Sunday, April 30, 2006

IMBB 25: Asparagus and Morel Bread Pudding

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

When Melissa and I got married three years ago, we planned our menu with zeal. Our caterers (Blue Heron, whom I'd recommend in a heartbeat) delivered a meal that our guests still talk about.

Friends and family wrote us afterwards to ask about our vegetarian main course, an asparagus and morel bread pudding. We forgot to ask for the recipe, but Melissa asked me to recreate it for our anniversary dinner last week. How convenient that I had chosen stale bread as a theme for this edition of Is My Blog Burning.

I bought a lovely Acme loaf three days beforehand. We waited patiently, resisting the urge to tear it into hunks and devour it. I came home early from work on Tuesday, cubed the bread, soaked it briefly in a custard mix, added peeled asparagus and rehydrated dried morels, and baked for forty-five minutes. The morel flavor seeped through the fatty custard, the asparagus poked through the tumbledown arrangement of bread cubes, and Melissa pronounced it good.

We went through three bottles of wine to accompany the pudding. Some party, right? Not exactly. My hand slipped as I opened an expensive bottle of rosé Champagne, and the bottle tumbled to the floor, gushing bubbles and booze everywhere. We each got a small glass of mostly flat Champagne. We stowed a California sparkling wine in the freezer to chill it, opened it, and discovered it was corked. Finally, our dinners almost gone, we opened a red wine from our Ferry Plaza wine club.

Give me a few days to round up the intriguing uses for stale bread that have arrived in my inbox and comments. It's been a crazy weekend, but I'll get to them soon.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Chicago Bans Foie Gras

Chicago has banned the sale of foie gras, starting in June. This won't surprise anyone who's followed the issue. Once Californa legislators passed a ban on production and sale in 2004 (effective 2012), other cities and states followed suit.

Long-time readers know that my "The Dilemma of Foie Gras" article left me with an ambivalent stance about force-fed geese and ducks. A stance I share with every other writer who's looked at the subject objectively. It is not as horrendous as it sounds (force-feed the bird until the liver is 10-12 times its normal size). But it's not as innocent as producers and gourmands suggest.

Still, I disagree with an outright ban.

Angry eGulleteers claim that this bill is hypocritical because restaurants can still serve factory-farmed chickens, cows, and pigs. I tend to have little sympathy for the "focus on those issues instead of foie gras" argument. There's always a larger battle (human rights! keeping the hungry fed! providing good education! world peace!) and who can blame an activist for picking a small battle that s/he can win? Animal rights groups do run campaigns against factory farms but the press refuses to cover them and foie gras is no more or less ethical just because some other form of livestock leads a more miserable life.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Eat to Help - Dining Out For Life

My editor at Edible East Bay forwarded a press release about Dining Out For Life, a nationwide event where you support AIDS research by enjoying a nice meal on April 27. If only other charity work were so easy.

"East Bay" is one of the participating cities (featuring our beloved Jojo and the delicious César, among others). Go to the site to find out who's participating here in "East Bay" or your neighborhood.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Other Lady Marmalade

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Watch an artisan at work and you get a new appreciation for her products and her prices. That thought came to me as I attended a marmalade class with June Taylor. The clean, vibrant flavors of Taylor's jams, marmalades, and conserves inspire foodie zealotry, but I don't often buy from her stall at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market. The prices fall just out of my range for impulse buys.

Now I think they're bargains.

Taylor's products share nothing but a name with commercial versions; we students tasted some store-bought marmalades for comparison at the end of the class and they failed miserably next to her deeply colored jars of hand-crafted jellylike goodness. Traditional British practices inform her techniques, even at volumes much larger than her spiritual predecessors in pre-industrial England. She selects seasonal fruit carefully and works in small batches with "one and a half" other people. Her biggest workhorse pot is roughly twice the size of my normal stockpot (Shuna wisely noted that the small scale ensures that if you mess up a batch, you haven't lost too much sellable product).

She walked us through the simple process. Prep the fruit by segmenting the citrus and chopping the peel, reserving the membranes and seeds for pectin (Taylor doesn't use any commercial pectin). Boil the fruit and water with a jelly bag of the pectin-rich material. Squeeze that pectin from the bag into the liquid, add sugar to taste, and cook until the solution reaches 228°. Taylor tries to preserve as much flavor as possible, even if it means accepting a looser set. Pour the marmalade into jars, seal, let it cool, and store until ready to eat. We went from globes of citrus to a dozen small jars in about four hours.

It sounds straightforward, and it is. But when you think of Taylor and her small staff segmenting the fruit, chopping the peels, and manually squeezing pectin out of a jelly bag to produce the cases of jars we saw cooling on a nearby rack, it boggles the mind. She offered tips as she went, fueled by her philosophies and experience: Sterilize the jars by leaving in a 250° oven for 10 minutes or more instead of boiling them in a water bath and drying them, use minimal amounts of sugar to prevent an overly sweet product, work with very tart fruit to keep the flavor bright above the sugar (her classic Seville orange marmalade sends a jolt of acidity up your spine).

The experience that guides her hand can be frustrating to a student. Taylor measures half her ingredients by weight and the other half by volume, which makes her proportions tricky to figure out. She knows how mixtures are supposed to look, and can navigate a batch of marmalade through intuition. For cooks like me who have made one batch of marmalade in our lives, I worry about going solo.

Practice, practice, practice, I suppose. I'll make some batches soon so that I solidify the technique a bit more in my mind. Melissa, as always, is supportive.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

IMBB Next Weekend

Buy some bread. Let it go stale. Cook something with it. Write about it next weekend for the 25th session of Is My Blog Burning. Send me a note about your efforts.

I already know what I'm making; the very sleuthful among you might be able to guess. Here's a hint: Anyone remember what happens this time of the year?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

SFist Tuesday: We Got the Beets

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Okay, it's a little early to be writing about beets. But I've been using them, and you can find good ones, so I wrote about them for this week's SFist column.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Writer. Programmer. Puzzle Designer.

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

My first sale to Wine Enthusiast didn't go the way I planned.

I pitched an idea for the magazine's back page, a harbor for short features and essays. The managing editor decided not to go with my concept, but sent back a list of the types of pieces he wants for that page.

I laughed when I saw he wanted "clever food and wine-themed puzzles." If you've seen my business card, or noticed my email signature, you've already seen the unusual list of jobs that make up this post's title. I've enjoyed puzzles of various kinds for as long as I can remember and I discovered a decade ago that I have some modest talent as a puzzle designer (very modest, relative to some of my friends in the puzzle community).

I came up with an idea, they bought it, and "The Red-White Blues" (which I called "The Mixed-Case Maze") appears on the back page of the May 2006 issue. Go from Start to Finish, and collect 6 bottles of white and 6 bottles of red; pick up a copy of the magazine to try it out.

I can hear the internal monologue some of you have started: "I'm no good at puzzles." Stop. I strive to design approachable, engaging puzzles. I prefer hearing "Ha! I got it!" to "I give up." I get no satisfaction from making an impossible-to-solve puzzle. (I share a mantra with other puzzle designers: "It's easy to make a hard puzzle, hard to make a good one.") If it makes you more confident, this puzzle has a lower average solving time then I wanted.

The Wine Enthusiast puzzle falls roughly into the "logic mazes" genre, though I prefer the older name "mazes with rules." It's a maze in an abstract sense, but the walls are imposed by rules you have to follow, not by solid lines on the page. Go to the site to find lots of fascinating examples and links to other designers. Also see Ed Pegg's article on the subject.

We're talking about other puzzle ideas for the back page, and I'm hoping to use this as an entry point for an assignment in the feature well. That would be a "foot in the door" story for the ages. You should, of course, write the managing editor and tell him how much you like the puzzle so that he decides it's worth running more.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

WTN: 2005 Lodi Viognier, Old Duffers Winery

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

I almost forgot about this round of Wine Blogging Wednesday, the Internet-wide tasting group. Happily, Melissa and I drank a Viognier the other night that falls into Wine For Newbies' theme of uncommon whites. Sadly, you'll never get the chance to taste this wine yourself.

I met Rex Johnston and his wife Barbara Bentley while writing a forthcoming article about home wine makers. You may assume that homemade wine is one step above mouthwash, but careful amateur wine makers can rival most commercial wineries.

Even among talented amateurs, Johnston (who makes his wine with partner George Rammell) sits in a different tier. He brings his bottles as gifts to wineries and gets job offers in return. His wines sweep the awards whenever they appear in a competition (and Bentley's labels bring home yet more ribbons). He has unbridled passion for the craft, and his background as an analytical chemist gives him the technical savvy to manage the labwork that ensures his wines are in tip-top shape.

The 2005 Lodi Viognier from his "Old Duffers Winery" is typical of his work. It's a delicate wine with a restrained peaches-and-cream aroma that's typical of the grape. The vibrant acidity paired nicely with the salad and grilled Fontina Val d'Aosta cheese sandwich I made for dinner the night after our recent dinner party. This well-balanced wine is better than any number of flamboyant and boozy California viogniers I've had over the years. You'll never taste it, it's true, but keep my thoughts in mind the next time you skeptically eye someone's homemade wine. You might be sampling from one of Johnston's competitors on the amateur wine circuit.

Melissa watched nervously as I interviewed home wine makers. She's worried that carboys and barrels will soon appear and then take over our space. Seeing a barrel in Johnston's dining room—the house's warmth keeps the malolactic fermentation active—didn't ease her fears.

For now, even I recognize that our apartment lacks the room I'd need. But some day I'll make my own wine, and Johnston will be one of the first people I'll write for advice.

Benito Dusi on Dover Canyon (Dover Canyon on Benito Dusi)

A short note for today: Mary Baker of Dover Canyon shares a profile of Benito Dusi. Dusi has some of the oldest Zinfandel vines in Paso Robles, and his vineyard is one of the highlights of the Paso AVA. Check out her post to learn more about this local legend.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

What I Made For Dinner Last Night

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Recipe for dinner party disaster.

  • a long gap since the last dinner party
  • two more guests than we normally seat
  • an extra course above our norm
  • a Saturday time slot instead of Sunday
  • several untested recipes or dishes in development on the menu
  • a guest list that includes three food bloggers and their spouses, who could expose me as a charlatan with a wave of the keyboard
Combine all ingredients in a single evening. Wait for tears.

Melissa and I weren't trying to add every conceivable obstacle to our dinner party plans; it just worked out that way. Happily, the god of kitchen catastrophes had business elsewhere and our guests had a good time (or so they say). We invited Meriko and Russell, Fatemeh and C., and Joy and Jon.

Long-time readers won't be surprised to hear that I spent two weeks making all the ingredients for the party, down to the puff pastry. Melissa didn't take pictures during the dinner because we wanted people to enjoy the food without waiting for the photo op to finish. I noticed Jon snapping some shots, so perhaps pics will appear later.

Appetizers: Fatted Calf Petit Sec aux Herbes, buttermilk-fried Meyer lemons, olives. Skookum oysters with lemon and mignonette
2005 Kennedy Point Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand
Guests always enjoy batter-fried citrus, but it turns out Joy loves fried lemons with an unchecked zeal. I finally got to use my new oyster knife, which Melissa got me after Ed gave me a sneak peek at the oyster knife he recommends in the current issue of The Art of Eating. My verdict: my new Dexter-Russell SI22 beats the annoying Oxo I used before.

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Amuse: Pork rillette and green garlic potstickers
This is one leg of a "Trio" dish I'd like to do some day: Pork fat three ways. I'm practiced at making rillettes by now, but I finally figured out the best way to shape potstickers. Fold both halves up to meet each other, rather than folding one half all the way over. The result is much nicer.

Soup: Dungeness crab bisque with apple-bread croutons or Turkey consomme with cacao nibs
2003 Domaine de Lalande, Beaujolais
Julia Child accurately calls crab bisque a "labor of love." Crab carcasses in the freezer yielded the crab butter and crab stock a week and a half ago, but this dish still took two after-work evenings to finish. I've combined consommé and chocolate before, but I think I prefer my original incarnation, which used a solid chocolate block instead of nibs. With the nibs, the crystal-clear consommé clouds up instantly.

Entrée: Foie gras terrine with pain de mie and rhubarb compote or Fatted Calf Pâté Maison with pickled sour cherries, radishes, and olives
2004 J.J. Christoffel Erben, Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese, Mosel-Saar-Rüwer

Main: Duck confit with conserved lemon-mint gnocchi and red wine reduction
2002 Charles Joguet, Les Varennes du Grand Clos, Cabernet Franc de Pied, Chinon
This batch of duck confit was the second using Jojo's technique. When I made the first batch, I thought it was a bit salty, so I intended to reduce the salt in this batch. But then a big plop of salt came out of the jar. I cursed and shouted, and did my best to scoop out some of the excess. I must've done a good job, because the duck was noticeably less salty this time. It's still not as succulent as Curt's, and I'm now convinced that this is because he uses the legs from foie gras ducks, which naturally have more fat.

Cheese: Redwood Hill Farms Bucheret, roasted beets, 25-year-old aceto balsamico tradizionale, Kumquat powder
1996 Domaine Fontanel, Rivesaltes Ambré

Dessert: Apricot jam and candied hazelnut napoleon, lemon curd, and ginger dust.
2000 Royal Tokaji Company, Tokaji Aszù, 5 Puttonyos
I figured this dessert would explode spectacularly when I cut into it. Compressed sheets of puff pastry teetering atop hazelnuts and pastry cream? How do you spell impending doom? I showed it to the guests before I cut it, but despite the fragile material and my inebriated state, I managed to produce reasonable pieces, which I sat atop dollops of lemon curd and surrounded with sprinklings of ginger dust.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Announcing IMBB 25: Give Us This Day Yesterday's Bread

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

I barely remember signing up to host Is My Blog Burning 25 a year and a half ago. But I do remember the theme I suggested to Alberto for his Internet-wide cooking exhibition: good uses for stale bread

For IMBB, if you don't know, the host sets a theme and then bloggers around the world post their realizations of that theme on the specified date. Some time later, the host posts a round-up pointing to everyone's entry. For this month's edition, I want you to let some good bread go stale, and then figure out a way to keep using it. Americans often just discard dried-up loaves, but other cultures have found ways to stretch bread to the last crumb.

Pain perdu, panzanella bread salad, bread crumbs, croutons, bread pudding, stuffing, whatever else you can think of. They're all fair game. Cook your dish some time before or on the weekend of April 29 & 30, and write it up on that Saturday or Sunday. Let me know where to find your post: Email me (see upper right), leave a comment, or use the Technorati tag imbb25

Some thoughts:

  • I'd suggest you use the best loaf you can find
  • If, like me, you forget about IMBB until the last minute, you can "fake" stale bread by leaving it in a 250° oven for 10-20 minutes

I look forward to seeing your contributions.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

SFist Meets Harold McGee

I stepped outside of the norm for my biweekly In the Kitchen column on SFist. Today, I profiled Harold McGee, author of the seminal On Food and Cooking. I consider this the essential book for a modern kitchen, and I was happy to meet the author.