidity in the air, the dough might be very stiff until kneaded. It is also possible to make the dough in a food processor.) Let the dough rest, covered with a bowl or plastic wrap to keep it from drying out, for about 20 minutes before proceeding.

To make noodles, break off a piece of dough, knead it a little more, flatten it, and use a rolling pin or pasta machine to roll it out to desired thickness (it will take several, successively narrower, passes through the machine.) Let it rest while repeating with the rest of the dough. Then, use the cutting device on the machine to cut to desired width. Or, roll up the dough unto a cylinder and use a sharp knife to slice the pasta into the desired width. Allow the cut dough to air-dry until ready to cook. Cook in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente, which can only be determined by tasting. Serve with your choice of sauce.