Friday, February 27, 2009

Sidecar Cocktail Tease

I recently attended a chat by a professor who discussed the scripts that rule our lives. I reflected on a few of my own. One favorite script of mine is that alcohol is a way of displaying our wit, sophistication and taste. In my early twenties I knew writers drank scotch, so, by God, I was going to cultivate a taste for the stuff.

Tumblers, however, don't have the same glam cache as the martini glass. Years ago, when Esquire ran an article on the 20 drinks you had to know by heart, my husband and I discovered new favorites. For him a Negroni, for me, the Sidecar.

You will need:


Slice the lemon in half, swirl it, cutside on the outside rim of your martini glass. Dip the glass in a saucer of sugar, twirling it to catch as much as possible.

Juice half the lemon. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar, and stir until dissolved (superfine sugar is super for this). When dissolved add to the ice cubes in your cocktail shaker. Along with 1 1/2 ounces brandy and 3/4 ounce Cointreau. Shake like a mad woman (thinking: is it ready yet? Is it ready yet?)

Strain into your glass. I always add a few ice cubes, to cut the alcohol and keep it cool.

And I label it a tease, because you'll always want more.

Which cocktails are part of your script? Or, what do you order at the black jack table in Las Vegas? Do they make you feel lucky? My friend Margaret has a few words to say about that.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Fiction and Dining

When I was in 6th grade I read this book. And to this day I have no idea how to pronounce Ole Golly, or why an 11 year old girl would have a nurse, but thanks to this book I know a thing or two about food.
Because there were two items in this book which simply fascinated me. Bagels I could figure out. But lox? What is lox? And an egg cream?
Lynwood had an ice cream shop, Hamm's, and that's where I tried an egg cream. Hmmm. Definitely an acquired taste, but I tried it a few times more. This was one of Harriet's favorite things. It had to be worth having.
Cerritos had a mall, complete with a Kaplan's deli. The four of us went there for dinner. All I knew about the menu was that I wanted a bagel and lox. And when I tried it, wow, was that wonderful! Lox was smoked salmon, on cream cheese, on a bagel! Harriet didn't fail me!

Do you read books and find yourself craving the food described within?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Pigging Out

Have you ever come across something that was so simple, or inexpensive, and yet invisible? Something that you thought was a remarkable value, but no one else recognized it?
When I come across an adorable item on ebay that I think is terrific, but no one else has bid I worry that the rest of the world knows something that I don't. When it comes to pork roast, however, I know that the rest of the world is missing out.
It's a simple recipe, for which you can use an inexpensive cut of pork butt, or shoulder. It's something I grew up on, and never get tired of. For some reason, all recipes I come across insist upon roasting pork in the oven until it's baked tough and dry. This stove top, steamed recipe will give you a succulent, juicy and memorable roast. Be sure to have some sort of braising pot with a tight fitting lid.

Braise a 2-5lb pork roast (shoulder or butt) on high until it is evenly browned. Reduce the heat to as low as possible. Place the cut of meat fattiest side down--add half a cup of water (and more, as it cooks, if necessary) and cover. Check every thirty minutes or so, turning the piece of meat so it cooks evenly. After an hour or more for larger cuts of meat add a couple of sliced onions and a few garlic cloves. Cook until falling off the fork tender, 2-4 hours depending on the size of the roast and your cooking equipment. Add salt to taste. Serve with pico de gallo, a pot of beans, rice, and corn or flour tortillas. Or, hey, enfrijoladas!

Try one of the following variations:

a) as the roast becomes tender add peeled carrots and potatoes to steam alongside.

b) once the roast is tender add a combination of Las Palmas green enchilada sauce and Herdez tomatillo sauce.

c) blend a few tomatoes and a couple of chipotle chiles; add to the simmering meat.

d) roast pasilla chiles over flames, turning with tongs until evenly charred. Remove from flames and steam in plastic bags. When cool remove the charred skin, stems, and seeds. Slice or cut into squares, add to meat. Heaven.

What delicious foods do you love, and consider underrated?

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Love to Hate Club

I fear I may have tipped my hand here. My daughter and I watch this show for laughs combined with moral outrage. We particularly enjoy the face she makes as she sips her latest alcoholic concoction. The last episode we caught featured white chocolate polenta. White chocolate polenta? You mean cornmeal mush with melted white chocolate? I had to watch it twice because I thought I had missed something. Particularly when she added thyme and rosemary.

The amusing bit about her episodes is that the through line is an ingredient, or perhaps a color scheme. One episode featured lemon juice in every course. The monotony, the monotony! To break it up she alternated bottled lemon juice with freshly squeezed.

I know Rachel Ray is particularly vilified, but I just switch the channel. Sandra Lee, on the other hand, with her addiction to vanilla vodka and her compulsion to ruin perfectly excellent fresh ingredients with packaged salts, mixes, and white chocolate chips, with her visible wince each time she tastes the alcoholic perversion she's created: I find it frankly impossible to avert my gaze. By the way, which cooking show do you love to hate?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Improbable Dining Dreams

The first time I heard of Rao's restaurant was while listening to Martha Stewart cook with the owner, and admonish her viewers to despair of ever eating there. Because, as the owner explained, those tables were booked for locals and regulars for every day of the week. I did despair! Something else utterly out of my reach.

A married couple I know achieved the impossible: they snagged a table. In fact, the owner called them and gave them their choice of months: November or April? April, they agreed, and planned their trip to New York City around that tiny restaurant in Harlem.

Wow. They did it.

What's your improbable dining dream?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Pesto Presto

If you've ever seen the movie Houseboat you've heard Sophia Loren look beautiful while singing:

Presto presto
Do your very besto
Don't hang back like a shy little kid
You'll be so glad that you did what you did
When you do it with a bing bang bong
A bing bang bong

And that's what runs through my head as I make this recipe, adapted from Marcella Hazan's. Fifteen years ago at an estate sale I found a pristine used copy of The Classic Italian Cook Book and I've cooked with it ever since. Before this recipe I never realized pesto was so simple and so delicious; all you need is a blender, and excellent ingredients: salt, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, basil, butter and parmesan cheese.

First, in your handy dandy blender, add two cups basil leaves, one teaspoon salt, two peeled cloves garlic, one third cup olive oil and two tablespoons pine nuts. Blend. Remove from the blender. Now by hand mix in one half cup of Parmesan cheese, and two tablepoons softened butter. And presto, pesto.

Use it to sauce your gnocchi or pasta, as a sandwich spread in place of mayonnaise, or even better, as a dollop of flavoring in minestrone.

Which brings us to another recipe of Marcella's. For a long time I thought vegetable soup was what restaurants called their leftovers. When I'd order a cup and it would be filled with soggy bits: spongy green beans, sad carrots, bewildered kernels of corn. Desperate one day when my crisper was turning into my soggier, I had to find a way to rescue my overload of vegetables.

The true secret of this vegetable soup is that first you start with the sauteed onions, then as you add the vegetables you let each one saute a few minutes before adding the next. The result is terrific, each vegetable distinct and distinctly edible.

Coat the base of your soup pot with olive oil. Add a cup of sliced onions. Saute until soft. Add a cup of diced carrots. Coat with the oil, and stirring occasionally, let that cook for two to three minutes. Add a cup of diced celery, and cook as the carrots. Follow with a cup zucchini, then potatoes, then string beans, all diced, and cook just like the carrots. Marcella recommends three cups of Savoy cabbage, but I can never find it when I want it, and since I can't stand the old carpet smell of boiled cabbage I instead add three cups sliced Napa cabbage. You want to coat that then cook that for six minutes. Now add a cup of fresh or canned diced tomatoes and six cups broth. I usually use water flavored with instant Knorr beef boullion. Now let it simmer, covered, on very low, for three hours. Ten minutes of simmering left, add a can of cannelini beans or a cup of frozen peas. To bring it as close to heaven as vegetable soup can get, add a dollop of the pesto mentioned above.

Beware: This soup is for a lazy day when you don't mind at all something bubbling away on the stove for three hours. Perfect for a very cold afternoon.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dine LA

Looking for upscale dining experience at a less than upscale price? This is the place: and it's been extended till the end of February.

Yes, even the restless home cook pines for a world class dining experience. This is a shot of Gordon Ramsay's, in West Hollywood, which is tucked away in what must be the most expensively renovated hotel in that block. (Hmmm, such a scale).

Heck, even the drive is an adventure, down Sunset past the building-tall billboards, the evocative edifices, the A-list restaurants, the dreams of deals being settled or soured in some quiet back room with bottled still water and icy stares. Sunset Boulevard.

When my husband and I hit Gordon Ramsay's we were met by a friendly and efficient server. She was replaced by a goofy guy whose pants needed help (he crushed the hem of his pants with each step), while his jacket sleeves reached halfway down his palms. His attire didn't spoil the three course experience. I started with a beet and ricotta cheese appetizer, which was more beautiful than delicious. Followed by pan seared sea trout, which had a terrifically crisply, salty skin, and a scoop of butter drenched cabbage. We ended with meyer lemon pudding and buttermilk ice cream, and Valhrona burnt chocolate pudding with vanilla ice cream. It was fun, it was glam, and on the drive back we gawked at Amoeba records and all the guitar shops. We promised each other not to wait another fifteen years to return to the upscale seedy world of West Hollywood.

How about you? Anything look enticing on the list?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Valentine's Evening Massacre

For Cupid's sake, there are only two other higher stakes/low-indicator holidays: New Year's Eve and your birthday.

Valentine's Day has pretty well turned into one of those manufactured holidays, complete with shortening-laden pink frosting upon a styrofoamy cupcake base. And that this one falls on a Saturday night just ratchets the stakes up even higher.

So, before I work myself up into a total lather, let's take the edge off. Instead of using that bucket of ice to bounce off the wall, or the bottle of champagne to shake threateningly, let's pop the cork, pour a little, and taste the stars.

My picks
: I am a complete fan of Moet's White Star ($30 at Trader Joe's) and Domaine Carneros's Taittinger ($20, same shop). I do think Veuve Clicquot is overrated at its price ($40+, everywhere). But for low key sipping or mixing, Cristalino Brut and Segura Viudas are terrific. And if your date doesn't do bubbly, you can find splits at Cost Plus.

My favorite champagne cocktail:

Mix a half teaspoon brandy, one teaspoon Grand Marnier and half a teaspoon of sugar in the base of a champagne flute. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Splash a bit of champagne, and stir until well-blended. Top with more champagne. Enjoy. After a few of these it really doesn't matter that the holiday didn't meet your extravagant expectations. Again.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bitten by Bittman

Mark Bittman's Food Matters implores us to eat more healthily and more wisely. Reduce the amount of animal protein and by-products in our daily diet, and reduce the damage we inflict on the world with our omniverous consumption.

Great. Guilt for the gut. But I have had a creeping awareness of my own consumption. I used to brag about how cheap the eggs I bought were; then I realized those hens had horrendous living conditions. Now, thanks to Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) I pop for the extra few bucks and buy cage free, never free range. My son has sworn off cattle that is raised inhumanely; the only time he eats the beef I buy is when we buy it at Whole Foods. So now we stumble over the very teeny tiny tip of the culture wars that are fought inside households. My husband has been an Atkins convert for five years now. Not that he's any skinnier at all, he just swears that a high-fat high-protein diet is the way humans were meant to eat. And I, like Bittman, want to eat more grains, legumes, and less animal.

Years ago when we were married I was grateful he wasn't committed to keeping kosher. Now he's exploring smoking his own bacon. And I'm buying whole wheat flour tortillas.

Do any of the rest of you out there have similar dilemmas?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Brownies in 5 Ingredients

(if you don't count the pinch of salt and teaspoon of vanilla).

My first, and favorite, recipe for brownies was taste-tested, over and over again in a beautiful adobe home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I spent the summer there, between my freshman and sophomore year, and Frances, my friend who dished ice cream cones with me at Swenson's (remember them?) happened to be best friends with Judy Blume's daughter, and staying in their home over the summer. Whew! That was a tortured sentence. I never did meet the famous author, or the daughter, but I did make batch after batch of delicious brownies, during thunder storms, in a kitchen whose color scheme and size matched the Rothko hanging in the dining room.

Years later I found the recipe, Craig Clairborne's, in the New York Time Cook Book.

So, when it threatens to rain, why buy a box mix, complete with that odd preservative aftertaste when you can make them in (almost) as little fuss? I mean, even with a boxed mix you'll have to add at least two more ingredients. For these you will need:

Two eggs beaten into one cup of white sugar.

4 squares (or ounces) unsweetened chocolate.

This is where I'm afraid the foodies in the audience will be advocating Valhrona or Scharffenberger, or some other unpronounceable elite treat, which, come on, is today's declaration of palate and class warfare. I stand by my humble box of Baker's unsweetened chocolate and its homey beginnings.

1/3 cup butter (or 5 tablespoons)

Melt the two gently together. Remove from heat when both ingredients are completely mush.

Swiftly stir in the egg and sugar mixture. Fold in 1/2 cup of flour (yes, that's all, just ONE HALF CUP of flour).

A pinch of salt for contrast, a teaspoon of vanilla for that alcoholic kick. Pour into a greased 8 or 9 inch square pan and bake for 20 minutes at 325 degrees.

Did you know that glass pans bake at 25 degrees hotter? Lower that thermostat!

Warning: these brownies provide quite the caffeine jolt. Devour with a cup of coffee to kick start your morning.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


I discovered these luscious things in Mexico City, and followed them up for days in Oaxaca and then later in my kitchen. Corn tortillas are dipped in hot oil, then dipped in a black bean puree, and folded into quarters, garnished with cotija cheese. They're served on the side of meats, or with your morning eggs. Mexican food-the more I eat it the more I want.

Entomatados are corn tortillas dipped, again in hot oil, and then in a delicate tomato sauce. When was the last time you saw those on your local corner menu? The next discovery I made was huevos divorciados, two fried eggs, one slathered with red salsa, the other with green salsa. It was witty and delicious and I felt so ignorant for never having heard of such a thing.

In the grand scheme of peasant food, it takes time. After a breakfast of enfrijoladas, even just for one, I seem to have created more of a mess than having attempted cassoulet. For a detailed version, check out Diana Kennedy's books. In the meantime, boil a pound of black beans with half a sliced onion and a head of garlic (trimmed of the bottom half inch, allowing the garlic to infuse the boiling beans). When the beans are tender, add a tablespoon of salt. Be fearless!
Pan sear five cloves of garlic. Strip off the skin and drop them in a blender. Add a tablespoon of lard to the skillet, quickly brown half an onion, and two small dried red chiles (guajillos are what you're looking for). Add to the blender. Place three cups of beans in the blender, and a little water if necessary. Push frappee.

Back to the skillet. Add another tablespoon of fat (lard is the top choice here) pour the puree in and reduce until it is a less watery consistency.

Have you been heating the oil?! On high. As Marcella Hazan says, it must be hot enough to "surprise" the food. I always tear a tiny bit of corn tortilla off, to make sure it's sizzling just right. When the oil's ready dip the corn tortilla quickly in, turning it over to ensure equal searing opportunity. Then dip in the puree (I like using another set of tongs, to make sure it doesn't splatter when I add another corn tortilla), and immerse for the preferred layer of bean puree. Fold onto a warm plate. Garnish with a quick grating of cotija cheese.

I didn't mention the fried egg! For that, you're on your own.

Grab a fork, sit down and savor, and be ready to get up and fry a couple more. They're that delicious.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


There are two types of this people in the world: those who are willing to whip up a batch of home made mayonnaise, and those who despair of the task. Each party heaps vituperative contempt upon the other.

Sometimes those two types of people reside in one body, and arm wrestle the pestle, back and forth. Which, surely, only ends up creating a silkier mayonnaise.

Yes, it's mayonnaise wrestle-mania. But I think the first question I have to address is, why do it, at all, why the bother the fuss and the messed up whisk, when Best Foods taste so darn good? Best Foods is a mouthful of heaven! Who needs a dollop of Dijon or a neurotic fear of tainted egg yolk, when there's magic in every (now plastic) container of the stuff?

In a word: garlic.
The patron saint of home cooks everywhere, St. Julia Child recommends mashing a number of garlic cloves, well, and pounding them into a milk or vinegar drenched then squeezed slice of hearty white bread. I prefer blanching the garlic cloves, in their skin, which seems to remove the bitter after taste. And if the bitter aftertaste remains, I just incorporate handfuls of basil.
I do think this pounding of the garlic into the bread with a pestle just about sums up the physical pleasure of the task. No sniping at your husband; no shouting at the kids; just a rhythmic pounding. Once it's a sticky, fully incorporated paste, add the afore mentioned scandal-inducing egg yolk. Pound away some more (feel the burn). Add salt, and then whisk, while slowly slowly slowly adding excellent olive oil, drip by mind-numbing drip.

Feeling wild? Add a squeeze of lemon.
Too thick? A little hot water.

Serve it on the side of shrimp, salmon, or paella and watch it disappear. Incorporate it into the the filling of your deviled eggs. Leftovers? Wrap it around your chicken salad. Trust me, you'll thank me for this.