Sunday, January 28, 2007

Those Lusty Fruits - WHB

Bigger than a kumquat.

Smaller than an orange.

And pretty sour.

But with lots of flavor. Not quite an orange flavor. Maybe more in the Kumquat direction.

We were just standing around at our farmer’s market. They have a raffle. Which we have never participated in before. But the idea seems to be that everyone who takes a free raffle ticket will absolutely win something. Maybe a small bag of oranges. Or a few select herbs from the herb stand. Or a cinnamon bun. We won a loaf of fresh organic bread – a $4 value. Pretty sweet. Very good bread, too.

And, while standing there waiting for the raffle to work its way through the tickets until ours was called, I noticed these fruits. Bright orange. Sitting in the same crate as the kumquats. Which are also back in season.

Naturally, sucker that I am for new things, I was instantly enamored to them soon as the guy manning the stand told me a little about them.

Orangquats. Had to try some.

Apparently, unlike kumquats, the skin of the orangquats edible but not really intended to be eaten. And they seem to be more sour than a kumquat. But that could just be this batch of them. The kumquats we got from the same stand were more sour than I expected as well.

While we were talking about orangquats, it seemed to me that there is a lot of promiscuous fruit out there now days. Spreading their pollen around like no one’s business. Maybe from watching too many of those explicit food porn shows on the FoodNetwork. Resulting in a lot of unusual cross-breeds. Apparently it was only a matter of time before some kumquat took a stroll through the orange orchard looking to hook up for a booty call.

Well, what to do with all this lusty fruit.

The bold orange flavor, sour though it was, seemed destined to be matched with something hot. Maybe a salsa of sorts, based on the orangquats, with some hot chili pepper, and cilantro. A little red onion. Something like that.

The result was delicious. Somehow, the sour of the orange was mellowed by the fire of the chili pepper and the addition of a little salt. Everything meshed into a very nicely nuanced, balanced flavor that really let this unique orange flavored fruit shine through.

Ideal to set on top of the salmon filet we had bought earlier that day.

The other thing I love together are roasted beets and oranges. We frequently make a stack of roasted beets, orange slices, fennel slices and maybe goat cheese, with an orange thyme vinaigrette on top. Wonderful.

So, with this in mind, we roasted up some baby beets we had on hand. Till they were tender and caramelized. Peeled them, sliced them into sticks, and tossed them in a light dressing of orange, thyme, red wine vinegar and olive oil. Ideally, I would have liked to use the orangquat juice for this dressing as well, but we had used them all up on the salsa, so we used navel oranges here.

For the plate – a bottom layer of some mixed baby greens with the same orange thyme vinaigrette, the roasted beet sticks as a base for the salmon, a piece of the roasted salmon, and then the orangquat salsa spooned on top.

And we ended up with Salmon on Roasted Baby Beets with Orangquat Salsa. For , sponsored this week by Ed, of .

Sounds like a lot, but each element in and of itself was fairly easy. And it made for a wonderfully elegant dinner that was the very essence of orange. A wonderfully subtle aroma, a delicate flavor, a visual delight.

Print Recipe

Orangquat Salsa
Recipe by surfindaave
Makes enough for 6 servings as a condiment

14 orangquats, peel removed (we cut the skin off, as they are hard to peel)
1 bunch cilantro, chopped fine
1 serano chili pepper, minced very fine
1 small red onion – or half of a large one – minced
salt, pepper
¼ cup red wine vinegar
Additional fresh squeezed orange juice, if necessary

Cut the orangquats into pieces, reserving as much of the juice as possible, and discarding all the seeds.

Place the orangquat pieces, chopped cilantro, minced chili pepper, minced onion and red wine vinegar into a bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Toss well. Let sit for an hour to allow flavors to combine. Toss again, taste and season as necessary. Add a few table spoons of additional fresh squeezed orange juice if necessary to achieve a chunky salsa consistency.

Serve as on top of grilled fish or chicken. Enjoy!

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Only the Criticism Stung - WHB

Some sleep in. Warm and cozy in a pile of blankets and pillows.

Some sip steaming hot coffee, wrapped in warm robes and slippers, reading about the latest movies, books or sports in the Sunday paper.

Some may even go out for an invigorating walk in the warm, early morning sun. Maybe to the nearby café for a Latte, before strolling home.

Others fight slings of barbs. Sharp, poisoned arrows of criticism, from all sides.

Yesterday, when we saw the first nettles of the season, I snapped them up. They look just like spring, even if it is only January. Super deep green. Bushy and full. I didn’t even have to touch them, as they were placed in a plastic sack by the Farmer’s Market guy.

Safely wrapped up, they went right into the fridge without anyone seeing them.

But the next morning, as I was working on blanching them, and stripping all the tender green leaves off the woody stalks, the comments came furious and stinging.


“What else is there to eat?”

“Why would you eat something like that?”

“How can you eat something you can’t even touch?”

“Bitter, bitter, bitter!!!”

This is what I have to put up with when I venture to try something new.

I had, however, been reading up on nettles. That despite their seemingly impenetrable coating of tiny little needles, each of which was loaded with some toxic acid that has been known to be able to kill a horse, I was assured that a quick blanching in boiling water would disarm the plant completely.

And would thereby make accessible to me all the unbelievable health benefits ascribed to this plant. Which seemingly can clear the skin, clean the liver, thicken hair, cure hay fever, eliminate asthma, control dandruff, and act as a sort of natural steroid for body builders. Among other things. More complete information can be found in the links below:

Most seem to make tea from this stuff. Or soup. But I had been warned that this could, in fact, be bitter. The Farmer’s market guy suggested that sautéing the leaves in olive oil and garlic was best. And, several online sources indicated that this was indeed a pretty tasty way to go.

The real dilemma was how best to disarm the plant. You have to separate the leaves from the stalks, which are woody. After donning my thickest plastic gloves, I blanched the entire plant, leaves, stalk and all, first in a huge pot of boiling water for maybe 30 to 60 seconds first, plunged it into cold water, and then carefully pulled the now wilted, and very mushy, leaves from the stems. The nettles were completely disarmed by this procedure, and could be handled with bare hands. I think, with very thick gloves, you could also pluck the leaves first and blanch them separately, or even sauté them unblanched, but this will have to wait for the next trial.

I removed as much water as possible from the blanched leaves with paper towels, sautéed them in olive oil with some onion and garlic, and turned them into a frittata. Stinging Nettle Frittata with Garlic and Parmesan. For , sponsored this week by Kalyn herself, of .

The frittata, once out of the oven, looked delicious. Sort of like a spinach frittata. Puffed, golden brown, with lots of bright green.

But no one was willing to take that first bite. Afraid the nettles were still there and would sting the tongue. Or maybe that the nettled leaves would themselves stick to the tongue. Embedding the leaves there forever by the little spikes. It makes me wonder who the first one was who decided these things could be eaten at all.

To my surprise, the flavor was the opposite of bitter. Almost sweet. With a floral sort of note to it. Clearly the blanching and cold water rinse had purged any trace of bitterness. The sweet flavor was not at all like spinach. Much fresher. With some wonderful garlic and parmesan flavors to add depth.

A lot of work, mainly because of the necessary blanching and leaf plucking steps. Especially for a Sunday morning. But the flavor was great. And, as of this writing, no one has succumbed to the effects of the plant, everyone still healthy, although not visibly more healthy than before eating the frittata.

So while everyone agreed the flavor was a winner, the jury is still out on the health aspects. As to the mental health aspects, well, all I can say is, if you are going to work with nettles, it helps to have a very thick skin!

Print Recipe

Stinging Nettle Frittata
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 4

2 large bunches of young stinging nettle
Olive oil
1 onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
9 eggs
1 cup milk
salt, pepper
2 cups parmesan cheese, grated

In a very large pot of boiling salted water, blanch the nettles for 1 minute. Remove to a cold water bath. Remove from the cold water and drain well. Carefully strip the leaves from the stalks. Discard the stalks.

In a bowl, beat the eggs, milk, salt pepper and about 2/3s of the cheese.

Heat olive oil in a large, ovenproof skillet. Sautee the onion over medium heat till softened. Add the garlic, and sauté, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the blanched nettle leaves, and sauté, stirring, for a few minutes. Pour the egg mixture over the top. Cover the skillet, and cook until bubbles form across the top of the egg mixture.

Sprinkle the frittata with the remaining grated cheese, and place under broiler until the top is puffed and well browned in places. Remove from broiler and serve immediately. Enjoy!

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Happy Meal

Sometimes, eating dinner, maybe something I’ve prepared quickly, or something that had to be made because something was in danger of going bad, or maybe something I made primarily for someone else, I can think of a thousand things I would really rather be eating.

Truffles, maybe. Black, earthy, smoky slivers. On some super rich and creamy risotto. Or used as the base for some sauce napping some wonderful fish.

Or fresh oysters. On large trays packed with ice. Sitting in a tablespoon of their own juice, on the half shell, waiting for me to slurp them down, one after the other.

Or a nice pate. Sinfully rich, buttery, thick. Where you can just taste the herbs, a touch of pepper, and maybe a hint of champagne beneath the liver-y wonderfulness.

Or some painfully, squeaky fresh sushi, sliced to exact geometric perfection, combined with some fish roe, and a quail egg, and tied together with some crisp seaweed.

It seems like the list is endless.

Of course, mainly because all the things I am imagining are impossible to have at that moment. Forbidden, in a sense. The more impossible it all is, the more forbidden, the more things I can think of that I would rather be eating.

That’s the easy one.

Much harder is the question – suppose nothing is impossible. What one thing would you pick. Only one. If you could have anything.

The possibilities expand out to infinity. So quickly that they seem to suck all the concrete ideas out of your head. Since everything’s possible to consider, the proposition of selecting just one thing from such a sea of possibilities is almost too difficult to comprehend. So the mind goes blank. And you sit there wondering where all those great ideas from the other day have vaporized away to.

Well, at least, that was how I felt. Fortunately, the problem was not mine.

I had been thinking about this as I was going to make a special birthday dinner for TeenBoy. And I was at a loss as to what to make. My mind had expanded to the infinite, and was useless.

He, however, answered in one second.

“Those giant meatballs you made that time, the sage ones, in marinara sauce, piled high on a sub roll, with lettuce, onion, melted cheese, those Italian peppers, and some tomatoes”.

“Oh yeah, and chocolate mousse. Not with dark chocolate (yuck!), with the sweet chocolate. And some raspberries mixed in.”

How can you know something like this? And so quickly?

Fortunately, I didn’t have to have the ingredients for all this overnighted from some exotic location. As in my mental wanderings.

So we made the gigantic meatballs with sage and rosemary. And simmered them in marinara sauce. And put them on gigantic rolls. And melted some cheese on top. And lettuce, and pepperocino. The tomatoes didn’t fit anymore.

And made mousse. With milk chocolate, not dark. Which everyone seems to like better than a cake anyways. And the mousse, as always, is almost painfully delicious. It is amazing how the addition of beaten egg whites and cream takes the chocolate to a whole new dimension.

The mousse is pretty basic, with two tricks that always makes chocolate mousse easier. I beat the egg whites with cream of tartar first, then beat the cream, and then I melt the chocolate last. So the chocolate is still as warm as possible as I fold it into the beaten items. The second trick is, Chocolate mousse always involves whisking egg yolks into the melted chocolate. Which causes the chocolate to seize up immediately and get very thick. I always reserve a few tablespoons of the cream to whisk into the chocolate egg yolk mixture, and it immediately reverts back to a smooth, creamy texture that can then be easily folded into the egg whites and whipped cream. Resulting in a luscious dessert.

And the mousse was even firm enough to hold the birthday candles.

Print Recipe

Basic Milk Chocolate Mousse with Raspberries
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 4

½ pound fine milk chocolate, chopped into small pieces no larger than ¼ inch
2 cups heavy cream, ¼ cup reserved for the chocolate mixture
4 eggs, separated, and at room temperature
a pinch of cream of tartar
Frozen raspberries, defrosted on a paper towel, for garnish

Bring the water of a double boiler or Bain Marie to a boil, and turn down the heat, keeping the water just below a simmer. Make sure the hot water does will not touch the container holding the chopped chocolate.

Beat the egg whites until frothy. Add a pinch of cream of tartar, and beat until they hold still peaks. Reserve.

With clean, chilled beaters, and in a chilled, tall container, beat the cream (except the reserved ¼ cup) until it just holds stiff peaks. Reserve

Place the chopped chocolate over the simmering water, stirring. Continue to stir until all the chocolate pieces are melted, and the mixture is smooth. Remove the chocolate from the heat. Whisk in one egg yolk at a time, incorporating the yolks as much as possible. Add the reserved ¼ cup of heavy cream, and whisk the mixture smooth.

Add a heaping tablespoon or two of both the beaten cream and the egg whites to the chocolate mixture, and combine completely. Add ½ of the remaining beated cream, and carefully fold into the chocolate. Add ½ of the remaining beaten egg whites to the chocolate mixture, and carefully fold in. Add the remaining beaten cream and egg whites to the chocolate mixture, and fold carefully. Chill the mousse, covered with plastic wrap, for at least one hour. Spoon onto serving dishes, decorate with the raspverries. Seve immediately. Enjoy!

Print Recipe

Big Meatball Subs
Recipe by surfindaave
Serves 4 as a main course

4 pounds ground turkey
1 onion, chopped fine
1 cup parsley, chopped fine
1-2 cups panko bread crumbs – depending on if you like your meatballs meatier or breadier
3-4 eggs – use 4 if you added more bread crumbs
salt, pepper
2-3 tbsp fresh sage leaves, chopped fine
2-3 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped
2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
olive oil
4 cups marinara sauce
1 cup red wine
4 foot long sub rolls
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 cups lettuce, shredded
½ cup pepperocino, chopped
2 roma tomatoes, sliced thin

In a large bowl, combine the ground turkey, onion, parsley, bread crumbs, eggs, salt, pepper, sage, rosemary and thyme well. Form into 20 large balls.

Heat olive oil in 2 large skillets. Brown the meatballs over medium high heat, turning (with tongs is easiest), until browned on all sides. Pour ½ of the marinara sauce and ½ of the wine over the meatballs in each pan. Turn the meatballs to coat. Reduce heat, and simmer for 30 minutes or so, covered, turning the meatballs occasionally.
While the meatballs are simmering, heat the rolls in the oven for 15 minutes at 350ºF.

Slice the rolls in half – or more clever – slice down on both sides of the top at an angle so the top comes off as a sort of shallow ‘V’. This keeps the meatballs in the roll better. Place 4-5 meatballs on each roll. Spoon sauce over the meatballs. Sprinkle each sandwich with the grated parmesan cheese. Place the sandwiches under the broiler until the cheese melts. Top the sandwiches with the shredded lettuce, pepperocino, and tomato slices. Serve immediately. Open very, very wide and enjoy!

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Banana! Happy 2007!

Yes, yes, late as usual. But better late …

Hopefully a tasty 2007. Seems to be starting out that way.

I was thinking about some of the things we found people doing on New Year’s Eve, and Day, that were somewhat food related.

Lately, we’ve opt for fish. Supposed to bring luck. Despite the mercury and other toxins. Maybe because you have to be lucky to catch one?

We used to go in for lentils. Which are considered good luck bringers for the New Year in parts of Italy. For example, pasta with a lentil–based sauce. Which we had one year. While clinging precariously to the top of a mountain (Monte Pori) a few thousand feet up in the Dolomites, in what I call Süd Tirol (southern Tyrolia), and others call Alto Adagio. In a tiny apartment with way too many people. Who all spoke Italian but me. With bottles of Grappa, champagne, and lots of pasta with lentils. Running up and down the halls, stairs, and around the apartment grounds, yelling BANANA!! At the top of our lungs. Fireworks going off everywhere.

Well, I yelled “BANANA!” till I could no longer make an audible noise.

Everyone else apparently yelled “Bon Anno”. Which, after lots of grappa, champagne, et al, sounded a lot liked banana. It was years and years before I found out that Italy, New Years and bananas are not somehow connected.

At other times, we ate noodles. For example, in Chinatown in San Francisco. But, naturally, not around the beginning of January. This year, the Chinese New Year will occur on February 18th, coinciding with a full moon. With a traditional 15 day long party. And will be year 4703 of their calendar. When we will transition from the year of the dog (2006) to the year of the pig. Lots of people trying to squeeze their newborns into the current year (good luck with all that!). The pig babies ( David Letterman, Elton John) being modest, shy, honest, trustworthy (hmm!). As opposed to the dog types (Bill Clinton, me), who are supposed to be loyal (of course), intelligent (not based on my dog!), unselfish and idealistic (double hmm!!). Well, so much for the zodiac!

In Munich, it seems to me that we also aimed for fish. Carp, to be exact. Again, for the luck factor.

In Florence, it was a super elegant dinner, with wonderful food and wine, packed with Florentinians (?), who spent the entire evening trying to talk to us, them speaking no English, us speaking no Italian. By midnight, we were somehow best of friends, we knew each others entire life story. And eventually exited the now wildly raucous restaurant to the totally chaotic streets of old city Florence, where crowds thronged around shooting off fireworks, yelling, singing, drinking, and generally having a pretty good time. While ancient statues watched on in a sort of detached bemusement, draped with streamers of confetti.

In Alsace, it was their classic Choucroute, made with that wonderful sauerkraut steeped in Champagne for the holiday, and not at all sour, but instead sweet with apples and juniper berries, and layered with sausages, roasted goose, liver dumplings, and so on. That took the chill off quickly.

Hamburg was all about the herring. Which I like. Either Matjes style, or Bismark style. Matjes are a little sweeter, being cured in sugar as well as brine, and Bismark are just sour, having a vinegar and brine curing bath. Or even better, Rollmops, which are Bismark style herring wrapped around a pickle and held together with a toothpick. Great for a hangover!

I mentioned yesterday the Mussels steamed in garlic and red wine that we had for New Year’s Eve dinner. Delicious. Everyone still healthy. We complemented that with some chocolate mousse, and lots of champagne.

For the last few years, I’ve forged my own way on New Year’s Day, though. Yes, we always seem to catch a few minutes of the Tournament of Roses Parade on TV. As it’s gentle pace and relatively quiet tone goes well with a headache and a cup of hot coffee. And no, it has never occurred to me to be a good idea to sit out on the street for a few days to get a curbside view of the parade live. Although thousands do, bringing the entire kitchen along so as not to miss out on a New Year’s Eve feast.

And of course we watch USC kick butt in the Rose bowl (football, American style).

But after that, it’s on to serious cooking. Very serious. French. From Provence. Ok, classic French food snobs, it’s not from Lyon, but still damn tasty!

Bourride. That king of dishes from Provence (at least in my mind).

Basically, a fish soup, perfumed with fennel and orange, thickened with a garlicky and lemony Aioli. Served over fresh toasted baguettes.

Again with the fish. I know. But the thing that intrigues me with Bourride is not just the fish, but also the clever use of the aioli as a thickener. As the aioli is made with raw egg yolks. And gentle heating in the fish broth results in a sort of very loose custard, or thickened soup, depending on your perspective. If you’re careful. Otherwise, as has happened some years, you get scrambled eggs with your fish soup.

In any event, a fun dish, with wonderful flavors, and a bit of a showcase for aspiring home chefs.

To me, there are two tricks to the dish. One is to procure a variety of very fresh, whole fish. One sort of fish will not do. The brilliant flavor comes in part from variety. The second trick is slow gentle cooking, both of the fish bones to keep the broth clear, as well as the egg yolks while thickening the broth.

Traditionally, Bourride is made with a Loup de Mer (sea bass), a Bauroue (monkfish) and a Merlan (whiting). I found the sea bass, and the monkfish, but used a catfish instead of the merlan. Probably a cod or an ocean perch would have been better. But it all worked out. I generally use one whole fish per person.

The fish are filleted, and the bones and head used to make a broth. Being careful to simmer, but not boil the bones. Using a classic bouquet garni, champagne, and a sautéed onion for additional flavor.

The aioli is just the classic garlic, egg yolk, lemon juice, salt and olive oil mixture. Using two cloves of garlic and one egg yolk per person. Adding the lemon juice and olive oil to match.

Once the broth and the aioli are ready, the fish filets are gently poached – not boiled – in the broth, further flavored with fennel, thyme, bay, and orange peel. This makes a delicate but wonderfully flavorful aroma while cooking.

The filets are removed from the poaching liquid, the aioli tempered with some of the poaching liquid, then the tempered aioli whisked into the broth. Just like a custard, the mixture is cooked over low heat just until it coats the back of a wooded spoon.

Some toasted baguette slices are placed in flat soup bowls, the fish fillets distributed on top, and the wonderfully fragrant, hopefully thickened and not lumpy broth ladled over everything. A sprinkle of chopped parsley, and then as quickly as possible served while still hot. With a glass of the same champagne used to make the broth.

A real treat, if you can pull it off!

Cheers! Prost! Salute! Health! Banana!!!

Print Recipe

From the book ‘La Cuisiniere Provencale’, Noevelle Edition, J.B.Reboul
Translated painstakingly from French by surfindaave
Serves 4

3 whole, very fresh fish, preferable one Loup de Mer (sea bass), one bauroue (monkfish, or substitute a red snapper, some shark, or even some lobster tail) and one merlan (whiting, ocean perch or cod), fillets removed and reserved, bones and head chopped roughly
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
some fresh thyme
several springs parsley
a piece of celery
a bay leaf
olive oil
1-2 cups champagne or white wine
6-8 cloves garlic, chopped
1-2 tsp salt
4 egg yolks
juice of one lemon, or to taste
olive oil – at least one cup
1-2 baguettes, sliced
olive oil
1 onion, minced fine
1 small fennel bulb, sliced thinly into juliennes, or chopped
the peel from 1-2 oranges (depends on size of orange), sliced into thin juliennes
several sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed from stems
2 bay leaves
Additional parsley, chopped for garnish

Make the fish broth:
Rinse the fish bones and heads under cold water. In a heavy pot, sauté the onion, carrots and shallot in the olive oil. Deglaze the pan with the champagne or white wine. Add the fish bones and heads. Sautee for a few minutes. Add just enough water to cover the bones after you have packed them down a bit. Add the bouquet gari herbs, tied together or loose, and bring the broth just to the boiling point. Reduce heat, and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes, skimming any scum that rises to the surface. Strain the broth through a cheese cloth, pressing on the solids, reserving the broth and discarding the rest.

Make the aioli:
In a mortar and pedestal, reduce the garlic and some salt to a paste. Place in a small bowl. Whisk in the egg yolks. Add some lemon juice – not all of it – whisking. In a slow stream, whisk in the olive oil. Add some additional lemon juice if the mixture gets too thick. Continue to add olive oil in a stream until you have a mayonnaise consistence. Taste, and add additional salt and/or lemon juice as necessary. Place in refrigerator and reserve. Note that it will increase in garlic flavor while it sits.

Make the toasts:
Slice the baguettes on a diagonal into 1 inch slices, brush both sides with olive oil, and toast under the broiler until both sides are browned. Reserve.

Make the fish:
In a large, heavy skillet, add the onion, fennel, thyme, orange peel, bay leaves, and most of the fish broth. Season with lightly with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Gently place the fish fillets into the broth in a single layer. Cover loosely, and poach at a simmer – do not boil – for 12 minutes. Remove the fish fillets to a heated plate, keeping them as intact as possible, spoon a little of the broth over them, cover loosely, keep warm and reserve.

Thicken the broth:
Turn off the heat on the broth in the pan. Whisk several tablespoons of the hot broth into the aioli. Continue to add broth to the aioli, whisking, until you have added 1-2 cups of liquid. Carefully whisk the tempered aioli mixture back into the hot broth in the pan. Stirring constantly, heat the broth over low heat until the broth begins to thicken. Slow and gentle is the best method to avoid scrambling the egg yolks. When the broth has thickened a bit, and just coats the back of a wooden spoon, remove the pan from the heat.

Plate it:
Place several slices of the toast in the bottom of each soup bowl. Place a few pieces of each kind of fish fillet onto the pieces of toast. Spoon the hot broth over the fish, sprinkle with chopped parsley, and serve immediately! Enjoy!

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Living and Eating on the Edge

Who knew that I liked to live so dangerously?

Well, besides me, who knew?

I consider my most reckless days to be behind me, for the most part. At least I don’t actively look for ways to do myself direct harm – i.e. have fun – quite so often as I used to.

For the last few weeks, I have had a growing urge for mussels. Quickly steamed in a hot broth of reeking of garlic, wine and tomatoes. With a crusty baguette to mop up the broth. A sure fire cure for a cold winter evening.

But no luck. Mussels could not be found. My Asian market, serving at least 20 varieties of fresh fish every day, plus all manner of fresh clams, oysters, lobsters, crabs and shrimp, said they didn’t carry mussels.

That should have been a clue, I suppose.

But in my mind were the wonderful dinners I had had in Munich, and Amsterdam, and Paris, in months with an ‘R’ of course, where buckets of mussels were served just as described. In either red wine or white. Sitting in some tight, crowded, noisy little restaurant heated like a furnace against the freezing cold wind blowing outside. With more mussels piled in buckets on the table than any one could, or should, reasonably eat. And wonderfully fresh bread. And lots of wine. And the piles of empty shells left after the feast.

So I persevered.

And looked harder.

At my special fish store, that I go to only occasionally, mainly because it’s somewhat of a drive, I was really surprised that they also had no mussels. I was sure they would stock them. But the owner, who actually mans the ship that does the fishing up around the channel islands off the coast of LA said he would not stock anything he would not personally eat.

Fair enough. But why wouldn’t he eat one?

He’s afraid of dying. He’s afraid of eating one bad mussel, especially from ones caught around here, and getting PSP (paralytic shellfish poisoning), or something like that.

Jeez. All I was looking for was a pot of mussels, steamed in garlic, wine and tomatoes. Dying was not on the menu.

Apparently, things are to the point that eating a California mussel, one of the most common sea foods in existence, is basically a lethal proposition.

The fish guy told me that farm raised mussels, from New Zealand, the green lipped ones, were probably safe enough to eat. And there were other mussels, also from farms in other parts of the world, what might be edible. But he wouldn’t eat them either.

Hell, you only live once! The fish guy told me I could find some of these farm raised mussels nearby, at a different fish store, so I did it. I jumped off the cliff and bough 4 pounds.

Everyone in the shop, apparently there for all things other than mussels, turned and looked at me when I made my order. Or so it seemed to me.

And I finally made my mussels. As part of a New Years Eve dinner. Because fish is supposed to bring good luck for the new year! Not Death!! I have to admit we all sort of looked at the bowl of steaming mussels for a second or two before tasting the first one.

But they were fine. Delicious even. And I had lots of crusty baguettes to mop up the broth with. And plenty of wine. And we had a mountain of empty shells when we were done.

I was only missing an overheated, crowded little restaurant with a fierce, cold wind blowing outside. Someone opened the door, I sipped my wine. I could almost hear the wind howl!

(I don't have a picture of the final dish, cause it was New Year's Eve, and we had lots of champagne, which does not go well with driving or photography)

Print Recipe

Mussels in Garlic and Red Wine over Linguini
Serves 4
Recipe by surfindaave

4 pounds fresh mussels, washed in several changes of cold water, and the shells and beards scrubbed off under cold running water
olive oil
1 onion, chopped
6-8 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1-2 tsp red pepper flakes
2 cups dry red wine
1 cup parsley, roughly chopped
6 Roma tomatoes, chopped
½ cup finely chopped basil
2 pounds linguini pasta
Fresh baguettes

In a large pot, bring salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta according to package instructions. When the pasta is cooked, drain well, but do not rinse. Place in a large heated serving bowl, and toss with some olive oil. Keep warm and reserve.

While the pasta is cooking, in a large, heavy pot, heat several tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, and sauté until softened. Add the garlic, stirring, and sauté for 1-2 minutes. Add the red wine and red pepper flakes, and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the mussels, stir quickly, and cover tightly. Reduce the heat to medium high, and steam the mussels, covered, for 5 minutes. Remove the lid, and stir in the tomatoes, basil and parsley. Cook for an additional 3-4 minutes. Scoop the mussels and sauce over the pasta. Discard any unopened shells. Sprinkle with additional chopped parsley if desired, and serve immediately with the baguettes and a green salad. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

1000 Cookies – Give or Take

Happy 2007! Some catching up to do ...

The week or so before Christmas always a challenge for me when I was a kid. How to deal with the Christmas situation without money of my own to buy some token presents for friends and family. It’s that awkward age between the time when you’re eventually aware that your parents have been lying to you all those years, and the time you are old enough to get an actual money paying job, the first of which I got at 15. But there were plenty of years in between to be challenged.

We must have gotten some nominal funds, maybe for doing some odd jobs around the house. Things we probably would have had to do anyways for no reward other times of the year. And some kids surely get allowances. But all this is not really your own independent money, as you still get it from the parents, and again probably for chores you would have to do with or without monetary reward.

So it always seemed like a sham somehow. Because whatever money could be appropriated was more of a charity affair than something of mine that I could then share as a present with someone else. And the modest presents that could be bought really didn’t represent a terribly thoughtful present.

So, as that problem started appearing in our house, I decided to take action.

In the form of cookies.

Lots of cookies.

Lots and lots of Christmas cookies.

Every year, for some years now, we all make a ton of cookies. Wrap them up in cellophane and ribbons. And that constitutes the presents from all of us to the rest of the family and some close friends. Since everyone had a hand in picking the cookies to make, shopping (if not actually paying for the ingredients), making the 1000 plus cookies (no kidding), cleaning up the mess, and, not least of the effort, packaging all the baked cookies for actual giving, everyone has an a feeling of having given something of actual meaning and value. Despite the modest monetary costs for the ingredients. All in all, I guessed we spent about 70 to 80 hours between three people doing all this.

Although 5 pounds of butter, one gallon of cream, pounds and pounds of hazelnuts, pistachios, almonds, dried cranberries, dried apricots, and what all still add up to a few bucks.

This year, school ended the Thursday before Christmas, leaving only two full days to bake everything. With Sunday reserved for packing everything up.

We made a list of possible cookies to make the weekend before. And each choose four different types from the list. With an eye towards having both a diverse final choice, and ensuring everything could actually be made in the short timeframe we had to work with. This is the fun step.

Our choices this year were:

Toffee, Almond and Dark Chocolate Bark (Gourmet Magazine Dec 1998)
Hazelnut Raspberry Triangles (Gourmet Magazine Dec 1995)
Black and White Sugar Cookies (Gourmet Magazine Dec 2005)

Cranberry Milk Chocolate Truffles (Gourmet Magazine Dec 1998)

Fig and Date Swirls (Gourmet Magazine Dec 2001)

Cranberry and Pistachio Biscotti (Gourmet Magazine Dec 2001)

Espresso Dark Chocolate Truffle Kisses (Gourmet Magazine Dec 1998)

Raspberry Jellies (Gourmet Magazine Dec 1985)
(no picture as I seem to be hopelessly pectin challanged)

Lime Jellies (Gourmet Magazine Dec 1985)
(no picture, as they died an ugly death - see below)

Polish Apricot Twists (Gourmet Magazine Dec 2004)

Plus we made a frozen cranberry mousse for the actual Christmas dinner, which my sister hosted this year.

All of these recipes are from various editions of Gourmet Magazine, and most can be found on

Our target for each was approximately 100 pieces per type. Since we were making 10 gifts. About 100 pieces per gift. About 1000 pieces total.

And every year, a few of the attempts go awry.

For example, we always begin by making a master list al all the ingredients we need, naturally everything multiplied out (some recipes need to be doubled, tripled, or halved), all the instances of butter consolidated to see how much we need to buy. And of course, mistakes are always made here. Too much or too little of something being noted on the list. Which is then discovered at the worst possible moment. Naturally after stores have closed, for example.

Plus, some things just go wrong.

This year, we lost the lime jellies. Because the pan we made the jellies in gave up some long-baked-on deposits from the bottom of the pan, which floated around in the translucent jelly as it cooked. Little black flecks in the lime green jelly. Really not so Christmas-looking as we intended. Had to be tossed.

And, somehow, the first batch of chocolate for the truffles got some moisture in it as the chocolate was melting, turning a pound of chocolate into a sort of grainy, sandy mess. Still tasty, if your not too finicky about the texture. But again, nothing you could use as the basis of a gift. Something to nibble on the rest of the week.

So was actually made well over 1000 pieces. Having to toss a couple hundred along the way.

But, all things considered, they all turned out beautifully for the most part.

Everyone made their batches of treats in the same kitchen at the same time, somehow coordinating oven, stove, counter space, etc. A pretty good trick.

The winners were clearly the cranberry truffles, the bark, the apricot twists and the fig swirls. Although the biscotti was the first thing to be eaten.

TeenGirl and I then packaged the bounty. Wrapping 1/10th of each type of cookie first in some clear cellophane, tied with ribbons. Then arranging the different packaged cookies on a plastic plate wrapped in tin foil, and wrapping then entire package in clear cellophane, again tied with long ribbons. A 6 hour activity.

The results are festive, beautiful to look at, and delicious to enjoy over a cup of coffee or tea. Maybe after all the holiday hysteria is over.

And when it was all done, everyone had a real sense of having given something of meaning. Not just some cash. Something that was carefully selected, something that took real time and effort to create, something that had a little meaning. A sense of the giving side of the holidays, to balance the overwhelming avalanche of taking that seems to pervade the holiday season.

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