Thursday, October 29, 2009

feels like home

I'm fully ashamed to say that I know nothing of Vietnamese cooking. I wasn't very interested in cooking/baking when I was surrounded by it, and once I started caring about preparing my own food, it just got too tempting to try things I've never tried before with ingredients that didn't require a grocery trip into another neighborhood.

But as I got another year older, another year farther away from my family and another year closer to the impending reality of losing older relatives, I find myself trying to grasp at memories I shared with them, and regardless of whether I cared back then or not, most of them revolve around food.

I've feigned interest before. I've even gone so far as to ask my mother for recipes. Problem number one. As if she had "recipes" that weren't in her head. Problem number two. Once she finally wrote them, I promptly lost track of them in the black hole of our house. Like she was going to write them down again.

However, thanks to lovely blogs like Ravenous Couple, I can revisit the food of my youth any time I like. I literally spent an entire afternoon going through Hong and Kim's blog, sighing wistfully at all the food I pretty much gave up when I moved away for college. My visits home became "occasions," and while I'm not complaining about the "special" dinners we had then, it definitely made me miss the easy comfort of curling up with a bowl of rice and a braised something-or-other topping it.

I thought I'd ease into Vietnamese cooking with Stuffed Tomatoes, not for Matty's sake (we're pros at eating "exotic" food), but more for the sake of my inexperience. Everything was easy enough, but there are definitely a couple things to improve upon:

- I only roughly cut the bean thread noodles, making for a bit of a mess when I mixed all the ingredients for the meat filling together. I'll need much shorter pieces of noodle next time.

- I probably needed to pack the filling tighter (or I might have to explore an egg or breadcrumbs as a binder). Not all of them stayed intact. Those noodles could have been the culprit, too.

- Next time, I'll make sure to heat the pan to a higher temperature before adding the tomatoes so that I can get that gorgeous sear on top. Most of mine were just kind of gray-looking. I'd add the tomato cores after the sear happened.

But the lesson was well worth it to have the kitchen smell so familiar.

Monday, October 26, 2009

heard it through the grapevine

I love Facebook. Unabashedly, unashamedly love it. I love being that connected to my friends. I like being able to share this blog with people who had no idea it existed for over 2 years before I linked it to my FB. And I love that one innocent post about a gorgeous bowl got my four best girls to chip in for the Nambe Butterfly Covered Casserole you see before you.

I tracked the UPS shipment religiously, and could hardly sit still at work when I saw that Matty had signed for it at home. After ripping the box open and staring lovingly at it, I put it in the place of honor atop some shelves that Matty and his dad had built for me. We named her, too. Fallulah. Fallulah Q. Nambe.

And then the difficult part - what could I possibly make that would properly christen this piece of art? Back when I was only Facebook status'ing and dreaming about it, I had pretty much decided on a mac and cheese or a French toast, and the overwhelming majority of commenters voted for mac. So mac it is.

Sharp Cheddar Mac and Cheese with Leeks sounded both heartily comforting as well as classy enough for this bowl. And after some delirious rambling last night on the 1.5-mile walk from the U2 Rose Bowl show back to our car, we decided it'd be a good idea to top the mac with some bacon bread crumbs. Here's what I did:

Mac and Cheese with Leeks and Bacon Bread Crumbs
5 slices bacon, sliced into lardons
5 cups chopped leeks (white and pale green parts only; about 5 large)
1/4 cup all purpose flour
3 1/2 cups whole milk
12 oz. bag of shredded Cheddar cheese
4 oz. Gruyere, grated
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 large eggs
1 pound penne pasta
2 slices white bread

1. Cook the bacon in a large pot until just starting to brown. Remove and drain on paper towels. Keep the bacon grease in the pot.

2. Add leeks; stir to coat. Cover pot and cook until leeks are tender, stirring occasionally, about 12 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water. Drain and return to pot.

4. Uncover saucepan; add flour. Stir 2 minutes. Add milk; bring to simmer, stirring often. Add cheese and mustard.

5. Stir until cheese melts. Remove from heat.

6. Whisk eggs in medium bowl. Gradually whisk in 1 cup cheese sauce. Stir egg mixture into cheese sauce in saucepan. Add cooked pasta to the cheese sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour into 2-quart casserole.

7. Run two slices of bread in a food processor to make crumbs. Combine bacon and crumbs in a small bowl and sprinkle over mac and cheese.

8. Preheat oven to 400°F. Bake pasta until cheese sauce is bubbling around edges, about 20 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes. Serve hot.

I was pretty happy with this mac and cheese. Some changes for next time:

- Whisk the flour more thoroughly. I felt it was a little on the grainy side. Matty didn't notice.

- Use all 10 slices in the package of bacon. Incorporate half of them in the cheese sauce. Why? Why not.

- Because the leeks are so mild, I'd love to experiment with bolder add-ins. Goodies like kale and mushrooms come to mind.

It's getting to be that time of year to start thinking about our annual day-after-Christmas mac and cheese. The rest of the equation still needs experimenting, but I feel this may be the year of the bacon topping. :)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

he's alright, but he's not real

Don't let that bowl fool you. It's not the world's thinnest angel hair. It's a spaghetti squash! Spaghetti Squash with Ricotta, Sage and Pine Nuts. And some spinach thrown in for good measure.

Verdict: just tolerable. Well, maybe just under tolerable. We had to go to The Alcove for a slice of banana-toffee tart and a decaf mocha to make up for the overwhelming sense of healthiness we felt after eating this.

And I guess that's where the diet food part of this dish comes in. After you've chewed on it for a while, you just get bored of eating it. No way you're going to overindulge here. Good thing dessert is always just a few blocks away.

The disappointing thing is that I've had spaghetti squash before, and I quite enjoyed it. The difference, I think, is there, it maintained vegetable status. Throw in things like ricotta, sage and pine nuts, and then there's this insurmountable pressure for it to be some kind of comfort food. And when you know what to expect if those ingredients are combined with delicious, chewy, filling real pasta, and you get spaghetti squash, you're going to wonder why you would ever do something like that to the love of your life, especially after he's shown you a great birthday weekend.

He was pretty nice about it, though. He just wisely summed it all up by saying, "Well, that's what happens when nature tries to make pasta. We Italians just do it better."


Monday, October 19, 2009

you can have whatever you like

I turned 27 yesterday. Kinda scary. Maybe a little dramatic, but kinda scary. I mean, 27 doesn't MEAN anything. It's just another year gone (and faster than the last, too).

To ease the drama, I thought I'd spoil myself and start Saturday off with some Carrot Cake Pancakes. Taking a cue from the reader comments, I used one of the smallest holes on my box grater to ensure there were no crispy carrot bites in these pancakes, and luckily, I was successful. Each bite was fluffy, cinnamon-y heaven.

I managed to exercise a semblance of self-discipline by avoiding the cream cheese spread and only dressing the pancakes with maple syrup. I mean, after all, I'm 27 now. Those inches and pounds don't come off quite as quickly anymore.

But don't worry, I still had a chocolate cake to make a wish on.

A Vegan Chocolate Avocado Cake, to be exact. The kind folks over at Capitol City Sports were cool with me providing my own cake, so as a celebratory cap to the nail-biting USC win over Notre Dame, we dug into this little vegan delight.

To be honest, it's not my favorite, but the Chocolate Buttercream Frosting from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World made everything right with the world. You see, the cake itself LOOKED to be deliciously dark and perfectly fluffy and even sprang back each time I sliced it. However, there was something a little sticky about the texture, and it just tasted a little off to me even though I didn't taste the individual flavors of the coconut oil or the avocado. I mean, what do I know - everyone else said they loved it, including the vegan that I wanted to include in the festivities.

That frosting, though, is killer. Really intense, not too sweet, and very rich. Matty, whom I had left the frosting duties to, said it wasn't the easiest thing to spread, but I think he did a pretty fine job. :) Happy birthday to me!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

spin around and then you're gone

The past two weeks with Matty's parents have been a complete blur. We were so eager to show them all our new favorites since their last trip (Simply Thai, Best Fish Tacos in Ensenada) and planned so many new adventures with them (Paso Robles, 10-mile beach bike rides) that we forgot to figure in down time.

Luckily, we did have a barbecue planned for Saturday, so while the morning was a whirlwind of cooking, it was a lovely afternoon of gin and tonics and beautiful fall air. Well, just fall air for me - I had a gig with the Metropolitan Master Chorale that evening.

Did I mention whirlwind? :)

As always, Matty was responsible for smoking the meats, so I made a variety of sides and desserts to go with.

Roasted Corn Salad
Easily the most impressive because it was massive. I even only used 15 oz. of assorted salad greens (3 bags from Trader Joe's) - don't know where I would have put the other half a pound called for in the recipe! To prevent unsightly avocado browning, I tossed the corn and avocado in with the lime-filled dressing before adding it to the bed of greens. Now this is the kind of salad I like - lots of "stuff," not as much "salad."

Broccoli Slaw
I used two 12-oz. bags of broccoli florets, and I could have gone with a lot more dressing - maybe even double. I like dressing, though, and this buttermilk one was no exception. I loved the combination of flavors - crisp and fresh broccoli, chewy and tart cranberries, and creamy and sweet dressing. This will definitely be a fall-back recipe for future barbecues.

Dijon Gruyere Puffs
Ridiculously addicting. I left out the prosciutto for the vegetarians and subbed mozzarella to use up a half-empty bag hanging out in the fridge. I love puff pastry so much. I mean, I really could have rolled the dough up on its own and just called it a day - the cheese and mustard really just gilded the lily. The cheese also drove me a little insane - it really stuck to the foil I used to line my baking sheets (I was out of parchment), but all's well that ends well as I just popped the broken ones in my mouth. :)

#60 Cornbread Panzanella with Brown Butter Cornbread, Blueberries & Hazelnuts
Pardon the misguided use of my camera's Macro function. I had one Greg literally on my back with a fork waiting for me to take the photo before he could dig in. Fearing for my life if I didn't click fast enough, this was the best I could do.

And you certainly should not judge the salad by its photo - this was by far the most popular item on the menu. Bittman hardly ever steers me wrong, and this was an amazing success. It didn't hurt that the cornbread recipe is just about perfect. Matty's dad thought it would be great as is to go with the jambalaya our friend Chet was making, but that didn't stop me from cubing it and toasting it in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes (with the hazelnuts in the last 10 or so). Next time, I'll be doubling this recipe. At least. Especially if Greg's around.

And finally, to celebrate the chill in the air, dessert was pears done in two ways:

Pear Crisps with Vanilla Brown Butter
Subbed in whiskey for the pear brandy. Otherwise followed the recipe to the letter except to bake everything in a 13x9 pan. I wasn't thrilled with the crisp topping, but I was thrilled with all the whiskey-soaked baked pears, and we're still happily munching on the leftovers.

Bittersweet Chocolate and Pear Cake
Yes and yes. In fact, this may be my birthday cake this weekend. If I wasn't at all concerned with fitting into my clothes (or worried about how selfish you'd all think I was), I would make this my own personal birthday cake and make something different for everyone else. It's perfectly decadent, but still simple. With about half the amount of chocolate, I'd say this would easily make a great brunch staple.

Whew. Going to take a week off from the blog, but I'll be taking suggestions for my birthday cake this weekend. Celebrating twice, so send along your favorites!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

i'm falling head first over you

I am almost being driven insane by the fact that I haven't cooked in a week and a half. Don't get me wrong - we've had the most fun taking Matty's parents to our favorite restaurants, and I can't wait to recount all the eating we did in Paso Robles this weekend, but I would like to cook for them at some point. I've got my fingers crossed for Thursday, but we're also hosting a barbecue on Saturday, so I promise there will be more action on this blog by then.

In the meantime, how about cute baby pictures? This is Maya. She'll be one in November.

Her first cake was my Tres Leches:

I think she liked it:

I could not help giggling with delight as she repeatedly dove head-first into the frosting. It really makes all those days of baking in our A/C-free house worthwhile. :)