There’s two kinds of cucumber pickle in the world: fermented and vinegar. Vinegar pickles are what you generally see in the grocery store, the Claussens and Vlasics. They’re not bad but they are awfully salty and the industrial vinegar is not a very good flavor. Fermented pickles are made without vinegar. Instead the vegetable is salted and then fermented to encourage lactic acid bacteria, which makes the pickles sour.
Sonoma Brinery makes an exceptionally good fermented pickle. They’re available in grocery stores in the US west, sold refrigerated. And while they’re not cheap at about $1 a large pickle they are delicious. Great flavor and good snap. They call them “half-sour”. They have a pleasant sour taste but it’s subdued, also the salt level is quite low. The result is a mild, fresh tasting pickle, something I much prefer to Bubbie’s intensely sour and salty fermented pickles. Sonoma Brinery’s fresh sauerkraut is also delicious.
Fermented foods are newly trendy thanks to the probiotic food fad (move over, gluten free). I could care less about the fake food science but I am glad that fermented flavors are more widely available in grocery stores. I’m not a fan of kombucha, too expensive and too sweet. But sauerkraut, kimchi, etc are delicious. I’ve started trying to ferment my own things now with Sandor Katz’s excellent book.
I’ve gotten competent at making pizza at home. It’s an easy versatile meal, 15 minutes prep time once you have the dough. I tend to make a sort of puttanesca pizza: capers, olives, anchovies, sauce from a jar (the shame) and some salami. Today was turkey leftover pizza with white sauce, I regret being too timid to try cranberry sauce after baking.
My go-to cookbook is American Pie, specifically the “neo-Neapolitan” dough variant. I’ll make a batch of 5 servings of dough and freeze 4. A stand mixer is a huge help, the dough is very glutenous. I recently learned slicing the mozzerella works better than grating, and so much easier. The dough takes time to ferment, thaw, etc but not much active work.
The challenge of home pizza is our ovens don’t go over 550°F. I get decent results in a home oven on a pizza stone, but Ken just got a Baking Steel from Sur la Table so I gave that a shot. It definitely cooks faster and chars the crust more; too much so, the bottom was about to burn before the edge was fully baked. The steel is heavy, rusts, and needs seasoning like a cast iron skillet. I’m not sure it’s a huge improvement over a clay tile.
Neapolitan-style pizza dough is pretty tempermental. For something different and foolproof this pan pizza recipe works pretty well. A no-knead dough sort of fried up in a cast iron skillet in the oven. It’s not elegant, more of a fast-food style pizza, but it’s delicious and fresh and that is its own reward.
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.