Sunday, December 27, 2015

Healdsburg: Hidden and not so hidden gems

Pan Tomate 
While most of the SF Bay area funneled toward the Targets, Walmarts and Macy's in their towns to take advantage of post-Christmas sales, I had a hankering to drive away from all of that and out into the country.  It was a sunny day, albiet a sunny winter day, with temperatures south of 40 F in the shade, the sunny car and heat on high kept me company while I travelled up the 101 toward the cute hamlet of Healdsburg, CA.  Only a 45 minute drive from my town of Petaluma, and about an 1.5 hour drive from the Golden Gate Bridge, this sleepy town turned B & B haven is well worth a destination drive to get a break from busy SF and Napa Valley tourist spots.    Nestled at the entrance of Alexander Valley to the North, Dry Creek Valley to the west, the Russian River AVA to the southwest and Chalk Hill and Knight's Valley to the east, with Napa Valley only about 30 minutes further,  Healdsburg offers a nearly perfect crossroad of wineries, boutique shopping and lodging, a myriad of hand-crafted food and drink.  Of the dozens (yes dozens) of restaurants dotting the square,  a few of my favorites stick out:  Bistro Ralph, a neighborhood institution serving up California inspired French food since way before Healdsburg was a force to reckon with.  Scopa and it's sister space, Campo Fino - serving up the best Chicken Cacciatore you have ever tasted.  SpoonBar, in the H2 hotel, a craft cocktail oriented environment where the bartenders and patrons alike compete with scented flower and herbs which dot the bar and make their way into their extensive list of craft cocktails.  Barn Diva, a sassily appointed large space combining rustic barn with elegant art and flavors, with a cool shop next door to sip wine and shop (two of my favorite things to do all rolled into one).  This day, I snuck into Bravas,  1 1/2 blocks northeast of the square, and one of my all time favorite spanish style Tapas places, where a cozy old home feel inside gives way to patio libations (with heat lamps) that flow all year.  The large menu of cold and warm small plates can literally keep you nibbling for hours.   I dropped in for just a few minutes, as I had plans to meet a friend in an hour or two, and just wanted a quick cocktail and snack to make my round of the stores more pleasant (and my wallet more relaxed as is often the case).
 I particularly love the Croquetas: creamy chicken, jamon and gruyere dumplings, perfect food to pair with their signature sangria (white or red) made with house-scented brandy (see my version of Bravas inspired croquetas here:
Patatas Bravas

The patatas bravas, their signature version of perfectly fried potato chunks, are served nestled on a bed of spiced tomato sauce and smothered with an ample enough amount of aioli to keep two people quite happy and quiet for at least half an hour - and possibly even fill their bellies for half a day.  
It's always exciting to hear of a new, off-the-beaten-path destination, and so I was amped for my hour of shopping (and a miraculously tightly held wallet - this time) to conclude,  and the opportunity to meet a friend for another drink (hey it's the holidays) to toast the post-Christmas chill in the air.  We had been talking earlier and he suggest we meet at a place very simply named "Alexander Valley Bar." "Have you been there?" he asked.  Ummm, no.  Yes, I like to find new places, but you probably won't find me travelling country roads alone to unknown destinations in the middle of nowhere without a suggestion from a trusted source.   Well, my pending drink companion is definitely a trusted source, having worked selling boutique wines at a few of the most notable and exclusive locations in Napa and Alexander Valleys.  If he says it's cool, it's cool.  I headed north of town on Healdsburg Avenue, watching for the sign for Alexander Valley Road, just a couple of miles north of town and past the expansive and beautiful grounds of Simi Winery.  A few minutes later, the intersection was clear, with quintessential winery signs pointing me east to a bounty of tasting rooms with names like Soda Rock, Stonestreet and Medlock Ames.  Not a Mondavi in sight, but those of you who need some familiarity, Clos du Bois and Coppola are also nearby.  I wound through vineyards for just a few minutes,  and with the sun getting low, was happy to see I had reached my destination, a hidden speakeasy on the corner of 128 and Alexander Valley Road.
A gateway to some, but most probably an endpoint to a day of tasting to most, Alexander Valley Bar is tucked behind and adjacent to Medlock-Ames, just a few hundred yards short of the Jimtown store (a great stop for lunch with a great take out menu and snacks to keep you sustained along your journey)  Open promptly at 5:00 pm, exactly when the tasting room wraps things up, this dark and inviting speakeasy is just the hidden gem one would hope for.
A craft cocktail list with whimsical twists on the moscow mule, old fashioned and margarita, spirits from local SF Bay area distillers line their shelves.  A velvet tufted banquette lines one corner, reminiscent of aVictorian era, which is reflected in the dark woodwork and bar height stools and communal table dominating the other side of the room.  
Beautiful light fixtures and historic photos round out the decor which overlooks an outdoor patio that I hear is brimming with people and a working pizza oven in the summertime Alexander Valley heat. In the winter, a few local cheeses, olives and charcuterie make up the snack offering.   On this cold, cold winter evening, a thirsty post-wine tasting group was eager to change it up and crowded the bar ahead of us.  As the bartendress stirred a negroni, I was inspired and ordered this classic, one of my all time favorite mixes of bitter and juniper.  My mates let her choose a good sipping tequila, and one got the moscow mule, which had freshly grated ginger on top, giving it that perfect punch.  Drinks here don't come out with lightening speed, but that was okay with us, as we had a lot of holiday smut to chat up, and we weren't in any rush.  I heard the locals were worried about what the  new owners would do with this old store and dive bar that had been in existence for eons.  I could see the local ranchers not loving the new look, nor the new craft cocktail movement.  Thankfully, there are still quite a few dive bars dotting the outer reaches of Healdsburg and Geyserville to keep them happy (I hope!).  I spied an old photo booth in the corner, offering 4 shots for $.25!
Anxious to get a snapshot of our evening, I was disappointed to find it out of film, but not disappointed to learn it was actually $1.25 - a decent price in my opinion.  Hungry from their long work day,  my comrades and I headed into the dark, country parking lot, lit by the almost full moon but not a streetlight in sight on this deceivingly lonely country corner. They suggested we go to back into town, by that they meant Healdsburg, although Geyserville and a few other above average eateries is about the same distance.  I inquired where to meet,  they answered "How about Bravas?" - I agreed as I chuckled to myself, as withdrawal symptoms had already begun to kick in. Twice in one day, with a sexy, hidden bar experience in between, what more could one ask for on this post-holiday trek?

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Ginger Bread Cake

Some mornings I wake up and need to be in the kitchen.  So, by 8:30 a.m., I was still in my robe, wrestling with thick, goopy molasses, whipping up an old gingerbread recipe I had stored in my bookmarks.  You see, next week I promised to make some old-fashioned desserts for a friend's 1940's radio show style reading of "It's a Wonderful life" in Point Reyes Station, CA  - Friday, December 12, 2015, 7:30 pm, doors open and tasty treats starting at 6:30 pm.

Having a new oven and needing an excuse to use it as much as possible, I thought I'd do a test run. I can't imagine a better way of spending a rainy December morning:  coffee, kitchen, molasses-ey batter... A few years ago I bought a square cupcake style pan to make little soaps and lotion bars for holiday gifts. I had forgotten that I owned it until last week (I know, sort of hard to believe...). If you read my last blog post, you will see I've developed a penchant for "all things individual" - having made mini pumpkin pies, or Pie-ettes, for Thanksgiving (turned out amazing by the way).  When rummaging around for the 8" square baking pan called for in the recipe (the one I've had for over 20 years, heavily oxidized and sort of trashed),  I noticed the square muffin tins and...

The recipe I chose had all kinds of weird comments attached, "amazing recipe, I doubled all the spices and added 1/2 cup of apple sauce it came out perfectly..."  Seriously, there were a dozen comments proclaiming how awesome the recipe was but then giving suggestions for making it better.  One commenter said, "I don't get why the author doesn't fix the recipe and repost it."  Because I had saved it in my bookmarks and I usually don't save recipes unless I've tested them, I decided to give it a whirl without altering much. After trying it once, I had to agree with the comments!  A little lackluster.  So, I slept on it, and this morning doctored the recipe a bit and tried it again.  I had some leftover granny smith apples from Thanksgiving Apple Galette, so made some quick apple sauce to add in.  It was simply a couple of apples peeled and cored, a little water, some brown sugar and cinnamon - cooked down for like 15 minutes and then pureed.

Preheat oven to 350 F - spray muffin tins with nonstick cooking spray.  In a large mixing bowl, combine:

1 Stick butter
1/2 cup brown sugar

cream butter and sugar together,  then add:

1 cup dark, unsulphured molasses
1 egg

mix well (I used a hand beater because I find it easy and portable)

sift together, then add in parts to the sugar mixture:

2-1/2  cups AP flour
1 T ground ginger
1 T grated fresh ginger
2 t ground cinnamon
1 t ground cloves
1/2 t ground allspice
3/.4 t salt
1-1/2  t baking soda

You are probably going to want to hand mix with a wooden spoon at this point, as the batter will be very thick and dough-like.  

when well mixed, add

3/4 cup hot water
1/2 cup applesauce

I had some hot water still in the kettle from the aforementioned coffee brewing session, so just used a cup of that and mixed with the electric beater for a minute or two.  No need to overmix, you don't want to develop gluten...

Fill muffin tins 3/4 full.  Bake for approximately 25 minutes until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.  Let cool in tins.  Dust with powdered sugar and serve with whipped cream if desired.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!


To be a little different or just for the hell of it, I thought I'd make individual pumpkin pie-ettes instead of the big one this year. You know, the one where the crust separates from the filling as soon as it hits the plate... I'm a big fan of crust, so figured the ratio of crust to filling would be even better this way.    Plus, individual sized things are portable (i.e. eaten in the car on the way home)!  Usually I would have actually roasted a couple of sugar pie pumpkins from scratch, but in the vain of "all things convenient," I decided to use canned pumpkin puree.  You see, lately I've been researching dessert recipes from the 1940's, as I'm making the pre-show and intermission snacks for my friend, Sharron Drake's live radio show style production of "It's a Wonderful Life" in a few weeks at the Dance Palace in Point Reyes Station (December 12, 2015).  I figured it would be cool to do "period" post war snacks, as the play was written and performed in 1946.  There were a lot of canned food items in that era,  a lot of Crisco, and rationing, so I've been experimenting... I'll give credit for my use of canned pumpkin to our wonderful U.S. Government.

I found a basic recipe online for the filling (sweetened condensed milk (yikes), pumpkin puree, pumpkin spices etc.)  I bought my ingredients at Whole Foods, so the recipe wasn't on the back of the can.  If you buy a more mainstream pumpkin puree, the recipe will be found on the can.  You see, the thing that really interests me is the crust!   I don't understand why people find crust so challenging.  I constantly read recipes online that call for "premade pie crust" and most recently  a comment that followed stating "because pie crust is so hard."  What? Who says??  Who are these people and why is the most amazing thing to make such a big challenge?

I say "amazing thing to make" because what could be better than putting your hands into flour and working in the butter, crumbling and flaking it just right, and then putting just enough liquid to get it to come together?  Okay, I get it, not so interesting.  The point is, though, it is pretty much that easy!

I'm a big fan of the "galette" or free form pie.  There is something about the flat nature of it that crisps up just right, the proportion of crust to filling a little higher and therefore more satisfying. Unfortunately, this loose shape doesn't work for pumpkin or custard type pies.  Pretty much all my life I've used the Joy of Cooking's basic pie crust recipe (flour, crisco/butter, salt, water).  But when I started making galettes, I realized the need for a dough that has a little more elasticity to keep everything together.  I decided to throw all caution to the wind and use the galette dough as pie crust. (I know, super daring, right?)

Okay, so here's the recipe:

1 Cup plus 2 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 heaping T sugar (more or less)
1 cube unsalted butter
1/3 cup sour cream
1 egg yolk 
1 egg white mixed with a little heavy cream, milk or half and half
Mix together flour, salt and sugar in a large bowl.  Cut butter into smallish cubes.
Use a pastry cutter to break the butter into smaller pieces, or, better yet, just use your fingers, working each cube to break them up and squeezing the butter chunks between thumb and fingers into flakes.  You are done when the mixture looks crumbly (about 5 minutes or so).  Many recipes say when the mixture looks like "small peas" - don't get too anal. 
In a separate bowl,  whisk together sour cream and egg yolk.  Drizzle this mixture over flour/butter mixture.  With a fork, combine well.  It will be necessary to get your hands in there and press and combine flour with liquid ingredients to evenly distribute.  You may need to add a little cold water to get all of the flour to stick.  Knead a few strokes to make sure your ball is well mixed.  You will see little chunks of butter throughout.  That is okay and actually good, as this is why your crust will turn out flaky!
Wrap  in plastic and refrigerate for at least a half hour (but can be for days if wrapped tight).  
Flour a pastry cloth, kitchen counter, wooden board or what have you, well.  Flour your rolling pin also.  Begin to roll the dough out, first in all four directions by starting in the middle of the disc and working your way forward and backward, rotating 90 degrees and working your way forward and backward.  In order not to stick, turn dough over, dusting the board with flour in between.  Continue to roll back and forth and turn over (so it doesn't stick) until the dough is about 1/8" thick.   Back in the day, when I was a kid and had a pastry cloth, they used to say to roll the dough out until you could see the writing on the pastry cloth through the dough.  You don't have to go that far!  
Voila, finished.  Simply use a round lid or large biscuit cutter and cut to desired size (bigger than muffin tin opening by 1.5" all around, depending on the depth of your pans).  press into ungreased muffin tins.  Fill all the way up with your filling.
Use any excess dough to make extra shapes for the top.   Whisk together the egg whites and a little cream or milk (a couple of tablespoons).  Using a pastry brush, lightly brush decoration feature and edges of dough.  Bake at 425 for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 for another 30  minutes or until crust is nicely brown and a knife stuck into middle comes out clean.  Served with whipped cream or just straight up!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Ramen Gaijin - Sebastopolian happiness

Last night my close friend E and I had the opportunity to have a quick dinner sans entire family (her entire family that is) which is a rarity.  We had been gardening at her place all day, were famished, and welcomed the chance to go out without sibling rivalry between her 8 and 4 year old boys taking over the entire experience.  Why is one kid easy and the two together a total disciplinary nightmare?  BOYS!  Anyway, she mentioned the newish ramen place downtown, which I had forgotten after having had a disasterous date there with my ex.   What better way to exorcise a bad memory but to create a good one in its place?!   Plus, we were bringing the 4 year old, and noodles always seem to be popular with the kiddos.
Disclaminer:  This blogpost will not contain any original photos of food.  Sometimes I just don't feel like snapping photos at every meal.   Besides, as a restaurant worker, it smells of a possible Yelp review in the making, which reeks (ask anyone).  So as an alternative, I took screen shots of some decent photos from Yelp.  Ha ha - I really don't think I can get into trouble for copyright infringement - but if I do, this blog will be the first to report it!

I stepped into the queue for a table while E and M parked the car.  They said it would be 20 minutes so I asked for the sake list.  I was crestfallen to discover that the sake list was unavailable as their liquor license was in limbo, being reinstated in about a month (no foul here, they  had shared a liquor license with the neighboring place which was no longer in business).  I was a little bummed, but the smells of ramen were wafting my way, and E and I had already had a couple of Aperol Spritzers at her house, so...
Little M likes the phone and can break into my camera without even my password, so he snapped this:
Snapped from my phone by the 4 year old!
I know, super unexciting view of a server putting an order through the POS system.   There are lots of goodies on the menu, Japanese style goodies that is:  Oshitashi - spinach or greens with fish flakes, soy and vinegar.  The version that night had lightly pickled parsnips and carrots with wilted beet greens, furikake and a nice piquant soy-vinegar dressing.  M gobbled it up.  It is always nice to see a little kid gobbling up greens.  He is usually a picky eater!  Next came the Chicken karaage - marinated and fried chicken thigh with a Japanese style ranch dressing - Theirs is really one of the best around.  I mean, who doesn't like good friend chicken.  There is something sublime or dare I say umami-esque about their marinade(buttermilk?) and crunchy shell, not too thick, with just the right amount of spiece.  I could eat two orders of this with a salad and be done, done!  In fact, one of our pieces of chicken was a bit "medium rare" which we pointed out to the manager.  We were already done with the rest of the order, but he brought out another plate of freshly cooked karaage, and they took all of it off the bill. My fantasies about the night were already coming true.
full disclosure, not my photo , but still a pretty tasting looking rendition of the Chicken Karaage
I wasn't really in the mood for ramen, so ordered the Donburi which came very non-traditionally with pork belly, a fried egg, greens, kimchi, and pickled red onion.  
pirated again, this one of the Donburi
The only thing that made this a "Donburi" was the "over rice" portion of the event.  The sauce was a little heavy handed, as not one morsel of rice lay unadorned. The mayo topping sort of put the dish over the top with heaviness, but I did order a rice bowl after all.  That being said, I would definitely order it again, and ask them for sauce on the side.  The kimchee was perfectly spiced, and the flavor of each ingredient was spot on...  Who doesn't like a nice caramelized chunk of pork belly?

E got the Shoyu Ramen, as she was sharing with the tyke, so couldn't order the spicier version, or Tan Tan Ramen.  They did a solid on the ramen that night, as the kid could not get enough of those noodles.  I need to learn how to make that perfect 6 minute egg, the one where the yolk is still a little runny.
pirated ramen photo, probably the Tan Tan spicy ramen judging from the broth
I'm not sure where they get their noodles, probably the famous ramen factory in San Jose (seriously, there is a ramen factory in San Jose) - but they are nicely bouncy, and the broth, well the photo says it all - they know their broth at this place.  I appreciate it being little lighter, less oily than some.  I love the fatty broth, don't get me wrong (see my previous blogposts), but it is nice to not be inundated sometimes.   We were happy, so I let the boy use the phone again
Author, happy and full!
Considering it was Friday night, 6:30 pm and there was a queue, I would say that Sebastopolians are pretty okay with a restaurant without booze.   I'll be back in 30 days though, as I like my sake (and will probably be waiting much longer for a table), but this place is just fine without it!
Happy camper!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

La Croqueta - a little slice of Espana in my kitchen today

In between planning and managing private events and parties, I'm not one to sit down - unless of course it's to pound out a blog post because of something I ate or am about to eat or am inspired to cook then eat, or...   A day doing nothing is rare and that's perfect in my book.  So today, after a busy couple of weeks of smooth flowing, successful weddings and parties, I found myself in Whole Foods getting my weekly basics, and was hoping to additionally find a bit of fodder for my keyboard, as it had been over a week since I had written anything and was pretty much jonesing.  I tried to write a few days back, as I had taken an epic 3-hour hike on the East Ridge Trail in Armstrong Woods, a little slice of redwood paradise about 45 minutes north of me (and a couple of miles outside of Guerneville, CA), but the dry and tasteless brisket I tried to devour at a local restaurant afterward was just "so so," and as you may have noticed, I don't like to write negative restaurant reviews, so...

I knew I had potatoes in the pantry at home and thought, "Hmmmm, some sort of Japanese style croquette sounds pretty good...," basically mashed potatoes, meat or veggies, formed into a patty, coated in Panko bread crumbs, shallow fried then served with Tonkatsu sauce.   The Japanese call them Korokke, which, if you sound it out, is: Ko -roke-que (as in que pasa or que sera, sera).  It is interesting and sometimes sort of funny how the Japanese adapt an English term to their language, phonetically pronouncing it by how the word looks and sounds to their ears.   I.e. que is like saying the letter "k" and the ending of the adapted word often has an "eh" on the end.  Am I getting too off track?  Probably. Do I know the ins and outs of how the Japanese adapt English etymology?  No, definitely not.  However, just believe me that they call it a "korokke" and that when they say it, it sounds like they are trying to say croquette but can't figure out how to do the ette part.  I realize I'm on a tangent (who, me???), made even funnier because the Korokke isn't even what I ended up making, but it got my brain working along those lines. Crunchy, coated goodness was on my inner menu, and as one thought lead to another in this food oriented little brain of mine,  another style of croquette quickly followed: the Spanish style "Croqueta," traditionally made with chicken (and sometimes ham) in a creamy sauce and coated in breadcrumbs and fried.   A perfect crunchy bit of creamy deliciousness to go along with a beer, a nice glass of Sangria or a more serious cocktail.   Croquetas de Pollo make a regular appearance in tapas bars all over the world.  My Brazilian friend, M, swears they originated in San Paolo, but then again, he thinks everything good is from Brazil (and is often correct).  As I pondered this thought, I remembered it was his birthday just yesterday (my mind has a way of working  in organized randomness) so took it as a sign that Croquetas de Pollo were going to be my dish for the day.

I had never made Croquetas de Pollo before, but took it as an additional sign I  was on the right track when I mentioned them to my sister and she said, "oh, don't you remember Mom's super delicious turkey croquettes?" What!!??  My Mother was a Julia Childs and Graham Kerr fan (and by default, so was I) and she was also the "Queen of the Leftover" - as she had to feed 6 children, a husband and sometimes a great uncle on the mindset of a depression era childhood.  Leftovers were a regular appearance several times a week on our suppertime table.  Turkey croquettes?? okay, they are sort of coming back to me now. ( Oh my!  Can i get to the topic of this blogpost already? you may be wondering?!)  Again though, this is how I come up with stuff, taste bud memory, leading to taste bud memory, leading me down a path to a dish that practically invents itself.

Okay, so, back to my kitchen and today's recipe.  The best ones I recently had were at Bravas Bar de Tapas in Healdsburg  (, a little gem tucked away from the square serving craft cocktails, the requisite sangria (red or white) and a pretty authentic menu. Theirs are bite-sized and served in a little cone, sprinkled with salt, and oozing with creamy goodness: Jamon Serrano, chicken and gruyere cheese.  They are addictive.

As often is the case with a dish I've never made before , I browsed online to find a recipe that sounded like it was going to produce the taste and texture I wanted.  It isn't unusual for me to look at several recipes and combine them, adjusting for personal taste but looking for commonalities between their techniques and ingredient proportions.  The recipe I used as my base is on one of my favorite websites:  http:\\  The founder used to work for Cook's Illustrated and I find their food research and recipes pretty spot-on (not to mention, the writing is good).  It is a pretty basic recipe combining chopped chicken with a thick onion studded Bechamel sauce, forming them into little two bite sized nuggets, using a standard breading, then shallow frying.  That's pretty much the long and short of it.  I'm outlining my version of their recipe below, as I adjusted some things for my personal taste, always encouraging you to do so, to trust your instincts.  The more you do it, the more cooking won't seem like a daunting task and may possibly transform you into an inspired food freak like myself!

Because I'm a super geek, I actually own the perfect trio of "breading pans" for the 3 pan method: flour-egg-breadcrumbs.  I picked them up for probably less than $10 in an Asian restaurant supply store in SF.  I'm always silently congratulating myself every time I whip them out, because seriously, how many people do you know that have special trays for their 3-pan coating system?  Yeah, I didn't think so.

flour, egg, breadcrumb - in that order

You'll notice here that the photo shows regular breadcrumbs (at the far end).  You can use those or Panko bread crumbs.  I actually changed my mind after this photo and opted for panko as you will see in future photos - it made the texture a bit more crunchy.   The most important thing about breading is to do in the same order each time: Coat with flour, dip in egg (or gently roll in egg), then roll in Panko (or regular breadcrumbs).   Don't manhandle these things, as they will fall apart easily.  Take your time.

Here's the recipe I adapted:

1 boneless/skinless chicken breast (yields approx 1 cup cooked, diced chicken)
1-2 T olive oil for sauteeing
1/2 cup cooked chopped sausage, ham, chorizo - your choice
6 T butter
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped fine
2/3 cup A/P flour
2 cups milk (or substitute unsweetened non-dairy beverage)
a few pinches of salt (used here and there)
1 tsp nutmeg (used on chicken and then the rest in the mixture)
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper

for breading
2 eggs whisked with 1/4 cup of water
2 cups (give or take) Panko or other breadcrumbs
1 cup A/P Flour

2 cups or more oil for frying (Canola, Peanut or Mild Olive Oil)

Basic ingredients:
I just happened upon this in my freezer - but ham is the traditional

Fresh nutmeg is preferred but I was out, so...

chicken breast seasoned with salt and nutmeg

onion with root left on for easy chopping 

cooked chicken and sausage, ready to go
I actually had some leftover chinese sausage in the freezer, but ham or chorizo or any cured pork product will do.  The spanish would use straight up ham.  I didn't bother to buy any,  so I scoured my freezer for some sort of pork product, defrosted one link and chopped it up pretty fine.  I seasoned the chicken breast with salt and ground nutmeg and sauteed it, covered,  on medium low until cooked through (approx. 5 minutes each side) - be careful not to brown it too much, as you want the texture to be tender and not caramelized.  After letting it rest for 5 minutes, I chopped it into 1/2" cubes and set that and the sausage aside.  (You can use leftover chicken for this, no need to cook up a fresh breast)

For the main component of this dish you will be making an onion-white sauce, or, to get technical, a Soubise.  White sauce, better known as Bechamel, is the foundation for many other sauces and involves simply butter and flour (cooked together to make a "roux") and added milk.  Knowing how to make a decent white sauce is super easy and the foundation for great classics, most commonly Mornay, or Cheese sauce.  So, for your Soubise:  Melt the butter on medium heat and add finely chopped onions.  Cook until translucent (but again, not browned) - about 10 minutes.
onions sauteed until translucent but not browned
Something I can't stand about recipes is that they don't seem to ever turn out as good as you want them to.  Part of the problem is little tricks and asides are often not written in.  So, in an effort to not do that here - why wouldn't you want to go ahead and melt the butter/saute the onions in the same pan you pulled the chicken from, chicken bits, drippings and seasonings included?  You should!  

While your onions are cooking, heat milk in a saucepan over low heat.  Add a little crack of pepper and a pinch of nutmeg.  You just want the milk hot, not boiled or scalded.  

After onions are finished, sift 1/3 cup of flour into butter/onion mixture.  Stir well (keeping heat on low).  Add the 2nd 1/3 cup of flour.  Stir well.  Mixture will be quite lumpy.  Cook and stir around for about 2 more minutes.  Add hot milk and with a whisk in hand, continue to stir and dissolve the flour/butter mixture for about 3-5 more minutes.  The mixture will be thick and paste-y by this time, the only lumps being from the onion chunks.  (Incidentally, this is much more flour one would use for a classic white sauce, but remember, we are making croquettes so we need it to be thick).  Also incidentally, the technique of making a sauce out of fat and flour and liquid is the foundation for most gravies:  Meat drippings = fat, flour = well, flour, and broth or stock = liquid, just thought I'd tangent here for a second...
the "roux" before hot milk is added
Thick Soubise sauce, lumpy from onion bits

sauce plus chicken, to be gently combined

Remove mixture from heat and gently fold in the sausage and chicken.  Taste and season with salt if needed.  Get creative.  You could add some chile for a zing at this point, or just leave simple as is.

Spread mixture onto a baking sheet (that has been sprayed with a little non-stick spray) and put into refrigerator for 15-30 minutes to cool and firm up (it won't take long).  After cooling, add 3/4-1 inch oil (I use canola - as I buy it in gallons from Costco for this purpose, but a mild olive oil would work) to a heavy bottomed straight sided pan (cast iron even better).  Heat oil to about 350 F. While oil is heating you will be breading your croquettes.  Stay with me, you are almost done!

Pinch off and form croquettes into meatball size balls.  They don't roll like meatballs, as there are no protein fibers holding them together.  Gently keep them pinched together.  Using your three pan method, roll in flour, then egg (be sure to coat all surfaces, then panko (or regular) breadcrumbs.
egg wash after rolling in flour
Coat in panko, sprinking it over at first to create a non-stick surface
Have a plate or clean baking sheet handy to put all your ready to fry croquettes on.  Line a dish or pan with paper towels or something absorbent to place your finished croquettes on after they come out of the fryer.  I use a candy thermometer to check my oil for temperature.  Most people don't have one of those laying around.  To test for temperature, throw a few breadcrumbs in the hot oil.  If they immediately float and start frying, you are probably ready.  To be sure, try one or two croquettes and they should start to fry immediately.  Flip them over halfway through to get browned on other side.  
First side then second - Almost done!
Remember, the inside of these doesn't contain raw ingredient, so you are really only looking to brown them well and heat them through.  Be sure to sprinkle with salt while hot and serve immediately!
Open a cold beer and enjoy these tasty little bites!  Be the hit of your next cocktail party.  Hell, make a pitcher of Sangria (easiest thing ever, but for another post!) and wow all of your friends!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

An attempt at imitation: the O Chame' Pancake

Green Onion, Corn and Hijiki Seaweed Pancake
Sometimes you just get a craving.  I've been spending so much time at home lately, every day it seems a new dish pops into the "must eat now" part of my brain.  That happened the other day - a cold and dreary one - my car practically drove itself up to Hana Japanese in Rohnert Park for their amazing Tonkotsu Ramen.  If you haven't been, please make it a destination.  They only serve the Ramen at lunch - and it is ridiculously delicious - sticky rich pork broth, wakame and nori seaweeds,
spinach, bamboo shoots, one of those perfectly cooked eggs, and of course, succulent kurobuta pork belly.  The funny thing is they don't even specialize in Ramen, but are known for their amazingly fresh sushi and sashimi.  Hana is truly my favorite Japanese restaurant north of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Did I mention to make a special trip?   Don't be put off by the fact they are in a strip mall behind a Mary's Pizza Shack and next to a variety of non-descript real estate and investment offices.  They just expanded, pretty much doubling in size, adding a beautiful sake bar, lounge and private dining room.  Did I mention you should go to Hana?
Notice the fat globules floating on the broth?    Some of you think I'm crazy, but eating fat is underrated.  What do you think every cell wall in your body is made up of?  Two layers of lipids.  That lipid "bi-layer" as they call it, monitors and controls all the molecules going in and out of our cells. That lipid bilayer needs to be on its game in order to keep the bad stuff out, and let the good stuff in.  So,  don't be afraid of some honest to goodness high quality lipids!

Okay, so onto the real reason for this post.  Apparently my trip to Hana inspired a little Japanese-esque tangent and I began dreaming about my other all time favorite Japanese Restaurant:  O Chame'.  O Chame' (formerly in Berkeley) closed about a year or two ago, much to everyone's sad surprise, and right after Chef David Vardy received yet another gold star by SF Chronicle's food critic Michael Bauer by making the Bay Area Top 100 Restaurants for perhaps the 10th year in a row (or possibly more!).  O Chame' was open for over 20 years though, so I'm sure David needed a break and why not exit at the top of one's game?

Anyway, of the many, many delicious items on the menu, especially memorable were the appetizers.  Remember the Grilled Eel on Belgian Endive?  Or, the Sashimi Salad with just the perfect amount of dressing.  How about the Blanched Spinach with Sesame Dressing, the Cucumbers with Wakame, the Seared Tuna on wilted leeks with a drizzle of horseradish studded mayo?  Oh no, I feel another craving coming on...
There was one appetizer though, one that kept every kid (and parent) within 10 miles of O Chame' coming back for more:  The White Corn and Green Onion Pancake.  With it's piquant dipping sauce (an elegant mixture of mayonnaise, soy, vinegar and mirin) and light crunch,  there was practically no table in the place that didn't order one.  Rumor is that David's wife, Hiromi, whipped up one of these at home late one night (or early one day?) - tossing in this and that from the refrigerator.  The most memorable dishes often come about in interesting ways...
David changed up the pancake seasonally, doing one with pumpkin in the fall and winter, portobella mushrooms in the spring, and corn in the summer.  Way back at the beginning, the original pancake on the menu was white shrimp and green onion (can still taste it...).  Sometimes we would talk the kitchen into making one with crab (oh, I guess that was just for us employees - did I mention I worked there?).
Anyway, a few times a year i decide I need some of David's food, so I channel the O Chame' kitchen - thinking of Yuji-san, Juan, Saul(not jewish Saul, but Sa-UL - he is from Oaxaca) and even Raju (blast from the past).  Yesterday, I definitely channeled Saul as I remember him lifting the pancake edges from the griddle, adding a little more oil, giving it a little spin...  When it wasn't busy in the front of the house, I spent a fair amount of time with my head stuck through that little window near the bar, watching, asking questions, tasting things.
I digress.  So yesterday the pancake popped into my head.  Had to have it.  The ingredients are pretty simple - David always said it was just flour and beer as the base.  We know there is more to it than that, so I decided to google "savory pancake."  I found an article written by Amanda Gold of the SF Chronicle with a recipe by Stuart Brioza (  Incidentally, before Stuart and his amazing wife, Nicole, opened their very popular State Bird Provisions in the City, I actually had the pleasure of working a few parties with them as their server.  Top notch people I tell you.  And Nicole made the most amazing home-made crackers I have ever tasted.
Okay, back to the pancake.  I sort of used Stuart's recipe as my guide, but altered a few things.  I may not have hit David's recipe on the head, as he used Guisto's Vita Grain Flour (which I didn't have at home) - all flours aren't created equal and I imagine the Vita Grain flour probably has a higher protein content (i.e. less gluten) and therefore made for a less glutenous end product.  However, what I did come up with was pretty good, so good that I had to make it again the next day.  Plus my friend Linda sort of mildly double dared me to post my results (it didn't take much nudging) - which meant I really had to make it again to give you the proper measurements and proportions.  Here it is:

Pancake Batter Base:
1.5 cup  AP Flour
1.5 tsp Baking Powder
1.5 tsp Kosher Salt
1.5 cup beer - lager, non-hoppy, light beer
1 cup water
1 egg

Additions to batter (per pancake)
3-4 Tbsp raw white corn
1 heaping Tbsp chopped green onion
1 Tbsp chopped hijiki seaweed (optional)

4 Tbsp Mayonnaise (Best Foods)
1 Tbsp Rice Vinegar
2 tsp Tamari (or low sodium soy sauce)
1 Tbsp Mirin (sweet cooking sake)
1/2 tsp ground ginger (optional)
a sprinkle of shichimi togarashi to garnish

Make sauce by combining all ingredients and whisking together well.  Store in refrigerator until ready to use -  shichimi togarashi is a japanese pepper mix commonly served with soba and udon noodles to spice up the broth.  It is the mix you see on the table that has the random hemp seed in it.

Prepare additions to batter so they are ready when the batter is ready to go.  The hijiki seaweed isn't 100% necessary - as the end product will be just fine without it - but you  may have to go to the asian market anyway, so you may as well pick some up - it comes dried, so lasts a long time well sealed in a dark cupboard.

For the batter, in a medium sized mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt.  Mix together well.

In a separate bowl combine water, beer and egg.  Whisk together.  Pour into dry ingredients and lightly whisk together.  Don't overmix - a few lumps are okay.  The batter should be the consistency of regular pancake batter - not too thick.

In a small mixing bowl, combine about 1/2 - 3/4 cup of batter with enough ingredients for one pancake (below)

Gently combine these ingredients
Heat a cast iron skillet or a griddle on medium heat until oil almost smokes.  I use olive oil but feel free to use peanut oil or even canola oil.

Pour batter as one would a pancake, immediately spreading ingredients with a spatula so the middle isn't too thick.

Lift edges and add a little oil, the pan should be hot enough that the oil sort of "slides around" instead of just pooling.
Spin the pancake around a bit to make sure nothing is sticking.  Turn over when first side is golden brown (about 4 or 5 minutes).  Add a little more oil underneath and cook another 4 or 5 minutes until the second side is golden brown.

Slice into squares and serve along side the dipping sauce.

This version turned out a little more like the chinese version of the scallion pancake, a little more glutenous than I would have liked, and it picked up more of the oil than I remember. I believe the key really is the flour.  Nonetheless, it was super delicious!   I sprinkled a little shichimi on my sauce (not how we served it to the customers by the way) and was instantly transported to many sweet times and memories.  Funny how good food can do that!  Please try this recipe and give me feedback.  Mess with flour and liquid proportions.  Add some shrimp!   Enjoy!