Thursday, May 31, 2007

Where's the meat?

Always out for the economical advantage, I buy my meat at Costco, an old fashioned, but very up to date, food and dry goods warehouse that seems to be run along military lines and has huge outlets all over the US. You can purchase all things from a refrigerator to a double pack of giant 409 cleaner here, and every item is fairly reliable quality wise.
I also get to see what it is like to be one of the washed middle classes. Costco's stock is industrial strength and multiples thereof. After paying the initial yearly membership fee I save enormous amounts of cash by buying heavily discounted stuff that I always use, such as toilet paper, bleach or coffee (José's is just the best coffee for the price that I know of) - and meat.

The meat is government stamped USDA Choice, one grade below Prime which is the top level. My experience is that Choice is more flavorful and has more of the imperfect world that I live in in it. It's not organic as far as I know. I also buy their mussels, trout and salmon. I don't usually buy vegetables there because they are difficult to store long term at home, but very occasionally they have bigbags of shallots, which I use often, or cippoline onions and I grab em and shape menus around them. I hit Costco before the weekend when the place becomes unbearable on account of the crowds. In my branch it is unusual to hear English spoken until you get to checkout, and, if I close my eyes, I could easily believe that I am abroad. Strange thing too, at this Costco one shops with the stars when the place is pretty empty; one rubs shoulders with Gwen Stefani and various other recognizables from the neighborhood, as I have on several occasions. I guess that's LA for you.

I stopped by today to get some flank steak (recipe to come), and some Johnsonville Brats (sausages), which I love.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Whine, Whine... Wine

A particularly gruelling day, albeit week. If I feel I've been treated poorly, especially by marginally talented, dramatic people (enough with their post 8Os me me me backwash, please), it ignites my worst antisocial mitherings. But, on a budget conscious night such as this, a glass of plain red cab Charles Shaw (two buck chuck), is enough to restore some natural color to the world, and also reminds me that it's a holiday weekend. So, go ahead and ease me back into society. "Two buck" is made by the immense Bronco Wine Co. in Ceres, California. Bronco's CEO, Fred Franzia, (of the Coca-Cola owned box-wine family) distributes it in California through Trader Joe's at a shelf price of $1.99 a bottle. Somewhere, in the background, cue Laura Nyro singing Sweet Blindness..."Let's go down by the grapevine, drink my Daddy's wine, get happy..." .

When money is not such an obstacle, finer wines are the choice. We have government sanctioned appellations here in the U.S. now, known as AVAs, just like La France's AOCs, and many of them are close to my home, notably those in Santa Barbara County and the Paso Robles AVA. My good friend and sometime workmate, Tony, e-mailed a recommendation for the Dornfelder from Huber Cellars , Lompoc, in the Santa Rita Hills Appelation, Santa Barbara County. He has a smart palette, I'll search that one out.

As it turns out I was just up in Lompoc on the way to San Luis Obispo, recently. It wasn't a wine tasting trip per se but I did visit Wild Horse in The Edna Valley Appelation (see pic) and came back with their famed Pinot Noir (2005), and a recent Zinfandel, a sentimental favorite, not least because the "California grape", as it has come to be known, originated in the Dalmatian province of Croatia, a land I am particularly fond of, and of their wines, particularly from the islands of Hvar and Korcula. On this Edna Valley stop I was tempted to leave with Iron Horse's good Mourvèdre, available only at the winery, but it was at that time , a little too tannic for my tastes. Probably a good buy for laying down but I'm not in that league, yet.

Not a huge fan of true Rhône wines since they seem to stir my temperament up a bit, but I was interested in Iron Horse's Mourvèdre only because the grape has become my one to watch since tasting of Terre Rouge Easton Winery's superb and amazing take on this Rhône varietal. In fact, the wines of the Shenandoah Valley Fiddletown appellation in Amador County, up north in Gold Rush California, which lies between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, are currently worth checking out thanks to the efforts of talented vintners such as Bill Easton, (never met him but the pic on the site makes him seem familiar). Plus, the countryside there is also fabulous, the setting for TV's Bonanza. I cannot commend Easton's wines enough. Picnicking en famille, at lunch under the vined ramada in October 2006, every wine we tasted or drank on site was dreamy, red or white. One always tastes in a kind of linear context on such a crawl, and we stopped there between visits to other wineries, but I must say their 2001 Terre Rouge Mourvèdre is my personal favorite, perfectly balanced, medium bodied red varietal wine of the last couple of years, French included, Pinot or Pin-yes. It tasted good at the winery in Fiddletown at lunch, and better still here, in LA at dinner a couple of months later, when the finish from the earlier bottle was only just barely wearing off in my mind! Can't describe its complexity offhand 'til I get another bottle and by that time it should taste even better. I have kept the empty bottle as a memory of that lunch and of the wine. Wish I could buy lots now and you can too!

Sadly, nationalistic oenological snobbery seems pervasive. It's true that I will always try to buy a California wine over any other to support the economy in which I live, but I'm not going to buy a syrupy California wine when a comparable foreign wine is less "jarred and canned" and more balanced and the price is more or less the same. Sadly the magnificent breadth and range of American winemaking is not available to those of us who want to spend less than ten dollars for a bottle. Like TV, Film and News marketers in our country, wine producers in that price range take us for sugar freaks seeking a universal mouthfeel and little, if any bouquet. And maybe most of us are good with that, but, include me out of the bunch.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

How Does Your Garden Grow?

My dear, beautiful, friend and neighbor, Shauna, has a demanding career "stoking the star, making machinery behind the popular song" (and yes, once upon a time, she worked for
the subject of that excellent song). Shuttling between LA, New York and Nashville, she still finds time to enjoy a glass of fine wine and to plant tomatoes, peppers and beans. Walked by her apartment-front garden just now, and, only two weeks after the
initial planting it sure is thriving. I put in some basil from my own heirloom seeds to help. Can't wait to taste of her efforts and my favorite fruit. Click on the pic to see the garden large in all its green splendor.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Vene Vidi Vegi

I mostly feel unsatisfied if there isn't a quantity of animal or fish protein in a dish. An egg will do or even a tasty, oily, tinned sardine from Portugal. Not so last night, all that is out the window. Barbara Drake and Peter Huck are on the purely vegetarian straight and narrow. So last night's dinner at their elegant Paramount Studios-adjacent digs was an unusual event for me. Dinner was completely satisfying and extremely delicious in its simplicity. Each mouthful had a wonderfully complex "green "aftertaste. Me crushed the peppercorns in a mortar to help. I thank them here for a wonderful evening with sparkling chit-chat and intriguing stories. They kept the bargain, despite a harrowing day for the both of them.

All organic:
We started with
Fresh, home made hummous and toasted olive bread.
The main course was
Tofu, Brocolli, yellow carrots, and quinoa, lightly stir fried.
After's were
Brie, water biscuits and sweet strawberries. (Organic? Some yes ... some no )
To finish
Dandelion "coffee" with soy milk - after midnight!
Goodness, my bedtime is 10!

Sunday, May 20, 2007


Cooking is an activity outside the bounds of pleasure for me. I cook daily whether my disposition is sunny or sad. Simple or grand, each meal is a personal accomplishment. And I do it in a small kitchen on a vintage gas stove, with basic amenities such as running water and electricity and a view of downtown that is in the summer obscured by an opportunistic tree. Will someone rid me of that insolent tree? I cook. I bake bread. I make wine. I hand wash my dishes.

Cooking stimulates thought and feeling outside of its bounds and enhances the flavors of other activities in my life. I enjoy dining out but I most often prefer the results of the alchemy that goes on in this little room, tiled and antique, in what was once silent era studio housing. It's true that I only cook seriously when I can share the results since it seems a waste to feed oneself only. I consider myself financially poor but when I sit before a salad of belgian endive with blanched, seeded tomato, dressed with shallots and fresh sage grown in my own pots, the walnut oil and white wine vinegar catching the light, then, then, I am truly rich.

I began to cook at Oxford when I moved out into the country in my last year and realized that I would starve if I didn't. One gets only so much nutrition from a bottle of Bollinger or Pol Roger. On my first foray into that small kitchen I made fresh cream of chicken soup from a recipe in my mother's own first cookbook and although I started with a fresh chicken and the best cream, I ended up with a soup that was not unlike Campbell's product. I was disappointed.

A brief job after university took me into the kitchens at a small seaside hotel where I learned to make quick decisions on when to waste or not since everything depended on timing. I began to appreciate my mother's grand feasts and how she could deliver them up to three hungry boys, daily, and also maintain a career. In London I learned rudiments of forming my own palette from my landlord who dined from time to time at Paul Bocuse. I also kept one eye on the kitchens in a stint working at Brown's Hotel as a night porter. Later, when I owned my first home in Indiana I realized that the local restaurant fare of steak and potatoes could get boring and on a trip to Indianapolis picked up Larousse Gastronomique at the local Border's Bookstore. And then I was hooked. I now own a nice, compact library of books on the topic. I mostly dip into them when I am stuck or just want a good read. I prefer the vagueness of a recipe by Elizabeth David or Apicius where using instinct and constant tasting determines the quantity of ingredients. When baking this is not true. I try never to read a cook book when I am hungry.

Here, in the polyglot that is Los Angeles, we are blessed with wonderful produce and a wealth of ethnic markets to boot. I cook with on-hand ingredients but mostly my fridge is bare as I prefer to buy ingredients the day they are to be cooked. My pantry is stocked with limited dried herbs and oils, various salts from England and New Zealand, and three kinds of rice. I buy meat in bulk from Costco and freeze it, coffee too. Vegetables are usually from Trader Joe's or Whole Foods and parsley and garlic from Gelson's market. Jon's Market is a wonderful resource for hard to find seasonal vegetables such as fresh fava beans in the spring, and Mexican limes. I buy spices at the Indian market in Atwater Village, and a trek to the Chinese market in Alhambra brings home wonderful random items. I prefer to cook with ingredients that are in season and always try to buy organically grown produce.

There is a passage in Fitzgerald's ˆTender Is The Nightˆ which I have loved since I was young. Nicole Diver walks through the garden pathways to her house on the cliffs at Tarmes. This takes a veritable biscuit for stunning prose. It is pure perfume and evokes pictures, memories and dreams. Evoking the senses is what cooking does for me, texture, aroma and taste all play a part but above all, the results of cooking, for oneself and others, makes the necessary chore of eating a spectacular event.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Truffled Dinner

We started with wafers of Membrillo and Comté, olives on the side, sparkling prosecco to drink.

The main course. Pork is my favorite meat and so I made Pork "Sandwiches" of tenderloin and pastry with fresh Sauce Perigord all garnished with sliced truffle. A simple organic salad accompanied with an emulsified lemon dressing. Washed down with a relatively local Pinot Noir.

Dessert was Creme Brulée, yes, that is added cream on one. Coffee, to close, for the digestion.

Black Diamond

My friend Marissa gave me this black perigord truffle for my birthday in January. She and The Waymouth kindly fêted me with a luncheon at Café Figaro and despite the picquant aroma of the moules marinière plated before me, a heavenly, fungal scent permeated the bag containing the crusty nugget. I was afraid to cook it, jewel that it was, but, I used the first half to make a dinner with pork cutlets with pastry in sauce perigord (pictures to come). All that is left of it are shavings, some preserved in olive oil and some in armagnac. It was Marissa's suggestion that I start this blog and just when I get it going she is in absentia - gone to Tibet for her birthday.

I suspect she wants to steal my recipes ... Lord knows I've stolen a few of hers! I can't wait til she gets back, sherpas in tow. She is a wonderful photographer and I Leica her work a lot.