Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Office vultures

At every place I've ever worked, people will trample each other at the sight of free food. I've never understood this, as I can say with near 100% certainty that I've never worked with extremely poor and destitute people; in fact, most were probably moderately affluent to affluent people. Still, once an all-staff email goes out advertising leftover sandwiches from a lunch meeting, cookies from a training session, or the last sugary corners of a grocery-store birthday cake, there's a stampede to get to the break room first.

It may not surprise you, especially if you know me, that I am not one of these people. Being a bit of a germophobe combined with a food snob takes care of any afternoon sweet tooth I might have. I don't even really want to see the public offerings, let alone try them. I like tidy food with traceable origins.

Today, though, I actually contributed to the food free-for-all. Over the weekend I made a chocolate gingerbread, which I have yet to write about here. It turned out very well. But, the recipe made too much for two people to consume. So I cut it up into cute pieces and arranged them on a paper plate in the break room and put a Post-It on it that said, "Eat Me."

When I walked by less than an hour later, they were all gone, eaten quietly and I hope happily by my little officemates who apparently did not wonder (or did not care) where the gingerbread came from or why it was abandoned. And even while I personally would not have eaten any of it in a similar situation, I felt a sliver of pride that it had disappeared so rapidly.

Of course, there's no point in feeling proud, based on what I just said: people will eat anything in an office environment if it's placed on a public table for consumption. Chips and salsa from the Cinco de Mayo lunch, dried-out bagels from a morning meeting, Halloween candy in June. They don't care. So the fact that the gingerbread disappeared is no testament to its quality.

In any case, I'm glad it's been devoured.

There are actually two things I will consider eating at the work place: chocolate if someone opens up a box of Sees Candies (and assuming I can accurately identify the caramels and avoid getting stuck with a raspberry or coconut-filled chew) and fruit if someone brings it in from their tree. It's true, I've been known to eat oranges and tangerines and persimmons that someone plucked from their yard and loaded up in paper bags and shlepped to the office. Fruit seems more appealing to me (perhaps because each piece is intact) and I appreciate the effort someone made to share the bounty from their garden. I do, however, like to wash the fruit first. But that's just common sense.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A good dish for a cold night

My husband is the most agreeable eater I could ask for to test recipes on. While he'll be as earnestly critical as I need him to be, for the most part, he's sweet and enthusiastic about whatever I make, as long as it does not involve eggplant.

If pressed, he'd probably say that his favorite things that I make are roast chicken (a la Marcella), flank steak with black beans, some really great chocolate chip cookies that come with assembly instructions, and pasta with broccoli rabe and sausage.

It's an old dish, right, nothing new here. I'd had it many times but never made it myself until we ended up one day in North Beach a year or two ago, having sort of a vacation day in the City. We ended up at Cafe Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola's restaurant in the Sentinel Building, after rejecting all the other touristy and almost sad-feeling places (on Columbus Street, restaurant managers will often stand on the street and try and lure you in and away from their competitors). I ordered orecchiette with broccoli rabe.

Maybe it was the the decadence of having wine in the middle of a regular Saturday afternoon, or the kitschy thrill of all the black and white photos of Francis and all of his movie stars plastered on the walls, but somehow, that dish sent us both over the moon. So I went home, anxious to recreate it. After several incarnations, I finally have it down. It's a recipe delicious enough for guests, but simple enough for a weeknight dinner. The only things this recipe requires are a cold night and someone to split the rest of the bottle of wine with.

Here is the recipe, not for the kosher or the faint of heart.

Orecchiette with Sausage and Broccoli Rabe

1 lb. orecchiette or medium pasta shells
1 lb sweet Italian sausage, crumbled
1 bunch broccoli rabe, root end trimmed
3 T. olive oil
1 small onion, minced
4-5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 c. red wine
1 c. cream
1/3 c. grated parmesan
salt and pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Plunge the broccoli rabe in and blanche for 2 minutes. Remove with a spider (do not dump water, you will use it for the pasta) and run under cold water to stop cooking. Drain, and when cool enough, squeeze excess water out and chop into 1-inch pieces.

Meanwhile, in a large saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook 4-5 minutes, until slightly softened. Add the sausage and cook another 5-7 minutes, until browned.

Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Then add the wine. Let simmer until slightly reduced, 2-3 minutes. Add broccoli rabe and stir to heat through, 2-3 minutes. Add cream, let bubble only until it's slightly thickened, and season with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, cook pasta until nearly done. Drain and add to pan with sausage and broccoli rabe. Turn the heat down to medium low, toss the pasta with the sauce and grated parmesan and finish cooking, 1-2 minutes.

Drink with copious amounts of red wine.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

My acquired tastes

When I was little, I had a short list of things I didn't like to eat. This didn't really matter, since I grew up in a household where you ate what was served to you--personal preferences were moot. But I had the list anyway: Things I Won't Eat When I Grow Up.

Mostly the list consisted of vegetables. Looking back, I don't think the ones I didn't care for were too unusual: Brussels sprouts, asparagus, peas, radishes, and of course the lowly lima bean. Plenty of adults don't like those things.

Now, decades later, I've learned to like all of them, with the exception of lima beans. I still can't quite embrace their starchy texture. But I've learned to roast asparagus, rather than steam it and serve it with Hollandaise, as my parents used to. And I've found that Brussels sprouts also benefit from roasting, though recently I've been blanching then cooking them stovetop, with bacon and shallots. Peas I'll add to nearly any pasta, and I find they go especially nicely with a little ham and cream.

And radishes. Finally, I learned to love them. I especially love watermelon radishes. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more stunning and surprising vegetable (with the exception of romanesque broccoli, another one of my vegetable obsessions, along with cardoons). I have tried the French way, with sweet butter and sea salt, and while it goes against every particle of my being, I'm not sure this pairing is for me. The Barefoot Contessa would shake her head sadly at me, and maybe I really am a rube, but the thing I like about radishes is their clean, sharp bite. I understand how it goes with the butter and salt, but I like them plain, in a green salad. I'll save my butter and salt for something else.

Last night, we ate salads comprised completely from farm vegetables: little lettuces, Nantes carrots, tiny Yukon Golds, and thinly sliced bright red radishes, dressed with a Meyer lemon vinaigrette. Since we're having a brief but intense heat wave here in the City, it was about all we could muster, cooking-wise, but it suited us just fine.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Eat your vegetables

After several days of eating downright decadently (including the heavenly burger at the Slow Club, wild nettles and pancetta pizza at Gialina, and that damn lemon cake), last night seemed like a good time to rein things in a bit.

I had my mind set on a zucchini gratin, which I figured would be quick, light, and satisfying. Gratins are great for using up vegetables you don't have a plan for and wilting herbs you wish you could revive. Throw them all together with a bit of milk, whatever cheese needs to be used up, and a couple of eggs and you're good to go. Actually, the recipe I use also calls for cooked Arborio rice, which adds an extra step but some much-needed body to what would otherwise be...a frittata?

To go with the gratin, I sliced up some of those garnet yams I'd been dwelling on a few days ago, and cooked them first over high heat, then over low, with some Swiss chard,chicken broth, and nutmeg. It wasn't exactly a vegetarian dinner, but for us it came pretty close.

Spiced Garnet Yams with Swiss Chard

  • 4 T. olive oil
  • 1 yam, peeled, quartered lengthwise, and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
  • 1 bunch swiss chard, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2-3/4 c chicken stock
  • whole nutmeg

Heat 2 T. olive oil in a wide frying pan over medium-high heat. Add yams and cook, stirring occasionally, but letting them brown. Cook for about 5-6 minutes.

Turn down the heat to medium and add the remaining oil and garlic. Cook 1-2 minutes.

Add swiss chard, turn over all the ingredients. Add chicken broth, turn down to medium-low, and let simmer for about 10-15 minutes or until the yams are cooked. Salt/pepper and grated nutmeg to taste.

Serves 4.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Hungry Dog's Reading List

Something I enjoy in addition to cooking food, eating food, and writing about food is reading about food. In a way, food writers have the job I really want: they get to try something someone else poured their heart and soul into, then coolly pass judgment. Seems like a good set-up for lazy, judgmental people like me.

I don't particularly love restaurant reviews. They often come off as kind of snobby, and I don't think a critic has the authentic restaurant experience a regular person has. When you go out to a restaurant, of course you notice the food and the service and the atmosphere, but much of your experience might be colored by what day of the week it is (a Friday night dinner will always be more fun than a Monday night one), who you're with, how dull or interesting you find the conversation, how hard it was to find parking, if that was your first choice restaurant or if you're already disappointed by settling for second or third on your list, and any other number or variables. So when a reviewer gets to go back to the restaurant multiple times and order whatever they want while someone else foots the bill, and remove all of these other elements from the experience, it's hard for me to take it very seriously.

It's also tough for me to read a negative review and not feel loyal to the restaurant, even if I haven't been there. I guess my nature is to root for the underdog, and there is a clear imbalance of power between the reviewer and the restaurant.

Mostly I like reading food writers who just write about their cooking experiences. There's no shortage of bloggers out there, but my favorites for the last few years have been writers for the Times. I very much like Mark Bittman (although I wouldn't say I always love his recipes) and I am extremely fond of Melissa Clark. She's a good writer and her approach to food seems intelligent and sensible. And for many years I followed Amanda Hesser, though now I find her column in the Times magazine too gimmicky.

I also like to read food memoirs. Right now I'm reading Wrestling With Gravy by Jonathan Reynolds, longtime writer for The New York Times Magazine. It's more about his life than food, although he does pull the entire book together with recipes that signify key events in his life. Reynolds is very funny and comes off like a slightly less insane, slightly more affluent David Sedaris; reading about his childhood made me picture Sedaris cooped up in J.D. Salinger's New York apartment.

One thing I've noticed before with these kinds of books but am noticing particularly with this one is while I'm enjoying the chapters quite a bit, I am only skimming the recipes. Some of them are interesting, but only in regard to the narrative, not really for actual cooking. For example, he includes recipes for things like "Pheasant Under Glass" and "The Boston Ritz-Carlton's Creamed Finnan Haddie." Interesting in relation to the story, but not to be replicated in my little San Francisco flat.

Anyway, haven't yet finished the book but so far so good. It's likely to join some of my other current favorite food books, which include The Apprentice by Jacques Pepin, Heat by Bill Buford, and of course Julia Child's My Life in France.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sunday afternoon, with cake

Yesterday I was in the mood for a little cake, so I decided to make one.

When it comes to cakes, I'm pretty traditional--I like dark chocolate layers with good buttercream. I have a great go-to recipe for a double chocolate layer cake that involves strong hot coffee, which I think really does deepen the chocolatey flavor. I've made this cake for many birthdays, as a sheet, in stackable rounds, and cupcakes.

The thing about a cake like that is that you kind of need more than two people to eat it. So it most often makes an appearance around birthdays. Yesterday I just wanted a simple cake to serve after a little spring lunch with my mother and husband.

I decided on an old-fashioned glazed lemon butter cake I had been eyeing in a recent issue of Gourmet. It makes one single-layer eight-inch cake, which seemed like a dignified size for three people. I enjoy making basic cakes like this. They are easy to to throw together on a Sunday morning, require little skill, and need minimal cleanup. I think single layer cakes can be quite elegant and often work well--better even--without frosting. Plus, they are easy to dress up or dress down. I decided to keep the presentation minimal and just go with a dusting of powdered sugar, and some sliced lemons. We were eating it mid-afternoon, so no need to get too decadent. Served after dinner though, I'd accompany it with raspberry sorbet or fresh fruit.

The cake turned out light and delicious and a pretty pale yellow. This is what it looked like.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Winter to spring

One of the challenges of getting a produce box delivered is finding things to do with items you don't normally buy. And, now that we get the box weekly, I want to use as much of the box as quickly as possible, to make room for the next delivery, and so that things don't get wasted. I try very hard not to let anything go to waste (and truthfully, nothing does, since we compost), but I've lost several heads of lettuce we couldn't turn into salads fast enough, tomatoes that arrived so ripe they oozed on my counter before I could eat them, and at least a few squashes (one was a carnival squash so hard I could not hack through it with my cleaver, so off to the little green bucket it went).

Thriftiness can go a long way in using up ingredients I'm less than in love with. I've demolished many heads of homely green cabbage (cole slaw, minestrone); felt my life slipping by as I painstakingly pulled the soft little leaves off of pea shoots, only to cook them up and be left with a puny handful of leaves; forced myself to eat the bitterest dandelion greens I made the mistake of not blanching before sauteeing.

Recently we've started to move away from the winter produce (dark greens, navel oranges) to springier stuff (artichokes, strawberries). After many months of chard, kale, and collards, I'm pleased to see some of these cheerier fruits and vegetables. However, winter's not fully behind us, and on Tuesday, snuggled in with the green garlic were three humongous garnet yams.

They're pretty, in a dirty, earthy way. I'd like to do something with them that shows them off a bit, but I'm not sure what. I like yams fine, but they're not something I ever crave, buy, and or think about. I feel compelled to do something other than bake or mash them. So, I'm taking suggestions, sweet or savory.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Eating, L.A.-style

On Sunday we returned from a whirlwind trip to L.A.--four perfect days of eating, walking around, seeing friends, spotting celebrities (Dennis Rodman and Bobby Flay--not together), drinking cocktails, and in some seriousness envisioning a move to the southland. We spent a few nights at a posh hotel in West Hollywood and one night in Venice Beach, and I really couldn't tell you which we enjoyed more. Hollywood has Book Soup, Osteria Mozza (more about this in a moment), and that grungy mix of new and old, crystallized in a place like the Formosa Cafe, a noirish bar/Chinese restaurant inhabiting an old railroad car on Santa Monica Boulevard, where we had drinks and listened to a waitress complain about Christian Slater ducking out on a tab. But Venice has the ocean, surfers, lots of dogs, and that magnetic quality that only beach towns can have, which makes you think that living there would be a permanent vacation.

The first night we arrived, we headed to Jar, which we picked on a whim. It's basically fancy comfort food, and the menu is set up like a steakhouse: pick your main, your sauce, your sides. Plus, they specialize in braises. The husband opted for their trademark potroast, and I chose the "BBQ char siu-style" pork chop. Anyone who has eaten with me a lot knows that when I go out, I like to order things I don't or can't make at home. You will not catch me ordering chicken, unless I'm at Zuni, in which case, bring it on, because only a robot could resist that perfectly roasted bird served family-style over an arugula and bread salad. But--I digress.

The pork chop arrived burnished red and sweet from the hoisin glaze, chewy and moist, with the perfect border of fat around the edge. Incidentally, if you are going to eat pork (or duck, or beef), eat the fat, is one of my rules. People who order these lovely meats and then trim off all the fat, what's the point? Anyway, it was good, although truth be told the marinade was maybe a bit much for a whole chop. I think the Chinese way of doing the char siu as a component of a dish is more my speed.

The next day we hit the Farmer's Market at Fairfax and 3rd, where we picked up some gifts for friends, perused the sunny-looking produce, and ate enchiladas in mole.

That night we joined the very young and the very old by eating dinner at 5:45pm, the only time I could get reservations at Osteria Mozza. This was certainly the star of the vacation, at least to me. We started off with a fresh, creamy burrata which had just arrived from Italy the day before, served over braised leeks and olive oil with grilled garlicky bread. This was the kind of dish that sends me into a little trance. I have no idea if we spoke at all while eating this dish. I do remember looking at my husband and exchanging a deep look of love, but I can't confirm that it was not for the cheese.

We followed that with a stinging nettle tagliatelle with lamb ragu--mild, minty, delicate, delicious. I chose the duck confit finished under a brick to make it crispy, served with a firy pear compote and mustardy Brussels sprouts. The husband had a stunning whole grilled orata (sea bream, we learned), stuffed with dark greens and wrapped in radicchio. Dessert was perfectly sweet-tart cassis and clementine sorbets. All told, it was one of the more memorable dinners I've ever had.

The other notable discovery of the weekend, food-wise, was Pinkberry. What can I say? I'd heard all the hype, was prepared to reject it, and I found it quite addictive.

The most fun we had though, food and otherwise, was hanging with our friends in Venice. My friend said she wanted to cook for us, and when I asked what we were having, she said, "Grilled shrimp, salad, cake," which was exactly what we had and it was perfect. I think no matter how great the restaurants are that you're lucky enough to eat at, nothing beats sitting around a table with good friends, drinking wine, and eating food someone cooked just for you.