Monday, September 29, 2014

What I've Learned About Grown Up Restaurants

Not too long ago my friend Shari and I ventured out to try Alma, a tiny 30-some seat tasting menu only dining room tucked next to a strip club on an up and coming hipster block in downtown LA. Named the 2013's best new (American) restaurant by Bon Appetit Magazine, Alma has gotten more than it's share of press, most of it centered on its young and inventive chef Ari Taymor (and a fair share about the restaurant's 15 year old aspiring chef Flynn McGarry -- yes he was working the night we dined).
Alma is an interesting restaurant full of unexpected combinations -- seaweed beignets, cod crudo with finger limes, or, as pictured above, uni and burrata on house-made english muffins. Taymor's (one of Food and Wine Magazine's best new chefs for 2014) hyper-local style of defying convention is unusual for LA. It's the kind of cooking coming out of Copenhagen or the bay area these days. This kitchen is daring. And daring can come with mis-steps. Each of the unheard of combinations brought to the table by friendly -- often direct from the kitchen staff -- servers sounded intriguing. I was anxious to try them. But I can't say they were all delicious. This is cerebral food best enjoyed with a moment to reflect over the first bite and contemplate the second.
The night we slipped in there was a group seated nearby that was so loud -- I mean sports bar playoff game loud -- it seemed crazily out of place. Everyone in our row of tables turned his/her head at the more alarming outbursts. But the noise persisted and I admit it did affect our enjoyment of the meal the chef offered up.
Finally when one of the cheerful chefs brought us a dish to taste and asked how everything was we admitted the noise was really disturbing. I know beyond tactfully asking the offending diners to try and hold it down a bit there isn't much a restaurant like Alma can really do. But I suddenly realized what separates the kickstarter funded, young chef flurry of inventiveness restaurants from grown up fine dining. The grown ups make amends -- send a coffee or glass of wine to the table -- a message of apology and shared distress between the front of house and the offended diners. Youthful Alma, once a downtown pop up and fairly new to it's home building, shrugs her shoulders and continues to sprinkle ground coffee (or ash marshmallows, or celtuce purée) where it has never been before.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Real Italian Home Cooking

Italians as a habit and societal necessity put their best face forward. They call it "bella figura." It's the unspoken rule that keeps Italians from running to the supermarket in pajama pants and flip flops and makes sure every guest is treated as visiting royalty.
There are dishes you make for company and there are cozy one pot suppers you might eat with just the family at home  -- people with whom you can completely relax.
Way down in Pulgia, the heel of the boot, one of those simple dishes you'll never find on a restaurant menu or even as an invited guest in a friend's home combines potatoes and squash with spaghetti in a rustic, quick, comforting dinner.
I dress it up a little with olive oil, herbs, and chili peppers but even with just cheese, pasta water and pepper this dish is a quick meal favorite. To the salted water boiling for your spaghetti add two large handfuls of diced potatoes, after they boil along for 2 minutes add the spaghetti and diced zucchini. Cook according to the package directions. Reserve 1 cup of pasta cooking water and drain the spaghetti mixture. In the same pot -- I could do this in a skillet and make dinner even quicker but it's nice to have less dishes to wash -- heat a glug of olive oil with chopped garlic and crushed red pepper. As the garlic just starts to color add in the drained pasta with potatoes and squash, 2 TB (or more) each chopped parsley and basil, the reserved pasta water (as much as you need to make a bit of a sauce), and a large handful of grated parmesan (or pecorino which we prefer) cheese. Toss everything together for a minute or two and serve with a bit of grated cheese on top.
No, it's not fancy but with potatoes and tromboncino squash from our backyard garden it felt just right for just the two of us.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

48 Hours (almost) at Home

Home for a quick stop between jobs, the garden -- though James has been doing his best to keep up -- was overflowing with produce. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, green beans all waiting for me. 
Our vegetables make me so happy. I'm actually proud of them.  I can't let them go to waste. I pulled out the canning pot (a beautiful new one James got me for Christmas) and started to plan.
Hours of peeling and slicing and boiling later (what a way to squander a little time at home) James helped me store away 6 jars of canned tomatoes, 4 jars of pickled peppers (those are gonna be great for sandwiches and to spice up sauces over the winter), 8 jars of dill pickle slices and 7 jars of bread and butter pickles. Quite a haul. Looks like pickles for Christmas (presents) this year..

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

MH Bread and Butter

 When we first came up to Northern California I naively thought (me and a good collection of food magazines) Della Fattoria's meyer lemon rosemary bread was just about the best loaf of bread I'd ever eaten. It's good. The wood fired crust and tender crumb make it a pretty appealing loaf and I fairly regularly handed over $6 for one to take home.
Then one day, wandering through the local market about to reach for my now familiar lemon rosemary loaf, a plain brown bag wrapper caught my eye. Rubber stamped letters simply said MH. Just when I thought I was buying the most extravagant loaf of bread in existence I came face to face with an $8 loaf of country white. The chewy crust is burnished dark brown -- black in spots. I couldn't resist the giant rustic loaf and carried my precious to the check out. I later learned I had happened down the aisle on the first day of deliveries for this new ( in 2013) bakery.
Funded as a kickstarted project, MH Bread and Butter's chief baker/ founder Nathan Yanko spent 8 years as master baker at San Francisco's world famous Tartine. Along with his wife Devon (a former personal chef and specialist in gluten free baking) Yanko founded the all-day cafe on a quiet street in sleepy San Anselmo. They serve an assortment of salads, sandwiches, soups, entrees, and of course desserts and I've been wanting to stop in since that first grocery store aisle encounter.
I finally had my chance and settled in for roasted Romano beans with tomato sauce, a poached egg and country toast. It was good -- fine -- everything coming out of the kitchen looked good. But the toast. Glorious, springy white bread with a crust so crisp it actually hurts the roof of your mouth if you bite down too hard. Order what you will, MH is all about the bread.
MH Bread and Butter's country loaf has basically ruined me for other breads. I've had French baguettes, Poilane's miche, Sullivan Street's filone, and Nancy Silverton's work before La Brea Bakery became a household word -- but my heart belongs to my new love MH Bread and Butter.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Getting Ready to Go . . . Again

 Our pepper plants have finally kicked into high gear and we are regularly getting armfuls of beautiful green Padrón peppers. Traditionally a specialty of Northwest Spain these thin skinned peppers are most often served blistered (pan fried whole in olive oil) and sprinkled with coarse salt. Delicious tapas. While our plants are producing I'll serve the heirloom peppers as an appetizer and then scramble the leftovers into our morning eggs.
Like any vegetable Padrón's are best fresh -- and even more delicious right from the garden. I just couldn't abandon today's haul to our fridge drawers and walk away without a thought. So I decided to pickle a few jars to save for the sad pepperless months to come.
I hate to lose that bit of char quick frying adds so I decided -- very untraditionally -- to give my peppers a brief sauté before loading them into sterilized pint jars along with a peeled clove of garlic, one bay leaf, and a pinch of red chile flakes. Padrón peppers are mostly mild but every now and then -- with no warning a hot one pops up (Spanish roulette I've heard it called). I like the extra punch the chiles offer.
For my brine I used 3 cups of vinegar, 1 cup of water, 3 TB of sugar and 1 TB of salt boiled together until the sugar dissolved. I poured the hot brine over the waiting peppers (leaving about 1/4 inch headroom), wiped the jar's rims clean, screwed on the two-piece lids and processed in a hot water bath for 5 minutes to complete the seal. This winter I'll add these beauties to stews and sandwiches and count on their tangy brine to add zest to pan sauces and salads.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cleaning Out The Fridge

Not too far from us sits Bellweather Farms, a beautiful sheep dairy producing a variety of high quality cheeses (sheep and cow's milk). We love their pepato, a semi-soft sheep's cheese similar to a young pecorino with whole peppercorns and especially, when it's available, their sheep's milk basket drained ricotta. It's fresh and creamy and delicious and feels special in spreads, pasta sauces or just spread on toast with a drizzle of honey.
Heading out of town I just couldn't leave our precious ricotta to age past it's expiration date so I rolled up my sleeves and boldly strode where I rarely go -- gnocchi. 
I combined 1 cup of flour, 1/2 cup finely grated pecorino cheese (I was on a sheep theme here), and zest of 1/2 lemon  with my hands to make sure the lemon was evenly distributed. Next I made a well in the center of my dry ingredients and put in 1 cup of ricotta and 1 egg. With as few strokes as possible I mixed all the ingredients together and spilled my dough onto a floured board. Cut into four equal pieces I rolled each quarter into a rope about 12" long and cut each rope into 3/4" lengths to form the tender little pillows that would be James' dinner. As the gnocchi were cut I put them on a parchment lined baking sheet with TB of flour and gave the tray a shimmy and shake to protect each pillow in a thin layer of flour. The gnocchi waited uncovered in the fridge until I was ready to make our dinner. Twenty minutes from almost expired ricotta to gnocchi for dinner.
A couple hours later I brought a pot of well salted water to a boil. I dropped in half the gnocchi and allowed the water to lightly bubble (too rapid a boil and the gnocchi may burst) as the dumplings rose to the top and then cooked through for about another 2 minutes. Meanwhile I melted butter in a skillet and allowed it to turn brown and nutty. In went the cooked through gnocchi (in two batches so some were more brown than others) and several leaves of fresh sage. The dumplings tossed in the brown butter and cooked long enough to lightly crisp on the outside. Pillowing soft fresh gnocchi with a tasty nutty brown butter crust. 
Restaurant quality dinner in no time at all. And no expired cheese :-).

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Some Beans Really Are Better

Jame loves beans. Every so often I'll cook up a pot for quick meals, to fill the freezer, or to have on hand for a simple one bowl dinner with brown rice and sautéed veggies.
Sometime I use a little pork to flavor the pot but lately I've been cooking our beans with just a splash of olive oil, a whole head of garlic (cut in half), a peeled quartered onion, 2 bay leaves, about 5 whole peppercorns, a sprig of rosemary and chopped fresh sage leaves. With water to cover, the whole pot comes to a boil and then is left to simmer until the pre-soaked beans are tender, usually about 40 minutes or so. The flavorful results are great to eat on their own or have on hand to use in salads, spreads and stews.
Today I reached back in the cabinet for a pound of Rancho Gordo Good Mother Stallard Beans. Rancho Gordo is a Napa, CA heirloom bean grower and food merchant that for many years has been spreading the gospel of heirloom flavors, local agriculture, and seed saving. With flashy graphics and clever copy their little bags are eye-catching at the market or on grocery shelves and sometimes when I am feeling rich or reckless (they are about $6 a pound) I reach for one. The rich, deep, vegetative flavor puts other beans to shame. James said -- without prompting or knowing about my bean buying extravagance -- that these might be the best pot of beans I ever made.
To paraphrase a certain pizza chain owner -- better ingredients, better beans -- so much for the bulk bin.