Dining in a Chamber of Horror…Tasty, Tasty Horror…..

Octopus anyone?

This past weekend I went to a dinner party where we feasted on crickets, barnacles, chicken feet, octopus, camel’s milk, 100-year-old eggs, baccalao and quite a few more things average Americans don’t typically find on their tables.

The party was the idea of our lovely friend João, a fearless eater who felt that a Friday the 13th falling in the month of Halloween presented an appropriate occasion to step outside the comfort zone and try foods that just might give us the creeps. Of course this group was game for it all, so it wasn’t such a scary proposition. Just intriguing and fun—and for the most part, delicious.

Here’s a glimpse of a few foods we delved into:

There’s nothing like discovering a full octopus tentacle on the buffet (see the photo up top) to make your eyes pop. Dawn went for the dramatic and laid out the uncut tentacle on a bed of seaweed salad. I also brought octopus (same photo), from which I made pulpo, cutting it into bite-sized pieces, drizzling it with olive oil and sprinkling it with sea salt and pimenton de espelette (a Spanish hot chili powder). This tapa was one of our favorites when Himself and I visited Spain, so while I bought the tentacles at an Asian grocery, I gave them the Spanish treatment.

When I arrived, João was at the stove making custard from camel’s milk.

João flavored her camel’s milk custard with orange flower water, cardamom and elderflower liqueur. I sampled some of the camel’s milk straight from the jar and found it practically indistinguishable from cow’s milk. While it has less fat than cow’s milk, its texture is in no way lacking. If someone poured it over your cereal you’d never know the difference. (If you’re curious, you can find camel’s milk at some Whole Foods Markets or from Desert Farms.)

The heads of these percebes, or barnacles, look like wee, prehistoric hooves!

Having enjoyed barnacles in Spain, I was thrilled that João was able to find some here in the Pacific Northwest. These gooseneck barnacles came from just up the road in Vancouver. They needed only the barest amount of cooking in heavily salted water (you can use seawater for the job) before they were ready for us to indulge.

Grab the “dinosaur” end of the barnacle in one hand and the “body” in the other, give it a little twist and pull. Out comes a briny bite of meat.

Barnacles are not to be taken for granted. Harvesting them is dangerous work best suited to the strong and the brave. This fascinating story of the perils of barnacle harvesting gives me a special appreciation for them—and for the people who risk their lives to put them on the table (in this case, three Spanish sisters who fight not only the violent ocean tides but also a heavily male-dominated industry to support their families).

black garlic—black gold!

João was also able to lay her hands on some black garlic, which is produced by only a few of the most patient people with a special piece of equipment that balances temperature and humidity. It’s not a particular variety of garlic but rather the product of a super low-and-slow caramelization occurring over a period of weeks, that transforms it into a rich, sweet paste with a distinctive balsamic quality, and renders it practically imperishable—not that it would ever go uneaten for very long. It looks like crude oil, but use it to flavor a dish or even spread it over a piece of bread, and you’ll have a new favorite food. While it was tempting to gobble it up all by itself, I used two full heads to make black garlic aioli.

Black garlic cloves are creamy and rich, perfect for just about any dish you can dream up!

Ta dah! The finished product—black garlic aioli. We dredged slices of fresh palm heart in it, when we weren’t busy just licking it off our fingers!

Lorna brought salted duck eggs and 100-year-old eggs, both examples of Chinese egg preservation. The uncooked duck eggs are preserved within their shells in a salt solution, while the 100-year-old eggs are an exaggeration—they actually take about a month to make. The process requires the use of lye, and that in itself is enough to give some of us pause. Lorna left it up to the professionals and bought the eggs at an Asian market.

Lorna and Carmo put the finishing touches on the Chinese preserved eggs.

Both types of eggs have a heavy, earthy flavor. In spite of the duck eggs having been preserved in salt, they weren’t terribly salty, just musty. I wish I could recall more of the differences between the two, but by the time I got around to the eggs my taste buds were crying “uncle!” These eggs are available at any Asian grocery, so I plan to pick some up in the future and pay more attention as I eat them next time.

The ones with the creamy outer layer are the salted duck eggs, and the ones with a clear, amber exterior are 100-year-old eggs, a.k.a. Century Eggs.

Chapulines, better known north of the border as crickets

A couple of days before the party I ordered some chapulines at a Mexican restaurant. Paired with a crisp cerveza, these fried crickets make a great snack on a hot day. We nibbled a few, and I kept the rest for the party. This batch was especially salty and lime-intense, so we used them as a topping for pasta made with a sauce of anchovies and fennel. It was a good match.

chicken feet!

Chicken feet look disturbingly like tiny human hands. They contain a constellation of wee little bones, and the trick is to gnaw off the skin and cartilage without swallowing any of them—not that it would hurt you if you did. They’re loaded with collagen, which means they’re incredibly good for you, if you can get past what they look like and what they are.

I could go on—and you probably wish I’d stopped before the crickets and chicken feet, eh?

Several of these foods are examples of preservation methods that have helped humankind keep body and soul together throughout history. It’s not all bacon, jam and pickles! In addition to the eggs and the black garlic there was baccalao, salted, dried fish, which was rehydrated and made into a fabulous stew. Also there was havarti cheese and quince paste, more familiar examples of milk and fruit preservation.

These foods aren’t really strange, at least not to those who eat them every day. If you’re timid of tastebud, it’s probably a good thing you weren’t there (but I encourage to you to try a dinner like this anyway—it’s fun!). I’m happy to report that our gathering of all ages and an array of backgrounds feasted with abandon. In fact, the three teenaged guys in particular impressed me with their eagerness to sample everything and proclaim it all delicious, burgers and pizza be damned!

This gives me hope for the next generation.

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Using Up the Bits

Sometimes you can use the carved away bits to make something wonderful—bones produce hearty broth, the foundation of good soups, stews and sauces. Watermelon rinds make the most delectable pickles. Salmon skin trimmed away from the filet and baked or fried makes a good sushi wrap and adds flavor and crunch as a garnish. Personally I’m not a salmon skin fan, but I can hear some of you out there squealing “Moooore for meeee!” and that’s just fine. I’m glad to share, if you’ll let me have the pickle that’s languishing on the edge of your plate.

Ta-dah! Paula Wolfert’s Deconstructed Hummus

Here’s a new trick. You know those slippery little jackets worn by garbanzo beans? I’d never thought to remove them, but doing so gives those hazlenut-like beans a much creamier texture. I thank Paula Wolfert for starting me down this path.

Unforgettable, her combo autobiography and collection of beloved recipes, gifts us with what is to my mind—and tastebuds—the best hummus ever. Her Deconstructed Hummus is visually appealing, texturally interesting and mighty tasty. In fact, it’s likely I’ll never make any other hummus. I long ago wearied of the sameness of every bite of standard hummus, even good hummus. Frankly, all that dredge-crunch-swallow-dredge-crunch-swallow of dense puréed bean matter grew leaden and uninteresting.

Aside from the garbanzo beans resting beneath an airy, silky purée of all the other ingredients, Paula introduces the nifty little trick of liberating the beans from their outer “skins.” The result is a hummus that rises from the snack category into the entrée zone.

Recently my friends Jenn and Trace pitched in to help make some Deconstructed Hummus, slipping the skins off each garbanzo. A nice little group activity—“many hands make light work” as the saying goes. They rounded up a good two cups of skins from the double batch I was making and asked, “What do you want to do with these?” I hadn’t thought about it before, but it seemed a shame to throw them out, especially considering that each one had to be individually removed. Why not figure out how to use them?

So I experimented, toasting some in the oven. The rest I lightly fried on stove top in a swirl of olive oil. We agreed we preferred the dry, toasted ones. The fried skins absorbed too much oil and were soggy and dull.

Garbanzo “skins” toast up quickly and make a nice, crunchy garnish for anything that needs it.

As for flavor, there’s no great revelation here. Garbanzo skins taste just like the beans themselves (unless you let them get a bit scorchy like I did the ones in the above photo). If you want to add salt or other flavorings, to get them to adhere you’d have to introduce a fat of some kind, which would soften the skins. You wouldn’t want to munch on them like you do popcorn, but they’re good for adding crunch and provide a foil to softer, creamier textures.

Even if you prefer your hummus puréed, try removing the garbanzo skins first, then toast them and garnish the hummus with them. It takes less time than toasting nuts, chopping parsley or prepping any other prospective garnish. And you’ll get at least a minor kick out of knowing you’re getting a little more protein and throwing out a little less food. Let’s hear it for a hungry compost bin!

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Surviving a Kitchen Remodel

Good-bye ugly drop ceiling, gross linoleum, chipped tile countertop, and beat up old cabinet doors…

I just found this blog post in the draft file. I began it a couple of years ago and am not sure how it slipped through the cracks, but better tardy than not at all, as they (sort of) say. This is the kitchen is in our house in Los Angeles, and while we love living in Seattle now, we sure do miss this kitchen!

I’ve never had plastic surgery, but I can imagine it would be a lot like undergoing a major kitchen overhaul: expensive, time consuming, inconvenient, painful, disruptive not only for you but for everyone in your household, and not a 100% given—you won’t know for certain that you’re going to like the outcome until you’ve gone through the entire process. All your friends and loved ones will be cautiously optimistic but fully expecting a freakout phone call (or perhaps a dozen) from you at any moment.

It took a lot of patience, creativity and humor to get through the six weeks of having our gnarly old kitchen demo’d and a new one built. Strangers making lots of noise in our personal living space, construction dust covering everything, and nothing in its usual place all conspired to make us tense and desperate at times. And we were paying these guys to do this to us! Our poor cats were certain that the end of the world was nigh. We began to believe it too.

The contractor’s men were the cheerful early risers and arrivers who grew accustomed to the sight of Himself and me staggering around their periphery in our pajamas, pouring bowls of cereal each morning and pondering the merits of drinking the cold coffee leftover from the previous day’s breakfast.

Cooking in the midst of the kitchen rebuild: roasting CSA veggies for the next few days’ meals.

I’d put a hold on our CSA deliveries for a few weeks, but one evening after the workers had cleared out, a CSA box showed up on our porch. I began racing around the kitchen, making hay while the moon was shining, looking for everything I needed to prep and roast all the vegetables I could. I fired up the rice cooker and made a batch of red quinoa. I sauteed tiny mushrooms to use in future dishes. I boiled eggs to make egg salad, garnish other salads, and be at the ready for snacking. This batch of pre-cooked food would carry us through quite a few meals that I could assemble quickly and easily.

During this adventure in homeownership I learned a few coping mechanisms that I’ll share with you, in case you ever decide to undertake a kitchen remodel:

1. Before the actual work starts, make a plan and give serious thought to what you’ll want while your kitchen is mostly out of commission. Pull a few of everything you think you’ll need for the duration—dishes, including smaller ones for sandwiches, bowls, mugs, glasses, eating and cooking utensils. Don’t wait and do this at the last minute, or you’ll forget something you really need (voice of experience!).

2. Store all of those things in the dishwasher. Each evening we’d handwash whatever we’d used and put it all back into the dishwasher and click the door shut. Even after the demolition was done, there was still an awful lot of white dust coating everything. We could be sure of having clean things to cook with and eat off of by sealing them up in the dishwasher.

3. Before the work begins cook everything you possibly can and stash it in the fridge, freezer and pantry (or whatever acts as your makeshift pantry during construction) so you have some decent meals during those first few days. Eating out is expensive and after awhile not much fun, and relying on store bought frozen dinners is just plain sad.

4. Make a few concessions. I think nothing of making my own stocks and prepping fresh vegetables. But it’s okay to buy frozen veggies—nutritionally they’re the equivalent of fresh—and pick up a few cans or boxes of broth. Remember, this is just a temporary thing. And when you’re at last commandeering your shiny new kitchen, making that first batch of your favorite dish is going to be such a pleasure!

That lovely new expanse of quartz countertop gave Himself,
the resident alchemist, loads of space for developing cocktails…


…and it gave me lots of room for giving cooking lessons. During our Crepe Party, Bob and I made
enough crepes to feed an army! (And for the record, Himself and Grace played games.)

5. Learn to rely on your small appliances. Put the rice cooker where you can reach it, and see how much you can do with a countertop toaster oven. Ours has a convection oven setting and was wonderfully helpful. I’ve never liked toasters that do nothing but make toast, just for this very reason. You can’t toast nuts or make nachos or melt the cheese over a sandwich in a plain ol’ toaster!

6. If you have a camp stove and a stash of cooking gear for camping/earthquake survival, do a little cooking outside and make an adventure of it. Some of our most memorable meals have been in our backyard. Yes, I said “memorable” and not “best.” That’s okay. Those produced some fond memories all the same.

7. When you absolutely have to go out for a meal, invite sympathetic friends to join you. The operative word here is “sympathetic.” You need supportive souls who can help you keep your eyes focused on the horizon and on how great it’s going to be when the last stroke of paint has dried, the last cabinet door has been hung, and the last item of cookware and decoration has been put into place.

I realize this involves positive thinking and perhaps more cheerfulness than you feel you can muster when every day begins with workers in your personal space. I kept asking them to please put the lid down on the toilet. They kept forgetting, until the day I heard a “sploosh!” and had to fish our cat, Athena, out of it. I carried her into the kitchen where they were all on ladders, putting the finishing touches on the ceiling.

With as much humor as I could muster, I held up our drippy little gal and said, “Guys, this is why I ask you to put the lid down on the toilet.”

“Oh, Atheeeeeeena!” sang the Master of the Smooth Ceiling who had a sweet little love affair going on with this cat.

The two Painter Dudes joined in in unison, “Oh, Atheeeeeeena!”

We all had a good laugh, and I toweled her off as best as I could before she scurried out of the kitchen and under the bed.

Athena regains her composure after taking a dip…

I’ll never forget the sight of my mother in her bathrobe, shimmying out of the bedroom window on a 2 x 6-inch plank, her work clothes tucked under her arm. I was 10 years old, and we were in the middle of a major expansion and reworking of our house—and we lived in it while all that work was going on. That particular day the hardwood flooring in the hallway had just been refinished, and we couldn’t walk on it, so we were all climbing in and out of windows as we readied ourselves for school and work.

I often thought about that memory while our kitchen remodel was underway. If my family could endure a whole-house overhaul, I knew Himself and I could certainly survive getting a single room reworked. And we did!

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The Weirdness of Losing Your Sense of Taste

In early spring I was laid low with bronchitis, accompanied by about three weeks of being able to neither taste nor smell. This has happened to me once before, a few years ago when I had a really aggressive cold. I spent the better part of two months experiencing food only through texture and color. It was actually the worst part of being sick. And it was unsettling too. I wondered what I’d do if those senses never returned.

When you’ve spent your entire life taking for granted that you can eat food and enjoy it—or even NOT enjoy it—it’s a bizarre sensation when those senses take a hike and leave you gauging your food only by the senses of sight and touch. The only positive during those few weeks was saving money eating things like the sub-par pizza that I’d never eat any other time, since I couldn’t taste it anyway. I was eating solely for fuel. Aesthetics be damned! Himself didn’t enjoy this time, either. There’s only so much you can do to make a dish taste appealing when you can’t season it with your usual finesse. (Sorry, Darlin’!)

My taste began to return—gradually. I’d take a bite of food and taste the salt, the sweet, the sour but not the food itself. A bite of beef stew offered up the grain of the meat, the velvety quality of the stew as I make it, the saltiness, and the pepper. But of the “beefness” there was none.

It made me think about the personality of individual foods. What makes an olive an olive, especially considering what’s required to make it both edible and desirable? Why does cheese make a better dessert (in my opinion) than something sweet? Why are artificial flavors so vexing? Tasting an artificially flavored food is a little like seeing someone you love in the crowd, only it’s not really that person. And in fact it’s someone you see littering or breaking in line. Your loved one would never do that! Why is this cherry soda merely “red tasting” and nothing like any type of cherry you’ve ever had? Blehhhh!

Deprived of your sense of taste you feel sorry for yourself, but you can’t whine too loudly about it without sounding like an A#1 First Class Crybaby. After all, it’s probably a temporary condition. For those who’ve lost their sight or hearing, it’s usually a permanent state and much more limiting and life altering.

But temporarily losing your sense of taste helps you gain a newfound appreciation for it. The raspberries in this photo were sweeter and more delightful than I’ve ever known raspberries to be. And a choice bite of epoisses? and roquefort? I went on quite a cheese eating jag in celebration of the return of my sense of taste. And if I ever lose it again, a half dozen choice cheeses will help me celebrate its return!

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A Playlist for “Churnin'”

I’m just back from this year’s conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals with a fistful of business cards, loads of notes scribbled during myriad sessions and panels, and the memories of some fine conversations and really good food (thanks, Louisville!). One other thing I returned with that was a profound honor and totally unexpected—the award for Best Food Writing, Personal Essays/Memoir, for “Churnin’.”

At the awards with IACP President Glenn Mack, showing off in our gladrags, champagne in hand… (photo by Timothy P. Valentino)

As I reached the stage to collect my certificate and a kiss on the cheek from hosts Top Chef Carla Hall and Washington Post Food and Dining Editor Joe Yonan, I realized that the microphone was right there in front of me, awaiting whatever I had to say—and that this was something I forgot prepare for. YIKES!

I managed okay, giving a shout-out to the writers of all those naughty blues songs about food that aren’t really about food. Those songs had inspired me to write the winning essay, some with chuckleworthy titles like “Your Biscuits Are Big Enough For Me” and “My Stove’s In Good Condition.” Some made it into the essay, while others provided sublime background music as I wrote.

I’d like to share my *Dirty Dozen with you, all quirky examples of yet another way–and a truly imaginative one—in which to use food.


*This playlist is on Spotify, but if you don’t have an account, you should be able to find these songs elsewhere on the internet with a little searching:

“Keep On Churnin’ Til the Butter Comes,” by Wynonie Harris

“I Need a Little Sugar In My Bowl,” by Bessie Smith

“All That Meat and No Potatoes,” by Fats Waller

“My Stove’s In Good Condition,” by Lil Johnson

“It Must Be Jelly ‘Cos You Know Jam Don’t Shake, by Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon

“Your Biscuits Are Big Enough For Me,” by Bo Carter

“I Like My Baby’s Pudding,” by Wynonie Harris

“Lean Meat Won’t Fry,” by Memphis Minnie

“Lollypop,” by Hunter & Jenkins

“Sam the Hot Dog Man,” by Lil Johnson

“Banana In Your Fruit Basket,” by Bo Carter

“Coffee Grindin’ Blues,” by Lucille Bogan

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