I Stand with Italy

Nobody is talking about anything but the coronavirus these days.

Well, sure… a last few disillusioned holdouts are still talking about Bernie Sanders (“The establishment is robbing us!!!”) — including Bernie Sanders. But everyone else is talking about coronavirus.

A lot of talk surrounds food. “Do we have enough?” “Will the grocery stores close?” “Will we still be able to have the sushi bar Postmate dinner to our door?”

Tortelloni ready for duty

A friend was telling my wife about the pellet gun he had to shoot bunny rabbits in case things got real bad. “But then what would the coyotes eat?” I said.

Things are really bad in Italy, where people have to stay home and eat unending quantities of pasta. (I guess that’s better than being stuck at home with your pantry in Iceland.) As we in Topanga settle in with schools closed and the kids at home for a couple weeks of social distancing, plus the added benefit of rain and more rain in the forecast, my mind, too, turns to food.

It’s a natural instinct to want to cook comforting dishes in uncertain times. Digging around in my freezer in my eternal Sisyphean quest to clear out space, I found a bag of brodo. Brodo is not an intrepid hobbit from a Tolkien book; rather, it is a rich stock made from chicken, pork bones, vegetables. A central ingredient in one of the foodie mecca of Bologna’s most famous dishes, tortelloni en brodo. Basically, tortelloni in a rich broth. Sounds simple enough. Except it’s one of those “sums of its ingredients” dishes where the higher the quality of the two components, the better the dish. You could make a perfectly enjoyable version for you and your kids with Swanson’s chicken broth and grocery store tortellini. But to be truly transcendent, the broth should simmer and reduce for hours, filling the kitchen with steamy, savory scent; the tortelloni lovingly folded around thumbs with homemade egg pasta stuffed with minced pork, mortadella, prosciutto and parmesan. I just happened to have mortadella and prosciutto in the fridge. Tonight, this was the tortelloni en brodo I would make.

I do sometimes think about what we would do, after panic toilet paper shopping, if there was a real emergency — say a big earthquake or breakdown of society — that caused us to be at home for a long period of time without grocery stores. I know we can eat the hundreds of pounds of acorns that fall from our oak grove (and which the acorn woodpeckers have kindly granaried in the siding of our home), though apparently they require a drawn-out process of soaking to render edible. Our flock of chickens produces a fair number of eggs each day, which would keep us afloat for awhile and which this day would be a key ingredient in my tortelloni.

Tortelloni en brodo — yes please!

When I begin wondering if I should be out panic purchasing toilet paper, kneading and rolling out egg dough for tortelloni returns me to my center. The soup was rich and nurturing. Even though we were supposed to be social distancing, pal Steve and his daughters showed up for soup, because he didn’t have any brodo in his freezer, and they needed nurturing too. The spontaneous arrival of guests meant fewer tortelloni for us, but it was nice to have the company.

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I also stand with Ireland.

Because, well, I’ve got a lot of Irish blood. And also, it’s almost St. Patrick’s Day, and I have a feeling this bloody virus is going to ruin that happy holiday this year.

I went to our local Ralph’s supermarket the other day, where people had absolutely lost their minds. The lines stretched to the back of the store, the potatoes and toilet paper were gone, and people were just grabbing whatever meat was available. An elderly lady in line in front of me filled the little space left in her basket with a dozen or so boxes of Blue Diamond Nut Thins — never know when you’ll run out of those. Bottled water was cleared out — because the coronavirus is going to cause water to go away? Relatively untouched, however, were rows and rows of packages of corned beef. Did people just not know how good corned beef is? “We’ll have an early St. Patrick’s Day meal!” I said to myself.

My retirement plan

The other advantage of the corned beef is you can stretch it and make multiple meals out of it. I bought the largest one I could find, a hulking four-pounder. Unsurprisingly, the seeded rye bread and sauerkraut had not yet succumbed to panic purchasing, so I grabbed one of each. I could see reuben sandwiches on my horizon!

There was no cabbage, so after my 45-minute check-out process at Ralph’s, I swung by Gelson’s — where ungodly prices seemed to be keeping the hoarding more muted, and paid $5 for an organic cabbage. Even there, the toilet paper was gone.

We enjoyed our first family-only social distancing dinner, an early St. Paddy’s Day feast, on an unnaturally quiet Friday night. The following morning, as promised to my breakfast-loving 16-year-old son, I made corned beef hash with fresh fried eggs (“From the chicken’s butt to your plate!”) that were a crowd favorite. “You should make soup with that!” daughter Imogen had said the night before, peering into the pot of corned beef cooking liquid. Excellent thinking! So an Irish lentil soup also bubbled on the stove. And in the fridge, the makings of the future reuben…

Because who ever said this panic-demic had to be all suffering?

Tacos on the Mesa

My children have all attended our local community school — Flynn, now 15, is in high school, his sister Willa, 13, is in middle school, and Imogen — the youngest at 8 — is our last kid at Topanga Elementary.

Vaquero Colgin on the Mesa

Each year, there is a fundraiser to raise money for the school, in the form of an event/dinner/auction. In the past, themes have included “1970s (roller girls and disco),” “1980s (hairspray, lots of pink and purple),” with live bands to match, “Totally Topanga” in which you were supposed to dress up in hippy garb, I suppose. One event was held at a spectacular mountain-top midcentury modern with views of city, ocean and islands, and Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes performing; another particularly unsuccessful version was held in a Marriott ballroom near the airport.

I provided food for two of these events — the decades ones, in fact — turning out pizzas and cowboy ribeyes from a wood-fired outdoor oven at the 70s event, and fancy small plate courses for the 80s. This year, after a decade being asked and politely declining, I finally joined our school’s version of the PTA. And was promptly asked to produce the entire event.

 

Don Schneider at the Santa Maria grill

Having attended nearly a dozen such fundraisers in the past, I was able to consider what I liked and didn’t like about previous events, and what I might do we’re I the one in charge (which I now was). One thing I didn’t so much enjoy about the past events was what often felt to me like rigid scheduling by a Type A event producer — cocktails at 5:45, dinner at 6:15, live auction at 7, dessert at 8… etc. At the prior events where I had cooked, I could tell I was causing great anxiety with my general indifference to schedules. (“I’m not serving dinner yet, it’s not done!”)

I’m decidedly Type B. And I host pretty good parties. So I simply decided to throw a great party. The date was already set at May 4. A day before Cinco de Mayo. And so we would jump the holiday and do Quatro de Mayo. I had a theme!

Our event would take place on a wild and remote plateau in the canyon called “The Mesa,” where my friends Sue and Martin have a ranch where we had once done a very successful pop-up restaurant fundraiser.

The very first, most important thing to do was to find and hire a good mariachi band. I called some an amigo, was directed to one band but they were busy. So a whole lot of internet research later, I hired Mariachi Mexico de Sylmar. They looked great in photos in their matching mariachi garb, the band’s leader was named, “Nacho.” I was hopeful.

Next was to secure a Santa Maria grill belonging to a Topanga old timer, and plan my menu. In terms of people pleasing, there are few certainties in life as solid as the taco. For two days prior to the event, I drove around the San Fernando Valley with the school credit card, made salsas, slow roasted a cochinita pibil, delivered several large briskets to my pal, Desmond, a Texan with a nimble finger at the smoker. The food gods were smiling and the stars were aligning.

When hosting, as opposed to simply cooking, there are many things to consider besides tortillas and salsas. Toilets, for example. How to get the deluxe VIP restroom trailer I rented up the twisty road and onto the uneven event site. What to do when it is delivered to the wrong part of the event site. (Because we didn’t want our toilets right in the middle of the dining and auction area.) How to get lights to the event. How to get WiFi so we could check people in and swipe their credit cards. What to do when your friend who has graciously donated her ranch decides she doesn’t want drunk people driving back down that twisty road and so you must figure out another way to get your guests there. Now I’m an artist, mind you — this is not my comfort zone. But it was good to stretch my logistics muscle and realize that I was capable when pressed into duty.

I assembled my A-team of helpers — including pal Katy, my don’t-drink-too-much-while-you-cook minder, who’s daughter Lucy produced a lovely assembly of Mexican sweets for dessert. (A portion of the meal I usually don’t devote too much thought to.) A mountain of mesquite set ablaze promised good things to come.

It was a perfect evening on the Mesa — a Western sun warming the sandstone and sage as it settled toward the ridge, the horse stables and dusty corral area where we held the event decorated with piñatas, papel picado and hay bales covered in colorful Mexican blankets. Trumpets and violins set a decidedly festive atmosphere as Nacho and his band of eight struck up the nostalgic sound of mariachi, and the first shuttles began delivering guests

Behind the grill, we poured ourselves some Pacifico from the keg, sipped a little mezcal and got to work. And the tacos? Even after Katy accidentally spilled two thirds of my key salsa, the results did not disappoint. Desmond’s brisket never fails to elicit lustful sighs — and there was some talk of taking the Colgin-and-Burrows taco show on the road. Crispy tlayudas, a specialty of Oaxaca slathered with lard and black beans, was another hit.

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The evening’s reviews were extremely positive — the venue was enchanting, the band fantastic and the food unforgettable. How about the hosting? Well, I suppose if you do your job correctly, people don’t even notice the hosting…

A Chili Cook Off of One

Every early November somethingth, our cozy little canyon community has a chili cook off and swap meet. I have participated in the cook off the past four or five years. It’s always the same group of us — Tom, who brings his homemade wine and last year forgot to put his truck in park and we all watched as it rolled off the cliff; my pal Dan, who won last year but drank too much during the morning and was passed out in his van when his name was announced; the young duo of Julian and Trevor, who object whenever I don’t win. Nobody cares much who wins or loses, it’s a lot of fun.

Winner!

I’ve never won. I came in second a couple years back. “Dude, you got robbed!” said Julian and Trevor, who won that year. More

Queues and Barbecues

They asked me to do it again. Despite the lines — oh! the lines… — they asked me to do it again.

“Is there anything we can do about the lines?” they gingerly put forth.

Last Halloween, our children’s annual grade school Halloween carnival got an upgrade. It moved from school to the ballfield at the local community center, a live band would play, there would be a bar… And they asked me to do the food.

The Chef boogying at sunset

The chef/fairy/cow boogying at sunset

I was to cook for somewhere between 450 and 600 people. I was a week in preparation and was all set — except that the chimneys I needed for my coal were 90 minutes late. The carnival had opened at 3:30, people began queuing up for food at 4-ish. And I didn’t have anything to serve until close to 5 p.m., at which point the line had stretched from our home-plate set up well into left field. We would never catch up.

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Sidekicks

A friend of mine with a production company said he wants to make a TV show out of my food blog.

“That would be a gas,” I said. “I have good sidekicks.”

My best sidekick might be my 5-year-old daughter, Imogen. She’s foodier than many foodies I know.

Imogen at 2 years old, mistaking the serving utensils for her own

Imogen at 2 years old, mistaking the serving bowl for her own

“Something smells good,” she said the other night, strolling casually into the kitchen, gazing into the primavera I was making and zeroing in past the asparagus, kale, onion and carrot.

“”Dad, what’s that white stuff in the pan?”

“That’s lobster.”

“Do you think I would like it?” she said coyly.

That’s like the lion asking if you thought he’d like the antelope.

“Yeah, I would guess you might.”

Another night she came into the kitchen, and there was a rather large dry-aged rib eye sitting on the counter.

“Who’s that for?” she inquired.

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What are the qualities that make for a good sidekick? For the purposes of culinary adventures, I would guess they differ somewhat from what the Lone Ranger might’ve appreciated in Tonto. You needn’t be a good scout or tracker for example — except for finding the next great snack or meal.

Sidekicks extraordinaire, Don & Bob

Sidekicks extraordinaire, Don & Bob

A culinary sidekick should bring joy to the drinking and dining experience, should have an irrepressible joie de vivre, and should be ready to follow a culinary adventure wherever it may lead.

(Although I will point out that one of my favorite sidekicks, childhood pal Gary who now lives in Portland, once winced as I dragged him toward a particularly grimy-looking roadside stand in Mexico where I discovered the best fish tacos I’ve ever tasted. “I’m not eating there,” he grumbled.)

It’s easier to find culinary sidekicks than it is to find a good-quality Indian tracker sidekick or a life-of-crime sidekick. Just about everyone wants to be a culinary sidekick. And the job requirements are fairly easy: Must have sense of humor; must enjoy trying new things; must not be gluten-free or vegan or lactose-intolerant or of otherwise delicate constitution; must be able to have a drink in the morning, if asked.

Patas negras under the bridge, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Patas negras under the bridge, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

A culinary sidekick anecdote: I was in Mexico once with one of my favorite sidekicks, pal Don Schneider. “We need to find patas negras,” he said emphatically as we stormed into old town Puerto Vallarta, stopping only briefly for a roadside al pastor taco en route. He had been talking of little else than these mythic black clams for days. It being a warm day out, he suggested we grab a couple Modelo beers to keep us cool while we walked. Then, as we strolled along the waterfront malecon, he stopped suddenly — as if sensing something I couldn’t, or perhaps picking up a scent on the wind.

“This way,” he said, leading me down an embankment and under a bridge, where there sat a very jovial-looking couple and a table piled to the sky with oysters and black clams.

These are the qualities I seek in a Skinny Girls & Mayonnaise sidekick. No application necessary — just grab your favorite bottle, pick up some cheese or charcuterie, a few tacos or some fresh sushi fish, and come on over for your interview.

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