Friday, 28 May 2010

how to break your own heart

Though we may be constantly evolving and changing, certain habits, tendencies, and behaviors we still seem doomed to repeat.

For example, I will continually buy and cook broccoli rapini, and continually be disappointed in my incarnation of this Italian vegetable. A continually breaking heart, with only myself as the culprit.

It's fitting really, to compare heartbreak to rapini. Let's take a look at it for a moment. Rapini: lovely tapered green stalks, heirloom, sought after, not overly common. A chef's vegetable, if you will, not the home cook's. Stylish in its greenery and deceiving in its simplicity. Essentially, rapini calls to me.

So I buy it. I let the delicately curved leaves entice me, I let the floral buds intrigue me. Seduction by a vegetable, at its best.

And then, I cook it, blind to the fact that in the past, I have truly disliked this green creature. I forget that every other time, that I've cooked rapini, I've been dissatisfied. I push forward, saying to myself that this time it will be different.

Then, the strikingly bitter flavor hits me. The characteristic stringyness, undisguised under the vibrant green color, shows itself once more. Any combination of chili, garlic, or anchovies - some of the strongest flavors in the book, I might note - have yet to temper or tame this bitterness for me. Any change of temperature, steam, or heat has yet to change the unpleasant stringiness that assaults my teeth. No matter what I try, I can't seem to force rapini to suit my taste bud's needs. And yet, I keep going back to it.

Of course there is always reasoning. Excuses. Sometimes logical, even: it's a vegetable, so it must be healthy. Hell, it's a beautiful green vegetable, it must be super healthy. But everytime I take that first bite, my heart sinks, and I say to myself: ah yes, I've been here before.

Why it hasn't occurred to me that I don't have to love every green vegetable, I'm not sure. My dinner plate does not have to be an equal opportunity plate, nor is it less of a plate for being so. Picking and choosing what we eat should be part of the fun of showing up in the world every day, or so they say.

If I stuck to my ever loyal Tuscan kale, perhaps I'd be a happier person. But the nature of the garden and the market demands a bit more creativity. It demands us to spread our attentions and seek out new vegetables.

Example: green garlic. This may not be new for some, and is not technically new for me, having discovered this vegetable a year ago. But the beauty of green garlic is it disappeared from my life last spring. I had nearly forgotten about it. And then, like an old friend showing up with a new haircut, green garlic leapt back into my sphere of attention.

Like rapini, it also is a lovely creature. Long green fronds tapering from the slim, pearly heads. A lot of plant that syphoning its energy into a tiny fruit. Concentrated, yet manageable in time, space, and flavor, green garlic is far from ubiquitous, and yet offers so many possibilities.

Minced raw over creamy goat cheese and then drizzled in olive oil, stewed then pureed into a simple potato and leek soup, slivered and then browned in butter - each option approachable and uncomplicated. Green garlic offers its humble self with its dirty little hairs, and its up to you to coax it out of those outer wrappings.

It's healing in some way, green garlic. Some might say grounding. Whether embraced for it's slightly sweet sharpness, or tempered with a close and potent heat, green garlic is something to crave and indulge in while it's here, temporarily available, teasingly showcasing its wares.

It will leap out of my world again soon, I'm sure. But that's part of the beauty. I know I love it, though it's not always there. It will come and go, but with seasonal predictability. It doesn't fool me with desperate beauty, and in fact dares me to overlook it altogether with its potent and humbling stink.

Green garlic is an edible after my heart: lovely and overlooked, rare, yet reappearing.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

banh mi to fawn over

Back in November, when my sister and her friend Jane had been staying at the house for several weeks, I found a recipe for beef sandwiches. It looked interesting enough - some asian flavors, mixed with the simplicity and ubiquity of ground beef.

And though I have never been a fan of raw meat (especially ground beef) I thought I would throw squeamishness to the wind and go for it. I did have a family of five to feed, after all - a situation that allows for little hesitation when you have taken on the responsibility of answering the never-ending question "What's for dinner?"

I remember I was particularly grumpy the evening I decided to make the sandwiches, responding to conversations and questions with annoyed grunts, and most likely chopping in an overly vigorous fashion. I don't know why I chose to make Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches on a winter evening, with too many people crowding the kitchen and too many frustrating thoughts running through my mind, but there I was, shaping patties (a first), pickling carrots, and toasting thick, beautiful, baguettes.

When the meat was cooked (haphazardly, I must admit) and the sauces spread and the veggies ready, I plunked it all on the counter and instructed everyone to eat, now. The evening would not end pleasantly if my suffering over this ground meat episode ended in people eating cold sandwiches.

Poor Jane and Laila obeyed. Mom laughed. I snarled. (I think Dad had made a graceful exit at this point). We were all eating, quietly, pursuing our own thoughts, when Jane began to moan.

"Oh my god," she said.

A pause for more chewing.

"Oh my god!" she squealed.

Another pause.

And then in a lower voice, "Oh. My. God."

Laila was giggling. Jane pointed the most serious expression that had yet to grace her face in the past three weeks in my direction and said "I have never felt this way for a sandwich."

I couldn't help but crack a smile. Sauce was smeared on her face, juices dripped down Laila's hands, carrots fell out of Mom's bun. More moaning from Jane.

And then, we were all laughing. Perhaps it was the curry powder that I had overseasoned the patties with. Or the slightly wilted but still potent cilantro that I had tucked between the spicy mayonaise and the beef patty. Or the incredibly mess that everyone was making.

Whatever it was, hysteria soon ensued.

Twice, I attempted a reenaction.

The second time taught me that the sandwich will not cure any grumpy mood. Specifically, SB's grumpy roomate who had no affinity for curry, and proceeded to open all the windows of the apartment (on a rainy evening), and light vanilla candles in every room (an awful touch). Also, plenty of cilantro is absolutely essential. (Who knew that Whole Foods could actually run out of something!)

The third, that well cooked beef is not the aim with this sandwich, accidentally or not. In fact, a crispy exterior should be sacrificed if it means a well done interior, and the doneness factor should be monitored closely, or else everything will turn out a bit too...chewy. Medium rare is key.

In sum, this version of banh mi is outstanding, whether grumpy or not. A beef patty seasoned with potent curry powder, sandwiched between a crispy baguette slicked with spicy and garlicky mayonaisse, topped (the beef, not the bread) with quick-pickled carrots, briny jalapenos, and cilantro: deeevine. (Moan).

Also, for beef novices like myself, it's quite simple and relatively hard to mess up (if you don't let yourself be distracted by YouTube videos of 10 year old boys singing Lady Gaga songs just a minute too long, resulting in over cooked meat).

Finally, I wish, for your sake, that in making this recipe you manage to track down someone as appreciative as Jane. It really works wonders for beef confidence and bad moods.

note: this photo showcases false bread: use a wide baguette, not something like this imposter!

Banh Mi Burgers
adapted from Food & Wine
serves 4

3 carrots, shredded
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 cup mayonnaise (or a mixture of mayo and thick, plain yogurt)
2 tbsp (or more) sriracha
3 tsp tomato paste
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
2 tsp (or more) curry powder
2 tbsp vegetable oil
one baguette, cut into 6 inch segments and split in half
pickled jalapenos, sliced
cilantro sprigs

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Toss the carrots, rice vinegar, and sugar together and set aside.

2. Whish the mayonnaise with sriracha, tomato paste, garlic, and salt and pepper, and set aside.

3. Form four patties, about 6 inches long and 1 inch thick. Season each with curry powder, salt and pepper. Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet, and cook the patties over medium heat, 4-6 minutes on each side.

4. Meanwhile, toast the baguette pieces in the oven until golden. Drain the carrots. Smear the both sides of the bread with plenty of the spicy garlic sauce, then top one side with carrots, cilantro, and jalapenos to taste. Slide the finished patties onto the second side of bread, and serve (immediately!).

Sunday, 16 May 2010


This is the first week that the weather has begin to turn. Spring has been wet and cold, and though the oaks outside my bedroom window are currently swathed in thick morning fog, it's still going to be a beautiful afternoon.

I wanted to tell you about what I've been doing in San Francisco. Because the truth is, that's where the main cooking events of recent months have been happening. The experimentation, the thought, and time, has taken place on the second floor of a Victorian San Francisco on 24th street.

I've been cooking with SB. You first met him here, and our forays into kitchen exploits, drama, successes and disappointments have only grown since. I've been hesitant to write about him and our cooking together, for various reasons, but the fact is he'll be leaving soon, and now that moments choppping and whipping and frying in his small kitchen with tall bay windows are past, I feel comfortable sharing them.

Part of it has been that these cooking stories have not been only my own. His kitchen, his camera, and often his recipes, have dictated much of the experience. My role, apart from assisting and of course tasting, has often been to steer us away from the specificity of his technical cookbooks. While he insists on weighing ingredients and having butter at the perfect temperature, I tend to throw in an extra handful of pine nuts into the pasta, or roughly chop pink shallots into an irregular confetti, rather than mince them into perfectly square minisicule flakes. I like to think of myself as the shaker, in this scene. He, the statue.

But, I now intend to retrace some of my steps, and claim the stories that I helped create, regardless of location or propriety.

The third time I met SB, he made ten pounds of puff pastry, promptly followed by palmiers and tarte tatin. The fourth, madeleine cookies flavored with turkish ground Blue Bottle coffee. The fifth, a sweet lime soufflé.

Every time I arrived at the door, generally on Friday afternoon after making the drive along the coast, across the Golden Gate, and up the Divisadero hill to Noe, we had a plan to cook. More precisely, he had a plan to cook and bake, and I would go along for the ride.

We based our conversations around ideas for new baked goods to experiment with, and our time around flipping through cookbooks on his tiny back deck, often drinking Zacapa chilled with ice.

One phase we had was for canelés. I wrote about these creatures months ago: a French pastry, caramelized on the outside, soft, chewy and creamy on the inside, flavored with vanilla bean and rum. The two of us had chatted about them a few times, and SB had only tasted the version featured at a San Francisco bakery called La Boulange - a canelé that looked correct in form and color, but always had the spongy quality of something that had been sitting around for a few days.

Perhaps it was my insistence that these were not real canelés, and you had to go to the Marais district of Paris for a true representation of what this marvelous creation should look like, that inspired SB. Perhaps he just took my claims about the inadequacy of La Boulange as a challenge.

One week, he purchased copper molds for a pretty penny (disdaining the much less expensive silicone as "inferior"), a handful of vanilla beans, and a bottle of Zacapa rum (again, for a pretty penny), and announced that that weekend, we were making canelés.

This was a beast I had never thought to tackle. Oddly shaped, oddly cooked, and oddly flavored, it was a mystery to me as to how you actually arrived at this alien but delicious end product. And yet, onward we went.

We began with two different batters, one at my suggestion, and one at the suggestion of his Larousse reference book.

I stopped in Sebastopol on the drive over for a block of wax to coat the copper molds. When I arrived, he had already prepared the two batters the night before to allow them to rest overnight (like small children or anxious men, the batters were fussy).

We melted the beeswax and, after several false starts, were able to coat the scalloped molds in a thin layer of the stuff. The batter poured in, we slid the molds into the oven, trying different times and temperatures. At minimum, each batch of four molds took and hour and a half. This allowed plenty of time for drinking the thick, molasses flavored rum that had been used in the batter.

The first round exited the oven door perfectly shaped, yet dense, hard, and dry. We had let the molds stay in the oven longer than the recipe suggested, seeking that dark, caramelized crust so essential to the proper canelé experience. Unfortunately, this also resulted in drying out the center, and as we chewed through the brick like pastry we knew we could do better.

Batter number two swelled in the oven like a soufflé. Jumping out of its mold and defying all intention to stay a particular shape, the crust did indeed achieve that specific and lovely chew, while still maintaining a moist, custardy interior.

But SB thought the center a bit too gooey, so we continued to experiment with time and proportions, eating our way through mistakes and semi-triumphs.

We never really agreed on what version we thought was best. I preferred the versions showcasing a crust so crispy it shattered beneath the teeth, then yielded to a lusty, moist center. These were the product of the second batter, and inevitably a bit oddly shaped. SB preferred his a bit denser, a bit less soft on the interior, and a bit more true to tradition when it came to the batter's willingness to stay put in its mold.

In the end, it was Batter 2 that preformed best, regardless of mold and cooking time, and it was this recipe that SB continued to prepare the odd weekend.

The thing is, though intimidating at first with molds and beans and temperatures, the canelé is essentially a simple creature. A crepe like batter that you pay attention to for a few moments, and then set aside in the refrigerator until you are ready for it. It waits for you and bides its time, getting better as it rests and relaxes, and then when you are ready, it's ready. Thrown in the oven when you first wake up, the canelés are delicious as a midmorning brunch, or perfect to bring to the park down the street for an afternoon walk, or to bring to a friend's house as a finale, no fuss dessert (preferably alongside Zacapa, an essential pairing we've learned).

Instead of leaving a recipe here, I will send you over to where I first found Batter 2 - a blog written by Clotilde, who does a much better job explaining the details that I do. (Our main change, besides monitoring the oven times closely, was to let the milk cool in step two before whisking into the eggs, so the eggs do not begin to cook.)

If you don't plan on buying copper (or silicone) molds in the near future, I will then send you to Boulettes Larder in the Ferry Building of San Francisco. A purveyor of many exciting foodie items, their version of the canelé far surpasses any other I've tasted - short of Paris - both in perfection of crust crispiness and in boldness with vanilla bean and rum additions.

Flashy yet humble, difficult yet comforting, a fine canelé specimen is built to impress. But, like many things, baking canelés had their moment. Though I do love the way our canelés always showed off the vanilla bean, whose flecks would pool in the bottom of the mold while baking, becoming a freckled crown at the peak of the pastry when the cannelés saw their final flip, I will be leaving the baking to the Ferry Building, and leaving the copper molds to SB.

As they say: onward!