whine, whine, whine

January 13th, 2012

As noted in my favorite monk, I am pestered twice a year by bottles of Dom Pérignon in my Christmas stocking and on my birthday.  It is the only wine and food pairing that’s never obvious to me.  Bright and briny Blue Point oysters would be perfect, of course, except for the inability to get them up here in the boondocks.

Seafood concoctions bathed in cream are generally a good partner for bottles of French bubbles; a lobster bisque perhaps, a Coquilles St. Jacques, or a simple Shrimp Newberg, except not so perfect with Monsieur Dom, which should never have to work overtime to cut through creams and butters and still remain assertive and generous.

Waltzing my way through Mecca today and plucking luscious goodies from the lamb and cheese counters, did I espy a locked case perched above the fresh fish counter.  “What have we here,” murmured the shopping cart as it veered sharply to the right to explore.  “Can it be?” asked we, simultaneously.  A medley of Russian caviars — in New Hampshire?  ’Twas not a vision, dear readers, and ‘tis the best friend Dom Pérignon can ever hope to find.

No Complaints

the hope effect

August 30th, 2011

Taking a job as a photographer and reporter at the Virginia Gazette in the late 1980’s was a rather strange decision given that I didn’t read newspapers because I couldn’t stand the feel of ink on my fingers.  The assistant editor at the time, a lovely woman named Hope, then in her seventies, while proofing one of my early articles, quirked an eyebrow at me and asked, “Katherine, have you ever read a newspaper?”  To which I responded, “Yuck, no, too inky!”

With the patience of a saint did Hope then explain that if one wants to do something well, it’s essential that a careful observation, analysis and comparison be done of those who successfully came before – to seek out and find the best representatives and to up the ante from there.  Nodding obediently, I asked, “Does this mean I have to read newspapers?”

The effect of her message took root in my young and unruly mind and germinated over the next month, whereupon I suddenly knew exactly what she meant and promptly bought a pair of felt gloves and began devouring as many newspapers as I could get my gloves on.

The Hope Effect has been applied to everything I’ve done since; from the most important (jobs and careers) to the most ordinary (flower arranging and napkin folding) and certainly has had its effect on cooking and recipe development.  Years spent as a diligent self-study student of such culinary greats as Escoffier, Ducasse, Adria, and Duglere have created a vast foundation from which I can hope to ‘up the ante’.

Since those first fumbling weeks at the Virginia Gazette, I have shared Hope with hundreds of people spanning six countries, and today, with belated thanks, do I dedicate this simple case in point, French baguettes, to that remarkable and generous editor, and the profound effect she gave my every minute from that early day forward.

Our Daily Bread

on being fluffy

July 21st, 2011

Our cat Pu, also known as Constance Waddles, was abandoned as a kitten in a Texas desert.  He thumbed a ride north on an 18-wheeler all the way to New Hampshire seven years ago and has ruled our big schloss ever since.  Pu is an articulate linguist who speaks in whole sentences with a smattering of English and French in the mix along with an occasional bark.  He knows what he wants and when he wants it and those two items are either food or a nap.

Our other cat Spud, also known as Tiny Dancer, showed up on the porch two Christmases ago looking pathetic and forlorn.  He is now a vibrant young man in a fur suit with few words, one to be exact, “Ack”, which he rarely uses.  Spud’s notable skill is his dexterity.  He can untie a shoe, unbutton a sweater and roll the dice in a backgammon game with enviable skill.  Clearly, he is a closet nudist or a closet gambler, we’re not yet sure which.

When his fierce schedule permits, Pu works on his autobiography, “On Being Fluffy,” alternately titled, “Being and Fluffiness,” subject to his sense of existentialism at any given moment.  Spud takes down Pu’s dictation with a Sharpie pen on any surface handy, and I have been charged with editing the work-in-progress.  Ha!  I left pro bono editorial favors in the dust decades ago.  I will, however, take a page from Pu’s notional title(s), in the form of a soufflé, at least once a week, and as with editorial chores, share it never with either of those beloved critter-folks.

title

 

evil good

June 29th, 2011

Some results of food alchemy defy the usual categorizing, being supreme to both typecasting and predictability.  I like to call these defiant ones Evil Good.  Having now prepped your palate, walk the following concoction through your mouth:

A char-grilled burger napped with a molten beer-cheese sauce topped with a fried ripe tomato and dressed with a bright parsley salad and a few onion rings, all sandwiched between a toasted homemade buttermilk English Muffin.

Evil!

Rarebit Burger

culinary cliff dives

March 28th, 2011

Several years after the Velvet Revolution freed Slovakia from Russia’s perverse over-lording, the exit from the bus stop in Bratislava was lined with 4-5 makeshift food kiosks selling a variety of wares; shriveled potatoes, stray pieces of pork, homemade cheese (the kind that never melted) and bright red hot dogs whose flavor came from the fiery mustard slathered on them.

At the end of the row sat an old and rotund woman next to an old and rotund cask, both without the mercy of umbrella or plastic lean-to.  From the cask she scooped sauerkraut for her clientele into whatever vessel or slightly used bag they brought with them.  Over time, I noticed that at the end of each day, the old woman’s spot would acquire a fairly large queue of customers, sometimes as many as five, waiting patiently in the snow.

In true lemming fashion, one day, did I join this queue for the unknown culinary cliff dive waiting just ahead.  The old crone handed me a crusted and chipped mug, half filled with the remnants of the day’s victual, to whit, sauerkraut swill.  I swallowed it down in one brave gulp, handed her back the mug along with three pennies, and continued on my way to the bus.

After about twenty yards or so, the magic began to unfold.  My frosty fingers became warm, my posture straightened and my gait became downright bouncy.  Best of all, the smile that swill gave birth to helped light up the dark journey home to Dunajská Lužná.  I’ve been a rabid fan of sauerkraut ever since.  Na zdravie – nech slúžiďakujem!

Righteous Reuben

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hangin’ at the tosca

January 23rd, 2011

The Tosca Café on Columbus Avenue in the North Beach section of San Francisco is the greatest hang-out in the world, bar none.  Some of its charm lies in the fact that nothing has changed, except the prices, in its eighty-plus year existence.  The same giant cappuccino machines still grace each end of the long bar, the red vinyl booths in back still pack out on Saturday nights, and the vintage jukebox still plays the same tunes it did in the 1930’s and 40’s.

Italians arias and Sinatra croonings add to an ambience blessedly devoid of dueling television screens.  In the early afternoon, owner Jeannette Etheredge can be spied in her tiny office tallying the previous day’s receipts while the bartender carefully lines up many dozen tulip glasses in preparation of the notoriously famous House Coffee, a coffee-hot chocolate-brandy concoction topped with whipped cream.

I’ve been making a slightly different version of Tosca’s House Coffee for many years now and with the first sip am carried back in time to all of the previous conversations and musings enjoyed while hanging out at the Tosca.

title

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eschewing food

January 22nd, 2011

When I was nine, Mother and I were strolling through Nob Hill in San Francisco when I suddenly punned, “If you’re a snob, raise your nose!”  Mother found this quite amusing, as did I, and we chuckled for the next couple of blocks.  That was the first and last funny thing I ever said, which is why it’s so easy to remember.

While a comedic career was not in the cards, snobbery was, especially when it comes to food, and I offer no apologies, simply because it tends to come with the territory.  The number of foods I eschew are as many as the natural ones utilized.  The eschew list includes all fast food, fast casual food and chain restaurants along with all frozen food, canned food, processed foods and facsimile foods.

Coincidentally, this eschewing is what keeps us our same svelte selves, year after year after year, and thus, clearly, food snobbery is good for one’s physique and one’s overall health.  A diet devoid of everything pre-processed or additive-ridden allows for the enjoyment of everything else that is naturally luscious and caloric; like butter, cream, and cheese.  Mother used to make tiny pecan tarts that were a mere nod to the pecans and a standing ovation for the butter, cream cheese and whipped cream that abound in these divine little bites of all-natural pleasure.

Pecan Tassies

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high seas cuisine

April 10th, 2010

Back when my living came from photography, I landed a very plum gig with the Jamestown/Yorktown Foundation in Virginia.  The job was to board their tall ship, Godspeed and capture it on film while under sail.  This meant scrambling up and down the rat lines, laden with gear, perching out over the yardarm, scaring off the crows in the crow’s nest and leaning deeply over the bow for that ‘got to have’ angle.

When we docked the first night I got a few snaps of Godspeed silhouetted in the sunset and then stowed all my gear and thought, “I wonder what’s for sup?”  I’d mustered up such an enormous appetite during the course of a day on the not very high seas that my anticipation was becoming rabid.  We lined up at the galley door and walked away with a limp, watery and utterly tasteless potato soup.

It was a memorable meal because it turned out to be the best culinary effort that emerged from that galley for the entire journey.  When we docked back in Jamestown and just prior to racing to the nearest food source, I pulled the captain aside and implored him to let me volunteer as the ship’s galley chef, promising unforgettable meals, unforgettable for the right reason.

So began an eight-year ‘pastime’ on numerous tall ships on both east and west coasts.  One of the most challenging and memorable jaunts was the sea trials for the brand new Susan Constant, the flag ship that brought the first permanent English settlement to Jamestown island in 1607 along with her side kicks, Godspeed and Discovery.

In addition to the crew and the cook, the 30 odd passengers included the ship’s designers and engineers along with a couple of news crews. For practical purposes everyone aboard had been advised to bring their own mug, plate, bowl and spoon and they were responsible for keeping them cleaned and stowed.  My task was to plan for three meals and two snacks each day along with manning the lines and belay pins or furling the sail as needed.

I composed the menus, bought and stowed all the food, and endeavored to calculate and acquire each possible kitchen utensil needed.  There’s only one chance to remember everything and that’s before you cast off.  The galley was not below ships but on deck and consisted of a berth for sleeping, and a small gas stove and oven. I used the berth for food storage and slept on the floor with the gas tank as a pillow.

It was February and bitterly cold.  Being an authentic reproduction, the ship had no heat, chairs, or comfort of any kind.  The crew slipped and slithered along the icy deck.  Passengers sat about shivering and trying to stay out of the way or huddled in their berths aft.  I prepped, cooked, served, prepped, cooked, served, prepped, cooked and served for a straight 15 hours each day.  It was more than food and far beyond fun.

The little galley cranked out sausage biscuits, lamb and lentil stew, apple pies, eggs every which way, dark chocolate cakes, shrimp gumbo, peanut soup, ever-changing cookies, specialty pastas, enormous salads, savory casseroles, and an array of other ship-made goodies.

On the last day of sailing I noticed that the same gentleman kept walking past the galley, bowl in hand, while I was prepping lunch.  He was one of the ship’s designers and had circumnavigated the globe four times, solo.  His beard was snow white and his eyes sparkled with that inner calm unique to sailors.

“Would you like a snack?” I asked.  “No,” he replied, “I just like smelling what’s coming from your door.”  “Lunch will be ready in about an hour,” said I.  He continued on with his deck rotation.  After a few more turns, he paused and noted, “You know, I love food so much that my wife says I’d eat shit if it had a raisin in it.”

The Susan Constant

insomnia

November 2nd, 2009

My constant friend, insomnia, has been around since high school and it has its ways and means.  About a month ago while channel surfing at 3 in the morning, I happened upon TV Diner with Billy Costa, which is a great little show that features New England restaurants and chefs.  It’s especially nice television for us in the north country boondocks, because there is no restaurant in our town, but we can enjoy an evening out, vicariously, through TV Diner.

This episode mentioned a Hood Dairy Cook-off and the next morning I looked it up online.  The rules were simple enough; utilize one or more Hood products in a recipe that can be prepared, cooked and served in 40 minutes.  That would leave out my two specialties, entrees and artisan breads, so I looked around the kitchen and my eyes lit on the many dozens of jars of freshly canned apple butter.

To make a very long story short, my little recipe of Apple Butter Aebleskivers with Maple Chantilly was selected to participate in the semi-finals, so we headed down to Portland, Maine last Sunday to experience a first ever cooking competition.

I won the semi-final round and now we had seven hours to fill until the finals.  We watched the next two rounds and the talent at this competition became all too apparent and utterly intimidating for my funny little pancake ball.

Back in the venue at 4:15 p.m. for the final competition, stations set and aprons tied, the five contestants explained their dishes to the 200 visitors and the television host and crew from TV Diner.  We were cooking for five judges this time in the same 40 minute period with the added challenge of movie cameras and lots of hot lights.  At one point, Billy Costa actually came into my station, microphone in hand, to discuss the history of aebleskivers while I was trying to fill the first of three aebleskiver pans.

Ahead of me at the judges’ table were Million Dollar Mussels, whose outstanding aroma had taken over the venue, followed by an equally aromatic Shrimp and Lobster Linguine with Creamy Lemon Scampi Sauce, followed by a sensational Southwest Potato and Corn Chowder with Chili Rotisserie Chicken.  And then my dish was presented followed by beautifully plated Wild Blueberry Chocolate Blintz Crepes.

While the judges tallied the scores we cleaned our stations and stowed all the gear we’d been lugging around all day.  And then the results were announced; third place with 213 points was the lueberry chocolate crepes, second place with 214 points was the southwest chowder, and finally, in first place with 223 points were the little aebleskivers.

The $10,000 cash prize will be gone by the end of next week because we need to replace the furnace before the weather gets any colder.  But it’s the generosity of spirit and enthusiasm exhibited by the judges, contestants, coordinators and helpers that is the real prize, and one that will last my lifetime.

Prize Winning

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somebody’s watching you!

July 19th, 2009

Some times on Sundays, when we were growing up, Dad would say, “Let’s go for a Sunday Drive!” which was fine by Mother, who enjoyed getting out of the house and out of the kitchen.  Dad would usually have a quasi-destination in mind; a sprawling farm to feast his eyes on, a Morgan horse to consider buying, or simply the Oceanside and sit beside and smell.  We children loved the Sunday Drives because our good car behavior would inevitably be rewarded at the end of the trip with an ice cream cone or pink-spiced popcorn.

The six of us would pile into the Vista Cruiser and motor forward, sometimes singing together or playing math games directed by Dad.  One time, when I was sitting in the way back and bored to tears, I began whistling a current favorite and when the sound reached the front of the car, Mother and Dad turned at the same instant to inquire, “What on earth are you whistling?”  “Basin Street Blues,” I replied.  They looked at each other in bemusement and didn’t inquire further.  Unbeknownst to them, I’d been playing their vinyls for several years and by age eight was a devoted Blues fan.

On the home-bound leg of the trip, with children silenced by the consumption of our reward, Mother and Dad would begin a conversation of their own, in the intimate cadence of love and comfort that came with time and familiarity.  I presume they thought we weren’t listening because they’d often use made-up words or abbreviations with which to communicate.  But I was always listening, because it was fascinating, this love language of theirs.

At a certain point, Mother would always ask Dad, “What would you like for supper?”  Dinner, on Sundays, was always served at lunchtime, and supper served at dinnertime and thus more casual than the rest of the week.  Dad would ponder a moment and then suggest something similar to this, “Some C.S.S., and a T.S would be nice.”  Mother would then add, “Along with an H.R?”  It took me a number of Sunday Drives to crack their code, and this is what they meant:  some cold, sliced steak, tossed salad and a hard roll.

One day after their menu consideration had transpired, I piped in, from the back seat, “Don’t forget the E.D.B.M.O.T.R.W.A.O!”  “What on earth is that,” they asked.  “An extra dry Beefeater martini on the rocks with an olive!” said I.  They sheepishly turned back around and I went on slurping my ice cream cone.  So much for codes.

Who's watching whom?

Copyright © Katherine Stetson, all rights reserved.