Thursday, December 30, 2010

What I'm Reading Today

I can't believe it's my last installment of 2010.  I've been thinking about new year's resolutions and hope you have too.  If you cook at home, can I make a suggestion?  Let 2011 be the year you start to cook more without a recipe.  I know, I write recipes for a living and maybe I'm crazy to say that but I've noticed more and more of my students telling me they want to be more instinctual cooks.  My best advice?  Pick a few basic recipes-a soup, a vinaigrette/salad, a stew or braise, a pasta sauce, and a seared meat dish.  Cook the recipe to the letter then, the next time you make it, try it with a variation or two.  Cook it another time or two and pretty soon you'll not only have the recipe etched in memory but you'll have made it your own.  Variations from there are endless and you'll be surprised how simple it is to improvise.  It takes practice, learning which flavors you like and what works well together, but it isn't hard.  Commit to it, do it, and the results will follow.  Have fun in the kitchen! 

In the meantime, here are a few great recipes to get you started and to close out an amazing year in food.

Before my grandmother passed away she used to fly south for the winter, spending the colder months in Orange County.  A great cook herself, she loved the LA Times food section and always clipped recipes to send up to my mom and I.  Her favorite section was the paper's compilation of the year's best recipes.  I thought of her as I read the 2010 version today.  She loved to bake so I'm sure she'd have gone right to the kitchen to fire up a batch of pecan and coconut Paradise Bars.  I'm loving the Chicken, Chorizo, and Green Chile Hash and, a recipe that's been on my list all year, the Momofuku Crack Pie.  

Bacon and Cheddar Quiche, a la Melissa Clark in the NY Times, is decadent, rich, and soul satisfying.  Homemade crust makes all the difference and Melissa recommends using both butter and lard.  The combination of both fats is hard to beat if you're looking for a rich and flaky crust but your favorite all butter pie dough will work just fine here too.  Whether it's New Year's Day brunch or a simple, elegant supper paired with mixed greens, there really isn't a bad time of the day to enjoy quiche.

When you start looking ahead at January, healthy eating certainly comes to mind.  I'm starting with this casserole-Butternut Squash, Kale and Shitake Casserole peppered with the flavors of Thailand.  Ginger, coconut milk, and green curry paste take simple seasonal ingredients and turn them into a dish with huge flavors.  Better yet, the casserole can be made two days in advance and kept in the fridge so it's perfect for weeknight dinner because you can make ahead of time.  There is a bit of cutting and chopping but pulling this one together couldn't be easier.

Here's to a food filled and delicious 2011!  Happy Reading and happy cooking.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What I'm Reading Today

Two days and counting until Christmas eve.  I hope you're shopping is done, your meals are planned, and you're well and healthy.  Me?  Well, shopping is done, meals are almost planned, and my holiday
cold should turn the corner any day now.  Happy Holidays and may the rest of the 2010 bring you everything you could wish for and more.

Ahhh, gougères.  If you're ever looking for the go-to appetizer for your next dinner or cocktail party, these should, hands-down, be your number one pick.   Russ Parsons writes about them in today's LA Times and I couldn't agree more with his notion about how simple they are.  These French cheese puffs are made using a traditional choux pastry, very heavy on the eggs and mixed over the stove top until the dough resembles thick and smooth mashed potatoes (some people transfer the dough to a mixer to finish it-I do it by hand and it always works just fine).  The best thing about these light and airy cheese puffs is that you can make them in advance, freeze them (uncooked) on baking sheets, them store them in zip-top bags in your freezer for weeks.  I pop them right onto a parchment lined baking sheet and into the oven with no defrosting at all.  They still rise beautifully and save lots of last minute work.  You can serve your gougères as is (perfect with a crisp, dry Champagne) or cut them open and pop in fillings like smoked salmon mousse, crumbly bacon and arugula, or smoked duck with cherry jam.  They really are the perfect appetizer. 

I have been making candy non-stop this holiday season.  I adore the candy thermometer I got for Christmas last year and it's helped me ensure perfection in all those batches of toffee, brittle, and bark.  Today, however, the esteemed food scientist Harold McGee writes, in The New York Times, about using your microwave to make all types of candy.  He says the heat in a microwave boils sugar syrup more quickly and evenly, avoiding the inevitable hot spots on the stove top that can cause scorching.   He judges doneness by color, instead of using a thermometer, and if the photo of this nut brittle is any indication, it comes out quite nice.  I'll admit, I don't own a microwave so this isn't a method I'll be testing any time soon but if you've shied away from making candy because the thermometer thing seems too overwhelming (it isn't, really), this could be a great place to start. 

Sticky buns and cinnamon rolls rank in my top five all time favorite foods.  Just like my mom, I've tried dozens of different recipes on the quest for perfection.  In today's Washington Post there is a Pecan Toffee Sticky Bun recipe that just jumped to the top of my list.  A brioche dough is coated in caramel like toffee sauce and loaded with cinnamon and pecans.  These take some time, I'm not going to lie-homemade buns like this are a labor of love.  I often do them for Christmas morning, making them the day before, refrigerating them (unbaked) overnight, and, after they come to room temp in the morning, I pop 'em in the oven.  Perfect after a marathon round of cleaning up gift wrap, taking photos, and drinking coffee. 

Happy Reading and Happy Cooking.  Enjoy the flavors of the holidays!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What I'm Reading Today

Cookies, Brittle, Peppermint Bark, and Toffee...I've been fitting in batches of baking anywhere and everywhere I can.  My candy thermometer and sil-pats are working over time cranking out homemade gifts for friends, teachers, and neighbors.  I love this time of year!!

The New York Times gathered handfuls of readers' cookie recipes and, after giving them a thorough test run,  published many today.  The paper's fave is this alternative to your basic sugar cookies, Rich Chocolate Cookies, made for rolling, cutting and decorating.  Some other lovely looking recipes are beautifully assembled here.  I'll definitely be adding Maple Vanilla Pizelles to my holiday assortment, shaking up the usual anise variety and hoping they're a welcome addition.

The LA Times assembled their own list of sorts, 22 Food Gifts to Give...and Keep for Yourself.  I love the adorable Snowflake Pretzel Rods as well as Almond Cherry Coconut Granola.  Both recipes are simple for anyone who normally shuns the idea of baking anything.  A trip to your local craft store will give you dozens of cute packaging ideas and, voila, before you know it you'll have knocked out all those extra gifts that were still on your list-UPS guy?  Check!  Dry Cleaners?  Check!   Dog Walker? Check!

Since I've been in nut brittle mode, making what I'm nicknaming "brittlicious" by the bucket full, I loved seeing this No Peanut Brittle in today's Washington Post.   Chock full of pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and pine nuts, it's a great alternative to the peanut version. I actually like the idea of small seeds and nuts, making room for more of the caramelized candy.  I always give mine a sprinkle of sea salt before it starts to cool but the tiny touch of chipotle powder in this recipe might be enough to amp things up on its own.  For your spiciest friends, this brittle is it.

Happy Reading and Happy Baking!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

My New York Italian Adventure

Last week I was lucky enough to spend three and a half days eating my way around some of New York's most delicious Italian restaurants.  I tagged along with my friend Annie who was doing a research trip on Roman food for her upcoming restaurant Locanda here in San Francisco.  We were breaking down the intricacies of dishes, checking out the table settings, looking at server uniforms, and doing it all in the name of "research"...can you think of a better business trip?  Nope, me neither.

We came to a few conclusions on this trip.  The first: "if the service is bad, neither great food or a longstanding reputation can make up for it" and the second: "more often than not, casual, home style dining satisfies infinitely more than white tablecloth fine dining".  Oh, and good Pasta all'Amatriciana needs lots of guanciale. 

Our absolute hands-down highlight meal was at a tiny spot in Nolita called Torrisi Italian Specialties.  The sandwich shop by day and 18 seat restaurant by night is truly a stunner.  The chef/owners spent their earlier years cooking for the likes of Daniel Bouloud and Mario Batali before opening Torrisi.  Their pedigrees shine through clearly, not in the fussiness of the food but in the meticulous attention to detail and the clean flavors of each and every bite.

Getting into Torrisi is a bit of an event.  The restaurant opens at 6 and only takes reservations on site, beginning at 5:45, for that night.  So you line up, in our case about 5pm, make friends with folks standing outside with you, and at 5:45 the host comes out and goes down the line, asking you when you want to eat.  You can hang out and eat right at 6 or, as we did, give her a later time and grab some drinks in the hood while you wait (a word of warning-don't eat anything before dinner, you'll be happy you showed up hungry).

We were a table of five and the host sat us right on time.  The dark wood tables are surrounded by shelves of Italian-American grocery products-Progresso bread crumbs, olive oil, and dried pastas.  The menu is set with no substitutions so be prepared to take what you get.  Each meal starts off with mixed antipasti, a selection of four appetizers brought to the table family style on small plates.  We had:
--Still-warm made-to-order mozzarella drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt, and served with amazing little garlic toasts. 
--Cucumbers New Yorkese: loved the name and LOVED the cukes!  These were cucumbers in five stages of pickling, sliced together and tossed in a light mustard vinaigrette.  Each bite had different flavors and textures and I could have taken home a gigantic jar of these babies...amazing
--Seafood salad: crisp green lettuce leaves tossed with a very fresh and clean tasting mixture of fish and shellfish.  It was lovely but, to me, got a bit lost in all the other big flavors on the table.
--Pork liver mousse with pretzel crostini and pickled red onions:  This disk of perfectly smooth mousse was French Laundry worthy-spread it on the toasted pretzel bread, top it with picked onions...mmmm

After the antipasti, there was a pasta course.  We had German Style Gnocchi served with shredded brussels sprouts, a vinegar brown butter sauce, and crispy rye bread crumbs.  The gnocchi were kind of cross between spaetzle and gnocchi, light as air and very acidic with that sauce.  I loved the rye bread crumbs and will add them to my own brussels sprouts next time I make them.

For entrees there are generally two choices and that night we were offered Devil's Chicken (a breast and thigh cooked until absolutely moist and bathed in a guajillo chile spiked sauce-served with homemade yogurt) or a crispy skinned trout fillet served with sunchoke hash.  They were also offering an additional "entree for two", a prime cut whole short rib, sliced and served on the bone (think Fred Flintstone my friends)-a $15 supplement to the regular menu.  We had all of the above and the highlight was absolutely that meat-the texture was succulent and the flavor simple and out of this world.  I should also mention we were grabbing every last bit of chicken we could off the plates on the table.

Before dessert they brought out a small cup of house made lemon Italian ice then came the plate of "pastries".   Modern interpretations on your Italian grandma's classes, the plate had five petite bites for each of us:
-a pinky sized cheesecake cup-graham cracker crust, cream cheese topping, and a dried cherry on top
-rainbow cookies: the red/green/white marzipan bars coated in chocolate at either end
-tiny profiteroles stuffed with walnut cream
-star-piped butter cookies dotted with chocolate and sea salt
-miniature cannoli made with pizzelles

I debated writing about this dinner because it was one of those nights where you finish a meal and know there is no possible way to describe how good it really was.  We called it "epic" and I stand by it.  After meals at Babbo, Lupa, Marea, and Mialino (plus two visits to Eataly), we experienced a few dining highs and many dining lows.  The meal at Torrisi was spot-on from beginning to end.  The service and food both shined and at $50 a head, it was worth every penny.  My only tiny criticism might be of the wine list...most bottles were from California and the price points seemed very high given the price of the food. 

Next time you find yourself in New York, spend your day enjoying every minute but by 5pm be sure to make your way to Mulberry street to get your name on the list for dinner at Torrisi.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What I'm Reading Today

I'm back!  After an amazing food adventure to New York last week (post to come), holiday madness has officially set in here.  I'm in a bit of denial but figure some time in the kitchen might just cure that right up.

Shrimp and Cilantro Shu Mai are gorgeous little steamed dumplings.  Mark Bittman, in today's New York Times, helps you realize that making them at home is no where near as difficult as you might think.  Won ton wrappers are easy to find, big supermarkets or your local Asian market will give you plenty of options.  With a very simple but well-seasoned filling of fresh shrimp, ginger, and toasty sesame oil, these dumplings can be made early in the day, covered with a lightly damp towel in the fridge, and steamed just before serving.  Bittman even has a video to walk you through the recipe.  Perfect party bites or great for dinner with sauteed pea shoots or snap peas. 

Does this cookie scream Christmas or what?  These Peppermint Meringues from The Washington Post (via Fine Cooking) are absolutely adorable snow-white kisses adorned with a dusting of crushed candy canes.  A few tricks on making your meringues bakery-worthy: have your egg whites at room temperature, whisk them in a very, very clean bowl, sift your powdered sugar so there isn't a lump in sight, and invest in a pastry bag with a big star tip.  Finally, the best meringues, and the ones that really do look this white, are baked in an obscenely low oven for a long time.  This recipe calls for 3 hours at 175 degrees...sounds nuts but once that heat goes up the cookies start to brown and wont look nearly as lovely.

Tis the season for indulging.  No matter how hard we try, over-doing it during the holidays is tough to avoid.  Some while you're baking cookies, sipping eggnog, frying latkes, or nibbling candy, make yourself a big ol' batch of this Lentil and Barley Stew from The Los Angeles Times.  In under an hour, this hearty stew, prepared right from pantry ingredients, comes together.  Toss a simple salad and you've got a fabulous dinner.  Extras will freeze beautifully too.  Love their idea of topping it with a bit of crumbled feta but look in your fridge and use whatever cheese you have on hand for that little something extra.  Healthful and tasty, we could all use a bit more of that this month, right?

Happy Reading and Happy Cooking!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Back Soon

"What I'm Reading Today" will be back in a few days with some delicious tidbits for you.

See you then!
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