Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Chef Suffers for Art – WHB

The bright red little bulbs ripen this time of year. Late fall, early winter. Filled with bright magenta fruit. A little sweet. Sort of like a strawberry, maybe, or, some say, like a watermelon. In any event, it is subtle, but very pleasant.

But unlike the defenseless strawberry or watermelon, these things come with insidiously clever mechanisms to discourage would-be chefs.

They are, after all, the fruit of a cactus. The prickly pear cactus, to be precise. Known in Spanish as ‘La Tuna’, these fruits are easy to find here in SoCal. With some care, I could pick some from the dry, hilly fields near our house. With some care!

Coming from a thing called a prickly pear cactus, nominally clever cooks would probably anticipate some painful issues with their use.

You can eat them raw, cutting them in half and scooping out the flesh much like you would with a kiwi fruit, spitting out the black seeds as you go. Or, you can scrape out the flesh, strain out the seeds, and use it as a base for a sauce, as we did for today’s recipe.

Careful inspection of the outside of these fruits reveled no obvious sharp spines. Even running a finger over the surface seemed to indicate that the fruit had been well cleaned.

But in the process of removing the flesh of the fruit from the peel, and the necessary tasting of the fruit in the process, each finger and the tongue eventually caught at least one of the sharp, almost microscopic spines, which had to be extracted carefully with a pair of tweezers.

Ah, the suffering of the would-be artist-chef!

And why, you are of course asking yourself, would anyone subject themselves to this culinary torture?

Well, obviously, ignorance is high on the list.

But in general, the fruit is really beautiful. Bright red, almost festive, this being Christmas time. And the flesh inside is even more brilliant. When I saw the basket of these in the market, I had picked out a half dozen before I had even given much thought to what to do with them.

Frequently the fruit is turned into jelly. Or syrup. But the best idea for using the fruit, after some searching, seems to be a wonderful sounding Margarita. The cactus fruit flesh pureed, and mixed up with tequila, a squeeze of lime, and some other things, and served over crushed ice. That’s on file for next summer, for sure.

I chose to make a sort of sauce out of the fruit. Reducing the flesh with some lime juice, and a touch of sweetener (agava nectar, of course).

The trick to a subtle flavored fruit like this is to reduce about 2/3s to 3/4s of the fruit, boiling out the excess water and thickening the mixture up, but also destroying some of the delicate flavors. To restore the lost flavor, the remaining ¼ to 1/3 of the fruit is added at the end, uncooked. The mixture, when pureed, is both fairly thick, as well as full-flavored.

I added some pomegranate seeds to the sauce just to make it that more festive.

I put this sauce over some shrimp I had marinated in cayenne, cumin and cinnamon. Lately, I have been putting cinnamon in almost everything spicy that I make. Just a hint. In chili, in soups, etc. It adds an interesting dimension.

In any event, the shrimp were fiery hot. Quick sautéed. And placed over linguini that had been tossed with a little olive oil and cilantro.

The cactus pear sauce with the pomegranate seeds was drizzled on top.

So, Linguini with Cayenne Shrimp in Cactus Pear Sauce for . I guess since Kalyn is doing a special holiday WHB series, this doesn't really so much fit into that concept, but it was fun to make, and more than a little bit festive to look at!

You got a blast of the spicy with the shrimp, and a soothing taste of the sweet with the sauce.

Altogether a deliciously balanced flavor. And a beautiful presentation.

Worth suffering for any day!

Print Recipe

Linguini with Cayenne Shrimp in Cactus Pear Sauce
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 6

6 cactus pears, cut in half, flesh scooped out
1-2 limes, juiced
2-3 tbsp sweetener (sugar, agava nectar)
1 pomegranate, seeds removed
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
3 pounds large shrimp, peeled, deveined
1-2 tsp cayenne pepper
2-3 tsp cumin
good pinch of cinnamon, to taste
1-2 tsp salt
olive oil
1 ½ pounds dried linguini pasta

Place about 2/3 of the cactus fruit flesh in a small pot with the lime juice and sweetener. Bring to a rapid boil, reduce heat somewhat, and reduce the mixture to about ½ of its volume, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and let cool. Add remaining cactus flesh. Puree mixture. Strain pureed mixture back into cleaned pot, discarding cactus seeds. Add the pomegranate seeds to the mixture, and reheat over low heat, without boiling.

In a small bowl, mix the cayenne pepper, cumin, cinnamon and salt well. Toss the shrimp with olive oil, and then with the spice mixture.

Heat a large pot of water. When it boils, add some salt, and cook the linguini per package directions until al dente.

While the pasta is cooking, heat a large sauté skillet till very hot. Add olive oil. Quickly sauté the shrimp over high heat, tossing frequently, until they are just cooked through and no longer pink. Remove from heat, and keep warm.

When pasta is al dente, drain well. Toss pasta with some olive oil and chopped cilantro.

Place some herbed pasta in warmed pasta bowls, place several shrimp on top of each bowl, and spoon some of the hot cactus sauce over the top. Serve immediately. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Anti-Social Behavior

First you have to stop a moment and consider your short term schedule.

Tea with the queen? No, that’s not tomorrow (didn’t we just suffer through that last week?).

Lunch with Barack? No, no, he’s still in New Hampshire signing books and pretending not to run for president. I think we're doing lunch next week.

Bono dropping by later for a jam session? Nope, he’s on tour in Japan with his buds.

Nicole was just picked up (again) for DUI, so we won’t be hitting the clubs tonight. And Lindsay is drying out in rehab, so morning breath won’t be an issue there either.

Then a quick look around the house.

Dog chewing on dirty socks. He’ll notice, but might actually enjoy the odor.

Kids arguing over TV / bathroom / phone / music / etc. An odor-enforced buffer zone seems like a perfect solution. Too bad the odor is not thick enough to create a sound barrier as well.

Cool breeze blowing, windows open, the odor should dilute sufficiently in the open air such that the neighbors are not permanently affected. The lawsuits should be nominal.

OK – roasted garlic is now on the menu!

Actually, roasting garlic mellows the flavor out a bit from just plain raw garlic. Roasting transforms the crunchy little garlic toes (toes, right, or cloves? hmm) into a soft tan mush. And transforms the flavors from a sharp bite to a deep, rich, enveloping earthiness. The roasted mush is then squeezed out from the papery skin. And subsequently mashed into anything that needs a sublime, earthy, powerful kick in its culinary butt.

Along with the garlic, I roasted some leeks. Till they were soft, wrinkly, somewhat caramelized as well.

I know this seems like it might kill the delicate flavor of the leeks, but somehow it transforms them as well, and the leek essence shines through.

And these two things then became the basis of a very flavorful risotto. Certainly nothing necessarily new, but this is my version.

Added to my basic risotto concept, we got a creamy, earthy dish with a very deep, satisfying flavor. A lot of flavor for really not that much work. A little fresh ground pepper on top helps bring out the flavors, and a splash of your best extra virgin olive oil only adds to the creamy texture of the final presentation.

It’s true that my breath can probably still peel paint a day later, but roasted garlic is a real treat and worth an antisocial day every now and then!!

Print Recipe

Roasted Garlic and Leek Risotto
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 6 as main course

6-8 cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 large leeks, root end and green end trimmed, white part cut in half lengthwise, washed well and dried
olive oil
8 cups chicken broth
700 grams arbiato rice
¼ cup dry white wine, or 2-3 tbsp rice vinegar
1-2 cups grated parmesan (I like more, some like less)
1 cup chopped parsley
Fresh ground black pepper
A splash of extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 450ºF.

Place garlic and leeks on parchment paper on a backing pan. Drizzle with olive oil, and turn a few times to ensure even coating. Place leeks cut side down. Roast in oven for 20 minutes, until garlic cloves are soft, but not burned, and leeks are browned and softened. Remove from oven. Remove outer layers of leeks, if they are too rough to cut. Let cool till they can be handled. Chop leeks fine. Cut tops off garlic cloves, and squeeze roasted garlic out into a small bowl. Mash with a fork. Reserve.

Heat the chicken broth to a boil in a pan, and reduce heat, keeping broth at a bare simmer.

In a large, heavy pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add leeks, and sautee for 2-3 minutes. Increase heat to high and add rice. Cook rice, stirring, until it just turns translucent, about 3-4 minutes (don’t let it burn!). Reduce heat to medium high. Add wine or rice vinegar, stirring. Add 2 ladlefuls of broth, stirring, and roasted garlic. As broth is absorbed, continue adding broth one ladleful at a time, stirring. Reduce heat as necessary to keep risotto just at a bare boil. When most of the broth has been added, stir in the grated parmesan. Continue to add broth, a little at a time, until the rice has reached an al dente stage. The risotto should be creamy and moist, if it gets too dry, stir in additional liquid. Just before serving, stir in parsley. Serve with a light grind of fresh black pepper, and a splash of the ol’ extra virgin olive oil. Enjoy!

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Same Time Next Year - WHB

It’s because we sort of missed it at Thanksgiving. And, like white after Labor Day, once the season’s oven, it’s over. So time was running out fast.

Which is too bad.

Because a lot of traditionally seasonal foods are very healthy, as well as tasty.

Fresh cranberries, for instance. Wonderful flavor. Lots of health benefits. But, traditionally, only available for purchase for a few weeks of the year.

And fresh pumpkins. Same thing. Lots of health benefits. Lots of flavor. Versatile, too.

It's not that you couldn't cook with these things in June if the notion struck you. It's not so much that it is against the law, or prohibited by the food police. It's just that things like fresh cranberries and pumpkins are simply not offered for sale except a few weeks of the year. So you gotta make while the makins' good!

Soups, ravioli, brulee, pancakes, bread, all made from pumpkin. Today’s brunch treat as well.

When we saw this latest foodie fad start popping up at our Farmer’s Market, having already blogged on both pumpkin soup and pumpkin ravioli, and having missed out on the pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving (too much dark meat turkey), the thought of turning these interestingly shaped things into muffins with that familiar cinnamon / nutmeg / clove / allspice aroma was just waiting for a chilly day to happen.

I suppose the reason these pumpkins, or squashes, or whatever they are, have begin popping up is their unusual shape. The one shameless stand at the Farmer’s Market wanted $10 for one. And they sold some, mainly due to the novelty.

But we eventually found them at our bulk vegetable store. Maybe not quite as picture perfect as the $10 version, but just as flavorful inside.

Well, being the first rainy day since last year, pretty much, this was the day. I was thinking for just a moment about pumpkin pancakes, but the thought of the oven warming up the kitchen was too much to resist. So today, we get Roasted Pumpkin Pecan Raisin Muffins for breakfast. For , sponsored this week by Pookah of .

I’ve blogged previously about pumpkins, mentioning that the anti-oxidant content of these bright orange bulbs is especially high. Plus an abundance of vitamin A. Both of which are now thought to provide some protection against some types of cancer and heart disease. Plus potassium, very good for the men! Health, beauty and flavor!

To convert this to a muffin, I first cut it into sections, cleaned it, peeled it, and roasted it. 20 minutes later, we were ready to start.

When I looked at pumpkin muffin and pancake recipes, most warned against overloading the batter with too much pumpkin, for fear the result would be too heavy. Also, although many recipes call for oil, this seems to be a culprit in heavy muffins as well, so we opted for butter. Hey – an occasionally butter binge can’t be sooo bad, we rationalized as our arteries silently hardened.

We countered the butter with whole wheat flour, raisins, and the anti-oxydent pumpkin.

We actually doubled the recipe below, making 24 muffins, with some extra batter left for another 6 or so.

And achieved the desired result. The kitchen heated up, both from the roasting of the pumpkin as well as the baking of the muffins. Everything toasty warm for a late breakfast. House full of that spice aroma. And very nice, light muffins, more than we could possibly eat in one setting, still giving off a little steam as they were savored, one after the other.

After trying one plain, no butter or jam, just to get the full taste of the pumpkin and spice, I opted to go naked on the rest of my share of the bounty. The muffins were moist and light, perfect with a very strong cup of coffee. Some fruit on the side, maybe a little yogurt, and breakfast was perfect!

Print Recipe

Roasted Pumpkin Pecan Raisin Muffins
Recipe by surfindaave
Makes 12 muffins

1 small pumpkin (3 pounds or less), cut into sections, peeled, cleaned, and cut into 1 inch cubes
olive oil
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter
¾ cup fresh roasted pumpkin, pureed
¼ cup milk
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons unsulfured molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 ½ cup white whole-wheat flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
good pinch of allspice
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup packed brown sugar
¾ cup seedless raisins
12 pecan halves

Preheat oven to 450° F. and butter twelve 1/2-cup muffin cups.

Place pumpkin pieces in a roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil and toss well. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, until tender and lightly browned in places. Remove from oven and let cool somewhat. Puree in food processor. You will have more than is necessary for this recipe, reserve extra for soup, pancakes, etc.

Melt butter and cool slightly. In a bowl whisk together butter, pumpkin, milk, eggs, molasses, and vanilla. Into a large bowl sift together flours, baking powder, spices, salt, and baking soda and whisk in brown sugar. Make a well in center of flour mixture and add pumpkin mixture, stirring just until combined. Stir in dates and divide batter among cups. Sprinkle walnuts evenly over batter in each cup and bake muffins in middle of oven 20 to 25 minutes, or until puffed and a tester comes out clean. Cool muffins in cups 5 minutes and turn out onto a rack. Serve. Enjoy!

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Friday, December 08, 2006

White Flag

It was a combination of unanticipated events. It took The Serendipitous Chef down like a bag of cement.

What pushed it over the top was the already mentioned high school sports. While running achieved unanticipated success, and demanded commensurate time from me, soccer was just revving up. One recent Friday evening, I received an e-mail requiring me to be at the school a 6 am the next morning, a Saturday, for an all day soccer tournament. Just when I thought I could sleep in for once.

Prior to that was the usual holiday stuff. In addition to Thanksgiving, and the looming Christmas and New Years, it seems everyone in my family was born in November and December. Which is too bad really, because much as everyone denies it, you get screwed your whole life on presents, parties and recognition when your birthday is too close to Christmas. Life can be soo harsh!

But the thing that probably did the most damage was the power outages.

Over the last few weeks, the power in the entire neighborhood has gone out quite a few times. Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for 15 minutes. Sometimes it went out, came back on for half an hour, then went out again. Plus, at other times, the Internet cable went out.

It is not weather related, unless the wires melted from the dry heat. It’s most likely tree roots attacking the underground cables. Which the power company is in the process of repairing.

I know a power outage seems fairly mild. I did in fact loose the text I was intending to post more than once as the power died suddenly, crashing my computer. A little frustrating.

And, of course, all the clocks have to be reset. Over and over. Certainly one of the more idiotic activities of modern life. Everything has a clock in it now. Coffee makers, ovens, microwaves, VCRs, you name it. And of course, if you don’t reset them all, someone will eventually look at just exactly that one that you were too lazy to set, and blame you for the consequences. Despite the 10 correctly set clocks within a few feet of that one.

Worst is when the power goes off, comes back on for 15 or 20 minutes – just long enough for you to conclude your tirade and set all the clocks – before going out again.

The insidious part of this is that while the power is out, you can not really do much of anything. Even the gas stove has an electric ignition. I’m sure we could fire it up with a match as well, but I was not that desperate yet. But cooking is out, homework – forget it. Being winter, it’s dark inside the house from mid-afternoon on, so life is put on hold.

Gong outside is like being in a sci-fi film. No lights, no streetlights, few cars (people don’t seem to want to drive during a blackout for some reason). Everything dark.

And no noise. All the TVs, radios, stereos, fans, air conditioners, heaters, pool motors, whatever, are suddenly quiet. All the noise you never really notice anymore suddenly seems like a roar now that it is gone. It gets a little weird after a while.

Of course, we get no actual benefits of the blackouts, as nearby LA showers the heavens with light despite our darkness, blocking out most of the stars.

And when it’s over, you have all the things you couldn’t do still waiting to be done. The insidious part of it all. Suddenly the day is oven, and things just have to be left undone.

Between the sports, the holidays and birthdays, and the power outages, the Chef threw up the white flag for a week or so.

We did eat however, but in the stress, the quality and presentation of the food suffered.

But back to business.

Today, we made a wonderful chestnut soup, flavored with cayenne and cinnamon roasted pecans. Easy, if not directly quick. And wonderful fall flavors. Chestnuts make a fantastic base for a soup.

I coupled this with some roasted salmon and baked polenta with a thyme tomato coulis.

The salmon was simply broiled with some olive oil. This is the current preferred everyday cooking method, being low fat. I like the low-temp cooking (i.e. roasting the salmon at 165ºF for 20 minutes), which results in a super buttery texture, but everyone else is only willing to try that on rare occasions.

The tomato coulis was just two cans of tomatoes, drained, and cooked together with some garlic and thyme. We chose thyme to complement the thyme in the polenta, but of course any herb would be fine.

Somehow, roasted polenta evokes a sense of winter for me. Maybe because of its origin in the cold and snowy mountains of northern Italy. Kind of fun to make, too, as you can cut the polenta into any necessary shape to complement the meal. The polenta starts out just like any other, as a sort of mush, which is then cooled, cut and baked. It brings a wonderful balance to the salmon and tomatoes.

Print Recipe

Chestnut Soup with Cayenne and Cinnamon Roasted Pecans
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 4-6 as appetizer

2 pounds fresh chestnuts
1 onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
10 sage leaves, chopped
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup pecan halves
cayenne pepper
olive oil
Additional sage leaves for garnish, if desired

Preheat the oven to 450ºF.

Cut an X in the flat side of each chestnut. Place on a roasting pan, cut side up, and roast in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove and wrap in a towel for 10 minutes. Peel off outer shell and inner membrane. Reserve.

Reduce oven temperature to 350ºF.

In a heavy soup pot, sauté onion, celery and carrot in olive oil over medium heat until softened, 6-7 minutes. Add chestnuts (reserve a few whole ones if you want to use them as garnish). Add chicken broth, sage, and a little salt and pepper. Bring broth just to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.

While soup is simmering, toss pecan halves with olive oil. Sprinkle with a pinch of cayenne pepper (or to taste), and a teaspoon or so of cinnamon. Toss well. Place on a baking sheet in a single layer, and put in 350ºF oven for 10 minutes or so, until they have browned, but are not burned. Remove from oven to a plate or board to stop cooking, and reserve.

When soup has cooked, puree soup in a food processor. Add additional water to thin to desired constancy. Reheat over low heat in pot.

Serve soup steaming hot with a sprinkle of the roasted pecan halves, and a sage leaf or two for garnish. Enjoy!

Print Recipe

Roasted Polenta Squares
Based on a recipe from
Adapted by surfindaave
Serves 4-6 as a side dish

4 cups chicken broth
4 cups milk
2 cups polenta
Dash of salt
Fresh thyme, if desired
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
salt, pepper
Additional grated parmesan, optional

In a heavy pot, bring broth and milk just to a boil. Be careful not to let mixture boil over. Turn off heat, and slowly whisk in the polenta. Return to medium heat, and cook so that it just bubbles a little, whisking, for 10 minutes, until it thickens somewhat. Change to a wooden spoon, continuing to stir constantly, for a total of about 25 minutes. The polenta should be thick and very smooth. Stir in the parmesan cheese and thyme.

Cover two baking pans with parchment paper. Pour half of the polenta mixture onto each baking pan, and tilt the pan a little to make a uniform thin layer of polenta across the entire bottom of the pan. Place the pans in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour – the longer the better. The polenta should be firm to the touch, and able to be cut.

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Remove the polenta from the refrigerator. Cut into shapes, such as triangles, with a sharp knife. Carefully peel shapes off parchment paper into a new sheet of parchment paper, leaving a space between each piece (you will need to do each chilled sheet in two batches). (Optional – you can sprinkle the pieces with additional parmesan cheese at this point, if desired). Bake the pieces for 15 minutes. When baked, broil the pieces a few inches from the broiler until puffed and browned, 3-4 minutes. Remove from broiler and keep warm. Bake and broil remaining pieces as described. Serve immediately. Enjoy!

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