Thursday, April 28, 2011

I've Bean the One

There are worse thing to do than eat at home, you know, even meatlessly eat at home. Yes, the margarita doesn't hurt (and lately we've taken, instead of going for a full salty rim, to giving the actual cocktail a light pinch of smoked sea salt). And in this case I was even luckier as my sweet partner whipped all this together--all I had to do was shake the cocktail shaker.

That said, the star on the plate are the beans, as they aren't just any beans, they're cooked from scratch and come from Rancho Gordo. If you don't know RG you should, and while the ones in the photo came from the Ferry Building in San Francisco, we now have the good fortune to be able to buy them right here in Santa Barbara at Lazy Acres. So do so, so they keep ordering and a happy feedback loop of good consumerism happens.

Rancho Gordo was created by Steve Sando, and those who had the good fortune to attend the Edible Institute back in January might remember his great presentation, as basically he's a complete character, larger than life and full of dry asides. At one point he decided to change his life and grow tomatoes to sell at the farmers' market in Napa, only to realize everyone grows tomatoes and he wasn't the best at it, and then you can't grow tomatoes for a big part of the year. That got him to try beans, as he discovered they had heirloom varieties just like the tomatoes. It wasn't necessarily going well till one day a famous chef ambled by and made a purchase. That chef--Thomas Keller. Soon, everyone wanted the beans the French Laundry wanted. And Rancho Gordo took off.

As I said, they're heirloom beans, and there really is a difference from type to type, from color to consistency to taste. The ones above, a bit obscured by cheese (yum), are Ojo de Cabra or Goat's Eye, a lovely beige-tan with a dark curl through it.

They cook to a spot where the skins are still firm but the inside is soft, but even better, they create a broth all their own (well, the mirepoix didn't hurt, but still). They end up tasting like they're cooked in some porky product without ever going near bacon. It's about as rich and fulfilling as you could care for a meal to be. When in doubt, a big salad alongside doesn't hurt--all that green balancing the dark. Plus you need someplace to put the avocado that should be part of pretty much every meal. For if you're going to celebrate New World beans--and Rancho Gordo is party central for such a celebration--you need to go for it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Word Soup

As you might know, April is National Poetry Month, so I figured before the month was up, why not* drag out an old poem of mine about food?

My world is nailed into its genuflections--
ah ginger root, ah psalm, ample indigents all.
Outside the sky is cobalt and heaving,
a baby nattering its bib, bleary
like eyes propped open with onions.
So I turn my kitchen into church,
my scraps into oddments, a bloodless coup.
King of nothing more enormous than home,
and yes, alone, but what of it when garlic
sidles across the skillet and the air fills
with sleeves of scents to hold me in.

*If you figure out why not, please be polite enough to keep it to yourself. Thank you.

Monday, April 25, 2011

I Will Raise Him Up

I suppose it's too late to ask, in so many ways, but am I doomed to hell for celebrating Easter with what sounded to me like the perfect libation, a Corpse Reviver #2?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Foraging for Borage

Ok, that title is pretty much a lie, as the forage in our case means go out into the backyard and grab some, but that's just part of what makes this new cocktail creation from last evening a spring is sprung delight. Borage can either be good for you or bad for you (anti-inflammatory and good for PMS or bad for your liver, but you're drinking anyway, so moderation, my friend!) depending on who you believe or what part you eat (flowers ok, leaves not so much). The blooms certainly are a beautiful addition to a drink, and even add a bit of a cucumber taste (Pimms once was made partially from borage flower).

If you're worried that maybe some bugs came in on the blooms and that's what's afloat in the glasses in the photo, you shouldn't, for that's some mint, also fresh-cut from the backyard too. And then that's a lithe little lemon twist for both essential oil zippiness and yet more color. Not to mention you might be lucky and have lemons in your yard, too, or hanging over a neighbor's fence or something.

Let me introduce to you, then, the All the Rage Cocktail:

2 oz. citrus vodka
1 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 oz. Citronge/Cointreau
the leaves from a healthy stem of mint
lemon twist
2 borage flowers

In a cocktail shaker rip up the mint leaves and add 1 oz. of the vodka. Muddle thoroughly to get the mint to express some of its oils. Add the rest of the vodka, the lemon juice, and the Citronge. Add ice and shake vigorously. Pour into an up cocktail glass. Add the lemon twist and float the 2 borage flowers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

French-Mex and More Wheels into Town

Turns out that a business plan built around gourmet pizza, no matter how good the pizza, isn’t the soundest of ideas when the economy tanks (see economy, recent).

That’s what Liz Bradley found out with her Olive Street Pizzas, lusciously seated on a buttery pâté brisée pastry. After seven years in business selling through Williams-Sonoma, Costco, and Bristol Farms, “We just got spanked by the economy,” Bradley admitted. So she knew she needed to reinvent her company, and that led her to think, “We’re all trend-conscious to some extent, so the food truck, a trend for the last three or four years, seemed to be a good way to go. L.A. invented it, and I’m importing it to Santa Barbara.”

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

Monday, April 18, 2011

Thought for Food

Sometimes things just sneak up on you even when you hope to have an ear to the ground (perhaps it's because they are silent, and then your eyes are so slow, it's hard to see too far into the future). But there's a lecture coming up for free at UC Santa Barbara that's probably worth checking out if you're into the big picture food issues like "where the heck are we going to buy our food?"

Dorceta Taylor, Associate Professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan, will give the talk "Vacant Land and No Supermarkets in the Inner City: Food Insecurity and New Initiatives for Sustainability" on Wednesday April 20 at 12 noon in the UCSB MultiCultural Center Theater. According to the press info from the Department of Black Studies that's sponsoring the event, "This talk will demonstrate how the growing problems of abandoned housing, vacant land, and deinstutionalization (including the flight of grocery stores) are affecting black neighborhoods. Dr. Taylor will detail the impacts of such processes on the life of cities, the ways cities are trying to cope, and the way that a research agenda can be built around such topics.

"Professor Taylor’s research interests include green jobs and other environmental labor market dynamics; social movement analysis; environmental justice; leisure and natural resource use; urban and rural poverty; and race, gender and ethnic relations. Her current research includes an assessment of the green job sector. Other recent research activities have included four national studies of racial and gender diversity in the environmental field. Her book The Environment and the People in American Cities, 1600s-1900s (2009) won the Outstanding Publication Award from the Environment and Technology Section of the American Sociological Association."

Friday, April 15, 2011

Cruel to Be Kind

As much as we'd all like to deny it, at least to the folks to our south, we're part of the "greater Los Angeles area" (when you put it that way it does make sense--we're the greater). That means, if nothing else, that TV doesn't mind stretching its cably-tentacles in our direction, to grab at any of us willing to be part of reality TV. We can argue at another time if someday we will all have our own reality TV show, and by watching the show we will then know what we're doing in our lives.

To cut to the current food chase, we now have our opportunity to sic Gordon Ramsey of Kitchen Nightmares on a restaurant of our choice. Here's how his casting company puts it or you can go directly to their website:

Has your favorite restaurant gone bad? Have you tried a new eatery only to discover it doesn't cut the mustard? If so, we need your nomination! FOX's hit show, Kitchen Nightmares is currently searching for new restaurants to be featured in the upcoming season. If you know of a restaurant that desperately needs expert guidance, we want to know about it! Send us the restaurant's name, location and a brief description why you think Gordon Ramsay should take over. e-mail us at or call the hotline with restaurant info at 1-866-226-2226

That's right--there's a toll free number to bring in Gordon Ramsey. We live in a magical world. And if there are masochistic entrepreneurs who feel they need to bring in the Ramsey Kitchen Cavalry upon themselves, they can self nominate, for a cry for help is the first sign you want to be (in)famous on television, just ask Dr. Drew.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Food Fight Starring the Felix and Oscar of Chefs

Anthony Bourdain likes to joke that he always cooks bacon when vegetarians come to his house, as he knows the smell is so enticing to make bacon “the gateway protein.” Eric Ripert, on the other hand, won’t even take the bait when an interviewer (yours truly) dangles the question, “In the well-considered Daily Meal’s list of the best restaurants in America that came out in February, your restaurant Le Bernardin was in third place … behind two Thomas Keller restaurants (Per Se and The French Laundry). Does that seem fair to you that Keller is hogging the two top spots?”

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

Goodland Kitchen Comes to Those Who Wait

At long last (and no doubt co-owners Julia Crookston and Melissa Gomez think that more than anyone else) Goodland Kitchen and Market (231 S. Magnolia Street, Goleta) is soft opening today and hopes to be fully ramped up by Monday. You'll be hearing more about them in the pages of the Indy eventually, but I wanted to point out right away that they'll be providing affordable delicious locally-sourced breakfasts and lunches so you might want to head over. I had the good fortune to taste test some of their menu items in development, and you will be pleased, especially by what's sure to become a signature item, the Magnolia Avenue sandwich of housemade hummus, avocado, tomatoes, lettuce, jack cheese and Goleta lemon aioli on multigrain bread. The hummus itself was wonderful and the aoili adds a  lemony quality that is assertive without being overly-dominant, a tough line to walk.

That they will also be renting out commercial kitchen space is another wonderful bonus, but we'll get to the full story, I promise.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Luscious Liquid (Not Like That) Lunch

Talk about your too much goodness--if you ever have the slightest reason to head downtown midday, be sure to take it just so you can go eat at the Santa Barbara Museum Cafe. It's sadly easy to forget, as it's not open in the evenings (just museum hours) and has no street presence (they really need to chop out some of the giftshop and have a doorway straight to the cafe. Brenda Simon, who also does Secret Ingredient Catering, is making the best of a spot with a minuscule kitchen--when life gives you little heating, make veggie and vegan food. They can still turbo-charge the temp on these hot pots (pictured above, and that's supposed to be just a starter portion, well, if you order it sans shrimp) they're currently serving, which puts the lie to the idea that something sharing similarities with ramen noodles has to be a salty monochrome drag. Lots of flavors, from salt, sure, but also ginger and more--lord knows what tasty miso is at the broth's base. And then there's the mound of spinach holding up the mound of seaweed salad--it's almost Earth Day, so go green, sure!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Pasta Imperfect

Since my policy here and at the Indy is do no harm, I try to write only about solid-to-better-than-that places and hope my silence on others might indicate I'm not a fan (of course as soon as I write that I realize there's tons of places I like I haven't written about enough, so all apologies to them). As for the other kind of place, you know what I mean, the kind of establishment that seem trendy, never crowded, and can't update their website despite changing chefs twice since the last menu posted there which now has nothing to do with the food their serving. There's just not enough time to eat mediocre food, especially at less then bargain prices.

But I do want to make it clear that every evening isn't a blaze of gustatory glory for George Eats, either, so figure it might not hurt to discuss a meal I made at home last week that just keep finding the fail, element by element. Because that's how easy it is for something to go wrong, but wrong is the wrong word, too. For even this meal was adequate--no spit take necessary. Yet it still bugs me, so I figure taking a walk through it can't hurt as a way too see how a better meal succeeds.

The goal was a pasta with fresh peas, just from the Farmers' Market, and some feta and sundried tomatoes and garlic and capers and oregano. Now, anything this direct is going to ride on two things--excellent ingredients and precise cooking. Alas, things were a bit weak on both sides of that claim. The English peas, the first I've spied this spring, just weren't at their peak. It's become pretty clear that with all the legumes (favas, limas, peas), it's a ramping up and tapering of brilliance, so that the key is to gorge whenever that sweet spot of 10 days or so happens, which no doubt varies season to season depending on rain and sun. These were peas still a bit mealy and dry and not the sweet melting treat they should be soon.

Alas, the pasta failed too, despite buying something better. I've finally decided sure, expensive dried pasta is worth it--I don't skimp buying quality beer or fish or cheese, so why should I think the 3 buck difference for pasta is that important? (Because pasta can be so cheap is one of the problems, of course.) We opted to try Montebello, which is artisan organic pasta from Italy, but evidently not from the same neighborhood as Rustichella d'Abruzzo, at least not the same heartiness. And, then, I let the orechiette (a fine shape to hold peas and feta squares, you know) cook perhaps a minute too long, too--that's all it takes to dent your al dente. Combo of lesser (if more expensive) product and sloppier cooking=blander, mushier pasta.

Other points of contention keeping this dish from being even better: dried oregano is fine, but fresh might have helped it zing a bit more. I had planned to give it a quick zip of lemon zest, but forgot; that might have been ok, as the capers did a fine job providing some bracing acidity, and made a clever mime with the peas, too, so the shape gave no hint as to the taste. (A bit of misdirection of the plate never hurts to keep a meal intriguing.) Thanks to my brilliant co-chef for coming up with the one thing that worked that night.

And then the feta was ok, but not of a great quality, and barely melted, too, which was a shame. I like to cut the squares to about 1/4 inch size so you know you're getting some cheese, but it's also good when some melt and coat, too, as this isn't a pasta with a sauce.

So it's so easy to feel a bit of sadness at such a meal, knowing what could be, eating what is, feeling that gap that shows there are more emptinesses than hunger to fill at the table.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Days Of Wine Futures Past

And there was a gnashing of teeth and a rending of garments and the sickening silence of hundreds of corks going unscrewed, leaving wine lovers themselves screwed. For George Eats has discovered most terrible news, dear readers--there will be no Santa Barbara Wine Futures program this year. For 19 wonderful years and two ownerships the Futures program was the province of the Wine Cask, and as I wrote about the last one they ran in 2008, until Bernard Rosenson drove the Wine Cask into the ground:

Wine Futures is Christmas, Opening Day, and the world’s best President’s Day Sale wrapped up into one for lovers of the grape. When people line up outside the Wine Cask, waiting for the noon opening, you can sense the anticipation, the whiff of worry in the air that someone is drinking the last of the best before you’re even in the door. Wine is serious--at least when it’s Santa Barbara good, you’re getting one of the first shots at buying it, and it’s slightly cheaper than it will be upon release.

It truly was my favorite day of the year, a sign of spring and the endless hope each vintage would be lovely, that each winery would learn yet more, make yet better wines. Somehow it almost always seemed to happen. Then there was the joy of running into people who grew to be old, if just one-day-a-year friends: Gray Hartley happily pouring at the Hitching Post table or Sashi Moorman working for more and more labels yet never diluting his skill. And then each year there'd be a new surprise, a new favorite: Ampelos, tercero, Autonom. Life was full of grapey goodness.

In the time between Mitchell Sjerven and Doug Margerum rescuing the Wine Cask as a restaurant from Rosenson's failure with it, Bob Wesley of the Winehound bravely stepped into the breech and delivered two great years of futures at the SB Museum of Natural History and then the Fess Parker Doubletree.

But now it's all gone, for as Wesley says, "It involved a lot of work and advertising expense, as well as facilities and food costs, and it just didn't meet budgetary expectations."

God damn.

Wesley says that the Wine House in LA might do a program up here next year (they are doing one in LA, so that means the big city gets our futures and we don't, and that's a sad state o' affairs), so here's hoping Jim Knight can pull that off (in addition to making his own fine wines Jelly Roll and working on Holus Bolus). Until then, drink slowly, my friends....

UPDATE (4/11/11): An informant has let me know that the Wine House will be having a Central Coast futures at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History next year, most likely in April.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Letting it Roll Fowl

I make it a practice not to mock chickens as I go to San Diego sometimes and there's a really big one down there. OK, seriously, there is mock chicken, except at Mary's Secret Garden it's called "chycken," and I think I know why. For Mary's is all vegan, and often raw, even, so the chycken is either some vegetable protein made yummy or the work of seitan, but when it appears in Mary's sun-dried tomato mushroom pasta--as homey and lovely a heaping plate as you could dream for--it almost seems like another type of mushroom, with that good sort of rubbery chewiness you might get from a hearty portobello, say. It, and the large variety of mushrooms full of their earthiness, also do a fine job carrying the light white wine and basil pesto sauce, so every bite is rich and rewarding. And that doesn't even get me to the whole wheat linguine, which is lighter than you might expect and certainly doesn't have that air of "it's good for you"-ness that often seems to pervade vegetarian restaurants' pasta dishes. One of Mary's greatest secrets is it actually want to serve you food that pleases. Thanks, Mary. (Note there are greens in there, too, for more variety of texture and taste, and nuts, and a sprinkling of parmesan cheeze, guaranteed to displease your spellcheck but still make you a happy eater.)

So after several visits to Mary's Secret Garden in Ventura, I am not yet a vegetarian, even with the deluxe raw tostada, the Syrian hummus plate, the secret burger (of soy meat), and the tofu pad thai. Enjoying their housemade kombucha isn't even enough of an elixir to turn me. As long as there's a match and a pig left on the planet, I will hanker for bacon.

But Mary's is the place I want to be if the last oinker ever hoofs it off to that great sty in the sky.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Do You Know the Way to Jina Bae

When the Independent handed out its first Foodie Awards last October, we worked hard to come up with cleverish (the best ones probably weren't mine, don't worry) names for each honor as we definitely didn't mean for them to be "best French restaurant" or anything like that (and anyway in Santa Barbara that category in the best-of contests generally means "best restaurant with a French-sounding name," which begins to suggest some of the problems with best-of issues)(oh, they do sell advertising though). That said, there was no name as apt as the one given to A-Ru Japanese Restaurant -- The Fish Out of Water Award. For the joke isn't just that this is sushi (arguably the county's best) in the Santa Ynez Valley, just down the 246 from Frank Ostini and his pith helmet and grill. It goes further, as it's tucked into a strip mall (official address 225 McMurray Rd.), an unlikely location for food so fine. And what's more, and more again, A-Ru is owned by Jina Bae, a Korean woman. That's not how sushi is supposed to happen, if you ask the traditionalists.

But if you sat them down at Bae's restaurant, they'd shut up fast, beyond the occasional moan of pleasure. For everything here is plus quality, and not just the fish she gets herself several times a week at the fish markets in LA. That tofu in the miso--and what could be, and often is, more of a toss-off than miso at a sushi spot--how did she find tofu so silky and lovely? That eel sauce several rolls sport--it seems extra punchy, with depth you usually don't get in the roll itself, let alone the drizzled accompaniment.

So, if you're up in Wine Country and want something different to eat, or if you're driving back from Paso, say, or San Francisco, or Seattle, or Juneau.... Well, I'm planning trips north just to visit A-Ru more frequently, let's put it that way.

Friday, April 1, 2011

If Chef Means Boss, What Does That Make Springsteen?

Generally I feel pretty removed from popular culture. For instance, after being coerced into watching the full video for Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," was I outraged she lifted so much from Madonna's "Express Yourself"? Of course not. I was pissed off she lifted Bernard Herrmann's title theme from Vertigo.

So, what does this have to do with food, you might ask? It's that I find Top Chef sort of irresistible. Sure, it's all ginned up with twist silliness one hopes most chefs don't have to deal with, from cooking with one hand to stripping down, diving in, and catching your own conch (although you'd think Ludo Lefebvre would have been a natural for that on Top Chef Masters). Yes, over the course of its eight seasons it's mirrored the real world problems with high-end kitchens and rewarded more white men then women or people of color as top chef. Yes, you completely know it's edited in a way to leave you guessing till the end what's going to happen, even if what's going to happen is pretty clear, really. Heck, they even toss in red herrings (not actual fish--that would be more amusing, to at one point pummel the contestants with yet-flapping red snapper or something), for I'm sure I wasn't alone assuming Wednesday night when they focused on Jamie sous-chefing the jalapenos and asking about seeds, something would end up too fiery for some judge, but not a pepperoni-sauce-loving Gail. (Poor Gail--I swear there's an unwritten rule that she must get edited to look a bit dufusily goofy every episode to make Padma look even better, sort of like Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball back in the day...but then again, once you consider how they dress Padma, that idea sort of goes out the window--never has a beautiful woman worn more ugly unflattering outfits on one show that wasn't a comedy.)

The good news is [spoiler alert!] that Richard Blais can finally rest becalmed at the top of self doubt mountain--victory is his. And it wasn't easy, as Mike Isabella matched him dish for dish (almost--Blais sneakily worked in an amuse bouche, too, that people loved and you have to assume that brown-nosey extra mile can't hurt in a world as regimented and suck-upy as the kitchen). And, as is so often when things get close on TC, dessert almost turned out to be Blais' downfall as he took a great risk and (no surprise) nitrogened up some ice cream. The surprise--he made it flavored with foie gras. Makes sense, richness into richness on some level, especially at a restaurant he named Tongue & Cheek (a clever play on the usual phrase, plus a tip of the cap to something offal, even if his menu was actually hoof-n-snout light beyond some sweetbreads and marrow). Alas, the first servings of it were too freeze-dried up, and if you ask me he won the evening by correcting the mistake before the second round of judges hit the restaurant. What better sign of how good a cook you are than to be able to make improvements on the fly?

And, as far as temperaments go, I'm always going to side with the self-doubter rather than the brazen Jersey boy, despite being a Jersey boy myself. So sorry, Mike, but pack your pride and go.