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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Saturday
Jul312010

blue cheese stuffed figs: flavor rockets for any time of day


Every fig season has me more excited that the last. When I spotted a stack of plump, fresh figs at the grocery store this season with no one around, I wanted a bullhorn to shout: "People! The figs are here!"

After containing myself, I picked up a plastic carton of the tender morsels, inspected all sides to ensure none were damaged, then lowered the container into my shopping basket, peering at it as if it were a newborn child.

My love of figs has prompted a life-long hunt for new and interesting fig recipes. Last year, I made a delicious fig tart and fig, bacon, and arugula salad. This year, I wanted something I could make fast as a appetizer so I stuffed them with blue cheese and pecans and served them on slices of speck.

The warm sweet fig with blue cheese and speck created an explosion of salty-sweet flavor that had me hooked and wanting more.

Blue Cheese Stuffed Figs with Speck

12 Black Mission or Brown Turkey figs
1 small bunch parsley, minced
1/3 cup blue cheese crumbles
3 tablespoons chopped pecans
6 slices of speck

Preheat oven to 425. Stem each fig and slice a shallow "X" on the top (if the cut is too deep, such as in the photo, above, the figs will fall apart in the oven -- I learned the hard way!). Mix together the cheese, pecans, and parsley. Fill each fig with a spoonful of the mixture. Place them on a baking sheet (a Silpat non-stick cooking mat makes for easy clean-up) and in the oven for about 12 minutes or until the cheese has melted.

Lay the speck flat across each plate and top with the baked figs.

 

Tuesday
Jun012010

smoked salmon salad: a light dinner with serious flavor

I believe that certain foods have the power to make one happy, to change one's mood. Just the thought of making this salad excited me, not only because it was healthy, but because it reminded me that mind-blowing flavor often comes from simple ingredients combined just the right way. This easy-to-make salad packs so much flavor, it has become my new favorite weeknight meal.

Smoked Salmon Salad

Serves 2

Smoked sockeye salmon or other smoked salmon (about 2 ounces per person broken it into chunks)
6 cups arugula
1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, sliced in half OR a 3 tablespoons capers, drained
1/2 cup chickpeas from the can, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup grape tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup pecans, chopped
1/4 cup goat cheese or bleu cheese crumbles to top
Salt, pepper to taste
1 lemon, quartered
Red wine vinaigrette (one small shallot, diced, added to a combination of 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar to 1/4 cup olive oil plus salt and pepper to taste)

Mix together the arugula, tomatoes, pecans, chickpeas, salmon, and olives (or capers). Dress the mixture lightly with the vinaigrette, sprinkle the goat cheese on top, and serve with lemon wedges. Devour it by yourself or with a loved one or two or three, and feel the joy that simple good food brings.

 

Thursday
Apr152010

quickie crepes suzette: an accessible weekend treat


The smallest things give me the greatest pleasure, like the first bite of a crepe on a lazy Sunday morning. A tender crepe lightly coated with berry drippings and powdered sugar always says ‘weekend’ to me like nothing else.

I usually prepare my crepes with a simple, four-berry jam. But on this day, I woke up feeling adventurous. Playing on the crepe suzette theme, I grabbed a jar of orange marmalade, scooped out a few spoonfuls into a saucepan, added lemon zest, lemon juice, and a splash of Grand Marnier.


Auguste Escoffier's suzette recipe, published in Larousse Gastronomique, mixes tangerine juice, Curacao, and olive oil in the batter and lets it set for two hours before cooking. Escoffier then melts more than a half stick of butter mixed with tangerine juice and zest on top.

My quickie version uses Grand Marnier instead of Curacao and marmalade instead of butter as the base of the sauce, which makes this dish healthier without losing the flavor. Sorry, Escoffier, it’s a healthier world now -- at least in this household!

Quickie Crepes Suzette

For the crepes (makes 9 – 10 crepes, depending on pan size)

¾ cups Italian tipo '00' flour or all-purpose flour*
¾ cups milk
½ cup warm water
2 eggs
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt

For the sauce

5 heaping spoonfuls of orange marmalade
1 tablespoon Gran Marnier
½ teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon of butter

Combine all the ingredients and whisk or blend until smooth. Let the batter rest for at least a half hour.

Meanwhile, make the sauce. In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Add the orange marmalade, the lemon zest, the lemon juice, and the Grand Marnier and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat and cover until ready to serve.

Heat a crepe pan on medium-high heat. Add about a teaspoon of butter to the pan. I like to use a silicone pastry brush to spread the butter evenly across the pan to limit the amount of extra butter between crepes. When the butter sizzles, the pan is ready.

Using a soup ladle, scoop one ladle full of batter (or slightly less depending on the size of your pan) onto the pan's surface and quickly distribute across the pan evenly by lifting the pan and rolling it around. When the underside begins to pull away from the sides and brown, flip the crepe to its backside with a spatula using a metal spatula (rubber spatulas will stick to the crepe's surface). Cook the second side for about 30 seconds, then place the crepe on a plate in a warming oven at 200 degrees and continue until the batter is used.

To serve, fold several crepes over like envelopes on a plate, and pour the sauce over the top.

*Lately, I’ve been experimenting with Italian ‘tipo 00’ flour. After years of crepe-making with all-purpose flour, I found that crepes made with ‘00’ flour are thinner, more tender, and eggier – exactly what I think a crepe should be. You can find a great explanation of the difference between all purpose and 00 flour on Joe Pastry's terrific blog.

Saturday
Dec052009

migas: a stand-out dish inspired by batali's so-so book 'spain'

When I buy a cookbook, it’s a serious matter. Cookbooks are expensive. I want to cook from them for life. Otherwise, why pay the $20 to $30 bucks?

My favorite cookbooks sport grease stains, dog-eared folds, and scribbles along the margins. They make me dream. They transport me to places I’ve never been through intriguing recipes and good writing. They can even sit in for good novel.

So when I mail-order a cookbook that bores me or offers few recipes I would actually cook, I kick myself. This was the case with Mario Batali’s “Spain: A Culinary Road Trip,” which I bought in anticipation of my summer trip to Barcelona.

Every time I see the book on my shelf, I feel like a sucker -- a sucker for Mario’s orange Crocs, for co-author Gwenyth Paltrow’s quiet beauty and Hollywood mystique, and for believing the two of them together could inspire me to cook.

The part-travel, part-cookbook and companion to the PBS television series, weaves location shots with Mario’s blow-by-blow of whom they met and where they went, recorded dialogue dryly rendered in text boxes, and recipes that, for one reason or another, fail to compel me to pick up my trusty Henckels and start chopping.

As a traveler, I enjoyed the photographs of the various regions of Spain and I found a few recipes that piqued my interest, but there was only one recipe that inspired me to cook and that was for migas.

The book offered little information about the stir-fried bread dish but Wikipedia explained that migas, literally translated as “crumbs,” was originally eaten as a breakfast made with leftover bread or tortillas.

Both sweet and salty, this easy-to-prepare classic peasant dish packs a ton of flavor. Many traditional recipes, including Mario’s, suggest cooking it with fresh grapes. I prefer dried currants, which offer a more subtle counterpoint to the salty, fatty chorizo. I've also changed the porportions and omitted the pancetta, which I didn't have on hand and upped the amount of chorizo instead.

I’m still unsure if the recipe was worth the book’s $34.95 cover price (ouch!) but this is one dish I’ll enjoy for a long time to come.

Here’s my version, inspired by Batali's so-so “Spain.”

Migas

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup roasted red bell pepper from a jar, drained and cut into strips
4 garlic cloves, not peeled
5 ounces of chorizo, casings removed, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
3-1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
1/2 cup currants
1 egg per person, fried so that the whites are cooked but the yolk is still moist, to top each plate

Put the breadcrumbs in a bowl and sprinkle with just enough water to moisten. Mario suggests covering them with a damp paper towel and setting aside for two hours. I skip this step. The important thing is that the bread be evenly moistened. A spray bottle would work well.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and stir until lightly browned. Add the chorizo and cook until the fat is rendered, about 8 minutes. Add the bread crumbs and mix thoroughly with the garlic and chorizo and cook, stirring frequently, until the crumbs are lightly browned. Add the currants and roasted red peppers.


Meanwhile, fry the eggs. Spoon the migas mixture onto each plate and top each plate with an egg.

 

Monday
Nov162009

beef bourguignon: a nod to france's beloved 'boeuf'

Every time I go to Paris, there are two things I crave: oeuf and boeuf. More than any other country, it seems, the French have perfected cooking egg and beef. From the classic croque madame to the simple but elegant steak au poivre, they have raised the bar for these humble ingredients.

My recent trip there did not fail me.

After traveling nearly 20 hours and heaving my luggage up the RER stairs and Paris metro stairs a total of eight times, I rolled my suitcase, out of breath, into the Crown Plaza hotel lounge where I immediately plopped into a cozy, wine-colored chair like a puppet with no string master. The waiter appeared wearing a starched white shirt and black bowtie. I was too tired to offer up scrappy French. “Croque madame and a glass of viognier please.” He nodded and disappeared between the velvet chairs.

To my great luck, my open-faced ham and egg sandwich arrived drenched in béchamel sauce and nestled in a pile of sizzling hot fries. Ah, the ouef. The glorious egg. When I punctured it with the tines of my fork, the bright yellow yolk spilled its silky liquid onto the bread.

Good French food is like a drug; it alters one’s reality, and if only for a moment, makes one believe they are living the postcard version of France where poets and artists make a decent living, workdays are fewer, and kissing is a national pastime.

It’s this version of Paris that keeps Paris busy being Paris. I. M. Pei may add high-tech pyramids to the Louvre but the bistro chairs will always look the same and a good steak with frites never goes out of fashion.

And thank God for that because my favorite French dishes are usually the most humble.

Co-owner Dominique Vessiere at Le P'tit Troquet

At Le P’tit Troquet, a charming, family-run 1920s-style bistro in the 7th arrondissement, I sampled a delicious boeuf bourguignon with tender chunks of beef that had been braised for hours. The chef served the tasty stew with a side of homemade noodles and a garnish of fresh bay leaf and thyme. I adored the simplicity of the dish, which relied more on drawing out deep flavors through traditional cooking methods than on fancy techniques. For at least that night, I was happy to live in the postcard version of Paris, the one that never ceases to capture my imagination through simple, good food.

Here is my ode to France's beloved boeuf, a beef bourguignon, similar to the one I tasted at Le P'tit Troquet.


According to The New Best Recipe, all beef burgundies start with either salt pork or bacon. The book instructs cooks to boil the salt pork first to remove excess salt and argues a similar technique for bacon, saying that blanching bacon calms the smoke and sugar. Personally, I didn't want to calm my bacon flavors, especially since I was only going to use the rendered fat, not the bacon bits. Using just the rendered fat turned out a sauce that was delicate and balanced.

This recipe is a combination of three recipes, one from The New Best Recipe, and the other two from Saveur Cooks Authentic French and Paris Bistro Cooking. It's the tastiest version I've tried yet.

Beef Bourguignon

Serves 4 with extra

3 pounds beef chuck roast, cut into 1-1/2 inch squares
4 ounces bacon
1 bunch parsley
1 teaspoon peppercorns
3-4 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
4 medium carrots, roughly chopped
1 large onion, roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, skins removed
1 bottle burgundy
1 cup beef stock
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 tablespoons butter
¼ cup flour
10 ounces button mushrooms
10 ounces pearl onions
salt and pepper
Parsley, finely diced, or fresh sprigs of fresh bay leaf and thyme for garnish
16 ounces fresh pasta (see recipe, below)

Special equipment: chinoise, pasta machine, bouquet garni bag.

Heat a Dutch oven over medium flame. Add the bacon and fry until crispy, turning once. Remove the bacon and pour out all but a tablespoon of the fat.

Add 1 tablespoon of butter to the bacon fat. On medium-high heat, brown the beef in batches, about 5 minutes per side. While the meat is browning, roughly chop the carrots and onions. Peel the garlic cloves. Assemble the bouquet garni by placing the peppercorns, parsley, thyme, and bay leaf in a bouqet garni bag and tying it off.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

When the beef is finished browning, remove it from the Dutch oven and set it aside on a plate.

In the bacon fat and juices from the beef, cook the carrot, onion, and garlic over medium heat for five minutes. Add the flour and stir for 30 seconds longer. Setting aside ¼ cup of the red wine, pour the bottle of wine into Dutch oven with the vegetables. Add the tomato paste, beef stock, the browned beef, the bouquet garni, and a generous amount of salt and pepper.


Cover and place in the oven. Cook for two hours.

Meanwhile, prepare the pearl onions by cutting a small “X” on the root end of the onion. Blanch the onions in boiling water for 3 minutes and remove. When they are cool, use your thumb and forefinger to pinch the skin toward the X mark until the inner onion pops through the outer layer leaving a shell behind. Heat 1 tablespoon of butter in a saute pan and saute the pearl onions for 12 minutes. Meanwhile, halve the button mushrooms. If they are larger than two inches wide, quarter them. Add the mushrooms, along with another tablespoon of butter, to the pan and saute for about 6 – 8 more minutes.

After 2 hours, remove the Dutch oven from the oven. Using tongs, extract the beef chunks and set aside on a plate. Set a large bowl in the sink. Using a chinoise, strain the wine liquid through the chinoise and into the large bowl, pressing the solids against the chinoise with a spatula.

Discard the solids and pour the liquid back into the Dutch oven. Add pearl onions and mushroom mixture as well as the beef back into the pot. Cook together for 10 minutes.

Setting a deep pot over a high flame, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil for the pasta. Add 2 tablespoons salt and cook the egg noodles until they float to the top. Strain the noodles.

Add the remaining red wine to the beef bourguignon and cook for another three minutes. The New Best Recipe says "this late embellishment of raw wine vastly improved the sauce, brightening its flavor." I agree. Serve the stew over egg noodles and garnish with chopped parsley or fresh bay leaves and thyme.

Egg Noodles

3 eggs
2-1/2 cups flour plus more for dusting

Pour the flour onto an extra large cutting board. Form the flour into a circle with a well or ‘bowl’ in the middle. Crack the eggs into the middle of the flour. Slowly begin whisking eggs together, drawing flour from the sides of the ‘bowl’ into the egg mixture. Take your time and avoid lumps. The mixture should be smooth and silky. Once there is too much flour for your fork to handle, begin kneading the dough by hand, adding in extra flour until the dough is no longer sticky.

Cut the ball in quarters. Roll out each quarter so it will fit through a pasta machine. Set the pasta machine to Setting 2. Ensure the quarter of dough is well floured. Feed the dough through the machine twice. Repeat the procedure at Setting 4 and Setting 5.

Next, roll the pasta through the fettucine setting.


Repeat with the other three pieces of dough until all the pasta is cut and ready to cook. Follow the steps listed above and serve. Want to learn about wine pairing with beef bourguignon? Click here.

Friday
Sep042009

chorizo tortilla with fino sherry: revealing the flavors of Spain


I slipped on my sandals, grabbed Paul’s hand, and walked with our dear friends, Mike and Cyana, a mile from our rented apartment to Barcelona's epicenter of fresh fishes and meats, fruits and vegetables, and artisan meats and cheeses: Boqueria market.

I was on a mission to better understand Spanish cuisine. For months I’d been trying to parcel out the culinary identity of Spain but had a difficult time, noting so many elements and styles. Aside from broad generalizations (like they eat bread and potatoes instead of pasta), I wondered what were the defining elements. I figured the Boqueria market would help solve the mystery, or at least serve as a starting place.

When I entered, I felt a wetness in the air from the fresh vegetables and cool meat stands. The bright pinks and oranges of the freshly squeezed fruit juices sold in plastic cups stood out next to the dense stand of hanging cured meats.

I pulled my camera out, poised to capture the kaleidoscope of eye-catching foods – fish with bulging, glassy eyes, exotic fruits, and what I thought would be a clan of happy workers, all thrilled to be selling Barcelona’s freshest. But as I focused on the scrubby, apron-clad vendors, I noticed some sporting grimaces.
 
“Que quiera??” a large, middle-aged fishmonger asked me sternly when I paused at her stall with my camera in hand. I was just looking, I said. She drew her arms to her hips, rolled her eyes, and walked away. As I meandered around, I noticed it wasn’t just her. Many of the sellers snubbed the camera-slinging tourists, all pausing to take photos but not buying.

No matter. I was on the hunt for good Spanish food. I didn’t need my camera. I just needed my eyes, my nose, and my tongue.

The four of us selected sandwiches, cheeses, fruits, a bottle off cava, and dessert and hailed a cab to the Park Guell, Gaudi’s miniature garden city, for an afternoon picnic.


We found a shaded picnic table and Mike and Cyana unpacked their plastic bags revealing raspberries, fresh figs, the sweetest dried dates I’d ever tasted, and juicy grapes. Paul and I pulled out two kinds of goat cheeses, four sandwiches, and an assortment of olives. Mike popped open the cava (literally, the cork exploded and a good cup of the liquid shot across the picnic table), and filled our glasses. We munched on our snacks and relaxed, peering out over the large plaza where a sword-slinging belly dancer periodically made her moves a small crowd of tourists.

The food tasted delicious and fresh but revealed no secrets. It did, however, make us drowsy, and, like the poppy-sniffing clan from the Wizard of Oz, we fell asleep on park benches.

As I drifted off, I thought about the question of Spanish food again. My copy of Lonely Planet’s World Food Spain, had helped me understand what Spanish cuisine was not: molded, mashed, or pureed beyond recognition.

“Your food will not be tarted up and made to look cute, or grand, or rare and costly. There is no over-reliance on sauces... no confusion of tastes.”


The book was published nearly ten years ago and despite the emergence of innovative, molecular Spanish chefs such as Ferran Adria, who sparked the culinary foam craze, I wondered if Spanish food was just a collection of local ingredients and styles prepared well, like the foods we enjoyed at our picnic.

We ate a wide range of delicious dishes that week that were labeled Spanish or Catalan (which is more Mediterranean-focused), including a tasty dessert soup of ‘Maria Luisa' with lemon ice cream, mint-and-ginger plum cake, melon, and lychee at Jordi Villa’s chef-owned Alkimia as well as a more down-to-earth meal of lamb, bacalau (salt cod), and pepper tapas at our favorite slow-food certified Mam i Teca. The tiny, five- maybe six-table wine bar and tapas restaurant by far brought me the closest to understanding Spanish cuisine, and the jovial owner-chef, Alfons Bach, was so spirited that he did a little dance, showing us some leg, as he closed the blinds, marking the end of the evening at around 1 a.m.

Still, it wasn’t until I returned home that I finally figured out Spanish cuisine. And it happened from what I deem an unlikely source: Martha Stewart.

I know, I know. It’s ridiculous. I travel all the way to Spain only to come home and discover the “real” Spanish cuisine from Martha Stewart. I’m embarrassed.

I made her chorizo tortilla and piquillo peppers stuffed with shrimp salad, starting with a Serrano ham and olive appetizer, which I downed with a sherry fino cocktail. What I finally understood after assembling all those Spanish ingredients at the same time was that the culinary identity of Spain was in fact, not a single identity, but a delicate ecosystem of fat and acid from locally made ingredients.

When I chewed on the smoky Serrano ham and followed it with a sip of super dry sherry fino, two ingredients I failed to try on my trip, I tasted Spain for the first time.


Tortilla Espanola con Chorizo

Adapted from Martha Stewart's Living. (Note on adaptation: Martha included six ounces of chorizo, which slightly overpowered the potato and egg flavor. I cut it back the chorizo amount by one ounce to bring out the sweetness of the potatoes).

Serve the tortilla espanola with Martha's Stewart's "Piquillo Peppers Stuffed with Shrimp Salad" and enjoy with a glass of sherry fino.

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1-1/4 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes (about 3 large), peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 small onion, diced
5 ounces dried chorizo, cut into 1/4-inch dice
6 large eggs, beaten

Heat the oil in a heavy, 8-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Add the potatoes and onion, and season with salt. Cover and cook the potatoes until they are tender, about 12 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the potatoes and onion to a bowl. Add the chorizo to the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes. Transfer the chorizo and pan drippings to potato-onion mixture. Reserve skillet.

Add the eggs to the potato-onion mixture and season with salt and pepper. Lightly coat the skillet with more oil if needed and heat over a medium flame. Pour in the egg mixture and stir to combine and press to flatten. Cook, running a flexible spatula around the edges occasionally until the edges set and the center is slightly running, about 6 minutes. Place a plate, upside down, over the skillet, and invert the tortilla onto the plate (be careful about the hot oil that will drip out of the pan). Slide the tortilla back into the skillet and cook over low heat until it's completely set in the center, a few minutes longer. Slice and serve.




Interested in Barcelona? Check out more photos here.

Note on ingredients: It's difficult to find piquiilo peppers at most local markets in my area so I purchased them, along with a couple of packs of Serrano ham, online from La Tienda.

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