Monday, May 31, 2010

Recent restaurant favorites

I've been to some wonderful new (to me) restaurants in the past couple weeks, and I wanted to spread the word...

BAR JULES (San Francisco)
Before every concert in our San Francisco Symphony series, my friend Laura Eklund and I go out to dinner. (I wouldn't go so far as to say the concert provides the pretext for a nice meal out, but it certainly provides the opportunity!) Our last concert (and dinner) of the season was a couple of weeks ago… As we talked over this past year, we agreed that only three of our six meals had been particularly memorable (i.e., definitely worth a return visit): Zuni Café, Absinthe Brasserie, and Bar Jules. We'd delayed checking out this last place because they were not taking reservations. However, this policy has recently changed — although they have not yet updated their website.

We ate simply at Bar Jules: Laura had a salad and a cheeseburger; I had soup and salad. But everything we ordered was pretty much perfect. My asparagus soup was simple and delicious: a lovely clear chicken broth with rice, sliced asparagus spears, and shreds of prosciutto. The salad of fresh-picked greens was lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, tossed with fresh fava beans, and sprinkled with grated parmesan cheese. It's the kind of food that makes you feel like you're doing something good for your body — especially your taste buds.

Their desserts were spectacular. Even Laura, who doesn't have much of a sweet tooth, agreed that they were worth every calorie. We didn't leave a crumb of the "chocolate nemesis" (a flourless but surprisingly un-heavy chocolate cake) or the buttery, not-too-sweet frangipane tart topped with strawberries and whipped cream. That's right: we got two desserts — and they were both shockingly good.

Recommendations: Go. Remember to make a reservation. And save room for dessert.
I had dinner at Dametra Café with my sisters last Saturday night. My sister Shannon had been to Dametra a couple of times before, and what had struck her particularly on previous visits was the warmth and effusiveness of the staff. We had the same experience that night. The tiny place is very popular and was quite crowded: new parties were still coming in when we left about 10:30. But they made the most of the available space, frequently asking diners to shift their tables so as to accommodate newcomers. But everyone was so friendly and the mood so hospitable that the limited elbow room made the place feel homey and cozy, rather than uncomfortably tight.

Dametra is very popular, specializing in Mediterranean cuisine (pizza, pasta, Greek and Middle-Eastern specialties). The food is fresh, simply prepared, and reasonably priced. Most memorable dishes:
  • the spanakopitas were the best I've ever had, with a flaky pastry that had more texture than the usual filo dough — don't miss!
  • wonderful Greek salad with feta cheese mixed into the vinaigrette
  • excellent chicken souvlaki: moist and flavorful
Recommendations: Make a reservation. Be prepared to rub elbows with the other diners! And dress in layers: it was quite warm in the restaurant the night we were there.
VIOGNIER (San Mateo)
On Sunday, Lisa Sherman treated Judith Bishop and me to a wonderful dinner at Viognier in San Mateo. It is situated above Draeger's Market (the fanciest grocery store I've ever visited!), and the easiest way to find the restaurant is to go through the market, which makes for an entertaining detour.

You create your prix-fixe meal by choosing any three items from their menu. All the offerings sounded so good that we had a hard time choosing (of course, I always have a hard time choosing!). Fortunately, our waiter was able to give us helpful suggestions, including wine pairings. Every dish we tried was beautifully prepared and presented. These were my favorites—yum!
  • house-made ricotta cavatelli (a dense pasta somewhat reminiscent of gnocchi) with mushroom ragout and spinach cream
  • house-smoked pork belly (a large chunk of meat, surprisingly lean) glazed with harissa and served on a bed of tiny French lentils with just-tender cauliflowerets
  • beef short ribs with creamy mashed potatoes and sauteed baby turnips (my leftovers made a great sandwich the next day!)
  • orange soufflé with hazelnut-chocolate sauce
  • an interesting selection of cheeses, including a Utah cheddar crusted with coffee and lavender
Wonderful wines we tried:
We were astonished at the end of the evening to realize we'd been there for nearly three hours! The relaxed and leisurely pacing of the meal allowed us to savor all the dishes.

Recommendation: This would be a great choice when you want a special meal in an elegant but unpretentious setting (and you happen to be in San Mateo...).
Price: expensive but worth it ($55 prix fixe for three courses; $85 for a four-course tasting menu)
Service: excellent and attentive; our knowledgeable and helpful waiter made great recommendations of both food and wine
Ambiance: white-tablecloth elegant and very quiet on a Sunday night

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Meal #7: Recipes

Shepherd's Pie (Alton Brown's recipe from
Jenny's Notes: We made this recipe as written, with two exceptions:
  1. Because we weren't sure how lamb would be received at the shelter, we used ground turkey instead—not as flavorful, but an acceptable and affordable alternative.
  2. Because I detest peas (!) we substituted Trader Joe's frozen French green beans, which we chopped into pea-sized chunks. Much better! :)

Sweet & Sour Squash Salad (Gretchen Bell)
4 small zucchini, very finely sliced
4 small yellow squash, very finely sliced
1 red (or yellow or orange) pepper, finely diced
1 red onion, finely diced
1/2 cup celery, finely sliced

1/3 cup olive oil
1 cup sherry vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground black pepper
  1. Combine all vegetables in a heat-resistant bowl.
  2. Place the dressing ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil, cooking until the sugar dissolves.
  3. Pour the hot dressing over the vegetables, and stir to combine. Allow to marinate for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
  4. Drain and serve.

Marshmallow Treats with M&Ms (from
Jenny's Note: We added 1 cup of M&M candies to the basic recipe.

Smoked Salmon Spread (Jenny Michael)
Jenny's Note: This recipe is my own concoction, and I've served it a couple of times as a cooking-day snack. People have asked for the recipe, so even though it wasn't an official part of this meal, I thought I'd post it here.
hot-smoked salmon, flaked
cream cheese (I used light whipped)
capers, chopped
pickled jalapeños, chopped
red onion, finely chopped
ground black pepper, to taste
lemon juice, to taste
Preparation: Combine all ingredients and mix together well. Serve with crackers or baguette slices.

Do shepherds really eat pie? (Meal #7)

Let me just start by confessing that shepherd's pie is not a dish I grew up with, and I don't remember eating it before this particular Sunday. Nor is it something that ever much appealed to me, perhaps because it's usually made with green peas, a vegetable I have loathed since childhood. However, since several others in the group remember shepherd's pie as a comfort food and suggested it for A Common Table, I wanted to give it a try—my personal disinclination notwithstanding. :)

Date: Sunday, May 16th (served at BFWC the next evening)
Host: Maria Massolo
shepherd's pie, sweet & sour squash salad, marshmallow treats with M&Ms
Sandy Cate, Bob Fagan, Joel Jordan, Maria Massolo, Jenny Michael, Sara Miller, Lisa Sherman, Rita Shuster
Kevin Koczela, Jenny Michael

Maria told me that her Argentine version of shepherd's pie uses raisins and olives in the filling (much like the pastel de choclo we made a few months back), and Sandy mentioned that a place in her neighborhood spiced the meat with curry. But since I still needed an actual recipe, off I went to the internet to research the possibilities. Epicurious, of course, yielded many options, but I ended up choosing Alton Brown's recipe, posted on the Food Network's site, both because it had received universal raves and because I [heart] Alton Brown, who is just cool in a quirky, whimsical, and delightfully geeky way. And the man can cook!

Almost all the recipes I reviewed called for ground lamb—which, now that I think about it, makes perfect sense for shepherd's pie. (Don't know why that didn't occur to me before!) However, I had some doubts about how palatable lamb would be to the folks at the shelter—especially the kids—so I followed Maria's lead and opted for ground turkey instead. (Did that make it turkherd's pie?) Seasoned with thyme and rosemary, turkey worked well enough, though I do think lamb would make for a more flavorful dish. I also made a concession to my personal palate and traded the specified peas for green beans, which we chopped into pea-sized chunks. Together with corn and chopped carrots, they balanced the meatiness nicely.

Instead of a basic green salad, I chose a tangy and colorful one of sliced green and yellow zucchini, diced red onion, red (and orange) bell pepper, and chopped celery. The vegetables marinate in a hot vinaigrette for a couple of hours, and the salad is drained before serving. It has a nice texture—a bit more tender than a cucumber salad—and keeps very well. The recipe came from a family friend, Gretchen Bell, who brought it for Easter dinner one year and kindly shared the secret.

We rounded out our menu with that favorite of school lunches: marshmallow (Rice Krispy) treats. So easy, so crunchily reminiscent of childhood, and extra-yummy with the addition of M&Ms. How could we go wrong?

As a whole, the meal was such a success that, for a change, we ate up every bit of it! (And, yes, I did like the casserole. :) If I were to do it again, I would add some kind of bread to the menu to round things out—but it was also fine without it.

Reflecting on the process: Although these gatherings officially begin at 2:00, most folks show up sometime after that—which works very well. Whoever is there at the start helps organize. Then we start chopping (always a primary activity) and go from there. This pattern allows for a nice rhythm to develop and makes things a bit less chaotic at the outset (!). 

We all agreed that this particular menu worked well. There was enough to do that we were kept as busy as we wanted to be, while still having time to drink wine and talk about Argentine politics. And I had planned the preparation well enough (yay!) that we got the salad—which needed time to marinate—going first, before working on the shepherd's pie. We had to sauté the meat in batches, since we didn't have a pot large enough to do all of it at once. And when we realized we needed some larger bowls for mixing, Kevin kindly ran home for his set. So it required a bit of strategy to work out all the logistics, but there were no significant problems. And we even had time to wash the pots and bowls and then to relax together while the casserole baked. Oh, and this was also our least expensive meal so far: less than $100 was laid out for non-staple groceries.

More menu suggestions: In June, we're hoping to make pierogies—an Eastern European specialty—under the tutelage of Kevin and Cole, who grew up with these yummy dumplings. Other suggestions were tamale pie (much less work than actual tamales), oven-fried or barbecued chicken, baked penne… Did I forget any of the other ideas?

THANK YOU!! Special thanks to Maria for hosting us this time! I don't think we left her too much mess... but thank goodness for dishwashers. And thanks once again to Bob for being our delivery guy. I really appreciate your help in this area. And as always, many, many thanks to all those of you who contribute your time, energy, money, and generous spirit to these endeavors. This project wouldn't be possible without you, and I'm very grateful that you want to be part of it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Eating green on a budget

[This continues the thread begun in my earlier post on Whole(some) Foods...]

In the past couple of years, in particular, I have begun paying more attention to where and how my food is grown. I try to buy local, organic produce whenever it's reasonably affordable. But sometimes it isn't—and there are other complicating factors in this equation, like what kind of organic is it? How far did this organic food travel to reach me?

Meat and fish offer a more complicated puzzle, I find.
  • Thanks to Michael Pollan and others, we now better understand the problems associated with corn-fed beef. While grass-fed beef is becoming more readily available—at least in this area—I'm not sure how the prices compare.
  • Chicken is a real challenge. While I can buy a roasted 3-lb. chicken for $4.99 at Costco ($4.99!)—and I sometimes do—thanks to Pollan, I now know rather more than I wish I did about the industrial production of chicken. If I want an organic chicken, Trader Joe's sells them for $3.99/pound (roughly 2½ times the Costco price)—or, in a more extravagant mode, Niman Ranch will sell me a pair that have been "humanely raised in a sustainable environment" for $57 (through Sur La Table)! Niman Ranch aside, we're clearly talking about a very different price range for chicken I can feel good about buying and eating. And because our industrial food system has made cheap chicken seem normal, it goes against the grain (so to speak) to pay so much for meat that I've learned to believe should be inexpensive.
  • And what about eggs? Cage-free! Free-range! All-vegetarian feed! Organic! Omega-3-enhanced! It's hard to tell what these various claims really mean about the way the birds are treated. I do know that I don't like paying $6 a dozen at the farmers' market for eggs that don't taste much different from the $1.99 ones from Trader Joe's. Sigh.
  • There are lots of issues around seafood production and harvesting, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program provides helpful information to allow us to make informed choices. (I'm distressed to learn, though, that my favorite tilapia from Indonesia turns out to be on the "avoid" list...)
Back when I was originally researching food-related volunteer opportunities, I saw a request for someone to teach low-income women about healthy cooking. The idea has stayed in my mind, because I keep wondering what I know that I could share. I think perhaps the key thing is that—thanks to my mom—I know how to cook. Which means that I can prepare delicious meals without having to rely on the pre-fab "edible food-like substances" that the food industry presses upon us—and which Pollan and the rest urge us to avoid. I don't need to rely on packaged foods, because I know how to turn raw materials into something delicious. And I know enough about nutrition to be able to put together a well-balanced, healthy meal.

But how well could I do this on a much more meager budget? Could I still eat healthy, delicious, satisfying meals? Would I be able to afford any organic produce? I'm tempted to take on the experiment... In the meantime, these are a few strategies that I think might help someone in this situation:
  • Learn to cook. Yes, from scratch. This may seem obvious, but too many Americans have grown up relying on ready-made foods, instead of preparing meals for themselves. Nuking a Lean Cuisine entrée does not constitute cooking.
  • Eat plants. Both Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman suggest that eating a primarily vegetarian diet is the best solution for both our individual health and the health of the planet. At the very least, cutting our meat consumption in half would make a huge difference. Check out Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food. Or think about trying Graham Hill's strategy of weekday vegetarianism.

  • Don't be a purist. Alice Waters may be able to afford to disdain anything not local and organic, but most of us don't have that luxury. So we need to choose our battles and make reasonable compromises. The occasional $4.99 Costco chicken, for example—whose cost, of course, includes the price of cooking gas, is a case in point.
  • Let lower-cost ingredients be the focus of your meal. Use more expensive items as sauces and condiments. (Epicurious suggests various ways of cooking these Top 10 Money-Saving Ingredients.) In a lot of traditional Asian cooking, rice is not only the staple food, but it is in essence what's for dinner. Everything else is just gravy. A Hmong woman I worked in Philadelphia often invited me to stay for lunch, and I was at first surprised to see how highly seasoned all her foods were—very spicy, salty, tangy, etc.—until I realized how they were eaten: as condiments eaten in small amounts as flavoring for your big bowl of steamed rice.
  • Keep organic produce costs lower by hitting the last 20 minutes of the farmer's market or by joining one of those organic box farm delivery services or by planting a garden. (Read an interesting article about mushroom farming in New York City.)
Do you have other suggestions? Other helpful resources? I'd be interested in hearing your ideas!

Whole(some) foods

I finally finished Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which—as he intended—has gotten me thinking about the hidden costs of "cheap" food and wondering what to do about it. I've also come across a few other thought-provoking pieces on similar themes:
  • The author of this article about Alice Waters, who's been running Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley for 39 years (!), describes her as "a fierce ideologue, a food Calvinist whose commitment to local ingredients, produced without hormones and pesticides, is uncompromising." Her stance raises hackles with some, but I found it interesting to learn more about how she thinks about food.
  • Mark Bittman, who as "The Minimalist" writes about food for the New York Times, gave an excellent and thought-provoking speech about "What's wrong with what we eat." He suggests that the extreme "locavore" position represented by Alice Waters is both elitist and unrealistic (at least for those who don't live here in California). His main emphasis is on the ecological disaster represented by the over-production—and over-consumption—of livestock. Have a listen:

[This is continued in Eating green on a budget...]

Meal #6: Recipes

Layered Chicken Enchiladas with Tomatillo-Cilantro Salsa
(from Epicurious)
Jenny's Notes: We made a few modifications, as follows:
  1. Every enchilada recipe I looked at recommended a different cheese! We used a mixture of Monterey jack and mozzarella cheeses. 
  2. We used 2/3 half-and-half and 1/3 heavy cream (instead of using all heavy cream), and it was plenty rich. 
  3. We added sauteed pasilla peppers to the chicken layers—a nice addition in terms of both taste and color.
  4. And we made three layers, instead of just two, for a more substantial casserole.

Spicy Slaw (Jenny Michael)
green cabbage, finely shredded
red peppers, finely diced
radishes, cut into matchsticks
black beans, drained and rinsed
frozen corn kernels, thawed
cilantro, leaves only, coarsely chopped

olive oil
lime juice
white balsamic vinegar
Trader Joe's chili sauce

Cherry-Chocolate Bread Pudding
(adapted from Epicurious: I made enough changes to the original recipe that I thought it was worth rewriting it)

1 loaf French bread
1 quart whole milk
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 cup dried tart cherries
1 cup chocolate chips
whipped cream, lightly sweetened, for serving
  1. Beat the eggs with the milk, sugar, and vanilla.
  2. Cut bread into 1-inch cubes and place in a bowl.
  3. Pour the milk mixture over the bread cubes, and stir to moisten. Allow the bread to soak for about ten minutes, stirring a couple of times. 
  4. Butter an ovenproof dish (9x13).
  5. Spoon half of the bread mixture into the baking dish; sprinkle with half of the cherries and half the chocolate chips. 
  6. Add the rest of the bread mixture to the dish, and pour any remaining liquid over the top. Sprinkle with the rest of the chocolate and cherries.
  7. Bake at 350 degree for 30 minutes, or until the custard is set and the top is golden. 
  8. Allow to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature, topped with whipped cream.

Salsalicious! (Meal #6)

Once again, I've fallen behind on updating this blog—so that we actually completed Meal #7 before I finished writing this report on Meal #6...

Following as it did upon "the great lasagna undertaking" (i.e., Meal #5), I tried to put together a menu that would offer us enough of a challenge to make things interesting without postponing gratification until late in the evening! So having decided on enchiladas, I chose a layered version—instead of individually rolled ones—which made the assembly considerably easier. Of course, we did make the salsa verde from scratch, but that also was a fairly simple matter—though I did buy almost all the tomatillos that Lucky had to offer!

Date: Sunday, April 11th (served at BFWC the next evening)
Host: Jenny Michael
Menu: layered chicken enchiladas with tomatillo-cilantro salsa, spicy slaw, chocolate-cherry bread pudding
Participants: Sandy Cate, Cole Chabon, Bob Fagan, Maria Massolo, Jenny Michael, Sara Miller, Lisa Sherman, Rita Shuster.
Photos: Cole Chabon, Rita Shuster
Aside: This was not a meal for cilantro haters, of which there seem to be more than one might think. But as the New York Times recently reported, Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault!
Making the salsa was the first order of business, requiring the peeling of many tomatillos and onions and garlic. But once it was boiling away in my great iron cauldron, Sara Miller and I dug into the greasy task of boning and shredding six of Costco's wonderful rotisserie chickens. There was plenty of meat, so we packaged up the wings, skin, and bones for later stock-making. (Reports are that they yielded a particularly rich and flavorful broth!) The only other preparation was sauteing the pasilla peppers and grating the cheese, after which we assembled the casseroles.

Ours went into the oven, but the larger pans destined for the shelter were set aside to cool, then tightly covered with foil for Bob Fagan to deliver to the shelter. We sent along cooking instructions, so the staff could bake them on the following evening.

I had made the bread pudding before the rest of the crew arrived, so it would have ample time to bake. Even so, the three large pans spent much longer than their projected time in the oven.

The only remaining task was to cut up the vegetables for the slaw. Radishes proved a nice touch, and the corn and black beans gave the salad additional heartiness. We dressed our slaw with a light lime-and-cumin-scented vinaigrette—and sent along a jar of the same dressing for the shelter staff to use on theirs. The cool crispness of the slaw made a very nice counterpart to the rich, cheesy enchiladas.

Best practices: This day reaffirmed several of the things we had already learned about how to make these cooking events work well. First, preparing baked goods in advance ensures that they have adequate time to cook! Second, having the shelter staff cook the entree the next day also means that we're not waiting for untold hours for my overworked oven to do this job. Third, thinking in advance through the whole menu and the preparation needed for each recipe lets me organize our work more efficiently.

Cost: Like the lasagna dinner, this was one of our more expensive meals (around $200): cheese, in particular, seems to add up. But thanks to everyone's generous donations, we are still in the black. Many thanks to everyone for your contributions to this project of money and time and labor and—above all— of good will and good energy.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Eating one's way through British history

My latest guilty (and slightly queasy) pleasure is watching The Supersizers, which features restaurant critic Giles Coren and comic Sue Perkins. This intrepid pair spends a week dressing in the clothing and eating the foods of a particular era of British history, assisted by professional chefs working from authentic recipes of the period. It's fascinating, hilarious, frequently nauseating—and enough to make one exceedingly grateful to be living in an age where clean drinking water is readily available and vegetables are not viewed with suspicion.

So far, I've watched the shows on The Restoration, The Regency, and The Victorian Age. Other available episodes include:
Thanks to Misha Klein for bringing this to my attention!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Remembering Mom

Easter Sunday was the anniversary of my dear mother's death. Hard to believe it's been five years already. I still miss Mom for so many reasons, but holiday cooking brings her especially vividly to mind…

As in many families, our holiday celebrations centered around elaborate meals with fixed menus and often included items we ate at no other time of the year. Dinners on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Easter Sunday all had their prescribed dishes—though, admittedly, some of these evolved over the years. But I think we were—what am I saying?—are more attached than some families to our traditional feasts. As we got older, my sisters and I began to help out with the preparation of these meals, each of us eventually taking ownership of certain dishes (Kristi: Yorkshire pudding; Shannon: stewed tomatoes; Jenny: sweet rolls…). Cooking together is still a shared pleasure. I love spending this time with my sisters, and it always feels like an appropriate way to honor our mother's memory.

Mom did a lot of experimenting in the kitchen. And she documented her efforts—especially early in her marriage—with lists of the new recipes she'd tried and a star system for the reception they'd received. My impression is that she found cooking to be a crucial creative outlet during those domestic years, and so we as a family were exposed to lots of new dishes. Though we weren't always eager to sample these novelties, over time the experience did breed a certain adventurousness of palate in all of us.

A couple of Mom's early experiments, carried out before I was born (or old enough to notice) became family legends: the cauliflower casserole with pimientos, pineapple and walnuts (yikes!)—assembled in advance—that turned purple in the refrigerator overnight, and the dish of sweetbreads and "mountain oysters" she once served to Dad. She carefully cut up the meats so she could tell which were which and could avoid the latter—but she didn't tell him what he'd eaten until afterwards… Mercifully, neither of these dishes became part of her regular repertoire.

In the 1960s, Mom joined with several other women to form a "Gourmet Group," which met regularly to plan, research, and prepare meals inspired by the cuisines of different parts of the world. These "Gourmet Dinners" took place several times a year, with each couple, in turn, assuming the hosting duties. Early on, the advance preparation was quite elaborate: Mom and the other women perused cookbooks, tested possible menu selections on their families (Persian fruit soup, anyone?), and compiled a recipe book for each meal. Over time, they simplified their process. But even today, more than forty years later, the Gourmet Group is still having dinner together.
    Thrift was an important value in Mom's kitchen, a legacy of growing up during the Depression. A few wartime recipes lingered on after the war—most notably, a casserole of sauerkraut mixed with cream-of-mushroom soup and topped with hotdogs. The abundant fruits (and vegetables) of Dad's gardening labors provided delicious opportunities, but also the challenge (and responsibility) of making good use of all that bounty. A few jars containing dribs and drabs of mysterious sauces (that would surely be good in something sometime) frequently overstayed their welcome in the fridge. And Mom's infamous leftover soups were probably my least favorite expression of this throw-nothing-away mentality. Still, I admire her resourcefulness, and the bowls of soup and stew that now crowd my own freezer attest to the fact that her lessons were not entirely lost on me.

    Through her example, my mother taught me to appreciate good food and showed me the pleasures of culinary exploration and experimentation. My sisters and I grew up surrounded by the evidence of her creativity and passion. I remember…
    kitchen cabinets stocked with spices, fancy mustards, and other "exotic" specialty foods…
    a freezer laden with homemade casseroles, her wonderful tart applesauce, loaves of zucchini bread, jars of pungent pesto, and fruit from our trees (persimmons, apples, peaches, apricots, plums), all sliced, measured, and ready to bake into pies or cakes…
    a jar of sourdough starter fermenting wetly on the kitchen counter—and occasionally transmogrified into loaves of heavenly bread, tangy and chewy…
    a pantry filled with her glorious homemade jams (rosy apricot-cherry, vivid plum), spicy chili sauce and ketchup, crocks of sour, mustardy pickles…
    shelves of annotated cookbooks, teetering piles of aging Gourmet magazines, boxes of recipes she'd tried, enormous file drawers filled with recipes she'd clipped from magazines and newspapers and had not tried—as well as stacks of "Food & Wine" sections she'd not yet had the chance to peruse…
    So many sources of pleasure, so much love and generosity, such inspiration and invention and possibility all in one place! Blessings, indeed. Thanks, Mom, for teaching me the companionable and convivial joys of the kitchen and the table—and for making these part of our daily lives. Thank you for showing me that preparing food for others can be a significant expression of love, as well as a profoundly creative act. And that cooking with others can forge relationships. Thank you for the many, many happy hours I've spent—with you and with others—talking, laughing, connecting, sharing, singing, and reminiscing as we cooked together. I love you, and I remember.

    Sunday, March 21, 2010

    Food Memoirs

    Writing in the food memoir genre has burgeoned in recent years, and there are lots of interesting and amusing books to choose from—including the "Eat" section of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone and its sequel, Julia Child's posthumous My Life in France, and many others. I like this quote from Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life—which, admittedly, I have not read (yet):
    When I walk into my kitchen today, I am not alone. Whether we know it or not, none of us is. We bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables, and every meal we have ever eaten. Food is never just food. It's also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.
    What are your favorites in the food memoir genre?

    Inspiration: Thomas Merton

    From time to time, I'll be moving my "inspirations" to this main space, in order to make room for other stuff in the sidebar. Here's the first...

    As I've already noted, the name for this project—A Common Table—was inspired by a quote by Thomas Merton, which Michael Pollan cited in a talk at UC Berkeley in the fall of 2009. Merton wrote:
    From the moment you put a piece of bread in your mouth, you are part of the world. Who grew the wheat? Who made the bread? Where did it come from? You are in a relationship with all who brought it to the table. We are least separate and most in common when we eat and drink. [image source]

    Like you, I sometimes come across words or other works of art that inspire me, that make me think or smile—or cry... things I want to remember but too often don't. So I had the idea to create another blog where I could gather and ponder such tidbits. I call it "Musings & Collectanea" (yeah, I know... :)  If you're interested, please feel free to take a peek.

    Tuesday, March 9, 2010

    Meal #5: Recipes

    Sausage & Wild Mushroom Lasagne with Red Pepper Tomato Sauce (Epicurious)
    Jenny's Notes: We made this recipe as written, with two exceptions. First, we used a mixture of dried wild mushrooms in the béchamel—not just porcini—because that's what Costco had to offer.

    Second, and more importantly, we used regular noodles instead of the no-bake noodles the recipe specified. And we did
    not boil them in advance. Most of the reviewers had commented on how soupy this lasagna was, but using these noodles helped with that problem to some degree. And the next day, the soupiness was completely cured. :)

    One other thing: the recipe calls for either sweet or hot Italian sausage. We used sweet, in hopes of making the dish palatable to children and others who might not care for spicy food. But I suspect the lasagna would be even better if made with hot sausage.

    Garlic Bread
    Jenny's Notes: For the garlic butter, we mixed salted butter with crushed garlic, Dijon mustard, and tarragon.

    Caesar(ish) Salad
    Jenny's Notes: We made homemade croutons from a loaf of rosemary bread, and dressed the salad with Trader Joe's Caesar Romano dressing, jazzed up with fresh lemon juice, garlic, and grated parmesan cheese. 

    Milk Chocolate Pudding (Epicurious)
    Jenny's Notes: We made this as specified, using a couple of blocks of Belgian milk chocolate from Trader Joe's. It was easy and delicious!

    Laboring over Lasagna (Meal #5)

    Planning the menu for our gatherings is always an interesting puzzle. The recipes must require enough effort so that everyone can participate—which usually means plenty of vegetables to chop! But the preparation can't be so elaborate that we're overwhelmed. And the number of participants needs to be factored in... as do the tastes of the cooks (and the imagined tastes of the folks at the shelter). Plus, we need to take our limited oven/stove space into account. And then there's my own desire to experiment with new recipes. So it can all get a bit complicated!

    For this meal, at Maria's prompting, I decided on lasagna as our main course. And knowing that this dish can be time-consuming to prepare, I made the rest of the menu simple:

    MEAL #5
    Date: Sunday, March 7th (served at BFWC the next evening)
    Host: Jenny Michael
    Menu: sausage and wild mushroom lasagne with red pepper tomato sauce, caesar(ish) salad, garlic bread, milk chocolate pudding
    Participants: BB Borowitz, Monica Eppinger, Bob Fagan, Larry Jensen, Maria Massolo, Dave Menninger, Jenny Michael, Deborah Pruitt, Pat Raburn, Rita Shuster. Many thanks to you all for your generous contributions of time and money to support this project. I love these days spent in your company!
    Photos: Rita Shuster (whose fault it is that there are so many shots of me in this batch! :)

    I returned to my old friend Epicurious for inspiration. One of my favorite kinds of lasagna is a wonderful vegetarian version with mushrooms and artichokes in a béchamel. But it's very rich, meatless, and—I thought—perhaps a bit too odd for the (imagined) tastes of the shelter residents. I wanted something more traditional for this meal. So again, I went with the raves and selected a recipe that had originally appeared in Gourmet: sausage and wild mushroom lasagne with red pepper tomato sauce. The reviewers did mention that it was pretty labor-intensive, but I figured we would have lots of hands to help out—and it sounded wonderful.

    I'll not belabor the story: it was extremely labor-intensive (and also very delicious, I'm happy to report)! Preparing the sauces took several hours, even with everyone participating. And then the assembled dish took another hour to bake. We didn't eat till nearly 8 p.m. but, fortunately, the Oscars provided some distraction while we waited for dinner...

    And, happily, the meal was worth the wait. At Cole's suggestion, we did not bake the casseroles destined for the shelter but sent them along uncooked—with baking instructions. So that solved the oven problem we'd experienced last time around.

    So what did we learn from this experience? First, if you're going to choose a complicated recipe, it's best to read it through carefully in advance and then figure out the best way to organize the preparation. Had I planned this better, we would have made the béchamel while people were chopping the vegetables for the red sauce, instead of making it afterwards. That would have saved some time.

    If you're going to make multiples of a recipe, (#2) double-check your math! I miscalculated how much cornstarch was needed for ten recipes of chocolate pudding and had to run out and buy another box, when it became clear that the pudding just wasn't going to thicken... Also, (#3) consult an experienced caterer (Cole! Michael!) about quantities, so that you don't end up with a vat of red sauce left over. I'm still not sure how that happened (see all the jars of leftover sauce in the photo, below!)—not that we couldn't figure out something to do with what remained...).

    Finally (#4), cheese and red peppers and wild mushrooms and on-the-vine tomatoes (even from Costco) are expensive. Menus like this one should be scheduled only occasionally, so we don't break the bank. Veggie-focused meals are both healthier and more affordable.

    Oh, and most important (#5), don't forget to be patient with the process, take a break now and then to sip some wine, and enjoy the company of your fellow cooks.

    Saturday, February 27, 2010

    More on the Shelter

    This month, I had the opportunity to deliver our meal to the shelter we're supporting in San Leandro, Building Futures with Women & Children. According to their website, this shelter "offers 24-hour staffing and client services for 32 women and children. Along with food and shelter, staff provides case management, resources, referrals, advocacy, and household items for residents moving beyond shelter."

    Although I've spoken several times with the shelter's manager, Cheryl Houston, this was the first chance I'd had to see the place (because Bob Fagan had so kindly made all the earlier meal deliveries). The shelter is next to Saint Leander Catholic Church and its school, and the property may actually belong to the church—though I'm not sure about that. The entrance is through an unobtrusive and unmarked gate in a high pinkish wall. I had to ask the school crossing guard to point it out to me.

    I rang the bell, and the woman on duty came to the gate. Together we carried the food inside. I didn't see much of the place, aside from a cluttered office, a small sitting/TV room, and a kitchen whose shelves and large refrigerator seemed well stocked. A few residents were around, but I didn't have the opportunity to do anything more than smile a "hello."

    A Shelter Tour: I asked about the possibility of touring the shelter and was told that we could arrange this through BFWC's central office. I would like to do this in the next month or so, and it would be great if some of you wanted to join me. I'll check in with you all a little later about possible dates—maybe in April or May.

    Response to our Dinner Donations: In two earlier conversations with Cheryl Houston, I had asked if she had any feedback for us on the food. She had nothing specific to offer in either case, except that it was ample and the residents didn't complain! Apparently this lack of reaction is typical: the women generally don't comment on the food, unless they find it unpalatable. So not quite the enthusiastic response we would love to hear :)  but it seems that no news is good news in this situation. When I asked about their food donations, I was told that they were generally well provided for; church groups, in particular, are regular donors.

    Meal #4: Recipes

    Meatloaf (Epicurious)
    Jenny's Notes: We used ½ ground pork and ½ ground beef, instead of the proportions specified by the recipe. This was simply due to Costco's packaging and a desire not to purchase more meat than was needed. Niman Ranch's applewood-smoked bacon gave a wonderful flavor. Aside from these changes, all was by the book... er, screen.

    Scalloped Yukon Gold and Sweet Potato Gratin with Fresh Herbs (Epicurious)
    Jenny's Notes: We followed the recommendations of the other Epicurious cooks and increased the quantity of each sort of potato to 2 pounds (from 1½ pounds each). Although the recipe says to submerge the potatoes "as much as possible," they really weren't much submerged at all, but this didn't matter. 

    Sauteed Green Beans with Toasted Almonds 

    Brownies (Epicurious)
    Jenny's Note: I first made these for a dinner party in 2006, where they were a huge hit. This has been my favorite brownie recipe ever since. 

    Butterscotch Brownies (Jenny Michael—a family recipe) Ingredients:
    1 lb. brown sugar
    1 cup butter
    2 eggs
    2 cups flour
    1 tsp. baking powder
    ½ tstp. salt
    1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
    1. Cook the butter and sugar together over low heat until the sugar dissolves. Cool till lukewarm.
    2. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. 
    3. In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients.
    4. Stir the flour mixture into the sugar mixture. 
    5. Spread the batter evenly into an ungreased 9x13-inch pan. Sprinkle the walnuts evenly on top of the batter.
    6. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until done.
    7. Cut into squares while still warm.
    Jenny's Note: A Pyrex pan works well for this recipe but may require a longer baking time.

    The Best Meatloaf & Potatoes Ever! (Meal #4)

    I love Epicurious! Seriously, it's the best. You want to make something that's not part of your regular repertoire, and they've got twenty recipes to choose from. You can read other cooks' comments about a dish you're considering, learn from their successes and mistakes, and roll your eyes at the people who make drastic substitutions in a recipe and then complain that it didn't come out so well... Plus, all the most delicious-sounding recipes from both Bon Appétit and the now-defunct Gourmet are available for free on this website. And you can save your favorites into a personal recipe box. Génial, n’est-ce pas? (Yes, I'm teaching French again this semester...) So when I'm looking either for general inspiration or specific options, Epicurious is where I go.

    Which brings me to our February gathering, which I had infelicitously scheduled for Super Bowl Sunday. (BTW, I see that I managed to schedule our March date for the night of the Oscars—but we can eat around the television that night, if you like...) I knew we would be a smallish group—and I didn't want to tackle anything too complicated—so when Michael Acker suggested meatloaf and scalloped potatoes, I was delighted! But I never make either of these dishes, so it was Epicurious to the rescue! I read through lots of recipes, perused the cooks' comments, and chose two that had won universal raves. And were those cooks ever right! (See the "recipes" post for details...)

    MEAL #4
    Date: Sunday, February 7th (served at BFWC the next evening)
    Host: Jenny Michael
    Menu: meatloaf, scalloped Yukon Gold and sweet potato gratin with fresh herbs, green beans with toasted almonds, chocolate brownies, butterscotch brownies
    Participants: Judith Bishop, BB Borowitz, Sandy Cate, Jenny Michael, Deborah Pruitt, Lisa Sherman, Rita Shuster
    Photos: Obviously, a bit of an afterthought this time...

    As anticipated, we were a smallish group: Sandy Cate and I were on our own for about an hour, and then Deborah Pruitt joined us. With the help of Sandy's mandoline, we sliced 16 pounds (!) of potatoes and got the casseroles into the oven. Then we took a break and had some wine and cheese, while I nursed my thumb, the tip of which had been sacrificed to the slicer (doh!). BB Borowitz joined us, then Judith Bishop, Rita Shuster, and Lisa Sherman, and together we got the meatloaves ready for the oven. However...

    Lessons learned: (#1) It turns out that the more pans you put into a smallish oven—especially if you stack them on multiple shelves—the longer everything takes to cook! (What—you knew this already? And you said nothing?!!) In this case, we had one large and one smaller foil pan of scalloped potatoes—plus a Pyrex dish for us—and my poor oven just couldn't cope. One casserole was supposed to cook in about an hour; the three of them took more than three hours! And that was with the heat turned way up.

    Fortunately, I wasn't delivering the food to the shelter until the following day, so this wasn't a crisis. But by the time the potatoes were finally done, it was getting late. No one wanted to wait another hour (or so) for the meatloaves to cook, so we got creative. It turns out that (#2) meatloaf mixture makes delicious burgers! We fried up a batch, sautéed some green beans, topped them with toasted almonds, dished up the much-anticipated potatoes, and sat down to our dinner.

    The result? Raves all around for both the meatloaf (rich, moist, smoky, with a touch of sweetness) and the potatoes (rich, creamy, earthy). Which brings me back to where I started: (#3) Epicurious rocks!

    Foods to Eat—and to Avoid

    In case you missed this New York Times article on "The 11 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating" the first time around, it's worth checking out... I've seen various versions of this list published elsewhere over the past few months.

    Those of us concerned about the toxicity of our foods—and, frankly, who isn't these days?—might want to review the below guidelines from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). (I found this on Martha Stewart's website.)
    • The EWG, a nonprofit environmental research organization, calls the 12 fruits and vegetables that carry the most pesticide residue "the dirty dozen." These include (in order of most residue to least): peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, imported grapes, carrots, and pears. The point is that if you have limited funds to spend on more-expensive organic produce, these are items to target.

    • The EWG's "clean 15," the fruits and vegetables with the least pesticide residue, are (in order of least residue to most): onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mangoes, asparagus, sweet peas, kiwifruits, cabbages, eggplants, papayas, watermelons, broccoli, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes. Grapefruit is number 16. Oranges and tangerines, staples of midwinter, fall midway on the list of the 47 fruits and vegetables tested. Similarly, if you have to buy conventional produce, these are the safest choices.

    Meal #3: Recipes

    Pastel de Choclo/Chilean Corn Casserole (Maria Massolo)
    Chicken filling:
    1 ½ lbs chicken breast (or half white meat, half dark meat)
    chicken broth (as needed)
    2 medium yellow onions, minced
    ½ cup seedless raisins
    3 tablespoons olive oil
    2 cloves garlic, minced
    ½ teaspoon sweet paprika
    ½ teaspoon dried oregano
    ½ teaspoon of cumin
    salt and freshly ground pepper
    2 hard boiled eggs, each peeled and quartered lengthwise (optional)
    ½ can pitted black olives (sliced or not, as you prefer)
    Corn topping:
    5 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
    1 cup of milk
    1 small onion boiled and quartered (I also use leeks, white part only)
    ½ stick of butter, plus 1 tablespoon for greasing the casserole
    salt and pepper, to taste
    sweet paprika
    confectioner’s sugar
    Prepare the filling:
    1. Cube the chicken and sauté in a frying pan at low-to-medium heat. The chicken will release its juices, but add a bit of chicken broth, if the mixture is dry.
    2. Place the raisins in a small mixing bowl and cover with warm water; let soak till they soften.
    3. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and sauté the minced onions and garlic, stirring occasionally, until soft
      Drain the raisins and stir them into the diced chicken. Add ½ cup of reserved chicken juices, paprika, oregano, and cumin. Cook for 5 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper. 
    4. Remove filling from heat and keep warm.
    Prepare the corn topping:
    1. Puree the corn kernels and milk with the boiled onion (or leeks) in a food processor or blender until smooth. 
    2. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat, add the corn puree and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or until it is as thick as oatmeal. Taste and season with salt and pepper, as needed.
    Assemble the casserole:
    1. Butter a shallow 2-quart casserole with the remaining 1 T of butter. Spread the chicken filling on bottom of the casserole.
    2. Press the egg wedges and olives into the filling. 
    3. Spread corn topping over the chicken and smooth with a rubber spatula.
    4. Sprinkle the top of the pie with confectioners sugar and paprika.
    5. Bake in a pre-heated 375 F oven until the top is firm and light golden, about 45 minutes. 
    6. Serve at once.

    Salad of Baby Greens with Dried Cranberries, Pecans, & Balsamic Vinaigrette

    Icebox Potato Rolls (Jenny Michael—my grandmother's recipe) 
    1 pkg. dry yeast
    2 cups milk
    1 cup butter
    2 large potatoes, cooked (baked or boiled) and mashed — to make 1½ cups
    4 eggs
    1 cup sugar + 1 tsp.
    3-4 tsps salt
    8 cups flour
    1. Dissolve 1 pkg. yeast in ½ c lukewarm water and 1 tsp. sugar. 
    2. In 2 cups scalded milk, melt 1 cup butter. Add mashed potatoes and cool. 
    3. When the potato mixture has cooled, add 4 beaten eggs. Mix in 1 cup sugar, 3-4 tsps. salt, and the yeast mixture. Stir in 8 cups flour. Beat well. 
    4. Refrigerate the dough overnight.
    5. About an hour before baking, remove the dough from the refrigerator and stir it well so that most of the air is removed. 
    6. Half-fill greased muffin tins. Let rise till double (takes a while when batter is cold).
    7. Bake 12 minutes at 400 degrees till golden. Eat immediately, if possible—they’re best while hot!
    Notes: This recipe makes a lot of rolls! (I’d guess about 4 dozen.) If you don’t want to bake them all at once, you can keep the dough in the refrigerator for a week or so until you want to bake more.

    Chocolate & Vanilla Cupcakes with Chocolate & Cream Cheese Frosting (Michael Acker & Cole Chabon)

    Friday, February 26, 2010

    Happy New Year! (Meal #3)

    I'm dreadfully behind on this blog, but I wrote the below after our first dinner of 2010 and thought I'd finally put it up!

    I love the start of a new year. After the solstice, the light slowly returns. It's a time of opportunity, offering a chance for transformation and the possibility of creating something new and different—and better—for our lives and our world.

    At New Year's, I always spend some time thinking back over the past year, reminding myself of what was good and imagining the changes I might want to make in the coming year. I know: I'm hardly unique in this! I realized that for me A Common Table has been one of the best parts of the past few months. I love the wonderful energy of our gatherings, the fact that people have spread the word to friends, some of whom have decided to join us, and the sense of a shared effort toward common goals. And you all make me feel appreciated—and I'm grateful to you for that. :)

    Our first meal of the year:  I thought there was a special feel to this day. Everyone seemed happy to be here, to work together, to talk and connect and create something delicious.

    MEAL #3
    Date: Sunday, January 10th (served at BFWC the next evening)
    Host: Jenny Michael
    Menu: pastel de choclo (Chilean corn casserole), green salad w/cranberries & pecans, potato rolls, chocolate & vanilla cupcakes
    Participants: Michael Acker, Sandy Cate, Cole Chabon, Bob Fagan, Kevin Koczela, Maria Massolo, Jenny Michael, Deborah Pruitt, Rita Shuster
    Photos: Cole Chabon, Kevin Koczela

    I was still a bit behind in my preparations when people began to arrive: the chicken and the corn weren't fully thawed; the rolls hadn't yet been baked; the silicone cups that were supposed to let the cupcakes slip right out didn't... On the other hand, I had showered, changed my clothes, and finished the neatening that made me feel ready to have people come into my house! I've learned that as long as I have these basic things taken care of, I can deal with the rest on the fly.

    The pastel de choclo, a Chilean dish that Maria Massolo has adapted, is simple to prepare, but in this large quantity the logistics were a bit challenging. So we worked in batches, sautéing onions and chicken, puréeing corn, transferring items back and forth from sauté pan to pot and back again. Then we seasoned and assembled the casseroles before putting them into the oven.

    While they baked, we had fun decorating the mini cupcakes Michael Acker had prepared. Cole Chabon provided chocolate and cream cheese frostings, along with food coloring and multicolored sprinkles, and Maria and Kevin Koczela and Deborah Pruitt demonstrated keen eyes for color (pink and peach-colored frosting!) and their skill with the decorative icing tips, and the results were beautiful and delicious! 

    About our finances: We are in the black! Thanks to generous donations from you all, plus additional funding from members of my family (thank you so much! I love you!), we have had no trouble meeting our expenses so far. I have put together a spreadsheet to keep track of our donations and our outlay, so we know where we stand. If you'd like to see it, please ask me.

    This meal proved to be fairly inexpensive, especially since a good portion of the food was donated directly (cupcakes, icing, rolls). I decided to invest in some large rolls of foil and a couple of sets of heavy-duty foil pans, so we can easily package our donations for transport. Also, at the urging of the group, I bought a large bottle olive oil for our use, so I'm not continually depleting my own stock. 

    More suggestions for future dinners: chicken enchiladas, shepherd's pie, pierogies, lasagna...