Friday, 27 March 2009

The Assumption and The Lamb

Somehow, I've always been the person people assume a lot of things about. When I was younger, in high school to be exact, people assumed that since I was quiet, it meant I was unfriendly (although they used much harsher terms that this). People assumed that since I was pretty, I had boys falling at my feet in a woozy delirium (when really they never seemed to be bothered). And then, there was always the assumption that I was a vegetarian.

There must be something about me that emits a "not into meat" vibe. Innumerable times, with strangers, with friends, in California, in Europe, I've reached for a piece of grilled chicken at the dinner table, or pondered ordering a pulled pork sandwich, and then I've heard with a gasp: "'re a vegetarian!" This was often whispered, off the to side, as if they were reminding a good Christian girl that she shouldn't kiss her boyfriend in public. It was whispered like a scandal, like I'd fallen off the band-wagon, like I was doing something very very naughty.

Although my sister has gone through a few bouts of experimental vegetarianism, I've never really been there. When I'm cooking for myself, I don't cook that much meat, but mostly only because I've always been squeamish and the look and feel of raw meat really made me feel a bit ill. In recent days, I've gotten over it, and am trying, with luck I'd like to think, to expand my personal repetoire beyond boiled grains and stir-fried greens.

I'm not a vegetarian. In fact three years ago, almost to the day, was when I realized I love lamb. Like, a lot.

It was Easter, I was in San Diego, at my aunt Lori's house. There were roasted potatoes, asparagus, and probably some pies. I don't really remember, because all I was focused on was the juicy hunk of lamb that had been living in the oven for the past few hours. The meat made an entrance on a large platter, oozing juices and yielding gently to the knife.

And then this week, I made my lamb debut. I've already had forays into the meat world, mostly in terms of chicken, but this was different. From a recipe over at Gluten-Free Girl, I followed the Chef's loose advice and went with it. Two lamb shanks to feed three of us, soaked overnight with mirepoix and a bottle of wine, browned the next day and then slid into the oven for three hours.

Time consuming yet simple, the recipe practically made itself. It sat in the oven during our afternoon yoga class, the vegetables caramelizing, the sauce thickening, and the flavors concentrating through the flesh of that meltingly tender meat. Wow, we said, over and over. Wow.

The flavors were like stepping into a French Bistro. Nuanced with mustard and mint, red wine and thyme, we all felt we had stumbled upon a special plate.

Dishes like this remind me daily why I would never say never to a food group.

Morning-Off Eggs

I've talked about eggs before. I've talked about onions before. But have I told you about them together?

There is something so special, so simple, so sophisticated about a caramelized onion. Yes, they take time, but hey, it's your morning off. Do what I did: start the onions, leave them on the stove, sit outside with your book and a cup of tea, and every five pages or so, head inside to give those onions a quick stir.

Yesterday, four of us ate fresh farm eggs, lightly scrambled, tossed with the onions and then on the plate alongside slices of French baguette. Light, tasty, sweet and salty, what more could we ask for? It's all you need for a brunch or light lunch that begs to be devoured.

Morning-Off Eggs

Note: If you want these on days that don't happen to be "off," caramelize the onions the night before and then just reheat them in the frying pan the next morning before adding your eggs.

2 tbsp olive oil

2 onions, sliced into haphazard half moons

8 eggs, lightly beaten

1 tbsp butter

black pepper

1) Heat oil in a large pan on high heat. Add the onions. Stir a few times, till just beginning to soften, then turn the heat way down. Leave for about an hour, stirring every once in a while, until onions are a deep caramel brown. Set aside.

2) Melt butter in same pan. Add eggs. When about halfway scrambled, add onions. Cook until right for you: runny like my dad likes, dry like my mom likes, or in between like I like. Ground some fresh pepper on top. Serve immediately.

Serves four

Friday, 20 March 2009

the cool kid

So my little sister Laila is a pretty cool kid. A rockclimbing snowboarding disdainer of daily showers, she is the first of the family to be pubished in a periodical (biology stuff) or to get a tattoo. Last year, she went to Costa Rica through her school's study abroad program. After photographing frogs for several months, she settled into a short stint on a chocolate farm. For a few precious days, she picked and ground cocoa beans, making little packets of pure cocoa powder to bring back for us lucky people in the states who are on her good side.

I was in San Diego at the time, finishing up my degree, and it was very exciting to get a compact brown box in the mail; in it, a letter, a plastic baggy of cocoa powder, and a recipe for Beet Chocolate Cake.

Yes, beet. Now come on, it's not as weird as it sounds - people eat carrot cake all the time, even zucchini bread. Why has the lovely sweet beet been left out for so long? So I made the cake, a whopping cake that used up my whole precious bag of cocoa powder. The housemates approached it with a little fear. But after a little nibble, even Chris, who pronounced beforehand that beets tasted like dirt, kept coming back for more.

And yes, it was oh so more-ish. The beets melted into the chocolate, just leaving little purple flecks throughout the brown cake, along with a distinctive earthy afternote that made this more than your run of the mill chocolate cake. This was good stuff. And since that cake was so huge, I sliced it into small chunks which I stored in the freezer. Warmed in the microwave and then eaten with a bowl of ice cream, they were fabulous. But even straight from the freezer they were perfect: chocolatey, chewy, and special.

Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of the cake. I know, lame. I do, however, have a photo of the chocolate cupcakes I made with the last of my parent's portion of Laila's cocoa powder last week. Filled with soft ricotta and flecks of orange, these were also delicious, although I can take no credit. Like many of my favorite finds, they come from a recipe on Orangette. I changed them a bit, leaving out the bourbon and the orange-flower water ( I didn't have any), but I highly recommend them, either way.

Beet Chocolate Cake
from Laila's friend Amy

2 cups white sugar
2 cups white flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup vegetable oil
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped (or unsweetened cocoa powder)
4 eggs
3 cups shredded beets (about 2 large beets)

1) Whisk together dry ingredients in a small bowl.

2) In a double boiler, melt the chocolate. Remove from heat, let cool. Blend in eggs and oil.

3) Add half the flour mixture, blend till almost incorporated, then add half the beets, and blend till almost incorporated. Repeat. Pour into two greased 9 inch cake pans or one 9 by 13 inch pan.

4) Bake at 325 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes. Frost if you like.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009


My lasagna just made it in the oven, waving hello to the outgoing Pear and Hazelnut torte which, if it tastes as good as it smells, you will be hearing about soon enough. But that's not why I'm here today.

I'm here today humbled, slightly embarrassed, with my jaw dangling at floor-level. How could I have doubted something so simple as the potato?

To preface, I've never been that big of a fan. Mostly I like the sweet kind, sometimes I like the mashed kind, but whenever I eat potatoes, I feel like I'm eating the next step up from junk food. It's white, it's carby, and it never really seems worth it.


Thanks to The Wednesday Chef, from now on things will be different.

Start with some potatoes, a few herbs, and plenty of salt and oil. Roast them. Oh yeah, roast some nuts too. While the potatoes cook, blend a fantastically nuanced sauce of ancho chilies, hazelnuts and almonds, some garlic, and handful of parsely - even tomatoes! It comes together wonderfully, and then sits at the side of the frying pan while you fry up your already cooked potatoes until there is a nice crunchy crust. Roasted garlic cloves get tossed in, then it's all mixed with that wonderful sauce.

It may not be the prettiest dish. In fact, right before I was serving it, I thought to myself oh no, a pile of brown mushy stuff. And then we all three took a forkfull, and no one said anything. There was a sigh or two, and then a quiet, wow.

It was far from mushy. It was far from plain jane brown. Some kind of magic happened between that frying pan and those ancho chilies, and we liked it. Every bite was polished off, and I ate my side salad with a little sadness, wishing I had made more potatoes.

Yes, it was complex. There were a lot of steps. As I was making it, I didn't understand where the fried bread would come in (remember how I never read recipes?). But it all came together, and it was worth the dirty roasting pans.

Romesco Potatoes
adapted from The Wednesday Chef

I served this as a main dish for three, but it would also be great next to a grilled meaty something.

3 large, fresh, ancho chilies

2 tbsp raw hazelnuts

2 tbsp raw almonds

2 lbs Yukon Gold Potatoes

1 1/2 cups olive oil (yes, that much!)

7 whole unpeeled garlic cloves

a few bay leaves

a handful of thyme sprigs, plus 2 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves

One 1 inch slice country-style bread

1/4 cup tomato paste

1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped

3 tbsp flat leaf parsley, chopped

a good squeeze fresh lemon juice

1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spread nuts on a baking sheet. Place chilies on a separate baking sheet. Roast them both ten minutes, shaking the nuts and turning the chilies halfway through. Remove from oven and raise temperature to 400 degrees.

2) On a roasting pan, toss potatoes with unpeeled garlic cloves, bay, thyme sprigs, 2 tbsp olive oil, and 1 tsp salt. Cover tightly with tin foil and roast 50 minutes until potatoes are easily pierced with a fork.

3) Meanwhile, heat a frying pan over high heat. Add 1 tbsp olive oil, and fry bread till both sides are golden. Set aside.

4) Remove stems and deseed chilies. Chop them coarsely. Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in same pan used to fry bread. Add chili. Sauté one minute. Add tomato paste and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir till heated through, remove from heat.

5) With your hands, break bread into food processor. Add nuts and chopped garlic clove. Pulse to combine. Add chili-tomato mixture and pulse to combine. With the food processor on low, slowly pour in one cup olive oil, and blend until you have a smooth puree. Add 1 tbsp parsley and lemon. Scrape into a bowl and set aside.

6) When the potatoes are cooked and cool enough to handle, crumble them into chunky pieces in your hands or smash them with the back of a spatula. Squeeze the garlic from its skins and set aside. Add remaining two tbsps olive oil to the large frying pan, and bring to a high heat. Add the potatoes. They need plenty of room to get crispy, so if they feel crowded work in batches. Sprinkle potatoes with thyme, salt and pepper. Fry until crispy, 6-8 minutes, then stir/flip them to cook the other side.

7) When potatoes are all browned and crispy, add them all the the pan with reserved roasted garlic, reserved romesco sauce, and remaining parsley. Serve.

Monday, 16 March 2009

How we won the war and ate the Elk

Cazadero, my home town, used to be the home of Pomo Indians. I've always been fuzzy on the dates, since my dad used to claim that the scars on his back (from cyst removals) were actually arrowhead scars, earned in feats of bravery as he defended our land from the natives. And when I was five, I could see it: my dad with the antique shotgun kept in the back bedroom for scaring away the noisy bluejays, and the Pomos, their bow and arrows tense, ready for the battle.

Of course my dad won. We were here, living, after all.

But signs of the Pomos still remain: there are large rocks down by the creek which runs along the length of our property with deep grooves in them. Maybe from meditative pounding, maybe for cooking; no one really knows, it seems. When I was little, mostly with my friends but sometimes we'd let my little sister Laila tag along, we would collect acorns and pound them in the rock pits. I guess we heard a story somewhere that acorn soup was a Native American favorite. Unfortunately, not only were the acorns bitter and nasty (raw, pounded on dirty rocks...what were we expecting?) but we probably did a very good job defacing those remnants of past cultures. But heck, we were seven.

Also, deer. They were everywhere. And rabbits (jack). And squirrels. I'm sure, although at the age of seven I was watching Disney movies on repeat and could never entertain the idea of eating those fluffy things running around in the garden, that the Pomos really enjoyed them. And hogs! We have so many wild hogs out here, I can just see one roasting over a fire, handfuls of acorns in the flames, charring and popping like roasting nuts.

Now, the idea of living off the land, so to speak, is fascinating to me. I don't know if I'd really be up for it, when push came to shove, but harvesting sorrel from the fields, or dandelion greens from alongside the driveway, or blackberries from down by the creek is very satisfying, in a pioneer-woman kind of way. And although I'm not quite ready to shoot and barbecue one of the rabbits that leaps down the driveway alongside our car every evening, I don't mind enjoying the fruits (and meats) of other people's pioneering skills.

This weekend I had elk. Not a native to this area, but, through the four degrees of my friend's friend's girlfriend's uncle in Colorado, an elk was shot, divided, and transported within a day to our table - that is, the boyfriend of my friend's table. It's a complicated but direct journey that those beautiful filets took, but they showed no signs of stress after a few days of travel. On the contrary, they sat on the counter in their little plastic container contentedly, shining with a jewel-like clarity. A deep magenta, they were free of all fat, and just seemed eager for the heat of the grill.

Michael, the bearer of the meat, seasoned the filets strongly, sprinkling garlic salt, cumin, pepper, and a few good dashes of worcestshire sauce all over them. Grilled to perfection, on the plate they sat next to fresh pasta (made in the next town over) with plenty of garlic, mushrooms, and chili, and a slab of tri-tip to make sure everyone had their fill.

The elk (the smaller of the two meats above) yielded gently to the knife, but still held a satisfying chew. It was half as toothsome as the tri-tip, and the seasonings, which I was afraid would be too abrasive, melted delicately into the fatless meat. No taste of gameyness was there (a word I heard fly around the table a few times).

We munched and slurped happily, washing everything down with some Cabernet made by the person sitting next to me at the table. Pioneering, as long as I include the wine under the category (it was local after all), didn't seem half bad.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009


I like the word crispy. I like things that are crispy. Starched collars, eggrolls, kale, even hair sprayed until it feels like it's going to break into little splinters - I like it all.
So, when the title of a recipe was Crispy Pork Cutlets, and when I was at the time wanting to learn how to cook a good slab of meat, I thought the recipe sounded interesting. Capers, lemon, arugula, pork, how could it not be delicious?

But I have this little problem, sometimes I forget to read recipes. I read the title and the list of ingredients, look at the general length of the recipe, and then I make my decision, to cook or not to cook. So for crispy pork cutlets, I thought I'd be brave, face the pork, and cook.

I sliced a thick hunk of meat into chunks and pounded them to even half inch widths (only to reread the recipe and realize they were supposed to be a quarter inch)...

I chopped up sage and thyme and mixed it with coarse salt and pepper for a nice little herb rub...

and then all of a sudden, this happened:

Yes, after all my moaning about deep fried food in Scotland, here I was in my kitchen sinking my beautifully pounded cutlets into a pan full of boiling oil. Yikes.

So I'm not posting that recipe. It was good. And the fried-ness was saved a bit by a the bed of fresh arugula, but still. I'm not planning on making it again anytime soon. Instead here is something cleaner, and in my opinion better in flavor anyway. A bowl of spicy tomato broth filled with delicate pink shrimp and finely sliced fingerling potatoes.

The most difficult part about this fabulously flavorful and filling recipe was peeling and deveining the shrimp, an unnecessary step if you get them done for you in your grocery store. With a crusty French baguette to soak up the spicy broth, this was hearteningly healthy after the oil incident.

Shrimp and Fingerling Potatoes in Tomato Broth
adapted from Bon Appetit

Note: I have approximately doubled the amount of paprika, rosemary and chili flakes from the original recipe. If you want a milder broth, halve the amounts.

2 tbsps olive oil
2 cups finely chopped onions (I used two large onions)
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsps paprika (yes, tablespoons!)
1 14.5 ounce can fire-roasted tomatoes in juice
1 heaping tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes
1 cup dry white wine
1 8-ounce bottle clam juice (scary sounding I know, but trust me)
3 cups water
8 ounces fingerling potatoes, cut into 1/4 thick rounds
1 pound peeled deveined uncooked shrimp

1) Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat, then add the onions and cook gently till they are soft and have a nice brown color, 15 to 20 minutes. Add garlic and paprika, stir together for two minutes.

2) Stir in tomatoes with their juices and cook, stirring often, for about 30 minutes. It will be very thick. (I added a 1/4 cup of water to mine halfway through because it was looking a little dry. If you do this just make sure to cook the water off before proceeding.)

3) Stir in rosemary and red pepper, add the wine and cook another ten minutes until the liquid is completely evaporated. Add clam juice, then three cups of water.

4) Bring broth to a boil then add the potatoes. Simmer about five minutes, till potatoes are tender, then add the shrimp. Cook them just shy of five minutes, until they are nice and pink. Season with plenty of salt and pepper. Serve.

Serves 4

Saturday, 7 March 2009

blueberries and buttermilk

Blueberries and Buttermilk are the key to what I believe to be the best pancakes around. Light, fluffy, with plenty of fruit studding the golden cakes, these are Mom's specialty. With some home-squeezed grapefruit juice and a few strips of bacon, this is the only breakfast that can get us all around the table before our days begin, taking precedence over the all too frequent snatches of toast or bowls of granola.

Not being much of a cook anymore, Mom makes up for it with her breakfast wonder dishes, especially these pancakes. And we all have the way we like them. Dad prefers no blueberries but extra butter, I like mine with extra blueberries and a little bowl of yogurt for dipping, Mom likes to sprinkle cinnamon sugar over them, and Laila has a special syrup pooling technique that keeps the syrup from touching even the tiniest edge of the pancake until the precise moment that she is ready to take a bite. But we all love them, and except for the several bowls that it takes to mix up the different ingredients (see the three below) they are easy-peasy.

Buttermilk Blueberry Pancakes

1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

1) Whisk together in a small bowl, set aside.

1 1/2 cups buttermilk
2 eggs, divided

2) Whip egg whites till stiff. In a separate bowl, whip buttermilk and egg yolks till frothy.

3) Fold buttermilk into flour mixture then fold in egg whites also. Pour over

1 1/2 tbsp melted butter

4) Fold very gently till almost combined. 

5) Have a skillet hot. If using nonstick like we did, no greasing is required. Gently fold in

1 cup semi-defrosted blueberries, drained

6) With a 1/2 cup scoop (or similar), scoop out even portions. Cook 3-5 minutes, until the edges of the pancakes begin to dry out and the little air bubbles are bursting.

7) Flip, cook another three minutes, or until the pancakes are a deep golden brown.

8) Serve immediately with any of the following:
warm maple syrup
extra butter
cinnamon sugar
plain yogurt
extra blueberries

Makes 16 pancakes (We cook ours in two batches, the time it takes us to eat the first batch is usually just the right amount of time for the second batch to cook).

Friday, 6 March 2009

the art of dessert...with mayonnaise

When I was born, my maternal grandparents moved from the midwest to Sebastopol, fifty minutes away from my parents and the new bébé. While I was growing up, we would often go over there for meals, including mean Swedish meatballs, gravy-drenched Swiss steak, and my grandpa's famous mac and cheese casserole topped with cornflakes. And there would always be dessert. My mom's favorite angel food cake with fruit, or my dad's favorite coconut cream layer cake, or even just a bowl of Laila's lusted after lemon sorbet.

But sometimes, on dreaded, thankfully unfrequent evenings, there was jello salad with a blob of mayonnaise on top.

I remember the first time this was served to me: a thick slice of green jello, canned fruit cocktail jiggling in it, suspended in the gelatinous lump. And then the mayonnaise jar came out, and, as if in slow motion, my horrified young eyes watched as a large spoonful went thwack on top. Now I would like to think that I wasn't horribly rude, that I maybe even nibbled a bit of jello with that mayonnaise garnish. But I'm pretty sure that's not how it went. In fact, after that blob of mayonnaise the night is a dark blur, probably involving some very upset children, and maybe a few disappointed tears.

I am not a fan of mayonnaise. In fact, I'm pretty sure I have the mayonnaise-hating gene that my mom's sister Lori and brother David have. It just doesn't work for us.

And I have tried; potato salad, coleslaw, BLT's. But the white gooey cream just makes me feel ill. I can't help imagining it in a lump in my stomach, coating my insides with scary mayonnaise-ness.

And then there was mayonnaise cake.

This month's Cooks Illustrated had an article on something called "Emergency Chocolate Cake," made during World War II when things like fresh eggs weren't readily available, so creative substitutions were made. In other words: mayo. As I read the article, mixed with my horror was a kind of morbid fascination. Chocolate? Mayonnaise? It seemed so wrong, and yet...
So I made it. Of course I had to. I used hot coffee to melt bittersweet chocolate, I whisked in a lot of mayonnaise, I added flour, I baked. And you know what? It was awesome.

With no butter and only one little egg, the mayonnaise takes over on texture, making a super moist yet delicate crumb. The coffee takes a backseat to the chocolate, with just a hint here and there, but the simplicity of eating a chunk of straight chocolate cake, maybe with coffee or tea, maybe with your morning oatmeal (like I did this morning) is so satisfying. And I didn't think about the mayonnaise at all! No where in that chocolate did I find that slightest hint of whatever it is that makes me run whimpering from a normal mayonnaise dish. And like I said, I used a lot of mayonnaise.

No fancy techniques and no fancy ingredients (at least for those of us who keep plenty of chocolate around the house), this cake cake be thrown together at a moment's notice. The cake could be easily dressed up with fresh berries or frosting, but I preferred it plain, so I could savor the wildness of eating mayonnaise with gusto.

The Best Easy Chocolate Cake
from Cook's Illustrated: March/April 2009

1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup cocoa powder (they recommend Dutch-processed)
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate finely chopped
1 cup piping hot coffee
2/3 cup mayonnaise
1 egg
2 tsp vanilla extract

1) Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and 8 inch square baking dish (I didn't have one, I used an 8 inch diameter round dish).

2) Whisk flour, sugar, soda, and salt in a large bowl; set aside. In a separate bowl, combine chocolate and cocoa powder; pour the coffee over the chocolate and whisk till very smooth; let it cool slightly so the mayonnaise doesn't curdle. Whisk in the mayonnaise, egg, and vanilla. Stir this mixture into the flour.

3) Pour into prepared pan and bake 30 - 35 minutes (mine took the full 35).

4) Let cool completely before you cut into it, and you probably want to serve it straight from the pan.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

kale, take two

I am a firm believer in eating your vegetables. Yes, I am also a firm believer in desserts and cheese and cream, but vegetables make me feel good, like I'm taking care of myself, maybe even like I'm doing a bit of good in the world (when I eat local, organic greens). I count among my accomplishments in life teaching Ian to put spinach in curry, introducing Emily to eat raw broccoli, and teaching my housemate from last year that chard was in fact not rhubarb, but under the right circumstances could be just as yummy.

So I try, I really do. But with kale, man did I try. Until recently with the introduction of the Zuni Café's Kale to my repetoire, I had some mighty bad experiences. I went through a stir fry phase last year. I thought I could add chopped kale to the skillet and, like spinach, it would wilt away in the last few minutes of cooking adding just a bit of color with lots of bonus vitamins. Instead, I would have a bowl of lovely, sesame oil spiked vegetables, and then the kale. Tough and chewy, I would sit and try try try to like the stuff, while my jaw got more and more sore and I just got plain sick of chewing. And then there was soup. Again, I thought it would act like spinach and just in the last few minutes of any soup's simmer melt away. Chewy chewy mess is what it was.

But, with the future of kale in my life at stake, I didn't give up. Zuni gave me boiled kale, and then I ate kale soup, and then there were kale chips. I ate them in New York at Blue Hill café, and then when I got home I found a recipe waiting for me in MAGAZINE.

I made kale chips that afternoon. With added salt (the recipe didn't call for any), the kale leaves crisped up in the oven to featherweight snacks that crumbled between our teeth with a wonderful earthy flavor. The flavors of the kale were singled out by the heat, and an almost mushroom like quality shined through, making the leaves fabulous little savoury snacks unlike anything we had had before (I think they were even better than the Blue Hill ones, maybe because I made 25 leaves instead of two!).

Tuscan Kale Chips
adapted from Bon Appetit

One bunch Tuscan/lacinato kale, rinsed, dried
One tablespoon olive oil
Salt, to taste

1. Cut the leaves in half, removing the woody stems. Toss leaves with olive oil and salt.

2. Arrange the leaves on two baking sheets, in a single layer if possible. Bake at 250 degrees for 30 minutes.

3. Let cool. Munch!