Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Last Night's Dinner -- Tapas

You might be saying, "Whatever happened to the Napkin part of this blog? You know, the part where you talk about restaurants?" Yes, I do know the part to which you refer. Rest assured, it's coming. You see that list over on the left of the site called "Restaurants I'd Like to Try?" One of those is getting crossed off the list this Friday when Edan and I go there to celebrate her birthday. I won't tell you which one, but trust me when I say I will have a full write up on it in the days after.

Now about last night. Edan had to teach a class last night and wouldn't be home until 9pm. I went with her to the class and read in a coffee shop until she was finished. This meant we wouldn't be eating until late. Potentially very late. So we decided to make it a tapas night. We figured, hell the Spanish eat at ten, eleven o'clock, why not do the same?

Edan threw together an impromptu cheese plate of whatever we had in the house (it wasn't terribly "Spanish" in nature, as it included Roquefort and Cotswold, but whatever). I had some Medjool dates leftover from Christmas (I had used them in a muffin recipe) and decided to make bacon-wrapped dates. This was a favorite of ours from Devotay, a restaurant we used to frequent in our Iowa City days. It's a simple recipe (the one I used is from Tapas, but I imagine they're all variations on the same basic ingredients):

Cut a few rashers of bacon in half. Pit some dates. Wrap the pieces of bacon around the dates and secure with a toothpick. Peal two cloves of garlic. Heat some olive oil and the two cloves of garlic in a pan. Fry the bacon-wrapped dates until they are brown and crispy. Eat the hell out of them.
Along with the dates, Edan roasted some orange and yellow bell peppers, and I made "Potatoes Rioja-style with chorizo" from a terrific cookbook by Jose Andres called Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America. Basically, it's a Spanish stew of potatoes and chorizo with onions, garlic and paprika. It's one of my favorite dishes, so spicy and flavorful, and so delightfully...well, red. We paired it with a Cote du Rhone, as that's all we had in the house. It probably would've been better with a temparinillo, but we don't choose these things, they choose us.In the end, the stew was a little overdone. The potatoes turned into much, making it more of a mashed potatoes with paprika and chorizo than a stew. It was still tasty, but not quite what I set out to make. The date were delicious, but a little greasy, and I felt the meal lacked some greens. Next time we do tapas I think we'll make a zucchini dish and have a simple mixed greens salad with it as well. Oh, and Edan hated the wine (I thought it was nice. Maybe it's a varietal thing. It wasn't big enough for her). Other than the fact that we didn't eat until 10:30 (!), it was a pretty successful meal. Not terribly healthy, maybe, but tasty just the same.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants...Duh!

Over the summer I read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, a book about the various food production systems present in America today. It had a profound effect on the way I thought about food. I suppose I knew all along that those Cheetos I'd been scarfing down as a youth weren't very good for me, but I never knew had bad they were for the planet and for society as a whole. It was a motivating factor in making me reduce the amount of processed food I eat. And, oh yeah, it was the most enjoyable book I read all year.

Pollan has an article in this past week's issue of the New York Times Magazine which focuses on the rise of "nutritionism" in America's supermarkets and food culture. In short, he says Americans have shifted from eating food to eating nutrients. The article, which is itself an argument against simplification. His argument, in part, is that food, like a banana or a salmon steak, is a complex thing, and reducing it to its component parts -- its fatty acids and antioxidants -- and then attempting to pump up the good and reduce the bad, is a tricky and often dangerous endeavor. In other words, it's better to eat a banana than attempt to get the nutrients of a banana into a breakfast cereal.

If you want to be healthy (and he's not certain that looking at food as a means to health is necessarily a good thing), he has some fairly simple advice: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." It reminds me a little of advice I heard once from the actor Jon Favreau (he of Swingers fame). He was speaking at the film school where I was a student. Someone in the audience asked him how he lost weight or gained weight for the different roles he played. Favreau said, "I have a revolutionary weight management program wherein if I want to lose weight, I eat less and exercise more, and if I want to gain weight, I eat more and exercise less." I can't believe he hasn't made millions as a diet guru yet.

Pollan expands his advice to ten basic rules of thumb, which include things like "Cook," and "Pay more, eat less," meaning to spend money on smaller portions of superior quality foods. He also urges people to do as much of their shopping outside the supermarket as possible. Generally speaking, I agree with this, although I think it's possible to eat well and shop mostly at your local supermarket. I heard a nutritionist (they are useful for some things) on NPR once recommend "shopping on the outer edge of the supermarket." Most of the good stuff is there -- the meat, the produce, and the dairy. Venture as seldom as possible into the aisles, since that tends to be the province of high-fructose corn syrup and transfats. I would also recommend eating processed foods only if you can see the person who processed them. It seems better to buy bread from a baker and sausages from a butcher. I'm not sure why, it just feels right to me. And that's, in a round about way, the point of Pollan's article. Eat food that's recognizable as food, and stop worrying so much about what's in it.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Notes from a Fromager -- Fancy Cheesburgers

If you’ve ever been to 25 Degrees, the fancy burger joint inside the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, then you know just how exciting it is to blanket your patty with something other than cheddar. I loved my prosciutto and burrata burger there, but I felt full (too full, I think) for hours afterward.

Still, from then on, I was inspired to be more adventurous with my hamburger, and for me, that meant taking risks with the cheese.

Burrata (sans Prosciutto), a pulled-curd cheese from Southern Italy, is basically the remnants of Mozzarella and cream held in a bag of curds. Sounds gross, I know, but it’s really divine. When you cut into the soft ball of burrata, an incredible creaminess spills forth, perfect for spooning onto your frying burger. Add some grilled onions on top and watch the burrata melt. This stuff’s like Mozzarella on steroids.

If you’re a blue cheese fan, I suggest you don’t mess with anything crumbly, like Maytag or Shropshire Blue. Instead, try St. Agur, a creamy cow’s milk blue from the Auvergne region of France. It’s fairly mild, so it won’t dominate the meat flavor, and its texture makes for easy application. If you want something more extreme, I recommend Papillon Roquefort, the classic sheep’s milk blue from France, famous for being Charlemaigne’s personal favorite. (Check out its legend of origin.)

My last recommendation is Cotswold, an English cheddar peppered with chives and onion. This cheese melts easily and will give your burger enough spice that the meat itself doesn’t need a thing. Cotswold, as you might’ve guessed, is also great on a grilled cheese.


Friday, January 26, 2007

Fast Food, Anyone?

It's Friday. You're tired. You've been working all week (or so you'd like your boss to believe). The last thing you want to do when you get home is get crackin' on a port wine reduction. Save that for Saturday, when you've got all afternoon to prep. Of course, you could go out, but sometimes that's just as tiring as cooking. Some nights you just want to stay home and eat something great. What's the answer? Chinese takeout? Maybe. Pizza? Not tonight. Tonight you want something delicious and light, not some greasy junk food; you had enough of that last week watching football. I've got you covered (Actually, Italian Easy Two, my favorite cookbook of the moment, has you covered, but whatever).

Here's what you do. On your way home from work, stop by the nearest Whole Foods or Gelsons (or your fishmonger, if you're lucky enough to have one), and pick up a pound of their absolute best, freshest tuna (I use Ahi, but there are other varieties that work, too). Again, this stuff had better be fresh. Ask when they got it. If it doesn't look good, abandon the plan and order take out. If they've got the good stuff, get it. Pick up a bottle of wine. Grab some mixed greens, some fresh tomatoes, and anything else you want to throw into a salad. While you're in the produce section, pick up a lemon and a few dried red chili peppers. Finally, head over to the bakery and get a nice loaf of sourdough, the fresher the better. Got everything? OK. Stop by the video store and pick up a good rom com or whatever it is you like to watch on a Friday night when you're absolutely not leaving the house. Now go home.

Throw the salad together. You could get more ambitious and make some sort of lemon grass slaw or something, but this meal is all about ease and convenience, so I say stick to a simple mixed green salad. Slice the sourdough bread into big, thick slices, and broil it until dark and crispy. Drizzle some olive oil over the toast. Cut the lemon in half and crush the chilies. Now, take your sharpest knife and slice the tuna into 1/4 inch strips, cutting across the grain of the meat. Plate the strips and season with sea salt, freshly-crushed black pepper, and the crushed chilies. Serve with the lemon, toast, and salad. Enjoy. The total cost of this meal is about $35, and that assumes you have to buy the chilies and the lemon, and that you spend about $8 on wine. It's probably cheaper than what you'd pay at a restaurant, it's almost certainly healthier than Chinese takeout, and you don't have to cook a thing (OK, you have to toast some bread, but come on). That's some serious fast food.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Quick Links: Those Pie Council goons got to you, too, didn't they?!

  • January 23 was National Pie Day. If I had known, I'd have baked a pie, or something. (Isn't it odd that there's even such a thing as the American Pie Council? Who sits on this council? Homer Simpson?) I wonder if the Pie Council's jurisdiction extends to tarts, because this is a nice looking recipe for a leek tart.
  • It's down to Marcel and Ilan on "Top Chef." Snack points out that Ilan has quit his job, leading to rampant speculation that he is the one true Top Chef, as it were. Or maybe he just hated his boss or something?
  • Pinkberry has moved in down the street from us, so now we can "love, obsess, and indulge in this pure, swirly lifestyle." We tried it last night. For those who don't know, Pinkberry is frozen yogurt. What sets it apart from other frozen yogurts is that it tastes like yogurt (unless you get the green tea flavor, in which case, it tastes like green tea). I thought it was interesting, but I didn't have the experience described on Franklin Avenue.
  • We all know that global warming is a natural phenomenon, like the cycle of the seasons or nuclear winter, that has nothing to do with greenhouses gases. What we didn't know, is that it's going to change where we grow our wine grapes. Fancy a Syrah from Sussex, guv'na?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Tough Times in the Kitchen

I know, I know. No posts on Monday or Tuesday. No Monday Morning Menus. What the hell is going on? Well, I've been busy with work, and in my free time, I've been furiously trying to finish the book I've been reading for three months (Before you laugh, it was Europe Central, which is a cool 750 pages. So, ta!). But that's not the only reason I haven't posted anything lately. I've been going through a tough spot of cooking lately. It's not that the food hasn't been good (although there was a tilapia dish that won't be winning any awards), but more that the process of cooking has been taking a toll on me. It seems like I'm constantly a step behind where I ought to be in the kitchen. I think I'm doing what I ought to be doing. If I'm following a recipe, I've read the recipe in advance and assembled everything I'll need to begin. I've got everything laid out nicely on the counter, ready to go. And yet, all of a sudden, the sauce is coming together too quickly and the steaks are nowhere near done. And my frites? My frites are a soggy mess. My frites suck. By the time I'm done choreographing the latest dinnertime disaster, it's nearly nine o'clock, and it's all I can do to sink into my chair and devour the food, too tired to notice much of the flavor. I know I talk a lot about how much I enjoy the process of cooking (and I do), but I still think of it as a means to an end. Shouldn't I be enjoying the fruits of all that labor? Isn't that what this is all about? When I look back on the last few days of eating, I think the thing I enjoyed most was a sandwich I had yesterday for lunch, and you know what, it only took about five minutes to make. It was simple, but it had great ingredients -- terrific bread from Figaro (which I am blessed to live very near), spicy peppered turkey, Istara cheese, paper-thin slices of tomato, and arugula. It wasn't about my mastery of various culinary skills. It was just good food. And I sat there and read my interminable book and ate. And it was good. And I thought, "This is what eating is all about." So tonight, goddamit, we're eating burgers. Granted, they'll be burgers with incredibly good cheeses and fresh arugula and sharp mustard, but burgers all the same. You gotta problem with that?

Until then, I've posted a (rather pathetic) picture of the sandwich that changed it all for me (It really was better than it looks), and a picture of one of the meals for which I worked so hard -- fillet of beef with shallots and sauce porto (not pictured, soggy, sucky frites).

Friday, January 19, 2007

Quick Links: Is That a Flank Steak in Your Pocket or Are You Just Glad to See Me?

  • What a shock -- Walmart's organic food may be not all that "organic."
  • The Food Network will hold its first awards show, which will air on April 15. Billy Crystal is already busy creating a hokey dance number that involves ceviche and canapes.
  • Supermarkets are struggling to stop people from stealing meat. One idea is to bring back the old human-to-human interaction with the butcher. In the end, though, they'll probably just figure out a way to fit a rump roast into one of those impenetrable plastic jewel cases they use for CDs and DVDs.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Padma Lakshmi, Fire Hazard

Apparently the contestants on Top Chef are not impressed with the food criticizing abilities of literary trophy wife hostess Padma Lakshmi. We already heard Michael Midgley say that she was a "wannabe judge" and that head judge Tom Colicchio frequently gave her the "just shut up" look (I know that look. I get it about twice a day). New York Magazine reports that Padma is none too popular with any of the contestants. I only have one question for these people: Did they watch Season 1? Do they not recall the shrill, whiny tones of hostess Katie Lee Joel? (OK, that's two questions). Seriously, Katie Lee Joel's voice is on Satan's answering machine. She has all the charm of a telemarketer. Yes, Padma seems a little know-it-all-ish, but at least she speaks like a human (and a good looking one, at that). And she's married to a one-time fatwa target, which is so cool.

Anyway, this week they gave Cliff the boot. In a scene that could've been taken from the "Deleted Scenes" portion of the Full Metal Jacket DVD, Cliff held down official show whipping boy Marcel in an attempt to forcibly remove his bizarre trademark hair. This has become a reality show commonplace in recent years: a contestant gets a little liquored up, crosses some sort of line, and has to have a sober conference with the head judge (or in the case of "Project Runway," the head judge's bag man, Tim Gunn). I find these episodes a bit tiring. Bravo's reality shows have been a cut above the rest for one simple reason: the contestants actually have a skill or some talent. When they air an episode like this, it threatens to drag the entire episode down to the level of "Real World vs. Road Rules." What makes it doubly annoying is that after the incident, the rest of the episode is full of righteous indignation from everyone else on the show. The judging scene turns into Judgement at Nuremberg. Even Padma's blog seems over the top this week. I'm secretly hoping that all of this is an elaborate attempt to make Marcel more likable so that he can actually win.

(Thanks to Apronite Doug for the tip!)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What's This Winter You Speak Of?

It's been cold here in Los Angeles these past few days. No, I mean it. OK, I know it isn't Chicago cold or anything like that, but it has actually dipped below freezing at night. That's bad news for a state that grows crops year round. According to the LA Times, we should be expecting winter-long shortages of citrus fruits and some herbs, and the effects of the freeze could be felt into the beginning of the summer. With an increasing number of restaurants advertising that their food is locally grown, I'm curious to see what kind of changes we'll see on menus around town.

The Times, for its part, seems to be in denial. Alongside newsy reports on the frost and its effect on local markets, there are articles on barbecuing in winter and recipes for "always sunny margaritas." I found the barbecue article to be particularly insufferable. I guess it's sentences like this one that I find so tiresome:

"On a gray afternoon, barbecuing becomes a private, meditative, poetical sort of thing, kind of like hiking back to town for a gallon of gas."

Right. The author goes on to regale us with boastful tales of grilling in a light drizzle, with only a beer to keep him warm. Listen pal, I'm from upstate New York, and I have seen my brother cook a flank steak on an outdoor grill during a blizzard. So spare me the Hemingway-esque musings on the manly solitude of the grillmaster. Seriously. And while we're on the subject, I don't find it difficult to stay warm on these chilly California nights. I've got a little something I like to call Kentucky straight bourbon to keep me warm.

Notes from a Fromager -- American Cheese

Since last night’s main course was a hearty slab of American pork, I decided to go with three domestic cheeses for the mid-meal cheese plate. Tarentaise (in the middle of the photo), is a yellowish hard cheese from Thistle Hill Farm in North Pomfret, Vermont. The Putney Family (mom, dad and 4 kids), runs this farm themselves, and they claim to know all of their Jersey dairy cows by name. I’m not surprised—Thistle Hill is certainly a bovine’s dream; the cows here get milked twice a day, and otherwise spend their time eating organic hay and grains, and, in the summer, moving through various pastures of fresh grass. The Putneys follow the traditional French Alpine way of producing cheese, meaning it’s made in a copper vat, and processed, for the most part, by hand. The result is a wonderfully complex raw cow’s milk flavor with a delicate yet zingy finish.

The two other cheeses I chose are from Cypress Groves, in Northern California. The first, Lamb Chopper (right-hand side in photo), is a semi-firm sheep’s milk cheese whose wheel pictures a lamb, in sunglasses and a leather vest, riding—that’s right—a chopper. Aside from its mild flavor, the most pleasing aspect of Lamb Chopper is its texture, which is both firm and supple, perhaps even chewy. This is the kind of cheese to eat on its own, without crackers or bread or fruit to get in its way.

The other Cypress Groves cheese is by far its most famous: Humboldt Fog. A celebrity for good reason, this aged goat cheese with a ripened surface and a line of beautiful gray-blue vegetable ash running through its center is rich and tangy. I especially love its varied textures; because it ripens from the outside-in, the edges get gooey and runny, while the inside meat remains flaky. (You can see this ripening in the photo).

I paired these three cheeses with pear and apple slices, and an arugula salad with a Meyer lemon dressing. Man, this country has come a long way since cheese spray and Kraft singles.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Cote de Porc a la Charcutiere

Our friend Kathleen came over for dinner last night, so we went all out. I made a pork recipe from Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook, along with a vegetable tian, and a chocolate devil's food cake for dessert (The cake took about four hours to make, and it turned out a little dry. Let us never speak of this again). Edan put together a cheese plate and a little arugula salad as a second course. With a couple of good bottles of Sirah, we were in business.

The pork turned out better than I could've hoped, so I decided to post the recipe here. I highly recommend throwing in a little demi-glace (Demi, for those who don't know, is basically veal stock heavily reduced with red wine) if you have it lying around. I did, and I think it made a big difference. For you kosher or vegetarian Apronites...Man, I pity you.

cote de porc a la charcutiere
(from Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook)

1tbsp oil
1tbsp butter
4 rib chops (I used three, because there were only three of us, and we're not gluttons.)
salt and pepper
1 small onion, finely chopped (I actually substituted a large shallot, which worked great.)
1 teaspoon Wondra flour (or all-purpose flour)
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup dark, strong chicken or veal stock (I used veal.)
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
10 cornichons, thinly sliced
1 sprig of flat parsley, chopped

oven-safe saute pan
aluminum foil
wooden spoon
serving platter

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In the oven-safe saute pan, heat the oil, then the butter. Season the chops with salt and pepper, then sear in the hot pan for about 4 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Transfer the pan to the oven and cook for another 8 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and remove the chops. Set them aside on the platter, loosely covered with foil, while you make the sauce.

Return the saute pan to the heat, and add the onion. Cook until golden brown. Add the flour and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Stir in the wine and reduce by half, scraping, scarping, of course. Add the stock (and you really do need a good, dark, strong stock for this). Reduce the liquid by half. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the mustard. Add the cornichons, the parsley, and any juice that has run off the cooked pork chops. Adjust the seasoning. Arrange the chops on the platter and pour over the sauce. Eat.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Monday Morning Menu

A few years ago, my parents got me Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook, probably at the insistence of my brother, Kevin, who is a foodie himself. It's a beautifully designed book, full of color photos not only of delicious dishes like Onglet Gascon and Tournedos d'agneau with fig confit, but also of his kitchen crew corking wine bottles, firing dishes, and finishing orders. The jacket of the book is simple craft paper brown, the kind some restaurants use instead of tablecloths. While the book looks good, it's nothing compared to the writing. It's the only cookbook I've read cover to cover. And while it has inspired me to try all manner of complicated culinary techniques and dishes, it isn't exactly welcoming. Consider this entry on roasting a chicken:

Poulet Roti
"That's roast chicken, numbnuts! And if you can't properly roast a damn
chicken then you are one helpless, hopeless, sorry-ass bivalve in an apron.
Take that apron off, wrap it around your neck, and hang yourself. You do
not deserve to wear the proud garment of generations of hardworking,
dedicated cooks. Turn in those clogs, too."

The truth hurts. After some initial shock at how many of the recipes require veal stock (And Bourdain is diligent in his efforts to get us to make our own stocks), I set out to try a few of things. His steak au poivre was good, but too buttery for my taste. His rack of lamb, on the other hand, was delicious. I made it for Christmas dinner. And his French onion soup...Sweet Christ in a kick-line.

This week, I'm going to make cote de porc a la charcutiere. Basically, it's pork chops with a sauce of Dijon mustard, cornichons, parsley, white wine, and veal stock. Edan and I are having a friend over for dinner, so it will be the pork, a vegetable tian from Barefoot in Paris, the French cookbook from The Barefoot Contessa, and a chocolate devil's food cake from Tartine, one of the previous year's best cookbooks. The cake is covered in a dark chocolate ganache and toasted cake crumbs, and it looks as challenging as anything I've ever made (I'm still a novice baker. Oh, who am I kidding? I'm pretty much a novice cook, too). If I survive the cake, the rest of the week should be easy, pie.

Last Night's Dinner -- French Onion Soup

Anthony Bourdain really is the man. Don't believe me? Try his French onion soup. I did. I had made French onion soup before, from a vegetarian soup cookbook that's actually pretty good. The onion soup, however, is not one of its stronger recipes. At first it tasted right, but once I'd gotten through the layer of molten Gruyere, it took on a sickly sweet and sour flavor, as if the vinegar had overwhelmed the rest of the soup. I decided to try again, but this time I went with Anthony Bourdain's recipe from the Les Halles Cookbook (more on this terrific cookbook later). Immediately I realized what I'd been lacking before -- bacon. The greasiness of the bacon complimented the sweetness of the port and vinegar perfectly. Coupled with the salty goodness that is Gruyere cheese melted over baguette croƻtons, this was a near perfect bowl of soup (Next time I will use even more Gruyere). All soups should have bacon in them.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Top Chef -- Michael sent to Grill Steaks in the Great Beyond

Like almost everybody I know, I'm into "Top Chef." This season has been better than last, mainly because they replaced trophy wife hostess Katie Lee Joel with superior trophy wife hostess Padma Lakshmi. This week's episode saw line cook Michael Midgley sent packing. It's too bad, really. Michael was just coming into his own. For the first six or seven episodes, his answer to every challenge seemed to be, "I'm just gonna grill up some steaks, man. Who doesn't like steak?" Apparently, the judges didn't, since they hated just about everything he cooked. Until last week, when he won not only the Quickfire Challenge as well as the main challenge. His trout- envying-salmon dish was not only high concept, but also looked delicious.

Chow has up a great interview with Michael, in which he trashes his nemesis Tom Colicchio, tells a harrowing story of getting his wisdom tooth pulled in South Central, and explains that none of the challenges are as frenetic as they seem on the air. Oh, and Michael has a totally kickin' MySpace page ("Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangsta," indeed.), complete with candid, behind-the-scenes photos of the other "Top Chef" contestants. God, I hope his publicist didn't create it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Quick Links

Last Night's Dinner -- Braised Oxtail

Last night, I had braised oxtail with star anise and Chinese greens. I'd never eaten oxtail before, and I'd certainly never cooked it. Maybe I'd passed it a few times in the meat cooler at the local market, but I don't believe it seriously crossed my mind as an option until recently. It popped up on episode of "Top Chef," and then again in this month's Bon Appetit. In both cases, people were raving about its rich flavor and incredible tenderness. When I found this recipe, I figured I'd give it a shot. While oxtail is common to the cuisine of Britain and the Caribbean, this recipe has obvious East Asian influence. I confess I was a little worried. I mean, this is the tail of a freakin' cow, you know? I tried not to think about that as I set out to cook it.

Aside from cooking time (I braised the meat for 3 hours, then chilled it for one day in the fridge), the recipe was remarkably easy to make. Other than star anise, which some of you may already have in your spice racks, the ingredients are common and easy to locate at your local supermarket. There's relatively little prep work to be done, and almost no chopping at all (one onion and a little ginger).

The only problem I had with the recipe was that the sauce didn't thicken up quite as much as I would've liked (In fact, I ended up throwing in a little cornstarch out of desperation). While this may have affected the presentation, it didn't hurt the taste at all. I found the meat to have intense flavor, a little like brisket, but much, much more tender. When I first took the oxtail out of its package, I was concerned that there wasn't enough meat, and that what there was would be hard to eat off the bone. It turns out I had no cause for concern, as the meat fell off the bone at the slightest touch of a fork. Incredible. What had I been missing?

I got a bottle of Layer Cake Shiraz 2005 to pair with the oxtail. It was good choice. Very chocolaty and easy to drink. The sweetness and spiciness of the wine complemented the faintly licorice taste of the anise clinging to the meat. Really, people shouldn't eat this well on a Tuesday night. It's criminal.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Notes from a Fromager

My wife, Edan, works in a cheese store. No, I did not force her to work there, it was her idea. She keeps me stocked with cheeses, good olive oil, salami, and other delicious specialty goods. This is the long way of saying she knows a lot more about cheese than I do. She writes:

I’ve only been working in the cheese business for about two months, but already I’ve come across a few patrons who claim they don’t like cheese. Just the other day in fact, a family of four: father, mother, and their grown daughter and son, ventured into the shop to peruse our many offerings. All except the mother were adventurous cheese eaters—anything these three sampled was swallowed with half-closed eyes and an orgiastic groan. The mother, however, stood back from this feasting, a bit timid. She told me she didn’t like most cheeses because of their texture—and she certainly didn’t like pungent flavors, either. The challenge of finding something to her liking reminded me of my days as a bookseller, when teary-eyed mothers would beg me to recommend something enjoyable and appropriate for their sullen teenagers who preferred text messaging to all else—a difficult, but not impossible, task.

This particular cheese patron said she did like Fontina D’Aosta, a semi-firm Italian cheese made from raw cow’s milk (meaning it’s not pasteurized) and aged for four months. Fontina D’Aosta, by the way, is name-controlled, and should not be confused with the plain old, rubbery “Fontina” cheese you often see in the supermarket. Once I had this information, it was easy to find others she enjoyed. First, Chaubier, a lovely cheese from France, made from pasteurized goat and cow’s milk. This cheese, covered in an orange rind, is very mild without being boring, and its consistency rivals the chicest string cheese. Second, Istara, a sheep’s milk cheese from the French Pyrenees. Istara is firmer than Chaubier, but in my opinion its flavors are better: nutty and sharper, without being the slightest bit offensive. Needless to say, this so called cheese hater took big chunks of both of these cheeses home with her, her palette expanding by the minute.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Monday Morning Menu

Every Sunday, my wife and I make a list of the meals we're going to eat for the week (just dinner; breakfast and lunch are always catch as catch can), then head off to the market to gather the ingredients. Typically, we plan four or five dinners and assume that we'll eat out or improvise the other meals. After all, you gotta have some spontaneity.

This week, we decided on braised oxtail with star anise and Chinese greens, pumpkin ginger soup, Cornish game hen, and orecchiette/tomoto/ricotta, a pasta recipe from one of our favorite cookbooks, Italian Two Easy. The challenge is clearly the oxtail, which not only requires three hours cooking time, but also must be refrigerated one to three days before it can be served. The other meals should be safely in our wheel house. I'll post updates on how each meal turned out later in the week.

Last Night's Dinner

One of my New Year's resolutions, in so far as I have them, is to eat more fish. Edan isn't wild about cooked fish (sushi is another thing entirely), so it's easy for us to fall into a salmon-only rut. Last night, however, we decided to try this Mahi Mahi recipe we found in Bon Appetit magazine. I thought Mahi Mahi would be readily available in most supermarkets. I was wrong. After scouring the pathetic fish sections of my local Albertsons and Vons (Vons looked like I imagine a supermarket would on the eve of the apocalypse. There were almost no products on the shelves and the fish display was full of torn up salmon fillets and overturned packages of frozen swordfish), I realized I had to suck it up and go to Gelsons. This is a common occurrence in my cooking life -- I decide to make a slightly exotic dish, insist on shopping at the "normal" supermarket (since I figure good food should be available to everyone), wander around for half an hour before I realize they have less than half the ingredients I need, yell at the produce manager, and leave in a huff to drive to Gelsons or Whole Foods. Every week...I'm a slow learner.

Despite my supermarket troubles, the meal ended up being excellent. I couldn't find jicama anywhere, so we went with a typical green salad with tomatoes and cucumbers instead. It broke up the Asian theme we had going, and it didn't look quite as nice on the plate, but it was still tasty. By far, the highlight of the meal were the rice fritters. When we were forming them by hand, they kept breaking apart and refusing to hold their shape, yet somehow they cohered enough in the frying pan to crisp up into tiny patties of deliciousness. It was miraculous. I think we'll probably make this recipe again, if only for the fritters.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Ultimate Los Angeles Restaurant 2006

For the last two years, I was living in Iowa. Which was OK. Sort of. They had fun minor league baseball teams to watch, and occasionally it snowed. While enduring the cold Iowa winters, I was surprised to find that what I missed most about Los Angeles wasn't the weather, but the food. Don't get me wrong, Iowa had a few good restaurants (I miss the Lincoln Cafe, in tiny Mount Vernon, which was like an oasis of great cuisine in a cornfield of diner food), but on the whole, it was pretty grim. I found myself longing for good Chinese food, or a decent burrito, or some California cuisine. Basically, the kind of food that's as ubiquitous in Los Angeles as freeway traffic or overpriced drinks. Suffice to say that now that I'm back in Los Angeles, I'm taking full advantage of the ever-widening selection of restaurants.

Conveniently, Chowhound has polled a group of LA-based foodies and come up with their Ultimate Los Angeles Restaurant of 2006. The results are in, and the clear winner is Providence , a two-year old seafood restaurant. Runner up was Spago (Better luck next year, Wolfgang). Sadly, I haven't been to Providence yet. Taking a quick look at the top twenty restaurants, I've been to several. Jar, at which I ate two weeks ago, came in at number eight. I've been to Jar twice. The first time I was blown away. I had the Kobe beef special (which was also on the menu the second time), as well as fries and an appetizer of black mussels, ong choy, lobster Bearnaise, and fennel salt. The fries are served in a little newspaper cone. It was sick. And by sick I mean, completely amazing. Last time I was there, however, I wasn't moved. I had the rib eye, and again the fries. My wife, Edan, had the Kobe, and she was impressed. The rib eye was good, but it was no Kobe. Lesson learned. Also, I was there with a friend who eats kosher, which made it difficult to order any starters, since pretty much everything was rich with shellfish. All in all, I would eat at Jar any chance I get.

Further down the list is the recently-opened Maryland-style seafood spot The Hungry Cat. I ate there a few days before my wedding with Edan and my grandmother. I had a Thai-style Alabama bay shrimp concoction that I see has since been removed from the menu. So it goes. Edan had squid stuffed with tomatoes, and my grandmother had the peel-and-eat shrimp. The restaurant was packed, and we had to sit on the patio, which was actually quite nice, much cozier than you'd think, considering it shares a courtyard with a Border's books. The general consensus was that the food was tasty, but relatively small portions (everything is a la carte). I give the service bonus points for taking it in stride when my grandma ordered her beer "on the rocks."

Even further down the list was BLD (whose website still says it's "coming soon." Come on, BLD! You're big time now. Get a webmaster, already.). Edan and I ate there with a friend. We had purchased tickets to see The Queen at the Grove (I hear it's great) and thought we'd catch a late dinner, then see a really late movie. The only problem was that without a reservation, we ended up waiting about half an hour for a table. It's a testament to the great atmosphere at BLD that we decided to wait and risk missing Helen Mirren's tour de force performance as an embattled monarch. We all had the prix fixe dinner menu, which offers a choice of steak, chicken, fish, or a vegetarian option, coupled with sides and a dessert. I'm fairly certain we all had steak, and I know we all left happy. We never saw The Queen. I hear it's great.

A few of the old standards made the list, including Langer's, Sanamluang, and of course, Zankou Chicken. Mmm, Zankou...

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Welcome to Apron, Napkin

This is the first post, the inaugural voyage of the good ship Apron, Napkin. This blog is about the food in my life – either the food I’m cooking or the food I’m eating, or both. I should say up front that I’m no chef. I’ve never worked in a restaurant (unless you count that summer in high school I spent scooping ice cream), and I’ve only cooked seriously for the last few years. There are blogs out there written by restaurant industry insiders and producers at the Food Network, and they’re great. This blog isn’t one of them. This is more of an everyman’s look at cooking and eating…assuming this particular everyman has a taste for diver scallops and knows his onglet from his rib eye. In the future, you can expect reviews of restaurants and cookbooks, recipes, anecdotes of culinary failure and success, and rants about Rachel Ray. But for now, let me just say “Welcome.”