Sunday, November 15, 2009

Monterey Weekend

We had the pleasure of spending last weekend with our friends John and Linda in beautiful Monterey, this past weekend. We traditionally get together with friends Larry and Trish, and all of us rent a house in Cambria for a pre-Thanksgiving feast, but the good doctor Larry was on call this weekend in Sacramento, so the doctor's loss was our gain, as we had a wonderful time in Monterey.

Weather can be spotty this time of year on the Central Coast, but it couldn't have been better for this trip. Low to mid sixties with nary a cloud in the sky, Monterey Bay was a gorgeous dark blue, wind was absolutely minimal.

The ride down was uneventful, after getting out of the always-too-crowded peninsula and inching down El Camino Real on a Saturday morning. We wanted to get John a wine carafe for his upcoming birthday, which meant driving down the King's Highway for about 10 miles, making a stop for his gift, and then heading out Woodside Road towards beautiful 280, and our ride south. 280 cuts through some of the most beautiful (and expensive) real estate in the state. Formerly sleepy (although always nice) suburbs like Los Altos Hills, San Carlos, and even the Belmont and Redwood City hills have become homes to a good many of the benefactors of the dot-com and computer surges in nearby Silicon Valley. Homes that sold for under $50k when I was young, are now commanding several million dollars. Suffice it to say, if you can afford to live in one of these areas, that's where you want to be.

South on 280, onto 85 and through the western part of San Jose, past the equally upscale communities of Los Gatos and Saratoga, and the totally untouchable enclave of Monte Sereno, then onto 101 south. This stretch of 101 used to be an incredible bottleneck, virtually any time you drove it. I remember driving south through this area with my dad, when I was a kid. It seemed to be a perpetual backup in both directions, and it's the only way to get from the peninsula to the Central Coast, unless you're willing to drive WAY out of your way into the Central Valley and catch 99 or 5. But times have changed, and this is now five lanes in both directions, and traffic flies through here. Slow to 70 in the right lane, and you're likely to have people on your tail. Speed up, KEEP up, or get out of the way!

We arrived in Monterey at around three, and after bringing our things into the guest bedroom of our wonderful host and hostess' abode, we proceeded to get into a martini (gin, like God intended), some munchies, and of course getting nostalgic about the several decades (I'm not saying how many) that John and I have known each other. Linda raises Lhasa-Apsos and her two bundles of joy, Kitty and Daisy were their usual entertaining selves. These are wonderful dogs, descended from Tibetan palace guard dogs, so their small size belies their capabilities. The trick is that they don't know they're small, so they just go for it, when need be. Like us, they had four cats for quite a few years. We're down to two, they're down to one ... John's prized Bengal cat ... Jake. Jake's coloring is incredible. It's hard not to fall in love with these when you first encounter them, and this is exactly what John did at a cat show we all went to about 14 years ago. I was looking for a replacement for my Maine Coon (Ben), who'd died at at only 18 months old, and John was totally taken by the Bengals. But he's the last cat in their household currently, having survived Funny Face, Curie, Sabrina, and their outside cat whose name escapes me. I enjoy my cats, they love their cat and two dogs, but I've come to believe that fewer is better. They get more attention, stay mellower, and really appreciate their homes and peeps.

Taste Cafe and Bistro, Pacific Grove

Saturday night's dinner was at a local spot called Taste Cafe and Bistro, in nearby Pacific Grove. I'd been here before, and remember it being very good, but last night's meal was one of the best I've had in years. Absolutely superb food, service, beverages, ambience, interaction with the owners, and for me, it's going to be a tough one to beat.

I had a Chilean meritage while the others shared a bottle of Bocage Chardonnay. All were superb, complimented the food perfectly, and priced fairly.

The Caesar salads were the most perfectly balanced I can recall. It's so easy to go too much in the wrong direction with any of the ingredients in a Caesar, and this one was perfect. Traditional romaine lettuce with a light dressing, garnished with shreds of Reggiano Parmesan, and topped with a thin slice of baked brioche. Inventive, balanced, impeccable.

The ladies both had the halibut special, which was perfectly cooked and seasoned, accompanied with mixed vegetables, incredible camelized onions, and their famous potatoes au gratin. John had the veal medallions, which were equally delicious. I had the roasted half chicken, again perfectly cooked, garnished with roasted garlic and Italian parsley sprigs, also served with carmelized onions, mixed roasted vegetables and the au gratin potatoes. My benchmark for roasted chicken is the Los Altos Grill (formerly called Bandera's), and I think tonight's was better. This is no small accomplishment!

I've used the word balanced twice here, and it's meant as the highest form of compliment. With any of these meals, the diner could have easily been led in an extreme direction with just the slightest more "this or that" in the mix. But everything simply fits at Taste. Nothing overshadows anything else, all the spices are done in proportion to the dish, gravies and sauces are complimentary, not dominant, and it all makes for a rare meal indeed.

I'm not a big dessert eater, but I had to sample the home made butterscotch pudding, which is served in a creme brulee type ramekin, garnished with fresh whipped cream and a sprig of fresh mint. Once again, something you don't see on every menu, and it was absolutely perfect. If I wasn't totally full from the meal, I would have been tempted to lick the dish.

Host / owners Bill and Sue Karaki have created an elegant, yet comfortable dining experience. They personally visit every table, and are at the ready for anything the diner may need. Between Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel, our friends John and Linda truly have a plethora of excellent restaurants around them, and there's good reason why they eat at Taste a couple times a month. An absolutely wonderful food and dining experience.

Saturday night was capped off with some amazing 16 year old Lagavulin Scotch. Appreciating fine Scotch whisky is one of several "vices" my childhood friend John has gotten me into over the years. Others include fine cigars, great gins (which is the ONLY way to have a real martini), cameras, and fly fishing. We also have a strange anomaly in common, which is that we tend to make an in-depth study of our interests. I've said too many times over the years that I believe I know a lot about a very few things. But I definitely do my research, as does John. Doesn't hurt to know everything there is to know about your vices (interests), right?

We awoke Sunday morning to a warm, crystal clear Monterey sky. There was no question but to pack some essentials and head for the beach for a makeshift brunch. John had brought a bottle of Dom Perignon to my brunch last Easter, but given the fact that I had about 10 people, we opted to save it for the "pre-Thanksgiving" gathering. I stopped at our local Lunardi's Market on the way out of town and picked up some huge, gorgeous strawberries, which I thought would be the perfect compliment for the Dom P. A stop at a great French bakery in Pacific Grove would add an absolutely perfect ham and gruyere quiche to our quarry, and we were off to the beach.

The Central Coast gets its share of fog, Monterey being no exception. But this November morning was absolutely gorgeous. Mid 60's, no wind, clear skies, and it couldn't be a more perfect setting. We shared the quiche, strawberries and Dom Perignon, and felt very decadent sitting on the beach watching the surfers. As much as I love our home in Bend, there's something to be said for November weather like this.

We headed back to their beautiful home for a little more conversation, then headed out for the 102 mile drive home. Along the coast that skirts Monterey Bay, inland past Castroville (artichokes galore), up past our old home of Gilroy (garlic capital), and back up 280 and home.

I was thinking pork chops for dinner, but the local Safeway didn't have any thick ones that weren't already pre-stuffed and living in the meat display case. I opted for a pork loin roast, which I stuffed with an apple, shallot, thyme, bread crumb and salt and pepper combo. Note to self: Omit the shallot next time. Not a disaster, but a distraction for sure. Rice pilaf and simple green beans capped off a great Sunday dinner.

I love weekends like this, and they're quite rare. We spend our lives working too much, and not enjoying the genuine pleasures in life. Good friends, great food, beautiful surroundings, and a reduction in the pressures around us, are something to be cherished. And I do.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

This Chef's Knives

This article was prompted by a visit from my good friends Carolyn and Bruce, a few weeks ago. They were out on a business trip from their home in beautiful Roswell, GA and we decided to spend the day up in Napa doing some wine tasting. Carolyn wants to get him a great set of knives for Christmas, and asked for advice. The "need" on his end was prompted by him hacking off the end of a finger with a dull knife, which he relayed to us as we were partaking in some rack of lamb, risotto and haricot verts, which I'd thrown together for Carolyn and her co-worker, and our friend Dave. Note that you CAN "throw together" a totally lavish meal in under an hour, after work. I do it every night.

But as I thought about recommending a set of knives, I decided to do what I tend to do, which is to dive into it more thoroughly, and present some pros and cons of several types, as well as a final recommendation. Keep in mind that this is purely my recommendation, based on knives and accessories that I use and / or have used, and specifically knives that are in my collection. I'm fascinated with the concept and supposed sharpness-factor of ceramic knives, but I've never used one so you're not going to see any discussion of them here. I'm not going to write about the $25 Forschner/Victronix 8" Chef's Knife which is touted universally as the best buy in a knife, but I use one that's very similar, which is made by Dexter, and I'll tell you about that one.

What you will read about are what's in my knife block, what's hanging on the two magnetic wall racks, what's in the drawer, why they're where they are, and what gets used the most. I'm not particularly into gadgets and gimmicks, but there are a couple that I'll mention, as well as some essential accessories.

Actually, let's start with an accessory ... Where do you store your knives? In a drawer? Wrong, unless they're in a wooden holder specifically made to hold knives. Otherwise they bang together which makes mince meat out of the blades. In a block? Ok solution, but not the best, and they're expensive and take up counter space. Assuming you have some available "side-of-a-cabinet" space near your work area, your best be is one or two magnetic knife holders. They run $15-20 apiece and hold six or seven knives safely, and within easy reach. As much as I love Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma, if you have a restaurant supply store nearby, that's where you should buy them. They're generic, and half the price of the afore-mentioned culinary temples of joy. I have two of them and they hold my most-used knives (with one exception, the Shun Ken Onion has its own bamboo holder).

My small collection includes:

(Top rack) 8" Henkels santoku, 8" Henkels chef's, 6" Wustof chef's, xxx, Forschner-Victronix 7" Granton edge santoku, Henkel's paring knife

(Bottom rack) Martin Yan Chinese cleaver, 8" Global chef's, 8" Dexter-Russell chef's, 4" Dexter-Russell utility knife.

In the knife block on the opposite counter is a Dexter bread knife, serrated tomato slicer, straight boning knife, curved Granton edge boning knife, Lamsonsharp Chinese cleaver, 6", 8" and 10" Lamsonsharp chef's, and kitchen / poultry shears.

(Top drawer knife rack) 10" Dexter chef's, my indispensible F. Dick steel, a couple utility knives, another Japanese cleaver (smaller version), and an Acu Sharp sharpener.

So what do you need all these for? Obviously you don't. Most home chef's specialize in a couple styles of food and can get by with very few knives. It amazes me that people buy huge knife collections and expensive blocks to hold them. Even the three-piece Global set that I bought, which seemed like such a great deal at Sur La Table, has proven to be a waste. I love the 8" Global chef's knife and use it daily, but the two utility knives have been used two or three times each, and they live in the drawer.

Regardless of your budget, your most used knife will be your main chef's knife. Some prefer a 10", I prefer an 8". I have several, they have varying degrees of pros and cons, but they get the most use by far. And the one that gets the most use is a Dexter 8" chef's which I bought prior to attending a six weekend Professional Cooking series at the California Culinary Academy. It cost me a whopping $25 in 1994, and it's still the most used in my collection. The Global chef's gets a lot of use because it's very thin, perfectly balanced, great for fine slicing and dicing, and a total joy to use. The Henkels gets used for things that require a heavier knife (great for chopping onions and smashing garlic cloves). The 7" Wustof is a great knife, and was a present from my wife-to-be, just prior to our marriage. I use it for in-between type jobs, and I use it a lot.

The 6, 8, and 10" Lamsonsharps get very little use, but the Lamsonsharp cleaver gets tons of use. I had the cleaver first and used it all the time, so I ordered the chef's knives having never used them. They're probably great knives, but I've never gotten the edge I want on them. Sounds like a good weekend project in my copious spare time. But the cleaver is a very nice knife, and quite likely the one I'd pick if I could only have one knife on a desert island. The Martin Yan cleaver is nice and stays very sharp, and it also gets quite a bit of use. A cleaver or a good santoku is essential, I feel. Both my cleavers have permanent "thumb" marks at the top rear of the blade, because I hold them at the front of the handle and upper rear of the blade, I've done so for years with both of them.

The 7" Victronix with a Granton edge is an awesome knife, and was under $30. Great all around knife and excellent for slicing meat and poultry. I also have a long ham slicer with a Granton (scalloped, not serrated) edge which gets lots of use around the holidays. Ideal for slicing a turkey, prime rib, pork roast or a whole beef filet section.

I have two 10" chef's knives, and I'm not exactly sure why I bought them. I probably read somewhere that every collection should have one, and I really don't understand why. I use the Dexter 10" for slicing half-frozen London broil meat into thin slices when I make beef jerky. And that's the only time I use it. The Lamsonsharp doesn't rock well, so it goes unused for the most part.

I have a couple of utility knives that I like. My 4" Dexter gets as much use as the 8". I use it constantly when I'm cooking. I believe I paid about $6. for it. The Henkels 4" on the other hand, was likely five times as expensive, and I almost never use it. I also have a small curved knife which was sold as a cheese slicer at one of the garlic stores just south of Gilroy. It's absolutely the perfect knife for slicing tomatoes, which is all I use it for. And I slice EVERY tomato with it. I believe I paid six bucks for this one too, and I've had it for well over ten years.

Last but certainly not least, is my latest acquisition and pride and joy ... an 8" Shun Ken Onion chef's knife, which comes with its own bamboo holder. If you've never used a Shun, make it a point to ask if you can try one the next time you find yourself in a Sur La Table or Willaims-Sonoma store. It's one of those things that's ridiculously expensive and worth every penny. I believe mine was around $200 which puts it at eight times the cost of the Dexter, a great knife in its own right. This was a gift from my wife, which is the only way I'd ever get one. No way I could justify paying that much for a knife. But they're absolutely awesome looking and feeling, perfectly balanced, very unique handles, a blade that looks like a samurai sword, and it's the sharpest knife I've ever used. It literally glides through an onion. It also garners lots of "ooohs and aaahs" from guests who hang around the kitchen when I'm cooking. But a more expensive knife won't make you a better cook.

A dull knife can make your prep time miserable, but virtually any knife can be sharpened to a fine edge. Good ones hold their edge better, but you can make do with what you've got, if you know how to use the knife and of course how to sharpen it. I've tried every kind of sharpener and I have two extremes that I use exclusively. I have a three-slot Chef's Choice electric sharpener that can put an edge on anything (including granton and serrated edges), without ruining the knife. Great sharpener, but they run about $125. Again, it was a gift, and I love it. I also use an Acu-Sharp sharpener that works phenomenally well on dull knives and costs about ten bucks. Sharpening stones work great if you have the patience to use them. I don't. I have a couple of them, and they sit in the back of the drawer.

While knife brands and sharpeners are debatable, one constant that you'll find among butchers is the type of steel they use; the steel of choice is made by German company F. Dick, and at about thirty-five buckes, this steel's a steal. They've been in the knife and steel making business since 1778, and they've got it down. I was introduced to it on the first day of a three weekend butchery class at the culinary academy, and it's the only one I use. Learn how to use a steel correctly and do it after every use of the knife. If you're doing a lot of cutting with one knife, stop and steel it every now and then. A steel doesn't "sharpen" your knife, but rather keeps the edge straight and the inevitable burrs that develop, at a minimum. Mine's on the counter within reach the whole time I'm preparing a meal.

Along with being the most expensive and unique looking of my knives, the Shun also has one additional feature. While they say you can use a Shun sharpener and get good results, they recommend you keep the original packing box and ship it to them once a year. They're more than happy to sharpen it back to factory standards at no cost other than the postage. Amazing toy, for sure.

So to get back to the original intent of this article, what would I recommend to my friend Carolyn for Bruce's Christmas present of a set of knives? A set of Globals that includes an 8" chef's, the larger santoku wth a granton edge, a utility knife, and of course an F. Dick butcher's steel would be all he needs. A nice set of Henkel's with an 8", utility, slicer, and shears would also last a lifetime and he'd love using them every night. Both of these stay sharp, look great, and make your time in the kitchen a pleasure. Never put them in the dishwasher, buy a magnetic rack for them, steel them often, and watch the smile on his face the first time he uses them.

However ... you can't go wrong with a few Forschner-Victronix knives, and anything that says Wustof or Lamsonsharp will also last a lifetime, and of course if your budget will accomodate a Shun Ken Onion ... that's the best.

Oh, and Bruce ... ANY of these are capable of taking the tip of another finger off, by the way

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cajun Halloween

It's a chilly Saturday on the San Francisco Peninsula, Halloween 2009, and also the end of daylight saving time. I just received an email from my friend Barb, up in Bend, which is a picture of an elderly native American gentleman and the following observation: When told the reason for daylight saving time the Old Indian said, "Only the government would believe that you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket, sew it to the bottom, and have a longer blanket." I like this. Arizona doesn't have daylight saving (other than the Navajo reservations), nor does Hawaii, Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands. But in California, it's always a welcome treat in the Spring, and I suppose we gain an hour tonight so I'll endure the next few months of it getting darker earlier in the evening. Life will surely go on ... always does.

But tonight's going to be a Cajun Halloween, of sorts. Small gathering, so far ... my wife and myself, my sister Colleen and her husband John. A small but excellent gathering! My sister loves kids, adores her nieces and nephews, and is a firm suscriber to the Peter Pan principle of "Never allow yourself to feel older than seven." So she arrived early in her Charlie Brown Great Pumpkin T-Shirt, prepared to dole out candy to the millions of kids that were surely going to visit our house in this very family-friendly neighborhood. She was thrilled when the first set of kids (great home made bug and rocket costumes) arrived a little after five, when it wasn't even remotely dark yet. But hopes of a big crowd of trick or treaters faded quickly as the hours went by, and we ended up with four sets of two kids to the house. This means a couple things ... first, my co-workers are going to have a huge amount of assorted candy to share tomorrow, and second ... what's happened with Halloween and all the kids? I'm obviously unsure if this is the trend elsewhere, but it was a little disappointing, to say the least.

Friends and avid readers know I grew up in Daly City, California. Now this was a few years ago of course, but Halloween was awesome! First, after the age of five, kids' parents never joined them in their trick or treating rounds through this little suburb just south of San Francisco. We'd go out in groups of two-to-four, fill up our pillow cases with candy, go home and empty them out, and head out for another round or two of the same. I had candy for months! And at around 9:00 we'd all head down to the Westlake Shopping Center for the annual Halloween celebration in the parking lot that faced what was then known as Alemany Boulevard, and was renamed to John Daly Blvd a number of years ago. For those of us who grew up there, it will always be "Alemany."

The parking lot that faced the afore-mentioned boulevard featured the likes of the Westlake Liquor Store which was owned by 49er legend Bob St. Clair, the Westlake Music Store, King Norman's Toys, Johnson's Enchiladas, a drug store, Georgette's Beauty Salon (still there, as is Georgette), Vern's Ice Cream, Compton's Cafeteria (best custard anywhere), See's Candies, and Walgreen's. And on Halloween, this lot would be packed with kids, parents, and pets who would partake in the live music and free goodies. One thing that could be counted on every year was little tubs of "50-50" orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream, which would be given away for the asking. This was back in the days of Cho-cho's and Sidewalk Sundaes being the most popular ice cream varietals, but the little tubs of 50-50's were awesome. I'm sure I'm dating myself ... how many of you remember Cho-cho's? Just as I thought.

It was a safer time, for sure. These were also the days when I'd ride my bike ten or fifteen miles in several directions, with the only condition being "be home for dinner at 5:30." It wasn't unusual to spend a Saturday with a friend or two, riding into the City, all over Golden Gate Park, over to Larsen Pool for a swim (for a dime, as I recall), to the Zoo (which was free, back then), and back up Lake Merced Boulevard, across ALEMANY, and home to the Park Plaza Apartments. Just be home for dinner ... and we always were.

So where were the kids last night? I'd like to think they were at parties or gatherings where they were having fun, and of course being safe ... undoubtedly with parents in tow, as that's how things are done these days. But I miss the notion that they can't be out and about visiting the friendly neighbors in their home turf, amassing a collection of sweets that they'd take home and sample, sort, and squirrel away somewhere for the next several weeks. But last night, they were a no-show.

My sister and John did show though, and dinner turned out awesome. Colleen brought a Malbec from their recent trip to Argentina, and it was incredible with the jambalaya. I added a bottle of Zinfandel from Adelaida in Paso Robles for good measure. Also good.

Appetizers were kept simple because I had a feast preparing in the kitchen. Carr's crackers, a brie, and a Kerrigold aged Irish cheddar were plenty. Colleen brought an awesome salad, which meant one less thing I had to prepare. I love doing salads, but I always like not having to prepare a course. Most cooks do. I've said this many times in this blog, but never be hesitant or intimidated bringing things to a meal at a chef's house, or in fact inviting them over! Your food's undoubtedly great, and we love being cooked for. All of us do!

I started the red velvet cupcakes early in the day, and made the frosting while the two dozen little gems were cooling on the cooktop. This is a fairly common recipe, and in fact if you Google it, the results are virtually identical. Mine came from my friend Siobhan, who owns the Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Truckee. I'll try to remember to post it on the website, and the jambalaya recipe is already out there. These turned out really good ... I thought the frosting that consists of two cubes of butter, a pound of cream cheese, and four cups of powdered sugar needed just a bit more ... so I sprinkled some Sharffen Berger mocha chocolate nibs on the top. Perfect.

The jambalaya took shape early in the afternoon, and was actually done before anyone arrived. Very easy to do a quick reheat, which is what I did just before I served it. The cornbread was served in the Lodge cast iron pan I baked it in, which seemed fitting.

After dinner, we got into the last of my Zin Alley Port, which of course is always served in my Port Pigs. Consistent crowd pleasers, both the Port and the Pigs. There's just something to sucking your dessert wine out of a glass pig's tail, I guess.

Great night, always a treat seeing my sister and her hubby, the food worked, and we gained an hour via the end of the afore-mentioned Daylight Saving, granting us an extra hour of sleep, which I currently need as I'm fighting a cold. But I'm still wondering where all the trick or treaters were last night. Perhaps there were ghosts and goblins out in the neighborhood, and we were the only ones safe???