Dreaming of Rain, and Soup.

Rain and snow, for most of you across the United States, is in ample supply. I’ve seen your Facebook posts and Instagram shots, highlighting ample precipitation levels. I’ve heard you lament your icy roads and flooded streams. I have been noting your documentation of freezing yet glorious weather patterns while I’ve been enjoying my iced latte in the sunshine, outdoors, all. winter.  long.  Enough.

California is in the grip of a terrifying drought. If you haven’t heard about it yet, you will. When the prices of lettuce and broccoli and almonds skyrocket later this year to beyond levels that we mere mortals can afford, you’ll know more than you want to. But perhaps the barest of hopes is shimmering in the background. Thankfully, wonderfully, the first drops in weeks have begun to fall here. With flash floods and mudslides predicted, I can only offer a brief whisper of thanks and prayer to the stormy gods above. Keep going. Not too much, not too hard. But keep going.

This weather also brings the much-missed opportunity for all of the hearty and comforting winter dishes I’ve been unable to enjoy thus far. And so finally, I can present this recipe for the most deliciously warming and nourishing, incredibly affordable, and unbelievably elegant soup of modern reckoning.

It is a veritable rainbow of soup. Red tomatoes, orange carrots, yellow squash, deepest greens and those unbelievably fat, glossy, gorgeous purple beans. You can use other beans, ones you have on hand, and the soup won’t really suffer. In fact, you can substitute so many ingredients for the ones I have listed; you can concoct a whole new entity with the template I am giving you here. But if you do it like this, just like I’ve given you below, then maybe the rain gods will listen to you too and bless us with enough precipitation to stave off calamity.

Winter Rainbow Soup

Ingredients

1 2-lb Butternut Squash, peeled and cubed into 1-inch pieces
2 bunches Dino Kale, chopped
1 cup dried Rancho Gordo Christmas Lima Beans, soaked and cooked, liquid reserved
4 Carrots, chopped
6 stalks of Celery, chopped
1 large Onion, chopped
3 cloves Garlic, minced
2 pints or one 16 oz can diced Tomatoes
2 quarts Chicken Stock
1 quart Water
1 or 2 Parmesan Rinds
2 tablespoons Olive Oil
To Serve: chopped Parsley, grated Parmegiano Reggiano Cheese, good crusty Bread, cooked Cheese Tortellini

Directions

In a large dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium high heat until it begins to shimmer. Add onion, carrots, and celery with 2 teaspoons of salt, and sauté until the vegetables are soft and just beginning to brown. Add the garlic, stir, and cook for one minute. Add the chicken stock and water and bring to a boil. Add butternut squash and cook for 5 minutes, or until almost tender. Add the kale, beans, bean liquid, tomatoes, and the liquid from the tomato jars and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer gently until the greens are soft, around 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add additional salt and pepper if needed. Serve with some finely grated parmegianio reggiano, a sprinkling of parsley, and a few hunks of very crusty bread. You might even add a few cooked tortellini to the soup if desired.

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The Menu Journal

I have a bit of an issue with food blog photography. While I love taking pictures of food, I am often too focused on the process of actually eating or cooking to remember to pause and set up a good shot. Plus my digital camera recently broke, I lost my Ollo Clip for my iPhone, and said iPhone has decided to insert a bright purple lens glare into the corner of almost every shot. So the pictures I am taking aren’t necessarily the best anyhow. And as it will be awhile before I can afford the sweet DSLR I have my eye on, I find myself at a loss for what to do in the meantime. Because photos of food don’t just act as pretty eye candy for the blog posts — they also serve as memory-jabbers to help me recall what I’ve eaten and how the process came about.

Thankfully, the good people over at The Kitchn posted this a few weeks ago, and Hark! I had my solution! A Food Journal. I have tried to keep food diaries in the past, ones that counted all the calories and fiber content of everything I ate over the course of a day. Those diaries never made it to Day 3. And I have a recipe book, where I will write down a recipe of something once I have made it several times and it warrants recording for posterity (read: future disinterested grandchildren who don’t even know how to read a real book with two covers and paper in between.) But this cookbook doesn’t really capture all the little joys of my everyday cooking and eating.

So I got a fresh Leuchtturm notebook ( the BEST notebooks on the planet, far superior to Moleskin) and dubbed it Die Speisekarten, which is German for The Menus. I’m including meals I make at home in my sweet little Dollhouse, as well as particularly memorable meals I eat out in restaurants.  I started it off with what we ordered on our venture to the recently re-opened China Village in Albany, which was truly delicious, save for the Spicy Sour Chitlin Fun. (Ugh. I shudder at the remembrance of the smell of that one.) And since then I have been filling it with my Dollhouse dinners, and it has been very informative to see which ingredients get repeated and re-purposed. For instance, I made a Chive-Basil Pistou one night that, when mixed with some tahini and champagne vinegar, became a lovely salad dressing the next night. Since I don’t write recipes for salad dressings ever, it’s helpful to have some sort of record of this happy accident for future inspiration purposes.

Tahini Dressing | Yolk and Cobblestones

So the problem of remembering what I have eaten seems to be solved. Now on to figuring out what to do with the mediocre iPhone food photography… Maybe I will just turn to illustration instead!

The French Illness!

So this thing that’s been going around, that always seems to go around this time of year, has officially hit me. I am suffering the classic symptoms: an excess of rosé drinking, chocolate croissant eating, and steak au poivre cooking. Frequent purchases of glossy hardcover books relating to bouchons and bistros. Ending transactions at wine and cheese shops with a loud and resounding, “Merci!” Yes, my friends, I have caught La Maladie Français, also know as the overwhelming desire to be eating French food and drinking French wine in France.

Rose | Yolk and CobblestonesIt probably began when Mike and Angela (of illicit cheese couriering fame) were on their recent trip to France. Or when Faith at The Kitchn started posting ridiculously gorgeous pictures of her charming apartment rental in Paris. And maybe when I started to see all the 2012 rosés in full force at the shop. Or when I started reading the only book on rosé I have been able to track down, about British expats who scour the French countryside for the palest bottle of rosé in existence.

And yesterday Chronicle Books was having a sale in the building, so I picked up a copy of The Little Paris Kitchen by Rachel Khoo.  I was only able to flip a few pages in before I spotted her beautiful Gratin Dauphinois and knew that I was going to have to make it for dinner immediately. I promptly ran over to the Ferry Plaza and was delighted to find Prather Ranch had put some gorgeous filet mignons on a 2-for-1 sale (!) and that the mushroom seller had some gorgeous organic shiitakes on special as well.

LPK  | Yolk and Cobblestones

So last night’s menu consisted of creamy scalloped potatoes, steaks with mushroom and red wine sauce (is there truly anything better than shallots and mushrooms cooked down in butter, drowned in wine, and finished off with a swirl of more butter?) and a crisp green salad, accompanied by a 2009 Le Relais de Durfort-Vivens Margaux. I’ll give you my slightly adapted recipe for Rachel’s Gratin Dauphinois, but you would be doing yourself a huge favor to just go pick up the book yourself and give some of the other recipes a whirl. And be careful! You might just catch La Maladie Français yourself!

Gratin Dauphinois  | Yolk and Cobblestones

Gratin Dauphinois
(Adapted from Rachel Khoo’s The Little Paris Kitchen)

2 lbs yukon gold potatoes
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups cream
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 heaping teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons softened butter
chopped chives (for garnish)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Slice the potatoes into 1/8 inch rounds. Rachel likes hers peeled, but I leave the skins on mine– there’s more fiber and vitamins in there, and yukon gold skins are very tender and tasty to boot. Put them in a pot with all the ingredients save the butter. Heat until just boiling, then turn the stove off and cover the pot. Rest for 10-15 minutes, giving a few good but gentle stirs. (This encourages some of the starches to release from the potatoes and thicken the milk/cream mixture. )

Rub the butter all over your pie pan / gratin dish / casserole. Leave little dollops of butter all around the bottom.

Carefully transfer slices to pan. I used tongs here as my potatoes were still very hot. Don’t worry too much about making them all line up or look pretty– everything looks good once it’s bathed in cream! Pour the cream all over, getting into the nooks and crannies.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the potatoes are pierced easily with a knife and the top is getting nicely browned. Let cool before attempting to serve and eat! This one is very hot.

Au Lait Cru: Part One

Inspiration is a funny thing. When it strikes, I often feel the need to sustain it, to hold on to it so tightly it never leaves my grasp again. This of course has the adverse effect of promptly abandoning me, leaving with a great whoosh of deflated energy. So I vow to relax, let it all flow over me, the next time I feel that gentle intake of breath that lets me know I’m on to something.

I often long for that which I don’t have, but I always believe that it’s near-inevitable arrival is just a few moments away. Marriage, a career that is utterly fulfilling, financial stability, children, travel , a house, publishing a book that becomes a wild success… And sometimes I get so wrapped up in longing I forget that it actually is up to me to somehow gently guide my inspiration with real live action and just do it already. Hm. Maybe I’ve seen too many Nike ads recently.

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So when inspiration arrives, fresh off the plane from Paris, in the form of not one but TWO wheels of raw milk Camembert, I think of how best to document this glorious experience. I post a photo on the Facebook. I snap a dozen more iPhone pics with the intention of writing a blog post all about cheese and the demented US regulations that keep such lovely (and totally harmless) products out of our everyday grasp.

But then I eat. And I forget to take notes, instead closing my eyes and breathing in the ripe aromas. I nibble, letting the cheese melt on my tongue. I sip some Vouvray. I smile widely at my boyfriend. And I let inspiration just be, Nike be damned.

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*Eternal gratitude to Mike and Angela for acting as illicit cheese couriers.

Authentic Taco

My papa makes a mean taco. When I was little, I would scarf down as many as I could before the feeling of fullness could overpower my will to consume. Apparently my grandmother got the recipe from a Mexican gardener who worked at her Southern California house back in the 50’s. Of course, I’m not so sure about the authenticity– they do seem awfully Americanized. But it’s no matter, as they actually are authentic to me. Authentically Johnston.

The day before Taco Day, my dad will get his meat mix ready: 1/2 ground beef to 1/2 crumbled chorizo. The meat needs to be mixed the day before, in order to allow the flavors to mingle and marry. Again, not sure if this holds up in the land of real life and absolute necessities, but we follow the rule religiously.

CameraAwesomePhoto(8)When the day does arrive, it’s time to set out bowls of chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce, diced raw red onion, thick sour cream, and hot sauce. Oh, and a LARGE amount of shredded cheese. In the past, we’d get bags of pre-shredded “Mexican” cheese and chop up whatever tomatoes were available at the market. Now I reach for a good aged cheddar and combine with with melty jack, organic Straus sour cream, and in last night’s case– the first heirloom tomatoes from the market!

Papa is the only one I trust to do the frying. The oil can’t be too high or low, or hot or cold, but in the Goldilocks zone of juuuust right. The meat, now nicely folded in its pliant corn tortilla envelope, begins to hiss and sizzle and I simply can’t wait to get my hot little hands on one. Inevitably, I hover too close and am rewarded with a fat explosion of an oil pop that lands right on my arm.

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Once they are out of the pan, the crispy shell is piping hot, and needs to be carefully opened to prevent cracking (and steam-burnt fingers.) The debate still rages as to the proper order of the fillings, with everyone only agreeing on the irrefutable fact that the cheese must be placed upon the meat first, in order to allow it to melt.

And then we eat.

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Now that the old man is retired, I can only hope that Taco Day comes even more frequently. Authentic or not, they will always be wholly, and totally, ours.

To Drink and Think

Crotchety and tempestuous. Blessed and grateful. Productive and contributing member of society or permanently attached to the chaise with endless reruns of Grey’s Anatomy? These are the grand choices I struggle with. Okay, how about somewhere in between?

Just finished up with another wine club newsletter, and thought I’d share my favorite wines from one of the best-kept secrets in Sonoma with you this month. These wines aren’t available everywhere (what would be the fun in that?) so if you are tempted, you can always get them at my shop, or online direct from the winery.

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Porter Creek
This has got to be one of my favorite producers in Sonoma. It’s super-small, the tasting room is an old shed located next to their chicken coop, and the wines are superb.  Their dedication to the land and the grapes is nothing short of amazing– and the wines prove it. Winemaker/owner Alex Davis focuses on minimal manipulation in the cellar, which allows the authentic nature of the grapes to shine.

2010 Fiona Hill Pinot Noir
Retail: $43

Truly a delight, the Fiona is rarely available, as every vintage sells out almost instantly. Feminine and sensual, with notes of crushed cranberry and raspberry, with a shot of minerality and woodsy depth in the midpalate. Try to hold off for at least six more months, though it is unmistakably gorgeous now. Would be perfect with a springtime appetizer of morel mushrooms on brioche toast.

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2011  Mendocino Carignane
Retail: $27

Carignane, a traditional Rhone blending grape, is full of rustic and charming character. This bottling from old vines is brash and a little bit spicy, with some brooding dark fruits thrown in for good measure. Think about pairing with short ribs, grilled quail, or even a hefty, grass-fed burger.

2012 Sonoma County Rosé
Retail: $22

My darling, my love– Rosé. No I am not biased. This bottling is FANTASTIC. $22 might seem like a bit steep for picnic wine, but Good Lord. This wine is usually only available to Porter Creek’s wine club members, but guess who managed to get her hot little hands on a case? Moi! Fresh and vibrant, this wine races with acidity and delights the palate with strawberry, rhubarb, kiwi, and a touch of orange blossom. Drink this with charcuterie. Drink this with cheese and olives. Drink it with fried chicken. Drink it with pork tenderloin, ham, pasta, sandwiches… Drink it alone, standing up in the kitchen while you do the dishes and listen to Nouvelle Vague. Just drink it, and smile.

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Is Wine a Reason?

I sell wine. Every week, my distributor reps come in and we taste new wines, searching to fill holes in my current inventory and try out new producers. I get to write shelftalkers and wine club newsletters, using my words to tempt customers into trying something new and different. I talk to every single person that comes into the shop and assess their needs, budget, and preferences in order to match them with their perfect wine for that particular moment. Oh, and I get to take home samples and leftover wines at the end of the day.

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But what is it, really, that I do? I love the wine industry, and I love the fun parts of my job. Honestly even the unglamorous aspects like washing tasting glasses and spit buckets, breaking down hundreds of cardboard boxes, and dealing with an astonishing number of snooty wine snobs are just a small price to pay. However, at the end of the day, I sell wine. Is this to be my contribution to society? To provide you with one great bottle for one night’s worth of fleeting happiness? If I do my job correctly, you take a bottle of wine home, to a dinner party, and while drinking it, you remark upon it’s remarkable taste and glorious finish. Perhaps you even take note of the producer and vintage and vow to buy more (hopefully from me.) But is this it?

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I don’t mean to denigrate my industry and my small place in this world. I love wine with a sometimes overwhelming passion that threatens to subsume all other considerations.  And in these moments, I turn to the only thing I have ever turned to in times of frustration and aimlessness– I turn to writing. I work on my book and I type these blog posts and continue to search for that which will satisfy my yearning soul. But I fear this is a question that not only I struggle with. Across all industries, do we all sometimes wallow in doubt? I despise regret and have no wish to visit with it. But if we chase the goal of regretting nothing, do we perhaps move too fast to see the truth in our actions? I make nothing. I give no tangible objects or benefits to the world at large. Is wine then, reason enough for being and breathing?

I’m not sure. I think I shall open up a bottle of vintage champagne and contemplate this some more.

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