Monday, September 29, 2003


I am tempted to make some David Carradine quote here. But I will resist.

Grasshopper is not only a character from Kung Fu, but a restaurant in Oakland's Rockridge area. They specialize in tapas/small plates/shareable cuisine, and they have received rave reviews in the past. But Melissa and I never got around to trying it. When some friends of ours were visiting recently, Melissa suggested we take them to Grasshopper as an alternative to our beloved Jojo.

I have to wonder if the restaurant has changed chefs, or owners, since the Chronicle review I link to above. We were decidedly underwhelmed. The evening started out on a bad foot when the server came over and we asked some questions about portion sizes, to determine how much of items we should order so we would all have plenty. The text does not convey the mildly condescending tone. Just trust me.

"Well, the restaurant is focused around small plates and sharing"
"Why is there a separate 'small plates' section then? How big are the portions in the 'From the Grill' category?"
"They are all about the same size. Sharing the food is part of the experience here."

Got that. Thanks.

We ordered seven dishes, two desserts, and some rice. The Chron review raved about the pickles, so we had to get some of those, but frankly I make better pickles. These did set the tone for the rest of the dinner though; there were good dishes, but for the most part the food was a yawn. At roughly $17 per person (before wine), it wasn't a rip-off, but it still felt overpriced.

They do have a good wine list, though. Maybe a couple dozen choices were offered, which rotate on a semi-regular basis. We were delighted to discover a Charles Joguet Rosé from the Loire. It's one of our favorite wines, and Melissa and I polished off a fair amount of it (our guests didn't drink) and took the rest home. The wine prices are roughly twice retail.

Also impressive is their sake selection; it is one of their specialties. Melissa and I didn't feel like doing the sake thing that evening, so we stuck with the wine. Still, I'd be willing to go back just to do a sake flight. But I might start by having dinner somewhere else.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Perfect Vegetables

The folks at Cook's Illustrated have mastered the art of repackaging. They produce a hardbound and indexed omnibus of each year's issues which costs as much as a year's subscription. They have a fully searchable website limited to members, and membership is again about equal to a year's subscription to the magazine. And they produce cookbooks which mostly collect recipes from the magazine on some particular topic.

I am of the opinion that their recipes are worth repackaging. Most food magazines and cookbooks do not test their recipes. It is refreshing to read a Cook's article in which they have put some seemingly simple dish through many iterations, varying this and that and sometimes bringing in noted food scientists to explain surprising results. I swear I've learned more about biochemistry from my Cook's subscription than I did as a bio major at UC Berkeley. They're not afraid to add work they think is necessary (as I mentioned in the Burgers & Fries post), but they're not shy about challenging traditional methods which they think add nothing to the finished product. And since they don't accept advertising, they have no qualms about trashing products they think aren't up to snuff.

I had noted the announcement of Perfect Vegetables in a recent issue of the magazine, but didn't think much of it. While I bought all their little topical cookbooks: How to Make a Pie, How to Stir-Fry, and so forth, I've mostly avoided their larger cookbooks. Not for any reason except the fact that I have most of the recipes they are publishing in these books. I've been a subscriber for 8 years or so and have the hardbound collection for each of those years. But the good folks at Cook's decided I wasn't spending enough money on their products, so sent me a trial copy of Perfect Vegetables.

The cookbook is exactly what I imagined it would be: a collection of the best vegetable recipes they have published over the years. Want to know the best way to prepare an artichoke? Stuff tomatoes? Mince a shallot? It's all in here. They even cover some more unusual vegetables like edamame and kohlrabi. Their coverage of exotics isn't on the order of Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, but it is nonetheless a nice change from cookbooks that cater to the crowd that fears trying new things.

Interspersed in the pages are marginally related sidebars: reviews of V-slicers near the recipe for scalloped potatoes which demands even, thin slicing of the potatoes. An appraisal of bean "frenchers" which split large green beans into smaller ones which supposedly act more like french haricots verts (don't believe it, is their opinion). Sometimes these seem like they are helping pad the book to some contract-specified page count, but for the most part they're nice interludes. I might have preferred them all in one section, with cross-references from the recipes. For instance, their review of chef's knives is somewhere in the middle of the book, and you're only likely to know it's there if you're reading through the book. If they were all in one place, you could just flip through that and get an overview of every sidebar in the book.

The book does have a small section of color pictures, but presentation has never been a strong suit of the Cook's staff: things are not done badly, but they're not very eye-catching. But their description of what they look for in, say, Pommes Anna, will make your mouth water. They've got some good food describers in their stable of writers.

I haven't explicitly tried any recipe from this cookbook, but I have used many of the original printings over the years, and rely on them heavily. In the end, I decided to keep the book mostly because it provides an easy one-stop place for all the Cook's recipes I use now from myriad other sources. So when I want to remind myself about the best way to prepare a particular vegetable, I don't have to rummage through 7 different cookbooks to find the answer. I wouldn't be as inclined to keep their "New American Classics" or whatever, but this one I think makes a handy reference from a publication I credit with a lot of integrity and sincerity.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Burgers and Fries

This post is dedicated to the events staff at Cody's Books. Because when Melissa, who is part of that group, went to an all-hands meeting she happened to mention that I was making hamburgers and fries, and everyone wanted to know how I was doing them.

So here y'all go. First, the burgers, which were only complicated because of our lack of a grill. To get around this, I heated up a cast-iron skillet very hot and used that, which worked reasonably well. As condiments, we had ketchup, the aioli I made for last week's dinner (see below), tomatoes, lettuce, raw onion, and a Comté cheese, similar to a Gruyère. I thought about making my own buns, but the only recipe I could find in my cookbook library involved my sourdough starter and took three days. Funny, you would think people would be into making their own buns.

The fries were more laborious. I used the Cook's Illustrated recipe from a number of years ago which involves more steps than you would imagine possible for french fries. One of the things I love about the magazine is that they're not afraid to include extra work if they think it warrants it. Once you've cut the potato into fries, put them in a bowl and run water into the bowl until it all runs clear; this gets rid of excess starch. Then fill the bowl with water again, and throw in a dozen ice cubes. Put the whole thing in the fridge for half an hour (at least). This allows the fries to cook more evenly when you dump them in the hot oil, since the interior will get a chance to get cooked before the exterior becomes too crisp.

The rest of the technique involves frying the fries twice. For the first fry, heat some oil (I used corn oil; they recommend peanut with bacon drippings but found corn to be very good as well) to 325. Remove the potatoes from the fridge, drain them, and pat them dry ("with a tea towel" says the recipe quaintly; I used a clean dish cloth). Put about half the fries into the oil, cook until the fries begin to yellow and are floppy. Drain on a paper bag. Let the oil come back to 325 and throw in the second batch. Drain those on a separate paper bag. Let sit on bag for 10 minutes, at least, or up to 2 hours.

Finally, reheat the oil to 375, dump in half the fries and fry until golden-brown. Put these fries into a paper bag (not on, and definitely use a slotted spoon or "spider" to get the fries out). Do the second batch, and add them to the paper bag. Dump in as much salt as you like, plus some pepper, and shake the paper bag to get the fries well-seasoned. Fend off the ravening hordes until you're ready to serve.

I thought about accompanying the dinner with beer. But instead we opted for Ridge's 1998 Jimsomare Zinfandel, one of the wines we acquired when we were part of their Advance Tasting Program club. A very fruity wine, but also an alcoholic one, clocking in at 15.1% alcohol.

For dessert, I served slices of canteloupe, accompanied by a Quarts de Chaume dessert wine from the Loire valley. A nice wine, but I think I served it too cold; the flavor was very muted.

So that's how to spend way too much time making burgers and fries. They were delicious, however, and well worth the work.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Crystal for the Dark Star

The Dark Star was an all-black ship featured in Douglas Adams's classic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. Black buttons, black lights, the works.

If one were to be a passenger on the ship, the best way to drink some wine before you died (the ship was set to steer into a sun) might be out of Riedel's new all-black glasses. Here's the Wine Spectator article.

Doesn't seem like they'd have much use outside of a blind tasting, but I'd love to see one.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Run Home Amanda!

Amanda is Melissa's closest friend. But unfortunately she lives in Portland, so Melissa sees her only rarely. On a recent trip, Melissa and Amanda's mother decided to start a campaign to get her to move back home to the Bay Area.

I offered to cook, a hint of the food she might eat more regularly if she lived nearby.

It's been a while since we had a dinner party, and though this was a tiny one (only three of us), it felt great to stretch my cooking wings again. Here's our menu, still suffering from lack of pictures due to our broken camera. This is unfortunate, since this dinner featured some of my best presentations, courtesy of the many plates we got for the wedding. I'll do the best I can describing them.

Homemade baguettes with olives
Wine: Tablas Creek Rosé, 2002

Simple, sure. But I mostly wanted to make sure there was something to eat when Amanda arrived. A lack of dinner parties has left me out of practice, plus I was in a new kitchen. So I figured having snacky food available was a good idea.

Normally I like to do a different wine for each course, but normally we have at least four people over. With just three of us, I decided to stretch each bottle for two courses so that the cook, at least, could walk from the kitchen to the dining room. Tablas Creek is a vineyard and winery in Paso Robles, and they make a lovely rosé. It's not a complicated wine, but it has a lot of sparkle (figurative, that is) and personality.

Tomato consommé with basil oil

As we were moving, I noticed a set of plain espresso cups. Since we had gotten a bunch for our wedding, I asked why we needed two whole sets of the things. Melissa reminded me that someone had wanted them around for amuse-bouches.

Good point.

"Tomato consommé" sounds a lot harder than it is. Mash 4 pounds of potatoes in your Kitchen-Aid (and then take some time to clean up the tomato juice spattered all over your cabinets), put in a strainer lined with cheesecloth, and let drain into a container overnight. What you're left with is a vibrantly colored, delicious liquid. Add some seasoning, and serve, chilled, for a refreshing opener. I topped each serving with dots of French Laundry style basil oil (which is to say, extremely green and flavorful), and carried the little espresso cups gently into the dining room to prevent the oil from glomming together.

It was visually stunning and the consommé tasted wonderful. But the basil oil didn't come through as much as I wanted, even when I added more.

Garlic Risotto Cakes with Aioli

I've said before that I'm pretty proud of my risotto cakes, but these were particularly good. A while back I wrote about inaugurating my smoker, but what I didn't mention was that since I was going to be in the kitchen all day, I dug out a bunch of frozen chicken parts and made stock which I left bubbling gently on the stove. For hours. And hours. It was a very good stock.

I decided to use most of the stock as the base for the risotto, which I made the day before and then formed into cakes in the afternoon before the dinner. The result was great, a risotto which I flavored with large chunks of raw garlic and Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese.

The plating was my favorite part. We got some gigantic bowls for our wedding. Really it's just the rim which is gigantic, the bowl itself is somewhat large. Supposedly they're pasta bowls, but that's not my preferred use. I love the look of a large expanse of plate with a small plating of food in the middle. So I laid down a bed of mixed greens, which I dressed lightly with a mustard vinaigrette, and then topped that with a risotto cake, and then put a small dollop of aioli on top.

Rack of Lamb with a porcini sauce on a bed of mashed potatoes and stir-fried fennel
Wine: Rabbit Ridge Grand Reserve Barbera, 2000

Another nice presentation. I frenched the rack I got from the butcher, which was a huge pain in the ass (I've not done it very often, so don't have a natural flair yet), which ensures that the rib bones come out of the oven clean and visually dramatic, a sweeping arc of clean bone rising out of the meat.

When I served it, I did the frou-frou thing of scooping the mashed potatoes into a pastry bag equipped with a star tip, making a long, swirly stripe down the center of the plate. I put the lamb (leaving two pieces together for each person) alongside the potatoes, positioned so that the bone flowed up into the air over the potatoes. Then I laid the fennel along the other side of the potatoes.

And finally, the sauce, which I spooned over the lamb. Ah, the sauce. One of the better sauces I've ever made. I had just a little bit of the chicken stock left, reduced even further as I warmed it up for the risotto. I heated it up yet again (it came out of the fridge as "chicken jello", always a good sign), and rehydrated an ounce of dried porcini in the liquid. I didn't have much liquid left, so I unfortunately had to add some water to bulk it up a bit. After I was done browning the rack before its time in the oven, I deglazed the pan with the porcini-chicken stock mixture. And then reduced it until it was thick and sludgy. I was only able to eke out about six spoonfuls of sauce for us all, but it was worth it.

The wine worked nicely. I'm a fan of Barbera, which is a Piemontese grape. I think it has a lot of character and depth. The best examples come from Italy, of course, but the Rabbit Ridge one is pretty good as well.

Idiazabal, Aged Goat Gouda, Appleby Cheshire with balsamic figs

Stretching the wine over two courses each made for a rarety in the Schneider household: a cheese course accompanied by red wine. I planned the cheeses accordingly, selecting harder styles which tend to work better with the wine.

Ginger-peach sorbet with a rosemary shortbread
Wine: Moscato d'Asti, Clarté 2001, Elio Perone

When I first saw the idea for a rosemary shortbread, I was surprised. Always eager to try interesting flavor combinations, I made a batch and was surprised by how well they came out. Since then I've seen rosemary used in other dessert-y ways, a role it's well suited for.

The sorbet was based on a peach ginger sorbet I made a while ago, inspired to do it myself when I was disappointed with a version I tried at a local restaurant. I don't like subtle ginger, and I don't like wan peach flavor. So the sorbet was a burst of peach flavor with an after effect of ginger kick which sent jolts through my system.

To serve this dish, I used our "New Wave" bowls. Villeroy & Bach released this line of plates, and they have sold phenomenally well. They're total faddy foodie dishes with undulating curves in three different directions and a plain white look. It is a sad thing to realize I've become a plate groupie, but I can't deny it. I put three scoops of sorbet on the bottom, and laid a wedge of shortbread on its side balanced between the three balls.

The wine pairing was inspired by a recent dinner at Charlie Trotter's, which I hope to write up soon. It was one of the two wine pairings on that menu I had which was truly inspired, the wine and food interacting with each other in ways I wasn't expecting. My rendition worked nicely, though it didn't have the same synergy as Chef Trotter's.

Did it work? Is Amanda coming home? Well, she definitely felt spoiled, but I don't think we quite convinced her yet. Perhaps another dinner the next time she's down...

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Random Casual Meals

I usually write about our fancier meals on this blog, but Melissa and I like good casual food as well. Here are some of the things we've been eating as moving and work have slammed us both.

Moules marinières. This is one of my favorite shellfish dishes, and is among the easiest things on the planet to make, even though I add an extra step. I simmered a finely diced shallot in a 1/4 botle of white wine (Roero Arneis, leftover from our wedding), until the wine had reduced down to virtually nothing. This is sort of like what you do to make a beurre blanc sauce, except I believe that uses vinegar. I then added another 1/4 bottle of the wine and some butter, dumped in 2 pounds of mussels, and covered the pot. Roughly ten minutes later, the mussels had all opened up, which is how you know they're done. The best way to serve mussels is with some bread and in a big bowl with a healthy amount of the broth from the bottom of the pot. Put another large bowl in the middle of the table for the shells. Find an empty shell and use that as the "fork" for getting other mussel bodies out of their shells.

We had hoped to enjoy some Txacolina with the meal. It's a Basque wine from Northern Spain, and it's not a terribly complex wine. It has perhaps just the tiniest bit of effervescence, and goes wonderfully with shellfish. Unfortunately, our bottle was quite corked. We settled for the last half of the bottle of Roero Arneis, but this was at room temperature, so was not quite as satisfying.

The night before our friends descended to help us move, I decided to make us some dinner. Not, perhaps, the best use of my time, but I was desperate to cook something. I did sautéed chicken breasts, which I dredged in flour, let sit for an hour (in the fridge) and then dredged them again to help get a nice crust on the chicken. I heated up a pan, threw in a splash of oil, and then dropped in the breasts, letting them sit on one side for a while to again develop a nice crust. All this concern about the crust paid off; the skinless breasts had a noticeable crunch as one bit into them. I made a pan sauce with some Eberle Viognier made with grapes from Glenrose Farm; the rest of the wine we enjoyed with dinner. It's a Paso Robles wine, from one of the most extreme vineyards in the area. I was surprised, though. Red wines from that particular vineyard are usually very distinctive, and white wines from the area in general usually showcase their vineyards pretty well. I was expecting something pretty potent from it. But, it mostly just tasted like Viognier, albeit an alcoholic one. I served the breasts on a bed of rice, and made little ramekins of baked cucumbers, a recipe from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I varied the recipe a bit, though, tossing the cucumbers in melted butter and garlic before putting them in the oven, and finishing them off by topping with grated Parmiggiano and sticking them under the broiler for a minute.

Finally, I recently made homemade pizzas. Pizza dough is pretty straightforward, especially with commercial yeast. I didn't feel like reviving my starter for this. But we had some tomato sauce that a friend had given us when she was cleaning out her freezer, and we picked up some Roma tomatoes, some prosciutto, spinach and a pecorino. I also made a salad with more of the spinach and some raw onion, dressed with a very simple mustard vinaigrette. The whole meal was quite good, and the pizza came out deliciously. We tried an experiment with a bit of the dough; a friend of ours freezes her pizza dough and thaws it out when she needs it. We froze a little after its second rise, and at some point I'll see how it works out. This dinner we served with a Costerie de Nimes from the Languedoc-Rousillon. It's one of my mom's favorite wines, and we had an extra bottle she had brought over. It's got a nice tobacco-ness to it, and quite a bit of complexity given its price.

Coming soon: Local restaurant reviews, and reviews of Charlie Trotter's and Guy Savoy. And a dinner party this weekend!