Monday, May 25, 2009

It's All Relative

I use a phrase way too often (and openly admit it), but it's true. The phrase is "It's really easy for Eric Clapton to play Layla ... because he wrote it and knows how to play it." The idea of course is that it's easy to do anything that you know how to do well. Great quarterbacks have no problem tossing an ungainly oval ball 50 yards down the field and hitting a scrambling human target. Major league baseball players routinely smack oncoming 100 MPH fastballs over the Green Monster that's center field at Boston's Fenway Park. James Patterson can probably bang out a cliff-hanger novel in a few days. And Eric can probably play Layla in his sleep.

The same is true for those of us who cook a significant amount, and attempt to entertain friends and family in the process. Obviously some do it better than others, with contributions from memory, family and friends, recipes, professional training, and as we get better at it, from the flow of creative juices.

An interesting thing has taken place over the last year, in my quest to put on meals for what seem to be appreciative guests. I find myself waking up in the morning with ideas for food combinations, spice applications, between-course palate cleansers, appetizers, and more and more, how everything looks. Everything from how things go together (colors and tastes), how things should be plated, and more and more, what I want the table settings to look like.

I still use recipes, and like most cooks have a ridiculous amount of cookbooks. The 72" tall by 30" wide oak bookshelf that I originally bought for CD's, is now totally full of cookbooks, including a row of "too tall's" on the top. I have specialty cookbooks for everything from appetizers to tamales, and everything Moroccan and Japanese. Merle Ellis' incredible "Cutting Up In The Kitchen" shares shelf space with Kathleen Flinn's signed copy of "The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry" and MFK Fisher's "How To Cook A Wolf."  Julia Child's "The Way To Cook," Thomas Keller's "French Laundry Cookbook", and Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins' classic "New Basics," sit next to Rose Levy Beranbaum's Cake Bible and Pastry Bible.   

But I'm convinced the trick to turning the corner and becoming a real cook, is the same in the kitchen as it is in the music world ... do something original. 

M E A T F E S T ~ 12

And so it was, with this year's big Memorial Day Barbeque ... Meatfest 12. Friends and loyal followers of this blog will know the background, highs and lows, and the general ambience that prevails at the annual gathering of friends and family.  Very briefly (since I've done a whole article on it),  this is an event that began in 1998, the year we moved into the beautiful house in Gilroy.  What began as a small gathering, ended up blossoming the first year into a 30-person party, with several members of the bands I'd been playing in, neighbors, and lots of friends. The biggest one took place in San Jose, where we hosted 75 people in our small backyard, and all three of my current bands provided the entertainment.  I was just a tad busy at that one!

The move to Bend made for a very chilly Meatfest (Central Oregon weather is extremely unpredictable), and the next two would be held on Labor Day.  Our return to the Bay Area has once again allowed us to move it back to Memorial Day weekend, although this year was uncharacteristically chilly Sunday on the San Francisco Peninsula.  And Bend was in the high 70's all weekend ... go figure.  Global warming?  Not in the Bay Area!  

I do all the meats, poultry, fish, etc., and ask people to bring "something."  Use your imagination ... make something interesting, take a trip to Safeway or Trader Joe's, whatever. Just make a contribution, and I'll make sure you don't go home hungry.  I try to switch up the protein selections every year, but at the same time I want to serve what people like and/or request.  This year's selections featured some old favorites, and some new concoctions.   

The "meat" selection was BBQ'd tri-tips, which I think I've done every year, but by modifying my technique and marinades, it becomes new each time I do it, and I always get requests for it, and compliments on it.  

I started by trimming the excess fat, and tenderizing it with my Jaccard. This is the handy little gadget to the left, which is an absolutely indispensible tool (assuming you're not a vegetarian - doesn't do much for a zucchini or an eggplant!). I first saw this thing on an Emeril episode, and as he tends to use very few gadgets (as do I), I had to try one. I now use it on virtually every piece of meat that's going to hit the BBQ, frying pan, or the oven. It really makes a difference, both in tenderizing the meat, and allowing any spices and marinades to penetrate and actually work some magic.

Then came a liberal dose of my Rubbit dry rub mixture. Be sure to use a "rub" the way it's intended. It's not the same as salting the outer surfaces, you actually need to rub it on and in to get the right effect. My rub consists of 1 part cayenne, 2 parts each of garlic powder, onion powder, Italian seasoning, Coleman's mustard, coarse kosher salt, black pepper, and 3 parts paprika. Mix everything together, store it in something air tight, lasts for months.

The "mop" that I used on the BBQ consisted of 2 tablespoons of the Rubbit, 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, 1/2 a small can of tomato paste, a cup of apple cider, and about 3 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer until it thickens some, brush on the tri-tip as it's cooking.  The tri-tips would be served on a bed of lentils, with a mirepoix saute mixed in.  

The poultry selection was a tequila lime chicken over Spanish rice, with a fresh salsa topping. The chicken breasts were marinated for about 6 hours in gold tequila, lime and orange juices, New Mexico chili powder, garlic, jalapeno peppers, and salt and pepper.  The rice was Zatarain's, which is always good (and much easier for a crowd of 35 people), and the salsa was a basic tomato, jalapeno, onion, garlic, cilantro mix, with a a couple tablespoons of tequila.  

For the fish, I used my friend Chris' recipe, which is consistently a crowd pleaser.  Her recipe calls for a topping of lemon zest, brown sugar, cinnamon and cumin, and I add a tablespoon of paprika for color and a slight sweetness.  The fish is marinated for a couple hours in orange and lemon juice, the topping's applied, and 35 minutes at 400 degrees always yields perfection.  

I also did a couple varieties of sausages from Aidell's massive collection.  A chicken apple, and chicken and sundried tomato were both hits.  

Planning and assembling something like this, and timing it so everything's ready to eat at the same time, is the trick.  

For me, it went like this: 
  • 2 weeks out - Rented tables, chairs, linens (delivered, and picked up)  
  • 1 week out - Created the menu, started the food and supply list
  • Tuesday - Picked up some bulk items at Smart and Final
  • Friday - Picked up the proteins, beverages, plates, plastic silverware, etc. at Costco
  • Saturday - Picked up all the fresh ingredients
  • Sunday (party day) - Eight bags of ice
Assembling / cooking:
  • Saturday night, marinated the tri-tips, wrapped and refrigerated overnight
  • Sunday morning, setup tables and chairs, table cloths, napkins, tableware
  • Made the salsa, "wet" marinade, mirepoix, measured and set aside all the other ingredients
  • Cooked and served the sausages first
  • Started the lentils and Spanish rice
  • Cooked the tri-tips on the BBQ, moved to the lower oven to keep them warm and finish cooking
  • Cooked the fish in the oven (40 minutes @ 400 for 3 large filets)
  • Cooked the chicken on the BBQ
  • Had guests bring all the "contributions" down and prepare set them out buffet-style, on the long serving table
  • Finished the tri-tips, sliced for serving
  • Chicken, Spanish rice and salsa in a chafing dish
  • Salmon with lemon slices in a chafing dish
  • Tri-tips over a bed of lentils in a mirepoix in a chafing dish
Everything's ready to go, people are lined up to eat ... time for me to take a break.  When I do events like this, I tend to eat between very little and nothing at all.  I'm prepping and cooking all day (or multiple days), and by the time everyone's ready to sit and eat, I'm ready for a chair and a Bombay Sapphire "up" with a twist.  

My guests' side dishes were a marvel of creativity; Cal's jambalaya was amazing (and was my dinner last night as well), several people brought very interesting salads and vegetables, and desserts consisted of some great store-bought cakes and a couple pastry masterpieces from Nicole, who's about half way through her professional training.  The pastry world has a rising star coming along very nicely!

Lots of new guests this year, as well as several who've been to every one, including the couple in Bend, which meant flying or driving 540 miles each way on a holiday weekend (people like this event, it seems!).  My friend Deborah who I've known since 4th grade, flew down from Seattle and I can't express how wonderful it was to have her at our home.  Dave drove up from Morro Bay, our friends Bill and Mir and their three incredible boys were an absolute joy, and Bernie was jovial and a typically great addition to the party.  Cal and Pamela made it, as a result of canceling their own party this year, Angela, Nicole, John and Linda, Colleen and John, Marie and John, John and Kechun (geez, lots of Johns at this party!), Lisa and Paul, wonderful Celeste, Danny and Lisa, Pete and Sandy, and my good friend Larry and his lovely wife Patty ... A great group of friends, some we've known for a few years, others for several decades.  I've known a few of these people since early grammar school, and we still get together a couple times a year.  

The weather was lousy, the food was first rate from every angle, but the "party" was due to the people.  All I do is cook, it's everyone's presence that makes it special.  

And it's never too early to mark your calendars ... May 30th 2010 will be

M E A T F E S T ~ 13

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Waves

The waves and the ocean have always been important in my life. Bodies of water in general have always had a special appeal, but the ocean is magical. The vastness of the Pacific which has been my favorite playground over most of my life, the Caribbean that I was lucky enough to experience for several months in the late 70's, and the beautiful Atlantic that seems like a huge forboding obstacle between the Americas and Europe, have all had influences over the years.

I've always loved the ocean, always gravitated towards it, and in fact wanted to surf for almost as long as I can remember. Actually that's only semi-true ... I can remember back to about a year old, and can vividly picture looking out from my crib and seeing the ever-present Susie Girl keeping watch and waiting for either my grandparents or parents to come and fetch me. If Susie was there, it means I was at my grandparents, since she was their dog. I grew up with Susie, and have fond memories of the little girl for the first 10 years or so of my life. I remember asking my grandmother a few years before she died, what kind of dog Susie was. Her answer was simple and I can still picture her saying it ... "Oh, well Susie was just a VERY NICE dog!" They're the best ones, of course. Susie was stellar. Mickey preceded her, Timmy was next, but Susie was my buddy growing up in Felton and Santa Cruz.

Here's a real life confession. And a bad one that I won't hear the end of, most likely. My fascination with surfing started with Gidget. See, I told you. Not the first Gidget actually, but the sequel "Gidget Goes Hawaiian," with young, cute, and pretty much long forgotten Deborah Walley in the lead. Unfortunately the role didn't lead to a tremendous movie career.  It was 1961, which would have put me at 10 years old.  

Side note:  December of 1961, right after Christmas, and my mom was very ready to deliver the youngest of my five younger sisters.  This being a different era, I'd spent the whole day on my bike, accompanied by a couple friends who I still see today. We rode from Daly City, down Skyline Boulevard, out around Lake Merced, into Golden Gate Park, all over Fleishhacker Zoo, along Ocean Beach, and home ... three of us, alone with our bikes. We were 10.  I arrived home about 5 o'clock to a note, which my parents had left in the kitchen. Something like "we've gone to the hospital to have the baby ... make yourself some dinner and we'll call you later." I believe I sliced and heated a couple pieces of ham, and had some leftover scalloped potatoes. I was apparently cooking for myself and already ridiculously independent at 10!

But the sickeness of surfing had struck, and there would be no turning back. I read everything I could get my hands on about surfing. I could tell you exactly where all of the famous North Shore spots were located, who the top surfers were, what kind of boards they rode, and probably could draw the board logos. I've never excelled at anything resembling art, but for some strange reason I was able to draw virtually all of the surfboard logos.

My first encounter with a surfboard in the ocean happened purely due to the luck of an 11 year old kid who was dying to try his hand at Duke Kahanamoku's sport of kings. My friend Mike and I were body surfing at Kelly's Cove, which is at the north end of San Francisco's Ocean Beach, just under the Cliff House. It was a rare warm summer day (probably September and right after school started up, which is when we always get our real summer weather).  I was about waist deep in the ocean, swimming and watching the surfers, and a stray surfboard was heading my way. It was a "Bragg," which was one of the better local customs in 1962. I was able to stop it, jump on it, ride the whitewater for about 20 feet, and managed to turn it around and push it back to its owner ... before my little cheater ride was noticed. In surfer's jargon ... I was totally stoked.  

Christmas of 1964, I was 13, and my "big present" was an envelope with a receipt for a down payment on a surfboard. I had been given permission to begin an odyssey that would continue to this day.  The gift certificate was for a type of board we called "pop outs." Cheap, mass marketed boards that weren't worth the hundred bucks they wanted for them. I opted to put the money toward an Abe Schuster "kit," which cost all of $68, and afforded me the enviable opportunity of making my own surfboard. I don't recommend this for the timid, and in retrospect this was a stupid thing to do. But I did it. I applied the several layers of fiberglass, mixed resin and catalyst, created a fancy color design, mounted the skeg on the back, and created a 9'7" 45-pound monstrosity. But it got me into the ocean and I learned how to surf on this beast.

Surfers go through surfboards. Designs change, you outgrow them (we were young, remember), new shapes promise better takeoffs, faster turns, better maneuvering in the pocket, and we succomb to the ad hype and buy new ones. Some claims are legitimate, some were just a way of preying on young Californians with an amazing amount of expendible capital. Surfboards ran about $150 in the sixties. Not chump change, but certainly attainable for anyone with a paper route or some kind of part time job.

My second board was a used Gordon & Smith, which I believe was 9'10".  It was a big green board with redwood stringers and a spiffy laminated tailblock.  Someone had decided to move on to something new, and I was the benefactor.  Cost all of $100, as I recall. Then came my first new board, which was a gorgeous board from Hansen, called a Superlight. My 9'10" beauty featured a unique blue foam stringer that went 3/4 of the way up the board, as opposed to running the length of the board. The idea was that when the rider stood on the front of the board, it would "flex" and plane better ... faster speeds, better nose rides. Made it a snap to hang 5 or 10, although the latter was rare. But hanging 5 toes over the nose, or at least doing a "Cheater Five," which was a move perfected by Paul Strauch and pictured at the right, was a regular occurrence on the Superlight.  I believe it cost about $175 new, and they're worth about $2500 today.  Smart move selling that one ... right!

Everything changed in the world of surfing in the summer of 1967 when the shortboard hit the scene. People were riding 9 1/2 to 10 foot boards with subtle variations from board to board, when out of the blue came these (relatively) little boards with deep V bottoms, multiple fins, and much lighter materials. I still remember walking into our local Pedro Point Surf Shop and spotting the first board I really lusted over ... it was an 8'4" Gordon & Smith Midget Farrely V-bottom. Beautiful blue board with black pinstripes, and probably 10 pounds lighter than my cherished Hansen Superlight. I remember it costing $185.00, which was a lot of money that somehow I had to come up with.  This would ultimately become my favorite board ever.  

First couple outings were at Pedro Point, but it was only a couple weeks into the new / short board, when my buddy Marty and I headed south for our first of many surfing safaris to the Mecca known as Southern California. Marty's brother Wayne was stationed in San Diego, and lived in a big house at Imperial Beach with a bunch of crazy sailors. They were also 20 minutes from Tijuana which could only be a big party waiting to happen for two naiive 16-year-olds.

Our first brush with the So Cal ocean was a quick paddle out at Malibu, which was flat, but we had to do it just to do it.  Then it was on to a very strange late morning at the Huntington Beach Pier. Surf City USA, they like to call themself, although Santa Cruz has as much claim to the title, and it's an ongoing friendly joust between the two beach towns. The surf was running 4-6 feet, breaking left and right (I like left-breaking waves because I'm a leftie, and ride "goofie-foot" with my right foot forward), so we waxed the boards and headed out. Marty on his Con "Ugly" and me on the G&S V-bottom.

After catching a couple waves and doing ok on them, the day's comedy-of-errors began. First, I was clobbered by a big set of waves, and ended up swimming in, being stung by a jellyfish in the process (boards did not have "leashes" then, and would usually end up on the beach, following a wipeout). Marty came in, and I stood my board up in the sand, jamming the sharp new skeg into my foot in the process. We were distracted by some action on the pier, which we found out had been some clown jumping into the water from the pier, and rescue people going in after him. Brilliant. We returned to the car to discover that one of us had left a bar of wax on the hood of the Country Squire, and it had melted into a three foot circle of muck. To top off the perfect morning, he drove into a traffic piling on the way out of the lot. Time to head south.

We hit a couple famous surfing spots on our way to San Diego, mainly to say that we'd done so, as this was a typically flat Southern California summer, at least in the area north of San Diego. But we had to at least "paddle out" at Malibu (way north of Huntington), Hermosa Beach, San Onofre, and Redondo Beach. No waves, but we could now brag that we'd surfed all of them.

San Diego was a different story. Tourmaline was a little local spot near Crystal Pier, and it was an immediate hit. We spent the entire afternoon surfing fun 3-5 foot waves in 75 degree water. We'd died and gone to heaven (Santa Cruz and Pedro Point hover around 50 degrees, year 'round). Our second day in San Diego brought us to Encinitas, and a spot that became and has remained my favorite wave in the world ... Swami's. So named for its proximity to the Self-Realization Fellowship which was built for Swami Paramahansa Yogananda in 1937, and now overlooks the right-breaking reef swells that provide some of the best surfing anywhere.  During my brief stint as a student at San Diego State University, I'd surf this spot 3-4 times a week.  Absolutely gorgeous location, and the idyllic early mornings in particular can be almost ethereal ... you're truly transported to an other-worldly place.  

Returning once again to my younger days, probably in the same 10 or 11 years old period ... Seeking an escape from my five younger sisters, I'd commonly ride my bike to a "secret spot" below a cliff, overlooking the ocean just south of Thornton Beach.  From here I could watch (study was probably a better description) the waves ... the patterns, frequency, effects of the wind ... offshore variety would hold the waves up a little longer, onshore would cause them to close out.  I'd observe the frequency of so called "clean up sets" that are inevitable virtually anywhere on the west coast.  Three or four waves that are considerably bigger than the average occurence of that day, seemingly with the intent of cleaning out all the unsuspecting surfers in their path.  I'd spend hours in this private spot on the cliff, where I could see everything from Ocean Beach to Pedro Point ... a 15 mile span of ocean ... beaches covered with shells and sand dollars, cliffs, waves, surfers, and the ubiquitous California gulls (Larus Californicus) that are pretty in flight, but in fact are more like flying rats that scavenge anything that will fit into their crooked yellow beaks.  

Once I was granted permission to start surfing, there was no keeping me out of the water.  For the first few years this meant bumming rides or hitch hiking to the beach with a 40 pound, 10' foam and fiberglass board in tow.  All of my own cars would have to either swallow up boards in the back (station wagons), or were adorned with Rincon surf racks year 'round.  We surfed in any kind of weather the Bay Area wanted to throw at us.  Choppy surf, wind, rain, fog and 50 degree water were taken in stride.  Three or four times a week, more in the summer.  This is a highly addictive pastime.  

Sailing, which I'll save for another article, became a logical extension of this love of the sea.  Our local Lake Merced and later San Francisco  Bay became the "learning ground," and was the perfect prepraration for moving to St. Thomas, where I sailed some sort of boat every day.  Sunfish, Flying Juniors and Hobie Cats comprised our beach rental fleet, and a couple times a week I served as deck crew on The Feather, a beautiful 38' sloop.  We took six lucky people per trip, skirting Jost Van Dyke and Salt Island on our way to Honeymoon Beach on St. John Island.  Two other boats in the harbor was considered "too crowded," and meant we'd continue around the island in search of something more private for our guests.  And it wasn't uncommon to venture around the bend to Virgin Gorda and drop anchor at The Baths.  To repeat an overused phrase (and thank you JB) ... "If it gets any better, I don't want to know about it."  

Moving to Bend brought about an adjustment, inasmuch as it was no small matter to get to the ocean, which is a 150 miles of several circuituous mountain passes away. But amazingly I found that it's the proximity to water that mattered. Having the Deschutes River across the street provided all I needed for my fix.  The graceful ospreys sweeping down from their nests that are commonly built at the highest point in a riverside tree, gracefully plucking their dinner from the fast-flowing stream.  The occasional group of deer on the opposite bank, out for a snack at dusk.  Locals walking their dogs along the river path that meanders into town, 2 1/2 miles away.  

The Deschutes provides a constant sense of wonder and beauty, flowing atypically from south to north from its source, deep in the distant Cascade Lakes, ultimately ending in the Columbia Gorge.  The patterns in the river, the way the rocks interact with the oncoming flow, and the intricate locations of the riffles, provide a virtual heaven on earth for anyone who's ever picked up a fly rod.  The lure of the ocean and the waves are ever present, but for now this river provides the same sense of fascination as my secret spot on the cliff, so many years ago.