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.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Chicken and Rice and Everything Nice

It's not inspirational to start the week with leftovers, but that's exactly what we did. We have three servings' worth of curried butternut squash soup and more roast pork than I know what to do with. I also have some chicken thighs that I need to salvage. It's time to pull everything out and start cooking.

I didn't want to repeat our Saturday dinner, so I decided to reheat just the soup. But what should I do with the chicken? We have a vegetable (butternut squash) and a protein (chicken), and a starch would give us a traditionally balanced dinner. But there's no reason to keep them separate; we could combine the protein and starch in a classic dish like chicken and rice.

When I was growing up, chicken and rice was a one-pot budget saver that allowed my mother to feed a family of five with a small fryer or a few chicken breasts. I loved how the drippings would infuse the rice and coat all the grains. But my palette is a little more sophisticated now, so I have less appreciation for greasy rice. But it's still important that the dish be moist and flavorful.

I heated a little olive oil and cooked some green onions while I cut the chicken thighs into large chunks. It took just a few minutes to brown the meat. I set the chicken aside while I added some leftover short grain rice. When it was heated through, I stirred in the chicken, a little stock, and some leaves of fresh thyme. I transferred everything into a casserole and slid it into the oven while we had our spicy soup.

I pulled out the steaming chicken and rice and plated some for John. The scent of juicy chicken was almost too much for the cats, who circled our feet, hoping for a scrap. But it was too good to share. Besides, I wanted some leftovers for lunch tomorrow.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Chaos That is Costco

John and I like to stay in on Sunday mornings. We have a small breakfast of pastry with mugs of steaming hot drinks--coffee with milk and sugar for him, pu-er tea for me--while we trade sections of the paper, catch snippets of the football game, and take turns petting the cats. Between sneaking Mordecai a crumb of almond cake and reading the book reviews, it's a typically quiet morning in our section of San Francisco.

Our little bubble is burst with a request from my mother. She needs a few things from Costco; would we mind? Of course not, but it's one of my least favorite places to be. John and I drove to the warehouse downtown and I braced myself for an experience I'd sooner forget.

Within seconds of stepping into the store, I had to dodge children lined up for free samples of hot chocolate. I carefully maneuvered my shopping cart around people studying cases of frozen seafood. I stepped aside when a forklift transporting what appeared to be several metric tons of carrots came toward me. Finally, I reached the pharmacy in the back of the store and located the fish oil capsules that my mother has been consuming daily.

Costco is one of those places where good intentions and discipline go awry. I'm not going to stand in line just for a few bottles of supplements, I tell myself. Before I know it, John and I are putting a case of San Pellegrino water, a year's supply of Tide, a jar of cashews, and a loaf of bread into the cart. John quickly steers the cart to the nearest checkout line before I talk myself into a dozen rolls of Scotch tape or a gallon of balsamic vinegar.

It's nearly 5:00 when we return home. John pulls out a package of Nathan's hot dogs and some buns and quietly makes us a quick dinner. He somehow intuits that it will take me time to recover and he's too hungry to wait. I squeeze some limes and mix the juice with a simple syrup (one part sugar, two parts water) to make lime-ade.

We're eating our hotdogs and watching the start of Game 2 of the World Series when it occurs to me that a certain five-pound bag of roasted peanuts would sure be tasty right about now.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

A Run on Duck

I should have known that things weren't going to go as planned.

Professional chefs who advocate seasonal cooking advise not to go to the market with a set recipe; instead, see what is fresh and available and plan from there. But I wasn't looking for strawberries or corn in the middle of autumn. I was looking for duck legs for bolognese sauce.

John and I headed over to Andronico's, a small, family-owned chain that is also our local market. We selected a butternut squash for the pureed soup. At the cheese counter, I had a piece of aged Manchego cut to order and picked up some thinly sliced serrano ham. The only thing left was the duck over at the butcher counter.

I stared at a small sign marked 'duck legs,' but there was no such thing to be found. In its place was a clean patch of ice. The butcher apologized and told me that a customer had cleaned him out. I couldn't believe it. Why not pheasant or rabbit or some other seldomly cooked game? And why oh why on the day of my dinner party?

The butcher could see that I was trying to suppress a nervous breakdown. I was thinking as quickly as I could as I scanned the meat counter. Braised lamb shanks or osso buco...not enough time. Porterhouses...Brenda's not a fan of rare meat. Halibut, trout, tilapia...Andy's allergic to fish.
Chicken...yawn. John stroked my arm as I tried to make a decision.

I spotted some freshly cut and tied pork loin roasts. They're like boneless porkchops and take to a variety of seasoning very well. As the butcher handed us our five pound roast, he said, "All day people have been asking for duck legs. Was there a recipe in the paper or something?" We replied that we didn't know.

At 6:30, Brenda and Andy came in from the cold rain. As soon as they shed their coats, we pressed glasses of sparkling, honey-scented Domaine Chandon Riche into their hands. They munched on hot-from-the-oven cheddar biscuits, manchego with membrillo, and slices of serrano ham while John gave them a tour of the flat.

As I slid the roast into the oven, John ladled out bowls of curry-flavored butternut squash puree. We poured a bottle of 2003 Handley Cellars Brightlighter White, a crisp, fresh Riesling-Gewurztraminer blend that pairs nicely with spicy foods. This friendly, accessible wine was a winner with Andy and Brenda.

I pulled out the thyme-rubbed pork roast when it registered 150-degrees on the meat thermometer. While it rested, I reduced the sauce and enriched it with a nugget of butter. The potatoes--intended for the scuttled gnocchi--ended up sliced and layered with creme fraiche and Gruyere for a potato gratin. A dish of sauteed green beans and shitakes rounded out the meal. By the time I set down the main course, everyone was savoring the aroma of the 2001 J Robert Thomas Pinot Noir. This is the most elegant of J's pinots, its softness and earthy notes matching nicely with the mushrooms.

We retired to the living room for dessert. Brenda brought pineapple sherbet from Mitchell's, a San Francisco institution. I placed scoops of sherbet next to slices of the lemon cake I baked earlier. To encourage our guests to linger, we offered them glasses of 2002 Navarro Late Harvest Gewurztraminer, a sweet, unctuous dessert wine. The floral and peach flavors captivate even people who don't like sweet wines.

After the last wine glass was dried and put away, I did a little sleuthing to solve the mystery of the sold out duck legs. Sure enough, last week's Food section of the San Francisco Chronicle featured a recipe for braised duck and wild mushrooms. I made a note to reserve some duck with the butcher and try the recipe myself.

Friday, October 22, 2004

We Interrupt This Menu for a Dental Development

John and I are hosting his sister and brother-in-law for dinner tomorrow. We had planned a casual evening where we would start with some tapas, open some wine to have with fresh-from-the-oven pizzas, and close out with a nice cake. That was before he cracked a molar--on a grape, of all things--and commenced a menu change.

John called me from Mike's as I was starting to make him a late dinner of chicken katsudon--a thin cutlet breaded, lightly fried, and drizzled with teriyaki--on a bowl of fluffy short grain rice with a side of vegetables. He broke the news about his broken tooth and I shifted gears; soft food was in order.

When I was a child and wasn't feeling well, my mother would make me a one-bowl meal of soft, almost porridge-y rice with diced vegetables; if I was up to it, she would add some chicken or pork. Although John was perfectly healthy, something like my mom's dish would be easy to chew, but it need not be bland.

In a matter of minutes, the chicken went from cutlet to a pile of pieces the size of a pencil eraser. I sauteed the meat with diced carrots and peas, mixed an equal amount of soy sauce and mirin for the teriyaki, and slowly cooked down the sauce. When John came home, I set down a plate of rice with this mini saute, which he chewed gingerly.

While he carefully ate his dinner, I sketched a new menu for Saturday. The tapas would stay, but the tooth-challenging marcona almonds had to go. I'll make tender cheddar biscuits instead. We'll replace the pizza with curried butternut squash soup and a main course of gnocchi with duck bolognese. And for dessert, a soft lemon cake.

I thought about poor John, chewing on the right side of his mouth, as I shopped for produce today. I chuckled as a thought crossed my mind--maybe this is a sneak peak into our senior years, me cooking up soft food and cutting it into small, manageable pieces for him. But given the odds of finding the one person you want to spend your life with...well, I should be so lucky.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Consider the Quince

Every Wednesday, a neglected section of the Civic Center is taken over by farmers from the Central Valley. It's officially called Heart of the City Farmers' Market, but locals never call it that. I like this market because I respect the farmers, who range from Cambodians who grow vegetables that remind them of home to fifth generation dairy farmers selling handmade cheeses to beekeepers offering jars of honey. They all encourage you to taste before buying.

I spent a little over $6 and struggled under the weight of my groceries. I purchased slender eggplants for baingan bartha, a spicy Indian curry. Jalepenos and pasilla peppers could be roasted and added to a chorizo omelet. I knew John would love the heavy bunches of red grapes that tasted like candy. And several pounds of russets were sliced up and fried for last night's baseball-themed dinner.

I also purchased two quinces, a fruit shaped like a pear but as solid as an apple. I had never cooked with it before, but I have had membrillo, a quince paste that Spaniards like to eat with manchego, a cured sheep's milk cheese. I found a recipe for quince paste on and decided to give it a shot.

The fruit roasted in the oven for two hours but still held their shape. I peeled, quartered and pureed them as instructed. After cooking the pulp with sugar, I poured the mixture into a loaf pan and chilled it. A few hours later, I freed it from the pan and tasted a piece. It was dense, sweet and floral--and not at all gummy.

John's sister Brenda and her husband Andy are coming over for dinner on Saturday. The quince paste will be a nice accompaniment to a little tapas plate of manchego and other cheeses, serrano ham, marcona almonds, figs and cava, a Spanish sparkling wine that champagne snobs tend to dismiss. It's not as refined as champagne, but it's an approachable bubbly that's simply fun to drink.

I love how inspiration for a dinner menu came from some knobby fruit at an open air market. If there's any quince paste left next Wednesday, I'm going to take some to the farmer whose labor made it possible.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Talking Baseball (Papi, Damon, and D. Lowe)

I haven't been excited about baseball in a while. After going to the World Series in 2002, my beloved Giants were eliminated by the Marlins in the first round last year and didn't even capture the Wild Card this season. I can't bring myself to root for either the Astros or the Cardinals in the NLCS. And that team from the Bronx? Um, no.

That leaves a certain hard luck, perennial underdog from Boston. Entire generations of Red Sox fans have gone to their graves without seeing their team win the World Series. John is a rational man who doesn't believe in The Curse, but we both wonder: is this the year?

A Boston win forced a Game 7 to be played tonight. John suggested that we have a classic baseball meal of hot dogs, fries, and beer--Boston-based Sam Adams, of course.

I purchased a few pounds of russet potatoes from the Farmer's Market so we could make fries. They had been dug up the day before and had bits of dirt clinging to the papery brown skins. We scrubbed them, cut them into thick batons, and soaked them in ice water while we caught the first few innings. The Red Sox got off to a good start with Johnny Damon's grand slam.

We fried the potatoes in hot oil in small batches, let them drain, then turned the heat up for the second frying. The first frying cooks the inside of the potato so you get a fluffy interior; the second frying crisps and puffs up the fry. They were crispy and hot and perfect for dunking in copious amounts of ketchup.

We also cooked up some hot dogs--alas, not ballpark grilled, but a stovetop approximation. John sticks to ketchup and mustard; I also like pickle relish on mine. But we both agree that a good dog needs French's Yellow, not the fancy stuff. We gathered up our dogs, fries and beer and headed out to the living room.

I'm a superstitious baseball fan. During the Giants' 2002 post-season run, I ate an unimaginable number of liverwurst sandwiches because that's what I was eating when they clinched the NL West. Was I going to mess with success and switch to a Polish sausage or a hamburger? Unfortunately, my team lost to the Angels and I haven't quite regained my taste for liverwurst.

John and I watched an energized Red Sox team come back from an 0-3 deficit in this series and get hits and homers off the Yankees pitching staff. The designated hitter and a reliance on big bats are some of the things that I find jarring about American League baseball, but tonight, I was a Boston fan. I tipped back my Sam Adams to confirm it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Homemade Takeout

When I was a student at Cal in the early 1990s, a certain type of eaterie dotted the landscape the way mushrooms appear after a rain. The first one of its type offered food as prosaic as its name: $1 Chinese. College towns like Berkeley have no shortage of cheap food, but $1 Chinese took this concept to a horrific, I-can't-believe-there's-food-worse-than-the-cafeteria level. I suspected that the cooks used a 1:1 ratio of food to grease. The irony was that a dollar's worth of leaden chow mein or fried won tons would cost you $3 in antacids.

John and I traded greasy Chinese food horror stories as we prepared dinner. We didn't get home until 8:00, and a quick meal was in order. Neither of us has an iron stomach anymore, so cartons of greasy Mongolian beef and chow fun would likely result in a sleepless night.

I always keep a stash of potstickers in the freezer for nights like these, but we were down to the last half dozen. As I put the dumplings into a pan with canola and water, I made a note to make more this weekend.

I sliced up a chicken thigh and browned it in a pan with some minced ginger and chopped green onions. When this was cooked, I set it aside and added leftover rice, some diced carrot, and peas. When the vegetables were cooked, I cracked two eggs into the pan and scrambled them. I added the chicken, seasoned it with soy sauce, and the fried rice came together.

I took the last of the green beans from the refrigerator and blanched them quickly. I made my mom's default stir fry sauce with a little sugar, cornstarch, soy sauce, and water and the beans were soon glazed.

We sat down to our version of $1 Chinese. It cost just a little more, but hardly broke the bank. Or, for that matter, our stomachs.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Pork Roast: Cure for the Common Cold

It's official: I am battling a headcold. After a weekend of chills, I woke up with the sniffles, a sore throat and a sinus headache. I am not getting out of bed.

Mordecai and Zachary kept me company while I stayed home from work. They took turns warming my lap and purring and nuzzling my cheeks. At noon, I took a break from all this feline affection to peel a grapefruit and to make a peanut butter sandwich. When I'm ill, I don't cook; I assemble food.

Which, of course, depresses me. By midafternoon, I was determined to haul myself into the kitchen and reclaim the Karena who walks upright, not the hunched, shuffling caricature staring back at me in the mirror. I opened the refrigerator to see what I could do given my deadened olfactory senses.

When I'm not feeling well, I'm drawn to comfort foods. I pulled out a Niman Ranch pork roast and bunches of sage and rosemary. I crushed the herbs with some olive oil and rubbed this paste over the roast. I set it aside to marinate while I chopped shallots and minced garlic. Their pungency cut through the fogginess and I felt more alert.

I peeled and turned carrots and stemmed handfuls of green beans to simmer in a rich chicken stock. I spotted two russet potatoes on the counter, peeled them, and dropped them into a pot of beef stock.

John came home just as I was searing the roast. I quickly browned the shallots, added the garlic, then deglazed the pan with white wine and chicken stock. The roast returned to the pan and went into a 350-degree oven to finish cooking. I enlisted John to rice and mash the potatoes. He had a restrained hand with the milk, but added enough Plugra butter to bake a cake. But isn't that the reason we love mashed potatoes?

I carved the roast and arranged it and the vegetables on a platter. The buttery mashed potatoes were steaming hot. John opened a bottle of 2002 J Russian River Pinot Noir, a soft fruit-forward red with a slightly smoky nose. I had just half a glass; with my stuffy nose and cloudy tastebuds, I could not fully appreciate this wine.

A hot meal has healing powers, but for me, the act of cooking was even more restorative. Which is important, because the dishes almost sent me diving for the covers.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Warm Me With Tandoori

After dining in for a week, John and I were looking forward to Indian food. My meat-and-potatoes guy was craving an eggplant curry. He never ceases to surprise me.

We piled on the clothes and walked over to Naan-n-Curry, a beacon on this cold rainy night. For all of $20, we walked out with orders of baingan bartha, chicken vindaloo, chicken tandoori, and aloo naan. We couldn't wait to get home.

The naan is still warm, but I like to crisp it a little by placing it in a 200-degree oven. While the bread is warming, I plate our food. Curry, cardamom, and chiles fill the air. Our mouths water as we pour out glasses of J Brut Rose, a fruity and somewhat floral sparkler. It is a refreshing wine that puts out the fire of the spicy hot vindaloo.

The heat from the spices and the food provide some relief from the cold. John puts his arm around me and I nestle in; it warms me down to the core.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Potato Potahto

After a week of 85-degree days, the weather turned and I pulled on a turtleneck to keep warm. The air was cold and damp; rain was probably on its way. John and I ducked into one of our favorite spots to chase away the chill.

The aroma of fries greets you as soon as you enter Frjtz, a funky little cafe. The DJ tunes, the changing art exhibit, and Belgian beer attract the chic residents of Hayes Valley, but John and I are simply hooked on the fries. They're hot, cut thick, and a nice blend of crispy-fluffy. Instead of ketchup, we dip them into chipotle aioli, a creamy sauce with just a little heat. I'm getting warmer already.

John always orders the Matisse, a crepe filled with smoked salmon, sour cream, and chives. I introduced him to it a year ago and he's been addicted since. Depending on my mood, I will alternate between a giant salad and a savory crepe. Since I'm indulging in a fair amount of fries today, I opt for the Hokusai, a plate of mixed greens topped with tuna and avocado--hardly diet food. Hey, it's Saturday.

We thaw out as we read the paper and munch on fries. The house music is a little loud, but we don't mind. As John studies the movie listings, I help myself to the last crispy morsel. But he's one step ahead of me--he polished off the aoili.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Fish on Friday

John and I look forward to the end of the week, but not just for the obvious reasons. Part tradition, part standing date, we have sushi each Friday night. However, we don't linger over sake; we take it home.

After work, we head straight for Chika, a tiny sushi bar whose owners toil in the shadow of Ebisu, a much-hyped restaurant whose young professional clientele overpay for burrito-sized sushi rolls. Nosumi, the owners' daughter and the restaurant's only server, greets us warmly and takes our order.

I always order sashimi--maguro, hamachi, kampachi, sake and hirame. John likes his sushi maki style, so he opts for the spicy tuna roll, tekka maki, and the sake roll. We also like to select an item from the specials board, and this week, we order the bonito and tomato carpaccio, thin slices of seared tuna and ripe tomato dressed in a garlic-chive oil.

When we get home, we arrange our dinner on lacquered Japanese trays. We pull out our sushi plates and silver chopsticks. And we always open a bottle of champagne. Tonight, it's one of our last bottles of 1998 J Vintage Brut, a Sonoma sparkler that we regularly pair with sushi--and one that the New York Times finally caught on to.

Our Friday nights are about spending time together, unwinding, and laughing. And the fact that we do it over great food and a bottle of bubbly makes each Friday more special than the last.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Simple Green

Thursday nights can be challenging. The refrigerator has just enough ingredients for dinner. However, we're both tired and it's tempting to just phone up San Tung for an order of chicken wings and beef chow fun.

Nights like these call for something simple, straightforward and so satisfying that you can't believe you actually considered greasy springrolls. For us, that means a great pasta. Miraculously, a giant bunch of basil I bought at the farmer's market hadn't whithered away, so pesto was in order.

I brought a large pot of water to boil while I made the pesto. In college, I lived in a co-op with 61 women and ate my share of gummy, sticky pasta. Because it takes a long time to boil that much water, whoever had kitchen duty would boil the minimum amount of water and add the maximum amount of pasta. The noodles have no room to move, so the starch congeals and they stick together. Since then, I have used a large pot, a lot of salted water, and restraint in the amount of pasta I cook.

I crushed three garlic cloves and put them in a blender with two big handfuls of basil, some toasted pinenuts, and roughly a quarter cup of olive oil. After scraping down the sides and making sure there were no chunks of garlic, I stirred in some grated pamigiano-reggiano. I seasoned the pesto with salt and pepper and set it aside.

John's favorite pasta shape is spaghetti, which pesto coats beautifully. The thing is, he eats a lot of it. It's charming how he disregards the suggested serving size, but I sometimes wonder about cooking half a pound of pasta just for him.

From start to finish, dinner was on the table in twenty minutes--which is still faster than takeout.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Cheese, Please--But Not for Me

I am not a fussy eater. I will consume just about anything that's edible and enjoy things that some people wouldn't eat if their lives depended on it--oysters on the half shell and sweetbreads being just two examples. But this food lover can't eat an entire food group: dairy.

Sometime after my 25th birthday, I was no longer able to have milk, cream or cheese. A grilled cheese sandwich or a lobster bisque would bring on a crippling stomach ache. I cannot describe the irony of this punishment--no more triple cremes just as I learned how to enjoy these runny cheeses.

Fortunately, lactose is found only in cow's milk and there are some excellent sheeps milk and goat cheeses available. Even though I get to enjoy Humbolt Fog, a lovely aged goat cheese, I miss having a slice of Point Reyes Blue, another locally made cheese that makes my knees weak.

So why do I have a block of Grafton Village cheddar in my refrigerator? So I can make macaroni and cheese, of course.

...for John, that is. He loves potatoes and pasta; he loves cheese. Put them together, and I swear you've never seen a happier man. He has left half-eaten steaks on his plate so he can polish off an entire Gruyere-potato gratin. So I decided that I would have a John-sized macaroni and cheese bake waiting for him when he got home from Mike's.

I started by making a bechamel. I melted some butter in a pan over low heat and added flour when it melted. You have to stir this mixture for at least four minutes until it foams, or you'll be able to taste the raw flour. When this turned a light golden brown, I added a large pinch of cayenne pepper and salt. Adding hot milk a half cup at a time, I whisked the sauce slowly and carefully. I still remember the first time a hot milk-butter globule hit my hand from overzealous stirring.

I then added a few cups of grated cheddar. The cheese melted into the bechamel and became a viscous sauce. I poured this over a bowl of cooked baby macaroni and made sure every noodle was smothered.

After making three layers of pasta and grated cheddar, I browned some bread crumbs in butter and sprinkled this topping over the dish. It went into the oven and the aroma of bubbling cheddar spread through the house. Mordecai and Zachary, my grey tabbies, paced the perimeter of the kitchen, hoping for a little scrap of cheese.

Thirty minutes later, John walked through the front door and tucked into a plate of baked macaroni and cheese. He loves breaking through the crunchy crust to reveal a molten interior of cheesy pasta. My inner nutritionist balances out the inner hedonist, so a dish of carrots and green beans lightly blanched in garlic broth rounded out the meal.

This dinner of childhood classics wouldn't be complete without dessert, so I made cupcakes and frosted them with a simple genache. I brought a cup of cream to boil and whisked in eight ounces of Ghiradelli chocolate until it was smooth. After a slight chill, I whipped the genache until it was a fluffy frosting. I may not be able to indulge in these treats myself, but that doesn't mean that my loved ones go without.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Leftovers Reborn

It was dinner time, and I hadn't done any grocery shopping in a week. It was one of those nights when ordering takeout would have been easier, but I couldn't--not when there were plenty of leftovers. The problem was, how do I pull them all together for a decent dinner?

At least I had the foresight to defrost some chicken legs the night before. I looked at the pale poultry and a pot of turkey stock; poached chicken, perhaps? Peeking out of the vegetable bin were a carton of cremini mushrooms and some green beans; these could go into a saute. On the top shelf sat a bowl holding a few spoonfuls of pesto and a container of red bell peppers I roasted a week ago. I rooted around for some herbs and sat everything on the counter.

I browned the chicken in olive oil and added carrots cut into irregular rectangles. After deglazing with some white wine, I added garlic and enough turkey stock to cover the legs. I turned down the heat, put a lid on the pan, and let the chicken simmer while I turned my attention to the side dishes.

I minced some more garlic and cooked it slowly over low heat. This bought me some time while I diced the mushrooms and roasted bell peppers. I turned up the heat and sauteed the mushrooms until they caramelized. A little white wine deglazed the pan and the bell peppers were added.

While the vegetables cooked, I blanched the green beans, then added them to the mushroom mixture. I minced some oregano that John's best friend Mike had grown and added them to the vegetables. A little salt and pepper, and it was ready to be plated.

I added some orzo and peas to the green bean water and let it cook for 10 minutes before tossing it with the leftover pesto. The starchy side dish was also ready.

The chicken was done around the same time. I placed the legs and carrots on a platter and turned up the heat to reduce the poaching liquid. When it was slightly thickened, I poured it over the chicken for an improvised reduction sauce.

Thirty minutes after staring hopelessly at a pile of seemingly disparate ingredients, we sat down to poached chicken with carrots, green bean and mushroom saute, and orzo with pesto. We celebrated this budget-minded creativity with a half bottle of LeNoble Brut Reserve, a creamy champagne with light bubbles.

My parents taught me never to waste food. They are part of a generation that experienced famine and did not have the 'luxury' of discarding anything that may be of use. I take those lessons to heart, but I also cannot bear to throw out any food that I took the time to cook. I have made memorable meals from fine (and fresh) ingredients, but giving new life to leftovers is also very satisfying.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Salt: The Emperor's New Clothes

Sometimes I wonder why eating and cooking have to be so difficult. Eggs will kill you; no, eggs are fine in moderation. Fat is evil; wait, fat is good and necessary. Now salt--once banned from kitchens for causing high blood pressure and all sorts of ills--may not only be good for you, it's the latest rage in certain foodie circles.

Last week's Food Section of the San Francisco Chronicle featured salts that I had heard of but had never tasted. Tonight, while flipping through Gourmet, I found a page of recipes using different salts. With the exception of caramels that used Fleur de Sel, the salts were mostly sea and kosher--ones that a cook might actually have in the kitchen.

I don't know if these specialty salts are worth, well, their salt. Apparently, some of the pink and grey stuff can cost upwards of $30 per pound. My mother thinks I'm a spendthrift for shelling out $3 for a cannister of La Baleine Sea Salt. She still uses Morton's and is one of the finest cooks I know.

The Chronicle article quoted several chefs who insist that the salts make all the difference in their cooking and are worth their price. I am reminded of David Brooks' tome Bobos in Paradise. In it, he skewers the upwardly mobile, who will "buy the same items as the proletariat but paying hugely inflated prices for all sorts of things that used to be cheap..."

Many professional and home cooks know that your cooking is only as good as your ingredients. We search out high quality items that demand respect, so we handle and cook it minimally. But now it's not enough to have extra virgin olive oil from a small, artisan producer who toils on a small Tuscan farm. Or aged Balsamico that, by the ounce, costs more than Petrus. Apparently, it's come to this--unwashed salt from France.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Cookbooks 101

This afternoon, I found myself indulging in a favorite pastime: reading cookbooks. I consider a well written cookbook similar to a piece of literature. The latter may be an eloquent expression of the human condition, but depending on the author, the former can read like the classics.

I think that the Chez Panisse series can be as cerebral as Flaubert's Madame Bovary. It's not just that Alice Waters doesn't give instruction on technique; she'll often forgo exact measurements and cooking times. Home cooks looking for precision can be driven mad by her use of suggestions rather than directions--a handful of herbs...a spash of wine...poach until done. Her recipes and menus never spell out, say, what to to have for dinner. Like Flaubert, she will invoke a vivid experience through spare and adequate descriptions. It's like trying to cook with your French lit professor.

Julia Child, on the other hand, is like having your favorite aunt in the kitchen. She'll scold you for not attempting a recipe because it appears daunting, but her good nature and sense of humor means she'll let you off the hook if a dish doesn't succeed. All throughout Mastering the Art of French Cooking, her narrative makes every recipe approachable--and versatile. Ice cream doesn't set? Serve it as a sauce with cake!

I have a good number of cookbooks, but there are a few that I turn to regularly if I need a recipe. How does Deborah Madison cook rainbow chard? What kind of sauce would James Peterson make to accompany leg of lamb? What kind of cake would Rose Levy Berenbaum serve at a friend's baby shower?

But for those times I want to experience a philosophy or an aesthetic, I turn to MFK Fisher or Elizabeth David. If it were not graceful writing, it may read like a rigid and dogmatic tome. But they had strong, personal convictions about eating and enjoying life.

Many of my friends are avid readers. We will compare notes on the latest David Sedaris and debate the merits of The Corrections, but my cookbook reading is not subject to bookclub discussions. They simply don't share my passion for reading a cookbook cover to cover. But I don't take it personally.

Friday, October 08, 2004

The Joy of JoJo

Discovering a great restaurant on your own is like inadvertently learning a little secret. When you are introduced to one, you feel honored that someone let you in on theirs.

In this case, the secret is JoJo, a tiny slip of a restaurant that identifies itself as 'country French cooking.' Having never eaten in the French countryside myself, I think this is the closest I've come to that famously honest cuisine. John and I were invited to JoJo by Sarah and Scott, fellow food and wine enthusiasts we met at a tasting of Nicolas Feuillatte champagnes. Having previously bonded over frites, we were eager to join them for dinner at one of their favorite restaurants.

We commenced the evening with a bottle of Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut Rose. This is one of those lovely, versatile wines that both champagne partisans and neophytes alike can gush over. It's food friendly and can be sipped on its own.
The fruit and creamy mouthfeel are equal pleasures. Sigh.

Sarah and John both gave in to 'tart blindness,' our friends' dead-on way of explaining how the ethereal crab and goat cheese tart can inspire cult-like devotion to that appetizer. John liked it so much that he didn't offer me a single bite of the precious tart. No matter; my order of Pate de Campagne was so generous that I, a certified pate nut, struggled to finish each rich bite. Cornichons, thin slices of radish, picholine and nicoise olives, and a bold mustard made my valiant attempt that much more delicious.

Selecting a wine to match four different entrees can be more difficult than securing peace in Northern Ireland. Yes, I'm exaggerating--but oh so slightly. It's inevitable that someone will prefer big, powerful California reds over a Burgundy with finesse; fruit over earth; or--horrors--a Merlot. After some dialogue over what would accompany entrees of roast salmon, Portuguese shellfish stew, and lamb brochettes, we decided on a bottle of 2000 Robert Sinsky Vineyards Pinot Noir. It was my pick, and I hoped Sarah and Scott liked it.

My lamb brochettes surrounded a mound of shell beans and chanterelles. Tender leaves of baby swiss chard could turn even the most fervent hater of the green into a devotee. John enjoyed his salmon so much that he barely said two words; I think he was in a state of rapture as he cleaned his plate.

I didn't think I could make it to dessert. I had half my lamb boxed up so that I could have a slice of the persimmon pudding. Oh my. It was delicious on its own--moist, dense, spicy and nutty--but a bottle of Andrew Rich Gewurztraminer Ice Wine made it a decadent experience. It was such a tease to have the essence of stone fruit in a glass while enjoying a slice of the fall harvest.

If it weren't for a very full belly, I would have floated out of JoJo. I felt like I was let in on a sumptuous secret.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

A Meal Not on Wheels

John visits his best friend Mike once a week. I am not quite sure what they do with their evening, but I imagine that they decompress by escaping into a world of video games and football. What I do know is that Mike has been experimenting with his recently purchased gas grill and John will sometimes bring home leftovers such as a chunk of smoked salmon or an entire pork loin. But this was not a night fueled by grilled meats; John came home ravenously hungry.

I am usually prepared to whip up a late-night snack, especially if I can prevent John from stopping for fast food. He has sat down to 10:30 meals ranging from potstickers and fried rice to oven-roasted rainbow trout with orzo and haricots vert. But tonight, I was experiencing a culinary perfect storm: I was tired and the pantry was nearly empty.

There were exactly two flour tortillas in the refrigerator. I also spotted a container of pan-fried chicken breasts I had been eating with my lunch salads. Then I found a piece of jack near the back of the cheese drawer. Eureka!

I placed one tortilla in a frying pan over low heat while I grated the cheese and mixed it with chopped scallion and half of a diced seeded tomato. I spooned this mixture over the tortilla and started to shred the chicken. This gets topped with a spoonful of black beans. I can never flip a quesadilla with the filling intact, so I slide it open-faced onto a plate and heat a second tortilla for the top. A lone, ripe avocado got mashed with some salsa and a few drops of hot sauce for an impromptu guacamole to accompany the quesadilla.

John happily munched this thrown-together meal. It had no claims to authenticity, but it was an example of how a little creativity and a hunk of cheese can mean the difference between a home-cooked meal and fast food.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Tokyo Go Go a No Go

If people are enjoying themselves, does it matter that the food could be better?

John and I asked ourselves this question as we left Tokyo Go Go, a Mission district holdover from the dotcom days. The Prada people still make up the majority of the crowd and multi-ingredient pastel cocktails are still the primary draw, but we had a good meal there a year ago and decided to give it a shot.

I scanned the menu while sipping a glass of Bishonen, an off-dry sake with faint notes of pineapple. I noticed that several signature items were off the menu, but there were some interesting specials. We placed our order and people-watched as we waited.

To our right, a group of inebriated khaki-clad young men left and their table was promptly occupied by a small party led by what appeared to be a Long Island matriarch. To our left sat the cast of a Woody Allen movie. And sure enough, their conversation mirrored the Marshall McLuhan scene from Annie Hall.

The first dish to arrive was spicy tuna rolls the size of futo maki. Unfortunaely, the tuna gave so little heat that the promise of spicy went unfulfilled.

The next roll was no better. Instead of raw fish, the hamachi roll was actually made with the deep fried stuff. Again, it was huge. It was too chewy for me to attempt more than one piece.

Hamachi karaage gave large chunks of yellowtail the KFC treatment. It was advertised as cubes, but in reality they were unwieldy and difficult-to-eat bricks of fried fish. We had to peel off the breading to focus on the nicely flavored, flaky meat. The garlic ponzu was tasty, but nearly overwhelmed the hamachi.

The kitchen barely redeemed itself with two raw offerings. The tuna and salmon tartare set a pile of sesame oil-flavored fish on a dallop of creamy guacamole. This unlikely pairing actually worked. We scooped up tiny portions of fish with puffy rice chips.

The other raw dish was actually lightly cooked. Thin slices of seabass were sprinkled with matchsticks of scallion and ginger, then doused with hot oil and soy sauce a la Nobu. It was the one dish that I could keep eating, but alas, there were merely five slices of fish.

We left full, but not satisfied. A bad meal leaves me in a similar mood. When we got home, I searched the pantry for a bit of chocolate, a piece of fruit, a sip of wine--anything that would awaken and reward my tastebuds. I wanted to restore a sense of well-being, but it was pointless. It's been a long time since I went to bed hungry, emotionally speaking.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Pizza Intuition

We've been on a pizza kick. Are we on a quest for the perfect pie? Is the impending close of tomato season driving our marinara consumption? Or perhaps it's how a 450-degree oven can heat the entire house on these damp, chilly nights. Whatever the reason, we found ourselves again rolling out pizza dough, slicing whole milk mozzarella into thin strips, and this time, browning Molinari Italian sausage.

John doesn't cook on his own, but has a knack for certain things--like knowing when to stop stirring risotto, determining whether the corn chowder needs more salt, and how to assemble a pizza properly. I don't know where this innate sense comes from, as his years of bachelorhood were marked (marred?) not by cuisine but by chow. This is a man who is greeted by name at Starbucks and gets special treatment at certain burrito joints.

So we've decided that I will knead flour, water and yeast into a dough; roast and puree tomatoes into sauce; and do the other prep work. Then I step aside and let him make our savory dinner.

John pats, stretches and shapes the elastic dough into a rough 12" circle, then gently transfers it to a wooden paddle sprinkled with cornmeal. Working quickly, he ladles on tomato sauce and spreads it evenly to the perimeter before adding the cheese, tearing the mozzarella into smaller pieces if he has to. Finally, he crumbles browned spicy sausage over the top. With the flick of his wrist, he deftly slides his creation onto the hot baking stone.

Ten minutes later, we are happily biting into hot slices of sausage pizza and washing it down with 2000 Mt. Veeder Napa Zinfandel, nicely peppery and big with fruit. I raise my glass to toast my budding pizzaiolo and his way with pie.

Monday, October 04, 2004

TCA and Other Tales From the Cellar

John and I held our breath and pulled the cork. It crumbled in half. We looked at each other, hoping for the best. John carefully extracted the other half from the neck of the bottle and decanted the rich liquid. Sediment drifted to the bottom of the crystal vessel. We decided to give it an hour.

We shouldn't have worried. The 1991 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was very rewarding. Swirling the wine in the glass hinted at its body and released aromas of dark fruit and earth and smoke, but the first sip revealed its complexity. The fruit sneaks up on you, gradually overtaking wet earth and warm spices as the dominant flavor; blackberries slowly give way to the darkest of cherries. The tannins had softened over the last decade and this wine still had potential to cellar for another.

But an article on "cellar funk" in the San Francisco Chronicle prompted us to open this bottle sooner than later. Apparently, the Wine Spectator critic James Laube sounded alarm bells when he detected TCA (a mold compound) in a bottle of Montelena and had a lab verify its presence. Maybe my palette isn't as refined as his, because I couldn't taste any 'chalkiness' or 'cement' in this bottle of wine.

In fact, when we paired the Montelena with seared chateaubriand, Gruyere potato gratin, and haricot verts dressed with a shallot-walnut vinaigrette, the wine exhibited nothing but classic cabernet sauvignon texture and taste. The gamey flavors bonded with the medium rare beef. Its suppleness was a lovely match for the smooth cheesy potatoes. I lament only its over the top richness, which prevented me from really savoring another glass.

We had no quarrel with this wine, and this experience confirmed our suspicion that wine critics further shake peoples' already shaky confidence in their own palettes. They've taken the fun and spontaneity out of opening a bottle of wine on a dreary Monday night and made it a commentary on the validity of their tastes.

But no matter. We finally opened a bottle of wine that we had been saving. And we enjoyed every drop.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

The Chicken Marsala Gene

We had dinner with Brenda and Andy last night. I love home cooked meals because cooking for others is a universal act of caring for loved ones. But it's becoming rarer and ordering kung pao is just easier. I have only a handful of friends--male or female--who cook, and even fewer who really enjoy it. Andy is one of them. The guy makes his own bernaise to accompany T-bones grilled to a perfect medium. Maybe it's in his DNA; his late mother made a legendary baked ziti.

We settled into a dinner of chicken marsala that I smothered in mushroom sauce; a savory green bean almandine; and enough garlic linguine to endanger the vampire species. While we enjoyed Andy's cooking, Tommy and Ryan happily watched Harry Potter confront elves and serpents in the halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This was a classic family dinner.

After the dishes had been cleared, the boys set their sights on frosting and decorating the cupcakes I baked earlier in the day. Their dedication to covering every cupcake with buttery frosting and a unique pattern of sprinkles gave me hope that when they're old enough, they will want to stand at a stove and transform marsala and mushrooms into a tasty sauce. After all, they have their dad's culinary genes.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

A Kitchen of One's Own

The sky was gray, the sidewalk damp with drizzle and a chill permeated the house. San Francisco had been blessed with so many 70-degree days in September that even the most dedicated home cooks would have found it difficult to stay indoors. But this was the kind of Saturday that warm kitchens are made for.

I had been stockpiling partial turkey carcasses in the freezer, remnants of turkey breasts I had roasted for our sandwiches. I browned them with garlic, carrots and celery, deglazed the pot with half a bottle of dry (unoaked, please!) Chardonnay, added a bouquet garni, and let everything simmer while I pondered what to make next.

I believe that if you have a pot of tomato sauce in your refrigerator, you won't go hungry. Left plain, it can be the base for a pizza; spiced up with basil, a straightforward sauce for spaghetti. Roasted tomatoes have a smoky sweetness that stove-top simmering can't produce. It's also a great way to use the heat from a pre-heating oven.

I poured olive oil into my favorite weathered frying pan. While diced onion and garlic sizzled away, I sliced five over-the-hill tomatoes in half and nestled them into the hot aromatics. After sprinkling with sea salt and black pepper, I slid the pan into the oven.

I was on a roll. I had some pastry dough left over from Tuesday's chocolate tart and some Gala apples I had intended to eat had it not been for a quart of juicy end-of-the-season strawberries. I rolled out the dough and arranged peeled slices of apple into a circle. After sprinkling sugar over the fruit, I folded the edges over for a free form crostata. The pastry replaced the roasted tomatoes in the oven.

I then turned my attention to cupcakes. John and I were having dinner with his sister tonight and I offered to bring dessert. His nephews Tommy and Ryan could frost and decorate the cupcakes. I decided to make a classic yellow cupcake inspired by one from Noe Valley Bakery. It was moist, had a fine crumb, and was the perfect vehicle for whipped frosting.

Cooking can be a social activity, but I love to cook alone. I don't have one of those sleek, stainless steel kitchens. My kitchen is small, lacking decent counter space, and equipped with an old Magic Chef with fewer BTUs than what one burner on a Viking range can emit. But I always feel comfortable here. When I'm scrubbing all the pots, bowls and whisks from a marathon cooking session, I can clear my mind. And plan the next meal.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Politics Trumps Pesto

We made a potato pesto pizza last night. The inspiration was equal parts 'unlikely combinations that work' and 'use the basil before it dies.'

I like to make pesto with mortar and pestle--the way purists like Corby Kummer do. But I could spend the night pounding basil, pine nuts and garlic into a paste...or I could whirl it all together in a blender and have time to watch the Kerry-Bush debate.

The tug of presidential history won over culinary authenticity. We topped our dough with our machine pesto, quickly blanched slices of purple creamer potatoes and a light brush of olive oil. We paired our spicy little pizza with a chilled bottle of 2001 Simi Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, a bright and slightly herbal wine. Glasses in hand, we settled in for a 90-minute exchange of ideas.

Or so we thought. Being Kerry partisans, our decision certainly wasn't hinged on this debate. But the candidates barely engaged each other, as they were committed to their prepared talking points. There weren't even any 'you're no Jack Kennedy' moments. The two could have saved a trip to Miami and done this by videoconference.

And I could have spent some quality time with mortar and pestle.

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