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Greetings, Old Friend

Oregon—Portland, specifically—is home.  Growing up, it meant summer afternoons spent picking from neat rows of small, glossy strawberries or tangles of blackberries, which left my hands stained purple and forearms stinging from crosshatched scratches.  In the winter, we would trudge up snowy forest roads deep into the Mt. Hood National Forest, insulated bottles of hot chocolate (and the requisite permit) in tow, until we found the perfect Christmas tree.  The ocean, mountains, high desert, and idyllic pastureland were all within an hour or two, and we took advantage of them all.

Originally known as “Ouragon,” Oregon is beautiful country, but I left it in 1998 in exchange for a state known for its turnpike, shore, and the gnarled accent of its citizenry.  It is a good state, and I grew to appreciate it, defend it, even.  But after four years, we moved north to Rhode Island and farther north again to Vermont.  Eventually, my face grew tired of burning from the unrelenting winter winds and dripping from the summer stickiness, so we went west, as young women have been advised to do since at least the nineteenth century.  To San Francisco we moved, where I became a lawyer, had a baby, and immersed myself in the culture of the great state of (Northern) California.

All the while, I returned to Portland often.  I would come for family and friends, of course, but I would also come for a four-story bookstore that takes up an entire city block and took up many rainy Sundays as a child.  Plans for outdoor summer concerts and picnics at the rose gardens gradually gave way to sipping hoppy beer, the result of two brothers’ passion realized, tasting fruit brandies painstakingly made in the Old World style, and trying Burgundian varietals on the deck of a 1970s ranch house (I missed out on “cupping” in exchange for old-fashioned coffee drinking).  This old guard of Portland’s do-it-yourself beverage culture eventually made room for another generation of beverage artisans.  I came to Portland often during this period and was able to keep up with many of these new libations craftspeople.

Then my parents moved from their urban neighborhood to the coast, limiting my Oregon activities to long walks on dramatic, empty beaches and ferreting out the freshest sources for oysters, clams, and fish.  Not too shabby a way to pass the days, no, but such activities did not feed my thirst for Portlanders’ creative culinary output.  As it were, during the time when I’ve been in Portland less often, the food culture has surged ahead, capitalizing on the state’s bounty—wild mushrooms, berries, game, apples, and salmon, for instance—to fuel an even more serious food scene than I had previously known.

We happened to be back in Portland for a few days in late December, so, naturally, I had to do some investigating of both the new and the old.  This time, though, I did it with a one-year-old, which means my schedule gives way to Elinor’s schedule.  It also means that you wake up at 6:00 in the morning.  It just so happens that Stumptown, one of the founding fathers of direct-trade, micro-roasted coffee, was also open at 6:00 am on our first morning there, so we walked across a silent downtown Portland, the moon still bright overhead, and cozied up with some of the more delicate, nuanced Swiss Water Processed coffee I had drunk that week.  We took our coffee in the adjacent lobby of the hipster-certified Ace Hotel and couldn’t resist a couple rounds in the photo booth.  One among us couldn’t resist two of Stumptown’s flourless chocolate cookies, chewy, rich in chocolate, studded with chunks of creamy walnuts, and as big as a salad plate.  I meant to get the recipe, but a legendary omelet beckoned.

Once we were fully (de)caffeinated and ready to proceed, we walked down to Bijou Cafe, a Portland fixture and breakfast spot for businesspeople and dawdlers alike.  It’s also one of those organic-, local-fare places that makes me happy.  I never look at the menu before ordering because there is only one option for me: the oyster omelet with sharp cheddar.  Its siren song is loud and and clear and calls to me in San Francisco often and with great intensity.  However, that particular morning, it was an empty enticement: Johnny wasn’t able to deliver the oysters.  Though I was deflated at least as much as a souffle ten minutes out of the oven, I reluctantly opened the menu and happened upon an offering for a wild mushroom omelet, also with sharp cheddar.  When in Oregon, eat wild mushrooms, they say.  And so I did—to my complete satisfaction.  All the best elements of the farm and forest were enveloped in a pillow of egg.  Elinor agreed.

It was only 8:00 am.

Then we got quite stop-happy.  We walked around a quiet little neighborhood with thoughtful shops and restaurants scattered about.  For whatever reason, Bar Avignon, a European-inspired cafe whose owners apparently like Portland, pie, and accordions, among other intrigues, wasn’t open at 10:00 am on a Friday.  A sweet little patisserie had just opened, as in for business; we didn’t stop, but admired the name, St. Jack, and the neat, dainty interior.  Eco Baby Gear had a well edited selection of organic baby accoutrement, including a brown felt mustache that I was certain Elinor would find comical.  But she stared at me blankly when I put it on.  Even so, I discovered a superlative Christmas gift for her, meaning that she is still interested in it more than three weeks after the big day.  All the while, I was sipping from the most elegant kombucha I’ve ever had, bought at the unpretentious neighborhood co-opBrew Dr., who have indeed doctored their teas remarkably well, cultures white peony tea with rosebuds and hibiscus.  It’s like a deconstructed bouquet of English flowers.  In your mouth.  With bubbles.

On our way to lunch, we did a quick stop at House Spirits, that distillery I’ve told you about before.  Elinor and I picked out a few little things for Dave’s cocktail-themed Christmas gifts from the thoughtfully stocked tasting room, where all sorts of bar supplies and serious books on mixing classic cocktails are laid out in one tiny space.  I particularly like the 12-page guide to “home cocktailing” in which Portland bartender Lydia Reissmueller advises on key spirits and glasses to have on hand, the essential elements of a respectable drink, and some base recipes that the mixer can tweak to her own liking.  (Try as I did, I could not find an online source for Ms. Reissmueller’s book, The Livingroom Bar: A Simple How-to Guide for Mixing Cocktails at Home; call House Spirits to order one.)  I also picked up a reprinted copy of The Artistry of Mixing Drinks, a compendium of cocktails, wine, and, as it turns out, “help in case of accident,” the latter including advice about how to respond to lightning, fainting, or cinders in the eye.  This book, heavy-papered, raw-edged, and weighty in the hand, catalogs the drinks of Frank Meir, Head Bartender at the Ritz in Paris, who worked alongside Auguste Escoffier in the 1920s and 1930s.

During the afternoon, we relaxed and rested and looked at the Christmas tree that was lit and strobing and might not have been but for the FBI.  We did not make it to The Meadow to admire its so-called classical pleasures of sea salt, chocolate, wine, and cut flowers.  Nor did we sip cocktails or sample Benedict in a speakeasy-cum-brunch spot hidden behind a crepêrie storefront.  A casual meal at the new French bistro with a Portland twist, Little Bird: also missed.  Motherhood tempers overambitious planning.  Thank God.  It’s about time something reined in this tendency born of college trips abroad.

But we did still manage to eat dinner at Olympic Provisions.  They do big flavors with restrained ingenuity in a casual space.  And they do meat, pretty meat, as in boudin blanc, salumi, and rillettes.  They make orangettes.  And they serve sardines.  They do a smoky hunter’s stew with kielbasa, cabbage, and mushrooms that evokes stone cabins warmed by wood heat.  When they are quite busy, they seat you on industrial steel stools at the bar, which overlooks the kitchen, a wall of exposed red brick, and pendant carbon-filament gray light bulbs.  And if you are accompanied by a one-year-old, say, they are more than happy to situate the high chair under the bar, where the child will jabber at the handbags hanging on hooks for a good hour straight.

This leaves the rest of the party to inspect the kitchen, where one particular member thinly slices individual Brussels sprouts and nutty sunchokes by hand on a mandoline then tears flesh off of the lacquered grass-green olives known as Castelvetranos.  He gently massages a substantial dressing into the feathered sprouts, white discs, and meaty olive morsels just before gently piling it on a plate and sending it out to slaughter.  He does this over and over before it becomes obvious that I need to order it.  And so I do.  It turns out that the dressing, a brash, weighty emulsion of spicy garlic and a bit of salt-cured anchovy for depth, is the real pièce de résistance.  No, the anchovy didn’t deter me one bit; rather, it made the whole seemingly biotic salad sing and was barely detectable as a distinct essence.  It was playing one of those “what is that flavor?” supporting roles.  I had the hunter’s stew as well, but it was the salad that kept running through my highlight reel the morning after.  I could get used to this New Portland food.

They say that Portland is where young people go to retire.  Apparently retirement leaves plenty of time for puttering around the kitchen.

A Winter Salad of Raw Brussels Sprouts with Castelvetrano Olives, Sunchokes and a Mysterious Vinaigrette

For the dressing
1 lemon
2 teaspoons minced salt-cured anchovies
2 pinches unrefined sea salt
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons of bright extra-virgin olive oil

For the salad
1 pound Brussels sprouts, stems removed
1/4 pound sunchokes, preferably narrow
1/4 pound Castelvetrano olives

C O O K .

  • Make the dressing. Zest the lemon and squeeze the juice from one half of the lemon; put both in a bowl.  Combine with the anchovies, salt, and garlic.  Let stand while you prep the salad, then pour in the olive oil and blend in a blender or a small food processor.  Blending the dressing makes it more uniformly consistent, velvety, and disguises the anchovies, but the flavor will be just as commanding if simply whisked with a fork.
  • Prepare the salad. Using a mandolin or a knife, slice the Brussels sprouts vertically as thinly as possible.  Do the same for the sunchokes (no need to peel them).  Finally, tear the flesh from the olives with your fingers.
  • Assemble. Pour half of the dressing over the salad and massage gently.  If the sprouts aren’t fully coated and the dressing’s punchiness isn’t immediately apparent upon taking a bite, massage more dressing into the salad little by little until it’s hard to ignore.  Gently pile the salad into pyramidal piles and dust with some gray sea salt.

D R I N K . Try Austrian Gruner Veltliner, which I am told has magical powers when paired with difficult companions, like asparagus, artichokes and, yes, a salad of raw Brussels sprouts with anchovy vinaigrette.

R E F I G U R E .

  • Cook + mild feta. This salad’s second life is a quick cooking over medium-high heat with pieces of mild, less salty sheep’s milk feta scattered on top.
  • Soup. Night three: Cook some onions and lard or butter over medium heat until soft and glassy; add the leftover salad and cook until barely softened; pour in some chicken or beef stock and simmer for 20 minutes; puree with a stick blender; serve with last night’s feta crumbled on top, a few pieces of crispy, fried garlic, and a glug of extra-virgin olive oil.  Soup + crusty bread + a salad of winter chicories = dinner in 30 minutes.

L I T T L E  E A T S . For Elinor, I gave this a quick chop and cooked it with some lard (pastured-raised is loaded with coveted vitamin D) over medium-high heat for a minute or so just to soften it a bit (raw winter greens are a much more laborious affair when encountered with only six teeth)—success!  From the crunchy, white sunchoke discs to the briny olive flavor, there’s lots of novelty going on here, and novelty usually gets us at least to the second bite.

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Text and photo © Blue Egg Kitchen 2010

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ApresFete - Just divine. This piece took me on a ride of nostalgia that pulled at my heart’s strings and, at the same time, had me yearning for the Portland that is now. The local, the real deal, the we mean business (and pleasure) eating of now. I want to respond to every word: Oregon berries, breweries, Powell’s, the salty air of the coast, early a.m. walks with an infant and castelvetrano olives (why are they so good?). Thank you for your wonderful writing and for a recipe that makes my mouth water. I’m all for words like ‘mysterious’ in more recipe titles.January 25, 2011 – 10:41 pm

Alana - Thanks for a mini tour of Portland, my favorite town!! It sounds like you had a fun time. So many new places to try!
Your story telling is always really interesting and something I always look forward too! Keep it up!!!January 25, 2011 – 6:30 am

Soames - welcome back, old friend.January 18, 2011 – 6:14 pm


Hot, Buttered, Chest-Warming

Transporting butter across state lines with the intent to combine with intoxicating liquors.  Not a crime, but it should be, given how balmy and festive hot buttered rums are, particularly when made with homemade butter.  They are just the thing whether the thunder is shaking the house on a wet Oregon Coast night (our experience the last few days) or the heavy, white clouds are laying down their fifth foot of snow today or you are all together at last.  Pick up a bottle of serious rum and mash together the base, most of the ingredients for which you likely have on hand.  Then wrap yourself in a downy blanket, cue my favorite Christmas song, and sip away.  Happy Christmas, gentle readers.

Hot Buttered Rums

When you’re making the base, I encourage you to add extra pinches of each spice until you’ve arrived at your proprietary version. The spices in my recipe are apparent, but not bold.  And don’t skimp on the butter or else the result will be flat and overly sweet.

M I X  & M A K E . Bring two sticks (one cup) of butter to room temperature.  Stir in two teaspoons ground cinnamon, two pinches of ground cloves (both preferably freshly ground), 3/4 teaspoon of grated nutmeg, one pinch of unrefined sea salt, and two cups of rapadura sugar.  Let chill in the refrigerator until firmed somewhat.  In the meantime, boil water. Pour one or two shots of rum (how cold are you?) over two tablespoons of the mix.  Fill handled glasses with boiling water and stir until well combined.  Makes 10 drinks.

N O T E S .

  • Sugar. I’ve called for rapadura sugar because its deep molasses flavor complements the same relatively unrefined cane-sugar juice or molasses from which rum is made.  That said, brown sugar or whatever other cane sugar you have on hand will work.
  • Rum. The serious bartenders at Bourbon & Branch, a San Francisco speakeasy, recommended these rums for my drink: Zacapa Centenario, 23 Years; El Dorado, 15 Years; and Pampero Ron Añejo Aniversario Reserva Exclusiva.  Eric Cripe, a veritable almanac of all facts spirits-related at our local liquor source, The Jug Shop, agreed with these recommendations and added Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva Venezuelan Rum to the list.  We’ve been using the latter all month with excellent results.

R E F I G U R E . Pour one shot of rum with a half or full shot of the Coffee Liqueur from Portland’s micro-distillery, House Spirits.  This limited-release spirit combines Hawaiian turbinado cane sugar with Cellar Door Coffee’s Guatemalan beans.  It’s what I’ve always wished Kahlua would be: serious, lean, and to the point without the flabby glycerin and excessive sugar.

L I T T L E  S I P S . Ha.

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Text and photo © Blue Egg Kitchen 2010

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Nikki - Perfect, even for a rainy post holiday day in SF! Love it!January 7, 2011 – 4:41 pm

ApresFete - I have to admit, I have never had a hot buttered rum, though I sure do love the sound of them. Since I am in Oregon, and the snow just started, I will have to make this the afternoon that I have my first. Pretty sure this will be the greatest father/daughter bonding moment to date. If Dunc loves one thing, it’s butter. Thanks for the inspiration and picture of holiday coziness.December 29, 2010 – 12:55 pm

hODDY - The title of this post is so racy – but hey it got my attention. Hope Oregon is fun!December 25, 2010 – 4:03 pm

Alana - Homemade is so much better than the store bought versions which I think are too sweet. You painted a cozy picture with your story that makes me yearn for a hot buttered rum right now !!!!December 24, 2010 – 3:00 pm

Susan - This sounds amazing. I’ll definitely be trying this recipe this holiday weekend!December 23, 2010 – 9:34 am


Fat I Love

My love affair with dairy fat has been going on for at least three decades behind metals beaters pirouetted in pillows of cream and slippery pieces of butter-stained paper.

As it turns out, my earliest memory in the kitchen is of the most famed dairy fat of all—butter.  I am standing at my grandmother’s refrigerator, its long, almond-colored right door pushed back entirely, reaching on my tiptoes for a stick of butter.  Curling my little fingers over the smooth, vellum-like wrapping, I persevere until I nudge it off the shelf and onto the floor.   I rescue the austere little package from the linoleum and pull back paper slowly, expectantly, and hold the slick sheet in one hand and the pale yellow brick in the other.  One of the bar’s perfect corners beckons, and, naturally, I bite off a generous, creamy knob.  Then I wrap the stick back up with the precision of a four-year-old and go about my morning.  As for why I elected to eat butter straight up, I have no recollection whatsoever.  But I do recall that bite sending me into a state of genuine satisfaction.  Oh, was I pleased with myself.

Several years later, my learning how to make creme Chantilly, or whipped cream, as we called it, was motivated solely by the desire to stake my claim to the empty carton of heavy cream.  Thankfully, whipping cream is an easily acquired skill, meaning that I could set out to execute my master plan after only a lesson or two.  Once I had poured the cream into the mixing bowl and had sent the mixer’s beaters off to perform, I would tip my head back and open my mouth.  On my tongue I would rest the soft tip of the inverted carton, sometimes mangled in my impetuous efforts to open it, and I would wait, while breathing in its essence of wet paper and cream, for the streamlets of cream to slide down the waxed walls and drip heavily and lazily onto my tongue.  Bliss.  Drop by drop.  Which was eventually interrupted by the beaters peppering the sides of the metal bowl—round and round and round they would go—until the cream had inflated into cumulus billows.  The puffed cream, slightly sweetened and flecked with vanilla, would go out to the table, and I would stay in the kitchen licking my prize.  Mission accomplished.

Over time, I met other manipulations of cream—viscous clotted cream, tart Mexican crema and French crème fraîche, half-and-half (an imposter)—and I fell for them all.  Before my more cynical years, if you were a food developer and used “cream” in the product name, I would buy it.  Cream soda (actually just vanilla soda intended to accompany ice cream), creamer (the mystery powder made from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, corn syrup solids, and other septisyllabic wonders of food scientists), caramel-cream candies (creamer with wheat flour spun into small tan pucks with white bulls-eye centers).   These were mere infatuations.  They had to be because they were not real cream.  Science cannot synthesize cream’s singular mouthfeel (thus, the word “creamy,” not “creamery”), its milky perfume, and its unchanging ability to satiate.  And so I have been faithful to cream all along, even for those years when butter was out of vogue.

Even so, every now and then, I would see butter on the side.  For weekend breakfasts, I would tuck pats of it in between warm pancakes and would spread it furtively on bread when eating out.  I would hide it in chocolate-chip cookies and scones and omelets.  Butter, my mistress.

Recently, while attending a talk with Amanda Hesser, the New York Times food editor, and Daniel Patterson, the two-star Michelin chef, I heard something that I had vaguely suspected for several years.  Cream and butter are one in the same; only several minutes with the mixer (or a good deal longer if using the shaking or churning methods) separate them.  This revelation was a bit similar to finding out that your second lover is really your first in drag—shocking, but something you can come to accept over time.

And so I set out on the path to acceptance almost immediately.  I bought three pints of heavy cream (I am a raw-dairy girl, but any heavy cream, pasteurized or not, should work) and put them out to warm to room temperature.  After dusting off my rarely used stand mixer, I poured the cream into the bowl and put on the whisk attachment.  To prevent spraying my kitchen with buttermilk late in the process, I topped the bowl with the clear plastic cover that my mixer came with; alternatively, I could have engirdled plastic wrap around the opening.

Turning the mixer on to medium-high speed, I inhaled the clean sweetness of pure, naked cream.  A few minutes later, my cream had reached the whipped-cream stage and soon, after the mixer had beaten much of the air out of it,  quickly turned into concentric circles of dense ribbons.  Longer yet and the cream started to take on the palest shade of yellow as it morphed once again into something resembling dry scrambled eggs, the kind you would only consider eating if heavy with melted Gruyere.  I was starting to think that my cream would live in a state of eggy purgatory forever, when tiny drops of milk—yes, friends, my first glimpse of buttermilk—started to seep forth.

Things progressed fast and frenetically from here.  More and more buttermilk emerged, and a dense mass begin to grow on the whisk with its every turn.  Thud, thud, thud.  And, suddenly, there were two distinct materials in the bowl: butter and buttermilk, with the mixer throwing the former angrily against the smooth metal walls, thereby creating a violent tsunami of white gouache liquid.  But for the plastic cover, I would have been drenched.  And then, as I turned off the mixer, silence.  I poured off the milk and stripped the butter from the whisk.  After kneading the mass for a few minutes on a cutting board, no more milk crept out.  And there it was.  My butter.

That night, I mashed in some gray sea salt to it, and we spread thick slabs onto crusty bread.  I generally avoid bread because it makes me feel dreadful, and I endeavor to use foods when they are the height of their season.  In this case, I had taken cream from cows eating dried alfalfa and oats and buds, not the vital, fast-growing grass of the spring and early fall.  But some things must be done in the name of love.  And this is one.  The result, homemade butter, was far more satisfying than butter I’ve ever bought, even that made from the same cream I used.  Yet I cannot exactly articulate the difference.  Perhaps its flavor was more fully developed and its texture softer.  Everyone eating with us that night agreed that it was better in some noticeable way.  And I smiled, knowing that two of my great fat-loves and I were together at last.

Homemade Butter
Inspired by Daniel Patterson’s “Curd Mentality

Pour six cups of heavy cream into the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attached.  Cover the opening of the bowl tightly with plastic wrap to prevent liquid from splashing out near the end of the process.  Turn the mixer to a medium-high setting and wait between eight and 15 minutes, while the cream passes from whipped cream to over-whipped cream to scrambled-egg fluff to butter and copious amounts of buttermilk.  Set aside the buttermilk.  On a cutting board, knead the butter, soaking up the resulting liquid with a towel, until no liquid seeps out.  Store in the refrigerator.

Makes about 2 cups butter and about 3 cups of buttermilk.

R E F I G U R E .

  • Sweet, sticky apricot butter. Pour some boiling water to cover one cup of dried apricots.  Cover and leave until plump, about 10 minutes.  Drain the water.  Mince or puree half the apricots; chop the other half.  Blend the apricots into one cup of butter.  Honey is optional.  Slather on warm muffins or scones, freshly baked bread or popovers, pancakes, or porridge.  Adapted from of Skye Gyngell.
  • Herby butter. Finely mince any herbs and add in a one-to-one ratio to butter; stir in a few pinches of unrefined sea salt.  Add to anything and everything.  For example, melt a pat on top of a steak, spread on bread, soften over soft scrambled eggs, rub over a whole chicken before roasting, pan-fry a fillet of fish in.  The fat acts a preservative, keeping the herbs’ flavors bright and lively.  Also try freezing little cubes of the butter in the late summer for use in the dark heart of winter.
  • Hot, hot, hot chili butter. Blister a fresh red chili pepper over an open flame or under the broiler; cool it.  In the meantime, soak one dried chili in hot water until softened.  Peel the skin from the blackened chili and mince both chilies finely.  Mash the chiles, one tablespoon of sweet paprika and a large pinch of rock salt into a cup of butter.  Ms. Gyngell, apparently a butter lover like me, recommends this butter on cornbread and to fry eggs in.

L I T T L E  E A T S .

Some sort of fat accompanies all of Elinor’s fruits and vegetables because it helps her body absorb the nutrients.  Butter and plums elicit “mmmm” sounds, and she has never refused baby carrots roasted in the good stuff.

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torrey - I happened across this recipe looking for a use for some whipping cream that I was afraid might go bad if I didn’t use it soon. I poured it into my stand mixer and just let it go and omg butter! I’m so excited. I have some chicken out for dinner tonight too that I might use the buttermilk onJanuary 31, 2012 – 4:38 pm

AngelaL - So my eldest was also a “straight up” butter eater. I thought it weird but she did grow up to be a great cook. Enjoyed your post!December 28, 2010 – 7:01 pm

Alana - Fun! Fun!! Fun!!! Your journey with dairy fats is spun into a heartwarming tale that makes me smile!! I took a break from butter for a long time, but now we are best friends again! It is sooooooooooo good!December 24, 2010 – 3:08 pm

tania - I like this photo! Lovely!December 15, 2010 – 12:59 pm

ApresFete - Love your passion for the cow’s glory. This is a must do. Of course, you know having me pining for some buttered toast. My favorite treat as a baby was ‘butter bites’; has Elinor explored? Beautiful photo!December 14, 2010 – 1:57 pm

foodies at home - Butter is the secret to life! LOL Can’t wait to try making my own! Thanks so much!December 13, 2010 – 11:05 pm

Erin - Thanks for reminding me about the buttermilk, Carina. I forgot to mention it in the post. I was a bit disappointed with the buttermilk, which, as you say, was more or less whole milk. I keep meaning to culture it to give it some more character. Excellent tip for getting all the buttermilk out, too. Thanks!December 13, 2010 – 4:10 pm

Carina - Butter made this way is SO GOOD. 2 things to keep in mind, though:

1) All the buttermilk must come out or you will have rancid butter in a few days (learned this the hard way). You can make sure it’s all out by kneading in cold water until the water runs clear.
2) The liquid that runs off butter made from heavy cream is not “real” buttermilk. It can be used as whole milk in recipes but not as buttermilk because the cream does not come from soured milk.

But! This butter really is amazing.December 13, 2010 – 3:22 pm

Nikki - Witty! Simply genius! I loved every letter of this post. The same as I feel about butter…I want more, more, MORE!December 13, 2010 – 1:36 pm

Raw Cranberry Relish with Tangerines and Walnuts

The Thanksgiving Me

Thanksgiving dinner was just another family meal until my paternal grandmother started serving a cylinder of quivering cranberry jelly, gingerly laid on its back and sliced into thin discs.  Not only did it inject a flash of color into the meal’s otherwise narrow spectrum of ivories, beiges, and chestnut browns, it was geometric and precise, and I was a child of all things orderly.

Later, barely into my double-digit years, I noticed a bowl of juicy cranberry sauce on my maternal grandmother’s table.  It had probably been there each year, pooling in its faceted crystal bowl, but only then did I realize that mashed potatoes and cranberries and stuffing and cranberries and turkey and cranberries are all better when paired in a four-to-one ratio than when each is eaten alone.  It was the first meal—and is still the sole meal—at which I willingly commingled my food.

My twenties were a decade of experimentation.  With cranberries.  Varying amounts of freshly grated ginger, orange zest, spices, and cold-weather spirits showed up with them for Thanksgiving dinner.  And then one year ago, as I was passing the days—all 16 of them—after Elinor’s supposed due date, I came across the concept of raw cranberry relish and latched onto it like a newborn to a teat.  I toyed with ingredients and proportions until cranberries disappeared from stores.

A raw cranberry relish, I found out, is an ingenious thing.  It allows you to feel as though you are cooking, when, for whatever your reason—for example, you cannot reach the counter because of a protruding belly or you have just delivered a baby— you are not in any condition to do so; and all you need to make it is a sharp knife or a food processor.  The raw approach captures the cranberry’s kind tartness without cooking it into the sharply sour state that requires cups of sugar to reel it back into something palatable.  In particular, this version calls for nuts for crunchiness and a bit of maple syrup for balance.  Yet, fret not, my fellow diner: there is plenty of acidity to reinvigorate your taste buds after a bite or five of the starchy, unctuous leading dishes at the table.

As for the leading dishes, I eat them, too, relish in them, in fact.  I fear that, in focusing on the marginalized cranberry, I have given an inequitable impression of my Thanksgiving self.  To remedy this possibility, I have adapted the Proust questionnaire to this most benevolent of holidays.  Who is your Thanksgiving self?  Here’s mine:

  • What is, for you, the height of misery? Dry turkey breasts
  • Your ideal of earthly happiness? A walk in the morning, when the streets are quiet and the passersby smile more warmly than normal; a long, slow day spent reading and laughing and playing with Elinor while the savor of roasting turkey and woodsy herbs swirl around us; an early dinner, languid and full of animated conversation; a sleepy walk just before bed; snuggling up with Dave and Elinor, blankets up to our necks, while brisk air seeps in from the ajar window
  • The virtue you prefer in men? A mashed-potato experimenter (Will you please replicate last year’s version with Point Reyes blue cheese, caramelized shallots, and bacon?)
  • Your principal fault? A pre-dinner plate of cheese
  • What might your greatest misfortune be? What would also be my greatest fortune: the entire platter of my dad’s stuffing, made with wild mushrooms, toasted hazelnuts, and rosemary, thyme, and sage
  • Your favorite names? Maude, our turkey’s name
  • What you detest above all? Gravy from a packet
  • The reform you admire most? The decline of marshmallow-topped yams
  • Your present state of mind? Happy
  • For what fault have you most toleration? Dry turkey breasts; it is a hard-won skill to cook the legs through without drying out the breasts.
  • Your favorite motto? Fast.  Eat.  Sleep.

Eat gratefully.  Be well.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Raw Cranberry Relish with Tangerines and Walnuts
If you have time, make this relish the day before serving it to allow the flavors to meld.

12 ounces fresh cranberries
2 small tangerines, washed and cut into chunks
1 cup walnuts
1/4 cup maple syrup

M A K E . Mince the cranberries, tangerines, and walnuts by hand or pulse them in a food processor.  (If you choose the latter method, be sure to do only short, quick pulses; anything more may result in a puree-like spread.)  Stir in the syrup.

O P T I O N S . The recipe is really a template; substitute whatever citrus, nut, or sweetener you like.  The nuts bring creaminess and texture, while the oranges (or kumquats or satsumas or Meyer lemons) add depth.

  • The Meyer. Cranberries, a Meyer lemon, almonds or macadamia nuts, and honey.
  • The Cherry. Cranberries, the oranges, a generous handful of dried cherries, hazelnuts, and maple syrup.
  • Morning-after Yogurt. Mix the relish into your yogurt, thereafter ponder if Monet came to play with your breakfast.

L I T T L E  E A T S . I made no modifications to this recipe for Elinor. (By the way, while I was making this, she was more than happy with little pieces of raw cranberries alone.  Her love of sour foods is astounding.).

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Text and photo © Blue Egg Kitchen 2010

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hODDY - Impressive she likes sour fruits. Cranberries are hard for me to eat.November 27, 2010 – 9:58 pm

Alana - Wonderful post!! Wonderful photo!! I love hearing about all the different cranberry phases you have gone through and now Elinor is just beginning! I think this is a fantastic recipe that is the “new cranberry sauce” at our Thanksgiving table!November 24, 2010 – 11:44 am

Nikki - What is, for you, the height of misery? I would agree a dry turkey breast!!!

Your ideal of earthly happiness? Like Heather, I do not often get the opportunity to go home for Thanksgiving as my family is on the East Coast. So I often work the day before and after Thanksgiving, saving my time off for Christmas when I do get to go home. So I LOVE when everyone else is out of town in THE City and I feel honored and lucky to have San Francisco to myself. I understand that I am not actually the only person left in the city but to me it *feels* that way and I love it!

Happy Thanksgiving! Thank you for sharing such a wonderful post!November 24, 2010 – 10:11 am

heather - Made something very similar just a few minutes ago: cranberry-whole orange-apple & pecan chutney. Sweetened with a touch of sugar only. It’s something my grandma makes everything Thanksgiving, and now that I’m no longer able to celebrate with family due to distance, I’ve taken a variation as my own. Love your photos and the story!

Cheers and Happy Thanksgiving,

*Heather*November 24, 2010 – 9:25 am

Heather - This post warmed my heart! And I truly appreciated it as someone for whom on-plate experimentation with commingling has been a lifelong endeavor… happy thanksgiving!November 24, 2010 – 9:14 am

Down-to-Earth Inspiration (Fall Cookbooks)

Once every few weeks, I pull one of a stack of boxes from my clothes closet and lift the lid with a mix of verve and trepidation.  Sleeping—or, more accurately, hibernating—head to toe are objects known to most as pumps and to me as relicts.  Until Elinor was born, including the final weeks before that delicious day, they accompanied me to the office five days a week.  Now, I rely on flats, except when Dave and I venture out to taste the latest from San Francisco’s restaurants.

Last weekend, I unearthed a pair of black, pointed-toe d’Orsay stilettos, the kind with tomato-red soles, to accompany me to dinner and drinks.  We started at a so-called tavern, where carbon-filament bulbs narrowly illuminate walnut-paneled walls and the fare is standard turn-of-the-twentieth-century San Francisco: roasted marrow, oysters on the half-shell, and the rough-and-tumble Hangtown Fry.  My kind of place.

Later, we sauntered down a 25-percent-grade hill, which felt at least twice that in three-inch heels, to the unmarked door of a speakeasy.  After providing the proper password, the hostess showed us to our high-back oak booth, where we tucked into a few cocktails (in truth, I sipped one, the most I’ve had in the last 21 months) of an earlier era.  Think frothy egg whites, gastriques, absinthe.  Then cue the Paul Whiteman tracks.  My drink, The Liberal, combined rye whiskey with sweet vermouth and Amer Picon, the herbal orange bitters from France.  It was sublime, but would have been truly so served in my beloved coupe glass.

Nights out like this one, or eating out in general, inspire.  For us, they beget lively conversation.  For me, seeing how a chef treats an ingredient, whether in its preparation or a companion flavor, often provides fodder for home cooking.  But what I appreciate moreso about eating out is seeing what I consider the chef’s living, breathing portfolio.  What story is woven from the menu, how the food is plated, the ambiance, the friendliness of the staff?  From these observations, the chef’s philosophy begins to show through.  Yet, I remain somewhat skeptical of these details, wondering how many decisions were made with an eye for minimizing food costs and if the decor’s narrative is an attempt to compensate for deficiencies in the food.  In the end, restaurants are businesses trading in food; computations of black and red muffle creativity and credo.

Cookbooks, on the other hand, are a more intimate, pure conversation with the author.  For one, to write the requisite and much appreciated introduction, the writer must step back to consider her fundamental assumptions about food, the ideologies that will underlie her collection of recipes.  I enjoy introductions immensely, whatever their length, because, through them, I am in direct conversation with the author about a profoundly intimate topic—why she cooks and how.  This is inspiration of another kind, less polished and highfalutin, more cozy and down to earth.  And while glam is fun on occasion, I’ll take grounded most any day of the week.  For this, Dave’s and Elinor’s bellies thank me.  And so do my feet.

What follows are my favorite print conversations with cooks these days.  May they inspire you to cook and to eat well in these dark months.

Just give me the goods. Souploveis a darling, self-published pamphlet in which Oaklander Rebecca Stevens gives “12 simple seasonable soup recipes.”  With precise instructions and accessible ingredients, these recipes are made for weekday cooking.  The summer recipes, like Tomato Fennel with dry sherry, were bright and thoughtful and have me eager to try the fall and winter options, like Roasted Mushroom with sage and Pure Parsnip with a splash of white wine and apple juice.  Double any of these and make ahead my favorite fall salad dressing (1 minced shallot, 1/2 cup buttery extra-virgin olive oil, 3 tablespoons sherry vinegar, unrefined sea salt, and freshly milled pepper).  Then add a loaf of crusty, naturally leavened bread, and you’ve got dinner for everyone, big and small, all week.

Recipes with style and a dash of storytelling.  Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, two old friends and veteran food-industry stand-outs, share a studio space in which they cook and eat and write and photograph beautiful, real food in Canal House Cooking.  Can I join?  For now, only via their quarterly cooking journal, equal parts cookbook, narrative, and food magazine.  Each issue is arranged by whatever topics currently inspire them—this summer, for instance, featured sections such as Avocado Love, Luncheon Salads, and Gone Fishin’.  The writing is pithy and the recipes homey and traditional.  The current volume, the fifth, bound in vibrant royal-blue linen, is entitled The Good Life, in other words, holiday eating.  Being a lover of all liver-based food, my heart jumped upon seeing The Big Livers section.  Those less inclined to offal will appreciate Holiday Sweets, with recipes for the doughnut-hole-like Nuns’ Farts and Pear Upside-Down Cake.  The recipe Chicken & Mushrooms defines fall and is waiting to be made for a group of friends on a dark, chilly night soon.  And, while the topics vary from volume to volume, the first, It’s Always Five O’Clock Somewhere, is constant.  Thankfully.

Part memoir, part entertaining tome. Unlike his previous book of seasonal menus, heart of the artichoke and other kitchen journeys, the new book by Davis Tanis, the Chez Panisse chef, introduces two new sections.  One talks about kitchen rituals, those “ordinary, private moments” in the kitchen—peeling an apple, eating oatmeal, beans on toast, and resealable plastic bags; I especially appreciate this section, colored with short, vivid prose, given my recent inclination to a spoonful of coconut oil and raw honey as an afternoon snack.  The other new section, Simple Feasts for a Long Table, offers four clean, thoughtful menus for feeding a crowd of 15 to 20 people.  I’m tempted to try the Turkey Deconstructed menu, which solves the problem of dry breasts and just-cooked legs by roasting the breasts and braising the legs.  Brilliant.  The rest of the book is seasonal menus in Tanis’s standard understated style, self-described in a recent reading I attended as “thinking of food in its simplest essence and then adding a few clothes.”  While the menus tend toward Mediterranean flavors, Tanis includes polished Vietnamese and Middle Eastern menus, too.  Another that I will definitely try draws from his time cooking in Santa Fe: a platter of jicama, radishes, and oranges to start followed by slow-cooked carne adovada (braised pork shoulder with a chili paste) with hominy and Mexican-chocolate ice cream to finish.  With its creamy, matte pages, photos by Christopher Hirsheimer, and tight writing, this is a lovely book to behold.

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Text and photo © Blue Egg Kitchen 2010

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Alana - A pleasant surprise from your usual phenomenal recipes!! Hope this is just a little break though! I always look forward to your writing and it hasn’t let me down!! It is interesting, entertaining and a glimpse into one fun night out in San Francisco!November 18, 2010 – 10:33 am