Journal entries from January 2012

The Most Beautiful Dish

He calls it "The Ugly Stuff," but when Michael Cimarusti's plate arrived last night at Providence, my first impulse was to try and pin it to my jacket like a beautiful brooch. An insane tangle of abalone, uni, geoduck and caviars, it came garnished with little blue borage flowers and a handful of sprightly herbs. What you can't see: a custardy layer of  lightly smoked sauce.  (It was not, however the most delicous dish: that honor went to the sea urchin and eggs, a dish so intense, so nuanced, so  decadently delicious that each tiny bite seemed like its own little universe.) 

Photo (1)


The Most Decadent Breakfast

Walking down Fairfax in the absurd sunshine of an LA winter, we happened upon a food truck.  I am incapable of passing one without stopping for a bite, but this one called out to me with a particularly loud voice.  It wasn't the name - Eggslut - but the description of their signature dish: A coddled egg on top of potato puree with gray sea salt and chives.

A well-coddled egg is a beautiful thing, and when the chef said, "This will take a while; we coddle them to order," I was hooked.

As anyone would be.  This is a perfect way to start the day - a tender egg, held together with no more than a wish, on top of buttery pureed potatoes.  The crunch of salt, the snappy bite of chives. Heaven in a spoon. And so rich it made three of us deliriously happy for the rest of the day.




What I Said Last Night at the Good Food Awards

I made these remarks off the top of my head, and I forgot to say some of this.  So here's the keynote address as I meant to deliver it. I wish I could include what everybody else said, because the speeches - from farmers, charcutiers, pickle-makers, cheese-makers, beer brewers, chocolatiers, distillers and preservers were heartfelt and truly interesting. This artisanal food movement is truly changing the way that we eat.

Good Food Awards Talk

Most of you are too young to remember an America with awful food. An America where every strawberry was like cotton, where every salad was made with iceberg lettuce and had a sweet orange dressing called “French,” an America where good coffee was unknown, bread was white, and cheese was imported from France.  So you don’t also have the joy of remembering the little moments when it changed.  I want to tell you about what those moments were for me.

The first was a summer in the late seventies when I walked into the Cheese Board in Berkeley and someone said, “taste this.”  It was a fresh goat cheese - soft, rich, fluffy, and I loved it.  “Where in Franc is it from?” I asked.  

“A little place called Santa Rosa,” was the reply. I spent an entire summer living on that first American goat cheese - and then I decided I had to go meet Laurie Chenel, the woman who was making it.

The second moment was when Larry Forgione opened An American Place restaurant in NY in the early 80s. One day he came into the dining room shaking something in a jar. “What are you doing?” I asked.  

 “Whipping cream for the strawberry shortcake,” he said.  I was stunned.  I had no idea that you cream could be so rich that you could whip it with a few shakes of a jar. It was, for me one of those lightbulb moments when you realize how much the raw products matter.

But the most important moment for me was when I was working on a piece for California  magazine called "Artists of the Earth,   “They are,” I wrote, “perfectionists who work very hard not because they expect to get rich but simply because they expect to get the best.  We are finally recognizing that the people who have made our food the finest in the worl are some of California’s most valuable resources. "

For this piece I interviewed a group of people who were leading what was then called “the California Food Revolution - people like Paul Johnson who was changing the way fish was sold, and Frank Dal Porto who was growing pigs and lambs for Chez Panisse. (Incidentally, he told me, off the record, that he thought Alice was crazy; he couldn’t understand why she’d pay the same for a 30 pound lamb as for a hundred pound one, but if she was buying he was willing to sell.)  And Billy Marinelli who was touting West Coast oysters to a world obsessed with Blue Points.

But the real aha moment came at the Chino Ranch in Rancho Sta. Fe.  I went down there with Alice, and we spent two days in the fields, exploring the most beautiful produce I’d ever seen in my life. I remember standing there eating raw corn so wonderful I wondered why anyone would ever cook it.  And then, just before we left, we went out and picked strawberries for that night’s dinner at Chez Paniss.

We each carried a flat onto the plane - one of those little planes that flits between San Diego and Oakland. And the scent of those berries rose up and spiraled through the plane, reminding people of the way things used to be. You ahve to remember that this was a time before farmer’s markets, a time when people had forgotten what a real strawberry tasted like. And one by one they came over to where we were sitting, begging for a tsate.  “Just one berry,” people would plead, “I’d forgotten that’s what strawberries were like.”  As I watched Alice giving away that night’s dessert to the people on the plane, I said to myself _ this is why things in America are going to change. When people realize what we have lost, they will want to get it back.

But still, I never imagined that we would come so far, or so fast.  Back then you could hardly manage to eke out an article on the artistans; there just weren’t enough of them. Today you could fill an encyclopedia.  People like you are out there growing and baking and preserving.  While the rest of the world is slowly losing its heritage, we Americans are reclaiming ours.  Artisans like you have made American food the best in the world.  In my book you’re not just artisans of the earth - you’re heroes.  And I want to thank you - so much. 







A Truly Strange Butterscotch Cake Pudding

Leafing through vintage cookbooks this afternoon, I came upon this recipe from Favorite Recipes of Colfax Country Club Women, and I just couldn't believe it could possibly work. No eggs, almost no shortening.... it's such a strange recipe that I just had to try it.

To my surprise, it works just fine - although next time I'll add some nuts.  It is very sweet. And very simple. And it would make any child deliriously happy. 

 For the Syrup

1 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon butter

11/2 cups boiling water

 Add the brown sugar and butter to the boiling water, stirring until the sugar dissovles.  Bring the mixture to a boil again, reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the syrup coats a spoon. Cool.

 For the Cake

1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon butter at room temperature

1 cup flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

a pinch of salt

1/2 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup raisins

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine sugar, butter, flour and baking powder in a bowl.  Stir in some of the milk, then slowly add remaining milk. Beat only until smooth. Fold in the spices and raisins.

Pour the cooled syrup into a greased loaf pan.  Spoon the batter into the center of the syrup and bake for 35 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean.  Let cool for 15 minutes, then invert onto a serving dish.  Serve with unsweetened whipped cream.




Bring Back the Cheese Soufflé!

The response to the piece I wrote on how to make a better grilled cheese sandwich has been so intense that it’s gotten me thinking about other good uses for Cheddar cheese. I had a sudden, sharp taste memory of the cheese souffles that my mother’s friends used to serve in the fifties, and I simply had to go into the kitchen and make one.

This is from my mother's recipe box (a dubious distinction, I'll admit), and it is exactly as I remember it. It’s not really French - just solid American food, baked in a brownie pan and served with a salad. In the fifties it was considered extremely sophisticated; today I'd just call it extremely satisfying.  

 Cheese Soufflé

 Melt a half stick of butter over low heat and whisk in two tablespoons of flour until it’s turned into a smooth roux. Slowly pour in a cup of scalded milk and and whisk for a couple of minutes until you have something that’s smooth as melted ice cream.  Toss in a dash of salt, a pinch of pepper and a good handful (about a cup) of grated cheddar cheese, stir well and remove from the heat.  

Separate 4 eggs, stirring the yolks into the cheese mixture.  Whip the whites in a clean bowl with clean beaters until stiff.  Stir about a third of the egg whites into the cooled cheese mixture, then fold in the remaining whites.  Pour into a greased 8 by 8 inch square pan, and bake at 350 until it’s puffy and golden (about half an hour). 

Serves 4





How To Use Six (or Eight) Egg Yolks

The Christmas Coconut Cake uses a LOT of egg whites.  Since then, the yolks have been languishing in the freezer, complaining about not being used. So for the first project of the year, I turned them into lemon curd; there's nothing better than knowing that this tart, rich stuff is in the refrigerator, waiting to turn an ordinary meal into a party.

Lovely Lemon Curd

Put 6 -8 egg yolks in a large metal bowl and whisk in a cup of sugar.  Add the juice of 5 lemons (about a cup and a quarter) and the grated rind of two lemons.  

Get some water simmering on the stove, put the bowl on top of the pot (you’re essentially making a double boiler), and whisk for about 10 minutes, until the mixture is thick.  Add a stick of cold butter, a bit at a time, whisking until the butter has vanished into the curd.  Strain if you care for smooth curd. 

Spoon into jars, or bowls and put some wax paper on top to keep a skin from forming as it cools. Allow to come to room temperature, then refrigerate.

Refrigerated, this will keep for a couple of weeks. It’s a wonderful filling for a simple cake, perfect spooned into a baked tart shell (a few berries on top are even nicer), and really terrific spread onto gingerbread. It's great on toast, and folded into whipped cream it turns into instant mousse.








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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.