Monday, December 21, 2009
By no means am I an expert; at work I am reminded daily that I have lots to learn on the road to becoming a professional chef. However, there are a couple general practices I've learned that have helped me a lot and made cooking more enjoyable. I hope they can do the same for you, my dear reader:
1. Take care of your knives. Knives are the most basic tool a cook owns; even without fire, a knife can make a meal. Never put knives in the dishwasher (I know our moms told us this rule, but I forgot it once in front of our chef and I will never forget it again). A little soap and water will certainly be enough cleaning. With sharper knives, chopping and slicing are easy tasks instead of frustrating (or even dangerous) chores.
2. Cook clean. By cooking clean, I do mean hygenic, but I also mean keep a clean work station. Wiping counters as you go, washing tools while sauces simmer or bread bakes- all of these little moves while cooking contribute to a better work station. When cooking at home, these little steps mean you have less to clean afterwards, when the food coma has set in.
3. Be resourceful. Can the little celery leaves from the center stalks be used to garnish even the most simple plate? Can last night's roast chicken be sliced elegantly for a chicken Caesar? Can I keep my stale bread ends for croutons or bread pudding desserts? Yes! Think of your leftovers and trimmings not as scraps but as pieces of a larger puzzle. You'll be amazed how you can lower your food costs.
4. Follow a recipe. Unless you absolutely 100% remember every little piece to a recipe, be sure to read what you're about to do. Respect the food you're cooking; a haphazard, slapdash approach to a dish will show. It is important to a have a feel for what you're cooking, but until you really know flavors and ratios, freestyling can backfire, like my homemade tomato sauce that was more like an oregano-thyme smoothie. Yuck.
5. Go for it. The only way to learn to cook and to improve is to do it. Cook new things, recipes you've never considered, use spices you can't pronounce. I've only scratched the surface of the possibilities in the last six months. Cooking is a trial-and-error activity. What's the worst that could happen? You get to eat your mistakes!
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
English muffins aren't baked in an oven, as I previously thought. They are cooked on a griddle, flipped once to give both sides their flat, golden crust. They are simple to make and well worth the wait.
I used this recipe:
* 1 cup milk
* 2 tablespoons white sugar
* 1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
* 1 cup warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
* 1/4 cup melted butter
* 6 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 teaspoon salt
1. Warm the milk in a small saucepan until it bubbles, then remove from heat. Mix in the sugar, stirring until dissolved. Let cool until lukewarm. In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
2. In a large bowl, combine the milk, yeast mixture, butter and 3 cups flour. Beat until smooth. RUTHIE'S NOTE: do not use a hand-held mixer with two removable egg beaters. My first go of things I did, and the dough just wound itself up the beaters and became difficult. Second time, I used a spoon and my hands, and it worked fine. Better, if you have one: a countertop Kitchenaid Mixer with a dough hook. Then Add salt and rest of flour, or enough to make a soft dough. Knead. Place in greased bowl, cover, and let rise.
3. Punch down. Roll out to about 1/2 inch thick. Cut rounds with biscuit cutter or drinking glass. Sprinkle waxed paper with cornmeal (or plain bread crumbs) and set the rounds on this to rise. Dust tops of muffins with cornmeal/crumbs also. Cover and let rise 1/2 hour.
4. Heat greased griddle. Cook about 10 minutes on each side on medium heat. Let cool before storing.
recipe from: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/english-muffins/detail.aspx
The only change I made was I substituted one cup of whole wheat flour with the regular flour. Also, this recipe calls for a cornmeal dusting, which I didn't have. Instead, bread crumbs worked just fine.
Once you cut them with a cookie cutter or upside down water glass, let them rise and then just throw them on a greased griddle. Flip after ten minutes, watching the muffins that are closest to the heat source. My muffins in the center of the griddle browned much faster than the ones towards the edge, and I sacrificed a couple in my first batch because I didn't rotate their positions.
Here they are mid-griddle session:
The finished product is different than a Thomas' English Muffin from the grocery store; it doesn't have quite the spongy nooks and crannies of commercial muffins.
However, homemade english muffins toast better and their heartier texture is better suited to savory and sweet toppings. We enjoyed them with eggs and La Victoria Hot Salsa for breakfast, as well as spread with butter and topped with cinnamon and sugar sprinkles for dessert.
The recipe can be time-consuming; it is about 40 minutes of hands-on time plus the rising time in the middle (which is perfect time to clean up, get in a quick walk, or just watch Jeopardy!). Don't be deterred, though; the recipe is straight-forward and these babies are worth the time.
I have suggested a few toppings, namely the eggs and salsa and the cinnamon and sugar dessert toast. Now I'll end this post with a poll- what is your best english muffin topping? Mini pizzas? Cream cheese AND cheddar? I want to hear everyone's variation!
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Be sure to use a cookie sheet or baking pan with an edge. Flat baking sheets with no edge will allow the bacon grease to spill into your oven or all over your kitchen when you go to move the pan. Commercial sheet pans have edges to contain the grease, and I forgot that little detail at home this morning. Oops!
Also, it took a little longer to cook the bacon in a home oven- about 20-25 minutes total. I think commercial convection ovens are more efficient.
Apart from the slightly longer cooking time and the nasty grease spill, the bacon came out just right: flat, barely crispy, and the perfect addition to a scrambled egg and avocado breakfast sandwich.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Cook your noodles or rice separately, and cook them a little underdone too. Add them only when you're ready to eat the soup; otherwise the noodles can disintegrate and change the consistency of your broth.
We use this technique at Soupa to keep a soup overnight, and it also proves useful if a guest asks for something without gluten.
If only getting rid of my cold were just as easy!
Saturday, December 12, 2009
I love bacon, but it's got to be just perfect for me to justify the grease. I recommend ditching the frying pan; bacon can burn really easily and it tends to curl up into little unappetizing shoelaces dripping with fat.
When cooked in the oven, bacon stays flat and cooks more evenly. Lay the bacon on a flat cookie sheet with parchment paper under it and just pop it in a 350 degree oven for 15-20 minutes. Your hands will be free to cook whatever else is on the menu, your shirt won't be spattered with fat, and your burner will be available for coffee or eggs.
Don't cut the bacon out of your diet, just make it better!
Friday, December 11, 2009
I never seem to eat a whole baguette before it gets too hard. I recently learned that stale baguettes can be salvaged as thinly sliced crostini if you pop them in the freezer. Leave the baguette in the freezer for at least an hour; then when you go to slice it, the frozen bread will hold up even when sliced paper-thin. Give the slices a sprinkle of olive oil and salt and pepper and toast in the oven for ten minutes. The thin, golden toasts can be used in refreshing summer hors d'oeuvres like bruschetta or as the perfect garnish for heartier winter soups like butternut squash.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Go for a lighter Eggs Benedict and even your plate will smile at you.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
I didn’t know, but I was lucky enough to go there a few weeks ago with my close friend Christie, and her parents Mark and Cindy Ginanni. We had a blast.
I have to preface this restaurant review with a note about the Ginannis. Everyone has that friend that can sniff out a good time, knows where to find the goods, always knows “some guy” who can hook it up. The Ginanni family has this role down pat.
Are you thinking about taking a vacation in Italy/Germany/Mexico? Mark and Cindy know a count who is just dying to host you at his villa.
Looking for something to do on a quiet Monday night? The Ginannis are hosting a pizza party around their backyard wood-fired oven. You have got to come drink wine and toss dough.
We once went to the beach in Half Moon Bay but we were met with cloudy, freezing weather. Instead of being bummed out, we used kelp for a jump rope and snapped perfect candid shots while laughing our asses off.
I could go on forever, but I won’t because this blog is supposed to be about food. The point is- the Ginannis are people who got the joie de vivre memo and they encounter great food and experiences because of it.
Thus it was no surprise that they were the ones to introduce me to Refuge, a gem of a spot on a slightly random residential street in San Carlos.
Refuge makes no bones about their primary purpose in life: to serve good beer. They have a beer list that puts most restaurants’ wine lists to shame in terms of size and variety. My two favorite Belgian beers are Delirium Tremens and Duvel, and Refuge had these two plus many more I had never seen. I also love raspberry beer (I know, I’m a girl), so I couldn’t pass on the St. Louis Framboise Lambic. Whether you’re looking for a dark, chocolate-looking beer, or something fruity, Refuge pours your beer any way you like it.
While I’m not arguing that beer drinking as an activity needed improvement, Refuge sure adds a little fun with the different shaped beer-specific glasses. Cindy ordered the beer Kwak only because it is served in a narrow beaker with a wooden coachman’s handle. It’s brilliant marketing by the Belgian beer makers. Why not have another beer? I want to see what kind of glass will accompany it!
The food at Refuge is the perfect complement to its beer-loving identity. We ordered the charcuterie platter, which comes in several sizes. We picked nine items (but you can pick any number you like) from their list of house-made sausages, salamis, and a variety of cheeses. Our obliging server returned with a plate piled so high, we could barely see each other over the slices of crusty bread, the candied nuts, the apricot compote, and the country paté.
Or was my vision going because Delirium Tremens is 10% alcohol by volume? Nah.
Also, the headier Belgian beers pair perfectly with cheese; I loved the creamy Explorateur cheese, while Christie favored the Chimay Grand Cru. Don’t miss either of them if they are still offered on the menu.
For my Bay Area friends who are tired of eating in downtown Palo Alto or the Marina in San Francisco, Refuge is a more-than-worthy alternative. The list of beers alone is reason enough to go; their delicious food is a bonus. If you’re lucky, you’ll see Mark and Cindy, or some other member of the Ginanni clan, and soon you’ll be smiling at ridiculous glass arrangements like this one below and laughing so hard you’ll want to write about it nearly a month later.
963 Laurel St
San Carlos, CA 94070
I decided to do a (nearly) daily post, not too long, that shares these little nuggets of useful kitchen information. Hopefully, these tips will be news to some of my readers. Everything that I share here will be something that I didn't know before I started working in a professional kitchen.
Tuesday Tip of the Day: When using a cutting board to chop vegetables, herbs, meat, anything, place a damp tea towel or rag under the board. The damp cloth will keep the cutting board from sliding around on your counter top, reducing the effort it takes to chop things cleanly and keeping your fingers safe from errant knife strokes.
Friday, November 27, 2009
I'm probably more than a little biased when I say that our Thanksgiving dinner was something special, but it really felt like it was. In past years, the turkey has been dry, or the cranberry relish tasted a little too much like saccharin, or the mashed potatoes got heavy whipping cream instead of whole milk (sweet mashed potatoes are just plain gross, trust me). Not the case with our dinner this year. Last night we hit it out of the park.
I started the day making bread, and I might have gone a little overboard. I made a loaf of challah bread, braided with sesame seeds; two baguette shaped loaves of classic four ingredient bread (flour, water, salt, yeast); a loaf of sandwich bread for leftover turkey lunch; and cheddar dill biscuits just in case we needed something else savory with dinner.
Here I am with the just-braided challah bread, about to brush it with beaten egg whites to produce the shiny crust.
The loaf rose tremendously, forcing me to move several racks in the oven to accommodate its height. It turned out just about perfect, and what remained after dinner we used for eggy cinnamon french toast this morning.
I also made some macaroni and cheese from scratch, taking Cook's Illustrated advice that evaporated milk holds the macaroni together much better than regular milk. Instead of using massive amounts of extra sharp cheddar for flavor, I opted for fresh ground nutmeg (see the mortar and pestle below), Tabasco sauce, gruyere and monterey jack cheese to accent the cheddar. It was a hit. Trevor asked if it would be weird for him to put the mac and cheese in his leftover turkey sandwich. Flattered, I said no, it wouldn't be weird.
The Goodrich's brought the turkey, brined first and then roasted with mango pits in the cavity for a unique aromatic touch. Coupled with my mother's exquisite not-too-sweet cranberry relish, the usually plain turkey transformed into a moist, slightly fruit-flavored delight.
There seemed to be no shortage of wine, nor laughter, as we enjoyed creamed succotash, mashed potatoes with chives and cheddar dill biscuits with butter. Eric told us of his travels to Peru and Italy, while Trevor explained the banalities of corporate life at his law firm. Elizabeth and I tried to outdo each other with gravy servings, and my dad did his best impression of Grandpa Earl, holding court in our wood-paneled dining room.
The photo, slightly out of focus, is an accurate representation of my vision at the time.
Though everyone was completely stuffed (BUSUG NA!), we soldiered on through dessert, a delightful assortment of fresh creme chantilly, a fruit tart from Douce France, Racki's pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap crust, and pumpkin pie that had never even heard of canned pumpkin. Did we need dessert? No. Was it too much, almost painful to eat? Yes. Did we do it anyway? You can bet your bottom dollar we did.
While my waistline would suffer remarkable growth if we were to eat like this all the time (no telling how much butter goes in those mashed potatoes, or the number of eggs in the cheesecake), I would be a very happy person. What a wonderful holiday Thanksgiving is.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
I realized today what my answer is, at least to my title question; I realized today why I cook. I cook because I like to nourish others. What could be more fundamental, more essential, more life-affirming than the act of nourishing others?
This epiphany occurred at 10:45am, after making my thrice-weekly delivery of hot soup and a sandwich to a 80-something-year-old man who lives in Squaw Valley near the Village. His daughter, concerned that he wasn't getting enough protein and good, hot food, arranged for Soupa to deliver soup and a sandwich every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Good deal, right?
Now, the astute reader will notice that today is Tuesday, meaning I don't normally deliver lunch today. Truth be told: yesterday I forgot. And I felt awful, just awful, positively suicidal that I had forgotten this octogenarian's hot meal. So today, I took extra care in preparing a Soupa club, a triple-decker toasted whopper with chicken, ham, bacon, tomato, lettuce and cheddar cheese. I filled the bowl to the absolute maximum brim with sweet pea and ham soup. I raced to his front door to make sure everything was still hot when I arrived. I cared.
And that is when I realized why I cook, why I love chopping vegetables, why I love tinkering with recipes and spices and herbs, even if I might not make the perfect cookie or the perfect spaghetti sauce from scratch every time. I cook because it provides me the opportunity to care for others. I never liked the holier-than-thou attitude of educational development work in my Masters program. While the underlying goal is the same- to help others in some way- I have found that my style is to share food, rather than push ideology.
Maybe it is selfish to cook so that I can feel satisfaction, so that I can feel like I am helping others. But perhaps the motive is beside the point. I do know that my 80-year-old friend smiled from ear to ear this morning and thanked me by name. There's no better reason to cook, no better reason to work, than that.
A midday glass of wine never
hurt nobody. Plus I'm on
Maya Papaya checks out
the Le Creuset pans as
we run around like kids
in a candy store. Why
purchase seven issues of
Cooks Illustrated, a fish-
specific spatula and
a new neon green ceramic
paring knife? Because you
really NEED them.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
Last week I visited the Greystone Campus of the CIA, my new home come January.
I had never been to the town of St. Helena, so this trip filled in a lot of gaps in my mind. The downtown strip is filled with old bookstores, overpriced women's clothing boutiques that also sell $20 bars of soap (crazy, right?), and a yummy diner with a long table urging guests to share space with others.
After visiting the dorms, I quickly decided I will live off campus in a house I found a few blocks from school and a few blocks from the town center. I think I'm just too old for dorm life. A note on the dorm kitchen said "Closed until further notice. I told you guys to keep this space clean. -RA" Enough said.
This trip really heightened my excitement about starting school. The Wine Spectator Restaurant where I will finish my training next year serves great food. While I would recommend skipping the pumpkin empanadas, don't miss the prosciutto-wrapped ling cod- UNREAL good.
The campus is worthy of a Travel + Leisure magazine spread. When my mom and I walked into the main building, the castle in the background of this photo, I felt almost inconsequential, lucky to be there, belittled even. The towering entryway, the three-feet-thick walls, the three meter wine barrels in the Napa Valley Wine Makers' Hall of Fame: all of it was simultaneously inspiring and humbling. I may be able to cook a nice dinner, I might nail some homemade English muffins from scratch, but I ain't shit just yet.
I always feel like I have more to write, more to say, but it's getting late and I think I need some sleep. I'll keep my conclusion brief: I'm two months out, and I'm pumped!
Saturday, November 21, 2009
I hustled over to Soupa to open for breakfast (shameless plug: we have a killer bacon, egg and cheese sando) and brew some coffee, but no one is fighting for first chair (YET!).
In the meantime, I decided to make myself an open-faced toastie, with onions, tomatoes, pepperjack cheese and a sunnyside-up egg. Add hot sauce and a cup of coffee and I'm ready to ski. If only I wasn't working...
Enjoy it out there, friends! Come get a cup of soup when you've skied out Exxtra-bitchin'.
Friday, November 13, 2009
This prep station is where all the delicious soups are made at Soupa, the lunch cafe where I work in Squaw Valley. We make all our soups from scratch, starting with the stock all the way up to the herb garnishes. It's a wonderful, sunny place to chop vegetables and people-watch at the same time.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Not in some far off, hypothetical, "Man, it would so cool to go to culinary school" way, but rather in a "Starting in eight weeks, I am looking at a massive tuition bill and 4 semesters of school in Napa" way.
My ship finally has a keel under it. For a month or so, I felt like a 17 year old in high school who constantly checks the mailbox for the early decision college letter.
Honestly, I'm a little nervous for the following reasons:
What if everyone in St. Helena is snotty and elitist? I guess I survived fraternity parties at UVA, it couldn't be that much worse. AND who am I kidding? I grew up in Palo Alto.
What if all the other students at culinary school have wicked good knife skills? I need to get on the chopping onions practice program ASAP.
What if the instructors are really mean and try to make me cry? I'll share advice from some fellow line cooks: "Smoke weed, then you won't care if they yell at you." I thought about it for a second, but then I concluded that I would burn my hands and slice off my fingertips if I tried to cook high.
Their advice, however, is pretty telling of the culinary profession. Perhaps it isn't true of everyone, but it does seems that lots of chefs operate on stimulants or depressants to deal with the pace and the stress of the job. Is that what I want to become?
No, I don't want to become an embittered, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, principally nocturnal control freak. That model is the kind of chef I would like to avoid. (Enter Gordon Ramsay's photo here.) I'm not going to be Giada DiLaurentis either, I mean, c'mon! Who cooks with that much cleavage out anyway? Put the girls away for a half hour, I can't focus on the risotto.
But I digress. The kind of chef I do want to become is a skillful one. I want to pick up some sweet skills. How I then apply those skills- whether as a chef de cuisine or a test kitchen chef or a food writer or recipe developer or food stylist- is still uncertain. I suppose it also depends on what kind of job I can get. Maybe a cooking instructor would be the perfect job, I could combine my love of food with my interest in coaching and teaching.
I can't know right now how it will all play out. The point is, as my girl Jillian would say: it's happening!
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
I cook dinner pretty frequently; usually it's good. I enjoy cooking, and admittedly, part of the reason why is because I think I'm good at it. I came into the kitchen tonight with this little swagger in my step, my cooking ego and perceived abilities flying high following my boyfriend's recent "You've been killing it in the kitchen" comments.
Armed with fresh ingredients from Reno's Trader Joe's (further fueling my overconfidence), I set out to cook pork cutlets topped with Roma tomatoes on a bed of sauteed onions, with brown rice and wilted spinach. Easy, right?
I called my mother for her recipe; I have the warmest, fuzziest, round-stomach-rubbing memories of her pork chops. (The astute reader will notice the discrepancy between my mother's chops and my cutlets.) She talked me through the whole process, from the browning of the pork to onion-then-pork-then-tomato layering with chicken broth to keep the onions from burning.
At this moment, I thought, this recipe isn't too involved. I could even go jump in the shower while they simmer. At least I had the sense to stay at the stove, though now I wonder if it would have made any difference.
The fact of the matter was: I wasn't working from a recipe, but rather a phone conversation, and a scatterbrained conversation to boot. She said to leave the pork to simmer on the onions with the broth for AROUND AN HOUR. That the directions on the pork suggested mere minutes of cooking time, no matter. I was half watching Jeopardy and my mom was driving through 101-85-280 traffic in the Bay Area. We were distracted and I was confident. How could I possibly mess this one up?
Of course, I over-cooked the pork. Pork chops are thick cuts of meat, while cutlets are thin, little cutie pie slices. This mistake was not a question of a few minutes, but rather a quarter of an hour. I knew the pork was overcooked when I went to test its doneness with a slice to the center of one of the cutlets: I could barely get the knife in there, the pork was so rubbery. I might as well have tried to slice cowboy boots with a butter knife.
My loving boyfriend, ready for the meal of century given how wonderful the kitchen smelled with the sauteed onions, was honest. He said it was just OK. He told me it was a lovely home-cooked meal, but it was OK.
We agreed immediately that they were overcooked, and suddenly I felt like a failure. Why is it that a simple dinner- let's be real, I'm not cooking complicated creations yet- can take the wind out of my sails like that? What will happen when I'm really a chef and I get a shitty review? Is my skin thick enough for this shit?
As we finished dinner, we diplomatically characterized the meal as "not my best, but not my worst," which is true, because I once drunkenly spread peanut butter on the outside of a cheddar cheese quesadilla, and that, surely, is my worst.
But how else am I going to learn as a cook? This process of anticipation and subsequent disillusionment with a failed meal is valuable in that I never want to repeat the feeling. That I will repeat this experience is a given. However, if botching a dinner serves as motivation to become a better cook, I'll take it.
Believe me, they are under there somewhere. They hung out there for WAY too long. You cook and you learn.
Monday, September 14, 2009
It’s mid September, and I am waiting to hear from the admissions office of the Culinary Institute of America- Greystone, the CIA’s Napa Valley campus. At the beginning of the summer, I applied to their Culinary Arts program, a 21 month program that will teach me everything about cooking, food safety, and kicking general ass in the kitchen. They don’t market their program with those words specifically, but after the first couple bumbling months, I hope to be kicking ass and taking names. Maybe I’ll be washing dishes and taking orders, like I am now, but I hope not.
I wonder if I am the only 26 year old who feels a little lost at the moment. Perhaps lost isn’t the word, but I do feel a little rudderless. I’m on a good ship, she’ll take me where I need to go, there are winds blowing, but I just can’t seem to steer. I don’t want this culinary school experience to prove as disenchanting as my grad school time at Columbia. (Enter clichéd bit about unfulfilling academic office work here).
So the winds are blowing, but I don’t know where to go. Stay in Tahoe and continue learning about food with my two cooking jobs? Go to the CIA in Napa? Apply to the French Culinary Institute in New York City to be closer to a dynamic restaurant scene? (And Zabar’s cheese selections...)
While I love my active life in the mountains at Lake Tahoe, perhaps I need some city ambition and pace to kick-start this career choice. Or maybe St. Helena will be the perfect setting to focus wholeheartedly on food and wine. Such a tough decision! Then again, if I’m choosing between a mountain paradise, California wine country, or the city that never sleeps, I’m doing pretty damn good.
Wherever I choose, at least I know I have already picked food. I have always loved cooking, both for myself and for others. Food dazzles me with possibilities. A couple weeks ago, I had plum and cucumber sushi. I know it sounds simple, but I had never tried a plum and cucumber roll. In addition to being visually pleasing with vibrant purple and green stripes poking out through ivory white rice, this roll was one of the best I’d ever tried. I wonder why more sushi restaurants don’t have this crunchy cucumber with smooth plum spread creation. Is it a sushi purist’s nightmare? Am I close to committing the cream cheese sushi sin? I hope not, because if I see it again, I’m ordering it.
My point is not that plum and cucumber sushi is bomb (which is true) but rather that I love food so much I’ll sit down to write a paragraph about it. My point is that food is so universal and so ubiquitous, why wouldn’t I choose a career in this field? We all eat every single day (except for Kelly Ripa, who only eats on Thursdays). I could travel anywhere in the world and be a cook or a food writer investigating local cuisine. How sweet will that be?
In the coming weeks, I should hear from the CIA-Greystone admissions office with a yes or a no. As a friend and former California Culinary Academy admissions officer put it, the CIA is one of the few culinary academies in the U.S. that “actually rejects people.” I find that news encouraging, because I want to go to a good school. I want the best preparation. I want to finish my program feeling prepared for the cooking world. I want to kick some ass.
Stay tuned for what happens next!
Friday, September 4, 2009
Pacific Puffs, on the corner of Union and Fillmore, serves only cream puffs but they are perfect cream puffs. They have several varities; alas, I've only tried one since I visited on a Sunday evening and they were cleaned out of nearly everything. We were lucky enough to snag the last three Chocolatier Sugar puffs, a choux pastry filled with a dollop of whipped chocolate cream goodness. My girlfriend Erin and I happily bought the last three for a fair $9, and we took our first bites while still in the shop.
The pastry is somewhere between brioche (but less eggy) and croissant (but less flaky) and heaven (but minus the prerequisite good behavior). The chocolate whipped cream is what the Puritans were worried about; it's so lightly chocolate it doesn't feel like a sin. I can't wait to go back and try the classic puff with vanilla cream or the fruit puffs as well. Trent, holler at your girl when you come up with more varieties!
Due to ridiculous zoning restrictions in San Francisco, Pacific Puffs actually bakes their pastries off-site and brings their goodies in the morning every day. This fact works well in their favor, since I would have climbed in the back of the shop with a spoon looking for more whipped chocolate cream- that's how good it is.
The off-site bakery issue only becomes a problem when you have a sweet tooth on Sunday afternoon at 5pm and they can't throw a couple more in the oven for you (my predicament exactly).
I have to say the second best thing about Pacific Puffs (after how crazy yummy good they are) is how light they are. I didn't see a nutritional breakdown on these babies so I can't make any dietary claims, but they don't have the heavy feel of ice cream or cupcakes. A chocolate cupcake with three cubic inches of frosting can leave me feeling like I've torpedo'ed an entire day of sensible eating. Pacific Puffs don't give you that feeling. About the size of your palm, a cream puff is, as the name suggests, a puff. It's airy, it's light. Go to town, girl!
It's the best dessert you can grab, because it satisfies the craving without overwhelming you. I suppose if you want to be overwhelmed, they do come by the dozen.
2201 Union, corner at Fillmore
Sometimes, as I try to find a job and a vocation and a place in the world, I still feel like a little girl playing dress-up in her mom’s closet. A woman is meant to wear these clothes, this lipstick, these high heels. Yet, the dress doesn’t fit, the lipstick is all over half my face, and the shoes make me trip.
That’s what it feels like when I try to write like a Food and Wine editor or Wine Spectator travel correspondent (ok, Croatian food is good, but not that good). Perhaps that’s why I write so sporadically; I am writing in a style that I don’t enjoy.
So the new rule stands: Write the Ruthie way, whatever that may be.
Friday, June 12, 2009
At the moment, I feel like writing about Croatia, where Christie and I spent the last couple days. Why isn’t Croatia more prominent on Americans’ list of places to visit in Europe? From what we saw, Croatia is a beautiful country with interesting (though also complicated) history, incredibly cheap prices, refreshingly cool water, and welcoming, friendly people. It could be a different story in Zagreb, but the Istrian Peninsula, in the northwest corner of the country, is paradise on the Adriatic.
A comfortable three hour ferry ride from Venice, the Istrian peninsula is the smaller, less well-known (perhaps less publicized, thus I hadn’t heard of it...) northern sister of the Dalmatian coast. Given that we only had a few days, we chose Istria, the coast closest to Venice. We stayed in Rovinj (Rovigno) which is the second largest city in Istria, after the Roman ruin city of Pula. During the height of the Venetian republic, Istria and Dalmatia were conquered and ruled under the Doge’s authority, and the Italian language has remained centuries later. Though many people do speak a little English, Italian is really the second language after Croatian.
We booked our stay in Rovinj at the Apartmani Celestina, easily found on hostelworld.com. After a ten minute walk out of the old town center, we found our host Celestina to be as charming and welcoming as her apartments, priced at 45€ a night (about 350 kuna). Apartmani Celestina is located in a residential neighborhood, away from the tourist restaurants that line the marina. Christie and I relished the opportunity to see Rovinj and her residents in their daily routines. We bought groceries at the local corner store, where tough looking Croatian men drank tall bottles of beer at all hours of the day. There was a man with one leg who frequently (and by frequently, I mean every time we walked by in three days, he was there) rode is Honda Four-Wheeler ATV to the shop and could be seen chain-smoking and drinking and chatting with his compatriots. The sheer number of bottle caps on the ground indicated this wasn’t an isolated incident. I couldn’t help but wonder if the one-legged man was involved in the Balkan wars and had lost a leg to a land mine.
While Rovinj isn’t scarred in any visible way from those wars, that’s probably because it is the opposite end of the country from Bosnia. However, a few short conversations revealed that the people of Rovinj certainly have connections with that conflict. We chose to dine at Restaurant Pineta, located in our less-touristy neighborhood. Our server was named Pavle, Bosnian by ethnicity. He said his family came to Rovinj when he was very little “because of the war, you know?” Christie and I thought to ourselves yes, of course, the war. Doesn't everyone move when they’re young because of wars?
Midway through our first dinner there, Pavle loosened up a little and began joking with us. We asked him to recommend a typical Croatian dish; he responded that everything on the menu was Croatian. Further questioning revealed that his favorites included cevapĉici (I think that’s how it’s spelled). He then admitted that cevapĉici are actually a Sarajevo specialty, ten thumb-sized ground beef sausages, served with a sweet red pepper and garlic sauce that only looks like Sriracha.
We started with two salads, one of dandelion and radicchio that turned out too bitter for our palates. However, I’m glad to say we tried a dandelion salad; how often do you see that on even the most inventive menus? The other appetizer was a delicious salad of pickled cucumber, tomato, olives and a fresh, salty cheese- which Christie aptly described as a cross between feta and goat cheese. We followed the salad with the cevapĉici and Istrian sausage, a smaller, sweeter version of bratwurst, with vegetable rice.
Though the sausages were delicious, the highlight of this first dinner was definitely the pickled cucumber and fresh cheese salad. We had never experienced a cheese of this flavor and consistency, and the cucumber was a refreshing foil to the salt of the cheese. Perhaps Pavle noted that we loved the salad, because the second night the dish arrived nearly twice as large.
For our second dinner at Pineta, Pavle directed us to a pasta dish with slow-stewed beef. The pasta wasn’t quite the consistency of gnocchi, but it was slightly chewy. After several mimed demonstrations from our obliging server, we discerned that the pasta is made similar to gnocchi, but with less potato. The little balls are rolled between your fingers until they resemble your pinky.
These skinny, knuckled dumplings must be the Croatian equivalent of macaroni and cheese- essentially, everything you could ask for in a comfort food. The beef broth is salty enough to hit the spot, the noodle dumplings are perfectly chewy; the whole dish is simply satisfying. It seemed like the kind of dish a Croatian mother fixes for her sick son, or her famished husband after an especially hard day of work. Christie and I had spent the day laying on the beach, suntanning and swimming on the Adriatic, so it’s not exactly like we earned it. But that’s what vacation is for- you can eat out of context, just for the taste experience.
Another gastronomic gem we found in our residential neighborhood was a little bakery with sweet and savory pastries and crusty loaves. The bread reminded me of a slightly heartier baguette- not quite as airy as the French original, but then it was better to suited to the peppered Croatian charcuterie and cheese we grabbed for our beach picnic.
The bakery specialized in burek, a heavier pastry that can be described as a cheese- or mince- filled pretzel, as though they had taken flat sheets of phyllo dough, wrapped them around filling and then wound the rope in the shape of a sweet palmier. It was a little too greasy for my taste, because the pastry was already pretty buttery. The cheese left the pastry’s paper wrapping visibly saturated. Obviously, we only ordered burek again at 3 a.m. on our last night there, after four too-many glasses of grappa and honey.
Their sweet pastries, however, were out of this world. A Nutella-filled brioche started my morning off with the perfect sugar shot, while Christie opted for a strudel filled with walnut paste. Croissants dusted with powdered sugar, braided rolls topped with sesame seeds- we tried it all. I think over our three days in Rovinj, we visited the bakery seven times. Luckily for us, it was open twenty four hours, so we could grab a little breakfast at 5:45 a.m., before our ferry back to Venice. Given the aforementioned excess with grappa and honey shots, the pastries were lifesavers, to say the least.
As I write, I am noticing that I frequently describe food items in comparison to something else, something I already know. Perhaps with more writing experience and more culinary knowledge, I’ll be able to describe dishes or particular foods in their own right. Or perhaps the comparisons are useful in that they provide a richer image and mental taste point for my reader.
Thus far I’ve written mostly about food in Croatia, and one might think all we did was eat and drink, but Christie and I did much more than that. We rented bikes for the day for 60 kuna (less than 10€) and rode south.
We left Rovinj around 10 a.m., and rode through RV parks filled with badly sunburned Austrian and German tourists. We rode past nude couples, old couples, babies, and techno-pumping Euro Spring Breakers. (Truly, one little beach resort was roped off for Europe Spring Break 2K9, which looked sparsely attended despite loud house music before noon). We rode through Croatian vineyards, carpeted with red poppy flowers. Unintentionally, we rode through a rock quarry and a cement factory, and left covered in a white dust. We also crisscrossed Croatian farms with ostriches, goats, and horses.
As we rode, we kept saying to each other, “We’re so far off the beaten path, there are no tourists here, this is great!” and “I bet other cyclists don’t have the legs to bike this far!” when in truth we were just lost. We had really made a sharp turn away from the coast and we had been biking away from the beach.
After riding for four and half hours in jean shorts and sandals, the sweat and dust in our eyes forced us to reevaluate our navigation skills. We flagged down a young man on a scooter and he informed us we had actually ridden off the map. We turned around, in desperate search of the closest spot to swim and refresh our overheated faces.
When we finally got back to the coast, we jumped in the water immediately and found the Adriatic to be remarkably salty, so salty that you don’t have to try to float. If you just sit there, or inhale deeply and lay back, you’ll float easily. The water was cold, but not to the point of taking your breath away. We swam and picnicked, and allowed our legs to recover after our long ride.
I hope I make it back to Croatia soon. It would a fantastic place to visit during the World Cup to root with fervid Croatian fans. It would also be a great place to ride a bike down the entire coast for a month or two. We saw many people with saddle bags on their bikes for longer bike tours along the cypress-lined beaches.
When I go again, I might avoid the grappa and honey shots, but I will certainly look forward to another glass of Karlovaćko beer.
I’ve been in Italy less than a day, and I wonder: Why does food taste so much better in Italy than in the United States? The caffè macchiato this morning was three sips, but three sips better than any cup of translucent coffee water in the U.S. Though the apple croissant was a little heavy on the butter, making it droopy rather than your typical airy croissant, it was certainly a pleasure to eat. Or maybe that was just the fact we were sitting right along the Giudecca canal in Venice, with an offshore breeze cooling our faces- I can’t be certain.
Even an American’s home cooking in Italy produces a tastier product, it seems. Last night, Christie made gnocchi with a homemade meat ragù sauce, salad with tomatoes and Parmiggiano cheese, and a few slices of baguette. It was perfection. I asked if the ingredients came from a specialty store; she named two local grocery stores- Billa and Coop. Imagine the best dinner you’ve had in the U.S. being prepared from ingredients purchased at Food Lion and the Dollar General. The difference in quality at the most pedestrian of shops is remarkable.
Our meal was simple but delightful: the gnocchi felt like pillows between my tongue and teeth. The garlic, onion and red wine in the meat sauce provided the piquant flavor needed to stand up to the heavier gnocchi pasta. And the parmesan- if only you could get such parmesan in the States for the price! A modest wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano in the U.S. will run around $12, I’d guess, while the same block is 2€ at a Venetian grocery store. And we are shopping on an island.
For lunch, I’ve got a panino Christie prepared. I’ll probably supplement with some fruit from the floating vendors as I wander the narrow calli e canale. Tonight I think we will eat out. Perhaps Restaurant Ivo, an osteria that shares its name with my Bulgarian friend Ivo Ninov. Perhaps we’ll stay on Giudecca, Christie’s island neighborhood, and go to Trattoria Ai Cacciatori where she watches Champions League Soccer matches. I’ll review that meal too, but I’m guessing it will be more of the same: just plain delicious!
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Given the state of the economy these days, it is crucial that a high end restaurant wow its guests to prove that an extravagant dinner is worth the expense.
I hope someone forwards this memo to Santé at the Fairmont Mission Inn in Sonoma, CA, where I dined last week. Though it strives to serve haute cuisine in wine country- and its prices reflect this effort- Santé too often misses the mark. Somewhere between a splendidly light cauliflower custard and a lackluster haché hearts of palm salad, I felt duped. I had come to be impressed, but the high points were too far and few between to warrant the price.
Since we went to Sonoma to drive race cars at the Infineon Race Way, a car analogy seems apt. It occurred to me that the hundred dollar tasting menu at Santé could be the culinary cousin of a Jaguar sports car. For the same price, there are many other cars with superior handling, reliability, and power. The Jaguar is therefore more of a status symbol than a high performance car, just as this restaurant looks and feels like haute cuisine but simply isn't worth the price tag. While there were high points and sublime tastes throughout the meal at Santé, I left thinking this was a lot of money for an acceptable- not fantastic- dinner.
The meal began with an unfortunate amuse-bouche: a shredded duck crostini with mushroom consommé and truffle foam that was too salty to really tease the palate. It left me wanting a tall glass of water, not the glass of champagne that accompanied it. Inauspicious from the starting line.
However, the next course of cauliflower custard topped with caviar was exquisite. While the texture of the custard reminded me of my grandmother’s best leche flan dessert, the salt content was perfectly apportioned in this dish, with the majority coming from the caviar topping.
The hearts of palm salad impressed no one at our table, and the saffron risotto was similarly disenchanting. Just because saffron is an expensive spice does not mean it should be used wantonly to impress. Worse, the undercooked rice was still grainy to the bite. The deep yellow color and brash flavor of the rice suggested what the chef lacked in preparation time, he made up with seasoning.
I do not wish to ignore some of the wonderful dishes Santé serves, for the seafood course demonstrated that Santé can do some things- and perhaps many others with a little more focus- remarkably well. Given my allergy to shellfish, I substituted the lobster for a halibut dish, but my fellow diners and I were impressed with both plates. The aroma of the butter poached lobster with squash was enough to make me wish I had an Epi-Pen handy. I wasn’t disappointed, though, because the halibut was expertly seared and remarkably moist. The accompanying bacon and peas provided the crunch each bite of fish deserved.
Half way through the meal, I wondered: Was Santé just confused? Did the different station cooks possess wildly varying abilities? The inconsistency reminded me of the Jaguar owner who relishes driving the car but must bring it into the garage, again.
After dancing around the issue for several courses, Santé had the opportunity to really impress with their Kobe beef entrée. I was expecting to see the value of the dinner after this course, that the first several courses were merely stepping stones to the jewel in the tasting menu crown. The rib eye cuts were tender, certainly, and they were juicy enough. However, I wasn’t bowled over by any particular pairing or flavor. The Prime Merlot that came with the Kobe beef was more intriguing to me than anything on the plate. I wish I could recall more about the preparation of the dish and its accompaniments; perhaps that speaks to its mere acceptability, rather than it being a truly memorable taste.
The cheese course was delightful in taste, but too small for our party of four. We chose five year Gouda, Rouge et Noir triple cream brie from Napa, and raw goats milk cheese. Though the cheeses themselves were pleasing, the miserly portions had everyone rationing their bites. For the price, the cheese course should be at least adequate for everyone to try every cheese. Again, I felt duped.
Santé closed the evening with two desserts, a blueberry sorbet with strawberries, raspberries and crème frâiche, and a Grand Marnier and chocolate soufflé. Of the two, I preferred the soufflé, which was prepared expertly and folded and puffed perfectly when topped at the table. The blueberry sorbet, however, did not have the refreshing quality of more typically flavored sorbets. The repetitive berry pairing surprised no one. Though a simple dessert can be classic, Santé should consider how inventive pastry chefs elsewhere are pushing the novel flavor envelope.
Given the precarious situation in which many restaurants find themselves these days, Santé must step up its game. Flashes of talent and true quality indicate that it can perform at the caliber its prices suggest. Whether they will do so remains to be seen.
Friday, March 27, 2009
Yesterday I was lucky enough to have a surprise birthday party to plan, bake for, and attend. Otherwise, I would have stared at the wall all day.
Shane McConkey, a friend from Squaw Valley and my boyfriend's best friend and ski partner, died yesterday in Italy. I don't really know what to say, if this is the forum or what. When I found out, time stopped. My heartbeat was audible, my chest heaved with pain. I wanted to sleep for the rest of the day. Yet, I had promised Catherine's husband I would be at her birthday party with a homemade cake and a smile. I was glad to have the task of baking in front of me.
When I am upset or unable to deal with things, deeply sad or just plain angry, I like to have my hands busy with a task. For example, I will frequently do dishes or clean the bathroom to occupy myself. Yesterday, with a heart full of sadness for my boyfriend's loss and for Shane's wife and 3 year old daughter, I tried to focus on my close friend Catherine and her wonderful family. As my brother said to me while I cried over the phone, "Be thankful for your friends you do have and that you can still celebrate with them."
I had already picked an intriguing recipe from the February issue of Food and Wine Magazine (an issue aptly titled "Comfort in The Kitchen") a Milk Chocolate Tart with a Pretzel Crust. (See recipe below.) Take a chocolate-covered pretzel, that "I just want one handful more" mixture of savory and sweet, and extrapolate it out to a full size tart. Instead of graham crackers for the crust, the recipe calls for crushed pretzels. Instead of powdered sugar for garnish, sea salt.
With Shane on my mind and Catherine's party that evening in my sights, I grabbed a mortar and pestle and started crushing pretzels into a salty flour. With every crush, my anger intensified. I don't know whom I am angry with; it just seems so wrong that a three year old girl will grow up without her father. I pulverized handful after handful of pretzels. I beat an egg and lots of butter and a little more flour into the pretzel mixture and I flattened the crust with a rolling pin. I had stopped crying.
Next, I chopped 12 ounces of milk chocolate into bits to be mixed with simmering heavy cream. I used just plain Hershey's Milk Chocolate, and it melted into the heavy cream to a perfect smoothness. After baking the crust for a half hour and brushing the inside of the tart with melted dark chocolate, I poured the filling in and let the tart rest and harden.
In my emotional haze, however, I had failed to keep track of time. It was 7:30pm. I had to leave for the surprise birthday party by 8:40pm. The tart was still liquid chocolate. Had I been thinking clearly, I would have read that the tart needs 4 HOURS to cool and harden. With a schizophrenic mix of haste and extreme care, I moved the still-soupy chocolate tart from the counter into the freezer, and prayed it would harden in time.
I drove to Catherine's house with a mostly hardened tart and sliced strawberries for a flavor contrast. We garnished the tart with more crushed pretzels and sea salt. Catherine came home with her husband Tim to a house full of friends with glasses of wine in hand and a beautiful chocolate tart on her kitchen table. The crust was too thick, probably due to overzealous pretzel crushing. I was a little shy on the salt garnish, not wanting to overdo it. Next time, I would go liberal with the sea salt. Though the tart was not perfect, the joy on Catherine's face erased any misgivings I had about my confection's quality.
Though my mind was full of thoughts of Shane, his lovely wife and their angelic daughter, and my dear boyfriend who was with Shane when he died, I took refuge in the birthday revelry. I drank pinot, I peppered Catherine with questions about her upcoming trip to Las Vegas and I enjoyed a rare but necessary cigarette with the birthday girl.
A death makes everything else seem trivial. What's a dessert when a man has lost his life? Why even sit down to write a blog? However, yesterday a chocolate tart was my illogical goal, my "keep going, just keep going" reminder that life must go on. At the end of a tragic day filled with sadness, I smiled, at least for a moment, knowing that I had made something special for a friend and I was able to celebrate with her.
We will miss you, Shane.
active time: 45 minutes (more like an hour)
total: 2 hours plus 4 HOURS chilling- read: do not start the evening of a birthday party.
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 1/4 cups coarsely crushed thin pretzels (3 1/2 oz)
3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 large egg
2 oz bittersweet chocolate, melted
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
3/4 pound milk chocolate, chopped
coarse sea salt and crushed pretzels for garnish
Beat butter and 3/4 cup of pretzels and sugar until creamy. Beat in flour and egg.
Add remaining 1/2 cup of pretzels, leaving some pretzel pieces intact. Flatten dough between two sheets of plastic wrap, and chill 30 minutes in refrigerator.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough into a 12 inch round. Invert into fluted tart pan with removable bottom. Press dough into corners and patch any holes. Refrigerate again 30 minutes.
Line shell with parchment paper and fill with pie weights. (I used uncooked brown rice.) Bake 30 minutes, until nearly set. Remove parchment and weights, and bake for 10-15 minutes more. Let shell cool completely. Brush bottom and sides of crust with melted dark chocolate; refrigerate to set, 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring cream to a simmer. Remove from heat and add chopped milk chocolate. Let stand for 5 minutes, then whisk until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and let cool to room temperature, about 1 hour.
Pour filling into shell and refrigerate until set, at least 4 hours. (I put mine in the freezer for 70 minutes and it held alright.) Sprinkle with sea salt and crushed pretzels.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Everyone loves cupcakes these days. I'm guilty of buying a $5 mini-cupcake with all local organic ingredients from Kara's Cupcakes. They are so ubiquitous that they substitute for cake at weddings- "everyone gets a beautiful little cupcake. " However, there is something a little dressed-up, a little too precious about them. I just admitted my bias by saying "guilty of..." because deep down I know it's ridiculous to pay $5 for a small sweet unless you're sitting in a ballpark. And even then it stings.
Last week's New York Times Dining section has suggested the new cupcake, albeit humbler but just as tasty: the whoopie pie. Not likely to be found in a posh bakery in The Marina in San Francisco, the whoopie pie tends to pop up on gas station counters in Maine or in baskets by the check out at the WaWa in Pennsylvania. I had never tried one, nor had I ever considered making a batch. Until I saw this article. Oh, the NY Times food stylist had me with the glass cake platter and the descriptions of rich buttercream filling. I went for it.
NY Times article:
The recipe says it takes one hour to make these little guys, but it took this novice a bit longer.
Making buttercream filling (similar to frosting) from scratch takes a while. Don't be discouraged by the mention of double boilers and thermometers- you can improvise with a metal bowl over a regular pot. Also, just observe the egg-and-sugar mixture until the sugar is melted, no need for the technical complication of a thermometer at 180 degrees. You can use a regular hand-held mixer, not a heavy duty stand up mixer, but yes, it takes a little longer.
Also, there are two sticks of butter in the aptly named buttercream filling, but I would recommend cutting that down. Instead of using the full 16 tbsp, I will probably use 10-12 tbsp. Since the butter is added incrementally, you can choose how much to use. In hindsight, the buttercream was already rich, smooth and creamy by about 12 tbsp.
The chocolate cakes are a delight to make, springy and barely sweet. They are as moist as a rum-soaked cake, but as fluffy as angel food. A difficult consistency to describe, but a delight on the palate.
They didn't turn out perfect: some of the chocolate tops were massive, others were flat discs, the buttercream filling was a bit too buttery. However, they were a crowd-pleaser and I would be proud to serve them again as a dessert to make guests feel special. Though they have no raspberry filling, no espresso-infused cake, no lemon-scented egg whites or whatever, whoopie pies are just black and white- and simply delicious.
A friend, former roommate and culinary enthusiast Jordan Rundell, told me last night "This is the best thing you've ever made for me." I'll take it.
What could be better than making a tasty, novel dessert? Enjoying it with your friends.
Monday, March 23, 2009
The food, however, shared nothing with a dining hall experience. The masala dosa pancake was perfectly thin, but just strong enough to hold in its lentil filling. The chicken vindaloo was hot enough to call the fire department but perfectly paired with the yogurt raita. "If there is a heaven," my dad shared at one point during dinner, "I hope they serve naan." Darbar has mastered the naan baking, in that they avoid the thinness of pita bread but also stop short of the overly doughy pasta-like naan that passes in grocery stores. The tandoori grill was delicious in that the flavor of the tandoor didn't obliterate any moisture in the meat. The chicken was full of flavor and the piquant red typical of tandoori, but it was still moist and soft, two characteristics than often disappear with lesser tandoori plates.
Though the service was prompt and the food delicious, it's too bad the acoustics of the cavernous dining room affect a diner's experience so markedly. Questions to our server were often misheard; dinner conversation was strained. Perhaps the answer to enjoying the wonderful food at Darbar is to avoid the Friday night scene.