Spring never slowed down. At all. If anything, it ramped up and yelled in my face for weeks on end. Most of what I was doing was not, honestly, all that interesting. But there were a few exceptions. I like to think this little contribution to the fine food zine Put A Egg On It was one of them:
Warning: this video of a young abalone (1-2 years old) dancing in my hand may tempt you to acquire an abalone as a pet.
I cannot recommend this path.
Sure, they’re cute now, but after years of changing its seawater and shoveling in kelp for it to eat, it’s going to grow, and before you know it, it will weigh a few pounds and become amazingly delicious and, honestly, you’re going to want to eat it.
This is where William Randolph Hearst stored many of his treasures while his castle on the hill was being built. It looks onto the Pacific Ocean, waves lapping on the beach just feet from its doors, all the better to unload shipped goods directly into its locked walls. It sits empty, save a few stacks of building materials and many piles of guano. It is not open to the public. I got to see it because I was on a press trip last week. Plenty of things I do as a food writer that sound super fun to other people don’t end up being nearly as great as one would think, but once in awhile I get to do something that excites even my jaded self.
I went on the trip for the abalone farm (see my visit here), but found delight around nearly every corner, from a singularly focused (some might say almost crazed) Frenchman bent on making the “perfect Cabernet,” to a farmer with a preternatural ability to find the silver lining (“we lost our peach crop to a late freeze last year, but all that energy that would have gone into the peaches went back into the trees and we got tremendous growth!”), to a family of grape growers turned wine makers with a fine tradition of layering Tellegio on their polenta before topping the lot with spicy beef stew. And, of course, I walked through the space pictured above which, despite a truly objectionable smell of guano and mold, was wondrous. You could sense the cool stuff that has spent time in its colonial mission-style walls, with recessed windows and a bell tower (all the better to announce that help was needed down at the dock) and custom-made locks. It is a singular place, which stands out in an increasingly cookie-cutter world.
For the last two months I had been feeling as overloaded as my cookbook shelves. I’ve had so much work on my plate at such a constant rate that I frequently felt like a deer in the headlights, unable to move or think, confused at what item on my to-do list could possibly be the most pressing. Spending a few days around people so fully engage in what they do, having a few hours away from the screen, being out of doors for more than half an hour at a stretch—it all worked together to start to fill the well. I hadn’t even acknowledged how dry my creative well felt (although my utter inability to come up with a single thing to write about here should have been a sign) until, all of the sudden, it wasn’t. It’s not overflowing, by any means, but at least I can remember that it’s there.
Between the few days in the green hills of the Central Coast and seeing how much more valuable and useful my cookbooks are after having been culled by over 30%, I’m going to take a leap and do something different here at The Dinner Files. The picture-story-recipe format isn’t exciting me anymore, and I think it shows. I’ll still be posting yummy and often painfully easy recipes over at Local Foods. (If you like my cooking style I encourage you to check over there frequently—I put up new stuff all the time: sign up for my weekly seasonal cooking newsletter, like the About Local Foods Facebook page, follow @aboutlocalfoods on Twitter). Other, usually food-centric projects will be coming this way.
Posts here won’t be as frequent, but I think they are going to be way more interesting.
It’s funny, just when things seem all tight and locked up, as secure as a well built warehouse:
They tend to open up:
If I ever own lots of treasure that needs to be stored, I can only hope I will have the decency to give it such views.
When my friend and neighbor Naomi Fiss came over to shoot my cookbooks for an article in Edible San Francisco close to two years ago, she had plenty of material to choose from (including this lovely shot she did of a set of Time Life cookbooks I assembled over years of buying one here and one there from thrift stores and used book dealers). Years ago my dashing husband moved a stack of four book shelves into the kitchen. We both figured that was where my cookbooks would go.
And they did. But I’m not sure what happens when I’m not in the room. Are they breeding? Cloning themselves? Signing for packages of their brethren?
So those shelves are what can only be described as full – with books stacked on top of the rows of books and books jammed in between the shelves. More books tend to be stacked on my desk, awaiting review over at Local Foods. Then there are the multiple shelves of food reference books that fill the bookcases in my study, most in double rows. And, I am ashamed to say, there is plenty of overrun filling more than one shelf in the basement.
The thing that gets me down is that I in no way keep every cookbook that comes my way. Review copies that don’t work to feature on Local Foods get sent straight to the box in the garage to be given away or traded. I exhibit self-control in purposeful acquisition, too: I once brought four boxes of cookbooks to a cookbook exchange and managed to bring exactly zero home. Once something has entered the collection, however, deciding to get rid of it becomes complicated. Is the standard whether I ever use it? Whether I think I might use it? Whether it is important or interesting in the food writing world? If a friend wrote it? If it was a gift?
As a friend put it recently when talking about her substantial collection of novels: I could just decide to get rid of all of them, but to pick and choose seems impossible. That’s why I no longer have any wine books. I got rid of all of them in one fell swoop.
To be realistic I am not going to be getting rid of all my cookbooks and yet I do want to pick and choose to reduce their mass.
I tried coming up with a system based on the one I use for clothes: Do I wear it? Does it fit? Does it look good? I need a triple-yes to keep something. But what are the equivalent questions for cookbooks?
Darling readers, can you help? Can anyone offer up a rubric to use to cull a book collection? It need not be cookbook-specific – in fact, I’d love to be able to apply it to other areas of our family’s bibliophilia, so general is good.
It seemed a bit insane that I had never posted about bialys, but when I put that little ditty up about buttermilk scones last week it came to my attention that for all the doughnuts that have appeared on this site, bialys were never even mentioned. Let’s fix that. Bialys are, many people say, like bagels. Except they aren’t. They aren’t boiled before they are baked, they don’t have holes in the centers, and they certainly aren’t hawked at chain coffee shops and airport deli counters across the nation. Most importantly, bialys don’t (at least as far as I know) come in dozens of flavors; they are flavored with the perfect duo of onions and poppyseeds.
Bialys – named, again, as far as I know, after their hometown of Bialystok, Poland – are mainly found in New York. There used to be a great bialy bakery in the Fairfax neighborhood of L.A., but that place closed despite the many bags of bialys we would buy whenever we stopped in. Biannual customers cannot, I’m afraid, keep such an operation afloat.
There are not, in my experience (correct me, please!) fabulous bialys to be found in San Francisco. One company makes them, but they also make pretzels and the similarity between the two makes me think they are using the same dough. Their bialys are too cooked already to really split and toast, which is how we tend to eat them at our house. What is a girl to do except learn to make bialys and make a batch every now and again?
As happens at our house when I cook things many times over, a certain amount of customization takes place. My dashing husband — a native of New York for whom I have, more than once, passed off a batch of bialys as a present – likes his bialys small, with just a bit of onion-poppyseed topping – too much of it, he claims, leaves the center portion slightly uncooked and thus difficult to toast. That is his theory. I like lots of the topping. The top cooks just fine, thank you very much, it just doesn’t get as perfectly crispy as the rest of the bialy, which is something any reasonable adult would put up with in exchange for all that extra onion-poppyseed delight. Ever the problem-solver, I started adding some of the topping to the actual dough so I get all that delicious onion-y flavor even when putting less on top so that he can get all his crazy crispy on.
All that to say that last time I made bialys I ended up with extra onion-poppyseed goodness. I couldn’t bear to throw it away, so it sat on the counter in our winter-in-San-Francisco freezing kitchen for a day. That day happened to end up being one during which I had tons to do and it was basically crappy outside so who wanted to go to the store. I followed the path of absolute least resistance. I boiled up some pasta, tossed it with butter, black pepper, and the onion-poppyseed yumminess, and topped it all with some seven-year-old Gouda that my son begs me to buy him for a treat:
We had some salad alongside. It may have been made from a leftover garnish I found on the counter, but that bialy pasta was damn good. Onions and poppyseeds can make anything taste good.
To start the new year right, I had made a batch of homemade doughnuts for my son and then a pile of bialys for my dashing husband. A few days passed and I thought “what about me and my special breakfast treat”? I thought about making English muffins or just some delicious walnut bread to toast, and then a craving for scones hit me like a ton of bricks.
Scones, like Rice Krispies treats, are sublime when fresh and homemade but they quickly become nothing special when made in bulk and sold out of café counters. I made a batch of these buttermilk scones last week, ate three in quick succession while they were still warm, and sent the rest out of the house with my dashing husband to share with his colleagues. One of them reported back that when he first walked in and offered everyone scones she wasn’t all that excited. “I mean scones are usually,” and she paused, looking for the right description, “sort of heavy and not really that good, you know?”
I do know. Once in awhile I trick myself into believing that a bought scone will be flaky and moist and delicious and not a doorstop. Then I learn my lesson as I try to gnaw my way through a sweetened hockey puck and don’t order a scone again for a year or two until, memory faded, I try again.
These scones, though, these scones are worth eating. The buttermilk gives them just a bit of tang and helps keep them moist without making them heavy. And the flakiness! Look! You can see the layers of flaky goodness! Feel free to stir in currants or bits of chocolate or orange zest or whatever will flavor the scone to your satisfaction. I like mine terribly plain, all the better to slather with marmalade if I happen to have some around the house.
My dad is officially impossible to shop for. He has plenty of interests that require plenty of stuff, but he outfits himself as needed. And for all his love of golf and skiing and fishing and duck and pheasant hunting and bridge, he isn’t someone who wants objects branded with those interests. No funny t-shirts. No door knockers or doo-dads with fish or golf clubs or what have you on them. He does not want a tie with playing cards on it. A widely used default gift for the man is a good bottle of Scotch or other booze – I go for small batch stuff he wouldn’t already know about.
Another default gift, at least from me, is marmalade. Homemade marmalade.
Many moons ago I made my dad a dozen quarts of marmalade for Christmas. A dozen quarts. Forty-eight cups of candied jellied citrus peel. If you think that is crazy wait for the kicker: he had eaten it all by August. See, my dad likes breakfast. He often eats what you and I would see as two breakfasts. A cinnamon roll or piece of coffee cake with his first cup of coffee, then he might do something like go fishing or take a bike ride, and then he’ll settle into his bacon and eggs or, more commonly, a session with the toaster. I’ve seen the man eat half a loaf of bread in toast in a single sitting. And that toast needs things on it. Butter and peanut butter, butter and jam, butter and honey, marmalade. Just sit back and imagine the amount of toast a person would need to consume to go through forty-eight cups of marmalade in eight months. That is more than a cup of marmalade a week.
As much as I would love to keep my dad in homemade marmalade — and I do hate to think of him at his breakfast table staring into a jar and lamenting, like the Countess of Tretham in Gosford Park, “Oh dear, bought marmalade, dear me I call that very feeble” — making a dozen quarts of the stuff is an endeavor I can no longer even wrap my mind around, much less work into my schedule. The process, while not particularly difficult, does take a certain amount of time what with the zest peeling and the section cutting and membranes-in-cheesecloth tying and the never ending boiling (see how in this simple 17-step guide). Of course, one is rewarded with a house that smells absolutely fabulous for hours and jars that look like you’ve somehow filled them with precious jewels. Still, along with the haunting aroma of cooked marmalade is a thin layer of sugary citrus juice stickiness that manages to work its way over everything in the kitchen, and those jars of precious jewels must be processed if you don’t want to have to refrigerate them.
So I am done with the work – and pleasure – of making marmalade for this season, anyway. And all I had to show for it was the single batch, three pint jars, I wrapped up and gave my dad for Christmas. I’m sure he’s eaten all of it already.
We have a pretty clear Christmas Eve tradition at my parents’ house. Those who go to church go to a 4 o’clock service and sing about the Baby Jesus, we re-convene at some time between 5 and 6, drink champagne or whiskey, depending on our taste, and eat various seafood-y appetizer-y things for dinner in the living room. Then we exchange gifts. My mom used to be in charge of the food, then for awhile I sort of helped her and a few years ago I just took the food over because I like it and she doesn’t.
The coup d’état was a peaceful one, but as with any regime shift, there were some practical and even ideological changes made. We always had tasty food, but the spread didn’t always have menu cohesion. I pared down, tweaked, and started experimenting with different combinations. I re-focused the whole thing back onto seafood, letting the gravlax hold court with an attending platter of shrimp. Baked clams have been involved, as have oysters on the half shell. This year I kept it more simple than usual – I figured with my 2 1/2 year-old nephew and 17 month-old niece on hand we might want to try and make a quicker work of dinner than we have in the past.
My task was made all the easier since my Manhattan-based mother-in-law joined us. She went to Zabar’s, bossed around some guys behind the fish counter, and arrived in Minnesota with a beautiful white fish and over a pound of supremely cut nova in her bag. I just needed to platter those players up with some cream cheese, red onion, and rye bread. I made some easy-to-eat salads, some garlic-stufffed mushrooms, and blue cheese-stuffed bacon-wrapped dates and was about to call it a day.
My husband, my son, and my brother all made it very clear, however, that a platter of shrimp was expected. They weren’t a-holes about it or anything, but when I asked people if there was anything they definitely wanted they all piped up with the same request: make and serve what I wanted, but they really liked the shrimp.
Tough position. I know they wanted those big, fat shrimp to dip into cocktail sauce. Yet the only shrimp that size available at the market were farmed and imported. I’m sure there are some shrimp farms in other places doing perfectly fine work, but the vast majority of them are ecological nightmares and the resulting shrimp are full of antibiotics and their own crap. So I went with the Key West pink shrimp from Florida that I know to be a well managed fishery. The shrimp were flavorful but small. I later heard my husband defending my choice to his mother, who, like everyone else, likes her finger-food shrimp big. In the end the shrimp platter thrilled no one, I suppose, but at least I didn’t feel bad serving it. You know what else I didn’t do? I didn’t apologize or explain it. The shrimp were delicious, so, really, there was nothing to apologize for, and no one wants to hear a lecture about shrimp fisheries on Christmas Eve. I mean, I’ve gone out of my way specifically to hear lectures about shrimp fisheries, I know I don’t want to hear one in Christmas Eve.
So I was a wee bit pleased with myself. I walked the walk – making the purchase I felt good about – but I also kept the focus on the delicious, not the politics, of the meal. And in an effort to mix things up a bit I made a spicy rémoulade to serve with the shrimp: I whisked the pastured egg plus one egg white with a bit of ground mustard before dripping in the oil ever so slowly so it would all emulsify into a springy mayonnaise (feel free to use store-bought if whipping up mayo isn’t your thing) . I stirred in plenty of mustard and Tabasco and added the minced scallion and capers and some parsley.I adjusted the seasoning to get it just spicy enough to tingle a bit but not so spicy you didn’t want many more bites. As I was putting everything out I had the Shrimp Triad taste it. As the three of them stood in my parents’ kitchen in their Christmas Eve Casual finest, they all agreed: it was delicious, they really liked it, and they would also like some cocktail sauce. I looked at my dashing husband, my omnivorous son, and my baby brother and quite seriously thought about telling them to go stuff themselves. A younger me might have, indeed, argued with them. She very likely would have at least explained why the spicy rémoulade was better.
Instead of lecturing or cajoling or debating, 2011-me shook my head and, as they watched, I pulled a bottle of ketchup and a bottle of horseradish out of the fridge, dumped ketchup and horseradish into a bowl, gave it a few stirs, and handed it to them to bring out to the coffee table.
Merry Christmas, I said. And I meant it.
We bucked tradition this year. I usually cook up a pot of Hoppin’ John and braise some cabbage on January 1. This year I made red beans and rice and braised some kale. I know, I know – when will the madness stop?
My crew of two always compliments the Hoppin’ John and eats the luck-filled meal with good cheer. The red beans and rice? They were too busy shoveling it into their mouths to say much of anything until their bowls were empty, at which point they each, in their turn, got up from the table, headed into the kitchen, and loaded those bowls back up with seconds. I was left to mention, casually of course, that I thought the beans were rather good. They nodded their heads and mumbled something in agreement through their bean-filled mouths.
That dinner felt lucky, not just for the bounty symbolized by the many beans, but by their tenderness, the rich flavor from the smoked ham hock, the restorative nutrition of the whole combination. And, most of all, of course, by the fine company in which we ate.
We spent a slice of the winter break back in Minneapolis. While there I do crazy things like read the newspaper in its paper form. This causes me to read parts of the newspaper I don’t seek out online, like advice columns. One such column published a letter from a woman bereft at her holiday circumstances: because she doesn’t get along with her extended family and doesn’t really have any friends, she and her husband and daughter end up spending holidays “alone” and it is very depressing. That little ditty put a whole world to be grateful for into perspective for me, but mainly I was glad that the idea of spending a holiday with “just” my husband and son always strikes me as a delightful prospect.
Our new year was rung in not just with tasty red beans, but by several rounds of my favorite Christmas present: the Pride & Prejudice board game from Ashgrove Press:
Yep. It exists and it is awesome. It was given and received as a bit of a gag gift. Or, rather, the gift was as much the knowledge of the incredible fact that such a thing exists as it was the thing itself. But we punched out the paper shillings, separated the “Regency Life” cards from the “Novel” cards, chose our characters, and gave it a go. Rousing good fun ensued. My son insisted we play again. Yes. The eight-year-old boy wanted to play again. We’ve now played several times – enough so the cards have started to repeat, which takes away a bit, but by no means all, of the fun.
May 2012 be filled with peace and joy, of course, and also bounty and tenderness and rich flavors and health. What I wish for you and me both, though, is that it is also filled with delight. Expected delights – like dinner with friends and family – are nice but, just to keep things interesting, I also hope for plenty of unexpected delights like crazy board games based on classic novels.
It sounds sort of weird, but I really hope a big fat man in a red felt suit gave you everything you wished for this weekend. I am a happy girl, surrounded by family and friends. I could complain, because I’m quite good at complaining, but I won’t. I don’t dare. I’m too lucky with this lot I’ve been cast with to dare whisper the hint of complaint.
I am, however, a bit full. My solution? This fennel orange olive salad. Lively, bright, wintery, Sicilian, crunchy, sweet, salty, cleansing. It’s everything I want to put in my mouth after the last few days of overindulgence.