Friday, March 31, 2006

Tomato Platform gets Roasted

Sometimes, living in California especially, things like tomatoes just don’t have any flavor. It doesn’t matter how ripe they look, how firm or soft they are, what kind of tomatoes they are, they just have no taste.

I’ve read recently about so called – that have wonderful flavor, and are available from Florida in winter – but the food police apparently have banned this from California. My first act as president in 2008 – right after abolishing daylight savings time forever – would be to make tomatoes that actually taste good available everywhere – year round. Ugly tomatoes for everyone! People – I can feel your tomato pain! Do I have your vote???

Well, I have 2 years to develop the message – maybe tweak it a bit.

I have lived in other places where this tasteless tomato dilemma was hardly ever a problem. But here – almost always.

My answer is to roast. At low temperatures, for a long time, until what little tomato flavor there might possibly be has concentrated itself to the point that it can actually impart a sensation to the tongue.

And that sensation, despite the pitiful beginning, can really be sensational.

Coupled with some olive oil, and thyme, the roasting produces a fantastic flavor that can be used in a lot of recipes.

It’s not quite a sun-dried tomato flavor, but pretty close.

To ‘take it up a notch’, I usually roast a head of garlic alongside. Roasting garlic turns it into a creamy paste of truly sensual delight. I can spread this directly onto toast and be happy for a long time.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily encourage others to spend a lot of time in my immediate vicinity – but the answer to this is just to invite someone to share this with you. As long as you both stink in this heavenly manner, both will be happy.

And just to round out the roasted evening, something else that really improves from good to great when roasted is parsnips. The carroty flavor gains real depth after an hour in the oven, and this translates to a wonderfully satisfying soup. A touch of cumin and cayenne – just because I like them. This is one of our favorite soups.

All three things, tomatoes, garlic and parsnips could be roasted at the same time – reducing both the effort and the total time required to make these two dishes by turning the over to 350ºF – but you have to be very careful not to burn the tomatoes.

Roasted Parsnip Soup with Fontana Toasts

6-8 parsnips, peeled
Olive oil
Salt, pepper
1 onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 tbsp cumin
1 tsp cayenne pepper
3 cups chicken broth
4 slices French bread
Fontana cheese, grated
Parsley, chopped, for garnish

Toss peeled parsnips in olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast at 400ºF for 40 tpo 45 minutes, or until tender and caramelized. Remove to cool.

Heat olive oil on a soup pot. Sautee onion, celery and carrot until slightly softened. Add parsnips, and sauté until heated through. Add cumin, cayenne pepper, and chicken broth. Bring just to a boil, and reduce heat. Simmer for 20 minutes until all vegetables are very tender. Remove from heat.

Puree soup in a food processor until very smooth. Add a little water as necessary to thin to desired constancy. Season with salt and pepper.

Toast buttered French bread slices on both sides under broiler until lightly browned. Place 2-3 tbsp grated cheese on each toast, and melt cheese under broiler.

Ladle soup into 4 soup bowls. Float a piece of Fontana toast in the middle, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve. Enjoy!

Thyme Roasted Tomato and Garlic Risotto with Goat Cheese

10-12 roma tomatoes
1 head garlic, unpeeled
olive oil
4-5 sprigs fresh thyme
1 onion, minced
3 cups short grain rice (Arborio, for example)
2-3 tbsp rice vinegar or other mild vinegar, or ¼ to ½ cup white wine
8 cups chicken broth
8 oz goat cheese, cut into pieces
parsley, for garnish
Pecorino-Romano cheese, grated, for garnish

Heat oven to 300ºF.

Cut top of garlic head off just enough to reveal the garlic inside the cloves, but keeping the garlic head intact in its skin. Wrap the head in a piece of aluminum foil, leaving the top open. Pour 2-3 tbsp olive oil into the garlic head, trying to get as much of the oil onto the head as possible. Wrap the foil tightly around the garlic to seal. Place the wrapped garlic on a baking sheet, and roast in the oven for about 90 minutes. Set aside to cool. When cool, squeeze the individual cloves of roasted garlic out of their skins onto a plate, and reserve.

Cut tomatoes in half. Toss tomato halves in a bowl with olive oil, the fresh thyme leaves stripped off the sprigs, and some salt. Place the tomatoes skin side up on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Roast for about 30 minutes – or until skins are well loosened. Quickly (and carefully) remove skins and discard, leaving tomato halves on baking sheet. Put tomatoes back in oven and continue to bake for an additional 60 to 80 minutes, until they are well shriveled, but not burned. Remove from oven and let cool.

Bring the chicken broth to a simmer in a pot.

Heat olive oil in another large heavy pot. Add chopped onions and sauté over medium heat for 2-3 minutes. Add rice to pot. Turn up heat, and roast rice, stirring, until heated through and slightly translucent. Lower heat to medium, and add rice wine vinegar or white wine, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add about 1 cup of chicken broth, stirring. As broth is absorbed, continue to add broth ½ to 1 cup at a time, stirring. When about 2/3 of the broth has been added, stir in the tomatoes and the garlic. Continue to add broth until the rice is almost al dente. Stir in the goat cheese, stirring well. Continue to add broth, ½ cup at a time, until the risotto is al dente, and has a creamy, smooth texture.

Serve risotto in bowls with a sprinkle of parsley, and some grated Pecorino-Romano cheese. Serve. Enjoy!

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Organized Madness!

I mentioned yesterday that I became infected while watching Michael Chiarello in the Food Network make a flan. It looked good. It seemed easy. Pour a little of this in, mix a bit like that, never break a sweat, and voila! Perfection in less than 30 minutes.

(I couldn't wait - it worked! You can just make out the orangey Kumquat flecks in the flan. More on the taste below)

Of course, I realize he has assistants. And there were probably some things prepared in advance. And naturally, every possible implement, bowl, burner, whatever, was exactly in the right place at the right time. An entire kitchen seemingly created just to make that one flan for that one TV show.

Well, I have assistants as well. Sometimes. When they are not watching basketball on TV while the onions burn to charcoal. Or if they don’t suddenly have huge amounts of homework that has to be done by tomorrow. Homework always wins, of course.

And my kitchen, while not set up specifically just to do this one flan recipe, has a reasonable amount of stuff – there is a stove, oven, utensils, etc.

So how hard can all this be?

But, naturally, when you actually make one of these recipes, the behind the scenes effort becomes clear. It usually takes me at least the entire 30 minutes just to find all the equipment I will likely need – or more than likely - to fashion a needed utensil that I don’t have out of some combination of things I do have. An example was the recent Cannoli shells I made. I don’t know how many people have Cannoli tubes in their kitchen, but I didn’t. Until I cut up part of an old tricycle to the desired shape, and spent some time cleaning it. Now I do – sort of. And it worked just fine.

Then comes the chopping, measuring and assembling of ingredients which alone takes more than the 30 minutes of the TV show.

Plus I have to spend a good 30 minutes cleaning the kitchen in general of assorted cereal bowls, juice glasses, half eaten bites of food, kitchen towels tossed about, etc. before I can even start anything.

So their 30 minute TV show can easily turn into a 2 hour effort for me. But that is part of the fun (except the cleaning the kitchen part).

But one thing I do follow, fairly strictly, is to prepare everything in advance – mise en place. Everything measured, chopped, set aside in the right amounts, ready for use. You don’t really notice this on the TV shows, but this organization is the reason that these shows generally go so smoothly.

A long, long time ago, I used to just go for it. Start cooking. No preparation. And often in the middle of a trying step in a recipe, something would go very wrong. Resulting in frustration, and even worse, hunger!

But that changed when I learned to cook Chinese – actually Cantonese – food. Maybe it was the teacher, maybe it is just the type of cooking in general. Since Cantonese cooking follows a fairly predictable route each time – sautee vegetables, sautee meat, add sauce, finish – it lends itself to a clear process and a solid mise en place technique.

Even better, it allows you to clean as you go, which is crucial in a small apartment kitchen. I have made multi-course Chinese dinners for several couples in a kitchen hardly big enough to turn around in – with virtually no cleanup, and no stress. Everything prepared and set aside in neat little bowls in advance, ready to be added to the process as necessary.

This mise en place organization gives me the confidence to go beyond my very apparent limitations and dabble in the madness that makes cooking fun (for me, anyways!).

So I apply that to almost all my cooking adventures. Including the Kumquat Flan I mentioned yesterday. Because it seemed somewhat intimidating – I am not sure if I have made one before – I made sure to prepare ahead.

But – as mentioned, my kitchen was not designed for just this one flan. And I do not have just the right baking pan. Something close – but not quite right. So when I poured the flan preparation into the baking dish, the potential for trouble became clear – my baking dish is somewhat larger than the one called for in the recipe – and there is about a 3 inch gap between the top of the custard and the top of the pan – meaning the flan will have to drop several inches through the air, somehow be caught on a plate – that does not then smash to the ground – without falling apart, and the now (hopefully) empty baking dish will have to be put down with one hand, while the flan on the plate continues to hover precariously in the air held by the other hand, probably with all the caramel flowing down my arm towards the floor. Good luck with all that!

But before all that excitement – the dinner. Whenever I see fresh green asparagus, I think of that Cantonese cooking course, and one of the best dishes I‘ve ever made - Asparagus Chicken in Black Bean Sauce. This is made with Chinese fermented black beans, preserved in salt. They smell STRONG. Powerful. Its not obvious at first that this is something you actually want to eat. But the taste is fantastic. Earthy. Pungent. And when mashed together with garlic to form a paste – it transcends description. Over time, I have increased the amount of black bean / garlic paste I add to this recipe. And the more I add, the more everyone likes it. The crunch of fresh asparagus, its grassy freshness, balances the heady taste and aroma of the black bean sauce perfectly. One of those perfect combinations.

And with a little preparation, the cooking is a snap.

Just a note - as you saw in the first picture - the Kumquat Flan worked! It dropped out of the way-too-big baking dish onto a serving plate with a sickening plop, but stayed in one piece! Whew!

And the flavor is intensly Kumquat and orange! I am not a flan expert - yet - but we all agreed the flavor in general was great. I don't think I did the carmel as well as I could have, but a nice way to highlight Kumquats!

Time for a glass of wine. I need to savor my new Flan expertise in peace.

So here is tonight's dinner:

Asparagus Chicken in Black Bean Sauce

4 cups boneless chicken breast, cut into pieces the size of your thumb
Mix with:
2 tbsp cornstarch
2 tbsp soy sauce
2-3 tbsp Chinese salted black beans, washed through a strainer, and minced to a paste together with:
3 cloves garlic
3 tbsp oil

Gravy ingredients, mix together:
2 tbsp cornstarch
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 ½ cups chicken broth

4-6 cups asparagus spears, about the diameter of your thumb, bottoms snapped off and bottoms discarded, spears sliced diagonally on a slant

Add oil to a large pan or Wok. Heat till smoking hot. Add asparagus. Sautee, stirring for 1 minute. Add a few tablespoons water, cover, and cook for 2-3 minutes more. Stir, and remove to a bowl. Asparagus should be just crisp-tender, not cooked through an soft.

Add additional oil to pan. Heat till smoking hot. Add marinated chicken to pan. Spread out the chicken to cover pan, and do not disturb for a few minutes. Let the chicken develop a bit of a brown crust. Stir chicken, continue to cook – on highest heat – stirring as necessary, and allow the chicken to develop a brown crust on all sides.

Add gravy mixture to meat. Add asparagus. Stir to coat well. Cook until asparagus is just heated through, and gravy has thickened.

Transfer to a serving plate. Serve. Enjoy!

Kumquat Flan

1 cup sugar for caramelizing
3 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
13 ounces evaporated milk (I used low fat – the fat police were watching again!)
1 teaspoon orange extract (I used Triple Sec, an orange liqueur)
1/2 cup Kumquat puree (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Pour 1 cup of sugar into a 2-quart casserole or soufflé dish and bake in hot oven until sugar is liquefied and golden, about 30 minutes. Caramelized sugar is very hot, so be careful not to burn yourself when removing pan from oven. Tilt dish so sauce coats bottom and sides. Set aside to cool on wire rack.

For the flan: Put whole eggs and yolks in a medium bowl. Break eggs and blend gently. Do not beat; you don't want bubbles to form.

Add undiluted evaporated milk and orange extract. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into another bowl (this gets rid of any bubbles).

Gently mix in kumquat puree. Pour mixture into cooled caramel-coated dish.

Place dish in larger ovenproof pan containing at least 1 inch of hot water and place in hot oven. Bake for 1 hour until custard is golden and set.

Cover and refrigerate overnight.

To serve, turn onto a flat platter and spoon caramel sauce over the top.
Garnish with whole kumquats and leaves.

Serves 8 to 10.

- Adapted from the flan recipe that won best of show in 2003 at the Kumquat Festival in Dade City, Fla.

Pureed Kumquats:

To prepare:
Wash as many kumquats as needed. Cut fruits in half and remove seeds.
Place seeded fruits in blender, which makes a finer puree, or food processor.
Do not cook.
Use puree in recipes as called for or, after preparation, freeze in zip-lock bags or other freezer containers.

- Adapted from Kumquat Growers Inc.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

An Enigma wrapped in a Kumquat

It’s pretty much the end of Kumquat season. I’ve been buying them on occasion for the last several months, and apparently this is about to end for a while.

This fruit was always an enigmatic oddity for me.

First off, they were not physically available, to my knowledge, where I grew up. Although I have to say though that they were certainly not on anyone’s grocery list, so maybe they were there, and we didn’t know it. Maybe someone was putting them in their marshmallow jello fruit salad all the time. Maybe we had even had one and not known it? Hmmm.

In fact, I don’t think were would have even realized what it was we were looking at had we spotted some in the market. They just weren’t part of our core ‘cuisine’ (i.e. they didn’t come frozen as part of a TV dinner) when I was young.

The name was somehow familiar. It’s an unusual sounding sort of name, and sticks once you’ve heard it. But to us it was a funny sort of name. So the name became sort of the punch line of jokes, despite the fact that no one knew exactly what one was. The Kumquat itself became something more conceptual, like humor, than a thing you might eat.

When I finally did notice them (they had in fact been all around all the time, as I suspected earlier) the mystery continued.

Do you peel them? And if so, how? I mean, they’re pretty small.

Or are they squeezed, for juice in the morning? It would take a hundred to make one glass of juice. We’d already had enough fun with Key Limes – they were hard enough to squeeze.

And trying to break them into sections for a fruit plate? Forget it.

So I was sort of amused upon moving here, and meeting people for whom Kumquats are part of their cuisine. I found out that you just pop them into your mouth. Whole. Peel, seeds, whatever. You bypass all the tedious preparation and just eat them directly.

Eaten this way, they seem much more like grapes than oranges. And that is more or less the way they seem to be used in cooking - more like grapes than oranges. Beautiful little orange flavored grapes - brilliant!

Well, this works for me. I’m all for flavor at minimal effort. So I decided, in typical fashion, to buy some, and figure out what exactly to do with them later.

First, we dared each other to try one. Whole. After that thrill wore off, there were still many left. That batch turned a bit green before they got used, and ended up discarded.

Well, that didn’t slow me down. I bought another bunch of them. They’re pretty cheap, and they look nice in a basket on the shelf if nothing else. Everyone groaned. “Not those things again!”

That’s my battle cry. I was determined to find a way to prepare these things that would quell the detractors.

First step – don’t tell anyone.

It’s funny how if you try something, like it, and find out later what it is, you can get over the psychological hurdle that prevented you from perceiving its intrinsic goodness. Since these things are orange, and cooked resemble an orange, I let everyone think they were getting oranges – which everyone for the most part likes.

The first attack was a Kumquat Chutney sauce for fish. In this recipe, the Kumquat flavor is right there to explore, and the 5 spice powder gives it just a hint of peppery background. This was excellent – and will be repeated tonight. Just as planned – everyone thought they were getting a nice orange sauce for the fish. And only gradually noticed that it was not quite a normal orange. Too late! They had already admitted to liking it.

Next came a Kumquat vinaigrette for salad. Again – wonderful, but the stuff of a future Blog.

Today, along with the Kumquat chutney, which I will put on pan fried Tilapia, I want to try a Kumquat flavored flan. I think that the orangey flavor of the Kumquat will go well with the caramelized sugar and egg yolk flavors. And you can believe me when I say I am not (yet) a flan expert. But it’s gotten into my blood, and they will be made (I saw Michael Chiarello making flans on Food Network). I won’t be able to reveal the results of this madness until tomorrow – but keep your fingers crossed! I’ll post a photo – success or failure.

Pan-Roasted Tilapia on Orange Sauce with Kumquat Chutney

8 Tilapia fillets
Olive oil
1 cup flour
1 tbsp curry powder
½ tbsp cayenne pepper
salt, pepper
2 shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
orange rind strips
½ cup white wine
¼ cup orange juice
Kumquat Chutney (recipe follows)
Kumquat slices for garnish
Parsley, chopped, for garnish

Prepare Kumquat chutney and reserve.

Combine flour, curry power, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper on a flat plate. Preheat olive oil in a sautee pan. Dredge each fillet lightly in the flour mixture, and shake off extra flour. Sautee Tilapia fillets on both sides until lightly browned. Remove from pan and reserve in a warm oven on a heat proof plate.

Add additional olive oil to pan. Sautee shallots and garlic for 1-2 minutes over medium heat. Deglaze pan with the white wine, scrapping up and bits stuck to the bottom. Add the orange strips and orange juice. Bring to a simmer and reduce until thickened.

To plate, place a few tbsps of the orange reduction sauce on a plate. Place the Tilapia fillet on top. Spoon some of the Kumquat chutney over the fillet. Decorate with the Kumquat slices and parsley. Serve. Enjoy!

Kumquat Chutney

2 cups Kumquats, sliced in half, seed removed
1 orange, peeled, seeded and chopped
½ cup red onion, minced
2-3 thin slices of fresh, peeled ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tsp 5 spice powder
2 tsp red wine vinegar
½ cup fresh orange juice
¼ cup sugar, or to taste
Olive oil

Add olive oil to a hot sauté pan. Add onion, garlic, Kumquats, orange, ginger and 5 spice powder. Sautee for a few minutes over medium heat. Add red wine vinegar, orange juice, and sugar. Reduce heat, and simmer over low heat until mixture thickens.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Rain, Rain ... Go Away or Stay?

When I lived in , I often used to like the rain. Sometimes – not always – it came down gently, continuously, almost softly. You could take a walk in it, and almost enjoy it. Everything was intensely green, washed clean of the city soot. Because it is sort of far north, there were few really steamy humid days. Of course there were those storms that came in from the North Sea and tried to wash us from the map. I didn’t live through the big flood, but we had a few occasions where the rain-flooded Elba River rose just about to the doorsteps.

(This was the view out my appartment window of the Elba River in Hamburg, Germany)

Some places have had sensational thunder and lighting. The mid-west US offered huge, booming thunders that sometimes boomed continuously for quite a few seconds, and seemed to roll and echo away into the distance. Usually with brilliant lightning that could really light up the sky. Everyone counted the time from the lighting to the thunder. I’m not sure we knew then why we were counting. But we did it just the same.

Or when we lived in New Orleans, where it just rained. Nonstop. For days at a time. And hard – sheets of rain that you could hardly see through. The streets filled with water several feet deep. Cars stalled in it. Schools closed. You could board surf down the driveways on the water. We all had round boogie boards and would run down the streets or driveways, toss the bard in front of us and jump on and surf. Of course the high water washed all the critters up out of the neighboring swamps as well, so you had to be careful. The tiny town where I used to live at that time – , Louisiana, just outside of New Orleans – is pretty much washed away from the Katrina hurricane.

Other places, like Singapore or Tokyo, the rain seemed to merge with the air; the humidity seemed to be beyond 100%. It was like walking around in a giant sauna bath, hard to breath. Everything was damp, sweaty. It was something you had to get used to over time.

Here, it hardly ever rains. But naturally when it does, it seems to want to make up for lost time with a vengeance. Right now, it is storming pretty hard, with a stiff wind blowing in from the ocean. And the temperature has dropped quickly from comfortable to cool.

Maybe it seems so dramatic here because it hardly ever rains. Maybe this rain translated to Hamburg, for example, would seem just ordinary. And in Louisiana, it would be downright wimpy. And there is almost never thunder or lightning here, so it would be a pretty disappointing storm from a mid-west perspective as well.

Well, I’m freezing my butt off anyways. And we’re having something hot, hearty, in big portions, for dinner.

I’m making a lentil stew – a thick soup, really. Because the fat police were out in force today (due to the sausage and cheese spaetzle last night), I went fusion (French/Mexican/Japanese) and made chili pepper oil marinated fried tofu for a little spice on top of the soup. The tofu, despite being deep fried, is subsequently rinsed in boiling water, which removes most of the oil and fat. Everything is served, as always here, on top of steamed rice. Some will grate a little cheese on top. And that’s it. This recipe is pretty much my own invention, so I hope everyone enjopys it!

Lentil Soup with Jalapeno Pepper Chili Fried Tofu

1 onion, chopped fine
2-3 carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups lentils – black, red, green or brown, or a combination
8 cups chicken broth
2 bay leaves
1-2 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp cayenne pepper
salt, pepper
Olive oil
Deep Fried Tofu (recipe follows)
Jalapeño Pepper Chili Oil (recipe follows)
Streamed rice if desired

Sautee onion in olive oil in a large, heavy pot until softened. Add carrots and celery. Continue to sauté until vegetables have softened. Add garlic, cumin and cayenne pepper, and continue to sauté, stirring for 1-2 minutes. Add lentils, bay leaves and broth. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to lowest setting, and simmer until lentils are tender. Note – different types of lentils will have different cooking times, usually listed on the package.

Marinate the deep fried tofu pieces in the Jalapeno Pepper Chili oil, turning occasionally, for ½ hour.

Put a large scoop of steamed rice in a bowl. Ladle the lentil soup around it. Place several pieces of chili marinated tofu on top. Serve. Enjoy!

Jalapeno Pepper Chili Oil

1 fresh Jalapeno chili pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp salt

Cut the chili pepper in half and remove the seeds. Chop coarsely. Heat the oil in a pan over medium high to high heat.

Add the Jalapeno pepper and simmer on low heat for 10 minutes.
Stir in the cayenne pepper, cumin, chili powder and garlic and cook for another 2 - 3 minutes, stirring frequently.

Cool and strain the chili oil. Store in a sealed jar at room temperature.

Deep Fried Tofu

1 block of regular firm tofu
A wok or large deep pan
1 small bottle of vegetable oil (about 20 fluid oz./or 600 ml)
I small pot of boiling hot water
large plastic or metal colander

Remove the excess moisture from the block of tofu by wrapping it in a clean towel and placing it between 2 cutting boards, let stand for an hour or two. Now cut the tofu block into triangle shapes (see drawing), about two inches long. Pour the oil into the wok and heat, when you dip a chopstick into the heated oil and bubbles rise from it the oil is ready for use. If the oil smokes it is too hot. Using the wok's spatula, slide the tofu triangles one at a time into the hot oil. Fry on both sides until golden brown.

Scoop the triangles out of the wok and allow them to drain on the wok's draining grill (or place on paper towels). Once the triangles are drained and cool, it's a good idea to give them a second deep frying. This deepens their golden color and makes them nice and crisp. Place once again on the grill to drain and cool.

The final step requires that you place the fried tofu triangles in a colander and run very hot water over them. I put the colander in the sink and allow the hot water from the faucet to run over the tofu, while I simultaneously pour boiling water from a pot over the triangles. This hot water bath completely leeches all remnants of oil from the tofu, resulting in tofu that you would never imagine as having been deep fried. Pat the tofu dry.

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Strong Beer for a Stressed Fest

Here in Socal, spring is a fairly quite time. No significant holidays, nothing much to break up the routine.

But this time of year always reminds me of the frenzy going on in right about now.

I never knew what stress was until I had lived in Munich for some years. We lived about 100 yards from the Oktoberfest grounds. Right in the thick of everything. So of course, whether we wanted to or not, we were living the Oktoberfest – day and night – for two weeks every year. Hard to believe as it may seem, towards the end, we began planning vacations around that time – just to escape the crush. A million visitors in your backyard every year kind of wears you down.

But that is just the tip of the festival iceberg there. There are the Christmas Markets – where we stand outside in December, freezing to death, drinking heated spiked wine (Gluehwein), or the Faschings festival – i.e. the Carnival – before lent – where everyone drinks Weissbier till early morning, then eats doughnuts (Krapfen) and Weisswurst at about 3 AM (then actually goes to work the next day – amazing!). And of course there were additional festivals in the spring, summer, and fall, packed around the Oktoberfest.

These festivals crowd each other on the Munich calendar. As soon as one has ended, the next one seems to be in full swing. Fest Stress big time. It takes a strong liver to make it through the year.

After drinking heated wine for a month in December, celebrating New Year’s in January, and then drinking till morning for a month in February, you’re kind of stressed when March rolls around. Despite not being particularly religious, some abstinence begins to sound kind of nice.

But, it’s not to be. Not in Munich, anyways.

Right now, for example, is Starkbierzeit – or Strong Beer Time. This is a special time that the people in Bavaria organized for themselves to help bridge the traditional fasting period during Lent. Since you were not supposed to eat meat, drink alcohol (note that in Bavaria beer is not considered alcohol), etc., the Bavarians got special permission from the powers that be to brew a particularly strong beer to help them through this trying time. And naturally they invented a festival to ensure it could be enjoyed to the max. This party rages on every night for the four weeks from Fat Tuesday till Good Friday.

And the fuel for this party – Starkbier – is like 100 proof pumpernickel. Thick, dark, malty, and very high in alcohol content. Served 1 liter at a time.

I remember sitting in the beer cellar / restaurant – the epicenter of the Starkbier festival in Munich, watching the waitresses dealing with the increasingly boisterous crowd. Hundreds of increasingly drunk people – singing, chanting, falling down frequently. Generally having a great time.

Most of these waitresses were not just serving the huge 1 liter glasses of beer they pour there, but also very carefully putting the eye glasses (i.e. spectacles) back on the noses of the passed out guests who had either set them aside, or lost them when their heads hit the tables upon passing out.

It turns out that lost glasses were a significant logistic problem, as guests eventually remembered, through the haze, where they must have lost their glasses. And with so many heads hitting the table per night, there were a lot of glasses to sort through.

Because the Starkbierfest was still mainly a Bavarian / Munich tradition, as opposed to the Oktoberfest (which has turned into a giant international drunk fest), it was always fun to join in. It’s amazing how much my Bavarian dialect improved after a few liters of Starkbier! Or at least that’s how I remember it! Although my head did hit the table a few times over those 10 years – I’ve still got a few bumps to prove it!

So just for fun – some Munich-style pretzels, or Brezen. They are always baked extra large there. One pretzel can be enough for several people.

Along with the pretzels, a couple of other Munich treats for dinner: Cheese ‘Spaetzle’ (recipe follows), with sausages and a salad. Of course I can’t find authentic Bavarian sausages here, but I did find some nice hot ‘Sicilian-style’ chicken sausages at Trader Joe’s, so that will have to do!

Bavarian Pretzels (Brezen)

1 lb all purspose flour
1 packet dry active yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 cup milk
1 tsp salt
rock salt to sprinkle on top
8 oz baking soda

Put the flour in a bowl. Make a depression in the flour, and pour in the yeast, sugar, and a little luke warm milk. Let the yeast proof for 10-20 minutes, covered with a towel. Add the rest of the milk and the salt, combine well, and knead the dough until smooth.

Take small portions of the dough and roll to pencil-thick, 1 foot long strands (you can make them larger if you want – just roll them a bit thicker and longer – but they are harder to handle). Form them in the traditional pretzel shape on a floured backing sheet. Let them rise for 15-30 minutes, covered with a cloth, in a warm place.

Heat the baking soda in 8 cups of water to a boil. With a slotted spoon, gently place each pretzel into the water. As soon as the pretzel comes to the surface, remove it to a floured baking pan. Sprinkle the pretzel with rock salt. Cook the remaining pretzels in the same manner.

Bake the pretzels at 425ºF for 15 to 20 minutes, until deep golden brown.

Kaesespaetzle (Cheese Spaetzle)
(This is from the book – Bavarian Cookbook – 53rd edition! – which is like the Bavarian cooking bible. Translated by me)

1 lb flour
1 to 1 ¼ cup water
4 eggs
½ lb cheese, grated – I used Fontana, but traditional is Emmentaler
Parsley for garnish, chopped fine

Make the dough: Mix all ingredients – except the cheese – together in a bowl. Continue to mix (you can se an electic mixer with dough hooks if desired) until the dough gives off blisters while mixing. The dough should be fairly firm.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Spread the dough out in a layer (maybe ½ inch thick) on a cutting board. With a sharp knife, cut off a thin strip of dough, and push it into the water. If it holds (i.e. does not dissolve) continue, otherwise beat in a bit more flour until the dough blisters and try again. Continue cutting off thin strips of the dough and push them, one by one, into the boiling water.

When the Spaetzle come to the surface, about 4-5 minutes, remove them with a slotted spoon to a baking dish. Sprinkle them with about ½ of the cheese, and set them in a 350ºF oven for 10-15 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the Spaetzle are cooked through. Remove from oven, and sprinkle with the remaining cheese, and the parsley. Serve. Enjoy!

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Blacksheep Vegan Blacklisted

I don’t think I knew what the word vegetarian meant until my second college. My family ate meat. Preferably red, sometimes still a bit bloody. And chicken, but only when necessary. Mainly beef and pork. In slabs, cutlets or ground up. At every meal. I don’t recall a lot of fish, other than frozen fish sticks, heated in the oven and served with tater tots, or something similarly healthy, before my parents left us with a babysitter and went out. I guess since this happened a few times a week for a few years, we did in fact eat quite a bit of fish.

Back then, there was a particular family in the neighborhood. The parents were friends of my parents. Their oldest son was in college when we lived there. He was rumored to not eat meat - ever. This was sort of discussed in hushed tones, as if he had some sort of disease. Incurable, apparently. One time, while visiting their house, this son was there. He didn’t join us for burgers and dogs at the BBQ. Instead, he ate some cottage cheese piled in a melon half. This was discussed, in hushed tones as well, for weeks. Along with his long hair and general appearance. It was just too odd for our isolated little community back then. If he had started ranting in Russian about taking over the world, maybe pounding his shoe on the table for effect, no one would have been the least surprised (the cold war was in full swing, and the 60s hadn’t made it to our town yet).

Over the course of the various incarnations of my life, once due to an extreme shortage of cash during one semester at college, I have lived a sort of vegetarian lifestyle a few times, for some months, or even years, at a time.

Of course, when I read Walden for the first time, Thoreau’s comments on vegetarianism, among other things, really struck home.

This caused significant stress between my family and myself for a long time. The meat-eating religion just couldn’t accept a convert to another sect. Not to mention cohabitating with a known vegetarian (who wouldn’t even sit at a table where meat was being consumed). Fraternizing directly with the enemy! I was blacklisted big time.

Oddly enough, everyone has become a bit vegetarian over the last years. Mainly due to health concerns about high blood pressure and cholesterol. It’s funny sometimes how the battle lines of a previous decade can change so radically. Almost like the wall coming down in Berlin.

So we go vegetarian a few times a week on average. Not really from any particular belief or concern. In my case, because I like the different tastes and textures that you can only get when meat is absent.

We have the great advantage of having a number of cultures well represented here in the area – Persian, Thai, Korean, Indian, Mexican, to name just a few. Each of these cultures seems to have some interesting meatless dishes just waiting to be tried. And because of the local demand from the population, there are a number of markets that supply the exact ingredients for these dishes. So it’s really just a matter of researching the options.

Indian cuisine has tons of fantastic options, or sometimes it’s a risotto, or a salad or stew. Recently I have discovered a number of Indian food blogs. And all the things I’ve made from those recipes have gone over very well here.

So tonight its ‘Aloo Chole’, a chickpea-based Masala with potatoes and tomatoes. Rather than repeat the recipes, here are two links to the two sites these recipes came from: , and . I served this on steamed rice, with a mango chutney on the side.

Mango Chutney

2 mangoes, slightly under-ripe
½ cup brown sugar
2/3 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoons coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1 Serrano chili, chopped fine
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1.5 teaspoon ginger paste
1 tsp graham masala powder
1/2 teaspoon cloves
¼ cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoon garlic paste
1 onion (finely chopped )

Peel the mango with knife (good result with potato peeler).
Evenly sprinkle the sugar over mango and leave for sometime in cool place (for better result leave 12 hours)
Heat the pan. Roast the cumin, coriander and cardamom. Add everything else and bring to simmer for about 2-3 hours on low heat, stirring from time to time, until the mango becomes translucent and the liquid has almost evaporated, leaving behind a thick syrup.
Remove from heat.

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Death in Venice Moments

Lusting after the intensity. The full, ripe explosion of flavor. The sensuous and intoxicating colors. Touching, sniffing, staring fixated from every angle. Using every sense. Pushing on despite the constant spurning, desperate to once again experience that perfect taste. The tantalizing beauty seemingly right in my hands. But in reality, usually just beyond my grasp.

It’s like the old man in Death in Venice. The elusive quarry - some actual flavor. The death occurs most weekends – with the first bite.

It seems to be just that elusive to pick a good Cantaloupe melon. Scratching and sniffing the end where the stem was broken off for a rich aroma is no guarantee. Looking at the fine network of ribbing on the outside for the right color is just a tease. Hefting the fruit to try to judge whether it is ‘heavy for its size’ is just a delusion. Even cutting into the fruit, evaluating the intensity of the orange flesh, watching the trickles of juice seep out, cannot predict eventual rapture or the oft repeated crushing disappointment.

So it goes this weekend. The melon in question smelled wonderful (that, it turns out, was the best part). We should have kept it uncut and just sniffed at if for breakfast.

The color was good – not ideal – but good.

But the taste was like paper machè. It was edible, but it was all a tease. Another Death.

That, somehow, does not discourage my constant stalking of melons. And tomatoes as well.

I’ve put tomatoes in paper bags to speed their ripening (per Harold McGee). I always look for the right color and firmness. People in the produce market must wonder sometimes what I am doing in front of the tomatoes for so long.

This week – for example – I bought wonderful looking Roma tomatoes. Deep red. Looked very ripe. Not soft, but not at all hard. I also bought some small tomatoes – pre-packed in a plastic package. Ostensibly for my convenience, apparently so they would not roll away during the purchasing process. But there is no way to select the ‘good’ ones.

Of course the Roma tomatoes were just OK, disappointing based on their visual appeal.

The small tomatoes were wonderful. Full of flavor. They went into a light tarragon – rice vinegar vinaigrette (see the March 24 post). Fantastic. Go figure.

So I continue to pursue the almost hopelessly elusive flavors I crave. On rare occasions successful, just often enough to keep me going despite the frequents ‘Deaths’.

On the menu for brunch: soft boiled eggs, toast, coffee, and the much anticipated but disappointing fruit plate.

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Zen and the Noodle Master

A student goes to his Zen master and asks him “How long it will take me to reach enlightenment?” The teacher says “10 years”. “But if I will study harder, try harder, how long will it take me?”, asks the student. The teacher looks at the student for a moment before replying “20 years.”

Sometimes you have to feel the Dharma to work in the kitchen. Sometimes it seems the more you push, the further you get from putting something edible on the table. You need some kind of inner quite inside the storm.

Last night, if you studied the pictures from my last post closely, you might have seen that the recipe and pictures don’t quite match. While I was making one part of the dinner, I think it was the soup, all the grapes for the other part of the dinner were being eaten. Right in front of me. In my anti-Zen frenzy, I didn’t even notice. And as I was cleaning up, getting rid of the spinach trimmings, the thyme went right down the disposal. All of it. The disposal smells great for a change.

Well, not to worry. I sat down, had a glass of wine, despite everyone wondering aloud frequently when we would be eating, and tried to get into the Zen of the moment. Not fight it, but go with it somehow. I mean, just because two of the major items for the main dish were now eaten or ground up, so what? I had to laugh. Fortunately, I had a bag of currants. And lots of fresh rosemary. I actually like the currents better than the grapes, and will probably change the recipe to reflect this. The rosemary was nice, but pretty strong. I’ll think that one over.

But dinner was served, everyone happy, more complements than usual (they were likely delirious from hunger and didn’t know what they were saying anymore). Serendipity saved the day. Not to mention a glass of good wine and feeling the Dharma.

So today, of course, things would go differently. The ‘right’ way, I naively repeated to myself, over and over.

That thought was gone by early morning. In last night’s frenzy, I had forgotten to get the fresh Chinese noodles for tonight. And I had to use up all that broccoli I had bought a few days ago – before it went bad. And we were already late for a soccer match, and I had not one drop of gas in the car, and, and … And there was no way was this going to work out.

Driving everyone to the soccer field, the frustration level was unconsciously starting to creep up, in the background, unintentionally, not really directly noticeable, until I caught myself gesturing a bit too wildly to some of the other drivers. I guess a few indiscrete comments slid out as well – to the amusement of the young soccer players in the back seat.

So I had some time while watching the game to zone back into a calmer, Zennier place. You just can’t cook well when there is a lot of negative stress. That’s when everything starts going down the tubes, and food begins to taste bad. Stress in general is not bad – if you’re in the ‘zone’, working effectively, handling the issues quickly and creatively. But a negative attitude always seems to turn up in the taste of the food somehow.

And eventually it came to me, that I had made the fresh noodles from scratch a few years ago, and they had turned out pretty well. Plus, it occurred to me, I actually had frozen a bag of the noodles a few weeks ago because I bought three bags and only needed two. That’s what negative stress can do – block the simplest things from your mind.

So that problem was solved. And I could get back to something more fun to think about, namely what to do with the fresh Key Limes I had just bought the other day. Something simple and fairly light – maybe a curd, or better yet, maybe try a Key Lime flavored Zabaglione. Use the Key Lime juice instead of the Marsala wine. That would be a nice finish to the dinner.

Now its time to meditate with my Médoc (another 2000!). Yummmmmmmmmmmmmmm……….

Broccoli Beef on Fresh Pan-Fried Noodles

2 lbs flank steak – cut across the grain into paper thin slices
Mixed with:
2 tbsp corn starch
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 cloves garlic
4 -5 slices fresh ginger
3 tbsp peanut oil

5-6 cups fresh broccoli, broken up into flowerettes, stems cut into 1 inch pieces

Gravy ingredients:
2 tbsp corn starch
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp oyster flavored sauce
½ cup water

Sautee the broccoli in 2 tbsp of the oil over high heat for a few minutes, stirring. Add 2-3 tbsp water, and cover. Cook for 2-3 more minutes, and remove to a bowl. It should still be a bit crisp!

Sautee the marinated flank steak slices, in batches if necessary, in 2 tbsp oil until the meat it browned on the outside. Add the gravy ingredients. Add all the steak (if you cooked it in batches). Add the broccoli, and stir to coat well.
Place the pan-fried noodles on a large platter, and tear into serving pieces. Pour the broccoli beef on top. Serve. Enjoy!

Pan-Fried Noodles

2 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp salt
2 eggs
¼ to ½ cup cold water
Peanut oil

Sift together the flour and the salt in a bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour. Add the two eggs. Start mixing with a wooden spoon. Slowly add the water a little at a time, until the dough comes together in a ball. Knead the dough for 10 minutes on a floured board. Wrap in plastic wrap and let sit for 15 minutes.

Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Roll out each portion paper thin on a floured board, using as much flour as necessary to prevent sticking. Sift flour over the top and the bottom of the sheet. Roll the sheet lightly like a jelly roll, and with a sharp knife, cut into thin strips.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Heat peanut oil on a heavy skillet till hot but not smoking. Add the noodles to the water and cook just for 2 minutes. Drain the noodles and toss immediately into the skillet. Spread the noodles out across the skillet, turn the heat down to medium, and let cook undisturbed until browned on one side. Carefully turn the noodles over, and brown on the other side.

Key Lime Zabaglione

6 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
¾ cup Key lime juice
1 tsp grated Key lime peel
ground cinnamon
vanilla extract
1 ½ cups heavy cream
fruit for decoration, if desired

Place the egg yolks and sugar in a large round steel bowl. Add lime juice, lime peel, cinnamon and vanilla extract. Whisk to mix.

Place the bowl over a pot of simmering water (optimally, the steel bowl should not be touching the water). Whisk the custard mixture, making sure the water does not boil. Continue whisking for about 10 minutes, or until the custard has tripled in volume, froths up and becomes pale. It should have a texture approaching that of a mousse. Take the custard from the heat, and continue whisking for a few minutes to cool.

Beat heavy cream until it forms soft peaks. Add ¼ of the whipped cream to the custard and mix gently but thoroughly. Fold in the remaining whipped cream.

Spoon the Zabalione into serving dishes and decorate with fruit as desired. Serve. Enjoy!

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Strong to the finish (cause I eats me spinach!)

The ‘one who does not eat fish’ (or tofu, or spinach, or lots of other good things such as bonita flakes or nori) is not here today. So that kind of sets the tone.

Its always somewhat of a highwire act to balance the various likes and dislikes so that we don’t end up eating the same thing every day. Sometimes it works out for everyone, sometimes the one or the other boycotts some part of the meal. Usually there is enough variety that no one has to directly starve.

I remember sitting for hours – literally hours – in front of a plate of boiled frozen spinach. I refused to eat it. My parents were insistent (not followers of Dr. Spock, I guess). I had been sitting alone for hours, as everyone else had long since capitulated and somehow choked down the green goo. I had poured about a gallon of that bottled lemon juice on it in a failed attempt to kill both the taste, and anything that might possibly be living in it. But to no avail. I guess I can be a little stubborn at times.

I don’t remember how the stand-off ended. Funny how memories retain the happier moments, but somehow blank out the bleaker times, as if they didn’t even really happen. I still remember the green goo, though, and it colored my opinion of spinach for decades. I was pretty sure Popeye ate his raw, not boiled, despite all the cans of it he opened.

So I don’t fight the battle of food preferences. There was a time when I couldn’t stand single malt scotch or wines from France (I was maybe 10 or so), so I’m not too worried.

Now all that good stuff – fish, spinach and tofu – will be on the menu tonight. To be enjoyed without a guilty conscience.

I still don’t like spinach boiled. As a green, it doesn’t have the backbone of kale, or even chard, and lacks the bite of mustard or beet greens. So I leave it out of my southern style braised greens. It seems more delicate, both in structure and flavor. So I usually use it raw, in salads, or maybe wilted, like tonight, as a bed for something. Even in things like ravioli filling, I usually just wilt the spinach lightly and chop.

Because spinach is mild in flavor, and because I use it while it still has significant structure to it, it acts like a supporting backdrop for flavor I want to infuse throughout a dish. Lemon, maybe, or a mustardy essence.

Tonight it will be a red wine reduction based sauce on the spinach. With some pan-fried salmon fillets on top. The dish will be finished I the oven, where the spinach will wilt just a bit. A tomato salad with tarragon dressing, and some steamed rice on the side. As a starter, some miso soup with tofu. This uses the bonita flakes to make a broth, as well as the nori - got to work it all in!

Pan-fried Salmon on Spinach with Red Wine Sauce
(I really don’t know where I got the original recipe anymore, this is my latest version)
4 servings

1 tbsp each of salt, thyme, and dry mustard
½ tsp pepper
2 ½ lb salmon filet cut into 4 pieces
2-3 tbsp honey
4 tbsp olive oil
2 heads spinach, washed
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups red grapes, halved
½ cup red wine
salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

In a small bowl, combine the salt, thyme and mustard well. Rub the salmon filets with the honey, and sprinkle on both sides with the seasoning mixture (reserve a little of the mixture for the sauce). Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a skillet till hot, but not smoking. Sautee the salmon filets over high heat just until they are well browned in each side – but not yet cooked through.

Toss the spinach with 2 tbsp olive oil and the garlic. Place in roasting pan. Place salmon filets on top. Place in oven for about 10 minutes – until spinach is wilted slightly and salmon is cooked through.

In the same skillet used to cook the salmon, sautee the grapes for a few minutes. Add the wine and the remaining seasoning mixture and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the liquid to half. Taste, and season with salt and pepper.

Arrange the spinach and salmon filets on serving plates, and top with the sauce. Serve. Enjoy!

Miso Soup with Katsuobushi dashi
4 servings

5 cups water
½ cup dried bonita flakes (Katsuobushi)
½ lb soft tofu
3 tbsp red miso paste
2 tbsp white miso paste
½ cup chopped green onion
1 sheet nori (dried toasted seaweed), cut into thin strips

Make Dashi soup stock: Put the water in a pan and heat on medium heat. Just before the water boils, add the katsuobushi flakes. When the water boils, remove from the heat and strain the broth.

Put dashi soup stock in a pan and bring to a boil. Cut tofu into small cubes and add them to the soup. Scoop out some soup stock from the pan and dissolve miso paste in it. Turn down the heat – do not boil the miso paste! Return the miso paste / soup mixture to the pan. When just heated through, remove from heat. Ladle into 4 serving bowls. Sprinkle green onions and nori strips on top. Serve. Enjoy!

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Perfect Interlude

Until I spent a lot of time in Italy, I had always done pasta wrong. Both cooking and eating.

One of the places I’d lived in for a while in the US as a child was very Italian. Everyone had better sounding mafia names than anyone on the Sopranos. Back then, pasta was just a fancy name for spaghetti and meatballs. Or maybe Lasagna, if it was Sunday. Piled HIGH. A mountain of overcooked noodles, meatballs the size of tennis balls, and lots of red sauce from a can, called marinara, for some reason, although it had nothing to do with the sea.

Naturally, my first experiences with pasta in Italy were frustrating.

But I had the good fortune to be able to develop some business contacts in Milan, and eventually lived for 10 years just 2 hours away from the border of Italy, to the north in Munich.

The real education came through the business partner. A wonderful guy with a seemingly unlimited expense account. And some kind of endurance when it came to putting a fine restaurant through its paces. An hour of wine list perusal while sipping aperitifs and munching on tidbits. Followed by an array of antipasti dishes. Wine tasting. More wine selection. A variety of pastas – small in volume, al dente, not soggy! Numerous main courses, usually served for the table and divided by the waiter amongst everyone. With more wine, and if it ran out, another session of wine list perusal. With cheese plates, some sort of dessert, and always a number of rounds of Grappa, or something similar, to finish. Three to four hours could go by, easily. But not a problem, as most of the servings were modest in size - enough for a good taste, but not enough for a meal.

To me, it was not just the dinners themselves but the opportunity to try seemingly everything on and off the menu. Everything at a leisurely pace, almost decadent. If customers were there it was a sales meeting, if not, it was a planning meeting. I’m glad I didn’t have to submit his expense reports.

Living so close to Italy, just two hours to Milan by train, maybe three or four to get to Florence, gave me a chance to deepen and really ingrain this way of dining deep into my psyche.

Unfortunately, the root of much frustration.

Because almost nowhere else in the world do people see pasta as one course of many in a meal. Pasta is almost always served in large portions, usually as the main dish, often with no other supporting dishes to go with it. Obviously most people request it that way.

So going to a restaurant, and trying to clarify the order of dishes to be served – i.e. the ½ portion of pasta, alone, served after the appetizer and before the main course – usually results in miscommunication. Maybe because the portions are too large, they doubt anyone really wants to eat things this way. Or maybe it’s just too unusual a concept., too seldom requested. Frequently, I end up with the pasta – full size – and my dining companion gets everything else, all at the same time.

So when I am home, I make it an opportunity to be a little decadent, lingering over several courses, each one not too much, but a treat in its own right.

Today, to begin, a roasted beet and orange salad, with an orange vinaigrette, and as a main course, some of the chicken left over from last night, with a few pieces of cheese (Perorino, Fontana, Goat) to finish. The wine - a Médoc from 2000. And for the perfect interlude, a rosemary-flavored ravioli pasta, stuffed with roasted sweet potato and goat cheese filling.

A bit of mid-week decadence to help make it to the weekend.

Rosemary-flavored Ravioli filled with Sweet Potatoes and Goat Cheese in Brown Butter Sauce

2 large sweet potatoes
4 oz goat cheese
salt, pepper, nutmeg
2 cups semolina flour
1 pinch of salt
3-4 tbsp minced fresh rosemary
2 eggs
1 egg mixed with 1 tbsp water for an egg wash
3 cloves garlic
4 tbsp butter
parsley, chopped fine, for garnish
Preheat oven to 375ºF.

Wash sweet potatoes and prick with a fork. Place in oven for 45-60 minutes, or until cooked through. Remove from oven and let cool.

Place flour, salt and rosemary in a mixing bowl, and stir well. Make a well in the center of the flour. Crack one egg into the flour, and begin mixing with your fingers by gently rubbing flour and egg together. When first egg is mixed in, add second egg. Continue mixing with fingers. When second egg is mixed in, add a few tablespoons of water. Continue mixing with fingers and drizzling in water until a dough forms. Knead the dough on a floured board for 5-10 minutes until smooth and elastic. Wrap in plastic wrap and let sit for one hour.

Scrape inside of sweet potatoes into a bowl. Add goat cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add a pinch of nutmeg. Mix until well combined.

Roll out portions of the dough on a floured board to an oblong shape until paper thin and translucent. Place tablespoons of the sweet potato mixture into one half of the dough about 2 inches apart. Brush the dough around each mound of filling with the egg wash. Fold the bare half of the dough carefully over the filling half, pressing around the filling mounds to remove any air and to seal the two halves of dough. Cut the dough into desired shapes, and set aside on a floured board. Continue rolling out the remaining dough in the same manner.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the raviolis. Cook at a very light boil until the raviolis float to the top of the water. Scoop them out and drain them.

In a hot sauté pan, heat the butter with the garlic for 2-3 minutes, or until it just starts to turn brown.

Place several raviolis in each serving bowl. Drizzle butter sauce over top. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve. Enjoy!

Roasted Beet and Orange Salad with Orange-Sesame Vinaigrette

3-4 medium sized red beets, washed and trimmed
Olive Oil
2 large navel oranges, peeled, and sliced
Orange-Sesame Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
4 oz goat cheese, crumbled
salad greens
salt, pepper
Sesame seeds as garnish

Preheat over to 450ºf.

Place beets in a small roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil, and stir to coat well. Cover with tin foil, and place in oven. Roast for 1 to 1 ½ hours, or until tender. Allow beats to cool, uncovered, and peel. Slice beets.

Toss the salad greens with a little of the vinaigrette.

Arrange salad greens on plates. Arrange beet slices, orange slices and goat cheese on top of salad. Drizzle salads with remaining vinaigrette. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve.

Orange-Sesame Vinaigrette

2-3 tbsp fresh squeezed orange juice
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
¼ cup sesame oil
¼ cup olive oil
salt, pepper

Add orange juice and balsamic vinegar to a bowl. Add both oils in a stream while whisking. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Simplicity - the ultimate sophistication

I was never such a big fan of green beans. Neither green string beans, nor the somewhat fancier Haricots verts, or French green beans. Nothing really against them, I was just not wild about them.

To be fair, the preparations from my childhood were really criminal. Usually taken from the freezer as a solid block. Boiled till they died a soggy, mushy, tasteless death. Or the dreaded cream of mushroom soup / green bean casserole. Gag!

I could never do that to anyone I cooked for.

But I’ve continued looked for ways to work with them that resulted in something edible. Adding them to soups and stews. Sweating them in butter – which is OK, but not so tasty a result as with carrots. I have had a lot of success using them in Cantonese dishes in place of broccoli or asparagus, where they just get flash –fried. They retain their taste and character to a large extent. But I’m not sure this is the optimal way to showcase the bean itself – they are in more of a supporting role here.

Fortunately, fate came to the rescue.

Due to some heavy carrot snacking while I was out shopping, I returned with chickens and potatoes for roasting, and no other vegetable but French beans. Because, of course, I had tons of carrots waiting for me. Carrots which were going to be roasted along with the chickens and potatoes. Carrots which could no longer be found. Just some carrot top remnants in the disposal. The guilty party pleaded ignorance (hard to argue against that one!).

So I started the chicken, added the potatoes to roast along side, and wondered what to do. Dinner without piles of vegetables just doesn’t work around here.

It would have to be the beans, somehow. While snipping off their little ends, I thought about tossing them in some olive oil and thyme. Maybe just adding them right to the roasting pan. Right on top of the potatoes, which were almost done.

Surely not a new idea, but it was new to me. And simple.

What came out were the best green beans I’ve ever made, French or otherwise. The flavor was intense. A wonderful green beany taste, with a roasted edge to it, infused with the aroma of thyme. If you catch them at the right time, the texture is very nice as well (over-roasting can cause them to whither a bit).

This became a sudden favorite. Simplicity elevated to sophistication. I never looked back.

The beans can also be roasted together with the pan juices from the chicken. I have done this a few times when I stuffed the chicken with lemon and thyme. That’s nice as well, as you get the wonderful lemony flavor in the green beans. But you have to be careful to take them out when done, and to scoop them out of the juices before they get soggy.

I usually roast my chickens at 375ºF – some suggest a hotter, some a cooler oven, but that is a post for another day. At 375ºF, the beans take just 20-30 minutes. They’re done when they are a bit wrinkled, but not yet withered and droopy.

Lemon and Thyme Roasted Chicken with Roasted Red Potatoes and Thyme-roasted Haricot Verts


I roasted a 6 lb chicken stuffed with lemons, parsley and thyme for 2 hours at 375ºF. I added about 4 lbs of small red potatoes that had been tossed in olive oil, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper for the last 1 ¼ hours. I tossed 1 ½ lbs of French beans in a little thyme and olive oil, and roasted them for the last 25 minutes on top of the potatoes, everything in the same roasting pan.

Remove the chcken to a carving plate, let sit 10 minutes before carving. Scoop the potatoes and beans to a serving bowl. Pour the pan juices into a glass measuring cup or bowl (or one of those seperator cups). After 10 minutes a wonderful pan juice broth will be at the bottom.

The potatoes roast in the lemony pan juices, and the French beans pick up that wonderful thyme essence. The chicken gets a little lemon – thyme flavor to it as well.

A wonderful dish – simply sophisticated! Enjoy!

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

No rest for the weary, unless you learn to cover

As head chef here, a day off is really a relative thing. People still have to eat. Everyone may say they are too full from the last few days, or they have to lose a little weight, or whatever, but by late evening, everyone still expects some food on the table.

That the chef may be a bit overloaded from making and eating garlic-roasted crab, apple Galettes, and who knows what else, not to mention that bottle of Calvados that mysteriously emptied itself last evening before dinner – hmmm… Well, to be blunt – no one really cares.

So I have learned over the years to cover by making things that probably appear to be more work than they really are. These are usually one pot meals that can be prepared in 1/2 hour or so, everyone is stuffed and happy. And they taste great. Plus two additional bonuses – almost no dishes, and leftovers.

I treasure leftovers. Not just any leftovers, but well planned out leftovers. Ones that not only retain their flavor over the course of several days, but might actually increase in flavor over time. Things with garlic, bacon, sausage, or chilies in them. With a bit of foresight, an entire multi-course dinner can appear from nowhere. Plus lunches are taken care of as well. This is a concept that just keeps on giving!

So I have a few recipes I make on a regular basis that are calculated to satisfy for many days.

This used to be pretty easy. Small kids don’t really eat that much. Sometimes nothing at all (what luck for me!). But eventually they reach the age where no amount of food, irrespective of taste or type, seems to fill the void. Pots of food that used to last days don’t even make it through one dinner. Multiple boxes of cereal are found empty on a daily basis. I’m thinking of having the milk pumped into our house as a utility, like water or electricity.

To achieve the treasured leftover situation these days, everything gets served on top of some starch. Steamed rice, mashed potatoes, grits, pasta, polenta, whatever. As long as it fills the gaping void.

With chili, there is a sort of tradition for serving it on some starch. In the mid-west, i.e. Cincinnati or Toledo (Ohio), for example, a multi-layer chili creation used to be popular, where meat chili served on spaghetti pasta, topped with beans, then with chopped onions and grated cheese on top – was a local favorite (don’t ask how I know this). It was called variously Chili-Mac or 5 layer chili. Here's a link giving a pretty good history of , along with some authentic-looking pictures. Maybe it was created during some wartime, who knows, but the obvious point was to stretch the meat with a lot of starch. It was mainly popular because of the unbelievable amount of grease that was involved. One serving of this, and you were good for days.

I sort of stole this idea (minus the grease). And everyone here loves it. My chili looks a lot like New Orleans style red beans and rice – a big scoop of rice covered and surrounded by lots of steaming hot chili. I do this with lentil soup, split pea soup, bean stews, almost anything that is in any way brothy.

So today – Chili the Quick Way – and extra time for me to catch up on all those Blogs!

Surfindaave’s Chili – the Quick Way (serves 6-8, depending on size of appetite)

Note – all spice measurements are approximate – adjust to your own pain tolerance

5-6 cups pinto or black beans, cooked (if from can, rinse off first)
5-6 cups Roma tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped (with juice if using canned)
4 lbs ground turkey, chicken or beef
2 onions, chopped
1-2 chili peppers, such as jalapeno, Serrano, etc., chopped fine, including seeds
1 bell pepper, any color, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
3-4 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp cayenne pepper
3-4 tbsp paprika
3 tbsp cumin
1-2 tsp cinnamon
2 bay leaves
½ to 1 cup red wine
Olive oil
Salt, pepper
Steamed rice
Cheddar cheese, grated – if desired
Parsley, chopped, for garnish if desired
Hot sauce, such as Tobasco – if desired (some just can’t get it hot enough!)

Heat oil in a large, heavy pot. Sautee onions over moderate heat until softened. Add garlic, and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add bell pepper and continue to cook, stirring, until pepper has softened. Remove to a plate.

Add ground meat. Fry on high heat, breaking up lumps, until meat is no longer pink, and some pieces are well browned. At this point, you can drain the meat in a colander if you want to reduce the fat content (note – this is illegal in most western states, except California!). Return onions, peppers and garlic to pan. Add chili pepper and all spices. Stir to combine, and let spices cook for a few minutes. Stir in tomatoes, and juice, and wine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Let come just t a boil, and then reduce to lowest heat. Let simmer for 1-2 hours. Serve over steamed rice with the grated cheddar cheese, parsley and hot sauce sprinkled on top, if desired. Enjoy!

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Sweet Sixteen’s all grown up!

Wow! A birthday on the first day of spring! (Not mine. I’m that dark, mysterious Scorpio. It's my daughter’s.)

Especially in SoCal. Where spring is usually nicer than most summers elsewhere. Flowers are already out. Bird’s, migrating north, are here making a racket early in the morning. Trees are bursting with new leaves. Despite the occasional deluge of rain, causing flooding and canceled soccer games, the weather is a generally perfect 65ºF and sunny, with cool nights.

Not like where I grew up. Spring was always a messy affair. Mud, slushy snow remnants, cold and windy, drab cloudy skies, no birds or flowers for another month or two. Trees dead as matchsticks. But that’s all far away now.

It used to be that birthdays were easy. Balloons. Ice cream. Pizza. Lots of tiny kids laughing and crying. After the initial 5 minutes of fun wore off, knowing that the other parents would be back shortly to pack up their offspring. Knowing that if they didn’t, I had legal recourse for child abandonment – so they were going, one way or the other. Soon.

(No, this is not me at birthday parties, well, not always. More on this later. )

But in retrospect, at a lower decibel level and without so many tiny tyrannical visitors underfoot, the birthdays were good.

Now, they’re a bit harder. Food has to be selected carefully. Figures and complexions are what it’s all about. Cake – forget it (Sugar? White flour? Pimple city, baby!). Pizza? “What, are you nuts? How am I going to fit into those new ‘Rock & Republic’ falling-off-my-butt jeans?” (Maybe that was the idea?). Thank God chocolate has anti-oxidants.

Not to mention what to do, or not do, and with whom. I just stay out of the frenzy and support as best as I can. Need a ride? Need some cash? Need help getting stuff ready? I should hide in the back so as not to embarrass anyone? No problem! My iPod’s charged – I’m good.

And diets have to be respected.

I’m all for healthy diets. I can hardly believe that cheeseburgers and fries have been traded in for fruit, massive amounts of fresh vegetables, whole grains, and a sort of war on sugar and white flour (salt, in moderation, is apparently still OK). I’m all for it. It just forces me to think beyond the preconceptions I have somehow built up as to what constitutes a birthday.

Beyond all this, the birthday party – of sorts – is now divorced from the actual birthday – for planning and social purposes. Since I’m not directly involved in it, it doesn’t really matter. But a special dinner on the actual birthday is still nice. With the focus on fresh fruits, vegetables and low-fat seafood.

So here’s the fairly healthy, low-ish in fat birthday menu:
• Garlic-roasted Fresh Crab Salad
• Roasted Eggplant, Tomato and Mozzarella Napoleons with Balsamic Vinaigrette
• Fresh Apple Galette with Crème Fraiche

taught me, indirectly, how to make a real Pate Brisee style pastry. Crucial steps include using ice water (cooled in the freezer until an ice sheet forms on top), minimal mixing with the fingers, and ensuring large enough butter lumps remain in the dough after mixing. I cut the butter into paper thin slices, and mix with my fingers just until all the lumps are well coated. When I roll the dough out, I can see pretty big lumps of pure butter getting rolled out. Apparently, the lumps of butter in the final dough are what create the layers of flake in the final crust. Plus baking the Galette in a hot oven. I have a baking stone in my oven, and I place the Galette directly on the stone at 400ºF for 60+ minutes.

The fresh crab salad is wonderful. Roasting the crab together with the garlic is a simple way to achieve fantastic results. Aside from removing the meat from the crab shells, really not much work involved.

And the Napoleon – well it just combines some really great roasted flavors – again with great results for the amount of effort.

Plus a fresh apple Galette – what could be better? Where’s that bottle of Calvados, anyways?!

Garlic-roasted Fresh Crab Salad

1 large fresh, live crab for 2 people as appetizer or 1 per person as main dish
½ lemon per crab
bay leaves
salt (1 cup per gallon water)
Arugula salad, cleaned
2 cloves garlic per crab, minced
2 tbsp butter per crab
Parmesan cheese shavings for garnish
Lemon wedges for garnish

Pour sufficient water into a large pot to completely cover all crabs. Add lemon halves, bay leaves and salt. Bring water to a rolling boil. Place crabs in pot and submerge completely. Return to a boil. Cook at low rolling boil for 15 minutes. Place in sink of cold water to stop cooking.

When cooled, remove all legs. Turn on back, face away from you, and pry center body out of shell with your thumbs. Remove gills and long boney white ‘fingers’ from body. Remove all meat to a plate and reserve. Crack legs and claws and reserve.

Heat 2 tbsp butter in a roasting pan per crab in a 450ºF oven. When melted, add garlic and stir. Roast until the garlic just begins to color – don’t let it burn! Add crab meat and stir to coat. Roast, stirring every few minutes, until crab just begins to color, but has not dried out. Remove to a plate to cool. Add legs and claws to pan. Stir to coat, and roast until just heated through.

Arrange arugula on plates. Arrange roasted carbon top. Arrange legs and claws on side. Garnish with parmesan shavings and lemon wedges. Serve. Enjoy!

Roasted Eggplant, Tomato and Mozzarella Napoleons with Balsamic Vinaigrette

4 small Italian eggplants
4 Roma tomatoes
1 lb fresh Buffa Mozzarella cheese
Olive Oil
Fresh Thyme
4 cloves garlic
Salt, pepper
¼ cup Balsamic vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
½ cup olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400ºF.

Slice each eggplant the long way into three even slices. Sprinkle the slices with salt, and let drain for an hour in a calendar set over paper towels. Place the slices on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush the slices lightly on both sides with olive oil. Bake the slices until well browned but not burned – 20 to 40 minutes.

Core the tomatoes and slice each tomato the long way into four slices. Place the slices on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle with olive oil, fresh thyme leaves, and the minced garlic. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Turn the slices to coat both sides well. Bake the slices for 30 to 40 minutes.

Slice the mozzarella into 16 thin pieces.

Whisk together the balsamic vinegar and the mustard. Slowly whisk in the olive oil until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper.

Arrange the Napoleons on individual plates by layering one eggplant slice, two mozzarella slices, two tomato slices, one eggplant slice, two mozzarella slices, two tomato slices, and topping it with one eggplant slice. Each Napoleon uses one complete eggplant. Drizzle the salads with the balsamic vinaigrette.

Fresh Apple Galette with Crème Fraiche

1 ½ cups all purpose flour, plus more for rolling out
½ cup butter – very cold – cut into thin shavings
½ tsp salt
1/3 to ½ cup VERY cold water
6 Gala apples
1 lemon
¼ cup sugar
1-2 tbsp apple butter, apple preserves or honey – if desired
1 tbsp Calvados – if desired
Crème Fraiche – if desired

Mix flour, salt and butter together very lightly, so that the pieces of butter remain visible in the flour. Add just enough ice cold water to form a dough. Mix very fast with your hands just enough so that the dough comes together. Pieces of butter should still be visible. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, flatten slightly, and set in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

Peel and core the apples. Slice them into not-too think of wedges. Sprinkle them lightly with lemon juice so they don’t color.

Heat the oven to 450ºF.

Roll out the dough to 1/8” to 1/16” thickness on a floured board. Arrange apple wedges in an overlapping manner, starting with a ring about 1 ½ inches from the edge of the dough, and ending in the center of the dough. Make sure the entire inner area of the dough is covered with apple slices. You can layer the apples slices more than one layer high if desired.

Fold the sides of the dough up over the apples towards the center. Make sure there are no holes on the sides of the dough or all the juice will run out (makes a big mess). Sprinkle the apples with the sugar. Place the Galette in the oven, and bake for 65 to 70 minutes, or until it is really well browned and crispy.

Remove the Galatte to a board to cool. If using the Calvados, heat it together with the apple butter, preserves or honey in the microwave for a minute, stir till combined, and brush onto the hot apples.

Serve in wedges with a dollop of Crème Fraiche. Enjoy!

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