Up and down Grand Avenue

Last night we had plans. Grand plans. We were off to my favorite place in the world. I go to the Alley for steaks and Manhattans, for the old men and the old songs, for the patina of a place that’s been around since 1938. I was excited to introduce Max to Bernice behind the bar and to see Paul and the other guys at the piano and to take my turn with a Cole Porter tune. We’d get the steaks and manhattans and make the mistake a nightcap we’d regret in the morning.

But no dice. We got to the Alley and it was shuttered until 1.11.

So we made other plans. Grand plans. From some blog or other, I’d heard of the Grand Tavern and cursory research and vetting on yelp seemed to support the idea. So we headed up Grand Ave.

But we got there, and something felt off. The open sign was oddly hand-made and inexplicably wrapped in saran wrap. The front steps of the craftsman-style house were a little dark. The only thing that indicated this was really a restaurant was the clamor coming from down the front hall. I thought, “We’ll check out the menu, and then we’ll see.” But soon we were sitting in something of a living room, surrounded by the cacophony that can only come from forty-odd people packed into a wood-paneled room with nothing but an area rug to dampen the sound. Plus, our server advised us, someone had just proposed, so everyone was feeling, well, festive. And loud.

Looking over the menu, our hesitation continued unabated. There was something off both in layout and content. There seemed to be a lot of “sour cream sauces” and they offered something called “social skin fries,” that sounded more like something you should see a dermatologist for than order as an appetizer. I ordered a Ward 8 from the cocktail list, M got a beer, and as our waiter walked away, I thought, “we still have time to cancel it. Where else can we go?”

But we pressed on and every instinct I had to turn back was validated by the next step in the meal. We were going to start with the “fresh carrot mash,” the first thing on the menu, but were immediately advised by our server that it was “very sweet,” seemingly steering us away from it as an app option. Then why was it first on the menu? We skipped the course entirely and ordered mains. Steak for me, the Onion Lamb Shank for M. We hoped the entrée could overcome its name and deliver something better than it sounded.

It didn’t. My rib-eye was rife with sinew and the Onion Lamb Shank was confused by battling sauces and flavors. Two bites in, I was trying to figure out where we could head for dessert to rescue the evening. Adesso on Piedmont has dessert. We’d go there. As quickly as we could, we paid cash and left.

But heading down Grand we stopped short. There was something new, and just as those cues coming from the Grand Tavern told us to go away, this place was beckoning us to come in. Boot and Shoe service, was the name. From the votive-lit bar to the typewriter-reminiscent menu to the menu itself. Monterey bay sardines from the wood oven,mixed plate of cured meats, , margherita pizza, chocolate pot de crème. This is where we wanted to be.

My suggestion to go in was met with an enthusiastic yes, and soon we were in the back bar, and M came up with an even better suggestion. Let’s split a pizza, get a couple glasses of wine and save the truffles we picked up at Michael Micher for dessert. Done.

And where Grand Tavern had failed us at every turn , Boot and Shoe Service did us just right. From the service to the people, to the perfect pours of wine and the killer char on a marghertia pizza. This is where we wanted to be, and where we wanted to come back as soon as possible. They’d only been open a week, and from the crowd on a Thursday night, it’s clear they were doing something right.

So what did we learn? Trust your instincts over anything. When you’re right, you’re right, and by and large, well Yelp is very, very wrong.


the luxury of luxury.

Here’s the scene: it’s the mid-eighties, and I’m out to dinner with the family at 72 Market Street, where Gary and my mom were investors. We were regulars, and we knew just about everyone by name- from Steve the piano player to Julie the hostess, and of course, Leonard, the chef. The entire place was redundant muted shades of white with recessed lighting off-set by high ceilings and an infinitely dark floor. The entry was grand in that 80’s way, with a lot of slate stone and worn metal. There were oysters on the half shell (which I’m proud to say I enjoyed, even only being in elementary school), there were warm rolls with butter (though it being the 80’s, no one actually ate the butter), there was the first (and best) Caeser salad I ever had and there was ostensibly a lot of grilled chicken.

It was comfortable and it was luxurious at the same time, though I didn’t know how much it all cost at the time. We ate high-end often and I didn’t really know the difference. It was the 80’s. Everyone was flush, or seemed to be.

And no moment was this more true then when about halfway through entrees, Gary would ask for a bite of my food, and knowing that a so-called “Gary Bite” could easily consume a third of a serving at a time, I’d take a moment before reluctantly relinquishing my plate. “Come on,“ he’d say. “You can always order more.”

While yes, we could always order more, but no one ever did. It was the 80’s and while luxury was in, gastronomic indulgence was out, and no one would concede to a pat of butter, let alone a second plate.

Those times are long gone, in a lot of ways. Dietary restrictions were slowly replaced by financial ones, and even if 72 Market Street hadn’t closed, we wouldn’t be going much anymore.

Being on my own, it took a pretty long time to shake off the habits I’d grown up with, and detailing them here is nothing new. But while I discovered I could indulge in anything I wanted without the burden of guilt, being a college student and then a jr. copywriter, I couldn’t afford it. Caloric guilt was replaced by monetary guilt, and even though I was totally comfortable with ordering a second serving of whatever I wanted, my budget wasn’t.

But now, things are a little different. I’m a lot more responsible than I once was, which means, more than anything, I can be really irresponsible when I want to be.

A few weeks ago, Max and I were out at Alembic. We opted to keep things simple- an order of roasted peppers and just one pork belly slider, plus a salad. We thought we’d split the hangar steak entrée in the interest of underindulgence. But after a sazarac and a southern exposure, an old-fashioned and a pisco sour, we were well past the point of understated by the time the steak came. And two bites in, something happened. The taste was too good- perfectly cooked steak settled in a port chantrelle reduction, sweet balanced with savory and considering how much we were falling for the dish, not enough to go around.

Gary’s phrase rang in my ears, “You could always order more,” and finally, for the first time it was really true. And just as I suggested getting another round of steak, Max said, “I was just thinking the same thing. “ It felt insanely luxurious to off-handedly say to the waitress when she came back to check on us, “The hangar steak? Yeah, we want another one of those.”

And it was great. The second serving of steak was just as incredible as the first, and the pure indulgence of the whole thing made it taste even better. I can’t think of another time, another perfect storm where desire met possibility mixed with just the right co-conspirator. And the best thing about everything? There wasn’t a trace of guilt at the table


My week in cheese.

Not long after I decided to pursue food seriously, I saw an ad posted on Craigslist. Seems my favorite cheese store was hiring, so I made a call. A few conversations and a handshake later, and I was the newest employee. I was excited, I was nervous, and in the back of my mind, I was pretty damn unsure. It wasn’t just that I didn’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of cheese or that I didn’t think I could do the job, I just had no idea what it might be like to step back behind the counter, interacting with customers, something I hadn’t done since college.

And the first couple days it was great. I was exhausted by the end of the day from eight hours of being on my feet, in a good way. I made sandwiches, I talked about cheese, I sampled cheese, I took advantage of my 20% discount. I found myself drawn to the meat counter, eager to help people pick out and sample from all the great cured meats we had to offer, hoping they’d want to sample some Iberico so I could snag a little slice too.

Despite my brother’s overt wariness (“margo? Customer service?”), I really liked engaging with the people who came in. They were in the store because they liked good food. The same reason I was a customer there, the same reason I became an employee. I set myself a goal: if someone comes to the meat counter, see if I can get them to walk away with one more type of charcuterie than they came there for. It was fun.

But there were other parts. Retail means when you’re working, you’re working. No email, no internetting, no writing during downtime. I didn’t like being told when to take my (unpaid) break, especially when the wage itself was pretty meager. And then the hours themselves were the opposite of everyone elses. I was to work evenings and weekends, my off-days were broken up during the week.

It wasn’t working. The bads were quickly outweighing the goods, and I had to make a change. So I did what any reasonable person would do: I inadvertently stabbed myself with a knife and got four stitches in my hand.

On the day I had planned to chat with my boss about reducing my hours, I was making a sandwich for someone. While pitting an avocado, like an idiot, the knife slipped around the pit and between my first and second fingers, essentially slicing open the webbing between the digits.

Yeah. It was as bad as you think it was.

So I was out of commission. Stitches, workers comp, the whole thing. And even now that my hand has healed, I’m not going back to the cheese shop. Maybe on call when he needs me, or maybe if he needs marketing help, or maybe if he ever takes me up on my ideas to make the meat counter even better.

So, just like that, I’m going back to advertising. But it was a nice little sabbatical. To see how the other half lives, and to know that right now, it’s not for me. I miss the office life, the regular hours, the people and the work. I love food, and I’m going to love keeping it as my hobby. But for now, if you know of anyone looking for a copywriter, my pencils are sharpened. But not too sharp. I’ve had kind of an accident-prone year.


Porcine musings

I've got something to admit, blog audience. And it's better if I just come out and say it. I'm cheating on you. I'm writing for another blog. It's true.

A few months ago, I met some guys from Portland who run the bacn.com site. They liked what I had to say and I liked what they had to offer, and well, one thing led to another and here I am. Writing about pig.

I think this can work though. I can keep both relationships going. All my bacony thoughts can live there and my sporadic writing about my CSA or cooking life can live here. Click on over. I've got a piece up about bacon presses and my father, and one coming up about the magic of greens and bacon.

Add http://blog.bacn.com/ to your RSSing or just click there every day to see if I've written anything new if you're my mother.



It's time for a little change

A lot can happen in a month. This time last month I was packing my bag for a trip to Portland and Montana, where we traveled by bike and train only. It was a hell of a trip that included Praline-bacon and a familiar faces at Screen Door in Portland, eating and drinking chocolate at Cacao, meats from my favorite charcuterie, food on a train, buffalo burgers, a run at Bison Bourguignon and a sighting each of a bat, a mountain goat and a bear.

Like I said, quite a trip.

Then I came home to a day of work followed by no work at all. The day after my vacation I was let go from my job. Riding down the Embarcadero on my bike, I felt little more than relief. I was free. Free from anxiety about my job coming to an end. Free from trying to muster true passion and enthusiasm for video games. Free from the four lunch places in a two-block radius I’d been lunching for nearly two years.

I went home and immediately fixed myself a lunch of Prather Ranch steak and Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. And I haven’t stopped cooking since.

In addition to taking up racquetball and compulsive craigslist searching, being unemployed has also put me in the kitchen a lot more. Last Friday’s lunch was a kick-ass Patty Melt with carmelized onions, Everett & Jones BBQ sauce on Langer’s rye. Earlier in the week was a salad of Little Gems, strawberries, basil and burratta. And I’m finally indulging my pizza impulses and I’m doing it from scratch. Bagels are next up on my list.

But it’s not just my kitchen I’ve been spending time in. A friend asked me to help in her’s catering a wedding reception. I had the opportunity to be behind-the-scenes cracking eggs and washing dishes for another friend’s pop-up Izakaya. I was on my feet for 10 hours at a clip and it was great. I liked the sound and movement of the kitchen. The instant comraderie. The buzz at the end of the night that kept me up past my bedtime. And I wasn’t even really cooking.

So I think it’s time for a change. To step away from the day job and into a different one. To indulge my indulgences. To see if I can make it in the food world. Because there’s a reason I end up talking about chocolate stores at job interviews. Or why when someone asks what I did over the weekend I end up detailing my meals. Or why I will always find myself in the kitchen, no matter the occaision.

I figure I’ve got a little bit of time to see how this can go. To do what I did when I got into advertising. Talk to anyone and everyone about the industry and how they got their start. To read and write and meet people and get into any kitchen that will let me. I’ll volunteer at soup kitchens and network for catering gigs. To cook every damn meal and subject the contents of my fridge to all kinds of knifework drills. My apologies in advance, carrots.

I’m excited and nervous. I’m anxious for all kinds of reasons, good and bad. Wondering what path I’ll find, what flavors I’ll discover, how I’m going to pay rent. It’s all exciting and scary at the same time, which is a pretty fun thing to feel. Wish me luck, and if you know of anyone looking for help in the kitchen, get in touch. Seriously. I could use the experience.


Thursday Sweets!

It’s Thursday, which means for no apparent reason, it’s another installment of Fun with New Candy. Instead of taking the Walgreen’s route, I decided to class things up a bit and tag along with some of the work crew over to RJ’s, a fancy little market tucked somewhere between Secret Deli (aka Paul’s) and just before the Stairs of Doom (aka Coit Tower stairs, which I subject myself to running up and down [and up and down] once a week or so).

The market is slightly on the expensive side, and I’ve usually hit my lunch-spending limit with fun bottled sodas and exciting chips long before I make it to the check-out line. Unfortunately, that’s where all the candy is. Last time I was there, I spotted these little guys hanging out by the register, but thought the better of picking them up.

But today, with lunch taken care of and impulse control waning I went for it.
Back at my desk, I took a good look at the packaging. Simple and clean, old-timey and brisk. It had a lot of good going for it, beyond the little bricks of brittle inside. There were a lot of good words huddled together: chocolate, dark chocolate, peanut brittle, bites. But what was lurking under that price tag? Something Nutty.

Oh. Coco Nutty. I see what you did there. Food pun. Great. And somehow, even though I could clearly see the candy through the viewpane, I hadn’t registered the coconut bit. Sometimes I’m not good with details.

Unwavered by a momentary onset of anticipatory disappointment in the brand, I soldiered on and opened the box.
And look! No extra packaging. I like that. Open a box and get right to the food. Simple. Ok, Jer, you’ve redeemed yourself.

While flakes of coconut fell to my desk like Ally Sheedy’s dandruff in The Breakfast Club, I took my first bite. A good thick robing of dark chocolate gave way to a solid piece of peanut brittle, though I’d be inclined to call it more toffee-like composition. Lotsa sugar, not a lot of nuts. And true to the name, it was a little brittle, to the point I was worried for future dentist visits and that my coworkers think I might be snacking on rocks.

Though I only intended to have one (as I haven’t actually made it up the Stairs of Doom this week yet), but as the day continued on I found myself opening up the box three more times until all the bites had been bitten and my desk was littered with coconut.

I turned over the empty box to see what else this Jer character offers, and was again disappointed to find that all four of the candies in his collection of flavors are rife with food punnery, but if I find myself at RJ’s with an extra $3 to throw down, I might just throw it his way.


Against the Grain: Kasha

I’ve had this book on my desk at the office for awhile, and when people see it, they think it’s a joke. And by all means, it should be. The cover, the way the author suggestively, yet goofily samples the dish in front of her, though the presented chicken legs surrounding a floating island of rice doesn’t seem to have any room for her food prop. They ask if I won it on ebay, or had it shipped from 1972 (copyright is 1981, as it happens) or if I’m planning an ironic retro cocktail party.
None of this is the case.

I then ask them to pick it up, flip the pages, and let it fall naturally to an open page. What they’ll find is one of the first meals I ever cooked on my own. At 13, armed with the knowledge of how to read a recipe and how to send my mom off with a shopping list, I tackled the “Special but Inexpensive Dinner for Three” that spans pages 93-95. I think it might have been for her birthday.

Somewhere in my how-to-cook education, I read somewhere that a good cook should have battered cookbooks, that they should have food splattered on them, that they should have notes in the margins. This is why I made a note to myself to “cut oranges in 1 more section than said,” so when I made this Special Dinner again in the future, I’d know better.

Though I haven’t felt compelled to make the Orange Chicken again (and looking at the recipe, I can see why) the Kasha Pilaf is something I come to time and time again. I have kasha kicks throughout the year. I made huge batches of it in High School, so there’d be enough for me and enough for Gary to poach some (whole grains!). It served me well on a student’s budget in college and a Bay Area resident’s budget now. And when I lived in Russia, I found comfort in the familiar grain. In fact, my host mother was a pretty awful cook, and though she always offered more, the only thing I’d take her up on was some kasha for breakfast every day.

And though I’ve made this kasha pilaf a few times a year for the past, say, 15 years, though I’ve pulled the same ingredients out of the pantry and fridge in the same amounts, and though I’ve followed the same steps again and again, something compels me to go over to the shelf and let the book fall open to page 94 before I can begin heating up the pan.

There’s something inherently comforting about the dish, and not just in the final product, but in the preparation. The words are soothing like the repeated words of a children’s book you haven’t read in 20 years. There’s an unexpected poetry in the prose, a rhythm I come to rely on. “Slice celery thinly. Chop onion coarsely.” Though the other measurements are inexact, I always make sure the ratio of kasha to broth is just right, and I’ve never understood why the author went to the trouble to implore us to spoon off one teaspoon of the beaten egg, like that extra bit would somehow ruin the pilaf.

Though I’m trying a lot of new things in the Great Grain Experiment of 2009, it’s nice to know I’m not in entirely new territory, that I’ve been down the dark path of grains before, and that year after year, it leads me to this page, to this old world taste. To comfort and familiar. To a warm bowl of kasha pilaf.


Against the Grain: Quinoa

The more I delve into this wide world of grains, the more I’m finding a disconcerting trend in the recipes I find. While one might conventionally praise an ingredient for its taste, how it can balance a dish, even for its luscious texture, grains are often lauded for something entirely different. Their nutritional benefit. I haven’t found this to be true with any grain more so than with quinoa.

Did you know it’s the perfect protein? It’s got vitamins in it! Oh, the fiber, my god the fiber!

Great. It’s good for me. So is most everything else I eat after I swore off HFCS and got into my CSA. And if it’s something that’s not ‘good for me’ in a conventional sense, like, say, a bacon cheeseburger from Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, I assure you, it’s good for me in a whole host of other ways. I’m much better for having eaten that burger.

Right, so quinoa. It’s good for me. Solid. What else does it do?
Well, unlike the treacherous wheatberries, quinoa kinda rocks. Preparation is impossibly easy. It’s like slow couscous. 15 minutes of a slow simmer and it’s done. And there you have it, a blank good-for-you canvas that, supposedly is good for just about anything.

I gave it a trial run mixed in with some sautéed leeks, peas and langoustines, which, in all fairness, was such a killer combination, it’d be hard for any grain to fail. Still, quinoa held up, balancing the buttery leeks and shellfish with an earthiness that didn’t get in the way. They’ve got this fun little snap to them too. A texture that is, dare I say, cravable.

Sunday I was off to see Wilco at the Greek in Berkeley, and in an effort to contribute to the picnic and bring some whole grains into the picture, I sautéed some shallots with prosciutto and peas and incorporated the quinoa. Again, success. While in my distracted state I might have over-seasoned, co-workers dug into my leftovers Monday offering, “There is nothing not great about this.”

Nice to hear.

Getting home late on Tuesday, I was not in the mood to cook. It happens. I was a stone’s throw away from ordering thai, but, remembering my commitment to the granular cause, I fired up some quinoa instead. One of my favorite weeknight dishes is sautéed cauliflower with bread crumbs and a little pancetta over oreciette. Something about the redundant whiteness of the dish makes it seem perfectly indulgent, even though cauliflower delivers vitamins and fiber like any other veggie. So, ditching the pasta I subbed quinoa and it totally worked. Dare I say, it was better. I finally get this whole ‘heartiness’ thing everyone’s been touting.

Somewhere between Sunday’s picnic and Tuesday night dinner I realized, save for the porky bits in these dishes, I’m cooking Gary food. Brown food with veggies. Quinoa is working for me, and I managed to finish off the box in a week and change. Unlike, oh, wheatberries, I believe there will be a repeat purchase in my future. Onward, to Barley!

(there were going to be more pictures, really, but I've run into some technological bad luck lately. But I know you don't just come here for the picture, do you.)


Against the Grain: Wheatberries

I didn’t realize what I was signing up for when I picked up some wheatberries. But something about the smugness of the grain vendor at the Temescal Farmer’s Market should have tipped me off. Maybe he was bitter because his stand wasn’t as popular as Prather Ranch or Happy Boy farms, or maybe he was bitter because he had to explain his pricing over and over to each potential customer, or maybe, just maybe he was bitter because he subsists on a diet of whole grains, wheatberries being one of them.

Nevertheless, I took a 2 lb bag to add to my fun purchases (goat feta! Donut peaches! Pluots!) and brought them back home. I put them in the pantry, half-convinced that’s where they were going to stay until I move someday.

But once Sunday dinner decision-time came along and I found myself considering pasta, I knew I’d have to face my own challenge. One new grain a week. So I got to prepping.

Sources conflicted one another on simple prep. Some said they needed a 24 hour soak, some said boil for an hour, my mom said even that was too long. So I decided to follow Alice Water’s advice, and put them in to simmer, then check on them every 20.
About 50 minutes later, the hard berries had softened into something toothy yet palatable. Nutty, earthy and brown. And bland as fuck.

So I turned to my instincts. Started sautéing some onion and garlic in olive oil. Salted, but then saw it would end up not looking too interesting. Threw in some zucchini for color and summery flavor, and then tossed it all together. Not bad looking. But still looking discouragingly like health food.

The goat feta! Genius. Something to brighten it up a bit and adding another element. And it worked. The supple give of the zucchini balanced the starchy berries, the tang of the cheese matched their earthiness. It all worked well. I even brought some the next day for work.

But still, even after using up a full 2-3 cups of cooked wheatberries, I still had a cup or two to deal with. There they were, cold and unfeeling in my fridge. Guilt fuel. They were cooked and waiting and destined to be Tuesday lunch. But what to do with them cold? My CSA had saddled me with a whole lot of green beans, so I got to steaming some of those, put together a simple dressing of lemon juice and olive oil, and crumbled some more goat cheese for flavor. Because god knows, these little guys would need flavor.

Come lunchtime, with tempting offers of walks to the deli for Tuna Melts or Chicken Sandwiches, I stood firm and mixed up my lunch. Berries and beans met dressing and cheese.

I’m no stranger to failure, and while I wouldn’t call what I threw together an out-and-out disaster, it wouldn’t be something I would make again. It tasted just like what I feared whole grains would taste like- healthy. Good-for-you. And not in a fun way. Like, I’m on a low-sodium diet, I need to eat this food or they’re going to start amputating limbs kind of way. Gary would love it.

I’m not totally giving up on wheatberries. I think the next batch might find their way into baked goods, once I’m ready to venture there. But for right now, I’m glad to move on to another grain. Next up? Quinoa.


Against the Grain

I’ll admit it. I have a prejudice against whole grains. They smack of self-righteousness, of nutritional snobbery. I feel like they belong in the pantries of the worst kind of vegans, of yogis. Those who are militant about their lifestyle to the point that anything less than a raw diet and a strict regimen of daily sun salutations are meant to be scorned or scoffed. Even pitied.

Anyone who knows my family can easily see where these issues came from, because all of us, at some point or another have had our dinner orders or food choices openly criticized by my step-father, Gary. He has his reasons, and I know he means well, but growing up, if you weren’t eating right (i.e. his diet only) you were actively killing yourself. Time and time again, my mom and I would bring in the groceries, and anything that wasn’t whole-wheat pasta, bananas or raw nuts, (aka GaryFood), he would judge. He had this habit of pulling his glasses down to the edge of his nose, so he was literally looking down his nose at your food. Once assessing the nutrition information, the good/bad fat ratio and the overall health benefit/detriments he would either shake his head in disgust and put it back on the counter or shrug in approval, open up said box/bag and take a handful of whatever was inside, then probably finish it all before you get a chance to try it.

It was easy to guess what he would approve and disapprove of. If it was cooked at A Votre Sante(the aggressively bland health food restaurant), sourced from Mrs. Gooch’s (the aggressively brown health food store) or recently written up in Nutrition Action as a ‘super food,’ it was good. If it was anything palatable by your average child/teenager, it was probably bad.

And whole grains were the best. And the worst. They were the marker of a good diet vs. a suicidal one. And I wanted nothing to do with them. Brown bits with names that sounded more like a German burg than a foodstuff. Bulger. Kasha. Millet. Mix them with steamed vegetables and a squirt of lemon juice and you’ve got yourself a bowl of nutritional triumph. And sadness.

I live a pretty damn healthy lifestyle now. The CSA keeps me stocked with lots of produce, my meat intake is moderate and I don’t eat processed food. Still, every time I sit down to a bowl of pasta or opt for white rice over brown, I can see Gary shaking his head at me, mumbling “empty calories,” under his breath

So in an effort to shift my diet a little bit, I’m taking on the brown beasts. I’ve stocked up on wheatberries, added quinoa to the larder and am considering taking the bulger plunge. It’s going to be one new grain a week, and I’ll update best I can. First up: wheatberries.


The Law of Diminishing Returns

For no reason that’s ever been made clear to me, we have to do timesheets in my line of work. I’m not sure what good these loosely fact-based forms serve, as I’m not clocking in and out, I don’t know precisely which client should cover my facebook and google reader time, and though I make sure each day has at least eight hours noted, I know that I’ve put in my fair share of 12-hour days (as well as those 6-hour days).
I hadn’t done my timesheets since January, and HR was getting more than a little antsy. Hell, I was even starting to avoid making contact with her in meetings, for fear of reproach. Well, finally met with some downtime, I did my timesheets the best way I know how- by looking through my sent email to see what work I really did those days.
And in addition to meeting requests and important creative calls, there was another theme that ran rampant through my emails, “There’s something in the kitchen for you.”
Scones. Fresh bread & butter. Bacon cookies. Lemon cake. Carrot cake. Orange cake. Zucchini bread.
I enjoy bringing in the baked goods, it’s easy and fun. I like spending the Sundays or early mornings in the kitchen, incorporating the wet and dry ingredients, packing the finished goods in my bag, which, if I bring it out of the oven right before I leave the apartment, keeps me cozy warm on my ride up the Embarcadero.
There’s a trend I’ve noticed with the office foods though. I drop it off in the kitchen, slice a few modest pieces to get the whole thing started, and leave a note on the counter or via email, and then it begins.
The law of diminishing returns.

The law of diminishing returns is different than the one you might know. This is simply that every time I’ll return to the office kitchen, the baked good in question will have diminished significantly. First by modest slices, enough to with a cup of coffee.

Than with seemingly more substantial pieces, as this was taken not long after the previous.

But then the edges are sheared off, the slicing becomes more free-form, more angular. Where, instead of committing to a whole slice, the baked-good fiend wants just another taste, a snack. Depending on how many people are in the office, or if there are competing baked goods (this particular day, there were also brownie’s on the counter), this loaf-shaving can last well into the afternoon.

I’m not sure why it takes so long to polish off that final bite. To leave a crumbed plate on the counter, evidence of the zucchini bread gone by, the day coming to an end. It could be motivated by a gluttunous shame, or some modicum of politeness. But, more likely than any of that, no one wants to be the one to put the dish in the dishwasher.


Cereal Serial. Part One.

About once a year, overwhelmed with either work or life or just the pressure of having to get outside on a really nice day, I say “fuck it,” and spend the day resolutely planted on my couch with nothing to get done except stare down the shows I’ve racked up in my DVR and eat some cold cereal. I realize for most people, this is just called “Saturday morning,” but of late, I tend to spend my Saturday mornings elbowing my way for the last spinning pass at the gym or prepping a shaved fennel salad to take to the park. So succumbing to the couch, to not do a thing except change the channel and change the milk is something of a vacation.

I took last Friday off to do just that. I got up at a late hour (for me), and headed somewhere I hardly ever go for food. Safeway. It’s an interesting crowd at 8:00 in the morning. There are administrative assistants picking up their packaged lunches for the day, unabashed drunks picking up their daily dose of NightTrain, the elderly and me. My order consisted of both (both!) variety packs from the two leading breakfast cereal manufacturers and because I’m at once sustainable-forward and lactose intolerant, a carton of lactose-free, organic milk. Hello, day.

8:58 Last night’s daily show. Honey nut cheerios
Wanted to start with something hearty, but ease into the sweet. Even growing up, HNC was too much sugar to have in my house. It was one they had down the street at the Ebins place. In fact, the entire house smelled like cheerios, which always felt more dirty than comforting.

9:15 Lucky Charms. Mythbusters Demolition Derby Special.
This is a cereal I always ate dry, because the marshmallows were like candy. Because they are candy. I had a little trepidation going in, not sure if I could handle it. I literally said “fuck it” out loud in my kitchen. If a 7 year-old can eat it, so could I.

Not a good idea. It turned the milk blue and gave me a jittery sugar rush so severe, I was almost put off the rest of the boxes. I think I might turn to the healthy side of the Kellogs Variety Pack next.

10:09 Raisin Bran. The Price is Right
After my insulin levels had returned to normal, I decided to go to the far other end of the spectrum. Raisin Bran always comes with a sense of urgency: consume the flakes before they disintegrate into a fibrous glop reminiscent of Portland’s gutters after the first fall rain (I used to call it street cereal). On top of that, you’ve got to get to the raisins before they lose their only redeeming element, the sugar coating, to the milk. It’s a lot of stress for a little box of cereal.

(Possibly still under the mania-inducing influence of the Lucky Charms or simply inspired, I began to consider The Price is Right on a much deeper analytical level than I ever have. My study on the literal vs. ironic experience of the show will follow soon.)

10:55 Crispex. More Price is Right
Can’t handle any more milk for awhile. I’m going dry on this, snacky style. I like breaking apart the corn part and the rice part and eating them in two sections. The rice part is more fun, kinda like a rice crispy matrix. I don’t think this lady is going to win this brand new Honda Accord. Nope. She didn’t.

Damn it, they’re giving away a nice range.

11:30. Gym break.
1:00 Real food break. You know. Protein and vegetables.

1:43. Cocoa Puffs. Conclusion of Mythbusters premiere
After gym and real food, it was back to the couch. Was ready to go back to sweet, and something chocolately. Not chocolate, mind you. Chocolate with a very caveating suffix. Chocolateish. It smells weird, but it tastes good. It’s loud as fuck, but good thing Mythbusters is more show than tell. Big explosions + leftover chocolate milk = good times.

2:30 Cinnamon Toast Crunch. GhostHunters
Uh-oh. This day is catching up with me. I’m not feeling so great. Maybe it was lunch, maybe it was the strong coffee I’ve been making, maybe it’s the fact that I can’t help checking my work email, but I think I might have to take a break from the couch and the cereal. The thing is, I knew going into it I’d have many more little boxes of sugared joy than I’d be able to get through in one day. Good thing they’re impossibly shelf-stable, and now I have a supply for my next TV/cold cereal indulgences. I’mna go outside.


ok, ok

I know. It's been about 20 years since I've had the chance to write anything, but rest assured, I haven't been giving in to the take-out menus or trader joe's frozen pizza inclinations. Much.

Actually, I've been on something of a self-imposed Pantry Challenge. Really trying to dig deep into the dry goods and see what comes out. Fresh produce still makes its way to me via the CSA and impulsive Prather Ranch buys have kept the freezer stocked with protein. That, and cured meats that go a long way.

Take a new favorite, with only three ingredients. Penne, leeks and prosciutto. Insanely simple and light and just feels all kinds of springy.

Beyond leeks, I've fallen for fennel. One night I broke out the mandoline in hopes an artfully shaved fennel salad, but the bulb was reduced to a hash. I had a small sirloin tip searing (and setting off the fire alarm), and sauteed the hash in a simple pan sauce.

Once I figured out the secret of the mandoline (multiple blades!), the second bulb got a close shave, was paired with some asiago and dressed with lemon and olive oil.

I really like this fennel two ways, and it's become something of a staple.

The pantry is just about clear, save for some udon I've had since Portland, a bag of odd-shaped artichoke pasta that might become a salad and a few tins of fish that will probably be opened in case of the Big One. For me, it seems, earthquake preparedness means smoked oysters. Not too bad.


A eulogy for bacon

Tomorrow, BaconCamp comes to San Francisco. It's a celebration of all things delectably porcine. In addition to making the bacon cookies, I'll be reading the following essay. Enjoy.


My mother writes eulogies. Not as a profession, not for a newspaper, but instead, she writes them to relax. I think she’s summarized the lives of her mother, my step-father, a handful of best friends, close colleagues but not my brother and I, you know, because that would be weird.

It’s a nice exercise though. To try and sum up what someone means to you, what effect they’ve had on your life. To take a look at how your life wouldn’t be the way it is without them.

So, I thought I’d take a cue from my mom and write a eulogy for bacon.

I can’t exactly recall the first time I met bacon, but I’m pretty sure it was at my dad’s house, where the bacon press was displayed, without irony, next to the Seder plate I’d made in pre-school. Bacon was always there on special Sunday mornings, alongside cheese omelets and bagels. I’d put together my breakfast, my dad would go work on his crossword puzzles and I, inexplicably, would go and watch Golden Girls reruns. I’d sit there, watching the inspired antics of four geriatrics in Miami, not sure which I savored more: the savory bites of still-warm bacon or the salty snap of Bea Arthur’s bon mots.

Those mornings with bacon, and the girls, were a regular source of comfort, of sustenance. But as time passed, as I grew up, I turned to bacon for more than just a standard breakfast meat.

Through my life, I’ve found bacon has been there for me in times of need, like last year, when I was confounded with a bunch of collard greens from my CSA. Without being acutely aware of what I was doing, I started by laying a few pieces of bacon in a cold pan, and by the time the bacon was crisped, the shallots cooked in the rendered fat and the greens slow-wilted over all of it, I had created something even greater than the sum of its parts. A friend of mine accused me of not trying hard enough, that starting a dish with bacon is cheating. Well, if that’s the case, I’m not inclined to play fair.

It’s been so central to me, both as an ingredient and an inspiration, that now, asking for a “side” of bacon seems trivializing. After all bacon has done, from making any dish delectable to making serious inroads to conquer the tyranny of vegetarianism, putting bacon “on the side” is practically insulting. This is a humble meat that crumbled the "bacon is for breakfast” stereotype as it slowly made itself perfectly acceptable with any meal of the day. What will become of the BLT, the carbonara, the bacon-wrapped passed appetizer?

We can still learn from bacon, how it started from ordinary beginnings and ended up being a veritable icon. To do it all without being showy or ostentatious. Because bacon, in all its delectability, never required an excuse. Unlike other indulgences where you might justify your consumption with, “I’ve been good,” or “I’ll start my diet tomorrow, “ bacon never asked to be defended because bacon, in and of itself, was the excuse, was the reason. Why am I going to eat that? Because it’s bacon.


Wednesday Sweets

A moderately slow day at work compounded by total boredom with the pithy sugar offerings around the office meant just one thing: let’s see what’s in the Walgreen’s candy aisle!

There’s always something new in the candy aisle. That’s what makes it so fun. Well, that and all the candy! I love checking out the newest incarnation of a snicker’s bar, or the latest take on Take 5. It’s new, it’s old, it’s all going to give me diabetes.

I found something both old and new. Behold the Necco Old-Fashioned Cream Drop. There was a lot appealing here. Necco is the oldest candy company in America, with its “only nostalgia could keep me alive” Necco wafer. The multi-colored throwback disc that supposedly boasts flavors from orange to clove to wintergreen, but really only tastes like stale. But wafers aside, I appreciate things old-timey, and this bag had Old-Fashioned actually written on the package (which makes me wonder, has the candy been called “Old-fashioned” since their inception? During what era were they the
result of some confectionary epiphany? I bet Marc Summers could tell me).

Right, so, Old-Fashioned Cream Drop. No clue as to what this was going to taste like. I assumed there might be some orange essence, as I’m inclined to judge a candy by its package, but nothing in the ingredients could confirm that. Just sugar on sugar. Noted.

They’re about the size of a small walnut. Here’s a pic with a miniature penguin, you know, for scale.

Taking the bisected view, it’s a little Haystack Rock-reminiscent, The contemplative frog agrees.

And how does it taste? I can’t really tell you. I took one bite, and though it seemed reminiscent of something, I was hesitant to investigate further because I was getting word from my pancreas that there wasn’t enough insulin in the greater San Francisco area to counteract another bite. Holy Sugar.

I’ve now left the bag for my co-workers to enjoy. I hope HR doesn’t come track me down for sending everyone off the rails.

(edit: after some reflective time, I remember what the damn things remind me of. Easter candy. Not peeps or jelly beans, but the other candy that was opaque and molded into soft shapes of bunnies and chicks and tulips. The assumedly cheap stuff that was there to fill up the basket. The stuff you wouldn’t actually eat unless you were a candy-deprived child who relished each morsel of sugar-centric holidays in the hopes that the candy could actually be there year-round. Um, thank god that wasn’t me?)


Guilt makes good food.

Oh, the joy. I picked up my first CSA box of the year last Wednesday night, and though I had a couple nights of pizza weakness, it felt really good to be cooking again. I had actually missed that tinge of guilt I felt every time I opened the fridge. “Damn it, I have to do something with that chard” or “Right, there’s cauliflower. Not going to make soup and not going to roast it. Something new.”

Over the weekend I attended Cook Here and Now, Marco Flavio’s brilliantly successful cooking group, where we gather to cook and eat together. He chooses a theme ingredient, plus some additional produce notes for seasonal inspiration. This month was legumes plus root veggies. It was another cold, rainy day in a series of cold, rainy days and multiple plates of stews, dals and the like seemed pretty perfect.

I signed up for a lentil appetizer, and though I had visions of fried chickpea cakes in my mind initially, I changed the plan when I came across a recipe for Umbrian Lentil Stew with Olive-Oil Fried Eggs in this month’s Food and Wine. I made it for dinner (win), but decided to omit the eggs and somehow adapt it into an appetizer. Stew as app, it was a challenge.

But innovation came with the root veggie mandate. I took my cue from the Alice Water’s recipe I’d tried a few months ago, where all it takes to make turnips tasty is a little salt, a little butter and a pan. I turned the ‘nips into squares, browned them, chilled them, and called ‘em Turnip Toast.

I had a lot of lentils left over. Come Monday dinner, there they were in the fridge, alongside the CSA remains I had yet to get to. Though the prospect of continuing a somewhat sedate weekend was really compelling, I did the right thing. I put in a load of laundry, and I got to prepping some chard. Simple sautéed chard with super-fresh shallots in a bowl with some lentil stew and topped with, well, an olive-oil fried egg.

It was a really good bowl of food. I didn’t fully expect it to be. But there was something about this confluence of earthy flavors that felt particularly comforting with the storm outside. The crisp edges of the fried egg, the buttery softness of the spilling yellow into the bowl, the meaty bite of the lentils (helped by a little prociutto), and some red chard rounding it all out with a toothy, green bite. Not bad for leftovers.


Sprouts done right

It's that time of year when CSA's are just coming back from hiatus, where spring produce hasn't yet hit, and when root vegetables aren't quite as comforting and exciting as they were about five months ago. And the novelty of all the different cauliflowers in the rainbow has long since worn off. Cruciferous is as cruciferous does.

While the produce waiting game continues, I tend to fall back on old favorites. There's my go-to kasha pilaf, the inevitable pasta with scallops and peas, and, of course, Brussel Sprouts with Bacon. It's a recipe I've perfected over the years, it's easy in prep and satisfying to eat. Hell, all I need is a pint of sprouts, two strips of bacon and a shallot or two and I've got dinner. It's comfort food of an entirely different stripe, in that I can make it without thinking and that it tastes the same as it always does. I like that it straddles the line between really good and really bad for you. Brussels Sprouts. Bacon. You can't go wrong.

1 pint brussels sprouts
2-3 slices thick cut bacon
3 shallots, chopped
1-2 T butter
1/3 C seasoned breadcrumbs.

1. In a large uncovered sauce pan, start to cook the bacon over medium heat.

2. While the bacon cooks, bring a medium pot of salted water to boil.
Prep the sprouts by cutting off bottom stem and remove outer leaves.
Cut each sprout in half lengthwise. Once the water is boiling, blanch
the sprouts for about 2-3 minutes, depending on size. They should
still look vibrantly green, but just a little softened. Drain the

3. When bacon is done, remove to a paper towel, leaving the rendered
fat behind. Cook the chopped shallots in bacon fat.

4. When the shallots are edging towards brown, add the blanched
sprouts and toss to coat. Dust with the breadcrumbs and, if desired,
use tongs to arrange the sprouts cut-side down. Makes for a good
crunchy texture.

5. Add butter and cook covered over medium heat 5-10 minutes,
occaisionally shaking the pan to stave off burning. In the meantime,
cut the reserved bacon into 1/4" strips.

6. When sprouts are cooked to your liking, mix the bacon in with the
sprouts. A little salt, a little pepper, and sprouts have never had it
so good.


Back in the Kitchen

Sometime last year, I had spent an entire weekend almost exclusively in the kitchen, something I’m wont to do from time to time. It was a good day for a stew, and to pass the 6 hours of braising, I turned lemons into lemon curd, made some kind of breakfast bread for the week, plus some carrot soup. There may have also been scones. All told, I put in a good day’s work in the kitchen and though I was on my feet for 8 hours on a Sunday, it didn’t feel like work.

The next day I was having my weekly chat with my dad, and I detailed him all the food I had cooked the day before. “Who are you cooking for?” he asked.

It was a really simple question, one he didn’t intend to have much meaning, but I started thinking about it. I’m sure on that day, I really wasn’t cooking for anyone. All the food was ostensibly just for me- I didn’t have any dinner parties planned or bakesales on the horizon (not that there generally are). I was cooking for me for sustenance, but I was also cooking for me for the fun of it. I was cooking to cook, to make it through some of my CSA backlog, to spend an entire day chopping, simmering and incorporating wet and dry ingredients. No running around, no errands, no work. Being productive, but not in the 9-5 sense in the slightest.

But there are times when I am most certainly cooking for someone. When I do the shopping with a table set for two in mind, balancing flavors and pretty presentation. Where I get the chance to show off a little of what I do. Seasonal ingredients and simple preparation. Nothing too showy, nothing too out there. It seems effortless because it is.

I’d hit the Lake Merrit Farmer’s Market on Saturday with this kind of a meal in mind, though there weren’t any plans to speak of. I’ve taken something of a break from cooking any meal beyond breakfast, especially after the great Holiday Baking Frenzy of 2008 (5 kinds of cookies, panetonne, fruitcake, stollen, and on and on). It was time to put the Kitchen-Aid away and break out chef’s knife. Prather Ranch’s board tempted me with some thick-cut pork chops, the leeks were looking good, and there were some nice looking herbs in abundance. I also found some adorable mini-cauliflower that gave me ideas. Ideas like roasting the entire mini-head whole and serving it up in one big piece.

Even though I didn’t have a recipe in mind, the flavors just seemed to build themselves, and once I started cooking at home, the techniques fell in place.
The cauliflower hit the oven whole, drizzled with oil and dusted with salt.

I mixed the herbs with garlic and salt for a simple, rustic rub for the chops. Then once I had turned on all the fans and sealed off the kitchen, seared them for about 4 minutes a side then moved them into the oven to settle alongside the cauliflower to finish. The cauliflower came out, the chops got to rest, and then all the good porky juices met some sliced leeks back in the pan to turn into a nice side.

So good, so simple. The exact kind of meal I was after. Something easy to ease me back into the kitchen and away from the Chinese food menu. Great ingredients paying off quickly and well. And even though I didn’t get to share a second portion with someone else, I do get to have an awesome meal of leftovers tonight.