Cooking In My Friend's Kitchen In Berkeley

johnliu_gwDecember 24, 2013

Hello to the KF. Here is my holiday report-in-progress.

We took a road trip down to California and are camping out in our friends' new house in Berkeley, house sitting and dog sitting while they are off on their holiday. It is sort of a working vacation for me - Have Laptop Will Travel - though not very much work is getting done, to be honest.

My friend is an excellent cook. We spend a week together every summer in Tahoe, taking turns cooking, and I know a bit about her ways in the kitchen. I was confident that her kitchen would be very usable, and didn't even bring my knife roll.

Reality has not disappointed. The kitchen is small, but nicely appointed, and her tidy nature and logical mind has arranged cookware, spices, bowls, oils, knives, etc all where they fall naturally to hand. I have at my disposal a Kitchen Aid mixer, a food processor, a 30" Wolf residential range, two sharp knives and a thick wood board. Everything I need.

I always enjoy cooking in a new kitchen, whether a rental beach house, a tiny gite, or my friend's new-to-her house. The pleasure of minor discoveries, overcoming modest challenges, improvising and problem-solving. Making even too-familiar dishes is fun again. Look at me, I BOILED WATER.

So far I have made:
- Last night we had some other friends over for local free-range, organically raised, and sympathetically euthanized chickens, which I deboned (respectfully) and stuffed with roast chestnuts, mushrooms, and cubes of unacceptable bread. The bread was my first attempt at bread baking for a year or so, and the loaves were too hunchbacked to serve as were, but they could be salvaged at stuffing.
- We also had purple and white mashed potatoes, swirled together in a ying-yang design that looked cool, until ti was flooded with gravy. Turns out that the flesh of purple potatoes is not terribly purple, but if you cook the peeled skin and puree it, that can be mixed back into the potatoes to make a vivid purple color. They say the best nutrients are in the skin anyway,
- Omelettes and protein burgers for breakfast and lunch
- Tonight we had a spinach and arugula salad with orange zest vinaigrette, bolognaise sauce over rotini, and my second attempt at bread, which was rather better.

I do miss a few things from my kitchen. My kitchen scale, because I'm trying to get back into baking bread, but my recipe is by-weight, and when converted to by-volume, something is not right. I think I'm making a shaggy 85% hydration dough, and it turns out like Wonder Bread. My Magic Mill, because my friend doesn't seem to have a dough hook for her Kitchen Aid and I don't want to burn up her food processor with bread dough, so I am Kneading. By, Hand. Oof. My cast iron pan, because while the burners on this Wolf are pretty impressive and could certainly sear like a champ, I don't want to thrash any of my friend's pretty pans like I thrash my greasy blackened lump of iron. Finally, my sharpening stones - but, Hints From Heloise Here, the slightly rough rim on the underside of a dish or bowl makes a very effective whetstone.

Tomorrow we have been invited to some other friends' for Christmas Eve dinner. Conveniently, they live a block away. The main course is lamb, and I've volunteered to bring a risotto and some appetizer. On Christmas Day, another friend who lives a few miles from here has invited us to dinner, and we'll be joined by my father who will bring sashimi. I'll make cracked crab and spaghetti carbonara. Later on I feel in the mood to make a chowder.

We have a lot of friends in Berkeley. While we've made good friends in Portland, most of our closest are still here in the Bay Area. I was at a pub with one of them this afternoon, talking about where we'd like to retire. He said he wanted to retire right where he lives now, in a charming country-style house at the foot of the Berkeley Hills, just a half mile walk to dozens of shops and eateries, and a quick light rail ride across the bay from San Francisco. I said I'd like to do the same, but unfortunately even small houses in this area cost a million dollars or very nearly. I have a large house in Portland, but when we're ready to downsize, selling it might not get us even a bungalow in a nice part of the Berkeley, or in most of the Bay Area for that matter.

Ah well, we'll cross that bridge when we have to, still many years from now. For the next week, I'll enjoy visiting our friends, working a bit here and there, cooking in my friend's perfect little kitchen, and riding my bike in the Berkeley Hills, thinking about how we might possibly be able to end up here again and how I'll need some lower gears for the bike if we do. These hills are Steep.

This post was edited by johnliu on Tue, Dec 24, 13 at 2:14

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Hope you're visiting our alma mater while you're there. I graduated before you did, lived in Europe for a bit, then had a difficult time adjusting to life in Southern California (I guess I never did). Lovely to hear of your stay back in the old stomping ground. I guess you're riding in Tilden? Strawberry Canyon? BTW, some of the greatest meals of my life were prepared in my Berkeley (rented) house.

    Bookmark   December 24, 2013 at 8:31AM
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We're from up thataway, too. Still have friends in N Berk and Kensington. Jim's parents both grew up off Marin and The Circle. We both did grad school there, lived in Oakland, too. It is wonderful there, I agree.

Come down to Monterey county to retire, John. Real estate is a bargain by comparison to the Bay Area.

    Bookmark   December 24, 2013 at 10:17AM
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John, I agree with the fun when cooking in a different kitchen. Heck, it's even more fun to clean up when in another cook's kitchen.


    Bookmark   December 24, 2013 at 11:17AM
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I've been in and out of Berkeley and SF most of my life. College at Cal, went away for grad school, back to SF for work, went away, came back for more school, stayed to start a new career, then went away. We've been gone 7 years now; the longest previous absence was a 13 year stint in Los Angeles. During my years in Berkeley, I lived off Telegraph, near campus on the Northside, in the Gourmet Ghetto, in Kensington, and finally in the hills off John Hinkel Park. I think if I lived here again, I'd want to be right at the foot of the hills, no higher than the Marin Circle. Way up high has beautiful views, but you need a car to get even a pint of cream.

Today I'll ride up Arlington to visit a friend in Richmond, then come back via Grizzly Peak and drop down through Strawberry and Northside. That's the plan, anyway.

My third bread attempt is rising now. 2 cups of bread flour, 1.1 cups of water, 2 tsp salt, some rapid rise yeast proofed with a little sugar, water, and flour. The dough is sticky and loose at first, but firms up with stretching and wrapping. It feels right. I'm very hopeful.

    Bookmark   December 24, 2013 at 12:18PM
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Here is the kitchen where I am happily camping

The appetizer I'm bringing is sliced pork belly crusted with sugar. My friend has never had pork belly and is a big carnivore, so I think he'll like it

I also have a risotto, half made, on pause. I made the stock from an whole but small chicken. These birds, labeled "stewing chicken", were being sold at the Asian market in Richmond for just $3.00 each. I've never seen that before: are these layers that are being sold after their useful life? The risotto is at that stage where I can reheat and finish it in 20 minutes.

SWMBO has sent the kids out to get cheese and etc for another appetizer. She feels that pork belly is not a a proper appy.

My bread turned out better today. I'm remembering things I'd forgotten, like that I need to proof the loaves well, and seal the seams tightly, so the loaves don't rip. Tomorrow I'm going to make a wetter dough and try for larger crumb and a more controlled oven spring.

I took a ride over the Arlington to visit a friend in Richmond. It was a fun ride. If I lived here, I'd be a better climber.

    Bookmark   December 24, 2013 at 8:53PM
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Nice pork belly.

Nice bread.

Can be made into nice pork belly sandwiches.


    Bookmark   December 24, 2013 at 9:57PM
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John, how was your holiday in a friend's kitchen?

    Bookmark   December 26, 2013 at 12:19AM
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We are having a wonderful time.

On Christmas Eve, we brought the risotto and pork belly to our friends' house. They served roast rack of lamb in a wine-tapenade sauce, which was excellent, as were all their sides. We played poker until 2 am which seems un-Christmas-y but in our defense we were playing with the kids and the chips were segments of peeled orange. There were cigars, plenty of wine, and some very nice scotch. Then we walked the one block "home".

On Christmas Day,we bought live crabs at the big Asian market and went to another friends' house for an early dinner. The crabs were boiled and cracked; SWMBO made her spaghetti carbonara, there was a big salad; and my daughter made sushi rolls. They live on a ridge overlooking Grizzly Peak park. My friend poured gin and tonics and there was a local, organic, no-oak Berkeley wine which was pretty good. "Fruit-forward" was the term used.

That friend is an expert woodworker and all-around-tinkerer, and he's just built the best speakers I've ever heard. I got an education on speaker component selection and cabinet construction. The main speakers use 10" woofers, 5" mid-drivers, and a 1" dome tweeter. The mid and tweeter have their own sealed boxes inside the main enclosure, which has curved sides and lots of internal bracing and damping, all to reduce resonance. He choose these drivers for accuracy and efficiency, since the speakers have to fill a very large room, about 40' x 60', and the amplifier has only a standard 15 amp circuit for power. The center channel uses a single ported 10" woofer plus tweeter and mid. All the drivers are Morel, which is a high-end brand; the cross-overs are custom built to his specifications; in total he has about $2,400 of components and materials in these speakers. Equivalent speakers would cost about $15,000 retail.

Some other friends are leaving for their vacation today, and we are sitting their dog. He is a very well-behaved dog, a bichon frise I believe, and he is comfortable here since this is the house he usually gets dog-sat at.

These friends brought over the contents of their refrigerator, since it would otherwise go off during their absence. As a result we now have a ludicrous amount of food to use up. It is sort of like getting a box from your local collective farm. Open it, inventory the contents, and figure out what to do with it. I know there is a lot of soup coming . . .

This post was edited by johnliu on Thu, Dec 26, 13 at 14:01

    Bookmark   December 26, 2013 at 1:31PM
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Your friend and I will have a good time together.

Without going into the details of what I agree or disagree on his version of loud speakers design, I will talk about another aspect which is neglected by most, and which can be understood by everyone without technical training.

The one big problem with loudspeakers and sound systems is everyone ignores the room the sound system is in. The shape and dimensions of the space around the sound system effects the frequency response drastically (+ - 20 db), just like any musical instrument, the shape of the instrument makes the the unique sound each makes.

It make no difference how expensive the system is, the sound reproduced can be drastically distorted.

To improve, one can go with a "Narrow band equalization" process and use perhaps a 1/3 octave equalizer to even out any peaks and valleys.

Merry Christmas!


This post was edited by dcarch on Thu, Dec 26, 13 at 23:07

    Bookmark   December 26, 2013 at 2:10PM
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John, Here is an open invitation to house sit my house anytime I'm gone (duties include sitting 3 kitties). Your cooking projects look amazing.

My brother and his wife house sat while we were gone for 2 week. I begged them to come a day early so I could give them an orientation particularly on the appliances since they live in a 100 year old farmhouse with older appliances. Unfortunately they didn't come early and among other things, the end result is a broken oven that I discovered as I was cooking Christmas Brunch for 32 guests.

    Bookmark   December 26, 2013 at 6:04PM
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I don't know a darned thing about speakers/amplifiers/ sound systems, so I'll skip right over that.

Cathy, I'm sorry about that oven, that's aggravating. I'm betting everyone got fed anyway. (sigh)

John, your bread looks really good, as does the pork belly. Now that's my kind of appetizer! Everything else sounds delicious, I even like carbonara, it's pretty much the only way I'll eat white pasta.

Merry Christmas.


    Bookmark   December 26, 2013 at 10:22PM
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dcarch, yes, my friend with the speakers has been using software and a calibrated microphone to analyze their frequency response in his room. He said they have a peak somewhere that he didn't like, so he has ordered a new cross-over as a result. Maybe I'll hear the speakers with the new x-over on my next visit.

Gosh, mustangs (cathy), how do you break an oven? Seems that would require some obvious mishandling. That is too bad.

We had lots of crab left over, so SWMBO picked out all the meat and we had some more friends over last night for crab cakes. I don't make those very often, but my usual process is: some finely diced onion, avocado, bread crumbs, a few drops of Worchestershire and of hot sauce, salt and pepper, some oil (there is black truffle oil here, yum!), mix and cook that until soft, then add not too much mayo and an egg or two, and fold in the crab, then form into cakes and refrigerate to set. Later, fry until medium browned, since everything is already cooked, it doesn't take long.

We also had lots of lettuces (letti?) to use up, so I made a giant salad with chiffonaded spinach, ribboned romaine, whole spinach leaves, arugula, grapefruit segments rolled in sugar, toasted and salted almonds, and a grapefruit vinaigrette. We also roasted some garlic and pureed it into the dressing.

This was a light dinner, which was kind of a relief after the Christmas Eve and Day meals.

The guy who came over for crab cakes is one of my oldest friends. I met him when answering an "apartment to share" ad in 1983, and we were flatmates in SF for some years, and on a couple occasions after that. He is semi-retired now, and runs a glass blowing studio. I think we'll go visit his studio today,

My daily bike riding has been pretty, well, humbling. The roads in the Berkeley Hills are a lot steeper than I remember. The north-south routes are manageable, but the roads that go east, climbing directly up the hillside, are really tough. I brought the wrong bike. Instead of a mountain bike with low gears, i brought a road bike set up for flatland riding, with full-size chainrings and a straight block in the rear, so my lowest gear is 39 x 21 x 700C. Stripped of the bike lingo, that basically means that on the steeper climbs, I have to stand up, pushing down on the pedals while pulling up hard on the bars, at about 70% of full strength. It is sort of like going to the gym and lifting weights. You can do ten repetitions no problem, twenty is fine, but at fifty or sixty or a hundred, your heart is pounding out of your chest and your legs are going limp. I've had to get used to setting off for a destination and not getting there, which is not a nice feeling. Still, it is the bike I brought so there's no choice but to keep getting beat up.

    Bookmark   December 27, 2013 at 12:53PM
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Here are some pictures SWMBO took at the glass studio.

This is some molten glass that has been picked up on the of a steel tube, shaped, and is being placed into a wet wooden mold. The mold will be closed and the glass expanded inside by blowing through the tube.

This is a different piece. The blower is shaping the piece with the torch, while my friend helps out by inflating the piece, blowing through the tube.

It is an interesting process, and there are many other forms of glass blowing too, plus glass casting, slump molds, etc.

The molten glass is plastic and flows like taffy, but it isn't sticky and can be formed with wet wood tools, steel pinchers, steel tabletops, gas torches, blowing. Colored glass can be melted on to the main piece as desired. Every now and then the piece is reheated in the oven. When the blower is finished, he lets the piece air cool briefly then places it in a kiln for a few hours.

    Bookmark   December 27, 2013 at 8:42PM
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Johnliu, if you're ever in central VA & want to house sit, let me know although I'd be hard pressed to leave if you were cooking! My mouth is watering after reading this thread.

    Bookmark   December 27, 2013 at 11:41PM
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Antiquesilver, I remember your kitchen from the KF! It is a harmonious, elegant space.

    Bookmark   December 28, 2013 at 11:01AM
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This morning, the sky through the bedroom window was bright and blue and cloudless. SWMBO pointed out that we had lox and cream cheese, so all we needed was bagels and red onions. I pushed the dog off my legs and walked outside, turned left, crossed a street and another, and in three minutes was at a bagel shop. Across the street, the grocery store had onions, and red potatoes. If coffee wasn't making back in the house, two caf├ęs were a block further down. My shoes could have been repaired, a burrito eaten, a used book or DVD purchased, or any number of other daily errands done, within a block of where I stood, onion and bagel and potatoes in hand. Three minutes stroll later, I was slicing bagels in "our" kitchen.

A walkable neighborhood is magical. It feels like Star Trek, where the Enterprise could warp from planet to planet in less than a minute (of TV time) and the crew could teleport up and down from the planet surface in seconds. In a walkable neighborhood, you can beam from bagel-world, grocery-planet, coffee-station, with less effort than it took to walk from the bridge to the transporter room. In comparison, a driving community feels to me like hitching up a covered wagon and rattling for hours through two-light intersections and endless parking lots, from big box to strip mall. It is so much of a harder way to live, I think.

In Portland we live in a "semi walkable" neighborhood. There is a grocery store, coffee shop, several eateries and brew pubs, pizza, a haircut place, and a few assorted stores within an eight minute walk. The much denser commercial streets are more like 15 minutes' walk. The more convenient way to get around is on a bicycle, which I think of more like Luke Skywalker's X-wing. It is a fun way to get around, you get to swoop and speed, but there is a certain pre-flight delay as you unlock the bike, buckle on the helmet, clip into the pedals, and you need a certain degree of alertness, lest your fragile craft be smooshed by Imperial Battlecruisers of the Buick class.

I love riding my bike and living in a cycling neighborhood, but there is something even more special about living in a walkable neighborhood. I feel so lucky to be spending two weeks in such a place. I'm thinking about how I can manage to live in a walkable neighborhood someday.

The potatoes were for crab chowder. No recipe was followed. Just melt some diced onions in butter, cube red potatoes with skins, add boiling water and half a bouillon cube (no stock being handy), simmer for awhile, then mash up some of the potatoes to thicken. Add consistent sized cubes of stuff with pleasant colors - I had cucumber, but bell pepper would work - little strips of parsley or scallions or other greeney, salt and pepper. Bacon is always recommended but I had none, so I threw in a Parmesan cheese rind and some cubes of gruyere cheese. After the seasonings are right, add heavy cream and simmer a bit more. A flour slurry if you want thick spoon-standing chowder, but I prefer a more liquid soup. The crab comes last. Let it stand and the flavors mingle, then reheat and serve.

    Bookmark   December 28, 2013 at 2:05PM
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It all sounds wonderful and delicious.

    Bookmark   December 29, 2013 at 5:08AM
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I'm glad that you are having so much fun exploring and being a creative house sitter.

Maybe we should solicit the CF when we need house sitters! At least they would know how to use and appreciated the kitchen.

    Bookmark   December 29, 2013 at 10:47AM
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Daughter liked the chowder so much, she made her own pot of chowder today. Cauliflower chowder, so it was on track to be bland, until she hopped it up with hot sauce and Worcestershire and who knows what else.

It was her day to stay in and work on college apps. SWMBO took the boy to play in San Francisco. I took BART out to Walnut Creek and rode my bike to, then up, Mount Diablo.

The ascent was hard, I'm not much of a climber, but the descent was incredible fun. Ten miles of swooping, curving, falling two lane road, with mostly good pavement and not too many cars. It felt like when I used to drive my sportscar in the mountains and at autocrosses. Brake into the curve, lean over, release the brakes, feel gravity accelerate you through the apex and exit of the curve, pedal hard downhill until the next turn. After I got my rhythm going, I was faster than the cars, and passed several on the descent.

Tonight we went to my dad's and had a hot pot dinner. This is where a pot of broth simmers on the dining table and you place whatever you want to eat into the pot, watch it cook - only takes a minute, since everything is sliced thinly - and ladle it out to your bowl. We had pork meat, beef, fish (sole?), dumplings, taro, tofu, rice noodles, greens, pork skin, etc. Various condiments, minced ginger and garlic, a sort of Asian soffrito, and some fermented tasty unidentifiable things. Plus some more homemade sushi. I'd had only two bananas during forty miles of riding, so this dinner was welcome indeed.

    Bookmark   December 30, 2013 at 3:00AM
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John, it's wonderful you're getting this opportunity to visit friends, explore neighborhoods, climb hills, and soar. Thanks for sharing with us.

Cathy, I'm baffled, too, how one can break an oven.


    Bookmark   December 30, 2013 at 7:22AM
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Yesterday we and two other families went into San Francisco to see Amaluna, the latest show by Cirque Du Soleil. It was engrossing and enthralling. My son is studying dance in middle school and taking a pendulum/aerial dance class in the evenings, so he was especially interested in the performers' technique.

I first saw San Francisco in the late 1970s on occasional trips from college in Berkeley. In the early 1980s I started my working life in the city, and I went back there for more work from the late 1990s to the mid 2000s. I've been away for 7 years now, and the city has continued to change. South of Market is almost unrecognizeable, the gritty bars flanked by old warehouses are replaced by green glass office towers bearing the logos of giant financial and legal firms. China Basin used to be a no man's land, now it is full of VIP cars headed to baseball games, biotech research office blocks, and construction cranes. Are there any sleazy strip clubs or smoky jazz bars left on Columbus Ave? The Western Addition here I once lived, then dodgy in the day, scary at night, seems like just other expensive neighborhood of pretty Victorian houses inhabited by whatever we call yuppies now. The old Bay Bridge is coming down in defeated streaky gray pieces, the new Bay Bridge is brilliant and clean and white.

Sometimes I think about the Clint Eastwood movies set in the San Francisco of the early 1970s, which look like my first memories of the city, and wonder what Dirty Harry Callahan would think about today's San Francisco. Who would he find to shoot with his 44 Magnum, among the web programmers, digital marketers, and Chinese millionaires of the new City By The Bay?

For New Year's Eve we were invited to a friends' house. She does a lot of Jewish and Middle Eastern cooking, and had recommended to me a pair of cookbooks called "Jerusalem" and "Plenty". Turns out the house where we are staying had the latter book, and I found a recipe that I could improvise from. It was a parchment paper bundle of mushrooms, potatoes, and herbs.

My version was various mushrooms (chanterelle, enoki, shiitake, cremini) browned in butter and olive oil; a mushroom sauce made from the stems and heavy cream; shallots and garlic, minced and cooked; smoked salmon trimmings; minced greenery; little cubes of sweet pear. I had some left over risotto that I thawed and molded, dough-like, into little round medaillons that I baked until a little browned and a little crusty. I placed a risotto "plate" on parchment paper, slathered it with mushroom sauce, stacked the remaining ingredients in a more-or-less appealing arrangement, then gathered the parchement and tied it at the top. Repeat 20 times. Bring to friend's house, in the oven for 15 minutes to warm up, and serve.

    Bookmark   January 1, 2014 at 3:07PM
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