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.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Just when you thought you were out... I pull you back in!

For whatever reason, Blogger started working again on my desktop computer, which happens to be where all my post-travel photos are stored.

So, I guess I might as well update the blog!

First things first, we need to catch up. Liz and I returned home from our 10 months and one week of travel on August 7, 2008. Liz found work quickly and is pretty busy between her (now) full-time gig and occasional shifts at . I have been looking for work and working hard on my book, which I finished a couple of days before Thanksgiving.

I've still got a few tweaks here and there, and a few manuscripts out for editing, but I'm beginning the process of finding a literary agent. In case you are a literary agent (or publisher) and you have happened across this page, the book is a 56,000 word, narrative non-fiction account of how my wife and I traveled around the world. Yeah, I know, there are a million books like that. So what's the hook? I, um, actually hate to travel. My wife made me go places that I never thought I'd visit in a million years. So the book is tentatively called The Reluctant Traveler - Or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Third World, and it's a sarcastic rebuttal to the sort of dreamy travel books that make living in a thatched hut with 43 chickens and a voodoo shaman sound preferable to the author's previous home in the United States. And it's really [censored] funny.

But enough about that. Let's get back to what Viva Robusto has always been about -- food. I plan on updating this site on the semi-regular with pictures, recipes and stories about our culinary adventures.

These pictures are roughly in chronological order and go back to the first month or so after our return. First up, maple-oatmeal scones (Barefoot Contessa recipe). These have been a favorite since we first made them. If you don't already have Barefoot Contessa: Family Style, just run out and buy it right now. Every recipe we've tried is a winner (and we've tried a lot of them).

Grilled steak (with butter melting on top, obv), twice-baked potatoes and homegrown peas. If this doesn't sell , I don't know what does.

A couple of the pigs raised right on the property for later use as bacon and other delicious pork products.

Some kind of molten chocolate cake/brownie thing that was pretty obviously delicious.

When we were in Italy, my grandfather's late brother's ex-wife made us the most amazing minestrone soup with pesto. Liz and I tried to recreate the recipe here using the America's Test Kitchen recipe for minestrone and Don's pesto recipe. Results? It wasn't quite as good, but it was damn close.

Another favorite from our trip recreated at home: Cochinita Pibil. I used the recipe from the Once Upon a Time in Mexico DVD, believe it or not. Basically, you marinate about 3 pounds of pork shoulder in a spice and lemon juice concoction (heavy with ), then slow-bake it for 4-6 hours at a low temperature. The pink onions are simply pickled red onions. Again, it wasn't quite as good as the real stuff in Mexico, but it was our first try. And it actually got better overnight in the fridge.

Another picture. The texture was amazing -- fall-apart juicy.

Hot coppa from New Seasons. My 2nd favorite cured meat in the world. Obviously we had nothing to do with the preparation of this food, I just thought it looked delicious. Look at those spicy seeds on the corner there... it makes my mouth water every time I see this photo.

For Liz's birthday dinner, I made bacon-wrapped filets with mushrooms and a wine-based pan sauce (and Liz added some mashed potatoes). The pan sauce recipe came from America's Test Kitchen and was excellent. Unfortunately the meal itself wasn't very photogenic once we plated everything up, so I've posted a photo of myself preparing it instead. You can tell it's going to be a good meal by the plate of blood sitting on the stove.

One of our few meals out since our return. This is some kind of deep-fried gnocchi with cream, sauce (I think it may have been plum sauce) and sage, and it was really the only good part of the meal. I had some kind of a fettucine dish with wild boar that was mediocre at best (and looked disgusting to boot) and Liz had French onion soup that was served lukewarm. Bummer.

My first attempt at a cake, ever. This is ultra-rich chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting. We ate this after a particularly decadent dinner and it sent me to the bedroom for about an hour of lying on my stomach and groaning afterward. Two thumbs up!

Another wedding with excellent food. Liz's brother pictured here enjoying the dessert.

Thanksgiving pie, glazed and ready to go in the oven. Liz's sister Kate made this.

Something new: Abel Skivars. I'm not sure how to spell that, and even Google couldn't help me. But basically, it means apple pancakes. Round apple pancakes. Our friends Seth and Karen made these for us.

Here's how they look when they're all done. We tried 'em with apple, blueberry (I think) and we even made a couple with bacon on the inside. You dip them into some kind of jam and powdered sugar before eating.

Christmas dinner at my grandparents. Two enormous, identical prime ribs. As good as they looked.

These may have been from a mix, but they sure looked cool.

Salad up at Crippen Creek with roasted pear topped with candied walnuts and blue cheese.

Some kind of a "pudding cake" (?) that I forgot to try after dinner.

After Christmas, Don and Dave made sunday gravy with meatballs. The sauce cooks all day long with homemade Italian sausage, meatballs and (I think) pork ribs. Don said at dinner that if he were on Death Row, this would be his choice for his last meal.

Afterward, homemade cannoli. Tragically, I was too full to eat any.

Well, that's it for the first real Viva Robusto post in months. Now that Blogger is working I will continue to update this page with new photos and recipes as often as I can. Hope you stay tuned.