Saturday, August 12, 2017

Food & Home: Summer Issue is Out!

Nothing thrills me as much as writing about food and seeing it in print. This issue of Food & Home, I wrote another edition of "Downtown Dish," my column about eating and living in Santa Barbara.

You might wonder how I ended up with the title "An Ode to Reubens and Rattlesnake Bratwursts"! The answer is that I had a delicious day taste testing the sandwiches at Three Pickles and then a wild dinner at the Brat Haus, a beer and brat restaurant with some inventive dishes.

If you'd like to read the article, it's available free online here.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Messy Magnificent Mesa Burger: Cat Cora Slays the Veggie Burger

This is a veggie burger!

If you've seen the show Iron Chef, you know Cat Cora as the nerves-of-steel chef who brings a Greek twist to her comfort food. I would expect her to open a restaurant in L.A. or Las Vegas, not a burger joint on the Mesa here in Santa Barbara. But am I glad she did!

I am not your normal burger customer, being largely vegetarian. How to put this delicately... I have eaten desiccated, oaty, blasphemously awful veggie burgers up and down this coast and all around this globe. They invariably come with wheat buns, sprouts, and low-fat mayo. Not juicy, not even vaguely edible. What I hate most as a foodie is seeing a perfunctory veggie thing on the menu, ordering it, and finding that someone smeared some hummus on a grilled pepper and called it done. There's no reason for the veggie entree to suck, but it often does, and my heart breaks a little every time I see a gorgeous menu of super foodie dishes and then the one vegetarian thing I said, hummus and roasted red peppers.

Vegetarian...not kidding!

So I had reason to worry when I bellied up to the bar at Mesa Burger, where the entire point of the place is burgers. My eyes fell on the Shoreline: veggie patty/red pepper hummus/pickled red onions/sprouts/salsa verde. Yes, indeed, my old nemesis Le Hummus with his sidekick Mr. Sprouts. I want my vegan folks to have a good nosh, but for the love of heaven, do hummus and sprouts belong on a burger of any kind? I sucked in my outrage and ordered a veggie patty subbed into their signature Mesa burger with house-made pickles, thousand island, and a brioche bun with a side of fries.

The veggie burger came and was actually thicker and more burgerish than the beef burger that my buddy ordered. I took a big ol' bite of deliciousness...and, convinced that I'd accidentally been given a meat burger, I proceeded to spit it out, making little sputtering noises. Until my buddy took a taste for me, and along with the manager, assured me this was not meat. Its texture was a dead ringer, juicy and fatty, and frickin' delicious!

I definitely recommend a visit to Mesa Burger. Be sure to save room for dessert though. Cat Cora features McConnell's in ice-cream sandwiches and delicious root-beer floats!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Tiki Redemption: Enter the Blue Hawaiian

Enter the Blue Hawaiian. The Cadillac of Tiki drinks, beckoning with its blue glow. My favorite beverage: a mix of rum, blue curacao, and pineapple juice blended with coconut cream. However, blending drinks during a party sounds like a recipe for the guests to end up wearing Blue Hawaiians rather than drinking them. So, I went with a non-blended version that sneaks around coconut cream by using Malibu coconut rum (elixir of the budget-friendly gods).

Here's what went down at ye ol' Tiki party:
1 part each of Malibu coconut rum, vodka, blue curacao, and sweet/sour mix
3 parts pineapple juice

While you can buy a bottle of MEDIOCRITY in the form of a sweet/sour mix, it's amazing when you make it fresh. Melt 1 cup granulated sugar into 1 cup water (30 seconds or so in the microwave). Then add 1 cup fresh lime juice and 1 cup fresh lemon juice. It's the difference between something that tastes like chemical byproducts and an amazing cocktail. Be warned though, this drink doesn't taste overly alcoholic, but that ninja vodka amps up the boozy woozy factor.

As they say, woman does not live on Blue Hawaiian's alone. Not even if she is stranded on a tropical island! No, she must have pineapple upside-down cake! Not just one variety, but two. Because no party around here is complete without going overboard on a theme. First, we made pineapple cream cupcakes. The First Lady of Frosting had the good idea to put a cherry and pineapple chunks at the bottom of each cupcake, and I have to say, it *made* the cupcake...that and the decorations. Little Tiki umbrellas perched like hats above the cupcakes.

Second was Trisha Yearwood's upside-down pineapple cake. Her recipe calls for nine pineapple rings arranged in an 8x8 brownie pan...we were only able to fit four whole rings and then some halves. We speculate that you might have to cut out a chunk of each ring and squish it in to make it fit. Although I did briefly think, "Trisha Yearwood, you lying so-and-so," I continued on with the recipe. The result was decent. A nice vanilla flavor (because I put in triple the vanilla) in a fluffy cake, with caramelized pineapple on top. I have to say, there is farther to go in the matter of pineapple desserts. Although the cake and cupcakes filled their social obligations nicely, I was not transported to pineapple heaven. I am seriously considering using fresh pineapple rather than the canned stuff next time. Maybe lacing it with some Malibu rum...

A word on maraschino cherries. Examine the bottles carefully. We had three different varieties. One bottle was natural (no dyes, so rather muted in color) and did well enough in the baked goods. The second bottle was comprised of plump gleaming ruby red cherries so chemically altered as to be unrecognizable in their origins. The third bottle...the third bottle had squished cherries that looked like the fruit equivalent of shrunken heads. They were too ugly to put on a toothpick, that is certain. All I am saying is that the cherry on the sundae is no benefit if it looks like the withered eye of a drunken pirate.

So, Blue Hawaiians and pineapple upside-down cake were had, along with potato salad, deviled eggs, Menehume punch, artichokes grilled with garlic oil and dipped in lemon-pepper mayo, and rainbow fruit skewers! The fruit skewers (idea from Pinterest) were a big hit, and it is fortunate that the FLOF assembled them, as I would've ended up with fruity "acupuncture" trying to handle the wood skewers! I actually think this idea would be neat to play with on other occasions (raspberries, blueberries, and baby marshmallows for fourth of July?)

You might be wondering, what to wear to a Tiki party. A Hawaiian shirt? Perhaps a grass skirt? A coconut bra, if you're feisty? Sure, all of the above. The essence of Tiki is flip-flops and beachwear. Unless, of course, you are me. Then Tiki requires a hot-glue-gun extravaganza. Because I have things in my craft drawer and I have hands and I literally cannot stop myself. Four blue coasters, a pair of mermaid leggings and a blue fishing net, a bunch of blue beads, and two balls of discount yarn, and....well...things happened. Mermaidy things. Mermaid-ish, I should say, as I in no way resembled something that ever came from the sea. From the catfish nebula, maybe. The FLOF did her best with the mermaid gear but overheated early on. The result I am going to call pineapple chic. Catfish crochet and pineapple chic. So goes the glory of Tiki. Well, once you've had a blue Hawaiian or two, nobody cares what you're wearing anyway! Isn't the whole point to have fun?

Wither Silver Webb after this consummate Tiki victory? A good question. I'll be veering toward the Chinese side of Tiki. Although some Tiki restaurants make a try at Polynesian food or Hawaiian food, one of the best ol'-fashioned 1950s standbys is Chinese food and Tiki drinks. You know, egg rolls and Mai-Tais, Kungpao chicken and hurricanes. The stuff of eating legend. I'd like to learn how to make a good kungpao sauce, a good Sichuan sauce, and maybe even figure out how to make those fried won-ton wrappers with red sauce and mustard. Possibly served with a Zombie or a Fog Cutter?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Forsaken by the Tiki Gods: A Review of VenTiki Lanai and Bar

This being the summer of Tiki, and having had my optimism stained by bad Mai-tai's at Chuck's of Hawaii, I held much hope for VenTiki, a fun-looking Tiki bar and restaurant in Ventura. Sure, a forty minute drive away, but for the fearless Tiki enthusiast, what is forty minutes....besides, the FLOF has a car and she ain't afraid to use it.

Restaurant experiences are highly temporal and subjective. You ate there the one night the chef ran out of mustard, and for the next thousand years you will bad-mouth their Welsh Rarebit. You went to the lakeside cafe the one day the algae bloom turned blue, and it shall forever be known in your lexicon as the blue fairy lake cafe. But there are some days when the stars simply don't align. Such as arriving at the quaint beach-side town to grey skies. Grey, dismal, and slightly chilly. And I didn't bring a jacket. But I soldiered on and arrive at the Tiki discover that a "she's 21 and starting her descent into alcoholism" party was happening, and it's a loud one. This I gleaned by the guest of honor wearing a necklace with a shot glass attached, attended by her parents, who apparently thought this was a great idea, and about 10 rowdy fraternity boys who were slugging back shots of rum. So, there was no room on the patio, which I will grant you was quite cute with its bamboo decor and fire pit. Walking into the main bar, a punch of stale rum hit us in the face, like pool-hall, eau d' Captain Jack's knickers. We eventually found a table outside, right by the water cooler with a wonky leg, so the table jiggled if we so much as breathed, and a steady stream of liquid leaked from the cooler over the concrete beneath our feet.

Still, I  held out hope. Until the cranky rockabilly waitress made it really clear that her garden was barren of any F***'s to give about our experience of this restaurant. And the bartender listened to my excited rant about collecting Tiki swizzle sticks, promised to bring me one or two, and then never came back. Isn't the whole point of Tiki the joy? The unmitigated, irrepressible joy of it? Not here. Not today, baby cakes.

The best thing we drank there was this, the nonalcoholic punch

Yet are there not many bad restaurant experiences that can be redeemed by alcohol? It was at this point that I made a massive, if not predictable misstep. I was, once again, lured to order a drink because it has a cool name. In this case, the Voodoo Temptress of the Seven Pleasures: rum, cherry rum, maraschino liquor, pineapple juice, and bitters. I really, really should've paid attention to that word: BITTERS. Because it was utterly bitter. It was un-fun. I did not finish it. The FLOF, who has far better instincts than I, ordered the Vicious Hibiscus, which is spiced rum, hibiscus, elder-flower liqueur, and lime. That drink was good. Very good. Unfortunately it was not my drink, and I refrained from commandeering it. All the while, trays of magnificent-looking zombies sailed by...there are, apparently, drinks at VenTiki that I would like to time, stay away from the flashy names and go for the zombie!

Ready to fall apart...sushi party foul #1
 The food...oh me...oh despondency...sushi so amateurish as to make packaged sushi at LAX look gourmet. I tried the veggie roll and was  not only underwhelmed by the taste, but I had to eat it in small pieces, as it quickly came unrolled. The eel roll...well, let's just say that I ended up picking the eel out of each piece, because it was kinda slimy, and I kinda felt like I was going to vomit when I took a bite. So out came the eel. What was left was not a dining experience. And it wasn't particularly cheap.

Because who doesn't need a lamp made out of a blow fish carcass?

Had it been sunny. Had it not been Tits McGee's 21st birthday party. Had the waitress been nice. Had the Voodoo Temptress of the Seven Pleasures not double-crossed me. Had the sushi stuck together. Had there not been a baby crawling around our table collecting the grime from the sidewalk on her jumper (who brings a baby to a bar?) Had all of that not been so, perhaps this would be a different review. But it isn't.
At least the fire pit wasn't sucky

What can I say, my Tiki hopes were high, and my Tiki hopes were dashed, cruelly to the hard cement floor. I would not stop out of my way to go here again.

Now is the time to ask, "Have I displeased the Tiki gods?" "What must I do to lift the curse? First Chuck's of Hawaii and now my summer of Tiki about to dissolve into a forgettable dribble of sub-par rum? That cannot be. I must rally. I must hit back with Hurricanes so delectable that the world stops for a moment. I must don the Tiki sacraments, make prayers to the Tiki Gods, leave bribes if need be. I have to get my mojo back quick, because in two weeks we're throwing a Tiki Tea Party...and if that goes up into a rum-ball of flaming mediocrity, I may as well cash in right now and declare this the summer of malt liquor and Fritos. Let us hope redemption awaits, in the form of upside-down pineapple cake and Blue Hawaiians.

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!