World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Month: January, 2007

Lessons in Living – Art Buchwald

–Excerpted from Art Buchwald’s Farewell Column


"For some reason my mind keeps turning to food. I know I have not eaten all the eclairs I always wanted. In recent months, I have found it hard to go past the Cheesecake Factory without at least having one profiterole and a banana split.

I know it’s a rather silly thing at this stage of the game to spend so much time on food. But then again, as life went on and there were fewer and fewer things I could eat, I am now punishing myself for having passed up so many good things earlier in the trip."



Champurrado. Cham-purrrrr-ado. It’s sounds so fiesty. At it’s most loose it is a hot chocolate and spice drink that is thickened with corn meal. As a member of a group of Mexican corn-based drinks called atoles it is a most often compared to the Eastern-based milk tea, chai.

In it’s simplest form it is milk and piloncillo, a type of brown sugar, is brought to a boiling point while the masa harina is browned in a skillet. So simple but such a complex earthy taste. Due to it’s somewhat filling nature it can be served as a late afternoon merienda (snack) or as a simple breakfast with churros. However it is during Christmas time posadas where it is served alongside tamales that you’ll find huge pots and big crowds.

Not to wander too much here but…in 16th century Mexico, Aztecs celebrated the arrival of Huitzilopochtli, the war god, from Dec. 7 to 24. During the time of the Spanish missionaries this celebration was replaced with the European Christmas traditions to replace the pagan images with those of Mary and Joseph. Posada, a Christmas festival which plays out the search of Joseph and Mary seeking lodging, are celebrated in churches and missions with dramatic representations of the Nativity scene.

It’s probably one of the first fusion foods with the Spaniards milk and sugar marrying with the native corn of Mexico. The secret to making this comforting traditional beverage is to continually stir. The consistency should be thicker than that of hot chocolate.


Chocolate Atole

Adapted from California Rancho Cooking by Jacqueline Higuera McMahan

1/3 cup ground masa harina

1 tablespoon cornstarch

½ cup water

4 cups milk

¾ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed

Dash of cinnamon

1 ounce bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped

1 tspn vanilla extract

Instructions: Add the masa harina and cornstarch to the cold water and whisk to dissolve all the lumps. Add the mixture to the milk and brown sugar in a saucepan deep enough to allow room for whisking. Stir over low heat. Once the champurrado has begun to slightly thicken, after 10 minutes, add the chocolate, cinnamon, and vanilla bean. The tiny granules of corn should take about 20 minutes to well and thicken up. All at once it will seem, the liquid will become smooth and velvet like. Serve with the cinnamon stick. Serves 4

Soup for a Cold Night


Without doubt one of the most frequently mentioned topics these days is the weather.  No, we are not a dull and polite crowd.  It is cold in the Bay Area.  Unseasonably cold, 10-20 degrees colder.  In fact they say in Marin that on Thursday the forecast of rain with 29 degree overnight temperatures may bring, yes, light snow. What??  So what’s my answer?  Soup. Big bowls of one pot wonders to satisfy one or 12. 

And that’s exactly what a a group of us did Saturday night, gather around a big soup or as the Italians say a minestrone.  And for as many Italian mamas there are there are recipes. Loosely define it’s a hearty dish of broth with lots of ingredients  in particular pasta, beans and vegetables.  Not to confuse the definition but in Italian, there are three words for soup: zuppa, which is used in the sense of tomato soup, or fish soup; minestra, which is used in the sense of a more substantial soup such as a vegetable soup; and minestrone, which means a very substantial or large soup, though the meaning has now come to be associated with this particular dish.

The origins of the word fall from the Latin minestrare meaning to serve up or dish up.  A specialty from the Italian northwest region of Liguria there are many forms, typically with tomatoes beans, cabbage.  The beginnings of the dish are in cucina povera or rather peasant food.  As such though there is no defined recipe and why it is incredibly flexible to what you may have on hand or the time of the year.  In Italy soup is a first course.  Today given our changing diets and lifestyles many of us can easily serve this up as a complete meal, ideal given it’s one-pot easy factor.

According to several discussion boards it has been suggested, if my translation holds that another meaning of in old Italian is Grandpa’s Teeth, referring to a version that refers to yellow corn kernels floating in the soup look similar to the teeth of an old Italian man that have fallen out into the pot. 

Minestra per una Folla

Minestrone Soup for a Crowd

The potatoes in this dish add a nice creaminess to this version The secret however is a Parmesan rind that enriches the flavors. The next time I would add some corn and destemmed, chopped kale.

1 cup extra-virgin oil

1 medium leek, pale green and white parts, split, washed slicked 1/2" thick (roughly 2/3 cup)

1 small onion, cut into 1/2" pieces (1/2 cup)

2 carrots, peeled and chopped into 1/2" pieces (roughly 2/3 cup)

1 russet potato, peeled and also cut into 1/2" piece (about 3/4 cup)

6 large garlic cloves, minced

4 tbspns tomato paste

1 28-oz. can tomatoes, drained, roughly chopped

5 cups vegetable stock (or chicken)

5 cups water

1 rind of Parmigiana-Reggiano cheese

4 oz. grated Parmigiana Reggiano

1 12 oz box of medium size pasta

2 14oz. cans of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

Place 1/2 cup of the olive oil In a large stockpot over high heat.  Add the leek, onion, carrots, potato, and minced garlic.  Cook without stirring for 4 minutes. Restrain yourself the oil and veggies need to brown.  That browning creates a necessary flavor component.  Set a timer if you must. After 4 minutes reduce heat to medium and stir occasionally until the edges of the vegetables have begun to turn golden.  Reduce the heat if the vegetables seem like they will burn.  This should take about 5-6 minutes.  Add the tomato paste and cook for another 2 minutes stirring regularly.  Add the tomatoes, stock, water and cheese rind and bring to a boil over high heat. 

Simmer for 35-45  minutes.  During this time the flavors will become more concentrated. Taste for seasoning.  You may need salt.  If you feel kicky add some red pepper or a dash or three of Cajun seasoning mix. People will say they don’t like spicy but the subtle notes of red pepper really rounds out the flavor profile of this soup. At 40 minutes add the pasta and beans.  Cook the pasta per the box instructions.

To serve:  Into a soup bowl splash a bit of quality olive oil, ladle soup.  Drizzle with a generous serving of Parmesan cheese. 

Variations:  If you have pesto you can drizzle that on top of the soup instead of the cheese.

Image by Darrin Hoover

Rosca de Reyes


The last two weeks has seen quite of a lot of requests for this post from the archive. So here’s a piece of Rosca de Reyes for everyone all around!

Today marks the end of the Christmas holiday in many parts of the world. Twelfth Night or The Epiphany is also often referred to as Three Kings Day in some parts of the world. At feasts marking the occasion, there is often a special bread or cake with a bean, coin, or figurine baked in it. The person getting the piece with the good luck token becomes the Twelfth Night King or Queen, leading revelers in merrymaking.

The day celebrates the Biblical story of the three gift-bearing kings who reached the Christ child on January 6 after following the star of Bethlehem. According to the story, the Three Wise Men– named (Gaspar, Melchor and Baltazar – presented the Baby Jesus with gifts of gold (spiritual wealth of Jesus), frankincense (the image of the earth and sky) and myrrh (for medicinal and spiritual use).

Traditionally in Mexico, Three Kings Day was the gift-giving time, rather than Christmas day. In some rural regions of Mexico it is customary for children to leave their shoes out on the night of January 5, often filling them with hay for the camels, in hopes that the Three Kings would be generous. Mexican children would awake on January 6 to find their shoes filled with toys and gifts. Today many will write a letter to the kings (or choose one king as their favorite) asking for their special gifts and will leave the letter on the eve of Three Kings Day in an old shoe, under a bed.

In many cultures the day is commemorated with a Three Kings Cake. In Germany it is known as Dreikönigskuchen and is made with pecans and fruit. The French take is Galette des Rois is a typically a puff pastry filled with frangipane (almond cream) and a simple syrup icing. Many of us are here in the States are more familiar with its colorful and close cousin from New Orleans. In Mexico and Spain the “cake,” Rosca de Reyes is a bit more brioche like and flavored with lemon and orange zests, brandy, orange flower water and almonds.

The Rosca de Reyes, "kings ring" is a crown-shaped sweet bread decorated with pieces of candied orange and lime resembling the jewels of a crown.  It is often filled with nuts, figs, and cherries. Into this bread is baked a small plastic doll symbolizing a secure place away from Herod´s army where the infant child could be born. As each piece is cut with a knife, symbolizing the danger in which the Baby Jesus was in, everyone carefully checks their slice, hopping they didn’t get the figurine as they will need to host, Candelaria or Candle mass day. This day, February 2, is exactly, 40 days after Christmas when the Virgin Mary was purified. The nativity scene is put away and the baby Jesus, in the form of a porcelain doll, is clothed in his christening gown and presented in church.

Like pan de muertos, many women still prepare the breads at home.  Today, however, more and more families go to local bakeries where small versions serving two-three people and huge breads for 20 can be bought.  Tamales and hot chocolate can also be found on the feast table at this time.

Patricia Rain’s Rosca de Reyes recipe

My Year in Food 2006


As 2007 gently creeps in most of us take some time to reflect on the past year’s highs and lows.  Last year I compiled a round-up regarding food trends in 2006.  This year I think I’ll begin the effort in a more personal way via an idea from Jen.

Best Foodie Hob Nob Experience:  Attending this year’s Gourmet Institute in New York as a prize winner for the December 2005 Gourmet Cook-the-Cover competition.  I got to circulate with the editors and world-class chefs.  At times exhilarating, other times competitive…what? you haven’t eaten there? he’s redefining that cuisine? exactly where have you been?  But for the most part a whirlwind. I did however, develop a mad fancy on Michel Richard and Daniel Barber.  They each reflect a part of my own philosophy toward food that a.) cooking for people comes from the heart and that you need a certain amount of play to create new ideas and b.) by caring about food and eating and growing organically and/or locally not only reflects place but is also sustainable for the environment.  I also had the most elegantly tasty Bouley treat made from Cocoa Krispies hand made by the Pastry God himself.  There’s a lot more to tell here but I will need my notes and most likely wine. 

Favorite New Cooking Tool:  Mid-year I moved to a small in-law cottage with an IBK  in Marin. Over the last six months I’ve had to seriously evaluate every tool for functionality and form.  The bottom line is that everything should have two if not three functions. Up until Christmas the fave was the Mario Batali 5-piece prep bowl set ranging in size from 1/8 cup to 2 cups. Each has full and half-way marks on the interior and exterior for easy measuring.  Mise-en-place is a must now that I am confined to a galley kitchen with a 30"x28" counter space.  I can also if pressed eat from them and a fun lively color.   Then at Christmas my sister gifted me with a Blomus Teastick.  It’s just dandy.  Enough tea leaves to steep a cuppa and it functions as a spoon.

Best Ultimate Dining Sensation There is no contest here.  Per Se. I dined with ultimate foodies The Carters. I’m unsure how they will define their best dining experience of ’06 given that they ate at many top places including Cyrus. I opted for the Vegetable Tasting. Yes, yes I did–not only is it a true test of a chef’s abilities but alas I’m a failure at the hardcore foodie stuffs–sweetbreads, foie gras etc.  The evening was followed up with a waddle through the kitchen.  I vaguely remember it.  I have huge taste memories of the parsnip-vanilla soup, the hen-of-woods mushrooms and the black truffle mac & cheese.  Really one of the most delicious evenings.

Best Glass of Bubbles East of Napa was found at the wedding reception of R&K this July at the Westport Rivers Winery.  Clearly this was also a moment of realization that I wasn’t the snob that I thought I had become.  Madeline Kamman is a fan of their sparklers, ""They can’t do this in California; many in France are not this good."  Where have I been?  If my legs were any indication I’m certain the mosquitoes must have been drunk by the close of the night.

Best Literary Feast on the Politics of Food goes to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  As anyone within earshot has heard me declare this year, ‘if you care about the environment and food you must must read this book.  After the spinach scare this year this book should be required reading in all high school science classes. The runner up in this category would be the dialog between Pollan and  Whole Foods CEO John Mackey.

Best Wild Food Taste has got to be the catching stripers off Cape Cod with the family.  "Fish, I love you and respect you very much. But I will…" Wait, wait at the expense of a revisionist approach to the Old WoMan & the Sea let’s just say that catching fish is not easy.  I went the distance and help the captain gut the fish. Now that felt all very Tony Bourdain and all but eesh what a mess.  Dinner that night was braised striper with  local tomatoes, on the grill with the smell of  sea salt mxing with the heavy air of an incoming thunderstorm. Sometimes I ache for the Cape so much it startles me.

Best Tribute to a Signature Ingredient was rolled out in the form of the 2006 Oliveto’s Truffle Dinner.  The meal an extra special birthday gift for a friend who is well-deserving of a little special TLC. After being presented a small platter of many biancos we lingered and sniffed so heady, elusive and enigmatic. Stand outs from the menu (pdf) included poached salted farm egg with cardoons, celery, black trumpet mushrooms and fonduta valdostana and polenta farinata with Wild Boar ragu.

The Best Taco Al Pastor between Marin and Los Angeles was uncovered on Loop #2 last week at La Portranca in King City. After spending the holiday with family in LA I drove back North on 101 (vs. Loop #1 South on 1) stopping at over a dozen tacquerias. This place was fresh, bright and full of flavor just perfect on a rather gray, windy and cold day. Perfect for the chumparrado I ordered for dessert. A full report on the Christmas Coastal Taco Crawl is forthcoming.

There were many other highlights like those McIntosh apples from the Union Square farmers market; dinner at West in Vancouver; chocolate zuke cupcakes at Hollyhock and a lively at newly opened Cheese School of San Francisco. Also a big thanks to all of you who visit, leave comments and offer words of support…it’s very much appreciated.

Akimashite Omedetto Gozaimasu…Felice anno nuovo…L’Shannah Tovah…Chuc Mung Tan Nien…Godt Nyttår…Happy New Year!