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Not made of stone

Azorean stewed pork ©DPaul Brown

So yeah, I had surgery.

Back in July, right around the time of the main BlogHer conference in Chicago (which, luckily, I stayed home for), I began having abdominal and urinary tract pain. Thinking I had some kind of infection, rare though UTCs are for men, I made an appointment to see the doctor, who suggested I might be passing stones.

NaBloPoMoThis should have come as no surprise. I had a kidney stone attack in 1987, back when I was in high school, and have always known that this day would come. Yet somehow, when the obvious signs were there, I didn’t recognize them.

That night, the pain that had until then been merely a nuisance began to escalate until I was a blubbering mess, shuffling around the house trying to walk the pain away. We ended up in the emergency room. A CT scan confirmed a not insignificant stone in my right ureter … and a boulder of a stone still in the kidney.

Long story short, over the ensuing three months, I endured lengthy waits between urology appointments until treatment could be indicated and scheduled. In the meantime, I referred to it as the Stone of Damocles, a weighty concern that hung figuratively over my head. Ultimately, Dr. Stoller at UCSF had me scheduled for percutaneous nephrostolithotomy (PCNL), where they go into the kidney via a small incision with a tube and break the stone down with lasers. It’s considered minor surgery, but believe me when I say there is no such thing. But, I am better now, free of both pain and stones. For now.

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The even greater tomato canning of 2009

Canned tomatoes ©DPaul Brown

Gluttons for punishment, we are. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, we undertook our greatest processing and canning feat to date, dispatching with 200 pounds of tomatoes across two weeks. Thanks to our experiences over the past couple years, we’ve learned a few things that help speed the process and move things along.

For our purposes, as we were looking to get as much sauce out of the fruit as possible, two extremely large stock pots were of the essence. In addition, 23-quart pressure canners*
were required so we could process multiple batches in parallel. A 36″ range helped, but was not strictly necessary. Snacks and wine, however, were.

Whereas last year we merely scored the bottoms of the tomatoes and then blanched and cored them, this year we had an epiphany: If we cored the tomatoes first, then blanched them, the skins came away more easily, and we didn’t need to handle the slippery devils with a paring knife in one hand. Good-quality rubber gloves prevented our skin from cracking from the constant exposure to acid. Our ducks were in a row.

Our first day of canning by the numbers:

  • 100 lbs of tomatoes
  • 2 large stockpots and 2 23-quart pressure canners
  • 42 quart jars, lids and rings
  • 12 hours
  • 4 grown men
  • 3 underfoot dogs
  • 2 flaming kitchen towels

On the second Saturday, at our friends Nick & Russ‘s place in the East Bay, Nick mused on how we all enjoy this activity, and wondered how we as a society moved away from such labors. The answer, of course, is World War II.

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The beast for the feast

Roast boar with butternut squash risotto
Before our big dinner party, I went to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, as is my wont. There, I ran into Jen, master locavore. We got talking about the dinner party, and when she asked what I was serving, I mentioned that we were having roast leg of boar.

"Where did you get boar?" She asked.
"I had it shipped in from Texas," I replied, adding, "don't judge me."

I'm sure it's possible to get locally sourced boar, but we've been meaning to check out Broken Arrow Ranch for some time now. We discovered it while on the proverbial hunt for wild game charcuterie after a trip to the Canadian Rockies a few years ago. Broken Arrow Ranch sells humanely hunted, truly wild boar, venison and antelope. The animals are hunted using long-range, silent rifles, and the meat is harvested and processed right in the field. Local it may not be, but it is ethical and sustainable.

Broken Arrow Ranch wild boar leg

I don't know about you, but few of our cookbooks contain recipes for boar — at least not the American ones. Broken Arrow Ranch provides some cooking instructions, but we wanted some other sources to compare. We naturally turned our eye to The Silver Spoon, a fantastic tome of more than 2,000 Italian recipes, and an absolute must-have for anyone who cooks Italian food. There we found not just one but three recipes for boar.

There are apparently two main methods for roasting a whole leg of boar: High and hot, or low and slow. We opted for the slow and low, figuring it might take on the lovely fall-apart texture of pulled pork. It did not — the meat is so lean, there is little fat or connective tissue to break down — but it tasted good nevertheless. The meat was dense and a little dry, but had a wonderful, rich, nutty flavor that reminded me a lot of the jamòn we had in Andalucia.

We served slices over a dollop of butternut squash risotto (yet another pressure cooker miracle) and doused with a rich pan sauce. And then we pigged out.

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Pomegranate borscht

The word “borscht” strikes fear and dread into the hearts of many. It conjures up images of cold, cheerless Pepto-pink liquid. But it need not be any of those things. It can be warm, complex, bright and delicious.

We knew we wanted a soup that was festively red, using seasonal ingredients. Pomegranates sprung immediately to mind, and so I researched a famous Persian soup, Ash-e anar. Delicious though it is, it involves meatballs, and we wanted to keep the soup light so folks wouldn’t fill up too early in the evening.

DPaul and I are both big beet eaters (well, we like the small ones, too), so we decided to take this more in the borscht direction. We found one recipe that became our springboard, and adapted from there. It, too, called for meat, but again we were looking for something less substantial. I subbed in celery and anise seeds for caraway, looking for a somewhat more exotic flavor profile. But the real star here is the pomegranate syrup, which subtly holds up the entire dish with a wine-like complexity.  

The end result is an intensely colored soup with a balanced, flavorful broth and just enough substance. This will become part of our repertoire for sure.

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Ribollita: Tuscan bread soup

In March of 1998, DPaul and I traveled to Italy for the first time, embarking on the typical American’s Grand Tour of the country through Rome, Siena, Florence and Venice. En route from Rome to Siena, my family ran us through a few of the charming hill towns that pepper the Tuscan countryside: Pienza, Montepulciano and San Quirico d’Orcia. Spring was just awakening, and I remember so clearly driving through fields of almost blindingly bright green grass. I was smitten.

When we returned the next year, it was in October, an entirely different experience. We spent a week in Umbria, basing ourselves in Assisi and taking day trips to surrounding towns. Through the chill autumn air thick with the smoke of burning grapevines, we crossed back over into Tuscany one day to visit Cortona, the quintessential hill town made famous by Frances Mayes in Under the Tuscan Sun. Ignoring the slavish American tourists clutching their copies of the book alternately as their guidebook and bible, we ascended the narrow streets of the town to go see the mummified body of Santa Margherita. As we huffed past a doe-eyed girl clutching a puppy who looked up at us and said ciao, we asked a local gentleman how to find the church. His response was, “sù, sempre sù.” Up. Keep going up. And so up we went, finally reaching the pinnacle of town so we could breathlessly admire Santa Margherita in her wizened glory.

Thanks to Ms. Mayes, Tuscany became the penultimate romantic destination for Americans well into this decade, and marketers latched on to this phenomenon. Suddenly, “Tuscan” was appended to anything Italian (or Italian-American) to make it appear more refined and highfalutin, and to raise the profit margin by a few percentage points.

In point of fact, most Tuscan food is far from fancy; it’s downright rustic. Grilled meats, brothy soups and, famously, beans feature prominently. Case in point is the deliciously simple ribollita. While this is now a staple in restaurants in Tuscany and beyond, its roots are clearly in the home — or the farmhouse.

Classic ribollita is actually not one dish, but three. It starts out as a minestra, a simple vegetable soup with greens and white beans (which, incidentally, is very easy to make in the pressure cooker). The next day, leftovers of of the minestra are extended with pieces of stale bread to make minestra di pane. On the third day, the soup is reheated (ribollita means “reboiled”). As is typical with most soups, the flavors meld and improve with time. No matter which phase of its life you are consuming, be sure to serve it with a drizzle of very good, fresh, fruity olive oil.

But ribollita’s life needn’t end there. Around the time we first sojourned to Italy, a new restaurant called Delfina opened around the corner from our (now former) apartment. Chef Craig Stoll’s debut menu offered a new twist: Pan-fried ribollita. I can’t claim to have exactly reproduced Chef Stoll’s creation, but my approximation is adequate.

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Ropa vieja: Cuban shredded beef

I won't pussyfoot around it: I'm royally pissed about Prop 8. I'm pissed that that many people in the state of California are so blinded by religious doctrine. I'm pissed that they're so impressionable and prone to accepting blatant lies as truth. I'm pissed that barely 50% of registered voters in San Francisco bothered to give a damn. And I'm pissed that more people are concerned about the well-being of chickens destined for our plates than in the fundamental rights of actual human beings living in this state. (Mind you, I did vote for the chickens, too!)

But what really stuck in my craw most of all was the surprise. I sincerely believed that this whole elimination-of-human-rights thing would all blow over, that people would see reason and be able to make rational decisions. And above all, I was surprised at how powerful the emotional impact was. It's one thing to live your life without a fundamental right. It's not appropriate or just, but you just sort of accept it. However, it is altogether another matter to have something given, then abruptly taken away. I can tell you now, having fought back tears of rage all day on November 5, I understand prejudice in an entirely new light as of now. I want to say it left me speechless, but that is clearly not the case.

Hey, you know who else used to have rights, then had them unjustly taken away? Cubans! (You like the segueway? Didja see that coming?) Yes, like the gays, Cubans once had a swingin' good time until a group of radical asshats spoiled the party. Like the gays, Cubans have a penchant for soulful music and refreshing cocktails. Unlike the gays, Cubans have retained a rich culinary heritage that remains unspoiled in the era of carb-Nazism.

Perhaps the quintessential Cuban main is ropa vieja, strips of beef cooked with peppers until tender, then shredded. The name translates to "old clothes," referring to the rag-like texture of the broken-down meat. 

My fabulous friend David has fabulous Cuban parents. How fabulous? Well, his mother is an opera diva, for starters, and his father is by all accounts a very good cook. It's through him that I learned of the Taste of Cuba website, which he mines for recipes from their homeland. I used their ropa vieja recipe as the foundation for my adaptation. 

It's not a pretty dish, but it is very much a tasty one. It's also
super easy. Best of all, it's another excellent candidate for our new
favorite toy, the pressure cooker. (Though it's equally well suited to the slow cooker or just on the stovetop.) Enjoy it with some Spanish rice, washed down with a nice Cuba Libre, or whatever libation you require to soothe the wounds of injustice.

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Pressure’s on


Seems like everyone's under a lot of pressure these days. We're crushing under the weight of a monumentally historic election, with real issues that affect real people's everyday lives. Our backs are breaking from the Sisyphean effort of keeping our moods and bank accounts buoyant while the market repeatedly plummets.

But pressure isn't always a bad thing. Without significant pressure, diamonds would be mere drab lumps of carbon. And pressure can be judiciously applied in the kitchen to great effect.

Like many people, I cast a wary eye toward pressure cookers for many years, envisioning madcap Lucille Ball-esque scenarios of exploding lids and volcanic eruptions of lava-hot food. But modern-day pressure cookers are both safe and easy to use, and an extremely handy appliance for those looking to economize both their time and money. After some research on DPaul's part, we purchased the Fagor 3-in-1 Electric Multi-Cooker, a countertop pressure, rice and slow cooker all in one. It's our new favorite toy.

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Molha: Azorean spiced beef stew

As adaptable as the English language is, it has not evolved to meet the needs of the modern world — specifically when it comes to modern relationships. It's only in the last three weeks that DPaul and I have finally been liberated from the highly unromantic moniker of "partners" for the mantle of "husbands," a word that still feels weird, like a pair of shoes that need breaking in. But what of the other people to whom we are connected through non-traditional means?

Case in point: We just had a dinner guest, Sylvia. She was my father's fourth and final wife, and now his widow. She's too young to be my stepmother, not that I called wives two or three by that title either. Plus, as I was in my mid-thirties when they married, I felt too old to gain an extra mother.

Sylvia and I get along famously. The only problem is when I begin a sentence in which I am referring to her. These sentences invariably begin, "My …" at which point the words fail me, and I have to pause and deliver the full backstory to explain who this person is. And if I want to refer to her delightful parents, there's sure as heck no concise combination of words to explain that connection.

Anyway, speaking of language, the dish we made comes from a cookbook given to us by our downstairs neighbors. One half of the couple hails from the Azores, a cluster of Portuguese-held islands in the Atlantic off the African coast. On return from a visit there last year, she brought us a cookbook, "Azorean Cuisine" by Zita Lima. The book is peppered with charmingly clunky translations, such as a recipe for "Broth of Turnips from the Land" (as opposed to, what, sea turnips?) and one dish simply, gloriously titled, "Rump." Mmm. Rump.


The one recipe that came most strongly recommended, and the only one we've made to date, is called "molha à la mode de Pico." (Fun fact: The mountain on the island Pico, also named Pico, is the highest mountain in Portugal.) The word molha, pronounced MOLE-yah, derives from the same root as the Spanish molé, and the similarities do not stop there. Molha is beef chuck stewed in spices like cumin, cinnamon and allspice, with a little piri-piri for kick. The combination of spices meld and mellow into a warming braise without ever lapsing into Christmas potpourri territory. It's muito bom.

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