Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bringing it all together

I did a fairly complex home meal last weekend for six people. It dawned on me as I was prepping, cooking, and presenting the food courses, that there's a lot of timing involved. This is likely not a revelation to anyone who cooks a fair amount of food, but it got me thinking about how I do it.

I read many years ago that Johnny Carson had a pillow at one end of a sofa in his family room, that read "It's all in the timing." The same can be said about a complicated, multi-element meal. And it's even more critical in a restaurant or catering setting. Even the simplest of "weeknight meals" requires careful timing and planning. Meatloaf, stir-fried vegetables, and garlic bread take very different amounts of time to prepare, cook and serve.

I've been doing this for awhile, so the process is pretty much on auto-pilot. Most commonly, it's just a matter of thinking about what I'm going to make, how long things take to cook, the order they'll be ready to serve, etc. But for "bigger" dinners or gatherings with a larger group of guests, I tend to wake up in the morning with the planning already going on in my head, for that evening's meal. I'm finalizing the various items I'm going to prepare, and visualizing the ingredient list (which will be finalized after my first cup of coffee ... no need to rush this while you're still in morning stupor mode).

I also try to picture how I'm going to present things on plates. My "everyday plates" are large (small platter size) white, square or round, with matching smaller plates and bowls. How's the food going to look on the plate? What goes where? How will I garnish it? Do I serve my guests or put platters in the middle of the table? How many forks? Steak knife / butter knife / both? Which table mats and napkins will I use?

What kind of appetizers should I serve? Always a consideration when you're serving a big meal. Soup or salad? Ceviche? Bruschetta? Dessert? Wines? Martinis? Mojitos? All of the above? And I haven't even gotten out of bed yet. Such is the sick nature of being conscious to the point of no return, about providing a memorable dining experience for your guests. Crazy? Maybe. Will this change soon? Not likely.

I knew Saturday's main meal was going to be a stuffed pork loin, which I'd purchased the previous day. And the pasta would be a wheat-based variety, per my wife's request to adhere to her diet. An amuse bouche / palate cleanser was a given. And I envisioned an interesting salad, which developed over the course of the morning. Dessert? Simple ... chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.

Salad course …

Mixed field greens, mandarin orange wedges, puff pastry rounds topped with gorgonzola cheese and slow roasted seasoned tomato slices, with a raspberry balsamic vinaigrette. The tomatoes are sliced about 1/4" thick, drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper, and some fresh thyme, and baked on a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet at 200 degrees for about 2 hours. The vinaigrette consisted of raspberry and balsamic vinegars, olive and canola oils, fresh rosemary and oregano, pinch of garlic powder, salt and pepper. Keeps for weeks, as well.

Palate cleanser / Amuse bouche ...

I love doing these. They can be very simple or quite elaborate, but your guests will love 'em. I've done this with scallops, ceviche, and various kinds of gelato and ice cream. For this meal, I picked up a good quality mandarin sorbet, Microplaned a sprinkle of tangerine zest on top, and served it on a Chinese soup spoon. The small plates underneath had a simple garnish of fresh mint. I borrowed this idea from the Sierra Mar Restaurant at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, which incidentally is where my "profile picture" was taken, at the top.

Pork loin ...

Half of a whole loin section, with an apple based stuffing. I'd originally planned to do the whole beef tenderloin that I enjoy cooking (and eating) so much, but this idea kind of hit me. To be truthful, my original idea was to do stuffed pork chops, then I thought of a pork tenderloin, and finally settled on a whole pork loin section, which I cut in half for this meal. This entire monstrous roast was $18.00, meaning the "half" that's pictured to the right cost all of $9.00. It generously fed 6 people, and is currently flavoring the minestrone soup that smells so good in the next room as I'm writing this. Great bargain cut of meat, very little fat, easy to cook. The stuffing was made of sauteed leeks and two diced Macintosh apples, fresh oregano and rosemary, seasoned bread crumbs, and a cup of chicken broth. I butterflied, stuffed and trussed the roast, and seasoned the outside with salt, pepper, and savory.

Pasta ...

I opted for a vodka cream whole wheat penne rigate with proscuitto (modified version of a Silver Spoon classic). A shallot sauteed in olive oil, proscuitto, tomato paste, heavy cream, vodka (no need to use up your prized Belvedere or Grey Goose here ...), Italian parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, and the pasta. Garnish with some of the extra parsley, sprinkle some fresh Parmesano Reggiano. Simple, unexpected flavor burst, total crowd pleaser.

Asparagus ...

Blanched, chilled asparagus spears with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, fresh ground pepper, a few shavings of parmesan cheese (use your potato peeler), and fleur de sel (Mediterranean sea salt). Again, unexpected flavors, and likely something that your guests don't have every night.

Dessert ...

Loyal readers know that I'm not much of a baker or a sweets person in general. I do a few dessert items very well, but I'll leave the masterpieces from Rose Levy Beranbaum's "Cake Bible" to bakers like my friend Nicole, who tackles them with aplomb. Fancy baking scares me to death, so I opted for simple decadence consisting of three kinds of chocolate ice cream (white, dark, mocha), a drizzle of warm Dove chocolate topping, sprinkles of Scharffenberger chocolate "nibs" and whipped cream. Can't miss. They wanted more!

Wines were mainly interesting zinfandels, most notably an excellent Quivira from the Healdsberg Dry Creek Valley area.

Process ...

- I started the tomatoes early in the day, as they take a couple hours at low heat, and I wanted them chilled, to serve.

- Likewise with the stuffing, as the leeks and apples needed sauteeing in a butter and olive oil combination, and this also needed to cool before I stuffed the tenderloin.

- The asparagus takes six minutes of boiling, an ice water bath, then covered and refrigerated until it's time to serve.

- Took the tenderloin out an hour before it was to go into the oven, trimmed all the visible fat and silver skin, butterflied, stuffed, and trussed it with butcher's twine. This was wrapped in foil and allowed to come to room temperature.

- Chopped the proscuitto and parsley for the pasta.

- Made the vinaigrette, which I also like to leave out so it's at room temperature.

- Cooked the puff pastry (15 minutes), following the tomatoes, so the rounds would cool.

- Started the tenderloin at 500 for 15 minutes, lowered to 350 for another 90 minutes (150 degrees internal temperature is perfect).

- Cut, cooked the pasta sauce ingredients, put the pasta on to boil.

- Assembled the salad plates and served. (They really looked great)

- Served the between-courses amuse bouche sorbet.

- Opted to serve on platters, allowing guests to help themselves.

- Finished it off with the afore-mentioned chocolate, chocolate, and of course more chocolate.

Everything came off perfectly cooked and timed. My guests went home full and smiling, which is always the goal.

Plan ahead, know your cooking times and your prep times. Anything that can be prepared in advance is a good thing. Writing things down works for some people, but ultimately you'll get into a flow with the prep work. I was asked to cater a good friend's daughter's wedding two summers ago, and it came off like a "scaled-up" version of this same process. I was cooking for 100 and of course there was just a tiny amount of pressure to produce a killer meal and to have everything done at the right time, but the same process applies, and it worked perfectly.

Also, for those of you who don't cook as much as I do, or who shy away from anything more than take out / canned / frozen / whatever meals during the week, the same methodology works for weeknight meals. I work a very demanding full time job Monday thru Friday, and I still shop every day and prepare a fresh meal for the two of us every night. And so can you. There are so many options that you can have on the table in about an hour. Steaks, chops, BBQ's, chicken, fish, stir-frys, rice, potatoes, pasta sauces, tacos, enchiladas, burritos, even soups like the one I'm preparing with leftover pork loin, can all be done in an hour. And it's fresh, and you'll be happier and healthier for going to a little extra effort.

Cook something fun and healthy tonight, and start looking forward to your next complex dinner party! And that's the end of today's lecture, boys and girls.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I Can Hear Music

Cruising to dinner on a very rainy Sunday night last weekend, The Beach Boys' song "Do It Again" came on the car stereo. One of so many of the great "teenage angst" toons that genius Brian Wilson wrote in the 1960's. I commented that I could vividly remember the first time I heard it. This will obviously date me some, but I'd submit that there are still lots of people who grew up with The Beach Boys, and still enjoy their music.

It was early July 1968, and my friend Marty and I were taking a trip to Southern California to experience sun and waves. It was the first of many such trips, once we discovered that although the beaches were crowded, the water was easily 25 degrees warmer than our local favorite spots at Pedro Point and Santa Cruz. Cruising down 101 in his big Ford Country Squire wagon like the one above, through some scorching July weather, on our way to new waves and some incredibly fun times, "Do It Again" hit the airwaves.

So many memories, so many songs, and the specific moment I heard them for the first time. I'm obviously not unique in this regard, surely many of you loyal readers are thinking the same thing right now as you read this. Little Stevie Wonder's "Fingertips" playing through the jukebox at Guernewood Park at Russian River, in the summer of '63. The Beatles' real first appearance on the Jack Paar Show in '64 (Ed Sullivan was a few weeks later). All are moments that conjure up such vivid memories. Do you remember exactly what you were doing, and where you were?

Music-related tragedies bring similar memories to mind. I was on my way to work and heard the news that Keith Moon (drummer for The Who) had died. I had to pull over on Geary Blvd in San Francisco and "gather my thoughts" for quite a few minutes. I was talking to my friend Marie, on a break in the meat department at the store where I worked, and she said "Oh my God, Elvis Presley just died." She worked and still works in the stock market, and the ticker tape displayed the horrible news ... live, so to speak.

I worked for concert promoter Bill Graham Presents for many years, and was fortunate enough to be working a Stevie Wonder concert at the Cow Palace, one memorable Monday night. I remember it as a Monday, because I was missing a 49ers / Dolphins game that would determine who would go to the playoffs. Wonder did the whole show, left the stage, then returned for his encore song. But something was very wrong. He walked to the front of the stage, and told the audience of 17,000 fans that he had some very bad news. He said that John Lennon had just been shot and killed in New York City. He dedicated his encore to Lennon ... the song was "Happy Birthday" from his Hotter Than July album. The song was originally written for Martin Luther King.

Have you ever done this with food? A specific food item at a specific time, triggering a memory, either good or bad, that still lingers in your mind? A restaurant experience that was simply beyond incredible? How about the first time you ate a McDonald's burger? Do you remember it? Or your first bite of chili. Was it the first taste of fish that caused you to forever love or hate it? How about sushi? How about really obscure, ethnic, eclectic foods?

I was in Junior High School and was invited to see a play at the Berkeley Community Theater with my friend John and his wonderful mom. The play was "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum," featuring the late Zero Mostel. On the way home, I was treated to my first cheeseburger at Joe's of Westlake, which to this day is my absolute favorite restaurant. As a very young child I used to play in the lot that was to become Joe's. I watched it being built, and couldn't understand why a restaurant was going to destroy our playground.

My first bite of a Joe's cheeseburger provided the answer. As the picture attests, this is a huge burger cooked over a real wood grill, topped with a generous slab of cheese (always specify Monterey Jack, which is much better than the standard Swiss), on a quarter loaf of San Francisco sourdough, with a big helping of steak fries. If there's a better cheeseburger, I haven't found it. And we've been returning to Joe's way too often for several decades since.

I'd never had sushi and thought I simply didn't "need" this weird item in my culinary life. I'd tried it all of one time, and it just didn't click. I've surfed Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz since I was about 14, and had already eaten all the seaweed I needed to consume over a lifetime. And raw fish would make this all better??

And then I met my future wife, and was informed that it was her favorite food. Fine. We'll give it a second try. By sheer coincidence, a wonderful co-worker friend named Kathy Lucky, invited me to lunch, and suggested we have sushi. This time, I had an expert who could coax me toward some items that might be a little more appealing. I remember my first bite of a piece of hamachi sushi, dipped in soy sauce and wasabi ... like it was yesterday.

This burst of flavor was such a revelation, that it was virtually life-altering. Like many "interests" that I get involved in, I of course had to learn everything about this wonderful food, and try it all. And along with it being "required" to pursue my impending romance with my future wife, it was also a catalyst in moving the relationship ahead. We've had so many sushi dinners over the years. One of us will say "how about bait for dinner," and we know to meet at our favorite local spot. Hamachi, maguro, fancy rolls, a great miso soup starter, hot sake ... again, if it gets any better, I don't want to know about it.

Taking this full circle, music has always been a huge part of my life. I've played in bands since my early teen years, and when I don't have a formal band to play with, I still play the drums almost every day. Last Saturday night provided a moment that I'm sure will go down as one to remember, in my "music life." After a several month hiatus while they were redesigning their home studio, I was invited down to my bandmates' home for a great dinner of Indian food, and the first shot at playing their new original music in a live setting. Up to that point, these were all "studio" productions, which were performed and recorded by the two of them. But now they have a "live" potential. And we all agreed that the songs sounded awesome! Stay tuned for updates on this new band development. I'm sure it's coming.

So if this rings a bell for you ... if hearing a song for the first time induced a life-long memory of the specific moment you heard it, you get the point. If a special moment in a restaurant or trying a type of food can still put a smile on your face, or bring a tear to your eye, you're on the right track. None of us like the negative moments, but if there was a "good way" to be told that John Lennon had been killed, it was from Stevie Wonder. The good things always out weigh and out number the bad ones. My initial distaste for sushi turned into two life long loves. Embrace the world around you. Savor the good things. Think of times like these in your lives, reflect on the bad ones, celebrate the good ones, recognize that we're all human and the mind is a wonderful thing for providing us these memories.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Moms' Cooking

Happy Valentine's Day
Moms and Ladies Everywhere!
This is a celebration of "all" mom's cooking. Mine, for sure, but so many more. Friends and family, as well as loyal readers, know that I do all the cooking in my house. And as I say on the first page of my website, my wife is very appreciative of this fact. We eat very well, I make meals that run the gamut of fun, interesting, creative, exotic, delicious, questionable, overkill, underwhelming, gourmet and run-of-the-mill. I shop daily, and generally base my evening meal around some combination of what's fresh, what looks good, what my wife requests (and she's very undemanding in that regard), and of course what I feel like cooking that night. Maybe simple tacos, maybe extremely fancy burritos with wheat tortillas, the best ground sirloin, a special salsa of onions, peppers, tomatoes, garlic and cilantro, fresh sour cream and guacamole, and a fancy squiggle of home made enchilada sauce over the top. Maybe some burgers on the gas BBQ, maybe a killer tri-tip that I marinated overnight in my home made dry rub (which I call Rubbit, and the recipe's all yours, on the website), started on the Big Chief Smoker, and finished on the cast iron BBQ with real mesquite wood as the fuel.

But growing up was very different, and it probably was for most of you out there. Traditionally, our mom's did the cooking. some of them worked a part time job, some were professionals, but most were relegated to being the cook of the house. Our house was no exception. I'm the oldest of six kids, with five younger sisters spread out over a ten year period.

I was 10 when the youngest was born, 2 days after Christmas. And as an illustration of how things have changed, consider this. I spent the day with a couple friends (both of whom I still see today) riding from our house in Daly City ... down Skyline Boulevard, into the City, all over Golden Gate Park, over to Larsen Pool for a couple hours of swimming, and back to Daly City later in the afternoon. I arrived home (which was always unlocked) to a note that explained that my mom and dad had gone to the hospital to have the baby, and to make myself something to eat and they'd call me later. I was 10.

Interesting meal that night, as I recall. There was ham in the fridge, so I sliced off a couple pieces and heated them up in the oven. I believe I complimented the meal with some leftover scalloped potatoes, and undoubtedly a big chunk of a sheet cake of some sort, which my mom routinely produced every two days. We never went hungry, there was always dessert, very rarely anything resembling leftovers, but for a family of eight, we did very well thanks (in retrospect) to my mom's creative ways in the kitchen.

But let me come back to my mom's cooking. Most kids love their mom's cooking, and I was no exception. I grew up in a wonderous melting pot of a community called Daly City, Henry Doelger's vision of what 1950's suburbia was supposed to look like, located at the north end of the San Francisco peninsula. I had a priveleged upbringing inasmuch as I had the opportunity to experience such a wide variety of friends, cultures, and "other moms' cooking." We had no notion of prejudice of any sort. People were people. Different backgrounds, races, religions, for sure, but they were all simply people. Neither we or they were better or worse, just different, and it was something to be celebrated.

And for someone who's always loved new and interesting foods, it was a cornucopia of culinary delights. Spending the night at one friend's house might mean experiencing some wonderful Jewish food. Another would provide a phenomenal Greek feast. And my friend Mike's mom was from Kentucky, and put on some of the most incredible southern-inspired dinners, and complete breakfasts every day. My mom didn't do breakfast. And lunches were minmal. Great dinners for sure, but breakfast consisted of a bowl of 40% Bran Flakes if we were lucky. Lunches were PBJ or bologna sandwiches, a Milky Way, and an apple. Always. I was jealous of friends' lunches. And appreciative of being invited over for dinners, which to me were always new and interesting, and a total treat.

I have a dear friend who's a top notch cardiologist. On our first day of 7th grade when our teacher asked what we all wanted to do when we grew up, he stood up and proclaimed that he was going to be a doctor. His parents escaped Nazi Germany via Shanghai, where his father was trained as a pastry chef. Needless to say, this was always one of my favorite places to visit for dinner. When my friend was accepted to medical school (at Mt. Sinai in New York) his parents threw a little soiree that they prepared themselves, over a two week period prior to the party. I don't recall a feast since, that could equal this one. Quite likely the most incredible spread of food that I've ever seen. The tables wrapped around two of the four walls of their Millbrae home. Guests were treated to this amazing presentation of food and desserts through huge windows that provided a panoramic view of the San Francisco Airport and Bay. I have another friend who says "if it gets any better, I don't want to know about it." This was one of those moments.

My friend Marie's mom Flora was born in Rome. How could she not be a great cook? Dinner at Flora's has always been amazing. My mom made spaghetti, and something resembling a rosemary chicken dish on occasion, but Flora was from Rome. Stuffed pasta, white sauces vs. the basic red meat sauces we had at home, incredible use of fresh herbs, wonderful breads, inventive salads with home made dressings, and of course some phenomenal traditional Italian desserts were presented like it was just something she did every night. Which she did. Flora's in her mid-80's today, still gets around remarkably well in her beloved Mustang, and still cooks a wonderful meal for herself every night.

And so it was a major treat to be able to finally cook for her a few weeks ago. I suppose I should have been a little nervous about it, kind of like having Julia Child over for your signature beef bourguignon, but amazingly I approached it with pleasure, totally looking forward to cooking a dinner for this wonderful woman. Dinner was simple and flavorful, with plenty of Italian overtones. I started with a nice salad of field greens, scallions, radishes, and mandarin orange wedges, home made raspberry balsamic vinaigrette. A little amuse bouche of mango sorbet with a sprinkle of lemon zest between courses, the crusted salmon recipe that you'll find on the website, and a nice risotto with brown Italian mushrooms, arugula, and of course Reggiano Parmigiano. Plenty of wine, a nice Port with dessert, and I had some very happy guests. It was my pleasure to cook for Flora and her daughter Marie, and hopefully I'll be able to do it again

We all thought my mom's cooking was wonderful, when we were growing up. She had to be extremely resourceful, always frugal, but we were provided a home cooked feast every night. I've got to believe that my own cooking habits, meaning "buy it fresh, daily" had to come in some part from my mom's routine. One thing she did that I don't do however, is a big trip to the store that she called "weekly shopping." I shop every day. Weekly shopping would mean the entire back portion of our '62 Valiant station wagon full of grocery bags from Skyline Plaza Market. Feeding a family of eight for a week requires planning and smart buying, I'm sure.

Mom made a few things very well, others "ok," and there were some questionable concoctions as well. Sunday meals of leg of lamb, pot roast, a big ham, or even a basic "oven roast" with potatoes and carrots cooked around it would have the six kids waiting at the table long before it was dinner time. Her spaghetti was awesome, meatloafs were incredible, and she made a mean pot of chili. Chicken (like much of what she made) was fried in about three gallons of vegetable oil. We didn't know better, and thought it was great.

Vegetables were another matter. Corn was pretty good, asparagus and artichokes were passable, but it didn't dawn on me until I started cooking for myself, that virtually everything in the vegetable category was either boiled or fried. Steaming was a concept she didn't get. I remember her saying "eat it, I used a whole stick of butter when I fried it." No wonder we were all fat growing up! I'd be hard pressed to use a "stick of butter" a month now!

And always the "sheet cakes." Generally a white cake mix, with chocolate frosting, layed out on a big baking sheet. They were nothing glamorous, varied very little in their taste or composition of ingredients, but we had dessert every night. A sheet cake would usually last the family of eight, two nights. If it was someone's birthday, the sheet cake would have candles and maybe "Happy Birthday" on it. Could this be an underlying reason why I don't bake more? Did my mom permanently affect my "sweets" genes? Hard to say, but it must have contributed to it!

But to mothers everywhere who generally did the lion's share of the family cooking as we were growing up, I salute your inventiveness, consistency, and your dedication to keeping your families fed with tasty nutritional meals. As someone who does all the cooking for the house (and there's just two of us, no "family of eight" to cook for), I recognize the challenges that come with creating the evening meal ... every night.

And with that, I'll finish this like I started it ... Happy Valentines Day!!

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Meatfest Story

Meatfest 12 - Sunday May 24th 2009
- Evites will go out in April -

Up front, I'll clarify that this is about friends and an annual event, not just about "meat." So all you vegetarians can safely read on. It all began the summer we moved to Gilroy (the garlic capital of the world, they proudly proclaim) ... in the summer of 1998. We'd moved into the new house in August of '97, and by the following summer we'd managed to get the backyard to a somewhat habitable and fun spot. The hot tub was in, we had a nice big patio, a decent (big) barbeque and Big Chief smoker, and it was high time to have a little Memorial Day gathering. As I recall, I'd originally invited 10-12 people to partake in some tri-tips and chicken.

However, a perfect storm was brewing. I was playing drums for a couple bands at the time, and had "jammed" with several friends in addition to the bands, for years. So the little BBQ had to include band members, assorted musician friends, and of course their families. We'd provide some live entertainment along with the BBQ in the yard. So far so good.

The company I worked for at the time had just been acquired by another one, and we were in the process of combining and/or changing our telecom systems. All the old stuff was going away, and everything would conform to a single standard (my standard, as it happened). We had a meeting the day before the BBQ that included some of the company brass, several phone company reps, my friend Mike from Santa Fe, and myself.

I only wear suits to weddings and funerals, if I have anything to say about it. I was in my usual jeans and a t-shirt for this meeting, Mike was dressed similarly, and at the time had a ponytail half-way down his back and was undoubtedly in boots and sporting lots of turquoise. The rest of the room was in suits, poor guys. Michael is a major outdoorsman, and would rather be fishing or guiding an elk hunt than doing mundane telecom tasks. He's also the best telecom guy I've ever met.

Mike had just returned from a job in Seattle, and he had the opportunity to do a little salmon fishing while he was up there. So picture this room full of suits and executives, and Mike walks into the Executive Conference Room with an Igloo cooler. The first thing he pulled out was a whole salmon, which he'd caught and smoked the day before. I can hear him saying this like it was yesterday (to the afore-mentioned uppity group) ... "y'all like smoked salmon?" and he proceeded to unwrap the whole smoked salmon for the group. And it was totally killer. Fresh out of Puget Sound, smoked over mesquite and hickory, done to a "T."

He then pulled out a gorgeous WHOLE salmon and said "this one's for your BBQ tomorrow, along with some other stuff I brought from home." My little BBQ of tri-tips and chicken was about to take a quantum leap. Several more invitations went out, as this was taking on the appearance of an event that the bulk of my friends just didn't want to miss.

We ended up at about 35-40 people that first year. I cooked a big pot of chili (recipe below), tri-tips (marinated in my "Rubbit" dry rub, 2 hours on the smoker, then on the BBQ), several types of sausages and chicken. In addition to Mike's whole salmon, he'd also brought some venison and elk, which he shot on a recent hunting expedition in northern New Mexico. My guests all brought a side dish or dessert, and I'm confident that nobody went home hungry. We entertained the neighborhood with our live music, people were dancing in our driveway, everyone was welcome to venture into the yard and try the food, and it was an absolutely magical day.

Fast forward to the following year. I got a call from my friend Lisa sometime in early May, telling me that she and Danny were considering a surfing trip to Costa Rica over Memorial Day unless there was going to be a "Meatfest 2." I said (1) yes there will, and (2) I'll always give you credit for naming it Meatfest.

Meatfest has taken on a life of its own, over the years. This year will be Meatfest 12. We held it on the traditional Memorial Day weekend the first year in Bend, and quickly learned a very important lesson about Central Oregon weather ... it's about as predictable as a shark. It was almost June, and it was windy, chilly, and a little rainy. My friends John and Linda actually got snow the day before, while fly fishing in the nearby Cascade Lakes. After Mother's Day ... almost June ... snow on the ground. The next year, we'd plan it for Labor Day. Not a guarantee, but a better bet.

The food varies from year to year, hopefully improving on my end, and definitely bringing out the creative best cooking efforts in friends and family who eagerly look forward to the annual gathering. Some combination of my band or bands always plays, people dance into the wee hours, the food is amazing, and I'd like to think that friendships have been developed or improved through our little BBQ. I see many of my friends frequently, but for others it's only once or twice a year, Meatfest being one of them.

The biggest Meatfest was about 5 years ago, when we had over 75 people in our little yard in San Jose. I played with three bands at the time, and they all came and played. Guests came from Seattle (bless you, Deborah!), Sacramento, Monterey, and of course all over the Bay Area. About 10 of our friends even flew or drove to Bend for the two Meatfests we had up there. Quite a compliment on the one hand, and a good example of how much these people like getting together and seeing old friends, as well as meeting new ones. It's become an event that people look forward to, ask about months in advance, confirm that there's going to be another one this year / next year, the date, the location, and so on. It's kind of taken on a life of its own in as much as people simply count on it. There are very few constants in life that can be counted on, and amazingly Meatfest is one of them.

Larry's Chili
(keeping mind that I vary it every time I make it)
  • 1 lb each of dry red and pinto beans, soaked overnight in a pot of water, covered
  • 3 lbs of good quality ground beef (90% or better - the leaner the better)
  • 2 large sweet onions (Walla Walla or vidalia are the best)
  • An assortment of fresh chilis, chopped. Try: 2 Anaheims, 2 pasillas, 4-5 jalapenos, 4-5 serranos
  • An assortment of chili powders, combined in a bowl. Try: 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne, 2 tablespoons of New Mexico (or any pure chili powder), 1 tablespoon each of light and dark commercial chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon of dried oregano
  • 2 tablespoons of cumin powder
  • 3 #2 cans (large can) of petite diced tomatoes with their juice
  • 2 cloves of minced garlic
  • 2 bottles of beer for the chili, more for the cook if you're so inclined!
In a large stock pot, sweat the onions in a tablespoon of vegetable oil, covered, for about 10 minutes.
Add the garlic and fresh chilis, saute about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Stir in the two bottles of beer, bring to a boil.
Add the tomatoes, 4 cups of hot water, return to a boil.
Add half the chili powder mix, the cumin and oregano, stir, taste.
Reduce to medium and maintain a simmer.
Brown the ground beef in batches (don't overfill the skillet or the meat will "boil" which is not the idea).
Drain the meat and add to the pot.
Rinse the beans that have soaked overnight, add to the pot.
Return to a boil, lower to a simmer, cook for at least 2-3 hours.

Taste the chili frequently (like you should be doing with most things you cook ... I keep a shot glass full of plastic spoons near the stove), add more of the chili powder mix and cumin as needed/desired. Add water if it's too thick, stir in a small amount of cornmeal and water paste if it needs thickening.

Garnishes, including chopped white onions, shredded sharp cheddar, shopped jalapenos and serranos. I admit to being a little sick in the following regard, but I'll commonly put a drop of Dave's Insanity Sauce in my bowl. Discourage your guests from doing this, as they'll likely have seriously nasty comments for you if they're not prepared for the heat. Tell them it's just a table decoration. It's aptly named Insanity Sauce!

Meatfest 12 will be in the big yard in California this year, on May 24th ... on Sunday of the three day Memorial Day weekend. Gives me and everyone else a day to prepare, and a day to recover before returning to work and reality. I'm confident it will be another great day, hopefully with many of our long time friends and several new ones. And of course you can look forward to the inevitable write-up (here) directly after the party!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Spice Cabinet

It dawned on me recently that I'm in pretty good shape when it comes to a stocked spice cabinet. It's become rare that a recipe totally stumps me, spice-wise. I monitor the age of some of them because they don't last forever, and you just don't use all of them all the time. I may use marjoram or spearmint leaves three or four times a year, but when I need them for a specific soup or tagine, I've got to have them handy. I keep my eye on the ones that I use a lot, so I never run out of them.

Some are food-variety specific. I do a lot of Italian cooking, so I've always got to have dried basil, rosemary, thyme, etc. And old faithful "Italian Seasoning," which I will occasionally put in a pasta sauce or vinaigrette. Fresh is always better, don't misunderstand, but when you need a pinch of this or that, it had better be there, and still be fresh.

I buy the large Costco sizes of many spices. I make dry rubs and use them on a wide variety of meat, poultry, fish, and even on a baked potato. My "Rubbit" concoction requires 1, 2, or 3 parts respectively of cayenne, salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, Italian Seasoning (there it is again!), dry mustard, and paprika. So I always have the large economy sizes around. The empty containers also serve as a perfect storage area for the rubs. Be sure to label these, by the way ... rubs look like paprika, and they're OH SO different in a stew!

Salts are a new fixation for me. I very rarely salt anything, commonly leaving this to my guests' personal whims. I grew up in a family of 6 children (I have five younger sisters), and the dinner table would usually have a salt shaker for the table, and a second one that resided less than 3 inches from my mother's grasp, assuring that she could salt every couple of bites. Her son is very different in this regard. Of course I'll salt a soup or stew some, and the chemical reaction when you're marinating a piece of meat is obvious, but I never over salt my foods. I keep a big box of kosher salt handy, as well as sea salt.

Recent discoveries (and I'm probably the last cook on the planet to do so) include several exotic Mediterranean varieties like fleur de sel. They're expensive, delicate, and probably have a much shorter shelf life than any basic salt (they're commonly packaged in a "moist" state), but oh how they add to a meal. A sprinkle on a NY steak fresh of the BBQ is to die for. Likewise on a salmon filet or a fresh risotto.

My latest favorite style of cooking is Moroccan tagine food. Tagine being both the device you cook in, and the end result dish. Great stuff. If there's a more flavorful variety of food, I haven't tried it yet. It's a relatively slow cooking technique, commonly taking an hour or two for the food to slowly become a culinary masterpiece. Liquids make their way up the sides of the conical top, only to find their way back down into the stewing creation at the base of the tagine. The lid gets hot, but the brilliantly designed "handle" on the top stays perfectly cool, allowing the cook to life it off, stir the food, and replace it without the aid of a pot holder. Some are made for cooking only (like those pictured), some are specially decorated for serving, making an elegant statement at your table. Classic models are made of clay, but several of the top pots 'n pan manufacturers are making some incredible tagines that are much easier to use and clean, and offer the benefit of going from medium or high heat, to the oven, and to your table. But at a steep cost.

Lamb, poultry, fish, lots of vegetables, a small amount of liquid, and spices that most cooks never thought they'd ever have in their pantry. It's the first thing since fly fishing tackle that's made it to the "Christmas or birthday worthy" gift category. The best spices and ingredients are not easy to find, and I use them sparingly, and cherish their gracing my pantry. Cardamom, turmeric, fenugreek, rose and orange flower water, coriander, Spanish saffron, tamarind paste, garam masala, anise seed, spearmint leaves, Marrakesh za'atar and preserved lemon are necessities. And the exalted ras el hanout, the "top shelf" spice in Moroccan cooking. Like the right combination that creates a curry (which is technically a dish, not a spice), ras el hanout is a perfect combination of the best Moroccan spices that produces an absolute flavor burst. Try it, then try to do without it.

Middle Eastern cooking is perfect if you're on a weight loss quest, or are just intent on eating healthy food. Very little meat, minimal liquids, longer than average prep times to let everything congeal, and the right combination of spices from the list above, and you've got a culinary treat in store.

One of my favorite dishes, which can be a side to a hot tagine or eaten as a main course, is Moroccan Chicken and Couscous Salad, which I found on

3 cups of chicken broth
1 1/2 cups uncooked couscous
1 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1/2 tsp dried thyme
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp good quality curry powder
1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper
1/8 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 cups snow peas, blanched (frozen or fresh both work fine)
1 1/2 cups diced, cooked boneless skinless chicken breast
3/4 cup thin sliced scallions (about 4)
1/2 cup chopped green or red bell pepper (or a combo)
2 tbsp currants (raisins will work, currants are smaller)
1/4 cup toasted almonds, chopped coarse

1. Bring chicken broth to a boil in a 3 qt saucepan. Stir in the couscous, parsley and thyme. Remove the pan from heat, cover and let stand 5 minutes, allowing the broth to absorb.

2. In a large bowl, whisk the lemon juice, oil, curry powder, black pepper and crushed red pepper. Add the couscous and toss to coat.

3. Add snow peas, chicken, scallions, green/red peppers, and currants. Toss to mix.

4. Cover, refrigerate at least an hour (great served warm). Sprinkle with almonds just before serving.

A word of caution with new spices that you haven't used ... the word is "moderation." Like many things in life, less is better. You can always add more if you need it. Recovering from too much cardamom or turmeric can be a challenge. But with that caveat, I encourage you to spice up your foods! New flavors are wonderful, and you stand to open up a whole new world of taste for your family and guests.