Tuesday, December 29, 2015


I'm not sure why, but somewhere into the first 50 pages of MY KITCHEN YEAR: 136 RECIPES THAT SAVED MY LIFE (Random House; $35.00), Ruth Reichl's memoir with recipes, really began to piss me off. Ruth Reichl was fired as editor-in-chief of Gourmet along with the entire staff as Conde Nast shut down the beloved and venerated cooking publication just short of its seventieth anniversary. It sent a deep shock waves into the already struggling magazine publishing world. Reichl herself had spent a decade atop the masthead as it's editor-in-chief. But in 2010, the country was bogged down in a deep financial recession. In all more than eight million lost their jobs; six million lost their homes. It was a financial catastrophe that we're still reeling from.

Ruth Reichl has enjoyed a storied career as a restaurant critic for both The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times before she landed one of the most coveted culinary jobs at Gourmet. During her decade there, Ms. Reichl published three volumes of her memoirs--all of them bestsellers. Since the demise of Gourmet, she has written a successful novel, landed a contract as a sort of culinary editor at large at Random House, and because she is a recognized culinary brand, has continued to work.

I am sure MY KITCHEN YEAR was intended to be a book that chronicled her shock, sadness and depression following the loss of a wonderful job--a job which she clearly loved and excelled at. But this slight narrative comes off as selfish and clueless. Millions lost their jobs, many of them are still picking up the pieces of shattered lives. So when Reichl worries that she won't be able to maintain both her Manhattan apartment and country home, I was a little offended. How tin-eared can you get? She risks being taken too seriously over her rhapsodic purchases of very expensive organic, farm-to-table ingredients, which would be one of the first economic cuts made by your average unemployed family when facing a similar crisis. There's no thought given to the human tragedy that caught the entire world during the long recovery. Perhaps it's churlish of me to expect that, but I wasn't expecting the "poor pitiful me" tone that permeates nearly every page.

One expects good recipes from Ruth Reichl, and to be very fair here, she offers many tasty indulgences:  Cider-Braised Pork Shoulder, Nectarine Galette, Anchovy Bread, High-Heat Turkey, Chinese Dumplings, Pumpkin Pancakes, Sriracha Shrimp Over Coconut Rice, The Cake that Cures Everything, Lemon Panna Cotta, Spinach and Ricotta Gnocchi, Thai-American Noodles, Bulgogi at Home, Pink Deviled Eggs, Three-Day Short Ribs, Fabulous Hummus, Fresh Apricot Jam, Real Fried Chicken, Magret of Duck with Easy Orange Sauce are all inspired. For the most part, Ms. Riechl's instructions are chatty and colorful, rather than set forth in the usual list-and-preparation format.

Because MY KITCHEN YEAR was more of a memoir with recipes, I decided to get the Kindle edition rather than the book (my shelves are overstuffed with cookbooks already). I wanted to like this book. Ruth Reichl has been a writer, editor, and witness of the big changes in the food world since she burst onto the national scene when she joined The New York Times.  She has much to say still and I hope she back to it soon.

Friday, November 20, 2015


I really do feel sympathy for those afflicted with acute Thanksgiving anxiety over issues such as gravy or the proper way to roast a turkey. Stuff it or not stuff it. There is an avalanche of information about preparing a Thanksgiving feast, easily obtainable on Google, and other sources. The food magazines start to ramp up anxiety over the holiday season in September when their first issues on Thanksgiving are on the newsstands. "Get Organized," they admonish. Make lists. Check your dishes, linens, flatware. Do you have enough chairs? How big a bird do you need? Make your turkey stock in October--freeze--and it's ready for you on Thanksgiving. Who is on your guest list and do they have food issues (nut allergies, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, vegan, organic-only)? All this stuff accumulates and is added to the family drama that's already been in place for years before everyone has assembled for this annual gathering of "family and friends." Julia Child used to take calls from anxious Thanksgiving cooks because her phone number was listed. She cheerfully answered their questions. Over the years, I've accumulated lots of calls from friends over Thanksgiving. So in the spirit of the holiday, I'm offering a few words of wisdom on how to avoid making your Thanksgiving an ordeal:

1)  A Thanksgiving feast is a ton of work. Don't take it on unless you're prepared to work like a dog putting it on the table.

2)  Make lists. There are too many items in a Thanksgiving menu and you don't want to discover you have no condensed milk for the pumpkin pie filling on Thanksgiving morning.

3) A frozen turkey will not thaw on Thanksgiving day. If you forgot to thaw the turkey, take everyone out or order in from your local supermarket. Thawing instructions usually come with the turkey. Or ask your butcher.

4) Try to minimize the amount of special-needs foods that you can. Don't worry if Aunt Sarah can't eat gluten. Instead of stuffing, she can have the mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes.  Gluten-free stuffing is pretty awful. If you do have to make special dishes, okay, but send the person home with the leftovers. They will appreciate it, and you'll have one less thing dying in your fridge.
Read labels carefully so that you don't have any allergic surprises to ruin the big day.

5) Assess your talents as a cook realistically, and manage what you can. If you're having guests, ask them to bring something for the meal. There is nothing worse than eating a lousy meal that you've slaved over. That includes pies with uncooked bottom crusts, potatoes that have been
food-processed into a gluey mess, lumpy gravy, and overcooked white meat. It is no sin to buy canned cranberry sauce. You ate it as a kid, it is still edible.

6) If your white meat is dry as a bone, you over-roasted it.

7) I try not to offer too much in the way of noshes and nibbles in advance of the meal. If you're not known for your culinary skills, you might want to provide your guests with a nice spread of appetizers, just in case.

8) Foodies will tell you a recipe is a template for your creativity, and that is fine. But most Thanksgiving cooks need to stick to the recipe as closely as possible. There are fewer chances for disasters to occur if you follow this advice.

9) Set your table the night before. It provides you with the opportunity to fix any issues that arise in time.  This means setting up your dessert dishes, plates, cups and saucers or mugs, and serving pieces such as a pie server, spoon for whipped cream, etc.

10) Make a time-line schedule of items that need to be cooked, baked, etc. by order. A turkey will need at least 30 minutes to rest before it is carved. That's the time when potato casseroles, gravies, stuffings (not inside the bird), rolls, etc., need to be addressed.

11) Every holiday meal my mother used to freak out, usually by the time she reached into the freezer for the frozen peas. There would be my brothers and her latest husband sitting in front of the TV set while she slaved in the kitchen. I would have to remind her that I was there in the kitchen with her. It didn't matter. Those four lumps in the living room were doing nothing and it added to her sense of martyrdom. Ask for help. You'll get better results by asking a woman. Men and football make for a selfish combination and no amount of nagging will get the job done.

12) Set up for clean-up. I usually have a deep bowl filled with soapy water to soak the silver/stainless flatware in. Make sure your dishwasher is empty. Ditto the sink and counter around the sink. There is nothing more defeating than the sight of a trashed kitchen. You can get organized while the coffee is brewing and before you serve dessert. This is the time to ask the men to help. Take out the trash. make sure the table is cleared of the dinner dishes and prepped for dessert. If there's time, begin to organize the leftovers (containers, plastic bags, etc.). Don't let leftovers hang out in the kitchen unattended for long periods of time.

13) If you can't do any of this, and you want to have a Thanksgiving feast and you can afford it, look to a local market, caterer, or restaurant that will make the meal complete for pick-up or delivery to your door. I was a guest at a friend's home for my first Christmas in Portland, Oregon. He is not a cook, but ordered in an entire meal for twelve. Was it the best Christmas feast of turkey with all the trimmings?  Certainly not, but it was the right thing for him to do, and it was a very pleasant holiday meal.

Now put down the anxiety medication, step away from the counter and go make a plan!

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


I suppose every good writer of Italian cookbooks wants to leave behind that one big book that will be a summation of all they have done in the field. I'm not sure the late, great and cranky, Marcella Hazan had that in mind when she wrote the first volume of her The Classic Italian Cookbook, but I'm pretty sure she did when she delivered her second volume. Michele Scicolone did something a bit similar with her 1000 Italian Recipes, a huge, encyclopedic survey on the subject. This outstanding Italo-American cookbook writer has published a number of excellent cookbooks mostly focusing on Italian cuisine. If you're looking to begin to wade into the depths of this, one of the world's most popular cuisines, you would do well to start with either Hazan or Scicolone. Now Lidia Bastianich (with the able help of her daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali) has produced LIDIA'S MASTERING THE ART OF ITALIAN CUISINE: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Great Italian Cook (Knopf; $37.50). It covers a wide scope of Italian cooking in its more than 400 recipes.

Let's begin with all the good things. The chapter on ingredients is comprehensive and easy to understand. There are lots of illustrations. Here is where Lidia's knowledge shines. You can tell she loves talking ingredients. For instance, Asiago, Grana Padano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Pecorino are thoroughly defined, including the regions where they are from and what they are used for. When she gets to Extra Virgin Olive Oil, she is one of the few writers who insist that it is used as a finishing oil or for salads, rather than for frying, where it will smoke at high temperatures more easily than a vegetable oil. She states her preference for red wine vinegar over Balsamic, which she describes as a regional specialty vinegar in Italy. Though wildly popular here in the U.S. many restaurants in Italy serving mostly tourists, have it on their tables, and you have to ask for red wine vinegar if that is your preference. The meat section is wonderful and displays the Italian respect for eating the entire animal and not just the fillets. She speaks plainly and unsquemishly about offal, the internal organs of a butchered animal. These are delicious parts of the animal and our insistence on manicured meats sold off the bone without much beyond liver from supermarkets, shows what fussy eaters we've become.

Lidia next takes the reader through techniques used in Italian cooking. I always knew that olive oil had to be added to a hot pan, but it was interesting to find out that butter should always be added to a cold pan to prevent it from burning. A mortar and pestle as well as a potato rice entered my kitchen relatively late, but are now regular helpers as I cook. Lidia explains why. There are secrets revealed to a great gratin, adding zip to cured olives, or tasty (and less oily) versions of Eggplant Parmigiana.

When you reach the recipe section, you'll find something missing, which is unlike any other cookbook from Lidia--a real lack of head notes. In fact, there are none. This became really curious when I got to a recipe for Caesar Salad. It is not Italian at all. So why is it in an Italian cookbook that doesn't cover Italo-American recipes, let alone a salad credited by an Italian-American chef and owner of restaurants in California and Mexico, doing so here? For me the launch of any recipe by Lidia always begins in the entertaining and informative head notes of her many cookbooks. Another problem in this day and age, is the lack of photographs. As a publisher and a former promoter of cookbooks, the first complaint you hear about a cookbook without pictures, is this. It doesn't bother me and I've long thought it absurd to complain about this. But today's popular cookbooks are drenched in color photos because the audience for them demands it.

And what of the recipes? This is as fine a collection of recipes as you'll find in any of Lidia's books. Prosciutto and Fig Bruschetta, Swiss Chard and Potato Crostada, Scallion and Asparagus Salad, Farro Salad, with Grilled Eggplant and Peppers, Cauliflower and Tomato Soup, Lettuce Soup with Fontina Gratin, Borlotti Bean Pizzaiola, Whole Braised Cauliflower, Horseradish Mashed Potatoes, Snails with Polenta, Risotto with Barolo on a Bed of Carrot Puree, Crespelle "Lasagna" Filled with Spinach and Herbs. Pappardelle with Duck Guazzetto, Fresh Pear and Pecorino Ravioli with Cacio e Pepe Sauce, Fresh Ricotta Cavatelli with Mussels and Beans. Spaghetti with Crab Sauce, Calamari and Skate with White Wine Sauce. Clams with Leeks and Couscous, Skillet Gratinate of Mushrooms and Chicken, Chicken Thighs with Potatoes and Olives, Quail Under a Brick, Pork Tenderloin with Balsamic Onions, Meatloaf with Ricotta, Veal Kidneys in Mustard Sauce, Bread and Peach Cake, Polenta Sponge Cake, Cannoli Napoleon, Roasted Pears and Grapes and Pomegranate Sorbet, are just a quick sampling of some of the arresting and tasty dishes Lidia has assembled for this volume.

The book ends with a useful section of Italian Culture and Language. You'll find all sorts of interesting cultural observations such as Boar Hunting: Favorite Italian Pastime, Enotecas (Italian wine bars), as well as a breakdown of the differences between the Trattoria, Ristorante, Osteria and Bar, which define Italian dining outside the home, or how to toast in Italian. The mostly food glossary in Italian will be helpful to anyone traveling in Italy without knowledge of the language.

LIDIA'S MASTERING THE ART OF ITALIAN CUISINE is unlike any cookbook she has produced before. If you demand lots of color photos, this book is not for you. I miss the head notes, which always make the time you spend with Lidia pleasurable. Maybe I'll warm up to it as I watch her new companion series on PBS (whenever that airs in Portland--shame on you OPB for the ridiculous times you air your food programs). Still any time a new collection of recipes from this wonderful TV chef and teacher appears, is time for rejoicing.

The book is available in many fine bookstores as well as on-line.

Saturday, March 7, 2015


The T-Fal Pressure Cooker

I recently re-organized my kitchen drawers and put the pressure gauge for my 35-year-old pressure cooker in a new place. Now I can't find it. I'm not going to live without a pressure cooker and that's that. You can keep your slow cookers. For my money, the modern pressure cooker, which resists the kinds of silly explosion stories that seem to dog this wonderful appliance even years after manufacturers have designed them so well, cannot fail. In far less time than the slow cooker, you can have fabulous stews, soups, bean dishes, risottos, stocks, desserts all with their full nutritional value. I make a shrimp risotto that takes six minutes to cook once the pot is up to full pressure. This delicious dish is on regular rotation in my kitchen. Last night, I made meaty pork shanks in under 25 minutes that were so tender, they fell off the bone. This is the appliance to tenderize all those economical cuts of beef, lamb, and pork and it takes a fraction of the time to cook than a slow cooker.

My mother had an old Presto pressure cooker in the 70s. It never exploded. But she was one to follow instructions carefully. Today's pressure cookers have all sorts of safety features and come in highly polished stainless steel in four-quart, six-quart, and ten-quart and larger (for canning of jams and vegetables). The appliance I purchased all those years ago at Zabar's in New York was made by T-Fal, the French manufacturer of inexpensive pots and pans. This appliance was made of heavy stainless steel and it produced many a memorable meal over the course of its more than three decades of hard work in my kitchen. So when I decided to purchase a new one, I went to T-Fal and found a brand new one on eBay for less than I paid for the older model. This new model is easier to use than the old one with the gauge built into the lid.  I found meaty pork shanks at Fubon, a large Asian market in SE Portland, and decided to break in the new machine. Here's the recipe:

Greg's Pork Shanks With Tomatoes and Carrots

The cost of veal shanks has put the classic Osso bucco out of the financial reach of most Americans grocery budget. Also I live in Portland, OR, a city that is very wary of veal because of the negative stories on the poor treatment of calves. Some of this is justified, but not every calf is clubbed to death or raised in sub-standard and cramped quarters. Lamb shanks are hard to come by in my town as well. The pork shank  has become a popular braising choice if you know where to find them. Asian markets here now sell them without the hoof, which makes preparation a lot easier and far less squeamish. This particular braising method will produce succulent pork shanks with good flavor and a sauce for polenta. This is a wonderful wintry dish.

2 large pork shanks, skin removed (but leave a little fat for cooking around them), about 12 oz each, 
   lightly dredged in flour
three tablespoons canola or grapeseed olive oil
four anchovies packed in olive oil, drained and patted dry on paper towel
1 yellow onion, medium dice
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into about five pieces each
two stalks celery, sliced diagonally in about eight pieces
1/2 cup sturdy red wine
2 1/2 cups chicken broth
1-14 oz can diced tomatoes with their juice
1 generous teaspoon dried oregano 
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 large, fresh bay leaf
kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

1) Heat the oil in the bottom a six-quart pressure cooker over medium high heat. Salt and pepper the pork shanks then dredge lightly in flour to cover all over. 

2) Add the floured pork shanks to the pressure cooker and over medium high heat, brown them all over until thoroughly caramelized. This will take about 10 minutes. Remove from the pot and set aside. 

3) To the pot, add the anchovies fillets, onions, celery and carrots, and cook over medium heat, stirring until the onions are a little soft and begin to take on a golden color. The anchovies will dissolve. Watch your flame, you don't want to burn the four on the bottom of the pan. This will take another 10 minutes. 

4) Add the red wine and over medium high heat, let the wine boil down, another two minutes or so, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan to dissolve the bits sticking to the pot. In about two minutes, you'll notice the sauce in the pan begin to thicken slightly. Add the chicken broth and diced tomatoes. Rub the dried oregano between the palms of your hands to release their oil and let that fall into the pot, then add the red pepper flakes and bay leaf. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste and still one minute. Return the shanks to the pot and cover with the lid closing it according to your manufacturers directions. Watch until the indicator lets you know the pot has come up to full steam (mine has a little red button that pops up). 

5)  Turn heat down  to medium and cook for about 20 minutes. If the machine is hissing steam to much, adjust heat lower. You want a steady hiss, but one that isn't harsh sounding. Let the shanks cook for about 20 minutes. When you've reached that time, turn off the heat. If you like, let the pot release the steam naturally (about 12 minutes). If you're in a hurry, then put the pot in your kitchen sink and run cold water over the lid for about 10 seconds. Jiggle the gauge to make sure the steam has released. Open pot lid, taking care that in doing so, the pot and lid are facing away from you. Return the pot to the stove. 

6) With the folk check for tenderness. A fork should easily insert into the meat indicating how tender it is. If it is not tender, lock the lid back in place and bring to full pressure again and cook for another five minutes. Again, take the pot and put it under cold water again until all the steam is out of the pot.

Serve over polenta with Parmesan cheese and butter.

NOTE:  This recipe will easily include a third pork shank, or even a fourth, but it will depend on the shanks overall size and shape. Don't try to brown them together in the pot at the same time. You'll just ended up steaming the meat. You want room around the shanks to brown properly. Alternately, you can brown four shanks in a large frying pan before transferring them to the pressure cooker. I would add five more minutes cooking time for the four shanks.

I love the pressure cooker for preparing all sorts of bean recipes, rice, and other grains, soups, even desserts. There are also fine cookbooks available. Lorna Sass' COOKING UNDER PRESSURE (William Morrow), THE PRESSURED COOK (Morrow), Rick Rodgers PRESSURE COOKING FOR EVERYONE (Chronicle Books) and MISS VICKIE'S BIG BOOK OF PRESSURE COOKER RECIPES (Wiley) are my recommended volumes on the subjects. 

Now that I found the gauge for the older pressure cooker, I decided to give it to my brother and his fiancee and get them started on using the pressure cooker. I have always considered it a kitchen essential. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


For the past six years, I've helped a friend prepare foods for his annual Christmas party and the chore I hate the most is peeling hard-boiled eggs--especially the eight dozen eggs he requires. Each dozen gets its own recipe treatment. This onerous chore is made maddening by the peeling of the shells, which resist easy peeling no matter how much of the shell is cracked. Inevitably half of the egg-whites come off with the shells. The result is unattractive egg halves which then need to be stuffed. Hiding those ugly, pock-marked egg white halves is a challenge. 

We have run them under cold water. We have pricked holes in one end to create an air pocket. We've used eggs that are five weeks old. Nothing seems to work. Until now. 

I was recently reading Food52, the popular food  community website created by Amanda Hesser and Meryl Stubbs. There I found a posting by one of the members that suggested the perfect and full-proof technique of steaming for soft, medium or hard boiled eggs. It works, it really works. I've now steamed dozens of eggs for breakfast, for egg salad, etc., and the shells practically come off by themselves. A relatively soft-boiled egg is done in six minutes once the water comes to a boil in the steaming vessel. Medium boiled will take seven or eight minutes. I allow a full 10 minutes for hard-boiled eggs. 

Whatever version I want, I remove the pot to the sink when I'm done and slowly allow cold water to cool down the pot and steamer and the eggs. I add a big handful of ice for hardboiled eggs and allow them to come to room temperature before peeling. For softer-boiled eggs, I allow the eggs to cool enough to handle before peeling and adding to a bowl with  a little butter, salt and pepper. 

This is a really good technique, so give it a try the next time you're in the mood for deviled eggs!

Sunday, February 22, 2015


I've become a huge fan of a new PBS-TV cooking series called THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF and apparently so have a lot of other American fans on this side of the pond. I had no idea this show has been a huge hit in Great Britain for five years now. Since moving to Portland, I've been bereft of the wonderful PBS cooking shows that aired regularly on PBS there. Apparently this foodie town doesn't love cooking shows. I have been particularly upset about not being able to access Lidia Bastianich's wonderful programs. All we get here is America's Test Kitchen and a Martha Stewart baking program, both of them excellent in their way, but lacking in personality.

Personality is exactly why I've stopped watching anything on The Food Network or the Cooking Channel. I'm not a fan of competitive cooking, generally speaking. Once upon a time, The Food Network had lots of demonstrations shows that catered to all tastes. My favorite was Sara Moulton, but I also enjoyed Ina Garten (not terribly original in the content of her food), Giada DeLaurentiis (a good cook, but too much cleavage and too many teeth), Tyler Florence (the boy tease), Bobby Flay (one of the best technicians on TV), Rachael Ray (an underrated cook with lots of good practical ideas), Mario Batali (a great chef who is a messy cook), and even Sandra Brown (whose tables capes made me nauseous). Then one day, the folks in research decided viewers didn't like studio-bound shows. Suddenly after 10 lucrative seasons, even Emeril Lagasse was considered finished. So all these personalities were erased from the Food Network's prime time line up and replaced by nonsense shows such as featuring cupcake wars, cake baking competitions that featured garish, Las Vegas-style creations with lurid sugar sculptures, some of which shattered on their way to a viewing station. Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with the irrepressible Guy Fieri, is an amusing show, but you never learn how to make any of the foods he covers. Most of us will never get to the particular restaurants Fieri visits, and the publicity by now will surely affect the quality of those destinations.

But I aim my most potent sense of contempt at ridiculous shows such as Chopped! or The Worst Cooks in America. What is the point of filling up a basket of times that don't necessarily compliment each other and then ask perfectly competent chefs to try to figure out what to do with each of the three course they have to prepare in under 30 minutes. Total rubbish and humiliating for the losers. We get the spectacle of three judges who are often condescending (praise does go to Alex Guarnaschelli, a chef and adroit Iron Chef star, for her reasonable responses to the junk that is cooked on this show).  By the time the each series is over, I doubt the competitors on The Worst Cooks in America are actually going to cook again, and their pathetic attempts to try get no sympathy from me. These contestants are chosen from the ranks of the culinary equivalent of anti-Christs. Isn't cooking supposed to be a fun and satisfying endeavor?

The Cooking Channel started out using Jamie Oliver reruns (Jamie at Home managed to be that rare program featuring a professional chef teaching home-cooking that could actually be cooked at home!),  and some very interesting cooking shows from Canada.  The elegantly effortless Laura Calder, was a real pleasure to watch on French Food at Home. Now we're treated to a bunch of former Top Chef and other cooking experts, writers, critics extolling the virtues of food truck fare or baking shop goodies. They moan in vaguely cringe-worthy sexual ways about grilled cheese sandwiches or brownies, which serve no purpose other than to send viewers into their kitchens in search of something sweet and definitely not dietetic to gorge on. These experts are young and meant to attract young audiences who may or may to be interested in anything other than eating these popular foods. 

Call me an old fogey, but I want to learn something, which is why programs with Lidia Bastianich or Mario Batali out of the gladiator sport of Iron Chef, are more appealing. 

Which brings me back to THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF. The contestants are all amateur bakers but they know their way around flour, yeast, sugar and buttercream. The show puts them through their paces. There was one one pastry that I've never heard of--Kouign Amann--a French pastry that had the contestants flummoxed. Most of the time, their challenges are about preparing baked foods they've never done before. They are asked to read recipes, which they have had no preparation. Bake times seem not to be supplied, which often leads to some seriously under-baked breads or cakes. The show is making them use their experience to intuit how long a rise a loaf of bread will need, or how much time a dough needs to a perfect rise or a disastrous over-proofing. 

Many of the baked items on this show are fearsomely ambitious. The Prinsesstarta (Princess Cake) is a Swedish concoction of vanilla custard, with jam, on a sponge cake with an almond (marzipan) covering piped with whipped cream and embellished with chocolate. This is not your everyday slice of cake. Positica is a sweet loaf baked at Christmas and loaded with cinnamon and raisins. Mini Pear Pies require a delicate touch with the strips of dough that wrap around each pear.  I love to bake, but looking at the Tiramisu Cake makes me want to find it at my local bake-shop. 

The challenges do not always make sense. It's quite dumb to ask bakers prepare a Baked Alaska under a hot tent on an equally hot day with at least ten ovens going. The ice-cream alone courted disaster between the times it took to make the custard base and chill it firmly enough to apply to a still-warm cake, and cover with the meringue that still has to be slightly browned in an oven. In fact, timing was my one big reservation about this show. 

I have no reservations whatsoever about this program's hosts--Mel Giedroyc (must be Welsh) and Sue Perkins are funny, supportive and genuinely sympathetic. The two judges are also very good: Mary Berry is a well-respected British cookbook writer with a specialty in baking, Paul Hollywood is a hunky and somewhat gruff professional baker, who rarely minces words in his evaluations, but he's not a prig. Their comments illuminate what is wrong and what is right about each category of baking they are judging. 

The contestants on the 2015 series I've been watching are a diverse group. Their ages ranged from their late 60s to 17. Only one young man fell apart (during that infamous Baked Alaska segment). They were all good colleagues and you didn't hear any trash talk in the interviews that dotted each segment, that make U.S. shows like this a trial to watch. 

The leisurely pace of an hour is just perfect. In the United States, we've had a long tradition of bake-off contests at state fairs, on TV, and most famously the Pillsbury Bake Off. THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF is the best show on the subject I've ever seen. 

I'm looking forward to each new season. I'd love to catch up with previous series. Netflix?

Monday, February 9, 2015


Well I'm sure you've guessed that I had run out of critical steam. I mean how many times could I call a collection of recipes superb? I tended to shy away from calling a cookbook "crap" because...well...I still have a lot of friends in the book business who sent me cookbooks to cover, and that's not nice. And there are a lot of cookbooks out there that could justifiably be called crap. I don't earn a living from blogging (a lot of people don't earn a living from blogging), and I wouldn't know how. I used to review one or maybe two cookbooks a month. Now I'm covering a cookbook once every six months--not even. But I didn't want to stop talking about food, which is one of the things I love talking about most. So here I am in semi-retirement, publishing books (two cookbooks and one garden book thus far), and slowing down. I'm awfully busy doing not much. But I got out to eat all the time. I'm constantly cooking. I host a dinner gathering for two of my closest friends here in Portland every week and I really do put a lot of thought into the components of each of those meals. I also keep a good eye out for food trends, and follow the food on TV, radio, in newspapers, other blogs, etc. 

One of the big chores I had committed myself to when reviewing cookbooks was long, detailed reviews. Well that's not very interesting and I'm pretty sure it didn't move the sales needle much either. I will still talk about cookbooks, but in much shorter terms. I plan to add some recipes, talk about restaurant experiences, and keep my eye food trends, food pretensions, good food, bad food and everything in-between. 

DeBuyer 12.6 inch mineral carbon steel frying pan

I want to talk about frying pans. I've to a bunch of 'em:  cast iron, stainless steel, non-stick. I love the cast iron, but my All-Clad, 12-inch frying pan was totally frustrating to cook in. I think All-Clad make superior pots and pans. My two saute pans are excellent and always produce excellent results. But oil residue can only be removed with effort and all-too-often, food sticks to its shiny, smooth surface. For years, I've been intrigued by DeBuyer carbon steel pans and recently a friend convinced me to try one. They are heavy like cast iron. Once you've created a smooth cooking surface, their matte-gray finish becomes mottled with a multitude of colors, which eventually I'm promised, will turn nearly black. Also once cured, the pan has a non-stick surface. The handle is very long. Like cast iron, the pans are washed in hot water and a good stiff brush can easily remove anything that dries in the pan. And they must be dried instantly to avoid rust. This makes them relatively low maintenance. 

I've cooked breaded pork cutlets, eggs, pan-fried flap-meat beef steaks and created pan-sauce. I've sauteed onions, and other vegetables on its smooth surface and it goes easily into the one for a baked finish after an initial browning of pork chops, and other meats. The results are always excellent. I bought mine on Amazon and they can often be found in better cookware shops such as Sur la Table. The pan is a bit pricey, but at near-$70 it was a heck of a lot cheaper than the All-Clad which priced over $100. Be prepared to put this sturdy pan in your will. Built to last, future generations of your family will surely be cooking with this wonderful pan. 

12-inch Ecopan frying pan

Non-stick cooking surfaces are not really part of my daily cooking except for a few skillets, and a small two-quart pot. I've become increasingly uncomfortable with non-stick surfaces, such as Teflon, because of the presence of health concerns. While no data supports the idea that these chemical surfaces are dangerous, like aluminum, I prefer to err on the side of caution. I recently purchased a 10-inch and 12-inch ceramic coated fry pans, and so far, I really like them. Let's talk first about eggs. Breaking an egg into one of these pans you notice right away that the egg never sticks. Just a slight jiggle and that sunny-side-up egg glides around the pan like an ice skater at the local rink. I've cooked bacon, and omelets, as well as sauteed green beans, parboiled Brussels sprouts in them and then finished them off in the same pan with a little butter and salt and pepper. Food cooks very well on these surfaces and cleaning them with a little soap and water is a breeze. So far their pristinely white surfaces haven't discolored. 

The one drawback is their lack of weight. Their surfaces are as thin as the bad-old aluminum Teflon of old. So you need to keep your eye on them to prevent burning. They are priced fairly inexpensively. I bought this pan in the kitchen area of a local TJ Mack for under $20, which leads me to wonder how long they will truly last. But for the time being, I'm enjoying cooking with them. 


Steakadelphia is a local sandwich shop specializing in Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, which were very popular in New York during the years I lived there, but they always came from places that you wondered had recently been visited by a health inspector. I'm hardly a food snob, but I do prefer eating in an immaculate restaurant whether its four stars or a local diner. Before moving to Portland, I had actually never eaten a Philly cheesesteak. Steakadelphia (at 5835 SE Powell Blvd., 503-788-7141) serves a pretty fabulous version. In this case, I've only ordered the Supreme. This 8-inch sandwich is full of flat-top cooked thinly sliced steak, embellished with white American cheese, mayo, onion, lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, jalapeƱos mushrooms and their own Steakadelphia sauce. This deeply flavorful combination costs $6.75. There's a 12-inch version for $9.00 and if you want extra meat and cheese in the same 12-inch package, the price goes to 11.25. Add 25 cents in the evening to each choice. The rolls are soft. The whole is wrapped in a large piece of paper, and when you open it, the aroma hits you between the eyes. A burger never tasted like this. All the different elements come through. You're not just eating a messy sandwich. 

There are other choices here. Your choice of meat can be either beef or chicken or a combination of both. The Rough Rider choice means white American cheese, mayo, onions, tomato, bell mushrooms, sweet peppers, hot peppers and Philly horseradish sauce.  The Caveman is the same but with Philly honey mustard. You want another cheese? There are versions of the Provolone, Cheddar, Pepper Jack, Cream Cheese, AND Cheese-Whiz Philly cheesesteaks. Steakadelphia does two burgers and offers french fries, which I've never ordered because my brain is pretty addled by the time I consume one of those fantastic Philly cheesesteaks. You can wash your Philly cheesesteak down with domestic and local beers or soda. In case you're craving more--there is a rooter float or classic shakes in vanilla, chocolate or strawberry. There are about twelve tables plus two outside during warmer weather, or you can call ahead and pick up for home consumption. There are a lot of good sandwich choices in Portland. Right now, Steakadelphia is at the top of my list.