Sunday, June 29, 2008

Dinner and a Movie

UPDATE: A few people have asked about Pomegranate Molasses. Any Middle Eastern or Mediterranean market will carry it but, larger supermarkets stock it these days too. If you're in San Francisco you can always find it at Haig's on Clement and 7th (get a falafel sandwich there too while you're at it)

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My friend Bibby hosts great dinner parties. Not only does she cook fantastic food but, she has a knack for bringing together a group of people who don't know each other (at least most of them) and creating a table full of fun conversation. I guess she's a pro since she runs the successful Parties that Cook, a business that hosts and organizes private cooking parties.

It was a cold foggy San Francisco summer night and she made a meal to match. She kicked it off with a hot baking dish full of pork and veal meatballs, slathered in tomato sauce. These weren't those tiny one bite meatballs you've seen at cocktail parties. They were big-four bites big, served on plates with fork-like toothpicks and toasts to soak up the sauce. You know dinner is going to be a hit when you walk into a house with a hot dish of giant meatballs as an appetizer! Oh, did I mention they were filled with melting Fontina cheese??

The rest of the night was great. Dinner was grilled skewers of chicken, lemon, haloumi, and bread, a green salad by Kelly with a cumin orange dressing and lettuce from her own city garden, and Bibby's recipe for a Moroccan quinoa salad. Dessert was Ina Garten's deep dark chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter frosting (let me just say most people didn't stop at one!).

We rolled out of her house around 11:30 and on the way home drove by a neighborhood theater with a huge line out front. My husband noticed the midnight Rocky Horror Picture Show marquee and promptly parked the car. I've seen the movie but only on video, which apparently makes me a 'virgin'. Not to mention I'm pushing four decades old and was dressed for a grown up dinner party, not a vampy, campy movie production. In any case, he wanted to go and, after convincing me that it was okay to stay up past midnight, I agreed to check it out. What a trip! The theater was about half full and I knew I was in for something when we were given a bag of confetti, bubbles, newspaper, toilet paper, and playing cards. Everyone around us was dressed up-bustiers, gold Speedos, blond wigs, and silver dresses...and that was just the guys. I was too old and too sober for the whole thing. The row in front of us was three frat guys who'd snuck in beer, which they needed like holes in their heads. They were singing along at full volume, dancing, taunting and getting into it like mad. I rolled my eyes and realized if I were 20 years younger and had a six pack, I might be having fun too. We snuck out mid way through, but not after doing the 'Time Warp'...when is the last time you did that dance?

If you want to relive one of the best parts of the evening, make Bibby's salad. Last night she subbed fresh apricots for the butternut squash and it was perfect. Also, quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) is a complete protein so it's packed with nutritional goodness. Check it out if you haven't already. This recipe is a perfect slate for what ever flavors you want to play with.

MOROCCAN QUINOA WITH VEGETABLES AND SPICES

1 1/2 cups quinoa

1 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock

3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground

3/4 teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted and ground

1/4 teaspoon saffron threads

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 Tablespoons pomegranate molasses

2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups butternut squash, diced into1/2 inch dice

1 yellow onion, chopped into 1/2 inch dice

2 large carrots, diced into 1/2 inch dice

1 red bell pepper, diced into1/2 inch dice
2 zucchini, diced into 1/2 inch dice
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 scallions, white and green parts, chopped

1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

1 Tablespoon mint, chopped


Rinse quinoa under running water for 2 minutes. (This step is very important or else it will taste bitter). Bring quinoa, stock, ground cumin and coriander, saffron, cinnamon, salt and pepper to boil in a medium sauce pan. Once boiling, turn down the heat, cover and let simmer for about 20-25 minutes, until the liquid is fully absorbed and the quinoa is tender. Remove from heat and stir in the pomegranate molasses.


Heat 2 Tablespoons olive oil in a very large sauté pan. Add the butternut squash, onions and carrots; sauté for 5 minutes. Add bell pepper and cook for 2 minutes. Add zucchini, salt and pepper. Cook until all vegetables are soft but not soggy, about 5 more minutes. Remove from heat, cool slightly and mix in with the quinoa.
Garish: Right before ready to serve, stir in with the scallions, cilantro and mint. Serve immediately or at room temperature.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Summer for Dessert



Winter desserts bring me down. I've never been a fan of cooked apples or pears. I don't think you need to love apple pie to be a true American (on that note, I don't think you need to wear a lapel pin either).

Give me berries and stone fruits and I'm a happy girl. Berry crisps get me every time with their not-too-sweet filling bursting with fruit and their crunchy nutty topping with the perfect contrast in texture. Throw together peaches and berries and I'm swooning.

I love to bake but, when I was a student in culinary school, the perfect pate sable or pate sucree (tart shells, essentially) were tough for me. I would either overwork or under blend the dough, leading to shrinking shells or a lack of flake. I recently found a dough recipe I love. It can be made in the food processor and behaves very nicely without being fussy (if only my son were like that all the time!).

Using this dough, I made a fruit galette last night with peaches, raspberries, and blackberries. It is a free form tart and will look rustic and stunning no matter how much talent you have in the pastry department. The recipe is adapted from Food and Wine back in 2004 but I've given it some of my own 'love' and am really happy with the result.

Stone Fruit and Berry Galette
Crust:
1 cup cold butter, cut into small pieces
1¾ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup ice water

Place the butter, flour and salt in the bowl of your food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal-you will still see some small chunks of butter. With the motor running, using the pulse button, slowly drizzle in just enough of the ice water to bring the dough together. Don't let it form a ball. You'll see it form large 'beads' and if you grab a chunk of the dough it should hold together nicely.

Place a two sheets of plastic wrap on the counter, overlapping a bit at the horizontal to create a large rectangle. Place the dough in the center and gently form it into a ball. Top the dough with two more sheets of plastic wrap, again overlapping down the center. Roll the dough out into a rough circle, about 16-inches around. Place the dough, in the plastic wrap, on a baking sheet and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Filling:
3-4 peaches, pitted and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 T. cornstarch
1 t. cinnamon
pinch salt
1 C. raspberries
1 C. blackberries
2 T. butter
egg wash: 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 T. heavy cream
cinnamon-sugar (about 2 T.) If you don't have this around, mix 1 1/2 T sugar with 1/2 T ground cinnamon

In a medium bowl, combine the peaches, brown sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon and salt and stir gently to combine. Fold in the berries.

Remove the dough from the fridge. Line a rim-less baking sheet with parchment paper and, removing the plastic, place the dough on the sheet. Mound the filling into the center of the dough, leaving a border of about 3 inches. Fold the dough border over itself, onto the fruit, leaving a circle of fruit exposed in the center. Brush the dough with the egg wash and then sprinkle it well with cinnamon sugar. Break the butter into small pieces and dot it over the exposed fruit. Refrigerate another 20-30 minutes, until the dough firms back up (this will help make it flaky).


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place the galette in the center of the oven and bake for 45-50 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling. Slide the parchment and galatte onto a rack to cool at least 20 minutes. Eat warm or at room temperature. The galette is great with vanilla bean ice cream and even better left over for breakfast the next day. Top it with plain yogurt and you won't feel so guilty.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

What's for dinner-One Pot Meals

I've lapsed on my promise to post another one pot meal (sorry Jen!) so, here is my next recipe. Better late then never!

Inspired by a recipe by the great Marcella Hazan, Halibut all'Acqua Pazza (or halibut cooked in crazy water) must be one of the easiest dinners I make. It really works with any mild fish you like, just adjust the cooking time based on the thickness of the fish. My general rule is that the fish takes about 8 minutes to cook for every inch of thickness. To tell if it is done, insert a sharp pairing knife into the center of the fish. It should go in and out like soft butter, hitting no resistance at all. If it hits a hard spot towards the center it means that part of the fish is not cooked all the way. For something like salmon, which is delicious served medium or medium rare, this might be fine but, when you're cooking halibut, it's best cooked all the way through.

Halibut all'Acqua Pazza
1 28-oz can chopped Italian tomatoes (I like Pomi brand)
4 cups water
3 sliced garlic cloves
2 T. minced Italian parsley leaves
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes, optional
1/4 cup good extra virgin olive oil
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
4 4-6 ounces pieces fresh halibut, skin and bones removed

In a deep saute pan, combine the tomatoes, water, garlic, parsley, red pepper flakes, and olive oil. Stir to combine and season with a generous pinch each of salt and pepper. Cover the pan and simmer for 45 minutes.

Remove the cover, increase heat to medium high and let the sauce reduce by half. The recipe can be prepared up to this point and either kept at room temperature for 1-2 hours, covered, or refrigerated.

Just before serving, bring the sauce to a simmer. Add the fish and cook 3-4 minutes. Turn the fish over and cook 3-4 minutes more, using the knife test (above) to tell if it is done.

The fish should be served in shallow bowls with a generous serving of the sauce over the top. It is delicious with angel hair pasta or just a great salad.

Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What I'm Reading this Wednesday

It's that time of the week again and I've scoured the food sections for my favorites...enjoy!

What makes a great neighborhood restaurant? Read this article in the SF Chronicle about some local favorites and, of course, my favorite-Delfina.

Pull out that blender! If the NY Times is right, blender drinks are back. I love the recipes for Daiquiri No. 2 and Cartegena Limeade

The Seattle Times is talking vegetarian today. I am definitely making the Spinach Torta with Potato Crust-brunch or dinner, it sounds fantastic (plus it is from Deborah Madison, the reigning queen of all the best veggie recipes!).

Indian Spiced Grilled Lamb-yum. Marinating meat in yogurt makes it very tender, as long as it doesn't marinate too long. The combination of the acidic yogurt, spicy chilies and ground cumin makes this lamb sound amazing. Serve it with a green chili chutney, some cooling raita, and basmati rice and you've got an easy summer meal.

What are you reading today?

PS...had a few delicious dishes up in Yountville last night at Redd. If you find yourself in wine country any time soon, don't miss the ahi tuna with chili oil, avocado, Asian pear and crispy puffed rice. The combinations of flavors and textures was out of this world!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

So Long but So Important

This is the world's longest post, I know. It means a lot to me and is important-read it if you have the time. I promise the next one will be short and will include a tasty new recipe!

TIME
magazine has never been on top of my reading list. I get so many damn food magazines I can barely get to anything else! Last week, however, my husband picked it up for me, knowing I'd be all over the cover article: "Our Super-Sized Kids". I've summarize some of the article's key points, below, but before I get there I should probably explain how I got on this soap box in the first place.

The movie Super-Size Me, by Morgan Spurlock, was really a turning point for me. I had an infant at the time and didn't have to think much about what he ate. Breast milk or baby formula? I did, however, get blown away learning about what happens to a person when he lives on fast food. No one thinks fast food is healthy (ok, that's probably a gross over-statement) but, seeing what is happening to our country because of cheap fast food is incredibly frightening.

I then read the books Fast Food Nation and Fat Land. Fast Food Nation talks about the effects of fast food on everyone from our kids to cattle ranchers to immigrant workers. Fat Land focuses on the prevalence of high fructose corn syrup in the processed foods we buy. The news is grim but both books are really accessible; easy to read and packed full of valuable information.

Two summers ago I read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. To say that the book is amazing does not to it justice. After I read it, I saw Michael Pollan at a dinner at Chez Panisse and I wanted to give the man a hug! (Thankfully I was wedged deep in a banquette and I couldn't get out.) The book is a must read for everyone, anywhere, who eats anything. It will not force you to become vegetarian (a fear I've heard from some people who haven't read it) and it won't make you feel like you can't eat anything you like. You will be a better consumer for having read it-knowing where your food comes from. His more recent title, In Defense of Food gives practical advice for using the knowledge you gain from reading the first book. You can certainly read it independently and I think it's 'manifesto', "Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants", is one we can take to heart.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have had access to all these movies and books. I am also lucky to live in a part of the country where 365 days a year I have access to the best meat, fish and produce of the season. I can find out easily where my food comes from and, in the event I really wanted fast food (a rare occasion, used mostly for a bad hangover), I have to drive a long, long way to find it. I avoid processed foods as much as possible, opting for whole foods that need to be cooked or prepared (or just eaten in their natural state, like a juicy ripe fresh peach). If there are more than two ingredients you don't recognize in your food, step away!!! If you see high fructose corn syrup, eat it in moderation, if at all. Start watching for it-it's not just in your sweets. Look for it in salad dressings, bbq sauce, yogurt, and soup...you might be surprised how much sugar you're eating when you don't expect it. If you divide the number of grams of sugar/serving by 4, that's how many teaspoons of sugar you are getting. "Yikes" is putting it mildly.

Having read the article in Time, I was honestly really sad. I can't say I was disgusted, although facts like 19% of American kids age 6-11 are obese might lead me there. I realized more than ever that cheap food is a huge driver of our nation's childhood obesity problem. Kids from lower incomes are far more likely to be overweight and kids from areas of the country that are closer to the poverty line are the same. It's not the only reason for concern. Kids are less active, parents are lazy, and bad food is cheap. Don't think because you live above the poverty line you are home free.

I highly encourage you to read the article yourself but, as an admitted skimmer, I know it doesn't always happen. For you other skimmers out there, I've gone through and highlighted some of the key points. A warning, they are scary-true, but scary.

**In 1900 the avg. college male in the US was 133lbs. By 2000 it was 166 lbs (similar increase in women)

**In 1971 only 4% of kids 6-11 were obese. In 2004 that leaped to almost 19%-and that's just obesity, not simply overweight

**90% of overweight (not just obese) kids already have at least one avoidable risk factor for heart disease

**The current generation of young people may be the first in American history to have a shorter life span than their parents

**The average American consumes 3800 calories a day (we need about 2350 to survive). Thinking twice about that 700 calorie Frappuccino? I remember someone once telling me that drinking one was like eating a few pieces of cake...glad I gave those up

**Kids who come home after an inactive school day usually spend three more hours just sitting in front of some sort of screen

**22.4% of kids living below the poverty line are overweight, compared to 9% of kids whose families earn at least four times that

**Activity is so important (for all of us). You can read a million books on diet and exercise but, just remember one simple thing, "calories taken in vs. calories expended" and you will stay in check

**"Between 1989 and 2005 the real price of fruits and vegetables rose 74.6% while the price of fats fell 26.5%" I can only imagine the price of corn (read: high fructose corn syrup) dropped to

**"This is not a disease that will be solved with medicines or vaccines. A social movement has to solve this." Joseph Thompson, director of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement

**School is a huge problem-school lunches are pathetic and the food disguised as healthy is not even close. But, even after school, kids leave campus and you find them spending their money on donuts, sodas, and candy bars. Just hang out on Filmore and Chestnut in San Francisco around 3pm any weekday and you'll see this in action

**On average, American kids watched 40,000 commercials in 2000

**"Evidence shows that heavier children are 35% more likely to develop cancer in their later years"

**Only 36% of parents with overweight children identify them as such

**Pediatricians say that with such a huge increase in overweight kids, they can no longer spare a parent's feelings when addressing the issue-it's just too important

**Some obvious recommendations:
-kids should eat 5+ servings of fruit/veg a day
-kids should be getting 1+ hour of exercise a day
-kids should spend less than 2 hours in front of any kind of screen a day
-the entire family should also be doing these things!

**I've said this before but, think about the example you set for your kids. If you skip breakfast, eat a protein bar for lunch, and eat the ice cream right out of the pint container, what do you think your kids are going to do?

Let me say that I am far from perfect. My son eats goldfish crackers, loves ice cream, and does watch TV and occasionally play on the computer. We (almost) never eat fast food and I do all I can to make sure we keep things balanced and healthful as much as possible. We go to the park to run around and choose walking v. driving.

We need to get our kids in shape. We need them to understand the importance of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. We need them to stay active. We need them to try new foods. We need them to eat less or no processed foods. We need to get better.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What I'm Reading this Wednesday

A little sample of what I'm reading in today's food sections:

Rosemary Halibut Kabobs with Romesco: I love Romesco on almost anything. Wild Halibut? Yum! This one from SF Chron.

Touch of Grace Biscuits: This is a recipe from Shirley Corriher's Cookwise (in today's NY Times). I've made these and LOVE them. Keep note of the consistency of the dough-it's almost batter-like but, trust me, fluffy light biscuits every time. Try adding a pinch of sugar and using them for peach-berry shortcakes. If you don't have easy access to self-rising flour, you can create a good subsitute-for every cup of self rising flour in a recipe, substitute 1 cup all purpose flour, 1 1/4 tsp. baking powder and 1/8 tsp salt.

Cabbage Chipotle Slaw: Two things I love cole-slaw and chipotles. Look for chipotles in the Latin-food aisle of your super market. They are smoked jalapenos that are usually canned in adobo sauce, a vinegar based sauce with a serious kick. Both the chipotles and the sauce are great additions to recipes. I can't wait to try this slaw with some BBQ's baby back ribs. This one is from the Seattle Times and would also be great with grilled Northwest salmon.

Peach, Blackberry and Almond Crisp: I am not much of a camper (ok, not a camper at all) but this LA Times recipe for campfire Peach, Blackberry and Almond crisp sounds so good I might just go camping to try it out. If you don't find yourself by a campfire this summer, put the filling mixture in a baking dish, mix together the topping and sprinkle it over the fruit, bake it at 375 until golden brown on top, 20-30 minutes.

Let me know if you're reading anything delicious today.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

One Pot Meals

It's all about making life easier. I can rant and rave all I want about why you should have family dinner and cook at home but, if you don't have easy recipes to cook, it just aint going to happen. So, each week I plan to post a simple one pot meal. These are meals that, along with something like a basic green salad, make up dinner. Many can be made in advance, or doubled and frozen so you have more for another time. None require culinary skills beyond the basics and all are tried, true and delicious.

To kick off the series, here is a recipe for a basic Thai curry. This is a bit spicy but not overwhelmingly so. I wrote it for beef but, chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, shrimp, or simple veggies all work too. I'd serve this with some steamed jasmine rice and call it dinner. To make the meat easier to cut, put it in the freezer for about 20 minutes first-this will firm it up just enough to give you nice clean strips.

Thai Green Curry Beef
1/2 T. canola oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1-2 T. green curry paste (use more if you like it hot)
1 T. minced galangal (Thai ginger) or 1/2 T. minced ginger
1-2 jalapenos, thinly sliced, remove seeds and ribs for less heat
4 cups coconut milk
1 pound flank steak, cut thinly against the grain into 2-inch strips
1/4 cup Thai fish sauce (it's stinky but really important)
3 T. brown or palm sugar
1 small Japanese eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 medium Russet potatoe, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 medium zucchini, cut into 1-inch pieces
6 kaffir lime leaves (in the herb section of your market) or 2 T. lime zest
1/4 cup basil leaves, Thai basil if available

Heat oil in a large stock pot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until soft, about 6 minutes. Add the curry paste, galangal or ginger, and jalapeno and saute until very fragrant, about 2 minutes more. Add half of the coconut milk and the beef and simmer for 2 minutes. Add the remaining coconut milk, fish sauce, sugar, eggplant, potato, and zucchini and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook, until all ingredients are cooked through and tender but not falling apart,about 20 minutes. Do not let it come to a boil or the coconut milk with separate. If vegetables are not done but liquid is cooking down, add chicken stock or extra coconut milk to keep liquid about 3/4 the way up the vegetables/meat. Stir in the lime leaves and basil, remove from heat and serve immediately. Serve in shallow soup bowls over steamed jasmine rice.

Mmm...that's good!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Why Not to Use Your Kitchen Timer

When I was in culinary school, kitchen timers were off limits for all but one thing, hard boiled eggs (see below). The first few weeks of school we thought this was absurd-no timers?! What would we do if a recipe said "cook 20 minutes"...could we remember when we put it in the oven while we were working on three other things at the same time? Our teacher, the amazing and incredible Catherine Pantsios, quickly taught us to judge the doneness of our food using visual and tactile clues. I've become so used to this way of cooking, I often have to dust off my kitchen timer when I really do need it. It has its place in a kitchen but, not for the day to day cooking most of us do.

It is really easy to fall back on time recommendations in a recipe but, any good recipe writer will include a suggested time plus a visual clue; "saute 5 minutes, or until soft and golden brown". The 'soft and golden brown' is what you're going for, forget the 5 minutes. Every stove and every oven on the planet are calibrated differently. Medium high on one stove might be medium low on another, causing the suggested 5 minutes to become 3 or 7. I had a student tell me that everything in his oven took at least 10 minutes longer to cook than his recipes said. I told him to get an oven thermometer ($5 at any hardware store or supermarket) and when he put it in his oven, he realized it was running almost 30-degrees lower than he thought. If he had been wedded to suggested cooking times in his recipes, he'd be eating food that was no where near done cooking.

Some of the visual & tactile clues to get used to using are touch/texture, taste, temperature, and color.

**Touch/Texture: When food is cooking, its texture transforms. Take a steak-when you feel a raw steak, it's 'squishy' with no resistance at all. A steak cooked medium rare still has a bit of squish but, you will feel some resistance when you gently poke your finger onto the meat. Professional chefs almost always judge the doneness of meat by touching it.

**Taste: Say you are a reducing a wine based sauce, the recipe might say cook 10 minutes, or until reduced by half. If you taste the sauce in 10 minutes, it might be bland and have a strong alcohol flavor. Ten minutes or not, keep reducing! You want to taste a robust sauce with the flavor of the wine, but not the alcohol. Tasting it is incredibly important in detecting it's doneness.

**Temperature: Larger cuts of meat are tough to judge by touch but, they still can't be driven by a recipe's time. If you're roasting a chicken, there are a few visual clues to tell when it's done-the meat starts to pull away from the leg bone, for example. But, the best way to tell if it is done it to take the temperature. An instant read meat thermometer is something everyone should have in the kitchen. Take the meat out of the oven, shut the oven door, take its temperature in the thickest part (in a chicken this is between the leg and thigh), and either leave it out to rest before cutting it or put it back in the oven to finish cooking. The time on a recipe like this is a good guideline but, the temperature is the only true test. I always start checking the temp at least 10 minutes before the recipe suggests.

**Color: One other way to judge the doneness of food is color. Fish and seafood are a great example here. When you cook a piece of fish, it is totally translucent to start. Once it cooks, the flesh of the fish becomes opaque. This is a cue to test if it is done. It is not the only one, especially on a thick piece of fish like halibut (in which case I rely also on texture by inserting a small knife into the center of the fish-it should go in and out with no resistance). Thinner cuts of fish, like sole, snapper and some salmon, can be judged by color. Shrimp too, they go from translucent to pink when they are cooked.

As you continue to cook, start becoming more reliant on the visual and tactile clues written in your recipes. Don't be so time dependent and you'll become a much better cook.

I mentioned the constant exception to my rule, hard boiled eggs. Catherine taught us to use the Julia Child method when hard boiling eggs and I can tell you it works every time. When I say it 'works' I mean you end up with eggs that have a bright yellow yolk, no green, and a yolk that is tender but not so tough you could bounce it like a super ball! Try it next time you cook eggs and let me know if it works...

Perfect Hard Boiled Eggs
Place your eggs (the number doesn't matter) in a pot in one layer. Cover them with cold water. Put the pot on the stove over high heat. Bring the water to a rolling boil and, as soon as the water boils, remove the pan from the heat, cover it tightly, and set your kitchen time for 14 minutes. Meanwhile, set aside a large bowl of ice water. When the timer goes off, carefully transfer your eggs to the ice water. When the eggs are cool enough to handle, you can use them right away or drain them and put them in the fridge.



Friday, June 13, 2008

What's for Dinner?

Your family, I hope.

What has happened to family dinner? I am shocked an amazed at the number of families who don't sit down for dinner together. Parents feed their kids on their own and then, if and when the adults have time, they grab something to eat later. This is wrong on so many levels.

I grew up in the 70s and early 80s, my parents both worked, my brother and I were busy with after school activities but, we still managed to sit down for dinner almost every night of the week. Going out as a family was a big deal but, every once in a while we did it. We sat together, ate together, and talked together. It wasn't a fancy or formal meal. There weren't 'topics' we had to discuss, but it was a time when things just sort of came out. I never remember our parents probing us to find things out. We had a comfortable place to chat about life and that is what we did.

We also saw my parents eating, and eating good, healthy food. My mom cooked homemade food every night (some nights dinner was pawned off on us too, which was great). It still sort of amazes me that she pulled it off but, she did it and made it seemingly effortless . The nights my dad cooked we had breakfast for dinner (he too is a great cook) and the nights my brother and I pitched in, it was essentially reheating a meal my mom had prepared in advance. Having everyone at the table eating the same thing set an example for us as kids that it was just the right thing to do.

I was picky, very picky. I didn't eat meat and on the nights my mom cooked it I had a bowl of cottage cheese instead. This was the only 'special' substitution that happened at my house otherwise, we ate what was cooked, period. I am now a completely non-picky eater. I will try anything and will eat everything. When I hear from parents that their kids will only eat white food or their kids will only eat mac and cheese, I don't think it is the fault of their kids. Parents decide what to feed their kids and how often their kids try new things. If parents take direction from their 3 or 4 year old on what to put on their dinner plate, they are not doing their kids any favors.

Here are my rules for creating good eaters:

**Kids need to try things 3 or 4 times before they give new foods a chance.

**Kids need to see their parents eating good food, preferably with them, so they know the food is 'okay'.

**Food should not be a punishment or a privilege. It should be sustenance and something to be enjoyed.

**Involve kids in the cooking, they are much more likely to eat something they've had their hand in making.

**Take them to the store or the farmer's market and talk to them about where food comes from.

**Cook whole foods versus processed foods. They taste better and you can control the nutrition that goes into them

**FAMILY DINNER: if you aren't doing it now, set aside just two nights a week and start. Once you begin, I have no doubt you'll add more nights to your weekly schedule. Ideally family dinner is a homemade meal but, if that really won't work for you, pick up something healthful and tasty. I recommend cooking a few things on the weekend and putting them in the refrigerator or freezer so when you get home at the end of the day, it doesn't take long to heat them up.

I will post more recipes that work well for busy weeknight meals. I know it's helpful to have these. One favorite is our house is Sole Meuniere. It takes minutes and everyone loves it:

Sole Meuniere
2 T. flour
4 sole fillets
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1 T. olive oil
2 T. butter
3 T. capers, rinsed and drained
1/2 lemon

Place the flour on a shallow plate and sprinkle with a good pinch each of salt and pepper-mix to combine. Dredge the fish in the flour, shaking off any excess.

Heat a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and, when hot, add the fish in one layer (cook in batches if the fish doesn't fit in the pan in one layer). Cook about 2 minutes, until lightly browned, then turn the fish over and cook 1-2 minutes more. The fish should be opaque throughout when it is done (it may take long for thicker fillets). Place the fish on a warm serving platter and add the butter to the pan. Cook until the butter has melted then add the capers . Squeeze in the juice of the lemon, stir to combine then pour sauce over the fish and serve immediately. This dish is great with crispy roasted potatoes and a green salad.

I realize people are busy-heck, I'm busy. It's hard and it takes time. It is a commitment worth making, trust me. As your kids grow up they will always know they have that dinner to come home to each night. It's a safe place for kids to talk, or argue, with each other or with their parents, no matter how old they are.

Start family dinner at your house. Whether you're 2, 3, 4 or more...you'll be glad you did it.





Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Watermelon+Feta=DELISH!

The trend is nothing new. Fruit and Cheese have long been kissing cousins. A traditional plate of fromage is likely accompanied by a lonesome bunch of grapes, some dried figs, or a few apricots. But, combining watermelon with cheese is something most people wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole, right? Not!

I didn't create this particular pairing and, in all honesty, I can't remember where they first came together for me. I think it was Food & Wine or another food rag but, I was intrigued and had to try it out. It took a few combinations but I finally got the salad exactly where I wanted it-the perfect balance of salty, sweet, and savory. On top of that, it coudn't be easier.

If you need a dish to bring to all those summer BBQ's and don't want something that'll keep you in the kitchen, this is it! Another more subtle, but equally delicious combination is Gala melon (or cantaloupe), fresh mozzarella, and basil. In fact, stone fruit and strong cheeses would be fantastic too (think plums and gorgonzola, peaches and crescenza, etc....).

Watermelon and Feta Salad
1 medium seedless watermelon (about 4 pounds)
4 ounces good quality feta cheese (I love Trader Joe's imported sheep's milk feta packed in brine)
handful of fresh mint leaves
really tasty extra virgin olive oil
course salt (kosher is fine) and freshly ground black pepper

Remove the skin from the watermelon and cut it into chunks about 2-3 inches. Scatter the watermelon on a large serving plate and crumble the feta over the top, tucking it in between all the pieces. Stack the mint leaves on top of each other and roll them in a tight cylinder (like a...well, you get the pictures). Using your razor sharp chef's knife, thinly slice across the cylinder to get thin ribbons of mint. Scatter the mint all over the melon. Drizzle the salad with the olive oil, just a thin layer, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Be sure the ingredients are distributed so you get a bite of each one when you taste it. Serve immediately.

Mmm...that's definitely good!!

What I'm Reading Today

It is Wednesday again and that means it is time to dive into the newspaper food sections.

Here are my favorite reads today:

Pimenton Chicken with Piquillo Pepper Sauce: From Joey Altman's new book "Without Reservations"-it's beautiful with great recipes. This is a perfect example from the Chronicle today.

James Beard Awards: Sunday night were the Academy Awards of food-the James Beard Awards. A huge congratulations to my friend Craig Stoll, best chef 'Pacific Region'! This LA Times article talks about some other, non-local, winners.

Lamb "Falafel"
: Two things I love-yum! Thank you Melissa Clark of the New York Times for more top notch recipes.

Summer Farmer's Markets (Seattle): If you're up in the Northwest, check out this link to summer markets-it's the best time of year for Seattle's delicious local products. If you haven't been shopping at one yet, now is the time to do it!!

Happy Wednesday

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Watermelon Sorbet

Today I taught a class called Simple Summer Dinner Parties. I had a fantastic group and they cooked an obscene amount of delicious food. I think one of the group favorites was the watermelon sorbet. The day was warm, the kitchen was hot and the sorbet was a welcome cool finish to dishes such as coffee glazed baby back ribs, grilled vegetable panzanella, and guacamole with roasted tomatillos and poblanos. Sorbet is also great because it has no fat and no dairy-with really fresh fruit and simple syrup, you've got all you need.

To make your own watermelon sorbet, there are a few kitchen items that come in handy-a food processor, a fine mesh strainer, and an ice cream maker. If you don't have an ice cream maker, you can turn the recipe into a granita (see instructions below).

Here's to many sweet summer fruit sorbets!!

Watermelon Sorbet
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
8 cups cubed (1 inch) watermelon, seeds and rind discarded
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
pinch salt

Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook until sugar has dissolved, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and cool completely (this is your simple syrup-if you think you'll make a lot of sorbet this summer, make up a big batch to keep in the fridge). Meanwhile, puree the watermelon in a food processor until smooth. If desired, strain puree through a fine mesh strainer. Transfer the puree to a bowl and add the lemon juice and a pinch of salt. When the sugar syrup is cool, add it to the mixture and stir to combine. Transfer the mixture to an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Note: if you don't have an ice cream maker and want to try the recipe, pour the mixture into a 9x13 pan and put it in the freezer. After it begins to freeze, an hour or two, use a large fork to break it up into smaller chunks. Do this 2-3 more times, every hour or two, and then freeze overnight. Before serving the next day, use the fork to scrape the mixture into fine crystals and serve or, put it in a food processor and pulse just to break it up. The granita will be very similar in flavor to the sorbet but, because the ice cream maker chruns air into the mixture, it won't be quite as light.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Good Sharp Knife

I could easily have an entire blog about knives alone. A good sharp knife is undoubtedly the most important kitchen tool you can own. Once you have it, getting used to using it is also mission critical. Everything in the kitchen goes faster when you know how to use your knife.

I know so many people who read a recipe and immediately toss it aside if the ingredient list calls for chopping, dicing, mincing, or slicing. They worry it will take them so long to just prep the ingredients, even a quick recipe seems to take forever. This can be true if you don't use your knives often. But, as with anything, the more you practice the better you will be and the sharper your knife, the more efficiently it will cut things. Do you remember that moment when you started to drive and, after months of really concentrating on every little thing, it became second nature? You realized you could do it without having to think so much. Using a good knife is the same-you will have that moment when you say to yourself, 'Jodi was so right-this is a piece of cake'.

When you invest in new knives, I believe you only need three-a chef's knife, a pairing knife, and a serrated knife. Your chef's knife will do 90% of your work and should last you many, many years, if not a lifetime. Your pairing knife is handy for small jobs and the serrated knife is great for bread and cutting tomatoes. You do not need to buy a 10 piece knife set. These sets usually include a bunch of knives you will never use and the quality of the knives are no where near as good as some of the individual chef's knives you can buy. A good chef's knife isn't cheap. It will run you anywhere from $75 to upwards of $300.

I never recommend a brand of knives to people. Everyone needs something a little different. The blade of a chef's knife can be 8, 9 or 10 inches long and the handle can be wood, plastic, or metal. The blades are generally steel, but ceramic knives have become popular as well. I highly recommend finding a store that carries lots of knife brands and trying them out to see what feels good in your hand. This is the knife you will use to mince garlic, dice a shallot, slice an onion, and julienne a carrot. It will also slice a steak, cut chicken for a stir fry, peel a pineapple, and dice avocado. In other words, it should perform most of the prep tasks in your kitchen so you need to love it and be comfortable with it.

When you buy your knives, invest in a honing steel as well. If you have a set of knives at home now, this is the steel rod that has probably been collecting dust in your knife block since last Thanksgiving. The steel will hone the blade of you knife, keeping the blade properly aligned so it holds a nice edge. This does not sharpen your knife but, if you use it every day when you are about to start cutting, your knife should not need to be professionally sharpened more than once a year. Some retailers will convince you to buy your own knife sharpener, which I think is a hoax. People get so excited about using these they wear down their knife blade prematurely. Find somewhere to take your knives to get sharpened professionally. In San Francisco, I go to Columbus Cutlery on Columbus and Vallejo-they do an amazing job (and sell a huge variety of knives too).

To find out if your knife is sharp, get a fresh tomato. You should be able to drag your knife across the top and slice into the skin without having to apply any pressure. If it doesn't cut the skin, try running it on your steel (do this by holding the knife at a 20-degree angle to the steel and run the entire length of the blade down 4-5 times on both sides). If you try the tomato test again and it still doesn't cut, it's time to sharpen you knife.

A good sharp knife is worth its weight in gold. Buy one, keep it sharp, practice, practice, practice and you will have made one of the best investments of your life.




Wednesday, June 4, 2008

New Links

You will see on the right panel of the blog I've added some links. There are a few to sites/blogs of my friends and a few of my personal favorite sites. These lists are a huge work in progress. Please let me know if you have a favorite site or blog, or if I left your site off my list.

One word of warning-clicking on blog links will lead to further clicking on blog links will lead to further clicking on blog links will lead to time magically ticking way!

Why I Love Wednesdays

I've never been much of a newspaper reader. I love the Sunday NY Times but, as my husband will tell you, I always go for the 'Style' section first (with the exception of today's front pages-Go Obama!). News hound or not, I have a strange addiction to Wednesday papers. Why? It is the day all newspapers publish their food section. I'd love to know what's so special about Wednesday and where the trend began but, what ever the answer, I am glued to my Mac for a good part of my Wednesday morning reading at least four food sections.

My go-to section is the New York Times . The writers are constantly committed to not only writing fabulous recipes (thank you Melissa Clark and Mark Bittman) but researching the latest news in the world of food and reporting it in a thorough and approachable way. If you read only one food section on Wednesday, this should be it.

Next I go to the SF Chronicle. While my local paper usually has more recipes than the Times, the articles aren't as relevant to how I like to cook (plus their 'Inside Scoop' section has usually been scooped by the Tablehopper on Tuesdays). That said, I do confess to reading Michael Bauer's blog almost every day. He publishes short articles on his rants and raves and often creates a flurry of debate in his comment section. It is definitely worth a read on a regular basis if you live in SF.

Kudos to Russ Parson's at the LA Times . His food section rocks! Russ is a bit like Alton Brown of the Food Network-smart, funny, and full of information. I took a class with him at the CIA in St.Helena years ago and since then I've always followed his paper and his writing. I read the section online and love the layout-the photos are always vibrant and mouth watering and, while very LA centric (of course), the recipes are my favorite. They don't write as much about global food issues (v. the Times) but, their food writing is top notch.

Lastly, my hometown paper, the Seattle Times keeps me up to date on where I should eat when I make my next trip home. It's where I first discovered Matthew Dillon's Sitka & Spruce (the meal I ate there last year was one of the BEST I've had in a long time, anywhere!) and where I keep up to date on chefs like Tom Douglas. The section is small with limited recipes but, the Northwest is home to some incredible local products and this section really highlights ways to make this kind of food shine.

So after reading my Wednesday dose of food writing, here's what is on my list:
Matthew Dillon's new venture in Georgetown (a must-visit on my next trip)
Spot Prawns Roasted in Spiced Salt (these look like they might rival my friend Bibby's delicious version)
Queso Fundido with Squash Blossoms (get to the bad part of melted cheese and squash blossoms!)
"Everyday Drinking" by Kingsley Amis
(that one is for one person in particular who I know will LOVE this book...you know who you are!)

Tune in next Wednesday for my daily dose of the food sections.

Happy reading!



Monday, June 2, 2008

My 'Ah Ha' Moment

I was 29 years old (for the first time) when I had my 'ah ha' moment. I'd been working in technology for 7 years and took a vacation to Italy to take a cooking class from Giuliano Bugialli. I'd always loved to cook. As early as I can remember my mom gave my dad, my brother and I each a night to cook dinner-she'd prep a few things in the fridge before work and the rest was up to us. It was a fantastic thing for a mom to do-both my brother and I grew up totally comfortable in the kitchen. One of my earliest food memories was my great grandmother (Grandma King) who used to come up to Seattle from San Francisco to stay with us each summer. She used to cook in a school cafeteria (back in the day when people actually cooked at schools!) and was an incredible cook. I remember being barely tall enough to see the stove top when she was stirring a bechamel for her home made mac and cheese.

Needless to say, I grew up loving cooking. When I arrived in Tuscany for my class, I had no idea the week would change my life. Mid way through the FANTASTIC program, I thought to myself "This guy is actually making a living teaching people how to cook! That's what I want to do! Ah Ha". Six months later I'd quit my job, moved to San Francisco and started culinary school. I haven't looked back for a minute. I found what I loved and followed my passion.

I think many people go through their lives never finding that one thing they love to do. I know I am lucky to have stumbled on it...no life coach, career counselor, or personality profile. It landed in my lap and was totally good karma.

Every year Bugialli comes and teaches at Tante Marie's, where I work and went to school. I've told him a few times that his class changed my life but I'm not sure he really understands how serious I actually am.

Here's to you and your 'Ah Ha' moment...have you had it yet?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

What's for Breakfast?

I know the mornings get busy. It's too easy to forget breakfast, or to substitute an energy bar or even a latte. You've heard it before but it is so true, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

When I walk my son to school I am amazed at the kids running into the building with a 'bar' in their hand. This breakfast standard might do for an adult on-the-go but, for kids? It really is easy to make something homemade, healthful and tasty in under 15 minutes. I make a hot breakfast every morning (and a sack lunch too) and we still manage to get our entire routine done in under an hour.

The breakfast favorite at our house is my dad's famous cottage cheese pancakes. The recipe is below and, even if you don't like cottage cheese 'straight up', you will love these. We make French Toast a lot too but, it is nothing like what I used to eat growing up. My dad always made our French Toast in the waffle iron. We thought it was the best thing ever-all those crevices for melted butter or syrup! Sadly, I only have a Belgian waffle maker now and it doesn't work but, if you have a good old fashioned waffle iron, give it a shot-YUM!

Cottage Cheese Pancakes
They're low in flour (carbs) and high in cottage cheese (protein) and they really put traditional pancakes to shame. They are light and airy and the perfect companion to slices of banana, blueberries, or even a drizzle of good jam. You can even mix these up the night before if you are really pressed for time.

3 eggs
pinch each of salt and sugar
1 cup cottage cheese
1/3 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
butter, for cooking

In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs until liquid (just a minute or so). Add the salt, sugar and cottage cheese and mix well to combine. Stir in the flour and baking powder.

Heat approx. 1 tbs of butter in a non stick skillet, or a griddle, over medium heat. When melted, spoon the batter into the pan. I like to make my pancakes 2-3 inches in diameter. If using fruit, sprinkle it onto the pancakes now. Cook 1-2 minutes, until lightly browned on the underside (they won't bubble on the surface as much as regular panckaes). Flip and cook about 1 minute more. Transfer to a plate and enjoy!


Cookware...where to begin!

I get so many questions about what types of cookware to buy-non stick, stainless, cast iron, etc. There are pros and cons to all cooking metals but, a few are better than others for an all purpose solution.

When you're looking for cookware, a few things are important to keep in mind-conductivity, retention and reactivity. Conductivity is how quickly the pan will conduct heat-how fast (or slow) it heats up. Retention is how the pan retains heat once it heats up-does it stay hot. Reactivity is how the metal reacts with different foods-does it impart a metalic taste.

The list below details each type of cooking metal but, I think the best all purpose pan is a stainless steel with a heavy bottom and, if possible, an aluminum lining. Pans like this can generally go in the dishwasher, they heat up quickly, they are oven safe, and they are non-reactive. For more details, see below:

COPPER
**Highest conductivity and lowest retention
**Reactive with highly acidic foods (wine, vinegar, tomatoes,
lemon, etc.) causing them to turn color and have a metallic taste
**often lined with aluminum or tin to help retain heat and to prevent it from being reactive
**very expensive metal and hard to keep up (copper tarnishes over time)
**Good for caramel/sugar work

ALUMINUM
**High conductivity and medium-high retention
**Reactive to acidic foods, milk and eggs causing them to turn a gray color
**Often lined to prevent reactions with food
**Very thick aluminum pans are great for cooking and easy to maintain but can be expensive
**Good for sautéing but if not thick enough, aluminum pans can get hot very fast and cause things to burn

STAINLESS STEEL
**Medium-High conductivity and medium retention
**Not reactive and very easy to maintain as it doesn’t stain
**Should be thick to avoid burning foods, can be expensive
**Good for wine based/acidic dishes

CAST IRON
**Low conductivity but high retention
**Reactive to acidic and dairy-based foods unless coated with enamel
**Needs to be seasoned with oil and should never be washed with soap. If your cast iron pan has a lot of caked on 'yuck', smear it with coarse salt and scrub it well with a mildly abrasive sponge. Dry it well before storing it or it will rust
**Great for searing/grill meats or vegetables

NONSTICK ALUMINUM (Best not to use very often)
**Can be toxic if heated too high-never heat it without anything in it!! They contain a chemical called PTFE and there is a lot of controversy over what these can do in your bloodstream
**High conductivity and medium-high retention
**Not reactive if coating is consistent
**Easy to clean, avoid using any metal utensils as it will scratch and eventually remove the non-stick surface
**Great for eggs/crepes/pancakes or sautéing meats and fish (when a pan sauce is not desired), not good for deglazing or browning

TEMPERED GLASS
**Good conductivity and medium retention
**Non-reactive
**Great for baking, easy to maintain, low cost

ETC.:
**Pans with lower sides are better for reducing things as the liquid will evaporate more quickly/the steam escapes faster (i.e., Sauté Pan, Frying Pan or Skillet)
**Pans with high sides are good for liquid based items (soups) as it will take longer for the liquid to evaporate. Lids on pans will also keep the liquid from evaporating too quickly as the steam will not be able to escape (i.e., Stock Pot, Sauce Pan, Casserole)
**If a pan is too small for the items you are cooking, you will not get efficient browning
**If a pan is too big for what you are cooking, the items will burn
 
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