Sunday, June 29, 2008

Pulling a Barbara

We had our lovely dinner party last night and I am happy to say that almost everything turned out as I wanted it to. First of all, the company was terrific. It's always so nice to meet new people and have great conversations with them. Their party of eight became a party of six, so we were able to sit down with all of them and really enjoy the conversation and, oh yeah, the food. Course by course, here we go...

The appetizer (Sizzling Halloumi with Fava Beans and Mint) was as simple and delicious as I remember it from last summer. The peas and beans were tossed with a little olive oil, lemon juice and mint, and then sauteed briefly just to lightly cook. The halloumi is just put in a hot pan until it gets a little crust on the outside and starts to soften. Put the two together and yum!

The soup was Summer Borscht and it hit just the right note since it was so hot yesterday. I really believe there is nothing like cold soup on a hot night. The company seemed to agree.

The salad was Wilted Greens with Roasted Mushrooms. This was a bit of a disappointment for me. The idea is that you toss your greens (spinach and escarole) with previously roasted Portabello mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, mint, and good balsamic vinegar. Then you heat up olive oil in a pan and pour it over the salad which should wilt the greens. Should being the operative word here since my greens did not really wilt and the salad wasn't warm like I wanted it to be. If I made it again, I would saute the greens in the olive oil on the stove and, once wilted, mix in with the other ingredients. Bummer.

For the main course, I made Shitake Mushroom and Gruyere Cheese Souffles with a Farro Salad with Zucchini and Pine Nuts on the side. The farro was good (everyone loved the texture) but the souffles were, I must say, delicious. I made similar ones, without the mushrooms, a few months ago and these were much better. The shitake mushrooms had been sauteed in a little butter with lots of thyme and that wonderful herb really came through in the souffles. Plus, this is a rich dish and the mushrooms cut through the richness a little bit - enough that I had no problem slurping down the entire thing.

And the dessert is where I kind of pulled a Barbara. Barbara is my mom's name and she is a very good cook and baker. Whenever she makes something for company - especially if it is a dessert - she will tell you the 45 things that went wrong with it and how it doesn't look at all like it is supposed to and how it probably won't taste good. So yes, on very rare occasions, there is one crumb out of place, but everything she makes is delicious and once she tastes it herself, she will finally let go of the idea that disaster has struck.

I am not quite as bad, but let's just say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Because I am not a super artistic person, my desserts
don't always look the way I want them to. So I will complain to Randy that my dessert didn't turn out and he will say, "Did it really not turn out, or are you pulling a Barbara?" In which case, I am forced to admit that while yes, there is one crumb out of place... ok fine, it's going to taste great.

This dessert, well, what can I say about Fran Bigelow? Honey, you let me down. Fran is the owner of Fran's Chocolates which is a heavenly store I have been going to since my middle school days. A few years ago, she came out with a cookbook that has some of the most beautiful photographs that I have ever seen of my beloved chocolate. I have made several recipes and marvel at how simple the ingredients, how involved the process, how sublime the results, how worth the cost and effort.

Last night's dessert? Very tasty. Really, how could a tart with a walnut and butter crust (no flour!), a layer of caramel, and a layer of chocolate ganache be anything but delicious? It just didn't come together as it was supposed to. Once assembled, she advises to leave it out at room temperature for up to four days. It was clear that if it was ever going to set up, I was going to have to refrigerate it, which I did figuring I could serve it a room temperature. But that made it so soft that I could barely get the pieces out with out pulling the ganache right off the caramel. I know, the life I lead!! But it is frustrating to have the big ta-da! fall a little flat. Now I don't trust that cookbook which is a bummer because there are lots of other things I want to make from it.

All in all, one disappointing salad, a somewhat mushy dessert, and one burned arm (second-degree from the oven door) were greatly counter-balanced by the other great food, wonderful company and delicious wine. Amy and Mark - can't wait to see you guys again!

Before I give you the recipe for the Halloumi appetizer, let's talk about fava beans. They have kind of an intimidating appearance (what on earth do you do with that giant pod?) but they are easy to use once you know what to do. They are super fresh and in season here in the Pacific NW - you can find them at all the farmer's markets.

In the above photo, the pod on the left is what it will look like whole, the pod next to it is what it will look like once you open it. The first bean is what most will look like - large with kind of a waxy cover. These will need to be peeled so that they look like the second bean -nice and bright green. The last bean is a beautiful small and young bean that does not need to be peeled because it's skin will be nice and soft.

So, first things first. Fava bean pods are tougher than peas, so you will need a paring knife to split it open. Don't cut in too deep or you will cut the beans. Once open, just pull the beans out and discard the pods. Unless you are growing your own fava beans or are picking them yourself on a farm, you will need to remove the skin from most beans. This is because the beans most of us will get are older and tougher, but if you can get young pretty things, well, lucky you! Peeling them can be done by putting them in a pot of boiling water for about one minute. Drain, allow to cool, and then simply squeeze them out of their skin. They do have the annoying habit of sometimes splitting in half when you do this, but don't worry about it. Now your fava beans are ready for use!

Sizzling Halloumi Cheese with Fava Beans and Mint
Serves 6
Adapted from
Bon Appetit Magazine

You can find Halloumi cheese at Whole Foods, Metropolitan Market, and even Safeway. Look for it near the feta cheeses. It costs about $8 for a 8 oz. package, so if you see it for more than that, shop somewhere else (I have seen it for as much as $14). This recipe says you can use frozen peas and frozen fava beans. I have never seen the latter so I would imagine that shelled edamame would be a good substitute.

1 1/2 pounds fresh fava beans, shelled

1 1/2 cups shelled English peas

3 tbsp. olive oil

2 tbsp. fresh mint, plus extra for garnish

grated zest of one lemon

2 8oz. packages Halloumi cheese, each sliced lengthwise in to 6 slices

juice of one lemon

1 lemon, cut in to 6 wedges

Blanch and peel fava beans according to above instructions.

Place fava beans, peas, olive oil, 2 tbsp. mint leaves, and lemon peel in a large skillet. Cook over medium heat until warmed through, stirring often, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and squeeze lemon juice over. Cover until cheese is ready.

Heat large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add cheese slices and fry until golden, about 2 minutes per side.

Divide vegetable mixture among six plates. Arrange two slices of Halloumi atop vegetables on each plate, and garnish with lemon wedges and a couple of mint leaves. Serve immediately.

(Oh! I almost forgot to mention that I somehow got it into my head that I wanted to serve this wonderful bread from the Fields of Greens cookbook topped with herbed butter, thinly sliced (purple!) radishes, and a sprinkling of sea salt as an hors d'oeuvre. I am not sure where I got this idea but it actually turned out beautifully. Even Randy, who made a face when I described it to him, loved it. So, if you are looking for an easy nibble buy (don't make it like I did) a dark hearty loaf of bread, slice it thinly and spead it with an herb butter which you can buy or make, then top with thinly sliced radishes and a sprinkling of sea salt.)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Planning a Dinner Party

Tomorrow night we are hosting a dinner party that I donated to an auction. Our older son attended Boyer Children's Clinic for about a year for speech and classroom therapy. We all had a wonderful experience there and when it came time for their big fundraising auction, I figured I should do my part and donate a dinner. A five course dinner for eight people. Much to my delight, a couple that we knew from the classroom bought it, and having this dinner on the horizon has allowed us to start to get to know them better.

But tick-tock! I have my work cut out for me. I was late to finalize the menu because I couldn't come up with a main course. I imagine that in a meat-eating world, five courses would run something like this: appetizer, fish, poultry, beef, dessert - or at least, that is how it seems to go on Top Chef. In my world, five courses goes like this: appetizer, soup, salad, main, dessert. I don't know why this makes it seem harder to do - maybe because the "main course" doesn't necessarily have a focus like it would if it had to be meat. I don't know. Whenever I do a big dinner like this, I always get tripped up by one course, and this time it was the main one.

Whenever I plan a dinner party, I usually have some kind of starting point. Some dish that somehow caught my eye and for whatever reason, I will base the entire menu around that one dish. This time it was Borscht. I know, the whole meal hinges on beet soup? It is something I can't explain. Several weeks ago, I got it in my head that I needed to try Borscht. I had never had it and I do like beets and cold soups, so it was time to try it. I made it for my clients and they all made a special point to tell me how much they liked it. I liked it too - sweet and earthy, cold and refreshing, and the most incredible color I have ever seen occurring from natural ingredients (no red dye no. 5 here). Randy even said it wasn't "bad" which, for a confirmed beet-hater, is quite the compliment.

So yes, Borscht is my starting point for this dinner. Another point in it's favor is that beets are all over the markets now so it is seasonal, and since it is going to be warm tomorrow - hot even, a cold soup will be lovely.

Building around one dish narrows down the options for the others. Take the salad course. Since I am doing a cold and crunchy soup, a cold and crunchy salad would just taste like more of the same. So I decided to do a warm salad made with spinach and escarole hearts and roasted portabello mushrooms. Different tastes (the salad will be salty, the soup is sweet), different textures.

Because both of those dishes are vegetable heavy, I thought an appetizer with some heft to it would be a good move. But it's five courses so I don't want to knock them out before we have even really gotten started. Seeing fava beans and my beloved English peas in the markets made it clear that I would be making Halloumi with Fava Beans and Peas. Halloumi is an incredible cheese that has an extremely firm texture (it's even a little squeaky when you bite in to it) and a very salty flavor. It's claim to fame is that you can cook it and it doesn't lose it's shape. I know it doesn't seem possible, but I have used it before for this appetizer and others and it's true. It gets soft and gooey but will not ruin your grill or your pan.

In case you are losing track here, that is cheese to start (salty/crunchy and soft), Borscht (sweet/crunchy), warm salad (salty/soft), then a rich and cheesy souffle with a farro salad (salty/soft, salty/crunchy) and then, oh yes, dessert (sweeeeeet). I asked this lovely woman what she thought about dessert and she said we couldn't go wrong with chocolate. I think I love her. I decided to marry two of my all time favorite flavors and make a Chocolate Caramel Tart with Walnut Crust. It is from the Fran's Chocolate cookbook and while I had a recent disaster with a certain cake from there, I still trust her implicitly when it comes to the brown stuff.

So that's it. As of this moment, I have - oh, a ton left to do. So better get cracking. I will try to take pictures of each course and let you know how it goes!

Bitter, Salty, Sweet, and Sour

Of the four tastes available to a person, bitter is my least favorite. Well, right, like I was going to say sweet? But really, I'm not a fan of some of the things that other people love. The chicory family for example. Endive, radicchio, escarole? Not so much. Brussel sprouts? Just too bitter for me.

Or so I thought.
I recently grilled radicchio for use in a salad and the heat brought out more sweetness in a vegetable that I had, up until recently, only tolerated. Similarly, I thought I disliked brussel sprouts having only had them boiled or undercooked - in other words, bitter. Last Thanksgiving, a certain recipe where you saute them until brown and sweet turned me in to a brussel sprout supporter, and now I find that I actually crave them.

I used to think turnips were on the black list. Bitter bites again. But I was wrong wrong wrong and it wasn't even that I needed to blast them with high heat, or saute them with an indecent amount of butter. I just needed to use different turnips. When all you have tasted are those big fat turnips you find in the grocery store roughly the size of baseballs, you can forgive yourself for thinking you don't like them. Now I'm sure those have their place in the culinary world, or are the favorite vegetable of someone who loves bitter food. But the adorable little ones that you can find in the local farmer's markets now, those are something else entirely. So tender and delicate that you don't even need to peel them and, when cooked, just clean and light with a hint of earthiness.

Today I made a Turnip and Leek Gratin with Blue Cheese to highlight these beauties
. It is a lovely and simple recipe and it fills your house with the most amazing creamy and cheesy aroma. Along with the Gratin, I made a Rice Pilaf with Chickpeas and Currants, and an Arugula Salad with Strawberries and Hazelnuts. You might be wondering...arugula? That's awfully bitter for someone who says she doesn't like bitter. I know. But arugula is #11 on my Top 10 Food List - maybe even #10, I don't know. (I might need to do some shuffling). It is bitter but in a way that I love. I also really like radishes so I definitely can't write bitter off for good.

Anyway, I am going to start a feature in this blog called "Let's Talk About..." where I will de-mystify an ingredient or technique. So, let's talk about leeks for a moment as they are an important part of the Turnip and Leek Gratin. Leeks are one of my favorite vegetables period and so under-used. What are you looking for when you buy a leek? Most recipes will tell you to only use the white part or, at most, the white and very pale green part. So you will want to look for leeks that have a long white part. Sometimes, that will not be an option so I would suggest buying more than you need so you will have enough white.

What can you do with those pale green parts that you are not using but that you paid good money for? My best suggestion is to use them for a vegetable stock. If you can't be bothered to make a stock
right this minute, just wrap them well and put them in the freezer. I suppose you could use the dark green leafy parts in the stock too, but they are awfully sandy and I just haven't ever had the energy to wash them well enough. Most recipes will tell you to slice the leek in half lengthwise and wash it under running water. This is to remove the grit that can become lodged in the lovely leek layers (say that 10 times fast).

Turnip and Leek Gratin

Adapted from
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
Serves 4 modestly

1 garlic clove and butter for the dish

1 cup half-and-half

6 thyme sprigs

1 bay leaf

3 large leeks, white parts only, cut into 1/4 inch rounds

1 1/2 pounds turnips, sliced into 1/4 inch rounds

2 oz. blue cheese, crumbled

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Rub a 2 quart gratin dish with the garlic, then with butter. Heat the half-and-half with the remains of the garlic, 2 sprigs of thyme, and the bay leaf. When it's close to boiling, turn off the heat and set aside.

Cook the leeks in 2 quarts of boiling salted water for 2 minutes. Scoop them out and allow them to drain in a colander. Add the turnips to the water and cook for 4 minutes. Remove the leeks to a bowl and drain the turnips well in the colander.

Layer the vegetables in the dish, intersperse the remaining thyme sprigs among them, season lightly with salt and pepper, and add the blue cheese. Pour the half-and-half through a strainer over the top. Bake, uncovered, until the cream is absorbed and the top is browned, about 30 minutes.

Dana's Note: I doubled this recipe and baked it in 4 mini-loaf pans. I baked it for 45 minutes total.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Gift Through the Mail

Many years ago, my mom and I went to Portland for a weekend. I don't remember if we were celebrating something in particular or if was just a chance to spend some time together. I do remember that the purpose of the trip was to shop because then, as now, Portland had much better shopping than Seattle. They also have a MUCH better restaurant scene than we do and as the years pass by, this discrepancy becomes larger and larger.

This was at least 10 years ago, and my mom and I ate at Wildwood, a lovely restaurant that was then, and is now, absolutely committed to fresh and local food. Before farm to table were buzz words in cooking all over the country, Wildwood was doing it and doing it deliciously.

When I announced my intentions to go vegetarian at the age of 16, my mom supported me. She had never liked meat herself and over the next few years, stopped eating it as well. She shares my love of eating in restaurants but also shares my grief in never really eating well when eating out. At Wildwood, we had an incredible meal. As a vegetarian, there is nothing like seeing something on the menu and thinking, "Well, clearly they put as much thought in to this dish as the others." Very satisfying.

We feasted on a dish they called "Mushroom Pearl Pasta with Sweet Peas and Goat Cheese". The pasta was actually Israeli couscous - something that I had not tried at that point in my life but have learned to love. It was savory, it was herb-y, it was tangy from the goat cheese, it was a delight.

How do I remember this meal from so many years ago? Well, the truth is, I have the recipe. After we got back to Seattle, I wrote a letter to
Bon Appetit magazine asking them to get it for me. They have a section in each issue called R.S.V.P. where people like me write in, describe something incredibly delicious, and beg the magazine to get the recipe for them. Since I didn't forsee another trip to Portland in my immediate future, I had to be able to make this dish for myself.

After I sent off my letter, I tore open each month's issue to see whether they had printed my little piece of heaven. Month after month I was disappointed. In fact, so many months went by that I pretty much forgot about it. And then, about a year after that amazing meal, I got a letter from
Bon Appetit saying that they weren't going to print the recipe, but they had obtained it and were passing it along to me.

I was, and continue to be, amazed. I'm sure they receive countless letters each month and the fact that they followed through on this one caused me to pledge my undying support (and subscription) to them. More importantly, I have my recipe. I make it every year when English peas come in to the farmer's markets.

Let's talk for a moment about peas. If you go to the farmer's markets in Western Washington right now, you will see an abundance of peas. Most of them are sugar snap peas. These are known as "mange tout" in France (and in England) which means "eat it all" - you eat pod along with the sweet little peas inside. They are incredible in stir fries and, when they are this fresh, incredible in just about anything. However, what you want for this recipe is English peas, also called shelling peas. These are the ones that you have to open the pod, and remove the peas. It's a little bit of work but oh so worth it.

If it is not pea season, or if you just can't be bothered to spend 15 minutes shelling peas, frozen are a very acceptable substitute. In fact, if the fresh peas are less than stellar, you are better off using frozen anyway. Frozen peas are zapped at the peak of perfection and so are always sweet and tender. Unless fresh peas are just right, they can be big and starchy. Be sure to taste them before you buy them. Whichever you choose, hup-to and make this recipe. It is a bona-fide winner.

Mushroom Pearl Pasta with Sweet Peas and Goat Cheese

Adapted from Wildwood Restaurant, Portland OR

Serves 4 generously

I use a combination of portabello mushrooms and cremini mushrooms in this dish. Be sure to remove the gills from the portabello, otherwise the finished dish will look muddy. To trim fennel, cut off the top part (where the green fronds are), slice it in half and cut out the core. Then remove the outer layer which tends to be tough and bruised. Save the fronds to use as herbs.

1/2 oz dried porcini mushrooms

2 tbsp. butter

2 cups diced mushrooms

Olive oil

1 yellow onion, finely chopped

1 fennel bulb, trimmed and finely chopped

1/2 cup dry white wine

8 oz. Israeli couscous

Approx. 3 cups of vegetable stock

1/4 cup chopped herbs (I use tarragon and the fennel fronds)

1 cup fresh peas, shelled

4 oz. soft goat cheese

Soak the mushrooms in 1/2 cup of hot water, set aside for 15 minutes to allow them to reconstitute. Place the stock in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer.

Melt the 2 tbsp. of butter in a wide saute pan over med-high heat. Add the mushrooms, a pinch of salt, and allow them to cook until they release their water and start to brown. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom of a large heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onion and fennel with a pinch of salt and cook until softened but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add the couscous and stir to coat it with the vegetables.

Remove the dried mushrooms from the soaking liquid and give them a rough chop. Add their liquid to the pot (be careful not to add the grit that collects at the bottom) along with the wine. Stir until the wine is absorbed, then add the mushrooms (the dried and those in the saute pan) and about half of the stock. Stir, as you would risotto, until most of the liquid is absorbed. Add the rest of the stock, turn the heat to low, and cover. Stir occasionally.

When the liquid is mostly absorbed, taste and make sure the couscous is done. It should have a nice chewy consistency but not mushy. Add the raw peas, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste. Crumble in half the goat cheese and give it a good stir. Garnish each serving with a crumble of goat cheese.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Cooking for a Friend

A good friend of mine is in the hospital. She is one of those people who is perpetually on my "need to call" list. I ran in to her and her husband the day I started this blog. It made me so happy to see her and I vowed to not let too much time pass before I reached out.

Ironically, I finally did get my act together and sent her an email suggesting we get together. By then, I think, she was already ill because I didn't hear back from her - anyone who knows her knows this is extremely unusual.

I worked for her many years ago and she is one of the toughest bosses I have ever had. She was always kind to me (she is one of the most gentle-hearted people in the world), though she had high standards. She is an absolute perfectionist and incredibly competent and capable in everything she does. I think of her all the time when I am searching for phone numbers of people - she always had a pad of paper and recorded every voice mail in her incredibly neat handwriting. She never had to search for anything, it was all right on her pad or neatly filed away in organized folders. I often wish I was one of those highly organized competent capable people, but I have learned that I am just not.

Her husband is in a really tough position - in so many ways. Here his wife is in the hospital, and he is acting as maitre d' - arranging things so that everyone who wants to see her can, all the while answering the same hard questions over and over again. What can you do for someone who is living that life? Well, I can cook for him. No one should have to eat hospital food everyday. I have added him to my other clients and for as long as he needs me, I will bring him food. I'm hoping that soon she can enjoy my cooking too.
And baking.

Chocolate Dulce de Leche Bars

24 bars

Adaped from Gourmet Magazine

The original recipe says to mix together the crust with a fork. I chose to use my mixer. The recipe also says it makes 24 bars, but I chose to cut them larger and ended up with 16. They are rich, so you may want to cut them smaller. Dulce de Leche is made by heating sweetened milk and has a wonderful intense milky-caramel flavor. You can find it at Whole Foods (and other places, I'm sure) and it is worth the $10 investment!

For shortbread crust

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup flour

For chocolate dulce de leche

1 cup heavy cream
1 cup dulce de leche
4 large egg yolks
5 oz. 60%-cacao bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

For the crust:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees with rack in middle. Butter a shallow 9 inch square baking pan. Line bottom and two sides with parchment paper, leaving an overhang. Butter parchement.

Using a stand mixer, blend together butter, brown sugar, vanilla, and salt. Sift in flour and mix on low until the dough comes together. Using floured fingers, gently press the dough in to the prepared pan.

Bake until golden, 15-20 minutes, then cool completely in pan on a rack, about 30 minutes.

Make chocolate dulce de leche:
Bring cream and dulce de leche to a simmer in small heavy saucepan, stirring with a wooden spoon until dulce de leche has dissolved.

Whisk together yolks in a bowl, then slowly whisk in hot cream mixture. Return to pan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until pan is visible in tracks of spoon and mixture registers 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from heat and whisk in chocolate until melted.

Make bars:
Pour chocolate mixture over cooled shortbread and chill, uncovered, until cold and set, about 2 hours. Run a small knife around edges to loosen, then transfer to a cutting board using parchment. Cut with a hot clean knife (dip in hot water and wipe clean between cuts) in to 16 or 24 bars. Chill until ready to serve. Can be chilled in a airtight container up to 1 day.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Let's Talk About Tofu

When I mention to the people who I don't know well that I am a vegetarian, I get a myriad of responses. First and foremost, almost everyone asks if I eat fish. Somewhere I heard that vegetarians don't eat anything with a face - last time I checked, fish have faces. Other responses: often, people ask why I don't eat meat. Sometimes I will hear that their sister/brother/sister-in-law/brother-in-law is a vegetarian - I almost expect them to ask me if I know this relative. Sometimes they say silly things like, "Oh, you must eat a lot of salad." (I'm sorry, what year is it again? Have you never heard of things other than salad that don't include meat?). And sometimes they ask me, with the most incredible disgusted expression on their face, if I like tofu.

yes I do. I really really do. And you might too if you knew what kind to get and what to do with it.

I think meat-eating people sometimes think of tofu as a meat alternative. Like their plate would have a steak, baked potato, and asparagus on it while mine would have a slab of tofu, baked potato, and asparagus. As much as I love tofu, I wouldn't like it like that. Who would? Tofu has basically no flavor of it's own and a texture that some people find objectionable, so eating it essentially naked does no one any favors. In my opinion, tofu does best in Asian food preparations where standing in for meat is natural

Tofu needs help in both the flavor and the texture department. So let's start with what kind you should buy. I would heartily recommend you stick to extra-firm tofu. It is less sponge-y and just more solid all around. Be sure you are buying the kind that is either shrink wrapped or packed in water and is in the refrigerated section -
not the kind that is sold vacuum packages on the shelf. That is silken tofu and while it has it's place (like in miso soup), it is not what you want for the time being.

I really like the tofu that Trader Joe's carries and I also love this brand. They have a great option that gives you two 8 oz. pieces that are sealed separately, so if you only need half a pound, you can have it without wasting the other half a pound. (My old favorite came in 12 oz portions which was really annoying.)

One big key to preparing tofu is to make sure you get as much water out of it as you reasonably can. I have seen all kinds of directions for pressing it with heavy cans on over-turned pie plates and all of that just makes me tired even thinking about it. Who has time for that? I just take about 4 paper towels, wrap the tofu block up in the towels, and press down. As I slice it, I press it with the towels again. Removing excess moisture from the tofu will allow it to absorb more of the flavor you are introducing it to, and will also help prevent a lot of splattering if you go to fry it.

One very simple preparation (and one that lends itself well to stir-fries of all kinds), is to cut your block of tofu in to 1/3 inch by 2 inch planks. Put it in a plastic bag and pour in a couple of tablespoons of soy sauce. I like Tamari best here - it has more depth of flavor than regular soy sauce and you should be able to find it on your international food aisle. Seal the bag, and let it marinate for half an hour or so. Then, heat up a non-stick pan over medium-high heat and add just enough tofu to cover the bottom. Don't even bother to add oil. The heat will carmelize the natural sugars in the Tamari and the tofu will develop a nice little crust and a firmer texture. Be sure to turn it over half way through.

The above photo is a lovely little appetizer that I brought to my clients E and J today. It's great because it requires no cooking and yet has lots of flavor. If summer ever does decide to visit us here in the great Northwest, this will be a nice recipe to have on hand.

Spicy Lime and Herbed Tofu in Lettuce Cups

Adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine
6 First-Course Servings

The original recipe calls for fish sauce in the dressing. I substituted soy sauce but if you are not opposed to a little fish sauce, by all means use that. There really is no substitute for that flavor - even I have to admit that. Lemongrass can be a little tricky to find but Whole Foods always has it. It is worth searching out - the flavor and aroma are incomparable.

1/4 cup thinly sliced peeled fresh ginger
1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh lemongrass, cut from the bottom 4 inches of 4 stalks with the tough leaves removed
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (about 4 medium limes)
2 tbsp. tamari soy sauce
2 tbsp. water
2 tbsp. sweet chili sauce


1/2 diced seeded cucumber
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup diced seeded plum tomatoes
2 tbsp. chopped seeded jalapeno chile
1 tbsp. chopped cilantro
1 tbsp. chopped mint
1 tbsp. chopped basil (preferably Thai Basil)
1 16 oz package extra firm tofu, drained, cut in to 1 inch cubes
6 large or 12 medium butter lettuce leaves

For the dressing:

Puree first 5 ingredients in blender. Let mixture stand for at least 15 minutes and up to one hour. Strain mixture into small bowl, pressing on solids to release any liquid; discard solids. Stir in sweet chili sauce. (Can be made one day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)

For the tofu:

Combine first 7 ingredients in large bowl. Add tofu and dressing to bowl, toss to coat. Arrange 1 or 2 lettuce leaves on each of 6 plates. Divide tofu mixture among lettuce leaves and serve. (You can advise people to roll it up and eat it with their hands or use knife and fork).

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Disaster, Averted

The cake doesn't look like a disaster, does it? Actually, it wasn't but it was very close.

You always hear that baking and cooking are two totally different things. To people who do neither, that probably doesn't make much sense. Both require time in the kitchen, tools, and usually a heat source of some kind. In the end both produce something to eat - how are they totally different?

To be fair, they aren't totally different. You do, in fact, get to eat the results in both cases. But most people I know cook or bake, not both. Usually, in my circle at least, they cook and don't bake. Why is this?

Maybe it's because cooking, as they say (whoever they are) is an art and baking is a science. Cooking allows you to add ingredients on a whim, taste as you go, and adjust. Baking requires you to follow a recipe to the letter and if you stray, suffer the consequences. You can substitute in cooking. Don't like cilantro? Omit it. The flavor will be different but it will still be good - the dish will work on some level. But omit the baking powder from a recipe and the whole thing will be a disaster.

Or omit the sour cream as I came incredibly close to doing today. I was making this lovely Blueberry Crumb Cake and was, as usual, in a hurry. I am fortunate to have quite a bit of counter space in my kitchen but for some reason, when I bake, I confine myself to a tiny portion of it and stack all kinds of things I don't need so that they are totally in my way. I was trying to get the whole thing done and in the oven before my baby came over to start playing with the oven dial. And so, as I was just about to fold in the blueberries, I spied behind the cutting board and other junk I had stacked, behind all the used measuring cups and spoons (why don't I just put them in the sink?), yes, there it was! The sour cream. I put the bowl back under the mixer, added the sour cream, gave it a spin, and then added the blueberries. Disaster averted.

My mom taught me to always re-read the recipe several times in the course making a dish - especially when you bake. I was reminded of her saying that today. So here is my little tip of the day - always re-read the recipe. It takes 12 seconds and can save your dinner (or dessert).

After that little lesson, I am actually going to include the recipe for something completely different. I would love that the photo was inserted here, but I can't seem to get it go anywhere other than the top. That cute little wedge of pie you see on the dinner plate is a favorite of mine. It is quick, has few ingredients, requires few dishes and no special tools, and plays well with others. And although it is called Feta Ricotta Pie, I have made some substitutions that make it, well, not too fattening. I particularly like it when served with a meal that is heavy on the vegetables. It provides a nice anchor - rich and creamy with no crunch. Tonight I served it with Herb Roasted Onions and Broccolini with a Balsamic Vinaigrette. (I also served a Borscht that I will write about another time...)

Feta and Ricotta Cheese Skillet Pie
Adapted from Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison's Kitchen
Serves 4 generously

Deborah Madison suggests using a 10 inch cast iron skillet or an earthenware baking dish for this pie. I have had great success making it in a Pyrex pie dish. Just rub it with oil or spray with non-stick spray. I use low fat ricotta cheese and 2% milk and less feta cheese than she calls for, but you could go full fat and use more feta, of course. It's very important to use good-quality feta here for that is the taste that really comes through.

1/2 pound good feta cheese
1 pound low fat ricotta cheese
4 eggs
1/4 cup flour
3/4 cup 2% milk
salt and pepper
1 tbsp chopped dill

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Mix three-quarters of the feta with the ricotta in a medium bowl, without worrying about getting it perfectly smooth - you'll want some chunks. Beat the eggs into the cheese, then add the flour and milk. Season with salt, pepper and dill.

2. Grease a 9 inch pie plate. Pour in the batter and crumble the remaining cheese over top. Bake until golden, 35-40 minutes. Cut in to wedges and serve.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Love Letter to Lopez

No photo or recipe today (tomorrow, I promise), just musings on this past weekend. Our little family went to Lopez Island, one of the San Juan Islands in the northern part of Puget Sound. If you have never had the good fortune to visit these magical islands, you best put it on your to-do list.

Both my brothers and I were lucky enough to go to a heaven-on-earth place called Camp Nor'wester. In those days, it was all the way at the southern tip of Lopez and I think it shaped my life more than any other thing with the possible exception of my parents. Talk to just about anyone who went there and they will most likely say the same thing. Camp was rustic (we slept in teepees), cold (the lodge had an exposed wall), and perfect. My parents would come up to visit us and over time, fell in love with the island as much as we had.

In 1991, they purchased a little house on the island that looked right across the bay at camp. In the evening, across still water we could hear them singing after dinner, and we could always hear the meal bell. A few years later, the camp moved to a different island (another story for another day) but we still had our perfect little house. My parents made some nice improvements to it and bought two one-person kayaks. My dad and I had many slow and lovely paddles around that gentle bay and one day he said to me, "Dana, I think this is what heaven must look like.". My dad is agnostic to the core so still brings tears to my eyes to remember that statement - his love for that beauty is so deep, he might even entertain the idea of heaven.

Almost as soon as we met, Randy and I started going to stay at that little house over weekends. We met in late November, so our first journeys were in the winter. I had never spent any time there in the winter and those cold and dark days are some of my favorite that I have ever spent there. The island empites out in the winter to the 2000 or so year-round inhabitants and becomes a different, yet no less special place. The beaches are deserted, town no longer has more bicyclists than motorists, and everything just feels more peaceful and still.

Two of the most wonderful things about this island (and there are many many wonderful things) have to do with food. At least for me anyway. First of all, there is the kind of bakery that everyone wishes that they had in their neighborhood. Her name is Holly B, she named the bakery after herself, and you wish she was your relative, or at least your neighbor. Her heavenly bakery contains all kinds of perfect things. I say perfect because that is exactly what they are not - no confections that test the laws of gravity, or pastries that look too perfect to eat. Everything (and over the years, I have sampled just about everything) tastes like something baked with all natural ingredients, plenty of sugar when needed, and lots of love. You taste what you would taste if you were a really good home baker. She has one of the most wonderful cookbook available for purchase and it is a treasure. The recipe for Cowgirl Cookies alone is worth the price of the book.

Sadly, Holly B's is not open during the winter months but the other food treasure is. The Bay Cafe has long taken been my answer when people ask me about my favorite restaurant in Seattle. The problem is, it's not in Seattle. But it is the only place I can seem to come up with when a friend (or my husband) asks me where I want to eat. I have eaten there more times than any other place besides my own house, and I always marvel at the food.

Randy and I had some very memorable meals there over the course of our courtship and engagement (including the weekend that he proposed to me on Lopez, of course), so it only made sense that we should have our wedding reception there. We were married in a perfect little church and then took 30 of our family members and closest friends to dinner at the Bay. The sun was setting just as we arrived and really the whole thing could not have been more perfect. Uncharacteristically for me, I do not remember what we ate, but I do remember everyone loved it. We had such special people sharing that day, many of them had dined there before with us.

Our trip this past weekend was our first in two years. Last year our baby was just a few months old and I just couldn't summon the energy for the journey. It was so wonderful to be back and see that, apart from some minor business changes, everything looked the same. We decided to brave The Bay Cafe, even with our two little ones, because - how could we not?

One of the most wondeful things about the Bay is that all entrees include a soup of the day (which is always vegetarian), and a green salad. For me, this is huge because it guarantees that I am going to have multiple flavors in my meal - something so often missing in most of my dinners out. And the other most wonderful thing about the Bay is that there is usually a Vegetarian Tapas on the menu. This is always three separate plates of healthy sized portions of things that the chef decides to put together that day. So, stay with me on the math here, that means five different things to eat in one meal. Hip hip hooray!

To be truthful, Friday's dinner was a bit of a disappointment. The soup was a Cream of Cauliflower in which I tasted no cauliflower only Parmesan cheese. My baby ate my whole cup and half of Randy's. The salad had greens, salted cashews, strawberries, and a Wasabi Lime Vinaigrette. I tasted no wasabi or lime, just water from the not-dried-enough lettuce and my baby ate all of my (and all of Randy's) strawberries. And the tapas was three really disjointed things. A chickpea cake (which seemed to actually be made of black beans), a warm Israeli cous cous salad, and thin slices of golden beets with goat cheese sandwiched in between, topped with a lemony dressing. Each thing was fine, not great, but none of them went together. I only got one bite of the beets and the baby ate the rest of them. Beets!

All in all, it didn't matter. It was wonderful to be there and to know that that was our first dinner there as a family. We know we will be there countless times in the future. They better keep beets on the menu.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Top 10 Lists

A few years ago, my brother Michael informed me he was compiling a list of his top 10 songs. He was heavily in to punk rock at the time so I remember being surprised that Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" made the cut. As someone who has always loved music, I thought it was an interesting idea but how to choose? There are a bazillion songs out there and I easily tire of even those that I like. I worked in radio for a number of years and having a speaker above my desk blaring music that I couldn't turn off (or turn down) spoiled even some of my very favorites for me.

I came up with the idea that a song that truly belonged on my top 10 would be one that, if I heard it on the radio while driving in my car, would cause me to say, "I love this song!" and turn up the volume. Maybe because of my years working in radio, I am a chronic station flipper. I feel like I am sick of almost every song that comes on - even relatively new ones. But one that I am happy to hear? That must really be a favorite.

In thinking about my favorite foods, I came up with a similar strategy. There are so many things that I love - how do I know if it's really a top 10? Now I know - if I see it on a menu, my eye goes right to it and I order it 9 times out of 10. Or if I see it in a display case (a nice one, not at Safeway), I end up with it in my shopping cart. It's like the world get shut out and all I can think about is this food.

My list is a work in progress but I can tell you one of the very top things on there. Lentils. I love all kinds of lentils in all kinds of preparations. Soups, stews, salads, you name it and I love them. I love the good old fashioned pedestrian brown lentil, the firmer and fancier Le Puy lentil, and I love love love red lentils. Unlike their siblings, red lentils break down when cooked and become mushy but with a lot of texture and bite to them. They have an incredible buttery and rich taste to them but they are, of course, almost fat free and incredibly healthy with loads of protein, iron, and fiber.

This week I made a Stir-Fried Rice and Dal dish to go with a Spring Curry with Sri Lankan Spices (and a Cucumber Raita and a Mango Papaya Chutney). It was so good that I could have eaten it for all my meals for the rest of the week. There were a few more steps to it than warrant an "everyday meal" for me, but it made me think of another recipe which is one of my absolute favorites. This one gets extra points for being easy, relatively quick, very nutricious and for keeping well (up to 5 days!). AND it is so tasty, you won't believe it. Don't be put off by the long list of ingredients, the hands-on time is short.

Curried Red Lentil Stew with Vegetables
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine
Serves 4-6

Vegetable Oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 (2 x 1 inch) piece of ginger, grated or minced
5 large garlic cloves, minced
3 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 tsp. curry powder
3/4 tsp. tumeric
1/2 tsp. cumin
1 cup red lentils, picked over and rinsed
3 1/2 cups water
1 15 oz can reduced-fat coconut milk
3 medium carrots, quartered lengthwise, then cut cross-wise in to 1/2 inch pieces
3 cups baby spinach (3 oz)
1 cup frozen peas (not thawed)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Heat a 4-5 quart heavy pot over moderate heat. Add just enough oil to lightly coat the bottom, then add the onion with a sprinkling of salt. Stir occasionally until golden, 8-10 minutes.

Add ginger and garlic and cook 2-3 minutes. Add curry, cumin, and tumeric and cook over low heat, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in lentils and add water and coconut milk and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, 30 minutes. Add carrots and another pinch of salt and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally until carrots are tender and lentils have broken down in to a coarse puree, about 15 minutes.

Stir in spinach and peas and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until peas are tender, about 3 minutes. Stir in cilantro and salt and pepper to taste. Add additional water if necessary (especially if you are reheating this out of the fridge) to thin the dal so it can be ladled over rice.

By the way, here is my preliminary Top 10 Foods List. (You will notice that several faves on this list are in the above recipe - no wonder I love it so much!).

Coconut milk
Wide noodles (either egg or rice - Veggie Pho can put me over the edge)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Really Really Good Brownies

Today I almost drowned in an ocean of brownies. Not a bad way to go, huh?

Do you see this pan? It's big. Typically brownies are made in a 13x9 inch pan and sometimes even just an 8x8 inch pan. This is an 18x12 pan, also known as a half sheet pan, and this glorious recipe makes enough brownies for a large crowd. Today I doubled it. I had two half sheet pans full of brownies. That is 8 sticks of butter, 3 1/2 pounds of chocolate chips, a dozen eggs, and you don't want to know how much sugar. Thank goodness I bought some gigantic mixing bowls at the Cash n' Carry back in January.

I have this little motto: "When in doubt, double!" and for the most part it serves me well. I would so much rather have too much food than not enough. I like to be generous with my food rather than stingy and if I really do make too much, well there is always leftovers or the freezer (or the neighbors).

Two of my clients are in need of brownies. Stephanie is hosting a lunch on Thursday for her large family to celebrate her brother's upcoming wedding. She asked me to help out with some salads and some desserts. The other client's daughter is due to have a baby at the beginning of July. She asked me recently about food that her daughter might want post-partum. Her daughter is a vegetarian and I think she assumed I would recommend all kinds of healthy and satisfying food, but the first thing that popped in to my head was BROWNIES.

After I had both of my sons, my appetite was enormous. They say you burn somewhere around 600 calories a day nursing so it would make sense that you want to eat more. Assuming that a typical brownie has somewhere between 400 and 600 calories, I'm not sure how I can explain that I was eating at least three a day. All I know is that I had to have them. So, I think E's daughter will be happy that she has some good ones on hand.

And these are really really good. In my opinion, they are the perfect cross between fudgy and cakey and there are chocolate chips and walnuts strewn throughout so there is enough for your mouth to do. I will tell you, if you want your brownies to basically be just a huge square of fudge, check out this recipe. But if you like them cake-ier and you want to make a LOT of them, see below.

If you don't own a half sheet pan, it is a great thing to have in your kitchen. I use mine constantly. It is perfect for roasting all sorts of veggies and can double as a cookie sheet. I've also used mine to make granola. I got mine at Williams Sonoma, but they have them everywhere.

Outrageous Brownies
The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
Makes 20 very large brownies

Ina Garten always calls for extra large eggs in her recipes but I always use large with no ill effects.

1lb. unsalted butter
1lb. plus 12 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
6 oz. unsweetened chocolate
6 extra large eggs
3 tbsp. instant coffee granules
2 tbsp. pure vanilla extract
2 1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
3 cups chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter and flour a 12x18x1 inch baking sheet.

Melt together the butter, 1 pound of the chocolate chips, and the unsweetened chocolate in a medium bowl over simmering water. Allow to cool slightly. In a large bowl, stir (do not beat) together the eggs, coffee granules, vanilla, and sugar. Stir the warm chocolate mixture in to the egg mixture and allow to cool to room temperature.

In a medium bowl, sift together 1 cup of the flour, the baking powder, and the salt. Add to the cooled chocolate mixture. Toss the walnuts and 12 oz. of the chocolate chips in a medium bowl with 1/4 cup of flour, then add them to the chocolate batter. Pour in to the baking sheet.

Bake for 20 minutes, then rap the baking sheet against the oven shelf to force air to escape from between the pan and the brownie dough. Bake for 10-15 minutes more, until a toothpick comes out clean. DO NOT OVERBAKE! Allow to cool completely and then cut in to bars.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Too Much "Pop" in the Paparadelle

What a bummer.

On Friday, we went out to dinner with our friends Kimrick and John. I had the good fortune of being in a fabulous co-op preschool class with my older son for a few years and that is where I met Kimrick. She is a transplanted Southerner and she radiates warmth and friendship. We hadn't spent enough time with them until last summer when we went to Lake Wenatchee for a weekend. We had a blast with them and their two kids but did not love the incredibly windy spot where we spent said weekend. John told us on Friday night that when he tells people he went there, 75% of them ask, "Was it windy?". YES.

Last August was a long time ago, so we were overdue for a dinner out with them. To my delight, she asked if we wanted to go to Tilth. This is an almost exclusively organic, lovely little restaurant in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle. Recently, it was written up in the New York Times as one of the restaurant critic's favorite restaurants in the country outside of NYC (read the article here). I had eaten there once before with a friend but Randy had never tried it so I was really excited to go.

The menu at this restaurant is inspired and inspiring. Everything sounds delicious and to my delight, there were two vegetarian main course offerings and only one of them was pasta! The waitress came by to tell us about the special and it was a - can you believe it - vegetarian risotto. I know I have bitched here about only being offered pastas and risottos in restaurants, but I have to say, I have never been told about a special that I could actually eat. I wanted to stand up and applaud!

The great sounding menu made choosing hard. We agreed to share appetizers and then each order our own main dish. One of the nice aspects of this restaurant is that everything is offered in two different sizes. So you can order enough to share or to eat all by yourself - you have a lot of flexibility. We shared a Zucchini Squash Salad and a Dungeness Crab Salad to share (no crab for me) and my expectations were high.

And this is where the evening went downhill. Not from a company standpoint, we had a wonderful evening talking and laughing with Kimrick and John. No, the food, oh the food! Everthing was sooooo SALTY.

I can hear my brother Michael saying, "But you used to put salt on you pizza!". And it's true. I did. I love my salt. I probably even over-salt my food. I had noticed, before the food came, that there was a little dish of sea salt on the table. This fact made me happy because I hate when restaurants don't include that small detail. The message is "our food is perfectly seasoned so you won't need salt!". But everyone's palate is different and, as I said, I tend to err on the salty side.

But this was something else entirely. The Zucchini Salad had some lovely components to it. Nice thin slices of the squash with arugula (one of my faves) and lots of crunchy hazelnuts with a nicely acidic lemon verbena scented dressing. I couldn't even taste the delicate sweetness of the zucchini though because of the salt. In the moment, I couldn't even pinpoint what it was that was bothering me about it because I am so used to under-seasoned food.

And then came the entrees. I ended up ordering the Truffled Papparadelle. What is it about Paparadelle? I just love that shape pasta. I am usually more of a stab-it-with-your-fork kind of girl in the pasta world (think rotelle, penne) than a chase -it -round-the-plate-trying-to-wind-it-on-your-fork type (think spaghetti, fettucine). Maybe it's because it is too big to attempt the wind-around but still has a much more delicate texture than the big chunky pastas. At some point, why ask why - the truth is I love the stuff.

This dish was a wonder to behold. On top of beautifully homemade noodles all wound around shocking green peas and pea vines (another one of my favorites), was a perfectly fried sunny-side up egg. It all but put out it's hand and said hello to me. There were no brown edges and even the bottom was perfectly white. I cut in to said egg and the gorgeous orange/yellow yolk spilled over my noodles and I literally started to salivate. But one bite told me something was dreadfully wrong.

Again, it was initially hard to place. I first thought, "Oh, it's too rich. The yolk with the obviously healthy amount of butter is just too rich for me.". A few bites later I realized that it was just so salty (in addition to being too rich) that it was literally starting to hurt my tongue. Another bite or two and I couldn't even look at the plate.

Kimrick, bless her, ordered the special so I got to taste something else. The risotto was made with morel mushrooms and thyme and topped with broiled goat cheese. It sounded so interesting that I almost chose that for my entree. But, to me, it was even worse than the pasta. The goat cheese was very strong and there was way too much of it so after one bite, all I could taste was the powerful tang of the cheese and, you guessed it, salt.

I know the desserts are supposed to be good at Tilth but Kimrick and John had to go get their kids and I was ready for a change of venue anyway. Almost immediately, I started to crave another Papparadelle dish. It is one that I have made many times before and I decided that I would modify it so as to include some of the best ideas from the restaurant dish without the dish-destroying salt. I originally started with a recipe from Cooking for Mr. Latte called Paparadelle with Lemon, Herbs, and Ricotta Salata, but I have made many changes. This is a much much lighter dish than I had at Tilth but it is something that I crave, especially with the changes I made most recently insprired by Tilth.

Paparadelle with Herbs and a Poached Egg
Serves 4

I am a kitchen gear-head and I have an egg poacher. If you love poached eggs like I do, this is a worthwhile investment because they turn out perfect in terms of both looks and taste. If you don't want to spend the $45 to buy one, I give instructions on how to poach eggs in a wide saucepan.

1 lb. paparadelle pasta
4 cups veggie stock
3 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed
2 lemons, zest grated and juiced
3 tbsp. mixed herbs, chopped (I used thyme, tarragon, and Italian parsley)
1/2 cup English peas, shelled (or use frozen)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
4 eggs

1) Put a large pot of water on to boil and when it is close, add a good sized handful of kosher salt.

2) Put the veggie stock in a small saucepan along with the garlic and bring to a boil, reduce the heat slightly so it is still boiling, and cook until reduced by half, about 20 minutes.

3) At some point during the cooking, add the peas (whether they are fresh or frozen) and cook for about one minute, then remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

4) Once the stock is reduced, add the zest and juice of the two lemons, cover, and remove from the heat.

5) Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente, then drain.

6) To poach the eggs, bring a wide saucepan of water to boil. Add a couple of teaspoons of white wine vinegar and reduce the heat to a simmer. One by one, quickly break the eggs in to a ramekin and add to the saucepan. Once they are all in, cover the pan and turn off the heat. Set the timer for 3 minutes. Lift the eggs out of the water with a slotted spoon and pat dry.

7) Pour the paparadelle back in to the cooking pot and add the reduced stock. Give it a stir and add the herbs and the peas. Plate it, dust with Parmesan cheese and top with a poached egg.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Epic Cooking

Before I met my good friend Michelle, the word "epic" had, for me, had always been in reference to a major work of literature. The Odyssey for example. Or a world class movie like Gone with the Wind. For Michelle, traffic can be epic, waiting in line at a bar can be epic, the quest for the perfect shoe can be epic. I have adopted this word and use it for things that take a lot out of me.

The dinner I cooked tonight was epic.

I should have known because I got the recipe from The Greens Cookbook. It's one of my absolute favorite books and also one of the first I turn to when I have an important dinner to cook. The dishes are complex in flavor with lots of layers, but not fussy. I was a little stumped as I was choosing my menus for this week so I turned to the spring menus page and this leaped out at me: Artichoke and Fennel Stew with Pastry.

I love artichokes and they are in season for such a short time around here so I try and use them often in the spring. Forget that they are kind of a pain to prepare, I actually enjoy breaking them down and think that the fresh taste is worth it - so much better than frozen. Recently I bought some one cup ramekins and I am always looking for ways to use them. I love bringing my clients these single serving bowls of goodness - they look so classy and there is something so indulgent about having your very own serving in your very own ramekin cooked just for you.

As with many Greens recipes, this one had many components. First you make a mushroom stock, then you make the pastry that will cover the ramekins, then you make the sauce that will get mixed in to the stew, and then you make the stew. Oh yeah, and then you roll out the pastry and drape it over the ramekins (filled with stew) and bake them. And then you make the side dish (Brown and Wild Rice Pilaf) and salad (Greens, Green Beans, and Spice Dipped Goat Cheese Rounds) that you also planned to bring your clients.

I am pretty good at looking at recipes and deciding what can be done in advance. Stock can always be made in advance and can even be frozen, so I did do that yesterday. And truth be told, I made the side dish and most of the salad components yesterday as well, but there was still a lot of work left for me today. As I was simmering the sauce and attacking artichokes with my paring knife, I wondered, "Can this dish be worth all of this work?". I probably wouldn't have attempted it if it weren't from a cookbook that I know well and trust. But in a word, yes, it was worth it.

First of all, they looked great, and they smelled even better. I walked outside to get some thyme to add to the stew and when I walked back in, my doubts began to evaporate. The smell of leeks and white wine and butter was intoxicating. And they tasted really really good. I added those little turnips I bought at the Farmer's Market last Friday and they were a great addition along with licorice-y fennel, those sweet leeks, mushrooms that had been cooked (separately! yes another pan to wash!) with garlic and lemon juice, all tossed with a sauce that had been made from the homemade mushroom stock and herbs and thickened with a little flour. The pastry draped over top had some cream cheese in it so the tang of that went beautifully with the subtle lemon from the mushrooms. Yum.

But here is something that is not epic. Salad dressing.

In this country, it may seem as though there is no reason to make your own salad dressing. There is an embarrassment of riches in the salad dressing aisle and many of them are really not bad. The problem is that even the "not bad" ones have things like Xanthum Gum in them and I'm not really sure what that is. I know it's not in my salad dressing I make at home. I'm relatively new to salad dressing making - it started the year we moved to London.

Randy and I lived in a lovely little flat in Kensington for a year. My kitchen was tiny but had decent counter space, decent storage, an ok gas range and oven, and even a pint-sized dishwasher. But my fridge was barely better than a college dorm fridge. It was so small that I had to grocery shop every day because I couldn't fit more than a day's worth of food in there. If we were having people over for dinner, I often had to let things sit out on our window sill - at least the gloomy weather was good for something. Condiments? Out of the question unless it was something very very important (think Dijon mustard), because I just couldn't give up the real estate.

And so, because of that, I started making my own salad dressing and putting it in a mustard jar. I could fit almost a week's worth in there and if we ran out, it was so easy to whip up a new batch. It opened a whole new world for me. I have always been a big salad eater and suddenly, it all just tasted better. So here is my basic recipe that is totally no-fail. I encourage you to taste it as you go and adjust it to your liking. If you mess up and add too much vinegar, you can just add more oil to balance it. I like using balsamic vinegar here but red wine vinegar is good too and will give you a more subtle dressing. This is the time for the good stuff - best quality mustard, vinegar, and olive oil. If you are using balsamic, splurge a little. The cheap stuff is just cheap red wine vinegar that is color enhanced!

Balsamic Vinegar Salad Dressing
Makes enough for the week

1 small shallot, minced
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
6 tbsp. olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper

Put the minced shallot in a wide mouth jar (like a jam jar) along with the mustard and vinegar. Put the top on and give it a good shake. Open it back up and pour in the olive oil, then add a good pinch of sea salt and pepper to taste. Put the lid back on and give it a really good shake. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

I like to make dressing in a jar because I can really get it emulsified (mixed together) that way. Also, then you can just put the jar in the fridge and you are ready to dress your next salad. You can certainly just whisk it all together in a bowl though.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


I love gazpacho. What's not to love? It's cold and refreshing, has tons of flavor, is really healthy, and can be garnished to your heart's content. And it looks beautiful. I even like bad gazpacho - you know, where the texture isn't quite right or the balance of flavor is off.

Randy and I went to Spain for our honeymoon and I ate gazpacho every single day and sometimes twice a day. Lunch was always a bowl of the soup and a "tortilla" which is like a frittata made of eggs, potatoes, and onions. I looked forward to this lunch each and every day. It was always a little different depending on what town we were in, but always delicious. I often started dinner off with gazpacho instead of a salad because, after all, it is kind of a liquid salad, but oh so much better. Really cold, tangy from the tomatoes and sherry vinegar, sweet from the onion and cucumber, and all nice and crunchy.

As much as I love the soup itself, the garnishes really make it for me. Big toasted croutons are my favorite, but this time I also included diced avacado and hard boiled egg. It all just made a good thing that much better.

As our June gets off to a very wet start, I thought I would beckon summer with a Spanish menu. Along with the Gazpacho, I served a Vegetable Paella, Smoky Swiss Chard, and for the Dana Treat, a Vanilla Bean Flan.

Adapted from Cook's Illustrated
Serves 6-8

One of the best things about this recipe is that it is dead easy. Really all you are doing is chopping and mixing. It is a great do-ahead recipe because it can sit for up to two days in the refrigerator and needs no last-minute attention except for garnishing. To make great croutons, cut some good sourdough bread in to large (1 inch) cubes. Toss on a baking sheet with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, a good dose of kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Bake in a 375 degree oven until golden brown. I don't drizzle my gazpacho with olive oil, but you certainly can!

3 ripe medium tomatoes, cored and seeded, cut in to 1/4 inch cubes
2 medium red bell peppers, cored and seeded, cut in to 1/4 inch cubes
1 medium cucumber, seeded and cut in to 1/4 inch cubes
2 large shallots, peeled and minced
2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 tsp. kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup sherry vinegar
5 cups tomato juice
1 tsp. Tabasco (optional)
Olive Oil (optional)

Combine tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, shallots, garlic, salt, vinegar, and pepper in a large glass, ceramic, or stainless steel bowl. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato juice and Tabasco. Cover tightly and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 2 days.

Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper and serve cold with garnishes of your choice.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Change of Plans

Although it is the first of June, I am wearing a down jacket - in my house. For many many people in this country the weather is really starting to heat up but here it feels more like October. Not quite winter-like but with the hint of winter in the air.

We were supposed to have wine and appetizers with our friends Lauren and Travis this afternoon. They have a great backyard for the kids to play in and Travis is a great cook (Lauren handles desserts) so we were looking forward to it. Alas, the weather is not cooperating and since their hot water heater busted a few days ago, there is no basement play alternative for the kids. So they are going to come here.

Now whenever we have someone over, no matter how casual the event, I always make something. I just can't not. But when I got their voice mail giving us their change of plans, we had just come back from an epic round of grocery shopping. Trader Joe's and QFC with both kids. So there was no way I was going to go back out to grab more ingredients for my already stuffed fridge. What did I have a surplus of? Eggs.

I had never made Deviled Eggs before and I actually just winged it. I have had them enough times to re-create them without a recipe. They are the perfect last minute food. It took 20 minutes to make them and about 15 of that was waiting for the eggs to cook. We have an incredible chive plant outside that has those beautiful purple blossoms bursting from almost every stalk so that is what I used as a garnish. These are not your grandmother's Deviled Eggs!

Deviled Eggs
Makes 12

6 eggs
2 tsp. mustard
3-4 tbsp. creme fraiche
1 tbsp. capers, finely chopped
1-2 tbsp. chives, chopped

Place eggs in a saucepan and then cover with cold water. Add about a tablespoon of white vinegar. Bring to a full boil, then cover and turn off the heat. After 10 minutes, drain and run cold water over the eggs. When cool enough to handle, peel and slice vertically in half.

Scoop all the yolks in to a small bowl and give them a good mash with a fork. Add the mustard, creme fraiche (you can certainly use mayo here instead), and capers. Stir with a soup spoon until everything is well incorporated. If the mixture seems too dry, add a little more creme fraiche.

Using that same soup spoon, carefully fill each of the eggs with the yolk mixture. Garnish with the chives. You can refrigerate this for several hours, but pull out of the fridge about 15 minutes before serving to take the chill off.