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

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.