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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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Strawberry jam with balsamic and black pepper

Strawberry jam

Can I make a shocking confession? I don’t love strawberries. I mean, I don’t hate them (it’s not like they’re oranges or anything); I like them fine. I just don’t swoon for them in the way that so many others do, particularly at this time of year.

But I have gained a newfound respect for them after a recent visit to a strawberry farm down in Watsonville. The good folks over at Foodista let me write it up for them, so go check it out. 

Ever since that visit, I’ve had berries on the brain. I can’t ignore them as I walk through the markets. For someone who doesn’t love them, I sure seem to have some kind of crush on them. If I were a schoolgirl, I’d be writing “Strawberries” over and over again in my Trapper Keeper. (Do kids still have Trapper Keepers? Am I dating myself? Though you have to admit, iPads do sort of look like a Star Trek — TNG, not original — interpretation of Trapper Keepers.)

Consequently, we’ve had a lot of strawberries in the house of late. Mostly, they find their way into our morning yogurt, perhaps alongside some banana and certainly with homemade granola, staving off scurvy for yet another day. But there isn’t enough yogurt in the world to complement the bounty of strawberriness upon us. And so, as is my wont, I’ve been jamming.

But you know me, right? I’m just not content to let well enough be. There’s no shortage of people in the world, or even in this condo, who are happy to eat just plain strawberry jam, but I’m not one of them. No, I just have to screw with it, just a little.

I already planned to add a little black pepper, as I adore the combination of berries and pepper, but then a Twitter friend recommended balsamic, and that appealed to my sensibilities very much indeed. And so a plan was hatched.

With one batch, I kept it just plain for the first half, then added some balsamic and pepper for the latter half, so I could compare apples to apples … er, strawberries to strawberries. The regular strawberry jam was good: Bright, undeniably strawberry. But the adulterated batch was strawberry plus. Still strawberry, no mistaking, but with lingering and haunting notes that gave it a layer of sophistication.

Perhaps I can grow to love strawberries after all.

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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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Cream of curried parsnip soup

Cream of curried parsnip soup ©DPaul Brown

Back in 2003, the year of our respective 10th anniversaries, we traveled to England and Scotland with our dear friends Sally & Lisa. We started in London, as one might expect, where we spent a few chilly but sunny days in March. From there, we took the train to Edinburgh.

En route, we were seated across the aisle from an Edinburgher couple. We remarked to them how clear the weather had been, and expressed hope that it would continue during our sojourn in Scotland. In unison, they looked at us through sad eyes and said, “oh, no.” It was inconceivable that the the sun would persist in the northern hinterlands.

Our first evening in the city proved them right. The winding streets were filled with moody, low fog. You gain an appreciation for the warming jolt of whisky on those gloomy, atmospheric nights. However, the next day broke as clear and bright as could be, and so it remained through the rest of our trip. 

On the train, we had asked our aislemates about food options, and were surprised when they rattled off an amazing array of cuisines. “You’ll be spoiled for choices,” the man said, and right he was. But as tempting as the selection of ethnic restaurants were, the most memorable food we had decidedly and indigenously Scottish.

Of course we had haggis. I mean, why would you fly halfway across the globe just to ignore Scotland’s most infamous foodstuff? And here’s the thing: It’s good. I mean, sure, you hear snouts and intestines and other gutsy bits with oats stuffed in a stomach, and you think, “ew.” But guess what’s in that breakfast sausage you ate this morning, hmm? Yeah. Anyway, you won’t have to take my word for it too much longer. Soon, you’ll be able to get haggis in the states once again, after a 21-year embargo. 

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Momofuku, too

Ginger scallion noodles ©DPaul Brown

Oh, the kerfuffle over a couple of high-profile New York chefs dragging out that tiresome trope: Bashing on San Francisco’s food scene. Back in October, at the New York Food & Wine Festival, media darling David Chang and media whore Anthony Bourdain had an affable banter, calling bull**** on various aspects of their industry, including themselves. One of Chang’s salvos was that, “there’s only a handful of restaurants that are manipulating food … ****ing every restaurant in San Francisco is serving figs on a plate
with nothing on it.” Later, Bourdain referred to Alice Waters as “Pol Pot in a muumuu,” since she evidently killed off a couple million people in her Berkeley kitchen.

Nablo09.90x33 First of all, ha ha! Funny! No, really! And any San Francisco foodie types who got their panties in a bunch over this need to grow a sense of humor. But it’s funny like pull-my-finger kind of funny. It’s a joke we’ve heard a million times before, from that corny old uncle who still thinks it’s as fresh and high-larious as the first time he told it decades ago.

Anyway, the whole point of our cuisine of unmanipulated food is that we have access to some of the best, freshest and most flavorful ingredients available anywhere. Why manipulate perfection?

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White pizza

White Pizza ©DPaul Brown

Recently, Sara Rosso posted her series on 101 American Foods, and Kalyn opened the discussion further, asking us all to ponder on what foods we consider to be American. A quick Twitter straw poll netted many of the most immediately identifiable American edibles — apple pie, burgers, Thanksgiving turkey — but she closes with a note that, “being from Utah, Kalyn would have to add fry sauce to Sara’s list!”

Truly, all food is American food, since America is inclusive of populations from every corner of the globe. But if you want to get down to what is uniquely American, you need to talk about regional foods. After all, what would New England be without clam chowder or lobster rolls? New Orleans brought us jambalaya, gumbo, and the muffuletta, among other delectably rich fare. And tomes have been written on barbecue alone.

Yet, where I come from in upstate New York, there are precious few things I can think of that distinguish it from anyplace else. Buffalo has its wings, Syracuse has salt potatoes, but Schenectady has no culinary claim to fame. So that got me thinking: What did I used to eat back home that I can’t get here?

Meanwhile, DPaul, the yeast whisperer, has been on a pizza kick. Our preferred neighborhood pizza joint went out of business recently, and so he has thrown himself into the pursuit of perfecting pizza in the home. To up his game, he got a copy of Peter Reinhart’s American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza, which is half travelogue and half cookbook. Within the book, Reinhart outlines recipes for a myriad of kinds of pizza, from the classic Napoletana to Romana to Chicago and, of course, the fluffy Americana that most of us here in the USA know and love. Truly, a quintessentially American food.

It was then that I remembered that we used to get a white pizza in Schenectady, typically topped with broccoli. Here, at last, was something I could never recall finding anywhere else, something utterly unique to my hometown. Some cursory research online (and in Reinhart’s book) turned up recipes for “New York-style white pizza” that had some kind of béchamel-like or cream-based sauce on it, but that’s not how I remembered it. So I reached out to my friend Kristen back home to ask her what kind of sauce is on our version. “Silly boy,” she replied, “white pizza doesn’t have any sauce!” It’s just ricotta, garlic (fresh or powdered; I prefer fresh), mozzarella and broccoli — though some people opt for no broccoli. I am not one of them.

For all its simplicity, it has a wonderful balance of richness and lightness and is surprisingly delicious. Enjoy a taste of my corner of America!

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Giambotta, Italian summer vegetable stew

Giambotta ©DPaul Brown

I don't know about you, but I would have thought that a cookbook that was spun off from a foul-mouthed primetime premium cable drama series should be nothing more than a schlocky gimmick, a way to squeeze a few extra bucks out of a fawning audience. So imagine my surprise when my great aunt back in Schenectady said that the recipes in The Sopranos Family Cookbook
were nearly identical to our family's repertory. Knowing I have an interest in documenting our Italian-American culinary heritage, she sent me a copy of the book, with hand-written notes slotted in alongside certain recipes, with an introductory note:

Hope you enjoy this cookbook. I never watched The Sopranos. The recipes are the closest I've ever seen to the peasant meals my mother cooked. She did not use a lot of hot stuff like red pepper or pepperoncini. The red pepper would be on the table along with the grated cheese for all meals.

Love as always,

Aunt Anne

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