Sunday, May 30, 2010

worth every penny spent

I can do nothing but smile when I think about tonight's dinner: Cornmeal Crepes with Avocado Cream + Morels in Madeira, heavily inspired by these Cornmeal Crepes with Mushroom Ragout.

I smile even though I had planned on filling these crepes with mascarpone, but had had it with the grocery store trips for the day, and ended up making do with a mashed avocado swirled with a tablespoon of sour cream for every four crepes. Oh, and I had the tiniest bit of Brie leftover so put a small slice in each. Warm crepe + Brie = melty deliciousness.

I smile even though the morels were $40/lb. Matty picked the wrong day to pay for groceries. I had just been looking for fresh morels since I bought myself Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home and flipped the book open to the beautiful bowl of Morels with Madeira, so when I finally spotted them at Whole Foods, I wasn't going to quibble on price. Luckily, I only bought a pound. His wallet is NOT smiling.

I smile even though I stood in front of the stove for a full 45-minutes to make the morels and 8 cornmeal crepes while it was approximately 90 degrees outside. Not that 45 minutes is a long time for dinner prep, but it feels like a long time when it's all hot, hands-on work.

But enough of the negativity - I smile because every one of my crepes turned out perfectly, because the earthiness of the cornmeal balanced perfectly with the cool lightness of the avocado cream, because the morels were worth every penny of their mushroomy glory. I mean, that depth of flavor is incomparable. That being said, rather than let Matty come that close to cardiac arrest again, I think shiitakes would be a suitable substitute in terms of flavor and texture, and next time I'll use them in the Serious Eats construction of this dish.

worth the wait

Between yoga, taking the BFF to brunch for her birthday and shopping with Sister and Mom for Sister's wedding, most of Saturday was to be spent away from Matty. I thought I'd leave him a little breakfast surprise in the form of Sticky Lemon Rolls with Lemon Cream Cheese Glaze (shown here unglazed).

My plans were foiled when Matty booked work in the morning, and ended up waking up before me. I had forgotten why I had set my alarm so early, and only remembered as he was walking out the door that I was to bake and glaze the buns that I had let rise the day before. Oops.

But let the record show that these are the treats that have completely changed my mind about baking with yeast. Whereas I have always previously thought no one has time to sit through one, much less two, risings, I found this whole process to be delightfully peaceful. I did some work during the first one, went to a birthday party during the second one, and when I got home, popped it in the fridge to bake in the morning.

Twelve minutes into the baking process, it smelled like the gates of heaven had been flung upon. The aroma was so maddeningly good I literally got up to check the timer just so I could tell you exactly when you can expect to be hit with all that pleasantness.

It tastes like heaven, too. Super sweet, candy heaven - but heaven all the same. It's definitely a sugary indulgence, and I don't imagine I would ever make it for just the two of us again, but this absolutely screams Easter brunch.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

same script, different cast

So no sooner than I lament the fact that I haven't had too much opportunity to bake, and another party (housewarming for my new home-owner friends Brendan and Jon) gives my the chance to make Matty's second choice: Dorie Greenspan's Bittersweet Brownies, with the added cherries my mom unloaded on me after a shopping trip earlier today.

I stumbled upon a revelation: this brownie batter was the exact same one (minus a little vanilla) as yesterday's Chipsters! They couldn't have tasted more different with the addition of the cherries, though. Same rich chocolate taste, but spiced by an almost boozy flavor from the fruit. (I thought about soaking them in port first, but didn't have time). Aesthetically speaking, I would have preferred that the cherries were more evenly distributed throughout the batter - I assumed wrongly that they would sink during the cooking process after just sprinkling them across the top.

The Chipsters remain my favorite (see: extra butter and brown sugar layer), but I think I've just figured out a go-to brownie base. Look forward to making many more over the course of this summer as the various berries go on sale at the market.

Friday, May 28, 2010

best of both worlds

Lately, every time I bake something, I preface my blog entry with "I feel like I haven't baked in a long time..." when in fact it's only been a week or two. I guess it's just a testament to how much I love it. I miss all the catering, all the mad cookie spreads, and whatever happened to that promise I made Matty that living with me would mean a dessert in the fridge at all times? (Actually, I think that S'mores Bread Pudding is still in there, but I guess the idea behind my promise was to have fresh dessert in the fridge at all times).

I jumped at the chance to add a dessert to my friend Kim's birthday party spread - her man suggested dark chocolate as a theme, and I immediately turned to Baking: From My Home to Yours for a brownie recipe. Trouble is, which brownie? I narrowed it down to five, and made Matty decide. He claimed a tie between her Bittersweet Brownies, and her Chipster-Topped Brownies, but knowing him as I do, I knew he meant that his favorite were the Chipsters.

And what's not to love? Delicious brownie bottom, chocolate-chip cookie top. It was so rich, I only had half of the sliced pieces you see above (their amazing grilled taco bar may have had something to do with it as well). Now, it doesn't taste like you put a chocolate chip cookie on top of a piece of brownie and chomped down (hedonist!), but that top layer is just wonderful buttery, brown sugariness that destroys all other brownies. I think they even beat the similarly-constructed Caramel Oatmeal Brownies - I felt the softer layer of these Chipsters made for a more indulgent treat than the firmer crust of the others. Perhaps I should do a side-by-side comparison one day soon!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

i tried

I already told you I don't like salad. Here's another jaw-dropper for you - I don't like chicken breast. Nope. Life's too short to be eating white meat. How do you instantly improve a chicken breast recipe? Substitute chicken thighs.

That being said, this Chicken Paillard with Curried Oyster Mushrooms was not as tasteless as I had feared. Twenty minutes in the oven was all it needed, and that's what all it got. The meat was still fairly juicy. However, the curried oyster mushrooms were definitely the star, and maybe even bordered on diva status - they were kind of a bit much on their own, and if I had it to do over again, I'd reduce the salt. With the blander chicken, though, it still made for a good mouthful. I'd love to use the curried mushrooms again in some sort of pasta or rice dish. I love me some oyster mushrooms.

Oh, and here's a tip. When you go to the store, and they have both chicken breasts for sale and chicken paillards for sale, the only difference is that paillards are more expensive. Take the chicken breasts home, slice them in half horizontally and ta-da! chicken paillards. Grocery store hustlers.

Monday, May 24, 2010

the only exception

I don't like salad. There, I said it. Mixed greens salads that come on the side of an entree? I don't even touch them. I LOVE vegetables. But there is just something about salads that I don't like.

Unless there's stuff in them. The kind of stuff that is in this Beef + Red Pepper Salad with Miso Dressing from the June issue of Bon Appetit. Steak, avocado, red peppers, Persian cucumbers. Yes, yes, yes and yes. Miso dressing. Yes.

There's not really much to say about the salad. It was tasty. It was super-quick and easy - cook the steak, prep the veggies and dressing while it rests. Dinner in 15 minutes.

And because of the enthusiasm I'm feeling towards the June issue, I'm going to have to start participating in Magazine Mondays. Here's the first of I'm sure many submissions!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

another try

We have a pretty good routine going at our favorite sushi place. We walk in, are greeted by smiles, get our hand towels, and then get working on the sushi menu. It's your standard menu - a grid of the options with space to mark how many of each you want. That menu is also accompanied two handwritten cardboard sheets - one listing the available beverages, and one listing the "specials" (which in my five years of going there has changed maybe once). With sushi as delicious and beautiful as the stuff you get there, we hardly pay the specials any attention.

This visit, though, we decided to inquire as to what the "butterfish" special was. We were told that it was actually a black cod prepared in a traditional Japanese method. Why not?

It turned out to be one of the most delicious fish dishes we've ever had the pleasure of ordering in a restaurant. Served with a side of rice and some lightly pickled cucumbers, it was actually a perfect match to the salmon sashimi that completed our meal. We obviously had to find a way to recreate this dish at home, but had two variables to contend with: 1) the fish type and 2) the marinade ingredients.

1) The Fish
We've learned that butterfish is more a descriptive term than the name of an actual fish, and can also be known as sablefish or black cod. (Although, I recently saw a menu that had both sablefish and black cod on the menu, so I no longer know what's what). We've also successfully halibut for black cod. It sounds like the possibilities are endless, and this is all some joke of marketing.

2) The Marinade
Our lovely waitress tipped us off that the marinade contained sake and soy sauce. While this Miso-Marinated Black Cod did not include soy sauce, it did include miso and had the Nobu pedigree, so I thought it would be a good first shot.

And boy was it. It was rich and sweet, and each flaky piece of fish completely melted as it touched the tongue. It definitely needed a little more salt to balance the sweetness, though - pouring a bit of soy sauce over the fish made it closer to the original, so I think it will definitely be included in the next experiment's marinade. The question, then, is what it will replace. I'm thinking the miso - maybe in a 1-to-1 replacement ratio. I'd keep the sugar because I think it helped with caramelizing the bits that touched the pan, but I think the miso paste made it sweeter than the original. I could potentially switch out the white miso paste for something a little darker and funkier, but I don't use miso all that much, and an entire tub seems to be a bit much for experimentation alone.

I'd also like to try it with a cheaper fish. It's such an easy dish but gives such a gorgeous presentation that Wondering if regular cod would work as well. Any suggestions?

Friday, May 21, 2010

it could be the pearl

I've been so uninspired by food lately. All week, I haven't had any idea what I've wanted to order for lunch. And when I finally decide, and the food gets to the office, I realize it was the wrong decision. I look through all my bookmarks, and start wondering why I saved them in the first place. Add to that the fact that neither of us felt like chicken, steak, fish or pasta because of what we've had recently, and what we planned to have this weekend, and it was starting to look like PB&Js for dinner tonight.

Luckily, in a flash of inspiration that I hope bodes well for a return to kitchen mojo, I remembered that I had a jar of oysters in the fridge, bought at Seafood City on a whim for occasions such as this. I made Oyster Po'Boys, and as a fun riff on sandwiches and chips, I roasted large squares of rainbow chard in a 450-degree oven for chard chips. I've never really agreed with most folks that kale chips (prepared in the same way) tasted like popcorn, but I will have to say I thought the chard ones did. And not in the smells-awesome-but-can-never-taste-as-good-as-it-smells way that makes me dislike regular popcorn, but in the fun-crunchy-good-for-you-snack way.

I haven't done fried oysters in a while, and this made me wonder why I don't do them more often. The crunchy-creamy oysters were great in a warm French demi-baguette smeared with mayo and stuffed with Romaine. Matty went for extra Tabasco in his sandwich, while I made do with the drops I added to the milk-egg mixture in breading the oysters. Next time, I think I'll try a tempura batter to up the crunch factor.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

really greener

You so much as say "brown butter," and my head will snap to attention, and I will stop to check you out. You add that to Salsa Verde, and you can guarantee that it will be on the to-make list.

There is just something about a homemade sauce/condiment that makes even the simplest of meals (read: this one) seem extra special. I doubled it because, well, why not? We do have a touch leftover, and I already can't wait to use it in my next vegetable saute. Tonight, though, it was the perfect complement for an otherwise fairly tame and almost monochromatic meal. Parmesan chicken breast (split in half horizontally, dredged in flour, then dipped in milk and finally coated with a mixture of panko and Parmesan) with pan-roasted Napa cabbage and Parmesan polenta (1/2 c. cornmeal to 6 c. water) is good, but add the salsa verde, and you get a pop in both color and flavor.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

the heat is on

Cooking Club Meeting #3: Pan Asian Night.

We started out with everyone's favorite, dumplings. I absolutely loved hearing Laura talk about consulting with her mother on the process for these Pork Dumplings. Everything from the consistency of the filling, to the pleats in sealing each dumpling, to the jaw-dropping courage of adding water to a hot oiled pan to steam the dumplings after their cute little bottoms have been seared. We also made Ming Tsai's Vegetarian Potstickers to accommodate a couple vegetarian guests.

Unfortunately, I was too busy gobbling and not quick enough with the camera before the last one was in my mouth, so if you girls have photos, feel free to add them to the comments section.

Next out was Salt + Pepper Squid with Chinese Five-Spice Powder, or what we ended up dubbing Asian calamari. We had slices rather than rings because we were dealing with two massive squid instead of several smaller ones that could have been cut crosswise into rings. No matter - delightful in any shape. Word to the wise - Chinese five-spice powder is common in stores like Albertson's and Ralphs, but good luck finding it in a Whole Foods. Who would've thought?

My contribution to the dinner was Beef Pho, a big check off of my bucket list - making pho from scratch. And you know what, the instructions seem intense, but it's actually all very simple. Get your hands on some practically free beef bones at an Asian grocery store, and you have an economical and delicious meal, and all it really took was time.

Give yourself plenty of time, though - it'll take longer than you think to bring all that water to boil to parboil the bones, it'll take longer than you think to bring the second round of water to boil when you begin to make the stock, and it'll take you longer than you think to cool the charred onions and ginger (broiled in the oven rather than the stovetop to reduce flyaway onion skin, etc.) before you peel them (unless you like burned fingertips). I'm not much of a homemade stock person, but the perfection this bowl of soup turned out to be is really making me reconsider that.

And here's a plate with the rest of dinner - not because they don't all deserve a separate photo and paragraph, but because my stomach was growling too much to wait to plate and capture each on their own. From left to right:

- Alaskan Black Cod with Hoisin + Ginger Sauces: The fish was wonderfully flaky, and the sauces a perfect complement to the mild fish. We subbed New Zealand halibut for the Alaskan black cod because I nearly fell over at Gelson's when I saw how expensive the cod was.

- Spicy Glazed Eggplant: I love Asian eggplant. I'm pretty sure we order it at every Asian restaurant we go to. Now I can make it. :)

- Long Beans with Sweet Soy Sauce: We used the darker green variety, and I loved how the beans stayed firm throughout the cooking process. And boy, they weren't kidding when they called them "long."

And finally. Finally! Dessert. Forbidden Rice Pudding with Blueberries. I'm frankly embarrassed to think about how many servings I ate after protesting that I could not have another bite of dinner - that I was too full. Matty's not a huge fan of rice pudding, but one bite in, I stopped worrying. He was going to like this. Sweet, rich, floral, refreshing...what else? Perfect goes on the adjective list, too. Just absolutely loved it. Even good with frozen blueberries - berry prices being the second near-faint reaction after the price of black cod.

It didn't thicken up like Hillary and I thought it would, but we pulled it off the stove anyway to get the refrigeration it needed. I guess I'll just have to keep experimenting with it until we get the texture right. I luckily ended up with the leftover forbidden rice. :)

Thanks, girls, for yet another amazing session! Till next time!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

sweet dreams

We've had this dream for a long time. One that involves steak dinners at 4:00a. A Pacific Dining Car dream.

You see, Pacific Dining Car is open 24/7. We've been a couple times for special occasions, but have always wanted to go between midnight and dawn to see the kind of clientele they host at that time of night. We took the occasion of Matty's birthday to finally follow through. Unfortunately, our social experiment was foiled by the fact that actually, no one is in the restaurant at 4:00a. Just us and our friends Jeff and Marcela, the only two other humans who attempt a feat like that with us.

What it was, though, was an experiment in the limits of the human body. We had a plan of action:

1) We would eat a light dinner on the early side. This amazing Pappardelle with Zucchini Blossom Sauce totally did the trick. The sauce was surprisingly sweet from all the veggies but it balanced perfectly with the substantial pasta and cheese garnish. I was too lazy to finely dice the veggies, so I sent them through the grater attachment of the food processor. The zucchini blossoms, which I found in the frozen section of my new favorite grocery store, were left whole as they were pretty small to begin with.

It would have been a lighter meal if we hadn't eaten the whole thing between the two of us. The sauce had an egg in it, though. It wouldn't have been any good tomorrow. And it was so, so good tonight.

2) We would nap from 9p-2a.

3) Jeff and Marcela would get here at 2:30a, and we would have cocktails (since PDC wouldn't be serving between 2a and 6a).

4) We would blast off around 4a for steak dinners.

What a crazy experiment it was. It turns out, you can't really eat that much steak at 5a, regardless of how hungry you think you are. I guess all that means, though, is leftovers for dinner! Thanks for indulging us, guys - and an extra happy birthday to Matty!

Pappardelle with Zucchini Blossom Sauce
adapted from Orangette
Serves 2-3

olive oil
1 T. butter
1 medium red onion, grated
1 stalk of celery, grated
1 medium carrot, grated
Leaves from 10 sprigs Italian parsley, finely chopped
12 zucchini blossoms, quartered from stem to tip or left whole if small
6 saffron threads
2 c. vegetable broth
1 egg yolk
1/2 lb. pappardelle
Pecorino Romano, finely grated

1. Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta until al dente.

3. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, warm a splash of olive oil and the butter over medium heat. Add the red onion, celery, carrot, and Italian parsley, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are translucent. Add the zucchini blossoms, a pinch or two of salt, and the saffron, and stir gently to mix. Add about 3/4 c. of broth, and stir to combine. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the rest of the broth a splash or two at a time, taking about 5-8 minutes to add it all. Stir frequently. Allow the sauce to simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated and only a thin film of thickened broth remains in the pan. Remove from the heat.

3. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolk slightly with a fork.

4. When the pasta is almost ready, place the zucchini blossom sauce back over medium heat. Use a small measuring cup to scoop up about 3 T. of pasta water and, whisking constantly with a fork, gradually add the hot water to the egg yolk: together, they should make a loose, pale yellow liquid. Pour this mixture into the sauce in the skillet, stirring well. Using tongs or a spider, scoop the finished pasta from its pot into the skillet, and toss with the sauce over medium heat for about 30 seconds.

5. Serve, topped with grated Pecorino.

Friday, May 14, 2010

just a little more love

Things I neglected to do on May 9th:
- acknowledge my 3rd blog-aversary
- make a proper dessert for Matty's birthday
- take a proper photo of said dessert once I finally got around to making it

We went out to an amazing dinner at WP24 Saturday night...

Fun! Delicious! Amazing view!

But I still did promise him a nice breakfast Saturday morning, and dessert whenever we got around to it this weekend. I made him go through my bookmarks, and he ended up finding it in my Breakfast folder: S'mores Bread Pudding.

Now even if I'm not so much of a hedonist that I'd call that breakfast, but I thought the Hot Chocolate Bread contained within would be a delicious alternative to toast - perhaps treated with mascarpone/Nutella/berries a la this. Unfortunately, the bread, while a snap to whip up, was terrifyingly dry and tasteless.

But, but! Throw in some eggs, cream and bake it all in a water bath for another hour, and what emerges is rich, decadent, and definitely birthday-worthy. I didn't realize I was out of graham crackers, and would have enjoyed the texture and flavor contrast, but everything else was so damn ridiculous, I nearly forgot that it was missing an ingredient. Hopefully if this week slows down, and I'm able to have dinner at home, I'll take a better photo, possibly even taking out the blowtorch to toast the marshmallows for added fun!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

food to my soul

This Salt-Baked Salmon with Roasted Tomato Aioli was my Mother's Day gift to my mom. Matty and I lugged this beast and an assortment of groceries over to my parents' house to prepare dinner tonight. This was supposed to be easy - salt crust - go! Twenty minutes in the oven - go! But I was glad I had over-budgeted that I would need an hour to cook, because a series of unplanned stresses had me using up the entire hour.

The main problem lay in the salt - rock salt. Rock salt is never going to "yield the consistency of wet sand." Regular salt will. Kosher salt will. Rock salt will just be wet salt. And wet salt does not like to form any kind of crust. You can only pile enough on in an attempt to bury the fish under the salt. Which brings us to the next problem.

It's hard to bury a fish in salt when all you have is a half sheet cookie pan to work with. It was the largest thing I could find at the store. I mean, that salmon was massive - that sheet pan is 18"x13". And we all know by the Pythagorean theorem that that meant the diagonal was about 22 inches. You see how much further off the diagonal that fish is hanging off the diagonal. Not that anything much larger would have fit in the oven (and thank goodness it wasn't my tiny oven - Mom has an adult-sized one). And that brings us to the third problem.

Who in the hell needs 9 pounds of salmon? To serve 8-12 people? Have mercy. The largest one I could find at my new favorite seafood source, Seafood City, was 7 pounds, and the 8 of us barely touched the second half of the monster, and we definitely all had our fill. Maybe even more than we should have.

All that to say it was delicious, and really kind of worth the stress. The salmon was perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned, and made for a very impressive, if messy, presentation. The roasted tomato aioli was also amazing - fresh and light. I would have liked a slightly thicker texture, but I'm sure that was me and my overheating food processor not being able to continuously process for the entire duration of the olive oil coming through the feeder, and not the recipe. I'm a little sad I left the rest of the aioli in Mom's fridge - it would make a great sandwich spread.

Sides were roasted baby potatoes, roasted baby artichokes (quartered and tossed with olive oil and salt), and roasted oyster mushrooms (roughly torn and tossed with olive oil and salt), all done while the salmon was cooling in its salt crust. I was very pleased with how well everything went together. In fact, I was tempted to snag some leftovers to use in a pasta dish, but hey - it's not my holiday.

Next time, I'll just make sure to get a big-enough roasting implement, a finer salt, and invite twice as many people to dinner. :) But I guess if it's for mama, it's all right. Happy Mother's Day, Mom!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

a little is enough

Home again, home again. After an emotional weekend out of town, it was a welcome pleasure to be back in my humble kitchen to put together a quick dinner for just the two of us. It was simple, it was good, it was enough.

I actually wasn't very sure how Sole-Wrapped Asparagus would turn out, but the title alone was intriguing enough to warrant a try. I immediately nixed the idea of the tangerine beurre blanc. I don't know why, but I've always despised beurre blanc. The thought of it alone turns my stomach. There's something about citrus and butter sauces that just don't jive with me.

However, what does jive is browned butter. About 3 T. of the stuff slowly browned in a saucepan, with about 2 t. of well-drained capers tossed in at the very end. All of which gets spooned over the lovely bundles of fish and a bed of red quinoa.

It was delicious. Delicate and flavorful, even with minimal seasoning. I suppose the browned butter helped with that. I wouldn't say that my asparagus were crisp-tender, but at least they didn't turn that appalling shade of gray-green that overcooked asparagus tend to turn. Gorgeous green, if a bit mushy for my taste. Not perfect, but enough.