Friday, June 26, 2009

Busy summer

Well, it's been over a month again. But I'm not even going to apologize this time. At this point, I think Viva Robusto is a once-a-month kind of blog. I've just got too much going on to update it more than that.

Such as? Well, most significantly, I've started working again. I'm back at my former place of employment (an ad agency) as a contractor, working around half time in the office for a couple of new clients. Call me crazy, but it's nice to be in an office working on a regular schedule again. And yeah, it feels good to be employed after 20+ months living as a poker "pro."

More big news: If anyone even still remembers about our epic trip around the world, I'm just about ready to publish my book!

I sort of gave up on shopping the thing around right around the time the economy was circling the toilet bowl. Two (2) published authors with connections in the industry advised me that nobody was buying anything, so I figured the best move might be to bide my time rather than spam every literary agent in the world.

In the meantime, I heard some good things about self-publishing. Turns out several outfits offer "on-demand" publishing, which means they will print up a single copy of my book each time someone buys the thing through or another online retailer. In other words, no need for me to purchase 10,000 copies and warehouse them in the basement.

And while I will receive pretty decent royalties for each self-published copy sold, I also retain the rights, and the option to make a deal with a traditional publisher. Even if I don't get any nibbles, it's nice to have the option.

So, it's still probably a couple months off, but it's coming. You'll hear about it here, and probably in some kind of worldwide spam email from me.

On to the food portion of the blog! Let's just get this out of the way: Mandatory asparagus shot.

Yeah, we eat a lot of asparagus, and we're always taking pictures of it for some reason. I dunno, it just seems to go with everything. Like melt-in-your-mouth beef loin with bearnaise sauce and twice-baked potatoes.

Another Viva Robusto staple: Roasted potatoes. Pictured with Kirkland steak seasoning, which is actually pretty tasty stuff.

Sort of a first try at fish tacos. We pan-seared a pre-made mix of raw fish, onions and seasoning from a local grocery store, and it turned out pretty well. The fish in real fish tacos should be crispy and fried in my opinion, but these were pretty good and we didn't have to splatter the whole stove with grease to make 'em. (A grease screen is high on the list of things I am planning on purchasing when Liz and I are back in a house).

Of course, we've had many good meals at Crippen Creek since I last posted. This one stood out. 3 courses, starting with spaghetti and mussels.

Next, wild salmon that Liz's dad caught himself. This is probably the best salmon I've ever had. Lightly crusted with butter and bread crumbs and topped with minced garlic and herbs. I don't mean to brag, but this is a pretty appetizing photo, and it doesn't even do the food justice. So good. If you look closely, you can even see a little asparagus in the background.

Oh, and the dinner still wasn't done. Final course: Rare beef loin and, you guessed it, asparagus.

One last piece of big news before I end this update: I finally got the motorcycle I've been after for years. When I agreed to travel around the world with Liz (and spend nearly all of my poker savings in the process), one condition was that I would be allowed to buy a brand-new Triumph motorcycle when we returned. Well, it's been about 10 months, and it finally happened. This baby was actually used, but it only had 17 miles on it. I couldn't pass it up.

It rides as nice as it looks.

That's it for now. See you next month, hopefully with more news about the book.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Eating the Easter Bunny

Vegetarians and vegans beware: In this edition of Viva Robusto, I document the killing and eating of a couple of cute, furry bunnies.

The story begins a few months ago, when Liz's friend Jessi from grad school contacted me on Facebook after one of my Viva Robusto updates. Turns out she and her husband are particularly resourceful foodies, making the most of their modestly-sized NE Portland yard to raise chickens, grow all manner of vegetables and, now, raise a crop of rabbits for meat.

The first batch of bunnies was going to be ready for slaughter in a few weeks; did we want to come over to document the process -- and the first meal -- on our blog?

Naturally I jumped at the opportunity, although I told Jessi that Liz would have to take the gory pictures if they wanted photos of the processing.

Well, we ended up missing out on the actual bunny killing, which left me relieved and Liz somewhat disappointed. But we did come over to sample and photograph their first meal prepared with homegrown meat -- Rabbit Cacciatore.

As the cacciatore simmered on the stove, Jessi led us on a tour of her incredible backyard -- in which nearly every inch of land is being put to good work growing vegetables or housing chickens and rabbits.

The reproductive cycle of rabbits is downright amazing. The male stud rabbit is kept in a separate cage -- until it's time to fertilize the female. When the male and female are placed in the same cage they instantly have sex, and the female gives birth to anywhere from 2-10 babies about a month later. A few weeks after that, it's possible to repeat the process!

Meanwhile, the batch of young rabbits is ready to process and eat in just a few short months, with each rabbit yielding around 2 pounds of meat. I haven't done the math, but it seems like even with only one male and female, two people could practically live off rabbit alone if they were so inclined. Talk about sustainability.

On to the pictures. Here's the lucky stud rabbit:

Here's the mother:

And last but not least, here's the cacciatore:

This is a "hunter-style" Italian dish with tomato, mushroom, onion and plenty of herbs and spices. It was already simmering when we arrived so we don't have any prep pictures. But here's what it looked like on the plate and ready to eat:

This was the big moment for Jessi and her husband. There was a bit of pressure associated with that first bite of homegrown rabbit -- after all, they had another 10+ pounds sitting in the fridge -- it had better be good!

I'll spare you any drama -- it was fantastic. A little more complex and hearty than chicken, but far from gamey. We ate it with homemade bread and oven-roasted asparagus, and it made a wonderful meal.

Of course, you're probably still wondering -- what did we actually eat on Easter Sunday? Turns out my parents had been saving a nice big chunk of ham from the Speranzas' pig for just such an occasion. So we had a homegrown, nitrate-free ham slow-roasted with some kind of sweet bourbon glaze, and it was spectacular.

Most of the cuts of meat from the Speranzas' pigs look quite different than their store-bought equivalents. They're darker and almost kind of gray -- not as attractive in their raw state, really -- but incredibly flavorful when cooked and healthier than store-bought pork.

This roast was just off the charts in my opinion. My parents brined the ham in advance so it was tender and juicy, and the salty/sweet contrast between the meat and the sweet bourbon glaze was to die for. I ate approximately 3 pounds on my own and promptly got the .

Wrapping this post up, here are a few other notable meals we've enjoyed lately.

Some kind of African peanut/curry/vegetable stew that Liz prepared. A sprinkle of cilantro and fresh-squeezed lime on top... we'll be making this again.

Coffee cake muffins. Also made by Liz.

Our first attempt at , an Italian flatbread. Topped here with brie, fresh basil and prosciutto. I made the bread itself a little too thick, but this is another one we'll continue to experiment with.

Another potato leek soup -- this time using Ina Garten's recipe topped with crispy shallots. The shallots really make the dish.

That's it for now. Hopefully we'll get to do some grilling this summer -- we packaged our grill with the house when we sold in 2007 and we're itching to get back in the game.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Lasagna Virgin

I suppose the title says it all -- until last month I had never cooked my own lasagna from scratch. Yes, I love cooking, and I love Italian food, but lasagna was always just off my radar screen.

See, I've had a number of mediocre to bad lasagne in my life. Chalky, bland, mushy... there are so many ways a lasagna can be done poorly, and I suspect I've tried all of them. When it came time to cook something for myself, lasagna simply never registered as an option.

In recent years, however, I've had a number of lasagne that have brought the dish back into my good graces. My mom discovered an excellent lasagna recipe at some point during my college years, and has been making it every now and then for the past decade. More recently, Liz started making the Barefoot Contessa's recipe with incredible results. So, I decided to give it a shot.

I used the same recipe with a few modifications. Most significantly, I used spicy Italian pork sausage instead of sweet Italian turkey sausage. In any case, here's how it all came together.

Onions and garlic ready to be sauteed.

Sausage -- casings removed -- into the pan.

Brown the sausage, add pureed tomatoes and seasonings, including fresh parsley.

In this recipe, we used regular lasagna noodles (not "no-cook" noodles) but we didn't exactly cook them. Ina Garten has you place them in a bowl of hot tap water for 20 minutes instead. I'm guessing this technique helps the noodles retain an al dente texture after all that time in the oven.

Prepping the cheeses.

Finally, we build the lasagna.

Ran out of sauce at the end... I could have done a better job estimating how much needed to go in each layer, but ultimately I don't think it mattered much.

Straight out of the oven:

And onto the plate, served with roasted asparagus.

I impressed myself... this lasagna was terrific. I like the creaminess and rich flavor that the goat cheese adds.

What else have we been cooking? Without getting into as much detail as the lasagna, here are a few pictures.

Tagliarelle with truffle butter (I couldn't find truffle butter in any brick and mortar store -- even . Apparently we need to order it online. So I substituted regular butter and a bit of truffle oil).

Wish I could take credit for this. Chili Egg Puff with potatoes sauteed in duck fat at Crippen Creek. There are no words.

A better look at those potatoes getting nice and crusty in that wonderful duck fat.

Our friend Austin, who is from Oregon but lives in Thailand, has given us a good technique for making Thai curries. Pictured: Masaman curry.

Meatballs for . A little different than the meatballs we use for Sunday Gravy, but pretty good in their own right.

I can't stop making this bread. What can I say?

Finally, here's what we had last night. From the latest issue of Saveur, pan-seared flatiron steak with herb butter.

The mashed potatoes don't look as appetizing as they might have, because I poured some of the pan juice on top of them. However, I can assure you that they were delicious.

What's next on the agenda? I vow to attempt a cassoulet before the end of the year. I am tinkering with and perfecting my pizza recipe. And some friends of ours are raising rabbits for meat, and they have invited us to share and photograph a special meal they will prepare after the slaughter. Until then!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Three types of bread - plus Andina trip report

Okay, so I didn't make a single post in February. And it's taken me half of March to get this one up. Well, I'll tell you, I'm just about as busy as an unemployed guy can be. I had a freelance assignment, and I've been playing cards a couple hours a day to make ends meet. But mostly, I've been baking a ton of bread.

Now, Liz and I have been making our own focaccia and pizza dough for a couple years now, but the other week I stumbled across a recipe on the internet that sparked my interest. It's the New York Times "No-Knead" bread recipe, and apparently it was all the rage a few years back. Yeah, we're behind the times.

The "trick" to the recipe is that you bake the bread in a Dutch Oven, which apparently mimics the conditions inside a professional steam-injected oven to give you a crispier crust.

It works. Incredibly well. My first attempt at the recipe:

Light and airy on the inside with a crispy crust. I was never able to achieve this kind of texture in my bread by baking it uncovered.

The crazy thing is how simple this bread is to prepare. Here's a link to .

Now, I spoke with my father-in-law Don about this recipe, and it turns out he's been using the Dutch Oven technique to bake bread for a while now. But, he thinks the NYT recipe needs more salt. He has his own recipe and techniques (which I won't reveal here; check out one of his for details), and he suggested I experiment with the dough a little bit.

Bake more bread? Okay, twist my arm. Here's a roll I made using some normal focaccia dough that had only risen for 2 hours!

Not quite as airy on the inside as the NYT loaf, but the crust was out of this world. Since then, I've made another large-sized loaf using focaccia dough that rose for closer to 8 hours. It was virtually identical to the NYT texture.

Now if you don't have a Dutch Oven, or if you have virtually no patience at all, you can still make some pretty good bread. This is the beer bread recipe I referenced in the last post. To refresh your memory: Mix 3 cups of self-rising flour with 1/2 cup of sugar. Pour in a beer and stir it up. Pour the batter into a buttered bread pan, then pour another 1/4 to 1/2 cup of melted butter on top. Bake at 375 for an hour. Here's what it should look like:

This is a whole different style of bread... crumbly and a bit denser than one you'd make with yeast... but great in its own way. This goes really well with soup.

Okay, enough about bread. I promised an Andina trip report and it's time to deliver. First, a little backstory. serves Peruvian food and is one of the most well-regarded restaurants in the Portland area. We'd heard great things and wanted to check it out, but we couldn't quite justify spending the money when I still hadn't found work. Then I got a gift certificate for my birthday back in November. We finally got around to using it last week.

At some point between the first time we heard about the restaurant and our meal there, our friends Seth and Karen told us that their friend Peter owns the place. I thought I'd mention this both because it's interesting, and also in the interest of full disclosure (even though we haven't met Peter).

Apologies in advance for these photos; the lighting in the restaurant was extremely dim (as is usually the case), making food photography particularly difficult.

Our server brought us a basket of bread and three dipping sauces while we browsed the menu. In order, they were peanutty, mango/orange-y and chili/spicy.

In Argentina, we were often served appetizers just like this -- bread with a salsa-like dipping sauce (often ).

Next up, appetizers. Andina has a couple dozen to choose from, all available in pequeno, mediano and grande sizes. We decided on conchas a la parmesana (bay scallops baked with parmesan cheese and lime butter) and chicharron de pollo (rispy golden chicken studded with quinoa, served with huacatay-peanut sauce).

The scallops were fantastic. You can't even see them through that golden crust of parmesan.

The chicken was tasty, but fell short of the scallops. We were left wondering if we had missed out on some other mindblowing appetizer.

For entrees, I ordered the adobo de cerdo (pork tenderloin quickly braised in the Arequipa style, with butternut squash and gorgonzola ravioli, green apple, and a tamarillo-rocoto “uchucuta”) and Liz had the lomo saltado (wok-fried Cascade Natural Beef tenders with onions, tomatoes, soy sauce, garlic, and aj√≠, served with rice and fried yuca).

First, the adobo:

The pork was tender and flavorful, and the sauce was extremely rich. I didn't notice the butternut squash and gorgonzola flavors in the ravioli; the rich flavor of the sauce overwhelmed them. I enjoyed the dish thoroughly, but afterward I felt a pang of regret that I hadn't ordered the corderito de los andes (a succulent double rack of grass-fed lamb grilled to order, and served with a Peruvian yellow potato and two cheese timbale with a sublime roasted pepper demi-glace).

On to Liz's lomo:

I only sampled a few bites, but the lomo was tangy, savory and delicious. Two thumbs up. As usual, we were both too full to consider any dessert. Between two pequeno appetizers, two entrees and two drinks each, we rang up a $108 tab (including tip).

Well, I actually have quite a few more food photos to post, but in the interest of getting something published on Viva Robusto, I'm going to save them for later and call this a wrap. Stay tuned -- I promise it won't take me another month to post again.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Serious Business

After looking over my recent posts, I've decided that I'm not doing a very good job of actually describing the foods we've been making and enjoying. In fact, I think I've been doing a terrible job. I mean, sure, the photos are nice, but if this is going to be a food blog, I need to include recipes and a heck of a lot more detailed analysis -- no more lazy "amazing" or "delicious" adjectives.

So, obviously, let's get rolling with the new, improved Viva Robusto with a picture of some guy with an accordion.

Okay, it's not just some guy, it's my dad's cousin Mark being coaxed into a song or two at a big family gathering to celebrate my grandfather's 87th birthday, and my grandmother's sister's 80th. He was a little rusty, or so he claimed, before ducking into another room to "practice."

Ah, but before he could get started, the real professional took over. This guy is not actually one of my relatives; he's a friend of the family who also happens to be an Italian-themed entertainer and singer.

He reeled off all the classics -- "Volare," "That's Amore," "Tarantella," etc...

And, as to be expected, there was a metric ton of food. However, the event was catered, so there weren't any special family recipes to photograph and share. Maybe next time.

Moving on, Liz and I went up to Seattle to visit our friends Tam and Elissa, and encountered this truck on I-5.

Yeah, that looks to be about two or three chopped up pigs in the back of that Silverado, just loose in the bed without even a rear gate! Not sure if they're going to or from processing, but this is another sobering reminder: Unless you grow it yourself, you really never know where your food has been or what it's been up to!

Speaking of homegrown food, we all checked out the Ballard Farmer's Market while in Seattle.

There was a great selection of fresh produce, and we picked up potatoes, onions, garlic, leeks and carrots for soup later that night. But this was what really caught my eye:

Yep, that's a Triumph Bonneville T-100, almost the *exact* motorcycle I've been pining after for years. Minus the windscreen.

The dinner that night worked out beautifully. We decided on a creamy potato leek soup, using a recipe we found on , a much more professional and useful food blog than mine. That link will take you right to the recipe, which is pretty standard except for the innovation (for us, anyway) of using thinly sliced potatoes (rather than coarsely chopped), which are easier to mash down to a creamy texture right in the soup once they've cooked.

We also made roasted carrots using the Barefoot Contessa recipe (olive oil, salt, pepper... not exactly rocket science) and a big spinach salad with her mustard vinaigrette.

Now, the mustard vinaigrette recipe is one that's worth listing here. I'm not much of a salad guy, but it literally makes me salivate in anticipation every time.

The following proportions will make enough dressing for two or three people, so adjust accordingly.

2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon spicy mustard
1 1/2 tablespoons champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 egg yolk at room temperature
pepper to taste

Finely chop the garlic, whisk chopped garlic and all other ingredients together. You can substitute different types of vinegar for a different taste -- we used Balsamic once and it was an interesting change of pace. You can also increase the garlic and mustard for a spicier dressing... I sometimes chop 3 or even 4 cloves of garlic, but I'm kind of crazy that way.

Oh, almost forgot: We topped off the dinner with homemade beer bread. This is one of the easiest bread recipes ever. Mix 3 cups of self-rising flour with a quarter cup of sugar and a bottle of beer. Transfer the batter to a greased baking pan and pour anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 cup of melted butter on top, bake at 350 until done (at least 40 minutes). It's impossible to screw this up. You end up with a nice, crispy buttery loaf of bread that goes great with soup.

Now that I've described our dinner in excruciating detail, I'm going to back it up with some glorious food pics, right? Uh, nope. Sorry. By the time we got everything done it was getting late and we just tucked right in. I completely forgot to take any pictures. My bad.

Not to worry, I've got some other mouthwatering food photos queued up. The next day we headed down to pike place to take this incredibly standard photo.

We were killing time while our wedding rings were being cleaned at EE Robbins, and we got a little hungry, so we wandered the market in search of my favorite fish & chip stand, Jack's.

Jack's doesn't offer too much in the way of ambiance or even seating, really. There are a few tipsy stools and a narrow aluminum counter. But the fish makes up for it. I usually get the Halibut, which is obviously the best, but since Liz and I were sharing, we went with a large order of Cod, just so there would be enough to go around.

Now, being a Halibut man, the Cod was actually a little bit disappointing. But it was still pretty dang good, thanks in large part to Jack's cocktail sauce. They usually reserve the stuff for prawns and so forth (you have to specially request it if you order fish and chips), but I find it goes best with the fish. It's tart and tangy and, I think, laced with horseradish.

Here's what it looks like. Word to the wise -- Jack's fish & chips are insanely greasy, which is just the way I like it. If you prefer "healthier" fish & chips, you might look elsewhere.

Back at home, planning our menus for the week. I wanted to experiment with some kind of a pesto pizza, and we figured we could use the leftovers in pasta later in the week, so I went out and bought a large box of basil and made some pesto.

This is only the second time I've made pesto (Liz usually makes it), but it's incredibly easy (if you have a food processor) and it comes out great.

Basically... pluck all the stems off your basil (about 4oz), wash the leaves and throw 'em in the food processor. Add maybe two or three cloves of garlic, a bit of olive oil (maybe 1/4 to 1/2 cup), some salt and as much parmesan cheese as you can grate before your arm gets tired. Fire that puppy up, then sample and adjust (add more oil, salt, garlic or cheese) according to taste.

Here's what we made with the leftovers... green basil pesto mac. This was just an improvised recipe -- I was trying to imitate the green basil pesto mac at here in Portland.

While the pasta is boiling (I would recommend using larger macaroni than this -- these were just what I happened to have on hand), melt some butter (I used 1/4 stick for about 1/2 a pound of pasta) and a lot of grated parmesan in a saucepan. When the pasta is done (al dente), add a bit of heavy cream to the butter/parmesan melt (I think I used 1/3 cup or so) and bring it up to medium/low heat. With the heat still on, toss in the pasta and a few cloves of raw, finely chopped garlic, a couple tablespoons of pesto and even more parmesan. Saute and stir for a minute or so to coat. Then grate even more parmesan on top before serving. Yeah, it's a lot of parmesan. That's how they do it at the Montage, and that's the way I like it.

Parmesan pro tip: Trader Joe's has the best prices on authentic Parmigiano cheese. They also have Grano, which is extremely similar to Parmigiano, and is in fact produced across the river from Parma, but cannot legally be called Parmigiano.

That's it for now. More pics and recipes coming soon.