Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Road

I've been traveling.


Three weeks in Florida and Arizona, hobnobbing my way across the two states with wine in tow. And though in general, this means that I have not been cooking, and have been rather desperate to find something green and resembling a vegetable, there has, of course, been food.

There were cornmeal crusted, deep fried homemade pickles.


There was pecan chocolate pie.


There was beer brewed from milk.


There were salt and pepper shakers to oversee it all.


When I returned, I found that the fig tree in front of the winery office had finally ripened, and that my new apartment in San Francisco was more enchanting than ever.


And then, I made fish. Fresh, beautiful fish. Despite the fact that I never cook fish.

Don't get me wrong - I love it. But living in the country, the odds of being able to coordinate a purchase of a fresh fillet and the prompt cooking of said fillet are rare. We buy groceries for the week, not the evening, and fish never seems to make it's way into the equation.

However, in my new San Francisco digs I live just a few minutes walk from a butcher and fishmonger. My joy at the proximity is, in a word, inexpressible. And this weekend, taking advantage of my first Sunday evening in weeks when I did not have to catch a 6 am flight the next morning, I settled into an evening of cooking.

Or so I thought. The thing is, what I ended up cooking was so simple, I felt like I had barely lifted a finger.


I had purchased one half of a black cod (sans head and bones), the skin dark and glinting, the flesh white and dense. The lovely woman at the shop advised me to bake the fish, as the fatty, fleshy nature of black cod (also known as sablefish) is difficult to dry out and overcook.

My only experience with black cod has been Asian inspired, served in a restaurant visited recently - the black skin crusted with miso and cooked to the crispness of a light potato chip, with a gentle sweetness pervading the whole dish balanced by a tang of vinegar.

I wanted to aim for a similar crispy skin and combination of sweet and sour, but I also had a beautiful head of fennel and a basket of orange cherry tomatoes available to me. Roasted fennel and tomatoes being both delicious on their own, I thought they could only benefit from sharing the heat.

I roasted the fennel separately, to give it a head start. Meanwhile, I sliced the length of cod into individual portions, and seasoned them with salt, olive oil, lemon, some fennel fronds and a splash of mirin. Under the broiler this slid until the skin browned and curled at the ends, and then a few more minutes of heat to cook the fish through and thoroughly caramelize the fennel.

The cod was incredibly rich, and needed the crispness of the skin to balance the fatty nature of the flesh. The tomatoes sung with rich sweetness, the fennel was also sweet, yet earthly and subtle, and the lemon provided a little kick of acidity. The broth accumulated in the dish could have been served on its own it was so delicious and layered with flavors, but also showed quite nicely spooned over brown rice and drizzled over the fillets.

In the end, I was kicking myself for not buying and baking fish earlier. Healthy and fresh, the dish had tremendous flavor and made my anticipated atonement for weeks of restaurant food seem not quite as painful.


Baked Black Cod
serves 4

1 pound black cod, cut into four fillets
1 head of fennel, fronds reserved
1 cup cherry tomatoes
1/2 of a lemon
olive oil
sea salt
mirin

1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees, with one rack a few inches from the broiler and a second below. Slice the fennel bulb in half vertically, then lay each half down on the cut side. Slice vertically into 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch slices (I prefer mine thin). Spread on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Slide into the oven on the bottom shelf.

2) Chop the fennel fronds, roughly or finely, depending on your personality. Slice the lemon very thinly (use a mandoline if you have one.)

3) Preheat the broiler.

4) Arrange the fillets in a pyrex dish. Sprinkle liberally with sea salt. Drizzle each with 1 tsp (or so) of olive oil. Drizzle each with 1/2 tbsp (or so) of mirin. Arrange the cherry tomatoes alongside the fillets. Sprinkle with fennel fronds. Arrange the lemon slices. Slide under the broiler.

5) Cook under the broiler until the skin browns, 5 to 10 minutes. When browned, turn the broiler off and continue cooking at 375 degrees for 15 minutes.

6) Serve the fish and fennel over rice or your favorite grain, drizzles with the accumulated juices from the pan.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Family, with soup

Sometimes, you are taken by surprise.

Sometimes, rather than your normal to-do, you are daily delivered uncanny and surprising revelations and insights.

Sometimes, you are surrounded by new people, and you barely know where they've come from, but there they are, washing your dishes, patting your knee, making you coffee, consoling your tears, and carrying your groceries.


These new people are John and George - two dudes who have carved out a little corner of my heart and nestled snuggly in (thank you Laila, for being so dashing they couldn't resist but follow you home). They have been staying with us in Cazadero, on and off, for a month now.

Which means, I've had a full family to feed.

Feeding people out of necessity is a beast I have entertained on and off over the last few years. When I have full afternoons to read the food section of the NY Times, or visit a few of my favorite food blogs, or skim some of my much loved cookbooks, I delight in planning menus for the week, in picking out beautiful vegetables from the market and finding fillets of fish that are so fresh they barely need heat to become a delicious meal.

The thing about having having these boys around was, even when there was no time to plan or plot or grocery shop, I still wanted to feed them.

Soup was a good option. Once, I made a pot of this soup, serving it in big bowls flanked by garlic toasts. Another time, there was a bean and wild rice soup, with caramelized onions and spinach wilted into a spicy broth. But the soup I want to talk about today was butternut squash soup.

It is fall after all, and squash - nubbly, multicolored, warted, stemmed - are everywhere.

This soup I first learned to cook one winter in Berlin. My friend Lena bought a kabocha squash and a nub of ginger, and, in her small East Berlin kitchen, put together a fabulous pot of warm, bright orange, curry spiced soup that we ate with thin slices of dark, dry, rye bread.

When I cooked this soup with Lena, we sliced a few small onions (on that side of the Atlantic, the onions were no bigger than two inches in diameter), diced some garlic, and added the two to warmed olive oil. Next followed red curry paste and a few glugs of white wine which she let cook down. Into the pot went the cubed squash (unpeeled but with the seeds removed) and plenty of vegetable broth. When the pumpkin had cooked down, we blended the soup, then stirred in a bit of honey and creme fraiche.

I remember Lena had several small windows overlooking a cobbled courtyard, and as we cooked, the pot steamed and the windows fogged, warming us through against the November German chill. I couldn't have been cozier, speaking about our prospective times of transition over bowls of soup that anchored us in that moment of comfort.

Since then, I've made the soup several times, each varying depending on what we happen to have in the cupboard. Most recently was this butternut squash version.


This time, I didn't have any wine, or curry paste, or dense loaves of rye bread available to me. So to add depth of flavor, I decided to roast the squash, caramelize the onions, and fry the spices in a little bit of butter.

A few snips of parsley and a dollop of plain yogurt rounded everything out, in the company of a large loaf of crusty sourdough.

The final bowls of soup were equally comforting, though we combatting the standard autumn downpours of Cazadero, rather than Berlinian winter temperatures. More importantly, the family was fed and happy, bowls emptied and wiped clean with crusts of bread.

Sometimes, you need a different perspective to shake you up a little. You need someone else to come in, through some curry spice into the mix and bring your standard squash life to a different level - a level where things can change and things can happen and it's okay because your young and not trapped even though you perhaps feel as much - and then you love them and then you look up and you have two new members of the family, helping with dinner and bringing home ice cream for dessert and playing banjo and ukelele on the porch.

Soon, it will be John and George's turn to feed me. Laila and I will be joining them in the desert, where water, refrigeration, and fresh foods are few and far between.

Until then, I'll keep cooking soup.

Curried Squash Soup

1 large butternut squash, or similar sweet fleshed winter squash such as a sugar pumpkin or kobacha squash

olive oil

1 onion, finely diced

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 tbsp (or more) curry paste or powder

chili flakes (optional)

1/4 cup white wine (optional)

4 cups vegetable or chicken broth, more to thin

white pepper (optional)

honey or agave (optional)

salt

creme fraiche or plain yogurt (optional)

chopped parsley or cilantro (optional)

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Peel and cube the squash into approximate 1 inch cubes. Spread the squash on on a large cookie sheet and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Roast till pierced easily with a fork, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

2) Meanwhile, fry the onion over medium heat in a glug of olive oil for a few minutes till soft and translucent. Turn the heat down, and cook at the lowest temperature possible that still allows the onions to slightly sizzle. Stir every ten minutes or so to prevent from burning.

3) Add garlic (and more olive oil if necessary) and turn up the heat to medium. When fragrant, add the curry powder and chili flakes. Stir frequently for a minute or two until very fragrant, then add the white wine (if not using wine, skip to next step). Let the wine cook off for a minute or two.

4) Add the broth and the squash, and bring to a boil. Simmer until the squash begins to fall apart. Taste for curry spice, and salt. Add some white pepper, if you like. Add a blob of honey, if you like.

5) At this point, you can decide if you want to blend the soup or to leave it with texture. I prefer a soup with varied textures, so I cook the soup until the cubes of squash are almost completely broken down, but not uniform. Or, for a smoother texture, you can blend part or all of the soup with an immersion blender.

6) Finally, if you need to thin the soup, add a bit more broth till the soup reaches a consistency of your liking, and bring back to a simmer.

7) Serve with a dollop of creme fraiche and a sprinkling of herbs.


Friday, 1 October 2010

October, with cake


Dear Friends,

I've left you out of so much!

First, there was the roast chicken dinner with Eva. On my own, I've yet to venture into whole chicken territory. I prefer pieces, dabbed with butter and sprinkled with fresh rosemary, salt, and pepper. Eva, however, can roast a lovely bird. A few weeks ago she tackled two chickens, and - despite the heat wave rolling past us outside, dipping in through the open kitchen windows to dampen our foreheads and singe the ends of our hair - with an enviable, unhurried bravado she tended them till crispy and perfectly bronzed.


Then, one Sunday morning, John made us Swedish cinnamon buns. A simple dough, spiked generously with cardamom and then layered with cinnamon and sugar, these little lovelies baked quickly in the oven, caramelizing nicely around the edges and pairing perfectly with Laila's chai. I could understand why, during the Swedish winters, children and adults alike tuck these buns into their pockets for snacking throughout the day, as something that offers a little bit of solace and comfort against the white and frozen backdrop of daily life.





Then, there was the last of the nettle pesto, blended with sriracha and garlic, wrapped around buccatini pasta, served with thinly sliced tomatoes, roasted long and slow till they took on a tangy, sweet chew. The wild flavor of the nettles and the spice of the chili brought this pesto far from the traditional and comparatively tempered Italian version, creating a lovely staple that only required tracking down a large (and cheap) bag of nettles at the farmer's market.



But somehow, I knew I was waiting for something. Friends, I was waiting for this cake.

Butter.
Pear.
Cake.


Each of those words make my heart patter. And when I found them together, in a cake, something rung in the air that must have been the same bell heard when the first person put bacon and eggs together on a plate, or the Beatles together on a stage, or yeast and hops together in a bucket.

It was easy too: pears that had been resting on the counter for a few days, peeled and sliced (rather haphazardly), a bit of butter, melted while putting the kettle on for some afternoon tea, some flour, sugar, and other basics...and then, just like that, the cake emerged.

Some of the pears were ripe and syrupy, some, still firm and green. The heat of the oven acted as a great equalizer, tempering the sweet and the tang to soft and yielding. The cake had tucked itself gently around the contours of the fruit, staying moist and almost creamy in the center, while crisping into an elegant brown crust around the edges. No special spices or flashes were necessary. The baked pears and toasty notes of the slightly browned butter lent all that was needed for a perfect transition into autumn desserts.

Granted, it wasn't much to look at. The pale fruit peeked through the brown dappled dough in a rather rustic way, and nothing about it begged sophistication or raised chins. But there was no need: four of us devoured the cake still hot from the oven, only slightly noticing our burned tongues before the cake was gone. The dessert set our weary, summer-yearning souls right as we watched the sun set significantly earlier than it had the week before. Butter pear cake beckoned the fall with an unexpectedly warm embrace.


Butter Pear Cake

1 stick butter
4 small pears
150 grams white sugar
2 eggs
70 grams flour
1/2 tsp baking powder

1) Melt the butter, then set aside to cool. (I melted mine on the stove and almost forgot about it, so it slightly browned. This, in my opinion, was a plus.)

2) Peel the pears, and slice. Grease an 8 inch round pan, and arrange the pears on the bottom. (I prefer mine cut into irregular pieces, mostly on the thin side and haphazardly placed.

3) Mix the sugar with the eggs. Add the flour and the baking soda, then add the butter. Blob the dough over the fruit, as evenly as possible.

4) Bake 45 to 50 minutes.


Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Glut and the Sea


Last week, I visited the San Juan Islands.








There was family, there were friends. There were ponds and oceans and boats and gardens. There were harbors and docks, slow mornings with bottomless cups of dandelion tea and evenings lying on blankets rolled onto thick, damp grass.

But most importantly, there was seafood. Overwhelming and glorious amounts of seafood.

We had oysters from Westcott bay, pried open with dull kitchen knives and served naked on bright blue plates. We had clams, tightly wound in their shells, then lured out by the seductive smells of curry powder, ginger, and coconut.




And finally, we had crab. Caught in the afternoon, boiled whole for 15 minutes with handfuls of rock salt in the evening. Shells that turned from dark purple to bright red when splashed into the outdoor pot large enough to hold upwards of 15 crabs at a time. Shells that split open cleanly, revealing lungs and a yellow "crab soup" that we spilled into the sink instead of drinking. Shells that cracked quickly under the wooden mallet, wielded deftly against each leg and claw before being they were tossed into large silver bowls.


Crab is a wonder creature. Direct from the sea and with simple preparation, it's a food that is not shy about showing you its origins: if you want claw meat, you crack open a claw. Brutally, and without fuss or hesitation. In other words, this is no unidentifiable mush-from-a-can operation. But once you reach past that initial squeamishness, little lovely bites await you behind each crackable limb. Sweet yet savory, fresh yet rich...indeed, a wonder.

I have this memory: my mother and me (perhaps 17 or so), at home. A crab to share, a perfectly crisp baguette, and a bottle of white wine. We sat in front of the television on old newspapers so as to not dribble crab juice on the carpet. The meal seemed so summery, and yet it was January, and raining outside. The whole evening was somehow separate than the rest of everyday life, as we ate with our fingers and spilled drops of wine on the newspaper. One shared crab was enough to satisfy.

Here in California, though I live just a few miles from the ocean, seafood seems so much more rare. On the island, the veritable glut of crab, clams, and oysters was dizzying and pulled me into the feeling that summer had finally arrived.




Saturday, 14 August 2010

Ancient Rose: thorn and perfume


There is something reminiscent of childhood whim that is connected to eating flowers; I remember one of my first books, in which a small fairy wore bright nasturtiums for hats, and drank morning dew from the upturned bells of bluebonnets.


The truth is, flowers are often reserved solely for these whimseys and whiles. Roses, for instance: in my mind, they have always been something that would only be used for cooking purposes in say, Turkey. I imagine an ancient Arabian world, where scents of cardamom, rose, and ginger waft from brews simmering in large copper pots, stirred with wide, wooden ladles by wizened women.


My neighbor, who I have spoken before about here, is out to change that. With elderflower tinctures, candied violets, and rose hydrosols, flowers from her garden tiptoe quietly beyond their decorative role and clearly become something that should be integrated more in our daily lives.


A few weeks ago, she called me over to help her distill roses. Damask roses, specifically: a heritage varietal known for its potent and focused fragrance.


The rose bushes were overflowing. A veritable glut of fine, pink petals was spread across the table, and the still sat round and ready, waiting for the flowers to be tucked cosily inside. A flame, cool water to keep the metal tubes of the still from overheating, and a waiting jar were all that were needed for an afternoon of distillation.



What emerged in clear droplets from the mouth of the still was a liquid combining the bright scent of fresh pink petals with a fascinating a bitter component reminiscent of chewing on a tender green stem. Each drop tasted of the whole flower, as if a delicate bud had just been clipped from the bush and chewed on its own, without adornment or florish.


The gallon jar was filled with this potent rose water by the end of the afternoon. When the still had exhausted the energy of the roses, and the stream slowed to infrequent drops, we saw small pools of rose oil floating across the surface. This, my neighbor explained, could be skimmed off and bottled on its own, but she preferred to leave it to integrate with the water, adding further depth and perfume.

Later, I took a basket of roses home to make a rose syrup. Simmered with sugar, the roses leached a lovely color and strong fragrance. When tasted, the syrup had none of the whole-flower quality of the hydrosol, but rather tasted of candied petals. If the rose water seemed curative and healing with its pleasant bitterness, the syrup was the opposite: toothnumbingly sweet, intoxicating in beauty yet straightforward in its nod to the pure and simple loveliness of petals.


Cooking with the hydrosol and syrup is the next step. So far, time has led us to drinking: the water or the syrup stirred into lemonade, iced tea, bubble water....or even brought a notch more into the adult world when muddled with crisp gin and cucumber...

My neighbor tells me the rose is protective; open and lovely, yet always ready with sharp thorns. A model for combatting the unpredictable nature of a wild and rambunctious garden. Surely, this protection should not solely be reserved for fairies.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Repeat, with pleasure


Summer will always be about repeats. Old television loops on the tele. Watermelon continually makes itself seen. Pools and lakes and ponds are hopefully frequently frequented. We all have habits that we resort to when things quiet down and heat up, and this is what seems to bring us great comfort as the days get longer and then, past the end of June, shorter again.

In this light, I'm afraid that my creativity so far this summer has been somewhat limited.

Gracing our creekside table so far this summer (repeatedly):

nettle pesto pasta (x 4)roasted tomatoes (x 4)
roasted bell pepper pasta with prosciutto (x 3)
spinach frittata (x 7 with variations)
banana bread (x 5 I think)
almond and anise biscotti (x 5)
cocoa brownies (x at least 9)

And that is really about it. Repeated.

At this point, I have seen these dishes aplenty, and they almost feel like old hat to me. Perhaps I can blame this on my slight absence in this space. But the thing is, every time I remake them and serve them, they are loved again.

And again and again and again.

Perhaps this is where the term "classic" is derived from. Something we can count on, something iconic, something reliably enjoyable...this can be said for all of these dishes.

For now, I'll begin with the biscotti.

These little puppies are unmatchable. That is to say, I have ordered biscotti a few times, from bakeries good and bad, coffee shops large and small. Generally, I have been sadly underwhelmed. Perhaps if I just think of the biscotti as something to fill the stomach alongside a cappuccino, I had told myself in the past, imaging that biscotti serve the same purpose in a coffee shop as say, peanuts in a bar.

Friends, these are no peanuts.

Small, crumbly, perfectly toothsome yet still tender, with a combination of flavors that is nothing less than hauntingly special, these biscotti have won me over exactly five times so far this summer.

Perhaps it's the fennel seeds tossed into the mixture. They add something sweet, and even a little savory, that keeps me going back for more. Perhaps it's the roasted almonds, browned on their own and then again in the cookies. Or maybe it's the touch of cornmeal...

Regardless, they also seem to go with everything. We've had them on their own. We've had them as appetizers. We've had them alongside a bowl of cherries. We've had them dipped in sweetened, whipped marscapone. And we've had them alongside a glass of lovely Leitz riesling, which quite simply sealed the deal and sent these cookies straight to that tender spot in my heart.

The best part may just be that there are variations on these biscotti that I have yet to even begin to think about. Hazelnuts! Pistachios! Chocolate! But for the moment, I have been quite satisfied with this original version. Simple and whole, a classic delivered.

Almond and Anise Biscotti
adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook

3/4 cups almonds
1 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3 tbsp fine cornmeal
2 tsp anise seeds
4 tbsps cold butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
anisette (optional)

1) Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Heat a frying pan over a medium flame for several minutes. Add the nuts, and toast until fragrant and browned. Set aside to cool slightly. (Alternatively, toast them in the oven for about 15 minutes).

2) Combine flour, baking soda, salt, cornmeal, and seeds in a bowl.

3) Finely chop 1/4 cup of almonds, and coarsely chop the rest. Add to the flour mixture.

4) Barely cream the butter and the sugar, then stir in the egg and the anisette (if using). Stir into the flour mixture.

5) Separate the dough into two pieces and form each into a 1 inch log. Set both on a cookie sheet with plenty of space between them. Bake 15-20 minutes until browning.

6) Remove from oven, and slice each log at an angle, 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch wide. Set with one cut side down on the cookie sheet, and then bake again 5-8 minutes until browned on the cut side. Let cool completely before serving.


Saturday, 19 June 2010

Bread-masked Cake



Bananas and I have, in the past, had a tumultuous relationship.

In younger years, I liked them tangy and slightly green. Preferably just past the totally unripe, palate puckering phase, but before the full-on cloying sweetness of standard ripeness.

This may be due to the fact that as a child, I was convinced that banana slugs (quite common, out here in the woods) were nothing less than excessively ripe bananas. The slug's shape, sliminess, and black-spottedness all led me down the line of thought that a banana, left on the counter, in the compost, or anywhere in between, would make the slow progression towards slughood as it ripened, the final stage of ripeness resulting in a magical transformation to life and (slow) movement.

Considering this, it only makes sense that I would choose to eat bananas as far from their slug phase of life as possible. In retrospect, what really intrigues me is that I was willing to eat them at all.

Richard's banana bread changed all of this. It started with one bite - oozing chocolate and gooey banana tucked into something that barely passed as bread. I asked for (demanded?) the recipe, and what followed later in my inbox was a short simple recipe title "Sarah's Banana Bread."

Thank you Sarah. Thank you Richard. I've now learned to appreciate a darkening bunch of bananas, not as a biological wonder, but rather as culinary opportunity.


Because once I tasted a great banana bread, even thoughts of slimy creatures could not turn my eyes from bananas so ripe their skins had turned the color of charcoal. What was passed on to me was a short list of ingredients, with directions to stir and bake. Quickly I baked it up, and quickly I realized that success was not hard won with this recipe.

This cake/bread won me friends in college. This cake/bread survived a trip to Scotland. This cake/bread can heal wounds a many.

The base of the cake/bread is moist and light, allowing plenty of room for personalized tweakign with additions. Sarah added nuts. Richard added chocolate. I took away the nuts, and added coconut instead.


The addition of coconut was when things really got dangerous. I baked a "loaf" the day my mother and sister were supposed to arrive home from a month long trip to Colorado. I had a recent heart wound, and Laila had just had knee surgery, so the cake was to be healing in more ways that one. Exiting the oven, the warm cake (the chocolate pieces melting, the banana pieces like warm custard, the cake tender with heat) was impossible to resist. A half a cake later, they arrived in the dusty Volvo station wagon. The remnants of the cake, though cooled, were eaten quickly.

I'm convinced that, though perhaps it was no miracle cure, it at least got things kick-started. The healing (heart and knee) had begun.


Banana cake/bread

1/3 cup shortening
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 3/4 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp basking soda
1/2 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a loaf pan with butter. Combine the above ingredients in a large bowl.

Add:
1 cup mashed banana (I like to leave some chunks about the size of a nickle)
1 cup chocolate chips
1/4 dried unsweetened coconut

Do not overmix.

Smooth into the loaf pan, and bake 45-50 minutes. Let cool if you can.