Tuesday, May 22, 2012

You CAN Go Home Again

I should know. I never miss a chance to go back to my home city, the place I couldn't wait to leave, to see people I've missed ever since departing.  This time I came to St. Louis to the home of my almost-sister, Rose. She and I go back so far in food years it isn't even funny. And here we were again,  stirring it up. Only this time it revolved around what we've come to call "The Book."

She actually flew me into town to prepare a meal based exclusively on recipes in The Book: carrot soup, Caesar salad, Cajun meal loaf, green beans and, of course, butter-laden garlic mashed potatoes with sour cream (which should have been in The Book but wasn't) and Ina Garten's sinfully splendid brownies.  The occasion was her turn to host the book club she joined four years ago. They've been going strong -- with the occasional dropout and replacement.  Appropriately called "The Laughing Ladies," we gathered around Rose's eight-seater of a mahogany dining table, amply fortified by red and white wine.

As guests arrived they immediately gravitated toward the kitchen --- as seems to be the case at any get-together.

Sara, whom I hadn't seen in years, promptly assigned herself to adding butter and sour cream to the mashed potatoes as I mash-squish-mash-squished the addition of heavy cream and more butter.

Robin set about mixing the salad and topping it off with freshly grated Parmesan.

Rose assumed her natural role as gracious hostess while I tried not to sweat over the meatloaf as I removed it from the oven and transferred pan juices into the skillet that would soon be filled with the Cajun sauce (we call it gravy in Texas) loaded with the trinity of chopped onions, celery and bell pepper. Garlic is a given.

Soup was actually served in soup bowls, part of a set Rose brought from her visit to the Czech Republic. We decided to dispense with salad bowls and assign lettuce to plate, alongside the meal's main components. Our sole concession to calorie counters, bless their hearts, was an absence of bread.  That was more than compensated for by brownies and French vanilla ice cream. Of course there was fresh fruit -- raspberries, strawberries and grapes -- which I interpreted as being part of the brownie-ice-cream configuration, not an alternative.

Oops. When you're a charter member of the Too Much Is Never Enough Society,  well, too much really is never enough.

Now it should be noted here that this was a celebratory meal. Few of us would recommend so much butter, cream, butter, sour cream, butter, and more butter in one sitting, but there are times when, in preparing a meal from a book, caution gets thumped sideways: a little fruit of the vine and a lot of  fruit of the cow makes for delicious merriment.

It was the kind of evening I enjoy most; friends sitting around talking asking questions, discussing ideas, reminiscing about favorite meals and talking about Molly.  "Wonder what Molly would have to say about (fill in the blank; the options are endless)"; "What did you leave out?" (personal stuff from conversations she never meant to be public and that had nothing to do with cooking together);  and the most frequently asked -- "What was she really like?" (Private, surprisingly shy and very funny even when she wasn't 'on'.

Finally, as the evening wound down conversation inevitably veered toward politics. How could it be a dinner devoted to Molly and not head in that direction, for cryin' out loud. This much I know for sure: she would have loved the idea of some knucklehead arranging to have Rush Limbaugh enshrined in the rotunda of the Missouri state capitol, if for no reason other than the fact that it would have given her ample material for one of her eviscerating columns dedicated the addlepated troll of the airwaves.

From there we zig-zagged to more politics, international travel, fun vacation spots, and finally wound down to who would host the next book club gathering -- a sure sign that the two and -one-half hour meal was coming to a close.

So see, Tom Wolfe, you can go home again.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Road Food, Not Road Kill

 One of the saving graces of being on the road in pursuit of book sales is the occasional soul-soothing food encounter. It doesn't come along all that often, but when it does, boy, does it ever.  And since I've gone and lost April altogether, I've got some catching up to do in the road-food department.

When last I mentioned food finds I was in Seattle, where I felt slightly out of place because I am not rail-thin, sinewy, an exercise enthusiast or a coffee drinker. But never mind. Shortly after Seattle came San Francisco, and if you can't find good food there you don't know good food when it's looking you square in the taste buds.

But where to start?

That question was easily answered because I was berthed in Mill Valley, a pastoral enclave across the glorious Golden Gate Bridge and close by some pretty swank Marin County real estate, including Tiburon, Larkspur and Sausalito. Since my reading was at Book Passage in the picturesque town of Corte Madera, I had the good fortune to stay with a Sandy, a friend cultivated in Austin who now lives in her home state of California.  I also learned a thing or two about where residents eat when they eat out in t-shirts and flip flops-- as opposed to fancy-pants places otherwise populated by the well-heeled.

Now, if your hostess happens to have at one time lived on a Sausalito  houseboat, you  find yourself ordering a late lunch at Fish, a nondescript place on Richardson Bay and just a few dozen kayak strokes across from the aforementioned water homes. Fish is seriously devoted to sustainability  and serves nothing that is at risk in the oceans. As you might imagine, the bill of fare is dedicated to whatever was caught that day.  Protocol  requires you to stand in line, peruse the chalkboard and order when your turn comes.

We lucked out.The daily special was a whole grilled salmon trout (yes, there is such a thing) grilled to perfection, stuffed with sprigs of cilantro, wafer-thin slices of cucumber and lemon and served on an over-sized platter and accompanied by little heads of grilled baby Romaine dipped in a tarragon vinaigrette; big fat bulbs of roasted garlic; and honkin' great slices of sourdough. Washed down with a pint of Anchor steam on tap (served in pint Mason jars), it was one of the most wonderful restaurant meals I'd had up to that point.

Tucked into a corner of the limited seating indoors, we lit into that lovely lake trout specimen with a vigor that might have proved embarrassing if our table had had a tablecloth on it. We launched lunch with Hog Island oysters on the half shell, so fresh you could taste the gentle brininess of its California origins.

In between San Francisco and Denver came a Saturday in Galveston, the fun and funky island community on Texas' Gulf Coast. It has a rich history of pirates and hurricanes and remarkable resilience -- as evidenced by the return of the Galveston Book Shop after the one-two punch of hurricanes Katrina and Ike. I not only met the head of the bird-watching society there, I met tourists from New Mexico who had met Molly..

After the signing we could have gone to Benno's on the Beach, or Boudreaux's on the Bayou, but we opted for Gaido's -- Galveston's iconic seafood stopping place. Only we went to the low-rent version. Same kitchen, different staff, different vibe, same food. For less. A semi-snack of a dozen oysters on the half-shell held us until we made the 50-minute drive back to Houston where my friend Connie had reservations at  a culinary treasure called Just Dinner.

At home in a renovated house built in the 1920s, the menu, ambiance and service are worthy of anything found in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, or -- dare I say it -- New York.  Dining rooms are segmented, so that Just Dinner seats more than it would seem at first glance. There were only four four-tops and two two-tops in the room where we ate.

The lights and the music are soft and low. The menu is tantalizing but compact.  Seven inventive appetizers included a  special -- shrimp, goat cheese and quinoa croquette -- but my heart belonged to the Gulf crabcake served with a basil pesto aioli. Three salads and two soups rounded out the starters. The tomato was nicely basil-tinged, light and lovely; Connie opted for the white asparagus, which, it should be noted, was rich and flavorful and not at all possessed of the blandness I usually associate with that sun-deprived vegetable.

Then we were on to entrees, bypassing consideration of pasta choices, speeding by braised boneless short ribs; Moroccan-spiced lamb shanks; pan-roasted duck breast; crispy chicken breast with blue cheese polenta and straight to the  evening's special: pan-seared salmon with asparagus risotto and asparagus-pea-fennel salad. I detoured. coming to a screeching halt at the rainbow trout fillet in brown butter sauce accompanied by Parmesan risotto served with a melange of julienned carrots, red bell peppers, shallots, and celery.

We brought along a Temperanillo and happily popped for the $8 corkage fee.

We probably had dessert. I'm sure we did, and I don't want to offend the pastry chef by not remembering, but  I also didn't want to do anything to interfere with the residual loveliness of my recently devoured brown butter-laced trout.

Two  trouts, two road trips. Two divine dining experiences: good food on the road, and nothing even reminiscent of road kill.

Next time: Denver dining and outstanding Salvadorean food where you'd never expect to find it.

Until then, whenever the opportunity presents itself, stir it up.