Talking About Thinking About Food *

* with apologies to I.’s podcast “Talking About Thinking About Records”

It’s funny how vacation works, isn’t it? You dive in with ambition: goals! Plans! But the first thing you want to do is relax, right? I mean, you need some definite time for relaxing, especially if the vacation starts with a holiday that requires preparation. And then once you’ve relaxed for a week… or maybe two… you start thinking about those plans. You start one of them. You consider another. And then when you clear your head again, there are only three days left before work starts again, and you realize that since you can’t accomplish everything you set out to do, it would be better to just stubbornly do nothing, telling yourself you are enjoying the time left as hard as you can.

At least, that’s what you do if you’re me. I had six tasks written down that I wanted to accomplish over the winter break. I did two of them. At first I was fairly gung-ho. I embarked on one of my big projects, but circumstances were more complicated than intended, and then a few things took longer than I thought, and there were shows to watch, and a dog who needed attention, and a husband who wanted the same, and suddenly it was February and I had to start thinking about my classes for the impending semester.

One of the tasks I had set for myself, as it seems I always do during breaks, and always fail to fulfill, was to create a backlog of posts so that for the first month of school, I would already have something ready to go and thus stay ahead of the curve, if a week lacking in time or inspiration came along. But in the actual weeks when I should have been doing this, I was by turns uninspired and resentful. I realize that this blog isn’t my job – it’s my hobby! But sometimes, because I give myself a weekly deadline, it feels like a job. Therefore, when I start to think about plotting out and executing a recipe, especially if that’s going to involve doing a round (or two) of dishes first, I feel like I’m giving up my vacation. Even though this is supposed to be my fun “work.”

So clearly I don’t have a recipe for you this week. “Just post a photo of food!” my mom said when I talked to her this weekend. But I’m a writer more than a photographer, so instead I thought I’d tell you a little about some of the food I ate during this break, and some of the dishes I’m thinking about now. I can’t promise all – or any! – of them will appear here, but maybe it will be a good way, as I teeter on the precipice of the new semester, of getting me back into all of my “jobs,” not just the one I get paid for.  🙂

The best thing I ate over the break may have been the dessert my sister, my mom and I made for Christmas. This year, we decided on a theme of “spiced.” Breaking from our appetizer tradition, we made a sit-down dinner, and everything in the meal – in fact, everything we ate all day (minus the odd chocolate truffle) – had to have a spiced component. Apple cardamom cake for breakfast, avocado toast with dukkah for lunch; N. even brewed a winter-spiced ale to fit the theme. Dessert, then, was an opportunity to show off all those warm tingling flavors in the spice cupboard, which we did with a trifle. In a huge balloon of a wine glass, we layered chunks of Mom’s best gingerbread, dollops of nutmeg and rum custard, ginger apple compote, and a generous heap of whipped cream. It was an indulgent project to dig your spoon all the way down and pick up a taste of everything, but the components went together perfectly, and the custard and compote were sufficiently rich, and the whipped cream, well, creamy enough, that you couldn’t tell I’d overbaked the gingerbread just a touch… Actually, I do have a photo of this one:

Other break foods that were definitively worth eating included the lamb burger from the recently shuttered San Francisco location of Park Chow, perfectly medium in the center and so juicy it required rolled-up sleeves. I tried a deliciously crunchy Hong Kong style crispy noodle dish at a Chinese restaurant near my parents’ house and wanted nothing else for two days. We made a lightly amended version of Melissa D’Arabian’s wine braised pork tacos that went over extremely well, especially with bright red cabbage strands and chunks of avocado on top. Perhaps most recently, we took a large, lightly toasted pavlova topped with stewed berries, toasted almonds, and amaretto whipped cream as a dessert offering for dinner with friends with a severe wheat allergy. The pillowy, marshmallowy center hidden inside the light crispness of the meringue’s exterior is a revelation.

Looking forward, I have an eclectic mix of things I think sound good. I’ve finally caught N.’s taco bug and now I just want them all the time. This week I’m taking an Ottolenghi recipe for squash that drizzles butternut batons with an herb oil and dollops them with yogurt, and folding them into a tortilla because why not? I’m dreaming of a winter taco that involves beer braised beef, shaved brussels sprouts, and definitely some radish. Maybe a horseradish crema of some sort. On the sweet side, I’m thinking about cookies studded with dried apricots and white chocolate, and just this morning (well, I guess it will be yesterday morning when this goes live) I thought about how lovely a thick, densely crumbed chocolate loaf cake – almost fudgy – would be topped with a light frosting, maybe a swiss buttercream or the like, flavored with something unusual. Marmalade, maybe, or ginger. Or tea.

And then of course I have my Chopped Challenge. N. tells me he has the entrée “basket” of ingredients for February worked out, so maybe that’s what I’ll have to share with you next week. Until then, be well, and tell me what you’re loving (or dreaming of) eating!

Photo Essay: Goat House Brewing

Coming back feels like starting over. How do I do this? What do I sound like? Which words should tumble onto the page first? In an article from The New Yorker about language intimacy and its ties to relationship intimacy and communication, Lauren Collins notes that “Bilinguals overwhelmingly report that they feel like different people in different languages. It is often assumed that the mother tongue is the language of the true self. In many ways, it remains the primal vehicle… But, if first languages are reservoirs of emotion, second languages can be rivers undammed, freeing their speakers to ride different currents.”

Though I write and speak in English – it is my first and (aside from garbled, declension-less memories of high school Spanish and college Latin) only language – I have always felt that the spoken and written form of a language might as well be two different tongues (one of which doesn’t require the tongue at all). Thus, though I’ve talked about food consistently during the weeks we’ve been apart, I haven’t written about it (or about much of anything) at all. You can chalk this up to issues of vacation, politics, heat, social justice, laziness, or good old writer’s block, but the result is the same as a month off from practicing a different language: the water in that pool feels cold, and awkward, and heavy. This is why, for my students, coming back even after the summer makes writing feel ungainly and foreign – it is. It’s another language. It’s hard to float when you’ve spent a month on the solid ground you knew first.

So instead of plunging, I’m coming in from the shallow end, a few steps at a time. More recipes to come, I promise; there are only a few weeks before school starts and I want to have a good back-log to keep us going, plus there’s that whole 2016 blog challenge I took on in January that I’m doing so well with… But for today, as my first step back into the pool, I want to offer you something different.

Part one of our vacation was a visit with N’s parents. They live in northern California, in the same town he grew up in. This town, its sleepy rural character disrupted only by railroad and pottery booms, is now a distant outskirt to Sacramento and decidedly in the “suburb” category, boasting itself as an All-America City with wood-planked “downtown” area and well-marked signage advertising the “Wine Trail” in the outer reaches of the city.

When we first started visiting N’s parents there as a couple, every time we drove through town he would remark on something that had changed. Family grocers became Walmart. Undeveloped fields became track housing. He’s now able, thanks to the number of new roads, to get lost in the city he grew up in.

The one area of the sleepy old town that remains is where N’s grandmother lives: on an old ranch house a ways outside the center of town. We visit her when we make the pilgrimage through, and the last few times we’ve noticed signs for a relative newcomer to the scene: Goat House Brewing.

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Brewery’s sign from the road

Around since late 2013, Goat House is the epitome of local. Their taproom is a converted barn. They grow their own hops – about 20 varieties – which they use in their brews. They experiment and collaborate and incorporate hometown ingredients – hop honey from their own vines in a light honey ale, Valencia oranges from their orchard in a Belgian, and an interesting wine-beer blend using a red wine made less than three miles away. It’s a very vertical, rather than horizontal, business plan – there is no sense that Goat House wants to stretch outward, only that they want to work closely and deeply with what is nearby. Because they are only open four days a week, until this recent visit we hadn’t had a chance to stop by.

Logo inside the barn

Logo inside the barn

This particular day, we spent an hour or so with N’s grandmother, listening as she coasted through stories about far-flung relatives and trying together to work out how the slim, distant branches of the family tree weave together. As we headed out to the car, we’d already decided to stop at Goat House Brewing on the way home. After receiving a friendly, detailed run through the tap offerings, we selected our first pours and settled in on the picnic style tables made from wood salvaged from an old stadium in San Francisco. It was in the mid-90s, but there was a breeze blowing through the barn’s wide open doors on either side, and we spent a comfortable hour or so sampling and enjoying this little sparkle at the end of a dusty drive.

Growlers ready to be filled

Growlers ready to be filled

So here are some glimpses of Goat House Brewing, a place we’re already planning to return to when we next pass through N’s hometown, to try new flavors, to chat with the owners, to see Rory the donkey and Georgia the dog; to carve out a space of familiarity in this new-old city.

Hop vines awaiting a harvest

Hop vines awaiting a harvest

Hide and seek goat!

Hide and seek goat!

Georgia, the brewhouse dog

Georgia, the brewhouse dog

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“Baciami Prima” (“kiss me first”) – intriguing wine-beer blend. All the mustiness of a wine cellar and all the funk of a Belgian in one deep purple pour.

A “Dark Side” (left – their stout: creamy and roasty with hints of coffee and chocolate) and a “Row Hoe” (right – a red ale on nitro that I didn’t taste)

foam trails from the Dark Side

foam trails from the Dark Side

A brewery and taproom called Goat House better have some goats, and indeed they are right out back behind the barn (along with Rory the donkey, who helps keep them safe)

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See you next week, when I hope my treading water in this form of my language will have smoothed, with the application of both kitchen and keyboard, into more practiced strokes.

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Project Sauce Conclusion: Classic Béarnaise

As the culminating entry in this sauce project, where else could we end up but drowning in butter? I realize it’s after Christmas, which means you might balk at this, but it’s not January just yet, which I think means it’s safe to endure one more indulgence before we resign ourselves to a month or three of crisp winter salads, pickled vegetables, and herb soups (actually, all of that sounds pretty good… maybe I’m just hungry).

Food Blog December 2014-0989But before we get to all that, reflections are in order. As the Parson in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales promises in introducing his sermon, it is time to “knit up all this feast and make an end.” This is a meal of endings. The month is almost over, and the year is fast on its way out after that. Even my camera battery decided to go with the theme, running out of juice mere moments after I snapped the top photo.

Food Blog December 2014-0978I chose sauce as the subject for this year’s project because I knew only basics about it. It struck me as mysterious – puddled round or gently but surely emulsified over various restaurant and food-TV displayed dishes, deeply flavored and succulent, providing a link between the otherwise fractured components on the plate. I was acquainted with some – the kind of softly thickened, creamy concoctions resulting from a roux – but terrified of others – hollandaise and mayonnaise and this final entry, béarnaise, seemed outside the arsenal of an ordinary home kitchen. Why else would eggs benedict always cost so much on a brunch menu? Yet they weren’t as frightening as I’d expected. In fact, despite being prepared to make multiple versions of each and frantically fix broken or greasy sauces, I had little trouble. And as I wound my way through the project, some lessons became clear:

1.) Butter is king. Though there are some recipes that rely on simple reduction as their method for producing thick, glossy pours, most require fat to add shine and to help emulsify, and because so many of these classic sauces are French in origin, there is no other fat even under consideration besides butter. It makes sense, too. Bringing a sauce together frequently requires emulsification, which means suspending together insoluble droplets together to thicken the liquid. Whole butter is a combination of fat and water, which means as it sits there all innocent and golden in that paper-wrapped stick, it is already an emulsion all on its own. If you’re going to work with sauces, be prepared to go through a lot of butter. Just remember you’re usually making enough sauce for a crowd, so it’s not quite like you’re chowing down on that whole stick all by yourself…

Food Blog December 2014-09822.) There are three main methods of thickening: eggs, flour or starch, or reducing. The eggs help thicken the sauce because they cook, transforming from a viscous goop into supernatural, temperamental velvet. The flour and starch work by expanding as they heat in the liquid you whisk them fervently into – they swell and absorb and, if you’re assiduous in your stirring, result in an evenly thickened mixture, not a soup full of doughy clumps. Saving these, however, the simplest method of thickening is reducing. Since in most cases a sauce is a pot of liquid suspended over heat, enough simmering is going to result in loss of water, and the more water evaporates from the pot, the less there is left in the sauce. Evaporation, though, takes time, which leads me to lesson three.

3.) Don’t rush. While these sauces are not particularly difficult to make, they do take time. Bringing a pot full of liquid even to a light simmer takes a while, and if you want a thick, glossy reduction in less than five minutes, you’re going to be disappointed. Much of the rich savoriness achieved by something like a veloute or a barbecue sauce comes from simmering away the water in your mixture to concentrate the flavors. As for the egg-based incarnations, mayonnaise just doesn’t come together in an instant. Be prepared for the long haul before you can spread it on that sandwich.

Food Blog December 2014-09854.) Get ready to stir. While we’re considering the long haul, it’s not enough to just throw a pot of sauce on the stove and walk away for a while. In almost every case, a successful sauce is the result of determined and consistent whisking for long minutes at a time. Eggs scramble, flour lumps, and milk curdles if left unattended. Since the objective of sauce is a smooth texture, be prepared for the stirring this requires. Relatedly, this also means having your ingredients pretty much prepped before starting the process – there’s just not time to finely mince a shallot at the same time you’re vigorously stirring a pot of slowly expanding egg yolks.

5.) Carnivore-friendly. Vinaigrettes and dessert offerings excepted, most of these sauces to seem to be intended for consumption with flesh of some sort, whether that be fowl, fish, or four-footed. Some are based around meat broths or stocks, while others just classically pair with specific cuts. This month’s offering, for example, is a classic steak-house luxury. I suppose this is reflective of an era in which meat is the focal point of a meal. But we found that, far from a necessity, many of these sauces are just as enjoyable puddled over a pile of lightly steamed vegetables or roasty starches. Because really, a thick emulsion of butter and egg yolks should be poured over almost anything, as far as I’m concerned.

So let’s get to that whole butter and egg yolks thing, shall we? As sauces go, béarnaise is not so different from last month’s beurre blanc. In fact, as restaurant legend goes, beurre blanc was an accident, created by a chef who was intending to make béarnaise, but forgot to add the egg yolks. That tells you much of what you need to know about this fluffy, decadent concoction. Reduced wine and vinegar, some aromatics, egg yolks tenderly and assiduously whisked like a hollandaise, and then an embarrassing amount of melted butter carefully dribbled in. It emulsifies into a pale, almost foamy lemon-colored sauce that is a bit strong on its own, but utterly lovely enrobing everything from red meat to barely blanched green beans.

Food Blog December 2014-0986I wasn’t sure I would love béarnaise sauce at first, because in order to be a classic béarnaise, it has to be flavored with a hefty note of tarragon, an herb with lush, pointed leaves redolent of that most repulsive of flavors: black licorice. The anise-y taste it imparts in its dried form exiles it from my spice cabinet, and I was worried that stirring a whopping three tablespoons of it into my sauce would render it inedible. Surprisingly though, despite the strong aroma, the final flavor is delicate and inoffensive. It’s noticeable, yes, but in the final product it’s just an herby freshness not so different from basil.

Because this was sort of an occasion, being the final sauce and all that, we decided to make it celebratory and eat béarnaise with its classic pairing. In addition to the crisp-tender green beans and smashed potatoes, we inhaled thick slices of seared chateaubriand, a thick cut from the tenderloin similar to filet mignon. Over this, the béarnaise dribbles and foams and mixes, and the richness is decadent and heroic, and we didn’t lay our forks down until every molecule of food was gone from those plates.
I hope you are enjoying the holiday season. Project Sauce may be over, but with New Year’s Eve just around the corner, there is one more sort of sauce I think you should consider. And in this case, you don’t even have to make it. You just have to hit it. And then let someone else take you home and tuck you in. Happy New Year, friends. I can’t wait to tell you about the project for 2015.

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Pretty Classic Sauce Béarnaise
Makes a little over 1 cup
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick; 4 ounces)
1 shallot, minced (1/4 cup?)
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons finely chopped tarragon leaves, divided
1 teaspoon crushed peppercorns
3 egg yolks
salt to taste
  • In a small pot, melt the butter, skimming off and discarding the bubbly scum that forms at the surface.
  • Meanwhile, simmer the wine, vinegar, peppercorns, shallots, and 2 tablespoons of the tarragon leaves until only a tablespoon of the liquid remains. Strain into a glass or metal bowl and let cool for a minute or two.
  • Set the bowl over a pot half full of water and begin warming it up over medium heat. Before it has a chance to heat up much, add the three egg yolks to the bowl with the wine mixture and whisk vigorously. Continue to whisk as the water comes to a bare simmer.
  • Continue whisking the yolk mixture until it is doubled – about 5 minutes. It will become pale and fluffy.
  • When yolk mixture has doubled, turn the heat down to low and begin dribbling in the melted butter a few drops at a time. If the mixture begins to look curdled or really shiny, remove from the heat for a minute, whisking constantly. This will slow down the speed at which the eggs cook. If you’re really nervous about it, add about a teaspoon of water and whisk vigorously to bring things back together.
  • Continue whisking and dribbling in the melted butter, on and off the heat, until all the butter is added and the sauce is thick. Add the final tablespoon of chopped tarragon, season to taste with salt, and set aside in a warm spot until ready to serve – a thermos works very nicely.