How to Salsa Verde

tomatillos

An American-size tomatillo (left) and a smaller tomatillo (center), the size favored in Mexico

It’s been more than a year ago since my mom and I traveled to Mexico to spend a week with her sister’s family, the Acasusos.

Their home base is just outside Oaxtepec, a town more than an hour away from Mexico City in the state of Morelos. My aunt Pam packed our week with the kinds of activities that most gringos never get to experience. We visited the temazcali in Cuernavaca, where we sat in a pitch-black mud smokehouse sauna and flogged our backs with an herb branch dipped in water—a native nahuatl tradition for cleansing the body and mind. After the self-imposed shvitz, we wrapped ourselves in mats so the healing properties of the smoke could penetrate our skin.

We also swam in the sulfur-infused waters of an enormous community pool in Cuautla, which proclaimed itself a fuente de juventude, fountain of youth. Swimming in the water made our skin tingle and stink—we were advised to bring old swim suits—but the after effects were calming. I was a spry 28 again. Until some unknown insect bit my knee and it swelled to grapefruit-size, making me hobble about.

(My aunt, two hours later: “How are you feeling?” Me: OK, but my knee is freaking me out.” My aunt: “We can rule out a scorpion bite, then. You’d be feeling much worse.” Me: “That’s good…?”)

Apart from the stress-detox adventures, we also were there to learn some real Mexican cooking skills. Pam had asked the cooks at the family restaurant, Suz, in Oaxtepec, to show us how they make salsas at home. [click to continue…]

Weekday Kale with Roasted Chickpeas

roasted chickpeas and kale

Getting more vegetables into the rotation–especially during the weekday shuffle–is not easy to do. Salad greens bought over the weekend don’t tend to keep well in the refrigerator. My usual thing to do is to roast cauliflower florets, but I can’t eat cauliflower every week. And what about the nights when you just need a little something to tide you over until morning?

Yesterday, my answer was found in a can of chickpeas and a bunch of lacinato kale *also called dino kale and Tuscan kale. [click to continue…]

Moment of Zen: Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea

It’s not often when we can push away from the computer screen, take a seat in a garden, and be treated to tea and platters of treats. But the stars must have aligned yesterday, because that’s exactly what happened.

There is no single right way to drink tea in the afternoon–and there is no shame in gulping down a cup of PG tips when the need arises. But this was an all-out throwdown of an afternoon tea. In her last life, SandyB must have been a stylist for the likes of Australia’s Gourmet Traveler. She set a table in the shade (shade being important, since we are in the middle of a heat wave), with a double layer of tablecloth and an assortment of china tea cups and plates. Zinnias–which she allows to grow nearly five feet tall in her garden–made up the simple centerpiece. My iPhone photo doesn’t do her table justice. [click to continue…]

Almond Spelt Biscotti

almond spelt biscotti
I’ve been pushing myself to bake more with alternative flours. Playing around with different flavors and textures can be a lot of fun—but it can lead to disaster. A batch of cookies I made with toasted soy flour may be one of the worst things I’ve ever pulled out of an oven. (Using sucanat in place of sugar did not help matters.) But hey, you never know until you try.

Milled from what is allegedly a nearly-forgotten strain of wheat, spelt flour is easier to use than many of the other ancient grain flours on the market. In Berlin, the Du Bonheur bakery uses it in place of other wheat flours because the pastry chef, Anna Plagens, believes it’s easier to digest.

Still, opting for spelt flour in place of conventional wheat flour is not a 1-to-1 switch. [click to continue…]

Tasting Notes: Sicilian White Wines

Sicilian white wines at A16SF

In 2007, when Shelley and I sat down to write about grapes for A16 Food + Wine, there wasn’t much new to talk about in the world of Sicilian white wines. Apart from the luscious dessert wines produced on the island of Pantelleria, Sicilian white wines—at least the ones reaching the U.S. at the time—tended to be mixed bag. Many were tropical fruit bombs made with international grapes. These exports overshadowed the nuanced, experimental wines made with native grapes that were starting to percolate on the local scene.

“Sicilian whites have been so underrepresented,” Shelley explained to me Wednesday when I stopped by to join a few members of the A16 and SPQR teams for a tasting of some of the island’s whites. “It used to be that many of the wines were very pineapple-y—and not in a good way. They often tasted overripe.”

But, Shelley continued, the native grapes have always had lot of potential; they were just waiting for vintners to tune into more nuanced ways to showcase their qualities. In the past five or six years, these wines not only have emerged on the international wine scene but also have become favorites among wine writers and sommeliers. Not bad for a region once known for growing white blending grapes for Marsala. [click to continue…]

Mattapoisett Lobster Boil

Eating lobster

Seasons come and go in California with only slight changes. In good years, rain helps delineate winter from the six-month dry spell we call summer, but as it’s been well documented, it has been unusually warm and dry since December.

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In New England, seasons are much more important. Labor Day is the bittersweet demarkation of the end of summer, bringing with it a shift in mentality away from vacation and toward work. [click to continue…]

It Started in Naples

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Our trip had an inauspicious beginning. A day after arriving in Naples, I set off on a ferry with Shelley Lindgren, the wine director of A16 and SPQR in San Francisco. We were bound for Ischia, a picturesque island in the Gulf of Naples known for, among other things, wines made with the local Biancolella grape.

When the ferry docked ahead of schedule, we followed everyone else aboard and hopped off—on the island of Procida, as it turned out, although it took an embarrassingly long time for us to realize we were in the wrong place.

I went up to an older Italian gentleman pulled, apparently, from central casting.

“Ischia?” I asked, pointing to the ferry terminal.

“Procida,” he corrected.

“Si, ma, ah, Ischia, ah…”

“All’ una.” Another ferry wouldn’t be coming until 1 p.m.

Procida, it turned out, was known for its prison, not its wine. Shelley pulled out her Trio (this was the pre-iPhone era) and scrambled to find a number to call to let the Ischian winemakers know that we would be at least four hours late. And then we sat in a café near the harbor, shared a ham and cheese panino, and waited for the next ferry to arrive.

This was January of 2007. Shelley was six months pregnant and in her last window of opportunity to travel abroad. I was a very green journalist. Although I had cooked at A16 a few years earlier, Shelley and I didn’t know each other all that well. Yet we had somehow finagled a book deal to write A16 Food + Wine and so we dove into the book-creation process, learning as we went along. Still, as we sat gazing out onto what I later learned had been the setting for the movie Il Postino, I had little understanding that this trip would forever inform my understanding of Italian food and wine culture. [click to continue…]

Whole-Grain Waffling

Whole Grain Waffles

It makes no sense that waffling on an issue means you can’t make up your mind. I waffle about most quotidian decisions—but never about waffles. If they’re there for the taking, I’m there for the eating.

I could probably eat waffles most days, but they seem to be appropriate only on weekends when lugging out a waffle iron, heating it until it chirps, and assembling a batter doesn’t come with the guilt of avoiding more important things. Plus, weekday breakfasts tend to be more solitary than weekend brunches, and eating waffles should be done with company.

Part of what’s great about waffles is their texture. The waffle pattern provides plenty of crisp surface area to hold syrup, jam, or yogurt. I love how easy it is to pull them into squares or wedges by following the seams seared into them by the iron. Convenience! Even bad waffles aren’t all that bad. (The same isn’t so for bad pancakes.) If waffles turn out a little dense or a little soft, they are still waffles and therefore good to eat.

While I like the eggy soufflé quality of big Belgian waffles—the kind made by separating the whites from the yolks, beating the whites into a stiff foam, and folding them gently into the batter—lately, my preference in the morning is for something homelier with more substance. I want whole grains that will stick with me so I’m not hungry in an hour. [click to continue…]

Chiles, Garlic, Anchovies Put to the Test, Plus a Few New Books

Grilled shrimp with chile-anchovy sauce
An update on the mild, umami-rich condiment I made a week or so ago: After testing the chile-garlic-anchovy sauce on grilled shrimp, even already-peeled grilled shrimp that were “grilled” indoors on a cast-iron grill pan (in other words, under less-than perfect circumstances), I give the sauce/shrimp combo a solid thumbs up. This little condiment experiment reminded me how easy it is to put together good meals when you already have a few flavor boosters on hand.

Which is why, after making a recipe for a small batch of pickled red cabbage from Andrea Nguyen’s new book, The Banh Mi Handbook, I have yet to put it on banh mi. Instead, I’ve eaten it in salad, alongside grilled chicken and rice, and on top of a homemade veggie burger made in by following Food52‘s instructions. The patty needed some oomph (my veggie burger game is severely lacking), and Andrea’s pickled cabbage did just the trick. So I will just have to make more when actual banh mi happens. [click to continue…]

Tricks of the Trade: Chiles, Garlic, Anchovies

Happy Quail Chiles

After I wrote about some of the tricks of the trade I’ve picked up while working on cookbooks, I had an email exchange with Heidi Krahling, whom I worked with recently on her second book. She was curious: What tips did I pick up from her, really?

Heidi owns two popular restaurants in San Anselmo, just north of San Francisco in Marin County. Insalata’s is her tribute to her first food love—Mediterranean (she comes from a large Italian family, and Insalata is her maiden name). Marinita’s, her restaurant down the street, focuses on her second food love, Latin American, and mostly Mexican. Despite all this, she is quite humble about her accomplishments. For Heidi, it’s how she would do any other job: working hard to do things the right way—day in, day out.

But there is a reason people keep coming back for her fresh, healthful food: flavor. While working with Heidi, I learned about tarator, a tahini, nut, and seed blend and houriya, a harissa-spiked sweet-savory dip made from carrots or parsnips. Both are often cycled into Insalata’s trio of dips, which she serves with warm pita wedges. She also taught me that verdolagas—she uses them in a braised pork in salsa verde at Marinita’s—are the same thing as purslane.

Heidi’s second book is due out November 1st, just in time for the holidays. (An entire chapter is dedicated to Thanksgiving, in case you’re looking for turkey inspiration.) In this second book, she offers great ideas for condiments and vinaigrettes. I used one of her ideas—chile jam—as a springboard for this garlicky condiment. [click to continue…]