Sunday, November 29, 2009

Why Am I Cooking This?

Homemade Sugar Cookies- Bethie

Homemade. Made from scratch. Made by hand. When food goes through your mother’s or your grandmother’s kitchen, taking its own sweet time, being chopped, basted, fried, toasted, and then set on a hand-crocheted hot pad on the sunny country-kitchen table, you have a warm, cared-for satisfied feeling. I’m sure that is why many manufacturers use those “Home-Baked” terms on their packaged dinners. They want their product to leap into your basket as you try to make a grocery shopping trip work its way somehow into those lazy Sunday afternoon dinners.Why would anyone make anything from scratch these days? It’s not always cheaper; in fact, it often costs a lot more to make a dish yourself instead of buying it. When you can buy a whole fried chicken at Winco for $6, why would you buy a whole raw chicken for $6, take it home, tear it out of the package, rinse it, cut it up, make all those mysterious, bloody things inside go away, dredge it in flour, prepare the skillet, and spend the next 45 minutes babysitting it, dodging hot grease splatters and cleaning up the toxic waste of raw drippings? And it doesn’t always taste better. Admit it, those companies have access to all those top-secret “natural flavorings” (that actually do share a molecule or two with something natural), and they use lots more of that tasty salt. And grease. Yum!I’ve been thinking of three examples lately. One of them is pie. I love to make pie, fruit pies especially. I am a good pie-maker. In fact, I won a pie contest several years ago. The prize was a decorated pie pan, and every time I look at it, I feel warm and fuzzy. But truthfully, Sarah Lee is also a pretty good pie maker. She has gotten much better over the years, and to think that I can buy a pretty good cherry pie during the holidays for $2.98 makes it almost painful to make my own from scratch. So what if I can’t pronounce all the ingredients? The best scratch pie dough is made from Crisco, the modern miracle grease.And have you ever made lasagna from the ground up? It’s like building a house! Each layer is prepared in a separate bowl from multiple ingredients, some requiring shredding. Noodles are boiled, pans are prepared, ingredients are sautéed, eggs are cracked, and while the layers are being applied, you hope they all come out even. Why do we put ourselves through this? When I was a kid, lasagna came from boxes marked “Hamburger Helper.” In the frozen section, they have these nice compact boxes of lasagna. Easy and yummy. Why make it at home?I expect most people have an old ice-cream maker in their garage somewhere. Hand-crank is the best, but electric works too. Remember the rock salt, the bags of ice, the tub to set it in? Sometimes the mixture had to be cooked up ahead of time and chilled before freezing. As a kid, I especially remember the excruciating one-hour wait until it ripened. Making ice-cream is a good picnic sort of thing to do, but would you really go through all of that just to have ice-cream, when Dreyers is on sale right now for 2 (almost) half-gallons for $5? When you buy Dreyers, you know exactly what you are going to get. Homemade things sometimes go wrong, terribly wrong.Some time back, for a happy family summer backyard picnic, we made vanilla ice cream. The kids and I turned and turned and turned. But wasn’t getting firm enough. I finally pulled the top off to look at it. It looked sort of done, but a little grainy. I put a finger in to taste it. Aarrgh! Salt! Lots of saltiness! The can had developed a split in the seam. If it had been Dreyers, I could at least have taken it back. And maybe sued. It was at least as traumatic as finding something with legs in it.But we do continue to make things by hand. Not all of us, and not all the time. But there is something richly rewarding about taking base ingredients and creating a work that is nourishing, tasty, filling, attractive, timely. It is personal. It is a sharing opportunity. It has value.Why do I make my own music? I have available to me any time, anywhere just about any tune or song that I can imagine. Where phonograph records were the early boxed mixes, i-tunes are the pizza delivery service. And unlike my pies competing with Sarah Lee, Rhonda Vincent wins, hands down; there is no competition. In the old days, if you wanted music, you made it. It didn’t matter as much that somewhere, someone else did it the best. People sang, people whistled and hummed. I worry sometimes that ordinary people nowadays who have music in them are able to calm that drive by sticking headphones on. We need to make our own music the same way our children need to draw their own pictures from their own hearts, the same way we need to create and share a homemade plate of cookies. It may not sound as perfect or finished as the professional music-bakers, but to the parking lot players who are sharing their musical souls with each other, it is more nourishing and fulfilling than anything you can buy.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

#2 Mexican Restaurant Review: Casa Lupe

I didn't expect to visit another Mexican restaurant so soon, but my husband wanted to join the experiment, so we went to Casa Lupe in Yuba City on Saturday for lunch.

This is a pretty popular place. Some friends of mine have declared it their favorite restaurant, but I have never been. It is locally owned, and is fairly nice, sort of like a Marie Callender's a la Mexico might be. Scores: 1-5, 5 being highest

4) atmosphere. nice, Mexican music over the speakers. But again, motor noises in the background were a little loud.

4) Service. This was full service, and even though it was pretty crowded (right at noon) we were seated right away. The wait staff were prompt with menus and drinks. The food took 14 minutes to arrive, not bad, but could be better, for a lunch. She offered more salsa and chips when we went low.

5) Stove hot, yes, quite nicely.

4) Chips, hot and crisp, not greasy, but thick. OK, so some people probably like them thick. But they tear up my mouth when they are too thick. I like them on the thin side. And they could have been a little saltier.

3) Salsa. This is a hard one, but even though the flavor was nice and the ingredients were fresh and crisp, it was more like gazpacho. The juice was so thin, it was hard to scoop it with chips. When my husband asked, they did bring out some of the hotter salsa, which was very good and HOT, but I wonder that they didn't offer it at first?

3) Shredded beef burrito. This was almost a 4. The beef was shredded, no chunks, and some onions were cooked in there too. Nice flavor, but a little mild for me. It was moist at first, but then seemed like it could have used more juice. But I think that is the way shredded beef does. They had melted cheese on top, which at first seemed nice, but truthfully, it didn't add much flavor and just made it harder to cut it to eat. The little lettuce and tomato garnish did make the plate more attractive.

2) refries. They were an odd pink color and bland. Not bad, but could have been better with some judicious seasoning.

3) rice. again, a little bland. They benefitted from dumping salsa in.

4) clean. The restaurant was very clean and attractive. Pastel "Mexican" color walls and artwork, but the bathroom was obviously not redone when the restaurant was. Sort of shabby and worn at the edges. The locks in the steel stall doors were gone and I almost cut my finger sticking it through to try to open up the door.

4) value. For this meal, I paid $8.50. $3 more than Betty's, but more food, which I really didn't need and shouldn't have eaten.

Up near the front they had a cute little tortilla maker. She would put in a wad of dough and it would fall down into the glass case; little turners would flip it as the trays rotated the tortilla down to the bottom and then up a conveyer belt to a basket. It made me want one!

Upshot is... it's a perfectly nice place to eat, but not that "special" restaurant you'd want to show off how great it is.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

# 1 Review: Betty's Authentic Mexican Restaurant

Betty's, in Yuba City, wasn't even on my list, since it isn't in the Yellow Pages. Maybe the place is new and the book is old. I was heading for another place on my list to see if it was a dive or a likely prospect but by the time I got my gps out, "Kathleen" said I had passed it by. Then I remembered seeing this one nearby in the little plaza by the Harvest Bread Co. and zipped over there.

With the unlikely name of Betty's Authentic Mexican Restaurant, as opposed to Los Charros, Los Mexicanos, Taqueria Guadalahara, I wasn't sure what to expect. It looked sort of "lunchy" from the front, so it surprised me to fined out that the waitress came around to take care of things instead of the order counter. I was very happy with the joint. Let's score on a 1-5 scale, 5 being the highest.

Atmosphere: 4. Pretty yellow walls, tasteful decor, Mex music playing, but not too loudly. 2 booths and the rest tables. Kitchen visible, which is nice to see, as it is clean and orderly, but a little noisy with the hood vent.

Cleanliness: 5. Must be brand new, as it is the cleanest place I've been to in this town. Even the bathroom was spotless and new looking.

Chips: 3. They were warm and crunchy, but quite thick. Lots of them.

Salsa: 2.5 Not bad, not especially good. Perfectly adequate, but forgettable. Medium hot.

Stove hot: 5. The plate was hot, the food was hot, too hot to eat right away in fact.

Beef Burrito Platter: 4. Couldn't think of much to improve on here. The rice was seasoned well and was soft and moist, the beans were, well, beans with a little white cheese on top. The burrito was delicious. I'm only giving it a 4 because one has to have some place to go if something turns up better. It was pretty plain, but that was fine, since the flavor was very nice with a thin seasoned chili sauce and chunks of lean, tender, seasoned beef. I guess if you want the foo foo fillings, you'll order the supreme type one.

Service: 5. The girl came around quickly, gave the menu and chips, came back in about 3 or 4 minutes for the order, and I got my plate 5 minutes later. She filled my tea once without me having to ask, and then checked on me once later.

Value: 5. Lots and lots of chips, extra salsa when I asked, $5.50 for the beef burrito platter, and full service too. Hard to beat that.

This is definitely going on my A list.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Los Vaqueros Mex Restaurant in Livermore

Just at the cusp of my Mexican Restaurant Experimentation, I ended up eating at a Los Vaqueros Mexican Restaurant in Livermore yesterday. And all I can say is that it is worth driving out of your way to go eat there.

We were discussing thin chips. These were paper thin and CRISPY, not greasy. The waitress brought TWO little bowls of salsa so neither my companion nor I had to worry about a double-dipper. The salsa was a little more like cocktail sauce, in that it was a little sweet and tangy, but acceptable.

All the menu items seemed like uniquely crafted ensembles of Mexican food with great creativity. The special was some sort of duck taco with pomegranite and other unusual items. We ordered the appetizer of some cheese shrimp things. Imagine a shrimp split and stuffed with cheese, wrapped in bacon, just a splash of batter, and deep-fried with a drizzle of spicy cheese-sauce. About 8 of these beauties surrounded a bed of dressed, shredded lettuce topped with guacamole.

We both ordered the Carnitas Tintas Tacos. Instead of the standard rice 'n beans, one could choose amongst such sides as spinach salad with apples and bleu cheese, lightly cooked zuccini in a spiced tomato sauce, some kind of seasoned fries, drunken beans, spanish rice, and I forget what else. I had the spinach salad and the zuccini.

The plate was beautiful and appetizing. The 3 small tacos were opened up and full of the saucy meat and shredded lettuce and pickled onion slices. They were topped with Mexican queso. All the flavors in my order were robust and complementary.

On our way out, we peeked into the bar. At another time, with another group of people, I would have really enjoyed trying that out. While the color scheme in the restaurant was gold, yellow, orange, the bar was cool blue; roomy and cozy at the same time.

Alas! I cannot choose this restaurant to be my favorite because it is totally out of my area, and I'll be lucky to be able to swing by there a couple times a year. But it's nice to have a standard to weigh against!

On 580 going West, take the exit for North Vasco Road in Livermore. It is only about an eighth of a mile off the freeway, just past the Der Weinerschnitzel.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Looking for a Favorite Mexican Restaurant

Now that I have my favorite Chinese Restaurant, and favorite Italian Restaurant, it's about time I am able to determine a favorite Mexican Restaurant in the Yuba Sutter area. I've had sort of enjoyable experiences and some experiences that were so-so. But I have been thinking that it is time to go about it in a scientific way.

I am going to make a list of the Mexican restaurants in the area, dine at them, at using a list of criteria, judge them. Here are my criteria:

Flavor, quality of ingredients.

Service. This includes timely refills of water and ice tea.

Hot from the stove. Less than piping hot, almost dangerously hot Mexican food is inexcusable!

Quantity of serving/Value/Price. These are all related.


And I think I may add cleanliness, but only if it is not clean, since that should be a given.

I will pick the same common item from each restaurant, going at a slightly off peak hour.
Can you think of any other criteria to use? I'll try to do a new one each week. Stay tuned!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Marcello's Marsala

Yesterday was our 26th wedding anniversary. I’m not sure why special events are celebrated by going out to eat in a nice restaurant, but as you may have guessed by now, that sort of thing is dear to my heart. Our minor celebrations, such as having a good day, knowing a tidbit worth sharing, having a fat wallet, getting letter in the mail, are handled quite nicely by dining at the Schezwan House Restaurant in Marysville. But for a wedding anniversary, we went a step up and drove over to Marcello’s Italian Restaurant in Yuba City.

I think we would have gone there anyway, but coincidentally the food section in the Appeal-Democrat featured Marcello’s and their signature item, Marsala Chicken. We have eaten there several times, but I’d never had the Marsala Chicken.

I always like to try different things, but it is hard to remember what I have had before in a restaurant. At Schezwan House, I will decide that I must start at the top of the menu and work my way down, making a check mark by each and then making sure I pick up the same menu next time. But when I see the Basil Chicken, I get weak and just order that because I know it is so good. All I remember when I pick up a Marcello’s menu is that last time I had something with red sauce and it was very good.

Marsala Chicken does not have red sauce. It has a creamy brown sauce with lots of sliced mushrooms in it. My husband ordered filet mignon and scampi, the special for Thursdays and I chose the Marsala Chicken.

Marcello’s is a roomy, attractive, comfortable place that brings up feelings of Italy and the Mediterranean, with its décor and Italian music playing in the background. Bottles of wine are stacked in niches and on the long sideboard. We order Chianti. We ask the waiter to light our candle so we can gaze romantically at each other over the red glowing glass. After delicious garlic bread and salad our orders arrived in good time.

My chicken was very, very good. Flattened chicken breast, seasoned and tender, smothered in savory sauce that had beautiful tangy notes, with the meaty flavor of mushrooms sautéed in butter. I couldn’t bear to have any of the sauce go away with the plate, so I spent the last 5 minutes mopping it up with the last of the extra bread the attentive waiter had brought. Oh we were stuffed! No thought of dessert.

The owner stopped by our table and asked how we had enjoyed our dinner. After enthusiastic regards to the chef, I batted my eyes at my husband, tilted my head and coyly remarked, “It’s our anniversary.”

“Ah, perhaps you will like a nice anniversary dessert as a compliment from us.” Well! I’m never so full that I wouldn’t enjoy a nice complimentary anniversary dessert!

He brought out a chocolate mousse, topped with whipped cream and fresh raspberries, drizzled with Grand Marnier and topped with a lit candle. Oh Heaven! I managed to poke a few mouthfuls down my very full husband’s throat and handled the rest of it myself.

We waddled out to the truck, moaning happily. I know what’s going to be on next week’s shopping list. I’ll definitely be trying this at home!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Maybe I'll Cook French for Awhile!

I like the food section in the daily newspaper. In our paper, the Appeal-Democrat, Wednesday’s food section has a wine column, a *Cooking With Your Neighbors* feature, and various recipes. I like these recipes because of their spontaneous nature. They may be about anything. One time I learned from a walnut grower’s wife that you can leach the bitterness out of shelled walnuts by blanching and then drying them. She also went on to give a recipe for gluten-free cookies, using ground walnut meats.

The other day I clipped a recipe for Beef Bourguignon. I’ve made this in the distant past, but this recipe looked more hearty, more rooted in France. I stuck the clipping (actually it was not a clipping, it was a tearing, since I never take the time to get scissors, I just rip it) to the refrigerator until I could get the ingredients and make the time. Yesterday, I made the dish.

It was supposed to bake in the oven for 2 hours, and I was late getting started, so I’ll admit that I got a little anxious and hurried at times. That usually means an incredibly messy aftermath, but hopefully, no major mistakes. Cooking the bacon to get the grease and flavor is always the aromatically enjoyable part. To enjoy it even more, I read down the ingredient list. One half bottle of full-bodied red wine. Good! One for me, one for you! I poured a glass of my favorite cheap Cab, Foxhorn, and rendered a nice pan of grease.

While browning the pieces of beef, I prepared the carrots and onions. Then came a major speed bump. One head of garlic. One HEAD of garlic? As in, all the cloves within the clump? Yes. And it was a big head, all its aromatic halitosis bundled up in little paper-covered ovals. I began stripping the papers. It called for dicing up the stinking rose, but I preferred to not be aware of the actual moment I was eating a piece, so I used my wonderful garlic press. One after another, I squished those suckers in the pan until I finally lost my nerve and stopped about 4 cloves shy of the whole thing. Mmmm! Ack Ack! The kitchen was definitely smelling French!

Next step, pour in the half bottle of wine. Good, there was still a half bottle left! After I tipped it in, the contents of the pan were a terrible sight. Purple, with bits of brown and orange and white. And it smelled like a nasty Halloween punch. Luckily, I am experienced enough to know that it would all change by the time it was done.

I have a friend who had heard that red wine was good in beef stew. He told me that he had poured some in a stew once, but was so horrified by the look, smell and taste that he poured all the broth off and started again.

I accidentally added the mushrooms and then had to fish them out because they weren’t to be added until the dish was done, and first sautéed by themselves in butter. Now I had to add Herbs de Provence. I couldn’t find the blend at my grocery and had figured I’d look up what they were in my cookbook at home. No luck! Next try, The Internet: dial-up, loading, loading, error, re-loading, not what I wanted, loading, (the high point of my anxiety to get this in the oven!) until finally it compared the French herb blend to Italian Seasoning. Good enough for me! The seasonings: Herbs, fresh ground pepper, and kosher salt to taste. I took a guess with the herbs and pepper and figured I’d salt at the end.
For 2 hours the house was filled with the heady aromas of cooking garlic, red wine and onions (OK, so it reeked). I just figured that if we were all going to eat it, we wouldn’t notice the breath. And let tomorrow take care of itself.

I served it over egg noodles. The dish was beautiful, a lovely roasted brown with a bubbling sauce. The flavor was rich and meaty, dark, but with delicate notes. The flavor of the wine had held up, but had been transformed into a food taste instead of a beverage.

Whenever I complain about the taste of a food or drink, it is usually due to a mono-taste. From the lips down to the stomach, the flavor remains the same. I like to eat and drink complex items, I want to experience a multitude of changing flavors in one beer, wine or food. This Beef Bourguignon fulfilled that. I had to take my time, savoring each small bite. I had to get a little more, *for my mouth.* But best of all, my husband told me to put it in my book because it was a *keeper.*

½ pound bacon
2 pounds beef, in 1 inch cubes
½ bottle full bodied red wine
1 cup tomato sauce
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 pound carrots, sliced thin
1 head garlic, minced
Herbs de Provence, black pepper, kosher salt, to taste
½ pound sliced mushrooms
4 ounces butter

Fry up bacon, remove bacon, crumble and set aside. Brown beef pieces in bacon grease. Pour in wine and tomato sauce. Add onion, garlic, carrots, crumbled bacon and seasonings. Cover and bake 350 degrees for 2 hours. Sautee mushrooms in butter; stir into the casserole. Serve over egg noodles or mashed potatoes.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Biscuits 'n Gravy

Nola prepares to divy up.

Nothing is more comforting, savory, tasty and satisfying to eat for breakfast than biscuits and gravy.

Objectively, it’s just a pile of grease, starch and milk. But subjectively, ahh. That’s different!

I’ve had the combination of biscuits and gravy from friends, restaurants and family, and one conclusion I have come to is that it must be easier to make good gravy than good biscuits. The gravy is almost always ok, and sometimes quite excellent.

Just recently, while visiting my sister in Woodland Park, Colorado, we shared a plate of biscuits and gravy at the Donut Mill, a little bakery there. In preparing this dish, sometimes the cook breaks the biscuits up, sometimes they’re left whole. This place was a “slightly break ‘em up” method. The gravy was beautiful, covering the biscuits from all edges of the plate – perfect tannish-white liberally speckled with large flakes of black pepper. Small pieces of sausage hid in the creamy blanket, contributing to just the right amount of saltiness. The biscuit was only so-so. If I had eaten the biscuit separately from the gravy, I would have been disappointed in it. My gold standard in biscuits are my mother’s and my own. They should be tender and moist inside with a hard-to-describe chewy-crusty outside, which comes from being coated with butter or bacon grease and baked at a high temperature.

But this plate of biscuits and gravy, together, were just fine; we enjoyed them very much.
I began thinking about how simple and nice the combination was. One could add an egg; that would be a tasty addition. A few sausages would match well. You could even lay some fried apples at the edge of the plate and enjoy it. But by adding an extra ingredient, something is lost from the perfect pairing of the original biscuits and gravy.

I think of that perfect pairing when I consider an Old-Time banjo and fiddle combination. Together, playing the old tunes, they create such a sweet, primitive music, almost achingly nostalgic. Sometimes either the fiddle or banjo is just “ok,” but together, they are beautiful. Often, folks will add a guitar to the duet, a bass, or maybe a mandolin. And just like a pretty little sunny-side up egg keeping the biscuits and gravy company, it sounds nice, sometimes making the tune a little richer, fuller. But if you appreciate true Old-Time music, you might be one to recognize that the perfect simplicity of the original duet is no longer there.

So go ahead and enjoy a full course of instruments at an Old-Time music jam. It can be loud, fun, and make you want to dance. But then, step aside, notice the two guys in the corner and take time to appreciate and understand the beauty of just the fiddle and the banjo.