Friday, February 20, 2009

Just Good Food

Well, Valentine’s Day has passed and also our celebration. Funny how we all feel compelled to note the date somehow. A few years ago Steve and I started including Steve’s mom and sister along on our VD dinners out. We have many opportunities for just the two of us and, if the occasion is about people you love, it seemed appropriate to share it with his mom, who is widowed and elderly, and single sis Therese.

The first year we did that we went to a restaurant associated with a then new hotel in Laguna Beach called The Montage. The hotel is located on an oceanfront bluff and the restaurant, named Studio, is sited so it takes full advantage of the fabulous view. We went for lunch since there seemed no point in going for the view at dinnertime in February when it’s already dark. The food was a prix fixe menu, not my favorite thing, but it was a special time and place so we bought into it. The food was I admit pretty special and with portions just enough without being too much. But, really, it doesn’t matter how the food was, what made that lunch spectacularly memorable was the company. I like to tell people I had lunch with Pierce Brosnan there. Okay, he was seated at the next table having lunch and yes, his wife was there with him, but still-Pierce Brosnan! It made all of our day, or at least the women’s’. I suspect Steve wasn’t quite as elated as we were since he is of the opinion that Pierce was miscast as James Bond. And don’t even get him started on the subject of Pierce’s singing in Mamma Mia – a movie he was dragged to against his will.

This year there were no celebrities. We went to a place called Savannah in Costa Mesa which features sort of a California version of southern style cooking- think buttermilk fried chicken and the like. Given the state of the economy, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it empty but it was pretty busy, even with a 5:30 p.m. reservation which we do when taking mom out since her hearing isn’t what it used to be. Unfortunately, even though they advertised a regular menu it was not. Yes, some of the selections were there from the regular menu, but not all- deceptive, I thought. Nonetheless we managed to have a really good meal, once we got past the disappointment of having limited choices. And, then there were the brilliant desserts, two of which we selected to share. Chocolate soufflé and crème brulee rate high on the happiness meter with just about everyone.

But, if any compensation was needed I received it the next evening. We stayed home and Steve made one of his specialties, Baked Penne. There is a longer name for it but we always just call it baked penne for obvious reasons. This is one of those dishes that always surprises just a little bit, it’s so good. And, like so many good recipes, it becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. And all its parts are excellent, in my opinion. Even though some years ago one of our dinner guests meticulously picked out all the Kalmata olives and pushed them to one side of his plate, which we discovered when we cleaned up later. I mean, what adult man picks out all the olives from his pasta?

This is a dish I love. It’s rich and not so rich. It’s a satisfying sort of Mac n' Cheese, but more special. I highly recommend it. And, I’m not saying that just because it’s something that I don’t have to make.

Paired with a nice glass of Pinot Noir, what can I say but “Mamma Mia!”

Baked Penne with Tomatoes, Olives and Two Cheeses
Serves 4-generously.
• 6 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 1/2 cups chopped onion
• 1 teaspoon minced garlic
• 3 28-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes, drained
• 2 teaspoons dried basil
• 1 1/2 teaspoons dried crushed red pepper
• 2 cups canned low-salt chicken broth
• 1 pound penne or pennette
• 2 1/2 cups packed grated Havarti cheese (16 oz)
• 1/3 cup sliced pitted Kalamata olives
• 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
• 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in heavy large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; sauté until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Mix in tomatoes, dried basil and crushed red pepper. Add broth & bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium; simmer, breaking up tomatoes with back of spoon. Thicken mixture to chunky sauce and is reduced to 6 cups, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour 10 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper.
(Can be made up to 2 days ahead. Cover and chill. Rewarm over low heat before continuing.)

Preheat oven to 375°F. Cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until tender but still firm to bite. Drain well. Return pasta to same pot. Toss with 3 tablespoons oil. Pour sauce over and toss to blend. Mix in Havarti cheese. Transfer pasta to 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish.* Sprinkle with olives, then Parmesan.
Bake until pasta is heated through, about 30 minutes. Sprinkle with basil.

When making this for two of us, Steve uses two 8" X 8" X 2" glass pans. One to have and one to freeze for later use. The freezer one should not be baked until ready for use.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentines Day
Valentine’s Day invariably brings out thoughts of romance and love. These ideas of romance and love are sometimes associated with luscious foods, like chocolate which is thought to have aphrodisiacal qualities. Oysters are sometimes mentioned too, but less so and I suspect the reason is that most people don’t find them as attractive in concept. Local restaurants will suddenly develop a “special menu” which is double the cost and double the amount of food that you normally would have there. Granted, the menus are sometimes inspired and very appealing. But I personally always feel like I would be a sucker for falling for such an obvious marketing tool.

For me, the most romantic dinner in recent memory did not occur at Valentine’s Day at all but was admittedly, a part of a romantic getaway. Steve and I had never been as far south as Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, in spite of living in Southern California, but had heard about it through friends and through advertising. As a warm place a short plane ride away from home it seemed just right for a three day weekend.

The plane ride was easy but when we got to our destination airport we found that from there we still had to take a shuttle for another 1 ½ hours before arriving to our hotel. The roads were narrow and in some places precariously placed on mountain sides so it made for a longer-feeling ride than it probably was. We could see new and beautifully landscaped condominiums and hotels along the way, fronting onto drop-dead water views; all very large and glitzy looking. We finally arrived at our hotel, which was similarly placed, and also large and imposing. After getting settled in, we went out to explore.

We are walkers, feeling that walking is the best way to get familiar with a new place, and so we set out on foot. It was an inauspicious beginning for what we had anticipated being a relaxed and lovely vacation. Most of the streets were not paved, and were dry and dusty. Other than at the hotels, for the most part there were not the plants and landscaping that is so ubiquitous in private and public places we were used to up north.
But we continued on, determined to see what there was to see. The little town consisted of just a few blocks which we covered quickly. There was a main street that had some restaurants, the most prominent of which were American in origin and had a “chain” feel to them. There were also some local places that looked a little too “native” for our comfort level, being a little dustier and more cluttered. Additionally, there were small jewelry and craft stores with some very beautiful and reasonably priced objects and art. With the warm weather, we felt a need for a light snack and on a street corner found just the perfect thing. Fresh fruit in juicy and colorful piles, either juiced to your order, or cut up and put into small take-away paper cone container. Mango, papaya, pineapple, melon and berries, all fresh, sweet and prepared when ordered. The flavors were grand and I have never encountered anything quite like that anywhere else.

After spending time finding our way around and being a little disappointed at the dreariness of our surroundings, we went back to the hotel to recoup. The hotel was placed to take full advantage of the view of the sea, and had two luxurious swimming pools facing that way as well. The weather was warm, so hanging out by the pool was an easy way to spend time.

That evening, we cleaned up and prepared to go off on a walk on the beachfront by our hotel, where we had spotted what looked like a couple of casual restaurants. We stepped down onto the sand from the patio of the hotel and commenced to walk in the direction that seemed to have the most activity.

There were in fact several places along the way, some associated with our or other hotels. The one that caught our fancy though, had nothing of the formality of the hotels.

It was placed right on the sand, and was loosely constructed with palm fronds overhanging the roof, reminiscent of Hawaii. The first area we entered held a small bar and some tables and from there it was possible to see a patio beyond which extended almost to the water’s edge. We looked at the menu, agreed it had promise and were seated.. We noticed a bit of bustling around, and had seen some men in costume which we took to be a group of Mariachis. We asked our waiter what was going on. He was very conversational and informed us that that night was the owner’s birthday and there was going to be a party for him. We were welcome to stay but it might be quite noisy and not what we might have expected. We thought it sounded fun, so we stayed.

It turned out to be a good decision. The wine they served was a local Baja wine, quite acceptable even to our California palates. We had a glass or two and listened to the musicians playing for the party. In time we ordered our meal, which was not clichéd Mexican food. It was, as might be expected in a waterfront town, seafood. In this case, freshly caught lobster and shrimp, grilled in butter to perfection, and served simply with rice and accompanied by fresh tomato salsa. The servings were generous but the food so delicious we were unable to exercise any portion control. We just ate and ate and drank the lovely wine. And as if we had ordered it especially, the background sound consisted of the gentle lapping of the nearby surf with the music offering the counterpoint.
When the birthday party began winding down, the musicians, who had apparently been booked for the evening, came to us and asked if we had any musical requests. We were able to come up with a couple of Spanish language songs we were familiar with like Cielito Lindo and Paloma, which they knew and were able to play with style and enthusiasm.

As the guests left, the host, who was the owner and the birthday person, came by our table and we wished him a happy birthday. He was obviously in an expansive mood, stopping to chat; he treated us to a couple of after-dinner brandies, which he was also having. He seemed gratified that we would know some words in Spanish although his slightly accented English was flawless.

After that we pretty much had the place to ourselves and finished off our after-dinner drinks while basking the glow of the evening, the amazing food and the serene surf sounds. The evening ended with an easy walk along the beach back to our hotel just a short distance away. The restaurant, the evening and the food were all so memorable that I would hesitate to attempt to recreate the event. Some things should be regarded as once in a lifetime experiences.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Fueling Philosophy
The other day I read in my local paper about an enterprising woman who has started a cottage industry with bottled water. Knowing that huge corporations pretty much have that market segment sewed up you wouldn’t think anyone would venture into it on a small scale but apparently this isn’t actually just water - this is inspiration!The idea is that inspiring words like joy, peace and harmony are part of the name on the water bottle. Presumably then when you drink it you feel joyful, peaceful or harmonious.
Is it that easy? Is consuming things with pretty names the way to The Way?
By this example it would appear to be the case. Consumers of the water swore by it, saying they felt more...whatever the message on the bottle called for.

A few months ago on a visit to daughter Bonnie I had a related experience, only with food. This is nothing new of course. Over the years Bonnie has frequently introduced me to new places which include new food experiences. A few years ago, Graduate school took her to Berkeley, home of famous chef Alice Waters, who has gained fame for her fresh, local-food approach to cooking. The area in Berkeley in which Waters’ much-lauded Chez Panisse restaurant is located is known as the “gourmet ghetto”. This locale is several blocks long and is dotted with wonderful places to eat in and/or take out: pizza which sets a benchmark to which the likes of even upscale California Pizza Kitchen could never aspire; cheeses from small local cheese makers and dairies; bakeries with breads and pastries unique, beautiful and tasty. Great coffee, or tea. All the multi-cultural and just plain great food experiences available are too vast to list. Suffice it to say, whatever you may want or are looking for, it will be available there.So many great places and people in the Bay area seem to take them for granted. It’s only we visitors who gawk in wonder and delight. However even someone like me who is interested in such experiences can, at times, be dumbfounded by the occurence. On that visit, Bonnie thought that our group, which consisted of partner Jeff, daughter Nicole and me, should visit the latest food phenomenon to arrive at the gourmet ghetto. So after a lovely lunch of goat cheese/wild mushroom crostinis and soup, from a place whimsically spelled SOOP, we walked on down the street for some dessert.

The destination was a restaurant named Café Gratitude. Their self-declared intention is, and I quote. “We invite you to step inside and enjoy being someone who chooses; loving your life, adoring yourself, accepting the world, being generous and grateful everyday, and experiencing being provided for.” Call me judgmental but right away I knew this was not a place for the Claim Jumper crowd.

I am - Befuddled. The whole concept behind the food at Café Gratitude is that of “live food” that is to say, it is uncooked, or only heated to 115 degrees, and is organic and vegan.
I am - Uneducated. How do you have food, beyond the obvious like salads, uncooked? Ingeniously though, they did have a menu that covered a spectrum including pizzas, burgers and Mexican and other ethnic dishes, to name only a few.
I am - Amused. But as if the vegan, “live” food concept wasn’t enough departure from the usual café experience, the folks at Café Gratitude took it just a step further. Every menu selection has its own name, each one starting with “I Am”, as in I Am Accepting - stir-fry consisting of steamed Bhutanese red rice tossed with marinated raw vegetables, shitake mushrooms, pine nuts, teriyaki almonds and scallions. Or, I Am Cheerful - live sun burger which was sprouted pumpkin seed and walnut burger served on a buckwheat-sunflower flatbread with sliced tomato, onion, smoky tomato sauce, cucumber pickles and sprouts. Our group found it impossible not to make fun, although we may have been the only people in there who didn’t take it seriously.
I am - Under whelmed. We decided on and ordered three desserts by their description, only to have the server call out the order by each one's given name, to our great amusement. What was described as a mudslide pie (raw chocolate crust filled with a creamy raw chocolate and almond butter filling, rippled with cashew whipped cream, was named “I am Heavenly” as in “oh you want, I am Heavenly”. A cheesecake style concoction was called I Am Cherished and a layered cake which was described as strawberry shortcake was called I Am Rapture. Rapture, by the way, was two layers of some substance that looked and felt more like a pumpkin pie, but unfortunately didn’t taste like it. It was layered with yes, sliced live strawberries, or what are more commonly known as fresh strawberries. I don’t know why but I still, against all odds, had expected to see my “live” strawberries intersected with spongy white cake and whipped cream.
To say these desserts were not up to expectation would truly be an understatement. I believe the folks at Café Gratitude have failed to grasp the concept of dessert. Dessert is supposed to be rich, succulent, appetizing and even beautiful to behold. The one thing it is not intended to be is good for you. That’s why we call it dessert and not, say, broccoli.
That said,
I am - Fortunate. I am living this life that has given me such singular experiences with the capacity to enjoy them and the ability to depict them in writing. As a Chinese philosopher once observed, “when you write things down you live them twice”.
While the concept of a live food restaurant has no real relevance in my life, I understand that is not true for some others. Therefore, I am grateful – again. Café Gratitude, with its interestingly named dishes, karma, philosophies, and approach is worth revisiting, at least anecdotally.
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