Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Review of Chuck's of Hawaii Steakhouse: Dead Men Tell No Tales

"Yo ho ho, a foodie's life for me," I always say. And this being the Summer of Tiki, we started off with what I thought was a brilliant plan. Dress like pirates, go to the movie theater for the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, and then off to Chuck's of Hawaii Steakhouse for Tiki fare. After all, what goes better with pirates than a tropical beverage?

On the topic of Jack Sparrow: Adoration for the first movie would be a slender word to capture my feelings. But since then, the franchise has done what franchises do: grown a bit over-inflated, hard to follow, and gentrified. Why is it that the characters so often become caricatures of themselves after the first movie? Nonetheless, pirates have a heady allure, and I put on my best Jack Sparrow head scarf...which I crocheted, beaded, and hot glued for the occasion...because I am daft as Captain Jack himself, although armed with a crochet hook instead of a bottle of rum.

Popcorned, red-vined, slurpeed, and seated next to Captain FLOF and her consort, the music swelled, the curtain rolled aside...and we sat through 2.5 hours of fairly incomprehensible plot (we're smart cookies, but this convoluted whale of a tale had almost no rhyme or reason) and a slurring Johnny Depp. The essence of Jack Sparrow is dialogue that is irreverent, quirky, and funny. That's the whole point. He's a PIRATE. Pirates are rock n' roll on a galleon; they're bad, bad boys (and girls) who are out for plunder, rum, and a party. To wit, Keith Richards has on occasion played Jack Sparrow's father to great effect. This movie? They got Paul McCartney to dress up as a pirate...and that, I think, is the final nail in the coffin of ol' Jack. Because he pretty much stumbles through this movie with no reason to be there (see previous point about lack of a plot), Captain Barbosa has a Christ-like turn of character that is mystifying, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann have leaden cameos, and the two young leads are adrift in a water-logged shipwreck of confusion. Oh, and Joachim Bardem, an actor I otherwise adore, staggers through the film with his head enlarged by special effects, so that it is bulging at you through the screen, as he tries to eke some smidgen of character out of the dialogue. He doesn't even have a sword fight with Captain Jack (in fact, Captain Jack wields no sword in this movie at all).

But still, there were some great visuals, jaunty music, and once or twice I laughed. Once or twice. OKAY, FINE, I frickin hated it! Ta, Jerry Bruckheimer, ta very much for killing one of film's most beloved characters by smothering him with pg-friendly mediocrity. Why in the blazes would you give Jack Sparrow to a pair of directors who can claim Kon-Tiki and Max Manus as their big feature films and a writer who had his finger in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull? Were you *trying* to keelhaul the film? Were you *trying* to double-cross and strand this movie on a desert island? If so...well, I suppose that's very piratey of you. But a misfortune for the 77 million suckers who handed their doubloons over on opening weekend.

Still, I did not feel the day was lost. After all, we had Chuck's Hawaiian Steakhouse ahead of us, reportedly a tropical Tiki kind of place with a long history in Santa Barbara.

But the minute we stepped into the darkened restaurant, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. There is nothing tropical, nothing Tiki, and nothing appetizing about Chuck’s. It is Sizzler with bad lighting, and worse food and no unlimited shrimp. The Mai-tai is the only drink on the menu that is tropical, and it tasted like Captain Jack Sparrow drank a bottle of rum and then pissed into a Mai-tai glass. Yes. IT WAS THAT BAD.

The salad bar, given so many glowing reviews online, turned out to be something that I would expect to find in a hospital cafeteria circa 1954. With basic toppings, a steaming drawer of smooshed bread, a huge bin of butter slices crammed together, and little else to recommend it, I started to have a sinking feeling about the entrees.

The scallops were tough, the steak was rubbery, and the Hawaiian chicken was picked at and then left half-eaten alongside a clump of sticky teriyaki rice. The grilled artichoke came with mayonnaise that was so nostril-burning with raw garlic that I dipped only modestly. And for me, the world's biggest mayo fan, to dip modestly means that catastrophe has descended on the sweet, peaceful valley of Sauceland. If the leftovers are so bad that you decide not to take them home to give to the dog, then you have landed in the restaurant equivalent of Davy Jones' Locker. It was, I do not jest, one of the worst eating experiences I've had in Santa Barbara, in no small part because the bill was eye-stabbingly painful. I can eat in a dive, if I am paying $10 for dinner. But we limped out of there for about $36 each.

I suppose the moral of the story is that if the napkin feels the need to inform you that it is an award-winning restaurant, you really should run in the opposite direction. Run to the amazing retro salad bar at Rusty’s. Run to Paradise Cafe and order the grilled artichoke. Just run any which way but back to Chuck's, because that is one Bermuda Triangle you do not want to be lost in.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Teacup Full of Bluebberries: Blueberry Baking Marathon!

“You ought to have seen what I saw on my way 
To the village, through Mortenson’s pasture to-day: 
Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb, 
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum 
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come! 
And all ripe together, not some of them green 
And some of them ripe! You ought to have seen!”
-From Blueberries by Robert Frost

I visited Robert Frost's home once, and from the profusion of apple trees he tended there, felt confident he was my kind of fellow, and certainly someone appreciative of berry picking. Now his poem confirms it! Blueberry fever took over this last week, with blueberry picking, and then an entire blueberry-baking afternoon.

Long ago and far away, when I first was living in Boston, I discovered the Hi-Rise Bakery, and among their many treasures, became enamored (obsessed, unhinged...) over their blueberry lime muffins. I ate one as often as my week allowed. I assumed they would exist in perpetuity...blueberry lime muffins 365-24-7. So I just about had a breakdown the day I walked to the counter and was informed that the blueberries were done for the year, so I'd have to wait until next year for the muffins. It was rather shocking to me that blueberries don't grow year round. The Hi-Rise is still in Boston, still making beautiful baked goods and I do recommend a visit. Ever since I moved away from Boston, I've been looking and longing for that same flavor. And I'm not the only one. In deciding what to make with the blueberry haul, I found quite a few blueberry-lime recipes, but decided to go with a pound cake from the novice chef blog.

The First Lady of Frosting (FLOF) and I prepared for battle by drinking stiff ice tea lattes and then dove in. The blueberry-lime pound cake with cream cheese frosting mixed together quickly, but I underestimated how many limes would be needed to make 2 tablespoons of lime zest (one for each cake). With six limes, we had a scant half tablespoon among both. But at the time, it smelled so fragrant that I assumed it would be plenty. Folding in the blueberries to the batter was the most gratifying part (well, they are edible blue marbles and just look a little more exotic and jewel-like than raisins or chocolate chips). The scent as they baked was narcotic. And with cream cheese frosting, I was prepared for nirvana. Well, it turns out, blueberries and lime zest, especially a quarter of the amount recommended, make for a very delicate flavor. So I was not bowled over with taste. The cream cheese frosting really saves it though, and I have no doubt every last crumb will be consumed. But next year, I will use a ton of lime zest, even if I have to haul home an entire tree's worth and I will add more blueberries and more sugar (it is not a super sweet cake...if that's your preference then follow the recipe, which is here).

Our next bold move (because you can't have *just* cake) was blueberry cookies from the recipe critic (recipe here). Although there was a point at which the batter looked as if it had curdled (presumably from the lemon juice), it came out just a little denser than your average chocolate-chip cookie dough. They took longer to bake than we expected, but it could be that the FLOF's stove outwitted me again and the oven was under-temperature when we put them in. They came out looking a bit like scones, and at first I feared they might be too wodgy (this is an official term, and if you eat enough British baked goods, you will begin to use it too). We didn't have enough cream cheese to make the frosting from this recipe, so we used some of the frosting from the pound cake. And I have to say, once these sat in the fridge for a few hours, they were heavenly with a glass of cold milk. I inhaled them. They are gone. In the blink of an eye. Kaput. No more till next year, baby doll!

But I will say that the flavor is rather mild, even though we put in the required amount of lemon zest and far more vanilla than was called for. I'm not sure what happens during baking that all that blueberriness goes from a burst of flavor to a subtle hint of berry. A conundrum to ponder until next year, when the blueberry patch is bursting again. So ends a spectacular blueberry-baking jag!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Santa Barbara Blueberries: Blueberry-Picking Adventures in the Wilds of Buellton

Blueberries, ah blueberries...was there ever a more perfect invention? My childhood awareness of them began with that most tender, well-acted, and sophisticated of movie scenes: Violet Beauregarde, unrepentant gum chewer, turning into a human blueberry and being rolled away by Oompa Loompas. I didn't chew gum for a year after I saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but it didn't do anything to dim my affection for blueberries. In fact, I wondered if Violet Blueberry Beauregarde wouldn't make a rather fantastic blueberry pie! But cannibalistic fruit fantasy aside, I've always loved blueberries.

So, it was with unhinged but still-socially-acceptable excitement that I said yes to the FLOF's invitation to go blueberry picking in Buellton. The "Blubaru" was packed three-to-a-seat with blueberry fiends, and off we went into the wilds of Buellton, a rural part of Santa Ynez. A few years ago, I accidentally took the turnoff to Buellton on my way to Santa Barbara. For those who have traveled south on the 101, you will recognize the giant billboard that says "Buellton, home of split pea soup." But driving down the rural main street, desperately needing to take a pit stop, there were only a few run-down shops, and they looked like the beginning of a horror know, where the college kids stop in the country for gas and end up chased by an evil clown with a chainsaw. There was not even a Starbucks to save the situation. I rolled up the windows and jetted out of there as quickly as possible. But suffice it to say that on this latest visit, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Buellton now boasts a Panda Express, Chipotle, and even a Hamburger Habit (although it IS right next to a tractor supply store).

This was taken *after* everyone picked their berries and went to stand in line!

And not too far from the newly retooled downtown Buellton is Santa Barbara Blueberries, a few acres of blueberry bushes nestled in rolling golden hills and little shrubby oak trees. This is a Mom n' Pop place that grows blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, depending on what time of the summer it is. Their website claims that on a good day, you can pick 2.5 pounds in 15 minutes. That being the approximate amount of blueberries that will fit in one of the metal pails they give you.

We'd received the secret blueberry missive that there would be a special opening, just for "Berry VIPs" to enjoy a bounty of juicy berries before everyone else descended on the patch. And I'm sure that all of this might have played out that way...if it were not also Mother's Day…when half of Santa Barbara County came with their children to celebrate the occasion. By the time we pulled in, they'd had to open the second "parking lot" (it’s a field...don't come expecting a smooth walking surface). It took about two hours for me to fill my pail. Possibly I dallied. Possibly I ate about ten pounds of blueberries straight off the bush as I picked. Or more probably it is true that the hundred people there before me had already picked the ripe ones. So although I had some very edible, mid-sized blueberries, it was not the zaftig extravaganza I'd expected.

There were toddlers melting down from too much excitement. And there were bugs. Big ones. And I was wearing flip-flops. A spider even leaped on my finger as I picked a blueberry, causing me to shriek and hop up and down like an elephant that has spotted a mouse. For the last half hour, determined to fill the pail, I soldiered past sparse bushes, convinced I had a brown spider bite on my finger or was about to be attacked by rattlesnakes (well, there were holes in the ground...How do I know what lives in there?) But at last the pail was full (confession: the FLOF had to donate some of her berries to my bucket). Like a mirage on the horizon, I saw the berry shack where we would pay $20 for each pail. As I got closer, I realized that about twenty other people had beat us to the cash register, and the couple that run the farm looked like Armageddon was upon them. This was clearly the most people that had ever visited the berry patch at one time.

Still, even with the long wait, even with the spider sneak-attacks and toddler meltdowns (you tell me which is worse), I have to say I enjoyed the day immensely. The farm is beautiful, some cows may or may not wander by and moo at you, and there is something very satisfying in picking fruit that you are going to eat. I got back in the Blubaru feeling like a valiant blueberry warrior with my 2.5 pounds of blueberries that will become blueberry desserts very shortly.

To summarize, I recommend that you go…any other day of the year except Mother’s Day!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Tiki Tiki Hula Hula: A Short History of Tiki!


I'm a little excited about this one....wait for it, wait for it....drum roll...The summer of 2017 is officially declared the Summer of Tiki here at Silver Webb's Salon! I love a theme foodie jag. And what could be better than summer spent with a glass in hand decorated with a little paper umbrella and a cherry-pineapple garnish? Possibly while sitting by the pool? Possibly while nibbling on a cream-cheese Rangoon? When I start thinking about it, I cannot help but jiggle with excitement and sing, "Tiki Tiki Hula Hula!"

So, for those wondering what in the world Tiki is, here is a short history. Tiki is the Hollywood imagining of Polynesian culture, translated to a restaurant or bar or party. Polynesia covers everything from Hawaii to New Zealand to Samoa and the Cook Islands. Each of those places has its own rich history, its own important customs and cultures and religious beliefs. I am fairly confident that absolutely none of those things are meaningfully present in the American creation of Tiki as a party theme.

"Tiki" is a name from the Maori people for the first person to exist (kind of like Adam in the Christian tradition). Each pocket of Polynesia has a variant on this story. "Tiki" is also the word for a wood carving of a face, which represents the ancestors. So, to enjoy a California Tiki party, you must first make peace with the fact that your plastic Tiki glasses have taken something potentially very sacred to the Polynesian culture and made it the vehicle for a tasty drink.

It is the same with hula girls as a motif. If you've ever seen a real hula dancer at work, telling you the story and myths of Hawaii with beautiful hand and body gestures, you will not find anything kitschy about an amazing art form performed by women (and men) who are intensely powerful and athletic. And yet...and yet, I am a sucker for those 1950s post cards of bombshell hula girls in coconut bras swaying in front of palm trees. And I adore the fierce expressions of a Tiki carving...are they grimacing, shouting, smiling, laughing? That is their own mystery to know!

By all accounts (AKA Wikipedia), Don the Beachcomber first opened a Polynesian-themed bar in Hollywood in 1934, sparking a craze for what was then considered an "exotic" part of the world. People were just starting to consider Hawaii a vacation destination, and Southeast Asia was still robed in mystery (there was no Internet filled with travel blogs, keep in mind). So when Don decided to serve Cantonese food with rum cocktails by the beach, Hollywood stars flocked to partake. Trader Vic's soon opened in San Francisco and bloomed into a nationwide franchise. Its owner claims to have invented that most important of Tiki drinks, the Mai-Tai.

By the time WWII rolled around, and quite a few people had been deployed to the South Pacific, there was a renewed interest in Polynesian culture, and it became a common theme for decoration. In 1958, you might well have moved into an apartment building done completely in "Polynesian" style. Or if you watch an episode of Gilligan's Island, you are partaking in 1950s Polynesian exotica. Although Tiki never went away, it certainly did not shine all that brightly in the 80s and 90s. Recently it has enjoyed a revival in the U.S., with the reigns taken by cocktail hipsters who want to serve you a legit Mai-tai or Zombie or Fog Cutter.

Personally, I feel a Tiki party is good-hearted fun, and an awesome Tiki bar should make you feel like Captain Jack Sparrow might sit down and order a Singapore Sling, while Elvis croons Rock-A-Hula Baby in the corner. So, with due respect for those cultures that inspired the Tiki craze, and with a healthy dose of humor thrown in, we proceed madly into the fray of the Summer of Tiki!

I'll be reviewing SoCal Tiki spots, reading a few books about Tiki, upping my cocktail game, and hosting a Tiki Tea with the First Lady of Frosting (I predict a pineapple upside-down cake is soon to be in the works!). So stay tuned and Tiki Tiki Hula Hula!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

It's a Tuscan Easter! Wine Cake from the Tuscan Sun Cookbook

Happy Easter! Or as they say in Italy, Buona Pasqua! As this is Tuscan Month here at Silver Webb's Salon, I spent many gratifying moments contemplating the dessert section in Frances Mayes's Tuscan Sun Cookbook, which I've been cooking from this month. The dessert section is not all that packed, perhaps because, as Frances says, Tuscans are not big on sugary deserts and mainly prefer fruity-based desserts like peaches with almond cream or fig & walnut tart. I wouldn't say no to either of those, but for me, Easter means sweet treats in quantity. So I picked "Massimo and Daniela's Wine Cake."

The ingredients to the Wine Cake seemed delightfully indulgent to me. Ricotta cheese, eggs, a lot of butter, a little flour, and then a swig of Vin Santo wine...okay, I don't have Vin Santo, so I used Italian elder flower liqueur instead. It came together rather quickly, and into the oven it went for thirty minutes...okay, it took forty-five, which is fifteen minutes longer than the recipe suggested, and I became nervous as the edges browned like a pancake. But in fact, the entire outside of the cake is quite brown (it looks like chocolate in the photos, but there is none in it). The inside was quite eggy, the cake texture intensely moist but very light. The crumb was so saturated with butter that it almost looked greasy in places, and the pine nuts gave a "masculine" slant to an otherwise delicate cake. The elder flower liqueur gave it a floral cloud that I didn't dislike. I am still not clear why one side of the cake sank and the other didn''s not like I drop-kicked the pan.

Unlike the Tuscans, who I am pretty sure would eat this with nothing but a glass of wine, I doused mine in glaze made with confectioner's sugar and elder flower liqueur, then laid on a blanket of Easter candy! Then I went a step further and made a kinda-sorta version of the cookbook's "Cherries Steeped in Red Wine." Cherries are not in season now, and so I settled for a bottle of Morello cherries in juice. I tasted one straight out of the bottle and was underwhelmed. So I soaked them in sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and a good glug of wine. They were passable. Nothing to make the Easter Bunny fluff his tail and dance a jig. However, I found that with cake and ice cream, I could bear the cherries rather well, indeed.

I will make this cake again when I have Vin Santo, and I'll try the cherries in wine when I have some juicy cherries from farmer's market. In the meantime, Happy Easter and buon appetito!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Hurricane Frances: A review of "Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life"

If you love the Tuscan Sun series, avert your eyes, go back to your glass of wine, and carry on with celebrating the grand panorama of life. Do not read further unless you can relate to a cranky writer having an allergic reaction to a good idea that went bad. This, then, is my review of Every Day in Tuscany, a book by Frances Mayes.

First, let me say that Frances is a talented writer and a good poet. Her turns of phrase are often quite charming and interesting. Of garlic, she says, "How tightly the papery crescent moons fit together to form a neat miniature mosque dome." And she describes Vin Santo as "Thanksgiving afternoon by the fire, a cashmere throw over my legs, lines of a poem running through my head." And she has some good one-liners, like "Love, I know, spares you nothing" and "Though not built in a day, Rome can be absorbed in a few hours: buildings, ruins, streets, the sound of bells, colors imprinting forever inside the mind of the blissful observer." And my favorite, "If you are dead in Italy, you are not as dead as you could be."

But when tasked with sticking to a time continuum and a plot, a poet will often fall short. And this book is dizzyingly painful in the way it switches from past to present, the American South to Italy, from one family to another who show up for a dinner and never appear again, from one vacation to another, from her main house to her mountain house. I can hardly tell from one page to the next where I am or how I should find meaning in a life that is over-saturated with detail and underfunded in emotional impetus. I realize she is not trying to write a novel. But the recounting of a year's life must have some rhyme and reason to it. If it doesn't, a good editor will find a way to make it so.

Here is an account of my increasing frustration as Hurricane Frances hit town:

One page 40, after the retelling of a baffling dream, buying a second cottage, meanderings about a painter, cappuccino in the piazza, trying a new liqueur, a recipe for ravioli, a description of getting into bed, a rainy day, ruminations about Florence, a wine tasting, a day trip to Urbino, and a drive to Loreto, I felt vaguely dizzy.

On page 60, after more scenes of art, rain, kale soup, how to iron clothes with your hands (yes, really), and a paragraph about repairing terracotta pots, my eyelid began twitching.

On page 72, after hinting that she's decided to write about something awful that shook her sense of well-being, I wrote in the margin, "Is this what the book is about? It's page 72, people!"

On page 78, after it is revealed that the big trauma she alluded to is, in fact, not much of a trauma, but rather a skirmish with a local who she has angered, she says of the police officers who came, "I can't help but notice how sharp they look in their summer blue shirts, black pants, with big guns strapped around their waist." I wrote in the margin, "Really, girl?"

On page 119, when writing about her second Italian home in the hills, she says, "This is where I came for comfort when we experienced at Bramasole our own private terrorist incident. This is where I come now for the pure joy of loving a place so purely itself." I felt a stabby pain in my eye. You mouthed off to a local, got an unpleasant surprise in your mail, and nothing else came of it. But you must seek succor at your second country home because your first country home is no longer an idyllic paradise? I wrote "insufferable" in the margin. Much like Martha Stewart, she seems to have lost touch with the basic reality of most of her readers.

On page 126, when describing the twentieth set of friends featured in the book who have nothing to do but lounge around in their countryside homes, she writes, "Today we are going to Fonterutoli in Montalcino with...the Pantes, good San Francisco friends who have a home here and entertain magnificently with the best of Tuscan wines." I again wrote, "insufferable." I appreciate and respect people who know good wine, and I will break bread with paupers or millionaires, but not when they're described like that. 

On page 142, when she worries that they might not have enough money to replace the roof of their main house, I stabbed the margin with my pen, "These people have spent an elephant's fortune on wine, vacation, and renovating their second house, but they can't afford to fix the roof?!!" I had the distinct, unhappy thought that she might've published this book because she needed money to fix the roof.

On page 191, when she trails off into another description of art by Signorelli, I scribbled in desperation, "Dear God, this woman cannot maintain a narrative to save her life." Like one of the scurrilous wild boars she mentions tearing up her lawns, I became wild-eyed and prone to snorting and stamping my hooves.

Had this book been a visual affair, with pictures, illustrations, far less vignettes, and a clear emphasis on season, I believe the author really would have shined. By inundating me with how magnificent, how perfect, how picturesque Tuscany is for wealthy foreigners, the book completely turned me off the idea of going. Maybe that was her plan. To preserve the sanctity of the Tuscan countryside by alienating middle-class Americans. If so, touché, Frances, touché.

While this book was not my cup of tea (or glass of pinot noir, if you will), I would still recommend the Tuscan Sun Cookbook.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Tuscan Sun Cookbook: Three Cheese Pasta Bake, Hold the Bunny, Please!

Episode 2, in which our heroine (that would be me, Silver Webb) continues on in her taste-testing of recipes from The Tuscan Sun Cookbook...

I have a soft spot for bunnies. Wittle fuzzy buzzy bunnies. I don’t eat them. Neither do I eat baby lambs or cows or anything with a beak or hooves. So I may or may not have shrieked when I turned to Page 123 of the Tuscan Sun Cookbook and saw a large picture of a man proudly holding a dead rabbit by its hind legs. I understand the farm-to-table idea, and also the fact that Europeans are more frank about the nature of the food chain.  I just wish they'd spared us the visual in the cookbook.

Which is to say, I am constantly trying to figure out how to alter recipes to omit the meat. And the recipe for “Baked Pasta with Sausage and Four Cheeses” looked good to me, just minus the pound of fried sausage. The base of most of the sauces in this book is “sofrito,” which is very finely chopped and sautéed carrot, onion, celery, and parsley. The cookbook's ratio is mostly onion with a bit of carrot and celery. And only a cup of it is used in this recipe. Because I was not using meat, I went with two cups of sofrito, and used equal parts onion, carrot, and celery. I subbed basil for parsley…because parsley makes my tongue want to curl up and die. This is probably a good moment to bemoan the fact that I don’t own a mezzaluna (a curved blade used to chop herbs and vegetables). The cookbook's sofrito looks like it is minced to an inch of its life. My sofrito looks like I gave it a Swedish massage, even though I spent a solid twenty minutes hacking at it with a big knife.

But not to be deterred, I sautéed away, with half a cup of wine and some oregano added, then a big can of chopped tomatoes. But when I tasted....Blech! It didn’t taste good. Probably because I omitted the sausage, which has a ton of spice and flavor. So, I prinked. I upped the salt, the oregano, added in dried basil and thyme, a dash of red pepper flakes, a chug of balsamic, and then a sprinkle of sugar (people look at me weird when I mention sugar in sauces, but I tell you, it has saved many a pasta sauce for me). After I had the sauce rolling along in the right direction, I boiled a bag of rigatoni, which is pasta tubes the size of steamrollers, then mixed in the sauce, half a cup of pasta water, a waterfall of mozzarella, fontina, and ricotta cheese. A few breadcrumbs on top and into the oven to toast for 20 minutes. The result was really surprising to me. It has a very light flavor, perhaps because there’s no garlic in it. A sweet, fresh tomato sauce, with a hint of crunch from the celery, luxurious strings of melty cheese, and some buttery bread bits on top. It is a lazy woman’s lasagna, really. An hour to make. The ricotta is lovely and sweet, the fontina is waxy and Gouda-ish, and the mozzarella is fresh and salty. The fourth cheese was supposed to be parmigiano-reggiano, but I used all of mine up on the pesto recipe I made the day before.

Even though it was an overcast day, I rolled with the dining outdoors Tuscan thing and ate on the front porch. I was cold. But the food was good!

Tuscan Month: Cantucci and Vin Santo?

In her Tuscan Sun Cookbook, Frances Mayes describes fresh cantucci, the most ubiquitous cookie in Tuscany, as "nutty, crunchy but yielding, and with a faint tang of lemon." Apparently this cookie may be eaten only one way in Tuscany, and that is dipped in Vin Santo, or "holy wine," a sweet wine made of dried grapes, once popular as the wine given for communion. It is, as far as I can tell, wine made from raisins. But don't quote me on that. I would love to tell you how it tastes, but the only bottle I found locally was quite pricey. Call me uncultured, call me American, but I think it's hard to beat cold milk with cookies to dip. But I'm on a Tuscan quest, so I at least decided to give Fiorenti Elderflower liqueur a chance.

I rounded up some cookies from the Italian import shop, and dipped away. I can be big about this and admit that Italian cookies dipped in a sweet liqueur are pretty amazing. Perhaps because Italian cookies (or at least the kind you buy in a package) are not overly sweet or snazzy in flavor. They're just waiting for a little flavor boost. The Elderflower liqueur is too sweet to drink straight, but with a little glass of it and a plate of cookies to dip in, I could while away an hour or two on the piazza, people watching...both of which had to be supplied by imagination on my back porch.

Ghiottini's  Cantucci alle Mandarle
Satisfying crunch, sweet honey, real ingredients, and nice chunks of almond. I could eat these all day. Dipped in wine? Even better!

Balocco's Amaretti
Light as air, sweet and almondy with a little bitter after-taste. Honestly I think most Americans use amaretti primarily as something to blitz in the food processor and use as part of a dessert crust. But these cute-as-buttons little kisses of air and almonds gulp down anything you dip them in and are fairly addictive. Try at your peril!

Bonomi's Savoiardi Lady Fingers
Slightly sweet, light, and completely without flavor. There is no reason for this cookie to exist...except to soak it with coffee liquor and turn it into tiramisu! I'm sure there are version of Lady Fingers that are quite lovely as stand-alone edibles, but if you buy something like this in a package, I wouldn't recommend expecting a flavor sensation.

Barilla Mulino Bianco Pan di Stelle
Tell me how I can resist a package that says "11 magic stars" on it!? Thin, dark rounds of chocolate cookie topped with white sugared stars. My heart sang. Magic Stars! I can't claim the taste itself was all that much different that something a  Keebler elf might make...and it's true that the "magic stars" didn't look exactly like stars once they got out of the bag...I'm declaring this the best cookie ever! Make a wish with each bite!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Tuscan Sun Cookbook: Backpacker's Remorse and Zucchini with Lemon Pesto

 I was very fortunate to travel to Italy in my twenties. But Italy and I both got the short end of the stick on that deal. I was a twenty-something on break from graduate school, and my brother came over from the states so we could backpack around Europe for a few weeks. Everyone ought to have this experience once in their lives, before their joints grow too cranky (like mine) to lug a heavy backpack or sleep on trains. We ate lemon-drenched swordfish and juicy gyros in the Greek Islands, narrowly avoided frostbite sleeping overnight on the deck of a Greek ferry, ran with the bulls (well, my brother did...I stayed outside and prayed for no casualties), and quested in vain for good paella.

But when it comes to Italy, I regret. I spoke not a lick of Italian, I had no idea where we would stay or where the good restaurants were. We landed in Rome, rolled the dice, and ended up bunking in unremarkable hostels, eating really awful food...just as you can in any city if you haven't done your research. Rome was frantically paced, impatient, overwhelming, rude, and the people seemed to be *trying* to run us over with their Vespas.

In hindsight, We were the worst kind of American tourists. The Vatican kicked us out because my brother was wearing shorts. We decided that the Sistine Chapel could not possibly be worth a two-hour wait in line. In Pisa, we took the obligatory picture with the tower, and I had an American hot dog for lunch. In Florence, we subsisted entirely on gelato. In Rome, my main food memory is eating at the McDonald's next to the train station. Now that I'm in my forties, if I were going back to Italy, I would research every single restaurant and cafe in Rome, reserve a room in a picturesque monastery, wear something respectful to the Vatican, and wait the two hours in line to see the Sistine Chapel, because The Creation of Adam is one of the masterpieces of European art.

So not only does Italy need to be redeemed for me, but I someday hope to redeem myself in Italy's eyes! I decided to begin this journey of backpacker's repentance with an unlikely savior: zucchini. Frances and Edward Mayes have an intriguing recipe for zucchini and lemon pesto in the Tuscan Sun Cookbook. They suggest hazelnuts, but I went with pine nuts, because they were available. I puzzled over the instructions to use a "handful" of basil. I imagine that Frances Mayes has the slender hands of an Elf princess that will hold no more than five basil leaves, whereas I have my father's hands, big enough to comfortably grasp five pounds of basil. But I winged it, and it looked very pretty before it went into the blender.

Let it be noted here and now that if you use a powerful blender and are not extremely judicious, you will end up with something that looks like Kermit melted into a bowl. Like a green smoothie...

The zucchini recipe seems meant as a side dish. Grated zucchini and onion lightly steamed and then robed in pesto. I am constitutionally incapable of following directions, and I wanted to make this more of a main course. I fried some pine nuts in olive oil and oregano with a few pepper flakes (gotta have the heat), then coined the zucchini, frying until it was on the verge of done. Last, I poured in the lux lemon pesto and let it sizzle a bit. Dinner was zucchini, crostini, and a glass of wine. It was good. Really good. The next day, I still had a garlic cologne coming out of my pores, so I would recommend one garlic clove rather than three. But it was savory, puckery, creamy, and is hard to find a vegetable dish that can hold its own as a main course, but this did. I would serve it again. I would even just put out a bowl of that pesto and dip bread into it.

Sitting on the patio, sipping wine, having a nibble of bread, eating zucchini as my dinner, I felt very Europeanish. Minor redemption for the girl who ate McDonald's in Rome!

April is Tuscan Month Here at Silver Webb's Salon!

Fresh off my triumphant book review of Will Write for Food, I've been jazzed on the idea of reading and reviewing books by food writers, as a way to sharpen my own craft. And I love a theme. So, whilst twiddling my toes and fantasizing about dinner, I asked myself, what do I want to eat in April? Pasta. When is the answer not pasta?! So, I decided to review three books by Frances Mayes, who has written a well-known series about Tuscany. One of them, Under the Tuscan Sun, was made into a movie with Diane Lane, about the poet's decision to buy a Tuscan villa, fix it up, and savor life in the countryside.

You have to be in a certain mood to enjoy the Tuscan Sun series. The relaxed Tuscan lifestyle in the countryside, where neighbors come over for eight-hour dinners and each meal has six courses and nobody ever eats alone, and you savor olive oil made from your own olive trees...this may be some people's fantasy, but it is a New Yorker's nightmare. Eight-hour dinners? Don't you know I have stuff to do and places to be and I am very, very busy, thank you! And I'm not even a New Yorker. I'm just a California gal who loves food. But if I'm honest, I tend to eat dinner in front of my laptop, while I work, with my cats nearby asking for little nibbles from my plate. In part, this is because I am, as mentioned, genuinely very busy. But part of it is cultural. I have no idea who my neighbors are, and the last thing on earth I want to do is spend eight hours chatting with them. The only thing I spend eight hours doing is sleeping.

Honestly, most nights that I'm writing about a restaurant or favored foods, I am probably eating a grilled cheese sandwich with pickles for dinner. I suppose the difference is this: I save the amazing food and the bottle of wine for special occasions and meals out. The point of the Tuscan books is to make every night a special occasion, in your own home. To which I say, if you are a poet living in the Tuscan countryside, perhaps there actually is nothing more to do in a day than write, eat, and be merry. For most Americans, that is more like their yearly vacation, when they set aside the daily grind and try to not hurry or worry so much.

 So, hey, I need a vacation. Tuscany isn't in the budget right now. But in looking up from my laptop, I can admit that there is a very nice back patio outside my window, with roses, lavender, and bougainvillea. A very nice wood table and wicker chairs that I could sit at during sunny afternoons. Why, I could even get nutty and eat out there. I could buy a bottle of wine for my weeknight meals. I could...wait for it...go Tuscan!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Guess What? I’m a Food Writer! A review of "Will Write for Food" by Dianne Jacob

Some people set out to be food writers. They write a business plan, craft their branding message, call their accountant, save the receipts, and print up the business cards. That would not be me. Five years ago I was just a girl who liked bakeries…a lot. So I started a blog and reviewed every single bakery in Boston (the blog is still up, here). I had no advertisers, no affiliates, I didn’t save receipts or print business cards or make a penny. I just liked bakeries….a lot. And I was already an editor and writer, so waxing poetic about scones was like playtime for me. It turns out, a lot of other people wanted to know where to eat in Boston too, and the blog had 50,000 visitors during the three years it was active.

When I moved back to California and started this blog, I knew food was (and always will be) the thing I wanted to talk about. But it wasn’t until I was leafing through a housemate's magazine (Food & Home), drooling over a picture of roast salmon and spring potatoes, that I thought, “I can write just as well as this.” To me, being published used to have a heavy mystique, like only those who have been granted a gold star by the foodie gods are allowed to write about food. But something kept prodding me to try Food & Home. So I emailed the editor, told him about my blogging experience, and asked if I could write a piece about food in Santa Barbara. The editor turned out to be a lovely man who gave me a shot at a 60-word piece on a Pimm's cocktail. I agonized over every word. And it was far from perfect. It didn’t even occur to me to include a quote from the bartender. But I listened to the editor’s feedback and the next issue he gave me a bigger assignment, and the issue after that two assignments. And after a year, he offered me a column about my food adventures in downtown Santa Barbara. Each issue that comes out, I am like a kid at Halloween, emptying my candy out of the plastic pumpkin and catching a sugar high. It truly is a thrill to see something I have conceived and written out in print. And I hope it always will be. 

Why am I mentioning this here? For two reasons. First, it only recently occurred to me that I’m a food writer, five years in. And second, the reason I realized it is that I read Will Write for Food, by Dianne Jacob, and it changed my entire perspective on what it is that I do and how I can do it better. A good buddy of mine saw the book on a trip to San Francisco and brought it back for me. It is described as “The complete guide to writing cookbooks, blogs, memoir, recipes, and more.” I will admit, I thought, “I bet none of this applies to me.” But Anthony Bourdain praises the book as “A concise, illustrative, and eminently useful guide to the nuts and bolts of professional food writing.” And being as he is an unhinged foodie assassin, I take the chef’s opinion seriously. 

So, why did this book blow my sugar-addled mind?

I have been participating in a craft and a profession without realizing that is what I was doing. I described myself as a foodie to friends, or possibly a blogger, but only recently as a food writer. And the more I say it, the happier I am. It is like spending your life in the ocean with a fish tail and string of pearls, only to find out that what you are is called a mermaid. And there are mermaid associations you can join, and ways to up your mermaid game. 

Here are the things I took from her book: 
*There are gods in the pantheon of food writing, and most of them I’d never heard of, because it never occurred to me to seek out books of food writing. I read cookbooks from front to back and delight in them, but I had no idea about M.F.K. Fisher, Edna Lewis, Laurie Colwin, or even James Beard…the tribe is immense, and I didn’t even know I had a tribe until now. It didn’t occur to me that Julia Child counts not only as a chef, but as a food writer. I’ve cooked no more than five Nigella Lawson recipes in my life, but I have read and re-read each and every cookbook of hers with delight and abandon. I never cooked a single tart from Tarts With Tops On by Tamasin Day-Lewis, but I devoured every word in it. Do I want to read Blue Trout and Black truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure? The Unprejudiced Palate: Classic Thoughts on Food and the Good Life? God, yes! My reading list for the next year is now stocked with Dianne Jacob’s recommendations for food classics.

*She gives a lot of solid advice on food blogging, the highs and lows of it, the logistics of it, how to pick a title for your blog, what to write about. What I really appreciate is that she treats blogging as a part of food writing without qualification…I didn’t realize I had a blogger’s inferiority complex until now, but I do. Blogging is self-publishing. Anyone can do it. Anyone with ten dollars and access to a computer can say they are a blogger. But I now embrace the idea that if you are blogging about food on a regular basis, you are a food writer, period. The advice on how personal to be, how often to post, what kind of voice to adopt is all quite good and very practical as well.

*Dianne has a good section on freelance writing, which is what I do. And I’d like to do more of it. So I was hanging on every word as she guided me through the process of picking topics, querying editors, and finding the right market.

*I put a lot of thought into my reviews. Every restaurant is somebody’s baby, and I think very carefully before I say something unflattering about that baby. But reading about professional food writers testing a restaurant three or four times to be sure they have a clear picture of the food, and the work that goes into developing the palate and culinary sensibility, I now realize that a fork and enthusiasm are certainly needed, but there is a lot more to learn in this craft I’ve stumbled into.

*One of the key points she makes is that food writing is writing. I know, duh. But really, if you are a not a good writer, why in the world would you drag a bunch of innocent turnips and celery root into your mediocre prose? So learn to write well, if you don’t already know how.

*There is a large section of the book about writing cookbooks, developing recipes, and the different ways to make a living by the spatula and pen. Hell will freeze into a devilishly tasty granita before I come up with a recipe worth printing, so I didn’t linger in those chapters. But if you’re a cook with a lot of good ideas, it’s a section worth reading. 

*Bringing Home the Bacon. This chapter was really helpful, because it talks about the many paying gigs out there: columnist, recipe developer, ghost writer, cooking-class teacher, etc. I appreciate that she is upfront about the difficulty in making a full-time living in this field, and she encourages us to branch out and create multiple revenue streams.

*There are others out there! The appendix is worth the price of the book alone. I didn’t know that there are associations for food writers, writing workshops for foodies, entire conferences for food writers…there’s no need for Mario Batali to descend on fluttering wings and bless you with his orange crocs…you just have to sign up. So I’m going to sign up! If I have to pick one thing to thank Dianne Jacob for, it is the roundup of resources in the appendix.

Which is to say that this book, in my opinion, is an essential road map for food writers, and I'm so glad that I lucked into it. The Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond says, “I wish I’d read Dianne’s book before I started a tiny little food blog on a whim a few years ago. For current and aspiring food writers, it’s positively dripping with helpful advice and information.” Amen, Ree, Amen.

If you'd like to learn more about Dianne, you can visit her website here.