Category Archives: food

A visit to Sean Thackrey

MO-sky

Famous people are not necessarily interesting people if you’ve only got a few minutes to chit chat, like really, wouldn’t most people, famous or not, just say, “is the chicken BBQ done yet?” or “do you think there’s onions in the guac?”

But we’ve got a short list, a very short list, of those we’d like to have those few minutes with, and Sean Thackrey is at the top, though technically David’s met him a long time ago. He used to work at the bookstore ST frequented, and ST has kindly remembered this fact over the years.

thackrey_fifi

The drive to Bolinas on Highway 1 was a winding northern California classic, part fog, part sunshine, sheer cliffs overlooking a slightly angry ocean. We made a brief stop in Sausalito, which we made very brief, after designating it the Lake Como of the Bay Area, if you can judge a town merely by their galleries and penchant for regattas.

Our instructions for arriving at ST’s “barn.”
Park, let the dogs out, knock on the door.
The dogs were so happy to be face to face with the quintessential San Francisco guy: ST in his denim shirt and black turtleneck, work slacks and his marvelous Peter O’Toole look. San Francisco people from his generation (Alice Waters, etc.) are pretty much in a league of their own. Plus he’s missing more teeth than me, only his gaps are more uniformly distributed and wine-tinted. The dogs checked out a couple of his crushing tanks and his historical-plated pick-up truck, and got started munching on his weeds.

MO_lick

We asked ST whether he commuted to the city over Highway 1 when he worked there (he was an art dealer before he become a wine-maker). ST said yes, winding roads can lead to motion sickness, but how could he complain about his commute, since it was the centerpiece of other people’s vacations.

ST told us he now had a feral fox which he was feeding regularly, some mixture of duck fat, egg and dog food, confirming Stevie’s frantic suspicion that this whole damn place smelled like fox.

stevie_alarm

We got onto the topic of the Siberian experiment that bred foxes for tameness, in which the foxes got cuter after just a few generations, and ST said that was just blatantly impossible, and if it were possible, then it was purely heart attack material, that is, to have anything bred to be cuter than a fox.

heart-attack-cuteness

When we went inside the barn Stevie got to lick ST’s pans and even chew on a discarded cherry pit, while MO vapor waked the fox food. DUCK FAT is her middle name afterall.

In the kitchen hung the shrine to Aquila:

sean_thackrey_aquila_shrine

When ST explained that the things at the bottom were Belgian glove molds, we hit on the idea of soldering two of them together to create menorahs for Belgian Jews, a niche market for sure, but certainly one which would buy our product.

belgian_jew_menorah

The other 2/3 of the bottom floor of his barn held wine barrels, which we are thinking might be around 30,000 bottles of wine give or take a few thousand. On the shelf were bags of Vole repellant, but I’m not sure how many ounces of repellent works for one vole.

The assistant Tim came and pulled some wine of out of barrel to see if it was good enough to start bottling. We took our leave and told ST we were off to Marin Sun to get some burgers. We told him that we heard the tasting room at Marin Sun wasn’t working out, and asked why that was. ST said they were a good customer, and sell quite a bit of his wine, but they don’t have a dedicated person to actually stand there and talk (i.e. understand) his wine. In other words, he said, Marin Sun is a butcher that also cooks, they buy his wine but they are not a tasting room. Get it?

stevie_snooze

Thank god foxes don’t live long enough to develop cholesterol issues.

Tuo Cha gone awry

1996_menghai

If you’ve ever visited a tea factory it will come as no surprise that there can be a lot of variation between bags, or batches of tea. In fact, if a tea farmer serves you tea, and you want to buy some of it, it’s best if you buy from that bag of tea they are holding in their hands. Don’t let them scurry it away into the back, and don’t believe them when they say, “there’s plenty more where that came from.”

Since tea is an organic product, there’s always the chance that over time it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. For Pu’er (and especially raw Pu’er), since it’s stored and aged, there’s years of opportunity for something to go wrong. In addition, Pu’er is sun-dried, which doesn’t quite halt all the oxidation, so over the years it’s still alive, slowly changing and reacting to its environment.

Recently we were able to compare a Menghai 1996 Tuo Cha that someone described as “something wrong, slightly moldy, or else my palette has gone completely off its rocker” with its respectable batch mate.

It was almost too easy. The compression of the “bad” tea was very loose. It crumbled when we went to break it apart. The odor was fine (no mold), and the wet leaves smelled slightly weaker than our sample, but the color of the rinse tells us this tuo cha ran with the wrong crowd.

1996_tuo-cha_compare

The amber color that should be there for a raw Pu’er from 1996 was more of a watered down yellow. It was very clear, which is good, but the color was that of a younger tea. But even younger teas have some kind of flavor, and this tea had no flavor, just a sharp, bitter aftertaste. I am not throwing around the word “bitter” carelessly. I was actually surprised to taste real bitterness in the tea, as opposed to astringency, or a puckering sensation, or other subtle tastes similar to bitter but more complex. Bitter is actually an uncommon taste to have on its own. Sometimes it’s paired with sourness (grapefruit pith) or sweetness (licorice root) but pure bitterness for bitter’s sake is something very special indeed.

1996_tuo-cha_compare_cups

I doubt that the tea was improperly stored, or that anything could have been done to the tea over the years to save it. Sometimes you just lose one.

lostpaw

Duck breast in my jersey pocket

flat-tire-note

Last week while riding down Topanga Canyon I got my first flat as an adult. Technically it was my second flat, as the first one happened in my garage overnight, so let’s count this as my first puncture acquired in public.

The people I were riding with had already gone down the hill, because who wants to linger on Topanga Canyon? It’s quite possibly the dumbest downhill stretch in Los Angeles. The grade is between -3 to -8 and you have to pedal super hard to keep the headwind from blowing you into a complete standstill.

agoura

Of course the nail went into the back wheel but I was more worried about the CO2 cartridge failing than figuring out how to get the wheel back on. I had heard so many stories of cartridges failing, and I only had one, and I’d rather call Uber than ask anyone to ride all the way back up the f**king mountain with a little extra CO2.

Needless to say I successfully fixed my flat, and have been trying to figure out the best way to carry my beautiful little bicycle pump in addition to my one cartridge.

I can’t put the pump on my bike because my bike is so small there just isn’t any more room, and I’m not going to be one of those people who figure “someone’s bound to have a spare tire” (or have 5 bucks to buy me a coffee) so jersey pockets have been on my mind.

closed-PCH

One of my jerseys has a third, tall pocket for a pump, but many jerseys for women only have two short pockets, although some brands provide us with little secret secret areas that are sewn in weird triangular shapes, and nothing normal, as in keys, tampons, credit cards, phone, can fit into them, but someone thinks we women like them.

What I do know is that a Muscovy duck breast is shaped perfectly to fit into a jersey pocket. Yesterday after a great up & down tour of Griffith Park, Elysian Park, and Echo Park, we stopped in at McCalls, who packed us up a bag of ice with our duck and away we went, ice water dripping down our back and leg.

duck-in-jersey

Marinate this jersey-pocket sized piece of meat in soy sauce, sesame oil, and ginger, sear it with Sichuan peppercorns and salt, and then smoke it with lapsang souchong tea, rice, and brown sugar and I’ll do that ride any day of the week, even double-flatted.

salting-duck-breast

tea-smoked-duck-smoker

tea-smoked-duck

My Google Important folder, and the authentication of Pu’er tea.

important-folder

dog_trash

When you manage your email through Google, the system automatically creates default folders for you, and although most of them make sense (Sent Messages really do contain emails that I have sent), there is a truly confounding folder labeled Important, which is where some of my email goes, and ALL of the emails I delete.*

* Yes, I have my settings set correctly, my deleted mail is set to go to the Trash. But whatever.

A folder labeled “Important” is confusing because that’s not how I work, I can’t even begin to fathom the agony of deciding what’s important and what’s not, because importance is a matter of context. You can relegate something to be not important simply because you want to blow that person off, or you can say getting one’s buttocks and abs whipped into shape is of upmost importance.

Since Google’s Important folder seems to follow no apparent logic, the other day I got tired of it.** I deleted an email that had credit card info on it, and it somehow found its way to the Important folder so I seized the moment and deleted all the emails that were in there. Yes, all 19,000+ of them.

** Yes, I have recently found the setting where I can hide the Important folder, which just goes to show you its importance.

And suddenly a lot of my emails were gone. Not my Sent mail (they were in the Sent folder), and not the emails that I had filed to other folders, but the weird emails that were in the middle ground between save and delete, the ones I scroll past every single day and wish someone would just come and tell me what to do with them. And amongst this epic pile, only some, but not all of those emails were gone.

Did I freak out? Nah, I just got a little sad. OK, a lot sad. If a company creates an Important folder for you, when you delete it, shit should really hit the fan. But nothing important was missing. I couldn’t remember anything that I was going to miss having around. Invites to events, notice of stores having sales, or links to dumb articles were resent by whoever, re-spawned into my Inbox like sea monkeys. All those 19,000+ emails were stupid. Email is stupid.

bundle-puer-drawing

The other day someone from a fancy ass hotel in Beverly Hills called up a friend of mine, looking for an expert on Pu’er tea.

Apparently the cleaning lady at the hotel tossed out a very special guest’s stash of Pu’er tea, which, to any normal person, does look like a clod of dirt.

The guest either threw such a fit, or was so special that the hotel was considering replacing the tea, or at least finding out whether it was something they wanted to do.
My friend asked whether they knew what kind of Pu’er it was, and they told her that the guest said the tea was from the 1920’s, and sent some photos. The guest had quite a few tea cakes from this era, and the wrapping on them looked old and dirty.

A little history here: aged Pu’er is one of the most sought after teas and certainly the most faked. An authentic Pu’er tea from the 1920’s is most likely a fake or impossible to replace, and probably wouldn’t have buddies from the same period. Authenticating Pu’er is hard but understanding that the history of tea and the history of China go hand in hand is the first place to start.

ripe_puer_test

real_and_fake_Hong_Tai_Cheng_bags

real_and_fake_Hong_Tai_Cheng

– Before 1949 (invasion by Japan, Chinese civil war) the Pu’er producers were family owned, and used no wrapping.
– After 1949, with the establishment of the Communist party, state ownership took over with 4 major Pu’er companies, each with specific brands on their wrappers.
– After 1970, an agricultural entity takes control and starts production of Pu’er under the name of Seven Sons. At this time there is a proliferation of private label teacakes, a lot of family farms and suddenly everyone has a different wrapper and a different name and a different recipe, leading to a lot of confusion.
—End of history lesson—

Here’s the funny part.
The photos that were sent from the hotel guest were of tea wrapped in none other than the Seven Sons label, which started circa 1970. A 1970’s Pu’er is nothing to sneeze at, but unless you taste the tea, you don’t know what year it’s from, as Seven Sons Pu’er is still manufactured today.

So, 1920’s Pu’er tea my foot, or my ass, or my Google Important folder.

Here’s a commemorative Pu’er from the People’s Liberation Army on its 80th anniversary. This one is real. It’s from 2008. The friend who gave it to us had a relative who was a general.

communist_puer

Awakening the inner chile

The world outside New Mexico has finally discovered Hatch Chiles. Not that they’ll stop spelling “chile” as “chili” but at least they’ll stop using those damn Ortega’s.
Like ice cream being the new cupcake or paleo being the new Zone diet, there is nothing hotter than being in the know about Hatch chiles in August. Used to be I’d have to pack them in a cooler for the 16-hour drive from Santa Fe to Los Angeles, or stash them frozen in my luggage for the flight. Friends that knew I was packing the green stuff prepared for my arrival by buying posole, orange cheese, Negro Modelo and cubed pork butt. The short harvest season (six weeks) makes timing super important.

chile_temp

Now it seems globalization has hit Hatch. 18-wheelers that have driven all night from New Mexico to California set up in school parking lots filled with burlap bags of chile, and if you’re really in the know you will ask for “Chavez” to roast your stash. Now that Bristol Farms has fully embraced this “the roast is on” fad, in the cake and cookie department the signs say “It’s now or next year! Hatch chiles are here!”

In the cheese department, “It’s now or next year! Hatch chiles are here!”
In the meat department, where at least there you can get tenderloin marinated with HATCH CHILES! or sausage made with HATCH CHILES!, but yes, by the pickles and the beers: “It’s now or next year! Hatch chiles are here!”

hatch-header

So I bought some. Why not? They’ve come all this way, and they smelled, even un-roasted, incredible.
I made my way to the checkout aisle, where a lady wearing a t-shirt with a green man-chile and the phrase “Ask me about Hatch Chiles” on it asked me if I found everything I needed. I nodded. She scanned my groceries quickly, slowing down only to count the snack bars that I buy by the box because Bristol Farms is the only place that carries them. But then she got to my bag of chiles. She frowned. I looked up, just about to swipe my card. She turned one of the chiles over and then slid the bag on the scale, pressing with both hands to keep the chiles from falling out of the plastic bag. She looked up at her monitor and then she pulled out the book to look up the code for… what ARE these?”

gracias_plate

PS. The one sign that didn’t mention Hatch said “Now serving coffee in our café.”

Just floss the ones you want to keep (ode to Dennis Oppenheim)

I remember being in high school and sneaking out in the middle of the night to meet my friend Ellen. She’d pick me up at the end of the cul de sac, having rolled all the way down my street with the engine completely shut off. We were sneaky. But this being White Rock, New Mexico, there was nowhere to go. The fun was climbing out the window and seeing if all the stars were still there. OK, sometimes we’d light firecrackers. It was also before gas stations took credit cards, so if we didn’t have any gas we were stuck, and Ellen often had no gas.
One night we were in my room and Ellen had to pee. In the darkness she went to the bathroom which I shared with my grandparents, who were sleeping in the next room, and since she thought we were good at nighttime maneuvers she didn’t turn the light on.
I heard her scream, and then she called out “Abby!”
I wondered why the hell she would call me “Abby.” Ellen and I had been friends forever, and we didn’t even know an Abby. I went into the hall, stopped for a few breaths to listen for rumblings of my grandparents, and ran into Ellen carrying a glass jar on her head, with my grandmother’s full set of dentures submerged in water, rat-tat-tatting. The moonlight sparkled off the metal, and the water gave the dentures a magnified look, causing the pink simulated gum to actually look like flesh. Bubbles rose to the surface and popped. It was alive.
Ellen danced the jar back to my room, saying something about how that Polident shit was weird looking.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“We’ll need this!” she said, tapping on the jar. “It’s Abby Normal!”

**********************
Also back in high school my teeth didn’t respond well to orthodontic manuevering so I had to have several teeth pulled and a bridge put in. The doctor who put my bridge in told me I’d probably get twenty years out of it, and by then some new technology would be invented to solve my problem. Well that time has come.

teeth_imprint_before

teeth_imprint_after

Here is what’s been helping me eat for the past 25+ years. It’s like having your personal fork taken away.
teeth

Reminder and Remainder

kitty
Behind any published piece of writing are many pages (and in my case many many pages) that were written but never meant to be read. These excess words are like the camphor tree that’s planted alongside a tea tree, by the time the tea leaves have been picked and processed there’s no thought of whose roots were co-mingled with what, but the slight cooling sensation on your tongue is both reminder and remainder.

spices

Many thanks to Black Balloon Publishing for publishing my profile on Koh Kikuchi (Chef Otto) this week. While editing the piece I went back to my notes and found a few lines comparing Koh’s cooking to Morton Feldman’s piano music. Needless to say such abstract nonsense didn’t even make it into the first draft but I can post it here for the minimally inclined.

A Morton Feldman piano piece:
– sometimes the audible has already been played
– sounds become inaudible before their notation ends
– notes that fade away by themselves without the pianist’s influence
– not everything in the score is audibly recognized

Koh’s cooking:
– takes into account what you may have already eaten, or may still be lingering in your palate.
– dictates textures and flavors in a sequence, within a time frame lasting between two bites to a five-course meal
– flavors that emerge without Koh’s influence (he likes to say “I did nothing to this piece of meat!”)
– not everything he does to the food is intended to be tasted

pheasant_puff

One has to read what the dish is trying to do. Like minimalism piano music, there are tones and rhythms, but the music has a purpose. It’s going somewhere, though some notes fail where others succeed. One has to study the dish, how it relates to what was served before, or what is coming.
The seared tip of a triangle of whitefish, the slimy spiral of seaweed in a clear consommé, the dull grayish blob of leeks that were cooked in soy sauce and wine and pork ribs for 8 hours. All of these are notes/textures in his little compositions.

knife

A few lingering online reviews of Koh’s cooking:

LA Times: February 11, 2001

Metropolis: March 17, 2011

Mouthfulsfood.com, July 2004

Uwe’s World: September 2005

remainder

Chef de Brigade resurfaces

portraitchef1

In 1975 John McPhee published a story called Brigade de Cuisine about a chef he calls Otto, who ran a 55-seat restaurant with no help except for Anne, his pastry chef/wife, their children (who served the food), and a dishwasher on the weekends. Seven years ago as a dear friend of mine was closing his French Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles to move back to Tokyo, I borrowed McPhee’s line where he asks the chef if he could sit in his kitchen and take notes.

veggie_ride-drawing

This April my profile of “Chef Otto” will be published online at airshipdaily.com by Black Balloon Publishing, and the only thing that could possibly make me any happier is knowing that the Chef de Brigade is coming back to the states.

knife_chopping

You lucky people of Seattle will now have a chance to taste this guy’s food. Don’t be turned off by the name of the place (Yes, it’s called I Love Sushi, the one in Bellevue). Just know that even though “Otto” is not a sushi chef this place is owned by the same people who own Shiro’s, and if you follow the hype, both owner, Shiro Kashiba, and sushi chef Daisuke Nakazawa (who recently left Shiro’s and is now running Sushi Nakazawa in NYC) apprenticed with Jiro Ono from the movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” You can imagine they take their fish-craft very seriously.

feeder-drawing

Add to this “Otto’s” weird obsessive concept of how things should taste and be cooked, and his commitment to achieve particular flavors and textures by controlling how everything from the trimming of herbs to how to clean to the pastry brush, and you’re going to be saying “I loaf loaf loaf sushi.”

koh-burger

For those of us stuck in Los Angeles, there’s the hope that “Otto” will someday come back here, but in the meantime for sushi there’s Kiriko Sushi on Sawtelle. These guys are buddies.

koh_ken

What do they talk about during a precious layover at LAX? An 80 year old sushi chef just outside of Tokyo who’s the hands-down grandmaster. All skills, no hype. From what I heard: Sushi chefs that have been at the top of the business for 40+ years eat his food and get goosebumps. Always room for improvement, as “Otto” likes to say.

scampi

Love Will Tear Us Apart

I made a pork loin the other day, stuffed with salt-cured olives, pickles, and pistachios. It came out a perfect spiral, dripping with juicy bits, but because of work/schedule/whatnot we didn’t get to eat it that day so I put it in the fridge.

Yesterday David busted into it for lunch while I was out. With an awesome knife from Cut it’s easy to get carried away with how thin you can slice the thing, and no matter what you do the hunk stays perfectly put together.

pickle_olive_pork

Then came this text:

love_porkstring_text1

love_porkstring_text2

Pretty much sums up the secret to why we’ve stayed together all these years.

And now to curb the sappiness of this post a little:

Celery Root Soup vs. me

It’s supposedly winter, and despite the high 80’s temperature it’s still the season for soup. I’m batting 0 for 3 in the celery root soup department, though, so I’m thinking I should cross that recipe off my list.
A month ago I thought I bought celery root and I came home with horseradish. It was a little difficult to tell what it was at the store. I had a cold, and couldn’t smell anything. I was going to bite into it, but the grocery boy was staring right at me. Never mind that horseradish root looks a little “schlongy.”

horseradish-root

A week later I saw celery root at the Malibu farmer’s market but couldn’t squeeze them into my bike jersey. At a couple pounds a piece they’re not the kind of thing you want to be dragging down the PCH anyway.

Finally last week I came home with the right thing but left the burner on too high and boiled the soup into a charcoaly mash of smoked root bits. I had a cold (same one as everyone seems to have), and couldn’t smell the smoke until the smoke detector went off, and then went off, and went off some more. Sigh.

Good things come to those that fail though. I finally decided to do something with the horseradish so I turned it into horseradish. It’s hotter than crap, in fact it’s holy mother blow your head off good. So here’s to clearing up all sorts of sinus issues. Prime rib, deviled eggs, sausages, herring under a fur coat, anyone?

horseradish