Thursday, December 20, 2007

Two Easy Nibbles: One Savory; One Sweet

From amongst all the delicious hors d'oeuvres and desserts I sampled at recent holiday parties here are two I'll be serving my own guests:
*A few days ago I baked a batch of cream puff shells, each just a bit bigger than a silver dollar. They're stashed in the freezer to be warmed and crisped a bit before being filled with halved cherry tomatoes, sprigs of watercress and pieces of freshly cooked bacon. I'll serve them with drinks when friends stop by to exchange gifts early Sunday evening.

*To sit on a tray next to the coffee pot on Christmas Eve, I made a batch of my friend Diana's addictively-good miniature coconut tarts. After lining tiny muffin tins with pastry (I used my homemade pate brisee but a sour cream pastry or even a good-quality commercial pie dough would work here - but not puff pastry) I lightly beat three whole eggs and stirred in 1 cup sugar and 3 ounces of shredded coconut. I spooned this into the pastry shells and baked them at 375-degrees until set and golden brown on top. These freeze perfectly once they've cooled.

And the photo at the top of this post? The entryway to the same hilltop home where we enjoyed the harvest dinner in September. The two-year-old pictured in that post was at the Christmas party in full red-plaid-and-black velevet regalia. As a group of us stood chatting on the dance floor she came up to us and said, politely but firmly: "You're standing on my stars." Sure enough, a special light fixture overhead was casting a starry pattern onto the floor. We immediately moved, the band began playing and the young lady danced amongst her stars.
Have a lovely holiday weekend -- and don't stand on anyone's stars. They might need the dancing space.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sprouts Salad: Warm and Wonderful

In the not too distant past I avoided brussels sprouts almost as assiduously as I did (and do) peas. Almost. And then, at a Christmas party six years ago, J cajoled me into trying this warm salad of shaved sprouts and pancetta. Twas bliss in a bowl.
I'm going to be very honest with you and admit that if you're making this for more than three or four people, the prep is a PITA, but I promise you on my love for Jeremy Irons, Kris Kristofferson and my border collies that the result is worth the work.
Oh, and if you aren't willing to search out duck fat, you'll never achieve the taste nirvana of this dish, although chicken fat probably would work *almost* as well. You need only two ingredients in addition to the sprouts and fowl fat: pancetta and white pepper. No salt: the pancetta does that duty.
This is one of those annoying no-quantities-specified recipes--you have to play around with it a bit to discover the proportions you like best, but as long as you apply a modicum of common sense, you're going to end up with a delicious result.
The basic method: fine-chopped panecetta is sauteed in a bit of duck fat until it is browned but not yet crisp and then a mound of shaved-as-thin-as-possible brussels sprouts is added to the pan, tossed just until wilted, seasoned with white pepper and then served promptly.
The PITA factor? You have to shave the little sons-of-cabbages on a mandoline or Japanese slicer to get truly thin strands and, god, it gets tedious after a while. But, no whining. The chef who gave me the recipe prepares it for the staff Christmas party each year and he told me on Sunday that he'd spent an hour and a half that morning slicing enough sprouts to satisfy a hundred people.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Don't Make this Recipe

"I love the smell of shrimp shells in the morning."

I mean it. Do not make this recipe unless you are willing to follow my instructions EXACTLY.
It's not as if I'll be asking you to prepare puff pastry from scratch or shuck a bushel of oysters or bone a grouse -- instead I submit for your consideration an extremely easy appetizer that will bring you raves -- raves, I tell you -- if you will do EXACTLY WHAT I SAY. OK, I'll stop yelling now. But this is one of my most cherished recipes and it breaks my heart to see it screwed up -- and I've seen it screwed up twice in the last few weeks. So, do what I say and do what I do and you'll have an outstanding addition to your recipe repertoire.

I learned how to make this from Charlotte Combe, an excellent teacher at the late lamented Jack Lirio Cooking School in San Francisco,

Charlotte Combe's Marvelous Marinated Prawns

1/4 cup good mustard
1/2 cup wine vinegar
1/2 cup truly excellent olive oil
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup chopped shallots
salt & pepper
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
Bring a large, well-salted pot of water to a boil and drop in 2 lbs. prawns, still in the shell. When they turn pink, they're probably done. Do not overcook them; a tiny bit underdone is far preferable to even a little overdone.
Drain and, as soon as they're cool enough to handle, peel the prawns and then mix them with the marinade.
Refrigerate overnight. Drain very well before serving.

Sounds simple, right? Well it is. But people like to take shortcuts and said shortcuts will ruin this dish. Here are the shortcuts you MAY NOT TAKE:
*No pre-cooked prawns
*No semi-peeled raw prawns
*No cheap-o olive oil
*No dried parsley flakes
*No omitting the red pepper flakes
*No trying to get away with a less-than-overnight marinade
*NO FORGETTING TO DRAIN THE PRAWNS REALLY WELL BEFORE SERVING. They should not be sitting in a pool of marinade at serving time.

You are permitted one substitution: scallions sliced thin for the shallots. The rest of the instructions are to be considered commandments -- carved on stone tablets, broken only at the risk of infuriating the gods of gastronomy
And me.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

4 Questions 4 Michael Ruhlman

Much of my holiday gift shopping involves books, and this year each cook on my list is getting a compact little compendium of kitchen wisdom called "The Elements of Cooking." Written by one of my favorite authors, Michael Ruhlman, "Elements" is a departure from his best-selling narratives like "The Making of a Chef" and "The Soul of a Chef" or cookbooks like "Charcuterie" and "The French Laundry Cookbook."

I've been sitting here trying to write some lines that would whet your appetite for this elegant little book, but I cannot escape the fact that Anthony Bourdain has, in the introduction, done a better job than I ever could:
Eight essays on vital, primary concepts like stock, sauce, salt, eggs, heat and tools...and an absolutely rock solid definition of every term professional chefs should know as a matter of course after years of working in professional kitchens; now you will learn them easily and concisely -- without burning yourself, cutting yourself, or having your ass kicked in the process

Ruhlman was en route home to Cleveland from a month-long book tour when he took a few moments to answer my questions.

CE: The book's impassioned first chapter on the importance of well-
made stock has almost -- almost -- convinced me to take on the
making of veal stock. Do you swear on your love of Cleveland that
"It's no more difficult than chicken stock"?

MR: Absolutely. Though don't buy ten pounds of bones, just two or three will do. Buy a veal breast at the grocery store and have them cut it up; it's
perfect for veal stock.

CE: One of my most-loved cookbooks is the stunning "A Return to Cooking," your collaborative work with chef Eric Ripert. The recipe for snapper with caramelized and braised shallots on a puree of fresh cranberry beans is an entire cooking lesson captured on a few pages,as are so many of the other recipes. If Eric suddenly phoned and said he was coming to Cleveland for a brief visit, what would you cook for him?

MR: Pork belly, of course!

CE: I've read nearly all of your books but my favorite is "House: A Memoir." Having survived several long and gut-wrenching remodels of a 1910 so-called "summer cottage," I raced through "House" on an empathetic surge of I'm-not-putting-this-down-until-I've-reach-the-end. One of the many delights of the Cleveland episode of No Reservations was the glimpse inside your home. Are there still rooms that need work? Certainly the kitchen looks spectacular. And, if you'd known at the beginning what you do now, would you still have undertaken this project? And would your wife, similarly knowledgeable, have agreed, fled or murdered you in your sleep?

MR: While the kitchen and my office are splendid, the living room looks
half like a living room, half like a studio and half like an office,
something you'd find in NYC in SoHo. The guest bedroom fireplace and
hearth are still bare concrete; must tile it this winter! Our bedroom is
bare and unfinished. But all in all I feel like a king in my house
and would not change any decision we've made. Donna may at any moment
come to her senses and murder me in my sleep.

CE: I was intrigued to read that you "started writing at age 10 and have written something almost ever day in the ensuing years." I've also read that while a student at Duke you studied with Reynolds Price. (When I was a Duke I never had the courage to take one of his courses: a major life regret). Early next year Duke celebrates Price's 50 years of teaching. What specific impact did he have on your writing?

MR: You missed a great opportunity to study with Reynolds--that man is connected to the source. His impact on my writing? Were it not for him, I'd never be able to make a living at it, and so I'd long ago have had to cut my throat. He taught me how to sit down and do the work. I wasn't very good, and he gave me the tools to keep working at it until through stubbornness I figured it out.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Cooking Nude

Ever since the New York Times published chef Anna Klinger's recipe for malfatti back in November, 2002, I've loved eating these fat little pillows of ricotta, chard and nutmeg and loved part of the process of making them. Also known as gnocchi gnudi (nude gnocchi) these require no rolling, cutting or flicking off fork tines. You just plop a tablespoon of the gnocchi mixture into a wineglass, twirl the glass wine-snob-style and watch the rather sticky little glob turn into a perfect little oval. That's the part I love.
Here's the part I don't love: preparing the chard:
Bring a large pot of water, heavily seasoned with salt, to a boil. Trim the (4 pounds of) chard, removing all stems and large ridges. Add half to the boiling water and cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Fish out and plunge into a bowl of ice water. Repeat.
Squeeze out chard with your hands. On a dish towel, spread the chard in a circle the size of a pie. Roll up the towel and have someone help you twist the ends to squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Pulse in a food processor until fine. Squeeze out in a dish towel once more, until very dry. You will have about one cup.

All that trimming and boiling and draining and squeezing is, to be honest, a pain in the butt. And since most of the time my only kitchen companion is Georges the cat, the have-someone-help-you-twist-the-towel-ends step is challenging. Georges is a very dignified cat; he does not twist chard-filled towels.
Recently I've been substituting spinach for the chard and finding I make this variation a lot more often. Georges approves.

One more reason I love these malfatti (which translates as "misshapen"): they taste like pasta but are relatively low-carb. As I'm a bit misshapen myself these days and am dining with the ghost of Dr. Atkins at the table, they soothe my pasta yearnings.

Anna Klinger's Malfatti--Modified

1 pound best-quality fresh ricotta
Enough fresh spinach -- blanched/extremely well-drained/chopped super-fine -- to equal 1 cup
8 ounces butter
1/4 cup flour, plus more for shaping
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 large egg yolks
1 large whole egg
Freshly ground black pepper

For serving:
Fresh sage leaves
Parmesan cheese

Drain the ricotta in a sieve lined with cheesecloth overnight in the refrigerator. [Do not skip this step] Measure out 1 + 1/4 cups.
Blanch enough fresh spinach to equal one cup, post-blanching. [I have no idea how much this is -- if you've ever cooked fresh spinach you can eyeball the amount. If not, buy more than you think; spinach is cheap. I get the already trimmed baby spinach from the salad greens section of my market.]Drain it very well, but towel-twisting really isn't necessary.
Melt half the butter. Mix spinach and ricotta. Add melted butter, 1/4 cup flour, 1 heaping teaspoon salt, the nutmeg and mix again. Drop in egg yolks and whole egg, pepper and mix again.

Sprinkle a cutting board with flour. Shape into 1-ounce balls, about 1 tablespoon each, dropping them on the cutting board. You should have 25 - 30.
Put a teaspoon of flour into a narrow wineglass. Drop in a ball and swirl until it forms an oval. Repeat. (You'll need to add bit more flour along the way or even change to a cleaner glass.) You may freeze them at thes point.

To serve, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in the malfatti and cook at gentle boil until they float. Watch carefully; this can happen in a matter of moments and the delicate malfatti can disintergrate if overcooked. (Straight from the freezer they will take only an additional minute or two.)While the gnocchi are cooking, brown some buttter until it smells nutty. Add fresh sage leaves and cook 30 seconds. Add a bit of salt and use the sage butter to sauce the drained gnocchi. Top with grated Parmesan.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

4 Questions 4 Stephanie March

As Margin Notes approaches its half-year anniversary, it's time for the first of a series of mini-Q & A interviews designed to indulge my nosiness about the things people I admire cook, eat and pursue with passion.

Broadway, film and television actress Stephanie March is the daughter of my dear friend Laura -- and if you could meet the mother, you'd immediately know the source of the daughter's beauty. In the early years of Law & Order, SVU, J. and I used to Tivo each episode and then fast-forward it to the last 15 minutes so we could watch Stephanie -- as ADA Alexandra Cabot -- work her court room magic.
Laura is a terrific cook, but when your son-in-law is Bobby Flay, it does give you a moment or two of menu-planning anxiety. Once Laura e-mailed me: "What do you make for Bobby Flay?" and I replied: "Room in the kitchen for HIM to cook."
I caught up with Stephanie when she was just back from Africa.

CE: My secret source (aka your gorgeous mother) told me you recently were in Africa working with a charitable group called One Kid One One World.
How did you get interested in this particular organization?

SM: I became involved with OKOW through one of my dearest college girlfriends. Her husband is a comedy writer in Los Angeles and his writing partner, Josh Bycel, started OKOW about 3 years ago. The idea behind the organization is so simple that it's brilliant. It is basically this: "What could you and your friends and your friends' friends do to help someone if you all gave $100?" The answer is: A LOT. The organization focuses primarily on girls' education and health and it has been a real honor to participate. I just returned from our trip to Kenya where where we witnessed the completion of the solar power project that will allow the girls to have lights, computers, a library, and a chemistry lab. It was extraordinary to see the first bulb turn on and the looks on the girls' faces at that moment. I'll never, never forget it.

CE: You're married to a chef; your mother's a great home cook and your sister graduated from culinary school. You have access to so much great food; what is your secret shame fare? Little Debbie Snack Cakes? Peanut butter on squishy white bread?.

SM: I have more than one secret food shame and it really is something I have to be kind of cautious about around the house. First of all, I love, and I mean LOVE, the Double Jalapeno Cheeseburger at the Sonic in San Angelo, TX. It is so cheesy, greasy, spicy, mustardy and decadent. I have to eat it in the car by myself so Bobby won't catch sight of me with fast food.
My second secret shame fare is chili con queso....but made the real Tex Mex way with Rotel and Velveeta. Yes. You read that correctly. Velveeta. My sister (who has no shame about this because it's her hometown delight, too) made it once in my apartment and Bobby was mortified. He begged me to throw it out and then went about making his own queso fundido type dish to try to lure me back to "the light."

CE: One of my favorite Food Network episodes is the one where you cook Bobby dinner on his birthday. Is there a story behind that killer peach cobbler?

SM: That peach cobbler is out of the Junior League Cookbook from Jackson, Mississippi. If you are looking for it its proper name is "Peach Cobbler Supreme," and I always insist on calling it by its real name. My Mama made it when Charlotte and I were growing up and even to an 8 year old who generally prefers anything chocolate, it was a pretty spectacular treat.

CE: It's always a treat to see you on Bobby's show, but where else can we see you performing in the near future? Broadway, perhaps?

SM: I would love nothing more than to do another Broadway show, but my accountant would prefer for me to get a job on TV. I just did a spot on Grey's Anatomy and was up for a big show, but now there's this strike and things are completely on hold. I am supportive of the writer's for sure (we are all in this together) but it's making the industry pretty sluggish right now. Cross your fingers.

CE: Fingers crossed.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

No-hassle Holiday Gifts

For holiday gifts, some people bake cookies. I booze cherries.
A few years ago I was on deadline for a Boxing Day story and needed more column inches. Remembering the marinated fruits on the cheese cart at Campton Place, I ransacked my pantry, found some dried tart cherries and macerated them in brandy to pair with a wedge of Stilton I had in the refrigerator.
Result? Fabulous.
I've since made these for all kinds of occasions:
*as take-home favors from an 80th birthday party, with tags that said "Like M--, these just get better with time."
*as table favors for a New Year's Eve dinner with tags that re-worked the above line to "Like friendship, these just get better with time."
*as a hostess gift for an ice-cream-loving pal with the note: "Thanks for having us. Tomorrow you can relax with a bowl of ice cream topped with these."
*as a birthday gift for a friend who likes to bake, accompanied by the recipe for Flo Braker's cornmeal pound cake. (from "The Simple Art of Perfect Baking.")

The procedure is too ridiculously simple even to be called a recipe. You simply fill a glass container with *tart* dried cherries and then top off the container with decent brandy -- although I often use Tripe Sec for a slighly sweeter variation. Stick the jar in the refrigerator (I know. I know. It'd probably be fine stored on a pantry shelf, but you're not going to get botulism from a suggestion on *this* blog) and give the fruit at least a couple days to absorb the booze. My friend Brady -- a great cook and a playwright with a gift for concise dialog -- summed up the procedure perfectly:
"Pour booze over tart dried cherries in a jar; close jar; try to wait."

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Venetian Supper [with Mental Margin Notes]

Back in August I posted about my affection for La Posta restaurant in Santa Cruz, particularly the 4-course Sunday dinners, served family-style. The menu is fixed -- no choices; no substitutions. I never call ahead to ask what's being served; I like the surprises. But this past Sunday, my initial reaction to the menu was disappointment. Return with me:
The hostess seats us at our favorite table in the front corner near the bar and hands us the night's menus. First course: a radicchio salad with marinated anchovies. [Ho-hum. I make radicchio salad at home all the time.]
J orders a plate of the house-made salamis. [Because we've been eating so lightly all weekend we need five courses tonight instead of four.] The salamis are excellent. I eat more than my share [Because I'm just going to pick at the boring salad.]
Only, the salad is spendid. Tossed with the radicchio leaves are sprigs of flat-leaf parsley -- "Very Nigella," our friend R notes -- and the anchovies are the plump white boquerones I love.
The second course is risotto with squid ink. [I'd been hoping for pasta. Preferably a repeat of the pasta with duck we had here a few weeks ago] Of course it is delicious and certainly isn't something I make frequently at home. Like: ever.
Next comes petrale sole marinated in sweet and sour sauce. [Is there a more boring fish in the sea than petrale sole? And I hate sweet and sour sauces.] Ok, once again I decide chef Chris Avila is a genius. I LOVE this dish, redolent with mounds of sauteed onions, plump raisins and a perfect balance of sweet and sour notes. A side dish of kale with pine nuts is a fine complement.
Dessert is seckel pear poached in white wine. [Waah. I want my pears swathed in caramel or tucked between layers of pastry.] And my record is now 4 for 4 in the boy-was-I-wrong department. Each of us gets a perfect wee pear, perched jauntily in a pool of poaching liquid which tastes of lemon zest and cinnamon. Bliss: start to finish.
Dear Chef Avila: I shall not doubt you again. [Unless, of course, on some tragic Sunday you make a dish permeated with peas.]

And in a small spurt of serendipity, today's mail brings a beautiful new cookbook by Anna Del Conte: "The Painter, the Cook and the Art of Cucina." I turn to the "Veneto" chapter and find, on adjacent pages, a recipe for Risotto Nero and another for Sardines in Sweet and Sour Sauce. Perhaps I'll try them. Or perhaps I'll hope Chris Avila repeats last Sunday's menu before too long.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Twas the Night before Turkey

The sweet potato pudding is defrosting in the refrigerator; the pie crust is resting in the freezer and the cranberry/orange relish is getting damned tasty after its week-long marinade in Tripe Sec. Despite a day spent here at the beach house last week getting a head start on the Thanksgiving preparations, tomorrow will be a marathon -- and despite my joy at spending the day with people I love, the meal itself probably won't be proportionately tastier than the one I fixed tonight in about 15 minutes, start to finish.
J and I rarely eat steak anymore, but sometimes a New York strip just calls our names. Besides, steak, broccolini and salad was the simplest meal I could think of. To jazz it up a little I made a quick compound butter: minced shallots marinated for 10 minutes in red wine vinegar and then blended into soft butter along with some minced parsley. Dolloped generously onto thick slices of black-on-the-outside-and-ruby-red-on-the-inside steak, it was fabulous.
A few weeks ago I used a blood orange (from J's beloved little tree) in a butter to top grilled fish. Minced shallots, again, this time marinated in a little blood orange juice for 15 or 20 minutes, then blended into soft butter along with a generous amount of grated rind. Twas lovely as it melted over the hot sturgeon.
If I were more organized I'd make a variety of savory compound butters into logs and store them in the freezer.
And, if I were really organized, I'd have taught my daughters to cook and I'd be watching them fix Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow while I sipped champagne and nibbled almonds. Instead I'm immensely thankful that they are angelic about doing the dishes. And equally thankful that I have reservations for dinner out on Friday.
Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Do-ahead Sweet Potato Pudding

Once again, as I have been for the past two Thanksgivings, I'm thankful for Marian Burros and her splendid recipe for Spiced Sweet Potato Pudding. Any Thanksgiving recipe that can be made way ahead and still taste fabulous on The Day, is gratitude-worthy, but one that eliminates my mashed potato meltdowns of years gone by earns my deepest thanks.

Spiced Sweet Potato Pudding
from the New York Times 11/16/ 2005
(with margin notes)

3 pounds sweet potatoes (I use yams)
3 eggs
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves or to taste
salt to taste
4 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated lime rind (don't even *think* about omittimg this; it's essential)
4 tablespoons regular or low-fat sour cream (low-fat sour cream? ugh.)
creme fraiche for topping, optional (I omit this)

*Peel sweet potatoes (yams) and slice 1/8-inch thick. Cook in water to cover; bring to boil and cook until potatoes are fork tender, about 10 minutes. (I just cut each yam into two or three big chunks and toss them in the pot with the skins still on. Takes a little longer to cook, but no tedious slicing and the cooked skins slip right off.)
*In food processor, process the potatoes slightly; add remaining ingredients, except creme fraiche, and process until smooth. (I made this yeasterday at my beach house where there is no food processor, so I smashed the potatoes vigorously with a gorgeous masher I bought mostly because I liked its looks. I then beat in the rest of the ingredients with an electric handmixer. Worked just fine.)
*Place mixture in greased baking dish and refrigerate for 2 or 3 days or freeze for longer. (I froze mine, first laying cling wrap directly on the surface of the potato mixture and then overwrapping with foil)
*To serve, bring to room tmeperature and bake in a 350-degree preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes. Dot with creme fraiche, if desired.
Yield: 8 servings. (Not at my house, Marion. 6; maybe 7. Maybe)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Radicchio di Castelfranco

I was heading to the far corner of the vegetable garden to cut the last dahlia of the season -- a bright red blossom I'd spotted from the kitchen window -- when I found this gorgeous radicchio tucked among the kale plants. It perfectly illustrates Anna del Conte's description of this variety: "a beautiful cabbage rose ...flecked with magenta spots -- as if from the brush of Jackson Pollock."
In all honesty, my radicchio recipe repertoire is severely limited. Nine times out of ten I julienne the leaves and toss them with crushed garlic, olive oil, red wine vinegar and crumbled blue or feta cheese. The tenth time I rough-tear a few leaves to add a slightly bitter undernote to a mix of sweeter lettuces.
But this weekend I discovered a terrific new (to me) use for radicchio: slivered angel-hair thin and piled onto bruschettas spread with a mash of white beans, garlic and great olive oil. A plate of these plus a flute of well-chilled Prosecco reminded me once again that Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray of London's River Cafe are geniuses. If you don't own every single one of their books, your Italian cookbook collection is sadly incomplete.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

True Love --- at last.

Over the years I've wasted silly amounts of money in search of the perfect containers for fridge and freezer storage, but my long, frustrating quest is over. My heart now belongs to decor tellfresh containers -- made in Australia but available from the Container Store's website. They're dishwasher safe, relatively inexpensive, come in a variety of shapes and sizes and stack beautifully. To my surprise, the smallest (3"x4") have proved so useful that I've reordered them twice. All the sizes come with nifty little reusable labels that work well for fridge storage but are often dislodged by the hurly-burly of traffic into and out of my freezer. Masking tape and sharpies remain my choice for long-term labeling.

This afternoon J. did his bringing-in-the-sheaves number with most of the basil plants. He even plucked all the leaves so the subsequent pesto-making was way less tedious than usual. A mammoth bowl of basil leaves yielded only three small containers of pesto -- one for the fridge and two for the freezer -- but their summery flavor will be a welcome brightener to winter fare.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Thanksgiving Countdown

Here's my dining room table, already set for Thanksgiving. Well, I *did* co-write a book about organization (with San Francisco interior designer Randall Koll) and what could be more organized than setting a holiday table two weeks early?

OK, so there are a couple little lies in that first sentence. It's not my table, not my dining room and I haven't even ordered my turkey yet, much less figured out my table decor. Years ago, J and I were fortunate enough to attend a harvest luncheon at Iron Horse Vineyard, and I still savor the memories of the exquisite food, the flowers and this luxuriant table setting. (You can read more about Iron Horse and the Sterling family in a delightful little book titled "A Cultivated Life: A Year in a California Vineyard.")

The second photo is much more recent: Halloween dinner at the home of close friends--but the table would be just as striking at Thanksgiving. Note the small pumpkins hollowed out for votives and the large one used to hold the flowers.

Finally, minimalism, c'est moi. This is my table from last Thanksgiving when J and I were at our beach house with nary a relative nor guest. Four little artificial birch trees I'd found at a gift shop, straw mats and French jacquard napkins in tones of orange and gold were my nod to the holiday; the best part of the decor was the late afternoon sun setting over Monterey Bay.
If you're the host at Thanksgiving this year -- whether you're using four tiny trees or forty pumpkins to bedeck the table -- it's really not ridiculously early to give it some thought. And I urge, URGE, you to set the table the day before. You cannot believe how much this helps dilute the pressures of The Day.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Pears Perhaps-Pepin

Years ago, in a Houston cooking class taught by an elegant woman named Neva Paul, I learned a delicious and simple recipe for caramel pears. So simple that I soon stopped referring to the printed recipe and just tossed the ingredients together from memory: peel, halve and core firm pears; place them cut side down in a buttered baking dish; sprinkle generously with sugar and dot liberally with butter; bake on the bottom shelf of a fairly hot oven until the pears begin to get tender and the juices have mingled to form a light caramel; pour a little heavy cream into the baking dish and let it all cook until the pears are fully tender; spoon pears and caramel-like pan juices into serving dishes and serve with whipped cream and toasted almonds.

Then, in a spate of sorting old recipes, I found the one for these pears. And at the bottom of the ingredients list were three puzzling items. What was I supposed to have done with the second portion of sugar, some water and a pinch of cream of tartar? And did the recipe title -- Poires Pepin -- mean it had originated with The Sublime Jacques? I suspect so, as I found a recipe for Pears in Caramel in La Methode which required making a separate caramel and simmering pears therein.
Clearly I was supposed to make a caramel with those last three ingredients and then add it to the partially-baked pears. If I ever included that step, doing so is lost in the mists of memory. It probably produces a transcendent dessert, but one that no longer fits my definition of Super Easy.

So, I'll continue making my mis-remembered recipe, unless Jacques shows up in my kitchen some afternoon. If he does, I'll make the Official Version -- as long as he's willing to help by making the caramel.

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...

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Pat is in the Details

The fish tacos I had for dinner Friday night at Nick's Cove on Tomales Bay were so good I was tempted to order them again Sunday morning at brunch, but the "you must be kidding" look I got from across the table made me pick eggs Benedict instead. Thus bullied into choosing conventional breakfast fare, I skulked off to the open kitchen to watch the cooks.
"Do you make your own hollandaise sauce," I asked, realizing the absurdity of the question as soon as it left my lips. Every head in the kitchen snapped around as if jerked -- hard-- by invisible cords. I had just won "Stupidest Customer Inquiry of The Week." Bottled hollandaise sauce in a Pat Kuleto kitchen? Not very damned likely.

"These just came out of the oven 10 minutes ago," an adorably baby-faced cook said, holding up a pan of big, flaky biscuits that would take the place of the more common English muffins. Then he turned back to the cooktop and cracked eggs into the poaching water, and I scurried back to my seat, knowing that those eggs would soon be headed my way.

Less than five minutes later the eggs you see in the photo were placed in front of me. What you can't see is that nestled between the Hollandaise-swathed egg and the meltingly tender biscuit is a mound of sweet fresh crabmeat.

And look at the color of the egg yolk. The flavor of truly fresh eggs is so splendid it makes you want to swear off supermarket eggs forever. Quite simply, these were the best eggs Benedict I've ever eaten. And a reminder that even the simplest dishes can be supremely satisfying when attention is paid to each component detail.
(Of course, sitting on a porch alongside Tomales Bay, with sun sparkling on the water and kayaks gliding by, makes any meal more memorable, but I've had many a mediocre meal at restaurants with great views.)

Is is so much to ask that someone at Nick's deliver me an occasional meal in this little red truck? I live a mere two hours away.