Saturday, 28 February 2009

How to feel Good then Bad then Good again; or: Brownies and Kale Soup

Things have been pretty crazy around here recently. First there was Vegas, then New York, then the end of February marking my one-month-home anniversary (how did that happen?), then the beginning of March when I start my internships and am supposed to be an official San Francisco resident. It's a lot for someone used to spending grey Edinburgh afternoons coddling loaves of bread or making several additions of fabulous carrot cake in one week.

So today I'm taking a day off from Craig's List. A pause from job searching and apartment searching and general life searching, I decided this morning to calm myself with chocolate. Specifically, gooey, fudgy, brownies.

Now for me, baking is like drinking. There is an art to knowing how much and when to start and when to stop. Usually it is best a few hours before bed, so that the process of going to sleep stops me from actually eating all of it. So when it was ten this morning and I was already melting chocolate and butter over a double boiler, I could sense trouble coming. But I couldn't help myself. I needed to chop the chocolate and lick the spoons and really beat those eggs to death, even if it was going to be before noon.

Unfortunately, an unpreditable oven made the brownies seem to be done and seem to pass the toothpick test even though once cooled I was sad to find out the innards were like a soft chocolate pudding. Not brownies at all, but more like a chocolate lava cake. But the edges were cooked, and with just a little bit of that slightly warm oozing middle they were actually fabulous - fabulous enough to make me feel really really ill, but still coming back every fifteen minutes or so for just another tiny sliver.*

By noon, I was a mess. And then came the kale soup. For what can make you feel cleaner, or more monastically pure than a bowl of broth and greens? Chicken broth, a bunch of chopped lacinato kale, salt, pepper, and chili flakes later, I was spooning a 20 minute simmered soup through my still chocolate stained lips. Simple, warm, and oh so healthy, the soup took away the feeling of over sugared nastiness. Coupled with roasted radishes which had the perfect fiery crunch to them, I was settled and recovered. The subtle chew and deep earthiness of the kale leaves after that low simmer was the perfect cure to a chocolate hangover.

Kale Soup

3 cups of vegetable or chicken broth
One bunch lacinato kale, sliced in ribbons and thick ends of stems discarded
Pinch of chili flakes
One garlic clove, peeled, halved
Salt and pepper

1. Boil the broth.

2. Add kale and turn heat to low. Add garlic, salt, and a pinch of chili flakes.

3. Simmer for about twenty minutes, covered.

4. Discard garlic. Taste for salt. Add pepper. Serve.

Roasted Radishes

These make a super yummy easy and spicy little snack.

As many radishes as you can eat (I used one bunch), trimmed and cut in half.
Olive oil

1. Toss the radishes with a few glugs of olive oil.

2. Give them a few shakes of paprika and cayenne (I used about 1/2 teaspoon of each). Sprinkle with salt. Toss again.

3. Roast at 375 degrees for a half hour, stirring halfway through. Serve immediately.

*Make those brownies. I am a convert - I cut up the ooey bits in the middle and froze them for a couple hours. After that chill they were amazing. Like a cool, rich fudge, they held their shape but held their softness too, and were perfect with a movie that night.

Monday, 23 February 2009

I don't know how to continue without talking about my meal at Blue Hill Farm Restaurant, but at the same time, how can I? How do you talk about a beautiful meal, that goes beyond all expectations and keeps you at the table for over three hours, smiling after every little bite?
Even if I talked about what we ate, it wouldn't come across, it couldn't.
The pork fat butter, the arugula salt, the celeriac salt, the crusty batons of french bread, this was just the beginning. But when you aren't in the moment, sitting close to those around you as if in a tiny Parisian restaurant, being poured a thin glass of pink bubbly wine that tastes of strawberries and grapefruit, it somehow loses its magic.
This breaks my heart. I want to dive back in and lick all the plates that passed in front of us. I want to re-enter that fairytale place where every morsel of food put in front of us was cared for from seed to pot to plate, tenderly grown and caressed into its full potential of flavor. Siiiigh.

What I can say is this: there was lettuce foam on top of "this morning's egg" (yellow yolk melting into perfectly cooked lentils scooped up with crispy nuggets of pork belly), there was grass fed venison (the texture of seared ahi tuna - tender with a delicate chew that yielded flavors unlike any meat I've had before), there was chocolate cake (with a perfectly formed teaspoon of peanut butter ice cream and drizzles of salted caramel), and there was pear brandy (from oregon, heady and rich with autumnal scents).

I only snuck one photo of the beautiful little vegetables we were served in the beginning:

I hate to tease you with things that can never be reproduced, much less in my or your own kitchen.
But hot damn was it good.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

excess; the sea

This week my mother's business (fashion, etc) has brought me to a gluttonous, gaudy pit of a city: Las Vegas. Maybe that's a little harsh, even unfair? I don't know. The whole place seems to be standing on rhinestone dotted stilts, teetering in an endless dance of entertainment. You can't not be entertained here. Everything, everyone, is so over the top, so ready to let loose, to be exposed for its raw, uncouth, yet somehow mesmerising true self. This city thrives on the lurid, and there is no shame in that. So maybe this is a good thing - a place that recognizes human needs, and caters to them outright, without the guise and the pretension that you might find in, oh, Los Angeles. But man, I don't know how long it will take to get the jingles from those endless slot machines to stop ringing in my head and to wring all this second hand cigarette smoke out of my clothes.

It was an intense three days and nights, spent writing orders and flipping through racks and racks of clothing, wandering the huge convention centers of all the different hotels, navigating taxi lines and registration lines and badge lines and coffee lines and buffet lines - the only quiet, people-free place being our cozy hotel room. The highlight of the trip, in my book, was a party thrown by a large vendor my mom has been buying from for the past fifteen odd years. They've made quite a name for themselves, this brand, and to thank all the little guys (like my family), for plugging along with them, they threw one fabulous party Tuesday night.

And if Las Vegas is all about excess and over the top, this was exactly that. Palm trees stabbed with spirals of skewered strawberries and pineapple flanked the entrance to the bar and restaurant. Cocktail waitresses bustled around with trays full of pink rum cocktails. Tables of gorgeous food lined the whole room, and people jostled each other with rum soaked smiles as they reached for tuna poké salad or seared scallop burgers. And in the center of the room was a mountain of seafood. A huge piling of ice, overflowing with pink shrimp, tiny oysters, long King crab legs, and opened clam shells. Mom stared at the oysters, Chrissi (our traveling companion) stared at the crab, and I clutched my sugar-encrusted martini glass, taking a swill of strength before piling my plate high with a little bit of everything.

The three of us crowded into a corner and silently mauled our plates. After a few minutes, Mom looked up at me and, her eyes glistening, said with an awed tone: "I just ate twelve oysters. I couldn't eat another if I wanted to."

The rest of the meal went by in a blur of pulled pork tacos with avocado and pico de gallo, followed by a beef tenderloin slider coated in thick garlic aoili. I was full, man were we all full. But dessert remained.

Plates of chocolate covered strawberries flanked key lime tartlettes. Small bites of flourless Jamaican chocolate cake perched alongside cream and blueberry tarts. But my favorite were the mango crême brulées, each with a plump raspberry nestled in the center.

This feast made me remember the last time I had eaten fresh seafood (in Edinburgh it was mostly the deep-fried version that we all indulged in). Over the summer, Ian and I had spent a week in the south of Spain with our friend Eli. Eli was from Torremolinos, a resort town just down the coast from Malaga. Crowded with sunburnt British and German tourists, the beaches and towns weren't as idyllic as we had hoped, but Eli, to my eternal relief, was there to save us from mediocre imitations of British pub food.

We ate at several secluded beaches, each with a little restaurant catering mostly to the locals. One restaurant was only paella. People ordered three to four hours ahead, then wandered away to lay in the sun and swim in the extremely salty ocean, heading back whenever they were ready. They were then served a huge pan of saffron flavored rice, studded with calamari, pork, tomatoes, and whatever else they had on hand in the restaurant.

My favorite place, however, involved a bit more instant satisfaction. Big grills lined the walls, where fish of all sizes, pierced through with wooden skewers, were lined up over the flames. Shells of all colors and shapes lay spread on platters, offering the meaty gems inside. Shrimp, ranging from the size of a fingernail to the length of my hand were fired whole and served with the tentacles poking off the plate. Waiters walked around with platters, yelling the selection (much like the way Dim Sum restaurants function).

We grabbed whatever looked good, and were later charged just by the number of empty plates on our table. We ate charred fresh sardines, tiny boquerones, a platter of clams that were as tiny as my pinky fingernail, and endless, endless shrimp. Washed down with tinto de verano, a Spanish red wine mixed with a sparkling, barely sweetened lemonade and plenty of ice, we were satiated. We ate and then lay on the sand like beached whales, unable to move except when the sun forced us with douse our skin with some water.

When we were finished eating as the party in Las Vegas, the feeling was much the same. We groaned and moaned the whole car ride home, and then lay on the hotel beds clutching our tummies and cursing ourselves for eating so much. But we were all smiling, knowing that this was why we were here. Las Vegas is the place to do this kind of thing: you can go overboard without a second thought, and go back for more the next day.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Chocolate Cloud

Okay. There always seem to be two groups of Valentine's people: the haters and the lovers. Those that swear against the "holiday" and those that take the chance to go ooey gooey and sip pink champagne cocktails all evening. I've never noticed the day that much, definitely not enough to fall into either of these two camps. But let me tell you, when your boyfriend is 6,000 miles away, V-day sucks. One more reminder of the huge power of land and ocean and space - a reminder that you can't help growing differently when you aren't together.

So, I had no plans. And then an aunt, who I've spoke about before, came to the rescue. In her tiny studio tucked in the corner of a drafty and damp barn, we turned up the heaters, drank vodka with pomegranate sodas, and giggled sitting cross-legged in paint stained clothing, talking about art and love and medjool dates. Paints, pliers, and sketches from my late grandfather all made an appearance, and by the end of the day it didn't matter that it was storming outside or that everyone else was far far away.

And then when I got home, I made cake. Chocolate Cloud Cake, as per Nigella's orders. I found this recipe late one night during an evening of babysitting, when the kids were already long asleep and Gordon Ramsey's language was getting exhaustingly agressive on the television, and as a remedy I picked up Nigella Bites and read it cover to cover, having just enough time to copy this recipe into my little red notebook before the parents stumbled home in the wee hours.

Gorgeously gooey, the end result is like a baked chocolate mousse: light, ethereal, yes, even cloud-like. It's incredibly simple, although does require multiple bowls and several cleanings of the beaters. And covered in a soft pillow of whipped cream, the cake took all our worries away for a few moments.

Chocolate Cloud Cake
adapted from Nigella Bites

for the cake:
250 grams (8 ounces) dark chocolate
125 grams (5/8 cup) unsalted butter, room temp
6 eggs: 2 whole, 4 separated
175 grams sugar (3/4 cup)
zest of one orange (I used a meyer lemon instead, it was lovely)

for the cream topping:
250 ml whipping cream (Nigella used twice this much, but I found this amount to be plenty, unless you really are a whipped cream fiend)
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp cocoa powder for sprinkling

1) Preheat oven to 350. Line bottom of a springform pan with parchment.

2) Melt chocolate in a double boiler, let butter melt into chocolate.

3) Beat two whole eggs and four yolks with 75 grams sugar, gently add chocolate and orange/lemon zest.

4) In a separate bowl beat four egg whites till foamy, the gradually add the last 100 grams of sugar till whites hold their shape but aren't too stiff. Fold into chocolate.

5) Pour into tin, bake 35-40 minutes, cool completely.

6) Remove from tin. Whip cream till firm but not sitff, and fill the sunken center of the cake with the cream. Dust lightly with cocoa powder.

Friday, 13 February 2009


In Scotland, the rain is that person you know who nags and moans all the time. That person who pecks at you, probably without even realizing it, until you are tearing you hair out because the rain is so endless and wimpy. The constant spittle flung from the grey skies can be rather torturous, in other words.

And then Sonoma County...the weather is wonderfully tempermental.
Yesterday it was spring. The sky blue the sun out and the daffodils lifting their yellow faces happily. Even though it was still chilly, we drank ice tea and I even made popsicles (Rosemary and Apple Cider Vinegar from Bon Appetit).
Then today, after a few winks of blue this morning, the charcoal clouds rolled in and it rained like it meant it. It rained like a release, like a scream of frustrated nature, and we could hear it throughout the house - the putt putt putt against the wooden roof and the splashes against the skylights.

Hard Rain: solid, strong, forceful.
Perfect for onion soup.

Besides having a wonderfully stocked kitchen in my parent's house, we also have innumerable cookbooks. Some splattered with decades old grease and some barely opened. Among the barely opened is Chez Panisse Cooking, by Paul Bertoli. Now I know I have looked at this cookbook before, the restaurant is famous and local, after all. I'm pretty sure I was intimidated by recipes involving freshly killed rabbits and breads that required weeks of starter yeast preparation. But with all this time on my hands, the book presented a challenge.

And to begin the challenge, Bread and Onion Soup with Red Wine, a simple recipe, although time consuming, that seemed like the perfect substantial soup for a cold and rainy evening. And there is something so satisfying about slicing onions, having a good excuse to cry, and then staring out the window as the redwoods and madrones are pelted with rain while the onions sizzle with a light heat and you are safe in your parent's yellow kitchen, watching.

Bread and Onion Soup with Red Wine
adapted from Chez Panisse Cooking

This is a half recipe, which served three of us very generously, although I have increased the amount of thyme, broth, and cheese.

3 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 pounds yellow onions (about 4 large ones), thinly sliced
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1/2 tsp salt
3 large slices sourdough bread
1/2 cup fruity red wine
3 cups beef broth
black pepper
1 clove garlic
3 tbsp parmesan cheese

1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2) Warm half the oil in large heavy pot at medium, then add the onions and the thyme. Stir well to coat the onions with oil and get them going, then turn the heat to low and let sizzle gently for one hour, stirring occasionally, until the onions are very soft and just browning. Add salt.

3) When the onions are halfway through cooking, brush the slices of bread with olive oil and toast them in the oven for about twenty minutes until browned and very dried out. (If they don't dry completely, you end up with gluey bread in your soup).

4) Add the wine to the onions and let the alcohol burn off at medium heat for a minute or two. Add the broth and plenty of black pepper.

5) Remove toasts from oven and rub them, while still hot, with the garlic clove halved crosswise. Break the toasts into pieces and place half in a deep baking dish (I used 8 by 8 by 2). Cover the bread with a thick layer of onions removed with a slotted spoon (Save broth for later). Sprinkle half the cheese over the onions, then lay the rest of the bread over the cheese, add the rest of the onions, then the rest of the cheese. Ladle a scant cup of liquid over the toasts.

6) Bake in the oven for one hour.

7) Reheat the remaining broth. Divide the oven soup into bowl, then pour 1/2 cup of heated broth around each serving. Serve immediately.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

not a recipe

This is not a recipe, it's a revelation.

I was over reading this article by Susan Russo on Medjool dates. And yes, her descriptions were lovely, and tempting, and made me think about eating one of these little gems, but at the same Maybe it's the California thing - I'm spoiled because they grow here. Don't get me wrong, I really do love dates, they just aren't something I consider so special. We've always had some hanging around the house (my mom munches them like candy), and they were just always there.


One of the lovely things about being home with the parents for a while is the fabulous stocked kitchen available to me. There are four kinds of lentils in the cupboard, three cheeses from the Cowgirl creamery in the fridge, and a spread of fruit across the counters that trembles to be eaten. A little different than same-old potatoes and cheddar in Scotland.
One of the perks of the kitchen is the salt: several kinds of fleur de sel, brought over by friends or ordered of the marvelous internet, one container exceeding TWO pounds!!!
I've been eyeing it up since I've been home, sprinkling it here and there, but really I've been waiting to get my hands on the ingredients for caramels sprinkled with fleur de sel, a combination I would lay down and die for.

And then these medjool descriptions came along, and in my eyeline were those tubs of fleur de sel, sadly sitting in the corner and just waiting for me to give them some attention. And then it happened. The carmelly, super sweet sticky gooeyness that is the medjool date split itself in half, got sprinkled with a few crunchy grains of sel, and it was done. The deal was sealed, and three more later little bites later, I felt coated with that wonderful feeling that always arises after finding that perfect sweet/savoury combination.

Do it. Do it now.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009


So I know that I talked about beer bread recently, but when I was in Scotland I also made a few forays into baking regular bread. You know, the crusty, hearty loaves that fill the kitchen with that amazing smell and beg to be smeared with copious and innapropriate amounts of butter? First I tried this bread, that I halved to yield this yummy loaf:

It was soft and a little sweet, with a thin, hard crust that was really appealing. In the end I wished I had flattened the dough more so it would have been crustier, but like I said, with butter anything is better.

After a gift of a mini loaf pan for Christmas, I went for my second try. BUT. The stores were out of whole wheat flour. All three stores that we usually go to. So I had the idea that I would throw in flax seeds to make up for the white flour, just to make it a tad healthier. Normally I would grind the flax seeds (the vitamins, etc, are more digestible that way), but we didn't have fancy tools in that tiny Edinburgh kitchen, so I just threw a handful in whole. What came out were pretty little loaves, studded with dark flax seeds (or linseeds as the Brits say). The crust was browned nicely and the inside was soft and moist, and oh so delicious when sliced just barely warm in thick chunks, then smeared with butter, dapped with a little salt, and dipped in a bowl of chicken soup.

Winter blues, banished.

Crusty Bread with Flax Seeds

2 tbsp honey
1 packet active dry yeast
1 tbsp canola oil
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp ground flaxseeds
2 tbsp whole flaxseeds
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 1/2 cups white flour, plus more for kneading

1) In a bowl, combine 1 3/4 cups warm water with yeast, oil and honey. Let sit about 5 minutes till its a bit foamy, showing the yeast has activated.

2) Add the flax seeds, whole wheat flour and two cups of white flour, and the salt, mixing with a wooden spoon. The dough will be very sticky. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead about ten minutes. You will need to keep a pile of flour on the side to scoop into the dough as you knead. Don't be afraid to do this, I ended up adding almost a cup extra of flour. You can tell the dough is kneaded when a finger punched into the dough comes out clean.

3) Shape into a loaf and put it in a loaf pan. Cover with a towel and let rise 45 minutes to an hour in a warm draft free place.

4) In a 350 degree oven, bake about 40 minutes, till crust is nicely golden. Let cool completely (or almost completely!) before slicing.