Sunday, November 29, 2009

F-O-O-D Food! Food! Food!

Throughout the Fall and in the beginning of Winter, there’s really nothing better than a Sunday afternoon, a comfortable couch, good people to be around, and a full football game ahead of you featuring your favorite NFL team.

Well…maybe I take that back. Take that exact same scenario, eliminate the couch, and instead replace it with a seat in the actual stadium the game is being played in. Yeah, now there really might be nothing better than that.

Oh, nope…I’ve got it. Keep the stadium seat, the game, and the people. Add the stadium parking lot, a grill, and a whole truck bed full of food and equipment for a high-scale tailgate, and I think you’ve hit Nirvana.

Yep, it’s true. And I am humbled and grateful to say that I have been to there.

We pulled up into the Gillette Stadium parking lot 3 hours before kick-off. Packed into the black truck like sardines, there was Warren at the helm, Mad-Dog Jim as wing-man, and Kate, Bobby, Molly, and I happily wedged in the back. We parked and unloaded, and the tailgate – or should I say Pregame Show – began.

To maintain proper hydration, Warren unloaded a bar with a wealth of options, ranging from his kickin’ Bloody Mary’s, to his famous Rum Punch, to his ‘Double D’ Margaritas (Delicious and oh-so Dangerous…as many of us have learned). Not to mention a selection of beer and wine, if we were so inclined. We couldn’t risk losing a member of our team from dehydration.

Bobby was quick to set up the grill, and the coals were glowing in the chimney before we knew it. The first trays were ready to hit the heat. It was on.

First there was the reheating of Kate and Bobby’s spinach and cheese pastry rolls. Flaky, buttery pastry dough encasing a mixture of earthy spinach and salty cheese. All in a fun spiral shape – great looking and even better tasting! A great jump start for the taste buds.

Second was Bobby’s ‘Multi-Layer’ Dip. This is the title you give an attempt to replicate a classic 7 Layer Dip, but forget how many layers you added to it when you’re finished. We quickly forgot about the number ambiguity though after our first bites. Its blend of refried beans, guacamole, salsa, cheese, sour cream, bell peppers, etc., etc….tasted perfectly delicious in every Tostitos Scoop we devoured.

Then there were Kate’s marinated steak tips. Her homemade marinade/sauce was savory but sweet, with the ‘No Way!’ ingredient being Coca-Cola. After only a few minutes of hitting the hot grill, these tender, juicy, and perfectly seasoned tips were sliced and consumed with closed eyes and smiles. Utterly delicious. Let’s just say I still think about them.

Game faces necessary.

Bobby’s chicken was marinated simply but perfectly with rosemary, olive oil, and sweet and tangy balsamic vinegar. Paired with the grilled skewers of peppers, onions, and mushrooms and you had yourself an ideal, well rounded pre-game munchie.

Warren’s concoction hit the grill next. After taking the time to bring it up to temperature, he lifted the layer of aluminum foil to reveal both spicy and sweet Italian chicken sausage simmering in his homemade tomato sauce. With a spoonful of sauce you tasted the sweetness of the tomatoes, the saltiness of the parmesan, and the kick of the red pepper in a 1-2-3 punch. Thrown on a toasted roll with added parmesan cheese on top and you’re in a good place. Licking the escaped sauce off of your fingers after consumption brings the whole experience together.

Finally Kate’s huge tray of Mac and Cheese had waited long enough in line and reheated on the coals. Molly happily stirred as I documented. “Wow the first picture ever of me cooking!...well, sort of cooking.” Cheesy and gooey, just like you dream about, and especially delicious with Warren’s sauce mixed in with it. Some pasta shells escaped the tray and fell onto the grill grates from vigorous mixing, which Molly and I quickly took advantage of. The crispy, cheesy product that came from the single grilled noodles was an unanticipated delicacy.

And just in case we felt lost during the stretches of time when food was either being cooked or heated, there were chips (Cape Cod of course) and crackers, cheese, and salami at the ready to hold us over and bridge the gaps. And just when you think that that may have been enough, there was no way we were resisting the Wings & Beer Bar (the booth might as well have had the lights of heaven shining behind it) in the clubhouse at half time. Half with buffalo and half with teriyaki sauce, please.

We sat and stood and cheered for the Pats with full and happy bellies. We had known well before that we would be in no need for dessert at our tailgate - Leigh Bodden’s 3 interceptions and the Pats solid 31-14 revenge victory over the Jets was deliciously sweet enough.

Good food and good football. I’ll take it any day.

San Francisco Treats

When I visit a new area and find out that a Farmer’s Market will take place during my time there, it instantly becomes one of the major things I look forward to doing, no matter what other activities are planned. I wake up the morning of and I feel a little bit like an 8-year-old on Christmas morning. It’s true and it’s out of my control. I go to bed imagining the different types of booths and produce that will be there and I wake up with a pep in my step and have the excited jitters until we finally arrive.

Then you might as well let me loose like a puppy in an open field. I want to smell all the smells, taste what looks delicious, and greet everyone I encounter. Gimme sun, a beautiful venue, and time after to prepare a meal made from my purchases and you have my perfect day.

Many people had told me that during my time in San Francisco I needed to get to the Ferry Building to go to the Farmer’s Market. I was lucky enough to be there over a weekend, so Saturday morning was booked with the only goal of getting to that side of the city.

To properly fuel ourselves for the day head, we made a quick stop to Philz Coffee to grab a cup o' Joe en route. I hesitate to even give it that title though, since this coffee brew was nothing close to any ordinary cup o' Joe I’ve ever had before. They individually brew every cup to order there, and even with the crowd of people that pile into the shop every morning, the baristas still take the time to talk to you to see exactly what brew combination will fit your likings exactly. They even add a mint leaf on top of the frothy topped beverage. I’m no avid coffee drinker, but the attention to and quality of the concoction in my cup was apparent in its complex and absolutely delicious flavor. It was a great food appreciation moment and we hadn’t even gotten to the market yet!

We walked up the palm tree studded street and finally arrived at the Ferry Building. It seemed like there were tents stretching down the street for as long as the eye could see. I was already excitedly overwhelmed by all of the options available when Lizzy (yes, another Lizzy…I don’t go crazy enough to think there are two of me) turned to me and said ‘My favorite is the back part, let’s go there,’ There was even more of this magical world!? We passed through the building and came out the other side to even more tents. At that point I was let off my leash.

I couldn’t believe the array of items I was seeing. There were things I was used to seeing at markets I have been to before – vegetables, cheeses, jams, bread, apples – but then there were others that took me by complete positive surprise. Crack-your-own almonds, flavored aromatic salts, knife sharpening, gourmet crostini to-go, perfect strawberries and raspberries in November! The incredibly fertile land and temperate climate California has all year round was evident in the options available to us from the local producers.

I wanted to have an extensive conversation with every seller; ‘You have pears and apples? I just came from an orchard in Colorado...let’s talk varieties.’ ‘What’s your favorite cheese to make?’ ‘How did you master your eggplant spread?’ ‘What the heck is Quark and why is it so delicious?’ There were too many booths and too many customers – I had to pick and choose my battles.

Our mission that day was to dream up of an ultimate dinner from the best things we saw being sold at the market. Once I saw a booth strictly dedicated to mushrooms and another with an entire tableside of crates that lets you create your own mixed bag of baby greens, I was sold and claimed my territory. Thoughts of grilling portabellos and braising hearty greens danced in my head, and there was no turning back. Lizzy and I gathered our necessary ingredients with a few other bonuses while Kristin and Sandra attacked the necessities for the beet salad. As we came up to meet them they were checking out some deep purple, beautiful looking plums “Dessert!” they said. “Yes!” I replied excitedly, and ran to the booth where I had just tasted something that would go perfectly with them; Vanilla Quark. Was it dinner time yet?

After our afternoon touring the beautiful coastal paths the city has to offer, we finally made it back to Lizzy’s apartment. We had worked up some big appetites and knew that good eats were in our future to satisfy them. We had all of our necessary tools (our purchases), but now it was up to us to somehow combine our Farmer’s Market treasures into a meal even more delicious than its individual parts.

These were the ingredients that sat before us on the counter: Hearty, firm, Portobello mushroom caps, multi-colored bell peppers, baby red onions, a mixed bag of super-powered baby greens (Kale! Chard! Spinach! Wahoo!), two varieties of red beets, delectable purple potatoes, two eggplants, Cowgirl Creamery goat cheese, and a bag of peppery arugula. Now this is a type of challenge I would be happy to take on any day.

Once we discussed and created our plan, the beets were the first to be dealt with seeing that they needed the longest cooking time out of all of the veggies. There are a few ways to do this, but one of my favorites is simply wrapping them in tin foil after rubbing them with oil and roasting them for around an hour. After that they are easily peelable and ready to slice, not to mention the perfect texture of firm but tender and delectably earthy and sweet. Sliced and placed on the bed of the fresh arugula, and sprinkled with the fresh, creamy, and tangy goat cheese, the salad was checked off the list. And now we even had the extra bonus of the leftover beet greens we had trimmed off! Gotta love a multifaceted vegetable.

Next up in the line for the oven were the potatoes and eggplant. Both were diced into cubes and sprinkled with salt, pepper, and olive oil. A few dried herbs were added on with the potatoes, and some ground cumin for the eggplant. There is something very harmonious about the combination of smoky cumin with the flavor of eggplant. When you eat them together the newly created taste is so pleasantly delicious that it makes you feel like the two were naturally fated to come together for someone’s palate. In the oven they went, and with it the more intoxicating the smell in the kitchen became.

Meanwhile, on the stovetop, the peppers (who were now diced), were combined with the (also now diced) onions. After a quick sauté, the mound of baby greens were added to the skillet, with the new addition of beet greens included. They sat and braised in a few splashes of red wine and some seasonings.

And finally, the mushrooms. They had been waiting patiently in a pan after being covered in olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme, and garlic, and now they were ready for the grill pan. As they cooked down and developed their meaty flavor, Kristin prepped our last-minute addition of scallops Lizzy had taken out of the fridge to round out the meal. They quickly cooked in butter, oil, white wine, onions and garlic and were ready to serve in no time.

We sat and toasted our glasses of 2007 California Meritage to our successful Farmer’s Market inspired meal. Every ingredient had such a distinguished and powerful flavor. What was wonderful was that the pure flavor of the vegetable was the most predominant thing you tasted, and was secondarily supported by any additional seasonings. This was such a satisfying experience since it is so often the other way around, where the dull vegetable flavor is easily dominated by any added seasoning. The flavor of freshness is something you cannot create or replicate, and once you’ve eaten a justly cooked and truly fresh vegetable, you wonder what kind of lack of taste you had accepted as ‘flavorful’ beforehand.

Dessert was also quick to come together. Kristin sliced and pitted the plums and placed them in a saucepan with some butter, cinnamon, sugar, and white wine. They slowly combined flavors and heated as we put our dinner dishes away.

Once they were slightly softened, we placed big spoonfuls on plates with the accompanying sweet and spicy sauce that had formed at the bottom of the pan. The last addition was a dollop of Vanilla Quark (technically a soft, unripened cheese that has a similar texture and flavor to sour cream or yogurt) I had no idea what the flavor was going to be like when I tasted it for the first time at the market, but instantly lit up once I did. “Wow this is delicious!” I told the woman there, as if she didn’t already know. It was a definite yogurt inspired dish with its tangy flavor, but had an added unctuousness of, say, a cream cheese type of spread. It was silky smooth, equally tangy and sweet, with the luxurious addition of real vanilla bean speckled throughout. Besides my overdosing of this delicious dairy treat, the cooked spiced plums with vanilla quark was a perfect way to round out the meal.

Fast. Easy. Tasty. Fresh. Local. I know the monuments and shops and landmarks are nice and all, but that night we experienced the essence of what can be truly called San Francisco Treats.

(…sorry Rice-A-Roni)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A new, Hole-some meal...and fast

I think that there is a general consensus that new recipes are scary. They sit there on the page, staring back at you with a pretentious grin ‘Try me, I dare you! I am designed to make you fail miserably and lose even more confidence in the kitchen, ha ha ha!’ Don’t lie, you’ve felt this way before about an inanimate piece of paper.

You mean I actually have to buy things outside of my usual grocery store list? And follow directions on a piece of paper while cooking? No thank you! I'll pass’ For many people the thought of taking on a new dish is just too risky for these reasons, and is so often why they get stuck in the same old ‘hum drum’ of weekly menus. And even though they complain of being bored of what they cook themselves every week – ‘Ugh, pasta and sauce again I guess…’ –the mere thought of the time, effort, and risk of trying something new makes this monotony still somehow more desirable. I’m always disheartened when I witness this restrictive mentality, and I often do my best to urge people to break free of their self-created limitations. The world won’t end if you don’t like it, I promise! And just think of the satisfaction and excitement of when you do (and will).

This is one of the reasons I was so excited to get to Jackson Hole, Wyoming; the next destination of my western travels (the landscape and beauty had a little something to do with it too I guess). Charlie had so often told me of his mom’s talent and creativity in the kitchen, and with every picture he would send me of some of her prepared meals, I would sit there drooling at my computer screen while staring at the deliciousness before me (that’s the bonus of taking a lot of pictures of food; many people think to send you their own too). And within one of the first afternoons of my visit, Maggie came back to the house and laid a xerox copy in front of me on the kitchen counter. ‘Stir-Fried Pork with Kimchi and Shiitake’ was the headline of the recipe on the piece of paper. "Wanna try it?" she asked. I was in, to say the least.

Because of how I am and what my interests are, I was curious and even moreso excited to try a new recipe, especially with kimchi in it (a Korean dish of fermented/pickled cabbage and other vegetables, often onions, garlic, and hot pepper. It is easily found in Asian markets and larger grocery stores). But I tried to picture how a person not so obsessed/passionate about food and cooking would look at this recipe. Solely reading the word ‘kimchi’ on the ingredient list would be enough to set off the sirens and red flashing lights in their brain ‘ABORT! ABORT! ABORT!’ And the recipe would be banished to the ‘No Way, Out of My League’ category. So I decided to take on the recipe with the ordinary home cook in mind, to see if these common sentiments would still hold true after going through the actual cooking process.

The next day, after a beautiful afternoon hike to Ski Lake and a relaxing sauna to follow, we set up our ingredients on the kitchen counter and began to make dinner. Maggie took on dicing and pre-cooking the pork tenderloin while I chopped the mushrooms. We sampled the tender pork and approved of its doneness (and wonderful flavor) and it was replaced in the pan with the mushrooms and scallions. Before we knew it we were ready to add the drained kimchi, which joined the cooking vegetables and gladly shared some of its briny juices with the pan sauce that was already forming in the skillet. After a few minutes of sautéing and mixing, the remaining flavorings were added atop the vegetables and the pork was incorporated back in to its final resting place. All of the flavors melded together as the whole dish came up to temperature. In the meantime the rice finished cooking, plates and silverware were taken out, and we had time to chat and enjoy a few sips of our glasses of red wine. With a final sprinkling of sesame seeds on top, we were ready to eat.

“Boy that was fast!” Charlie’s Gramma exclaimed as she pulled up to the counter. And she was right! Everything came together quickly and easily, and still a well rounded, healthy meal awaited us. No sweat, no tears, no straining of the brain. Sure, the ingredients were new and ‘risky’, but the dish could not have been more straightforward in its creation. And the flavor was fantastic! The rice soaked up the savory sauce, the pork was tender, the medley of vegetables had great texture and contrast of flavors, and with a spoonful of spicy chili sauce mixed in, we sat happily eating from our plates with our chopsticks. It was a Hole-some recipe…that was a Hole-in-one…made in the ‘Hole… Man, even the puns were easy! Nonetheless, it was a Dinner Success.

Yes, I hear you. There were two of us, and both of us like cooking. I understand your point. But, all this meant was that there were merely more than one set of hands to help make the meal preparation more efficient. This can be easily equated by cooking this with a friend or roommate, or simply preparing all of the ingredients before cooking if you’re solo. That way everything is waiting for you to add to them to skillet instead of needing to hastily chop mushrooms while the pork may be to the point of burning. Those are the moments when cooking gets stressful and scary. The secret to taking on new recipes is basic organization and preparation of tools and ingredients; habits that are indispensable while working in the kitchen. With them no recipe will be too scary to take on.

So go ahead, try this recipe. I dare you. With a willing and open mind, you will not only have a delicious dinner in your future but a newfound confidence and satisfaction in taking on the Unfamiliar in the kitchen to boot. And as you’ll find out, Success is always the best flavor in any dish you make.

Stir-Fried Pork with Kimchi and Shiitake

Serves 4

• 1 pork tenderloin (12 to 16 oz.), trimmed of silverskin and cut crosswise ¼ inch thick
• 1 TBS soy sauce
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 2 TBS peanut or canola oil
• 8 oz fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems trimmed, caps cut into ¼ inch slices
• 6 scallions, cut into 1 ½ inch lengths
• 3 large cloves garlic, minced
• 16 oz napa cabbage kimchi, drained and very coarsely chopped (about 2 ¾ cups)
• 3 TBS mirin (or 2 TBS sake or white wine plus 4 tsp granulated sugar)
• 1 TBS sesame oil
• Kosher salt
• ½ TBS toasted sesame seeds

In a medium bowl, toss the pork, ½ TBS soy sauce, and 1/8 tsp black pepper.

Heat 1 TBS of the oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until you see the first wisp of smoke. Swirl to coast the pan, the add half of the pork and stir-fry until brown in spots and no longer pink, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. Add another 1 TBS of the oil to the skillet and repeat with the remaining pork.

Add the remaining 1 TBS oil to the pan and swirl to coat. Add the mushrooms and scallions and cook, stirring, until the mushrooms are shrunken in size and the scallions are wilted, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the kimchi, mirin, and the remaining ½ TBS soy sauce and cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid released by the kimchi is reduced to about 1/3 cup, about 3 minutes. (The amount of liquid released by the kimchi is somewhat unpredictable – if there is an excessive amount, cook until it reduces or spoon some of it off). Add the pork and any accumulated juices and cook until heated through, 1 to 2 minutes more. Drizzle with sesame oil and stir well. Season to taste with salt and pepper, sprinkle with sesame seeds, and serve.

-Dawn Yanagihara
Fine Cooking Oct/Nov 2009

Remember to end your meal right with a delicious dessert. Sometimes nothing is more tasty, or pretty, than a bowl of good vanilla ice cream swirled with hot fudge and caramel sauce...