Monthly Archives: October 2008

Sambal Love Affair

(photo by wm. christman)

(photo by wm. christman)

My love affair with spicy food started late in life. In the early 1980’s, I remember reading about Hunan-style food and was truly scared by the prospect that eating such food would make me sweat more than a good aikido workout.

But when faced with an invitation to Henry’s Hunan Restaurant in San Francisco (back in 1986) from two baseball bleacher-bum friends, who I happened to love hanging out with, I accepted. But I had steeled myself against the prospect of never being able to eat again. Happily, my fear was dead wrong – I loved every single lip-burning minute of it. In fact, I went back to that same restaurant three days later for more.

I only write this to set the stage for the little bottle of Sambal Oelek that is a constant resident on my kitchen counter.

Of all the hot sauces, pastes, and dried peppers of all colors and heat levels in my kitchen, Sambal Oelek is probably my favorite because it has tang and heat and texture that combine the best of a sauce, paste and pepper. (There are many kinds of sambal, from Belacan to Taliwang, but Sambal Oelek is my favorite.)

Sambal Oelek’s bright red colour is stunningly beautiful. The yellowish-white red chili seeds and bright red pulp nestled among the field of bright red is like the red and contrasting colored filigree of a traditional Chinese wedding dress, it and conveys the same elegance and power.

counter companion (photo by wm. christman)

counter companion (photo by wm. christman)

The wallop of the sambal’s vinegar-scented red chili when opening the bottle is my wake-up call. You cannot completely avoid it nor do you want to. It smells like tending chili pepper plants on a hot summer day, with the sun directly overhead. The thick smell of the peppers, especially the red and orange hot ones on your hands, the sweat running down your face, the dust that you’re kicking up – it’s earthy, organic, lusty.

You can mix, stir, dollop it into many dishes. You can use the thinnest part of the sambal, put a little spoonful into a small strainer and catch the vinegar component, to add a little dynamic to grilled vegetables or pizzas. Or stir up the “chunky” parts, after straining it, to add a tangy, red pepper burn to sauces for pasta, sauteed fish, or grilled meat. Or just use it as is with some soy sauce as a dip for cold noodles. The extra bonus for me is that it needs no refrigeration so it cannot get “lost” in the far reaches of the third shelf behind the miso in the fridge.

Why wax poetic about Sambal Oelek? It is just one of those ingredients that I look forward to using in new and interesting ways because the tastes it can bring out are constantly surprising. For me, that what cooking is all about.

Food Writer Aleta Watson (Part 2)

(Photoshop™ rendering by wm. christman)

(Photoshop™ rendering by wm. christman)

Last week, “…but the devil…” featured Part One of our interview with former San Jose Mercury-News food writer Aleta Watson. We talked about her career in journalism, how she got into writing about food, and her thoughts on celebrity chefs. Watson is well-spoken and thoughtful when speaking (and writing) about food and most of that comes from her love of cooking. Her new blog, The Skillet Chronicles, further amplifies her love of food.

We pick up the conversation mid-stream about food industry “buzzwords”:

wm.: I’d like to throw out some food buzzwords and get your thoughts on them. Let’s start with the Slow-Food movement.

Aleta: I generally love the food and I’m really interested in the local and sustainable part of it. But if you’re talking about the elitist part of it, the part where you have to have a lot of money actually do some of these things, I find that difficult.  When I wrote the story (earlier this year in the Mercury-News), it was clear to me that it’s not really a big enough movement to make much difference one way or another (right now). As I recall, it only has 60,000 members nationwide and that’s not very many, and most of the people spend their time in supper clubs eating good food.  But expanding beyond that, if they care, maybe there will be something there.

wm.: I agree with the elitist part, and in a way it’s kind of how I look at Farmer’s Markets. I find lots of the stuff horribly expensive. However, if you’re supporting local and sustainable then ultimately it’s worth it but much more needs to be done with that beyond the trendy.

Aleta: We’ve just been so surprised and we spend more time going to the Farmer’s Markets. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, there’s not really quite as much but we have a nice little Farmer’s Market…and Happy Boy Farms goes there. We’ve been buying the greens from Happy Boy and we’ve been astonished. We can make a half pound go for an entire week. When we buy greens from the grocery store, they only last a couple of days. It costs a little more to buy but I have much less waste because what I buy is fresh. Even their basil. I can buy a bunch and put it in a pitcher of water and it will last until it’s gone. When I buy the basil from the grocery store and it nearly gone just as I get it home.

wm.: Any thoughts or experiences with Molecular Gastronomy?

Aleta: I have had some, at Manresa and at Chez TJ, and occasionally in less stellar restaurants. I really think that I find it that exciting. I do like the concentrated flavors – the encapsulation of flavors when you bite into it, exploding into your mouth. There have been some citrus flavors that have been really wonderful. I went to Chocolat and was really impressed with it. But sometimes, these things are often like Jello to me.

I do like sous vide, but that’s not really “molecular gastronomy” but (that technique) can create some really amazing textures. In the Mercury-News Food Section, I worked a long time trying to come up with something on sous vide, and finally decided that it was just too tricky for me to try to get the home cook to do.

wm.: The thing about techniques like that, or like curing your own meat, is that there are dire warnings on the Internet about poisoning yourself. And while some of those things are true, especially if you don’t follow basic hygiene or temperature control, sous vide for me is just out of reach until I get the right equipment and can work out for myself the techniques. But it’s not “molecular gastronomy”…

Aleta: I think it’s in the same class or category but mostly I don’t like to have food to be made with a lot of gums. I feel that that’s what General Mills and Kraft have been doing for a long time. So when (restaurants) do a nicer job, it’s surprising but for the most part, off-the-wall, shocking flavors are not what I am looking for.

wm.: Where do you see the Bay Area food scene going?

Aleta: I think the real interesting part about the Bay Area is the emergence of really sophisticated, very high end Asian food. I think that’s what’s different here, and we have a really large core of people who appreciate it. Some of the best food I have eaten has been (this kind of) Asian food. I am thinking of places like Nami Nami and Xanh in Mountain View.

But I just as soon go to Vung Tau (in San Jose) just as long as I could get the good little rice cakes with the shrimp in them (báhn khot). I think that Vietnamese food is emerging, it’s not brand new but it’s continuing to grow and is going mainstream. Italian food will always be strong here. It is perfect for the Bay Area – it’s a good match. And Indian food is coming up too and is getting beyond the steam table stage which is what I think has held Indian food back.

wm.: So what’s next for you?

Aleta: I am freelancing but I haven’t gone very far with that because I haven’t been out (from the Mercury-News) very long. I started my food blog called The Skillet Chronicles. When I was working at the Merc, I didn’t have time to do it beforehand like I had hoped, so I am finishing it up now. I hope that will go some place. And I’d like to try my hand at food writing on a larger scale. It’s all kind of a little bit scary because I worked at newspapers for so long and I always knew that somebody wanted my story. But this is an opportunity for me to learn and explore, and that’s really what’s kept me enjoying it.

I do feel like I have a mission calling me to try and help people once again to see the pleasures of cooking their own food and eating it with their family. We [tend to] eat badly and don’t have that social connection anymore. So, if I can get people new and interesting recipes and not make all of them elaborate, maybe it will convince more people to see the creativity and fun in it.

So many young people are intimidated by the idea of cooking because they watch Top Chef and all the rest, and they have no idea that simple food can be good. When I interviewed Alice Waters, she was talking about the joy of this…during Slow Food Nation, she had her Green Kitchen where she brought in really respected chefs come in to cook very simply with a knife, a chopping board, a skillet and a set of basic ingredients. I thought it was a genius idea.

wm.: Aleta, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us.

Aleta: Thanks. I enjoyed it.

A collection of Aleta Watson’s articles is archived at the San Jose Mercury-News website. You can read those articles by clicking here.

Food Writer Aleta Watson (Part 1)


Former San Jose Mercury-News food writer Aleta Watson is no stranger to the Bay Area. Except for a middle childhood in the Southern U.S., she grew up in the East Bay, graduated from San Jose State University and has written for, in her words, most of the newspapers, large and small, in the South Bay. She spent a bulk of that time at the Mercury-News, nine years as a hard news journalist covering Education and then as a food writer, editor and restaurant critic. She recently left the Merc to pursue freelancing and to start her own food blog called The Skillet Chronicles.

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Watson to find out a bit more about her career, talk about food trends, and get her take on food in the Bay Area.

wm.: When did you start as a food critic?

Aleta: I have always liked to cook, but when I first entered journalism I wouldn’t be caught dead in the Features department because it wasn’t serious enough. And it wasn’t earth shaking enough. And at that point, women had to prove that they could do hard news. But I just kept eying the food section and it was looking better and better. My former City Editor went on a leave for a while and then came back to be the Food Editor. I thought if she could do that then I could make that little change too. I started freelancing for them around 2000 by writing for the magazine, when they had a magazine which included food and dining articles among more general content, which was my primary interest. Then in 2002, there was an opening – they had a restaurant reviewer leave – and at that point there were two full-time restaurant reviewers and I asked them to make it more about food and cooking. And that’s how I got into restaurant reviewing. It was not because of an innate love of restaurants.

I used to like to call myself the “second string” restaurant critic while Sheila Himmel was the primary restaurant critic.  She did most of the big ones for the Sunday section and I did the little ethnic places (in a column called “Quick Bites”) which was fun but pretty low key. It appeared with the regular restaurant reviews in the Friday paper.  That’s what I did until Sheila left the paper in a big buyout in 2005 when Knight-Ridder was preparing to sell the paper.  So when Sheila left, I became the only reviewer.  I had been at the Mercury News a long time by then.

wm.: And since then, the newspaper industry has been in decline…

Aleta: Yes. There had been cutbacks at the paper. From 2000-2001, we had more than 400 people on the news staff including writers, editors, copy editors, and now there are only 150 which is why a lot of content is lost because there aren’t the people there to produce it. This has happened all across the country and many newspapers don’t have food sections at all.   Nobody likes to see what happened and it’s very difficult for those who are on the inside, and it’s one of the reasons that I decided to leave.  It was just hard to do what I wanted to do because at the time I was doing the Food Section, cover stories and restaurant reviews. I didn’t feel like I was growing by doing more and more of the same and not hitting the high spots as often.

(Photoshop™ rendering by wm. christman)

(Photoshop™ rendering by wm. christman)

wm.: Are you a fancy restaurant person or a hole-in-the-wall restaurant person?

Aleta: I like both extremes.  I love the hole-in-the wall places with food I have never tasted before, the bold flavors, new textures – exciting new food.  Or renditions of food that was not the white-bread stuff I grew up with.  And I love the really high end. I love Manresa.  I been to the French Laundry. I love the French Laundry but I don’t think I will be able to afford it again because it’s so high end.

One day just before I left the Mercury, I was reviewing a restaurant in Los Gatos and we were going in from the parking lot, I passed one Lincoln Town Car after another. There must have been a dozen Lincoln Town Cars parked out around Manresa with drivers hanging around just waiting for their clients to finish eating their 200-300 dollar meal.  I love both (types of) restaurants, high end and low end, but journalists don’t make that much money and I’m just not in that price club.

wm.: So what is your favorite hole-in-the wall restaurant:

Aleta: Fiesta-Tepa-Sahuayo.  It’s a real authentic Mexican place on 1st Street in Watsonville. Because I have been eating for a living for so long there’s only so much I can eat, and I don’t go back to a lot of places, but I like the tortas at Mexico Bakery on Story Road. Those are quite wonderful; they are just over the top wonderful.  And I like the Ethiopian restaurant Mudai in downtown San Jose.  There are so many places…

wm.: Over the last several years, what do you see as the worst food trend in the Bay Area?

Aleta: I’m not real hot on the bar scene restaurant – you know, the cocktail lounge as restaurant.  I don’t find the food very good and I don’t drink hard liquor very often so it doesn’t appeal to me very much.  Usually the food is not very good if it’s really flashy.  And that’s really big, lots of places feel like they have to have them…high-end looking places, flashy ones like Fuel.  It really started strong with Sino and they have pretty nice food if you went for the dim sum – but (otherwise) it’s loud and it’s all about the theme and it’s not really about the food.  And the people don’t seem to be paying that much attention to the food.

wm.: Who are your favorite food writers?

Aleta: Russ Parsons (food writer for the LA Times).  I really like his work a lot.  Other writers I am more interested in are also cooks.

wm.: That was actually my next question, which chefs are your favorites?

Aleta: You’re going to laugh about this but I really like Jamie Oliver because his food tastes great.  His flavors are simple and he still cooks that way. The flavors are fabulous.  I’m working on getting every one of his cookbooks because these are the kinds of flavors I like and the recipes are things that I can do.  People think I do more complicated cooking but even I don’t want to spend forever chopping and pureeing…I like to have the food talk for itself.

wm.: What about celebrity chefs?

Aleta: I don’t watch too much food television anymore. I would watch when it was about a particular chef. I like Mario (Batali) because he’s real in his own overblown way. I like Jacques Pepin and chefs like that because they are real.  But I can’t deny that there are people like Rachel Ray who bring a lot of people, who have no idea how to cook at all, into their kitchens.  For that she deserves credit, but otherwise I think it’s just so much hot air.  I don’t really learn anything from that.  I’ll occasionally watch Top Chef because I feel that I have an obligation to keep up with popular culture when one is a journalist, but not because I enjoy it that much. I feel like they set up fights, competitions, and pitting people against each other to create ersatz emotion.

We create people who don’t really want to cook but go to cooking school with the idea of becoming celebrities so they can make a lot of money. And they spend so much money going to cooking school and when they’re done they have jobs that pay them 10-20 dollars an hour. And only a few of them are going to make it – it’s like kids that want to be basketball stars.

wm.: Anthony Bourdain?

Aleta: Oh, he’s great fun.  He’s witty; he’s urbane…he’s hard not to like. He goes way over the top all the time but I like it.  I think it’s because he’s smart and witty and it’s not dumbed down at all.  He’s an interesting celebrity chef in that he never really became a celebrity by doing his day job.  He became a celebrity because of how well he can write and how he can shock in a very smart way.

Part Two of our Aleta Watson interview will appear next week.

Biscuits and More Gravy

(photo by © Brian Weed |

(photo by © Brian Weed |

There’s something about being on a motorcycle trip that makes me throw food caution to the wind. Literally. Because so much time is spent analyzing the road ahead, feeling and adapting to the variations of the pavement, leaning and accelerating ad infinitum, and staying upright in sometimes wickedly unpredictable wind, the last thing I want to do is think about eating something fancy and nuanced. I just want to fuel up and get on with either starting the day, pressing on to the day’s destination or just going to sleep.

So it’s my chance to go a bit nuts and allow myself all of the things that I will only order or cook for myself maybe once a year (if that). 3/4 lb. bacon, guacamole cheeseburger, cooked rare with a large mound of fries? Check. Chicken-fried steak with country cream gravy, eggs and hash browns? Check. And if any restaurant, while on a moto-trip, has biscuits and gravy on the menu, there is no question that I will be eating that with whatever else I order. Multiple times, if necessary. During the same meal, if necessary. And loving every damn, heart-stopping minute of it. Check. And check.

Recently, I was in charge of planning the meal stops for a three day motorcycle trip to Kings Canyon (south of Yosemite National Park in California). Except for the organizer of the trip, Dan, I knew no one else on this trip, so I chose from the “hearty and satisfying” column figuring that the need to replenish in simple ways would be universal. And I was right. Mostly. Now before you start painting a mental image of the brain bucketed, leather chaps n’ vests, unshaven and wet from the road biker Harley dude, stop. These guys aren’t those guys. Not that there is anything wrong with those guys; these guys are a bit more (dare I say it) sophisticated. And their tastes are as well.

(photo by Mike Zeminsky)

(photo by Mike Zeminsky)

But to stay in the “keep-it-simple-Emeril!” category for the first night’s meal, I chose the Black Bear Diner (a small chain restaurant with locations in California and the coast states plus Colorado and Arizona) simply because they had variety. I read some reviews and they had some decent marks from loads of people. And not pissing off the riders after a somewhat hectic five hour run through the heart of manure-scented Central California was probably my ticket to not getting either abandoned, lynched and/or short-sheeted.

The simple fact that the Black Bear Diner serves breakfast for dinner scored me points almost immediately. The extra bonus about that was everyone who saw the breakfast fare, wanted to return for breakfast the next day. This completely trumped my breakfast pick of a different restaurant for the next morning that was described by a local as “[They] are terrible. They are right off the freeway, they get many tourists and so they just don’t give a shit…”. Phew. Thanks for the life-saving tip, Mr. Mountain Man.

The pick of the menu seemed to be the chicken-fried steak (with country gravy, ‘natch). They had three different menu items for it too. A “senior” portion, a “breakfast” portion and a “bigfoot-sized” portion. We got a look at just two: the “breakfast” and the “bigfoot”. It would appear that the “senior” portion would have probably been the one that had any sort of circulatory system sanity but where’s the fun in that? Plus we were HUNGRY, dammit.

The “breakfast” portion was a nearly 7″ round, thin slab of pounded-so-you-can-cut-it-with-a-fork chicken-fried steak perfection. The dollop of country gravy on top was pretty damn good too. Not gluey or industrial tasting, I’d venture to guess it’s made fresh. Potatoes, eggs and a biscuit as big as a ham-hocked fist “rounded” [ahem] out the meal. And the “bigfoot” portion? Let’s just say that a plate of food that large…er, tall…er, whatever…should not be legal anywhere. Our intrepid test subject went face-down into his plate after finishing almost half of it. He did have a smile on his face, however. For the rest of the day.

happy (and full) biker Dan (photo by Mike Zeminsky)

happy (and full) biker Dan (photo by Mike Zeminsky)

Much to the delight of the group, the BBD also serves spaghetti and meatballs. For BREAKFAST. Yes, breakfast, that time where you’re waking up your senses to a good cup of coffee or tea, a refreshing glass of fruit juice and then hammering all that away with a 15′ plate of spaghetti and meatballs. At least two of the riders enjoyed this dinner-for-breakfast route and I didn’t much care if the meal reappeared down the line in some form, I collected my meal planning points and moved ON. Wheee!

But really, Black Bear serves nearly everything that a diner should and most of it is pretty good. It’s not Masa’s or Bouchon but it doesn’t have to be. Straight ahead, hearty, satisfiying…oh, and throw inexpensive in there too. Everyone enjoyed it and we returned the next morning to boot. It was just the ticket for the meal kick off of a nutty motorcycle road trip where the livin’ needs to be as easy as possible because the riding sometimes isn’t.

Okara Cookies

lemon okara cookies (photo by wm. christman)

lemon okara cookies (photo by wm. christman)

tofu n. a cheeselike food made of curdled soybean milk.

Cheeselike. If you’ve ever made your own cheese, you know that there are by-products of that process (whey is one of them). With tofu, it’s similar. The method of producing the soy milk that is curdled to make tofu leaves behind the fibrous remains of the soybeans, called okara, which can be used for a small variety of Japanese dishes. And okara can be used to make some really delicious cookies which are nutritious (low in fat, high in protein from the soy) and travel well. They are also considered a “diet” food in Japan.

You can get okara in Japanese (and some Korean) grocery stores. It comes in fresh and dried versions although getting fresh is best. Fresh okara looks like a cross between fresh white bread crumbs and freshly fallen snow.

fresh okara (photo courtesy of

fresh okara (photo courtesy of

You can also buy okara from companies, especially local ones, that make tofu. In the South Bay area, the San Jose Tofu Company near downtown San Jose not only has some of the best tasting tofu but also sells several of the tofu by-products including okara. (In Japan, major tofu manufacturers often provide okara to farms to use as feed for their livestock in addition to selling it for cooking.)

Okara cookies can be modified in a number of ways for taste and texture. Flavoring them is only limited to your imagination (two flavors are included here) and you can make them soft or crispy by playing with amounts of the ingredients and the baking time. The method to make them resembles the classic “refrigerator” cookies, similar to the recipe in the Betty Crocker Cookbook, which means you have lots of flexibility with them.

Okara Lemon Cookies

2 3/4 cups fresh okara (by-product of tofu making)*
2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup corn starch
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened and cut into small cubes
1/2 cup lemon marmalade

* okara can be bought at a Japanese grocery store or a tofu shop.

1. Pat out or scatter the fresh okara into a thin layer on a cookie sheet and roast in a 250° degree oven for 15 minutes to dry it out well, then crumble it and let it cool.
2. Mix the rest of the dry ingredients (flour, corn starch, sugar) into the roasted, crumbled okara.
3. Mix in the butter and marmalade until the mixture forms into a cookie dough.
4. Roll the dough into a log shape, about 2-3 inches in diameter depending on how big you want you cookies, then wrap the log in plastic wrap and let it chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour (you can leave the dough in the refrigerator overnight as well).
5. When you’re ready to bake the cookies, slice the log into 1/2 inch thick rounds, place them on a cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 8 minutes.
6. With a spatula, turn the cookies over and bake another 7 minutes.
7. Cool the cookies on wire rack and serve.

Variation: Okara Peanut Butter Cookies
The recipe is the same as above, except replace “lemon marmalade” with “peanut butter”.

Store the cookies in an airtight container. Left in a cool place, they will last for 1-2 weeks.

East-West Coast Love, yo

deli sandwich love (photo by wm. christman)

deli sandwich love (photo by wm. christman)

The East Coast-West Coast hip hop rivalry is (was?) as silly as the argument of California not having any real seasons. Not that a beef about seasons is about to get anyone gunned down while cruising through California’s lush green in the middle of November, but a beef about East Coast beef just might get you there. Ok, I’ll grant you that the delicatessens of New York City are jewels of lusty eating and the bagels definitely benefit from the super-pure, deep-earth aquifer water in upstate New York that gets pumped to Manhattan, but the West Coast also deserves props just for importing a bit of the East to the West.

As much as I’d like to have a deli down the street from me that offered up house-made pastrami, corned beef, latkes, knishes, lox and other deli whathaveyous, it’s just not the case. And this being California, there’s no real subway option so driving is a must, but for a little drive (through some beautiful green Cali scenery all year ‘round (take THAT East Coast!)) I can have a slice of the East Coast at Miller’s East Coast Deli in San Francisco.

I’m going to preface this with the fact that I have never eaten in Miller’s; I have only ordered out and only ordered pastrami, corned beef and chopped chicken liver. From what I can see, eating at Miller’s is true to their name except for the conspicuously absent open bowls of full and half sour pickles (Cali’s ultra-sensitive, lawsuit conscious food laws probably don’t allow it, don’tcha know). Judging from their crew assembling sandwiches, platters of fish or brisket, and plates kasha varnishkes or stuffed derma, it’s pretty damn close. Someday, I’ll sit down for a nosh rather than run out with 3+ pounds of meat that ends up being less than that by the time I get home. You’d think that my car runs on that meat. Really. I swear. [burp]

Miller’s hand-makes their own corned beef and imports their pastrami from the Bronx. Although I am a die-hard pastrami fan, Miller’s corned beef is amazingly flavor-rich and slightly beats out the pastrami. Not that the pastrami is a slouch though. It is ribboned with meat and fat with that fragrant peppery kick. Just steam either (the preferred method at my house – it keeps the meat pliable and meltingly soft) then add some deli mustard, some pickles and a nice rye bread and you’ve got all you really need.

Miller’s chopped chicken liver is a dense, rich, subtle concoction with very little pretense. It’s just held together enough to slightly crumble when piled on a slice of bread, bagel or plate. Add some white onion and hard boiled egg and again, you’ve got that deli feel. Speaking of bagels, although I have been all-meat focused at Miller’s, they import their bagels half-finished from NYC then finish them off in-house.

Miller’s serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and although deli fare is their forte, they do cater to more California tastes with a wide variety of West Coast-style diner food. Check out their menu here. But you should really go for the deli meats. Get them, some bread and mustard to go or sit down and eat your way into West Coast deli heaven.

Miller’s East Coast Deli, 1725 Polk St. (between Clay and Washington), San Francisco, 415.563.3542

Road Food

I just spent the last three days on the road, motorcycle-style, blasting around the roads of the Sequoia National and Kings Canyon National parks in Eastern-Central California.

I was asked to research and choose restaurants in the various locales we stopped in for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for this trip. It was the first time I rode with this set of people and have some good food tales to tell in the next week or so.

We’re back to our regular schedule on Tuesday.