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December 23, 2013

Sugar Rush

I Love Candy
I've steered clear of candy making for the better part of my life, but then Mr. B asked me if I wouldn't mind whipping up some sweet confections for him to hand out to a few of his clients. As he started to name off his favorite cookies, I could feel my jaw tighten and my fists clench. It's not that I mind baking cookies, but honestly, I'd almost rather have all my teeth pulled.

I'm sure that when Dante was penning his famed Inferno that there was a circle of hell devoted to cookie making, where select sinners were made to spend eternity popping one cookie tray after another into a hot oven--a twist on Sisyphus where the giant rock was replaced with a giant ball of cookie dough. I'm convinced that had Dante had a more insightful editor, this detail would never have been omitted from the text.

That's right--in my mind, cookie making is pure hell.

The alternative, of course, was candy making, so I put up my hand and stopped Mr. B. There would be no Mexican Wedding cookies or Pecan Ice Box cookies, no sugar cookies or butter spritz--"Not cookies," I said, "but I'd be happy to whip up a few batches of toffee and fudge." Mr. B raised his eyebrow and opened his mouth to speak, but then, thankfully, thought better of it and smiled instead; he knew I'd never made candy before--was even scared of trying--but who was he, these short few days before Christmas, to remind me of that small detail?

Off to his office he went, while I fetched my candy thermometer and went to work researching candy making. How difficult could it be, I wondered, when finally, with butter and sugar at the ready, I took my place at the helm of my trusty Amana.

I quickly learned two things: the first, candy recipes are chock full of lies and arbitrary and abstract directions--"beat 100 times," "boil for 2 minutes," "make on a dry day." To survive, I had to rely on my candy thermometer and basic common sense. The second thing I learned is that I found myself absolutely smitten by the danger of bringing large quantities of sugar, water, and butter to temperatures so high that imminent danger was not only probable, but quite possible. Somewhere between the soft ball stage and the hard crack stage was an adrenaline rush to beat any roller coaster. Clearly, I'd finally discovered the true meaning of the old phrase, "Sugar Rush," and I was hooked.

Out of those few days in front of the stove, I managed to discover THE peanut butter fudge recipe. The best one. Ever. But, unfortunately, I'll have to take that one to my grave because it's deadly; I must have eaten a pan by myself and Mr. B's clients raved--even begged for the recipe. Instead, I'll share a recipe for a very fine English Toffee that rivaled any I've ever eaten.

December 11, 2013

Johnny Dives On In

Steamed Abalone Dumplings with Cilantro
I'd venture to say that abalone doesn't make the menu in very many households, but I'd bet bits of its shell are in a few jewelry boxes. While the mother of pearl interior of the shell is popular with fashionistas, the abalone meat is considered a delicacy. Mr. B and I get to eat it every now and again because of JB, better known as Cuz--Mr. B's California cousin who has just about as much New Orleans funk on him as Mr. B does.

Within reason, of course.

Cuz has been working hard to earn his Cajun coolness. He's been our crawfish driver, picking up bags of the delectable mud bugs at the Sacramento airport, icing them down, and driving all the way to our waiting crawfish pot on the Central Coast. On a recent trip back home,  he took the back roads into New Orleans along the 'Boudin Trail' and without asking, he knew that he'd be expected to return with a cooler full of sausages and other goodies.

I guess you could say that over the years, he's graciously accepted the Cajun Feats of Strength and is progressing quite nicely. So much in fact, that when it came time to decide what we were going to do with the latest abalone, Mr. B put Cuz to work in the kitchen. When Mr. B plays sous chef to my starring role he's tame as a kitten, but when Mr. B's at the helm, he puts his help through the paces. Of course, providing cocktails and a string of one liners does soften the blow.

Fairly quickly, Mr. B came up with the idea to make abalone dumplings, which was no surprise. If Mr. B ever went missing, the first place I'd go looking is any one of his favorite dumpling restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown.

The idea was to create abalone dumplings as simple and flavorful as our favorite shrimp and cilantro dumplings--very few ingredients, but deftly combining them in the right ratio. But, this is Mr. B's recipe, so it needed a twist. What better way to say Cajun than with an ample dose of pork fat? And while, I was worried about the fat overwhelming the delicate flavor of the abalone, once again, Mr. B proved to be a real Palate Master.

Once the recipe was figured out, Mr. B put Cuz to work on just the sort of grunt task that can make cooking a drag--picking and chopping cilantro. But, that Mr. B is picky when it comes to cilantro and he made Cuz pick each leaf from the stem and to add a little fire to the mix, Mr. B started barking orders--"Johnny...Johnny...Come on, Johnny--pick it up over there!" Soon, "Johnny" was jumping and fetching and picking the cilantro like a pro.

It was with great anticipation that we sat down at the table--we couldn't wait to taste how well the mix of abalone, pork fat, garlic, cilantro, and water chestnuts would come together. The first bite was heavenly--flavorful, rich, and evenly balanced. While I'd recommend searching out farmed abalone for this recipe, you could easily substitute shrimp.

But, it's up to you to find someone to pick your cilantro--we've already given Johnny an empty cooler and sent him off on the next challenge.

December 09, 2013

Rib Sticking Good: Potato Soup

California's taken my weather stoicism and squashed it right into the ground with her flip flops. When I was a kid growing up in Denver, I could handle cold weather--although I didn't like it. We'd bundle up and play in the snow for hours--make angles, snowmen, and igloos. In fact, I was so hearty--and fearless--that my favorite childhood winter pastime was sliding down iced over hilly streets on a super thin, slick red toboggan that flew so fast over the terrain, you just had to hold on and pray you could keep yourself straight enough to miss the parked cars.

Even New Orleans had its share of cold weather. Most people find that hard to believe, but when you live somewhere humid, cold weather can be pretty intense. Throw in old houses that had to be built off the ground (an insurance against post-hurricane flooding) and you've got a the perfect scenario for freeze-your-butt-off temperatures. In fact, I had a friend who had a house that got so cold that the bottle of liquid vegetable oil in her cabinet turned solid.

But in California, I spent most of my years down south of here where it rarely dipped into the low 30s. I had huge outdoor ficus trees that I never had to worry about and a garden that rolled all year long--I even had roses that bloomed through the winter. It was beautiful, tolerable, and well, it made a complete weather pansy out of me; I can't take cold weather anymore--at all.

This week, we wound up with not one hard freeze, but a stretch of them with temperatures dropping down into the mid-teens. Aside from the mailbox, I couldn't find a compelling reason to leave the confines of my warm and cozy house, to extricate myself from my wool robe, or even turn off my stove.

It was definitely soup weather. The kind of weather where you put on a pot of soup and let it simmer all day long. A soup that makes up the day's lunch, dinner, and even a small bowl in between a nap and a good movie. So, while Mr. B loves chicken soup and I am a root vegetable soup girl, I decided to verge right into potato soup territory. Now, I'm no stranger to potato soup, but I usually only make it once, or maybe twice a year. However, this year, at our Thanksgiving feast, my friend M made the most divine mashed potatoes with lots and lots of olive oil and garlic. They were so flipping good that if I could have figured out a way to bathe in them without being impolite, I surely would have done so--right there at the dinner table! This potato soup is my homage to that dish; it's delicious and creamy and the starches from the potatoes embody the olive oil and enhance their earthy flavor.

So, crank up the furnace and get out your potato peeler--this potato soup is more than rib sticking--it's flat out ethereal.

December 05, 2013

Spumoni

Ah, Heaven! Homemade Spumoni...
You could always count on my grandmother to produce the latest food find to hit the grocery store shelves. She was a clever and determined shopper who wasn't just on the hunt for the best deal, but she was bent on bringing home treats that we--her grandchildren--would 'ooh' and 'aah' over. Sometimes, her treasures would get a round of applause, but other times, well, not so much.

When we would spend time with my grandparents, we--my brother, cousin, and I--would spend endless hours at their table in the tiny kitchen, writing stories and drawing cartoons. My grandfather had a keen hand and would amaze and amuse us with an endless stream of characterchures, or keep us on the edge-of-our-seats with tales of the old country, complete with vampires and bats and pastoral venues that turned dark and foreboding once the sun went down.

Sometimes, my grandmother would join us, but usually, she was in the background nearby and without fail, at some point, she would produce 2-3 bowls of snacks--the latest crackers or chips, a new cookie or candy, cereals, nuts and snack mixes. And of course, that was just the beginning, because as our visit progressed, she would continue to offer us an endless choice of snacks and treats--boxes of fine chocolates, toffees, nuts--until finally, she would make the last offer of the day--ice cream--and just like the selection of snacks, her selection of ice creams rivaled the biggest and best ice cream parlors in the city.

So, it's no wonder that the first time in my life that I ever had spumoni was at my grandmother's kitchen table. Although she warned us in advance that it was the sort of ice cream that adults liked, it didn't deter us from trying it for ourselves. Then, in quick succession, my brother and cousin set down their spoons and said they would rather prefer their own standard flavors--strawberry and vanilla. I, however, was instantly enamored.

Spumoni, of course, is an Italian delicacy and consists of a mix of 3 flavors of ice cream: pistachio, cherry, and chocolate. It's usually prepared and molded into a bomb with the cherry in the middle and while it's delicious scooped, it is usually served sliced. Its culinary roots can be traced to Naples and as you've probably figured out, the ubiquitous Neapolitan ice cream found in virtually every American grocery store is a distant cousin.

Unfortunately, spumoni is hard to find outside of any area with a prolific Italian population and while it's true enough that if you happen to hit the trifecta at your local ice cream parlor, you may be able to find all three flavors and satisfy your craving, the chances are not in your favor. Luckily, I've come up with a recipe you can make at home; either store it in 3 separate containers and scoop away, or layer it in a Pullman loaf pan and slice it up. Either way, this is a treat worth the effort of making and well-worth sharing.

December 04, 2013

Crawfish Pies

Crawfish Pies
 It may seem entirely unfair to write about the utter satisfaction of serving forth a platter of hot from the oven crawfish pies in December, but in my defense, it took an awful lot of reserve to keep two containers of Crawfish Etouffee in the freezer. Especially since Mr. B often states that if he's ever on his way to the electric chair, crawfish would be on his list of final requests.

Living in California makes it entirely too hard to eat our Louisiana hearts out--the short drive to the beach and the natural beauty don't come without sacrifice--so we have to work a little harder to keep our larder filled with Southern delicacies. Here lately, it's become a sort of yearly ritual for us to join up with another displaced Southerner and hold an annual crawfish boil. This may not seem like a big deal to most people, but someone has to drive 3 hours--one way--to pick the crawfish up at the airport. That's a lot of dedication for a meal.

Anyhow, crawfish pie is the perfect little appetizer to serve up along with a few cocktails and since they just happen to be up there with oyster patties on my list of holiday eats, my resolve paid off. I stretched mine out far enough to get just over 4 dozen--enough to keep Mr. B happy for at least a few weeks.

December 03, 2013

A Little Dab Will Do Ya

Fried Sand Dabs
While most people were out shopping the day after Thanksgiving, I was home cleaning out my freezer. I'm not sure how I manage to fill it with so many random items, but once I get around to sorting through it, I always find the makings of some really delicious eats.

Lucky for us, we had a stash of fresh-off-the-boat seafood that we'd been given and we were just waiting for the perfect opportunity to cook it all up.

On Friday, still full from the previous day's turkey, Mr. B's cousin Johnny rolled into town in time for the first football game. By the time he left on Monday morning, his eyes were glassed over--apparently one of the symptoms of a serious food coma. To say that I cooked up a storm for those two is putting it mildly, although, Mr. B was churning out some delicious eats of his own, including homemade smoked sausages, gumbo, and a meal of gloriously fried sand dabs piled high onto a platter and set down in the middle of the table where they radiated rays of golden deliciousness.

I think it's safe to say that most people wouldn't know what to do with a pile of sand dabs and that's a shame. They're a common menu item at many a San Francisco eatery, but I've rarely seen them offered outside of the city. The truth is, however, that they are fairly prolific in the waters of the Pacific and make for a fine meal.

They're troublesome to cook and since they're only gutted and head dressed, eating them requires a bit of finesse as you must delicately lift the filets of meat from the bone. The reward is a sweet delicate white fish that melts in your mouth--oh, and I particularly like stacking up a pile of fish skeletons on the edge of my plate.

If you come across a puzzled fisherman with a bag of sand dabs, do your best to convince him to hand them over to you. Then head home and heat the pan for some good eats.