Chicken Liver Pâté

Before ringing in the New Year, I’ve decided to revisit all those resolutions I made for 2008 and squeeze a few in while I still can.

On the list was, “Make chicken liver pâté.”

I’m embarrassed to say where I got the recipe, but let’s just say it was from a television cook, who is not a chef, and who now has a daytime talk show. The recipe is so simple that it has been in my head for about two years without me having ever written it down or looked it up.

Because I’m not about to feed a party of 50 people, I cut the recipe more than in half. But I didn’t want to cut it too far lest the ingredients become out of whack. Wherever I wind up on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, I’ll be toting along a ceramic dish of pâté and a crusty baguette.

The recipe was so easy and all the ingredients were extremely easy to find, including the chicken livers, which I got from the grocery store that has a butcher on site and a well-stocked meat section. It’s the kind of market where you can buy lamb’s kidneys, cow stomach, veal tongue, and of course, chicken livers. Three-quarters of a pound only cost $1.16.

Having never worked with chicken livers before, I took seriously the instructions to rinse, pat dry, and trim them very well. The photo shows how they look before being trimmed. Though they were very well cleaned when I opened them, I liberally removed any remaining bits of membrane, specks of blood, fat, and what not.

Chicken Liver Pâté
Chicken livers, about 2 pounds for a large party, or a minimum of a half pound
Butter, about 1 stick per pound of chicken livers
Spanish onion sliced, about 1 huge onion (softball sized) for every 2 pounds of livers
Thyme, about 1 sprig per half pound of chicken livers
1 bay leaf (this was not in the original recipe, but I decided to add it anyway)
salt and black pepper
optional: a few leaves of parsley

Over low heat, melt the butter and add the onions, sweating slowly and gently, and after a few minutes, add the bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Partially cover the pot and let the onions cook very slowly until fully wilted, translucent, and almost breaking down, about 20 minutes, stirring a few times, but not too often.

Meanwhile, rinse and pat dry the chicken livers. Trim all the shit off them. All of it.

Cut the livers if they are big into pieces about the size of a single clove of garlic. Add the livers to the pan and turn the up the fire to medium-low. (Another way to do this is to move the onions to the edges of the pan and add the livers into the center hot spot where they can cook a little faster without browning the onions.)

Add a pinch or two of salt and a good pinch of black pepper, preferably fresh-cracked. Continue to cook gently (if using parsley, add a few leaves during this final cooking process) until the livers change color fully on the outside but are still slightly pink in the center, maybe 10-15 minutes or so. Their color will be grayish brown. It’s kind of ugly.

When the livers are cooked (the photo shows them at the halfway point), close the fire and let them cool for a few minutes. Then move them into a food processor and grind them, slowly at first. Finally, grind them for a few flashes on high so that the mixture is almost smooth but still has a hint of meatiness to it.

Serve immediately with crusty bread, cornichons, melba toast, crudités, olives; or refrigerate as follows:

Cut a circle of wax paper to fit the top of the dish you plan to use for the pâté. Ramekins or other ceramic dishes work well. Spoon the pâté into the ramekins and if you like, lay a single parsley leaf directly in the center. Set the wax paper circle directly onto the pâté and press it down, as if making a skin to cover all the pâté. Cover a second time with plastic wrap or foil and refrigerate.

Depth of Flavor

I read an interview in New York Magazine with Christina Tosi, pastry chef at Momofuku, not long ago, who mentioned that one of her secret ingredients in baking is milk powder. It adds real depth of flavor, she said.

And last week, my friend and I were talking about his odd habit of eating unsweetened spicy peanut butter melted over mixed steamed vegetables. It’s not unlike Thai peanut sauce, but it definitely lacks some depth of flavor, which his wife and I realized came down to one missing key ingredient: fish sauce (a squeeze of lime would help, too).

It got me thinking about other little dashes of this and pinches of that, the secrets to creating depth of flavor. Soy sauce is another good example. Anchovies, which I used in a small quantity in a very simple soup yesterday (the rest was just fava beans, garlic, rosemary, tomato paste, and chicken stock), created the taste illusion of a meaty fish stew without me having to add big fishes.

Mushrooms are one of the most often cited ingredients for adding depth of flavor, especially if they are sautéed for a long time or dried and rehydrated, as in the case of porcinis. Slip a cube of beef bouillon (or if you’re a professional, a spoonful of demi glace) into just about anything savory and you’ll produce a base of richness for other flavors to stand on. Vegetarians can look to miso instead.

As one of the comments in a previous post alluded to, cocoa powder can do the same thing, but not only for flavor, but color, as it does in Cincinnati chili and mole.

Another one of my favorites, which doesn’t always technically create “depth” of flavor so much as help extend the existing flavors, is breadcrumbs. I use good homemade breadcrumbs in everything from meatballs (ground pork or chicken, a lot of ricotta, a lot breadcrumbs from rosemary bread, parsley, salt, red pepper flakes), to apple strudel, to orzo salad.

When people are new to culinary stuff, a term like “depth of flavor” can be confusing. But if you give a number of examples like these, they can start to think about what characteristic all these things have in common, thereby cultivating an understanding of the meaning. I think wine tasting is the same. Until you taste the same characteristic several times in a few different wines, it’s hard to know what “tannins” are or what is meant by “structure.”

(There are some linguistic theories about how people learn language by classification, by first understanding what’s the same about a number of things – “all dogs have four legs, all dogs have fur” – and then understanding what’s different – “this thing has four legs and fur, but it also has antlers; having antlers makes it not a dog.” That’s kind of what I’m getting at here: Having multiple experiences to compare others against and find similarities between.)

Baking Day, East Coast Edition

My family and I had Baking Day, East Coast Edition yesterday. Baking Day was started by Boyfriend's mother as a day when a whole bunch of estrogen -- I mean, women gather in her kitchen to bake holiday cookies and participate in a cookie swap ensues.

Everyone brings one or two cookie or baking recipes and their special ingredients. The host buys the basics: butter, flour, sugar, eggs, salt.

Since I no longer live in San Francisco with her, I held my own Baking Day this year. It was paired down because my kitchen and apartment are small and can't handle eight hours of non-stop cookie action.

Baby Sister rolled out little Russian tea cookies dusted with powdered sugar that sort of softly pop in the mouth because they're so airy. The Eyes made raspberry linzer tarts, the recipe that called for the most meticulous handling, but so worth it in both presentation and taste. Oldest Sister made a batch of maple date bars, a variation on the cranberry oatmeal bars in the November 2008 issue of Cooking Light!). These were the least sugary and a great cookie for people who don't like overly sweet things (I drenched mine in extra maple syrup later... as I wrote that confession of my sweet tooth, a bug flew into and drowned in my hot cocoa). Mom made her famous magic crack -- I mean, magic cookie bars, a highly addictive tray of graham cracker crust, chocolate chips, chopped walnuts, toasted sweetened coconut, and sweetened condensed milk.

I contributed the chocolate orange biscotti that I made ahead of time, some candied tangerine peel for decoration, and some sugar dough so we could roll and stamp Christmas cut-out cookies, too.

Chocolate Orange Biscotti

I’m a huge fan of any cooking or baking that doesn’t send me on a trip to the grocery store to buy special ingredients. Along the same lines, I hate to use butter as an everyday ingredient. I love butter, but it’s expensive to buy and usually requires forethought, either remembering to set it out an hour before use -- who else read that New York Times article that warned butter needs to be at 65 degrees Farenheit, not 68 to be considered appropriately “at room temperature?” -- or remembering to chill it, or remembering to buy it, as I always seem to have no more than three-quarters of a stick on hand at any given time.

Butter is expensive. I like Lurpak, and it’s almost $4 now for about half pound. And I hate to buy it if I’m not going to use it, as I’d rather my butter be fresh than freezer-burned. And I hate to experiment with a new recipe with it because it’s so expensive.

Who knew biscotti recipes don’t require butter? This has been a revelation for me.

I found a few biscotti recipes, kicked the ones that called for almond extract, since I didn’t have that in the house, and found one that I tinkered with a little bit.

Process-wise, I got a little nervous after mixing the so-called dough, which was more like thick brownie batter. Biscotti recipes tell you to shape the dough into a log, but this stuff was too we to really pick up with my hands. I used a small rubber spatula to mound and spread the dough-batter into a long form. It was sticking so much that I eventually ran the spatula under a trickle of water in the sink, and then continued spreading as best as I could.

After the biscotti had done their first round of baking, they had risen and now looked much more like a “log,” which was a huge relieve. My takeaway advice about this for anyone else who never made biscotti before is, “Trust the recipe.”

The rest was easy.

Here’s the recipe I came up with, followed by the tweaks I would make in the future.

Chocolate Orange Biscotti
2 large eggs
1 egg white
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
zest from one orange or tangerine
a handful (i.e., the dregs of what I didn’t eat of that bag) semisweet chocolate chunks, smashed

Whisk the eggs. Add the vanilla. Add half the sugar. Whisk some more. Add the rest of the sugar.

Separately, whisk together the dry ingredients.

Add half the dry ingredients to the wet and fold. I tried whisking here, but the powder started flying all over the place. Once it’s incorporated, go back to the whisk or switch to a wood spoon. Stir in the remaining dry ingredients.

Preheat to 350.

Use either parchment paper or a Silpat mat on a cookie sheet. Make one giant “log” by scooping the dough-batter onto the pan and, using a spoon or rubber spatula dipped in water, smearing and smudging it into place. It may resemble more of a rectangle than a log, about 12 inches by 6 inches and 1 inch thick. (Alternatively, make 2 longs that are 12 by 3 inches.)

Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes until it looks a little puffier and set.

Remove from oven and cool about 10 minutes. Lower heat to 275 or 300.

Transfer the baked “log” to a cutting board and using a bread knife or serrated knife, cut diagonally so each piece is the size you want it. I made about 20 cookies.

Return the cookies to the baking sheet and lay them cut side down. Return to the oven and bake another 10 to 15 minutes. Dip in melted chocolate or serve with hot drinks.

The next time I make this recipe, I will ditch the orange zest, as it was really more of an experimentation and didn’t totally thrill me.

Increase the sugar to one full cup.

Stop being so cheap and buy almond extract. Add 1/2 teaspoon and halve the vanilla extract.

Eliminate the chocolate powder and increase the flour by half a cup and change the chocolate chips to nuts or dried fruit, as I really prefer the non-chocolate biscotti in the first place.

Three-Ingredients Biscuits

After Thanksgiving, I turned the turkey carcass and leftovers into a soup, and when the soup started petering out, I turned those leftovers into turkey pot pie. The pot pie was just a roux to which I added some turkey soup, sans most of the broth, and about a cup of frozen green peas. I poured the whole thing into a soufflés dish and topped it with a giant biscuit.

The biscuit top came out really lovely, flaky and golden. And it was so easy that I made biscuits sans turkey pot pie last night. The recipe has only three ingredients. Here it is:

Three-Ingredients Biscuits
pancake mix or Bisquik, about 1 1/2 cups
cold butter, about a tablespoon
milk, about 1/2 cup, skim or whole

Cut the butter into the pancake mix using a fork, or two butter knives, or a pastry cutter, until the butter is in small pea-sized or smaller bits through the mix (like making pie crust). Add the milk and stir until just moist. The dough should be pretty dry but should just barely form into a ball. Use your hand to gather the dough into a ball in the bowl and firm it up.

Dust flour or extra pancake mix on a space to turn out the dough. Roll the dough gently (I use a wine bottle) until it is 3/4 to 1 inch thick. Punch out circles (I used an inverted wine glass), place on a baking sheet, and bake at 350 to 375 for about 12 minutes.

Eat warm and definitely eat the same day, as they will turn to hockey pucks tomorrow. The biscuits are very dry, but they are good with jam or dunked in a cup of tea.

• Use cold water instead of milk, but I find milk gives a better taste.
• Use low-fat butter milk instead of milk for more tang.
• Leave out the butter entirely.
• Brush the biscuits with milk or egg wash before baking for a nice golden top.
• Add a good pinch of salt to make the biscuits more savory.
• Mix in a handful of currants or raisins for a treat approximating an English scone.

Review: Raga in Brooklyn; and Food Bias

En route to Brooklyn with one vegetarian in tow, I had no idea where my friends and I would wind up eating dinner the other night. We were totally directionless, or to spin it more positively, we were up for anything.

We were headed to a party near Smith Street and Bergen. By the time we popped out of the subway, we were all pretty hungry and not in a mood to nitpick our choices (as I usually do, which may be the number one source of fights between Boyfriend and me – I like to wander and review every single option, but in the meanwhile, I get hungry to the point of cranky and then complain horrifically that there is nothing quite right to eat).

On this night, no crankiness and no wandering looking for false hope of perfect food. No. Instead, Indian restaurant with open tables. Too many free tables? Is that a bad sign? Who cares! Vegetarian options aplenty. No wait. Inexpensive. Let’s eat.

The place, Raga (142 Smith St.), was dead. Two other tables of diners were engrossed in their food, and there was no music. This was on a Saturday night, so it really wasn’t a great sign, especially in Brooklyn during holiday shopping season. But I’ll be damned: The food was pretty good. How good? I would absolutely rather go back there than take a gamble on an unknown Indian restaurant.

Later, when we got to the party, I started talking to this woman who had lived in the neighborhood for 12 years. She gave me some restaurant recommendations in the area and in Manhattan. Then I asked her if she had ever been to the Indian place down the block.

“Oh, that place? Yeah, it’s terrible.”

She said she had been there twice, once for standard Indian fare and once for some special sandwiches that they were trying out. “It’s always dead.”

Her opinion is suspicious for two reasons, though. First, the topic of food came up because she asked if Boyfriend and I cooked, and we enthusiastically said yes. She argued that too few people knew basic life skills anymore, like cooking and mending. We wholeheartedly agreed and mentioned the fact that our grocery list usually comprises produce, meat, cheese, eggs, and milk, rather than boxed foods, frozen things, and canned soups. But then as we continued talking about food, she mentioned a restaurant where she orders take-out so often that she got a free bottle of wine with her order the other night for being a loyal repeat customer. Second, she went on and one about a Manhattan Japanese restaurant that had a lovely house-made tofu, but when I mentioned a very popular Japanese restaurant less than a mile from her house where I had eaten and which also had wonderful homemade tofu, she had never heard of it.

In need of a second opinion about Raga, I asked one of the hosts of the party if he had been there. “Oh that place? It’s always dead,” he said.

“Yeah, but have you eaten there?” I asked.

“No. I mean… it’s always dead. It doesn’t look very good.”

It’s really a shame when the popular perception of an eatery colors a person’s ability to just taste the food and judge it for what it is. But it happens, and in big cities where dining out is taken very seriously, it happens a lot. Raga got 3 starts on Yelp and better ratings but from only six reviewers on CitySearch. The main complaint was service and delivery.

This exact same attitude prevails with my all-time favorite Indian restaurant: India Clay Oven in San Francisco (2436 Clement St. at 25th Ave.).

Nearly everyone I’ve talked to and most reviewers on web sites hate Clay Oven. [*Note: I haven’t lived in San Francisco since July 2007, and I’ve just now looked at Yelp and found that the reviews have improved significantly since around October 2008. My statements herein refer to the prevailing attitude that I experienced between 2003, when I first started eating there, and 2007 when I left the city.] Again, the main complaint is that the staff are rude (they are) and the delivery service is terrible (one Valentine’s Day, we waited close to two hours for delivery).

However, the food is awesome.

In both instances, hysteria over bad service has created social pressure to also dis the food. I think a lot of people are intimidated to state unequivocally their what they genuinely like and dislike. There’s a lot of snobbery in the food world, and while there is something to be said for the person whose palate who has become endeared to high-fructose corn syrup (what would ketchup be with out it?) and partially hydrogenated palm oil, I wish more foodie people had a greater tolerance for personal taste and allowed people to say what they truly like and don’t like without criticism. A good example is chocolate. Dark chocolate is held in higher regard than milk, which is seen as somehow adulterated, but that attitude is completely hypocritical the moment you pair dark chocolate with an amaretto truffle filling, cordial cherries, or fucking acai berries (oh, it has come to that!).

I for one have been awful about this kind of thing in the past, and I hope I am learning not to criticize people for what they like.

Back to Clay Oven: The really funny thing is that the owners have three restaurants in the city. They are basically the same except for location, staff, and the name of the restaurant. The other two are regarded highly and receive generally good reviews on user-driven web sites.

To this day, I hold India Clay Oven as the bar against which I measure all other Indian dishes of similar style (northern Indian cuisine). Some of the dishes are spicy, while others are loaded with ghee in a way that makes them homey. The mint chutney is never quite the same twice but always packs a slow-burning heat. The tamarind sauce is always sweet, but never syrupy. The naan is always warm and soft. And only once have I declared, “You can make it really hot” and regretted it.

I think the problem with both Raga and Clay Oven is that the general public is not willing to overlook issues of service, atmosphere, and popularity in a trendy neighborhood, even if the food is good. Alternatively, it could very well be that I enjoy Indian food of a different style than most other Americans.

At Raga, we ordered all vegetarian dishes, and all very saucy things: saag paneer (spinach, ghee, and spices with hunks of farmer’s cheese the consistency of firm tofu), chana masala (chickpeas in a tomato-based sauce with onions), vegetable dhansak (the menu said this was Persian-style, but it is traditionally mixed vegetables in a sauce made of some kind of dal (lentils, chickpeas, etc.), and one other mixed vegetable dish, though I’m not sure which one. We had naan, basmati rice, and complimentary dal sauce.

Between four of us, we shared two plates of assorted appetizers -- one would have been plenty. I had never had banana pakora before, so that was interesting to try. It looked like an orange biscuit, and inside was a big slice of banana, softened from the whole thing being cooked. I’m going to guess the soft dough was made out of yam and flour (or yam flour) because of the color and because it was slightly sweet.

By all means, don’t pass up Raga if you love northern Indian food but have had doubts about its popularity in the past.


142 Smith St., Brooklyn

Holiday Recipes

I'm curious what recipes people make around the winter holidays. In my family, we have a few traditional foods at Thanksgiving, but not too many around Christmas and New Year's.

As children, we used to have this great but wacky concoction of pistachio pudding suspended inside a cup of red Jello -- a festively colored green and red dessert. It was a very 1950s straight-from-the-box recipe. From time to time, we still have it. It has sentimental value.

Drop a comment below, or email me your recipe if you want to share it. I'll try to post some throughout the month of December.

No-Butter Banana Bread and Cream of Tartar

One of the first things I learned how to cook was banana bread. My mother used to make quick breads all the time, especially banana bread with chocolate chips or nuts and zucchini bread with walnuts.

She has a tried-and-true recipe that requires an entire stick of butter and a lot of sugar.

I’m a big fan of any baking that does not require butter or only uses a small amount of it because, quite frankly, butter is expensive and I have a hard time remembering to buy it. Yogurt and fat-free sour cream are great healthier alternatives when I can remember to keep those on hand, too, but my favorite baking recipes are ones that use a small amount of canola oil instead.

I found a recipe for banana bread on Cooking Light’s web site last week (from 2000) that uses a small amount of vegetable oil instead of butter, but it seemed a little plain to me, so I doctored it up with a half teaspoon of vanilla extract and a half teaspoon of cinnamon. I upped the bananas from 2 medium-sized ones to 3 -- or 2 1/2 large ones. And I swapped the vegetable oil for canola.

The rule of thumb with recipes is that if you change three things about any given recipe, you can claim it as your own. In other ones, I’m taking credit for this one. I won’t take credit for putting in the cream of tartar, though.

Cream of tartar is used in baking, particularly in helping to stabilize beaten egg whites, but also to activate baking soda as a rising agent. Cream of tartar is acidic, and baking soda is alkaline and needs an acid to activate it. My no-ingredients chocolate cake recipe calls for white vinegar alongside the baking soda, which has the same effect as the cream of tartar: it activates the baking soda.

Fun food fact: There are only three common foodstuffs that are alkaline: baking soda, egg whites, and milk (and probably several variations of milk and my guess is someone out there knows of at least one other uncommon alkaline food).

I couldn’t find much more information about cream of tartar except that it is a byproduct of winemaking, and its presence as a residue in ancient jugs found in Iran proves that wine has been around for 7,000 years. Who knew?

The recipe came out great. Be sure to set the bread pan on a cookie sheet to catch any overflow.

No-Butter Banana Bread
2/3 cup white sugar
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup egg substitute (the equivalent of one egg)
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons cream of tartar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 1/2 to 3 ripe bananas, lightly mashed
cooking spray

Optional: add walnuts, chopped pecans, or chocolate chips, about 1/2 cup

Preheat oven to 350°.

Combine oil and sugar. Beat with a mixer until smooth. Add egg substitute, egg, and vanilla extract. Beat until smooth.

Combine dry ingredients in a bowl, stirring with a whisk. In three batches, slowly add the flour mixture to the wet mixture, stirring to incorporate. Lastly, fold in the mashed bananas. Don’t worry about over-mixing. It’s not a big deal. The worst that will happen is the banana bits will sink to the bottom.

Spoon the batter into an 8x4-inch loaf pan coated with cooking spray.

Bake at 350° on a cookie sheet for 35 to 40 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Don’t check on the bread too often or pull it out of the oven prematurely, as any serious cooling will result in the middle of the bread collapsing. It will still taste just fine, but it will have a big old saggy center.

Cool slightly and serve warm. Freezes well. Yields 12 slices.

Sweetbreads and Chestnuts (Check and Check)

One food that I’ve been meaning to try for some time now is sweetbreads, so when I saw them on the menu at Nice Matin this weekend, I snapped up the chance.

Though the dish was described as a “fricassee” of sweetbreads, it clearly wasn’t done that way. (Similarly, Boyfriend ordered calamari “beignets,” which turned out to be simply calamari fritti.) Rather, the sweetbreads were small nuggets dusted with flour and perhaps fine breadcrumbs, cooked quickly in a pan buzzing wildly with heat and a lot of butter. They were served atop soft polenta with slow sautéed mushroom and roasted chestnuts, another food I’ve been meaning to try. That meant two check marks for me in one night. Nice.

It was listed as an appetizer, but it was actually a little heavy and would have been satisfying as a main course with a salad to start.

(I borrowed this image from Butter on the Endive blog. Gorgeous photos!)

The sweetbreads were delightful, though. The insides were soft -- I’ve been trying for days to come up with a comparison but to no avail. They are not as striated as a fresh scallop, nor as mushy as a cooked carrot, nor lacking any bite at all like pâté. Unlike a soft sausage, they had a perfectly uniform texture, even despite the fried outer layer.

Texture is a great source of joy for me in eating, and I’m thrilled to now have the unique taste of sweetbreads as a new point of reference.

The embarrassing regret I have is that I forgot to ask what animal the sweetbreads came from, as I understand both veal and lamb are common, and it was not specified on the menu.

Most of the rest of the party I was with ordered the Five Napkin Burger, which it turns out is the same Five Napkin Burger that spun off a restaurant of the same name. And oddly enough, the main complaint at Nice Matin was the same as at 5 Napkin, namely that everything was over salted. (And yes, the restaurant is "5" and the menu item is "Five." At least it's not trying to be a fricassee.)

Esca-rolls (Stuffed Escarole)

This recipe for stuffed escarole comes adapted from Lydia Bastianich’s. (She is my all-time favorite television cook, but I think of her more as a teacher than a chef.)

Escarole is a bitter green that, in my opinion, is underused in the U.S., especially in home kitchens. Paired with sweet raisins, it makes for a quick yet complex side dish. Everything in this recipe, from the capers to the garlic, is a balance of bitter, salty, and sweet flavors.

These stuffed escarole, or as I like to call them esca-rolls, are elegant and seem a lot like they take a lot more effort than they really do. Rolling them is a little bit tricky, but once don’t worry if they’re loose. They’ll firm up a little when they bake.

When it comes to amounts of ingredients, I am horribly imprecise. If you make a small bowlful of the stuffing, there will be more than enough for five or six rolls; and the excess gets sprinkled on top any way, so it’s okay to make too much.
1 head escarole, rinsed
Hard cheese, grated, e.g., Pecorino Romano or Parmigiana (a few tablespoons, but less than a 1/4 cup)
Day-old bread cut into very small cubes, or fresh breadcrumbs, maybe between 1/2 cup and 1 cup
Chopped black olives, about a 12-18 olives
Capers, maybe a tablespoon’s worth
Olive oil
Pine nuts (pignoli), maybe 2 or 3 tablespoons, a handful
Golden raisins, soaked, about a small handful, maybe 1/4 cup
2 or 3 cloves of fresh garlic, sliced
Set a large pot of water to boil.

Set an ovenproof skillet or small Dutch oven (or if you don’t have this, just a small skillet) over medium heat. Toast the pine nuts, dry. Set pine nuts aside. In the same pan, toast the bread crumbs lightly, 2 or 3 minutes. Set aside with the pine nuts.

Lower the heat and add a few tablespoons of olive oil to the same pan. Add the sliced garlic and let it cook one minute, until fragrant, but do not brown. Add the capers and olives. Cook another 30 seconds or so, just to heat everything through and let the flavors meld. Close the flame. Add the pine nuts and breadcrumbs back to the pan and toss to coat. Pour this mixture back into the reserved bowl. Add the cheese and toss to combine. Reserve the oiled pan.

When the water boils, use a pair of tongs to dunk the escarole, headfirst, into the water. Cook one or two minutes. Remove from hot water and dunk in cold water. Set upside down to drain. Gently squeeze excess water.
Preheat oven to 350.

On a large cutting board, trim the tip from the escarole, then cut lengthwise into five or six pieces, if you can manage. You may find that there are not many long, flat leaves, but it’s okay. You can make do. Try to pick a few long leaves and lay them flat to start. Fan a few smaller leaves around them. Put a small scoop – about a tablespoon’s worth – onto the leaves, then roll it up like a burrito. Place it into the reserved pan (or a different, oiled baking dish if you don’t have anything suitable that can also work on the stovetop) seam down. Repeat until you have five or six bundles.

Spoon the remaining stuffing on top of the escarole packages. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake, uncovered, until the top breadcrumbs turn golden.

Belize: Call for Recommendations

In February (2009), I will be taking a vacation in Belize, and I have no idea what to expect in terms of food, wine, and beer. On one traveler's blog, I very briefly came across a reference to lobster tacos. I can image seafood will be popular, and perhaps some vegetables that grow easily in the Americas, like anything in the squash family.

I won't have much of a chance to read up on Belize until after the new year. In the meantime, if anyone has recommendations for what to eat or where to eat (I'll be near San Pedro), let me know!

Chocolate Cherry Stout Bread

I've been making a lot of breads lately. This one is a sweet yeast bread that is quickly disappearing, as Boyfriend and I gnaw away on it all day long.

Chocolate Cherry Stout Bread
1/4 cup warm water
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 package dry yeast (about 2 1/4 teaspoons)
3 1/2 cups flour, divided
1/2 rolled oats
10 ounces of chocolate stout (any stout will do, really, including Guinness)
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup dried tart cherries (Trader Joe’s has them)
1/2 cup chocolate chips (I used milk but would opt for semisweet the next time around, or a dark bar coarsely chopped)
1 teaspoon water
1 large egg white, lightly beaten

Add the sugar to the warm water, then add the yeast and stir gently with a whisk.
Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine 2 cups flour, and the beer in a big bowl. Add the yeast and stir with a whisk. Leave at room temperature (or slightly warmer) for at least four hours. Then refrigerate it another 4 hours or overnight. Be sure there is room in the bowl for the bread to rise, because it will!

Remove mixture from refrigerator, but do not uncover. Let stand 2 hours at room temperature.

The dough should be huge.

Add to it the cherries (soaked and drained). Stir to combine.

In a separate bowl, combine remaining flour, oats, and salt. Add this to the dough, stirring until a soft dough forms. It should be sticky and messy. Don’t add too much flour!

Place the dough in an oiled bowl (use canola oil, vegetable oil, or cooking spray), cover it loosely, and leave it alone for another hour or two.

Dust the top of the dough with flour. Turn it out onto a floured surface. Add the chocolate to the top of the dough and fold them in as if you were kneading the dough. You don’t really have to knead it, though. Just flip, fold, and turn it a few times to distribute the chocolate. Place it back in the oiled bowl. Leave it alone for a half hour.

Use either parchment paper or flour to line a baking sheet. Shape the dough into either one 9-inch round or two 4-inch rounds. Cut an X on the top of the dough. Let it rest on top of the warm oven, loosely covered with a dish towel, for 15 minutes while the oven is preheating to 400 degrees F.

Combine the egg white and remaining teaspoon of water. Uncover the dough and brush it with the egg wash.

Bake at 400° for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 325 or 350 and bake an additional 20 to 25 minutes. The bread should be browned lightly and should sound hollow when tapped. Enjoy while still warm.

Herb Focaccia

I’ve been doing quite a lot of baking over the last few months, and one of my favorite recipes that I’ve nearly perfected is herb focaccia bread.

Any herbs can be used in this bread, though I think rosemary is essential. The most recent batch I made had rosemary, thyme, and chives, and I think that one was the best yet. And while I like cut tomatoes on the top, you could also use sliced yellow squash or zucchini, or nothing at all.

What I’ve done to come up with this recipe is read through about four online recipes, read the reader feedback from those four, and then assimilate all that with another bread recipe that I adore: The New York Time's adaptation of Jim Lahey's No-Knead bread, which appeared in the Times online about two years ago.

Herb Focaccia
1 (1/4 oz.) package instant yeast (you can use less than a packet, like 1/4 teaspoon, if you let the bread rise for a full 24 hours)

1 3/4 cups warm water – the temperature of the water is the most important thing in making this bread; it should be warmer than your body temperature, but not by much

1 teaspoon sugar

2-3 tablespoons mixed herbs (rosemary, thyme, parsley, basil, chives, sage)

Scant 4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting – the second most important step in making this bread is not using too much flour, so go lightly with it

1 teaspoon table salt

1/4 cup olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon sea salt or coarse salt (or really, any special salt you like)

About a half dozen cherry tomatoes, cut in half, or one plum (Roma) tomato, sliced into 1/4 to 1/2 inch rounds (try to get at least 8 slices)

Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water. Stir it gently with a whisk, then leave it alone for 10 to 15 minutes. If a foam develops, you’re in business. If there is no foam and the water just looks murky, start over because it won’t work. Either the yeast is old or the water was too hot or too cold. Just scrap it and start over.

Sift the flour into a large bowl with a pinch of salt. Add 1/4 cup less 3 tablespoons of olive oil to the flour and stir it with a whisk gently just to break up the oil a bit. Add the chopped herbs and stir until they are distributed evenly. Add the water and yeast mixture to the flour and stir it with a wood spoon until it is tacky. The dough should be messy and a little wet.

Take a new bowl, preferably a ceramic one, and oil it with about 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Scrape the dough from the mixing bowl into the oiled bowl. You don’t have to knead it. Cover it loosely with plastic (either plastic wrap or a plastic shopping bag) and leave it to rise in a warm place for at least four hours. If you used less than a full packet of yeast, leave it to rise overnight.

Uncover the bowl and throw a little flour onto the dough. Throw a little flour onto your fists as well and punch down the dough gently. You can also do this with a wooden spoon that has been dusted with flour. Cover the dough again loosely and leave it to rise for an hour or so.

Preheat oven to 500.

Grease or oil an 8x8-inch baking dish or a pie plate. Turn the dough out into the dish and use the tips of your fingers to gently press it toward the edges, dimpling the dough as you go. Dot the top of the bread with the cut tomatoes, nestling them gently into the dough’s surface. Sprinkle each tomato with a small amount of coarse salt (just a few grains each). Brush the remaining olive oil onto the top of the bread, and finish decorating it with sea salt if you like or more chopped herbs (rosemary or sage work best).

Leave the dough in a warm place (like on top of the oven) for 10 to 15 minutes so it rises a bit more before being baked. Bake it in the center of the oven for about 5 minutes, then lower the temperature to 425 and continue baking until it’s barely golden brown on top.

Serve warm.

Serving suggestions: serve with olive oil and basil to dip, olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dip; serve alongside Italian meat and seafood dishes.

No-Ingredients Chocolate Cake

This is the easiest cake I have ever made.

I found the recipe in a magazine maybe two years ago and made it solely because it didn’t call for any ingredients that I didn’t immediately have on hand.

No butter.

No cream.

No eggs.

No buttermilk.

No sour cream.

This isn’t even one of those mayonnaise cakes.

It’s as if the cake has no ingredients. It’s outstanding.

The only thing the average cook might not have on hand is cocoa powder. The rest is flour, salt, sugar, water, canola oil, vanilla, baking soda, and the secret ingredient that makes it all happen: white vinegar.

The original recipe called for a blend of all-purpose flour and wheat flour, but screw that. You don’t need it. You can use all all-purpose flour.

After I made this cake once or twice, I realized it was vegan. (If you’re making this for vegans, do double check that the cocoa powder you use doesn’t have anything weird in it.) It doesn’t taste “lite” or flavorless in any way, but it’s not really a special cake either. On the other hand, if you’re having people over or are in charge of bringing a dessert to a party, this is the easiest thing in the world to whip up.

One word of caution: do not lick the batter bowl. You might get a big kick of white vinegar. It's not pleasant, I assure you.

To change it up, you can use pancake mix instead of flour (which will mean it’s no longer vegan, I suppose). You can add instant coffee if you like. Add a half cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips to the batter for an extra chocolate punch. You can sprinkle the cake while it’s still warm with a liqueur – try coffee liqueur or Kahlua.

For a simple frosting-like topping, melt chocolate chips in a bain-marie; add a pad of butter and a few drops of water. Frost the cake (make sure it’s cool) by spooning a small puddle of the melted chocolate onto the cake and gently pushing it around with the back of the spoon. Let it cool and set. Decorate with a few sprinkles or, as I did, with a dried rose petal.

'No-Ingredients' Chocolate Cake
1 1/2 cups flour
1 pinch salt
1 cup white sugar
6 tablespoons cocoa powder (unsweetened)
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup cold water
1/4 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon white vinegar (no substitutions here)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 if making a round or square cake. Preheat to 325 for cup cakes.

Grease an 8x8-inch pan or 8-inch round cake pan and dust with flour or sugar. Or, line a muffin tin with cup cake wrappers (yield is about 12 medium cup cakes).

Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl with a whisk (or sift them).

Mix all the wet ingredients separately.

Combine the wet and dry ingredients thoroughly. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake until set, 15-20 minutes for cup cakes and 25-30 minutes for large cake.

Jamie Oliver Promotes New Book

I went to see Jamie Oliver at Barnes & Noble earlier this week. He was in town promoting his new book, Jamie at Home, which is about his new affinity for gardening and growing his own food.

Unfortunately, he barely spoke! He showed up on stage about 8 minutes late, gave a quick review of the theme of the book, noting that even New Yorkers with limited space can usually cram a few herb pots onto their windowsills and rooftops, answered three audience questions, and then got to signing. The whole thing was over in less than 20 minutes.

Earlier in the day, he was a guest on a local NPR show, so at least he spoke a bit more there and answered more intelligent questions. (The final "question" at the book signing was -- I kid you not: "I'm Korean. I love you and came from Korea to see you. Korean food is very healthy, mostly steamed and with little oil. I want to know if you like Korean food, will visit Korea, and I can teach you to cook Korean foods.")

While I'm not the biggest fan of Jamie Oliver, I do appreciate the activism roles he's taken on. He has experimented with helping under-privileged youth, former inmates, chicken farmers, and all of the U.K. by pressing issues about the sorry state of their grocery stores. I also had a chance to flip through some of his new book and look at the gorgeous photos of his garden and some of the dishes, which are grouped by season according to harvest.

One of the simplest but most appealing photos, which I could not find online, was that of pancetta-wrapped asparagus, broiled, and served with soft-boiled eggs in their own shells as cups. The idea is to dip the spears into the egg. Oliver even suggests serving the eggs in a paper egg carton; the photo showed one of those indigo colored half-dozen carton, which was a gorgeous color contrast to the bright yellow yokes. Even though I couldn't find the precise photo, imagine something along the same lines a the two images I've cobbled together here.

That Time a Pyrex Dish Exploded in My Hands, and a Recipe for Acorn Squash

A few nights ago, I was making acorn squash and mini pizzas, not an odd combination if you know that the pizza toppings included grilled yellow summer squash slices, caramelized onions, and feta; sliced plum tomatoes sprinkled with sea salt, soft white mozzarella, and chives; skillet-cooked red and green peppers, parmesan cheese, and chorizo.

Acorn squash can be baked at around 325 or 350 degrees, but it needs to cook for at least a half hour, more if it’s quite large. I usually split one in half, prick the skin a few times, and then set it in a baking dish with about a half inch of water, letting it steam and bake simultaneously. It can tolerate higher heats, and it doesn’t easily burn or overcook, so it’s no big deal to leave it in the oven a little too long or at too high a temperature. After it is thoroughly cooked, I like to drain the water, flip the squash cut-side up, and dot it with butter and brown sugar, then stick it back in the oven for a few minutes, until the sugar crusts over. That’s the way my mother always made it, and I love the stuff.

Pizza on the other hand needs to go into a very hot oven. In my current apartment, I have a small but very powerful gas oven. The gas flames blast in that tiny chamber and can quickly reach temperatures above 450 degrees. Not all large ovens can do that, especially electric ones.

Timing the cooking of the acorn squash and the pizzas seemed fairly simple: leave the squash in the oven at 350 for about 25 minutes, then crank the heat right before the dough is ready to go into the oven. If the squash looks done, pull it out. If it’s not quite cooked through, leave it in a bit longer while the pizzas cook. (I also had a few beets wrapped in foil tucked into the back of the oven. My philosophy on saving energy in the kitchen is to save tasks like roasting beets and baking off the last batch of cookie dough from the freezer for a time when I’m going to have the oven on anyway.)

I poked my heat in the oven a few times to make sure the water had not evaporated from the baking dish. All was well.

When it was time to put the pizzas in, I pulled the squash only the see that baking dish had not been perfectly level, and so all the water had tipped to the front of the Pyrex, leaving the back end dried out. A bit of sweet smelling acorn squash juice had burned and bubbled onto the pan. Holding the pan with a dishtowel, still half in the oven, I tilted it so the water ran to the back of the pan.

Then there was an enormous sizzle. Then there was a little blast.

The whole back end of the dish exploded into the oven, onto the floor, down through the cracks into the broiler chamber. The front half the Pyrex cracked and crumbled in my very hands. I didn’t get hurt, but I froze for a moment, until Boyfriend came in, took one look at me and said, “Oh my god. You’re barefoot.”

I’ve heard stories of exploding Pyrex before. It happened to my mom and it happened to my oldest sister, too. In all instances, the glassware went from one extreme temperature to another. My sister said she took a dish out of the oven one time, but even with potholders it was too hot to handle, so she dropped it in the sink, which had a little water in it, and the whole thing just blew up.

In my case, the baking dish must have heated up to the same, or nearly the same, temperature as the oven, while the water was no hotter than 212 degrees, a 200-degree difference.

When it happened to my mom, I was there to witness it. I was probably 11 or 12 years old and we were at her in-laws’ house. She was making gravy. A 9 by 11 Pyrex pan was sitting directly over a low flame. She whisked away at the gravy, and I think when the explosion occurred, she had just added more liquid, presumably liquid that had not been warmed. A film of stinking turkey oil covered the oven, the floors, and my mother for days.

Okonomiyaki Night!

Twice recently, I made okonomiyaki (or as I called it for about the first hundred times I tried to pronounce it, “oko yummy mommy”). Okonomiyaki is a Japanese savory pancake with cabbage and an assortment of seafood, meat, and vegetables; part of the name translates to “whatever you like,” so it’s a bit of a free-for-all, not unlike how one might concoct an omelet or a pizza from a log list of suggested filling and toppings.

There are a few hilariously instructive videos online for cooking okonomiyaki, particularly Cooking with Dog.

Here are two basic recipes for okonomiyaki, one from, which has an ingredients list that doesn't call for anything you can't find in a typical grocery store, and another with more traditionally Japanese ingredients. Remember, you can substitute any fillings that you like.

I also read some blog posts to get advice, but having done a little trial-and-error cooking now myself, I have a few thoughts to add:

1. Cooking the okonomiyaki takes much longer than one might expect. On my most recent attempt, both pancakes were still wet in the middle, and they cooked for 20 minutes each (plus one of them sat in a warm oven while I cooked the other, and even then it was still wet). Boyfriend and I were able to eat the exterior part with no problem, and we merrily picked through the rest, snagging bite-sized bits of perfectly-cooked seafood from the mush.

2. A related point is that the batter needs to be a lot drier than one might imagine. The only comparison I have to this is to think about working with chocolate chip cookie dough. When the dough is mixed but the chocolate has not yet been added, the dough seems almost too stiff and dry – but mixing in the chips somehow loosens it up a bit. When the okonomiyaki batter is made, it should also be a little too dry; then when you add the chopped cabbage, it will relax. Additionally, when you add seafood, the fish will release a good amount of water, thereby making your batter even wetter. Starting with a batter that’s on the dry side will help accommodate these changes.

3. Fresh squid tubes are heaven-sent. Both times I made okonomiyaki, I only added seafood and green onion or shallot. Although I never have cooked with fresh calamari before, I decided to try adding it to the pancakes because I knew that, like scallops and shrimp, they only need a few minutes to cook. We added the seafood after the first side of the pancake had been browned, just before flipping it. That way, the seafood only cooked half as long as the rest of the okonomiyaki. In my neighborhood, which is very Greek, the cleaned baby squids only cost about $3 or $4 per pound. They are so delicious and so easy to rinse, cut, and cook that I would not ever make okonomiyaki at home without them. And their chewy texture really makes the dish more fun to eat.

4. Another way to ensure the okonomiyaki comes out great is to invite your little sister over to help make it, especially if she is a fan of Japanese food and knows how the final dish should look and taste. (Thanks, H!)

5. The flakes most people add to the top flutter from the heat of the pancake, giving the illusion of little crawling bugs. If, like me, this creeps you out, skip the flakes (although I have to admit, it's tastier with them on).

Those Who Vote Eat for Free

In addition to Ben & Jerry's giving away free scoops on Election Day (see previous post, 5 to 8 p.m. only), a few other outlets have joined the calling.

Starbucks: free tall cup of brewed coffee.

Krispy Kreme: free star shaped doughnut with red and blue sprinkles.

And if you live in Tampa, there's a Chik-fil-A (West Shore Plaza) giving away free food.

Wear your "I voted" sticker, and more importantly, go vote tomorrow! (Actually, at Ben & Jerry's, the staff will just take your word for it.)

Free Scoops for Voters

Ben & Jerry's is giving away free scoops on Election Day to voters. Enjoy!

Ordering Taiwanese: 'I'll Have The No. 2'

I accidentally came upon a blog post about a rather unappetizing theme restaurant in Taiwan that I thought I'd share.

If you can come up with a great headline for this post, please leave it in the comments!

Review: 5 Napkin Burger

In 500 words or fewer

5 Napkin Burger
45th Street at 9th Avenue, New York, NY

(Note: I did not take this photo. It came from a Flickr account called "Eating in Translation.")

The Scene: 5 Napking is in Hell’s Kitchen, but for all intents and purposes, it’s in the Times Square area. The dining room is large and spacious. It’s dark and a little noisy, but not deafening. Booths give diners both room enough to move around and privacy from others; a few traditional tables dot the floor, so be sure to request a booth.

Reservations: The restaurant takes a limited number of reservations with the rest of the spacious room left for walk-ins.

Bar: The bar area is small, so don’t realistically expect to wait for a table here.

Menu: Despite its appearance, the menu is small. On the menu, there are a number of things that I totally dismissed, such as a sushi list. It’s my feeling that sushi should not even be offered at a restaurant called 5 Napkin Burger. I also dismissed at least one starter (Vietnamese summer rolls) and several entrees (spaghettini and omelet Florentine). There are seven burgers, but I wouldn’t order the veggie burger because it is completely unspectacularly adorned (sauce, pickles, lettuce, tomato), and I would be hesitatnt to order the Ahi tuna “burger” as it is really just Ahi tuna on a roll with some Asian accessories, like wasabi mayo.

This leaves five choices: the Original 5 Napkin burger (carmelized onions, comte, rosemary aioli), cheddar bacon burger, Inside Out burger (no bun, wrapped in lettuce), lamb kofta burger, or the Italian turkey burger (frightening concoction of tomato sauce, vinegar peppers, and mozzarella on a sesame egg bun). They all come with fries, and the fries are thin and delicious.

Food: I split an Original burger ($14.95) with my sister, which meant I did indeed venture into eating beef for the occasion. I also ordered a side salad, which looked like one cup of pre-bagged mixed lettuce dressed with oil and vinegar. I also ordered a side of baked beans that perhaps were Bush’s canned baked beans.

The bun was the tastiest part, shiny with egg on the outside like a perfectly baked loaf of Challah. The onions and comte cheese were very good. The beef patty itself was hefty, though over salted. And the price was a little high.

Finally, the beer menu is something to behold. It’s not a masterfully crafted themed list, but it does offer an astounding variety by the bottle. Many beers I had never heard of before and were from microbreweries in the U.S. Belgians made up about half the list. None of the imported bottles were bargains, but out-of-towners experiencing New York for the first time and pressed to eat in the Times Square area would be pleased with the selection.

[Read the update, June 30, 2009, in which a manager of 5 Napkin Burger writes me a letter, to which I respond.]

The New York Restaurants List

I've added a list of New York restaurants where I'd like to eat to the side of this blog (see at right). If you have suggestions for additions or comments on the places already listed, please let me know by using the comment section on this post.

I've also added a list of places in New York where I recently have eaten; see further below on right. Comments?

Postcard from Long Island: Tim’s Shipwreck Diner (or 'Otto's')

I grew up on Long Island, and one of my favorite places to hang out is the harbor village of Northport -- and my very favorite place to eat there, and perhaps my favorite place to eat on all of Long Island, is Tim’s Shipwreck Diner.

It used to be known as “Otto’s,” but Otto needed to retire (or partially retire, as he still can be found from time to time working the front of house or clearing plates), and his son Tim took over. My family and I interchangeably call it Otto’s, Shipwreck, or Tim’s Shipwreck, but never simply Tim’s.

What I like about Tim’s (that was pretty cheeky, eh?) is its balance between tradition and inventiveness. The food and atmosphere is, put simply, satisfying. It’s a classic diner, like the railroad car diners of yore, but instead is shaped like the inside of a small ship, which fits the marine mood of the tiny town to a tee. Some of the servers (mostly the adult waitresses) are lifers -- come in frequently enough and they’ll know you by name. Come more than just occasionally, and they’ll call you honey and ask how your mom/sister/uncle Arty is doing.

Upon being seated, if you’re not given a complimentary plate of the sweet corn bread and homemade berry jam, ask for it! Every so often Tim’s Shipwreck runs out of it, but if you see other customers eating it, you’ve probably just been overlooked and should pipe up. The jam in particular is not to be missed, and the combination of the two together is delightful.

Don’t expect to find anything on the menu that drifts too far from the typical arena of diner food, but do admire the daily specials for their ability to reinvigorate classic dishes. On a recent visit, for example, my mother was scanning the omelet list, and nothing on it really excited her. Then she saw on the specials board a ratatouille omelet. It was a done deal. Home fries and toast rounded out the meal for about $7.

Sweet breakfast options are equally inventive without being risky. Pumpkin pancakes are a staple in the autumn months. Stuffed French toast with bananas, and homemade cheese blintzes are two other dishes that frequent the specials board. Savory brunch-goers are faced with tough options, choosing between omelets that are donned with hunks of sweet Italian sausage or a breakfast concoction that somehow manages to work in a serving of homemade chili.

At times, the potatoes have been limp and the jam can taste a bit cloying, but these things are worth overlooking for the otherwise fulfilling experience.

Read local newspaper reviews of the diner, which are plentiful, but dismiss the warning that you might wait an hour for a table. It’s just not true. A 20-minute wait isn’t unheard of for a reasonably sized party of two or four, but an hour is an exaggeration, especially in the warmer months when plastic porch furniture opens up extra seats in the back “garden.” (I prefer to sit inside year-round. I find the back alley to be a little cramped.)

Postcard from Cooperstown, NY, and Brewery Ommegang

Three things make beer taste better: being unfiltered, bottle fermentation, and high alcohol content.

American beer drinkers, or at least the vast majority of them who make up focus testers, are obsessed with “purity.” They think something is wrong if their beverage is cloudy, and as a result, the beers produced in the U.S. are almost always filtered. As a result, its flavors are dulled. And like milk and cheese, beer in the U.S. is also pasteurized, another step in the process that often sacrifices flavor for perceived safety. However, while pasteurization is legally required, filtering is not.

Look into a Belgian beer bottle, on the other hand, and you’re likely to witness a miraculous dance of particulates in suspension, and therefore richer and more complex flavors and smells.

There are very few breweries Stateside that go against the grain, and Brewery Ommegang is one of them. I’ve only been drinking Ommegang beers for a year or two. For the most part, it makes Belgian-style beers, particularly its namesake abbey-style beer. The brewery, which opened in 1997 but was recently bought by Duvel USA (Duvel was also an original investor, according to Wikipedia), is located in upstate New York, about a four-hour drive from New York City, just south of Lake Otsego. The region is also home to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and when I realized that, I set my mind to taking a mini vacation and seeing both in one short weekend.

Boyfriend (like how I protect his identity in that photo?) and I headed up on a Saturday morning, arrived in the afternoon, zipped through the Baseball Hall of Fame -- a static and forgettable museum charging 16 bucks for very little -- and reached Ommegang by 3:30, which was plenty of time to take a look around, have a few tastings, and buy way more beer and beer accessories than we probably should have before closing time at 5:00.

The brewery is really just two barns with a couple of huge tanks both inside and out. On site, the beer is brewed, bottled, and aged, with the exception of one beer variety selected annually to be cave aged in nearby Howe Caverns. Unlike the chalk caves of France, Howe Caverns are limestone and lie about 100 feet deeper in the earth. But they both are extremely regulated climates and dark, which is ideal for aging champagne, wine, beer, and cheese.

We got the free “tour” of the brewery, but the employee showing us (and about 30 other people around) seemed like she had had enough for one day and was shouting out her spiel by rote, making it hard for me to tune into what she was saying. I know not all the carbonation happens in the bottle, but the final fermentation is always done in-bottle. I know that the beers are flavored with a number of different spices, including West African grains of paradise, coriander, and star anise, but I wasn’t able to follow which beer got which spices, though some of them you can tell by taste.

After the tour, there is a free beer tasting. We tried the Witte, Rare Vos, Hennepin, Abbey, and Three Philosophers, all of which I’ve had previously except the Three Philosophers and Rare Vos.

We bought a case of 750ml bottles: three Wittes, three Hennepins, three Rare Vos, and three Abbeys for about $66, or about $5.50 per bottle. In the grocery stores, a bottle of Witte or Abbey can go from $8 to $12, so this was a good deal for us. For $30, we significantly beefed up our specialty beer glass collection with six new additions (technically, five new additions, as one of the glasses was a gift for friends).

Here are some notes on the beers.

Beer Notes
Ommegang Witte was recently ranked (2008 World Beer Cup) number two of all wheat beers. An employee at the brewery, upon telling us this, added, “We see it as an honor to be second to Hoegaarden,” which she correctly pronounced WHO-garden, leaving me in a little state of glee.

I wasn’t always a fan of lighter beers, but Hoegaarden helped me expand my horizons, and now I love the Witte. It’s refreshing and crisp, and goes well with summer outdoor foods, like grilled chicken, souvlaki, or salads, as well as German foods, like sausages, sauerkraut, or even just a simple hot dog. You can drink it with a slice of lemon, though a slice of orange is preferable in my opinion, as the beer is flavored with orange and coriander.

Hennepin is my least favorite of Ommegang’s year-round brews because it’s very hoppy (I prefer malt flavor to hops in darker ales). Hennepin is a Saison ale, so it’s technically amber in color. If you like hops, this is a great beer, with a lot of structure yet blended flavors. Only the hops are really assertive, but then again, I might feel that way because I’m not especially fond of the hops.

Rare Vos and Hennepin both collect sediment at the bottom of their bottles. Although a friend of mine lectured me once about being careful not to drink the sediment (“It’ll give you the runs!” he warned), the employees at the brewery said go ahead and drink it. One of the beer’s sediments -- and I forget which one -- actually contains a fair amount of potassium and other vitamins and minerals. Stephen Beaumont, a beer book writer, is quoted on the Ommegang web site for advocating the inclusion of some of the yeast sediment in a pour of Rare Vos, saying it intensifies the spices while mellowing out the beer’s sweetness.

The Ommegang Abbey Ale is the darkest and most intense of the four beers we brought home. This is not the kind of beer you want to drink when the weather is warm. To me, it’s a holiday beer, or at the very least a cold weather beer, as is Chimay Blue. It’s a sipping beer or an accompaniment to food. Witte is really the only Ommegang beer I would drink on its own. Even the Rare Vos requires some snacking to balance the strong flavors (cheese, fruit, charcuterie, crusty bread, olives).

Another beer that the brewery puts out all year long, but which we did not tote home with us, is Three Philosophers. Three Philosophers is a very strong beer, weighing in at 9.8% alcohol. But it’s not 100% beer -- it has cherry lambic (kriek) added.

Drink Up
The biggest reason for me to drink Ommegang beer more regularly than imported Belgian beers or even German ones is that it’s brewed in the same state where I live, meaning it’s less expensive and has a smaller carbon footprint. On the other hand, the brewery imports its 750ml bottles from Europe, so there is still trans-Atlantic shipping involved, which I’m not thrilled about.

‘That Champagne Will Cost You An Eye’

‘I’ll take it’ — A Traumatic Day Ends in Bubbles

On Monday, I had a rather traumatic day.

The previous Saturday, I bought a half bottle of Veuve Clicquot brut (Ponsardin, non-vintage).

What Does One Have to Do With the Other?
One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2008 was to buy and drink one relatively expensive bottle of wine, in the $50 range. Drinking a nice bottle of wine didn’t sound like a horrible thing to put on my to-do list, so I made a mental note of it and the next time I passed by the wine shop (which is suspiciously right next door to the bank), I went a-looking.

The half bottle was about $26, and Veuve Clicquot is a label I’ve been curious to try for some time. I brought it home, stashed it in the fridge, and decided that if an occasion to drink the wine didn’t present itself by my birthday, well, bottom’s up then.

An opportunity did present itself.

My Summer of Doctor Visits
I almost never have to see doctors. I am in very good health and I see an OBGYN annually like clockwork. This summer, having relocated, I had to find all new doctors, and a few of them wanted me to come in needlessly “just to be sure” everything was fine and dandy.

First, one doctor wanted to test all my hormones levels. Everything was normal.

Then another wanted to check out my cholesterol, iron, and whatever else doctors routinely measure in blood. Normal normal normal.

Another doc sent me out for two ultrasounds. All my parts were there, and they all looked normal.

Another one wanted to cut off and inspect two freckles. Normal.

The dentist told me to floss better in the front, then rescheduled me for a cavity filling. And at that point I said, “Enough already! No more doctors this year.”

Then, Monday morning I woke up and my eye hurt. This was not normal.

It felt like something was in there, like a really big eyelash. I checked, but there was nothing. I rubbed it. I flushed it. I put drops in it. Nothing changed. It still hurt.

If I leave it alone, I thought, maybe it will just go away.

A few hours later, I was flushing the eye again and icing it. Boyfriend shone a flashlight in there (or what the British would call a “torch,” which sounds so barbaric in this context) and said he couldn’t see anything either.

Some of the details, I’ll spare. But finally around 3 o’clock, I was at an ophthalmologist’s office. He looked in my eye and said, “You’ve abraded the hell out of your cornea.” Then he flipped my eyelid inside out and announced, “No wonder you’re in pain. You have a piece of metal in there. It looks rusty, too.”

There was a numbing eye drop involved, some prescription anti-inflammatory stuff, and a “contact bandage,” but all those things don’t hold a candle to the moment when he plucked a rusty piece of metal from the inside of my eyelid.

O the relief!

And yet, a list of unanswered questions began to accumulate, and at the top: “How the hell did I do that?”

Back at Home
“How the hell did you do that?” Boyfriend asked.

“I don’t know.” I still don’t know. “But you know what I do know,” I said to him. “We’re drinking that freaking champagne tonight to celebrate the removal of rusty metal shards from eye lids.”

I feel like I worked for that champagne.

What separates the Veuve Clicquot from most other sparkling wines I’ve had is the complete absence of an after-taste. It was deliciously crisp but mild mannered, like a firm pear, and very effervescent.

San Francisco Top 5 Eats

I lived in San Francisco for about five years, and Boyfriend grew up there and spent most of his life there.

When we talk about going back to visit, we ask each other, “Where will you definitely eat the next time you’re in town?”

I’ve been back to San Francisco twice since I left, so I’ve got mine down pat:

San Francisco Top 5 Eats

Arizmendi co-op bakery, Inner Sunset

Rosamunde sausage shop and Toronado Pub, on Haight Street (counts as one entry because the custom is to bring the sausages next door into the bar and eat there)

Little Star Pizza, Western Addition

Boulangerie Bakery, Cole Valley location (have a tartine and a big bowl of coffee)

India Clay Oven, Outer Richmond (terrible service, but the best saag paneer; prawns jal frazie is also highly recommended.

Radegast Hall & Biergarten

Last night, we went to Radegast Hall & Biergarten, a German beer garden that openly somewhat recently in Brooklyn, NY. This was our second visit, but first time eating there.

Radegast can’t claim the long heritage of the better known and more popular Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden, which is to the best of my knowledge the last remaining beer garden in New York’s five boroughs from the early 1900s. However, Radegast has an impressive German and Belgian beer list as well as the best sauerkraut I’ve ever eaten.

The sauerkraut probably isn’t a traditional Bavarian recipe, but as far as I can tell, it is unique to Radegast and probably the creation of someone on staff. It’s sweet, with hints of apple juice, a mild smoky pork undertone, and a little kick of hot pepper.

The beer list is equally unique to Radegast. German beers, particularly Weisses, dominate the taps, though there are a few Czech brews and one or two others from Austria and Belgium. The bottled list is divided into German and Belgian beers, with plenty of options I’ve never tried before (which could very well turn me into a regular customer; I love exploring a good beer list over time).

The hall itself is huge. The “garden” is actually covered, but the roof is retractable. Radegast serves a table-service brunch and dinner, but also offers a late night grill until 2 a.m. The grill isn’t a meal deal by any means, but you can eat a small dinner for less than $10. I had a bratwurst (pork) with two pieces of grilled bread and a mound of that astounding sauerkraut for 8 or 9 bucks. Boyfriend got the kielbasa [they were out of weisswurst (veal)] and opted for fries instead of bread. There’s a mustard bar to the side of the grill, and if I thought the kraut was something to write home about, the Radegast mustard deserves its own postcard. It’s mild to medium intensity, slightly sweet, and goes so well with the kraut.

One thing to watch out for at the beer hall is that the prices aren’t on the beer menu, but they are on the web site. All the draught beers in American pints (16 oz.) go for $7. You can drown yourself in a full liter of beer for $13. And pitchers are offered for $18. The bottled beers vary, but nothing costs more than $10.

Radegast Hall & Biergarten

113 North 3rd Street
(Williamsburg) Brooklyn, NY

The Price of One Week

A little more than I year ago, I went to COPIA in northern California, which is a center for wine, food, and art related to wine and food. There was a photography exhibit there by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Alusio based on their book, Hungry Planet.

Hungry Planet is a series of photographs of families from all around and all the food they’ve consumed in one week. (I’d love a copy as a gift -- Update 9/29/08 Thanks, Boyfriend!) Menzel and D’Alusio have a second book called What the World Eats: Hungry Planet, which from what I can tell, is basically part two of the same concept.

The exhibit must have had at least two dozen huge photos, and next to each one was an itemized grocery list and total grocery bill given in both the local currency and the U.S. dollar equivalent at the time.

There are major differences, of course, between the diets of people from different countries.

But what caught my attention even more than the culinary cultural differences was the amount of packaging. If you pay attention to the product packaging, the differences are astounding between rich and poor countries. Surprisingly, the amount of packaging doesn’t tell us which families will be obese and which won’t. See, for example, a Japanese family’s eats for the week compared to the stark image of a family from Chad.

Time magazine online has a selection of images from the book.

And here a sampling of the stats:

Weekly Grocery Spending

Chad, family of six: 685 CFA francs or $1.23 US at time of photograph

Japan, family of four: 37,699 yen or $317.25 US at time of photograph

Great Britain, family of four: 155.54 GBP or $253.15 US at time of photograph

Germany, family of four: 375.39 Euros or $500.07 US at time of photograph

U.S., California, family of four: $159.18

U.S., North Carolina, family of four: $341.98

Egypt, family of twelve: 387.85 Egyptian or $68.53 US at time of photograph

Mexico, family of five: 1,862.78 Mexican pesos or $189.09 US at time of photograph

Kuwait, family of eight: 63.63 dinar or $221.45 US at time of photograph

Secret Food Guilt

We (especially women) all have deep dark food secrets. Who hasn’t leapt backward violently from an open refrigerator at the sound of another person entering the kitchen? It’s not just a guilty conscience at work -- it’s a guilty food conscience. The funny thing is, the violations we think are humiliating rarely are as wrong or disturbing as we make them out to be in our heads.

Still, guilty food conscience moments are more painful than any other I know. At least that’s how I feel.

I once aired some of my guilty pleasures to an online community of casual restaurant reviewers. I told them I ate jam straight up, and they chastised me for the banality of it. A Burger King French fry binger accused me of holding back and not truly divulging my true secrets. A Chef Boyardee fiend said surely I was making a mockery of everyone else’s admissions. “No,” I pleaded, “you don’t understand! I will eat the entire jar of jam in, like three or four sittings! That’s disgusting! Isn’t it?”

Isn’t it?

I eventually placated them by saying that once in a very blue moon, I will eat one of those prepackaged fruit pies, the kind that are shaped like a large empanada, are covered in hardened icing, and contain almost an entire day’s worth of fat. I’ve probably eaten maybe five of them in my life, but it was the only bone I could think to throw. The jam confession really was and is my worst one.

Well, it’s not just jam, I suppose. I eat all kinds of foodstuffs straight from the jar, with a keen affinity for anything that has similar qualities to jam: soft, spreadable, and sweet. Honey, lemon curd, peanut butter, frosting, Nutella, pie filling, raw cookie dough, and so on. You’ll notice that condiments take the spotlight here. Though I do like real food that's in the same vein (custards, bread pudding, undercooked banana bread, soft ice cream), it pales in comparison to the kinds of things you’re only supposed to eat a little bit of.

Guilt at Eight Years Old

One of my earliest guilty food memories is of being at a birthday party at a roller rink. I must have only been in first grade because the memory is very hazy. I only remember the embarrassing flash. All the kids had stopped roller-skating and had gathered around a long brown and orange laminated table to sing “Happy Birthday,” eat cupcakes, and watch the birthday kid open presents.

We all got these delicious cupcakes, though I’m sure they were nothing special, just Betty Crocker mix and tub frosting. We all got a full-sized paper plate, and I remember thinking that my delicious cupcake looked so small and insignificant on that huge mass of white. I remember devouring my cupcake, and then I remember watching the kid open gifts. Then I remember going back to my cupcake to gnaw the last licks of frosting and bits of cake from the muffin paper. Then I remember looking up and realizing that I had moved down the table from my original seat to watch gift giving. My face flashed to red. I was licking, sucking, nibbling someone else’s cupcake wrapper!

I was totally mortified, though I’m sure looking back on it that no one else noticed. But the embarrassment escalated to new heights when I realized that I must have already licked, sucked, and nibbled my own cupcake paper.

Imagine what the kid’s mom must have thought upon cleaning up: Which of these freaky, piggy little kids went around eating all the cupcake wrappers?

It hasn’t gotten any easier as an adult.

A few years ago, when I was still living with roommates, one of them came home to find a little splotch, about the size of a nickel, of yellowish orange liquid in the middle of the kitchen floor. “What is that?” she asked. “Did my dog leave a piddle spot on the floor? That’s so unlike him! I hope he’s not sick.”

She bent down with a paper towel to wipe it up. And it was sticky. It was very sticky. It was very sticky because it wasn’t dog urine. It was honey. I had been pouring the honey onto a teaspoon and sucking it off, over and over again. I must have dripped.

The real problem with this scenario -- and what made it oh so much more embarrassing to me -- is that I didn’t own a jar of honey in the house. But my roommate did.

I can only imagine what she was thinking: Not only did Jill eat my honey, but what the hell was she doing with it that it would have dripped onto the middle of the kitchen floor?

It’s baffling. And I don’t know why I would do such a thing. I just did. And I continue to.

Let me get off my chest all the times I ate my roommates’ foods. In college, my roommate got a jar of wild blueberry preserves from his aunt or his mother or someone as a souvenir from somewhere she had visited. He said, “Mmm! Yum! You’ll have to try some of this, too!” meaning "try some of this when I open it."

I don’t know what happened, but I opened the jar before he did, and within a few days, maybe a week, it was all gone. I started by just putting just a teaspoon or two on a piece of toast; but then I tasted it, and it was just too good not to dunk the spoon back in a few times and chow down. Before I knew it, the whole jar was basically gone. I think I left a smear purple blue stickiness around the edge of the glass for effect. The day he went to finally open that special jar of blueberry jam, he was astounded, and rightly so.

Another roommate I had was sent a homemade jar of lemon curd. Yeah, that disappeared.

These stories truly are the ones that leave me cringing. I had such heavy guilt about the blueberry preserves one that I started giving him jams as gifts myself, as if to see, “See? Isn’t this so funny in hindsight? Ha ha ha.”

Jams, jellies, and preserves are the worst for me. I know it’s wrong. I know it’s wrong every single time I do it. But the habit just can’t be broken.

I’ve been living with the same Boyfriend for about five years now. He found out about my bad habit the hard way when one day he, innocently enough, went to get the jam out of the fridge to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We had gone grocery shopping together earlier that week and had just bought brand new jars of both peanut butter and jelly.

“Where’d you put the jelly?” he called out with his head in the refrigerator. Then he started opening cabinets.

“It’s gone,” I said.

“What do you mean it’s gone?”

“I mean it’s gone!” I cried, half in anger and half in horrible horrible fear of my own actions.

“Jill,” he said, “it can’t be ‘gone.’ We just bought a brand new jar. You must have put it away in the cupboard or something since it hasn’t been opened yet.”

“No,” I said. “No, no, no, it’s gone.” I paused. And then I shrieked, “I ate it all!”

“How did you eat it all?” He really couldn’t comprehend this.

“I ate it all. I am a crazed maniac woman for jam! I eat it out of the jar. Haven’t you ever noticed that some days there is a stack of dirty spoons in the sink? That some days, the entire cutlery sorter is completely empty of spoons? That’s me! That’s me getting a fresh spoon every time I dip into the jar of jam because I don’t want to contaminate it with my saliva!” In reality, I didn’t gush out all those dirty horrible details on the spot, but they’ve been revealed over time.

It’s so sad.

There’s more, too, like the time I was at work in a quiet office where there were often only three people in my end of the building, and I had eaten my lunch, but I was still hungry, so I went to eat my snack, but I was too embarrassed to bring it back to my desk, so I stayed in the break room and began eating it straight out of its container and right over the sink when my boss’ boss walked in.

“Hi,” I mumbled, food crumbling out of my stuffed mouth.

When I was first dating Boyfriend (he swears he has no memory of this) I invited him over to dinner and I was excited to see him and didn’t want to seem like a pig and therefore tried to not eat too much at dinner, but I hadn’t eaten enough earlier in the day, either, so at 1 in the morning, I woke up with a growling tummy and toddled into the kitchen. I opened the fridge and began eating the dinner leftovers directly from the fridge. My guilty conscience got the best of me, so of course I jumped back and tried to distance myself from the open Tupperware when my new boyfriend was standing in the doorway saying, “Midnight snack?”