Sunday, March 8, 2009

It's Funny 'Cause It's Not Funny: Urban Scouting on WCL

Yesterday I eschewed the market and tripped up the steps to the second floor of San Francisco's Ferry Building, where I'd been invited to appear on Sedge Thomson's West Coast Live.

One of the show's staff waved a release form.

"I want you to pay special attention to the bolded text. This is a live show, and if you swear on air, you are liable. If you need to swear, go out into the vestibule and swear now."

I signed and moved along to the director.

"You're the 'urban scout'?" he asked. "What is an urban scout?"

"I dunno." I told him. "Sedge's idea."

"Fine. I read a couple posts on your blog, and you need to understand: do not swear. This is live radio."

Do I swear so much? Why, I'd thought myself positively lady-like. Except for that. I called my trusted advisor, semi-lawyer Shaun.

"I'm so nervous about not swearing, I will definitely swear. And what do I talk about? This week was tame. The highlight was slaughtering Kyle in Scrabble at the British football pub."

"Don't talk about that. And do not swear," he said while texting me ideas for interesting subject matter: tapioca drinks at Wonderful Foods, deer jerky from Lao, moving to San Francisco from New England.

The other guests were funny and engaging. Perhaps intimidating if you were, say, unable to define "urban scout."

I especially liked Kitka, the Eastern European ensemble with Bulgarian guest singer named Tzvetanka who was exactly as charming as you'd hope for and not a drop less. I cursed the writers with good lines, like Barry Jenkins: "Jazz is great, but black people do a lot of things. We eat salads. We ride bicycles."

There were plenty of things I could have talked about: Marin Sun Farms' blue-shelled eggs, lamb-shaped sticks of butter Poles and Russians make for Easter, the excellent Cook Here & Now.

Instead I got nervous and went all seasonal, not local, pimping limited-edition Shamrock Shakes, available in your finer McDonald's outlets. I saw a woman in the audience wrinkle her nose in disgust when I described the taste as mint toothpaste mixed with stardust. But trust me: they're delicious.


Friday, January 30, 2009

little luxuries.

Pull back, pack in, hunker down, hide out: in times of economic crises, people reduce expenses, eschew society, fret about scarcity and try to survive (preferably without eating squirrel).

So instead I decided to do the opposite, because I'm ornery.

Top of mind because this pneumonia thing made me suffer, mostly from boredom. I consumed three seasons of Lost in two days. (Side note: Sawyer looks haggard!) I posted more than usual to my blog where I post things that tickle my fancy. Through my bedroom window, I watched hawks circle the neighborhood, hunting for pigeons fattened on popcorn and bacon-wrapped hot dogs. I spent a lot of time hating my light fixtures.

In my spare time, I composed mental lists of everything I wanted when I was better. The list included:

Tartine's 5 p.m. bread
Walking more than two blocks without getting winded
My friends (outside of intermittent mercy drop-offs of bacon, juice and Flight of the Conchords)

All seemed luxurious. My most expensive desire costs three clams.

So to kill three birds with one hawk, I set up a sort-of potluck dinner party: I offered to make tomato soup and pick up Tartine bread. My friends are bringing leftover cheese bits hanging about their fridges; we'll grate and mix them together into grilled cheese filling.

I'm hoping a gruyere and fig jam combo is in the works. Then we're going to see the amazing (and free) chamber music Classical Revolution puts on every week in a bar that is bohemian in the best sense. Which, I think, is a very pleasant way to hunker down.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sweet & Bloody: Blood Orange Marmalade

In the last few months, I've been buzzing around quite a bit: traveling across the country or ocean four times, working on a couple big projects, and suffering under the cloud of this unending cold. One day cooped up in bed, I constructed this exciting flesh-eating disease decision tree. You know, for fun:

Trips to the Alemany farmer's market were limited, not that I didn't anticipate it. One night in a fevered state, I woke up hungry at 3 a.m.: the object of my desire was one of Guisell's empanadas.

Saturday morning: success! It's funny that after such a little gap the familiar feels nostalgic. On the way there every weekend, my bus passes this Walgreens sign in the Castro; each time I wonder if Walgreens Corporate has a tag in their photo bank to identify hunky pharmacist images for gay neighborhoods.

Back to the subject at hand: have you noticed a lot of dinner parties lately? One exciting outcome of the recession is that people seem to cook at home more and invite their friends over rather than splitting restaurant checks. In that vein, I was looking for something to cook as a gift. I admit the "Sweet & Bloody" sign drew me in to these blood oranges at $2/lb.

Bloody is right: after hacking through 4 pounds of these with a mandoline, my kitchen looked like a snuff film, red bits pooling on the countertops and dripping down cabinets. For the love of all that is sour, I added 3 Seville oranges, the traditional sour marmalade citrus.

Marmalade is messy and fun. You tear apart the whole fruit, either with a mechanized slicing apparatus like a Cuisinart or a hand-held mandoline or grater. I read a tip to soak the fruit and juice overnight in enough water to cover, so I tried that, then in the morning brought it up to a low, slow boil with 1 part of sugar to four measured parts of the soppy skin-pulp-liquid mixture.

In between all these steps, make sure to swab down your kitchen. A surprise trip from a landlord or friend might lead to the conclusion that you practice small animal sacrifice. The horror!


Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Pleasures of a Small Kitchen

Growing up, we celebrated holidays in my grandmother's apartment, which was parked above the red brick grocery store she and my grandfather, a butcher, built in the 1940's. My grandmother was a lousy cook, but not for lack of trying. Until she died, she brought my uncle a buttered hard roll wrapped in wax paper each morning. Her workaday specialities were paste-like oatmeal and chili made with old beef pushed through a hand-cranked grinder that clipped on to the kitchen table.

For holidays, she turned up the heat, roasting gigantic turkeys or dozens of cabbage-wrapped golumpki in the oven. As seemed to be the habit with her generation, she baked everything slow and low. Ever smelled cabbage baking for four hours in a 200 degree oven? Don't.

But the greatest marvel was that she turned so much food out of her little apartment kitchen. We lived in Connecticut, where nearly everyone we knew lived in a house. An apartment was an anomaly, as was a small kitchen. Many Italian families in our town had two kitchens: one on the main floor and one in the basement.

My grandmother was the oldest daughter of a large farming family. I called my sister to double-check the number of our great-aunts and uncles, but neither of us could remember: Tadeuz, Stanislaw, Piotr, Helka--and who was that guy who lived in the attic? Alfred? Albert? A-something. Adolf!

On holidays she cooked for her children and grandchildren as well as her siblings and their children. We lit candles set into painted metal wreaths and woke up early to roll out sweet potato dough.

So it never seems like much of a feat when I cook for five or ten or twenty in my tiny San Francisco apartment. It feels normal, even preferable to one of those weirdly spacious kitchens with a dishwasher or, godforbid, adequate counter space. Cooking with friends like Sonya is a symphony, but not honeyed Debussy, more twangy, abrupt Elliott Carter, full of bumps and starts. Messy, like love, like friendship, like anything worthwhile and good.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Persimmon Jam with Sonya

Now a caveat: when I said in that last post that San Francisco pulled into its orbit good cooks and good eaters, and that my friends were both, one exception came to mind, and that is my very exceptional friend Sonya, with whom I cooked tonight.

Sonya is my closest friend here, and one of the dearest people I know. She is not, however, a foodie, which is one of her many charms.

Some time after we met, but before I learned that she cooked infrequently and detested sweet food, I assigned her to provide the dessert portion of a meal we were cooking at my old apartment on Liberty.

She showed up with a paper bag stuffed with two or three cartons of milk from McDonald's and a jug of Torani pumpkin syrup, the type Starbucks squirts into your latte 'round October. She scalded the milk on the stove, tipped in a bit of syrup, and served the hot, sweet milk in mugs. It was both totally insane and strikingly avant garde, a fast food version of Ferran Adria. Last week we met at a bar where she brought her dinner: two sticks of jerky wrapped in a paper towel.

So it was a surprise when tonight Sonya asked to make persimmon jam for a Montana-bound relative. She bought about eight persimmons, both Fuyu and Hachiya, from the Ferry Plaza farmer's market(which locals know to visit Tuesday, not the turista-crazed Saturday version. I asked her to pick up some lemons, sugar and canning jars, which she found at Rainbow, the co-op grocery in our neighborhood.

The sugar she bought was Rapunzel Organic Whole Cane, which imparted a dark brown color and molasses-like flavor. I read in other recipes that the persimmon's delicate flavor didn't hold up well to cooking, which was certainly the case here, though I'm not sure if it was the fault of the assertive sugar.

The night, however, was a resounding success. We bound ourselves in blankets against the weird cold--San Francisco dipped into the high 30's at night, and my windows are stuck open, so the scene's a bit like an 1880's Brooklyn tenament. Where's Jacob Riis when you need him?

Sonya gave me exactly the Christmas gift I most desired: chocolates decorated with the face of Cordozar Calvin Broadus, Jr, known to the world as Snoop Dogg, formerly of Death Row records, currently a high school football coach, and always in my heart the man who delivered the best-ever musical hat-tip to leafy greens on The Chronic:

Fallin back on that ass, with a hellafied gangsta lean
Gettin funky on the mic like a old batch of collard greens

Herewith, the recipe:

Persimmon Jam
8 persimmons (about 2 cups pulp)
1/2 c sugar (white! none of that hippie bs!)
1/2 lemon, squeezed

Peel, pit and chop persimmmons, then place in a nonreactive pan. Stir in sugar and lemon. Cook over medium heat for about 25 minutes. The mixture should boil and reduce by about 1/3. Bottle.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mastering the Art of Fucking Up Your Cooking

All of my friends eat well, and most cook well. It makes sense: San Francisco is a city that pulls hedonists into its orbit. Last week I listened to a pick-up quartet play Brahms at a bar in the Mission District. A man with a silver moustache tapped his sneakered foot and leaned close to inspect the sheet music between movements.

"Are you a musician?" I asked him.

"No," he said, "I love beauty." That's how I feel about food.

So when I happen across someone who doesn't enjoy cooking, I am in disbelief. Andres, my roommate in Boston, boiled spaghetti to death each Sunday afternoon at our walk-up in the North End, spooning the limp noodles into a giant tupperware container he'd parcel out for each workaday lunch and dinner.

Obviously I cook because I like to eat. But also I cook because I like to experiment. I cook because I like to make a mess. I cook because I like to fail.

Failure isn't an acceptable option in many realms of life. It's unsafe and shunned. Who wants to fail at raising a kid or on a project at work?

Failure makes you learn, sure. But failure also makes you laugh at yourself. Failure makes you less of an asshole.

On the first night in my new apartment, I invited a few friends over for celebratory snacks and drinks. In the three hours between the movers leaving and the guests arriving, I baked green-frosted cupcakes and paved white bread with butter, cukes and truffle salt.

When you assume you'll have a 50% acceptance rate for a party with free food, you assume wrong. Everyone showed up and most brought friends, arriving directly after work and hoovering the limited supply of edibles before addressing the liquid portion of our meal. Reviewing the circle of drunk people sitting on the floor in my furniture-less living room, a dear friend ran to Safeway and returned with a canned ham and a microwaveable packet of fondue cheese. It was both hilarious and horrifying. Someone threw up in the sink. Someone was me.

I try new things always, but that spark of discovery sometimes burns into a full-on fire. Last week I roasted a chicken with a new recipe and set my pink vintage apron (yes, that one) on the stove for a minute while I ran to grab a lemon from the dining room table. In the minute gap, the apron hissed and curled like a Shrinky Dink tongue, with that same plasticky smell.

So here's my failure list: the apple butters from last year were dreadful; sometimes I buy food but then obsess over writing some story and let the fruit compost. If you wend down the trail of "I'll post the recipe tomorrow!" notes followed by silence, I was probably eating take-out noodles on the couch, wondering "How DOES George Saunders do it?" while the plums rot on the white counter. Also, I've heard from several sources that my marmalade's too sour (but that's how I like it).

Just today I melted some lovely pink rubber gloves accidentally left on the stove while I baked a marmalade tart. All the time I make messes, experiment, fail and learn. But that, also, is how I like it.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Fall Not In New England

I'm from Connecticut. I say that and people think:

Admit it. You read "Connecticut" and thought: mansions, autumn, an image of the society perhaps drawn from a 1940's film starring America's favorite crooner, Bing Crosby.

When I tell people, especially out here in California where few of my brethren live, I can see those exact images pop into their heads. Being from there is funny, because when I think Connecticut, I think:

New Haven-style pizza, especially Frank Pepe's exceptional pie, and the colorful Sicilian community in my hometown, where I actually went to junior high with a kid named "Sebby Italia." And in some ancient lizard part of my brain, there's still that imprint of autumn in New England, despite my distinct memories of clogged sewers and slippery roads.

So San Francisco autumn is, frankly, a disappointment. Fall is less a season than a bellwether of winter, when rain charges across the Golden Gate and spreads across the sky in a suffocating gray pillow that soaks us from December through April.

One recent year--was it 2007 or 2006?--it rained every single day in March. You try: you buy knee-high rubber boots in pink, think of finding a sturdy parasol when next in London, book a weekend in Mexico as a last gasp.

In October you see the faces of people on the street, and you think: it's coming. You do not think of leaves, harvest pies, that hollow weight and prickly smell of pumpkins in a field. But you know what we've got on you, New England? This:

It is still 70 degrees, warm enough to wear only a scarf to the market at 7 a.m. Autumn fruits and vegetables are fantastic: fresh almonds, weird squashes, misty cardoons. We never had to invent something so morally repulsive (and secretly delicious) as gelatinous canned cranberry sauce.

This time around: persimmons. If you've seen them before, you may be more familiar with the squat, pumpkin-shaped fuyu variety. When ripe, the hachiya melts into a custardy texture that seems interesting to cook.

We'll see when they ripen later this week...