Journal entries from January 2015

Do the Beans Matter?

Stopped in at The Little Jewel of New Orleans Grocery and Deli today, to get some gumbo to go.  It may be one of L.A.'s best bargains- a really righteous bowl of gumbo, a side of rice, along with toast and butter for about ten bucks.  A fantastic dinner.

Haven't tried anything else here, although I'm thinking those muffalettas would be perfect Super Bowl fare, and I did bring some boudin blanc home for a midnight snack. I'm pretty sure this is the real thing - proprietor and chef Marcus Christiana-Beniger can really cook.  Can't wait to try the po' boys, although frankly I can't imagine there's anything here I wouldn't like.

We wandered through the aisles of the shop, looking at all those classic New Orleans products.  Laurie picked up a package of kidney beans and said, "These are the right kind of beans for red beans and rice.  You should buy some."  I thought - do beans really make that much of a difference?  Still, I bought some. They weren't cheap; a pound of beans cost half what the gumbo did. It was the same price as the boudin.  Five bucks a pound: pretty pricey beans. 

But they were absolutely worth it.


Came home and followed the directions on the package.

It probably helped that I had some Snake River Farms Kurobata Ham to use for what the package calls "seasoning meat."  But I'm guessing it didn't help all that much.  It was the Camellia Kidneys that made this the most satisfying pot of beans I've ever cooked.  

I will never again be without them. The beans smelled fantastic while they were cooking. They tasted great with rice.  And they went up against that gumbo. Didn't win.  But weren't embarrassed.



Cajun Red Beans

1/2 pound Camellia Red Kidney Beans

4 cups water

1/4 pound ham or "seasoning meat," diced

1/2 onion, diced

1 garlic "toe"

1/2 stalk of celery, chopped

handful of chopped parsley

1 bay leaf

salt, pepper


Wash the beans and sort through them.  Put them in a pot with the water and bring to boil.  Turn down to a simmer.

Put the ham into a skillet and cook until it's given up its fat.  Add the onion, garlic, celery and parsley, and cook until the vegetables are soft and fragrant. Add this to the beans.

Toss in the bay leaf and a fair amount of salt and pepper.

Simmer, covered, for an hour and a half or two, until the beans are soft.  Take a spoon and smash some of the beans against the side of the pot to thicken and make the beans creamy.

Serve with rice and Cajun hot sauce to 4 very happy people.  









Notes from Chi Spacca

Foccacia di REcco

That's Nancy Silverton, serving the focaccia di Recco at Chi Spacca, which may be the most irresistible thing I've eaten this year. 

Think crisp, paper thin layers of dough.  Rich stretchy cheese. Olive oil. Salt. The play of textures is arresting - you focus on the amazing things happening in your mouth - and then you just stop thinking altogether and succumb to the sheer deliciousness of the dish. 

Chi Spacca is famous for its meat.  Among other things, Chad Colby's homemade salume (I'm especially partial to the culatello):


but I decided to focus on dishes other than the giant tomahawk pork chop, the gonzo meat pie, the fabulously expensive bistecca alla fiorentina that everyone is always rhapsodizing over.

So we began with these incredible little crostone of anchovies and butter.  Is there anything better than the saline tang of really good anchovies tamed with sweet butter?  


Then this ode to the middle ages, when the rich ate their meat on trenchers of bread, and then donated the bread to the poor.  If it tasted anything like this drippings-soaked toast, well, count me in.  I suspect we'll be seeing copies of this soon. (In a further ode to the lore of the trencher, this is also the least expensive dish on the menu.)


And then there is this chicken, a version of pollo alla diavolo that relies more on lemon than chiles. The chicken itself is pretty perfect - crisp and moist, juicy and flavorful - and there's that trencher again, soaking up all the juices.


And did I mention the cauliflower?  It's the vegetable of the moment, taking over from kale, and Spacca does a very satisfying version:





Eating Words

There are too many food blogs. We all know that; it's impossible to keep up.

But I've just stumbled on another one that's really worth the time.

Paper and Salt examines the favorite foods of literary icons, which is, of course, a whole new way to get to know your favorite authors. It's a fascinating look at writers as diverse as Hunter S. Thompson, the Marquis de Sade, Edith Wharton... the list goes on and on.

Consider, for example, Mary Shelley. Would you expect the creator of Frankenstein to offer you a recipe for what is essentially a kale bruschetta topped with a fried egg?  (She considered it comfort food.) 

And I will certainly never be able to think of Les Miserables without remembering that "Visitors to the Hugo family table remarked on the multiple cups of hot cocoa in the morning, and the “enormous pieces of roast meat” in the evening.” Hugo also ate lobsters (shell on), oranges dunked in wine, (rind on), and during the blockade of the siege of Paris he took advantage of the  zoo’s liquidation of stag, antelope and bear. (The recipe included with this post, venison with blackberry sauce, is mercifully tame.) 

To see another way that food and culture inform each other, look no further than a post on Catharine Beecher.  Her recipe for peanut brittle appears in Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book. Although Beecher calls the brittle “molasses candy,” she warns against using cane sugar because it was, at the time, a product of slave labor. She recommends substituting maple syrup; her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, would surely have approved. 



Pop Up!


I can't resist antique kitchen utensils, which is why I have so many cast iron pots. Lately I've been looking for a copper egg white bowl because I have a strong urge to make zabaglione.  But my most recent find here in my rented kitchen in LA was this little beauty: a well-seasoned iron popover pan. 

Popovers are descended from Yorkshire Pudding; the first recorded recipe appeared in 1737 in The Whole Duty of a Woman where it was known as “ A Dripping Pudding.” Eight years later in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, Hannah Glasse renamed it Yorkshire Pudding; nobody knows why.  (The usually reliable Mrs Beeton, incidentally, got the recipe wrong.)  Buckeye Cookery, a mid-American cookbook first published in 1877 contains two recipes for “Pop-Overs” which are, essentially, Yorkshire Pudding without the drippings. 

Whatever you call them, popovers are one of the most satisfying recipes you can make.  You put a very modest batter into the oven in a greased hot pan where it explodes; when you open the oven door your popovers will have grown to as much as six inches tall. 

I've tweaked this recipe from an original in Fanny Farmer. The real secret to a fine popover is making sure your pan is piping hot when you batter it up. 

If you have meat drippings, be sure to add them; that way you'll end up with Dripping Puddings. Such a great name!

Brown Butter Popovers

3 eggs

1 cup whole milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup flour

5 tablespoons butter, browned

a couple more tablespoons butter for the pans

Gently beat the eggs and milk just until they're blended. Whisk in the salt, then the flour, pouring in a thin stream and continually whisking as you pour.  

Let batter rest for a bit. If your batter is too cold when it hits the oven, your popovers will be less impressive.  

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees, and set your pan inside.

Meanwhile, melt the butter on low heat, allowing it to cook until a wonderfully nutty aroma rises up. When that happens, immediately remove it from the fire.  Add browned butter to the batter. (It may coagulate; that’s fine.)  

Remove the hot pan from the oven. Working quickly, drop a bit of butter into each cup and swoosh it around. Add your batter. This recipe will fill a true 6-cup popover pan, or a 12-cup regular muffin pan. 

Cook for 30 minutes, or until brown and set. (Less if you used a regular muffin pan.) Try not to open the oven to check doneness more than once; the cool air rushing in will deflate the popovers.


Great, Easy Appetizer to Please a Crowd

Poor Man’s Tarte Flambée

This was a big favorite at Gourmet, but around our house it’s known as “Robert’s Cheese Toast” because my friend Robert likes it so much. The truth is, everybody I know loves this old-fashioned American classic, and no matter how much I make, it vanishes in a flash. Which is why there is no photograph: every drop had disappeared before I thought to get out my camera. 

Coarsely grate or chop a quarter pound of extra-sharp white cheddar. Chop a quarter pound of cold uncooked bacon and mix it in with the cheddar.  Mince half a small white onion and add that,  along with a tablespoon of well drained bottled horseradish.  Sprinkle in a quarter teaspoon of salt and a few good grinds of black pepper. 

Spread this onto 6 or 7 slices of thin white bread (Pepperidge Farm is perfect), set them on a baking sheet and freeze for 15 minutes.  

Cut off the crusts and then cut each toast in quarters.  Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 20 minutes or so, until everything has melted into a delicious golden goo.  

This is enough for 4 or 5 people.  



Sholeh Zard



Sunny Buttery Saffron Rice Pudding

Rice pudding is the chicken soup of desserts. Ultimate comfort food, it's an international dish that changes its style as it travels the world.

Once again perusing my stack of Time-Life books I came upon another recipe I couldn’t resist: sholeh-zard, or Persian saffron rice pudding. A goldenrod smear on the page suggests I once made this, but I have no memory of it.

Intrigued by the saffron - and the fact that this rice pudding contains no milk - I decided to try it. Unlike the two previous recipes I’ve written about here, this one was so sweet and so strongly redolent of rose water that I made a few serious modifications. Trolling around on the internet I found that sholeh-zard is traditionally incredibly sweet; one recipe I found called for three cups of sugar to one cup of rice. And the classic version is so strongly perfumed with rosewater that some recipes call for as much as a cup. But I've made this to my own taste, so it's less sweet and less perfumed.

It is also, in my opinion, very delicious.


Serves 12 

2 quarts water

1 cup basmati or Iranian rice, rinsed and soaked

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar

8 tablespoons butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces

1 1/2 teaspoons saffron threads, pulverized with a mortar and pestle or the back of a spoon, and dissolved in 1 tablespoon water

1-3 tablespoons rose water

6 tablespoons slivered blanched almonds

4 tablespoons slivered or finely chopped unsalted pistachios

1 teaspoon cinnamon (garnish)

In a heavy 4-5 quart saucepan, bring the water to a boil over high heat. Pour in the rice and salt and stir. Reduce the heat to the lowest possible point and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. The rice will still be quite watery. Stir in the sugar, then add the butter and the saffron mixture and continue stirring over low heat until the sugar has dissolved, the butter has melted, and the rice is bright yellow. Stir in the slivered almonds, and 1 tablespoon of the pistachios and, stirring occasionally, cook for 30 minutes longer until the mixture is thick enough to hold its shape almost solidly in the spoon. 

Stir in the rose water according to taste. Ladle into a bowl or several small ramekins. Let cool at room temperature, and then refrigerate for at least two hours. Traditionally, this pudding is decorated with lines of cinnamon and nuts laid out in your own personal design.

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A Great New Site You Want to Know About

As you probably know, I'm very partial to Cherry Bombe, the beautiful food magazine that celebrates women and food. It's the counterpoint to Lucky Peach, the gonzo food magazine whose every issue teems with kooky art, pages-long recipes for classic delicacies (stag pizzle soup anyone?), and a long meaty read or two. 

In the seventies, both of these would have been niche magazines, fiendishly passed around NY's fine dining kitchens. But in today’s food-obsessed universe they’re the troubadours for a generation of savvy, irreverent gourmands. And now Lucky Peach has just launched a real-deal website. Lucky us. 

The site is as intelligently done as the rest of the magazine. Take a look at the Atlas section, where contributors like David Chang recommend their favorite restaurants around the world. The list is small, but if our luck holds this will evolve into an enlightened alternative to Yelp. 

In the features section I'm very partial to Brette Warshaw’s NYC Ramen survey, Slurp & the City; this is a voice to be reckoned with.  There’s also enough of the magazine’s archives up there to steal your afternoon.  Another favorite: Peter Meehan on Claudia Fleming.


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Another One from the Time-Life Series

Curried Cauliflower

Flipping through my Time-Life cookbooks is like stepping into a temperamental time machine. Some food-splotched recipes ring no bells, while others summon memories so vivid I can literally smell them.  How many times did I make that manicotti, and for how many people?  Suddenly I’m lugging it up the rickety steps of an abandoned building on Stanton Street that a friend once called home, still warm from my oven. There was only one fork for every two people that night - which made the manicotti taste even better. 

It’s been a long time since I’ve made the ghobi sabzi (curried cauliflower) below. As I was cooking, I tried to predict what I would think of the flavor. Would it seem blandly familiar, like a robust curry that had been flattened to suit a mainstream American palette from the sixties?

Just the opposite. This dish may not be entirely authentic, but it really sings. With the exception of the black mustard seeds, you probably have the ingredients in your cupboard right now. It's easy to make and utterly delicious--comforting, richly spiced, perfectly balanced. I moved onto a second bowl almost immediately after finishing the first.

Gobhi Sabzi (Adapted from The Cooking of India )

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon scraped, finely chopped fresh ginger

1/2 cup finely chopped onions

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 head cauliflower, washed, trimmed, divided into small flowerets, and dried thoroughly 

1 small ripe tomato, washed, cored and finely chopped

1 fresh jalapeño or serrano, washed, seeded and finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon ghee, melted (clarified butter)

In a heavy bottomed saucepan, heat the vegetable oil over moderate heat until a light haze forms above it. Stir in the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, ginger and onions. Cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute, add the salt and turmeric, and continue stirring for 3 or 4 minutes. 

Drop in the cauliflower and turn the flowerets about with a spoon until they are evenly coated with the onion mixture. Then stir in the tomato, chili, ground cumin, sugar. Reduce the heat to medium low, and stirring occasionally, cook over moderate heat until the cauliflower is tender but still intact, 10-15 minutes. 

To serve, transfer to a bowl, and sprinkle with cilantro and ghee. 


What I Discovered at the Good Food Marketplace


That's me,  Alice (Waters) and Nell (Newman), at the end of the Good Food Awards in San Francisco. We hand out the medals every year, to a slew of impressive artisans who are making outstanding charcuterie, cheese, honey, chocolate, oils, pickles, preserves, coffee, beer and booze. Afterward there's a Marketplace at the Ferry Building where you can taste the country's best sustainable food products under one roof. 

I always discover a few new foods to fall in love with. This year, to my surprise, it was chocolates. Two chocolatiers really had me hooked: Black Dinah Chocolatiers from Maine and Askinosie Chocolate from Missouri. 

Black Dinah Chocolatiers produce their delicious products on Isle Au Haut, Maine, an island 45 minutes from the coast (by mailboat). Isle Au Haut has so few inhabitants that almost all of them serve as chocolate tasters to the company. The center of the operation is an enchanted-seeming chocolate cafe. Getting there isn't easy, so it's nice to know they sell their chocolates online. Smooth, mellow, balanced... their Cassis de Resistance won a medal this year. No surprise. 

An even more exciting operation: Askinosie Chocolate, the brainchild of former criminal defense lawyer Shawn Askinosie. He's an impressive person who does much more than merely buy chocolate from good farmers. He pays them well - and also shares the profits. Among the many programs Askinoise has engineered is one that feeds 800 schoolchildren free lunch at Milagros School in Davao, Philippines. He does it by selling hot chocolate from the community on the Askinsowe website and returning 100 percent of the profits. There's also a chocolate university - and so much more. If you have any interest in chocolate, this is a man to follow: he makes you proud to be a chocolate eater. As for the chocolate itself - it's fantastic. 


Meatballs for a New Year


A Taste of the Past

I love revisiting the cookbooks I used growing up.  They shaped me as much as any novel, and flipping through the sauce-splotched pages takes me back, makes me remember long-forgotten dishes.

But dusting off the Time-Life Foods of the World books is an entirely different experience. These 27 books, with their accompanying spiral-bound recipe books, opened up whole words to me. They were beautifully produced and written by some of the greats: Julia Child, James Beard, MFK Fisher, Richard Olney..... Today, as I was looking at the recipes in Middle Eastern Cooking I was struck by how radically things have changed. So many of these once-exotic foods are now available in your average supermarket. Hummus, dolmas, tabouli.....

Then I came upon this recipe for keftedakia.  When I first got the book I was enchanted by the idea of meatballs laced with ouzo and mint, and I immediately gathered the ingredients.  My friends were equally excited.  Making them again, after all this time, I was struck by one anachronism in the recipe. After you mix your ground raw beef, you're supposed to taste it for seasoning. In this age of e-coli and ground beef recalls, no mainstream publication would dare make that suggestion. On the other hand, if you buy your meat from a whole animal butcher, or grind your beef yourself .... 

Keftedakia (Adapted from Time-Life Middle Eastern Cooking)

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer or first course (about 40 meatballs)  

2 slices white bread, trimmed of crusts and torn into little pieces

1/4 cup ouzo

olive oil

vegetable oil

1/2 cup finely chopped onions

1 pound ground beef

1 egg

1 tablespoon finely-cut fresh mint leaves

1/2 teaspoon finely chopped garlic

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon salt (or less)

black pepper

1/2 cup flour

Soak the bread in the ouzo for five minutes. Meanwhile, sauté onions in a few tablespoons of olive oil until wilted, about five minutes. Be careful not to brown them. Set aside in a large bowl.

Squeeze the bread dry and discard the ouzo. Add the bread, ground beef, egg, mint, garlic, oregano, salt and a few grindings of pepper to the onions. Knead vigorously with both hands, then beat with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth and fluffy. (Taste for seasoning.)

Moistening your hands periodically with cold water, shape the beef mixture into balls about 1 inch in diameter. Then roll the balls in flour to coat them lightly. Refrigerate balls for one hour. 

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Add 3-4 tablespoons of vegetable oil to the skillet and bring to medium-high heat. Drop 10 or so meatballs into the pan at a time, shaking the pan from time to time to brown them evenly. Cook for about 6 minutes, or until cooked through. Transfer the meatballs to the oven to keep warm. Serve with fresh mint as garnish. 

It's not in the Time-Life recipe, but I like a squeeze of fresh lemon juice over the top.




Sunny Weather


Chiles 6.46.35 PM

First Taste of LA

You can smell the rich scent of the beef cooking from halfway down the block. So that is, of course, the first thing that you order at Mexicali Taco & Co. The name makes it sound a lot fancier than it is.  This is a humble place on an odd stretch of Figueroa Street - not quite Chinatown, not quite downtown - where the tacos are a fine example of simplicity. 

The carne asada taco is just that - grilled beef, hacked into chunks and slipped onto a flour tortilla (the owners bring them up from Baja, and they're fantastic).  You dress the taco yourself, from the bar in the back, where you have a choice of salsas, and an entire array of vegetables: cucumbers, radishes, pickled red onions. This is made totally to your own taste.  

There are other great options here.  Vegetarian tacos, filled with mushrooms, zucchini and a single grilled scallion.  Tacos de camaron, the Baja way, with cheese.  

Something called a vampiro, which also involves cheese and lots of garlic.  Guacamole, of course, which is particularly good spooned onto the gueros - those completely addictive whole chiles pictured at the top. 

If you like food that's made with pride, with good ingredients, and with such simplicity that there's nothing to hide behind, then this is the taco for you.

  702 N Figueroa St., Los Angeles (213) 613-0416, Mexicali Taco & Co.



The Christmas Capon


That, my friends, is the head of the capon I cooked for Boxing Day dinner.  (Capons are castrated roosters; they are larger, firmer, fatter and juicier than ordinary chickens. They're less active than your regular rooster, which makes the meat especially tender.  And because these capons are older than commercial birds, they have a lot more flavor. )

Simply roasted, with butter rubbed beneath the skin, the capon made a very festive dinner.  I stirred the juices into a bit of roasted lemon juice, which made wonderful gravy.  But six of us failed to finish the entire bird, so the next night I made capon pot pie.

It's been a long time since I had pot pie, and this one was so comforting I've resolved to add it to my winter repertoire.  

Probably won't be using capon next time around, but this recipe would, I'm sure, work equally well with chicken or turkey. 

Capon Pot Pie

2 celery stalks

2 medium carrots, peeled

1 large onion

4 tablespoons butter

fresh thyme or parsley

salt and pepper

leftover chicken or capon, shredded (about 2 cups)

1/4 cup flour 

2 cups chicken stock

1/4 cup white wine

frozen peas

1 cup heavy cream

1 egg yolk

Dice 2 stalks of celery, 2 medium carrots and an onion.  Saute them in 4 tablespoons of butter for a couple of minutes. Add a teaspoon of salt, a few grinds of pepper, and a bit of chopped fresh thyme or parsley. Toss in your shredded bird, add a quarter cup of flour, and stir for a couple of minutes until it's nicely incorporated.

Add a good splash of white wine and two cups of chicken stock, stirring constantly. Add a small package of frozen peas. 

Break an egg yolk into a cup of heavy cream, mix well, then stir some of the hot chicken mixture into the cream. Now slowly stir the cream mixture into the contents of the pan and stir, over low heat, for about 5 minutes.  It should become deliciously saucy. Taste for seasoning and pour into a casserole or deep-dish pie pan.  

Cover with pastry, cut in a few slits to let the steam escape and bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for about half an hour until the crust is golden.

This will serve 6.


You can top this with any kind of pastry; frozen puff pastry works well too. Here’s what I used:


Put a cup and a half of flour into a bowl, sprinkle in a half teaspoon of salt and cut in a stick of cold butter.

Beat an egg into small bowl; pour out half, reserving to brush on the crust.  To the remaining half add 3 tablespoons of cold water and a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar.  Mix into the flour and butter mixture, then pat it into a small disk, wrap in wax paper, and set in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it.  

Roll out the pastry until it’s a bit larger than the casserole or pie plate and fit over the chicken mixture, decoratively crimping the edges.  Stir a bit of water into the reserved half egg, brush over the crust, cut in a few slits and bake. 






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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.