Archive for June, 2008

Pulling a Barbara

June 29, 2008

We had our lovely dinner party last night and I am happy to say that almost everything turned out as I wanted it to. First of all, the company was terrific. It’s always so nice to meet new people and have great conversations with them. Their party of eight became a party of six, so we were able to sit down with all of them and really enjoy the conversation and, oh yeah, the food. Course by course, here we go…

The appetizer (Sizzling Halloumi with Fava Beans and Mint) was as simple and delicious as I remember it from last summer. The peas and beans were tossed with a little olive oil, lemon juice and mint, and then sauteed briefly just to lightly cook. The halloumi is just put in a hot pan until it gets a little crust on the outside and starts to soften. Put the two together and yum!

The soup was Summer Borscht and it hit just the right note since it was so hot yesterday. I really believe there is nothing like cold soup on a hot night. The company seemed to agree.

The salad was Wilted Greens with Roasted Mushrooms. This was a bit of a disappointment for me. The idea is that you toss your greens (spinach and escarole) with previously roasted Portabello mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, mint, and good balsamic vinegar. Then you heat up olive oil in a pan and pour it over the salad which should wilt the greens. Should being the operative word here since my greens did not really wilt and the salad wasn’t warm like I wanted it to be. If I made it again, I would saute the greens in the olive oil on the stove and, once wilted, mix in with the other ingredients. Bummer.

For the main course, I made Shitake Mushroom and Gruyere Cheese Souffles with a Farro Salad with Zucchini and Pine Nuts on the side. The farro was good (everyone loved the texture) but the souffles were, I must say, delicious. I made similar ones, without the mushrooms, a few months ago and these were much better. The shitake mushrooms had been sauteed in a little butter with lots of thyme and that wonderful herb really came through in the souffles. Plus, this is a rich dish and the mushrooms cut through the richness a little bit – enough that I had no problem slurping down the entire thing.

And the dessert is where I kind of pulled a Barbara. Barbara is my mom’s name and she is a very good cook and baker. Whenever she makes something for company – especially if it is a dessert – she will tell you the 45 things that went wrong with it and how it doesn’t look at all like it is supposed to and how it probably won’t taste good. So yes, on very rare occasions, there is one crumb out of place, but everything she makes is delicious and once she tastes it herself, she will finally let go of the idea that disaster has struck.

I am not quite as bad, but let’s just say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Because I am not a super artistic person, my desserts don’t always look the way I want them to. So I will complain to Randy that my dessert didn’t turn out and he will say, “Did it really not turn out, or are you pulling a Barbara?” In which case, I am forced to admit that while yes, there is one crumb out of place… ok fine, it’s going to taste great.

This dessert, well, what can I say about Fran Bigelow? Honey, you let me down. Fran is the owner of Fran’s Chocolates which is a heavenly store I have been going to since my middle school days. A few years ago, she came out with a cookbook that has some of the most beautiful photographs that I have ever seen of my beloved chocolate. I have made several recipes and marvel at how simple the ingredients, how involved the process, how sublime the results, how worth the cost and effort.

Last night’s dessert? Very tasty. Really, how could a tart with a walnut and butter crust (no flour!), a layer of caramel, and a layer of chocolate ganache be anything but delicious? It just didn’t come together as it was supposed to. Once assembled, she advises to leave it out at room temperature for up to four days. It was clear that if it was ever going to set up, I was going to have to refrigerate it, which I did figuring I could serve it a room temperature. But that made it so soft that I could barely get the pieces out with out pulling the ganache right off the caramel. I know, the life I lead!! But it is frustrating to have the big ta-da! fall a little flat. Now I don’t trust that cookbook which is a bummer because there are lots of other things I want to make from it.

All in all, one disappointing salad, a somewhat mushy dessert, and one burned arm (second-degree from the oven door) were greatly counter-balanced by the other great food, wonderful company and delicious wine. Amy and Mark – can’t wait to see you guys again!

Before I give you the recipe for the Halloumi appetizer, let’s talk about fava beans. They have kind of an intimidating appearance (what on earth do you do with that giant pod?) but they are easy to use once you know what to do. They are super fresh and in season here in the Pacific NW – you can find them at all the farmer’s markets.

In the above photo, the pod on the left is what it will look like whole, the pod next to it is what it will look like once you open it. The first bean is what most will look like – large with kind of a waxy cover. These will need to be peeled so that they look like the second bean -nice and bright green. The last bean is a beautiful small and young bean that does not need to be peeled because it’s skin will be nice and soft.

So, first things first. Fava bean pods are tougher than peas, so you will need a paring knife to split it open. Don’t cut in too deep or you will cut the beans. Once open, just pull the beans out and discard the pods. Unless you are growing your own fava beans or are picking them yourself on a farm, you will need to remove the skin from most beans. This is because the beans most of us will get are older and tougher, but if you can get young pretty things, well, lucky you! Peeling them can be done by putting them in a pot of boiling water for about one minute. Drain, allow to cool, and then simply squeeze them out of their skin. They do have the annoying habit of sometimes splitting in half when you do this, but don’t worry about it. Now your fava beans are ready for use!

Sizzling Halloumi Cheese with Fava Beans and Mint
Serves 6
Adapted from
Bon Appetit Magazine

You can find Halloumi cheese at Whole Foods, Metropolitan Market, and even Safeway. Look for it near the feta cheeses. It costs about $8 for a 8 oz. package, so if you see it for more than that, shop somewhere else (I have seen it for as much as $14). This recipe says you can use frozen peas and frozen fava beans. I have never seen the latter so I would imagine that shelled edamame would be a good substitute.

1 1/2 pounds fresh fava beans, shelled
1 1/2 cups shelled English peas

3 tbsp. olive oil

2 tbsp. fresh mint, plus extra for garnish

grated zest of one lemon

2 8oz. packages Halloumi cheese, each sliced lengthwise in to 6 slices

juice of one lemon

1 lemon, cut in to 6 wedges

Blanch and peel fava beans according to above instructions.

Place fava beans, peas, olive oil, 2 tbsp. mint leaves, and lemon peel in a large skillet. Cook over medium heat until warmed through, stirring often, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and squeeze lemon juice over. Cover until cheese is ready.

Heat large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add cheese slices and fry until golden, about 2 minutes per side.

Divide vegetable mixture among six plates. Arrange two slices of Halloumi atop vegetables on each plate, and garnish with lemon wedges and a couple of mint leaves. Serve immediately.

(Oh! I almost forgot to mention that I somehow got it into my head that I wanted to serve this wonderful bread from the Fields of Greens cookbook topped with herbed butter, thinly sliced (purple!) radishes, and a sprinkling of sea salt as an hors d’oeuvre. I am not sure where I got this idea but it actually turned out beautifully. Even Randy, who made a face when I described it to him, loved it. So, if you are looking for an easy nibble buy (don’t make it like I did) a dark hearty loaf of bread, slice it thinly and spead it with an herb butter which you can buy or make, then top with thinly sliced radishes and a sprinkling of sea salt.)

Planning a Dinner Party

June 27, 2008

Tomorrow night we are hosting a dinner party that I donated to an auction. Our older son attended Boyer Children’s Clinic for about a year for speech and classroom therapy. We all had a wonderful experience there and when it came time for their big fundraising auction, I figured I should do my part and donate a dinner. A five course dinner for eight people. Much to my delight, a couple that we knew from the classroom bought it, and having this dinner on the horizon has allowed us to start to get to know them better.

But tick-tock! I have my work cut out for me. I was late to finalize the menu because I couldn’t come up with a main course. I imagine that in a meat-eating world, five courses would run something like this: appetizer, fish, poultry, beef, dessert – or at least, that is how it seems to go on Top Chef. In my world, five courses goes like this: appetizer, soup, salad, main, dessert. I don’t know why this makes it seem harder to do – maybe because the “main course” doesn’t necessarily have a focus like it would if it had to be meat. I don’t know. Whenever I do a big dinner like this, I always get tripped up by one course, and this time it was the main one.

Whenever I plan a dinner party, I usually have some kind of starting point. Some dish that somehow caught my eye and for whatever reason, I will base the entire menu around that one dish. This time it was Borscht. I know, the whole meal hinges on beet soup? It is something I can’t explain. Several weeks ago, I got it in my head that I needed to try Borscht. I had never had it and I do like beets and cold soups, so it was time to try it. I made it for my clients and they all made a special point to tell me how much they liked it. I liked it too – sweet and earthy, cold and refreshing, and the most incredible color I have ever seen occurring from natural ingredients (no red dye no. 5 here). Randy even said it wasn’t “bad” which, for a confirmed beet-hater, is quite the compliment.

So yes, Borscht is my starting point for this dinner. Another point in it’s favor is that beets are all over the markets now so it is seasonal, and since it is going to be warm tomorrow – hot even, a cold soup will be lovely.

Building around one dish narrows down the options for the others. Take the salad course. Since I am doing a cold and crunchy soup, a cold and crunchy salad would just taste like more of the same. So I decided to do a warm salad made with spinach and escarole hearts and roasted portabello mushrooms. Different tastes (the salad will be salty, the soup is sweet), different textures.

Because both of those dishes are vegetable heavy, I thought an appetizer with some heft to it would be a good move. But it’s five courses so I don’t want to knock them out before we have even really gotten started. Seeing fava beans and my beloved English peas in the markets made it clear that I would be making Halloumi with Fava Beans and Peas. Halloumi is an incredible cheese that has an extremely firm texture (it’s even a little squeaky when you bite in to it) and a very salty flavor. It’s claim to fame is that you can cook it and it doesn’t lose it’s shape. I know it doesn’t seem possible, but I have used it before for this appetizer and others and it’s true. It gets soft and gooey but will not ruin your grill or your pan.

In case you are losing track here, that is cheese to start (salty/crunchy and soft), Borscht (sweet/crunchy), warm salad (salty/soft), then a rich and cheesy souffle with a farro salad (salty/soft, salty/crunchy) and then, oh yes, dessert (sweeeeeet). I asked this lovely woman what she thought about dessert and she said we couldn’t go wrong with chocolate. I think I love her. I decided to marry two of my all time favorite flavors and make a Chocolate Caramel Tart with Walnut Crust. It is from the Fran’s Chocolate cookbook and while I had a recent disaster with a certain cake from there, I still trust her implicitly when it comes to the brown stuff.

So that’s it. As of this moment, I have – oh, a ton left to do. So better get cracking. I will try to take pictures of each course and let you know how it goes!

Bitter, Salty, Sweet, and Sour

June 26, 2008

Of the four tastes available to a person, bitter is my least favorite. Well, right, like I was going to say sweet? But really, I’m not a fan of some of the things that other people love. The chicory family for example. Endive, radicchio, escarole? Not so much. Brussel sprouts? Just too bitter for me.

Or so I thought. I recently grilled radicchio for use in a salad and the heat brought out more sweetness in a vegetable that I had, up until recently, only tolerated. Similarly, I thought I disliked brussel sprouts having only had them boiled or undercooked – in other words, bitter. Last Thanksgiving, a certain recipe where you saute them until brown and sweet turned me in to a brussel sprout supporter, and now I find that I actually crave them.

I used to think turnips were on the black list. Bitter bites again. But I was wrong wrong wrong and it wasn’t even that I needed to blast them with high heat, or saute them with an indecent amount of butter. I just needed to use different turnips. When all you have tasted are those big fat turnips you find in the grocery store roughly the size of baseballs, you can forgive yourself for thinking you don’t like them. Now I’m sure those have their place in the culinary world, or are the favorite vegetable of someone who loves bitter food. But the adorable little ones that you can find in the local farmer’s markets now, those are something else entirely. So tender and delicate that you don’t even need to peel them and, when cooked, just clean and light with a hint of earthiness.

Today I made a Turnip and Leek Gratin with Blue Cheese to highlight these beauties. It is a lovely and simple recipe and it fills your house with the most amazing creamy and cheesy aroma. Along with the Gratin, I made a Rice Pilaf with Chickpeas and Currants, and an Arugula Salad with Strawberries and Hazelnuts. You might be wondering…arugula? That’s awfully bitter for someone who says she doesn’t like bitter. I know. But arugula is #11 on my Top 10 Food List – maybe even #10, I don’t know. (I might need to do some shuffling). It is bitter but in a way that I love. I also really like radishes so I definitely can’t write bitter off for good.

Anyway, I am going to start a feature in this blog called “Let’s Talk About…” where I will de-mystify an ingredient or technique. So, let’s talk about leeks for a moment as they are an important part of the Turnip and Leek Gratin. Leeks are one of my favorite vegetables period and so under-used. What are you looking for when you buy a leek? Most recipes will tell you to only use the white part or, at most, the white and very pale green part. So you will want to look for leeks that have a long white part. Sometimes, that will not be an option so I would suggest buying more than you need so you will have enough white.

What can you do with those pale green parts that you are not using but that you paid good money for? My best suggestion is to use them for a vegetable stock. If you can’t be bothered to make a stock right this minute, just wrap them well and put them in the freezer. I suppose you could use the dark green leafy parts in the stock too, but they are awfully sandy and I just haven’t ever had the energy to wash them well enough. Most recipes will tell you to slice the leek in half lengthwise and wash it under running water. This is to remove the grit that can become lodged in the lovely leek layers (say that 10 times fast).

Turnip and Leek Gratin
Adapted from
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
Serves 4 modestly

1 garlic clove and butter for the dish
1 cup half-and-half

6 thyme sprigs

1 bay leaf

3 large leeks, white parts only, cut into 1/4 inch rounds

1 1/2 pounds turnips, sliced into 1/4 inch rounds

2 oz. blue cheese, crumbled

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Rub a 2 quart gratin dish with the garlic, then with butter. Heat the half-and-half with the remains of the garlic, 2 sprigs of thyme, and the bay leaf. When it’s close to boiling, turn off the heat and set aside.

Cook the leeks in 2 quarts of boiling salted water for 2 minutes. Scoop them out and allow them to drain in a colander. Add the turnips to the water and cook for 4 minutes. Remove the leeks to a bowl and drain the turnips well in the colander.

Layer the vegetables in the dish, intersperse the remaining thyme sprigs among them, season lightly with salt and pepper, and add the blue cheese. Pour the half-and-half through a strainer over the top. Bake, uncovered, until the cream is absorbed and the top is browned, about 30 minutes.

Dana’s Note: I doubled this recipe and baked it in 4 mini-loaf pans. I baked it for 45 minutes total.

A Gift Through the Mail

June 24, 2008

Many years ago, my mom and I went to Portland for a weekend. I don’t remember if we were celebrating something in particular or if was just a chance to spend some time together. I do remember that the purpose of the trip was to shop because then, as now, Portland had much better shopping than Seattle. They also have a MUCH better restaurant scene than we do and as the years pass by, this discrepancy becomes larger and larger.

This was at least 10 years ago, and my mom and I ate at Wildwood, a lovely restaurant that was then, and is now, absolutely committed to fresh and local food. Before farm to table were buzz words in cooking all over the country, Wildwood was doing it and doing it deliciously.

When I announced my intentions to go vegetarian at the age of 16, my mom supported me. She had never liked meat herself and over the next few years, stopped eating it as well. She shares my love of eating in restaurants but also shares my grief in never really eating well when eating out. At Wildwood, we had an incredible meal. As a vegetarian, there is nothing like seeing something on the menu and thinking, “Well, clearly they put as much thought in to this dish as the others.” Very satisfying.

We feasted on a dish they called “Mushroom Pearl Pasta with Sweet Peas and Goat Cheese”. The pasta was actually Israeli couscous – something that I had not tried at that point in my life but have learned to love. It was savory, it was herb-y, it was tangy from the goat cheese, it was a delight.

How do I remember this meal from so many years ago? Well, the truth is, I have the recipe. After we got back to Seattle, I wrote a letter to Bon Appetit magazine asking them to get it for me. They have a section in each issue called R.S.V.P. where people like me write in, describe something incredibly delicious, and beg the magazine to get the recipe for them. Since I didn’t forsee another trip to Portland in my immediate future, I had to be able to make this dish for myself.

After I sent off my letter, I tore open each month’s issue to see whether they had printed my little piece of heaven. Month after month I was disappointed. In fact, so many months went by that I pretty much forgot about it. And then, about a year after that amazing meal, I got a letter from Bon Appetit saying that they weren’t going to print the recipe, but they had obtained it and were passing it along to me.

I was, and continue to be, amazed. I’m sure they receive countless letters each month and the fact that they followed through on this one caused me to pledge my undying support (and subscription) to them. More importantly, I have my recipe. I make it every year when English peas come in to the farmer’s markets.

Let’s talk for a moment about peas. If you go to the farmer’s markets in Western Washington right now, you will see an abundance of peas. Most of them are sugar snap peas. These are known as “mange tout” in France (and in England) which means “eat it all” – you eat pod along with the sweet little peas inside. They are incredible in stir fries and, when they are this fresh, incredible in just about anything. However, what you want for this recipe is English peas, also called shelling peas. These are the ones that you have to open the pod, and remove the peas. It’s a little bit of work but oh so worth it.

If it is not pea season, or if you just can’t be bothered to spend 15 minutes shelling peas, frozen are a very acceptable substitute. In fact, if the fresh peas are less than stellar, you are better off using frozen anyway. Frozen peas are zapped at the peak of perfection and so are always sweet and tender. Unless fresh peas are just right, they can be big and starchy. Be sure to taste them before you buy them. Whichever you choose, hup-to and make this recipe. It is a bona-fide winner.

Mushroom Pearl Pasta with Sweet Peas and Goat Cheese
Adapted from Wildwood Restaurant, Portland OR

Serves 4 generously

I use a combination of portabello mushrooms and cremini mushrooms in this dish. Be sure to remove the gills from the portabello, otherwise the finished dish will look muddy. To trim fennel, cut off the top part (where the green fronds are), slice it in half and cut out the core. Then remove the outer layer which tends to be tough and bruised. Save the fronds to use as herbs.

1/2 oz dried porcini mushrooms
2 tbsp. butter

2 cups diced mushrooms

Olive oil

1 yellow onion, finely chopped

1 fennel bulb, trimmed and finely chopped

1/2 cup dry white wine

8 oz. Israeli couscous

Approx. 3 cups of vegetable stock

1/4 cup chopped herbs (I use tarragon and the fennel fronds)

1 cup fresh peas, shelled

4 oz. soft goat cheese

Soak the mushrooms in 1/2 cup of hot water, set aside for 15 minutes to allow them to reconstitute. Place the stock in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer.

Melt the 2 tbsp. of butter in a wide saute pan over med-high heat. Add the mushrooms, a pinch of salt, and allow them to cook until they release their water and start to brown. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom of a large heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onion and fennel with a pinch of salt and cook until softened but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add the couscous and stir to coat it with the vegetables.

Remove the dried mushrooms from the soaking liquid and give them a rough chop. Add their liquid to th
e pot (be careful not to add the grit that collects at the bottom) along with the wine. Stir until the wine is absorbed, then add the mushrooms (the dried and those in the saute pan) and about half of the stock. Stir, as you would risotto, until most of the liquid is absorbed. Add the rest of the stock, turn the heat to low, and cover. Stir occasionally.

When the liquid is mostly absorbed, taste and make sure the couscous is done. It should have a nice chewy consistency but not mushy. Add the raw peas, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste. Crumble in half the goat cheese and give it a good stir. Garnish each serving with a crumble of goat cheese.

Cooking for a Friend

A good friend of mine is in the hospital. She is one of those people who is perpetually on my “need to call” list. I ran in to her and her husband the day I started this blog. It made me so happy to see her and I vowed to not let too much time pass before I reached out.

Ironically, I finally did get my act together and sent her an email suggesting we get together. By then, I think, she was already ill because I didn’t hear back from her – anyone who knows her knows this is extremely unusual.

I worked for her many years ago and she is one of the toughest bosses I have ever had. She was always kind to me (she is one of the most gentle-hearted people in the world), though she had high standards. She is an absolute perfectionist and incredibly competent and capable in everything she does. I think of her all the time when I am searching for phone numbers of people – she always had a pad of paper and recorded every voice mail in her incredibly neat handwriting. She never had to search for anything, it was all right on her pad or neatly filed away in organized folders. I often wish I was one of those highly organized competent capable people, but I have learned that I am just not.

Her husband is in a really tough position – in so many ways. Here his wife is in the hospital, and he is acting as maitre d’ – arranging things so that everyone who wants to see her can, all the while answering the same hard questions over and over again. What can you do for someone who is living that life? Well, I can cook for him. No one should have to eat hospital food everyday. I have added him to my other clients and for as long as he needs me, I will bring him food. I’m hoping that soon she can enjoy my cooking too. And baking.

Chocolate Dulce de Leche Bars
24 bars

Adaped from Gourmet Magazine

The original recipe says to mix together the crust with a fork. I chose to use my mixer. The recipe also says it makes 24 bars, but I chose to cut them larger and ended up with 16. They are rich, so you may want to cut them smaller. Dulce de Leche is made by heating sweetened milk and has a wonderful intense milky-caramel flavor. You can find it at Whole Foods (and other places, I’m sure) and it is worth the $10 investment!

For shortbread crust
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup flour

For chocolate dulce de leche
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup dulce de leche
4 large egg yolks
5 oz. 60%-cacao bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

For the crust: Preheat oven to 375 degrees with rack in middle. Butter a shallow 9 inch square baking pan. Line bottom and two sides with parchment paper, leaving an overhang. Butter parchement.

Using a stand mixer, blend together butter, brown sugar, vanilla, and salt. Sift in flour and mix on low until the dough comes together. Using floured fingers, gently press the dough in to the prepared pan.

Bake until golden, 15-20 minutes, then cool completely in pan on a rack, about 30 minutes.

Make chocolate dulce de leche: Bring cream and dulce de leche to a simmer in small heavy saucepan, stirring with a wooden spoon until dulce de leche has dissolved.

Whisk together yolks in a bowl, then slowly whisk in hot cream mixture. Return to pan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until pan is visible in tracks of spoon and mixture registers 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from heat and whisk in chocolate until melted.

Make bars: Pour chocolate mixture over cooled shortbread and chill, uncovered, until cold and set, about 2 hours. Run a small knife around edges to loosen, then transfer to a cutting board using parchment. Cut with a hot clean knife (dip in hot water and wipe clean between cuts) in to 16 or 24 bars. Chill until ready to serve. Can be chilled in a airtight container up to 1 day.

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