Journal entries from December 2014

Pleasing a Crowd

Great Garlic Bread

A fragrant loaf of garlic bread is the best way I know to please a crowd.  While it bakes it perfumes the neighborhood, broadcasting such deeply nostalgic signals that it can send the staidest  grownup straight back to childhood.

It is both easier and harder to make a great loaf of garlic bread than it once was. Easier because these days it is far easier to find a great loaf of bread to begin with, And harder because the influx of cheap, imported garlic has made finding good garlic increasingly difficult. 

You don’t want old garlic because as it gets nasty and bitter when it sprouts.  You know the terrible taste I’m talking about.  If you can’t get your hands on good garlic, the only remedy is to go through your garlic, clove by clove, removing the bitter green sprouts.  It’s painstaking work, but it’s worth it.   

There are three other tricks to making great garlic bread.

 

  1. Use a lot of garlic.
  2. Melt the butter - don’t just soften it - and brush it liberally across the bread.  When you think you’ve used enough, use more.
  3. Bake it twice. Once to get the bread warm and completely infused with the garlic butter.  And again, to get a crisp, golden, crunchy top. 

 

Begin by buying a good loaf of sturdy French or Italian bread. Cut it in half, lengthwise (a serrated knife helps).  

 Melt a stick of sweet butter. Add one entire head of garlic that you’ve peeled and finely chopped.  (For an easy way to peel garlic, drop the cloves into a pan of boiling water for 10 seconds, which will loosen the skins.)

 Slather the garlic butter onto the bread with a brush.  Let it soak in. Use it all. 

 Place the loaf, cut sides up, in a 350 degree oven.  Bake for 15 minutes.

Turn the heat up to broil and broil for about 2 minutes, watching carefully to make sure it doesn’t burn. 

 

Optional additions.

Chopped parsley or chives will give your garlic bread a lovely spring-like look. Use about 2 tablespoons.  I also like to add the zest of one lemon, right before broiling. But my favorite addition is a quarter cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese, added just before it goes under the broiler, which makes this truly, decadently, delicious.  

 

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Rich Little Crackers for Christmas (or anytime)

Wafers

Bacon Cheese Coins

My friend Robin showed up for Christmas dinner last night with these really fantastic (and very rich) cheese crackers.

I asked for the recipe - and thought I'd share.


Gruyere and Bacon  Wafers

2 slices bacon
4 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup unbleached flour
1/2 cup finely grated gruyere
3 tablespoons grated parmesan reggiano
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
pinch cayenne

Cook the bacon in a cast iron skillet and chop in a food processor into small bits.
Add the butter, flour, cheeses, salt, and cayenne to the food processor.
Process until a ball forms. Be patient. It will happen eventually.
Form the ball into a log shape 1 1/4 inches in diameter using a sheet of plastic wrap.
Wrap the log in the plastic wrap and a sheet of aluminum foil and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

Heat an oven to 375 degrees

Cut the log into 1/4" slices and place on a sheet of silpat or parchment paper. (do not grease)
Sprinkle with a little Maldon salt.
Bake until very lightly browned, about 8-10 minutes. They will get a little darker out of the oven.
Cool on a rack.

yield: about 36 wafers

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2014 Gift Guide: Day 31

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Share the Wealth

Here is a remarkably simple—and smart—idea. Sharetable.org has persuaded dozens of San Francisco restaurants to donate a portion of gift certificate sales to the SF Food Bank. (Just make sure you buy the certificates through the Sharetable website, otherwise it's just a regular certificate.)

So while treating an SF-based loved one to an exquisite meal, you’re also helping feed those without enough to eat. What’s more, nearly all the best restaurants in San Francisco participate. 

What would I want? I can’t think of a better way to start off the new year than having $50 to spend over time at Humphrey Slocombe, one of this country’s great ice creameries.  

Here’s hoping Sharetable spreads to other cities in 2015. 

(Pictured above: Michael Tusk's irresistable agnolotti at Cotogna.)

If you're on the East Coast, and looking for an organization to support, I'd like to suggest my own favorite charity, Rural and Migrant Ministry, a group fighting for justice for farmworkers. 

Through their three offices around the state, RRM does advocacy, runs community education programs, and lobbies the state legislature to update the infuriatingly inept labor laws. In a time when it's estimated that at least half of the farmworkers in America are undocumented - and therefore open to exploitation - this has never been more important. Our food system cannot be sustainable until we recognize that the people who pick our food and care for our farm animals deserve decent lives. 

Learn more, and how to donate, here.

 

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Thirty

Books to Cook By

Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to stand cooking in the kitchen, surrounded by wonderful aromas, listening to a good book.

If you know someone who's rather be in the kitchen than anywhere else, why not give them a good book to listen to?  A subscription to audible.com is an instant gift - and it will give your friend hours of cooking pleasure.

Here are some of the books I've cooked to this year.  (I've just realized that they're all by women; not sure what that means.)

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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman living in America goes in to get her hair braided, and in the course of one long day recalls how she got here - and where she's going. Beautifully written, it's about love and politics, race - and well, everything. It stays with me.

 

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Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Read by the author, who puts the emphasis on all the right places. Offill has a unique voice; she describes a marriage in shopping lists, in snatches of conversation, in notes and asides.  Somehow she makes you know these people; I often found myself putting down my knife, just to listen.

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 The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. What if, one day, you went to mail a letter and just kept going?  Harold walks across England on a mission to see a dying friend, collecting friends, enemies and adventures along the way.  It's a quirky book, and utterly unforgettable.

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The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, who we all know is really JK Rowling. Pure fun. Cormoran Strike is a fantastic character; when this one ends you'll want to hear the other Galbraith book, and then you'll find yourself hoping Ms. Rawlings writes the third installment very quickly. She sure knows how to tell a story.

 

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People of the book, by Geraldine Brooks.  I've loved every book Geraldine Brooks has written, but this literary mystery, which takes place across six centuries, is my favorite.  The adventure begins with a modern love story and then goes back through time, tracing the origin of a rare Haggadah.  

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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Some books are better listened to than read; having consumed Mantel's books with both eyes and ears, I'd argue that this is one of them. Read by Simon Vance, this will have you dreaming up new dishes to cook, just to keep listening.  And when it's done, you still have the pleasure of Bring Up the Bodies ahead of you.

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2014 Gift Guide, Day 29

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Some Like it Hot


This is probably the last day you can reasonably order a gift online to arrive in time for Christmas. So I'm going to suggest my favorite small kitchen appliance.  

I've had this small spice grinder for many years, and it just keeps trucking along. But these days, as I find myself using more spices, cooking more Mexican and Indian foods, I use it with increasing frequency. 

This is what I love about it: the motor is strong enough to pulverize even really tough spices like annato, and it reduces nuts to powder in a matter of seconds.

It does equally well with wet spice pastes like moles and marinades.

It's easy to clean; you simply throw it in the dish washer.

It's easy to store.

And it comes with a top, so if you want to save a marinade you simply put the entire cup in the refrigerator.

The grinder also makes a great gift because it's inexpensive (about $40) and not yet part of everybody's ordinary kitchen battery. Besides, you can always use an extra for super hot spices. 

 

 

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Gift Guide, Day 28

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Gifts from the Sea

We're getting close to Christmas, and  I've been wandering the aisles of local shops, looking for plausible presents.  That's when I saw the seaweed. 

Kombu comes in dried ribbons that unfurl into long sheets that are at least as tall as I am. It's wonderful stuff. 

A small piece steeped in simmering soup for fifteen minutes adds an extra layer of depth that's delicous - very hard to place.  Kombu also does wonderful stuff to braises and stews: reconstitute a wide piece, drape it on the surface of  a slowly cooking stew and notice how it locks in flavor. It makes wonderful seaweed salad.  And there’s nothing better than homemade dashi. 

You'll find seaweed in the Asian aisle of your supermarket.  If you have access to a Japanese store, I recently discovered that Sunrise Mart, in New York, sells my favorite seaweed, mozuku, already marinated. It makes the seaweed salad now sold in every sushi aisle seem silly. 

Muzuku

Want to explore other exotic seaweeds Rising Tide Sea Vegetables, offers an entire range of seaweeds sustainably harvested on the West Coast. 

Think of it as a fashion-forward present; we don't eat a whole lot of seaweed now.  But it's definitely in our future. 

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2014 Gift Guide, Day 27

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Rolling in Dough

Baking your own bread is the most satisfying thing you can do in the kitchen.  For lazy people (count me among them), Jim Leahy’s excellent no-knead recipe produces an astonishingly satisfying loaf.

But bread's my favorite food - the answer I always give when people ask what I'd eat if I could only eat one thing for the rest of my life.  Then I think of something wild, crusty, deeply brown, with a moist crumb and formidable elasticity.  Spread with cold sweet butter....

Bread like that demands commitment. It took Chad Robertson, co-owner of Tartine Bakery, over ten years to perfect his now legendary loaf (pictured here).

If you've got bread nerds on your list, people you really love, consider giving them a series of classes at the San Francisco Baking Institute. It’s a real commitment on your part ($1000.) And on theirs too; SFBI offers hands-on five-day intensives that make your average cooking class look like a speed-dating exercise. For beginners there's the Systematic Approach to Breads; for those who've mastered the basics there are advanced intensives on everything from German breads to viennoiserie. 

If you're not ready to spend a grand on your friend, here's another suggestion for passionate bread bakers: Sam Fromartz's In Search of the Perfect Loaf is a wonderful read that's filled with information that even the most knowledgable baker will find fascinating.

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2014 Gift Guide, Day 26

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Home Grown

Here on the East Coast, January, February, and March are bleak. Snow melts into sludge. Sunlight's in short supply.  Night comes too soon. You begin longing for fresh vegetables, waiting for the return of vibrant farmers' markets.

This gift really helps. I love looking at the vertical garden in my window. Tasting it is even better. You harvest your herbs or vegetables, and then replant with the new shipment that arrives each month in the mail.

The nuts and bolts:  WindowFarms come in columns of three pots. A small pump automatically waters each plant, delivering nutrients straight to the roots. It's not cheap: in addition to the farm itself, you have to buy a monthly plan. But it's a great gift that will make your friends think of you every time they snip off a fresh herb or vegetable. 

 

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2014 Gift Guide, Day 25

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Nice Ice

Speakeasy's are the coolest kids on the block. The bitters shelves in fancy grocery stores keep growing. And cocktail guides have become their own special category in your local bookstore. We're having a cocktail moment—and it's not likely to end very soon.  

But if you care about cocktails, attention must be paid to the ice. The best bartenders even engineer their ice so that drinks dilute at the perfect pace.  Besides, nice ice is... well beautiful.

There are many tools that would delight an aspiring mixologist, but highest on my list is this Neat Ice Kit. It comes with two molds to make two perfectly clear square cubes. (Impurities are pushed to the bottom, and you just cut off the clouds.) There’s a razor-sharp chisel to break giant cubes into a more standard size, and a canvas bag and muddler-mallet to crush your extremely clear ice.

Should you want the slightly less expensive single ice cube maker, you can get it here. 

If you've got a cocktail nerd in your life, you could not do better. Order today, and you can still get it there in time for Christmas.

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Twenty Four

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 Deep Dark Soft Seductive

You either love it or you don't. Those who hate licorice will tell you about their first communion with the stuff, which invariably includes five gallon glass jars, broken teeth and cobwebs.

But true licorice is something else.  It's warm and spicy, with a flavor that fills your mouth and then your mind.  Most Americans only know sweet licorice, and if you've never had the salty sort,  you're in for a treat.

My favorite salt maker, Jacobsen’s from Tillamook, Oregon has tapped into the potential of American-made salty licorice. Jacobsen's teamed up with Portland-based super candymaker QUIN to make this eccentric little sweet. This is not classic licorice.  A bit soft, it's the most macho caramel you've ever encountered. Every true licorice-lover I know becomes instantly addicted. Offer them a bag of this fantastic licorice and they will be eternally grateful.

It’s perfect stashed into a pocket for a late-afternoon treat. And even better in a stocking. 

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2014 Gift Guide, Day 23

Aroma-r-evolution

Aroma Matters

Just how much of  our sensory experience of food is informed by our taste buds, how much by our noses? I once did a radio show with Daniel Boulud, where we put clothespins on our noses, blindfolds on our eyes, and began eating jelly beans.  It was truly stunning; we literally could not tell the difference between cherry and licorice. Everything they say about taste being primarily smell is true. 

The Aromafork is much more appealing than clothespins and blindfolds. Drop a bead of lychee aroma into the tiny well at the base of this fork, stab a piece of roast pork, and voila!, you're eating pork while tasting fruit.  It's a cool trick - the kind that emboldens you to take flavor risks in the kitchen. 

Part elevated gag gift, part amateur science project, this is the perfect present for the curious cook. The 21 aromas that come with each Aromafork are natural, and the system seems designed to encourage delicious—if off-beat—flavor pairings.

Besides, it's so much fun.

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2014 Gift Guide, Day 22

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Poor Man's Caviar

Or maybe not so poor. Bottarga, the cured roe of grey mullet, isn't exactly cheap. On the other hand, you get the hit of caviar - that sexy saline flavor - without the expense.  Because you just can't eat that much of it.

Bottarga is poised to be tomorrow's uni - the food darling of the moment - and we're going to see it on everything.  Why not?  It's fantastic shaved over pasta.  It's wonderful on salads. And one of the best dishes I've had recently is the bottarga April Bloomfield serves at The John Dory. She sandwiches it between a couple slabs of carta di musica, the Sardinian bread that seriously resembles matzo, along with generous amounts of butter and a sprinkling of chile.  It's almost impossible to stop eating, it would make a great appetizer at home - and it's particularly good with this bottarga.

Most bottarga comes from Greece, from Italy, occasionally from France. But this is a strictly American product: local, sustainably produced on the Sea of Cortez, and truly fine. This is Florida bottarga - and it's great.  Who wouldn't be thrilled to find some bottarga sitting beneath the tree?

And should you want a recipe, I've got one for bottarga pasta in my forthcoming cookbook.  But here's another recipe for bottarga pasta with lemon, ricotta and arugula that looks seriously delicious. 


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2014 Gift Guide, Day 21

 

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Looking Back

A man cannot be too serious about his eating for food is the force that binds society together.

Confucius 

If you want to see what China - and Chinese food - was like before wealth and pollution irrevocably changed it, you could not do better than the series called “A Taste  of China,” which was shot in 1984, in a now vanished land. 

The series begins with Masters of the Wok. At the start of the film we watch two master chefs and their minions prepare an elaborate banquet at the Shandong State Guest House in north China.  Among the many dishes are the hand-pulled dragon whisker noodles above.

But for me the highlight of the film is a visit to a peasant village, where we watch women make a dozen or so different kinds of bread and noodles using primitive tools.  It took me right back to the Chinese village where I spent time in 1980, a village which is now utterly transformed. The film moves on to Chengdu, and a visit to the market as well as the fledgling Sichuan cooking academy. 

The series is wonderful little piece of history.  The other half hour installments are The Family Table,  Food for Body and Spirit and Water Farmers.  This last chronicles the lives of Shaoxing farmers, focusing on "the traditional harmonious relationship the Chinese people have with their environment." Watching it just makes you sad. 

The DVDs, sadly, aren’t cheap.  But if you know someone who is really passionate about Chinese food, this would make a wonderful gift. 

 

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Twenty

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A Cup of Luxury


Got a caffeine freak in your life? Want to give her (or him) something that will really float their boat? Here it is. 

Gesha coffee is considered by coffee snobs to be the world’s best coffee; unroasted beans have sold for up to $170 a pound at auction. Named after its birthplace in Ethiopia, gesha boasts notes of citrus, melon, peach, herbs, and bergamot. Or so they say. It has a concentrated sweetness and quite a bit of acidity.

Most of the world’s gesha beans actually come from Latin America these days, where they’re grown on pampered plants at high elevation. This Blue Bottle trio of geshas costs a fortunte, but it brings together beans from three standout producers: Guatemala's Finca El Injerto, Panama's Los Lajones, and Colombia's Granja La Esperanza. If you're interested, act quickly: it's a limited run.  

Give this gift to someone you hold close; if you're lucky, you'll be around when she (or he) is in the mood to brew.

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Nineteen

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Persimmons, Preserved

Before man found fire we used the sun to preserve food. And for good reason; it’s the most natural way to cook.

Drying does more than simply make food last longer.  It transforms many foods in remarkably wonderful ways.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in the hachiya persimmon. 

Raw hachiyas have an astringent flavor and fibrous texture that purges the mouth of moisture and makes you pucker up.  Dry the persimmons, however, and they become so honeysuckle sweet they seem like an entirely different fruit. 

In the traditional Japanese method for drying persimmons, called hoshigaki, strings are tied around the stems and the persimmons are hung on long poles to dry.  They are massaged every few days to active the sugars. It takes up to ten weeks to turn the persimmons truly sweet, and they become white in the process.  Available only in the late fall months, true hoshigaki are extremely hard to find.

The Otow Family Orchard has been growing and drying persimmons in Loomis, California since the late 19th century, and they have a fanatic following. A visit to their farm (or their website) is always a treat. They're out of hoshigaki at the moment, but they've got a new crop of persimmons drying in the sun right now, and they predict that they'll be ready to ship before the new year.  Just a promise will make a great present.

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Next year I plan to make my own hoshigaki. Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s Preserving the Japanese Way offers instructions for preserving persimmons - and just about everything else.  The book comes out in August. Too early to pre-order?

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Eighteen

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Slick Sticks

If you know someone who is constantly asking, "Got a toothpick?" (and don't we all?), here's the perfect present. Unless, of course, your toothpick lover is a teetotaller.

These are not just any old toothpicks. These special toothpicks are hand-whittled out of American birch. Soaked in six-year old American bourbon.  And sold in elegant smoked glass bottles. Could anything be better?

I'm buying them for half the people I know.  (A dozen of these elegant little sticks costs $8.50). 

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Seventeen

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In 2006, when Anne Saxelby opened Saxelby Cheese with a focus on farmstead cheeses from the Northeast, many of us had already embraced the notion of eating local. Except when it came to cheese. Back then few people were willing to forego foreign cheese; we couldn't believe Americans could match what the Europeans were doing. 

We’ve come a long way. According to the American Cheese Society, entries in their annual cheese contest have almost doubled in the last eight years: from 762 to 1,372. Regional farmstead cheese is increasingly available - and increasingly exciting. Look at it this way: in 1979 Laurie Chenel produced America's first goat cheese, and today it's made in almost every state in the Union.

I like dropping into Saxelby’s to see what new cheeses they've discovered.  And I like sending cheese subscriptions to friends; it's a great way to introduce them to great new American cheeses they didn't know about. 

Cheese is an extremely seasonal product, which makes Saxelby’s Seasonal Cheese club especially exciting. Each of four seasonal shipments is curated to showcase the best cheeses of the moment. 

And while we're on the subject of cheese, I can't leave this without giving a shoutout to my favorite cheesemonger, Rubiner's in Great Barrington Massachussetts. It's a beautifully curated shop; their cheese comes from the best cheesemakers around the world, and you can trust it to be in excellent condition.  At the moment they have extraordinary vacherin; it's hard to think of a better gift for a cheese-lover. 

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Sixteen

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Mushrooms Like Magic

Mushroom people are secretive. Professional foragers never divulge their favorite spots. Even amateur hunters go tip-toeing through the woods, keeping their good fortune to themselves. (The mushroom above, should you care to know, is a delicious pink oyster.)

There's nothing more romantic than tromping through a wet forest, trying to unearth what would rather go unseen. It makes you look, really look, at the world around you.

But once you get past the sheer joy of mushroom hunting, there's the culinary pleasure of your find. Mushrooms are delicate and delicious, and if you know someone who loves to cook them, they'll be thrilled with this particular present. 

Sharondale Farm takes the hunt out of mushrooming.  They sell a dizzying array of mushroom plugs - shiitake, lions mane, oyster, to name a few - that make mushrooming a breeze. Simply bore holes in an old dead tree, stuff with a mushroom plug, and wait.... This is a gift that pays off later. 

For those without access to dead trees, Sharondale also offers mushroom-in-a-box kits for growing mushrooms right on your kitchen counter. It's a gift that keeps on giving.

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Fifteen

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A Little Luxury

If you can’t rationalize buying something for yourself, you've probably stumbled upon an excellent gift. These 100 percent linen napkins from Il Buco Vita are case-in-point. Two-hundred dollars for four napkins? Insane. But one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. 

They're certainly among the most luxurious objects I own. Exquisitely constructed, they’re soft but feel substantial in the hand. They also come in warm, striking colors that lift Monday night dinner to its own special occasion. Better still, they're colored with vegetable dyes, so I can throw them into the washing machine without worrying that they'll run or fade. 

Montefalco, the Umbrian town where these napkins are made, has a long history of linen production. The fabric is woven on looms dating back to the Renaissance, and each seam is hand stitched.

Want something to go under the napkins? I recently stumbled upon Lisa Corti tablecloths. They may not be made by guildspeople in Italy, but they’re sure to inject a jolt of sun into any drab dining room. 

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Fourteen

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For a Constant Traveler

I've spent a lot of time on the road (and in the air) this year, and coffee is a problem. It drives me crazy to pay room service prices for bad coffee, but I don't want to get dressed and go out foraging for caffeine either. Many hotels now have in-room coffee makers, but they make a pretty unappealing cup.  

This Aeropress coffee maker is the perfect solution. It produces a single cup of espresso or American coffee with less acidity than you get from a French press.  It's small enough to fit cozily into your suitcase.  It's easy to clean - an important consideration when all you've got is a minuscule hotel sink. And it comes with everything you need - including a year's supply of microfilters. 

This impressive little coffee maker produces such an excellent brew  your friends will probably start using it on a daily basis. They're stocked in many places, but I've linked to Crate&Barrell because their price is low and they offer free shipping.  

Should you want to make this an even more spectacular present, throw in some really great beans. We all have our favorites, but I'm very partial to Strongtree Coffee: fair trade, grown without pesticides, certified and hand-roasted on a daily basis.  Their beans make a really delicious cup. 

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Thirteen

Beef-tongue

Speaking of Tongues

It's not pretty.

But have you ever tasted tongue? Forget what it looks like. Forget what it is.  Close your eyes and take a bite.  The texture is stunningly soft and extremely seductive. The flavor is mild and barely meaty. There's nothing gnarly about the way it eats: even the most offal-resistant person can fall in love with tongue.

For first-timers, there's nothing better than the pickled beef tongue they make at Formaggio Kitchen. It's ever-so-slightly pickled, with a gentle brininess that removes every vestige of funk. This tongue tastes as if the flavor of the entire animal has been condensed into a single slice. Shave it very thinly and put it on a cracker; your salume plate is instantly enhanced. 

It is not, however, cheap.  If you're a frugal shopper, you might consider preparing tongue at home. Begin with a tongue from a sensible purveyor, and make sure it isn't gray.  This is just about the easiest meal you'll ever make; you basically put it in a pot and forget it for a couple hours.

Boiled Beef Tongue: 

1 beef tongue (around 3 pounds) 

Sugar

Salt

Thyme sprigs

Several cloves garlic, crushed

1 onion, diced

Bay leaf

Peppercorns 

Star Anise 

Scrub the tongue thoroughly. If you have time, brine it. Put a cup of salt and a half cup of sugar into 4 quarts of water, throw in a few sprigs of thyme and let the tongue sit in it, in the refrigerator, overnight. Drain before cooking.

Put the tongue, brined or not, in a large pot and nearly cover it with water. Add all the aromatics and a teaspoon of salt. Bring it to a boil, skim off the scum, lower the heat and simmer gently for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, until a knife moves easily through the center of the tongue. 

Remove from pot. When it’s cool enough to touch, peel off the thick skin. Trim the tongue and slice it.

That's all there is to it. With boiled potatoes and a bit of mustard it makes a wonderful dinner for 6 to 8 people.

 

 

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Twelve

Pepper

Home Grown Pepper Powder


Warm heat. Fruity. Complex. This is flavor that stays with you, reverberating in the mouth.  

Think about the sweet, appealing fruitiness of habanero. Now remove the knockout punch. That will give you an idea of ezpeleta peppers. For years I've been using piment d'espalette, sprinkling it on everything from uni pasta to soft boiled eggs. But the stuff I buy in stores is often so antique there's little left but color.

A few months ago, walking through the Portland farmers' market, I discovered Viridian Farms. Specializing in seeds from Spain and France, they've been growing their own peppers, slowly drying them and grinding them into powder. Their piment basquaise is powerful stuff; I'll never be without it again.

If you have a heat fiend on your list, you might want to consider buying some seeds for them to grow. Viridian farms sells all kinds of exotic pepper seeds - including rare Spanish varietals like pimientos de padron-  which makes this a perfect place to shop for gardeners. Another appealing idea: terrific looking haricot tarbais, for everyone eager to cook authentic cassoulet.

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Eleven

Shigoku

For a Walrus or a Carpenter

There is, for me, something magical about getting a box of oysters just hours out of the ocean, on the far side of the country.  Aroudn my house the holidays wouldn't seem quite right without a few dozen Pacific oysters.

I order mine from Taylor Shellfish Farms, a family-owned company that's been raising oysters (and geoducks and clams) in Puget Sound for more than a hundred years.  I'm fond of the Shikogus (above), but this time of year they also have Kumamotos and small Pacifics as well. 

Oysters keep well in the refrigerator for a good week.  Take them out of the bag, snuggle them into the refrigerator and cover them with a damp cloth: they'll live there very happily. 

You might also want to throw in an oyster knife: this one, also sold by Taylor, makes opening oysters seem extremely easy.  

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As for those expensive metal oyster mitts, I no longer bother.  I've found a durable rubber oven mitt  like this one protects you better, is more comfortable and is only a fraction of the cost.

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Ten

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So Spicy!

We all know a few people who obsess over hard-to-find cooking ingredients. They were eating Sichuan peppercorns years ago, regularly incorporate candlenuts into stews, and know every non-New-American restaurant in town. Their fever may seem showy to some, but to me its just a love of food, full tilt.

These friends are great to hang out with, but they’re frustrating to shop for. Until now. Tucked into the legendary Jean-Talon market in Montreal, Épices de Cru sells a head-spinningly exhaustive variety of spices. You’re guaranteed to find something that even the most rabid spice enthusiast still hasn’t added to her cupboard.

Check out dried goraka: a sweet-sour fruit used in South Indian and Sri Lankan curries. Since that hardly breaks the bank, throw in a bottle of DIY West Indian essence. Each bottle contains a few vanilla beans, mace, sapote, and tonka. All your friend has to do is fill it with rum. In two months, they’ll have a tantalizing alternative to pure vanilla extract. 

No less cool: a masala dhabba spice box. It comes with coriander, brown mustard seed, cumin, reshampatti pepper, fenugreek, turmeric and paprika, so next time your friend makes Indian food, they’ll have a few essentials right at hand. Pat yourself on the back if you can stop at three; this website doesn’t end. 

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Nine

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A Great Burger

I'm married to a burger connoisseur, a man who would rather eat hamburgers than steak and would gladly do it three times a day. I often hand chop the meat; I like the texture, and the fact that it allows me to use really good dry-aged meat in the mixture.

But when I buy pre-ground burger meat, I get it from DeBragga.  The flavor is fantasic - rich, complex, slightly funky.  Their burger blend is made from beef that's been aged at least 28 days - and you can really taste the difference.

This meat is, in my opinion, too good to grill.  Cook it in a skillet so there's nothing to disguise its wonderful flavor.  Add lettuce, onion and tomato if you must - or just eat it, naked, on a bun.

If you've got a meat-loving friend, they'll love this gift. The hamburger meat comes frozen, in 2 one-pound packages.  Since you have to pay postage, you might as well buy more; your friends will surely thank you. 

 

 

 

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2014 Gift Guide, Day Eight

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Pure Fun!

Angelo Garro is bigger than life.  Cook, hunter, raconteur, blacksmith, a day in his company is one you'll never forget.  You may have read about him in The Omnivore's Dilemma; he was the one who took Michael Pollan off to hunt boar. Or you may have seen him in my own (long-ago) Food Network special, Eating Out Loud, where we picked olives, brined them, then cooked a meal in his forge. It was one of the most fun days of my life.

If you've got a friend in Northern California, and you're inclined to spend a pile of money, you could buy them this salami-making class with Angelo.  It take place on Saturday, February 21th at Renaissance Forge in San Francisco. The day-long event includes making salami, a tasting of Angelo's own wine and a meal made by Angelo.  They also get Angelo's salame to take home. But what they mostly get is Angelo - and that is guaranteed to be spectacularly unpredictable and a very good time. The food, of course, will be wonderful.

And if your friend isn't in the Bay Area - or you don't feel like spending $400 - you could buy them some of Angelo's own salt blend instead.  That's only $10 - and it's great stuff.

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About this journal
Where am I eating? What's for dinner tonight? And what books have I been reading? For a look at what's going on in my life lately, take a look at this journal, which I try to update on a regular basis.