Happy Blog Day!




As the blog world expands, so do the traditions bloggers dream up. Today is the very first installment of what will hopefully become an annual event in blogdom, a chance for bloggers out there to send readers cascading across the internet in a flurry of linking mania. Yes, it’s Blog Day 2005, August 31 to be precise (which is no coincidence – notice how the numbers 3108 look an awful lot like the word ‘blog’!), and the objective of the day is to bring bloggers together by introducing them to each other through our blogs. The idea is that each blogger will list five other blogs they’ve recently discovered; this gives new bloggers more exposure and helps create enhanced waves of cross-cultural exchange as people branch out from their established reading patterns. Due to my obvious predilections, I’ve chosen to highlight five food blogs, most of which are very new to me and a couple of which I’ve been reading for a while, but all of which I think are highly deserving of more exposure.

1.  An Endless Banquet

I discovered AJ and Michelle’s site quite by accident one day while googling a recipe, and instantly fell in love. Everything about their blog is fresh, witty, and highly inspiring. They live in Montreal (and have compiled one heck of a hometown restaurant guide) and blog on recipes, restaurants and travels. I love their fluid writing and impeccable taste – everything they cook or showcase I just want to pick off the screen and devour.

2.  My Madeleine

Molly is living the dream I once had: after graduating from college, she realized food was her true passion. So what did she do? She went to a top-notch restaurant with her hat in her hand and begged for a dishwashing job. She got it. And now, after a couple of months in the trenches she’s landed a scholarship to culinary school, and will soon be moving up the ranks of plate-washer to student. And after that? I’d put my money on something involving writing – she has an amazing talent.

3.  Gluten-free Girl

Shauna writes beautifully about a gluten-free life. I really admire her motivation to explore her love of food in gluten-free ways and provide a focal point for many people struggling with a recent diagnosis. Many people think those condemned to a life without gluten must have to live miserably; I’m glad Shauna’s out there too helping people realize that couldn’t be further from the truth.

4.  Kate Hill’s French Kitchen Adventures

Kate Hill’s blog is one I love escaping to; she lives many an urbanite’s dream in the south of France, pottering around on a canal barge and renovating an old farmhouse (in which she teaches cooking classes and hosts visiting celebrities like Rick Stein!). Her writing is beautiful and evocative of a slower pace of life in a beautiful place, where delicious food seems to spring from every nook and cranny.

5.  In Praise of Sardines

Brett has another highly engaging, well-written and very informative blog. After spending several months in Spain trying to get back to the roots of simple, good taste (he’s a chef, by the way), he’s back in San Francisco writing about whatever strikes his fancy. I agree with his culinary philosophy (yes, it does have something to do with sardines) and his tastes one hundred percent.


When Life Gives You Olives… Make Jam!

Confiture d’Olives et Citron
A funny thing happened to me recently. Funny things happen, I know, but what isn’t so usual about this funny thing is that it involved a mental breakdown on my part, a series of bizarre coincidences, and the chance discovery of a new favorite food. Let me start from the beginning.

Those of you who read Seattle Bon Vivant might recall a mention she made a couple of weeks ago of the new Seattle outlet of Oliviers & Co, a French gourmet food store that has recently opened their first shop in the Pacific Northwest. Luckily for me, while I was there and a couple days before a scheduled trip into the city (to dine with the gorgeous and talented Molly, among other things), Viv gushed about a green tomato jam she had purchased at O&Co. Won over by her swooning description, and never having heard of this shop before, I decided to swing by and take a look — and of course maybe pick up a jar of that much-lauded green tomato jam.

Seattle’s O&Co, the only one in the Pacific Northwest, is housed in the new and swanky Pacific Place shopping center, nestled between other spendy outlets like Pottery Barn, J.Crew and L’Occitane de Provence. Its proximity to the latter is no coincidence, I was soon to learn, since they are part of the same company having its headquarters in southern France. The shop was empty as I entered, its small boutiquey space covered in floor-to-ceiling shelves of oils and condiment jars, all bearing the company’s elegant muted-earthtone packaging scheme. I began browsing along one wall, which, I quickly realized, held nothing but about thirty different kinds of olive oil, labeled like fine wines with vintage year, region and estate. I had barely begun my examination when a friendly voice behind me asked if it was my first time in the shop. I spun around and nodded, hoping the sales lady wouldn’t insist on launching into some boring corporate information pitch. She didn’t; she just asked me if there was any particular product I was looking for. The green tomato jam popped into my mind. Before I knew it, I was telling her how I had just dropped by after reading a glowing review of the shop online and how the review mentioned this jam that I was very curious about. “What kind of jam?” she wanted to know. Yes, what kind of jam? All of a sudden my mind had gone blank – all I could remember was that it was a jam made from a very unusual ingredient. I turned back to the olive oils helplessly, kicking myself for blanking on something so crucial. “Olive jam!” I suddenly said, surprised by the confidence in my voice. Had I just picked this idea out of thin air? I had never seen olive jam in my life! I turned back to the sales lady just in time to see a very peculiar smile cross her face. “Oh yes,” she replied quietly, “olive jam. Why don’t you come with me?”

She led me across the room to a small table hidden away in a corner. On the table lay literally dozens of jars, many of them half-empty. I caught my breath and salivated – it was a tasting table. Before I knew what was happening, I had three miniature plastic spoons in my hand, each of them holding a blob of shiny, dark brown paste. “This is our standard olive jam”, she began, watching me closely as I raised the first spoon to my mouth. I felt my knees going weak – it was incredible. Sweet and silky, the taste was of fruit and honey and perfume, melting to a complex bouquet of savory olives and briny salt. It reminded me of Moroccan food and the delicate interplay of sweet, spicy and savory, or perhaps of a complex Indian fruit chutney. The second spoon contained a taste just as good, but further enhanced with the delicate fragrance of lemon. The third one was remarkably different: the smooth texture was interspersed with tiny pieces of toasted pinenuts and a caramelly, nutty undertone permeated the mixture. I stood there in awe, looking at the three varieties and wanting them all. But I didn’t have time to linger, because the tasting was moving on. The sales lady, who had introduced herself as the store manager Suhara by that point, was mixing up potions for me to try. One that she said was very popular was a combination of olive jam, syrupy aged balsamic vinegar and a very unusual extra virgin olive oil that had been pressed with ripe mandarins. “People use this to glaze meat,” she said. The flavors were exploding all over my mouth. I tried pestos and truffle sauces, vegetable preserves and tapenades, about ten different varieties of olive oil, and even a spoonful of green tomato jam (which by this point, didn’t even cause any bells of recognition to go off in my head – I didn’t realize until after I’d left the store that I had finally tasted what I’d gone in there to find). Every product was exquisite, but the thing I couldn’t get out of my head, even as I tasted everything else, was the olive jam. It was really like nothing I had ever tasted before, and I knew that even if nothing else would accompany me out of that store, a jar of olive jam would. Realizing I had been in there so long I was running late for my dinner with Molly, I plonked down the twelve dollars and clutched my jar of jam like it might run away, thanking Suhara profusely and promising I would be back to buy more just as soon as I could.

The story doesn’t end there, however. Convinced I had made the culinary find of the century, I jealously guarded my olive jam and stashed it away in my luggage to bring back to Scotland, imagining all the exciting ways I was going to use every last smear. A couple of days after the O&Co visit, and still several days before my departure, I found myself wandering around an outlet of Trader Joe’s. I was poking around among the pickles and mustards and oils, seeing what was new, when what should I spy but a jar of Sweet Kalamata Olive Spread?. Incredulous, I snatched it up. What were the chances, I thought. But then the next day as I was doing some food shopping for my family in their usual supermarket, something else nearly knocked me off my feet: nestled among the specialty cheeses that I had looked at a thousand times already was a single jar of Sweet Olive Jam produced by the Mediterranean food company Mt. Vikos. Of course I bought it, but really, what was going on? This was definitely more than a coincidence – somebody obviously was thinking there was a noticeable lack of olive jam in my life. How else to explain the chance encounters, the single jars waiting for me, the words put into my mouth? Suddenly these three precious jars I had acquired were seeming very small indeed. Who knew what the olive jam situation was back in Scotland? How could I go back to a life without it? I shuddered at the thought. Obviously I couldn’t take enough back with me, so there was only one solution. I would have to learn to make it myself.

Because, as the old adage should have said, when life gives you olives, make jam – and when life gives you olive jam, make some more!

Confiture d’Olives et Citron (Sweet Olive Jam with Lemon)
Yield: about 2 1/2 cups
Notes: I was grateful to have three different jams to deconstruct, in order to see what I liked and disliked about each. All three were surprisingly different from one another, despite the same premise. The Kalamata jam from Trader Joe’s was thick and chunky with large pieces of chewy jet-black olives; the ingredients basically listed just olives and sugar, which led to an incredibly pure and intense olive flavor. I realized Kalamatas have enough subtlety and complexity to stand up alone in a jam – I loved it, yet the nuances of flavor and consistency were not quite up to par with O&Co. At one-tenth the price, however, you wouldn’t have to twist my arm to make it a pantry staple of mine. The jam from Mt Vikos, in contrast, was made entirely with green olives, enriched with lemon, pomegranate juice and sugar and blended to a smooth, runny puree. Unfortunately I found it just a tad too sweet, the texture too loose, and the flavor too dominated by the more aggressive taste of green olives – but it was still delicious. The jam from O&Co (I bought the lemon variety, incidentally) had the longest ingredient list, containing both black and green olives, apples, lemon and honey, and compared to the other two, the best consistency and flavor. This was thus the gold standard, and the jam I tried to replicate.

Note that while you don’t have to break the bank on olives, they should be of reasonably good quality to make a full-flavored jam (i.e. no canned California olives!). Your best bet is probably going to be a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern shop that sells olives in bulk. If you only have a choice between low-quality pitted olives and high-quality olives with pits, go for the latter and pit them yourself. Also be sure to buy olives packed only in brine, not in oil or with added garlic and herbs. Edit: I’ve since determined that oil-packed olives actually work just fine, as long as they’re well-drained. I still wouldn’t go with anything flavored, though!

2 cups (ca. 300g) drained and pitted Kalamata olives (packed)
1 cup (ca. 150g) drained and pitted high-quality green olives (packed)
1 1/3 cup (270g) sugar
1 1/3 cup (325ml) water
1 medium organic lemon
1 large green apple, peeled, cored and diced
1/3 cup (80ml) mild honey

Put all the olives in a large saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and boil for one minute. Drain completely. Repeat this process two more times – this should take enough salt out of the olives so that they’re only mildly salty. Set the olives aside and rinse out the saucepan. Add the sugar and 1 1/3 cups water to the saucepan and swirl to combine. Cut a couple of strips of zest from the lemon and drop them in the sugar water. Slice the lemon up very thinly (don’t worry about the seeds), and add the slices to the pan as well. Bring this to a simmer over medium heat and let it cook for about 8-10 minutes, or until it’s reduced to about a cup of liquid. Pour this through a strainer into a bowl, pressing on the lemon solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Return the liquid to the pan, adding the diced apple, honey and olives. Bring to a simmer once again and cook, stirring occasionally, just until the apples are soft and everything is very thick – about another 10 to 15 minutes (you can add a bit of water if it seems to be getting too thick). Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. With an immersion blender or a normal blender, process the entire mixture until it is velvety-smooth. It should be quite a jammy consistency already; if it’s runny you can continue to cook it a little bit more, but keep in mind it will thicken as it cools. Transfer to jars and refrigerate. I haven’t tested how long this keeps, but mine is a week and a half old and still going strong. Of course you can also serilize a couple of small canning jars and can them for shelf storage.

And how to use this miraculous substance? I love this jam with cheese, particularly with hard pungent cheeses like Manchego or Pecorino or an aged farmhouse cheddar. In Scotland nice restaurants will often serve a cheese selection with oat biscuits and a homemade chutney – it would be perfect for that. I’ve also fallen in love with it on sandwiches with Italian dry salami and Emmenthal or Gruyere cheese and a bit of peppery arugula. Heaven.

Meme Again: Childhood Food Memories

Always a sucker for a meme, I’ve been prompted to dig into some of my long-buried food memories thanks to a tag by Julie. Remembering things I ate as a child is always a bit of a mixed bag for me, bringing up simultaneous feelings of fascination, revulsion and incredulity. I would love to tell you that I grew up eating just-picked peaches from the orchard, homemade pies and preserves straight from the kitchen stove, and succulent meat from the farm next door, but let’s be frank. I have a remarkable lack of memories about things like that. Most of my memories revolve around cheese, ketchup and sugar. I was not raised in a food household; we ate what was easy and nutritious. Chocolate was Hershey’s and bread was pre-sliced. I can’t really put the blame elsewhere, however – I was also a notoriously picky eater. I’m sure I drove my parents crazy (uh Mom, any comment?). If it didn’t have cheese or frosting on it, chances are I wouldn’t eat it. If it had anything green in, on, or under it, I most definitely wouldn’t eat it. I hated beans. I was ambivalent about fruit. Veins, tendons or anything that reminded me that my meat had once been living would send me screaming from the table. Not really what you’d expect from a future lover of fine cuisine, but what can I say? Parents of picky children take heart: obviously things DO change.

But then again, it wasn’t all bad. In fact, some of what I remember eating was downright wonderful. So, with long-overdue apologies to those who suffered through these years, here are a few memories that just might give you some inkling of the conflicting forces at work on my tastebuds as I trudged up the long and torturous road to maturity.

1. The Sugar Box
Sugar, when I was growing up, was a rarity. Nowadays I have difficulty distinguishing my parents’ freezer from a Haagen Dazs wholesale outlet, but back then my doses of sugar were regulated with methodone-like precision, and to keep my wandering fingers from encountering anything harmful in the cupboards my parents simply did not buy anything sweet. Or if they did, they hid it too well. "Eat fruit" they used to tell me when I would appear in the kitchen, brow sweaty and eyes glazed from insulin withdrawal. In desperation, I turned to the only thing I could to satisfy my cravings: the pure stuff. One day, feeling I would die if I didn’t get something sugary into my system and conveniently left alone at home, I opened the baking cupboard and proceeded to fill a tupperware container with sugar. Not just any sugar, mind you – already showing a precocious flair for experimentation, I mixed every different type I found on the shelf – white, brown, and powdered – into a mixture I thought would be more exciting. Or maybe I took some of each just so the absence in any one kind would be less noticeable. In any case, I ceremoniously hid the container in my closet along with a big spoon and for the next few months used this as my emergency stash, taking a gritty mouthful straight whenever things got desperate. Luckily, I think I got tired of it pretty quickly, but I still equate the slightly stale, musty smell of old sugar with that taste of pure tooth-aching sweetness. I shiver at the memory.

2. Chips and Ketchup Sandwiches
At a certain point, perhaps around the age of ten, I was allowed to start making my own lunches. This was truly exciting, and sent me on one creativity binge after another. One of the first two recipes I invented (see below for the other) was the following: take two pieces of fluffy white or brown bread – it doesn’t really matter which, since that really fluffy brown bread that we used to buy was actually just white bread in disguise – smear one side with mayonnaise and the other with a thick layer of ketchup. Fill with a double layer of corn tortilla chips. Close the sandwich, pressing down until you hear the chips start to shatter. If you’ve picked the right kind of bread and chips, the sharp corners of the chips will actually poke through the soft sides of the sandwich, forcing up some ketchup and mayonnaise out with them, thus smearing all over your hands as you eat and requiring a good measure of finger-licking between bites of the crunchy-doughy-sweet-and-salty sandwich. I had all the bases covered for the full gastronomic experience, believe me.

3. Quesadilla Volcano
My crowning glory, this was reserved for ‘special’ lunches, though I suspect I would have eaten it every day if I could have. Take two flour tortillas and lay them open. Lay a cold hot dog down the center of each, and cover completely with shredded orange cheddar cheese. Roll up the tortillas around the hot dogs and microwave on a plate until the cheese is melted and oozing out the ends of the tortillas. Remove from microwave. With a sharp knife, cut the quesadillas crosswise into thin slices. Now take a fork and stir everything together – you should have a rapidly congealing mass of tortilla strips, hotdog slices and melted cheese. When you have achieved a well-stired, vaguely mountain-shaped mass, stop stirring and sprinkle the top with more grated cheese. Microwave again just until this cheese has melted and glistens like snow covering the ski slopes. Remove from the microwave, drizzle with plenty of ketchup, preferably in such a way as to resemble a viscous flow of lava, and eat with knife and fork. Is there any nutrition in there? Did I care?

4. My Dad’s Fondue
My dad has always had a predilection for healthy things, so much so that I’ve often wondered if a faulty genetic code is somehow to blame for his preference for vegetables to sweets, and also enough to make me occasionally wonder if my mother has revealed the whole truth about my paternity. For him, the perfect dinner is a mound of steamed garden-fresh veggies adorned with nothing more than a pat of butter and a sprinkle of pepper. When I was a kid spending weekends with him this menu caused me tremendous consternation, which he would sometimes relieve by treating me to a hamburger, but the thing I looked forward to most were his dinner parties (because steamed veggies naturally didn’t cut it for company). True to his cautious culinary mindset, my dad found one tried-and-true recipe that was suitable for guests, and every time he had people over it went without saying that he would make it. I vividly remember the ritual of removing the 1970s-era blue and green paisley-print metal fondue pot from its spot on the dusty shelf, meticulously rubbing the insides with garlic, popping open the chenin blanc, shredding the precise quantities of Gruyere and Emmenthal cheese that the newspaper-clipped recipe called for, and beginning the slow, methodical process of stirring everything together that always made me feel like we were conducting an important science experiment. When it was ready, we would rush it to the table and set it down in front of the guests with much fanfare, and I would race to join everyone madly dipping cubes of french bread and spears of broccoli into the velvety mixture. I love a good cheese fondue as much now as I did then, and still, nobody makes it better than my dad.

5. Benedicte’s Mustard Vinaigrette
Shortly after the second of my three younger brothers was born, when I was eleven years old, my parents decided to hire a live-in babysitter so they could both go back to work. I don’t know how they found her, but she was the embodiment of everything children hate in a caretaker: austere, humorless, severe… and French. She could have been straight out of a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, but in fact she was an exchange student studying at UC Berkeley for a y
ear and took the job because it offered her a free room. I don’t remember what she was studying or why she’d come to California; all that I noticed was her rigidly imposing cardigan-clad figure and her shrill voice that seemed to be always verging on hysteria. She and I fought constantly, mostly over my messiness and general unwillingness to do household chores. She also argued with my parents about their liberal ideals and nonreligious childrearing – I’m convinced she even protested the fact that she had been instructed not to smack us around when we misbehaved. I sabotaged her at every opportunity I got, squeezing out her shampoo and face cream into the toilet, and when that didn’t send her packing, vindictively taking bites from the things that she left in our fridge. She sometimes stashed leftovers from restaurants and cafes in there, but what I quickly learned to zero in on was a small container of liquid that despite being frequently replenished, I never actually saw her use. The first time I tasted it, I remember stopping dead in my tracks – this was no ordinary restaurant leftover, this was something she had made herself. And it was like nothing I had ever tasted before: the thick top layer was fragrant emerald olive oil, and nestled beneath was a layer of tart mustardy, garlicky, herby and slightly cheesy sludge that when gently mixed with the oil on top became the most delicious sauce I had ever tasted. Not knowing what to do with it, I put it on everything (including substituting it for the ketchup on the infamous quesadilla volcano), and spent hours pondering what exactly made it so good. Strangely enough, despite the fact that I regularly drained that cup dry when she wasn’t looking, I never heard a word of criticism for it. She was happy to berate me to no end for my cleaning habits and general rebelliousness, but when it came to that sauce she was apparently more than happy to continue facilitating my induction into the world of good taste.


And now, since we know a meme is only as good as those who pass it on, I would like to invite Michele, J., Pille and AJ & Michelle to the party if they haven’t already been. I look forward to your revelations, comrades!


And here are my links — when it’s your turn, simply move down the list, dropping number one from the top spot, moving the numbers down, and placing yourself in the number five spot (and of course, linking to each):

                                1.  Tasca de Elvira
                                2.  Cuisine et Compagnie
                                3.  Chocolate and Zucchini 
                                4.  A Finger in Every Pie
                                5. The Traveler’s Lunchbox