Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Food Rules

Anyone with a deep passion has rules concerning that passion.  Love literature?  You know what you love and you have ideas of what constitutes a good book.  Music?  You probably have a sort of band you’ll like and a whole crowd of bands that can’t measure up.  Well, I am passionate about food, and I have some pretty strong opinions about it.  Actually I have some strong, some would say snobby, opinions about books, movies and music too but let’s stay on topic.  Let me share a few…

   1.       Bagels come in plain, poppy seed, sesame seed, egg, salt, garlic, onion, and everything.  They are boiled.  They are chewy, dense and filling.  Asiago cheese, cinnamon crunch, blueberries, chocolate chips….these things do not a bagel make.  They don’t come in whole wheat.  If you like these variations, fine…I actually love asiago cheese.  But these aren’t bagels…they’re round breads with holes and recently hip flavoring.  Call it something else, but keep a bagel a bagel.  Panera does not have bagels.  Brueggers’s does a mostly good job.  

   2.       Cream cheese on a bagel is just that…cream cheese.  It doesn’t come in strawberry and honey walnut.  In fact, cream cheese on a bagel should only be accompanied by capers, lox, and onion.  Ham and cheese…not on a kosher bagel!  That's sacrilegious...literally! 

   3.       Pineapple doesn’t belong on pizza.  Nor does bbq, teriyaki sauce, nuts or chicken.  Authentic Italian pizza can have all sorts of vegetables, cured meats, even a raw egg…but not pineapple.  I know, I know….this has become a beloved pizza topping, particularly for kids…but it’s just not right. Have what you like...but that doesn't make it right. And please don’t put tomato paste in the pizza sauce.  Why must everything get sweetened?  And pizza crust is not a place to insert cheese or sprinkle salt like it’s a pretzel.  Stop with the gimmicks already! 

   4.       Growing up in New England introduced me to great sub-sandwiches, or as I knew them, grinders.  There were certain kinds, just as there are certain Italian pizzas.  I always got the Italian grinder….thin-sliced cured meats, peppers, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar and some herbs on crusty bread.  The meat was just thrown on by the handful, piled high…and doused with oil and vinegar.  NO mayo…and I love mayonnaise, but not on my grinder!  Neatly laid out, flat meats – never!  Leaves of lettuce?  No.  And the bread should never have the consistency of white sandwich bread.  The crustiness should challenge me.  Heated or put under a Panini press….for the love of all things holy and good…No (unless it’s a meatball grinder)!   Subway?  No way.  Quizno’s…oh, no nos.  Jimmy John’s Vito…pretty close.  But I miss Worcester’s Jolly Giant.     

   5.       Ice Cream is ice cream…not frozen custard, not frozen yogurt, not soft serve.  Ice cream should be hard, chewy, cold and creamy.  French-style glace…c’est si bon.  Italian gelato…bellissima!  Both of these are traditional variations of the theme.  The Midwestern favorite, frozen custard…a creamy cousin, but it isn’t ice cream.  Soft serve…not even close, but I confess to loving one with the kids sometimes.  Frozen affliction for the health addicted, but I enjoy that too.  But these are not ice cream.  And ice cream isn’t just for dessert…it makes a great breakfast or dinner! 

   6.       Croissants are flaky, buttery, and wonderful warm, plain or with a little dark chocolate inside.  They taste best with a rich, dark cup of coffee or hot chocolate.  They are not to be cut in half and filled with ham, eggs, cheese…croissandwishes are an abomination.    

   7.       The British have a joke…Why do Americans serve their beer ice cold in a frosty mug?  So they don’t have to taste it.  The American beer industry and culture has become the most diverse and highest quality in the world, so the joke doesn’t quite hold water anymore.  But we still produce An-Mill-oors yellow fizzy stuff for the globe.  And it is best served so you don’t have to taste it.  But I have been in far too many places serving some good beers in frosty mugs at artic temps.  Please don’t.  If I order a Mich Ultra, fine…freeze it to numb my taste buds before I let that touch me. In fact, it might be really refreshing as a popsicle. But if I order an $8 craft beer please don’t make me wait half an hour for it to reach a point where I can taste it.     

   8.       Pasta should not be mushy.  Cook it just until it has some firmness left, al dente.  Nor should it be over-sauced.  I don’t want pasta soup.  When I am done I shouldn’t have more than enough sauce for a swipe with my crusty bread.  Think subtle.  That said, some cafeteria spaghetti served via ice cream scoop…that’s some throwback comfort food!  And while I am thinking about pasta, Alfredo is not really Italian…the name doesn’t exist in Italy.  The closest you will see in Italy is pasta tossed with butter and cheese by a mama in a private house.  Alfredo as Americans know it is an American creation.  Yummy…yes, but not really Italian.

   9.       Bread should never be stored in plastic unless it came pre-sliced in a square.  Bread should come in a paper bag.  You should store it in a paper bag.  If you have enough left over that it lasts more than 24 hours and “needs” a plastic bag, you need to eat more bread.  

   10.   Wine should come in one liter bottles.  How many times have you found that you want just one more small glass, but….noooooo….the bottle is empty?  Just a little more…please?  I’m sure there’s a reason for the 750ml bottle and it will likely shoot my complaint down…but what is it?

What are your food hang-ups?  What are your rules?  What trends do you think we should eliminate?  Where am completely wrong?

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Real Chocolate Cake

Remember when we were kids a chocolate cake could be layered or not with either chocolate or vanilla frosting?  It was all so simple.  When it wasn’t simple it was because it was shaped…maybe like a fire truck or Kermit the Frog.  But it was still essentially the same.

Some time in my late teens or twenties things changed.  I discovered flourless cakes and lava cakes.  Soft, sweet, rich, warm and gooey…right…back to the cake… Restaurants started serving gigantic pieces.  I remember one place served piece a flourless cake that must have weighed two pounds.  A table of eight could share it and there would still be leftovers.  I confess to falling for the chocolate suicide cakes.  Flourless cake, multiple layers, dark chocolate frosting, chocolate chips, and a rich, warm chocolate sauce poured over it.  It was overkill.  And I don’t even have much of a sweet tooth.  But I loved these crazy concoctions. 

As a stepdad to two young kids I now seemingly have an occasion each week for cake.  But it’s no longer the super-rich indulgences of younger adult days.  Now I am back to the Duncan Hines/Betty Crocker sheet cake with chocolate frosting.  And you know what?  It’s amazing!  To sit and get cake all over your face, licking frosting off spoons, letting ice cream mix with the last few crumbs of cake…THAT is the wonder of a great piece of cake.  Sure, some gourmet, gooey, rich confection is yummy, but nothing compares to the joy and simplicity of eating a basic cake with the eyes and tummy of a 7 year old.  This is where the fun in dessert is!    

Friday, January 25, 2013

A Trip to France without Leaving the Bay

Within a short walk of each other in San Francisco are two short lanes that will transport you out of the nearby flash of Union Square or the Financial District into intimate city neighborhoods that could be in any large city on earth, but particularly European.  Claude Lane and Belden Place are short alleyways filled with outdoor seating for some fun, delicious restaurants.  While the city has great restaurants on almost every block, I continually find myself drawn to these two locations.  On a Saturday night of a recent holiday weekend we had a romantic French evening at Cafe Claude on Claude Lane.

We made a reservation for 7:30 and arrived to find the place filled and lively.  It was quite small and clearly popular.  We had not been seated for more than a minute before the Belinda Blair’s jazz performance started.  This set a great mood for the place.  We started with drinks.  My wife tried a Hummingbird, a drink featuring St. Germain.  This was refreshing, crisp and delicious.  Every drink I have had in recent years featuring this elderflower liquor has been a delight.  I was taken by Café Claude’s list of absinthes and pastis.  I had not had pastis in a couple years so I selected a Ricard.  This was served perfectly over ice with a small side pitcher of ice cold water.  If you haven’t tried absinthe or pastis, please do so.  If you like black licorice or anise, you will love these.  But read up on preparation; they are louching drinks and need some cold water added.  We let the music and drinks transport to Paris and settled in.  We let our server know we were here for a leisurely evening and would be ordering slowly, and she kindly accommodated our pace.

When we did get around to ordering some food, we opted to start with the assiette de pates, featuring three pates – a duck liver mousse, a rustique with pork, herbs and bacon, and a campagne with pork, red wine and black pepper.   Served with some toasted bread and gherkins, these were each excellent.  The mousse was delicate, and I wish I had more…lots more of this.  I could eat it in mass quantities, not that it would be healthy for anyone!  The campagne was smooth and rich, while the rustique was coarser and lighter.      

Moving on to entrees we added a bottle of wine.  We went with a Pineau d’Aunis and Malbec blend, the 2010 Francois Chidaine Touraine, and it proved a great compliment to our two plats.  One of them was a sautéed gnocchi with butternut squash, sage, chestnuts, maitake mushrooms, Brussel sprouts, and pumpkin puree.  This tasted like a cool fall day.  The gnocchi were perfectly cooked.  Searing them over high heat eliminated the sticky, heaviness that gnocchi can so often have.  The flavors of fall vegetables, mushrooms and sage were delightful.  The other plat was wonderful dish of lentils topped by two duck legs confit, with frisee and a bright, perfectly cooked hard-boiled egg.  The lentils had a summery, citrusy flavor that balanced the rich fattiness of the duck.  These two entrees were excellent cool weather meals, served in proper proportion and priced quite reasonably.  I would return to have either of these.  However, I confess to having a craving for their steak tartare and some pommes frites. 

Happy, content and comfortable, we opted against dessert, though I did note that in proper French form they feature a cheese plate for dessert.  As the evening wore on, the noise level lessened some, making conversation easier.  Service was efficient and the setting…small, intimate and filled with jazz was excellent.   We would return, particularly for a night with some live music.  And if you want to mix up your evening with Spanish flavors to go with your French, or an after-dinner drink, try Gitane just across the alley. 

So drop on by Claude Lane for a trip to Europe.         

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Scallops in the City by the Bay

Friday night we were at a friend’s place in San Francisco.  After a week of illness and a few days of yoga, we needed a simple, pleasant dinner in, even though hundreds of great restaurants beckoned.  A quick stop at Adronico’s in Los Altos, and I was prepped.  I arrived in the city, took a seat by the window and stopped.  Staying in and eating by a view of the Bay Bridge would be just what the doctor ordered. 

We started with a glass of prosecco and some cheese and crackers…and stop…again.  We so rarely get a chance to slow down, so this night we intentionally go slow, savoring, breathing, stopping.  Ok….enough stopping.  You came here to see what we ate, not how we relaxed.

Throw together a quick salad and get that to the table because the rest of the meal will come together in a flash.  Sliced disks of polenta from one of those ready-to-go- tubes at the grocery store go into a thin layer of very hot olive oil.  Fry those up till warmed through and slightly browned.  Same time…sear large sea scallops.  As this is happening take a large white plate and place four small dollops of store-bought pesto.  Now place polenta disks on each spot of pesto.  Quickly heat through tomato slices, put another small dollop of pesto on each polenta, place heated tomato slices on each polenta, minute amount of shredded parmigiano, then seared scallop then another little dollop of pesto.  Serve with prosecco, some crisp white wine, some Neapolitan spring water, Ferrarelle, or whatever refreshing drink you like.

A lovely dinner assembled in about ten minutes using just two pans.  Simplicity and Deliciousness.