Saturday, June 11, 2011

The British Are Coming... The Welsh, too.

As much as the Bay Area can seem like ground zero for the locavore, the ethical omnivore, and the farm-y gourmand, the United Kingdom is leaps and bounds ahead. The above sign was outside of one of the two butcher shops in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. Hay is a town of some 1500 souls and, while it draws from the surrounding areas, is in a quite rural part of the UK. So to find a small butcher selling locally produced meats organically and humanly raised is a bit of a surprise. In California, I know where and how to get this type of product, but find it difficult when traveling in the US. The reasons are likely varied and not obvious, but the result is an awareness of agriculture as a part of a community's resource and its' landscape.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Good Life

I have been overwhelmed with seemingly salient observations about the good life and its' cross-cultural incantations.Sitting with the computer and my second cup of coffee (El Salvador Cup of Excellence roasted to Full City) with the quiet of a Sunday morning, it seems within my grasp to touch the simplicity of our visit to Buoux. As I am invariably reminded with every trip to the Luberon, we choose our life, but we do not choose it in a vacuum. What I am referring to is the cultural enterprise that is our everyday lives. How much do we work? How and where do we do it? Where and on what do we spend our money? Are we secure? I think I embrace the idea of living for the sense of it, the goodness of it, the joy, but after a week of observing the simplicity and the lack of haste, I must question this. Is a mediocre 1.20 euro espresso that is consumed over 45 minutes with my lovely wife in a shabby cafe or at a lovely courtyard table outside the shabby cafe even comparable to the Starbucks on the run? Even if we find the nice spot and sit for a time, can I ignore the din of my fellows? Can I ignore the impatience and the rush?
Much of the beauty of Buoux and its' neighboring villages is the oldness and the comfortable wear they display. They have the patina of years. At home, we feel the need to repaint to avoid something looking run down, but here...
A side "street" in Cereste
I am not wholly naive. I do not believe this is somehow the perfect life. Of course, these folks have their bills to pay. And I was on vacation... But when we sat down to lunch in Goult (see previous post) we did so with the natives and the visitors. A lunch out is a social experience. It is a rest, a chance to enjoy the goodness of food and, in my case, beautiful company. This pace of life easily supports these lingering moments or extended chats, whether it is over lunch or a leisurely afternoon stroll into the village.
The road leading down into the village of Buoux

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lunch Ends in Goult

If it was in any way remarkable, it should be a newspaper headline. "Lunch Ends in Goult" The text might begin... "At the small cafe just off the square in Goult, lunch ended after 3 courses and nearly 2 hours. The bikers and several other customers at the Cafe de la Poste, across the alley, came and went in that time. The couple along with the other patrons eating on the patio while away the time between delicious and simple courses until the desserts. At which point several Cafe Gourmands (below, demolished) along with other offerings emerged from the small kitchen inside. The lavish Cafe Gourmand includes espresso, a mini tiramisu, a mini creme brulee, a chocolate truffle, a strawberry, and a weird dessert tomato (which I don't get)."

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Miracle

It is Easter Sunday (when I originally wrote this). Like previous holidays, I can get religously philosophical. Or rather philosophical about religion.. At the Farmers Market, a different feeling about religion, about God comes to mind for me. There is a obvious and frank simplicity to the miracle of the abundant Earth. We feed at the bounty. We nestle ourselves in her bosum. We bask in his sun. For pre-agarian people, an aniministic belief system seems almost like a fait accompli. There are a multitude of little miracles balanced with their capricious, difficult variabilities. But where does that leave us. David of Massa Rice was postulating today that just as we (our generation, "X" if you must label) are attempting to return to our grandparents ways with whole foods and natural methods, our children seek the modernization of the kitchen our parents bought and fueled with its' microwave and instant, convenience foods. Is he right?
My short ribs get smoked for three to four hours and then braised for another three or four. Here they are just getting started in step two. The tomato paste in the braising liquid maintains its bright redness, which will succumb to the heat and turns deep brown. It is not a convenience food per se, but, as it re-heats beautifully, I freeze much of this batch for the coming weeks and months. It is a miracle in itself. Perhaps the most significant realization in this batch was that compared with the prior batch I made, this one was not made with my own stock and did not have the same depth and intensity. It was good, but not amazing. 

After the fries.. the kale..

With all that cooking oil after my batches of french fries, I went to my unhealthy version of crispy Dino kale. Usually, I put the kale into a 350 degree oven with a generous sprinkle of EVOO for 25 minutes or so, but properly deep fried is even better. It is cleaned, but not washed as the crinkly kale would never get dry enough and spatter far too much, then fried for a few minutes with occasional turning to get all the leaves well done. Finish it with a sprinkle of fleur de sel and it is a delicious treat.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Technique Technique

Okay, I confess. I am a technique geek. If there is a right way to cook something, I want to know it. If there is a best way to zest lemons or sieve stock or deglaze a pan or tie a prime rib, I want to know it so I can do it. But the problem with technique-ism, is that it ignores the fact that often a vague facsimile of Perfect works pretty well. Coffee making is perhaps a good example. With current explosion of the slow pour over (Blue Bottle) style brewing, many have become obsessed with a style that is fussy without delivering anything much more than another solid coffee making technique. So while I am a technique geek, I suppose I am also a lazy, skeptical realist. Last night, we had a last minute chance to have friends over for dinner. We decided to keep it simple. There was lovely Prather Ranch ground beef in the freezer. So burgers and fries it is. But fries...

I do not do much deep frying, maybe once or twice a year. Typically, calamari or something potato (though not French Fries) or, most likely, something wacky like Dino kale, which is crazy good deep fried and moderately salted. (It is a green potato chip.) So I turn to my stand-by source for technique, Cook's Illustrated. This is a terrific magazine. For all its sins, it stands above all food magazines for the reliability of it's recipes and it's willingness to test (and test) technique. Both literally and figuratively, they will (and have) sacrificed sacred cows to split technique hairs. Then they try and explain why a technique matters. I love it! But sometimes we need to trim it down, cut a step out, and just get on with it. For a guy who will reminisce about my days smoking on my Weber Smoky Mountain using the Modified Minion Method with my Kingsford, I like to have the ability to call an audible, to throw away convention. So the fries...

So Cook's has two recipes for French Fries: the classic and easier. Well, Easier French Fries calls for Yukon Golds, which I did not buy. The Classic recipe has three main steps. Soak the cut potatoes. Fry at 325 for 6-8 minutes. Then, after a 10 minute rest, fry at 350 to crisp up and brown for a minute. Well, this all sounds fine, except our friends are here and the soak should take 30 minutes.

Inner Technique Geek: "But without the soak, the interior moisture may evaporate, leaving dry fries that are chewy."
Lazy Realist: "Yeah, well, you wanna keep everybody waiting 30 minutes and then ask for help to pat dry all the cut potatoes?! How bad could they be?"
Inner Technique Geek: "How perfect could they be with that short soak? Perhaps you should have consulted the recipe earlier and made the appropriate adjustments to your shopping list and schedule."
Lazy Realist: "I warned them with the invite. We are just throwing something together! No soak, it is."

So after a seven minute fry in two batches, a brief rest, then a quick fry in hotter oil. We enjoyed excellent fries without the soak. These were followed by macerated pears with a marsala marscapone cream and strawberries. The marscapone cream is in itself a lazy realist discovery. It is essentially a short cut version of the base of a Tiramisu without the egg foam that makes a more involved, but more complex tasting dessert. For Spring and Summer dinners, the marscapone cream is a great quick way to dress up Strawberry Shortcake or top fresh or macerated fruit. Though we omitted the biscuit or pound cake (due to dietary restrictions), the cream has more body and flavor than whipped cream and can hold some alcoholic flavorings, if you are so inclined.

The process is so simple. 16 oz of marscapone is plenty for 6 provided you serve it along or over fruit, perhaps with something else, like a slice of scone or pound cake. Beat the marscapone with some sugar. Add a quarter cup (or so - don't measure) of heavy cream. Add a splash of vanilla (two teaspoons, maybe). Beat until smooth. Add a few tablespoons of sweet marsala (for the Tiramisu direction) or a bit of brandy or fruit or coffee liquor, as you like. The cream will set up in the fridge over a couple of hours. So taste it. Add cream or sugar to your liking. Use less cream if you do not have the time to let it sit in the fridge and gel. It took me all of two minutes to make.

Saturday, March 06, 2010


organoleptic - adj.
  1. Of or pertaining to the sensory properties of a particular food or chemical, the taste, colour, odour and feel. (

I have written before about my challenges with the "naming" of the sensory experience of taste. I run into the challenge professionally when talking with someone about the body, describing a movement, or the feeling of a sensation or pain. Language is clearly a powerful tool, but it obviously happens (as a process) after sensation. With my aforementioned challenges with cough syrup flavors in coffee, I have done more research. 

My main effort has been the reading of Ted Lingle's The Coffee Cupper's Handbook. With my new understanding of "taste", I am finding new ways to boggle my mind. I had some light roasted coffee in a slightly overdosed preparation and the "saltiness" was intense. Well, mineral salts, of course, are in coffee and give it much of it's flavor and other properties, but to taste them as "salt" makes me unsure of myself. Do I like salty coffee? That sounds totally wrong.

So here I am, driving into work with my cup of Joe. It is a 50/50 blend of two Costa Rican coffees, one a Bourbon and the other a Finca. I am on the Golden Gate Bridge and it hits me. Out of left field - Banana! Yes, banana.. Wow! Of course, I freak out a little. Is this because I know it is a CR and I am thinking tropical? Did something dislodge from in between my teeth? Is my mind tainted by all my thoughts of Costa Rica. (I've not been, but would like to go.) Banana again. Hmmm.. Banana lighter now with a finishing floral note - a sweet, aromatic flavor. It is lavender.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Off to the races!

Happy New Year! As usual, it has been a time of festive frolic and also seasonal quietude. The intermittent busyness punctuated with moments of reflection has made for a jumbling of my thoughts. And, of course, just as I try to right (write?) my cognitive ship, the rush of January is upon me.

Since I last wrote, I saw Paul (the apple guy) again. He still had some apples left three weeks after Thanksgiving. In fact, he was chatting with another regular Market customer who I have gotten to know. The last apple of Paul's season is the Rome Beauty, as I have written about. And while it has merits, it is not particularly crisp. Given it was a rainy day, the puns started flying and I left with apples, Gravenstein apple cider vinegar, and a piece of mistletoe to cries of "Merry Crispness".

Crab season is especially delicious this year. Growing up in the Northeast, the large crustacean I am most familiar with is the lobster, but the longer I live in Calfornia, the more I look forward to Dungeness season. While crab is not quite as rich as lobster, it is also less prone to drying out during cooking. (See unrelated lobster note below).

We had some delicious seasonal reverie. I previously wrote to you about duck. The lamb was (and is - we have braised shank and an uncooked part of the leg in the freezer) excellent. For New Years' Eve, we drove down to Carmel Valley and splurged on a visit to Marinus. We have been here several times since it opened and were fans of the executive chef from his previous restaurant, the Pacific's Edge. I would generally avoid a holiday prix fixe, but at this place was willing to give it a try. And the meal was very good. The stand out dish for me was the butter poached lobster dish. I had read about Thomas Keller's approach to lobster in The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman, but had not had it and Marinus' Cal Stamenov did an excellent rendition. The lobster meat is so tender; it is nothing like a traditionally boiled or steamed lobster. It can be cut with a fork and the usual richness of the meat is accompanied by a succulent mouthfeel as opposed to lobster's tendency to rubbery. The other highlight restaurant-related, though not culinary per se, was that towards the end of the meal, the couple at a table just near us, who were clearly regulars received a visit from the Chef. I had never seen Stamenov, but was impressed he was in the kitchen on NYE and, though his jacket was pristine, had a dirty apron. Overhearing his conversation with this table, he asked what they had and was delighted the man had one particular dish. He said that it had come from his station. Huh? He is actually working a station. Stamenov may not be a household name, but he has endorsements (as evidenced by the embroidery on his jacket) and is a pretty heavy hitter. Here he is not only overseeing and expediting, but is working a station. We were duly impressed, left feeling wonderfully fed, and ready to take on 1/1/10.

Regards, Alex