Underground supper

Our grandparents went underground for booze during Prohibition. In 2009, we seek secret suppers.

Our grandparents went underground for booze during Prohibition. In 2009, we seek secret suppers.

The Food Channel named clandestine dining one of the top trends for 2008. The concept of underground meals–staged by chefs, passionate amateurs, and other foodies in different locations–has been around for awhile. Several years ago, my mate and I attended one of Michael Hebberoy’s not-so-secret Family Supper events located in an unmarked building ’round the back from his restaurant Gotham in Portland, OR. (Shortly thereafter the thing folded its tent when the bad-boy restaurateur skipped town leaving his then chef-wife Naomi holding the bag. Word is, she’s revived it.) 

The more out of the way and unmarked the setting of a clandestine supper, the better; secrecy just adds to the vibe that this is the new-millenium version of the speakeasy.

So it’s an understatement to say the whole underground dining thing continues to gain momentum. And for good reason: It’s fun to be in on a secret and partake in an ephemeral event. Word of clandestine suppers usually spreads by e-mail, there may even be a password involved, the menu depends entirely on the organizers’ whims, and the location is usually some offbeat spot–an empty commercial space, a warehouse, a private home–whatever they can swing for free or at least really, really cheap. The more out of the way and unmarked the setting the better; secrecy just adds to the vibe that this is the new-millenium version of the speakeasy.

I love being in on a secret, so the whole idea of underground dining tickles me. When our friend John sent an e-mail asking us if we wanted to tag along for a secret supper on Sunday, I was in.  (Well, he’d seen it touted on Daily Candy LA, so it wasn’t that secret, but still.)

The event was staged by Chicks With Knives, a pair of enthusiastic local professional chefs–lovely young ladies who go by R and P. The Chicks run the monthly Sustainable Supper Club in Los Angeles, specializing in S.O.L.E. (Sustainable, Organic, Local, Ethical) food sourced within 150 miles of Los Angeles. And when they say local, they mean it. The produce for a meal often comes from their own gardens or is contributed from the gardens of their friends and fans.

The Chicks’ next event is in downtown LA on Feb. 8. For an invite and details, send an e-mail to info@chickswithknives.com. 

We fired off e-mails requesting the password for details about the upcoming supper. The location for Sunday’s festivities was an unoccupied, unmarked house-cum-commercial space in West Hollywood. The price: 48 bucks (suggested donation) for four courses, BYOB. 

I consulted John, who’s plotting his next career as a sommelier, for advice on which sipper to bring, with the caveat “must be cheap”–three words genuine wine lovers must dread. Nonetheless, he offered up some general guidance, suggesting a bold zin or cab to go with the menu’s short ribs. I decided to bring a cheapo sangiovese I’d picked up the day before at World Market. At this point, John probably wondered why I’d bothered to ask his advice, but he said my Italian plonk would probably be fine and graciously offered to share some of the good stuff he and his wife were planning to bring.

“I don’t trust their glasses,” John later told my mate. “I’m bringing my own stems.” And he did–four Riedels nestled in a dedicated padded tote bag. It turns out, his sommelier-in-training sense was on target that night. The Chicks keep things jovially casual, providing glass tumblers for drinks. 

The evening was sold out (thanks, in part, to the Daily Candy tout), with about 60 diners, I’d guess. R introduced her partner, P, and they briefly discussed details of each course before it was served. 

cwk-saladFirst up was Smoked Mushrooms with Red-Fringe Mustard Greens, Leeks, and Braised Mustard Seed Vinaigrette. The smoked mushrooms were an inspired touch, and, of course, I found the jewel-toned diced beets delightful. Beets are good.

 

cwk-soup2Next out of the kitchen was Carrot-Fennel Soup with House-Made Crackers and Black Olive Tapenade. This one seemed to get mixed reviews at our table, but I loved the blend of salty tapenade and sweet carrot. And the delicate crackers held up surprisingly well in the hot soup.

The evening’s highlight, undoubtedly, was Steam-Ship-Style Short Rib with Apple and Root Vegetable Mash and Hash. The hearty aroma wafting out of the kitchen whet everyone’s appetite. And when a plate of the fork-tender meat was set in front of me, I dove right in. So, sorry, no photo. Just take my word for it that these were succulent, tender, and soul-soothing (the last time I was so transported by comfort food was when I gobbled Chef Frank Brigtsen’s jambalaya in New Orleans). And John’s choice of Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel kicked the whole experience up to a new level with a flavorful seesaw between bite of tender beef and sip of bold, fruity wine.

cwk-dessertThe meal concluded with Torta Sabrossa with Sweet Goat Cheese Frosting and Meyer Lemon Sugar Glass. This was a small cake made with potato flour, with a blood orange glaze and a little tiara of Meyer lemon sugar glass. What intrigued me most, though, was the dollop of sweetened goat cheese frosting. Now, that’s a trick, I’ll have to try at home.

Time for scones

A little leftover homemade ricotta inspires a scone-making project.

A little leftover homemade ricotta inspires a scone-making project.

It’s not often–never, really– that I have extra homemade ricotta cheese on hand. But I did this week, thanks to having prepared a batch of the tasty curds for a recipe developing gig. Much of it was going down my mate’s gullet, one spoonful at a time. Not a bad fate–I was happy he liked it so much–but I thought it could find new life in another recipe.

I also had a lovely little Meyer lemon in the fridge, plus a jar of chi-chi Nielsen-Massey bourbon vanilla sugar that I picked up at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco last week. Add a yen for scones, and I was ready to bake.

ricotta-scones1Meyer Lemon Ricotta Scones

If you substitute store-bought ricotta, be sure to use the whole milk variety. If you don’t have vanilla sugar to sprinkle on top of the scones, just use turbinado or even regular sugar.

6.75 ounces all-purpose flour (about 1 1/2 cups)

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon grated Meyer lemon zest

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup whole milk ricotta

1/4 cup chilled butter, grated or cut into small pieces

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon buttermilk

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon bourbon vanilla sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

2. Combine the first 5 ingredients in a medium bowl; stir with a whisk. Cut in the ricotta and butter until the mixture resembles coarse sand, using a pastry blender, 2 knives, or your fingers. Gently stir in the buttermilk. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Knead gently for 2 minutes (the dough is crumbly but holds together).

3. Place the dough on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Pat the dough into a 3/4-inch-thick circle. Cut  the dough into 8 wedges (don’t separate the wedges). Use a pastry brush to brush the surface of the dough with egg; sprinkle with vanilla sugar. Bake at 400 degrees F for 17 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool in a wire rack. Yield: 8 servings.

Cheap(er) cheese

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Reggianito Argentina cheese may not be as complex as Parmigiano-Reggiano, but its robust flavor and friendly price make an attractive option for recipes.

I was in Whole Foods yesterday afternoon, shopping for ingredients to do a little recipe developing when I trolled over to the cheese counter. Whole Foods’ cheese counter always sings a siren song that I’m powerless to resist.

“Come sample my wares,” it sighs. “Just have a little taste.”

The heady aroma of cheese and promise of a sample lures me to the cliffs of pecorino Sardo, into the rocky coast of Gruyere, where I’ll sink into the pungent mounds of Spanish goat cheese. The friendly folks at the counter are like drug pushers at an elementary school, cheerfully doling out samples of this and that. They know that once you nibble, you’ll bit and pop for an unplanned $10 purchase of some remarkable cheese. (Oh, my, there are enough mixed metaphors in this paragraph to give a high school English teacher a coronary. Ah, well, that’s kinda the point of blog–to leave unvarnished bad writing alone.) 

Hmm, I probably should add this tip to my Eat Cheap page: If you love cheese like I do, steer clear of the cheese counter. It will reel you in and cost you money.

But yesterday I had a rather pleasant surprise. My eyes fell on a honey-colored chunk labeled “Reggianito Argentina,” priced at $2.79 for a third of pound. The attendant cut me a generous sample. It was nutty and salty, and for the money, very good buy. Sold!

Now, I’ve probably eaten Argentina’s version of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese many times before and just didn’t realize it. The stuff is often marketed in the United States simply as “Parmesan.”

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Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Just after World War I, Italian immigrants arriving in Argentina saw miles of grassy ranch land, lots of cows, and, therefore, the ingredients to produce cheese in the manner of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Parm-Regg is the grande dame of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, a cheese still made in the traditional way–pretty much by hand in copper vats by expert cheesemakers. The curds are pressed into giant, 80-pound wheels, and then aged in a salt bath in a darkened room, where they are lovely tended and turned, for at least 12 months and up to three years. No wonder it’s a national treasure that’s protected by a consortium (if the stuff isn’t stamped or otherwise labeled “Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano,” it’s an impostor.)

It’s a time-consuming, labor-intensive process that results in a hard cheese of remarkable complexity. And it’s expensive–$18.99 a pound at Whole Foods. The Argentine verison, called Reggianito because the cheese is produced in comparatively petite, 15-pound wheels, is aged just five or six months, so its flavor and character are no where near as complex as that of its older Italian cousin.

But at just $8.99 a pound, I’ll look to Reggianito Argentina for cooking and reserve my beloved Parm-Regg to enjoy for dessert with a nice glass of wine so I can fully appreciate all of its pricey charms.

A trio of smart strategies

This has been a week when some clever tips came my way–things to help improve my life in the kitchen. So, of course, I want to share them:

cimg07761. Peel and cube raw beets before you roast them. Melissa Clark shares that nugget in this week’s Dining & Wine section of The New York Times. The smaller pieces roast quickly and caramelize beautifully–without the mess of peeling and chopping whole roasted beets (especially if you’re dealing with the red variety). I’m mad for roasted beets and can’t wait to try this strategy in her recipe for Beet and Radicchio Salad with Goat Cheese and Pistachios.

2. Use a small measuring cup instead of a coffee scoop to measure coffee. This one comes from professional organizer Krista Colvin, of the whole shebang: “After scooping coffee into the pot for the umpteenth thousand time I measured out those scoops and replaced the lil’ scoop with a larger full serve-1 timer scoop.”

 

(Dreamstime photo)

(Dreamstime photo)

3. Make a perfect cup of green tea. Green tea is more delicate than black tea, so you should never pour boiling water over green tea leaves. That will make it bitter. Instead, use water just before the boiling point, says Rona Tison, of the Japanese tea producer Ito En. And allow the leaves to steep only a minute or two before sipping.

Food show faves

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The annual Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco is an opportunity for producers to introduce new flavors to retailers and other foodies.

Having just returned from the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, where I spent two days sampling untold numbers of cheeses, cured meats, chocolate, jams, snacks, teas, and other gourmet offerings, I’ve had a chance to mull over my favorite finds. These are items that stand out in my mind (and on my palate), and which I’ll seek out.

goldenstarGolden Star White Jasmine Sparkling Tea. In a sea of tea drinks–ranging from single-origin loose leaves to biodegradable sachets to nutrient-rich tea energy drinks–this was the absolute winner. The Northern California producers combine jasmine silver needle tea, a smidgen of cane juice, and lightly carbonated spring water to produce a lively, refreshing,  food-friendly beverage. It’s currently available in Whole Foods markets in California and online. If you’re not near a Whole Foods in California, it’s definitely worth ordering online.

vosges1Vosges Haut-Chocolate. The show’s vast exhibit halls were chockablock with gourmet, artisanal chocolates, and I sampled many of them. Most were quite good, but my hands-down favorite is still Vosges. Chicago-based chocolatier Katrina Markoff concocts wildly creative combos–Green Matcha, Mo’s Bacon Bar, and the like–of spicy, smoky, salty, and sweet. What struck me about Markoff’s talent, as I nibbled on a sample of the hickory-smoked almond-studded Barcelona Bar, is that it always results in a surprising blend of flavors that never outshines the chocolate. Vosges sets the standard.

heritagepopcornHeritage Popcorn. Yep, you read that correctly. This Idaho-based company’s popcorn is made with heritage strains of corn, which produces light, airy kernels. Their purple-kerneled Rosita variety is also high in antioxidants. I popped up a sample of this for my family, and I thought my 5-year-old niece was going crawl into the bowl. Forget Orville Redenbacher, and try this stuff instead.

labneLabne. This fresh cheese made from strained yogurt is nothing new if you’re from the Middle East, but it’s getting ready to follow its cousin Greek yogurt (a thick, strained version of yogurt) into the mainstream. Yum. This stuff has the consistency of sour cream or soft cream cheese (it would make a wonderful substitute for either) with a mildly tangy top note. Karoun Dairies has a nice version. Ciao Bella Gelato Co. had their Lebanese Yogurt Gelato, a subtly tart, rich-tasting dessert made with labne and a Sicilian lemon juice. It’s currently only available for food service, but they’re looking into selling it in pints at retail. I hope they do.

oystermushroomsKorean king oyster mushrooms. These mondo-size mushrooms offer meaty texture and flavor that’s perfect in a stir-fry. I’ll seek them out at Asian groceries.

Floor show

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An artist uses Stubbs BBQ Sauce to create portraits of the company's founder at the Fancy Food Show.

I’m in San Francisco for the Winter Fancy Food Show, a trade shindig for producers and retailers put on by National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. (Check out their fun consumer site, Foodspring.) It’s a bustling show, with lavish displays filling Moscone Center’s vast exhibit halls.

“Recession? What recession?” I wondered. 

“Oh, they must have paid for all that by September,” my sister-in-law later told me.

cimg0834The show is slightly scaled back this year, but not that a rube like me would notice (it has been some time since I’ve attended this particular trade show). “It’s a little bit smaller,” said an Oakland, CA-based caterer who attends every year. “Maybe.”

Here’s a quick rundown of just a few highlights:

Infusion. Expect to see even more flavor-infused salts, oils, vinegars, and other products on store shelves. Sometimes this leads to flavor confusion because infusion is a tricky proposition. One flavor shouldn’t overwhelm the other. Sometimes the flavors marry well; others, it’s not so successful. I sampled an orange-infused olive oil from Sicily and all I could taste was orange.  And I do not want raspberry-cheddar cheese under any circumstances.

Tea products of every kind. From rare tea leaves to biodegradable tea bags to nutrient-enhanced iced tea beverages, we’ll have more opportunities to sip than ever.

Artisinal chocolate. The chocolate wave is still going strong, though there are so many players–each claiming to have the rarest, fairest-trade, single-origin bar–that it’s hard for consumers (well, me, anyway) to distinguish them.

One of my favorite finds thus far: Golden Star Jasmine Sparkling Tea. This stuff tastes amazing–crisp, refreshing, an elegant warm-weather sipper. You can find it at Whole Foods.

Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette

 

A cross between an lemon and an orange, Meyer lemons deliver sweeter flavor and less acidity than standard lemons.

A cross between a lemon and an orange, Meyer lemons deliver sweeter flavor and less acidity than standard lemons.

There was an abundance of Meyer lemons at the farmers’ market this week. These lovely winter citrus fruits have been trendy for a few years, and now you can find them in some supermarkets. The skin ranges from vivid yellow to orange-tinged. That’s because they’re a cross between a lemon and an orange, so they are rounder and less acidic than a standard lemon. The juice is sweet and delicate, while the rind has a mellow quality that works nicely in baked goods. They’ll keep in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, but you’ll probably use them long before that.

I picked up several Meyers and used them to make this simple vinaigrette.

 

Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette

Meyer lemon juice has a delicate quality, so you don’t want to use an overly fruity or peppery olive oil. That’s also why there’s no mustard in this vinaigrette–I didn’t want the condiment to overwhelm the lemon. With these proportions, it emulsifies just fine. Use the dressing on salads or drizzled over grilled fish. If you plan to use the rind in another recipe, go ahead and grate or peel the rind before juicing the fruit.

1/3 cup mild-tasting extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons fresh Meyer lemon juice

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl. Stir with a whisk. Yield: about 1/2 cup.

Food terror

 

Diners have a surprising reaction when they learn terrorists might have tampered with their food. (Cornell University photo.)

Diners have a surprising reaction when they learn terrorists might have tampered with their food. (Cornell University photo.)

Let’s file this one under, huh, that’s weird.

It’s long been known that terrorists could wreak havoc on our food supply. Cornell University researchers just released a study to determine the effect this might have on consumers. 

This is a tricky kind of experiment to conduct. “Policymakers have been using naturally occurring outbreaks of food- borne illnesses to assess the potential impacts of terrorism on the food supply,” said first author David R. Just, associate professor of applied economics and management in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. But that doesn’t really correlate to a terrorist attack on food, he says. So the researchers created a hypothetical setting to gauge people’s response to potential terrorist tampering with their food.

A hired actor created a “mild disturbance” among a group of 103 volunteer diners. In one situation, he declared he wouldn’t eat the chicken because the morning news had reported there was an outbreak of bird flu 45 miles away. In another setting, he passed on the chicken because the morning news had reported terrorists might be responsible for the bird flu outbreak.

If you heard a terrorist might have tampered with your food, how would you react?

When volunteers thought the bird flu was naturally occurring, they ate 17% less chicken. When they thought terrorists were behind it, they ate 26% less chicken. Only a few people rejected the chicken altogether.

Um, so, when people heard terrorists might have tainted the food they were eating, they still ate almost three-quarters of it? Just says the study demonstrates how much more severely consumers react when they believe terrorists have messed with their chow. Eating 26% less potentially tainted chicken doesn’t sound that severe to me. How would you react?

Update:

If you read the comments, you’ll see that a poster took issue with the experiment’s setup, since adequate cooking would kill any bird-flu pathogens and render the hypothetically tainted chicken safe in any case. I contacted Dr. Just at Cornell to inquire further about how the researchers settled on bird flu as their theoretical terrorist threat. Here’s how he explained it:

“We chose this for two reasons. First, because almost nobody knows much about bird flu, and so it was a very ambiguous threat. Secondly, if anyone did know much about it, it would seem plausible to them why we would serve the chicken despite the threat.

“If we had chosen (for example) cyanide, people might suspect the actor was part of an experiment because no one would serve food potentially laced with cyanide. Certainly the amount people would be willing to eat should depend on the particular pathogen or other tampering. We did a bunch of focus groups and asked some open ended questions to figure out how much of a role this played. The results were a bit surprising. When asked an open ended question of why they were willing to eat the chicken despite the potential for contamination, the most frequent answer was that they could bring a lawsuit if there had been any ill effects. More research needs to be done on this, but I think there may be a real issue with having too much faith in the food system.”

Farmers’ market finds: Roots and citrus

 

This morning's haul from the local farmers' market

This morning's haul from the local farmers' market

I hit the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market this morning and was greeted by bumper crops of root vegetables and citrus of all varieties. After duking it out with local restaurant chefs who were stocking up for the day’s menus, I came away with this modest though inspiring selection (I tried to keep my purchases to items we’d use in the next few days):

Meyer lemons (50 cents apiece)–I’ll use the juice to make a vinaigrette and the zest to flavor some buttermilk scones.

White (albino) beets ($3/bunch)–The beets will be roasted, sliced, and added to a big salad, as well as used on a pizza. Their gorgeous greens will go into tonight’s stir-fry.

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Potato patch: Almost too many varieties to choose from, but they're all tasty.

Russian banana fingerling potatoes ($1.50/pound)–not sure yet if I’ll roast these or steam them for a salad

Redwood Hill Farm goat cheese ($8/5 ounces)–this was my indulgence, but it’s hard to pass up artisanal goat cheese. This will likely be paired with the beets in the salad or on the pizza (or both). Is it too decadent to just eat the stuff as is?

Recipes to follow later this week!

Wednesday’s starters

picture-12Bookmark this: From aamchur to zira, the UK-based site The Foody defines herbs and spices–as well as fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses and other items. Nice if you’re making a British recipe and forgot that an aubergine is an eggplant.

picture-21It’s one way to fight the deficit: New York Governor David Patterson proposes an 18% sin tax on sugary beverages. Hard fiscal times makes so-called “obesity taxes” on junk food more appealing than ever, says Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & ObesityBusiness Week

© Helen Panphilova | Dreamstime.com

© Helen Panphilova | Dreamstime.com

Vitamin D is the “it” nutrient, especially for people with diabetes. Managing  vitamin D deficiency “may be a simple and cost-effective method to improve blood sugar control and prevent the serious complications associated with diabetes,” says Joanne Kouba, Ph.D., R.D., L.D.N., study co-author and clinical assistant professor of dietetics, Loyola University Chicago Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing–The Diabetes Educator

picture-32Dining out on a shoestring: Best cheap eats across the country, from LA to Atlanta–Gayot.com

 

 

picture-41Can those who critique cook? Ummm, no. Feared French food critic Francois Simon takes a turn at the stove–The New York Times

 

picture-51Room for another cooking competition TV show? The Los Angeles Times’ Rene Lynch reviews the Food Network’s “Chopped” and deems it worthy of a place on the broadcast menu. The folks at Serious Eats aren’t so sure.