Thursday, March 31, 2011

Heirloom Foods: World's Best Pirohi (Pierogi)

Regular readers of this blog know that I've been following my friend Daniel's highly successful attempts to pickle his own cabbage.  I've tried it straight out of the crock and fried in a kielbasa sandwich.  But my favorite use of sauerkraut is when it's stuffed in homemade pirohi.

I love pirohi-- especially Daniel's pirohi, which I consider to be the best in the world.  When I was pregnant and would get sick at the mere thought of eating, Daniel tempted me with offerings of potato and cheese pirohi, topped with sour cream.  I don't know what I would have done without him (or the pirohi).   So I am especially excited to be able to bring you Daniel's recipe for Pirohi.  Or Pierogi.  Or Perogi.  However you spell it, they're delicious.
Daniel's pirohi with homemade sauerkraut, March 2011.

Without further ado, Daniel's recipe for Pirohi.  (It is worth noting that Daniel's notation about sifting flour to remove beetles may seem extremist, but Daniel Marlos is also known as The Bug Man and this note is well within the realm of his personal and professional experience as a bug expert.)

Daniel's Pirohi in Close-Up, March 2011.
by Daniel Marlos


  • 2 cups all purpose, unbleached flour, sifted to remove beetles
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Iced Water


  • Put on a large pot of boiling salted water.  This warms up the kitchen  
  • nicely in the winter.
  • Thoroughly mix flour and salt.  Put flour mixture in a bowl and make a well.  Crack egg into the well and incorporate the egg into the flour thoroughly.  Add enough ice water to get the correct consistency.   
  • This depends upon the heat and humidity as well as the quality of the flour and the size of the egg.  If you must have an exact amount, it is 6 tablespoons to a half a cup.
  • Knead dough very lightly on a floured surface.  This should take less than 30 seconds.  Then divide the dough into two balls and roll them in flour.  Place back into bowl, cover and refrigerate for at least 10 minutes.
  • Roll one dough ball until you can cut at least 12 round pieces the size of a martini glass.  Cut out the 12 pieces with a martini glass.   
  • Fill with your favorite filling and pinch shut.  Cook six at a time in boiling water.  Repeat with all remaining dough.  Make halushki with the remains of the dough.

Favorite Filling #1:  Sauerkraut

  • Chop an onion and fry in corn oil until transparent using a cast iron skillet.  
  • Add finely chopped sauerkraut.  Season with black pepper.   
  • Fry for about 5 minutes.  
  • Place by spoonfuls onto martini dough round.  Be careful to keep oil from pinched edge or pirohi will open during cooking.

Favorite Filling #2:  Potato and Cheese

  • Peel and boil potatoes in salted water.  
  • Mash with cubed sharp cheddar cheese and season with black pepper.  Form into balls.
  • Serve with onions carmelized in corn oil.  Add a dollop of sour cream.

Pirohi can be reheated by frying in a cast iron skillet until crispy.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Luca Loffredo

Photograph of Luca Loffredo courtesy Claudia V. Rosas.
Luca Loffredo is one of those rare people who has managed to achieve success in more than one creative field.  He's both an accomplished chef and a great photographer.  (He shot the photo of yours-truly for this blog and I can assure you that I am not an easy person to photograph.)

Luca is also one of the nicest and most generous people I know.  Conversations with Luca can range from how to make homemade croissants to the benefits of having a free personal shopper through a department store.  (This is something I recently discovered when prepping for a photo shoot.)   Luca is fun to talk to and full of hot tips for cooking and for life.

I've been trying to convince Luca to do a Sunday dinner questionnaire for some time now.  It's taken a while for the pieces to come together, but I'm excited to be able to post Luca's response, along with recipe for a Blood Orange and Arugula Salad.  He even sent an appetizing photo of the completed dish.  Many thanks, Luca!

Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Luca Loffredo

1.  What is your favorite food to eat?  Why?
Fresh seafood is my favorite... whether it's delicate, powerful, or pungent.  I consider fish, crustaceans, and shellfish food of the gods.  I love the sublime flavor that varies hour after hour from the moment of the catch.  Yes, I do admit that sometimes I do prepare and eat frozen fish too.  However I strive to get the freshest and sometime the most humble variety.

2.  What is your favorite food to cook?  How often and under what circumstances do you make it?
Often I treat myself to a great seafood soup or simple octopus salad (when octopus is available fresh and not too large in size).  One of my favorite dishes to cook is black mussels with a splash of white wine and lemon juice, with a base of extra virgin olive oil and garlic, finished with plenty parsley and freshly ground black pepper.  It's just delicious.

3.  Who or what is your greatest culinary influence?  Why is he/she/it an inspiration to you?
“La Nonna”.  I know that may sound like a cliché, but my grandmother was my first inspiration.  When I moved to San Francisco in 1991, I was mentored and inspired by a dear friend and incredible chef Tina Lai.  Another very strong influence was working along Tony Gulisano in San Francisco.  Tony is an incredibly talented and successful chef. He invested and believed in my talent and potential.  Thank you, my friends.

4.  What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?
I have couple of utensils that I always look after and always have handy.  My 8-inch chef's knife and a thick, wide maplewood spoon.  And I almost forgot my 12-inch shallow saucepan (Al Clad of course.  It's just the best in the hand, LOL).

5.  What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?
Let me see… Yes this past Sunday, after a quick stop at the Hollywood Farmer's Market and the farmer Market on Third, I went home and prepared a blood orange and arugula (rocket greens) salad with sliced almond, drizzled with E.V.O.O. and a dash of balsamic reduction.  As an entrée, I pan-roasted a nice thick pork chop (bone-in) with cipollini onions, leeks and parsnips.  First I seared it and then deglazed the pan with a cup of Pinot Grigio.  Then I added rosemary, thyme, black pepper, and lemon zest, just the perfect dish for Mardi Grass weekend.

6.  When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal that brought your friends and family together on a regular basis?  If so, what you you eat?
We didn't have dinner together, but late lunches were a must.  My family and I we used to alternate Sundays between my father's parents and my grandmother Flora  (my mom's mother).  It is always something that I looked forward to during the whole week.  Then I grew up and my grandparents past away and the sweet delicious and loving tradition disappeared.  I keep beautiful memories of those never-ending lunches with all sorts of dishes-- from traditional Neapolitan to more eccentric and modern fresh fruit risottos and raw seafood carpaccio... just delicious.  I felt like I embarked into a journey of flavors.  I miss them a lot.  One recurring and very traditional dish was the long-simmered tomatoes ragout with beef top round.  The tomato sauce was served religiously with ziti pasta (always al dente), and the meat served with a side of "friarielli”, a Neapolitan variety of rapini.

7.  Do you have a garden?  If so, what do you grow in it?
Unfortunately I do not have a garden.  But my living room and front door opens onto a very private and quiet patio.  There I let my green thumb go wild.  I have several pots with herbs (lots of mint and parsley), a few cherry tomato plants and zucchini.  In the courtyard there is a tall loquat tree that bares small sweet and juicy fruit.

8.  What is your ultimate food fantasy?
This very hard... I guess it would be an endless amount of oysters of every variety.  Finishing with a mountain of profiteroles filled with cream and covered with bittersweet warm chocolate sauce.  A good bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, or better yet a Greco di Tufo (a delicious Neapolitan dry white wine) is a must.  After dinner a glass of Amaro Averna (a herbal liquor from Sicily) is the right way to end a fantastic meal.

9.  If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be?  What would you want to eat?
I would love to seat at the dinner table of Elizabeth David and eat just about anything she feels to cook.  However, a Mediterranean seafood soup with toasted batard would be idyllic.

10.  Fill in the blank:  "The most important element of a good meal is ________."
Attitude and Love.
Blood Orange Salad, recipe and photograph by Luca Loffredo, 2011.
Blood Orange and Arugula Salad
By Luca Loffredo

Serves 2

  • 3 Blood oranges
  • 3 to 4 oz baby arugula
  • 2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 half of a shallot 
  • 2 oz sliced toasted almonds
  • 2 oz Parmigiano Reggiano shavings (shredded cheese is also fine)
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar or lemon juice
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • Husk, wash, rinse and dry the arugula with a clean towel  and place in a large mixing bowl.
  • Peel the oranges and slice them sideways, creating many orange wheels of the same thickness.
  • Lightly toast the sliced almonds, just few seconds in a hot frying pan on the stovetop.  (You can also use them raw; it is matter of taste.)
  • Toss the greens with shallot, half of the almonds and the cheese. 
  • Pour the olive oil on the side of the mixing bowl and gently fold the salad.  Then add the vinegar.
  • Add the orange slices and salt and pepper to taste.  Fold again very gently to keep the slices from braking apart.
  • Plate the salad and sprinkle the leftover cheese and almonds over the top.
  • If blood oranges are not available, you may substitute ruby grapefruit.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Daniel's Latest Response In the Mystery Fruit Tree Debate

The Mysterious Fruit Tree in Daniel's side yard, November 2010.
In spite of the fact that my friend Daniel runs the wildly successful website What's That Bug?, he seems to be having a bit of trouble posting comments to this blog.  Because I'm so determined to get to solve The Mystery of the Unknown Fruit Tree, I've taken it upon myself to post Daniel's latest response to keep the investigation going.

Hi Bharati, It is very exciting to try to research the identity of my lovely and toothsome mystery fruit tree.  I cannot know for certain that this tree is a volunteer.  If my memory serves me correctly, there may be a cement cylinder around it which would indicate it is a cultivar.    
It is my theory that this tree might be a volunteer hybrid between a peach and an almond.  There are many wild almond trees in Mt. Washington, though I have tried the fruit from them and they are not like my tree.  The tree was a good size when I moved into this house in 2001.
Bharati also sent a fascinating link to an article by Leonard Coates of Morganhill, California from the Journal of Heredity Vol. 12.  In it, Coates describes the fruit from a  "Peach-Almond" hybrid and includes photographs of the fruit, which shrivels up and splits when it ripens.  I have consulted with Daniel and he reports that the fruit from his tree does not do this.  As a result, we are forced to conclude that although Daniel's mystery tree may in fact be a cross between a peach and a wild almond tree, it is not the "Peach-Almond" hybrid first identified in the nurseries of W. B West of Stockton, California sometime in the early 1850's.    

The trail goes cold once more, but the search continues...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Update on Mystery Tree Blossoms

I've had some questions from readers about the origins of my friend Daniel's mystery fruit tree and after further research, the questions have multiplied and there are few answers in sight.  

My friend Bharati asked if the tree has two fruiting seasons.  Daniel says no.  The tree has one fruiting per year.  It blooms in March and the fruit is ready in November.  I think Daniel was careful not to say that the fruit "ripens" because as I've discussed in a previous post, the most notable characteristic of the fruit is that it NEVER seems to ripen.

Daniel believes that the mystery tree is "definitely a stone fruit in genus Prunus."  He suspects that one of the wild almond trees in his Mount Washington neighborhood was cross-pollinated with some kind of cultivated stone-fruit tree like a peach.  (The tree was a "volunteer" that sprouted in his yard a number of years ago, so he has no clue about it's actual origin.)  

Daniel has previously said he thought the tree was a Sliva.  Since the word "Sliva" is Bulgarian for plum, I suppose it's not inaccurate to call the mystery fruit tree a "Sliva", but at this point, we're all curious to know more.  

Bharati also asked if I had a photograph of a cross-section of the fruit.  I've checked the photo archives and I'm sorry to report that I do not.  I did, however, have this closer view of the fruit itself. 

Daniel scores Sliva fruit to make cobbler, November 2010.
I don't believe that the new photo provides any new clues, but I'm posting it for what it's worth.  You can be sure that when November comes, I will be taking more photographs.  In the meantime, I may have to consult an expert in the matter.  I'll be sure to report back with further information as it reveals itself.  If anyone out there knows a mystery-loving botanist, please let me know.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Spring Has Sprung: Mystery Fruit Tree Flowers in So Cal Side Yard

Mystery Fruit Tree Blossoms in Daniel's Yard, March 2011.
This past November I reported that my friend Daniel had a mystery fruit tree that he eventually determined to be a Sliva or Bulgarian plum tree.   At the time, it was heavy with fruit and I ungraciously called it "a funny little tree".
Daniel's Sliva Tree Last November 2010.
Don't get me wrong.  Daniel's sliva tree is STILL a funny little tree wedged into his side yard, but it is now covered in beautiful pink blossoms.  And it's a lovely reminder that spring has officially sprung, at least in Southern California.
Daniel's Sliva Tree in Full Blossom, March 2011.

Beautiful as the blossoms may be, they are not my favorite part of the tree.  That prize still goes to the fruit of the sliva tree, which Daniel uses in his delicious Mystery Fruit Crumble.  When I first posted the story about Daniel's sliva tree, Daniel wrote back with this charming morality tale that his Ukranian grandfather told him many years ago.   Since the spring wedding season is quickly approaching, I decided to reprint it here.  Happy Spring!
A friend of my grandfather's was going to a wedding and on the way he passed by a tree where the Slivas had fallen on the ground. He had to urinate. He continued walking to the wedding, but when he arrived, all the food was gone. 
By this time he was quite hungry and on the walk home, he passed under the tree and there were the tempting Slivas. He walked around under the tree carefully picking up the Slivas to eat, indicating "I peed on that one" or "I didn't pee on that one" so that he could determine which to eat. 
As an aside, my grandfather would never go to a wedding without eating first because he did not want to be in the same situation as his friend.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Dean Norman

Dean Norma's Ring Bauerware collection.  Photo courtesy Carla Richmond.
This Sunday Dinner Questionnaire is a little unusual because it comes from someone I've never met-- or even seen in a photograph.  I have, however, heard Dean Norman's voice in my new favorite podcast Homely Living 101.  Dean Norman is the founder of the Institute for Homely Living, which bills itself as "the only school west of the Rockies dedicated to home economics from the male perspective."

Dean Norman and Julie, the only female student at The Institute, host a weekly podcast that profiles various topics in the field of home economics.  It's definitely a podcast for grown-ups, and that's one of the things I like best about it.  Sometimes even mommies need a dose of adult humor.  Listening to Dean Norman and Julie also reminds me that homemaking can be fun if you don't take it too seriously.

I recently discovered that Dean Norman and I have similar feelings about about the importance of getting to know your neighbors.  In Episode Six: Pie and Neighbors, Dean Norman and Julie discuss the disturbing, but not especially surprising fact that Los Angeles has been voted the "Rudest City in the United States".  They discuss the fact that it can be difficult to get to know your neighbors when you live in the city and Dean Norman gives Julie the assignment to introducer herself to one of her neighbors, which she reports back on in this podcast.  I don't want to spoil the listening experience, but their fabulously bawdy discussion is a timely one considering the ongoing catastrophic events in Japan and focuses on homemade pie and the inevitability of "the big one" hitting Los Angeles.

While I wait for next week's podcast, I think I may go make a pie.  But after hearing about Julie's recent pie-making experience, it probably won't be a lemon meringue pie.

Many thanks to Dean Norman and Julie for their participation and enthusiasm, and to Carla Richmond of go-carla-go for the photographs.

The Official Sunday Dinner Questionnaire:  Dean Norman

1.   What is your favorite food to eat?  Why?
I am wild about Thai food…the hotter and spicier the better as long as there aren’t any peanuts (or for that matter, any kind of nuts).   I don’t know why I just don’t like nuts in my cooked food.  Yet most unsalted raw nuts are great nutrition!  Go figure!  The reason I believe I like Thai food so much is that it so far away from the food that I was brought up with in Nebraska – primarily German, Polish, and Czech in background. Thai food is exciting to me.

My first taste of Thai was in the early 80’s upon my arrival in Los Angeles.  There was this incredible little place called Tommy Tang’s on Melrose Ave when Melrose Ave. and it was hot!  It was just so fun.  It wasn’t the best I would ever eat, it was just my first.  You always remember your first!  I wouldn’t attempt to cook Thai myself until around 2005 when I got up some courage and found myself in a Thai grocery store up on Hollywood Blvd in “Thai Town”.  No one spoke English and the labels on the jars, bottles, and cans weren’t very much help, unless there was a photo.  God knows what I was cooking, but it was absolutely divine once I went through a few trial and errors in putting things together.  Now I can throw together a great healthy meal of five dishes in under an hour that’s pretty damn fine.  It’s like anything in cooking.  You try something, you modify it down the road to improve it, and eventually you will achieve a perfection that you as the cook can accept-- and more important that you like!  PS….also always remain open to changes even if you think it is perfect.  That is how you improve as a home cook.

Photo courtesy Carla Richmond.
2.   What is your favorite food to cook?  How often and under what circumstances do you make it?
I really enjoy baking and pies are my specialty.  I don’t make pretty pies. I don’t have the patience to roll out and cut “autumn leaves” for the tops of my crusts. I don’t do lattice crusts…there isn’t enough Xanex in the world to calm me down after that basket weaving!!! Who’s got the time or patience?  Martha Stewart, oh hell, she has more help than The Queen!  It’s a divine miracle if I can pinch the crust to completion all the way around.

I make pies that will knock your socks off even if you aren’t wearing any!  I have a simple crust that was handed down from my maternal grand mother which remains still the best I have ever tasted.   People have asked me if I could just make a crust for them to take home, curl up in bed with and have a love affair with. I do a whole range of pies - banana cream, coconut cream, sour cream raisin, blueberry, peach, strawberry rhubarb, blueberry rhubarb, lemon meringue, etc.  However, my favorite to make is just a simple apple pie.

My family has had a big apple orchard in Nebraska since the early 40’s.  There are no better apples in the world than the ones my brother and his family now grow and sell out of their large roadside barn on Highway 81 between Madison and Norfolk in Nebraska.  Every fall they send me a bushel of my favorite pie apples so I will have a stock to turn into pies all the way through Thanksgiving!  If I can stretch them out I make a great apple cranberry pie for Christmas.  My pie baking theory is going for the flavor of the type of pie it is and don’t let the spices or use of excessive sugar overpower the final product.  I make at least a pie a month.  I try to make fruit pies that correlate with when those fruits are in high season.  They deserve that consideration.  In December, you aren’t going to be seeing a strawberry rhubarb pie from me unless I’m in New Zealand!

3.   Who or what is your greatest culinary influence?  Why is he/she/ it an inspiration to you?
Without a doubt it was my mother’s mother Maria Tabola Lintner…a stout Czech woman who always wore her waist length hair wrapped up like Princess Leia.  I remember staying at her house as a small boy and watching her wash her hair from the water she collected from a rain barrel under the eaves of her house.  The fat hanging down from her upper arms would just giggle when she laughed which was pretty much all the time.

She had a really hard life.  She raised five kids in The Great Depression without electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing.  That’s right she had an outhouse!  In fact she wouldn’t have indoor plumbing until the mid 1970’s.  She said she just didn’t need it.  She worked a number of low paying cooking jobs at various cafes throughout her life starting off at the age of 16 at her Czech uncle’s bakery in Verdigre, Nebraska.  This is where she learned how to bake.  Her baking was legendary.  In her house she had an old coal burning stove that she would stoke with corn cobs and coal.  She didn’t use a thermometer, instead she would pull off one of the large circular plates off the top…look down in the embers and she could determine the exact perfect temperature to bake anything.  Pies, cakes, twisted golden loaves of bread with caraway or poppy seeds…and of course kolaches of all flavors of filling.  If you have never had a great kolache, you do owe it to yourself to search one out.  I owe all of my baking skills to her.  When my mother passed, I only wanted two items - my mothers’ and my grandmothers’ recipe boxes.  I have them both on my shelf next to my stove and someday I’m going to aspire to be the incredible cooks that they both were.  Whenever I want to take a trip down memory lane, I work on one of their recipes and all my cares just melt.  Those trips down memory lane are always a wonderful journey.

Photo courtesy Carla Richmond.
4.   What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?
I’ve got two of them that I love both of them based on utilitarianism.  They just simply work for what they were designed for!  Both are also based on times past.

The first is the set of colored Pyrex nesting bowls that must have graced millions of kitchens across the country.  In order of decreasing size:  yellow, green, red, and blue.  They just make me smile every time I used them.  They remind me of another time when things were a lot less hectic and people were a great deal more social.  I pick them up out of thrift stores or garage sales whenever I see them reasonably priced so I always have backup bowls of all four colors in case I ever break one.  However, they are incredibly sturdy which is so welcome so I rarely have broken one.  A set of them also makes a great gift for very little cash!

Photo courtesy Carla Richmond.
The second is a 3 inch counter mounted (via 2 screws)  knife sharpener from the 20’s – 30’s which was originally owned by my mother’s mother and eventually was passed down to me after my mother passing. I’ve included a photo because it is just too hard to describe. Basically it works by passing the sharp part of the blade between two sets of metal washers that rotate and create a new sharper cutting surface.. 90 years later it still works perfectly!

5.  What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?
An old fashioned seven bone pot roast; slow cooked in a covered Dutch oven.  Whole carrots and sliced potatoes added in the last 45 minutes. I like them al dente because they are more nutritious and just have better flavor. Besides it makes its own great gravy!  Freshly made tapioca pudding for dessert just finishes it off perfectly.  It’s all simple with a total prep of about 20 minutes for everything!  It always turns out great too.

6.  When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal that brought your friends and family together on a regular basis?  If so, what did you eat? 
 You know I grew up on a farm, and farmers are an extremely hard working lot that is always at the mercy of nature.  Days and evenings are almost always taken up with work of some kind, even in the winter especially if you have farm animals.  I’m really proud to say that until I left for college at the age of 17, we as a family sat down at the kitchen table basically 99.9% of all three meals together, seven days a week, 365 days a year.  It was just how it was done at our farm house. Often times, we had friends or other family members join because they all knew what an incredible cook my mother was.  Sunday dinners could be all over the spectrum as far as food choices; however, my favorite was when my mother would fry up a couple of our fresh chickens, make real mashed potatoes with chicken gravy and an endless supply of fresh corn on the cob from the garden.  My grandmother would bring fresh bread that was still warm to add to the mix.

For dessert an in-season fruit pie or my grandmother’s great chocolate cake, accompanied by a big glass of chilled milk.  Then just before going off to bed an ice cold slice of fresh picked black diamond watermelon. A variety that I don’t think exists anymore…they were so dark green they were almost black in color and it was such a beautiful contrast with the white rind and crimson flesh. Of course you were up and down to the bathroom like twenty times during the night. It was a price to pay but oh it was so worth it.

7.  Do you have a garden?  If so, what do you grow in it?
Unfortunately, I only have a small slice of space to show off my gardening skills.  My little garden in the front of the apartment is filled with flowers that start with bulbs in early spring (I’m part Dutch so I think it is genetic!), then by May it bursts into these glorious poppies from Turkey, and finally I finish with a rainbow of zinnias that last from July to November. I have people stopping and photographing my garden all the time.  It’s not much effort but it incredibly rewarding.  I suggest gardening as a great stress reducer, throw away the Xanex and plant some flowers!

On my side patio I have a number of fresh herbs….some of my plants are over 3 years old! I purchased them all from a plant vendor at the local Silverlake farmers’ market ($2.50 to $4.00 per plant).  I can’t think of a better investment!  Right now I have sage, rosemary, oregano, basil, lemon verbena, parsley, and cilantro.  You just step out the door and do a few snips and it’s just absolutely fabulous.  Why spend a fortune for fresh herbs when with a little water, fertilizer, and occasionally grooming you can have all these goodies at your finger tips?   I keep all the little empty bottles of dried herbs that are in my pantry and refill them with dried herbs picked fresh out the garden.  Once again they smell and taste much better than most anything you can buy!

Finally I would love to be able to grow a decent tomato here in Southern California, but for some reason I’ve not been able to master it with the exception of red or yellow cherry tomatoes.  I miss those days on the farm when we had a substantial plot of delicious tomatoes of all varieties at our disposal from July through the first frost!  If anyone has any growing tips for Southern California, I would more than welcome your growing secrets!!!  There is nothing better than fresh home grown tomatoes.

8.  What is your ultimate food fantasy?
My ultimate food fantasy has a bit of personal history to it.  I imagine a great many people’s selection of ultimate food fantasy may have a certain time in their lives imbedded in their choices.  In the late 70’s early 80’s I had the opportunity to live in Boston.  In the spring of 1979, I found myself immersed in this wonderful affair.  Oh “Sweet Bird of Youth”!  On countless weekends we would drive out of the city on day trips to the North Shore., pouring through antique shops and art galleries; drooling over treasures we couldn’t even begin to put a down payment on.  Inevitably we would end up in Essex, MA.  Essex and the neighboring village of Ipswich are surrounded by these incredible estuaries that are the home to the most heavenly clams in the world “Essex/Ipswich littleneck clams”.  We would take several pounds of these beauties back to Boston.

These could be prepared a number of ways, but our favorite method is also the favorite of the locals.  We would steam the clams in natural seawater, a little white wine and a crank of fresh ground pepper, making sure not to over cook them. Once the shells open they are done! Heap them steaming hot in a big bowl in the center of the table.   Grab them by the “feeder” foot, pull them out of the shell, and wash them in a bowl of the hot juice reserved from the steaming to remove the sand.  Then dip them in melted lemon butter and just go insane.  Usually we would accompany them with a simple green salad, some sourdough, and a cheap bottle of champagne.  We just made pigs of ourselves.  It was an incredible mess….but it was heaven..  The affair lasted almost twenty years.  He passed in ’98. It is my favorite food fantasy. Now I only take the journey in my dreams.

9.  If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be?  What would you want to eat? 
My mother or her mother, it makes no difference. They are as one to me.  Anything, I would be happy with anything they wanted to prepare; even if they just served me a bowl of warm water.  I would be just fine.

10.  Fill in the blank:  "The most important element of a good meal is __________." 
Good conversation with good people surrounded by simple but decent food and drink.  It doesn’t get any better.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sunday Dinner for the Type-A List Maker: Part Two

In the first installment of this series I made a list of my favorite Sunday dinner foods and a second list of the foods I actually prepare for my family's Sunday dinner.  It was an interesting exercise because I discovered something I'd never thought about before-- I never make any of MY favorite foods for Sunday dinner.  Why not?  Because I have several young children in my family and I've been so worn down by their food complaints that I'm ashamed to admit that I've been catering to their tastes above all else.

I'm not proud of this state of affairs.  In fact, it makes me mad.  And I have no one to blame but myself.  I obviously need to change the way I'm cooking for my family and the next step is to figure out what kind of foods I'd like to add to our family meal plan.  I've already started by asking myself what I want to eat.  I've also sent out requests to the "grown-up" family members to do the same.  

While I wait for their responses I'm going to tackle another touchy subject-- the "SHOULD" list.  I figure that if I'm going to change the way we eat, I want to take a moment to think about the foods I believe my family should eat more often.

LIST #3:  My List of Foods I Think my Family SHOULD Eat (or Eat More Often…)
1. Vegetables (both raw and cooked)
2. Fruits (all kinds)
3. Sustainable meats
4. Sustainable fish
5. Locally-raised foods of all sorts (from our own garden whenever possible)
6. Organic food (although I have complex feelings about this issue)
7. Family recipes (from both sides of our family)
8. Minimally-processed foods
9. Homemade bread
10. Homemade desserts

Looking at this list, I am painfully aware of how rooted it is in current food trends.  Is that a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  In fact, probably not.  I really believe in everything I wrote on my list.  But I feel like it's a pretty generic list that reflects the work of writers, chefs, and tv personalities like Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Barbara Kingsolver, and Jamie Oliver.

What does this list really mean to me and my family?  I'm not sure... yet.

I do know that there's real power in some of the ideas these food gurus propose.  My oldest daughter wouldn't eat broccoli until we grew it in our garden.  Last year, my two daughters fought over the first spears of broccoli we picked from our backyard garden.  They literally fought-- shoving and pushing-- to get the broccoli as quickly as I could cut it into tiny pieces that they wouldn't choke on.  The youngest one only had eight teeth at the time.  It was surprising, weird, and fantastic.  And they still love broccoli a year later.  It also worked for green beans, although only with one of the girls.  The other still considers broccoli the "only" vegetable.  I guess you can't win 'em all.  Maybe things will change this summer.
The magic of the green bean harvest, Summer 2010.

While I wait to plant the summer crop of green beans, there are still things we can do to improve the way we eat.  We've already started trying to convince my girls to eat fruit by visiting a local citrus farm.  We had a fifty percent success rate on orange-eating, so I'm not sure if it did any good or not.  To tell the truth, the girl who ate the oranges already LOVED oranges, so maybe this isn't exactly a conversion story.  But it was a fun family field-trip.

Over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to try to look into each of the items on my "SHOULD" list in greater detail.  I'll be trying a new series of field trips, cooking sessions, and gardening projects.  If you have any ideas for getting your kids to eat more of the foods they "SHOULD" eat, I'd love to hear about them.  I'll also be doing more research on where these "SHOULDS" come from and how to focus my family's food priorities.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sunday Dinner for the Type-A List Maker

I love lists and whenever I find myself overwhelmed, I react by making a list.  Or filing something.

Making lists and creating a beautiful filing system gives me the illusion that life is under control.  And even when it isn't, the process of writing a list of my problems or filing away papers that upset me is an incredibly comforting act.  Once the offending papers are filed away and the to-do list is safely recorded on a piece of paper, I can (usually) stop thinking about these difficult issues until the time comes to tackle them head-on.

So when I recently started feeling overwhelmed by the idea of preparing Sunday dinners that everyone in my family would eat, I reacted by making lists-- a lot of lists.  Because I know that my list-making obsession has a tendency to overwhelm others, I'm only including two of those lists here.  I'm hoping that by writing these lists, I will be able to narrow the focus of my menu planning and figure out what's really important when preparing Sunday dinner for my family.  And even if it doesn't work, it's certainly made me feel better-- at least for the moment.

LIST #1:  My Favorite Sunday Dinner Foods
1.  My father's country ham
2.  Blue crabs (hand-cracked by me outdoors by the water at a newspaper-covered table)
3.  Coconut cake with seven-minute frosting
4.  Daniel's Chicken Mole
5.  Spicy eggplant with pork from Yang Chow's
6.  My mother's beef burgundy
7.  Croissants with jam (especially marmalade)
8.  Sweet pickles
9.  Sand Dabs- pan friend and served with capers and beurre blanc
10.  Chocolate covered candied orange peel

LIST #2: Top 10 Sunday Dinners That I Already Prepare 
1. Spinach lasagna
2. Fish and chips
3. Spaghetti and meatballs (with lots of parmesan on the side)
4. Pizza
5. French Toast
6. Pancakes (or Waffles) with maple syrup and a side of bacon (and mimosas for adults)
7. Mac and cheese (this is really a kids' favorite)
8. Roast chicken and veggies
9. Sweet and Sour Meatballs with Rice
10. Fried chicken fingers (with dipping sauce for adults)

I'm a little disappointed to notice that my two lists don't have much in common.  I'm not surprised, just disappointed.  However, it does explain why I've been feeling so bored with everything I cook.  It’s not that I dislike any of my family’s favorite meals.  To be honest, there aren’t many foods in this world that I actively dislike and I won't cook anything that I really hate.  It’s just that I wouldn’t classify any of the foods I regularly prepare for Sunday dinner as my favorite foods.  Except for bacon.  I must admit that forgot bacon when I made my favorite food list.  Obviously, I need to find a way to incorporate foods that  EVERYONE in the family will enjoy, myself included.

So until the next post, I'll be working on ways to include more of my favorite foods into our family meal plan.  I'll also be asking my family members to give me lists of THEIR favorite foods.  If you want to get in on the action, send me your lists-- the good, the bad, and the ugly.

In the next installment of this thread...  LIST #3:  Foods I Think My Family Should Eat (or Eat More of…)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Eating Snails: A Romantic Valentine's Day Dinner

If I were a different sort of person, I'd try to fool readers into believing that this year I had a romantic Valentine's Day dinner with my husband-- complete with escargot-- to remind ourselves of our honeymoon in Paris.
Escargot To-Go, Feb. 14, 2011.
The truth is that my husband and I decided that it wasn't worth the effort to try to find a babysitter on Valentine's Day.  But we're always up for amusing and horrifying the children, so we decided to eat escargot on The Big Day of Love.

We were too lazy to even get take-out on what we knew would be a busy day for all our favorite restaurants.  Instead, we purchased our Valentine's Day meal from our local French cheese shop.   The best part about our meal was the dessert-- handmade chocolate truffles and chocolate-covered candied orange peel.  This part of the dinner DID remind me of our honeymoon in Paris.  I still dream of visiting Fouchon with my husband of 24 hours and the way Fouchon's mouth-watering slivers of chocolate-covered orange peel cured me of a nasty case jet-lag and general post-wedding overwhelm.  (My husband still credits Fouchon with saving our marriage... and our honeymoon.)  I hope to replive the experience (at least the eating part) by making candied orange peel at home using oranges growing in our own backyard sometime soon.  But I digress.

The cheese and fresh baguette were also delicious, although in all the excitement about the snails forgot to eat them on Valentine's Day and actually had to have a Valentine's Day "do-over" the next day.  I can't remember what we ate for our main course-- it was something previously frozen and not that great.  We should have known better, but we did all get a good laugh out of it.  And our daughters ended up with a great shell collection once we washed out the "escargot" shells.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Good Neighbors: Homemade Croissants and A Beer Named Stephen

Jared's homemade crossiants and a beer named Stephen, Feb. 2011.
Hanging out with our neighbors Amy and Jared is always fun, but our visit with them last week was especially exciting because it included homemade croissants and a home-brewed beer that Jared calls "Stephen" after Amy's brother.  Our visit was also a good reminder of how important it is to cultivate friendships with good neighbors.

I hadn't expected treats when I called to see if Amy and Jared were home that afternoon.  In fact, I was calling because I wanted to deliver a jar of my freshly-made marmalade.  I'd promised to give Amy a jar earlier in the week, but had given the jar meant for her away when a co-worker saw it and asked if it was for him.  Naturally, I said it was and handed over the jar.  That's the joy of having friends who are also neighbors-- you can always catch up with them later.  I feel lucky that Amy and Jared are the sort of people who are fine with drop-in visitors and last minute plans.  This makes life easy.  And fun.  Especially since they're always ready to share a batch of fresh bread or to tap a keg of home-brewed beer.

I hadn't realized how much I missed real neighbors living in Los Angeles.   We don't know most of our neighbors and we wish we didn't know some of the others.  (My mother would say that's an "ugly" comment, and maybe it is, but it also happens to be true.)  For the past decade, I've lived in several places where, with a few wonderful exceptions, we've had a "don't ask/don't tell/don't speak" policy with most of our neighbors.

We've had neighbors who pretended they didn't see us when we said hello to them and some who were actively rude for no reason we could figure out.  We once had a neighbor put an "anonymous" note on our car because he was upset that we legally parked our car in front of our house on a regular basis.  Unfortunately, he also used monogrammed stationary.  I can only assume he wanted us to know he'd written the note, in spite of the fact that he signed it "a neighbor".  It was weirdly passive-aggressive.  As were neighbors who sent their gardener to our backyard (without discussion, much less permission) to chop down branches of "their" fruit tree that dangled productively over our yard.  Their gardner dutifully pruned only the limbs in our yard, leaving the crop on their side of the fence unmolested.  Overlooking the simple fact that what they'd done was illegal, I couldn't believe somebody would do something so mean-spirited-- and so unneighborly.

When I was growing up in a small town in Virginia, there was an unwritten code for dealing with neighbors.  Neighbors deserved courtesy and special consideration-- even if they asked for a favor at an inconvenient time or a favor you just didn't want to do.  My parents went out of their way to be good friends to their neighbors, knowing that their neighbors would do the same for them.  It wasn't that they always expected something in return.  They just believed in fostering good-will in the neighborhood.  My parents taught me to suck it up and be a good neighbor even when your neighbors don't reciprocate because the neighborhood is like a garden-- it must be well-tended and protected if you want it to produce fruit.

Of course, this system only works if a majority of people in the neighborhood buy into the system.  To my great delight, I've recently discovered that a number of my current neighbors feel the same way.    I'm going to start finding ways to reach out to my like-minded neighbors-- those who share the believe that creating community matters-- and ignore the neighbors who clearly don't get it.  I've just sent an e-mail to a newly befriended neighbor trying to figure out how I can become a part of our local community garden.  Recognizing that I haven't always been the greatest neighbor myself, I've also vowed to cut back on thinking evil thoughts about the neighbors who aren't so neighborly.

I'm so happy to now live in a house where we have great neighbors across the fence and to have Amy and Jared living conveniently around the corner.  I don't know why I find having good neighbors so comforting.  Maybe it's because as a non-native Californian, I still can't get used to the fact that "the big one" might rattle the foundation of my house-- and my world-- at any moment.  Maybe it's because I'm just a small-town girl at heart.  I like saying hello to my neighbors and having them say hello back to me.  I like taking a walk in the evening and learning that our local elementary school has a great holiday fair each Fall.  And I like knowing that someone may surprise me with the gift of fresh croissants at any moment.
My daughter can't resist a homemade croissant, Feb. 2011.