Archive for August, 2008|Monthly archive page

Bookshelf: Best Food Writing 2007

In Bookshelf on August 31, 2008 at 8:05 pm

Eating in the United States can become, to borrow from Michael Pollan, the real “omnivore’s dilemma.” If you have the money and the inclination, you can eat-or consciously choose to NOT eat-just about any food product on Earth. Concerned about the impact of pesticides on agriculture and human beings? Organic, beyond organic and biodynamic choices abound in every major metropolitan area. Environmental impact and lack of flavor have you down on produce from another hemisphere? Your friendly local farmer is readily available every weekend at the farmer’s market. Worried that the beef on your table had a miserable existence in a feed lot somewhere? You can have buy and name your own calf, wait as he grazes a private pasture for 18 months and then have his deliciously clean rib eyes Fed-Exed to your door. The problem is, the more you care about exactly what is in your food-whether for reasons of health, social justice or plain epicurean snobbery-the more those worlds begin to collide.

            A running theme of Holly Hughes’ latest edition of Best Food Writing is an exploration of the growing complexity of food choices– and what happens when eaters take themselves too seriously. And as anyone who has read even one review in the New York Times or even the cover of Saveur can attest, folks in the food world can sometimes take themselves really, really seriously. The book’s nine sections range from “global” food issues like the organic movement and eating local, to personal memoirs on spaghetti sauce and turkeys.

            Several of the strongest pieces in the collection focus on revealing a single, sometimes unknown, aspect of the culinary world. Todd Kliman’s essay “Raw Tuna” puzzles over the stratospheric rise of this particular fish in American restaurant cuisine and describes the dizzying matrix of the seven grades of tuna quality and their corresponding price points. Kliman acknowledges that he didn’t even know that the two highest grades even existed, or that less than five restaurants in this country serve them. However, instead of leaving the reader with the impression that they have been eating-and paying lots of hard-earned money for-inferior fish, Kliman pulls back from the world of precious tuna and encourages the reader to not take the ruby colored flesh quite so seriously. Enjoy your wahoo and escolar instead, it may be the smartest pick on the menu.

            John Grossmann’s article “Spoon Fed,” leads readers into another hidden portal, the tasting practices of chefs in great kitchens. By following Commander’s Palace Executive Chef Tory Mcphail  through his tastings for an entire day, Grossmann brings an often romanticized restaurant vignette-the chef dipping his silver spoon into a steaming plate of sauce and declaring the dish perfect-squarely down to Earth. After tracking and counting all 169  of Chef Mcphail’s tastings on a particular day, Grossman had a nutritionist analyze the data and report on exactly what the Chef put into his mouth every day. I don’t want to spoil the surprise of the total fat and calorie count for readers, but I will tell you that Chef Mcphail makes NFL linebackers look like they pick at salads all day. The beauty of the article is that the Chef doesn’t take the stubborn line of so many supposed “foodies:” bah, that is the price you pay for good food, who cares about heart disease and obesity? Instead, he now runs four miles three times a week and has delegated some of his line tastings to sous-chefs. Grossmann reports that the tastes at the Commander’s Palace are still superlative, and the Chef is twenty pounds lighter.

            Collectively, the pieces in Hughes’ compendium achieve a modern approach to loving food. On the one hand, many of the authors encourage you to go ahead and indulge in the more privileged strata of cuisine: intense kitchens where saucier are literally dying to make things delicious, pad thai made with fresh Maine lobsters and  biodynamic strawberries picked by Marin County couples. And then, in the next moment, others seem to shrug their shoulders and say “Nothing wrong with a great carne asada taco from the truck down the street.”


Slicing and Dicing at The Pantry

In Places to Go: SoCal on August 30, 2008 at 10:57 pm


Esther Lee and brother David at The Pantry in Redlands

Esther Lee and brother David at The Pantry in Redlands

  Esther and Terrence Lee seem to be living the food lover’s dream. The husband and wife team own and operate The Pantry, a specialty food store in downtown Redlands. They spend every day surrounded by artisanal fruit and nut oils, handmade pastas and chocolate. Maybe it’s actually really grueling to turn out those mint chocolate chip cupcakes every day, and nerve wracking to own a small business in the notoriously fickle food industry. But you’d never know it when you walk in to peruse their well-edited collection of edibles and kitchen gems. Not “well-edited” in the designer-boutique-on-Melrose sense, where there are exactly two of each garment and they are both a size 4. “Well-edited” as in the sauces, condiments, spices and treats feel (and taste) like the result of lots of loving tastings. If your best friend was a chef, and bought you every delightful thing she came across that made the products of your kitchen taste like it came from hers, you would have your own version of The Pantry.

            The Lee’s also have a great space on the basement level of their shop where Terry periodically teaches cooking basics. His vision for the class inspires a small glimmer of hope for the future of food in the Redlands area, which can sometimes feel like a culinary desert. Terry hopes that by having a series of Basic skills classes, he’ll be able to build a group that can progressively learn to cook and eat together. Many food writers and chefs may talk a great game about building communities around food, but Esther and Terry actually have it calendared out.

            Recently, I went to Terry’s Basic Knife skills class. A culinary school student himself, Terry’s approach was accessible, knowledgeable and frank. “If you try to cut your tomatoes like this-(hacking motion with an 8″ chef’s knife) – you won’t have nice slices. You’ll just jack up your tomatoes.”  He was also appropriately serious at certain moments, especially when discussing the joys of mirepoix and safety rules to ensure that knife novices don’t stab each other while moving around the room.

             We happily sliced away at each of our work stations. With only ten in the class, Terry was able to walk around and give each of us one on one instruction, periodically getting everyone’s attention to demonstrate a particular technique or answer an important question. He also fielded all the questions I had been waiting all week to ask: “How do I take the skin off a pumpkin? Did my grandmother teach me the correct way to peel cantaloupe? Then why do I always cut myself?”

            Our congenial group included familiar faces from around town and students from the university, and not one pretended to be immune to the onslaught of tears when we practiced dicing onions. Esther even tiptoed down the stairs to watch the class and laugh at us as we staggered around blindly (putting our knives down, of course), trying to clear our eyes. When Terry talked about possibly building a coterie of cooks who could share food and eventually each others kitchens, there were enthusiastic nods all around. After two and a half hours, no one seemed to be in a hurry to end the class and leave. I realized that maybe the dream-like quality of The Pantry isn’t just from the food, but from the people who love it.

After brutalizing so many vegetables and tucking them into our tupperware, Terry gave us a minestrone recipe to put them to good use. I’ve made my fair share of so-so minestrone over the years, so my ears perked up when Terry mentioned that to finish the dish, whip up a little homemade pesto and pour it on top of the soup when you’re ready to serve. The next night, after repeatedly bathing and cooking down my mirepoix with shiraz and taking an extra five minutes to raid my basil plant and make pesto, I served some damn fine soup. Silky, rich, tomato broth, fresh, complex spices and beautiful, only slightly misshapen, sliced vegetables. 

Long Life Loco Moco

In Home Cookin' on August 18, 2008 at 12:13 am


This version of Loco Moco won't get you nominated for nutrition sainthood, but it's pretty damn good.


     Enough is enough! A good friend is in Hawaii right now, sending back drool-worthy reports of poke (heavenly marinated raw tuna), malassadas (deep-fried portugese doughnuts) and numerous plate lunches. I lived in Hawaii for a few years as a kid and go back every year to “visit family” (code for: eat a lot of maui shrimp chips and fresh fish), so I’ve seen the delights–and consequences– of the local diet. A quintessential local style dish is the venerated Loco Moco. Imagine if you will, a pile of three scoops of fragrant, steaming white rice, covered with a juicy hamburger patty, then bathed in a cascade of beef gravy dotted with onions. Cover the peak of this mountain of delicious with one (or two) sunnyside up eggs and you’ve got yourself some serious chow. Glorious.

     However, this particular glory has some serious consequences. Estimates on the web put the calorie count at between 1100-1500 calories, 34-52 grams of fat per plate. When I’m actually in Hawaii, I hit the Hapa Cafe in Kapolei, order up a Loco Moco and count my blessings (and maybe add 10 minutes to my morning run). But when I’m home and having a Loco Moco craving, I make a version that takes me back to Oahu, but doesn’t take years off my life. Hey, eating great is important, but if you can eat great and live to be 100, even better. The key to my version– Let’s call it Long Life Loco Moco — is using up leftovers from other healthy meals, keeping a little bit of fat to help transmit flavors, and using a variety of spices and flavors.
     This morning I whipped up my most successful Long Life Loco Moco to date. Instead of a truckload of white rice, had a delicious scoop of garlic fried brown rice, made with less than a teaspoon of olive oil. I topped that with a leftover teriyaki turkey burger patty my husband grilled the other night, then bathed it all in the gravy. The gravy is the real key here. Instead of a traditional beef gravy made with beef fat and worcestershire, I threw some fat-free chicken broth, a teaspoon of some leftover caramelized onions, a diced up mushroom, soy sauce, pepper and a squirt of Katsu sauce into a little pot and let it simmer while I cooked the rest of the breakfast. Thickened at the last minute with a little bit of Mochiko rice flour and I had a sauce that would make your old Nikes taste like Beef Bourgogne.Top this with your best crispy-edged sunnyside-up egg, a little more of the onions and you’re golden. 
     If the thought of healthy modifications make you cringe — like the words fat free cheese, yech — take a look at this photo of today’s Long Life Loco Moco. Glistening gravy and eggs, peppery, garlicky rice. Oh, you poor thing.

Blissful Day in the Bay: Act II: Afternoon Delights

In Places to Go: NoCal on August 17, 2008 at 11:40 pm

     Festivals present a beautiful trifecta of activities: widespread sampling, dining al fresco and a modicum of exercise as you wander from booth to booth, building an appetite for more. Cruising through one is a great way to pass an afternoon. Hitting two in the same day is like a happy dream.

     Our first stop after breakfast was the Pistahan Filipino Festival in Yerba Buena Gardens. Sure, there were other things beside the food, but one of the marquee events of the day was an Adobo Cook-off, so you can tell where the priorities were. A dozen different stands selling traditional Filipino dishes beckoned; pancit (stir-fried savory rice noodles), kuchinta and puto (steamed sweetened rice cakes) and halo-halo (literally “mix-mix;” shaved ice, ice cream, sweet coconut, corn, beans, leche flan and more all piled together in one glass). By the number of stands with signs claiming Pampanga’s/Bicol’s/Ilocos’ “BEST BARBECUE,” it was clear that the real deal was barbeque pork sticks. Our choice was the stand with the longest line; Pampanga’s Best #1 Barbeque. When the line is that long, either the food is really good, or there is something hilarious going on behind the counter that makes the wait worthwhile anyway.

     Pampanga’s Best #1 clearly falls into the former category. The tent had the happy buzz of a family operation, with the cook at the grill yelling directions to his nieces and nephews at the front counter while simultaneously asking his brother-in-law to grab more sauce. We walked away with paperboard trays of a few starchy sides and two 16-inch skewers heavy with aromatic, glistening meat. The bite-size chunks were a study in the harmony of contrasts. A salty and sweet soy sauce-based marinade makes the center of each piece juicy and savory, while the meticulously basted exterior is sticky with caramelized sugars and ribboned with crispy, slightly charred edges. Each bite transported me to childhood memories of the Philippines, dragging my grandmother over to the tiny street grills on the way home from piano lessons, begging for a stick just this once.

            Standing next to a family with young kids, I listened in on their discussion of the competing ice cream stands selling traditional flavors; mango, coconut, cheese and ube (sweetened purple yam). Straightening up from my hunched posture over the last of my barbeque, I wiped my hands (no finger-licking, that’s gross) and headed over to investigate.




            Since we had a blue sky with a cool breeze coming off the Bay (and a second round of Pampanga’s Best #1), we decided to walk the two miles to the Nihonmachi Street Fair in Japantown. This annual festival is a celebration of one of the oldest Asian-American community centers in the U.S. (Nihonmachi translates to “Japan Town”). J-town has thrived for over 100 years, despite the Japanese concentration camps of the mid-20th century and ever-rising real estate costs.

       Sprinkled in between the Japanese crafts, Asian-pride gear, and community organizations touting their services were a host of food stands selling predominantly Hawaiian food. Not surprising, since Hawaiian food is typically a blend of half a dozen cultural influences, including Japanese, and more specifically, Okinawan cuisine.    Meeting up with an old friend we hadn’t seen in a few years, we perused the stands. Kahlua pulled-pork sandwiches, plate lunches with pork tonkatsu and overstuffed maki sushi were all well represented. Since we had eaten our fair share of pig earlier in the day, we elected to buy a couple of handcrafted pints from the Kona Brewing Co. and sit at the long communal tables set up at one end of the street. I’m not exactly a big beer drinker, but it’s absolutely necessary in certain contexts: standing near our grill chatting with my husband, washing down crispy pumpkin tempura, and while sitting outdoors on a beautiful day as the sun goes down.

     I knew from previous encounters with Kona Brewing, a microbrewery based on the Big Island, that it’s pretty good beer. But sitting there, catching up and watching the teenagers preen and grandfathers walk by with perfect posture, my plastic cup of Pipeline Porter tasted like heavenly nectar. As the booth vendor poured my Pipeline, my friend remarked that it looked like it had the heft of an entire meal. Espresso-dark, with a creamy viscosity and latte-colored head, it had a bitter-sweet, almost chocolaty flavor and a slight coffee note at the end. Not your typical summer drink, but the definition of summer in San Francisco is also nuanced and unique, with afternoon highs hovering around 70 and crisp, fresh, ocean air. It was refreshing, with enough liquid sustenance to tide me over until dinner.  

            As I sipped and savored the last of the Pipeline’s velvety texture, we debated our dinner plans and the likelihood of getting tickets to the Giants game. Internally, I wondered if we should kibosh the whole thing and just get another pint.

Blissful Day in the Bay: Act I, The Eater’s Market

In Places to Go: NoCal on August 16, 2008 at 7:05 am

    After living away from the Bay Area for the last decade, every visit to San Francisco feels like a homecoming.  Gas and housing are astronomically priced, traffic jams crossing the 1 mile Bay bridge can take hours and most who don’t live here shake their heads in bemused wonder at the myriad legislation coming out of the gilded city hall. But this metropolis is a great city, composed of other small great cities. Public transportation makes the distinct communities of the East, South and North Bay a seamless blend of amazing neighborhoods. And everyone — from the Aunties in the East bay harassing fish monger delivery drivers for the freshest sea bream, to the macrobiotic-organic-NorthFace fleece crowd — cares about what they eat.  These are my people.


     The start to my perfect food day in San Francisco starts at the Ferry Plaza farmer’s market. Northern California farmer’s markets offer a brief insight into the communities that host them. The Vallejo Saturday market is always bustling, with Filipino and Chinese grandmothers pulling their wheeled shopping baskets up and down the steep street, trailing pea and mustard greens peeking out of their bags. The Davis market is popular with grad student families, hopping off their bikes to pick up local honey and dinner plate-sized sunflowers. The Ferry Plaza farmer’s market holds a special place, being at the heart of such a diverse community. Even though the market caters mostly to eaters with money to spend, there is a pull from the jewel tones of the fruit and vegetable stands that is universal. And, abundant free-sample trays from every producers’ best wares don’t hurt either.


            My morning began inside the ferry building with a drive-by oyster incident. After living on the Gulf Coast for a few years, feasting on succulent $5/dozen oysters every January and February, I was a bit skeptical about a cart selling huge Pacific oysters on the half shell in August. But hey, for a $1.50 a hit, why not.? Loading up my paper tray with two monsters and a squirt of lemon, I felt a new spring in my step. How often can you walk around and eat fresh, raw oysters… for breakfast? These weren’t necessarily the sweetest or most tender I’ve ever had, but the meat had a cool, chewy, slippery texture and just enough ocean flavor to inspire thoughts of coastal living.


             Reaching the restaurant tents outside, we had two main agenda items: a strong cup of coffee and some serious breakfast meat. The 20-person-deep line for the Blue Bottle Coffee Co. tent is a testament to what people will do for a deep, dark, individually brewed cup of coffee. That’s right, in the midst of the Saturday morning onslaught of shoppers and tourists, the Blue Bottle folks cheerfully line up a new brew for every single cup.  With classic Bay Area brew strength – dark, always very dark – this morning’s coffee was hearty with a nice bitterness mellowed by caramel flavors at the end. The perfect accompaniment to reward your long wait was laid out in a tray; complimentary (and sizable) hazelnut macaroons from the Miette confectioners. When you bite into the outer shell of Miette macaroons, you find the same joy as cracking through a delicate crème brulee surface with your spoon. Inside, the “cookie” and filling are sweet and sticky, with a nutty tone to cut the sugar rush. Normally, I believe in only taking your fair share, but I will admit that on this particular occasion, I made off with three.


    We ordered our main breakfasts from the bustling Rose Pistola tent. The French toast was well-flavored but suffered from the morning rush – not enough soaking time for the batter to fully penetrate the thick brioche. A plate of soft scrambled eggs with arugula and topped with a raft of crispy prosciutto was an elegant medley of textures and flavors. The arugula dotted through soft eggs injected a fresh peppery note, nicely contrasted by the salty crunch of the thick-sliced prosciutto.


            Miraculously finding a free bench (ok, we stalked a couple who looked like they were very close to getting up), we settled down to eat, sip and take in the sounds of the morning: Crunch, crunch (prosciutto). Dunk, dunk (macaroon). Can’t wait to hear lunch.

Europane: The Croissant is just the Beginning

In Places to Go: SoCal on August 14, 2008 at 6:37 am

     The Europane bakery in Pasadena has a well-earned reputation for their magical way with butter, namely in the form of the crispiest, chewiest, most-delectable croissant this side of the Seine. Who hasn’t been guilty of abruptly pulling off the 210 freeway, ostensibly to fill up the gas tank, and just happened to pop in for one of the bittersweet-chocolate- filled croissants, or perhaps a cup of the always heartwarming house coffee, served by a cheerful and sincere crew? Yes, from Jonathan Gold to to pages and pages on Yelp, the glories of the experience in the front rooms at Europane are well-documented. Only recently however, did I realize that all of these accounts are missing one crucial element, one vital part of the Europane experience — has no one else realized that one of the best parts about Europane is going to the bathroom?


     The Europane bathroom itself isn’t especially exciting or destination-worthy. The real deal is the 20 or so foot trek between the doorway to the front dining room and the bathroom door, through one of the prep areas of the bakery’s kitchen. On crossing the threshold, you immmediately sense that you have reached europane’s buttery heart.


     Depending on the time of day, a symphony of comforting and tantalizing smells greet you. In the late afternoon, the aroma of cinnamon and sugar’s timeless waltz dances past your face. Mornings greet you with the sweet tang of poached plums and caramelizing nectarines. Trying not to bother the two or three cooks filling pastry shells or lovingly layering zucchini on focaccia dough, you begin to move through the room…very slowly.


     The sight of some kitchens is sometimes best left to the cold distance of Anthony Bourdain reruns. Not so at Europane. A slow stroll to the bathroom is rewarded with a visual feast. The walls are lined with shelves groaning under the weight of large clear containers; plump almonds, bright green pistachios and marbled walnuts. The main stages are the stainless steel table tops. Who knows what treats you will get a sneak peek at? A bubbly tub of luscious caramel sauce, ready to be drizzled on some lucky tart? A beautiful bowl full of cabernet-red plum pieces, ready to be fill a pie shell and get tucked under a flaky cover? Steel bowls of silky sweet macaroon filling? It’s all possible, and always a delightful surprise, depending on the time of day and season.


     After you saunter through the kitchen prep room and reach the bathroom door, you experience a brief moment of disappointment that the beautiful, if brief, journey is done.


 Until you realize that to get to your waiting latte and LA Times in the front room, you have to walk back.