Friday, June 19, 2009

Turkish Coffee Tales

Turkish coffee is black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love. To make it, you need a brass or copper coffee pot, called ibrik or cezve. You can make decent Turkish coffee in a regular heavy-bottom small pot, but it won't impress anyone. Grind medium roast coffee beans into fine dust, place it in the pot with sugar, add hot water up to the neck of the pot, stir and heat slowly, constantly watching. As soon as a circle of foam begins to rise along the edge and to roll into the center, take the pot off the heat. If it boils, the foam will run over the edge, it will make a mess, burn, and the coffee will lose all the flavor. You can make it as strong as you like, stronger even than an espresso shot. Some people add cardamom, cinnamon, rose water, orange flower water, or use honey instead of sugar. Mine is plain.

Pour the coffee into cups, making sure that some of the foam from the top and some of the grounds (fine mud, actually) from the bottom gets into each cup.
I like the first cup of the day with a little half-and-half. My Israeli friends tell me that over there it’s a habit of the lowest classes and a sign of a poor taste to add milk to the coffee. I am glad I’m not in Israel. Drink slowly, being careful not to sip too much of the grounds – they will be used for divination later.

For some reason, probably because of the simplicity of preparation, Turkish coffee was very popular in Russia in the 80-ies. We called it Oriental-style coffee, and made all efforts to make the preparation a ritual and a show. The finest arrangement was to have a tray of washed river sand on top of an electric stove, and to move individual coffee pots around in the hot sand. The danger of this showy method was that if you got distracted for a moment and one of the pots ran over, the sand got mixed with the burning coffee grounds and had to be replaced. We didn’t see it as a problem.

Then, in the late eighties, as the 70 years old communist economy started to crumble, there were shortages of the most basic food stuffs. Various products disappeared and then reappeared in the retail in random order. First we got sugar rationing, then we had to forget about cheese, then the cheese came back but there were bread lines at 5 am waiting for the bakeries to open, then the tobacco rationing made my non-smoking parents, who hate our smoking, give their cigarette coupons to my brother and me, and finally – horror – there were no coffee beans! This is when one girl from our aerobics group discovered a wholesale source that sold green, unroasted coffee, by a 20-kilo bag. We all pitched in, bought a bag, divided it, and started to learn coffee roasting. We would heat a cast iron skillet over high heat, add one layer of green beans, and roast, constantly stirring. I never got my beans right. Some of them would burn while others stayed green. My best friend, N., got it right the first time. So from then on she would roast my coffee too, and bring it to our aerobics class. She got so good at it that when commercially roasted coffee reappeared on the market, it didn’t taste as well as the N.-roasted beans I was getting used to. But by that time our bag of green beans was almost finished.

In Greece this kind of coffee is called, surprisingly, Greek, and it is an essential part of the Greek lifestyle. On our Greek vacation, that few days when we were
not driving across the country or sailing between the Ionian islands, we stayed in a rental apartment with a balcony overlooking the sea. The landlady, who lived in an identical apartment upstairs, came from her jog along the beach around 7 am and shouted under our balcony:
- You lazy sleepy tourists, it’s coffee time, come up at once!
We would come up to her balcony and spend the next 5-6 hours making endless pots of Greek coffee over a small gas burner set in the middle of the balcony table, smoking, chatting, and watching the sea. The landlady (hello, Evelina!) worked for an all-inclusive resort in the evenings, so her mornings were free.

There was a woman I used to work for some years ago. She was kind, full of energy and music, absolutely 60-ies, long hair, flowery skirt, and everything, and totally charming. Despite her name, she was a very sunny person. Her name was Rain.

Rain parked her camper next to the Novato Renaissance Faire, put up a tent, got out a camping stove, a couple of huge stockpots, two amazing half-gallon brass cezves, and made Turkish coffee for the Faire participants and visitors.

I got a ticket to the Faire from a friend who is a fencing master and goes to Faires all over California as one of the Queen’s Guards, so I went to check it out. When I saw the Gypsy coffee shop, the wonderful coffee pots, and mentioned that this kind of coffee is what I make for myself in the morning, I was invited to come in, we discussed Turkish coffee making in detail, and we were friends right away. She said that she would get me a free pass if I could come help with the coffee the next morning. When I came, Rain handed me a contract that said that I will be working in the coffee shop on Saturdays and Sundays for the next three months, and I was getting paid for this (about twice the CA minimum rate at that time)! Guess what? I signed it. The shop owner and the coffee pots were so charismatic that I couldn’t bear the thought that I won’t see them again.

So for the next three months, I would drag myself to the dreary dark air-conditioned office at my high-tech company five days a week, then on a weekend I would happily jump out of bed, don my 16th century Gypsy outfit (lots of research and hand-sewing went into it), and rush to the Fair to open the coffee shop at 8 am and serve Turkish coffee, chai tea, and the mush (the English Renaissance version of a cereal, a slow-cooked oatmeal with dried fruits) to Shakespearean actors, musicians, artisans, the Royal Guard, and the nobility. I even once served chai to Her Majesty herself! Then the visitors would come, and I’d make them the coffee, and do a fortune reading afterwards. You turn the cup with the grounds over into a saucer, and then… No, I’m not disclosing any trade secrets here.

Then the summer was over, the Faire closed, Rain packed her tent, the stove, and the pots, in her camper, and went to see her daughter in Southern California.
I have moved, and then moved again, the winter rains began. Rain sent me a letter, and while the letter was chasing me to my new address, it somehow got wet.
I took it to bed to read, and then left it on the bedside table, and the wet letter got imprinted on the light wood of the table.

Over the years the old table was losing its warnish, and the transferred letter was disappearing with it. As I cleaned the table today, I saw the last traces of the letter disappear.

Hey, Rain, if you are out there somewhere, please send me another letter. And know that I would love to make Turkish coffee for you again, anywhere, anytime.
I now roast my own coffee using a neat programmable IRoast machine, not because of shortages, but because I find that the common expresso roast sold here is too dark for Turkish coffee, and I want some control over how my coffee is roasted and what goes into it. The machine roasts 5 oz. in about 15 minutes, and the proccess is so fascinating that I still watch it every time, after years of doing this. Pictured here is my 50/50 blend of medium-roast Yemen Mocha and Aged Java, and the raw ingredients.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Steak Tartare

I was browsing through piles of mostly useless stuff in a discount store the other day, in hopes to find some props for my next food styling class, and this book caught my attention. I hate it when people try to tell me what I should do before I die; my own list requires me to live at least another 150 years. So the book is 101 Dishes to Eat Before You Die, by Stefan Gates, a British food adventurer. I would pass, but it had nice photographs with well done styling, there was a story or two included with each recipe, and it was just $6 – so I bought it. Then I went to Amazon to give you a link and found out that it’s not yet available. These discount stores are full of surprises.

Despite the author’s excessive, to my taste, use of the first-person singular personal pronoun (for a book, that is. It’s fine in a blog), the stories are entertaining, informative, nostalgic, and spiced up with irresistible British humor. I don’t care much for the recipes: besides using shortcuts like store-bought red currant sauce or Chinese pancakes and not being precise, most recipes are so well known to any Western cook that you don’t really need to read them to start cooking.

I do agree with the author on most of his must-try dish suggestions, and I cannot agree more on Steak Tartare. It’s surprising how many meat lovers don’t know about this classic, simple and stylish dish. There are many versions explaining why this French dish of seasoned raw beef got its name. Stefan’s explanation is that it was named so because ancient Tatars were known to be bloodthirsty. He also mentions that in rural France the Tartare is sometimes made with horsemeat. But he doesn’t connect the Tartare to anything in Tatar cuisine, which traditionally uses horsemeat, may be more often then beef and lamb. I have to do some research; there must be a Tatar recipe that the French transformed to make their own.

As a descendant of the bloodthirsty ancient warriors, I have taken my horseback riding lessons, but I am still waiting to try horsemeat (I've had a sausage made with horsemeat, but with all the other stuff they put in sausages it's very hard to tell what the meat really tastes like). But you know what? There was a nice cut of beef in my refrigerator, a tenderloin tip that I was just going to grill. So why would the proud daughter of the ancient nomads cook her meat if she can devour it raw? It’s Steak Tartare for dinner.

Of course, if you buy your fine cut of meat packaged in a supermarket, you can expect to turn it over and discover all the fat and sinews still attached. The supermarket has to make some money, after all! I used the technique that I learned from my brother, a vascular surgeon and a gourmet with a passion for red meats (and all things with fat and cholesterol in them), to carefully separate the muscle from the sinews with my fingers, no knife required, resulting in very pure meat, and lost very little in trimmings. Then I got out my favorite chef’s knife and minced the meat. A grinder or food processor doesn’t give you the same texture, so it’s worth it to spend a few minutes chopping.

Most Tartare recipes call for Tabasco or some hot sauce. I cannot eat anything that hot, so I left it out. If you like spicy foods, add it back.

All ingredients should be cold; refrigerate them for at least 30 minutes before cooking.

Steak Tartare
Serves 2

½ pound tenderloin tip, trimmed and minced
1 shallot, minced
1 Tbsp capers, rinsed, drained and chopped
4 anchovy fillets, chopped
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp cognac
salt, pepper

2 whole raw egg yolks

Mix all ingredients except egg yolks in a bowl. Divide between two plates, shape into fat patties. Make a depression in the middle of each patty and carefully place an egg yolk in it.
Serve with boiled potatoes and green salad.

Diners mix the egg yolk with the meat at the table.

Alternative: Divide the meat only between plates. Serve all ingredients in separate small bowls and let the diners mix their own. Don’t forget to put salt and pepper mills and a bottle of Tabasco on the table.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

“Sustainable and Affordable” – Bread Workshop in Berkeley

It’s ironic how between my food styling classes, the food writing workshop, and my efforts to enhance my food blog, I don’t have time to eat anymore. Ironic, but not funny. I love to eat, and I miss the experience. Anyone in my situation living in a less food-friendly area would be reduced to eating deli sandwiches or salads from a salad bar while driving. I am lucky to live in SF Bay Area, where they don’t let even the busiest foodie to starve.

The food writing workshop with Dianne Jacob in the Writing Salon in Berkeley runs every Tuesday from 7 till 9:30 pm. I rarely get off work in Novato before 6. If I make an effort, I can get off at 5:30. The drive takes about 40 minutes. So there is very little I can do for dinner. I am becoming a pizza expert. A pizza eating expert.

The first time I went to Berkeley, I made an effort, left early, drove to Novato Farmers Market (4-9 pm Tuesdays, Downtown Novato), and got a wonderful thin crust “market” pizza, with thinly sliced spring onions and zucchini, cooked in a booth right in front of me. The only thing is, I couldn’t really enjoy it, being worried about my unfinished work, the traffic on the bridge, and getting there on time.

So the next week I went straight to Berkeley, exceeded the speed limit just a little bit, and parked in front of the Strawberry Creek Design Center on Bonar Street, a bidonville-like historic building that hosts the salon, a few art-related businesses, and a yoga studio, 30 minutes before the class started. The original Andronico’s market is just two blocks from there, so I went out to see if they have a deli or a café that would feed me.

But just as I was about to cross the street to Andronico’s, a smell of fresh-baked bread from an open bakery door captured me, and drew me, helpless, almost against my will, into a little café.
The place is called Bread Workshop, they bake and sell buns, pizza bases and focaccia breads, make good espresso drinks, and serve bistro-style lunches and dinners, mostly to students. Every customer had a book or a paper she was working on.

Like any café in Berkeley, they have a philosophy, promoting sustainable food, while keeping the prices low. The coffee is fair trade organic, the vegetables are locally grown and seasonal, half of the menu is vegetarian or vegan, and the other half (the one that’s of interest to me) has the name of the ranch and a description of their good practices next to each chicken, pork, or buffalo dish.

I went for the pizza from the day’s specials chalk board, of course. Last week’s was pesto, potatoes, pine nuts, and mozzarella. This week it’s salami, mozzarella, mushrooms, and marinara sauce. The pizza base is fluffy soft focaccia dough, just a little crunchy on the edges. The size is perfect for a hungry busy 120-pound food writing student who only has 30 minutes.

The prices are from $3 for vegan sides to $9 for meat dinner entrees. This made my whole dinner check a $12 + tip, and this proves that I can still eat like a student.

Monday, June 8, 2009

More cooking for looks: beets and salmon salad

Following a recipe is not my strongest point. When you have read a recipe and have the idea of the dish in your mind, there are so many variations, adjustments to be made for the personal taste and the preferences of the guests, ingredients on hand or in season, the market, the weather, the mood, other recipes that you read or cooked recently and got some ideas and techniques from, the colors and textures that you want to see on the table, and the wine selection, that you usually end up cooking something remotely resembling the original dish, but essentially your own. Sometimes I don’t read the recipe at all, just look at a picture, or taste a dish in a restaurant, and go from there.

So all the cookbooks that I own are for inspiration and reference, not for recipes. They reside on a shelf in the bedroom, not in the kitchen, and they may have wine and coffee stains on their pages, but rarely olive oil or tomato sauce.

Recently my pillow book has been Suzanne Goin’s Sunday Suppers at Lucques. It’s organized by the season, uses our local California produce (although Lucques is in LA, and I am in Northern CA, the seasonal differences are minor), and has beautiful photographs, modern and stylish, that appeal to my new found food styling passion.

This is how when the assignment for the food styling class came in, to find a photograph that you like and to try to reproduce it, my choice was easy. I will make the wild salmon salad with beets, potato, egg, and mustard vinaigrette. It’s one of the most beautiful photos in the book, with the summer sunrise colors of the beets offset by the delicate dandelion greens, dark and handsome herbed salmon creating the shadow against the all-white plate and the background. I always wanted to make this salad. The season is just right; I will find all the ingredients on the farmers market on Thursday. And this is my rare chance; I’ll try to follow the recipe to a letter.

I ran to the market on Thursday morning before work, got tiny new potatoes, three bunches of beets in different colors, herbs, and fresh and delicate dandelion greens from our friendly Northern California farmers, who don’t look like farmers at all – they are so bohemian that you guess that they probably have PhDs from Berkeley, and teach yoga and feng shui in their spare time, – but they do grow the finest organic produce and bring it to the market the day they pick it; somehow survived a few hours of meetings and user requests in the office, and rushed home for the lunch break to prepare the ingredients for the evening styling session.

I live 5 minutes from work, and sometimes come home for lunch. Every time I plan to do a little homework – laundry, dishes, clean-up, roast coffee, marinate meat for dinner – and then relax in the backyard with a cup of coffee, and every time the homework eats up all the time. Sometimes I get a few minutes left to pour and drink a glass of mineral water before returning to the office. This time was worse than usual, but I managed to clean and roast the beets (all of them, I will be eating roasted beets marinated in olive oil for weeks), roast the potatoes, and get a wild king salmon fillet from my neighborhood market. Back to meetings and users.

I knew there was some artistic license involved in styling this photograph, but I didn’t realize how much until I actually started cooking. Every time there was a variance between the picture and the recipe, I went with the recipe, but still tried to style as close to the picture as possible. There were some problems to solve and hard decisions to make:

- In the recipe the salad is arranged on a bed of dandelion greens; in the picture the greens are scattered on top – it’s easy to see why, they are so pretty! – I did both.
- I don’t understand why the salmon, covered with fresh herbs and baked at a low temperature until medium, looks black in the photo. Mine came out bright emerald green. It must be the light.
- My nine-minute extra-large egg was so runny that it was difficult to cut, and how are you supposed to present it facing the viewer? The photo stylist obviously cooked her egg a little longer, and it looks great. But mine is tastier.
- If I were making it just for the picture, I would skip the dressing, that is done with an egg yolk and mustard and starts to turn yellow and dry on the surface right away, and replaced it with store-bought mayonnaise. But I actually wanted to taste this dressing, so I made it according to the recipe and just kept stirring it every couple of minutes while taking pictures.
- The salad looks much better with the dressing on the side. When I dressed it for a more real-life shot, the dressing covered some of the pretty colors of the vegetables, and I also messed up and applied more dressing than needed, using a spoon instead of a squeeze bottle.
- It’s very difficult to style beautiful food when you are hungry. I actually devoured some of the less-then-perfect looking ingredients in the process. And I had to take the pictures fast, while the food was still good to eat. I was in no condition to toss the photo food and to start over for dinner.

Overall, I learned a lot from this one exercise, and the final result looked good enough for the first time, and was not just edible, but delicious.

The leftover ingredients, kept separately in the refrigerator and added together in the last minute, made an excellent Beets and Salmon Salad, Office Edition, serving as my dinner the next day during an after-hours system maintenance.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Welcome Back, Downtown Market!

Downtown San Carlos is a cozy and friendly place. The weather is mild, the traffic is slow, and the locals come out to walk their kids and dogs and to chat lazily at outdoor cafe tables. Every time we spend a weekend at my boyfriend's, we take a short walk to check out the coffee houses, old family-style and new upscale restaurants and wine bars, some on the main street, some in the side alleys, overhung with flowering vines, boutiques, antiques, and, until recently, two gourmet grocery stores - two, on the same street!

Then one of the stores closed for remodeling, and stayed closed for several months. We were anxious for it to reopen, tried to peek through its windows, blocked by construction panels, to see the progress; the progress was slow. In these uncertain times you soon loose the hope that your favorite store will open ever again, and after a while we concentrated our attention on the second one. Just as we were getting used to having only one gourmet store in town, it closed, and the sign on the door announced that it was moving to another town. Picture this: no gourmet store in downtown San Carlos. Nowhere for me to run for a marinated hanger steak or homemade sausages if the weather calls for barbeque in the park. Nowhere for my dear man to get good thick-sliced bacon for breakfast, or a deli takeout salad on his way from work. We actually had to drive to get a selection of cheeses for our late-night cheese and fruit plate! The downtown lost a part of its charm.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, I was driving by the first store, the Bianchini Family Market, and it was open! And with a flare: the shiny new shelves hosted dozens of olive oils, balsamic vinegars and San Marzano tomatoes; the meat case made you want to buy every juicy cut of Neiman Ranch beef, veal, and lamb, or a hand-made sausage, and start grilling at once.
In the olive bar, you can pick luqcues, picholine, gaeta, nicoise, kalamata, cerignola, or any type of pitted and stuffed olives (that I don't really care about). The cheese section if stuffed with a small but exquisite selection of California artisan cheeses, as well as ones from France, Italy, and Spain. Wine selection isn’t large or fancy, but they are all good food-friendly wines at reasonable prices. The fruit and vegetable department shows all the fresh picked, seasonal produce, shown to their best advantage to wet your appetite. I approached a man who was kneeling on the floor, carefully arranging potatoes on the lower shelf, and asked if I can take a few pictures. The man turned out to be one of the Bianchinis, the owner family, and no, he didn’t mind me photographing his produce.

When we went to check out the downtown on Saturday, everyone was out for a sunny afternoon, and the Bianchini’s market had a grand opening party: a string band at the entrance, local artisan food tasting throughout the store, and a huge smoking grill out in the parking lot, pork ribs on one side, halved chickens on the other. The grill master handed me a full rack of ribs, bathed in aromatic and spicy Bourbon sauce:
“Here, they’ve been grilling since 9 am”.
He told me that the ribs can be grilled from four hours and up to a whole day, but the temperature shouldn’t get higher than 225 degrees, then they won’t dry out, and he taught me how to control the temperature in my home smoker.

Why didn’t I ask for the sauce recipe? Guess I have to come back for it next weekend.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Playing with my food (and it's playing back)

It’s just the third week of my food styling class, and I already started having nerve-wracking adventures. What an exciting occupation must it be!

It’s a beginner’s class, and this week’s assignment was to style any dinner entrée. The teacher suggested making something simple, like a pasta or a chicken breast, but to play with it for a while in order to practice to keep the food “alive” under the camera. In this ideal grilling weather a grilled chicken breast was my obvious choice.

For my first attempt (see the previous post) I got critique from the teacher for overcrowding the plate. The food in photographs does look very different than on the table, and this is what I’m learning now. For once, the table created all this negative space to offset the food, and in a picture it usually is not included.

I sure could do better, so I decided to give the grilled chicken a second shot.

The search for a perfect blue plate for a summery presentation took several days. All stores have some kind of blue plates, but I wasn’t interested in this dull country-style dark blue on heavy pottery. I needed something ethereal, like a summer breeze, like my dreams. Like Caribbean water. And I got lucky. Crate and Barrel just got these small handmade glass plates in several bright colors, and their blue was the exact color of my dreams.

Now I could create my dish: grilled chicken breast over rice, with grilled pineapple and wilted green onions. Since the cute little onions that I got at the farmers market had a little purple at the roots, chive flowers made a good garnish. Plus a sprinkle of black and white toasted sesame seeds for contrast.

Working on a plate composition takes some time, so for a couple of hours the shapely organic chicken breasts and my prettiest onions had to wait in the refrigerator, while a paper towel was standing in for the rice, a bunch of bruised leftover greens for the onions, and a frozen chicken breast for a grilled one. It didn’t look like food at all, but the shapes and sizes were right, and the colors close enough, and it helped to arrange all the pieces, photograph them, download, and see the results on a computer screen, before beginning to mess with the real food.

We take pictures for this class ourselves, and the work is not judged on the quality of photos. So I use my little point-and-shoot digital camera with a tabletop tripod. The results look disappointing, if you imagine what a good photographer with serious studio equipment could do, but sufficient for the class. So I pointed the camera at my mock-up, got another plate ready, and set out to cook the “hero” food.

Arrange the cool rice in a pile just the right size to support the chicken. Blanch the onions and drop them in the ice water bath before they lose their color. Grill a few slices of pineapple, in case the first one breaks; they are fragile. Put perfect grill marks on the chicken (at least on the top side). Place the chicken and the best pineapple slice on the rice, making sure their grill marks are not parallel or perpendicular, but run at a nice angle. Lightly wipe the onions, tie them in a little bundle, and place on the plate in a graphical line, taking the eye from the center to the upper right corner. Using tweezers carefully place the chive flowers and the sesame seeds in precisely right, “natural”, locations. Dump the stand-in; put your food under the camera.


Now it’s time to take a lot of pictures, at slightly different angles and lighting, making sure that the food doesn’t dry out while you shoot. I took two. And then the camera went dead…

I had just charged it. I tried to take out the memory card, put the camera on the charger, remove and clean the battery, shake it, yell at it. Nothing happened. It was frozen, period. My precious food was sitting there ready to be photographed, loosing it’s beauty every second, and the damn thing choose to break just now.

R., my boyfriend, ran out of the office to check out what all the screams were about. I showed him the food, and the dead camera. "Sorry, girl, this camera doesn't look good. But the food looks great; I can eat it, just to relieve your stress."

And what else could we do? While I would go buy a new camera or borrow one from a friend, the food would die for sure. Normally, one shouldn't eat the food from the photo shot; stylists use all kinds of tricks to keep the food looking fresh, and some of the substances that can enhance the look are either inedible, or not very tasty. Luckily, I didn't have time to put anything nasty on the food. So I heated up the chicken and the onions, replaced the rice, and R. happily ate the dish. Just as he was putting away the plate, we heard a soft buzz from the camera: it suddenly came alive again.