Category Archives: Friends

My Favorite Dishes of 2016

As 2016 began, it was planned that Nick, me and the kids — Holly, the 11-year-old pitbull and our 7-year-old Frenchie, JJ — were moving to Denver from Phoenix. Our intention after twelve months in the Sonoran Desert was to relocate to the Mile High City for his work. Our last stop was the Rocky Mountains. However, after all that, we have found ourselves back in Southern California, where we had originally started. Not in Los Angeles – coming full circle — but in Newport Beach, behind the Orange Curtain. Still for Nick’s work, but with a fluffier job description.

It’s a good location for us. Far from the histrionics of the world’s entertainment capital. Yet, we discuss missing Camelback Mountain rising out of the valley, the vast blue skies and, of course, the food. Phoenix taught me that good eating can be found anywhere if you are looking for it. It doesn’t have to be in one of the anointed culinary islands such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Los Angeles.

While living in Phoenix, I discovered deep blended roots of Mexican and Native American food. Indeed, it’s common for local hunters born of Mexican descent to shoot game such as moose or elk during the holiday season. The braised meat is then turned into Christmas tamales and frozen to eat throughout the year. It’s a practice that goes well beyond the area’s 114 years as a state. Originally, Mexican settlers joined with the natives crafting unique food and then in turn, became Americans when the 48th state entered the Union.

I bring this up because I read a well-known restaurant writer’s suggestions of “best food trends”. In her lengthy piece, she proffered gastronomic extravagances in Copenhagen, Paris, and of course, the Big Apple which is where she is based. I can always choose what is great elsewhere, from Singapore to Argentina, France to Greece. However, I think it’s our duty to describe what is “great” in America. Our culinary prowess is the myriad of cultures creating our nation – borrowing from here and there, making our own indigenous taste profiles such as fried chicken, pot roast or apple pie. Derived from other places, but made here crafting American comfort. We need to recognize that we are great, looking only to our dinner tables.

Unlike the writer, who travels often, I didn’t get on a plane this year except a roundtrip to Vegas and Phoenix. After almost two dozen countries and nearly 250 cities, I’m not big about getting on planes anymore; plus, I love the dining scene in smaller cities such as Phoenix, Portland and even in Orange County, California. They aren’t massive but what’s cooking is robust and lively.

As go into the new year, as a nation, we have dreamed up all types of unique food – Mexican-Korean tacos, Japanese sushi with Brazilian flavors, Thai with Texas BBQ– turning it into one melting pot of goodness. The ingredients simmering on the American stove is where we have always been welcoming, tasting little bits of this and adding some of that. Authentic American flavor is made from our fusion of cultures right here at home and it’s always been great.

Hoja Sante stuffed with Mennonite Cheese, Gran Reserva Barrio Café : Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza (Phoenix, Arizona).

Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza should be a nationally recognized chef and it’s a shame she’s not. She is a proud Mexican American born in the United States and is un-WASP-like most Food Network stars such as Giada, Rachel or even Paula Deen.  At her five restaurant mini-empire based in Phoenix, her cooking is Mexican but with European techniques. At Gran Reserva Barrio Café, her new restaurant which opened in spring 2016, Esparza’s creativity is evidenced in the simplicity of a melty hunk Mexican Mennonite cheese, wrapped burrito-like in a large hoya sante leaf and served with two smoky chili pastes. Simple. Traditional and yet still other worldly.

Image result for Hoja Santa Gran Reserva Arizona Latinos

The indigenous plant is not commonly found north of the border, and when it is, it’s usually used in stews and braises. Esparza uses it whole, instead of strips, allowing the anise flavor to compliment the queso’s milky texture. The venomous bite of the peppers is nulled by the dairy and leaving only smokiness. Texturally, the crunch of the leaf, emission of creaminess and a nullified heat is eye-opening. As I sat eating the dish, along with interviewing the Phoenix-based chef for Arizona Latinos, she imparted the history of the Mexican Mennonites and how they are still important to the agriculture of the country.

This gooey delicious dish is modest, and that’s what makes it brilliant.

Chicken Liver Pasta, Sotto:  Chef Steve Samson (Los Angeles, CA)

On a media tasting invite, I went through a selection of items chosen by Chef Steve Samson at his almost six-year-old restaurant Sotto. The cozy space is inviting with blue walls, wooden tables and chairs as is Mr. Samson, who is one of the kinder cooks in the culinary world.

Going through his menu, which is all yummy the standout, became the housemade Rigatoni tossed with Chicken Livers, Parmigiana Reggiano and Porcini. It’s a daring dish for Angelenos to embrace. First, there are the carbohydrates but second the livers aren’t normally found on regular menus much less Italian. Having traveled often to Italy, I didn’t recall pasta and innards used in this way and asked Samson where it was based. It was his unique twist on the typical Bolognese ragu. Instead of throwing away something tasty, he invented this earthy and rustic dish. I’m not fond of chicken livers – and I don’t know many people who are – but this I would eat every day for the rest of my life.

 

Jardineros (Garden) Tacos, Taco Maria: Chef Carlos Salgado (Costa Mesa, CA)

Taco Maria is a high-end eating experience much like the Rick Bayless’ chain Red O or even Phoenix’s independent Barrio Café (see above). White tablecloths, waiters with crumbers and sparkling water served in wine glasses, my type of my place, where a diner feels special. Located inside a mall within a mall, it is an indoor-outdoor space which is a good showcase for the unique tastes presented by Chef Carlos Salgado.

Much has been written about Salgado and for good reason, his fusion of California agricultural and Mexican cooking produce, arguably the country’s best tacos. Ordering a la carte during lunch, there are a five varieties of the national south of the border food: chicken, beef, pork,  fish and vegetarian. Exceptional eats every single one, wrapped with the housemade delectable blue corn tortillas found only at Taco Maria. (B.S. Taqueria gets their masa from here too.) The standout is clearly the vegetarian (jardineros) made with shitake mushroom chorizo, a crispy potato and queso fundido. Separately, each one would make a great filling but together, they create something truly different. The minced fungi spiced with traditional south of the border flavorings texturally give the chorizo a meat-like consistency. However, it’s the flavor which is a standout.

Pasta dishes, Tratto: Chef Chris Bianco (Phoenix, AZ)

Legendary chef Chris Bianco is  renowned for Pizza Bianco. Matter of fact, his pizzas have been called the best in the world by former “Vogue” food writer Jeffrey Steingarten. Therefore, when someone invites you to Tratto, his new restaurant which opened in early summer 2016 in the same mall as his world-renowned pizzeria, you go – but not for his pizzas. At his new space, he has opened his creativity to showcase other goodness derived from Arizona farmers; mostly notably, the wheat growers.

Bianco does everything else but pizzas. Old-fashioned, Italian food but a real display of southwestern growers. I don’t mean peppers, tomatoes and cheese but bold pairings such as beets and gorgonzola roasted in a fig leaf. All ingredients are sourced from the 48th state, crafting Italian food. Don’t question it but eat his handmade pastas which are carefully crafted by Bianco. Get off the carb diet and have a bit of heaven.

Beef Tenderloin with Mole Negro, Talavera at Four Seasons Scottsdale: Chef Mel Mecinas (Phoenix, Arizona)

To reiterate, I’ve listed the dishes I’ve eaten over the course of the year which I remember fondly. Eating them, at the restaurant, the conversations around them and how good they are. Nothing comes as close to Chef Mel Mecinas and his mole negro and beef tenderloin.

Mole is probably one of the world’s most difficult sauces to make. Consisting of more than two dozen ingredients ground and simmered into a liquid, resulting in something edible which is complex, luscious and fortifying. Fish is too delicate for the earthiness but lean cuts of meat provide a great experience to taste the Mexico pottage which is what diners get at Talavera under the capable hands of Chef Mecinas.

Unfortunately, he no longer works at the restaurant where he was the Executive Chef for more than a decade. Greener pastures beckoned. However, one day I hope the world gets to eat his extraordinary mole.

 

i8tonite: A Day at H8ful Acres by Julie Fisher, Poet

This is the first of the on-going series on Food Musings written by award-winning poet and writer, Julie Fisher. She is also  the founder of Litmore, Baltimore’s Center for the Literary Arts. 
Julie's place 2I live on the East Coast, in Northern Baltimore County to narrow it down. We had three days media notice of the impending snow doom threatening the Mid-Atlantic. I am responsible for hunkering down prep. H8teful Acres is our “farm” a little off the beaten path with a ¼ mile driveway, so it’s smart to be prepared. We are fortunate as a family, my time is flexible during school/work hours so I can stroll through a supermarket during non-panic hours and before the shelves are stripped of bread, milk and toilet paper. Maryland started getting notice of the incoming snow on Wednesday. By Friday shelves were basically bare.

On Friday, I realized we were nearly out of milk. So I sauntered down to the local farm where we buy or pastured foods. Their business hours are weekends only, so they were just opening and were plenty stocked with their pastured milk. I even remembered to grab some bacon, eggs and sausage patties too.

I look forward to big snows. Maybe it’s the remnant thrill of snow days from school or the anticipation of slowing down, sleeping in, leisurely meals and snacking.

For Snowmageddon 2016, I’ll give my attention to turning a baked chicken into chicken soup, a pork butt for pulled pork barbeque, some Italian turkey sausages.  I’m thinking mornings that begin with eggs, hash browns and bacon or sausage and for a pre-shoveling low effort morning meal, you can’t go wrong with Irish oatmeal. I’m eager for no bossy schedule defining my time so I’ll have the calm to undertake gluten free blue corn muffins, yellow cupcakes with chocolate icing and maybe some chocolate chip cookies.

Since I’m a Pinterest user, I have lots of recipes I’ve saved. I daydream about uninterrupted time that to try these recipes. Some of the recipes are common dishes customized to be gluten free-I’m fixated on baking actually tasty gluten free breads. Some recipes are gorgeously photographed and I want to recreate the work of art. Of course, a range of flavors or ingredients I’m repeatedly drawn to- figs, aged cheeses, dark chocolate, pears, hazelnuts, quinoa and brassicas.

So this morning, squinting at the dawn glitter on 30 inches of snow, I had lethargic, cozy plans. The snow did not quiet my demanding senior cat Whitney. I still shuffled down to feed her and grind my coffee. It also did not quiet the apparently nocturnal, terrified kitten we adopted two days ago and named Scully. She mewed pathetically, off and on all night. Despite this, in my pre-coffee blur I snapped some camera phone shots of the sunrise-tinted trees before their drapery of snow melted.
Julie's PlaceKidlets and hubby intermittently arrived downstairs. Coffee levels were topped off, bacon was sizzled, eggs were fried in ghee and gluten free blue corn muffins were baked. Soon, my fantasy of cozy, lethargy became suiting up to shovel. First we dug a path to The Dragon (our outdoor wood burning furnace), knock icicles from the gutter over our doors. More shoveling to free my Subaru, even more shoveling to clear a path to the Subaru, and to the front and back door.

It’s not until the sun starts to sink behind the tree line that we go inside to shed our snow and ice crusted clothing. Our ache-y muscles whined when our stomachs growled. Dinner, or more accurately foraging in the kitchen, included hot dogs, Trader Joe’s Olive Oil popcorn, some slabs of cheddar and crackers and blue corn muffins. The pork butt will keep marinating. The Italian turkey sausages made it into a frying pan. Just the sausages. No onions or peppers or such. We just managed to get some pasta boiling.  Oh, it’s whiskey o’clock after dinner.

Fireplace
Fireplace

Finally, we reach destination cozy. Feet and fingers are thawed. We sit together in the glow of our laptops and phones while outside is almost daylight bright with full moon on expanse of snow. And I think to myself, what crazy, beautiful luck to live here at H8teful Acres with my family –a total surprise trajectory in the arc of our lives. I think of all the people who lived here before us and built this house and farmed this land and raised critters here.  For roughly 100 years now, this has been someone’s home. 100 years ago would be when my great grandparents would have been raising families. How, I wonder, would they have prepared for a blizzard bearing down on them? Would they scramble for bread, milk and toilet paper?

As it turns out, after leaping into internet rabbit holes, the answer depends greatly on where you lived and if you had any money. For one thing, toilet paper was a brand new product in the early 1900’s. It was expensive AND it was difficult to market to customers with delicate Victorian sensibilities. Most used the less vulgar Sears Roebuck Catalog or Farmers’ Almanac pages. So my great grandparents who lived in Baltimore City would need to run to the newsstand. My great grandparents who lived on a farm in West Virginia probably had to make do with corn husks or cobs. Yikes.

After reading, I’m hoping my great grandparents who lived in Baltimore City had some money. If they were a poor immigrant family, they were basically at the mercy of shop owners. Most likely they lived in a tiny apartment with only a coal or woodstove and maybe running water. No pantry or root cellar and definitely no refrigerator. No critters either to give eggs or milk. The most common groceries were cabbages, potatoes, onions and oats. If you had more money to spend you could get eggs, milk and a poor cut of meat. A green vegetable beyond cabbage was a splurge. Vegetable scraps were a staple for the really poor. Yum.

My West Virginia farming great grandparents were set if Mother Nature cooperated. They would can, ferment and smoke their cellar full. A good harvest would mean full winter stomachs especially if they had livestock to slaughter. But rural West Virginia can be unforgiving-harsh weather and a lot of brutal physical labor. A good year would let them store jerky, bacon and hams alongside pickled veggies and jams. Flour would be on hand for breads and cakes. Lots of root vegetables stocked in the cellar. Often the reality was- not quite enough. Mother Nature can be fickle and cruel. Injuries and sickness took their tolls too. So, even farmers likely ate a lot of cabbage, potatoes and oats through the winter. I don’t even want to think about what they did if they went without coffee.

I’m glad I wondered about my great grandparents…. Surfing the internet reminded me again what a cool life I’m living. I am spoiled in so many ways my ancestors couldn’t even imagine. I know I’m not going to starve or even really lose any variety in my eating choices through this blizzard. I can reach in the fridge and pull out the marinating pork butt. I’ll pop it in the oven to bake on low for a few hours and fill my warm house with a barbeque aroma. I’m going to grind some beans and brew one more pot of coffee before I go out to finish shoveling. Thanks Universe!

Marinade for any pork roast

  • 1/4 cup of olive oil
  • 1/4 cup of soy sauce
  • 3 – 4 cloves of chopped garlic
  • 2 tablespoons of coarse mustard
  • Salt and Pepper
  • 4 tablespoons of honey.
Whisk together the olive oil, soy sauce, garlic, mustard, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Place thepork loin in a large resealable plastic bag and pour in the marinade. Marinate in the refrigerator at least 1 hour before cooking. Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Fifteen minutes per pound. Cooked covered for the first half, and uncovered for the second. 
The End. Go Eat.

I8tonite: with Friends, Team Changes and Mashed Cauliflower

Courtesy of Apatow Productions
Courtesy of Apatow Productions

I was watching “Bridesmaids”, the hysterical friends and relationship comedy with Kristen Wiig.  Though the movie is heavily based on deep female friendships, there is a poignancy — that as a gay man with a multitude of amazing women comrades I can identify — that underlies the relationships. In one side-splitting scene, and there are so many, Melissa McCarthy’s character visits Wiig’s Annie, who is feeling sorry for herself. Her baking business went belly-up. She’s lost her apartment because she doesn’t have a job, lives with her mother. Her car is a junker. The only thing she isn’t doing is entering rehab. Basically, she’s hit rock bottom. But McCarthy, with her robustness, throttles Wiig’s character, by knocking her upside the head, proclaiming, “I’m life. Is life bothering you?” And yes it is…,.and it’s not going away, like McCarthy in the scene.

Six years, ago it was like that for me. A 14-year relationship went into the toilet. My business tanked. My ex-partner in business and in life, well — turned out not to be such a significant other. Broke. No home. No car. And starting life again past the age of forty. After leaving everything behind in San Francisco– including the dog – (heartbreaking), I retreated to Los Angeles and to my best friends: Shelley, Lulu, and Bonnie. There are also my dear friends such as Kim, Pat, Sophia, Margot, Barbara, Kathy, and Jenny – many of whom I have known since the beginning of my career — but the pattern for me is women. With a couple of exceptions, such as my oldest friend Sean, John and former therapist Peter, these women, plus many more (Tanya, Annie, Myra, Myrna, Linda Chester, Katherine Lape, Julie, Charlotte, Teryann, Rita, Beverly, Katherine, Christine, Beth, Janet, Penny, Sharon – I know I’m forgetting someone. Forgive me if I am as the list is lovingly long) have been my salvation. My family. My friends. My confidantes.

I know the fairer sex isn’t all peaches and cream. There are some women I would never want in my corner: Lizzie Borden, the female half of Bonnie and Clyde, and Sarah Palin to name a select few.

Overall, the ladies in my life have been strong, resilient and loving. (This is what my memoir is about: a series of personal essays on the women I have loved as a gay man.)

Jessie with Mallard Cottage's chef Todd Perrin - site of one of my favorite meals this year! St. John's, Newfoundland
Jessie with Mallard Cottage’s chef Todd Perrin

With all that said, in less than five months – I can’t believe it – i8tonite.com has grown as a site to roughly over 10,000 unique visitors per month. I can’t keep up with its content and rapid growth. So, I have brought on Dr. Jessie Voigts to become my collaborator, co-publisher, and co-editor to assist in the endeavor. Another great feminine presence – to keep my ass moving forward.

Jessie has another site called Wandering Educators. There she is Queen Bee, holding court amongst her loyal subjects discussing the importance of travel in education.

Cauliflower by Liz West.
Cauliflower by Liz West.

Mashed Cauliflower: This holiday eating season, I baked up cheesecakes, biscuits, breads, assorted pies, and cakes. Now, I need a sugar and flour respite and some weight loss. I’m getting older, and it doesn’t come off as fast as it once did. Additionally, I’m 49. I want to look good as I hit that mid-century, I want to look Daniel Craig-splendid, all sinew, and muscle, one more time before I hang up the Speedo. Not for anyone else…..but for me, and Nick.

I made this dish, and I may never ever go back to mashed potatoes again. (I love potatoes!) It held the pot roast gravy perfectly and was luxuriantly delectable. Who cared that there wasn’t a spud in it? And it’s low carb.

To Make: Boil a head or two of chopped cauliflower, minus the outer leaves, along with several garlic cloves. Cook until it falls apart. Strain. While, the vegetables and garlic are still hot, add a dollop of cream cheese (don’t argue), grated parmesan or asiago. Use an immersion blender to puree. Add some chives. Serve this puppy with anything. Game-changer.

The End. Go Eat.

Penny’s Broiled Swordfish and Cilantro Pesto

I was a very naïve eater before I moved to New York. (Actually, I was just naïve but that’s a different matter…and I still can be.) As I’ve said before, my mother with whom I spent most of my upbringing, just wasn’t a cook. From her, it was “here’s the Kraft Macaroni” or being handed the can-opener to expose aluminum-clad franks and beans.

When I moved to New York City, I had the great opportunity of waiting tables and a whole new world opened up to me. It wasn’t just about food, it was about living. I wasn’t more than 21 years old, finished school and was working at a Cajun/Creole restaurant in Tribeca called How’s Bayou, (meaning “how are you”from New Orleans creole). It was an open air restaurant with sliding French doors on its two sides which allowed cool Hudson River air in the summer.

This is the corner of Harrison & Greenwich even before Hows Bayou.

Then, I remember thinking the blackened catfish and Cajun fried chicken, served with collard greens flecked with bacon, mashed potatoes with skins left on, a flaky buttermilk biscuit and honeyed sweet potato were the best things. And to drink, which we drank while working, we served up strong, frozen margaritas or Hurricanes topped with 151 proof rum. It was one helluva a place to work and I loved it.

I met some a few of the most important people in my life during this time such as Penny. Penny is a loveable art historian on paper, a self-taught gourmand and to me, a national treasure. We worked together during the day shifts and sometimes, nights. She was a career waitress (when the term didn’t imply anything) and hated the food at Hows Bayou.  Hated it. She often complained that what we served was almost inedible by boasting about her annual European as proof she knew what was good. Not only did I envy her for her worldliness, but besides the cooks where I worked and my father’s family cuisine (Filipino), she was and is my greatest cooking inspiration.

I always told Penny that she resembled the silent screen movie-star Louise Brooks with her jet black, bobbed hair and bangs. She loves to talk about food as much as she loves to cook it. When Penny finds a food delicious or she crinkles her nose and face up, exclaiming, “This is so yummy!”

Louise Brooks

Funny thing, even though was in her early forties, she never been to a gay bar so she proposed that she cook dinner one evening and we could go to a happy hour. Her and Tim, her husband, lived in the West Village, close to The Monster, one of New York City’s landmark watering holes, on the corner of Sheridan Square and Christopher Street. It not only had a piano …and a player…but a disco in the basement. (Talk about an identity crisis: In one corner, queens were croaking out Broadway show tunes; in another, some were slinging back gin and tonics at 2-4-1s and downstairs, vogue contests were performed.) We shouted at each other above the antics and got drunk. The two for ones really should be called 12 for 6 because that’s what we wound up drinking…each. We started at 4 o’clock and left at around 8. With four hours of drinking, Penny still had to make dinner.

With our liquor soaked steps, we walked the two blocks to her apartment at Bleecker and Grove. Once inside her pillbox-sized studio, lined with history books instead of wallpaper, I opened the first bottle of wine. She put the swordfish steaks in the oven rubbed with olive oil, salt and pepper. We chatted.  Tim at the time wasn’t home from teaching at Queen’s College and he was to join us so we chatted and drank so more while waiting.  She made the cilantro pesto. We continued chatting and drank some more. I opened the second bottle of wine. We starting slurrying our chat.  Tim came home. Introductions were made and by this point, it was just slurring. Huge lovers of opera, we listened to a recording of La Traviata, featuring soprano Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta so that we could listen over the third bottle of vino.

“Oh my God!” Penny exclaimed in an anguished fury. “The swordfish!!!” The wine-soaked chatting had gotten the better of us. Our dinner was ruined.

But as luck and Penny’s cooking prowess will attest, it was not. On floral plates with lacy golden edges, beautiful browned slabs of Broiled Swordfish, smeared with Cilantro Pesto was served and a friendship was born.

Broiled Swordfish with Cilantro Pesto:

Ingredients:

  • 1 – 2 pounds Swordfish Steaks cut into servings of 2 to 4
  • 2 bunches cilantro
  • Jalapeno: chopped and seeded
  • Olive Oil
  • Juice of 1 limes.
  • Cotija cheese or manchego
  • Almonds

Let’s make this puppy:

  1. Line broiler pan with foil.
  2. Arrange boiler pan about 6 inches from flame. Turn on high.
  3. Salt and pepper swordfish steaks on each side
  4. Broil one side for 5 minutes. Flip. Repeat.
  5. Remove from heat and smear cilantro pesto on fish. Serve with wedges of lime.

To Make Pesto:

  1. Place cilantro leaves, jalapeno and lime juice into food processor. Pulse into a paste.
  2. Add cheese in small bits for flavor and coloring, such as 3 ounces (or more depending on taste.)
  3. Drizzle, through the feed tube, olive oil until emulsified or slightly creamy.
  4. Add a handful of almonds or walnuts until chopped.
  5. Smear onto any fish.