Thursday, 30 April 2009

Green like Envy, Popeye, and Mustard

For some reason, today it's hard for me to begin writing. Maybe it's because, like my last post, I have spent so little time in the grocery store, in the kitchen, or at my kitchen table. The past two weeks have, in fact, been all about exploring what other people cook, in city restaurants, in Santa Cruz cabins, in thrown together Mission picnics.

There's been pizza at Delfina: thin, crispy crust that holds its own against four cheeses, tangy tomato sauce, and one crispy basil leaf that permeates every saucy dripping bite with freshness.

There's been crispy chicken and black bean noodles at San Tung, sided with a mustard green and pork soup that is the ideal combination of slippery dark greens, spicy broth, and thin delicate slices of meat.

There's been limoncello gelato, frozen homemade brownies, chocolate dipped halva bars, and a ginger banana bread that nearly made me keel over it was so good.

I think the only thing that's kept me going as a healthy-sized person who has yet to collapse under the weight of all that food has been the juice.

One of the great thing about visitors is the gifts they bring with them. Especially if the visitor knows you well enough to bring exactly what you want: cookbooks, custard, and heather beer.

I still haven't had time to read through my new books, but I have checked in on the juice section. It's a British book, so some of the ingredients are a bit hard to come by here. I've been skipping over the recipes that call for elderflower cordial, red currants, or "full fat jersey milk."

But those that call for ingredients that can be found for under fifty cents at the Chinese market down the street, those caught my attention.

Ian and I made several, including one with the above ingredients mixed with some green melon. That particular one ended up being a little strong for us, the bite of the watercress not quite tempered enough with the sweetness of melon and apple.

But after several tries, we felt we were real juicing experts. The size of the fruit or vegetable, the pressure applied to each piece as it went through the filter, the switchbacks between leaves and juicy chunks of fruit - we had the whole process down. And we weren't shy to declare our favorite's.

Ian's was the exotic flavored one: sweet pineapple, green cilantro, and a good hunk of ginger. The flavors were bright and almost floral, with a bite from the ginger that sealed the syrupy pineapple flavor perfectly into the tangy cilantro.

My favorite was a juice called Popeye's Secret. A handful of spinach, a juicy honeydew melon, sage leaves, and some parsley. At first, I was dubious. But anything with spinach in it I'm willing to try (spinach: the miracle cure for all), and I had stashed some purple sage leaves from my parent's garden in the fridge. The end result was not only a beautiful shade of green, but was so delicious we both slurped it up in moments. The spinach, except for the color, disappeared into the flavor of the honeydew, and the whole thing was gently spiked with an herbal element from the sage and the parsley which, even though we knew what had gone into the juice, kept us staring into the cup long after it was gone, transported into the world of those odd and compelling flavors.

Popeye's Secret
adapted from Super Food, Super Juice, Super Health by Michael van Straten

1 honeydew melon, deseeded, peeled, and cubed
1 small bunch or very large handful washed spinach
sage leaves, 4-8 depending on size and preference
parsley, 8 or so sprigs

In a juicer, juice everything.

Serves 2.

Ian's Choice
adapted from Super Food, Super Juice, Super Health by Michael van Straten

1/2 pineapple, peeled and cut into chunks
1 small bunch cilantro (or coriander, if you're British)
1 large nub ginger, peeled.

In a juicer, juice everything.

Serves 2.

Thursday, 23 April 2009


A move to San Francisco, a visit from Scotland, a second internship...I haven't really been around lately, and I haven't really been cooking.

It's as if I'm having withdrawals: I pass the kitchen on the way out in the morning and think maybe tonight...and then the night comes and I'm whisked away to that great Thai restaurant down the street, or the little bakery with the amazing olive foccacia, or the taqueria in the Mission with the special pulled pork...

If I had a chance to stop and breathe, it might feel glamorous. But between the sunburn from yesterday's picnic and my liver barely recovered from a whirlwind of San Francisco beers, all I really want to do is stand in front of the stove and stir something.

It's been good though - there are great shadows in my new apartment that stretch across the plush white carpet as the sun goes down over the ocean. There are parks nearby, full of tiny flowers and ambling people and air that begs to be breathed slowly and deeply. And there are of course the restaurants, the cafés, and the bakeries, stretching out before me like truffles in a chocolate shop, each waiting to be tasted.

So instead of a recipe to be cooked, I have this to share with you: cucumber, gin, and ginger.

It was a very hot weekend. Into the 90's in San Francisco! A Cucumber Julep saved me. Ice muddled with thin half moons of fresh cucumber, a hefty pour of Henrick's gin, and a swirl of spicy Ginger Brew came together into a sigh-inducing slurry that let me sit back and breathe for a few minutes.

Cucumber Julep

Note: Hendrick's Gin is made from cucumbers, and is particularly tasty. If you don't have it, any other gin will do, but I have to say that Hendrick's is by far the best.

1 part Hendrick's Gin
3 parts Ginger Beer/Soda/Brew, preferably Reed's
thin slivers of cucumber, deseeded

1) Put the cucumber in a large cup, and add a layer of ice over it. With a pestle or some other blunt tool, smash the ice and cucmber together. Stir in gin. Stir in ginger brew. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

these memories of figs and summer

I have this memory: me, italy, summer; heat, food, gelato; loneliness, writing, more food.

It was two weeks, I was a freshly 15, and when I came back, everyone's question was: what was your favorite thing about Italy? The gelato, I said, over and over. The gelato and the ravioli. Oh, and the proscuitto! and the pizza of course...

I think they were hoping for me to say something about the Sistine Chapel (which I admired as an appetizer to my afternoon ice cream) or the Pantheon (I think it was a dark chocolate and coconut cone that evening), but I could never really get as excited about the buildings and paintings and fountains as I could about the sheer deliciousness of everything that I ate. The watermelon from the road stands, the blackberries that hung heavily from everyone's backyard, the fat and fluffy gnocchi, the vendors selling toasted nuts and strings of sausages, the cones of shaved ice doused in espresso and sweetened cream - there was even a night when, after walking around in the evening heat for hours, the sun was finally down and we sat and celebrated with warm croissants filled with gelato (apricot and mandarin for me).

And although the gelato is still the highlight in my mind, and the high standard to which I hold all iced concoctions, it is the lunches that linger as something special.

I stayed just outside of Rome with the family of my aunt's college roommate. Two daughters, just under my age, the mother, Paula, the father, Valter, and the nonno, who sat most of the day quietly watching badly dubbed american television shows in the sweltering heat.

I had never really been away from home before, I spoke only enough italian to ask about the weather and say I was from California, and I was terrified.

But oh, there was the food.

Of course, we had pasta almost every night. Spinach and ricotta delicately tucked into ravioli. Pasta arrabiata flecked with chilis and fresh parmesan, pasta à la carbonara, pasta with a sauce of breaded fish fillets, pasta with baby artichokes, pasta with five cheeses...

But the lunches. Every day at home had pretty much the same routine. Paula, the girls, and I would drive to a nearby village in the mornings to take a few photos and admire the tiny winding streets. They had names like Fornillo, or Trevignano, or Anguillara. Maybe we would wander for ten minutes or maybe for an hour, but we would always end up at the bakery, followed closely by the meat shop. In the bakery, while I drooled over the pastries, Paula would have long ovals of pizza bianca wrapped up: puffy, foccacia-like bread, adorned only with salt and a brushing of olive oil. At the meat shop, we would be handed a packet of freshly shaved prosciutto slices, thin as lace and wafting a deep, meaty scent through the stiff white paper they were wrapped in.

By this time, I would be starving. I've always been a hungry person, despite the fact that I arrived in Rome quite skinny. After two weeks, I gained ten pounds; Paula would look at me approvingly as say "So much better! You were much too skinny in the beginning!" So after a morning's anticipation, and the torture of knowing someone else was eating those magical looking pastries I had seen in the bakery, we would arrive back at the house.

Across the long wooden table the food would be laid. The pizza bianca, the prosciutto, a platter of fresh, fat, green figs, and a bowl of cool, fluffy ricotta.

First of all, it must be said that each of these ingredients was delicious on its own. The pizza bianca was salty with just the right balance of crisp outer crust and soft chewy center. The proscuitto was always impossibly thin, and tore into little shreds of savory goodness that melted on my tongue like candy for grownups. And the figs - oh my god the figs. I love figs, and I loved these figs. Off a neighbour's tree, bursting with syrupy ripeness, they were delectable. If left on my own with a whole bowl, I could have easily polished them off. Finally, the ricotta. This was something new for me, since I had only ever had ricotta out of a plastic tub, smeared on lasagna noodles and then baked to oblivion. This was entirely different. Creamy and fluffy, light with a touch of sweetness, the ricotta perplexed me. I kept trying to compare it to whipped cream, or butter, or even cream cheese. It wasn't like any of these things. Entirely special in its freshness, it somehow felt clean and even pure - like something a milkmaid would have eaten two hundred years ago, sitting atop an overturned wooden bucket and staring out at wheaten fields, sighing with contented delight.

Anyway...we would set the table, and sit down for a moment to admire it all. Nonno would say something in Italian, and I would stare at the figs, feeling my fingers twitch and my mouth salivate. Finally, someone would break off a piece of pizza bianca, and it would begin. I hesitate to use the word sandwich, because they were really nothing like that. What is was was this: the salty bread, a smear of sweet ricotto, a few shreds of salty prosciutto, and then a bright green fig, split in half so the insides spilled across the whole assemblage. It was messy, it was sweet and salty, it was phenomenal.

Every afternoon, I would stuff myself with every possible combination: a half a fig filled with ricotta; pizza bianca and prosciutto; proscuitto wrapped figs, riccota and pizza bianca. The ingredients never changed, but every bite was a surprise, and I never wanted those lunches to end. I'd forget about the oppressive heat, or the fact that everyone I knew and loved was on the other side of the planet - I would eat and be happy.

The downside of having this kind of memory is that nothing can ever replicate it. I still eat figs and love them, but they aren't quite the same; the proscuitto always seems to be a bit dry and stringy, when I'm not on the outskirts of Rome, and the bread, well, I havne't even attempted to match that bread yet.

And then we come to the ricotta. Having harbored these memories bordering on eight years now, ricotta is just beginning to re-enter my life. It was slow at first, and I was wary, let me tell you. But we are getting closer, ricotta and I. I've managed to find, at some of the smaller markets, a ricotta that resembles the one of my memory in its silkyness and creaminess, and I've been slowly and shyly creeping up to it, trying it with fruit, or on my staple whole-grain toast in the morning.

Then, in honor of the lemon, I decided to bake with it. I thought I'd start simple: eggs, lemons, sugar, flour, and of course, ricotta. Beaten together and poured into a beautiful baking dish I found stashed in the back of the cupboard, and Meyer lemon pudding cake makes an entrance.

Of course, this is something entirely different that those afternoon meals. But at the same time, I feel like it somehow fits in. It's an offhanded recipe - almost rustic, if you can call a pudding that. There's nothing prentious about it, and it's served family style. I can just see it on that wooden table, waiting patiently for the eaters to finish off the meat and bread so they can move on to this almost custard-like finale, spooning it onto their plates and eating it with the last few figs, or perhaps a few bright raspberries. Like ricotta itself, this pudding is humble, but it sticks in your mind and hangs around there, setting itself up as something a little more permanent than a summer afternoon in Italy.

Meyer Lemon Pudding Cake
inspired by Italy and The Traveler's Lunchbox

4 tbsp butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
zest of one or two Meyer lemons
3 eggs, room temperature, separated
1/3 cup Meyer lemon juice
1/3 cup flour
8 oz fresh ricotta
1/4 tsp salt

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and butter a baking dish, I used a ten inch casserole dish (It should be around 1 qt). You should also have another dish, large enough to accomodate the baking dish you intend to cook the pudding in.

2) Beat the butter until little tails form, then add the sugar and the zest and beat until fluffy. One at a time, add the egg yolks, beating well after each addition. With the beaters on low, add half the lemon juice, half the flour, and half the ricotta. Beat till combined, then repeat with rest of juice, flour, and ricotta.

3) Put a kettle on to boil. Wash your beaters. Beat egg whites till foamy, add salt, then beat until stiff peaks form. Gently fold in about 1/4 of the egg whites into the lemon mixture. Continue adding big scoops of beaten egg white and folding in until completely combined. Pour into prepared dish. Put dish inside second larger dish.

4) Carefully, without splashing, pour boiling water around small dish until it comes up about one inch along the sides. Carefully (!) slide into the oven.

5) Bake 45 to 55 minutes, until center is set and top is golden brown. Mine took about 50 minutes. Let cool ten minutes in water bath. Serve in dish with a big spoon for scooping.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Abundant Beginnings

You might have noticed in my last post that tucked behind that stack of cookies is an obscene amount of citrus. Minneolas, tangelos, Meyer lemons, and oranges have been flooding into our kitchen from neighbors, friends, and well-placed aunties. A bottle of homemade Meyer lemon limoncello even made it to our table last night.

And, miraculously, none of it has gone to waste. All those orange, yellow, and inbetween globes have been juiced, baked, sweetened, and enjoyed for the past several weeks, and now I'm not sure what we are going to do without this influx.

Yesterday I made minneola scones. Last week I made several batches of lemon and mint syrup to stir into sparkling water in the afternoons. And today I made Meyer lemon pound cake.

I've tried several of these cakes. One from an old recipe hand-written in one of the innumerable folders we have lying around, one from Bon Appetit magazine, one from Chez Panisse Cooking...the best, by far, is still my stand-by I've been making from high school.

A lemon cake swirled with buttermilk and dripping with a tangy sweet glaze, it's subtle but spectacular. A humble loaf in that takes on a pleasing but mild browning in the oven, it doesn't look so exciting, just sitting there on a plate, but the flavor makes up for it.

From Fine Cooking, this was the first cake I made that was complicated. That is, the first cake I made where I didn't throw everything at once into the bowl and mix. What happened was, I read the article preceeding the recipe. Simple, silly, I know, but I had never done it before. I'd flip through the magazines, just reading the titles of the recipes. Like those people who just read newspaper headlines, I thought I was getting all the information I needed.

But when I read the article, I learned something. Emulsions, stroke numbers, egg temperature...all these simple little details that change the cake so much that I had been ignoring!

Since then, I can't count how many times I've made this pound cake. In fact, at one point, I even thought I was getting bored with it, so I started serving it alongside other flavors: a blueberry pound cake, or a sour cream pound cake. Invariably, the lemon would be scarfed up and slices of blueberry studded cake or swirled sour cream cake would sit sadly on the table, totally rejected.

And it's really not that hard. Once you wrap your mind around things like adding the flour in stages, or gently folding in the lemon zest instead of whipping it through, the cake comes together so easily, with only the most basic ingredients (that is, if you have all the Meyer lemons around that we do).

The cake is light and moist, laced with pungent zest, and punched up by that tangy glaze. It's delicious by itself, with whipped cream, or even lightly toasted the next morning with a light smear of butter.

Meyer Lemon Pound Cake
adapted from Fine Cooking
makes one loaf

To be clear about what I've changed from the original recipe: I use Meyer lemons, they used regular; I bake mine for a lot longer, since it always seems to come out totally raw with their recommended 45 minutes; I heat my glaze (instead of just whisking the ingredients together), which tempers the chalky flavor that I find powdered sugar to have.
Finally, it is very important that the butter and eggs be at room temperature. If your butter is cold, microwave it. If the eggs are cold, let them soak in a bowl of warm water until they are warm to the touch.

1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk
zest of 1 or 2 lemons (I prefer 2)

for the glaze:
juice of 1 lemon
about 3/4 cup powdered sugar

1) Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, and grease a loaf pan. I like a glass pan or a light-colored metal pan (the darker the pan, the darker the crust).

2) In a small bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, and salt.

3) With an electric mixer, beat the butter in a large bowl until little tails form and it is light in color. Add the sugar, beat until fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until combined before adding the next. Don't forget to scrape the sides of the bowl as you do this.

4) Turn the mixer to low (if it isn't already) and add 1/3 of the flour. Just before it's fully incorporated, add 1/2 the buttermilk. Just before that is fully incorporated, add another 1/3 of the flour. Repeat with remaining buttermilk and flour. Just before the last batch of flour is incorporated, switch to a rubber spatula and gently fold in the lemon zest, stirring until everything is just barely combined.

5) Scrape batter into prepared loaf pan and bake until a toothpick poked into the center of the cake comes out clean. Mine usually takes 55 minutes to an hour, but I start checking it at 50 minutes.

6) Let cool in pan about ten minutes, then invert onto a cooling rack. While cake is cooling, combine powdered sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Over medium low heat, cook until sugar is dissolved and glaze is heated through, but don't boil. With a toothpick, poke holes all over the top of the cake. Using a pastry brush (a spoon would work okay here too), brush glaze all over cake, stopping every once and a while to let the glaze absord. Use all the glaze.

7) When completely cool, slice and serve.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

the Original

Some of my first and fondest memories are of licking long-handled wooden spoons. Mom would stir together a batch of slightly altered Tollhouse cookies, judiciously using two spoons so that Laila and I would each have our fair share of dough.

The number of chocolate chips was very important, along with the amount of dough that coated those chocolate chips, as well as the coatage on the actual spoon. If our spoons weren't equal in chip count and dough factor, there were complaints, and there were invariably pleads for just one more chocolate chip, pleeeeease!

When I started cooking in elementary school, the chocolate chip cookie was the first recipe I tackled. I started with Mom's version of the Tollhouse, with a reduced amount of flour for a crispier and thinner cookie. They crumbled like pieces of lacy toffee, and disappeared quickly from the colorful metal tins we stored them in.

Eventually I progressed to my own recipe, with whole wheat flour instead of white, and additions of ground flax seed and wheat germ to make them "healthy." I used to make them in college, forcing them on my roommates who were endlessly on very boring diets. I touted their cancer-fighting abilities, and they disappeared rather quickly. I can be convincing, when I want to be.

Although the recipe makes a fabulous cookie, I have been on this "new" kick recently. With my parent's grocery money and a big yellow kitchen with every appliance and utensil I could want, how can I not want to discover as many new recipes as possible?

So yesterday I did the unthinkable, in the context of our family's almost three decade allegiance to the same base recipe - I made a different chocolate chip cookie.

This decision was not made lightly. In fact, since I've been home from Scotland, my mom has been begging to make my cookies. You know, the healthy ones, she keeps saying. But I wanted what this month's Cook's Illustrated promised me: a perfect balance between toffee-like crisp edges and a chewy gooey center; I wanted something different.

So I did it, I browned the butter, a first for my cookie repetoire, I whisked and let rest, whisked and let rest, and then as a final, personal touch, I dotted the top of each butter-rich chocolate-laden with a sprinkle of fleur de sel. Yum.

Although this new recipe won't necessarily replace our old one, it does offer a different richness with the browned butter, a different caramel-ness with the extra brown sugar, and that something special with the fleur de sel. Oh - and they are not healthy at all, which, in many ways, makes them much more fun.

Original Chocolate Chip Cookies
makes 48 cookies

Note: because this is a kid-friendly recipe, it is very simple. The cookies may benefit from beating the sugar and the butter first, then adding the eggs and the vanilla, then adding the dry ingredients. I, however, like them just fine the unfussy way.

2 cups whole wheat or white flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
2 eggs
2 sticks butter, softened
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp ground flaxseed (optional)
2 tbsp wheat germ (optional)
1 package or 2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

1) Preheat oven to 350.

2) In a large mixing bowl, mix all ingredients (preferably with a wooden spoon).

3) On two greased cookie sheets, form small balls of cookie dough, about 1 inch diameter, and place them three across, four down, so you have twelve cookies on each sheet. Bake approximately 12 minutes, depending on the strength of your oven. Let cool on wire racks.

The Other Chocolate Chip Cookies
Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
adapted slightly from Cook's Illustrated
makes 16 large cookies

1 3/4 cups white flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
14 tbsp butter (I used salted, CI recommends unsalted)
1/2 cup white sugar
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 1/4 cups semisweet chocolate chips
fleur de sel (optional)

1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease two large cookie sheets. In a small bowl, whisk the flour and baking soda together and set aside.

2) In a large (10 inch or so) skillet, heat 10 tbsp butter. When it's fully melted, start to swirl the pan gently, cooking another few minutes until the butter is nicely browned. Pour into a large bowl, then stir in remaining 4 tbsp butter till totally melted.

3) Add white and brown sugars, salt, and vanilla and whisk together. Add egg and egg yolk and whisk about 30 seconds till smooth. Let mixture rest for a few minutes, whisk again for 30 seconds. Repeat two more times. Mixture should be thick and shiny, with no lumps.

4) Stir in flour mixture until just combined, then add chocolate chips.

5) Divide dough into 16 portions, 8 for each tray. The cookies, will be large, about 3 tbsps each. Take a pinch of fleur de sel and press it lightly into the top of each cookie.

6) Bake cookies one tray at a time, 10-14 minutes. Mine took 11. Let cool on a wire rack while second tray bakes.