Monday, March 30, 2009

Goddess in the headlights

First, a shout out to the god and goddesses who arranged Saturday: Karin Bugge aka Altadenahiker, Susan C the meticulous feaster of Open Mouth, Insert Fork, Timothy Rutt of Altadenablog,and Debi of Altadena Above It All, Taking the virtual out of reality and putting the picnic in for all us bloggers. Delightful goodies everywhere we turned!

Now, an abrupt segue to our regularly scheduled program.

Does the prospect of entertaining lower your boiling point and raise your blood pressure? What about entertaining people who write, rather feistily at times, about their passion for food? Do you now have innovative and prosecutable uses for that freshly sharpened set of knives?

David Shaw, food and wine critic for the LA Times, ran a column once about never being invited to dinner parties by his friends. They were all too crazy intimidated, it appeared, by his love of food and his knowledge of wine. After that column ran, he received dozens of letters and invitations from his readership, and he accepted, and wrote about, a few of these dinner parties. As I read those columns I thought that was a very sweet gesture. And when his columns went missing I found that the universe had rewarded his sweetness with a swift and fatal brain tumor.

I bring this up to let a friend who has publicly confessed to being intimidated by the prospect of hosting a number of her food-obsessed friends know she is not alone. But in response to this I say:

The best food is prepared with love and by someone else.

Example A)
Migas, in my family at least, are corn tortillas fried til crisp, then scrambled into a couple of eggs, topped with a moderate or heaping amount of sour cream (salt is essential, for this lass). I make this every now and then, usually for the kids. What I make, however, is never as good as those my mother makes for me.

Example B)
The best damn pot-au-feu I ever tried was made by a beloved friend who rarely cooked. I have never equaled that simple, delicious dish.

Example C)
Each year my dear friend hosts a dinner party. Her guests refuse any changes in her menu. And the twice baked potatoes are incomparable.

So, forget about cooking with gas! Cook with love and you've got it made.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Unworthy Dining Companions

One of my favorite novelists has commented here a couple of times regarding her unworthy dining companions. The phrase makes me laugh with recognition. I think first of an acquaintance who had successfully penned a series in which food sophistication plays a large part (I'm being intentionally vague here, God forbid I offend a successful contact!) I wanted to pick her brain and we met for coffee and pastries. Or, in her case tea and pastries. When the server offered her orange pekoe tea my friend wanted to know what it was. It is pretty much the standard generic tea. Lipton. Now, if you gentle reader do not know this, please realize that this doesn't qualify you as an unworthy dining companion. It was my acquaintance's presumed expertise which put her in that category.

I, on the other hand, qualified early and often as unworthy. During my college years a large number of my friends were vegetarian. Or kosher. Or halal. How to make a carnivore gentile feel unworthy? Very easy. Make her feel unclean. I'm currently attending a conference in San Jose, and I struck up a conversation with a favorite acquaintance. She started to tell me about her 40 day cleanse. I think by tomorrow she'll be down to apple seeds. Once again, I am unworthy. I think my love of lard borders on being a reactionary political statement.

For me, though, it's food fusses and electronic usage that slam dunks you straight into the unworthy category. Want to order a meal and have all carbs/protein/fat/calories served on the side? Want to text, or phone, or show me your screen saver on your laptop/iphone/nano/blueberry during drinks/lunch/dinner/tea? Great. I'll remember to schedule our dates during power outages. Or not at all.

What makes an unworthy dining companion for you?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Movies and Madness and Menus

By quirk of fate, timing and a Netflix subscription I watched one, two, three movies recently. Along with my brief critiques I've devised some recommended menus to increase your viewing pleasure.

"Rachel Getting Married" and "I've Loved You So Long" are both about sisters and involve a tragic event in the past. One soars, one sinks.

I am a complete NUT about rehab stories. The drama, the passion, the rage, the ensuing compassion. Days of Wine and Roses, Clean and Sober embody this cathartic drama. After watching the twenty minutes of the plot, and 70 minutes of music interspersed with cinema verite I have composed this drinking game for "Rachel"

You will need: many, many, many bottles of your favorite booze.

Each time the subtext of a scene is "You don't love me! You never loved me!" drink a glass or shot.
Each time this intimate scene is played to an audience greater than 5, take another glass or shot for each additional cast member.
Pass out, mercifully, before the never-ending wedding reception scene.
From the movie: let them eat wedding cake.

The critics love Kristen Scott Thomas, a woman of a certain age who remains aloof and yet attractive. (Damn, am I outing myself here?) While Rachel's scenes were at top volume, all the power here comes from the muted and underplayed emotions.

Pour commencer:

A champagne cocktail (to celebrate liberation from prison!)
From the movie:
Quiche Lorraine and salad
Red currant tarte

And now, "Let the Right One In," that Swedish vampire film with a twist. I must have used up all of my sensitivity in France, because the only twist I see is a small boy running around in his underwear. Wait, the innovation was vampires and snow, right? We won't mention the gruesome scenes of violence, worthy of a David Lynch film.

Red wine. Red, red wine.
A variety of organ meats: heart, liver, sweetbreads, kidneys, cooked rare.
From the movie:

I have a feeling no one's accepting my next dinner party invitation.
And you? Favorite movie menu pairings? And, no, spaghetti and canolli has been done, and done, and done again...

Monday, March 23, 2009


My son's birthday was this past weekend. In our family the tradition is I cook the desired menu of the birthday person. My son's choice: fusilli a la napoletana, which translates into very long twisty pasta slathered with a sauce made of carrots, onions, celery, tomatoes then coated with mozzarella.

To start? A couple of quick mouthfuls, the oven-toasted gorgonzola slathered bread was particularly successful.

To finish? Cake, of course, chocolate with chocolate frosting. Happily, the grandmama makes this. She uses two cans of frosting, so everyone leaves fat, full and happy.

You will need:
One pound pasta
One onion, carrot, stalk of celery, diced.
2 ounces or more of pancetta or bacon
1/2 cup white wine
4 tomatoes or 1 1/2 cups canned diced tomatoes
1/2 pound mozzarella, cubed or grated
Parmesan for the table.

Coat a saute pan with olive oil, add the bacon and vegetables cooking until tender. Add the wine, and reduce on high heat. Add the tomatoes and simmer until cooked through. For canned tomatoes I like to cover the pan and reduce the heat, simmering a bit longer than fresh.

When the pasta's boiled and ready, pour on the sauce, add the cheese and mix thoroughly.

My son's a real man now, and by that I mean that he's old enough to be disappointed by what his family bought for him. (My daughter grew up much earlier). At least dinner lived up to his expectations--he went back for seconds and thirds.

Birthday meal traditions, anyone?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Rapunzel's mother

We all remember Rapunzel--the damsel locked away in the tower, with the long, long hair. Do you remember how she got there? Pregnancy cravings. Rapunzel's mother lived next door to a witch and watched her tend her garden. There was a green there that the woman craved desperately. She begged her husband, and he went not once, but twice, to snatch those well-tended greens so his best beloved could make herself a salad. The second time around he was caught, and as punishment after the birth the witch made off with their daughter.

I'm not sure about your version; in the one I was raised on it never identified the particular green that induced the poor woman's cravings. But I have a theory. In fact, when I acquired a taste for it, I realized this is what Rapunzel's mother wanted: arugula.

They call it rocket in England, and although a favorite chef of mine despises it, I love the bitter, mustardy, green taste. The other night I made a simple tomato sauce: heat olive oil, slivered garlic, add chopped fresh tomatoes, a handful of basil. When the tomatoes are soft and pulpy pour over hot pasta, and add a couple of fistfuls of arugula. Delicious.

Last night I made myself a salad for dinner: handfuls of arugula, a squeeze of lemon juice, olive oil, chopped fresh tomatoes, sea salt. Divine. So good I made myself another. I feel for Rapunzel's mother, I really do.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Some people dream of social justice, others of world peace. I dream of the perfect corned beef hash. And what a better morning to dream of it, than the day after everyone has corned and boiled their beef.

There used to be in Pasadena, years ago, Rose City Diner on Fair Oaks, before its incarnation as Ruby's, then La Huasteca, then another empty restaurant. It was an old-style diner that served corned beef and hash. Like another favorite, the Grinder on PCH, the hash was made of steamy hot potatoes tender on the inside and crisp on the outside; sauteed onions, and slices of corned beef. All this topped with two eggs of your choice. I always ordered poached, since that's something I've never been able to master. (Joy of Cooking tells you to add vinegar to the boiling water, drop in the eggs and swirl gently; I think I'm pretty good, but not that good). Alas, time and tastes change, and that diner no longer exists. And yet I insist on ordering this dish, hope triumphing over experience. The last place I tried was in Eagle Rock, Pat and Lorraine's, where they filmed the best scene of Reservoir Dogs, the opening, which ends in argument about under-tipping the waitress. In other words, a place of dreams.

The waitress brought my melamine plate of breakfast, along with toast to sop up the yolk. Sigh. Someone had opened a can of the stuff, heated it on the griddle, and plated it. That can is one half step up from dog food. I fought the urge to under tip.

I guess I'm gonna have to attempt it myself. Mebbe even tomorrow. If that doesn't work out, I'll shoot for plan b: the perfect Reuben sandwich. Any food dreams of your own?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Comfort Foods

All right, I will now admit to a sense of malaise and uneasiness. I have been in denial, covering my ears and singing tra la la, turning off the radio, the internet, the tv, but some how the news has wormed its way in. From local, state, national to the world, we're, um, skewered.

There are sites that can tell you how to plant your victory garden, how to compost your unemployment check stubs and which soup kitchens have a Michelin star--to compliment those we now offer a completely person, partial list of ways to cheer ourselves up, if only for a meal, if only for a moment.

1) Ice cream. Even with an overcast sky there are few days ice cream can't enliven. From mocha almond fudge, to a missing favorite, English toffee, sweet and creamy childhood goodness.
Sodas and toppings optional.

2) Chocolate chip oatmeal cookies, fresh from the oven. Just thinking about them conjures up aromatic memories.

3) Soup. Broccoli soup, split pea, albondigas, matzo ball.

4) Hot chocolate

5) Pudding. Chocolate, butterscotch, and something I discovered in Connecticut delis: Grape nuts pudding. Don't knock it til you've tried it! Top 'em all with whipped cream or half and half for an extra treat.

6) Crusty bread and wonderful cheese

If I were really brave I'd start creating menus to go with this posting, in the meantime I'll be gobbling up sweet treats, and playing chain factor. And if that doesn't help, there's always this.

What kind of goodies are you reaching for during this stormy economic weather?

Friday, March 13, 2009

La Paloma

Add Image

We're staying in Mexico all week long, it seems. Here in sunny Southern California the worst of cold weather has finished--and now it's time to prepare ourselves to loll in lounge chairs; reach for the sun block, and a great paper back.

When I visited Mexico City I found that women rarely drank. Is this sexism, or wisdom? I dunno. When I asked our server what las damas drank, I was offered a paloma, and that became my drink of choice.

You will need:

A tall glass that will hold lots of ice

Diet or full strength grapefruit soda

Slice the lime in half, run the cut side along the rim of your tall glass. Swirl in a small plate of salt.
Squeeze the lime into the glass. Add a shot of tequila. Fill with ice cubes. Pour in your grapefruit soda, and stir gently once or twice to distribute the alcohol.

Can you feel it? I can. I've just changed time zones, climates, and cultures.

Which drinks transport you?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Little Bites

Half the fun of sitting down with a glass of wine or cocktail are the small nibbles you arrange to go with your drink. Tired of baby carrots and Chinese rice crackers? Here are a few of my favorites:
  • dates split then filled with cambozola cheese, topped with a dry roasted, unsalted almond
  • dried figs topped with a dash of goat cheese, garnished with half a toasted pecan
  • pesto spread on baguette slices
  • Gorgonzola cheese mashed with butter, garnished with a few snips of basil and a sprinkling of pine nuts. Use as a spread.
Hmm, sounds like I'm hooked on nuts and cheese. Before our elaborate meal of Oaxacan mole negro we had a very simple platter of nibbles:
  • sliced beets topped with chunks of salt (we had baked the beets, wrapped in tinfoil, for 2 hours-350 degrees-they turned out sweet and smoky, and we just rubbed the skins off before slicing)
  • peeled orange slices
  • trimmed radishes
  • julienned jicama
  • a handful of the Spanish peanuts we needed for the mole.

It was colorful, flavorful, and allowed us to keep our appetite for the main event.

What are your favorite nibbles?

And there, gentle reader, was my original end to the post. Since I try to write these a few days in advance I reread it a few times, happy and fairly proud of it and the image of myself that feels fun to project: dress me up I'm sophisticated, dress me down I'm down to earth.

But the psyche has other plans.

Inwardly, a couple of voices made polite coughs. When I ignored them they raised their voices. As I continued to avoid their catcalls they picked up their tin cups and started banging them against the bars, the windows, the walls, the railings. This is what they said:

Voice 1 "Frickin' beets and oranges?!? Are you out of your frickin' mind? Give me 3 ounces of Jack Daniels on the rocks pdq and a pound of dry roasted cashews. Or a pound of pistachios. Screw the frou frou cheese!"

Voice 2 "Just give me a real Coke, a 39 oz bag of nacho cheese doritos, a tub of sour cream and go away. "

Voice 3 "Could someone smuggle in a cigarette? Please, please, pretty please? Just one, I swear to God..."

Yeah, as I alluded to in my very first post, sometimes the conflict is fully embodied within the chef. Or, as Walt Whitman put it, "I contain multitudes."

Monday, March 9, 2009

Oaxacan mole negro

Behold the culmination of 4 shops, twenty-something ingredients, thirty fried then soaked chiles, four different purees and hours of hanging out with my equally crazy friend, Lisa. Whew!

My favorite parts:
  • Stemming and tearing the 4 different kinds of chiles open, (mulattos, guajillos, pasillas and one chipotle) shaking out the seeds, and toasting them until black. Yes, completely black, hence the name of the sauce.
  • Frying the dried chiles in oil, watching them expand and color. I'd never done this before. It was like entertainment and exercise: you stand as far back as possible to avoid spattering oil while watching the chiles transform.
  • Taking a much needed oyster and white wine break on her patio, at this point, to fortify ourselves for the next step: the blending of the four separate purees.

At last, after the blending, the simmering, the adding of chicken, the further simmering, the meal was ready. We ladled it over Mexican white rice, a serving of black beans on the side.

For dessert strawberry-garnished flan. I promise to hunt down the recipe.

Was it worth it? If I had done this alone, absolutely not. But isn't that the essence of some cuisines (Mexican, Italian, etc) the communal activity of labor-intense preparations? In other words, a reason to gather, and celebrate, cook and dine. Of course it was worth it!

For those who need directions, it's the Rick Bayless version. Four pages worth. If you try it, lemme know!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Bate, bate, chocolate

(Rhymes with latte, latte, cho co latte). Outside of the bedroom what's the best way to cut the chill of a cold evening? Cocktails don't really do it, spiced hot red wine never seems to have caught on on this continent. People debate the restorative qualities of green tea vs. black, et cetera, et cetera. (Fear not! Not on this blog!) I, however, prefer a blend of the old world with the new.

Mexican hot chocolate

Per serving you will need:

2 wedges Ibarra Mexican chocolate
3/4 cup of milk.

In a heavy sauce pan on low heat slowly melt the chocolate wedges. When it is a soft lump of sugary chocolate, add the milk. Heat until scalded. Don't worry if there are flecks or lumps of chocolate hanging around. When scalded, carefully pour the mixture into your blender. Hold tight to the lid; push frappe.

Pour into a mug of your choice. Garnish with a stick of cinnamon. Inhale its dreamy aromatics while you sip and savor fireside, if possible. Perfect with a serving of flan

How do you stay warm on a cold night?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What are you hiding?

I recently did an inventory of my refrigerator, in an attempt to clear space or consolidate jars. There are members of the family who sincerely believe to leave a container of cream cheese, or sour cream or mayonnaise, with nothing but a quarter of a teaspoon of its original contents, is an act of kindness towards a hungry fellow family member. I disagree.

There are, of course, the odd ingredients, that jar of cornichons someone insisted on buying; the sweet pickled onions for someone else's Gibsons, the glass jars of home-rendered animal fat (I'm sure that sounds disgusting to those who don't do it, let's, however, move on). And then there are the ingredients that I really don't want in the refrigerator at all, but by some kind of family devotion I don't throw them out. Like, ajvar. There, I said it. An eastern European concoction of red peppers and perhaps some tomatoes and a dash of spice. Bleck. In fact, I resent its mere presence.

What's hiding in your fridge? And, no, I don't mean the containers turning putrid colors with the seasons. What have you secreted away, comestibly speaking, that is? Don't tell anyone, but I have a serving of chocolate pudding, cunningly hidden behind the container of basil.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Parsnip Passages

Behold the humble parsnip: a savory carrot, a sweet root vegetable, tasting of the garden and the earth and not quite to everyone's taste. I love them.

I'm not sure who first introduced me to the fact that you could peel then sliver them into chicken soup for a sweet pungency that permeates the kitchen, but that was my first encounter. Then, via their City restaurant these ladies introduced me to parsnip chips (gosh, how 80s is that?) which were such a marvel that my husband and I tried them at home. Instead of a mandoline we used a wide potato peeler to make sure we had paper thin strips of parsnips and then deep-fried them, turning them into a marvel of a chip. Lastly, the English may have once gotten a bad rap for their food, but their Sunday dinner is a dream of roast, and to accompany it, besides the horseradish you simply must have roast potatoes. Or even, roast parsnips.

Peel one pound of parsnips. Cut into wedges 3 inches long, halving or quartering the thickest parts. Blanch in boiling water for five minutes. Drain them, then drop them into a pyrex or other oven-friendly roasting pan. Pour 2-4 tablespoons of vegetable oil over them, and stir gently, making sure all bits of the pale root veg have a slight coating of oil. Place them in your preheated 425 degree oven and roast for 30-40 minutes, until well-browned turning once or twice to make sure it has a satisfyingly crispy exterior. Serve with anything you darn well please.