Back in the saddle: grilled beef cross-rib roast and asparagus

Look at that beef. Pretty perfect looking, wouldn’t you say? How about if I told you I grilled it while wearing a knee immobilizer?

I have and will happily eat rare beef. Hell, I don’t mind a portion of steak tartare every now and again. But I really prefer a steak at a true à point, that state of medium-rareness where everything is a lovely rosy pink except for that blush of red at the center. For a larger cut, like this cross-rib roast, I’m an ideal eating companion or audience. If I think I can get away with it, I’ll nab the toasty burnt ends, but if all that’s left on the platter is a slice or two of bloody center cuts I’ll dig in with equal glee.

This roast was prepared as I was taught by my Minnesota predecessors. It was coated with a generous amount of salt, black pepper, and where they would use garlic powder I got all California on that roast and used fresh minced garlic. It was put on a hot grill and seared all over before the heat was brought down for it to cook a bit more gently. After it was off the grill and resting (the seriously most important step in cooking meat that way way way too many people pass over), we threw the asparagus on the grill until it was charred on the ends, at which point we took it out of its misery, drizzled it with olive oil and scattered a sort of crazy amount of lemon zest on it.

The extent to which, after surgery and a burial and long plane rides and leaving concourses full of pitying glances in my wake as I made my way through airports in a knee brace, my mouth watered while preparing and eating this dinner made me think of that old belief that beef “feeds the blood.” My blood, I’m afraid, needs a bit of feeding these days.

aspargus
beef

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Kransekake and gravlax

I am usually lakeside, at the family cabin, for this holiday weekend. Circumstances happy (a wedding) and, shall we say, inconvenient (knee surgery but 2 1/2 weeks ago) kept me in unseasonably sunny San Francisco this year. There have been many ice cream cones (the ridiculousness of debating where go to—Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous, Bi-Rite Creamery, Humphry Slocombe, or St. Francis Fountain, all of which are to greater and lesser degrees in what we consider our neighborhood living, as we do, betwixt and between the Mission and Potrero Hill—does not escape us and we are well aware of this bounty of riches) and a wee bit of grilling, but my relative immobility has kept me pretty much out of the kitchen.

So I was going to write about missing being at the cabin, and how much I itch to be diving into the cool northern waters this time of year. My connection to northern climes was highlighted even more, however, with the news that my grandfather died yesterday.

It is sad because death is always sad and we loved him dearly, but I count myself beyond lucky to be mourning a grandparent when I am in my forties.* He was a funny, independent, good-looking man who died with his mind and his head of thick hair remarkably in tact. He had a strong Norwegian-Minnesotan sensibility, as best evidenced by the fact that he always told me that he checked the weather in San Francisco everyday to see how I was doing, the two things being, to his mind, inextricably linked. I might miss most how his strong Minnesotan accent pronounced my name, with a nice long o in the middle. Accents that strong—remember the guy shoveling his driveway in Fargo? for a moment there in the theater I thought the Coen brothers had somehow recruited my grandpa for the role—aren’t too common anymore.

I’m very glad I once made him the kranskake, an almond Norwegian ring cake served at weddings and other festive occasions, pictured above. He teared up when I carried it into the room on Christmas Eve.

On the one hand, it would be fun to make a kransekake today and I have the ring molds; on the other hand I also have two filets of wild Alaskan salmon in the fridge just waiting to be turned into gravlax, an equally fitting tribute. I’m going to go ask my dashing husband to set me up with a stool at the counter, strap an ice pack on my knee, and get to work.

* There are a lot of long-lived people in my family. I had three great-grandparents into my teens; my grandparents all lived to see me to at least 27. My grandfather’s grandmother lived to be 95, her father to 94, his grandfather to 93.

Minnesota
salmon

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Oh, mein Papa…

My dad took this photo. His wife, a.k.a. my mom, is in San Francisco fetching me water and cooking up her famously fabulous wild rice salad and shuttling her grandson all about town while I lie in bed with ice and Percocet as my constant companions recovering from knee surgery (surgery necessitated by this incident).

My dad is no cook. He makes superlative toast, grills bratwurst to crispy juicy perfection, fries fish over camp fires, and turns out a mean bacon-and-eggs (he’s no fool, he fries the eggs in the bacon fat), but, in general, he doesn’t cook. Left to his own devices he tends towards take-out of one sort or another. He is no stranger to the prepared foods section at the Whole Foods near their house.

While he is no old-school meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, he doesn’t mind meat and potatoes and has, more than once, commented on the sheer number of vegetables I seem to eat on a daily basis.

So when he sent me this picture he had snapped of the dinner — a bowl of split pea soup (defrosted), steamed asparagus, and a salad that, upon further questioning, was revealed to be from lettuce from the garden — he pulled together for himself the other night (subject line: “healthy dinner”), I was proud and charmed and terribly glad not to have fallen too far from that tree.

He is a man of many strengths, but one of the greatest examples my dad has always set is to be willing to try new things, like steaming asparagus or taking pictures of your meals.

That, and he always modeled the very important role Tabasco can play in any meal.

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This is how cooks roll…

We were headed out of town. We needed to eat dinner. I wanted to use what was in the house. I didn’t want to put a bunch of effort into anything besides packing and trying desperately to clear crap off my desk. A quick reflection on what was in the house revealed unto me the wonder twin combination of spaghetti carbonara and a salad. Done and done. Easy peasy.

Except when I went to start cooking I realized I had thought we had bacon and we did not. I also realized that the parsley I had pictured sitting in the vegetable drawer was equally absent.

Some people might have panicked. Plenty of folks would have headed out for tacos or pizza or called up the Thai delivery place. Not this one. This one rooted around in the fridge just a moment longer and came up with the end of a salami and a bunch of fresh mint and proceeded as much as planned as possible under the circumstances.

What we then ate wasn’t spaghetti carbonara, that’s for sure. But it was also totally and completely delicious. I will make it again.

That spaghetti carbonara recipe is delicious, to be sure. But practiced cooks know that no recipe is so good or so perfect that it can’t bear to be toyed with and tweaked and modified as taste and supplies and audience demand. As I like to say, one way or another there is always dinner in the house.

mint
pasta

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Cucumber sake cocktail and an ocean view

I’ve tried drinking these cucumber sake cocktails without an ocean view, but it doesn’t quite have the same effect.

Click on the recipe, if you must, and you can shake and strain it, if you like, but once the ocean effect has taken affect and I’m in a sundress and there’s salt water in my hair and I’m as lazy as lazy can be, I’ve been know to just pour the sake over ice, add the cucumber slices, and call it a day.

cocktails
cucumbers

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Why I don’t like tasting

Photo @ Marcia Gagliardi, a.k.a. the tablehopper.com*

I briefly hit the Pebble Beach Food and Wine event at the end of April (wow, I know, this post is amazingly late!). As I ran into colleagues and confessed that I hate tasting events, I was asked again and again, “why?”

While this may be shocking to people, I did not go into food writing because I like to wander around giant tents, convention halls, or hotel ballrooms eating bite-size portions of stone crab tamale with mango foam and drinking two-sip servings of wine.

I went into food writing primarily because I like to write. I also like to cook and I like to eat. I prefer to eat sitting down, surrounded by friends and family and the fine conversation that tends to follow. Remove the social element or an authentic context (I’m using “authentic” to denote a context that has some life and history to it since I am well aware that even a tasting event in a hotel ballroom is a context, it just happens not to be a context I value or want much of a part of) from food and my interest plummets. Quickly.

And wine? I would chose a full pour of something tasty I could sip while engaged in riveting or even just interesting conversation over six of anything I had to evaluate while standing at a folding table and being talked at by the winery’s director of marketing. Anything.

That said, I was amused that as teeny rabbit tamales and the aforementioned stone crab tamales (there, that’s my reporting from the event—chefs with a ton of servings to make ahead and serve to the masses have figured out what abuelas in my neighborhood have known for generations: the answer is tamales) were being doled out by chefs who seemed very earnest about their role in the Grand Tasting Tent (ugh, is the word “grand” a total flashing red light to anyone else? it’s like the classy, understated version of “classy”), the masses there to taste were busy lining up 40-deep to get a handful of the roasted lamb Tom Colicchio was meting out.

I believe at some point the roasted lamb was part of a dish or sandwich or something (there was no way of knowing because Tom, unlike the other chefs, did not bother to put the name of the dish he was serving on his sign), but after about an hour into the tasting the crowd’s insatiable demand for food Tom had touched meant the other ingredients had been run through and only the lamb was left. Lamb that had been, I should note, beautifully roasted and perfectly seasoned, but still simple roasted lamb. The people stayed in that line. They waited for plain roasted lamb that Tom Colicchio himself was carving up and pulling apart into serving shreds with his bare hands.

It warmed my heart. It really did. It exposed four things for which I was glad to collect empirical evidence: 1) No one really likes tastings, not really. If they did, they wouldn’t have waited around for something they already knew what it tasted like. 2) In the end, most people want simple, well prepared food, they really do. 3) To a striking degree people are complete celebrity whores. Shocking so. 4) Tom Colicchio has a wicked sense of humor. He is nice enough to play it off to great effect, too, and that is a sight to behold. He seemed to know that the first three things are unbelievably true and work it for his own entertainment. I mean, the guy was actually laughing as he tore the lamb apart with his bare hands and dropping handfuls of ripped-up meat onto the eagerly held tiny paper plates. There was a twinge of “fuck you” to the crowd desperate for his attention, sure, but he also posed for pictures and signed shirts and napkins and whatnot. He seemed to take pity on the poor bastards, paying their hard-earned—well, at least good—money to spend a beautiful California Saturday in a crowded tent standing in line to eat his meat. (Yes, I went there. Can you blame me? I mean these people were waiting forever just so Tom Colicchio would handle their meat. Oops, there I go again….)

At this point in this long-winded “story” you might have the presence of mind to wonder, “but Molly, if you hate giant tastings in tents so much, why on earth were you there?” And that, dear reader, would be a very good question. The short answer is that failed to scroll down on an email until it was too late. The full and complete answer is that I was invited by Driscoll’s berries to visit their research and testing farm in Watsonville and if there is anything I love more than visiting a farm, it’s visiting a research farm at which I am promised face time with a berry breeder. The email then went on to mention that Driscoll’s was a major sponsor of the Pebble Beach Food and W…. Oh, I don’t care who you sponsor, I thought, I just want to chat with the berry breeder. So I set aside a Saturday and agreed to go. I was sent the complete itinerary the Wednesday before, but I did not open said itinerary right away. The exact order of the field visit and the berry breakfast and the lecture from the berry breeder didn’t, I thought, make much of a difference. When I opened it on Friday I realized that I had mistook the stick for the carrot: Driscoll’s was getting other food folks to stop and learn about berries by promising them tickets to the Pebble Beach thing. After a morning visit to the berry farm we would be shuttled over the the festival and the Grand Tasting and seminars and such. It was last-minute and the mistake was totally mine and I wasn’t raised in a barn, so I didn’t cancel. But I did, I maintain, end up in the Grand Tasting tent totally and completely by accident.

* Cheers to Marcia for her mashing purple dress at the event, not to mention permission to use her photo of Tom Colicchio. If you don’t subscribe to tablehopper.com for her e-newsletter about dining in and a little bit around San Francisco, you are missing some very good weekly dine and dish in your inbox.

Tom Colicchio
tamales
tasting

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Rhubarb coffee cake, bran muffins, and strippers

I’ve been meaning to bake bran muffins. Not of course, because I like bran muffins but because I’ve been wanting to write about them.

That is the life of a food writer — or at least this food writer – in a nutshell.

I wanted to bake bran muffins so I could write about strip clubs. Canadian strip clubs; or, to be fair and accurate, a Canadian strip club. So after procrastinating on the bran muffins for weeks because, honestly, no one in this house really likes muffins all that much, if at all, I figured I’d bake rhubarb coffee cake that everyone in this house wanted to eat and just tell you the bran muffin story.

I suppose you could bake the batter in muffin format and have a rhubarb-moistened crumb-laden muffin (cue Betty White joke here), but for the recipe to really segue into the story, the rhubarb cake would need to somehow morph into a bran muffin, which it just isn’t going to do in my hands, so I’ll need you to forgive and indulge me.

If it weren’t for the fact that I was carried down a mountain, the most interesting thing about my last trip to Canada would have been the fact that I went to a strip club. With my cousin. And a couple of French dudes (yes, they were total dudes). And a former member of the U.S. ski team. And an amazingly tall lady from Boston.

So I went to the strip club in a small town in the middle of nowhere British Columbia. Seriously. It was half way between Vancouver and Calgary. Check out a map. Go ahead, I’ll wait. See? Middle of nowhere.

The former U.S. ski team member and the amazingly tall lady from Boston were most persuasive. Just one beer, they said. It’s too early, they cajoled. You can’t even ski tomorrow, they pointed out. Don’t you want to drown your sorrows, they asked.

So I hobbled around the corner on my bum knee, watched with awe and amazement as my cousin talked the doorman out of making us pay the cover charge (he’s a charmer, my cousin), took the beer the amazingly tall lady from Boston handed me, and looked around.

There were videos of snow-mobile jumps and tricks projected on walls and a small square stage in the corner, but no dancing and most certainly no stripping. It seemed like a regular bar, and I’m going to guess that the male-female ratio of patrons was 60-40.

After about 10 minutes someone took the mic and announced that I-couldn’t-make-out-the-name was going to take the stage. Then a glittery-bikini-clad young lady emerged from the door behind the bar and made her way through the crowd to the stage. She started her sexy dance, up and down and around the pole, taking off her bikini top at some point along the way, and the mood in the room… well, the best way to describe it is like she was the wild neighborhood girl who’d gotten drunk at the block party and started taking her clothes off and no one quite knew what to do so they pretended it wasn’t happening and tried not to stare and kept watching the snow-mobile video playing on the opposite wall. Seriously. It was all so very Canadian, in ways admirable and troubling.

Of course, for all I know she was the nice neighborhood girl and the crowd was slightly embarrassed. What I know for sure is that no one was tipping her, which seemed really out of the purpose and principle of a strip club as far as a dancer would be concerned, so my cousin took up a collection and brought it up to her.

It was all very much not what it’s like in the movies, that’s for sure.

Since I was in said small British Columbia town for several days with nothing to do but nurse my injured knee, I made some friends at the hotel and at the public pool and at the corner café. I asked about the strip club, if the vibe was always like that, if anything about the place seemed odd.

No, people said as they looked at me like I was the crazy one, it’s always like that.

In the course of my investigations I then learned this fascinating fact: the club was fined last year. They are a bar without license to serve food and it seems the strippers baked bran muffins which they held between their legs and sold onstage, so the place was fined. For serving food.

Yes, you heard me right. Not cupcakes, not even sugar-topped blueberry muffins. The strippers baked bran muffins and sold them during their show.

The strippers held a bake sale.

I can’t help but think they would have fared better if they’d baked up a heavily crumbed rhubarb coffee cake, but that’s just me.

Canada
cake
coffee
rhubarb

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Mothers day wishes

When I was a kid I once complained about Mothers Day to my mother (that’s her above, sipping coffee the day before I was born – draw whatever conclusions you like about my high-strung nature – in her short shorts and nautical stripes, proving fashion really does come in cycles). I thought it was unfair. There is Mothers Day and Fathers Day; I thought there should be a Kids Day, too. She promptly and quite sternly informed me that everyday was kids day. That tells you 1) a lot about the kind of kid I was and 2) a lot about the kind of mom I have.

I was the kind of kid who was really quite extraordinarily self-centered. Perhaps as all children are. Or, at least, perhaps as all first-born children who aren’t put to work as soon as they can walk as they were in the oldey-timey days tend to be. I sort of, semi grew out of it (a little bit?). I was also the kind of kid who mainly saw black and white; fair and unfair. Any whiff of unfairness enraged me. I could get myself worked up into quite a lather over the principle of the matter, even — or, rather, especially — as a child.

And my mom? She’s the kind of mom who is fun and nice enough so that you think to tell her that you think there should be a Kids Day. She is also hard-core enough to shut that nonsense down.

I see gray better than I ever used to, but it still isn’t my very best skill. On the subject of Mothers Day my assessment has shifted, but not as one might think considering that I am a mother.

I think Mothers Day is bunk. Pure and simple. It seems, much like Valentine’s Day, designed to make a whole lot of people feel bad and to sell a bunch of crap. But it makes other people happy, you may well argue. I don’t know, I guess. My sense it that if a mom doesn’t feel loved and appreciated in a general sense, a day of wilting flowers, burnt pancakes, or overpriced hotel brunches isn’t going to do much… and if it does, well, I find that sad.

So this Mothers Day I have a few hopes and dreams:

  • I hope my friend who seems to – despite being told the full and unadulterated story of motherhood from many reliable sources – really, really want a child feels bright and hopeful today because when she has that child she will be the most awesomest mom ever. I also hope she will call me many, many times to say “oh, this is what you were talking about.”
  • I hope my friend whose mother died an untimely and extra-sad death (yes, there are such things) knows what a kick-ass mom and friend she had become and enjoys an extra bite of dim sum for me today.
  • I hope anyone who might have reason to feel less than joyful about Mothers Day can go to a movie or take a drive or somehow bury their head in the sand because the second Sunday of May comes around every single year.
  • I hope my mom reads this and sees how much gray she has taught me to see, because I will call and cheerfully wish her a happy Mothers Day, plain and simple, no soapbox involved.
  • I hope my mother-in-law enjoys her day with son and grandson; their temporary absence is really the best gift a mom with young kid(s) at home could ask for.
  • I hope my son reads this someday and realizes that the degree to which I oohed and aahed over his mothers day cards and trinkets and pretended like the day meant something to me was in full and complete reflection of his own excitement at having a chance to make me feel special.

That’s what being a mother really teaches you about Mothers Day: just like all the other days, it’s about the kids. If he wants to sew up a felt pillow at school and write “I Love You Mama” in sharpie on it and wrap it in tissue paper and hand it to me with a brilliant smile on his face, jumping up and down with excitement, I’m not going to tell him Mothers Day is bunk. I’m not a monster. I’m going to smile and tell him I love it. And, amazingly to me, I’m going to mean it.

mothers day

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In which I dye eggs with other foodstuffs to greater and lesser success

The last time I dyed Easter eggs… well, I really couldn’t tell you when it was, exactly. I was the official dyer in our house growing up, however. My dad had exactly zero interest. my brother past age six or so followed suit, and my mom isn’t really into things that make a mess on the kitchen counter. We dyed them as a family when I was little, of course, but once I could oversee things on my own, I was pretty much left to it. My mom would buy me the Paas® box, though, with the crazed bunny on the front and the tablets inside with the bronzed wire holder with which to gently dip the eggs into their colored baths.

I’ve been meaning to try dying eggs with food, for professional reasons, for quite some time. After a wee bit of research I decided on:

Red cabbage for blue

Beets for pink

Tumeric for yellow

Onion skins for orange

Red onions skins for purple-ish

Spinach for green

I also played around with making the dye ahead or just cooking the eggs in the dye. Wasted food is anathema to me. It is bad enough the dye-making food would get tossed; I wanted the eggs themselves to be edible, and deliciously so. They would not be boiled to a rubbery death in order for the dye to take on my watch.

The fairly great successes were the red cabbage, tumeric, and, to a very surprising slightly lesser, beets.

For each start with 4 to 6 cups of water (figure out how much you need to cover 6 eggs in the pot or bowl you’re going to dye them in). Then choose your color:

Blue: Add a small head of red cabbage, shredded, and boil it up for about 15 minutes. Pour into a bowl and let it sit to cool. Strain out the cabbage shreds, stir in 1/4 cup distilled vinegar, and let eggs soak in the cooled mixture until they are nice and robin’s eggy blue.

Yellow: Cover 6 eggs in a medium pot with 4 to 6 cups of water. Add 1 tablespoon tumeric and 1/4 cup distilled vinegar and bring to a boil. Cover, let sit 14 minutes, and remove eggs to an ice bath. You can also boil up the tumeric in water and use as a dye in which to dip eggs, like the red cabbage above, but they will be a less vibrant yellow.

Sort of pink in a mottled, old-fashioned, could-be-mistaken-for-a-stone way: Proceed as with a red cabbage for blue, but use 2 grated red beets. Do not cook the eggs with the beets – you don’t get any color to speak of and you need to fish the eggs out of a real mess.

Curious readers will still be thinking about all those onion skins and spinach and what became of them. I used skins for four onions and boiled them down to get a dye. I tried cooking the eggs in that dye and dyeing them after cooking, all with the same shades of brown results:

Looks like a bought brown eggs, doesn’t it? In fact, this set of 8 includes some dyed with yellow onion skins, some with red onions skins, and some naturally brown eggs. As booty for an Easter egg hunt, they are a bust. As conceptual art, they are magical.

And the spinach? Yeah, that didn’t work. At all. Those all got dyed blue and yellow instead.

eggs

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First spring asparagus

Joan Dye Gussow still cooks asparagus the way her mother taught her 40-plus years ago – “sliced on a steep diagonal and sautéed in olive oil” – as she described to a conference of eager listeners in a hotel ballroom in Santa Barbara in January. Gussow had a lot to say to the Edible Institute, and I even wrote a lot of it down, but it was this single comment about asparagus that really stuck with me.

That fact alone should make all public speakers paralyzed with fear of their simultaneous power and utter lack of control.

My take-away, as the magazine editors like to say, was that cooking the same thing over and over is human and natural and good. That it can be profound. It is not necessary to seek out new food experiences to be extremely, deeply, devotedly interested in food. I will feel no shame about the fact that I cook this sautéed asparagus – putting a bit of oil in the pan, tossing in minced garlic and ginger to sizzle, adding asparagus and chopped green onion, sprinkling on some salt, stirring the whole thing up, covering the pan until the asparagus is a bit tender – over and over and over again every spring (frequently tossing it onto a bowl of rice with a bit of pork alongside) and expect my family to be not just grateful but exuberantly so.

asparagus

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