Claire Ptak wants to change the way you bake

Inside Claire Ptak’s white stucco East London bakery, Violet, staff are moving in careful syncopation. From the open doorway to the small kitchen and café, freshly baked feta-sour cream-and-chive scones and herb-laced quiches call to a steady stream of customers who stop to chat with Ptak and admire 5-month-old daughter Frances West, sitting in her lap.

A native Californian, Ptak is a rising star on the culinary scene—hailed by Jamie Oliver as “one of my all-time favorite cake-makers.” But Violet and Ptak are about more than being an of-the-moment patisserie. It is here that she carries out a fairly revolutionary approach to baking—Soft-whipped egg whites! Flour licking!—that sets her apart from the cookie-cutter mold.

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Confessions of a Picky Eater

Chuck Thompson, a producer for CNN, has written a terrific piece on the problems of being a traveler and a picky eater. Go here to read it.

We have different issues. He has a long list of foods he just doesn’t like. I am open to most foods but am thrown into digestive uproar by anything with a lot of fat or tricked up with fancy sauces and other gourmet refinements. Roast potatoes with a side of steamed broccoli? Sign me up! Creme de casserole de potatoes a la Michelin etoile avec le chef’s sauce de secret, no thank you.

One of these days you have to ask me about the time I was served a four-course meal made almost entirely of cheese. Continue reading “Confessions of a Picky Eater”

Hooked on Haggis

I was in Cognac one hot summer day, trying to make conversation with a producer who spoke about as much English as I do French, and the situation was getting  sticky in every way when he suddenly asked me whether I had been to Scotland.

Yes, I had.

Well, then, he asked, how did I feel about haggis.

“I LOVE it,” I replied. “It’s the perfect pairing for whisky.”

“Madame,” he said. “It’s the only reason to drink whisky.”

I would not go quite that far but I do feel that haggis is a sadly misunderstood comestible.

The name doesn’t help – Is that a disease or a dish? – and no one can claim that the product in its natural state is a beauty.

And then there’s the offal truth of what goes into haggis, at least in the traditional recipe – sheep’s pluck, which is not about spunky sheep but rather refers to the heart, liver and lungs. Recipes vary, but often the meat is minced with onion, oatmeal and suet (animal fat) and is mixed with stock and spices and baked as a kind of sausage, or savory pudding. Back in the day, the casing was the sheep’s stomach, conveniently to hand, but modern haggis comes in artificial casings.

And it is delicious!

Click here to read this story, published on Palate

Eating their words: The importance of menu language

fishNapa Valley chef Curtis Di Fede won’t put chicken on his menu. But roasted hen? That he might do.

There’s not much difference; pretty much any chicken you’re getting in a California restaurant is going to be hen, not rooster. But to Di Fede using “hen” sounds more pleasant. It also does what he wants a menu item to do – start a conversation. “I really want people asking questions at the table,” he says. Experience has taught Di Fede something every successful chef/owner knows: the language of menus can speak volumes.

“People think of the menu as the dishes you offer. It’s not. The menu is where you start to tell your story,” says Bradford Thompson, a James Beard award-winning chef and founder of Bellyfull Consulting Inc., a full-service culinary consulting company with clients such as New York’s popular Miss Lily restaurants.

Thompson, who teaches kitchen and back-of-house skills at the International Culinary Center in New York, begins menu construction with the question: Who are you? If you can’t come up with a one-sentence answer – whether that’s the style of food, the history of the chef/owner, or some other thematic element – you’re in trouble, and this is how you end up with hundreds of items on the menu and zero personality.

“When you see a well-written menu, you see a point of view,” says Thompson. “Maybe you seem some whimsy. Maybe you’ll see a French-trained chef who’s spent some time in Asia. You’ll understand their story a little bit.”

Click here to read the rest of this story, published in Foodservice Consultant magazine.

My love affair with cookbooks

cookbookA lot of people look at cookbooks as mere manuals. But in truth they’re some of the best reading out there. Whether laced with personal anecdotes and tart asides _ my favorite _ or written as a straight how-to, a cookbook is part self-help volume, part escapist literature,  part historical document.

There are cookbooks you read without any intention of breaking out so much as a wooden spoon. Think “The French Laundry Cookbook.” My goodness, that Thomas Keller has a lot of patience. There are cookbooks that get dog-eared and, frankly, kind of nasty with all the food that’s been dropped on them. Thank you Nigella Lawson and your “How To Eat.”

At their most basic, cookbooks can help you put dinner on the table. As a fairly clueless new mother, I got hold of a book called “Cook  Your Meals The Lazy Way,” by Sharon Bowers. There were some good recipes in there, but I think the most important thing was the general message of, “Buck up, kid. You can do it.” Often, you’ll read a cookbook and find one really good piece of advice. For me, the Lazy Way epiphany was Put Your Food Processor On The Counter. Yeah, it spoils the line of my lovely ‘70s era formica, but having it out and ready to go is often the tipping point between, “I can’t be bothered,” and “Oh, what the heck.”

But there is so much more.

Cookbooks can cure what ails you. When my family immigrated to America my mother, sister and I came by boat, which is where I discovered that  (a.) it is a total thrill to be in the middle of the ocean, and (b.)  I am a terrible sailor. I didn’t want to miss a thing/I wanted to lie in my bunk and die. So, being a resourceful 12-year-old, I dragged the pale shadow of myself up to the ship’s library, pulled out a book of tea time recipes and within an afternoon had recovered to the point that a steaming hot scone topped with homemade strawberry  jam and “lashings” of whipped cream, sounded pretty darned good.

And there’s nothing like a vintage cookbook for taking you back in time. I’ve read some fabulous wartime cookbooks with their eggless cakes and meatless casseroles. And I once had a Fanny Farmer Junior Cookbook, with a recipe for tomato sauce that called for 1 can of diced, stewed tomatoes, although it did not that “if unavailable, fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, may be substituted.”

On my own shelves I have a facsimile edition of Mrs. Beeton’s 19th-century cookbook, a pioneer in the field with her measured amounts and relatively detailed instructions not to mention excellent advice on hiring a lady’s maid. And I have a 1950’s British cookbook, “Home Catering and Cookery,” used by my mother as a young bride and replete with the kind of recipes that gave post-war British cuisine its well-deserved rep.

The  text is sexist as hell _ all about mother working out her timetable for cooking, marketing and housekeeping with not a whiff of a suggestion that father might get off his duff and fry a few chips. But you can see faint stirrings beneath the surface. There are a few quick meals the “bachelor girl” can whip up. There’s also fabulous advice on throwing cocktail parties that you just know were glamorous as all get-out with the ladies in pouffy skirts and the gents in jackets. As a long-reformed smoker, I especially like the earnest instructions to put out plenty of ashtrays.

To be honest, I remember eating lots of these recipes as a child and they all tasted great to me. Don’t know whether that’s my mother’s skill as a cook or the power of nostalgia.But because I am essentially not a nice person, I’m going to leave you with something that will chill your marrow. Readers, straight from the horror of mid-century British cooking I give you:Calf’s Head Vinaigrette:

  • Half a calf’s head
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 onion
  • 2 sticks celery
  • ¼ pint vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • ½ pint vinaigrette sauce (which is described elsewhere in the book. Come on, you know you aren’t gonna make this so just visualize)

Wash and clean the head well, remove the bones, and keep the brains and tongue separate. If necessary, tie the head together with tape and wrap in muslin. Boil for 3-4 hours in water with the vegetables, vinegar and salt. Add the tongue 2 hours, and the brains 15 minutes, before the head is cooked. Skin the tongue and cut it into slices. Serve the head on a hot dish, garnish with the tongue and brains, and serve vinaigrette sauce in a sauce-boat.

And that, friends, is my new mantra: Garnish with the tongue and brains.

Bon appetit!

Remembering Donna Scala

donnaThe last time I saw Donna Scala, co-owner with husband Giovanni of Napa’s popular Bistro Don Giovanni, she was full of plans to renovate the restaurant.

Which is notable mainly because she’d been diagnosed with a brain tumor and given just months to live. That was earlier this year and as it turned out the end was even nearer than we thought. She died today.

I knew Donna only as a customer; for about the last 12 years I’ve been meeting a group of friends at the bistro for lunch once a month. But even that limited contact made a huge impression. Short, bubbly and blonde, Donna could fill up any room. You could always tell if she was in the house by the throaty, sexy laugh emanating from the kitchen. (Or, if things weren’t being run in keeping with her high standards, the equally recognizable sound of a sinner being summarily set straight.)

But any storms soon blew over and Donna would be back doing what she did so well, circling the restaurant, stopping to hug regulars and catch up on the latest from the many wine country boldface types who frequent the bistro. If there was something new on the menu, Donna made sure you at least had a taste. And she always had something pertinent to say about whatever was the topic du jour in the Napa Valley.

For me, a person who carries the scars of eating lunch alone in the girls’ bathroom for all of 9th grade (High school: The worst, non?), it was a special thrill to be greeted by Donna, ever-glamorous in her crisp chef’s whites (often with a hint of lace peeking out at the lapel) and shorty Western boots. I quoted her a few times in stories about California food and wine and was always tickled by how open and funny she was.

The last time she stopped by our table we knew she was ill and she knew that we knew. But we talked mostly about other things, including her plans to update the restaurant. Just for a moment she looked at us and her eyes shone with unshed tears. “I love you all,” she said.

And we loved you, Donna.



Diet of Worms

Fried worms. I can't believe I ate the whole thing /Photo Michelle Locke.
Fried worms. I can’t believe I ate the whole thing /Photo Michelle Locke.

The setting: A balmy January night at a top-flight resort on the Mayan Riviera. The occasion: An ultra-chic dinner honoring  up-and-coming-chef Rene Redzepi, a guest at the hotel.

Camera zooms in on subject, a woman of a certain age (as in I’m certain she won’t see 48 again)  who is gazing with trepidation at her plate. Close up of plate reveals a wedge of citrus sprinkled with red spice, a cup of clear liquid and a pile of crispy fried worms. Subject dips finger in bowl, tastes. It’s tequila. She looks around nervously, closes eyes, takes a quick bite of the citrus, mutters “It’s just like shrimp. It’s just like shrimp,” and gingerly spoons up a worm along with a generous dollop of tequila. 

A tense moment follows. Will it stay or will it go? It stays. Subject smiles and prepares to deliver her verdict.

“Very interesting!” I said brightly.

Yes, friends, I have breached a new gastronomical frontier. I have eaten worms.

Specifically, crispy fried maguey worms, a dish native to the Yucatan Peninsula.

They did not taste like chicken. They did not really taste of anything. It was a little like eating slightly limp mini onion rings. minus the onions. There was also a disturbing teeth-sticking quality that did not bear dwelling on. But the tequila chaser was definitely a good idea. I haven’t had that much neat spirit since that evening in the tapas bar in Logrono. (The night before the morning when I swore off drinking straight liquor ever, ever again, but every rule has its exceptions.)

I do not know what Rene thought of his worms since he sat across the restaurant from me. But it seemed like that table was having a pretty good time. After the worms came a “caviar” of ant eggs, which, naturally, I downed without a second thought having crossed the wriggly Rubicon as it were, and a few more standard gourmet dishes like pork belly and roast venison.

It was all very unique and quite the change of pace for someone who thinks adding yams to mashed potatoes is an exotic touch.

And luckily for me, back in my posh hotel suite I had the perfect nightcap waiting. A diet coke, some pub mix and a good book.

I think 2013 is off to a splendid start.

Cheers, adventurously.

Ant-egg caviar. Yum. /Photo Michelle Locke
Ant-egg caviar. Yum. /Photo Michelle Locke



Swept away by cassoulet


Ever get annoyed by people who go to the South of France and proceed to rave over the victuals?

Well bite me, because today I tasted my first cassoulet.

The place was the Auberge de L’Ecole de Saint Jean in the tiny village of St. Jean de Minervois. Our group, visiting the Languedoc wine region, had stopped for lunch and ordered the cassoulet. Out it came, a sizzling hot dish of beans, sausage and duck confit bubbling away under a crispy breadcrumb crust.

Creamy and savory, simple yet unctuous, it was like every dream of comfort food made manifest.

Somewhere, a thousand cans of franks-n-beans were crying.

But the flavors in the dish weren’t the only thing in harmony.

It turns out the couple who run the restaurant, Brigitte and Patrick, were sweethearts long ago but things didn’t work out. They went their separate ways but some years ago, Brigitte moved back to the village and opened the restaurant. Patrick still lived in the area selling detergent supplies and it wasn’t too long before they were back in contact. The rest, as they say, is history.

Romance and good beans. Who can ask for anything more?