Sunday, 28 June 2009

Charred



I don't have much of a story today. But I don't need one. I only need the green beans.

Slim, sweet, green beans: delicious raw but spectacular roasted.

From the garden of sisters Silvia and Josefina, the beans were beautiful on their own. Picked that morning, little white flowers from the flowering stalks still clung to them, and even in the 100 degree heat of the Healdsburg afternoon they snapped perfectly when munched as a snack.

But thank god we didn't eat them all. Because despite the heat, the mouth of the oven yawned for food.

Slightly charred, the pods crisped up in the oven while the small beans inside stayed smooth and soft. A sweet smokiness came with every salt-crusted bite, and I probably would have eaten the whole platter if there weren't others to share them with.



Roasted Green Beans

1 pound green beans
olive oil
sea salt

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. If your beans have stems, stem them. Spread beans on a baking tray, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and toss to coat. Roast 20 minutes, or 15 minutes on convection setting, stirring every so often. You want them browning, but not burnt. Refrain from removing them too early. Revel in simplicity.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Pop, it's done



In times of upheaval, sometimes the only thing to do is focus on small things around us. 

Like snacking on pea leaves from a friend's garden (yes they taste just like peas!).


Or remembering the delicious deconstructed lemon verbena cheesecake from an event last week.


Or popcorn.

I love popcorn. So much, in fact, that I can't believe it hasn't been mentioned here before. I went through this phase in the beginning of high school: every afternoon after I got home, I'd pop a bag of popcorn, dress it with some kind of topping, go up to my room and crank the stereo, and devour the entire bag. And I was a skinny little thing back then, barely past 100 pounds. I'm not sure where all that melted butter I added would go, but no matter the day, that bag of popcorn kept me going.

In college, I found myself edging back to that comfort tactic. With my one tiny fridge and a microwave that belonged to my roommate, the options were few. But popcorn was always one of them, and slathered with butter, salt, and yeast, again it saved me.

The yeast. Let me take a moment to talk about the yeast. In the hippieland of Cazadero, it's not that strange. I remember being very young and watching my friend's mother, Barbara, sprinkle some strange yellow flakey stuff all over our perfectly good popcorn before we settled in to watch a movie. But then I tasted it - if I had had the vocabulary at seven to swear and demand more of that sweetass yellow crack dust I would have. Instead, I paid more attention to the bowl of popcorn, and didn't remember much about the film.

The other great thing about yeast (besides being as moorish as I imagine crack to be) is that it's good for you. Full of B vitamins, nutritional yeast, as it's called, lends a spectacular savoriness and unusual flavor to popcorn, all the while giving a nutritional kick. 


Now, it's not for everyone of course. I remember several instances where international students in my third year college apartment building looked at the stuff and in German or Swedish or whatever language they happened to speak, dissed it. Which is fine. To each his own. But me? As many people as I can successfully introduce to popcorn with butter and yeast, I will. 

A word about butter. You can not skip the butter. If the yeast is the soul of the popcorn, butter is the heart. Butter brings it all together. Butter is the glue that connects yeast to kernel. Butter is beautiful.

Now that I'm no longer in college, life looks different. Problems come in different guises, days come with different challenges, but still, the popcorn is there.

My post college popcorn is a little different though. Spiked with sambal olek, it's like a grown up popcorn - fiery and salty, buttery and yeasty.

A big bowl of the stuff, maybe with a cold beer to celebrate the recent sunny weather (two whole days of sun!), is enough to to turn anyone's mood, in my opinion.



Spicy Popcorn for Grown Ups à la Lisa

1/3 cup or so popcorn
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp sambal olek
2-4 tbsp nutrional yeast
salt (optional)

1) Make your popcorn. I prefer an air popper, but a pot on the stove works too.

2) Melt the butter and the sambal olek together. In our house sans microwave, this involves a little crockery dish we stick in the oven. Stir the olek and butter together when butter is fully melted.

3) When corn is popped and butter melted, pour butter over popcorn, using hands or a spoon to distribute throughout the bowl. Sprinkle with yeast, and salt if desired. And if eaten with pea leaves, it's practically a complete meal.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Give me Heat





Sometimes, to make the world feel right, you have to trick yourself.

See, it's supposed to be summer. It's supposed to be hot and sticky, with so much sun you have to hide under trees or umbrellas or sunscreen.

But summer in San Francisco is grey. Really grey. 

From my kitchen window that looks out towards the Pacific, I can count on one hand how many times I've seen the sun in the past three weeks. Sigh.

It's okay, really. If I don't think about how half an hour away in any direction everyone else is getting that barbeque, picnic, and swimming pool weather. If I remind myself that everyone else in this foggy city is in the same situation, and are used to it, and have probably lived through it many years and survived.

But I just can't help myself - I want true summer.

So I've been trying to trick myself. From the Chinese grocery down the street, I've been buying baby coconuts, sawing them open, and drinking the coconut juice. A cocktail umbrella, a beach chair, and some sand would be nice to complete the equation, but I've settled for thick socks and scarves while I slurp the juice.

I've also been eating mountains of cherries and strawberries, which, in a sane world, are only available in that thick summer heat. I eat the cherries, and I think about driving with my mom the long way home from school, a huge bag of Bings sitting between us, spitting the pits out the wide open windows with the hot wind blowing in our faces. I eat the strawberries and I think of searching through our jungle-like garden for the tiny wild varieties, and sneaking them like precious jewels before my sister found them and I would be forced to share. 

And then there is the bread salad. A concept I'm just getting used to, for one thing. It seems so contradictory: not bread and salad, but bread salad? But with that just right combination of tomatoes and basil, bread salad is not only delicious and easy, but to me, it screams of summer.

I got the idea from reading back through my journals about last summer's trip through Spain. I've talked about this trip before, and about my great friend Eli who showed us around her home town of
Torremolinos in the south of Spain. It was unbelievably hot there in July, so hot your flesh seemed to cook from the moment you woke up in the morning, even if you weren't in direct sun. It was a game to find ways to stay cool. We tried everything from living in the ocean water, to drinking copious quantities of tinto de verano (see photo), to taking long siestas under slow-moving fans. 

When we weren't trying to stay cool, we were eating. I credit Eli with introducing me to one of my true loves in life: churros y chocolate, as well as making sure that I got my daily tapas from a different bar in the city every day. But from her own kitchen, Eli would make us an Andalucian classic: fried bread topped with a puree of tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil, with a good pinch of salt.

We ate it on the balcony of her top floor apartment, the high rise hotels and the salty sea before us on the hot mornings of July last year. When I think of those breakfasts, I can't help but feel the heat: hot, sticky, oppressive and wonderful.

My own version isn't quite the same, and granted is not followed up by a freshly fried Spanish churro dipped in a thick pudding-like chocolate, but it still brings me back to those mornings of glorious heat in the height of summer.


Bread and Tomato Salad

1/2 of a sweet baguette, preferably day old
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
6-8 tomatoes, depending on size, chopped
small handful of basil, torn
salt and pepper

1) Cut up the bread into bite sized chunks, crusts included. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large frying pan over medium heat, then add the bread. Cook for about two minutes, till golden on one side, then flip bread and sprinkle garlic in the pan. Cook another two minutes or so, until bread is golden on both sides and garlic is fragrant. Remove from heat.

2) Combine tomatoes, basil, 1 tbsp olive oil, salt and pepper in a bowl. When ready to serve, quickly toss together warm bread and garlic with tomato mixture. Serve immediately. 


Serves 2

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

What You Want



I was barely seventeen the first time I went to Paris. Barely out of high school. Barely breathing those first whiffs of freedom before heading down to San Diego for the dreaded dorm life on university.

It was a week of work and play - I was there with Mom for the Pret à Porter show (clothes of course), and we stayed in a little apartment just off the Rue de Bastille. We did normal Parisian things: ate vast quantities of croissants and baguette with strawberry jam and butter for breakfast, ordered chocolate mousse at the end of every dinner, and most importantly, stopped every afternoon for a café crême and a pastry. Our goal was to try something different every day, making our way through the vast array of tarte tatins, éclairs, and macarons. We also tried different pâtisseries every afternoon, not wanting to play favorites. Each one varied in quality, each often had it's own specialty, and the special ones had cannelés.

When we first ordered one of these babies, we had no idea what to expect. Nubbly and slightly burnt looking, it stood apart from the other flakey pastries. Compact, curved like a little tower, and slightly heavy, we were intrigued.

Biting into it we knew, we just knew, that this was something special. The carmelized shell was crispy. The dense eggy center was barely sweet, and also intriguingly chewy. A mysterious flavor mingled with the caramelized sugar and the dense inner custard, which I later found out to be the addition of dark rum.

We were hooked. 

Traditionally made in copper molds and prized for their ability to last for days, I now know why that first cannelé was amazing, and every subsequent one was only okay.

At first I thought it was just the moment. Standing on that particular corner, from that particular bakery, eaten at that specific time: a series of cosmic moments turning into the ultimate cannelé experience. Because we really tried to recreate it. After that afternoon, we threw away our try-everything-in-the-Parisian-bakery idea, and we focused on the cannelé. But much to the detriment of the cannelé's reputation, it just never lived up.

And now I know why. It's all about the crust. Like with crispy bread crust, or flakey pastry, or toasted anything, that initial crispness is half the appeal. Without it, things flop. And all those semi-par cannelés had one thing in common: the carmelized shell was soggy. Because although prized for keeping well, it's the crust that suffers. Without that initial crispness, it was just a chewy blob. The trick was to find a pâtisserie that baked them that same day, and buy half a dozen to enjoy that afternoon.

That was back in 2003. Since then, I've been to Paris four times, each an excuse to try a new pâtisserie and a new version of cannelés. It's been one of those things: only in Paris.

Until last week, when I walked into my favorite bakery (Downtown Bakery, Healdsburg) and I saw a plate a gleaming cannelés alongside the lemon curd tarts and butterfly ganache cookies. I couldn't believe it. I actually asked the teenage working there: when did those get here?!, as if they had just arrived on a plane from France. He shrugged his shoulders, obviously a bit weirded out by my enthusiasm. He didn't mind taking my money though, as I prepared myself for my first cannelé experience outside Paris.

It was no disappointment. Crispy, chewy, greasy, just sweet enough...

Now, I'm cheating a little. It's not that I am not desperate to make these puppies, and bring a little bit of Paris into this San Francisco kitchen. But in between all these things that have been going on, the lack of general pantry ingredients has become a problem. Things like sugar and butter have disappeared from the cupboards, and while I wait for their reappearance, I live without my baked goods. A lame excuse, I know. But it's why I want to invite you over here, where not only can you read more about cannelés, but there's also a convenient recipe, if you choose to indulge. That is, if you don't happen to be in Paris or Healdsburg in the next little while. Because trust me, you want a cannelé. You want it bad.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

The Works, with Buckwheat



Sometimes, things work out.

Whiskey is poured and not a drop is spilled. The plant you thought was dead all of sudden has new leaves sprouting up it's brown stalks. Jobs are offered. People you forgot from years ago send you good wishes. New people send them too. The dress fits, the car runs, the cakes bake perfectly...

For one moment, everything seems to conspire, in the best of ways, in your favor.

Sigh, sit back, breathe a moment.

And then, back to the cake: Buckwheat, Bourbon, Fleur de Sel.

First of all, I must seem like a skipping record with this whole fleur de sel thing. Or maybe just a bit of a snob? Let me clarify: I can never get enough of the sweet and salty. It hasn't always been au courrant either.

I remember a few years ago, a French family, connected to us through various bloodlines and histories, some dating back over 30 years, came to visit my family in Cazadero. My mom was going through a mango salsa phase. It was summer, and soft mangos were practically falling in our laps from every direction. She had finally struck upon the perfect combination of mango, red onion, and cilantro for her mango salsa. Served with the saltiest of tortilla chips, the mingling of sweet mango and salt had been a favorite of ours for a while.

The Frenchies, although gourmandes and lovely people to boot, politely passed over the salsa, nibbling warily on a few tortilla chips. After the rest of the meal my mother, slightly crestfallen, finally got up the nerve to ask about their mango snubbery. There was no one word answer. What followed was a long conversation about where sweet was appropriate in a meal: breakfast and dessert, neither places where salt would take a turn.

I remember being astonished at the rigidity of this approach. At the time, I thought it was just this family, or maybe, all people from the south of France??

And then, in Britain last year, on more than one occasion did I have someone whisper fearfully in my ear: Are you one of those Americans who puts syrup on her bacon?

It seems my family, in a global context, has committed horror upon horrors. Because needless to say, we love mango on our chips, syrup on our bacon, and salt on our cookies.

Not that I'm claiming to be original, or even controversial by loving salt and sugar together. I'm just pointing out my commitment to these staples, even if it means betraying myself to Europeans as "one of those Americans."

Back to the buckwheat. From David Leibovitz's new book about living and eating in Paris, it's kind of ironic that I stumbled upon a Breton recipe for a cake sprinkled with fleur de sel. Not one to complain, I'm always happy to try a new cake recipe, especially one involving alcohol.

Before I go on, let me warn you: it's humble, this cake. Or maybe rustic is the proper word. It's moist and buttery, with gentle whiffs of that special buckwheat leaping up as you slice through it, and it sneaks up on you. With that crumble of crunchy salt on top, the first bite you might think, oh this is just alright. But have another bite, and another, and another. Just put the whole plate next to you while you read or write or chat with a friend, and watch it disappear, sliver by sliver. 

I'm not sure if buckwheat actually has anything to do with stars aligning, but if eating this cake means things will keep going well, I'm all for it.


Breton Buckwheat Cake with Fleur de Sel
adapted from David Leibovitz's The Sweet Life

Note: The changes I've made are subtle, but to me, necessary. For one thing, I sprinkled much more salt on the final product than David recommends. His recipe calls for 1/3 tsp, and while I didn't exactly measure the amount I used, it was at least 1 tsp. Also, the original recipe calls for dark rum. Since whiskey and bourbon are the drinks of choice in our house, I used Bulleit Bourbon (I wasn't about the break into the Auchentoshan for baking).

7/8 cup buckwheat flour
1 cup white flour
1/2 tsp plus 1 tsp fleur de sel 
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 pound unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
4 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp bourbon or dark rum
1 egg yolk
1 tsp milk

1. Grease a 9 or 10 inch tart pan. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Mix first four ingredients in a small bowl and set aside. 

3. Beat butter and sugar in a large bowl until fluffy, set aside.

4. With a fork, stir together 4 egg yolks, 1 egg, vanilla and rum, then slowly add to the butter while beating. Stir in dry ingredients until just incorporated.

5. Smooth into the pan. It will be very sticky and might not do what you want it to, but persevere.

6. Stir together the last egg yolk and the milk, and brush over top of cake. 

7. With a fork, scrape whatever design strikes your fancy into the top of the cake, then sprinkle remaining fleur de sel over everything.

8. Bake 35 to 45 minutes, checking frequently after 30 minutes so it doesn't dry out.

9. Let cool, serve, enjoy.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Three's a Charm

I've been holding out on you.

I'm not sure why, now that I think of it. There have been so many tasty things passing through my kitchen, but for some reason, none of them seemed worthwhile to talk about.

For instance, these cupcakes:




Pumpkin spice with a caramel cream cheese frosting. Unstoppably, wickedly good, and yet, they're just cupcakes. Doesn't everybody write about cupcakes? Aren't cupcakes the sillyfrilly of the baking world? Haven't we had enough of all this frosting already?

My feelings are mixed (except for maybe about the frosting: I'm insatiable).




And then there was the pasta. I made this, which was unbelievably delicious for being tomato, butter, onion, butter and salt, period - but really, noodles?

So I was drawing a blank. Three nights in a row of leftover rice fried in butter with an egg on top didn't help my inspiration either. And then, like with most things in life, I went overboard.

My friend Jayme came to visit.
She's graduating from college next week, and already owns two KitchenAid standing mixers (different colors, of course). For my birthday one year, she made the most obscenely beautiful cake I've ever seen, dousing the batter with a full bottle of red food coloring. Next to the cream cheese frosting which we all know I'm a huge fan of, it was pretty spectacular.



Saturday night in San Francisco, and our only idea of entertainment surrounded the stove. Three desserts rolled out of the kitchen that night, all entirely different and all entirely noteworthy.

First were the lavendar biscuits. Thin and crispy, buttery and floral, these biscuits are a bit like shortbread, but the lavender shouts out from that butter and sugar base so strongly it's hard to place them firmly in any category.



From my new favorite British cookbook, they are the perfect light cookie that just screams to be eaten with tea in the afternoon, or maybe I'm just stereotyping. Either way, if you have lavender in your garden, or see some at the market, try these. Whipped up in just a few minutes, the lavender makes the cookies seem so grown up and classy you'll hardly believe they require one bowl and an eight minute timer. (Dinosaur cookie cutter not required for grown up-edness).



But let me backtrack. Dulce de Leche. You know, the stuff Haagen Daaz puts into ice cream? Well, if you have a dollar and four hours on your hands, let me tell you a little trick. Take a can of sweetened condensed milk. Pull the label off. Submerge the can in a pot of water. And then boil it. Yes, I do mean boil the entire can. And yes, I do mean for four whole spankin' hours. Seriously, that's it. Just make sure the water doesn't evaporate (it helps to have a hot kettle next to the pot to add water every once in a while) and maybe roll the can every once in a while. Let the can cool, crack it open, and this is what you'll find:



The hot water does it's magic through the metal of the can, and suddenly (after a long time), you have sweet sticky caramel, perfect for spooning on ice cream, smearing on toast (recommended with the reoccuring allstar: fleur de sel), or eating straight from the can.

And finally, there was the cobbler. To be precise, rhubarb. This particular dessert happened for a myriad of reasons: the stalks of rhubarb at the market were slender, beautiful, and almost three feet long; Jayme had never tasted rhubarb before; Jayme's mom has a cobbler recipe she makes every summer from the peaches and apricots that Jayme's dad grows behind their home in Fresno. A quick cell phone call and a stick of butter later the improvised cobbler was in the oven, sticky with rhubarby syrup.



I was thankful that I wasn't the only one with this feast of desserts and the whole night in front of us, but it was still quite a lot of work for two small girls. Thankfully, the cobbler and the caramel keep well, and the leftover lavender biscuits took a plane journey down to San Diego.

Lavender Biscuits

1 stick butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup flour
2 tbsp finely chopped lavender leaves
1 tsp lavender florets, separated from the stalk

1) Beat butter and sugar till fluffy. Stir in flour and leaves.

2) Roll out on a floured surface to about 1/4 inch thick. Sprinkle lavender flowers over dough and press in lightly with a rolling pin.

3) Cut out shapes, arrange on a baking dish, and bake at 400 degrees for 8-10 minutes.

Rhubarb Cobbler

3-4 cups roughly chopped rhubarb
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp tapioca pearls
1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 stick butter, melted

1) Combine first three ingredients in a bowl, then pour into a 9 by 9 pan.

2) Wipe out bowl, then combine flour and sugar. Stir in the egg. Pour over rhubarb. Pour butter over flour mixture. (It will be swimming in butter, this is a good thing!).

3) Bake at 350 degrees for 35-45 minutes, Until crust is browning and juices are beginning to caramelize the edges.