A Love Story

"Cooking is like love--it should be entered into with abandon or not at all."--Harriet Von Horne

August 22, 2016

Friends with Figs

Fig and Goat Cheese Pizza with Balsamic Drizzle
I've always wanted a fig tree, even after everyone I knew warned me against it.

"Fig trees are messy," seemed the most common rendition, although, there were just as many who warned about the birds. So, not wanting the hassle of an incessant fruit clean up, or, being able to imagine myself living the real life version of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, I gave up on the idea altogether.

But, I never gave up on figs. During the height of fig season, I'd head to the farmers market and queue up along with all of the other fig lovers, in front of the one vendor who was selling figs. And, I didn't care, nor did those who stood along with me, that I would shell out $5 or 6 dollars for a small basket.

Once home, I'd dole out the figs sparingly. One for Mr. B, one for me. Unless he wasn't looking, of course, then I'd quickly pluck an extra one from the basket and shove it into my mouth, hiding it in the hollow of my cheek if he came near. I know it sounds extreme and even selfish, but fig season didn't come as often as I would have liked, so it was every man--or, woman--for themselves.

Life without a fig tree left my culinary dreams unfulfilled. Of course I read cookbooks and looked on longingly at all of the fig creations that were just beyond my reach. I could only lust for the fig tarts, shiny under a sugary lacquer, salivate over plump figs, split down the middle and stuffed with goat cheese and a drizzle of honey, and go weak over that one picture of figs where the figs had been covered in butter and sugar, put under the broiler until they resembled miniature creme brulee and set atop scoops of vanilla ice cream.

We could spend all the time in the world looking at those pictures, but without the bounty of fruit that a fig tree would bear, we were limited. So, we ate the figs fresh from the basket, along side a piece of cheese, or maybe, sliced thin and topped with yogurt.

And, the years passed, with one uneventful fig season to another, until just recently when I discovered that a new coworker was having the opposite problem. She, was, you see, the owner of a fig tree, actually more, and she couldn't give her figs away fast enough. They were everywhere, she lamented, and the birds, there were far too many birds to count, descending on the trees, a tornado of noise and motion.

"Would you like some figs?" she asked.

"Would I!" I replied.

 The next day, she came walking in with a plastic shoe box filled to the brim and even after sharing with others, I walked to my car with the container still three quarters of the way full. Humming under my breath, new life in my step, my mind churning with the many recipes and dishes that I could tackle--and I could hear the sound of opportunity as I started the car and threw it into reverse.

I wanted to get home and show Mr. B, but I wasn't in any hurry. I rolled the windows down and turned the radio up, deciding at the last minute to take the long way home. After all, I thought, as I popped another fig into my mouth, it was a beautiful summer evening. Why not enjoy the ride?

August 10, 2016

Making Kimchi: Women's Work

Add Some Spice to Your Life With Kimchi
The year I turned 15, my mother went through an ethnic cooking phase fueled by half a dozen magazine subscriptions and a stack of cookbooks she picked up at a garage sale. 

She developed a habit of reading recipes aloud, but it was clearly for my own elucidation, not my approval, for never once did she ask whether or not I might be interested in trying a particular dish. Instead, in the evenings, I would approach the dinner table with a strong mix of fear and anticipation; I could never be certain what was on the menu.

My mother’s culinary daring kept me on my toes and while I had no way of knowing it then, her adventurous cooking advanced my palate. This is how I developed my deep appreciation for garlicky hummus, towering mountains of tabbouleh, and dense floury dumplings stuffed with succulent pork and greens—commonplace dishes in today’s world, but three decades earlier in the Midwest, they were exotic culinary delights that fueled my imagination.

I was happy to indulge my mother’s hobby until the afternoon she recited the recipe for kimchi. At first, I paid little attention as she read the ingredients—finely shredded cabbage, ginger, garlic, red pepper, water, and salt—all common enough in our kitchen—then, she detailed the long fermentation process, the traditional earthenware pot used for making kimchi—all perfectly acceptable, but, when she shared that the only way to get the true flavor of kimchi was to bury the pot in the backyard, I protested.

I loved cooking, too, but I was at that age where social standing mattered; those precipitous teenage years when a simple ride to school could be a setback. I didn’t want to think about the repercussions—or embarrassment—of having my friends stumble upon a pot with a fermenting brew of vegetables poking from beneath the earth in my mother’s garden.

Years later after my palate matured, I discovered kimchi and now, ironically, there’s always a jar in my refrigerator. Had I taken my mother up on her offer to make kimchi, though we’re not Korean, we would have engaged in a tradition that Korean women have shared for centuries.

Making kimchi was women’s work, a time when women, young and old, would gather to socialize and pay homage to their ancestors and Korean heritage. Known as Kimjang, this event occurred after harvest and had a practical purpose. Large amounts of kimchi could be prepared and set aside for the long winter months and it was a way for mothers to pass on to their daughters the traditions—and secrets—of making kimchi.

The best kimchi was made by old hands—or knowing hands—possessed by women who had been making kimchi for so long that they had wisdom in their hands. These women knew precisely how to mash and massage the vegetables to soften them to the right consistency and could add other ingredients by sense—a pinch of this or that, until the right balance was achieved. These women had gained their knowledge over a lifetime of trial and error and while the ingredients would vary by region, kimchi always had to be the perfect balance of five flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, and salty.

A women’s work wasn’t done once the kimchi had been made; it needed tending. The traditional vessel used, a permeable earthen pot, allowed air circulation and was small enough to be moved to accommodate changes in weather. During summertime, women would store their pots on their rooftops and in the winter, bury them in the earth to keep them warm. Some women never left them out of their sight and would even sleep with them. In many families, the pots were passed on from mother to daughter, the kimchi reportedly going back decades, possibly even centuries.

According to anthropologists, kimchi dates back to 2030 BC and in 600 AD, archeologists excavated a remote site, uncovering the remains of clay pots used for kimchi, along with cave paintings depicting the process. Food historians report that it wasn’t until 1350—when chilies and red pepper were introduced—that kimchi evolved to what we recognize today.

Kimchi is so important to the Korean identity that there is a Kimchi Foundation, a Kimchi Research Institute, and even a Kimchi Field Museum where they’ve documented 187 historic and current varieties, including those so elaborate they include abalone, oysters, lichen—even whole fish wrapped in cabbage leaves.

While my introduction to kimchi was rocky, I owe my love of ethnic food and adventurous cooking to my mother. The last time we spoke, I told her about the kimchi I was making, but before I could finish, she said, “Hold on a minute. I just came across a recipe; I want to read it to you.”

July 27, 2016

Sockeye Salmon with Roasted Tomatoes and Tarragon Butter

Summertime Salmon
On any given summer evening, Mr. B stands at the ready to fire up the grill and cook me anything my heart desires. And while I know he secretly pines for thick juicy steaks and chops, come summertime, I can't seem to think of anything other than perfectly grilled Sockeye Salmon.

Perhaps I'm drawn by the vivid color, a deeply hued red with the slightest aura of brilliant coral, or the tender, almost melt-in-your-mouth meatiness, or, maybe, the way it pairs perfectly with all of my summertime favorites--fresh corn, tomatoes, and tarragon, all plucked from the garden while nearby, the grill heats up.

Sockeye Salmon are much smaller than King, or Chinook Salmon, averaging only around 6 pounds and while the latter seem to always be in season, Sockeye season is brief, running from June to July, perfectly timed to take advantage of a few of my favorite seasonal eats. If I lived closer to where they were harvested, I'd more than likely live the entire duration of the Sockeye season stuffing myself into a euphoric intoxication, but since I don't, I'm happy to eat it as often as possible.

While it's incredible simply grilled and finished with a squeeze of lemon and sea salt, I love the way it pairs with the sweetness of roasted and caramelized cherry tomatoes, slightly browned butter, and the unmistakable notes of anise in the fresh tarragon. This dish is best enjoyed al fresco with a glass of Chardonnay.

July 13, 2016

The Ultimate Watermelon Salad

Salty, Sweet and Oh So Delicious
Right before our anniversary, Mr. B and I spent a weekend in Vegas and never once stepped foot outside the hotel. It was hot. Way too hot for either of us, so we stayed inside, mostly in our room where we could lower the thermostat to near freezing temperatures.

The Monday that we flew out was our anniversary and we were looking to get back home, enjoy a nice anniversary dinner and some cooler weather. But, as luck would have it, there was a fierce heatwave back at Casa de la Bryant and though we didn't know it as we were headed home, our anniversary dinner was going to be interrupted by a rolling brown out.

Let's forget the fact that temperatures climbed to 111 degrees that day, because while that's hot, it was even worse when it was still 104 degrees hot at 8 PM and there was no power. Mr. B had thick pork chops to grill, but the rest of our epicurean plans went south. Without electricity there was no way to cook anything else without heating up the house and for the first time in years, I realized how dependent I had become on both my toaster oven and my microwave in surviving summer dinner preparation.

I decided to make a watermelon salad and while I have a fabulous recipe, I couldn't stop thinking about how refreshing cucumbers would be added to the mix, or cilantro and basil and mint. So, that night, I threw together what turned out to be an amazingly delicious salad that both Mr. B and I raved over while dining by candle light.

Though the power came on late that evening, we continued to make the watermelon salad every night for almost a week straight, each time perfecting the recipe a little more by adding a few unconventional, but life changing ingredients--pistachios and capers--and subtracting others. By the weekend, we had a BBQ with friends and decided to tote along our new creation. Not surprisingly, the salad disappeared in moments and the crowd couldn't stop raving.

This is the ultimate watermelon salad. It's refreshing enough to cool you down on the hottest of days, get you through a rolling brown out, and even step in and elevate a special celebratory dinner. Candle light is optional, but I highly recommend it; it adds to the atmosphere and makes for a romantic evening.

May 04, 2016

Soy Sorry, Mr. B!

Say You're Sorry With Make Up Steak 
Whoever said "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" was probably not making reference to dietary topics, but in my own life--and unfortunately, Mr. B's--there is not a more significant quote that applies to the outcome of several dietary changes that I put into action earlier this year.

Long a proponent of a plant-based diet, one night back in January, with a copy of Mark Bittman's Vegan Before 6:00 PM tucked under my arm, I served Mr. B a very well-made vodka martini and snuggled in beside him on the couch. I'd been meaning to have 'that talk' with him for a long while, that talk that most wives initiate every so often, the one that begins something like, "Look, I know you really love red meat, but...," the talk that smart women strive to avoid altogether, unless of course, circumstances and pure stubbornness lead the way.

By the second martini, I had Mr. B convinced that he could live without with slightly less red meat and by the time I was skewering the olives for his third martini, I had him singing the praises of eating more soy and almost, but not quite, salivating over the pictures of the recipes that I was planning on making over the next several weeks. It's true; he did seem a little tipsy as he was pointing to the beautifully photographed dishes and saying, "Wow! That looks good," but, he seemed to be enjoying the evening. Though disappointed by his faulty recall, I can't say I was entirely surprised that he remembered very little of our conversation the next day.

Undeterred by his foggy memory, I handed him a few aspirin, gave him a peck on the cheek, and headed to the grocery store to stock the pantry with all sorts of 'healthy' goodies. I should point out two things here: the first, VB6 doesn't advocate excessive intake of soy products, but rather includes a variety of plant-based recipes. Secondly, I confess that while it may seem unbelievable, I am an admitted soy addict--soyrizo, soy milk, tofu, edamame--bring it on! Which I did--in copious amounts--proving for once and for all that the excessive consumption of even the healthiest foods can have dire consequences.

Flash forward several months and picture, if you will, me sitting with my doctor in the examination room as she tells me that she's pretty sure the best diagnosis is that I had a kidney stone, which explained the excruciating pain I endured over the previous week and the likely reason my usually sunny disposition turned south, leaving me with a colorful vocabulary and a quick temper.

I'd never had reason to research kidney stones before, but after a quick internet search for causes, I found that I had been living--yes, living--on a diet of foods high in oxalates and even worse, had been feeding Mr. B the exact foods destined to bring on gout, a condition he'd recently been suffering through and one so painful, I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.

Though I didn't want to, I had to tell Mr. B that the diet I'd been feeding us was the likely cause of our diminishing health, a painful conversation indeed, though not for the reasons you may think. Mr. B has always looked to me for my nutritional smarts, my in-depth knowledge of the best and most healthiest foods and now, I was afraid he'd doubt me, never again paying attention when I would passionately extol the benefits of this nutrient or that food.

When I finally did confess a few days later, I armed myself with two martinis--one for each of us--and approached him where he lay on the couch, his foot propped on a precarious stack of pillows. He listened to me, attentive to my story, his face expressionless and when I got to the end of my tale, he waited a moment and then said very, very loudly, "You tried to kill me!"

He couldn't stay mad at me forever, though, even with the pain he was enduring. I knew his weaknesses and how to make the perfect martini. I also had an impossibly thick steak that I was cooking for dinner and I was positive that once he got a whiff of that steak searing in a hot cast iron pan with a little garlic, he'd quickly forgive me.

April 12, 2016

Sunday Dinners

Old School Chicken Piccata
On that rarest of occasions when Mr. B has a Sunday off and it's not football season, we make every attempt to wrest ourselves from our daily habits and enjoy the day. Of course, with a pretty spectacular backyard and a pool, that doesn't always mean we leave the house, but we certainly do try.

In Spring, things are different, though. The winter rains--no matter how few--magically turn the landscape into a patchwork of rolling green hills, incredibly lush and tempting, the wildflowers bedazzle the landscape, first with the bright orange poppies, shocking waves of yellow mustard, and then later on, seemingly endless streams of blue lupine. Along with those famous California blue skies and sunshine, grazing cows and sheep, and winding country roads, there's nothing we want to do but get into the car and spend the better part of an afternoon roaming the back roads, taking pictures, and working up an appetite for Sunday dinner.

Sunday dinners haven't always been top on my list. When I was very young and my father very strict, Sundays would drag on forever; there were no children's programs on the television, no friends to play with, and no places to go. Later, after my parents divorced, I spent weekends at my grandparents's house and after Sunday dinner--at noon, mind you--we'd pile into my grandfather's big brown Oldsmobile and ride off in search of adventure. I lived in Colorado at the time, so there were many Sunday drives to the mountains, then when we tired of that, my grandfather would drive us to see the new model homes in the housing tracts that were becoming ever more popular, to the mall on the other side of town for window shopping, or to a museum or historical site that had been of particular interest.

There was no hurry on Sunday and he'd drive slow enough so we could enjoy the scenery and people watch along the way. Sometimes we'd play games, looking for unusual license plates or models of cars, but mostly, we'd listen to my grandmother's stories, or sometimes, the radio, until my grandfather would decide to take that next turn, the one that would take us back home.

Sunday supper was at 5 p.m. sharp and consisted on nothing more than reheating the afternoon meal, smaller portions, but, second helpings of dessert--if there was enough to go around.

Mr. B and I are far more casual when it comes to Sunday dinners. During the winter, we like roasting or braising somewhat large cuts of meat or whole chickens, long and slow, until the house is filled with the smells of our cooking and our appetites are stoked by the anticipation. In the summertime, however, Mr. B will man the grill while I make salad and slice bread. Sometimes, mostly between the seasons, I'll cook old school suppers, meals not in our usual rotation, but dishes seemingly from another place and time, but still well-loved by both of us.

This past Sunday, after walking through meadows richly scented with wildflowers and fresh earth, after I'd trounced over fields of chamomile until the heady aroma threatened to overtake me, after we stopped at a little winery on the edge of a neighboring town and sipped our glasses of wine as we gazed over the landscape, I returned to my kitchen to pound out the chicken breasts and cut fresh herbs. It was almost dinner time and I decided to surprise Mr. B with chicken piccata.

March 29, 2016

Say Hello to Spring: Fennel Risotto with Egg

Farm Fresh Eggs and Fennel
Some wives would have good cause to worry if they learned that their husbands had a few chicks in their life, but when Mr. B casually mentioned to me that he'd made the acquaintance of several girls, I couldn't have been happier. I'm lucky; Mr. B's a stand up guy with values, but he's also the sort of fella who makes good culinary connections, so when he shared the news, I knew there were a few dozen eggs in my future.

Anyone who has never eaten a fresh egg can't understand how incredibly delicious--and different--they are compared to a store bought egg, or even the lengths that one would go to in an attempt to secure a steady supply.

By any account, we live in the country, or, more aptly put, along California's Central Coast, a less densely populated and more remote part of the state and if you ask me, more beautiful. There are no streetlights on my road, so if I stay out past sunset and have forgotten the porch light, I'm left to fumble through pitch darkness, the lavender bushes and rosemary are obstacles on my path, the branches from the climbing roses reach out like anonymous hands, their thorns, sharp fingernails capable of drawing blood, and the fear of running into an overgrown raccoon is quite enough to hasten my step.

From my upstairs window, I can see the pony across the street and though just out of my line of sight, I can smell the lambs and hear their bleating. If I step out of my kitchen door and onto my back steps, I can make out the top of the chicken coop next door, though my neighbors, after a lengthy and untenable battle with a trio of foxes, stopped raising chickens and decided to try their hand at ducks, instead. The neighbors two houses down have had better luck outsmarting the foxes, but not in selecting a roster. The one they have has no sense of time and crows at odd times day and night.

It was these neighbors, the ones with the mixed up roster, who years ago, when their kids were in high school and looking for extra money, left a note on our door asking if we'd be interested in fresh eggs, to which we quickly agreed. Soon after, the first dozen arrived. We found them at our front door and after a long day's work, decided on frying a few up for dinner. The yolks were big as golf balls and a deeply saturated yellow so intense that they shocked me at first glance. It only took a single bite for us to fully understand the difference and within a few days, our first dozen was gone.