Sunday, January 27, 2008

Pandora's Box

Pandora’s Box

If you’re like me, I can’t go into a specialty grocery store without spending double what I would have spent had I gone to Trader Joe’s or Safeway. I love Trader Joes and Safeway, they both fulfill exact shopping goals when I am in my regular routine. This is not to say that both stores don’t have extraordinary selections as well as high end breads and specialty items. But when I’m entertaining or having guests over for the weekend, I feel I must splurge and go to Draegers or Whole Foods.

Both stores were clearly designed by true foodies, people who have an ardent love of cooking and as important, the culinary tools & gadgets that make cooking possible. I always go into Draegers pretending that I am just running in to get a nice cake, (remember? I don’t do cakes) or some fabulous bread or cheeses. But there is a suspicious, ulterior motive to this shopping expedition, cloaked in food shopping- it is a vehicle to get me to the fabulous cookware department up stairs.

I casually look around on the ground floor of the food portion of the store but keep glancing at the escalator going up to the elaborate, heavily stocked cookware department that lies above. I finally take the leap feeling justified that I have entered the store to really do some grocery shopping even though I secretly know this journey to Draegers was so that I could be naughty and splurge on unnecessary but coveted cooking tools.

Does anybody really need an extra grater? I personally think that’s entirely beside the point. The fact is, cooking tools conjure up the possibilities of great cooking. Holding a micro plane grater or stainless steel box grater in my hand immediately instills confidence- I mean I actually feel more sure that I have a fighting chance of cooking something right if I have the right tools.

So, before you think this fluff-ball doesn’t know the first thing about making due, I did live for a year in corporate housing in 1999 in L.A. The accommodations I had were basic at best and very little was provided to make the apartment functional. I do know that it is entirely possible to live without even the most basic cooking tools.

Here’s what I mean:

Need a rolling pin? Wine Bottle
Need a Mallet? Wine Bottle
Cookie Cutter? Wine Bottle
Pitcher? Wine Bottle
Potato Masher? Wine Bottle

You get the idea, pretty amazing how versatile a wine bottle can be. I didn’t even mention that a wine bottle also acts as a decanter for wine : ).

Putting aside this small piece of martyrdom in my life, I completely glory in the abundance of relevant cooking tools and the kitchen equipment I have acquired. But here’s where Pandora’s Box enters the picture. One is not enough. Once you go down the path of acquiring kitchen tools there’s no end in sight.

It starts with upgrading your basic tools to higher end models- maybe small ones that have more comfortable grips like the OXO vegetable peeler so your hands don’t get cut when you’re peeling that potato. Once that’s done, suddenly your old Teflon cookie sheets need to be replaced. Then that 10 piece pots & pans set you got at Woolworth’s in 1976 needs to go- it’s dented and peeling and plus you just plain old want a new set.

From there you graduate to fine knives- cutlery in the cooking world. I could write a poem about my Shun, Santoko knife I love it so much. Or maybe a limerick is better:

There once was a knife by Shun,
Who knew exactly what needed to be done,
It sliced, diced and cut
It did everything but
Put an end to this terrible pun.

I know that was bad, but I think it’s important to be spontaneous and see where things go.

From there, you- like me are wandering into Draeger’s high end territory of exquisite kitchen supplies, china, glassware, cookbooks, and gadgets.

You know what’s next right? Yes, Pandora’s Box is pretty big. You’re now entering the consumer paradise of electrics:

Food Processor
Immersion Blender
Pasta Maker
Bread Machine

The problem I see when you graduate to this level of consumerism is that all those tools you bought earlier aren’t really needed anymore. When you get to the electric tools category, they pretty much do everything for you! Again, entirely beside the point. It is pure fun to use these things and I think everyone would agree that it is okay to have an exception to the rule.

It may seem like all this is a complete digression from where I first started but everything is related. It’s like the chicken and the egg riddle. What comes first? A good recipe? The ingredients? The tools you’ll need to cook with? Let’s assume they all tie together and come in a big shiny box with a nice ribbon wrapped around it. Pandora’s Box.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Let Them Eat Cake

Let Them Eat Cake

You know how it seems that you're either a baker or a cook? Not that you're not capable of doing both, but you have a natural tendency toward one or the other...

I bring this up, because I figured this out the hard way with one too many cake, "situations." Now, with concentration I can make great brownies and cookies, but the precision that's called upon for baking- using exact measurements, sifting and such is too complicated and detailed for me. I've always felt more is better when it comes to cooking- a little more butter, seasoning etc which flies in the face of the true baker's technique.

I have had more than one cake go south and I bring this topic up because I just heard another cake-gone-wrong story from my Mom. She is an excellent cook and is one of the rare few who is a both-ee- she can bake and cook with equally great talent. I learned to cook from my Mom and she, to me, can do it all in the kitchen. Her cake gone wrong story had to do with a shared recipe from a wonderful friend; without me knowing how this happened, let's just say numbers were transposed and 1 cup of flour led to 4 or something like that and it went downhill (literally) from there.

Here is a list of my greatest cake fiascos. I am listing these not just to tell you my story but to remind myself if I ever get the wise idea to ever make a cake again, I will refer to this memo as a reminder of why not to do it...

Cake #1) Basic Yellow Cake for a birthday cake. I won't go into too much detail. Let's just say I forgot to mix the eggs in the batter and realized it happily within 10 minutes of having put the cake into the oven. It had started baking but I surmised that it was still liquid enough to whip in the forgotten eggs. So I did. I don't think I can go on with this story but you get the idea, right?

Cake #2) Swedish Door Stop: I'm calling this the doorstop recipe because I don't remember the name of this Swedish Coffee Cake and after I finished this yeast dough disaster, it resembled a brick of concrete and had no resemblence to a lovely coffee cake- at all. I would have thrown it in the wastebasket but it might have cracked the floor tile when it landed so instead, I placed it gently in the bin and said farewell.

Cake #3) Meringue Cake: I'm tired of people telling me how easy it is to make a meringue. Things seemed like they were going well. I made two fluffy meringue discs that I blobbed onto the cookie sheet to bake. The idea is I would have a 2 layer meringue cake that I would fill with sweetened whipped cream and chocolate chips. Well, I don't know what went wrong but they were flat and overall the cake was a flop- no pun intended. At the time, I blamed it on the recipe- you know, one of those great recipes you see in a magazine with a Hollywood photo showing a movie- star cake?

But you know, the problem was really me, the non-cake, non-baker girl.

Now, I know there are many people who are not only accomplished bakers but people who've taken baking to the another level. Artistry combined with baking to create fun, imaginative, irresistable, delicious baked goods. We know they're out there or there wouldn't be any bakeries in the world or cookies- we'd all be eating rice with a little sugar thrown on it and would think that was great.

My good friend Heather is one of these amazing people. She bakes using molds, creating adorable cakes shaped like cartoon characters- and this was before the TV show with the star cake bakers.

She is an original. She paints with icing, frosts like Leonardo with a paint bruch and makes the best sour cream pound cake in the universe. Her talent comes from within and her cakes are something to behold. She's the "fun" Mom, who all the kids love because she creates to bring joy to her children. Heather has patience, detail orientation and a large dose of creativity that makes her final product very special.

I take it back. There is one cake I make well and because of the initial success I have had with this, I have made it repeatedly. It's an olive oil cake. Now, don't run away, it's great. I don't want anyone to get the idea that I'm a baker because of this confession, this is an anomoly. I am really a cook.

I know, you're thinking olive oil cake? I hear you, I thought the same thing. But it's wonderful... I got the recipe from a cooking class I attended in Sonoma and I have made adaptions to the recipe to suit my taste. I top the cake with toasted pine nuts and serve it with a small scoop of vanilla bean gelato.

So there you go. I say, "let them eat cake", I myself will be buying it, not baking it. Happily the world has enough bakers to feed the non-baking cooks.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

San Francisco Farmer's Market

If you even remotely love food or are passionate about cooking, this market is the supreme gourmet's shopping paradise!

The San Francisco Farmer's Market is massive and encircles the San Francisco Ferry Building which is the crown jewel of the gourmet city's epicenter. With high-end aritsan cheeses and breads, wines, fresh yogurts and truffle butter, exquisite chocolates from Reccheitti and robust and elegant McEvoy olive oils. The crowds circulate among all these precious stores and shop as if it's Thanksgiving in July! I walk around in dazed awe of my surroundings- so prolific in its' wealth of foodstuffs and bounty of produce and gourmet restaurants in this beautifully restored historic building.

Walking outside, you are caught up immediately in the energy of the crowd as they circulate among the farmers booths. You see tables laden with pots of fresh honey, golden bottles of local California olive oils. Jars of chutney and preserves beckon you coming in traditional flavors, cherry and apricot with almond, and thick strawberry preserves. The most difficult event of the morning is not buying everything!

Vegetables are in abundance with stalks of thick, round brussel sprouts- green & firm, leafy swiss chard, bundles of spinach and green onions! Baskets with late season heirloom tomatoes draw you in with rainbow hughes of gold, orange, purple & yellow. Samples are prolific and as the throngs of people walk by the booths, the reach out to try a slice of crisp, sweet apple, chunks of tomatoes, pieces of cheese. Crescents of peaches & plums, all dripping in their juices provide a refreshing, sweet taste that satisfies.

At this time of year, Frog Hollow Farms, the famed premium peach farm offers table of fat, gorgeous pears. The large round apple pears are the size of a softball and the varieties of pears is impressive. You also see packets of dried peaches and apricots, nuts and other fruits to choose from; truly a delight. Nearby is a booth where bourbon, pecan pies are being sold. The adorable man selling these gave me a sample. After the decadent bite melted in my mouth, I looked at him as commented that it was so rich, you could seduce someone with a pie like this! The purveyor blushed marvelously and my friend who also had a sample laughed. We all agreed.

The range of products for sale at the market is broad with vacuum sealed salmon, fresh eggs, handmade soaps and geranium and lavendar salt scrubs to choose from. Also found near these gorgeous items are blended gourmet salts and sugars mixed with rosemary, lavendar, vanilla and mint!

What makes the Farmer's Market such a wonderful experience is the people who represent their special items. I love taling to the lady at the market who sells fresh, handmade butter and cheeses. When I first saw her, I was buying unsalted butter to practice making compound butters- (something I recently learned about when I took a cooking class taught by famed, local TV chef Joanne Weir- a talent who I personally feel embodies the spirit and joy of cooking like no other.) I was there with a friend and we were quite excited about the project:
  • Butter blended with honey and toasted pecans or cashews
  • Butter blended with blue cheese and truffle salt
I saw the butter lady recently when I was buying more butter. She remembered me and asked how the project went. "Overall well", I said. "The honey butter is decaden, and good enough to eat all by itself causing me to acti with restraint when I take it out of the refrigerator! The blue cheese butter was not as successful, maybe I went a little too crazy with the cheese. It didn't melt as well as I would have liked." She looked philosopical and gave the pragmatic suggestion to try again! Good idea! Her butter is rich, dense, well worth buying more...

The goat chees lady was interesting. She owns her own herd of goats in Northern California and has dedicated herselft to their care and production of milk. Se produces her own cheeses, which stands out as significantly different than the soft, creamy mounds of goat cheese you buy at the store. With texture and shape similar to a wheel of parmesan with ash crust, the results of her labor is truly high-end, artisinal goat cheese with a dense, hard texture and a rich, smokey tast. I noticed with surprise that she also produced her own sausage...goat. Intrigued, I bought one of them, but to date have not been brave enough to try it.

Truly an artist & craftsperson, she is generous with her time as she answers questions on her technique for producing her cheeses to a rapt audience of gourmet foodies clustered around her booth. You could see the appreciation and respect emanating from the the small group of people listening to her. They were peppering her with questions, fascinated with her craftsmanship and the labor involved with producing such fine cheeses.

Each time I come to this market I am filled with excitement and anticipation of what I might discover and who I might speak with. I wonder if the salt purveyor will be back on my next visit so I can purchase that rosemary salt that winked at me as I was leaving the market on my last visit. Being here is inspiring, energizing. Truly a celebration of California's bounty and the potential of great cooking to come!