Journal entries from November 2010

Gift Guide, Day 3


They open a window into long-gone worlds, offering an unselfconscious portrait of another time. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than spend a long morning browsing through a great old bookshop. And if there’s a better way to honor friendship than by offering a specially chosen old cookbook, I’ve never found it.

My most recent find was a seed catalog from World War II, filled with great drawings of long-gone vegetables (and including an exhortation to grow the magic vegetable, kudzu). The seed company has the same name as one of my closest friends, and it will make a fine Christmas treat.

You never know what you will find, but there is always something for everyone. In the past I’ve found first editions of MFK Fisher books, a whole trove of volumes from Alan Davidson’s library, a book written in the fifties for supermarket executives on the future of the grocery store – even copies of my own first cookbook, MMMMM: A Feastiary – which I ran out of years ago.

My favorite old cookbook stores? Bonnie Slotnick in New York, and Omnivore Books in San Francisco.

Happy browsing!


Gift Guide, Day 2

Artisanal Soy Sauce

Nobody goes out and spends twenty bucks on a bottle of soy sauce. At least too few people do. Which makes this a perfect gift opportunity.

Artisanal soy sauce is one of those magic elixirs that makes everything taste better. If you’ve never had it, you won’t believe how different it can be from the commercial kind. (And if all you’ve ever tasted is the really cheap supermarket soy sauce that is basically caramelized water, you have a real revelation ahead of you. Just the jump from that to, say, Kikkoman, is huge. The leap into one of the hand-made brands is another enormous step forward.)

You can buy a few different brands of fine soy sauce from Corti Brothers in Sacramento. You can buy it other places as well, but when you go to the Corti Brothers website you can also download the most opinionated, illuminating and interesting newsletter in the business. I learn something every time I read one of Darrell Corti's entries. That's another great gift – and it’s free.


The Gift Guide

Starting today I'm going to post a new gift suggestion every day until Christmas. These are all products I've tried and loved, all gifts that I'd like to receive myself. (And although I shouldn't have to say this, I should add that nobody's paying for product placement.)

There's a certain irony in this, because when I was at Gourmet I did a terrible job of showcasing stuff to buy. This was partly because there was always so much pressure from the publishers to showcase the advertisers' products. If you're wondering why there are always watches on the cooks, there's your answer. But it was also because I could never figure out a really interesting way to offer shopping suggestions. But now that I'm no longer at the magazine, when people ask me for gift suggestions, it all seems very straightforward. So here it is, a list of gifts that I think your friends will appreciate.

I'm starting with Mangalitsa pork, because I cooked some the other day, and I was truly startled by the sheer deliciousness of these beautiful wooly pigs.


I love baking with Mangalitsa lard, which is pure white, soft and has a fine sweet flavor that is not quite like anything I’ve tasted before. When you're making pie dough it rolls out like a dream, and bakes up into a wonderfully flaky crust that lacks the mean piggy flavor of so much lard.

But the last time I ordered the lard from De Bragga and Spitler (, I decided to order some meat as well. Let me just say that it is, hands down, the most delicious pork I have ever tasted. It is so sweet, succulent and seductively flavorful that the only seasoning it needs is some salt and pepper (and maybe a few cloves of garlic). Trust me: if you send this to a friend, he will love you forever.


The World's Best Waffles

Fannie Farmer's Yeast-Raised Waffles

Sprinkle 1 package of dry yeast over a half cup of warm water in a large bowl and wait for it to dissolve.

Meanwhile melt a stick of butter, add 2 cups of milk and allow it to just gently warm up. Add it to the yeast mixture.

Mix a teaspoon each of salt and sugar into 2 cups of flour. Add this to the liquid and beat until smooth.

Cover the bowl and let it stand overnight at room temperature. In the morning beat in 2 eggs and a quarter teaspoon of baking soda, stirring well. Cook on a very hot waffle iron until crisp on each side.

This makes about 8 waffles, and will keep for a few days in the refrigerator.


My Favorite Seafood Pasta

Had dinner at Torrisi Italian Specialties the other night. Everything was wonderful - the famous garlic bread, the three bean salad with shredded dried scallops, the potato gnocchi and the juicy pork - but it was the spaghetti with seafood that really knocked my socks off. It was rich, slick, very sexy.

With the first bite I was suddenly in Venice, cooking again with Enrica Rocca in her lovely kitchen, making an aromatic (and bright orange) stock out of shrimp heads. I loved her spaghetti allo scoglio, the most intensely flavorful seafood pasta I've ever tasted.

The secret to this dish is simple: You finish cooking the pasta in the aromatic seafood broth until the pasta becomes one with the sauce. This is not spaghetti with sauce on top; it is spaghetti with sauce inside each strand. The seafood on top is lovely and delicious, but here it is just a garnish.

Spaghetti allo Scoglio

¾ pounds medium shrimp with heads
* 1 medium onion, sliced
* 1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
* a handful of chopped parsley
* 1 lb mussels, scrubbed 
* 1 lb spaghetti
* 2 cloves garlic, smashed or minced
* about 20 cherry tomatoea, halved
* 1 small dried hot chile, 
* 1 pound squid, cleaned, and cut into rings (tentacles left whole)
* white wine
* olive oil
* salt and pepper to taste

Remove the heads from the shrimp. Put them into a pot with the carrot, onion, parsley and a glug of olive oil and cook, covered, over medium-low heat, stirring lazily every once in a while for about 15 minutes. Then add the shrimp shells, ¾ cups of white wine and 4 cups of water and simmer very gently for about an hour and a half to make an intense stock (it will turn bright orange from the fat in the shrimp heads). Strain the liquid into a bowl and set aside.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and the garlic in a deep heavy skillet. When the garlic is fragrant add the mussels and 3/4 cup white wine, cover the pan and cook until most of the mussels have gaped open. This should only take a couple of minutes. Snatch the mussels out as they open, setting them in a colander set over the stock bowl. Continue to cook for about 5 minutes; discard any mussels that refuse to open.

Meanwhile, cook spaghetti in well-salted boiling water until barely al dente, about 6 minutes. Drain in a colander.

Put 1 cup of stock, cherry tomatoes, chile and some more chopped parsley in the skillet and simmer a few minutes until the tomatoes get soft. Stir in the spaghetti and simmer until the pasta has inhaled all the liquid (about 3 minutes), adding more stock as needed to make the pasta perfectly al dente. Add the squid and shrimp, stirring for about one minute or just until the shrimp turn rosy and the squid loses its translucence. Stir in the mussels and a bit more parsley and serve to 4 very happy people.


Can we change the Food System?

It was a beautiful drive down to Princeton yesterday, the sun illuminating the bright yellow trees lining the road along the way.

And it was a beautiful hall, all carved antique wood, where Marion Nestle, David Kessler and I sat down to discuss the politics of food and health care.

But it was not a beautiful discussion. Interesting, yes. But ultimately depressing. They each began by addressing what they consider the major problem with the current food system. For Marion it is that the government encourages farmers to produce too much food – and then encourages us to eat it. That is the basis of our obesity problem.

David does not dispute that. He agrees with it. But for him the basic problem is that we are literally being addicted to food; that the food companies are creating combinations of fat, sugar and salt that are driving us to overeat. We cannot help ourselves. And so we continue to eat to excess, even when we know we shouldn't. Even when we don't want to. As he says, “Everybody in America’s on a diet; everybody’s living in inner torment.”

We are all agreed on these basic facts. The question is, what do we do about it? And that’s where the most depressing part comes in. Because these politically connected people (David, after all, was the FDA commissioner who took on cigarettes), both believe that there are only two paths to political change. Campaign laws must be rewritten to prevent large corporate contributions. And the first amendment must no longer be interpreted as protecting advertising as free speech. Until that happens, political change is not possible.

In other words, change is up to us. They both believe that it is going to take grassroots efforts to change the current system. The upside? They both believe it's possible. But it's going to require a lot of work.


The Best Potato Dish, Ever

Regine asked me what I serve with a beef roast. This rich and wonderful gratin is the answer. It's a tweak on a Jacques Pepin recipe that I absolutely love. It's great for a party because it can be done ahead of time, and the timing is very forgiving; you can pull it out of the oven and serve it an hour later. It is also a great snack the next day, reheated in the microwave.

Gratin Dauphinois
* 2 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, thinly sliced
* 3 1/2 cups of milk, cream or a mixture of the two
* 2 garlic cloves, minced
* 1 teaspoon salt
* 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
* a bit of freshly grated nutmeg
* 3/4 cup coarsely grated Gruyère (or other cheese - any one will do).

  Preheat oven to 400°F. Generously butter a shallow baking dish.

  Put the potatoes into pot with the milk or cream, garlic, salt, and pepper 

and bring just to a boil. Pour the contents of the pot into the buttered baking dish, grate the nutmeg over the top and sprinkle on the cheese. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the top is browned and all the liquid has been absorbed by the potatoes. Allow this to stand for 15 minutes (or more) before serving.

  This will serve about 8 people.


Thoughts on Japan: Flavors of Culture

Few of the chefs spoke English. Many had never before been in the United States. One closed his restaurant for the first time. Others came bearing Kyoto water, unwilling to trust the quality of their cuisine to the harder California sort. This was a group that left nothing to chance.

It was, by any measure, an extraordinary conference. But when 46 of Japan’s finest chefs came to the Napa Valley last week, they went a long way towards demonstrating how much we still have to learn about Japanese cuisine.

Highlights? I imagine that each of us took something different away from this conference, which packed an astonishing amount of information into three days. But I’ll tell you what the most memorable moments were for me.

It was a thrill to watch a number of famous kaiseki chefs assembling seasonal plates before our eyes. As they placed each ingredient they told us what they were doing, and why, which was like watching an artist explain each brushstroke as he splashed it across the canvas. The differences were fascinating: For one chef a lobster was the Golden Gate Bridge, for another a mountain. Finally, Kunio Tokuoka, third-generation owner of Kyotol Kitcho stepped onto the stage, where he constructed a dish so delicate, so poetic, so astonishingly beautiful that you instantly understood the difference between very good and great. He is a master. (His new book, incidentally, is gorgeous.)

The biggest crowd-pleaser of the event was Yoshinori Horii, who made soba from green buckwheat as we watched, rapt. His family has been making soba since 1789, and I am dying to go to Tokyo to taste it. Buckwheat has no gluten, but he somehow managed to take this cantankerous material, knead it into dough with nothing but water and a tiny amount of flour, and then roll it into a smooth sheet. The magic moment was when he turned the round sheet into a perfect square with four swift passes of his long rolling pin. Then he folded it up and cut it into fine noodles with a few quick snicks of the knife.

Another great moment? Eating Ivan Ramen. Ivan Orkin is a Long Island boy who has, improbably, opened a ramen shop in Tokyo. His springy noodles have a lively quality that nobody else at the conference could match; I snuck back into line for seconds, and I would have gone for thirds if they had not run out. (For the record, another restaurant I really want to try is Nombe in San Francisco; Nicolaus Balla gave a very fine demonstration – and he makes his own umeboshi.)

But it wasn’t all food – there was also a fair amount of food for thought. Yoshiki Tsuji kicked the conference off with a fascinating look at the history of Japanese cuisine, showing us how it has been affected by the politics of the nation. The most used word at this conference was surely “umami,” which virtually every chef mentioned when he spoke. But when Harold McGee got up to talk, he dropped what was, for me, a bombshell: he believes that umami is only the beginning, and that we will identify many more essential flavors in the next few years. It’s an exciting thought.


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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.