Saturday, April 22, 2006

Food Memory

My new Saturday morning ritual, reading food blogs for information, inspiration, and impetus. When I hit on Cream Puffs in Venice I saw the most delicious item that made me start salivating. Having had only my one cup of Peets to fortify me, I realized I was famished, and the Ali-Baba, unfairly featured at the top of the blog prior to any words, was, on an empty stomach, too much to bear. I had to head for the kitchen. The Ali-Baba was too complicated to make quickly, but I had this faint nagging in the back of my head, something completely unrelated, but waiting for me to remember. And as I entered the kitchen, it came forth.

When I was a child (from the ages of 6-12), I was dropped off every weekday morning at my grandparents, so my parents could get to work on time. She was my before- and after-school care provider, and I couldn’t have asked for a better, or more loving, person. She walked me to and from school and for most of those six years, doing her grocery shopping on her way home. She played with me in the summertime, read me stories, took me to the park and the library, taught me how to cook. But one of my favorite memories from that early time with her is the early morning English pancakes.

My nana came from England at the age of 3. She married my papa, who came from Scotland at the age of 17. So most of her cooking was British in style, finnan haddie, mince and mashed potatoes, pot roast, custards. I usually had already consumed breakfast by the time I got to her house, but once in a while she would make these simple and delicious treats.

Although I didn’t know it for many years to come, English pancakes are nothing more than a simple crepe batter. She would whisk up flour, milk, and eggs and fry the delicate thin rounds in her old cast iron skillet. She would slather them in butter, sprinkle sugar on them, and roll it all up for me to eat. I can remember those cold dark mornings, sitting at the little table in her trailer, right across from the stove, watching her with anticipation. They are good memories, food memories.

So this morning I recreated that in my own kitchen. There were no kids (or grandkids) around to watch. But I pulled out The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman and found a basic crepe recipe and whipped up a batch in 30 minutes. Then I sat down with the requisite cup of tea, and gorged on three, full of butter and sugar. And my nana, in the form of an angel tattooed on my shoulder the week she died, watched as I ate. I know I was pleased, and I hope she would be, too.

Help in the kitchen?

I have recently spent some timed perusing the Craigslist job listings, as two of my three children were unemployed. In addition to finding one of them I job, I ran across an interesting ad that mentioned a new start-up:

“Deeelish! is a new Menlo Park retail facility where customers prepare healthy, gourmet meals in our kitchen and cook them at home.”

This piqued my interest. So I dug a little deeper and found an article on a Stanford University bulletin board that provided a bit more information:

“Deeelish is a start-up business in the meal preparation and facilitation industry. The Meal Facilitation and Preparation business (MFP) is a young, rapidly expanding industry offering a service that enables customers to prepare a large number of meals more quickly and at a lower cost than they could achieve on their own. Deeelish offers a monthly menu of 14 ready-to-cook entrees, from which the customer chooses a subset (8 or 12 entrees) to prepare at a prescheduled session. At the facility customers will cycle through individual entrée prep stations, with each station fully equipped and stocked with pre-chopped, sautéed and otherwise prepared ingredients, so that the customer needs only to follow simple, step-by-step instructions to assemble the entrée. Completed entrees are taken home to be frozen for cooking and consumption at a later date.”

My initial response to all of this was: Do parents nowadays really need a communal kitchen, with pre-chopped and pre-cooked ingredients, recipes, and a helping hand to cook meals for their families. Is it really that hard? This boggles my mind. Now I know that I love food and that cooking is enjoyable to me, while it isn’t so for others, but still…it’s really not that hard. Even if your parent/grandparent/sibling didn’t teach you how to cook, at least minimally, you know your family has to eat. Planning a meal is no more difficult than planning a meeting. Following a recipe is just as easy as loading an Apple computer program. Shopping for food is like shopping for office supplies. Creating a meal is certainly simpler than creating an ad campaign. People, intelligent people, do really difficult things every day. Why can’t they cook? If my children’s health and welfare depended on me to write ad copy for Hummers, I would damn well figure out how to do it. Would I need a special office and 5 hand-holders to get me through it? Hell, no.

But after due consideration, and a good talking to by my daughter, I had a change of heart and came down off my high horse: We do want people to be more comfortable in the kitchen and we do want our children to grow up with sit-down healthy meals. These are important things., and if it takes a place like Deelish! To accomplish this, then maybe it isn’t such a bad thing. For some, it may kick-start a desire to learn more and do more in the kitchen, for others, it may become a regular gig. Either way, it can be considered a good thing: Fresh, great tasting food on the table for the family.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


I love Easter. Actually, what I think I love about Easter are the rituals and traditions that go along with it. As a child it meant a brand new Easter dress, gloves, hat and purse, the only time of the year I got to wear a hat, gloves and purse. Of course, dying eggs and the Easter egg hunts were fun as well. When I met my husband, we spent our first Easter together with his family in Colorado. His aunt and uncle hosted a brunch, with the most memorable part being the Easter Egg game. This was a game for children and adults alike. Every year grandma made hard boiled eggs, boiled in purple onion skins to give them a reddish color. Everyone got one egg and had to go around to each person where the end of their eggs would meet. If your egg cracked, you were out of the game. The last one left standing got a silver dollar from grandma. Years later, when we had our own children, we went back again during Easter. Not only did we get to play the game, but grandma cooked us a traditional Lebanese Easter dinner, complete with roast kid, Lebanese rice, kousa, fatayer, kibi/kibbeh, flat bread, Lebanese green beans, cucumber salad…more dishes than I can even remember. Significantly different than my family’s ham dinner, it was intimidating at first, but the glory of the tradition wasn’t lost on me. (In fact, I went into the butcher shop where my son works to see if I could get a kid for this year’s Easter, but no luck.)

As we raised our own kids, we tried to provide some family rituals to all our holidays. Easter meant egg dying, egg hunts, and some years ham, some years a Lebanese dinner with lamb. Egg dying and egg hunts ended last year. My youngest is now 21, and even though the plastic eggs contained not only candy, but money and condoms, he seems a bit old now to be hunting throughout the house with an Easter basket. I am hoping that it is only a temporary reprieve for these rituals however, as I fully expect to start them up again with my grandchildren (some day).

I never know who will be around on holidays now with family far and near, so I plan loosely, but still overcooking and overdoing as though as the 3rd regiment were coming to eat. This year was no different, and we will be eating leftovers for the rest of the week. But the day started off right with Mango Mimosas and brunch, and ended after a lamb dinner with a dessert of…CUPCAKES!

Those cupcakes were the most fun I had had in the kitchen in a long time. I made two batches of cupcakes, succumbing to cake mix as I had several boxes on hand that needed to be used. Sadly I kept finding really good cupcake recipes in all my cookbooks, but I am trying to be realistic about time constraints, so I stuck with the boxed mix. I made two types of frosting, one a boiled frosting which is similar to a marshmallow fluff when done, and a lemon buttercream, smooth and silky with a nice Meyer lemon tang. I got to use the new pastry tips that I received for Christmas, although I have to say that I am really awkward with a pastry bag. The frosting itself, prior to having lots of fun little goodies sprinkled all over it, was pretty pathetic looking. But the colored frosting, the sugars, sprinkles, coconut, made each one look unique, and substituted for the ritual of dying eggs, which always allowed me a bit of creativity. So even though I used a box mix, and the cupcakes looked a bit like I had used the pastry bag with my eyes closed, I enjoyed myself and the cupcakes were a big hit.

Never underestimate the power of a childhood favorite.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Taste Test

Okay, we have finally had our first taste of the goods from Schaub’s Meat, Fish and Poultry, where my son Grant is working.

Test Subject #1 is…drum roll please…Fred’s Burgers. Now you might ask, “What is a Fred Burger?” Perfectly normal question. It is a very special hamburger. What makes it special? I do not know. They will not tell you. It is a secret family recipe, concocted by the original owner, Fred. Apparently one family member comes in once a week and makes up the marinade for Fred’s Steak (which in its raw state is pitch black) and Fred’s Burgers. The burger meat is mixed, and then hand-formed. I didn’t take the time to deconstruct the burger and guess what was in it, as I was way too hungry. They went straight on the grill and the sat nicely on one of Schaub’s homemade onion rolls. A slice of cheese, a bit of mayo, and that was it. It didn’t need anything else.

Buyer Beware: Fred’s Burgers are only available on Thursdays and Fridays and cannot be ordered in advance. First come, first served.

PS: If you know what is in these heavenly patties, I would love to know!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Blind Taste Test

Recently I bragged that I could actually tell my lemons from others. I foolishly challenged myself to a taste taste. Betcha thought I wouldn’t do it, right? Well, we did. We actually made three kinds of lemon ice cream and conducted a blind taste test to see if I could actually tell my lemons apart from store bought. We used the same ice cream recipe, with the only variable being the lemons. There were three ice creams, using our own Meyer lemons, our own Eureka lemons, and some nice looking lemons that I bought at Trader Joes.

We made the ice cream over 3 consecutive days, with the same technique and blending time in the ice cream maker. My friend Tea joined us in making the last batch, picking the lemons herself from our backyard.

So after Sunday dinner (roast turkey, mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, green beans and garlic), we conducted our experiment. I set out a tray containing 3 each of 3 types of tasting dishes, one for each flavor. I made unofficial scorecards for the three of us. We left the kitchen and my husband graciously scooped 9 balls of lemon ice cream, placing post-it notes on each container so that we could identify and link each ice cream to each tasting dish.

We had to work fast, as the ice cream melts quickly. First off, it was yummy. Light, refreshing, and smile inducing. The texture was basically the same on all three but the flavor varied greatly. The Meyer lemon is a much more intense flavor than either of the other two, owing to its thin and flavorful zest. The Eureka lemon is a softer, subtler taste. The store bought lemons provided something in between, tasty but just not as flavorful.

Did I get it right? You bet. I got all three right, as did my daughter. Tea was disappointed that she could not identify the ice creams properly, but had fun nonetheless. And to celebrate, we sliced up some wonderful just-baked Lemon Olive Oil cake with a big scoop of…you guessed it…lemon ice cream!

Friday, April 07, 2006

High-end Ingredients

Although I endeavor to recreate dishes from around the world, there are things I avoid, merely due to their cost. I have never been confronted by a bowl of caviar and have never used caviar in any way, shape or form, although I have had it in petite amounts on hors d’oeuvres. Foie gras is another item that I have not attempted to make, nor cooked with, but have eaten on several occasions. Truffles are another high-end item you will not find in my pantry.

I am realistic, I have a family of five to cook for, and when I have parties, they are large and the amount of these items that I would need would wipe out my whole budget. But I am always game to try new flavors and new ways of using time-honored ingredients. So when I was planning a recent trip to Seattle, I looked for unusual places to visit and found a small gem of a place in Pike’s Market.

La Buona Tavola Truffle Café is a combo café and retail shop, specializing in truffle-related items. I initially chose to visit the store for my luncheon destination, so that I could sample some truffled goodies, but once inside, on a cold and blustery Seattle day, I found it hard to leave. Given that traffic was slow, we spent over two hours discussing (and tasting) the wine selection (solely from small family-owned vineyards in Italy), sampling the variety of vinegars, oils, sauces, crackers, as well as eating lunch and getting a lesson in truffles.

The staff was warm and helpful, explaining the relationship the owner has to a truffle family in Italy, what types of products they carry and how they are used, and made us some wonderful treats, including a soup with truffle oil and two kinds of bruschetta. What I realized is that you do not need to use a lot of an expensive product to taste it. Floating a few drops of truffle oil in the soup added dimension and enhanced the flavor of the soup. A few grains of the truffle salt make scrambled eggs taste like heaven. You can use a few shaved truffle slices on pasta, add a bit of truffle sauce to mashed potatoes...and the list goes on. So while that small jar of truffle salt may be $21, it could last a year. And I willingly spent it.

So, once in a while, we need to live a little, splurge on something new, and enhance our larder.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

My Son, the Butcher

Thankfully, this does not mean that he has become a serial killer and is now known by a 3-name moniker like John Wayne Gacy. It means that he was just hired as an apprentice butcher by the family owned, full-service Schaub’s Meat, Fish & Poultry at Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto.

Owing to this most fortunate of events (I assume I will, at some point, be tasting everything they sell), I have decided to let him off the hook for the weekly cooking lessons, if he so chooses, for two reasons: One, his work schedule is 10:45 am to 7:15 pm, meaning he will not get home until 7:45, which is too late to start dinner. Secondly, he will be learning about stuffings, marinades, sausage-making, and all manners of fish, fowl, and meat, which will contribute to his culinary skills.

He is quite excited about this job, even though they are making him shave off his goatee. So tomorrow is the appointed start date. If you happen on by Schaub’s, look for the good-looking tall kid with the great smile!

Cookbook Query

Food bloggers occassionally tag each other with a meme, a series of questions to answer and post on their blog. This is my very first, relating to one of the tools of the trade—cookbooks.


If only I had more room! The bane of my existence is not having enough storage, particularly in my kitchen. I have nowhere to put my cookbooks in there and had to install shelves that are up above window height, just for my teapot collection (only part of it) and serving bowls. Consequently, my office shelves, which I thought to be plenty when I bought them, currently share space between my personal books, research and professional books, the travel books from the publisher I work for (over 90 now), my cookbooks, and various other odds and ends (like my Sherlock Holmes collection). In fact, as much as I like bookstores, I try not to go into them for fear that I will buy more books that will come home with me and have no shelf space to share. I’m tapped out. (In my next house, I am going to build one whole wall, floor to ceiling, of bookshelves with one of those sliding ladders.)

Given my space considerations, I only own 85 cookbooks, plus 2 shelves of saved back issues of Gourmet, Bon Appetit, and other food mags that I felt were worth saving for their recipe content. I also have one small recipe file, which holds 3x5 cards. I started this in college and some of my oldest recipes are here. And last, I have a large standing file which holds recipes from newspapers & magazines, from cooking schools I have been to, family heirlooms, etc.


The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman . I will admit that I read quite a few reviews on this book which persuaded me to add it to my collection. It is a weighty tome, almost intimidating. I haven’t yet made anything from it. But I promise it will get grease smudges and chocolate drops on it soon enough. (The signs of a well-loved, and oft-used cookbook.)

I was also given two beautiful cookbooks at the same time. My dear friend, in Vegas working on a guidebook, received two huge hardback cookbooks from one of the hotel PR departments: Great American Food and The Art of Aureole , both by Charlie Palmer. She graciously gave both to me. Great American food is one gorgeous 4-color hardback book that makes you drool as you flip through. It is easy to read, the recipes are not as difficult as one might think, and there are wine pairings with most every recipe. This book will definitely get some use. The Art of Aureole has a unique cover, but opening it up, I was immediately turned off. Each recipe is printed in white text on black background and is very difficult to read, and if that weren’t enough, each graf of a recipe is angled a different way. Argh. I think I might have an easier time recreating the dishes myself from the beautiful one- to two-page 4-color spread that each items gets. (Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, mind you, but this one is not likely to get many grease smudges.)


Sorry to say that this was work-related. I read through African Cooking by Laurens van der Post (Time-Life Books, 1971). I needed to understand more about African cooking—the ingredients, history, influences—for my upcoming anthology The World is a Kitchen. I got one great sidebar out of the book and marked a few recipes to try as well.


Betty Crocker’s Picture Book, 2nd edition (1956). The introduction proclaims that the 1st edition sold over 3.5 million copies! This edition does not vary signifcantly from the first but it contains the basic, tried and trued, recipes everyone needs, from biscuits to cakes to sauces. I know you must think this is corny, but this was my mother’s first cookbook, and the one I grew up with. My mother graciously parted with it a few years ago, not realizing what a treasure it is, and it is regularly consulted.

McCall’s Cookbook: The Absolutely Complete Step by Step Cooking and Serving Guide. This was my own very first cookbook. Twice the size of my mother’s aforementioned first, it contains all that and more, including education on cuts of meat, entertaining, international cookery, leftovers, and low-cal cooking. It is missing the covering on its spine and is held together tenuously, but will always remain one of my favorites, as it helped to set me on a course of food appreciation.

Lemons: Growing, Cooking, Crafting by Kate Chynowieth and Elizabeth Woodson. Well, if you have read anything on this blog, it is the overabundance of posts on citrus, particularly the Meyer lemon. This book allows me to use the fruit in a variety of wonderful ways, thereby depriving my friend Tea
of some of the lemons she wishes would be sent in her direction. In addition to delicious recipes, there are pages devoted to balms, salts, cold remedies, pomanders, and more.

The Taste of Thailand by Vatcharin Bhumichitr . Fourteen years ago, when I went to work for a travel publisher, I had really no travel experience. While I learned a lot about the country working on that first book on Thailand, I had trouble connecting to the place, not having been there. After reading a piece on a Thai cooking school, I realized I could connect through the food. So I went out and bought this book, poured over it, learned about the ingredients, and to celebrate the publication of that first book, I cooked a huge Thai meal for the staff. It was delicious. I have been cooking Thai food ever since, and even got to go to that Thai cooking school for myself. And, we celebrated all those early books with celebratory meals, allowing me to learn more about food from Mexico, India, Spain, Italy, France, Nepal…and the list goes on.

The fifth cookbooks, is not really a cookbook at all, but a collection of recipes that gets used more than any cookbook I own. Back in the day, before I could afford cookbooks, I would find great recipes in newspapers, hand-me-down magazines, and other unusual places. I started building a collection, sorted by topic, in an accordion folder. That original accordion folder has since died of overuse, and now the recipes reside, again by topic, in file folders in an upright standing file. Also included in this file are recipes from my husband’s side of the family—Lebanese mainstays—as well as recipes from the cooking schools and culinary classes I have attended.