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Archive for December, 2009

Home Cooking with Friends

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

So far I’ve talked a lot about dining out. But in the last few days I’ve been dining almost exclusively at friends’ houses.

Holiday meals are a topic in and of themselves, but specifically I’m talking about the meals you have at a friend’s house, where they whip up the food they love and want to share.

The other night I went to Jeet and Stephanie’s house, to catch up with them and see their exceptional kidlets. It was wonderful!

Not just because I love these folks. The meal started with salad and fresh sourdough bread, followed by this amazing Mac and Cheese, roasted potatoes and carrots, and roasted chicken.

Now there are many restaurants I could get a roasted chicken, and even some with Mac and Cheese. But for the most part, this is the type of meal people make in their homes. It’s the type of delicious home cooking that families put on their tables every week.

Tonight my friend Ken and his new wife Jean were out visiting from North Carolina, and his sister Kristine invited me over to catch up with them. Kristine, her husband Dan, Ken and I all worked together at a company called NetObjects back in the day, and they are all the type of folks I love to hang out with.

And it doesn’t hurt that Dan and Kristine have two adorably cute daughters!

I’ve often said, I’m immensely popular with children under the age of 10, and ladies over the age of 60. In the last few days, all my friends’ kids have proven that the adage is still true.

Anyway, Kristine pulled out all the stops. Roasted potatoes, green beans, sourdough bread, something tasty with goat cheese and panko bread crumbs, and the best thing ever, Fred Steak!

Fred Steak? They named a steak?

In the Bay Area, there is a legendary butcher shop called “Schaub’s Meat Fish & Poultry” in Palo Alto. And Schaub’s is famous for Fred Steak.

What is Fred Steak? I wish I could tell you, but the marinade is a secret. For 50 years, they’ve marinated beef in this insanely dark sauce. The result is kind of like Tri-Tip that’s spent a week in a yumminess Jacuzzi.

I’m a firm believer in rare red beef. Basically, walk the cow across a plate, yell “Fire!!!” and it’s about done. And the middle of this block of beefy goodness was a perfectly rare piece of savory beef.

And did I mention desserts?

Steph and Jeet rolled out the chocolate fudge and cookies. Dan and Kristine put out this amazing mega-chocolate cake.

But it’s not just the food that makes these meals memorable. The thing I love most is spending time with incredible people, and kicking back for hours and enjoying their company.

When you see your friends on a daily basis, you start to take them for granted. It’s when you haven’t seen someone in ages that you really appreciate how lucky you are to know someone.

And when you want to catch up, what do you do? Eat!

If the last few days have taught me anything, it’s that I have amazing friends, they are great cooks, and even great parents.

I love my favorite restaurants, but invite me over to your house for dinner and I’ll be a very happy boy.

The food of Chicago!

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

When I was a young boy, my grandma came to San Diego. It was December and she was delighted that in the middle of winter she was wearing a sundress. She thought it was amazing! Why would anyone want to live in Illinois in winter when they could come to California?

Then there was an earthquake. Grandma was on the next plane home.

“Peter, in Chicago we have tornados. One kicks up, they announce it on the radio, and you hide in the basement. But you see the damn thing coming. This earthquake hit and I didn’t see the damn thing coming!”

Six months later, my grandma was supposedly fading fast. If only she could spend her last moments on earth with her grandchildren. My dad said to my mom, “Katie, take the kids and go see your mom. I’ll be here when you get back.” Soon my mom, brother and I were on a plane and moving to Chicago.

Four years later we moved back to San Diego, realizing that my grandma was going to outlive us all.

I loved my grandma, and I enjoyed my time in Chicago. And not surprisingly, one thing I fell madly in love with was the food.

My first love has to be the Vienna Hot Dog.

During the great depression, Chicago perfected the hot dog. For a nickel you could get a kosher, all beef hot dog in a poppyseed bun, filled with a veritable salad of toppings. Slices of tomato, a pickle spear, two types of relish, mustard, onions, and if you’re manly, two spicy “sport” peppers.

We were only in Chicago for a few years, but my love of Vienna Hot Dogs was deep and pure. I spend my allowance at a place in Skokie called Irvings, who made what they affectionately call an “Irving’s double-red hot with cheese”.

Yeah, it may not be kosher, but it sure was good.

It was just like a normal Vienna Hot Dog, but with two dogs and cheese!

My parents were creatures of habit, and every day they watched reruns of M*A*S*H at dinnertime. My favorite episode was the one where Hawkeye was so desperate for good food that he arranged to ship his favorite baby back ribs from Chicago. (Although mysteriously, he forgot the coleslaw…)

Inspired by my favorite television character, I was determined to enjoy an Irving’s double red-hot in San Diego. A new company called “FedEx” had just come to town, claiming one-day delivery, anywhere across the country.

I called my Uncle Eddie in Chicago, and asked him to wrap up an Irving’s double red-hot, (with cheese!) and send it to me via FedEx.

One day and $17 later, I had my hot dog! A small price to pay for the best hot dog in the world.

The Vienna Hot Dog wasn’t my only Chicago food love. Like Hawkeye, I also loved Chicago-style baby back ribs. Oh, and have I mentioned Deep Dish Pizza?

Let’s go with the ribs first. Nowadays, you go to a good BBQ place and you order four “bones”, maybe eight if you’re feeling saucy. Back then your choices were half rack or full rack. A full rack being sixteen ribs!

At twelve I was knocking back a full rack. And coleslaw. And cornbread. Ah, to have the metabolism of a teenager, once again.

Of course, I leave the best for last. Many people have never experienced a Vienna Hot Dog or Chicago-style baby back ribs, but just about everyone knows what a deep dish pizza is like.

For those of you who haven’t had the good fortune of having authentic, Chicago-style, deep-dish pizza, let me attempt to describe it to you.

Deep-dish pizza can be as thick as three inches, and physically resembles a quiche. It’s filled with cheese, chunks of tomato, and unlike other pizzas, the sauce is poured over the top!

One other thing. It’s almost impossible to each deep-dish pizza without a knife and fork!

Almost two pages and I haven’t even gotten to the Chicago of Carl Sandburg fame. The hog butcher for the world, the city of the big shoulders. I promise I’ll revisit the topic of Chicago again soon, with fond memories of The Berghoff, baklava, and custom built sandwiches in Water Tower Place.

Chicago, my memories of you are fond. And most involve food. Coincidence? I think not.

The Christmas Foodie

Friday, December 25th, 2009

There is no doubt. I am well loved.

I don’t say that to brag, but as because for whatever reason, it’s very true. And I am quite thankful for it.

You see, most people are lucky to belong to one loving family. I belong to at least three. There’s the family I was fortunate enough to be born into, and there are the two families that have adopted me after the loss of my parents. Then just to add to my abundance of good fortune, I’m surrounded by many friends who’d willingly take my call at 3:00am, and I would take theirs.

Christmas is the time we gather with our loved ones, share a few thoughtful presents, and eat a lot of amazing food. All three are excellent reasons to love the holiday season.

After I lost my parents, I was adopted by Paul and Jill Hacker as one of their own. There hasn’t been a holiday in twenty years that I wasn’t warmly invited to share. When I moved to the Bay Area, Tom and Cherie Hammer took me into their home, and their children, Zack and Zoe claimed me as their favorite uncle.

I’ve never felt a loss of my family, because there’s never been a time I’ve been without one.

As the Hacker clan has grown, as each of their children has grown up, gotten married and had children of their own, the homes that share their holidays and holiday feasts have grown in number. You should have seen the feast that Dustin and Kathy Hacker rolled out at Thanksgiving. It was awesome!

This year I’m with the Hammers, who have several delicious Christmas traditions. The night of Christmas Eve, they make a pile of Dungeness crab, home made soup, and lots of delectable bread. Last night, the spicy chorizo and split pea and ham soups were enough to (temporarily) distract me from the pile of savory crab.

And the chocolate and marzipan Yule log? Jesus, Mary and Joseph!

It’s basically 24 hours of food and family joy. Cherie is quite aware that getting up early enough for Christmas morning with Zack and Zoe isn’t my strong suit. She makes it a lot easier by putting out fresh coffee, French toast casserole, and chicken-apple sausages.

Tonight will undoubtedly be another round of Christmas deliciousness. I hear Cherie is once again making her famous Guinness Ginger Cake! Yes, ginger, and Guinness in the same loaf of tasty goodness!

My foodie love was once again reflected in the selection of gifts I’ve received. One was a cookbook written by Tom Colicchio of Top Chef fame. The thing I love about Tom Colicchio is much more about substance over style. His meals may not look like abstract art, but they sure are mouthwatering.

You’ve got to respect a chef who preaches the gospel of fresh, simple ingredients, cooked well.

Another gift I received was a box full of products from the makers of Bacon Salt.

Yes, you heard that correctly. There is a company that makes a product called Bacon Salt. It’s salt that adds both saltiness and bacony goodness to any food you put it on. This box had nine types of Bacon Salt, bacon mayonnaise, bacon sunflower seeds, popcorn and lip balm. Even envelopes that taste like bacon when you lick them!

My friends know what I like. 🙂

Of course, the most thoughtful gift of the season comes from Katherine Arthurs. I opened her pressie to find a license plate frame that says “Noshworthy? www.happyomnivore.com”. “Noshworthy” being the coolest term ever coined by my friend Judy.

Katherine also got me a laptop skin with HappyOmnivore.com and a polo shirt! Now I can shill for this blog all I’d like!

In my belief that the best and most memorable meals are ones shared with our friends and family, Christmas has provided me with lots of fond memories.

To all the avid readers of the Happy Omnivore, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your readership and support. Your encouragement has helped me immeasurably.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

BBQ, my tasty obsession

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

I’ve always loved BBQ.

I think I come by my love of BBQ honestly. Before the days of CostCo and Price Club, my parents used to go to “Case Lot” sales. A case lot sale was when a supermarket would sell you a whole box, case, or flat of any product you liked. Like a case with 36 cans of soda, or 64 cans of chili.

My father bought a case lot of “Chris and Pitts BBQ Sauce”.

Back in the early 80’s, they didn’t put those incredibly useful “Use before” labels on food products, so there was no way to know when something goes bad. My dad used that stuff for years, putting it on almost everything. Years after my dad moved into the retirement home, I found bottles of Chris and Pitts around his house.

Despite this, I still became a big fan of BBQ. 🙂

When I was a little kid in Chicago, the only thing I loved as much as deep-dish pizza and Vienna Beef hot dogs, was baby back ribs. I felt like Fred Flintstone every time the platter of bones was put before me. It only got better when I tried beef ribs, which looked like the giant ribs that toppled Fred’s car at the drive thru.

A couple of years back, I drove my motorcycle around the United States and Canada, on a trip affectionately known to motorcyclists as “The Four Corners”. If you ever have a lot of spare time on your hands, I blogged all about my three month adventure at http://pkreeves.blogspot.com/2007/05/getting-started.html

Basically, you get on your motorcycle and drive from San Diego, CA to Key West, FL. From Key West, FL to Bangor, Maine. From Maine to Seattle, WA, then back. Some think I did this to go on a once-in-a-lifetime ride. Some think I did it to spend three months riding with Paul, one of my closest and dearest friends.

Still others thought it was an elaborate plan to try pie all over the United States.

Actually, that last one was the closest. It was an elaborate plan. An elaborate plan to try all six major schools of BBQ in their native habitats.

In case you’re not familiar with the six schools of BBQ, they are:

Kansas City – Sweet, tart, tomato based sauce, molasses and brown sugar. This is very popular in the Midwest, and what most people think of as BBQ sauce.

South Carolina – Mustard-based sauce with onion and garlic.

Texas – The meat is smoked, and the sauce isn’t sweet. It’s usually made with vinegar, chili powder, pepper, cumin, onion, and a touch of ketchup to hold it all together.

Tennessee – A personal favorite, Tennessee BBQ is made with bourbon, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar and molasses. It’s really unique and good!

Memphis Dry Rub – Very popular in the south, Memphis BBQ is a dry rub of paprika, garlic, chili powder, and pepper. They will look at you funny if you ask for sauce.

And last, but not least…

Louisiana Hot Sauce – The people of Louisiana love heat! Fortunately for BBQ lovers, they like their BBQ both Caliente (Temperature hot) and Picante (Spicy hot). Louisana style has bell pepper, garlic, LOTS of Tabasco, molasses, vinegar, and sometimes a touch of ketchup.

Not surprisingly, the thing I love most about BBQ is how social it is.

When I head to San Diego, the first thing my friends want to do is go to Phil’s BBQ. When I return to the Bay Area, my friend Edwin counts the hours before we can go to Armadillo Willy’s.

Maybe it’s the memories of all the backyard BBQs from our youth. Personally, I think that men love BBQ because we love cooking with fire.

Regardless of why, BBQ makes us happy. And isn’t that what makes food the wonderful thing it is?

The Wonderful World of Seafood!

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

I’ve lived in three major cities in my life, San Diego, Chicago, and San Francisco. To my good fortune, two of them are known for their fresh seafood.

One of my mom’s favorite places was Anthony’s Fish Grotto in San Diego, right on the water next to the Star of India. When I was a little kid in my “I don’t like fish, it tastes fishy!!!” phase, my mom used Anthony’s to open my horizons.

Seafood has been a staple of my diet ever since.

Years later, when I had my first “grown up” job, I got to go to MacWorld in Boston with my (then) boss and (now) close friend, Paul Hacker. I was terrified. I had never been on a business trip before, and I certainly wasn’t used to the idea of hanging out with my boss and company CEO.

The first night, Paul took me to the Union Oyster House, one of the most famous seafood restaurants in the United States, and our oldest, continuously running restaurant. They’ve been serving amazing seafood for almost two hundred years!

I had no idea what was appropriate to order. How much is reasonable to spend? Can I drink in front of my boss? I had only worked for him for four months, so I could only guess.

Before I could worry about it, Paul said, “The Lobster Thermidor is really great here. Do you want to try it?” He didn’t have to ask twice.

Years later I would learn that Paul had an incredible attitude about traveling employees. He felt that if the company sends you to another city, away from your family and friends, they should make the experience as enjoyable as possible. It wasn’t like I’d order lobster every night, so why not have at least one special meal?

I love this man!

Five months later, we were at MacWorld in San Francisco. Being within the state, a few of my friends made it to MacWorld as well, and our second night there we were ready for something special.

We all knew a guy named Lou Barrack, who had a gift. This gift was to speak with complete confidence on topics that he had no clue about. This gift was soon labeled, “Lou-Rectum-speak”.

So needless to say, we were skeptical when he told us about the best seafood restaurant in San Francisco. However, since we didn’t know where to go anyway, we thought we’d at least get a good story out of it. We weren’t wrong.

That night we told the cabbie to take us to Scoma’s Seafood on Fisherman’s Wharf. He dropped us off at a dark alley, blanketed in fog.

Now we were four manly-men, so clearly we wouldn’t admit that the idea of walking down the dark alley in a thick fog was scary.

“Are you scared?” “Of course not? You?” “Not me”, our conversation went on, the four of us huddled together like a gaggle of schoolgirls. We made our way through the fog, expecting to get shiv’ed by an anonymous man in a trench coat. The sound of barking seals adding to the surreal experience.

Then something unexpected happened. We heard the sounds of happy people.

We made our way through the last of the fog to see what looked like a shack on the end of the pier. By the time we made it to Scoma’s, the line to get in was almost two hours.

Clearly, these folks made it down the dark alley, through the fog, past the barking seals, imagined villains, and had formed quite a line!

I don’t know if it was the adventure we had gone through to get there, but we had one of the best seafood meals I’ve ever had. The clam chowder was awesome, easily competing with Legals Seafood of Boston. The Dungeness crab was unreal. The lobster was incredible.

I was waxing poetic with my friend Eliza about Scoma’s the other day, only to find that she too was a big fan. We arranged to relive our previous experiences over lunch.

Not only was the company charming, Scoma’s lived up to its well-deserved reputation. The clams were savory, the butternut squash and crab soup incredible. Eliza loved her Dungeness crab.

And I couldn’t resist the Lobster Thermidor.

There’s a reason Scoma’s is a special occasion kind of place. The seafood there is clearly special. Next time you’re thinking about a steakhouse for a special moment, seek out an Anthony’s or Scoma’s. You’ll be glad you did!

So long Jun, so long sushi…

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

When I first moved up to the Bay Area, I had to start looking for all the things I took for granted in San Diego. Whenever you move to another city, you need to find a new dentist, dry cleaner, doctor and the like. But just as importantly is finding all the foods you adore.

Pizza is easy, and so is Italian. As the wise man once said, “With pizza, even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good”. Chinese, as I mentioned in my previous blog posting, adapts to its surroundings (Although San Francisco Chinese food is really amazing!)

Having spent years at Sushi Ota in San Diego, I thought finding sushi of that quality seemed like a daunting task. Still, I decided to face the peril and force myself to try as many sushi places as I could.

My new friends introduced me to some nice places, but nothing came close to the raw fish yumminess that was Sushi Ota. One day I mentioned this to the lovely Kristine O’Berry, who suggested a place she had just tried in Burlingame called Jun.

Burlingame, CA is a wonderful little town, with two parallel and very different main drags. Burlingame Avenue is very upscale and trendy, whereas Broadway looks like something out of “It’s a Wonderful Life”. It’s a quiet little main street, full of restaurants and small shops, and at the end of the five-block stretch are two of my favorite things; an Irish pub and a sushi bar!

Jun Restaurant and Sushi bar was a wonderful little hole-in-the-wall place, with an eight seat counter and a few tiny tables. The sushi chef, Aki, had named it after his lovely and friendly Korean wife, Jun. Both worked the restaurant, and years later their son Leo would work there as well.

The sushi I had that first day was a religious experience.

The albacore melted in my mouth. The spicy tuna hand rolls were spicy enough to entice, but mellow enough to be enjoyed. The bonita with ponzu, hamachi and unagi were incredible. It was the first of what would be dozens of visits to Aki’s counter.

My love for Jun Sushi enticed me to eventually move into an apartment a couple hundred feet away. And after visiting me and my Saturday ritual of Jun followed by Behan’s Irish Pub, several friends moved into the same apartment building.

It’s also where I gained my great love of Iron Chef!

You see, my friend Steve Rozmus, the most idealistic and funny curmudgen I’ve ever known, spent several years in Japan teaching English. So most Saturday nights you could find Steve and I at the sushi bar at Jun, watching Iron Chef on TV, while Steve patiently translated the uncaptioned Japanese from the local Japanese language station.

Jun was the place where Steve and Jeremy and I became closer friends.

It was everything I want in a dining experience. A place with amazing food, friendly, helpful people, and fond memories. And like how Kristine had introduced me to Aki and his family, I shared Jun with as many of my friends as I could.

Eventually I had to move from Burlingame, and my visits became less frequent. Jun let Aki run the place, and Leo took her place as the friendly face that greeted me each time, and treated me like a well-appreciated regular.

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of work in San Diego, and staying down there for weeks at a time. Before this happened back in May, I paid a visit to Jun, not knowing that it would be my last.

It was the type of visit I had come to take for granted. I wandered in with a good book, had an enjoyable chat with Leo and Aki, and enjoyed all my favorites.

Months passed, and I came back from San Diego with a desperate hankering for my favorite sushi. I hopped in my car, drove down Broadway like I had so many times before, to find that the familiar blue awning was gone. Sometime in my absence Jun had closed it’s doors, and had been replaced with something else.

Aki’s food had developed a deep love for sushi and the skill it takes to do it well. It became the “secret locals place” I shared with all the people I loved. And it hosted many a birthday, special occasion, as well as just a normal Tuesday night.

I don’t know what happened to the Jun Restaurant, or the warm and friendly family of Aki, Jun and Leo that always made me feel welcome there. All I can say is thank you, for setting the bar for what good sushi should taste like.

If anyone knows what happened to Jun, please let me know. Until then, I’ll start my search for great sushi once again.

ABC – American Born Chinese (Food)

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Like many of my foodie friends, I’ve been guilty of a degree of food self-righteousness. For instance, I don’t believe you can get good Mexican food North of Los Angeles. I believe you can tell the quality of a beer by how little light passes through it (Guinness is opaque, it is therefore the best. Coor’s Light actually magnifies light, therefore it sucks!)

So it took a bit of self-examination to come to the conclusion that ABC, American Born Chinese food, is as authentic as it is in China.

As a kid, my family used to go to this great hole-in-the-wall Chinese place called The Chinese Kitchen. It was literally a hole-in-the-wall. The owner had converted an old Dry Cleaner into a takeout counter. You opened the door, stood at the counter, and when your food was ready, they handed you a collection of white cardboard boxes through a hole behind the counter.

I loved this stuff!

Sweet and sour pork, pot stickers, and Kung Pao chicken. I was soon as adept with chopsticks as I was with a fork and knife. (They made it easier to reach the stuff at the bottom of the box!)

Of course, being a kid I didn’t actually ask what “real” Chinese food was, I tried to learn from observation. I started to watch what Chinese families ordered at my favorite places. They always seemed to order the really, REALLY spicy things on the menu.

My friend Eric apparently believed the same thing, and ordered spicier and spicier dishes, until he glowed bright red and perspired like he was seated in a sauna.

One of the most amazing things about moving to the Bay Area was Chinatown. The only problem is that if you find a restaurant you really like, you’ll never find it again. You see, with dozens (I suspect hundreds) of Chinese restaurants in 12 square blocks, virtually none with English writing, it’s hard to identify any one place. Still, I had found REAL Chinese food!

This impression was further reinforced the first time friends took me to Dim Sum in San Francisco. I’m somewhat of a nocturne, so I was a bit surprised when they told me that we had to be at the restaurant at 8:00am.

Eight in the morning? For Chinese food? Are they pulling my leg?

For those of you who haven’t had Dim Sum, it’s like Chinese tapas. You order lots of little plates, usually steamed dumplings made with shrimp, pork, mushrooms and eggplant. The rows are filled with ladies pushing steam carts with bamboo boxes full of yummy steamed treats.

I’m getting hungry just writing this!

Surely I had found authentic Chinese food. Well, so I thought.

After traveling the world, I’ve had many things that are “Chinese food”. And this is where I learned the most brilliant part about Chinese cuisine. It’s a style and process that adapts to wherever it lives.

For instance, in Asia, Chinese food is a lot more vegetables, heavier on seafood, and is more savory. In America, it’s not a meal without meat, we love fried food, and we like our food a bit more sweet.

I read a great book called “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles”, where the writer went in search of the origin of the fortune cookie. Turns out this “most Chinese” of desserts was actually Japanese. The Chinese and Japanese communities in Los Angeles were side-by-side. When American’s complained about the lack of dessert, the immigrants went to their neighbors and borrowed one of theirs.

The writer also discovered that General Tso’s chicken was almost completely American. Of course, this hasn’t stopped the actual General Tso’s village from welcoming the American tourists who show up in droves.

You see, the wonderful thing about Chinese food isn’t what it isn’t, but what it is. That we recognize sweet and sour pork and Kung Pao as Chinese is a testament to the people who prepare it.

It seems the Chinese are gifted in adapting to the ingredients and tastes of their host country. No wonder it’s one of the most popular cuisines in the world. It fits in everywhere!

Clarence Clay Reeves – The Centennial

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

If there is one piece of advice that every “How to write a popular blog” article hammers home, its “Keep it relevant”. Don’t talk about politics on a movie blog, or food on a movie blog.

So forgive me a small indulgence, as I dedicate this post to my dad, Clarence Reeves, on this, the 100th anniversary of his birth.

My parents were about as different as two people could possibly be. My mother was a New York debutante, my father was from the coal mines of West Virginia. And as only can happy during a war, these two met in Japan during the U.S. occupation in the late 1940’s.

I have to admit, I get most of my foodie tendencies from my mom, but since I’m memorializing my father today, let me tell you about my father and food.

My father was a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, who taught me the value of simple, satisfying, and delicious food.

Although some today may find the idea horrific, my dad was from a generation that always had a can of bacon grease on the kitchen counter. For breakfast, you lit up the cast-iron skillet, scooped up a heavy tablespoon of bacon grease, and fried up your bacon and eggs. When you were done you poured the hot grease back into the can, wiped down the skillet with a towel, and it was perfectly seasoned for its next use.

I remember as a kid that I wanted to do something special for my dad. We had a tradition that if you cooked, someone else did the dishes. (There’s a reason I learned to cook!). So I took it upon myself to wash my father’s cast-iron skillet.

And I mean I washed it. Soapy hot water and a severe scrubbing with an SOS steel wool pad. There wasn’t an ounce of dirt or grease on that pan afterwards.

And you should have seen the look on his face.

Showing a disturbing, almost Zen-like calm, my father took the skillet, fed it some bacon grease, and proceeded to explain the value of a seasoned pan. It would be months before fried food would come close to being as tasty as it was before.

On those rare occasions that my dad did want to eat out, my parents liked a very specific kind of place. A place with dark wood, high backed leather booths, perhaps with borderline-risquĂ© oil paintings on the wall. One was a family style Italian place called Caesar’s.

As much as he loved a good steak, there was something about a huge pile of pasta that appealed to him. He loved having more food than he could reasonably eat, and was a huge fan of leftovers. It worked for him since he had the metabolism of a hummingbird. (A trait I wish I had inherited)

But not to forget the cow, the only food my father splurged on was steak.

Most people nowadays think that ordering steak isn’t a big deal. But for someone like my father who lived through the great depression, it was the height of extravagance. Other than grilling it up yourself, a steak was something you had once or twice a year, usually for your birthday or anniversary.

Places like “Albie’s Beef Inn” and “The Butcher Shop” understood the value of a steak that consumes an entire plate, and a baked potato the size of a child’s head. And my dad loved places like that! The only thing better than a big yummy steak was a big, yummy, very affordable steak.

My mom may have made me a foodie. My father made me a big fan of cow.

I miss my dad, but I’m happy about the person I’ve become. And in no small part, I am the man I am today because of him.

I miss you dad. Happy 100th birthday.

Schrödinger’s Fudge

Saturday, December 5th, 2009

During one of my trips to the United Kingdom, I was driving through the countryside listening to the BBC.

On the radio they were interviewing Maggie Smith, an amazing actress that many would know as Minerva McGonagall the head of Gryffindor House in the Harry Potter movies.

In the 1960’s, she was performing at the National Theatre with Laurence Olivier. One night, Olivier was on stage doing the performance of his life. The audience sat mesmerized at this once in a lifetime performance.

It wasn’t lost on the other actors either. Even the ones who weren’t on stage watched from the wings, knowing that they were watching an iconic performance that actors and audience members would be talking about for decades to come.

As the play came to an end, the audience rose to its feet, the supporting cast cheered, and Laurence Olivier stormed off to his dressing room.

Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi and Anthony Hopkins were among the young actors who rushed to the Olivier’s dressing room, where they found him trashing it. As he broke everything in sight, his friends implored him, “Larry! That was the greatest performance in the history of theatre. Why are you so upset?”

He turned to them and said, “I know. And… I… don’t… know… how… I… did… it!!!!!”

This is the exact feeling many of us experience when cooking. Cooking often defies predictability.

You may have heard of Schrödinger’s cat. It’s a thought experiment used to explain quantum mechanics to novices like me.

The premise is that you put a cat in a sealed box with a vial of poison. Not being able to see inside the box, you never know if the cat is alive or dead. By definition, the cat is both alive and dead, since you can’t tell until you open the box.

You can’t know how it’s going to turn out.

In the last week I’ve made several batches of chocolate chip cookies (I hope you all appreciate the sacrifices I make for you!!!!) The first batch was delicious but overcooked, saved by the miracle that is the silicone baking mat. A later batch was yummier, but still a little dark.

Last night’s batch was perfectly cooked, quite delicious, but very, very thin.

You’d think that by following the same directions each time, using the same ingredients each time, that they’d come out exactly the same. But nooooo…

At Thanksgiving, my room mate Tim’s dad sent home the most incredible fudge every conceived by humanity. It was soft, light, almost fluffy, and it defined chocolaty goodness. I must make this fudge myself!!!!

I asked Tim to get his dad’s fudge recipe so that I could recreate the chocolaty goodness. What I got was chocolaty, but it wasn’t the “Proof that God exists and he loves us” that Mr. Jones’ fudge was.

“I… don’t… know… how… he… did… it!!!!!”

Even when you get really good at it, you’ll never quite know how to make that one batch that’s extraordinary. You just have to keep doing it until you experience it again.

And isn’t that what makes it fun?

Why I love Italian Food…

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

In the last two days, I’ve had some scrumptious Italian food, reminding me of what a diverse and creative cuisine it is.

How many other types of food run the entire culinary gambit?

For years, one of my favorite family restaurants in San Diego is called Filippi’s. Every time another child comes of age or gets married, they open another restaurant. That’s how San Diego ended up with a dozen Filippi’s restaurants. And since some of them have moved with their spouses, there are even ones in Napa and Oregon.

The best thing about Filippi’s is that you can still get a huge plate of pasta for about $5.00. Add a meatball the size of an infant’s head and it goes up to $7.00. Even at these prices, they make some of the best marinara sauce I’ve tasted.

The Olive Garden may be a huge corporate chain, wrecking havoc on the Italian language with invented words like “Houspitaliano”, but they have a huge, enthusiastic following for their addictive breadsticks and Italian inspired meals like Four-cheese mezzaluna pasta in a creamy pinot grigio sauce. Okay, the half-moon shaped ravioli may be a gimmick, but it doesn’t make it any less delicious.

Italian cuisine isn’t just relegated to affordable and chain restaurants. A visit to Little Italy in any major city, or someplace like Columbus Avenue or Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, show that there are some incredible Italian restaurants that are worthy of Michelin stars.

Years ago I worked for a man who I affectionately refer to as the “Crazed Italian”. Although not my favorite employer, I owe him a great debt for taking me to Rome and introducing me to the Italian way of dining.

As I mentioned in my Thanksgiving post, the only thing I love more than good food is a great variety of it. Dining in Rome shows that the Italian’s share my belief that more courses often make a better meal.

In my time in Rome, we spent hours every day in meetings. By the time 6:00 came around, I was ready for some rest. This is when the “Crazed Italian” explained that what happened in the office was theater. What happened at dinner decided if we got a deal.

So the suit and tie stayed on, and I was introduced to the most brilliant concept in dining. The four-hour meal.

You see, the Romans don’t order a soup or salad, an entrĂ©e, then a dessert, and call it a night. Restaurants have one sitting, sometimes two. And each sitting goes on for hours, as you work your way through several courses and enough wine to make anyone sauced if consumed during a traditional meal. But spread the many bottles over four hours and numerous courses, and you’ll find yourself in a warm and happy place.

This is probably why so much business is done in restaurants in Rome. Wouldn’t you want to be in business with someone who takes you to a warm and happy place?

Since I don’t speak Italian, I spent most of our evenings enjoying the food and observing the patrons. Courses ranged from sautĂ©ed spinach to paper-thin slices of prosciutto. Later came pasta and proteins like veal and chicken. And somehow after all this food and paired wines, they find a place for desserts that defy the imagination.

In America, we’ve had glimpses into this brilliance. Most Italian-American restaurants serve a cannoli or a cheesecake (More of a nod to New York Italians than the old country). A Roman dessert menu is a Fantasyland of cookies and cream puffs, of pastries laced with rich liquors and supernaturally thick gelatos.

My sweet Irish grandmother used to say, “Since the Irish don’t have a cookbook of our own (Irish stew and soda bread would make a very thin cookbook), we have license to borrow from everyone else.” It’s no wonder that after teaching me how to make cream puffs, I learned how to make chicken cacciatore.

Italian food belongs to us all, and the world is a better place because of it. 🙂