Sunday, December 27, 2015

Simple Soup

Brief relief from holiday gluttony.
A simple soup. Stracciatella. Italian egg drop soup this time with poached chicken, spinach and egg noodles.
It couldn't be easier or more comforting. First I brought lightened turkey stock (I usually would use chicken but I had some nice rich turkey stock made from our Thanksgiving leftovers waiting in the freezer) up to a boil and added in thinly sliced chicken and a package or pappardelle (Italian egg noodles). After about 7 minutes I added in a couple handfuls of fresh spinach and a combination of 4 eggs and about 1/3 cup parmesan cheese. I gave the broth a little swirl with a fork, poured in the egg and cheese mixture and let every thing simmer about 3 minutes more.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Dinner 2015

Our country Christmas.

There was a last minute reversal. I wasn't happy with the meat I ordered and just yesterday ran to the store to see what I could find.
Though it's not generally James' favorite I landed on prime rib. I considered a whole NY roast but it just didn't seem festive enough. Right at the meat counter I came up with a plan from a recipe way n eh back of my head. To open up the roast (after it was separated from the bones) slather it with a horseradish, parsley, garlic paste, roll it back up and roast now highly seasoned meat resting on the bones.
"Can you butterfly that for me?" I asked.
Blank stare.
"No, no I wouldn't want to do that," the first butcher replied across the meat counter.
"I've been in some kind of food service for 9 years and I have never heard of anyone doing that," the second butcher -- now interested, chimed in.
I explained the recipe I was thinking about.
"You could do that yourself," the first butcher offered up.
I did.
They doubted but this was one of the best roasts I have ever made. Tender, flavorful, juicy. I might never cook prime rib any other way. My delicious flavor paste, BTW, was 6 anchovies,  about 1/3 cup fresh horseradish (I love horseradish and roast beef -- that was the major attraction of this idea), 3 cloves garlic, 2 tsp chili flakes, about 1/8 tsp fresh ground nutmeg, 1 cup parsley, and about 1/4 cup olive oil cobbled together from a recipe I found in Bon Appetit.
I rubbed the paste inside the butterflied cuts, along the bones that served as a roasting rack and all over the outside of the roast. In another unusual step I started the room temperature meat at 500º for about 40 minutes and then turn doth even down to 350 for an additional about 15 minutes a pound until the temperature hovered around 130-135º for medium rare.
Beautiful and delicious -- exactly the kind of showstopper I was hoping for.

I just wanted to do something fun for dessert. Of course there were cookies and gingerbread cake pops made from my signature Christmas cake batter but after hours and hours or watching The Great British Bake Off (I'm totally hooked and binging) I felt like a stretch. Oh there is never enough time and I decorated and redecorated. Never happy in the end I settled for festive but not quite homemade ribbon trim and let the inside speak for itself.

A very Merry Christmas one and all.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

How Do We Know We Are Loved?

Sometimes it's not easy and life goes by so fast we forget to remark on just how remarkable it is to be loved and have people who love you.
It's not the presents under the tree. It's not flashy diamond rings. For me, it's not memories of great events.
It's the little every day reminders and the unexpected.
James comes to rescue me when the car battery dies even though I could call triple AAA. It's raining and he drives me to the store, not because I need him to . . . just so I don't have to.
It's a little box that came right at dinnertime. This time from my brother (and his family).
I've been a California girl for many many years now. But I was born on the other coast, not far from the Chesapeake Bay. I grew up eating and loving steamed crabs. My family might eat a few -- my brother would never touch them -- but I love them. I miss summer on the East coast and settling down to hot spicy steamed blue crabs.
And then this box.
Packed in tidy styrofoam in a well traveled cardboard shell were a dozen out of season (and probably insanely expensive and hard to find) steamed blue crabs.
The taste of my childhood for Christmas.
My siblings and I stopped exchanging gifts years ago in favor of the next generation. I wasn't expecting anything and my brother does't expect anything in return.
But there it was, a just because box.
I heated them in the oven.
Were they as good as the fresh in season crabs I remember from years ago? No. They were better.
They tasted like family and home and love.
They tasted like Christmas.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Au Pied De Cochon, Montreal

 I love everything about Montreal's racous shrine to animal fats, Au Pied De Cochon. The cooking may be serious but everything else is a bawdy ridiculous edible party brought to you by my new culinary hero, the bold, the daring, the fat centric devil may care Martin Picard.
A veritable temple to fois gras, there are croquettes, crepes, burgers, tarts and even poutine -- Montreal's classic dish of french fries, cheese curds and gravy -- featuring the controversial, creamy fattened liver.
Vegetarians beware. Picard's homage to traditional Quebec specialties rests heavily on his love for meat, in enormous portions. Duck, bison, goose, deer, horse (yikes) and of course the namesake pig are all featured in super rich dishes ideal to keep a lumberjack or trapper warm in cold Canadian winters and to assure he won't have to plan for a long retirement.
The menu is short on description but the wait staff, all seemingly truly delighted to be part of this pork fueled rave, are happy to describe any dish. I literally saw stars dancing in our waitress' eye as she gushed about the "meat pie" filled dumplings -- a play on Montreal's Christmas favorite tourtière.
"Every bite is like Christmas," Carol, our waitress, beamed. "Like my grandmother made when I was a little girl."
How do you say no to that?
We quickly ordered 6 dumplings.
Sure enough. Meat and cloves and wine and butter. It's a mouthful of Christmas and a most unusual dumpling served with house-made ketchup sauce. Delicious.
We wanted to try everything but Carol kept us in check. "Too much, too much," she declared. "The leg, dumplings and salad. Is already a lot."
We had no idea how right she was until the pig's trotter stuffed with foil gras, the restaurant's signature and perhaps most publicized dish arrived at the table swimming in a sea of creamy mushroom sauce and snowy beach of cheesy curd potato purée.
"Since I have been here," Carol explained. "Only one has ever eater it all."
That dish could easily feed four or even six sensible people. My willing friend and I were spurred on by the delicious hearty sauce and super tender meat which I later learned from a friendly line cook had been removed from the foot boned, roasted, re-stuffed and cooked sort of sous vide for more than 12 hours and then crisped in the restaurant's beautiful brick oven.
Oh and that salad? Pork cheeks, lardons, radishes and sunflower sprouts grown on the dining room window sill. A spicy, herby, fatty salad.
I suppose one could say that PDC is a lot of show. In another famous dish duck is cooked inside a can (instead of a sous vide bag) which is ceremoniously opened table side. Our dessert of peach preserves and most ginger spice cake topped with crème anglais and maple caramel sauce was given the same "canned" treatment. But this kitchen does not rely on gimmicks. This is real food, with sophisticated  voluptuous flavors expertly prepared and served with an undying sense of pride . . . and fun.
There is no other restaurant like it. I can't wait to come back. I think I am in love with Martin Picard.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Olive Et Gourmando, Montreal

Even in the rain Old Montreal has the feeling of a secret Christmas wonderland. The winding cobblestone streets give way to fanciful shops, elegantly rustic restaurants and not so secret treasures like Olive Et Gourmando.

Honestly it's just a little coffee shop. A little coffee shop where everything is homemade by bakers who believe that turning flour and butter into a reason to get up in the morning is a noble task. That joy in every little bite should be savored and not rushed. That sweet ricotta on crispy baguette toast or a flaky chocolate croissant may just be the highest form of expression. 
I settle in, surrounded by locals and bite into the cafe's signature breakfast sandwich labeled "in your face." With siracha, chorizo, and layered chilis, this deceptively simple sandwich screams my name while all around me gentle French sounds waft through the pastry-scented air. Though decidedly un-European (much of Montreal's cuisine and culture harkens back to it's French roots) this sandwich is delicious. So spicy you try to stop but so addictive you keep going. A perfect wake-up.
Olive Et Gourmando is exactly the kind of place everyone wishes were in her neighborhood. A charming spot for morning coffee and friends behind the counter.
My only complaint? O&G doesn't open until 9. Instead of a daily start it's a day's off treat. 
Maybe that's the way real treasures should be.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Beef Stew

A thanksgiving follow-up with more classic Americana.
Rich wine braised beef stew on buttery noodles, fragrant with fresh rosemary and thyme.
A nice change for a rainy, wintry day.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Of Course There Was pie

Sweet potato with a pecan crust. The last slice of Thanksgiving pie is barely gone and I am already full scale Christmas. The wreath is on the door. The sugarplums are in my head. Christmas dinner is coming.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Thanksgiving Weekend

 After several years of just the two of us, James and I had company for the holiday and I went back to cooking Thanksgiving dinner. I'm delighted. I've missed the cook's holiday and for my return engagement with turkey and trimmings I pulled out all the seasonal favorites.
For starters, Rogue River blue, a seasonal Oregon cheese wrapped in pear brandy soaked grape leaves only available from late October until Christmastime and one of my favorites. To showcase this really blue I made a batch of almond fig crackers (laced with port wine) and topped each crisp with fresh honeycomb.
 Thanksgiving is a time for favorite dishes that are just a bit better than usual, mashed potatoes with plenty of butter and cream, green beans with chestnuts and bacon (no I just can't do the casserole), endive salad with home grown persimmons, pomegranates and toasted walnuts in a sherry vinaigrette, and . . .
of course the star of the show -- turkey with cornbread, sausage, pecan stuffing.  I've been making the same basic recipe, vaguely adapted from 1979's classic The Silver Palette Cookbook for all of my turkey making years. I've dabbled with smoked turkeys or molé spiced or even gingersnap gravy doused but I always come back to the classic. I juice two oranges over the turkey inside and out then salt and pepper the exterior and the cavity liberally. After the bird is stuffed I truss it lightly, rub as much butter as humanely possible onto the skin, sprinkle with paprika and he's ready to cook. Some years I do a little sage, sometimes I flirt with Bell's seasoning but every time it is basically the same. The stuffing is a winning mix of white, wheat and corn breads, apples, breakfast sausage, pecans and spices. It's Norman Rockwell with a Southern drawl. Tradition and taste. Old fashioned and right on time all at once. In short, it's the perfect bird.
The best part of Thanksgiving may be the leftovers, especially this year. I had intended to serve oysters Rockefeller as a starter but at the last minute veered away. It just seemed too much for our little group of four and added a lot of last minute panic. So with our special "leftovers" James and I shared a day after oyster roast dinner and an after holiday breakfast with soft set scrambled eggs and luscious poached oysters. That might just be our new post holiday tradition.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Year Without A Crab, Almost

"Just in. We have fresh crab from Washington."
The in-store announcement rang out like music to my crab deprived ears.
Every year James and I anxiously await the opening of Dungeness crab season, November 15th in our part of California. Crab for thanksgiving has become our own beloved family tradition.
But nature intervened.
On November 5th the Department of Fish and Wildlife shut down the California Crab season indefinitely when a potentially fatal neurotoxin was discovered in the Dungeness. For fisheries to reopen the crabs have to show safe levels of domoic acid for two straight weeks. No California crab for thanksgiving.
We looked North, hoping.
Oregon and Washington also announced they were delaying the start of their seasons. The algae bloom that causes the toxin, brought on by unusually warm waters, is affecting fisheries up and down the West coast.
Just two days ago there was a ray of hope. Though the coasts are still closed to commercial crabbing, Dungeness from the area around Gray's Harbor, Washington where the Quinault Indian Nation maintains a large crabbing operation, have consistently tested safe and the tribe opened their season (a decision reached in conjunction with Washington State) just in time for thanksgiving crab, in limited supplies (and at a premium price).
We had already resigned ourselves to a crabless thanksgiving but when I saw these beautiful beasts nestled in the ice I had to take a couple home. A pre-thanksgiving treat.
The tradition lives on.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A New Regular

This is a terrible photo.
I should be ashamed.
I am.
But, this was -- despite what the wise ones say about eating with your eyes first, completely delicious.
Crazy delicious.
And easy.
It's cheeseburger meatloaf.
I mixed together 2 lbs of ground beef, one finely chopped onion, 2 eggs, about 1/3 cup of bread crumbs (I had panko so that's what I used), 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese, 1/3 cup ketchup, 1/4 cup chopped parsley, 3 cloves minced garlic, S&P, and two dashes of worcestershire sauce. After the mixture was formed into a good sized loaf (enough for dinner and a couple days of sandwiches) I laid strips of bacon over the top, tucked each strip under the sides to hold them in place and baked the whole glorious mess for 55 minutes at 375º. The bacon was pretty well cooked but I gave the meatloaf about 3 minutes under the broiler for an extra crisp.
"This can be part of the regular rotation," James declared.
I didn't know we had a rotation.
I'm going to start one so I can make cheeseburger meatloaf again.
Crazy delicious.
And easy.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Roast Chicken

Not much to say. The ultimate one pot (okay pan) dinner. Roast chicken, slathered in butter, thyme and lemon cooked to crisp perfection on a bed of potatoes, red onions, and carrots.
Forty five minutes at 425º. As the bird rested I tossed spears of romaine in the flavorful pan juices and served with plenty of Dijon mustard.
Dinner. Done. One pan to wash.
Weekend flavors on a regular weekday.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Caramelized Black Pepper Chicken

I figure when I can't even find a bottle of soy sauce in the house I've really got to go shopping. But I do hate to admit defeat. I had a lonely little kabocha squash sitting on the counter and decided to roast that tossed in chili power, brown sugar, and butter. Done. But what to go with it?
The freezer turned up a package of chicken breasts. Since I started with Japanese pumpkin I was leaning towards something vaguely Asian and had all settled on soy sauce chicken only to find the jumbo bottle that seemed like it would never be used up was gone. Stuck.
When I first get home I am so happy to be there I really don't want to leave, even to go to the store. So, when I come in at night -- too late for grocery shopping -- it tends to get put off . .  too long.
But I digress -- I had to do something about dinner.
Pouring through recipes and online ideas I came across a dish from one of my favorite restaurants, San Francisco's Slanted Door. Black pepper chicken, at once sweet and savory, peppery and caramelized. And easy.
Following Charle Phan's recipe, in a small bowl I mixed together 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1/4 cup fish sauce, 1/4 cup water, 3 TB rice wine vinegar, 1 tsp minced garlic, about 1 tsp minced fresh ginger (Phan of course calls for fresh ginger which I didn't have so sadly I substituted powdered), 1 tsp coarsely ground pepper, and two fresh chilis. I happened to have chilis in the house since our very generous neighbors had a bumper crop. The rest couldn't be easier.
I sautéed 1 thinly sliced shallot in about 1 TB of oil for about 4 minutes until soft. Then I added in the fish sauce mixture and the chicken cut into 1 inch pieces. The mixture simmered over high heat for about 10 minutes until the chicken was cooked through and I ladled it out -- with plenty of the appealingly sweet sauce, over steamed rice. Maybe not culinary artistry but another episode of food from nothing -- my favorite kitchen game.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Spaghetti Genius

Maybe I hedge my bets, but I like a surefire winner when I make it home to make dinner.
James loves spaghetti and if I have to be completely honest I rarely miss when I start off with his favorite brand.
But why settle for the home run when a grand slam is fully in reach? Combine two favorites, hamburgers and spaghetti. I decided to make a meaty ground beef ragú barely held together by slow cooked tomatoes and serve it with plenty of parmesan cheese.
True Italian? Italian American? Who cares! It's delicious.
I started with a chopped onion in olive oil over medium high heat and then tossed in 4 cloves chopped garlic and a couple chili peppers fresh from our neighbor's garden. After about 4 minutes I added in 1 1/2 lbs ground beef (and S&P) and let it brown all over until almost cooked through. Next step was pouring in a bit of red wine -- about 3/4 cup and letting it cook until just about evaporated. Then I poured in one 28oz can of puréed tomatoes, about 6 oz of tomato paste and about 1 cup of water and let everything simmer away on top of the stove at a slow bubble for about 2 hours.
Confidence was high as I mixed a portion of the sauce into the drained pasta along with a healthy dose of grated parmesan.
My new name around here? Spaghetti genius! And today I think I deserve it.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Pie For Dinner

Not for dessert.
Pie for dinner.
Looking through the freezer, somehow a waiting lard pie crust, some chopped celery and carrots, and meat leftover from a hearty Neapolitan Ragú said meat pie. A savory, French Canadian, spice scented meat pie.
Traditionally a christmas dish I thought ground meat in a flaky crust doused in deep brown gravy would be a good dinner and a good dish to keep in the fridge for James while I made a quick trip out of town . . . again. Traditionally Tortière is made with a mix of ground meats or game or even fish in coastal communities. My pie combined cooked beef, pork and Italian sausage sautéed with onions, celery and carrots and baked in a pastry crusty with grated potatoes cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves.
Because I was working with cooked meats I started by browning a couple slices of chopped bacon in a frying pan with 1 finely chopped onion and a clove of garlic. When the onion had softened I added in two  chopped carrots and several ribs of celery, 1 cup chicken stock, a bay leaf and the cooked meat finely chopped in the food processor. After bringing the liquid up to a boil the mixture simmered for about 7 minutes. I mixed in 2 medium grated potatoes, a heavy 1/4 tsp cinnamon, S&P, and dash each nutmeg and ground cloves and let the meat filling cool for about half an hour before layering into the waiting pastry filled pie plate. I topped the pie and popped it in a 375º over for 45 minutes until golden flaky brown.
The Christmas carols haven't started yet but I am already in the mood for holiday dishes and cozy nights at home with James.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

One More Dinner Before I Go

Chicken soup with thick egg noodles.
Impossible not to like.
Great for a fall. Great for the freezer. Great for James to heat up for dinner while I am gone.
I always start the same way, with a whole chicken and chicken parts, one onion (not peeled, sliced in half), 2 carrots, 2 stalks celery, a whole head of garlic sliced through the middle, 2 bay leaves, about 10 peppercorns and a handful of fresh thyme (or parsley if that's all I have) all covered in water. Sometimes if I am feeling adventurous or cleaning the fridge I might add in a turnip or asparagus stalks other trims but carrots, celery, onion and garlic are the basic go to list. I bring everything up to a boil and then simmer for about 90 minutes. That's great chicken stock with plenty of flavor.
I strain the stock and let the cooked chicken cool and start on the soup. Later I'll shred the chicken to add to the pot.
Today I decided on an old fashioned slightly thickened Southern style soup. I started with around 3 TB of butter and added in chopped celery, peeled and sliced carrots (about 2 cups each), and 1 chopped onion and let the vegetables cook until just soft. Then I tossed in two cloves of chopped garlic. After 30 seconds or so I added about 4 TB of flour and let it cook in the butter and coat the vegetables for about 2 minutes so it was just golden colored and the vegetables were coated. Then in goes the strained stock, a dash of hot sauce, a splash of worchestershire sauce, a bay leaf and S&P and everything comes up to a simmer for about 15 minutes. Sometimes I'll add chopped potatoes and let them simmer along with the stock.
If I am ready to serve James his soup I'll keep going and add in the chicken I deboned and shredded, plenty of chopped parsley and a package of egg noodles. I always add too many noodles and the soup become more of a stew but James never complains. After another 10 minutes I add in frozen peas (when I have them) or corn kernels because James loves them and a handful of chopped fresh dill. Though I am not usually a big dill fan it does something wonderful to perk up the flavor of chicken soup. 5-8 minutes later our soup is ready to ladle into bowls. Sometimes just before serving I'll squeeze in half a lemon for an extra note of brightness.
Homey supper for an early fall night.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Sunday Spaghetti on a Thursday

With just a few days at home I had some real kitchen business to get to right away. I put up a few jars of tomatoes and apples, stocked the shelves and freezer for James to eat while I am gone and took advantage of my day at home with some super slow family style cooking.
One of my favorite hang around the house recipes is an old fashion Neapolitan style ragú -- the kind of Sunday gravy Tony Soprano might favor.
First I use a combination of meats -- something flavorful with bones -- like short ribs (4), shanks (2) or meaty pork ribs (a half rack of baby backs cut horizontally into shorter pieces) combined with stewing veal (not today) or Italian sausage (2 links).
I sear the well seasoned meat (except for the sausage -- that goes in later) along with 1 chopped onion in hot olive oil until it's nice and brown. Then I toss in a couple cloves of chopped garlic and a pinch of dried chili flakes. Traditionally sauce in Naples is either onions or garlic, not both. But I can't resist a little garlic flavor, so that tradition goes out the window in favor of Italian American flavor. Next I pour in about a third of a bottle of red wine and cook everything down until the liquid is just about evaporated.
In goes two large 28 oz cans of crushed tomatoes, the sausage, and today since I've got a big pot going a large can of tomato purée or passata and bring everything up to a simmer. That's it. That's the hardest part. Then it's all over but the waiting. For the next 2-3 hours I stir about every 15 minutes, sometimes skimming a little of the fat off the top if it seems excessive.
The sauce cooks down to a rich meaty red. I toss some with butter, spaghetti, parmesan, and parsley for dinner and offer James the cooked meats as a "secondo." There is always meat left over which I pop in the freezer to grind for ravioli filling, meat pies or Northern Italian style meatballs made with cooked meat, mortadella, and plenty of flavorful breadcrumbs.
A dinner I can feel good about over and over again.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Remnants of the Fall Garden

Days are growing short. The last tomatoes hang on scraggly vines.
It's been dry and the garden is a melancholy shadow of years past.
And yet, I love the fall. I love the cool nights and afternoon breezes.
Battling away the pessimism of drought I plant a couple late season seeds and look forward to spinach and lettuce and even carrots when the rains come. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Belly and Snout: Filipino Stoner Treats

 I don't like hot dogs and I cannot under any circumstances tolerate American cheese. But still I couldn't resist the draw of the oddest of edible oddities, the bizarre fusion that is Belly and Snout. Obviously inspired by Korean taco master  Roy Choi, B&S doesn't exactly have the same kind of chef cred. None the less they are putting homemade Filipino style meats in tacos, on tater tots, and tucked into grilled cheese.
Longanisa grilled cheese combines house made sausage -- really tasty -- with plain old white bread, pickled vegetables and the dreaded bright orange American.  An immigrant sandwich.
First American cheese and then hot dogs. Topped with peanut braised oxtail, sisig (crisped pork flavored with bright vinegar), pork adobo (the beloved Filipino national stew), and plenty of bacon, garlic cream, and fried eggs the hot dogs themselves are inconsequential. They are the least interesting part of the hot dog combos but overall -- I don't know how -- it kind of works.
Though my friend loved the grilled cheese, more successful to me were the tacos. Truly delicious pork or chicken adobo topped with cilantro, onions, jalapeño slices, mayonnaise, sesame (peanuts on the pork) and radishes all wrapped up in a flour tortilla for $2. With one bite I could picture the lines of late night zombies counting their change for a late night snack.
I might have been in my elementary school cafeteria the last time I had a tater tot. Back then they just came with ketchup. At Belly and Snout they are topped -- just like the hot dogs with pork, pork, ad more pork -- including the excellent house made longanisa. The whole thing is crazy and somehow satisfying.

Sitting in the back eating area (I can't call it a dining room) with the TV blaring travel channel food shows I can't help but think if I were a drinker or stoner I'd probably see more of Belly and Snout instead of late night shame filled Del Taco runs popular in my reckless youth. As it is B&S is a curiosity I had to try once and might think of from time to time when caution take flight and fast food looms heavy.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Scallops At Home

I'm not sure if I try to make James something special dinner when I am home for a brief stop before another work trip because I love him or because I want him to miss me when I'm gone.
Today I came home from a mad Costco stop up run with a tray of beautiful wild scallops and just a couple hours later James was digging into a delicate gratin of butter sautéed mollusks topped with Beecher's handmade flagship cheese picked up at the cheese merchants airport store in Seattle (airport cheese store -- genius!).

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Beta 5: Bring Some Home From Vancouver

 Hidden away in a Vancouver industrial park is Beta 5. A strange and wonderful chocolate and pastry shop.
Co-Owner and pastry chef Adam Chandler served his time in luxury hotels and European capitols before taking the lessons he learned in Belgium and turning them into chocolates infused and filled with flavors like caramelized banana (spectacular), bay leaf (shockingly delicious), fisherman's friend (yes, the cough drop) and real farmer's market cherries.
Not content to fill small boxes with chocolate jewels Beta 5 branched out to ice creams, chocolate bars and a nothing less than kooky assortment of cream puffs in flavors like Vietnamese coffee, blueberry lavender and apple pie. Baked extra long the delicate shells have an almost cookie crumble exterior giving way to layers of dough and creamy filling. Wow.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Cafe Medina

I like Cafe Medina. There is always a wait and yet when I am in Vancouver I make a point of going for breakfast. Not just because the vaguely Middle Eastern/ North African spiced dishes feature some of my favorite flavors (sumac, harissa, chili)  but because Cafe Medina is fun, just plain fun.
Despite the constant onslaught, the servers are cheerful and the bartender -- as a solo diner I almost always sit at the bar to eat -- perfectly chatty.
I don't generally reach across a table to meet new people but every time I've eaten at Cafe Medina the person next to me has struck up a conversation and turned out to be interesting, good company.
The menu is interesting too. You can get standard egg dishes or more elaborate concoctions like breakfast paella, boulettes (lamb meatballs and eggs in spicy tomato sauce), or their take on cassoulet with garlic sausage, smoked bacon, red wine and tomatoes. I've never even tried the signature waffles though they top just about every table.
I love the fresh juices and house made sodas (rose hip and bergamot, citrus buttermilk anyone?). The coffee is delicious (I don't even understand how it is so good).
Everything is good -- maybe not exceptional or nuanced but it doesn't matter. Cafe Medina might just be the perfect breakfast place. If I lived closer I'd be a regular.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Ask For Luigi

Ask just about anyone or read any magazine article or blog post and you are likely to hear "Ask For Luigi." What's a good new restaurant? Where is the best Italian? Where should we have dinner?
Even the name of the tiny restaurant, according to chef owner JC Poirier, is an answer. A guide to ask for a friend, knowing you will be treated well when you, essentially, know someone on the inside.
It's hard not to know people quickly at Ask for Luigi. The 34 seats are terminally full with a line waiting at the door. Seats are close and wait staff literally shimmies from table to table holding platters of fresh pasta, appetizers and wine.
Everyone feels happy and relieved by the time a table opens and it shows. The dining room is cheerful and loud and every plate is met with delight.
I'm always fascinated by places this small. The night I visited there was a man at the front of house (the manager I assume) and 4 waitresses. In the open kitchen I saw the Chef de Cuisine and 3 line cooks. A fifth cook was tucked away in a back space prepping for the next day's lunch. To make money with so few seats and so large a staff a restaurant has to be highly efficient and chose dishes wisely so food comes out quickly and tables turn over to bring in the next group of waiting diners.
Prep work is the star at Ask For Luigi. Fresh pastas are ready to boil, sauces are simple or made earlier in the service, meatballs are par-cooked and turned in tasty red sauce as they are ordered. These aren't dishes wrapped in chef's egos or elaborate technique. This is, as AFL's manager says "pasta for the people."
The food is inventive and somewhat unexpected (I had a dish of rye flour penne with guanciale, broccoli rabe and egg yolk) but in attitude Ask For Luigi may be the most authentic Italian restaurant I've dined in outside of Italy itself.
At heart, though crammed with tourists, dating couples, foodies and bloggers, this is a neighborhood trattoria. You can stop in for a quick bite (minus the waiting time) on any night. The food will be good, ingredients fresh, and the staff friendly.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Montreal Bagels: Two Grand Old Names

 Something I would't know where to find even in New York . . . a 24 hour bagel shop. Could I be dreaming?
Arriving into Montreal late on a rainy night I headed right for Fairmount Bagels as the sesame seed rings were coming out of the wood burning oven. These are not the giant doughy delicious New York variety I grew up with but something altogether different. First off Montreal bagels are small, or a reasonable serving size compared to their Southern cousins. As my friend Marc described, there is a greater crust to dough ratio making them almost more like a soft pretzel or a bialy. And they are sweet. Fairmount's have a faint taste of honey which made the sesame seeds literally sing in every bite.
 Fairmount is the oldest bagel shop in Montreal and there was a line at their flagship shop close to midnight when I came by.
 St Viateur is the youngster by comparison, baking and boiling in Montreal since the 1950s. In addition to their 24 hour a day bakery (about a block from Fairmount) St Viateur has four cafes across the city. So I was able to try their sesame bagel (Montreal's favorite) with lox and a mountain of cream cheese. St Viateur's bagels are just a tiny bit dryer and slightly less sweet than Fairmont's. Delicious toasted.
Across Montreal the best bagel is debated in endless blogs and articles and breakfast tables. Though there are other bakers the serious food city seems to split between Fairmount and St Viateur.
Fairmount's garlic bagel was not for me and their pumpernickel lacked the dark flavor I come to expect in New York but their sesame hot from the oven barely made it to the car.
The bagel debate may rage on in Montreal, but I've picked a side.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Another Nice Fair Surprise

This year was not a great year for my jellies, or so I thought. Each batch, though flavorful, seemed to fail on texture. I almost didn't enter and in fact held back this apple rose variety from two of the season's fairs. Flavored with old fashioned rose petals from our neighbor's garden my pink hued entry went on to win best of division in Sonoma County. Another rosette for the collection.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

A Pretty Good Day At The Fair

Though I just got home yesterday and was admittedly pretty exhausted, I couldn't resist a new contest at the Sonoma County Fair. The fair is trying to bring back old fashioned baking contests where contestants bring their goods right to the judging and wait to hear the results. Today was all about apple pies and I arrived just in time to place my still warm from the oven apple pie on the table of entries.
Contest rules called for Sonoma county apples and this time of year that means Gravensteins, a green or sometimes green streaked with red apple that is just tart enough to make a pie interesting and sweet enough to feel like dessert. This part of California was once famous for Gravensteins. But with soft skin that bruises easily Sonoma's favorite apple never became popular too far outside of the immediate area. Too bad. Their flavor is sublime and with a few Pink Pearl apples -- a little known sweet-tart apple developed in Northern California some 70 years ago -- sliced into the pie I had a winning combination of flavors.
But I can never leave well enough alone.
I started my pie with a bourbon caramel sauce. I boiled 1 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of water without stirring until it was a nice amber color. Off the heat I quickly stirred in 1/2 cup heavy cream and stirred cooling the caramel for 1 minute. Then I added in 1/4 cup of bourbon and returned the sauce to the heat and boiled for 1 more minute -- stirring constantly. Off the heat I stirred in  a dash of  Vanilla Nouveau's super flavorful bourbon tinged vanilla extract -- my favorite secret ingredient for a double hit of toasty caramel flavor.
With by bottom lard and butter crust rolled out in the pie plate I poured in half of my cooled caramel sauce and topped it with 9 peeled and sliced apples mixed with a pinch of salt, 1/2 cup toasted walnuts (chopped) 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract (more bourbon vanilla flavor), 1/2 cup brown sugar, and 2 TB of flour. I piled the apple mixture on top of the crust, and dotted the fruit with 1 1/2 TB of butter cut in small pieces. Instead of another crust I opted for a streusel topping of 6 TB butter cut in pieces, 2/3 cup chopped toasted walnuts, 1/4 cup of sugar and 3/4 cup of flour all mixed together with a fork to create big pieces of tasty dough. I piled the streusel on top of the apples and popped the pie in the oven for 50 minutes at 375º. As soon as the pie came out of the oven I poured the remainder for the warmed caramel sauce over the streusel and ran off to the fair.
A nail biting hour or so later I was handed a rosette and tally sheets from two judges scoring my slap dash run out of the house pie a 98. I couldn't be prouder.
I'm never too tired for a blue ribbon.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Underbelly Houston

 A couple months back, with no idea I'd be arriving in Houston, I read a chatty little article about chef Chris Shepherd. Though the story of chef Shepherd's culinary evolution and his love for the many immigrant communities in Houston and their collection of unique ingredients was interesting enough, what I remember most was Shepherd's description of his "pants free" days off -- eating pho noodles on his balcony in his underwear. That's how he met his neighbors he claims.
 Arriving in Houston I suddenly thought of that article and though I couldn't remember his name or his restaurant's but I remembered the big man who loves Vietnamese noodles.
Underbelly is loud and friendly celebration of Gulf Coast bounty. It's menu a collection of small plates (not that small) meant for sharing featuring the diverse ethnic ingredients chef Shepherd came to love while first working in Houston. I started with grouper, marinated in yogurt, dill, turmeric, and (at least according to one server but not another) cardamom. Cabbage and fresh greens dressed in a fish sauce spiked vinaigrette with cold rice noodles below seemed like a spring roll opened up and paired with a vaguely tandoori fish.
Underbelly is about the party. The fish, though tasty, was not portioned evenly so the ends were just overcooked while the middle was just under. The highest priced on the menu but into the open kitchen I can see bowl after bowl coming out. Nearly every table has one.
A big man and a big presence, when chef Shepherd walks through the open kitchen to the dining room he high fives line cooks, hugs a server, and meanders past diners in awe to have the chef himself in their midsts. The 2014 James Beard award winner says a few hellos, poses for a photo and settles down at a table of some (I assume) chef friends.
Chef Shepherd and I share a love for the Korean gochujang. And the restaurant's signature combination, the only dish my server tells me is always on the menu, braised goat and dumplings comes heavily sauced in the pepper paste. The meat is cooked to a near mashed potato softness and the rice dumplings -- though usually soft in Korean dishes -- are quickly crisped to add welcome texture to the dish.
Underbelly is not about finesse. It's about bold flavors and assertive combinations. It's about reaching across the table to taste your friend's dish. It's about a frat party of flavor.
Shepherd's dishes are interesting. The flavors are fun. But these are not dishes to eat alone. The first bite is exciting, even tantalizing. The next not quite as good. The third is more than enough. The dishes here oddly become less interesting as you eat them. They are shock value.
Go with friends so everyone gets that first great bite.