Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Valentine's Day

It's easy to sniff at Valentine's Day. It's widely perceived to be mostly a creation of greeting card companies who were trying to correct the card-buying lull between Christmas and Easter (or whatever your winter solstice/spring equinox rituals of choice are). It's therefore not a surprise that it has become heavily commercialized, with ample pressure on everyone in a relationship to spend, spend, spend to prove their love. And don't even get me started about the heavy blow to self-esteem for single people out there; I suspect not even Christmas as a single person is as lonely as Valentine's Day.

But it's still a good excuse to cook a great meal. We don't go out on Valentine's Day; at best restaurants are going to be mobbed, at worst they dumb down and price up their menus. Fortunately, however, we don't need to go out; Melissa is perfectly content to suffer through one of my dinners. And if I choose to go all out, so much the better.

The appetizer for our meal was a platter of raw, just-shucked oysters. This is an easy dish to prepare, just shuck the oysters and put them on a plate (careful not to let the juice flow out if you don't have a big bag of crushed ice or rock salt to work with for bedding). I will add that it's so easy that the Chronicle did an article all about oysters on the Wednesday before Valentine's Day. This made them very difficult to find on that Saturday. On top of each oyster, I placed a dollop of caviar from a hackleback sturgeon, raised in California. And finally, I made a Meyer lemon aspic which I cut into small cubes and used as another ornament atop each oyster. Melissa loved the oysters, but she also had me fetch the rest of the aspic out of the refrigerator so she could eat some more of it on its own. The oyster and caviar thing is fairly classic, but the oyster and aspic thing is enjoying a bit of limelight at the moment in the culinary scene. The tartness from the lemon (the aspic was just lemon juice and gelatin) made a nice counterpoint to the meaty brininess of the oysters and caviar. As Melissa ate the little aspic cubes on their own, her mouth puckered and she gave a little wince.

If caviar is a classic pairing with oysters, sparkling wine is the classic wine to drink with both of them. We decided to do sparkling wine throughout the dinner, starting with a Roederer Estate sparkling wine from California (owned by the French Champagne house). Melissa discovered this in a wine class, and it must be said that it's a phenomenally good value.

After the oysters, I served a torchon of foie gras with black truffle sauce and toasted pain de mie. I make the joke that since I'm working on an article about the ethics of foie gras (which if you don't know is a much-enlarged liver from a duck or goose that has been force-fed for the last bit of its life), I have to eat a bunch now since I'll probably never want to eat it again when I'm done with the article. I accompany this with a nervous laugh; I may be right. At any rate, I have to be able to describe the taste for the article, so technically this was research. A torchon is sort of like a Tootsie roll. You mush up the foie gras, roll it tightly in cheesecloth, poach it briefly (wincing as the high-priced fat leaks out into the water, even though you know you'll put the water in the fridge and skim off the fat to use in cooking), roll it in a damp towel, and then hang it in your refrigerator. The process takes a minimum of three days if you're using high-quality foie gras (at least according to The French Laundry Cookbook recipe I used). Lower grade foie gras takes an extra day of soaking in milk to draw out the blood. When you're ready to serve, you unwrap the torchon, cut it into pretty little rounds (trimming the edges, which have gotten crusty from oxidation), and serve it.

Now, Melissa's not normally a foie gras fan; she likes it and all, but only in small quantities. Still, I wanted there to be two rounds on each plate, so I went ahead and gave her both rounds. She loved them; I think she finished hers before I finished mine. She says she really liked the truffle sauce which accompanied it. This was, incidentally, jarred "Black Truffle Sauce". Given the price, I'm going to go out on a limb and say they weren't the belle dame of the truffle world, the black truffle of Perigord. More likely, they were Himalayan truffles or some other similar but not equal truffle. Still, they have their own pungent aroma which is quite pleasant in its own right.

For our main course, I made roasted rack of lamb. I used lamb from Prather Ranch, a producer who does all the right things when it comes to raising livestock. But I was surprised when I picked up the rack from their store in the Ferry Building. It was huge! The worker said they use a different breed than what you normally see (often from New Zealand) and they just grow bigger. Lots bigger.

I frenched the lamb as best I could; it was quite the struggle and eventually I got to the "it's good enough" point (two nights later I used the leftover meat from the frenching in a delicious shepherd's pie). To go with it, I sautéed some spinach and tossed in some green garlic. I also roasted some potatoes, and cut them into little wedges. I served the whole dish with a red-wine sauce, leveraging a "preserved" half bottle of a Chilean Merlot and a square of my beef demi-glace.

Believe it or not, we served this with a sparkling wine as well. In this case, a rosé Champagne. It might seem a little odd, but I occasionally try to recapture an ephemeral memory of an unbelievably stunning pairing I once had: rosé Champagne with rare venison. I wouldn't say I mimicked the previous experience, but the wine held its own just fine against the lamb nonetheless.

And now, those of you who have read me for a while are expecting the cheese course. And the dessert. But no, not this time. Oh, I had some planned out, but Melissa and I were exhausted and full. Rather odd, since we routinely have five or six course meals, but this time we couldn't do it. Melissa blames the foie gras; it's an unbelievably rich food. That seems as good a theory as any other. At any rate, our main course was our last one.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Feeling Crabby

If you are in the Bay Area during winter, it is crab season. The Dungeness crabs for which we are known are at their peak at this time of year, and it's very common to find it on restaurant menus.

But why go out to a restaurant when you can make it at home? Melissa and I decided to do a crab dinner in the comfort of our own apartment, free to pick the meat out and get our fingers covered in butter (Melissa is actually more demure, and uses her fork). And if you're going to cook crab at home, all the wisdom says you should buy it alive and cook it yourself.

I had never cooked a live crab before, and I was expecting some grim fight to the death, the crab skittering about in order to avoid its fate. The reality is much more mundane. The crab comes out of the refrigerator (where it has been safely enshrouded in butcher paper and left in the vegetable drawer), and it is sufficiently cold that it is listless at best. You rinse it off in running water, and a sort of vague moving of the legs lets you know that it's alive.

You all know what's coming. The grim denouement, the final scene in our languid little horror movie. The crab is tossed (perhaps fitted would be the better verb) into a pot of well-salted, boiling water. The lid is put on to bring the water up to a boil again quickly, and some minutes later, you open the lid and check the crab to see that it is done (break the legs, check the color of the flesh). The shell has become bright red, and all that is left is to break the crab down into manageable pieces.

Though the process is decidedly anticlimactic, it does make one squirm a bit the first time. But I am a firm believer in the idea that people should understand where their food comes from, and realize that long before they get some pre-packaged (or, as with crab, pre-cooked and broken down) piece of meat, it used to be part of a living, breathing creature. But crab is easier than lobster, I suspect, for which most instructions give you fairly precise instructions for paralyzing the lobster before plopping it into the boiling water or steaming it.

To go along with our crab feast, I sliced up a lemon, and made two little ramekins of melted butter. (Melissa asked: "Is that a dipping sauce?" I answered: "I guess you could call it that"). The crab was quite good, but one is always reminded of how much work it is to ferret all the meat out of the crab. We kept my poultry shears on the table in lieu of nutcrackers and picks, and passed them back and forth as necessary.

I also made a little salad of endive, lentils, corn, apple, pecans, and mustard vinaigrette. Despite the abundance of ingredients, this salad came out really well. Especially since I didn't really work from any recipe.

And what to drink with crab and a salad that features corn and apple? Oh, there's an obvious, classic answer, but I mentally resisted, trying to come up with some alternate. Because finding a good bottle of wine made from the chardonnay grape is tough here in California. Though I do have some bottles of a Hungarian chardonnay which is quite enjoyable, and I love authentic Chablis, though I didn't think that style would work well with our dinner when one considered all the parts.

California chardonnay is often made, shall we say, in a particular style. And it is a style I do not like. But some exceptions can be found, and we put our faith in one of our wine club's February bottles: the Il Cuore Mendocino Chardonnay. We were not disappointed. Though we nervously expected the standard buttery, oaky dreck we often find, this wine was bursting with a heady layer of tart green apple. A little bit of grassiness could be found just under the Granny Smith but it was the good kind one finds in a Sauvignon Blanc, not the more unpleasant kind from a wine which is still too young. A note of creaminess from the malolactic fermentation, but it was more a sensation than an actual taste, a presence weighing on the tongue and tickling your memory. A nice finish and good, not overbearing acidity. And the bottle sells for $11. We did something I never thought we'd do: bought half a case for a brunch we had recently. I'm sure our friends thought I had finally gone around the bend.

The crab shell went into the freezer, destined to become crab butter on some lazy day. We may get another crab in before the season's over, but the eating, if not the cooking, is a time-consuming process. Still, this could be the best part about it; Melissa and I enjoyed a pleasant hour working our way through the shell, comparing notes about the best way to get the meat out. It's not the tidiest dinner, but there's a definite charm to enjoying a platter with someone you love.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Taking Stock

One of my favorite stories happened when Melissa was visiting with two of her girlfriends. I wasn't there, so I'll have to paraphrase. They were all at Jean's apartment for dinner and Jean wanted to know when people wanted dessert. The others asked what dessert was and Jean said freshly baked cookies. Then she preceded to describe her "cookies on demand", little frozen balls of dough she keeps in the freezer so that she can just pop in one or two and have cookies moments later.

Oooh, they cooed, that sounds delightful. Then Lisa commented that with their tiny freezer, they probably didn't have room for that, but they did keep a bottle of vodka in the freezer so that her husband could make her martinis after a hard day.

Ooooh, they cooed. And then Melissa described our freezer full of goodies. "We have fish heads. I can't even get ice without seeing this head staring at me from its spot wedged between a bunch of old bones and carcasses." This was not said with the pleasure and joy one might imagine.

But she is the first to admit that she loves what happens to them in the long run. They get turned into stocks, which get put into all manner of things and form the basis of a number of sauces and soups. But this is a somewhat time-consuming activity, so every now and then I have "Stock Days" when the freezer gets cleaned out and replenished with liquid goodness.

After Thanksgiving, I had an abundance of frozen turkey carcasses, so the main effort for the weekend was to turn it into turkey stock. I cut up two batches of mirepoix and tossed them into the pot with the frozen turkey parts. Then I filled my stockpot with water, and turned the heat to very low. I try and keep my stock just below a simmer, bubbles rising to the surface at a languid pace. I have found that the lowest I can go on our apartment's burners is just right.

My two carcasses made a lot of stock. Even after I reduced it to where I wanted the flavor and concentration to be, I had 3 quarts of turkey stock. Normally something to be overjoyed about. But here's the thing. I had not properly accounted for the fact that one of those turkeys had been smoked. And so I now have 3 quarts of turkey stock that has a distinct smokiness to it. This makes it more challenging to use, since a) one doesn't always want a smoky component and b) it's only going to get more pronounced when I reduce the liquid for use in a sauce. The exercise was a good reminder of why you don't flavor your stock with anything other than the minimum of ingredients. Any extra flavor will come back to haunt you when you reduce the liquid.

I also made some beef stock using oxtails. Oxtail stock is neat because you make your first stock, which I left on the stove for 5 hours or so, then you can use the oxtails again to make a second stock. While this stock is weaker, you can reduce it to make a demi-glace or glace de viande, which is still quite potent. I reduced the stock to a demi-glace and chilled it overnight; the stock gelled well enough that I could (and did) cut it with a knife. The chunks got frozen into convenient sizes, and the first beef stock got frozen as well (I ended up with about a quart and a half, but I used half of that for dinner soon after).

So that was the year's first stock day. I'm looking forward to using the stocks (except for the quandary about what to do with three quarts of smoked turkey stock), but I've already started collecting more carcasses. We have a crab carcass in the freezer (probably destined for shellfish butter) and some lamb bones from a rack of lamb I made. I also noticed that I still have some striped bass stock (fish stocks are often called fumets), and a couple other random frozen things.

And I should note that we too now keep a bottle of vodka in the freezer, and occasionally some cookie dough as well. Oooooh.

Finally an administrative note: Melissa has taken over art direction, so she is now usually the person responsible for the photos as well as cleaning them up. We are both inspired by Clotilde's always-charming photos.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

But enough about me...

Clotilde mentioned that Amy uses an "outsourced" commenting solution called Haloscan. It seemed like a nice way to add comments, which is one of my goals for this site, so I'm giving it a shot.

My thoughts on the subject. You'll note that the commenting pane a) asks for your email but this is not required and b) includes an ad. I'm trying out the free service at the moment, but if I like it, I will switch to the paid form, which will allow me to nix the email field and the ad. Let's see how this goes first. Speaking about comments to various people, some were concerned about spammers scraping the comments for their e-mail addresses. So I would encourage you not to include your e-mail address.

It is also worth noting that since their server does the processing, you should assume that all your comments exist on their servers somewhere. In other words, if you are plotting to overthrow the government, and don't want the world to know yet, I wouldn't mention it here.

So, um, what do you think?

Friday, February 06, 2004


Our last Dine About Town experience was with Maya, which Melissa suggested. Her aunt recommended it, and we rarely go out for Mexican food (let alone high-end Mexican), so she thought it would make for a nice change of pace.

Walking into the restaurant from a chilly San Francisco evening is a pleasant experience. You start on a more or less empty downtown street, wander across the forlorn, empty plaza of a set of office buildings, and end up in a restaurant alive with people. Warm decor and a friendly host greet you, and before long you are seated. The Dine About Town menu was very generous. A few items in each section were marked as being not available, but for the most part the menu was ours to choose from.

So, here starts my one negative comment. I am willing to believe that they were atypically busy that evening (the restaurant was crowded), but we had really bad service. I am willing to cut a lot of slack on service, but this was particularly noteworthy.

Our openers arrived quickly. So quickly, in fact, that they preceded the wine we had ordered. By a lot. In fact, while our openers sat getting cold, I had to hunt down and ask our server for the wine. To my mind, wine should always show up before the food (or at least concurrent). Our server was not terribly friendly, and our entrées took a long time to appear. Good thing our wine had arrived by then, at least.

But like I said, let's assume they were in dire straits that evening. How was the food?

Fantastic. Everything was flavorful, well-seasoned, cooked appropriately, and well matched. To start, Melissa had the tamal al chipotle, a tamale with shredded chicken, sweet chipotle sauce, plus crema fresca (presumably, the Mexican equivalent of creme fraiche), avocado and cilantro oil. Nice, classic flavors. Presentation was okay. Not Thomas Keller, but not tossed onto the plate with the eyes closed, either.

My starter was the callos de hacha, a seared diver sea scallop that had a great texture and again, classic well-thought-out seasonings.

For the main course, we each opted for the pechuga adobada--sliced chicken breast marinated in adobo and served with a medley of nice sides. This dish continued the trend; the chicken was flavorful and tender, the seasonings blending well.

We found their wine list to be fairly extensive and reasonably well priced (not quite twice retail in many cases). They offered bottles up and down the budget scale, always a plus. The wine we opted for that took so long to arrive was the Eberle Mill Road Vineyard Viognier from Paso Robles. Viognier is enjoying a lot of vogue at the moment, but this is for a good reason. It's more food friendly and more enjoyable than many California Chardonnays, and it has roughly the same weight in the mouth. My favorite Eberle Viognier is from the Glenrose Farm vineyard, but they don't make very much (it's not even one of the vineyards they list on their site).

Finally, for dessert we both went for the flan. No faltering on this dish either.

If it hadn't been for the service, we might have actually preferred Maya to bacar this year. Certainly we'd go back and try it again, hoping for better service.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Expecting Something Offal

Melissa and I were excited to try Bizou for our second Dine About Town dinner. All the reviews mention their "rustic" cuisine. Which is to say that they feature a lot of organ meats and various odd cuts of meat (beef cheeks, for instance).

Unfortunately, none of these were available on their prix fixe. I don't expect them to put the seared foie gras on the prix fixe, but it seems to me that if this kind of cuisine is your specialty, you'd want to offer some samples so that people who come in for Dine About Town might be tempted to come back. But our budget required us to stay on the fixed menu.

The first course was a choice between soup and salad. We both went for the soup, which was a reduced chicken broth with mushrooms and farro. It's usually difficult to get fired up about soup, but this was a really flavorful dish. Really nicely seasoned, good texture for the solid pieces, just a simple, great dish.

We also both went for the trout, which was roasted and served with escarole and mushrooms. The other option was lamb shoulder stew. Perhaps we should have gone with that, but we had a bottle of white wine with dinner, and it didn't seem like it would be a good match. The trout was good but nothing noteworthy.

The white wine I mention above was a Pouilly-Fumé, a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire valley. The prices on the wine list looked good, and they were running a special for a while that if you bought a bottle from their new neighbors, K & L Wines, they'd waive the corkage. A nice nod to the neighborhood.

So then we got to dessert. I had a hibiscus granita which was really nice. Melissa's dessert, a concoction of chocolate, meringue, almonds and various other items, was delicious but gigantic. It reminded us of the kind of super messy sundae you'd get at an ice cream parlor. It was very weird; it's not like the rest of the meal, or even my dessert, was made up of humongous portions.

I'd be willing to give Bizou another shot, this time not going with the prix fixe. The soup was so phenomenal, and the desserts were good. The "neighborhood restaurant" feel seemed sincere, especially with the K & L special. But next time, I'm going for the organ meat.