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November 27, 2014

The Best Oyster Dressing. Period.

It's not that I'm against traditions--there are many that I love--but, for the most part, I'm not very good at doing the same thing over and over, year in and year out. This is particularly true of just about anything to do with Thanksgiving.

Maybe my inability to stick to Thanksgiving traditions has to do with the years I spent working in restaurants and hotels; I worked on the major holidays. Even after I left those days behind and Mr. B and I were first married, he worked on the holidays--one year, Mr. B was in Hong Kong for Thanksgiving! Eventually, though, our lives settled into a semblance of normalcy and we went about enjoying Thanksgiving together. Trouble is, without any family nearby, we were left to our own devices.

Some years we wound up gathered around a friend's holiday table, while other years we wandered the beach and munched cheeseburgers. Other years, we cooked our own feast, roasting a turkey, mixing cocktails, watching football--just the two of us. While Mr. B was attending to the details of selecting the wine, heating up the hot tub, and setting the table, I would hum away in the kitchen creating all the glorious side dishes. And really, while the turkey is good, it's the side dishes that really make the meal.

No matter what we did from year to year, both Mr. B and I always dreamed of sinking our forks into a mound of oyster dressing--there's just nothing quite like that briny, pillowy soft goodness. Of course, I made the traditional family recipe, but along the way, I couldn't help tinkering with tradition and coming up with a recipe all my own.

It took me many years to arrive at what I consider the perfect oyster dressing. In fact, I just finalized this recipe yesterday. It's a play on the traditional family recipe, my famous mushroom bread pudding, and few new ingredients because, well, I just couldn't resist.

The final result is so delicious that I'm hoping we don't gobble it up before we get to our destination dinner table later this afternoon.

November 20, 2014

Homemade Tomato Soup with Puff Pastry

Tomato Soup with Puff Pastry
When we were kids, my mother cooked everything from scratch, and while this sounds quite lovely in today's world, back then, my brother and I spent a lot of time wishing that she  could get a little more enthusiastic about canned goods and frozen foods. It sounds pretty ridiculous, but we were thrilled whenever we had to have a babysitter because it meant that we could eat frozen TV dinners.

There was one other exception, though, when it came to cooking from scratch. My mother never bothered to make homemade tomato soup, instead, she bought the famous red and white can--Campbell's™--but she always used milk in place of the water, making the most delicious and creamy tomato soup. She'd serve it with crusty grilled cheese sandwiches so hot they oozed cheese and often, if you were not careful, would burn the roof of your mouth. This, perhaps, was our favorite winter lunch.

For all my culinary wiles, I never thought about tackling homemade tomato soup until after I first moved to San Francisco. It was a gloriously cold and rainy spring day--the headlands were verdant, contrasted against the gray of the sky and the whole of the world seemed to smell of eucalyptus and earth. Over coffee, Mr. B suggested that we play hooky and head up the 101 to Sonoma and, then, Napa. He lured me with images of grazing sheep, wild fennel and a landscape of stark oaks just beginning to leaf. Of course, he also promised to take me to lunch at a wonderful little French bistro, at which, I had never had the pleasure of dining.

Tucked away in the little town of Yountville, was a quaint and extraordinary restaurant, Bistro Jeanty, where Mr. B ordered us each a bowl of tomato soup. I don't know what I was expecting, but what I received was more than I had ever dreamt--buttery, flakey puff pastry that when slit with the tip of a butter knife, exerted a rush of steam to reveal a creamy and rich tomato soup, the likes that I had never before experienced. I was hooked, and since playing a daily game of hooky and driving to Napa seemed a bit extreme, I went to work to master a version that I could enjoy regularly--rain or shine.

November 11, 2014

Mother Roux

Classic Chicken and Sausage Gumbo
Every marriage is defined by a division of duties. In some, the husband is responsible for the 'manly' tasks, such as taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn and cleaning out the gutters, while the wife stays in the house and cooks, cleans, and looks after things. But thankfully, for Mr. B and I, our marriage is all mixed up and twisted into at least 20 different directions.

Mr. B likes to cook, too and when I hear him in the kitchen rattling the pans while WWOZ plays loudly in the background, I know that I'm going to eat well. He's got too much French blood circulating through this veins to ever let me down.

Usually, Mr. B is responsible for making gumbo in our household, but last weekend with too many good college games on the television to count, Mr. B asked if I wouldn't mind taking over the gumbo making.

Mind you, Mr. B has honed his gumbo making skills to near perfection by practicing a rather unusual technique for making his roux. Instead of the traditional method of standing over the stove and stirring hot oil and flour together until it reaches an appropriate hue, Mr. B spreads his flour out on a cookie sheet and bakes it until it turns golden brown and perfumes up the whole house with its nuttiness.

"Of course I'll make the gumbo," I told him, "but I'm going old school."

Because really, for me anyway, part of the fun of making gumbo is in making the roux. Combining equal parts of oil and flour together and literally bringing it to a boil is an exhilarating experience--there's no looking away, there's no taking a break, there's only the dangerously hot mixture turning shades darker. There's an art to knowing how far to push things, how long to cook the roux, because in an instant, you can go from beautiful to burnt.

Everyone has an opinion on the best color of a roux, from peanut butter to milk chocolate to dark mahogany and of course, it depends on what kind of gumbo you're making. For me, I like to take it a little longer to a gorgeous deep brown.

And while there's a trick to the making a good roux, after that, making gumbo is pretty darn easy and will provide enough incredible deliciousness to last a few days.  Finally, there's probably nothing that goes better with a day of college football than a pot of gumbo--at least that's true in our world.