Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bi-Rite Creamery

Ice Cream at Bi-Rite
I had ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery twice when I was in San Francisco last month (not bad since I didn’t even go the only full day I was in town!).  If I had been on my own—with no one to see me, no need to defend my actions—I would have visited Bi-Rite twice a day.
Bi Rite Ice Cream
Sorry about the blurry picture. I was excited.
Because it’s that good.  Bi-Rite’s ice cream is made with Straus organic milk, cream, and eggs.  Bi-Rites flavorings and ingredients are local and delicious: Ritual Roasters coffee and lavender from nearby Mint Hill (named after the U.S. Mint building, not shade-loving herbs for juleps) are just two examples.  And the people who work there are friendly (though, seriously, why would mean people sell ice cream?).
Bi-Rite Flavors
I think what makes them especially good, though, is balance.  Bi-Rite’s flavors, such as the salted caramel, orange cardamom, and brown sugar with ginger caramel swirl, achieve perfect balance.  Each flavor comes through, its presence necessary but never overpowering.  Like good friends at a party—each has plenty to say, but still listens to his friends.

The flavors.  Over our two visits we tried salted caramel, honey lavender, orange cardamom, brown butter pecan, brown sugar with ginger caramel, and malted vanilla with peanut brittle and milk chocolate pieces.  Don’t ask which was my favorite; I couldn’t say (it might be easier to pick a favorite child, and that’s impossible--especially in print).

[A Portland shop with the same pitch perfect palate is Alma Chocolates—their Rosewater Caramels, Thai Peanut Butter Cups, and Earl Grey Caramel sauce are just three examples]

Our second visit to Bi-Rite was late Friday afternoon.  Pavel and I were squeezing two scoops of ice cream in before dinner with his family (the shame!).  We managed to park just a block away (that should have been our first hint of trouble).  We got our ice cream, ate it lovingly, and stepped into the Bi-Rite Market for a bottle of wine to take to dinner.
Parking at Bi-Rite
We stepped out, and our car was gone.  Towed. I asked the parking guy where the sign was, and he looked up from his task (supervising another poor person’s car being towed), turned slightly, and pointed right above me.  “Right there, sweetheart.”

cropped parking
Not much I could say to that.  We grabbed a taxi and got to the car retrieval site right behind our car.  A woman sitting behind bullet-proof glass smiled and gave us our bill: $330 for the towing fee and ‘San Francisco Administrative Fee’.  When we got to the car it had a $70 fine stuck to the windshield.

And then we returned to the site of the crime, to take a photo.  How could we both have missed the sign?  Clearly it wasn’t visible.

obscured parking sign
The trees did block the sign somewhat.    But what San Francisco didn't think of was that while the trees might have obscured the sign, Bi-Rite Creamery blinded us.  Because while the above picture is about what it looked like (according to photos), what we saw was more like this:

ice cream parking copy
Who am I kidding.  This is what Pavel and I saw:

Parking at Bi-Rite
I felt bad that I didn’t get a better picture of Bi-Rite's ice cream.  We thought about getting one more scoop, just for the sake of you readers, but we were late for dinner.  And I didn’t want to push my parking luck.
The Moral of the Story
$406 is a lot of money for ice cream.  I would have balked at paying that for two dishes.  But am I sorry we stopped in at Bi-Rite? Not on your life.  I’d go back in a flash.  But maybe next time I’ll take a cab.

Bi-Rite Creamery

3692 18th St (at Dolores)
San Francisco, CA

Monday, February 22, 2010

Oven-Baked Polenta

Pouring Polenta
Polenta’s been in the food news recently.  Mark Bittman’s 'Taking the Fear out of Polenta” showed up on February 12.  A few days later, Russ Parsons’ ‘Easy, Fast Polenta that doesn’t Skimp on Flavor'’ was on the L.A. Times site.  I’m happy that so many readers will be keeping warm with polenta dinners.

Parson’s column grabbed me for two reasons.  The first was nostalgia.  He mentions a Cesare Pavese book, The Moon and the Bonfires, about a Piemontese man returning to Italy after living in California for twenty years.  The book’s been sitting on my shelf for a year or so—it’s time to take it down.
Polenta Nostalgia
My grandfather came from Chiomonte, a small village in Piemonte, a part of Italy that likes its polenta.  Perhaps because of this we often ate polenta while I was young (no one else I knew had polenta for dinner).  My mother cooked it in a battered copper pot, stirring until the polenta pulled away from the sides, leaving a papery film behind, which always fascinated me.

Polenta 02
We bought bags of Golden Pheasant polenta, with the picture of a red and yellow pheasant lifting off from a field.  It was good, local, (from San Francisco), and probably one of the only ways to get polenta then.  We didn’t have bulk aisles in many grocery stores, or today’s wide availability of products like those from Bob’s Red Mill, or imports from Mulino Marino and Moretti (no connection to Moretti beer, which I have a soft spot for, because the man on the bottle looks like my other—non-Italian—grandfather).

The second reason Parsons polenta article spoke to me?  Because he wrote about baking it in the oven, my favorite way to cook polenta.
Polenta 07
When polenta’s popularity began to grow here, so did people’s interest in an ‘easier’ cooking method.  Tubes of cooked polenta showed up in markets.  An Italian relative even showed us her ‘easy’ method of cooking polenta in the microwave (it was kind of lumpy and required nearly as much attention as the stove-top method).

[A note on the question of ease in making stove-top polenta: it was never difficult—it took time, but no particular skill]

Polenta 05
Baking Polenta
About ten years ago, a friend gave me Paula Wolfert’s book, Mediterranean Grains and Greens , and I found a new-to-me method of cooking polenta.  The surprise was that the recipe had been right on the Golden Pheasant polenta bag all along.

The method isn’t quick to the table; it takes 1-1/2 hours to bake enough for 6 people.  But it only takes about five minutes of active time: four to combine the ingredients, and one to stir the polenta ten minutes before it’s finished.  And I like the subtle toasted flavor the oven-baking imparts to the polenta.

Baked Polenta 10
Oven-baked polenta is a great way to get dinner on the table fast—you can use the spare time to make sauces and a salad.  Or read with your kid.  Or have a drink with your sweetheart.  Or fold laundry and go through the mail.

Baked Polenta 4a
Polenta Serving Ideas
If you’re really in a rush, skip the sauce.  Pick up a nice piece of Taleggio (or Fontina) cheese at the store.  While the polenta bakes, slowly caramelize some onions (they don’t need much attention either) and make a salad.  Once the polenta is done, lay cheese slices on top of the polenta along with the onions.  This is the kind of dinner that fills you in every way.

Follow this link for the Oven-Baked Polenta Recipe.

Baked Polenta 2

Oven-Baked Polenta Recipe

Baked Polenta 6
Adapted from Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Grains and Greens
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups polenta
  • 7-10 cups water*
  • 2 teaspoons salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a shallow pan (lots of of leeway here—I use a 9x13 Le Creuset casserole, but you could use a deeper pan, or a cast-iron frying pan…). 
Combine the oil, polenta, water, and salt in the pan; stir with a fork.  Don’t worry when it separates immediately—it will come together in the oven.

Bake uncovered for 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Stir the polenta with a fork, add more salt if desired, and return to the oven for 10 more minutes.
That’s it.

*About the water.  If you want a very firm polenta, use less water.  For a soft polenta, use more.  I find that even the softer polenta is firm enough to slice the next day.

One last note. If you want to make less, you simply halve the recipe and bake 45 minutes, stir, then return to the oven for 10 more minutes.  This is useful—when I want to make the larger amount, but don’t have time, I just make two half recipes and bake them side by side.  Less time baking equals less energy usage, also a good thing!

Print Oven-Baked Polenta as text only

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ramos Gin Fizz at New Orlean’s Roosevelt Hotel

New Orlean's Roosevelt Hotel
Our first stop when we arrived in New Orleans on a Saturday morning was the Roosevelt Hotel.  This wasn’t because we were staying there.  We made this important stop because the Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel is home to the Ramos Gin Fizz, which is one of my very favorite cocktails (despite its lack of bourbon!).
Ramos Gin Fizz at the Roosevelt Hotel
A fizz is a cocktail with soda water and acidic juice (generally from a citrus); a silver fizz has the addition of an egg white.  The Ramos Gin Fizz is a silver fizz made with gin, lemon and lime juice, an egg white, a little sweetener (simple syrup or confectioner's sugar), cream, and most importantly, some orange flower water.
 Sazerac Bar
The Roosevelt is  a stunning hotel.  Built in 1893 (as the Grunewald Hotel), home to ‘the Cave’ (considered the first U.S. nightclub), it was renamed the Roosevelt—after Teddy—by its new owners in 1923.  Huey Long held court with many a Ramos Gin Fizz at the Sazerac Bar while governor (he even imported its bartender to New York once, to teach the NYC Roosevelt’s bartenders the proper way to make the drink).  In the 1960’s the hotel was renamed the Fairmont, and in 2005 Hurricane Katrina shut it down.
Grunewald's 'The Cave'
The Cave at the Grunewald Hotel—glad I didn’t have to dust the stalagmites and stalactites!
Happily, the hotel reopened this past July, restored to all its past glory (that of the Roosevelt Hotel and Sazerac Bar, not the Cave!), complete with four Paul Ninas murals depicting New Orleans life, and a curved bar made from one African walnut tree, begging to be caressed.
   Sazerac Bar Rug
I don’t know about you, but when I travel I’m always prepared with a list of the ‘must see’ spots.  These almost always consist of eating and drinking places: where to find the best ice cream, who has the finest oysters, and, yes, who has the best Ramos Gin Fizz.  Hence our early morning stop (the Ramos Gin Fizz is really a morning drink). Sometimes, though, places look just how I imagine them, but the food doesn’t necessarily deliver as promised.  The Sazerac Bar delivers.
Sazerac Bar Bartender
Bartender with concoctions to celebrate the Saints impending Super Bowl win
Our bartender at the Roosevelt's Sazerac Bar (I know, we should have been drinking Sazeracs, but it was too early in the day for that) strained our fizzes into highball glasses, and set them in front of us. Her vigorous shaking had produced a fizz with an cloud hovering above the glass, like a hat at a wedding.  To my mind, what really makes the drink so great is the orange flower water.

Ramos Gin Fizz continues here...

Ramos Gin Fizz at Roosevelt Hotel Part II

The whole week I was in New Orleans my mind never strayed far from Ramos Gin Fizzes.  While it was still winter back home in Portland (where people were enjoying drifts of perfume from winter-flowering Daphnes), spring had arrived in New Orleans.  And it saw no reason to let me forget.
 Algiers Window
As I wandered through the streets, mainly without any destination in mind, there was always plenty to look at: shotgun houses—some still needing repair—, iron scrollwork on balconies (were no two alike?), and cats sunning themselves on porches. 
Citrus trees were blooming all over town. Often they were hidden behind high walls.  But like the winter-flowering Daphne back in Portland, the citrus trees put out siren scents, their sweetness kept sneaking up on me.  How could I not crave another Ramos Gin Fizz?
One bumpy citrus shows itself
On our last day in town, we made a stop at the Roosevelt Hotel.  I’d tried two other Ramos Gin Fizzes during my wanderings; they just weren’t that good (one tasted uncomfortably close to an Orange Julius).  So even though it’s expensive ($13!), the Ramos Gin Fizz at the Sazerac Bar is the way to go.
Don’t touch my Ramos Gin Fizz!

I'm back in Portland now.   We made a Ramos Gin Fizz once—not bad, but we’ll have to work at it to get up to the Sazerac Bar’s standards. 
Happily, I keep being reminded.  The day before we left New Orleans, I visited Hové Parfumeur, where I sampled their orange flower perfume on my left wrist.  Today, more than two weeks later, I can still detect its lingering scent.  I’ve been marked for life by New Orleans and the Ramos Gin Fizz.

Ramos Gin Fizz Recipes

Monday, February 15, 2010

Blog for Food 2010

blog for food 2
In Portland, eating locally is a joy—we have access to locally grown produce, and locally raised and butchered meats.  Coffee roasters, bakeries and chocolatiers  fill our cups and satisfy our sweet tooths. 

Sadly, many Oregonians are hungry; they aren’t sharing in this abundance.  The Oregon Food Bank works to eliminate hunger, serving all of Oregon as well as Washington’s Clark County.  They work are central to 935 hunger-relief agencies, distributing food through 20 food banks to over 340 food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters.

The Blog for Food campaign runs from February 15th to March 15th, spreading the word through blogs.  The aim is to help the Oregon Food Bank with their mission to feed everyone in Oregon who needs help getting meals.

Please click to donate to the Oregon Food Bank.  Be sure to add ‘blog for food’ in the ‘in honor of’ section of the donation page (the second page of the form). 

Cooking Up a Story has provided a link to Feeding America’s Food Bank Locator page for people outside Oregon who want to support their local food bank. 

As much as we enjoy eating locally, we need to remember that part of that pleasure is remembering our responsibility to help feed locally as well.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

St. Valentine’s Day Dates

Flying Disc Ranch Date Selection
From left to right: Barhi, Derrie, Khadrawi, Zahidi, Ciré

I know it’s corny, but doesn’t everyone want a date on St. Valentine’s Day?  Or maybe even a whole bunch of dates?    When Pavel and I were in California a couple of weeks ago, we had an incredible dinner at Pizzaiolo, in Oakland.  Highlights of the meal included the pork appetizer: cotechino sausage with lentils, ciccioli, pork loin tonnato (all house made); a lemony puntarelle salad, the lightest gnocchi pillows ever, a pizza with nettles and egg, and an affogato with a genius addition: a float of nocino
(you can read more about dinner on my father’s blog).  You’d think we wouldn’t be able to take one more bite.

But we did.  Three bites, I think—of Barhi dates, served after our dessert.  Of Iraqi origin, Barhi dates are barely solid.  You bite through the paper-like skin, and the insides dissolve in your mouth, spilling their sweetness.  You almost feel you shouldn’t eat them in public.

When I was a kid, the only dates you ever saw in stores came in the orange ‘Dromedary’ boxes.  Nowadays there are more types available: dried Deglets and fresh Medjhool are pretty easy to come by.  But I haven’t seen Barhis here in Portland stores.

Dates for Valentines
When we got back to Portland I hit the web, and ended up at Flying Disc Ranch.   They have about 10 types of dates available, and I ordered a selection of five types: Barhi, Derrie, Khadrawi, Zahidi, and Ciré.   Follow this link to read Flying Disc’s date descriptions.  I’ve already marked my calendar for next September, when the Yellow Barhis (semi-ripe, the khalal stage—crunchy like apples) are available for just two months.

End CA to Feb 14 225
The first four types I picked originated in North Africa and the Middle East.  The Ciré is a seedling variety grown at Flying Disc Ranch (in Thermal, CA, by the Salton Sea)—it’s a soft date, with an elusive flavor I finally decided was butterscotch.  Isn’t that a fine idea?

The dates arrived two days later, and I gave them to Pavel this morning, along with a valentine that said ‘Happy Valentines—we should have more dates!’.  I know.  Groan. 

But shouldn’t everyone have more dates? We now have 6-1/2 pounds hidden away in the spare refrigerator.  Our evening coffee gets better and better.

Flying Disc Date Parade

I hope Pavel will share.
Happy Valentine’s Day!

[Sorry about the lack of paragraph breaks in this post's first publication--I was using a new editor, and published too quickly.  I had to run, because Pavel had just given me a date--dinner at The Country Cat.]

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cookbook Learning

Over on Serious Eats, the conversation about 'Learning to Cook' has popped up again.  The question comes from Monica Bhide's post on her blog, A Life of Spice.  In December, Bhide was on Talk of the Nation with Adam Gopnik, discussing his New Yorker piece (November 23, 2009), What's the Recipe?.  The premise of his piece is that you can't learn to cook from a book; following recipes leads to the..."perpetual disappointment of the thing achieved".  Ruth Reichl just weighed in on her blog, here

I have to admit, I have trouble with the basic question.  Learn to cook? Reading comments on Serious Eats, I see people credit a particular book for teaching them to cook.  I can't quite wrap my mind around saying "I learned to cook last month"; to me, learning to cook is a process, one that never really ends.  It's not like learning to drive a stick shift, where there's a clear before (remember the lurches and grinding?) and after (that blessed moment you were stuck at a stop sign on a steep San Francisco hill and didn't bat an eyelash).

Obviously, there's a question of degree.  I can pinpoint the moment I learned a language, that delicious morning when I woke up and realized I'd dreamt in Danish (of course, I have no idea when, exactly, I forgot Danish!).  But how fluent was I in?  How well can you play the piano?  I'm sure there are many people who cook dinner for their families quite ably every day, but can't make puff pastry.  Can they cook?  I'd say so.  And then there are people who only attempt to cook for special occasions, dutifully following complex recipes for a bouillabaisse or cassoulet, but never making a simple supper, or learning to feed their family night after night.  Some of those people, I suspect, haven't really 'learned to cook'.  (Best of all, of course, are the people who do both: their dinner invitations are to be treasured!).

I've already written a piece about my kids learning to cook, Teaching the Kids to Cook, on Culinate.  I think the real question is less about learning to cook than about learning to eat, to taste, and especially to share meals.  And that's started early on in our lives.  So in the end, I suspect what I bring to the reading of a cookbook is fundamentally different from what Gopnik or anyone else would bring to the same book. 

What I hope to take from the book is also different.  Gopnik strikes me as being task-oriented, wanting to replicate a Sacher Torte.  To me, that's not really cooking; rather, it suggests an interest in performing.  Or, as Reichl said on her blog, "Gopnik seems to cook for himself; for him it is an act of wanting. I cook for other people, and to me, cooking is an act of giving."

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Quintessential New Orleans Evening

You start out with a Sazerac.  We had ours at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone.  The bar is, you guessed it, under a carousel canopy.  The bartender performs his magic in the center, and the floor under the stools slowly circumnavigates him.  It takes about three rotations to drink one Sazerac.  In case you were wondering.  Who knows? You could find yourself on Jeopardy one day, with Alex asking just that. 

Sazeracs are often very sweet, too sweet for some.  I'm generally open to any Sazerac, as there's both rye whiskey and some sort of anise flavor going on in the glass.  In New Orleans, they use Herbsaint for the anise flavor.  A few drops of Peychaud's bitters give the drink a garish red glow, and supply some of the sweetness.  Funny, I've never been able to bear the artificial red in Red Velvet Cake, but I find it cheering in a Sazerac. The Carousel Bar's Sazeracs are the less sweet, slightly bitter (some say Herbsaint is more bitter than other absinthe substitutes, such as Pernod), and colder variety--that would be the variety I prefer. 

One time around the bar for ordering and watching the drink being made, three to drink it, one more to linger, and a half turn (a twist?) to settle the tab.  And then we're off to the next obvious site:  Preservation Hall.

We were there just for the last set.  The Saints, as always this week in New Orleans, figured heavily--lyrics incorporated 'who dat', and the bass player sang "Back Home Again in Indiana'--with tongue firmly in cheek. (for those out of the know, when I was in New Orleans week before last the Saints were getting ready to go to the Super Bowl--where they beat the Indianapolis Colts last night).  There was one musician who wasn't credited--odd, since he played the drums, piano, considered blowing the trumpet, and even sang.

He was the trumpet players son.  Between sets he sat on his dad's lap at the piano, first resting his hands on his fathers, and then playing by himself, while his father looked on patiently.

Last stop, Cafe du Monde, for beignets and coffee.  If you walk by the cafe during the day, it's jammed, seemingly only with tourists.  But late at night (they're open 24 hours) there are plenty of seats.  The waiters are lined up in chairs, waiting to take their turns. 


At the table next to us, four college students enjoyed their beignets before heading back to write the inevitable paper on The Great Gatsby.  In another corner, a man napped. A woman waited for customers at the to-go window.


Beneath the tables, the floor was dusted with powdered sugar.

And this was why:

I won't show you a picture of my black sweater after eating all of my three beignets (Pavel thought we should split an order; I held firm), but I bet you can imagine.  At least I didn't sneeze.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Patois: Sunday Brunch

Between Sunday restaurant closures and the Saints-Vikings big game, we knew it would be hard to come by dinner last Sunday. Brunch was an obvious choice.

My father wrote recently about brunch not being his favorite meal; I mainly agree. I like to eat when I wake up, and I wake up early. Of course, in New Orleans you wake up a bit later than usual. Sometimes you don't feel like jumping out of bed right away; perhaps you need to lift yourself a bit more slowly, gently, than normal. And then brunch seems perfectly reasonable.

We'd decided on Patois in Uptown. It was a sunny morning, so a ride on the streetcar followed by a brisk walk was just the ticket. By the time we had done all that, a cocktail seemed perfectly reasonable. Pavel had a 'Lady Marmalade': gin, champagne, and a spoon of marmalade steeping in the bottom of the glass. I had a bloody Mary.  Not so original, but bracing just the same.

Pavel's Lady Marmalade
The restaurant was full of people already celebrating the Saints. The game was hours away, but I never once got the feeling the Saints wouldn't win; New Orleanians were sure of it. There were two birthday parties at adjacent tables--double celebrations for them. People chatted across tables.  A daughter and her elderly father sat in a corner, enjoying their time together.

I was all ready for shrimp and grits. And they were, sadly, out of them.  So there is a problem eating late.  But we just ordered anyway: spinach, frisee, and fried oyster salad; sides of grits and greens; a pork belly, fried green tomato, and egg sandwich.  Shortly after we ordered, the party next to ours was given a friendly admonishment to get their orders in:  "We're closing the kitchen one hour early...we all gotta get drunk before the game."  No problem there--the diners were in a bit of a rush as well, wanting to finish brunch in time for a nap before going to the game.
The waiter brought some barely sweet banana muffins, and similarly subtle cheese popovers. Funny thing. While no one bats an eyelash when you order a drink with your breakfast or brunch (on Sunday or Monday!), you often have to ask for coffee. We didn't this time, figuring, when in New Orleans, drink as the New Orleanians do.

The food arrived, and it was good. The greens, especially. I'm predisposed to like any and all greens, but sometimes they're sweeter than I'd like, or have a bit too much vinegar in them for my taste. These were smoky, barely sweet (perhaps simply from growing through a frost) and had the kind of heat that intrigued, but still let you taste your grits.  That's important.

Pavel and I have an ongoing problem with oysters. I, being from the West Coast, like mine small. Pavel, being Czech, likes them big. Well, maybe it doesn't have to do with his land of origin. Anyway,  I think the oysters in New Orleans are an acquired taste, and I don't have it.  To me they are lackluster.  Maybe if I stayed here longer I'd learn to appreciate them properly.  I just read Sarah Roahen's Gumbo Tales (a good book to read if you're heading to New Orleans and are interested in the food, the people, and just how dependent they are on one another).  Her chapter on oysters suggests exactly that (though she warns that some, like M.F.K.Fisher never acquire the taste).  But then, she also describes needing to restrain "...the tidal wave of seawater cut loose with the first bite."  For me, it was more of a soft lapping at the seashore.

But the fried oysters in the spinach and frisee salad were daintly ones, and we were both happy. Isn't that how a vacation should be?

When it was time for dessert, we split the meyer lemon posset, a type of custard.  Partly just because I like saying 'posset', and never get the chance.  But mainly because it was meyer lemon, and silkiness, and came with (added bonus) crumbly lavender shortbread.

We did a good job eating.  I overheard a woman at the next table, just a few minutes past 1, say "what a nice way to start the day!".  She was right--I felt quite accomplished, and the day was not even half gone.
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