Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Something American for your cheesetooth and something British for your sweet tooth

Those who read this blog regularly know that I’ve mentioned SF’s newest food attraction, The Cheese School, on more than one occasion. And now, having been there twice, it’s time to reflect, record ….and go on a diet. See, what happens when you attend this forum of fromage is that you’re met by a flight of wines and a dinner plate of cheese samples, which are arranged around the perimeter like numerals on a clock. Then, at the instructor’s bidding, you work your way around the plate, starting at 12:00. Two hours later, you’re delirious. In a cheese sweat, if you will. And for me, that’s somewhat literal because when I eat a lot of the stuff, my face gets red and my cheeks feel hot, sort of like after an enzyme facial. It may be some mild form of an allergy, but I refuse to find out. I mean, me being allergic to cheese would be like Tammy Faye finding out she was allergic to make-up. Tragic and life-altering. Anyway, I digress.

My most recent foray to The Cheese School was a belated holiday gathering with 3 of my girlfriends. We usually plan a holiday dinner, but this year we decided to just pay our way to a class at the Cheese School and give that to ourselves in lieu of gifts. So, there we were at the class on American Cheeses, taught by the doyenne of domestic cheese, Laura Werlin. If you don’t know her name or read her books, you should. This one-woman dynamo took it upon herself to learn about, sample and appraise all the artisan cheeses being made stateside and then she wrote it all down. The result was a James Beard award, which is like the Nobel Prize in the culinary arts.

Needless to say, it was a highly engaging and spirited class--this owing not only to Laura’s knowledge and witty repartee, but also to the bottomless glasses of wine in front of us. As we all loosened up, class participants began belting out their impressions. "It's goaty!" they cried. "I hate riesling" one wimpered. Graciously, Laura welcomed the comments one and all, though I don’t know whether she was charmed or scandalized when, from our corner of the room, came the revelation that the “nose” on one particular cheese was distinctly redolent of bongwater. She only acknowledged that such an association was “a first” in her experience. I shall refrain from naming the cheese in question, lest I offend the maker. I will however post my fave cheeses from this class shortly.

And as far as recipes go, I’m cheese-free at the moment. My latest creation was a traditional British sticky toffee pudding. We always seek it out when we’re “across the pond” or when we’re at our fave tea house in NY, Tea and Sympathy. It’s so sticky-sweet, your teeth will ache, but your belly will surely smile. I made this on a dreary, rainy day while I cranked up some equally sticky-sweet pop tunes and sung my lungs out. For those who enjoy sugary power-pop confections, treat yourself to Brendan Benson’s album, The Alternative to Love... It’s a delicacy I can devour all day long.

Sticky Toffee Pudding
(Note: this one’s not my own. It’s from Gourmet, via and, as you can see from the photo, I used 5 individual ramekins, rather than one 8" cake pan--your choice).

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened, plus additional for greasing pan
1 cup self-rising cake flour plus additional for flouring pan
1 cup pitted dates (5 oz), finely chopped (I used medjool)
1 1/4 cups packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour an 8- by 2-inch round cake pan.

Simmer dates in 1 cup water in a 1-quart heavy saucepan, covered, until soft, about 5 minutes. Let stand, covered, off heat 5 minutes.

Beat together 1 stick butter and 1/4 cup brown sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Beat in egg until combined. Add flour and 1/8 teaspoon salt and mix at low speed until just combined. Add dates and mix until just combined well.

Pour batter into pan and bake until a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt remaining stick butter in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat and stir in remaining cup brown sugar, 1/3 cup water, and a pinch of salt. Boil over moderately high heat, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved and sauce is reduced to about 1 1/4 cups, 2 to 8 minutes. Remove from heat and cover.

Transfer pudding in pan to a rack and poke all over at 1-inch intervals with a chopstick. Gradually pour half of warm sauce evenly over hot pudding. Let stand until almost all of sauce is absorbed, about 20 minutes.

Run a thin knife around edge of pan. Invert a plate over pudding and invert pudding onto plate. Pour remaining warm sauce over pudding and serve immediately.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

All hail, Year of The Pig!

Sorry for the belated well wishes for a happy Chinese new year. By now you know I'm prone to posting tardiness. But surely you don't mind. If you did, you'd be reading "Punctuality 'N Things" or "Anal Blogger" right now. But no, you're here for me and my cheese. So I'll share my thoughts and reflections on this, the auspicious arrival of The Year of The Pig.

I, of course, am a Pig, which explains my attention to this important occasion. It also explains my quintessentially piggy characteristics. My calm nature. My artistic sensibilities. My superior manners. And of course, my love of food and drink. Yes, I am a pig from my little pink snoot right down to my dainty trotters.

And as such, this year promises to be the highlight of my 12-year cycle, bringing me a virtual tsunami of luck. "Virtual" of course, because we all know how unlucky the other kind is. Anyway, I'm ready for it. I spent the weekend getting the house all feng shui'd in anticipation of all the luck and great ch'i that's coming my way. Why, I even have a friend learned in such things coming over tomorrow to appraise my efforts. I'll let you know how it goes.

In any case, as all this hoopla relates to food, I am not surprisingly inspired to make something Chinese. Or quasi-Chinese. Like you used to do at International Day in elementary school. It may be completely inauthentic, but it's still totally delicious.

These are little dumplings you can boil or boil and fry for a crispy pot-sticker texture. I love to make this the day after I make my blasted chicken. That way, there's usually just enough meat left on the carcass to stuff these little lovelies.

Jamie's Dumplings

1 pkg pot sticker/wonton wrappers (fridge section of good grocery stores or Asian markets)
1 can water chestnuts
1 can Asian mushrooms (button or oyster)
2 bunches baby bok choi
1 cooked chicken or 2 cooked chicken breasts or whatever leftover chicken you've got
1 piece ginger, approx 3", peeled & finely sliced
1 bunch scallions
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 egg
sesame oil
peanut oil
soy sauce
Dried red pepper flakes or vietnamese pepper sauce
basting brush

In small bowl, combine 3/4 c. soy sauce, garlic, ginger, 3 tbsp sesame oil, and a pinch of dried red pepper flakes or a teaspoon of red pepper sauce. I typically up this part of the recipe, but I like it a lot spicier than most. Use your discretion. And be sure to taste it. This is a very happenstance creation and I just add little dashes and pinches until I can taste ginger and garlic and spicy soy. Whisk it all up and set aside to marry the flavors. As an aside, you can add some crushed up peanuts or a little peanut butter if you're feeling frisky. Me, I like it simply gingery.

Now, shred your chicken so you have 2-3 cups of meat. Thinly slice water chestnuts, mushrooms and the green stems of your scallions. Add them all to the bowl of chicken. In a small skillet, heat a few shakes peanut oil and add the green leaves of your bok choi. Sauté quickly til it's just wilted and soft. It will shrink considerably, which is fine. Add that to the bowl of chicken as well. Stir ingredients.

Whisk your egg in a small bowl to make an egg wash. Lay one pot sticker/wonton wrapper in front of you and scoop a little pile of the chicken mixture in the center. Brush the edges of the wrapper with the wash and then lay another wrapper over the pile, sealing the edges by pinching them between your fingers. Set aside. Repeat until you have 3-4 dumpings per person or until you've used all your chicken mixture.

Bring a pot of water to a boil and once it bubbles, gently ladle your dumplings into the pot, reducing the heat to a gentle simmer. They only need to "cook" for about 2-3 minutes as all your filling ingredients are already cooked. Once they're done, remove with a slotted spoon. You can then choose to serve them right away, soft, or throw them into a skillet with peanut oil and brown them for a crispy coating. Either way, you should serve them in shallow bowls, drizzled with your soy mixture.

I hope you enjoy and Gung Hoy Fat Choy (you know, a week late).

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

That's amore!

Ciao bambinos, and buon giorno Valentino!

This entry comes to you after a week of serious foodrinkery and parental fanfare. My units were visiting from the other coast and it rained almost every day. Which meant we were stuck inside. Which meant nothing to do but eat and drink. There was one Scrabble game, a wood fire or two and plenty of book reading, but mostly we cooked and ate and drank. We also had a fab meal at the always enchanting Slanted Door. I won’t detail it here though, because you should just go there and experience it yourself. I will recommend the lamb however, despite it being the least Vietnamese thing on the menu.

So what did we make this week? A lot of things. A meyer lemon budino. That "no-knead" bread that’s so en vogue right now. Gruyere grilled cheeses. And a totally bitchin’ puttanesca. On my parents’ last night here, I went Italian through and through and I have a few things to share that I know you will love.

First of all, Burrata.
Have you tried it? Till recently, it was only a rumor to me, an elusive cheese that’s not easy to find as it has to be imported fresh from Italy. I’d been wanting to hunt some down when I passed a sign outside A.G Ferrari that said, “Burrata is here!” I promptly went in for a taste and (close your eyes, dad) $17 later I was driving home with a luscious lump of it. And yes, I believe it was worth every penny. The stuff resembles a fresh buffalo mozzarella and it comes packed the same way, in water. But once you cut into it’s lovely silky exterior, the inside is ooey and gooey with rich, heavy cream. Good God people. It’s delicious. We ate it as a starter, on crostini with prosciutto, sprinkled with sel du mer and drizzled with olive oil. Molto bene!

We followed with a salad of pepper cress, dried arugula flowers, radicchio, tangerines, blood oranges and toasted hazelnuts. This I tossed in an orange dijon dressing and garnished with some blanched miniature red carrots I found at the farmers market.

Then it was on to the main event: a sassy, saucy and certainly spicy puttanesca. Incidentally, this dish originated in Napoli, so it seemed a nice nod to the years my parents and I spent there when I was a wee bambino myself. While I made it, I thought about my dreamy memories of the first landscape I experienced: dad’s Cinquecento, our apartment view of Vesuvius and the accordion player who played sad songs under our balcony. Molto romantico….

Here’s how I made it.

Puttanesca alla Jamie

2 pounds of chopped tomatoes (I used 2 boxes of Pomi brand, my fave)
1 large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 c Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
1 c Spanish green olives, pitted and chopped
½ c capers (the big ones, preferably)
handful chopped fresh basil
handful chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
8 anchovies, finely chopped
2 teaspoons dried hot red pepper flakes
1 cup red wine (I used the Valpolicella we were drinking)
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
½ c. olive oil
s&p to taste
strozzapretti, penne or similar small, chunky pasta (I know puttanesca's often served with linguine or spaghetti, but I like the way these cuts hold sauce)

Chop your onions and garlic and sauté them in the oil until golden brown and translucent. Next, add your chopped olives (both kinds), capers and thinly-sliced anchovies. Pour in your chopped tomatoes and red pepper flakes followed by your wine and balsamic vinegar. Then bring it all to a boil. Once it bubbles, reduce to a simmer and let it cook gently for about an hour. Of course you can cook it less; it would be fine to eat it once it gets warmed through and the wine has cooked off (meaning you only see chunky sauce and no residual boozy liquid), but I found letting it simmer on medium-low for an hour or so really married the flavors. Stir it occasionally, and add your salt and pepper to taste.

When you’re almost ready to eat, boil your pasta water with a few splashes of olive oil and a few tablespoons of salt. Add your pasta and cook according to package (fresh only takes a few minutes, dried maybe takes 10-12). When your pasta is ready, scoop out one cup of the used water and add to your red sauce. The starch will thicken it up and bind it together. Finally add your basil and parsley and give it a few more stirs. Serve immediately over pasta and top generously with grated parmagiano reggiano. Serve with a nice Italian red that compliments a spicy sauce. We enjoyed a Northern Italian Valpolicella and some warm, crusty bread. Close your meal with a gelato (we had meyer lemon and ginger) and buon appetito!

Ciao ciao for now.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Tonight we're gonna party like 2 happy valentines

Did you guys watch the Superbowl? I’ll come right out and admit that not only did I skip it, I still don’t know who played. Call me culturally illiterate, but I’m ok with this omission from my awareness. I know it will come back to bite me when next I play Trivial Pursuit, and I’m at peace with it. What I did watch, belatedly and excitedly, was Prince’s dazzling halftime show. Can we talk about how phenomenal he is? Besides breaking out some Purple Rain-era classics that make me wanna party like it’s 1989, he segued into a Foo Fighters song, of all things. And gave it some guts. You know Dave Grohl must have peed his pants with excitement.

Anyway, this will come back to food, I promise. I plan to share the aforementioned Lamb Tagine recipe for Valentines Day, but I had to bring up The Big Game because Prince is inextricably linked with Valentines Day for me. And since I have your attention, I’ll tell you why. A few years ago, Michael surprised me with pretty much The Best Valentines Day Present Ever. We were eating at The Indian Oven in the lower Haight, which was already plenty romantic since it was the site of our first date. But then things got all crazy-great when he mysteriously handed me an envelope. Inside there was a simple, one-sided card with this on it:
All it said was “The Fillmore. Midnight. 2.14.04.” See, Prince had announced a secret show that very night and we were within hours of experiencing his Purple Reign, live. I don’t know if it was the best show of all time, but I’m not ruling it out. Seeing him perform at the halftime show brought it all back and got me thinking about this upcoming February 14.

This year, my beloved is taking me to The Most Glorious Place on Earth. No, not a couples getaway at Club Med, sillies. I’m talking about The Cheese School. We’re doing a champagne and triple crème cheese tasting, so you know I’ll be one happy little piggy. Now, I planned to gift him with some palate pleasers too, but unfortunately, he discovered his gifts before I had a chance to hide them. The one he’s most excited about is the truffle salt. from Far West Fungi in the Ferry Building. And with good reason¬it’s exquisite. It makes high-grade truffle oil taste like canola. It’s that potent. It was introduced to me by a friend who carries it in a vial in her purse so she can sprinkle it on food wherever she goes. And when you taste it, you’ll understand why.

So on to Valentines Day. And hey, I don’t mean to suggest you have to spend it being all lovey-dovey with a mate. You might be (as the ‘70s t-shirt says) “single and lovin’ it”. You might hate all manner of Hallmark holidays, which is certainly understandable. You might want to spend the evening with a bunch of friends, as I’ve done happily on many February 14s over the years. The point is this: I’m giving you Kelly Whalen Molloy’s recipe for Lamb Tagine for 2, but it’s easy to alter the amounts accordingly, whatever your plans. It will make you burst with love, if only for the fine flavors mingling in your mouth. Happy Valentiines Day to you, dear readers, avec amour.

Moroccan Lamb Tagine with Cinnamon, Orange, and Dried Plums

1 lb. boneless lamb, trimmed and cut into 1 ½” cubes
1 yellow onion, peeled, and cut into quarters
1 clove garlic, peeled and cut in half
2 T. olive oil
pinch of red pepper flakes
¼ t. each dried ground ginger, cumin, and paprika
1 t. salt
freshly ground pepper
1 can, 14oz., chopped or diced tomatoes
½-1 cup water
1 strip orange zest
1 cinnamon stick
½ bunch of cilantro, chopped & some whole leaves for garnish
12 large pitted dried plums
1 ½-2 T. honey
1/3 c. sliced almonds, toasted

Preheat oven to 325. Place the lamb in a medium-sized bowl and set aside.

In a food processor combine the onion, garlic, 1 T. of the olive oil, pepper flakes, ginger, cumin, paprika, salt, and a few grinds of black pepper and pulse until mixture is smooth. Pour over lamb and mix well to combine. Cover and refrigerate overnight, or set aside on the counter for one hour.

Heat the additional T. of oil in a medium sized pan over medium heat and using tongs, pull meat out of onion/spice mixture and brown meat in batches evenly on all sides. Remove meat from pan and set aside. Turn heat down to medium and place remaining onion/spice mixture from the bowl in the same pan. Cook, stirring, for 3-5 minutes until mixture smells very fragrant and has cooked down a bit. Add lamb back to pan along with tomatoes & their juices, water, orange zest, cinnamon stick and ½ of the cilantro. Mix well, cover and place in oven for 1 ½ hours until meat is very tender.

While meat is cooking, place the dried plums and honey in a small saucepan with just enough water to cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the dried plums, their liquid and the remaining cilantro to the tagine during the last 15 minutes of cooking. Adjust seasoning if necessary, and serve garnished with sliced almonds and cilantro leaves.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Appetite for seduction: Moroccan nights & forbidden fruit

When I first moved to San Francisco, 14 years ago, I was struck by the late September sunsets that paint the sky fuschia and firey orange. A friend's father told me they were called Moroccan sunsets, and the association has stuck ever since. Anyway, it seemed an especially fortuitous omen the other day when just such a sunset appeared--so far out of season--as we were about to create a Moroccan meal. Through a rather involved series of events, I ended up hosting a party with a private chef, who shared her recipe for a lamb tagine and other dishes she learned when traveling through North Africa. Thanks to Miz Kelly Molloy Whalen for sharing her divine recipes and inspiring us all.

I intend to post them all, of course, but you know what they say about good intentions. Oh, you don't? Well, apparently, the road to hell is paved with them. So, Hades here I come. In the meantime, the dish I will show you now is oranges, bathed in a sweet spicy syrup.

It's a simple, healthy dessert, but one that tastes so exotic and alluring, I'll call it forbidden fruit. It's a fabulous alternative to the regular apres-entree confections, and its flavors are ever so seductive. This recipe is for 2 (perfect for Valentines Day, oui?) If you are serving more people, you'll want to double or triple it.

Forbidden Fruit

2 seedless oranges, rind and pith removed, and sliced 1/2" thick
juice of the two oranges (reserve when cutting)
Orange Flower Water
2 medjool dates
handful fresh mint
1 T. honey
I cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
1/2 Nutmeg, cracked in pieces
Pinch ground cardamom
3 whole cloves
black peppercorns

Slice oranges and arrange them on a serving platter or individual dishes. Sliver dates over the oranges. Then, in a small bowl combine juice from the oranges, orange flower water and honey. Drizzle oranges and dates with o.j. mixture.

In a spice grinder, combine all the spices until finely ground. Sprinkle lightly over oranges and dates (you'll have leftover spices you can use the next time you make the dish). Garnish with fresh mint and serve immediately.

Now, share it with someone special. And eat it with your fingers, letting the honey drip down your chin. Or, if you're flying solo, pick up a copy of one of my favorite books, Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky. You'll be experiencing the exotique je ne sais quois of Morocco in no time.