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.