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Gift Guide 2020: Capering About

November 30, 2020

In my house, capers are an essential ingredient. So I was overjoyed to discover the giant salt-packed capers imported by Gustiamo. They are, hands down, the best capers I’ve found in America.

But the truth is that my pantry is always filled with the superb products Gustiamo imports from Italy. If you have an Italian food-lover on your list, they’ll be thrilled with almost everything on the site. Gustiamo imports this fantastic apricot jam from Sicily; it’s not a preserve, but a thin and extremely flavorful jam that makes a great glaze for fruit tarts. (It’s also perfect in a Sacher torte.)

This cherry tomato sauce makes an almost instant dinner on top of some of their terrific pasta

And the panettone they import every year at this time is legitimately legendary.

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What We Talked About When We Talked About Food in 1991

November 4, 2017

Going through old files, I came upon this speech I wrote in 1991 when I was the food editor of the Los Angeles Times.  I’m not even sure where I gave the speech – it was obviously at some sort of conference – but from the vantage point of twenty-five years, it’s an interesting artifact.

Seems like such a long time ago. Looking at the paper it’s printed on  – we didn’t use Xerox in those days, but a machine that printed on sprocketed sheets – reminds me that we were still going down to the composing room every day just before the paper went to press. If you had to cut a few lines you took a knife and cut it to fit, then repasted with rubber cement.

In those days the food section of the Los Angeles Times was huge – 2 full sections, often running to sixty or more pages.  It was all about advertising, of course; supermarkets were still printing coupons.  But looking at these numbers – the section brought in $34 million! – is a stark reminder of how much things have changed.

So, as you will see, has the audience.





Can’t Stop Thinking About….

February 23, 2016


…this raw, marinated crab at Soban, a small, homely Korean restaurant on the outskirts of Koreatown.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t linked to their website, it’s because when you go to the Soban website you find yourself scanning kitchen equipment. Which tells you a lot about this restaurant; it has a decidedly old-fashioned feel. This is not one of your loud, glitzy restaurants, nor one of your hip, edgy ones.  It’s a small place with a single waitress and a t.v. tuned to the latest golf tournament.  Eating here feels like stopping in at your elderly aunt’s place for a home-cooked meal and a cup of tea.  (Alcohol is not only not served, it’s decidedly frowned upon.) People tend to keep their conversations to a polite hush.

No aunt I’ve ever known, however, serves anything like that marinated crab.  It’s sweet and salty, rich and funky with silken meat. You try to dig the gorgeous orange roe out with your metal chopsticks, but end up attacking it with your fingers; it is one of the best things you’ll ever taste.  If you like uni…..  Afterward the perfume lingers on your fingers for hours, teasing you into wanting to go back and have another one.  (A decidedly expensive proposition; the crab is not large and costs $35.)

But first you’ll get a table full of panchan, the little salad-like side dishes that are the hallmark of Korean restaurants.  Here you get more than the usual handful; we had at least 15. I liked this one a lot.


The bean sprouts were lovely. So was the spinach. But my favorite was the braised celery – a sort of lovely teal green – sprinkled with ground nuts.

The famous dish here, other than the crab, is galbi jjim, the classic Korean short rib stew. This one is rich, garlicky and sweet, with just a hint of chile heat. The waitress will cut the meat up with scissors and then leave it to fall from the bone in a particularly wonderful way.


There are braised fish dishes – a rich one with black cod, tofu and turnips that seems very much like a home-cooked meal:


And a simpler, equally unassuming version featuring long, tender strands of squid:


And then, if you’re me, you’ll opt to order another one of those wonderful crabs.  After all, who knows how long it will be until you get back again?

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More About Dad

January 6, 2016

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There are so many touching comments on the post I wrote yesterday about my father that I thought I’d share a little more.

What I remember best about Dad is his excitement when he found a book he thought that Mom and I would love.  He’d bring the galleys home saying, “You have to read this!”  That’s how I first discovered Kurt Vonnegut; when Dad designed Cat’s Cradle, he insisted we read the book. I became an instant and lifelong Vonnegut fan.

Then there was I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, a seminal novel about mental illness. Because we knew by then that Mom was bipolar, the book resonated especially strongly with all us.  You have to read it! I went on to many of the author’s other books.  I especially recommend In This Sign to anyone who wants to understand how it feels to be born deaf.

Dad’s career began in the days of letterpress, but he was entranced by the possibilities of the future.  In 1975 I gave him a subscription to a magazine called Fine Print. He was very gentle about it, but he said, “I never knew you considered me a luddite.  I don’t yearn for the past.  I think the computer is going to be the greatest tool a designer ever had.”  It makes me sad he’s not around to see what’s going on today.

If you want to know what Dad was like at home, I think this excerpt from Tender at the Bone, pretty much says it all.  I might add that no matter what Mom had served us, at the end of every meal Dad would reach out, take her hand, kiss it and thank her for dinner.  Then he’d turn to me and say, “Your mother is a wonderful cook.”


This is a true story.

Imagine a New York City apartment at six in the morning. It is a modest apartment in Greenwich Village. Coffee is bubbling in an electric percolator. On the table is a basket of rye bread, an entire coffee cake, a few cheeses, a platter of cold cuts. My mother has been making breakfast–a major meal in our house, one where we sit down to fresh orange juice every morning, clink our glasses as if they held wine, and toast each other with “Cheerio. Have a nice day.” Right now she is the only one awake, but she is getting impatient for the day to begin and she cranks WQXR up a little louder on the radio, hoping that the noise will rouse everyone else. But Dad and I are good sleepers, and when the sounds of martial music have no effect she barges into the bedroom and shakes my father awake.

“Darling,” she says, “I need you. Get up and come into the kitchen.”

My father, a sweet and accommodating person, shuffles sleepily down the hall. He is wearing loose pajamas, and the strand of hair he combs over his bald spot stands straight up. He leans against the sink, holding on to it a little, and obediently opens his mouth when my mother says, “Try this.”

Later, when he told the story, he attempted to convey the awfulness of what she had given him. The first time he said that it tasted like cat toes and rotted barley, but over the years the description got better. Two years later it had turned into pigs’ snouts and mud and five years later he had refined the flavor into a mixture of antique anchovies and moldy chocolate.

Whatever it tasted like, he said it was the worst thing he had ever had in his mouth, so terrible that it was impossible to swallow, so terrible that he leaned over and spit it into the sink and then grabbed the coffeepot, put the spout into his mouth, and tried to eradicate the flavor.

My mother stood there watching all this. When my father finally put the coffeepot down she smiled and said, “Just as I thought. Spoiled!”

And then she threw the mess into the garbage can and sat down to drink her orange juice.

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For the longest time I thought I had made this story up. But my brother insists that my father told it often, and with a certain amount of pride. As far as I know, my mother was never embarrassed by the telling, never even knew that she should have been. It was just the way she was.

Which was taste-blind and unafraid of rot. “Oh, it’s just a little mold,” I can remember her saying on the many occasions she scraped the fuzzy blue stuff off some concoction before serving what was left for dinner. She had an iron stomach and was incapable of understanding that other people did not.

This taught me many things. The first was that food could be dangerous, especially to those who loved it. I took this very seriously. My parents entertained a great deal, and before I was ten I had appointed myself guardian of the guests. My mission was to keep Mom from killing anybody who came to dinner.

Her friends seemed surprisingly unaware that they took their lives in their hands each time they ate with us. They chalked their ailments up to the weather, the flu, or one of my mother’s more unusual dishes. “No more sea urchins for me,” I imagined Burt Langner saying to his wife, Ruth, after a dinner at our house, “they just don’t agree with me.” Little did he know that it was not the sea urchins that had made him ill, but that bargain beef my mother had found so irresistible.

“I can make a meal out of anything,” Mom told her friends proudly. She liked to brag about “Everything Stew,” a dish invented while she was concocting a casserole out of a two-week-old turkey carcass. (The very fact that my mother confessed to cooking with two-week-old turkey says a lot about her.) She put the turkey and a half can of mushroom soup into the pot. Then she began rummaging around in the refrigerator. She found some leftover broccoli and added that. A few carrots went in, and then a half carton of sour cream. In a hurry, as usual, she added green beans and cranberry sauce. And then, somehow, half an apple pie slipped into the dish. Mom looked momentarily horrified. Then she shrugged and said, “Who knows? Maybe it will be good.” And she began throwing everything in the refrigerator in along with it–leftover pate, some cheese ends, a few squishy tomatoes.

That night I set up camp in the dining room. I was particularly worried about the big eaters, and I stared at my favorite people as they approached the buffet, willing them away from the casserole. I actually stood directly in front of Burt Langner so he couldn’t reach the turkey disaster. I loved him, and I knew that he loved food.

Unknowingly I had started sorting people by their tastes. Like a hearing child born to deaf parents, I was shaped by my mother’s handicap, discovering that food could be a way of making sense of the world.

At first I paid attention only to taste, storing away the knowledge that my father preferred salt to sugar and my mother had a sweet tooth. Later I also began to note how people ate, and where. My brother liked fancy food in fine surroundings, my father only cared about the company, and Mom would eat anything so long as the location was exotic. I was slowly discovering that if you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were.

Then I began listening to the way people talked about food, looking for clues to their personalities. “What is she really saying?” I asked myself when Mom bragged about the invention of her famous corned beef ham.

“I was giving a party,” she’d begin, “and as usual I left everything for the last minute.” Here she’d look at her audience, laughing softly at herself. “I asked Ernst to do the shopping, but you know how absentminded he is! Instead of picking up a ham he brought me corned beef.” She’d look pointedly at Dad, who would look properly sheepish.

“What could I do?” Mom asked. “I had people coming in a couple of hours. I had no choice. I simply pretended it was a ham.” With that Dad would look admiringly at my mother, pick up his carving knife, and start serving the masterpiece.


4 pounds whole corned beef        1/4 cup brown sugar         

5 bay leaves                      Whole cloves                

1 onion, chopped                  1 can (1 pound 15 ounces)   

1 tablespoon prepared mustard     spiced peaches              

Cover corned beef with water in a large pot. Add bay leaves and onion. Cook over medium heat about 3 hours, until meat is very tender.

While meat is cooking, mix mustard and brown sugar.

Preheat oven to 325 [degrees].

Take meat from water and remove all visible fat. Insert cloves into meat as if it were ham. Cover the meat with the mustard mixture and bake 1 hour, basting frequently with the peach syrup.

Surround meat with spiced peaches and serve.

Serves 6.




Tripe Anyone? How About Clam Pie?

January 3, 2016

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From February, 1979, a couple of vintage recipes that caught my eye:

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This clam pie would be a project if you’re making your own pate brisee, but using frozen puff pastry, it’ll be a cinch.

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And as a little lagniappe (I’m listening to Michael Doucet), here’s a lovely little soup.

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