Monday, June 29, 2009

A dinner for Marcella and Rosie

I'm part of a large clan on one side of my family. As I may have mentioned, this side is food-obsessed. They cook, they bake, they eat, they analyze, they review restaurants, they swap recipes, they photograph, they assemble cookbooks. They also mushroom hunt.

At least some of them do. My Auntie Rosie, one of my dad's sisters, and her husband Johnny mushroom-hunted for years, and went well into their 80's. My sister went with them once and returned marveling not only at their endurance for a day of work she described as nearly back-breaking for someone in her 30's, but how methodical they were in their hunting--which is important, of course, when it comes to potentially poisonous things.

As they were with everything else, Johnny and Rosie were generous with their findings. They hunted painstakingly for the right mushrooms, then sliced them, dried them, divided them, and scattered them throughout the family. Often when I would see them, Auntie Rosie would arrive with a bag of homemade biscotti or freshly-picked peaches from a farm they liked to go to, or basil from their garden. I loved all of these gifts. But best of all was when Rosie would pull out a fat little ziplock bag full of pungent mushrooms and say softly in her scratchy little voice, "You like porcinis?" Uh, you bet I do.

To my great, great sadness, Rosie isn't with us anymore. But, some of her treasured mushrooms are. I've been holding onto the last sack of lovely porcinis she gave me for awhile now. Periodically I take them out and look at them, trying to decide whether or not I have something worthy of them. Rosie was an excellent cook, and I never wanted to fritter those delicious, earthy mushrooms on something silly. On the other hand, she was practical and not overly sentimental. She would have laughed at the idea of me holding onto a dusty bag of fungus.

Tonight, I decided to bring two of my favorite chefs together and make Marcella Hazan's chicken with marsala and Rosie's porcini mushrooms. You start by browning the chicken over high heat, then add the aromatics, wine, and soaked mushrooms, and cook everything slowly over low heat for close to an hour, until the meat nearly falls off the bone.

I don't like to cook chicken that long; I'm generally loyal to Marcella, but I know my own tastes. So I took the chicken out after 40 minutes of simmering. The sauce had reduced to a thick, dark, shiny glaze, and the porcinis had absorbed the spiciness of the marsala. I served it over buttered noodles with chives, and in spite of both of us battling colds, the husband and I enjoyed every bite. I think both Marcella and Rosie would have been proud.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Saved by nabe udon

I'm feeling cranky today. I've been unsuccessfully fighting off a cold, and now it's really settled in. Like many other people who are fortunate enough to spend 99% of their life healthy, when I do get sick, it makes me mad and fussy. I'm sure it's not attractive.

Plus, I've been called for jury duty this week. Every day I check to see if I have to report the next day. So like a little drone I go the the sfgov website at 4:30 pm to find out my fate for the next day.

The final straw was that we received a recall notice on our oven. Apparently, this model has been linked to house fires and explosions. Um, okay. So, we're not to use it until it gets fixed or replaced.

When someone tells me I can't do something, that's all I want to do. Thinking about dinner last night, I decided on chicken roasted with cherry tomatoes. Then I remembered about the oven. So we ate delicious wild salmon instead, with Israeli couscous and almonds on the side.

Today I was thinking ahead to the weekend, reflecting on how nice it will be in a few days when this icky cold is gone. AM is having a birthday party this weekend and I've been promising her red velvet cupcakes for ages. Probably since her last birthday! I'd looked at recipes, made a shopping list, and even picked up some little sprinkles to decorate the tops. But then it occured to me that sadly, AM will have another red velvet cupcake-free birthday this year, thanks to my potentially combustible oven.

I drowned my fussiness in some nabe udon soup at lunch. I really like udon, especially when I'm sick, and this one comes with the weird pink and white fish cake (what is that? I love it!), seaweed, napa cabbage, shitake mushrooms, one tempuraed shrimp (which I now know to order on the side so it doesn't get soggy), and a poached egg. When I have a cold, I'm ravenous. Normal people lose their appetites. I get an acute, demanding hunger. I finished almost the whole bowl, minus a few stray noodles, and the egg, of course.

After demolishing the soup, my spirits were lifted. Food does make you feel better, both physically and mentally sometimes. I still have to crush the cold and wiggle my way out of jury duty, but I'm a little better equipped for both challenges.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I heart Penzeys!

My Penzeys spices arrived yesterday. I'd forgotten that I'd ordered them and so it was a cheerful surprise to arrive home to.

My sister turned me on to Penzeys years ago, and since then I've never gone back to grocery store spices. I think their spices are much fresher, they have a mind-boggling variety to choose from, and I like that you can buy them in all different quantities. I really don't think they're much more expensive than what you'd find in your local store, and when you consider the difference in quality, there's no comparison.

I find it interesting to note what I order most frequently--I clearly rely on some of the same flavorings from week to week. I feel like I'm constantly renewing my supply of fennel seed, marjoram, ground ginger, whole nutmeg, garam masala, and of course their unmatched double vanilla. If you never try anything else from Penzeys, I highly suggest you at least try their double-strength Madagascar vanilla. While it's not cheap at $16 for 4 oz, you only need half what any recipe calls for. So it literally goes double the distance.

This order was full of some old standbys. I got beautiful, sagey green Turkish bay leaves...
Dried arbol chilies, perfect for rubbing roasted meats, but mostly for pasta alla amatriciana, which we eat almost once a week...

And black tellicherry Indian peppercorns.

I also ordered China cassia cinnamon which I go through at the speed of light. No photo, though.

With every order, Penzeys throws in a freebie. Often it's a blend, like a salad dressing mix, or grill seasoning. This time I got their Italian herb mix: dried oregano, marjoram, thyme, basil, and cracked rosemary.

The husband and the dog watched as I tore into the box, gleefully pulling out each item and holding it up for them to admire. Although summertime is an excellent time to take advantage of fresh herbs, dried ones are still useful in many dishes and always welcome in the hungry dog's home.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Scones shaped like biscuits

One of the many, many ways in which weekends are better than weekdays is that instead of eating the same old yogurt for breakfast, I actually have time to bake something.

I've done coffeecakes, but they're simply too much for two people, and I want to cry scraping the end of something I baked into the trash. So, muffins and scones tend to be the way to go.For some reason, I often have cranberries in the freezer, so cranberry muffins are a frequent choice. That or cream currant scones, a favorite from Baking Illustrated. Those scones come together quickly into a floury little ball, and then you simply pat them into a round, cut, brush with cream and sugar, and bake. That's a great recipe.

Today, though, I felt more in the mood for something savory. I looked through my Barefoot Contessa cookbook and found a recipe for cheddar-dill scones. I love the Barefoot Contessa's recipes, most likely because they always seem to call for a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, and cups upon cups of heavy cream. As the Contessa herself would say, "How bad can that be?"

I decided to try these scones, subbing chives for dill. I didn't have any dill in the house, plus, I'm not a huge dill fan. I don't mind it, but there's something about that feathery texture, much like fennel fronds, that gives me the heebie jeebies.

I mixed the dry ingredients in the stand mixer, cut in the butter, then pulled it together with eggs and cream. The eggs were surprising to me; my standby recipe only relies on cream to moisten the dough. Next came the sharp cheddar, cut in small cubes, and the herbs. Finally, I rolled out the dough, cut it into rounds with a juice glass, and popped them into a hot oven.

The scones turned out flakey and perfect, with a mild oniony flavor from the chives and a salty richness from the cheese. The husband divulged that he preferred these to the usual currant scones. I had to concur. I will definitely be making these again.

While devouring the crumbly and delicious little scones, we discussed what the difference was between scones and biscuits. A quick search on the Internet informed me of some rather silly distinctions--scones are served at tea or breakfast, while biscuits go with dinner; scones are triangular while biscuits are round. The only reasonable distinctions I could find were that scones usually include cream while biscuits are more likely to have milk or buttermilk. In addition, biscuits don't have eggs, while scones often do. But, sometimes they don't, such as the Baking Illustrated scones.

Biscuits, scones, they all make for a pleasant start to the weekend.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Hungry Dog Reviews: La Ciccia

Is it Ok to review a restaurant after one visit? What the hell, I'm doing it.

One of my best friends, AM, recently moved out of the city, down to the peninsula. She now lives with her man in a pretty little home, sort of in the woods, with a big backyard for barbecuing. They're outdoorsy, so they can ride their bikes from their house to all kinds of beautiful destinations without navigating traffic and grime like they would have to in San Francisco.

She digs it. But, she misses the city. And I miss her! So, we make a point to meet at least once a month up here for dinner.

Often we go to Gialina. It's right off 280, so quick for her to get to, and we both love the pizza, particularly the one with nettles and pancetta. But last week when we made our monthly plan, we decided to try something new. We chose La Ciccia in Noe Valley.

Located at the intersection of Church and 30th, this really is the edge of Noe, and drifting into the realm of the outer Mission and northern Glen Park. I should know, because I used to live one block from this intersection, in a building which obscured the legendary Chenery House. Chenery House is an enormous mansion which occupies the center of the block, not visible from Chenery, 30th, San Jose, or Randall. I could write a whole post about living next to the Chenery House, famous for its Labor Day parties featuring Tammy Faye Baker and an indoor swimming pool on the second floor...but this blog is about food.

We left this neighborhood over three years ago for the howling winds of Twin Peaks. Not long after we left, La Ciccia opened where Verona Restaurant closed. Now that I've eaten at La Ciccia, I'm wondering how we can get back to the old 'hood.

The restaurant is owned by Italians--Sardinians, really, and so it makes sense that the small, focused menu is largely seafood. We started with a warm seafood salad, mild yet flavorful in a pool of fruity olive oil, which we mopped up with crusty bread. We then moved on to fregula with seafood and squid ink, which we'd both honed in on the menu immediately.

You know how some dogs are ugly-cute? Or how ornate architecture can be beautiful-hideous? The fregula was lovely-scary. It arrived inky, inky black, in a stark white bowl, with a scatter of parsley. At first, the fregula was impossible to distinguish from the seafood, although we quickly began to identify squid, octopus, and other perfectly-cooked bits from the sea. The consistency was like a risotto--creamy, but al dente.

The more we ate of this fregula, the more the flavors deepened. It was a dish that throughout the rest of the dinner, I kept thinking back on and wishing I had more of. Everything else we ordered was also excellent--a thin-crust "white" pizza with grilled radicchio and sopprasetta, a side of braised lettuces, hazelnut gelato. But I couldn't stop thinking about the squid ink fregula.

The wine list is apparently something to be admired, according to the Wine Spectator and other experts. It's extensive and completely Italian. AM and I knew none of the wines on the list, but our waitress was happy to answer our questions, as well as provide us with tastes before ordering.

All in all, the food was outstanding, the service friendly, and the atmosphere warm but not clausterphobic, a feat for a space that is extremely small and narrow. It's a restaurant you'd like to go on a date to, either with someone you already love, or someone you can get to know based on how they respond to a steaming bowl of black pasta. The Hungry Dog gives La Ciccia an A.

La Ciccia is located at 291 30th Street in San Francisco.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Friday cake day

Friday was a furlough day. We have these twice a month now, and while at first I was a little concerned about the money side of it, now I'm kind of digging it. I suppose more hard-working people might consider trying to make up for lost income. But to me, it means two more days a month I get to do some of my favorite things, like swim, nap with the dog, and poke around the house by myself. Who doesn't like to do that?

Anyway, on Friday I did my swimming, napping, and shuffling around, and happily, I still had some time to while away. So I decided to make a cake. Lovely!

I figured it was time to make that cake I'd been dreaming about for a few weeks, the raspberry buttermilk one from a recent Gourmet. Apparently, this cake has been all the rage among food bloggers, and it's understandable why: most people like raspberries; anything with buttermilk sounds good; and the recipe is dead simple. A monkey could make this cake.

I pulled together all the ingredients in a heartbeat and poured them into the pan. Then the fun part: scattering the little berries over the top.

The cake emerged golden and fragrant, with a slight crunch from the sugar sprinkled over the top. It tasted of vanilla and raspberry, with a mild tang from the buttermilk and a very tender crumb.

I surprised the husband with the cake that evening. He was quite pleased, as I've been serving a lot of salads recently. That night, it was roast pork loin with a cake chaser. Something good has to come of these furlough days, I figure. Why not in the form of a sweet and buttery little cake?

If you make this cake, be wary of the baking time. It's supposed to go 25-30 minutes, but mine was perfectly done when I checked it at 23. Our oven is newish so I don't think it runs hot.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Chicken salad, with apples and chives

Sunday was roast chicken night. I'd picked up a hefty one from Drewes the day before and once it was stuffed with lemons, seasoned, and trussed, I called my sister.

"I think this chicken is going to take almost two hours," I told her.

"How big is it?" she asked.

"Six pounds!" I replied, feeling like a proud parent.

My sister cooed appreciatively. "That's almost a small turkey!" she admired.

I like roasting big chickens: they cook better and more evenly, I find, and as long as I start them on the breast side and then flip them, they don't dry out. A few hours later, the husband and I dug into the bird, with crispy potatoes and garlicky broccoli rabe on the side.

The next night we had a rerun dinner.

After that, the sides were gone, but there was still a lot of chicken left, mostly white meat, since as I explained a few weeks ago, between the two of us, the thighs, drummies, and wings are the first to go. While leftover chicken can go a thousand different ways, recently I've been on a chicken salad kick. I usually make it the same way, with measurements varying depending on how much chicken I have to use as a base. But basically it's:

  • chicken (cubed, not shredded)
  • mayo
  • lemon juice
  • apple
  • celery
  • salt and pepper
  • a fresh herb (my favorites are tarragon, basil, or chives)

I like chicken salad with grapes, too, and have enjoyed ones with walnuts or pecans. But, I don't include either of those things in my recipe. I rarely have a bunch of grapes on hand, and nuts require toasting and cooling. The beauty of chicken salad is in its quick, satisfying assembly: chop, mix, taste, adjust, eat.

I like it best just on a bed of arugula. I have turned it into a sandwich, but it's too messy. One might wonder if this is because I greedily load up the bread with too much salad. This would be an excellent point.

I think the chicken salad sandwich might work best in a pita pocket. When I suggested this to the husband, he just started to laugh at me. He thinks it's funny, how obsessive I am about cooking and eating. On the other hand, he was very pleased the other morning when I informed him that instead of buying a lunch, he could take some of the chicken salad I'd just whipped up, chock full of sweet apples and bright green chives. Who's laughing now?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Still life, with fruit

Along with tomatoes, lots of summer fruit is turning up at the markets and in our produce box these days. Recently we've been getting yellow doll watermelons, little yellow peaches, and sweet, bright blueberries that I can eat by the handful. The husband likes fruit but isn't a maniac like me; I'm thrilled at the arrival of these lovely, fragile, time-sensitive fruits, as is Hungry Dog Jr. who sits at my feet while I pit and peel and slice, happy to lend an extra mouth.

This weekend I purchased raspberries and nectarines. I was starting to think about a cobbler, or maybe that raspberry buttermilk cake I've been dreaming of. But then, as so happens with good summer fruit, I couldn't bear to do anything with either of them except eat them alone. I did, however, take a few pictures.

I like this one because although it looks like a sink-sized colander filled with a bounty of raspberries, in actuality, it's a very small colander, probably about 2.5 inches in diameter, filled with less than a pint of berries. Why do I have a miniature colander? you ask. To go with my tiny whisk and tiny cast iron frying pan, completing my trifecta of miniature kitchen tools. I like small things. Kinda weird for a grown adult who's otherwise reasonably normal, but I know I'm not alone in my miniature fetish (I'm talking to you, JJ, PG, and SD).

The nectarines were also photo-worthy. I don't mean to be braggy, but I think my pictures are getting better. Although, it doesn't take a lot of talent to make something naturally beautiful look good. Just lots of light, a still hand, and the magical macro setting.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Friday miscellany: tomatoes, a good book, ice cream with friends

On a slow friday when you're practically the only person in the office, there's no reason not to do an impromptu blog post. This one's a little of a mish-mash.

First: tomatoes. I think whoever packed our produce box this week doubled up on heirloom tomatoes, because we were supposed to get 2 lbs. but we must have gotten upwards of 4. We're thrilled, but that's a lot of tomatoes for two people. So far, lots of sliced tomatoes and tomato salads. When I was a kid, my parents would eat tomatoes like this in the summer and it practically made me gag. Now, though, as an adult, I'm down with raw tomatoes. Tonight I plan to stop on the way home to pick up some fresh mozzarella to go with. There's no way it could really compare to the burrata I had at Osteria Mozza in April, but I'm sure it will do just fine.
Second: I'm reading an interesting book right now, which eventually may get its own posting. It's called Trail of Crumbs by Kim Sunee. The author was abandoned by her parents in Korea at the age of three. She was found wandering the streets and was soon adopted by an American family from New Orleans, where she spent the next 15 years eating and learning to cook traditional Cajun food. The story traces her life from Korea to New Orleans to Sweden and then to France. It has recipes, but it's mostly about her strange and, to me, interesting life of travel, family, eating, and ethnic identity. I like it. Hopefully a more clever review in the coming weeks.

Third: a delicious dinner at Eos last night with two old friends. Almost everything was great (minus some supersalty brussels sprouts) but the real winner was their homemade ice cream. We got the sampler (lychee; mint chip; Vietnamese coffee; candied ginger; and white chocolate with peanut brittle) but Cee and I agreed that we also had to get an extra scoop of their salted caramel, which we politely battled over. I'm sure it's not the first time ice cream has come between friends.

Oysters, ice cream, wine, and good company: find me a better Thursday night!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A little bowl of soup

What's better than making soup? Nothing, I tell you. It involves my favorite parts of cooking (chopping vegetables and stirring) and none of the things that cause me anxiety (worrying if meat is over or underdone, fretting because something didn't rise). Unless you're completely inept, soup pretty much always turns out just right.

I like that it enables me to satisfy my compulsively thrifty side by using up old vegetables. I also like that all the action happens in one pot. You get a nice rhythm of chopping, stirring, sauteing. You can be as involved as you like, tasting and fixing as you go, or you can wander off and check your email while your lovely little soup simmers and reduces and deepens.

Every since I got an immersion blender a few months ago I've been going to town with it. We've eaten all sorts of brightly-hued pureed soups, from asparagus to purple cauliflower. For a non-gadgety person, I'm pretty sold on that thing. But my favorite and most frequently-made soup is minestrone.

I use this basic recipe from Giada de Laurentiis. I'll change it up depending on what's in the house, and I usually add more tomatoes than she calls for. Sometimes I throw in some stubby little macaroni and sometimes I don't. Two things I love about this recipe are 1) the way pureeing some of the cannellini beans thickens the soup perfectly and 2) I get to use a few of my parmesan rinds I've been squirreling away in the fridge.

The husband shakes his head whenever I get to the end of a block of parmesan and gleefully pull out the special square tupperware reserved just for cheese rinds. I know he thinks it's weird. But these little nubs of salty goodness enhance almost any soup. I'll add them to all sorts of things but I'm especially pleased to make an example of a recipe that specifically calls for one.

Last night was a soup night. And in a short while, it will be a soup lunch.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Bake a cooky, eat a cooky

Sometimes I'll get a deep, almost obsessive need to bake something. I'll get an idea in my head and I won't be able to stop thinking about it until I make it. This might happen with a particular cake recipe, or a batch of cookies. Sometimes I'll have a recipe swirling around in my little hungry dog brain for weeks or months until I all of a sudden just HAVE to make it.

I've got a couple in my mind right now that are on my short list, whipping themelves closer to the frenzied day I must drop everything to make them: Melissa Clark's blood orange olive oil cake and a raspberry buttermilk cake from a recent Gourmet. Also, alfajores, which I've been mulling over since last fall when I had one for the first time. Someone in my office went to Argentina and brought back a boxful. Since the, I've been dreaming of dulce de leche.

These are all on the to-do list. But sometimes I get an immediate craving that cannot be ignored or postponed. Like this past Sunday, I was overcome with an urge to make oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.

This is a bit unusual for me. In general, I like chocolate chip cookies unmarred by oats, nuts, or other bits and pieces. And I'm not really an oatmeal cooky kind of person; they often seem either too soft and bland or too hard and brittle; plus, they often are full of raisins--yuck. But for some reason I got the urge for these and once I mused aloud to the husband, "Do you think I should make some oatmeal chocolate chip cookies?" I realized I'd get nothing more than a stony stare until they emerged golden, crispy, and chewy from the oven.

So, I whipped up a batch from Baking Illustrated in no time, swapping cinnamon for nutmeg, reducing the sugar, and adding a splash of Penzey's divine double vanilla. Hand-delivered one to the husband as he watched the French Open. I ate one, pleased with how speedy it had all come together.
The cookies were good, but I baked them too long. It called for a baking time of 22-25 minutes and I went for 22 right off the bat. They looked perfect but the longer they cooled, the crisper and harder they got. Too crisp.

Also, as often happens with me when I bake, once I ate one, I was done. Savory things tend to hold my interest longer. But once I bake a cooky and eat it, I'm ready to move on. So, the rest of the cookies were pawned off to friends that evening.

Incidentally, in our house we spell cooky with a y and not an ie. Makes it seem like both a noun and an adjective: That cooky is so...cooky. I realize this is a mistake and not an alternate spelling. But, one thing nice about not having kids is you don't have to explain why you're purposely doing something the wrong way. You just do it because you feel like it. Plus, you can curse freely.