Friday, December 24, 2010

Hard to Swallow Traditions

It's been years, but for years Christmas Eve meant the traditional Slovak supper in my family--turns out it even has a terrific name, Stedry Vecer. (No, he wasn't a linebacker for the Lombardi Packers, wise guy.) Also turns out our version wasn't the same as the traditional ones people have posted on the web now--those all talk about a fish dish, but we didn't do that. No, for the most part our meal was all about the mostly inedible. Which seems fitting, as so much of being Slovak seemed to be misery--this is my mom's side of the family I'm writing about, the one that doesn't say, "Have a good time," when you're out the door to do something fun, they intone, "Just be careful." Remember, the Slovaks are the poor peasants in the Czechoslovakia divorce.

I can vividly remember one year having the meal at my grandmother's house in Dunmore, PA (that's right, they didn't even rate Scranton itself, but one of its suburbs). I felt sick beforehand, so barely ate, but my guess is it was an anticipation-born illness, as I didn't want to face the meal. For it's not just a meal, it's religion and superstition wrapped in a lovely Christmas bow. My grandmother and mother were super-Catholic--Baba's church was a mere 4 minute walk out her back gate, even, that's how close to god she was--but that didn't mean a bit of Slavic voodoo didn't run in their genes. Back when I lived within driving distance of her house and would still come home for holidays my mom would put her statue of the Blessed Virgin in the window to watch out for me.

Coming from a legacy like that, it's no surprise that the dinner's components were more about symbolism than taste. It kicks off with something I now know is called oplatky (notice while Italian is a language of grace and beauty, Slovak is a language of dumpling-lumpy consonants) and looks like a communion wafer but it's rectangular, maybe 2 by 4 inches, and stamped with a Nativity scene. You get to put honey on it, so it tastes like sweetened cardboard and if you're lucky your piece is the one with the baby Jesus. You get it served to you, I'm not kidding, on a bit of straw, to symbolize Christ's humble birth. The straw could be the tastiest part of the meal. (They do let you drizzle a bit of honey on it. Yes, that makes it sticky cardboard.)

I'm not sure of the order of the middle courses, four of them that lined-up any way spell gastronomic disaster. To be honest, there was one good part of the meal, mushroom soup, although I'm not sure how they made the stock (no meat, remember?) and I didn't start paying attention to cooking until I went to college and had to feed myself and by then learning the mysterious ins-and-outs of the Stedry Vecer were out of the question. I do know my mom would use dried mushrooms actually shipped from the Old Country, which truly seemed old to me, full of things beyond my young life at the time. So that was good. But pairing it with a mix of sauerkraut tossed with ripped up poppyseed rolls (poppyseeds being a Slovak staple--it might be the closest they got to a spice) was a bit perverse. Seems from the web that the mushroom soup itself in other traditions had the sauerkraut, so it was "nice" of my ancestors to pull it out and give you a separate dish to dislike, a deconstructed sauerkraut sandwich.

Then there was pierogi, that Eastern European dumpling that has all sorts of expressions in that area of the world. The kind passed down in my family, however, perhaps should never have been expressed. Super-doughy, they lacked any sense of lightness something a cross between a pasta and pastry should have. For filling, since they weren't starchy enough, the choice was potato. For a crowning touch, they got slathered in brown butter, but I think there was even flour in that--we're not talking the light napping of a brown butter and sage you might find with your gnocchi. We're talking cannonballs of carbohydrates. My guess is they symbolism here is "don't enjoy food, it's fuel."

For the last of the main course components also could be something lovely, but the ingenious Slovak cooks figured out a way to make it something disgusting. It was sort of a quiche, but made with cottage cheese. And I don't think anything else in it--maybe onion--but it just had a mushy texture and a bland taste. The one thing my mom could always pull off in the kitchen was great pie dough, but that wasn't enough to save this dish.

Dessert was fruit, and you can imagine how exotic an orange might be to a Slovak (now I've got them in my backyard, so stop on in, Baba!), and whole nuts you got to crack open, which as a kid is a blast. Of course we didn't have an ornate nutcracker, but the element of danger (don't get your finger in there!) and the opportunity to break something with impunity always seemed like a good deal. It was also good to take your time with your nuts, using that extra pick tool a dentist might wield to get out all the walnut, slowly, as the candle awaited.

For, on Christmas Eve, while most children dreamed of Santa and loot, I dreamed of learning I wouldn't die during the next year. For after dinner, a single white taper makes its way from diner to diner, and each person gets to light the candle and blow it out. If your smoke goes straight up, that means good luck for the coming year. If it blew downward, that meant bad luck, and perhaps the worst luck of all, no luck at all. What could be more Slovak than this: "Merry Christmas, your candle just told you you're going to kick the bucket next year"?

So maybe I didn't want to eat as that candle waited at the end.

And now that Baba's candle and my mom's candle and my dad's candle have all blown out, I miss these meals, miss hating them, miss their bitterness that knew more than I still want to know.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Solvang's Got a New Pizzeria in the Oven

It’s rare for a restaurant to become a spectacle weeks before its opening, but that’s what happens when you end up hoisting a nearly 6,000-pound pizza oven through the window—the only spot it would fit into the building—of your soon-to-open establishment. That was the recent scene at Cecco Ristorante (475 First St., #9, Solvang, 688-8880), the latest project from Chef David Cecchini (of The Harbor, Nu, and Wine Cask fame).

Want to read the rest, then go read it at the Indy's site.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Otto Out of Dieci

In the last 15 years the invasion of celebrity chefs upon Las Vegas has made it that you can't throw a poker chip without hitting one; if you don't lose your stake at the gambling table, you're bound to spend it at a fine dining one. The good news, of course, is those chefs (who, of course, really merely lease out the honor of their names, for the most part) do know enough to often open up slightly more casual versions of their finer, more expensive spots. (Extended digression: Who the heck supports the top top end places? There's too much money in the world if folks can sustain a place like Caesar's Palace's Guy Savoy--and I know, Michelin stars out the wazoo, real Parisian pedigree--where the "bargain" TGV prix fixe, that gets you out the door in 90 minutes, so more turnover for them and move along you cheapskate, costs $140 per person pre-tax, tip, drinks, and ends with a "grapefruit terrine" that damn well better come with gold nuggets atop.)

So, now that that's out of my system, let's get some pizza. For we're headed to Mario Batali's Otto (like the one he has in NYC), but this one is in St. Mark's Plaza in the Venetian. You will need to ask to find it, partially since it's labeled something else on the directories, if you find the directories. (Be happy, keep wandering and shopping and gambling--the money you spend in Vegas stays in Vegas.) Now, there's even real pigeons, so while it's hokey, it's going for some kind of authenticity and it is charming in that "damn this is fake, but that we bother to make this says something sweetly striving about us as humans" way. You get to sit outside and be indoors.

While the pizza is the focus, there's still plenty of other things to eat, such as a series of antipasti that are worthy of mealdom all by themselves. Especially if you do as we did and order up the Verdure Grande, a bit of 8 different veggie options, all no less then fine, and some simply stunning. And I chose the adverb simply for a reason--this is food un-frilled, direct, pleasing, and delicious. If, at times, surprising--who knew chickpea and tuna were such a good combo (evidently the Sicilians, if the menu can be trusted). The other dishes were all cooked to perfection--lentils still firm but luscious, broccoli toothsome, full of flavor and just a bit of carbonization for a caramel loveliness. Have a bottle of Vermentino with it, and you'll be very happy.

As for the pizza itself, it was good, that classic Italian from Italy style--thin and crispy crust, judicious toppings of highest quality--but while yummy, it's not as good as Pizzeria Mozza, one more hint Nancy Silverton and her ways with yeasty things are better than Mario's. Well, no one's perfect. At least the whole meal, pizza, 8 apps, plus some lovely little fried fish (that were too whole and still fish-esque for poor Circe, but I gobbled them down), plus the wine, tax, tip--you get out for less then one Guy Savoy TGV ride.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Global Gardens Is Oil You Need

“‘Profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks,’ one investigator told me,” wrote Tom Mueller in the New Yorker in 2007. Was he talking about white slavery? Bad-debt mortgage loans?

Nope, he was talking about the black market in bogus olive oil. It turns out the world is full of so-called olive oil that’s actually many other oils instead, from hazelnut to a low-grade oil that the Italians call lampante, or lamp oil; and the Italian olive oil you buy may originally be from Spain and merely bottled in Italy.

Want to read the rest, then go read it at the Indy's site.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Peeling Things Back

Cookbooks teach you all kinds of things, but nothing more than how to read cookbooks. It's a real mistake, for instance, to take them at face value, or even title value. Of late I've learned this lesson with Mark Peel (the chef at the wonderful Campanile and Tar Pit) and his Classic Family Dinners. With a title like that, you'd assume he assumed you had, like, a family, and you wanted to feed them. And, one might even go so far as to surmise he'd think you had to do other things for them, like spend time with them not in the kitchen (as you're busy straining, with cheesecloth, your bechamel), or save for their college education. But, despite the recipes in the book usually delivering, it's not clear Peel had those ideas in mind.

Take his macaroni cheese. It does end up delicious, the day after you start making (or the day you take off to make it). But one reason it does is it contains a good $40 worth of dried and fresh mushrooms. Sure, you get to eat it for a couple of days, too, as it make a lot, but for a vegetarian meal, that's a hefty price tag. (And, to tell the truth, it seems more a mushroom-noodle casserole by the end, which isn't a bad thing, just a bit of a dodge.)

Then the above lovely dish is his (well, even better, my) linguine with clams. Even buying clams on sale, this calls for 48 littlenecks, and 4 dozen is about 8 pounds of shell-heavy bivalve. Which is a painful cash register ca-ching of about $40. That pain was mollified once I started eating the dish, as it is quite possibly the best linguine and clams I've ever had. You end up making just enough juice and then give the pasta a quick pan braise in that after cooking it, so all the clam-brothy goodness gets sucked right into the semolina. One of my weaknesses as a both a chef and eater is I prefer a hefty saucing (LA Times critic Irene Virbila, ever on the alert for too much sauce, would probably find me horribly gauche), but this recipe cures me of that problem. Just get the darn sauce to hide inside the food!

So, should you buy this book? Depends upon how much time and money you have. And, I have to admit, not all the dishes are intensive/expensive. He's got a pan-fried trout that's already become a go-to staple in our kitchen.

But I'm still looking for that perfect mac 'n' cheese recipe.

Monday, December 6, 2010

No Qualms about Blue Palms

Sometimes the secret to success is not setting your sights too high in the first place. Not every dining spot has to be Jar-rific or Lucques-licious (or come with the accompanying price tag). Sometimes you just need that place that's as comfortable as your favorite old pair of shoes (if not as smelly). Enter Blue Palms Brewhouse (not that they actually brew any of their own beer--the ones they sell under their name Firestone makes for them, as Firestone slowly takes over the world*), which also has one amazing plus going for it--it's actually in the same building that houses the Music Box at the Fonda in Hollywood. That means you park once, walk little, eat and drink and see a New Pornographers or a Grinderman or an Old 97's or a Gang of Four. Then hit the easy access from there highway ramp to the 101 and are back in Santa Barbara in no time, or what us Californians take as no time as all our amniotic sacs were actually automobiles. (I'm an honorary Californian not just because I've lived here for 16 years, but because I subscribe to the motto I Drive Therefore I Live.)

As for the Blue Palms, it's hard to miss the two big boards (see the photo) that let you know what the 24 beers +1 cask offering (sometimes) are at the moment. It's usually a lovely selection of craft brew, often heavy on LA-area brewers that even San Diego doesn't get. Or, is it luckily was last week, the offerings might reflect a recent brewery-themed night, so we got to enjoy a bunch of brews from Oscar Blues, including both their DIPAs--Gubna and Gordon's. (Hard to say which is better--Gubna is more mallet, Gordon's more subtle, in both taste and ABV.) But there were also seasonal faves, like Lagunitas Brown Shugga, a caramel delight of a seasonal beer that gets a lovely extra lift from being on draught--the bubbles help the shugga go down, you might say. Even better, prices are relatively moderate for the offerings, from $5.50 to $7.50 depending.

The food is fine, too, with burgers belled and whistled (still haven't tried the one cooked in duck fat with truffle oil), offerings for those decidedly non-carnivorous (from fish and chips with sustainable tilapia to blackened tofu), and then a sausage list that's seriously Wurstkuchian--there are even several vegan options. Plus, lobster mac 'n' cheese, sweet potato fries, all that good comfort food. Perfect for soaking up the mighty ABVs the big board offers.

I need to point out the help is usually great, too--they actually know the beers, which is good when you have to choose a mere 2 or 3 per visit, as you don't want to snooze during the Music Box show.

It's also interesting to use Blue Palms as a test of the emergency Yelp system. Generally I like Yelp, but I also think I've got a sense for what kind of user comments are the ones to value and what are poppycock. The Blue Palms ratings are a veritable textbook for how user-ratings can go wrong. For most of the people who don't like the place either complain it's not fancy (which it isn't trying to be--it comes off as a bar that's been a round, for all the good and bad that implies), or complain about it after saying they don't drink beer (these are the same people who hate rides and go to Disneyland and are so disappointed) or point out they have no taste by picking the least interesting beer of the 25, like a New Belgium product or something. I mean, if I told you I found New York City a let down and told you I only got to Staten Island, what would you think of me?

*In addition to their Firestone beers themselves, Firestone makes, as you probably know, the Humboldt Ales, plus beer for places as diverse as Blue Palms, Santa Barbara's Union Ale, and Paso Robles' Villa Creek.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Pollan, Bourdain, Reichl, Ripert, and Montagne

Let’s face it: We don’t live in the kind of country where our president shows up at an event to wax eloquently about the magic of craftsmen … who make pastry. But French President Nicolas Sarkozy does just that in Kings of Pastry, a revealing documentary look at Les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, the three-day trial the best pastry chefs in the world endure to earn the ultimate accolade in their field. The film’s a peek into a real-life Top Chef: Just Desserts that’s not ginned up for television, and it helps us realize the huge differences between French and American food culture. Simply put, they’re just more serious about food, as long as we can agree that making a perilously breakable six-foot sugar sculpture is a symbol of gravity.

want to read the rest, then go read it at the Indy's site.