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Saturday, December 18, 2010

TIS THE SEASON

It’s that time of year again. In November we give thanks for what we have. What we know. Part of that process is remembering to appreciate anew those that are present in our lives, and missing those that no longer are. Maybe we can be grateful for things too in addition to the people who add to our lives. An amazing sunset, a beautiful flower or piece of art or music can go a long way to helping to see how lovely life is. But since I retired and have the time to spend observing humanity I have to say that I just love the people! Oh not each individual and everything but the interesting and distinct personalities and thought processes. Wow! I am grateful for that!
But let’s face it; Thanksgiving is a holiday primarily about the food. A recent survey I saw stated that a large percentage of the respondents thought the side dishes were the best thing about the Thanksgiving meal. My reaction to that is “of course”. You can’t do that much with turkey. Okay, in recent years people have learned to grill, deep fry and stuff a turkey with duck and chicken (turducken?) Sounds fowl to me. So there is some added “creativity”, and I have heard people say they love the idea because it’s so unusual. Unusual is not always the best indicator of a good meal, I should think. In any case it’s usually still basically turkey and that is the preferred for the holiday.
What’s great about the sides is they do allow for a lot of variation. In this blog in past times I have featured a dish called root vegetable gratin. (Gastromusings ; Nov 22, 2008) It is wonderful tasting and everyone who has had it seems to love it. I love it because it not only utilizes vegetables that are currently in season and available, but also because they are vegetables that I normally don’t use that much. And I do love the different taste. So it’s a food holiday, really. One more reason to give thanks I suppose. That simplifies the whole process.
Speaking of simplification, desserts are pretty basic too. Regardless of how many types of ideas Gourmet, Bon Appétit, and Martha Stewart offer, the reality is most people prefer pie. And of that, pumpkin is the clear winner, backed up by other reliable favorites like pecan and apple pie. We always opt for pumpkin, since like so many foods associated with this holiday, it seems like this is the only time of year we have it. We and our dinner companions depend on certain things being the same year to year. It’s the tradition of course.
Here’s a mystery; why do we only eat those things on the holidays? Turkey, dressing, pumpkin pie are all available and good tasting all year round. I get it that when you rarely have something it makes it more special, but still, why not have dressing in say, June?
This year daughter Bonnie was prevailed upon to make her Harvest Pie. She made this pie for us some years ago before her life in the Bay area took her over and we have never forgotten how good it tasted. It qualifies as a fairly traditional dessert for the holiday, having apples, walnuts (or pecans) and cranberries, among other good things. Presumably I could have obtained the recipe and made it myself but I think it belongs to her and will only be good since she makes it.And, it definitely was!

Bonnie’s Harvest Pie
Serves 8
Pie crust for a 9” pie, unbaked.
For Filling
¾ cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
Pinch salt
2 lbs green apples, peeled, cored and cut into ¼” wedges
2 cups fresh cranberries
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
For Topping
½ cup(1 stick) butter
¾ cup brown sugar
2 tbsp evaporated milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Preheat oven to 350
Mix first 9 ingredients in large bowl to blend
Add apples, cranberries, lemon juice and toss until well blended
Pour into pie crust, mounding in center
Bake, approx 1 1’2 hours until apples are tender, then cover with
Foil and bake 15 minutes more
Place on rack uncovered to cool.
Topping
Melt butter with sugar and milk in a heavy medium skillet over low heat,
Stirring frequently. Increase heat to simmer, mix in vanilla,
Then walnuts. Remove from heat and Pour into a bowl and let stand 10 minutes
Until slightly thickened, stirring occasionally, about another 10 minutes.
Spoon over pie, covering completely. Let stand until topping sets approx 30 minutes
Can be prepared up to 6 hours ahead. Store at room temperature


Christmas Cake


In December the eating continues. We are in agreement that it is a lovely time to get together with friends and family and almost always over a meal, formal or informal. There’s lots of food, and a lot of it is special stuff that we don’t always have so is hard to resist. This is a time to get into the spirit and just enjoy what comes, so I try to-do just that. I will get healthy again in January, I vow.
It is my tradition at Christmastime to make a small cake/bread to give to family and friends. I usually agonize over the idea that I should try something new and start looking at appealing recipes around September. Invariably I give up in confusion around this time and end up making the same thing –wine cake. It’s not for lack of desire to branch out and it’s not because I can’t find any new and interesting recipes. I can’t give out something I haven’t tried and really, the holidays seem to be the worst possible time to try new stuff. One of the reasons is that we are already eating a lot! So adding to that seems undesirable. Then there’s the time crunch. By the time I come to the point that I must get to baking somehow it has gone from early Fall to mid-December!
Even when you’re not employed and don’t have small children somehow the days get eaten up and run out quickly. So it is an act of supreme will to try to bake something that may or may not be acceptable to give as a gift. However, this year I did that. I found a recipe that piqued my curiosity enough since it is so different. I just had to try it! It is Olive Oil Cake and since it sounded so tempting and so different I gave it a try. I baked five min-loaves as my test.
I have to say it is interesting. Steve my in-house taster/tester was not enthusiastic. I, however, liked it. It’s not real sweet and has a nice texture, and as mentioned, is quite different. So the question is does “different” translate into good enough to gift? We decided yes for the ones that were already baked. So a few of the regular recipients will receive those, and the rest will get my traditional Wine Cake. Oh well.

Olive Oil Cake
Ingredients:
For cake:

3 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 cup good‐quality extra‐virgin olive oil
¼ cup limoncello
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1 ½ cups all‐purpose flour
½ cup coarse‐ground cornmeal
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
Powdered sugar, for garnish


Procedure:
For cake:
Heat the oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in middle. Coat a 9‐inch round cake pan with olive oil and flour; tap out the excess. Or use, as I did 5 min-loaf pans.
In a bowl of stand mixer, whisk together eggs and granulated sugar until well blended and light in color. Add milk, olive oil, limoncello, and lemon zest and mix well.
In another bowl, stir together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Switch mixer attachment to paddle and add dry ingredients, mixing until just blended (the batter will be slightly lumpy; do not overmix).
Pour batter into the prepared baking dish or pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out with only a few crumbs, about 40 to 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool completely.
When the cake has cooled, run a knife around the perimeter of the pan and invert the cake onto a serving plate. Dust with powdered sugar.

The cake does benefit from a topping of fresh berries or a good jam spread.

Merry Christmas to all!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

CAPIROTADA
I have had a lifelong love affair with bread. So it should be no surprise that bread pudding is one of my favorite foods. Actually, there is no real need to explain loving bread pudding. It’s got to be the ultimate comfort food; chunks of bread combined with milk and eggs and sugar. It can be leftover plain bread, French bread, coffee cake, croissants; any type of leftover bread will suffice. And then there are the enhancements. I have had bread pudding combined with dried fruit, fresh fruit, chocolate, remarkable sauces - any number of wonderful and sometimes unexpected things. I keep wanting to make a savory bread pudding and have collected recipes over the years, but still haven't tried that. Now that actually would be the ultimate; it would be the meal and dessert all wrapped into a bowl!

But like with so many foods, and I suppose many things we love, in general I think it all comes back to memories. Pleasant associations with particular foods stay with us all. My memory is of my mother making something called capirotada. A Spanish name, it is a bread pudding which in the past was traditionally made at lent, when meat was not consumed and some ingenuity was need for all the meatless dishes. Or it was a “clean up” dish, a way of using up foods in preparation for the Lenten fast. Both stories persist. Like any dish, and particularly regional dishes, the recipe varies from family to family, but the one I remember had very specific ingredients and although there are many bread pudding styles, no other recipes are, to me, capirotada.
Even though bread pudding is traditionally something that is made to use up the leftover bread, the reality is that once you get past the basics of bread and egg custard, what makes it memorable are the other enhancements, the interesting ingredients that make one version stand apart from another.

As a child who was only interested in food - at the eating part and not at the making part - all I remember of the recipe is that it had nuts and bread and some other stuff and then a sauce made from what I thought was candy because it was hard but crumbly, tasted sweet and was in a cone shape. I now know that it is called piloncillo which translates into cone shape and that it is a type of brown sugar pressed into that shape. Since it was hard it needed to be combined with a little water until it dissolved and became a sort of syrup which was poured over other ingredients. Then everything was mixed together and baked and when it came out was a delicious and an unusual treat.

Unfortunately, that particular dessert, like so many of the desserts I remember my mother making in my early childhood, disappeared by the time I was about 10 or 12. At that point all of the other kids in my family had grown up and mostly gone away. I am the youngest and was the only one left at home. It’s not the same to cook and bake for just one kid as it is for a bunch, I know. Not as satisfying I am sure and definitely not as necessary. No doubt other elements entered into it like my mother’s age and energy level. And, I now know that as you get older sometimes those sorts of foods don’t have the same appeal as they did in the past. Whatever the reasons, the end result is that there were none of those beautiful and delicious desserts being baked that I remembered from my childhood.

And then I entered my teenage years. Dieting into extreme thinness was not as common then as it is now and I think culturally my generation of girls were allowed to be a little more well-rounded than teens are now. So in my teens it was more about eating what I wanted to eat, and what my friends ate when we were out. It had nothing to do with the foods my mother was cooking. Teenage-hood took me into a time when all I wanted was store-bought stuff like Oreo cookies and bakery cokes and candy bars and oh deserter, hard shell tacos. Hard shell tacos are an American invention. Mexicans typically eat tacos on soft tortillas. But tacos with a hard shell, also known to some as deep-fried tortillas, was the way fast food restaurants offered their tacos, when they had tacos. Deep-fried, the round tortilla was bent in half to form a firm container to hold fried hamburger, shredded lettuce, some cheese and a little salsa. I thought it was pretty good and most people at the time thought it was authentic Mexican food. Luckily Americans have since evolved, with some help, into an appreciation of more authentic cuisine, be it Mexican or any other.

In any case the stuff I was eating was not home food. In fact no relationship existed to home-style food and that’s what I really wanted at that time. It was a way of distancing myself from family and my background as adolescents will do. So capirotada and other good things my mother made faded into the background. I went away, got married, she got older and with all the implication of those events, over the years capirotada was the last thing any of us thought of.

Now, a few years after my mother’s death, I kick myself for not having been more aware; more aware in so many large ways and small. The small ones being the lack of talking about things like cherished recipes which embraced a childhood. In search of that childhood food, I decided to research and find a capirotada recipe that most resembles the one I remember. Fortunately for me, these days we have the internet, and all manner of lost objects are possible to find. I did find the lost recipe with those ingredients from a memory I cherish. It was interesting to see how many versions of capirotada there are. Sort of like how many versions of bread pudding there are.

Having outgrown that childhood delight with sugary things and the capirotada, my current bread pudding favorite is a more simple one. It has all usual ingredients; good bread, eggs, cream, sugar, vanilla, but also has chunks of chocolate and just a hint of cinnamon. A confession - I do not make it; I purchase it from a nearby Pacific Whey cafe whenever I need a fix. I have asked for the recipe to no avail, but don’t worry about it too much. I know where to go to get it, at least for now.




CAPIROTADA

4 day-old bollilos* (or 1 baguette) sliced crosswise*
1 cup brown sugar or piloncillo, crushed
½ cup of peanuts
½ cup of raisins
1 cup of mild cheddar cheese
2 cinnamon sticks
(* or toast fresh bread in oven before using)

Place the sugar or piloncillo, cinnamon and water in a saucepan. Heat gently stirring constantly until the sugar is dissolved. Bring the mixture to a boil then reduce the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes without stirring. Remove the cinnamon sticks.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8" square baking dish with butter. Layer the bread, nuts, raisins and cheese in the dish, pour on the syrup letting it soak into the bread. Bake the pudding for about 30 minutes until golden brown.

Remove the dish from the oven, let stand at least 5 minutes, cut into squares. Serve the pudding cold with some cream or crème anglais poured on top. garnish with sliced almonds.

*Billilos are Mexican rolls sort of like a crusty French roll but with a little sweetness to them – They are great with butter and your morning coffee.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

ROOTS
The invitation said “please come and join us in our annual celebration of Luzarica”. This is the event which Steve’s relatives refer to as Gospalazoria. Whatever the correct name, what I found out is the rough translation is Rosary or Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary which is typically observed on October 7th or the first Sunday in October.

That was two years ago and it would be our fifth year to attend this event put on by former residents of the Croatian village of Preko. It was to be the last time the event was held, which we didn’t know at the time. Our reason for being there was because of Steve’s family connection.

His grandparents emigrated from the the island of Preko Dalmatia, then part of Austria Hungary, today part of Croatia to the US in the early 20th century along with, seemingly, hundreds of others. Many ended up in Chicago, which is Steve’s birthplace and others ended up in San Pedro, California, the event location. The city is water close and many of the immigrants to San Pedro not surprisingly were from areas in their respective countries that were fishing communities. In that town, in addition to Croatia, the residents include transplants from Portugal, Italy and Mexico. San Pedro also is the location of Los Angeles Harbor and is primarily a blue collar enclave. Any other location in Southern California so close to the water and with such spectacular views would be totally unaffordable to most but perhaps the grittiness of the Harbor atmosphere has kept that from happening here. Every so often the city leaders try to revitalize the community but for the most part not too much changes. New buildings appear and then are somehow engulfed in the prevailing atmosphere. Driving there what is most apparent are the large cranes in the harbor, for all the world like giant tinker toys, which are used for unloading cargo ships from all over the world.

The party was held in a restaurant named Ante’s, owned by a man named Ante Perko and is hosted by Tony Mihatov both of whom are first generation Americans of Croatian descent. Ante's has been located in San Pedro since 1945 and is located, happily, on a street named Ante Perkov Way, not too far from the harbor but surrounded by industrial buildings and lots, for the most part. They bill themselves as presenting authentic Croatian cuisine prepared according to recipes carried by Ante from the sunny Dalmatian coast. The food and space are contributed so what the attendees pay for their luncheons become donations, along with any additional money they choose to give.

So this was the location for the gathering. It’s been an opportunity for the older folks to connect with each other since many of the attendees are of a generation that has fond memories of the old country. They remember that in the old country, the feast includes a procession through the village carrying a statue of Mary, for which everyone gathers.

Although Steve’s mom is typical of most of the attendees in age, she is one generation removed from the old country so the memories she has have handed down from her parents.

There is a food aspect to this of course, it being a luncheon. But it’s all about the family and nostalgia; it’s not about the food, which is the totally undistinguished standard banquet fare with the usual choices of beef, chicken or fish. It’s helpful for me to keep remembering that it’s for a good cause.

If there is a highlight to the food portion of the luncheon, at least for Steve and some others, it is the side dishes of pasta. This usually includes what I have come to know as Croatian dishes although they seem to have some other, Mediterranean influences. One is mostacolli, prepared with a tomato sauce which will sometimes include a touch of meat. It differs from an Italian version in that it feels more like a casserole dish than pasta. Steve’s greatest complaint about the mostacolli dish is that it always seems to be overcooked, made as it is as a casserole instead of what he would prefer, pasta tossed with light sauce. Then again there is the sauerkraut, which I personally have come to love. This is usually made with a prepared sauerkraut mixed with a tomato-ey sauce and sometimes includes sausage which flavors it only slightly. Then there is usually some sort of simple penne pasta with olive oil as a bone to the non-meat eaters, of which there are few, perhaps only one, me.

Normally I would be all for any event that is centered around food, but this is one I might have written off as a culinary disaster except for the grand finale - dessert. Or should I say desserts plural. At the appropriate time platters with a variety of the tantalizing bits are distributed to each table, something we all anticipate with delight. These aren’t your everyday regular desserts and they’re not fancy French style stuff either. This is down home stuff, not available anywhere else except the bakers’ kitchens and what can I say except they’re delightful. Like so many of these types of things for the most part they’re from a small circle of regulars, most of whom have strong accents as they are not that far removed from their roots. And, they do know their desserts. It’s a large selection, perhaps a dozen, and can include apple strudel which is brought in long rolls then sliced there just before serving. There’s a version of cheese strudel which is more like little individual pockets, small round fritters containing pine nuts and raisins and a baguette-sized ground-walnut-filled bread called oregnaca which is cut into slices and which would, in my opinion make an excellent breakfast bread. We all have our favorites it seems, although given how fast they disappear maybe they’re all everyone’s favorite or maybe it’s just that dessert always is. The most favored always seems to be the crustula, which is a light and airy cookie-like crunchy thing lightly dusted with powdered sugar. It’s hard to believe they’ve been fried to get to that lightness and airiness because they don’t taste fried. A tribute to the makers since it’s obvious that most of the desserts were made just that morning.

At some point before we disperse, some of the older folks, usually men will stand up and expound way too long about the old country and the beauty of Preko, the smell of the hills, etc. and our host will let us know how appreciated this event, and our money of course, is in the old country.

We don’t care at this point. We’ve had dessert, and some lucky ones even get to take some in a go-pack. Then it’s all done until next year.


As a sad footnote to this, unfortunately the planners of this event got to a point where they could no longer do it, and so it has been discontinued. I did want to honor the Festival by describing the celebration, and noting the date.


Mostaccioli
Mostaccioli is not something we usually make at our house. Steve has an aversion to it, probably because it’s not like the pasta he has come to love as an adult. That is to say, pasta that is cooked al dente and lightly sauced. That is not this dish. But to me this dish is the essence of a family staple, especially with kids. It is easy and quick to prepare, is filling, inexpensive and has a sort of mushy texture that many kids like, in my mom opinion.
There are a lot of recipes out there for mostaccioli, many of them baked which would also be worthwhile. The type that is served at Luzarica is more basic in that it might take something like a 16 oz size container of marinara or ragu style sauce, add ground meat or sausage and then is tossed with a pound of the cooked pasta. The sauce can be homemade or bought and more or less cheese can be added to the mix, as desired, then it can be put into the oven and heated or kept warm. That’s pretty much it.

Steve found a recipe for Crustula on line and here it is. I haven't tried it and maybe never will as I tend to stay away from making desserts. But who knows? Never say never, right?

For those who might be interested, here is the recipe.


CRUSTULA
• 3 eggs beaten
• 3 tablespoons sugar
• 1 tablespoon oil
• a pinch of salt
• 2 tablespoons whiskey
• approximately 2 cups of flour
• ---
• what you do for crustula:
• combine eggs, sugar, oil, salt, and whiskey.
• mix in enough flour to make a mixture thick enough to roll out like thin pie crust.
• slice into strips about 1/2 inch wide by 6 inches long.
• fry in skillet in medium hot oil until puffy and golden brown.
• turn over once and brown the other side.
• drain throughly in a colander, or your preferred method.
• sprinkle generously with powdered sugar.
• ---
• please note: the cookies will brown quickly, so watch them closely.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

LIFE IS BEAUTY FULL

And right now fruit full. I am grateful to see some signs of summer. The weather here by the beach has been dismal in all senses of the word – it is a record cool summer. However, it is late summer and very warm in the places where fruits and vegetables are grown here in California, so there are lots of beautiful choices at the farmer’s markets.

It seems that more farmers are growing heirloom tomatoes so I’ve observed that they are plentiful and cheaper than they usually are; almost down as far as regular tomatoes. And it’s officially fig season. The last couple of weeks the markets have had figs in abundance. The price doesn’t go down very much but the figs have been wonder full.

Then there are the peaches. I love peaches and fortunately for me, there are new varieties that extend their season. Admittedly some are better than others, but they are all good and in season here in California. No need to import from South America or New Zealand as they do during the winter months. I stay away from those. It just seems unnatural to have peaches in January.

But right now it is summer and with these beautiful fruits so available, I feel I must incorporate them into our eating as much as possible.
Peaches are just an eating fruit as far as we are concerned and really that’s the best way to appreciate their juiciness. The tomatoes either become a delicious pasta dish or grace a tomato galette, which was the centerpiece of a meal this weekend. We had some of our flag crew at our house on Labor Day. The flag crew is a dedicated group of volunteers who put out (what else?) American flags on each National holiday along the highway though the Corona Del Mar business district. The flags are put out at 6:00 am and gathered up by 6:00 p.m. The group varies; some are able to participate on the morning crew and others in the evening, although some do both. It’s a lovely sight to see all 100 or so flags fluttering in the breeze!

So, end of summer, lots of good tomatoes and the tomato galette is ideal for a get-together after an event; it can be baked ahead and doesn’t suffer for it.
We have used a lot more figs this season. Not sure why but they seem to be plentiful and delicious. I have put them into a small appetizer- sized salad with butter lettuce, good quality blue cheese and bits of prosciutto dressed with a honey, lemon and olive oil dressing.

For the Labor Day fete, we served them halved and wrapped with prosciutto as appetizers and everyone seemed to enjoy them, at least there were none left. That’s also a make-ahead item. We are enjoying them as much as possible.
If I was a pizza maker I would use them the way restaurant Sage does, on a pizza or flatbread with prosciutto. Alas, no pizza oven. And actually probably a good thing. I could become addicted.

Last week, looking for more uses, I found a pasta recipe where figs sort of substitute for raisins in a mix of garlicky spinach and are added to bow tie pasta. Wow what a great recipe and flavors. Life is beauty full and fruit-full.


Bowtie Pasta with Garlicky Spinach and Roasted Figs
4 servings

6 large ripe figs or 8 smaller ones cut in half lengthwise
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
½ lb bow ties
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
10 ounces fresh spinach, stems removed, washed and dried and
coarsely chopped
preheat oven to 450 line a small roasting pan or cookie sheet with aluminum foil or parchment; place the figs on the foil, cut side up. Roast until tender and just starting to brown, 6-8 minutes. Remove from oven, cover lightly and keep warm
cook bow ties per package directions
While the pasta is cooking, heat the oil in a medium sized skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and spinach. Cook, stirring until the spinach is tender, about 5 minutes. Drain the pasta, add to the skillet with the spinach and toss well to combine. Transfer to individual serving bowls. Arrange roasted figs over each serving. Serve immediately

NOTES: I served this with freshly grated parmesan cheese which seemed to go well with it. I also used more figs than were called for since I had an abundance, and quartered them instead of halved. Be careful not to overcook the figs. I used packaged spinach for the convenience. You could probably add pine nuts or walnuts to this dish although I did not. The traditional recipe for garlicky spinach and raisins does call for pine nuts.
All in all this is a very simple to prepare dish and turned out delicious! This is from an old cookbook called Pasta Verde and now I wonder why I never tried this recipe before. If you like figs I highly recommend it.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


The Kids are All Right

Last month we traveled up to see Daughter in the Bay area. I highly recommend having your children go away to school someplace interesting that you might want to visit over the years, since frequently they seem to remain there even after graduation. It’s a good return on investment. In her case it was Berkeley. Berkeley is, as we who love food understand, the center of the universe for foodies, having as it does the famous Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, among other good things. But, I digress.

Instead of doing “staycations” this year we are doing mini-vacations at intervals. Going to see Bonnie and her partner, Jeff, was a handy excuse. We stayed at a large hotel and spa in the Berkeley Hills called the Claremont; one of those old, classic looking places that give you a sense of being old money, if only for the weekend. We were familiar with the area in which the hotel is located and that is part of the attraction. The daughter used to live in a co-op nearby and I got used to being able, when I stayed over, to amble over to Peets Coffee and the Bread Garden, an amazing organic bakery with brioche and other good things. And a bit further down the road is the Elmwood area, a couple of blocks of clever shops, food emporiums, coffee places and restaurants. We noted that if we lived in Berkeley that’s the area where we would want to live.

The purpose of the visit was seeing the kids, but it provided us with a chance to stay in a nice place (with fabulous Bay views) and indulge in some good meals. And, it always nice to get away, even if just for a short while.
We got into town on Saturday and Bonnie and Jeff came up to the hotel at dinner time and from there we walked the approximately ½ mile to Elmwood for a casual Italian meal. It was one of the small local places and good while not particularly notable. Although we did have pizza as an appetizer and I think you can’t go too far wrong when there’s pizza.

The next morning we went to Jeff and Bonnie’s place for brunch. She has perfected the art of brunch. They live in a small house that doesn’t have a lot of space inside but does have a large yard and mature trees which are perfect for outdoor meals. So she tells me that brunch works out well for entertaining their friends. And in that process, she has developed a lot of good recipes. Our brunch consisted of a lovely egg bake, a savory dish, assorted breads, a fruit salad and a choice of mimosa or plain prosecco as well as coffee to drink.
They have a lot of friends that we have become familiar with over the years and one of them. a lovely woman named Maggie, came by when we were there and brought some fresh pastries. Since they live in an area that has such a good food emphasis, everything was as fresh and delicious as you could ask for.

That evening included Nicole and we went to a new restaurant named Gather in Berkeley that is garnering attention for its emphasis on locally produced foodstuffs. That's us sitting in the patio with all our food already eaten. They feature a lot of vegetarian and vegan or gluten free items which are identified as such on the menu. However they also have a couple of meat and fish dishes for those who would eat that and everything is organic. Their emphasis is on knowing the provenance of each item featured on the menu, and letting diners know that as well. After all, we should know where are food comes from, shouldn’t we? The New York Times review states “Gather has the feel of a Michael Pollan book come to life” which pretty much says it all. Their website lists their purveyors for anyone who would ask. I don’t need to specify all our dinner selections but I must mention our starter which was so unusual I can’t not think about it. It was a vegetable charcuterie, which I acknowledge is an oxymoron since charcuterie is meat. This consisted of a plate with five appetizer type selections each consisting of different sorts of vegetables and sauces. For example, one was a sort of roasted eggplant and one was something with zucchinis, one was mushrooms etc. All were cooked in some interesting way with sauces and other ingredients which made them hard to easily identify but all very delicious. In my ideal world those kinds of vegetable dishes would be available at every restaurant but I do realize that’s unrealistic. Unless we move to the Bay area or New York City or someplace like that, that is.
It was a good to spend time with the kids and to getaway and I came away with the recipe for Bonnie’s egg bake. I haven’t made it yet but I plan to one day as it was delicious and unique, with its crust made from shredded potatoes. The kids are very social and have interesting and lovely friends and I love their idea of brunch as a way to entertain when there is limited space. It is less expensive than dinner and works well for people who might live a distance away. And, I enjoy champagne and prosecco, both of which are uniquely suited for brunches, with or without the addition of juice.


Hashed Browns Quiche
This calls for a cast-iron skillet, but it can also be made in a quiche pan or pie plate. Just transfer the potato mixture from the skillet and press it over the bottom and up the sides. Can be servedwith sliced tomatoes garnished with parsley.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium-size onion, finely chopped (1/2 cup)
5 medium-size potatoes, (1½ pounds), scrubbed and shredded (see Note)
3 large eggs
1½ cups heavy cream or one 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
Freshly ground pepper to taste
4 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded (1 cup)Bonnie substituted smoked cheese
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley Paprika
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1.
1. Heat oil in a cast-iron skillet. Add onion and cook until translucent. Add potatoes, cover skillet with a lid and cook 5 to 7 minutes over low heat, stirring 2 or 3 times until potatoes are translucent and slightly browned.
2. Meanwhile whisk eggs, cream, soy sauce, mustard and pepper in a bowl or process in a food processor or blender until smooth.
3. Heat oven to 350°F.
4. Remove skillet from heat. Using a spatula or wooden spoon, press potatoes over bottom and up sides like a pie crust. Pour egg mixture into crust. Sprinkle evenly with Cheddar cheese, chopped parsley, paprika, then Parmesan cheese.
5. Bake 40 to 45 minutes until filling is set, crust is browned and cheese is bubbly. Cut in wedges to serve.
• Makes 6 servings.
NOTE: substitute packaged shredded potatoes

Friday, July 30, 2010

Life Goes On

In the last week or so I have been occupied by attending a funeral, and by cooking for friends. These two concepts are not as unrelated as you might think. The death of an extended relative was, as they say, expected. Nonetheless, it was sad, but seemingly part of the cycle of life. Somehow I seem to have reached a point in life where I am seeing more of these types of occurrences; deaths and various family tragedies. It seems soon to have these things be happening but maybe I am just fortunate in that I have not had that much experience with that during my lifetime. My parents died some years ago but thoughtlessly I considered it logical because they were OLD. That’s what happens when you’re old. We’re not old and yet we are seeing that around us. Perhaps it’s part of aging – getting used to things like illness, disabilities, and death gradually. After all, Boomers belief to the contrary, no one gets out alive.

But an antidote for all these sad things is cooking. And cooking for friends is particularly special. Food is, we acknowledge, life affirming. Maybe more than that; life giving.

So last weekend we invited friend Bill for an overnight stay. He lives just far enough away that driving home after dinner and wine drinking is possible but not advisable. Along with Bill we invited our neighbor Larry and next door neighbor Caroline. This made for an interesting mix of personalities and ages. Bill is an LA Westside Liberal; Larry is an OC conservative, although we know no one is 100% one thing or another, thank goodness. Caroline is an older woman who has lived a full life and is an interesting person because of that.

I had it in my mind to fix a pasta dish recipe that I have had for years, and I always enjoy it, which was the primary incentive. And it is one of those dishes that reflect the season well, including as it does, lots of summer vegetables. As the seasons change, I try to make one or two recipes that take advantage of the bounty of the time of the year. It’s hard to let a summer go by without making at least one tomato tart and one apricot galette. Not this time but soon, I hope.

The weather behaved enough for us to dine out in the patio. We have lately been plagued with an extension of our “May Gray” and “June Gloom”. As far as I know no one had yet figured out a name for the July marine layer but I’m sure sooner or later one of those TV weather anchors will. However it was pleasant enough and after accompanying our starter with some Mumm’s champagne that Bill brought we didn’t think too much about the weather. Our starter was a charcuterie plate that Steve assembled along with some thin breadsticks, marcona almonds and miscellaneous olives. He also put together a delicious and light salad of arugula, pears, asiago cheese and toasted walnuts – heavenly! Since Rose’ seems to be that wine of the moment, we decided to try some with our main course. The wine was flavorful and pretty to look at and went well with the dinner.

Ahh the pasta. This pasta dish has a lovely presentation, topped as it is, with chopped fresh tomatoes and basil. The vegetables are pretty basic vegs but since they proliferate this time of year I always assume they are at their most flavorful. Since I do not have a garden I make sure I get them at my Farmer's Market. I couldn’t help including a couple of heirloom tomatoes into the tomato mix which gave them an additional attraction.

Everyone seemed to really enjoy the pasta and the flavorful way veggies were included. I always love it and this time was no exception. I may have been extra generous with the garlic and think it really added a lot to the flavor, as garlic is wont to do. The presentation is lovely with the colors of the veggies and the red and green of the tomatoes and basil. And it is surprisingly light.

Ligurian Style Spaghetti with zucchini, carrots and chopped fresh tomato.

4 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
¼ cup plus 1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, pressed or finely minced
1 small onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into small julienne strips
3 medium zucchini, ends discarded and cut into small julienned strips
3 yellow summer squash, ends discarded and cut into small julienne strips
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus extra for seasoning
1 lb dry spaghetti or linguine
Freshly grated parmesan cheese

In a small bowl combine the tomatoes with 1 teaspoon of the basil, 1 tablespoon of the parsley and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Set aside
Heat the remaining 1/3 cup olive oil in a medium size skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, onion and carrot, salt to taste. Cook, stirring frequently until the carrots start getting soft, around 10 minutes. Add the zucchini and summer squash; salt to taste and continue cooking 10 minutes or longer. Turn off the heat, stir in remaining basil and parsley, cover and set aside.

Meanwhile bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat, add the salt and the spaghetti, cook, stirring frequently until the pasta is tender but firm, al dente, according to package directions.
Drain the pasta, add to the skillet with the vegetables, toss well to combine. Add salt to taste. Serve in individual preheated bowls. Top each serving with some of the tomato mixture, serve with parmesan.

This makes 4 -6 servings.
Make ahead -The vegetables can be cooked earlier in the day and heated up when the pasta is cooked.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day musings

and Mothers' Day past
And I am a mother. I am a mother of the type who could do without the holiday, viewing it as a Hallmark- invented day. My children (or as someone once said, “I don’t have children, I have adults”) are located a distance away so the day is not really significant for me. That said, I have fond memories of, as an adult, spending the day with my mother in celebration. And, if truth be known, also have fun and amusing memories of my children doing the breakfast in bed thing when they were maybe 5, 6 years old. Thoughts of those times still make me smile; undercooked sausage, overcooked eggs, soggy toast. Like recipes, those experiences are more than the sum of their parts. There is great joy in the memories.
Moms are not supposed to cook on Mother’s Day as we are to be treated ceremoniously. This has less impact when kids are grown and cooking becomes pretty optional anyway. Still, dinner out is the tradition. I believe that Mother’s Day is the biggest restaurant day of the year, just behind Valentine’s Day.


A couple of weeks ago at the actual holiday for one moment I thought of doing some cooking. There are some recipes that come to my attention that just don’t feel appropriate for the two of us alone. Too much food, or fat and calories, or perhaps that amounts to the same thing. But recipe curiosity requires an occasion to share the dish, and here it was. Mother’s Day and a family get together. The plan was to go to Steve’s mom’s house and have a celebration there. I originally thought to help in the preparation and offered to make a dish -the new recipe!

It was not the sort of thing that I normally could get excited about. Maybe it was just the challenge. I already have a corn pudding recipe that I have in the past verbally slighted because it seems so ordinary. Yet, everyone who has ever tasted it loves it. It’s very popular, and I like popularity as much as the next person.

But corn pudding is not something I look for yet more versions of.
However, in reading a recent book, a food memoir The Gastronomy of Marriage; a memoir of Food and Love by michelle Maisto, I came upon her corn pudding recipe, with the explanation of how effortless it was. Then, coincidentally while still reading the book, I was visiting with friend Dina, and mentioned the recipe from the book, upon which she said “oh, that’s like the corn casserole recipe I have” and sure enough, it was similar except for the addition of sour cream and a few small differences. So now I have a conundrum; which one to try, if either? Well, it was clear to me that I needed to try both just to compare. Mother’s day seemed like the ideal These days we frequently spend a holiday like this with Steve’s mom, who is still going relatively strong at the age of 92. In years past it has been an occasion to take her out to dinner. Never on the actual day though, we try to celebrate the day or so prior to avoid the crowds and the “special” menu. This year she and sister Therese decided to have a family dinner at her house which really makes sense.


Then, as it turned out, events precluded me from making either one for the occasion. I did not, however, take this as a sign that there were too many things working against this dish and to just give up on it. No, it just seemed to me that this recipe must be made in its new incarnation and it appears to be a weeknight treat just for Steve and I. Steve actually likes the original corn pudding because as I said, everyone does. Really, when I think of it something that is this basic probably should be a weeknight meal.

So even though I first became intrigued by the idea of the “jiffy”version through the book and therefore could have done the Gastronomy of Marriage recipe , I decided to try my friend Dina’s first on a recent Tuesday evening. It was, shall I say, interesting. Actually it was pretty easy and a little more substantial than my original corn pudding. Was it better? Or better enough to throw my original recipe aside and switch loyalty? No. But it is basic and good. I imagine that if these versions were the first I had tried I might be more enthusiastic about them.



Aunt Bev's Corn Casserole from Dina

Preheat oven to 400
1 can whole kernel corn*
1 can cream style corn
1 box "Jiffy" corn muffin mix
1 cup sour cream
½ stick butter, melted

Mix the corn, sour cream, melted butter, and finally add the muffin mix until just combined

Bake at 400 degrees for about 30- 45 minutes.

A casserole dish turns out like a souffle; an 8 x 11 pan turns out somewhat firmer. (Annie, I use the casserole dish)

(* I used 16 oz pkg frozen whole kernel corn, thawed)
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Corn pudding from the Gastronomy of Marriage

2 eggs
16 oz can whole kernel corn
1 16 oz. can cream style corn
1 box "Jiffy" corn muffin mix
1/2 stick butter, melted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium size bowl beat the eggs and then add the corn, creamed corn, butter and muffin mix. Stir until just combined.

Bake in 8” X 8” dish for 20 to 25 minutes until the top is golden and an inserted toothpick comes out clean.



Either or all appropriate for Memorial Day/long weekend celebration.

Remember and enjoy

Friday, April 30, 2010

Food fights back

Or something like that. Perhaps it’s the body that fights back, or so it has seemed lately.

Food used to be one of my best friends, but not anymore. It’s not by chance that I have been writing this blog which is about food and family and friends. The premise of so much of food writing from Elizabeth David to MFK Fisher to Julia Child is that food is inextricably linked to us, to our families and relationships and lives. so it’s hard to remove myself. I like food as much as I ever did, but it seems to not like me so much. Various foods cause reactions that I don’t recall having had in the past. This could be a product of my brain aneurism, and resulting chemical changes, or as simple as a natural consequence of getting older. Whatever, something is different.

For most of my life, I could eat a really varied diet of stuff, sweets, fried stuff etc. I’ve not been a junk food addict since I passed puberty but I know that a lot of the stuff I could indulge in wasn't necessarily the healthiest.
Steve remembers one time when we were dating and I suggested going to a patio café I loved. At that point he did not know me well enough to see me as the healthy-eater I would later become, so had no preconceived ideas of what I might order. Still he admits to being taken aback when I ordered what we now refer to as "all that fried stuff". this spread was comprised of zucchini, mozzarella, chicken bits, and mushrooms all battered and deep-fried and served with complementary sauces/dips like ranch dressing for the zucchini, for example. So not exactly healthy eating. it was a one-time thing; not making a daily habit of it, is what made it so special and appealing. Anyway, I don’t recall that I had any reactions to all the fried stuff than.

Nowadays though,just to complicate things further, after leaving the hospital from my aneurism last year, I started having strange pains in my right side and back. Making a long story short, it turned out to be gallstones and gall bladder issues which resulted in a recent laparoscopic cholecystectomy which is a surgery to remove the gall bladder. The gallbladder is, as you might know, directly related to digestion. So messing with that is bound to directly influence food and food choices. That was a few weeks ago and I am now going through the adjustment period. Or maybe it’s just the way things are now. This could be my new reality.
So here is the question. What can I eat and what can’t I eat and still feel okay and not be offensive around others? The only real information I received about diet is to avoid or limit fats, oils and sweets. Recommended are whole grain bread, cereal, rice and whole grain pasta as well as dark green vegetables and lean meat, poultry and fish. In other words, what is generally considered a healthy diet. But, right now it is all a grand experiment. I have noted that ½ and ½ in my (decaf) coffee causes me some distress so it was one of the first things to go. I discovered my coffee shop has non-fat milk too! Who knows, I may try soy milk next. I guess no one changes unless they have to. What I kinda resent is that for the most part this is how I normally have eaten for the last few years. I figured that if I ate so healthy most of the time I was owed a few treats from time to time. These would consist of the occasional glass of wine (or two), one or two decadent desserts in a week. Tiramisu probably doesn’t qualify as healthy by the stretch of anyone’s imagination but once a month or so, how bad can it be? I guess that is what I will find out in this continuing adventure that is life. So, dear ones, no new recipes for delectable stuff this time. at least not yet. stay tuned.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Easting Out

I love to eat “out”. Eating out in a restaurant makes life seem nicer somehow. Even a casual place, for pizza or Chinese somehow adds a glow to the process of eating to me. That’s the idea that they promote of course, selling us on the idea of having that certain feeling when we’re there. And each restaurant promotes their own particular brand of feeling or ambiance. The name sometimes gives it away. For example a “trattoria” is generally Italian and informal. It’s important to be aware that the American version of these sorts of names does not of necessity reflect the version encountered in another country. A bistro in America can appear as anything from a small intimate family owned place to a glossy chain owned by a conglomerate. Even though a similar restaurant in France by definition would be a small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in an unpretentious setting.

But never mind. I accept the manufactured tone; at least I do if it’s not too blatant. A place specializing in seafood should have a few fish and seabird type visuals scattered around, assuming they’re tasteful. And if said seafood restaurant is located by the water, so much the better. I can get into the mood they’ve set if the fish is good. Better yet, with a glass of wine in my hand and if bread is good, I am predisposed to like the fish. My favorite fish restaurant, Bluewater Grill, has seasonal menu changes which I like. In the fall it is spiney lobster season for example. Who doesn’t enjoy something that only has a season, that isn’t available at all times? That’s the basic concept behind vacation and holidays, isn’t it?

If not having to cook and having many choices isn’t reason enough to like going out to eat, eating out is fun. There are all kinds of people around that aren’t in your dining room, or if you’re the TV-tray type diner, in your living room. Not in mine, at least. So watching people, the family dynamics, couples conversations, the lively singles groups, is entertaining. How they dress, what they drink, how they focus on one another, or don’t. I’m more fun when I go out to eat. Or at least I think I am which could be the effect of the wine. I sparkle, I introduce conversational gambits, I amuse. I like myself when I’m eating out because I am so “on” which I think is the least a person can do for an occasion.

But mostly, I like eating out because the food is so good. In selecting the restaurant the food is pre-selected of course so I am predisposed to like it. In making a restaurant choice I mostly know what to expect. It’s about the food and/or the experience. Note I put the food first since why would anyone go somewhere for mediocre food? The pizza type meals are those that I count on to always be the same; dependable and good. The finer dining I count on to be good to excellent but not necessarily dependable in the same way. I want new experiences, new choices, but of course expect them to always be good and sometimes I am surprised with how exceptional the dishes turn out. So if I needed another reason, I would say that it’s not possible to be a good cook without eating out – it’s necessary to experience great food to have a knowledgeable viewpoint As if I needed another reason.

On weekends we invariably will cook in one night, usually but not always me, and go out one night, usually but not always on Sunday night. This weekend was no exception.
Sunday evening we went to one of my favorite places, Sage on the Coast, which is, appropriately, on the Coast at Crystal Cove. It is one of those places I have enough familiarity with that I have a sense of expectation when we go there. Perversely I want the things I have had in the past that I enjoyed so much, like the risotto cakes or fig and gorgonzola pizza appetizer. But the disappointing and great thing about Sage is they have a seasonal menu so there are always new things to try and experience; rendering the familiar as things of the past. Sad when I have my taster set for gorgonzola pizza but I know that whatever they do have will reflect the currently available stuff at the farmers market, done up in new and interesting ways. Their lovely patio and atmosphere makes extra worthwhile. Sadly, while there we spoke with chef Rich Mead who told us they will be going away and the location will be operated as a different restaurant. Bummer for us fans but fortunately Sage in Eastbluff will still be open. Not on the coast but still Rich mead’s lovely food and close by. And, there is a patio there too.

My Saturday night home cooking selection was a fennel and tomato gratin that I have had in my repertoire for a number of years. I originally tried it as a side dish for the big family thanksgiving feast, only to find that its lightness and originality, which was its charm for me, was not appreciated by most. Still, we like it. I think it would make a good chunky sauce mixed with a penne pasta or like I did this time, as a side for baked fish. However I did discover why I don’t make it that often – there’s a lot of cutting up of the fennel, which is required so as not to have big chunks. Other than that it’s an easy recipe and tastes really good too.

Gratin of Fennel and tomatoes

3/4 cup dried bread crumbs
5 Tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large yellow onion (about 12 oz), halved, and cut into 1/4-inch slices
6 fennel bulbs, trimmed of stalks, halved, cored, and cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes, drained
1 tsp kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano
Minced zest of 1 lemon

In an 8-inch skillet over medium-high heat, toast the bread crumbs, stirring constantly, until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a 12-inch sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat, and swirl to coat the pan. Sauté the garlic and onion until soft, but not brown, about 3 minutes. Add the fennel and continue sautéing, stirring frequently, until the fennel has softened and is beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt, and pepper to taste. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes longer. Transfer to a shallow oven-to-table casserole or gratin dish.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine the bread crumbs, Parmesan, and lemon zest. Sprinkle evenly over the fennel mixture. (The gratin can be made up to this point 6 to 8 hours ahead. Cover, and set aside at room temperature.)
Bake the gratin until heated through and the topping is crisp, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.
Serves 10

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Soup!

As the saying goes, everyone talks (or complains) about the weather but no one does anything about it. Weather talk does make a handy conversation starter. Where I live it’s somewhat less of an issue than some places – but even in the absence of extreme snowstorms, tornadoes and earthquakes, we can find something to complain about. The last few weeks have had more than our share of rain, which in Southern California is an anomaly and welcomed only by some.
However the last few days in Orange County have been bright and sunny. We’ve had a spell of very warm weather considering its February, much to the gratitude of those whose homes lie in the path of mudslifes and flooding. And to the rest of us who much prefer sun to rain and dark days, even if we don’t have those particular concerns.
No doubt the cool weather will return and prevail for a while longer. I keep reminding myself that when it is winter it has to act that way. Summer will come again. During the coolness I understand how the coffee culture came to be invented in cold places like Seattle. Being indoors with a hot drink is a perfect antidote for damp surroundings. Other perfect things are comfort foods like risotto and spicy foods like Mexican dishes. But for something lighter and just as satisfying there’s soup, which typically will have less carbohydrates and fat or other things that might not agree with your digestive system.
Over the years I have accumulated a fair number of soup and stew recipes. However, as with most recipes, or most things maybe, it’s always easy to fall back on the known and familiar,like Au Pistou which is very forgiving since it has a variety of ingredients, and always tastes wonderful. So I keep making a few of them over and over, then in some cases I don’t even make the attempt. For example since I have an excellent clam chowder source I don’t even have to try making that.
Under all circumstances the type of recipe that appeals to me to take on is usually something that is not commonly available. With soup this has become more and more of a challenge since now there are so many places to obtain fresh good soup to take away. Most grocery stores have a nice selection and we’re not just talking about places like Whole Foods Market or small places like my neighborhood Zinc Market and Café. Even Trader Joes has some pretty good soups like the butternut squash and the roasted tomato, though they are packaged and not fresh. During our recent rainy spell, I made a soup of the type I love if I am even going to bother with it; one that is less common and that I have not seen around. I prefer a dish that has a lot of chunkiness to it with fresh vegetables. All kinds of vegetables but I particularly love root vegetables probably because you don’t see them used in recipes as much although I will say that they appear to have gained favor in the last few years. It must be the influence of celebrity chefs who focus on seasonal and local foods.
Surprisingly, I have had this recipe for years, but not made it. For some reason (cold rainy weather?) as I was leafing through my binder of possibilities it just jumped out at me that day. so I prepared it for us and our friend Larry, who came to share our meal. He brought a nice bottle of Pinot Noir which complemented the dish perfectly. I baked cornbread to go with the soup which did taste good, but in retrospect I think that a crusty artisanal bread might have been a better choice. To dip in the broth, you know.




Root Vegetable Soup with Lentils & Gruyere
Ingredients
1. 1 cup green lentils
2. Salt
3. 1/4 lb pancetta, sliced 1/4 inch thick and finely diced
4. 6 garlic cloves, finely minced
5. 3 carrots, finely diced
6. 2 celery ribs,diced
7. 1 onion, diced
8. 2 medium red potatoes
9. 11/2 cup diced peeled butternut squash
10. ½ cup fdiced peeled rutabaga (1 lg)
11. ½ cup diced peeled parsnip (2)
12. ½ cup diced peeled turnip (1)
13. Freshly ground pepper
14. 3 quarts chicken stock or canned low-sodium broth
15. 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
16. 2 tablespoons chopped thyme
17. 1/4 pound Gruyère, thinly shaved
18. 1 tablespoon olive oil

Directions
1. In a small saucepan, cover the lentils with 1-2 inches of water and add a large pinch of salt. Cover and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain.
2. In a large saucepan, cook the pancetta over moderately low heat, stirring, until most of the fat has been rendered, about 8 minutes. Add olive oil to the pan and then then garlic and, onion, and cook over moderately high heat for 2 minutes, then add carrots, celery and root vegetables stirring to coat with fat. Season with salt and pepper and cook until the vegetables soften, about 10 minutes longer. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes
3. Stir in the lentils, parsley and thyme and season with salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into bowls, top with Gruyère shavings and serve piping hot.

The soup can be made ahead and refrigerated for 3 days. Make ahead is another one of the big advantages to soup. In most cases it is improved by the sitting.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fish Tacos

I will admit to being, shall I say, a trifle obsessive. That is, when I get interested or focused on a particular item, I will pursue it completely. This can occur with clothing, home decor, or more to the point here, with food.
Right now and for the last few months it’s been fish tacos. Fish tacos are just another type of taco, but as their own category really were virtually unheard of up until just a few years ago. The type of fish tacos I am talking about and captivated by are a new and improved type. They are commonly found in places like Baja (California) and sometimes considered “street food”, discovered by surfers and voyagers of that type.
Briefly, they consist of a warmed soft tortilla laden with thinly sliced cabbage and/or lettuce, a type of salsa known as “pico de gallo” which is usually fresh chopped tomato, onion and jalapeno peppers, served with a nice piece of grilled fish. Frequently served open-faced rather than rolled up, It’s light and healthy food! And when done right, delicious! New to Americans, no doubt Mexicans have been eating these for years. As the story goes about the discovery of this type of taco, my understanding is that on their trips south of the border, the surfer types so enjoyed the casual, delicious tacos they had that they created the market for them here, saying “why don’t we have something like this at home?” All of the rest of us benefit from their productive musing.
In my area the originators (or so we believe) are the Wahoos people. The owners of Wahoos fit the surfer mode and were also fortunate enough to be a part of a restaurant family when growing up so they had the background and business acumen to make it happen. The Wahoos tacos are some of the simplest of this category of taco. They have stayed true to the Baja/surfer roots. The Wahoos chain also offers other types of Mexican dishes but doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what they are; fast food with healthy and light touch.
Of course once something is successful, others will imitate; unfortunately it’s not just as easy as putting fish on a tortilla. The essence of this type of taco is for it to be light and healthy along with flavorful. There are many imitators who have added breading to the fish, and cheese to the finished product. But really, the trick is to keep it flavorful while simple. Not an easy task.
We have eaten fish tacos at different “healthy Mex” type of places. They’re usually not bad, but not necessarily great. Originally I took Wahoos as my template as to what a good “Baja” fish taco should be.
With that in mind, Steve and I have indulged in fish tacos in a number of places. We have a local place, La Fogata, within walking distance that is not part of a chain and considers itself healthy Mex. theirs has breading and some sort of spice that I don’t like though Steve likes them well enough so we go back. As a substitute I usually have their shrimp tacos which taste good even though they’re strictly not fish tacos. They also have a grilled veggie taco which is pretty good. Oh and the other thing Steve seems to like so well there is the condiment bar. Most Mexican places have them. Usually included are two or more types of salsas (hot sauce) sometimes cilantro (coriander) sometimes chopped onions. This one has all of that and also a pico de gallo salsa and a fresh corn salsa which consists of tomatos, onions, peppers and corn – sort of like a corn salad. This is s like a lagniappe for Steve. The tacos come on two colored tortillas, one of which I believe to be spinach so that gives it an additional healthy feeling.

That said, we recently discovered a new place in our area which now has most of our fish taco business. Unfortunately, not as close as La Fogata, and not as well known as Wahoos, but no matter. I am convinced theirs are the most delicious tacos I have ever had. The place is named Bear Flag Fish Company http://bearflagfishco.com and as the story goes started out as a fish market and expanded to include a few cooked items such as fish tacos, and other things that sound good like rice bowls with fish, fish sandwiches on C’est si Bon baguettes and other things, I guess. But I can’t get past the tacos, they’re so good! Theirs are made with a fish named Basa which I have never before seen or had. They grill the Basa so it tastes and looks like grilled fish with little charred edges and place it on a soft corn tortilla along withsome shredded cabbage and pico de gallo salsa, and avocado by request. It’s a testament to the place that I am willing to sit in a crowded noisy place with only communal tables to sit at and still enjoy the meal and keep going back. Although I admit that I will try to avoid Taco Tuesday from now on.

It’s now become sort of a challenge to see who has a really good version of fish tacos. The other helpful feature is that they are usually pretty low-priced so a good weekday meal. In the continuing experiment we have tried the fish tacos at our regular Friday night restaurant, Quiet Woman. The quality of theirs is consistent with everything else there, that is to say, quite good. But they’re not the casual “Baja” style that I’m expecting. We recently had fish tacos at another place that bills itself as “healthy Mex”, La Salsa . The tacos were good, theirs had cheese as well as the other stuff but not great. Another regular restaurant we go to is California Pizza kitchen. And would you believe that they too recently added fish tacos to their menu? Perhaps we are on the cutting edge here. Realistically I don’t imagine that CPK’s version will be terribly authentic, but I would expect it to be good and might be worth trying once, anyway.

In the meantime, I will continue to make my pilgrimage every two weeks or so to Bear Flag for the best fish tacos around. Could I make these tacos? Probably - but then I would have to shop for tortillas, salsa, fresh fish and then grill the fish and assemble it all. But why when I know where to go for the perfect one? I just think that there are certain things better eaten out or cooked by someone else. For me, pizza would fall into this category as would most Asian food. Arbitrary, I know but it works for me.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Make Someone Happy!

It’s January and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that we have winter weather. Even with that understanding the weather the last week or so here has been unusual. We have had tornados, lots of rain, hail, high surf, lots of wind, thunder and lightning and otherwise inclement weather. Climate change if not global warming. We haven’t actually had every one of those occurrences here at our house but enough. It’s been cold and the rain has dominated every day for over a week. The gray weather is gloomy and not being able to get out and about adds to that. Thank heavens for the gym and those machines that have you rowing or walking to nowhere. At least I’m moving! And what would I do without my coffee place and all the "Pain du Monde family”.
This is good soup weather in my opinion and we have definitely indulged in it - but you can only eat so much soup. Comfort food is definitely needed and if anything qualifies as comforting, pasta does. I made this recipe last week and it was warm and delicious and made me feel much better, particularly when I added bread and a glass of wine. It made me happy and Steve was pretty appreciative too. It could work for you.
And looking on the positive side of things, I have noticed that days are starting to gradually get longer, and when it’s not dark and rainy there is a little more light at both ends of the day – YAY!!

Penne with roasted eggplant tomatoes and onions

1 large eggplant (about 1 ½ lbs) stem end cut off and discarded and cut into 1 inch cubes
1 tablespoon kosher salt plus extra for sprinkling on eggplant and seasoning
½ cup olive oil
2 lbs plum tomatoes seeded and coarsely chopped
1 large onion peeled and coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic pressed or finely minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram oregano or basil leaves
1 lb dried penne
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly grated pecorino romano cheese

Preheat the oven to 450. Place the cubed eggplant in a colander and sprinkle lightly with salt, toss. Allow eggplant to drain at least 30 minutes. Place eggplant onions tomatos, garlic and marjoram in a large roasting pan toss with the olive oil, stirring well to coat. Season with salt to taste. Place the roasting pan in the oven on the topmost rack;roast stirring occasionally until the onion and eggplant are slightly browned, 30 -40 minutes.

While the vegetables are roasting bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Cook penne according to package directions until tender. Drain, immediately add the pasta to the roasting pan with the vegetables. Add the parsley and extra virgin olive oil, toss well. Transfer to a large preheated serving dish. Serve with grated pecorino romano cheese.

Cheers!
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