Thursday, December 31, 2009

Home Style Hospitality With the Birds

My mother is a die-hard member of the VFW, or Veterans of Foreign Wars club. Basically, what this means is that she, and her other lady friends who I call the "birds", spend a lot of their lives down at the VFW hall socializing over dirt cheap cocktails and volunteering time to cook meals for veterans, riding in the Veteran's parades on the back of motorcycles motored by old men, and pitching in to do good deeds for local sources of need. Every once in a blue moon, I will venture down to the hall to say hi to the birds and enjoy a $2 Greyhound. I am not a member, so I always have to sign in, even though the birds have made me a perpetual honorary member, along with some of my close friends who have ventured down there from time to time for karaoke night. It's not the cheap drinks and revelry and charitable cause connections that stand out so much for me anymore though. It's the food. A few nights a week, the ladies will volunteer to cook dinner at the Hall, and will sell dinner tickets to anyone who wishes to eat. A chalkboard menu will announce the evening special which is always a basic favorite downhome thing like cheeseburgers and fries, lasagna and garlic bread, or pork cutlet sandwich (with the patty the size of the plate). For just about five dollars, these meals are served steaming hot and made with love. Most of the ladies at the VFW grew up in the fifties and sixties, so they were all a part of the era of comfort food and mommas in aprons who made things from scratch. They know how to cook everything in ways that make the belly warm. Now I have a place I can go with no makeup in sweat pants and enjoy a meal with a bevy of mothers whenever I wish and I will never underestimate or take advantage of the true comfort in that. It's like a lullaby.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Post-Holiday Scramble and Bagel Mash

Sisters are the Best!

Whenever my family comes together for holidays, we end up spending the last morning together in a heap on the couch watching "Love Actually" for the three billionth time and grunting from the sheer pounds that have newly crept on over a 72 hour period of food, pies, platters, and sweets. By the last morning together, the leftovers have diminished and the cupboards and fridge are a mash of tupperware containers and near empty cartons. So every year, we make sure we have our traditional bagels for that last day. Not any bagels, we have a strict code for ours. They have to be "everything" bagels with tons of savory seeds and spices, it has to be creamy, full fat Philadelphia cream cheese, and the signature slices of green olives with pimento dotted across the cheesed-up halves. We eat these bagels with another signature item: the kitchen sink scramble. Basically, what this means, is that you make a perfect pair of scrambled eggs and dice up anything you can find that is leftover from the holidays to add. This year it was wine-spiked salami cubes from the Trader Joe cheese basket from Aunt Nancy, and some tiny spears of port wine cheese. Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without this final breakfast with the fam!

Serves 2

4 large eggs
Dash of salt
Dash of pepper
2 Tablespoons milk

The trick is to whisk the eggs, milk, salt and pepper in a bowl for two whole minutes (don't skimp on time) until it is creamy, foamy. Pre-heat a pan on medium high heat and melt a tablespoon of butter in it. Once melted, pour in the eggs and start this process: once firms up a bit the first time, take a wooden spoon and pull the liquid in from outer rim of pan towards center, moving in a circle quickly, and continuing until all eggs are cooked to your liking in the center of the pan. This makes them extra fluffy.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Art of the Scallop

Every holiday season, my calendar becomes filled with a dozen or so cocktail parties squeezed among a few week's worth of time, causing me to buy extra pantyhose, little black dresses, and variations on the black leather dominatrix-style stilletto. Rushing home at night from meetings, turning into the quick change artist, dabbing on some rich, red MAC Dubonnet lips, and arriving just on time for libations and celebration among friends. It's always interesting to see the kinds of food served at these events, becuase most oftentimes it is not about dinner, but the creative appetizer. In a town of caterers galore, I always appreciate the host/hostesses that go the extra mile by eschewing the standard cheese puff or onion tartlet to deliver a nice little nugget of something original. Recently, at the home of my art gallery-owner friend Christian and his co-hostess/girlfriend Kimberly, we were served the most delectable bacon wrapped scallops that went perfectly with the signature champagne that German-bred Christian is famous for serving. The sweetness of the champagne and the crisp, savory of the bacon before biting into the soft meat of the scallop, made for a perpetual mouth a-ha moment. Eating these divine morsels while perusing a collection of Vargas girl original artworks made for a bittersweet nostalgic moment when sex was subtle and girls became famous for doing coy little things, like making maraschino cherry stem ties with their tongues. The recipe below is suprisingly simple and highly recommended for your next little art fete!

Bacon Wrapped Scallops

12 large sea scallops, cut in half

12 pieces of bacon, cut in half
garlic powder
teriyaki sauce
cayenne pepper
olive oil spray
Cut large scallops in half. Wrap each scallop in half a strip of bacon and secure with a wooden toothpick. Spray lightly with olive oil spray and sprinkle with teriyaki sauce on both sides. Dust lightly with garlic powder and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Place in baking dish and bake at 425°F, turning once for 20 to 30 minutes or until done. Serve with sweet and sour sauce.

Yields about 2 dozen.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Naughty or Nice?

One staple of all American holidays is a version of the peanut butter cookie. I fondly remember nights gearing up to Christmases of my youth as times when my mother would pull out her tried and true baking recipes and make a panoply of goodies from sin fudge to decadent chocolate bars. Our favorites though were her "fork" cookies, called such because of their nicely indented tine marks that created sweet little stripes on the tops of chewy peanut butter treats.

This year, a friend of mine who's a little more health conscious than most, shared a recipe for his own more nutritious version of my favorite peanut butter cookie. After making them, I was surprised at how hearty, sweet and gooey good they were. I think I will make both versions for the holiday dinner table and let my guests decide whether they want to be naughty or nice this year!

"Fork" Peanut Butter Cookies
1 cup margarine
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs slightly beaten
2 cup flour
1 tsp. soda
1 tsp. vanilla
Pinch of salt

Mix all ingredients well, roll into balls and flatten with fork or fingers dipped in flour. Bake on greased tin.
Bake at 350 for fifteen minutes. Cool and serve.

Gary Shaw's OPEN-WIDE Peanut Butter Cookies

1 c butter, softened
1 c white sugar
1 c packed brown sugar
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
2 t vanilla extract
1 18oz jar peanut butter (organic preferred)
2 1/4 c sifted flour
1 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 cup chopped peanuts
1/2 c sugar
2 t cinnamon
2 fine dark chocolate <70%> bars (Scharffenberger or Lindt)
2 fine white chocolate bars

In large bowl cream butter and sugars till smooth. Add eggs, yolk and vanilla, beat till fluffy . Stir in whole jar of peanut butter. Sift together the flour, baking soda & salt then stir into the peanut butter mixture. Finally, stir in nuts. Refrigerate dough for at least 2 hours. In separate small bowl, mix cinnamon & sugar together. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease cookie sheet . Roll dough in hands to the size of a walnut. Then roll dough ball in cinnamon-sugar mixture.

Place on prepared cookie sheet and slightly flatten criss-cross with fork tongs.

Bake for 10 minutes. Careful not to over-brown bottoms. Allow to cool in pan for 5 minutes then cool further on cookie racks.

When thoroughly cooled, melt your dark chocolate bars in a double boiler till very hot. Fill pastry bag with fine tip and 'zig-zag' over cookie quickly. Repeat with alternate chocolate in opposite direction.

Note: Sometimes white chocolate can be difficult to work with so you might want to use milk-chocolate as a contrast to the dark.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Mexican Omelette Kibbitz

Gene picks me up for a Friday morning kibbitz at Sunshine Cafe in Cathedral City, my favorite downhome place literally down the street from home, where the waitresses all know our names. A stop outside at the newstand for the weeklies and then steaming coffee mugs at the living room style booth. Ads from local businesses plastered beneath the weathered plastic tabletop and wood veneer. A mixed bag of young hipsters, old gay men, and senior citizens at the bar enjoying today's special of fish and chips. Gene with his steak and eggs, discussing the demise of the print publishing world between elevated forkfuls as we brainstorm ways to get his science fiction novel seen by the world. His oversized Coca Cola never seeming to drain and my dashes of sour cream and tabasco heating up my favorite item here, the Mexican omelet. This one comes perfectly cooked, layered with non-greasy ground beef, shredded cheddar and small peppers, dotted with a perfect dab of sour cream and creamy guacamole. A hearty meal for some hearty literary conversation; the old stand by can be made with anything in the kitchen sink, but my favorite version is below.

Mexican Omelette

2 large eggs
Tablespoon milk
Dash of salt
1/2 cup cooked, drained ground beef seasoned with salt and pepper
1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon cooked, diced green chiles
1 tablespoon diced tomatoes

For garnish:
1 dollop sour cream
1 dollop guacamole

Whisk the milk and eggs, salt and pepper until foamy. Pour into a hot skillet after melting a tablespoon of butter in it. Pour in the eggs and wait until slightly firm, them flip. Sprinkle the rest of the ingredients onto one side of the omelette and fold over. Serve with the sour cream and guacamole and a side of refried beans.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ode to Food 2009!

In the spirit of the year's end, I shall pay homage to my favorite food adventures of 2009! Special thanks to all the cooks, friends, and culinary connections I made this year as I began my great foodie adventure!

Thanks for:
1. Grandma Schreiber's yorkshire pudding, eggy and buttery with au jus sauce as a dip.
2. Meeting fellow foodies Christy Majors, Jan Maguire, Mindy Reed, Susan Stein and reconnecting with foodies Nicky Vallee and Janet Newcomb!
3. Chef Aaron Kiefer's kobe beef sliders, onion tarts, mushroom rolls, apple cranberry stuffed quail,and bread pudding made with challa.
4. Zin American Bistro's roasted chicken salad with roquefort.
5. Ongoing adventures with David Dixon and Lisa Vossler in our Ladies Raw Oyster and Chardonnay Club!
6. Hugh Van Horn's grilled chicken and gorgonzola salad.
7. Julie Rogers' egg fritattas, lamb stuffed pitas, chicken curry and cheese grits.
8. Charlotte Duplay's paneer.
9. India Oven matar paneer dinners with Gene.
10. The existence of our special Hungry Pie supper club.
11. Oyster farms with Robert Birnbach.
12. Paul Ortega's salads with herbs from the new garden.
13. Ginger beer floats.
14. Malbec wines.
15. Discovering Korean food and kimchi with Robert Birnbach.
16. Staying at Chef Andrea Rappaport's house in San Francisco with a shelf full of cookbooks, and especially the ones from Turkey.
17. San Francisco's Lucca deli and the best mushroom pizza and fresh ravioli ever.
18. Asian beef salad at Les Vallauris.
19. Marilyn Prebul's boyfriend's dolmadas.
20. The brie, pineapple and duck omelette at Piero's Acqua Pazza.
21. Lisa Vossler Smith's holiday corn souffle.
22. Learning to make a lentil, cherry tomato and simple sugar salad that didn't taste like dirt.
23. Ace Hotel's chilaquiles, made by Jihun Heath
24. Don Diego's barbecue chicken quesadillas.
25. El Mirasol's special purple tomatillo sauce on enchiladas.
26. The Sandcliff grapefruit martini created by John Mich.
27. Take out bread and cucumber/tomato salsa from Red Tomato.
28. Filet mignon salad and nori roll at Tropicale Restaurant.
29. Mary Jensen's Canadian fries with gravy.
30. Arlene Rosenthal's organic garden swiss chard and lamb dinners.
31. Danny Johnson's chorizo breakfast trek in the Mission District
32. Three a.m. Mission District burritos with Tara and Jamie after Greek Theater concerts.
33. Sunshine Cafe huevos rancheros breakfasts with April, Mom, Nick and Mikey.
34. The discovery of Palm Greens in Palm Springs and their exquisite use of peanut sauce.
35. The chocolate Godiva martinis and cherry chocolate cupcakes at Party Lab for my Cherry Secretary art show.
36. Native Foods' ghandi bowl and tempeh chips.
37. Casual pad thai lunches at Thai Smile.
38. Room service with Ian LeWinter for his 50th at Shutters on the Beach -exquisite horseradish encrusted salmon and hot fundge sundaes!
39. Nicky Vallee's Harissa pasta with rock shrimp.
40. Cooking again with mom: swedish pot roast, chili, taverns, and the like.
41. Lemongrass, thai chili, cilantro, coriander, pimento and ginger!
42. Dark chocolate of all kinds.
43. Wheat thins.
44. Onion bagels, toasted with cream cheese and green olives.
45. Goat cheese and cranberry relish.
46. Jarlsberg swiss cheese.
47. Halvah.
48. Morroccan chicken at Spencers with fig and date sauce.
49. Mole.
50. Manhattan in the Desert's cheese blintzes with honey.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pumpkin Spice Bread

Bread with butter in its multitude of variations is my biggest downfall in life and something I tend to stay away from in general so that when it does cross my path at the occassional dinner in its finest form, I can partake. And in order to partake, it has to be special, meaning a taste and texture combination so delicious that I am willing to risk the carb overload and potential pound creeping on for the five seconds of bliss between bite and swallow. This usually happens at fine restaurants when the creative bread basket arrives full of favorites like hard crusted sourdough rolls filled with plenty of nooks and crannies for butter delights, thick parmesan crisps with flecks of carmelized garlic, soft brown pumpernickel rounds flecked with oatmeal flakes, or soft french squares dusted with powder that open to reveal steaming white innards, and finally, the myriad varieties of rye. Of course, when the holiday season rolls around, things get much worse while every relative and business association begins sending loaves of sweet and spicy breads as gifts. Recently, I was the recipient of a pumpkin spice loaf that was out of this world moist and fragrant. I had to give in to two sweet slices, heated in the microwave for a minute with a fresh pat of Blue Bonnet butter. The recipe below is forty years old, make your own and spread amongst family and friends so that we can all collectively gain five pounds and pretend we don't notice!

Pumpkin Spice Bread

3 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 (16 ounce) can solid pack pumpkin
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 cup water

In a large bowl, combine sugar, oil and eggs. Add pumpkin and mix well. Combine dry ingredients; add to the pumpkin mixture alternately with water. Pour into two greased 9-in. x 5-in. x 3-in. loaf pans. Bake at 350 degrees F for 60-65 minutes or until bread tests done. Cool in pans 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack; cool completely.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Malbec Mavens Articulating Argentina

Holiday season in the desert means a steady stream of invitations to white elephant cocktail parties and celebrations with friends and business associates alike. Last night, I had the great honor to be invited to one of these fetes by the mavens of two of the valley's best restaurants: Zin America Bistro and Copley's. In true spirit of giving and collaboration, Mindy Reed and Juliana Copley opened up the home for a trip to Argentina, including a special tasting of Malbec wines--five luscious varieties to choose from. The rich red went perfectly with an amazing charcuterie spread of hard salamis, exquisite brie, roquefort and assorted cheeses, pickled carrots and baby green olives, and thin, crusty slices of crunchy bread. Of course the pieces de resistance were the dishes made, one by each lady, of insanely rich blue cheese and mushroom empanadas and a cut-with-the-fork-able pork loin covered in a skin of soy sauce, brown sugar, cinammon and light grain Dijon served with mango apricot and cranberry relishes.

Malbec can be a highly misunderstood wine and like stinky cheeses, okra, spinach and squid, is either vehemenently loved or extravagantly despised. My friend Robert recently likened Malbec to swill only meritable as a blending wine, but after trying the lush, bloody Argentinian varieties, I think I am now a serious Malbec fan, placing it up with Shiraz as one of my beloved reds. Inky dark in color and full of robust tannins, it is the perfect accompaniment to sweet meats and strong cheeses.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Vegan Vixen

My friend Emily inspires me. Not only is she at the top of her game mentally, physically and spiritually in her early twenties and seemingly wise beyond her years, she has always been a role model to me in the way she cares for her body as a temple. When we met we shared a common love of food and would spend lunch hours at our place of work scouring local  menus to find the most interesting and tasty things. Our favorite place for lunch at the time was a small natural cafe/store in Palm Desert called Health Nutz where we could order earthy sandwiches and soups to go full of nuts, seeds, hummus, sprouts and avocado. We mutually fell in love with Native Foods when we discovered their amazing way with tempeh and peanut sauce.We were also on a perpetual search for the best sushi and agreed that when it came to fusion food, we loved Tropicale in Palm Springs. Always on the search for new foods, we formed a relationship based on taste.

A few months ago, Emily went entirely vegan and I feared that I would lose my friend to the annals of raw vegetables and rabbit food. I feared that the character of her palate would lose its adventure. Boy, did she prove me wrong when mere weeks after her non-meat ways took hold, she started to send me photos of the creative and exquisite meals she was making for herself nightly that rivaled all steak and chicken entrees in both their heartiness and flavor mixtures.

She explained to me that she is conscientious of what she eats, ensuring that everything she consumes will be positive for her body, her environment, and her soul. Making thoughtful, delicious meals gives her something special that she can do for herself everyday.

She explains, "Being vegan, forces me to be more creative, finding ways to spice up each meal while getting all of the necessary nutrition. Finding a satisfactory substitute for meat is an especially fun challenge, but something you can always turn to is squash. It is a simple, but hearty, substitute that works exceptionally well in the Fall and Winter months. In this recipe, it pairs well with the rustic flavors of brussels sprouts, nuts and figs to creates a sweet yet organic taste that, though an unlikely combination, is truly delicious."

I will be turning to Emily for delicious vegan meals in this column every once in a while, curious to see how her dive into the fire and her innate creativity will produce delicious and healthy meatless meals that are not only fortifying, but pieces on artwork on the plate!

Brussels Sprout stuffed Butternut Squash with Tomato Herb Cous Cous
Serves 2

1 whole Butternut squash, halved length-wise and seeded
3 cups Brussels sprouts
1 cup Cashews
1 1/2 cup figs
4 Tbsp Olive oil
2 Tsp Cinnamon
1 Tsp Red Pepper Flakes
2 Tsp Garlic Salt
1 Tbsp Nutritional Yeast

1 cup Cous cous
5 Basil Leaves, finely chopped
4 Cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tsp Garlic Powder

Preheat oven to 400°F

First, Get that cous cous ready! Follow package directions to prepare cous cous. Approximately halfway through cooking time, sprinkle with garlic powder. With 2 minutes left in cook time, mix in cherry tomatoes in Basil to give them a little heat. Keep the lid off.
Meanwhile, drizzle cut-sides of squash with 1 Tbsp of olive oil each and sprinkle with Cinnamon. Lay cut-side down on foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes.

Once the squash is in the oven, steam or boil the brussel sprouts in a medium pot lightly, just to soften. Once soft, cut the brussels sprouts into quarters and figs into quarters. Heat 2 Tbsp Olive oil in a sautee pan. Add brussels sprouts and figs. Lightly season lightly with red chili pepper flakes, garlic salt, and nutritional yeast. Pan fry until brussels sprouts are a nice golden brown, about 8 minutes.
Remove the squash from the oven, but do not turn the oven off. Flip the squash halves over and stuff the cores with your brussels sprout, fig and cashew goodness. Put the filled squash back into the oven until both are crispy and browned. The squash is done when the flesh is fork tender and easily pulled away from the skin.
Garnish plate with slices of avocado and voilĂ !

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dance Fever Shortbread

It was pouring rain today and there's nothing I like to do better during a rainy day then to go and visit my friend Taylor for a little ballroom dancing to Michael Bouble. Yeah, I have a little (okay, a lot!) of Ginger Rogers in me, and like nothing better than to visit my suave 50-year-old (looking like thirty eight) gay boy friend for a little twirl around his marble floor once a month in four step, cha cha and salsa styles. Being that it is the holiday time, he decked my welcome out for me in the most extravagant way: gold fringe on the door with bells, a waiting crisp and cool rose wine, and some shortbread cookies freshly made and alive with the fragrance of lemon and orange peel sprinkled across the rich, dense bars.
Dipping the shortbread in the rose, he reads me his latest literary venture into his own food writing, which is a luscious nostalgic piece about the first garden he cultivated with his mother in Northern California when she shucked the stockbroker life for the raising kids on the natural farm without t.v. life that lent my friend his lifelong appreciation of food. As he read to me aloud the loving reminiscenses of picking pumpkins and making fresh ravioli, of tilling the fields and learning to love thumb-sized blackberries, I noticed a blackboard in his home with a red velvet cupcake drawn upon it. He told me that was his manifestation board; where he puts down all the future manifestation creations that will soon cross his palate.
After a half hour of total synchronistic dancing and hesitations and dips, we pulled out the mama recipe file so I could share the recipe with you for these remarkable shortbread bars that go well a variety of ways: halfway dipped in homemade ganache, served plain for wine, coffee or milk dipping, or crumbled and sprinkled on some steel cut oatmeal for a warm and toasty morning treat!


1 pound unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
4 cups flour

Cream butter and sugar, then beat until very light. Add flour then press into cookie sheet. Prick top. Cut after cooking. Can cut into shapes prior to cooking. Can add brandy or rum.

Taken verbatim from Patricia's aged yellow, lined notebook paper in a patriarch's notebook!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Hines Family Provides Holiday Chocolate and Hope

I think one of the reasons I like writing about food so much is that it, like art, tends to bring people together. The other night, I went to my friends Scott and Jon's holiday family chocolate party slash fundraiser for the Equality Council and the rooms were ravished with chocolate displays of every kind imaginable: miniature glass tumbers of mousses with tiny marshmallow tops, mini martini glasses full of chocolate cream, a multitude of truffles, peanut butter fudge bars, chocolate covered apple rings, apricots and rich dates, and miniature red velvet cupcakes with thick cream cheese frosting.

After bloating us with sweetness, Scott delivered a speech that prooduced a few wet eyes in the house. Scott is an amazing father. Not only has he been in the service, had a Top 40 pop hit, created a successful eduation company, and become a change-producing lobbyist and businessman in the desert, he is, along with his partner Jon, a gay father to five children, two of which were adopted.
Scott was a Baby Doe himself, given up for adoption, raised by a loving family, and has returned the favor to society by adopting his own children Sage and Louis. He told us this while giving a speech about equality and telling us about the three children he and Jon were supposed to adopt who were sudddenly yanked away from the relationship that had been formed due to the dads' sexual orientation. He told us about the two children he was finally able to adopt; Louis who was coined autistic until under the Hines' wing, who has grown into an intellectually brilliant and charming teenager; and the vivacious four-year-old Sage who was born a crack baby but tonight was running around the house flashing her smile in a red satin and velvet dress.

It's nice to know that there are people out there doing their part for equal rights; basic human rights actually. It bothers me to think of the three kids who are probably sucked into the social system who will never have their chance at the Hines Holiday Christmas party full of sweets for the mouth and warm, fuzzy feelings in the heart. I looked around the room at the party and was thankful to see people of every political party and sexual orientation and economic class enjoying a common bond of holiday warmth. We are lucky to live in a place where diversity is flush and the human spirit is alive, but we are rare and the world has a long way to go towards making everyone understand that family is not about 2.5 kids and a white picket fence and all the exterior facade fluff that makes them look perfect, but that it is about people who love people and want to join together to lead prosperous and healthy lives together.

I just hope I can touch a few people like my friend touched me, wrapped in some sweet recipes of chocolate bliss. I think everyone you should make a batch and give them to a neighbor this year.

To make these exquisite chocolate dipped fruit rings, buy your choice of dried fruits and dip in your favorite kinds of chocolate and drizzle thinly with frosting. Let cool before serving, then serve at room temperature.