A little seafood chowder anyone?

A little seafood chowder anyone?

With the first crabs of the season on hand I crafted a hearty chowder for our first rainy night of NorCal winter. The crab-umami and fish combined with hearty beans & rice, and a delicate crunch from celery and cabbage make this pretty dang good. The squeeze of lemon, sprinkle of fresh parsley (and maybe a grating of Parmesan?) are essential.

Buen provecho!

Here is the general outline, in order added to the pot:

chopped onion, celery, garlic, cabbage and parsley lightly sauteed

4 cups of homemade crab stock (see below)

1/2 cup of cooked cranberry beans (I made a pot this morning)

1/2 cup of leftover rice (I used some short grain brown rice)

cubed fish fillets (I used rock cod caught by Sage and me off the Sonoma Coast)

1 cup of cooked, cleaned crab meat (added near the end)

garnish with lemon, parsley, salt and pepper (maybe a grating of Parmesan)

Crab Stock (bisque-style) – saute onion, celery and crab shells in a little olive oil. Add some good white wine,  dilute chicken stock, and some tomatoes. Simmer until the aroma of crab is forward, splash some Pernod in and, if it tastes good, call it good.

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Change of Perspective: Peppers too hot. Relish just right.

pepper relish and plantWe love padron peppers. Blistered in some hot olive oil, and a few sea salt flakes – it’s one of our favorite summer appetizers. Thanks to the Galicians of NW Spain, these little peppers have found there way to Mediterranean climates around the world. The problem with padrons is this – leave them too long on the bush, and they get fiery hot. By this time in the autumn they are bright red AND hot. Too hot. What a waste to have a pepper bush covered with inedible peppers! At least the color is lovely. But then it occurred to me that you could eat them in other ways…. they didn’t have to be fried and salted. So I merged a few simple recipes for pepper jam, chutney, and relish and today we are eating hot red padrons in a whole new way. A little sweet, tart and spicy. But not too spicy. Now I am carefully tending the last few on the bushes, hoping for one last batch of pepper relish. Funny how things change.

2-3 cups seeded, finely chopped hot peppers
1 large onion, finely diced
1 crisp apple, cored, seeded and diced
2 cups of apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup of dark brown sugar (maple syrup could be good…)
1 Tbs sea salt
1 cinnamon stick
a few cloves and pepper corns in a tea ball

simmer this all down to a thick sauce – maybe 45 minutes. Store as you like. We have been eating it on crackers with a dollop of mascarpone.  Yum.

pepper relish cracker

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2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Hot, Hot Roti at the Holidays

Sage's roti doughThere is a wonderful children’s story called “Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji” (F. Zia, 2011) about a young boy that makes fresh roti for his grandfather – roti that bestows superhero powers!  Gwen and Sage discovered the book last year and we have had a blast crafting flatbread ever since. Today after school we decided to make a batch to go with dinner. We have evolved our house recipe a bit – straying from the traditional dough of semolina flour and water. Here is the basic outline:

  • 1 cup of semolina flour (or whole wheat)
  • 1/2 cup of unbleached white flour
  • 1/2 cup of masa harina (tortilla flour)
  • 1 tsp. salt

The touch of masa adds a rich corn flavor that I really love. Mix the dry ingredients with enough warm water to make a medium-soft dough. Knead until smooth, roll into a ball, and let rest in a covered bowl for a half an hour. This will ensure that the moisture is well absorbed in the dough. Tear off a golf ball-sized lump of dough, roll it in your palms a bit, and press it flat on a floured surface. Roll it out with a rolling pin as thin as you can. Sage rolling the doughHeat a heavy skillet or griddle or tava pan, but don’t oil it. The pan should be very hot when you begin to cook your roti. Put the flattened dough on the griddle. Within seconds it will be cooked enough to move around. When bubbles form on the top and toasted flecks form on the bottom you can flip it over. Just before the roti is finished we brush its hot surface with butter or ghee and sprinkle on a pinch of Maldon sea salt flakes. Eat them as fast as you can cook them! The recipe should make about 8 for 10. Dada-ji could eat hundreds….

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Pumpkins of Mystery

Sage rides with the pumpkinsTonight I made a pumpkin pie from squash grown in our own backyard. I know, “big deal – everyone in West County grows their own food.” What is remarkable about the pumpkin in this pie is that we have no idea where the seed came from – Sage found it in our seed box and dropped it in the garden last spring. But it didn’t come from any seed pack we purchased or any that we could find in the box. It was a mystery seed. We have theories but nothing we can prove. This was no ordinary variety either. The single seed produced more than 90 feet of vines and no fewer than 20 basketball-sized squash. I estimate at least 300 lbs. of biomass. I had assumed that, because it looked like an ornamental, the pumpkins would probably be bland and dry. We gathered them up and made a nice display on the front porch, but I didn’t even bother opening one. Last week, however, our friends Brant, Bronwen, and Cassidy invited us over for pumpkin waffles. Gwen volunteered to bring the pumpkin (we grew pie pumpkins as well) and baked up one of the tan beasts for fun. Verdict? It was great. Much tastier and sweeter than the pie pumpkins. So suddenly the pile of decorations on the front porch is a food cache and I have been daydreaming about all the interesting things you might do with sweet, vibrant orange squash puree. Already there have been pumpkin muffins, pumpkin waffles, and tonight a proper pumpkin pie. Each hefty fruit yields more than a gallon of puree! And yes, we are saving seeds!

pumpkin pie, jars, cat

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Beauty and the Beast: A tale of two Mondays

Vermillion rockcodLast Monday Reuben and I slipped out to Stillwater Cove for an afternoon of kayak fishing. The previous week had been blown out with large swells and high winds, but this day was lovely. As we paddled through the kelp beds and out to the open sea I was struck by how clear the water was – it seemed like I could see farther down the stipes than ever before. Looking from a kayak into a kelp forest can be pretty hypnotic – you are so close to the skin of the water. The baseball-sized pnuematocysts look like shrunken heads, with their hair-blades swaying and bobbing in the swell.

I wanted to find a reef I remembered from last year, but I forgot the battery for my sonar and I wasn’t quite sure where to start. I was testing depths with a jig and staying close into the kelp – not really expecting much. Three or four drops later I felt a solid strike, and then a run. When the line came up I landed this beautiful vermillion rockfish! One of the things I love about fishing the California coast is the incredible diversity of fishes. You really never know what you will catch. Fish and Game estimates more than 60 species of rockfish (Sebastes spp.) alone! Usually we catch lingcod, blue and black rockfish, and often we find a cabezon or two. But this vermillion was a real treat for me, and I knew I needed to do something special with it. (More on that later, but a wonderful Chinese chef crafted a multi-course meal for us!)

With Big Red in the boat I worked my way offshore a bit, looking for that reef. I was mostly enjoying the day – sunny and warm – looking out at the coastline. Suddenly (really, it was sudden) I was aware of something below me. Something really big. When you are out in shark and sea lion territory, bobbing about in a hollow plastic log, this is alarming. This thing was whale-sized. A whale would be cool, but one always wonders about that rare moment when ole’ humpy decides to breach right under a boat…. I was looking down with real intent, beginning to realize what I was seeing. “Reuben,” I yelled, “come check this out!” I was seeing a large boulder-like structure on the bottom. I could see the pinks and purples of sea stars and anemones. Reuben has good electronics – “How deep?” I asked. “More than 40 feet.” We dropped jigs and could see fish checking them out. I had never experienced this this type of visibility. I knew empirically there was a reef, but on that Monday we were seeing the reef. The fishing, too, was amazing. Combined we caught perhaps 20 keeper-sized lingcod (releasing 16) and a nice range of other species, including a few China rockfish – one of my favorites. We ended the afternoon with a cooler full of sustenance for our families and a deep sense of gratitude for such clarity – literal and beyond.

Yesterday was different. Another storm dropped as much as a foot of rain over parts of Sonoma County, and the Russian River looked like 2000 cfs of chocolate milk. The mouth at Jenner was pumping this slurry out into the Pacific where it was moved up and down the coast. The swell was up around 8 feet and the launches at Timber Cove and Stillwater looked rough. Still, I wanted to get out and explore – to see how things had changed since last Monday. And maybe catch a fish or two. The beach was piled with debris – algae of all types, drift wood, even holdfasts still attached to their rocks had been tossed up. I found a beautiful shard of polished abalone and took it as a reminder that not all storm debris is messy. I paddled out the same way I had the week before, this time barely able to see my lemon-yellow blades as they dipped below the surface. I paddled and fished for a couple of hours – never quite getting comfortable with the steep roll of the swell waves. No crystalline views of the bottom, but a sense of wonder nonetheless. What are all those fish doing in this muck? How long will it take for their rocky homes to recover? How long till the next storm?

One of the great lessons offered along this coast is that of resilience. You have to be resilient if you are going to last in an environment this powerful, this dynamic. There will be days of perfect calm and clarity (and I cherish them). But many more will be filled with pounding, muddy waves and giant surging swells. These too must be survived, and even celebrated. These are the things, after all, that define us – that speak of our true metal and our capacity to survive and thrive. I wonder what next Monday will be like…

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Farmer Sage meets (and eats) Hog Island Oysters

Last week Sage and I loaded up for a day on the coast – tidepooling, whale watching, and an exploratory visit to Tomales Bay and the Hog Island Oyster Farm. Sage is 5 and generally adores fresh fish and seafood of all kinds – grilled Baja dorado, my cider-cured and applewood smoked trout, and Bodega Bay crab are all favorites. He also eats ikura, shrimp and tako nigiri like a champ. But I wasn’t sure how oysters would go over, and I knew it would be risky to drive all the way from Bodega Bay (the whales) to Marshall (the oyster farm). But lately I have been fixating on local seafood myself, and I discovered that the Hog Island Oyster Farm was not only visitor friendly but also produces what might be the finest oysters in the Bay Area. So I took my chances and we made the drive.

The truth is I had already made my own exploratory visit to Hog Island. A week earlier I stopped by on my way to the city (a BIG detour) and took the plunge. The farm is nestled against the shores of Tomales Bay, an anomalous finger of Pacific water following a trench formed by the San Andreas fault. It was Friday, and things were pretty slow around the picnic area. The place is primarily a processing facility and there are great tanks of recirculating seawater in which bags of oysters and manila clams (another farm specialty) are stored to purge and stay clean before sale. The picnicking area itself is a bit of genius — a few tables and benches right on the water and a funky old boat sticking up vertically to form the bar. I met Garrett, a recent grad from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, and got the run down on how things worked at Hog Island. He loaded up a plastic tray with ice and oysters and showed me the basic technique for getting the good stuff out of the shell. The primal tool of oyster opening is the shucking knife, and what Garrett had done effortlessly with a flick of the wrist took me much wiggling and prying and pushing. But as I worked my way through the first dozen I got the feel for cutting through the hinge and finessing the twist-and-slide motion needed to pop the top open and cut through the adductor (the muscle that closes the shell). And with each successful opening I was rewarded with a taste that was so refreshing (ice cold), so evocative of the sea (brine and mineral), and so tangy with Hogwash (a seasoned vinegar or mignonette) that I could barely open the next fast enough. By the second dozen I was hooked. I would be back in barely a week.

When Sage and I arrived it was midday on a Saturday and the picnic area was packed. Sage took to playing on a nearby gravel pile and I haggled for a corner at one of the benches. The wonderful cowboy-hatted woman working the bar saw what I was about and got us squared away with a tray, a knife, and some Hogwash. Jose at the tanks hooked us up with a nice selection of kumamotos and extra-small Pacifics (these are varieties of oysters). Sage was, of course, fascinated by the icy mollusc heap. And to make matters more interesting Jose and one of the other guys were showing off a HUGE oyster they had just pulled from the bay – haggling over who would get to open and eat the giant. As we settled into our wooden bench the moment of truth was at hand – what would the “good lovin’ farmer Sage” (his own self-assigned moniker) make of raw oysters. As the lid popped off the first extra-small I cut the oyster in two, reserving the big, soft, meaty bit for Sage and keeping the chewy, frilly stuff for myself. Accidentally I slipped the whole thing into the Hogwash (rice wine vinegar, cilantro, shallots and other goodness) but Sage quickly grabbed his nibble out and popped it in his mouth. I could see the instant pucker from the vinegar, and then a scrunched up pause of textural uncertainty. But in the end the proclamation was made — “Mmmmm, I like oysters!” — followed by urgings to get busy shucking the next. We polished off a dozen together and I figured that was enough for Sage’s first round – even though I was tempted to keep going. We also had some nice Wild Flour bread from the bakery in Freestone, and a bit of chocolate. With this gift of good food in our bellies we headed out for the tidepools, where we fed sea anemones on bits of busted up blue mussel and watched the waves roll out with the low tide. I wish my parenting was always this good!

Postscript: I revisited my friends at Hog Island yesterday (after one of the best road rides of my life) for a light lunch and a look out over the bay. I discovered another little gem that you should all know about — their little links of homestyle Spanish chorizo. The rich, meaty-spicy taste of the sausage paired with the bright, briny taste of the oysters was just about perfect. If only I had saved some of that bread from Della Fattoria in Petaluma! If you live anywhere near Marin County go visit the Hog Island Oyster Farm. I am sure oysters in restaurants are nice.  But oysters, like most great food, come from some place outside – someplace where there is wind and salt and mud. They have a natural heritage generally at odds with fine tableware and fancy napkins. For us the place to taste that heritage is Tomales Bay, sitting at a weathered picnic table, watching the shorebirds fly in over the tidal flats.  I can’t wait for the next visit.

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Nepali Polenta – Roadhouse style

Boiled meal. Whether corn or buckwheat or some other ground nut or grain, there can’t be a more primal, more rustic culinary preparation than boiled meal. (Meal is simply a coarse grained flour.) But somehow in the west we have come to think of polenta (the Italian name for boiled cornmeal) as a gourmet dish. But this only because of the garnishes we lavish on “gourmet polenta” — fine cheeses, meats, and sauces. At its heart polenta is boiled meal — one of humanity’s oldest and simplest culinary staples. Peasant food.

Here in Nepal boiled meal goes by the name “dhido” (something like dhee-dough). It is traditionally made with native buckwheat, but today is made with cornmeal as well. It is usually eaten with a spicy soup and with one or more achars (savory and spicy salsas). It may also simply replace rice in the otherwise typical Nepali meal of dal (lentil soup) and tarkari (curried vegetables). Keep in mind that rice, while ubiquitous in the Himalaya, is a lowland import. Dhido, and higher up tsampa (toasted barley flour) are the more traditional (and less costly) starches of mountain folk. I was first introduced to Dhido by my good friend Indra Rai, a Nepali mountain guide, while trekking in the Annapurna Region. Indra is a tiny man from the Solu-Khumbu region with a huge heart and an even bigger appetite. And Indra loves dhido. I noticed on that trek back in 2001 that Indra rarely ate with us in the tiny restaurants, called tea houses, along the route. He would make sure we were all settled with our typical rice, soup, and vegetables and then he would disappear into the smoky kitchen of the local family. One day, in a town called Kagbeni in the Trans-Himalayan landscape of Mustang, I asked him what he was up to everyday in the kitchen. “Dhido.” “I am up to dhido.” And of course I was invited to join him and that was the beginning of my interest in Himalayan mush.

There is nothing too special about the taste of boiled meal. It has a taste — anyone that has had polenta or good grits knows this is true. But dhido, like polenta, is really a neutral carbohydrate canvas on which one can layer an infinite variety of more assertive flavors. And in the Nepali context, where everyone eats with their hands, it is much easier to manage than rice. You tear off little balls of the dhido, dip them into the sauces, and pop them into your mouth. If the dhido is hot and properly prepared it is really quite a nice, light, soft thing to eat. So on subsequent visits to Nepal I have always looked for opportunities to eat dhido – where ever it could be found.

Which brings me to my present trip and my most recent dhido-eating experience. I was teaching a workshop in a small, Inner Terai town called Hetauda and I asked my hosts if we could eat dhido for dinner one night. A couple of them lit up at the idea and a plan was quickly devised for the following night. The next day was extremely hot and humid, and after several hours roasting in a concrete meeting hall I was thrilled to load into the jeep and hit the road for the dinner “restaurant.” As we drove along the mighty Rapti River the rushing air and sunset drama refreshed us all. I fell into wondering about the rhinos and other animals that I knew lay just across the water in Chitwan National Park. But after 15 minutes of driving I realized that we were long past the outskirts of town and still headed west. Where were we going? Where was this restaurant? My friends Abadhesh and Balram assured me that good dhido was simply not to be found in town. We were headed to a family run joint along the river that was well known locally for their corn dhido and accompaniments.

After another 10 minutes or so we pulled off at a small collection of roadside shacks and parked. Perhaps three families were living in tiny, makeshift houses, each with a thatched veranda, and there were trucks and cars parked here and there in the lot. “Here we are!” Here? I asked for clarification. This was indeed a truck stop of sorts – a roadhouse – a place where drivers and other hungry travelers stopped for generous, cheap and tasty servings of Nepali comfort food. The proprietors were likely immigrants from the nearby hills, displaced perhaps by the violence of the Maoist insurgency that ended only a year or two ago.

We sat down around a picnic table under one of the thatched roofs and placed our orders. To accommodate our group of 8 a large wok was produced and the fire was stoked inside the earthen oven. The woman of the house – a plump, happy gal of about 45 – brought some water to a boil then poured in long streams cornmeal. There were no measurements, no fussing over the process. She had been doing this for a lifetime. No other tools were needed. After a few stirs with a big spoon Pop took over with a wooden paddle. It was still very hot and humid, and the fire was blazing in the stove. This combined with the physical exertion of stirring and turning the thickening mass of dhido must have been REALLY hot! His casual, chatty manner belied the fact that he was a master at this process – every turn and fold with the paddle brought the still soupy cornmeal right to the edge of the wok – but none was ever spilled. While he stirred his wife, their son and daughter-in-law, and a few neighbors passed around a couple of new babies. I could never tell who belonged to whom, such was the affection showed by all.

It began pouring rain, and eventually the cooking was finished. Large thali-style silver plates were served – a big mound of dhido in the middle surrounded by small dollops of curried vegetables and very piquant achars. There was also a small dish of spicy chicken soup for dunking the dhido. No formalities here. Without a word the family and neighbors went back to doting on the babies and we tucked in. At some point one of them offered seconds around the table and more eating ensued. After the meal some of our group retired to the roadside and mixed with the family. What an unexpected oasis was this roadhouse/truckstop/squatter’s camp in the middle of the jungle!

I asked for the tab and settled up. The damage? A couple of bucks a person. This is peasant food after all…

Posted in Food & Cooking, Nepal, Travel | 8 Comments

Not your average grocery…

A 12 hour layover is a fine thing if that layover happens to be in Hong Kong. It is one of the few cities in the world where you can actually escape the terminal for no cost and no paperwork. And the excellent train system takes you directly to the heart of downtown in 25 minutes! Not only do you get to muse at what must be one of the most internationally eclectic cities in the world, you also get eat dim sum – and you know how I feel about dim sum (see my post from February). But on this day, as I walked off my hefty lunch in the sanctuary of an underground mall (a typhoon brewing and spewing rain outside), I encountered the most amazing grocery store I have ever seen. Ever. Why? Let us consider the meat counter.

The meat counter at C!tySuper looks, at first glance, like that of any other gourmet food shop — beautifully cut chops and steaks, Maine lobsters and Scottish salmon — exotic for this corner of the planet but not shocking. Then your eye hones in on the special Wagyu beef display — check out the marbling in that ribeye — and your jetlagged mental calculator starts converting the pricetag from HK$ into USD. Slowly the words “whoa Bessie” come to mind as you realize that this rare gem will set you back $100 PER STEAK! That’s $400 bucks on the grill for a family BBQ! But let’s not stop with the Japanese beef. At the end of the deli counter there is a display of fine looking hams hanging in a glass case. Fine Spanish hams. Fine Spanish hams that run about $200/lb. I get a hunch that some of those haunches fetch close to $2000 apiece. I’ll take two – grams that is. Moving further along in the store I found $2000 bottles of French champagne and $200 bottles of olive oil. At least the gummy bears and the rice crackers were affordable.

The item that impressed me most however was a small bottle of vinegar. The contents of this bottle, “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena,” is perhaps one of the finest, most precious foodstuffs in the world. Crafted from trebbiano grapes in the Po River Valley of northern Italy and aged in barrels of varying wood types, traditional balsamic (as opposed to the generic balsamic vinegars of the American supermarket) is truly more an elixir than a condiment. I once tasted some 30 year old traditional balsamic at a friend’s house, first on a spoon then over a small scoop of good vanilla ice cream. Viscous like maple syrup and intensely concentrated — earthy and ethereal at the same time. I don’t really know how to use wine lingo, but great balsamic must be the very definition of flavor complexity. And while I have never purchased any myself, it was one of those tasting experiences that sticks in the mind for a very long time. It is not surprising, then, that it should show up here in this Asian gourmet shop. But what really struck me about this particular little bottle, tagged at nearly $1000, was the age. 100 years. A portion of the liquid gold in this bottle started as grapes harvested in the early 1900’s. The Italians that put that juice into its first barrels are surely long gone from this earth. Those barrels somehow survived World War I and the reign of Mussolini – carefully tended by the skilled hands of two or three generations of Modenisi. In the early 1900’s the natives of Hong Kong were subjects of the British Empire — small cogs in a very large eurocentric machine. But somehow, through the stranger than fiction flow of human history, this small Italian amulet has come to rest here in a Hong Kong market. Waiting for some affluent Chinese family to pick it up, take it home, and savor those drops of liquid history on a fresh Asian pear.   

Posted in Food & Cooking, Hong Kong, Travel | 2 Comments

Back on the blogtrail — Nepal

Hard to believe it has been almost 4 months since the last posting! Somehow life at home generates lots of ideas for blogs but little time in which to write them. Watch for a short piece on the interconnectedness of balsamic vinegar, Spanish ham, and time travel coming soon!

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