Breakaway Cook

Breakaway Tomato Spread


I think I’ve happened upon another flavor blast that will become a permanent staple in my fridge. I recently found a gigantic (more than a pound) bag of dried tomatoes — a truly excellent source of umami — for a song, so I bought them, and wondered how far I would get with them before they molded or otherwise went bad on me. Determined not to let this happen, I just started cooking, with no idea of what was to come other than I would be using a large quantity of dried tomatoes. I had a large onion, so I chopped that up, and began sauteeing it in butter and olive oil, then added a big handful of dried tomatoes. At this point I thought it might turn out to be a super-potent pasta sauce, or at least the base of one, but that’s not what happened.

After the onion softened a bit, I transferred the mixture to the VitaPrep, and let it rip. In went a clove of garlic confit (which will be covered in my next post), a few big spoonful of greek yogurt, and some olive oil, plus some salt and pepper, of course. It was delicious, just as it was. I immediately spread some on a lightly toasted slice of Tartine‘s country bread (which gets my vote for best bread in the universe) and knew that it had earned a permanent place in the fridge, spooned into a little crock that used to house sweet butter. It’s creamy from the yogurt, tart and umami-laden from the tomatoes. I’ve since used it on sandwiches, in scrambled eggs (unbelievable), between a piece of halibut and the crust that I gave it, on baked tofu, in salad dressings, on baked potatoes. You can imagine a hundred other uses for it. Let me know some new ones if you try it, please.

  • 1 tablespoon each of butter and extra virgin olive oil
  • half cup onions
  • half cup dried tomatoes (not the ones packed in oil), sliced
  • 1 clove garlic confit
  • quarter cup yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Melt the butter and oil in a heavy pan, add the onions, and saute over medium heat for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes and some salt and pepper, and continue to saute for another few minutes. Transfer to a blender, add the garlic, yogurt, and extra oil, and puree. Keeps for several weeks in a covered jar in the fridge.

Comment using your facebook account:

King Crab with Jicama, Avocado, and Dried Dragonfruit


I didn’t go into Monterey Fish, looking for King crab, but as soon as I entered, Tom Worthington — co-owner and raconteur extraordinaire, whose little office serves as a water-cooler of sorts for sushi chefs, restaurant owners, wine merchants, and various other food-obsessed people who enjoy each other’s company as Tom’s workers tally up the damage — pulled off a huge leg and handed it to me to gnaw on. It was unimaginably sweet and oceany. So I bought two legs and pondered what I was going to do with them.

As it happened, I had a fresh bulb of jicama and a good avocado, a promising beginning for a crab salad of some kind. It seemed to need both some color contrast and some fruitiness. I thought about the overpriced persimmon in my fruit bowl — a miracle in itself in this fourth week of March — but dismissed it as too mild and too similar to the avocado in texture. Then I remembered the curious bag of dried dragonfruit I had recently bought at Trader Joe’s — vibrant, pomegranate-red, slightly chewy texture, with some fruity pop. Julienned, it would make an excellent little last-step sprinkling. Finally, the crab needed some kind of citrus for tang, so a Meyer lemon got squeezed and spritzed. Which salt? Since crab likes citrus so much, my mind drifted to kaffir lime, so I took a few leaves out of the freezer and whirred them up with my trusty sel gris to give it yet another notch of fragrance to go with all that texture and oceany goodness.

Comment using your facebook account:

Book Review — Happy in the Kitchen


I thought it might be fun to start a new review section of this blog, in which I sketch some thoughts on certain cookbooks that have caught my attention for whatever reason. Because this blog is all about breakaway cooking — that is, getting innovative, lively, and above all tasty dinners on the table with as little fuss as possible using flavors and ingredients from around the world — I will definitely look toward how well the books I choose to review fit into the breakaway scheme of things, but I’ll also look for ideas, techniques, gear, anything at all that might lead us down prominent-looking alleys.

So let’s kick it off with Michel Richard’s extraordinary Happy in the Kitchen, published by Artisan, surely the handsomest cookbook publisher in the world .

If we’re looking for a book for casual home cooks who just want to get dinner on the table with a minimum of hassle and time, it’s hard to imagine a more inappropriate book. Many, and possibly most, of the recipes in the book are almost ludicrously complicated, and are often comprised of nested recipes within recipes that ask the reader to prepare three or even four recipes found in the book as part of another recipe! Meta-recipes, if you will. Richard, chef-owner of DC’s Citronelle (among other restaurants) and one of the more innovative and prominent chefs working today, is obviously quite used to having an army of 20-year-olds perform the dozens of labor and time-intensive prep work required to make these fine and no-doubt delicious dishes. And, with many recipes calling for 4 to 16 tablespoons of butter, plenty of heavy cream, bacon, bacon fat, and melted cheese, this is not a book the American Heart Association is going to get behind.

So why do I like this book so much, and why bother with a review? Because Richard is an utter maniac in the kitchen, where he is quite clearly deliriously happy. The book is full of so many unique ideas it’s hard to summarize them, but, of the dozens of new (to me) ideas, consider just a few:

  • Tomato water — puree five pounds of bruised, overripe tomatoes, place in a fine colander, and let it all drip for a day. Reduce by half in a saucepan. Or, even better, if you need a small amount of tomato water in a hurry, place the tomato puree in a French coffee press and press the solids to the bottom! Use the water to poach fish, as a light stock, etc. I’m betting it would make terrific rice.
  • Miso broth — 2 cups miso, 10 cups water, simmer and strain, let it settle, only use the clear broth.
  • Ginger remoulade
  • Wacky cuttlefish schnitzel: puree the cuttlefish, shape it with plastic wrap (one of his favorite kitchen tools), bread it, and fry it!
  • Roll meat and veggies in plastic wrap to form logs (one of his favorite shapes), freeze, and slice in new ways (he loves his meat slicer for this purpose)
  • Use a benriner to finely dice potatoes
  • “Virtual” fried rice, made with potatoes
  • Sweet pea, basil, potato puree
  • Snow pea linguine (no pasta)

And on and on! Happy in the Kitchen reinvents just about everything, but he especially delights in completely new ways to think about the most mundane of vegetables, in particular potatoes (he seems obsessed, in the best possible way, with potatoes), but also carrots, corn, beets, and tomatoes. Same goes for chicken, fish, beef, lamb, and pork.

The photography, by the incomparable Deborah Jones, is so inviting and fresh it’s surreal. She somehow is able to convey Richard’s ideas, innovations, playfulness, and sheer love of his craft. How does she do it?

One last reason I’m attracted to Michel Richard and his style of cooking, impossible as it might be to the great majority of home cooks — he exemplifies and personifies the best of all reasons to bother with cooking at all: it makes him very happy to do so, and the love spills out on every page. It’s almost Buddha-like in its devotion to sweetness and light. No matter if you never make a single dish from the book: you’ll walk away with the most important cooking lesson of all — that cooking with love is really the only way to make really great food. That love, plus his insane techniques, risk-taking, and breathtaking innovation all add up to a rather heady reading experience. We could all get a little happier in the kitchen by reading this book.

Comment using your facebook account:

Ginger Fennel Fish Cakes


What do you do with a pound of frozen fish fillets? My first choice is usually to give them a crust of some kind, pan-fry them, and drizzle on some kind of citrus reduction, but for some reason the idea of crab cakes — fish cakes — was in my mind, so I went with it. The idea is this: chop up fish, add cooked aromatics of some kind, add an egg, mix, form patties, top with a crust, and bake. You could also fry, of course, but baking yields more satisfying results, at least to this palate. Adding fresh ginger to the aromatics could only be a good thing, I reasoned; there’s something about the combo of fish and ginger that is so utterly natural and right. They turned out to be absolutely delicious, a formula well worth remembering and repeating.


* olive oil, butter

* 1 large leek, white and light green parts, minced

* 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

* 1 pound white fish fillets (I used wild-caught mahi mahi), rinsed, dried, and finely chopped

* 1 fennel bulb, minced

* 1 egg

* 1 tablespoon finely ground pink lentils

Preheat oven to 450. Melt the oil and butter in a cast iron or other heavy skillet, add the leek and ginger, and season generously with s&p. Saute on gentle heat for about five minutes, until everything softens. While that cooks, combine the fish with the fennel and egg, and gently mix. Add the sauteed leek/ginger combo, and shape into patties — you should get four. Sprinkle the tops of the cakes with the ground pink lentils, spray with olive oil, place on a silpat (or parchment paper)-lined baking sheet, and bake for about 15-20 minutes, until the top is crispy brown. Serve with a side of pickled ginger, some rice, and a simple salad.

Comment using your facebook account:

Matcha Rice and Pickles


After making a luscious cup of frothy matcha today, I got pulled away and forgot about it. Lunchtime came along, and a quick look at the fridge didn’t reveal much. But I had just refilled the jar of jasmine basmati rice, which was out on the counter, next to the untouched cup of matcha. Hmm.

Ok, some of you are thinking, he’s gone overboard. But wait — it was good! I scooped some rice into my pot, rinsed it off, and just poured the matcha over the rice. I wish I had taken a photo of the color, it was wild. My first thought was that the boiling might make the matcha bitter, since every tea teacher on earth admonishes his/her students against using boiling water with matcha, but no! It tasted great. Very subtle, but there it was, with its grassy overtones. I topped it off with some matcha salt, a little avocado, and a pinch of chopped mint. It’s definitely more of a color thing than a taste thing though — the gentle green hues make for an arresting presence in the bowl.

The pickles were all from the fridge: homemade sauerkraut (more on this soon, I promise), pickled ginger, pickled carrots, and pickled daikon.

Rice and pickles — how can something so simple be so satisfying?

Comment using your facebook account:

Anisey Blast Fish Soup


My seafood-loving friend Dave came over to celebrate his birthday, so I made him this soup. It’s a breakaway fish soup, everything that’s great about bouillabaisse, with little of the fuss, plus three blasts of anise: Pernod, fresh fennel bulb, and tarragon. If you like those flavors, this soup is for you.

Start by chopping two fennel bulbs, a large onion, one celery stalk, and a few cloves of garlic confit. You can either chop everything finely with a knife, or throw the whole thing in a food processor. . . I’m sort of torn between the two methods, because I can chop quickly and can get everything in the pan pretty easily, but still, I can’t do it as quickly as the processor can. Then again, I have nothing to wash except my knife if I do it by hand, and have a bunch of ugly plastic parts to wash afterward if I use the machine. Always a consideration!

However you do it, saute the chopped veggies for five minutes, and add a good drizzle (maybe three tablespoons) Pernod. Have a wee dram of it to make sure it’s still good. Add one cup canned diced tomatoes and one cup dry white wine. Simmer for five minutes, and add fish of choice. I used a beautiful halibut fillet, cubed, but you could use just about anything: mussels are classic here, squid works well, and almost all firm-fleshed white fish are great. About the only thing I would avoid is the super omega oily fishes like sardines and mackerel.

When the fish is cooked (about three minutes), taste it. More Pernod? Probably, if your palate is like mine. It will certainly like some salt — umami salt got the nod here, given the sea-themed kelp in it. A drizzle of good olive oil, a lashing (as Jeremiah Tower would say) of chopped fresh tarragon, and you’re off!

Comment using your facebook account:

Umami Lasagna


You may well be getting tired of me titling things “umami blah blah,” but please be gracious and allow me to tell you about this umami-packed almost-vegetarian pasta-less lasagna.

It all started with a huge pile of baby bella mushrooms (more than two pounds). I chopped them up with an onion and a little garlic confit, and waited for some kind of inspiration to happen. I had plenty of yams from the yam chips experiment, so I thought it might be interesting to layer benriner-ed yams, in place of pasta sheets, in a ceramic lasagna pan and see what else I could come up with to fill some extra layers, and call it lasagna. Here’s how it turned out:

  • Layer 1: mandolined yams in the oiled pan
  • Layer 2: mushroom mixture plus handful of julienned dried tomatoes
  • Layer 3: more yams
  • Layer 4: combo of cooked kale and chard and several anchovy fillets plus an egg, all chopped finely
  • Layer 4: mandolined fresh carrots that needed to be used up
  • Layer 5: sprinkling of Dubliner cheese (major umami going on this crap; tastes like aged gouda)
  • Layer 6: more yams
  • Layer 7: more mushroom mixture
  • Layer 8: more yams and carrots
  • Layer 9: dusting of parmesan

So you can see from that list of ingredients that this thing has some serious umami action going. I also dusted with a combination of umami salt and rosemary salt as I went, with plenty of freshly cracked pepper as well. It has a deep and rich flavor–I’m sure I’ll be making this again, using a similar template with different veggies. I almost added some ham I had sitting around, but I actually figured it might have TOO much umami if I did! I may have been right: this certainly doesn’t need any additional umami.

The thing about umami-rich foods is that you’re so delighted with what you’re eating that you tend to eat less of it. And, every bite is so satisfying, with so much going on in the mouth, that you also tend to eat slower — you almost HAVE to slow down to catch it all. One square was more than enough, along with a small side salad. I did have a nice hunk of bread from Della Fattoria, my favorite bakery in the Bay Area, to mop up the lingering umami bits from the plate. With a glass of old vine zin, it all added up to an almost platonic version of a breakaway meal. Everything was Just Right.

Comment using your facebook account:

Blogger Out, WordPress In — please update your subscription

I discovered that using Blogger outside the Blogger platform — that is, on this site, not Blogger’s — was more hassle than it was worth, and switched the blog over to WordPress, which I’m still learning. I will ultimately have much more control of things this way, and the blog should be easier and more enjoyable to read as a result, but it might take me a while to get it there. Thanks for your patience!

I do have to ask you to do one thing, however. For those of you who have subscribed by a feed, you need to change the feed address. The new address is

You could also just click on “subscribe by RSS,” above right.

My deepest apologies for the inconvenience. For those of you subscribed by email, no action on your part should be necessary.

And while I’m at it: if there’s anything you’d like to see changed, or covered, or expounded upon, or anything at all, please let me know! WP has a much easier-to-use comment section, so I’m hoping that that encourages all of you to speak up more often! Thanks.

Comment using your facebook account:

Lemongrass Pasta Salad


About a year ago I discovered lemongrass in a tube. It’s made in Australia by an outfit called Gourmet Garden, and they sell it in Safeway. I’m not crazy about their other products, and I don’t like everything about this one, but I must say it’s awfully convenient to have lying around the fridge. Anytime I need a flavor blast of lemongrass, I just grab it from the fridge and squeeze some in (as opposed to hunting down fresh lemongrass, chopping it up, infusing something with it, and then straining it). So it gets an A+ on the convenience factor, and an A on taste — it tastes just like fresh lemongrass infused in canola oil, which is pretty much what it is, with the addition of some xantham gum and ascorbic acid/vitamin C to keep it happy in the tube (that’s the part I don’t like about it).

So what do you do with fresh convenient lemongrass? Lots! Last summer the SF Chronicle ran a recipe of mine (written by the charming Casey Ellis, whose blog, Margin Notes, is well worth subscribing to) for an instant lemongrass granita. I often use a little squirt in my salad dressings, which gives a lemony and grassy zing. It’s great in reduced sauces of all kinds; I regularly make a reduced citrus sauce with lemons, oranges, lemongrass, and honey (I’ll happily post the recipe, if anyone wants it — please speak up in the comments section). Or mix lemongrass simply with a freshly squeezed lemon and spoon it over roasted chicken. Or, make a quick pasta with it, as I did today, shown below.


I started, as I always do with pasta, by firing up a big pot of salted water to boil — the goal is often to finish the sauce by the time the pasta finishes cooking. I began to saute a red onion and some chard. I had more canned tomatoes open, so added a few of those. And then came the big squirt of lemongrass, which infused everything beautifully, as it always does. I cooked up some thin penne, and added it to the sauce. Finished it with some chopped roasted almonds. No parm needed here! So much flavor, and so little effort. My holy grail!

Comment using your facebook account:

Umami Beef Jerky

I’ve been working on a beef jerky recipe for a while, since I bought my dehydrator several years ago. My best jerky to date was a galangal-infused batch — gingery and tropical and really good — but I think I may like this one better.

I decided that it ought to just be one big umami blast. So I sliced three pounds of eye of round (from Mike Gale’s Chileno Valley Ranch) as thinly as I could, and let it marinate overnight in solution of kecap manis (homemade, another post for another day), balsamic vinegar, umami salt, and plain bubbly water. My half-baked theory is that the bubbles create maximum flavor by sheer popping distribution, but I could be full of crapola.

Here’s how it’s done: pour roughly half a cup of kecap manis, half a cup of cheap balsamic, and a bottle of bubbly water into a large mixing bowl, add the beef — it should be meticulously trimmed of ALL fat — and let it sit for at least four hours, preferably overnight. After a good marination, cup a ball of beef with your hands, and squeeze; we want to remove as much liquid as we can. Place it in a clean kitchen towel and dry it off as best you can. Then layer it in the dehydrator trays without crowding the pieces of beef. It should be moist and a tad sticky. Liberally sprinkle on umami salt and freshly cracked pepper, set it to 155 degrees, turn it on, and forget about it for about 4 hours. Final yield is about a pound, but a pound is a lot of jerky!

It’s the perfect little snack when you crave a protein hit but don’t want a full portion of something. The flavor just pops — there are so many naturally-occurring glutamates in this beef:

  • kecap manis, with its soy blast
  • balsamic is full of umami
  • umami salt made from kelp, shiitake, and parmesan

that we could even call it “drool beef,” since salivation just goes into overdrive.

Would love to hear from other jerky makers, and to answer any questions, so please speak up!

Comment using your facebook account: