Thursday, January 29, 2009

Memories of France

My husband Randy is a master finagler. Everything he finagles is above board but he is just one of those amazing people who can ask for things and get them. He spent many years in the Navy and was able to do some incredible things (spend time with the Norwegian Navy, travel in Israel, study in France), all because he asked and they said yes.

This quality served us well the year we lived in London. We went to Euro-Disney for a conference (and a weekend in Paris), we went to Israel for a week so he could meet with a company his employer was thinking of buying. Oh yes, and he got us to London for a year!

Before we moved back to Seattle, and after he had been recruited to work for another company, he finagled a trip around northern Europe so he could "meet the teams." If you know my husband, you know that he worked hard on that trip. He never doesn't work hard. But he also got us to Tallin (Estonia), Stockholm, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Paris in the week and a half after we left London.

Once he was done with meetings in Paris, we rented a car and took our time driving south to Provence to meet up with some friends. I will always remember this trip for many different reasons. First, obviously, I got to see cities in Europe that I had never seen which is always thrilling. I was on my way back home to the States which I felt really excited about. I was going to see a part of my beloved France that I had heard so much about but never seen. We were going to witness parts of Llance Armstrong's historic 6th win of the Tour de France. But perhaps most of all, I was hyper aware of the baby growing in my belly.

Right before we left London, I had an ultrasound (at 16 weeks) which told us that we were going to have a boy. The incredible joy I felt seeing that little fully formed person is difficult to describe - if you have witnessed an ultrasound for your baby-to-be, you know what I am talking about. We were beyond thrilled that he was going to be a boy and over the moon to see that he looked healthy. About a week later, once we had gotten to Stockholm, I started to bleed. Of course, it happened on July 4th, so I was unable to reach a doctor back in the States and the Swedish doctor we spoke to just told me to hang in there and if the bleeding increased, to go immediately to a hospital. My first thought when I woke up, the last thought I had before I drifted off to sleep, and every other thought in between was whether or not I was going to lose that precious baby for days. Once we got in touch with our doctor back home, she told me to stay off my feet as much as possible which is difficult in small European cities where you really just need to walk everywhere.

I did notice that when I took it easy, the bleeding stopped. Once I started walking too much, it would pick back up again. So, as much as I enjoyed the travel on that trip, when we finally made it to Provence, I could breathe easy. We were staying at a property where we had a wonderful room with lots of communal living space and a pool. We weren't near anything except tiny perfect French towns. I pretty much just took it easy for the first few days. As my fear began to subside, I began to explore the paradise that is Provence. I did see Llance Armstrong come through Nimes (although I was sitting on the sidewalk). I did see countless vineyards and walk through the markets of Arles. I also sat in the sun poolside and got lots of sleep.

Once home, I had another ultrasound and everything looked fine with our baby. Just 17 weeks later he was born and showed himself to be perfect.

So what on Earth does all this have to do with lentils?? This incredible dish (one of my absolute favorites - like take it to a desert island favorites) comes from Patricia Wells'
The Provence Cookbook. It is the one cookbook I took with me on our trip there. Not only did I use it to cook lots of delicious food for our friends that week, but I also used it as a reference. Wells details out where the best markets are, where the best pottery is, and profiles some of her favorite farmers. It is an amazing cookbook but also a resource for traveling in her beloved Provence. Because this book really is a love letter to Provence. I cannot open this lovely cookbook with its sunny cover and inviting prose without thinking of my incredible son, now 4 years old. How worried I was! I had no idea that really, as a mother, you just keep worrying...

Lentils with Capers, Walnuts, Walnut Oil, and Mint

Adapted from
The Provence Cookbook
Serves 4-6

You could use regular lentils in this recipe, but Le Puy lentils are worth seeking out for their firm texture and density. Toasting the walnuts really brings out their flavor so don't skip that step. The method of cooking the lentils may seem overly fussy here, but I trust Wells implicitly, so I always follow her advice when making this dish.

2 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice

Sea salt to taste

6 tbsp. walnut oil

1/2 cups (8 oz.) French lentils, such as Le Puy
2 cups vegetable stock

1 carrot, peeled and cut into thirds

1 onion, peeled and stuck with a clove

1 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped

capers in vinegar, drained, rinsed, and chopped if large
1 cup fresh mint leaves

Freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Place the lemon juice and a pinch of salt in a jar with a screw top (such as a jam jar). Cover and give it a good shake. Add the oil and shake to blend. Taste for seasoning and set aside.

2. Place the lentils in a fine mesh sieve and rinse under cold running water. Tranfer them to a large saucepan, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil over high heat. When the water boils, remove the saucepan from the heat. Transfer the lentils back to the sieve and drain over a sink. Rinse the lentils under cold running water again. Return the lentils to the saucepan, add the stock, season with salt, and bring just to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer and add the carrot and onion. Simmer gently, uncovered, until the lentils are cooked but not mushy. Taste to make sure. Remove the onion and carrot and discard. If there is still liquid in the pot along with the lentils, drain them once again in the sink.

3. Transer the lentils to a large bowl. Add the walnuts, capers, and a few grinds of pepper. Add the vinaigrette to taste - you may not need all of it. Toss well. Once the lentils have cooled a bit, add the mint and toss again. Can be served warm or room temperature. Keeps 2 days, covered, in the refrigerator.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Simply Delicious

If you ask my husband what he wants for dinner, without hesitation he says,"Mexican." If you ask him where he wants to go out for dinner, he also says, "Mexican." I honestly don't even ask him anymore or if I do I have to ask like this, "Honey (deep breath), what-should-I-make-for-dinner-don't-say-Mexican?" Phew.

I too love Mexican food but seeing as live far far away from Mexico, there aren't a lot of places around here to satisfy the craving. Randy thinks bad Mexican is still good. I think bad Mexican is greasy and fattening. So I would rather make it myself.

Two things make a Mexican meal complete for me. Beans of some kind and lots of guacamole. For my clients last night I made Mushroom and Pinto Bean Enchiladas, Mexican Rice with Peppers and Tomatoes, and Salad with a Cilantro Lime Vinaigrette. I included a container of my guacamole which has gotten raves from them before and from others too. It is one of the only things I make completely without a recipe and totally to taste (hummus is another one.) I thought I would write a post about it so I paid attention to the proportions of what I added. Sometimes simple is best.


Serves 6 generously

I like my guacamole very limey and salty. You can always add less lime juice and salt and see how it tastes to you. If there is not too much going on in the meal, or if I am not serving salsa, I will dice up two seeded roma tomatoes and add it to the mix.

2 large ripe avocados, diced

1 1/2 large limes, cut in half

2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. pepper

2 tbsp. cilantro, or more to taste

Place the avocados in a large bowl. Juice the limes into the same bowl and add the salt and pepper. Using a potato masher, mash up the avocados and incorporate the juice. You will want to leave some texture. Add the cilantro and mix carefully with a spoon.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Just Say No to Orange

Aren't tastes funny? Why is it that something which is ambrosia to me makes your skin crawl? I love cilantro, you hate it. You love okra, I can't stomach it. I have been reading lots of blogs featuring citrus desserts lately (it is January after all), and all I can think is...I hate orange.

No, I mean I really don't like orange. I actually never have. I do like those little clementines that appear around Christmas time, but other than that, orange kind of makes me cringe. Orange popsicles were always the last resort for me and I never even bothered to eat orange Jolly Ranchers. And to see all of the orange desserts going around right now...

So why on Earth did I make an orange cake, you might ask. Well, here is the thing. My brothers, sister-in-law and niece and nephew came over on Saturday and I had to make a dessert in not a lot of time. And, perhaps more importantly, this is an
Ina cake and I trust her implicitly. Yet another reason is that the recipe makes not one, but two cakes so I could get this week's treat for my clients taken care of ahead of time.

The verdict? It's orange, I didn't love it. But it went over very well with the family and it was a breeze to make. It turned out just as it should which is one of the very best things about her recipes.

Orange Pound Cake

Adapted from
Barefoot Contessa Family Style
Makes 2 loaves

Ina makes this cake in two 8 x 4 pans - I used one of those and three mini loaf pans so each of my clients could have their own cake.
You can freeze these cakes, unglazed, for up to one month.

1/4 lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided

4 eggs, at room temperature

1/3 cup orange zest (about 4 large oranges)

3 cups flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. kosher salt

3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice, divided

3/4 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

1 tsp. vanilla extract

To Glaze One Loaf (optional)

1 cup confectioner's sugar, sifted

1 1/2 tbsp. freshly squeezed orange juice

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 8 x 4 inch loaf pans with non-stick spray.

Cream the butter and 2 cups of the granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment for about 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. With the mixer on medium speed, beat in the eggs, one at a time, and the orange zest.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In another bowl, combine 1/4 cup of the orange huice, the buttermilk, and vanilla. Add the flour and buttermilk mixtures alternately to the batter, beginning and ending with the flour. Divide the batter evenly between the pans, smooth the tops, and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until a cake tester comes out clean.

While the cakes bake cook the remaining 1/2 cup of the granulated sugar with the remaining 1/2 cup orange juice in a small saucepan over low heat until the sugar dissolves. When the cakes are done, let them cool for 10 minutes. Take them out of the pans and place them on a baking rack set over a try. Spoon the orange syrup over the cakes and allow the cakes to cool completely.

To glaze, combine the confectioner's sugar and orange juice in a bowl, mixing with a wire whisk until smooth. Add a few more drops of juice, if necessary, to make it pour easily. Pour over the top of one cake and allow the cake to dry. Wrap well and store in the refrigerator for up to two days.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fair Warning

(Note: There are some who think that one should only write about successes in a food blog. I think it humanizes us all to read about occasional failures especially if tips are given on how to succeed next time.)

If you yourself write a food blog, or if you read a fair number of them, you will have noticed that there are certain trends that bounce around the blogosphere. One is the no-knead bread that I still haven't made, another is the
chocolate chip cookie recipe that appeared in the NY Times this past summer. Recently, it seems that everyone is enamored with the Baked cookbook. One of my favorite blogs, Smitten Kitchen, has been raving about this book since before it actually came out so, of course, I bought it.

It is a very cool book. Terrific photography and very interesting and different recipes. I have a lot of baking books and whenever I open a prospective purchase, something has to really catch my eye. I have lots of recipes for chocolate cakes and chocolate chip cookies and gingerbread in my 20-something baking books so I want to see something new and different.
Baked has some things I never thought of (pumpkin whoopie pies anyone?) and some classics done with a twist.

I now have made three things from it and I have to say I am, um, underwhelmed. I know three recipes does not a cookbook review make, but I am feeling a little bummed by the book. The whoopie pies were great and my clients loved them, but the proportions of the recipe were totally off (for me anyway.) I also made their Chocolate Pecan Pie for Thanksgiving and was just not happy about how it turned out, although my brother Michael (a pecan pie lover) thought it was great. And now these bars.

First let me say that I LOVE lemon bars. For a chocolate and caramel lover that is saying something. My go-to recipe is actually from the Betty Crocker cookbook. It is totally no frills and for that reason it is perfect. The
Baked recipe caught my eye because the bars masquerade as lemon bars but are actually much more sophisticated. The crust, instead of being more or less shortbread, is made from graham cracker crumbs, butter, sugar, and toasted coconut. The filling is a lemon and lime curd with lots of fresh juice and zest. I thought I would knock it out of the park with this one because almost everyone I know loves lemon bars.

Let me just detail out the dishes involved in making these little guys:

Food processor for grinding graham crackers

Small saucepan for melting butter

Baking sheet for toasting coconut

Reamer for juicing lemons and limes

Zester for zesting lemons and limes

Large saucepan for mixing curd

Whisk for mixing curd

Fine mesh strainer for straining curd

Knife for slicing bars

Spatula for excavating bars

Pan bars were made in

Now, I recognize that dishes are a necessary evil of cooking and especially baking. I curse them while I do them but when the end result is delicious, I forget about them. Here is what I thought about the end result here...

The first problem is that I couldn't get them out of the pan in time to bring them to my Tuesday clients. The recipe says that you need to refrigerate them at least 2 hours, which I did, but even then the filling was so mushy and the crust was firmly cemented to the pan (in spite of the fact that I buttered it well.) So I waited a fully 24 hours before I tried again to pry out a square and had to sacrifice 3 other innocent squares to get my photo candidate out. One of those, of course, had to be tasted and boy oh boy were they
SWEET! Between the coconut and the graham crackers in the crust and the almost 2 cups of sugar in the curd - they made my teeth ache.

So, no thank you
Baked. I am going to stick with Betty Crocker on this one. If you have the Baked cookbook and are dying to try their recipe (after the above rousing endorsement), here are some things I would suggest. Bake the crust until it is starting to brown - I may have pulled mine out too soon which resulted in it not releasing from the pan. Add a little less sugar to the curd - maybe just 1 1/2 cups. The crust is plenty sweet so if the curd is a little sour, it will balance better. And finally, refrigerate these (after they have cooled) at least 24 hours and preferably 48. The crust may get a tad soggy but you will be able to get them out of the pan. Be sure to use a very thin metal spatula to lift them out or you will lose half your crust.

Or, you can just save yourself heartache and many dishes and make the alternative recipe below.

Lemon Bars

Adapted from The Betty Crocker Cookbook

Makes 16 small bars

1 cup flour

1/2 cup butter, softened

1/4 cup powdered sugar

2 eggs

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. salt

2 tbsp. lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix flour, butter, and powdered sugar in an electric mixer until the dough starts to come together. Press into an ungreased 8 x 8 inch pan, building up an edge. Bake 20 minutes, until light brown.

Wipe out bowl. Beat remaining ingredients for 3 minutes until light and fluffy. Pour over hot crust. Bake another 25 minutes longer, or just until no imprint remains when touched lightly in center. Allow to cool completely, then sprinkle with powdered sugar and cut into squares.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sweet, Salty, or Both?

Cookthink has a feature where they interview all different people in the food world. To each chef, food-writer, what-have-you, they ask the same series of questions. As you might expect, althought the questions don't change, the answers vary widely - except for one of the questions. First off the bat is always, "Sweet or Salty?" It seems to me that 90% of the time, the interviewee answers, "Both."

Ask me? Salty. As much as I love sweets, I am really a savory girl at heart. If a piece of chocolate torte were in front of me, I might answer sweet. I would never answer "both". I was the kid who didn't want any of the different food touching on her plate and I am embarrassed to say I am still that way. I don't like to mix flavors. I will finish all of one thing before I start another. So, to me, sweet and salty is way too mixed up. (Except if we are talking about salted caramel and then all bets are off. Who is responsible for this frenzy? I would like to kiss them.)

For that reason, I was surprised that I really like this eggplant spread. It is, by nature, a savory dish. Eggplant, onions, tomatoes, salt. But it also has quite a bit of sweetness from a touch of sugar, balsamic vinegar, and currants. And the eggplant here does what it does best, in my opinion, it kind of disappears. I mean, it's there - you can tell it's eggplant, but it's not like, "I am eggplant, hear me roar." I can't explain why I couldn't keep my tasting spoon out of it - maybe it's that the balance is perfect. For my tastebuds anyway. I have made lots of different caponata type recipes in the past and have always found them lacking something. This is my new favorite.

Sicilian Eggplant Spread with Crostini

Adapted from The Farm to Table Cookbook

6-8 servings

I gave this to my clients with the crostini but served it at my house with crackers. Either way it's delicious.

Olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

3 tbsp. pine nuts

3 tbsp. dried currants or raisins

1/2 tsp. dried oregano

3 garlic cloves, sliced

1 pound eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

1 tsp. sugar

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder

1 cup tomato sauce

3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 loaf rustic French bread, sliced 1/4 inch thick

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat and add just enough olive oil to coat the bottom. Add the onion, pine nuts, currants, and oregano. Cook until the onion is soft and translucent, about 8 minutes.

2. Reduce the heat to medium; add the garlic, eggplant, sugar, cinnamon, and cocoa. Cook, stirring frequently, until the eggplant begins to brown and bocomes soft around the edges, about 15 minutes. (
DN: I felt the onion was in danger of burning after about 8 minutes so I proceeded with the next step at that point.)

3. Add the tomato sauce and vinegar, cover and simmer until the eggplant is very tender, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside for at least 1 hour to meld flavors.

4. Meanwhile, place the bread slices in a single layer on 2 baking sheets. Lightly brush (or drizzle) them with oil and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Bake just until the bread is crisp and golden brown around the edges, about 15 minutes. Serve with eggplant mixture.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Pea Salad

This may sound funny, but I think side dishes are tough for vegetarians. They seem to often include potatoes or another kind of starch, or they are really just vegetables. Often my main courses are very starch heavy or vegetable heavy and a traditional side just doesn't sound right. When I find a good one, I hang on to it and use it with a variety of different dishes.

I love this pea dish because it can do double duty. It can be served as a side (as I did last week with a healthier version of mac and cheese), or it can be a salad. The original recipe calls for pea shoots which can be hard to find unless you hit a farmer's market in the spring (their season), or live close to an Asian market. If I want this dish to be more salad-like, I will either toss some arugula leaves into the salad itself (as I for the
party I catered), or I will serve the peas on a bed of arugula.

I suppose this dish would be simple incredible with fresh peas, but we are months away from that luxury here in Seattle and I think using fresh would make it incredibly expensive and time consuming. Frozen are fine here. The original recipe tells you to cook them, but I just allow them to thaw for a good few hours and use them that way to save time and dishes to wash!

Pea Salad with Radishes and Feta Cheese

Adapted from
Bon Appetit
Serves 4-6

1 tsp. ground cumin

2 tbsp. fresh lime juice

2 tsp. honey

1/4 cup olive oil

3 tbsp. chopped fresh dill

1 pound frozen peas, thawed

1 bunch radishes, trimmed, halved, thinly sliced

1 cup crumbled feta cheese (about 4 oz.)

3 cups arugula (optional)

In a small bowl, whisk together the cumin, lime juice, and honey. Gradually whisk in olive oil; stir in dill. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (
Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before using.)

In a large bowl, place the peas, radishes, and feta cheese. Add the dressing and toss to coat. If desired, add the arugula and toss again. (
Note: If you are not going to serve the salad right away, wait until serving time to toss in the arugula, otherwise it will wilt.)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Facing Fears

(Warning: If you have sensitive stomach, you may want to skip this post.)

I am not forgetting for one minute that this is a food blog. I know that almost everyone who reads (and thank you for doing so!) is interested in the food I am making and the recipes I post. Maybe you are a little interested in who I am and some of my stories. Because of that, I have to share what I have just lived through. Children with stomach flu.

You see, I have a vomit phobia. I know no one likes to vomit or clean it up, but for me it is a true phobia. When I was pregnant with my older son, I would worry, almost on a daily basis, about him getting sick and how I was going to handle it. He wasn't even born yet! I was more worried about throwing up while in labor than I was about the pain or the birth. And after he was born, I would still lie awake at night worrying about stomach flu.

He made it four years without getting it. But on Thursday night, both he and my almost 2 year old came down with it. Yes, both of them at the same time. While that was hard, it was probably better for me just to get it all over with at once rather than worrying about when the other one would get it. Because do you know what? I really did fine. It was gross of course but I could totally handle it. As the night wore on and I wasn't sure when it would stop, it got harder for me. As the baby kept vomiting yesterday and saying, "I need water please" well, that got hard too. But I think we are now officially out of the woods as far as the kids are concerned. Now I can turn my anxiety to me or my husband getting it.

How about you? Any other phobias out there??

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Milk vs. Dark

As I have written about here, the year we lived in London, I got to take some great cooking classes. The highlight by far was the chocolate making class at Leith's. We learned how to make hand rolled truffles, how to temper chocolate, and how to make truffles using chocolate molds. We also learned a lot about chocolate itself. One of the first things we did that day was have a tasting where the instructor passed around different chocolates with all different cocoa contents and from different areas of the world. We were told to write down our tasting notes which we then shared at the end of the tasting.

One of the chocolates we tasted was clearly milk chocolate - the rest were semi or (mostly) bittersweet. To me, the milk tasted delicious and was my favorite of the bunch. As we started to share our notes, it became clear that I was, not only the only American in the room, but the only one who liked the milk chocolate. People called it "cloyingly sweet", "tongue coating" and other insulting things. I called it "what chocolate should taste like" but didn't share that with the rest of the class.

So there you have it. I have outed myself. I am a milk chocolate lover. Sometimes it feels like I am in danger of having my foodie license or my chocolate-loving license revoked if I admit that, but now it's out for the world to see. For some reason, you are
supposed to like dark chocolate and the darker the better. But if I am going to eat a piece of chocolate (and because I am always watching my weight, this is rare), it is going to be milk.

Needless to say, I felt somewhat vindicated when this February's
Food and Wine featured milk chocolate. Apparently there are pastry chefs out there who share my love of the light stuff. I marked every recipe as one to cut out (except the one containing gelatin - did you know gelatin is not vegetarian?) and decided to make this cake first.

Here is the thing. It was a little sweet for me. A little cloying, a little - dare I say - milky. Don't get me wrong. If I was having a chocolate attack and a slice of this cake was put in front of me, I would have no problem eating it. And this recipe has a lot going for it. It's fairly quick and easy, makes a square cake (which I think looks really cool), and would be great for a kid's birthday. But I think for me, when it comes to cake, I'm going back to the dark side.

Milk-Chocolate-Frosted-Layer Cake

Adapted from
Food and Wine
Makes one 9-inch layer cake

This cake can be made 3 days ahead and refrigerated. Make sure you bring it to room temperature for about an hour before serving, otherwise the cake will taste dry and the flavor will be muted. You can also freeze it but allow the frosting to harden in the refrigerator first.

1/4 cup cake flour
cup unsweetened cocoa powder
tsp. baking powder
2 sticks unsalted butter

cup whole milk
6 large eggs, separated

1 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 pounds milk chocolate, finely chopped

1. Preaheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour two 9-inch square baking pans.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk the cake flour, cocoa and baking powder. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter in the milk over low heat. Transfer to a large bowl and let cool slightly. Whisk in the egg yolk and
1/2 cup of the sugar. Add the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth.

3. In a clean bowl, beat the eggw hites with the slat until soft peaks form. Grahually add the remaining
1/2 cup sugar and beat at medium-high speed until the whites are stiff and glossy. Fold the beaten whites into the batter until no streaks remain. Divide the batter between the pans and bake for 25 minutes, until the cakes are springy and a toothpick inserted in the centers comes out clean. Transfer the cakes to a rack and let cool completely.

4. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, bring the cream to a simmer. Put the chocolate in a heatproof bowl and pour the hot cream on top. Let stand for 3 minutes, then whisk until smooth. (DN: If you go to whisk it and there are still large pieces of unmelted chocolate, put the bowl over the still warm burner and let the heat melt it.) Let the frosting stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until thick enough to spread, about 1 hour.

5. Turn the cakes out of the pans and put one layer on a plate. Top with 1 cup of the frosting, spreading it to the edge. Top with the second layer and spread the remaining frosting over the top and sides. Let the cake stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes before cutting into squares.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Meet My New Love

Full disclaimer: I am not a knife expert. I am not an anything expert but I do have opinions about knives and do know a thing or two. Since this is my blog, I am going to share.

New Yorker's food issue came out recently and in there was a fascinating article about knives. The author followed a man named Bob Kramer who is only one of 122 people in the world who carries the title of master bladesmith. This man hand makes knives and has (at press time) a two year waiting list for his creations. Two things about this story really caught my eye. One is that the guy is local (used to live in Seattle and now lives in Olympia) - I'm a sucker for a fellow Northwestener. The other is that they mentioned that in a Cook's Illustrated article on chef's knives, the very frugally minded magazine rated Kramer's very expensive knife as the best they had ever tested.

Reading this article got me really thinking about my knives. In the 16 years I have been cooking, I've never really loved a knife. I started out with some rejects from my mom's knife block and a few I picked up from Goodwill. When I got married the first time, I registered for a whole Henckel's set and did certainly notice that they were better. Along the way, I have upgraded and tried new things, all the while not really knowing what I was looking for and just falling for a pretty (Shun) and not so pretty (Global) face.

When you read about knives, one of the first things they mention is balance. The knife should feel balanced between the blade and the handle. I never quite understood what meant. What I didn't realize is that a knife can technically be balanced but not feel balanced in your hand for a variety of reasons, size of your hand being an important one. This is why it is crucial to hold a knife and, if possible, try it out before you buy it.

A couple of weeks ago, my little family and I were in Kirkland checking out the train store (my two boys are obssesed.) As we were looking for someplace to eat, I noticed a sign for
Epicurean Edge. Randy, bless him, suggested we go in. He had to have known that we were not going to walk out of there unscathed and yet he encouraged me. I started talking to the guy behind the counter and told him what knives I had and about the article I had read. It turns out, not only does he know the guy profiled in the New Yorker, but he apprenticed under him and he too is a master bladesmith. The waiting list for one of this guy's knives is 9 years. Randy suggested I get on the waiting list and then asked how much a knife went for. An 8 inch chef's knife, in today's dollars, goes for $1800. It's a good thing I have 9 years to save for it!

He went on to show me a bunch of different knives, all well under the $1800 price tag I will someday be hit with, and makes I had never heard of. What a treat to see so many different things when you see all the same brands at places like Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table. Even some of our local cookshops carry the same exact brands as the big stores. These were almost all Japanese and completely foreign to me. I mentioned that I have small hands and so the Shun knives were really hard for me to use for long periods of time, they are just too heavy. The 3 gorgeous specimens he showed me all felt perfectly balanced - and light - in my hand. It was a tough choice but I went with the one that felt the best. It is an Asai Damascus Santoku and if it asked me to marry it I would say yes.

It is beautiful, razor sharp, and does all the things you want a knife to do with ease. It slices cleanly, chops without bruising the food, and has the perfect rocking motion that allows me to actually enjoy chopping herbs - something I usually hate doing. I can cut an onion so quickly that I almost don't even cry. And it feels so comfortable in my hand that I can use it for hours without getting tired.

If you don't have some spare cash lying around or if you do and don't want to spend it on knives, I would highly encourage you to sharpen the knives you do own. Every time I have cut myself it has been on an onion and it has been with a dull knife. (Except for last week when I was using a cheese slicer on a too small chunk of cheese and cut a chunk out of my thumb. Like a big enough chunk that I found it and threw it away. Last time I checked thumb is not vegetarian.) A sharp knife will grip onto the slippery surface of an onion or a tomato and a dull one will slip off and onto your finger. If you care about them, bring your knives to a cutlery store or kitchen store. I know our local grocery store will sharpen up to three knives for free, but I don't trust them. Especially not with my new baby.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Stuffed Mushrooms for Dinner

My clients who hate mushrooms are in Paris at the moment. I thought it would be a perfect time to recreate the meal I made for my family on Christmas Eve (minus the dessert) for my other clients. This mushroom dish is a real favorite of mine and one I have wanted to make for my clients for a long time - I just had to wait for the mushroom haters to leave town.

If you, like so many other people, are watching what you eat this January, or are trying to eat more vegetarian food, this is a great place to start. It is very satisfying and filling and you can vary the amount of cheese to suit your taste.

Let's talk about chiles. This recipe calls for poblano chiles and, as with so many other chiles, the heat can vary. Poblano isn't a particularly spicy specimen, but when I made this on Christmas Eve, there was a definite spice in each bite. Last night there wasn't. So, if you are sensitive to spice, taste your roasted chiles first and then decide how much to add. On to roasting. You will often see suggestions to roast chiles (or simply peppers) directly over a gas flame. I am not a fan of doing it this way. Yes, the skin comes off very easily, but the chile (or pepper) is raw inside. I like them cooked a bit more so I always roast chiles (and peppers) in the oven as I describe in the recipe below.

Poblano-and-Cheddar-Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms

Adapted from
Food and Wine
Serves 4

You can make the rice and chiles a day ahead, or even all of the stuffing a day ahead and keep it, covered, in the refrigerator.

3 poblano chiles

4 jumbo portabello mushrooms

Olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 small yellow onion, finely diced

5 oz. baby spinach

1 cup cooked rice

cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
2 tbsp. chopped cilantro

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Place the chiles on a baking sheet and bake until skins start to turn black, turning once, about 20 minutes. Remove sheet from oven and carefully wrap a piece of foil over the chiles. Allow to sit for 10 minutes, then remove the foil and remove the skin from the chiles. Remove the seeds and membranes as well and finely chop. Set aside.

2. Preheat the broiler. Drizzle both sides of the mushrooms with a little olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Broil the mushrooms, turning, until softened, 10-12 minutes. Transfer to a plate, stem side down; let drain and cool.

3. Meanwhile, put a medium skillet over medium heat. Add just enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan and add the onion with a pinch of salt. Cook until softened, about 6 minutes. Add the baby spinach (you may have to do this in batches) and cook until wilted. Turn the heat to medium-high and cook until the liquid in the pan has cooked off. In a bowl, mix the spinach with the rice, cheese, cilantro, and the chiles. Season with salt and pepper.

4. Preheat the oven to 325. Season the mushroom caps with salt and pepper. Spoon the rice mixture into the mushrooms, mounding it slightly. Transfer the mushrooms to a baking dish and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the top is lightly browned. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What I Want to Make

Although I have been cooking and baking a lot in the past two weeks, it has been nice to have a break from the familiar. I essentially took two weeks off from my clients and just cooked whatever I wanted (or didn't cook!) for my family. Every time I have that luxury, I immediately want to make red lentils. I actually have two favorite recipes for these little beauties and I could have sworn I already shared one of them. But after looking through past posts, I cannot find it anywhere.

Whenever it is time to pull these recipes out, I can never remember which one I like better. One has zucchini and coconut milk, the other has carrots, spinach and no coconut milk. Both have Indian spices and seasonings (lots of ginger and garlic), both are extremely tasty and good for you. Both are incredibly well accompanied by roasted cauliflower. If you think you don't like cauliflower, please - oh please - give roasting it a try. Just cut a small head of cauliflower into bite size florets and toss with a sprinkling of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Bake in a 450 degree oven for 20-30 minutes. Toss once to make sure it browns evenly. You want it really brown. If you happen to have a dark colored baking sheet in your house, now is the time to use it. You will win friends and influence people with this dish.
I kid you not.

But back to the lentils. I will give the recipe for the the carrot one today in the hopes I will unearth the other one from a past post at a later date. While this recipe does not call for coconut milk, I decided to add some and then, on tasting it, decided it was too sweet. So here is the original.

I found the other recipe - it's here.

Curried Red-Lentil Stew with Vegetables

Adapted from
Bon Appetit
Serves 4-6

Serve this stew over basmati rice.

Vegetable oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped


1 (2 x 1 inch) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped or grated

5 cloves of garlic, minced

5 cups water

1/2 tsp. curry powder
tsp. tumeric
tsp. cumin
1 cup red lentils, picked over and rinsed

3 medium carrots, quartered lengthwise, then thinly sliced crosswise

5 oz. baby spinach leaves

1 cup frozen peas, not thawed

cup chopped fresh cilantro

Heat a heavy 4-5 quart pot over moderate heat and then add just enough oil to coat the bottom. Cook the onion with a sprinkling of salt, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 8-10 minutes. Add ginger and garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes more. Add spices and cook over low heat for 1 minute.

Stir in lentils and 5 cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Add carrots and another sprinkling of salt and simmer covered, stirring occasionally, until carrots are tender and lentils have broken down into a coarse puree, 15-20 minutes.

Stir in spinach and peas and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until peas are tender, about 3 minutes. Stir in cilantro and season stew with salt and pepper. If necessary, add enough water to thin stew so that it can be ladled over rice.

Stew without spinach or peas can be made and chilled, uncovered, until completely cooled, then covered for up to 5 days. Reheat over moderately low heat, thinning with water to a pourable consistency and stirring frequently, before adding remaining ingredients.)

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Birthday Cake

Yesterday was my husband Randy's birthday. I think January 2nd has got to be the worst birthday of the year. Everyone is done with eating, drinking, shopping, spending money, celebrating - just done. He has never really cared much about his birthday but I think my attitude has rubbed off on him a bit. Last year (his 40th), I threw him a big surprise party and totally spoiled him which I think he really enjoyed. This year, he got to go skiing which is probably his favorite thing to do in the world. We have had all this crazy snow lately, so the mountains are just buried in it.

On New Year's Day we went to a lovely party at our friends John and Kimrick's. John's birthday is December 24th, another kind of tough one, so I volunteered to bring a birthday cake for the two guys. I recently bought Sky High, which is a cookbook filled with celebration worthy cakes. Each one is three layers (hence the title) and there were many good sounding ones to choose from.

Although I bake a lot, I don't often make layer cakes and am kind of intimidated by them. I figure the only way to get better at making them is to practice, so I decided to challenge myself with this cake and make something I have never made before. This is a checkerboard cake and to get the pattern, you need to buy a special cake pan which comes with three pans and a plastic divider. You make two different batters (in this case, a semi-sweet chocolate one and a white chocolate one) and pipe them into the pans according to the pattern that will produce the checkerboard. I am a totally visual learner, so reading the fairly vague directions in the book left me a little confused.

Fortunately, there was a tiny visual in the actual cake pan box so I kind of knew what to do and lo and behold it turned out. A huge bonus is that the cake was actually very tasty. The cakes themselves were extremely moist and a thin layer of chocolate ganache in between each layer gave it a nice rich flavor.

The white chocolate buttercream frosting was easy to work with and had a nice suble flavor of chocolate. Unlike most buttercream frostings I have made, this one did not make a ton - in fact, it almost didn't make enough. I had barely enough to pipe the decorative rosettes.

Because I did have some problems with the recipe, and because you have to buy a special pan, I am not going to post the recipe. (It's also
really long.) If you are dying to try it, email me and I will send it to you.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Good Food, Bad Photos

We really wanted to go out for New Year's Eve this year. We even had a reservation at a restaurant with three other couples and I tried for weeks to find a babysitter. After going through eight possibilities (none of whom were free), I decided that maybe we should just invite everyone over here. Thankfully, the other three couples were fine with a change in plans.

I didn't quite have the energy to go all out on a menu and yet I knew we were going to need a lot of different food to sustain us on the march towards midnight. I decided to do a Spanish theme and ask each couple to bring a tapas of some kind. I would make a little nibble, a vegetarian paella, and a dessert I have been wanting to try. Of course, me being me, the nibble became two, and I added a side dish and a salad to the main course. But, after catering a party for 30, preparing three appetizers, mashed potatoes and two desserts for one of my client's Christmas Eve dinner in addition to making a whole dinner for my own family,
and a side dish for Christmas in the last two weeks...I felt like this dinner would be a walk in the park.

The first step was making this appetizer. Manchego cheese. Membrillo (quince paste). Radicchio. That's it. It is the perfect mouthful. Salty and creamy cheese, sweet and slightly gooey quince, and bitter radicchio. These are addictive and beyond simple. I have a couple of tips. Buy thin skewers so that the cheese doesn't break apart as you thread it. On that same note, buy young manchego (as opposed to aged) as it tends to be less brittle. You can find membrillo at Whole Foods and also at the Spanish Table if you happen to live in Seattle. Sometimes it is sold in jars, but for this appetizer you will want the type that comes in kind of a mini-tray. That way, you can slice it just into the size that you want.

Another thing I did to make my life a little easier for this dinner was to totally bastardize paella. Yes, not only was this vegetarian, but I made it with couscous instead of rice. My thinking was, we are going to eating tapas the whole evening and no one is going to be all that hungry when we actually sit down to dinner, so let's save some time (couscous cooks extremely quickly) and lighten the meal up. I have a trusted recipe and although I feel almost foolish calling it paella, it's quite delicious.

All in all, I made the skewers,
my trusted dates, the paella, roasted cauliflower, green salad with a hazelnut raspeberry vinaigrette, and butterscotch budinos. Yes indeed I did have this recipe and yes indeed it was amazing. You are supposed to serve this dessert in small ramekins and it should make 10 of them. We were only 8 people and I couldn't find all 8 of my small ramekins so I served huge portions in my large ramekins. Some people finished their portions, but most didn't. After a huge meal a huge dessert was not what was needed. But they were exquisite. You can find that recipe here. And you can find the recipes for the skewers and the paella below.

Manchego, Membrillo, and Radicchio Skewers

This is is not really a recipe, more just a gathering of ingredients, chopping and threading. I bought about a half pound of manchego, had a half container of membrillo left in my fridge, and bought a head of radicchio. You don't use a lot of the radicchio, so I would buy the smallest head you can find.

Cut the manchego and membrillo into roughly 1 inch squares. Slice the radicchio into roughly 1 inch slices and then cut into 1 inch squares. None of this has to be exact - it will taste great any way it looks. Just keep in mind that this is meant to be a one bite appetizer, so don't cut anything too big.

Carefully thread the manchego onto a skewer, followed by the membrillo, and finally the radicchio. If you try to put the membrillo on first, it will slide down the skewer (trust me.) Repeat with as many skewers as you need - I would plan on 2-3 per person. You can refrigerate them for a few hours, but make sure they at room temperature before you serve them.

Vegetable Couscous Paella

Adapted from
Bon Appetit Magazine
Serves 6

Here are my make ahead tips. I cut up the carrots, tomatoes, and bell peppers the day before and stored, covered, in the fridge. I made the base of the paella (i.e. everything before adding the couscous) early in the day, then reheated it on the stove with a little extra water and added the couscous just before serving. I also waited to add the peas so they wouldn't lose their color.

Olive Oil

1 large yellow onion, chopped

1 medium red pepper, chopped

1 medium green pepper, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 tsp. paprika
2 cups vegetable broth

3 large roma tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped

1 cup frozen peas

1 cup chick peas, drained

2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped

tsp. saffron threads, crushed between your fingers
tsp. cayenne pepper

1/2 cups couscous
6 canned artichoke hearts, quartered

Green olives with pimentos

1 red pepper, thinly sliced crosswise

1 lemon, cut into thin wedges

Chopped fresh parsley

Heat a large heavy pot over medium-high heat and add just enough olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pot. Add onion and chopped bell peppers; saute until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and paprika and saute 1 minute. Stir in broth and next 6 ingredients. Bring to simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and cook 5 minutes to blend flavors. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Mix couscous into vegetable mixture. Cover and simmer 1 minute. Remove pot from heat. Let stand covered 5 minutes. Fluff couscous with fork. Let paella stand covered 5 minutes longer; fluff with fork again. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to serving bowl or platter. Arrange artichoke hearts, red bell pepper rings, lemon wedges, and olives atop paella. Sprinkle parsley over and serve.