Monday, April 30, 2012

Dough Re: Me

Easter has long since come and gone, that Jessica Foster bunny with caramelized almonds and fleur de sel is just a distant delicious memory, and somehow I never wrote about trying to become my mother. For I did, with Chryss's help, of course (as she's way more a baker than I am and is a mother, so has that going for her too, as if she needs more), by resurrecting a family recipe, the Slovak version of kolache, a breakfast roll stuffed either with ground nuts and raisins or poppy seed filling. I've longed for it for years, lamenting its loss in the Indy even, since my mom's been gone since 2006. My sisters finally found the recipe in mom's stuff, which was hard as everything was alphabetized oddly, or so they told me. And then I just said this year's got to be the year.

There's a lot to risk, trying to make a food from your childhood. Perhaps your memory is sweeter than the food itself. Perhaps you can't do it, and that just pushes you even further adrift away from whatever connection that might have tethered you. The dead never get more dead, but they can get less living, if that makes any sense.

But I did it anyway. The pitfalls were numerous, as the recipe was bare-boned to the extreme--it even left out when to add the salt in its ingredient list (good catch, Chryss!). Since it's pastry, it's all about its dough, and the part I most remember is getting to hold the pot while my mom stirred away at what first seemed like cement, but eventually stretched into something magical. When I got older I'd get to stir, too, and we'd take turns hanging onto the pot as the dough would pull it this way and that if left unheld. Chryss and I tried that for a bit, but then we cheated, using the heavy duty Kitchen Aid mixer and its torque and mighty pastry hook. The whole process was faster, cleaner, and I still feel like I cheated, that the country folk Slovaks would think me a city upstart who might as well be Czech. Sorry, ancestors.

You put that in the fridge overnight covered with a dish towel, and in the morning it's practically a volleyball of dough, ready to get separated into smaller balls (the recipes doesn't call for how many, but we went for 6--a pretty good guess), and then those get rolled out so they can be stuffed. By what, the recipes is mute, so memory had to take over. The walnut one I knew my mom used to grind down in the cellar with a hand grinder, which probably makes you think she's wearing a babushka and standing in candlelight but this was very suburban New Jersey. We, instead, used the food processor and a recipe for nut filling Chryss had found online, which I figure is just many villages' wisdom made magically accessible and so therefore fair game. Some brown and granulated sugar. Lots of big juicy sultanas (do not be afraid of the raisin!) then were mixed in--not chopped, no. The poppy seed ones, well, I remembered that coming from a can (as did cherries for pie--cans were made for fillings, it seems). When Lazy Acres failed me I figured the European Deli & Market had to have something to do the trick. Once there, I was confronted with cans in languages I did not know and felt at home (being a horrible grandson and never much learning my grandmother's tongue beyond volke whoonsuit [that's very very phonetic, not accurate]--which means something akin to spoiled, bad child). In small print on a label it did say poppy seed, so I figured I was good, especially with the photo helping me. Either that or I had bought coffee grounds.

Turns out both fillings, while perhaps not quite those of my youth, tasted wonderful. The nuts one became crunchily delicious after baking and just the right amount of breakfast sweet (and I like me some breakfast sweets). The poppy seed had that poppy funk that it is both interesting and a tiny tiny bit offputting (much more so when I was really young and refused to eat it at all)--it's a kind of bitter that's almost hop-like, I think, now. Then there's also some sugar, and some citrus peel, and a bit of whatever else Eastern Europe likes in a can, I guess.

The recipe meant we baked 3 of each, each a foot long, so we gifted some. Since that's what you do in the Old Country, and they had some good ideas, you know. Good baking makes good neighbors.

Friday, April 27, 2012

See Ya at Cielito

There are still a few days left in Poetry Month (AKA April), and as I've reported previously, several local bars/restaurants have opted to take some of the cruelishness (that wasn't an earthquake, that was Chaucer rolling over in his grave) out of the month with poetry-inspired cocktails. So get out there and order away. We did last evening, and at Cielito had the pleasure of sipping the Paradise Found, which lives up to its name. Think of it as a margarita's more exotic cousin, with chile-infused tequila, more fruit punch (haha) than just citrus--peach, in fact--, and a bit of smokiness too, all topped with an edible orchid. It's so good, you might decide to find paradise twice in one evening.

And if you're wondering, why, yes--Cielito's kitchen is still a marvel. Chef Ramon Velazquez creates what I want to call Mexushi, artfully bridging his own culture (and knowing how many cultures that really contains--how silly of us to talk about Mexican food as if it were monolithic) with the precision of plating, the eye for detail, and the desire to serve only the freshest of fish that is the hallmark of good sushi (and Velazquez worked at Arigato for a dozen years). His small plates are all pretty and more than pretty delicious, from the quesadilla Ciudad de Mexico that dresses up the simple with grilled asparagus, pickled mushrooms, and the melding (or is that melting?) of both jack and goat cheese to the ceviche verde that adds a bit of Mediterranean and Caribbean to the mix, what with green olives in with the halibut, avocado, and more and each bite atop a plantain chip.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

There Is an "I" in Special

Comme Ça not only let's you use the word cedilla and learn the html code to make one, it makes you very happy if you eat there, as we did on a recent LA excursion*. On the restaurant's website David Myers claims, “This is the kind of food I cook at home, for myself and my friends,” which makes you wish you hung out at his home and were his friend. For this is French brasserie food, and while I'm bad at languages, I'm pretty sure that word translates as "comfort" or perhaps "contented sigh." There are cocktails that will set the evening's tone (tone=pleased smiley). On a blustery night there's nothing better than a shot of Penicillin, particularly since I'm allergic to the drug itself. This, instead, is blended scotch, lemon, honey, ginger--as if that's not good enough, the bartender pulls out an actual mister (no, not as in Ed or T, but one of these) and delicately sprays Islay scotch over the top, as if a wisp of peaty fog drifted in. The only weird part is this is served over block ice, literally a huge chip off a larger block, which makes getting every last drop of the drink out past the berg in your old-fashioned sized glass a bit tricky. Chryss got some deserved R & R, sort of a Manhattan slightly south of the border, with its rye, reposado, lemon, agave nectar, and ginger served straight up (and therefore no danger to its drinker).

And while her moules and frites were all anyone could ask for (ok, we did ask for a second helping of baguette to sop all that good sauce), I ordered the far-from-just-in-name-only special you can spy above. That's squid ink tagliatelle with lobster and fava beans. That's about three of my favorite things to eat. Each element lived up to the goodness it can be, the lobster actual poached to perfection chunks of meat, the favas the emblem of spring they are, the pasta dark and rich with squidishness. (For some reason the server was selling the dish claiming ink pasta has no flavor, but we all know that's just wrong.) If I had to make a lover's quarrel with the dish it would be the pasta turned a bit into a sticky pile as the dish cooled at the table--perhaps I didn't eat quickly enough, or perhaps a bit more olive oil or butter was needed (not that the dish needed more richness).

If you were wondering, yes, this is the kind of place where you order an apple tart tatin.

*That Dog! Together again, and with a string section and doing things quiet and fucking up (to the point of saying "oh fuck" mid-song) and being damn charming about it. Great show, and we even scored first row seats at the Largo, a mere couple of blocks from Comme Ça.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Alaska Hold 'Em, No Limit

Fine dining, that is, dining that is dear, is often like poker--at a certain point you end up playing pot odds. You've already spent so much, it seems silly to quibble over another sawbuck you'll just end up owing to Citibank. Such was definitely the case at a recent meal at the Stonehouse at San Ysidro Ranch, the getaway of legendary lovers Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Jackie and JFK, that paragon of a certain civility only money can buy, that place where a tofu dish, admittedly divine, will set you back 30 bucks. That can put the oy in your soy, or you can just say, "Well, that's what I signed up for" and enjoy. You will.

I'm not going to run through the whole meal, or try to capture the charm of a room surprisingly intimate and pleasingly warmed by a hearth roaring on a drizzly night. But I do want to discuss dessert, for the Stonehouse offers a baked Alaska for two. While we might think this dessert is some Mad Men era creation, what with its sense of excess, its hat-tip to the just-a-state, its caloric abandon, it actually comes from the late 1800s, from the famed Delmonico's in NYC, and then the French took it up and carried it all about their brasseries in a food fest of fin-de-siecle-ness. So, yes, it is grand--coffee ice cream, rich chocolate cake, and then a helmet of meringue. The Stonehouse shapes meringue to look like the sun sending off a passel of solar flares, and then goes one better--lights the dish tableside. Ice cream afire, mon dieu!

I can't remember the actual price for the Baked Alaska for two (perhaps I've blocked it out), but you're at least partially paying for Theatre Flambé, so imagine my disappointment that they managed to bring the dessert to our table, light it and let it extinguish...while I was in the restroom. That just seems like sloppy service at a place that should know better. The good thing is it's far from just a showpiece--that meringue, with its flamed crunch and then gooey inside, the luscious ice cream and its caffeine kick, the cake, richly chocolate without turning one diabetic after a couple bites.

And as for the pot odds, the Stonehouse serves Chateau d'Yquem by the ounce, for a crazy $35. But not as crazy as us, as we got it and sipped and shared and savored--you have to for that price at that volume. But you have to as its magic, too, the only wine that leaves you tasting it, no not just sensing a finish but sensing its middle, for nearly a minute per minuscule sip. There are sauternes and then there's Yquem (as I've tried to capture before), and while I almost wrote just like there's writing and then Flaubert, it's actually more like there's Flaubert and then there's that passage in Bovary about the tunes for a dancing bear that even in translation slays with its music, insight, its taunt you could never write as well.

A Dish for Every Day

One doesn’t have to be a fan of Vivaldi or Frankie Valli to admire Pascale Beale’s release of the beautifully presented box set of all four A Menu for All Seasons cookbooks. Beale finished the cycle with the rerelease of Spring: Actually, all but three recipes in the collection are different from the now out-of-print 2004 edition that she co-wrote with Ann Marie Martorano-Powers, and even those are revised. But don’t ask her if that feels odd, for she explained, “People go, ‘Oh, you’re done,’ and I say, ‘What do you mean I’m done? I haven’t finished writing.’”

Want to read the rest then do so at the Indy's site.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Days of the Un-deadly Nightshade

Alas, and a lack of tomato starts! This event has been canceled--the Tomatomania! folks are under the weather, so they couldn't make it. It's still completely worth having lunch at Goodland, though.

The weather might not be shouting summer but your garden can, particularly if you get to Tomatomania! (, which will be visiting Goodland Kitchen (231 Magnolia Ave., 845-4300, this week.

In the past you had to drive to the San Fernando Valley or beyond to take part in Tomatomania!, which is billed as “the world’s largest (and most fun) heirloom tomato seedling sale.” Whether you’re searching for a Green Zebra or a Cherokee Purple, for a Caspian Pink or a Kentucky Beefsteak, the event and its classes, sales, and tastings will help insure you’ll have a tomato-ful summer.

Scott Daigre, owner of Powerplant Garden Design based in Ojai, runs Tomatomania! and offers wonderful tips, such as: “Water every 3 or 4 days for the first few weeks. Watch your seedlings and give them only what they need. Once tomatoes start growing, water deeply and infrequently. As tomatoes grow, the plant will inevitably yellow in places… more water won’t fix that. Avoid watering too much. Too much water dilutes taste.”

“Amateur gardeners, professional farmers, and everyone in between will want to come see the hundreds of heirloom seedlings for sale,” said Melissa Gomez, co-owner of Goodland Kitchen. “Bring friends and stay for lunch.”

Tomatomania! sets its roots at Goodland Kitchen this Tuesday through Thursday, April 24 – 26, 8 a.m.–3 p.m. The event itself is free, but the seedlings are for purchase.

(Also posted at the Independent.)

Friday, April 20, 2012

What A Tasty Nation You've Got There

Not too much time for details, so I'm hoping some visuals will do. First, a menu from a brilliant dinner last evening:
Click on it to make it bigger, and if you do, your eyes will get bigger too. That menu doesn't include the beet, fresh ricotta, truffle tartlets and pheasant rillettes that Chef John Pettitt from Cadiz prepared, either.

This photo is to prove that a salad on a menu might not prepare you for what you'll get on the plate. You might not think a chef would slice apples on a meat slicer, then dehydrate them in a low oven for 4 hours, then form a crown with them for your salad greens. At least I sure didn't think that. Thanks, Chef Pilar Sanchez from Root 246 (which is obviously in good hands even with Bradley Ogden now gone).

And then a photo of dessert, as its menu name doesn't prepare you for all the crazy goodness and vanilla bean antennae of this. Thanks, Chef Renaud Gonthier (who else?). Obviously you can't go back in time to eat this dinner (sorry), but you can go to the Share Our Strength's Taste of the Nation event May 20 at the Montecito Country Club. You will never eat and rink as well while fighting hunger (all proceeds go to the SB Foodbank, and they turn each dollar of donation into $17 of food).

Monday, April 16, 2012

Stomach, the Jury

This is what the judges' table looked like after Saturday's Winter Wine Down to benefit the Santa Barbara Muscular Dystrophy Association, even short a judge and with a whole bunch of our food sample containers already carted away. It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it. And at times it is tough--you try to evaluate the presentation of dishes delivered in styrofoam takeout boxes (let me tell you this, it's not the best thing to open one and find chunks of beef in a sauce).

Here are some secrets to doing well as a restaurant at an event like this:

1) Enter a category that no one else enters. You win! (Now please go learn how to make a better Asian chicken salad--more chicken would be good start, and if not more, then at least less cooked chicken that you do include.)
2) If you food is sauced and you don't know when the judges are going to get it, don't serve it on bread. Yum, soggy bread!
3) A piece of mozzarella, a basil leaf, and a tomato on a spear is not a side dish.
4) Make sure the judges are drinking some good wine when they have your food. Tercero, Beckmen, and that Piedrasassi that Winehound was pouring all good choices. The one winery serving their Tempranillo at a sun-warmed 85°, a spit-take inducing choice. (OK, the food purveyors didn't get to mingle with us as an intern served as our food runner, so no bribing of any sort went on and all food entries were anonymous.)

Congrats to SOhO for winning best meat dish and best overall--they won both unanimously. Bob Hansen is cranking out his family's recipe ribs and they're lovely, especially with the cilantro liberally sprinkled atop--makes them decidedly Santa Barbaran.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Open Your Golden Ate

I'd be lying if I didn't admit I travel mostly to eat at new places, and I'd never lie to you, dear reader. Instead, I will bring back ripping yarns about manly meals and hope that the yarns covering my body don't rip from all the consumption. (And also hope that the dated diction at the start of the previous sentence doesn't leave you thinking I mean TB when I write consumption. Cough, cough.)

Two weekends back we had the good fortune to go to San Francisco and the bad fortune to have only about 48 hours total there, from Friday noonish till Sunday 10 am--if you're scoring at home, that's merely time for two dinners, two breakfasts, and a lunch. Luckily we were camped across from the Ferry Building again at the Hotel Vitale, which is still wonderful, and it looks like I owe y'all a Ferry Building essay that's more than a year a-coming. (I'll get there, promise. I'm fascinated by the FB and the way it totally fetishizes foodie culture and I still love it, anyway. Got to write that contradiction out to make sense of it.) That said, I want to run through the dinners and one of the lunches so you may drool onto your keyboard.

Named after a highway near Naples, this long revered place makes amazing Indian food...almost got you, didn't I? Nope, it's Italian without ever being Eye-talian, from the pizza program that's even certified by the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association to the teeth-stainingly good squid ink cavatelli. Airy, crispy, and with a bit of the wood-oven char, those pies are perfection with their mere smears of toppings: nothing is in the slightest heavy-handed, but neither is it precious or leaves you wanting. A16 also teaches you the fanciest word for crackers ever--croccantini--that come so you can scoop up yummy local albacore conserva with dried fava bean puree. Tuna and beans go together like Rogers and Astaire, of course (just ask your friend from Nice about his salad), and these do a delightful Continental on your tastebuds. It doesn't hurt that there's bitter greens and garlic to contrast the bass notes of the dish's stars.Then there's a wines-by-the-glass program that makes me feel very ignorant and thirsty--if you don't know your odder Southern Italian varietals, the staff will guide you accurately.

The Monk's Kettle
This cozy (or too damn tiny, depending upon whether you've lucked into a seat or are hoping for one) spot in the Mission likes to claim it helped kick off the gastropub movement back when such places were called gut-taverns and didn't have as good PR. Seriously, it's been around since 2007 and hits the sweet spot of fine beers (24 drafts and 180 bottles) and a small but exciting menu that not only does the now de rigueur local and organic thing, but likes working beer into the mix in usual (Penn Cove mussels cooked in Allagash White ale) and unusual (hop salt on the fries, spent grain in the veggie burger) ways. That veggie burger is far from the usual frozen slab to silence, if far from please, the non-meat eaters--it also is made with chick peas, and then adorned with fromage blanc, aioli, and onion jam. Those hop salt fries come with, and anyone would be glad they do, some of the most expertly cooked fries I've had in ages, crispy on the outside, almost creamy on the in.

Meat eaters won't go hungry, particularly if they're fond of odder cuts like sweetbreads and a plate of beef cheeks atop polenta with a daring dash of horseradish. The cheeks are fork tender without being insta-mouth mushy, the polenta a worthy foil and not merely some starch. An Existent, a dark farmhouse ale from Stillwater Artisanal Ales, made me realize the right brew might outdo any Bourdeaux (well, in my price range) for a meaty match, not to mention let me know I need to get back to my old college stomping grounds, Baltimore, and check out its brew scene (those old poor undergrad days meant Natty Boh or bank account bust, alas).

Supposedly you're not just talking hats with your oo-la-lah accent but saying wow if said chapeau is followed by an exclamation point. Chapeau! can make this claim for many reasons, not the least of which is that when you get your check, that comes to the table inside a hat, you'll be amazed at the lowish price for how much fine Frenchiness you had to eat and drink. But perhaps the wow is most earned as this is a place that has defeated web diy lcd syndrome--over 1500 people on Yelp have rated it and it still gets a well-deserved 4-and-a-1/2 stars. Incroyable!

This Richmond-district neighborhood joint is nothing fancy but captures a buzz in its precisely cream colored room, that hue making the light a bit gilded, and that effect is aided by the two-foot-or-so mirror panel that runs the perimeter, catching light and laughing faces and giving even the diners facing their companions on the ring-around-the-room banquets a view of much of the place. Chef and owner Philippe Gardelle greets everyone as if you'd been coming here all along, which is no doubt why many do. (And I am assuming every woman leaving gets the grand gesture two-cheek kiss when leaving and not just my gorgeous wife.)

As for the food, if you have a hankering for the French classics, you'll get them here done in a classic style but subtly updated and refined. That fourme d'ambert tart with pear and just the right amount of frisee will ruin you for savory pastries, that trio of salmon (tartare, roe, and gravlax) will all play off each other in taste (sweet, salt, salty-sweet) and texture (melt, pop, chew), while the plate, lightly glazed with gorgeous lines of creme fraiche quite chilled, gives up that dairy begrudgingly, so it never overpowers the fish. The skate wing in brown butter you will almost, almost that is, like best for the fingerling potatoes that come with it. And then the cassoulet. The meat-lovers dish akin to that girl in high school who only meant to please and did, this one has duck leg confit tender but not overcooked, the two very different sausages (garlic and Toulouse), and then the cannellini beans that have somehow sucked in every other tinge of the long-braise's flavors, so close to bursting yet still firm. A three-course prix fixe here is a mere $40, and the wines come by the glass and half-glass, if you need just a bit more St. Joseph for the last moist morsels of duck (you do have the leg's bone in your paws by now, but everyone else who has had the dish can't blame you).

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I Drink, Therefore Iamb

So John Milton, Edgar Allen Poe, Edwin Arnold, Robert Frost, Stevie Smith, and Shel Silverstein walk into a bar. Well, they don’t actually walk, as they’re all versifying in the hereafter now, but poems by all six are being celebrated by Santa Barbara mixologists in honor of National Poetry Month. After all, for centuries the arts have inspired, intertwined, and cross-pollinated in a host of scared and profane ways, so what seems more natural than flipping the typical paradigm and having poetry lead to some cocktails?

Want to read the rest, then do so at the Indy's site.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Carp High Cooks Up a New Kitchen

Carpinteria High School’s Culinary Arts Institute (CAI) had a struggle on its hands: Each station of its stuck-in-the-’60s teaching kitchen looked like one you might find on the set of The Brady Bunch and was about as useful. To prepare students for the current work world, the facility needed an upgrade, especially since CAI features dual-credit culinary courses in conjunction with SBCC’s School of Culinary Arts and Hotel Management. Today, that new professional teaching kitchen is open, but the school is still looking for $300,000 or so in donations to cover the $1.5-million price tag.

Want to read the rest you can do so at the Indy's site.