R.I.P. Hotel Caesars

May 19, 2009 § 2 Comments

I love that there's a Carl's Jr. on the ground floor.

Casa, Sweet Casa: I love that there's a Carl's Jr. on the ground floor.

In honor of the Caesar Hotel, where the Caesar salad was invented, which died today

CaesarHotel

With its ornate facade (what is this style called?), and a sort of museum to trajes de luces,—which translates “suits of lights,” the shimmering, adorned outfits that bullfighters wear—in the lobby, the Hotel Caesars somehow managed to be, to the end, a remnant of Old Tijuana. I remember going there with my dad, who had a restaurant across the street, and who, when he first moved to Tijuana from Acapulco in the 1950s, used to work as a waiter at the Caesar Hotel and toss the salads table side himself. I love that Tijuana. I love that salad. And even when the restaurant renamed itself the Caesar Sports Bar & Grill and hung a row of track lights and televisions, they still turned out one of the best Caesar Salads I have ever eaten. I wish I knew the secret. Is it the fake Parmesan cheese that comes out of a can? The hot dog mustard? Why did the drug lords have to go and ruin everything? Pinche greed.

This is an old post introducing an older letter. But the story of the Caesar is older still, so it is all still current. Sort of.

* * *

This is a letter I wrote a few years ago (March, 2004, to be exact) to the editor of The Los Angeles Times in response to a small round-up their intrepid reporter, Leslee Komaiko, had done on Caesar salads. I think it may be the single most important thing I have ever written. Why is it so important? Because it is so good—not the writing, silly, the salad! And because sometimes leaving well enough alone is the best idea by far—and I think that in the current climate of foams and Food, Inc. we need to remember that simple fact.

The Whole Caesar Story

I wanted to comment on Leslee Komaiko’s Caesar salad bit in Restaurant Journal (“Render Unto Caesar That Which is Leafy,” Feb 25).

I have strong opinions about the Caesar Salad and know a little about it as a result of my being from Tijuana, my dad having owned a Caesar-serving steakhouse there in the 1960′s, and my having done research in Tijuana, as a freelance food writer, for various food stories. I too have noticed a lot of whole-leaf Caesars (WLCs) out there [that's what Komaiko's story was about], and as far as I’m concerned, this is good news. These simple, whole-leaf Caesars are a welcome respite from all those whacked-out reinvented Caesars. Copious amounts of garlic and the ubiquitous sliced breast of chicken aside, I’ve seen offenses from jalapeño polenta croutons to a salad of dandelion greens, arugula and mâche with caviar “Caesar” dressing and watermelon “croutons.”

But the main reason I get that heart-swelling sensation every time I see a well-executed whole-leaf Caesar is because, contrary to the idea stated in the article—that it’s “an affront to muck with the classic”—the WLC is not only the better Caesar, it is the classic Caesar.

At the Caesar Hotel in Tijuana [which last I saw had sadly changed its name to the Caesar Sports Bar & Grill], where it was invented, the salad is served whole leaf, as it always was. At my dad’s restaurant, El Bodegon de Guillermo, which was across the street from the Caesar Hotel, he served it whole leaf. And the recipe that [Mexican culinary authority] Diana Kennedy gave me for the salad, which she got from its inventor, Caesar Cardini, when she met him in Mexico City some 40 years or more ago, calls for the hearts of romaine leaves to be whole. As for the fact that you have to use a knife and fork, well, the salad is intended to be eaten—or at least you have the option to eat it—with your fingers.

Simple and straightforward as the Caesar is, there are tricks to making a good one. Start with sweet romaine lettuce and be wiling to throw out more than your good conscience allows: Chuck all the outer dark leaves and cut off all floppy dark green ends of even the inner romaine leaves. What you’re left with will be only the crispy, light green hearts of the romaine, which stand up to the heavy dressing. Use key lime (a.k.a Mexican lime) juice in place of the lemon juice, of course use fresh eggs (not mayo) and good Parmesan. Mash and whisk the dressing in a big, wooden salad bowl to which you’ll then add those light, crispy romaine leaves and croutons and, yes, toss. The only other piece of advice for making a good Caesar is: Do not lay those dead canned fish on the salad. Traditionally the dead fish go onto the croutons. Nowadays, even at the hotel in Tijuana, the anchovies are mashed into the dressing (rather than on the crouton). But no self-respecting Caesar making chef would ever lay the things on the lettuce. May the table side tossing of the classic whole-leaf hearts of romaine Caesar begin. Again.

This is what a real Caesar salad looks like. Look mom, no fork!

This is what a real Caesar salad looks like. Look mom, no fork!

Original Caesar Salad

From the Caesar Hotel on Avenída Revolución, Tijuana

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, crushed

16 three-eight inch slices baguette

4 teaspoons anchovy paste

1 to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh juice of limes (preferably Mexican or Key limes)

1 one-minute coddled egg

Dash of Worcestershire Sauce

1/3 cup garlic-infused olive oil [skeptical about this only because there are so few good ones]

1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese [If I were writing this recipe, I would write, "6 tablespoons grated Parm, plus a wedge for grating cheese over the finished salad]

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 heads romaine lettuce leaves, trimmed mercilessly, washed, drained, and chilled

1. To make the croutons, heat the olive oil and garlic in a skillet. Spread anchovy paste on one side of each baguette slice. Place the slices paste side down in hot oil and cook for 30 to 40 seconds, then turn and toast the other side. Place them on paper towels to drain and continue until you’ve fried up all the croutons. [Here I would tell you to buy one of Nancy Silverton's books that have her recipe for torn croutons.]

2. Stir together the vinegar, lime juice, coddled egg and Worcestershire sauce in a big wooden salad bowl. [I seem to remember DK and my dad and the waiter at the Caesar hotel adding mustard and Tobasco at this point. I'll have to find the old Diana Kennedy recipe.] Then add the garlic-infused olive oil in a thin stead stream, whisking constantly to form an emulsion. Stir in 6 tablespoons of the Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Add the romaine leaves and croutons and toss until the lettuce is coated with the dressing.

To serve, divide the salad among 4 chilled plates and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan. [Alternatively, grate a nice thin layer dusting of Parm over the salads, like freshly fallen snow...]

It’s Guac-War Out There

April 25, 2009 § 10 Comments

Guacamole and Chips

Guacamole and Chips

Until today, I was perfectly content with my level of achievement in the guacamole department, especially since my friend, the original celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman, cited me in the headnote to his guacamole recipe in his book, A Great American Cook. I didn’t particularly like the part where he referred to me as “one of his Mexican buddies” because I thought it made me sound like one of the guys he shot tequila and played dominoes with in some smoky Deer Hunter-esque lodge, but I was probably projecting, and anyway that is, as they say, another story.

Plus, I forgave him because I felt so proud that this great American cook, and a native Californian to boot, would source me, a psuedo-semi-Mexican guera for what is arguably my native country’s biggest contribution to the American culinary landscape. (Salsa has been so misappropriated I don’t even want to go there.)

But all that was then. Before The Foodinista invited me to her first ever Guac-Off. On her blog, she’s invited you, the public at large, to weigh in on what makes a great guac and why. My cousin, Dean, who grew up in California and for reasons we, his California family, sit under the eucalyptus trees scratching our heads over, has moved to someplace in Nordic country where you can count on your fingers the number of times the temperature rises above zero annually, poses the question of how to spell “Hass.” (It is spelled “Hass.”) Which brings me to the question of whether or not to use Hass. Which brings me to the realization that as much as I like to tout a spirit of generosity when it comes to recipe sharing, I am really, really competitive. Where one time I might have shared my thoughts on avocados and guacamole—and I evidently once shared the recipe with my buddy, Waxman, that was then. This, my friends, is guac guerra. That’s “war” to you salsa eaters. Hass-ta la vista, babies.

Guacamole and Chips

I may, out of sheer pride, give up my guac recipe if I win the Guac-Off. In the meantime, since it’s published anyway, here is the version published in JW’s book. Headnote and all.

To this day, my first choice for a comfort meal is home-cooked corn tortillas, a freshly made tub of guacamole, and a margarita. My version of guacamole is partly based on that of one of my Mexcian buddies, Carolynn Carreño [That's me. That's the part that really irks me!], who learned it from her grandmother.

A fruit that is treated like a vegetable [here he puts on the authoritative hat because he is, after all the great American cook] the avocado is comforting—creamy and satisfying…. [He goes on but I'm starting to get bored, plus I don't know if the publisher will kill me if I just start copying the whole book, so if you want to read the rest of the headnote do the old fashioned thing and buy the book.]

4 cups corn oil or peanut oil

12 slightly stale corn tortillas

Sea salt

1/2 sweet onion, such as Vidalia

2 jalapeño chiles

1 serrano chile

1 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste

4 ripe Hass avocados

1 lemon

1 lime

Heat the oil in a deep heavy skillet to 350 degrees. Meanwhile, cut the tortillas into eighths (wedges) or into 1-inch strips. Cook the chips in 3 batches, until medium golden in color: Do not undercook! [Thanks for that, Jonathan!] Remove the chips from the oil with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain, and immediately sprinkle them with sea salt. [Or buy some good corn chips, some made by Mexicans, not machines, and start HERE:]

Finely mince the onion. Remove the stems and seeds from the chiles. Place the onion, chiles, cilantro, and kosher salt in a molcajete or mortar and pestle [Jonathan has a collection of these at his restaurant, Barbuto. It's really cool.] or a small food processor and mash or puree until almost liquid. Peel and pit the avocados, place them in a medium bowl, and mash them well with a fork. Fold in the onion mixture. Juice the lemon and lime and stir as much of the juice as you like into the guacamole. Taste for salt and add more if needed. [In my experience, just about everything needs more salt, but most especially guacamole. And mashed potatoes.]

Transfer the guacamole to a serving bowl and serve with the chips.

Eat.

Have You Had Your Quinoa Today?

April 23, 2009 § 4 Comments

Every once in awhile I do something in the kitchen that even I think is cool, and today was one of those days. It wasn’t difficult. Not even that surprising. Still, I’ve never known anyone else to make a hot breakfast cereal out of quinoa. (In fact, a quick Google search turned up tons of others who have done this before me, including one recipe with a picture that makes you want to take a bite out of your computer screen, on the blog 101 Cookbooks; but I didn’t know about them, so it was still an invention for me!)

Quinoa is an ancient South American grain (actually it is the seed of a plant, but for cooking and eating purposes you can think of it as a grain). Heathfoodies, particularly those that don’t eat animals, love it for its high protein content. And it’s a good thing for the sake of the quinoa, because it’s the kind of food that has to be loved for something other than it’s deliciousness. Although it’s not bad, and it can actually be kind of good, it’s not good enough to inspire a craving. Or at least I have never craved quinoa.

Today’s breakfast, like all brilliant inventions, was the direct result of necessity in a time of desperation. To be more specific: a) I had a sweet tooth and due to boring-to-talk-about but very real health concerns, I try not to eat sugar; b) I was out of oatmeal; c) I have eaten in restaurants every night for exactly one week and I wanted to eat Good, Clean Food today; and d) I just so happened to have a bag of heirloom red, Bolivan quinoa in the cupboard left over from a recipe I tested from Akasha, the real restaurant-health food hybrid in Culver City that against all my better instincts, I happen to love.

The cereal is pretty straightforward. I might simply be able to say: Make oatmeal using quinoa in place of the oats. But since it’s my job to write recipes, here goes.

Quinoa For Breakfast

2 cups liquid (depending on who you are and what you have on hand, this could be water, rice milk, soy milk, almond milk, hemp milk, or milk-milk)
1 cup quinoa (if you’re like me and it makes you feel better to spend more money on special versions of basic ingredients, then seek out an heirloom variety of quinoa such as the organic red Bolivian quinoa that I used.
1/4 cup dried currants (or raisins or apricots or whatever dried fruit you want to use; or not)
1 tablespoon butter
Splash of vanilla extract
A few shakes of ground cinnamon
A big pinch (about 1/2 teaspoon) salt
1/4 cup chopped pecans, sliced almonds, or sunflower seeds, toasted

If you know how to make hot cereal without my help, please ignore everything I have written below and pay attention only to the amounts. Actually you can ignore those too, except the part about using two parts liquid to one part quinoa.

Pour the liquid into into a medium saucepan over high heat and bring it to a boil. Stir in the butter, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt. Add the currants and quinoa, stir, and return the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until all the liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Serve it however you like to eat breakfast cereal. This morning, since I was trying to stay away from my usual why-use-milk-when-you-can-use-heavy-cream-instead way of thinking, and ate mine with a dab of butter in the center and some cold rice milk poured around the edges. (If I’d had nuts, i would have thrown those on top.) It was really good, despite all that nutritional value.

Eating My Confession

March 4, 2009 § 1 Comment

I made lentil soup Monday night, which was and always is more than just dinner. Lentil soup is my edible version of taking confession. Cleaning my slate as it were.

After a night like Sunday night, lentil soup was really the only thing to do. The fact that I ate three meals was the least of my problems. (Okay, they weren’t all meals exactly: I had some Kobe beef sliders and three types of French fries at XIV, the Michael Mina resto  on Sunset Boulevard that is currently on life support, some thinly sliced ham worth its weight in foie gras cotton candy at The Bazaar, and then I had a meal: about 10,000 small plates of perfection at AOC). But the part that truly gave me a hangover had nothing to do with what I ingested. It was more about the air of drama that swirled about the evening. At the first restaurant, my head was officially ripped off by another writer after I asked her a question I’d evidently asked her before. Our experience at The Bazaar was a bizarre trip to Miami that included a guy with a big tan and bigger biceps in ripped jeans (and was his hair blow-dried?), a celebrity chef with a model half his age (and bare legs twice as long), $600 check that included $200 in Red Bulls-and-vodka, and a passel of girls in too small of clothes, including one that was wearing, I swear I couldn’t make this shit up, a top hat. When we left Miami to get some grub in an atmosphere that was more our speed, at AOC, I actually got flipped off. By someone I knew. And he wasn’t even kidding. Not surprisingly, the following day was a day of email exchanges, apologies, and various friendings and yes, even unfriendings on Facebook. It was exhausting. And time for lentil soup.

I make my lentil soup roughly the same way every time, give or take a few slices of bacon, or a leek or two. I put tons of onions in mine, which makes it slightly sweet, and I like anything sweet. Lentils have a lot of good qualities–they’re healthy and cheap–but one of the things I like best about them is that they don’t need to be soaked, which means I cook my soup and eat it too, all in the same day, and then wake up the next morning a better person in the eyes of God.

To make lentils soup, start with a large soup pot over high heat and pour in some olive oil (about 1/4 cup, but don’t measure: just use  whatever it takes to cover the bottom of the pot). Add 2 or 3 onions (I use yellow onions; sweet Spanish ones if I have them) to the pot as you chop them. Throw in an ancho chile and a few sprigs of thyme if you happen to have some growing outside or a neighbor, like mine, who does. Sprinkle the whole deal with kosher salt, and start chopping carrots and celery (1 or 2 stalks). I like a lot of carrots in my lentil soup. It makes me feel like I’m eating vegetables (because I am), but use what you want: two, five, it’ll still be lentil soup. Saute all the vegetables, stirring whenever you think about it, for 5 or 10 minutes, until they’re nice and soft. Add the garlic and cook for about one minute, until your kitchen smells like garlic but not so long that the garlic browns. Add 3 quarts of chicken or vegetable broth, a fresh bay leaf if you have one, and a pound of green lentils. Bring the whole thing to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer the soup until the lentils are the texture of something you want to eat. This will take about an hour, but it will be even better after more time, and better still the next day. Once the soup is done, take out the chile and the bay leaf and throw in a handful of chopped fresh Italian parsley. I used to think parsley was just about adding green specks to your food, but all you have to do is chop up some of the stuff fresh and you figure out that it’s about its fresh, grassy flavor. Squeeze in the juice of half a lemon (or stir in a tablespoon or two of red wine or sherry vinegar), and season the soup with more salt if it needs it. (It probably does.). Serve the soup with a sprinkling of parsley, a sprinkling of Maldon salt, and a drizzle of finishing-quality extra virgin olive oil. Eat. And may peace be with you.

When a Chef Meets a Pile of Scallions

March 2, 2009 § 4 Comments

I’m a copycat cook. The difference between me and people who really got it goin’ on is that I might be able to execute one of their dishes pretty darned well, but I could never think of them. I doubt I have ever made anything that I didn’t eat or see or read about somewhere before. It’s just not who I am. So when I found myself with a pile of really pretty, delicate scallions on my hands (or my cutting board, rather), my imagination was limited to the following cliches: using them to top a baked potato, grilling them along with a steak, the way they do in Mexico, or use them instead of onions in a tuna salad. Thankfully, I had the good sense to email a photo of my very pretty onions to my friend Jonathan and ask him what to do next.

Jonathan is one of the most creative cooks I know. He always thinks of things to do with foods that nobody else does (they copy him) and that never seem silly (because he is not). For my onions, he said this: “Now if it were me I’d make soup with the large ones and grilled onion tacos with the smaller ones.” Tacos. Who would have thought?

Because a taco is only as good as the tortilla it’s made with, I buy hand-patted, just0made corn tortillas from my local taqueria, Loteria. Charring various ingredients such as tomatillos and chilies and then pureeing them in a blender is the way many Mexican sauces are born. It sounds kind of intimidating and Aztec but once you’ve tried it, you’ll see that the results—the deep, charred flavor you get from it—is worth the small effort, and in fact, it’s the Umami of all Mexican cuisine, the secret, hidden flavor you’ve been waiting for all your life without even knowing it. Like love.

Smothered Green Onion Tacos
16 small green onions (whole)
2 yukon gold potatoes (peeled and sliced)
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tomatillos (those are green tomatoes)
4 cloves garlic
2 mexican limes (aka: Key limes)
1 jalapeno chile
1 serrano chile
2 small vine ripened toamtoes
1 small bunch of cilantro (washed and put into two one-cup measures)
16 small corn tortillas

1, Wash the onions. Prepare a charcoal grill. When the coals are medium hot [don't you love how he just assumes we use coals, not gas?), toss the onions and potatoes with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, sea salt and pepper, and grill until they are golden brown on all sides. Place the onions in a covered bowl and let rest for 1 hour. When tender, cut off and discard the root end, and dice the onions.
2. Wash the tomatillos and cut them in half. Put a griddle on the grill [this is Jonathan's imitation of a Mexican comal, so if you have one of those, use it] and let it get very hot (about 10 minutes). Put a teaspoon of oil on the griddle and place the tomatillos outside down. Add the garlic,  jalapeño, serrano, and the tomatoes and cook them until they are dark brown. Turn them over and cook them on the other sides until dark brown. Place the vegetables in a bowl, cover with a plate, and steam for one hour. Remove the chillies and discard the stems and the seeds.
3. Place the contents of bowl number two (the tomatoes, tomatoes, garlic, and chillies) in a blender with one cup of cilantro, 1/2 cup of the diced onions, and the juice of one lime. Pulse to make a salsa. Season with salt.
4. Warm the tortillas. Toss the remaining onions and potatoes with the salsa. Spoon the mixture into the tortillas (in other words: make a taco), and garnish with lime and cilantro, and eat. Buen provecho.

Thanks Jonathan!

Butternut Squash Soup

February 17, 2009 § 1 Comment

Giving a recipe for butternut squash soup feels something like giving a recipe for sliced tomatoes. I’ve provided the amounts I used to make this soup, below, which may well be the best of a long, long history of butternut squash soups, but you should know that I based the amounts largely on what I had: If I’d had three yellow onions, I might have used all three. Had I only two large carrots—or none—that’s what the recipe would say. If I didn’t have the good fortune of sweet potatoes rolling around in my refrigerator drawer, I would have made the soup without the potatoes (though the do give it a wonderful velvety texture, and a deep flavor you only get from things pulled from the ground. Had I not also the good fortune of two different neighbors, one whose front yard is landscaped with creeping thyme, the other with a rosemary bush large as a hedge, I may have skipped one or both of those, too. You get the idea. Don’t you?

1 butternut squash (or hubbard, acorn, cheese pumpkin)
1 (or 2 or 3) sweet potatoes (I used garnet, but use whatever you have or want)
Olive oil (nothing fancy)
2 big yellow onions (white would be fine and red would probably work too), chopped
1 bunch of carrots, tops removed, chopped
1 sprig of rosemary and/or a few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 arbol chile
2 quarts vegetable or chicken broth
1 lemon, halved
Sea salt

Preheat the oven to 400ºF.

Cut the squash in half. This is no small task as you know if you have ever tried to slice through a butternut squash. the best way I know to do it is to take a big knife you don’t care that much about, plunge it kung-fu style into the squash, then, using the knife handle, pick the squash up (it’s now like a giant lollipop) and bang it on the counter so the knife goes further in. Keep doing this until you’ve created enough of a crevice so you can pry the thing open, and do. Scoop the insides out like seeds from a cantaloupe and discard.

Put the squash face-down on a baking sheet and put it and the sweet potatoes (did you know that sweet potatoes aren’t really a potato?) in the oven. Remove the sweet potatoes when they’re soft to the squeeze; remove the squash when it’s soft. Today my sweet potatoes were such different sizes that I took each one out separately, as they were done. I wondered: Is it possible to overcook a sweet potato? I will get an answer to that question.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a big soup pot. Add the onion, rosemary, thyme, and chile and saute over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until the onions are soft. Add the carrots and saute another 10 minutes until they are soft. The time doesn’t matter, I just put it there because somewhere, somebody would think: soft? 10 minutes? An hour? What exactly does it mean that an onion is soft? The goal here is: soft, sweet vegetables without any color. If the pan is too dry and you are burning the vegetables, add a splash of water or stock. The idea is to buy time. Cooking time that is.

When the squash and potatoes are done, add them to the pot—not the skin. Throw that in the trash or eat it with butter and salt. Or hand it to your dog. Add the stock and cook everything together for 10 minutes just to feel like you’re doing something, and like something is happening with the soup. Remove the herbs and chile. Repeat: REMOVE THE HERBS AND CHILE. Puree the soup with a stick (immersion) blender if you have one. If you don’t, puree it in batches in a blender or food processor and resolve to buy a stick blender before you make a pureed soup again.

Add a squeeze of lemon juice and salt to taste. If this soup is not the most delicious fall soup you have ever tasted, rich in rust-colored flavor, it probably needs more salt. I’m going to guess you know how to serve and eat soup so I am not going to explain. In the late, late fall, I served it with a plate of sliced tomatoes, the last heirlooms of the year from Chino Farms and as good as if it were August. Unless you live south of the equator or have a thing for tomatoes that taste like geraniums, I don’t recommend you eat this soup with tomatoes until next fall, during that short window when tomatoes are in season and it’s cool enough that you’re craving silky soup like this one. If you want to make the soup look like the sort of thing you’d find in a restaurant with stuff on top, there’s a recipe in Twist of the Wrist for b’nut squash soup topped with sauteed spinach and farro–and knowing Nancy, there must be bacon in there, too.

Good night. And good eats.

No Mayo Lobster Salad

January 1, 2009 § Leave a comment

I spent a mellow, happy New Year’s Eve at my friend Steven’s house with Steven and two other friends including our friend Oliver. Oliver had just sold his house in Maine so we thought he might be sentimental for some lobster. Or anyway, that was our excuse for buying the lobster. When we got it home, we couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Steven is fanatical about eating healthy and I’m fanatical about finding healthy ways to eat that don’t involve compromises. I do not, for instance, believe that chicken stock is a viable substitute for cream in mashed potatoes, or that nonfat yogurt has any business where sour cream would usually be found. Every suggestion I made for dressing the lobster—warm butter, homemade mayo, creme fraiche—he nixed until we finally agreed on this: a refreshing, wintery lobster salad with thinly sliced fennel, fresh dill, olive oil, lemon juice, and sea salt.

1 pound cooked lobster
1/2 fennel bulb, halved, cored, and thinly sliced into half-moons
A handful of dill leaves
1/4 cup good olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Sea salt

Combine the lobster, fennel, and dill in a bowl. Squeeze the lemon juice over the salad, drizzle with the olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt, and toss. Taste before serving. It probably needs more salt.

We served it just like this and ate it with our fingers and everyone was happy. You could also put it on a bed of tender greens like mache or pea shoots. When was the last time you used “mache” in a sentence?

Serves four or six as a starter.

Lobster salad. You can see the caviar in the background. What can I say? It was New Year's Eve.

Lobster salad. You can see the caviar in the background. What can I say? It was New Year's Eve.

Oatmeal Cocktail

January 20, 2008 § 5 Comments

“You’re going to write a recipe for oatmeal!?” my sister shrieked from the bathtub in San Diego where she was when I called. This might seem like a reasonable question except that not an hour before she had sent me and email asking me how to make oatmeal. Like all simple foods, the difference between one that conjures up images of orphans lucky to get anything to eat at all, and one that you would actually choose to eat even if it wasn’t good for you, is all in the details. Very few people, and even fewer restaurants make great oatmeal. I do.

I am not the least bit hesitant to tell you that I make, hands-down, the best oatmeal I have tasted. Ever. Anywhere. It’s only fair, since this was my sole inheritance from my mother’s side of the family. My Grandmother Birdie was an early feminist: she worked, she smoked, she gambled, she cussed, she wore pants, and some say she adopted all six of her children because she refused to have sex with her husband. She also didn’t cook, except for one thing—you guessed it—which she called Oatmeal Cocktail, I assume because she wanted to dress it up a bit. A one-hit wonder, but at least it was a hit. And it was. Christy and I used to beg her to make it and I spent years trying to make my morning porridge live up to the memory of it before i realized her secret: so much butter and brown sugar it was basically an oatmeal cookie in a bowl.

To make oatmeal… start with steal cut oats. You can make rolled oats taste good in a pinch. (Isn’t it weird that they roll oats? I mean, why? I am going to find out). I like Bob’s Red Mill and Anson Mills oats because they taste good and they’re American and what’s more: they don’t come in that silly can like the Irish ones do, which is just a waste. I’m not going to give amounts because really, who needs a recipe for oatmeal?

Bring the appropriate amount of water to a boil in a saucepan. (Read the package to get a sense of how much liquid this is depending on how many servings you’re making.) Add a pinch of salt, a few shakes of cinnamon, and pour in some vanilla. Stir in the oats, lower the heat, and simmer the oats, stirring from time to time, until the oats are the texture of something you want to eat. If you like raisins put them in midway through the oat cooking process. Raisins on the side are a disappointment because they are shriveled and sugary and they never become part of the oatmeal. You need to put them in early so they plump up like they do in rice pudding. If you find that you are running out of liquid but the oats are not done, add more liquid. (As I write that, i think: Do I really need to tell people that? But my niece Johnna was over the other morning. She thinks I make the best oatmeal ever, and I keep telling her, without any success, that she can make the same oatmeal at home. So I put her in charge of cooking the oatmeal while I took care of my coffee addiction and ten minutes later she asked: “Is it done?” I said, I don’t know, put it in your mouth and see if it is something you want to eat. And then she said: “It’s hard. But there’s no more liquid.” So i said…) If you find that you are running out of liquid but the oats are not done, add more liquid. Cook the oats until they’re done.

Oatmeal is all about finishing. Taste the oatmeal to make sure it has enough salt and if it doesn’t, add more. Put the oatmeal into the bowls you’re going to eat it out of. Put a slice of butter on top of each serving. Sprinkle with a pinch of big, rock salt (like gray salt, Maldon will do but best to have nice crystals to bite into). And then finish it how you like. I think it’s best with a very little bit of honey or dark brown sugar—maybe some toasted sliced almonds or sunflower seeds—and a little half-and-half poured around the edge of the bowl. At some point the melted butter will meet the cream and then you know what it was to be a child in Birdie’s Oatmeal Cocktail world.

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