Survival of the Fittest - Wild Blackberry Pavlova with Meyer Lemon Cream

"Get out of my way" she barked at me. Something whizzed past my head. I turned quickly and ducked under the leaves, instinctively kicking a vine loose. It was full of skin tearing thorns. I manuevered to escape. Sweating under the foliage my arm was scraped and stung in pain. I looked down seeing streaks of red. My hands looked blood soaked.

This wasn't a scene from "Lord of the Flies". Or an episode of "Survivor". My daughter and I were madly jockeying to get the best position in a thicket of wild and thorny blackberry vines. We were racing to see who could pick the most of this stain inducing juicy wild fruit just steps away from San Francisco Bay.

What drove us to this condition was a recent awareness of being able to source and grow food locally. Organically and sustainably. Several years ago the word "organic" shot into the mainstream like "Nintendo". Certainly for all the right reasons (mostly) but the evolution of organic has become something of an embarassment. The term (and industry) has been substantially taken over by big agri-business. "Organic" used to mean food that was grown and sold locally by crunchy granola people. You know what I mean by this. Bay Area hippies and peaceniks that made food a social statement. That always left a bad taste in my mouth (literally and figuratively).

Organic is supposed to mean food that is grown without pesticides and with minimal impact to the land that produces it. This is a process that, until the last 60 years, occurred regularly and naturally since the beginning of mankind. No flying the food in "fresh" from different time zones across the globe. When a cucumber has to "clear customs" or a tomato needs to have its "passport stamped" that's not fresh. It's big business. Apples from New Zealand. Grapes from Chile. More often than not it just doesn't taste as good as food you can buy that is grown (or found) locally. Our ancestors knew this but somehow we seemed to have forgotten.

The business of food and where it comes from is rapidly becoming front and center as a major issue the United States is just starting to contend with. Unthinkable just a decade ago, where your food comes from and how you get it is now a mainstream topic of conversation. The growing worldwide movement of "Slow Food" led by such luminaries as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame, as well as best selling treatises such as "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan, has pushed the sourcing and production of food into a major political issue. And First Lady Michelle Obama has moved awareness even further forward, growing an edible garden on the White House grounds. The awareness of where our food comes from is now a complex dance at the forefront of the American conversation. And I am glad to see it.

I'll admit that as much as I have always been involved with good food, cooking and eating, I never gave much thought to where it comes from and how we get it until recently. And I should point out that I am not against large scale production of food to some degree. I am fortunate that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the top food producing regions in the world. In this part of the country local farmers and producers are honored and paid accordingly for the food they produce. It's expensive but worth it. Much of this local bounty is talked about in the fantastic publication edible Marin and Wine Country. It's also worth pointing out the other side of the issue. Not every place has the ability to produce a wide range of food providing variety and sustenance.

All that said, it is nice to see some middle ground on the issue. A little awareness of where your food comes from, how it got to your plate and what it means when you make specific choices
because we all "vote with our wallet" is never a bad thing. There seems to be a bit of hysteria in the ether when people have an issue with being criticized because they eat Twinkies and Big Macs and think that such talk is a left wing takeover of American rights. No need to act like a Neanderthal and waltz around the issue. Or to start strapping firearms onto your body as a public display of your 2nd Amendment rights. It's just not food. Understand the arguments for and against both sides and then make your culinary choices intelligently.

Earlier this year two women in the community I live in started a locally grown food exchange. The Marin Open Garden Project is a simple and clever idea that I hope catches on across the country. The idea is simple and serves several purposes. A lot of people grow food, some for pleasure, others out of necessity and still others unknowingly (got a fruit tree in your yard). All of that food is local. And generally sustainable and organic. The problem is that sometimes you have too much of a good thing. What do you do with all those plums and tomatoes if you can't eat them yourself? I never gave this much thought in the past. Anytime we had fruit growing on a tree 90% of it would fall to the ground to rot and never to be eaten. Simply wasted. The one exception being my Fuerte avocado tree at our home in San Diego. It has its own fan club and every single fruit is eaten, but I digress.

It's incredible how much food that is grown never gets eaten. The Marin Open Garden Project helps to solve this problem nicely. Every weekend locals get together for an hour and bring their own home grown food to trade for other edibles. Not only is the food not wasted but you get to meet and interact with people in your community on a very personal level that you would normally not connect with. Add to that the wonderful side benefit of taking home a variety of freshly grown food and it's one of the most fulfilling 60 minutes you'll spend all week. MOGP will even arrange to have your fruit trees professionally picked with the abundance donated to those in need. Nothing wasted and you don't have to do anything except call them to arrange it.

This weekend we took home some beautiful home raised chicken eggs raised by a local family. When we got home we sauteed up some zucchini growing in our backyard and some sweet 100 cherry tomatoes (we had traded some for the eggs) for the perfect omelet filling. Topped with some garden fresh basil, I am telling you right now that nothing tasted better than this. Fresh. Flavorful. There was no stench of big business "Twinkie" here.

Later in the afternoon we rode our bikes around Tiburon, an upscale bayside enclave of seven figure homes and beautiful scenery that looks across San Francisco Bay. Wild blackberry bushes grow everywhere and the fruit is there for the taking. We thought "why not pick these and do
something with this local, organic and beautiful fruit?". OK, this was a bit "Into The Wild" and I'll tell you right now I have no plans to drop out of society and forage for food as a statement against big agri-business. But there is something very satisfying and right about harvesting your own food, growing it, trading it, and cooking it without having to have gone to the market and potentially buying something that came from another continent. It's somewhat primal but in a measured, culinary way.

We needed something simple yet elegant to help display this fresh fruit grab at its best. A simple berry pavlova, an import from Australia and New Zealand (a national dish with a history of fierce debate between the two countries as to who invented this fabulous dessert) filled the bill. Named after the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, this is the perfect backdrop for summertime fruits that needs little attention to put their best foot forward. One of our neighbors grows Meyer lemons year round and lets anyone come into his yard to take what they need. Following the spirit of the fruit exchange we created this fantastic wild blackberry pavlova, complimented with a Meyer lemon whipped cream. Simple. Local. Organic...A Grand Jete of flavor that is so simple, even a caveman can do it.

Wild Blackberry Pavlova
with Meyer Lemon Cream
Serves 4


4 egg whites, room temperature
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1 C sugar
4 T cornstarch
2 T Distilled White Vinegar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 C heavy whipping cream
1-2 T Meyer lemon juice (can use regular lemon as a substitute)
2 tsp lemon zest
2 pints of blackberries, hulled
2-3 T sugar
Additional lemon juice


To make the Pavlova Meringue
Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Beat the egg whites, salt and cream of tartar together in a bowl until the egg whites form stiff peaks. Gradually add the sugar, beating until the meringue becomes glossy. Add the cornstarch, vinegar and vanilla, mixing to combine.

Butter a cakepan or springform mold, or simply use a baking sheet and spoon the meringue in free form shape, with more meringue around the sides to form a rim. Bake for 1 hour. Shut off oven and open the door slightly, letting the Pavlova cool for 30 minutes.

To make the Meyer Lemon Cream
Beat the whipping cream and 1 TBSP sugar using an electric hand mixer for 2-3 minutes until the whipped cream sets up and begins to firm. Add 1-2 TBSP lemon juice to taste. Stir in 2 tsp lemon zest.

To make the blackberries
In a bowl combine the blackberries, 2-3 TBSP sugar and 1 TBSP lemon juice. Stir to combine and let sit for 5 minutes.

To Assemble the Pavlova
Remove the meringue from the baking pan and place on a serving platter. Cover the center of the meringue with 1/2 cup of the meyer lemon whipped cream. Top with the blackberries. Cut into wedges and serve with additional whip cream and berries on the side.

Tasting the Volcano – Kona Coffee Rubbed Steak with Hawaiian Pink Salt

Earth. Fire. Water. Air. A volcano erupts and lava spews into the sky. Giant waves crash down on a salted and sandy island shore rolling with the mist of rainforests. Massive animals roam among a wild range. The intensity of all of this would be too much for the average tourist visiting Waikiki in shorts and sandals while wearing colored socks. This isn’t the beginning of time however. Or a bad luau in Honolulu. Or even a tiki inspired Brady Bunch episode for that matter. I am talking about combining the unique ingredients of Hawaiian grown Kona coffee and volcanic pink salt as a flavorful rub to coat a thick grilled steak.

If you have never been to Hawaii, you need to go. Not for the beautiful beaches, mind you. Nor the exploration of the magnificent volcanoes at Kiluaea or Mauna Loa. You can even skip the touristically expensive luaus in Honolulu serving forgettable poi and teriyaki “whatever was cheapest at the market that day”. Although I would be hard pressed to defend that the only reason to go to Hawaii is the food…I would be close. Hawaiian regional cooking is fairly unknown, yet simply unparalleled in regional American cooking. Cajun food? Oh, I love that. But quite frankly it’s just not as good. Northeastern clam bakes, crab cakes, lobster rolls and other Atlantic seafood delicacies? Not that I would ever say no to that region' s best fare either. But it isn’t overly exotic, which oddly, matters in this instance. Southern BBQ? Certainly well understood and made with a lot of passion. And it gets my vote for our country’s culinary national treasure. But none of this uniquely American cooking compares to what you can get in Hawaii.

A chain of islands formed in the Pacific Ocean millions of years ago from undersea volcanoes, Hawaii is an archipelago considered part of Polynesia with a culture that is truly it's own. What makes it so special to the food world is the natural abundance of land and aquatic agriculture that represents the islands. Setting aside the amazing climate, which is what draws all those hibiscus flower printed shirt and sock clad sandal visitors, the key driver to the success of the region’s growing ability is its soil. Rich volcanic ash and lava that provides a growing medium like no other. And you can truly taste it. Deep. Dark. Clean. Rich. Vegetables have a fresh and intense flavor that is literally unmatched. And I do not say that lightly given the food growing and eating haven in Marin County where I currently live. Hawaiian grown tomatoes served with raw sweet onions from the islands are sensational. And with the natural abundance of seafood in the middle of the world’s greatest ocean, well let’s just say that the “fish option” on any menu rules in the Islands. If you have never understood the interest in the "local" cooking movement sweeping the world right now, a meal at a well selected restaurant in Hawaii will make you understand.

All of this said, it’s Hawaii’s relatively unknown “Cowboy Culture” that made me see the light to this unique American regional cooking approach. Here lies a rich ranching and cowboy tradition dating back more than 200 years in the Big Island’s “upcountry”. Cattle roam the open range, eating volcanically grown grass high up in the hills away from the shoreline. Paniolos, which are Hawaiian cowboys that settled the area after John Parker, a ship wrecked American, found favor with King Kamehameha in the early 1800’s. Parker was able to convince Mexican Vaqueros to come to the islands and teach the locals how to ranch. Horses were literally referred to as “Canoes on land” by the island natives. We visited the upcountry on a previous trip to Hawaii, leaving behind the beautiful Kohala Coast and white sandy beaches for a trip up to the mountains an hour a way. A pleasant surprise, we enjoyed learning about Parker Ranch and the rich free range ranching traditions that evolved over a relatively short time here given the ancient and exotic island beach culture commonly associated with Hawaii.

I digress temporarily away from regional cooking and cattle ranching to say that I have a love affair with coffee that requires counseling and medication. I actually don’t love coffee. I live for it, as I have written about previously here. Don't give me weak American brewed Sanka or I'll curse you to a fate worse than Greg, Peter and Bobby dealt with in the Tiki episode above. Or lock you in a room with Don Ho crooning "Tiny Bubbles" over and over. And over. Nothing in my mind is better than the coffee grown on the Kona Coast of Hawaii. Rich. Decadent. Deep. It tastes of the volcanoes. The aroma is ancient. Similar for me to wine in a sense. I enjoy smelling it as much as tasting it. It is an experience.

We have a tendency to think of coffee as only something to drink. It turns out coffee is a phenomenal and versatile ingredient that is very misunderstood in the world of cooking. Although not the first to introduce the concept into popular culture, Roy Yamaguchi, widely credited as one of the major forces behind launching Hawaiian regional cuisine, and the founder of Roy’s Restaurants, a rare global chain with serious cooking chops, regularly uses coffee in his cuisine. I was introduced to his incorporation of it when I curiously spotted a Kona Coffee Crusted Rack of Lamb on his menu on a separate trip to Maui some years back. It sounded so exotic. And when it arrived at the table I devoured it. Not realizing I was actually doing my best Meg Ryan impersonation, a vocally passionate interlude in front of Billy Crystal in “When Harry Met Sally”, except in this case I was wearing a bad Hawaiian shirt. Not pretty, I realize, plus my wife was annoyed. Not about the attempt at besting Ms. Ryan in such a public setting mind you, but for the fact that I didn't leave her a bite of this marvelous dish. Rich and deep, the lamb would have not offered its best had the coffee ground crust not been present.

From the Paniolo country on the Big Island we drove to Kilauea, on the south side. An active volcano in the middle of the amazing Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, we toured the area learning of domes, lava tubes, Pele - the goddess of fire and protector of the volcano, and taking in prehistoric views that were breathtaking. We had an early evening dinner at the park’s restaurant sitting on the edge of the volcano’s rim, a glorious fiery sunset enveloping the glass views surrounding us. My wife and I ordered the prime rib roasted in Hawaiian Pink Salt. This salt is a high quality ingredient with touches of salinity and volcanic ash, bringing out the best of the high quality local beef. On its own, this salt is a magnificent ingredient. A real treat to use for a basic salt crusted prime rib. Now, my eight year old daughter is a ravenous meat eater. If she had roamed the earth during the Jurrassic period, Tyrannasaurus Rex would have fled her in fear. She ate most of our dinner that night, nashing her teeth as we tried to steal a taste of this fabulous prime rib offering.

With the global financial meltdown erupting all around us consumers can currently get very high quality “prime” grade beef for a bargain. Even the Wall Street Journal is commenting on this interesting gauge of consumer spending as it relates to the current state of the economy. I created this version of a coffee crusted grilled steak combining finely ground Kona coffee and Hawaiian pink salt into a rub with a richness of depth that shows off the meat to its fullest. I will say that while I used Hawaiian ingredients for this recipe, you don't have to. Just buy a good coffee bean and use kosher salt and the outcome will still be as a rewarding as watching a hula dancer. For this treatment I combined finely ground coffee, to a level of an espresso ground or finer. Do not grind to a medium texture or the end product will taste like sand. There is no one way to create a rub like this, just use what you like. A lot of recipes use garlic and onion powder, something I am personally not a fan of. In this case, I wanted a bit of sweetness and added brown sugar for additional caramelization of the meat on the grill. I also added cayenne for heat and some smoked paprika to complement the coffee flavor. I lightly coated the steak with the rub and let it "marinate" in the refrigerator for 2-3 hours. I think this step really promotes the flavor of the rub into the meat. All in all, the overall approach really worked.

From a steak perspective, any cut of beef will work. I originally intended to do this with a ribeye to play off the salt crusted prime rib we had on the rim at Kiluaea. Given the fact that my local Whole Foods had my go to cut, New York Strip, grass fed and on sale at $9.99 per pound, I went with that. And it did not disappoint.

So in the meantime, if you can't get over to the Islands anytime soon, I want you to turn on "Tiny Bubbles" and go outside and light the BBQ. Put on your best black socks, sandals and your most obnoxiously colorful Hawaiian flower print shirt. Toss on a cowboy hat and a slab of beef and let this luau of flavor begin.

Recipe for Kona Coffee Rubbed Steak with Hawaiian Pink Salt
Serves 2

2 1lb steaks (New York, Ribeye, etc...)
2 Tbsp finely ground Kona Coffee (or other)
1 Tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp Hawaiian Pink or Kosher Salt
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
1-2 Tbsp canola or olive oil
Make the Rub*
Combine the coffee, brown sugar, salt, paprika, cayenne and black peppers in a small bowl.

Marinate the Steak
Dry steaks and sprinkle 1 Tbsp of the coffee rub onto each side of the beef. Place on a plate and cover with saran wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes up to 4 hours.
To Cook
Remove steaks and bring to room temperature, about 15 minutes. Heat a BBQ grill to high for 10 minutes. Scrape the grill and carefully coat with cooking oil. Lower heat to medium high. Lightly drizzle the steaks on both sides with the oil using a spoon or grill tongs to ensure the surface area is covered as this will prevent sticking. Place the steaks on the grill and bring the temperature down to medium high. Cook 5 minutes per side, turning the beef 90 degrees every 2 1/2 minutes for grill marks and to carmelize the rub crust. Keep the lid closed until last 2-3 minutes after you have turned the steaks. When the steaks are cooked remove them from from the grill and let them rest for 5 minutes. Slice in 1/2 inch thick strips and serve.
* The rub will keep for up to 2 months in an airtight container. Add 1-2 Tbsp into any chili recipe and you'll win your local cook-off contest.

A Celebrated Dessert - Olive Oil Cake with Meyer Lemon Marmalade

I've kind of had it with the cult of celebrity in this country. It appears that Armageddeon is about to occur as Brangelina has finally become oversaturated in the media and hopefully is on the wane. How about those sorry excuses for parents, Jon and Kate? I am pro-family, but seriously these people have no business raising kids and doing such a poor job of it in the public spotlight. I am going to start paying TLC to stop broadcasting these nitwits. Even our current President and his movie star wife have moved to a stratospheric level of celebrity. First, a "night out" to New York City for dinner at Blue Hill and a Broadway show. Followed up by the world's most publicized romantic "date night" the next week in Paris. Isn't it enough already? I am ready to put a dish towel over my head, roll up into a fetal position and eat a TV dinner.

But perhaps my biggest beef with the whole celebration of the famous is occuring around the cooking world and "celebrity" chefs. Mind you, I am not resentful of anyone's success but these days you can't swing a prosciutto around without hitting a well known culinary master. I thought I would have escaped all of this attention moving to the quaint little town of Mill Valley outside of San Francisco several months ago. Nice. Quiet. People mind their own business here. That is until Tyler Florence of Food Network fame moved to the neighborhood and set up shop in town. Tyler Florence Mill Valley graces the downtown, a pleasant ode to good cooking. Sort of a cross between a Sur La Table and a Pottery Barn. I met Tyler in his store and ran into him at jury duty (seriously) a few months back. A nice man with a lovely family. Until his fork was stolen. You see, he has two 6 foot forks above his store entrance as part of the signage. The local press was aghast. "Dude, Where's My Fork" screamed the headline of the Mill Valley Herald (see the photo and story here). Worse than that, Mr. Florence realized the minor press goldmine this likely end of year senior prank has provided. He started twittering about it with posts like "All right guys, someone stole one of the forks off the front of my shop. WTF?" I am just not going to escape this, am I?

I really like things that are understated. And tasteful. Food. Design. Art. Architecture. People. No need to scream all the attention in the world towards whatever you are doing/hawking/feeling every chance you get. Ina Garten, subtely promotes herself this way. Although certainly a celebrity by any measure, with several successful cooking shows, cookbooks and a cooking product line to point to. She walks a fine line in regards to overexposure, seemingly doling herself out in reserved bits and pieces. More my speed.

And there is definitely no need to publicly position yourself as the world's leading authority on any given food topic either. I was watching superstar chef, restauranteur and author Michael Chiarello of NapaStyle and Food Network fame gumming about how to properly salt a dish on one of his shows. The overly confident Mr. Chiarello has a near religious devotion to using gray salt (sel gris) on virtually everything. He talks about it incessantly. Walking into his flagship store NapaStyle, a cross between a Williams-Sonoma and Pottery Barn, one can't help being taken aback by the sheer number of different types of salt he has for sale. Black Salt. Hawaiian Lava Salt. Himalayan Pink Salt. A Jihad of salt. And this man suffers from overexposure. His other cooking shows including Easy Entertaining, and the new Top Chef Masters series on Bravo TV, all while launching his latest restaurant, Bottega, gives him ample opportunity to throw salt on everything (one). Don't get me wrong. I respect the man as a chef, he is very talented. But the constant din of selling the brand is getting to be too much.

My birthday came and went a few weeks ago and my parents thoughtfully sent me a cookbook for a gift as I am a big collector. I chuckled when I opened the package - "At Home with Michael Chiarello". I thought to myself "There is no getting away from this now, is there?" Thumbing through the book a week later I decided to cook something out of it as my parents would be visiting for the weekend. A nice gesture I thought, put the star chef's cookbook into action. My mom called. "Honey, you'll never guess who we just met?" she screamed joyfully through the phone. "We just had lunch at Bottega in Napa Valley and Michael sat down with us for 15 minutes". "Oh", I said sounding half excited and half reaching for a TV dinner. "And we're bringing you his pink Himalayan salt!"

All that said, I really like Mr. Chiarello's approach to desserts. Simple. Understated. Not overly pushy or fanciful. I am not a big dessert maker, and definitely not a proficient baker as I have written about previously here. I decided to make his olive oil cake with marmalade to balance Ina Garten's Provencal Style Goat Cheese and Tomato Tart for dinner. This was a true success. Flavorful. Moist. Slightly different but delivering satisfaction in every bite. A real celebration. Making and eating it made me feel like a star all while watching TV while having dinner.

Olive Oil Cake* with Meyer Lemon Marmalade
Serves 6

Ingredients for Olive Oil Cake
3/4 C Olive Oil plus extra for pan
1/8 C orange juice
1/2 tsp grey salt or fleur de sel
1 C all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
2 eggs at room temperature (recipe uses 1 1/2 eggs)
1 C granulated sugar
1/2 C + 2 Tbsp milk
1/8 C french brandy
2 tsp grated lemon zest
1 tsp rosemary, finely chopped

Ingredients for Meyer Lemon Marmalade
6 Meyer Lemons
1 C granulated sugar

Other Ingredients
Vanilla Ice Cream for serving (optional)

To Make the Olive Oil Cake
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Oil a 10 inch cake pan and set aside. In a non reactive sauce pan reduce orange juice over medium heat by half, about 6-7 minutes. Season with salt and set aside to cool completely.

Sift flour, baking soda and baking powder into a medium bowl and set aside. In another medium bowl beat one egg using a mixer with a paddle or hand mixer until combined. Discard half the egg mixture. Add the second edd to the beaten egg mixture and combine until blended well, about one minute. Add the olive oil, milk, sugar, brandy, orange juice, lemon zest, and rosemary. Combine with the mixer, about one minute. Stir in dry ingredients until just combined. Pour into the prepared cake pan. Tap the pan on the counter 2-3 times and then bake in the oven until set and a toothpick comes out clean, about 1 hour. Remove cake from oven and allow to completely cool on a rack. Run knife around the edge of the pan and turn out onto a plate.

To make the Meyer Lemon Marmalade
While the cake is baking, wash and dry the lemons. Cut them in half and juice them, reserving the liquid. Using a melon baller or a spoon, remove the remaining pulp and white pith from the inside of the lemons. Cut the lemons into 1/8 inch strips. Place lemons in a non-reactive sauce pot and cover with 4 C of cold water. Bring to a boil and cook for one minute. Drain the peels into a mesh strainer and rinse thoroughly with cold water. Return the peels to the pan and repeat the same process two more times. On the last boil, drain the peels but do not rinse them. Return them to the sauce pan and add the reserved lemon juice and 1 C of sugar. Cook over a medium low heat for 30 minutes, skimming off the white foam as it cooks.

To Finish the Olive Oil Cake
Spoon the 4-6 T of the warm marmalade over the cake, spreading it all over the top. Slice and serve with vanilla ice cream.
* Olive Oil Cake recipe adopted from "At Home With Michael Chiarello

A Beauty Queen's Dinner - Argentine Grilled Skirt Steak with Chimichurri, Red Onions and Arugula

Sometimes life can get very complicated and outsized. Power. Beauty. Politics. When all these conditions come together they can be life changing for some. Entire countries have been changed by such forces. I am not talking about Ms. Alaska runner-up and one time vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Or even the calculatingly attractive Ms. California, Carrie Prejean. Beautiful women born into tragedy. And certainly politically reaching with differing degrees of power. But their influence is so dimunitive really. True beauty and power comes from strength, elegance and simplicity. Something that can be very big.

I learned of this beauty on a trip to Argentina learning about the primary force that has shaped this amazing South American country. I am not talking about Eva Peron (Evita), the larger than life "Queen of the people" that made something out of herself from nothing, putting an imprint on her people's psyche and becoming an international cultural symbol of Argentina. I am talking about the beauty, strength and elegance of Argentinian cooking - grilled beef with chimichurri sauce. This is food that means something. It's big and intense like the country it comes from. And full of flavor. It moves people.

Evita was the illigitimate daughter of the mistress to a local aristocrat. Born in 1919, she spent the next 20 years living under the spector of this social taboo while taking all her talents to make something of herself. Her success in cinema and acting allowed her to bridge talent and opportunity together. Her life was one of power, accomplishment and tragedy. Although not a beauty queen, she was treated as royalty by the monarchs and institutions of Europe as Argentina's First Lady and one time populist vice-presidential nominee. By the time she died at age 33, she had ascended to be one of the most powerful political leaders in the country and an international icon.

I have been very fortunate to have visited Argentina twice, both times staying in the nation's stunning capital, Buenos Aires. The capital, like the country, is a land of largess. The vast open spaces of the Patagonia. The ascending and spectacular Andes mountain range. And beautiful people - sometimes with outsized personalities (deservedly or not) of Italian and German ancestry. Argentines display a playful South American casualness wrapped around European elegance. Wide boulevards. Beautiful architecture. And then there is the food. Argentina is proud of its culinary heritage and it should be. Buttery and flaky empanadas, a nod to French baking with a twist of Latin American soul. Big and bold wines like the country's famous red Malbec from the vast and beautiful Mendoza wine country. Or my favorite export, the fabulously characteristic white wine Torrontes.

Yet all of this doesn't really characterize what Argentina is. It is a country of beef. Although that sounds odd, it's true. Trust me when I tell you I love a good steak and I have had the opportunity to have some of the best in the world. I've tucked into Kobe beef bred from Wagyu cattle of Japan at $200 for a 10 oz filet in Tokyo. Each steer is fed a special diet, rubbed with sake and pampered with little allowable movement contributing to a soft and velvety experience. All in all not bad. The famous Tuscan T-Bone "bistecca alla fiorentina" of Val-de-Chiana? I ate it in Florence at Il Troia (Sostanza) , a restaurant whose influence only rivals the city's Renaissance Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. I would definitely go back for dinner here.

But a simple and somewhat unexplainable fact remains. Argentine beef tastes better. Why? Some say the large open rich grass pastures of the Pampas allow the cattle to forage in a free range setting. Others believe the limited use of feedlots and antibiotics makes all the difference. I honestly can't say what is behind the phenomenon. But I can tell you that if I had three steaks in front of me: a kobe filet, a bistecca alla florentina T-Bone and an Argentine New York Strip, you would have to pry the Argentine steak from my cold dead hands. Asia? Sorry. Europe? No thanks. South America's beautiful and tragic Argentina wins hands down.

All that said, the source of the beef matters when you are making your own. It's not terribly easy to get Argentine beef in the United States (but widely available in Holland - go figure). That said, you can create your own version with a good cut of New York Strip, filet mignon or skirt steak. If you go to Argentina you'll be going to an Argentine steak house, called a parilla, and ordering the Bife de Lomo, essentially a filet mignon. I am not a big fan of filets because while they are soft, they usually lack flavor. "Lomos", as they are called, literally rule. They are that good. They are "Evita big" in terms of taste and natural stature and they will change your perspective on what defines a steak. You'll order this with a glass of Malbec and then send me a nice email telling me how thankful you are that you read my little meat missive.

For this recipe, I opted for free range, grass fed skirt steak. Simply seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper and grilled for about 4 minutes and I am mentally in the fashionable Recoleta district having an oral Tango*. I am a big fan of Chimichurri sauce, a mix of parsley, garlic, chili pepper flakes and olive oil. Argentines put it on everything and it's excellent. There is something about adding chimichurri to warm meat that imparts a scent like no other. I feel like I am back in Buenos Aires, sitting in a 100 year old cafe, with marble countertops and antique wood walls, having a 3 hour lunch. Although not necessarily Argentinian, I served my version over a bed of olive oil and sea salt seasoned arugula and cherry tomatoes. The warmth of the meat lightly cooks the vegetables with a drizzle of chimichurri on top. Big. Bold. Powerful. Simple. And beautiful. Not eating it would be a tragedy of beauty queen proportions.

Recipe for Argentine Grilled Skirt Steak
with Chimichurri, Red Onions and Arugula
Serves 2-3
1 Lb skirt steak or New York strip steak
1 red or bermuda onion, cut into thick rings
olive oil for coating
Kosher or sea salt
Ground pepper
8 oz of fresh arugula
12-16 cherry or grape tomatoes

Chimichurri Sauce
1 C flat leaf Italian parsley, stems removed
3 garlic cloves
2 Tbsp red wine or sherry vinegar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp red chili flakes
1/2 C olive oil

Make the Chimichurri Sauce
In a small food processor combine the parsley and garlic cloves. Pulse several times (10-15) to chop it coarsely. Alternatively, you can chop the parsley and garlic by hand. Place in small bowl. Add vinegar, salt, pepper, chili flakes and stir with the olive oil. Set aside.

Grill the Steak and Onions
Heat a grill or grill pan over a medium flame. Rub olive oil on the bermuda onion slices and season both sides with salt and pepper. Grill over a medium to low heat for 5 minutes per side, flipping once, until soft and slightly golden. Remove onions to a platter.

While the onion cooks rub steaks on both sides with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place steaks on a hot oiled barbeque or grill pan and cook no more than 2 minutes per side for skirt steak on a medium high flame for a total of 4 minutes, or 5 minutes per side for a New York Strip on a medium to medium high flame for a total of 10 minutes. Remove steaks from heat source to a platter. Cover with foil and let rest while you finish the remaining steps.

To Serve
On a serving platter, place arugula and drizzle with 2-3 Tbsp of good quality olive oil. Toss to coat and season with salt and pepper. Cut half of the cherry or grape tomatoes in half and scatter around the plate. Scatter remaining whole tomatoes on the plate. Toss with the arugula and then arrange for presentation. Slice the steak into strips crosswise with a diameter of 1/2 inch to 1 inch based on preference. Drizzle with some of the chimichurri sauce. Place grilled onions over the top of the platter and serve with the remaining chimichurri sauce on the side.

* Normally this is eaten with a big red Malbec wine and it totally works. That said, it was close to 1oo degrees the day I made this. I served this with iced white sangria as I have blogged about here, but used an Argentinian Torrontes for the wine. It completely worked, balancing out the tanginess and spice of the chimichurri sauce. I am not a big fan of strictly doing red wine with meat and white wine with chicken or seafood. The white sangria worked well here.

You Want Fries With That? Wild Mushroom Agnolotti, Caramelized Shallots, Thyme and Mushroom Broth

I am not a big fan of fast food but it's been an exhausting week. Double cheeseburger with bacon and fries? I'll do that. Slice of cheese pizza with extra hot pepper? That is right in my wheelhouse. Iranian Osetra caviar with creme fraiche on blini? OK, not fast food in the typical sense but I love caviar - and, well, you can eat it quickly while sipping the right champagne. Mind you, I am not talking about traditional fast food now. That's fine and it has its place. What I don't care for is ready prepared or pre-made "gourmet" food that masquerades as something delicious. Why? Because more often than not it doesn't come close to tasting good.

Walk into any supermarket, gourmet, or otherwise and you'll see what I mean. Refrigerated cases loaded with beautiful looking and bland tasting pre-made food. And it's pricey. If you are going for "gourmet" fast food and the value to deliciousness ratio is out of whack that's a culinary sin.

We can take this a step further and look at "freshly made" items you can find at the grocery store. You know what I mean. "Fresh" pasta. Refrigerated sauces. Pre-shredded cheeses. One word. Say it with me...Flavorless. You know I am right. Frankly, I'd rather have a cheeseburger.

I've been working 12 to 14 hour days the last two weeks on a big deal and I have been pretty tired - hardly a beautiful life for me. Oddly, several of my friends seem to be galavanting off to Europe right now. That's what I need. A break from the drudgery. The Plaza Mayor in Madrid with memories of tapas and sangria. That could work. Lobster grilled over coconut husks at a warung in Bali. I am on that beach mentally right now. Or perhaps the best of the lot. Eating at Ristorante Sibilla in the hills of Tivoli outside Rome. Popes have summered here for centuries. When the Gods on Mt. Olympus got tired of ordering takeout pizza they went to Sibilla for the most amazing pasta you have ever eaten.

When I work hard food becomes even more important to me. And it needs to taste good. So imagine how I rolled my eyes when I got home the other day and a package was waiting for me from the nice people at Foodbuzz, the blog advertising network I belong to. Intrigued, I opened the 16 inch box. It seemed unusually sizable, given the fact that I couldn't recall ordering anything. I opened it curiously pulling out Styrofoam, and then paper, and finally several blocks of dry ice. And what treasure was awaiting me when I got to the end of this culinary rainbow? A package of freshly made Wild Italian Mushroom Agnolotti from Buitoni. Yeah, you are reading that right. Buitoni. The people that make fresh pasta and sell it mass market.

I haven't blogged much lately but felt the need to inject some creativity into my life given the blood sucking world of corporate IT that I work in. A gourmet pasta that Foodbuzz was offering to some of their publishers presented a challenge. I was tired and hungry but I told myself I could whip something up based on what was in the fridge with the agnolotti. I peered into my refrigerator to see what I could work with. Cremini mushrooms? That was obvious. Further in the vegetable drawer I located some fresh thyme. I always have thyme on my hands (cute, considering how hard I have been working lately). An unused shallot lay threadbare, looking sorry for itself. He was in.

I got busy chopping the shallots and caramelizing them with olive oil over a medium heat. I sliced some mushrooms and sauteed them with shallots to a golden brown. Setting aside some of the shallot mixture I deglazed the plan with some Ferrari-Carrano Fume Blanc in the fridge door. Not exactly drinkable as it had been open for about a week but perfect for cooking. A couple of cups of vegetable stock and some chopped thyme went into and got boiled down for 15 minutes while I tossed the agnolotti in to cook. Buitoni recommends 4-6 minutes, gently boiled. I went with four minutes figuring that no self respecting Italian chef would cook pasta and then pour sauce over it. Certainly not the ones that cook at Sibilla. Why not finish cooking the Wild Mushroom Agnolotti in the thyme and mushroom broth to take advantage of flavor infusing and thickening? When the broth reduced, I strained it into a bowl and then added it back in the pan on a low heat with the reserved shallot and mushroom mixture I had sauteed. I finished cooking the pasta on a low heat for another few minutes. Gently placing the al dente pasta into warmed bowl, the broth with slices of mushroom and caramelized shallots was ladled over. A few shavings of fresh Parmesan and some fresh thyme on top finished this little fast food challenge off.

And the result? I am pretty confident the Pope that summered in Tivoli where Sibilla now stands would have genuflected with pleasure. The finished product was exceptional. I must say while I don't typically buy fresh pasta in a store, Buitoni has done an excellent job creating a very high quality product. The pasta has a toothsome but flavorful density. The well seasoned mushroom mixture included cremini and portobello mushrooms and grana padano and Parmesan cheeses. I served this with a Sparkling Rose from Chandon from Napa Valley. I love sparkling wine and champagne with food and this completely worked. A taste of Caramel Fleur de Sel gelato at the end made this experience la bella vita.

I don't typically review products in my blog and would not have gone out of my way to have bought this product if it hadn't been sent to me. Grazie to Foodbuzz and Buitoni. We really enjoyed this. I guess I need to re-visit the original premise of this post. I think I am beginning to like fast food.

Recipe for Wild Mushroom Agnolotti with Caramelized
Shallots, Thyme and Mushroom Broth

Serves 2

1 package Buitoni Riserva Brand Wild Mushroom Agnolotti
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
8-10 cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
2-3 T olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 T thyme, finely chopped (divided use)
2 cups vegetable broth or stock*
salt and pepper
Parmesan cheese for grating
Crusty French or Italian Bread

In a medium saute pan heat two TBSP of olive oil. Add shallots and cook until soft and beginning to caramelize, about 5-7 minutes. Stir occasionally. Add mushrooms and saute until slightly golden about 5 minutes. Add additional TBSP of olive oil if the pan is to dry while the mushrooms first start to cook. When mushroom are nearly done season with salt and pepper. Remove 2/3's of the shallot and mushroom mixture to a small bowl.

Raise the saute pan to a high heat. Add wine and deglaze, scraping up any browned bits with a wooden spoon. Cook until the wine has evaporated. Add 2 cups of vegetable broth and 1/2 of the chopped thyme. Bring the broth to a boil and reduce to 1 cup. Taste for seasoning and adjust with additional salt and pepper if necessary. While the broth is cooking down heat a separate 3 quart saucepan with water and bring to a bowl. When water is boiling add in agnolotti and cook gently for four minutes. Meanwhile strain the broth into a bowl pressing the solids with the back of a spoon to extra out any remaining liquid. Discard the solids. Wipe out the saute pan and add the strained broth back in over a low heat. When the pasta has finished cooking for four minutes transfer it to the saute pan with a slotted spoon. It's OK if a little of the pasta water makes it into the broth, that only adds to the finished product. Cook gently for 2-3 minutes.

To Serve
Using the slotted spoon, place the ravioli in two warmed bowls. Ladle the sliced mushrooms and shallots over the top and pour any remaining broth into the bowls. Grate the Parmesan cheese over the top and sprinkle with the remaining fresh chopped thyme. Serve with bread on the side to dip into the broth.

* The type of vegetable broth or stock you use will change the outcome of this dish as there are so many different types. I used Pacific Garden Organic Vegetable Stock for this. They use tomatoes as part if the broth base giving it a richer texture and a darker color. A lighter stock, such as Swansons will provide a somewhat different outcome, more "en brodo" style the way tortellini is served in Italy. No less delicious, just different.

"Slap Yo Mama in The Face Good" Pulled Pork with Kentucky Black Bourbon BBQ Sauce

All right. Don't start with me because I don't want to have to get in your face. I don't just like barbecue. I feel barbecue. Ribs. Brisket. Pulled Pork. Call me crazy why don't you. Barbecue is real food. Wood. Smoke. Marinades. Brines. Dry rubs. And sauces. We can go a few rounds on sauces.

Oh I have had the good fortune of eating in some
of the best restaurants in the world. World famous Guy Savoy's namesake temple to gastronomy in Paris (twice). American legend Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Yountville. Le Cirque 2000 in New York. And perhaps, my favorite of the lot. Restaurant Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain. They are all wonderful. But they are not barbecue. You can have a passion for cooking. But no cuisine (other than French or Basque, perhaps) is considered "a passion". Except that is for barbecue.

I thought about this passion long and hard. And then I pulled out my crock pot. You probably think I need a slap in the face. But I'll get to that later.

Democracy and the Bill of Rights? Important milestones in governing our nation. Women's Suffrage. Its impact on civil government cannot be underestimated. The Civil Rights Voting Act of 1964. No doubt a gut wrenching change millions had to deal with. All of these milestones of society emerged through conflict. This country was founded on barbecue.

This kind of cooking is complicated. I don't mean the actual technical act of the cooking itself. Low and slow. Mesquite and Hickory. Indirect heat smokers. Nothing overly complicated at an execution level. Find a heat source. Light a fire. And let it go. The complexity comes down to a simple issue. No one can agree what defines real barbecue.

First of all, what meat do you use? Beef. Pork. Chicken. Once that is sorted then you have to argue about what is the best cut. Brisket. Loins. Ribs. Racks. Butts. Shoulders. Legs. Sausage. Some misguided people actually believe only beef brisket qualifies as BBQ. But I am a pork lover. I am ready to make my stand so bring it on.

And then there are the flavoring bases. Marinades. Dry Rubs. Wet Rubs. Brines. Vinegar based sauces. Tomato based. Heat. Sweet. Spicy. Smoky. I'm a wet tomato based sauce lover. I've actually had heated conversations about the whole wet vs. dry method of BBQ cooking. Don't invade my personal space on this topic as it won't turn out too good for you.

Now you just try having a rational barbecue conversation with someone from Memphis, or Texas. Kansas City or Georgia. Birmingham or Santa Maria. There is no agreement on what constitutes real barbecue. BBQ is a passion. Someone just might get hurt.

You'd think with my love of low and slow cooking I would sing the merits of mesquite. Or perhaps smokers. But I don't. Yeah, I'll stand outside in the hot sun for hours, clothes smelling of smoke. Wiping sweat off my brow. I'd rather pay someone else for that commitment however. But I still love eating barbecue at home. Which is why I use my slow cooker. I'm getting funny looks from people across the country right about now. But for my favorite type of barbecue, pulled pork in a sweet and spicy tomato based sauce, there is simply no need.

Simple and easy to make, a little water, some sliced onion and a good cut of pork are all that is needed to turn out fantastic BBQ. And the key for this recipe is that when the cooking is half way done you simply drain the water and chop the meat. Adding back in some homemade sauce and fresh chopped onion for the second round of cooking forces the meat to put off its liquid, causing a tenderness that forces a concentration in flavor. I've had pulled pork sandwiches at Smoki-O's in St. Louis. A small altar to porcine eating. This version is just as good.

I like making my own barbecue sauce. There are plenty of good versions you can purchase that are store bought. But I feel that if I am going to skip the whole "smoke your own and make a personal commitment" experience, the least I can do is cook my own masterful sauce. Oh, I'm a sauce guy as you well know and as I have written about previously here. In this version, I ad libbed a basic Steven Reichlen tomato based treatment, substituting a cajun rub for a dry BBQ rub and adding in extra cayenne. For me, the whole reason to do a tomato based sauce is to get the interplay of spicy versus sweet. You can start modestly and then add in 1/4 teaspoons of pepper to get to the right "low burn". I had a reasonable rendition of this at Dreamland BBQ in Birmingham a few times. They have been making BBQ since 1958. Although I call this a "Kentucky Black Bourbon" sauce, technically it isn't since it isn't purely vinegar based. I add in Balsamic vinegar and a touch of bourbon. A couple of bites of this and you'll start trash talkin'.

OK, OK. Calm down now. It's not done in a smoker. Or over wood. But this is cooked slowly and comes out meltingly tender. As my friend Bren over at FlaN Boyant Eats likes to say this is "slap yo mama in the face good". Let the fighting begin...

Recipe for Pulled Pork with Kentucky
Black Bourbon BBQ Sauce & Creamy Slaw
Serves 4


Pulled Pork
3-4 lb pork butt or shoulder
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 1/2 cups BBQ sauce

Kentucky Black Bourbon BBQ Sauce
1 cup Heinz ketchup
1/2 cup Heinz or similar chili sauce
1/4 cup cider vinegar
3 TBSP prepared yellow mustard
1 TBSP balsamic vinegar
1 TBSP bourbon
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp cayenne pepper, with more to taste for heat

Creamy Slaw
2 cups sliced red or green cabbage
1/2 carrot grated
1/3 cup mayonnaise
3 TBSP sour cream
1/4 tsp salt
11/4 tsp pepper

For Serving
4 soft hamburger buns
Dill pickles


Pulled Pork
Put 2/3 of the sliced onion on the bottom of a 6 qt or larger slow cooker/crock pot. Lay pork roast over the onions. Add 1 1/2 cups of water and lay remaining onion slices over the top. Set cooker on "High" for 4 to 5 hours. Do not break the seal of the lid. Remove pork to a cutting board and let rest for 5 mins. Drain liquid and discard onions in slow cooker. Chop the pork into 1 to 2 inch pieces and add back into the crock pot. Add chopped onions and 1 1/4 cups of BBQ sauce and stir. Cook for an additional 4-5 hours on "Low" stirring 2 or 3 times. Using two forks, shred the pork.

Kentucky Black Bourbon BBQ Sauce
Combine all ingredients with 1/2 of the cayenne pepper in a 2 quart saucepan. Bring to a boil slowly and stir. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes stirring occasionally until thickened. Check the sauce for heat and add more cayenne if needed.

Creamy Slaw
Whisk together the mayonnaise and the sour cream until smooth. Add in cider vinegar, salt and pepper and stir. Mix cabbage and carrot with the dressing and let sit for 30 minutes.

To serve the Pulled Pork Sandwiches
Wrap the buns in foil and heat in a 275 degree oven for 10 minutes. Mound 1/2 cup of the pulled pork on the bottom bun half. Place 3-4 TBSP of slaw over the top. Slather the top bun half with some of the remaining BBQ sauce. Serve with dill pickles on the side.

Lazy Sunday, Lazy Blog

I haven't wanted to do an entry like this on Chefectomy. The blog is supposed to be clever and witty with some sort of unique travel angle thrown in for good measure. All centered around a food topic I want to write about with an accompanying recipe. A bit of a racy overtone between the sexes seems to get added in as well. Usually more often than not. But March flew by and Spring is here. I felt like I needed to at least put up one posting for the month. I'm a lazy slug.

It's not like I haven't had lots to blog about. I've done more good eating and cooking with blogging inspiration to follow in the last 30 days then I can remember. NOPA. Beretta. Lark Creek Inn. The Slanted Door. All excellent restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area with unique cooking leveraging the best locally grown food you can find anywhere.

I was going to do a whole blog thing on bacon. Who doesn't like bacon. "I am sure I can come up with something clever around bacon" I said to my wife after having some Hobbs Bacon on a sandwich recently. Hobbs has reached near cult status in Marin. Anytime bacon reaches cult status that's got to be worth writing about. And there is an excellent chance that the global financial system is also coming off the rails when such status is reached. I googled "bacon blogs" for a bit of inspiration. Man was I over my head when I saw the results. I Heart Bacon. Bacon Unwrapped. One person even does a recipe devoted TO BACON everyday on The Bacon Show claiming "one bacon recipe per day, every day, forever." How do you compete with that on the cleverness factor? You probably need to become a big executive at AIG. Everyone loves bacon, even highly overpaid insurance executives. But alas - no blog bacon love.

I had delectable burrata cheese on a pizza at Beretta's in the Mission a few weeks ago. If you don't know what this product is, you really need to track it down and try it. It's conceptually like fresh bufalo mozzarella, but really nothing like it when you taste it. It has a flavor that is uniquely creamy and sweet but works against a savory backdrop of virtually any good ingredient. Although delicious, no real blogging inspiration from buratta at Beretta's.

I got over to Bi-Rite Creamery last night after dinner at The Slanted Door in the San Francisco Ferry Building. If you plan on visiting the Golden Gate Bridge (which I am obsessed with), or go to Ghiradelli Square, or take a cable car ride down Powell street to the Embacadero you need to skip all that. Simply head over to the Mission District and order the salted caramel ice cream. It is an ode to deliciousness. Your trip will be complete and considered a success. You need do nothing further other than write and thank me for helping you realize what ice cream is (and isn't). I read some article a month or so ago about how salted caramel had entered the mainstream and this was recognized in the fact that Barack Obama loves the stuff from a specific purveyor up in Seattle. As much of a fan as I am of the President, he needs to duck out of Washington and head over to Bi-Rite for a double scoop. I guarantee you the AIG bonus mess will be a distant memory after this. I suppose I could write a political blog.

So all of this leads me to the posting I am putting up. Not very creative I realize, but it was a beautiful, lazy Sunday in Marin County and we went out to San Rafael Farmer's Market and then for a walk throw our neighborhood in Mill Valley. A few photos to share and hopefully some blogging inspiration will follow...

A neighbor's tulip garden in Mill Valley

Meyer Lemons down the street

California Poppies in our front yard

Organic Strawberries from the San Rafael Farmer's Market