Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Beautiful Obsession

I don’t like it deep fried. Or stewed. Although as sushi it’s OK. In fact, I didn’t occur to me to eat it at all until I had the luck to try it prepared perfectly.

It is, after all, sort of an odd thing to eat.

In its raw form, it is all squishy, grayish white, with eyes and tentacles hanging all over. Covered in a slimy thin skin, with all sorts of yuck that has to be pulled out of the body before cooking.

And it has a bit of a body odor problem, too. No matter how fresh, everyone knows for a day or two what you cooked up.

I don’t even know what compelled me to try it the first time. We were in one of those ubiquitous Greek restaurants found throughout Europe outside of Greece. Dripping with faux Greek culture. But it had a wonderful patio, with a view of the water in the moonlight (I’m a romantic sucker for all things moonlight).

So I tried it.

The calamari they used were tiny. Tiny tiny tiny. Each one not even a bite. Grilled somehow, not deep fried. In a buttery lemony caper sauce. Tender – not chewy. Fresh tasting. I was hooked. Every time I saw this preparation of calamari, I ordered it. You can find this all over Europe, but not so often here in the US, if at all.

Of course, I eventually tried to make it myself.

It’s hard to find calamari here at all, let alone fresh. Despite our proximity to the ocean. Not the most popular item. It’s harder to find the tiny ones. I almost never do.

As a substitute, we found a frozen product at Trader Joe’s (a local small market chain in California) that sells ‘Calamari Steaks’. They are football shaped pieces of calamari, cleaned and ready to go. Not optimal, but good enough for every day use.

The difficulty with calamari, as anyone who has tried to cook it knows, is that it has a tendency to turn into chewing gum in an instant. My first attempts to cook it were absolute disasters.

Some research helped. And a lot of practice. And it always helps to be a bit obsessed.

The key to achieve the results I was looking for is to cook it HOT and FAST. And by hot – I mean smokin’ hot. Hot like they tell you never to cook things hot. And fast. I count to 30 slowly to myself (everyone already thinks I’m nuts, why add fuel to the fire?) per side. That’s it. You have to fight the tendency to leave it on longer.

If you don’t have the pan hot enough, 30 seconds per side won’t brown the stuff. If you leave it on more than 30 seconds, it becomes rubber. Unless you cook it another hour and let all the proteins heat up and relax. But that’s not what I’m after.

The last trick it to get the calamari dry before cooking. These things ooze water. And all that water inhibits any hopes of quick and hot cooking. I let them dry on several changes of paper towel for at least an hour. And wipe them off one more time.

Then I dust them very lightly in a seasoned flour. Salt and pepper, of course. Sometimes a touch of heat with cayenne pepper, things like that.

If you flash fry the dried and dusted little calamari in a super hot pan in olive oil for the 30 seconds per side as mentioned, you get super tender, super juicy calamari with just a touch of crunch on the outside.

I set these on a plate in a warmed 250ºF oven while I make the sauce. They cool off just as quick as they cook!

The sauce is just your basic Beurre Blanc, made with capers, garlic, lemon juice and butter. Of course, salt and pepper as well. I make it in the same pan I used to cook the calamari so some of that flavor is there as well.

The trick to beurre blanc, well, there are two tricks actually. The first is to reduce a sufficient amount of an acid (i.e. the lemons and capers) until it is almost evaporated away. The acid is what binds to the fat in the butter to make the sauce. Too much water remaining in the acid will break the sauce. You have to start with enough acid at the beginning so that you can add enough butter at the end for the amount of sauce you need to make. The second trick is to add the butter slowly with the heat turned off, stirring gently and constantly, letting the residual heat of the pan melt the butter. Too much heat or stirring will cause the sauce to separate (the flavor is still OK, but it looks bad). And adding too much butter to the amount of initial acid will either cause the sauce to separate, or result in a muted, oily tasting sauce. Either way a bad ending.

Swirl in some additional flavoring at the very end, such as parsley, salt and pepper, even a touch of mustard, if desired.

The garlic caper beurre blanc sauce is as much a part of the calamari experience to me as the fish itself. The two go together to make a supremely enjoyable whole.

It’s a fast and furious meal. Fun to make when it works out. Delicious to eat when you get the hang of it! A beautiful obsession!

Pan Roasted Calamari in Garlic Caper Beurre Blanc a la surfindaave
Serves 4

2 pounds small calamari, cleaned well, defrosted if frozen, set to dry for an hour on paper towels
1 cup flour
salt, pepper
1 tbsp additional seasonings if desired, such as cayenne pepper, garlic salt, etc.
olive oil
Caper garlic beurre blanc (recipe follows)
Parsley, chopped fine, for garnish
Lemon wedges for garnish, if desired

Heat oven to 250ºF. Place a heatproof serving plate in oven to warm.

Wipe calamari pieces dry.

Combine flour and seasonings on a plate. Lightly dust calamari pieces in flour, shaking off any extra.

Heat olive oil in a sauté pan until SMOKIN’ hot. Cook calamari in batches. Place calamari pieces in hot pan without crowding. Fry for 30 seconds per side, until just lightly browned. Turn, and fry for another 30 seconds. Remove to the heated serving plate and place back in oven. Repeat for remaining calamari pieces.

Arrange calamari on serving plate, drizzle sauce over top, sprinkle with parsley and garnish with lemon wedges, if desired. Serve immediately.

Garlic Caper Beurre Blanc
Recipe by surfindaave

3-4 cloves garlic, minced fine
olive oil
½ cup capers in vinegar, including liquid
juice from 2 lemons
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter
salt, pepper
¼ cup parsley, chopped fine

Heat olive oil in a heavy sauté pan over medium high heat. Sautee garlic for 1 minute, stirring. Add capers, liquid, and lemon juice. Reduce liquid until just a tiny bit is left. Turn off heat (remove pan from burner if electric stove). Swirl in 1 tbsp butter at a time, moving the butter around gently with a wooden spoon. Continue adding butter 1 tbsp at a time, swirling gently, as each piece completely melts. When all butter is added, season to taste with salt and pepper, and gently stir in parsley. Serve immediately.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Warning: Lovers Only Beyond This Point!

Ones who live for the sharp bite on the tongue. Who dream of oozing that pungent aroma of love from every pore.

Ones who massage it’s sensuously indulgent oils into everything, from pasta to ice cream. Sauteed, roasted and raw.

Garlic lovers, that is.

You know who you are.

We do too! I mean, your breath gives you away from 100 yards!

A few weeks ago, I made some really great aioli. A fresh garlic concoction that perks up any number of tired dishes.

But I had read one of my blogs recently – I can’t remember which one, and I couldn’t find it again either – that talked about Chimichurri sauce. That quintessential Argentinean flavor.

And I developed a yearning for it that had to be quelled.

I used to go to a restaurant for lunch for a few years. Usually choosing a gloomy, rainy day. At the time, and in that city, there were many. This restaurant had a special ability to raise the spirits on such a day. It was an Argentine steak house.

I always got the same thing. No need to order, eventually. A nod to the waiter – always the same guy – and it was on the way. With a bowl of that green elixir. I didn’t know for a long time exactly what was in the bowl. Just that I liked it more and more. Didn’t matter how bad the day was. Sales for the quarter off? New employee lawsuit? Product returns? Financial audits starting? All that evaporated for an hour, etched away by that most pungent of sauces.

Of course, it helped that the steak was pretty good as well. And the waiter always brought an espresso and a shot of some schnapps or another to help with the digestion.

I hadn’t thought much about that lately until I read that blog on the sauce. That kind of set the wheels in motion.

Of course around here, this sort of thing has to be planned carefully to occur as if by accident. Mostly it’s just fish, chicken and veggies. And I was really in the mood for the sauce on a steak.

Our recent bout of illness opened the door of opportunity. I had made some broccoli beef recently (I get to make this because of all the broccoli, and who ever heard of broccoli chicken?!). And as some were already suffering, I made half the amount, meaning that a whole 2 pound flank steak was left.

Well, worse than eating cow is letting something go to waste (thank you!). So I planned to spring the steak surprise on everyone on Memorial day. Hey! It’s already a steak sort of day. And who wants to shop on a holiday?

So, I went to work looking to make my sauce. As mentioned, the original blog could no longer be found. But there are lots of recipes on the internet. Problem is, all are different. And they differ a lot. Some have three times as much red wine vinegar as others. Or jalapeno chilis. Or other ingredients that I know were not in the one I enjoyed. So I borrowed for many, and combined them to make a sauce that seemed to be close to what I was thinking of.

And then I got greedy. 4 cloves of garlic? Hell – 6, no 8! If I’m going to make the sauce, then I’m going to make a sauce worth remembering!

The first bowl just melted. From the heat of the garlic. It was plastic anyways. I moved to ceramic. That held up better. Initial taste – not bad. Not bad. But it needed time to develop it’s flavor. So I left it for a few hours. And magic occurred.

The steak – just a flank steak. I marinated it in olive oil for an hour. I roasted it under the broiler (it will take more than a three day weekend to get the grill ready to go!). Sliced thin, and the sauce drizzled on top.

Garlic heaven. For pure, unadulterated, adult style garlic fun, I think the chimichurri sauce beats out the aioli. The aioli sauce has the eggs to sort of mellow out the edges. The chimichurri sauce, even though based on parsley, is just straight ahead garlic power.

We balanced this mouth tingling, stomach churning powerhouse with a wonderful golden beet salad set on sorrel leaves. With a nice lemon thyme dressing. The golden beets, roasted, are sweet and tender. The sorrel, when eaten raw, has a powerful flavor of its own. A distinctive lemony flavor. And you need something strong to cut through the garlicky chimichurri sauce.

I think everyone enjoyed the final result. Even though we are not much of steak eaters here, the steak was fine (well, really not much of a steak). The salad was wonderful. But the sauce – pure love!

Chimichurri Sauce
Recipe by surfindaave

Note – I made this recipe using a food processor. Alternatively, you can chop the parsley fine and whisk the sauce together by hand. I will try this next time.

1 large bunch flat leaf parsley
2-3 tsp dried oregano, or 2-3 tbsp chopped fresh oregano
¼ to ½ cup red wine vinegar
juice from ½ lemon
approx. 1 cup olive oil to taste

Combine first 6 ingredients in a blender of food processor. Mix. Add oil in a stream, while mixing, tasting often, until desired consistency and flavor are reached. Let sit for several hours to allow flavors to develop. Spoon over meats, chicken, etc. Enjoy!

Argentine-style Grilled Steak
Recipe by surfindaave

Good quality skirt steak
Olive oil
Salt, pepper
Chimichurri sauce
Fresh bread, warmed in oven (to soak up the juices, of course!)

Rub steak well with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Let sit for at least 30 minutes at room temperature. Grill over hot coals until just charred on the outside. Turn. Repeat on other side. Remove from heat and let steak sit for 5 to 10 minutes. Slice into thin slices against grain. Drizzle with chimichurri sauce. Serve. Enjoy!

Golden Beet Salad on Sorrel with Goat Cheese and Pine Nuts
Recipe by surfindaave

6 to 8 small golden beets, trimmed and washed
olive oil
2 small bunches sorrel leaves, washed and trimmed.
2-3 tbsp fresh thyme
juice from 1 lemon
salt, pepper
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
¼ cup pine puts, toasted

Rub beets with olive oil. Place in baking dish, and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Place in oven and roast for 1 to 1 ½ hour, until just tender when tested with a fork. Remove from oven, and let cool for a few minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove peels. Set aside to cool completely.

In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, thyme, salt and pepper. Whisking, drizzle in olive oil until emulsified. Taste and season as necessary. Let sit to allow flavors to combine.

Arrange sorrel leaves on a large serving platter. Slice beets into 1 inch slices and arrange over sorrel. Sprinkle crumbled goat cheese over salad. Sprinkle with pine nuts. Spoon dressing over salad and serve. Enjoy!

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Sonata in Three Movements – Sugar High Friday: Ginger

Sweet. Pungent. Hot.

Ginger lends itself to many types of food. Both savory and sweet.

And comes in many forms. Raw, preserved, pickled, crystallized. I wanted to combine a few of my favorite forms of ginger into something interesting for Sugar High Friday.

So I combined fresh ginger, preserved ginger and sweet pickled ginger into a chocolate decadence. With a little poached pear, just to balance the opulence of chocolate, cream and ginger with something a little cleaner. For this month's , hosted by .

The result – Gingered Chocolate on Vanilla Ice Cream with Poached Pear in Ginger Chili Sauce.

The chocolate combines the sharp pungancy of fresh ginger with the syrupy sweetness of preserved ginger into an addictive ganache. The sauce combines sweet pickled ginger, most often associated with sushi, with hot chilis, to give the dish a background heat. The pear is poached in a nice Viognier with some cinnamon and black pepper corns.

In each bite, there is lots of sweet, a touch of sharp bite, and a subtle heat that finishes it off. Best shared with someone you care a lot about. Not just because it's a bit heavy, but you want to be sure you've licked up every molecule! (Hey! some places are hard to get to with your own tongue!)

Although my burnt sugar lattice didn’t quite survive intact, we arranged it as best we could (for one magic second, the entire thing was in one piece in my hand).

The original ginger chocolate ganache recipe came from the cookbook “Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home. But I took it out of the pie shell of the original recipe and added the ice cream and the ginger chili sauce. Believe me, the combination works well. As long as you really, really, really like ginger!

Gingered Chocolate on Vanilla Ice Cream with Poached Pears in Ginger Chili Sauce
Adapted from recipe by "Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home" by Ten Speed Press by surfindaave

For the Ginger Chocolate Ganache

12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups whipping cream
1/2 cup peeled and chopped fresh ginger
1/2 cup preserved ginger
Unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting

To make the filling: Prepare 6 to 8 individual 1 cup molds (depends how much you want per person) by lining them with plastic wrap. Place the chocolate and butter in a medium bowl. Bring the cream and fresh ginger to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium heat, strain the mixture through a fine sieve over the chocolate, and discard the ginger. Let the chocolate mixture stand for 3 minutes, and then whisk until smooth. Fold in the preserved ginger and pour the mixture into the molds until they are no more then ½ full (leave room for the ice cream). Set the molds in the fridge to set up.

For the Poached Pears

2 cups white wine
2 sticks cinnamon
8 black peppercorns
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
4 small pears, peeled, halved, and cored

To prepare the pears: Combine the wine, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns and brown sugar in a medium saucepan. Add the pears and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until the pears are tender. Remove to a plate and reserve.

For the Ginger Chili Sauce

2 cup sugar
2 cup water
4-5 tbsp Japanese pickled ginger, drained/coarsely chopped
½ cup raisins
½ tsp crushed dried hot peppers
grenadine syrup, good splash

In a medium saucepan combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil. Cook, uncovered, over moderate heat for about 15 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, including enough grenadine to make a pleasant rosy color. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes. Let cool, then serve over vanilla or coconut ice cream.

To assemble:

Vanilla Ice Cream

Place individual serving plates in freezer for 10 minutes.

While plates are chilling, fill remaining half of individual molds carefully with ice cream.

Spoon some of the ginger chili sauce onto the serving plates. Carefully pulling on the plastic wrap, unmold the chocolate and ice cream into the plates. Place a pear half on top. Spoon some additional sauce over the dessert. Serve. Enjoy!

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“How can a man die when he has Sage …”

Attributed to Hippocrates, as well as an ancient Arab proverb, “How can a man die when he has Sage growing in his garden?”

It seems everyone has been in on the Sage secret for thousands of years.

It supposedly cured every possible disease. It was known to clear the mind and sharpened the senses. It was a powerful aphrodisiac, the original Viagra.

And around here it grows like a weed. Half of southern California must be covered in some form of Sage, even if it is not all necessarily edible.

The list of attributes is long, most likely because the flavor is strong and wonderful.

Still on the recovery, I chose Sage as the featured herb this week, along with a spin on a classic recipe, for , sponsored this week by .

This is something I’ve made forever. Maybe more of a winter dish. But today was not so hot here, and everyone really enjoyed the roasted in flavors and substantial nature of this dish.

It is a take on Saltimbocca. Usually done with veal. But, although we sacrifice any number of chickens to our appetites, baby cows get amnesty. So I changed it to chicken ‘steaks’.

I used to use real Prosciutto in the recipe, but we don’t live in Europe anymore, where the real stuff is actually available, and besides, for everyday, no one really but me really appreciates the extra flavor, salt and fat enough. So I just leave it out. If you like, you can place some Prosciutto between the Sage and the Mozzerella. That makes this dish a special treat.

For the chicken, I use boneless breasts. There was a time when a chicken breast represented one serving. They weighed maybe ¼ to ½ of a pound or so. Over the years, they have gotten so big – now weighing in sometimes at close to one pound each. I bought 6 boneless breasts today and that came to over 5 pounds of meat.

That is just too much for one normal portion. So I use a technique I learned in Vienna. When you get a real Wiener Schnitzel, not a tourist variety, the veal is always cut thin. Never pounded. Pounding kills any chance that the cutlet will remain juicy. So if the breasts are too large, I cut them in half the long way into two thinner chicken cutlets. This results in a portion that is reasonably sized per person, plus something that responds to a cooking in a reasonable manner – i.e it is actually cooked through before it becomes overcooked.

Sometimes I use fresh Buffa Mozzerella melted on top. Sometimes I use the ‘aged’ Mozzerella, common to the US. The ‘aged’ Mozzerella broils better, and some like that super stringy result. Today I used the aged variety.

In any event, the resulting dish highlights the wonderful flavor and intensity of Sage. And the Sage hopefully heals, cleanses, and performs all its other reputed super powers on our poor bodies. Because we could sure use it!

Chicken ‘Saltimbocca’ ala surfindaave
Recipe by surfindaave

4 chicken breasts (if very large, cut in half the long way)
olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 tsp red pepper flakes
4-5 cups roma tomatoes, peeled and chopped roughly (or two 32 oz cans)
splash of red wine
salt, pepper
1 bunch fresh sage
1 mozzarella, either fresh Buffa, or aged
1 slice of prosciutto per chicken breast, if desired

Heat olive oil in a skillet until hot. Season the breasts lightly with salt and pepper, and sauté the chicken breasts until browned on one side, turn and brown on other side, and remove to a plate and reserve.

In the same pan, add some additional olive oil. Over medium heat, sauté the onion until it softens. Add garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add wine, and deglaze pan. Add tomatoes and red pepper flakes. Crush tomatoes roughly with wooden spoon. Let the tomato sauce cook, uncovered, over medium low heat, until reduced and thickened.

Set the chicken breasts on top of the tomato sauce and let heat through for a few minutes. Turn the chicken breasts. Arrange fresh sage leaves on top of each breast. If using, place a piece of prosciutto on top of the sage. Place one or two slices of mozzarella cheese over the sage leaves. Remove the skillet from the heat and place under the broiler until the cheese is browned and bubbly. Serve immediately. Enjoy!

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Friday, May 26, 2006

Not in my Sensory Catalogue

Relapse. Took me down for another two days. Hopefully that is the end of all that! Talk about a weight loss program!

Just before going down for round two, we were looking for some new ways to work with tofu. For a non-meat evening.

It’s strange that a food stuff that seems ideal in every way – good combination of protein and carbs, low fat, low sodium, and easy on the natural resources (producing a pound of soybeans uses a fraction of the natural resources required to produce a pound of beef) – and that is so common in large parts of the world - should be so totally bland in taste and texture. So you spend all your time finding ways to add taste, and texture, to it.

Texture is a significant part of taste. Whether something is creamy, grainy, slimy. Coats the tongue, or cleans the palate. It seems there are expected taste and texture combinations. Sensations you’ve grown up with, that you have associated with good.

And that makes tofu a hard sell in the west. Because unless you grew up on a commune, you didn’t grow up with tofu here. It is not listed in your sensory catalogue of good stuff, the way that fresh steamed lobster, or grilled steak, or strawberries on ice cream might be.

Last time, we deep fried the tofu. And that was not bad. It mainly gives the stuff a bit of texture, but no flavor.

This time, we found a method of broiling the tofu as slices brushed with olive oil until browned. This has the interesting effect of not only adding some texture, but also imparting a bit of the olive oil flavor. I think you could also add some flavor to the olive oil and try to roast some additional flavor in, like maybe Chinese five spice powder, or something like that. We’ll try that next time.

We made a spicy peanut sauce to go on top. Simple peanut butter and garlic-chili paste.

And roasted some edamame in garlic and lemon to sprinkle over it. The edemame by themselves, also being soy beans, are not necessarily bursting with any particular flavor, so the lemon – garlic really perked them up.

Everything on a bed of spinach, tossed in some rice vinegar and olive oil. And sprinkled with some purples scallions we found – at the farmer’s market of course.

The result was a vegan salad with a lot of flavor, a lot of protein, and very low in carbs. With some steamed rice on the side – so the teenagers would not starve to death. Actually, the steamed rice with the peanut sauce was pretty good as well.

Roasted Tofu in Peanut Sauce with Lemon and Garlic Roasted Edamame
Recipe by surfindaave

2 one pound tubs of firm tofu
olive oil
2 cups edamame
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 lemon, juiced
1 bunch fresh spinach, washed and torn into bite sized pieces
2-3 tbsp rice vinegar
½ cup unsweetened smooth peanut butter
½ cup or to taste chicken broth (replace with water and a little salt for vegan)
1-2 tbsp garlic chili paste (found in Asian section of markets)
2-3 tbsp chopped scallions
additional sliced scallions for garnish

Cut the tofu into 1 inch thick slices. Place on paper towels, and cover with additional paper towels. Weight down with a baking sheet and a few cans, and let drain for an hour.

Wipe tofu dry with a paper towel. Brush with olive oil. Place in a baking sheet on parchment paper. Broil, without turning, until browned on one side – 10 to 15 minutes. Turn and brown on other side – 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

Heat olive oil in sauté pan over medium heat. Add garlic and sautee for 1 minute. Add edamame and juice of lemon, and sautee, stirring. Continue to sautee until liquid is absorbed and edamame brown slightly. Remove to a plate and reserve.

In a bowl, whisk together peanut butter and chicken broth until smooth. Add chili-garlic paste and combine well. Add scallions, combine and set aside.

In a bowl, toss spinach with rice vinegar and olive oil.

To assemble salad, place some spinach on a serving plate. Place a few slices of tofu, overlapping, on top of the spinach. Spoon some peanut sauce over the tofu. Sprinkle some edamame on top. Garnish with additional slices scallions. Serve. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

You Gotta’ Dress It Up to Take It Out

It was a normal evening. Some homework, soccer, reruns on TV, a walk, the dog tracked mud all over the house (rain! In May!! I swear, dog-kabobs are not out of the question!). The usual.

But no one ate dinner. Not much, anyways.

I didn’t really notice at the time. No dinner for a teenage boy is like 2 dinners for normal people. So it’s not like nothing was eaten, just more leftovers than usual.

Then, the next morning, whew. Everyone was sick. The bathroom was one flush after the other. Some had it coming out one end, others out the other. All bad.

Sort of a 24 hour flu. Or, as it seemed at the time, the apocalypse. Who would have guessed we would all down go in a wave of yuck.

That eventually abated. More or less. Stomachs calmed.

And everyone began getting hungry again. After a day with only water, the growls for food were audible from a distance.

I never really know what to make at times like this. Because I really hate bland food. I’m predisposed to avoid most comfort type foods, so my repertoire is low for such occasions.

We went with soup. Chicken broth based – because everyone thinks chicken soup is good when you’re sick. With a few vegetables.

And something I haven’t made for years and years. I can’t remember the last time I made some. Seems no one is passionate about it. But now I have an excuse – it has got to be the ultimate comfort food – barley. Cooked in broth until it turns thick and slimy.

This stuff is the definition of mild. And filling. It turns a watery broth into a substantial meal in a few minutes.

For flavor, I made a mirepoix and added some diced potatoes to roast for a bit. Fresh bay leaves (calming as well). Thyme. Some purple scallions, but no garlic. And some broccoli flowerets for a little color and vitamin C. And the barley. With lots of chicken broth.

The taste was excellent. Mild, but rich and flavorful. And sturdy. Something to fill the void after a few days of enforced fasting. But the visual appeal was limited.

So, as everyone began to feel better, TeenGirl and TeenBoy took over the visual effects department, and tried their best to dress up a tasty but bland looking soup. Best done, apparently, by basically hiding the soup all together.

The figurines are from the Buda side of Budapest, Hungary. Probably terrible tourist kitsch, but unusual for me and sort of a reminder of a few fascinating visits. The flowers are from the broccoli flowerets. And the bowl – kindergarten pottery. Now there’s a soup that knows how to dress for success!

Barley Soup with Roasted Potatoes and Broccoli Flowerets
Recipe by surfindaave

(Note – this was improvisation, under duress, so measurements are approximate)

1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
8 small potatoes, cut into large cubes
olive oil
2 fresh bay leaves
several sprigs of thyme, tied with a string
1 ½ cups barley
6 purple scallions, chopped
8 cups chicken broth
large bunch of broccoli flowerets, tough stems removed, chopped roughly
2-3 cups cooked chicken (from leftovers), chopped roughly
Reserve some of the flowers from the flowerets for garnish, if desired
Parsley, chopped, for garnish, if desired
Thick slices of fresh dark bread

Sautee onions, carrots and celery in olive oil until softened. Add potatoes, and roast until lightly browned. Add bay leaves, thyme, scallions, salt pepper, barley and chicken broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat. Simmer until barley is almost done – 15 to 20 minutes – and add broccoli flowerets, stirring. Add additional water if soup gets too thick. Simmer until broccoli is almost tender, and stir in chicken. Adjust seasonings. Garnish with flowerets and parsley, if desired. Serve with the dark bread. Enjoy!

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Quick, Not Fast

I think I’ve mentioned my passion for Gorgonzola. That I’d probably eat an old shoe if it had Gorgonzola melted on it? And the idea of a hot tub filled with Gorgonzola? Have I mentioned that before?

Were it not for the logistics of getting Gorgonzola out of the water jets of the hot tub, I might have tried that one. It seems like it might be a lot of tasty, slippery fun. Imagine walking around afterward still reeking of cooked in Gorgonzola. Hmmmm.

Well, I suppose the next best thing is to bathe something else in Gorgonzola. Then eat that!

I think I found today’s recipe about 16 years ago. At a time when things had to be done quickly, because there were other loudly screaming priorities at the time. And a whole lot of poo. Cooking as such didn’t exist. Putting something edible on the table on a regular basis was all there was time for.

So I developed a group of recipes that I could make quickly. Sub-30 minute meals long before books and TV shows on the topic came along. I had a dozen or so that I could whip up with minimum shopping, cooking and cleaning. These quickies focused on strong flavors to overcome the simplistic cooking concepts.

But they made a nice balance for what would otherwise have been an overdependence on take-out food.

Note that I didn’t say fast food. I’ve never had a McDonalds anything (OK – In & Out, but that’s actual food! (Sort of)). But I never resorted to fast.

At the time, we were living in the middle of Munich – corner of Lindwurmstrasse and Goethestrasse. Close to the Oktoberfest site – the Theresienweise. I always liked living on a street named after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a great thinker, traveler, author, lover, statesman, as well as a man of substantial appetite. The cross street – Lindwurm – is an old German word for dragon. Another good name.

Munich was not so much a city of fast food in those days. There was plenty of good food that was sold on the street – from vendors with wagons, or more often from take out windows of the many restaurants lining the streets. Roasted chestnuts in winter, Turkish Gyros, pizza, any sort of sausage on or with a roll, pastries, coffees, lots of good stuff that was still made by hand.

We had the fantastic luck that the best – and I mean the best – roasted chickens and fries could be had for a song just a block from our apartment. As take out. The Lindwurmstueberl was pretty well known, both for its proximity to the Oktoberfest grounds, as well as for its chickens.

In a city known for excellent roasted foods – whether pork, chicken, fish, ox, whatever – this place stood out. Both for the roasted chickens, as well as for their award winning roasted pigs knuckle (no kidding – it’s the Bavarian national dish! It had a crust to die for!). They are listed as one of the three best restaurants in Munich for Schweinshaxen – roasted pig knuckle, along with their Semmelknoedel and Kartoffelknoedel – or bread and potato dumplings.

We would get the whole chicken, roasted to absolute golden perfection, hot off the broiler, where dozens of the birds rotated in front of the hot fire all day long, split in half just for us, with a HUGE bag of fries, for just a few Marks (this was way before the Euro). Everything wrapped in paper and placed in a sack.

The fries were best eaten on the way home while they were still searing hot. The chicken, as is tradition in Bavaria, is eaten with the hands.

Over the years, I guessed that we ate well over 500, maybe closer to 1000 of those chickens. Of course, it was over a lot of years, but still! We went so often, for so many years, we knew most of the staff and the owners by name. And the lady who owned it – she ran the take out window and cash register – she would always pull an especially nice roasted chicken off just for us.

Interspersed with the chickens were these quick meals I would make. Chili, for example. Or my famous Chinese chicken and asparagus in black bean sauce. Or some potato soup, sometimes with leeks or carrots, and always with some fresh sausage or wieners (hey – we were in the capital of sausage!). Or in the summer, maybe a Greek style salad with fresh feta cheese, tomatoes and olives. And gigantic hunks of fresh Bavarian style whole grain bread from the Hofpfisterei.

If you want a treat, and like real bread (not Wonder style), go to this and take a look at the pictures of the thirty or so styles of bread this place offers (there is a neat slider that lets you easily scroll across all the pictures), plus thirty more types of rolls, another thirty types of pastries, and more. All organic. All sour dough style, no yeast. All whole grain. From light rye to dinkle to pumpernickel to things that seem more like seeds and grains baked in a ball. Something for everyone. Always in that classic round shape.

This was a long digression in getting to my dish today. But one of the meals I found back then was so elegant in its combination of simplicity and flavor, that it became one of our core weekly meals – Spaghetti in Gorgonzola Sauce.

The sauce is just crumbled Gorgonzola, melted over the pan of water heating to cook the spaghetti, mixed with just a bit of cream or milk, and then with a cup of the pasta water added after the pasta has cooked. Poured over spaghetti with a sprinkle of parsley.

That’s it. A 15 minute meal. Add a green salad, a glass of wine, and dinner is served!

The key to this dish is to get real Gorgonzola. Creamy Gorgonzola, not the soapy tasting kind you get in US grocery stores. Look for lots of dark green mold throughout the cheese. And look for an artisan product, something that is not mass produced by Kraft. Because the Gorgonzola flavor is the entire dish.

Spaghetti with Gorgonzola Sauce
Recipe by surfindaave

1 pound good quality Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled into a heat proof flat-bottomed bowl
¼ to ½ cup milk or cream
1½ pounds spaghetti (not angle hair pasta – it will absorb too much moisture and get gluey)
parsley, chopped fine, for garnish, if desired

Fill a large pot with water, and heat over high heat.

Add the milk or cream to the crumbled Gorgonzola and stir. Place the bowl so that it floats on the pan of water (be a little careful that the bowl doesn’t sink, especially when the water boils).

As the water just starts to come to a boil, remove the bowl of cheese to a hot pad. Stir well to get as much of the cheese melted as possible. Cover and set aside.

Add salt to the boiling water, and add the spaghetti, stirring. Cook spaghetti until al dente, stirring frequently.

BEFORE DRAINING SPAGHETTI – remove 1 to 2 cups of pasta water in a heat proof cup and reserve.

Drain spaghetti and do not rinse. Put the pasta in a warmed serving bowl and reserve.

Stir some of the pasta water into the cheese mixture until it becomes smooth, but not watery. Pour the cheese mixture over the spaghetti and toss well. Add additional pasta water as necessary – sometimes the pasta absorbs a lot of moisture quickly.

Serve immediately, garnished with parsley if desired. Enjoy!

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Sunday, May 21, 2006

A Raw Deal with Beets

I’ve eaten blowfish sushi in Osaka, made from the most poisonous fish around. I’ve had fresh black truffles on risotto in Milan. And bear meat at a Russian restaurant in Helsinki. All manner of odd fungi, seaweeds, roots, tubers, fruits, barks, who knows what all. But I do not think I have ever had a raw beet before. In any form.

Such a common thing. Never tried it.

I think my parents associated beets, turnips, rutabagas, etc., with the depression and the war (WWII). Things you ate because you had to. Things that probably grew in their victory gardens. Once the bad times were over, it was steak the rest of the way. Vegetables were sort of an afterthought, usually served with little concern as to taste or appearance. Vegetables often came in the form of onions in the wine sauce spooned over the steak. Or deep fried onion rings or French fries. Maybe some iceburg with blue cheese dressing.

Veggies were viewed as a sort of medicine. Apparently good for the body. But a tablespoon of veggies, that’s enough medicine for one day. Once the medicine was down, it was on to the steak and fries.

So my relationship with vegetables more exotic than iceburg was slow and torturous.

Imagine that I actually went vegetarian, for quite a long time, consuming lots of a very limited array of non-meat items.

But things expanded quickly after living in Europe for 10+ years. Where most countries know how to prepare a tremendous array of vegetables. Things I’d seen before, even tasted, but never with so much flavor.

Still, the beet came away short.

We eventually discovered roasted beets. Wow! Now that was a revelation. Fantastic. As soup, in salads, in risottos, as ice cream, on and on it went.

But I had been seeing occasional recipes for raw beets. Mostly salads of some sort. And my restless nature eventually decided that I had to try some raw. No matter how horrible. Just to say I’d done it.

I will say one thing – a roasted beet is one kabillion times easier to work with than a raw beet. The roasted beet peel comes off with zero effort. A raw beet is a bit of a bear to peel. And once it is a little peeled, it starts to squirt out of your hand at every opportunity. So you are not only chopping at it with all your might to get the peel off, but you are trying to keep it in your hand at all, and prevent it from staining everything in the kitchen.

And to make it edible, most recipes suggest either grating it, or slicing it on a mandolin.

Well, some day I’m going to get a mandolin. But at the moment I just have a sharp knife. So cutting this tough, fibrous root into sub-sixteenth inch slices was time consuming. And hazardous to the fingers.

The good news is that the blood from the finger wounds is not really visible in the final result.

I’m not prepared yet to say that the effort was worth it. The salad was excellent. The ginger and apple flavors really complemented the beet. And I love the flavor of sesame oil in general. But next time I make it, I’m going to have that mandolin. For my fingers sake!

Beet Salad with Ginger Vinaigrette
Based on a recipe from Gourmet Magazine, April 1994
Adapted by surfindaave

1/4 cup minced shallot
2 tablespoons grated peeled fresh ginger
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon Asian (toasted) sesame oil
1/2 cup olive oil
4 cups peeled raw beets (about 3/4 pound), sliced into 1/16” slices, then cut into matchsticks
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and cut into matchstick pieces
parsley for garnish, if desired
sesame seeds for garnish, if desired

In a bowl, whisk together the shallot, ginger, and garlic with rice vinegar, soy sauce and sesame oil. Drizzle in the olive oil, whisking.

Gently toss the beet and apple pieces with the dressing. Garnish with the parsley and sesame seeds. Serve. Enjoy!

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The King is in the House!

A week off from herbal adventures for , sponsored by . But sometimes, simple is best.

This week, Tarragon. King of herbs. Critical to ‘Fines Herbs’, often included in ‘Herbs de Provence’, and the basis for an array of classic sauces.

I think tarragon got sort of a poor reputation in American cooking because of its association with classic French cuisine. The perception of being associated with things heavy and fatty, as well as difficult to prepare at home, doesn’t win popularity contests these days. Not to mention that the vast majority of the population in the US came from other places – Poland, Ireland, Italy, Russia, Germany, China, etc. Places that were not so focused on tarragon as a cornerstone of their cuisine.

Too bad for us.

Although I appreciate tarragon in combination with more subtle dishes, I like it best in a simple vinaigrette with a fresh tomato salad. Somehow, to me, the combination of the sweet, anise-like flavor of the tarragon balances the acidity of the tomatoes perfectly. My tongue is in ecstasy with every bite.

It turns out, I am probably enjoying a variety of tarragon know as Mexican tarragon. Which is a bit sweeter than the traditional French tarragon. Both of which are apparently more flavorful than the original Siberian tarragon. Unbelievably, despite its delicate flavor, the herb grows best in poor soils and harsh conditions.

Looking into the history books (or history Web pages, rather), tarragon, so closely associated with classic French cooking, did not even arrive in France until the 1600s. Coming by way of England. It made a big impact when it finally arrived, however!

It was know to the ancient Greeks as both a flavoring and a medicinal herb. Known as a mild anesthetic, especially for toothaches. And seems to have been known in the middle east as well.

I like the name in French and German – Estragon, stemming possibly from a form of the word for Dragon in Greek – ‘Drakon’ (if you leave the e off the French name, you can see this pretty easily). Tarragon stems from the Genus Artemisia, which derives its name from Artemis, Greek goddess of the moon. A reference to the somewhat soft, silvery color of the leaves of many plants of that family. Leaves that have the appearance of being bathed in moonlight.

Critical to the use of tarragon are two things. Always use it fresh, as its essential oils breakdown quickly and it does not retain its flavor after being dried. And always add it at the very end of cooking, as the flavor is destroyed by even moderate cooking.

Using tarragon fresh is a bit of a problem, as tarragon is notoriously difficult to keep in its fresh state for more than a few days. This always makes using tarragon sort of an addictive tease. If you can find fresh tarragon, the tomatoes might be terrible. And if you finally get some good tomatoes, or wait for the tomatoes to redden up a bit (in the ol’ paper bag), the tarragon is likely long gone. Getting the two to peak at the same time is a rare but supremely satisfying experience.

Here are a few additional links:

So call me non-conventional. I don’t sauce my food heavily. I don’t use the herb in too many of the classic ways. But I follow the most important two rules in my tomato salad with tarragon dressing – the tarragon is always fresh, and it is never cooked. The flavor is simply delicious!

Tomato Salad with Tarragon Dressing
Recipe by surfindaave

3 cups grape tomatoes, cut in half
3-4 tbsp fresh tarragon leaves, removed from stem, chopped roughly
1 shallot, minced
2 tbsp rice vinegar, or to taste
salt, pepper
olive oil

In a small bowl, whisk together all ingredients except the olive oil. Whisking, drizzle in the olive oil to taste. The dressing does not have to emulsify – I prefer it with less oil, so that the tarragon flavor really stands out.

Toss the tomatoes with the dressing and serve immediately. Enjoy!

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Friday, May 19, 2006

Spring Fantasia

Sausage, tomatoes, potatoes, tarragon, Dijon, crusty French bread. Sparkling in a lemony zesty dew. All dancing in tight formation around on the plate in some sort of Spring fantasia opera.

With strawberries in the second act. Bright red, warm and juicy. Floating across the stage on silky puffy ethereal clouds of eggy pudding. Under a sprinkle of powdered sweetness.

Must be some sort of dream. I’m sure the alarm will go off. The eye lids will open. The delicious fantasy will end.

This is not the sort of stuff I usually get to make. Hard to sell here because it seems too heavy.

But I compromised.

The sausage is not fried in all it’s greasy goodness, but simmered. In broth. With much of the heaviness tossed. Down the drain.

As with the potatoes. Not roasted in the oven with oil and rosemary. But boiled. Light as can be.

With tomatoes and spinach. Fresh. Evoking the lightness of spring as well.

And a dressing based on tarragon (by favorite herb by far). (Even better than basil). Tarragon and tomatoes are one of my favorite combinations. And just a dab of Dijon, with a super light vinegar like rice wine vinegar, or maybe a sherry or champagne vinegar, so the flavor of the tarragon really shines through. And a touch of lemon juice and zest to bring out the highlights.

So I kept it light. Still forced to cash in some of my built up credit for all the vegan meals over the last few weeks. But it was worth it.

And the dessert – I wait all year for the strawberries to come down enough in price, and to go up enough in quality, that we can ‘waste’ pounds of them on a single dessert.

I don’t care much for the name – clafoutis. We generally mispronounce it as ‘klow-foutè’ Just because it sounds funny, I guess. But a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.

All in all, a pretty light dessert. Just eggs and strawberries.

But dessert always gets the bum rap of being bad. A calorie bomb. Justified or not. Like it rides into the end of a dinner on a Harley, with tattoos and too much leather. Seductive to some, rejected by others, but always tainted as a naughty pleasure at best.

So there it is. I would call this a late Spring dinner. Something best enjoyed Al Fresco. With a good bottle of wine. Fresh bread. And good friends. The salad light, despite the sausage and potatoes. With fresh tarragon and tomatoes. And the strawberries approaching their peak flavor intensity for the year. Certainly they will start to wane again within the next two to three weeks, at least here. It just needs a simple soup, maybe a fresh pea, or the roasted red pepper soup with the aioli, to round it out.

Spring Sausage and Potato Salad with Tarragon Dressing
Recipe by surfindaave

2 pounds small potatoes, boiled until just tender, cooled, and cut into thick slices
2 pounds spicy fresh sausage, simmered in broth until cooked, drained and sliced into thick slices
2 pounds roma tomatoes, cut into thick slices
1 bunch fresh spinach, washed and ends trimmed
½ bunch tarragon, stems removed and chopped
1 shallot, minched
1 clove garlic, minced
½ tsp Dijon mustard
1-2 tsp rice or sherry vinegar
zest from 1 lemon
juice from 1 lemon
salt, pepper
olive oil

Arrange spinach on a large serving platter. Arrange sausage, potato and tomato slices on top of spinach in a decorative fashion.

In a bowl, add tarragon, shallot, garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, and whisk to combine. Slowly drizzle in olive oil, whisking vigorously, until the dressing emulsifies. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon dressing over salad evenly. Serve. Enjoy!

Strawberry Clafoutis

Adapted by surfindaave

1 ¼ pounds fresh strawberries, stems removed, washed carefully, and cut in half
4 eggs
1 cup sugar, seperated
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 cup flour
1 ½ cups milk
Powdered sugar for garnish, if desired

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Grease a 13” oven dish well with butter, be sure to go up the sides of the dish to the rim. Arrange the strawberry halves in the baking dish so they cover the bottom evenly.

In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs, ½ cup of the sugar, and the vanilla. Stir in the flour. Whisk in the milk to form a smooth batter. Pour the batter over the strawberries.

Place the baking pan in the oven and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until well puffed, and lightly browned. The center should be sponge-like, not runny. Remove from oven. Let cool for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired. Spoon into bowls, serve warm. Enjoy!

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

.. and Totally Redeem Myself!

“You’ve done stupid things before, (insert appropriate name here), and just when I think you can’t do anything dumber, you go and do something like this ..."

"... and totally redeem yourself!!!”

Great line, from a great movie! (Guess which one). (Most people with kids will remember this.) (It’s one of those you get to watch over and over and over …)

That’s where we were. The okra leaves experiment, as blogged about yesterday, was consumed, no one died, in fact, all things considered, it was pretty tasty and healthy. Just a little thick.

But that’s just the way it is with food.

Either you hit new culinary highs, or everyone remembers it as a sort of disaster. Whatever little thing was not perfect blown up to gigantic proportions. Discussed mercilessly, at length, as if that were the only element in the dish. (OK – it was a little THICK!!).

I’m not one who is afraid to take a chance, experiment, try new things. Even though those chances can be painful.

It’s a tough world for a chef, I can tell ya'.

And I was more than a little disappointed in myself for just tossing in soooo many okra leaves. With such abandon. Where was that finely developed feel for ingredients, tastes, textures? What happened to that almost innate ability to draw out the best in ingredients, find interesting combinations that highlight the individual components while them melding into a pleasing whole?

Maybe it was never there?

And this grey June gloom weather.

So I was feeling a certain ebb in my self-confidence. A rare occurance. As it usually bubbles forth unabated. Not that there is any proven justification for this bottomless spring of confidence. Probably just a chemical imbalance.

It’s not like I was actively mopping around wondering how to redeem myself. Or desperately searching for some way out. But I was probably doing that sub-consciously.

So when I saw the sun-dried tomatoes, I grabbed them. Flavor explosion! Something everyone loves! Like an immunity card – toss some in, and nothing can go wrong!

I also had some fava beans at home. Waiting for the right inspiration. Plus a mound of slowly wilting purple Thai basil we had bought at the farmer’s market on Saturday.

And the inspiration was there. My mouth began to water as the idea formulated in my head. I could taste the different components. Feel the textures. My mental eye drank in the bright colors. Redemption. I was back!

Some fava beans, sautéed in garlic and olive oil, with sun-dried tomatoes added, along with a little broth, and then the basil. Reduced to a nice sauce, then tossed over penne, a little grated pecorino-romano on top. With garlic and basil roasted chicken breasts on the side. Nice, flavorful, colorful, balanced.

In retrospect, I am positive this has been done before. Done a million times. Written about everywhere. But it did formulate in my head, with no Internet research. So I am calling it mine. At least this version.

And suddenly, the past was gone. The green goo, as it has already been dubbed, forgotten. Everyone sitting back, stuffed, smiling, happy, talking only about how delicious it all was.

It’s a good life as a chef, let me tell ya’!

Penne with Fava Beans and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Recipe by surfindaave

1 pound penne pasta
½ cup olive oil, divided
2+ cups of shelled, peeled fava beans
1/2 to 1 cup of sun-dried tomatoes (mine were dry packed, not in oil. If you use the ones in oil, drain and reserve the oil, and use it for cooking the sauce)
½ cup basil, chopped into a chiffonade, plus some additional for garnish
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup grated pecorino-romano cheese, plus some extra for garnish

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the penne pasta until al dente. Drain, but do not rinse. Reserve.

While pasta is cooking, heat ¼ cup olive oil in a sautee pan over moderate heat. Sautee garlic for a minute. Add the fava beans and the tomatoes, and sautee for 5 minutes. Add a few tablespoons of broth, and continue to sautee, adding broth as necessary just to keep everything moist. Add basil, stir to combine well, sautee a few additional minutes, adding a few tablespoons of broth as necessary.

Place pasta in a large, warmed serving bowl. Spoon fava mixture on top of pasta in serving bowl. Drizzle with remaining ¼ cup olive oil. Add grated cheese, and toss well to combine. Garnish with additional chopped basil and grated cheese, if desired. Serve. Enjoy!

Garlic and Basil Roasted Chicken Breasts
Recipe by surfindaave

4 bone-in chicken breasts (bone-in keeps the chicken juicy during roasting, a boneless breast will dry out in this recipe)
½ cup basil, chopped in chiffonade
2 tbsp garlic salt
olive oil

Pre-heat oven to 425ºF.

Place chicken breasts in a bakin pan. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with garlic salt, pepper and basil. Rub lightly into skin. Roast chicken breasts until browned, 20 to 409 minutes, depending on size of breasts (check by cutting one open at thickest point). Remove from oven. Let rest for 5 minutes. Serve. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

In the Thick of It – Okra Leaves

It’s usually a bad idea to use an untested recipe when cooking for others. Sometimes they have misprints, or subtle steps that require a little getting used to. Sometimes they are just bad recipes, resulting in bad food.

An even worse idea is to cook something you’ve never heard of before, never seen before, and don’t really understand, using a new recipe, that you have of course changed because, well, you’re just that inspired (or stupid?). Now there’s a recipe for disaster!

But hey. You only live once! And if you don’t try, you never learn!

So I was thinking about how to cook up the okra leaves we had bought last weekend. As mentioned, there is almost nothing to read in English on the Internet regarding okra leaves. So I was pretty much on my own. My only hint had been given to my by a fellow shopper – who indicated that the leaves should be chopped fine and had a thickening effect. No indication of how strong an effect.

We tasted some of the leaves raw, but they were quite bland. Just a mild grassy taste. Nothing of real note.

I chopped a few up in a sort of chiffonade cut. Nothing remarkable. I expected to see that sort of milky fluid that seeps out of okra pods when you cut them. But nothing.

We were beginning to doubt that these were actually okra leaves. Till we found a few tiny okra pods hiding in the leaves.

But how to use them? Since everything about the purchase had been Asian, I was now tending that way. Plus, we (well, TeenGirl) were looking for something meatless for dinner. And we had some big eggplants that were starting to deflate in the fridge.

So I came on the idea of a sort of eggplant – chickpea Indian sort of thing. I thought I had seen some things like that on a few Indian blogs. And sure enough, on the blog there was a wonderful-looking recipe for Baingan Chole – an Eggplant Chickpea sort of thicken stew. Served with rice or chapattis.

And from the looks of the pictures – just crying for a little green to round it out. Oh such a presumptuous ego to change a perfectly good recipe, without having even tried it, with some greens that have never been tried either. A nutty idea if ever I heard one.

Well, the chole is easy enough. Because we have made a few things over the last few months, most of the spices were on hand. And I always have chickpeas on hand. So off I went. And it looked pretty good. Note that the chole uses pureed chickpeas as a thickening agent already. Had I made this before, I might have paused here. But no.

Not knowing the power of the okra greens, I removed the leaves from the stems, and chopped all the leaves in a rough chiffonade. It was A LOT of greens. We had bought one pound of greens, minus the stems still left a ton of green leaves. But I figured that like spinach, it would cook down quickly.

Well, it did cook down. First to goo. Then to glue. The okra leaves – in my opinion – have a stronger thickening effect than the okra pods. This stuff drank up chicken broth like crazy. Eventually almost doubling the volume of the stew as I tried to keep some level of moisture by adding more chicken broth. It was like some kind of ‘I Love Lucy’ episode. The more broth we added, the thicker and bigger it all got.

The resulting dish was now greenish, which is not in and of itself bad. A little unusual, maybe, but not bad. And thick thick thick thick thick. The okra leaves, like the okra pods, have a sort of slimy thickening effect. Very different from corn starch or a flour roux, for example. Similar to the effect of the pods. Some might not enjoy that effect.

But I over did it. Not knowing how to use the leaves, what proportions, etc. In retrospect, the dish would have been GREATLY improved, even good, if I had reduced the amount of leaves to just a handful or two, and possibly even left out the pureed chickpeas, letting the okra leaves be the sole thickening agent. That would have retained the character of the original dish, with some nice green highlights and a pleasant consistency.

I am sure – absolutely positive – that there are some dishes out there, waiting to be made, that currently use some sort of starch as a thickener, that would benefit tremendously from the use of okra leaves instead. Just not this one.

I’ll keep my eyes open!

The basic recipe is located here:

As mentioned, my only modification was the addition of the chopped okra leaves at the very end of the cooking, plus the additional chicken broth. My recomendation - don't change a great recipe! But try 1 to 2 handfuls of okra leaves added at the end and cooked for 10 minutes, and eliminate the pureed chickpeas from the recipe. I think that would work well.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

No Mothers Here

There are no mothers here.

Well, except for me, when I do something while with my friends that is either really stupid or unusually crude. But that is a different context. And is always preceded by the word ‘dumb’. (OK, ok, they’re a bad influence!)

There are no Mothers here, but there is a Mom.

It seems that Mothers are out, Moms are in. Based on my very informal and limited survey, plus some recent articles in several papers, no one under the age of 70 wants to be called Mother, and no one wants to call them Mother either. Mom, Ma, Mum, even Mama. They should just call it Moms Day and get it over with.

Mothers pose in pictures by artists like Whistler. Or they’re in movies from the 40s and 50s, with Liz Taylor smiling innocently and naively and saying things like “Yes, Mother!”, or “Oh, Mother! Please?!”. I mean, who talks like that?! It’s more like “Mom – stop wearing all my clothes!”. Or “Mom – I need a huge pile of cash and a ride – and can you pick us up too?!”.

Mother has become an iconic word. Not a living entity. A moral virtue, not the person who whisks little ones from soccer games to music lessons in the 5 kabillion ton land/sea troop cruiser.

Here we have a Mom. An active, working, butt-kicking (at times), fashionista Mom.

And every year, for more than 15 of them now, she gets to watch, with varying degrees of anxiety (less now, it used to be more), our antics as we try to figure out what she might possibly like, and to provide some degree of nourishment.

12+ years ago, that all involved a lot of broken dishes, bad food made poorly, and probably more work the day after than the whole affair was worth. Because I always want everyone to have a hand in the activities. And when you’re just 2, well, the activities have to get scaled back to that level.

Nowadays it goes pretty smoothly, however.

TeenBoy made excellent chocolate dipped strawberries. All by himself. Picture perfect. He picked out the sweetest berries, melted the chocolate, everything nicely dipped, perfect! (Clever thing to make, since at least ten times as much chocolate disappeared as could possibly be clinging to the strawberries!).

TeenGirl got an idea for a rhubarb strawberry banana crisp sort of thing from the FoodNetwork, from that apparently hunky Tyler Florence (he looks more chunky to me, but hey! I’m not starring in my own TV show!). And it was great! She adjusted the sugar and butter to something more in line with our tastes, and did a wonderful job.

Plus she made the fruit tray. Cherries are already here!

All I had to do was make some Müsli-Semmeln, i.e. Müsli Rolls. These evoke memories of the pre-children times living in Munich. Carefree days. We discovered a bakery there, called Rischart’s. In the middle of Munich. With wonderful pastries. And a sort of whole wheat breakfast roll filled with nuts, raisins, oats, etc., i.e. müsli. Sweet enough to be enjoyed with a cup of coffee for breakfast, but not too sweet that didn’t go with cheese as well. So it became sort of an addiction. Until the cold-turkey trip away from Munich.

The recipe I found worked well enough. I am not the master baker, although I have made a lot of bread in my time! But this dough was super heavy. I would likely cut back on the butter and up the water next time, try to lighten up the dough a bit. Just for safety, I put in two packets of yeast.

I let it rise overnight in the fridge, which I often do to make a nicer, finer crumb. But the next morning it had barely moved, let alone doubled. I feared a major disaster (backup plan was a store bought whole wheat baguette), but letting it rise in a warm oven seemed to loosen up the fat in the dough, and eventually it rose quite well. It just delayed breakfast.

So, flowers, home made cards, rhubarb strawberry banana crisp on non-fat yogurt, müsli rolls and chocolate-dipped strawberries. Plus some super strong coffee.

You might wonder – fruit, more fruit, nuts, where’s the food?!

Me, I would probably have had bacon-wrapped foie gras sautéed in butter with double caviar hollandaise sauce drizzled with truffle oil (hold the fries!). Or something more along those lines.

But I cook to please! And Moms on the go, well I guess they gotta eat light! But once she was gone on her Mom’s Day walk with TeenGirl, we tanked up on food while watching the LA Clippers win (basketball, of course). (If they don’t want us to watch it, they shouldn’t show it on TV!).

Müslibrötchen (Müsli Breakfast Rolls)
Translated from German by surfindaave

Note – the water requirements for whole wheat flour can vary significantly. Add water slowly and adjust to ensure dough is not too wet or too dry.
Note- most European recipes measure by weight, not volume – so get a scale! It’s soo sooo sooooo much easier.

1 kg whole wheat and white flour, mixed (I used 60% whole wheat, 40% white. You could also add rye flour, but I could not find any.)
0.5 liters warm water
1 package dry yeast (I used 2!)
10 g salt
250 grams honey (I warmed mine in the microwave)
100 grams butter (about 1 stick)
300 grams raisins
200 grams slivered almonds
200 grams hazel nuts, chopped
some rolled oats (I put a handful in the dough, plus some sprinkled on top)
a few tablespoons sugar
1 egg, mixed with a tbsp water for an egg wash

Place the flour in a large bowl. Make a depression in the center. Add the yeast, and sprinkle with some sugar. Add some warm water, and let proof for 10 minutes, until foamy.

Add the remaining warm water, honey, butter, salt, raisins, almonds, and nuts. Mix dough until it comes away from the sides of the bowl. Adjust with a little water or flour as necessary if dough is too firm or too loose. Remove to a floured board, and knead for 10 to 15 minutes.

Let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, covered with a damp towel.

Lightly knead the dough again and form into a thick log. Cut into 16 to 24 even pieces (depends how big you like your rolls!), and form each piece into a flattened ball. Place balls on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper, and let the balls rise in a warm place for 30 to 45 minutes until well puffed.

Heat oven to 375ºF. Brush tops of dough balls with some egg wash. Sprinkle with rolled oats. Bake for 15 to 25 minutes (depending on size), until well browned and baked through.

The rhubarb recipe is here:

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Red Red Spinach

We found something called Red Spinach at the Farmer’s market last weekend. I wrote a little about it in yesterday’s blog.

Well, turn's out that it was good! Much better than I had anticipated – which always makes things taste memorably good, somehow.

I made a simple preparation, which I called Red Red Spinach (because of the red pepper flakes and the red spinach). Just sautéed it, stems and all, in a little olive oil with some minced garlic, salt and red pepper flakes. Just until it wilted. Not too long. Some Pecorio-Romano cheese grated on top. That’s the whole recipe.

In contrast to ‘regular’ spinach, i.e. the non-red variety, this spinach has fairly thick stems. Which I thought might be a little tough. But they turned out to be surprisingly tender.

And very flavorful in general. It seems to hold up a little better to sautéing than ‘regular’ spinach. Not that it is at all tough, but there is more left in the pan after the cooking. Sometimes things like spinach seem to just melt away into nothing with a little cooking.

The red highlights on the leaves remained in the cooked spinach. Making for a nice appearance on the plate.

But, to the great disappointment of TeenGirl – no pink sauce. We got the idea from the lady selling the red spinach at the farmer’s market that the juice from the leaves and stems would be red, making a sort of bright pink sauce when cooked. But nothing. So aside from the wonderful flavor and the pleasing red highlights in the finished dish, no shock value of pink sauce to entice the younger crowd.

None the less, highly recommended. We will certainly look for it again!

Red Red Spinach
Recipe by surfindaave

1 pound red spinach leaves and stems, washed but not dried, chopped roughly
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
olive oil
1 tbsp red pepper flakes
½ cup grated pecorino-romano cheese, plus some additional to sprinkle on top

Heat olive oil in a large sautee pan over medium heat. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and sautee for 1 minute. Add red spinach, and toss lightly. Cover for 2-3 minutes, until wilted. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Toss in the hot oil briefly. Turn out to a warmed serving dish. Add grated cheese and toss to incorporate. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and serve. Enjoy!

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