Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

Another winter holiday, another delicious crab feed -- our new holiday tradition. This time at friends' lovely Glen Ellen pool side party barn complete with outdoor heaters, crackling fire pit and starry dark sky.

Monday, December 30, 2013

A Man From Brussels Made Us Brussels Sprouts

"I'm from a cabbage country," he declared as a simple fact.
I immediately ceded him the task of preparing dinner's brussels sprouts.
First he precisely cleaned the tiny beautiful cabbages and parboiled them until just tender.
"This is the way my grandfather did it," he explained as he dropped the drained sprouts back into the pan where bacon was crisping in a knob of butter. I stirred the decidedly not European cheese grits while he tossed the sprouts in the pot grinding in pepper and sprinkles of salt.
Brussels sprouts have been cultivated in Belgium since 1587. Before the first King James bible, before the Pilgrims set out for Plymouth the Belgians were perfecting sprout cookery. You'd think when a genetic expert comes to cook in my kitchen I'd have been ready with at least a point and shoot camera or iPhone. But, I missed it all. I was too busy ogling my stunning new pre-seasoned Lodge dutch oven a Christmas gift from the man from Belgium and his lady love.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The End (I hope) Of Excess

The holidays are over -- well at least part one -- and I'm more than ready to get back to simple, clean(ish) eating and cooking. Tonight a crispy chicken cutlet (I love Ian's gluten free panko bread crumbs) with a zesty bitter salad of radicchio and arugula. Step one towards getting back to the new normal around here.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Crab For Christmas

"You can eat turkey anytime," James reasoned. He didn't feel like ham. He's never really been crazy about prime rib (I'm the one that loves it and I always eat way to much since he only tastes). 
"Crab," he said. "Let's have crab."
The holidays fall right in the middle of dungeness crab season and here close to the very waters the boats fish we couldn't think of a better holiday treat. 
"What about Christmas eve?" I said. 
"Christmas Day?"
We started the holiday off with my usual roasted crab recipe. I leave the cracked cleaned crabs to marinate in a mixture of fennel seeds, chili flakes, parsley, S&P, and olive oil for a couple hours and then roast them for about half an hour at 400º.  Super easy and messy fun to eat.
"Salad? Potatoes? Vegetables?" I offered.
"I love potatoes but anything else on the table is space I can't use for crabs. James explained his theory on crab eating. "If I eat potatoes I'll eat less crab. If I eat cauliflower I'll eat less crab." Reasonable, I thought. Just crabs . . . and a little bread to soak up the zesty marinade.
 Christmas morning brought an unexpected crabortunity. I shelled the leftovers from the eve's crab dinner and, after a quick sauté in butter, softly scrambled eggs into the warm crab meat. On the side, fluffy biscuits whipped up from the beautiful self rising White Lily flour I carried home on the plane from Florida for just such an occasion.
 For Christmas dinner -- probably not typical -- spaghetti with crab. Maybe the best spaghetti dish I have ever made. I started with olive oil warmed in a pan and added plenty of chopped garlic, with a sprinkling of fennel seeds and chili peppers. After a minute or so I added in my secret ingredient, 2-3 TB of the yellowy delicious fat I saved while cleaning the crabs. I let the fat dissolve in the warm oil and added in about a pound of crab meat, 1/4 cup of chopped parsley and the juice of one big lemon. I tossed the drained pasta into the sauce with 1/3 cup pasta cooking water, gave everything a good toss and served James' Christmas dinner -- even though some would consider it blasphemy -- with a light sprinkling of parmesan cheese.
"I'm totally crabbed,: James said contentedly. "I'm walking sideways."

Monday, December 23, 2013

It Started In A movie

James and I watched David O'Russell's latest film American Hustle today. At one point in a crowded old school Italian restaurant Jeremy Renner's character asks for the "skinny" chicken, "very thin" and out comes a beautiful pan of scallopini.
"That looks good," James leaned over. "What is that?"
"Scallopini," I said." Do you want that for dinner?"
Now in truth being New Jersey in the 70's that could have been chicken scallopini, francese, marsala or piccata. All similar dishes of thinly pounded chicken breast with quickly reduced pan sauce. I like scallopini's lemon and caper sauce combination (without the egg dip of francese).
I dredged two thinly pounded chicken breasts in seasoned flour (gluten free for our current diet craze) and browned them a mixture of butter and olive oil (2TB and 2TB), about 2 minutes on a side. Setting the chicken aside to keep warm I added 1 cup of chicken broth (if I'd had some white wine I would have done 1/2 cup wine and 1/2 cup broth), the juice of half a lemon and 2 TB of capers. I let the sauce reduce for about 2 minutes then stirred in 2 TB of butter and a sprinkling of chopped parsley before serving the chicken quickly swirled in the pan.
"If you make chicken you should always make it like this," James said between bites.
Not quite an oscar, but good enough for me.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Life With Baba

Scout can never be replaced. He was quite simply the world's greatest cat and 19 years with him was just not enough.
A couple weeks after our cat Scout passed away James and I both admitted more than once we thought for a moment we'd seen him. James said he missed a cat around the house. Days went by.
"Maybe we should just go look," James said one afternoon. I could see his screen showing a search of kittens available for adoption. "We can just see what's there," he continued and I think he actually believed it. We stopped to make sure the cat carrier was in the car before we left. I knew.
At home James spied a kitten the humane society was calling Aiden. We walked in and the little gangly orange brown youngster was right up front. Minutes later we were in the "meeting room" with Aiden. A little orange blur dashed from side to side, jumped up to a high shelf and declared the cat tube the most fun he had ever had. James played and I watched. Maybe I wasn't ready. This cat wasn't my Scoutty. He was something different altogether and I didn't know how to feel. I looked at him and felt nothing while James fell more and more in love.
How would this cat -- barely more than a kitten, fit into our family of three dogs? James praised his confidence and independent streak. He was no scaredy cat. I veered and cuddled a pair of clingy tortoise colored kittens. They felt sympathetic and needy. James played with Aiden's tail and laughed happily.
"Can we take him home, Honey?" A variety of sensible reasons why he was the cat for us followed. It didn't matter. There was only one answer. I went off to do the paperwork and make a donation to the humane society while James got to know our dogs' new baby brother.
After about 3 days commandeering our small bathroom and making supervised strolls through the house Aiden was ready to run with the big dogs. We tried out names (Radley -- keeping up the To Kill A Mockingbird theme -- Winston, Buster, Henry and many more) while a little orange streak tested his boundaries.
We're back to having an orange cat in the bed. Not quite cuddled up to the dogs but inching ever closer. I was out of town and James declared our new kitten, "Riley." As in Life Of I thought -- appropriate. He started as Riley. I heard James call him O'Riley a couple times and then like the Who song almost everyone (including me) but James thinks is called teenage wasteland there was Baba. Baba O'Riley after a song named for Pete Townsend's musical influences is our new teenaged cat.
He is not Scoutty. He is young and energetic and everything is an exciting new experience to try out. He sits in our chairs, chases invisible mice and makes us laugh. It's different having a youngster in the house. Nothing is safe. Not even my heart.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Christmas Is Coming

So often the plate I fix or the package I ready doesn't live up to the picture in my head. This Christmas, with a little help from my friends, my office gifts are exactly what I'd hoped they'd be. Our friend Denis made these little wooden crates that precisely hold 3 jars of homemade preserves. Natalie shrink wrapped the jars in tight and then with a little burlap and jute this year's Christmas look was born. I like it so much it may become a house standard -- at least for a couple years.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Last Stop In Jacksonville

Strolling past the very contented looking cats making their home on Singleton's front porch you know you've arrived at the real thing, a completely unpretentious, friendly, bit rough around the edges fish shack.
Walking to my seat past the kitchen ice table not showing off but simply storing the day's catch for hungry customers I spy a telltale bumper sticker -- "Friends Don't Let Friends Eat Imported Shrimp." This somewhat ramshackle plywood (yes even the ceiling) shack isn't the refuge of Sunday fishermen and water borne adventure seekers but home away from home for men (and I suppose women) who make their living on the water, pulling in beautiful fresh fish and seafood.
"What's fresh and local?" I asked my very attentive waitress. Her eyes lit up as she told me today's flounder and sheepshead were "beautiful." She didn't need to inquire, she didn't question. At a glance this experienced waitress knew what the best dish would be. Unlike the other fish camps I visited in the Jacksonville area the staff at Singleton's knows their fish, and how to size up a customer.
Surrounded by personnel from the nearby navy and coast guard bases I bit into supremely fresh basically unadorned sheepshead filet. She was not wrong, this was a beautiful piece of fish of ultimate freshness and highest quality in a plywood shack along the sleepy water.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Clarks Fish Camp

 Plunked down in the midst of what I'm sure were once rural homes (many still have a boat in the front yard) and churches (lots of churches) is a theme park of a restaurant, Clark Fish Camp. Built on piers over a beautifully still meandering river,  Clarks' setting seems right out of a 1960's Disney "adventure" movie. Poles and planks elaborately lashed together hanging out over water where I'm sure gators who don't know they are on the menu swim up regularly. The interior may boast a quirky and somewhat frightening collection of taxidermy befitting the collection of "wild things" (gator, quail, kangaroo, etc) featured on the menu but the back deck is positively serene. Assuming you can call a seat in full view of a motorboat decorated with light up giraffes, Santas and flamingos serene.
Clarks menu is huge, but oddly I get the impression fish (unless it's fried) may not be the best choice. Tables all around me were gnawing on gator toes and ribs, followed by prime ribs and fried baskets. Repenting for my last fish camp fried fare I stuck with steamed oysters and grilled trout. Tender local St Augustine oysters and two giant slabs of trout filet. Maybe not the best I've ever had but looking out at the still water with the warm Florida sun on my face, it didn't matter at all.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Whitey's Fish Camp Orange Park FL

Whitey's Fish Camp is exactly the kind of place I am always hoping to find. Locally owned, no frills, with homemade specialties worth driving for. Perched right on the water at Doctor's Lake the large gravel parking lot holds not just the restaurant but a bait and tackle shop, boat rental (and launches), RV spaces, campground and -- believe it or not -- a hair salon. I was in love before I ever walked in the door.
The area around Whitey's has grown up in recent years. I passed shopping malls and apartment buildings on my way, but perched on Whitey's deck watching the boats go by I reveled in the brief glimpse of old Florida culture. Cheerful waitresses not in any way svelte enough for their oddly tiki themed Whitey's tank tops pass by regular customers refilling beer glasses and exchanging friendly banter. College football flickers on a corner TV. The whole place feels vaguely like a waterside biker bar with families, fishermen, boaters, bikers and couples in corvettes as customers.
Whitey's specialty is catfish, wild caught from nearby waters. This isn't the muddled mild taste of farm raised catfish. Rolled in a sandy cornmeal crust and fried to a fragile crisp, the moist flesh (cooked whole on the bone) is rich and savory and perfumed with the flavor of local waters.
Down home cooking for locals and friends.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Time had come for the last tomatoes ripening on my kitchen windowsill. All of them far from pageant winners, sauce came to mind. I cooked down those roughly chopped tomatoes with 3/4 cup of wine (I usually prefer red but we had white open and waiting), 1 cup of olive oil, 8 smashed cloves of garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, dried parsley, chile flakes, dried basil ( could had eased fresh but out's cold up here and the plants are long gone), and 4 bay leaves. Mashing the tomatoes a little the mixture simmered for nearly 2 hours. Taking the lazy girl's way out -- instead of peeling the tomatoes at the beginning or passing through a food mill at the end -- I gave the whole melange a turn in the vitamix and -- presto! smooth sauce. This is the recipe I use when canning sauce to use through the year in quick dishes and other recipes, my basic sauce. Probably due to sad end of year tomatoes and maybe the white wine, the sauce was a bit more acidic then usual, so today I warmed the sauce with a bit of whole milk (about 1 cup leftover in the fridge) and dropped in simple panfried meatballs (ground beef, ground pork, chopped onion, chopped garlic, 2 eggs, gluten free bread crumbs, dried parsley, oregano, tiny bit of grated parmesan) to cook through in the savory goodness.
Despite the one day biscuit and pie vacation for Thanksgiving we are still in the midst of our gluten free experiment around here so these meatballs topped a bowl of beautiful steamed Romanesco cauliflower.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Monday Night Lentil Soup

The air is turning crisp up in these parts and that calls for soup. Quick cooking lentils are just the thing for busy Mondays.
I started with a recipe by Melissa Clark, writer of The New York Time's " A Good Appetite" column. It seemed simple enough, I had a few other chores going and I was just going to follow a simple recipe and make sure dinner was on the table relatively early. I'm not sure where it is I go astray. Dutifully following along suddenly my mind started to wander to the tube of harissa, a North African chili sauce of which I am absurdly fond, in the fridge. Once I'd gone in that direction the simple pot of soup called out for warm spices -- saffron, cinnamon, ginger, coriander. My adapted version was just the right dish for an evening turned cold. Try it at home.

Monday Night Lentil Soup

4 TB olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 large shallots, chopped (I could have used two onions but I didn't have another)
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 TB tomato paste
1 1/2 TB (or to taste) harissa
salt (about 3/4 tsp kosher salt) and pepper to taste
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp saffron threads
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 quarts chicken broth
2 cups red lentils
3 carrots, peeled and diced
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup chopped cilantro

In a large pot heat the oil over medium heat until hot and just shimmering.  Add the onions and garlic and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, harissa, and all of the spices (except the saffron threads). Let cook about 2 minutes longer. Add the broth, 2 cups of water, lentils, carrots and saffron threads. Bring to a simmer and allow to cook for about 30 minutes until lentils are soft. Taste and add salt if needed. If desired, purée half the soup with an immersion or countertop blender for a slightly thicker soup with smoother texture (don't go too smooth). Return the soup to the pot, reheat slowly and stir in the lemon juice and 12 of the chopped cilantro, reserve the rest or garnish.

If we weren't in the midst of "clean eating" challenge at home I might have drizzled the top of the soup with olive oil or better yet fried up some garlicky croutons but even on it's own this simple soup got no complaints.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A New Source Of Inspiration

A friend recently sent me a link to The Kitchy Kitchen, a sumptuous blog by food photographer turned commercial director Claire Thomas. Scrolling through the luscious photos I felt inadequate at best and then quickly became intrigued by the simple, approachable recipes. A couple days later I still couldn't stop thinking about Thomas' harissa roasted carrots with chick peas. James doesn't really like cooked carrots (I can't explain it) so I set out to make her spicy recipe with cauliflower (I couldn't resist a few roasted carrots in with the mix). Thomas calls it a side dish but with salad and maybe rice this could have been a great main dish. But, strolling past the fish counter I saw beautiful wild halibut filets. I rarely cook fish but these beautiful steak-like slices (and a best choice from the Monterey Aquarium shopping list) caught my eye. I pan roasted the fish with a sherry vinegar, tomato wine sauce and served the harissa kissed cauliflower and legumes on the side.