Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Frankly-faux Cheese Souffle

Souffle Tuesday is not dead -- just taking a long winter's nap. One of these weeks I'm going to test and post a true souffle recipe again, but a few nights ago I was feeling too lazy to whisk and fold egg whites and so trotted out this dependable old war horse from my stable of favorite recipes. It was so good I made a half-size version for lunch today.
The original recipe comes from Helen McCullough's excellent "The Low-Carb Cookbook." My copy is on loan to a friend, so I fixed this from memory and if it wasn't exactly as written in the book, it worked out just fine.

The basic procedure involves buttering a shallow baking dish and then coating the buttered surface with ground Parmesan. Beat 6 whole eggs until yolks and whites combine, stir in 1 cup of heavy cream and a cup of grated cheese. Season with salt and pepper--perhaps a bit of grated nutmeg, if you like. Pour the mixture into the prepared dish and bake in a 375-degree oven until puffed and well-browned. Serve at once for the full visual effect, but it tastes just fine after the fall. In fact, I love it cold and fully deflated the next day.

Most often I make this using a fairly sharp aged Cheddar, although the little luncheon one in the top picture (a half-portion of the recipe) had Feta cheese with a good dash of za'atar and the larger, lazy-night dinner version -- based on my unwillingness to go out in the rain to the store -- relied on a mixture of grated Gruyere eeked out to a full cup with a couple tablespoons of Parmesan.
This sturdy little cross between a proper souffle and a crustless quiche can incorporate up to a half-cup of cooked bacon, sauteed pancetta cubes, minced ham, etc. I've successfully tossed in chopped cooked spinach, sliced mild chiles, sauteed mushrooms, leftover cubes of cooked eggplant--you get the idea -- but I've come to feel its simpest form is best: a warm amalgam of eggs, cream and cheese that looks and tastes like far more than the sum of its parts.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Wild Child at The River Cafe

The first -- and only -- time I ate at London's River Cafe, I set the carpet on fire. The blaze was small and quickly extinguished by J, and our waiter was lovely about the entire episode, but my heart still pounds when I think about what-might-have-been.

It's just that I'd waited so long to go there, having been enchanted by all the laudatory press and delighted with every recipe I'd tried from the cookbook, that I got a tad over-excited and when one of the pastry chefs set a fresh-from-the-oven lemon tart on the counter of the open kitchen, I jumped up from my seat to get a closer look. Apparently I tossed my napkin onto the little spirit lamp on our table and the fabric instantly ignited. Why didn't I scoop it up and immerse it in my water glass? Who knows? Flinging it onto the floor probably spared the tablecloth but definitely spoiled the carpet.

I cook frequently from all the River Cafe cookbooks, but the first one remains my favorite. As the Bay Area weather gets colder and wetter (Isn't January over YET?) this simple but succulent recipe for lamb shanks never fails to satisfy.

Slow-Cooked Lamb Shanks
(slightly adapated from "The Rogers Gray Italian Country Cookbook" by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray)

6 small lamb shanks
flour for dusting
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablesppons olive oi
6 red onions, peeled and sliced fine
1 handful chopped fresh rosemary leaves
4 garlic cloves, peeled and choppe
3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 + 1/4 cups red wine

Preheat the oven to 300-degrees.
Dust the lamb shanks with seasoned flour.

In a heavy-bottomed pan with a lid, heat the oil and brown the shanks on all sides, then remove. Lower the heat heat, add the onions, and cook for about 10-15 minutes, until light brown. Add the rosemary and garlic and cook for another couple of minutes. Raise the heat and add the balsamic vinegar and the wine. Reduce for a couple of minutes.
Return the shanks to the pan, reduce the heat and cover with a piece of moistened parchment paper and the lid. Place in the oven, lower the heat to 275 or even 250 and cook until the meat is very tender -- start checking after two hours, but I usually find it requires *at least* two and a half hours at this temperature.

While they cook, check the shanks from time to time, basting with the juices or adding more wine if they look too dry. Serve whole, with the onion strands and pan juices.

Here's what remained from tonight's dinner:

Although these look as if a famished Henry VIII had attacked them, they still had enough lamby flavor to thrill the resident Border Collies.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Birthday Fare

This year my birthday was a four-day festival, gastronomically bracketed by polenta and pork. Thursday night's dinner at Village Pub in Woodside was pretty-near perfect, from the oxtail consomme with marrow dumplings right through the dessert beignets, followed by superb mignardises -- my favorite new French word, learned from the sublime Clotilde at Chocolate & Zucchini. But the entree was particulary wonderful -- one of the best plates of food I've had in months.

I learned from our waiter that the chef marinates an entire rack of pork in apple cider for several days, sears it on the hardwood-fueled grill and finishes it in the oven. A thick slice nestles in a bed of creamy white polenta, caramelized apple wedges go alongside and a salad of shaved fennel and pink lady apple adds a finishing garnish.

Sunday's polenta and pork were part of the family-style Sunday night dinner at La Posta in Santa Cruz. This time they appeared in separate courses: the polenta with braised tripe as the primi and the pork roasted and accompanied by sweet and sour red cabbage as the secundi.
And even though this meal included an endive and persimmon salad to start and a slice of warm apple crostada to conclude, I still went home and ate a thin sliver of the devil's food cake (with mocha buttercream and raspberry jam) left over from the family celebration earlier in the day.

Thus endeth the Birthday Festival for 2008. Twas grand.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Farewell, Old Friend

We had some good times; made some good food. I learned to cope with your thermostatic infidelity, but when you stopped self-cleaning the relationship was over for me.

Murphy's Law of Kitchen Remodeling: The space vacated by the old appliance will be exactly one-half inch too small for the new.

Hello, Gorgeous!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Low-carb; High-pleasure

After three weeks of Karen's double-ginger biscotti, Nigella's pomegranate ice cream, Diana's marvelous miniature coconut tarts, my own homemade cookies, a gift box of caramels covered in white chocolate and topped with fleur de sel and one final, fabulous slice of left-over Buche du Noel for breakfast, my clothes are too tight. Quelle surprise!
Time to go back to lower-carb eating for a spell. Last night's dinner included baby rib lamb chops atop a little arugula plus broccoli from the farmers' market, dressed with browned butter and Meyer lemon juice. For dessert I made the above dessert from a cookbook by one of my favorite French chefs: Guy Savoy. I reduced the sugar a bit, but the rest of the ingredients were completely low-carb-friendly.

J thought the result was fabulous -- company-worthy. My enthusiasm was more restrained. It certainly was better than no dessert at all, and it was more interesting than a bowl of raspberries with a dollop of creme fraiche on the side, but I'd have enjoyed it more if it had been labeled "Raspberry Gratin" or "Warm Creamy Raspberry Thingy." But a clafoutis is a cake--a very simple cake, actually a glorified pancake -- and this recipe lacked that comfortingly cakey texture.
Still, zipper-poppers can't be choosers.

Raspberry Almost-Clafoutis
(slightly modified from "Guy Savoy; Simple Recipes for the Home Cook")
Serves 4

3 large eggs
3 tablespoons sugar plus 1 tsp. for coating the dish
4 ounces creme fraiche
1 tablespoon framboise
1/2 pound fresh raspberries

Preheat the oven to 350-degrees.
Whisk the eggs, 3 tablespoons sugar and creme fraiche together until smooth and emulsified. Stir in the framboise.
Lightly butter a baking dish large enough to hold the raspberries in one layer. Sprinkle with the teaspoon of sugar and shake to distribute evenly. Layer the raspberries onto the dish. Pour the creme fraiche mix over them. Bake until puffy and browned in spots. This might happen in 20 minutes if you're using a copper gratin dish; my heavy pottery dish required closer to 30 minutes

Remove from the oven and cool slightly, but serve warm. Powdered sugar dusted on top or vanilla ice cream served alongside would be lovely if you were a more disciplined diner over the holidays than I.

Friday, January 4, 2008

From Puglia

The Slow Food dinner in the countryside of Puglia began with 17 appetizers, including freshly-fried little croquettes of I-know-not-what, sauteed zucchini slices, marinated peppers of various hues, olives, radishes and one bowl containing pale green slices of what looked like cucumber but tasted as if a melon had been frolicking in its gene pool.

J got that I-have-to-grow-this look in his eyes, while I gave silent thanks that there were no visible seeds for him to scrape into a napkin. Our host wrote the name "Carosello barese" on a small piece of paper and J tucked it into his wallet. Two days later, when we arrived in Bari, I knew that museums, churches -- even lunch --were on hold until we found a seed store.
Our taxi driver had a small English/Italian dictionary that did not consider the word "seeds" a necessary term for tourists to translate. We pointed to the word "plants" and acted out seed-sowing and vegetable picking, managing only to mystify the poor driver. We then pantomimed "just drive around through the shopping district."
Who knew Bari had so many Bennetton stores?
Finally the driver found a policeman who spoke Engish and sent us off to a garden shop near an industrial area. Fearful we'd have trouble finding another taxi, we took the driver inside with us--and when J showed a salesclerk the carefully saved paper, the cab driver went into full operatic mode with much arm-waving and forehead slapping and sentences that began "AAAAHHH: Carosello!" and continued with -- I think -- statements that if we'd just told him we wanted carosello seeds in the first place he'd have known exactly where to take us.
So now J grows not only 'carosello mezzo lungo barese', but also 'carosello bianco leccese' and 'carosello tondo di fasano cianciuffo'. And every bite reminds me of a banquet in Puglia and a crazy cab ride and a driver who probably still talks about the weird Americans who spent their only day in Bari looking for vegetable seeds.
Thanks to the glories of the internet, you can find the seeds without traipsing to Puglia.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Garden Dreams

The deluge of seed catalogs has begun. J will be spending many a January evening pondering, planning and ordering while I graciously maintain spousal silence over the fact that he already has enough seeds to sow 157 gardens in addition to our own.
Certainly the vegetables, herbs and edible flowers he grows make my cooking easier and more interesting. If only the seed procurement were restricted to ordering from catalogs.
I love the tomatoes he grows from seeds liberated from Alain Ducasse's garden in Moustiers; I didn't love hiding the bathroom tumbler filled with water and seed goo at hotels throughout France. I find it charming that some of our artichoke plants started as seeds purchased from a little old lady in a tiny shop in Sienna; I find it uncharming that some of these plants have thorns designed to rip the skin off your leg as you walk by. And my least-favorite seed-acquisition memory: sitting at a business dinner in Tokyo where dessert consisted of exquisite little melon halves. As soon as I noticed a few seeds clinging to my portion, I knew what would happen. Hoping I was wrong, I glanced over at J, who was, indeed, flicking melon seeds into his napkin while several fellow guests pretended not to notice. And I pretended not to know J.

Tomorrow: a seed quest in Puglia involving a taxi-driver who spoke no English, a couple who speak no Italian and an deeply inadequate English-Italian dictionary.