Monday, December 22, 2008

Enchilada Man

For Christmas, I became a superhero. This was illustrated by my neighbor Paul, the story taken directly from an enchilada post here, back in February. If I can figure out a way to scan it all properly, I'll put it up. But meanwhile I like this last one especially.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Bear Butt

It is such a long story, but behold the glorious roasted rear end of a bear. She was quite small and had a very sweet face. I had the chance to pet her head, albeit frozen. This rear thigh, which I sawed off from the lower leg, turned out to be seriously tasty. I thought, actually my co-author Rosanna and I thought, the simplest roasting on a bed of vegetables would be best. The flesh was a bit tough, but tasty. The accretions of fat, however, which I suppose were laid on in expectation of hibernation, were so incredibly flavorful, unctuous, and sweet, that they were dizzying. I wish I had rendered some on its own for pemmican. In any case, bear is really nothing like venison or other wild beasts, because it is truly greasy, in the best way imaginable. Sides of mashed sweet potato and brussels sprouts cut from the stalk, such opulence! Does it get more exciting than this???

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Italian Vintners Using Secret Ingredient

News Flash (literally) The International Wine Trade Commission has recently issued a report citing that certain Italian Vintners have begun using a secret ingredient to fortify their wines. Marketed under the label "Sbuffo di Fica" the new wine has been subjected to scientific tests which show traces of human pheromones and aromatic esters. Pictured here is the first shot of the new fortification technique. An entire naked woman is inserted into the wine barrel, and her body is vigorously rubbed into the oak staves for an unspecified length of time, sometimes as little as 5 minutes, but others suggest it may take as long as a full half hour. The resulting perfume left in the wine is said to drive men wild. Commissioners are now trying to decide if this constitutes unfair trade practices, adulteration, or is merely a harmless flavor additive, once transmitted into the wine during the time-honored stomping procedure, which used to involve women lifting up their skirts and inserting themselves up to the waist in the grape must. Winemakers claim that this procedure replicates traditional winemaking procedures and should not be considered a new form of fortification. The EU court in the Hague expects to render its decision on the Sbuffo wines later this month.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Norsk Food

After a week in and around Oslo, I was surprised that the Norse seem be genuinely embarassed about their cuisine. Or at least many meals at this food conference I was attending were "Provencal lamb" and the like, served with ruddy southern wine. There were some seriously Norsk meals too though.

The best thing about Norwegian food is of course its simplicity, freshness, and then some seriously funky cheeses and pickled things. And fish, oh my. One lunch explained by Astri Ritterwold was sublime. Microthin crispy flat bread, gravlax, smoked mutton slices, stinky gamelost, cold slices of venison. Incredible cultured butter. And unctuous aquavit.

The one night we had to ourselves I ate at this charming Habsburg yellow inn from 1700, called Stortorvets Gjaestgiveri. Slices of raw reindeer that melt in the mouth, with a tart goat cheese and bitter greens. I doubt it was traditional, but really tasty. Then a whale steak on green pea puree with caramelized onions. It wasn't fishy as I expected, but sort of livery, in a pleasant way. Very dark, chewy, sort of like beef but without the same muscle striations. It probably would have been great with red wine, but I thought a Ringnes pilsener and aquavit made more sense. It did.

Overall the food was really quite remarkable, flat open-faced sandwiches with shrimp salad, really nice pate, pickled herring, beets, caviar paste in a tube. And that was for breakfast. The rye was amazing. If only one could find the like here. Gjetost is really an aquired taste, though I do like it. Something like a cross between caramel and cheese. But what I am truly looking forward to trying is a bit of stockfish I bought in the airport. Not bacalao, nor salted I think, just air dried cod, as was eaten through the middle ages for Lent. I will fill you in once I've figured out how to cook it, though actually I think it was sold and meant to be eaten as is, for a snack. Sort of like Japanese dried cuttle fish.

Well, if you have a chance, and a big wallet, because everything in Norway is perversely expensive, I can highly recommend it, especially for lovers of fish.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Omnivore 100

Kyla sent this, and of course I had to take the test. Most of these not only eaten, but have cooked.

This Omnivore 100 meme via Sam at Becks & Posh, in turn via Andrew at Very Good Taste.How It All Works:
1) Copy the list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.4) Optional: Post a comment at Very Good Taste, linking to your results
The 100

1. Venison – yup still some in my freezer which I butchered with some friends
2. Nettle tea – yup in Britain
3. Huevos rancheros – all the time
4. Steak tartare - ditto
5. Crocodile (have cooked alligator, does that count?]
6. Black pudding (Comes from heaven, had the best ever in Dublin last year)
7. Cheese fondue of course
8. Carp - Just a big gold fish. Sure
9. Borscht – Make it often, wearing a babuschka
10. Baba ghanoush – ditto, on the stove top, the eggplant, not the babushka
11. Calamari – plus whole baby octopodes, a few weeks ago
12. Pho – taught how to make it by a Vietneamese student of mine
13. PB&J sandwich – Are you kidding?
14. Aloo gobi – Among the few things my wife demands I cook
15. Hot dog from a street cart – dining al fresco
16. Epoisses – bien sur, very stinky
17. Black truffle - yes, freshly shaved, and white in Umbria, much tastier
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes – made it from blueberries as a kid
19. Steamed pork buns - yum
20. Pistachio ice cream – double yum, but not the green stuff
21. Heirloom tomatoes - sure
22. Fresh wild berries – all the time
23. Foie gras – seen it butchered here in Stockton too
24. Rice and beans – Red beans and ricely
25. Brawn or head cheese – Adore it, but haven’t found a head yet to make it
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper - yes, but not the whole thing. I did whizz some in a blender once, and a friend sipped it and nearly died.
27. Dulce de leche – takes a long time to make, but beautiful
28. Oysters – of course, Olympia my favorite
29. Baklava – make it and the phyllo sometimes
30. Bagna cauda – with cardoons
31. Wasabi peas – regular snack in my house
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl - yes, but it is grotesque
33. Salted lassi - ditto
34. Sauerkraut – will be making some again shortly
35. Root beer float – YUM-O
36. Cognac with a fat cigar - when I can afford it! Hennessy XO
37. Clotted Cream Tea – Yup, but what a way to ruin good tea
38. Vodka Jelly/Jell-O – I went to college, right?
39. Gumbo – Z’herbes served by the hands of Leah Chase, recently
40. Oxtail – von Suppe, just saying achsenswange excites me
41. Curried goat - yup in Jamaica
42. Whole insects – not yet, but I was given a box of crickettes that are on my desk now, so I guess I’ll have to taste them.
43. Phaal - yes, tasted it two times, going in and on the way out. Ouch
44. Goat's milk - yum, made into cheese too
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth $120 or more – I’m sorry to say, yes.
46. Fugu - Nope
47. Chicken tikka masala - yup
48. Eel – I have a pet eel in the freezer, named Stanley.
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut – yes, though ours went out of business.
50. Sea urchin – yum, raw. I’ve stepped on them snorkelling too
51. Prickly pear – yes, only passable, saguaro syrup is interesting though
52. Umeboshi - yes
53. Abalone - just minutes out of the water. Pounded with a hammer.
54. Paneer – I was taught to make this by an Indian woman in the Bronx
55. McDonald's Big Mac Meal – afraid so
56. Spaetzle – Fun to make, and say
57. Dirty gin martini – yes, made with my sweat socks
58. Beer above 8% ABV – OH Westvleteren in Belgium this spring
59. Poutine - OH, yes in Montreal
60. Carob chips - nope, but I’m going to look for some now. There are carob pods on my desk
61. S’mores - to perfection
62. Sweetbreads – breaded and fried
63. Kaolin - I nibble on it all the time in the pottery studio
64. Currywurst – In Germany last summer. Disgraceful.
65. Durian – Bring one to my frosh food class every year
66. Frogs’ legs – yes yum, and whole crunchy frog
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake - sure
68. Haggis – toasties in Edinbutter, my colleague serves it at every Robbie Burns party
69. Fried plantain - yum
70. Chitterlings or andouillette – had one in Arles that tasted like crap.
71. Gazpacho – red and white
72. Caviar and blini – yes, mine are pictured in the Reaktion catalogue, and will appear in Pancake any day now
73. Louche absinthe – Everyone knows I’m an addict
74. Gjetost or brunost - yes, going to Norway in a few weeks for the real thing
75. Roadkill – no, but I’m game. I guess it’s game.
76. Baijiu – yes, I blogged about it not that long ago
77. Hostess Fruit Pie - My mom gave them to me all the time
78. Snail – yes, from my own backyard
79. Lapsang Souchong – My favorite
80. Bellini – the drink and the painter
81. Tom Yum – Yum indeed. Siam Street’s is incendiary
82. Eggs Benedict – got to love it
83. Pocky – yes, but not very fond of it, my son disagrees
84. 3 Michelin Star Tasting Menu - Yes in the Loire Valley
85. Kobe beef – Yes, though now it’s fashionable to say wagyu I think
86. Hare – yes, potted. So was I.
87. Goulash - yes, and am still astonished, it’s soup, not stew
88. Flowers – even those you’re not supposed to eat
89. Horse – yes, steaks from a horse butcher in Rome, and even shredded on a pizza
90. Criollo chocolate - yes
91. Spam – yes, I admit. Even Spam Lite on a whim
92. Soft shell crab - sure
93. Rose harissa – Not yet
94. Catfish – yes, fresh from Oak Park. Tasted like mud. Wonder why.
95. Mole poblano – Of course.
96. Bagel and lox – I’m a Jew.
97. Lobster Thermidor – yes, but I don’t get it.
98. Polenta – of course, even the Precolumbian pulmentum of millet
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee - yes
100. Snake - I’ve blogged this too, killed and cooked myself. Rattler.

So I got a 94. Nope I take that back. 95. I just ate one of the crickettes. Disgusting. But crunchy.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wine Barrel Top Becomes Serving Tray

As a person with virtually no skill using tools or things mechanical, I had reason to rejoice this weekend, not only for not sawing one of my fingers off, but for actually accomplishing what I set out to do, at minimal expense and bodily pain.

If you happen to find the top to an old wine barrel - this lovely one was plucked from the firewood pile among cast off staves at a friend's house (who happens to be a wine maker at Van Ruiten) the process is quite simple. Note it's real French Oak, Nuits-St. Georges.

First, pull the staples out and sand the hell out of it. I have an old electric sander, for which apparently the right size sandpaper no longer exists, but I tore larger sheets up, and it worked. The edges were pretty banged up, so I spent a good hour or more at this. Be sure to inhale the dust deeply. It's therapeutic.

Then you need to stabilize the slats. I did this with strips of oak screwed into the back. Who knew that the only thing holding wine barrel tops together is shims and supernatural radio waves? If you are using an ordinary screw driver, as I did, prepare to spend a few hours of gruelling screwing (hmm - that doesn't sound so bad), after which your palms will be a blistered wasteland and your forearms will feel like limp pasta.

Then buy some drawer pulls. These nice grape leaf pulls cost 3 bucks a piece at OSH. The trick is, since they have to be screwed in from behind (hmm, again) you have to make sure the length of the bolt meets the hole in the pull on the other side exactly. I first thought I could saw down longer bolts. No. And then realized that if I drilled one narrow hole, then drilled a larger hole over it so the bolt would be sunk in about a half inch on the back, it would be just the right length. Prepare to spend several hours mulling over this, replete with curses.

Then I decided, since the whole thing was kind of white and pasty looking, I poured a cup of dark red zin over the top and bottom and rubbed it in. The rest went down my throat. The color came out rather nice. Then I waxed it with a combination of beeswax and mineral oil, which I make once every decade and keep around just for waxing freshly sanded olive wood spoons and such. The nice waxy surface disappears once you cook with it, but the process is exciting.

Eh, voila. And I should mention that I saw similar, though not so nice ones in shops at Napa last week, selling for 100 bucks. Their handles were like silver oven racks, yucky. I also saw them in Sur la Table in Berkeley, but couldn't see the price. Speaking of Sur la Table, I asked them if they had a tamis. They had never heard of such a thing. You know, a hoop sieve. For finely pureeing food? The guy showed me a food mill. Mais non, pas de tout. If anyone knows where to buy one, let me know. I'd especially love one strung with horsehair.

Anyway, this new serving tray is so LARGE, that I can't carry it through the door to the outside table. And WEIGHS so much that I fear if anything were actually placed on it, my arms would be instantly ripped from their sockets. So, for the moment, much labor, and a nice looking tray, that still needs a place in my house. Actually, placed on one of my counter stools, it makes a nice rotating table for parties. There it is!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Absinthe Lollies

Ok, it was with skepticism that I purchased these two little boxes of lollies containing four each for a cool 20 bucks with shipping and handling. That's 2.50 each. From Lollyphile. And I thought, of course a smattering of flavor and green food coloring, mostly sugar. But no. The absinthe lollypop is in my mouth at this very moment and it's really bitter, funky. The real thing. I can't imagine you could get alcohol in a lollypop, but maybe thujone? I am feeling a little weird to tell you the truth.
I especially love the cross over of forms. An old "tomato marshmallow" recipe was posted on the ASFS listserve the other day - coming originally from The Old Foodie, which I have to try, along with Martinimallows and Vindaloomallows. But why not absinthe? There's my weekend project!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Almond Butter

After reading a few late medieval almond butter recipes, I decided last night to turn those dazzling whites (shown below) into the real thing. Mind you, this is not ground almonds, what is today labelled almond butter as an analogue of peanut butter. This is actual imitation butter, formerly used during Lent when real butter was forbidden.

I am simplifying the procedure, but basically you take raw almonds that have been soaked a day and night and peel them by hand. Roasted almonds or those that have been processed in any way won't work. I know they're all routinely pasteurized now, but that really doesn't cook them. I had about a half pound.

I put these into a wooden mortar and pounded them with a drizzle or two of rosewater, for about a half hour. I could have gone longer. Add water a dribble at a time. The smooth mixture is still pearly white. Then put the mixture into a big bowl and pour over very hot water. Let sit for about 15 minutes. Add a little sugar, and a pinch of salt. You now have almond milk, and let me tell you, it was remarkably similar to milk, in consistency, color, and very surprising to me, in flavor. It tasted nothing like the souped up sweet toasted almond flavor they put in commercial almond milk you can buy at Trader Joes and such.

Then put a dash of vinegar into the milk, and it does some very subtle curdling. just enough so that if you pour it into a strainer lined with coffee filters, the water part then slowly drips out, and what you have after an hour or two is a very thick creamy substance that looks rather like thick sour cream. I put this on another filter/blotter and popped it in the fridge. The only thing I was missing was the saffron to color it yellow, which I think is essential for the deception. Mine was still bright white, but looked very much like whipped butter.

I spread it on toast this morning, next to another piece with real butter. They tasted completely different, of course - mostly because of the rosewater. That's the flavor medieval diners were after, and it was quite pleasant. Concrete almond fat basically. I think if you colored it yellow and left out the rosewater and added more salt, you might convince someone that this was a low fat butter spread or something. Of course it's not low fat, but neither is it a hydrogenated transfat.

I think I may have a business opportunity here, for vegans especially.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Live Fish Tacos

When I first arrived in California, and in many respects this still feels like a foreign country, I could have sworn I saw a sign that said Live Fish Tacos. The image of a large flapping mackerel in a little taco, being stuffed in someone's mouth has still not left me. Bubsequently (or subsequently) I was disabused of the idea - it was Fresh Fish Tacos, I'm sure. And I tried them. Fresh? Well breaded and deep fried, with cole slaw. What were they thinking? Not exactly bad, but not exactly good either.

Today I realized I have never tried to cook a fish taco. I've been on my own this past week at home, an odd experience in itself, so I decided, why not? There was a catfish calling, and some flour burritos. Now I"m not saying this is any better for you than the deep fried version, let me be clear. Nor any less perverse. But it really worked.

So, season the catfish filet with salt, dill, smoked pimenton de la vera and a little crushed cubeb. Ok, I was out of black pepper, that's the only reason. And I like the resiny flavor of cubebs anyway. This goes in a cast iron skillet with some bacon grease. OK, I had a few slices of bacon this morning with soft boiled eggs. OH MAN, they were good. With ends of an Acme levain bread. See, you get to cook whatever the hell you like on your own.

Then chiffonade some Chinese Bok Choy (a friend brought it over a few days ago, I think it is in the turnip family, more like a chard than flavorless cabbage) , sautee in olive oil, with a sprinkle of sesame seeds and sea salt. Until seriously dark, and crunchy. You want a little bitterness.

Then toast the burritos over the open flame of the burner. Little black spots are ideal. When cool, spread with the tiniest dollop of mayo (so the ingredients stick) and some furikake - seaweed flakes with bonito and sesame seed.

Crumble the fish and bok choy stuff onto the seasoned burritos, then a hint of cruncy Thai peanut sauce. Not smooth. Whole peanuts in a kind of chili sauce. Forbidden City Fusion sauce is the brand. And OH MY!

Roll it all up. Meal unto itself. It is sublime.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Marco Pierre White

I am a very impressionable reader. If I go anywhere near Boswell's Life of Johnson, I am ruined for weeks. Such is the power over me presently of Kingsley Amis's perversely seductive prose. I am reading Everyday Drinks, which while a model of comedic form, is almost wholly bereft of sensibility in terms of content. He had the audacity to praise Mateus Rose while poo pooing Tavel, and spurts enthusiastically about "hock" - which is what one does with a loogie, not something to be drunk. It is so dated to the 70s as to be hilarious, in its advice alone.

Prose style and taste notwithstanding, I was moved to go out and buy some gin. Not to try one of his abominable cocktail recipes, but mostly to stave off malaria. It was 104 degrees on Saturday, at graduation, in cap and gown. I went for Tanqueray, which I find not so very assertive, and more pliable to the will of its glassmates. That is, better for mixing. I have to admit, the logic of a martini has always eluded me: take one juniperish herbal booze, and mix with another heady herbal fortified wine, i.e. vermouth. Does that make any sense? What a way to crowd out all the flavors. But on this very score I have just erred. Or rather invented what I tink is a marvellous cocktail for the blistering heat. It must be dry. Drier than dry, by which I mean bitter, but also dry astringent, stiptic, dry in the humoral sense, with something of the quininic and medicinal.

Brace yourself. This is one part good neutral gin. One part campari. And 1/2 part pastis. (I am out of absinthe.) A few ice cubes. And that's it. I tried cucumber water, but it palled. These three ingredients make a slightly cloudy pink cocktail, that is at once bitter and angry and abusive, but goes down perfectly in the blaze of heat. (Went down very nicely with some 8-to-the-bar blues yesterday afternoon, with me on the guitar and Buzz-man Brett on the mouth-harp.)

What to call it? Simple enough, a micegenated concoction of English, French, and Italian parents. Meaner than a lizard. The Marco Pierre White cocktail.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Does Taste Change?

This morning's breakfast prompted a deep philosophical question. It is partly derived from my frustration when someone in my family, perfectly happy to eat a certain food one day, suddenly says a week later: I don't like that. "But you did last week." "Well now I don't like it anymore." And I'm not only talking about my children here.

I think in this case it may be erratic wilfulness and control issues. But in all seriousness, do people's tastes make such dramatic reversals? Even in the long term? I know, for example, that my taste buds have certainly dulled to some extent over the years. I like my tea much stronger now. There are spirits I drink neat that make most people whince. And I seem to like things that are unbearably salty to others. This is all to be expected. But I mean just a complete about face. Some food or dish you liked and don't anymore.

How and why could this happen is what I'm wondering. Barring traumatic experience, or association, how can taste possibly change? I see how ideas can change influencing taste. Would eat meat in the past, but now as an ethical vegetarian, I wont eat meat, and it is no longer appealing. But how about with no such ideological underpinning? How does this happen? Physiologically?

You're wondering what this has to do with my breakfast? In an act of desperation and with practically nothing in the house (when I'm away my the shopping really doesn't get done, and I'm made to feel guilty for wanting to buy fresh food rather than rummage - though rummage I did) I rediscovered a breakfast dish I used to eat over a decade ago. I must have thought of it, but maybe winced at the idea, as some absurd error of my untoward youth. A gastronomic puerilism, perverse in proportion and inspiration.

Now I say, ah no. This was a flash of insight I could only had before any rules were ingrained in my head. It sounds really disgusting, even to me now, but I assure you it is magnificent. I have two bites left. Tastes, do not change, apparently.

Now that they're gone, I'll give you the recipe.

Curried Tuna Egg Burrito

Heat a flour burrito over an open flame on both sides until a little scorched. Cook two beaten eggs and a pinch of salt in a pan with butter, not scrambling, but just let cook slowly into a flat omelette. Make sure it isn't stuck to the pan. On top add some tuna (Bumblebee solid in water, drained) moistened with a generous dollop of mayo. Flatten it out. Then sprinkle generously with a commercial curry powder. (You really can't use a good freshly ground garam masala.) Then add a seeded chopped tomato to the top. And a grind of pepper. Put the burrito on top. Let gently heat through. Turn over carefully onto a board, roll up and slice in half.

Trust me, this is REALLY good. What was I thinking to doubt it?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

How To Induce Erratic Dreams

I would have thought absinthe was the ideal dream-inducing beverage; the green fairy leading us by the hand to never-never land. But no, my experience last night proves otherwise. The drink is kaoliang spirits, distilled from sorghum. The one I bought comes from Taiwan and comes in a brown crock, and is named Yushan after the Jade Mountain, the highest peak on the island. Is that poetic enough? It has a bouquet that reminded me of melons and jasmine. It's definitely floral, and has a serious kick. Why people don't use it in cocktails, I can't say. It would make a great Margarita.

One is supposed to drink it in the tiny ceramic cups which come with the bottle, but I chose a slightly larger shot-sized clay cup of my own. So here's what you do:

Bring the kaoliang to bed with you. Be sure not to have had much sleep the night before. Stay out a little later than you should, and perhaps this is key, eat rather more than what you would ordinarily, especially meat. I had lamb. And a spinach salad.

Then put something completely bizarre and frightening on TV. This will set the tone for your dreams. I saw watching Barbara Walters interview 100 year old people, along with scientists who claim to have discovered miracle longevity drugs. Who wants to live 100 years, I ask? Just be careful not to watch a horror flick, or I will not be held responsible for the consequences. Now while all this is going on, be sure to spend some time worrying about something else too. I was thinking about teaching my Tudor/Stuart England class the next day. This should show up in your dream.

Now twist yourself in a fairly uncomfortable position, and be sure that the person sleeping next to you pulls the blankets off you in regular five minute intervals. If you ever really fall into a sound sleep, you'll never remember the dream. Cats on your head will work too.

This is the dream I had: it was a conference, attended by all the oldest British historians, Joan Thirsk was there, a few people I studied with in grad school like David Underdown, and then a bevy of people whom are certainly dead like E.P. Thompson, Tawney, Conrad Russell. Some hobbled on canes, others in wheel chairs. All were gaunt, grey and drawn out with protruding bones.

The conference was about to begin, and they were all beckoned to descend a broad staircase covered in red carpet. Half of them were making their way down, when one thin Lawrence Stone perhaps began to put an uncertain step forward. Like Dick van Dyck as the old banker in Mary Poppins. And of course he falls, and tumbles headlong into the other 100 year old historians, and they all literally fall to pieces. There are arms scattered this way and that, an errant head, people stuck in each others' rib cages, bits of tattered gray hair flying through the air, utter mayhem. And classic old man British expletives. Sod You! Bloody hell!

I woke up laughing so hard that it hurt. I was literally hysterical. At about 1:30 in the morning.

I swear it was all the kaoliang. I dare someone else to try this.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Scallops: A Rant

Can someone tell me what the deal is with scallops in this country? You go practically anywhere in the world and a scallop is this gorgeous little nubbin of white and red - yes, red coral nestled into a beautiful shell with other appurtenances. And you eat it all. And they have to be absolutely fresh, and unless I'm mistaken, like oysters alive when bought. When did the desecration of scallops begin in this country? Not only are they nude, but include the one arguably difficult to eat part - the little muscle that apparently opens and shuts them.

I stopped buying supermarket scallops long ago, because they float them in some nasty chemical broth to keep them white, which causes them to absorb water, which of course all oozes out once they're cooked. The only way to deal with these is to soak them in milk, and completely dry before cooking. But there goes the flavor too. In haste I have made the mistake of seasoning these - including salt which ought never to be done - and popping them in a hot pan. Dreadful. I've seen dry scallops for sale, but not in Stockton.

So last night a bag of frozen scallops appears on the counter - seriously, I didn't buy them. Why not? Frozen shrimp are usually better than defrosted sitting in the case at the supermarket. After defrosting, the scallops were sitting in a puddle of flegmatic ooze, which I was hoping wouldn't happen. But I dried them meticulously. Just a hint of pepper and tarragon. Seared in a pan of olive oil the hottest I could get it before inflagration. The sizzling splattered everywhere, but I did get a nice brown edge, damn it. And know what? In the end it was pretty boring. It tasted sort of like scallops, but not much else. No briney depth, no mystery of the sea in your mouth kind of frisson. No PASSION! That's what I want in a scallop.

So for the time being I'll wait till the next time I see them fresh. I think the last I had such a scallop was at the ASFS banquet in Victoria. Yes, lots of things went wrong, but the little pink Pacific scallops were incredible. A shell from one sits on a bookshelf in my office; they were that good.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Rhapsody on Belgian Beer

I admit from the outset, I am no lover of beer. And I finally realize why. By the time one has consumed enough to get even the most mild of buzzes, the inevitable bloat sinks in. I honestly can't get past two beers comfortably, even of those I like a lot, such as Sierra Nevada.

So I decided to do some in depth research on this question, and went to Belgium. This is a country that seriously knows beer. In Bruges, there is a Gruuthuse, a gorgeous gothic palace built with the proceeds from taxes on gruit - the predecessor to hops in medieval beer. Unfortunately, I am told there is no beer produced today with it, partly because no one knows exactly what it was. Probably mugwort and some other herbs. I dare an intrepid brewer to give it a shot.

The place to taste beer in Bruges is Cambrinus, named for the pagan beer god/king. Here you are handed a wooden board with pages and pages of beers nicely organized and color coded. Some several hundreds, all made in Belgium. I passed by the krieks and lambics, though they can be charming, it was very cold and wet and windy, so I decided to focus on Trappist ales. All legally must still be made in an abbey by monks. It took me a pint of the house Gambrivinus just to read the book. It was wickedly hoppy, a nice light fizz and long aftertaste.

But what I finally settled on was Westvlieteren Trappist triple, coming in at 12%. In an unlabeled bottle. Belgians do distinguish between Bieren van 't vat, and Op fles (i.e. bottled) but apparently without prejudice to the latter. Now, arguably, we would categorize this as a barley wine. It came in an 8 ounce stemmed glass; in fact every beer here has its own glass shape. It was dark, spicy, densely carameled. Nothing like the porter it resembles, but quaffable, with a richness and full mouthfeel. It's oaked too, and aged. And one seriously hit me. That's when it dawned on me. Why is our beer so weak? At this strength a beer or two is perfectly satisfying. And went perfectly with some smoked salmon on toast they brought gratis.

I tried more in the next few days. Westmalle, another Trappist was beautiful, honey colored and also spicy. I wish I had tried Duvel there, but it can be bought here. There might be a difference. Even the regular daily brews like Jupiler and now everywhere available Stella Artois are nothing to shirk from. I don't think I tasted a single beer there even mildly uninteresting.

What really drove home this difference were the few brews I had in England the few days following. Even some of my favorite Green King ales, and once favorite Old Peculiar on tap, were dull flat and filling. The strongest among them was 4.8% I think. So yes, it encourages guzzling.

Here's to quaffable Belgian Beer, and a call to our brewers to try triple brewing, cask aging, and making beer stronger, so you don't need to (or want to) drink so much of it.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Jelly Baby Archaeology

In the Summer of 1985, I was studying at Oxford, and by chance was wearing a dark grey polyester suit jacket I had bought earlier that year in a thrift shop for a buck. (The kind of dumpster-dive thrift shops that no longer exist.) I think I wore that jacket that entire year, and it collected various extraneous objects - a tuft of wool from a sheep, a little bell from a Scottish woman I adored, a star-shaped pin of Baby Lenin. All these are still in the pockets. Along with the remnants of an orange Jelly Baby, put in the left hand pocket one afternoon in Oxford. It was half eaten. A girl named Jane bit off the lower extremities, pronounced it revolting and put it in my pocket, where it has remained for the past 23 years. Recovering it from my closet was a kind of archaeological experiment - how long can such food last? Not that I would consider eating it, but if you look closely, you can see Jelly Baby is still smiling.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Second Prize

For the man who never wins anything, comes the news that I have just one second prize in a recipe contest! Here's the recipe and the judges' comments. If you'ld like to see the original context go to the Burnt Toast Website. An unlike most things I make up off the top of my head, this one I have actually eaten - for breakfast mind you.


Panino alla Simonetta Vespucci

Start with a heel of cibbata about 5 inches long. Slice in half horizontally, remove a little of the interior and toast. Layer on the bread a few slices of turkey, some mashed fagioli (i.e. beans, cooked in fiasco is ideal), a thick slice of tomato sprinkled with sea salt and ground chili pepper and drizzle of olive oil, a piece of roasted red bell pepper (charred over an open flame) and grate over this a good ounce or more of serious dark chocolate (70% or above is best). Close up the sandwich and place in a flat pan or comal (not a ridged grill) with a pat of butter and plate atop a heavy cast iron skillet or brick. The weight will squash the sandwich. Cook on both sides, melting the chocolate and crisping the bread. Serve hot.

The idea of the recipe, apart from deliciousness, is to remind the eater of the enormous debt of Italian food (especially that of Tuscany) to Mexico, made possible by such notorious figures as Amerigo Vespucci. This dish is named for his gorgeous relative Simonetta, the strawberry blond pictured in Botticelli paintings.

Joanne says she was "worried that my Italian-ness was making me biased in favour of [the panino recipe]." But now, she's going to make it for her Valentine's dinner. Michael relates how the turkey and chocolate panino "made me salivate like a cat!" He says he could actually see the sandwich and then swears that by the final sentence, could even taste it.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Joy of Miserable Failure

For reasons that elude me, my ability to made enchiladas totally evaporated this past weekend. It's as if a small lump of my brain secretly escaped from my head, with all the directions for making enchiladas. The circumstances were admittedly pinched. I made the tortillas in a fit of boredom, without really knowing what I would do with them. I pulled out the tortilla press and thought, "I've never seen this before in my life!" What happened to my old tortilla press? And what do I do with this thing? It took me a while until I remembered, AH, plastic! The dough must have been too dry too, because the edges were all cracked. Am I supposed to use lard? Like I said, it just escaped me. But I persevered as only the maniacally driven can do.

And then the lights went out. Totally. So put the tortillas in the fridge, hoping everything in there wouldn't spoil. And went out for Thai food.

Then the next day I had work to do in the morning, hurried and harried. And a superbowl party to go to that afternoon. And I think, ah, I'll just whip up some enchiladas out of these and voila. I have some black beans, tomatoes, cheese, some nice pasillas to roast into a sauce. I have absolutely no idea what next transpired, because I whipped myself into a frenzy, chucked all this stuff together, cursed the tortillas for falling apart, threw in handfuls of whatever I could find. Haven't I done this before? And it wasn't it luscious?

Well, what ever I did, this malformed enchilada casserole sucked.

So what did I learn from this lesson? 1. Think first, cook later. 2. Find a recipe if you're not sure how to do it, as loathe as you might be to actually following directions in a cookbook. 3. Never make something complicated in a hurry. 4. And here's the most important thing:EVERYTHING NEED NOT BE MADE FROM SCRATCH! No one bloddy cares if you made the tortillas yourself, burnt your fingers chopping chilies, and even rubbed your eyes with spicy fingers. I could have bought some tortillas, dumped in salsa and cheese and a few beans and it would have been lovely, even edible.

Instead I got baked on corn stoge to scrape out of the casserole yesterday. It's still soaking in the damned sink. But I will have my revenge. I will download that enchilada file in my brain again, cookwith patience and show the Gods of Discord that once I wielded the tortilla press with unquestioned acumen. Bring it on....

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

How to Get Kids to Eat Good Food

Jon Deutsch just asked me this intriguing question, and I thought since I have already spent the whole day writing about seaweed, algae and edible cyanobacteria, I would post my response here for kicks.

To get my kids to eat good healthy food: first I put on my spiked helmet and parade around the house muttering obscenities. Then I brandish a pistol and ask who wants to spend the night in klink?

Actually I don't get my kids to eat good food with flavor. They eat mostly crap, and get away with it because their mom is very picky and wont eat what I cook anymore. So it rubbed off on them - they get whatever they want mostly. I must have done something really bad in a former life.

When it does work it's usually because they have cooked with me (sometimes they will cook something and then not want to eat it though!) or because they know a friend eats it. Or it will just be some bizarre arbitrary dare. Like when I dared my older son to try soy sauce, and he got addicted. Or the younger one who loves goat cheese. Somehow they never got addicted to natto or durian though. But he is a real conoisseur of pickles, actually both sons are now. (Must be "Bubbies" - older son insists they be sliced lengthways, younger one in rounds like spongebob does it.) And they do eat some foods that few people in their right mind would eat - like super sour candy for one. Which actually I like too. I think the dare factor is underrated, but you have to be a dad with a fifth grade mentality to pull it off.

So there's my advice - never coax or chide or threaten. Dare.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Oh Pig Where Art Thou?

I have been having explicit dreams about pigs this week. It's all Ustach's fault - he told me to watch some slaughter scenes on You Tube, and I listened to him. They were gruesome, but unlike most people, they made me hungry. And he intimated to me that actually catching a wild boar at "the ranch" might be possible. I'm game - or rather it's game.

So in the middle of writing about mundane species of the Cucurbitacea clan today, bitter melons can be very enticing, I had to stop and write about pigs. I mean whole cochinito pibil, or the glorious porchetta from Monte San Savino - do my pals from Boston remember that? And then Chef M goes and writes me about a way they salt pigs in China and let them hang like ducks I guess, and then roast them. Oh Charles Lamb, I can hear you churning up the dirt in your grave for some of that.

There must be some pig-synergy in the air this week.

I did attempt a whole hog once. It's a funy story really. My colleague Edie's husband Rick bought it, and we prepared a Hawaiian Umu at his house. Or at least tried to. He lived then in the hills above Castro Valley, which is solid rock after a few feet. So we really never really did dig deep enough.

BUt it was impressive, wrapped in banana leaves and a wire cage. Laid upon hot rocks and then covered in dirt. We let it cook, or try to cook for about 8 hours. It might have worked with more depth, more fuel, and especially if he hadn't watered the area in fear of his fence catching fire.
It had to be popped in the oven for a bit longer, not an utter disaster. But I am convinced it can be done.

Or maybe I could buy one of those Chinese boxes they use in Miami. I know confusing to me too. The pig goes in an aluminum lined box, and the coals go on top. I saw some You Tube videos of it this morning and it looks quite promising. Though I really do think a spit would be more fun.

Patience, I will figure out a way. And rest assured, you are invited!


Friday, January 11, 2008

Grapefruit and the Absurdity of Devotion

If you spend just a moment and stare at this image, I insist that you will begin to experience an olfactory halluciation. Focus now. Can you smell the acrid grapefuit peel? And the sweet acidic flesh? Is your mouth beginning to pucker?
I put this here because it was the sole fruit specimen of a little tree I have been arduously nursing in a big blue pot beneath the trellis for the past year. I really thought it was an orange. And now I have no recollection of where it came from.
When I figure in man hours how much time I spent watering it, and singing to it, only to see every floret drop off but one, and then to look outside the other day in a rain storm to see my orange - er grapefuit - on the brick patio. Ugh. There's my thousand dollar citrus fruit!
Of course it was the best grapefruit I had ever tasted, fragrant and luscious - I peeled it carefully to preserve the zest and separated each segment from the membranes. And let the little golden beads sit on my tongue until I crushed them one by one, like caviar.
I gave a piece to my 10 year old son, who grimaced, promptly spit it out. And ran to the sink to wash his mouth out.
But I swear, as I'm sitting here writing this in my office, I can smell the grapefruit still.
Or maybe I'm just exhausted after a week of writing.
Happy Nude Year!!