October 19, 2006

Look at me, I'm... Sandra Lee?!?!?

...lousy with... yeah, nevermind.

Costco meatballs with Yoshida(tm) Sauce...

Aidell's mini-sausages braised in 7-Up...

Baked Chicken Taquitos

chips & dip...

and a chocolate fountain.

Wandering through Costco with the shopping list felt like an out of body experience. Yoshida sauce? What the heck is Yoshida sauce?




Wouldn't be my first choice (or my third or my three-hundredth) for after-party fare, but it's what they wanted. And their guests absolutely loved it.

The taquitos were the first to go, followed quickly by the meatballs. We couldn't keep the bowl of pre-packaged artichoke/spinach dip stocked. Nothing on the buffet table took more than 15 minutes to prepare (except where "prepare" is translated "defrost").

Except the chocolate. In the motel-provided mini-microwave, the process of melting the chocolate was tedious.

In any other context, I would have been mortally embarrassed presenting this spread of junk food. But these are my friends. And this is what they wanted. So I swallow real hard, ignore their strange tastes in food and deliver what they ask.

And quickly duck out of the room before anyone associates my name with the menu...

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October 18, 2006

Rediscovering Grapes


As I kid, I adored them. Ate them like candy.

Somewhere along the way they dropped off my radar. Joined a well worn Raggedy Ann doll, a seasoned baseball mitt, a plaid uniform skirt paired with a crisply ironed white oxford blouse, a stack of Laura Ingalls, Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume books and a host of other things I've "outgrown" in my journey from "there" to "here".


A year ago I joined a CSA, and the first of many joyous surprises in my weekly delivery was a pound of ueber-fresh red flame grapes. Sweet, yet slightly tart. Transporting me instantly back to the lunch recess behind the elementary school in the aforementioned plaid uniform. Yum.

I've spent the last year enjoying the other fruits and vegetables in my weekly box -- and waiting anxiously for the grapes to return.

They're back.

Excuse me while I go grab a handful and curl up with a well-worn copy of On the Banks of Plum Creek...

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Fascinating -- though somewhat bland and predictable

You Are Strawberry Ice Cream

A bit shy and sensitive, you are sweet to the core.
You often find yourself on the outside looking in.
Insightful and pensive, you really understand how the world works.

You are most compatible with chocolate chip ice cream.

October 16, 2006

Our daily bread...

My paternal grandparents arrived in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century as infants, children whose parents came searching for a better life for their descendents. Sadly, I don't know nearly as much of their stories as I'd like. But I do know that among their most treasured possessions were the recipes they brought over from "the old country." Recipes. Ingredient lists, really, scribbled on scratch paper. Often without any indication of volume or preparation method. In dialect. I suspect "Pasta Fazool" translates Pasta e Fagiole. And despite hours with Google, I have no idea how to translate "Toothlatch" -- a palm-sized, rustic ravioli with a chard/ricotta filling. And the subject of today's post, in honor of Zorra's event in celebration of World Bread Day : my great grandmother's "Figassa" (Focaccia).

As small children we spent several summers visiting family in suburban Chicago and in rural Illinois. In those years we were introduced to summer electrical storms, fireflies, and tornado watches. Cipriani's spaghetti. Savoia's lasagna. And grandmother's fresh baked figassa. There is no more heavenly scent than waking up to the smell of cinnamon raisin figassa, fresh from the oven. Garlic-parmesan with a bowl of soup for lunch. And my favorite, sweet onion & raisin with roast turkey or barbecued chicken for dinner.

In the summer of my seventh year -- the summer before she died -- I spent several days with my grandmother, watching as she measured the ingredients (with her hands -- I'm not sure she owned measuring cups), mixed and kneaded the dough, shaped it and let it rise, topped and baked it. It was the closest I came to learning to cook at her side and while I certainly didn't understand the significance then, I'm eternally grateful for that experience now.

Her recipe includes just five ingredients: flour, yeast, salt, oil and water. No volumes or measures. No further instructions. So I consult my bread bible: Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice and use his recipe for slowly fermented focaccia. In the interest of getting this posted while it *is* still World Bread Day, I won't post his entire 12-step recipe, which I followed virtually verbatim.

I opted for an herb topping as I had sage leftover from my soup adventure and rosemary from my CSA. The result was a hearty, rustic bread much more reminiscent of a thick pizza crust than the doughy spongy focaccia available in the grocery store deli. While time consuming, it's a fairly simple recipe to follow -- and one I'll likely continue to experiment with. For the holidays, I think I'll try a mixture of caramelized onions, raisins and pine nuts.

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October 13, 2006

Move over Michelin - Campo di Bocce (Livermore)

When friends invited us to join them for dinner at Campo di Bocce in Livermore we accepted, but without our usual enthusiasm for trying out a 'new' restaurant. I'm typically hyper-critical of Italian restaurants -- they have to be *really* good to get my attention and merit a return visit.

Piatti's done it.
Capellini has done it.
Vivace's done it.
Campo di Bocce's Los Gatos location hasn't even come close, so I wasn't optimistic about their new venture in Livermore.

John plays in a league, so we're at Campo - Los Gatos once a week. We usually make alternate arrangements for dinner. We dine at Campo just often enough to remind ourselves not to. Come on people. It really doesn't get any easier than Italian food. Our chief complaint is over consistency. When the kitchen staff is having a good night what emerges from its confines won't win any awards, but it's edible and not terribly unpleasant. When it's a not-so-good night, all bets are off. So asking for a menu is like flipping a coin -- you're never quite sure what you're going to get. Service is equally spotty -- it can range anywhere from pleasant to surly to non-existent.

We knew that the management planned to hire a "real" chef for the Livermore facility, and a tour during construction mid-summer included a menu preview that had us intrigued. But experience indicated that at least in terms of food, Campo scores much higher at creativity than execution. With that in mind, when our friends suggested Campo Livermore for dinner I was curious but not particularly optimistic.

As I scanned the specials board on the way to our table, I reevaluated:

Special Salad of the Day: Mixed Greens with Hearts of Palm and Seared Scallops in a Vanilla Vinaigrette. Hmmm.

Soup of the Day: Roasted Winter Squash Bisque. Hmmmmm.

Dessert of the Day: White Chocolate Hazelnut Ravioli. Okay, now you've got my undivided attention.

A quick segue... I'm notoriously bad at deciding what I want to order -- I can linger over a menu for a good twenty minutes narrowing down my selections. But the menu at Campo provided no temptation; I was having a cup of the soup with the salad, thankyouverymuch. John ordered one of the pasta dishes. Our dining companions chose spinach canelloni and the grilled salmon in a pesto crust. And an order of calamari for the table.

First pleasant surprise: the service was professional, courteous and efficient. Followed quickly by the second pleasant surprise: the calamari didn't suck. It wasn't the best calamari I've ever had -- I prefer a paper-thin crust -- but it was well seasoned and cooked perfectly, with none of the rubbery texture that's the hallmark of the sister restaurant. The soup arrived in short order and continued the kitchen staff's winning streak -- it was rich and creamy but not heavy, seasoned perfectly, a near-perfect accompaniment to a blustery fall evening.

But the salad -- the salad had my inner Bruno screaming ten! Ten! TEN! The scallops were seared on the outside, rare on the inside. There were six of them -- certainly adequate for an entree salad. Interspersed among equally generous portions of lightly marinated hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, red onions, red bell peppers, over a bed of crisp romaine. Dressed liberally but not sodden with the single best vinaigrette I've ever experienced. Vanilla. Vinegar. And they worked together. Beautifully. Brilliantly. The salad sold me. The salad brought me back for more...

You got it, a return visit. The very next night. To watch the North American Bocce Championships yes, but also to get another taste of Chef Tony Murray's genius. This time we dined on the patio. We started with the artichoke stuffed with Italian Sausage and dressed with aged balsamic vinegar. Seven, in my best Bruno voice (but then I'm not an Italian sausage fan). Again in a departure from the standard set in Los Gatos, the salad of the day is in fact a salad of the DAY -- not just a different fish slapped on top of mixed greens with gorgonzola and Italian dressing. So I didn't get another shot at vanilla goodness. Thursday's salad was grilled swordfish over romaine, surprisingly sweet tomatoes, hearts of palm in a hearty Italian vinaigrette. Not over the top like the scallop salad, but still a solid 9. For dessert we indulged in the white chocolate ravioli: three mounds of hazelnut ganache enrobed in white chocolate and drizzled with raspberry red sauce.

Okay, so it's not exactly a Michelin star, but with two visits in as many days, Campo Livermore joins some amazing bay area establishments on my list of must-try (and often repeat) Italian restaurants. And I haven't ventured far off the salad menu yet. So if you're touring "the East Bay’s very own wine country," and find yourself hungry with some time to kill, go. Check it out.

Campo di Bocce - Two Northern California Locations
565 University Avenue - Los Gatos, CA 95030 - 408.395.7650
175 East Vineyard Avenue - Livermore, CA 94550 - 925.249.9800

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October 10, 2006

Top THIS, Whole Foods - Roasted Zucchini Soup with Fried Sage

I blame it my kitchen remodel...

In the spring of 2001, we spent 6 weeks without access to the kitchen. Our experience was better than some -- we set up a small kitchenette in one corner or the dining room and had access to the refrigerator, microwave, electric skillet, and a four-quart roaster oven in addition to the outdoor grill. But doing dishes in the bathroom sink was a drag, so we still turned to convenience food quite a bit.

Determined not to subsist on quarter pounders and pizza, it was during the remodel that we discovered Whole Foods' prepared food aisle. Sushi. Couscous salad. And a culinary rainbow of prepared soup options.

Cream of Mushroom.

Corn Chowder.

And my latest indulgent obsession: Tomato Chipotle.

Every time I put a $5.00 pint of soup in my cart, I cringe with guilt and think that I could probably make soup cheaper and healthier at home. The devil on my left shoulder encourages the indulgence: it's probably a lot of effort.

Enter this month's Monthly Mingle hosted by Meeta of What's for Lunch, Honey. October's challenge is to take two ingredients, staples for me this time of year, and get creative in the kitchen with them. The ingredients: zucchini and sage. The selection intrigued me. A little bit of leftover summer. A little bit of incoming autumn. Perfect for days where I find myself driving to work with the heat on and home with the air conditioning running.

I knew immediately I was making soup. I spent a week or so pondering what *kind* of soup. In the end, I drew inspiration from my friend Marianne at The Unemployed Chef, using her Roasted Zucchini Soup with Fried Shallots as the basis for my creation.

I started with three of the last zucchini from our friend Steve's garden, and an onion I had on hand. Chopped them roughly and tossed them in olive oil and a bit of salt.

After an hour at 450 I had some nice caramelization on the outside and the soft texture Marianne recommends on the inside. While the veggies cooled a bit, I fried a few fresh sage leaves in an inch or so of vegetable oil. Which made my kitchen smell heavenly. After pureeing the vegetable medley in the food processor I added the following (measurements approximate - I just eyeballed it):

1/4 cup homemade beef stock ('cause it's what I had on hand)
1/4 cup pinot blanc (again, it was open and available -- I thought it would add a sweet touch to the mix)
between 1/4 and 1/2 cup half-and-half
1 teaspoon dried sage (this I did measure)

Pulsed the above in the food processor a few times, plated the soup and added my gorgeous sage leaf garnish.

The result? Let's just say I won't be spending $5 soup at Whole Foods any time soon. For less than 30 minutes worth of active effort (and I got some dishes and laundry done during the inactive time) and probably less than $5.00 in total ingredient cost, I have one of the best homemade soups I've ever had. I'm already thinking of variations I can add: roasted tomatoes, mushrooms, winter squash, bell peppers.

Consider me converted. Farewell Whole Foods.

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October 07, 2006

The Ugly Duckling? - A weekend of kitchen therapy

Perhaps it's the cool crisp autumn air. Or the arrival of five luscious pears in this week's CSA box. Or the desire to put a stressful week behind me by getting busy in the kitchen. Or that my recently repaired oven keeps perfect temperature. Probably all of the above, that drove me to send John out to spend the evening with friends while I whipped out the trusty Kitchenaid and surfed my stash of cookbooks and the Internets for recipes.

I found inspiration in this creation from Southern Living Magazine, tweaking it a bit to fit my tastes and my pantry staples.

It was a night for nostalgia. For memories. For honoring some of the people who shaped who I've become.

Fruit-based spice cakes were one of Mo's specialties. Hell, retreating to the kitchen, combining culinary creativity with predictable process to escape his frustrations was quintessentially Mo. Ever kneaded bread dough and felt the tensions of the day melt away? Like father, like daughter.

As I creamed the oil and sugar with the eggs from my brother's farm, memories of weekends at Julie's flooded my mind. Julie was one of many icons of my childhood -- a strong personality with a gentle soul. Widowed and in her mid-seventies, Julie owned several acres in rural Vallejo and devoted her energy to her animals -- dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, and Kappy the goat. Long before local, sustainable and organic were buzzwords of the real food movement, my brother and I followed Julie around the yard helping distribute grain to the chickens and collecting the beautiful soft pastel-colored eggs they offered.

I also remember the first time I held a baby duck, maybe a few days old; the soft down of it's belly feathers and it's beak gently probing my other hand for feed burned in my memory. The reward after a morning of tending to the animals: some of the best "sunny side up" eggs I've ever encountered -- bright orange-yellow yolks and soft fluffy whites with a hunk of whole grain bread and a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice. Real work. Real food. Real friends.

And Julie's Easter Egg Hunts were legendary. Fifteen to twenty dozen eggs boiled, decorated and distributed across several of the pastures. One yard for the toddlers and small children with eggs practically in plain view. A second for the 7-12 set, and a third for the teens. Four BBQ grills fed hungry kids and their parents burgers, hotdogs, chicken and tri-tip. Everyone brought a dish or two to share -- the buffet table burst with salads, veggies and desserts. Some years upwards of 60 kids from all over Northern California hunted eggs at Julie's. When I was a teenager, some of the younger kids were second or third generation egg hunters. 1986 was her 50th hunt.

Julie showed us a simpler life was possible -- and enjoyable -- during the progressive 70's and 80's -- as long as you are willing to work at it. We occasionally drive by "Julie's exit" when we're passing through Vallejo. I haven't had the courage to take the detour by her home. If someone's turned one of my most treasured childhood havens into a business park or a block of condos, I'd just really rather not know it.

I've digressed a bit from my pear cake, yes? Yes. Welcome to my mind. During my digression I've added the flour mixture and folded in the pears and the nuts. I've let go of my concerns about work, about what selling the house we grew up in will bring. My blood pressure's probably dropped twenty points. The tension in my shoulders is nearly gone. Without drugs. Without expensive therapy. By letting go of obligation. Taking a recipe that intrigues me and a handful of kitchen staples, and following a simple time-honored process to turn a dozen or so raw ingredients into something more than the sum of their parts.

Thanks Mo. Thanks Julie. I get it. Stop. Create. Work with purpose. Enjoy. It *is* that simple.

Ginger-Scented Pear Cake
Very ripe pears make this cake ultramoist.

5 ripe Bartlett pears, peeled and diced (about 4 cups)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon apple pie spice (Penzeys)
3 large eggs
2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup pine nuts
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Mix 1 tablespoon sugar with ginger and apple pie spice.

Toss together pears and sugar-ginger mixture; set aside.

Beat eggs, 2 cups sugar, and oil at medium speed with an electric mixer until blended.

Sift together flour, salt, and baking soda. And add to egg mixture, beating at low speed until blended. Fold in pears, pine nuts, and vanilla extract. Pour batter into a greased and floured 10-inch Bundt pan.

Bake at 350° for 1 hour or until a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Remove from pan. Sprinkle cool cake with confectioners sugar, if desired.

Oh... one more piece of data. My father was a creative baker. While most of the products emerging from his oven tasted phenomenal, some of them looked... odd. Tonight despite a moderate greasing & flouring, my bundt pan chose to be difficult. What can I say? It's not cover art, but it looks like it tastes good. This one's for you, Mo.

Sunday update: Since I'm still trying to behave and an entire deconstructed cake doesn't fit into my weight loss plan, we took the cake with us to our dance group tonight. Got some odd looks to be sure, but everyone who tried it said they loved it. Sweet but not too sweet. Moist but with a pleasant crumb. Nutty in flavor but with a soft texture. And the pine nuts leant an amazing richness to the mix. Lots of empty plates. Okay Mo. Okay Julie. I get it. Success isn't always photogenic.

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October 02, 2006

Made it through the wilderness...

Somehow I made it through
Didn't know how lost I was
until I found you...

First there was a mid summer frozen-food tribute to urban lyricist Robert Van Winkle. Now it's an evening out on the town, ala the Queen of Pop. Delicious Sarah's 80's themed events call to my inner angst-ridden teenager. Or maybe it's that this event was announced on the eve of my high school reunion, when I've completely time-warped back to the sockless Sperry Topsider, white Ray-Ban era of 1986.

But when Sarah announced the theme for Dine & Dish 7 - Like a Virgin (hey!), I didn't hesitate for a moment. I knew exactly where I was going. A new (to the Bay Area) restaurant: The Counter in Palo Alto.

I was beat, incomplete
I'd been had, I was sad and blue
But you made me feel
Yeah, you made me feel
Shiny and new...

I knew The Counter was coming to the Bay Area. That this is the first of twenty-something sister locations "coming soon" to communities across the country. I'd read several articles in a varied assortment of publications assuring me they produced some of the best burgers in the country. Other bay area bloggers made the pilgrimage in August and September. While I knew Tim's approach wasn't for me, each account moved the restaurant up a notch or two on my "must try" list. When Sarah announced Dine & Dish, my eighteen year old burger-loving self met my thirty-eight year old foodie self and there was no question, it was time for a virginal visit to The Counter.

Gonna give you all my love, boy
My fear is fading fast
Been saving it all for you
cause only love can last...

If you've followed the links, you understand the drill: You walk into the industrial soda fountain (think Chipotle meets Fentons/Swensons and kicks it up a couple of notches) and grab a clipboard with a menu. Choose your burger (beef, turkey, grilled chicken or veggie), the delivery mechanism (bun or bowl of greens) and various toppings from a wide array of options while you wait to be seated. The place was surprisingly crowded for an hour before closing on a Sunday night, so we opted for two seats at... drumroll please... The Counter rather than waiting for a table.

We skipped the shakes (though they looked deliciously authentic) and dove into the heart of the menu. We both opted for "in a bowl", but from there our burgers diverged. I selected a third of a pound with Tilamook cheddar, grilled onions, tomato, avocado and sauteed mushrooms with horseradish mayo -- and was relieved when Frankie didn't flinch when I requested that my hormone and antibiotic-free burger be prepared medium rare. John went for the 2/3 pound burger with an assortment of toppings and the spicy peanut sauce. And we split a basket of sweet-salty sweet potato fries.

As we waited for our dinner I expressed regret that my photography skills don't warrant a more sophisticated camera. Our prime seats at the counter gave us a great view of the action in the kitchen, but I knew my point-and-shoot digital couldn't capture the activity or the precision of the process.

The burgers arrived promptly and we wasted no time digging in. I was pleasantly surprised by the quantity and the freshness of the bed of greens below my burger. No shredded, watered down iceberg here -- this was two generous cups of fresh, crispy-tangy micro-greens. The toppings were generous without being outrageously out of proportion, and the sauce was served on the side so I could regulate its distribution. Curious about the beef with peanut sauce choice, I tasted John's burger. It was odd -- peanut sauce is a chicken thing for me -- but it certainly didn't suck.

While we didn't indulge, I should mention here that The Counter offers a surprisingly extensive wine and micro-brew list for what's effectively a burger joint. And what appeared to be a full bar.

When we finished our dinner, Frankie eagerly offered us a dessert menu. While the concept of a "chocolate burger" (a donut filled with chocolate mousse) fascinated us, we'd budgeted neither the time nor the calories to indulge.

Next time. Because I'm quite sure there will be a next time. Several next times. It's the answer to my occasional need for all-American comfort food, but something "more interesting" than "just a burger". I think Carter of Food Notebook expressed it perfectly: The Counter's focus on doing one thing -- and doing it *really well* -- will be their ticket to success, in the bay area and around the country. If you get the opportunity, by all means, check it out.

The Counter - Two California Locations:
2901 Ocean Park Blvd - Santa Monica, CA 90405 - 310.399.8383
369 California Avenue - Palo Alto, CA 94306 - 650.321.3900

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