Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dim Sum !

Phyllis and Ed's Kitchen

We enjoyed a fabulous dinner at Phyllis and Ed's home last night, along with their friends Leslie and Peter. We totally enjoyed ourselves.

The evening had an unexpected ending: when we arrived back home, we couldn't open the garage. Then we noticed that everything was dark. All around there were trucks. Our condo was in the middle of a huge electrical project and we had no power. Quite a hunt for flashlights was our next big adventure! And this morning I made "mud" coffee by boiling water with coffee grounds -- after finding some matches to light the stove. Power was restored on schedule just before 8 AM.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Lori's Kitchen

This is the beautiful kitchen of Lori, my personal trainer. She lives out to the east in San Diego.

Roberto's Kitchen

They really make great burritos here!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Indians in San Diego County

San Diego: An Introduction to the Region offers chapters on the geology, geography, history, and people of San Diego, each by an expert in the field.* "The First Residents" by Kenneth R. Martin offers information about the diet of the pre-European native population of the area. Here is a summary of the foods mentioned in that chapter, which I find very interesting.

Acorns, carefully prepared to leech out their toxins, were the staple food. Several species of oak trees provided the acorns, which were shelled, pounded in a mortar, and soaked or buried in the ground. The resulting acorn flour kept well; Indians used clay pots for making the flour into mush.

At least sixty plants were part of the Indians' diet. Yucca, chia seeds, prickly pear fruit, and beans from the mesquite were the most important. Thistles, wild oats, and various other cacti provided food. Several introduced plants -- filaree, wild mustard, watercress, and lamb's quarters -- grew and were used after the arrival of the Europeans. Indians also made medicinal teas.

Meat came principally from rabbits, chased down and caught in nets, or brought down by a throwing-stick. Indian hunters shot mule deer, mountain sheep, and antelope with bows and arrows, and also hunted quail, geese, roadrunners, mice, and other small mammals. To prepare the meat, Indian cooks pulverized the small mammals including the bones, and cooked them in clay pots. Deer and rabbit skins were important for clothing and blankets.

The seashore, marshes, and wetlands provided fish, shellfish, and salt. Indians fished with fiber nets and lines, and used shells to make fishhooks. Abalone, lobster, clams, octopus, and grunion were taken onshore and from canoes made from tule.

Two things strike me. First, the great variety of plant and animal foods and ingenuity of using plant fibers, clay pots, and so on for hunting and storing foods. Second, the extent to which much is no longer available, thanks to the large population now living in the area.

*I am reading the second edition pub. 1984, but plan to obtain the more recent 2004 edition.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Making Tortillas at the Farmers' Market

They looked delicious, but I was only buying fruit and vegetables this morning.


On our first trip to France we learned about yogurt as a mainstream food. Back home in St.Louis, at that time, yogurt was sold only in health food stores -- my introduction was from Miss Morreell, a family friend, who thought it would have some miracle effect. In French student dining halls and cheap restaurants, yogurt -- plain and natural -- was a frequent choice for dessert, served in a little glass bottle, and eaten with sugar. I assumed that it had always been a basic element in the French diet.

When we returned to the US, we moved to Berkeley, where yogurt had also become a normal food. It was packaged in coated paper containers, and came in several flavors such as strawberry and peach. We enjoyed yogurt, which of course became an American staple soon after that. We always fondly remembered the special tart taste of French yogurt in the little glass jars, with still-crunchy sugar added as we ate.

I had no idea of the history of yogurt as a popular food first in France, then in the US, until I read the obituary of a remarkable man, Daniel Carasso, who died last week at the age of 103. Danone was a nickname for Daniel -- used by his father, founder of the Danone group (which owns the US Dannon corporation). The first Carasso yogurt business began in Barcelona in 1919, but Daniel moved to Paris where he began to expand the brand. To my surprise, this was the introduction of yogurt, an eastern Mediterranean dish, into Western Europe.

From the article, Daniel Carasso, a Pioneer of Yogurt, Dies at 103 by William Grimes:
"Mr. Carasso was born in Thessalonika, Greece, where his Sephardic family had settled four centuries earlier after the Jews were driven out of Spain. In 1916 his father took the family back to Spain, where he became disturbed by the high incidence of intestinal disorders, especially among children.

"Isaac Carasso began studying the work of √Člie Metchnikoff, the Russian microbiologist who believed that human life could be extended by introducing lactic-acid bacilli, found in yogurt and sour milk, into the digestive system. Using cultures developed at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, Isaac began producing Danone.

"At the time, yogurt was exotic. Although a traditional food in Greece, the Middle East, southeastern Europe and large parts of Asia, it was known elsewhere only to a small population of health faddists. Early on, Danone was marketed as a health food and sold by prescription through pharmacies. Gradually it found favor as a milk product that did not spoil in the heat.

"In 1923 Daniel Carasso enrolled in business school in Marseille and, the better to understand yogurt, took a training course in bacteriology at the Pasteur Institute.
In time to avoid the war, Carasso moved to New York, where he began to introduce yogurt to Americans. Business took off slowly, but eventually he realized that American preference was for a sweetened version with strawberry jam. His business acumen was obviously a factor as well, since the Danone group is now one of the largest food conglomerates in France.

I'm fascinated by this story. I hope Dannon Yogurt won't mind my displaying their publicity photo.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


These burritos are from Roberto's, a very informal Mexican food place overlooking the salt marsh at Torrey Pines beach. It's a very beautiful location, and the food was really delicious.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Old Town Kitchens, 1890's vintage

In Old Town, San Diego, home kitchens and dining tables, restaurant dining rooms, and a variety of other rooms are on display in several museums and reconstructed houses from the 1890s. This small town -- later swamped by the larger port city -- was one terminus of the Wells Fargo stage coach route that began in St.Louis. The area is also very commercial with many many tourist shops.

Latin American Food

This is Berta's Latin American restaurant near Old Town in San Diego where I had lunch with my friend Phyllis. It's a lovely place with a delightful menu. We shared a "pastel" made of ground meat, raisins, and sweet spice topped with corn meal, and a Spanish chicken stew flavored with saffron. Each one came with a salad.

The Cook

One of the most vivid -- though brief -- characterizations in the novel Night of Many Dreams (also blogged here) was the cook, Foon, who worked for the Hong Kong family at the book's center. Her kitchen always smelled rich and mysterious. Despite rationing during the Japanese occupation in World War II, she managed to provide for them:
"Strange soups and vegetables appeared on the table, made from dry herbs and plants.... It was as if Foon were a magician, creating something out of nothing. And if she was lucky enough to bargain through the black market for a chicken, or a piece of meat, they ate well and never questioned her sources." (p. 25)
Never questioning Foon was a kind of habit of the family. The small pantry where she had a bunk bed to sleep on, and one above with a tiny pile of clothing, were off-limits, though the two daughters Emma and Joan once sneaked a look at her small possessions. When family members were sick or sad, she made nourishing soup or brought them herb tea. She put remarkable dishes on the table for every meal. However, they knew only rumors about her past life, when she had evidently been married to a farmer, perhaps as a second or third wife.

After the family took refuge in Macao, Foon agreed to teach Joan, the older sister to cook. Joan would recite the five great grains of Chinese cooking: "wheat, sesame, barley, beans and rice. Soon she was slicing and frying alongside Foon, learning the small secrets of how to keep crispy chicken moist, or just how long to fry glass shrimp with ginger and garlic." (p. 39)

The girls' social-climbing mother disapproved of Joan's learning to cook, and implicitly of closeness with a servant. But no one seemed to question Foon's status as a member of the family, and she stayed with them throughout the 20 plus years covered by the book. When Emma returned to Hong Kong after 15 years in America, Foon was ready with all her favorite foods.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Lenny ate this beautiful hamburger last night at Barbarella. I had cesar salad and pizza. The pizza was a thin, crisp crust with smoked salmon, capers, and cream cheese spread on it, but the toppings were not warmed, so it was interesting.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

From "The Food of a Younger Land"

"Los Angeles! Where religion turns into thousands of obscure cults, where by street dress men and women merge into a common sex; and where the fine art of eating becomes a pseudo scientific search for a lost vitality hidden in the juice of a raw carrot." (From "Food a la Concentrate in Los Angeles" by Don Dolan, p. 330) "In Webster is found, beside the Delmonico steak, Waldorf Salad, Delmonico Potatoes, Chicken a la King, and Lobster a la Newburg. Like such creations of hotels outside New York as Parkerhouse rolls and Saraoga chips, the New York dishes have become household words. But often they suffer changes which transform them radically from the original hotel creation." (From "Dishes New York City's Hotels Gave America" by Allan Ross MacDougall, p. 36) "The insalata is a light, aromatic salad of lettuce, endive, tomatoes, green peppers, onion -- all tossed in chilled vinegar (usually a wine vinegar) and olive oil, and served from a bowl the sides of which have been rubbed to delicate fragrance with garlic. Contrary to common belief, the cook who prepares a true Italian feed uses that pungent bulb, garlic, with no lavish hand, but with light epicurean artistry...." (From "Italian Feed in Vermont" by Mari Tomasi, p. 54)
I'm really enjoying this book! What strikes me is that however much America's foodways have changed, we seem to have a deep and stable set of beloved tastes that have lasted generations. Kurlansky has made a choice of brief essays about American regional food from the WPA files. These source materials have been untouched in the Library of Congress since the end of 1941, when war stopped the ongoing project and derailed plans for its final edit and publication. In other words, he found a time capsule of fascinating food observations, and made it accessible.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Big Agriculture goes Local

In today's New York Times: an article about big corporations and large-scale farms finding a way to claim that their products -- such as Lay's potato chips -- are "local." The logic seems to be that all crops have to grow somewhere. So they are local -- like "it's five o'clock somewhere."

If tomatoes are canned near the field where they grew, does that make them locally grown? Soon it will mean that. It's the same process that has altered the original meaning of "organic." There may be some good in it. Also a lot of bad.

“You know the locavore phenomenon is having an impact when the corporations begin co-opting it,” is a convincing statement at the end of the article. And:
“The ingenuity of the food manufacturers and marketers never ceases to amaze me,” said Michael Pollan, the author of In Defense of Food and a contributor to The New York Times Magazine. “They can turn any critique into a new way to sell food. You’ve got to hand it to them.”
See: When ‘Local’ Makes It Big by Kim Severson. Photo: cherries at the La Jolla farmers' market.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


This morning for a change I had a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Ordinary coffee.

Next door was an Einstein's Bagels, but it didn't seem nearly as nice a place to sit down. That couldn't account for the difference in lines: the 5 or 6 people ahead of me at Starbucks were all getting coffee to go. So they couldn't have been interested in the seating arrangement.

At one table, two middle-aged women were playing Mah Jong. After a while, I heard a sort of tinkling clatter, as they put away the tiles and left. Mah Jong seems to be experiencing a rebirth. One of the youngish women in my fitness class says she plays with her friends every Tuesday morning, and knows quite a few people who play. I associate Mah Jong with my aunts -- I guess it has skipped a generation and made a comeback.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

California Produce

The farmers' market here demonstrates how much California is still an agricultural powerhouse. Since the last time I was there, soft fruit and many more field vegetables have ripened. Who says there are no seasons here? It's cherry, apricot, peach, artichoke, green bean, and tomato season.

The smaller carrots, with greens still attached, are expensive, but they don't taste anything like pre-cut carrots that have been sitting damply in a plastic sack in the cooler of a supermarket. They are amazing.

Farming and farm people were a central theme in a book of now-forgotten Steinbeck stories I picked up at a book sale. The farmers and other residents of the Salinas valley are colorful characters. Some of the stories are just sketches, like the one where a young girl with a baby is making breakfast in a tent. I wonder what the land where they lived is used for now. Is it still growing food? Or is it all mansions and swimming pools?

California has changed enormously, of course, since Steinbeck's world existed. He writes about Mexicans and non-Mexicans. His demeaning attitude towards the Mexicans is no longer acceptable. I think the whole state is much more open to the many different ethnic communities that have come here since then.

The farmers' market offers a variety of evidence of these communities. Recently I have been reading two blogs about African cooking, so I took some time to talk to the proprietor of the stall "Flavors of East Africa," who comes from Kenya. He makes curries, sambucas, and skewers of spicy meat -- flavors that point to the East Asian spice trade that passes by that way. I asked about palm oil, which has been the subject of some blogs I've been reading recently. He doesn't use it in his food for sale, because it's expensive, but he says it's characteristic of the food there as well as in Ghana, over in West Africa, where the bloggers write about.

As I was standing at the food stand, another customer came up: a man from Senegal. When I asked about food he mentioned fufu, which he said was delicious.He told me that they use a great deal of palm oil -- he had cooked with it last night. He had to go to a Brazilian grocery store for palm oil. Yes, many communities are here.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Kitchen Legends

Bill Buford's Heat is much better than I thought it would be. He describes two food legends: Mario Batali and Dario Cecchini. If I hadn't seen Mario on TV so often that I got tired of him, I would think the book was pure fiction.

Even despite some external evidence, I have a funny feeling that maybe Buford really did invent Dario, the butcher of Panzano, a tiny Tuscan town of 900 people and "two butchers, two cafes, two bars, four family-run food stores..., two restaurants, two hotels, and (uncharacteristically) three bakers." A town of rivalries and loyalties. (p. 220)

Yes, sounds like fiction. Dario was trying "to stop time" and preserve some semi-made-up version of his local culinary past. Somehow Buford manages to relate to figures with a sort of cult status, while at the same time warning the reader of their limitations. And of course he also contributes to their legend just by writing about them.

Buford's apprenticeship as a butcher in Tuscany -- in which he reveals the contradictions in Dario's determination to revive medieval recipes in strange new forms -- is colorful in the extreme. His equally colorful tales of life as a volunteer cook in Mario's kitchen portray both the appeal and the downside of Mario and his legendary personality.

Humor makes the book most enjoyable. For example, the characterization of Tuscan food as very brown:
"The local crostini, for instance, with every available millimeter smeared with chicken liver pate, were a brown food...(Dario once took me to an eleven-course banquet honoring the famous bean of Sorana: beans with veal head, beans with tuna roe, beans with porchetta, beans with shrimp, a torta of beans -- a three-hour celebration of brown on brown, ending with a plate of biscotti and a glass of vin santo, another brownly brown variation.) The soppressata, the sausages, the famous Fiorentina: all brown without so much as a speck of color. ... There was one local pasta, called pici, thick, like giant earthworms, which was similar to a pasta the Etruscans had made, although it was a mystery why it hadn't disappeared along with the rest of their civilization: it was inedible if boiled for less than twenty minutes. It was at least chewable if cooked for longer, when it changed color, not to brown, admittedly, but to beige, although the custom was to dress it with the local ragu, which was very brown: a brown-and-beige food. [And on and on]" (p. 243-244)
Polenta is the subject of an entire chapter. Buford learns to make polenta. He searches for its history and the meaning it has for Italians, he mentions literary and historical references to it, and he describes the kitchen politics around its presence in Mario's restaurant kitchen. All in the context of his own direct, painful experiences. As he stirs a pot of boiling cornmeal, his first experience actually making polenta alone, he explains its chemistry.
"My polenta, meanwhile had changed: it was different to the touch (sticky) and to look at (almost shiny). Starch, which is the principal component of all grains, breaks down at high temperatures... when the granules are then able to bond with water. This was why the water I'd added at the outset needed to be hot: to prevent the temperature from dropping and postponing this stage -- the break-it-down-and-bond-it-back stage. The process is called 'gelatinizing,' when the cereal granules swell and become more wetly viscous. When I'd begun, I'd been stirring the polenta with a whisk with a long handle. But as granules bonded with the water, the polenta expanded and, creeping up the length of the whisk, was encroaching on the handle." (p. 154)
Simultaneously, as he explains the cooking process taking place at the end of his whisk, and as he begins to feel he "had to be in the polenta" -- sort of a zen experience -- he provides a description of the circumstances of this stirring, in an institutional kitchen in Nashville where Mario's staff are preparing a banquet. He also has a long description of a tall Italian chef who was watching him and making him uneasy. I admire Buford's writing skill, which enables him to focus the reader's attention on all of these elements at once.

Into his narrative, Buford manages to weave New York gossip, food chemistry, restaurant kitchen relationships, food prep secrets, how-to lessons on things like kneading pasta, macroeconomics, and even the history of when pasta began to be made with eggs. Did Catherine de Medici really bring every element of Italian Renaissance food from Italy to France, and thus launch French gourmet cooking as we and all our ancestors have recognized it for almost 500 years? Yes. And no. The question weaves through the book along with many other themes, but somehow the book feels like a seamless whole.

"The Food of a Younger Land"

I just heard of this book which is about to be published. I have enjoyed many of Kurlansky's previous books, and so I ordered it. I'm really looking forward to it.

Friday, May 08, 2009

What is basic cooking?

I've been doing basic cooking here in California -- at least, I call it basic. I try to buy the best meat and produce that I can. I've tried and liked the two kinds of chicken that were top-rated in this week's L.A.Times story, one from Whole Foods, one from Trader Joe's. But I just cook basic meat and vegetables.

I shop at the farmer's market sometimes, and sometimes at a very nice little produce stand just outside Trader Joe's. The photos of it highlight the strawberries they've had -- very nice. They have lots of vegetables and other fruit too, even some dried fruit like local apricots. Usually, there are two guys waiting on the customers. They seem to be Mexicans. Many of the selections are labeled as local and pesticide-free. The lemons, for instance, look as if they came from a tree in someone's garden, varying in size and shape quite a lot more than supermarket lemons. The price is 4 for a dollar for small, 2 for a dollar for large. The first cherries of the season -- some not quite perfectly ripe, but very good -- were $3 a pound, quite a contrast to Michigan.

Tonight I think our dinner was basic. We had snow peas, onions, and tomatoes from that produce stand: I stir-fried the onion, then the snow peas, added a little soy sauce, and put in the tomato just long enough to warm it up. Also there was a mango, which wasn't local -- it was from Mexico. True, Mexico is only 30 miles down route 5, but I think the mango had to go a longer distance to get here.

Our meat tonight was chicken breasts from Trader Joe's, which I sliced thin, breaded, and fried. Last night we had lamb chops from TJ and corn on the cob from the produce stand. Another basic dinner we have often is based on salads, or vegetarian pasta made from canned tomatoes.

I haven't ever even assembled and used the numerous food processors that come with the condo. I mainly broil or pan-fry the meat, and sometimes steam the vegetables or stir-fry them like tonight. I roasted the chickens that turned out to be approved by the LA Times (that was a while back -- the condo is equipped with a really nice roasting pan). Last night I cut up the lamb chops, which were quite large, and coated them with really basic bbq sauce out of ketchup, sugar, garlic and a couple other dribbles of stuff.

I love to read about more complicated recipes but I'm just not in the mood to try them. It's not because of a lack of recipes, either -- the web is full of thousands of recipes. And I've bought a number of spices in small packets, which I use in conventional combinations to flavor my basic food. I just don't feel like cooking much, just feel like eating basic vegetables, fruit, and meat.

Basic cooking to me means using basic ingredients and making things very quickly. I find it amusing that there's a cookbook about cooking food from Trader Joe's -- the author was going to appear at the bookstore where it was on display. (An search actually comes up with 2 or 3 such books, maybe including the one I saw, maybe not.) Most Trader Joe's food needs only warming up. Anyway, if you like something from TJ's you better buy 3 because they don't consistently stock any particular item. So following the recipes sounds pretty challenging. And the result might not be very basic.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Respect your chickens

According to the LA Times, today is International Respect for Chickens Day. See

Chickens do good things and today is their day in the political sun

Appropriate celebrations will "highlight the political import of chickens in our world and also how tasty they are." The article is accompanied by an embedded Youtube video of a guy in a chicken suit (with webbed feet, though) doing the Chicken Dance with a guy in a Barney the Dinosaur suit. I haven't seen the Chicken Dance since Alice was in early preschool, where I think they did it every morning. I don't think this is very respectful of chickens.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Sterns

I just read Two for the Road by Jane and Michael Stern, food writers for Gourmet and all around creators of the legend of American Road Food. They had a lot of imagination when they started on their version of American folk customs, including food. I always liked The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste. The Sterns' writing bordered on parody. But in this book, published in 2006, they've become a parody of a parody. That's bad.

I think I'll skip the details of their arch, exaggerated, self-absorbed annoyances. Just one thing: they rhapsodize about the wonderful food they have eaten throughout their long career as a food writing duo, since the early 70s. They claim to like the food and to respect and admire the cooks, the diners, the decor, and the other citizens of the towns where they go. Frankly, I think they are very clever put-down artists, setting themselves up as superior, though they do make a convincing case that they like eating the stuff and that indeed, they don't like city food. But they are very sophisticated and they clearly know the readers will be made to feel superior to the producers and consumers in small towns where (get this) no one has even heard of Gourmet magazine!

Another reason I did not much take to their book: to me, the food sounds terrible. The recipes they give are full of Accent (i.e. MSG), garlic powder, and other similar things, and mostly the vegetables are canned. It's the true custom of the country and I'm glad some of us have gotten past it. I just don't think I want to cook a can of tomatoes with lots of sugar and some white bread.

The Sterns love batter-fried or long-simmered vegetables with bacon or pork fat and white sauce of some kind. Mashed yams, boiled or deep-fried okra, pan-fried chicken, chicken-fried steak, ham stuffed with various bitter green leaves, and the entire range of gelatin. They explain that sweet salads with cool-whip type dressings are eaten with meat.

No thanks. If I'm ever driving through those towns, even if those restaurants are guaranteed to still be serving the wondrous chicken croquettes with gravy and mashed potatoes, I'm such a clod I think I'll go to MacDonalds. Sorry.