Sunday, June 24, 2007

Big Eden

Food themed films are readily available to those who seek them. It's a great pity that Who is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe is currently unavailable on DVD, for I would snap it up. Sadly a used VHS is 40 bucks or so. Its title is a perfect explanation of the plot and stars that great gourmand Robert Morley and an array of international superstars of the time. It's a fab, late seventies, romp and I remember enjoying it in my youth when the BBC aired it periodically. Another favorite is The Freshman,  full of wit and with a theme of mistaken identity, food-wise and character-wise, it stars Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick.  It's inexpensively available on DVD.

Probably my favorite food film is an independent effort entitled Big Eden. I watch it two or three times a year and it always melts my heart. To me it shows off the best ideals of our country. Big Eden is a tender love story set in Montana, and, as its title suggests, is about the way life might be in a more perfect world, where tolerance and affection for those in proximity to us outweigh all other other concerns. Briefly, a successful artist returns home from New York to visit an ailing family member who raised him, and subsequently attempts to rekindle the ideal love of his youth. In a film full of twists and turns, a shy, earnest and unexpected admirer, unselfishly perceiving an opportunity to rekindle his own unrequited affection for the artist, learns to cook for the object of his affection from the pages of Bon Appetit, a lifeline in the majestic wilderness to fancy cooking. The whole community, married, divorced, gay or straight, educated, or just plain dumb, joins in. I don't want to reveal the whole plot but it has a very good ending as befits such a fantasy, and, food plays a leading role. After all, don't they say that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach?

Thursday, June 21, 2007


My pal Jeff will not eat anything that has, or has had, a face. After a couple of years of threatening him with dinner I finally made good on it, and it's probably the first time that I have entertained with a completely vegetarian meal. Last night, I raided Deborah Madison's book and made baked ziti with mushrooms, leeks and sharp cheddar cheese. I think it turned out just fine. Jeff brought along a bottle of Belvedere Vodka, which is made in Poland where the first written mention of Vodka, in any language, dates from 1405. We all sipped dirty martinis made from this bottle, a drop of Noilly Prat, the French vermouth, and two spoonfuls per glass of olive juice from the jar with accompanying olives - I prefer unpitted Niçoises but this time we had many large Spanish ones stuffed with pimentos.

I was able to find fresh figs at Gelson's and snapped them up for dessert. I adapted Madison's carmelized fig recipe by toasting pine nuts when I was making the ziti, and reserving. I made the dish fresh and after we had eaten the ziti and salad course. I sliced the length of each fig in two and after semi heating some turbinado sugar with a spooning of lemon juice in a fry pan I turned them and turned them over a medium heat, particular to coat the open flesh side the most. I turned the flame off and gently combined the pine nuts in the pan with the figs. I put the glazed and glistening combination into bowls leaving the extra sugar behind in the pan (to help avoid possible premature death). I finished it with a little ribboned fresh mint on top and a thin slice of mildly salty Gorgonzola to the side of each serving, a wonderful contrast to the creamy sweetness of the luscious figs. If I had had a pear or two I would have added them sliced and uncooked to provide a little of their own delicate texture and natural, subtle liquid for the sauce. In all this took not more than ten minutes to make.

Jeff is a marvelous raconteur and a sterling character with a wide open heart. Neighbor Shauna stopped in at 11pm and between them they entertained us with their chatter until 1am. It was a very good evening indeed. Now I have to fit in that bit of beauty sleep I lost as a result, or is it gone forever?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Birthday Boy

My friend, the eminent artist Derek Boshier, is celebrating his 70th birthday today. I have a lot of affection for Derek, and he stopped by this morning, freshly shorn, his crystal clear blue eyes twinkling away. He dropped off this little drawing which you can click on to see larger. He will enjoy this momentous occasion in the company of his children.

Happy Birthday, Derek. May you have many many more. Sometime soon, I'll open a bottle of Schramsberg's Blanc de Noirs with you (the finest American bubbly - no cold duck ) and nibble at strawberries, on your deck with the grand view, so beautifully built with your own hands. We will also celebrate all the years of enjoyment that your ever poignant art has given me, and so many others. You are surely the Hogarth of our time, but don't let on about it to Matthew Flowers, it'll be our secret. (Above: Derek on left with old school chum)

Monday, June 18, 2007

Go Metro to Il Fornaio

It is difficult to survive in the LA Basin without a car. In this vast city a half hour drive to a meeting is a short one by local standards. When I can I take the Metro, especially for a recreational jaunt. Clean and fairly quick, and reminding me for some reason of Berlin's underground system, the Metro is to be encouraged and so patronized as much as possible as an antidote to the automobile. Saturday provided just such an opportunity, and we hopped on at Vermont and Sunset after buying a three dollar day pass. Taking the Red Line underground to Union Station and changing there to the Gold Line, we headed on up to Pasadena. The Gold Line is a marvellous ride above ground as one transitions from downtown LA up into The San Gabriel Valley, passing through Chinatown, Heritage Park and South Pasadena, then, on into Old Town Pasadena. I also like the view inside the train, which transports an eclectic mix of people from the gamut of LA society, and is a reminder that this town is not composed solely of Range Rover owners in fancy threads with money to burn.

We took supper at Il Fornaio, where we shared a warm seafood salad (which precipitated this entry) and I had lasagne interleaved with meat ragu and bechamel sauce, a creamy take on the standard. Matt had spinach ravioli filled with salmon and shrimp in a thin buttery sauce. We each enjoyed a martini with the dinner and it was all very good. I am always surprised that the check is so reasonable: we paid sixty five dollars before tip. Our waitress, Valerie, was very good indeed and she was rewarded for her pleasant contribution.

Il Fornaio is a high end restaurant chain serving Italian cuisine. It originated in Italy via the SF Bay Area. They make the best bread I know of in our town, surpassing LaBrea Bakery's, and I am irritated that Trader Joe's has stopped carrying their ciabatta which is non pareil. They also make their own fresh pasta and all dishes are nicely composed and appetizing. Fornaio's dining rooms are always elegant and airy with open kitchens and a well stocked bar as you can see on the Pasadena page. As restaurant chains go they surely have their act together like few others in the field.

A word about the salad: barely warm clams and mussels in their shells, scallops and small shrimp, perfectly cooked, moist and tender with a clear and light shallot dressing mixed with endive and baby lettuce, and, for me the magic ingredient- finely chopped blanched baby celery all about, softened but still firm. I am a great fan of celery and it was a lovely surprise to see it featured in this most satisfying dish. The salad left us feeling clean and green and rallied after the train ride. We popped over to the excellent gelato shop near the theater for dessert, and stopped in at Crate & Barrel to buy stemless Martini glasses that are individually cradled in bowls meant to be filled with ice to keep each libation a constant cool.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Love Ridge

Please excuse the posting gap - has had problems here in LA and I have been unable to post.

My maternal grandmother, who recently passed on into the afterlife, was born in rural Kentucky, one of the most beautiful states within our national borders. Her husband-to-be courted her on the aptly named Love Ridge, where they watched cows swoon in the moonlight, drunk on sour mash dregs which farmers regularly dumped in the hills from their illegal stills. My grandfather was restless, so he and his new bride left the family tobacco plantation, and they bought a small farm in Ohio where they prospered together, and were blessed with five children. My mother was the fourth child, and the only girl in the bunch, and somewhere along the way her parents bought a larger farm in a pastoral spot a half hour west of Dayton with a creek and good soil. I have mixed memories of my times there as a child, where I would often be placed while my parents traveled. More fun were the family reunions back in Nelson County, Kentucky,close to various famous-name distilleries and Stephen Foster's Old Kentucky Home. In these more innocent times, we youngsters would play in amongst the huge gray, green and yellow tobacco plants after the jellos and turkeys, hams and kool-aid had been consumed at such occasions back then there in the early sixties.

My Grandmother's fried chicken has not been matched by anyone I know, including her daughter, my mother, who makes her own excellent version. Even though Grandma gladly shared the recipe with all who asked, including marinating the meat in salt water for a short time before flouring it, no one has duplicated the end result. Her chicken was one of the strongest arguments I know for the sleight of the human hand making a difference in every activity including cooking. You can give the same recipe to twenty people and have them execute it exactly, and you will always get 20 different results. Some folks just have better hands and correspondingly quirky brains and produce a better fried chicken dinner. I'm not going to pass on the family recipe as that's just for us.

Using hints from my Grandmother's fried chicken recipe, I do make chicken livers into paté and into small delicacies that I love served cold . Buy the best livers (so inexpensive) and cut out the fatty membrane and wash in cold running water. Discard any yellowish livers they should be richly red brown and glistening. You will be left with two lobes which can be cut and divided into two pieces. Drain them, flour them all while still damp (don't pat dry) in a combination of flour, salt and pepper, mixed dried herbs, and a small amount of home made breadcrumbs. Turn the livers in the flour mixture again and again and let some of the juices coagulate in the flour. Heat a liberal amount of canola oil in a deep skillet and turn down to a medium heat and then add the coated livers. As they cook sprinkle some of the flour mixture lightly on top. Turn after five minutes and then cook for another five. Do not over cook.

At this point I let them cool on a towel in a bowl and put them in the fridge, covered. I snack on them or add them to light lunches. The livers are incredibly rich but with a little home made mayonnaise they are fantastically so, or gingerly dip them in dijon mustard for a more spicy accompaniment.

This now - paté, sweetbreads and kidneys, later.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Liquid Breakfast

Breakfast is coffee and a shower. There are exceptions to the coffee component : a high carbohydrate dinner of, say, pasta or pizza, can cause hunger pangs the morning after, and so a supplement of two eggs, scrambled, or made into an omelette with fines herbes, is called for. Occassionally on Sundays, a croissant, with unsalted butter and English Marmalade, is a treat. When desperate, I make a trip to Eat Well close by on Sunset Boulevard for ten buck steak and eggs.

The key to decent coffee anyplace takes very little effort: whole beans must be ground immediately before brewing. I use José´s Colombian Beans from Costco ground in a basic Krups coffee mill. The aroma of coffee flavored with hazelnut or vanilla is anathema to me. I like coffee for what it is and I drink it black with or without a little sugar. I'm am not much of a tea drinker, unlike my father before me.

For the morning pot I use the Krups 10 cup Arome. I don't use the water filter as LADWP's tap water is fine, though they could learn a thing or two from the city of New York's process. For a special dinner I use the French Press, which involves grinding, then steeping the resulting medium grind in boiled water. Then, when the grounds are sodden and stirred they are ready to be pressed to the bottom of the beaker with the manual filter. This method leaves very fine grounds in the liquid which adds a slightly creamy texture to the coffee. I've stopped using the Italian stove top espresso maker on account of having occasionally left one of the discs out of it and had coffee grounds explode all over the ceiling just one too many times. It makes a good cup though.

I learned to make the funnest and creamiest coffee when in Croatia. Turska Cava, Turkish Coffee, was the preeminent home made coffee when I was there during the Civil War in the early 1990s. Their neighbors The Serbians make the same thing but call it Serbska Cava to avoid the memory of their history with the Turks, and the Greeks also have their version. Wherever Turkish influence has made its mark, if nothing else, Turkish coffee remains. Turska Cava is made with any fine grind in a pretty tapered pot that holds back the froth, an important part of the ritual. Mine, in the picture above, is a fairly small, two cup, Turkish made copper coated pot, which Matt purchased in San Luis Obispo. Essentially it's boiled coffee, but it has to be cared for and watched over to avoid overboiling. Three spoonfuls of coffee are dropped in the bottom with half that amount of sugar and fresh cold water is added up to the neck of the pot. The flame must remain under the pot - no licking up the sides. After a few minutes the mixture heats up and it can be stirred once with a spoon. Just as it boils the head of froth will rise up above the neck and at the last moment it is removed from the flame. The froth is scooped off into demi-tasses and the pot is left to sit while the remaining grounds sink to the bottom. The liquid is then poured gently into the cups to preserve as much of the froth as possible and leave the larger grounds behind. The resulting beverage is mild and full of flavor, hiding its potency behind a creamy veil. Milk should not be added as it spoils the taste and results in mud. An added treat is the very fine sediment left at the bottom of each cup, which should be sampled with a teaspoon.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Sunday Luncheons

Two lovely consecutive weekends have just passed here in LA . And two pleasant afternoons beside mesmerizing swimming pools. Michael Golob is a true artist and a man I admire. I worked with him during my time in movie advertising and he hosted a backyard barbecue, Memorial Day Weekend, at his family home in a quiet tree shaded corner of Burbank. We feasted on teriyaki chicken and chicken sausage, well, just about every kind of cookout dish imaginable. His sweetheart, Liz, made pies that were to die for and I saw one member of the assembly, who shall remain nameless, go back at least three times to partake of the different varieties. I stopped at one brownie, not being of the sweet toothed. It was a wonderful family affair.

Yesterday, in South Pasadena, The Waymouths, newly returned from Tibet and Nepal, regaled us with stories of drinking yak butter tea, of conch blowing, and of flushing out tigers in the long grass on the back of trumpeting elephants. We enjoyed a brief show of Nigel's elegant snapshots of monastic life in the thin air of the Himalayas. Marissa (née Roth), while waiting for the Leica engineered Kodachromes to come back from Kansas, put together a smoked salmon and bagel lunch with whipped cream cheese, capers, organic tomatoes and onions, washed down with Vouvray spritzers and a nice Bandol. Plenty of fizzy mineral water kept us cool. The finches clubbed around the bird feeder while we ate, and our hostess' gorgeous garden is on the verge of blooming big time, providing a beautiful backdrop to the dancing surface of the pool. I am so glad they are back, always something missing in my life when they are travelling. What a great summer it will be.