Thursday, August 25, 2005

I am the Rachael Ray of Novato

I must confess that I've never watched the much-derided Rachael Ray, and so I am sadly bereft of passionate feelings about the woman.

I was, however, delighted with Sam's idea of miming Rachael in her quest to eat out for three meals on $40, especially since I'm trying to get more familiar with Novato. And so I had every intention of seeking out obscure lunchtime diners and becoming the quirky girl with the camera in her hand, but alas: work has been intense, and I am planning a long-awaited trip to New York, and so I didn't exactly devour Novato in the way I had planned. I'm also posting this 5 days AFTER the deadline, so I hope Sam will have mercy on me.

That said, this is what I discovered in the course of my adventure.


I am not a breakfast person. The first thing I do after I get out of bed in the morning is to put a kettle of cold water on the stove. While the water heats up, I wander into the bathroom to stand in front of the mirror and look for new crinkly bits around my eyes. I turn on my computer and strike awkward stretching poses. When the tea kettle sings, I brew a pot of something exotic, most likely from Mariage Freres. My current favorite is Casablanca, but that might change by tomorrow...

I like breakfast food, just not at breakfast time. I don't generally feel hungry until well after 11.

But in the spirit of this experiment, I sought out spots for muffin-espresso-eggy-ish places, and discovered a wonderful bakery in the old town section of Grant Avenue called Skully's. Skully's has an assortment of delectable pastries and heavenly freshly-baked bread that you can take home with you to make French Toast for Sunday Brunch. They are committed to using the highest quality ingredients, and it shows. On my "40 dollar day", I choose a plain croissant ($2.25) and a single cappuccino ($2.25). I leave $1 in the tip jar.

Grand total: $5.50


Now I'm waking up. The day is progressing, and I have a million things to do, not enough time to sit down for a proper lunch, but I'm STARVING. Must! Eat! Now!

As it turns out, Novato has a plethora of taquerias and Mexican markets. I will not, shall not, think about my favorite places in the Mission. I will take what Novato has to offer, and I will LIKE it, gosh darn it!

Tamales sound like just the thing. And where better to get them than Quezada Market at the corner of Rowland and South Novato Boulevard? They have both chicken and pork today, so I ask for one of both. The man behind the counter blushes and smiles when I order in a flurry of pseudo-Spanish and stilted English. I ask him for extra red sauce, and he quickly obliges. I note that Quezada has a fantastic assortment of dried chilies. I'll be coming back to stock up on supplies for Mole Sauce.

The tamales are $1.50 each. On my way to the counter, I grab a can of young coconut juice out of the cooler.

My total? $4.23.

I rush home to devour them, and I am not disappointed. The masa is tender and moist, and the filling is spicy and delicious. I'm up to $9.73 now, which leaves with an embarassing bounty for dinner. I have plenty for an afternoon snack, but no time to indulge. I've spotted a Double Rainbow ice cream parlor in the Vintage Oaks Plaza, but don't have time to stop.


Kitchen recently announced an early Prix-Fixe menu, which is only $15 between the hours of 5-6pm. $15 bucks! Seriously, how wonderful is that? Word has it that they came up with the idea to attract the Farmer's Market crowd that gathers on Tuesday evenings, and it has been an unqualified success.

Eating at 5:30 is something of a trial, but I'm up for it tonight. The meal begins with cauliflower soup, silky with slightly nutty overtones. I might have wished for it to be a few degrees warmer, but the flavor is excellent.

A grilled skirt steak is next, a bit chewy but with nice grilled bits on the sides. It is accompanied by arugula with red-skinned potatoes and a white nectarine. Desert is strawberry ice cream, the color of pale pink rose petals. I enjoy a glass of Franus Cabernet with each delectable bite.

My total is $25.98.

I may not come from an Italian family, or have a 8 cookbooks to my name, or have a television show, but I HAVE eaten well in Novato for $40.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Apple Pie in the Afternoon

The past few days have been terribly hectic, and now I am playing blog catch-up! I still have to put up my contribution to Sam's fabulous event "Be Rachael Ray for a Day" - check out that picture! What a supah-fox! My Novato version won't be nearly as glamorous, but it was great fun in any case.

But first, the apple pie report. On Thursday morning, I made a batch of pie dough and wrapped it in plastic to chill for a bit. In my opinion, pie crust should be buttery and flaky, full of flavor and substantial enough to handle a mountain of hot, juicy filling. I don't use shortening in mine; it's all butter, cut into flour until the texture resembles itsy-bitsy pea gravel.

I like to use two different kinds of apples in my pies to create a well-rounded final product. For this pie, I used a mixture of Gravenstein and Pink Blush. The Gravensteins were firm and heavy, so dense that you wouldn't want to be dozing beneath the apple tree when one of these decided to fall. They literally crackle and crunch when you bite into them, and their juice is tart and bright. The Pink Blush were larger, but considerably lighter. Their flesh is almost airy in comparison, and the flavor is mellow, almost pear-like.

I stood at the kitchen counter, humming to my favorite playlist of R.E.M. favorites, peeling and coring and chopping. I had the windows open, and the boy who mows the lawn was working on the back yard, and the smell of fresh-cut grass was heavy in the air. I kept inhaling great lung-fulls of it, trying to hold on to those vibrant green molecules of scent. I had this moment, then, as I stood there with my apron on, knife in hand, of great happiness. And then I had to giggle, because it was all so Desperate-Housewives-ish. Not that I feel desperate, or anything close to it, but the combination of the suburban setting, and the apple-pie-making and all just set me off...

Maybe you had to be there.

Anyway: I had intended to follow this recipe for my pie, but at the moment when I was going to put those gorgeous chopped apple pieces into a pan to simmer, I simply couldn't do it. I re-read the recipe, felt inspired again, reached for the pan... and couldn't put the apples in the pan. It seems that I have a severe phobia of overcooked apples. I do not like applesauce, and I kept thinking: why would I simmer these apples and THEN tuck them between their blankets of pie crust and cook them some more?! They will taste like apple mush, and then I won't be able to eat my pie!

And so I reverted back to my old ways. I tossed my crisp apple pieces with fresh lemon juice, cinnamon and sugar, and let them sit for a moment while I rolled out the dough. I didn't have any cassia bark or white pepper on hand, and besides, now I was back on a familiar track, and so I let all of those exotic ingredients fall right out of my head. The apples went into the pie pan, and the top crust was nestled over the top, when I remembered that she had sprinkled lavender water over the top of her crust and I felt that I should at least do something to make this pie different from the usual. And so I pulled out a bottle of rosewater (!!) and sprinkled that over the top of my crust. Hmmm.

Moments later, it was bubbling away in the oven, filling the house with an apple-cinnamon smell. I think I enjoy the aroma of baking more than baked goods themselves. When it was golden brown and the juices were oozing out the top vents, I took it out and proudly displayed it on the counter so that B would congratulate me the second he walked through the door. Which he did, of course.

I quite firmly believe that pie should be eaten within 3 hours of coming out of the oven for maximization of the flavor-texture ratio of buttery crust to warm filling, and so we each devoured a big slice of it in short order. The rosewater, incidentally, could not be detected.

It was like eating mouthfuls of summer, and we pushed away our plates with sighs of contentment.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

She Wore A...

I've been playing around with infusing my own vodkas this summer, and so when I saw Stephanie's announcement for the inagural round of The Blog Party, I decided to let you all in on some of the fun I've been having.

I've randomly seen chunks of fruit soaking in jars of vodka at various places in the City over the years; during the dot-com madness, there was this fabulous spot in {then} hot hot hot South Park called Infusion that specialized in infused vodkas: Pineapple. Ginger. Lychee. They may still be there, but the last time I stopped by, the scene was so sadly diminished from what it once was that I had to exit straightaway. But I digress.

I've never been terribly inspired by infused vodkas. I was, however, over the course of several evenings spent in the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz Paris, charmed and delighted by the head bartender there, Colin Peter Field. To call him merely the "head bartender" doesn't do him justice. He mixes the most incredible cocktails, creates an atmosphere that combines comfort with glamour, and is a fabulous person besides. Every drink that he serves to a lady is accompanied by a fresh flower - a rose, or an orchid, or some other delicate hothouse bloom. Two years ago, he wrote a book called The Cocktails of the Ritz Paris, which occupies an enviable spot on my cookbook shelf. Whenever I rifle through the pages, it inspires a rash of brie-and-brioche-scented daydreams.

The last time I picked up the book, I happened to flip to page 106, where Colin describes the Raspberry Beret, made with vodka that he infuses on the premises with fresh, ripe raspberries. I remembered having that drink, and loving it. And, wait: raspberries are in season. 'Nough said. The following week, I procured a bottle of Chopin and a pint of organic raspberries from the farmer's market and proceeded to drop them into the bottle, one by one, just as Colin instructs. Actually, I poured about 1/3 of the vodka out first, to use with something else, because I thought that the raspberries might take up a bit of space. Interestingly, the entire pint went into the bottle without any perceptible rise in volume.

I set the bottle back on the cocktail cart, with no small amount of anticipation, and peeked at it every day to see if I could discern a change. Within about 3 days, a faint rosy hue began to hover just above the berries. Within one week, tongues of bright pink were curling towards the surface of the bottle. I was very, very excited.

Colin says to wait 3 weeks, but after 2 weeks, the vodka was the color of deep fuschia, and I was dying to try it. And so, late one night, I poured a generous stream of the stuff into an ice-laden martini shaker, shook it very hard, and poured it into a chilled glass.

It was, dear reader, everything I was hoping for. *insert contented sigh*

I'm now working on my second batch, this time using Ciroc. The picture above shows the progress after 8 days. Isn't it gorgeous?! And no, I haven't been sneaking any premature sips. I poured half of it into another bottle and tossed in a big fat vanilla bean. Possibilities abound...

This tastes incredible chilled, just as it is, but I was in the mood for something different yesterday, and so I pulled out a jar of sugar that I had been saving for something special. A few months ago, I realized that one of the big, bushy plants around the house was a pineapple sage, and so I plucked off a bunch of leaves, whirred them up in the food processor, and stirred them into a cup or so of sugar. It smells wonderful, and beautifully rounds out the berry notes.

Jennifer's Raspberry Beret*

• 1 tablespoon pineapple sage sugar
• 1/2 ripe orange, peeled
• 2 ounces raspberry-infused vodka
• metal shaker
• ice cubes to fill shaker about 1/2 full

In a shaker, muddle the orange together with the sugar until the orange is thoroughly macerated and the sugar has blended in with the juice. Add the ice. Pour the vodka over the top. Shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled martini glass.

Sip slowly for maximum enjoyment.

*With a shout-out to Prince, from whom this name was surely derived. You da man.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Ain't No Pie Round Here

I did not make apple pie this weekend.

Friday and Saturday nights at the restaurant were both harrowing. I ask you: why don't people arrive on time for their reservations? Why? When you make a 6:30 res on a busy weekend night, does it even occur to you that arriving at 6:55 with only part of your party is not good form? Or that, when you finally march to the host stand and announce that you are ready to sit down at 7:20, that your breezy tardiness has a direct effect on the diners whose reservations were made for later the same night?

I want people to be happy, I truly do, but when you insult one of my servers to the point that she is in tears, you shake your fist and threaten to leave a bad review, and you don't want to listen, only talk, how I can I make things better?

The highlight of the weekend occurred at about 10:20 on Saturday night, when one of the runners dropped a tray full of sizzling hot crabs right in front of a table. Garlic butter, anyone?

Suffice it to say that by Sunday I was not in the mood to putter about in the kitchen, and I had no heart for trying out restaurants that would likely disappoint. And so, on both of my nights off (Sunday & Monday), I ditched Novato and fled to the City for sushi. There is nothing quite so comforting as sitting down at a much-beloved counter in front of a familiar chef who delivers piece after piece of amazing fish-flesh. That, and a chilled glass of sake close at hand, will cure just about anything.

I am much better now, and the apples are still waiting, and I shall attend to them soon.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Promises of Apple Pie

Thanks to Inc. Magazine, I discovered a new blog this morning! It's called Cracked Cauldron Spillings, and details the adventures of two women whose dream it is to open a bakery in Oklahoma City.

Check out Wednesday's post on Lemon Apple Pie. Oh. My. Goodness.

I confess that I am somewhat vain about my pie-making abilities. When I was 12 years old, I spent the summer pefecting pie crust, and to this day I do believe that I make one of the best pies around. But this post has inspired me to update my trusty apple pie recipe... but I'll need to find some cassis bark and lavender water first.

Sounds like a perfect project for Sunday! Details will follow.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Green Prickly Things That Grow in the Desert

My expectations for dining out in Novato are on a precarious slide. I've reached a point where I'm just happy when a place looks clean and my tummy doesn't hurt afterwards. Actually, I've been cooking at home a lot more than I did when I lived in the City, which is a decidedly good thing. I've also been trolling every blog and restaurant review site out there in hopes of finding a hidden gem, but the good spots all seem to be in Petaluma or San Rafael or other places outside of my 'hood. And so I've been straying... but more on that later.

My most recent Novato experiment took place at Cacti Restaurant, where I was accompanied once more by the fabulous Adam. Cacti is housed in a whitewashed, Spanish-looking building on Grant Avenue that was formerly a church. The double doors are tall and weather-beaten; walking in, we felt a rush of anticipation. The hostess led us to a table in the middle of the dining room, where we could watch the movements of the kitchen through the oblong cubbyhole that also serves as the counter where plates are put up.

We sat for about fifteen minutes before anyone greeted us. There were only about eight other tables seated in the whole place, so it didn't seem to be an issue of busy-ness so much as one of miscommunication - the two servers on staff each thought that we were assigned to the other. This little joke was relayed to us when they both approached the table at the same time. Unfortunately, the ambiguity continued throughout the evening; one took our drink order, while the other one returned to ask if we wanted appetizers.

We began with margaritas, which were served in oversized glasses of the sort you find during a summer sale at Pier One - clear glass at the bottom that gradually becomes a bright shade of cobalt blue towards the wide, jutting rim. They were cold and not too sweet, nicely accented to shards of salt, and we hunkered over our straws and chatted about the Very Important Things that were happening in our respective restaurants of employ - server gossip, menu changes, the horrible customer who came in over the weekend and threw a fit in the middle of dessert...

A runner delivered our starters, consisting of mini tamales and chips, salsa & guacamole. The tamales were arranged like spokes on a puddle of reddish-brown sauce. They were tender and soft, if a bit gummy on the outside. The sauce had a hint of pepper and a vaguely sweet flavor that cried out for more attitude, but we were hungry, so it worked. The chips were crunchy and salty, and though the portion of guacamole was small, it was simultaneously creamy and chunky, without any of the funky "off" avocado flavor that some guacamoles suffer from.

Our starters were long since finished as we sat, talking on and thinking every few minutes that someone might come by to clear the plates or perhaps take our entree orders. We wiggled our straws into the bottoms of our margarita glasses, searching out the last bit of tequila.

Adam watched my eyes dart accusingly around the room. "Our standards are awfully high," he said ruefully. "We're kind of hard to please, being in the industry and all."

"Maybe," I sighed, "but we aren't exactly being difficult customers. I mean, we're just sitting here, waiting for someone to take our order."

After a few more minutes, our server returned - which one was it this time? - with pad in hand, ready to hear what we wanted next. We decided on the Filet Mignon Enchiladas and the Mesquite-grilled Salmon.

Both entrees were, when they arrived, perfectly pleasant. Let me point out two highlights. The first was that the salmon wasn't cooked through, but rather had a moist, rosy center - I love that. I hate it when salmon is cooked through and tastes like dry mush in my mouth. Second, the black beans that were served on the side of both dishes were cooked to perfection. Not too hard, not too soft - firm, yet plush cushions of bean-y goodness with a hint of smoky spice. Mmm.

The enchilada was decent, but didn't make any kind of specific impression. A shrug, if you will. Ditto with the rice. We decided to skip dessert. One of the servers eventually returned with our check, and we went on our way.

This was not a bad dining experience (see note above about expectation level). The service left much to be desired, but then again - everyone has an off night. Admittedly, we didn't order some of the more interesting things on the menu - chips and guacamole are not exactly the test of a chef - and so I think that Cacti merits another try. I already know that it won't be in my top 50, or even 100, but it just might fit the bill when I'm hankering for a margarita and something spicy close to home.

Cacti Restaurant
1200 Grant Avenue
Novato, CA

Thursday, August 04, 2005

A Tale of Two Eggs

I grew up eating eggs gathered from a ramshackle henhouse, which was located just a few steps away from our kitchen door. The variety of eggs produced by our chickens never failed to amaze us. The shells ranged from creamy white to sand-colored to cocoa-brown - including our favorites, the blue and green ones from the diminutive Bantams. We were lucky indeed.

And so it is that I go through the world still seeking eggs that taste like those did. I buy all sorts of eggs labeled "organic" and "free range", and sometimes I love them, sometimes I don't. There doesn't seem to be a science to it.

Last week, at the San Rafael Civic Center Farmer's Market, I found beautiful brown eggs from Santa Rosa, sold by two positively adorable gentlemen with rough, knobby hands and enormous smiles. One dozen large brown beauties: $3.25.

I was so happy to have these wonderful eggs that I decided to treat them special. One morning when I didn't have any urgent chores, I dreamed up a little breakfast indulgence for myself. For starters, I poached two of the eggs - using this method from Elaine Corn over at Sally's Place, which is genius - it works like a charm, and I shall indeed toss out my poaching cups forever.

Next, I split an English muffin and put a few bits of fresh butter on top and stuck them under the broiler. Then I mixed 1/4 cup of creme fraiche (made myself last week, easy and fantastic) with a handful of chopped dill, a squeeze of lemon, salt and freshly ground pepper.

I slid the eggs onto the toasted English muffins, and drizzled the dill-creme fraiche over the top. And then I grabbed a fork and knife. The muffin was crusty and warm; the egg white was springy and soft; the yolk was light yellow on the outside and dark and golden on the inside, where it oozed ever-so-slightly.

I was, for a few moments, in heaven.

I suppose it is no surprise, then, that the eggs were gone in short order, and I ended up running to Safeway a few days later so that I could duplicate my poached-eggs-on-toast success for my sweetheart, the morning after he returned home. I will write more about my feelings about Safeway later. Suffice it to say that I found Safeway brand organic eggs - $4 a dozen - and ran back out.

For our breakfast, I used the last two Santa Rosa eggs and two of the Safeway eggs. Cracking the eggs side by side, I was astonished at the difference in the look of them. The Safeway egg yolks were pale yellow, in stark contrast to the deep orange of the Santa Rosa eggs. The whites of the Safeway eggs were thicker and firmer than the Santa Rosa eggs. The whites of the local eggs were runnier and also slightly cloudier, the cloudy factor due to the fact that they were fresher, and therefore contained more carbon dioxide.

To my taste buds, the local eggs were richer and creamier, and had a more complex flavor. But is that simply because I already had a predjudice towards them over the ones from Safeway? I don't know. I've been hunting around online to find out what the difference in yolk color means, and every site I've found has said that color is related to diet - lighter yolks come from a diet high in wheat, barley or cornmeal, while darker yolks indicate yellow corn or greens included in the diet. All the sites I found said that the color does not influence the taste.

Does anyone else have a clue about this?

All I know is that the Safeway eggs have since languished in the refrigerator, and today I handed back my empty carton to the man in the plaid shirt and bought another dozen of my favorites.

I'm glad that Safeway is starting to carry a few organic items - and that someone at the end of that carton of eggs is making a living - but I have a hard time getting over my deep-seated loathing of large supermarket chains. And so I have a twinge of guilt, which I suppose will go away when I decide to bake something and use the Safeway eggs up so that they aren't just sitting there, neglected...