February 25, 2006

East Bay Eats - Nibblers

Who would have guessed we'd find a favorite new restaurant in a strip mall in Pleasant Hill? Our friends Jim and Louise invited us to join them for a snack after dancing a couple of weeks ago. The restaurant's rather unassuming -- a small space sharing a parking lot with a pizza parlor and a chain BBQ restaurant. Nibblers bills itself as "a neighborhood destination for international small plates & eclectic wines" -- in other words, our kind of place. One look at the menu and we were intrigued. One taste, and we were hooked. A conversation with the chef/owner and his staff, and we were in love...

Sadly, we'd eaten dinner and didn't have a lot of appetite for snacking, so we couldn't explore the menu as much as we'd have liked THAT night. But a taste of the calamari, the crostini and a delightfully decadent libation called Caramel Apple (apple cider steamed with a late harvest pedro ximenez wine & macadamia syrup, topped with whipped cream), we knew we'd be back...

We made our return visit Friday night, with heftier appetites. Because while it was tempting, looking at the menu and saying "yes" simply wasn't feasible calorically or financially, we managed to narrow our choices down to:

Housemade horchata the Oaxacan way -- according to Daniel, they cook the rice, bringing out the almond flavor and an amazing richness for a drink with no dairy.

Roasted fuji apple, French brie, pulled Smithfield ham & piquillo peppers pizette - In my exploration of various food, I've learned that one of the things that moves a dish from good to great for me is when (to quote a math geek friend) "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Mix three or four good ingredients, and you're likely to have something really good. Mix them just right, and you have something that takes the best of each ingredient and (to quote a famous food troll) kicks them up to notches unknown. That's what happened here.

Grilled Pacific Coho salmon "norteno" with sweet pineapple pico de gallo - Pineapple??? In Northern California in February? I had my doubts, but Daniel said he found it at a local produce market and couldn't pass it up. It was some of the best pineapple I've ever had, and it *made* the dish.

Cambazola & Calvados fondue with Asian pear, broccoli rabe & focaccia - I really enjoyed this (despite my typical hesitation over strong cheeses); John absolutely adored it. Had there not been so many other enticing choices, he would have ordered a second. I was surprised to get any hint of the Calvados through the Cambazola, but it was most definitely there. And the focaccia was phenomenal - I'd have ordered that on its own. Consider me converted.

Grilled beef asada with an avocado salsa over frijoles negros - This was my least favorite dish of the evening, but I suspect my culinary limitations converted to its lack of appeal. I'm allergic to legumes of most varieties, so Tracy offered to serve the dish without the beans. In retrospect, I'm pretty sure the beans were integral to the execution of this dish. So if it's on the menu and it appeals to you, don't skip it based on MY review.

Creamed spinach gratin with freshly grated nutmeg & gruyere - see my earlier comment about the whole versus a sum of the parts -- this is your grandma's old-fashioned cream spinach, with a twist. A delightful, gruyere twist.

Camarones a la pipian - (Tiger shrimp with a light mole of pumpkin seeds & garlic) - there is nothing better than perfectly cooked shrimp in a balanced, well-executed sauce. Absolutely nothing.

Seasonal fruits crudite with a dark chocolate Kahlua fondue - The cheese fondue was a hit and the pineapple the standout produce of the evening. So we opted to try the dessert version -- pineapple chunks dipped in Kahlua-infused chocolate. And we were not disappointed.

Cheesecake fritters with a fresh guava coulis - These... these go to 11. My apologies to the restaurant -- the picture doesn't do them justice but I'm new at this and a cell phone camera was all I had to work with. And this dessert was a moment I wasn't about to leave undocumented...

The selection of artisan cheeses - here you're going to have to wait for John to comment; he was compelled to try them but I just had no appetite left with which to help him. He didn't offer twice, so I know they were good. :)

So it's clear we liked the food. We were pretty sure we would from the moment we looked at the menu. What we didn't expect to find when we walked in the door was the friendship we developed with Daniel & Tracy over the course of our two evenings together. The first night we were there, they kept the kitchen open as long as our party had the urge to sample. This weekend, we walked in at 8 or so on Friday evening. We left at well past 1 AM. We ate. We ate well. And then the four of us sat and talked for hours about life, about work, about our shared passion for food, about other restaurants (we got some GREAT recommendations), about commitment to quality, about childhood and college and corporate America, about everything and about nothing. John and I consider ourselves blessed to have several friends in the food industry (and to the extent I can keep this thing up, you'll meet many of them here). We consider it an honor and a privilege to have added Daniel, Habib & Tracy to that circle.

If I've hung on to your attention this long, check out their website. And for those of you who can identify the Caldecott, if you're on this side of it, check them out. You won't be disappointed.

February 24, 2006

Comfort food

Why is it that the minute I start to sniffle, sneeze or cough, I'm overwhelmed by cravings for those comfort foods I lump into the "sick foods" category? I suspect everyone's 'sick foods' differ slightly, but for me there are four and they're probably just as odd as some women's pregnancy cravings

  1. Old-fashioned Oatmeal - the real, 45-minutes on a stove top variety, not the kind you pour out of a paper envelope and add hot water to (or -- gasp -- prepare in the microwave). My sick-food version of oatmeal is dense, hearty, 'sticks to your ribs'. It's full of whatever fresh or dried fruit is on hand, sweetened slightly and seasoned with cinnamon or nutmeg. And drizzled with a bit of whole milk.
  2. Lasagna - clearly a nod to my heritage, there's nothing like warm, hearty, savory and delightfully rich-cheesy lasagna to chase the cold out of the air and whatever bugs are wreaking havoc out of my system.
  3. Ramen Noodles - this is where it gets weird. Here I DO mean the highly processed, packaged, extra salty kind. When your sinuses are so plugged you can't taste anything, you can ALWAYS taste ramen. I add a beaten egg or two for protein and texture and the broth warms me from the inside out. I know most of the world swears by chicken soup, but ramen is my soup-remedy of choice.
  4. Hot Buttered Rum - was my parents' secret weapon against many childhood colds and flu bugs (and often a conduit for delivering the medications associated with those afflictions). Looking back, I have my doubts about how often there was really rum involved except in those cases where sleep really was going to be the best remedy. But it made us feel good.

And that, I suspect, is the answer to my opening questions. As I curse the acacia blooming outside and the effect it has on my sinuses, I turn to my sick foods because they make me feel good. They bring back the memories of being taken care of. Of days when I could just walk up and say "Mom? Dad? I don't feel good" and they'd take care of everything from there. These days I can't turn to them for comfort. But I can curl up on the couch with a blanket and a big bowl of oatmeal, and their legacy of caring, of comforting, of nurturing lives on...

February 21, 2006

Table for 7...

Craig is a trauma nurse and Kathy is a cardiac nurse at Stanford Medical center. They've been married since I was in high school. Marc is a corporate pilot and Sally is in real estate. They'll be married this summer. Lydia is a research chemist originally from New Mexico who moved to California and met Jeff, a sales engineer in the software industry. Steve and Laura moved here from Georgia -- he's a regional manager in the banking industry and she's a mortgage broker. Shirley and Gary work for BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit for those of you out of the area). Kaylynn teaches elementary school with a focus on speech pathology.

Some of us are single, some in committed relationships, some married. We range in age from 26 to 50. Some of us are liberal, others conservative. Some of us have children. Others have dogs, cats or other pets. Some of us are allergic to children/dogs/cats/other pets. Left to our own devices, we probably never would have connected. What's brought us together for the past several years? We all belong to the same supper club.

Shortly after I moved to the "East-er" Bay, one of my favorite food magazines published an article on one woman's solution to recipes that serve four-to-six: start a supper club. The article suggested those interested in starting their own group refer to the magazine's website. I knew we loved food, loved cooking, loved entertaining -- and wanted to meet new people in the area, so I gave it a shot. Five year's later, the group has evolved a bit but we're still going strong. Some subset of the players introduced above meets every other month (we rotate hosts) and we share an evening of good food, good wine and good and spirited conversation.

Saturday night there were seven of us, and John and I hosted the second periodical "Guilty Pleasures" dinner. Nothing kinky -- but forgetting the fat, cholesterol, fiber, or carbohydrate counts for a minute, each guest was asked to bring the one dish they'd never give up. The menu included:

a wine and cheese course -- two ultra-decadent Spanish cheeses (a blue and a soft cows milk cheese) paired with Spanish wines from a wine & cheese shop we recently discovered (more on that later)
shrimp cocktail
John's trademark Spaghetti ala Carbonara
Maple-Glazed Roasted Salmon
Kathy's Baby Carrots with Kalamata Olives and Green Beans with Shallots & Browned Butter
A wonderful Chocolate Whipped Cream Cake

All in all, a tremendous success!

February 13, 2006

In my father's kitchen...

Back again, having spent a good part of the weekend on a bittersweet task. For those of you who don't know me personally, a bit of background: My mother passed away last summer (after a long and difficult illness, so both my brother and I are happier she's in a better place now). We've procrastinated about clearing and selling the house we grew up in as long as we realistically can. It's amazing how very much two people can accumulate over a half century together. In an attempt to avoid being completely overwhelmed, I've tried to approach the task in small chunks: room by room. Where does this all fit in a foodie blog? This weekend's task was the kitchen...

The kitchen of my childhood home was my father's domain. The legend is that when they returned from their honeymoon, my mom made a meal of pasta with Swedish meatballs. Dad ate his dinner, paused, and responded with a critique that included the words "they would be better with..." Mom handed Dad the apron and the spatula, and the rest, as they say, was history...

My dad (Mo, to many) was first generation American of Italian descent, so every holiday meal paid homage to his heritage. Lasagna joined the Thanksgiving turkey. With the Christmas roast beast, homemade ravioli (the production of which really merits a separate post). With the Easter ham, spaghetti ala carbonara. And gnocci joined a collection of charred meats on the summer holiday BBQ buffets.

The kitchen was Mo's "happy place". A teacher, he'd come home from school frustrated and bake bread or a cake to wind down (a stress release I find I've adopted). Recipes served as suggestions, not commandments (a skill I wish I shared more confidently). A homebody, nothing made the man happier than feeding his friends and family. All of my parents friends had standing invitations to dinner any night of the week, and if a weekend passed where dinner was "just the four of us" I sure don't remember it. Many of his friends shared his love of cooking -- and his kitchen -- for various meals over the years. And the annual open house John and I host has roots in Mo's day-after-Christmas bash (again, another post to itself)...

Over the years, several of Mo's kitchen tools have migrated into my home. But for a man who believed "if one is good, three is better," there was still a mountain of things to go through. Some stuff was easy. We'll donate the three separate sets of 'every day' dishes to charity. Ditto the flatware, and most of the miscellaneous pots and pans.

What I wasn't prepared for -- what was the most meaningful and at the same time the most difficult part of the day -- were the stupid little items that brought back floods of memories, some long-forgotten. And it's these stupid little items that now find a home in my kitchen, and a place in my blog. What did I bring home with me Saturday? Among other things:

  • The jumbo-sized "female spoon" - so named by Henriette, a retired short-order cook who became our babysitter when my brother inconveniently got the chicken pox and my parents couldn't stay home with him. "Henri" entered my world in the first grade (long before I knew what she meant by "female" spoon), remained a part of our lives through the remainder of hers (I figured it out in my teens) -- and taught me that one could be a 'lady' without being a doormat. I've probably got a dozen female spoons in my kitchen already, but now I have Henri's...
  • The avocado-colored, slightly misshapen clay platter on which every 30-some pound Thanksgiving turkey between 1970-something and 1990-something was served. I'll likely never serve a 30-pound turkey and avocado doesn't complement my kitchen, but I just couldn't part with it...
  • The stained "Snoopy" coffee mug I gave my dad for father's day in the second grade...
  • The "jelly pot" -- a saucepan permanently stained from endless batches of strawberry, rhubarb, grape and pomegranate jelly that dad and his group of little old ladies (and I) made every fall. I'd forgotten how very many brand new uniform shirts I'd freckled with fruit juice until I unearthed the jelly pot...
  • The binder -- a hodgepodge collection of handwritten recipes in a Castlemont High School binder -- Mo's, Mom's, some from both grandmothers, several great aunts, and countless friends. In many cases nothing I'll ever make (pistachio fluff?!?!?)... but having it in their handwriting is priceless...

So for those of you who've stuck with me through all of this, there you have it... a tour of the best of Mo's kitchen. Thanks for allowing me the opportunity to indulge in some wonderful memories!

February 06, 2006

Weekends together in the kitchen

Weekends like this one, I'm really thankful I found a man who loves working in the kitchen as much as I do. It's so much more fun to cook WITH someone... especially someone you love!

We'd been looking at Cooking Light's Thai Style Ground Beef (J/F 2006) since the magazine arrived in December, and decided a cold and windy Saturday night was as good a time as any to give it a shot. Other than omitting the cooking spray in favor of a dash of olive oil (I don't typically do the cooking spray thing) we didn't change the recipe a bit and it worked out just fine. We served it in lettuce cups with couscous which did a great job of absorbing the surprisingly complex coconut curry sauce. The magazine touts this as 'kid-friendly'... not sure I buy that (it was pleasantly spicy but might overwhelm some kids) but it's one that will make my weeknight rotation when I'm looking for a combination of comfort food and something ethnic.

Satisfied with dinner, we spent the evening making stocks from scratch: beef, chicken, & veggie. We love the depth that homemade stocks add compared to canned broths.

Sunday we spent the day prepping for the week: Banana bread for breakfasts and some hearty, healthy and quite tasty Creamy Tomato Balsamic Soup to warm me up at lunch. Roasting the veggies really does bring an amazing depth to this soup. I followed the suggestions of those who'd reviewed it before me and didn't bother straining the finished product -- it's far more rustic that way.

Since tri-tip was on sale this week and it didn't rain this weekend, John got a chance to use the grill for dinner on Sunday. I have no idea how he marinated the meat - red wine, mustard, spices, and who knows what all else - but it was divine. Served it with dad's infamous cole slaw and the last of the corn we froze this summer. BBQ in February is one of the things I love about living in California...

The Recipes:

Creamy Tomato-Balsamic Soup

Cooking the vegetables at the high temperature of 500° caramelizes their natural sugars and deepens their flavor; the liquid poured over them ensures they won't burn. Prepare the soup up to two days ahead; reheat over medium heat before serving.

1 cup less-sodium beef broth, divided (I used John's stock)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 cup coarsely chopped onion
5 garlic cloves
2 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes, drained
Cooking spray
3/4 cup half-and-half
Cracked black pepper (optional)
(I sprinkled Parmeggiano/Reggiano on top)

Preheat oven to 500°.

Combine 1/2 cup of broth, sugar, vinegar, and soy sauce in a small bowl. Place onion, garlic, and tomatoes in a 13 x 9-inch baking pan coated with cooking spray. Pour broth mixture over tomato mixture. Bake at 500° for 50 minutes or until vegetables are lightly browned.

Place tomato mixture in a blender. Add remaining 1/2 cup broth and half-and-half, and process until smooth. Strain mixture through a sieve into a bowl; discard solids. Garnish with cracked black pepper, if desired. Yield: 4 servings (serving size: about 1/2 cup)

This dish appeals to adults and kids alike, which answers Sasha Wall's challenge to prepare one dinner that satisfies the whole family. Serve with lime wedges. Enjoy leftovers with warm tortillas.

Thai Style Ground Beef
Cooking spray
1 cup thinly sliced leek
1 teaspoon bottled minced garlic
1 pound lean ground sirloin
1 teaspoon red curry paste (such as Thai Kitchen)
1 cup tomato sauce (I used Dad's homemade)
1/2 cup light coconut milk
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon grated lime rind
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce
3 cups hot cooked short-grain rice (we substituted cous cous)
Iceberg lettuce wedges (optional)
Chopped cilantro
Chopped green onions (optional)

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add leek; sauté 5 minutes. Add garlic; sauté 1 minute. Add beef; cook 7 minutes or until lightly browned, stirring to crumble.

Stir in curry paste and tomato sauce; cook until half of liquid evaporates (about 2 minutes). Add milk and next 4 ingredients (through fish sauce); cook 2 minutes or until slightly thickened. Serve with the rice and lettuce wedges, if desired. Garnish with cilantro and green onions, if desired. Yield: 4 servings (serving size: about 1/2 cup beef mixture and 3/4 cup rice)

February 05, 2006

Hello World...

I never know how to start these things... I'm not good at the introductory break the ice things in meetings and conferences either...

Like those who've inspired me -- Julie and her "Julia" project (http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/2002/08/25.html), Beth and her zen approach to foodism (http://zenfoodism.com), the "domestic goddess" (http://www.domesticgoddess.ca/), and many of the others of you whose virtual kitchens and restaurants I visit each week, I'm obsessed with my kitchen (where I easily spend 50% of my "leisure" time), recipes new and old, restaurants of every genre, chefs celebrity and guy (or girl) next door, and the freshest ingredients the world has to offer.

So join me if you will on my personal food odyssey as I document my successes and failures in all things epicurean. Sometimes we'll eat out; others we'll dine in. We'll likely experience tastes of haute cuisine, an occasional hot dog, and just about everything in between.