About Me

I'm happiest when the food I make becomes a backdrop to a lively conversation. When I'm not cooking, I'm traveling or dreaming about travel. Come sit with me, and enjoy! Read more here.

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Sunday
Dec072008

buckwheat crepes with leek and gruyere: a craving revived

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Kahlil Gibran said: “Desire is half of life; indifference is half of death.”

That’s how I feel about food. My cravings are specific and forceful and make me feel alive. Moroccan lamb tagine! Pad Thai! A blue cheese burger with sweet potato fries!

Whatever it is, I desire it with the deep parts of my brain that remember texture, color, smell, and the warm feeling I get when I eat certain things. Satisfying that craving is physically intoxicating and one of the most rewarding experiences I can have in a day.

That's why I was disturbed to discover that, after three days off from work doing nothing but reading the paper in my PJs, I had no cravings.

Usually I fill my days off with menu planning, shopping, mise en place, cooking, and at last, the consummation of hard work and pleasure, eating the delicious meal I have prepared accompanied by a good glass of wine.

Not last week. It was strange: I had no oncoming flu or cold, no emotional upset. I just didn’t know what I wanted to eat.

I pored over my cook books looking for that one spectacular recipe that would trigger my deep brain sensors and replace the dullness I felt with a lively craving.

Duck confit? Blah.

Not even the thought of a juicy roast chicken with crispy skin could pierce through my indifference.

My favorite Moroccan cookbook, chocked full of lamb and fruit tagine recipes, which I usually adore, left me bored and restless.

Finally, I grabbed “My French Kitchen,” by Joanne Harris and Fran Warde, and flipped past the country meat dishes, which I would normally ponder for hours, and stopped when I spotted a simple recipe for buckwheat crepes stuffed with leeks and gruyere.

I felt a stirring and noticed water rushing to my mouth. I was relieved to know I could still crave something even in hibernation mode. The desire made me feel human, warm blooded, and normal again.

Perhaps the harder we work, the more deeply we crave. I certainly reward myself with indulgences for work well done. Taking time off -- and stopping the cycle of hard work and reward -- was a shock to my system but thankfully a shock that could be overcome by something as simple and tasty as a buckwheat crepe. 

Buckwheat Crepes with Gruyere and Leeks

Serves 4

For the crepe (Adapted from "The All New Joy of Cooking" recipe)
½ cup buckwheat flour
½ cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup milk
¾ cup water
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt

For the filling
2 tablespoons olive oil
8 ounces slab bacon, cubed
5 large leeks, white and light green parts only, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 cup shredded Gruyere cheese
3 tablespoons crème fraiche
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

First make the batter by combining all ingredients in a food processor or blender until smooth. Transfer the batter to a bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let sit in the refrigerator for one hour.

For the filling, heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat, add the bacon, leeks, and garlic, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring constantly. The leeks should be soft. Add the salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and stir in the Gruyere and crème fraiche.

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To cook the crepes, heat an 8-inch nonstick skillet or crepe pan and wipe lightly with vegetable oil or butter. Ladle enough batter to coat the bottom. Cook for about a minute, then flip. Continue until all the batter is used. You should have a stack of 16 crepes.

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Brush a baking sheet with some of the melted butter.

Place a spoonful of the mixture on each crepe and fold into quarters to make triangular cones.

Arrange the filled the crepes on the baking sheet and brush with the remaining butter. Bake until crepes are heated through, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately.

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Sunday
Nov092008

a culinary epiphany leads to stuffed squid

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When Paul suggested we splurge on dinner at Paul Bocuse’s restaurant during our honeymoon in France in 2003, I shrugged, and said: “Who’s Paul Bocuse”?

Preferring to travel to far-flung places in Latin America eating soup in crowded markets, I knew nothing of the the culinary giants of France.

Paul, on the other hand, would have been blissed out dining in one of Paris’s great bistros enjoying a perfectly-cooked steak au poivre and slurping down a big, complex, earthy Bordeaux.

Our marriage celebrated the happy pairing of the two worlds. He introduced me to coq au vin; I introduced him to Mexican mole. He explained the history of Beaujolais; I expounded on the flavor and texture of queso fresco.

I don’t remember exactly what we ate at Bocuse's famous restaurant in Lyon, but I do remember that our seven-course meal was an onslaught of perfection, one dish after the next, with light sauces that did not overwhelm but completely satisfied. A Beaujolais sorbet between courses cleansed and brightened our palates.

About half way through our meal, a large figure dressed in chefs whites wearing a tall, perfectly crisp chef’s hat appeared from the kitchen. He walked slowly, as if in a wedding procession, by each table. When he reached our table he turned toward us and stopped.

My education about France and cooking and wine had taken a slow and winding path but I knew enough to understand that one of the greatest figures in the Western culinary world was standing in front of me.

I had never seen the man and didn’t even know what he looked like, but there he was, larger than I ever imagined. His chef’s hat made him look ridiculously tall, and his girth – clearly from years of great cooking and eating – added to the impression that he was not only a great man but a very large man. He bowed ever so slightly, his chef’s hat swaying toward us.

I drew a deep breath and did the only thing I could think to do: tip my head and smile in appreciation. Paul, who knew some French, managed to speak: “C’etait formidable,” meaning, “it was incredible.”

Bocuse smiled graciously and then proceeded to the next table.

That evening, coming face-to-face with a great chef and blindly enjoying each dish put in front of us, marked the beginning of my fascination and appreciation for French food.

Since then, I have made hundreds of French dishes, eaten more pork fat than is necessary or healthy, and enjoyed each meal and each sip of wine with my husband, Paul, who has instilled in me a love for all things French.

This dish, adapted from a Paul Bocuse recipe, is a playful celebration of my epiphany in France. It has become a favorite, in part because it reminds me of meeting the famous chef and in part because it’s so sexy and fun to make and eat.

Stuffed Squid with Tomatoes and Thyme

Serves 2

1 pound squid (about six)
5 ounces (3-4 slices) firm white bread, dried
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 onions
2 cloves garlic
1 bunch flat leaf parsley
2 thick slices of Bayonne ham (1 1/8-inch slice of prosciutto will also work)
4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
Pinch of cayenne
5 large tomatoes (canned tomatoes work well)
1 sprig thyme

Special equipment
Wooden toothpicks

If you purchased frozen squid, defrost the squid in container with cool water for a half hour.


Remove the heads from the squid, reserving the tentacles. Gently clean them under cool running water without piercing the skin. Pat dry.

Remove and discard the crust from the bread and place it in a small bowl with the wine to soak. Peel and chop the onions and garlic. Remove the leaves from the parsley and chop, discarding the stems. Finely chop the ham and the squid tentacles.


Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onions and garlic and sauté briefly. Add the chopped ham and tentacles. Season with salt and pepper, stir, and let cook for 5 minutes.

Remove the bread from the wine and squeeze gently to remove excess liquid. Add the bread to the skillet breaking it up with the side of a spoon. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley. Correct the seasoning, and add the cayenne.

Spoon this mixture generously into the squid (this is where it gets fun – and potentially sexy – especially if you start filling those tubes with your hands).

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Secure the ends crosswise with toothpicks (when the squid cooks, it shrinks and this prevents the stuffing from oozing out).


Peel the tomatoes and chop them coarsely. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, Dutch oven. When the oil is hot, add the stuffed squid and sauté, turning until lightly browned on all sides. You may need to do this in batches. I found that browning all the squid at once created too much juice for a proper browning. Once browned lightly, add the tomatoes and thyme.

Cover and let simmer over medium heat for about 30 minutes. Serve with crusty French bread on the side.

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Saturday
Oct182008

prosciutto salmon with pasta and zucchini ribbons

Prosciutto Salmon

This dish is so easy and scalable that I made it for a group of six friends on a weeknight. The Fontina and prosciutto elevate ordinary salmon to special-occasion status and pair well with the lemony pappardelle and zucchini ribbons.

I adapted the recipe from Fran Warde's "Food for Friends," my dog-eared, go-to book for entertaining. I've made so many of her recipes that I rarely even use the book as a reference any more; I just cook from memory. For a lighter version, you can make it without the Fontina or without the prosciutto and it's still delicious.

Prosciutto Salmon with Pasta and Zucchini Ribbons

Serves 2

Prosciutto salmon
2 fillets of salmon, skinned (you can ask the fish monger to skin them)
4 slices prosciutto
4 thinly sliced, rectangular strips of Fontina cheese
Salt and pepper

Pasta and zucchini ribbons
1 pound pappardelle pasta
2 medium zucchinis
zest from 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced chives or chopped parsley
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Salt and pepper the salmon fillets. Place the cheese slices on top of the fillets so that the cheese will melt evenly over the top of the salmon. Wrap the fillets with two prosciutto slices each so that they are evenly distributed across the length of the fillet. Place the fillets on a broiler pan and cook for 12 - 15 minutes depending on the thickness of the filets.

Prosciutto Salmon

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Zest and juice the lemon. Using a mandoline, thinly slice the zucchini lengthwise into ribbons.

Cook the pasta as instructed on the package. The length of cooking time depends on the thickness of the pasta and can vary widely. During the last three minutes of cooking, add the zucchini ribbons to the boiling water to blanch, then drain the zucchini and pasta together.

Transfer the mixture to a bowl and add the lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Garnish the mixture with minced chives or chopped parsley.

Pappardelle and Zucchini Ribbons

Place the salmon fillets on top of the pasta and serve.

Prosciutto Salmon

 

Sunday
Oct122008

red wine poached pears with mascarpone whip: weeknight decadence

Red Wine Poached Pears with Marscapone Whip

When I told my colleagues at work that I had hosted a dinner party on a Thursday night, they thought I was nuts.

Standing by the water cooler in the kitchen, they just shook their heads as if to say, what were you thinking?

I shrugged it off. “Haven’t you heard? Thursday is the new Friday!” I said, brightly.

Their foreheads wrinkled in disbelief.

Really, it’s simple, I said, advancing my case. All you have to do is come up with a main course that is relatively easy to prepare and ask the guests to bring the starter and the dessert.

I didn’t happen to mention that the party was so successful in part because my friend, Lou, is a phenomenal amateur pastry chef, and my friend, Carrie, is a genius at creating her own dishes sans recipe.

I deliberately chose prosciutto-wrapped salmon as the main course because it was so easy. An hour of prep was all I needed.

Carrie prepped in advance six goat cheese buttons infused with balsamic vinegar for her delicious, late-season tomato and basil salad, and Lou, well, Lou managed to prepare what possibly could be the single best dessert I’ve ever had – pears poached in red wine with mascarpone whip.

With friends like these, Thursday really can be the new Friday.

I begged Lou for the recipe, which he says was adapted from two recipes, one by Michael Chiarello and the other from the The Silver Spoon cookbook. Lucky for me, he agreed and wrote it out with easy-to-follow instructions.

Allow me to present Lou's dessert:

Red Wine Poached Pears with Marscapone Whip

 

Red Wine Poached Pears with Mascarpone Whip

Courtesy of my good friend, Lou Cantolupo
Serves 6

Poaching the pears
6 ripe Bartlett pears (Bartletts work best due to their shape, flavor, and availability)
1 bottle Rioja red wine
1/2 cup sugar
Juice of one lemon
3 cinnamon sticks
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
4 coarsely crushed cloves (smashed with flat part of knife)
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 tsp salt

Filling
8 ounces mascarpone, softened to room temp.
1/2 pint heavy cream for whipping
3 heaping tablespoons of honey
1 heaping tablespoon of whole lavender

Soak the lavender buds in 2 tablespoons of hot tap water for 5 minutes and then drain, saving the buds. In a one-quart pot over a medium flame, add the cream and heat until it starts to steam a little; do not bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, add the lavender, stir, and then cover for 5 minutes. Filter through a wire mesh filter lined with cheesecloth into a new container and place that container in an ice bath.

Pour the wine, 2 cups of water and sugar into a large pot and bring to a light simmer. Add the cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, bay leaf, and cloves.

While the wine is simmering, cut off the top part of the pear (with stem) and slice about 1/2 inch from the bottom so the pear stands up straight. Peel the pear using a vegetable peeler and remove the core using an apple corer. If the pears are ripe the corer should go right through them; if not you may have to force it a bit, but be careful not to damage the pear. After peeling/coring each pear, lightly rub them with lemon juice to prevent browning. Save the residual cores.

Bring the wine mixture to a boil and gently add the remaining lemon juice and pears using a slotted spoon. It does not matter if the pears are upright or on their side, just make sure they are covered with the liquid. Return the liquid to a light simmer, cover, and poach for 15 minutes.

Very gently remove the pears with a slotted spoon and stand each upright on a plate to cool. When removing the pears from the liquid, it helps to use a chopstick inserted down the hole since the pear will be hot. Some of the pears may have a peppercorn or clove stuck in them. If so gently pry them out using a toothpick. Cool to room temperature and then cover with plastic wrap.

Add the pear cores to the liquid and using a potato masher carefully break the cores apart to release the extra juices and simmer for five minutes.

Carefully pour the hot wine mixture into a new pot through a cheesecloth lined fine wire mesh filter to remove the spices and pear bits. Add the vanilla and salt and return to a high boil and reduce to a final volume of 1/2 a cup. The liquid should be very syrupy. Run the syrup through a mesh filter again (not a cheesecloth) into a new container. Set aside.

Lou says, “As you can see this recipe makes quite a mess in the kitchen but it’s very simple. I’ve been using the 'Thomas Keller' method of sauce making: anytime you go from one container to another, filter, no matter how mundane the change over may be. It’s a bitch but it really does make a difference.”
Using a heavy spatula, mix the mascarpone and honey together.

 

In a separate bowl, whip the lavender-infused cream until you have stiff peaks. Gently fold the whipped cream into the mascarpone.

Place a pear on a plate and fill the center of using a pastry bag. (If you don’t have a pastry bag, use a plastic sandwich bag and cut a hole in one corner.)

Red Wine Poached Pears with Marscapone Whip

Red Wine Poached Pears with Marscapone Whip

Add a ring of syrup around the pear and then place a stem on top of each pear.

Red Wine Poached Pears with Marscapone Whip

Red Wine Poached Pears with Marscapone Whip

 

Saturday
Oct042008

tarragon chicken with zesty pappardelle

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I was in my 30s before I discovered the joy of cooking with fresh tarragon. This amazes me. I wonder how I could have lived for so long without this deliciously aromatic herb.

Now, I can't get enough. The anise-flavored leaves are used in a variety of dishes and sauces, including the classic French bearnaise sauce and the American 'green goddess' sauce.

Lucky for me, it's a summer and early fall herb, which makes it widely available in stores now.

I enjoy it with fish, especially perch, but my favorite pairing is with chicken and bacon. This recipe is adapted from a recipe by Fran Warde, the matron saint of all things tarragon and all things French. She pairs the flavorful herb with bacon, shallots, and chicken thighs to create this crowd-pleasing dish.

Tarragon Chicken with Zesty Pappardelle

Serves 4

8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
6 large shallots, cut in half
3 strips of bacon, roughly chopped
4 large bay leaves
salt and pepper

Tarragon sauce
2 tablespoons grainy mustard
1/2 cups white wine
2 large bunches tarragon, chopped

Pappardelle
1 pound pappardelle pasta
Zest from 1 lemon
1-2 tablespoons of lemon juice
1 small bunch of parsley, chopped
3 tablespoons of olive oil
salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Salt and pepper the chicken thighs and place them in a large baking dish. Add the bay leaves, and then the bacon. Place the shallots in between the thighs and bake for 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the white wine, mustard, and tarragon together and set aside.

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Cook the pasta in salted water, following the instructions for timing on the package. Drain, and then add the olive oil, chopped parsley, lemon zest, squeeze of lemon juice, and salt to taste. Toss and set aside.

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When the chicken has baked for 40 minutes, remove it from the oven and pour the tarragon sauce over the chicken to coat evenly.

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Return to the oven for 10 minutes. Serve the chicken over the pasta. This dish also pairs well with grilled sweet pepper and kalamata salad for an early fall backyard dinner.

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Monday
Sep222008

grilled sweet pepper and kalamata salad: a mediterranean treat

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Adapted from Fran Warde's Food for Friends, this colorful dish presents the perfect balance between sweet and salty. It's also easy to put together and makes for a superb late summer picnic salad or side dish to any number of pasta, chicken, or meat dishes.

Grilled Sweet Pepper and Kalamata Salad

4 red peppers, seeded and cut into large chunks
4 green peppers, seeded and cut into large chunks
4 yellow peppers, seeded and cut into large chunks
3 red onions, quartered lengthwise (keeping the core so it stays in one piece)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup fig balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons of honey
2 cups pitted kalamata olives, chopped
salt and pepper
1 bunch parsley, chopped


Place the bell peppers and onions into a large bowl and coat with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Transfer to the grill and cook until medium-soft with grill marks.

Return cooked vegetables to a bowl and toss with vinegar, honey, and olives. Mix well and garnish with parsley.

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You can also make this recipe by roasting the vegetables in a roasting pan on 350 degrees for about 40 minutes and then tossing them with vinegar, honey, and olives. It's equally delicious.