Monday, August 31, 2009

Nesting and Rhubarb

No matter how old you are, the start of school signals fall. I don't care if you're a kid, if you have kids, or if you just drive by a school on your way to work each day-the hustle and bustle of the back to school routine means summer is winding down. In San Francisco this means our warm weather will (hopefully) kick into high gear. In most other places, it means leaves changing and a coolness in the air. It also means nesting. That craving for order and organization, stocking the pantry, cleaning out the closets, sorting through the garage, and clearing off your desk.

I've just returned from a few very relaxing weeks out of town. Enjoying friends and family, nesting was no where in my thoughts. I've been home less than 24 hours and things have shifted. Even with the sun shining, I want to fill my fridge with tomato sauces, vegetable soups, and cookie dough. (Forget the freezer-my husband just returned from an Alaska fishing trip with 100 pounds of the stuff so the freezer is off limits until we get the new one hooked up in the garage!).

I went to the market this morning and found gorgeous rhubarb and ripe red strawberries, both from California but admittedly not hyper-local. My grandma made a killer rhubarb strawberry compote I used to eat by the bowl full. I came home and got to work, inspired by an alternative cooking method on David Lebovitz's site. He bakes his compote instead of stirring it on the stove, which is so low maintenance how can you not like it? I altered the flavors a bit and the smell coming from the oven is just divine. I made a ton so, if I don't eat it all myself, I may just sneak a little freezer space to save some for later.

When your nesting instincts kick in, give this a try. Of course, you can also come over to my place and clean out my closet!

Strawberry Rhubarb Compote

1 1/2 pounds fresh rhubarb, cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces

2 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and halved

3/4 cup sugar

1 vanilla bean, broken into four pieces

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

3 tablespoons water

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Combine all the ingredients in a 9 x 13 inch glass baking dish, stirring well. Cover the pan with foil and roast for 25 minutes, until the fruit begins to soften. Stir the fruit, cover it again and return it to the oven until the fruit is very tender, 15-20 minutes more (depending on the density of your rhubarb, this may take more or less time). Remove the foil and roast until the compote is nicely thickened, 10-15 minutes more.

Compote can be eaten warm or cooled and refrigerated. Try it as is, over ice cream, as a base for a crumble or fruit tart, or stuffed into homemade shortcakes.

Happy Nesting!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What I'm Reading Today

Rushing off to catch a ferry to our wi-fi free place on Whidbey Island, I missed my Wednesday round up last week. Apologies to those you caught me! I'm moving on so, here's what I'm reading this week.

I think a crisp might just be the easiest summer dessert ever. A simple crumble topping plus what ever fresh fruit is around add up to perfection in my book. You can even make the topping in big quantities and store it in your freezer, ready for those extra ripe berries or stone fruit any old night. Today's LA Times has a stunner of an article on simple summer fruit desserts, including one for Peach Blackberry Crisp, a combo made in heaven if you ask me. Don't miss the Fig Tart while you're there...

Peanut sauce is one of those magical things you can make in about 5 minutes if you've got a well stocked pantry. Skewer some pieces of tender pork, chicken breast, shrimp, or flank steak and you've got Thai-style satay in no time. In today's NY Times Mark Bittman, keeper of all things quick and easy, has a recipe for Grilled Pork Skewers with Peanut Sauce. If pork isn't your thing, like I said, try any other meat or even grilled veggies.

I saw this recipe in the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this month and its one of those dishes I keep thinking about. Haven't made it yet but, it is high on my list-Ginger Fried Chicken, studded with garlic and soy. If you embark on frying at home, take my advice and use your wok. Because of the shape, it allows you to get a wide surface area for frying without using as much oil as you would in a big deep pot. It heats up quickly and works great.

Happy Reading and Happy Cooking!


Saturday, August 22, 2009

And now for my two cents...

You know that feeling when everyone you know has hyped up the latest new restaurant, you finally get a reservation, and the night you eat there it's just, well...ok? That's how I've felt about seeing Julie and Julia. Not only had I read both books the film is based on but, every piece of food media that has crossed my desk in the past month has weighed in with an opinion. Sure, they're a bit jaded-chefs who were friends with Julia and journalists who claimed to have broken the Julie story. Most of them liked the film, many actually loved it.

I finally went today, figuring the dust had settled and preparing myself for a mediocre movie. I was pleasantly surprised and had an incredibly entertaining two hours. Of course Meryl was stellar embodying the Julia we all wish we would have known. In culinary school we 'cooked the book', much like Julie-it was our text book and many of the dishes in the film flashed me right back to Tante Marie's. But, the best part for me was seeing Julia's motivation on the big screen. I feel a connection with her thinking all those years ago, wanting to get people into the kitchen and cooking. Sure she loved to cook and was tenacious about learning but her goal wasn't to be a four star chef. She wanted to write recipes , perfect recipes, that motivated people to put dinner on the table. Forget the marshmallow fluff or cakes baked in flower pots (yes, a nod to the flick)-she was about the real thing and doing it right.

Most of us don't have time to bone and stuff a duck these days-this doesn't mean we can't still cook homemade food on a regular basis. Boeuf Bourguignon may sound daunting-it's not. Its comfort food at its finest and a dish you could make even without Julia's recipe. Give it a your own inner Julia and you might realize that cooking at home is as rewarding for you as it was for her.

Simple Boeuf Bourguignon

2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1-2 inch pieces

coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups thinly sliced onions
1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots

2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups red Burgundy or Burgundy-style Pinot Noir
1 garlic clove, smashed

1 stalk Italian parsley, 1 stalk fresh thyme, 1 bay leaf ("bouquet garni")

4 cups good quality beef or veal stock

1 1/2 pounds peeled carrots, cut on the diagonal into 1 1/2 inch pieces
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley, for garnish

Pat the meat dry then sprinkle it generously on all sides with salt and pepper (this is an important step-if you don't season the meat well your stew will not have the depth of flavor Julia would want it to have!). Heat a large stock pot or enameled cast iron casserole (a.k.a. "Le Crueset") over medium high heat. When hot, add half of the oil. Add half of the meat-just enough for it to be in one layer without the pieces touch each other. Cook the meat until well browned on all sides, 4-5 minutes, then remove the pieces from the pan. Carefully wipe out the pan, add the remaining oil and the remaining meat and brown in the same way. If your pot is not big enough to brown the meat in two batches, do it in as many batches as it takes-to really get that nice sear you can't overcrowd the pan. Remove the meat from the pan, reduce the heat to medium, and add the onions and shallots with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Cooking, using a flat wooden spatula to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Cook until the onion and shallots are soft and lightly browned, 5-6 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, 2 minutes more. Carefully add the wine, again using the spatula to scrape up any browned bits.

Once the wine comes to a boil, return the meat to the pan with any accumulated juices. Add the garlic, and bouquet garni and stir to combine. Add the stock and enough water, as needed, so that the liquid comes about an inch over the meat. Bring the liquid to a boil then reduce the heat to medium low. Cook, stirring occasionally, for one hour then add the carrots. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the meat is very tender, about 2 1/2 hours. Discard the bouquet garni and taste the broth-season as needed with salt and pepper. Serve in shallow soup bowls, garnished with chopped parsley.

Bon Appetit!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Old Friends, a New Restaurant, and Leftovers

Last night I met four old friends for dinner in Seattle. We tried a relatively new place in Wallingford called Cantinetta. Three stars from the local reviews and a few friends had been there and had great meals. The space is great-small, warm woods, and a nice intimate bar in the back. After being seated well after our reservation (45+ minutes) we were starving. We ordered five antipasti, the best being the pancetta wrapped dates and the avocado salad with grapefruit and chiles. The fresh cranberry beans with fennel and pecorino sounded delish but, the beans were so undercooked they bordered on crunchy. Pastas were all a beautiful texture-soft and supple-but the dishes themselves were incredibly underseasoned. I'm always surprised when a dish of such amazing ingredients ends up tasting bland because of the lack of salt. Such an easy fix and such a huge miss. My dish, a beef agnolotti in brodo with spinach and lobster mushrooms sounded hearty and satisfying on the menu but, even when I loaded it with salt at the table, no one ingredient popped out as distinct. No one was particulary satisfied with their entree. We ordered bombolini for dessert, Italian style donuts dusted in citrus sugar. They were nice-crisp and crunchy exteriors and tender inside. Then again, it's pretty hard to screw up a donut :) In the end, we had a fantastic night but it made me realize that sometimes its about the company, and not about the food.

Back at the house my parents hosted a couple of their friends and they grilled fresh salmon on a cedar plank. There are TONS of leftovers so today my goal is to figure out what to make. First thought is fish tacos-I made cole slaw yesterday and before we dressed it we set aside some of the shredded cabbage/carrot/onion mixture because we had too much. Today I may toss that in a bit of mayo spiked with some chipotles and adobo and put it in warm corn tortillas with chunks of salmon. Another idea is salmon cakes, made in the style of crab cakes. Shredding the salmon with a fork, I'll fold in a beaten egg, a handful of panko breadcrumbs, minced chives or green onion, salt and pepper. If there is some horseradish around that would be great inside too. I'll coat the outsides with more panko and lightly pan fry them in a mixture of oil and butter. Serving them on top of a simple dressed salad would make a great meal. Curious...what do you do with leftover salmon?

I love trying new restaurants but, sometimes the old favorites are your best bet-be it dinner out or salmon at home with friends.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What I'm Reading Today

Today I'm heading off on my summer vacation. Taking a couple of weeks to visit 'home', Seattle. Expect some posts about the eats I find! In the meantime, here's what I'm reading today.

Ever been daunted by the task of making biscuits? I've been there. Overworked tough hockey pucks fit only for the compost bin-blech! Well, a light hand and some buttermilk work wonders to create melt-in-your-mouth fluffy biscuits. And, trust me, who doesn't love the a perfect biscuit, especially right out of the oven?! In today's LA Times there is a simple recipe you can try next time you're up to the task. It comes from Eula Mae Doré, the cook who worked for the McIlhenny (aka Tabasco sauce) family. You'll find buttermilk (it's acidity making for a nice flaky biscuit) and vegetable shortening (another standard for flakiness). If you're gun shy about trans fat laden Crisco, try the transfat free variety at Whole Foods, it works just as well with a little less guilt. Finally, for a perfect walk through to make sure you get it right, try this slideshow. I will say, it looks like the cook is using a very heavy hand to knead the dough together-don't do this! Gentle, gentle, gentle...and, I usually cut my biscuits in squares, using every last bit of the dough, instead of the usual circles that leave lots of scraps for that compost bin.

The summer I lived in New York I fell in love with a little Soho cafe called Once Upon a Tart. Their food was fantastic and, truth be told, I loved the name. I was happy to see their recipe for Granny's Tomato Tart in today's NY Times. The tart dough is a very simple one that comes together in the food processor (and, since you're buying that shortening for your biscuits, you'll have another use for it here). Again, gentle with the mixing. Remember you always wants bits of butter in your dough so when it hits the oven, those bits melt slowly, creating steam that builds into flaky layers of pastry. The pasty is baked first, no tart pan just a rustic free form rectangle, which I love. Topped with a bit of mustard, perfectly ripe sweet tomatoes, melting Gruyere cheese, and herbes de Provence I think this tart would be a home run for any summer table.

Today's Washington Post rounds up their winners in a contest for tomato recipes. They run the gamut from an Indian Tomato Curry to a Greek style stuffed Pork Tenderloin. I was particulary intruiged with this pasta recipe that combined Roma tomatoes, mustard, balsamic, and a bit of honey. Not only is it a quick weeknight dinner but, the ingredients are all staples of any well stocked pantry. When tomatoes are at their peak, which is really starting now and going through the early fall, depending on where you live, they don't need much to be the star of a dish. At their best, I love them with salt, pepper, and the best extra virgin olive oil. But, when you buy lots of them it's great to change things up and try them different ways. Always store tomatoes at room temperature, stem side down on a plate. When you put a tomato in the fridge, it's natural sugars turn to starch and you will have an instantly mealy tomato...yuck.

Happy Reading and Happy Cooking!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Rice Pudding

Rice pudding is one of those desserts you either love or hate. I grew up eating it and love it in any shape or form-hot, warm, cold, wet, dry, baked, boiled, etc...I've tried every version I can get my hands on. I absolutely LOVE the version at SPQR-one of the best I've ever had. I'll eat there as a means to dessert. In fact, I went once, enjoyed a simple lunch, and ordered the rice pudding for dessert. My face must have dropped on the bar when the server told me they didn't have it that day because she disappeared with one of the cooks to 'find' a warm bowl of it just for me. Ahhhh....the best. It is served just warm and a bit wet, like perfect risotto really. Topped with tender fruit, pistachios, and house made bits of honeycomb...go and try it.

The version I made today is a very simple stovetop recipe. The rice is cooked twice-once in water until just tender and again in milk until creamy and plumped with the sweet custard. It makes for a perfect way to use leftover rice. I love vanilla my rice pudding so I took a few of my spent vanilla beans (having used the seeds and dried the pods) and whirled them in the food processor with the sugar to make vanilla sugar. I added a handful of raisins and some cinnamon just before the pudding was done but I think it would be great to just infuse it with a cinnamon stick and pull it out at the end. This recipe can be served cold, room temp, or warm...I love it warm but was making it in advance so we ate it at room temp. Simple and delicious.

Vanilla Cinnamon Rice Pudding

2 cups water

1 cup basmati rice, soaked in water for 1 hour and rinsed well

pinch of salt
4 cups whole milk

½ cup sugar processed with 1 vanilla bean pod (strain to remove any big vanilla bits)

1 cup raisins, dried cranberries, or dried cherries

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

Bring 2 cups of water and the salt to a boil. Stir in the basmati and return to a boil. Turn the heat to low and simmer the rice, covered, until all of the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Once the rice is cooked, fluff it with a fork and transfer it to a bowl (do not stir it with a spoon as you'll break it up and get mushy rice). Wipe out the saucepan and add the milk and vanilla sugar. Bring to a simmer, stirring often so the milk doesn't burn, cooking until the sugar has dissolved, 3-4 minutes. Add the cooked rice and, stirring often, cook until the milk reduces and the rice is creamy, 20-25 minutes. About 10 minutes into the cooking time, add the raisins and cinnamon. Transfer the pudding into individual serving dishes and serve warm or chill and serve cold or at room temperature. Serves 4-6

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What I'm Reading Today

The sun in finally beginning to shine in San Francisco. I guess after 11 years I should be used to this Indian summer but every year seems colder than the last. Good excuse to cook I guess!

Over the recent years I've developed a thing for cake. I don't order it much if I'm out but, I love the drama of making a frosted layer cake and bringing it to someone's house. My fave is the dark chocolate cake from Ina, sprinkled with sea salt at the end. But, today's LA Times has some great insights from the self declared "The Cake Guy". After reading some of the best cake books out there, 'Southern Cakes' 'The Cake Bible' and 'The Art of the Cake' he found himself somewhat of an expert. You might be surprised how easy it is. A quick and fun read.

“Don’t worry about the chef,” she said, her voice merrily derisive. “What matters is how you like it.”
A quote from New York's Union Square Cafe, which has set an exceedingly high bar for those in the restaurant business. The service is perfection and the food rises to the same level. I haven't been in several years but all the meals I've had there have been outstanding. In today's NY Times, Frank Bruni goes back and reviews it again, the first time in 10 years. Originally a three star review, read why Frank gives it two...Somehow I think Danny Meyer will read this one and make some changes. If you're just in it for the food, check out the slideshow.

You're heard me mention David Lebovitz's blog, one of my favorite in the food world. The former Chez Panisse pastry chef and accomplished food writer transplanted himself from the Bay Area to Paris. Today's Washington Post had a feature on David, including recipes for his now famous Caramelized White Chocolate Ice Cream (think slow cooked caramel-like chocolate flavors topped with smoky salt) and his Apricot and Raspberry Clafouti (a fluffly, pancake-like batter full of fresh summer fruit). If you haven't read anything David's written, be sure to check this out. He always manages to put a smile on your face. While you're there, and on a completely opposite and savory note, check out this recipe for Harissa. The spicy North African condiment, which can be bought in speciality stores, is amazing homemade. Try it mixed in mayo next time you make a steak sandwich or burger, put it on grilled lamb, or throw it in a vinaigrette.

If you've ever been rib-phobic, and I mean the cooking part not the eating part, try baby backs. They are so simple to make, whether you're firing up the grill or just doing them in the oven. In today's Seattle Times I saw this recipe for Spicy Baby Backs with an Orange Glaze. I have no doubt the combination of fresh o.j. and sweet spicy Asian chili sauce would make these amazing.

I was fishing around the food section of the SF Chronicle yesterday. It's been very thin lately and recipes are hard to find. I did stumble across a few that looked great, especially this Grilled Eggplant Salad with Roasted Tomato Almond Vinaigrette. Grilling eggplant is simple but it has such a mild flavor it kind of screams for a big condiment. I made this vinaigrette yesterday and it's fantastic. Romesco-like in flavor, it couldn't be easier.

Happy Reading and Happy Cooking!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Grilled Pita

Good pita is hard to find. The ever-stale stuff bagged in the supermarket is nasty unless you're making pita chips. Mediterranean markets occasionally sell the tender bread and, if you're really lucky, you might stumble upon it at a farmer's market like I did last week in Sonoma. The Hummus Guy was selling hummus on a variety of flavors, other Med spreads, and gorgeous fluffy flatbreads. I don't know if this is traditional pita as it doesn't actually have a pocket but, to be honest, I don't care. It was delicious.

We were grilling chicken that night so we decided to make the most of the fire and grill the pitas too. After brushing them with a thin layer of olive oil, we threw them on the grates and topped them like pizzas with the goodies pictured above-feta/tomato/mint or mozz/tomato/basil. After a minute more the cheese had melted, the tomatoes just softened, and the bread took on a little bit of a char. We cut them in wedges and devoured them in a heartbeat. We'd grilled a load of eggplant too and a few slices wrapped in the cheesy bread was to-die-for!

Next time you fire of the BBQ, give it a try.

I wish I could find bread this yummy here in SF. Anyone have a tip?
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