Rotisserie chicken. I just saw an ad for something that looked like one and it brought me back to my childhood. The pollos al spiedo going round and around at the window of the rotisería (how else would we call a deli?) kitty corner from my apartment building. The smell and taste were unparalleled and continue to be. I can almost l but not quite, relive them in my memory.
Rotisserie chicken was expensive, plus my mom didn’t eat poultry- a consequence of a childhood cleaning the chickens her doctor father was paid with-, so it was a special treat. In the life of culinary excess we live in America, there are relatively few of those. It was a treat I shared with my dad, who also preferred dark meat but would let my brother and I have the legs anyway. My sister Gabriela would eat the wings.
Later, one of the butchers near my house started selling chicken parts, pollo en presas. So we could all have legs which my dad would grill on the parrilla over wood we’d gathered around (and coal, of course) and we would eat with a squeeze of lemon juice. Not my mom, of course. It was still more expensive than beef, I think.
Plus what I learned about truffles & are the truffles sold at the Berkeley Bowl any good?
During a very brief stay in Barcelona, my daughter fell in love with a dish of truffle ravioli in a parmesan and truffle oil cream sauce at one of the Sensi tapas restaurants. So when she asked that I include a pasta dish for our Christmas dinner, I immediately thought of that dish – and started researching recipes and truffles.
Truffles, I knew, were very expensive and rare fungi that grows naturally in Italy and France and is only available at exorbitant prices for a few months of the year. What I didn’t know is that it’s extremely hard to preserve them – because it’s their aroma which actually gives dishes the ethereal earthy flavor that we so like. Infusing them in oil doesn’t really work, but food scientists were able to isolate its most prevalent odorant – a compound called 2,4-Dithiapentane – and replicate it. This is what is mixed with olive oil, butters or salt and sold as “truffle” whatever. That is to say, this is what most of us know as truffle flavor. The little pieces of truffle we see in commercial products are apparently there mostly for show.
There seems to be a revolt against truffle oil among some top chefs, who belief its fake flavor confuses diners and stops them from being able to appreciate the subtleties of real truffles. Thinking back to the truffle dishes I’ve had, I think this is likely to be the case. I still dream of Aquerello‘s ridged pasta with foie gras, scented with black truffles, which I believe is topped with real truffle, but most other truffle dishes I recall did seem to be rather one-dimentional. Years ago, my husband gave me expensive botles of black and white truffle oil for Christmas, so I know those flavors quite well. While I didn’t care much for the white truffle oil, the black truffle oil does impart a rather tasty flavor.
I found many recipes online for pasta in a truffle sauce, and at first my decision was on whether to use truffle oil or butter. While researching what was easily available to me, I found that the Berkeley Bowl was actually carrying fresh black truffles for about $160/lb (via instacart). Given that the page offered no information about these truffles, and that French black truffles are currently selling for $95/oz (a regular truffle weighs an ounce or less), I was quite doubtful of these – but I did learn that truffles are also grown in the West Coast – indeed, as close as Napa Valley – so I imagined they were domestic. My daughter suggests, however, that they might just be expired truffles – not fresh enough to retain much of their flavor. She might have been right.
Ultimately, I decided to give them a try – and so far I’ve had mixed results. I first used them the night I got them by shaving them on a dish of plain pasta served with vegan butter. The truffle shavings completely failed to impart any flavor on the dish. It was a total failure.
For my Christmas Eve dish I decided to do something different. I took part of a truffle and chopped it very finely and infused it in good quality melted butter early in the day – so that it was solid by the time I actually made the sauce for this dish. This, by itself, didn’t give the sauce much truffle flavor, but I think it helped it build, so by the time all the ingredients were combined – the truffle ravioli, the sauce and the shaved truffle on top – the results were delicious. The dish had a very earthy flavor, truffly but not as strong as truffle oil.
I was lucky enough that I was able to follow this recipe closely, as I was able to find the called-for taleggio cheese at the Berkeley Bowl as well. The recipe writer suggests that you can substitute this cheese with Fontina, Robiola or Brie, though to me its flavor was closer to camembert. Indeed, I added a couple of ounces of camembert, as I hadn’t gotten as much taleggio as the recipe called for. I’d probably had done better using less cheese, as the sauce was a tad too salty – I’m making this recommended adjustment in the recipe below.
I wanted to make ravioli in the first place, and was happy to find porcini & truffle ravioli from the Pasta Shop at the Berkeley Bowl. These are made with “truffle essence”, that is to say, the artificial aromatic compound. They were tasty by themselves, but they were really elevated by the sauce and the shaved truffle.
To store truffles before using them, dry the surface with a paper towel and then place in a bowl filled with uncooked rice (to help draw moisture away). Store in the fridge or a cool place in your house.
Ravioli in Truffle Sauce Recipe
12 oz fresh or frozen mushroom ravioli
2-3 Tbsp truffle butter
8 oz taleggio cheese, cut into 1/2″ cubes
3/4 cup heavy cream
Parmesan cheese to taste
Cook the ravioli according to package instructions, drain.
Meanwhile, melt the truffle butter, cheese and cream over medium heat – stirring frequently. Transfer the ravioli to the sauce and coat all over. Transfer to a serving dish or individual plates.
My 13-yo daughter wrote the following speech to give to her 8th grade English class. While I continue to eat (guiltily) eat meat, I am extremely proud of her.
In 2014, 30,170 innocent cows were brutally murdered in slaughterhouses, for YOU to eat your steak, hamburgers, hotdogs, etc. 8,666,662 little chickens were slaughtered for your chicken nuggets. 106,876 sweet, adorable pigs were killed for your bacon. You may not care, to you animals may simply be meaningless, their only purpose being your food. But they’re not. Why are some animals okay to eat, and not others? Why would you happily eat a pig, or cow, but the thought of eating a cat or dog is terrible?
In 2014, I stopped eating meat. 6-9 months before that I had stopped eating all meat except chicken. I honestly have no clue why I thought it was alright to eat to eat chicken. But, I did stop. Why did I stop eating chicken? A Bones episode. It depicted a warehouse full of chickens, each of them given less than a foot of space to live. It depicted baby chicks getting their beaks cut off, because when they got older, they’d fight each other, from the stress of not having any room to live. I don’t know if what they showed was true, I haven’t had the heart to research it, not wanting to think about what was truly going on. It was at that moment that I decided I couldn’t stomach the idea of forcing an animal to go through that, so I could eat something, I really didn’t need. The idea of their lives having to end, for them to have to stop existing, for a hamburger or chicken nugget.
I don’t think it was hard to become a vegetarian, maybe it was because I hadn’t eaten cow, or pig in so long, maybe it was because I truly believed that it was just wrong and cruel to eat the carcass of a deceased animal. I think what was harder, was learning later on that there are things I didn’t know about that contain meat. Gelatin is in marshmallows and gummies, it’s made from boiling the tendons, ligaments, bones, and skin of pigs or cows. Lard is pig fat, it’s in a lot of Mexican food, being used to make quesadillas and refried beans. Truthfully, I didn’t know at the beginning, and I’m still finding out about new things that I can’t eat. If you want to count me actually becoming a vegetarian by when I stopped eating gelatin, or lard, fine by me. But I count it as when I decided it was wrong to.
I’m not trying to turn you into a vegetarian, because I know it won’t work. I think I mostly just think everyone should understand what these innocent creatures have to go through for you to eat something, many of you take for granted. And if you start to question your ways, that’s just fabulous.
This week I’m cooking Friulian food, which meant that I had to make a Frico. As I read in a blog (which I can’t find now), “frico” is what you made in the dead of winter, when nothing was growing and all you had was old cheese and old potatoes. At its simplest, frico is just Montasio cheese, shredded and fried with some flour into a thin wafer. It can be eaten as a snack or with soups. Montasio is a cowmilk cheese, eaten at different stages of its development, somewhat similar to Parmesan.
More complicated versions of frico will include thinly sliced potatoes, as well as chopped onions and pancetta (if you’re rich!).
I found a recipe that looked great and incorporated all those elements and wanted to make it. But then I lost it. Rather than go with one of the other recipes, I tried to remember the steps on that one but made a HUGE mess of it. First I fried the onions and chopped bacon together (didn’t have pancetta), then added slices of potatoes I’d previously boiled and topped with a lot of grated cheese. I didn’t have Montasio, so I used a mixture of Parmesan and San Joaquin Gold, a cheese from the Cowgirl Creamery, which despite the cheesemakers claims that it’s a Fontina-turned-Cheddar, is actually very similar to Parmesan.
The cheese was supposed to melt, caramelize and harden, so that I could then flip the whole thing and cooked in the other side. Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead the onions started to burn before the cheese melted and when I tried to flip it, I just messed the whole thing up. It was still very tasty, but not what it was intended to be.
So, needless to say, I’m going to root for Nelson this season. So far my impressions of him are mixed. In a challenge in which they had to create a dessert based on a fairy tale, he said he was from Argentina and therefore didn’t know any of them. And that’s kind of BS. Both the story of Little Red Riding Hood (Caperucita Roja) and Hansel and Gretel are very famous in Argentina, everyone knows them. I did have a book on Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Ricitos de Oro), though that may be much less common. Jack and the Beanstalk, on the other hand, was, indeed, completely unknown when I was growing up (though Nelson is much younger than I). That said, he might not have recognized the names of those children’s books in English.
The show didn’t focus much on him, so it’s hard to know how good he is. He helped another contestant, Orlando Santos, build an amazing show piece, so he has some technical expertise, but it’s not clear how much of the design, if any, was his. Still, for the time being, at lest, I’ll be rooting for him.
Update: I’m sorry to say that Nelson was already eliminated from the show. He seemed very skilled, but I wish he would have drawn more from Argentinian flavors. For example, on the last show they concentrated on making white and pink desserts. He made a lollipop that was too hard to eat and not good enough. Instead, he could have made his own version of merengadas, a great cookie with two plain cookie shells (but he could have covered them on merengue, white chocolate or just powdered sugar) and a pink, marshmallowish/spongish finish rolled in shredded coconut. These things are really addictive and very fun to eat (that said, they are not very sophisticated, they’re really a childhood treat). Well, Nelson is out but I found a recipe for merengadas and I’m going to make them myself 🙂
”What’s for dinner,” asks my 6-year old daughter Camila. “Pork chops” I answer. “What animal do they came from?”. Surely she knows, I’m not the greatest fan of pork but Camila and I both love pork ribs and bacon. “Pig,” I say. The tears start to come out. “We can’t have pig, they are nice animals”. “But they are ugly,” I respond, my oldest daughter, Michaela, has already forbidden us from eating any “cute” animals: lamb, duck, venison have all disappeared from our menus. “Pigs are cute!” she screams. “This was a very ugly pig,” I promise, somewhat amused, I’ve gone through this before. “No, all pigs are cute!,” she yells, tears coming into her eyes. She calms down a bit, though, there may be a compromise. “How did the pig die?” I could lie, I could tell her it was very old or ill and we are honoring him by eating him. But that’s bullshit. I try not to lie to my children (though the Tooth Fairy did visit Camila’s pillow last night) and I don’t want them to think that it’s safe to eat animals that have not been killed for that purpose. So I tell her the truth. She bursts into tears. “You can’t kill animals! It’s wrong, it’s just wrong to kill animals! They are like us!”. I’m not surprised by the outburst. I’ve gone through the same thing before, with Mika. She’s nine, now, and pretty much an omnivore (save for the “cute animal” thing), but she’s tried to be a vegetarian before. I accommodated. It didn’t last.
I think that children are natural vegetarians. Kids love animals, even ugly animals (Mika just checked out a coffee table book from the library on chickens). They don’t want to eat them. I’m pretty sure that if I took meat away from their menu, they wouldn’t notice and even Mika wouldn’t ask for it. The problem, however, is that they won’t eat vegetables. They’ll have broccoli, and carrots and peas – they just love snap peas. But they’ve said goodbye to green beans, and they pretty much never touch other veggies. I could force the issue, I’m sure, but I don’t like veggies myself and my parents insistence that I eat them turn me off on them for decades. I could, theoretically, raise them on pasta, beans and cheese dishes, those “kid friendly foods” other parents resort to (and please, don’t think I’m judging). But I won’t. When I was growing up my mother resembled a short order cook, most days making at least one custom dish for one of her kids. Sometimes we’d all eat something different. I swore I’d never do that. One dinner for all, if someone doesn’t like it, they’re on their own. It’s worked well so far.
I understand my children’s feelings about not killing animals. If I liked vegetables, I’d probably be a vegetarian myself. There is something very distasteful, even to my mind, about raising other creatures for food. And don’t get me started on factory farming! And the how harmful cows are to the environment! If you think about it at all, really, eating meat (or at least beef) is wrong. But I don’t like veggies enough to subsist on them and I don’t want a carbohydrates-only diet. So I compromise, no lamb (giving up venison, duck, rabbit or other such animals is less of an issue). They are cute. It would hurt Mika’s feelings. But I won’t give up beef, pork or chicken. I tell myself they are stupid animals (though I’m not that sure about pigs), I try not to think about it.
So tonight we are having beef. It’s ginger beef, a Canadian recipe. I’ll make it non-spicy so the kids can eat it. If they don’t want it, there will be rice and salad. Or they can forage in the fridge, I saw celery, cucumber and baby carrots there, frozen bean & cheese burritos in the freezer. They’ll make do.
-I used to find garlic very difficult to peel, the peel would stuck to the cloves and I had to scratch it out sometimes. Now, I cut each end of the clove and the peel comes right out. Have I changed my technique or has garlic changed in the last decade?
-I find that Martinis Kalamata Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which I buy at Trader Joe’s for about $9 for the 1 liter bottle, is the best cheap olive oil around. It actually has a pleasant (if not too strong) flavor, without the bitterness I find in other cheap oil. I don’t know if it’s not adulterated with other oils, as cheap olive oils are said to be, but it works well enough for me.
-Isn’t it so much more convenient when you was your kitchen utensils as you use them? Why don’t I do it more often (other than having a full dish rack)?
-The conventional wisdom is that you should throw out your dried herbs and spices every year. However, herbs and spices are expensive and it’s often much cheaper to buy them in larger quantities (specially at Santos Indian Spices in San Leandro, so I keep them for much longer. I, personally, haven’t encountered a significant degrading of the spices. And even if they lost some of their potency, isn’t it just a matter of tasting and adding some more if necessary?
-The conventional wisdom is also that you shouldn’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink. However, I’ve found there is no difference in the finished product between nicer wines (those in the $7 range) and cheaper wines, in particular two-buck chuck. I personally think it’s a great cooking wine, both in its red and white varieties.
-My palate may also not be very educated, but I notice little difference in the finished product vis a vis the varietal of wine I use – so I always use whatever I have open or I have a cheap bottle of. I do usually use red wine when a recipe calls for red, and white when it calls for white.
-Pudding from a box is disgusting. It’s very easy to make your own custard. But the former is much cheaper and hubby likes it just as much.
-Whipping cream and lemons cost twice as much at the supermarket than at Trader Joe’s.
-No matter what I make, I need at least 1 hour to cook from scratch.
-I always underestimate how long it’ll take me to cook something by at least half an hour.
-I love Better than Bouillon stock bases. But they are expensive if you are actually using them to make soup.
-I no longer bother making stock (with a base) before putting it into a recipe. Now I add water to the food I’m cooking and add the base when it starts to boil.
-Chef knives are useless. I finally got one a year or two ago and I hate it. I find a serrated bread knife much more efficient for chopping onions (the onion halves stay together as you slice them), which is the kitchen task I most abhor.
I have owned several kitchen timers over my 20+ years cooking, but none have lasted very long. Now this may be because invariably I’ve bought the cheap kind, or it may be because timers today are not made that well.
For the last couple of years, though, I’ve been using my grandmothers old Magic Chef timer – which I would guess (by the style and my grandmother’s last trip from Argentina to America, where she bought it) dates from the 50’s or 60’s, for the last couple of years and I love it. It works perfectly every time, it runs neither quick or slow and it doesn’t stop. It has a loud but not annoying ring and I’m just happy with it.
The kitchen timer is not in the best condition. It’s rusted in the back and the front plate is sort of lose. It’s lasted 50 years and I hope it’ll last a couple of more decades. I hope.
I was reluctant to use the timer at first, just as I am reluctant to use any of my grandmother’s kitchen utensils. I brought them with me from Argentina after my adored aunt Gladys died because of the emotional attachment I had to them. I grew up seeing Granny and Gladys cook and bake with them, and when I look at them (the utensils) I can feel the warmth of their kitchen, and remember those sweet moments. But there is some sweetness in using the utensils, it’s almost like maintaining the connection between Granny and Gladys and I. So for the time being at least, I’ll continue using my timer.
Every year I put a bunch of cooking stuff in my Xmas list – and this year Santa (aka my friends/family) have obliged.
My friend Lola got me a copy of the Bouchon cookbook – which I’ve wanted for a long time. I’ve never been to Bouchon (one of the restaurants of acclaimed chef Thomas Keller), but I’ve been to the The French Laundry, albeit many years ago, and that was definitely the culinary experience of my lifetime. My friend Regina got me The French Laundry Cookbook a few years ago, but the recipes there were impossible to make for the home chef. I didn’t even try.
I am looking forward to cooking from this book, though. At first glance, the recipes seem approachable; Bouchon is a bistro and thus it serves bistro food, which (to a limited extent) I know how to cook. The book, however, suffers from the disability of being *big* and *heavy*. According to Amazon, its dimensions are over 11″ x 11″ (closed) and it weights over 5lbs. It’s also beautiful, which may make me think twice before using it in the kitchen. But, I do have one of those multi-use printer/fax/scanner thingies, so I may just photocopy the recipe I want to use and leave the book on the coffee table 🙂
I got three other culinary gifts.
My brother got me a set of beautiful serving-size wooden bowls. They are very pretty and serviceable – and I’m aghast that my brother actually has such good taste.
My sister Kathy got me a Knife Sharpener (Farberware Platinum), which I asked for because last year I got a couple of nice knives, which have not been sharpened since. Mike, meanwhile, got me a J.A. Henckels International Classic 10-Inch Sharpening Steel. As far as I can tell, a knife sharpener /sharpens/ knives, while a sharpening steel keeps them sharpened, so it’s useful to have both things. We’ll see how they work out.
And I think that’s it.
A good Xmas loot, all in all – now I have to clean my kitchen from Xmas Eve dinner/Xmas breakfast so I can actually start using the stuff I got 🙂