Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Portland Waffles

In case you're in Portland and craving a waffle, here's a link to my story on

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Our Daily Bread

I don’t really need to be reminded how important bread is. For me, it’s a mainstay—probably the last food I’d give up. I also realize how precious it is; lately I’ve even taken to wiping the crumbs off the bread board and putting them in a bag in the freezer, saving them for a future rhubarb betty and to sprinkle on pasta.

I’m particularly lucky, since I live in Portland, home to a few fine bakeries. My favorite is Ken’s Artisan Bakery, where a few times a week I go for my 1.5 kg country brown loaf. This morning I walked up to find they were closed. They’d had a fire last night—luckily, a passerby (at 2 AM!) alerted the firefighters, and more serious damage was averted—apparently it was close to getting into the rafters, which would have been disastrous. Ken’s hopes to be selling bread again by the end of the week, maybe pastries as soon as this afternoon.

When you hear about something awful happening to a family, you give your kids an extra hug. This fire does a similar thing to me. As I said, I didn’t need the reminder of how important bakeries are—but I got one. What if the fire had destroyed the bakery? I’ll give my kids an extra hug (they’re going to miss their breakfast toast the next couple mornings!), but I’ll also give local bakeries some extra business. And when Ken’s is up and running, I’ll just have to drop in a couple extra times over the next few weeks…for some canneles, or one of their upside-down cakes.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Panettone in our Pantry, or, Christmas in April

I recently came into a small fortune: six panettones. Traditionally eaten at Christmas, the fluffy bread is made from an egg-rich dough studded with candied peel, citron, and raisins. When I was a kid, we had panettone every Christmas morning--it made the wait for gifts (not before breakfast!) much more palatable. A few years back I was in Italy around New Years, and all the cafes and hotels were serving it. I imagine they had to use up their Christmas supply. My favorite was the dessert I had in Venice: a chunk of panettone with zabaglione poured on top.

I suppose there are plenty of people who dislike it, and would consider my good fortune anything but. For some people, the presence of candied fruit or peel--no matter how well-made--is a deal breaker. Why, I even understand that there are people who hate fruitcake (that's food for thought on another post)!

I feel quite differently. If I were to make my own list of the wonders of the world, panettone would be there (it's a long list, the world is full of wonders). It's a wonder because it seems never to spoil, and yet it has no preservatives. Carol Field, in her book The Italian Baker suggests this is due to the natural yeast used in its production.

Whatever the reason, a well-made panettone in your pantry is a fine thing indeed. Just knowing that I have it there, ready to pull out for a Sunday morning breakfast with friends, or to accompany tea when someone drops by, makes me happy. Never mind that I will most likely eat through this (and Pavel will help) in the next couple weeks.

We'd planned all sorts of accomplishments for the weekend, not least getting the garden weeded and finally planted (I'm sure we're the last people in Portland to plant). The panettone has derailed us. As I said to our panettone benefactor yesterday, "We don't have time to go to the farmer's market today...we have a lot of panettone to eat."

One down, five to go (one's already in the pantry, I swear!)...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Glass Half Empty

When I was 11, my parents came back from a trip to Italy with a jar of marbled hazelnut and chocolate spread. Some form of gianduja, ribbons of light cream color and a darker chocolate color waved from inside the jar.

My parents put that jar away on the 'too good to use' shelf. Actually, the shelf had 'too good to use' foods as well as 'too bizarre to use' foods (such as the can of kangaroo soup from my uncle in Australia).

For a couple of months I considered that jar. When no one was around, I pulled the shelf out, looked at the jar, and wondered when my parents would open it. It didn't occur to me to ask them. Finally, one day, I couldn't take it anymore, and I opened the jar. I had just one spoonful. It was heaven--smooth, sweet, nutty, competely satisfying.

The next day I tried another spoonful. And then I realized something. The jar still looked full from the outside. Once I knew that, I was powerless. Each day I took a spoonful, carefully avoiding scraping the sides of the jar. After a couple of weeks, the jar was effectively empty. But it still looked full. This led to the most guilt-laden period of my life. I knew it was only a matter of time before I'd be caught. And how I wanted to start in on the last bit of gianduja clinging to the sides of the jar!

Funny thing, I don't remember what happened. Either it was tremendously anti-climactic (perhaps my parents took pity on me), or completely traumatizing (and is my excuse for any poor behavior in my present life).

The other night, Pavel cleverly mentioned how much he loves chocolate hazelnut spreads to the right person. He was rewarded, and came home from dinner with a jar of Nocciolata, an organic chocolate hazelnut spread. I learned that I'm not the only person to figure out how to demolish a jar and have it still look full--Pavel did the same.

I can't say I was surprised. A few years back the same good friend gave me a 25-lb bucket of marzipan. I was overwhelmed, and let it sit for a few weeks, trying to decide how to put all that marzipan to good use. When I'd finally decided, I went to the closet for the bucket. It was surprisingly light--until I saw how little was left inside, and had to admit its heft matched the scant amount of marzipan remaining. Turned out that while I might have needed time to figure out 'good use' of marzipan, Pavel had no such trouble. He immediately saw that the best use possible involved him, a spoon, and a nightly visit.

Back to gianduja. It's always seemed odd to me that I haven't seen jars of the stuff in Portland. I mean, Oregon is hazelnut country, and we have plenty of chocolate shops (Alma, Cacao, Sahagun). Perhaps I've just been lazy. Note to self: Visit local chocolatiers weekly.

Last week I heard that Sahagun's gianduja (which up until then I thought was only sold inside chocolates) was being spread on toast at Ristretto, a local cafe I like.

At my first bite, I was a little unsure. This gianduja was pale in color, and tasted salty. But as it sat on the warm toast, it started to glisten--it seemed to come alive. And the saltiness? That took me less than a second to come around to. The Sahagun gianduja is an Oregon version--a successful local crunchy adaption. (They make it with organic Oregon hazelnuts, Valrhona milk chocolate, and Fleur de Sel.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Stewed Rhubarb

For me, rhubarb is springtime--the cheery color, the invigorating flavor, heck--it even alludes to baseball, describing a fracas (another great word) on the field. And come to think of it, the Red Sox had themselves a rhubarb day before yesterday. It made me miss Red Barber and those Friday morning conversations on NPR all over again. So it's only fair that I get rhubarb tomorrow morning for breakfast.

I like to start most days with a dish of yogurt, preferably Straus (I know, it's not local--but it's so good!) and fruit. And that's a lucky thing. Back in the old days, when I wrote checks at the grocery store (instead of using my debit card), sometimes I had a hard time remembering the date--even the month could escape me for a second or two. My clever trick was to think back to the day's breakfast. "That's right, I had yogurt with strawberries this must be June."

In the winter I rely on preserved, frozen, or dried fruits. If I wasn't lazy last August and September, that means home-canned pears, or applesauce. Sometimes I go with frozen pineapple. If I can remember where I hid the dates from my family, I add a few. Lately I've been eating my morning yogurt with delicately spiced stewed prunes (a favorite).

But this past weekend, one of my favorite shifts of the year happened. There was rhubarb at the store, and just like that, winter was firmly forgotten. The clerk asked (they always do) if I would be making pie with it. Much as I love rhubarb pie, it's not in this rhubarb's future. Instead, it's getting unceremoniously stewed, and stored in the refrigerator for breakfasts.

On the off chance I have to write a check tomorrow, I shouldn't have any trouble. It might be raining out, or even hailing, but I'll know what month it is. I'll remember my morning's yogurt, the slight rough edge the fruit put on my teeth, and the wake-up call its brisk flavor gave me. Rhubarb. April.

I follow--vaguely--Deborah Madison's recipe for stewed rhubarb from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

1-1/2 lb. rhubarb
1/2-2/3 cup sugar
rind and juice of one orange
1 capful of orange blossom water

Cut the rhubarb into approximately 3/4 inch pieces, and combine in a heavy pot with other ingredients. Cook over a low flame until the rhubarb breaks down--about 10 minutes.

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Friday, April 10, 2009


It took a while for me to start a blog because I had to come up with a name first. If I'd written a book, I could have waited until I was done to pick a title. Not with a blog.

So why 'Giovanna's Trifles'? One reason--maybe a big one--is I love custard, leftover cake, and fruit. A few drops of sherry don't hurt. Maybe one of these days, if there's ever any leftover cake around here, I'll make one.

But I also love things that many people would consider inconsequential. Recently I read a wonderful book, So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell. In it, one character summed it up for me: "All little things are nice." Okay, maybe not fleas, or dust mites.

What kind of small things? The small niceties that come up through a day spent in your community. The short conversation with a barista, or with the guy stocking lettuce. The door held for you by a stranger. Or the door you hold for a stranger.

I'm not suggesting local businesses are trifles. Here in Portland they supply most of what I hold near and dear (coffee, books, bread, and chocolate). But they also supply me with many intangibles, the ones that I think make life such a pleasure.

So I was excited to hear about the 3/50 program over on the blog, Reading Local. Money spent at local businesses stays in the local economy at a greater rate than money spent in chain stores. Why not put your dollar to local use? The idea is pretty simple. Pick three local businesses and pledge to spend $50 each month at the three. That's $50 in total, spread across the three.

I gave it a little thought (not too much, remember, I like trifles!), and figured it would be lame to pick a cafe (since we all know I'm not stopping going there anytime soon). I decided to go with 3 business within walking distance of my home, businesses that I would hate to see go. They are:
  1. Twisted My local yarn store, owned by two warm, generous, and truly nice young women.
  2. Broadway Books I can't imagine what would become of our neighborhood without our local bookstore.
  3. Foster and Dobbs My neighborhood fancy food shop--cheese, bread, salami, good tonic water... you get the idea. Some might consider it a splurge, but why not have a delicious piece of cheese with a salad for dinner? I bet it's cheaper than a fast food meal. I just wish Foster and Dobbs sold lettuce for salad...
I hope you'll all consider joining in--and I'd love to hear about your choices. Here's one, Jaya at Knitsarina.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Bergamot and Gin

It's a dilemma. On the one hand, I don't want you to think that all I do is sit around and drink. Because really I don't. But on the other hand, I've been swamped this week, and telling you about my drink might be all I get around to.

A martini is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you're looking for a headache remedy. The fact is, I'd had a headache for two days, and it didn't look as if it was going to improve no matter what good living I undertook. So I figured, if I can't beat it, join it.

I have a couple of bottles of vin de bergamots in my fridge. You know how you end up with odds and ends of Christmas gift liquors? This is one I'm very happy to have. It's basically a fortified aperitif wine made from white wine, vodka, and bergamots. My sister gave me two bottles this past Christmas. I think she made it after a recipe for Vin de Pamplemousse that's in Chez Panisse Fruit.

Last week, while I was visiting her in California on a sunny evening, I enjoyed some with soda water and a twist. She mentioned that it would probably make a nice martini. Dutiful younger sister that I am, I went ahead and tried it nearly as soon as I could. It helped that I was back in Portland and the sun was gone. Grey days seem more like martini weather, don't you think?

It's pretty basic. Three parts Junipero gin (I'm hoarding a bottle I got as a birthday gift from my parents--Oregon liquor supply laws verge on draconian) and 1 part vin de bergamots. (I wonder if Michael Ruhlman's new book, Ratio goes into martini ratios?) Shaken and poured up over a meyer lemon twist. Delicious--slightly bitter, a little herbal, and very satisfying.

Sometimes when you do the twist (twist the twist? cut the twist? I like do the twist--a good dance move for preparing to shake a martini) it's amazing how long a piece you can get. This was one of those times--I finally stopped after 3 circuits around the lemon. It curled up nicely in my glass.

And my headache? It was gone when I woke up the next morning. I'm not suggesting the martini cured it, but it certainly didn't hurt!

Oh--and if you're thinking ahead for next Christmas, here's the Vin de Pamplemousse recipe.

Vin de Pamplemousse
adapted from Chez Panisse Fruit
makes 5 liters

2 white grapefruit
4 Ruby Red grapefruit
3 Meyer lemons, or 2 sweet oranges
1 piece vanilla bean, 2-inch, split lengthwise
4-1/2 liters crisp white wine
3/4 liters 80-proof vodka
1-3/4 c. sugar

  • Wash all fruit and slice into 1/2-inch-thick rounds.
  • Combine all the ingredients in a nonreactive container and stir to dissolve the sugar.
  • Cover and store in a cool, dark place or the refrigerator. Stir it and taste it weekly. You might want to add more sugar it it is too bitter for your taste, or add more fruit and wine if it's too sweet.
  • After 1 month, strain and discard the solids.
  • Let the aperitif sit covered and undisturbed for a couple of days to allow the cloudy bits to settle.
  • Carefully strain through several layers of cheesecloth, but stop when you get to the cloudy parts.
  • Repeat the straining as needed--until it's as clear as you require. (I don't know how big a perfectionist you are!)
  • Bottle in clean wine bottles and cork tightly. It will keep several months at cellar temperature, longer if refrigerated.
If she's reading this, maybe my sister will mention what fruits she used?

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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Bourbon and Blue Gardenia

Pavel and I are easily swayed. About a third of the way into The Blue Gardenia, somewhere after her sixth (!) Polynesian Pearl Diver, Norah was passed out on the floor, with the ceiling spinning above her.

"We probably ought to have a drink," one of us said.
"Good idea," said the other, "but not a Polynesian Pearl Diver."

I remembered reading over on The Dinner Files about marmalade bourbon sours. They seemed like a good idea. We had an open jar of bergamot marmalade in our refrigerator, thanks to my mom dad. I muddled a couple tablespoons of it with the same amount of meyer lemon juice, and then added 5 tablespoons of bourbon. Poured over some ice and an amarena cherry it made a delicious drink. Oh--you'll need a spoon or pick, to pull out all the bits of bergamot peel.

Norah had a heck of a hangover the next day, and that pesky problem of wondering if she'd killed a guy in her drunken stupor. Pavel and I are not expecting any such consequences (though maybe someone should call and check on us)--we're getting up early for breakfast at Simpatica Dining Hall.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Eating on Amtrak

I love taking the train, especially for the reason most people hate it: it takes a long time. Last fall I took the train from Oregon to Boston, and back again. The trip took three days each way. Six whole days to sit and read books, looking up now and again to gaze out the window at the passing landscape. And six days to be relatively incommunicado.

But like most people, I don't like the food. I always think I'll have one meal in the dining car--how pleasant it would be to sit at the tables, sharing a meal with new people. But I never do--it's just too expensive for what it is.

This wasn't always the case. I was a young teenager the first time I took the train. I was traveling with my cousin, and we explored the train thoroughly, even falling into the kitchen (the door latch was loose) one morning. There were 3 or 4 cooks, working the stoves surrounded by a wall of shiny cupboards and refrigerator doors. The only place I've seen since that's remotely similar is the Camelia Grill in New Orleans. Same metal locker-like cupboards, same competent cooks hard at work, same basic good food.

Since the romance of train travel doesn't quite extend to mealtime, I've devised my own ways around the problem. Last fall it required a fairly intricate system, including a delicious mid-journey dinner at Chicago's Frontera Grill. For this trip, it was easier. After all, as long as you're not too delayed (only 3 hours this time!), you only need one dinner and one breakfast.

The train leaves Portland at 2:30 in the afternoon, and arrives in Emeryville (theoretically) at 8 in the morning. I like to start my trip with a lunch out in Portland. The train station in Portland is within walking distance of a number of good options. This time we went to Clyde Common, for a big salad of chicories and endive with a poached egg on top. But before lunch, we did our bakery runs.

It amuses me that I have to go to two bakeries to prepare. At Ken's we got our supper: two buttered baguette sandwiches with ham and asiago. With some carrots from the farmers market it was a near perfect meal. At Pearl Bakery I got some gibassiers (another member of my Portland Food List--one of these days there will be a page for them) for breakfast. We also got a fig cookie (cucidata-another food list member) and a cinnamon shortbread for dessert.


Of course you also need to prepare a bit ahead. I always pack a bag of almonds (you can live off those for days!), some dried fruit (prunes this time), carrots, tangerines, a couple bananas, and a couple chocolate bars (Theo's cherry and almond and Chocolove's ginger bar).

My return trip was pretty similar. Because my parents live outside Healdsburg and my sister-in-law lives a block from the Ferry Building in San Francisco, it's just as easy to gather food as it is in Portland.

At the Downtown Bakery in Healdsburg I picked up some assorted cookies (for afternoon tea) and hot cross buns for breakfast. In the Ferry Building I stopped at Boccalone Salumeria, Frog Hollow Farm and Acme Bread--for soppressata, mortadella, dried nectarines, bread, and a couple spare hot-cross buns. You never know when one will come in handy.

One final bit of prep. I always tuck a couple cloth napkins into my food bag. My parents taught me this trick, not that it's the kind that is hard to figure out. They also brought these cheery red napkins to me from the Netherlands. Travel with a cloth napkin--it's neater, and makes a snack on the train feel more like a meal.

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