Friday, September 18, 2009

Spaghetti with Tomato Vinaigrette and Breadcrumbs

I'm in love. With dry farmed early girl tomatoes. And not just any dry farmed early girl will do. I'm in love with dry farmed early girl tomatoes from Dirty Girl Produce. Dirty Girl Produce sells at the the Farmer's Market in Berkeley on Tuesdays and the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market in S.F. on Saturdays. I discovered their dry farmed early girls a few years ago and have been a faithful follower ever since.

Maybe it is because they were my first, but other dry farmed early girls just don't seem to have the same exquisite balance of bright acidity and intense sweetness. Yes, all of the heirloom varieties can be quite beguiling with their rainbow of colors, but now my heart belongs to the simple red early girls. I think they are the most perfect tomatoes on the planet. Even when my own garden is producing lovely red, orange and yellow globes, I can't resist buying some of Dirty Girl's early girls.

Ella and I made this pasta for dinner last week. We both loved it. "This is belicious" is how Ella described it. Aside from being belicious, it is also really easy and comes together in the time it takes to boil the water and pasta.

You chop the tomatoes and toss them with some olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt and let them marinade while you boil the water and pasta. They will release some of their juices to the sauce and soften slightly. Toss the hot pasta with the the marinated tomatoes and sprinkle with toasted breadcrumbs and basil. The heat from the pasta releases wafts of vinegar which make you salivate before the first bite enters your mouth. It also opens your senses to the sweetness from the tomatoes. The basil brings an almost peppery quality. An earthiness that lingers at the back of your throat. And the breadcrumbs, please don't forget the breadcrumbs. The combination of soft pasta and crunchy breadcrumbs is rather addicting.

Spaghetti with Tomato Vinaigrette and Breadcrumbs

The quality this pasta depends on the excellence of the tomatoes, so use the best you can find. Cherry tomatoes also work well here.

5 cups of chopped tomatoes
about 1 cup of olive oil
about 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
Kosher salt and pepper
1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs
a handful of fresh basil leaves (about 1/4 cup chopped)
1 pound of spaghetti (This is my favorite)

Chop the tomatoes and marinate them in olive oil, red wine vinegar to taste, and salt and pepper. The amounts here are really to taste. I pour in a few good glugs of olive oil, maybe 1/2 cup and a couple of glugs of red wine vinegar, about 1/3 cup. You want the marinade to be nice and bright because the flavors will become muted when you add the pasta.

Toss the breadcrumbs with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and toast in a 350F oven until dry and golden brown, 5-10 minutes.

Cut the basil leaves into ribbons, chiffonade. I do this by laying all of the leaves on top of each other, rolling them into a log and making thin slices across the log.

Boil the pasta in salted water until al dente, drain and add to the bowl with the tomatoes. Toss in half of the basil. Garnish with the remaining basil and breadcrumbs.

Serves 4-6

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chocolate Fleur de Sel Cupcakes with Dulce de Leche

Last Friday was a colleague's last day at work. I wanted to give him a sweet sendoff. So I made cupcakes.

Actually it wasn't completely altruistic of me. It was an opportunity to make something that I would never make for just the three of us at home. Even though cupcakes and chocolate are two of Ella's favorite things.

When I got home on Thursday, Louis was in the kitchen and Ella was playing in the living room. I went into the kitchen and told Louis that I was going to make cupcakes. Ella came running in from the other room, "Cupcakes!! Where?!" That girl seriously has selective hearing. Occasionally, when she isn't paying attention to me or answering me when I ask her something, I say "Do you want some ice cream?" And then I have her attention!

So for the cupcakes, I wanted to do some variation of chocolate and caramel. I've made chocolate cupcakes with salted caramel cream cheese frosting, and those are amazing. But I was inspired by this picture, so I decided that I was going to do a ganache frosting. I usually find ganache frosting to be too much. It is often too dense and rich for me. Like a giant truffle on top of cake. I decided to whip the ganache to produce a lighter texture. It was so good! It was light and airy and melted instantly, coating your tongue in rich dark chocolate. The final taste sensation came from the fleur de sel crystals which yielded a slight crunch and intensified the chocolate flavor.

I also decided to fill the cupcakes with dulce de leche. I love filled things. Turnovers, ravioli, empanadas. They are little packages. Each one like a gift with a surprise hiding inside. The dulce de leche became sort of melty and seeped into the cake creating a supermoist chocolate caramel cake all topped with whipped ganache and fleur de sel.

Everyone at work lucky enough to get one raved. One guy came up to me and said it was a taste revelation. He said he had to take a moment to be in his own world, hypnotized. Now that's a complement, and one of the things that keeps me in the kitchen. Giving people new experiences, revelations, is so satisfying. It is what I am addicted to.

Devil's Food Cupcakes
adapted from Michael Recchiuti

2 cups all purpose four
2/3 cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup espresso (or 2 tablespoons espresso powder in 1 cup boiling water)
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups sugar
2 extra large eggs (I used 2 large eggs)

Preheat the oven to 375F. Line cupcake pans with 24 cupcake liners.

Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and sugar together into a medium bowl. Whisk in the salt (the salt grains are usually too large to sift).

Whisk the eggs. Then combine with the milk, oil, vanilla, and espresso. Whisk until well mixed. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and whisk to combine. The batter is pretty thin, pourable.

Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups, filling them about half full. Place the pans in the oven and decrease the oven temperature to 325F.

Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.

makes 24 cupcakes.

Dulce de Leche

1 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk

Place the can in a pot large enough to cover the can with about 2 inches of water. Bring the pot to a boil, lower to a simmer. Simmer the pot uncovered for 3 hours. Make sure that the can remains covered in water by 2 inches. You will need to periodically add additional boiling water to the pan. Remove the can from the water and let cool before opening.

Chocolate Ganache Frosting
adapted from

1 1/2 cups heavy cream
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate chopped
4 tablespoons butter

Heat the cream until bubbles start to form around the edges. Place the chocolate in a medium sized bowl. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate. Let the mixture sit about 30 seconds. Then whisk until smooth. Add the butter in pieces and whisk to combine.

Set aside and whisk occasionally until cool and thickened. Beat mixture with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. The color of the chocolate will change from dark to a more milk chocolate color.

Assembling the cupcakes:

Use a small paring knife to cut a cone shaped hole about the size of a tablespoon in the center of the cupcakes. Flip the top over and cut off the cone.

Fill each cavity with the dulce de leche.

Replace the top of the cone. Covering the hole.

Pipe or spread the frosting over the cupcakes.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Roquefort Tart

A few weeks ago I bought the book A Table in the Tarn. It is the chronicle of two British guys who decide to quit corporate life in London to start an inn in the South of France. It is really a lovely book about their endeavor to remodel an old manoir and create a place that is both modern and quintessentially French. These guys are living my dream. I dream of someday having an inn where I can cook for my guests.

For breakfast I would serve bowls of the freshest fruit available. Right now it would be, maybe, a peach and blackberry compote with homemade granola and thick plain yogurt. I would serve brioche and homemade jam from the trees in my orchard because my inn would have an orchard. Peach, cherry, apricot, apple, pear, and oh I can't forget a fig. But then there is also citrus. Lemon, meyer lemon, orange, blood orange, grapefruit. Is that too much?

Lunch would be a lazy affair. Served out in the garden or under the trees in the orchard. I imagine serving something like this Roquefort tart with a salad of pickled beets and arugula. When I saw the photo of this tart in the book, I knew it would be one of the first recipes I would try. It made for a perfectly lovey late summer lunch. And with a cold glass of rose on a warm Sunday afternoon. Does life really get any better?

The shortcrust pastry gets a bit of added texture from semolina flour. It is a nice contrast to the creamy filling. The filling was actually quite light in texture despite being full of cheese, cream and eggs. Deceptively light in fact. Consider that a fair warning. I did make a couple of substitutions to the original recipe which probably resulted in the lighter quality. I didn't have any mascarpone, so I used Greek yogurt. I also didn't have any creme fraiche, so I used regular cream. I figured the tang from the yogurt would compensate for not using creme fraiche. I was right! The texture of the filling was somewhere between a cheesecake and a souffle. The Roquefort is mellowed by the cream and eggs but is still piquant enough to be interesting and pair beautifully with pickled beets.

Although opening my inn is a quite a way down the road, I think I'll be able to busy myself with perfecting the dishes I might make. I don't think my friends will mind being guinea pigs.

Roquefort and Chive Tart
adapted from A Table in the Tarn

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour: replace 1-2 tablespoons with semolina
salt, pepper, pinch of cayenne
6 tablespoons unsalted butter

good handful of chives and parsley, roughly chopped, save a pinch of chives for garnishing
1 cup mascarpone (or Greek yogurt)
7 tablespoons Roquefort
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
3 eggs
1 cup creme fraiche

Make the pastry by processing the dry ingredients. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Add just enough water, 2-3 tablespoons, so the pastry just begins to form a ball. Form the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for an hour. Roll out the dough to about 1/8 inch thickness and press into a 9 inch (1 1/4 inch deep) tart pan. Save the scraps for patching cracks. Freeze the pastry case for at least 10 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375F (350F convection). Crumple up a big sheet of parchment paper then uncrumple it and lay it over the pastry. Cover with dried beans or pie weights and bake for 20 minutes till firm. Remove paper and beans and continue baking for 10-20 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. Remove the pastry and patch any cracks with the pastry scraps.

Make the filling by whizzing the herbs, mascarpone, Roquefort and butter in a food processor until smooth. Add the eggs, process well, then the cream and seasoning: pepper and a pinch of cayenne (no salt). Pour into the hot pastry case and immediately put in the oven for 25 minutes, until golden, slightly puffed and just set in the center. Serve at room temperature.

Serves 6

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Gone Camping

We will be camping for the next week! I'll be spending my days swimming is the cool, clear river, foraging for wild blackberries, reading and eating.

See you next week...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Summer Squash Gratin

Our friend Andy was in town a few weeks ago. We became friends with him several years ago when he started playing guitar with Louis, but 5 years ago he moved away to finish up his Ph.D in Astrophysics. Andy is smart and funny. He's a really good friend, much more like family really. I would describe Andy as a lifelong friend. The kind of person who remains your friend through distance and long absences.

Is there really any better way to catch up with an old friend than to sit out side with the grill going and a glass of wine in your hand? I think not.
Dinner with Andy July 21st

Heirloom Tomato Salad with Croutons and Homemade Mozzarella
Grilled Lamb Chops with Summer Squash Gratin and Salsa Verde
Fried Figs with Wild Blackberry Honey Ice Cream

I wanted to make a tomato and burrata salad, but all of the local cheese shops were out. It seems that they all use the same supplier, and the new shipment wasn't arriving for another couple of days. Well, I decided, homemade mozzarella is probably just as soft and supple as burrata. Not quite, but pretty darn close. I can't say that I've ever had a more satisfying cheese experience. The silky mozzarella ball, sliced while still warm, drizzled with olive oil and flaky sea salt. Hel-lo lover...

But for me, the star of the evening was the summer squash gratin. I could seriously just make a meal of the gratin, and I could probably polish off the entire thing myself. The squash are sliced thinly, mixed with garlic, shallots, salsa verde and Gruyere and topped with bread crumbs moistened with brown butter. The squash become tender but not mushy. There is some brightness from the salsa verde and richness from the Gruyere. There is so much going on flavor and texture wise that it is hard to stop yourself from going back for spoonful after spoonful.

Summer Squash Gratin
adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques

2 pounds summer squash
1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup sliced shallots
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1/2 cup salsa verde (recipe follows)
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
Salt and Pepper

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Cut the squash into 1/8 inch thick slices. If you have a mandoline, this is the time to use it. Toss the slices in a large bowl with 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and let sit 10 minutes.

Place the breadcrumbs in a bowl. Heat a small saute pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Swirl in the butter and cook a few minutes, until it browns and smells nutty. Pour the brown butter over the breadcrumbs making sure to scrape all of the brown bits in as well. Toss well.

Drain the squash and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add the shallots, garlic, thyme, salsa verde, and some pepper. Toss to combine, and add the cheese and half of the butter coated breadcrumbs. Toss again, and taste for seasoning.

Place the squash in a 9x9 inch or equivalent baking dish. Scatter the remaining breadcrumbs over the top, and bake 35-40 minutes, until the squash is tender and the top is crisp.

Serves 6.

Salsa Verde

This makes more than you will need for the gratin. Enough to spoon over some grilled Lamb. Salsa verde is more of a template than actual recipe. You can add any mix of herbs that suit your fancy. The key is for it to be bright and ever so slightly pungent. If you are vegetarian, you can leave out the anchovy. Otherwise the garlic, anchovy and capers should stay in, but the mix of herbs can change.

1 teaspoon marjoram or oregano leaves
1/4 cup coarsely chopped mint
1 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove
1 salt packed anchovy, rinsed, bones removed
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained
1/2 lemon, for juicing
Salt and Pepper

Pound the garlic and anchovy to a paste in a mortar and pestle. Put these into a food processor with the herbs and a bit of the olive oil. Process adding more oil. Transfer the herb mixture to a bowl.

Gently pound the capers in the mortar and pestle until they are partially crushed, and add them to the herbs. Stir in the remaining oil, a pinch of black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice. Taste for balance and seasoning.

makes 1 1/2cups.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sweet Corn Soup

I don't know about you, but during the Summer I cannot get enough of fresh corn and tomatoes in all of their guises. They are absolutely my staples during the few months that they are available. I really love eating seasonally. It is such a natural process. I end up binging and by the time the peaches and tomatoes are winding down, I'm ready to move on to apples and kabocha squash.

A few days ago I was looking around the kitchen trying to figure out what to make for lunch. I did of course have corn and tomatoes, but there really wasn't much else. So I decided to make corn soup. I love corn soup and corn chowder! One of my favorite recipes is in The Greens Cookbook. It is spicy with roasted poblano chilies and tomatillos. But I didn't have poblano chilies or tomatillos. I was forced to keep it simple. And I'm so glad I did.

This soup comes together in under an hour. You chop an onion and saute it in some butter. Add in some corn kernels cut from the cob. Cover with water or stock. And here is the secret. You simmer the corn cobs along with the kernels. The corn cobs intensify the corn flavor and have some thickening power.

After simmering for 25 minutes, you remove the cobs and puree the soup in a blender. I kept about a cup of corn on the side to add back to the puree. I love the creamy soup with a few bits of whole kernels. Contrasting textures are a good thing.

And for more contrasts, garnish the soup with some chopped tomatoes and basil. The contrast of the warm creamy soup with the cool tomatoes is so good. The tomato garnish is really not optional. The corn soup is sooo sweet. Like candy sweet. So you really need the brightness from the tomatoes to bring it all together.

Sweet Corn Soup

This recipe makes quite a lot, probably enough for 6 or more people. I actually like making more than I need. I've been bringing this with me to work all week to have for lunch.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, diced
6 cups of corn kernels cut from about 7 ears of corn (reserve 4 cobs, broken in half)
4 cups water or stock
Salt and pepper

creme fraiche
chopped basil
diced tomatoes

Warm the butter in a soup pot until melted. Add the diced onion and a teaspoon of salt and cook for about 5 minutes until translucent. Add the corn kernels and stir to coat. Add about 3 cups of the water or stock, enough to just cover the corn. Add the reserved corn cobs. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer gently for about 25 minutes. Skim off the brownish foam forming on the surface during the first 5 minutes of simmering.

Remove the pot from the heat. Remove and discard the corn cobs. Ladle the soup into a blender and blend for at least 1 minute. You will probably need to do this in batches. You may or may not want to reserve a ladle full of corn to add back to the pureed soup.

Season the soup with more salt and pepper. Add more water or stock to achieve the consistency that you like. You can add a touch of cream, but I prefer to add a spoonful of creme fraiche to each bowl. Garnish the soup with the diced tomato and chopped basil.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Rustic Plum Tart

Last Thursday was Louis' birthday, so earlier in the week I was browsing through some cookbooks for birthday meal ideas. I saw a recipe for a Rustic Plum Tart in Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert. It had two things that immediately got my attention. It used plums which I happened to have. And it sounded really simple which is exactly what I wanted for a weeknight. I also knew that Louis would like it because, let's just be frank here, he's not very picky, and he has a habit of calling every dessert "his favorite". Really, I think it's just an excuse for him to go back for seconds or thirds.

Rustic is a nice description for this tart, down right homely is another. But beneath those horribly wrinkled skins sit soft, juicy plums anchored in a dough that is somewhere between a tart and a cake. Not only is this a breeze to put together, it is delicious. The texture is really much more like a cookie, soft and a bit chewy in the middle with a crunchy, nubbly edge.

The recipe calls for plums, but I think you could use any fruit that is a bit tart. The dough is quite sweet, so the fruit needs some tartness to balance everything out. I think apricots would be perfect. And tart apples, like Granny Smith, would be great. In fact, this recipe is nearly identical to this one that I made several months back.

I would categorize this recipe under nearly perfect. It is adaptable to any season. It comes together in less than 15 minutes (not including baking), and it gets better with age. Well, it was better on the second day than on the first. I can't attest to the third or fourth days because let's be honest here, baked goods don't last long in my house. Unless I hide them...

Rustic Plum Tart
adapted from Pure Dessert

1 cup all purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons firm but not hard unsalted butter cut into pieces
4-6 juicy, flavorful plums or pluots

Preheat the oven to 375F and position a rack in the lower third of the oven.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to mix. Add the egg and butter, and pulse just until the mixture resembles damp yellow sand and is beginning to clump around the blade.

Press the dough evenly over the bottom but not up the sides of a 9 in fluted tart pan. A cake pan would also work.

If the plums are no bigger than 2 inches in diameter, cut them in half and remove the pits. Cut larger plums into quarters or sixths, removing the pits. Leaving a margin of 1/2 inch around the edge of the pan, arrange halved plums cut side up over the dough,with a little space between each one. Arrange wedges skin side up, pressing them slightly into the dough so that they will not turn onto their sides while baking.

Bake until the pastry is puffed, deep golden brown at the edges, and nicely golden brown in the center between the plums, 50-55 minutes. Set the tart on a rack to cool for 10 minutes, and then loosen the rim of the tart pan before cooling further. Serve warm or at room temperature.

serves 8

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Peach and Fig Chutney

Sometimes I overbuy beautiful fruit at the farmer's market. Usually it's a way to force myself to make something new. A couple of weeks ago I bought a few pounds of peaches. We were going to have dinner with friends, and I thought that I would make a peach crostata for dessert.

We ended up going out to dinner instead. It was my birthday, so I was actually quite happy not to make my own dinner. But I ended up with a bag full of ripe peaches to contend with. Rough, I know.

I had been eyeing a recipe for pickled peaches in the Chez Panisse Fruit Cookbook to serve with grilled duck breasts, but it just didn't seem to have the right balance I was looking for.

Inspiration came on a walk through the neighborhood when I saw some ripe figs hanging from my neighbor's tree. I haven't bought figs at the market since discovering two fig trees in the neighborhood. For one, figs are mighty expensive at the market and totally sub par compared to picking them fresh from a tree when they are perfectly ripe. I don't think there is any food quite as sexy as a ripe fig.

So that settled it. I was going to make a peach and fig chutney. The sweet richness of the figs was just what I wanted to mellow out the "pickled" peaches. The original recipe called for the addition of pickled ginger which I left out. I didn't want a chutney with too much going on. The fruit was so beautiful, and I really just wanted to let their beauty shine through.

I also decided to leave the chutney on the juicy side so that it would have a bit of sauce to drizzle around the grilled duck. It was delicious! The chutney had the perfect sweet-tartness to balance out the richness of the duck. We served it with a bottle of pinotage that we brought back from South Africa last year. Perfect.

Peach and Fig Chutney
adapted from The Union Square Cafe Cookbook

1 pound ripe peaches, unpeeled
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/2 pound fresh ripe figs, such as Black Mission
3/4 cup cider vinegar, premium quality, unfiltered if possible like this
4 tablespoons honey
1 1/4 teaspoons mustard seeds
pinch of kosher salt
2 teaspoon pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon minced Serrano chili

Cut the peaches in half, remove the pits, and cut each half into 1 1/2 inch chunks. Toss the peaches with the lime juice and set aside. Remove the fig stems and quarter the figs lengthwise. Set aside.

In a skillet, combine the vinegar, honey, mustard seeds, salt, and pomegranate molasses. Place over moderate heat and reduce to a syrup, 6-8 minutes. Stir in the peaches and cook over low heat, covered, until softened but not mushy. This will take 5-15 minutes, depending on the ripeness of the fruit. Add the figs and chili and cook, covered, an additional 5 minutes.

Remove from the heat, transfer to bowl, and cool. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

makes 2 1/2 cups.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Corn, Tomato and Barley Salad

I love cycling. Louis and I used to go on long cycles every weekend. We would generally cycle a 30 mile loop from our place up to Tilden Park in Berkeley and back home along Skyline Blvd. We live in such a beautiful place, and the views are stunning from Skyline Blvd. which runs along the ridge of the East Bay hills.

Unfortunately we haven't cycled much in the last several years. Louis got pretty busy gigging on the weekends, and then Ella came along. We just got out of the habit. But I missed it. I feel a great sense of freedom when I'm on a bike. It is definitely my favorite form of exercise.

We got new bikes about a month ago and have been going on lots of rides. I've found that the best way to get Ella excited about being strapped into the trailer is to promise a picnic along the way.

So we cycled up to Robert's Park and had a picnic.

I made a variation of a salad that I make at least once a week. It contains some sort of grain, most often barley or quinoa, and a mix of whatever vegetables look good at the market. Sometimes I mix in some cheese, nuts or beans. This type of salad is endlessly versatile, and it keeps well which makes it an excellent choice for a picnic.

I've become quite addicted to these salads. Barley has a lovely chewy texture that is totally satisfying. I tend to use quite a bit of vinegar because the barley absorbs a lot as it sits. So, if you aren't serving the salad right away, you should taste and adjust the seasoning again before serving.

Corn, Tomato and Barley Salad

2 ears of corn, kernels cut from cob
1 zucchini cut into 1/2 inch dice
1/2 pint of cherry tomatoes sliced in half
1 cup of farro or barley (whole grain, not pearled)
1 shallot diced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2-4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
handful of arugula

Combine the barley with 4 cups of water and salt to taste in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook at a bare simmer until just tender, 15-20 minutes. Drain in a colander and set aside.

Warm the olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat and add the corn and zucchini and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook until softened but still al dente, about 5 minutes. Add the diced shallot and sliced cherry tomatoes. Turn off the heat, add about 2 teaspoons of vinegar and taste for salt. Add the vegetables to a bowl with the barley. Toss in a handful of arugula or torn basil leaves. Taste again for balance of salt and vinegar.

Serves 4

Monday, June 22, 2009

Chickpea Fries with Romesco Sauce

Louis and I had our 10th wedding anniversary back in March. My mom offered to take Ella for the whole weekend, so Louis and I went off to celebrate in the way that we usually do. By eating lots of good food and drinking lots of good wine, in a beautiful place. Arguably, one of the best places in the country to do such things is the Napa Valley. A year or so ago I had imagined that a 10th wedding anniversary would be a great time to go to the French Laundry. But as the time approached for me to try my hand at winning the lottery (a.k.a booking a reservation at the French Laundry), I just could not justify spending that amount of money on one meal. Not when there were so many different places that I wanted to try.

One of the places that I had been wanting to go to is Ubuntu. Ubuntu was recently named one of the ten best new American restaurants by the New York Times and the chef nominated for a James Beard Award. Ubuntu is a vegetarian restaurant with a yoga studio upstairs. As you eat you can see the silhouettes of people doing yoga poses. It is all quite fitting to the nature of the food. The food forces you to be in the moment. To experience the essence of the artfully prepared vegetables. But I guess if you're not in the mood to experience the wonder of biodynamically farmed vegetables you might be pissed off that you just spent $12 for a pile of radishes with a few slices of cheese. But I loved it. I appreciate when dishes are prepared thoughtfully and reverence is given to the ingredients used.

Although Ubuntu excels with their use of vegetables, one of my favorite dishes on the menu was the Chickpea Fries with Romesco Sauce. Chickpea fries are made with garbanzo bean flour and the batter is actually very similar to polenta. In fact, I think I prefer it to polenta. The garbanzo bean flour has a sweet earthy quality and a creamy texture. I haven't tried it grilled yet, but the fried version is delicious. It develops a delicately crisp crust that I found totally addictive.

I made some chickpea fries recently when some friends came for dinner. I realized the following day that I hadn't put the memory card in my camera when taking pictures of dinner. Fortunately the Foodie Hunter was also capturing some lovely images with her camera. She posted some photo's and had some very lovely words as well. I have to say that the most I can ask for when preparing food for others is that they "get" the food. I never haphazardly throw a menu together. I definitely put thought into what I feed people. I take their preferences into account. I also consider the weather and which fruits and vegetables are at their peak. Overall, I try to convey a mood through my food. I think most people would agree that I'm a good cook, but to me, the highest praise comes when someone actually understands my food and my process. So I would like to thank the Foodie Hunter for her understanding. She will always be welcome at my table. This particular menu ended up being:

Grilled Asparagus and Chickpea Fries with Romesco Sauce
Grilled Salmon with a Balsamic Butter Sauce on a bed of Sautéed Corn and Shitake Mushrooms
Honey Roasted Apricots with a Chez Panisse Almond Tart and Olive Oil Ice Cream

Chickpea Fries
Adapted from Ubuntu via Oprah Magazine

1 ¼ cups chickpea flour
½ cup cornmeal
1 clove garlic, finely grated on microplane
1 ½ tablespoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons parsley chopped
vegetable oil for frying

In a stainless steel pot over high heat, combine chickpea flour, cornmeal, 3 1/2 cups of cold water, garlic and salt. Whisk gently to prevent sticking on the bottom.

Once the mixture begins to thicken and bubble ( after about 3-4 minutes), reduce heat to medium and switch to a rubber spatula. Stir constantly and scrape the bottom of the pot to prevent scorching. Add the parsley. Continue cooking for 6-8 minutes. Taste and correct for seasoning. Lightly oil a 13x9 inch baking dish and pour in the batter. Spread the mixture out evenly and top with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 4 hours until completely cold and set.

Cut into "fries" about 3 inches long. Heat about 1/2 inch of oil in a non-stick pan to 375F. If the oil isn't hot enough, the fries will soak up too much oil and fall apart. Cook until the fries are golden brown on all sides, about 2 minutes each on top and bottom sides. Remove and set on paper towels. Sprinkle with kosher salt to taste and serve with romesco sauce.

Serves 4-6

Romesco Sauce

Adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook

Romesco sauce is great as a sauce for vegetables and fish. I usually serve it in place of cocktail sauce with poached shrimp. It can also be mixed with a bit of mayonnaise for a romesco aioli.

½ ounce raw almonds (about 2 tablespoons)

1 ounce hazelnuts (1/4 cup)

½ cup coarsely chopped tomatoes

1 red bell pepper roasted peeled and chopped

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 ancho chili

2-3 garlic cloves peeled

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar, more to taste

1 teaspoon hot paprika

½ teaspoon mild paprika


Preheat oven to 325F

Roast the hazelnuts until the skins darken and start to split, 10-15 minutes. While they are still hot, bundle them in a towel, then scrunch and massage them to rub off most of their skins. Pick out the nuts and set aside.

Turn the oven to broil. Spread the tomatoes ½ inch thick in a small, shallow baking dish. Trickle with a little of the olive oil and place under the broiler. Cook until the tomatoes char slightly and bubble. Remove fro the broiler.

Meanwhile, pour a few cups of boiling water over the chili and leave to swell for a few minutes. Drain, then stem and seed the pepper.

Thickly slice the garlic, then pound to a paste in a mortar. Scrape into a processor and add the chili, almonds, and hazelnuts. Grind to a fine, moist paste, scraping the sides. Scrape the tomatoes and pepper and process to a paste. Add the vinegar, paprika, the remaining oil and salt to taste. Taste again adding more salt and vinegar to taste. It should be bright with acidity, otherwise it may taste a little flat or bitter.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Warm Potato and Purslane Salad

Several years ago there was an issue of Saveur magazine focused entirely on California. One of the articles featured a Chez Panisse reunion picnic. I have fantasies about being at that picnic. In fact, that picnic is the perfect picture of my ultimate food fantasy. It took place in Bolinas in a grassy meadow dotted with trees. There was an old barn near one end, and it was all nestled between coastal hills. There was a long wooden table piled with dishes brought by the various guests. Can you imagine being at a pot luck with Judy Rogers, Alice Waters, Paul Bertolli, David Tanis, Michael Wild, Margaret Grade and Deborah Madison?!

Margaret Grade brought a warm potato and purslane salad. I had never used or tasted purslane before. Not long after I saw that article, I found some purlane at the farmer's market and decided that even though I couldn't be at that picnic, I could still have one of the dishes that was served there. It is essentially a German potato salad with the addition of purslane.

Purslane is often considered a weed, but it is delicious. It is one of the best vegetable sources of omega 3 fatty acids and is high in vitamin C. It is a succulent which gives it a sort of irresistible texture. It is soft but toothsome with a slightly acidic and peppery flavor. It is good raw in salads or sauteed like spinach.

Every time I see purslane, I think of this potato salad and that Chez Panisse reunion picnic. I will probably never go to one of those picnics, but I do have a long wooden table that my friends can sit around to enjoy good food and conversation. I think I'm getting pretty close to realizing that fantasy.

Warm Purslane and Potato Salad
adapted from Margaret Grade

1 lb. sliced pancetta, cut into pieces about 1/2 inch square
3-4 cipolline onions or shallots, peeled and chopped
2 lbs. baby fingerling or Yukon gold potatoes
4 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
Leaves from 3 sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and Freshly ground black pepper
1 lb. purslane, cleaned

Cook pancetta in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp, 15-20 minutes. Transfer pancetta with a slotted spoon to paper towels to let drain. Add onions to skillet and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes. Set pan aside.

Put potatoes and stock into a large pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until tender, 10-20 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the stock . Place potatoes aside in a large bowl with the purslane and pancetta. Return reserved stock to pot and boil over high heat until reduced by half, 2-3 minutes.

Return pan with onions and pancetta drippings to stove. Heat over medium heat until hot. Stir in the honey, reduced stock, vinegar, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Pour hot dressing over potatoes and purslane, toss quickly and serve.

Serves 6-8

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Turnip Soup with Foccacia Bread

A couple of weeks ago my new copy of The Greens Cookbook arrived. My original copy was a small paperback version that I bought in London in 1997. That little book turned out to be invaluable to me. Not only because I was working for a family and was responsible for making dinner every night. But because it had tables converting American measures, temperatures and ingredients into British. At that time I had no idea that an eggplant was an aubergine or that zucchini was courgette. When I went to South Africa for a year following London, that little paperback came with me. It turned out to be a great resource in South Africa as well since their English and measures are British. So that little book had been through quite a lot, and was starting to fall apart.

The Greens Cookbook is an incredibly special book to me. It is chock full of great recipes, including a sesame noodle recipe that is my potluck standby. But the reason that it holds such a special place for me is because it is representative of the first year that Louis and I spent together. We met at a youth hostel in Paris and a couple of months later, I went to London to be with him. We were only able to see each other on weekends because he was working in South London and I was in Northern London. A few months later he went back home to South Africa to finish his final year of college, and I went with him. It was great to finally be together in our own space. Louis was studying to be an engineer and was studying all the time. We had no T.V., no radio, no computer. My only source of entertainment was when Louis would take breaks from the books to serenade me with his guitar. It was actually pretty great.

I would spend the majority of the evening cooking. One of the things that I made most frequently was foccacia bread. I made many kinds of foccacia, but one of my favorites was also the most simple. The dough is topped with sliced onion that has been tossed with olive oil and some thyme or rosemary and salt. The onions become soft in some areas and crispy and caramelized in others. It is the perfect accompaniment to a bowl of soup.

So when the new hardbound Greens Cookbook arrived, I began flipping through it. It was like reminiscing with old friends that I hadn't seen in a while. My eyes became transfixed on one particular recipe, Turnip Soup with Turnip Greens. I hadn't even known that recipe was in there! And it was just the perfect thing because I had a bunch of turnips in the fridge and the weather had turned cold. So it was time to make soup and foccacia bread and remember our days in Cape Town.

Turnip Soup with Turnip Greens
adapted from The Greens Cookbook

This soup is delicious. Milk is used as the broth, so it is creamy without being heavy. The turnips are blanched to remove any bitterness, and they become sweet stewed with the leeks and milk. I just love that this recipe uses the turnip and its greens. The sharpness of the greens is a lovely counterpoint to the sweet turnips.

1 1/2 pounds small turnips (about 1-2 inches across) weighed without their greens
5 tablespoons butter
2-3 leeks, white parts only, sliced
6 branches thyme
4 cups milk
2-3 cups turnip greens

Peel the turnips (thickly, if they are large and mature) and slice them into rounds about 1/4 inch thick. Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil; then add 2 teaspoons salt and the turnips. Cover the pot and cook for 1 minute; then drain.

Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a soup pot with 1/2 cup water. Add the leeks, the blanched turnips, the thyme, and 1 teaspoon salt. Stew them, covered, over medium low heat for 5 minutes, and then add the milk. Slowly heat it without bringing it to a boil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the turnips are completely tender.

Cool the soup briefly; then puree it in a blender. If necessary, thin it with additional milk or water. Season to taste with salt, if needed, and freshly ground pepper.

Sort through the turnip greens and remove any that are bruised or especially tough looking, and wash them. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a pan, add the turnip greens, and cook them over medium heat until they are tender, about 5-10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Remove the cooked greens to a cutting board and chop them, roughly or fine, as you prefer; then add them to the soup and serve.

Serves 4-6

Focaccia Bread
adapted from The Greens Cookbook

1 package active dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
1 cup warm water
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
pinch sugar
2 1/2 cups unbleached white flour or a mixture of whole wheat and white
Coarse sea salt

1 large red or white onion sliced
1 teaspoon thyme chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water with the salt, olive oil, and sugar. Stir in the flour in two or three additions. Once a dough has formed, turn it out onto a board dusted with flour, and knead it for several minutes, adding only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking. When the dough is smooth and shiny, set it in a lightly oiled bowl, turn it over once, cover and put it in a warm place to rise, until it is doubled in bulk, about 30-40 minutes.

After the dough has risen, turn it out onto an oiled baking sheet, and pat it out about 1/2 inch thick. Toss the onion with the thyme, 2 tablespoons olive oil and salt to taste and spread out over the top of the dough, pressing lightly on the onions so that some of them sink into the dough. Let the dough rise for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450F. Bake the bread in the top third of the oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the bread is nicely browned.