Thursday, July 28, 2011


So I made chocolate.

No really, I did. I mean, I didn't hop off to Belize and harvest cacao pods by hand and dry the seeds in the sun or anything.  But I did take ordinary bars of dark chocolate and transform them into infused bites of deliciousness.

Michael Recchuiti's book, Chocolate Obsession,  which I've checked out from the library about 27 times, will be the death of me for certain. But it includes a recipe for earl grey tea-infused ganache, which sounds exactly like a chocolate truffle I had in Florence and haven't found anywhere else. Plus, there are about a thousand of his other recipes that are calling my name. So I got started.

I'd been scared of candy-making for a while, as I mentioned in my caramel-into-toffee post this past winter. But really, I've started to believe that candy-making is all about temperatures, and not much more. The ingredients are simple: in this case, chocolate, cream, sugar, butter, and tea. The problem is, it's easy to blast way past the desired temperature, and then the very small window of opportunity is gone. Or maybe it's just my problem, since I get impatient waiting around for the Perfect Temperature, and start doing other things. You know, multitasking. And then when I check on the chocolate, its temperature is sky high. Fortunately for me, chocolate-making is more forgiving than hard candy making, since all I have to do is wait a little while for it to cool down to The Right Temperature. Whereas with hard candy, once I've hit Hard Crack, I'm f*cked. (Oh wow. SO not what I meant.)

        The first batch came out well. Well enough to impress people, even. The ganache in the middle was the perfect consistency, and the tea infusion was just like the one I ate while prancing around in my new Italian leather boots and pretending I was a bona fide italiana under the shadow of Il Duomo... I had poured the ganache into a square baking dish, but had a hard time evening it out before it set, so the pieces I wound up with were of many sizes, shapes, and thicknesses. Some of the lopsidedness was masked by the tempered chocolate coating, but the bigger pieces were on the verge of being sickening.

Perfectionists hate imperfection. Which is why one of them invented chocolate molds. So for Round 2, I made a small batch of chili-spiced dark chocolate ganache and set it in molds that create perfect two-bite pieces. This flavor combination has been one of my favorites since "Chocolat" (if you are a teacher or parent, your kids can read about it here. Plus Robert Burleigh is a super-nice guy.). Recchiuti says to rap on the backside of the molds to release the chocolate once it has set. Evidently one can rap too hard, since I left nicks on the tops of my pieces from all the knife-rapping I did.  Note to self.

Molds are great. But it turns out that round pieces are hard to coat evenly since they have no edges. SO not perfect.

Now that I have the whole temperature-plus-perfect-size-and-shape thing down, I need to work on my decorating skills. Recchiuti suggests gold dust, which sounds like a recipe for A Huge Mess, along with microscopic drizzled lines of tempered chocolates, which sound like a recipe for It Looks Like a Three-Year-Old Made This. But then again, I was once afraid of the Perfect Temperature, and look at me now.

The square one on the right isn't quite dry. And I'm not sure what the swirly streaks are on the round and other squares-- cocoa butter rising to the top?

And by the way, Sur La Overpriced Table, it is unbelievably irritating that you sell candy thermometers that don't gauge below 100 degrees when you know perfectly well that tempering chocolate requires said chocolate to be at either 87 or 90 degrees. Crate and Barrel sells one for half your price that drops to a precarious 60 degrees, so now I own two candy thermometers. Which has turned out to be remarkably convenient.

Yes, I realize the SLT one is in the chocolate. That's because I'm not tempering it yet. Smarty pants.

Monday, July 11, 2011

One Fish, Two Fish, Dead Fish, Blue Fish

I'd been meaning to make a Moroccan recipe, Fish Baked with Almond Paste, for a while. The author of the cookbook where I found it tends to present needlessly elaborate recipes that sometimes take days to prepare, but I am starting to think that's what comes of Americans learning the "authentic" way to do something-- a romantic adherence to medieval methods of food preparation.

I don't eat fish very often, for many reasons.   One, it's fishy. Two, oceans are depleted. Three, I'm a woman of childbearing age. Standing at the fish counter trying to remember which fish are practically near extinction and which aren't is usually too overwhelming, especially since waiting my turn at Berkeley Bowl gives me plenty of time to contemplate the global consequences of my own consumption. Well, now there's an app for that. Yep, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's free "Seafood Watch" (category: Lifestyle) gives alternatives to overfished species, and lets you know when your favorite little fishy is relatively safe to eat. 

As it turns out, the striped bass listed as one of the kinds of fish I could use in this recipe is sustainably farmed in the US, and its wild US populations are well-managed too, so I figured it was time to give it a go. Even though the recipe called for a whole fish with tail and head intact, I figured Berkeley Bowl would have a nice tail-free fillet waiting for me.
Not ready to deal with the eyeballs.

Apparently not. The smallest of the bunch was two and a half pounds. It was definitely the longest packet I'd ever gotten from the meat counter. And it was the packet I least looked forward to opening. Once I got it home, I procrastinated in every way imaginable, not knowing quite how to deal with a whole fish.

After a phone conversation with my dad that confirmed that indeed, I needed to cut off the head and tail (and that the meat counter people would have done this for me with their super-sharp cleavers), I knew I couldn't put it off any longer, since the real offense would have been letting all that fresh fish go to waste. Forget the authenticity of the Moroccan preparation-- I was stuck in what seems to be a uniquely American dilemma: dealing with the too-vivid reminders that our food was a recently alive and sentient being. We only eat animals that have been skinned, drained, cleaned, ground, and sealed in cellophane.  We don't want to know where it came from or how it died.

Not ready to take the plastic bag off.
I buy whole chickens regularly, and don't really like when a few feathers are still left in the skin. I can't stand when I can tell the chicken has a bruise, since I am quite sure it happened during slaughter and am dismayed to know that the bird was handled roughly enough to bruise (granted, it was also handled roughly enough to die, but aren't there humane standards of slaughter that are intended to prevent unnecessary suffering?). The chickens, though, have been relieved of their heads, feet, and innards, and all that's left for me to do is rinse and roast, or rinse, cut, and freeze.

This fish staring at me had not been relieved of its anything. Its glittery scales kept coming off and landing on the floor. I discovered its mouth opened when I prodded its gills with my knife. I swear I wasn't playing with my food. I was just looking for the right placement of my knife to cut off the head. 

Scale, or contact lens?

Ultimately, I left the head on. I really didn't want to risk mangling the head and having the eyeballs pop out or something, or listen as the mouth gaped open while I cut through the neck. (Plus, I remembered a horrendous story my old veterinarian boss told me once about cutting off a dead Rottweiler's head for mandatory rabies testing...) I created two nice fillets for freezing, but was left with jiggly stomach stuff and a very gape-y head. I spent several minutes trying to disconnect the stomach parts from the throat parts, and really didn't need to see the hole in the fish's mouth from up through its stomach. Yet I found it all so logical and oddly interesting, like a biology class dissection that I never did in p.c. Berkeley.

This was not at all the Moroccan feast I'd planned. I wasn't one hundred percent sure I even wanted to eat the bass anymore. I took my dad's advice and used a few herbs and a few seasonings and a little lemon juice in the baking dish. While the finished product was tasty and my cats LOVED it, I am certain I would rather eat mountains of plain couscous than deconstruct a fish again. Am I guilty of being typically American? Perhaps. But perhaps also the authentic Moroccan method is to have the fishmonger gut the fish, since the recipe mentions not one word about doing it myself.

Moroccan almond mixture on the side, just for kicks.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Green Things

I love love love the idea of growing one's own food, being a localvore, and reclaiming urban spaces for farming. In the past, though, my container gardens have died died died and I decided long ago to leave the growing to farmers. And hipsters.

Emboldened by my neighbor who has similar fantasies of lush green fire escapes, I am nurturing a few plants in containers once again. We decided to be particularly ambitious and start our garden from seeds.  We planted two varieties of tomato, some cilantro, two kinds of basil, three kinds of lettuce, and cheated only once by planting parsley that was already growing in a four-inch pot. A veritable salad growing right there on the fire escape.

The lettuce is dead. Truth be told, we killed it. On purpose. It became infested with aphids. The ol' soap n' water spray didn't help in the slightest. I thought aphids chewed holes in leaves. But they didn't. They just hung out. En masse.

The tomatoes are still alive. Sort of. A colleague showed up at work one day with several varieties of heirloom seedlings that were healthy-looking and much bigger than the ones I was becoming so proud of. Her housemate is a gardener at Filoli House, so I knew these were the Real McCoy. I wasn't sure if I wanted to cheat and plant these seedlings, but all doubt was erased when I noticed a flat of Cherokee Purples. OH. MY. GOD. It was, like, destiny. I ripped out all but one of the from-seed plants in the container, and planted the Cherokee Purples and an Arnie's Round. I hoped my neighbor wouldn't notice. She noticed.  

Survival of the fittest

The parsley has made a miraculous comeback from the brink of death. Not sure why or how, but I'm glad. I used several sprigs in the salad dressing I made this weekend-- an herb-anchovy-lemon juice concoction. The cilantro is getting rather leggy in the middle, so I keep cutting it back. No idea if that's the right thing to do or not. The basil has been culled ruthlessly. My neighbor planted many seeds in a little container, which we figured was a way to hedge our bets, so to speak. But the basil seedlings were crowded, we realized, so the dead are fertilizing the survivors in a Darwinian tribute to the cycle of life. I considered swapping out the seedlings for one of those very bushy and healthy-looking one-gallon pots of basil that taunt me each time I walk in to Trader Joe's, but my neighbor would definitely notice. 

A few weeks ago, we were at Berkeley Bowl, and saw some well-established-yet-still-young-enough-to-qualify-as-grown-by-us vegetable pots for sale. I grabbed a six-flat of yellow wax beans while my neighbor wasn't looking, and then saw the most irresistible plant ever bred: a chocolate bell pepper. The first pepper, of course, is practically ready to eat, though its tag says it will turn a lovely chocolate brown when it's really ready. But there's a new pepper coming along,
which will be all ours to take credit for on our very urban, third-floor, totally local fire escape. 

Beanie babies

The Holy Grail of vegetables