Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Piperade" My Restaurant Review and Journey into Basque Cooking

IT WAS OUR SIXTH WEDDING ANNIVERSARY... and I did not have any restaurant reservations. It was a Saturday night and I knew it would be tough to secure reservations at the last minute in San Francisco, but I was determined to find a good restaurant, with a romantic atmosphere and food worth spending a lot of money on. If it had not been for my natural inclination to procrastinate, this task would have been completed easily, weeks prior. So onto I went, searching for highly rated restaurants that would fulfill my desires. It seemed that all of the favorites were booked until I stumbled onto the site of Piperade. There was one spot open for an early reservation at 5:30. Based on the immediate reviews that I scanned over and the 4 star rating out of 350+ reviews, I figured I couldn't go wrong and took the reservation.

Piperade is a restaurant owned and operated by Chef Gerald Hirigoyen. The restaurant features what Hirigoyen calls "West Coast Basque Cuisine." A native of the Basque Region, Hirigoyen has twice been named Best Chef in the Bay Area by San Francisco Magazine and was one of Food & Wine Magazine's Top New Chefs in America. He has also received numerous write ups and recommendations from publications such as the New York Times, Bon Appetit, SF Examiner and many more.

The Basque Country is a nation that runs along the border of Spain and France. The Greater Basque Country also includes some areas in both aforementioned countries. Naturally, the cuisine in this region has strong Spanish and French influence, but there are also many regional specialties unique to the Basque country influenced by the mountainous regions on one side and the ocean on the other. Fresh and Salted Seafood, Cured Meats, Peppers, Lamb, Ciders, and Sheep Cheeses are staples of the Basque diet.

We started of our meal with two of the small plates: Piquillo Peppers stuffed with Goat Cheese, Pine Nuts and Golden Raisins and the Calamari "A La Plancha" with cantaloupe, mint and lemon confit

Piquillo Peppers stuffed with Goat Cheese, Pine Nuts and Golden Raisins

Calamari " A La Plancha" with cantaloupe, mint and lemon confit
They were both fantastic and had us eagerly anticipating our main course. We took the recommendation of our waiter and paired a Basque white wine with our meal and ordered a bottle of Txomin Etxaniz. The wine had a slight effervescent quality to it and was a perfect companion to the meal. For my main course, I had the Sea Bass with Brussel Sprouts and Frothed Butter with herbs. It was simple and perfect. The Bass had the texture of lobster and melted away in my mouth the instant I bit into it. I could not have been happier.

Sea Bass

For Dessert I had the Orange Blossom Beignets, which were crispy, light and perfect. In the photo there is only two of them, but originally there were three, I just couldn't wait to eat one. They were the perfect end to a wonderful meal.

Orange Blossom Beignets
The other interesting thing is the classic Basque dish section on the menu. There is one specialty everyday of the week that you can order. Perhaps I will try to go on a Tuesday next time so that I can try the Sauteed Calamari in Ink Sauce "Txipiroa." Overall the restaurant provided a perfect atmosphere, wonderful food, courteous, attentive service and Beignet so delicious, I do not feel that I could overstate their case. Or maybe I was just really hungry!? We will see as I will certainly be returning to this spot in the near future.

Here you can see by the expression on my face how satisfied I am with the stuffed pepper.
I started to study Basque Cuisine and Chef Hirigoyen in particular. I found that he had a few cookbooks out and went to my local Barnes & Noble to look for one. It was my lucky day and the nice lady behind the customer service counter walked over to the regional cooking section and pulled out a book called "Pintxos: Small Plates in the Basque Tradition"

"Pintxos: Small Plates in the Basque Tradition"
Pintxos: Small Plates in the Basque Tradition
Exactly what I was looking for! So I got right to work. I started off by going to the store to see what was fresh. I ended up getting some Sea Scallops and Calimari tubes and tentacles. I decided to make the Scallops with Lychee Gazpacho and the Fried Calamari with Romesco Sauce. Both recipes turned out to be very satisfying and have me looking forward to trying our more recipes from this book. The mistake I made was trying to make the Lychee Gazpacho when Lychees are not in season. I used canned Lychees, which I can only imagine, could not compare in flavor or texture to the fresh fruit. Do not make this mistake. The Calamari turned out wonderful, though Milana said I put too much salt (I did not agree).

Coating the Calamari in Rice Flour
Broiling the Tomatoes and Peppers for the Romesco Sauce
Scallops with Lychee Gazpacho
Fried Calamari with Romesco Sauce

Of course, I had to make a few substitutions for ingredients I could not immediately find, like the Pimente D'Espelette, which he specifically says there is no suitable replacement for. Regardless, I used another smoked Spanish Paprika in its place. For the most part I followed the recipes exactly and so I will not post them here, but I encourage everyone interested to go pick up this cookbook or have a meal at Piperade. As I learn more about this type of cuisine, I will undoubtedly figure out my own way of doing things and have variations of classic recipes that will be mine that I can post here for your reading enjoyment.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Beef Braciole

Many countries all over the world have a roulade type of dish. A piece of thin meat, pounded out, stuffed with all sorts of things, tied up and cooked. France has their Paupiettes (veal stuffed with sweetmeats, fruit and vegetables) Germany has Rouladen (bacon wrapped beef rolls, stuffed with pickles, onions and mustard), and Northern Italy has Involti, which means, Little Bundles and could be made with a variety of different meats and stuffing. Beef Braciole is also in the Roulade family. This is the Southern Italian version. Now apparently there is some controversy over what to call these things. Other common names for very similar dishes are bruciuluni, farsumagru, rollatinis, etc...Regardless, this was a very popular dish amongst Italian-American immigrants and I don't think it mattered what they called it or who named it what. Like many recipes that made the trek across the Atlantic, modifications and improvisations were made to suit the available ingredients and culture. The flank steak became a popular cut, because it was cheap and easy to stretch into a large family meal. Made much in the same way as Sunday Gravy, the meat flavors the sauce and the sauce flavors the meat and it is best when you take all day to cook it. I have been reading up on several other similar recipes and I am very interested in trying out some of the variations. Especially some of the thinner versions made with veal that are cooked quicker, in white wine, without tomato sauce and so on and so on.

My adventure with Braciole (normally pronounced bra'zhul) began while speaking with a friend about his Grandmother's recipe. My mouth started watering and I couldn't stop thinking about it until I tried it out. I searched though a variety of recipes in my cookbooks and on the internet, but ultimately decided to trust my instincts and keep it as simple as possible. I found the basic common ingredients, techniques and attributes and began to cook without a map. 


A pound or two of Flank Steak
Sea Salt
Red Wine
Canned or Fresh plum tomatoes

A few cloves of garlic
As much Olive Oil as you need
A handful of Basil
A handful of Flat Leaf Parsley
3 ounces Prosciutto
3-5 ounces of Fresh Mozzarella
Fresh Parmesan


Let the meat come to room temperature and pound it out as thin as you can get it. Sprinkle with sea salt. 

A Beautiful piece of Grass Fed Flank Steak I purchased
Place the stuffing ingredients in a food processors and make it into a paste. Don't use too much olive oil in the paste, you want it to be pretty thick and sticky. The cheese provides the thick base.

Rub the herb/cheese paste across the meat.

Slice the meat into strips, about 3-4 inches wide. Roll them up and tie them off on the top, bottom and around lengthwise. Put some olive oil in a dutch oven or another heavy pan that can later be covered and placed in the oven. Brown the outside on all sides, top and bottom as well, quickly in the pan on high heat.

Once they are browned well, pour in about 3/4 bottle of your favorite red wine (drink the rest). I used a Cab, because I like the deep rich fruity flavors.

Let the wine reduce for about 20 minutes and then add in a large can of Plum Tomatoes. Crush them up with your hands as you put them in, pour in the reserve sauce in the can as well. Cover it up. At this point it can be saved and cooked later. Let it cool and put it in the fridge for the night. The next day at about 3 o'clock put it in the oven at 300 Degrees and it will be ready in time for dinner OR place it in the oven right away and let it cook for about 3-6 hours. The longer the better, as long as it doesn't dry out. Keep the lid on until you are ready to eat to keep all the moisture in. Cut the strings and put sauce, fresh Basil and Parmesan on top of it and enjoy. I like to continue putting the sauce from the pan on it the whole time I am eating it. As you cut it open, pour more sauce on it to make sure it is thoroughly saturated.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Whole Chicken on the BBQ, the meal that keeps on giving

Throwing a whole chicken on the BBQ can be a wonderful thing if done right, though there is no ONE right way to cook a bird. I have been experimenting with some different methods and have found what I think works the best. The single most important factor here, is the bird you choose. There truly is a world of difference in flavor between the common industrial bird and an organic/sustainable family farmed bird, who lived on a balanced diet and can roam freely, eat bugs, feel the sun on it's back and do other...chickeny things. What the bird eats, how it lives, how healthy and happy it is during its life will determine how much nutrition you get out of it and how good it tastes.

I recently had the pleasure of picking up a Bauer Family Farms bird from the Whole Foods store in San Mateo. The cool thing about Whole Foods is they tell you where the animal is from so that you can check it out for yourself. The label card said it was Organic, Local and Free Range, all the things I was looking for. So, 12 bucks later I was out the door and ready to get this bird cooking. I BBQed it over some mesquite hardwood natural coals (recipe below) and it was perfect. Now I really can't take credit for how good it tasted because I didn't do much to it. Normally I would buy a chicken a day in advance so that I could brine it and then leave it  in the fridge for a night, so that the skin gets dry and cooks up crispy. I didn't have time for any of that, so I just looked around at what I had, stuffed it with some fruit, vegetables and butter and got it on the grill. The chicken just tasted good by itself. If I had done nothing to it, I am convinced that this particular bird would have been just as juicy and tasted just as chickeny (which should be a new word included in the dictionary, because it is the only way to describe the taste difference between a bird of this caliber and an industrial one).

Well, after enjoying it so much, I used the bones a second time to make a broth, which I then turned into an amazing Split Pea Soup, which is why I call it the meal that keeps on giving.

I looked up the Bauer Family Farms website and gave them a ring to compliment them on their animal. Turns out the phone number on their website is just their family home phone number. I was greeted with "Hello?" to which I replied,
"Uh, is this the Bauer Family Farms?"

"Yeah, this is Mitchell Bauer. What can I do for you?"

A good sign from the outset, no corporate phone tree, no mumbo jumbo and most importantly, no flim flam, just a real family farm.

Mitchell spoke very generously with me for about 30 minutes. He didn't think it strange at all that I called and actually seemed very excited and proud to speak about his family's farming practices. He told me how his grandfather has started the farm in 1952 in Snelling, CA. He told me how they had been a turkey ranch, up until 2006, when they decided to go all organic. They got a deal with Central Coast Farms to distribute their birds to Whole Foods. They took the deal and have been organic chicken farmers ever since. He explained to me how his Grandfather (who still walks the ranch a few times a week) thought it was funny when they switched to all organic. His Grandpa said that it was like they were just going back to the old way of doing things, before all the pesticides and antibiotics were introduced and he welcomed the positive change. Nowadays they use ladybugs to ward off pests and pull weeds manually. 

Mitchell went on to tell me how their chickens live in a building about the size of a football field and a half and the area that they have free access to outside is even bigger. Outside the chickens have mini shelters to hide from the sun if they want, hay bales to pick at, grass to snip at and plenty of bugs to nibble on. They feed them an all vegetarian diet of whole grains, corn and oregano. He told me how oregano is one of the reasons they don't have to use antibiotics, because it keeps the birds so healthy, in conjunction with their otherwise healthy lifestyle. They also grow almonds, strawberries and a whole lot of other produce. He invited me to bring my kids up in the spring and see the farm first hand (which I will be doing). He said that would be the best time to visit because we could see the young chicks and taste, what he made sound like, the best strawberries in California. He thanked me for my call and said he hoped to see me come up and visit.

Now can you imagine this level of transparency and customer service from Tyson foods or Foster Farms? No. Not a chance. That is because those big industrial companies are afraid of what he public would think if we could see inside of their buildings. The secret to good cooking is good ingredients, plain and simple. Here is what I did with that succulent bird.


1 whole organic/free range local chicken.
Olive oil.
1 stick of butter, sliced up in pats.
1 leek, chopped.
1/2 apple (I used a Gravestein but you can use whatever suits you).
2 cloves of garlic, minced.
Salt and Pepper


1/2 stick of melted butter.
1 lemon.
A few splashes of white wine.
1 Tbsp. of chopped dill.
1 pinch of dried Thyme.


None of this is set in stone, nor was it planned out before hand. This is just one example of a way to do it. The process is what will always be similar, but the ingredients will change based on whatever is in season at the time, and whatever I happen to have in the house at the time. Like I mentioned before, I normally brine and then dry out the skin of a chicken before I BBQ it, but I am starting to think that if you get a tasty, healthy chicken, then those steps may actually be a detriment to the finished product as you are really just filling the bird with water, making it "juicier" seeming, though not necessarily tastier. Leaving the Chicken out on a raised cooling rack in the fridge overnight still might be worth doing, but only if you are planning on eating the skin, which I normally don't.

I get the coals hot and then spread them out. I then spread a second layer of coals on top of the first. Wait until the second batch catches and then I cover it up and bring the heat down by closing up the vents until they just have a crack of air going in.

Chop up the ingredients and shove them inside the bird. Reserve some of it to cram under the skin of the chicken as much as you can. All of the butter gets shoved under the skin so that it will melt and leak all over the bird as it cooks. Make sure you get a lot of the chopped leaks under the skin. It will create some space between the skin and the flesh. Salt and pepper the skin. Do not rub oil or butter on the outside of the skin, we will do that at the end.

Place the chicken on the hot rack of the bbq and cover it up. I put the breast up first. Let it cook for about 30 minutes undisturbed. You can check it every now and then to make sure the skin is not burning, but once you know where to set the vents and control the heat, you won't need to check it. Flip the bird and cook it  for another 20 minutes on the breast side. Take the cover off the bbq and the coals will start to heat up again. Brush on the butter/wine/dill/thyme mixture and flip the bird over with some long tongs. Brush the other side and repeat the flipping and brushing until all the sauce is gone. Pull it off and let it rest for a few minutes before carving it up.

Enjoy with a glass of your favorite wine and some fresh or roasted vegetables on the side.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Vegan Challenge

I recently challenged myself to eat as a vegan for a week straight. I wrote down my daily menu and my thoughts about the end of each day. Overall the experience was worth the experiment. The extra energy I had during the week was almost enough to convince me to put down the steak and milk forever, but not quite. I have certainly reduced my meat and dairy intake since the week and I plan on eating more and more plant food. 

I love meat, and I love dairy, and I still  know they are nutritious. It is also worth noting, that while I experienced more energy throughout the week, my body was still telling me to eat meat. I can not exactly tell you how that is at this point, but when I did start eating meat again, it felt good. My body felt stronger and I felt more grounded. I am still processing through the transition to and from a meat eating diet, and I can not put it together into a clear thought yet, but when I can, I will. Here is my menu for the week.

·         1 packet of organic apples and cinnamon instant oatmeal, made with almond milk rather than water.
·         1 sliced banana in the oatmeal.
·         1 tall glass of orange juice.
·         Coffee with almond milk.
·         Jamba Juice Strawberry Soy Protein shake.
·         Vegan “Boca Burger”  with whole wheat bun/pickles/tomato/ketchup/mustard- MISTAKE #1 *
·         Fake Vegan “Chicken” burger with whole wheat bun/pickles/tomato/ketchup/mustard- MISTAKE#2*
·         1 cup of chamomile tea.
·         ½ of a pomegranate.

* Day 1 was full of mistakes as you can see. Both mistakes had to do with fake meat products. I had heard that they were tasty and provided a lot of protein, which is tough for vegans to get. After reading the 25+ ingredients on the package of these items I decided that a heavily processed item like this could not possibly be healthier for me than a piece of real meat. Additionally, they really do not taste like meat and I found that I could get the same amount of nutrition from the source ingredients in the products. For example, I would rather eat black beans and a salad, as opposed to a “black bean burger” with a million other random ingredients, like soy protein and isolated textured vegetable protein, inside of it to make it look and feel like a burger.
However, having said all of that, I still felt really good at the end of day 1. I had a lot of unusual energy at night and was able to go to sleep well.
For the remainder of the week I stuck to some core principles:

1.       Don’t eat any pre-packaged product that has more than 5 ingredients in it.
2.       Don’t eat any fake meat products.
3.       Focus on getting the right amount of protein and everything else will pretty much fall into place.
4.       Make sure that some of the food you are eating is fortified with Vitamin B-12. You really don’t need a whole ton of this stuff, but you do need it, and cannot get it from just consuming plant food. Good sources are some cereals, almond milk, some Odwalla drinks. 

·         1 packet of organic apples and cinnamon instant oatmeal, made with water.
·         Chopped banana in the oatmeal.
·          1 green Odwalla “Superfood” drink.
·         1 black coffee
·         Fried tofu/ green curry with potatoes, onions and mini corn at a local Vegan friendly Thai restaurant in Foster City (Basil Cha Cha).
·         Brown Rice.
·         Water.
·         Roasted sweet potatoes, zucchini and mushrooms.
·         ½ Avocado with balsamic vinegar
·         Raw corn on the cob.
·         Handful of large green olives.
·         Tall glass of Orange Juice.
·         Almond/raisin/peanut butter/seed/raw oats bar that I made in the food processor. I was making a snack bar for the next day, but decided to eat one as I felt I still needed some extra protein for the day.
·         Chamomile Tea.
I realized after day two that I would need a snack in between breakfast and lunch so I made the almond snack bar for the following day. It was delicious and worked out perfectly. After day two I started to feel like a machine. My body was operating at a level that I haven’t felt in quite a while. I was thinking clearly and just had a ton of noticeable new energy overall. I also decided that I would really rather make my own lunch, rather than rely on a restaurant, as we really have only one Vegan friendly restaurant in Foster City. Sure every restaurant has at least one thing you can get, but I just wanted more control over everything I was eating and I certainly wasn’t going to eat Thai food every day.

DAY 3:
·         1 packet of organic Maple Syrup instant oatmeal, made with water.
·         Orange Juice.
·         1 black coffee.
·         1 banana.
·         Almond/raisin/peanut butter/seed/raw oats bar.
·         Handful of green olives.
·         Hummus.
·         2 Carrots (dipped in the hummus)
·         ¼ of an English Cucumber.
·         ½ Avocado.
·         1 Odwalla Soy Protein drink (enriched with Vitamin B-12)
·         Roasted Mushrooms with balsamic vinegar.
·         Tomato/bell pepper/garlic gazpacho.
·         Toasted whole wheat bread with olive oil and sea salt.
·         1 Cup of Chamomile Tea.
·         ½ of a Pomegranate.
Day Three was the first really perfect day of eating. I finally found my groove and felt full all day, with tons of energy. I started noticing that I the items I was eating were starting to taste better and I wasn’t even thinking about eating meat anymore. It might not seem like much food, but I was seriously full and felt great. Something interesting I noticed is that when I am full of plant food, I stop eating, when I am full of animal food, I never know when to stop; I just keep eating until I get sick of the flavor. Something about my body just understands when to stop eating this stuff, and I guess the desire to eat it just isn’t as great. A big juicy steak makes my mouth water, carrots and hummus does not, but is ultimately just as nutritious and enjoyable once I am eating it and especially after I am done eating it.

DAY 4:
·         1 packet of organic apple and cinnamon instant oatmeal, made with water.
·         1 small glass of almond milk.
·         Orange Juice.
·         1 black coffee.
·         2 cups of raw almonds.
·         ½ pound of Kale salad with avocado/flaxseed oil/red onion (whole foods)
·         1 Odwalla Soy Protein drink (enriched with Vitamin B-12)
·         Faro with Olive oil
·         Roasted French Beans with olive oil and Sea Salt
·         Roasted Zucchini.
·         Apple Juice cut with water.
·         1 Cup of Chamomile Tea.
By day four I was completely in the groove and had made the complete shift over. I started actually cutting back a little on things. I realized that I had been eating so many vegetables to try to make up for the “missing” meat in my diet. I found that I could now reduce the quantity of each item and still trust my body to tell me how much I needed to eat. I think I had been overcompensating for my perceived (greater) and actual (not as great) reduction of calories.
Day 5:
·         1 packet of organic apple and cinnamon instant oatmeal, made with water.
·         Orange Juice.
·         1 black coffee.
·         1 order of hash browns w/ketchup.
·         Whole wheat flat bread.
·         ¼ English cucumber.
·         2 mini packs of Hummus.
·         1 Tomato.
·         1 Avocado.
·         1 Carrot.
·         Water.
·         5 large green olives.
·         2 pints of Allagash White Ale (…What? Beer is Vegan!)
·         Garlic Fries (Whilst watching Ultimate Fighting Championship Fight Night)
DAY 6:
·         2 pieces of walnut whole wheat toast with Olive oil.
·         Tomato
·         Coffee with Almond Milk.
·         Small Orange Juice.
·        Skipped lunch.
·         Hummus.
·         Tomatoes.
·         Cucumbers.
·         Tortilla Chips.
·         Coffee.
·         Apple Juice.
·         Chamomile Tea.
·         1 Walnut Whole Wheat Toast with olive oil.
·         Grapes.
·         Apple.
·         ½ banana.
·         Orange Juice.
·         Coffee.
·         Kale salad with avocado/ 2 tbsp flaxseed oil/lemon juice/red onion.
·         Apple Juice.
·         Beginning of Phase 2 of Experiment, added in Fish and Eggs for the next week. Still abstained from all dairy and Beef/Pork/Poultry (made an exception for Turkey Day).
·         Sashimi for Dinner!

As I said, overall the experiment was a total success and has absolutely inspired me to make drastic cuts to my meat consumption, I had no idea what it has been doing to my energy. I lost 10 solid pounds during the week and I have kept it off for 3 weeks since I stopped the experiment and actually lost 3 more pounds since then. I did not have a goal to lose any weight, but it was an added bonus. The reduction in portion sizes and just eating less meat in general has helped as well. This is the celebration steak I had when I added meat back into my diet:

A local, Grass fed, boneless, rib eye, with shallots and garlic, Mimolette, Blue and Parmesan cheese. Medium rare. It was perfect. I would have normally ate this in one sitting, but I could only, or only wanted to, eat half of it. I ate the other half chopped up in a sandwich the next day. Making meat a side dish is tough, especially when it tastes so good, but the health benefits of eating mostly plant food are obvious.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Neighborhood Market

I'm not old enough to reminisce about shopping at the corner market or the general store, yet somehow I am still overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia for the concept. Just listen to this description of a typical frontier general store in the late 1800's:

(from "The Old West" volume "The Townsmen" Time Life Books)

"But to step inside was to enter a wonderfully self contained world of gentle gloom, muted sounds of leisurely activity, and odd yet familiar aromas. The place smelled of just about everything: the rich fruitiness of plug tobacco, the leather of boots and belts, fresh-ground coffee, cheese, dried and pickled fish and the subtle musty-sweet tang of fresh fabric in bolts. Not an inch of space was wasted. On one side of the interior stood a counter for groceries; on the other, a counter and shelves piled high with dry goods; hardware- along with the proprietors high desk and stool- took up the rear. From the rafters hung vague shapes of hams, slabs of bacon, cooking pots and stocking caps. And arranged around the floor was a treasury of kegs and barrels brimming with sugar, vinegar, flour and molasses; canisters of condiments and spices; sacks of whatever produce the season offered; big glass jars of striped candy sticks and peppermint balls. 

An interior shot of an old general store taken in July of 1936, just six years after the first supermarket, "King Kullen" was built in NYC with the slogan "Pile it high. Sell it low."

The store would have been supplemented with some neighboring specialty stores; the Butcher, the Barber, the Tailor, hardware shops and a farmer's market. My search for specialty shops goes on, and I have to accept that I wont find them all within walking distance of each other, like a community hub, to spend a day shopping and socializing with the merchants and townsmen. This is no longer the world we live in, and I believe we are worse off for it. I suppose this is why the current local food movement appeals to me so much; small businesses, small family farms, local seasonal produce, all the restrictions dealt with by generations past, though now somewhat self initiated, here today in the modern SF bay area. Why would we want to restrict ourselves to a less convenient and usually more expensive way of life? What have we lost by concentrating all of our needs into one massive store where the staff are interchangeable and the products are from locations, sometimes, thousands of miles away.

Now as I've said before, I am not against the idea of imported goods. I don't ONLY buy local products, even produce.But I prefer the smaller, family owned business for many reasons, one of which being the people. When I am standing in the line at safeway as the cashier finishes ringing up my groceries, I prefer pay the bill, load up the car and get home as quick as possible, after all, I have a life to live... right? The cashier steals a fast glance at the bottom of the receipt as he hands it to me and says: "Have a nice day Mr. Greene!" Thank you so much for the artificial experience of shopping in a place where people know my name, I feel so much more enriched for you having followed company policy so diligently. Please stop asking me if I need help carrying my single bag of groceries to my vehicle, it only reinforces the lack of sincerity in your careful adherence to a rule birthed in a corporate marketing meeting, thousands of miles away.

The truth is I want the experience of shopping to be a part of my life, not a distraction from it, not something to rush through. I enjoy driving to Redwood City to buy my favorite German Beer from the small German grocery store/gift shop/beer garden on Broadway street. I like talking to the owner about what's new and I enjoy that he doesn't have to look at a receipt to know my name. I enjoy buying most of my groceries from Crystal Springs Produce, a small, family owned business where a long conversation with the proprietor or even another customer is a normal occurrence and the whole experience adds a breath of authentic life to my normal daily routine.Shopping for and selecting the best food is just as much a part of the experience as cooking or eating. While all the produce is not always local, the business is local, there is a real family, with a real stake in the store's success or failure, and that is something I can buy into. After all, this is not simply survival, this is life.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sunday Gravy (meat sauce)

There are a million ways to make a meat sauce, but I started making it like this about a year ago. I was sitting and watching the movie "Goodfellas", and as I do a lot, I started searching around Google for info about the real Henry Hill, whom the movie is based on. As it turns out, the guy has his own website, has published cookbooks and has been managing his own restaurants ever since he came out of witness protection. So I start looking though an online version of his cookbook and find the section on Sunday Gravy, with a very lengthy and time consuming recipe that followed. I had never heard the term Sunday Gravy before, so I started looking into that.

To start talking about Sunday Gravy, I've got to start at the beginning.

As you probably already know, traditional Italian cuisine prior to the 1600's did not incorporate tomatoes at all, though they were brought to Spain in the early 1500's (from South America). The tomato plant was considered poisonous and only for ornamental purposes. They eventually found, as we now know, that the ripe fruit of the tomato plant is perfectly safe to eat, however the stems, leaves and even the un-ripe fruit of the plant does actually contain a toxic substance called solanine, which is toxic to humans and animals and may have been the basis for the hesitance to try the ripe fruit at the time. The oldest written recipe from Europe that used tomatoes was "Salsa di Pomodoro alla Spagnola", which means, "Spanish Tomato Sauce." This recipe was published in 1692 in "Antonio Latini's cookbook "Lo scalco alla moderna" For various reasons, it is generally thought that the Spanish were actually eating tomatoes before this time, but no written recipes have been found.

"Sunday Gravy" is a term that was used by Italian immigrants on the east coast for the sauce they would cook slowly all Sunday during the family gathering. Italian-American cuisine is the product of an influx of Italian immigrants, all from different parts of Italy converging together in neighborhoods, sharing recipes, being influenced by American culture and using the local ingredients that were available to them at the time. Sunday Gravy is an Italian-American dish where you cook the meat inside of the tomato sauce, so the sauce tastes like meat and the meat tastes like the sauce. You can serve the meat separate or with the sauce on some noodles. Lots of times, this is served with meatballs as well.

The precursor of Sunday Gravy, was most likely Neapolitan Ragu, a traditional Italian tomato and meat sauce, cooked and served in much the same way. The addition the Italian immigrants made was really just putting more than one type of meat in it. So they put some sausage, beef and maybe some pork or whatever they had lying around into the sauce.

A quick note about canned tomatoes, which I use and love: You can always try to use fresh San Marzano tomatoes to make the sauce, but one thing I have found that I can't get fresh from the local farms is canned Italian tomatoes, the cans just don't grow right around here :) All joking aside, I prefer the imported canned tomatoes to anything else. I suppose if I could get some San Marzano tomatoes at the peak of there ripeness, I could try to make the sauce myself, but that's a test for another day. Having said that, I would probably end up canning them first myself to get that familiar taste.

So after MANY experiments, some failed and some moderately successful. I finally came up with a recipe that made my mouth water. It is time consuming, no doubt, but you will not regret taking the time to make it taste just right. Sure, you can throw some tomato sauce with some ground chuck and onions and have a spaghetti sauce whipped up in 20 minutes, but I guarantee you it will not have the same qualities as Sunday Gravy.


Kosher salt
Olive oil
5 cloves of garlic (thinly sliced)
2 Italian sausages (hot or mild)
1 beef shank
3 Anchovies (chopped)
1 carrot (thinly sliced)
1/2 bottle of red wine
3 Tbsp. of double concentrated tomato paste 
2 large cans of San Marzano whole tomatoes. I use "Strianese" brand, imported from Italy
1 can of tomato puree
1 sprig of rosemary
3 sprigs of thyme
1 Bunch of fresh basil
1/2 bunch of fresh Italian Parsley
1-2 cups of homemade chicken stock (depending on how much you reduce the sauce)


Put some olive oil in your dutch oven (or other heavy bottomed pan, I prefer the dutch oven because it has a heavy lid and is deep), slice up the garlic and turn the heat to medium/low. Cook the garlic in the oil for about 3 minutes. Don't cook the garlic so hot that it gets brown at all, we just want to flavor to come out a little, we don't want that bitter brown garlic flavor in this dish. Remove the garlic from the oil and set aside for later use. Turn the heat up to medium/high and let the oil get really hot. Throw the beef shank in and brown it on all sides. Throw in the two sausages and brown those all around as well. Don't worry about overcooking the beef shank, just leave it in there cooking the whole time. You actually want it to lose a lot of its moisture, so that it will take on all the flavors of the sauce later on. You should start to get a brown crust on the bottom of the pan, leave this alone for now, don't scrape it up yet. Throw in the sliced up carrot, stir it around with the meat and let that cook for another minute or two.Chop up the sausage in the pan and pour in almost the entire half bottle of wine, just save a little to de-glaze the pan later. Scrape all the brown crust off the bottom and re-introduce the garlic at this time. Add the chopped up anchovies (don't worry, you wont taste them, but they add an extra dimension to the sauce) and the double concentrated tomato paste. Stir it all up and put the lid on, but leave a crack for some air to escape. Let the wine reduce down about half.

At this point you will be tempted to just forget about the rest of the recipe and eat the meat in wine sauce, and you certainly could, I always take a couple bites of sausage before I continue on.

The tomatoes should be whole in the can, so crush them one by one (by hand) into your dutch oven and dump the puree in that they were sitting in. Add the can of tomato puree and about 7 whole basil leaves. Strip the rosemary and thyme sprigs and finely chop the leaves, then add them into the sauce. Chop up some fresh parsley and basil and set it aside.

Now comes the long part. Once all the ingredients are in, stir it up once and then let it sit. Put the heat just a little under medium and place the lid on. Don't sit and stir the sauce, just leave it alone. If you stir the sauce constantly then the acid, fat and oil will never rise to the top. Every 10-20 minutes check on the pot and skim the little pools of foam and oil off the top and discard it into one of the empty tomato cans. After skimming each time, you can give it one quick stir, but resist the temptation to stir it too much. Besides, we really want another crust to slowly form on the bottom of the pan.

After about 4-5 hours of this (yes...seriously) you will know that it is ready, when you have a really thick, reduced sauce. You should be able to move the sauce to the side and see the dark brown crust on the bottom of the pan. You will think, "Oh no, I dont have enough sauce!", but don't worry, you will once you add the broth. Add a little more red wine into the sauce and with a wooden spatula, de-glaze the bottom of the pan, scraping all the glorious crust into the sauce. By this point the meat will have completely fallen apart into small bits, this is perfect, help it out with the spatula and  just remove the fat chunk from the shank and discard it. I leave the bone in even as I serve it, it looks nice. Add the broth and stir the sauce up. Let it cook for a little longer with the lid, 5-10 more minutes once the broth is in. Right before you serve, throw in the parsley and basil you chopped up earlier, grate some fresh Parmesan and serve over noodles, meat, potatoes, anything you want. I just use this as my spaghetti sauce, but you can do a lot with it.

Try using hot sausage and adding some red pepper flakes for a spicier sauce or try adding some prosciutto or pancetta in with the meat to make it even heartier. Play around with it and tailor it to your tastes.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Tomato with Red Wine Vinegar

If you have to have a certain taste for a lot of red wine vinegar (like me), you will love this as a quick snack. I've been eating this since I was a little kid. Apparently this was a pretty popular snack back in the old days, but I only know of it from my Grandma Greene.


1/2 cup of Red wine vinegar
3 Tbsp. of sugar
1 sliced up Tomato (of your favorite variety)


Mix the vinegar and sugar in a small bowl until the sugar starts to dissolve. Place the tomatoes into the bowl and enjoy.