Archive for January, 2010

The Pizza Crust of My Discontent

January 28, 2010
I love pizza. Pizza and I are like this. As a child, I can remember at least one birthday in which my birthday cake actually was a pizza, with candles and “Happy Birthday Eric” written in Cheez Whiz across the surface.

Blue cheese and sausage pizza on whole wheat crust.

As an adult, I’ve come to see pizza as a convenience food. Yeah, I do the takeout thing and there are a few pizzerias in San Francisco I really like but I enjoy making pizza even more. When I say pizza is a convenience food, I mean I find pizza easy to make. I have yet to settle on a decent crust recipe, however.

Sauces? No problem. Chop up a few ripe tomatoes (or use canned in the winter) and toss them into a skillet with a little olive oil, some garlic, some salt, some pepper, oregano, and maybe some red wine if there’s a bottle open. Cook it down, reducing the moisture, and I’ve got a flavorful sauce better than most I’ve had elsewhere. Toppings? I’ve always got mozzarella around and I like throwing other cheeses on, too, such as the Point Reyes blue that I’d been munching on all week. At the simplest, I’ll throw on some basil leaves, cover it with cheese, and toss it into a fast oven. Not only do I have dinner taken care of, but there’s lunch and, quite possibly, breakfast the next day, as well.

But that crust. I make a competent pizza crust but it’s too bready for my tastes. It tastes good, mind you, but it’s not the right texture for a really good pizza. Earlier this week, for example, I made a whole wheat crust using this recipe:

1 cup warm water
2 teaspoons yeast
1 cup whole wheat flour
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
Olive oil

After proofing the yeast in the water with just a pinch of sugar – not for flavor but to feed the yeast – I began adding the salt and the flour, about a half cup at a time (I’m doing all of this in a Kitchen Aid mixer, by the way). Once the flour is incorporated, I let the machine continue turning the dough for another minute or so and then pour it out onto a wooden cutting board where I knead it until it’s smooth. After returning the dough to the bowl, I pour a little olive oil on to it, turning it over a few times to cover it in the oil, and then let rise for about 45 minutes to an hour.

And that’s it. As I noted earlier, it tastes good but it’s too thick, too bread-like. On the bright side, I now have a quest.

Bear With It

January 28, 2010

“One of the secrets of cooking is to learn to correct something if you can,” wrote Julia Child, “and bear with it if you cannot.”

Kitchen disasters are part of the experience of learning to cook. If you’re paying attention, you should be able to derive some lesson from the whole affair and come out of it a better, more experienced cook (Arguably, had anyone been paying attention in the first place, we might not be having this discussion).

Last October or maybe even into November, some California farms were still producing strawberries and raspberries, but it was the end of the season and the quality, while nice, wasn’t like those of the first of the season. Wandering through the farmers’ market at Civic Center, I ran across one booth where they were selling both kinds of berries for roughly a buck a pint. I took home about four-and-a-half or five pints, deciding right away I’d just make them into preserves. Good idea but poor delivery, as it happened.

Using a recipe for preserves from my 1964 edition of “Joy of Cooking” – I wanted a very basic recipe – I combined the berries and sugar together in a pot and simmered them together for a while. One of the things that struck me was that the recipe didn’t call for pectin. Strawberries, too, aren’t particularly rich in pectin, and while I knew all this, I failed to do the one thing that would have helped: I didn’t add any pectin (Often, I’ll just grate apple into the mixture taking advantage of its high levels of pectin). Call it hope or just call it laziness, but the recipe called for enough sugar that I was reasonably sure the preserves would gel just fine.

They didn’t, of course.

I canned them anyway and I’m glad I did. I’ve been using the sweet berry mixture as an addition to baked goods and just about anything else that happens to need a serious shot of fruit. So this, dear reader, is why I’m eating ice cream in January made with locally produced strawberries. I’m bearing with it.

Meeting My Muse

January 19, 2010

I should be writing about various products I saw today at the Fancy Food Show here in San Francisco but I’m far too brain dead to think objectively – or at all, for that matter – about any of the roughly 2.7 zillion products which were being promoted at me from all directions. What I’m not too tired to write about, however, is who I spent the day roaming the aisles of the show with: Marlena Spieler and Marcy Smothers.

I have admired Marlena Spieler, the author of something along the line of 70 cookbooks and, though she lives in Great Britain, a food columnist for San Francisco Chronicle. In particular, my admiration for her work really arose through my repeated use of her encyclopedic “The Complete Guide to Traditional Jewish Cooking” when I was head cook for an upscale deli here in the city.

Marlena Spieler and I after she's signed my copy of her cookbook.

Full of great recipes, many of which were traditional shabbos meals, they were ideal for the deli where they would need to hold up well for two to three days at a time. Many of them I cooked repeatedly; others were handy last minute replacements when ingredients for our standards had fallen through.

The soups – well, what can I say about the soups except, like everything else in the book, they were wonderful, homey recipes that stick to the ribs and transport the diner with rich combinations of spices and down-to-earth ingredients. The recipes were clearly and concisely written; the end results, almost always perfect (I’m not the only one who thinks so. A group in Sacramento, Calif., has committed themselves to cooking their way through the book and blogging about the experience).

So, who was this woman with whom I spent so much time in the kitchen? As it turns out, she’s also friends with an old editor of mine from my days as a reporter at Anchorage Daily News. I finally took advantage of that connection – through Facebook – to write Marlena a gushy fan letter and she actually wrote back. Through a few more exchanges, she suggested meeting on her next trip to San Francisco which, happily, happened to be for the Fancy Food Show.

“I’m with my friend Marcy Smothers”, she told me on the phone as we discussed plans to connect. “She’s a radio producer.”

Marcy, as it happened, is far more than that and knows, apparently, everyone (“I love to drop names,” she stated quite unapologetically at one point, but she never dropped a name without a solid story to back it up).

We had agreed to meet at booth 1749 in the organic foods pavilion where, as it happened, Tyler Florence was on hand to promote his new restaurant and sign autographs. Marcy, of course, knew him but gushed along with all the other fans there to meet him. I took photos of the two of them together including one of them embracing (“It looks as if he’s greeting me after I returned from the war,” she said). Of course, this didn’t happen until after I pulled my well-worn and greasy copy of Marlena’s book from my knapsack along with a thick black marker and asked her to autograph it. Flattered and amused, she did just that and Marcy took a photo of me, smiling broadly alongside one of my culinary muses.

The rest of the day was spent following the two women along. Curious and knowledgeable about everything, they interviewed everyone and sampled and tasted their way through the show with enthusiasm. They graciously introduced me to everyone they knew, shared stories and gossip with me, directed me to the more notable exhibitors, and were patient and generous with a guy really only now breaking into a world they’ve occupied confidently and enthusiastically for quite some time already.

“Wow” is really the only word I can think of. And, of course, “Thanks.”

Blood Oranges and Kitchen Intrigue

January 15, 2010

The blood orange is a violent-seeming fruit. Slice it open and it bleeds whereas other oranges simply dribble or, at worst, spray in offense. Even the name – no –because of its name, the blood orange stands out, conjuring images of food gone awry. Written on a sign in the produce store – “Blood Oranges $1.99/lb” – they come across as menacing in a manner Kiwis or pears could never manage. Who could ever take kumquats seriously as a threat?

Despite the fear factor, blood oranges are one of the high points of the winter. Their season is shorter than those of other oranges – or perhaps all the other oranges simply run together and it seems they’re available longer – but blood oranges are the ones whose absence I notice first. It’s difficult not to.

Squeeze yourself a glass of blood orange juice and it looks as if a terrible crime has been committed in your kitchen. “We never saw it coming, officer. It all happened so quickly,” and the splatters on the counter, on the cutting board, and against the wall all testify to the violence of the scene. A blood orange was squeezed here and the cook will never be the same again. A glass of blood orange juice conjures images of horror, of luxury, of perversion. Neither beets nor pomegranates can match a ripe blood orange for drama.

Because of that, they are also one of the most alluring of citrus fruits. The variety I seem to encounter most this season is what I believe is called the Moro. Round and pungently red, it has few if any seeds and its sweet tart flavor carries – at least I think – vague notes of vanilla. I have been squeezing them into everything: sauces, dressings, baked goods. Tonight, I used blood orange in black bean sauce for stir-fried vegetables and noodles.

I love black bean sauce but have been adding orange juice and zest to mine for years. The sweet acid offers a needed counterpoint to the salty, earthy flavor, lifting it above what you usually find adorning your standard plate of beef chow fun. Even more, I love the contrast – not just in taste, but in context. Blood orange juice and black bean sauce seem so far removed from one another – Mediterranean and Chinese, murky and bright – but they marry beautifully producing a deeply flavored sauce.

Matchstick vegetables and noodles in blood orange black bean sauce

Make the sauce first so that the flavors have time to mingle while you prepare the rest of the meal.

Black bean sauce

1 heaping tablespoon preserved black beans
1 clove of garlic, mashed and minced
1 teaspoon grated ginger
Zest of half a small blood orange
Juice of a whole blood orange
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon Shao Xing rice wine
½ teaspoon sugar

  • Combine all the ingredients in a bowl, mashing the beans with a spoon and stirring several times to bring all the elements together. Set aside.

Noodles

8 ounces Udon or similar style noodles

  • Boil and drain the noodles, rinsing them under cold water. Set aside in a strainer or colander to continue draining.

Vegetables

1 medium carrot, peeled, cut into matchsticks about 2 inches long (see notes)
1 stalk broccoli, peeled, cut into matchsticks about 2 inches long (see notes)
3 scallions, white parts chopped fine, green ends cut into 2-inch lengths
1 quarter-sized slice of ginger
1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil

The best way to produce matchstick cuts of carrots – and broccoli stems, as you’ll see – is to slice the peeled carrot much as you normally would to make ¼-inch thick rounds except this time you’ll cut them on a diagonal, producing elongated slices. Then, following the length of the carrot slices cut them into ¼-inch thick sticks.

For the broccoli, trim off the florets fairly close to the dark green buds on the top. Now, trim off the scabbed end at bottom, as well as the stalk’s protruding branches. Grab a vegetable peeler, and peel off the stalk’s thick skin. Beneath, you’ll find the stalk’s tender, jade colored flesh. Now cut it into matchsticks the same way you did with the carrot.

  • Over a high flame, heat your wok or large skillet until hot and add the oil.
  • Toss in the ginger slice and stir fry for about 30 seconds, then discard it.
  • Add the carrot sticks and the chopped onion whites to the wok and stir fry for 30 seconds.
  • Add the broccoli sticks to the carrot and onion mixture, stir them about for another 30 seconds or so, and then add the remaining broccoli florets and onion greens.
  • Add the black bean sauce, and continue cooking – still stirring everything in the pot rapidly – for about another two minutes.
  • Add the drained noodles to the pot, tossing them until they’re well coated with the sauce and the vegetables and noodles are nicely blended together. Serve hot.

Makes two servings.

Ice Cream on the Brain

January 14, 2010

Years ago when I lived in Burlington, Vt., it was nothing to see people lining up in the middle of winter to buy an ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s flagship store downtown. Folks would choose their flavors, piled into orderly stacks in waffle cones or waxed paper cups and – unless they chose to eat them at one of the shop’s tables – they’d take them outside and saunter up and down Church Street, Burlington’s main pedestrian drag, while snowflakes tumbled down around them.

I mention this because while it’s a great deal warmer here in San Francisco than it is in Burlington (58 degrees as opposed to 20) ice cream is still a huge draw, even in the depths of San Francisco’s notably warmer but certainly more wet version of winter. Well, for me, anyway. I just got an automatic ice cream maker and I have ice cream on the brain. I found a Cuisinart 1.5 quart ice cream maker in a thrift store on South Van Ness (I may be a food snob, but I’m a cheap food snob).

The paddle was missing, but the machine was in good shape otherwise. I forked over ten bucks and promptly took it home where I immediately went on line and, through the Cuisinart web site, ordered a replacement paddle for $8, plus $5 shipping. Total machine cost: $23. Cost new: $49.95 plus tax. I still think I got the better end of the deal.

I’ve only made two batches, so far, and the recipes I used were both based on simple recipes for vanilla ice cream that came in the owner’s manual (which I downloaded from the internet). That’s not to say they weren’t excellent. They, most assuredly, were. I really just didn’t feel like making custards or performing any other sort-of-complicated procedures.

There is, perhaps even more important, the satisfaction of making it myself. There is, as well, the satisfaction of making damned good ice cream and paying a helluva lot less for it than I would had I bought premium ice cream at the store. Three pints of that Ben & Jerry’s, for example, would have come to almost $11. Last night’s batch of 1.5 quarts came to about $5.50. Mostly, I just enjoyed making it myself, a pleasure I wouldn’t have purchasing it from the store. Here’s what I made.

Orange Chocolate Chip Ice Cream
2 cups heavy cream, chilled
1 cup whole milk, chilled
¾ cup sugar
Zest of 1 orange
2 ounces dark chocolate, cut into 1/4-inch squares or thereabouts

  • Using a hand mixer or a whisk (the hand mixer is easier on the wrist), combine the milk, orange zest, and sugar in a chilled bowl, mixing until the sugar is completely dissolved.
  • Stir in the heavy cream.
  • Turn on the machine and pour the mixture into the bowl through the opening in the cover. Let the machine do its thing until the liquid is thickened, about 25 to 30 minutes.
  • About five minutes before it’s done, add the chocolate through the opening at the top.
  • When it’s done, transfer the ice cream to a container and stash in the freezer for another half hour or so to let it solidify a bit more. Be sure to lick the spatula.

Banana Ice Cream
2 cups heavy cream, chilled
3/4 cup whole milk, chilled
¾ cup sugar
Several shavings of nutmeg
1 banana, preferably very ripe, mashed
1 teaspoon or more vanilla

  • Using a hand mixer or a whisk (the hand mixer is easier), combine the milk, nutmeg, mashed banana, and sugar in a chilled bowl, mixing until the sugar is completely dissolved.
  • Stir in the heavy cream.
  • Follow the same procedure as the first recipe.

Banana and Blood Orange Muffins

January 12, 2010
Stumbling around the kitchen this morning, I threw this recipe together so I’d have something for breakfast. I like muffins. These weren’t bad.

1 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 cups white flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 tablespoon melted butter
Milk (see directions)
1 medium banana, mashed
Zest and juice of one blood orange
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Butter or grease 12 cup muffin pan

  • Sift all dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl.
  • Blend egg, mashed banana, orange juice and zest, and melted butter together in 2-cup or larger measuring cup. Add enough milk to bring total volume to 1 3/4 cups of liquid.
  • Mix wet and dry ingredients until just combined, and spoon into greased muffin pan and bake for 25 minutes or until done.
Recipe makes enough batter for eight muffins.

On Julia Child, fat, life, and Netflix

January 12, 2010

Note: I wrote this essay several months ago and then, apparently, promptly forgot it. It’s still timely in that I am continually asked “Have you seen ‘Julie & Julia’ yet?” I haven’t, as it happens, and I’ll probably wait until it’s available through Netflix.

Five years to the month after her death, people are rediscovering Julia Child. It’s not as if we didn’t know who she was, of course, but as is the case with many artists, true appreciation seems to come after they’ve passed away.

With the release of the film “Julie & Julia”, people are buying her first cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (from which I first learned to make quiche), and pushing it into the best seller category. According to a story in Sunday’s New York Times, more copies have been sold in one recent week since the film came out than have ever sold in any given year since it was published 48 years ago. According to the same story, folks are a little surprised by what they’re finding in the pages: recipes that call for generous amounts of real ingredients such as butter and lard.

Now that they’re buying the book, here’s hoping they won’t be frightened off by the fat because it was always Child’s lament that too many people are afraid of food. She’s correct: fat, despite what the manufacturers of low-fat anything will tell you, is good for you.

“Fat gives things flavor,” she once observed (One of the chefs under whom I studied in culinary school was more succinct: “Fat is flavor”).

You needn’t eat a ton of the stuff, but in moderation it’s fine, and it certainly tastes and feels better than, say, soy milk made with added carrageen to hold it all together. Ingredients aside, however, what Child taught us most was to enjoy what we have, to take chances, both in the kitchen and out. Even in death, she still continues to inspire. It was after reading her biography “Appetite for Life” by Noel Riley Fitch I decided I wasn’t too old at 39 to go to cooking school. If she didn’t begin cooking until she was 37 – and I had about a 20-year head start on her there – then age truly doesn’t matter.

While I have yet to see the movie (there’s that new Quentin Tarantino flick I want to see first) I’m excited to see people taking such an interest in Julia Child’s work. Whether this current fascination will result in anything more than people rushing out to buy expensive kitchen equipment they won’t use more than one or two times remains to be seen, but for the few who discover the beauty of cooking a meal themselves, and serving it to people they care for, then it’s been more than an opportunity for movie studios to capitalize on the work of a great woman.

Julia Child’s work lives on and, luckily for us, it was work that – at its core – was little more than an example in how to live our lives more fully, more profoundly, more enjoyably.