Saturday, January 31, 2009

Weeknight Dinners

This past Friday was "Beer Friday" at our favorite local brewery, Devil's Canyon, in Belmont, CA. We discovered this local gem through our friend Lora, who was one of the students in the last Advanced Massage Class where we were fortunate enough to be Teacher's Assistants. Lora's husband Dan is the Assistant Brew Master, she works some of the concessions or simply mingles and lends her friendly demeanor to the event. But it's a very fun monthly event and in fact draws a fairly substantial crowd, all eager to partake in the incredibly delicious array of locally brewed artisan beverages, and a decent selection of BBQ'd goodies to compliment the liquid libations.

So, while hanging with Lora and two other "massage school friends," the conversation prompted a curiously interesting thought. Essentially, I mentioned that we should probably head home because I still had to cook dinner for us (it was about 8:00). This produced a combination of odd looks and serious questions from them ... along the lines of "why are you cooking tonight?" and "why not just open a can of something" or go out, or get something to go, or whatever. This is why God gave us fast food, right?

I cook. My blog is called LSCooks. I've always cooked. Better lately than 20 years ago, but I've always cooked. Although I will admit to maybe twice a year visits to Mickey Dee's, and I can't go more than two weeks without a Toto's pizza ... my idea of "fast food" is something I can do in my wok. I suppose it's just a paradigm shift in thought process about preparing the evening meal. I cook. If I don't, we're not going to eat. So I cook.

But this was actually the third time this conversation came up over the past week. Our friend Dave drove up from Morro Bay last week and I (amazingly) cooked a nice mid-week meal. And my sister was totally blown away! "Do you guys eat like this every night?" "Why don't you do something easy?" I guess people who don't cook, or don't prepare "normal" meals during the week are fascinated by those of us that do.

So this is where this is going. You can put together anything from simple to semi-fancy, in under an hour, during the week. I have a very demanding job as a Telecom Manager for a major international company. And I come home and cook every night. I don't spend hours at it, but it's a regular fresh meal, every night.

This trend actually started about 25 years ago. I worked in grocery stores in my college years and a couple years after that, and I got in the habit of shopping every day based on what caught my fancy that day at work. I could be stocking shelves and see an interesting rice or pasta. Perhaps working the produce section and have some new or particularly fresh item catch my attention. Or maybe wandering through the meat department and spot an incredibly nice looking steak, chop, piece of fish or poultry, or pile of ground beef. Or simply salivating over the ingredients to what was surely to become an amazing stew, drifting down the conveyer in front of my register, and into those old fashioned brown paper bags (we called them #50's or "barrel bags" in the grocery business.)

So the root of "good" daily cooking is to either shop daily, or buy the freshest items you possibly can, and store them correcly for the upcoming week. I shop every day, but I realize I'm a little weird in that regard. I have a fully stocked pantry at any given moment, and there's plenty of "ingredients" in my refrigerator, but the main makings of my dinners are up for grabs on a daily basis.

I'll sometimes call my wife and ask what she wants, and will generally make something resembling her request. But more often than not, it's a walk through the store that produces my ideas for "what's for dinner." What looks good? What's fresh today? As badly as you want asparagus tonight, is it worth $4.99 a pound? That package of corn probably came half way around the world, and it shows (it's February). Buy what's fresh and affordable. It pays off.

And of course there's the very real time factor when you cook during the week. A nice risotto or tri-tip on the BBQ is about the limit. Stir fry is great, even a decent pasta sauce is within my self-imposed hour from start to finish rule. A stew that takes 3 1/2 hours to simmer is not. A Paul Prudhomme inspired jambalaya with no less than 15 spices, is not. But a good soup, even a gumbo, is within reason. And there are so many more things you can do during the week which are not necessarily costly, and will please friends and family enormously.

A sampling from last week's "gourmet" meals included:

Monday night (Angela came over for a massage)
Burritos with Spanish rice (from scratch) and Rosarita vegetarian refried beans, ground round, two kinds of tortillas to pick from, garnishes of salsas, onions, cilantro, jalapenos, and cheese. Sour cream and sliced avocado on the side. Topped with a simple enchilada sauce which looks very impressive when you make squiggles from a plastic bottle. 30 minutes start to finish.

Thursday night (Dave's visit).
Salad of field greens tossed with some radishes, green onions, and some home made balsamic vinaigrette which I always have in the fridge.
Risotto with shallots, garlic, arborio rice, chicken stock, brown Italian mushrooms, fresh arugula leaves, white wine, and a parmesan cheese finish.
Simple NY strip steaks that take 8 minutes on the BBQ (this is a splurge, admittedly). Total cooking time was about 40 minutes.

Friday night (Beer Friday, so my cooking didn't start 'til about 8:00).
Low fat pork tenderloin, which I seared in a pan on the stove, then finished in the oven. Marinated with some of my "Rubbit" dry rub, slathered some Leon's BBQ sauce toward the end. Red beans and rice mix from a package (ok, this may be borderline cheating, but it's not fast food, and I COOK it!). And either a mix (Marie Callendar's is best) or from scratch cornbread completes the meal. Total cooking time, 30 minutes.

Pasta is an easy under-an-hour meal. Heat some olive oil over medium heat, chop an onion, crush a couple cloves of garlic, sweat them in a pan covered for about 10 minutes. Sautee some sliced mushrooms for another couple of minutes. Add fresh or canned diced tomatoes, herbs of your choice (fresh is best, Italian Seasoning works in a pinch ... it is a weeknight). Options include some red wine, sherry or marsala, a pinch of cinnamon, a diced green pepper, some browned hamburger meat, sweet or hot Italian sausages (turkey, if you're counting calories) ... bring it to a boil, simmer for 45 minutes. Boil water for the pasta, which averages about 10 minutes for al dente. Thinly slice some fresh basil for your garnish (chiffonade, is what the cut is called ... pile several leaves, roll them up, slice as thin as you can). Garlic French bread takes 10 minutes, a salad takes about the same.

Good cooks know how to pace themselves and ideally have everything ready to serve at the same time. The pasta meal above is a coordinated dance around your kitchen in order to have everything done in 45 minutes, but you can do it!

Stir frys are great. Keep them simple, meaning 2-3 vegetables is perfect ... 7 or 8 doesn't make it better, just more fussy and more prep work. Try a chopped baby bok choy, a couple scallions done in angled cuts, a peeled sliced carrot and a couple pork chops cut into 1/2" chunks. Marinate the pork (beef or chicken both work great too) in some soy sauce, cornstarch, Mirin rice cooking wine if you have some, white wine if you don't. Cook them in the order they'll cook, meaning 2-3 minutes for the meat in a very hot oiled wok (peanut oil burns at the highest temp ... good for this type of cooking), add the carrots for a couple minutes, the onions, the bok choy, a pinch of powdered ginger, a little additional soy sauce, and you've got a great meal in about 10 minutes ... assuming you thought ahead and put your rice on before you started your prep work!

En Papillote is something magical. Fish or chicken cooked in parchment paper (or a double sheet of aluminum foil is a perfectly good substitute), thin layer of butter on the bottom, simple garnishes of thinly sliced leeks and carrots, some fresh or dried tarragon, a sprinkling of wine or vermouth, salt and pepper, seal the edges, 20 minutes at 350 and it's dinner.

Economic times are difficult, most of us work long hours during the day, whether it's physically away at a job, or tending to the many duties a stay-at-home mom or dad has to do on a daily basis, and I realize that putting together something "fancy" at the end of your work day, isn't always your first choice. But the satisfaction you'll feel, and the looks and comments from family and invited guests, makes it all worth it. Plus, it's real cooking, real food, real prep work, and it can't help but inspire your creativity in the kitchen.

You'll make some less-than-perfect concoctions. Maybe the broccoli shouldn't have been smothered in cheese. Lamb probably wasn't the right choice for the pasta sauce. Wine in your foods is probably best done in moderation and only in the foods that should have wine in them. Salt and pepper? Be careful. Dozens of spices? Best start with something proven that comes from a book that says Paul Prudhomme on the cover before you start tackling this kind of dish. Much safer.

I encourage people to cook. Trader Joe's has great frozen foods ... buy and use them in moderation. The very best canned soups are just that ... canned. Play in your kitchen. Treat it like a dance, with very specific steps and coordinated movements. You'll be a happier person in the long term. Probably not ready to tackle the tango yet, but you're on your way.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Repeat after me ... I will make more desserts.

I've had a growing desire recently to do more desserts, and specifically ... to bake more. I've never been a big "sweets" person, and even as a child, would prefer to spend my allowance (such as it was) on "food" vs. sweet edibles. A salami and cheese on a sourdough roll or hot pastrami on rye from the Westlake Deli would always win, vs. an ice cream cone from Vern's, which was situated 10 steps away.

I had a few favorite sweet indulgences of course ... I was a normal child in that regard. U-No and Charleston Chew candy bars, Rollo's, or anything resembling licorice were like magnets. A girlfriend once gave me a 24-pack box of U-No's for Christmas, and I thought it was an extremely thoughtful gift for a 16 year old. She knew me!

I love ice cream every now and then, especially anything resembling vanilla. Marble fudge works, sundaes as well, but plain old vanilla is the best, in a dish, on a sugar cone, or if it's my fridge and my ice cream, right out of the container. Decadent indulgence.

Root beer floats are special. My humble (and I'd argue correct) opinion is that the best ones begin with Hires or A&W root beer, and they're served in a pre-frozen glass mug with chunks of ice breaking off on both the inside and outside of the glass as you consume your float. I remember my very first root beer like it was yesterday (and it most certainly wasn't!). My mom and grandmother and I were at lunch at Stonestown Shopping Center, on 19th Avenue in San Francisco. I was probably about 4, and was offered my first root beer float. As the server placed this new delicacy in front of me, it was like clockwork ... my mom said "don't stir it" just as I was commencing to do exactly that. This of course makes everything fizz and foam all over the tabletop. Aside from my embarrassment, it also meant that I didn't get to consume a good portion of this wonderful new discovery. But it was love at first sight and I've loved floats ever since.

Summers were spent at one of two rustic resorts on the Russian River. Johnson's Resort, which was right on the edge of town, or Guernewood Park, which was about a mile walk. My mom and five younger sisters and I would usually rent a couple room cabin, as my dad commonly worked two jobs in order to keep this tribe clothed and fed. And of course, several of my mom's "bridge" friends. The ladies would spend most days and evenings playing bridge. They belonged to bridge clubs, had bridge parties, and lived and breathed classic Contract Bridge. We'd spend the bulk of our days swimming, floating or paddling in the gently flowing river, which runs through beautiful Sonoma County, and much of what now is famous for some of the best wineries in the world.

Early afternoons would commonly mean "nap time" for the sisters, and afforded me some free time to venture out to the streets of Guerneville (pronounced "gern-ville" not "gerny-ville" according to my grandfather who was raised here). Among my daily stops during the girls' naptime was a little Borden's Creamery, situated about half way up the main street of town. It was here that I could grab a killer root beer float or an ice cream of infinitely variable proportions. I'm dating myself here, but it worked like this; 15 cents for the first scoop on a cone, and a dime a scoop beyond that. So a "scubble doop of farble mudge" would run you a quarter. Dare to invest forty five cents in your afternoon treat, and you've got a major balancing act in front of you. But you manage.

As I grew up, and inevitably older, I got more and more into the "cooking" part of the meal, and desserts sort of took a back seat. I almost never order desserts, and am quite happy with a very small nibble of whatever my wife orders. Every now and then I have to have my own creme brulee, and I've never met a strawberry cream pie or a German chocolate cake that couldn't win me over, but I very rarely order them, and even more rarely actually create them.

I have a couple of semi-signature desserts that I do very well, but nothing particularly innovative, and I definitely can't claim originality. Crowd pleasers yes, but created by someone else. "My" chocolate mousse was stolen (and modified) from New Basics Cookbook. "My" key lime pie is a variation from James McNair's wonderful pie book. My tarte tatin is something we learned the first day at the California Culinary Academy, and is in actuality a French classic that's been passed down through generations of chefs. Again, people love them, but they're not mine.

My observation has been that chefs will commonly branch into the baking world or the cooking world, but there's a distinct direction that most will take, and that's the specialty area that they'll pursue. Obviously, chefs can create world class desserts, and bakers can of course knock your socks off with a wonderful meal. But the basic path of choice commonly presents itself as a fork in the road. Culinary schools usually offer a baking series, and a cooking series (and sometimes a front-of-the-house or hospitality series), but rarely any combination of these. You train to cook, to bake, or to manage and direct the operation.

So I'm going to change my ways, I've decided. I want to do desserts like I do my other cooking, meaning, by the proverbial book here and there, look at all the recipes, LEARN the techniques, understand the ingredients, vary them with the understanding of what the end result is going to taste like, and more than anything ... become comfortable with the process.

Among the best of breed baking series are Rose Levy Beranbaum's wonderfully comprehensive books, The Cake Bible and The Pie and Pastry Bible. I learned of Ms. Beranbaum's works through a co-worker at a biotech company I worked for about 10 years ago. He went on and on about his Aunt Rose, who is essentially a chemist by trade, but managed to channel it into her love for baking. She approaches everything very scientifically; recipes, ingredients, measurements, reactions of things to each other as well as to heat, cold, mixing, etc. But the end results are certainly worth the effort. The pictures alone are enough to motivate you to either start baking, or start driving toward the nearest Marie Callendar's.

Tonight is going to be yet another Saturday night dinner gathering. On days where I'm going to do fancy dinners like this, I find myself waking up with thoughts of what I'm going to prepare, and actually "arranging" it on the plates ... in my mind. Strange thoughts to wake up to, but it is what it is.

I'm going to cook a salmon dish that my good friend Chris passed along, and everyone loves it. It's a very simple brown sugar, cumin, cinnamon, and orange zest topping on salmon filets that have marinated for a couple hours in lemon and orange juice.

I thought I'd vary a vodka-cream sauce penne rigate that I've done in the past, maybe substituting a whole wheat pasta, and adding a sprinkle of a chiffonade-cut basil for a burst of flavor.

Simple salad, an interesting bread, and it looks like this will call for a good chardonnay ... maybe a Tobin James or a Lambert Bridge.

And I'm going to bake something. Not sure what yet, maybe just some simple brownies from scratch ... quite possibly with a scoop of French Vanilla on top, but I will bake.

Repeat after me ... I will make more desserts, I will make more desserts ...

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A little therapy ...

My intent for this piece was to talk about yet another Saturday night dinner with a bunch of our "massage girlfriends." We all attended Body Therapy Center five years ago, and have remained great friends ever since. Thus ... "A little therapy." However, I'm going to attack that piece a little later in this discussion, as it hit me that today provided plenty of therapy as well. Totally out of the blue (water and sky varieties on this day), and wonderful therapy.

It's a particularly mild winter here in the Golden State, and as much as we love our second home in Bend, OR ... there's a lot to be said for days like this. We decided to take the new car out for a shakedown cruise, and "somewhere on the coast" was the general direction we decided to go. Up over Highway 92 down into sleepy little Half Moon Bay, home of the annual "world's biggest pumpkin" weigh-in. A little more crowded than usual, due to (A) it's late January and it was 75 degrees on the coast, and (B) it was rumored that the annual Maverick's big wave contest might start today (it didn't, but likely will in the next couple days).

Upon our arrival at Highway 1 (the Coast Highway, we call it) I had to make a decision; a right would take us north past Princeton by the Sea (any city with "by the Sea" just has to be a cool spot), up past Montara, over Devil's Slide where they're undertaking the incredible task of boring through a portion of the Coast Range and creating a tunnel, which will extend from almost Montara Beach, into the south end of Pacifica. Devil's Slide is quite appropriately named ... every couple of winters the road totally washes out, and unlucky travelers and commuters have to go over Hwy 92 (20 miles south) or up and over Sharp Park Road or even farther up to stay on the freeway. Makes for a nasty ride for the thousands who trek to the Silicon Valley or into San Francisco to work every day. So they're boring ... right through the mountain that's on the right side of the adjacent shot.

But today, it's still under construction, and since it's such an incredibly rare, warm, sunny January day (even by California standards) and there would undoubtedly be several thousand other people making this trip North, we decided to take the less-traveled route south toward Santa Cruz, and lunch at the Crow's Nest which overlooks the yacht harbor.

This is some of the most familiar and frequently traveled territory for me. My grandparents lived just outside of Santa Cruz in Bonnie Doon, then Felton, and I spent virtually every weekend, holiday, and summer there. This is where I learned how to swim at about age 6, at Felton Acres pool, with summer friends Christie and Nancy Murray. People who know me know I hate losing track of old friends, and I'd love to know what became of my childhood friends.

My grandparents lived on Lazywoods Road (like "by the sea," how can anything with that name not be a cool place to live?). Summer days would alternately be spent at the afore-mentioned pool, or with my paternal grandfather, commonly "crawdad fishin'" in the San Lorenzo River, which ran behind their humble little house in the country.

Days with Grandpa Gene would generally begin with a trip to Ellis' Market in Ben Lomond. It was here where we'd pick up some chunks of liver, which served as bait for the crawdads, and our "lunches" for later in the day. My lunches were simple - like me, my grandfather was the cook of the house, and consequently it was an easy task for him to fry me a hamburger, create a rustic BLT, heat up some soup, or whatever I wanted, for my mid day meal. He would commonly opt for an "innard" of some variety ... brains, kidneys, and liver were among his faves. Curiously, I've never gone near any of these things, although I pride myself in being able to produce some fairly exotic meals. I'm as comfortable with a tagine as I am with a frying pan, I'm just not putting brains into either of them.

Felton lies over the hill from Highway 1, about 15 miles out of Santa Cruz. Our trek on this day took us down the coast, through some of the most idyllic ocean scenery on the west coast. Past all the little creeks and associated beaches; San Gregorio, Tunitas, Wadell, and Pescadero (home of Duarte's Tavern, a local shrine of a restaurant since 1894 - given the opportunity, don't miss it - try the artichoke soup, it's unbelievable!).

Just past Pescadero lies Ano Nuevo Island, which is an incredibly beautiful state park, rich with seals and shorebirds, and home to one of the largest concentrations of great white sharks. Amazes me to this day that my friend Marty and I actually paddled out and surfed there when we were stupid teenagers. Yikes. Continuing south, we considered stopping for lunch in the former whaling village of Davenport, but we both agreed that waiting another 30 minutes would bring a much better lunch experience at the Crow's Nest.

There were quite literally hundreds of cars parked in the limited spaces along the highway, between Davenport and Santa Cruz. A good indication that the waves were breaking virtually everywhere on this stretch of highway. Curiously, the major Santa Cruz spots were only "fair," compared to the 50 mile stretch of coast we'd just traversed. But it was 78 degrees, crystal clear out, no wind, and reminded us again of how nice it is to live in California - traffic, cost of living, or whatever can all be overlooked on January days like this one.

Lunch at the Crow's Nest capped off this awesome day. Upstairs, overlooking the beautiful Santa Cruz harbor, watching the watercraft that ranged from little kayaks, to sailboats small and large, to multi-million dollar ocean-going yachts, likely the property of successful Silicon Valley entreneurs who inhabit the beautiful houses on West Cliff Drive.

So as I indicated at the beginning, this was to be a reference to a different kind of therapy ... friends, massage, and food varieties. Saturday night was indeed therapeutic, and a very special one spent with a group of our friends from massage training, but this time we had the pleasure of seeing a couple ladies who we see way too infrequently. One of them moved to Denver, but was making a rare visit to the City, so I thought what better reason to have a dinner party! The final lady in this group is also a massage therapist who we met after our training, but she's become a bona fide member of our crazy little group.

When massage therapists get together, they talk about techniques, demonstrate on each other, and can't help doing what we do best, which I like to call "rubbing each other the right way." And if there happens to be a non-therapist among a group of us, they're commonly our "stunt body," and get to spend a couple hours on the table while we all demonstrate new techniques and strokes that the others may not have seen. If you ever get invited to a party where there's going to be a bunch of massage people, always go, and always volunteer to be the one on the table. You'll proably end up with a free two-hour massage.

I love getting together with this group. We literally became friends the first day of class, and have been ever since. Many of them have taken several trips up to see us in Bend, which is not an easy ride, and a miserable one in the winter. So of course I always cook for them as a small but appreciated "thank you" for gracing our home.

Saturday night's dinner ...

Salad of mixed field greens, mandarin orange wedges, and a balsamic vinaigrette

Accompanied by a scallop dish that I found while searching for amuse bouche recipes:
- Fresh sea scallops (the big ones)
- 1/2 cube of melted butter combined with a tablespoon of chopped thyme and two minced red chilis (not bells, real chilis)
- Brush the scallops with the butter mixture, place under a broiler for 8-10 minutes
- Remove from the oven, lightly salt, grate a small amount of parmesan cheese
- Serve on leaves of Belgian endive.

Tequila lime chicken, on the BBQ
Salmon with a cumin, cinnamon, brown sugar and lemon zest crust
French green beans, simply tossed with butter, salt and pepper

Risotto with arborio rice, shallots, vermouth, garlic, brown Italian mushrooms, fresh arugula, 1/2 cup of cream, parmesan cheese, and a few threads of crumbled saffron.

Our new friend Adrienne wanted to watch the risotto technique, which I believe many people look at as too complicated and/or time-consuming, and it's absolutely not. The right pot makes a difference - I like my small Calphalon Dutch oven for its straight sides, and semi-non-stick construction. Take your time, add ingredients in the order that they're going to cook to the consistency you want (in other words, add mushrooms and herbs at the end). Have plenty of stock warmed and ready, ladling as necessary, stirring regularly, and keeping an eye on the process. Add final ingredients like cream and cheese off heat after your risotto's otherwise complete. Risotto's a technique - learn the basics and be creative. And as with anything you cook ... taste, taste, taste. Ingredients take time to come alive and it's always better to "under-add" vs. trying to compensate when you add too much.

Dessert consisted of my friend Nicole's awesome truffles, and I did small ice cream sundaes with French Vanilla, chopped walnuts, Dove chocolate topping and REAL whipped cream. Effective basics always work!

Lots of great wines, ending with a nice port that I serve in "port pigs."

Great meal, great friends, wonderful night, and a killer following day that featured an absolutely spectacular view of the California coast in all its splendor. We moved out of California for all the right reasons, and we absolutely love Bend on so many levels, but there's a lot to be said for this land of opportunity, which has so much to offer in so many ways.

And a final footnote ... as I'm completing this on Martin Luther King Day, which I firmly believe should be a "real" national holiday, not just for schools and banks ... and the day before the inauguration of President Obama and what surely has to be a big step forward in so many ways, we all need to celebrate the positives around us while hoping for a brighter future.

It's good therapy ...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Saturday night with old friends

Tonight was a special evening. Several friends who have been very important over the years, are all going to be in town at the same time, and have agreed to grace our abode. Because it's "what I do," we'll have a fairly fancy dinner. I've cooked many times for all ofthem over the years, but it's been about 5 years since we've seen them, so I'll do a special dinner.

A little over 20 years ago, a group of us met while working at a "major computer component company" in Brisbane, California. Brisbane's a sleepy little hamlet between San Franciso and the Peninsula, overlooking the Bay and Candlestick Park. And this is where our group originally met and became life long friends. It's where our friend Leilani introduced me to my lovely wife. It's where I spent 8 hours a day answering predominantly stupid questions about video boards that are no longer made. Questions that commonly were answered on pages 1 or 2 of the included (hard copy!) product manual. A manual that was likely written by another of our friends. And the board itself contained components that were designed and/or programmed by yet another of our friends ... one who we spent Christmas with this year in Morro Bay. Rare, wonderful, lifelong friends.

After a year in Brisbane, the company moved to Mountain View, which is in the heart of the Silicon Valley. It was here that some lifelong bonds were formed. We had volleyball teams - two of them in fact, due to the fact that so many of us enjoyed the games and AFTER the games at Twin Creeks Park. About 20 of us played on the two teams, and we could always count on about that many "fans" who'd come out to watch and cheer us on. Our teams were so good that we ended up playing each other for the league championship, meaning we took first and second places.

This is also where I got to know my wife, who used to show up for every game and cheer "us" on, then join us for beers in the clubhouse, afterward. It's where we first danced together, and had lots of time to get to know each other.

Dinner started with a bay scallop ceviche, which I served in chilled stainless steel martini glasses.
1 lb of bay scallops

  • 2 "on the vine" organic tomatoes, diced
  • 2 ribs of celery, sliced thin
  • 1/2 a medium red onion, chopped
  • 2 jalapeno peppers, seeded, diced
  • 1/2 a bunch of cilantro, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons of lime juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes
  • teaspoon of Tabasco
  • 1/2 a ripe avocado, sliced thin
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Rinse the scallops under cold water, drain.
Combine all the ingredients, stir well, cover in a bowl and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
Check the spices / taste, after a couple hours.
Serve in chilled martini glasses, add the avocado at serving, garnish with a couple tortilla chips.

Amuse bouche - Mango sorbet with a sprinkle of lemon zest, lemon twist and mint garnish, served in Chinese soup spoons. I've gotten in to doing this quite often. Little "palate cleansers" between courses, particularly if you're moving from a fish, soup, or salad to a completely different entree. Fun to present, interesting to garnish.

Main course -
- Barbequed beef filets, cut from a full tenderloin section, served with a port wine reduction. Season steaks with salt, pepper, garlic, BBQ 4-5 minutes per side for medium rare. Garnish with a couple criss-crossed chives.

- Risotto - Shallots and garlic sauteed in olive oil, arborio rice, porcini and Italian brown mushrooms, parmesan cheese, white wine or vermouth. Garnish with a crisp round of Reggiano Parmigaiano. (See "Keepers" on

- Stuffed zucchini. Halve the zucchinis, remove & chop the the centers. In a medium size bowl, combine the chopped zucchini centers, 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese, chopped fresh thyme, Italian seasoned bread crumbs, olive oil, salt and pepper. Stuff the zucchinis, place on a cookie sheet on aluminum foil. 350 degrees, 25-30 minutes. Top with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and serve.

Two of our guests brought a variety of wonderful desserts, including lots of decadent chocolate items, which pleased my wife immensely. I've mentioned in early blogs that I'm not a "sweets" eater particularly, but even I had to sample a couple pieces, and they were uniformly awesome.

I do a lot of cooking and entertaining for friends. Pretty much always have. These make for some very memorable occasions, and this night was no exception. Seeing friends after 3, 4, 5 years and it's like you just saw them yesterday, is indeed rare. I hate losing track of people, and make every effort to let people know that they're still in my thoughts, even when life takes them far away. When we lived in Oregon it was sometimes difficult, particularly in the winter, and it added to a feeling of isolation. But if you make the effort, it's well worth your time.

Cherish your friends, let them know they're special to you ... and of course COOK for them!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Soup Story

Like many cooks, I rarely plan my daily meals very far in advance. I got in the habit many years ago while working in grocery stores. Stocking shelves, answering customers' questions and working the checkout area all provided ideas for "what's for dinner" on any given night. It could be a can of chili or a rack of lamb. A fancy chicken dish, or an omelet. Progresso soup, or home made minestrone. But very little was planned ahead, which also means that meals and ingredients are always fresh. I picked this habit up the early 70's, and I'm still shopping and cooking this way today. Although, I very rarely resort to canned soups or chili. And fast food? That's something that I can do in the wok in less than a half hour.

Today is a slightly chilly, early winter Bay Area Sunday. No rain, precious few clouds, no wind, and only the sound of neighbors working in their yards to disturb the otherwise idyllic day. It's a soup day, I decided first thing this morning. Wasn't sure what kind, but I was confident that something would come to mind. I'll commonly start with a couple cookbooks, get some ideas, then make it the way I want. So I browsed The Silver Spoon and the CIA's soup cookbook (Culinary Institure of America ... nothing to do with spys!), settling fairly quickly on a variation of the minestrone style soup that I vary each time I make it.

I love "other people's soups" as well. Home chefs who tackle them gain an immediate "yay" for trying, whether they're restaurant quality or not. They're not a simple task, and it's painfully easy to add too much of any of the dozen(s) of ingredients that are supposed to add up to a great pot of soup. And restaurants that make great soups that aren't contrived by combining a couple pre-cooked, packaged, canned or frozen ingredients, have my total respect.

Joe's of Westlake's minestrone, which I've had with 90% of the 1000 or so meals I've eaten there, is the pinnacle. Always perfect, and if you're hungry (and what are you doing at Joe's if you're NOT?) they bring it immediately. The lobster bisque at the Jackalope Grill in Bend, Or is downright decadent. Legal Seafood's white clam chowder is one of the most consistent ones on the east coast. White clam chowder is way too fattening, but every now and then you owe it to yourself. Any trip to the Boston area HAS to include both a trip to "Legal's" and a jaunt up to Gloucester and Rockport to ferret out a new entry in the world's best chowder. Red or white, love 'em both. Add a glass of chardonnay, some fresh French bread, and it just doesn't get any better.

The best recipes and techniques naturally originate from the best cooks and cookbooks. The afore-mentioned Silver Spoon is the benchmark for Italian cookbooks. Julia Child's "The Way to Cook" has some awesome techniques, including the best way to tackle classic French Onion. The CIA's Book of Soups, New Basics Cookbook (which I've virtually worn out over the past 18 years), and The French Laundry Cookbook are all awesome references. Worth seeking out is Deborah Dinelli's "A Taste of Lucca." We were lucky enough to meet her and get a signed copy while visiting the beautiful Kunde Winery outside of Sonoma a few years ago. Very nice lady, and a uniquely excellent book to have in your library.

Soup is an adventure, an acquired body of knowledge generally consisting of a combination of personal likes and dislikes, fresh ingredients as much as possible, a lot of experimentation and ingenuity, and a couple hours of time.

Tonight's was something resembling a minestrone ... an Italian inspired vegetable soup, with some fresh thyme and proscuitto, plus a handful of farfalline pasta tossed in at the end ... I'll be bold enough to call it:

LSCooks' Minestrone


  • 3 oz. of good quality proscuitto
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 ribs of celery, halved up the middle, sliced thin
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 4 medium red potatoes, unpeeled, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • Half a head of green or Savoy cabbage, chopped
  • 2-3 pieces of fresh thyme (leave on the stem)
  • 2 cans of petite diced tomatoes, with juice
  • 48 oz (large can) of Swanson's fat-free chicken broth
  • Additional 48 oz of water
  • Tablespoon of concentrated chicken stock (by the jar at the supermarket)
  • Cup of uncooked small pasta
  • Optional - Red kidney, white cannelini beans (or both) makes it a "pasta e fagioli"
  • Salt, pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • Olive oil and grated parmesan to drizzle and sprinkle

To cook ...

  • Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a 10qt or bigger stockpot
  • Stir in the chopped onions, cover and cook until they're transluscent, stirring occasionally
  • Stir in the proscuitto, cook 5 minutes longer
  • Stir in the celery and garlic, cook 5 minutes longer
  • Add the stock, 2 cans of hot water and the chicken broth concentrate, thyme, and tomatoes with their juice, raise to high and bring to a boil
  • Reduce to medium heat, add the potatoes, cabbage, pasta
  • If using beans, add them now
  • Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered, stirring uncovered
  • Taste occasionally, add salt and pepper to taste
  • Cook times will vary, but you can safely serve in 45 minutes, or simmer on low for a couple of hours
  • Remove thyme before ladling into bowls, drizzle olive oil on top, offer parmesan cheese at the table

Serve with a simple salad and bread. I'm doing garlic ciabatta bread tonight, because it was warm on the shelf and smelled phenomenal! See "Keepers" section at for a basic garlic bread recipe.

Experiment with soups. Cook what you like. Add spices carefully ... you can always increase things, but it's much more difficult to compensate for "too much" of many things. Try making your beef , chicken, vegetable and fish stocks from scratch. They could make a big difference in the flavor of your soups, but they also can be too rich for some applications. The concentrated products that come in a jar have gotten very good, last a long time, and they always enhance the flavor. Use fresh herbs, salt and pepper as needed, and never forget to taste, taste, taste as you're cooking. Salt takes awhile to open up - salt your soup, taste, wait a bit, taste again. Herbs take time to add to the flavor. Play around with using "big pieces" of herbs, then removing them. This can sometimes "look" better in the final product, if you don't have bits and pieces of "green" floating around in your red or white soup.

Small things make a big difference in your soups, as well as other dishes. As I was cleaning and preparing the vegetables for tonight's soup, I was constructing what I wanted the final product to look and taste like, and tailored the "cuts" accordingly. It's soup, not a work of art, but the order that you add things will produce different consistencies in the product. Adding the celery right after the onions means they'll likely be soft and not stand out. Making the carrots and potatoes roughly the same size, and adding the carrots first, then the potatoes, means they'll cook correctly and look nice in the bowl. These are little things to do for your food preparation.

I once took a cooking class with the great Chinese chef Larry Chu (Chef Chu's, Los Altos, CA) and he made a very good point: As his sous chef was gently removing the ribs from some snow peas, then cutting them at opposite angles at each end, he said "You do this to show your guests that you went to a little extra trouble to make their meal enjoyable."

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Cars & Restaurants

What a combination this title is! The impetus for this one was the result of a conversation I had with my two lunch dates today. Today's lunch was once again at Joe's of Westlake, and it was the first time for one of my friends, which is always a treat. I've taken so many people here for their "first Joe's fix" over the years, and it never ceases to amaze me that some people have never eaten at this Daly City gem where I've enjoyed at least 1000 meals.

Today's little venture was to (A) show my friend Angela what Joe's was all about, and (B) to introduce Nicole to all the fun gadgets and toys that she'll use as she embarks on the Professional Baking course at the San Francisco branch of Le Cordon Bleu. The rows and rows of baking and cooking gadgets can make any chef drool. And of course you can spend ALL the money you care to spend here.

As we sat in a booth looking out at the familiar surroundings that comprises the intersections of John Daly and Lake Merced Blvds, I began a mental history exercise of what I've seen here over the years. The apartments on the SW corner are part of the Park Plaza Apartments, where I lived from 4 yrs old through 3rd grade. Across the street is the Westlake Shopping Center, which bears very little resemblence to its original state. What began as the Town and Country Market, expanded to include dozens of stores that are so familiar to all of us who grew up there; Penney's, Arthur's (where we bought our Levi's for $3.99 a pair), Thom McCann shoes, H. Liebes, the newer and larger Westlake Market (where I had my first slice of pizza for nineteen cents), Walgreen's, See's Candies, Johnson's Tamales, Westlake Liquors, King Norman's Toys, The Westlake Music Shop, Georgette's Beauty Salon, and W.T. Grant's (where I once broke a window with a rock and never ran so fast in my life). Of all of these, Walgreen's and Georgette's are still there.

The shopping center went through a major revamp over the past couple years and now looks like 90% of the malls in the country, with big unfriendly stores that you see everywhere. Not likely that I could walk into the "deli" of the new market and they'd know my name or how I wanted my salami and cheese sandwich made, like they did at the old Westlake Deli, next door to Vern's Ice Cream, two doors down from Compton's (best custard anywhere, to this day).

So walking into Joe's of Westlake for the millionth time is always like going to the most familiar place I know. John the head waiter, who's been working there for over 40 years greets me with a handshake, of course knows me by name, and sits us in a great section with a view of the intersection.

The NE corner is currently a Burger King, but it wasn't always. This corner began life as a little hamburger drive-in called "Tip's." Tip's was apparently sued for copying the name of a Southern California restaurant and it became "Pip's." Hamburgers were eighteen cents, and you could get a great lunch for fifty cents. I used to ride my bike down there from Westlake School when I was about 6 years old, which prompted a call to my parents. They apparently thought I was too young to be riding alone off campus at 6, but I was in fact riding all over town at 6. I was only 10 when the youngest of my five sisters was born, and I'd spent the day riding from Daly City to and around Golden Gate Park, the Beach, the Zoo, etc., only to arrive home to a "note" that my parents were at the hospital, mom was having the baby, make myself some dinner and they'd call a little later. I was 10. Times have changed.

Anyway, Pip's became A&W Root Beer, which was our hangout all through high school. Servers would bring you your Papa Burgers and A & W Root Beer Floats, with an order of fries, and you could hang for hours, checking out cars, friends, and of course the opposite sex.

Having "skipped" a grade at Westlake School, my car driving days began a year after most of my classmates. But in April of my Junior Year, I left school at 10 o'clock, took the written and driving tests, and got my license. On my 16th birthday. Couldn't wait. And I was able to drive four of us to the USF Gym that night to see Buffalo Springfield open up for the Jefferson Airplane. I believe the show cost all of $2.50 a ticket.

Two months later, I had my first car, which was a red 1960 Plymouth Valiant. Total piece of junk in retrospect, but it got me to Santa Cruz (surfing) and Burlingame (work) and all points in-between, for the summer. Next came a Rambler Ambassador, which had lots of fancy goodies for its day, but was also not much of a car. Then came my '51 Chevy Woodie, which had a deteriorating rear main seal (whatever that was), and meant it ate 8 quarts of oil per tank of gas. This one didn't last long either. Next up was a '57 Chevy wagon, which actually lasted a couple years, and got me to Junior College, as well as hundreds of trips to the beach, concerts, dates, etc. The Chevy died, and I got my first "real" car, a '67 VW Bug, which I drove for 3 years. The immaculate little VeeDub began life in white, but was stolen and vandalized a couple years later, and ended up being the first "Competition Orange" model that I'd seen. Looked pretty hot, in its day. I racked up over 100,000 miles on this car, including dozens of trips to San Diego State and back to the Bay Area. Commonly, for the weekend.

A conversation came up today about the pros and cons and the inevitable obstacles that a long distance romance can bring forth. I have a couple friends who could conceivably be much more compatible, if it weren't for a "measely" 100 miles between their abodes. My "counter" to this was the fact that I had no problem driving 500 miles (each way) every couple of weeks to see my girlfriend, when I went to San Diego State. And that was in the '67 VW bug, which had a top speed of about 65, downhill with a tailwind!

Following the VW, I bought the first of what were to be two Fiat 128's. The first one, in Italian red, was a great car. The second one, which followed a couple years on a Honda 450 motorcycle, was not. Very troublesome car - not something you'd get into and expect to go cross country.

It was interesting that the lunch discussion led to a discussion of the drive-in across the street, and our early car experiences, as I'd just bought a new car the day before and this was the first trip other than home from the dealer. Buying new cars was fairly common before we moved to Bend. I've been justly accused of buying a riduculous amount of cars over the years, only to trade them in for something else a year or so later. I love to drive ... love long trips (see some of the earlier entries), weekend romps through the wine country, up and down the coast, and I always have.

To put the cars in perspective, the chronology went something like this. Keep in mind that my wife drove several of these, but here we go ...

1986, returned from a poverty stricken 7 years in Chico California, and bought a new Chevy Beretta. Kept it for several years, put 65000 miles on it. This was followed by another Chevy in the form of an S-10 "small" pickup. Then the company I worked for went public, and of course I HAD to have a BMW - this one being a wonderful Arctic Silver 328i. A move to Gilroy begat a sale of the Bimmer (I hate that phrase, by the way) which both contributed to the down payment of the new house, AND provided a car that my lovely wife could drive (she doesn't like to shift). This would be a Pontiac Grand Prix. Beautiful car, but unfortunately very uncomfortable for the 2 hours in each direction that we were traveling to work and back.

The Pontiac became an Infiniti J30, which my wife had always liked, so we bought one. Then a Honda Accord coupe, a VW Passat, and then ... somewhat inevitably, another BMW. This one was a black 528i, which was a wonderful car. Kept it three years and reluctantly gave it up at the end of the lease.

And then it got a little crazy (I hear). We had the incredible good fortune of being offered a Porsche Boxster at a very low price, due to the generosity of some wonderful friends. Loved the Porsche, but at 6'1", it's a little tight on long trips. Sold it, bought an Audi S4, which was another great car. But alas, I was still searching for the perfect combination, and thought I found it in a Toyota Highlander. Great car, lots of storage, fun, beautiful, and I could cart the surfboard AND the drums around in it! Curiously, my better half loved the Highlander, and has driven it since 2002.

But ... I wanted a Corvette so bad I could taste it. And through some combination of fate, pleading, posturing, and lucrative options from my employer ... I bought the 2002 black rocket. What a fun toy. Fast, great mileage, comfortable, total head-turner. I drove this car to Seattle and back, taking ALL the back roads and "long ways" I could find. But after about 18 months and 25,000 miles, it was once again for something new and with a warranty, as the 'Vette showed signs of being a little too delicate, and very expensive to fix.

Next up would be a specially-ordered Acura TL, which was arguably the best all around car I've ever owned. All the bells and whistles, fun, comfortable, beautiful, and totally reliable. The only "problem" with the Acura was our discovery that there was no Acura dealer in Bend, and this is not a car for ice and snow, which is the norm for about six months of the year in Central Oregon.

I sold the Acura to a good friend, who still drives it daily and loves it. He splits his time between that and a very fun little Honda S2000. Absolutely trouble free cars, both of them.

Central Oregon requires all-wheel-drive vehicles. I had to have a car, didn't have a ton of money having just become a real estate broker with NO business, so I bought a couple year old Chevy Blazer (the smaller one). This lasted a year, ran like a charm, but ultimately was replaced by a new Subaru Outback. About every third car in Bend says Subaru on it. They run forever, they're great in the snow and ice, and they're comfortable and economical. The Subaru made dozens of trips to the Bay Area and back, and provided a comfortable, trouble free environment to its occupants.

But 3 years and 40,000 miles later, I'm once again back in the land of moderate weather, no ice or snow (actually, it's snowed twice here since the 50's), and I wanted a combination of fun, reliability, and economy. The new car coincidentally also says "VW" on it, but it's definitely not a bug. Nice car, great mileage, environmentally friendly, yet a total blast to drive. 30+ MPG, and it rides and drives like my Boxster used to. And I'm confident that this car will provide memories and experiences like they all have. It will see many trips to the wine countries, both Napa and Sonoma, and our latest haunt, the Paso Robles area. "Paso" wineries is putting out some of the best Zin's and varietals around currently, and is developing into a first class destination for wine lovers.

The Vee Dub will make trips to Bend, but not until the snow melts, which is likely to be in April or May. It will take me to work every day, and home, via the grocery store, where I shop every day for what I want to make that night. This is a habit I began while working in grocery stores during college - shopping daily, for what strikes my fancy, or whatever group I was cooking for that night. Everything's fresh, always.

First such trip was last night, and it produced a great dinner; Rack of lamb, which I marinated with a dry rub of salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary, anise, cumin, and dry mustard. 20 minutes at 425, and it was incredible. Served it over a bed of brown basmati rice pilaf, and a side of steamed green beans.

Tonight it will take us "out" and I'll gladly let someone else do the cooking!