Monday, March 24, 2008

"K.S., Call Home."

I miss Kim Severson.
Oh, I know she writes regularly -- and wonderfully -- for the New York Times, but I miss her days on staff at the San Francisco Chronicle when she wrote about restaurants and chefs and food purvveyors closer to me, me, me.
If you don't know Severson's work, you'll find a terrific example of it in the recently published "Best Food Writing 2007." These yearly compendiums edited by Holly Hughes always contain treasures, and this one also includes pieces by some of my other favorite food writers: Colman Andrews, Daniel Patterson, John Thorne and the always fabulous Mr. Bourdain.

Severson's piece, "A Grandchild of Italy Cracks the Spaghetti Code," focuses her considerable investigative skills on her own family's cooking traditions and opens with these wonderful lines:
My Italian is so bad I have a hard time pronouncing gnocchi, but I grew up hearing enough of it to know when I'm being yelled at. And that's definitely what was happening at a table in a small roadside restaurant in Abruzzi.

Makes you want to keep reading, doesn't it?
The opening of Bourdain's "My Miami," on the other hand, made me want to stop reading for a minute and go punch a wall out of sheer writerly jealousy:
Like a heat-seeking missile, I can find my way to the finest steamed shark's head in Singapore or the best bun cha in Hanoi. Blindfolded, with one wrist cuffed to an ankle, I can drive you to the earthiest pig's foot-soup in the Dutch West Indies, or to the world's most sublime soup dumplings in Taipei. But in Miami, one of the most international of cities, I am pathetically up a creek.

[Hughes writes in her headnote to the Bourdain piece: "the man can craft a sentence," which is like saying that Thomas Kellar can craft a custard or Pierre Herme can craft a macaron.]
In my perfect reading-about-food world Tony Bourdain would keep a pied-a-terre in San Francisco to hang out in between travels and Kim Severson would move back to the Bay Area, never again to roam farther away than the Napa Valley or Carmel. At the very least they each could phone me to discuss the matter.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Quick and Easy Irish Soda Bread

My friend Carolyn is one of the smartest, funniest people I know. A fine writer, gifted editor, good golfer and terrific cook, she's also incredibly kind. Correction: the kindness is limited to 364 days a year; on the day of her annual St. Patrick's Day party she turns mean as Cruella De Vil.
Oh, she hides it well. None of her other guests suspects a thing, but that's because they don't ask for the secret of her succulent, sensational corned beef. I tried to get the recipe for all of you but she merely replied: "The secret is that I'll never reveal the secret."
I tried bribery. She collects vintage postcards so I brought her the one pictured above. She'd been insanely busy in the days before the party, so I volunteered to bring my marvelous marinated shrimp for an appetizer. She pronounced the postcard "divine" and the shrimp "delicious." And then she went back to fixing the evening's feast.
Unfortunately the photos I took of her table settings (each of three tables was completely different) turned out either dark, blurry or a combination of both, so I can't show you the beguiling tablescapes she created using her collection of antiques and kitsch. My table included an Antiques Roadshow-worthy multi-tiered epergne crowned with an arrangement of white flowers, vintage silver napkin rings holding shamrock-strewn napkins and some whimsical little figurines of pink pigs.

Since I can't deliver the recipe for corned beef, I'm sharing my favorite one for Irish Soda Bread. I've adapted this a bit from the "Blueberry Hill Menu Cookbook," Elsie Masterton's sequel to her delightful first cookbook This goes together so quickly, you still have plenty of time to shop for the ingredients and bake it for tonight's dinner.

Irish Soda Bread
(makes 2 small loaves)

Sift together 4 cups sifted all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1/2 tablespoon salt, 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 teaspoon baking soda.
Mix in with a fork 1 cup currants. Add 2 cups buttermilk and blend with the fork until well mixed.
Flour your hands and knead dough on a floured board until smooth. It won't take more than two minutes of kneading.
Shape into two rounds and place on a greased baking sheet. (Masterton suggests using two heavy black iron frying pans, about 6 or 7 inches in size, but a regular baking sheet works fine.) Let rise in a warm spot for about 10 minutes Then slash the top of each round with a knife, shaping a cross and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 45 minutes or until lightly browned and dry within.
(Test with a sharp-bladed knife which should be as dry and shiny when it comes out as when thrust into the breads.)
If possible, bake right before serving and serve warm along with some truly great butter.

Fashion postscript: Since my wardrobe is 90% black with an occasional madcap touch of gray, I had nothing green to wear to the party. Armed with a book of stickers and one of my favorite Marni necklaces, I created this. At the time I thought it was rather witty. In the cold light of morning: not nearly so amusing.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Sorrel is Always with Us

The ancient plum tree standing sentry over our vegetable garden is shouting: "Spring is here, Baby!"
The lemon verbena begs to differ.

This weekend: the Official Change from Winter Garden to Spring Garden. Today the beds are mostly empty, waiting for chicken manure enrichment and planting. One broad band of greenery, however, remains. Ever and always we have sorrel.

Through winter rains and summer heat, the sorrel thrives. Would that I knew more ways to use it. I love the flavor but the olive drab color it acquires when heated is more than a little off-putting. Recently I searched one of my favorite cookbooks -- Richard Olney's "Simple French Cooking" -- for sorrel inspiration and found this oddly appealing little luncheon dish. I served it with some slices of Black Forest Ham from the deli and everyone pronounced it delicious, although one friend noted of its combination of khaki-colored cooked sorrel and browned Parmesan: "It looks as if it should be called Eggs in Camouflage."
I punished her by making her tote home a big bag of sorrel leaves.

Eggs Stuffed with Sorrel
(for 4)
1/4 cup olive oil
6 ounces tender young sorrel, stems removed, washed, sponged dry in a towel and finely chopped
6 hard-boiled eggs
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Salt, pepper

Oil the bottom of a gratin dish with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Line with 1/3 of the chopped sorrel and sprinkle lightly with salt. Halve the eggs and, with a fork, mash together the yolks, the remaining sorrel, 3/4 of the cheese and salt and pepper to taste; then work in 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil--enough to bind the mixture. Stuff the halved whites with the mixture, packing gently and mounding the stuffing with a teaspoon. Arrange them on the bed of sorrel, sprinle with the remaining Parmesan, dribble over a bit of olive oil. and bake in a hot oven (400-425 degrees) for about 15 minutes.

Monday, March 3, 2008

4 Questions 4 Cat Cora

Photo: courtesy Robert Quailer

In a witty homage to Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham," Iron Chef Cat Cora delighted the judges last night with a dish of serrano ham, chimichurri sauce and a poached duck egg -- a dish that probably won her the match over Chef Lee Hillson. Prior to filming the show, Cora had been in Nicaragua working with Chefs for Humanity, the charity group she founded in 2004.

1. Tell us about your work with Chefs for Humanity: What's the most satisfying aspect?

Being able to personally touch the lives of people in need is so gratifying. I traveled with Chefs for Humanity to Central America where we adopted Wa Wa Boom, a village in Nicaragua that was basically washed away by Hurricane Felix. The people of Wa Wa Boom are living in tents made of tree branches and USAid plastic. They're trying to find the resources to help themselves in an area with few resources. We are raising funds to get what they most need to rebuild their village and put an end to their hunger. (Two hundred pairs of shoes and a chainsaw were the first things we bought.) Being there in person, doing hands-on work and getting to know who you are impacting is so moving, and we are looking forward to returning again this year. You can see photos of Wa Wa Boom at

2.What's the best dish you've eaten in the last 30 days?

I went out to dinner with some friends in NYC and had an amazing meal at Veritas, where my dear friend and respected sous chef on Iron Chef America, Ed Cotton, works. We had this great fluke sashimi, grilled octopus, truffle soup with lobster and seared smoked salmon with green curry.

3.What's your favorite piece of equipment in the Iron Chef kitchen?

A great set of chef's knives.

4. What's your secret shame food -- the item you'd rather not be seen eating by the Palate Police?

Peanut butter, straight out of the jar with a big spoon!