Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year's Eve

I'm not superstitious in the least or much for most tradition. But, I do love a food theme I can, so to speak -- sink my teeth into. Though I did not don the traditional red underwear of Italian New Year's eve, I did gather up a meal of lentils and sausages. The round lentils representing coins are said to bring abundance and good fortune in the coming year.
Usually the sausage would be cotechino (I've done that some years), something like an uncured salami that is generally boiled for several hours before serving. Our hurry up version of the Italian classic was just hot Italian sausage which I browned in olive oil (with onions and garlic) and then -- with a cover on the pan -- cooked through with a splash of red wine and water (the sausage steamed through for about 15 minutes -- I tossed in pre-cooked lentils for the last 5 minutes).
For a little bit of American style I served the sausage in a stack with a smattering of bright green kale -- a harbinger of the dollars to come our way in 2015.
Farewell 2014!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Live Crabs

A beautiful drive with visiting friends to Bodega bay to find live Dungeness crabs. Though I usually buy mine already cooked and ready to roast at home, Sha, my friend and fantastic Asian cook, insists on live for her delicious Singapore style chili crabs.

 We picked half a dozen fairly active beasts from the big purple tub set on the side of the road and brought our bounty home for dinner.
It's so nice to have cooking friends visit. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Beef Tacos

Living here among the cattle ranchers every now and then we are lucky enough to be gifted a choice cut in exchange for a friendly favor or honestly for no reason at all. That's how I came to have a couple pounds of beef cheeks in the freezer. Usually I would go right to a long cooking stew or braise but I felt like something a little different.
Trolling around the internet I came across famous fusion taco chef Roy Choi's recipe for beef cheek tacos and thought I give it a try. Choi marinates the cleaned beef overnight in a brine of 2 TB Kosher salt, juice of 1/2 lemon and 1/2 orange and 1 lime, 1/2 cup sugar. 3 peeled and smashed cloves of garlic, 1/2 cup red wine vinegar, 1 1/2 whole dried guajillo chiles, 1/2 cup whole chiles de arbol, 1 cup rough chopped cilantro and 2 quarts of water all brought to a boil to dissolve the salt and sugar and left to cool before adding the beef. I didn't have the chiles Choi specified so I used what dried chiles I had along with a fresh jalapeño cut in half. I left the meat in the brine uncovered overnight in the fridge and in the morning brought the whole mixture up to a boil and then allowed the pot to simmer for about an hour.
 I removed the meat from the brine (discard the brine) and let it cool before storing it in the fridge to wait for dinner.
Choi makes a piquant salsa verde to chop his tacos but it's hardly time time of year to easily find tomatillos and honestly James isn't that big on salsa so I improvised with a creamy guacamole and a crisp Latin style curtido, a quick pickled marinated salad of cabbage, carrots, jalapeños, and onions.
For my version I thinly sliced 1/2 cabbage, 2 carrots, 1/2 a white onion and minced a jalapeño. I tossed the vegetable together and poured over a hot brine of 3 TB cider vinegar, 2 tsp sugar, and 1 tsp kosher salt (brought to a boil and poured over the cut vegetables). After an hour covered in the fridge the crunchy salad was the perfect topper for crisply fried meat on gently warm corn tortillas.
Not exactly Christmassy but a fine winter treat none the less.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Shrimp and Grits

"No!" I said to my new French friend across the table. "That is not shrimp and grits." Protecting a dish I consider an American icon. We were seated together at lunch being served this caterer's version of the beloved Southern dish.
Now I realize shrimp and grits is one of those Southern dishes that has as many versions as their are Southern cooks but . . . their shrimp was pan fried with no bacon or ham gravy, their grits were hard and formed into a cake and worse yet . . . yellow! Some things cannot be tolerated. I decided right then and there to make a plate of the low country comfort food for James. A first I think.
I started with the grits, stone ground white corn grits I hand carried home from a job in South Carolina. Those boxed instant grits some areas of the country pass off as a breakfast dish are a non-starter. I'd rather eat the box. I set 3 cups of chicken broth and salt to a boil (if I'd had it I might have used 1 1/2 cups of whole milk) and stirred in 1 cup of grits. I covered the pan and lowered the heat to let the grits cook slowly while I tended to the shrimp.
First I cooked 6 slices of bacon (diced) over medium heat to crisp the meat and render as much fat as possible. I set the bacon aside and tossed in one diced onion, one chopped stalk of celery, and a couple preserved Padrone peppers I had canned from our garden over the summer. Now most cooks would use green pepper and of course you can but I don't really favor the taste and the slightly hot Padrones add a little kick the dish needs. When the onion was translucent I added in 2 cloves of chopped garlic, 10 large peeled shrimp, and the bacon back into the pan. After a minute I added in 1/4 cup of sherry and 1 cup of chicken broth, brought everything to a boil and let the shrimp simmer for 1 minute. To finish the sauce I removed the shrimp, turned of the heat, and added 1 TB of cold butter and a dash of hot sauce that I swirled into the sauce.
To finish the grits -- when they were soft and still creamy (about 25 minutes) I stirred in 3 TB of butter and a handful of shredded parmesan cheese. Stir in extra water as needed to make sure they are smooth and soft. The grits went down on the plate first covered by the tender shrimp just mixed into the savory sauce.
"You could serve this in a restaurant," James said.
I looked over and saw him scrape his plate with the back of his fork to get every drop.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas 2014

Our Christmas seafood dinner and not one decent photo to show. I had no real plan heading into dinner and so I ended up with a strange combinations of things we like. I felt a little uneasy about the pairing until it hit me. Our dinner of stuffed clams topped with thick slices of bacon and crab cakes made from my favorite childhood recipe came straight from the menu of any Italian inspired East coast seafood house found up and down the right side of the country. Back East the crab is blue but now that I am a Westerner we are Dungeness all the way. The delicious winter crab.
I grew up in Maryland where crab is a summer treat and the best steamed crabs, crab soup and crab cakes are hotly debated topics. Certainly one of my favorites is Faidley's in Lexington Market and I've been using their crab cake recipe flavored with mustard and worcestershire sauce (and my own splash of old bay seasoning and a dash of hot sauce)  for years. Tonight I offered this to James along with a quirky cranberry cocktail sauce I first whipped up one evening when the cupboard was bare.
"Kings don't eat like this," James said.
They do at our house.
Merry Christmas Honey!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Crab For Christmas Eve

We're continuing with our self-created tradition of dungeness crab for the winter holidays. Tonight out of the shell and folded into a creamy béchamel for a white lasagna accented with grassy, sweet (easy melting) fontina cheese.
Be assured this dish fits squarely in the tastes better than it looks category but honestly I was too anxious to get James' entree to the table to try out other poses. In this baked pasta, layers of egg noodles alternate with a rosemary and thyme infused béchamel, dungeness crab meat and fontina cheese -- topped (just before serving) with a pan roast of fresh mushrooms. It's the kind of dish I couldn't find time to make everyday and that's exactly what I try to do for the holidays.
For some busy families just cooking and sitting together at the table is a holiday only event. We sit down to a home cooked meal just about every night. So to make a night feel more like Christmas I venture out to recipes with multiple steps, meals served in courses and homemade desserts (not to mentioned super-luxe ingredients)
Santa won't get any trouble from us. We'll be tucked away in a happy crab coma while reindeer take their annual ride.
Merry Christmas to All! Merry Christmas, Goodnight!

Saturday, December 13, 2014


For a few years now I have been reading food writers and blogs literally scream praises for Jessica Koslow's hand crafted Sqirl preserves. Trained in high end restaurants. Koslow started peddling her homemade jams at local farmer's markets and those rave reviews somehow converged into a let's say compact East Hollywood/ Silverlake cafe.
As a fervent amateur jelly maker I've been wanting to taste what all the fuss was about and one recent morning I stumbled over to try.
Despite an interesting and fairly extensive (for the size of the kitchen and compact dining room) menu and a shockingly beautiful, elegantly rustic selection of baked goods (Koslow was once employed as a pastry chef in Atlanta's Bacchanalia restaurant) the most famous dish at Sqirl is toast. Fluffy brioche toast and a choice of jam. The bread is airy. Not heavy with eggs and sugar as brioche can be but almost spongy with deep brown toasted crust. Swirl offers a selection of jam flavors each day and because I seemed interested the bubbly gal behind the counter brought me a tasting spoon of each one on offer. The cranberry bourbon and raspberry vanilla to me were fine I'd stack any of my homemade flavors against them and come out ahead I think. But, the blueberry rhubarb (pictured on the toast above) and strawberry rose geranium literally burst with fruit flavor. An addictive blend of sweet and acidic these preserves, despite their oddly loose texture, sparkled in a way that made me determined to make mine better. I can taste what the fuss is about.

The subject of nearly as many poetic reviews as her jams are Sqirl's breakfast rice creations. Savory or sweet, these combinations seem like a chef's very sophisticated take on leftovers. I can almost picture Koslow, fridge handle in hand, thinking . . .  maybe a touch of pesto . . .  where was that feta cheese and . . . oh yes topped with an egg. The kokohu rose rice bowl I ordered had kind of a spontaneity to it. I'm sure it didn't but it felt like a dish that just happened. A -- for lack of a better description -- what I want to eat right now kind of feeling.
I love rice. I often scramble it with eggs for breakfast and if we've had spaghetti recently I might toss in a dollop of pesto or charred tomatoes. Swirl's sorrel petso is flavorful and herby and not cluttered with cheese (as mine often is). Tasty, but again the preserves are the star of this dish. I might have described this breakfast combination as fine or not especially memorable if not for the super vibrant, puckery preserved lemon condiment served on top. I would happily order that by the bucketful.
The dining room is micro at best. Though tables sprawl down the sidewalk you'll likely have to wait for a place to sit and from what I've seen the line to order can sprawl dozens deep. This isn't fast food by any means. But if you have the time to linger Sqirl is certainly worth the visit. I'll go back for certain.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Joan's On Third

I didn't want to like Joan's On Third. Nearly an institution in LA, for years I avoided the take-out spot and casual eatery in spite of -- or probably because of -- it's popularity. How could I feel I'd found a hidden treasure when everyone knew about this one?
A couple months back I arrived early for an appointment just across the street from Joan's (early morning and parking was plentiful) and slipped in for a coffee and a, okay I admit it, delicious blueberry cornbread muffin.
The parking is nothing short of tragic. The multiple counters and cashiers is confusing. The market products are absurdly expensive. Though I spent $26 for Italian torrone I somehow couldn't resist. But, I love Joan's. If I had a restaurant it's the kind of place I'd like to have. Hearty sandwiches with finesse, a huge variety of read or serve entrees, salads and sides (pasta, meatballs, lentils, meatloaf, roasted vegetables, brussels sprouts -- a generous list every day ), pastries, ice cream, a cheese counter, soups to go. Simple rustic food, well prepared for a beautiful people clientele who looks like they never eat. Oh, and the bread!
The ordering system is chaotic. There is always a line. There is barely room to walk through the one winding aisle. But, I love the metal baking tray and pie plates Joan's uses for serving (can I do that at home?).  I love the oversized farmhouse table right in the middle of the refrigerator cases. I love the bottles of water the cheerful servers bring to the table. I love Joan's but I'll never tell.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Homemade Christmas 2014

Fabric, ribbons and several cases of mason jars littering my friend Shari's table as we churn out more than 20 batches of nut brittle (cashew, macadamia, and pistachio). With the brittle packed inside waiting jars we started to experiment with combinations and bows. Shari is an excellent bow tie -er. Nearly 10 hours later (no joke) we had an army of jars ready to deliver.
Packed in the back of my car, every time I hit the brakes I can hear the faint ringing of jingle bells. It's like driving the sleigh.
Tomorrow I start deliveries.
Merry Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Din Tai Fung, Again

There was palpable excitement in the food centric corners of LA when an outpost of the venerated Taiwanese dumpling chain Din Tai Fung opened in the area back in the early 2000s. An immediate success, it wasn't too long before DTF opened a second "fancier" (and bigger) spot just around the corner from the original shop in Arcadia. Last year the chain expanded again -- further from a steady East Asian clientele into Glendale -- in the high end Americana mall. Settled in among Kate Spade and Tiffany's, DTF now caters to busy shoppers and offers an alternative (and valet parking) to area diners looking for something other than the excellent middle Eastern and so-so chain restaurants already in the area.
Fifteen years ago DTF was not my favorite dumpling spot and it still isn't. In general I prefer a thin rice paper wrapper to sturdier wheat. But really there is nothing wrong with the chain's dumplings and I've eaten them in Arcadia, Shanghai (under protest), and now Glendale. It seems that the new location has tried to refine their dishes and service to make new customers more comfortable. My Steamed rice pork bun -- usually served wrapped in a leaf and tied with kitchen twine came to the table unwrapped and naked on a plate. Not flavored with pungent Chinese sausage, but filled with a not too chili braised pork. Fine but not special. 
Though I have rarely ventured from the soup dumplings at DTF today I opted for pork and shrimp wontons in spicy sauce. I'm not sure I'd call the sauce spicy even by white folks standards but I liked it. I'd go back for more. And soup dumplings -- you can order a half order which is nice for a smaller crowd to try different flavors -- were, as always, dependable.
Dumplings have come a long way since the only place to get quality xiao long bao in LA was at a small collection of sticky table dives in the SGV and honestly I still prefer the slightly lesser known outposts -- if for nothing else than my eater's pride. It's hard to trade fantasies of Chinese grandmothers' work hardened hands deftly rolling delicate dough for the plate glass window view of very Western college kids wearing chef's jackets in Glendale. But when a lengthy drive isn't in the cards and your dinner companion might want a glass of wine with wontons -- DTF might just be the place.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Farming For The Future

 Just before the rain, preparing for summer cattle our front pasture has been disked, seeded and dragged. We've planted alfalfa to bale and to feed our visiting beef herd in warm weather.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Sweets Of The Season

It's a pie time of year. Thanksgiving is a pie holiday and it ushers in a season of sugarplums and Christmas cookies.
Despite what may have been a pie overload on turkey day -- when friends came to lunch the last of our precious tree's apples became a flaky sweet dutch apple crumb pie. I love the holidays.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Keeping The Holiday Going

A simple treat for our seafood holiday. A memory from my childhood. Fried oysters. My Grandma used to call them (as did everybody around our parts back then) "padded" describing the way the crunchy coating clung to the briny bivalve. Her's were dipped in egg and rolled in cracker crumbs. I still like them that way. Mine, mostly a product of oysters at the store and what was in the pantry, were soaked in buttermilk, paprika, and a hint of cayenne for about 15 minutes (I was low on eggs and had a splash of buttermilk left in the bottle to use up). Then I tossed the still wet oysters in a half flour half cornmeal mixture (seasoned with S&P and a hint of garlic powder) and lowered them into hot oil. After a couple minutes on each side they were golden brown and ready to rush to the table -- with for a seasonal turn -- homemade cranberry cocktail sauce. Crispy, hot, salty, delicious. Just like I remember.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

Being just the two of us, James and I have given up the traditional Thanksgiving meal. And though I miss cooking all the old time favorites it is hardly as fun as serving up a beautiful bird to one tolerant fellow as it is to an awe-struck crowd. Our thanksgiving for two has become an annual mini-crab feast. Dungeness crab roasted with herbs and feel seeds and messily eaten with just slices of toast. I can't give up everything cold turkey as they say so I still make a little Thanksgiving specialty. This year a mini sweet potato pie, just right for one.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Few Of My Favorite Things

A few things I love: butternut squash, chick peas, harissa, pomegranate, feta cheese, rice -- all in one dinner. First I oven roasted cubes of butternuts squash and chick peas (just drained form the can) in a mixture of harissa and olive oil with salt and pepper for about 35 minutes at 425º. Delicious. I served those over fluffy steamed rice toped with feta cheese and a quick relish of preserved lemons, pomegranate seeds, olive oil, and chopped mint. Vibrant flavors in a bowl.
"This is really yummy" James said. " I mean from the way it looked I wasn't really sure," he continued completely unnecessarily. "But it's really good."

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Comfort Food: Risotto

Potato risotto. Okay, so I've never seen it on a menu but it seemed comforting and warm -- something James would like.
I started the way I always do with chopped onions and garlic sautéing in olive oil, and because I had some I tossed in diced celery for some crunch and small cubes of potato. I sautéd the vegetables until just soft but not colored and tossed in 1 1/2 cups of arborio rice.
Though I suppose you could make risotto with any kind of rice, short grained arborio has a nice tender texture and plenty of starch that helps to create risotto's signature creamy sauce. After the rice started to seem a bit translucent from being tossed in the hot oil I added in 1/2 cup of Marsala wine -- I used Marsala because I had a bottle near the stove and nothing else open but really any wine --white or red would do nicely here. When the marsala had just about cooked away I started to add warm chicken stock by the 1/2 cup -- allowing each ladle full to nearly cook away before adding the next, stirring regularly but not constantly and seasoning as I cooked. When the rice was tender (I'd added about 4 1/2 cup stock) I stirred in butter, a sprinkle of parmesan and a good sized hunt of brie cheese. Brie is probably pretty unusual in risotto -- then again so are potatoes -- but it combines easily, has lots of interesting flavor, and there is no need to peel the rind -- just cube and stir into the waiting rice and the soft cheese melts right in.
Because the risotto was soft and mildly flavored I wanted something with a little punch to liven up the dish. A quick salad of parsley and radicchio with a pretty forceful anchovy dressing (3 chopped anchovy filets, 2 cloves minced garlic, juice from 1 lemon, splash of sherry vinegar, 1 tsp dijon mustard, 1/2 cup olive oil shaken together) was just the thing.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Simple Squash Supper

Gardens are fickle masters. Last year we were overrun with squash. Every Tom Dick and Harry who crossed our property left with best wishes and a hefty bag of cucurbits.This year, despite close care taking we ended the season with three, only three kabocha. An Asian variety often called Japanese pumpkins, kabocha have meaty flavorful orange flesh and completely edible skins. With so few to savor I didn't want to hide my prizes in soup or curry sauce so I decided to roast them where their sweet flavor could shine.
After tossing the slices of kabocha with cumin, S&P, red chili flakes and olive oil they roasted for 25 minutes at 375º until cooked through and slightly caramelized. For a simple topping I whipped up a tahini sauce (another of my favorites) with 1/2 cup tahini. 1/2 cup water, juice of 1 lemon, and 3 cloves of garlic brought together with a pinch each of S&P in the blender. I love tahini and figured with some bright, tart pomegranate seeds the sweet squash flavor would still shine through.
Colorful, tasty, the last of our home grown squash.
Here's hoping for more next year.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Things To Eat With Toast

I'm clearing the freezer. First I pulled out the big bag of last spring's frozen fava beans and whipped them into a long cooked stew flavored with garlic, onions, peppers and bacon. That didn't seem quite enough. Buried under bags of elderberries waiting to become jelly and ham bones waiting for soups to flavor was the last of the brandade -- a meltingly rich spread of salt cod, potatoes and cream. It's a Christmas tradition around here (I missed last year and made it late in the year) and James and I both love it. Add some cheese and thinly sliced salami and out dinner of treats to eat with toast was ready for spreading.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veteran's Day Apple Pie

We have an apple tree. Every year at this time I try to make sure none of those beautiful apples go to waste. Jams, jellies, apple sauce, and today while I was slicing fruit for a jelly attempt (don't even ask it has not been a banner jelly year) I decided on a little pie. Unless we are having company I don't usually make dessert for dinner but the big bowl of apples on the table and more on the tree seemed like a good excuse -- and besides I had a beautiful all butter pie crust in the freezer ready to go.
Nothing fancy, I soaked some raisins in bourbon for about 1/2 hour for a little extra flavor. Added the drained raisins to my very thin apple slices along with a sprinkle of flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla extract and tiny cubes of butter. I rolled out the dough, fit it snugly into my mini pie pans, piled the filling as high as possible (like a softball sitting in the crust), dotted the top with butter and rolled on the top crust. After quickly crimping the edges, brushing on a little milk and sprinkling sanding sugar James' little pie baked for 20 minutes at 450º and another 20 minutes at 350º until the filling was bubbling and the crust golden brown.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Kale Pesto

There are days -- as much as I like to grocery shop that I just don't want to go. Sometimes those days turn into a week.
Part of it I suppose is that I enjoy the challenge of making a dinner James likes from seemingly nothing or ingredients that don't seem to go together. Kind of a home version of the Food Network's Chopped where I am the only contestant and James the only judge.
Tonight James wanted spaghetti. Okay pasta I had but what to do for the sauce. I found some kale -- maybe a bit past it's prime and some parsley. Searching through my baking ingredients I came upon about 3/4 cup of walnuts. Pesto!
I put the kale, parsley, a couple cloves of garlic, a few pardon peppers I found in the veggie drawer, parmesan cheese, and the walnuts into the food processor. After I gave everything a good chop I poured in the olive oil to form a nice chunky pesto paste.
All I had to do was add a good dollop of pesto to the drained pasta -- along with about 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water -- and a bit more parmesan, give everything a good stir and serve topped with crisped prosciutto.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Bistro Supper

Perched down among the area cattle ranchers we are every now and then lucky enough to get a paper wrapped, grass fed gift. Recently, as if giving evidence to the value of our friendship, it was the chef's favorite -- hanger steak. Richly flavored, there is only one on each animal and for many years -- before it became popular with restaurants -- it was the cut butchers kept for themselves. A meaty secret.
For some reason when I saw that steak ready to be pan seared I thought French -- a bistro dinner of steak and fries -- steak frittes, as they say. Besides I had a little red wine to use up, perfect for sauce in a familiar Parisian style with plenty of shallots and butter.
First I seared the seasoned meat in a hot pan with s lick of oil for about 4 minutes on each side, and set the meat aside. I added 1 TB of butter to the pan and about 5 thinly sliced shallots which I cooked stirring for about 4 minutes. Next I added in 2 TB of red wine vinegar and cooked until it evaporated and then poured in about 1/2 cup of red wine. When the wine had reduced by half I tossed in another TB and 1/2 of butter and some chopped parsley, stirred and served the sauce drizzled over thin slices of medium rare steak.
Vive La France.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Chicken and Dumplings: Fluffy or Flat

"Someday" James said quietly. " Can we have chicken and dumplings? With corn and sauce and not those big dumplings . . . "
Now I usually have some carrot or celery in my sauce but I've never seen corn in chicken and dumplings. And I always make fluffy herb scented "big" dumplings. But still, James rarely makes requests -- and honestly I thought he didn't even like chicken and dumplings (and those old Southern standards are some of my favorite things to cook) so I figured I'd give it a try.
Like many traditional foods, there is no one recipe for Chicken and dumplings. Some are chock full of tasty vegetables, some (the way I used to make it) leave meat on the bone, some use a milk-based gravy. But the most controversial element is the dumplings themselves. Some, like me, use fluffy drop biscuit style dumplings that steam over the savory stew and some -- apparently like James' grandmother -- use flat rolled dough, like thick squares of pasta.
I started the way I usually do by making a quick stock. I covered 1 whole chicken, 2 carrots, 2 stalks of celery, 2 bay leaves, 1 onion (cut in half), 1 bulb garlic (cut in half but not peeled), fresh thyme and fresh parsley with water. I brought the pot up to a boil and let it simmer for about an hour. I drained the stock and while the chicken cooled I started on the sauce.
After a couple TB of butter and a splash of oil heated together in a dutch over I added in about 1 cup each (maybe 3/4 cup) diced carrots and celery, minced garlic (4 cloves), a bay leaf, and some dried thyme. I seasoned the vegetables with salt and pepper and let them cook until softened, about 5 minutes, then added not quite 1/4 cup of flour to start making a roux. Once the floury taste had cooked out -- about 2 minutes, I slowly added the drained chicken stock (about 8 cups total), added both frozen peas and frozen corn (somehow I just couldn't do the corn alone) and let the sauce simmer for about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile I started to tackle the dumplings. I had never made these rolled flat style dumplings before. But I was not going to be bested by flour and milk so I turned to every cooks best friend -- the internet and started to read how other people make them. Most of the recipes I found imitated Cracker Barrel's recipe and used a hefty amount of crisco. Now I suppose vegetable shortening has been around so long some cooks even consider it a traditional ingredient but I don't like it. I'd rather spend my fats with real butter and lard and bacon grease instead of chemical stabilizers. So for my dumpling recipe I fork mixed 1/3 cup of bacon grease (yes I save it in the fridge) into 2 cups of flour, 1/2 tsp baking powder, a pinch of salt and plenty of black pepper. While the bacon grease was still in big pieces -- like making pie dough -- I poured in 1 cup of buttermilk and mixed the ingredients together into a loose dough. I turned the dough out on a well floured board and kneaded it just a few times to bring it together to a smooth ball. I rolled out half the ball of dough to 1/4 inch thickness  (on a well floured board) and cut the dumplings into smooth squares and rectangles with a pizza cutter. I'm sure that's not the way James' grandmother did it. None the less I let the dumplings rest sprinkled with flour and let the other half of the dough rest until I was ready to roll more.
Back to the pot. When the sauce had thickened to my liking (just barely coating the back of a spoon but not too thick as the dumpling flour would add body to the sauce) I stirred in a 1/2 cup or so of whole milk for a creamy texture, checked the seasoning and brought the liquid to a gentle boil. In went the first batch of dumplings. I covered the pot and let it simmer over very low heat for 10 minutes. These first dumplings -- from what I read -- thicken the sauce. I rolled out the rest of the dough and turned back to the now cooled cooked chicken -- remember the stock we started with -- and pulled meat off the bones in large pieces to add to the bubbling sauce.
After the first batch of dumplings had cooked for 10 minutes I added in the second batch and some chopped parsley along with the chicken, covered the pot and let it simmer for 10 minutes more. Then uncovered I let the stew simmer with very little stirring to not break up the dumplings for about 5 minutes more until the dough was cooked through.
Sprinkling chopped parsley over bowls of creamy stew I wondered if my maiden effort would live up to James' expectations. The rosy memory of a childhood taste.
James didn't say much as he ate, but "Mmmm so good." When he asked for seconds I silently declared that a victory and figured we might just have a new traditional dish for our little family.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Another Summer Comes To An End

I suppose everyone has a sign when they know summer is over. Clocks gain an hour, kids go back to school, leaves start to turn. No matter what the calendar says, even if it's November (as it usually is) I say my final good-bye to summer when I pull the last tomato plants from the garden. It doesn't make any sense. The season is long past and nights have turned cold but for me as long as there are tomatoes on the vine a bit of the summer lives on.
Looking towards Thanksgiving I'll contemplate this year's green tomato jam while I whisper a fond farewell to another summer.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Spiced Crabapples

I remember seeing spiced crabapples when I was a kid. Not at home. My mother hardly believed in garnish since an incident as a newlywed when she tried to dye the mashed potatoes to match the blue tablecloth but that's another story. I vaguely remember a bright red mini apple next to a pile of kale (or some ruffly green) on a serving platter but I'm not sure where. Maybe at one of the family style Pennsylvania Dutch restaurants I loved growing up. The picture is hazy and I certainly don't remember ever tasting them. But somehow when my beautiful little Wickson crabapple tree offered a healthy crop of mini-apples those spiced garnish were the first things that came to mind. I pictured a Thanksgiving turkey platter sparkling with home canned jeweled apples, stem and all,  and maybe even kale.
Wickson crabapples, a 1944 Northern California introduction by noted pomologist Albert Etter, are renown for exceptionally sweet spicy flavor and as choice ingredients for a single varietal champagne cider.  Crabapples are also excellent pollinators for other apples and a couple seasons back we had a Mutsu, Arkansas Black, and Gravenstein in need of a companion. Now our backyard orchard is home to a beautiful little Wickson tree that this fall was covered in garlands of yellow red fruit.
After gathering and washing the fruit (and poking small holes in each one to keep them from bursting), to preserve them for future dinners, I made up a pickling liquid of 3 cups sugar, 1 1/4 cup water, 2 1/2 cups vinegar, 2 cinnamon sticks, and 1 tsp whole cloves. I bought the liquid to a boil and allowed it to bubble for 10 minutes. Then I added half of my heavy 3 lbs of apples, covered the pot and let the fruit simmer until tender. Pulling the apples from the syrup I filled my waiting jars, repeated with the other half of the apples and covered the fruit in the jars with the hot syrup. I sealed the jars and stored them away on the pantry shelf picturing a Rockwell style Thanksgiving with old fashioned tastes and familiar (though only through distant memory) and edible decor.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Simple Chicken and Vegetables

I never really think much about the recipes that dot the William Sonoma catalogue. I just page by while scanning all the things I am not going to buy. But today, looking for something homey and warm and most importantly a one pot supper (I am just not in the mood to scrub pans) I stumbled across this rustic quick braised stew. WS' recipe called for carrots and potatoes. I had a couple carrots but also the lonely end of a bunch of celery and some still pretty nice bright pink radishes. I adapted. First I seasoned 4 chicken thighs with salt, pepper and paprika and browned them (about 2 minutes a side) in some bacon fat. Yes, I admit I do save it in the fridge. Then I set the chicken aside and dumped 2 small mild peppers (pardon), 1 chopped shallot (I wish I had more), the carrots I had (3 little runts from the garden and 1 respectably sized), a couple stalks of celery in big pieces, a bunch of radishes (cut in half), and two potatoes cut into big cubes into the pan. Seasoned with salt and peppers the vegetables sautéed for about 5 minutes. I sprinkled 1 1/2 TB flour over the skillet and let that cook just a bit before adding 1 1/3 cup  chicken stock and 1/3 cup white wine (and a pat of butter) which I brought to a boil. I nested the chicken (and the collected juices) back into the pan, brought the liquid up to a bubble, covered the pan and let everything cook together for about 25 minutes.
Usually James isn't so enthusiastic about chicken for dinner -- unless it's fried. But he found plenty to like in these long cooked potatoes and silky sauce. I'm gonna look more closely at those Williams Sonoma pages from now on.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Return Visit

When I last ate at Little Sichuan, my now favorite spot in Plano Texas, I asked one of the waiters his favorite dish on the menu.
"Beef and Napa Cabbage," he said in heavily accented English. "It's what we eat in China." He further explained.
Of course I didn't manage to ask until after I ate so I've been waiting for a chance to go back and try the recommended dish. With just one day left in town I ventured in.
Not at all what I expected,  the spicy dish was a delicious aromatic almost stew with chili flecked sauce to sop up with rice. A perfect winter dish. I kind of wish we had a Little Sichuan near us.

Monday, October 20, 2014


Congee is Chinese rice porridge. A supremely simple comforting dish. It stretches a simple cup of rice and flavorful scraps to feed a family breakfast and is popular throughout Asia. I'm not sure what I find so appealing about what is basically a bowl of gruel.
I know there is better Chinese food to be had in the Plano area, but the allure of comfort food brought me into JS Chen Dim Sum and Barbecue. Though it was hardly morning, I settled in for a comforting bowl flavored with fish and preserved egg ( I ordered chicken and duck) and ribs, a perfect flavoring for the bland (in a good way) rice.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Little Sichuan

The funny thing about traveling for work (often) is that by the time I've landed, know my way around and find the places I like to time it's time to move on.
Barbecue may be what people come to Texas expecting to eat, but here in Plano looking around at the substantial Asian immigrant population (I've seen both East West and Cathay Bank -- harbingers of quality Chinese food in the vicinity) it suddenly dawned on me. Don't tally with smoked meats that pale in comparison to the delights of South Texas or the Hill Country . . . eat Chinese!
Armed with the power of my newfound resolve, late on a sleepy afternoon I wandered into Little Sichuan, a nondescript space in a completely Asian mini-mall ( a small version of what diners might see in Monterey Park, CA or Flushing, NY). To one side off duty wait staff sat cutting a giant pile of hot peppers into strips for the kitchen. The cook lounged at a table watching Chinese soap operas. He walked to the kitchen to ready my dishes after I ordered. The only other diners a group of elderly Chinese. I am the only white face.
Sichuan food is famous for its liberal use of chili, and garlic. I love the tingly almost numbing effect the area's Sichuan peppercorns add to a spicy dish. Chengdu (capitol of Sichuan provence) is the fertile regions most famous gastronomic city and these "Chengdu" dumplings, soft dough pot stickers bathed is vibrant chili oil, are a popular snack. Little Sichuan's version were savory and not seemingly hot (as Sichuan food can be) but somehow addicting. The more I ate the more I wanted.
Following the dumplings, twice cooked bacon. I expected crispy pork bits but instead found a plate of sautéed pork belly bound by an earthy cumin flavored sauce. Bacon is bacon but the real treat of that dish were the delicious leeks, peppery and soft.
I've eaten Chinese food all over the world. I love it and rarely attempt it at home. Here in little Plano Texas, nearly hidden from view, are dishes maybe not quite as spectacular as those in LA or Queens (or maybe so) but solid tasty cuisine that stands up favorably to the best anywhere within the middle of the country for sure.
So often the case, towards the end of my trip I've found that place I should have known all along.  Can I go again? Can I eat every meal at Little Sichuan until I leave? Why didn't I find it sooner?  The usual questions surrounding a most unusual and unexpected restaurant.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Kor-BQ: The Legend Spreads

Not too many years back LA's Roy Choi started a revolution with his Kogi food truck fusion of Mexican and Korean flavors. Since its inauspicious start in 2008 the Korean taco has spread not just across the southland but across the country and spawned a Los Angeles restaurant empire for its creator.
Ideas have a way of migrating and even here in Plano TX, certainly not a hotbed of culinary invention, there is Kor-BQ a bright and clean fast food spot in a modern mini-mall. Kor-BQ's specialty may be the egg rolls filled with either bulgogi or dweji but I'll never know. They are gone, the cashier assured me, every day by about noon. Kor-BQ opens at 11:30.
For my evening visit, close to closing time, I settled for two rib-eye tacos and an enormous rice ball, filled with marinated meat, cheese, and topped with a tangy siracha mayonnaise -- the best bite at Kor-BQ. The food was fine. I won't be craving it or drive far from my path to get it but tasty enough.
These may be the flavors that started a nationwide food trend, but they can't stand up to the invigorating taste of Kogi's specialties. Innovator Roy Choi is a trained chef with years of restaurant experience -- Eric Park, Kor-BQ's creator, is a former math teacher riding a lucky trend.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Lockhart Smokehouse

Hold up in Dallas. Not exactly known as a mecca for Texas' specialty slow smoked BBQ. Though there are many types of barbecue across the country and many I enjoy, over the years I've come to understand that Texas style is my favorite. In Texas 'cue is all about the meat (mostly beef which I prefer), and the smoke. Here in Dallas brisket is king --as it is across the state -- but pork has made significant inroads. Beef ribs, the pinnacle of TX barbecue and the focus of my local meat love affair -- are hardly to be found. The sauce -- if even included -- is at best an afterthought. Fine with me.
Maybe not the best the state has to offer. But when in Texas one must eat barbecue. 
Not too far from my hotel I found the well reviewed Lockhart Smokehouse, a local mini-chain run by relatives of the more famous purveyor Kreuz Market. Why not I thought and headed over. True to Texas market style you walk up to the counter where your order is cut, weighed, and wrapped, along with spongey white bread,  in butcher paper. I ordered burnt ends, a one day a week specialty, and jalapeño sausage. Burnt ends, generally a specialty of Kansas City BBQ, are one of my favorite meats. It is the slow cooked point cut (the fattier part) of brisket often cubed and some times covered in sauce. At Lockhart's the cubes are big with the requisite black char "bark". They look just right but in fact -- and perhaps because for the lunch rush the meat is already cubed and waiting in the hot box -- the meat was a bit dry. Smokey enough but dry. The sides, deviled eggs and blue cheese coleslaw were at best nothing special. But, contrary to the reviews I read, the sausage was the highlight of my visit. There is something indescribably alluring about the taut skin of slow smoked sausage and Lockhart's version (supplied by Kreuz Market) nearly popped under my teeth. Juicy, flavorful and highly spiced this sausage and the ample supply of spicy pickle chips were the highlight of my afternoon visit.
To be honest Lockhart can't stand up to the greats of TX barbecue. Its close and that may be the best recommendation I can offer. If I were nearby I might venture in for a sausage link but I'd remember not to order anything else.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Hurry Up Harvest

With just a couple days at home and a long list of chores James and I took a little time to change over the garden -- or at least part -- from summer to fall. Out went the beans, peppers, cucumbers, squash and in went broccoli, chard, kale and cauliflower surrounded by arugula, lettuce, spinach and James' new favorite salad green, pepper cress.
Next stop at home I have to man handle the rangy tomatoes and get in a good crop of favas, carrots and garlic.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Creamy Dessert

Walking in the door from a long trip with a guest coming for dinner (and to spend the night) I wanted  a menu of make ahead, no fuss dishes so I could get dinner ready and still get in a little time to rest before serving. With peposo (the peppery Italian slow cooked beef in red wine) occupying the oven (for 6 hours) I decided on a stove top old fashioned dessert -- butterscotch pudding (based on a recipe by David Lebovitz). Besides, pudding is fairly easy to make in small batches so we wouldn't have too much hanging around after dinner.
First I melted 2 TB of butter and stirred in 1/2 cup brown sugar until well moistened and removed the pan from heat. In a separate bowl I mixed 1/4 cup of milk with 1 1/2 TB cornstarch until it was smooth and then mixed in one egg. Then I added both 1 cup milk and the cornstarch mixture into the brown sugar, returned the pan to heat, and while whisking constantly, brought the mixture just to a boil. After the pudding bubbled I turned the heat to a low simmer and cooked for a minute more until the pudding was thick (like hot fudge Lebovitz says). Off the heat I stirred in 1/2 tsp vanilla extract and 1 heavy tsp bourbon (okay not quite scotch but I tend to cook with bourbon and there is always a bottle by the stove). Poured into mason jars these sweet little puddings waited in the fridge (firming up over four hours) until I topped them with whipped cream and -- my new favorite edible garnish, spiced figs.
The perfect make ahead dessert.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Chicken and Spinach Salad

One of James' favorites and maybe the quickest dinner ever -- crisply fried chicken cutlet over -- in this case -- a warm spinach salad. A rare treat, with these bright green super fresh leaves I tossed up a warm bacon vinaigrette.
First I fried several slices of bacon over medium heat to render out the fat. I removed the bacon from the pan (leaving about 3 TB bacon fat) and added in a thinly sliced shallot. After about 30 seconds -- just long enough for the shallot to soften I poured in 3 TB of red wine vinegar and a half teaspoon of dijon mustard and whisked over low heat. Just when the dressing had come together I poured the vinaigrette over the waiting spinach mixed with sliced hard boiled eggs (wish I had a couple mushrooms) and served before the leaves really had a chance to wilt.

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.