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BISCUITS – A FAMILY SECRET REVEALED

My son enjoys cooking, and is very good at it, but  his scientist training attracts him to difficult recipes or those with a lot of instructions.   This is the edited version of Peter’s biscuits.  As I was collecting biscuit recipes from all of the good bakers in the family, I asked Peter for his version.  He sent me some copious notes in addition to the recipe: [1] Don’t use rancid shortening. Probably the voice of experience. [2] Use a pastry blender, although a large spoon works fine. [3]  Biscuits mix better on wood than Formica because the wood grain holds the flour. [4] To re-heat a day-old biscuit, put it inside a plastic bag and warm it for a few seconds in the microwave; then put it in the toaster oven for the final warm-up to remove the sogginess of the microwave. All useful suggestions either for the neophyte or experienced biscuit baker.

Other suggestions include: [1] the shortening in this recipe is on the low end of most recipes which go all the way up to 6 tablespoons of fat. The lower amounts of shortening produce flakier biscuits, the larger amounts produce soft biscuits. It’s only a matter of preference. Butter has more water content than vegetable shortening, so the finished biscuit is softer. Bacon grease is a good substitute, but it ought to be solid – not melted. [2] The less manipulation of the dough after you have added liquid the better. Folding is better than kneading so you get flaky layers. [3] Cold is better than warm. Be sure to chill the flour mixture before you add the liquid to get the flakiest biscuits. [4] Biscuits squeezed together in a cake pan will rise higher than those spread out on a baking sheet.

Peter learned the original, non-scientific version of his recipe from his maternal grandmother and then passed it on to his younger sister, who is a professional chef. She has worked in well-known restaurants in New York City and San Francisco. A common tradition in all of these places is the “family meal”. Chefs and cooks take turns preparing a meal for cooks and wait staff before evening service begins. The kitchen crews in all of those places are used to complex meals  with expensive ingredients. Yet in every single one of them, when Sarah cooks “family meal”,  cheers inevitably go up for her biscuits and barbecued brisket. There is never a single biscuit left when service starts.

In fact, the biscuits are so popular with restaurant staff that they will go to great lengths to get their share. One time a baking sheet of hot biscuits had just come out of the oven, ready to be passed around the table. Before anyone knew what was happening, the pan crashed to the floor, and the biscuits spilled out. Next stop for the biscuits was the trash barrel in spite of the cries of the hungry staff. One frustrated cook leaped up and went head down into the trash barrel to retrieve those precious gems.

 

PETER AND SARAH’S FAMILY MEAL BISCUITS

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon  salt
  • 2½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons shortening (Crisco much preferred)
  • ¾ cup  whole milk

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 450º.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder.
  3. Using a pastry blender, cut in the shortening until the mixture is consistent and the size of small peas.
  4. The biscuits will be flakier if you chill the dry mixture in the refrigerator for 30-45 minutes.
  5. Add the milk, and mix with a fork, being careful not to over-mix.
  6. Turn the dough onto a heavily floured surface. Knead the dough gently by pressing and folding. Don’t overdo it!  Four foldings should be enough, and more than six is too many.  Coat the dough with flour before the final folding to make splitting the biscuits easier.
  7. Pat the dough into a flat rectangle about ¼ to ½ inches thick. Using a two-inch biscuit cutter, cut out biscuits and place them on an ungreased baking sheet. Gather up the scraps, pat them together and flatten them, cutting biscuits until the dough is used up.
  8. Bake in the middle of the preheated oven for about 15 minutes, or until done.

Yield: Between 12 and 24 biscuits depending on size and thickness

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A SHORT HISTORY OF CORN

A couple of years ago, my two daughters and I started a book about corn (maize) to include recipes for a wide range of corn-based breads from around the world. The project bogged down when I started writing a blog, but we plan to revive our effort. Here is a short excerpt from the introduction. It may be more than you want to know about corn (maize), but I hope that you will find it interesting.

Nearly every American  school child knows that when the Europeans first came to the New World, they found a virtual cornucopia of foods which they had never seen or tasted before.  The explorers took back to their homeland many foods that soon became imbedded in cuisines in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Of these edibles, eight of the current 26 top crops by tonnage have become essential to many diets, and include maize (called corn in the United States and other English-speaking countries), potatoes, tomatoes, chiles, peanuts, manioc, chocolate and vanilla, and sweet potatoes. Other important New World contributions to the global diet included beans, squash, turkeys, pineapple, and avocado, along with numerous herbs, fruits, and nuts.  Of these foods, undoubtedly corn has become the most important for providing nutrition and calories throughout the world and in all socio-economic situations.  To support this contention, consider that corn (or maize) is grown on all of the inhabited continents, China grows more corn than any other country, and corn-based dishes are served in China, India, Africa, England, France, Italy, and all of the countries of Central and South America. Refined corn is used for cooking oil, sugar substitute, and food additives. Corn serves as a major food source for animals raised a sources of meat. It is an integral and essential part of nearly every human’s diet.

History of cultivation

Maize (corn) was domesticated nearly 9,000 years ago by people living in the region of what is now the Mexican states of Michoacán, Guerrero, and Mexico. Like all modern food grains, it arose from a wild grass – in this case a large grass, Balsas teosinte, that even to this day grows in the Central Balsas River Valley. 

Balsas teosinteAlthough no one knows exactly how or how long the process of domestication developed, clever modern breeding studies have produced hybrids of teosinte and maize that give us an idea of what some of the grains may have looked like along the way.

teosinte and maize cobsIt is clear that both the Aztecs and Mayas consumed domesticated maize, and archeological records document that domestic corn spread to Panama by 7,600 years ago and to Uruguay by 4,600 years ago. Later, domesticated corn spread throughout both North and South America so that it was an important part of the diet of the native peoples throughout the New World when the Europeans arrived. The European explorers took back seed grain, and the cultivation of corn spread quickly throughout Europe and then into Africa and Asia. This rapid acceptance occurred  largely because of ease of cultivation, wide range of favorable growing conditions, and usefulness as a basic foodstuff. Now virtually every culture in the world depends upon corn and has unique and traditional dishes based upon the grain.

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RICH TABLE: JUST DESSERTS WITH SARAH RICH

As Rich Table has gotten up and running, they have focused on their menu of savory dishes. Sarah and Evan work closely to develop that menu, which changes daily. Almost by default Sarah has been responsible for the baking and the dessert menu. Even though her training and experience have been in savouries on the line, she has also done pastry. So it was natural for her to take on that responsibility. As well, she has taken responsibility for selecting the cheeses for the cheese plate, to be served with grilled levain drizzled with honey. Each evening is a classic presentation of one sheep-, one goat-, one cow-milk choice –  on a recent visit these were Ossauiraty, Onetik Chabrin, and Templais du Fleuron, respectively – as well as hard, soft, and blue.

One of the most popular “bites” at Rich Table has been fennel-scented levain served with cultured butter. Some have wondered why the restaurant charges for this dish when many restaurants provide a “free” bread basket. The answer lies in the preparation of the dish. Sarah and Evan forage for wild fennel pollen. The harvested pollen is used as the key flavoring in the popular bread. Leaven for the bread comes from a years-old culture which Sarah feeds on a daily basis and then readies each night for bread baking. The recipe has been specially developed, and the bread is baked daily; then served warm, soft and fragrant. The butter comes from cream to which a culture is added and allowed to age for several days before it is churned, kneaded, and hand-formed in house. All of this seems like a lot more effort than placing a daily order from Acme Bread.

If you just need a little sweetness at the end of the meal, go for the mixed melon granita. It’s very light as it rests on flavorful bites of melon.

Mixed melon granita

Caramelized olive oil cake with strawberries and miso is delicious and flies in the face of convention. Harold McGee in Keys to Good Cooking says that fats and oils make cakes moist by interrupting the protein-starch structure. In most recipes the fat recommended is butter for flavor or vegetable shortening for lightness. Oil is not commonly used. Interestingly, King Arthur Flour’s Baking Companion says that one insurance salesman, Harry Baker, made a good living selling chiffon cakes to Hollywood celebrities until he sold the secret recipe – using vegetable oil – to General Mills in 1947. Since then, there have been many cake recipes developed using vegetable oil including popular carrot cake, applesauce cake, and vegan cakes. However there remains the caution in several popular cookbooks not to use olive oil as the strong flavor will spoil the cake. This caramelized version is evidence that olive oil is wonderful in cake and a perfect foil for roasted strawberries and  miso with cream cheese.

Caramelized olive oil cake with roasted strawberries and cream cheese

Salted chocolate sable with fresh raspberries, sorrel, and chocolate cream is a chocolate lover’s dream come true. The sable is a crisp thin cookie with just enough salt to play off the berries and creamy chocolate cream beneath it.

Salted chocolate sable with raspberries, sorrel, and chocolate cream

Buttermilk panna cotta seems ordinary enough, but the fresh  stone fruit sauce and almond crumble elevate it to a unique offering.

Buttermilk panna cotta with stone fruit and almond crumble

Any one of these desserts is a perfect choice to end your meal. Better yet, share several with your dinner partners.

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RICH TABLE UPDATE

We just got back from a week-long visit to San Francisco where we tended our grandson while my daughter and her husband worked overtime to get their new restaurant – Rich Table – open by July 19.

The dining room before any renovations

First-day restaurant owner thinking, “What have I gotten into?”

To my wife and me it seemed impossible to believe that they had signed the lease and accepted the keys on May 1 and were planning to be open by July 19. Part of our disbelief was grounded in having been there the day they walked into the space. The previous owner occupied the space for 12 years, and so much of the clutter of over a decade was still around. The restaurant had only shut its doors for the last time the night before, so there were also the leftovers of last-minute meals and unwashed dishes.

Wonder what else is in that scary basement?

The space is in a very good part of the city, close to the performing arts centers as well as the city hall. Still, the space was in  desperate need of a major redo. And that’s exactly what Sarah and Evan did. Walls were torn out, the restroom was relocated so that it was ADA compliant and no longer opened into the middle of dining room, banquettes were tron out, and major cooking equipment, including the range led together with duct tape,  was either replaced or sent out for a total refurbishment. Carpet was pulled up, and lurking beneath was a beautiful hardwood floor just begging to be refinished and polished.  Other discoveries included beautiful wooden pillars hidden behind drywall covers and a great red support beam for the ceiling. An image of the red beam has become a part of the web site home page for Rich Table. Old furniture was out and natural wood tables with classic chairs were brought in.

“The Beam”

After the demolition was completed. the new construction began. Evan went to an old saw mill which was being torn down in Petaluma. He bought several hundred square feet of old barn wood to be used on the walls of the dining room. With the help of their designer, Sarah and Evan put together a new space with soft-colored wooden walls, a gleaming cherry-stained hardwood floor, complementary curtains, and interesting lighting.  The roughness of the wood was softened by welcoming throw pillows at the back of the banquette.

Finishing touches on the community table

The new corner of the banquette

In the meantime, the two remained busy cooking for private parties, trying out some of the dishes they plan to offer on their menu. Their goal is to provide creative, well-prepared high-end food in a relaxed atmosphere without all of the fuss and with affordable prices. A couple of the dishes which will make their menu are shown here.

Grilled artichoke and crab bouillabase with ramps

Braised oxtail with foraged spring things and flatbread

They still have lots of finishing touches to put in place, but the restaurant is close enough to being ready that we wound up having a sort of family picnic. Sarah cooked some of the food at home, then brought it to the restaurant to be finished. Our son joined us from his home in Silicon Valley. After a sparkling wine toast (New Mexico Gruet, what else?) we wound up having a  feast – nothing fancy: roasted chicken, giblet sauce, fresh-baked biscuits, ears of  corn seared on the restaurant plancha, sautéed shaved Brussels sprouts, and a delicious dessert  leftover from a private party: sort of a deconstructed Black Forest cake with rich chocolate cream served between wafers of a crisp chocolate panade and topped with macerated fresh sweet cherries and whipped cream.

The big push now begins. The reservation program is not yet set up, but the plan is for Rich Table, 199 Gough, San Francisco, to be open by the end of the month.

Ready for a toast

RECIPE

Jacques Pepin says that one of the marks of a good chef is to be able to cook a perfect omelet. The other mark is the ability to roast a perfect chicken. Here is Sarah’s recipe.

Oven-Roasted Chicken

Ingredients

  • 1 fresh four-pound baking chicken
  • salt and pepper
  • 6 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • good handful of your choice of fresh herbs – thyme, rosemary, sage, or tarragon are all good choices
  • ½ cup melted butter (about)

Method

  • Thoroughly clean the chicken, inside and out, with running water
  • Salt and pepper generously inside and out
  • Stuff the cavity with the chopped garlic, cut lemon, and herbs
  • Brush the chicken all over with the melted butter and place in the middle of a heavy, oven-proof pan (cast iron works the best) over a hot flame.
  • Turning frequently and basting as needed, brown the chicken on all sides
  • Move the chicken in the skillet to the middle of an oven preheated to 425º F
  • As it bakes, turn the chicken frequently and baste it with pan juices and remaining melted butter.
  • Bake for about 1 hour or less  or until the temperature of the thigh muscle reaches 165° F using an instant read thermometer
  • Remove from the oven, let rest for about 5 minutes, and then slice into serving pieces while the skin remains crisp.

Grilling corn and Brussels sprouts on the plancha

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TOSTONES AND GUACAMOLE

When our son, Peter, was in graduate school, he stayed in a run-down house with a number of Colombiano students. The house was on Hillmont Street, so they named the house “Casa Hillmont”. During his time at Casa Hillmont, Peter’s Spanish skills improved markedly, but he also learned to cook Colombian comfort food. One favorite was and is tostones. Tostones are the one way I know of to use plantain. This banana relative usually sits neglected in the produce section of the grocery store. Neglect those plantains no longer because tostones are easy to make,  delicious as a snack, and a great substitute for corn chips with guacamole.

Plantain slices ready to fry

First frying of plantain slices

Smashing a cooked plantain slice with a can

Tostones ready to serve

Guacamole is a Central American dish which has been imported to the American Southwest and eventually to the whole world. Probably that’s because it is easy to make The mellow flavor of the obligate avocado balanced against citrus and chile accents is hard to resist, especially with a corn chip and cold margarita in hand. According to Diane Kennedy, the legendary Mexican cookbook writer, the word comes from two Nahuatl (Aztec) words, ahuacatl (avocado) and molli (mixture). Other authorities say that the word ahuacatl actually means “testicle” referring to the shape of the fruit and its tendency to grow in pairs. More than that, the Mesoamericans reportedly believed that eating the fruit contributed to sexual prowess. Those interesting facts aside, it is easy to eat a bowl of fresh guacamole by oneself.

Ingredients for my version of guacamole

There are probably as many recipes for guacamole as there are cooks who make it. Most traditional recipes include chopped tomato. For me, the version which tends to be favored in Santa Fe is the best. It uses coarsely mashed avocado, lime juice, a little chopped onion, salt, and pepper. Garlic and cilantro are acceptable additions, and chile depends upon your tolerance for heat. I do balk at one addition that you sometimes see – mayonnaise. The Aztecs never used mayonnaise! Honestly, I prefer guacamole with a kick, but because my wife has zero tolerance for chile, I make it without any zest and then sneak a little chile into my portion.

Guacamole in a molcajete ready to serve

The recipes to follow should be enough for two people. For larger groups, just increase proportions accordingly.

RECIPES

Tostones

  • cooking oil
  • 1 ripe plantain, unpeeled and cut in ½ inch  slices (about 12 slices)
  • salt
  • Add the oil to a ½ inch depth in a heavy pan and heat over a medium-high flame. Do not let it smoke
  • Peel the plantain slices and place them in the heated oil. Brown lightly, turn, and brown the other side
  • Remove the slices to absorbent paper, and using the flat end of a large can, smash each of the cooked slices
  • Immediately return the slices to the heated oil and continue frying them until they are browned on both sides
  • Remove again to the absorbent paper, sprinkle with salt, and serve while still warm

Guacamole

Ingredients

  • 1 large, ripe avocado
  • juice of 1 fresh lime
  • 2 scallions, trimmed and chopped finely
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 small tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped (optional)
  • cilantro leaves, chopped (optional)
  • hot sauce (eg Tabasco or Cholula) to taste (optional)
  • 1 jalapeño, seeded and chopped (optional)

Method

  • Place the avocado flesh in a medium bowl and mash coarsely with a table fork
  • Add the lime juice and combine with the mashed avocado.
  • Stir in the chopped scallions, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, and serve
  • Add optional ingredients according to your own taste

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LEFTOVER LAMB SHANKS

The day after our farmers market feast, Sarah went off to the restaurant where she was working. Evan slept in after his last night cooking at the restaurant where he worked. Around noon, he volunteered to make lunch and headed out to the kitchen. There were lots of leftovers from the night before, but when he had finished you would not have recognized at all that they were leftovers.

He whipped up a fragrant pasta dish which included the leftover lamb shanks, a reduction of the cooking liquid,  freshly cooked pasta, mushrooms, and some wilted baby salad greens.

Uncooked campanelle pasta

The pasta he chose was campanelle which  with its bell shape and fluting was a perfect choice to hold the sauce. This unusual pasta shape was listed in a catalog of Sicilian pastas at the end of the nineteenth century. You can read more about it in an interesting book,  Encyclopedia of Pasta, written by Oretta Zanini de Vita and translated by Maureen B. Fant (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009), which describes the history and  making of Italian pasta.

Lamb shanks, campanelle pasta, mushrooms and wilted greens

RECIPE

Ingredients

  • 2 cups leftover lamb braising liquid, strained and de-greased
  • 1 cup campanelle pasta
  • 1 cup leftover lamb shanks, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup mushrooms, trimmed and cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 cup baby salad greens
  • salt and pepper

Method

  • Bring the braising liquid to a boil and add the campanelle. Boil until the pasta is al dente.
  • Add the lamb  and warm over low heat until heated through.
  • While the pasta is boiling, heat the olive oil in a small sauté pan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and sauté for 3 minutes.
  • Stir the mushrooms into the lamb and pasta.
  • Add the salad greens, toss lightly, correct the seasoning and serve immediately.

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FERRY BUILDING FEAST: OYSTERS WITH CUCUMBER-DILL MIGNONETTE

Our trip to the Ferry Building Farmers Market coincided with the day that Sarah and Evan got the keys for their new restaurant space, so we were in a celebratory mood. Never mind that Evan had one last night at his current restaurant, Susan, Sarah, and I were going to have a party.

Selecting the best oysters

And what better way to begin the celebration than champagne and oysters on the half shell. Two dozen oysters sounded just about right for the three of us, and the oysters from Hog Island Oyster Company were fresh and just the right size. We brought home a mesh bag iced down for the short journey home.

Opening the oysters with an oyster knife

At dinner time, Sarah brought out her oyster knife and made short work of the shucking. Of course, she is a professional, so she knew what she was doing. She wrapped each shell in a kitchen towel and grabbed it firmly with one hand. Using an oyster knife, she slipped the point of the knife into the hinge of the shell, twisted the knife firmly, and popped open the innocent oyster. She cut the muscles holding the oyster in the shell, removed the top shell, and placed the fresh oyster on a bed of ice.

Opening the oysters with an oyster knife

If you have never opened an oyster on your own. There are a few important pointers. First, be sure to use a good-quality oyster knife. Regular knives can bend and break, and you can wind up plunging the blade into your hand. Serious injuries to blood vessels and tendons can result. Second, the towel is supposed to provide some protection so it should not be flimsy. If you are  a little nervous, Kevlar gloves are available and provide more safety. If you are still anxious, have your fish monger shuck the oysters before you bring them home.

Oysters on the half shell with lemon

You can eat raw oysters with no dressing. That’s the way real aficionados do it so they can taste the brine of the sea. For me, a little lemon juice brightens the taste. In Louisiana they douse with hot sauce. The classic accompaniment is a fresh mignonette sauce. The following recipe is for Sarah’s version based upon ingredients from the farmers market.

RECIPE

Cucumber-dill mignonette

Ingredients

  • ½ cup champagne vinegar
  • 4 teaspoons finely chopped shallots
  • 4 teaspoons finely diced cucumber
  • 2 teaspoons finely minced fennel fronds
  • 2 teaspoons finely minced dill weed
  • 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
  • salt to taste

Method

  1. In a small bowl, combine all of the ingredients with a wire whisk
  2. Serve immediately or chill until ready to serve

Oysters, mignonette, and sparkling wine ready for the celebration

We opened a bottle of California sparkling white wine, toasted the new restaurant, and enjoyed our raw oysters with cucumber-dill mignonette.

Toasting the new restaurant

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