Saturday, September 13, 2014

Stock for Pho

Every 6 months or so, I try to stuff something into my over-packed freezer and it just wont fit. In desperation I start pulling things out. I'd say a good third are bags of bones I tucked away with the best of intentions. As long as you perform this purgative ritual, you will not be disappointed. For me there are other freezer rites to observe: paying homage to Herman the eel is among them. He's been in there for about a decade and I don't have the heart to toss him.

Well, when you collect your bones, mine were an assortment of beef oddments, pig shoulder, lamb neck, chicken backs and wings, and a left over turkey carcass, toss them into the pot and cover with water. I also took the opportunity to clean the fridge of limp carrots, half a leek, some red onion, a sad bulb of fennel, celery tops, parsley stalks, mature dill and so forth.

And then I went even further and emptied the upper spice cabinet where I found star anise, coriander, long pepper, cloves, juniper, cardamom. You can tell where I'm going with this: PHO! After just a couple of hours the kitchen smells like heaven. So this is what angels eat. I'll give it maybe 10 hours at a gentle simmer, strain it tonight and have it for breakfast tomorrow with noodles and fresh vegetables.

 This is the soup the next morning. Quite nice without fussy straining. I also tasted it here before garnishing. The veggies, lime and a small hit of sriracha of course makes it, in my opinion.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Food History: An Experiment in Online Pedagogy

Yesterday I began a long term experiment in teaching food history. It is not only online with recorded lectures, which I've done three or four times before, but now includes a live google hangout meeting every Monday night for the semester. During this time, up to three hours, we will cook recipes from historic cookbooks. Students are organized into teams for cooking in one designated kitchen.The students buy ingredients, interpret the recipes, and so forth, on their own. Most recipes, I think, will come from the reader for the course.

Organizing the groups was difficult, as was dealing with students as far ranged as Paris and Utah. And as I feared, over 9 groups was not possible so one team never got on until one team went off. Worst of all, the google hangout is designed to pick up sound and broadcasts whoever happens to be talking. Now, when everyone starts to chop and pots begin to clang, there is not only cacaphony, but it switches speaker every second or two. It was like John Cage composing for kitchen on computer. I had to make a sign, backwards of course, to say PLEASE MUTE.

Despite these odd disconnects, I think this worked quite well. And nearly everyone said what they cooked tasted good. These were recipes 3,500 years old. The oldest on earth. Cuneiform. We tried as hard as possible to follow the vague directions, and we thank Laura Kelley for glossing many terms that are not translated in Bottero, which has grave shortcomings for cooks. But on the whole, there was nothing odd at all. In fact I think we all learned something about flavor and technique. Most recipes were described as broth. I think a bad translation from Akkadian to French to English. But there are no measurements, so who knows? Mine looks more like a stew.

It's a lamb stew with crushed leek, onion, garlic. And fat, plus flour. Just boiled nothing browned first. Yoghurt (maybe, or sour milk) added at the end. It thickened beautifully. And actually it tasted better after cooking 40 minutes, not after simmering a couple of hours, when I had dinner later. I always thought you couldn't cook yoghurt long, but it was fine.

Most importantly, I think every team liked what they cooked. None were right or wrong per se, but very different interpretations of the recipes. Some were thin soups, some thick black sauces on meat. Which is right, who knows? Maybe none, maybe all. But we all now have an idea of what people liked millennia ago.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Why I Eat Crap

When people see me stuff potato chips in my mouth, get excited about cheap candy or hear that I'm into ramen noodles, they seem so disappointed. As if I would only ever eat the finest fresh local sustainable ethical hand made food. Well, I do that often, but sometimes, especially dinner alone, the situation calls for crap. Despite what it looks like, this is crap.

We all know David Chang put ramen on the map again. I frankly missed it. And I never tasted ramen in college. Really. So I never really knew what was going on. But I do now. At any good Asian grocery you can find hundreds of different ramen noodle varieties. This was Indonesian Mi Goreng. I swear. About a dollar. But as long as you have time why not garnish? All in the garnish, right?

So this was shallots, mushrooms, red bell pepper, green jalapenos, red carrots and shrimp all sauteed in coconut oil. Then the noodles boiled in a broth based on shrimp shells and peelings. All mixed together, hit with cilantro and crushed peanuts. Oh and I used all 5 flavoring packets this came with. Really. That's why it's still crap. But it DOES taste great.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Melanzane sulla Microonda

If you know me, you will know that I shy away from most modern mechanical devices, in the kitchen at least. I think they almost always sacrifice flavor for speed. Short cuts, just as in walking, prevent you from savoring the process of cooking, which is arguably the best part of the entire gastronomic experience. I think the analogy applies to most things in life that are good. Why would you want to rush through them?

This is the exception that proves the rule, because I do believe it actually tastes better in the microwave. A conventional oven seems to make it tough and dry if cooked too long. Grilling likewise, though nothing to scoff at. But I offer you Eggplant in the Microwave.

Peel one medium eggplant and slice it into very thin rounds. Drizzle a little olive oil in the bottom of a clay casserole, sprinkle a little salt and oregano and arrange the slices overlapping a bit. Drizzle more oil, salt and oregano on top. Microwave for 20 minutes. If you like it mushy, cover the casserole. Plastic wrap is ok. This was cooked uncovered, which leaves them a little firmer and slightly chewy. If you are feeling extravagant, add some tomato sauce and mozzarella too and reheat. Or sprinkle some buttered breadcrumbs on top. Or for another flavor profile entirely some za'atar and pomegranate syrup. It even, I promise you, works with soy and sesame oil. Eggplant is sort of like the blank canvas of the vegetable world, adapting so easily to any set of flavors. And if you just happen to be in a hurry, this is a quickie, but really good.

Monday, August 4, 2014


I have been thinking lately about the way our memory distorts the past, leaving out some details, highlighting others in odd ways. I suppose this process is meant to protect us from negative experiences and maximize the positive. But it can't be that simple. Sometimes there are things we desperately want to remember but just can't. And conversely there are things we recall for no good reason. Case in point I was in Mendocino yesterday and remembered a completely mediocre meal I had over 15 years ago in a restaurant as we passed it.

Sensory stimuli are recorded in our memory the same way and with the same capricious results. I have vivid olfactory hallucinations, I guess you'd call them, that occur randomly. But for the life of me, I can't remember what these are supposed to taste like. They're roskas. A kind of sweet eggy roll, sort of like challah. My grandmother Julia made these, and I haven't had them since 1977, probably earlier. I know the word, and you can even find recipes, mostly Hispanic, which makes sense. She was Sephardic.

This recipe is in her hand. My sister and I baked them as best we could a few weeks ago in London. I have no qualms about lack of measurements or precise directions. I prefer it in fact. I know how to make bread, so it was no big deal. But when they came out, I have to say, I not only have no recollection of what they were supposed to taste like, but they were fairly unspectacular. I thought the story would be about recovering a long lost recipe, that tasted exactly as it did when I was 13. We may very well have pulled it off to perfection, but the truth is, I can't remember. If there were only a way to record taste the way you can words.  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Pickled Grapes

Finally! This has been an ongoing battle for over a dozen years, which heretofore I have been losing. Every year I see these tiny lovely champagne table grapes dangling way above the rooftop, maybe 20 feet beyond the trellis, taunting me from their lofty vine supports. Then the birds get them all. I've taste a few, but they're impossible to pick. But not after an ample dose of gin and a little pluck. Somehow I scrambled up and just picked them. Maybe 5 pounds, on one vine, which isn't so bad. Scratched a bit. I ate a lot.

But how can I possibly resist messing with them now? So these are pickled. NOT in vinegar, nor a quick refrigerator marinade. They are in brine. I know this exists out there in the world, though I was very hard pressed to find out anything about it. So I am winging it, as usual. Just lovely sweet little grapes in brine. We wait and see what happens. I am VERY excited.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Bull Whip Kelp Pickles

I was cavorting in a kayak yesterday in the Monterey Bay and happened to drift into raft of kindly otters, one of whom was generous enough to offer me a 7 foot length of bullwhip kelp. I thanked him profusely, complimented him on his finely kempt coat and promised I would put the estimable sea vegetable to the best possible use. I have eaten exquisite pickled kelp before, but I admit, I have never made it. I have serious doubts that it could be fermented, so I made a sweet vinegar pickle, much like the one I tasted years ago. Soaked a bit then sliced in rounds and spears. They are rather fetching. I will let you know how they fare after a week or two, but I suspect a little salty, a little sweet, a little sour, a little spicy and a whole lot of fishy sea krauty crunch. Can there possibly be a superior confluence of flavors to tickle the taste buds?