March 28, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Not long ago, following my new Tibetan doctor’s prescription to slow down and be nice to myself (don’t you just love a prescription like that!?), I let myself enjoy a leisurely lunch with my friend, the chef Jonathan Waxman, at the Venice restaurant phenom, Gjelina. As we looked through the menu deciding what to order, I pointed out the words typed on the cover side of each menu, “changes & modifications politely declined.” Gjelina, as anyone who follows the shallow, eating disordered life of Victoria Beckham knows, does not allow substitutions. “What do you think of that?” I asked J-Wax, curious about his point of view on an issue that became pretty loud and controversial in the City of dressing-on-the-side Angels after the VB incident.
“I”m fine with it,” he said.
“Fine with people asking for substitutions or fine with Gjelina’s policy of declining them?”
“You know the famous quote,” he went on in the cool, calm, and all-knowing way he has that inspired younger chefs he competed against on Top Chef Masters to compare him to Obi-Wan Kenobe. “Le chef il a toujours raison.” (Jonathan himself has a policy, though it’s not printed on any menu, of refusing to answer any question in a direct manner.) Since I did not know the quote and do not speak enough French to order a cafe au lait in Paris, I stared back blankly. “It means, ‘The chef always has a reason.’ In other words: Don’t f*@! with it. Let him do it his way. If you don’t like it, order something else.”
“So what do you do at Barbuto when people ask for substitutions?” I asked.
“I do whatever they want,” he said, shrugging his shoulders and chuckling because he was so obviously contradicting himself. “What the hell. I want people to be happy”
March 16, 2012 § 2 Comments
I just got back from visiting a friend in the hospital. (In summary: Not good, but he’s gonna live.) Looking on the bright side, the good thing about what ails him is that he can still eat. Being that pretty much everyone this guy knows is in the food business, he is going to be the best-fed guy at Kaiser. Last night two friends came in bearing two large bags full of tuna melts, bean salads, fried pickles, and root beer from Short Order. I brought Littlejohn’s toffee, which I know is a favorite of his. Today when I got there, there was a sweet little box of cookies from Susina Bakery, scones from Short Cake Bakery, and last I heard, Armenian food from Carousel was on the way for lunch, and a double order of tagliata with oxtail ragú from Osteria Mozza for dinner.
Anyway, today we sat around the way you do when someone you love is in the hospital, trying to crack jokes, not sure which is worse: talking about the reason you’re there or not talking about the reason you’re there, basically just trying to pass the time in a pleasant enough manner so that you can be together and the person knows they are cared for. “Do you mind being here or do you feel bad enough that this feels like where you want to be right now?” I asked. “This feels like where I want to be,” he said.
When the nurse left the room, after persuading her to try the toffee, he looked at me and said, as if we were about to plan a coup: “Okay. Top five things in the Farmers Market.” This is the kind of thing we talk about when nobody has recently stared death in the face so it felt kinda refreshing. “Little John’s,” for sure, I said. “And the shredded beef taco at Loteria.” “Ida’s Old School,” he said about what I’d agree is the best burger at Short Order. We argued for awhile as to whether we could group things and finally came up with this:
1. Littlejohn’s toffee
2. Ida’s Old School Burger at Short Order
3. Roasted & Salted Cashews from Magee’s Nuts
5. Carne Deshebrada Taco at Lotería
I happen to have a thing for the apple fritters at Bob’s Donuts, and the applewood bacon at Huntington Meats. (Not to mention the marrow bones, which Rufus is a big fan of.) We thought about increasing the list to eight so we could fit in all of the things we loved in the Farmers Market but decided against it. Five’s a good number. Besides, if the list isn’t tough to edit, then it isn’t special.
March 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Last week a blogger, Beth Howard, contacted me via Facebook to say that she’d posted a story I wrote a decade ago on her Facebook page. A New York-based editor, she said, had read my story back then, hung onto it, and sent it to this blogger, because her thing is pie, and that was the subject of my story: pie, and making pie. It was a nice thrill, to think that this editor (who I know by name and respect) had hung onto it, and to have my story resurrected in that way.
But reading a story, particularly a personal essay, that you wrote long ago—in this case, long before I was required to take my shoes off at the airport!—is a bit like stumbling upon an old box of photos in terms of the mix of nostalgia and cringe that it induces. The most alarming thing about reading this particular story was seeing that I had made the pie crust with—yikes!—margarine. The reason I did this was very simple: this is how I was taught to make pies the summer before, when I worked as the pie baker at Loaves & Fishes, which is where I learned how to make pies in the first place. Loaves & Fishes is a famously expensive food store in the famously expensive Hamptons. The idea behind that store is, in a nutshell, to produce homemade food for people who do not cook at home, no matter how beautiful and well-equipped their kitchens. On my inaugural day at L&F, Anna, an older German woman who owns and runs the place along with her daughter, explained to me that margarine made for a tender crust, where an all-butter crust would turn out tough. If this was good enough for their moneyed (and I presumed discerning) clientele, I figured it was as good as it could be. But that’s where I was wrong…
I’ve learned a lot in the 12 or 15 years since the summer I wrote about in the pie story—about life, about what people are willing to pay for and why, and, of course, about pie. Today, with the same casual, knowing ease with which I might slip off my slip-on shoes as I approach the security check at the airport, I can confirm that this bit about the butter making for a tougher crust is true. But I’ve also learned that margarine and all its artificiality isn’t the only solution. The one thing that butter has that margarine doesn’t is flavor. The answer is to use a mix of butter and not butter. You can use butter plus margarine, which I did for several years. Butter and Crisco, which I believe is Julia Child’s formula, but don’t quote me on that. Butter plus lard, which let’s face it must be the best choice because anything with lard is better than anything with a substitute for lard. Or, like my friend Bob Blumer does, butter plus bacon fat (aka: lard).
Looking forward, I can only imagine what I will have learned ten years from now. One thing I do know is that a life where you are making pie (no matter what kind of fat you put in the crust!), that is, a life where you have the inclination and take the time to make pie, and wherein you have the friends and family with which to enjoy pie—this is a good life. As for the crust, I’ll probably go the lard route, followed by Crisco in a pinch. But I’ll definitely always make my own pie dough. The process of making it—taking it, that, for me, is the whole point of pie.
However You Slice It, There’s No Gift More Honest
I discovered the power of pie on an August night a few summers back as I walked across my small, quiet street barefoot, carrying a just-baked, still-bubbling pie with two hands, to introduce myself to my new neighbors.
I’d never felt quite so American, and I’d certainly never done anything so darn-right neighborly. But I’d just learned to make pie, and the nectarines at the farmers market were ripe for the occasion, and, well, something came over me. As luck would have it, he turned out to be a poet and she a gardener, and there we sat at an old bistro table, drinking chilled white wine and telling our stories and falling in love the way new friends sometimes do. When it comes to bearing gifts, there’s just nothing like a fruit pie.
Since then, fruit pie has become my currency of goodwill. Andy and Elyce have a baby and the first thing I think of, because they’re from New England, is blueberry pie. A friend gives me a tennis lesson and, since he’s from Georgia, I find myself slicing up a bowl full of peaches the very next morning. Two firemen rescue my cat from high up a pine tree and I have no choice: two pies to go.
It’s a special feeling, bringing someone a pie. Unlike with a batch of cookies, where you might keep a few for yourself, with pie you just give up the whole thing. If you’re lucky, as I was that first night, they might cut it right there and give you a slice. Most importantly, though, is that when you bring someone a fruit pie, they are nothing short of amazed. Amazed that fruit pies are actually made. Amazed that you made it. Amazed that you made it for just for them.
Before that summer, I, too, would have been in awe of any human being capable of bringing a pie into the world, because I was in total fear of making dough. The ice water thing threw me into a panic. And rolling out dough seemed like some kind of impossible art form, learned from Grandmother or not at all. But once I mastered the four essentials of making dough–chilled butter or margarine; not quite mixing it all the way with the flour; rolling the dough from the inside out and not any more than you need to; and the most satisfying thing of all, crimping the edge–I became a pie-making fool.
I made pies for all occasions and proudly took them all over town. And the pies changed me. That first night with my new friends, I went to bed thinking about how they’d been together 20 years and were still happy, still making their art. I dreamed that night of a simple life with a man for whom I could make pies and with whom I could sit in a garden and tell my stories. Fruit pie is humble. It has that effect.
(NOTE on 3/14: Since it’s not plum season, you have your choice: get your hands on some quality frozen plums–and they’ll be almost just as good. Or use the equivalent in apples. You can keep everything else the same. Fruit pie isn’t rocket science, especially not the fruit part.)
3 sticks margarine, 2 sticks unsalted butter, very cold and cubed, plus 1 stick Crisco, or 4 ounces lard
4 cups flour
3 tablespoons ice water
31/2-4 cups tart plums (or apples!), sliced
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch each of clove and nutmeg
2 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1/4 cup milk
1 egg yolk
Sugar for dusting
In food processor fitted with a metal blade, pulse flour and butter and Crisco/lard together until integrated into a coarse crumb, but not totally combined. Drizzle in water and continue to pulse, until just combined. On work surface, form a ball with mixture. Chill at least 1/2 hour.
Cut ball of dough into quarters and roll one quarter about 1/4-inch thick and place into pie pan and cut off the excess dough to edge of pan. Roll out second ball. Using cookie cutter, cut hole directly in center of dough and set aside.
In a bowl, mix filling ingredients and pour into prepared pie pan. Place butter pieces evenly over plums. Drape top crust over filled pie pan. Cut excess top crust, leaving about 3/4 inch to hang over. Fold top crust, tucking it under bottom crust. Crimp edges with thumb and forefinger. Mix milk and egg yolk and brush lightly on pastry. Sprinkle handful of sugar liberally over pie. Bake at 425 degrees until golden brown and fruit inside has broken down and is giving off ample juices, usually about 50 minutes to 1 hour.
February 16, 2012 § 2 Comments
After I met Bill Chait for the first time about five months ago, at Starbucks in the Original Farmers Market, or what he referred to then as his “office,” the first thing I did when I got in the car was call Nancy Silverton. Nancy had introduced us so that Bill and I could potentially work together–doing who knows what, she just thought we should meet. Bill is the man behind Short Order and Short Cake, both of which businesses Nancy is a partner in. “Oh my god! He is, like, the smartest guy I’ve ever met!” I was blown away listening to him because the way his mind worked was just different than regular people. So conceptual. So broad. I felt like I was at Berkeley again where people engaged in thinking just for the sake of it. I was so blown away in fact that I pitched a story about Bill to an editor at the Los Angeles Times. It’s such a great idea, he wrote back, that I already thought of it. And he had a staff writer do the story instead. In the months since that email exchange, Bill has become a close friend–too good a friend in fact for me to feel comfortable writing a newspaper story about him. It’s a trade I would gladly make again.
So from an LA Times staff writer, ladies and gentleman… Bill Chait.
February 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I’m not superstitious, but I do appreciate when certain superstitions give me an excuse to do something I want to do anyway. In Italy, lentils, called lenticchie (pronounced “len-TEA-ki-yay”) are traditionally eaten for New Year because they are supposed to bring prosperity to the eater. The reasoning being that the little legumes are vaguely reminiscent of teeny tiny coins so by eating them, you will be showered with money. (Makes perfect sense, if you like lentils.) Which is why, when 2012 rolled around, thinking my friends and I could use a little prosperity ourselves, I invited a few over on a sunny January first, and decided to give the experiment a go.
I started with Umbrian Lentils, which grow in and around a town called Castelluccio, in Umbria. Lenticchie di Castelluccio, like the more widely known French Lentils du Puy, are granted IGT (protected geographical indication) status, which means in order to bear the name Castelluccio, they have to be grown in that particular region. Smaller than traditional brown lentils, Umbrian lentils come in various shades of brown and are known for their tender skin and rich, slightly sweet flavor. I bought my Umbrian lentils at Mozzza2Go. I’ve also seen them at the Cheese Shop in Beverly Hills and online. They’re never less than $10 a pound, and they are also not real, actual Castellucio area-protected lentils. Those sold here are all from the nearby area of Colfiorito, which means “flowering” for the way that the hillsides flower in the springtime when the lentils are in bloom. As far as I can tell they are the same lentil, minus the pedigree. I spent $40 on three pounds of rogue Umbrian lentils, or roughly eight times what I would have spent had I started with regular brown lentils from the grocery store. The lentil-prosperity project, like so many good things in life, was going to be a story in patience and faith.
This is the “town,” where lentils are grown. It’s full of tourists, mostly Italian, many of them on motorcycles, who come for the beautiful drive and a bowl of rich, sausagey lentils while they’re there. I visited this little crater of the world two summers ago. It’s a long winding drive to the top of the Apennine Mountains, nestled at the crest of the mountains that separate Umbria from a region I’d never even heard of until I got within a stone’s throw of it: The Marche.
No sunflowers here, kids. It looks more like Tibet, minus the prayer flags, or the moon, minus whatever is on the moon, than Umbria.
Forty-three days into the new year, I’ve determined that part of the reason for the prosperity brought by the lentils, presuming you didn’t spend $40 on yours, must be that you end up eating lentils for the next hundred days. Okay, so I exaggerate. I ate my last bowl of New Year’s lentils just today. I drizzled them with olive oil so good that it, too, could interfere with my prosperity. But certainly not my quality of life. Which is why, as I write this, I have another enormous batch of lentils simmering on the stove, and still more Umbrian lentils in the cupboard waiting for a poor and rainy day. As far as I’m concerned, it’s like money in the bank.
Prosperity Lentils, Umbrian Style
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 Spanish onions, diced
1/4 pound prosciutto (if you are not a vegetarian), pancetta, or bacon; ground in a mini food processor until it’s a paste
2-3 celery stalks, sliced about 1/4-inch thick
4-10 carrots (knock your socks off if you like carrots!), sliced about 1/4-inch thick
1-2 tablespoons tomato paste (preferably double concentrated)
4-6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 pound lentils (preferably Umbrian)
2 to 3 quarts chicken stock
Pour enough olive oil into a soup pot to cover the bottom pretty generously. Add the onions and season them with salt. Cook them for about 10 minutes over medium-high heat, stirring often so they don’t get color on them. Add whatever ground pork you are using, if you are using it, and cook it for 3 to 4 minutes to render the fat. Add the celery and carrots. (You could also add some leeks if you happen to have them, which I did today.) Season the vegetables with salt and cook them for about 10 minutes to soften them, adding more olive oil if the pan seems dry. (The more olive oil you add, the better your lentils will taste. Period.) Add the tomato paste (preferably the Italian stuff, which comes in a tube, not the canned stuff, which tastes cloying and weird), making sure the paste lands on the pan, not in the vegetables, and cook for 1 or 2 minutes to get rid of the raw tomato flavor. Add the garlic and saute for 1 or 2 minutes. Add the lentils and enough chicken stock or water to cover them by an inch. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer the lentils, adding more stock or water (or a combination) as needed, until they are tender. This takes about an hour, and you will probably use 2 to 3 quarts of total liquid.
Serve the lentils with good olive oil drizzled on top. If you want, you can also add crumbled Italian sausage. According to Italian tradition, you’re supposed to eat them with cotecchino, a weird meat product that comes in a box, unrefrigerated, lasts for generations, and that Italians love almost as much as they love their mothers. I never found one that doesn’t taste like Spam to me, so were I to want a super meaty, one pot lentil meal, I’d go the Italian sausage route. Here’s to your wealth.
February 4, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In honor of National Snack Food Day tomorrow, I decided to once again repost my famous guacamole recipe. As many of you know, I was once a guacamole purist, willing to go to insane lengths to grind every last bit of loose gravel from a lava molcajete, which as it turns out is just plain not possible. But last Labor Day, when Nancy asked me to bring enough guac for 40 to contribute to the burger feast at her house, well, let’s just say I gave in.
Here, you can see, I started with a molcajete, and all the best intentions.
But it soon became apparent that my avocados were bigger than my molcajete. And I don’t mean that metaphorically.
So I resorted to this: one of the most beloved and used gadgets in my kitchen: the Cuisinart Mini Prep, AKA: the Modern Man’s Molcajete. (It comes in lots of colors. I personally own one that is chrome and another that is royal blue. Don’t ask me why I own two, but it has to do with having had my car shipped from Bridgehampton to Los Angeles unexpectedly at the end of last summer and my New York-based mini having been in the trunk at the time. So now you don’t even need to ask.) I chose this particular color to post here, a color I refer to as Tijuana Green (if you’ve been there, you know why), because it is the color of the house we lived in in Tijuana until I was three, where I must have eaten my first ever guacamole in its natural habitat.
To make guacamole in the mini prep, the key is to grind the ingredients–that is, the onion, serrano, cilantro, and salt (recipe is reposted below)–only until it is paste. Stop. That’s enough! Trust me. Better to have the rogue bit of serrano than a bowlful of juice.
Dump the paste into a big bowl. Add the avocados, season them with salt, and smash the avocados into the paste until they are integrated but the guac still has texture.
While you have your mini plugged in, I recommend you also make this charred smoky tomato salsa, which may be the best tomato salsa I’ve ever eaten if I do say so myself. Even though this time of year, tomatoes tend to taste less like tomatoes than geraniums, it doesn’t matter, because in the ancient culinary traditions of my people, the flavor here is all about the char. Olé. And may the best team win, whatever the options happen to be.
Smoky Tomato Salsa
Makes 2 cups
1 pound roma tomatoes, charred on a hot grill or in a searing hot dry (as in not oiled) skillet until they are black in places and collapsed
1 yellow onion, sliced, oiled, and charred on the grill or in the skillet until they are black in places
4 garlic cloves, browned in their skins on that grill or in that skillet
1 tablespoon plus 1 to 2 teaspoons canned chipotles in adobe, pureed
1 teaspoon chipotle chile powder (if you don’t have this or can’t find it easily, skip it. Your salsa will still rock)
2 to 3 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
Puree the charred tomatoes (including any juices that have collected in whatever vessel you’ve put them on), onion, and garlic in a food processor until they are coarsely pureed. Add the chipotle puree, chipotle power, salt, and sugar and stir to combine. Taste for seasoning and add more of whatever you want. Serve with your guacamole and homemade chips and everyone within reach of them will love you.
Guacamole Made in a Food Processor (Ay Ay Ay.)
4 serrano chiles, halved and seeds removed (Why anyone would ever eat a jalapeño pepper after tasting one of these is beyond me. Probably because, like my very own self before preparing for competition, they never actually tasted one in any deliberate way. Once you do, you’ll realize that jalapeños are sort of bitter and disgusting tasting and, given the choice, you should always reach for the smaller, slimmer, and infinitely tastier serrano).
About 1/8 of a white (by which I do not mean yellow) onion, roughly chopped
A small handful of cilantro leaves (This wasn’t in my original recipe–what can I say: people evolve. I sometimes use it, sometimes don’t. What I never do is add the leaves as I want it to flavor the guacamole, not stick to someone’s front tooth.)
4 4ipe Hass avocados, halved, pitted, and scooped out of the peel
1 or 2 Mexican (aka key) limes
Maldon sea salt or Fleur de sel
Throw the onion, serranos, and cilantro, into the bowl of your Modern Man’s Molcajete. Season with salt. Pulse the machine until you have a fairly smooth paste but nothing even resembling juice. You may want to stop and scrape down the sides of your food processor from time to time so that you don’t juice some ingredients while the others wait on the side of the bowl.
Dump the paste out into a bowl large enough to hold your avocados. Add the avocados and smash them with a fork or potato masher until they are 1) smashed. and 2) integrated with the paste. Add a bit of lime juice, taste, and add more lime or salt if necessary. Taste it again, adjust it again, and just when you think that your guacamole is perfect, add some more salt, and serve with homemade tortilla chips. Okay, here you go.
Home Made Chips
This is recycled from last year’s blog post.
Pour some frying oil (corn, canola, or vegetable) and heat it to frying temperature, which is 375, over high heat. If you don’t have a deep-fry thermometer, heat the oil until a pinch of salt sizzles madly when you drop it into the oil. Then turn the heat down a bit, otherwise the oil will keep heating and get too hot. If it starts smoking, it’s too hot. In a perfect world you should probably dump the oil at this point and start over, but that’s entirely up to you. Now, take a stack of corn tortillas–maybe 3 or 4–not so tall that you can’t cut through them. For this, you want regular grocery store tortillas. Homemade tortillas are too thick for chips so don’t go trying to get fancy. Now take a big knife and cut through the stack, like a pie, to make chip-shaped wedges (One tortilla makes either six or eight chips.) Do this wedge-cutting with all of your tortillas, and if you’re wondering how many to make, don’t worry about it because no matter how many you do make, you will run out. So make what you want. While the oil is heating, make a nice, comfortable bed for the chips with paper towels, have your kosher salt handy, and find something you can use to drag chips out of oil. (The Joyce Chen stainless-steel strainer is my favorite tool for the job, but if you don’t happy to have o ne, even a slotted spoon or spatula will do.) Now that you’re all set up and your oil is hot, drop some tortilla wedges–but not so many that you crowd the pan–in the oil. Fry them until they are golden brown and look like something you’re dying to eat. Lift the chips out of the oil and onto the paper towels and before you do anything else, sprinkle them with more salt than you actually want to. Health-conscious freaks note: Most of the salt will fall off anyway, and besides, it’s Super Bowl Sunday. At least you’re not eating a fried Twinkie! Fry the rest of the tortilla wedges in the same way, adding more oil to the pot as the oil level starts to drop and letting it get nice and hot before putting more chips in. Now… If you want a real treat, fry flour tortillas (buy the smaller, corn tortilla size ones) in the same way.