While I'd argue that the best things about blogging are 1) being creative and 2) the free cookbooks you get for review, following closely at third is giving the world a glimpse of your perspective on food and life. And, in turn, getting a snapshot of other people's angle.
When I first started The Hungry Dog, it wasn't intended to be about food. However, it quickly became apparent that I had nothing else to talk about. At the time, I didn't read food blogs, but once I got sucked in, I began reading a lot of them. Too many, in fact, and I got overloaded. Now I just read a handful that I really like. Some I read because they have beautiful photography, or great recipes. Some are friends of mine. Most I read because I like the voice behind the blog. Perhaps because my background is as a writer and not a cook, this seems to be the most compelling reason to pluck one blog from the millions.
One of my favorites is Cook, a oui chef journal. I like the look of Connie's site, which is elegant and more artful than mine. As a trained chef, she often has useful professional advice (like how to go about choosing knives). And, I think she strikes a nice balance between writing about food in a general sense and giving a peek into her specific world.
When I saw that she made this gorgeous brown butter rhubarb tart last month, I put it immediately on my to-make list. But by the time I got around to it, I had raspberries on hand, so I decided to go with the original recipe, which is from Bon Appetit.
This is a lovely tart, extremely simple, and worth making while either berries or rhubarb are in season. It's truly not difficult: even the crust you just press into the pan. For those of you who are as crust-impaired as I am, this is a dream come true. And for something so easy, it looks more than a little bit impressive.
As you may know, I have a love-hate relationship with Giada de Laurentiis. I use and like many of her recipes, as evidenced by this blog (I'm sure a search of The Hungry Dog would result in at least 15 of her recipes, maybe more). However, I dislike her for being so much better than me in every single way. This is a good example of my immaturity.
Usually, though, she makes stuff I want to eat. Hunger trumps pettiness in this house. So when I saw her make a fancy version of bucatini alla amatriciana during an episode she filmed with her Aunt Rafi (who, incidentally, I'd like to be related to), I knew it was going on my to-try list.
Giada took a basic recipe amatriciana recipe (a staple in our house, though I use a Marcella Hazan recipe, tweaked) and as my little niece Scrappy would say, "kicked it up a nacho." She put together some delicious and simple meatballs, stuffed them with mozzarella, and served them alongside the pasta amatriciana.
This is a very good idea. While I did make some minor adjustments--I swapped pork for the veal; doubled the amount of crushed tomatoes; and used plain mozzarella instead of smoked--the overall concept is spectacular. And although it's a little more work than just making amatriciana, it's a whole lot more exciting.
The only other adjustment I'll make next time is to use spaghetti--or rigatoni maybe-- instead of bucatini. Although it's traditional with this sauce, I've always found bucatini hard to eat. The husband agreed, although he seemed happily distracted by the savory little meatballs oozing mozzarella into the spicy tomato-and-bacon sauce.
Clearly, this is not a sauce for the vegetarian. Or even for those who don't eat pork. While I think the meatballs would be delicious with ground chicken or turkey, I can't imagine a good amatriciana without pancetta or bacon. I mean, that's just tomato sauce.
It'd be hard to not to love a big bowl of this pasta, especially if you're enjoying it on a windy friday night with your sweetie and a good bottle of Chianti. In fact, I'm certain nothing trumps that.
While generally I don't consider using recipes for salads--who needs to be told how many radishes they like or what type of lettuce they prefer?--once in a blue moon, I'll do it.
Such an occasion arose last Sunday, which you may recall was Mother's Day. While considering what to make for the celebratory lunch, I contemplated and nixed a variety of ideas: a savory tart; a light-ish seafood pasta; a creamy soup with some kind of fancy sandwich.
None of these seemed quite right, and as I dithered about what to make and the hours slipped away, I eventually came across this appealing recipe for Cobb Salad over at Smitten Kitchen.
Since I'd already determined the lunch would include dessert (the so-so strawberry shortcake), I wanted an entree that was satisfying but not heavy. We had the rest of the afternoon to soldier through, after all, during which I planned on torturing my mother with hundreds of photographs from our trip. I wanted an alert audience! (For the record, she sat through them patiently, even asking questions and oohing and aahing at all the right moments. What a mom!)
Cobb Salad was just the ticket. And while I've eaten many in my lifetime, I've never made one. Turns out they are spectacularly easy, though do require a number of steps and quite a bit of chopping.
I made a few minor adjustments: adding more lemon juice to the vinaigrette (my taste nearly always runs to the bitter or sour; I hate to think what this might say about my personality?); and ditching the watercress for some green leaf lettuce I had on hand (watercress would have been excellent, but I'd already purchased two kinds of lettuce for this salad, and for some reason, this was my self-imposed limit).
Although the original recipe called for serving the salad in one magnificent bowl, I knew this was not the way I would want to be served a main-course salad. I imagined all of us trying to delicately serve ourselves while trying to ensure we got some of everything. Meanwhile, I envisioned wasted crumbles of blue cheese and bacon bits overflowing onto the tablecloth. Instead, I opted to dress all the greens together, then dish up the salads separately, with the toppings arranged on each one as artfully as I could manage. I brought extra dressing to the table, which we all used.
I have to say, the salad was an indisputable hit. Quality ingredients make the difference, of course, since there's little skill involved in assembly. I had just roasted a chicken the day before was able to use that rather than a simple poached breast (which I would have done otherwise but would not have been nearly as flavorful), we had a perfectly ripe avocado on hand from our CSA box, and the husband had chosen a heavenly blue cheese from Marin. With crusty bread and glasses of Prosecco, it was a lunch more than worth the (minimal) effort.
I have to confess that when I think of strawberry shortcake, the first thing that pops to my mind is this:
What can I say? I was a kid in the 80's. Actually, more specifically, I think of these dolls:
Yes, Strawberry Shortcake and her band of smelly friends, each one scented to match the fruit in their name: Huckleberry Pie, Apple Dumpling, Raspberry Tart. My parents were very kind to let me collect these (in retrospect, hideous) dolls, which made my room smell like a bowlful of Jolly Ranchers. Just thinking about it makes me gag a little.
In any case, after these images run through my head I am also reminded of another strawberry shortcake. You know, the dessert. Made in the peak of strawberry season--I think that's now!--it's a lovely, homey, delicious dessert. I decided to make it for Mother's Day, as it is one of my mother's, and her late mother's, favorites.
In the past I've used a shortcake recipe I really liked: sweet and super buttery, somewhere between a cookie and cake texture. I couldn't find it this time around and was relegated to Googling. I ended up picking out this recipe (well, just the biscuit part. Who needs a recipe for sugared berries?)
I have to tell you, although part of it was my fault in overworking the dough, yielding a slightly tough shortcake, I also decided I am not a fan of the biscuit-as-shortcake. It wasn't nearly sweet enough.
The dessert looked pretty, though, topped with overzealously whipped cream (just a few minutes away from butter--yikes!):
My mom seemed to like it, or at least said she did. Perhaps this is only further evidence of her good mothering. The husband wolfed it down in under two minutes, also meaningless, as he is generally Godzilla-like in his consumption of sweets, swallowing cookies and cakes practically whole.
While I wasn't overly pleased with the outcome, it did whet my appetite for more shortcake, of any variety. Berries are wonderful, of course, but in the summer a stone fruit would be perfect. So, I ask you: any good shortcake recipes to pass along? If you do, and you're local, I'll share my efforts.
Hello, dear friends! Did you miss me? I missed you, although I confess it was tempered by consuming pain au chocolat along the Seine, sipping wine at cafes and watching the endless fashion show that is Paris, shopping for Iberian ham at La Boqueria, spearing bits of salt cod and smoked sardines at Barcelona's favorite tapas and champagne bar, devouring brightly-colored and exotic macarons (cassis! yuzu! genmaicha!), and eating way too much foie gras. (I'll pay for that one in karma, I suspect.)
We returned on Monday, and I've been trying to figure out how to write about the trip without boring you to pieces, while sharing some of the loveliest bits. It was a whirlwind of eating, walking, seeing. The apartments were both great, although the one in Barcelona turned out to be in the seedier side of El Raval and unfortunately close to the Ramblas, which was pretty touristy and junky. But once we got out of our neighborhood, we were amazed by the city's beauty. The apartment in Paris, located in Saint-Germaine-des-Pres, was ideally situated among all kinds of shops and restaurants, very comfortable, and a stone's throw from the river.
We got around both places largely on foot and by metro. Coming from San Francisco, where the subway system is a big piece of garbage, we were amazed by the efficiency and breadth of both systems. In Paris, we saw all the major sites and museums, our favorites of which were Musee d'Orsay and L'Orangerie (where we encountered Stanley Tucci admiring Monet's Water Lilies), but mostly we enjoyed walking along the Seine, taking in the sights, and whiling away hours, yes hours, at cafes, people-watching. (How French women navigate cobblestone streets and ride bicycles in four-inch heels I will never know nor replicate but I surely admired them, as did the husband, naturally.) In Barcelona, we saw as much Gaudi as we could, including Parc Guell, the stunning Casa Batllo, and La Sagrada Familia, which we both found deeply moving and magnetic, in spite of being unreligious. We were also struck, and impressed, by the Catalan pride we encountered at nearly every interaction.
And the food! In Paris, we were in awe of the breads, pastries, and cheeses and were surprised (I don't know why this should be, but we were) by how excellent the fish was. We had wonderful meals at Le Comptoir de Relais (which more than deserves its cultish devotion), Fish la Boissonerie (so good we went twice), L'A.O.C., Les Fines Gueules, and slurped two dozen oysters at Huitrerie Regis. Our most formal meal was lunch at Le Petit Bofinger (we laughed about the name but were not laughing while consuming rillettes of tuna, Norwegian salmon with shaved cucumber, duck and ratatouille, and grilled salmon with, hands-down, the finest mashed potatoes I have ever laid fork to.) We also enjoyed surreptitiously watching the elderly and elegantly-dressed French couple next to us, particularly when the woman slipped her uneaten roll into her purse for later and the man ordered a large beer to go with his chocolate mousse.
While I did not take too many photos of our food, I got a few shots. This was our very first snack in Paris: wine and charcuterie at a little cafe across from Notre Dame. I like how snacks in France simply must involve some kind of cured meat (or two) and a large wine.
Another highlight of our time in Paris was meeting Croque Camille and her husband Nick at Restaurant du Marche in the 15th arrondissement (where I had foie gras to start, then shoulder of lamb, followed by one of the stand-out desserts of the trip: madeleines served with a little jar of lemon curd and a small scoop of heavenly raspberry sorbet), then heading back to their place for cognac. Thank you, Camille, for welcoming us to your beautiful city!
In Barcelona, we had the best seafood of our lives, as well as incredible hams, olives like none I'd ever tasted before, and outstanding wines. We ate endless tapas: salt cod fritters, braised chickpeas with sobrasada and leeks (this was discovered at a small place near our apartment, Bar Raval, and was one of the finest dishes we had on the whole trip), fried sardines with red grapes, and croquettes of all types.
As we also did in Paris, we had a few missteps, including an expensive and stuffy (though admittedly delicious) dinner at Comerc 24 and one or two average lunches. But we also enjoyed an impromptu and delicious lunch at the crowded Bar Central in La Boqueria...
where we had calamari with crispy potatoes, and perfectly grilled vegetables with flakey sea salt.
We had a wonderful dinner at Pla (a cozy restaurant tucked in the back of the smallest, darkest alley) and a leisurely session at Bar Zim, a tiny wine bar we stumbled across in La Barri Gotic, where we ate a bowlful of heavenly olives and inhaled a fabulous cheese plate, explained to us in detail by the bar's cheerful owner. We also pushed our way into El Xampanyet, a local favorite, which in addition to selling cava, makes their own champagne.
We stood at the bar and drank glass after glass of their home brew while eating anchovies, smoked sardines, roasted peppers, cured salmon, and raw salt cod with olives.
One evening, we popped into our neighborhood bar, Bar Aurora. It happened to be the night Barcelona played Madrid in soccer. The crowd went wild when Barcelona sealed the win, cheering and singing. I was hugged by an elated stranger. At that moment, we fell in love with the city and its warm people.
We returned to Bar Aurora the next evening and chatted at length with Claudia, the Italian owner, no small feat given that she speaks Italian, Catalan, and French, but no English. The husband muddled through in Spanish and I bumbled about in French. Not only did we enjoy the company of this lovely woman, she helped arrange for a cab to pick us up before dawn the morning of our departure. Apparently, calling for cabs in advance in Barcelona is very difficult if you don't have a Spanish phone number.
After saying adios to Barcelona, we returned to Paris for one final day, which was a quiet one, being both a Sunday and May Day, a national holiday in France. Many places were closed, but we found a place bustling for lunch--or le brunch, which seems to be a big deal in Paris, based on the crowds. The husband ordered le brunch traditionel which arrived in its outrageous glory:
while I, breaking all Hungry Dog precedent, ordered something with a fried egg: a croque madame. When in Paris...
We spent our last day walking around, taking final stock of this charming city, and wrapped it up with a delightful dinner at Cafe Constant, not far from the Eiffel Tower. Over tartar of salmon, scallops, and oysters, more foie gras, and roast chicken with crispy potatoes and grilled Romaine hearts, we recounted our trip in full bliss. Post apple tart and profiteroles, we rolled homeward, stopping for one last glass of Bordeaux on the way.
These are just snippets of our trip--suffice it to say, we had a wonderful time. There were minor disappointments--we found the Louvre, Sacre Couer, and Parc Guell so jammed with tourists it was impossible to enjoy any of them. But there were infinitely more pleasures. The food, clearly, was outstanding, but more than that, this experience opened our eyes about traveling, languages, art, history, architecture, fashion, and national identities.
While we are pleased to be back in most ways (who can argue with sleeping in your own bed, drinking coffee made exactly the way you want it, and being able to speak without opening a dictionary?) we are already anxious to plan our next trip abroad. And, without a doubt, we plan to return to each of these beautiful cities.
On the roof of Gaudi's Casa Batllo in Barcelona.
P.S. Are we the last people on Earth to discover how awesome Air France is? From the moment we arrived at the airport in San Francisco, we were amazed at how helpful the staff were (and foxy, too, by the way: every single person Air France employs could double as a model), how civilized the whole experience was, how decent the food. We sipped champagne, helped ourselves to ice cream sandwiches mid-flight, and were surprised to be offered brandy at the end of our meals. Further proof, though none was needed, that the French know how to live. It seems their motto for flying is, "It doesn't have to suck." American airlines, take a cue.