Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween Fare

Halloween in downtown Los Altos, where ya could die from the cuteness.
Chiquita Banana

Gorgeous Green Bean

Cutest-ever Chili Pepper

Morose Macaroni and Cheese

And, my favorite: a dog named Truffle, posing as a sushi platter

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Chez Panisse; Chez Moi

Every Saturday afternoon I consult with the chefs at Chez Panisse about menu ideas. I tell ya, they're geniuses at this. Each session revs up my enthusiasm to try new combinations and twists on old favorites and reminds me what's likely to be freshest and most flavorful at the market.
Of course, it's a cyber-conversation and a one-sided one at that: They write; I read. You're welcome to join us; just go to
Last week I liked their suggestions of leek and spinach souffle with wild mushrooms, swordfish alla siciliana with currants and pine nuts, red pepper pasta with rosemary, pancetta and rapini greens, and red wine-poached Comice pear with sweetened mascarpone. I only managed to make the swordfish and the pears, but I still plan to try both the souffle and the pasta combination. This week they're serving grilled duck breast with roasted figs, pearl onions and green beans on Tuesday, an apple and quince galette with creme fraiche on Thursday, and a salad of curly endive, persimmons, hazelnuts and Roquefort crouton on Friday. Versions of all three dishes are candidates for the table chez moi.

Even though I own all the Chez Panisse cookbooks, I rarely try to track down the exact recipes. My leeks vinaigrette with pickled beets and farm egg will be a kissing cousin rather than a twin of the plate served in the restaurant this Saturday, but I know the flavors will work together.
I print out each week's menu, store it in a binder, and sometimes I read the saved printouts with no intention whatsoever of cooking from them, but just for the pleasure of savoring the food in my mind. They're serving huckleberry ice cream profiteroles at Chez Panisse this Friday evening and spiny lobster ragout on Saturday. I won't be there, but oh how I envy the diners who will.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

World's Greatest Pot Roast

The dish J. and I call World's Greatest Pot Roast isn't a pot roast at all. More accurately it is my candidate for the World's Easiest Short Ribs, but the recipe started as one for pot roast and then morphed into the meat and method I use today.
Years ago I read a few lines in Laurie Colwin's "More Home Cooking" about chuck steak -- the preferred pot roast cut in my mother's and grandmother's kitchens. I remembered their fussing with carrots and onions and a bay leaf or two, but Colwin was saying I had no need for all that: "Get a large very thick chuck steak from the butcher," she wrote. "Take this steak and put it into a large baking dish. Season it with salt and pepper and cover it very tightly with tin foil. Stick it in a 275-degree oven and leave it for six hours."
So I did, and it was good. And God knows it was easy. But as the years went by and beef got younger and leaner, the once reliably streaky chuck roasts no longer seemed as succulent, no matter how low-and-slow they cooked. J. and I began fork-dueling for the meat closest to the bone, relegating the rest to unloved leftovers.
Then one day I spotted some beautifully marbled, thick English short ribs at the butchers' counter and decided to cook them via Colwin's method.

I found they didn't need six hours--more like three to four. But oh, sweet memories of childhood, this was marvelous meat, needing only a few spoonfuls of the pan juice, a generous lashing of chopped parsley and a side dish of creamy horseradish. Usually I accompany it with a salad of sliced radicchio dressed with olive oil, red wine vinegar and crumbled blue cheese or feta.
In summary: Make sure the short ribs are at least two-inches thick. Brush a heavy baking dish with olive oil, nestle in the ribs in a single layer, sprinkle on generous amounts of salt and pepper and cover the dish *tightly* with foil. Place in a 275-degree oven. (Make sure your oven doesn't run hot; many self-cleaning ones do.)
Start checking them after two hours or so, but there is absolutely no need to baste. If I start these early enough in the day, I usually reduce the heat to 250-degrees after the first hour, as I think slower and longer gives a better result. After the initial check-in, I peek at them every half hour or so, stabbing a piece with a sharp fork. They should be almost-falling-off-the-bone tender, but not mushy. I never try to have these finish precisely at dinner time, but aim for at least an hour ahead and then re-heat them just before serving.

This is a dish I make only when the weather turns cooler. Because each portion includes three chunky bones, our Border Collies enthusiastically endorse its return to the repertoire.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Beach House Baking

I'm sure there are people with second homes who always know the pantry inventories of said abodes. I am not one of those people.
I try. I'm pretty good about the freezer, making sure it always holds puff pastry, butter and bacon -- life's true essentials. But our beach house pantry always seems to have too much of one thing (EIGHT cans of anchovies?) and not enough of another (there MUST be a jar of za'atar here somewhere).
Late last Saturday afternoon I decided the strawberries I'd bought at the farmers' market that morning would make a nice little tart. I rolled out a rectangle of defrosted puff pastry, marked off a 3/8-inch frame with a sharp knife and then stabbed the center section with a fork to keep it from puffing. I baked it until browned (checking after ten minutes to see if any bubbles needed further fork attacks) and then let it cool. Since I don't particularly like either making or eating pastry cream, I planned to coat the center with a thin layer of currant jelly before topping it with the sliced berries.

Only the jar of jelly that I'd have SWORN was on a pantry shelf was gone with the wind. I contemplated the other possibilities: Chocolate pecan sauce? Noooo. Homemade apricot jam: a little too sweet. Maple syrup: way too sweet. Frustrated, I searched the refrigerator and came up with a nearly-empty jar of homemade blood orange marmalade. I scraped the chunky contents into a small saucepan, added a few spoonfuls of water and a splash of ginger liquer and heated the mixture until it blended into a light glaze. I spooned this onto the tart shell and let it set.
Right before serving, I layered the sliced berries over the glaze and dusted them with confectioner's sugar. The strawberries weren't red-to-the-core and I was drinking Prosecco and singing along with Emmy Lou Harris while I worked, so the resultant tart was a bit of an ugly duckling. Or, *rustique* as one kind commenter described one of my less attractive souffles.
But true to the tale of ducking becoming swan, this rustique little tart tasted sublime. One of the most delicious I've ever made. The slightly bitter marmalade played beautifully against the sweetness of the berries and the slight undertone of ginger added a bit of complexity.
Ahhh, the bliss of baking -- and the serendipity of an ill-stocked pantry.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Demolishing My Low-Carb Vows

Oh, I am loving this book from the chef/owner of San Francisco's Citizen Cake. Gorgeously photographed, sassily written and stuffed with exciting recipes, "Demolition Desserts" is one helluva book. Even the back cover blurbs are impressive: Mario Batali calls it "crazy, smart and beautiful," Pierre Herme claims to want to try all the recipes and my favorite baking guru, Dorie Greenspan, writes "every recipe is bold and imaginative, yet each delivers ... a big serving of old-fashioned comfort."
How could you not love a book written by someone who has made chocolate chip cookies at least once a week since junior high school? Someone who combines manchego churros and paprika almonds in a dessert called Spanish Quincition or covers a cake with shredded coconut and names it Shagalicious. Someone who keeps dreaming up some of the most addictive cupcakes in the Bay Area.

I'd like to claim I made this chocolate cupcake from a recipe in the book, but I was in San Francisco for a day so I was buying rather than baking. A year or so ago, a friend introduced me to Citizen Cake's little outpost on the third floor of the Virgin Megastore near Union Square. Called Citizen Cupcake, it's my favorite stop for great grilled cheese sandwiches and the irresistible cupcakes.
But since I don't get to San Francisco as often as I get a yen for great cupcakes, I'm excited that Faulkner has shared not only recipes but also "the tricks and equipment tips to make rock-star cupcakes with attitude."

Bought or baked, these are cakes worth every single carb.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Sort-of Souffle Tuesday: Pops rather than Puffs

Making good-enough popovers is simplicity itself, but consistently producing near-perfect popovers -- crisp on the outside, moist and tender within and, of course, puffed both high and wide -- is a goal I've found maddeningly elusive.
I've tried various cookware -- muffin tins, ceramic ramekins, special iron popover pans --and both hot and cold oven starts. Based on suggestions in the Neiman-Marcus cookbook, I've warmed the milk and also let the batter rest. Sometimes this seemed to help and then another batch would disappoint.
Finally, after a morning of trying different recipes one after the other and actually making some, uh, margin notes after each batch, I think I've cracked the code.
The baking temperatures and times I'm now using come from a sweet little tome I recently unearthed from my attic stash: "Blueberry Hill Cookbook" by Elsie Masterton.
Written in the 1950s and 60s, Masterton's books are a delightful read. The first, "Nothing Whatever to Do," chronicles her becoming a cook "through sheer necessity." The Vermont inn she and her husband bought and planned to operate as a ski lodge was in an area not blessed with sufficient snow. In desperation they turned it into a summer getaway, promising, in a small Saturday Review ad, "Lucullan food."

My attic carton yielded both "Blueberry Hill Cookbook" and "Blueberry Hill Menu Cookbook" but not "Nothing Whatever to Do," so I'm off to the on-line used book stores.
And from now on, this is my popover procedure:

Truly Impressive Popovers
(adapted from "Blueberry Hill Cookbook" by Elsie Masterton)

1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 extra-large eggs
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 1/4 cups milk

Pre-heat oven to 425-degrees.
Whisk the eggs; add flour, salt, melted butter and milk and whisk well. Let batter rest for 30 minutes or so.
Generously grease a muffin tin. (Don't cheat on this.) Place the tin in the hot oven until it is quite hot, and then quickly fill each section about half full. (The batter probably won't fill all twelve spaces).
Bake for 15 minutes, without opening the oven door. Reduce heat to 350-degrees and continue baking for another 10-15 minutes, depending on how moist you like your popover interiors.
Remove popovers from the tin immediately. Left to cool in the pan they tend to stick.
Makes 10-11 popovers.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Shortcake like Mother Never Made (unless Mother was an Italian Pastry Chef)

Amongst shortcake fans you have your biscuit-lovers and your sponge-cake devotees. Cake people are wrong, of course; in shortcake, biscuits are better. But every once in a while even my strongest convictions have to be altered.
After the Strawberry & Peach Shortcake I had recently at Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar in Healdsburg I now concede that if the cake is made with cornmeal and topped with a toasted pine nut brittle I can be lured from biscuit loyalty. (Of course, just to confuse matters, Willi's menu describles the shortcake base as a cornmeal biscuit, but to my tastebuds it was a cake.)
My first thought was that pine nuts, butter and sugar had been layered on the bottom of the pan, the batter poured on top and the cake flipped over for serving -- sort of a variation on pineapple upside-down cake.
A phone call to Willi's chef Matt Laurell erased that quick-and-easy theory. Seems that first one must toast the pine nuts, use them to make a pine nut brittle (known In Italy as *crocante*), scatter bits of the brittle atop the raw batter and then bake. Fiddly work, as Nigella would say, but oh-so-worth it.
Laurell said his brittle uses brown sugar, molasses and corn syrup. The closest-seeming recipe I could find was on the food network's site, but I suspect that any brittle recipe would give a similar result. Before the last of the peaches and nectarines vanish from the farmers' markets, I'm going to give this a try.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Souffle Tuesday -- two days late

When it comes to matters culinary I'm pathetically suggestible. Let one of my food gurus mention an unusual spice or helpful gadget or pricey pan and I immediately NEED it. Occasionally I don't have to go shopping: the must-have is an already-have, a purchase made weeks, months or years ago that has been sitting, unused, on my pantry shelf or at the back of a cabinet drawer.
This copper tarte tatin pan was a birthday present -- one of those oh-how-did-you-know-I-wanted-this? gifts. (Perhaps the Williams-Sonoma catalog left open with the item number circled in red helped.) I was thrilled and immediately hung it, in all its French gorgeousness, on my pot rack and then never took it down except for polishing. Any time I'd think about making a tarte tatin, I'd think again and make a far-easier galette instead.
Then I saw the clafouti photo in "Nigella Express" -- with my pan's exact twin -- and read: "I use (my tarte tatin pan) for so many recipes, including roasting small birds, I can't recommend one too highly." Down came the pan that very afternoon and I've been roasting poussins and baking savory souffles in it ever since. I've always preferred a fairly shallow container for savory souffles, as Resident Gardener likes lots of brown top crust.
And *I* like imagining that Nigella will stroll into my kitchen one day and be filled with admiration for my choice of copperware.

Crab and Almond Souffle
(adapted a bit from "Gourmet's Menu Cookbook")

Fresh chives
1 cup bechamel sauce, warmed
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
Salt and pepper
2 cups flaked crab meat
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon shredded almonds, divided
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten.
6 egg whites

Pre-heat oven to 400-degrees and butter the souffle dish well.
Season the bechamel with the dry mustard, salt and pepper. Stir in the crab, the 1/4 cup almonds and the egg yolks. Beat the egg whites with a dash of salt until firm but still moist peaks form. Stir about a quarter of the beaten egg whites into the crab mixture and then gently but thoroughly fold in the rest. Pour the batter into the buttered souffle dish, scatter the remaining tablespoon of almonds on top, place in oven and immediately reduce temperature to 375-degress. Bake for 30-35 minutes. The souffle will be puffed (but not as high as a sweet souffle) and deep brown in color.
While the souffle is baking, clarify some butter and then add some snipped chives. Serve this as a light sauce. Of course, if you felt like making hollandaise...