Monthly Archives: September 2008


Expectations (by Howard Kveck)

(photo by Howard Kveck)

(photo by Howard Kveck)

After years of eating certain types of food, one often constructs a sort of box that those experiences fit into. There is a comfort in knowing that when you go into a restaurant of that type, you’ll get a fairly consistent meal – the subtle variations being the thing that draws you back to one or the other more frequently. But every now and then, you can have an experience that takes you well outside that box.

A friend and I were chatting about the selection of Mexican food in the neighborhood around where I work. I can walk to about 15 or so taquerias or restaurants and I’ve tried many of them. Burritos, quesadillas, tacos, tortas – all are readily available. My friend asked me if I had ever tried a torta from La Casita Chilanga. He said they were pretty great but that I should go during off hours, as there was usually a line out the door at lunch. Hmm, I was intrigued. So a few days later, I stopped by on my way home.

First thing: this place is tiny – their part of the building is only about ten feet wide, and that might account for the line out the door. Second thing: the staff. A typical taqueria employee can be found wearing a t-shirt with the establishment’s name on it and an apron. So it got my attention when a guy came out of the tiny back room wearing spotless chef’s whites. I read the menu, noting that the tortas were prepared with onion, tomato, avocado and a special aioli. Aioli?!?! What??? That wasn’t something I had everseen on a taqueria menu. This was sounding better by the minute.

beyond expectations (photo by Howard Kveck)

beyond expectations (photo by Howard Kveck)

Now, most tortas I have had have been made with the same selection of fillings that taquerias are known for: pollo, carne asada, chile verde, and so on. But La Casita Chilanga went its own direction again, offering such things as grilled chicken breast, breaded beef (milanesa), smoked ham, turkey sausage, ham, cheese and pineapple and several others. Some tortas I’ve had were served on something uncomfortably similar to a Wonder™ hamburger bun, while these are made with a baguette style roll (and it’s a nicely fluffy bread, too). They finish them on a panini grill. Now I know the real reason the line goes out the door.

All of these little details are great on their own but the most important question is: was it good? On that front, La Casita Chilanga delivers. I’ve been back several times since this first visit and tried a variety of their sandwiches. Every one has been excellent.

As I said, there are some food experiences that are comfortable, even predictable. That isn’t to say they’re bad – they aren’t. That’s why one keeps going to the those establishments that deal in that fare. But an experience like my first visit to La Casita Chilanga was a real eye opener. So many of the expectations I had when I walked in the door were shattered. It was a reminder that stepping out of the realm of the “usual” can be a great thing. I appreciate them for going their own way. And for making a tasty sandwich.


La Casita Chilanga 2928 Middlefield Road, Redwood City, CA 650.568.0351


The Basil Grind

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

The simplicity of tastes that basil pesto provides can fuel me for days on end. Pasta is a natural for pesto but I will spread it on just about anything: grilled french bread, cool fresh mozzarella, braised fish, beefsteak tomato slices…and in my weakest moments, I’ll just load up a spoon with it and eat it from there.

In most places, summer means basil is plentiful. In California, “summer” lasts well into the fall so from March to October there is always some basil in the kitchen. Strangely enough, there is always peanut butter in my kitchen as well. I grind my own out of unsalted “blister” peanuts and add my own seasoning. Before you think the food-saturated wires in my brain have short-circuited and crossed, read on…

After grinding up a batch of peanut butter, my eyes came to rest on a package of pine nuts that I had left on the counter from a recent trip to the grocery store. Two of the ingredients that I like in my pesto are pine nuts and hard Italian cheese (usually Pecorino Romano). I never add too much of either as the oils from both are strong but it’s the oil part that got me thinking.

Of the thousands of times I made pesto, I followed one basic method: grind a huge double handful of basil with a little garlic, a small handful of pine nuts and cheese. Then I’d add the oil to really extend it. It was seasoned and I was ready to devour. But something about the grinding of peanut butter that day got me going on dealing with the pine nuts and cheese first and using the same technique as with the peanut butter. I began to think of the flexibility I could have by starting with the nut/cheese base for a basil “paste” than following the usual pesto route.

metric boatload of basil leaves (photo by wm. christman)

metric boatload of basil leaves (photo by wm. christman)

So, I ground the usual amount of pine nuts into a butter, added some grated cheese to extend the butter and got the whole mixture nice and smooth. Although garlic in pesto is classic, I don’t really like too much in mine but I added some anyway as it does round out the taste. All that was left was to pack a metric boatload of basil leaves into the food processor (that’s what you see above – the basil packed in after the main pine nut, cheese, garlic grind. What was interesting was that the smooth paste started to suck the basil leaves down without assistance (I usually have to prod the leaves down every 10 seconds or so until they “take” in the blades of the machine) and they incorporated very quickly. What was left was a thick and bright green basil paste with the oil from the nuts and cheese holding it together.

mmmm, pasty (photo by wm. christman)

mmmm, pasty (photo by wm. christman)

At this point, I seasoned it but only added a tablespoon of olive oil, pulsing the processor a time or two, to it to keep the paste consistency. As an experiment, I took half of it out and threw it into the fridge to see how it would fare for a day or two. Pesto tends to go dark pretty quickly but since this was more paste than liquid and mostly basil, I thought it might hold it’s color longer. I took the rest out of the processor and stirred in some olive oil until it was suitable for saucing pasta. The result was a brighter tasting version of pesto with the olive oil acting as a thinner as opposed to a major flavor. A few days later and to my surprise, the experimental portion of the basil paste was brighter green than pesto made the previous way. I also stirred in some olive oil to make a medium thick sauce and used it on some grilled sole. It really stayed fresher and tastier for longer. The paste consistency allowed me to control the thickness which gives you flexibility that suits the dish you’re creating.

Now not only does fresh basil sit on the kitchen counter on a regular basis but its pasty counterpart sits in the fridge waiting for the next pesto craving. And yes, I still eat it from a spoon on occasion as I do with my fresh peanut butter. It’s hard to resist…


Maverick (San Francisco)

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

My father’s German ancestry meant that my family was a half meat ‘n potatoes one, and the comfort of that kind of food was cemented at an early age. Although it could have been their migration from the western chunk of Canada, the steaming piles of potatoes and pot roasts that landed on the table with regularity equaled comfort, which equaled being (and eating) American.

Other than coffee shops and roadside diners, cuisine American spent many years outside of the public (read: popular) restaurant eye but it has always been part of the landscape. In recent years, the cuisine has been front and center as chefs and restaurateurs look for new ways to explore those themes. For those fortunate few who uniquely carried this pioneer spirit, the resurgence in the popularity of American cuisine has paid dividends. And for those who push the boundaries of American fare into something as innovative as the country is diverse, have it good in spades. And Maverick has it good.

Wedged between ages-old businesses on a packed block on 17th Street in San Francisco, Maverick’s laid back vibe of “down home” suggests a dusty and imperfect charm. Maverick’s shoebox-sized, brown and orange interior further heightens a space that is at once inviting and cozy. It feels at times like a saloon (with the wine bar in front amplifying that) where hunkering down over a good meal and equally good bottle feels downright kick-ass. Everything is not perfectly in it’s place, nor does it have to be.

Maverick executive chef and owner Scott Youkilis’ “Amercian Eatery” presentation could have been made “fancy” but that would obscure the real point., The food here is straight ahead, in uncomplicated renditions, pairing classic and familiar ingredients in unique ways. Grilled meat with horseradish and potato, fried chicken with brown gravy, pork, beans and corn all make their appearance in forms that tug at your memories of family meals and campfires gone by. Meats are grilled/seared, potatoes and corn make their appearance in pancake/polenta forms, and vegetables (and fruits!) are roasted or stewed. If all that sounds simple, then you’re right, and it’s the simplicity that creates that instant comfort.

There are nods to the ethnic cuisines in the Bay Area as well but most of those appear in appetizer (“first plates”) portions. pear salad (Asian), stuffed spicy peppers (Mexican chile relleños), a pickled salad (Middle Eastern torshi), and even antelope tartare (Amercian cowboy West) all make an appearance and round out the notion of “American” food. Sides are purely classic American: mac n’ cheese, mashed sweet potatoes, grits and gravy. and roasted cauliflower. And all of it uncomplicated, unpretentious and satisfying. Maverick’s wine selection also presents a similar simplicity. The classics come from France and Italy; the new classics from California. The wine list changes frequently and flights of a particular bent are offered. A recent visit had an “Italian reds” flight that mixed Italian and California-based Italian inspired wines.

If you’re looking for a high-end, delicate meal, you won’t get it here. It’s really not Maverick’s aim. If you are looking for simple, hearty, memory-spurring food, this is the place to go. And you’ll probably want to either stay late to soak it up or come back again and again.


Maverick, 3316 17th Street, San Francisco, CA 415.863.3061


Science!

There’s a thoughtful piece on food science by Michael Nagrant on Hungry Mag this week. Although it’s not a pure article on food science, Nagrant relates the use of it to current innovators who are not merely using “science” to be different but using it to evoke emotion and memory.

And quite naturally, it takes a bit of a dig at the overuse of the term “molecular gastronomy” by chefs who use it as their sole vehicle of innovation. It’s not “innovation” without some true basics driving it, and it turns quickly into “stunt cooking” which is devoid of any meaning and emotion. (thanks to Howard Kveck for coining the term “stunt cooking”…).

The thing I like about Nagrant’s post is that it evokes some pretty strong memories in me. The descriptions of his relationship to food when he was growing up had me pausing to think of my early experiences with food and family.


Best Of Summer ’08

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

Some say that California doesn’t really have seasons. It’s always (mostly) sunny, warm, clear skies…if you live here, you know that this is not really true. Our seasons, like lots of other things in and about California, are subtle, understated and mellow.

So what. The usual hot streak of early September days is officially over. The temps have dropped into the mid-70’s and the night are cooler. And there are still plenty of fresh vegetables to be had, and the best place to marvel at their beauty before impulsively buying them is at a local Farmer’s Market.

I spend nearly every Sunday going to at least one Farmer’s Market in the area and although there have been criticisms about the prices (higher), they are a delight visually and that can fuel the creative urge to cook and consume. This past Sunday, I spent some time at the Campbell Farmer’s Market to check out vegetables and fruits that are coming to the end of their growing season and to see what was next in line for the fall.

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

The hot end of summer here means that peppers are probably at their best. They’ll soon go away so I think about grabbing some long Italian peppers and sautéing them with onion until soft and slightly brown. Slather that on a baguette, with or without, a grilled Italian sausage and it’s a feast.

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

There has been a stellar supply of heirloom tomatoes this year and there is still a great selection available, mostly at reduced prices (<$2.50 per pound). The taste of most varieties will knock your socks off – sweet/tart, juicy beyond belief. I see these and I immediately think about getting them together with basil, red onion, oilve oil and balsamic vinegar. Let that mix sit for 20-30 minutes then grab some crusty bread and, again, it’s meal time.

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

This time of year also brings what I look forward to the most at this time of year, pumpkin. Whether it’s in bread, bagels, custard, or pie; savory simmered in chunks, or pounded into a sweetened pureé, this is the time of year to go completely nuts with a fresh orange globe of pumpkin-y goodness. All of these pumpkin-packed items will make their way onto some table I’m eating at in the next few months.

The Campbell Farmer’s Market is held every Sunday from 9 am to 1 pm in downtown Campbell, CA. For a complete listing of Farmer’s Markets in the SF Bay Area, go to:http://www.organicpicks.com/php2/farmers_markets.php


A Little Bistro Green

the launching point for...DINNER! (photo by © Sierpniowka | Dreamstime.com)

the launching point for…DINNER! (photo by © Sierpniowka | Dreamstime.com)

A friend of mine gives me the business about why I choose to eat only salad for dinner sometimes. The reasons are several and the topmost one is that I usually get home late from my day job in the Software Industry™, and unless I’m really (REALLY) inspired, I’m not in the mood to do something complicated (I save that for the weekend). Plus when it’s late, I hate to go to bed on a full stomach because it makes me really cranky. So salad it is.

But there’s a deeper, darker secret lurking behind my love of the veil of green…

A French bistro-style salad is possibly one of the best and most satisfying dishes you can pull together is short order. As long as you’ve got lettuce, eggs, and bacon, plus some dressing ingredients, then you’re set. And if not, every corner store or supermarket has those things within easy reach. Bread and wine round out the meal, and if you’ve got some extra time you can use some of the bread as fresh crouton. Optional but essential.

bistro green (photo by wm. christman)

bistro green (photo by wm. christman)

My version consists of any sort of lettuce (I prefer friseé or Romaine hearts but any greens work, the version seen here used a fancy salad mix from a local store), bacon (see the post before this one about the bacon that I use), and a poached egg. The salad is dressed with a simple mustard-based vinaigrette.

Assembly is simple. Start with cooking the bacon (use lardon or simply dice it up). Then start a shallow pan of water boiling for the egg. While that’s going, wash and tear up some lettuce (or just remove it from the bag if you bought a mix) and get it ready to be dressed.

Make your dressing – I make a mix of 2 tablespoons each of red wine vinegar and dijon mustard, and a half cup of peanut oil (olive oil works too). Whisk the first two until blended, then dump in the oil all at once. Whisk well until the dressing emusifies. If it doesn’t, then add a bit more mustard until it does. (Olive oil tends to take a bit longer and a bit more mustard to get emulsified.)

Once the bacon is crisp, remove it from the pan but save the drippings. At this point, you can skip to poaching the egg but as I mentioned, if you’ve got the time, you can put the bacon drippings to good use to make some fresh crouton.

(almost) nothing beats fresh crouton (photo by wm. christman)

(almost) nothing beats fresh crouton (photo by wm. christman)

Dice up some French bread, cutting off the crusts if you wish – day-old bread works well. Drain about half of the drippings out of the pan, get it back on heat then toss in the bread. Toss/stir until the bread begins to toast and crisp. Season with salt and/or pepper. Scoop the crouton onto a paper towel, let them cool for a minute or two then toss them into the salad just after you dress it.

All that’s left is to poach that egg. Adding some vinegar to the boiling water will keep the egg together when you slide it in to cook it. When the egg is done, toss the bacon into the lettuce and then toss with the dressing. If you made crouton, toss them in there as well and mix again. Then turn it out onto a plate and gently place the egg in the center. Now go eat!

This salad plus a hunk of crusty French bread and a glass of whatever wine is hanging around make this a weekly favorite of mine. I can usually get it done in about 20 minutes which leaves plenty of time to actually savor, eat and begin relaxing before starting my evening in earnest.


A Bacon Landscape

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

Charcuterie is one of those things that can scare the crap out of you. What? Let perfectly fresh meat wallow in salt then set it out to dry or “cook” it for long periods of time at temperatures way below what the FDA recommends? Insane! You’re gonna get sick or even kill yourself by doing that!

Ahem. If you Google “charcuterie” or “curing meat”, you’ll get all kinds of warnings like the ones above. And some of the warnings are legitimate but it’s nothing to panic about though…as long as you follow some basic rules and hygiene, you’re gonna be fine. And especially fine with making fresh bacon.

I have to admit that I was pretty concerned when I made my first slab of bacon. What if I didn’t “cure” it right? Will it really not “go bad” sitting in the fridge for over a week? Have I just wasted a perfectly good piece of pork belly for nothing? After the final results, all of my fears were eliminated and I had some really tasty bacon to eat and share with friends.

Getting all of the ingredients together is easy but getting the “pink salt” was the only “difficult” part. Although it is easily purchased online, there are a couple of variants in naming of this curing salt. You’ll see: “pink salt”, InstaCure™ #1, InstaCure™ #2, Prague Powder #1, TenderQuick™, Himalayan Pink Sea Salt (you don’t want this one) so it’s a bit of a curing jigsaw puzzle to wade through.

It turns out that InstaCure™ #1/Prague Powder #1 and “pink salt” are all the same things and are the ones to use for bacon (and some if not most other curing purposes). If you’re game, The Sausage Maker website has a fabulous selection of all kinds of meat preserving ingredients and gear. You can also ask your local butcher shop if they’ll sell you some. Shops that make their own sausage generally have pink salt and inquiring may speed you on your way to bacon nirvana…

it's all a beautiful bacon landscape (photo by wm. christman)

it’s all a beautiful bacon landscape (photo by wm. christman)

The basic operation for fresh bacon is broken down into three steps: curing, roasting, slicing. No, it’s really that simple. You don’t need a smoker or any fancy equipment. You need to to know how to 1) weigh out dry ingredients, 2) how to dredge, 3) how to slow-roast, and 4) how to wait (more on that in a minute).

Michael Ruhlman’s book Charcuterie is an excellent resource for the finer details of making fresh bacon among a myriad of other things. While you’re contemplating a book purchase, I’ll just cover the bacon-o-rific highlights:

As with bread baking, weighing dry ingredients for curing is crucial. It’s the key to getting the correct ratio of pink salt to regular salt and sugar is important to a good “cure”. Too much pink salt will over-salt and kill the taste of the meat; too little will not cure the meat completely which can result in potential unpleasant bacteria growth that can kill you. Getting a good, even coat of the cure is equally important. Beyond that, you’re stashing the pork belly in the fridge in a zip-seal-style plastic bag for 7-10 days (ZipLock™ makes a 2 gallon bag that is perfect for a 4-5 pound piece of pork belly.). Remember that “waiting” part I mentioned above? This phase one of “the wait”.

Once you’ve navigated the 7-10 long days (daydreaming of your next killer BLT), you check the meat for firmness (the cure will penetrate the meat and firm it up – it’s good to get an idea of how “squishy” the meat is just before you dredge it in cure to compare). If it’s reasonably “firm” in it’s thickest place, then you wash, dry then roast it. This phase two of the ‘waiting” and even more difficult than the wait for the “cure”, as the smell of your kitchen while the bacon is roasting will make it even harder. Easy now…just 2-3 hours to go.

bacon still life with skin and knife (photo by wm. christman)

bacon still life with skin and knife (photo by wm. christman)

Once your bacon reaches it’s target temperature (150°F), all that’s left is to cut the skin off and let it cool. And yes, now you can actually EAT some of the fresh, hot bacon. Don’t go nuts though because once the bacon is cooled and sliced, you’re going to want to horde it like a squirrel with winter nuts or give it away to share the wealth. You’ll probably do both. And as soon as you get down to about 1/2 pound left, you’ll be plotting your next pork belly purchase. No. Really.

The bacon you see here is a maple cured version. I added maple syrup to the bag after dredging it but the rest of the process was the same. I think I was able to keep the 4 1/2 pounds of fresh bacon around for about 5 days as I continually taste tested it (haha) and gave lots of it away. Since then, I have made several and have not had to buy packaged or butcher shop bacon since. And now I’ve got a small cadre of folks asking when the next bacon will be ready. Um, let’s see…better schedule a trip to the butcher.


It’s Official (no more “beta”)

Welcome to “…but the devil sends the cooks.”!

Ok, ok…I know it’s been a few months but we’re finally out of the weeds and into full on production mode. For those of you who have been reading our “beta” version of this blog and have given feedback, thanks! For those who have stumbled on the blog (via Google, ‘natch), stay tuned.

Everything has been somewhat locked down and the design is complete. We’ll have some minor tweaks along the way but this is the “devilsfood” look for now. We’ve also enlisted a few friends to write for the blog as well. We’ll be rolling those articles out in the next few weeks.

Although there is now the dreaded “article scheduling” and deadlines to keep, this is a really exciting time kicking this all off, officially. To keep things fresh, we’ll have 2-3 posts a week but forgive us if our day jobs sometimes get in the way.

We’ve got a batch of posts already here (from our beta period) so scroll down or use the archive links on this page. Please also check out our featured food blogs and sites…there’s plenty to see and explore.

Thanks for stopping by. We hope you like what you see and read.

-wm. and les