Monthly Archives: November 2004

Coming out of the cloud

Looking back I’ve been whining a lot lately. That’s probably because I’m gettting over the flu and since it is such a rare event that I get the flu, I tend to overreact and whinge and inflict myself on others a lot.

So – my apologies.

I am very excited about the Paper Chef. So far we have two possible ingredients (ginger and almonds) besides the mystery ingredient and the final decision will be posted here before Noon PST on Friday. I like ginger and almonds because we still have lots of possibilities – cakes, cookies, all kinds of other desserts. But also curries and stir fries and chutneys and fried things and many more.

I am creping cloder and closer on the big book project, too. The last week took a big lump out of the schedule but I am still trying to forge ahead.

The Paper Chef

Announcing the “Paper Chef” event.

You have undoubtedly heard of diamond anniversaries and golden anniversaries. There are in fact a whole series of these names to mark special occasions. The diamond and golden anniversaries are to commemorate long-lasting occasions of great duration and near-permanence. But there are names for less prestigious anniversaries, too. The most pathetic of all is the one-year anniversary. It is known as the “paper anniversary.”

Now let’s switch gears. Food bloggers in the US and Japan and many other parts of the world will be familiar with “the Iron Chef” cooking show. Great chefs are put up against one of the iron chefs in a rather over-the-top and dramatic cooking competition to see who can make the most spectacular food from a host of regular ingredients and one special ingredient – say octopus. There is a somewhat similar TV show in Britain called “Ready, Steady, Cook!”

The third part of the genesis of this latest event is that while we now have IMBB, WBW and SHF, they all rely on lots and lots of advance notice. I have a family with young(ish) kids. I have lots of work (though still no job). I have no time for idle reflection upon the grand theme of…well, actually I do have the time. But honestly, I do do most of my cooking under some time pressure and I like it. I’d be happy to be a contestant on “Ready, Steady, Cook.” So I though we might as well have an online food blogger event that does something similar.

So, without further ado, we have the “Paper Chef.” On the first Friday of every month at some point prior to Noon PST, I will announce a list of four ingredients that must be used, along with any other ingredients you choose, to make a dish and then write about it by Noon PST on Sunday, 48 hours later. An impartial guest judge will pick the best sounding recipe to them and the winner will be awarded the “Paper Chef” title for that month along with a meaningless prize of no intrinsic value that I will donate. Anyone who wants to is welcome to submit ingredient ideas and all suitable ones will go onto a list. Three of the ingredients will be randomly picked from the list and the fourth will be seasonal or trendy or in the news in some way. If the list of four is totally unsuitable (maraschino cherries, english mustard, liver and suet) then we will redraw randomly until it is conceivable to cook with all four ingredients.

We will start with Friday December 3rd. Please send me or add a comment about proposed ingredients and you do not have to sign up – just send me an email to the address listed above left – to let me know you posted and are an official entry.

I hope this turns out to be enjoyable!

So what IS a normal Thanksgiving meal?

There are probably a few things that appear at over 70% of all American Thanksgiving meals, but they are very few. One, of course, is the centerpiece, the product of inbreeding and factory farming and timed procreation, the turkey. The other two are some form of potatoes and some form of pie. Everything else (even cranberry sauce) is up for debate. I’m not even sure the turkey is very real. Surely deer would have been plentiful and much larger and more worthwhile way back when in the cold Massachusetts/New Hampshire woods?

Anyway, I happen to like turkey and am a little sad that it is essentially only ever eaten at Thanksgiving or as sliced breast meat in a sandwich. Ground turkey is a great mixing meat for kebabs, burgers, etc. Smoked turkey is a revelation – one of the best ways to eat poultry that there is.

And then there’s the kerfuffle about the turkey. I never understood that. Turkey is about the most forgiving, hardest to mess up meat you can cook. There is only one trick – that’s all. If you buy a frozen turkey, make sure you defrost it properly and remove the plastic bag of giblets.

But at Thanksgiving I don’t really care about the turkey. For me it is an afterthought and the stars are the side dishes and the desserts.

We had a typical Thanksgiving for us, which is to say that it was completely different from last year and every other year before. No family lives nearby so we have never developed the family Thanksgiving habit. Just as well really – I don’t think my health could take the obligatory turkey that is injected with two pounds of melted butter, then wrapped in bacon and then deep fried. More often than not we host Thanksgiving just because among our disparate circles of friends we are more cooking oriented than the rest. But this time our friends in Marin got in the early invitation and we dragged another friend who didn’t want to spend Thanksgiving at home since his partner had invited her ex-husband so as to make the celebration better for her (now grown) children.

I volunteered to bring a miscellany of side dishes knowing full well that our hosts would do a full set anyway. But given that one daughter and our extra guest are both vegetarian, I decided to make extra-special vegetarian sides so they could have a good meal. I made dressing – for non-Americans this means stuffing cooked separately from the turkey as its own dish. And I made greens. And I made a root vegetable medley. And I made the richest mushroom gravy I could imagine.

In describing them I’ll work backwards since the dressing is complicated enough that I am not certain I can remember everything I put in it.

I am a firm believer in seasonality and that a Thanksgiving meal should also be a celebration of Autumn. So I went to get things that fitted. The mushroom gravy was inspired by thoughts of a previous Thanksgiving feast in the Sea Ranch on California’s North Coast. That one will never ever be repeated. (Abalone diving, mussel gathering, chanterelles fresh from redwood forest hikes, that kind of thing…)

Grocery stores had really lovely looking fresh Royal Trumpet mushrooms. This kind is VERY meaty with a flavor like regular mushrooms cubed. I also had some really nice looking dried porcini mushrooms.

Thanksgiving mushroom gravy

You’ll need a pound of fresh, strong wild mushrooms like Royal Trumpet or Matsutake or Morels. Plus about 3 ounces of good dried mushrooms like Porcini or morels (different than the first kind). A head of garlic and a cup of red wine and some soy sauce. Put the dried mushrooms in a bowl and cover with boiling water and let steep for half an hour. In the meantime, finely dice the fresh mushrooms and the garlic and sweat them together in about two tablespoons of butter over very low heat. When the dried mushrooms have sat long enough, carefully squeeze the liquid out of them into the bowl. Put all the liquid from the bowl in the pot with the sweated mushrooms and garlic and turn the heat up to moderate to start it all simmering. Dice up the squeezed out reconstituted dried mushrooms and add them to the pot. Add a cup of good red wine and about a quarter cup of soy sauce. Simmer on a low heat for ten minutes and then put aside until needed when it can quickly be reheated.

I was amazed how good this mushroom gravy was – it was something special and really blended well with the dressing on which it was intended to be poured.

On to the next item – in this case the root vegetable medley. This was entirely put together from our organic vegetable box and items at hand.

Root Vegetable Medley

One and a half pounds of red beets diced into cubes a little under an inch in size, a large (three pound?) butternut squash, a pound of carrots, four onions, three tablespoons of fresh rosemary (from the garden) chopped finely.

Put a large, heavy pot on the stove with three tablespoons of olive oil. Put on medium high and add the beets and stir every couple of minutes. While the beets cook, take a good big knife and peel off the skin of the butternut squash just like peeling an apple but much larger and harder to cut. I find it easiest to cut the squash in two just at the inflection point where the squash starts to swell out. Once peeled, cut the fatter part in half and remove the seeds and pith. Then cube all the rest up into cubes just like the beets. Add them to the pot and keep stirring. Add some salt to taste at this point. Peel and roughly chop the four onions and add them to the pot, continuing to stir occasionally. Top and trim the carrots and make sure they are scrubbed. Do NOT peel them – only the foolish peel carrots. Cut them into similar sized chunks and add them to the pot. Add all the diced rosemary and readjust salt seasoning. Keep cooking until all the vegetables are soft (about another ten minutes – you will have to keep stirring).

The result is a deep orange red color like a blood orange – very nice to look at on the Thanksgiving table.

I won’t bother with a recipe for the greens – my views on greens are well documented previously and these were an onion, cumin, chilli flake, soy, lemon juice variation.

Finally the main delight – the dressing.

All dressings are based on dried out bread. Originally a way to use up old dried out pieces of bread – just like bread pudding – dressings are now made from nice bread that has been deliberately dried out. Although I generate more than my fair share of leftover dried-out bread ends, I had none to spare since I have taken to converting them pretty rapidly to breadcrumbs. So I got a couple of walnut levain loaves and a sourdough loaf, cubed them – about an inch cubes – a little too large really – and dried them in the oven at 250 degrees.

Dressings then have a wild combination of flavorful, savory, sweet and contrasting items added. A typical dressing would have at least one kind of sausage, maybe bacon, onions, some kind of fruit, perhaps some nuts, and about four different herbs. But I was doing a vegetarian dressing and one that was intended to be the main part of a meal for the vegetarians. So I went a little overboard. I cannot give amounts – this was create as I went. I used a head of celery, six onions, half a pound of Royal Trumpet mushrooms, a pound of crushed walnuts, three pears, a bunch of spring onions, a quarter head of red cabbage, a head of garlic, about a cup and a half of fresh rosemary, about half a cup of fresh sage, fifty grinds of the pepper mill, vegetable stock, olive oil and at least two more things I cannot remember.

The basic idea is that you soften all the vegetable and meat parts together, toss them with the dried bread and herbs. Stir in other spices and fruit and nut elements, pour over vegetable stock until the whole lot is softened and then bake it all in the oven in a tray at 350 degrees for about forty five minutes to an hour.

To complete the picture, besides the above four things I made, the full carnivores Thanksgiving meal with contributions from all participants included a roast turkey, a smoked turkey, sweet potatoes with maple and brown sugar, green beans with pearl onions, meat gravy, mashed potatoes with garlic, homemade challah, boston baked beans (homemade) and cranberry sauce made with cointreau and orange zest. That lot, plus the dressing, greens, root vegetables and mushroom gravy was just the main course!

Dessert was supplied by others and was very disappointingly an assortment of store bought pies.

Most astonishing of all, I was restrained in my choices and did not over eat. But we left to go home carrying a greater volume of food than we arrived with…

When upon a Midnight Dreary…

…no – no gothic adventures. Just overwhelming dreariness.

I am not going to do an entry for IMBB this time even though I have lots of good cookie recipes. I just don’t have time (or the energy). I am struggling on with the book, but that clearly is going to be delayed and there just doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm from ANYONE for the project. People haven’t been liking what I’ve been cooking. It’s that kind of week. Blah, Blegghh, Blah!

Frozen Summer

It has been a big, big week. Almost too big. Amelia was the lead in the school play – ‘Little Women’ – and was fantastic. I actually got tired of other parents coming up to me and complimenting her performance. The show was also a big relief – I realized that I had been dreading it going badly. For her it didn’t, but for the poor guy who was lying in the middle of the stage when the lights came up about halfway through…

…he basically passed out from nerves. They all coped very well and since they always run two casts and make the principals come to both sets of performances, the other character stepped in. They had to do one minor scene without the character while the alternate actor was dressing, but nobody noticed.

I am having job interviews left and right after a long time without. NaNoWriMo started again. Jan and the girls are doing it again but I am not – not if I am to ever get ‘the book’ published.

I have a preliminary design for the cover but still have lots left to do before that is all final and ready.

So what has all of this got to do with frozen Summer? Nothing, but these things and the need to finish reroofing the carport have been distracting me from real cooking. But today we got back into it with a little bit of a bang. I’ll try to give proper posts to the sourdough bread and the spinach, cranberry, almond and persimmon salad, but for now I will only talk about the capellini con pesto.

I noticed that our vegetable garden has finally come to the end of its Summertime life. Soon I will have to dig it over, plant fava beans and let the arugula that self sows run wild and let the artichokes in the corner reestablish themselves. The last remnants in the garden were seven large, woody basil plants. But they had lots of leaves. And the leaves were tasty. So I picked all seven plants, plus the beginnings of the arugula plus thinning out the very expansive sorrel plant. I added a few leaves of sage and a little bit of oregano flowers.

I already knew I wanted the sorrel. I like my pesto a little lemony and add lemon juice to regular pesto pretty frequently. But this time I was thinking about time and place and how a real garden cook with a reliance on the land and the seasons wouldn’t stick to the purists ligurian pesto. So I added sorrel (which is growing beautifully right now) for the lemony taste. And arugula for pepperiness and also because it is in season. And a little sage and oregano because they would go and I don’t use them enough.

East Bay Pesto

Then I made pesto – a lot of pesto – at least three pints. I had about a pound and a half of mixed leaves. Probably a pound of basil leaves and a third of a pound of sorrel and the rest totaling at most a sixth of a pound. I used five whole heads (largish) of garlic. I used three cups of lovely extra virgin olive oil. I used about a cup and a half of lemon juice. I used about a third of a pound of walnuts and half a pound of really nice pecorino romano cheese. I used about two tablespoons of salt. Blend it all together in batches – it takes a LONG time and you have to pulse the blender on and off so you don’t burn the motor out. IF things gets stuck, stop and stir everything up frequently. As batches get blended, pour them into a big bowl and mix them together.

Then I froze an ice cube tray full of pesto as well as three 12 ounce tubs. The rest got used for capellini pasta with sausages, homemade sourdough bread and a fresh spinach, dried cranberry, slivered almond and sliced persimmon salad.

Did I mention that we started the day out with crepes?


The next IMBB has been announced! Alberto of Il Forno is the ringmaster of these events and has picked the Domestic Goddess to be up next and her topic is cookies.

Cookies are one of the most fun things to cook because they are basically straightforward and almost everyonbe loves them (although in moderation!)

I have lots of ideas – cardamom shortbread, chocolate-orange freezer cookies, lemon lace, ultra ginger, etc. etc.

There is going to be a collective sugar rush later in November and the only real issue I can see is that combining this cookie overoad with Thanksgiving may have been a grave error- I know that they aren’t eh same time, but they are close….

Back to Basics – Food

Now that the election is over and I am feeling depressed I will seek solace in the way I usually do – with food.

Lately I have been eating a LOT of baked butternut squash, sweet potatoes, yams and beets because it is that time of year again. You can do the same things with other root vegetables too like carrots, parsnips, turnips , rutabaga, etc.

Baked root vegetables

There is a basic technique. In the case of squashes you have to cut away the rind/skin – I find it easiest to simply use a big sharp kitchen knife and peel the things with it. Then cut in half and remove seeds. For beets, etc without a rind you WANT the skin, so just scrub ’em clean. Now cube everything. Make dense root veggis like beets and rutabaga a little smaller – they take longer to cook. Now toss with olive oil, salt and optional herbs and spices (rosemary, sage, paprika, even curry all work well). Bake in a 425 degree oven for about 50 minutes to 75 minutes and shake them around halfway through to get more browning. Your friends and family will exclaim and gobble them all down.