Sunday, May 31, 2009

Movies to skip, plus another pot roast

The husband and I have had some bad luck with movies over the last few weeks. Here is a list of ones we attempted to watch recently and stopped part-way through:

"Rachel Getting Married"
"Cadillac Records"
"Paul Blart: Mall Cop"
"Tropic Thunder"

Yes, I'm embarrassed about #4. But I included it to show that we really are not movie snobs--while I may love Pedro Almodovar films, I also liked "Old School."

We've been wanting to watch something funny, since we're both battling self-diagnosed cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder. It's been gray and foggy and downright depressing here for days. I'm not kidding when I say that if someone offered one of us a job in L.A., we'd be packed and barreling down the 5 before you could say "Mystic Tan."

On the bright side, crap weather is good for one thing: comfort food. Last night I reprised the pot roast of a few months back. This time our local butcher gave us a slightly different cut of meat than what we have gotten in the past. The husband was the one who picked it up but he couldn't recall what it was, otherwise I would tell you. The recipe calls for "chuck" which is always good for a few laughs in our house at my expense because for some reason, my dad would sometimes call me Chuck when I was little. The husband thinks this is very funny and always wants to know why my dad chose that nickname when it bears no resemblance to my real name. Why? Who knows. Old DJ took that one to the grave.

In any case, it was cut like more of a roast than a slab. Stop me if I'm getting too technical here. Along with lots of wine, I added spring onions from our produce box, plus carrots and peas, and served it over buttered noodles. It turned out pretty well and I'm pleased to say momentarily lifted us from our bad-movie-bleak-weather funk.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Strawberry, rhubarb, ceviche

In addition to grilling, Memorial Day seems to require some kind of fruity dessert. Although the weather in San Francisco has been decidedly wintery--we've been wearing sweaters and cranking up the heat all weekend--we're still enjoying summery produce. Apparently, somewhere the weather is nice enough to grow things like strawberries and rhubarb. So, I decided to make a crisp to bring to the BBQ at my mother's house.

Simple enough, right? Armed with my best recipe, I was feeling cocky. I'll just swap the berries and rhubarb for the apples, I thought. Easy peasy.

The husband wandered through the kitchen as I chopped up the fruit and tossed it cavalierly into a bowl with sugar and vanilla.

"What recipe are you using?" asked the husband.

"Oh, I'm just basing it on the Baking Illustrated apple crisp I always make," I responded breezily. "It's just about a method," I assured him patronizingly.

Method, indeed. Good thing I decided to get bloggy and take this photo pre-topping, as it was the best this stupid crisp ever looked.

I crumbled the lovely cinnamon and walnut mixture over it and into the oven it went.It emerged bubbling and golden, if maybe a little juicier than I expected. Perfect, I thought smugly. Rustic!

Unfortunately, the crisp had to travel. I let it cool for close to an hour, as long as I could wait, before covering it gently and driving it to my mom's house, 40 minutes away. By the time we arrived, it looked terrible. The once-crumbly topping had sunken into the fruit and what was left on the surface looked shiny and a little soggy. And it was becoming evident that the fruit below was too juicy.

By the time we dug into it, it was a mess.

"It looks like jam," my mother said, more observantly than unkindly.

The flavor was good--I liked my additions of vanilla and cardamom, and thank goodness I'd decided to add a little tapioca to the filling--it was the only thing that made it a jam and not a juice.

At the end of the night I covered what remained of the "crisp" for the ride home. I knew it would make a one-night pit-stop in the fridge before getting tossed the next day.

I guess I'm not quite as good an improviser as I thought. As my wise mother reminded me, strawberries and rhubarb have a much higher water content than apples, so the recipe couldn't have worked out exactly the same just by copying the method. Oh well. It actually tasted decent, and wasn't it Julia Child who said that the best thing about cooking was that you can eat your mistakes?

And, the dessert was only a blip in the evening after perfectly grilled steaks and sweet corn. But the dark horse of the evening was my mother's shrimp ceviche, which she cobbled together from two recipes. Marinated in lime and dressed up with tomato, avocado, and, surprisingly, tarragon vinegar, the ceviche was a perfect balance of bright and tart without being acidic. She also added her own touches, including toasted pumpkin seeds and cooked sweet potato, an homage to her childhood in Peru. The result was absolutely addictive. I guess I have a bit to learn when it comes to playing fast and loose with recipes, but maybe observing my mother in the kitchen is a good place to start.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Hungry Dog Reviews: Nopalito

Usually I don't emerge for lunch on workdays. It's a little sad, I admit, but if you worked where I work, you might not either. Sometimes I don't feel like getting an extra look at the colorful folks stumbling out of the Rodeway Inn across the street, occasionally shoeless and often fighting over some kind of, shall we say, relationship problem.

Anyway, back to lunch. My colleague and I had an event the other night so we decided to get ourselves a good lunch for sustenance. We pretended to think about where we might go, all the while knowing we'd end up at Nopalito.

Nopalito is the little sister restaurant to the larger Nopa a few blocks away, which (I hear) is excellent comfort food. Nopalito, as the name suggests, is Mexican. The place is smallish, with lots of natural light. The feel, like the food, is clean and uncluttered, but warm. Service is enthusiastic and informative.

I have now been three times, which I think is a good number to judge a place, although the first two times I got the the same thing, the enchiladas de mole, because they were so delicious I could not stop thinking of them. This time, however, branching out was in order. My colleague and I split three items, all of which, two days later, I am still mooning over.

We shared a delightfully tart and sweet salad of grapefruit, blood oranges, and queso fresco. Then on to the pork tamale with spring onions. I'm no tamale expert, but I've had some that seemed starchy and leaden. This tamale had the lightest masa and the deepest flavor: I could have eaten two by myself, no problem. (Let's be honest: I could have probably eaten three.) And finally, the dish that has me debating about taking a cab over there today, the carnitas, pork braised in cinnamon and beer, served with cabbage salad and warm tortillas.

I was a bit in shock when the carnitas arrived. We had shared the lively citrus salad, and the smoldering tamale, both delicious but moderate in size and scale. When the carnitas arrived, I fell deeply in love. This dish could, and perhaps should, be their signature dish. Nestled in a deep ceramic bowl, the carnitas are served in large, fork-pullable pieces, deeply spiced, with the perfect amount of fat. Wrapped in a warm tortilla with tomatillo salsa, they disappeared quickly and silently between the two of us. This was one of the best dishes I have ever had, and it was lovely for two.

Meals at Nopalito are rounded out with simple but elegant touches: spicy toasted chickpeas to start you off, and buttery, crumbly Mexican wedding cookies to send you on your way. There's something about this place that really gets me. It's not the most exciting atmosphere, and I'm not sure I'd be interested in going there for dinner--it seems more like a lunch place. But the menu is conceived of and executed with great focus, and the food is direct and pure. Nopalito gets an A from the Hungry Dog.

Nopalito is located at 306 Broderick Street in San Francisco.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Here, chicky chicky

I've been writing a lot about chicken recently. Well, that's because I eat a lot of chicken.

When you cook the same ingredient a lot, variety is key. Luckily, chicken goes with lots of things. The combinations are endless! I like it with soy and ginger; honey and cherry tomatoes; apples and sage; and lemons and salt. But it also is freakishly good with bacon and olives.

This recipe might smoke up your kitchen a bit, since the oven temperature is so high. Don't worry. Turn on the fan, open some windows, shuffle the dog into another room, and drink a beer. In about 40 minutes, you'll have crispy, bacony, chickeny goodness, with almost no effort at all. And, if you are lucky like me, you have a husband that likes the drumsticks, leaving you with the thighs. I could take or leave the white meat, but I'm waiting for the day the husband decides he doesn't like the wings. So far we've managed to split them civilly, but something has to test a marriage eventually, doesn't it?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Hungry Dog Reviews: Weird Fish

On Thursday night I joined an old coworker for dinner at a little place in the Mission called Weird Fish. This coworker recently left the place I work for greener pastures. It's all going great for her but part of her new job is to do the kind of work that I do, at which she's a little rusty. So she offered me a swap: a good piece of fish and a glass of wine for whatever kernels of wisdom I might be able to scrape together to help her avoid too many bumps in the road.

Weird Fish has been written up a bit over the last year, including a short feature in The New York Times. In addition to having a cool hipster vibe, they serve sustainably farmed fish and locally grown vegetables. I was curious to check it out.

To cut to the chase, there were things I liked and things I didn't. Let's start with the good stuff:

* Cool atmosphere. It feels like an authentic fish house. It's casual, there are weathered wooden tables and benches, a chalkboard with specials, and handkerchiefs for napkins.

* Friendly and funny service. Our waiter was a deadringer in looks and manner for the Crabman from "My Name is Earl." He talked about the specials in ambiguous terms we didn't understand that seemed mostly to relate to how happy they made him feel and not how they were prepared. Whether he was stoned or naturally blissful, there was no denying his charisma, which went a long way in furthering the good vibe of the place.

* The fish. I had steelhead, pan-seared with an olive and caper sauce. The fish was perfectly cooked and the sauce a delicious complement.

Now for the downsides:

*The seating. While there are some small tables, a portion of the tables are for communal seating. We had a choice: either the bar or a shared table. I'm not much for communal seating and neither was my friend. Communal eating reminds me of my college dining hall. Ugh. We opted for the bar.

* The menu. Two problems here. One is that much of the menu was fried. Don't get me wrong--I can eat fried fish, and I do. But, when the menu is largely divided between different fish and chip combos and lightly-battered tacos, I start to yearn for lighter fare. So, ultimately I did like the steelhead, but it was also the only thing I wanted to order. The second problem was that everything was a la carte. So when I ordered my fish, it arrived all by its lonesome. My friend had suggested we order the sweet potato home fries to share, which was a good idea for variety, although I wasn't too impressed with them. (Sidebar: I think if I never saw a home fry again, I'd be fine. Does every single breakfast, crepe, and fish place have to serve them, most often too oily and smothered in rosemary? Home fries seem so 1995.) This a la carte business, I don't get it. I don't want to assemble a whole plate of food when I go to a restaurant. I want the chef to have some of his/her own ideas. You show me what works.

There was something else about the menu that turned me off, although I think some people would really dig it. Every night they have a "Suspicious Fish" dish. The waiter will only divulge a few hints about the dish, so you order at your own risk. Crabman told us that that night's Suspicious Fish was "really, really good and had something orange in it and a really common green herb." Forget it. I like to know what I've ordered--I at least want a general outline of what's headed my way. So, that concept seemed gimmicky to me. But, I'm sure there are people who order the Suspicious Fish every single time, just for the sheer excitement.

Overall, I'd give Weird Fish a B. It's good, but I probably won't go back. I have to give props to the Crabman though, as he did something I thought was very nice at the end of the meal. My friend had ordered a second glass of wine and I decided to pass, as two full glasses make me a menace behind the wheel. When he brought her second glass, he also brought over the bottle of wine I had ordered (a spicy Roshambo zinfandel) and poured me an extra third of a glass so she wouldn't drink alone. I thought that was a nice touch--gave me the feeling of being at a friend's house, which now, thinking more about it, kind of makes me want to return.

Weird Fish is located at 2193 Mission Street, San Francisco.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Spring risotto, with asparagus, fava beans, and prosciutto

You might remember from my first post that I do not like to waste food, which can lead delicious but occasionally dubious combinations of ingredients. I can persevere through an imperfect dish, though, if it means I've salvaged some lettuce tottering on the brink of the compost bin, or used up the last two pieces of bacon.

Most of the time I like to think that I have enough cooking experience to make up a decent dish on a whim--certainly something that can be eaten good-naturedly by me and the husband while watching last night's Daily Show as the other hungry dog sits two inches from my knee, smiling her hot little smile and waiting for something, anything to drop. This is most often our dining ambiance during the week, and I'm willing to bet that at least one person reading this (assuming there is at least one?) has a similar routine.

Last night while mulling over the dinner options I noticed half an onion; a small handful of fava beans from last week's produce box; and an open bottle of pinot grigio, past the drinking stage but suitable (in my house, anyway) for cooking. Ta da! Spring risotto. Who knew that leftover bits and pieces could lead to such a satisfying dinner and delightful photo op?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

One pot, one chicken

Last night I was feeling ambitious and decided to make something fancy for a weeknight. I liked the idea of braising so I decided to make this Chicken in Riesling, which I'd spotted in Gourmet over a year ago. There are people that remember sports scores from seasons past, and those that can rattle off lines from movies--I am neither. But, I do get recipes lodged in my brain, and even though it might take me a long time, I usually get around to them.

The chicken turned out great, although it was not the 1-hour commitment the recipe promised. It took about an hour and half from start to finish. But it was worth it! First of all, I love a dinner that comes together in one pot. Second, the smell of chicken browning in my Le Creuset can smooth the roughest edge of the crummiest Monday. Throw in some butter, leeks that simply melt the longer they cook, and you're halfway there. And, carrots. Have I mentioned how I feel about carrots? Along with celery, they are one of my favorite vegetables. All this, along with a bit of Riesling, goes into the oven and simmers snugly away for 25 minutes. And, just to gild the lily, you add heavy cream at the very end.

As it turns out, I did not take any photographs of the completed dish. I guess I'm not as on top of it as some of these other food bloggers who take photographs at every step. And by the time I'm done cooking whatever it is I'm making, I want to eat it, not bumble around with my camera.

However, I do have a lovely photograph of the carrots, in all their glory.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Not all tomatoes are created equal

Even though it wasn't at all cold last night, I was still in the mood to make something cozy. While roast chicken tends to be the default Sunday night dinner in our house, sometimes you must break from tradition. I decided to make baked ziti.

I clipped this recipe from the Chronicle during the frenzy of "The Sopranos" a few years back, when people were having Sunday night Soprano parties and whipping up Carmela's ricotta pie and bragiole. Well, the Sopranos are long gone, but am I ever glad I cut out a hokey-sounding recipe entitled, "Baked Ziti, Soprano-Style."

I'm sure I've made this recipe 50 times. Everyone loves it, and it never fails. It's your classic baked pasta--tomato sauce with sweet Italian sausage, wine, and oregano--tossed with pasta, creamy ricotta, parmesan, and baked until the mozzarella on top is bubbly and golden. With a crisp green salad, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying dinner.

Last night I got the water boiling, the oven heating, and began throwing together the sauce, which calls for canned, whole, peeled tomatoes. For a number of years, I've bought canned tomatoes at Trader Joe's. They were inexpensive and decent, which seems to be the criteria TJ's aims for and consumers expect, including me. When it comes to certain ingredients, particularly those of the canned, dried, or boxed variety, I've often adhered to the Gertrude Stein philosophy: a canned tomato is a canned tomato.

But, it turns out this is not true. Not all canned tomatoes are created equal. Recently, the tomatoes from TJ's have been inedible. I've opened several cans and they all revealed hard and lumpy tomatoes, with yellow-green ends, and slippery skins that never seemed to break down no matter long I let a sauce bubble away.

I was reminded of this last night, and poked around the pantry for an alternative. I had some Muir Glen tomatoes, which I busted out and discovered were even worse than the TJ ones--they looks as if they'd been chewed up and spit back out in the can. I chucked them all into the compost bin.

Thank goodness, perhaps in a prescient moment, at some point I'd decided to buy a can of the San Marzano tomatoes everyone keeps raving about. They sat on the shelf for a long time. I looked at the can skeptically last night. At $4.65/can, I thought, these better blow me away. Once opened, I peered in and found myself looking at perfectly-oval, unmarred, dark red tomatoes. I almost wanted to eat one right then, but resisted, because let's face it, that's weird. Once in the pan, they broke down fully with no help from the back of my spoon. After ten minutes of simmering, the sauce had dark, complex, tomato-y essence. They are, without a doubt, the most delicious canned tomatoes I have tasted. As a result, it was quite possibly the best rendition of this baked ziti I have ever made. I suggest you give them a try.

Friday, May 8, 2009

I like the way you do that

Whether you've had the best or worst day, any day can be improved by crisp, cold beer. I know I look forward to it. Once I've made my way home through the grubby city, changed from my little work costume into my real clothes, and walked and fed the dog, it's time to officially begin enjoying my free time.

I always wait for the husband to get home before cracking open the first beer. This does not entail extreme willpower, as he generally arrives about 45 minutes after I do. Before I start dinner, we sink into the sofa for however long it takes to drink one beer. This is like the "page break" of our day: complete separation from work to home has commenced.

The other night I opened the fridge to pull out two beers and found myself looking upon row after tidy row of beers, lined up perfectly with their labels facing out.

If you know me, you know there is no way I would ever take the time to do this. I'm a bit more, um, casual, and tend to chuck the six or twelve-pack into the fridge, carton and all. This of course helps no one, as at some point you have to get down on your knees and wrestle with the packaging just to get your damn beer out. But I'm fairly lazy in this regard. So, anyone familiar with the two of us could peek at this careful array and know who was responsible.

"I like the way you do that," I said to the husband.

"What's that?" he replied.

"This. The beer thing."

The husband is a former librarian. In addition to lining up the beers, he also likes cds to stay in alphabetical order and books on shelves to be pulled out the the edge instead of pushed to the wall. Every morning, he lays out the paper in a particular way that I've grown very fond of, because truthfully, it really does make it easier to assess all the parts and decide what you want to read. My method is to rifle through it and pull out the section I want, then leave the rest in a sloppy pile. Are you starting to get the breakdown of how things work in our place?

For some reason, seeing the neat rows of beers the other night pleased me immensely. I like being reminded of the ways we're different. When you've been with someone for a long time, not only do you inevitably become more similar, but you expect to stop noticing the little things you once thought were charming, or different, or funny. It's nice to know they can still sneak up on you.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Egg is spelled...

I'm not much of an egg person. At brunch, when everyone else is debating the merits of scrambled, poached, and sunny side up, I'm usually ordering a ham sandwich.

I like the idea of eggs. They are certainly the star of most breakfast menus. When I see lovely plates of huevos rancheros and eggs Benedict sailing around a restaurant, I feel a trace of envy. But when I try them, I often feel a little sick. So, I generally avoid them.

Once in awhile I will eat eggs when I make a salad at home, hardboiled. But recently I've been having trouble cooking them right. If I'm going to eat an egg, I like it when the yolk is just done and remains a dark, almost marigold color. For some reason, I can't seem to get this right. Sometimes I crack open the shell and the white at one end has disappeared. Sometimes I boil them too long and the yolk turns out pale and powdery. I've started the egg in the water; added the egg into boiling water. Fussed with the number of minutes. Let them cool; peeled them right away. They never turn out right, which is only making me more anti-egg than ever.

The other way I occasionally eat eggs is when I don't feel well. If you think this is weird, that I would eat something that generally makes me sick when I actually am sick, you are not alone. I can't explain it, but when I have a cold I will make very softly scrambled eggs and eat them out of a little dish with a spoon. Maybe because my mom used to make them that way when I was little. Maybe there's something Proustian in it. Who knows.

I guess it's just not in my genes to have a positive relationship with eggs. My dad spent most of his adult life fretting about cholesterol and ditching eggs in favor of oat bran. My sister never liked them much either and ended up having a kid that was allergic to them. And, in first grade, my mother was in a spelling contest, in which the final moment came down to her and one other child. The word was "egg"...which my mother proceeded to spell "a-g-g." Maybe the future was written right then.

In any case, I'd certainly like to know how to boil one, just out of pride. So if someone has the trick, let me know.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Reading and baking

Much of my early adult life was spent longing for the way I used to read as a little kid-- in the living room, sprawled out in a sunny patch of carpet, so deeply immersed in my Beverly Cleary book that the hours just flew by.

Ever since college, reading has been different for me. I guess part of it is not having the same stretches of time, or that my mind is often occupied with dull things, like why I owe so much in taxes when I don't make very much, or what the cutoff point is in repair costs for our 19-year-old Honda. Maybe because a lot of my reading is done on a bus, and it's easier to read a folded-up magazine than a tome of Dickinson poetry. I'm not sure. I do know that right after college I was very ambitious in my reading and could often be found struggling my way through Tolstoy and Pynchon. Impressive, but not necessarily enjoyable.

I still spend a lot of time reading these days, but it's more often the newspaper, magazines of varying quality (high: New Yorker; low: In Style), and at work, lots of health policy stuff and articles about depressing subjects that make my work necessary. So when I pick up a book, these days I generally go for what holds the possibility of losing myself completely in it.

Mostly I go for mysteries. Say what you will, but the mystery genre gets a lot of flak. There are good writers out there--not just good storytellers, but good writers. I like a lot of different ones, but my favorite is Michael Connelly. He writes about a middle-aged, weathered cop that I have a book-crush on. The cop, Harry Bosch, has a sharp mind and like all attractive fictional men, a troubled soul.

All of Connelly's books take place in Los Angeles, which is only feeding my desire to move there. This doesn't necessarily make any sense, as the L.A. Bosch lives in is gritty and violent and sad. I have no idea why this should spur my interest in the southland more. In any case, today I read Connelly's Lost Light for a long, long time. While the husband was productively doing some kind of online programming class, I stretched out on the couch and didn't move for a couple of hours. I started to have that good, slightly distant feeling of being sucked into a great read, the kind where you come to the end of a chapter and you think, I'll just read one more. All of a sudden you've read a few hundred pages in a sitting.

After awhile though, I got hungry. I decided to make some chocolate chip cookies I had been promising the husband for a few weeks now. These cookies are from Baking Illustrated, the nerdy cook's bible. It's like "Mythbusters" for baking: the people that wrote it are just obsessed with going the extra mile and wanting to know the why of everything. I'm not like that, but I appreciate they've done all the legwork and found the best recipes for everything. These cookies are the best, and if you don't believe me, go buy the book and try them yourself.