Friday, March 08, 2013

Tuscan BAM! or Italian Seasoning

When my Omnivore and I were in Tuscany we went on a little pilgrimage to the butcher shop of Dario Cecchini and joined in his rollicking 10 am wine and lardo party (not kidding, for real...) before stumbling out into the sunshine with a giant cannonball of meatloaf and a small bottle of what we came to call "Dario's Tuscan BAM!" It was a powdered mix of spices that came in a miniscule jar that smelled heavenly and made everything we put it on taste like Italy.

Recently we were making Chicken Cacciatore in our fabulous slow-cooker. It was an easy, sort of semi-homemade recipe that called for the mysterious "Italian seasoning" that you get in a  jar at Safeway. Being that I was unwilling to purchase that--what the heck is in that stuff anyway and how long has it been sitting on a shelf?-- I did a little hunting online and came up with this instead. It's not quite the "Tuscan BAM!" but it tastes much better (i.e. not stale) than Safeway, that's for sure!

Italian Seasoning

3 tablespoons dried basil
3 tablespoons dried oregano
3 tablespoons dried parsley
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

 Combine all ingredients in a spice grinder. Grind to a fine powder. Keeps 6 months in a sealed container.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Inedible mask making

I know this is a blog about food, but we were so pleased with ourselves for solving this problem I needed to post it someplace.

My Omnivore and I were scheduled to attend a fancy Masquerade popup ball, for which we were cooking quite a lot of food (See? There's the food connection).  After many a gala event, we have no shortage of tux and gown outfits, but masks were another story.  I found one easily and since I wear contact lenses it was no problem at all to pick whatever style I pleased.

My Omnivore, on the other hand, wears glasses.  Try to find a decent mask that you can wear with glasses. No really. Try.  We'll wait while you search.

We googled and dug and found absolutely nothing that even remotely fits the notion of "elegant" or even "interesting."

So at last I told him we were just going to have to design and make it ourselves.

He has an interesting pair of glasses that are somewhat angular, with a frameless bottom edge. We decided that these would be the ones we'd build around and I suggested a Cubist sort of look since the glasses had strong lines.

Out came the old crafting box and I dug up the packages of plaster bandages left over from some other mask-making adventure.

I had him lie down on the floor and attempt NOT to be twitchy for half an hour, poor man, while I laid the plaster over his face. Curious kitties visited him more than once.

The results, if I do say so myself, were not bad.

When the plaster was dry, I traced out the areas of the mask roughly corresponding to the glasses dimensions and cut those away. We also snipped out the spot on the the nose where the bridge of the glasses fit. This enables the glasses to get closer to the face and sit properly, where they belong. (A bit like the Invisible Man, this picture!)

I painted a bit of Fray-Check (from the fabric store) on the edges to keep them from unraveling. Then, we primed the whole thing with a coat of spray acrylic, and My Omnivore taped off areas with painters tape.  Using a piece of paper to shield while spraying, he managed to get a nice graded effect that we deemed sufficiently close to the Cubist look we were after.

The final touch was to  line the inside with moleskin purchased from the drugstore, so that the mask would be more comfortable to wear and not too sweaty.

The final look--you can tell he has glasses on, but they don't look bizarrely out of place!

Since the mask fit perfectly to his face, the glasses slipped over the sides nicely.  He got lots of compliments on the design all night, and I have to say we were pretty proud to have solved the problem!

Friday, October 05, 2012

We Conquer the Paupiette

It's been a busy week, what with shows and a visit from my Dad (more on that later), but I didn't want to let too much time pass by without noting that we have at last conquered that !#%!$#! Paupiette of Sea Bass of Le Cirque fame.  

Long-time followers of my blog will note that we have been trying to recreate this damn dish again and  again and again since late 2007, with no success and much cursing of potatoes. 

Well, we had a wonderful friend over for dinner before her move to the wilds of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and since she's an adventurous soul, we thought we'd give that !#%!$#! Paupiette one more try.

This time I did a lot more due diligence to figure out how exactly that potato wrapping was supposed to happen. I got some more tips from blogs and armed with a Börner V-slicer that makes potato slices so thin you can read through them, we forged ahead.  Here is Daniel Boulud's original recipe, which we adjusted slightly as follows:

Paupiettes of Sea Bass in Merlot Sauce (because using a whole bottle of Barolo wasn't in the budget)

For the Merlot Sauce:
1 tablespoon oil
1/2 cup chopped shallots
1/2 cup sliced white mushroom caps
1 small thyme sprig
1 cup chicken stock or clam juice
1 bottle (750 ml) Barolo or other full-bodied dry red wine
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 stick (4 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons
Pinch of sugar
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Add the shallots, mushrooms and thyme and cook over high heat for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the stock and boil until the mushrooms are almost dry. Stir in the wine and boil until reduced to 2 tablespoons, about 30 minutes. Stir in the cream and bring to a boil over low heat. Whisk in the butter and sugar and season with salt and pepper. Strain the sauce through a fine sieve, pressing on the solids, and keep warm.

For the Paupiettes:
Four skinless 4-ounce sea bass fillets
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon chopped thyme, plus 4 small sprigs for garnish
2 very large baking potatoes
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, 1 melted
3 large leeks, white part only, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon minced chives

Trim each of the sea bass fillets into a 5-by-1 1/2-inch rectangle. Season with salt, pepper and the thyme.

Using a knife, slice each potato lengthwise to remove the rounded portions and make a block shape; do not cut off the tips of the potatoes, but do peel them. Using a mandoline, slice the potatoes lengthwise into very thin slices. Brush the slices on both sides with the melted butter and season with salt. This is important, don't rinse the slices or anything, just toss them in butter so they don't turn brown. The butter will also help the slices stick.

For each paupiette, on a 10-inch sheet of wax paper, arrange 8 slightly overlapping potato slices to form a 5-inch wide rectangle. Here's what isn't explicitly said: the slices should be placed with an overlap of at least an inch. So slice #1goes down (with the long side "landscape" orientation in front of you) and slice two is placed in the same orientation next to it, but overlapping about an inch or so. Slice #3 goes above Slice #1, overlapping it slightly, then slice 4 goes next to #3 overlapping an inch or so. This continues for 8 slices of potato. There should be an "interleaving" effect where ends of the slices meet. That is, don't put down a column of 4 slices and THEN try to place another column of four slices beside the first because the ends of the potato won't stick together as well.

Center a fish fillet horizontally in the rectangle and wrap the potatoes over and around the fillet to enclose it completely. Here again, use the "interleaving effect," so rather than just flapping one side of slices together on one side of the fish and flapping the other side over that, fold over one slice on the left side, then one on the right, then one on the left, then one on the right, etc., so that they'll stick better.  If you look carefully at the photo, you'll see what I mean.

Use the wax paper to help seal the potato wrap around the fish; remove the paper. Personally I think you should leave the paper and just wrap up the paupiettes in it. Repeat to form the remaining paupiettes. Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 hours. Refrigerating is key.  They need at least 30 minutes to settle in the right shape.

In a medium skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over moderate heat. Add the leeks and cook, stirring, until softened, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm.

In a large nonstick skillet, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter over moderately high heat. Add the paupiettes and cook until the potatoes are tender and golden, turning once with a large spatula, 8 to 10 minutes per side.

Spoon the leeks onto 4 warmed serving plates and ladle the sauce around them. Set the paupiettes on the leeks and top each one with a thyme sprig. Garnish with the chives and serve.

I have to say, that making this was completely easy, ONCE you figured out how to do it.  But if you didn't know how to do it beforehand, it's such a frustrating dish.

The paupiettes themselves are fantastically tasty -- the crisp potato shell makes a fabulous contrast to the meaty white sea bass inside. And the wine sauce is just heavenly.  Do note that the wine sauce is best when freshly made.  If you're trying to get ahead, make the sauce all the way to the place where you've reduced the wine to about 2 tablespoons of concentrated flavor.  Then store that. when you're ready to serve it, continue with the addition of cream and butter and serve immediately.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Better Living Through Chemistry

I love cleaning tips, especially the kind that only involve a few easy-to-obtain household items. Apparently baking soda is just the magical all-purpose cleaner, but maybe some of you already knew that.

Here's an awesome little cleaning trick you might not have seen before though: how to remove silver tarnish without rubbing, scrubbing and fruitlesslyQ-tipping into all those nooks and crannies.

What to do: place a large piece of aluminum foil on the bottom of a pot that fits whatever it is you're planning to de-tarnish. Boil a couple of quarts of water -- enough to cover the item--then turn off the heat. Add in a few teaspoons of salt per quart and a quarter cup of baking soda per quart. Then simply submerge the item in the solution and cover. In a few minutes, you can check it and you'll see the tarnish magically disappears.  If there's a lot of tarnish built up it may take a little longer, and reheating the water can help the reaction. Pull the silver piece out of the water with tongs (it will be hot from the water!). Rinse it, then buff it with a soft cloth.

I'm utterly fascinated by how this works.  We spent all last night pulling out silver pieces and putting them in the solution, then pulling them out to ooh and ahh.

So here's what I found about how it works.  The black tarnish that develops on silver is actually silver sulfide, formed when the silver reacts with sulfur compounds in the air. If you're used to using silver polishes, or even toothpaste, which was always my "go-to," you're actually rubbing off the silver sulfide layer, but of course, taking some of the silver along with it.

When you use the aluminum foil and soda solution you're actually converting the silver sulfide back into silver.  This works by creating a reaction in which the sulfur is transferred to the aluminum (the silver item must be in actual contact with the aluminum foil), creating aluminum sulfide.  You may notice a sulphuric smell coming from the pot after the reaction, and if you've de-tarnished a few things, as we did, you'll notice the aluminum foil turns dark and tarnished.

For a dramatic demonstration of the reaction, check out this YouTube video.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Up-cycled Picnic Bags

I got embroiled in a project I've been wanting to turn attention to for well over a year.  It actually has nothing at all to do with food, but I feel like blogging it, so let's just call it a Picnic Bag Project and declare that food-related....

Last year, after a big event at the Ritz-Carlton, we had a 30-foot vinyl banner left over.  Now, there's no way we'll be able to reuse the thing, but I hate seeing stuff like that go to the landfill, so I offered to take it and turn it into bags.  It's only taken me a year to get around to it.

You can actually send your o ld vinyl banners to a service like Ecologic Designs and have them come back to you as messenger bags, clutches, lunch sacks, which is very cool, but I wanted to try making some myself. 

The general pattern I used is pretty easy.  For a shopping bag, I cut pieces about 22" x 36," for the smaller bags it was more like 16" x 24".  You then fold the piece in half and stitch up the sides.  Then, I square off the bottom using the same method you would to make box cushions.  Martha Stewart explains it here.

My trusty old Kenmore sewing machine has enough power to sew through the layers which are pretty thick, but I could've used a heavy gauge of needle.  I broke 4 of them in the process.

Still, after nine bags, I really can't complain about how well the machine performs.  My Dad got it for me for my 13th birthday and after countless dresses, pants, tutus, shirts, and, yes, bags, it's still going strong.

The really fun part of this whole exercise though, and why I wanted to try it myself, is that you get to play around with the patterns on the vinyl and cut it in any way you think might be interesting on the finished bag.

Do you want abstract bits of letters?  Swooshes? Whole words? Patterns? Should there be little pockets? Long straps? short handles? I think the part I enjoyed most was chopping the thing up. 

And since it's heavy duty weatherproof vinyl, the resulting bags will be durable, water resistant and easy to clean -- oops, did I drip some blood on it after stabbing my finger with a  pin?  No matter,  it just wipes off. 

In the end, six hours later, I had three large shopping bags, and six smaller totes which could conceivably hold a nice little picnic lunch, or anything else really. 

I also cut a roughly 3' x 5' chunk of the banner  to make a picnic table covering for when we encounter those dusty, dirty old picnic tables with lots of splinters...

Only a few little trims and scraps went into the garbage, so, upcycling mission completed. A satisfying way to busy myself on a Sunday.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

California Dream...

Even as I drool over the gorgeous photos of food in Paris or markets in Barcelona, it often occurs to me that for people in Paris and Barcelona, they probably think we here in California live the dream, with fab food and sunny days lived in elegant, luxurious ease.

Of course, I know that most San Francisco days are spent shrouded in fog, with me wrapped in three or four woolen layers, possibly eating nothing more exotic than a burrito.  But every so often we have a spectacular day, a day in which you can hop into a convertible Mini Cooper, and speed across the Golden Gate Bridge with the top down and the wind in your hair, and then pull up next to the waterside for a simple little picnic.

Although, I don't deny that it was cold as we passed through the thick fogbank over the bridge. Picturesque, but chilly.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Vintage Gouda and Grise de Volcans

Fun holiday cheese for the Fourth of July, or really just because it's Wednesday.... 

On the left, Vintage Gouda -- nutty and deep in flavor, this one just shatters as you press a knife into it, and yet it's creamy on the tongue, with little sparkles of crystallized yummy throughout.  I do love Gouda.

It's a cheese I first had when I visited the Netherlands years ago.  We stopped in Gouda to see a windmill and stumbled upon a farmers market where we must have bought a half a dozen kinds of gouda cheese. Every one of them was fabulous, and made for the perfect train picnic on our way back to Amsterdam.

And then there's the Grise de Volcans, a wonderful hard French cheese from the Auvergne that has a layer of volcanic ash on the rind.  It's earthy and absolutely delicious.  Well worth seeking out.

I do love getting cheeses that I've never seen before!

Monday, July 02, 2012

More Jam-making fun

It's turning into a little bit of a thing, I admit, but we're making more jam.  This time over at Mover & Maker's gorgeous home.  There's something so satisfying about those pretty  jar of colorful yummy.

 This time on the menu is Apricot Rosemary Jam, courtesy of Urban Preserving.

It's a curious recipe as it includes no pectin at all. I know apricots have a good bit of pectin already in them, but I have to say this recipe ended up a bit runny.  It has a terrific flavor though, so I think some experimentation may be in order to see if a few tablespoons of pectin might help tighten up matters.

Among the other recipes we tried out were Strawberry Basil Jam and also a Strawberry Lime Cardamom Jam from SP Cookie Queen, that has the added benefit of being low sugar.  This one does use pectin although again, much less that I would have thought would be needed.

Of course slaving over a hot stove is such labor....

It's a good thing that there's a gorgeous table at which to recline and a glass of cool white wine to take the edge off...

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Foie gras adieu...

It is with sadness that we bid farewell to foie gras today. I admit to mixed feelings because I do love the silky wonderful flavor of good foie, seared and seared with a simple balsamic reduction, blended into an earthy delicate mousse. But I also hate cruelty, and gavage certainly feels like it has that edge to it, no matter what experts say.

I'm interested in the so-called wild foie gras, and in de Sousa's natural foie, although I've never seen it in the US. Perhaps now, given the ban, there will be more interest in it.

But for now I'm willing to part ways with foie. We went to a blowout farewell to foie at Gourmet & More on Thursday, and you know what? The cheese was great, the duck breast was yummy and the salumi was tasty. There are yet many wonderful things in this world to eat...

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Friday, June 29, 2012

Northward Mendocino

When the spring turns to summer and the weather turns cold (that's the life here in San Francisco, of course), my thoughts go toward wine country and the dream of a relaxing getaway.

My Omnivore and I have, neither of us, ever been to Mendocino, so we decided a little time off to explore the Northern Realms might be in order.

To be honest, I know nothing of Mendocino beyond "Murder, She Wrote." So we had only a few hints of places to go and things to eat while up there.  It was enough to keep us busy though.

On the way up, we decided to pass through the Anderson Valley and investigate the Pinot Noir situation there.  Without too much to go on, we kinda picked a couple of places randomly.  First on the list was Toulouse Vineyards -- a very cool little family place on Highway 128 in Philo. You might drive right past it if you weren't looking for the little goose signs posted on trees that warn you as you get closer to their driveway. It's the kind of place with a steep gravelly drive leading up to it -- i.e. a place where you won't find tons of tour buses in the parking lot.  We're discovering we like that a lot.

At Toulouse, wine and food pairing is an important selling point, and Maxine helpfully brought us some tiny bits of lemon rind and bay laurel to try with the Pinot Gris. Astonishingly, straight up lemon doesn't kill their Pinot Gris, but works quite nicely with it.  Spices like coriander, cumin might work well together with this one, Maxine says.  Hmmm... we're packing a few containers of Chicken Curry and coconut rice for our dinner, so that's that.

Further down the road, we stopped at Navarro Vineyards. I won't say it was entirely because they had a llama in their field, but that might have been a partial factor...

I skipped tasting to take in the views and try to catch a llama.

Just saying.

And then we hit the long and winding road for Mendocino, where we were renting a little cottage run by the Alegria Inn near the edge of town.

Mendo is one of those incredibly cute places that generally are not my cup of tea, although I have to admit it was beautiful and certainly quiet.

Since we arrived during the week and it was a rainy week at that, we saw precious few other humans around --it was a little too quiet actually. As someone who watches way too much procedural drama, that sort of thing makes me worry about serial killers and evildoers who've retired to the quiet seaside town.

But I digress...

There is a very nice little French place about a block from the cottage that came highly recommended, Cafe Beaujolais, which offers some comforting French bistro fare in a  pretty quiet setting. It's a little on the pricey side, but I have to say, the fact that you can get truly caramelized onions with tasty French brie and a genuinely beautiful duck confit makes it worth the extra.

 Best of all, behind the restaurant is a bakery where they make the dense wonderful loaves that Beaujolais serves its diners.

We bought a pretty hearty multigrain loaf that was, as they say, "heavy for its size" and had to be sliced thin to enjoy.

By the way, see those gray skies? It rained nearly the whole time we were there.  San Franciscans bring cheerful weather with us wherever we go...

Anyway, pushing onward.  We went back to Philo to troll for more wine, Pinot Noir to be exact and found spectacular examples at Phillips Hill (yes, that's a lot of "l's" and "i's" all together).

It's a bit of our snobbery that we tend toward small, less trammeled places--they often seem to make the most surprisingly good stuff and you don't have to fight a horde of folks off a tour bus at the tasting bar.  Personally, I don't even favor places that have a "tasting bar"-- I really like the "plank over two barrels" model, but there's not a lot of that anymore in California.

Phillips doesn't really have even a picnic ground, but there is a battered old table out back ("We're glad someone is getting some use out of it!") where we set up our usual lunch of cheeses and bread and sausage. In the photo from left to right are Brie de Meaux, some Jurassic d'Ete, and some Goat Gouda with Nettles.  Yes, we shopped at Gourmet & More before setting out.

Yep, that and some Divine Delight petit fours and I'm good.

One more stop: Philo Apple Farm.  I wanted to check it out and see if it was a good candidate for a "family-friendly" feature in the Chronicle, but really it's much more of an agriturismo, where you can buy apple cider, or stay in adorable cottages on the farm. 

After careful consideration, we selected some cider vinegar and --"Hey!  They have pastured eggs--from their own chickens!"

I'm a sucker for chickens, so now we have to go visit the birds, who look quite sassy in their little moveable coop.  

"They look happy," I observe to my Omnivore. "Happy Chicken eggs."

Yes, we hustled back to the little honor-system farmstand and recorded our purchase of the last two dozen eggs.  Just in time it seemed, as a bunch of cars pulled up into the parking lot.

"They would've taken our eggs," I remark to My Omnivore, as I fight the urge to hide them under my sweater as if they'd get taken away from me.