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Chicken Scallopine

Chicken scallopine

In observation of Mother’s Day, here’s a little something from the archives. Perhaps it’s time to bottle and sell my mother’s magic seasoning? 

Emeril has his Essence™. Paul Prudhomme has his Magic™. My mother, too, has her own special seasoning. It’s called Saltpeppergarlicsaltoregano™.

It’s always the same four ingredients — salt, pepper, garlic salt, oregano — recited in the same run-on order, in more or less the same proportions, measured in the palm of the hand, and it works for everything. Sauce? Brown the meat, cook the garlic, add tomatoes and saltpeppergarlicsaltoregano. Salad dressing? Olive oil, red wine vinegar and saltpeppergarlicsaltoregano.

But here’s the thing: Each of these things ends up tasting distinct and different. Perhaps there’s a little Magic in my mother’s seasoning after all.

A greater mystery, perhaps, is understanding why and how the dish called scallopine in my family in no way resembles scallopine as it is served in Italy or anywhere else on the globe. Traditional scallopine is a thin cutlet of meat, usually veal but sometimes chicken, dredged in flour, pan-fried and served with peperonata or some kind of sauce like piccata. In my family, it’s cubes of meat, browned and then stewed in tomato puree with sautéed peppers and peas (and, of course, saltpeppergarlicsaltoregano).

What I do know is that it is good, and absolutely must be eaten with a piece or two of good, crusty Italian bread. I have yet to find a bread out here that resembles what was generically referred to as Italian bread in my hometown of Schenectady. It always had a flaky, crisp crust and a light, fluffy crumb. Out here on the west coast, there’s a propensity for hardier, more rustic breads. A ciabatta or pugliese will do, but the fluffier the crumb, the better for sopping up all that good stew.

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Lambchops with minted cucumber

Somewhat recently, we went in with two other couples and invested in a lamb from Stemple Creek in Marin County. It's a great way to get farm-direct protein from a sustainable, grass-fed facility. It's also economical; our third of the…

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Lágrimas, snap pea salad

Lagrimas, ©DPaul Brown

Last week I took a brief trip to New York. One of my mother’s cards had been nominated for a Louie Award at the Greeting Card Association‘s annual event, and since the whole raison d’être of her business stems from having a gay son, she wanted me with her at the ceremony. Sadly, she didn’t win (frankly, the sentiment in the card she lost to is of questionable taste), but she still found value in attending the Stationery Show and connecting with peers in the industry.

While she was doing so, I used that time to do some connecting of my own. I shopped and sushied with my dear old friend Christine and brunched with my friend Ramona at the fabulous new B.E.S. I got to see the lovely Shuna, who opened her arms to me as a fledgling blogger four years nigh, and whom I’ve missed dearly since she relocated to London and New York. I enjoyed coffee and conversation with Lisa, who I met only fleetingly at BlogHer Food last year. And I finally met the inimitable and affable David Leite over quiche (him) and chocolate bouchons (me). All this in two days, including the awards ceremony.

It was definitely a whirlwind, and I often found myself hustling to get from one rendez-vous to another, but I did deliberately leave myself one opening. My flight arrived on Saturday at 4 pm, and I had nothing planned for the remainder of the afternoon until my mother arrived that evening. 

New York was balmy and gently breezy, and I reveled in the summerlike weather as I meandered the streets of Chelsea. After a couple hours of aimless wandering, I began to set my sights on dinner. When the occasion warrants, I rather like dining out alone, and a tapas bar is optimal for that. Sitting alone at a two-top is sad, like dining with an imaginary friend. But sidling up to a bar, ordering a glass of spicy red and eyeing the sardines and cheeses? That’s liberating.

So it was that I ended up at Boquería. First up I had a crisp duck croqueta and some lovely piquant sardine toasts, then followed up with pork belly pintxos and a salad called lágrimas — “tears.” The pork belly was cubed, dusted with paprika, wrapped in a wilted green, skewered and grilled until succulent. The salad, bright and fresh and crisp, made a flawless foil to the richness of those fatty blocks. It immediately became my New Favorite Salad, and I vowed to make it as soon as I got home. I did, and quite a few times since then already.

As for the name, I can only assume it’s because the sliced pea pods look like eyes, and the peas themselves seem to tumble out like tears. But there is nothing sad about this salad. They must be tears of joy and gratitude for the bounty of spring that is finally upon us.

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Green Goddess dressing

Green Goddess dressing

I've had something of a fascination lately with the idea of San Francisco food. I mean, everyone knows our fair city to be a major foodie destination, and most people can rattle off a list of restaurant names of varying degrees of prestige in the current-day food scene. But what of the classics, the dishes that emerged from restaurants past and present that have made it into the American culinary vernacular?

Many of these dishes have appeared on menus for so long, they've been fallen out of fashion and are now associated with lunching matrons in chi-chi hotel restaurants: Crab Louie, Celery Victor and the grandmother of all creamy salad dressings, Green Goddess.

It's small wonder these dishes have become culinary dinosaurs. In the monotony of preparing them on so many menus over so many years, they've surely slid into mediocrity or worse at the hands of indifferent chefs. Just recently, I dined locally at an otherwise perfectly good establishment (that shall remain nameless). I was actually excited to see a salad with Green Goddess on the menu, and ordered it with glee. Sadly, I was presented a lackluster pile of greens thickly coated with what as far as I could tell was just straight-up mayonnaise. No green, and far from godly.

But I maintain that when prepared with love and integrity, these foods must be excellent in their own right. How else could they have become such culinary icons?

And the goddess is an icon indeed. It was created at the Palace Hotel in 1923 by Executive Chef Phillip Roemer at an event to honor actor George Arliss, who was then the lead in the play "The Green Goddess" by William Archer. Cool, creamy and fresh with herbs, it must have struck quite a chord with the diners that evening, for it went on to become one of the most popular dressings in the West for decades, eventually dethroned by ranch dressing (with which it has a more than passing resemblance.)

Its fame peaked in the 1970s when Seven Seas sold a bottled version of it, and today Annie's Naturals produces a version as well, but for the last three decades or so, the goddess has largely lost her followers. 

Well, consider me a member of the Cult of the Green Goddess, then. And I aim to convert you, too.

You see, Green Goddess is much more than a dressing. Since I've started making it, it's made its way into a variety of applications. It makes a fantastic dip for just about anything on its own, but toss it into a blender with some white beans and you've got something rather special indeed. Our friend Jim's mother used to use it as a dressing for cold pasta, and served with grilled jumbo shrimp; I think scallops would be at least as delightful.

In researching the dressing, I came across a lot of different recipes with a surprising amount of variation: Different proportions of mayonnaise, sour cream and vinegar; with or without anchovy; and while nearly all call for parsley and chives, others called for basil, tarragon and even chervil. Despite Martha's greatest efforts to market it, however, chervil remains an elusive ingredient for most of us.

The Palace Hotel thoughtfully has published the original, and that is what I used. Well, sort of. While they call for parsley and chives, the original evidently did not include tarragon; this will not stand. For reasons I cannot justify, in my mind Green Goddess must have tarragon. Must. So I added it. And I stand by that decision. Fact is, you could tweak this recipe ten times till Tuesday, and you'd still end up with a delicious, refreshing dressing, so have at it. 

What other San Francisco classics do you love? And what current dishes do you think will stand the test of time?

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Stuffed artichokes, revisited

Stuffed Artichokes

Whoever first looked at a spiny orb at the end of a fibrous stem protruding from a large plant with pronged leaves as sharp as sabers and thought, "Yum, I'm gonna have me some of that" must have been very hungry indeed. By now, we of course have conquered the artichoke, learned how to tame its talons and soften its hard flesh. 

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to go to the Pebble Beach Food & Wine event for the afternoon. At the Grand Tasting, I nibbled on offerings from a variety of high-profile chefs. Not everything was great, but highlights included Hosea Rosenberg's seared beef tenderloin with ancho sauce on some delicious cheesy grits; a delightfully balanced canapé of pate, foie, crisp-fried lotus root and some kind of sweet relish from Hudson Valley Foie Gras; and a too-small but still memorable bite of crispy lamb's tongue from Seattle's Tom Douglas.

On the drive home, I passed through Castroville, the artichoke capital of the world, where 75% of the US supply of artichokes are grown. Driving alongside fields with rows and rows of shaggy thickets with green globes popping up, the siren song was too strong, and I pulled over at The Thistle Hut to buy some. There, for a mere dollar, I picked up three mighty, head-sized round buds with a good two inches of stalk still attached.

A few years ago, I wrote about my mother's stuffed artichokes, which is pretty much the only way I had ever had them until I moved to California in my 20s. When it comes to big globes like these, it's still my preferred way to eat them. However, the recipe is no longer in step with the way we stock our pantry. We don't have store-bought bread crumbs, for example, nor garlic salt, nor parm in a can. But these are all convenience ingredients, and the inconvenience in recreating them from fresh ingredients is, in my opinion, negligible. And hence today I present my updated version.

I made one other adaptation. My mother always makes these for special occasions, and therefore in large quantities. I had just three chokes, so instead of using a big roasting pan, I used my largest enamelized Dutch oven. Making them in smaller quantity and in a better-sealed cooking vessel had two effects: It shortened the overall cooking time, and created more of a steam oven. The leaves were less wizened, but the bread crumbs still crisped nicely on top.

When the chokes are in and plentiful, there's no reason to save this for a special occasion. We normally ate them after the main meal on a holiday, just before or sometimes alongside dessert. I enjoyed these three as three consecutive days of lunch; I also think they'd make a pleasant surprise as a brunch entrée. They're fine warm or room temperature, but I like them best cold, right from the fridge, especially when you finally reach the ultimate quarry, the cool, creamy heart.

Stuffed artichoke aftermath

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Cannoli, an unexpected family secret

Cannoli ©DPaul Brown

Every holiday has its food. Easter of course means ham, hard-boiled eggs, cheap chocolate and Peeps, but for me it also means cannoli.

The other day, we were cocktailing with our friend Michael, a fellow paisano albeit of Sicilian extraction. I mentioned I wanted to revisit my post on cannoli from a few years back. Michael said in his family they called them Aunt Mary Cookies, for fairly self-evident reasons, and lamented how much of a pain the shells were to make — getting the dough thin enough, frying them off, and so on. I mentioned that in my family, we didn’t do the fried shells, but used pizzelle and rolled them while still hot and pliable. “Yes, well, that’s cheating,” he said, to which I rebuffed, half-feigning indignity: “It’s not cheating, Michael, it’s regional.” But as soon as the words spilled from my mouth, I was suddenly filled with doubt.

So, yes, the cannoli I grew up with are made with pizzelle, the delicate, rose-window-patterned cookies, rolled into tubes. I blindly assumed that this was derived from some old-world tradition carried over from one of my forebears from the motherland. But I was also aware that I have never known anyone else to make their cannoli in this fashion.

When I mentioned to my mother that I was making a batch, she remarked that her grandmother didn’t use pizzelle; she had a curling iron-like device with which she wrapped dough around and dipped into frying oil. Somehow, this detail had eluded me for four decades. When I asked her how our family came by the tradition of using the pizzelle, she said she didn’t know. After Great-Grandma Battaglia passed in the 1960s, the cookies seem to have dropped out of our culinary tradition for a bit, then magically reappeared with this new technique. 

I then went on to ask my Aunt Barb, my mother’s younger sister, who has long taken an interest in the family recipes, desserts in particular. She was also unsure where the pizzelle came in, though she in fact didn’t even remember her grandmother making the fried shells; she was rather young when Grandma Battaglia passed away. But she noted that Aunt Chris may have been the source of the recipe.

Aunt Chris is my mother’s sister-in-law. Of French and Irish descent, she married my Uncle Joe in the late ’60s, and right away took to adopting the family recipes to please him. I called her and asked who provided the cannoli recipe. She flipped through her recipe folio, and found the original recipe for the filling … which in fact came from her neighbor Ida Iovanella. As for the shells, she surmised that at the time she was not versed in frying, and came up with the idea to use pizzelle instead. In other words, it sort of was cheating.

But if it is a cheat, it’s a damn good one. For me and the other kids of my generation, this was the only cannoli we ever knew. My cousin Nicolle and I both prefer this version to the traditional fried shells. Plus it’s easier and a lot less messy to boot. It’s a tradition, no matter how recent, I think is worth carrying on.

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Punch drunk at Smuggler’s Cove

Tiki ©DPaul Brown

A few months ago, we made an investment in our cocktailian education by attending the Beverage Academy Tiki class at Bourbon & Branch. The good professor Martin Cate, formerly of Forbidden Island, waxed eloquent on the rise and fall of tiki culture in America.

Beginning with Don the Beachcomber's 1934 Hollywood début and the advent of Victor "Trader Vic" Bergeron's empire of restaurants, tiki joints held the promise of something exotic and fun, a dose of escapism in a novelty mug. After World War II, soldiers came back with stories from the south seas, and tiki bars blossomed like island hibiscus all over the country. We were held rapt as Martin stepped through slides with images from the original haunts, decorated with palm fronds and fishermen's nets.

Martin's Power Point-fu was complemented by more practical learnings: Hands-on instruction on making classic tiki cocktails.

At their most basic, tiki drinks are punches and can trace their roots to the classic Planter's Punch. According to Wikipedia, the first known print reference was in the August 8, 1908 edition of The New York Times:

PLANTER'S PUNCH

This recipe I give to thee,
Dear brother in the heat.
Take two of sour (lime let it be)
To one and a half of sweet,
Of Old Jamaica pour three strong,
And add four parts of weak.
Then mix and drink. I do no wrong —
I know whereof I speak.

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Pull-apart dinner rolls

Dinner rolls ©DPaul Brown

Bread's kind of a big deal in the Bay Area. Setting aside the obvious connotation with soudrough, we've had some of the leading artisanal bakeries in the nation for decades now. We're blessed in that regard. Practically every store carries at least one of the major bread baker's products, whether Acme or Semmifreddi's or Della Fattoria or what have you. And very good breads these are, if you're looking for hardy, rustic loaves or a fine baguette. Or, um, sourdough. But sometimes, especially when accompanying a holiday meal, nothing satisfies more than a light, fluffy white roll. And as lovely and lovingly made as the artisan bakers' breads are, this is one hole in the repertory I've yet to see filled adequately.

Luckily, I am married to an increasingly skilled baker. (Well, maybe not so lucky for my waistline.) Armed with a copy of The Bread Baker's Apprentice and his own innate ability to coax magic from flour, water and yeast, he mastered the dinner roll in no time flat.

According to him, these rolls are easy as bread making goes. I'll take his word for it. When we made the first batch, he asked me to help shape the rolls. There was little mystery about which one of us touched which piece of dough. His were perfectly smooth orbs; mine were deformed masses. Fortunately, even I could not destroy their rich flavor.

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