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A salumaio's tour of Italy on Food and Wine Magazine's blog

Wanted to give this recent article on the Food and Wine blog a boost...

Back in California now, after a long time away.  Culatello will be my focus for the time being, while the next project gets put together.  When my son and I spent time at Spigaroli end of summer 2013, I was struck by the similarity of the the foggy Po River basin as it passes through Polesine parmense, near Busseto, to the California Delta.  Here's a furry culatello from Spigaroli's ancient stone caves

and two experimental ones from il Buco's salumeria in NYC.  They're coming!!

Excited to work on these beauties and see how they turn out!! 

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Back on the Block!!!

Excited to be working again with il Buco Alimentari salumi!



And upgrading and expanding the little shop that could... We're making all kinds of things delicious and wonderful: salads, salumi and pizza (pizza?!) al taglio!!!


Check out the Eater NY article about our pizza al taglio, a Roman sensation in NYC, and Kamel our baker




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Everyone in New York is from Polizzi Generosa


Everyone in New York is from Polizzi Generosa

Some time ago, I blogged about my friend, Vincent Schiavelli, actor and cookbook author, who loved food, loved wine, loved cigarettes and cigars way too much, and for too long. He passed away from lung cancer in 2005.

All three of his lovely cookbooks were about his Sicilian family. The first one, Bruculinu, America (1998), whose title mellifluously Americanized the name of his native Brooklyn, painted a vivid picture of a childhood spent in an insular Sicilian ghetto of Bushwick, Brooklyn.  At the time of his youth, Brooklyn was a world of immigrants struggling to adapt to a strange life in a new country, and Sicilian was still their language.  His second book, Papa Andrea’s Sicilian Table (2001), recounted his grandfather’s life as a monzù, or professional chef, and presented many of Papa’s personalized traditional recipes.  His last cookbook, Many Beautiful Things (2002), told of his ancestral home in the mountaintop village of Polizzi Generosa, near Palermo; he visited Polizzi regularly, and eventually moved there permanently in his later years.  He died and was buried there, on his family’s land. Polizzi Generosa dates back 2600 years, over which time it was won and lost by many.  Maybe accepting all those invaders was how Polizzi became generous.

While I was chef at Chez Panisse Restaurant, I had the good fortune of being asked to cook for the book signings of his first and third books.  Many Beautiful Things, told in a poetic, wistful tone, is my favorite of the three.  Its cover is beautiful.  From that book I learned to make wild fennel liqueur, or finucchiedda. Wild fennel is ubiquitous in northern California, as it is in Sicily, and a gracious distiller friend provided me with the spirits. 

Amid great confusion and with endless re-calculating of formulae, I produced my first batch of finucchiedda and surprised Vincent with it at the dinner. Miraculously, the liqueur had come out absolutely correct and Vincent was delighted by it, saying it captured the exact flavor and smell of Sicilia.  Vincent and I remained in contact until his death.  Since that first attempt I’ve made finucchiedda every year, and have given it away to friends.

Elizabeth Street in 1912
Last year, while living in Lower Manhattan, I met the butcher Moe Albanese, whose shop was just a few doors from my funky Elizabeth Street railroad flat.  I wrote about him in an earlier posting, too.


Moe’s father, Vicenzo, had emigrated to the U.S. in 1911; his mother, Mariannina, had been born and grew up on Elizabeth Street, then the heart of New York City’s Little Italy.  One block west on Mott Street Vicenzo operated a little restaurant that closed in 1923 under Prohibition laws.  Vicenzo needed to find a new livelihood. He and Mariannina were newly married when they opened their little shop at 239 Elizabeth Street, across the street from where Moe's is now located. Mariannina spoke English but Vicenzo did not, so she helped the customers in the front and he butchered the meats behind the counter.

Moe came up in the shop, and became a butcher instead of a physician. After his father passed away in the 1950’s, Moe ran the shop along side his mother for over 50 years.  Mariannina died in 2002 at age 97, the year Many Beautiful Things was published. 

To enter Moe’s shop is to step into the past, in the best sense.  You immediately notice a very thick butcher block worn to waviness by years of cutting and scraping clean; an antique but still-working scale (original, not recently bought) on the back counter; and two very old enameled meat cases with several large primal cut pieces inside them. Remember, Moe cuts his meats to order.  Moe’s there every day, selling to the few regular customers who come through the doors, many of whom are from the neighborhood and have known Moe for a very long time; some even knew his mother as a young woman.  He’s the last butcher in Little Italy, and he represents its history. These days, Elizabeth Street is mostly exclusive boutiques and trendy, smart restaurants patronized
by models, artists, and tourists from everywhere.  It seems as though there’s always a movie being shot on the block.  But if you can, drop by his shop and chat with him. Though Moe shows no signs of selling up or retiring – I asked him both questions – who knows how much longer he’ll cut steaks and pound veal scallopini?

I’d occasionally lurk in the shop, hoping to politely engage him in conversation about his life as a butcher, or about the neighborhood as it once was.  Lurking wasn’t easy since it there’s no place to hide in the tiny shop, and not infrequently I find no one there but Moe.   Sometimes it was awkward, and I’d buy a steak or an oxtail, say goodbye, and quietly leave. Other times, under the guise of browsing, I was able to observe the conversations between him and his guests. It was hard to distinguish who was family and who were friends. Once, eager to bond with Moe and show him that we shared a profession, I gave him my business card, which reads, “Old Fashioned Butcher.”  When I presented it to him, he muttered, with wry humor, that I’d stolen his name.  I was shamed by his comment and embarrassed that I’d used the name “butcher.”  I felt I’d disrespected him. After that, I stopped in a little less often, and when I did I tried not to make too much eye contact.  I’d meant only to show him respect but it backfired nastily.  Who are we to call ourselves butchers, in comparison to him?   

Moe Albanese
Once, while I was purchasing one of his hand-cut, prime grade steaks, Moe was chatting with a friend seated in the metal chair opposite the counter.  I was, de facto, part of the conversation.  Moe explained that his father came to New York from a tiny mountain top village called Polizzi Generosa, and arrived on Elizabeth Street by way of Ellis Island. This news struck me hard and fast.

Recently, I watched – almost out of obligation – what turned out to be a terrifically engaging film: Martin Scorsese’s, “My Voyage to Italy” (1999).  Describing his childhood, Scorcese mentions that he’d grown up on Elizabeth Street, where his family lived in the 1940’s. I jolted to attention at his mention of this.  He explained how as a child on Friday and Saturday nights he’d sit with his family and a few neighbors, glued to the television set, watching the Italian films that had come to America.  This was their big night out. Like many others with a similar immigrant experience, he and his family were transported back to their homeland by the bittersweet films they studiously watched.

Scorsese’s subdued narrative is a quiet history of Italian filmmaking. He recounts being drawn into that world by the masterpieces of Italian Neo-Realism, and includes clips from 38 of the seminal films of the genre; Vittorio di Sica, Lucchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni are all represented – it was they who seduced him into filmaking.  Roberto Rossellini’s films comprise more than half of those referenced, and Scorsese’s title reflects that of Rossellini’s own Viaggio in Italia (1954). 

"Riso Amaro" by Giuseppe De Santis (1949)
Often, the films are dark pieces presenting a picture of brutal, harsh, and sometimes hopeless realities of the impoverished Italian populace, portraying life in war-ravaged Italy and Sicily, and the indescribable losses that people suffered at the hands of the ruthless Germans.


You may have guessed by now that Scorsese’s family were also from Polizzi Generosa, who, like any others left their beloved homeland for a new life in America.  But what was this place that so many left behind? How small is the world that these three men were delivered into the world by families from that same distant place?  I later understood that they all left Polizzi for a life none of them could imagine but one they knew held the promise of a better life for them and their families.  That I found all of them in a tiny circle within New York City by incredible accident was astonishing to me. 





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Chinatown, NYC


The northern edge of New York City’s Chinatown hovers about three streets away from where I’m staying. Here, it's very different from Chinatown in San Francisco, much more extensive and functional, not commercialized in any way, no catering to tourists, just a big, bustling community of hard working, hungry Chinese people. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, shoppers throng the streets, and it's often a battle to get served; Chinese grandmothers are a determined and unsympathetic lot. Few people are polite or courteous, just pushing you out of their way to get their shopping done.

In the noodle shops, I’m usually too intimidated by the impatient women cooks to inquire about the food they're making. Once, in a steamy dumpling shop, I stared with fascination and curiosity for a long time at a enormous wok bubbling with big chunks of beef shank, quartered white onion, and thick stumps of carrot, all afloat in a dark broth the color of brown earth. I pointed and asked, "What’s that?" She cut her eyes toward me and in that sly split second assessed my utter foolishness and stupidity. Then she barked back at me, “Beef!” without looking up from her intense work assembling perhaps a dozen to-go tins. I smiled, thanked her politely, and quietly left.

When I do find someone approachable, I ask, "Where is the best dumpling shop?" Everyone seems to have a preferred one, and I try to go to each them. One young butcher told me Joe’s Shanghai on Pell Street is the most famous in NYC, and I asked, "But is it the best?" I immediately regretted my question: glared at me in a deeply malicious way. It costs less than $4 for more dumplings than you can eat. 

One shop that goes by the imaginative name “Dumpling House” and has no sign prepares a puffy, steamed then crisped sesame pancake about 15 inches in diameter and an inch-and-a-half thick, that gets cut into individual pie-shaped sections that are then stuffed with one of several choices of filling. The roast pork is the best: crisp skin, juicy meat, green onion, cucumber, cilantro, special sauce, $2.25. A piece of pancake on the side, 75¢. Also terrific are the chive and pork fried dumplings, 8 pieces for $3.75. The shops have names like “Prosperity Dumpling House,” “Tasty Dumpling,” “Excellent Dumpling,” and “Plump Dumpling House.” I wondered, “Is it the house or the dumpling that's plump?” The breakout shop is called "Tasty Handpulled Noodles." 

There are very strong smelling, seductive shops that sell nothing but dried fish and shellfish. One such shop turns an entire corner. Shoppers apparently know what each piece of cuttlefish, each funny-colored shrimp, and each brittle card of whole fin fish is; of course, I don't, but I know a couple -- I have a Filipino friend who brings me various kinds of tiny dried fish his dad carries back from home -- so I screwed up my courage today and bought two pieces. The shopkeeper knew I was an idiot, and treated me like one. Now my flat stinks of dried fish. I'm sure she would say, "Yes, stupid, of course it stinks. It's your own fault."  

Some shops sell only dried mushrooms, some as fragrant as the fish, piled up in large baskets. One shop had 27 varieties. Once, long ago in an Oakland shop, I'd picked up a bag of good looking dried mushrooms, took them to the cashier (who owned the place) and asked, "Are these mushrooms used like other dried mushrooms?" She said, "Yes!" I then asked, "Do you soak them before throwing them in the pan?" She said, "Yes!" I continued on, "How much do they cost?" She said, "Yes!" I didn't ask this time.

I wandered across the road to my favorite butcher, Cheung Kee Meat Market on Mott Street, and bought half a delicious, golden-skinned, smoked chicken for $5.50. It comes with little tub of sweet and salty sauce. Smoked chicken costs less than half the price of smoked duck, but it’s just as good. 

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The Last Butcher in Little Italy


Last week just a few steps from my door at 252 Elizabeth Street I walked into the last remaining butcher shop in Little Italy, Albanese Meats and Poultry. The neighborhood's current name is NoLita, or North of Little Italy, but the old timers call the area the Lower East Side, as it was historically known. Moe Albanese, the 87-year-old proprietor, presides alone over the shop which was started by his parents in 1923 just across the road to where he is now located, at no. 238, as he has done for the past 9 years.


In the early 20th Century Elizabeth Street was an Italian ghetto, crammed with immigrant families who were fed and supplied by their local general stores, bakeries, cheese shops, and fishmongers. There were no less than 6 butcher shops in the block of Elizabeth Street where Moe is located. Moe’s mother, Mary, was born on this block; his father, Vincenzo, a butcher from Sicily, emigrated to New York from Polizzi Generosa, a tiny, hidden, hilltop town near Palermo. (This was a remarkable coincidence for me; the grandparents of the actor Vincent Schiavelli, a friend I wrote about earlier in this blogalso came from Polizzi; Vincent wrote about his family's ancestral home in his lovely book Many Beautiful Things, for which I cooked a book signing dinner at Chez Panisse many years ago.) Moe’s father didn't speak English when he arrived in America, and they agreed his mother would help the customers in the front of the shop, while his dad would cut meat in the back. Papa Vincenzo died at a young age and left his widow and their son, Moe, to run the shop. That was in 1954. Moe and his mother continued that way until Mama Albanese passed in 2002, at 97. Moe has run the shop alone since then.

Moe cuts meat to order, as he's always done, and chats alongs cheerily as he works. In the old days, you couldn't sell pre-cut meat to the patrons, quite unlike today when, alas, it’s all cut ahead and wrapped in plastic. Though he has a few grass fed items, most of his beef is “grass-fed, corn-finished” in the current parlance, and comes from the Midwest via a long-time source in Pennsylvania. It’s superbly marbled and full of flavor. It looks beautiful. 




My first steak from Moe's, was a beautiful, perfect, thick-cut rib steak that I saw sitting on the counter (was he going to take that one home?). He said, pointing to its spectacular web of marbling, “You want that one? Well, I guess you know your meat.” As Moe began to cut away the thick fat from the cap, along with a little gristle, he muttered to himself, and partly to me, that he would never make his money back from this one, because of the amount of fat he’d have to trim. I asked him to kindly leave it on. I'd wanted it left on anyway. 

The Italians are mostly gone from Elizabeth Street now, and the street is thick with boutiques selling expensive clothing, shoes, handbags, and other designer gifts. In nice weather Moe sits out front of his shop on a metal chair and looks up and down the street, silently watching the passersby. He nods quietly at the affluent young folks who Moe says don’t cook at home any more; they're usually headed to one of the swanky little cafés or restaurants that now define the area. Moe’s friend Vinny Vella, colloquially named “The Mayor of Elizabeth Street,” whose father ran a fish shop for many years around the block on Mott Street, hangs out at Moe’s along with a few other old timers who have long populated Elizabeth Street. Moe's children long ago went into other professions such as banking, insurance, teaching, and lawyering, as often happens in modern times. It’s a stirring thought that Moe is the last of a kind. Watching him, you can witness the passing of an era.  

Here's a little video about Moe made by his granddaughter, Val, 
and another of him cutting steaks.




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Smokehouse visit on monday

Very excited to head out on Monday to Scriv and Greg's smokehouse in Pleasant Grove to help things get started over there. This is the real thing! Few of these smokers exist anymore, and this one is a gem. Check out my previous post about the smokehouse at http://oldfashionedbutcher.blogspot.com/2010/12/smoker.html

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A Little Basque Wonder

I cooked peixe a pil pil tonight for dinner for the second time in two days. It's a dish I’ve been thinking about recently, one we used to cook often on Mondays at Chez Panisse, when to our delight and that of the customers we would step away from France and cook food from other parts of the Mediterranean. Pil pil is a Basque miracle of salt cod or bacalão cooked very slowly with mild guindilla red pepper and garlic in olive oil in a cazuela on top of the stove. Pil pil refers to the sauce, properly speaking, not the entire dish.

Deviating from the original recipe, I bought fresh local rockfish not salt cod. Rockfish is a favorite of mine,  caught here in Bolinas. I salted it lightly 6 hours ahead of cooking. Rockfish are found almost exclusively in the Pacific ocean. Everything about them is good: they're from nearby, as fresh as can be, with firm white flesh that requires the long cooking that defines this dish and … it’s inexpensive, though not as inexpensive as it used to be. (Read on and you’ll see why.) I substituted green garlic, so delicious and joyous in the markets now, for the head garlic that's from last year or from very far away. I tossed in few crushed, very fragrant coriander seeds grown and given me by an old friend, and one bay leaf. after it was cooked I sprinkled a whisper of chopped wild fennel fronds on top.

There are 100 species of rockfish in the genus Sebastes, of many colors, sizes, shapes and, literally, stripes. They vary dramatically in size, up to about 30 pounds, but fish that size are unusual. Most are caught inshore, to a depth of about 600 ft. Rockfish are the most abundant fish species in the Pacific but they’ve been heavily fished. Quite a few varieties -- 13, I believe -- are allowed the market names “rock cod” and “Pacific red snapper,” and the success of those market names has been the reason for the heavy fishing. Depleted stocks have caused California Fish and Game to impose restrictions that dictate in which areas, with which gear, and which varieties of rockfish may be caught. The goal of the restrictions is to protect the populations of several species in particular, but especially the yellow eye rockfish. It is also intended to limit rapacious, destructive trawl fishing. Rockfish harvest has dropped dramatically and forced the price up as a result. The moratorium is a needed restriction. I just hope Monterey Bay squid isn’t next.

The origin of the name pil pil is something that cannot be known (one of my favorite phrases and notions, from philosophy days). It is said to be an onomatopoeic, imitating the sound of fish sizzling gently in oil in an earthenware crock. Perhaps that’s the answer. I would like to put my finger on the name’s nascence but I don’t believe that's possible; it’s a buried truth lost to history. In fact the fish doesn’t really sizzle in the pan any longer; the sauce has become a silky, opaque sauce, an emulsified not clear one, as it once was. It is now ligado, or bound, thickened within itself This happened in late 19th Century, when San Sebastián cooks were said to be falling under the influence of French chefs in their use of sauces. Many cooks would like to called French-influenced, but in Basque country this was not a compliment or a universal desire.

The technique of this dish is the important part. Many sources say it takes an hour to swirl the sauce into its proper consistency but it takes me only about 25 minutes or so, depending on the thickness of the fillets; I’ve made it a lot so that's a pretty accurate description. And that's without trying to rush the dish in any way. 25 minutes seems a long time for fish to cook but keep in mind that traditionally it’s made with salt cod, a typically long-cooked fish, and the heat is kept very low. This is exactly why I like rockfish: it needs to be cooked through or it can be rubbery. At first it tenses up but when it faces its final demise, it relaxes and becomes tender and giving, just like salt cod.

You swirl and swirl pil pil in circles in its cazuela over a very gentle heat. To me, the swirling has the soothing, repetitive sound of its own name if you say it softly -- pil pil pil pil --  almost like rain, as the cazuela lightly brushes  the stove or counter top as the oil and fish liquor begin to commingle. You may have moved it off the stove, as i often do, if you're being careful with the temperature of the crock, then back again to the stove. It happens all of a sudden. At the moment when the fillet is almost completely cooked through its juices begin to run and the sauce comes together, in a blink. Truthfully, this constant swirling is only an affectation; as with risotto and its supposed requisite relentless stirring, the lore is richer than the dish itself. The swirling does not need to be constant, just attentive. It’s a simple matter, really. I could mention physics here, but I don’t want to lose the cooks in the audience, and I’m not Harold McGee. Thankfully. Anyway, concocting a pil pil is more akin to alchemy.

Temperature is a critical factor, and I realized one day many years ago why so many pil pils are broken: the crock is let to go too hot. This particular day as I was swirling, it came to me that pil pilPil pil is the lightest possible emulsion, much lighter than its cousin (by marriage only) beurre blanc. There are no eggs, no milk solids from the melted butter, no liquid component from the wine, though there is the scant juice the fish gives up. Pil pil is so delicate and fine nothing can approach it. Of course because of this simple purity one’s oil has to be of the highest quality and not a spicy, peppery Tuscan or Umbrian sprite, nothing from the warm south, but something light and heavenly, as an oil from Liguria. That’s what I prefer.

Pil pil has in an existential purity parallel to that of ali-oli, the truest version of which is made without egg yolk, though few chefs, even Spanish ones, make it in this ancient way. Blenders and food processors of the most modern type have taken over the kitchens of Europe in the same way they have in America, and perhaps even more so; they’ve destroyed tradition and precluded the cook’s understanding of kitchen fundamentals.

Contrast beurre blanc to pil pil. In French cooking, surprisingly, purity vanishes. Beurre blanc, though a fine sauce, is held together with egg yolk. Not a sin, just not the ultimate, mysterious simplicity – and challenge! -- of pil pil or ali-oil. Beurre blanc has many secret cheats, the most upsetting of which is the addition of cream to its base to hold it together. This not only changes the sauce but also encourages the cook toward laziness, driving one him or her to become one who no longer has to pay careful attention to his or her sauce or the centuries-old technique that created it. This tragic method is sometimes used with pil pil as well.

Mark Kurlansky has written in staggering detail about the Basques and cod fish. There is a claim in his book “The Basque History of the World” with which I disagree. In his discussion of pil pil he says it “is not a mayonnaise” (true, no quibble) but goes on to say “there’s no solid suspended in the oil.” Well, an emulsion is not a suspension, and even letting that one go, is the liquid provided by the cooked fish any less a “solid” than the egg yolk? Maybe it’s a bit thinner, but is egg yolk a solid? Not for me. Weren’t we taught in science physics class that the transition from gas to liquid to solid is a continuum anyway? Whew! I think I need to get out more. 




Don’t take me wrong: I like Kurlansky’s writing and have read “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World” twice. It’s just that we need to be careful with our ideas, the way our friend Harold McGee usually is. It's a moral and social responsibility. 


Pil pil is a delight no one should pass up. It seems difficult but it is as easy a pie. Give it a try, but be patient with it. 

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The Smoker


Yesterday was an especially good day: after talking to my friend, Scrivner, for over a year, I managed to get myself out to the small, organic farm which he and his dad, Gregg, plan to transform into a spectacular source for local produce and meats. It’s situated about 30 minutes north of Sacramento, not far off Highway 99, in the little hamlet of Pleasant Grove. Where I turned off the main road, a sign stated, with a tone of warning, “Pleasant Grove 3 mi -- No Services.” And indeed, there were none – not a petrol station, mini-mart, fast food establishment, or feed store -- just a small school with several white county-owned vehicles parked outside; a fire station where a member of the fire brigade was polishing a beautiful, spotless red pumper truck; and a couple of private hunt clubs plastered with lots of prohibitive signs saying “No Trespassing, Private Property.” The hunting grounds were empty, as it was mid-week, and a short mile or two before reaching my destination, I stopped to use one club’s portable roadside loo; it was perhaps not so much a practicality as it was my desire to walk onto forbidden land. It felt like childhood in the Midwest.

This was the upper Sacramento delta, where miles upon miles of berms contain sloughs and drainage ditches whose volatile, unpredictable waters perpetually threaten to flood the low-lying farmland. The land is mostly planted to rice. The water in the sloughs is murky and barely-moving, with lots of algae and cattails, and though I didn’t manage to ask, I more than once imagined there might be some large catfish lurking near the bottom. Childhood again.

I arrived mid-morning, and Gregg and I spent an hour or so getting acquainted, talking about this and that, mostly food and farming. He and I are roughly the same age, and each of us lived through Berkeley in its more politically active days, so our stories were dreamy, sometimes cynical, reminiscences about “the old days,” politics, Republicans, the Tea Party, and modern day food fascism. (I hesitated to call it “food Nazism” only because some people may find that a scary usage, or just plain hyperbole.)

It quickly became clear that Gregg had long and thoughtfully lived outside the main stream. In 1960’s Berkeley, he’d bought along with several comrades a group of contiguous homes along 5th Street near Allston. They tore down the fences that divided the properties from one other, and established a very large communal urban garden, or more properly speaking, an urban farm. They raised pigs, goats, chickens and lots of vegetables. The group were essentially self-sufficient. This was one of the ways people thought, fought, and broke free in those days. It was more sharing of land and resources than it was a commune; there was no centralized family life beyond the garden. It was back to the land, but within city limits.

Several years after they purchased the houses, Gregg set off for Europe, to travel and study (I suddenly recognized the source of Srivner’s endless wanderlust) and spent several years following the vendange up the backbone of France, starting in Provence, moving through the Rhône, to Beaujolais, Burgundy, and ending, in the bitter northern European winter of Alsace. The journey took many weeks, and by the time he arrived in Alsace-Lorraine, it was so cold you couldn’t feel your fingers when you cut them with your grape shears, which, inevitably, you do. Anyone who has picked grapes knows this.

We talked about Paris in those days and now, and recalled the good qualities of the arrondissements we were both familiar with. He told me a fascinating if dark story of a secret, illegal dressmaker – illegal because of the working conditions, which employed undocumented Eastern European seamstresses who slaved at endlessly whirring machines positioned next to cots where they would sleep for a few hours before being sent back to work, round the clock -- that he had to visit in one of many jobs. 

After our pleasantries in solidarity, we got around to the topic at hand: his smokehouse. This was what I’d gone there to see. 
At about 15 feet in height, the smokehouse is quite tall, stately, no longer in disrepair, and entirely amazing. The main house and other structures were originally built between 1855-60. When Greg bought the property in 1989 the smoker was derelict and near collapse. Gregg ignored the county's condemnation and order to pull the building down; rather, he simply began to put it back together, quietly and under the radar. A failing sidewall was re-masoned, and a local blacksmith fitted new smoke box doors with the original iron fastenings and hinges. The rotted stairs were replaced with new wood. Gregg dug from the fire pit three feet of ash that had accumulated from the previous owners’ burnt garbage. Eventually, he fired it up, and it was back in action.



It's a stunningly handsome building, in the same red brick American Gothic style as the main house, a style the original owners sought to reproduce from their origins in the northeastern U.S. Their aesthetic was brought to the farm’s west coast builders in drawings, sketches, and one large oil painting. It has two large iron doors (the refitted ones) that open onto its under-story fire pit; you have to crawl in through one of these small iron access doors to build and stoke the fire. Inside, you can just about stand up in the dark of the fire pit, if you’re not too tall. Gregg smokes his meats with several woods from trees on the property: fig, apple, almond, and black acacia wood. Black acacia was familiar to me, as we had our wooden tables at Eccolo fashioned from that variety by Chris Weiss, the elegant, charming designer and wood worker we know so well. For many years, we had cooked over same fruitwoods both Chez Panisse and Eccolo.

Inside the main smoking chamber, above the fire pit, there was the pleasant, soft smell of fruit wood and cooked, cured meats, at once sweet and sharp, almost tangy – and quite smoky, but not overwhelmingly so.  Into its rafters were set somewhere around 40 hand-wrought iron hooks from which the meats are hung, where they absorb the thick, flavorful smoke. Its walls and ceiling are darkly colored from many years’ use. The old rotted floor has been replaced with a reassuring, heavy expanded steel grate that allows the smoke to waft up from below. There are very few of these smokehouses still functioning in the U.S. –- to Gregg’s knowledge, there are only four left: they were eventually replaced by modern stainless steel, gas-fired or electric units. No more hauling wood! No more skill needed to maintain a wood fire! No more old-fashioned work to smoke your meats! But, no more of the smokehouse's deep flavor…

After inspecting the smoker, we walked around the immediate property. Gregg and Scriv have a far-reaching vision for this small, personal farm.  At present, they raise beautiful ring neck doves, robust white pigeons, colorful, noisy araucana chickens, and a pack of brazen Toulouse geese that act as guards, honking loudly at anyone coming onto the property or anything else the perceive as suspicious. The doves and pigeons are in tall pens onto which they plan to attach flights runs, which will run out perpendicularly from the present pens. Laying boxes have been cleverly fashioned from what appear to be gas meter housings and recycled Charles Shaw (two-buck Chuck!) wine boxes. They plan to raise pigs and goats to sell to restaurants. Gregg now scavenges -- or should I say more politely, forages -- greens and trimmings from local produce shops, the leavings from an Sacrmento organic shop’s vegetable juicer, and they’ve lined up whey from an organic creamery to feed the pigs, when they are acquired. They plan to build an outbuilding that will house a wood-burning oven, with working kitchen and dining area for small groups to visit. Several pea cocks and hens roamed the garden, spotted with quince trees, Meyer lemon, Eureka lemon, Valencia orange, grapefruit, Fuyu persimmon, and a very old pomegranate tree that delivers 300-400 pounds of fruit every year. Beautiful, long-haired cardoon plants sit inside a fenced off area, protected, more or less, from the relentlessly omnivourous geese. Real food. Yet more childhood.

What most likely was once a root cellar lies below the main house, where Srivner has set up two large, let’s call them, “terrariums,” where his squiggly, squirmy worms devour plant material, turning it into a green compost tea for spreading on the vegetables. On a supporting pillar hung several varieties of drying hardneck garlic, crying to be planted. The cellar is mostly below grade, so its temperature steadily hovers in the high 40’s to low 50’s year round. It smelled dusty but earthy, and mildly garlicky. Two windows either end of the room supply a cross current of air. I think it will be a fine place to cure meats, at least for a while. Bacon, salami, coppa, perhaps prosciutto should all do well there.

By this time, it was about 1:00 pm, and I’d planned to take my leave soon, to get back to the East Bay, and back to work. Gregg asked if I’d like a little something to eat. I glanced at the time – it was 12:45 – said ok, thinking I’d stay for at most another 30 or 45 minutes, for a quick bite.

In his kitchen that some would call funky but I call terrific, Gregg graciously served me a delicious soup he’d made of beautiful, correctly soft white beans and shredded chicken, with lots and lots of sweet, freshly cut parsley tossed in; sautéed wild-foraged greens – dandelion, sorrel, and dock -- with crisp lardons made from his home-smoked bacon; and for dessert, vanilla ice cream with wonderful stewed quince the color of Sockeye salmon, from the tree I’d passed on my way in, sprinkled liberally with his homemade limoncello… Wow! We cooked loosely together, discussed what to do with the greens (add red wine vinegar and raw garlic, off the heat), how to adjust the seasoning of the soup? (more salt - there were three pots of it around the kitchen, a very encouraging sign!) and please hold back on the amount of ice cream for me, but not the limoncello. We talked and talked about many subjects, he told stories, I told mine. The time had crept to nearly 4:00 PM.

When Gregg was recounting his harvest exploits, I was reminded of time spent in Italy with my dear friend, the butcher Dario Cecchini, a particular, wonderful phenomenon I'd witnessed and came to understand at his shop. 

One sometimes sees in small European communities the warm, caring protective employment of the mentally disadvantaged. In his story of the harvest, Gregg pointed out that inevitably, one or two of the nomadic grape pickers were of this description. The itinerant workers came to Western Europe from Hungary, Poland, Romania, other parts of Eastern Europe in search of work, where it had become scare, especially for the unskilled or impaired. Here, they would get well fed for a few weeks or months by the chateaux and domaines, and drink lots of “free” wine, and go home -- or not -- with a little money in their pocket. It’s a remarkable situation: the vineyard owners and their kitchen crew typically make wonderful, filling, delicious peasant meals, real food, for the hard working field hands. The workers start in the vineyards early in the morning. The first meal one takes, a simple, small one, is offered around 10:00 am, typically from the loading bed of a work truck; a proper lunch is served at the winery, around 1:00 pm; and a grand dinner after retiring from the vines as evening arrives and darkness set in. There’s lots of gaiety and high spirits, in direct proportion to the amount wine consumed. This is not to mention the eau-de-vie, sometimes served later. Essentially, picking from midday on is done under the influence of alcohol (but also under the influence of delicious food, and cooperative work), so cut fingers happen, sometimes. Generosity and camaraderie abound, this among people who have never met before and will never see each other again. Such beauty can happen. People are taken care of.

I saw this same phenomenon first hand at Dario’s shop, in Panzano in Chianti, where his family’s butchery has been operating for several centuries – that's, several centuries. A not so very young gentleman named Mario, also known as “the Mayor, helps around the shop with this and that, quietly keeping things clean and ordered, running small errands (nothing’s very far in Panzano), trimming and cutting sweet red peppers and fiery Scotch Bonnets for Dario’s mostarda di mediterraneo, measuring sugar and salt, and talking talking talking, as everyone does in that jolliest of kitchens. Mario is a bit slow, but not seriously so, just slightly, and everyone takes care of him. Dario has given him work. It sustains Mario, and gives him community. The work is not done without friendly teasing, a bit of flirtation from the women, occasional impatience, and reprimand from Daniella, when she needs to deliver it. One doesn’t have to be a wizard to see that Mario is part of the fabric of this little, insular, hilltop Tuscan village, that nothing’s ever perfect, that everyone needs to be cared for. That’s what communities do; take care of their own. As in the saying, “It takes a village to raise and child,” it also takes a village to sustain that child, come what may.

I will soon return to fire up this smoker, to see what it can do. My first project will be bacon and saucisse de Morteau, a particular sausage from the village of the same name in Franche-Comté, in eastern France, along the border with Switzerland. It's an enticingly fatty sausage slow-smoked for about 48 hours at 77ºF over pinewood, its indigenous Alpine wood. Can’t wait.

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cassoulet dinner closed, alas

The cassoulet dinner booked up in a flash, out of control, and I am very sorry to those who missed grabbing a table. Looking forward to cooking the way I love to cook, finding the flavors of my own memory, those that delight the soul. That's the nice part of cooking, the delight, isn't it? That, and serving it to those who love to eat. Well, strictly speaking, these are not the dishes my own childhood -- that's another story -- but they are dishes of memory for me, from those early days traveling and eating across Europe, trying to find what's good, from a perspective of naïveté, inexperience, and student poverty, but one full of enthusiasm and hope. These days, it's hard to find classic French food almost anywhere, as so many of the deeply evocative, evolved, satisfying dishes -- those that have been cooked by grandmothers exactly the same way for hundreds of years -- aren't made any more, and remain obscured in a thick, Proustian fog.

As cassoulet will soon be behind us, I'm thinking I may have to put on another such wintry dinner, maybe next time choucroute garnie...

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visiting chefs from london

the past manic five days included chez panisse up and down (nothing more to say there), bar jules (so great!), zuni café (delicious chicken), piccino (a hidden surprise!), café fanny's terrific eggs several times, of course... 

then there was the wonderful michael recchiuti, patient doug volkmer at acme on 9th, acme on cedar, culture-rich pizzaiolo, over-the-top bakesale betty, tartine tartine tartine (on another plane)... bi-rite (very busy, but no sam or morgan)

both pasta shops (market hall location is spectacular), marin sun farms, esteemed café rouge meats, bittersweet on college (doing the right thing, their thing), xocolate (a chocolate grotto), ici (here, from paris), summer kitchen (charlene, you love, and paul), grégoire (just a visit), cheeseboard (collective)

ferry plaza was a revelation, an annunciation, for them - boccalone, boulette's larder, il cane rosso, out the door, acme again, alan king's fish shop, cow girl

and outside in the rain: al @ frog hollow, della fattoria (we were theirs, they were mine, you are what you are), dan @ flatland, christy knoll, happy girl kitchen (new to me), the sprout guy, andante - i suddenly realized what we have here that exists nowhere else, not nyc, not uk, not europe - it's right here, all of it!

across town were trés francaise miette, sleek and slick fatted calf, ever so cool blue bottle kiosk, off topic to gimme shoes for two of us (nothing bought), delivered my manual little pasta machine to ryan, hip hip bar tartine (thank you chris!), then to paolo's childhood friend who owns la ciccia with his lovely wife, donella, a wonderful meal with lots of shellfish and lovely sardinian wines, totally charmed us

wow, what did i forget? an impromptu visit early sunday morning to bob, who lives in the heavens and lets some few of us see it, if we can, with a only gesture 

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de allium sativum: on garlic






I think about garlic quite a lot, but these days it is on my mind constantly. I have a friendly if insistent reminder in the upper reaches of our old rickety garage: many bundles of this season’s garlic hang from the rafters, waiting for the right moment to be put in the soft ground. I watch eagerly as the rain and cold of our northern California winter approaches. I typically wait until after the rain begins, and the earth is soft and friable, and the garlic likes it. It’s easy to plant then, and I don’t have to water. This next week or two might be the time to think about planting.

I began growing garlic a long time ago. I used to plant masses of it, and I still grow enough that some people think I’m a little wigged about it, but I’ve toned it down in recent years. I’m never sure anymore, but I think I harvest about 140 or 150 heads, something like that. I give a good amount away as special gifts, for seed and eating alike. I keep about 20 per cent back for planting. Mainly, it’s just pleasant to do. I love when I have it hanging about, drooping down from the ceiling, a few heads sitting in the mortar; or earlier on, when the plants are still in the ground, slowly developing their subterranean heads, waiting to shoot up their curly necks.

Garlic belongs to my trinity of favorite foods, along with artichokes and wild fennel. Fortunately, all three thrive in our climate. We have lots of artichokes in our garden – the gorgeous purple ones whose seed I brought back from Italy – but garlic goes so far and lasts so long, if stored well. It can uplift so many dishes. It is a  pillar of my kitchen.

There are many versions of garlic soup, but I think my favorite one, made in the spring with new garlic pulled from the ground when the head just begins to form its individual cloves, but just barely. The garlic is simmered in a dreamy, delicate chicken broth, paper-thin slivers of new garlic floating inside it, thin so the soup doesn’t have to cook for long. In the middle sits a single, whole, soft, sweet head of the same roasted new garlic. I peel back the papery outer skin, trim the stem short, and remove the roots. I place the heads side-by-side in a shallow ceramic dish, splash in some water, sprinkle with a little salt, a few drops of olive oil, cover carefully, and roast at 350ºF until completely soft. When done, I place a head, turned golden from its time in the oven, in the middle of a pasta bowl, ladle in homemade chicken broth, and grate a little parmesan over it. I invite friends.

If you have a farmers’ market near you, the garlic sold by top-notch organic farms such as River Dog, Full Belly, and Catalan is great for planting. They all sell purple varieties, and their garlic is very similar to each other’s. The advantage to buying from a seller rather than from a farmer’s market is the selection of varieties. I especially like Filaree Farm in Washington state, but that may be because I bought my first organic garlic seed from them. It’s kind of late now to find seed garlic, but you might be able to scrounge some up somewhere. However, quality is important, so don’t buy just anything anywhere.

Garlic falls into two groups, soft neck and hard neck. I prefer to plant hard neck. Its subspecies is ophioscorodon, which means, “snake neck,” because of its curling, snake-like scape, or shoot. I love the red varieties of the French Rocambole group, with 8-10 larger cloves, and the Purple Stripes, that have slightly smaller cloves, but the are so many lovely ones – Persian, German, Russian, Romanian, Georgian, Armenian – you can indulge almost any whim you wish to.

Garlic likes soft, rich soil fairly high in nitrogen. If you plan ahead, plant a leguminous cover crop such as peas or fava beans, and turn the plants in 3 or 4 weeks ahead of the garlic, after you’ve harvested the pods. You can mulch the plants to keep the soil moisture even, if you wish.

Planting is simple and easy. Gently break apart the cloves the day you plan to plant them, or at most the day before; the cloves dry very quickly once they’re broken apart, and that’s no good. You want perfect cloves to plant. Choose the cloves that have the largest basal plate, the little, flat side that was directly attached to the roots. A larger basal plate produces a larger head. (You therefore want to select for large basal plates over a few seasons, so you produce exquisite, large heads.

Plant the cloves pointed end upward, flat end downward; the roots grow from the basal plate. Space the cloves in rows about 18 inches apart, every 6 inches or so, 2-3 inches deep in the soil. If you’ve timed it right, you won’t have to water until late spring, and then only every week or two, depending on the dryness of the soil, shade, wind, etc. Take care with your watering, though, as too much water will cause the garlic to rot or have poor storing quality, and too little (making dry soil) will produce small heads.

As it matures, the hard neck plant will send up its scape, which is what carries the flower seeds in a structure called a bulbil.  Bulbils can supply seeds for planting, but they produce very small heads, and it takes several seasons to get large, usable heads, so it’s much easier to plant good quality cloves. It is best to cut the scape after it has made a loop or two, so the plant’s energy goes toward bulb rather than seed production. When the leaves begin to dry, stop watering. Leave the garlic in ground another few weeks. Check the bulbs for readiness by carefully scraping back some of the soil around it, and feeling about for formed cloves. You can see them, too. If they’re ready, dig them carefully with a spade or pitchfork, loosening the soil around them, then pulling the plant carefully free. If they’re not ready, give them another couple of weeks.

After you harvest, tie the garlic in bundles and hang in a coolish, dry, ventilated place. It will keep for a long time. Be sure to save some for next year’s crop!

Here’s what to do with the scapes:
Cut them into 3 or 4-inch pieces, steam until tender, sauté them in olive oil for a few minutes, squeeze on a bit of lemon, grate reggiano or pecorino on top, and wow! 

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Stevie Parle and Dock Kitchen

Stevie Parle is one of the terrific people I met during my London sojourn, and one of the few I got to know. He is the owner and chef of Dock Kitchen, hidden quietly along the Grand Union canal at Portobello Dock, in north Kensington. I first met Stevie when he attended my pop-up supper club last April at Clare Ptak's shop, Violet, which we had helped her patch together in Hackney, east London. Stevie has just been given the Observer's Food Monthly award for UK Best Young Chef. For me, no one deserves this award more than Stevie, and I wanted to share a little of his celebration here. Pop to the link and you'll see that he's 25, has a new wife, new child, new restaurant, and a great cookbook, My Kitchen: Real Food from Near and Far, that's all him. The book is born from his travels.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/observer-food-monthly-awards-2010

Stevie really gets food, and seasonality, and taste, and delight, but mostly he gets where it comes from intellectually and viscerally, its place and the culture. By that I mean, he understands the heart of a dish, or the heart of an idea, and realizes it on the plate. He and I began talking about about cured meats -- a sure way to my heart -- and I gave him some instruction on getting started making salami, pancetta, equipment, and other stuff. He got that, too. He's a smart, sensitive guy.

For most of my time in London I lived in an area called Maida Vale, also known as Little Venice, that sits at the confluence of Regent's Canal and the Grand Union Canal, just behind Paddington Station. The London canals are part of an elaborate network of waterways built in the 18th century for transport of commercial goods. The canals snake all over London, and beyond, and new, imaginative businesses have -- dare i say -- popped up along parts of this charming yet practical web of channels from an earlier time. It's a nice kind of rebirth. More on that in another post.

If you walk or bicycle westward from my flat a couple of miles along the Grand Union, you come Portobello Dock, where Dock Kitchen is located. Of course, there are no signs, just a gate and door bell, but you can see it from where you stand on Kensal Road, on the edge of north London. It's in a very modern building with a glass façade, but it's unassuming despite its drama. It's designed by the well known architect and designer, Tom Dixon, who shares the compound with Dock Kitchen. This is the restaurant at night:

I dined four times at Dock Kitchen in my six months in London, almost by accident, and cooked dinner at our flat for Stevie and his family, and Claire's husband, Damien. (Claire was in Califorina.) Dock Kitchen is closed Sunday, and one weekend he invited us to a little dinner there cooked by Joe Trivelli, one of the chefs at River Café, who started Dock with Stevie when it was a pop-up in its early days. We sat out on the terrace overlooking the canal, and watched a crane stroll about. It weather was nice but not perfect, but who cared? Good food, good wine, nice company, lots of chatter (even me!). Joe put together something right up my alley: grilled rabbit, spicy sausages, and various pork bits. Joe's food is very simple, very Italian, and very delicious. It was a pleasant get together, and my dear friend April Bloomfield was in town, so I got to chat with her about food and restaurants. It was one of two meals I had with her in London (the other was at Polpo, a screaming, hip new place in Soho). Joe started us out with a fritto that included fried fennel flowers, another way straight to my heart. Here's a picture of it
















After that satisfying meal, we took the no.18 bus via Harrow Road back to our flat in Maida Vale. No one on that bus speaks english. It's humbling, and heartening. The English are living on history.

Stevie just finished a refurbish end of August, and we tried to do a pop-up at Dock, but the refurb took longer than expected, ran into September, and in the end the timing was off; he had to finish installing his tandoor and I had to return to the US. But I am happy to have met Stevie and expect he will continue to shake up the London scene in his personal, perfect quiet way. Congratulations Stevie!

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respect


In my recent postings about wild fennel liqueur, I failed to mention where I where I first learned about it and how to make it. In November of 2002, I had the opportunity to cook a book signing dinner at Chez Panisse for Vincent Schiavelli, the actor and cookbook author. I had been focused on Italian food for some time and was thrilled to collaborate with him on the menu. Vincent was of Sicilian decent, having grown up in a Sicilian ghetto in Brooklyn, where english was not a necessity, long before Brooklyn was the fashionable place it is today. His first cookbook, Bruculinu America: Remembrances of a Sicilian-American Brooklyn, is about growing up in the embrace of family and a community of Sicilian immigrants, eating Sicilian food, helping his grandmother cook sauce and many other traditional dishes. It's a charming book in which the stories of community and home merge with the recipes, as I imagine they did in his life; these things are always inseparable.

The book we cooked from, his second, is Many Beautiful Things; Stories and recipes from Polizzi Generosa, about his ancestral home, where he had kept house and lived part time. It's a lovely, hand-illustrated book by a lovely man who had an immense sense of history and where he came from, and therefore who he was. At the end of the book he has an entire section about making liqueurs, simple but definitive recipes and instructions that enlightened and excited me. We served wild fennel liqueur as an aperitivo at the dinner, and it was the perfect beginning to a wonderful meal. To his delight -- and mine -- we served coppa I had made. I learned, suddenly at the last minute, that it was incorrect to use fresh sardines in pasta with broccoli, that it had to be made from tinned sardines. We had to rush out and buy some from a nearby Italian deli.

The menu was:
wild fennel liqueur
antipasto: cooked carrot salad; pumpkin caponata; rapini omelette; sweet and sour meatballs; coppa
pasta with broccoli (and tinned sardines)
veal shoulder roast with Marsala
braised artichokes
fried leeks
dessert was almond crostata

Vincent was endlessly charming, generous, and enthusiastic, and we had immense fun cooking for him. He kept in loose touch in the following years, and though he invited us many times over, I never made it to his home in Polizzi Generosa. Vincent was a heavy smoker, and he died there in 2005, of lung cancer, in the home his grandfather had grown up in but had left behind for Bruculinu, America.

We all learn initially from someone else, some inspiration, then go on to develop our own thinking about our craft or art; it's like finding one's own voice. It is important to me to always keep in mind where I came from, who my mentors are, and to give them the respect and recognition they deserve. Deserving is a difficult idea -- how does one come to deserve something, and how are others to respect that? For me, it's a coming together of understanding, appreciation, and love. That, and remembering who you are. People sometimes to forget who they've learned from, and where they've come from. Without that, you can't know who you are. I always try to keep these notions in the forefront of my mind. I always say, no new food has been cooked in two hundred years. (That doesn't mean it hasn't been improved upon!) I think about that every time I cook. I explain to young cooks learning the craft of making prosciutto or other dry cured meats, that one stands in a river of tradition that goes back 2000 years.

That is my thanks to and respect for him, both of which he deserves.

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homegrown










Home Grown 



One of the forgotten wonders I returned to in California was dry farmed Early Girl tomatoes. None are like them. I will take grievous grief for saying this, but I have almost forsaken heirlooms -- Brandywines (which I saw almost none of upon returning to California), Cherokees, Green Zebras, Stupice, even Marvel Stripes, though I still like in principle Black Prince – for Early Girls. I have been swept away by them. Early Girls have all the splendid qualities one wishes for in a tomato: proper firmness; longevity that keeps them from going soft too soon; deep, concentrated, complex flavor; lovely, rich color; gentle, honest sweetness; no watery-ness. Heirlooms struggle to meet these standards. I understand the charm of heirlooms, and their visual beauty, but if it’s flavor you’re after, there’s really no choice but the dry farmed Early Girls.

I prepared food at home often in London, but it was hot there this summer, so we were eating simple, hardly cooked dishes: a lot of spectacular burrata from La Fromagerie, with ripe, red Italian datterini tomatoes, capers, basil, and barely sweet, aged Greek wine vinegar from the Peloponnesus; sometimes it was with a spectacular pounded caper-garlic-marjoram-olive oil slurry, or Sardinian dried oregano; or it was Salade Niçoise with lots of vegetables and orangey-yellow aioli made from exquisite farm eggs we found at the Sunday morning Marylebone Farmers Market, The Marylebone market was about 30 minutes' walk across town from our flat in Little Venice. We’d cross Edgware Road, where no English is spoken, walk along Crawford Street, quiet on Sunday morning, pass through Paddington Green (which was nowhere near Paddington!), and into the market located in a car park behind Marylebone High Street. The market sold beautiful organic produce, all of it English, all of it within a couple hours’ drive of central London. There’s a lovely, historical narrative about the origin of the Marylebone name, but that’s for a later story.

Lately, I have returned to cooking here at home, something I hadn’t done for a long time. Being away in London for so many months was the true reason, but other distractions have had their influence as well.

It is the most satisfying and wonderful thing to walk out your door and pick what’s for dinner tonight. We grow lovely tomatoes at home in our garden, and lots and lots of garlic, another of my manias, along with wild fennel. My friend Leslie gave me a small jar of perfect, astonishingly fragrant, carefully cleaned coriander seed she grew in her garden, and I add a few of those to the tomatoes, along with a few slivers of garlic from my plot. Or plots. There are several plots of garlic. Mania, indeed.

A recipe, easy as can be
Choose ripe, firm, deep red, dry farmed Early Girls. Remove the stem, leave the skin on, and place the tomatoes stem side down, skin side up, in a shallow roasting pan, casserole, or sauté pan that holds them closely but not tightly; there should be some small amount of space between them. Use stainless steel or ceramic. Drizzle the tomatoes lightly with olive oil – Ligurian oil is especially nice – sprinkle them lightly with sea salt, slip a few halved garlic cloves between the tomatoes, toss in a couple of small dry chilies, and sprinkle in a few coriander seeds. I like to leave the coriander seeds whole, rather than pulverize them, so you get little explosions of flavor when you crush them between your teeth. You can add a few fennel seeds, or herbs, if you wish, but I keep it very simple. Drizzle with a little more oil, sprinkle a little more salt over, and they’re ready to go. I don’t have a wood-burning oven at home – maybe you do -- but I simulate it with my steadfast commercial US Range, cranked up to about 500ºF. I give it 45 minutes to heat up fully.

Roast the tomatoes in the hot oven for 30-35 minutes, until the flesh of the tomatoes is soft and giving, and their skin is blistered and blackened. You will end up with tomatoes whose flavor is concentrated to an even greater degree, awash in a rich, viscous sauce of juiciness, saltiness, and lovely acidity, all melded by the olive oil. Of course the tomatoes are best eaten that day, but they will keep in the fridge, covered, for several days. I’m lazy and often leave them out at room temperature for as long as a day or two. I don’t worry too much about spoilage with this kind of cooked food. It usually gets eaten pretty quickly anyway.

We like them on bruschette, with mozzarella, on fresh or dried noodles with basil and ricotta salata or pecorino sardo, in minestrone with pesto. We ate them tonight with Anson Mills’ terrific Rustic Coarse Polenta Integrale with fresh corn, finished with Reggiano Parmesan and a little sweet butter, just to be sure. Last week we served the tomatoes in fish stew with olives and capers, two weeks before that we pulled off the skins and stirred them into our bouillabaisse. They’re lovely with grilled whole fish and wild fennel. Really, they go well in any dish that calls for delicious tomatoes. This is the wonder of homegrown.

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wild fennel liqueur


Wild fennel liqueur or finucchiedda

Wild fennel is a lovely plant that I especially like. It is the flavor of the Mediterranean, especially of Italy, Sicily and Sardinia. Mixed with sage, rosemary, and garlic inside pork belly, it is exact taste of Tuscany; it defines the now well know salami, finocchiona; on fish, you’re transported to Sicily; in the presence of saffron, it will make you dream of Bouillabaisse.

Wild fennel, originally a European plant, has naturalized in northern California and can be found in almost any vacant lot, roadside area, regional park, or parking strip. It covers entire hillsides in Tilden Park. All you need to collect it is a pair of garden pruners. Urban foraging here. The wonderful part of this liqueur is you are given three flavors of fennel: the fronds, the seeds, and the flowers. Taste them separately to see what I mean.

Be sure to collect wild fennel from a clean area, well away from roads, freeways, train tracks, and other places with sooty air. It’s also a good idea to pick neighborhood branches not too close to the ground, as dogs like to pee on these plants in urban areas. But don’t worry about that too much, it washes off.

You’ll need to locate “pure” alcohol, or ethanol. Pure alcohol is the stock-in-trade of distillers and doctors, though it isn’t exactly legal for either of them to sell or even give it to you. “Pure” alcohol isn’t really pure in the strictest sense; it can reach a maximum of about 96% purity, or 186 proof under normal conditions. Since it is extremely volatile (it evaporates really quickly, which is why it feels cool on the skin, and is highly flammable -- no explanation needed), it retains a water fraction to stay stable. That’s the simple explanation. Easier to find and use is high proof grain alcohol, which is up to about 150 proof or 75% alcohol. You won’t get the same degree of extraction, or rather, solubility from lower alcohol spirits, but it still can produce a good if less intense liqueur.

Collect three or four fennel stalks with fronds, seeds, and flowers still on. Cut the stalks into 3 or 4 inch pieces. Rinse them in a few changes of cool water until it rinses clear. Drain well in a strainer and let drip at room temperature for a few minutes, until most of the water has fallen off. 

Place the fennel in a glass container you can cover and pour one liter of alcohol over it. Cover and allow to sit at room temperature for 3 days, away from heat.

On the second day, make sugar syrup by bringing to the boil 1 liter of spring water (don’t use tap water, too many chemicals!). Stir in 665 grams of granulated sugar until it’s completely dissolved. Stir occasionally as it cools. Allow to cool overnight, but do not refrigerate.

On the third day, strain the alcohol through cheesecloth or a gold type coffee filter so there are no bits left in the liquid. Pour the syrup into the alcohol and stir gently. (You may want to add the syrup judiciously, to achieve the exact taste you prefer.) You now have wild fennel liqueur. You can bottle it however you like -- in empty wine bottles, in French jars, in Mason jars -- but don’t use a plastic container. Freeze it overnight before serving. Store the alcohol in the freezer for safekeeping. Serve it over ice, add a little water if you like.


Here’s a little story. While I was in London this past year, it was unusually warm and dry for most of the summer, and I’d kept my windows open from mid-May until end of August. In the last week of my stay it rained in the night. In the  morning I set off for work on foot, as usual. I exited my apartment block, turned right toward the canal, and was suddenly stopped by the heady scent of wild fennel. As I searched behind the manicured hedgerow of Tuscan Blue rosemary to find the source, I realized I hadn’t encountered that enchanting smell since the summer before, in Northern Caifornia. There, hidden well away stood a single, small fennel plant, bending downward under the weight of the water from the night before, its aroma filling the morning air. I had lived in that flat for nearly six months and never noticed the secretive little beauty. It gave a wonderful lift to what was otherwise a somber day.

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vinegar project

Turning 50 gallons of good Howell Mountain wine we didn't bottle into red wine vinegar. by this time next year it should be finished and nicely aged in the two beautiful hand-bound Burgundy barrels to the right

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wild fennel, cooking from weeds



collected wild fennel from my secret spot today, to make wild fennel liqueur for sunday's popup, and for wild fennel pollen to last through to next summer, hopefully. it's wonderful to sort through the plants with my pruners, kept in the glove box for this purpose, cutting the stalks and stems in various stages of maturity, bees buzzing about without too much aggravation. if you're peaceful and quiet they don't take much notice of you, even as you steal their vital sustenance. i guess there's enough to go round. it is essential to the liqueur to harvest the stalks at this particular point, when there are several different flavors on the plant: some of the tiny yellow flowers are still in bloom for color and verve; some fully formed seeds for depth of flavor and nuttiness; a few fronds still green and vital for brightness; all given backbone by the thickened stalks. of course, the perfect blossoms are saved for drying in the attic, hooked to the ceiling in brown bags, bottled airtight after you've shaken them free in the bag. the liqueur takes a while, as all preserved foods do, as patience is required with all things of this nature. patience, and as my friend robin says, a steady hand. he means you have to know where you're going when you cook. and he knows.
                                    

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