Monday, December 22, 2008

Merry Christmas To All ...

I make a beef entree that I've shamelessly stolen from the covers of Fine Cooking Magazine. I always give them credit. It's not mine, it's theirs. I may embellish a little, but the basic recipe is Fine Cooking's. And fine cooking it is. It's one of those dishes that never ceases to blow the doors off of any event. It's a whole beef tenderloin, stuffed with a wild mushroom variation of a classic duxelle, served with a port wine reduction. Essentially, stuffed filet mignon with a port sauce. If it's done right, it's a melt-in-your-mouth, cut with a fork entree. It's the kind of meal that people rave about, want the recipe, or they'll invite you over to cook it for them.

"The Tenderloin" will be the entree for Christmas 2008 dinner. Christmas is in beautiful Monterey this year, at the home of my best friend, who I've known since childhood, and his lovely wife. This has been the setting for so many memorable events over the years, including the celebration of the new millenium.

As mentioned in an earlier entry, I'm not particularly religious in the formal sense of the word. But I love Christmas, and think it should be celebrated as a day of peace and friendship with family and friends. It's a day of giving, of both gifts and thanks for the people who enrich our lives. This has been a year of several losses, which unfortunately has been the case for the past three years. We lost two very dear friends 2 and 3 years ago respectively, and they're still in our hearts, and are missed in a big way. This year saw the passing of my mom, who followed my dad by 14 years. Both of them went too young, particularly my dad. My sister's husband lost his mom and aunt a few months ago, and they'll be missed at this year's Christmas dinner in

We also lost two cats, which by no means should be compared to the loss of a friend or family member, but it's significant nonetheless. You get them as kittens, they're part of your family for years and years, they get sick or old, and then they're gone. But as with friends and family who pass, you remember the good things about them, not the bad ones. You remember how warm they could be on a winter night with snow outside ... but selectively forget that they clawed a speaker or curtain beyond repair. You remember how glad they're still around to enrich your life, and forget the thousands of dollars that you may have spent to get them through an illness.

Annabelle and Cody were both "chosen" from future litters. Annie was a mutt, but I knew the parents and had watched a couple litters of awesome kitties go quickly. My co-worker was pretty adamant that they didn't want the mother to have another litter, but I "pre-ordered" the choice female, should she decide to take nature into her own hands. She did, and we picked our little Annie from a big litter of cute tabby-siamese kitties.

In her early years, she used to run at top speed from one end of the house to the other, then fly up the curtains and hang by her claws from the top rungs. She was always a "jumper" and had no problem even in her older years, getting up onto mantles, tall beds, counters, or anywhere else she wanted to get to (commonly to eat a plant, much to our dismay). She was bitchy, moody, nasty to her roommates, and earned and maintained the moniker of "bitch kitty from hell" very early on. But she was also a lover, and would lay purring for hours on a congenial lap or shoulder. Annabelle made it to 18, and one final move back to California before her age caught up with her.

Cody, or more properly "Miranda's Wild Bill Cody of Burney Falls" as his CFA certificate reads, was a huge Maine Coon Cat. Cody was also the pick of the litter, and was "ordered" before he was even conceived. His color was technically blue tabby, but he was kind of a bluish gray. Big, big cat ... 28 pounds at one point. Quite the conversation piece ... you have no idea, until you've been around a cat this size. And not fat, just big. His daddy was a "Supreme Grand Champion" and at 17 pounds seemed like a big cat himself.

Cody, or "Codycat" as I called him, would of course terrorize the other three girl kitties regularly, because it was his job and he understood this all too well. Chasing them up and down the stairs, cornering them in a hallway, taking an occasional swat at one of them with paws the size of a child's hand, were all part of the daily routine. Cody managed to pick up diabetes at about 9 years old, so the last two years of his life weren't tremendously pleasant, but we of course did everything we needed to, because that's what you do for your pets. Although cats have minds of their own and totally lack the "aim to please" attitude of dogs, they're members of your family. And you miss them when they're gone.

So this Christmas, I'd like to give thanks to the friends and family that are such a cherished part of our lives. If my cooking, music, or presence can bring some happiness to someone and maybe add a little cheer to their life, I've reached my goal. We've all met people who go through life with an attitude of "what can I do to make your day a little better," and if any of us can come remotely close to that, we'll leave the world a little better for it.

So Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and wishing everyone a great 2009.

The holiday menu:
  • Steamed artichokes

  • Lobster bisque

  • Amuse bouche of lemon sorbet with grated tangerine zest, mint garnish, served on a Chinese soup spoon

  • Whole beef tenderloin with a wild mushroom duxelle stuffing, served with a port wine reduction

  • Broccoli casserole

  • Potatoes au Gratin

  • Small, mixed dessert tray

Winter Weasels

Sunday the 21st was the annual Winter Weasel Fest. This year's gathering was a simple lunch at our favorite restaurant, Joe's of Westlake. We try to get together sometime in December and spend some quality time. Commonly the winter "thing" vs. the summer "thing" includes spouses, girlfriends, and occasionally an assorted friend or relative. The summer event in Truckee is a guys-only weekend.

Over the past 12-13 years, the "winter thing" has included several trips into San Francisco where we did a lot of walking, shopping, and eating, several trips to a great local radio broadcast called "West Coast Live," a couple trips to The Cliff House, a tour of the Haight-Ashbury district (we knew a lot more about the Haight than the tour guide knew), and a couple dinners in the City.

So what's the significance of Joe's of Westlake? Westlake is the section of Daly City where we all grew up. Those of us who spent our very early years there recall a vacant lot, which has been the home of Joe's since 1958 (giving away my age here, aren't I?). Joe's was the brainchild of Bruno Scatena, and it's been a local mainstay since the day it opened. From 11 AM 'til Midnight every day (11 PM on Sundays), there's rarely a time when you don't have to wait for a table. Joe's attracts people from all over, but it's distinctly "old Daly City" and it's rare that you don't run into someone you've known for decades. People who eat at Joe's have for the most part been doing so forever. You never get a bad meal there. I'm sure it's happened, maybe someone's been overly picky or plain didn't "get" the food, but you can pretty much count on great food, prepared just like the last time you had it, with every visit.

Most of us start thinking about what we're going to order, days, or even weeks before we go. The lunch menu is a little different than the dinner, but you can pretty much order anything on either menu, any time of the day or night. A couple exceptions being the roast lamb and pot roast, which are commonly gone by about 7pm. The hamburger or cheeseburger is arguably the best on the planet (and I never exaggerate). A half-pound of top grade ground beef on a quarter of a loaf of San Francisco Sourdough, served with a big portion of "dinner fries." Opt for the Monterey Jack on your cheeseburger, it's better than the default Swiss. Add a bowl of their minestrone for a killer meal. And a very full stomach.

So what to eat for lunch on Sunday? The afore-mentioned hamburger and minestrone? Maybe. Or the huge ground beef patty fresh from the wood-burning grill, with a side of rigatoni? The veal parmigiana (best with rigatoni, but great with fries too) is phenomenal, and it's the only place I've ever eaten where they give you TWO good sized cutlets. The filet of soul is exceptional. Steak a' la Bruno (named after the late founder) is always great. I have a friend who routinely orders the sweetbreads and says they're incredible (I draw a line at anything resembling "innards"). Sides of spinach or garlic bread are a good possibility. All are under consideration right up to the time when our very efficient server Theresa asks what I want for lunch.

Today would be a day for the ultimate Joe's meal. The one thing that they specify "be patient, this dish requires 20 minutes to prepare." Today's lunch was to be veal scaloppini sec with button mushrooms, and a side of raviolis. Similar to a veal marsala, this dish consists of cut pieces of veal cutlets sauteed in a wine and garlic combination, with button-sized mushrooms, and finished with some Italian parsley. Add a squeeze of lemon and have at it. The homemade raviolis (or the rigatoni) are the perfect accompaniment. To once again quote my friend JB ... "if it gets any better, I don't want to know about it."

This was a great gathering of friends, wives and girlfriends. People traveled 100 miles for this lunch, in addition to the bulk of us who live all around the Bay Area. Some people didn't make it, and they will of course be forgiven (although the standing rule is that if you don't show up for an event, we talk about you the whole time). Our group of Winter Weasels included a cardiologist, pharmacist, lawyer, master mechanic, network specialist, telecom manager, insurance broker, a beverage salesman, and a graphic artist. A diverse group, all with the commonality of growing up in this little hamlet, due south of San Francisco. The dream of John Daly, developed to maturity by Henry Doelger. The city of Westmoor High School where we all graduated, Ben Franklin Junior High, and Garden Village or Westlake School, where most of us met in grammar school.

Joe's was the perfect spot for this year's event. We've eaten here together dozens, and in some cases hundreds of times together. We've been to wedding receptions in the Cascade Room, mourned the passing of friends and family members, and celebrated some of the most important events in many of our lives ... right here.

A very generous member of our group "picked up the tab" for this lunch ... generosity beyond description. And this allowed us to all contribute to a pile of cash, which was to be donated to the American Cancer Society. A fitting end to an amazing Sunday with the best of friends. Another Weasel event in our personal history books, another addition to the series of events that's kept this group friends for so many years, and will undoubtedly do so as long as there's enough of us around to carry on the traditions we love so much.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Winter in the City

We're entering the winter of 2008. Safely out of the grip of the "mild" winter that we've endured for the past four years in otherwise beautiful Bend, OR. We're now back on the familiar turf of the San Francisco Peninsula. The City, as we natives call it ... the City By The Bay.

"FRISCO" is a dead giveaway that you're not a local. And it's not appreciated. It's San Francisco, or "The City." FRISCO is a brand of "jeans" but not a way to refer to our fair city. And a sure fire way to distinguish your tourist self from those of us who care about our city.

The City is a magical place during the holiday season. The picture above is of a beautiful office and retail complex overlooking the Bay, called Embarcadero Center. I've been in many of the offices over the years, and the views are absolutely spectacular. I've been known to joke that on a clear day you can actually see Maui ... some 2500 miles to the west. This year, they've done something a little different. The lights you see above have been replaced with smaller, lower wattage bulbs, in the interest of being a little stingy with the City's electricity. But it still presents an awesome spectacle, and is one of many reasons to venture into town during the holidays.

The past several holiday seasons have been spent in Bend, Oregon. Center of the state, surrounded by high desert to the East, and the Cascades to the West.

I have a great friend who grew up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I've quoted her many times over the years, with regard to living in the snow. She'll tell you that it's great seeing the first snow of the season, but when you're still shoveling your driveway in May to get to work, California's looking pretty enticing.

In Bend, the first snow of the season usually arrives early in November. The trees are long past the beautiful colors of Fall, the skies have changed from summer blue to a cloudy gray. Temeratures commonly hover in the 20's and 30's during the day, and dip into single digits most nights. You dress differently, with layers of weatherproof garments being de rigueur. You wear shoes that are impervious to water, and hopefully won't land you on your posterior when you encounter the ever-present patches of ice that are so common everywhere.

The snow-covered peaks of the Cascades in the distance, beginning with the skiers paradise of Mt. Bachelor, the three Sisters, Mt. Jefferson, all the way to Mt. Hood, are an amazing in the winter. Trees appear almost fossilized with frozen fog and ice. The cold Deschutes River winds its way out of the high remote Cascade Lakes, through Bend up past the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, and ultimately into the Columbia River ... flowing south to north through central Oregon's towns and wilderness.

For skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers, and sledders, it's a winter paradise beyond compare. For the rest of us, it's cold, and there are way too many months when you can't open the sunroof or put the top down. It snowed on Mother's Day last year. Our first year there, we had snow on Memorial Day ... just in time to disrupt the 10th annual barbeque that I have at the beginning of "summer." The long frozen winter also tends to be somewhat claustrophobic. You can't help but feeling a little "stuck" in central Oregon, since virtually all of the roads over the mountains are either a long slow miserable dangerous journey through a total white-out of a landscape ... or totally impassable or closed. So trips back to The City were rare in the winter months.

One memorable trip to Bend was on the 26th of December, the year we bought our house. We had an appointment the following morning to pick out options, and time and jobs dictated that we had to drive straight up without stopping overnight along the way. The Bend trip is 540 miles each way from the San Francisco Peninsula. I've made the trip in just under 8 hours under the best of circumstances, which was the first time I drove up with four drugged cats in the back of the SUV. This particular winter trek ended up being 17 hours of travel time, and we ended up 75 miles south of our intended target due to a police matter that closed down Highway 97. Not my favorite winter trip north.

Once past the booming metropolis of Weed, you turn off Interstate 5 onto Oregon Highway 97, where you're faced with about 75 miles of total white out. No lines to follow, no side markers to speak of ... nada. Crawling past huge Klamath Lake was eerie. In the summer it's gorgeous, in the winter, it's a little unsettling.

But winter in the City has no such drama. We get a little rain, the temeratures are usually in the 50's and 60's, and it makes you glad to live in California, and specifically the Bay Area. Union Square comes alive with shoppers from the world over. Fisherman's Wharf is buzzing with excitment from locals and tourists. Some of the best restaurants in the world are in and around the city, and they're hoppin' with business during the holidays. Virtually any kind of food or beverage you're craving can be had somewhere in the City, and there's probably several varieties of it.

I'm ready for Christmas this year. Thanksgiving in Morro Bay was incredible, and I'm confident that Christmas will be too. We've been invited to our friends' house in Monterey, and I've been asked to cook "the tenderloin" that I did last year in Bend. I'll share the recipe (which I borrowed from Fine Cooking Magazine a couple years ago) in the "post-Christmas" entry.

I'm not a particularly religious person, although I consider myself somewhat spiritual, believing that there's something bigger than we mortals, that set this all in motion. But I do celebrate Christmas. And the group we're visiting is half-Catholic, and half-Jewish, proving that it's a holiday for all, as much as it is a "holy day" for the faithful. It's my honor to contribute to the Christmas meal of 2008, just as it was a total honor to cook for my friend Flora a couple weeks ago, who will be celebrating a healthy 85 Christmases this year (and she complimented my risotto - this, from someone born and raised in Rome. Yikes). Cooking can be the ultimate way of saying thank you to people who hold a special place in your life and heart.

Happy Holidays everyone.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kitchen Gadgets

The article came about as a result of receiving two totally awesome kitchen gadgets in the mail over the past two days. But first, I'm going to get totally off the subject, and delve into a little bit of background info ...

Loyal readers and friends know the Weasels history. Basically, 15-20 friends who have known each other since grade school, and still get together a couple times per year. One of the annual events is a yearly gathering in Truckee, CA, which we do every September over a four day weekend. Fifteen middle-aged guys who have all been friends for over 40 years, and have managed to remain the best of buddies for all that time. We spend four days talking about old times, current things going on in our lives and around us, argue politics and religion, drink good Scotch, and we eat like kings.

Saturday night's dinner is always "mine." I cook for them, because I can ... and I believe they enjoy it. Most years have some sort of a theme, which has included Italian, Mexican, Cajun, several kinds of BBQ, and most recently a whole filet tenerloin stuffed with a mushroom duxelle, and finished with a Port wine reduction (recipe from Fine Cooking Magazine). It got such rave reviews that I was asked to cook it for one of the guys and his wife, family and friends on Christmas. Happy to. Glad it was such a hit. We aim to please!

I usually do the Saturday night dinners alone. My kitchen is usually my sanctuary, and finding someone who normally doesn't cook who can "help" and stay out of the chef's way, isn't always easy. Two notable exceptions (this IS going somewhere, trust me) were three years that I had the help of our wonderful friend Siobhan from Truckee, who along with her husband (the chef) owns and waits tables at the best breakfast restaurant in town, The Wagon Train Cafe. If you're in Truckee, you owe it to yourself.

And for the past few years, my friend Wes has provided very competent help in the kitchen. Wes is the guy I mentioned in an earlier article, who rides a BMW GS cross-country every year for our little soiree' in Truckee. He also cooks, and as you'll see soon, he's very perceptive.

Two years ago, I was talking to Wes about my favorite drummer, who's also one of my favorite authors - Neil Peart, of the band Rush. When the band tours around the country and the world, Neil and a friend ride from venue to venue, while the rest of the touring company takes the tour buses. And he writes about it in an extremely entertaining and perceptive way. Neil and Wes ride the same model of BMW, and both seem to be perfectly happy riding incredible distances on them, through rain, sleet .... you get the picture.

Anyway, Wes seemed like a good candidate for Neil's latest book, so I sent him a copy. He, in turn sent me a copy of an absolutely wonderful book called "The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry," by Kathleen Flinn. Kathleen's book describes her experience as a student at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, and her insightfully entertaining style has been very inspirational, and I have in fact "paid it forward" by getting the book to several other people, and recommending it to even more. Good stuff ... highly recommended. I also had to send her a copy of one of Neil's books. Just because.

To bring this full circle, I sent Kathleen an email telling her how I ran across her book, and she wrote back saying it was quite coincidental, that she and her husband had been talking about Neil Peart a couple days earlier. He also rides motorcycles, she said. So it added a personal finale to a most entertaining reading experience.

So, this is supposed to be about Kitchen Gadgets ...

I received two packages over the last two days, from the afore-mentioned Wes. He told me that I'd be receiving two items that he considered to be of a "Holy Grail" level for anyone who took cooking and kitchen gadgets seriously. And he was right.

The first gadget arrived in a small box, with an even smaller box inside. Holy Grail it was, only the special few get to have it, item number one was a totally unique bottle opener. My particular opener is actually the rare (and virtually impossible to get) "Jet Lag" model, with a specific logo on it. Wes is a pilot for a major international airline company, and frequently does trips to the Far East. My research showed that the Sentol Safety Cap Opener is actually a 1983 U.S. patent, but it's apparently quite the cult item in Japan and China. The container in fact gives (minimal) instructions on the box in English and Japanese. The little pictogram says "Push" with a down arrow, "Click" with an exclamation point, and "Pong" with an upward pull motion.

Hmmm ... I need to try it. Grabbed a Corona from the fridge (which I keep on hand for a friend who drinks them exclusively ... I personally have approximately 2 beers per year), and tried the combination of Push, Click, and Pong, and lo and behold, it worked! Clicks the top off, holds it with its magnetic end, and magically puts a big smile on your face. Awesome device. Kinda like the first time you substituted a cheap corkscrew with a real Screwpull. It's THAT much better. This is a bottle opener that will never see a drawer. It lives above the sink, right in plain view, ready for my Corona-drinking buddy (who in fact is one of our best friends from our massage school days), and for the whole world to see.

The second Wes gadget is a salt container, which I found after looking it up is also marketed as a cheese server. I may have to get a second one, because it would be a perfect place for grated Parmesan cheese, on the dinner table (grate it fresh, of course!). But it's already found a home just to the left of my stove's burners, and provides an ergonomically perfect way to add pinches of salt to whatever you're cooking. I've used a variety of small containers for this task over the years, but this one's perfect. And there's a top, so nothing gets splattered into your salt container. Great device, and it will get lots of use in my kitchen.

For these two to actually make the grade and become part of the limited number of "gadgets" that I actually use, is really something special. As mentioned in an earlier article, I spent six glorious weekends at San Francisco's California Culinary Academy in 1994. Cooking schools teach and require excellent knife skills. There's a very good explanation for chefs being able to chop fast, accurately, and delicately ... it's called "practice, practice, practice. There are no garlic presses at the CCA, no potato peelers, no devices to "French" your Blue Lake Green Beans, no slicers that create those nice even slices of hard-boiled eggs. This is why God gave us knives.

Most of us chef-types have lots of 'em. We treat them with dignity, keep them sharp, steel them with each use, keep them in a block or on a magnetic strip for quick access, and never ever put them in a drawer with things that could bang against them. We use them, wash and dry them, and put them away. You'll never catch a chef putting a $200 knife in a dishwasher. I think I see a future blog entry that will attempt to explain why I have several sizes and shapes that say Henkel's, Wustof, Dexter-Russell, LamsonSharp, Global, and of course my pride and joy, the Shun Ken Onion 8" Chef's Knife.

For now, I'll let my rambling come to a halt, and once again extend a thank you to Mr. Wes for turning me on to these cool new additions to the kitchen. Fun new toys that will amuse my guests, provide conversations about their origin (which you kind reader, are now privy to), and of course serve their worldly purpose, which is to pop bottle tops, and provide a home for the always nearby "pinch" of salt.

Thanks also to Siobhan, who became a major friend upon first sight, and is always welcome in my kitchen. Everyone needs to experience a breakfast (or several) at The Wagon Train in Truckee, California. Downtown, on the main street of town, across from the railroad.

And of course thank you to Kathleen Flinn for providing me with a wonderful reading experience, and also the inspiration to get some of this into print. Can't wait for the successor to "The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry," which she says will be in the 2010 timeframe.

As Jackie Gleason said to Steve McQueen in the great movie "Soldier In The Rain," "Until that time, Eustis, until that time."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Leftovers? Again?

Leftovers, that's correct. Odd topic perhaps? We'll see. Had 'em tonight. Had 'em last night. I have to admit I generally love leftovers, and not much of what I make goes to waste (unless it turns out terrible, which happens to every cook on occasion, regardless of their expertise). I like to think of leftovers as a "reward" for the cook, since you get to have it the next night with very little effort!

Tonight's leftover was soup, which I made and froze last week. It was a chilly December day and night, and it just felt like a soup night. I use recipes (and commonly vary them to my taste) quite often ... some soups just require a recipe. You're not likely to remember the ingredients in a Paul Prudhomme gumbo without referring to one of his wonderful cookbooks. Julia's French Onion should be done closely to the way she intended. New Basics' Manhattan Clam Chowder, any of the French Laundry's creations, many of the Silver Spoon masterpieces, and most of the regional specialties in Deborah Dinelli's "A Taste of Lucca" have subtle ingredients and techniques that you really need to follow. At least the first time, after which you need to experiment!

Tonight's leftover soup began as a simple, quick, after work concoction, last week. Chicken vegetable, of sorts. Began with a nice big sweet onion, which I sweated for about 8 minutes in a little bit of olive oil. Added a half cup of chicken broth, then a pound of diced organic boneless skinless chicken breasts. Sauteed for another 6-7 minutes, drained the liquid and returned everything to the stock pot. At this point, I added 3 peeled chopped carrots, 3 stalks of chopped celery, a clove of minced garlic, stirred, covered, and simmered at medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring a couple times. Once the onions are transluscent and everything else is al dente, add chicken stock of your choosing. For this one, I used a 48 oz can of 99% fat free Swanson's, and a tablespoon of a stock concentrate that I like, and another 48 ounces of hot water. Chicken stock's a personal thing. Swanson's is a great canned stock, and the thick, pasty concentrate that comes in glass jars (or larger plastic ones at Costco) are great. Stay away from powdered anything or cubes. It's just not the same.

Spices at this point included some chopped fresh thyme (I love thyme in my soups), two bay leaves, and a few leaves of sage which I leave on the stem, making it easy to remove when you have the flavor you're looking for. I then added half a head of shredded white cabbage, and finally, a couple handfuls of uncooked orzo. This final ingredient could have been rice or any variety of noodles or mini pastas, but I was in an orzo mood.

Crank the heat, bring it to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Stir and taste every few minutes, salt and pepper to your personal taste, and in about 45 minutes ... it's soup. Ladle it into bowls, garnish with some chopped Italian parsley, parmesan cheese if you're so inclined ... or if you're feeling energetic, bake some parmesan crisps and lay one on the top of each serving.

I always make enough soup to freeze, and then on nights like tonight when it's cold out and I'm short of time and long for some comfort food, it's a matter of thawing in the microwave, and finishing on the stove.

As a kid, we didn't have much in the way of leftovers. I'm the oldest of six children (five younger sisters, which explains why a good many of my "best friends" over the years, have been of the fairer sex). And when we did, it was probably a small piece of roast or ham which my mom would commonly jam into the fridge ... uncovered, on the plate she served it on. Tin foil was a luxury that we never had in the house, and one that I didn't discover until I went away to college in San Diego. Now I buy it in several weights from Costco, and always have it on hand. I can't imagine life without tin foil!

My mom also made interesting cakes, which she called "sheet cakes." Basically, a cheap cake mix which she'd make in one big layer on a cookie sheet, with some nasty sweet chocolate or white frosting. On Valentine's Day it would be a pink frosting, on our birthdays the cake would have "Happy Birthday" written on them, but the cakes were always the same ... white ... sheet cakes. No wonder we were always overweight! Between the cakes, the fried foods, and the butter in everything, it's a wonder we all survived without clogged arteries. Fortunately, I'm not genetically predisposed to cholesterol issues.

But even the leftover dried out meats and the ridiculously sweet and buttery cakes were eaten. Nothing went to waste, and I've made this a habit in my adult cooking as well.

I have a huge group of favorites in the leftovers category; Hot or cold chili, pizza, lasagna, pot roast, and spaghetti come to mind. Many of these are like a magnet, a mere few hours after the main meal they're prepared for. And restaurant foods that happen to make it home in a "doggie bag" will commonly slide right down as soon as you get home, right? Amazing how much room you can make for a midnight snack between the time you leave the restaurant, and the time you arrive home ... 15 minutes later.

Last night's leftover treat (and my wife and her co-worker's lunch today) were a result of this past Saturday night's dinner party. The group consisted of a friend up from Morro Bay, my brother in law, a couple of our massage school girlfriends, and my wife and myself. One guest was a vegetarian and another didn't eat any fish or pork. Hmmm. I eventually settled on three kinds of enchiladas ... chicken, beef, and cheese.

Enchiladas are a lengthy process. Not as bad as tamales, but several hours of prep work. I made these for a wide variety of tastes, meaning ... you can add all the "heat" at the end.

Appetizers included guacamole and chips, a cheese platter with two types of crackers, and a round of Margaritas. The enchiladas were accompanied by (vegetarian) refried beans, Spanish rice, and a killer salad with a cilantro Caesar dressing. One of the guests made an awesome apple pie (getting to know her new Kitchen Aid stand mixer), which was even better with a scoop of French vanilla.

And this wonderful meal was incredible the next night, and such an easy dinner. Indeed, one of the rewards of making a great meal is being able to have another great dinner the following night, with very little "cooking." So make a little extra. Leftovers are a wonderful thing.

Monday, December 8, 2008


People who cook a lot almost always have a healthy variety of cookbooks ("healthy" being the general goal, but one that's not always strictly attainable). Some have a few, some dozens. They range from reference books to "how-to's" on very specific topics. Old favorites, family heirlooms, gifts from your friends who don't know what to get you for your birthday, but are confident that you need another cookbook. After all, you're a cook.

A word on "cooks" vs. "chefs." According to our lead instructor for the 6 weekend Professional Cooking series at the California Culinary Academy, the difference in a cook and a chef is that chefs don't have to clean up after themselves. So for now and the near future, I suppose I'm a cook.

My daily duties include deciding what to cook, shopping, cooking, serving, and commonly ... cleaning up (as an aside, I also work for a living). I got in the habit many year ago, of cleaning up "as I go." Meaning, when I use a pot or utensil, I wash it, dry it, and put it away after I'm finished with it.

Knives get special attention. Use them, wash them, put them back in the block or hang them on the magnetic strips that we love so much. Like most cooks I have dozens of knives, and treat them all equally well. My $25 Dexter-Russell 8" chef's knife gets exactly the same attention as the $200 Shun Ken Onion. We cooks are an odd breed in some respects, but we seem to love our knives with a special zeal.

My cookbook collection occupies a five shelf oak bookcase that stands 72" tall, 30" wide, and is packed with an eclectic collection of books, recipes, and special cooking magazines. I used to save ALL the old Gourmet's, Fine Cooking, Saveur, and of course Cook's, but I've come to my senses after having to move them too many times. Only the best holiday issues and special recipes that I couldn't bear to lose, get to occupy space on the bottom shelf of the bookcase which lives in the corner of the kitchen.

I tend to "refer" to recipes, and change them to produce what I want serve. A good cook needs to be able to follow a recipe, for sure, but you only get "good" when you vary them and think outside the recipe box. As an example, one of my all time faves is the New Basics Cookbook, which I received as a wedding present 18 years ago. My New Basics is stained from food splattering onto the pages, dog-eared on many of my favorite recipes, and quite literally falling apart at the seams. I could replace it, but the battle wounds that the poor thing has incurred is sort of a badge of honor. Couldn't bear to have a clean and tidy new edition.

One of my favorite (and rare) desserts is the chocolate mousse that appears on pages 659-660 of Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins' cooking classic. I've made this dish 100 times, I'm sure. And while I stick to their "Basics," I take liberties with the chocolate (always two kinds, varying the types), am quite happy with simple brandy and some orange flavoring in place of the uber-expensive Grand Marnier, and I vary the way I serve it. I've served it over a slightly whipped orange-infused light whipped cream, topped with raspberries, with varying liquers and eau de vie's over it, with and without whipped cream, etc. It's always awesome, I always give the authors and the book credit, but I never make it the same way twice.

The mousse is one of very few desserts that I actually do well. I'm not a dessert person, and have never particularly been into sweets. I like a great piece of apple pie, a killer creme broulee, a correctly done German chocolate cake, and I absolutely love strawberry cream pie. But given a limited amount of tummy-room, I'll fill it with real food before sweet stuff. Always have. Even as a kid, if I had some spare spending allowance, I'd sooner buy a salami and cheese sandwich than a chocolate sundae. Over the years, I've found that the bulk of cooks/chefs excel at either main courses or desserts, but to do both equally well is rare. I cook lavish flavorful meals, and I'm quite content with someone bringing a store-bought cake, which means I don't have to worry about it.

I have books that cover virtually everything I like to cook and serve. Established "bibles" such as the French Laundry cookbook, Julia's The Way To Cook, Madeleine Kamman's The Making of a Cook, The Cake and Pie bibles by Rose Levy Beranbaum, The Silver Spoon, Merle Ellis' "Cutting Up In The Kitchen," and of course all of the books by the afore-mentioned authors of New Basics.

I have specialty books on all things Moroccan, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Mexican food, BBQ, butchery, rice, beans, appetizers, ceviche, tamales, tapas, paella, slow cooking, wok cooking, tagine cooking, B&B recipes, Legal Seafood's cookbook, and amazingly lots of dessert books.

Last night's dinner was a good one. A friend I've known since grammar school, another who I've known for 35 years and have watched her raise a wonderful son and is now proud grandma to his 3 boys, plus my sister and brother-in-law who "came down off the hill" (from Woodside) to join us. I thought I'd make it a little more special than usual, and dug into the cookbooks (and modified extensively, of course!).

Simple appetizers consisted of an apple-smoked gruyere and an Irish cheddar, and a selection of crackers. This was on purpose - I had no intention of filling people up on appetizers this night.

The basis of the salad was pilfered from Thomas Keller's French Laundry cookbook. Roasted tomato slices with olive oil and fresh thyme, over small 3" rounds of puff pastry. Mixed field greens tossed with a raspberry balsamic vinaigrette surrounded the pastry/tomatoes, with parmesan crisps resting at an angle. A couple sprigs of fresh chives topped the salad, and a final bit of fresh ground pepper finished it off. Nice look, drew major "yays" from the group.

Amuse bouche between the salad and main courses consisted of lemon sorbet with a dusting of lemon zest, on a mint leaf, served on a Chinese soup spoon.

The main dinner course consisted of a pesto pasta with fresh blue lake beans and whole wheat fettuccine, garnished with a chiffonade of basil and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese. Inspired by a recipe in The Silver Spoon, utilizing a somewhat classic pesto recipe of toasted pine nuts, basil, garlic, olive oil, parmesan cheese, and a little salt.

Along side, either chicken or halibut en papillote, which is a simple preparation that you really don't see too often. Matchstick cuts of carrots and leeks, fresh tarragon, salt, pepper, lemon, a few drops of vermouth, baked on a folded together heart-shaped piece of lightly buttered parchment paper. Twenty minutes at 350, and you have a great main course.

The key lime pie I made for dessert was originally from James McNair's Pie Cookbook, which is a small and remarkably indespensible book that's chock-full of great recipes. Of course I vary his recipe a little too. It's what cooks do!

Wines included great reds from Ridge, Rodney Strong, Chateau St. Jean, and my current favorite zinfandel from Zin Alley in Paso Robles.

Long, tiring preparation which paid off in spades. Lots of compliments, learned some new techniques, sort of raised my own personal "bar" to a new level. Wonderful evening with the best of company. Can't wait 'til the next one, and I'm sure I'll have no problem enticing people to come over and join the merriment.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Steaks and Birds

Steaks are odd birds, I'd submit. Nice odd birds, but odd nonetheless. The commonly recognized varieties are slices, chunks, strips and other portions of cow muscles. We're carnivores, don't get me wrong. I love 'em. I know lots of vegetarians, varying degrees of non beef eaters, chicken only, fish only, or all vegan. I don't get it. I respect their decision for whatever reason they've decided to impose it on themselves, but it's their decision, good for them.
I have a friend who promptly stopped eating meat "on the fly" at the family dinner table about 20 years ago, because it simply hit her that she didn't have a taste for meat any longer. Out of the blue, no thought process, just ... that's enough meat for this body. This was much to the dismay of her mother, who was born in Rome and enjoyed all varieties of meat.
Another friend surprised me one day over lunch when she ordered a vegetarian burrito, and specifically and directly had the server check and assure her that there's no meat products in the burrito, anywhere. I of course had to ask her when she became a vegetarian, to which she replied "since I was six." Seems my lunch date had grown up on a farm in the Midwest, and her meat eating days came to a brisk end when her mother informed the family that the tasty stew they were enjoying for their Sunday supper, was actually a product of her pet rabbit. So "Fluffy" or "Thumper" or whatever it was formerly known as, had become "dinner." That was the end of her carnivore days. Finis.
Most of us have neither the dramatic realization that my first friend had, or the traumatic experience of eating a former "loved one" in Sunday night's stew. Again, we're carnivores and we generally like a variety of meats. As the chef of the house, and because I eat and cook so many different things, I cook a wide variety of everything, including meat. Beef, pork, lamb, veal, poultry, fish and crustaceans are all fair game in this house.
Don't get me wrong, there are things I neither cook or eat from any of these categories. I'm generally anti-innard of virtually any type. I don't eat liver or kidneys, and my paternal grandfather's affinity for fried brains never made it to my generation. Snails are a delicacy to some, to me they're bugs with shells and I don't need to go there. I've eaten frogs legs and they're wonderful. But they truly DO taste just like chicken, so why wouldn't you just eat chicken?
Sushi is admittedly an acquired taste, and I realize that some people never do acquire it. I love it. Hamachi, maguro, uni, unagi, anagi, toro, sake (salmon, but also the beverage of the same spelling!). Love it all. In rolls, under a layer of rice, as sashimi ... yummy. Among the reasons I decided to tackle Japanese at my age was to pronounce it all correctly. I've learned enough to be dangerous ... Hai!
Steaks are once again, odd birds. And we're not talking the curiously-named chicken-fried steaks here, I mean real steaks. I've had killer ribeyes and fatty funky ones. Filets are generally safe, but I wouldn't bet the ranch on it. A good T-Bone is awesome, and a killer Porterhouse can be as good as it gets. How hungry are you? What's your access like? Can you get prime meat? Maybe if you're in the military or own a restaurant, but for the rest of us, it's up to the local grocer or meat market and how diligent they are about their level of quality.
Steak a' la Bruno at Joe's of Westlake is probably the most consitent steak I've experienced for the past 4 decades. The "Bruno" piece refers to the founder of the Joe's restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, and they are awesome.
Driving over the Siskiyou's about 25 years ago, my business partner and I saw a sign that read simply "Cowboy-sized steaks, mesquite grilled." It was on the other side of the highway and required a double-back from a somewhat distant exit, and was well worth the effort. The "medium" Porterhouse was advertised at a ridiculous 28-32 ounces. Yikes. Slid right down. The rest of the meal consisted of a salad bar, which was actually unneccessary.
On a trip to Phoenix, I was treated to a spin out into the backroads, where we pulled off onto an unmarked road, up a gravel driveway, ending up at a restaurant that I don't believe even had a name. There was an elderly lady tending the large grill outside, smoking cigarettes, packing a six shooter, and flipping steaks. The whole picture was somewhat surrealistic. Couldn't make this up ... trust me, it happened (I have witnesses).
Also in Phoenix and not to be missed (this one is actually accessible) is Rustler's Roost, which sits on a small rise within the Hilton Point at South Mountain. Try the rattlesnake appetizer if you dare, and don't miss a dollop of the fresh horseradish, which they grow on the property.
Chuck's Grill in Redding always had a line down the street. Their menu was essentially steak, a baked potato, and a terrible excuse for a bowl of salad with way too much blue cheese dressing. And they were packed every night. Because it's about the steak, and they did it right.
We recently moved back to the Bay Area after 3 years in glorious Bend, Oregon. The Tumalo Feed Company is as good as it gets and arguably as good as it can get, in the meat department. Wonderful ribeyes, rarely-seen hanger steaks, killer Porterhouses, filets, and much more. And any restaurant that serves onion rings and salsa in place of the common obligatory "bread" course, and pours their martinis from a Mason Jar ... can't be faulted in my humble opinion.
I miss the Tumalo Feed Company, never found the "Cowboy" place again, haven't been to Phoenix in years, and Chuck's is a three hour trek north. But Joe's will be here forever, and I can still get "a' la Bruno" in about 20 minutes, 11 AM 'til 2 AM, every day. It's best with a side of rigatoni, which they produce fresh onsite. So life is beautiful.

Tonight's steak came from the absolutely first rate Lunardi's Market down the street. I had a "hall pass," meaning I got to cook a "Larry meal," as my lovely wife was at a work dinner. I opted for a market steak, which is a close relative to a ribeye, with a little less fat but plenty of marbling. Choice, but my butchery training would put it very close to prime. And what kind of lavish seasonings do you put on this kind of meat? Salt, pepper, a little garlic powder at the most. Plenty, and why would you want or need any more? Five minutes per side a max-heat BBQ, accompanied by a baked potato, a nice red wine, and there you have it.
As my good friend JB says ... "If it gets any better, I don't want to know about it."

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Weasels

Geez, where do I start with the Weasels story. First the name ... I can't reproduce the whole thing here because I intend to do my part to keep this a "G" rated site, but suffice it to say my buddies from Daly City had a "chant" when we were growing up that had a reference to weasels in it. And this group of friends has now known each other since grammar school in some cases, and high school in all cases. And we're no spring chickens. Several of us get together somewhat regularly, and all of us get together once or twice a year. All of us meaning 15-20 guys from Daly City, California.

We grew up in the sleepy bedroom community of Daly City. John Daly's little experiment which Henry Doelger expanded into a profitable community ... due south of San Francisco. A good chunk of Pacific coastline and some great beaches, cliffs, and spectacular ocean scenery lie to the west. San Bruno Mountain, which we always called "NBC mountain" because of the lettering at its peak, near the NBC towers that supplied reception for Channel 4 to our little black and white TV's, is between Daly City and the Bay. To the south is the Peninsula, which we were always jealous of, due to the fact that we got the fog and they got the sunshine all summer. EVERY summer. And of course our famous neighbor to the north, the afore-mentioned City by the Bay, San Francisco.

And by sheer luck of the draw, the 20 or so of us became friends and have remained so for all these decades. Among us we have doctors (plural), a biochemist, a plumbing contractor, a network specialist, a master mechanic, a pharmacist, a commercial jet pilot, a B&B owner/fireman, a jewelry wholesaler, several lawyers with varying specialties, an inventor/graphic artist, an insurance broker, a wine and liquor broker, a produce market owner, and your humble author. I make a living managing telecom for a large drug company, but I'm also a licensed real estate broker (some of us are actually amazingly honest), and pick up a few bucks (and lots of oooohs and aaaahhhs and thank you's) utilizing many hundreds of hours of professional massage therapy training.

The Weasels live all over the country, which somehow doesn't present a problem for our bi-annual events. People drive and fly from all over the west coast, and one guy rides his BMW 1150 GS cross-country every year. You may be getting the feeling that we like getting together. We do.

We ran in many different groups while growing up. Not that we were always as close as we are now ... far from it in some cases. One of the current Weasels was one of the feared school bullies. He's now one of our collective best friends, and the nicest guy on the planet. We have former jocks, scholars, outcasts, in-crowders, and a couple former "wall boys."

The Westmoor wall boys were a small group of "popular" guys who spent time between classes leaning against a cinder block wall across the hallway from Mr. Christensen's Auto Shop. They dressed in Damon alpaca sweaters and starched collar button-down shirts, likely purchased at the New England Shop in our beloved Westlake Shopping Center. Some had the obligatory early excuse for a mustache, most wore some flavor of wing-tip shoes or Sperry Topsider tennis shoes, commonly in blue or (the more daring) red. This was the in crowd at Westmoor. They were the cool guys. The "popular" crowd.

I was a surfer. Distinctly different crowd. We wore Levi's, madras shirts (you know, the colorful Indian cotton shirts with colors that were supposed to run together when you washed them, meaning it was a new shirt after each wash cycle. Interesting concept in 20th century California. And we also wore blue tennies, no socks, mandatory blonde hair, and of course you needed to smell like suntan lotion at all times. Equally interesting concept.

But as is common ... I digress. The Weasels have two major events every year. We've gotten together for a winter event for the past 15 years or so. Generally somewhere in San Francisco, usually includes a romp through some neighborhood in The City, and ends up at our favorite restaurant, Joe's of Westlake (there will be more "Joe's" to come, trust me). About 10 years ago during one of the "winter events," someone came up with the novel idea of getting together sometime in the warm season, vs. rainy cold winter. One of our brethren said something like "I have this little cabin in Truckee, and it will probably suffice for a summer event." There were 15 of us at this particular event, and low and behold, our resident cardiologist's little abode was more than adequate to put us up for a few days of "summer weasel festivities."

And thus begat "The Den" which will be the focus of Weasels Pt 2. Stay tuned.