I’ve learned to make a simple Korean stew that’s delicious and foolproof. Doenjang Jjigae (된장찌개) is a homey stew made with a flavor of fermented soybean paste, something like miso only more rustic and spicy. Serve it over rice with some banchan (side-dishes) and you have a simple reliable meal. There’s a zillion different recipes online. Maangchi’s recipe is good or see here for a second opinion.
The core flavor comes from the broth made from doenjang paste dissolved in water. The broth is easy since the flavor comes from a pre-prepared product. You can find doenjang in Asian groceries or at a markup on Amazon.
Garlic and chile is added to the broth for heat and flavor. Korean ground red chile is best (Amazon) or you can use most anything; red pepper flakes, cayenne, maybe some hot paprika for a bit of smoke. The broth can also be upgraded by starting with anchovy stock instead of plain water.
Once you have the broth you add the rest. Common vegetables include zucchini, daikon or mu, onion, fresh chiles, potato. Proteins include tofu, shrimp, clams, or my favorite: fatty pork. You can pretty much just boil everything together, although if you’re using pork you should render the fat first in the pot before making the broth.
I serve it in a bowl over short grain rice with whatever side dishes I can muster. A full banchan spread is a ridiculous amount of work. But I almost always have a jar of kimchi on hand. These marinated mushrooms are also super easy to make and delicious.
Paprika is good software. It’s a recipe database for home cooking, just like the Honeywell Kitchen Computer. But it doesn’t cost $10,000 and you don’t have to go to Nieman Marcus to buy it; it’ll run right on your own portable telephone.
The problem Paprika solves very well is “I want this recipe on my iPhone so I can read it in the kitchen”. It also has good tools for “make me a shopping list for these three meals”, I’ve used that on the fly while standing in the grocery store.
The weird thing about Paprika is it’s not a web app. There is no web view of your recipe database. Instead there are iOS and Android apps ($5) and Mac and Windows desktop apps ($20-$30). They’re all linked to some cloud server that stores your recipes. No subscription fee.
So the part that’s clumsy is adding new recipes to your database. There’s a way to search and browse from inside the iPhone app that works OK. But mostly I find recipes on my desktop web browser. For that need there’s a bookmarklet which does a fine job of saving the recipe (and nothing else). Behind the scenes the Paprika system scrapes the ingredients and instructions out of the web page and puts them in some normalized format. That’s not easy to do but it’s worked every time for me so far.
I’m very happy with the iPhone app and use it regularly when cooking. Ken and I share a database, which seems nice. I haven’t tried the desktop apps nor have I done anything complicated with our database, it’s mostly just Pocket-for-recipes for me. I’m still a bit baffled the business is built the exact opposite of how I would have (web app, charge a subscription fee) but what they’re doing works fine, so why not?
One of our holiday treats is an egg dip that Ken makes, an old family recipe. It’s sort of like smoky deviled eggs only potato chip compatible. I like it. Here’s an approximation of the recipe; it’s not an exact thing.
Mince the eggs. Blend with mayo and cream cheese to dip texture. Flavor with mustard, liquid smoke, and salt. The result should taste mostly like eggs, with a noticeable smoky flavor and a bit of sharpness from the mustard.
You can use ordinary wet mustard but the dry mustard without vinegar is better. Minced onion or shallot might be a nice addition. Or cayenne pepper.
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.