Friday, April 27, 2007

Core Team dinners

About every two weeks, my six closest friends (i.e., the Core Team as deemed by one of my more business-minded friendss) in San Francisco get together for dinner at one of our places. Our collective friendship began as a result of roommate, work/commuting buddies, and college friends, situations. While we may no longer live or work together for the last year and half or so we have made an effort to get together.

Well "dinner" has turned into quite an affair for a Monday night. Good thing we rotate. We do apps, entrees and dessert (my least favorite to make). We drink lots of vino and catch up on each others lives. Understandably, my husband makes himself scarce!

This Monday night is my turn to cook. I absolutely love it. I really put a lot of thought into my menu, asking myself what will my guests like eat and what will be a challenge for me to make? A non-critical audience is a good thing for an adventuresome cook! Though honestly, I usually lose ambition out on dessert and ask someone to bring something.

I have put together the following menu using
Rick Bayless's Everyday Mexican cookbook that I received for my birthday and his website. I am still stumped on dessert though. Probably just ice cream which is a delicious dessert when you live blocks from Mitchell's Ice Cream. Or maybe I will try to make hot fudge sauce using the mexican chocolate that I have in my freezer from Oaxaca.

Yucatecan Pumpkinseed Dip with Tortilla Chips

Roasted Pepper Salad with Butter Lettuce and Creamy Queso Anejo Dressing
Red Chile Chicken and Rice with Black Beans

? Still brainstorming...

I am going to do some of the prep tonight. I'll let you know how dinner goes!

Wednesdays are my favorite days

While typically Wednesdays in the business world are "hump days," I personally look at Wednesday as the best day of the week. Why? Well, the Dining and Wine or Food Section is published in all the major newspapers. I pour over the NYTimes online and then pray that my husband has bought a San Francisco Chronicle that day and has saved the Food Section for me.

Today was no different. Today, the NYTimes went green and the SF Chronicle went crazy over clams (Seafood again! Can someone please tell me where they serve all this seafood?? No restaurant here, except maybe Swan Oyster Depot.) One article that caught my eye was the NYTimes article entitled, A Soft Spot for the Anti-Artisanal. The article takes about how author tries to buy "green," organic, sustainable and labor of love foods. But she acknowledges there is a place in one's heart for the foods you grew up on no matter how unhealthy or processed they are. Her example of such food is Wonder Bread.

My mother was sophisticated about what she fed us. We were never allowed Wonder Bread or Koolaid. Perhaps she was ahead of her time. When my brother and I were babies we were wearing cloth diapers and eating homemade baby food.

However, I ate things in my childhood that are not healthy or good for you or the environment that I cannot help but continue to love, including:
- New York sharp cheddar cheese
- White bakery bread, sliced no thicker than 3/8" thick
- Dannon Fat Free yogurt
- Deviled ham and swiss on an english muffin
- Ruffles Potato Chips (I used to put them on turkey sandwiches for the crunch!)
- Oreos (We were allowed to eat four! Mom had some tough rules about junk food.)
- Fresh peaches in August
- Corn on the cob from the farm up the road
- Right off the vine strawberries and the accompanying strawberry shortcake
- Beef stroganoff, an unusual sort of comfort food to me
- Aunt Jess's Chicken: a baked rice, cream of mushroom soup, and chicken dish which is so good!
- Cornell Dairy ice cream and cottage cheese remind me of my visiting my grandmother

As I cook for my husband/family there will be things I remember from my mother and childhood, like hard shell taco night when Dad was out of town, that I will definitely make for my kids. There is always a place for "home cookin'" in your life no matter what your definition of home cookin' happens to be.

Individual servings of cake

Cupcakes. I am crazy about cupcakes. Perhaps it is because they remind me of the birthday cakes my mother used to make for me when I was a child. Homemade white cake with white butter cream icing. Heaven. Cupcakes are the perfect treat for the adult me.

When I lived in NYC I would occasionally treat myself to a cupcake from a bakery that opened near my apartment building in Chelsea,
Billy's Bakery. The cupcakes were an absolutely delightful treat. There was perfect amount of icing on every bite of moist cake. Somehow these cupcakes had the magical power to cheer you when you were sad or help you celebrate good news.

I liked Billy's Bakery better than
Magnolia Bakery or Buttercup Bakery. I liked that, unlike Magnolia, there was never a line at Billy's. The Billy's staff seemed to really care about their baked goods. It wasn't just a tourist destination. Also, I think Magnolia over-ices there cupcakes. Way too much icing and I love icing so there must really be too much. I do not have any strong opinions about Buttercup Bakery. It was just inconvenient to get there when I lived in NYC. Now close friends of mine live nearby and it never seems like the right time for an indugent cupcake when I am visiting them. I do however have the Buttercup cookbook, a gift from a dear friend, and I love it. I will get there one of these days.

Cupcakes in San Francisco are another story. I cannot find one to compare and believe me, I have made it a personal quest to find the same satisfying treat.
Noe Valley Bakery doesn't use butter cream frosting, although their carrot cake cupcakes are excellent. (They also have tons of other delicious treats and breads.) Citizen Cake's cupcakes are too fancy. Miette, in the Ferry Building, does not use enough frosting. Kara's Cupcakes opened in the Marina and while I have not been to the store itself, I have had some samplings at a party. Good, but no Billy's. Love at First Bite Cupcakery and Bakery in Berkeley has good, but not memorable, cupcakes. Plus I cannot reasonably go to Berkeley everytime I have a cupcake craving. Alas, I will have to continue to sample cupcakes in the Bay Area. Oh, the hardship.

As a cupcake freak, I absolutely wanted cupcakes at my wedding reception instead of an actual cake. When I called wedding cake bakers, I was quoted an outrageous price per cupcake. I could not get them to understand that I wanted something simple. (I hate fondant.) My minimum quote was $5 a cupcake. Luckily, I finally found a ex-Whole Foods pastry chef with the help of a co-worker who agreed to make me 175 cupcakes using the
Magnolia Bakery Cookbook (Her idea!) at a very reasonable price. She even went the extra mile on decorating them. And, she didn't over-ice them! They were absolutely delicious and a huge hit at the wedding.

Check them out! We had Lenox Miss Piggy and Kermit "cake toppers" because I love The Muppets!

Gear for your kitchen

As a passionate home cook with the opportunity to stock my kitchen with everything I have ever wanted, I struggled with what to actually put on my wedding registry. I didn't want a bunch of stuff laying around my smallish San Francisco kitchen that would get infrequent use. And of the things that did get frequent use I, perhaps naively, want them to last forever. Not surprisingly, Bloomingdales and Crate and Barrel want you to register for everything under the sun.

So for this endeavour I used three resources.

One, was a New York Times, Food section article about what to actually register for and how much of each item you will want. The how much is important as you needs now are not what they are going to be in the future. I survived with four plates in my tiny Manhattan apartment just fine. But then again, more than four people could not come over for dinner at one time. You have to look at this list and cater it to your needs. I ended up registering for 16 plates, instead of the recommended 12, as I love hosting dinner parties.

Two, I used The New Best Recipe (by the Editors of Cooks Illustrated) cookbook, which periodically recommends their favorite brands for pots, pans and knifes.

Third, I also heavily relied upon a book introduced to me by my friend's boyfriend entitled, "Alton Brown's Gear for Your Kitchen." It is amazing. While personally, I think Alton's show on Food Network, Good Eats, is incredibly annoying and slightly childish, I like his scientific approach to cooking. Sometimes I tolerate all the nonsense just to learn. He did teach me how to make the best scrambled eggs you will ever eat. (Low heat, patience and pull them off the stove top before they are done as they keep cooking until they get on the table.) He doesn't just show you How but Why and this book is just the same.

This book explains Alton's kitchen tool essentials and their frequency of use. He also shares his favorites of each kitchen product and his favorites are definitely not the most expensive ones out there. He also explains the pros and cons of different materials. The book covers the spectrum of everything you would consider buying for your kitchen. My husband especially liked the chapter on knives. He wanted to what knives were used for what purpose and it was easier to show him the book rather than try to stumble through the tutorial myself.

For anyone who is getting married and likes to cook or for anyone at all who wants to know what kitchen gears products are the best and if they are worth buying at all, this book is an invaluable resource. I plan to use this book anytime I am considering making a kitchen gear purchase.

That's it. I must go retrieve my seasoned cast iron skillet from the oven. (I now know how to season a cast iron skillet thanks to this book!)