Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I KNEW there was a reason Veuve Clicquot is my favorite champagne!

Just in time for NYE, the story of Madame Clicquot, the story of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the kickass lady powerhouse behind Veuve (translation: "widow") Clicquot.

So inspiring, I may never sip another champagne again (but please don't hold me to that!)...


Monday, December 29, 2008

and finally....I move on to a new cookbook!

My rockstar kid gave me a cookbook for Christmas, and I am loving it! I usually cook pasta for him, which probably inspired his choice:

I love this book, which, rather than being an exhaustive (and exhausting!) plethora of every pasta recipe ever created, is a pared-down collection of the very best. And as I head into 2009 pledging to cook more locally grown, fresh produce, I love that this book is organized into seasons: recipes for spring and summer, and winter and fall. There are also chapters labeled "The Classics", "Quick Suppers", and "Elegant Entertaining". Oh, and "Hearty Vegetarian" as well.

Williams-Sonoma obviously spared no expense on their food photographer - each picture is so inviting...this is just porn for me. I even have my very first food crush: I am secretly in love with "Angel hair pasta with with scallops and arugula"...let's hope it's as exciting as the photo.

Tonight I limited myself to what I could purchase at Von's, as I live ridiculously close to one. Von's is not exactly a mecca of organic produce, but I manage to find some good things, and their "O" (as in "organics", you filthy mind, you!) brand is fairly high quality. I decided to try the linguine with Italian tuna and (roasted!!) cherry tomatoes.

As it turned out, I had to make several substitutions. Instead of Italian tuna, I used...um...starkist tuna (blushing). There was no whole wheat linguine, so I made spaghetti instead.

Still, this was a very flavorful meal, as in I-had-3-bowls-of-it flavorful. I loved that it called for roasting cherry tomatoes again (I swear this was a coincidence!). Basically, it's linguine (or in my case, spaghetti), tossed with olive oil, capers, sun dried tomatoes, roasted cherry tomatoes, and a handful of whatever herbs you have on hand (I had oregano and basil, plus salt and pepper). This dish was light and lovely.

I give my new cookbook an A++

Is "pan seared" really just a fancy way of saying "fried in butter"...?

I love cooking for st., for two very good reasons:

1. She doesn't cook herself, so she's super appreciative and treats me like a rock star chef every time I prepare her a meal, and

2. She has eaten a lot of very excellent food in her lifetime, so she knows the difference between crap and a decent meal.

oh...and another reason:

3. Her kitchen is brand new with fabulous appliances and a full set-up of cooking utensils, so I get to do things the way they are supposed to be done, instead of rigging it, the way I so often have to in my own kitchen.

She also knows a lot more about steak than I do, which will come in handy if I ever try my hand at that, but I digress.

Naturally, then, I jump at any chance to cook for her. On the menu last night: Seared red snapper with fresh herbs and lemon, and Roasted cherry tomatoes with mint, both from (and I swear I am taking a month break from this cookbook) The Gourmet Cookbook.

Now...the red snapper recipe is actually for sea bass, but supposedly red snapper was an acceptable alternative, and Whole Foods didn't have any sea bass fillets, so red snapper it was. I don't have a lot of experience cooking with fish and for some reason I tend to get a bit anxious over it; am I cooking it enough, am I overcooking it, fret, fret, fret. I did fret over this recipe, and I probably did overcook it slightly, but even so, this turned out delicious. Probably for two reasons (I'm into reasons lists today, apparently):

1. By "pan searing"...I mean "frying in butter"...and frying in butter is GOOD. No, it's not just GOOD, it's GOD.

2. The sauce was divine....lemon juice, dry white wine (I used Naia, a Spanish white that's a bit fruity, fruity sounds like perhaps not the best choice, but my unsophisticated palate loved it), unsalted butter, and freshly chopped dill and chives. This is the kind of sauce that activates all of your taste buds.

I only had one regret with this dish, and st. will agree with me: I should have cooked some rice, or served with a baguette, to sop up the delicious sauce. We actually scrounged up some sandwich bread, out of desperation, to do this. We're not proud.

The roasted cherry tomatoes - this has to be the healthiest, most economical, tastiest and easiest recipe I have ever come across. It's such a favorite that I made it again...today!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Ruth Reichl rocked our holiday table, or Wow, how I hate to prep green beans.

Normally at the holidays my culinary contribution is limited to setting the table, clearing the plates and doing the dishes, and perhaps making a dinner salad. This year, the year of my teaching myself to cook, I wanted things to be a little different. I packed all 5 lbs of The Gourmet Cookbook into my suitcase with the vow to cook a veggie dish for each family dinner.

My mom got a break this Christmas, as my brother in law cooked the roast beast (also from The Gourmet Cookbook, Herbed Rib Roast, page 412, which was roast beast fit for royalty!), I saddled up beside him at the stove to prepare a side dish. Now...I generally lean towards adventurous recipes, but thought that the prime-rip-and-baked-potato holiday meal called for something on the conventional side, so as not to freak the holiday diners out by breaking tradition too much.

Contrary to what one might think, The Gourmet Cookbook actually has many simple, traditional recipes. For this meal I selected the green beans with almonds, and they were delicious.

I did learn something about myself: I really dislike prepping green beans. My mom's paring knife is a little on the dull side, which did not help matters, but my God what a tedious task! 2 and a half lbs of green beans, trimmed and halved. Now I understand why my mom recruited me to take on that task as a child: it's completely and utterly tedious. Just writing about it makes me anxious.

Moving right along....this recipe does change things up a bit, calling for the almonds to be run through the food processor (oh, that divine instrument, the food processor, need to get myself one!), so rather than the almonds being tossed and scattered throughout, they (along with garlic and butter) make a coating for the just-barely-cooked green beans. I will certainly make these again, after I teach my son to cut green beans.

Green Beans with Almonds

1 lb. green beans
2 T unsalted butter
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup skinned whole almonds, finely ground in a food processor
salt and pepper

Cook beans in a 3 quart saucepan of biling well-salted water until crisp-tender, about 4 mins. Drain.

Melt butter in 12 inch skillet over moderate heat. Ad garlic and and stir, cooking until the garlic begins to turn golden, about 2 mins. Add almonts, cook another 2 mins, til they color slightly. Add beans and cook, until tender and heated through, about 2 mins. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Making like Frampton and coming alive...

There is absolutely no good reason for me to make a Peter Frampton reference. None whatsoever. I will blame my behaviour on the curious semi-sanity specific to being cooped up and snowed in with extended family for a week. Of course, I wouldn't have it any other way, as I'm getting the white Christmas I wanted!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The lesson in this is...

....when a recipe calls for "bottled horseradish"....don't get distracted at the store and then accidentally buy "horseradish sauce"...it may look very similar on the shelf, so similar you don't realize what tragic misstep you've taken until you get home and are measuring it out...it's loaded with high fructose corn syrup and will change your recipe's outcome for the dismally inferior.

Monday, December 22, 2008

You never forget your first food co-op, or brussel sprouts really *can* be good!

One of the best things about visiting the Northwest for the holidays is shopping at my very first health food store, the Boise Co-op (http://www.boisecoop.com/). My family first became members back in the early 1980s, when they were still in their third location (this co-op has been around since 1973) on 13th street in Hyde Park. According to the Boise Coop website, this storefront in Hyde Park originally housed a Salvation Army and had a dirt floor when they moved in, but I don't remember the dirt floor. What I do remember was my mom telling us we'd need to go volunteer there ("wrapping cheese and sorting food" was the work we'd be doing, according to my mom), because membership in the co-op back then couldn't be bought, you worked for your share in the store. It was definitely a "crunchy".."granola"...or "hippie" affair, whatever you want to call it, in the Northwest tradition.

The Boise Co-op has come along way; they now are in their fifth location, an actual supermarket space with 26K square feet, offices in a North End bungalow across the street, and a wine store in an adjacent building. And while it has gotten "fancier", as much a yuppie favorite and specialty and gourmet foods purveyor as health food market, it still certainly retains that Northwest counterculture feel. Since our family Boise Co-op membership in the early 1980s I have lived in four states, sampling co-ops, health food stores, specialty markets and high-end grocery chains. None has captured my heart and palate the way the Boise Co-op has (although Wheatsville in Austin runs a verrrrrry close 2nd, but that's another post altogether, most likely on the heels of some much longed for trip to Texas).

While I usually head to the Boise Co-op to simply wander around the aisles and soak up the atmosphere (yes, I really do visit a health food store just for the atmosphere!), this time I was on a mission: brussel sprouts for my family.

Yeah, I know, that doesn't sound terribly exciting. Now St. likes brussel sprouts, but I suspect that's because she's Belgian (get it? Brussels, Belgium...I wonder if she likes Belgian endive...will have to cook that for her upon my return). I'm actually not trying to be funny, but I think it might just be in her heritage. The rest of the world, the people who are not Belgian...generally don't get excited about brussel sprouts. But...I do.

My mission: two pounds of locally and organically grown brussel sprouts to compliment my mother's baked ham. Number of people served (counting on hands..1..2..3..) a whopping 10! Well, seven, actually, because three in that crew are children and we all know that the kids weren't going to be eating the brussel sprouts. So, off to the Boise Co-op to purchase two lbs. of brussel sprouts for my people.

Now, I should have mentioned above that I have a delicious brussel sprouts recipe that is perfect for a winter meal. Yes, once again, (I'm a broken record here) it's from The Gourmet Cookbook, like many of my favorite recipes. I was to make Pan Browned Brussel Sprouts, which sounds just fine, but it doesn't really make your mouth water until you hear the ingredients: butter, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, and of course brussel sprouts and pepper. Did I mention the pine nuts?

Yes, the pine nuts. Brussel sprouts browned in butter with pine nuts. I mean really.

Much to my city slicker amazement, the brussel sprouts I found at the co-op were still on the stalk. I was amazed at this because, well, I didn't know they even grew on the stalk. And if you didn't know that, don't feel badly, because my brother didn't know that either. So, seriously, I bought two stalks, each one with maybe 35 sprouts on it. I felt so damn wholesome I could hardly stand it.

So I walked back from the co-op, through the snow storm, making a stop by the sledding hill (is this starting to get too Charlie Brown Christmas for you yet?) to say "hello" to my sister and my son, then arrived at my parents home, a 100-year old farmhouse decked with holly, bows, Christmas lights, and a fabulously remodeled kitchen.

Without further ado, I give you one of my favorites:

Pan Browned Brussels Sprouts
(this recipe serves 2 or 3 - I obviously quadrupled it for the occasion)

1 1/2 T unsalted butter
1 T olive oil
2 large garlic cloves
1/2 lb. brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
2 T pine nuts
salt and freshly ground pepper

Melt 1 T butter with the olive oil in a heavy skillet, preferably cast-iron, over moderate heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until pale golden, about 3 mins. Transfer to a small bowl with a slotted spoon.

Reduce heat to low, arrange sprouts cut sides down in skillet in one layer, and sprinkle with pine nuts and salt to taste. Cook, uncovered, without turning, until sprouts are crip-tender and undersides are golden brown, 10-15 minutes (for some reason this took nearly 30 minutes this last time). With tongs transfer sprouts to a plate, leaving pine nuts in the pan.

Add remaining 1/2 T butter to skillet and cook nuts over moderate heat, stirring, until evenly pale golden, about 1 minute. Stir in garlic, then spoon mixture over sprouts and season with pepper.

My family loved this. Since they are not accustomed to my cooking, I can't really trust their words (great, wow, etc.) but the fact that an entire 2 lbs. of brussels sprouts disappeared...well, that speaks louder than words.

Friday, December 19, 2008

If I only get one book for Christmas, let it be this one

I spend a lot of afternoons waiting for my lunch at il panini di ambra, a little Italian eatery in Little Armenia. Ambra (the owner's actual name) is an amazing cook, and runs her catering company out of this storefront. Fantastic caterer, but they don't exactly have the whole lunch-rush-thing down, so I end up waiting quite a while for my food. She keeps a copy of this book in the seating area, so I end up perusing it and trying to commit recipes to memory (which, btw, never works).

My god, the Italians are brilliant locavores, and this book celebrates the best of their food culture, region by region.

Makes me miss the garden I had in Texas (which is, no doubt, much more plentiful in my memory than it ever was in real life).

Makes me want to visit Italy again.

Makes my mouth water.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

When you are engulfed in flames, or Whoops, I put too many red pepper flakes in my Arrabbiata sauce

Meal: Arrabbiata Sauce over linguine, served with a Trader Joe's cesar salad
Scene of the crime: my kitchen
Partners in crime: my sister in law, my son
Listening to: Christmas Lounge on somafm.com

Oh...did you enjoy the David Sedaris reference?

The best thing about not cooking for the first 39 years of my life is that I never take being able to cook for granted. Just 15 months ago I would never have dreamed of inviting someone over and just "whipping something up"...I might have invited someone over to order pizza with me, but never would I have offered to cook for them. Fast forward to this, me, inviting my sister in law over for dinner, and not only cooking for her, but cooking for her after - gasp - working all day! And having nothing in my kitchen! This is new territory for me, and I love it.

I find it helpful to have a go-to recipe for when I don't feel like shopping. Something I can make, ideally, from items I already have on my shelves. Seriously, I had every ingredient for this recipe in my cupboard, except for the flat-leaf parsley garnish, which I never would have used anyway.

I freehanded the red pepper flakes, apparently adding much more than the 1 and 1/4 tsp. the recipe called for, and my mouth was en fuego. I also was a bit lazy and didn't chop the canned tomatoes - I just added them whole - and the texture and consistency of whole, canned tomatoes "weirds out" my son. Still, it was delicious, and my sister in law even took some home with her to eat tomorrow. Makes me beam with culinary pride.

From The Gourmet Cookbook, Arrabbiata Sauce, which I served over linguine.

3 T olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 and 1/4 t red pepper flakes (I may actually measure this one out next time)
2 28 oz. cans of whole tomatoes in juice, drained and chopped (save the juice)
1 and 1/4 t salt
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil or flat leaf parsley (again, a garnish I was too lazy to add)

Heat oil in a 5-6 quart pot over moderately high heat. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, until garlic is golden, about 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes, with their juice, and salt, bring to a simmer and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 35-40 minutes. Stir in basil (or parsley).

Note - sauce can be made ahead of time and frozen for up to two months, or refrigerated for up to a week.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Set Up, part 1

It seems worth noting that I don't cook in a beautifully appointed kitchen.

On good days, or when I am in a optimistic mood, I can spin my apartment as "funky" and "bohemian"...even, dare I say it, "cute." I have hardwood floors. The rooms are, well, roomy. I live in a great neighborhood. This area is definitely out of my price range, so I traded in things like kitchen appliances that were manufactured post-1980 for an excellent school system. So, I made my choice, and now I'm cooking in it.

There are a few things I do like about my kitchen, to be fair. There is a lot of natural light, for example. In keeping with the rest of the apartment, it is not cramped. I can, if I want to, spin around in the middle of the kitchen with my arms outstretched and not knock things over. That's a bonus, I suppose. And my appliances do work, which is nice.

But let's take a little tour, shall we?

Stove - I have one of those narrow stoves - there are four burners on it, but the width of the entire stove is less than two feet. Really, that is fine, and it's a gas stove, which I prefer, and all four burners fire up, which is an improvement over my last two kitchens. The stove brand is "Premier", which I've never heard of. The oven works. The broiler works, too. 1970s era.

Refrigerator - This one's an old hotpoint. Not an old enough hotpoint to be vintage and cool, just old. The metal shelving inside is a bit rusty (I know, I've never been effective at getting landlords to do nice things for my living space). It has compartments for eggs, and butter. It works, the freezer works, it's fine. Again, 1970s, and I am grateful it's not in the trendy avocado color.

Lighting - I think I am going to install a clip-on reading light above my stove, one that I can turn to also light my counter, because I am tall and cast a nice shadow over my workspace. Otherwise, natural light from a window, and an overhead light fixture in the middle of the room.

View from the kitchen - dumpsters in the alley, and the various characters who hang out at the dumpsters in the alley. You would be surprised how happening this alley is. It's lively out there. I am on the second floor and generally escape the smell.

Counterspace - what's that? Oh, right, I have heard of counterspace. I think I have seen counterspace in a Dwell magazine photo spread. There is a little area next to the shelf where I keep my cookbooks where I can almost fit a whole cutting board.

Sink - I kind of like my sink. It is white ceramic, old, with tile around the edges. The drain works fine, but the shape of the sink makes it difficult to rinse things down the drain. For example, if I empty coffee grinds into the sink, they will sit on the bottom of the sink until I coax them into the drain with a brush or a dishrag.

Should I even be putting coffee grinds down the drain without a garbage disposal?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Spaghettini with garlic and lemon, or News Flash: Teens and Moms don't always agree

Meal: Spaghettini with garlic and lemon
Scene of the crime: my little bohemian kitchen
Partner in crime: my 13 year old son, M
Listening to: Christmas Lounge station on http://www.somafm.com

My son said that if I started blogging about cooking I'd want to cook more, to have something to blog about, and you know what? He's right. Normally on a Friday I'd order him pizza and call it a night, but tonight I found myself wandering the Von's aisles getting ingredients for one of my favorite recipes from The Gourmet Cookbook: spaghettini with garlic and lemon, on page 204.

I've made this recipe before, and it still excites me. It's the recipe that first introduced me to the wonders of adding lemon zest to food. This sauce is so simple, yet the flavors are so magical: crushed red peppers (the kind you sprinkle on pizza!), sauteed garlic, olive oil, lemon zest, and lemon juice. This meal is very light, and super fast to cook.

Of note: I didn't even know what lemon zest was a year ago, in fact, I had no idea you could eat that part of the lemon peel. As I type this, I even wonder...to make lemon zest, does one grate the outside or the inside of the lemon peel? I suppose I should have checked. For the record, I grated the outside of the peel.

I have to cop to a few other modifications: I did not finely grate the lemon peel, as the recipe called for, I just used the cheese grater I have at home, and it tasted fine. I also omitted the flat leaf parsley, as I hate washing parsley. The parsley was not missed.

I did find myself craving some sort of animal fat this go-around. I wanted to melt some butter into it, even fantasized about frying up some bacon and crumbling it into the pasta, or even trying my hand at making a lemon and red pepper cream sauce, but in the end I simply poured myself a glass of non-fat milk and was satisfied.

My son did think this pasta was a little plain, but I think that's because he is used to pastas with heavier sauces. I don't know. He's a tough critic. I loved it.

The recipe - serves 4-6:

  • 1 lb spaghettini or capellini
  • 4 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Finely grated zest from 2 lemons
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Cook pasta in a 6-quart pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve 1 cup cooking water and drain pasta in a colander.

While pasta is boiling, cook garlic and red pepper flakes (to taste) in oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until garlic is golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in zest, then juice, salt, pepper, and 1/2 cup reserved cooking water and bring to a simmer.

Toss pasta in sauce with parsley. (Add more cooking water if pasta seems dry.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

In the beginning

I spent the first 39 years of my life not cooking.

In fact, I prided myself on it.

Don't get me wrong - I've always been a bit of a foodie. Not a food snob, but I love to eat, and I appreciate both lowbrow and highbrow food culture. I'm an adventurous eater and haven't yet met a country whose food I don't like. I traveled quite a bit as a child, and time spent living overseas afforded me many opportunities to sample tastes outside of the mainstream U.S. diet.

Still, I never developed much confidence in the kitchen, and made it a point, as an adult, to avoid the kitchen as much as possible. I have almost always dated people who are brave cooks themselves, making it possible for me to sit back and be cooked for.

Enter Ruth Reichl...well, enter Piper, who gave me Ruth Reichl. For Christmas 2007, my colleague Piper gave me Ruth Reichl's The Gourmet Cookbook, a big yellow tome including the best recipes from 60 years of Gourmet Magazine. Ruth's food writing is amazing, and I would be a better person for having read the book even if I never had lifted a finger to actually CREATE one of the recipes....thankfully, though, her writing inspired me to...start cooking. I pledged to create one new recipe a week, and for the most part, I have kept that promise to myself.

A year later, I think I'm a pretty good cook.