Sunday, September 18, 2005

Just the Shanks, Ma'am

You learn new things about old friends all the time.

Sharing dinner and recipes at Dragonfly, a wonderful contemporary Vietnamese restaurant in my neighborhood, a friend whose recent culinary triumphs include a mushroon Napoleon told me that he couldn't imagine handling a whole chicken, much less an entire lamb shank. In the age of boneless-skinless-flavorless chicken breasts, even good home cooks are flummoxed by cuts of meat that look like meat.

John worked on Saturday, giving me the opportunity to stroll the farmers' market and cook up whatever bounty I found. Relying on public transportation held me back from buying all the heirloom tomatoes and sweet peas I saw, but I did purchase a good amount, as well as some intoxicating peaches from Frog Hollow Farms and shanks from grass-fed lamb from Marin Sun Farms.

A braise seems out of place for late summer, but cool evenings in San Francisco almost need a warm dinner. While the olive oil heated in a wide saute pan, I trimmed the two lamb shanks and prepared an herb bundle of parsley, rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, and garlic. I browned the meat in the hot oil until a crust formed, then added a bottle of port. You can use a less expensive red wine, but flavorful port reduces to a syrupy glaze that resembles demi-glace. After adding the herbs and replacing the lid, I reduced the heat until the liquid barely simmered. Aside from turning the shanks every hour or so, braising is a hands-off cooking method.

Four hours later, the once tough shanks were meltingly tender and falling off the bone. I gingerly transferred the shanks into a bowl, trying my best to keep them intact. I pulled out the herb bundle and strained the liquid into another pot. A quick chill in the refrigerator hardened the fat, making it easy to skim.

I portioned some fingerling potatoes, small carrots, and sweet peas sauteed in butter and chopped parsley into wide-rimmed bowls and set the lamb shanks off center. Soon we were ready for a warm dinner. John suggested that we call this dish 'Mahogany Lamb Shanks' after the glossy color of the port sauce. No matter the name, it's an easy dish that shouldn't intimidate any home cook--even my butcher-averse friend.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Saving a Condemned Cut

I can't stand to throw away food. I won't try to salvage moldy bread or sour milk, but it bothers me that I let it go bad in the first place. So my heart sunk last night when I poked around the refrigerator and found a package of osso buco that I had purchased nearly a week ago. I even flashed back to the moment at Andronico's meat counter when I decided that it would make a great braised dish.

The sell-by date was June 17, so I decided to do the "smell test." I braced myself for ungodly funk, but instead got, well, meat. I sniffed again and found no traces of ammonia or signs of rot. Smiling, I pulled out a pot and my chopping board. I told John that we would be having braised osso buco for dinner.

I rubbed salt and white pepper on the meat and browned it over high heat. I deglazed the pan with Marsala and added chopped shallots, carrots, celery, and parsely. I stirred in some tomato paste and two bay leaves before I realized that I didn't have any chicken stock. I've braised meat entirely in wine before, so I decided to substitute Marsala for the stock. I covered the pot, turned down the heat, and crossed my fingers that it wouldn't turn out too sweet.

John and I sipped glasses of Navarro 2002 Pinot Noir, Méthode à l'Ancienne while the meat cooked over low heat for two hours. The alcoholic vapors hit the nose a little hard, but it was juicy and soft on the tongue with a mellow finish. We shook our heads at the 14.5% alcohol content--California winemakers have been making booze-y cabernet sauvignons and zinfandels for years, but pinot noir loses the nuance of berry, earth, and smoke in this style.

After two hours, I set aside the osso buco and strained the braising liquid. I set it over high heat to cook down to a rich sauce while I sauteed diced carrots, celery, and corn. I rested the meat over a bed of vegetables and pooled the sauce around the dish. John sliced some Arizmendi City Bread, a dense, chewy sourdough to accompany our meal.

It was late--8:45--when we finally had dinner, but the osso buco was fork tender. The gelatin had broken down to baste the meat and enrich the sauce. Slow cooked meat is certainly worth the work, and it's certainly worth rescuing from the forgotten corners of the refrigerator.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Risotto and Ruined Condrieu

Monday nights almost demand soothing meals that ease us back into the workweek. I've always believed that the first day sets the tone for the week. If you create an architecturally composed dinner, it's a bit of a letdown if you don't have elaborate meals for the next few nights. If you opt for takeout, what's to stop you from eating out--or out of a carton--for the entire week? Either way, dinner should not be an afterthought.

Which is why I decided on risotto. I don't know why more people don't make it at home. Even John was surprised the first time I prepared it, as he had relegated it to a restaurant-only dish. Maybe it's the infamous constant stirring or the seemingly unattainable creamy consistency that deter people. It's another example of home cooking made luxurious by chefs. But ultimately, it's just rice.

I diced half of an onion, minced several slices of prosciutto, and added them to a heavy pan. While the aromatics cooked
gently, I pulled out a container of chicken broth from the freezer and brought it to a boil. When the onions were soft and translucent, I added some arborio rice and tossed the grains until they glistened with olive oil. The next twenty minutes were methodical: add hot broth, stir until dry, repeat. When the risotto was creamy and the rice still had a little bite, I stirred in grated parmesan and salt. I plated our dinner and asked John to open the wine.

And I knew exactly which wine we would have with dinner--the 2001 Eric Texier Condrieu, a lush viognier with aromas of apricots, peaches and honeysuckle. I had been eager to find an occasion to open this bottle, but it always seemed too extravagant. After passing over this bottle week after week, I decided that tonight was the night.

John poured out a little wine to sniff and taste. Almost immediately, he pulled his head back. He tried again before shaking his head and said, "It smells like rotten eggs."

I was startled, to say the least. I inhaled deeply and found the normally exuberant floral aromas to be muted and flat. I took a sip and was surprised at how astringent it tasted. There was no doubt about it--this bottle was corked.

We pushed the wine aside and had our risotto. John shared interesting and funny anecdotes from work and an idea for a book. We made plans to vote and watch the election returns tomorrow night. Yes, the wine was ruined, but our dinner remained intact. After all, Monday night sets the tone for the week.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

A Pile of Potstickers

Every so often, it becomes necessary to restock the freezer. I like to keep a supply of tomato sauce, vegetable and chicken stock, homemade bread, and other essentials on hand to make dinner preparation that much easier. I also have to keep a supply of potstickers available, as these are a staple in John's diet.

It may seem odd that a man raised on beef stew could eat so many Chinese dumplings and never tire of them, but I take it as a complement. Apparently, John never enjoyed potstickers--mostly of the restaurant variety--until he tried mine. One evening last winter, when our courtship was still new, he arrived at my door close to 10:00, tired from a long day at work and from the drive to my flat. I offered him a dinner of potstickers, fried rice with barbequed pork from my favorite market, chicken stir fry, and spicy green beans. He ate heartily and devoured the potstickers. From that moment on, I was responsible for keeping some in the freezer.

This Sunday afternoon was perfect for spending some quiet time in the kitchen before passing out candy to trick-or-treaters. I pulled out several pounds of ground pork and mixed it with chopped garlic chives and diced napa cabbage. I seasoned the meat with a mixture of minced garlic and ginger, toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, and shaoshing, a robust rice wine.

Most of the work is in preparing the filling. Assembling the dumplings is almost a meditative act. I lay out a potsticker wrapper in my hand, place a spoonful of pork filling in the middle, brush water along the edge, then fold and crimp the dough to make a curved dumpling. When I have filled a tray with potstickers, I place it in the freezer while I make another tray. Freezing them individually prevents them from sticking to each other when I stack them in a plastic container.

I am lost in the rhythm of folding and crimping when John walks into the kitchen. The mere sight of a tray of uncooked potstickers makes him hungry, so I place half a dozen into a saute pan with canola oil and water. When they start to sizzle, I place a lid on them and they steam-fry. Within five minutes, I can smell the potstickers--they're ready.

The top of the potstickers glisten with steam and the bottom are brown and crunchy. I lay them out with a selection of dipping sauces: soy sauce with slivers of ginger, a spicy chili-garlic sauce, and hoisin, a spicy-sweet soy bean paste. John bites into a potsticker while it's still too hot to enjoy, but he keeps eating. Is there any greater complement a cook can receive?

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Secrets of the Pantry

In an older episode of Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw and friends discuss 'secret single behavior,' things women indulge in but don't want their significant others to know. Carrie admitted to standing at the kitchen counter while eating a stack of Saltines with grape jelly and reading Vogue; Miranda liked to put Vaseline on her hands and cover them with thermal moisturizing gloves whle watching infomercials; and Charlotte spent an hour examining her pores in a magnifying mirror. Me, I like to clean out the pantry.

John works one Saturday a month, leaving me a full day to myself. I considered working on an unfinished blanket that had been languishing on a pair of knitting needles, finishing the latest David Sedaris novel, or going for a run in Golden Gate Park. All tempting, but I had been champing at the bit to clean the pantry.

The first thing I did was to take all the food out of the refrigerator, dismantle the shelves and drawers, and scrub them in soapy hot water. I tossed out a chunk of forgotten mozzarella that had grown fuzzy. I then made a small pile of vegetables, herbs and other salvageable items on the verge of spoilage.

Moving on to the pantry, I sorted through canisters of rice, pasta and beans. I went through my baking supplies to make sure that flours and sugars were still fresh. I made an inventory of the chocolate jar. I smelled my spices to make sure they were still potent. And I checked for any rancid nuts.

After wiping down shelves and transferring items to new jars, I turned my attention to a slightly old tomato, an ophaned clove of garlic and a few leaves of basil sitting on the counter. I returned to the pantry to retrieve some spaghetti, an amount too small to warrant saving in a canister.

I gently sauteed minced garlic and diced tomato in some olive oil while the pasta cooked. When the spaghetti was al dente, I tossed it into the olive oil with some torn basil and a little salt. I took my lunch to the living room, where I turned on the television to indulge in the Saturday cooking programs on PBS.

Making lunch from some over-the-hill produce doesn't seem like much of an indulgence, but spending time alone, doing as you please, is. I also rewarded my virtuous thrift and labor with a square of El Rey chocolate I found in the chocolate jar. I tell myself that John wouldn't have missed it.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Spaghetti Red

I was a recent college graduate of 22 when I started to learn about wine. I took a job with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) and, almost overnight, started to live a dual life. At home, the student loan paying me would try to buy a week's worth of groceries for $10. At work, the analyst me was introduced to the world of expense account-funded meals. My managers would pick up dinner tabs that seemed like small fortunes.

We also drank wines finer than any I had ever tasted. Until then, the only wines I had sipped were from $5 bottles selected at Trader Joe's. My timid requests for "just a glass of chardonnay, thanks" did little to enhance my professional image or my meals. One night at dinner, my manager--a foodie--ordered a bottle of pinot noir to accompany my salmon with tomatoes and his grilled tuna. The flavors exploded in my mouth. It was a defining moment for me: I learned that the right wine could make a good meal truly great.

I was determined to educate myself about wine. I borrowed books from the library. I read wine magazines. At first, none of it made any sense. These people spoke a different language that only insiders understood. Then it occurred to me that my analytical approach was just a start and that I should taste some of these wines. I started to set aside some of my grocery money for wines I had read about.

Over the next few years, I came to enjoy and appreciate wine. I also started to develop opinions. I realized that I didn't care for California's overly oaky and buttery chardonnays and that I liked reds with a little more oomph than Napa's unstructured merlots. I was utterly taken with elegant and supple cabernet sauvignons and pinot noirs. I was also thrilled to discover that just as some people have photographic memory, I was lucky to have good taste memory. I was able to recall characteristics of varietals, wineries and vintages.

About four years into my wine education, I was invited to spend the day in Sonoma's Russian River Valley with two friends with considerable wine knowledge. They were older, had lived in Europe, and had tasted wine in Italy, France, Hungary and just about any country with a wine heritage. I jumped at the chance to learn from them.

They scrunched up their noses and grimaced at soft pinot noirs that did not remind them of Burgundy. They denounced fruit-forward cabernet sauvignon as second best to Bordeaux. And jammy zinfandel was simply too rustic. Instead of a wine education, I was getting a diatribe. But I felt that I didn't know enough to disagree. I nodded along even when I liked the wine.

I was secretly overjoyed when we pulled into our last stop--Hop Kiln Winery, a restored ranch. I trudged up to the bar for a tasting and prepared myself for another earful. The attendant poured a taste of Marty Griffin's Big Red, a zinfandel blend with loads of juicy fruit. "What a fun wine!" I exclaimed. "This would be perfect with pasta."

I looked over at my friends as they took a sip. "Just a spaghetti red," they pronounced. "Nothing special."

That was another defining moment in my journey. I learned not to care about what self-proclaimed wine experts thought. Am I curious about what Robert Parker has to say about a particular wine? Or what the Wine Spectator has to say about the latest vintage of Rhones? Yes, but ultimately, it's my palette.

It was with this in mind that John and I sat down to a Thursday night dinner of spaghetti with roasted tomatoes and hot sausages. We opened a bottle of 2000 Simi Landslide Zinfandel, the winery's last vintage of zin. We purchased a case to have on hand for pasta, pizza and barbeque. John is still learning about wine and has come to appreciate small production pinot noir and fine champagne. But we both agree that some nights, only a spaghetti red will do.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Tea for One

It feels like a special night. A rare lunar eclipse promises to be a spectacular sight in the clear, black sky. I will be witnessing this celestial event alone, as John is making his weekly visit to his friend Mike's. These evenings on my own provide the perfect opportunities for me to dine simply. I opt for a low-key meal of tea and pastries.

Moon gazing while having tea is a tradition I know well. Every autumn, my family celebrates the harvest moon, a bright, low hanging moon that appears to be within arms reach. The Chinese have largely been an agrarian culture who farmed based on the lunar calendar. Even though we're urbanites, we still purchase moon cakes for this annual event.

I am also fond of the English tradition of taking tea. Even a country not known for its cuisine takes time to savor a fine cup of tea and small snacks. Although it is dinner time here in San Francisco, I decide to have tea for one, complete with crumpets and lemon curd.

I zested some lemons and extracted the juice, mixing this with sugar and a few egg yolks over a low flame. Without letting it boil, I kept whisking until it thickened like a custard. I pressed a sheet of plastic wrap over the bright yellow mixture and placed it in the refrigerator to set.

An hour later, I pulled out the lemon curd and toasted two crumpets. I also brewed a pot of Whittard Afternoon Tea. My sister tasted it on a trip to London and became such a fan of the mellow bergomot and sweet jasmine that she bought me a tin to enjoy. It's perfect when you crave a cup of Earl Grey, but find the perfume overwhelming.

I put my evening tea on a tray and sat on a leather chair facing the window. The sky was clear, allowing me an unobstructed view of the eclipse in progress. The full eclipse was not expected until 8:00, but already the moon was bathed in a rosy red glow. I sank into my chair, nibbled on crumpets and sweet-tangy lemon curd, and sipped cup after cup of the floral tea. As the moon slowly turned a sanguine red, I think to myself, maybe this is the start of a new moon gazing tradition.

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