Wednesday, June 28, 2006

shameless self-promotion completely unrelated to food

Introducing my new blog, Bringing up Baby Bilingual, all about attempts to teach French to my infant nephew, Carl. It will include review of books and websites about bilingualism and second language acquisition in children, descriptions of activities that work with Carl, and, hopefully, if parents, linguists, and other interested observers chime in, discussion of ideas and techniques and theories. But it'll be fun, I promise, because watching children learn to talk is very cool, and Carl's adorable.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

low-fat = low-fun?

A result of Mr. Tart's recent gall bladder surgery is that he needs to eat low-fat food for a while until his liver gets used to doing the GB's work. While we generally eat healthily when I cook--no red meat or pork, lots of vegetables, not many desserts--I realized that that's not good enough. Cheese, for example. We eat cheese whenever possible. And we'd both rather go without--or just enjoy a small taste of something exquisite--than eat, say, low-fat soy cheese instead. (One of his friends promises us that "rice cheese" is delicious, but that concept is so wrong I can't even begin to consider it.) I've been doing my best, like making turkey burgers and baked french fries when he craves cheeseburgers and fries, and finding versions of hummus without lots of oil and tahini (with mache to brighten things up) and pasta salads without mayo (and with tons of fresh herbs) and buying baked tortilla chips to snack on with Katie's homemade salsa, but they just haven't seemed that great. The worst disaster was the low-fat pots de creme made with plain yogurt and ricotta cheese and powered hot chocolate mix. They tasted like, well, chocolate-flavored runny ricotta. Basically, we're discovering that any dish that normally has fat in it doesn't work so well when you take the fat out. We're better off just eating lots of salads and lean meats and Egg Beaters and fruit for a while! Thank goodness for Cooking Light magazine and fellow blogger Never Trust a Skinny Chef, who offer some creative and enthusiastic low-fat options. (CL's creme brulee made with 2% milk thickened with nonfat powdered milk is actually pretty good, especially when topped with backyard raspberries.)

Sunday, June 25, 2006

strawberry tart (and why I can't bake a cake)

Last Sunday for Father's Day, I made my dad a strawberry tart. It was a variation on a berry tart with mascarpone cream from Gourmet. I used only strawberries instead of the mix since everything else was ridiculously expensive. My dad is a teetotaler, so I replaced the orange marmalade and berry liquer with red currant jelly (which was already in the fridge). I bought strawberries from the farmer's market, but I decided that I needed to keep a cup for myself, so I supplemented the tart with far inferior berries from the supermarket (such a selfish girl I am!).

The tart was delicious and beautiful (if I do say so myself) which led me to contemplate why I can bake an excellent tart but can't seem to bake a decent cake. Recently my efforts to bake cake have been complete disasters. First, chocolate cupcakes that tasted great but ended up spilling over into flat and crumbly tops. Then there was the tres leches cake I could say that it's a matter of practice; while I've made dozens and dozens of pies and tarts, I've only made a handful of cakes. I have decided that my summer's culinary ambition is to make a respectable cake.

But I think there may be something else going on here: altitude. I don't live at a very high altitude (about 4500 feet), so it seems like the thinner air shouldn't wreak much havoc on my baking, but how else can I explain so many cake failures? Since I've lived at this altitude nearly my entire life, I never really thought about it's effect on baking; I never thought of myself as living at high altitudes. In my quest to make the perfect cake, I will also do some research on high-altitude baking and see if the adjustments make an impact. From what I've read so far, it looks like anything above 3500 feet is considered high altitude. If any of you have tips for high-altitude adjustments I'd love to hear them.

I think that the altitude of one's residence should be included in every recipe/ cookbook. I've noticed this trend with nature/ outdoors writers. In bios, altitude is always mentioned, as if this information tells us something about who the author is, as if altitude somehow defines one's character. (For instance, Pam Houston's official bio states: "She lives in Colorado at 9,000 feet above sea level near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.") I think that this emphasis on altitude would be more helpful for foodies: "Melissa lives at 4330 feet, which is why her cakes always fail to impress."

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Salmon in Seattle

Mr. Tart and I also recently returned from a West Coast trip: a week in Seattle and Portland to visit five different couples, one of which was getting married. While I was delighted to get to know his friends better (and he mine), I was also eager to eat some local salmon. It's just that we were expecting to have it in a seafood restaurant, not a hospital cafeteria. Yes, that's right: now he can say that he was at a bachelor party so raucous he ended up in the ER. (Actually, they were sedately playing video games when he got sick.) Thanks to emergency surgery, my husband no longer has a gall bladder. Amazingly, he was still able to perform his groomsmanly duties and stand up in the wedding the very same day he had an organ removed from his abdomen!

During the two days we were at the hospital, he was on clear liquids, but I had my meals in the cafeteria (supplemented by many "moral support" M&Ms from a vending machine). Surprisingly enough, the hospital salmon was better than what I've had in many restaurants. The honey glaze wasn't cloying and the fish was perfect--moist and tender and pink. And with sides of mashed potatoes and gravy and mixed veggies, it cost only $5--a bargain. Not that I'd recommend it to fellow travelers--at least, not with the gall bladder surgery appetizer.

Monday, June 19, 2006

fine, Blogger, be that way: photos it wouldn't let me post earlier

More of the foodie heaven inside San Francisco's Ferry Building. (See previous post.) The counter at Recchiuti Confections:

Big, big wheels o' cheese!

... and the mushroom shop:

Sunday, June 18, 2006

San Francisco: a foodie playground in the Ferry Building

On the Embarcadero in San Francisco, a place called the Ferry Building holds what is basically a mall for foodies. I was just giddy in there. The only thing that's a chain, as far as I know, is a Sur La Table store. Wait, no, there's a Peet's Coffee. Other than that, though, I think it's all local stuff.

Speaking of Sur La Table ... you know how in some retail establishments, there are employees assigned to follow potential shoplifters around the store? In Sur La Table, we were definitely being followed. I have no idea why she decided we were shifty-looking. We didn't even have big bags or bulky coats or anything we could possibly stuff things in, so I don't know what that was about. But everywhere we went, this one employee hovered. (If anything, it just dissuaded me from giving them any of my money.)

But I digress. The Ferry Building features a cheese shop, several bakeries and a place selling mushrooms and truffle oil, just to name a few. Most importantly to me, though, it's also the home of Recchiuti Confections, which got a shout-out in CHOW magazine's "best chocolate" feature in its holiday issue (right before it went on "hiatus" -- sniffle). We sampled their rose caramel and their Star Anise and Pink Peppercorn chocolate, both superb. But their burnt caramel sauce was, hands down, the most amazing caramel sauce I've ever tasted. We bought a jar, but I'll almost hate to relegate it to the job of adorning some other dessert. I could just eat this stuff with a spoon right out of the jar.

You'll also find an antique store devoted entirely to food-related items:

I eyed a beautiful set of antique aperitif glasses, then almost fainted when I looked at the price tag. Oh my. Anyway, it was fun to look.

Some other Ferry Building sights:

Central Coast eats, day 2: wine country

After leaving Santa Barbara, we spent day two of our road trip exploring the Santa Ynez Valley wine country. For those of you who've seen the movie "Sideways," this is "Sideways" country. We stopped in Solvang to buy bread, cheese and fruit for a picnic lunch. Solvang was founded by Danish settlers -- escaping those Minnesota winters, no doubt -- but today the town seems to be a theme-parkish tourist trap, unfortunately.

We stuck around just long enough to visit one tasting room -- I believe Stolpman was the name of the winery -- where a very kind, not-at-all-condescending employee answered all our rookie oenophile questions about which grapes grow best where and what people mean when they talk about French versus California winemaking styles. If you're like me and you're kind of intimidated talking about wine but you'd like to learn more, ask these folks questions when you go wine-tasting. They're not just glorified bartenders!

Then we took our picnic to Rusack Vineyards, just outside of town, where we bought a bottle of their Chardonnay. I'm not usually much of a Chardonnay fan -- I tend to find it too rich or something, for lack of a better word, and instead I like crisper whites -- but this was good. They blend a steel-barreled one with an oaked one. It was a nice balance, at least to this amateur palate.

Central Coast eats: road trip, day 1

Mark and I just got home from a week-long road trip up the coast from Southern California to the Bay Area. When we left home, I was just getting over a nasty sore throat and cough. Shortly after we arrived in the Bay Area, Mark picked up what I'd had, and at the moment he can barely talk. But we did have a few relatively healthy days of gorgeous beaches, smog-free skies, and good food.

We arrived in Santa Barbara on the first night of our trip, where we ate dinner at a crunchy, hippie sort of place that reminded me of Boulder. Mark had vegetarian chili and I had fairly decent fish tacos. (I have one question, though, about natural-foods type places. Why do they all seem to put carrots in everything? I am not anti-carrot, but I don't see what they have to do with a fish taco.)

We saw this van parked at the beach. Now this, dear reader, is a pimped ride. Look, they even have a patio in the back!

Friday, June 16, 2006

garlic scapes

Last Saturday was the first day of the farmer's market, which means that the winter slough of produce despond is over. This is my second year of participating in a CSA with Sun River Farm. The farmers, James and Irene, grow the most amazing heirloom tomoatoes (more on those later, of course) and truly the best garlic I've ever had. They gave me so much garlic last summer that I was supplied through February. They grow many varieties, including a bunch of hard neck types, which (happily for me) produce garlic scapes, a tasty flower stalk that is garlicky but mild. Garlic scapes are a great addition to soup, stir-fry, hummus. You get the idea.

With my much-awaited supply of garlic scapes, I made soup (thanks to a simple and tasty recipe provided by the farmers) and a frittata. If you can track down garlic scapes, I highly recommend them.

Garlic Scape Frittata

1 1/2-2 cups garlic scapes, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons butter
6 eggs
2/3 cup grated parmesan
salt and pepper

Saute garlic scapes in olive oil or butter until soft (about five minutes). Whisk together eggs, parmesan, scapes, and s&p to taste. Melt butter in a 10-inch nonstick skillet. Just as the butter begins to foam, pour in the egg mixture. Turn the heat to low. When the eggs have thickened and just the surface is runny, put the skillet under the broiler until the top sets.

Last night, Will and I were fiddling around with guitar/ banjo and he suggested we write a song about garlic scapes (that's how good they are). We didn't get very far with the lyrics. All he could come up with is "mmmmmm, mmmmmmm."

Monday, June 12, 2006

radish skepticism

When living in France, I saw people eating slices of radishes slathered with butter and sprinkled with salt. My reaction was "Ewwww." Raw vegetables dipped in butter just wasn't a combination my mind could wrap itself around; I much prefered my radishes straight. But then I went to the Boulder Farmer's Market and bought a bunch of thick red, pink, and whitish local radishes. They turned out to be wincingly spicy-bitter, so to salvage them, I tried the French trick. And it worked! The butter totally mellowed their bite and the salt was just plain fun. They're not healthy any more--but I don't care!

tires and tamales

If you own a car, at some point you'll need to purchase new tires. And as you're sitting in the tire shop, fretting about the hundreds of dollars you're about to spend, you may find yourself thinking that life would be better with some good, cheap tamales. If you live in Salt Lake, you're in luck, thanks to Victor's Tire Shop:

For years, Victor's wife Elvia sold tamales in a corner of the tire shop. Eventually, they decided to start a restaurant. The two businesses inhabit separate sections of the building, but are connected by a shared cash register. On your left, you can inspect new tire options, while being tempted on your right by racks of Mexican snacks and sodas (and often, slices of fresh mango). In the winter, they make atole--a hot, starchy drink. Elvia tells me that they make between 600-1000 tamales every day, and she has about a dozen options to choose from. I told her that my favorite was the chicken verde and she replied that it "wasn't very hot." Yes, it's true, I can't handle the spice. The best part about the tamales is that they cost $1. A dollar!

As you can see from the photo, these are substantial tamales. You might think that a $1 tamale that is sold alongside a tire shop might be a bit suspect, butI'm telling you they are delicious. Absolutely perfect.

And as you are munching on your tamales, you can also entertain yourself by watching the novellas that are playing on the tv.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

eating in Saint Lou-ie, Lou-ie

Mr. Tart and I traveled to St. Louis recently to see my brother ("Life without bacon is not worth contemplating") graduate with a doctorate in Occupational Therapy. While we didn't go there for the food, we enjoyed what we ate anyway!

We asked Matt what his adopted home was known for, and he grimaced and said, "Very thin crust pizza and provel cheese." Oh? Is that like provelone? Dear readers, it is not. It's like a gummy, processed mozzarella that stays stuck to your teeth for hours. Dreadful! The one typical St. Louis dish that everyone in the family seemed to like was the toasted ravioli: ground beef and cheese inside what seemed like a deep-fried ravioli wrapping, served with marinara. This was on the menu of every restaurant we ate at, even the Drunken Fish, the sushi restaurant where the eight of us celebrated Matt's big day. Notice how my dipping bowls look like a semicolon! Way to appeal to us punctuation nerds. I shocked my midwestern family by ordering what was in effect a platter of raw tuna fillets (Tekka Don). But even more surprising was the result of Dad's trip to the upstairs bar. Now, my father loves his martinis. He has exactly one a day and even travels with the fixings so he can make them at, say, hotels without restaurants and my teetotalling grandmother's house. But Dad also doesn't like to spend money when he can avoid it, so when he saw that the Drunken Fish's martinis were half price at Happy Hour only at the bar on the second floor, he left the table to go upstairs and fetch one rather than ordering it from the server. Unfortunately, the only ones that were half price were the froufrou ones made with juices and such, the ones that aren't truly martinis. But he picked the one that--he says--sounded like it would most resemble his traditional martini. He was glum--even disgusted--by the time he made it back to the table: his "Flirtini" was pink and didn't taste like a martini at all. I never thought I'd see this distinguished 67-year-old retired English professor drinking something off of Sex and the City.

Other meals were less fancy, like an order-at-the-counter creperie where Mr. Tart and I shared one crepe with creamed spinach and one buckwheat crepe with chicken and pesto and regular spinach and for dessert, a nutella crepe with strawberries. Luscious. That's Matt and his girlfriend, Andrea, in the picture; brave woman, spending the whole weekend with our extended family!

But it was great to have a Saint Louis native show us all her haunts: the World Fair donut shop, capitalizing on the city's history; the brewery that makes half a dozen homemade sodas (I loved their ginger ale, while Mr. Tart was partial to the root beer); a downtown street lined with funky shops and eateries; and most impressive, Ted Drewe's custard stand. Turns out that frozen custard is a big deal in St. Louis (bigger than toasted ravioli, even). Andrea has been eating custard at Ted Drewe's since she was a little girl--and apparently so has half of St. Louis! The lines were insanely long, and since it's a stand, not a restaurant, there are no tables or chairs, so people just hang out in the parking lot, block the sidewalk, sit on cars, and stroll around with their concretes and sundaes. A "concrete" is like a Dairy Queen Blizzard (with items mixed in), so called because it's thick like concrete and you can turn it upside down and the spoon won't fall out. The cashiers even do this when they hand it to you to prove it! I was amused by the menus detailing dozens of combinations of add-ins and sauces for the various concoctions, supplemented by a hand-lettered sign announcing "Vanilla custard only!" So, The Walrus or the Lyons Soda Fountain it ain't, but my Fox Treat sundae of vanilla custard, hot fudge, fresh raspberries, and macadamia nuts proved to me why several hundred St. Louis residents were milling around this parking lot--yum. I hope Matt stays in St. Louis so we can go back and visit him and Ted Drewe's again!

The most remarkable cuisine-related discovery in St. Louis, though, wasn't actually something we could eat. Guess who has a star on the sidewalk of one of the main drags along with other celebrated St. Louis actors, musicians, writers, and political figures: Irma Rombecker, author of The Joy of Cooking. Any city that cherishes the woman who gave birth to such a seminal book is a city worth eating joyously in! And we did. Happy graduation, Matt. Irma and I are proud of you.

(Author's note: Blogger is being particularly intractable lately and won't let me upload any of my photos of these eating establishments, the infamous flirtini, or Irma's star. Why the semicolon made it while the rest of them didn't I don't know. I'll try again in a day or two.)

Thursday, June 01, 2006

the first strawberries of the season!

Straight from our backyard--small and plump and a little tart.