Tag Archives: food

Tipsy Parson

Here’s what: maple bacon. Here’s what else: fresh biscuits with lemon curd and scrambled eggs with chives. Here’s where: Tipsy Parson.

I had my second meal at Tipsy Parson a few weeks ago when I was back in New York and it solidified its place on my list of places to get happy, comfy food for brunch or dinner. It’s a southern place, so comfort food is exactly what it should provide, in addition to generous hospitality. None of our servers had southern accents but they were quirkily cheerful and solicitous, so good enough!

The avocado toast – greens and tomatoes and avocado piled on toast – and migas – a scrambled huevos rancheros – are my friends who live around the corners’ favorites for brunch, but I’m partial to the traditional bacon, eggs and carbs. Those biscuits are to die for – little, fluffy, warm – and that’s coming from someone who has tried and tried to make exactly those biscuits (and failed, let’s be honest).

For dinner, I don’t know where to start. Maybe the top of the menu? Just work your way down. Deviled eggs?? I love you, Tipsy Parson! I thought I was the only person who still made those and I love them only a little less than pigs in a blanket. You can also get homemade peanut butter with crackers and apples. I wouldn’t order it, but it’s adorable that they have it. You should try one of their ribs – appetizer or entree – and, naturally, order the buttermilk chive biscuit with honey butter to accompany whatever you settle on. If you’re not a big meateater, try the catfish. And if you’re ready for the full southern, get the chicken and dumplings and plan on having a lie down when you get home. Grits are available in four different combinations, but I can’t get past the consistency of even the best grits, so I can’t speak to Tipsy Parson’s execution. I just keep rolling on back to those biscuits.

The front bar and dining area are library cozy, but I prefer the back room where you get a little more space, some minor topiary action and a glimpse of a tiny, charming back garden.

Go. Enjoy. And bless your heart.

Tipsy Parson, 156 9th Ave. btwn 19th and 20th
Brunch: Sat + Sun 10 – 5:30
Lunch: Mon-Friday 11:30- 3:30
Midday: Sun – Sat 3:30p to 5:30p
Dinner: Mon – Thurs 5:30-11, Fri – Sat 5:30-12AM, Sun 5:30 – 10

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Cheap Date

couroc_frog.jpgMy grandmother bought five-pound cans of Maxwell House and perked it on the stove. A drink in the evening was a rare glass of sherry. Suburban aunts made coffee in machines and their husbands drank gin and tonics out of wide glasses with urbane dancing frogs on them.

This is not my liquid life. I live in San Francisco where the drinks are complicated and expensive and there is nary a dancing frog in sight, let alone an ice cube from a freezer tray or, God forbid, coffee in a tin.

I’m not complaining. I drink well here. On our trip to the mountains of Colorado a few weeks ago though, it was back to basics and a welcome break.

First, let’s talk coffee. In Colorado, all the coffees were hot. Super hot. Mountain hot. Boiling hot. And they cost $3.75 for half a gallon of espresso and steamed milk. Well, almost half a gallon. This is fine with me. Hot, caffeinated and not bitter are my morning baselines. Above that line, I can really take it or leave it, even if I can tell the difference.

Back in San Francisco, I had it out with the barista at Ritual Coffee for delivering my coffee at room temperature for the umpteenth time. (This is apparently kind of a thing for me.) The guy said they had a POLICY that they did not steam their milk above a certain temperature because it carmelized the sugars. Apparently I like carmelized sugars based on my liking of apples covered in same and hot *(&#$#! milk in my cafe au lait.

That’s not to say that I don’t like what’s on offer here in general. Ritual Roasters, Four Barrel and Blue Bottle all spring from the Bay Area. Like Folgers crystals before them, they’re served in the finest restaurants around the country. (Another survey of their backgrounds here.) I’m not going to deny they’re good. Well, Blue Bottle and Ritual are good. Four Barrel I don’t get but a lot of people disagree with me so I’m outvoted there. Can I tell that these $4 cups of coffee are better than other coffees? Um, well, sort of. I can tell that they’re better than instant or coffeemaker coffee. And Starbucks. But that much better than much faster, cheaper, no-name coffee that I should pay twice as much? Probably not. Case in point: Dunkin’ Donuts makes my favorite coffee and I think they’re still on the Maxwell House train. So I’m not 100% sure I appreciate the level of precision that coneisseurship has brought to my morning cuppa.

Perhaps I’m being willfully dense here and resisting developing an expensive taste because then I’d have to spend $4 every morning rather than drinking what I can most conveniently get. I do this with wine. If I got hooked on $40 bottles of wine, I wouldn’t be able to drink the $10 bottle. So while I appreciate the expensive wines when they’re presented to me, I try not to take too much notice. I already spend enough money as it is.

Enough about me: if you’re looking around to taste the best of the best and have a nice sit-down while you’re in the city, here are my picks, with a heavy bias toward the south side of the city because that’s where we live.

Ritual Roastersoriginal location on the gritty end of Valencia (21st/22nd Streets) will brew your regular coffee cup by cup, as well as serve you any espresso drink (with warm, not hot, milk). Rich flavor gleaned from their blends and their use of whole milk. My favorite of the top three but often crowded (they have free wifi) and they play non-background music – like, edgy, slightly metal indie stuff that’s hard to write to and chat to.

In which case, on a sunny day, you might prefer their new permanent cart in Hayes Valley (on Octavia just off Hayes) where you can sit outside and look in shops with commensurately priced goods of all kinds.

Similar music issues and an even grittier ‘hood, but less crowded and with a Scandinavian vibe, Haus on 24th Street brews Ritual as well and does a good job of it. Bonus: back patio with lots of sun, albeit also the neighbor’s laundry in view. Free wifi and excellent baked goods make up most of the way for the crabby hipster baristas.

Blue Bottle‘s original San Francisco location in a garage on a side street in Hayes Valley has become enough of a landmark that now you don’t have to compete with cars: they’ve paved a little plaza in front. You can also pick up a cup at the super trendy, way-overcrowded-at-the-weekend-Farmers-Market yup-fest Ferry Building and downtown on Mint Plaza. Or – brilliant brilliant location choice – at Spin City, a high end laundromat in chic Noe Valley, Blue Bottle is served at the coffee window.

If you want to try Four Barrel, they have a giant, airy space on the other end of Valencia from Ritual, at 15th Street. You decide if you like it or not.

Let’s get back to Colorado and discuss cocktails. I sidled up to our lodge’s bar the first night to order a couple of straightforward cocktails: vodka cranberry and vodka tonic. No big deal. Nothing fancy. Didn’t want to go out on a pisco limb or anything in a building made of logs. The bartender delivers them in about thirty seconds and says, “That’ll be $7.” This prompts a tiny ethical dilemma. Should I tell him he’s only charged me for one, and at happy hour, well-drink prices even though it’s 9PM?

I ask. Turns out it’s not a mistake. Cocktails are $3.50. Cocktails with premium vodka no less. Living where I do and traveling mainly to other places like where I live, cocktails cost $9. Or $12. Or $14 if it’s that trendy and I’m paying for the slab of polished oak they use as a bar that they imported from a speakeasy in the basement of Versailles. Or something like that.

I will admit that I prefer the high-end cocktails at Beretta to the low-end ones at our old neighborhood’s dive bar Il Pirata. But do I notice if the bar makes their own ice using pure water and a special, I don’t know, vaporizing hyperbaric icebox or whatever? No, I do not. Can I tell if they’re using bottled bitters or homemade ones? Um, no. In the new world order or artisinal bars, I am a cretin and, for that, I’d like apologize to my bartender at Beretta who goes to so much trouble to make me happy.

I might be more of a high and mighty in this category if I drank more whiskey, bourbon or gin which seem to be the base of many, if not most, of the new breed of cocktails. I was a gin girl for a long time but have moved on to vodka and tequila for the most part, with a recent strong liking for pisco. This limits my range but it keeps the choosing simple.

I do wish that all bars offered the option of a straightforward drink at Colorado prices the way restaurants offer tap water or bottled. I can tolerate the tiny sneer that follows my, “Tap, please,” and would happily tolerate another if I could get Ketel One and Ocean Spray cranberry juice with tap-water ice cubes in an Ikea cup for half the price of my extra-special Pisco Punch.

Until that happens, here’s where I go.

For artisinal cocktails, it’s hard to beat Beretta. They have excellent food as well and, if you can get a seat (no reservations, go early), a buratta margherita pizza or chicken liver crostini will tide you over to a third drink if you want to hang out.

Bourbon & Branch is also well-reputed but you will need to plan ahead and make a reservation if you want food. I’ve written before about Range and their excellent food, but beware their hipster-looking cocktail menu: they’ve gone off the reservation in my estimation. Tomatoes have no place in evening drinks, unless by “evening” you mean “morning” and it’s a bloody mary you’re after.

We recently rediscovered Smugglers Cove in Hayes Valley (it used to be a trendy, purple-lit place we didn’t enjoy) where you can get a ridiculous number of pirate drinks made one-by-one by their single bartender. It’s not exactly the high-end science of mixology you’ll get at the places listed above, but tiki has been on an upswing the last couple of years and, let’s face it, sometimes you miss Club Med and their sweet, sweet drinks. (I’d advise only going in the week when the locals stop in for libations. We cruised in once on a Saturday and it was a bizarre mix of drunk, overweight, gay tourist developers and tacky bridge and tunnel girlies on a bender.)

Recently (like, yesterday) voted Best of the Bay for their unique happy hour – whoever orders first after 5PM, that’s the discount drink – we’ve latched onto Asiento of late for a not-dive but not-too-trendy evening drink accompanied by crazy good little plates. We haven’t made it there on a Sunday yet, but I hear they serve tater tots. Eighties lunchroom trashy trendy. I like it.

Although I enjoy all the developments in drinking my generation has ushered in, I (and my wallet) miss those dancing frogs and wish there a Dunkin Donuts at the end of my block. Until I find that block – or open a frog/donut outlet of my own – I’ll enjoy what San Francisco has to offer.

Oh, and if you’re in New York, don’t miss the Pisco Punch at Pegu Club. Best. Ever.

RIP Ti Couz

ticouz-thumb.jpgSan Francisco’s crepe institution, Ti Couz, closed several weeks ago to little fanfare and, on my part, not much regret. Their decline to the point of my not regretting their passing is almost sadder than their demise. Or perhaps it just softened the blow. If they had gone out on top, we would have really missed them.

They used to be our go-to place for cocktails and crepes on a Friday evening after a long week. To avoid the delay of finding parking, we’d take the dodgy crosstown bus from the corner by our tiny, bright apartment and, eight minutes of watching the drug-addled homeless and a mother ignoring her too many children, we’d land half a block from Ti Couz’s comforts. But things have been sliding gradually for at least a year and our final visit in May would have been our last even if they hadn’t closed their doors.

They opened in 1992 and in their hey day they served excellent, reasonably priced Breton savory crepes. These were nicely preceded by their variations on the Cosmopolitan, the Lemon Drop and their signature champagne cocktail, the Ti Couz 10. When I visited San Francisco just after graduating college, on the fateful trip that convinced me that maybe someday I might like to live here (beware tourists of the siren song of a sunny day in the city by the bay!), a friend and I went to Ti Couz.

Oddly, since I had been to France and was a huge crepe fan, I’d never had Breton crepes. They’re made with buckwheat and look like the wheatberry and the HealthyForYou/TastesLikeCardboard bread loaves I bypass in the bakery aisle. Also, they’re huge, like a foot diameter tucked to a flat, square 8″. I was a rolled crepe, white-flour girl, raised at Boston’s long-gone and much-missed Magic Pan. Viva la crepe revolucion of the 1970s!!

Let’s digress here for a shout-out to that best of crepe-y institutions, The Magic Pan. Founded by Hungarians (??!$^%!) here in San Francisco and eventually and briefly a successful chain, they made crepes on the bottoms of pans, which is a tricky method only for professionals, like poaching an egg in a pot of water using only a spoon. (I don’t even want to hear about it if you can do this. Really. Just be quiet. You’re hurting my feelings even opening your mouth.)

Right behind the maitre’d’s desk was a guy standing in the middle of a ring of fire. Really it was a circular stove burner, but to a five year old it was Vegas. Above the flame rotated a frame built for ten or twelve pans. The chef had a bowl of crepe batter. When a pan came by, he’d dip the base in the batter and put it back on the frame. When it got back to him, he’d flip it and send it around again. F’ing brilliant.

They made ham and cheese crepes, lightly fried to seal them, and served with a sweet mustard cream sauce. Dude. So. Good. They put the “Mmmmm,” in Mmmmagic Pan. (Ham crepe and mustard sauce recipe here, cheese here, and don’t skip the apple dessert crepe. Don’t. Just don’t.)

The point is, I’d never had buckwheat crepes until Ti Couz. Theirs were excellent, especially their specials. I’m a terrible decisionmaker, so asking me to construct my own crepe from 25 options just spoils my dinner. Ti Couz put together some odd but always tasty combos of things like shrimp and mushroom with chipotle cream sauce. The reliability of those specials, along with their wildly satisfying Euro salad (excellent greens with magic vinaigrette or crudite salad with every possible vegetable in it nicely chopped) made it a comfort location supreme.

Then, last year, they discontinued their specials for what our waiter described as “financial reasons.” That didn’t sound right – if you’re picking it, why not choose a combo made up of this week’s cheapest ingredients? – but we sighed and kept going, doing our best with the arduous task of selecting our own combinations unaided by the increasingly lethargic staff.

Then they put up a banner reading, “Thank you San Francisco for 19 great years,” which panicked everyone that they were closing. But, when asked, they said they weren’t. It was just an anniversary thing. Which was weird. ‘Cause 19 isn’t a special anniversary is it? Should I have gotten them something? What is 19? Flour? Dirt?

In the fall, they bizarrely surrendered their liquor license. I don’t know much about the liquor license process, but I do know it’s damn hard to get one and I assume it pays for itself. They billed their regression as, “getting back to their Breton roots,” which apparently are soaked with slightly-alcoholic cider. I billed it as, “taking away the second of the two reasons I went there.” We toughed it out without our specials or our cocktails a couple of times, but the deed was done. We were out.

Apparently, so were they.

Despite their slow, disappointing decline, I will remember Ti Couz for their former days of tasty cocktail and savory crepe glory. And they will always hold a tiny special space in my heart: two days before A.’s premature arrival, we finally settled on her name (and the second choice which no, I won’t tell you in case I need it later) at a corner table in the back.

So farewell, Ti Couz. I’ll try some Magic Pan recipes at home and hope that someplace else steps up with a wide open, non-trendy space serving sweet Friday cocktails. Bon voyage to the great crepe pan in the sky. Say ‘hello’ to the Magic Pan for me.

Oh no!

cornpops.jpgHave you seen this list? I seem to read one every year. It’s about which brands will go under in the coming year.

If you’re in finance, I guess doing the list makes you a smarty pants analyst. I’m not in finance, so a.) since I am not a smarty pants in this particular area, I am irritated by people who are (if I were, I would, naturally, be impressed with myself), and b.) there are always some brands on the list that I can’t believe will go under because I need them, so I choose to not believe the list.

A couple of years ago, the list said Borders would go out of business and I was very upset. Borders is where I go to buy magazines, peruse the travel section for vacation destinations where I can go without getting immunization shots, and look at all the books I will then go onto Amazon to buy at a discount. Which is precisely why Borders is going under. But I still buy all those magazines. And coffee. Apparently not in sufficient quantities though because the list makers were right about that one.

This year, they’re predicting the demise of Saab, which makes me, um, well not, you know, but definitely feel sad. I think they’re going under because they drifted away from that retro Porsche-y almond-shaped sillouhette they used to have in the 1980’s. I wanted one of those cars. Also, I like the Swedes, so that’s sad for them.

With A&W on the list, I thought maybe the one root beer brand I can identify was going south, but no, it’s just their restaurant arm. I thought you had to have a time machine to go to the A&W restaurants, and apparently so did everyone else, because they’re going away.

I am not sorry to hear about Soap Opera Digest, which should’ve just cut over to reality TV a while ago, which is way more soapy than the dying soaps, and American Apparel, because I never liked their ads. Not because the billboards were overtly selling sex (who isn’t?) but because they were selling tacky underage1970’s runner shorts sex, which is not my kind of sex. So I better head to the local shop and get R. a bunch of those waffle Ts he likes and another couple sleeveless turtleneck dresses for me and say goodbye.

The brand loss that’s truly breaking my heart is Kellogg’s Corn Pops. Ah, Pops. I loved Corn Pops. When Fruit Loops and Apples Jacks changed their formulas to be less crispy-sugar-coated and more milk-susceptible, I could always turn to Pops to remind me of the good old days when I escaped the “no sugar cereals” ban at home and got my little box of Pops at camp and college cafeterias. Tasty, tasty Pops.

Pops were a staple of my pregnancy diet, along with fruit, which is probably why A. is so cute and awesome and I only gained 18 lbs. (For which I take no credit by the way: who has control over the foods they want to eat while pregnant? No one, that’s who.)

I just threw out my last box of baby-related Pops last week. They had merged into a single Pop in the humidity of the San Francisco rains. I wasn’t eating them fast enough. And now, soon, I may not be able to get more. I might have to look at the whole second child question from a new angle now if s/he will not have the in utero Pops advantage.

Reading further bad news, it turns out that the smarty pants(s) think Pops are on the way out because they aren’t healthy, containing both saturated fat and something called BHT, which doesn’t sound all-natural and turns out isn’t. It’s a component in embalming fluid.

Adding that little detail is just mean. How can I ever look at a Pops box with the same pure desire I had before knowing it has a little bit of embalming fluid in it? It’s like telling me Hugh Jackman kicks puppies. Why did you have to throw that out there on the mat? You’re ruining it for me. What I didn’t know wasn’t hurting me. Or rather, I didn’t know what was hurting me.

Come to that though, how do you know it’s hurting me? It doesn’t sound good, putting embalming fluid ingredients in food, but the smarty pants guys don’t say if they know it’s bad. It might be giving me nice supple skin. They use corn in ethanol, don’t they? Is anyone going after Orville Redenbacher for using an ingredient in auto fuel? No. They’re not. Maybe BHT is like corn: just another harmless ingredient that’s been vilified unjustly by smarty pants(s) taking it out of context.

Although the acronym isn’t helping its case. Acronyms in food sound sinister. Like CRN Pops. It sounds like something robot overlords use to keep their joints lubricated.

I hear people are hoarding old-school light bulbs in preparation for the cutover to fluorescents next year. Maybe I’ll go that route: go buy that retro Saab I’ve always coveted, load up the trunk with 200 boxes of Pops and cruise on over to A&W to get some milk for my cereal. I’ll just circle until they close or I run out of Pops, whichever comes first. Don’t worry about me: the embalming fluid will keep my stamina up.

Barista Business

latte-art.jpgDear Barista With the Dorothy Hamill Haircut,

I am having a hard day already. I’m sorry to have to break it to you, but you made it worse. I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but there it is.

I hope that haircut is meant to be ironic. Some things aren’t meant to be brought back. Like fluorescent socks. Maybe your Dorothy Hamill haircut is supposed to be like hipster boys growing beards that are so sincerely frontier terrible that they must be ironic and therefore attractive. But most of them are so actually terrible that they double back over the irony attraction into well, just plain terrible.

Does your boyfriend have a beard?

See, Wednesdays are my Day to Get Things Done. They are the only day in the week when I have the whole day to attend to business. Writing mainly, multi-step projects that require some thought, lots of we-own-a-house-now business, some no-way-can-I-do-this-with-a-toddler errands. A day to be able to start a task and finish it. Wednesdays are my Day of Satisfaction.

Why are you wearing a nautical stripe shirt? I’m just asking. Not that I don’t like the shirt. It’s fine. It’s just there’s no boat, and I’m in a bad mood.

I should have just told you that my hot coffee was cold, that you didn’t heat the milk past just-below-room-temperature and I wanted you to make me another latte, but because I’m already having a rough day, that extra effort seems impossible right now. I’ll just sit here and steam like my milk didn’t.

I don’t book appointments on Wednesdays because having to be somewhere at a specific time disrupts the whole start-to-finish thing. Today I made an exception to that rule. Now there’s an unpleasant block interrupting the middle of my Day of No Interruptions. This was a mistake. Not yours, BWTDHH, I agree, but that first Mistake made your Bad Job the third Bad Thing in the day instead of the first. Keep in mind that your small straw might be the last small straw for someone else.

That’s something I’ll try and remember myself. Do your job well because you don’t know when someone else’s day might depend on it.

Competence Karma.

No, scratch that. It sounds like a cereal.

When I tried to get out of the house early, our green car glided from 10 mph to 2 mph a block from home and a big red exclamation point came up on one screen and a picture of a car with another big exclamation point over it appeared on the other screen.

I assume that that car in the picture is supposed to be our car even though our car is shorter. If the car in the picture were shorter though, I guess you wouldn’t be able to see it behind the giant exclamation point. Which might make the emergency seem worse, not being able to see your car for everything that’s wrong with it. It still seems pretty bad though. I should do something to make that exclamation point go away. Getting rid of exclamation points was not on Today’s Plan.

So that was the Second Thing.

None of this stuff is that big a deal if you’re on a roll, but I was not on a roll. I came by to get some coffee to get rolling. I just needed a cup of milk and espresso and some time at a table. It’s true I have the table. But an inaccessibly cold cup of coffee taunting me with its flattening foam isn’t the table companion I was hoping for.

Anyway, Dorothy Hamill, I hope you get better at your job. Today you did not deliver on your $3.75 commitment to serve hot coffee, which does seem like a basic job requirement for a job which involves serving hot coffee.

Maybe you’re a good person behind your poor milk management. Maybe. It’s just hard to see you behind the giant exclamation point that’s come up over the screen in my head.

Yours in passivity,

Me. I’m at the table window. I’m pretty sure I look really irritated. Yup, you see me now.

Judgment Day

You know how sometimes you’re standing in line at the grocery store and you see what the people ahead of you are buying and you think superior thoughts about them because you’re buying granola bars and low-fat yogurt and they’re buying Froot Loops and multi-packs of Doritos?

Yeah, well, I just got that look.

I’m usually on the giving end, but there I was with my marshmallows (it’s cold and I need cocoa), Cheez-Its (I didn’t have breakfast before I went shopping), frozen California Pizza Kitchen pizzas (er…), and ice cream (R doesn’t like desserts except ice cream, so let the man live a little). The self-righteous guy in a hat behind me glanced over my selections with disdain as he divested his basket of things like the aforementioned yogurt and a live, free-range chicken.

OK, there was no chicken, but all that stuff he had looked pretty healthy and rangy.

Maybe I need to work harder to look more pregnant. Do you think that would work? Eating for two and what not.

I don’t think that means two adults though, which is a shame.

San Francisco: The Ice Cream Section at Bi-Rite

bi-rite-creamery.jpg

Yeah, that’s specific I know, but check this out: they have cookie and ice cream sandwiches. Don’t, “Ho hum,” me like I’m suggesting you score one of those Oreo-looking, admittedly delicious but taste like plastic ones from the freezer case at Safeway. Pull yourself together. I wouldn’t send you out to a supermarket during Thanksgiving week for that.

In Bi-Rite’s model, the cookies are soft and chewy and the ice cream is their housemade creamy stuff, so you can score the best of the bakery aisle and some of their excellent ice cream in one cellophane baggie.

Why do I bring this up now? Because what kid actually likes pumpkin pie after Thanksgiving dinner? I do but I couldn’t sell it to anyone under ten: the texture is pretty repellent. Bi-Rite is your solution. Buy half a dozen of their gingersnap cookie + pumpkin ice cream sandwiches and you’re set.

(Just to be clear on that math, the “buy six” plan is for someone entertaining no more than four kids at table. The other two are for you.)

They also stock chocolate chip cookies with vanilla ice cream, dark chocolate cookies with mint chip ice cream and snickerdoodle cookies with cinnamon ice cream but I don’t know why you’d ever leave my first love ginger+pumpkin. I ate it so fast I didn’t even take a picture for you to see what it looked like. I’ll remedy that later when I go get my next batch.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Available at Bi-Rite Market or Bi-Rite Creamery, both on 18th Street between Guerrero and Dolores. Creamery is almost at Dolores; grocery is in the middle of the block.

Mmm…pancakes…

$3500. 200 pancakes an hour. That means if you go for 17.5 hours, you’ll have the cost of a pancake down to $1. Not bad.

Of course, you’ll also have 3500 pancakes. I’m thinkin’ fire hall, Saturday morning, some pig wrestling to follow. A nice old-fashioned pancake breakfast. Just you, your entire town and the Chefstack Automatic Pancake Machine.

Atkins is rolling over in his grave. I say, good riddance. Bring me my syrup funnel.

Julia Child

julia_child_1963_nytimes.jpg

When I was small, Julia Child was still on television in The French Chef and, even though I never had an Easy Bake Oven or any interest in cooking – except for that one time I melted chocolate chips over a heating vent behind my parents’ bed – she played a memorable role in my childhood.

My mother was an unorthodox cook, coming as she did from a long line of Swedish Lutheran casserole makers but caught up in the ’60s hippie craze for oil-slicked, all-natural peanut butter, spinach flat noodles and homemade granola. Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking layered crepes suzette, cheese souffles, and boeuf bourguignon onto our bland culinary lives and probably saved us from a future of iceberg lettuce salads and goulash like we had at my grandmother’s house. (Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed iceberg lettuce with Russian dressing – ketchup, mayonnaise and sugar, in her version – as much as the next seven year old, but it wouldn’t have provided a broad foundation for culinary curiosity later in life.)

I didn’t make the connection between Julia and the boeuf that appeared occasionally at dinner and I was more mesmerized by the lurid, Technicolor photographs in the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook than by Julia’s text-heavy tome on the same shelf, but Julia’s French Chef was my favorite celebrity (after Aquaman, of course). Given that our access to TV was restricted to PBS, this is like my uncle saying that I was his favorite niece during the years when I was his only niece, but that doesn’t diminish the attachment. I felt connected to her through my godmother, who was a producer at WGBH, the PBS affiliate in Boston, and I liked how civilized Julia’s life and kitchen seemed compared to ours, which was overcast by my parents’ marital strife and the endless unfinished construction projects they inflicted on our house.

Come to think of it, I led a pretty bifurcated life for a little kid. Boston’s restaurants, Julia Child’s crepes, the Boston Camerata, Gilbert and Sullivan productions, English riding lessons (for a little while anyway), private school and soccer practice were one part of my life, the part I desperately wanted to live in full-time. The other part was home with my mother’s hatred of the suburbs, her unstable health, the crying, the fighting, the moods, the impending divorce and the fearsome knowledge that that other life I wanted wasn’t ever going to be safe from the wild swings of my parents’ unhappiness. It was also increasingly clear that I was, in fact, not the misplaced child of either a.) gypsies, or b.) royalty, which was a significant blow. Julia was an unflappable, cheerful voice of domestic sanity piping out of the TV into our distinctly not sane home.

I had a warped time of it media-wise too. On one hand, there was the usual, we-make-our-own-mayonnaise-and-(mostly)-don’t-let-the-kids-watch-TV childhood of Sesame Street, Zoom and the Electric Company. (Mr. Rogers was deemed creepy and, as an adult, I have to agree. His simpering manner reminds me of those piano teachers on Law & Order: SVU who turn out to have stashes of kiddie porn hidden in their basements.) On the other hand, there were evenings of Julia Child throwing around omelettes and Monty Python tossing around livestock. Between the French Taunter and the French Chef, it’s no wonder I grew up a little weird.

In the early ’80s, my brother and I got hooked on Dinner at Julia’s. It aired on Friday evenings, and we’d rush to watch it on the TV in the corner of the living room. Why were two pre-teen kids so into the show? It included a segment where Julia would go on an outing to track down some component of that episode’s meal. Often, she’d visit a vineyard to sort out a wine pairing, tasting the choice with the vintner on-site or back in her dining room with her lapel mic two inches away from her throat. All the swirling and swallowing was picked up on the audio track. As a ten-year-old, I thought this was beyond hilarious. I know: we were super cool. Also, clearly, media-starved.

I was kind of hoping, when my brother graduated from Harvard in the same ceremony that Julia got her honorary doctorate, that she’d pull up with a personal message for me and her other loyal childhood viewers of my generation or at least swallow something loudly, but no such luck.

I still have my mother’s copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking nestled next to the Better Homes & Gardens binder and The Joy of Cooking. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never cooked anything from it, but I’m glad to have it and know that, when the time comes to pull up with a souffle, Julia will be there to hold my hand as I ease it out of the oven in my also-hereto-unused Williams-Sonoma fluted souffle dish. At least I’m well-prepared for my future, theoretical French cooking efforts. That’s got to count for something, doesn’t it?

In the meantime, I’ll be over here munching on these excellent cookies I made from a recipe I found on the internet. Bon appétit!

Photo picked up from The New York Times, Julia Child on the set of The French Chef, 1963.

Switzerland: The Food. My God, the Food.

French food? Mais oui. Italian? Buongiorno! Spanish tapas? Si! Swiss cooking? Um…what? It just doesn’t sound right, does it? If you’ve only focused on chocolate and fondue though, you’ve been missing out. Swiss food is the ultimate comfort food and man is it ever comforting: comforting to the tune of fifteen additional pounds in my first year on Swiss soil.

There are the cream sauces, used on cutlets and, my favorite artery-clogging example, whole hardboiled eggs. There are the breads: soft, braided white-bread zopf on Sundays and nussgipfeli (croissants wrapped around tasty, tasty ground up nuts and sugariness). There are the endless cookies and the herbs-and-croutons cup o’ soup, the rosti, the rosti with cheese, the rosti with bacon. The raclette. And, oh my Lord, the cheese. Bring me all the cheeses. ALL of them.

The first thing on my list when I land in Zurich is Migros, the grocery store chain. Say, “Grüzi,” to the family and then off to Migros. Unfortunately for our vacation plans, R had to come back to San Francisco for business three days into our time in Switzerland. Fortunately for our autumn, that meant he could schlep back a duffle of culinary goodies that we then didn’t have to take along on the Italian leg of the trip. (It also meant that we could reload that same duffle when we passed through Zurich on our way home a week and a half later. How sweet is that? Pretty sweet, that’s how sweet.)

So here’s what you should try while you’re there, plus some tips to getting Swiss goodness on this side of the Atlantic (or the Pacific, if you’re really disoriented and into flying the wrong way round).

  1. Kuche

    The VICTORY of the trip: kuche (if you’re in Bern) or wähe (if you’re in Zurich). Kuche is a fruit tart with a firm custard-like filling that’s made in a flat bottomed, wide quiche pan. The fruit is usually fresh, the custard filling not very sweet, and the crust approximately like a quiche’s but covered with a thin layer of ground hazelnuts. (If you want it sweeter, you can serve it with a little whipped cream. A very little.) I love it and have loved it since I first had it as a teenager.

    However, I’ve never been able to find a recipe in the States and even if I had, I doubt I would’ve tried it because it involves dough. Let’s be clear: dough and I have a long and unhappy history punctuated by embarrassment and disaster. (For me, that is. The dough just sits there all smug.) It sticks. I add flour. It stops sticking. I stop adding flour. It ends up tough as nails. It took me three years to produce a decent biscuit, I won’t even try bread, and pie crusts make me cry.

    Times they are a’changing though, people. With the aid of a Xerox machine (for the recipe, not the dough), Migros’ pre-packaged pastry (smuggled), and a Cuisinart (for pulverizing hazelnuts), I am the proud owner of a kuche of my very own, served in the photo on my grandmother’s china with a cup of afternoon tea.

    It turns out that the recipe is so absurdly simple that no one even bothers to publish it in real cookbooks. R’s cousin Tanja found it for me in her Home Ec textbook from high school and it has all of five ingredients (besides the dough). Cut-up fruit (apricots are my favorite), the hazelnuts, milk, an egg, and a little sugar. Yeah, I’m an idiot, but now I’m a self-satisfied, fruit-filled idiot.

  2. Amaretti

    Another wild success from this trip. I got hooked on the Swiss, chewy version of these almond cookies while visiting Tessin, the Italian canton in the south. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would spend the next ten years purchasing and swearing at the super-hard, not-at-all-like-what-I-wanted version offered by Italian restaurants and stores in New York and San Francisco before giving up on ever finding what I was looking for again.

    Lo and behold, as I was waiting for my train to Milan at the Zurich station, I happened to dawdle by a farmer’s market vendor selling breads and pastries. Next to the linzertorte lay a few craggy cookies powdered lightly with sugar and labeled as amaretti. I braced for disappointment and handed over a few francs. I needn’t have (braced, that is, not paid. It’s Switzerland: you always have to pay.) Ah, the chewy taste of sweet success! I’m back, baby!

    It turns out, after further research and discussion, that these amaretti are, after all, a different animal than the hard as rocks Italian cookie. Nice of them to name them differently, don’t you think? Jerks.

    Another trip to Migros and I scored three different versions of my (re)new(ed) best friend which I’ve worked my way through at an alarming pace since we got back. I got some small square ones, 20 to a bag, that are OK, still soft but without the slightly crunchy exterior layer. The layered ones in the photo are ridiculously good but might put you in sugar shock: the middle layer is an inch of soft milk chocolate laced with liqueur. The closest to the homemade are the same cookie (same photo) without the chocolate and I would eat them until I threw up except I only bought one pack so I had to ration them. They’re gone now, so I might have to start experimenting with recipes off the internet. Good thing I just joined that gym down the hill.

  3. Meringues

    Aside from chocolate, I always bring back meringue cookies, usually the ones with their little bottoms dipped in chocolate, but this trip, Tanja converted me to a straight-up meringue lover. Put them (or just one, if you’ve gotten or made the large ones) in the bottom of a bowl, cover them with whipped cream and throw on a bunch of berries. You’re welcome.

    I know I could’ve been eating this all along if I bothered to make meringues, which I know how to do, but meringues take so long to bake I just can’t take it.

    (Reading all of the above, I do seem to have issues with patience and preparation in the kitchen, don’t I? I’ll have to have a long think about that as soon as the sugar-induced hyperactivity wears off.)

  4. Spätzle

    Spätzle, translated charmingly as “little sparrows” is a kind of tiny dumplingy tastiness. Again, something I could make myself, but I prefer to rely on Migros’ vacuum-packed goodness that is at the ready in my cupboard whenever I need my fix. I’ve bought the dried spätzle available in supermarkets here, but it’s not quite right, dry instead of moist and a general disappointment.

    If you live in San Francisco, hit Suppenkuche in Hayes Valley for the original and order the Jägerschnitzel in Champignonsoße mit Spätzle und grünem Salat. It’s what spätzle should be: soft, yummy and covered with a creamy mushroom sauce.

  5. Rösti

    Rösti is R’s preferred side dish: grated potatoes fried as a pancake and flipped so both top and bottom are brown and crispy. (I make a mess of the flipping bit, so R handles that. Can you tell I’m not much of a cook?) Yet again, not so hard to make at home, but that would require forethought, patience and a lot of grating, none of which sound good to me, so packs of plain rösti, cheese rösti and rösti with bacon bits come back with us.

  6. Pastetli

    I can’t begin to explain to you how rich pastetli are and how much you need to make some.

    Here’s what they are: puff pastry shells filled with mushroom cream sauce with little kügeli, or balls, of what they claim to be veal. (I know I shouldn’t eat veal, but I console myself that little Swiss cows have much happier lives than American calves who are treated abominably and whose farmers must, I fear, have black hearts.) I say “claim” because the little meat balls are the consistency of bratwurst, not regular meat. Those meat balls are the missing link. I’ve found the pastry shells in the freezer section of the grocery store courtesy of Pepperidge Farm, so I’m set there, and I can make a mushroom sauce by adding milk to roux, but the meat escapes me.

    In Switzerland, you can buy packages of the fleisch kügeli to add to your sauce and come at it that way or, of course, you can rely on Migros 100% and buy their packets of pastetenfullung as I have and horde them for comforting dinners at the end of your very worst days. I’ll keep you posted if I sort out the meat component and figure out how to make my own.

So we’re sorted for now on the Swiss food front, but I might need to start an import/export ring to keep the supply lines properly open. Or learn to cook, I guess , which somehow seems harder.