• Farewell Judy Rodgers

    fires11When I told Carolyn that Judy Rodgers had died of cancer, her face showed the same level of shock, sadness and confusion that I felt upon hearing the news. “How old was she”?, Carolyn asked, “just 57”, I relied. “That’s terrible….too young” said Carolyn “too young”.

    A few hours later, my good friend Chad texted “RIP Judy Rodgers”. Chad knew Judy, as he was a chef in San Francisco in the 1990’s when Rodgers, and her Zuni Cafe, were at their height. Chad, his wife Monica, Carolyn and I spent a number of magical moments together at Zuni. Chad was deeply saddened. So was I.

    I didn’t know Rodgers personally, and only occasionally saw her at Zuni. She was famously private and didn’t crave the limelight, even at the restaurant. There are many more “famous” celebrity chefs out there, but few have the influence or lasting success of Judy Rodgers. She was a hidden treasure, and yet one of our greatest inspirations.

    We are most influenced by those we know. I have both my parents to thank for a love of food, and perhaps more importantly, a lack of fear about food. Food was good and to be enjoyed….period. Carolyn gives me an understanding and love of entertaining and hospitality that is at the core of our lives together. My friend Chad Callahan gave me some of my first exposure to what fine dining really meant, the importance of sourcing the right ingredients and using good technique. Hiro Watanabe, our favorite sushi chef, showed me that it’s best to serve just a few great dishes, and not many average ones.

    When I think about cooking these are some of my touchstones.

    But of the broader influences I have, Judy Rodgers, and the Zuni experience, show up in my cooking almost every day. Her cooking was simple, flavorful and well executed. She used the best ingredients and was unafraid to let them stand on their own.

    These days, many chefs like to tell you what plot at the farm the kale came from, how “heirloom” the seeds are and then use every piece of offal from a pig- just to make an impression. And that is fine. Judy Rodgers would do that if it made the dish better. But if a simple bowl of polenta with a bit of parmesan or mascarpone was the best dish, that is what she would serve.

    And it wasn’t just the food. Zuni was a restaurant that felt, and still feels, like the heart of San Francisco. A strangely shaped, airy space with hidden corners, big windows, a huge wood-fired oven and walls full of art, Zuni captured the city like few other spaces. And it reflected in the customers. From pre-opera suburban diners in their finery to young couples on dates, you saw every age, gender, color and persuasion. Almost all of them with smiles on their faces. Zuni is still that kind of place. I hope it remains that kind of place.

    Many chefs are known by their “signature dishes”, and they are something of a mixed blessing. Most chefs tire of making the same dish, no matter how good or how popular, every day. Judy Rodgers had many signature dishes. The roast chicken, burger, caesar salad, polenta and espresso granita are still standards of San Francisco dining to this day. Rodgers expressed frustration, at times, that she couldn’t take these dishes off the menu. But regardless of her feelings, the dishes were always perfectly executed. When we took the boys to Zuni a few years ago, the burger was just as good as it was when we first went. Rodgers was a pro.

    Ironically, when we moved out of the city and eventually came here to the “farm”, Rodgers became an even larger influence on our cooking through the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. To be honest, it is a dense, detailed cookbook. At times it’s a hard read. It is not entertainment or food porn. But the recipes truly work. And, more importantly, if you want to understand how flavors come together and compliment each other in a dish, then this is the cookbook you need. When we want to learn about a fresh, seasonal ingredient, we most often look to Alice Waters. When we actually cook it or pair it with another ingredient, we look to Judy Rodgers.

    A number of years ago we stopped cooking just by recipe, but by looking at ingredients, flavors and techniques. We jokingly say that we “graduated” and become cooks who can think, and experiment, on our own. Judy Rodgers was a big part of that, and we owe her our thanks.

    We also owe her our thanks for her recipes and techniques that we make here all the time. We pre-salt or “dry brine” our beef, pork and poultry- and it is still one of the most important techniques we use. Her asparagus and rice soup fills our bowls each spring, sage grilled cheese puts smiles on faces at cocktail parties. And Rodgers’ caesar salad is still the best, even if our attempts don’t come close to the original. It is a beautiful dish. A memorable dish.

    So thank you Judy Rodgers. Our prayers go to you and your family. Godspeed.

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  • Carolyn’s Christmas Toffee

    Toffee. Good at any time, but best for Christmas.

    Toffee. Good at any time, but best for Christmas.

    And the sprint begins……Now that Thanksgivukkah is over here at the farm, we have only three weeks until Christmas. We also have a few family birthdays, a party to throw, and many to attend, in just 22 days. Yikes! Of course, these events are a delight. Even with the craziness of the holidays, time with friends and celebrating together is something to treasure. The only challenge with all these events is figuring out what to bring as a gift…but Carolyn (like always) has us covered.

    toffee3toffee4toffee5We will bring wine and/or spirits for those who like such things (and, shockingly, many of our friends do like a bit o’ booze) but we often give things we make here at the farm. A lot of Putney Farm jam and fruit butters will be doled out over the next few weeks, and they will be quite tasty (IMHO). But if you are extra-lucky, Carolyn will bring you some home-made toffee. This my friends is the good stuff.

    toffee6toffee7toffee8And not nearly as hard to make as you think. Toffee requires only a few common ingredients, one special tool and a little patience. Basically, if you can read a candy thermometer (or a thermocouple digital thermometer), you can make toffee. And if you mess up, it will still taste pretty good, and you get to try another batch. A fun holiday project and a perfect gift. (Who doesn’t like sugar, butter and chocolate?) Continue reading

  • Holiday Leftover Hash: Something Good For Black Friday

    hashhash4We thought about doing a Thanksgiving turkey recipe for the blog, but truth be told, we aren’t big turkey people. We will be making J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s Sous Vide “Turchetta” (turkey breast made like Porchetta) and a beef roast for the Thanksgivukkah holiday. But we will give you an awesome, and easy, recipe to use up those Thanksgiving leftovers- hash. We suggest you forgo the shopping and serve hash for Black Friday Brunch.

    hash5hash6hash7We like turkey or ham sandwiches just fine, but when you can take the leftover turkey/pork/beef, potatoes and veggies, add some seasoning and crisp them up in some bacon fat…well now you are onto something. And that is the beauty of hash. A good hash elevates your leftovers into an entirely new dish, and since most of the ingredients are cooked, it doesn’t take that long or require many pot and pans. Nice. And if you just “happen” to top off the hash with a fried egg or a zippy horseradish sauce…well then you really will have something to be thankful for.

    hash8hash9The key with making hash is to use what you already have and balance flavors and textures. Think about a mix of savory, sweet, vegetal and spicy flavors and soft, creamy and crispy textures (the browning will crisp up the dish). Pretty much any leftover you have may be worth adding, so be creative. And pre-cooked food is better in hash, as you don’t have to worry about even cooking of various raw ingredients. The only “fresh” ingredients we use are bacon, (to get its fat) onions and minced garlic we soften in the grease before adding the other ingredients. We top the hash with either a fried egg or a quick horseradish sauce (prepared horseradish, sour cream, mayonnaise, a touch of mustard, salt/pepper) but steak sauce or simple ketchup are just fine as well.

    hash10hash12hash14For this hash we used leftover beef, roasted butternut squash and boiled Yukon Gold potatoes seasoned with a bit of thyme, cumin and chili powder. It was great. But if we had leftover turkey, sweet potatoes, mashers or even creamed spinach or roasted brussels sprouts, we could use them (most stuffings will also work). Hard to go wrong here, as long as you liked the dish on Thursday, it probably work in hash on Friday….except for the cranberry sauce, best to keep that out of the hash.

    hash15hash13So we wish you a Happy Thanksgiving! We hope you cook your turkey in pieces (trust us!), have a few fun cocktails and enjoy time with family and friends. We also hope you stay home on Friday, maybe build a fire, and cook this hash for brunch. Enjoy the day…the “holidaze” are coming.

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    Holiday Leftover Hash:

    Notes Before You Start:

    • The best way to make hash is to mostly use cooked leftovers. Raw ingredients have different cooking times and can mess up your hash. We suggest just a few softened aromatics and then whatever leftovers you have.
    • Cooking in a cast iron pan or steel skillet will get you the best browning and a crispy, delicious hash.

    What You Get: An easy, delicious and warm dish using up those Thanksgiving leftovers.

    What You Need: No special equipment required.

    How Long? About 25-30 minutes. A few minutes of chopping, otherwise this is as easy as it gets. Anytime dish.

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  • A Few Tips On Cooking For Thanksgiving

    Rule #1: Think happy thoughts...

    Rule #1: Think happy thoughts…and be grateful.

    We are not much on “how-to” or “5 keys to the best Thanksgiving x…” posts here at the farm, but with the holidays coming (including the once in a lifetime bonus holiday of “Thanksgivvukah”) we figured we should share some thoughts on how to make the most of your Thanksgiving cooking. Here is our take on the important stuff:

    Before the holiday:

    • Don’t worry about the specific dishes and recipes you are going to cook until you have a guest count. Some recipes work with small crowds, some with big crowds. Cook dishes that make sense for the size of the group you have (and your budget).
    • Once you have the guest count, decide what you want to cook and what oven and stove top space you have. Make sure you can cook the dishes you want with the appliances and tools you have. Then when guests ask “what can I bring?” you will have a good idea of what else you need, based on the resources you have.
    • Remember that your grill can be a useful tool if you are out of stovetop burners or ovens.
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    Remember your grill is an extra oven or burner.

    • When a guest asks “what can I bring?”, be very specific and ask for something you know the guest can bring and/or make. At first, you may come off a bit fussy or demanding, but when a guest brings the perfect dish, pie, bottle of wine, etc. that fits with the meal, they will feel great- and so will you and the rest of your guests. Everyone likes to be a hero. Don’t be afraid to ask guests to bring what will be best with the meal.
    • Desserts are often best made day ahead or earlier in the day to save you time and space. Most pies are better at room temperature anyway. Cakes need to cool before frosting. All of this is best done ahead of time.
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    Make desserts ahead of time to save kitchen space….and sanity.

    What to cook on Thanksgiving?

    • Thanksgiving is about giving thanks for all we have (and regardless of the craziness of everyday life, most of us have a lot to be grateful for). The meal is not about Norman Rockwell paintings or Martha Stewart magazine spreads. Thanksgiving should be about serving your best dishes to the people you love. Beauty is only skin deep, makes sure the food tastes good!
    • With that in mind, there is nothing wrong with serving something other than turkey. If you make great beef, chicken, pork (or even vegetarian) dishes for a crowd, then serve them. Serve them with pride. How about a small turkey and something else? There will always be the high-maintenance jerk  someone who will talk about “grandma’s this” or “traditional” that. They can cook next year…but usually they won’t. Forget ’em (but with a smile, of course) and serve what you know tastes good. Tasty food wins over everything. Always.

    But what if I want to serve turkey?

    If you plan to serve turkey and actually want it to taste good and be moist, here are a few pointers that will make a big difference:

    • Deep-fried turkeys are great, but proceed with caution. Let’s face it, most of us drink a lot bit during the holidays. Booze, fire and hot oil are a very bad combination (particularly if you have kids running around). If you want a deep-fried turkey, hire a pro to do it. There are plenty of people who can do it for you. Seriously. DIY is great, but with hot oil? C’mon….
    • Your turkey will be better if you salt / brine it. You can use a water-based wet brine, or simply salt the turkey with what is called a “dry brine”. Either way, the pre-salting makes for moister, more flavorful meat (trust us, the chemistry is sound, even if it seems counterintuitive). There are plenty of good recipes for brined turkeys, but here is a good guide to the pros and cons of dry or wet brining your turkey.
    • One of the only drawbacks to brined turkeys is that you can’t use the drippings for gravy, as they will be too salty. We suggest you make a gravy using commercial chicken stock (usually it is your best option, that may sound heretical, but it is often true) or ask your butcher for turkey stock (they may have some) or extra turkey parts (like the backbone) for stock.
    • The best way to cook poultry is to do it in pieces. White meat is done at a lower internal temperature than dark meat and there is no magical way to change that. The easiest way to get perfect white and dark meat is cook the breasts and legs separately and then present them together (even Julia Child said this was the way to go). If you present the turkey well, no one will even notice. Actually, your guests will notice…that you served the best turkey they ever had.
    ChickenIng4

    Cook poultry in pieces. It works.

    • If you are cooking the turkey in pieces, you need to track internal temperature for best results. You need a quick read (cheap, like $10), or even better, a digital thermometer (over $50) to know the internal temperature of your meat. No excuses. And those “pop-up” thermometers in the turkey simply don’t work…unless you like to eat bone-dry turkey.
    • Rethink everything you know about the desired internal temperature of poultry. The “safe” 160-165 F degree internal temperature we hear about for poultry is based on the idea that you will eat the turkey at the very moment it comes out of the oven. Who does that? Nobody. At 165 F all bacteria are dead immediately. But turkey white meat starts to dry out above 150 F. This seems like an insurmountable problem, but if you cook the turkey breast to 145-150 F and let it rest for 20 minutes, the heat will increase to 160 while the turkey rests and the bacteria will be killed by longer exposure to temperature. You get a safe, but moist, turkey breast. (The government actually knows this, but figures we are all too stupid to understand this nuance). If you want more detail and a good recipe, see here and for the chemistry, see here.
    • Dark meat is very hard to overcook. Shoot for an internal temperature of at least 180 degrees. If you go a bit over, it’s no big deal. There is so much connective tissue in the dark meat that it will stay moist at higher temperatures. We suggest you simply cook the dark meat to the desired temperature while the white meat rests. Easy.
    • Don’t cook stuffing in the turkey. Just don’t. If you want to worry about food safety, cooking stuffing inside the bird is the biggest risk you will have.
    • You can deep-fry, roast or smoke your turkey at many different cooking temperatures. Many methods / recipes work, assuming you target the right internal temperature of your meat. Some cooking methods will yield more attractive, crisper skin than others. You can always crisp the skin of your turkey with a quick blast in a high-temperature (500 F) oven. If you crisp the skin for less than 5-10 minutes, it will have minimal impact on internal temperature but give you a golden brown skin.
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    Crisp the skin for a few minutes in a hot oven.

    Kitchen tips:

    • You are (most likely) not a chef, don’t try to act or look like one. Chefs do all that flashy and speedy chopping because they are used to prepping for hundreds of guests. For them, speed matters (and is a bit of a macho thing). For you, it is best to avoid slicing your fingers off. Even if you have 30 guests, the amount of prep you have to do is probably manageable. Take your time chopping and slicing. Even if you go slowly it will only cost you an extra 5-10 minutes. Take your time, keep your fingers intact and avoid a trip to the ER.
    • Plan on the right time and method for thawing your meat. If you have a fresh turkey or roast, that is great. But many of us will have frozen meat. Big frozen turkeys take a lot of time to thaw, and if you do it in the fridge (and you should), it will take days. Here is a guideThere is no better way to screw up your cooking for Thanksgiving than to forget to thaw the turkey or roast. Make sure you have a plan to thaw your bird.

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