Sunday, April 30, 2006

Flower Power - Weekend Herb Blogging

Some days ago, I bought some squash blossoms, but for various reasons, never got a chance to use them as part of a dinner until Saturday.

Then, at our farmer’s market on Saturday morning, we stumbled across some other edible flowers. Both Arugula (Rocket) and Daiukon Radish blossoms were available for sale. Huge bunches of the blossoms on long stems, enough for a life time, for a buck.

Aside from the squash blossoms, which are fairly common, I’ve never really eaten a lot of flowers. Until I tried the Arugula blossoms, I was not really sure why anyone would want to.

Anyways, the theme for , sponsored by , was set.

The squash blossoms are good, but I have to be honest and say that I may like them as much for the stuffing (I always seem to stuff them), as for any flavor of the actual flower. I’m sort of chagrined to say that I never even really considered the question. The squash blossoms get stuffed, cooked, and eaten. And all in all they’re good. But I could not really say what the flower part contributed to the experience except as packaging for the stuffing.

So when we saw the Arugula and Daikon blossoms, we asked what they were. But I didn’t really take a lot of notice. This didn’t bother the guy at that stand – John. He’s got a lot of energy and ‘personality’. When he wants you to give something a try, well, you eventually give it a try!

And the Arugula blossoms especially – WOW! Like concentrated Arugula pills that explode that peppery nutty flavor in your mouth. Man – I cannot imagine why these things are not more popular. I am not sure I would eat a salad just made of these, but sprinkled onto almost anything would add that great arugula punch, as well as a being an attractive garnish. Omelets, soups, salads, sandwiches, maybe even in sauces, I can see a lot of applications.

The Daikon radish blossoms were fairly mild in comparison, if more ‘dainty’ and ganishy looking. I couldn’t really generate a strong feeling either way on the taste, but I can see them being a nice garnish to a number of things.

Researching arugula and daikon blossoms was not very informative. There are Web sites listing that fact that they can be eaten, but not really going into any detail as to why one would do so, or what value they might have. Most of the sites did stress that many flowers are poisonous, and pesticides can be a real problem. Since the vast majority of flowers are used strictly for decoration in a vase, looks are everything and the pesticides are apparently poured on in massive quantities.

But our farmer’s market is organic for the most part, and these blossoms were specifically designated for eating, so I didn’t worry too much.

Anyways, I don’t have a lot of facts to share this time. It seems edible flowers are a generally underrepresented component of dining. Not really sure why.

But – how to use them?

The squash blossoms concept was already set. Stuffed with goat cheese and herbs, and battered with a tempura batter and deep fried. Despite the fat involved in deep frying, even the bikini wearers around here toss these things down with abandon. They rationalize to themselves that Tempura, being of Japanese origin, is not as heavy as ‘regular’ fried food. Hey, works for me!

I figured the easiest way to get a feel for the taste of the other flowers was just to use the blossoms in a salad. So we put together an arranged salad, sort of a variation of a Niçiose. Using baby arugula as the base, and with arrangements of some vegetables, eggs, olives, etc., that we had on hand. With the flowers mixed into the arugula, and also sprinkled around the rim of the salad for decoration.

After making most of the salad, I was battering up the squash blossoms and just ready to fry them up when I figured – why not batter up some arugula blossoms and daikon blossoms as well? I have tons of batter, and way too many blossoms.

So we tried it. Clipped a few stems of each, and dipped them in the batter. Despite the fact that Tempura batter is fairly thin, it glopped up the blossoms, and I figured it was another experiment gone wrong. But when I dropped them into the hot oil – they POPPED back into a nicely defined flower shape. Like magic! Just a few seconds frying, and they were done.

They looked fantastic lying there on the paper towels. But when I picked them up, they were so fragile they didn’t have the strength to hold up all that crisp batter, so they tended to break very easily. None the less, we arranged some as best we could in top of the salad.

The arugula blossom tempura – that was really good, as the sharp peppery and nutty flavor came through under the crisp shell of tempura batter. A really interesting and easy to make little appetizer, and quite pretty to look at.

The flowers in the salad was fun. The daikon was mostly for looks, but the arugula blossoms really added a lot of flavor. I am really sold on the arugula blossoms, and hope I can find them on a regular basis.

For the squash blossom tempura, I use a recipe from Wolfgang Puck I found on the Food Network Web site. The tempura batter could be used for anything, including prawns. Sometimes I make it with a tomato sauce (per the recipe), sometimes not. I think some other sauces, like blood orange, etc., would work as well.

The salad is just and arranged salad with a Dijon red wine vinaigrette, so I didn’t include a recipe. This time, we used tomatoes, olives, radishes, fennel bulb, jicama, potatoes, eggs, green bell pepper, carrots, and tuna, on top of baby arugula and the blossoms.

(Are we done with the FREAKIN FLOWER PICTURES yet, or what???!!!)

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Saturday, April 29, 2006

Some Flavors I Love

Pears and Gorgonzola. Two flavors I really love together.

Today, I wanted to combine them with sage. Another flavor I really love. And happen to have a lot of.

I didn’t have a lot of time again today, because today the Los Angeles Lakers were playing. Professional Basketball (40 games in 40 nights - whew!). Against the Phoenix Suns (who I also like a lot – Steve Nash is absolutely the MVP!).

Today, unlike yesterday, everything was good. No background anxiety. No premonition of imminent bad. And the Lakers won. They should just call me to find out the sports scores before game time. It’s in my bones somehow!

Anyways, the dish just sort of popped into my mind. Something simple. Roasted pears to bring out the flavor. Roasted sage, just because I like how it looks. And Gorgonzola melted on an old shoe would taste good to me.

I wanted to bring the flavors together at the end, and provide a little acidity and moisture (in case I had overcooked the chicken, which I didn’t, but you never know when B-Ball is on TV), so I made a quick pan reduction sauce with some Medoc wine and the sage and the pear juice.

Quick, easy. Wonderful.

Chicken Breast with Roasted Pear and Gorgonzola in Sage Pan Sauce

Chicken Breasts – one per person
½ pear per chicken breast, peeled and sliced into thick slices, core removed
1 thick slice Gorgonzola cheese per chicken breast
5 to 10 sage leaves per chicken breast
¼ cup of wine per chicken breast (I used red – mèdoc of course)
olive oil
salt, pepper

Pre-heat oven to 300ºF.

Heat sauté pan until hot, add olive oil. Sauté chicken breasts until brown on both sides. Remove to heat proof plate and place in oven to finish cooking for 10 to 15 minutes.

While the chicken is cooking, sauté pears and sage in a second sauté pan in olive oil over medium heat, until pears are browned on both sides. Remove pears to a plate and reserve. Add wine to pan and reduce until slightly thickened.

Place chicken breast on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Top with slices of roasted pear, and one slice of Gorgonzola cheese. Place under broiler just until cheese softens and begins to melt. Remove from oven.

Place finished chicken breasts on a warm serving plate, and spoon sauce over top. Serve. Enjoy!

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Comfort Food for a Bad Day

Today was one of those days where you just know it’s going to be a bad day somehow.

Nothing major. Just a feeling all day long.

A background buzz of low level anxiety – something was about to happen. So every time something happened, a quick evaluation – could that have been it? Is that it? Is it over now? Can we all breath again?

But no. It wasn’t until late evening that the bad thing happened. It’s not really all that bad. Not a catastrophe. Two good things already happened.

But the Los Angeles Clippers lost. Professional Basketball. To the Denver Nuggets. Despite a mediocre performance by the Nuggets. It was close all the way. Plus the Maimi Heat lost to Chicago! Shaq had only 6 points. A bad day all the way around.

The Clippers best of seven series stands at two wins for LA, and now one win for Denver. I think the Clippers will win the series, but I had a feeling all day that this game would not go well.

We wasted all the potential cooking time watching the game.

So I made a quick recipe I’ve made a few times before, from Gourmet magazine (it’s now online as well at Epicurious). They call it ‘Sausage and Bean Cassoulet’. My main change was to basically double all the ingredients, and add a head of spinach. I served it with some fresh hot bread.

This is one of those recipes that almost everyone enjoys, especially on a cold and rainy (again!!!) night when you are feeling a little empty inside (and not just from basketball!).

Adapted slightly to serve 4-6 people

Can be prepared in 45 minutes or less.

15 hot Italian sausage links, skins pricked all over with a fork
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 medium onions, halves and sliced thin lengthwise (about 1 1/2 cups)
4-5 garlic cloves, chopped fine
3 tbsp mixed chopped fresh herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and sage
2 bay leaf
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley (wash and dry before chopping)
two14 1/2-ounce cans diced tomatoes including juice
three 15-ounce can white beans such as cannelloni
1 bunch spinach, washed and cut roughly into large pieces
For topping
2 tablespoon olive oil
4 slices firm white sandwich bread, crusts discarded, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 small garlic clove, chopped fine
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves (wash and dry before chopping)

In a medium skillet cook sausages in oil over moderate heat, turning them, until browned on all sides and cooked through, about 8 minutes, and transfer to paper towels to drain.
In fat remaining in skillet cook onions and garlic, stirring, until golden, and stir in herbs (including bay leaf), scallions or parsley, tomatoes with juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook mixture, stirring, for 15 to 20 minutes. Cut sausage into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Add sausage, beans and spinach to tomato mixture and cook, stirring, until heated through. Discard bay leaf and keep "cassoulet" warm, covered.
Make topping:
In s small skillet heat oil over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking and sauté bread until pale golden. Stir in garlic, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste and sauté, stirring, 1 minute.
Serve Cassoulet in bowls with topping sprinkled on top. Enjoy!

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I’d Rather Smoke ‘Em Than Eat ‘Em

I wanted to use up the Shiitake mushrooms I had bought for dinner a few nights ago. I had also bought some Enoki mushrooms. But I don’t have a lot of recipes for them.

I’m not much of a mushroom person. I grew up on Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. At least, I was served a lot of food with the slime in it. Mostly casseroles of some sort or another. But I refused to eat it. Stubborn like a brick wall. The grey goo with the tiny cubes of rubbery snot in it was more than I could stomach.

Or button mushrooms, boiled to death in some insipid casserole. Can’t eat ‘em.

And those caps filled with mystery stuffing that was all the rage some decades ago. No way that’s goin’ in my mouth!

So I never really developed a repertoire of mushroom recipes.

Of course, there were a lot of mushrooms in high school and college, but they didn’t necessarily have much nutritional value.

It wasn’t until many, many years later, when I tried morels, that it occurred to me that something that grows on death and is a step away from mold could taste good. Tentatively, I branched out a bit. Always avoiding anything particularly grey, or that might be even a bit slimy.

The enoki mushrooms are about as far from cream of mushroom soup as you can get, and seem OK to me. It took me longer to get to things like shiitake mushrooms. But I made it eventually.

So I found an interesting looking recipe for Risotto with Shiitake and Asparagus. Seemed like a good combination of flavors. And it’s asparagus season. Naturally, I changed the recipe a bit to suite my taste, and this is based on my basic risotto recipe. I pan roasted the asparagus and shiitake on high heat very briefly in olive oil with some garlic, and added that to the risotto rice. Wonderful flavor!

For the enoki mushrooms, I saw a picture of some wrapped in bacon and roasted in the oven. I didn’t want to use bacon (bikini season coming, I hear every day), so I opted for prosciutto. With some sage as well. I’ve never tried it, but the earthy mushroom and sage combination seemed good. And everything goes with prosciutto.

And it did go well. The roasting brought out a deep smoky sage flavor that cut through the saltiness of the prosciutto. The Enoki retained a wonderful crunch.

I didn't think the risotto would go over too well, as some here are not too adventurous, but it turned out much better than anticipated. This is definately on the list to make on a regular basis.

Prosciutto-wrapped Enoki with Sage

Enoki mushrooms (I don’t know how many I used, as I threw away the wrapper, but you need a small bundle for each slice of prosciutto)
8 slices prosciutto
16 sage leaves
olive oil

Heat oven to 450ºF.

Carefully rinse off mushrooms, and dry well. Drizzle mushrooms with olive oil.

Spread prosciutto slices out flat. Place a small bundle of mushrooms on one end, and lay 2 sage leaves on top. Roll the prosciutto up tightly and secure with toothpicks.

Place wraps in a baking dish on parchment paper, and roast in oven for 15 to 20 minutes, turning once. Remove when prosciutto is browned on both sides. Serve. Enjoy!

Risotto with Garlic Roasted Asparagus and Shiitake

2 bundles asparagus – approx. one pound, ends snapped off, and sliced on an angle into ¼ to ½ inch slices
1 pound shiitake, stems removed, sliced into this slices
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, minced
2-3 tbsp rice vinegar, or ½ cup white wine
550 grams arborio rice – about 2 cups
8 cups chicken stock
1 cup pecorino-romano cheese, grated
olive oil

Heat olive oil in a sauté pan till hot. Add garlic, and roast over high heat for 30 seconds. Add asparagus and shiitake slices, and roast over high heat, stirring frequently, until the asparagus just starts to soften, but is still crisp. Remove to a plate and reserve.

Heat broth in a pot until it just boils, and hold at a simmer.

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy pot. Add onion, and sauté over medium heat until onion is soft. Turn up heat, and add rice. Cook, stirring, until rice begins to turn translucent – 3-4 minutes. Turn down heat to medium. Add rice vinegar. Stir. Add about 1 cup of stock, stirring. When the stock is absorbed, add ½ cup stock, stirring. Continue adding stock ½ cup at a time, stirring frequently.

When rice is almost done (al dente), add asparagus and shiitake mixture. Fold in gently, with some additional broth. Continue to stir gently, adding broth ½ cup at a time until rice is just done. Add grated cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Some Like It Hot! (and Spicy!)

I was in the mood for something hot and spicy. Something to take the chill off. Even though it’s the end of April, and we should be full into our dry season by now, with temperatures to match, it’s raining. Again. And ‘cold’. For us, anyways. And clouds!

I mean, what’s goin’ on? This doesn’t happen here! People don’t know how to react.

The ski attire already folded away (the mountains are just an hour away), the new beach wear already purchased and just waiting for a hot weekend (depending on traffic, the beach is also just an hour away). Usually our biggest problem is what sun tan lotion to use - SPF 35 or 50.

And then it rains. Everyone is kind of frozen, not having the exact right look to sport in this unusual situation. And the cars! My god! The Lamborghinis! The Maseratis! And for the poor working people, the Porsches, BMWs and Mercedes! All the convertibles with their tops up! All spotted up with rain drops! No way to show off all that new cosmetic surgery in something like that. Where’s the glam? All very un-sexy and bohemian. You’d think this is San Francisco or something ; )

So – we need it hot and spicy (food, that is).

But I also wanted to use my new black soy sauce we found the other day. I know, I know, all soy sauce is basically black, but this is a style of soy sauce that is thick like molasses, and sweet. It still has some of the salty taste of ‘regular’ soy sauce, and is made from fermented soy beans, but has a totally different taste to it. Very rich in flavor.

So it seemed to me that some of the Szechwan-style recipes that often call for both soy sauce and sugar to balance the hot chilies might work with this black soy sauce.

I was not too successful finding just the right recipe, however. So I combined a few of the concepts to create my own. Based on something like a Kung Pau’s style, but using Tofu instead of pork (low fat for Teengirl’s bikini), and with peanuts. And, since I had some here, edamame. Kind of provides a balance between the hard peanut and the soft tofu.

The sauce is just ginger, garlic, Szechwan-style chili-garlic paste, and the black soy sauce. With some hot chilies thrown in for extra fire.

All of this served over pea shoots as the vegetable. Though I’d never noticed them until recently, they are available everywhere for a good price. I saved a few of the tendrils for garnish, and my bunch had a number of small white flower buds on it, which I also used for garnish.

And as a base, pan-fried Chinese noodles.

The flavor was very nice - a good balance of hot and sweet. The chili-garlic paste adds a deeper component than just garlic alone. The sweetness of the black soy sauce helped tie everything together into a harmonious balance. And vegetarian, but with a very high protean content.

Szechaun-Style Tofu and Peanuts on Wilted Pea Shoots with Pan-Fried Noodles

2 tubs tofu – firm, drained on paper towels for 1 hour
1 cup peanuts, roasted, unsalted
1 cup shelled edamame (reserve a few for garnish, if desired)
2 tbsp minced fresh ginger
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp Szechuan chili garlic paste
2-3 tbsp black soy sauce
hot chilies – # depends on type (I used 2 Serrano) – minced
½ tsp sesame oil
peanut oil for frying
1 cup stock
1 tbsp cornstarch, mixed into stock
1 bunch snap pea shoots, washed and roughly chopped, ends trimmed (reserve a few tendrils for garnish if desired)
4-5 slices fresh ginger
fresh Chinese style noodles
Garnish – a few pea shoot tendrils and some edamame nuts

Cut tofu into eating sized pieces. Drain thoroughly on paper towels.

Bring large pot of water to a boil. Heat 2 tbsp peanut oil in a large heavy skillet. Cook Chinese noodles in boiling water for 1 minute, remove to a colander to drain, and place immediately in hot skillet. Spread noodles to cover pan bottom. Pan fry noodles over medium heat until browned on one side, turn, and brown on other side. Remove to a serving plate and keep warm.

Heat Wok or large heavy pan till very hot. Add 2-3 tbsp peanut oil. Add tofu, and lightly brown on one side. Turn and brown on other side, and remove to a plate.

Add 1-2 tbsp peanut oil to pan. Add ginger slices, and sauté for 1 minute. Add pea shoots, and sauté, stirring, until just wilted. Remove to a separate plate, cover and keep warm.

Add 1-2 tbsp peanut oil to pan. Add tofu, peanuts, edamame and hot chilis, and sear, stirring gently, for 1-2 minutes. Add minced garlic, minced ginger, black soy sauce, and garlic chili paste. Stir gently until coated. Add stock with cornstarch, stirring gently until thickened. Add sesame oil at very end, stir lightly, and remove pan from heat.

Arrange pea shoots on noodles. Arrange tofu mixture on top of pea shoots. Garnish with a few pea shoot tendrils and edamame. Serve. Enjoy!

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Monday, April 24, 2006

Teen Tramples Dad, Crowds Cheer

In follow up to the last post, where I bemoaned my inability to take a reasonable food picture, teengirl decided to take things into her own hands.

Less than an hour after taking the camera around the yard, she came back and began uploading pictures to the computer. A few minor – and I mean minor – tweaks to the pictures (unlike my massive surgery to try to repair my hopelessly blurred images), and she began popping up brilliant images. One after the other. Almost every one was better than any I have ever been able to take.

Everyone oohed and aahed. They applauded. (Applause?! Applause??!! I never got no stinkin' applause!)

Sharp, rich images. Full of color. Centered! A little single minded in subject matter, but this is her first try, and at this age, pink is an important concept.

(She calls this something like Beauty Among the Ruins. Has to do with me, somehow. I doubt that I'm the beauty.)

Obviously, the camera has the potential to take good pictures. Obviously it’s a matter of operator skill. Obviously all my rants and raves against the #*%?@*%#@* camera and it’s *%*#@*%# blurry images were misplaced.

So, bludgeoned by these great pictures, watching my blog life blood ebb away with every seemingly effortless visual poem she uploads, shamed into admitting that it’s ME – not the camera or the lights or the table or that background or that plane flying overhead that’s causing everything to vibrate or…

What’s left to do with pictures like these? No, no, no, not delete them, punish her for using the camera without my permission, ban her to her room, etc., etc. But publish them!

Of course I'm proud, certainly outwardly at least, at least until everyone goes. I mean jeez - no training, her first try, no help from me (no help from me!!!) - obviously, all indications to the contrary, it must be in her genes!

Maybe she can give me a few pointers, when she’s not busy.

Retro Food Porn (or just bad pictures?)

I’m completely in awe of bloggers with the fantastic pictures, how they make images seem to just pop out of the screen. Sometimes, it’s as if you could taste and smell the (often, not always) food images. Food porn at its best.

I don’t know how they accomplish this. Great cameras and gazillions of accessories? Slick software to touch up the images? A good eye for arrangement, color, etc? A magic wand that makes everything come out right? All of the above?

The photography is my weakest link, even though I spend the most time on it (hey, we all eat with out eyes almost more than our taste buds).

And yesterday I had nothing working for me.

Same camera as always. Basically same set up- lights, colors, etc. Same (ever more worthless) eye. Terrible results.

If it were not for digital technology, and the fact that the hundreds of mistakes I make for each picture that is not directly embarrassing are basically free, ...

Maybe it was the fact that after a week of Spring break from school, and waking up late, and staying up even later, my eyes looked like the red eye in the middle fish this morning.

I don’t know if the odd Pennsylvanian Dutch man laughing on the 30 (?) year old plate from K-Mart is a clever accident, or a hideous mistake. I can’t believe we put the fish on that plate and then actually took pictures.

Actually, the fish heads came out pretty clear, of course. But the pictures of the final dish look like we all dropped acid before playing with the camera. In most of the pictures, you can’t tell that the picture is of food, let alone what possible type of food.

So in light of this maddening situation, Retro Food Porn. Bad pictures distorted by software ( to look like they might have 100 years ago. Oddly enough, it is easier to discern the components of the image in its distorted state that in the original. How sad is that?!

And it’s too bad, because the meal itself was really good. We had found some fresh sardines on sale. Good sized ones – not like the ones they put in the cans.

I used to love to get sardines at a Hamburg seafood restaurant in the Schanzenviertel, on the Schulterblatt. They would serve them as an appetizer plate, lightly dusted in flour and deep fried. Served with an Aioli that practically melted the serving spoon. Everyone at the table had to taste some of the Aioli, or they couldn’t stand to within 10 feet of the table. It was a rough place, filled with some rough looking characters.

I also like to make sardines in Escabèche. But these have to be made a few days in advance so they can marinate properly.

So, time to stretch a bit. We found a recipe for stuffed and baked sardines that had an ingredient list everyone could buy into. Tomatoes, sultanas, capers, garlic, basil, wine, olives and pine nuts all combine to make a nice flavor. Despite the fact that the sardines are stuffed, it’s not that much work, as the each sardine can only hold a fingerful of stuffing. And once stuffed, they just bake until done.

We put this on some pan-fried polenta, with a few leaves of spinach on the side. All in all very good. Worth trying again, maybe tweaking the ingredient list a bit – a little more sweet sultanas and capers to balance the tomatoes.

Of course, you can’t actually see this in the pictures, but with some imagination?

18 sardine fillets, scaled
3 tsp capers, roughly chopped
2 tbsp sultanas
2 tbsp black olives, seeds removed and roughly chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 tbsp fresh bread crumbs
2 tbsp virgin olive oil
maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper

Tomato and Olive Sauce:
1 x 400g can of chopped plum tomatoes
150ml red wine
2 garlic cloves finely chopped
3 tbsp basil leaves, shredded
3 tbsp black olives, seeds removed and roughly chopped
maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 tbsp virgin olive oil
maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
8 slices of focaccia or similar bread
200g rocket leaves
2 tbsp parmesan shavings

Sardines: Mix together the capers, sultanas, olives, garlic, bread crumbs, olive oil and a little salt and pepper until well combined. Stuff the sardines with the mixture. Refrigerate until ready to cook.
Sauce: Preheat an oven to 200°C. Mix together all the sauce ingredients and place them it in a oven tin.
To Cook: Place the sardines on the sauce and drizzle over the olive oil and season them with a little salt and pepper. Place the oven tin in the preheated oven and leave them to cook for 20-30 minutes. The sardines are ready when the flesh is opaque. Serve.
To Serve: Place 2 slices of the focaccia on each plate and a handful of the rocket on the bread. Scatter the parmesan shavings over the leaves. With a fish slice or palate knife place 3 sardines on the rocket on each plate. Spoon the sauce over and around the sardines. Sprinkle the pine nuts around each plate. Serve. Enjoy!

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Weekend Herb Blogging – Mitsuba

We have the unique benefit here of having significant populations of many different ethnic cultures living in the area. And this is very evident at our weekly farmer’s market. Korean kimchis and Tteoks, or Mexican tamales and salsas, or Persian breads, along with all the associated raw vegetables, herbs and spices that are required to make all this, are offered at stand after stand. And mixed in, subtly for my eyes, are some Japanese influenced stands.

So we migrated that way for this week’s , sponsored by .

Despite having traveled to Japan dozens of times, and having the advantage of being led around by a host of Japanese people – young and old, from Fukuoka to Kyoto to Tokyo to Sapporo, and having enjoyed food in all these places plus many in between, I’ve never really tried to cook too much Japanese food. I obviously was not raised in the culture, so I don’t have a feel for how the various ingredients go together, and in what proportions to result in the tastes I love so much when eating there. And I’ve had some experiences with fish in general that make me realize I am not the one to choose sushi grade fish for people to be eating raw.

But that’s all just negative thinking. And besides, what could go wrong? So, looking just to the moment, we took a much closer look at some of the Japanese oriented things for sale. Since this is more of a produce market, they were not selling any of the myriad of dried and fresh things pulled from the sea (that comes later).

And since we’ve never really tried anything, we didn’t have to be too adventurous the first time.

So we went with visual appeal. And got some Mitsuba.

Teengirl loved the dark green leaves and the spirally tendrils. And they were selling this in mass quantities. Snatched up bunch after bunch by the constant stream of people passing through the stand. We felt confident with the choice. No idea what to do with it, but there’s that negative thinking again.

A little research turned up quite a few options. It seems this herb is used fairly extensively in Japanese, Korean, and other Asian cuisines.

The leaves, dark green as mentioned, look a bit like oversized parsley. Attached to fairly tough stems. The taste is subtle. Maybe just a little nutty. Fresh. Maybe a little celery orientation. The herb is listed as Japanese Parsley, or Japanese Chervil, so that gives a good hint as to the flavor it imparts to foods.

Always added at the last minute, never boiled. The flavor, apparently, is quickly destroyed by too heavy a hand.

It turns out that the leaves and the stems are both used, but for separate purposes. The leaves add a fresh flavor to custards, soups, sushis, and salads. The stems are cooked until tender and used to wrap things. Like sushis.

We had just made a custardy thing for Sugar High Friday, and I had enough abuse for serving so many calories so close to bikini season. So we opted for soup and sushi instead. Low fat, fresh flavors, what could go wrong?

The soup is just a variation of my old standby Miso soup. Same procedure as always, but instead of seaweed added to the soup, the Mitsuba leaves are sprinkled on top of the soup just before serving. They don’t cook, but just mix in with the warm broth and add flavor.

For the sushi, I found some non-fish ideas. Not all sushi involves raw fish. Eggs also play a substantial role.

It may seem odd, but eggs go really well together with the slightly sweetened sushi-style rice. And a lot of things can be added to the eggs – basically just omelets – to add nice flavor. Including Mitsuba. With the added benefit that I don’t have to worry about accidentally poisoning my family with bad raw fish in the process.

So we went with two ideas that looked easy. I mean, they’re just little packets tied with a string. What could be so hard? I made one, and teengirl made the other. Even easier! Not too much work for anyone.

But those little packages require a lot of tedious steps, and tons of dishes, to finish. And an artistic touch that I’m still working on.

One was a wonderful looking nori roll filled with an edamame omelet, a mitsuba leaf and some pickled ginger. Tied with a string of mitsuba stem.

The other was a tender omelet wrapper filled with a sushi rice flavored with shrimp, shiitaki mushrooms and cucumber.

Both were wonderful to look at as well as to eat. But it was a lot of work to get those little packages tied and finished – a couple of hours. I have new-found respect for the sushi chef.

And naturally, teenboy doesn’t eat shrimp, and was suspicious of the Edamame, so he made something called Oyako-don, Rice topped with chicken and egg, just to make sure everyone had something. This was finished with some mitsuba leaves on top. But we didn’t get any pictures of that.

So four ways to serve mitsuba – as a fresh flavor in a nori sushi roll, as a string to tie both the nori and the egg sushis, sprinkled into the miso soup, and almost as a fresh salad on top of the chicken and egg on rice dish.

Water 3 1/2 cups
Bonito flakes 1 cup
Soup stock 3 cups
Tofu 1/2 pack
Trefoil leaves 1/2 bunch
Miso 2 1/2 tablespoons

Put water into a pot and turn on the stove. When it starts to boil turn the flame down, add the bonito flakes and lightly cook for 2-3 minutes. Turn off the flame and drain out the flakes once they sink to the bottom.
Cut the tofu into 2 cm squares. Wash the trefoil leaves and cut into 2 cm.
Dissolve the miso in a little bit of soup stock. Put the rest of the soup stock into a pot and turn on the flame. Add the tofu and the dissolved miso. Turn off the flame before it comes to a boil. Put into a bowl and add trefoil leaves.

1/2 cup frozen shelled soy beans (edamame)
1 teaspoon canola oil
2 eggs, beaten, with dash each of salt, soy sauce, garlic powder
1 tablespoon red pickled ginger
10 mitsuba leaves or lettuce
2-1/2 sheets Korean nori, cut into quarters

Saute soy beans in oil over medium heat 5 minutes. Pour egg mixture over soy beans. When eggs are set on one side, turn over. Remove.
Cut eggs into rectangles, about 1-by-2 inches. Place one mitsuba leaf or piece of lettuce on a square of nori. Top with piece of egg and a few pieces of ginger. Wrap nori into a log shape and secure with a toothpick. Makes 10 pieces.

(Rice Topped with Chicken, Egg and Mitsuba)

ingredients for 4 servings:
chicken :7.5oz
onion :1
(A)water :1-1/2cups + clear DASHI SAUCE :4tbs + sugar :3tbs + soy sauce :1tsp
eggs :4
mitsuba(or water cress) :a few for each portion
cooked rice :4bowls
nori-seaweed(chopped) :for topping
cooking method:
Cut chicken and onion into 1-inch thick slices.
Bring group (A) to a boil, add (#1) cook for 2-3 minutes.
Then add beaten egg to (#2). When half-done, sprinkle on mitsuba.
Place rice in serving bowl, cover rice with (#3).
Sprinkle on nori.

Ingriedents: (for 8 pieces)
800 grams sushimeshi,
4 shrimps, sake, salt,
4 shiitake (1/2 cup of water used for soaking, 4 teaspoons sugar, 1 tablespoon soy sauce),
1 sheet Asakusa nori,
1/2 cucumber,
6 eggs (2 teaspoons sugar,1/3 salt,1 tablespoon starch),
8 mitsuba (trefoil).

Remove black vein from shrimp, put a pinch of salt and sprinkle sake over, steam it. Remove shell, cut into small pieces.

Soak shiitake in water for preparing, drain excess water and cut off stems. Place shiitake in a pot with water used for soaking them, sugar and soy sauce, bring to a boil, reduce flame, simmer slowly until almost dry. Cut shiitake into hosogiri.

Cut cucumber into 5mm cubic sizes.

Dry Asakusa nori over the flame, wrap with dried cloth, smash into small pieces.

Mix all the ingriedents into sushimeshi, divide into 8.

Fry eggs, added with sugar, salt and starch. Form it thinly for 8 sheets.

Remove root from mitsuba, boil briefly.

Spread sheet of fried egg, place sushimeshi in the center, hold each corner of sheet to the center for wrapping around. Bind with mitsuba using it as a string to tie.

Sushi Rice
Cook rice correct firmness so that it shines.
Wash rice one hour prior to cooking add correct amount of water and pieces of dried kelp in rice cooker.
Remove kelp right before cooking, add sake or mirin, correct water level.
Let set with cover on for ten minutes before placing rice into sushi mixing bowl (hangiri).
Sprinkle vingar mix (below) evenly over rice, with wooden spoon cut into rice thouroghly to mix. Let rice set for five minutes covered with a damp cheese cloth.
Fan to cool it down

Sushi type: Chirashizushi
rice vinegar: 120 - 150cc
sugar: 50g
salt: 12 - 15g

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Friday, April 21, 2006

Sugar High Friday 17 - Booze

Ohmygawwd! I was trying to post for the Sugar High Friday 17 - Booze, hosted by Chandra at . But I, I, I started eating my entry as I was posting.

Have to stop now. More later.

It's just too good.

By the way, it's Bananas Foster on Baily's Irish Cream Mousse with Whipped Cream.

Rum, Banana Liquor, Whiskey. Whew. Carmalized bananas, coffee mousse, whipped cream, rum, whiskey, all in one bite after bite after bite ...

Details coming! I promise! First, need more ..... Ohhhhh..................................

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Ok, I'm back. It's all gone now (the dessert, I mean, not the sugar rush). Everyone is mad at me (for all the calories) despite the fact that they ate most of it. So I know it was good. And the sugar high is lasting quite a while.

But as promised, a few comments about the dish, plus the recipes:

I was enjoying some coffee made with nicely ground coffee beans from my new grinder (the new grinder works pretty good!), and I got the inspiration.

Since it was breakfast time, or maybe more like brunch time (definitely no later than lunch time), and I was sitting next to the bananas, I got the urge to make something that I remember from my childhood – not that I ever ate it then – but still a part of some memories.

I still pronounce it as one word – 'Nawlins' (New Orleans for you Yankees). Everything all drawled together. And I can still remember all the teachers calling me ‘honey child’, as in “what you think you doin’ there, honey child?”, followed by a rap to the knuckles with a ruler. Although I never went to Brennan’s, or Commander’s Palace, or Tchoupitoula’s restaurant (which apparently no longer exists) – note that K-Paul’s and Emeril’s didn’t exist back then- I do remember Pirate’s Alley, and Jackson Square, and the above ground graves in the cemeteries (being below sea level, you can’t really dig a hole there). I got to know Bourbon Street some years later.

A lot is washed away, but not the memories, and I am pretty sure that something equally substantial will take it’s place as New Orleans tries to rebuild after Katrina.

was really an institution there when we lived in the area. It has been in operation since 1946, originally on Bourbon Street, and since 1954 on Royal Street, its current home. Brennan’s for Breakfast was something that could not be missed – celebrities, politicians, everyone seemed to want to be seen there.

And one of the most famous dishes at Brennan’s was Bananas Foster – a carmalized banana affair with a dramatic flamed rum finish. Named after a good friend of the original founder of Brennan’s, it is responsible for the serving of over 35,000 pounds of bananas at the restaurant a year.

The bananas are usually served on a scoop of vanilla ice cream. But I wanted to work some whiskey into the picture as well. So I made a mousse based on Bailey’s Irish Cream, which contains some Irish whiskey. With a dab of whipped cream on top.

And by the speed at which it disappeared – it was a good combination!

Bananas Foster by

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup banana liqueur
4 bananas, cut in half lengthwise, then halved
1/4 cup dark rum
4 portions Irish cream mousse (recipe follows)
Whipped cream for garnish (optional)

Combine the butter, sugar, and cinnamon in a flambé pan or skillet.
Place the pan over low heat either on an alcohol burner or on top of the stove, and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves.
Stir in the banana liqueur, then place the bananas in the pan.
While the bananas cook, unmold the mousses onto 4 dessert plates.
When the banana sections soften and begin to brown, carefully add the rum.
Continue to cook the sauce until the rum is hot, then tip the pan slightly to ignite the rum.

When the flames subside, lift the bananas out of the pan and place four pieces around and over each portion of mousse.
Generously spoon warm sauce over the top of the mousse, top with whipped cream if desired and serve immediately. Enjoy!

1 C Irish cream liqueur
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
1/4 C cold water
3 large eggs, separated & at room temperature
2-3 tbsp sugar
1 C whipping cream

4 decorative molds or round bowls

Lightly oil mold. Stir gelatin into 1/4 C cold water; set aside to soften, 5 minutes.

Whisk egg yolks in top of double boiler off heat until well blended. Whisk in 1 C Irish cream liqueur. Place over simmering water & cook, stirring constantly with wooden spoon until mixture feels hot to the touch & is thick enough to leave a path on back of wooden spoon when you run your finger along it, 8 to 10 minutes. (Similar to how you tell if custard is done) Do not boil. Remove from heat & immediately add softened gelatin, stirring until dissolved. Transfer mixture to medium size bowl & place in larger bowl of ice water. Stir occasionally until mixture begins to set. Remove from ice water.

Meanwhile, beat egg whites in large mixing bowl w/electric mixer on low speed until foamy. Gradually beat in sugar, 1 T. at a time, until stiff but moist peaks form. Gently spoon whites over top of liqueur mixture; do not mix. Beat 1 C of the whipping cream in same mixing bowl with electric mixer on low speed until thickened. Beat on medium speed until soft peaks form; do not beat stiff. Fold whites & liqueur mixture into whipped cream until blended. Pour into mold. Cover with plastic wrap & refrigerate until set.

An Affair of the Heart I Can’t Let Go

Maybe it was the caffeine deficiency. Maybe the withdrawal had already begun. My brain reduced to a mere feeble bulb instead of its usual bright glare.

This is the result of something so fundamental to my life going up in smoke. I mentioned yesterday that the coffee grinder had died. In mid-grind. Well, it didn’t work today either. And my rations of pre-round coffee are slim.

I could have gone down to and gotten something cheap. But coffee and me have a pretty serious relationship. A relationship that commands respect. One formed over thousands of cups of coffee throughout Italy, France, Germany, Sweden, even Belgium and the Netherlands, to some extent. All strong coffee places.

Sweden is a super strong coffee country, from my experience. I knew some guys, one was from Malmö, in the south of Sweden (a skip away from Copenhagen), and the other was from somewhere nearer to Stockholm. Both drank coffee that was thick, black, strong stuff. The one roasted his own beans. They almost died the time they came to America and had to make due with our brown water. They survived only by ordering multiple shots of expresso – combined to make a cup of their idea of coffee. They drank this all day and all night. And the caffeine didn’t seem to have any effect on their sleep. I still don’t understand it. I have to say that I have only visited Sweden in the winter – when the sun makes its 2 to 3 hour appearance a day – or less, before calling it quits. So, maybe that has something to do with it.

Italy of course has deep, rich expresso. And wonderful cappuccino. In France, I usually get Café au Lait, especially for breakfast, of course. In Germany, they have very nice black coffee, strong and rich, but I usually get Milchkaffee with the steamed milk, maybe because of all my Paris memories.

I also enjoy a well made cup of Turkish style coffee on occasion, thick to the point of holding the spoon upright, usually well sweetened.

So you can see that this coffee affair is more than just a fling. It’s got a hold of me deep within. The faces of the coffee may change from country to country, day to day, but as long as it’s strong and well brewed, I can’t say no.

I can’t just replace my burned up grinder with any old coffee grinder to grind up something so integral to my life. It has to be a burr style grinder, number one, and those are expensive. They range in price from $40 to $900. It has to be well rated as well. And those are hard to find. The selection at most stores is very limited. And ordering from the Internet takes time for delivery. So the dilemma was intense. And had to be dealt with in my dazed de-caffeinated state.

In the midst of all this, my mind kept wandering to all the cucumbers stacked up in the fridge. And the great Greek and Turkish food they have in Hamburg. Every corner has a shop with fantastic Dönner Kebabs, with the huge lamb spit rotating and roasting slowly in front of a hot grill, where hot crispy slices would be trimmed off onto a waiting bread and slathered with Tzatziki sauce. Not to mention all the slow-cooked vegetables. And the breads. And the desserts. And the coffee.

Clearly I’ve become delusional. What does the coffee grinder dilemma have to do with cucumbers in the fridge? But the images kept swirling in my head.

So dinner was decided. Something Greek, with Tzatziki involved. And since I don’t have a gigantic lamb spit and grill at home, it would have to be something simpler.

I decided on something called ‘Soutzoukakia Smirneika’, which is basically cigar shaped, spicy hamburger sausages finished in a tomato sauce, and served with rice. With Tzatziki on the side - even though it didn’t go with the meal. It just had to be there.

I’m hoping the new grinder works. And the meal tomorrow has a more rational basis to it. Despite the odd comments about the Tzatziki, everyone seemed to love the ‘Soutzoukakia Smirneika’ since I couldn’t get a single comment out of them before the food was devoured.

Soutzoukakia Smirneika (Minced Meat Rissoles with Cummin)

Serves / Yields: 4 persons

3 thick slices of bread, soaked in water
500 grams finely minced beef
1 egg
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
2 teaspoons cummin
salt and pepper
1 glass white wine
30 gr. flour, for frying
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoones olive oil
3 tablespoons tomato puree or 1200 grams can tomatoes, liquidized roughly
chopped parsley, to garnish

Soak the bread in water for 10 minutes and discard the crust. Squeeze the water from the bread and mix with the mince, egg, garlic, cummin, salt and pepper and 3 tablespoons of the wine. (The best results for mixing are always achieved by using your hands.) When properly mixed make long thin shapes, like fat cigars, about the length of your finger (around 15 of them), roll them in the flour and fry in the vegetable oil on medium heat, making sure that they are crisp all over.

In the meantime, put the olive oil in a saucepan and, when it is warm, add the tomatoes and the rest of the wine and cook slowly for 10 minutes, stirring and making sure it does not stick. Add the soutzoukakia as they come out of the frying pan, roll them in the torrato sauce, add a little more water if needed, cover and cook slowly for 10 minutes. Garnish with chopped parsley.


1/2 seedless cucumber (usually plastic-wrapped), peeled, seeded, and chopped (1 cup)
1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 small garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint

Purée cucumber, yogurt, lemon juice, garlic, salt, and pepper in a blender until almost smooth, about 1 minute. Stir in mint and chill, covered, until serving.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Signs Didn't Point to Galettes

I woke up, went into the bathroom, and the lights didn’t go on.

Bad sign.

Seems the florescent bulbs are shot, or sometimes they just don’t go on, and then later start working again. But really, it’s a sign.

I tried to make coffee. The grinder got halfway through the beans, and started to smoke.

Now, this is more than a sign. A bad day on half rations of coffee. This is a flashing lights, sirens, head for the bomb shelters type of warning. Warning me to go back to bed and forget today. Just erase it. Skip to the next day. Let it slide.

But no. Of course I can’t do that (in retrospect , I can’t see why not).

The day struggled on. Little things. Nothing huge. I don’t know if I was now tuned into watching for little things to go wrong. Like when you read your horoscope, and it starts to come true – sort of. You’re almost searching for the threads to follow that will tie everything together into the events that you know are destine to take place.

Well, it was that kind of day.

Maybe not the best day to try some Galette style crepes. Crepes always take a certain touch to make them come out right. A lot of practice helps, but I have to rely in a bit of luck.

But I’ve been thinking for a few days about some buckwheat I have. And thinking about a restaurant I went to occasionally in Hamburg (Germany). Where someone who was from the north Atlantic shore of France once told me that they make Galettes just like she remembered them from her home. I think it must be in Brittany where she came from, as the restaurant served a lot of Cidre, like they seem to do in that part of France.

Their Galettes were made from this somewhat hard to find buckwheat grain, and folded in a special way to make a square, with the middle open to let the filling peak through. Filled with cheeses or spinach or tomatoes or prosciutto, or dozens of other things. Or maybe just filled with an egg cracked onto of the Galette, and allowed to cook until still soft and runny. A few of these was all I could eat. They were big and filling. And you had to save a little room for a dessert crepe. Of course stuffed with chocolate.

So I wanted to make some with my buckwheat. I’d watched the cooks in the restaurant make the Galette crepes. How they quickly spread the batter on the hot pan, turned it, and folded the corners up just so. And I picked today to try this? Why not just challenge the powers that be to a swordfight, blindfolded, and get it over with?

But, after a few for the dog, I got enough to come out well enough to make a meal for everyone. The biggest problem was that I expected to make about 16 Galettes, but only had batter for about 10. This was certainly my error in either batter thickness or not being quick enough to spread the batter in the hot skillet. Or more likely both.

Anyway, the ones that came out were very good, and hinted at the great ones I had at that restaurant in Hamburg.

I stuffed them with Gorgonzola and tomatoes roasted with garlic and thyme. Whew! They were good.

On the side was a simple watercress, orange and jicama salad with an orange vinaigrette. With a sprinkle of roasted pistachios on top.

Galette Crepes with Gorgonzola and Tomatoes Roasted with Garlic and Thyme

For the Crepes:
1 1/2 cups buckwheat flour
1 cup bleached all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
2 cups milk
2 large eggs
Clarified butter
16 (6-inch) squares parchment or waxed paper

For the Filling:
½ pound Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
6 Roma tomatoes, sliced
6 cloves garlic, peeled
Fresh thyme, chopped

Make the tomatoes: Heat over to 450ºF. Lay tomatoes in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with garlic. Sprinkle with thyme. Roast for 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven when well roasted and blackened in places.

Make the Crepes:
Combine the flours and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a medium-size mixing bowl, combine the melted butter, milk, eggs and whisk until blended. Add the liquid mixture a little at a time to the dry mixture, whisking to dissolve any lumps. Whisk until smooth.

Lightly brush a 6-inch nonstick skillet with butter and heat over medium heat. When the pan is hot, remove it from the heat and pour in ¼ to ½ cup of the batter. Swirl the pan around to spread the batter evenly over the bottom. Return the pan to the heat and cook until lightly golden, 30 to 40 seconds. Turn the crepe over, sprinkle Gorgonzola in the center, and place 4 or 5 of the roasted tomato slices in the center of the Galette. Fold the sides up towards the center to form a square, leaving the center area exposed. Remove the Galette to a plate and serve immediately. Repeat for remaining batter. Serve. Enjoy!

Watercress Salad with Oranges and Jicama

½ jicama, peeled, and sliced into a fine julienne
2 oranges, peeled and sliced
1 orange, zested and juiced
2 bunches watercress, washed and picked over
sherry vinegar
olive oil
toasted pistachios for garnish

Make a vinaigrette by whisking together the orange juice, 1 tbsp sherry vinegar and the zest, and then drizzling in the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Arrange watercress on salad plates. Arrange julienne jicama on top. Place 3 orange slices in center of salad. Drizzle with orange vinaigrette. Serve. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Teen Angst? More like Teen Ache

Being a teenager brings with it a lot of changes. New experiences, new capabilities. Some exciting, some just painful.

Hopes may not be able to be fully realized. That sooo cute boy may not have reached that necessary level of maturity yet. Acne (need I say more?). And that credit card does have an eventual limit.

But these sorts of pains don’t really last that long. New hopes form, boys become less gangly, acne eventually recedes, and the credit card bucket gets refilled for another binge at American Eagle, or Hollister, or The Closet or Abercrombie. Yes, I know them all.

But one special pain seems to last longer. Years. An eternity. A pain that flares up every few weeks (no not that), aches, then recedes a bit, transforming into more of a social pain for the interim.

And I guess you have to do this. God forbid anyone has to go through life looking like Austin Powers. At least from the mouth department. So around this age, girls and boys go through two year of this special teen ache punishment.

There is certainly a law in southern California outlawing bad teeth. It defines you as a social pariah. An outcast. Jerry Springer material. You may be forced to migrate out of the area at some point.

People here polish, whiten, bleach, cap, and do everything imaginable to ensure a glaringly perfect white smile. It’s an obsession. New techniques are discussed almost as frequently as breast enhancement operations and Botox. I think it’s the real reason people here have to wear sunglasses – from the glare off all these polished teeth.

So when teengirl gets her braces tightened every few weeks, with the inevitable ache in the jaw, something easy to eat is called for. After a day or so, it is usually more or less gone, but on that evening, and into the next day, it’s pretty miserable.

With that in mind, I finally got the ingredients together to try the Fennel soup from . The flavors sounded good, and after cooking for a while, everything would be plenty soft.

The soup turned out great. A nice balance, with a good rosemary punch. The only modifications I made (of course I can’t just make a recipe as written!) were the addition of some epazote leaves (I wanted to see if the anti-gas properties of the leaves were really true) and some sausages, which I cooked along with the soup to ensure teenboy didn’t starve. The sausages added their own flavor, of course, but I think the original flavor of the soup still predominated. The epazote leaves, it’s hard to say. They have such a unique flavor. You could tell they were there more as a very slight aftertaste. I served it with just a fresh baguette I had warmed in the oven (although teenboy served his on top of the inevitable rice – where does it all go!?).

The recipe can be found .

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Hip New TV Dinner

There seems to be two basic philosophies to pasta.

In one, it is sort of the hip new TV dinner (new being a relative term). Everything is there. Carbs, protien, veggies, cheese. In one convenient 'package'. Well, maybe the little square dessert is missing. But in general, the point seems to be to add things until all the bases are covered.

Now – I’m all for pasta. Even elaborate pastas, with sauces and meats and chunky things embedded in them, slathered in cheeses. Even though the point of the pasta – i.e. a prelude to the main meal – is completely lost.

It’s convenient. It can be very tasty, healthy too, sometimes. So what’s not to like?

So today, I made one. Sort of made up, based very loosely on a recipe I found on the Emeril Web site. I adapted the ingredients to match what was available, and what people here would actually eat. Then I added some things to make a complete dinner. Round out the nutritional and caloric edges, so to speak.

And it was good! Hot (spicy), full of flavor, plenty of everything except fat. Everyone loved it.

Except me.

I mean, I liked it, and appreciated the convenience of having the meal done in a single course, and you felt good about eating something so healthy. And the cleanup was moderate as well.

But a few days ago, I had made a different kind of pasta. A simpler pasta.

I am certainly no Luddite. But when it comes to food, simple can be good.

And not necessarily easier to make. A pasta with everything and the kitchen sink thrown in has a lot of room to cover mistakes. Who could taste everything? It’s usually a muddled mess of flavors.

But a simple pasta, with just four ingredients – olive oil, garlic, parsley and peperoncino – has no room for errors. You can taste immediately that something is out of proportion, or missing, or burned. There’s nowhere to hide.

You don’t usually find it on the menu in Italian restaurants – Spaghetti con aglio, olio e peperoncino. I went all over the world asking italian restaurants if they would make it for me. Most did. Some refused. Of those who did, the results were so varied, it was hard to believe we were all talking about the same dish. Some came out soupy – pasta floating in oily pasta water. Some had tomatoes and basil. Some had no sharp peperoncino flavor. Some had burned garlic.

But the ones who did it well, they did everything else well. It seemed you could tell that a chef (or chef’s assistant, most likely), who would take the time to do such a simple pasta well would also take the time to do most everything else well.

So I got to know the bordello red walls and tight tables of the one who did it best. With the funky art work for sale on the walls. With their odd collection of artists, performers, and wannabes swilling grappa and filling the air with thick cigarette smoke. And with the waiters who ALWAYS got me a table, no matter how full it was (and it was always full). Till 3am (another big selling point!). Waiters from Sicily and Calabria, whose fluency in the language of the country in which the restaurant was located ebbed and waned depending on how rude the customer was.

So a few nights ago, I made some Spaghetti con aglio, olio e peperoncino as a first course for dinner. Everyone else enjoyed it, but only as a prelude to the dinner.

But I really savored it. It’s been so long since I’ve had a really good one. I’d almost forgotten how good it was – how the simple combination of flavors, in the right proportions, cooked slowly till just the right point, how that could taste so good. To me, it was the highlight of the evening.

Spaghetti con aglio, olio e peperoncino

1 bunch italian parsley, chopped fine
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 peperoncino, minced
5-7 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for garnish
1 lb spaghetti
Optional - Pecorino, grated for garnish

Cook spaghetti in boiling, salted water.

While spaghetti is cooking, heat olive oil in a sauté pan. Over medium low heat, gently brown garlic and peperoncino, stirring often. Do not let burn.

When spaghetti is cooked, drain well, and toss immediately in sauté pan with garlic and peperoncino. Toss well to coat with oil. Pout into large, warmed serving bowl. Add parsley, and additional olive oil to taste. Toss well Serve immediately. Enjoy!

Panko-Crusted Chicken and Penne with Roasted Fingerling Ragu
Very loosely adapted from a recipe courtesy

24 fingerling potatoes, sliced in half (or quarters if large) the long way
½ cup red wine
olive oil
1 cup flour
1 ½ cups panko bread crumbs
2 eggs
3 cooked chicken breast halves, cut into slices
2-3 tablespoon Creole seasoning, recipe follows
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 poblano chili, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
8 plum tomatoes, quartered or two 32 ounce can of whole tomatoes, drained
4 cloves garlic, minced (I actually used 1 head of spring garlic, minced)
16 ounce container ricotta cheese
1 pound penne pasta, cooked al dente

Heat olive oil in a frying pan until hot. Add potatoes, and roast over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until cooked through and well browned. Remove to a plate and reserve. Deglaze pan with red wine and reserve.

Place flour in shallow dish. Place panko in a separate shallow dish. Beat eggs and place in another shallow dish. Sprinkle chicken slices with Creole seasoning. Dredge chicken slices in the flour and shake off excess. Dredge chicken slices in eggs and shake off excess. Dredge chicken slices in panko and press so panko adheres.

Lay chicken slices in a single layer on a parchment paper lined baking pan. Broil until browned on one side, turn, and broil on other side until browned. Remove to a plate.

In another sauté pan, add olive oil and heat. Add onions and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper. Add peppers, tomatoes, garlic and deglazed wine from potatoes and cook for about 10 minutes. Add pasta to the pan and toss for 2 minutes.

Pour vegetable mixture into a large pasta bowl. Top with chicken slices and tablespoons of ricotta cheese and serve. Enjoy!

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Tradition Friction gets Roasted

I’m sort of an un-traditionalist. If I can’t see the point of something, I just don’t do it, or conversely, if I can’t see a reason not to do something, then I usually do it.

This naturally causes friction at times. Especially when it comes to big tradition issues like Easter dinner.

Growing up, Easter seemed to be the highpoint of poorly cooked, overly salted and sweetened food for the year. The dreaded mushroom soup green bean casserole would invariably make an appearance. And asparagus would be boiled until just a soggy remnant of its potential glory remained. Ham, either sickeningly sweet with pineapple and honey, or overly salty and packed in tin with the gelatin globs. And there was always some sort of marshmallow jello affair. With canned mandarin orange slices mixed in. Things like that.

So I don’t do that.

There are SO MANY wonderful things to eat, fresh things, especially this time in the spring – vegetables, herbs, fruits. It seems criminal to carry on tasteless traditions, and inflict the pain of those old traditions on the next generation.

So I stopped.

One thing in particular that always made me practically gag was the overcooked, mushy to the point of dissolving asparagus. Even with a sauce on top.

Recently I have been roasting fresh asparagus in the oven under the broiler. Drizzled with fresh olive oil, and usually sprinkled with fresh garlic. Roasted just until it is lightly browned in places. So that it still has a bit of a snap to it.

This turns something I always hated when I was young into one of my favorite vegetable dishes.

This year, the roasted asparagus is coupled with a nice tarragon tomato salad, and salmon roasted in balsamic and basil, with a little steamed rice on the side.

Since the various dishes are so simple, I didn't include the recipes today. The description of the asparagus method is above, and the salmon was just roasted in the oven as well, with a little balsamic vinegar sprinkled on top, and some minced basil sprinkled over it.

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