One of the few things I can cook competently is Tex-Mex chili. It’s basically a pot of meat cooked with red chile and onion. No beans, no tomato. Hearty and delicious with tortillas, sharp cheddar, fresh onion, and sour cream garnishes.
I’ve learned to make chili from scratch. But if you want to cheat, Wick Fowler’s 2 Alarm Chili Kit is a reasonable compromise. It’s not as good as making it the hard way but it’s still pretty good, particularly if you bump it up with some of your own chile powder.
I grew up with this kind of food.
There’s good fine dining in California’s Central Coast. Cayucos is one of those tiny California beach towns from the 50s. A few dumpy motels, a surf shop, restaurants with names like The Salty Seagull and The Rusty Pelican you’d only ever eat at because you’re on vacation in a beach town. But there’s something special and unique in Cayucos, the Cass House, and as the Michelin folks say it is vaut le voyage.
Chef Jensen Lorenzen and his crew are turning out phenomenal fine dining, as good as anything I’d expect to find at San Francisco’s top restaurants. They are serving only one option, a 14 course tasting menu of delicate little plates. With excellent (but laid back) service and a good wine list and a lovely room that only seats about 30 people.
The key thing here is the cooking works. The kitchen knows its business and is producing excellent creative food with technique but not silly gimmicks. My favorite dish was a dessert, a fennel-based gelée that was delicate, deeply flavored, with a bit of candied fennel as a crunch accent. So elegant and precise. The cauliflower “curds & whey” were also phenomenal, a rich risotto-like texture with a deep butter and cheese flavor. A heavy dish, it came after a very delicate dashi bouillon. The main course (I chose chicken) was a satisfying solid portion, keeping the whole meal from being a bit too precious and dainty. We were also very impressed at how they handled my friend’s near-vegan diet, deftly substituting coconut milk and the like for the dairy that would have been in half the dishes. (Elegant cooking without butter!) I admit I was concerned going in that the menu was too demanding, but Cass House executed incredibly well.
They’ve been doing fine dining for a couple of years but jumped full in to the tasting menu program this February. It’s ambitious and risky and one service a night at a reasonable $85 caps their business. My impression is they’re doing this because they love this kind of cooking, like being in control and preparing food with art in the way they want. I was glad to be along for the ride and hope to return.
Ken is the family chef but I enjoy cooking in Grass Valley. Partly because it’s a huge kitchen with plenty of room to work. And also because we outfitted it from scratch with high quality kitchen tools. Here’s some of the stuff I particularly like using.
Neither the knives or pans are particularly cheap. But if you can afford the initial cost they’ll pay for themselves in longevity. Also most have generous warranties. In my salad days I threw out cheap pans about once every two years; we have All Clad that’s 20 years old and still in great shape.
Apologies for the spammy-sounding Amazon links; they’re for your convenience, but I do pocket a few bucks a year from affiliate fees
Camino Restaurant in Oakland is one of my favorite restaurants in the Bay Area. I’ve been there a few times, I think every time with Marc, and every time the meal has been excellent. Worth a trip over the bridge for.
Last night’s dinner was typically great. Dungeness Crab legs, broiled on live fire with a lovely spice coating (alas, served in shell, but it’s literally the first crab of the season). Then a perfectly cooked bit of chicken three ways; moist breast, a sort of smoked leg, and a ballotine of delicious bits with strong seasoning. A little bitter greens, a little rustic grain (farro?) to catch the sauce, simple and refined. I even had dessert, a dense little persimmon pudding with just a bit of quince for sweetening, very savory and satisfying. Excellent cooking, well balanced.
Art of Eating had a profile of Camino a couple of years ago (issue #89) that I can loan you a copy of if you’re really curious. The article’s focus is on their cooking with live fire, which is indeed quite homey in the open kitchen. But while the technique impresses me I think its true value isn’t in the smoke but rather in forcing the chef to be attentive and careful to every single dish. Combine with excellent ingredients and a sense of what makes a delicious, restrained meal and it’s good dining.
Camino is run by Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain. It’s on Grand Ave in Oakland. You need a reservation.
The Keurig B60 single cup brewer makes good coffee. I’m not much of a coffee snob and am perfectly happy with any decent American brewed coffee. For me and Ken, this K-Cup brewer gizmo is better than a generic drip coffee pot.
The main advantage is convenience. We can have a cup of hot fresh coffee in about three minutes; faster if the machine is already on. Any time of day, without the hassle of making a fresh pot (or, guiltily, microwaving leftover coffee). The other advantage is consistent quality. The coffee just tastes better, I think partly because of freshness and partly because of precise temperature control during brewing.
The downside is cost. Even in bulk, my preferred coffee is about $0.65 / 10oz mug. That’s about double what I paid for drip coffee made with decent beans from my local coffee shop. You can use your own cheaper grounds in refillable K-Cups (the ekobrew works OK), but a bit of grit gets through and it’s a hassle to fill and clean. The brewer itself is also expensive, but it’s a surprisingly complicated and well made machine.
Keurig sells a confusing variety of K-Cup systems and now has a new incompatible system called Vue. The B60 special edition looked like the right feature set to me, although I’m already wishing I had some way to hook it directly to my plumbing so I don’t have to fill a water tank.
The best meal we had in New York was at Eleven Madison Park. It was one of the most impressive meals I've had anywhere in the world and nicely complements one of the other finest meals I've ever had in my life, in 2004 at Campton Place. Same chef, Daniel Humm.
Eleven Madison is operating at a very high standard right now. If you live in New York or are going to visit make the effort to go: you need to reserve weeks in advance. They received four stars in the NYT two years ago and just recently got 3 stars and 5 forks in the NY Michelin guide. I had dinner there a year ago right after they switched to the current tasting menu and it was very good but not transcendent. In the past year they've found their stride and it is now as good as dining gets, anywhere in the world. Go.
Our meal consisted of some twelve amuse bouche followed by a four course tasting menu meal. The menu is deliberately abstract, just a list of main themes like "Lamb" or "Apple" that are elaborated based on the staff's reading of the diner's desires. An open mind is useful but they're not playing any games, no need to fear some unwelcome surprises. The cooking leans towards traditional, not molecular gastronomy trickery, and excels by being very well executed.
Langoustine: Marinated with Grapes, Fennel, and Marcona Almonds
Foie Gras: Terrine with Plum, Bitter Almond, and Umeboshi
1995 Meursault Les Meix Chavoux (Domaine Roulot)
Sadly I have no record of the various amuse, they were extraordinary in their variety and complexity. The main courses were nicely paced and undiluted, each enjoyable and complete without being overwhelming, Often at a fine meal like this by the time you get to the poultry you're tired and just want to stop eating; Eleven Madison avoided fatigue.
But food is only half of fine dining, the room and service is the other half. And it's extraordinary. Terrifically personal and friendly service, not too formal, but very professional. I'd gotten the reservation by gushing on about having been to Humm's restaurant in San Francisco and was impressed the staff all knew my story. We even got a little visit to the kitchen, always fun, amazing to see as many cooks in the kitchen as there were diners in the room. All working precisely, neatly, for our pleasure.
Chef Humm is buying the restaurant from Danny Meyer, along with his General Manager Will Guidara. That's probably good news, but I'm a bit concerned that they are also taking on food and beverage at a nearby hotel. The best chefs always expand their empires, it's natural for his career, but I fear the risk of diluting his excellence. Did you know Wolfgang Puck used to do something other than frozen pizzas? They are also publishing a cookbook due Nov 11 (see video). We saw a pre-release copy. It looked beautiful and entirely impractical for the home cook, more of a monument to his art like Keller's French Laundry Cookbook.
It's time to have a grownup talk about hot sauce. If you go to a generic American restaurant and ask for hot sauce, you will be brought Tabasco. And it's a terrible choice, the worst kind of hot sauce.
Tabasco is a Louisiana hot sauce. Like its cajun brothers the primary flavour in Tabasco is vinegar. There's chile, too, but it's secondary. Vinegar sauces have their place, particularly in barbeque and cajun cooking. But Tabasco is the worst of the Louisana options: the vinegar is some industrial product with a one dimensional acid taste and the chile barely adds any flavour. If you want a Louisana style hot sauce try Crystal, Lousiana brand Hot Sauce, or Wintzell's sauce (made by Panola). They all have much better flavour: interesting vinegar and decent chile.
Vinegar is a poor seasoning for most American food, particularly anything with eggs and any of the Mexican-derived food we get in California. American restaurants should generally offer Mexican hot sauce. Mexican sauces are made primarily with chiles and water. There may be a little vinegar and spice for flavour but the acidity doesn't dominate. There's a zillion options for Mexican hot sauce but a few good common options are Tapatío, Melinda's, and Cholula.
I also want to give a shout out to Sriracha, the modern, Vietnamese-American hot sauce whose thickness, sweetness, and intense garlic flavour give an interesting third option. I find its seasoning too strong to use as a general condiment but it's a delicious alternative to ketchup or mustard for flavouring sandwiches.
Summary: you probably want Mexican hot sauce, not a vinegar sauce. If you want Louisana hot sauce, avoid Tabasco.
Awhile back I posted some quick thoughts on a new kitchen gadget we got, a sous vide cooker. We've had it a couple of months now and my final opinion is it's useful but I'm not sure it's worth the expense and space. Ken does the cooking; he likes it.
Sous vide is the process of cooking food, particularly meat, slowly at low temperature in a sealed bag. The great appeal of sous vide is it's really simple to get consistent results. Want a medium rare steak? Set the temperature to 55°C, toss some beef in for 2-72 hours (depending on cut), and out comes a perfectly cooked medium rare beef. Hamburgers, fish, poultry, eggs, all easy to cook to a consistent texture.
In some sense sous vide cooking is the mirror twin of barbeque. But what it doesn't do is add flavour. Traditional hot cooking sears, caramelizes, browns, burns, and generally imparts complex flavours to food. Sous vide doesn't do that. So you have to brown the meat after cooking it. But the browning is tricky; you can't do it too long lest you overcook it. (Spicing is also tricky; some spices taste different after being cooked sous vide). We've yet to get a really good crust on a sous vide steak.
If we had no idea how to cook a steak properly the sous vide would be a miracle. Or if we needed to turn out forty steaks a night consistently, it would be a huge help. But Ken already knows how to cook a great steak on a grill, in a skillet, or in an oven. So now we've got a fourth way, with some drawbacks, and I don't quite see the point.
One strength of sous vide is that it's not a dry process. Chicken and pork come out beautifully tender and moist. It's a great way to salvage the flavourless fat-free industrial meat we get in the US. I also shouldn't understate the value of the convenience; Ken really likes not having to worry about timing the meat completion along with everything else. And it's easy to cook something, store it in the fridge, then finish it with a quick sear days later.
The home appliance of choice is the SousVide Supreme, $400 on Amazon. It's a well made appliance, good construction and works well although I wish they'd done a better job on the lid insulation. It's far too large for meals for 2–4 people, but the demi version they offer isn't significantly smaller or cheaper. You also need a vacuum sealer; any air left in a bag at all will cause it to float and cook inconsistently. The package deal is $470, a significant expense. If you don't already own good knives and cookware, buy those first.
We bought a sous vide cooker. We only got it yesterday and all I've cooked in it was an egg, but already I've got some thoughts.
The appeal of sous vide cooking is easy precision. You dial in a specific temperature to a water bath and let your eggs, or meat, or veggies hang out for an hour or two at that temperature and you get perfection. The variance in temperatures is amazing. Eggs go from runny (but pasteurized) to hard between 58°C and 70°C. Beef goes from rare to medium between 51°C and 60°C. Traditional cooking on a hot stove requires the cook control the final temperature with time. Sous vide lets the cook just set an exact temperature and forget it; there's no risk of overcooking. For someone like me with no kitchen skills, that's very appealing. But so many caveats.
First, sous vide cooking is slow. A hamburger takes 2 hours. A big chunk of meat can take 2 days. It cooks entirely unattended but you do have to plan ahead. A related problem is you can only cook to one temperature; no cooking both your meat and your veggies in the same bath. And when the sous vide step is complete you're not finished. Meat still has to be browned or seared, and seasoned, and finished. And while an egg yolk may come out creamy at 63°C if you want a firm white you need a final hot boiling step (carefully timed).
The other issue is equipment. The Sous Vide Supreme we bought is pretty well built, but at $450 it's an awfully expensive gadget. It takes up a lot of space. And you really want a vacuum bag sealer to go with it, another gadget. I fear if we store the kit away next to the mixer, the food processor, and the blender we'll never use them.
I'm optimistic the sous vide cooker will get some good use in the house. It's simple enough even I might be able to cook well with it. But it's got some drawbacks.
It took a year and a half, but I finally catalogued and put away our wine. All 448 bottles: 80% reds, 40% Bordeaux/Cabernet, 50/50 US/French.
There's a lot of bad wine software out there. I looked long and hard for a good web based wine inventory solution before settling on CellarTracker / GrapeStories / cor.kz. I have two specific goals for wine cellar software. It needs to be easy to enter purchases. And it needs to quickly answer questions like "do I have a nice old Bordeaux?" or "where is a cheap Chardonnay for tonight?". It's astonishing how few cellar apps solve those problems. There's iPhone apps that expect you to type in all your wines on the phone! And no app does a great job on the "find a wine" problem. I like CellarTracker best, but some good alternatives are VinCellar and ManageYourCellar.
CellarTracker has been around a long time, it's got a huge community of wine enthusiasts. The website shows its age, you can feel the SQL queries being built up as you navigate the user interface (OTOH, it's very powerful.) There's a more humane user interface in beta now, GrapeStories, which provides a modern AJAXy interface to the same backend database. There's also cor.kz, an iPhone app that also uses your CellarTracker account as the backend. Great for quickly finding a wine without using a computer.
One amazing thing about CellarTracker is the depth of the database. Wine canonicalization is a tricky thing, there's no universal identifier like a UPC or ISBN. So you have to type in "Leroy Vosne-Romanée" and then sift through the seven or so variants to get the right one. They have a great search UI for finding your wine. Only about 7 of my wines were missing, all unremarkable novelty wine. And now that everything is identified I can take advantage of their vast library of tasting notes, recommended drinking dates, pricing, etc.
CellarTracker has a lot of features, I'm just scratching the surface. Bar codes, printed reports, shopping pointers. And I haven't even looked into the community yet. Given how much money is spent on wine you'd think someone would have sewn up the Internet wine market already. With the new UI at GrapeStories I think it may be on its way.
PS: I almost passed on CellarTracker because it stores your password in the clear. That's a pretty terrible sin but they're quite clear on disclosing the problem and the author is remorseful. I finally decided just to use a unique throwaway password for just this site.