Monday, December 20, 2010

"Tis the Season

I'm beginning to mentally plan our party for Twelfth Night, which will also be our housewarming event, but it isn't until January 8.  Until then, I have the pleasure of going to Other People's Parties.

First up this weekend was Laurie Perry's annual Solstice Party on Saturday night.  There, I learned that Laurie and her sister (and various other relatives and SOs) are writing a blog called Party Know-It-Alls.  Laurie does a beautiful spread of food every year, often Middle Eastern, but this year she decided on a taco bar.  Check out Party Know-It-Alls for the salmon taco recipe.  It is delicious.  No surprise.

Our Sunday afternoon party at my barn was canceled due to the rain we've been getting in SoCal for the past three or four days.  The text came just as I was about to go buy ingredients for a hearty, warm dish a fancy  mac and cheese recipe from Rachael Ray that is always a hit with the Sunday Super Supper Squad 

Because of the rain, we decided to stay home rather than to risk the freeways on a trip to a party in Pacific Palisades.  I was sorry to miss it, but people in L.A. drive like they have no idea what to do and any hilly area is subject to mudsides.  Ugh.

I took the opportunity to get the kitchen ready for baking.  I've been organizing my dry goods in blue-lidded Fido jars from Italy, ever since I discovered them at Ross.  Sur la Table has them in other sizes at greater cost, but it does not sell the ones with cobalt-blue lids.  I have many of the one, two, half, and three-quarter litre sizes, and a couple of 3 litre jars for sugar and flour.  I think they go as big as 5 or 6 litres, but I have yet to see these in the flesh.  My rebuilt house had a pantry with shelves just deep enough for two rows of the jars, but I lack that in the new place.  Instead, I have a cabinet pantry, with pull-out drawers on the lower part.  That's where I'm keeping the jars (they hold about 16 big ones or 20 small ones.)  I got Len to do the labels for the filled ones yesterday and he'll do the new ones as I add ingredients.

I did get a chance to make the famous mac and cheese last week for the SSSS, along with a glazed ham and some brioche.
Then I took the remainder of the brioche dough and made pecan sticky buns for breakfast (I should have made this photograph when the buns were hot, because the caramel coagulated when they cooled.  Not nearly as attractive.)

Sticky buns turned out to be pretty easy to make when the dough was already in the refrigerator.  Seems like a theme in my cooking lately.

Turkey Three Ways

Our Thanksgiving dinner went well, despite the rapid last-minute decline in attendees.  I was expecting 14 and ended up with 11.  So we could have kept the table in the kitchen and still had enough room for everybody without going through the bother of creating a replacement for the two 18" wide leaves that died in the house fire.  But that gave everyone more than enough room for full place-settings and glassware.  And it only took me about three days to clean up--just in time to make a post-Thanksgiving feast on Sunday night with a boned, stuffed, and rolled turkey breast and thighs.
Len insists on doing the stuffing for the turkey, but the rest of the duties are mine.  Although I had been concerned about getting a large bird into the oven, there was plenty of room for it and I still had the other oven for baking and sides.

Last year, I attended a Thanksgiving dinner class at Sur la Table.  One of the things I carried over from it was making the gravy base in advance.  The one from the class started with some turkey legs and the wings and neck.  Last year, I went out and bought the legs, but they were kind of expensive and hard to find.  This year, I noticed that Costco had some smaller fresh turkeys available, so I figured I could fabricate it for the legs and use the rest in another way. Good choice, if perhaps a bit more work than I expected.  I've also requested a good boning knife on my Christmas list to replace the not-so-good-one we've been using for a utility knife since Len got it from a friend of his years ago.

My friend Gillian arrived for dinner with individual oyster pies--kind of like oyster stew with a cracker topping--and salmon mousse for appetizers.  I love them, but they are something my husband won't touch.  More for me.  Liz and Ed arrived and made a salad of mixed greens, pomegranate, blue cheese, and pecans, with a pomegranate dressing, which they plated for everyone.

I managed to get the table set ahead of time (hooray for finally having enough room for things) and we moved the living room furniture into the media room.  Turns out, we could have kept the couch in its place, but it was nice to have a cozy sitting room for appetizers and to retire to after supper. In the photograph above, you can see the red couch in the room behind my standing husband, and salads in front of the diners (Kelsey Nixon's cranberry salad, described below, in the large blue bowl on the right.)

A couple of years ago, I found a great recipe for a sweet potato souffle by Martha Rose Shulman in the New York Times.  It has become a Thanksgiving favorite, replacing the old canned yams with marshmallows everyone thinks they want and nobody eats.  This gets eaten up and it is so light.  Souffles are not that difficult, once you get past the perfection fear factor.

Harlan Ellison gave me the mother of all potato ricers as a gift several years ago (one of those years where he bailed on Thanksgiving at the last minute) and it does make for excellent mashed potatoes.  Fortunately, there's always someone willing to lend the muscle to do the work while I busy myself with other things.  This year it was Lisa, who got through all 10 pounds of potatoes with little difficulty.  The ricer comes from Williams Sonoma and it is much nicer and larger than the mid-century one I got from my mother's kitchen years ago.

I tried a new recipe for a cranberry side this year that I found on Kelsey Nixon's website.  Kelsey was a contestant on Next Food Network Star about three years ago and she's got a new show on the Cooking Channel.  It is her family's recipe for a cranberry salad and the link is here to Kelsey's Kitchen.  It was a bit 1950s--Gillian or Jim referred to it as ambrosia,  since it contained tiny marshmallows and whipped cream.  I'm not sure I'd make it again for dinner--it makes a huge amount--but I might very well make it for our party.  It is quite pretty.  When I served left-overs, it made a great presentation in a divided bowl with cranberry sauce.  I'm sorry I don't have pictures of it.

My friend Jim made a mushroom risotto with a hen of the woods wild mushroom he had gathered back in Wisconsin earlier in the Fall.  He proclaimed he had been eating it for several weeks without dying, so we need not worry.  It was about 20 pounds when he gathered it, and he brought it back to L.A. in a paper bag on the plane.  Good thing TSA didn't stop him.   It was very good and worth its weight in gold.

I made pie crust, puff pastry, and brioche dough from the recipes I got from the October baking class Michael and I took.  I planned to use it all or Thanksgiving.  I used some of the pie pastry to make pumpkin pies, but didn't get the rest made up.  So, with all of the leftover cooked turkey, I decided to try my hand at making pot pies with puff pastry crust. 
You know, it's easy to make them if you've already got puff pastry made.  I checked out an Ina Garten recipe and made adjustments for my ingredients.  My son and husband approved.

Sunday rolled around and it was time to face that partial turkey I still had in the fridge.  With a little help from Ina Garten, I managed to debone the thing.  Then I made up a stuffing recipe like my mother's and grandmother's (foregoing the one Ina had with sausage), spread it across my butterflied turkey (sans legs and wings), rolled it all up, and roasted it in the oven.  It is a lot faster than cooking a whole, stuffed bird.  Were it not for Len's (and Michael's) insistence on a traditional bird, I'd probably do it for Thanksgiving itself next year.  It was very moist and cooked in about two hours.  Then all you have to do is slice it.

I wound up with another eleven people for dinner on Sunday night, and the rolled bird (below) easily fed everyone.  It was also an excellent way to get rid of my leftover side dishes from Thanksgiving and I got to use the Lenox Holiday Christmas china for the first time this year.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Marilyn Monroe's Stuffing Recipe

Today's New York Times has  a nice piece about a stuffing recipe found in a new book which compiles fragments of Marilyn Monroe's life.  My issue with the article is the authors' astonishment at some of the techniques and ingredients and their conclusions about the possible source of the recipe.

First of all, I'd like to tell them that they are probably right that the recipe comes from Joe Di Maggio's family, because the technique of soaking and shredding bread for the stuffing is definitely a technique I learned from my Italian-American mother and grandmother.  We didn't use fresh bread, however charming the description of Marilyn buying a fresh loaf of bread is. It is a way of utilizing left-over, stale, dried-out bread which is saved for just this purpose.  That's why it needs soaking in water (or milk.) Coming out of the Great Depression and the privations of WWII, this is what people did.  I never in my life purchased boxed stuffing mix and wouldn't have it in my house except that my husband has claimed the stuffing-making duties for Thanksgiving since before we were married.  I much prefer using dead bread.

As for the authors' contention that sourdough bread was not well known outside of San Francisco at mid-century, I say "nonsense." San Francisco is NOT the beginning and end of sourdough, no matter how good it might be. Sourdough traveled west with pioneers and Forty-niners, but it didn't start in San Francisco.  I knew what sourdough bread was as a child in Upstate New York around the time Marilyn was cooking up this recipe. It wasn't until Nancy Silverton's La Brea Bakery Bread Cookbook that I was actually able to make a starter from scratch (using the grapes in my garden) but thinking that sourdough wasn't well-known in the 1950s is pretty naive.

My mother also used Parmesan, bird livers and lots of parsley, but no beef.  Occasionally, chestnuts were added (but I think they might have been hard to come by and I do remember some exploding in an oven once upon a time.)  I agree with the writers that the recipe shows a Sicilian influence with the use of raisins (I'd argue that came  by way of Phoenicia as there's a lot in Sicilian cooking that reminds me of Lebanese food) because my Southern-Italian heritage doesn't use them in stuffing.  My husband always puts raisins in his stuffing, which I find foreign. His Jewish family came from Poland and Russia, but I wonder if the raisins go back to a Middle Eastern origin.


Friday, November 5, 2010

 If you read my other blog, Out of the Darkroom, you know the reason I haven't had time to post much lately is that we moved twice in the past 6 months or so--the first move was back into our rebuilt house and the second was to a much larger house about four miles away.  The old house is not yet on the market, but I hope it will be soon.

The new house has a huge kitchen with some top of the line equipment, although it was probably installed around 1994, after the last big earthquake when the house was enlarged.  At least, that's when the GE Monogram built-in refrigerator was made. That piece of equipment has barely worked since we moved in.  The repair people have been out four times so far (and, yes, we did purchase insurance against such breakdowns) but it still isn't working right.  I see Thanksgiving looming and fear a repeat of my then year old fridge breaking down on me just in time for that holiday.

That's Len and my friend Karen in the kitchen when we did one of the walk-throughs.  There's a center-island with a prep sink and the refrigerator, range, and wall ovens are on the left side of the picture.  There's a skylight/backlit ceiling stained glass of ducks over head (a motif also found in the etched glass of the front door) that's quite cheerful.  And there is a lot of cabinet space, even if I no longer have a walk-in pantry (my favorite thing about the rebuilt old house.)
Fortunately, we brought both the big refrigerator and the one we use for cold drinks with us when we moved. The big one is in the garage where, sadly, there is no water hook up for the ice maker, and the other sits on the patio for the convenience of our guests.  And to give me some extra freezer space because I don't have a working refrigerator in the kitchen.

This has not put a stop to the Sunday Super Supper Squad, which did not miss a beat during the move.  I've been trying new recipes almost every week and the kitchen is big enough that I can extend my dining room table to comfortably seat a dozen people.  We'll have to move it to the living room for Thanksgiving and its full extension for a larger crowd, but that's no big deal.
For Halloween, I made a huge pot of chicken and dumplings (above) which was a big hit and has provided lunch at work all week. It hasn't been nearly cold enough for such comfort food this week, with temperatures in the 90s, but it was cooler on Sunday night.  I'm hoping for a bit cooler this weekend because I've got two large butternut squashes awaiting their squash destiny as butternut squash soup.

I love the Viking range that came with the house--four large burners and a grill.  When I made the lobsters (below) for my friend Gayle's birthday party, I could boil 3 large pots of water so everything was ready at the same time. I don't know why people think making lobster is hard to do when the best way to serve it is so easy.
While the Dacor electric double wall oven would not have been my first choice (I prefer gas and my range had a 5.3 cubic foot oven, much bigger than these), it does a fine job and can take half-sheet pans. I haven't gotten around to making bread yet, but roasted chicken and frozen pizzas made on my baking stones have come out right. I am quite inspired to do Christmas cookies this year.

I will say that I am actually looking forward to Thanksgiving this year.  In the old house, I always dreaded the task of rearranging furniture to make space for the people we would try to squeeze in every year (23 was the most, 16 was average.) We usually had to put our living room furniture outside to make room for the tables inside. Then it was really hard to work in the kitchen because there wasn't really enough room for more than two people and everyone wants to volunteer to help. This year, I fully expect to be able to set the table the night before the actual event, while different kinds of desserts are baking away in the two ovens. And I won't have to stay up all night to do it.  Heaven.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Two Days in the Kitchen

Yes, I know how to bake. So why would I sign up to take a two-day baking class at Sur la Table? It sounded like fun and my son Michael expressed an interest in learning more about baking. I signed us both up for the class since I've wanted to learn how to make the always-intimidating puff pastry and brioche and he doesn't drive, so getting to the Farmer's Market would be tricky, even if it wasn't the same weekend as AIDS Walk LA, and streets were blocked all around the Farmer's Market on Sunday.
We had a blast and learned a lot.  Michael now knows how to make pastry cream, butter cream frosting, and chocolate meringues. I can make brioche bouchees, palmiers, galettes, and sorbet. That's him piping meringues in the photo above (making meringues is not recommended on a weekend as rainy and humid as the one in October when we did this.)  He also made the butter cream frosting and the pastry cream filling for the genoise in the photo below.

The class was taught by Vanessa diStefano (photo below.)  I didn't realize she was teaching until we got there. I know Vanessa through her screenwriter beau and we first met at a dinner with Harlan Ellison three years ago.  She worked as a pastry chef at Mesa Grill after graduating from culinary school and before coming out to California.

Here are the finished desserts, starting with Apple Galettes.
Chocolate Meringues with Strawberry Sorbet followed by Ham and Cheese Bouchees, Lemon Tart with Pignoli Crust and Raspberries, and Palmiers.
    Vanessa will be teaching the same workshop again at the end of January at the Farmer's Market Sur la Table in Los Angeles near Fairfax and Third Street.  Here's a link to register at Sur la Table classes. I recommend it.  It is a hands-on class and you are bound to meet interesting people and have a great time.  Vanessa will be teaching a number of other classes, including other types of baking classes in the coming months.  She's knowledgeable and a good instructor.

Note: As of June 2, 2011, I've change the link to the Sur la Table classes because they've updated their website. Check the schedule for the Farmer's Market location to see when Vanessa will again offer this class.  She does it several times a year.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sweet Smell of Summer

"There ain't nothing in the world that I like better than bacon and lettuce and homegrown tomatoes...." begins a song by the late, great John Denver.  I find it hard to disagree.

My mother's cousin Mike grew the world's best tomatoes in his garden in Queens, under the flight path for Kennedy International Airport.  I remember summers when my sister and I got to stay with my cousin Adrianne and enjoy the daily deliciousness of tomato sandwiches.

Last night, I realized I had a variety of tomatoes that were red and ripe out in the garden and Len brought home LaBrea Bakery rosemary bread from Costco.  When he suggested Chinese, I told him that he and Michael were welcome to it, but I had something else in mind.

I went outside, picked a bowl full of the fruits, ranging from grape and cherry tomatoes to Romas, and a few leaves of basil, and came in to clean and cut up the tomatoes.  The smell was heavenly.  Some olive oil, salt, garlic, and the basil dressed the salad.  I took a slice of bread for dipping, and I had a most wonderful dinner.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Thoughts of Italy

My friend Melinda Snodgrass and I were discussing how much we love Italy yesterday.  It was in the context of wanting to go see Letters to Juliet just to look at the scenery.  We disagree about Rome. While I love the history and historic buildings, I did not feel safe alone there.  Melinda loves the energy of the place. I thought it was like being in the seamier parts of New York without knowing enough of the language to get out.  I prefer the more civilized pace of  the hill towns of the north and the areas around the lakes.  And the food everywhere.  As a fellow photographer once said to me, "my idea of heaven is you die and you go to Italy, where you eat a little and you drive a little and you eat a little..."

My affinity for things Italian is genetic. Three quarters of my grandparents were from (or offspring of people from) the south of Italy: Padula (near Naples), Venosa (at the end of the Appian way), and Calabria. (The other quarter was Czech, from the days when they were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but they called themselves Czech, no matter what the census of the day says.) Both of my grandmothers were born in the U.S., but both of my grandfathers came here as children from Italy, during the huge wave of Italian immigration around the beginning of the 20th century.  My mother's father said they came because his mother, the terrifying Nonna who lived to be 94 and refused to speak English (though god knows she must have known plenty after 50 years here), was worried that she would lose him to a war with the Turks.  His two sisters were already living here.

Italian was spoken in my grandfather's house since his mother wouldn't speak English and it was a way to keep secrets from children. My mother learned it, and each of her siblings learned less and less, and even I learned enough that when I finally took the language in college, it wasn't too hard for me to keep up.  I can read enough to get by, I know my way around an Italian menu or grocery, but any Italian two-year-old speaks the language better than I ever will. It's O.K. Italians will love you for the tiniest try.  I spent a train ride from Florence to Rome sitting with a woman from Sardinia and we managed a long conversation with the help of my Italian-English dictionary.  I believe if you know the phrases "quanta costa," "troppo," and "dov'e il bagno per la donna," you can get by.  For food, just point.

I've been watching David Rocco's Dolce Vita on the new Cooking Channel (which has the worst tagline I've heard recently: "Cooking Channel, Stay Hungry." WTF?), which reminds me of the lovely weeks I spent in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany taking a workshop in food photography back in the 1980s.  The show is shot in and around Florence, so I can point and say "been there, done that."  It makes me want to jump on a plane. Three weeks in Italy, never a bad meal.

For a long time I thought I deserved a trip to Italy as a delayed honeymoon for my second marriage, but after almost 20 years, that's not happening. If we don't find a house to buy soon, I may take some of the Jeopardy! money and treat myself to the trip I want.  Sometimes the fantasy trip involves taking an Equitour of Tuscany and sometimes it involves going to a cooking school for a week. If Len won't go, maybe I could get Melinda, my sister, and my friends Gillian, Karen, and Gloria to go along.  I'm sure we'd have a fine time. I've got a major birthday coming up next year--hmmm.

Since I'm more likely to go to New York in the near future, I was delighted to follow a few links from a Saveur e-mail this morning to discover Di Palo Selects, an Italian grocery and mail-order store in Manhattan.  The founders were from the same area as one of my grandfathers, and emigrated around the same time.  While I always include pilgrimages to Zabar's when I'm in The City, this place looks like a good reason to go Downtown.  I'm sorely tempted to order the cheese sampler and some fig molasses, just because it sounds so good.  I know of one pretty good Italian grocery down near LAX, but the ones in the Valley aren't particularly well stocked.  I'm open to suggestions, if anyone has them.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Oregano-crusted Tuna under the Stars

Dinner was very simple last night, but delicious.  The guys grilled steak and I grilled tuna.  They had baked white potatoes and I had a baked sweet potato.  It didn't take that much time, so I just don't understand why we don't do it every night.

The tuna was a variation on a recipe from Evan Kleiman's Cucina Del Mare: Fish and Seafood Italian Style. She does the recipe with swordfish--and I've done it that way as well--but the tuna came out just fine.

Take a piece of tuna, sprinkle with salt and pepper, rub it all over with olive oil, and then press oregano on as a crust.  Throw it on the grill until it is done to your liking.  Serve it with a squeeze of lemon.  Heavenly.

It can also be made in the broiler, but we've got the gas grill set up outside the kitchen, so it is convenient to use it and there's less to clean up.

I'm not sure what Len did to the beef, but Michael pronounced it the most delicious steak ever.

I'm a big fan of Evan's cookbooks with and without Viana La Place, and they were among the first cookbooks I replaced after the fire.  As I've written before, I really enjoy eating at her restaurant, Angeli Caffe, over on Melrose in West Hollywood.  The last time I was there was for a "Feast of Seven Fishes" family-style dinner just before Christmas (see photo for the appetizers for that dinner.)  Our table companions included Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, and her husband.  Susan had come out to California for research she was doing on the Army's use of mules in Afghanistan.  My friend Karen, who was my dinner companion that evening, is a knowledgeable mule fanatic, so she had much to offer on the topic of mules.  That's the fun of an Angeli Caffe family-style meal: meeting new and interesting people.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Remembering the French Quarter

I don't get over to the Farmers' Market on Fairfax in Los Angeles very often, but the spousal unit spent another four days in Cedars-Sinai Hospital and I needed lunch before it was time to spring him yesterday.  One of the kinds of food it is a bit difficult to find good examples of in my part of Los Angeles County is Cajun/Creole fare.  Fortunately, The Gumbo Pot at the Farmers' Market is pretty good.

I had a small bowl of the seafood gumbo, along with the sweet potato chips and beignets. These are all things I could make at home, but I just don't have the time and Len doesn't eat food this spicy. 

Since they sell it, I presume the recipe for the beignets is the mix from Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.  The boxed mix is available pretty much everywhere (including, apparently) and it is easy to make.  During one of the longest conventions I can remember going to, we were in New Orleans for eight days, and every night ended at the Cafe du Monde, across from the cathedral, with a raucous group of fantasy/science fiction writers downing chickory coffee and sugar-powdered beignets. 

For the record, I think eight days is far too long a stretch to eat in New Orleans. For all the wonderful food there is to be tried(and in eight days I had exactly two bad meals: the awards banquet at the convention hotel and dinner at what was reputed to be the oldest Italian restaurant in the city), you just know your arteries hardening by the minute.  My previous trip there had been five days, and my limited budget at the time saved me from places like K. Paul's.  I think three days is probably an ideal amount of time to spend there without dying for a fresh salad and a light lunch.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Baking Bread

I hope you will forgive me, but this is my first attempt at "monitizing" this blog by setting up links to for the books I mention.  Amazon will probably skim information about you if you link through here, but if you already use Amazon, this is probably not such a big deal.

Here's the main part of the meal for our most recent Sunday Super Supper Squad.  The bread is the basic recipe from Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day and the Provencal Chicken Stoup is from Rachael Ray's Book of 10.
I love to make bread.  It is so relaxing and it really doesn't need to take a lot of time.  Here's the recipe for the basic bread dough. I think it works better than the basic recipe in the original Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (which I wrote about in 2008) does.  It may be the addition of Vital Wheat Gluten (I found it at Whole Foods, but it is available through other sources.)  Check out the authors in this video to help you get through the process a bit better (I use a container like the one in the video that I picked up at Smart & Final, but I noticed it is available through Amazon as well.)

5 1/2 Cups Whole Wheat Flour (I use white whole wheat flour from Trader Joe's)
2 Cups White Flour
1 Tablespoon Kosher Salt
1 1/2 Tablespoons Granulated Yeast (2 Packages Fleishman's)
1/2 Cup Vital Wheat Gluten
4 Cups Lukewarm Water (approximately 100degrees)

Mix all ingredients with spoon in large container.  Cover loosely and let raise for 2 hours on counter, then put into refrigerator to rest overnight (or for up to 2 weeks.) (It can be used after the initial rising, but it will be sticky and not have as much flavor than if it has some time to develop in the refrigerator.)

When you are ready to make bread, cut off a piece of approximately 1/4 of the volume/weight.  If too sticky, dust hands and dough with flour. Quickly shape into a round or a baguette and place on parchment paper (which I put on a pizza peel.)  Let raise for 90 minutes.  Then brush top with water & sprinkle with choice of seeds (poppy, sesame, etc.) Slash top in three places to help steam escape.

While dough is rising, preheat oven to 450 degrees.  I use a baking stone in my oven, which gives the best results.  Have the stone in the middle rack of the oven.  Place 1 cup of hot/boiling water in a broiler pan on the lowest shelf of the oven to make steam (I've been known to spill some water on the bottom of the oven to really bring up the steam when I put the bread in to make a crunchier crust.)

When oven is preheated, slide the dough on the parchment paper onto the baking stone and close the oven.  Bake 30-35 minutes.  Bread is done when it sounds hollow when thumped.  Remove parchment and cool on rack.

Zoe Francois, one of the co-authors of the book, has a blog you can read here. It has a lot of great recipes. I only wish I had enough time to try them all.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The $500 Omlette

My son has occasionally expressed some interest in learning how to cook. He can make banana bread and can actually follow a recipe if he sets his mind to it. As Julia Child might say, though, he lacks the power of his own conviction that he can do it, let alone do it well.

I think that all men should know their way around the kitchen. My first husband acknowledged that he could burn water and his description about his own mother's cooking was far less than admiring: "when the kid I was tutoring invited me to stay for a dinner of leftovers, and I tasted seconds that were far better than firsts at home, I realized how bad a cook my mother was." I am far less kind about describing the late Frances' skills in the kitchen. Some cooking skill and a genuine interest in food were traits I looked for in a second spouse. While Len's interest in or tolerance for some kinds of cuisine are far less adventurous than mine, he can and does cook. His soul mate may very well be Rachael Ray, but he's content to settle for her cookbooks.

About two years ago, I sent Michael off to Sur La Table with my husband to take a knife skills class. He seemed to enjoy it. If French cooking is about perfection rather than yield, he has the perfect mindset to work in the kitchen. OCD actually is good for some things. When I broke my arm early this year, I knew I could rely on Michael to chop and slice for me and produce results far better than my own "good enough for government work" knife skills.

I noticed that Sur La Table was planning a three-part, basic kitchen skills class in January or February, which, if they had been offered in the evening or on weekends, I would have taken. Our friend Sandy had expressed an interest in taking such a class, so I decided that, if Sandy did it he was willing to take Michael with him, I'd pay for Michael to go. They had a blast and the class so enjoyed it, that they convinced the chef to plan another three-part series building on the first one. Two months later, there was a third, at an expenditure of almost $500 on my part.

Now, getting Michael to do anything more with his new skills other than chopping has been a chore. There's always some excuse. But one day I came home from work and my husband told me Michael had been working on his omelet skills. So I announced that what I expected for Mother's Day this year was breakfast in bed. Made by my son.

His excuse that he didn't have the right ingredients (the recipe he got in class was for an omelet with arugula and feta cheese) was answered with a trip to Trader Joe's to pick up some of each. He said he was going to practice, but somehow never got around to it. On Mother's Day morning, I waited in bed as long as I could stand while Len and Michael went to the store for other things and then puttered around the kitchen. Eventually, I just got dressed and joined them in the kitchen.

Michael's first attempt ended with egg on the floor, rather like the famous moment on Julia Child's program. But the second attempt worked quite well and looked and tasted just fine.
Now, if I can just get him to make some stock, some sauces, and the creme brulee I know he learned how to make, that $500 will amortize quite nicely.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Say Cheese

I love cheese. I can spend a lot of time looking at the selection of cheese at Trade Joe's or any specialty market. When I go to the farmer's markets, you are likely to find me talking to the artisan cheese makers and sampling their wares.

Over in Studio City, there's a place called the Artisan Cheese Gallery. Back before Christmas, my friend Gillian invited a group of us to attend a wine and cheese tasting there. It was a splendid evening, and I had hoped to get back over there with Len to try some different cheeses. Life got in the way, but we happened to be in the neighborhood last week and stopped off, possibly prompted by the cheese tasting my son got to go to at the famous Cheese Store of Beverly Hills a few weeks ago.

We were treated to a mini cheese tasting and finally settled on (starting at 12 o'clock and going clockwise below) Blu Bufala, a blue buffalo milk cheese from Italy, Beemster extra aged Gouda cow's milk cheese from Holland, Cabot Clothbound Cheddar cow's milk cheese from Vermont, and Toma Maccagno a soft cow's milk cheese with saffron in the rind from Italy.
Dinner that night consisted of cheese, bread, fruit and nuts. Heavenly, though probably not a good choice for a steady diet.

Friday, May 14, 2010


There's a wonderful restaurant supply store in Los Angeles called Surfas. I think the sign says it's been around since the 1930s. What sets it apart from Star Restaurant Supply in the San Fernando Valley is its size, its food section, its cooking classes, and, in its most recent location, a good cafe.
The Bon Appetit Magazine columnist Andrew Knowlton (BA Foodist, often to be seen judging television chef shows) recommended the cafe in a recent issue. I've eaten there several times, and last Saturday I had the Lobster Panini, about which he waxed eloquent.

Sadly, I was a bit disappointed. The next day on Big Daddy's Kitchen, as Aaron McCargo, Jr. was making a lobster roll, the reason was pointed out to his audience. Lobster is a delicate flavor and you have to be careful with the bacon. The Surfas panini had too much bacon on it. Yes, it is true. There is such a thing as too much bacon.

I have no idea how many thousand square feet the equipment/food store covers, but it is a lot. There is a case of high-priced antiques (currently located near the entrance) and featured prominently is this cookbook, priced at several hundred dollars:
I taught myself to make pizza dough and doughnuts from that cookbook. My mother may still have her copy. It is bound the way many law books are, because I think she bought it in sections at her grocery store and had to put the sections together over a period of months to make the book. It's probably 8-1/2" x 11" by about 3 or 4" thick and reflects much of what cooking in the late 1950s and early 1960s was about. The doughnut recipe was great, by the way, and I still use the pizza dough recipe (which I had copied from it) some times.

Both my husband and I are huge fans of neat food labels, and Surfas is a great place to go to look at them. Here's a selection of oils and vinegars. I couldn't resist buying the chocolate balsamic vinegar. We haven't tried it yet. I'm thinking strawberries might be the right pairing, since Marcella Hazan says sprinkling balsamic on fresh strawberries brings out their flavor.
We used to make Sunday morning pilgrimages to Bristol Farms, an upscale grocery chain, when there was one in the neighborhood, just to look at labels. That's probably why we've got so many odd bottles of mustard and other condiments.

I used the occasion to pick up the heaviest-weight cookie sheets I've ever owned and some half and quarter sheet jelly roll pans. Aluminum, not non-stick. The rimmed pans should be as good for prep organizing as they are for baking. Now I should get rid of some of my old pans and find some time to actually cook.

Pizza Dough from the Mary Margaret McBride Encyclopedia of Cooking

1 cup warm (not hot) water
1 package active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons oil (I use olive)
2 cups sifted flour, plus an additional 1-1/2 cups, approximately (depends on the weather)

Sprinkle yeast into water until dissolved. Stir in sugar, salt and oil. Add 2 cups flour and beat until smooth, then gradually add rest of flour, a little at a time. Dough should be like biscuit dough.
Turn dough onto floured board and knead until elastic. Placed in a greased bowl and rub top lightly with soft shortening (again, I'd use olive oil.) Cover with a damp cloth (or plastic wrap) and place in a warm spot to rise until double in bulk (approximately 45 minutes.)
Divide dough into two equal parts and shape with hands to stretch into two 12" pizza pans. Top appropriately (sauce, cheese, whatever you like.) Bake in 400 degree until done.
Notes: These days, I'd be more likely to shape it on a pizza peel lined with some parchment and slide it into the oven to cook on a baking stone for a much better crust. I own two of them and I love them, but pizza gets a little sloppy sliding off a peel using only cornmeal. My pizza pan was made by my father at a plant which made hubcaps and other chrome accessories for automobiles. I've also got a couple of non-stick pizza pans with holes in the bottom, but I've only used them for heating up frozen pizza--and that was before I got the baking stones.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


I love this French term for a kitchen garden.

I first planted vegetables and herbs at the house in the summer of 1990. Len and I had met the previous July, just before I started law school. Soon after I arrived in L.A. from Ohio for my job as a summer law clerk at the Writers Guild of America, west, I decided he needed to have more growing in his yard than a neglected orange tree. At that time, there was a sizable patio out side the kitchen door which had a large picnic table on it. There was a strip of dirt about a foot wide along the fence and I figured I could try to add a few herbs and maybe a tomato plant or two there.

It worked pretty well. The rosemary I planted that summer grew pretty large and an English lavender plant eventually took over one corner. I may have even gotten a tomato or two off the vines before I headed back to Cleveland in the fall. The next summer I added a few more things and I remember that when my friend Anna Todeschini visited from Italy with her family, her husband was very impressed that I had basil growing.

Len and I got married on Christmas in 1991, so I got an earlier start on the garden in 1992. I planted a number of things in containers because the physical space for in-ground planting didn't change until the Northridge earthquake of 1994. We had to have a lot of things fixed and I thought it was a fine time to get rid of most of the concrete patio on the kitchen side of the house. So the workmen came with a jack-hammer and I wound up with something close to a 10 x 10 plot of dirt instead of concrete.

The rosemary survived the earthquake repairs and a fence replacement (at one time I thought about asking Bernie Wrightson to create a Swamp Thing topiary frame for it) but it finally gave up the ghost the year before our fire. The lavender lasted until the garden area clean-up this spring, when we moved the fence to give us a much larger space on the west side of the house. Moving the fence did not disturb the two grape vines I put in about 10 years ago. They are spreading like crazy and look like they will have abundant bunches of Thompson Seedless and Flame grapes by the time Comic-Con rolls around in July.

The original orange tree is still here, along with a lemon tree I planted the first year we were married. I added roses six or seven years ago, and all five plants survived the fire and a year of neglect to produce like mad this spring. I've got two artichoke plants, and even a ruthless cutting back has not prevented a number of choke heads from forming. (I love artichokes, but nobody told me they attract earwigs like nothing else I've ever seen.)

Our new landscaper had his workers build me two raised beds where my in-ground garden used to be. I spent the weekend replanting the potager. I am so excited, because the space looks lovely and I can't wait to just sit outside with my laptop to watch humming birds enjoy some Mexican sage under my kitchen window.The photograph above shows you what things look like from the kitchen door. I've put some herbs (oregano, thyme, rosemary, mints and nasturtium) into the spaces in the cement blocks and it looks like they're going to take. I planted a variety of tomatoes and basil in the near bed, along with two kinds of strawberries and parsley. In the far bed, there are corn, beans, pumpkins, zucchini, cucumbers, dill and tarragon. I hope to be able to stay mostly dry when I need herbs during the wet months out here. In the past, the rosemary was along the fence and it was a muddy walk to get some in January.

I've got three different kinds of mint in large pots on wheels and a beautiful bay laurel which will need a bigger pot soon. I'm planning to put giant sunflowers along the fence, which will make some birds very happy later this year. I've got more rosemary in a border garden under the kitchen window, along with sage, chives, and the afore-mentioned Mexican sage for the hummers.

We're planning on turning this area into an extension of the kitchen by keeping the propane grill on this side of the house (rather than on the patio out the living room door where it has been for years.) It makes it easier to get from and to the kitchen and is a great alternative to a hot summer day cooking indoors.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Back in the Kitchen

Where did eight months go? It isn't as if I stopped cooking or eating. I guess it is catch-up time.

The rebuild on our house was more or less done in February. We've been back in since early March. There was quite a bit of change, but not of the over-all square-footage. The open floor plan we went with for the front of the house works really well. The color of the cabinets is fairly close to that of the first photograph. (This was shot before we actually moved back in and is a view from the living room into the kitchen area. The powder room is just past a coat closet next to the front door. The hall was formed to make room for an additional couple of cabinets.)My new kitchen has a pantry, a big oven and range, a big refrigerator (after dealing with the horrible rental refrigerator, we're doing the happy dance), and lots of cabinets (though, sadly, there are never enough cabinets.) Did I mention the walk-in pantry where the useless laundry sink used to be? The kitchen sink now looks into the yard, rather than the living room, but it does not have a big, single tub like I finally got when we redid the kitchen three years ago.
Somehow, the contractor didn't hear that I wanted it returned, no matter how many times I told him. The granite counters are lovely, but every one of them is a bit too high for my comfort. I anxiously await the return or my great grandmother's Hoosier kitchen, which will have a workspace for someone of my height.The door leads out to my garden--and the grilling area. My landscape artist just got the raised beds in for my herbs and vegetables and I can't wait to get plants in that will attract humming birds near the kitchen window.

The counter on the right is over a good-sized cabinet with drawers and has a seating area outside the range of the picture. This was taken before we moved things back in. It's a little more crowded on those counters now.

The new kitchen does inspire use, but I've largely been limited by time (mostly spent unpacking) to making dinner for the Sunday Super Supper Squad. I've rediscovered the joys of using a crock pot after purchasing a copy of The Italian Slow Cooker by Michele Scicolone. It's a great way to cook for a crowd, especially if you don't have a lot of time.

On Sunday, I tried the recipe for Seafood Couscous. It was a good choice because my husband, who has limited seafood tastes, was on a plane back from a comic book convention in Calgary, and my pescatarian was in attendance. Len will eat salmon, tuna, and swordfish, but won't eat most whitefish or shellfish (there's an exception for peeled shrimp.)
This wasn't the best styling I've ever done on a plate of food, but I appreciate my friend Liz taking the picture for me before it disappeared. Everyone loved it and it was so easy to make. Onions and garlic are sauteed, chopped tomatoes and tomato paste added, along with broth and clam juice and brought to a boil. Then it's into the crock pot for four hours on low. The fish (scallops, shrimp, and firm white fish) get added 20 minutes before serving. The couscous is made separately. I have a six and a half quart crock pot and doubling the recipe filled it up.

Thanks also go to my son, Michael, who is turning into a great assistant. He does a great job with prep, which has been a godsend since I broke my arm in December (there went four months of my life.) I'm almost done with physical therapy, but he's been most helpful. If French cooking is about perfection and not yield, he's got a future in the kitchen.

Michael has just complete the third of three three-day cooking basics classes taught at Sur la Table at the Los Angeles Farmers Market on Fairfax. (If you have a Sur La Table in your area, check them out. Not all of the stores hold classes.) The group that took the first round had such a good time that they convinced the chef to do it twice more with different recipes. I wish I had the time to go with him and our friend Sandy, who's been doing the driving. Tomorrow they get to go to a wine and cheese tasting, which is so much more fun than anything I'll be doing.