Saturday, December 22, 2007

In Honour of MY Jordan

So sorry to have been gone so long -- the holidays came, dontcha know, and computer problems and, well, while i definitely cooked out of my cookbooks, i didn't have the chance to write them down for you all. however, i am making up for lost time by wanting to share with you some of the lovely recipes we created.

Jordan Michael Morris. cool name, huh? the jord-man, as i call him, is my nephew, a tres cool dude of amazing heart and soul who always brings a smile to my face. always. what has that got to do with anything? just watch, my young friends.

this particular day, i opened up one of my fave cookbooks (yes, i know, i have a LOT of favorite cookbooks, but, what can i say?). it is called FEAST FROM THE MIDEAST by Faye Levy. this cookbook also goes on to claim it contains "250 sun-drenched dishes from the Lands of the Bible". oh, yeah. i do believe i have mentioned my incredible penchant for middle eastern cooking (shawarmas are my dream food -- if i had my way, i would have a whole shawarma spit set up in my house). we are lamb lovers and i think that's why i love middle eastern cooking so much. middle eastern/mediterranean cooking has methods that show that meat off to its best advantage. my mom also cooked lamb well, so i was never one of those people who didn't like it. i always loved it. i know a lot of people who don't, but, i promise, if someone gave me just a little bit of time, i could change their mind about lamb. for sure.

but i digress...

Feast from the Mideast. i found a wonderful recipe in which i could use some lamb i had thawed out the night before and was kind of quick. it was LAMB AND RICE PILAF WITH YOGURT SAUCE and it is a little Bedouin dish that has become, per the book, the national dish of Jordan. i saw that and just KNEW i had to make it. i had to. jordan... Jordan... walk with me, talk with me:

3-6 tbs. samnah, ghee or butter, or equal pars butter and margerine or butter and vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 1/2 to 2 pounds lamb shoulder, trimmed of excess fat and cut in 1-inch cubes
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 cups water
2 tbs Seven Spices blend or 1 tsp ground allspice, 1/2 teapoon ground cinnamon, and a pinch gound cardamom
1 1/2 cups long-grain white rice
3 cups hot chicken, beef or veggie broth or water
1/2 cup slivered almonds or pine nuts, or 1/4 up of each
Creamy Hot Yogurt Sauce (trust me)
4 to 6 pieces fine, fresh lavash or 4 to 6 fresh pita breads

what to do:
1. heat 1 to 2 tbs samnah (or butter, or mixture...) in heavy stew pan. add onion and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes or until beginning to turn golden. Add lamb and saute until meat browns lightly, stirring often. Add salt, pepper, water and spices and bring to a boil, stirring often. Cover and simer over low heat for 1 hour or until lamb is tender, stirring occasionally.
2. Remove meat with a slotted spoon and measure broth. Return the lamb to the pan, add 1 cup broth, cover, and keep it hot. Reserve 1 1/2 cups of the broth to make the yogurt sauce. Measure remaining broth and add enough water to make 3 cups.
3. to prepare the pilaf, heat the 3 cups liquid in saucepan or in the microwave until hot, and reserve. heat 2 or 3 tbs samnah or butter in large saucepan. add rice and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes or util the grains turn milky white. add hot broth, salt, and pepper. bring to a boil. cover and cook over low heat, without stirring, for 18 minutes, or until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed. remove from heat. let rice stand, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes.
4. to toast the almonds, place on a sheet pan in 350ºF oven for about 4 or 5 minutes. you can also saute them in a hot pan with 2 to 3 tsps oil or butter until lightly browned. don't let them burn.
5. reheat the lamb if necessary. to serve, fluff the rice gently with a fork. taste and adjust the seasonings accordingly. spread a layer of lavash (or pita) onto a large platter or onto the plates (if using pita, split each into 2 rounds, putting them on a platter or plate with the crust side down). spoon a little of the yogurt sauce over the bread to moisten. mound half the rice on top and moisten the rice with a few spoonfuls of the sauce. top with half of the lamb chunks then sprinkle with some of the almonds or pine nuts. spoon the remaining rice into a separate bowl, sprinkle with the remaining nuts. serve the lamb and sauce separately.

1 1/2 cups plain yogurt, at room temp.
1 tbs plus 1 1/2 tsps cornstarch
1 1/2 cups chicken, meat or veggie broth or your stew's cooking liquid (for this use some of the lamb broth)
1 tbs butter or veggie oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

what to do:
1. mix yogurt with cornstarch until blended. slowly stir in the broth.
2. heat butter in heavy saucepan. add garlic and cook over medium-low heat for about 1/2 minute or until aromatic. remove from heat. stir in yogurt mixture and mix very well. return to medium-low heat and cook until sauce is hot, but not boiling, stirring constantly. cook over low heat for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring, until sauce is smooth and thickened to your taste. season to taste with salt and pepper. serve hot.

here's what we did: first of all, i didn't have any samnah or ghee (clarified butter used most often in indian/middle eastern cooking), so we just used butter. yes, i could have clarified some butter, but i din't feel like it so there :o). otherwise, everything else was the same. i made the yogurt sauce, we cooked up our lamb, put together our rice (no lavash, however -- didn't have any and didn't have the time to make any pita that night). in honor of OUR Jordan, it was wonderful, warming and very satisfying. a perfect cold night dish. the boys ate two servings and i took it to lunch with me the next day. so yummy.

a little story about MY Jordan, if i may:

about 5ish years ago, when Jordan was 17, i was hired to cater a Christmas wrap party for a sitcom. 100 people, me alone, buffet style and all out of my tiny kitchen. i was going to need to set up on set, transport the food to the studio and serve everyone. i needed a second, an idealistic, but practical sancho to my don quixote and i asked Jordan if he was free, could he help -- my teenage nephew who had a girlfriend on a Friday night right before Christmas break... (fingers crossed, oh, please, oh, please...)

he said yes.

o..m...g... HE SAID YES!

so there we are, me, Jordan, a huge empty space, a couple of buffet tables, on set, just beyond the view of the studio audience, setting up as they are shooting the last few scenes. i was swamped, i needed someone with vision to decorate my tables for me while i put together the trays and the food and, well, everything. i turned to my nephew, doe eyed and begging, and without a word, without a thought, Jordan created this really wonderful, subtle, holiday look on the tables (i will not say tablescape, i will not say tablescape... that's up there with "yummo!" for me... deliver us!) that just made everything pull together. it was lovely. and my 17 year-old nephew so rocked the hell out of the night as my second -- plating, serving, refilling, cleaning -- i would have given him my entire take for the evening if i hadn't been so freakin' broke. no lie.

i knew he would. Jordan's just that way. he's this amazingly wonderful spirit with such, i dunno, beauty and brightness all wrapped in this way cool package, i couldn't have been prouder than to call him my nephew that night or, hell, any night, day, infinite eternity. he certainly is someone i respect and admire as a human being. i really like him.

he saved my life that night. honestly. i was exhausted from cooking and i had to cook some of the menu right there onsite, to order, and he jumped right in to take over the job when i needed him. point and click and there he was, smiling, laughing, polite, charming. i got such an amazing compliment that evening when i kept getting asked, "are you guys brother and sister?" no, not because of the fact they overlooked i was quite possibly 23 years older than the guy they thought was my brother (although after the days i had leading up to that evening, don't think i didn't LOVE THAT). it's because the relationship they saw wasn't one of me dominating him or him subservient to me. it was equals, level, a give and take of like-minded compadres. that made my night. hell, that made my whole year and there we were at the end of it.

i don't know if he ever fully realized just how much that evening meant and still means to me. how much it touched me to be able to share that moment with him, that struggle that became so easy because of him. he made it worth it. and i am forever grateful.

love you, jord-man.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Ultimate of the Ultimate in Ultimatism

it's the holidays. i like the holidays. i don't LOVE them, but i do warm to them quite a bit. i enjoy the cooking, the baking, the doing for others through food and love, but it can be stressful. here in kansas you can see the seasons change, feel the christmas-y vibe because of the snow, ice, etc. but there's just as much christmas-y/holiday joy in los angeles even if it's warm enough to sit on the beach right before dinner. it's in your heart. it's true. corny, perhaps, but true. i feel no closer to the christmas spirit as i did on the west coast and i don't jump into the cooking and baking of the season more here than there. however, because there's just the three of us and christmas usually means, well, a spread for a smaller crew than i'm used to, i am more creative than i was before. and that's made it even more fun. that diving into something with my eyes closed and a different kind of confidence.

we have friends coming over for dinner soon who were supposed to come by last weekend. we got an ice storm -- SOOOO new for me and incredibly creepy (and beautiful, actually. the trees glazed in ice, kinda blows your mind with how amazing it looks) -- and decided to hold off on it for another week or so. i had bought the food for our dinner, however, and i wanted to test it out on my kids before i had it for our friends and found this great recipe called HORSERADISH-BRAISED BRISKET WITH ROOT VEGETABLES from a cookbook called THE ULTIMATE COOKBOOK by Bruce Weinstein & Mark Scarbrough. The Ultimate Cookbook. what does that mean exactly? is it going to show me things i've never known in ways i've never known? is it the best that i've ever seen? will i become a MAGICIAN in the kitchen? (i'm such an ass, i know.) i'll tell you after i share what i made, how i made it with you. honest. is it ultimate? we'll see...

2 tbs canola oil
1 4-pound first-cut brisket, trimmed of most visible surface fat
2 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced
2 medium carrots, peeled nd cut into 1-inch pieces
2 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium turnip, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup red wine
3 cups beef broth
2 tsps dijon mustard
2 tsps stemmed thyme or 1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp salt, or more to taste
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
3 tbs bottled white horseradish
1 tbs potato starch whisked into 1 tbs water in a small bowl, optional

what to do:

1. heat a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. swirl in the canola oil, then add the brisket. brown on both sides, turning once, about 8 minutes. transfer to a large cutting board; set aside.
2. add the onions, carrots, parsnips and turnip to the pot; cook, stirring often, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes.
3. pour in the wine and bring to a simmer, scrapping up any browned bits on the pot's bottom.
4. pour in the broth; swirl in the mustard until smooth. add the thyme, salt, pepper, and bay leaves. bring to a full simmer. nestle the brisket into the sauce. spread the horseradish on any exposed portion of the meat.
5. cover and place in the oven. bake until the meat is fork-tender, 3 to 3 1/2 hours (or even 4 hours, depending).
6. remove the meat an veggies from the pot. the brisket is quite tender by this point, so hold it up with a large spatula to keep it from breaking apart. place on a large cutting board. place the veggies on a serving platter.
7. if you want to thicken the sauce, set the pot over medium heat and bring the sauce to a simmer. whisk in the potato starch mixture; cook, whisking constantly, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute.
8. slice the brisket against the grain. place it on the serving platter. discard the bay leaves, check the sauce to see if it needs salt, and pour the sauce over the meat and veggies.

here's what we did:
we didn't use parsnips and turnips -- i'm not really a fan of either of those, which, ya know, means i don't have to use them if i don't wanna. we used potatoes instead -- which is something the book suggests as a substitution to the turnip at least. everything else we did was exactly the same as the book says with a little variations, i suppose. it's just how we do it here.

the report? well, the ultimate brisket is my sister-in-law's mom's brisket. no lie. omg. mimi's brisket is excellently yummy to the point that i fear even asking for the recipe. HOWEVER, this was great for a savory, yummy brisket. mim's is sweeter (i do believe it is glazed in brown sugar, thought i can't swear to it). it's terrific. the Ultimate Cookbook's brisket has the heat and tang from the horseradish and dijon, really tender from the cooking, wine and broth and, well, just a great flavor. i added some roasted garlic mashed potatoes to it, some great sauteed greens with bacon, garlic and balsamic vinegar -- really good stuff. nicholas and brandon loved it. they even devoured it in sandwiches when i sent it with them to school for lunch.

it was our first big deal dinner of the holiday season. and it was amazing.

was it the ultimate?
well, it was damn close.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Chicken, Malaysian Style

i know i've told you about CRADLE OF FLAVOR, this cookbook that "ahs" me to no end. last time, all i made out of it was coconut rice and it was heavenly. honest. since i haven't been as faithful to my trusty blog, i knew you would forgive me (okay, HOPED) for jumping a little more heavily into a cookbook that takes my breath away. this time, i made something that had intrigued me since first reading through this amazing tome. it was NYONYA-STYLE SPICED FRIED CHICKEN, a 6 hour event at the very least, if done properly, and really something that should take a couple of days.

this is a long, drawn out recipe that is rather intensive, so i won't go into all the details. suffice it to say you need to marinate chicken in a wonderful paste/sauce made with shallots and cinnamon stick, beautiful spices like cumin, coriander, turmeric and fennel. lovely flavors like coconut milk with a kick from dried red chiles. you can use already cut chicken, but i like cutting down a whole chicken for this, because it seems to lend itself for more flavor to seep into the meat. and seep it did over the course of 4 hours of marinating (you can marinate overnight if you've got the time -- i actually had the time, just didn't organize myself well enough to get it done the night before), then you take the chicken out of this paste-like marinade, dry it off for better frying, then fry it in hot oil, about 1-inch worth. and, i'll tell you, this was juicy, flavorful and amazing over simple white rice with some glorious sauteed greens with garlic. oh, so good. brandon and i ate it together that night, because nicholas was out with his big bro. he had helped me put it all together and was so proud at the finished product. it took some time, but it was worth it.

funny. i've talked about this book before (by James Oseland) and can't stop wishing i could go there again, be in the midst of all of this amazing passion for flavorful, exciting cooking. looking through the book, touching it even, you know something unique is going on. i so highly recommend it, if for no other reason than to lose yourself for awhile. all of us want to travel somewhere exotic once in our life. this lets you do it every night in little ways, if you want. this sense of island beauty and wonder.

our meal was succulent, delicious and enticed all of our senses. life is good. so good.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Sarah Moulton Gets Me

sara moulton is the food editor of gourmet magazine. sara moulton gets me. she is accessible, a working mom and she loves what she does. you can tell. i don't know if i learn from her as much as i go with her. there's nothing she does that makes me wonder "why the hell am i bothering with you when i could do that myself?" absolutely nothing. even if she's talking about things i know, i do, i have attempted, i still am intrigued by her. that's how i feel about nigella lawson, also. there's really nothing she does that gives me an "ah, ha!" moment, but everything she does is of interest to me. there's a committed passion that comes through them in everything they do -- in different ways, of course. i mean, nigella lawson is this lusty, richly life eating diva of british italian sensuality. she's a bit like the two fat ladies rolled into one with a little sophia loren thrown in. sara moulton is more of the nice home ec teacher who lets you get away with things, is married to the track coach and wears white keds with little white socks when she's being casual. whether any of that is true or not is really unimportant. it's more an observation than a truth, of course. but all of that is to say, sara moulton gets me and, so, i love cooking from her cookbook, SARA'S SECRETS FOR WEEKNIGHT MEALS. the dish we made this particular night is KOREAN STYLE BEEF WITH SPICY CABBAGE. let me just say that this is quick, easy and totally yum. oh, man. i'm not even gonna have you wait for the report card from us, cuz it was too good to hold back. really.

3 tbs soy sauce
2 scallions (white and green parts), thinly sliced (about 1/4 cup)
2 tbs rice vinegar
1 tbs dark brown sugar
2 tsps finely grated ginger
1 1/2 tsps toasted sesame oil
1 garlic clove, minced (about 1 tsp)
1 pound skirt steak
kosher salt and freshly milled black pepper
4 tbs vegetable oil
4 cups thinly shredded napa cabbage (about 1 pound)
1/4 pound snow peas, halved diagonally
1 tsp red pepper flakes

what to do:
1. whisk together the soy sauce, scallions, vinegar, brown sugar, ginger, sesame oil and garlic and set aside. season the steak with salt and pepper on both sides. cut into pieces, if necessary, in order to fit it all into the skillet
2. heat 2 tbs of the oil in a large skillet over high heat until hot; add the meat. sear the steak on both sides, 4 to 6 minutes total for medium-rare (which i, personally, prefer).
3. transfer the meat to a platter, cover loosely with foil, then let rest while you cook the cabbage. discard the fat in the skillet; heat the remaining 2 tbs oil in the same skillet over high heat until hot. reduce the heat to medium and add the cabbage and snow peas. saute for 3 minutes or until the cabbage is crisp-tender. add the snow peas, red pepper flakes and salt to taste; saute just until peas are hot, about 30 seconds.
4. to serve, slice the steak thin, against the grain, at an angle. add any juices from the platter to the soy sauce mixture and toss the meat with the sauce in the bowl. arrange a mound of cabbage on four plates; top with the meat and the sauce.

what we did:

first off, let me just tell you that this is a night when we got really into a show called DINNER: IMPOSSIBLE, for which i have a deep, nostalgic appreciation whenever i see it. brandon decided he was going to give me a test and it was this: he gave me three hours to put together an entree and an appetizer using two different meats. go. now, three hours SOUNDS like a lot of time, but when you don't have the meat thawed, it lowers your time considerably. so what i did was make this with some boneless short ribs (took 30 minutes to thaw) and for our appetizer i worked up a quick little dealy-bob with some leftover croutons i bad made for thanksgiving and really thinly sliced lamb. what i did was THAW THE FREAKIN' LAMB (i love my deep freezer, but geez) and, as it was still firm, thinly sliced it easily. and i mean REALLY thinly sliced it. i then seasoned it with some good kosher salt, some turns from the pepper mill, a little crushed, dried rosemary and garlic. i minced the garlic and sauteed it lightly in a pan of about 1 tbs olive oil then added the lamb and sauteed that for about 1 minute on each side (told you it was thin). then i rubbed the croutons with garlic, spread a very thin dollop of tomato paste on top, placed a leaf of basil on it, then the lamb (one slice, curled prettily), then a thin slice of fresh mozzarella and another dollop of the tomato paste. i put together about twelve of these little suckers, placed them in the oven for about 2 minutes (just until the cheese was melting) then took it out and served it. nicholas and brandon just about had a hissy fit of delight over this, so we have added it to our repertoire (and it will be repeated for christmas).

as for what we did with the Korean-Style Beef, well, we made it as it suggested, but without the snow peas (didn't have 'em) and, oh man, was it delectable. such amazing flavors and so quick and easy. really. honest. so quick. i've made this three times since that night and each time the boys devour it. they even like the cabbage enough to eat it all off their plate. no small feat, i'll tell you that.

i know my love of cooking helps in jumping into all of these, so the margin for error is pretty small. but it doesn't matter. even if we come across a recipe that LOOKS good, but TASTES yikes, i'll always adore this kind of dance in the kitchen. it's amazing. i had a great time doing my challenge (i won with 10 minutes to spare, by the way). we have fun with it and, ya know, that's the part of cooking i really appreciate. the delight of it all and the way my sons get completely into it, because of that.


Sunday, December 2, 2007

Why I love to cook...

it's simple, really. it helps me face the day. my life. the world. sometimes, when it feels so, i don't know, out of control and open for way too much consideration, cooking something amazing -- even if it's just the best spiced olives you've ever had -- makes me slow my mind and just be. nothing does that for me like cooking and baking does. writing, which is my other escape, is now also my career. actual, making a living career. and although the writing i do to just fly away in my brain is far different than that i do in my day-to-day, it takes a lot of my emotional energy, in a good way, but still.

cooking takes just as much of me emotionally, but because of its tactile, specific hand-eye coordination basis, i can forget myself a bit more.

i've been cooking up a storm. i'm sorry i haven't been more forthcoming of late. i've been really stressed and crying a bunch. oh, no worries. i'm probably just pre-menopausal or something. or not. who cares? but i've been lost in a cloud of self-doubt and all that kind of fun stuff, so while i've been cooking, i haven't been sharing as much with you guys. and, because of that, i feel as if i need to go back through the cookbooks from which i've been cooking and get back on the ball of sharing with you. recook some of the things i've done or find new and exciting dishes in the cookbooks i haven't shared with you and dive in with a vengeance.

my heart always lightens when i'm in the kitchen, immersed in my pots and pans, my breadmaker and covered in flour. that's why i decided to become so proficient at cooking. because it brings out the peace in me. and to have it satisfy, to convey my emotions as succinctly as it does in such a visceral way, i wanted to be sure that whatever i created had the heart and the quality that would bring joy to others.

yes, i know. how incredibly polyanna and corny, but it's true. i love to cook, because it allows me to show, in a more tangible way, what i'm about inside. sometimes, late at night like this, after a rough moment when i'm lost and alone, i think about chucking it all, selling everything, packing up my kiddles and moving to france to truly experience food and cooking in the way my heart tells me -- with every fiber of my being. then travel the world -- morocco, turkey, egypt, spain, argentina, norway, germany -- and learn more, experience more, see more. to cook with such amazing skill, now that would be something. to learn so much more about what cooking is about, to give in to its siren song -- i think about it a lot. more and more, actually. and, yet, writing calls me with the same vengeance, the same jealous want. but, to do both? to be both and immerse myself in the possibilities of all that this passionate need inside of me begs me to do? is it ever too late to live life to its fullest and dream so large that it fills your soul to bursting?

i don't think so.
i don't think so.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Why I Didn't Cook Tonight...

i didn't cook tuesday evening. well, not for the family and not dinner. i'll get to that in a moment, but for now, let me tell you about what i DID cook monday night.

this was, once again, one of those fairly labor intensive endeavors that felt like a really good idea.
at the time.
but was it really?
we'll see.

brandon had his football party that morning and i was feeling the need to do something inventive, compact and not too much stress. i grabbed one of my SAVEUR COOKS cookbooks and just so happened to pull AUTHENTIC AMERICAN: Celebrating the Recipes and Diverse Traditions of Our Rich Heritage. mmm... sounded good. it is put together by the editors of Saveur Magazine, my FAVE cooking magazine -- like you care, i know, but there ya go -- and i looked through it. it's got everything from Poke (pronounced "poky") which is a marinated, raw tuna dish from Hawaii, to Shrimp and Crab Etouffe (i'm a big fan of both). what i settled on, knowing my kids and how really fun this looked to make, was BIEROCKS (pronounced BEER-ocks). it's a Mennonite dish they brought from Russia and, well, it takes a little time.

did i have the time, you ask. do i ever really? i mean, i've read back through this blog and wondered who the hell is writing this and how the hell did she find the time to do this shit. sometimes, i look at the dishes we've just made and have no concept of what made me do this, how i've been doing this and where my brain has disappeared to. cooking every single night takes a lot of preparation and patience. although i'd love to say i'm a really patient person, i don't know if that's true or not. i just know that if it's gotta be done, i'm gonna gotta be doin' it. but i'm also a procrastinator and a flibbertigibbet, so that i've come this far at all has amazed me more than anyone. oh, and i've got obsessive compulsive tendencies with a touch of mania and delusions of grandeur.

i'm a well-rounded individual.

where was i? oh, yes, Bierocks. let me explain why i shall not be laying down how to do all of this. it's rather long and laborious, but that's nothing, really. this is, again, one of those things i recommend you go out and grab off the shelf and cook from. williams-sonoma is a lovely place, truly, and i wish i had the dough to shop there often. but, alas, i do not. however, i can tell you this about the Bierocks -- they are these great slightly sweet buns full of seasoned meat, cabbage and a touch of cheese. they rise, rest, rise again with the beef inside then you bake them off and they puff, get fluffy like a good fun should and you open them up and there it is... mmm...

so yummy.

why didn't i cook that next night?
well, as i read this, i realize that might need to be something for another day.
another day.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Tyler... Mm...

tyler florence. ah... what can i say that i haven't already said? love the man, love the way he cooks, love his cookbooks... i'm a fan. i admit it. this evening, we decided to make something easy, yummy and reminiscent of grab and go mexican food at home... los angeles... whatever. i have two tyler florence books and i use them both regularly. this particular recipe is one i've never dried before although it's a dish i get with frequency at one of my favorite places called El Tarasco. this one is from EAT THIS BOOK by Tyler Florence (named this because he wanted to have this be a book you use so frequently and with such passion, it would be oil stained, pages falling apart and the book itself all around weathered with vast use). the recipe is MEXICAN STREET TACOS and when my sons heard what we were having for dinner last night, they couldn't wait. they're both mexican food afficianados. ah, yes.

2 ponds flank or skirt steak, trimmed of excess fat
Mojo (recipe follows)
olive oil, for coating the grill
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 (7-inch) corn totillas
shredded romaine or iceberg lettice
chopped onion
crumbled queso fresco or grated monterey jack cheese
1 recipe pico de gallo
2 limes, cut into wedges

mojo ingredients:
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 jalapenos, minced
1 large handful fresh cilantro, finely chopped
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
juice of 2 limes
juice of 2 oranges
2 tbs white vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

what to do for mojo: cuz you're gonna need the mojo first
with a mortar and pestle, mash together the garlic, jalapenos, cilantro, salt and pepper to make a paste. put it in a glass jar. add the lime and orange juices, the vinegar and the oil, shake it up to combine.

what to do for everything:
1. lay the flank steak in a large baking dish and pour the mojo over it. wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour for up to 8 hours, so the flavors can sink into the meat. (don't marinate the steak for more than 8 hours or the fibers will break down too much and the meat will get mushy.)
2. preheat an outdoor grill or a ridged grill pan over a medium-high flame (can also use a broiler). take a few paper towels and fold them several times to make a thick square. blot a small amount of oil on the towels, then carefully and quickly wipe the hot grates to make a nonstick grilling surface. pul the steak out of the mojo and season both sides with salt and pepper. grill (or broil) the steak for 7 to 10 minutes per side, turning once, until medium-rare. remove to a cutting board and let it rest for 5 minutes to allow the juices to settle. slice thin on an angle, across the grain.
3. while the steak is resting, warm the tortillas for 30 sconds on each side in a dry skillet or on the grill, until toasty and pliable. to serve, put two of the warm tortillas on your work surface. lay about an eighth of the beef down on the center of each, sprinkle with the condiments and garnish with the lime wedges. repeat to make 6 more tacos.

here's what we did:
once more, we did not have the jalapenos, so we used red pepper flakes. i've got to buy some jalapenos next market trip. we cook way too much of this stuff for it not to be here. okay, and, yes, i had a flank steak and oranges limes, garlic, cilantro, and so forth. so it was the jalapenos that we didn't have, otherwise we were fine. we let the steak marinate for just over an hour then grilled it on -- yep -- my george foreman grill. tyler florence, a george foreman grill -- who could ask for anything more?

so we had this, some grapes and sat back in heaven. this was a terrific meal, simple, flavorful and good. we felt, for just a moment, that we were walking down Olvera Street in Los Angeles, listening to the music and just hanging.

sometimes it's just nice to disappear for a minute.
with good food and family.
that'll work.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Warming Yums

soup is a friend of mine. i know i've said this before, but i adore soup. it doesn't matter what time of year it is, soup is a wonderful, marvelous thing. my affection for soup reminds me of that stevie nicks song where she sings, "she wears boots all summer long." i have dedicated that song to my friend, elizabeth, every year in my mind, because she definitely wears boots through the summer -- she's a horsewoman -- but my adoration of soup is timeless like the boots of the song. tonight, i decided that soup was a god deal considering how chilly willy it was. and not just any soup, but soup with character. soup with bite. soup to kick cold's ass. this usually means, to me, asian soups, because of the flavors they employ to warm your soul. cilantro and ginger and coconut milk and lemongrass... ah, delightful bits of freshness. i was also missing my mom a bit this evening -- i have a confession to make, i miss my mom a lot daily and often through the day and, especially, while i'm cooking. i wouldn't be cooking if not for my mom, at least not with the passion i feel for it, and i'll explain that at the end. because i was missing her so much, i went for a book that once belonged to her, one of those dated wonders i love to use from time to time and see how i can update it -- remember the seafood torte? yep, that's not one of hers, but you get the picture. anyway, this book is by the famed novelist PEARL S. BUCK (i HAD to read The Good Earth in elementary school, i CHOSE to be swept away by it), it has her white-haired photo on the cover, smiling serenely , wearing a rather beautiful silk Chinese jacket, black beads and holding laquered chopsticks in her hand, poised and ready to eat. the book is titled: PEARL S. BUCK'S ORIENTAL COOKBOOK: A RICH AND VARIED COLLECTION OF THE BEST DISHES FROM ALL OF ASIA BY AMERICA'S BEST-LOVED NOBEL PRIZE WINNER. wow. that's quite a claim not just about the oriental food -- oriental, could you just die? -- you are about to attempt, but the author herself. i had no idea she was the best-loved nobel prize winner in 1972 (the year this book was published). not to dis ol' pearl, but a bunch of folks had won the nobel prize by then. i wonder if creating a cookbook ups your approval rating or something.

but, i digress...

this book is old enough to employ and offer as one of its ingredients msg. i have a couple of such ancient chinese/asian cookbooks given me by my mother that list this as an ingredient. it brings a huge smile to my face. the recipe i chose is from the Korean section of her cookbook -- the book is split into regional sections -- Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, India-Pakistan (can't we all just get along?), China, The Philippines, Indochina, Korea, Malaysia and Japan. the recipe is simply called CHICKEN SOUP and this is how it went:

1 medium-sized chicken
2 green onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
dash pepper
6 tbs soy sauce
1 tsp salt

what to do:
1. remove the chicken from the bones, cut into small cubes and place in a bowl. put the bones in a pot with 5 cups water and simmer for an hour.
2. while the broth is cooking, add the onions, including the tops, garlic, pepper and soy sauce to the chicken and mix well. cook in a frying pan to brown the chicken completely.
3. remove the chicken bones from the broth, measure the broth and add enough water to make 2 quarts. return the liquid to the pan, add the chicken and salt then cook over medium heat until tender. serve hot.

simple, easy, pretty fast for a soup, right?
here's what we did:
i had some chicken pieces already thawed, so we used those, pulled the meat off the bones and cut it just like pearl says. i did a 2 cups of chix broth to 3 cups of water ratio for the bone simmering liquid. i didn't have any green onions -- which kind of blew my mind, since i buy green onions like i buy mustard, always figuring i don't have it so i buy it only to discover i have 4 jars -- so i used a shallot, which i minced. i also chopped up some fresh ginger -- about 1 tsp. of it -- a handful of cilantro and a half a head of spinach. i added the cilantro and spinach to the broth with the chicken, and also put in half pound of al dente spaghetti noodles for heartiness. pure soup for dinner freaks out brandon, who does not consider soup a meal, unless it's super hearty and served in bread bowls. i do believe this is a trait he inherited from my father, who felt the same way even though he had a crappy appetite and just getting him to eat anything was a triumph.

the response? nicholas loved it. he ate two bowls. brandon ate some, slathered it with hot sauce, ate some more than left it. he liked it, but it was still too brothy not to make it out of the distinction of soup for dinner and he kept looking at me waiting for the entree.

i reminded him he already had one.

i, personally, loved it. but, then again, i love soup, so there.

cooking and my mother, ah, yes... my mother could cook like nobody's business. she had a way with food that was so full of love, you could taste it in every bite. not everything she made was a success. oh, no. or at least appealled to my taste. i've mentioned the salmon croquettes and meatloaf (yikes), the cabbage rolls. i haven't mentioned the oxtails and noodles -- couldn't stand oxtails -- the Bird's Eye Frozen vegetable extravaganza that made me hate brussels sprouts and vegetable medleys forever and ever, amen. but, she put her heart into everything she made -- her fried chicken is legend, her baked ham a true legacy, her baked Ob's Chicken (a dish created in homage to my father), stuffed pork chops (sigh) and her barbecue... oh, man. she cooked for us every night. EVERY STINKIN' NIGHT. and it wasn't like my mom didn't have a life. my mom got very into songwriting, so she took a couple of night courses in songwriting at UCLA -- although, this was a time when i was put in charge of cooking (i was 12ish) and Hamburger Helper became a pretty good friend of mine. she got involved in the community, so she was on the board of Neighbors of Watts, a group of women of substance and means that banded together on behalf of the beleagured city after the Watts riots (she became president of NOW when i was a senior in high school) and she was always on the entertainment/event planning committee for their yearly, very lavish benefit which included her enlisting us all to help her MAKE the centerpieces for the table. yes, i said MAKE. my mother made all of the centerpieces. she became president of the BHSD chapter of the PTA when i was in 8th grade, and she played tennis just about everyday. as well as accompanying my dad to any work events and was a volunteer at the Maple Center, a place for teens to go and deal with their substance abuse and other issues in Beverly Hills. my mom once told me she was in awe of all of the experiences i had been through in my life and how i continued to keep going, juggle everything and so forth. i looked at her as if she was crazy. my life, to me, was nothing compared to all that she was about. funny, how it's so hard to see our gifts through what we view as our failings, isnt it?

but back to mom and cooking. watching her and having her welcome me into her kitchen brought this immense love of all things culinary into my life. she was the one who sat with me and laughed in delight over Graham Kerr and Julia Childs (and she would clap when i would do my Julia Childs impersonation). we would bake together, cook together and she allowed all of us full reign of the kitchen to make our own masterpieces on the weekends. when saturday came, we were the masters of our own breakfasts and lunches, and a lot of really doughy pancakes came out of those weekends as well as some excellent dishes i still play with to this day. and that is because my mother encouraged our creativity in everything we did. love her or not with other things in our lives, that was something i have never forgotten.

a little story that brings us back to the soup thing: when my mom was first married, she was very young and still learning about cooking and things like that. one night, my mom made this excellent vegetable beef soup. she was really proud of herself. she added a salad and some crusty bread, beaming with pride when she served it all up to her brand new, larger than life husband. he ate it down with gusto, complimented her on it then asked, "now, what's for dinner?" kind of how brandon looks at soup. like grandfather, like grandson :o)

when i was about 27, i was sitting in my parents' kitchen in their home in Las Vegas, hanging with my mom who was heating up something we'd brought back from dinner out the night before. we did a lot of dinner out when my parents moved to Las Vegas. actually, we mostly did dinner out once my parents moved there. we were just chillin', ya know, and i don't remember how we got onto the subject of her cooking when she sighed and looked at me, seriously, and said, "baby, i hate cooking. i sincerely do." i just stared at her in amazement, remembering the incredible meals my mother made us, the love she poured into it and the all nighters she would pull just before parties we'd have that led to MAJOR screaming fights with my dad. the spread would be incredible and there was always plenty -- my mom was a brilliant hostess married to a "i'm happy to have you in my house as long as i'm happy to have you in my house and when i'm no longer happy to have you in my house, i will let you know" man.

"but..." i began, completely floored, "you're so good at it, mom. i don't mean just, ya know, technically, but the food tastes of you, of your heart."

my mother smiled at me and said, "cooking for you all made it easy to deal with for a time, but cooking for just the two of us? and you know your father's appetite..." she just shook her head, wrinkling her nose.

my father, since i could remember, had a really horrible appetite. he'd sit with us at dinner, take a couple of bites, but always had his plate of leftovers sitting on the counter, covered in foil or plastic wrap and ready for him during his midnight snacking vigils. and even then, he might just take a few bites more. one plate of food could last my dad for days.

"i hate cooking, honey. always have."

she shrugged, at a loss, and i sat there, stunned. my mother hated cooking. who knew?
but her love for me, her desire to encourage that creativity inside of us in whatever form it was taking instilled this immense love of cooking. she allowed me to discover myself in the kitchen, she opened doors for me and supported whatever doors i walked through when it came to food.

now, my mom lives in an assisted living facility near malibu, gives into the diva she always really was and enjoys being pampered by the staff. she doted on us while we were growing up, so i figure she deserves that. she cooked when she hated it and never once tipped her hand by letting us taste that. because she loved us and that's what we tasted -- her love for us beyond her dislike of the means by which to show us. my mother loved us enough to face the dreaded stove and oven daily to give us not just sustenance, but inspiration -- to push herself into excellence so we walked away feeling special because of her gift.

how many of us can say that?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Muy Bien, Y Tu?

i love mexican food. i'm a native los angeleno, so i suppose that would go without saying, except not really. we didn't go out to dinner a lot when i was a kid, because my dad's schedule was pretty crazy and when he had a free night, he wanted to just chill at home. it was cool, because my mom was a really good cook and she'd let us help in the kitchen. but on those rare occasions when we would go out, half of the time it was to a restaurant my father (who was a member of The Gourmet Society with my mom) had checked out from his chi-chi gourmet friends which meant dressing up, reservations and trying new things like escargot with garlic butter (swoon worthy even at age 9) and seafood linguine in a tomato vodka sauce (also worth the nap i had to take to be allowed to stay up late enough to eat it). the other have were our regulars -- Twin Dragon, a Chinese place to which i still flock whenever i'm back in l.a.; Hamburger Hamlet -- the one off sunset not the one on Beverly Drive; Don the Beachcomber, a rather delightful Polynesian restaurant in Marina del Rey (long gone now); Farrells Soda Fountain (my brother was always determined to eat the Trough, a fairly sizable ice cream monstrosity that got you the actual trough you ate it from if you succeeded -- skinny guy that he was, he always succeeded -- the jerk) and La Fonda, a Mexican restaurant in downtown Los Angeles well known for their mariachi. without fail, whenever my father would ask if we were in the mood for Mexican food, i would always say, "NO!!!", which was always outvoted by my family (as you probably have guessed, i was more interested in going to Twin Dragon for Chinese or a restaurant long gone from Los Angeles and usurped by Benihana, Pear Garden for Japanese). and we'd go to La Fonda, me dragging my feet and my "lip on the ground" (my father's favorite saying for when i would pout) then order Arroz con Pollo and be in heaven while the mariachi serenaded us. once there, i didn't want to be anywhere else, but getting me there as a kid took a LOT of doing.

now, however, i adore mexican food. i admit it, give into it, and cook it often. i miss that about Los Angeles, because my sons and i had our favorites -- still have our favorites -- and spent our fair share of time hanging at Olvera Street downing mexican food. tonight, we decided to try a cookbook i've had for a fair amount of time, but have yet to cook from. i have Diana Kennedy's mexican cookbook and i use it a ton, so i had never cracked open this one. it is also by a well-known and accomplished mexican food cook, RICK BAYLESS and is called MEXICAN EVERYDAY. as i read through it, it reminded me of my Let's Eat Japanese cookbook with its great stories and accessibility with the recipes. i chose CHICKEN IN TANGY ESCABECHE OF CARAMELIZED ONIONS, CARROTS AND JALAPENOS, or Pollo en Escabeche de Cebollas Caramelizadas, Zanahorias y Jalapenos. whatever you like.

1 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground allspice
2 tsps dried oregano, preferably Mexican
4 (2 pounds total) chicken breast halves, bones and skin intact
2 tbs vegetable or olive oil
1 large white onion, cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 large carrots, peeled if you wish and sliced 1/4 inch thick on a diagonal
4 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
1/4 cup vinegar (apple cider vinegar is traditional)
2 to 4 pickled jalapenos, stemmed, seeded and thinly sliced
1 cup chicken broth

what to do:
1. combine the spices, including 1 tsp salt, in a small bowl. sprinkle half the mixture over the chicken.
2. heat the oil in a very large (12") skillet over medium. lay in the chicken, skin side down, and cook, turning once, until richly browned (about 3-4 minutes per side). remove the chicken to a plate, leaving behind as much oil as possible.
3. add the onions and carrots and stir frequently, cooking until the onions are browned, about 7 minutes. add the garlic and stir for about 1 minute, then add the remaining seasoning mixture, the vinegar, jalapenos and broth. nestle the chix pieces, skin side up, in the onion mixture, cover the skillet (a cookie sheet or pizza pan work well here) and simmer gently over medium low until the chix is cooked just through, about 15 minutes.
4. taste the broth and salt as necessary. transfer a piece of chix to a dinner plate, spoon over the juicy veggies, then serve.

here's what we did:
first off, we used skinless and boneless chix thighs and chicken legs, skin on. we didn't use carrots, because, as i've said before, I HATE COOKED CARROTS. SO, since carrots are root vegetables, i used potatoes, yukon gold, which are also root vegetables (i'm SO agriculturally proficient). i also didn't have jalapenos -- oddly enough, i had a HUGE jar of these guys from one of my old catering jobs way back when and i just got rid of it before we moved here. go figure. i added a couple of pinches of red pepper flakes to add heat and was REALLY excited about the brown bits that came up with this adding of the broth and vinegar. when i saw those guys get all saucey, floaty in the broth, i was in heaven and the smell was DELICIOUS. but would it be as good as it smelled?

yes. simple yes. the flavors were simple and good, the semi-soupyness just right for the chilly night and nicholas and brandon completely chowed down. i added some nice, cooling celery sticks to the whole thing as a side -- just fresh, raw and chilled -- and it topped off the heat really well. even the broth had the boys happy.

i think i love rick bayless as much as i love tyler florence.

what's a girl to do?

The Perfect Burger?

perhaps there are things in life to which we will never attain. a washboard stomach after two kids and a c-section (although it doesn't stop me from trying), perfectly straight hair during a fog filled evening (the frizzing of my curls MUST NOT BE DENIED) and the perfect hamburger. what is that, anyway? i mean, what is perfect to me may not be perfect to you, right? i might like a cheese that you don't like, condiments that make you gag, sides that can either make or break the entire meal in either of our opinion. however, this book i decided to use on monday night claimed i would be making, if not the PERFECT burger, the BEST BURGER, courtesy of the Williams-Sonoma family of cookbooks called ESSENTIALS OF GRILLING: Recipes and Techniques for Successful Outdoor Grilling by, yes, the staff at Williams-Sonoma. i have several such odes to perfect cuisine courtesy of this retail fabulosity, however, i chose this one for that evening because, well, just because, i guess. we were bound and determined to have a burger and while i have a personal recipe i always use from memory, since i'm on this quest to use up my cookbooks (dammit!), i decided to use a recipe. uh, huh.

shut up.

and, so, here is what The Best Burger consisted of or, certainly, TOLD me it consisted of:

2 1/4 pounds freshly ground (minced) beef chuck
salt and freshly ground pepper
6 crusty rolls
sliced cheese, such as mild cheddar or monterey jack
sliced mild onion
sliced tomato
sliced dill pickle
cooked bacon slices
tender leaf lettuce
good-quality tomato ketchup
dijon or whole-grain mustard

what to do:
1. prepare a charcoal or gas grll for direct grilling over high heat off the grill rack.
2. divide the meat into 6 equal portionas. dampen our hands, then pat each portion into a patty 4-4 1/4 inches in diameter and about 3/4 inch thick. take care not to handle the meat more than necessary or to compact the patties too much. salt and pepper all sides.
3. for charcoal: grill the burgers over the hottest part of the fire, turning once, until nicely charred and cooked to your liking, 4 1/2 to 6 minutes per side for medium. about 1 minute before the burgers are done, place the buns, cut sides down, at the edge of the grill where the heat is less intense and grill until lightly toasted.
for gas: grill burgers directly over the heat elements, turning once, until nicely charred and cooked to your liking, again that 4 1/2 to 6 minute rule per side. do the same things with the buns.
4. assemble the burgers in the buns with the embellishments of choice. serve at once.

here's what we did:
FIRST of all, i need to tell you this about the burger universe -- do not, i repeat, DO NOT press down on your burgers as they cook. all the yummy juice will just squeeze out and you will have what is similar to a hockey puck on your hands. i know you see people do this at grills all the time, burger places and the whole deal. do not do this. PLEASE. also, i need to tell you this -- when i saw the list of condiments for THE BEST BURGER, my first thought was "who are you to tell me which TWO cheeses i can use here?" as well as "what if i don't WANT crusty buns?" then i got off my high horse and realized this is merely a GUIDELINE for the best burger. dress for your own success.

but, there's more. i am one of those people who has discovered quite a happy peppy little formula for my burgers that makes my sons rather happy. i did not do that at all here. i chose to make the burger, for the most part, just like it said to make it in the cook book -- salt and pepper ONLY in the seasoning. HOWEVER, i did not just season the outsides. i mooshed up the whole thing with some kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, formed the patties then seasoned them again. the REASON they tell you not to put salt INSIDE the burgers is that belief the juices will run out in horror at the sodium monster. just for the record, it's been my experience that if you don't overly handle your meat, your juices will not fear your salt. they will embrace the salt and become very good traveling companions. but that's my experience after a lot of years of doing this shit. if yours is different, then, please, do what works for you.

to this burger i added sharp white cheddar cheese slices, a yummy sesame bun that we toasted and a lovely slice of fresh lettuce. i topped it all with whole-grain mustard and some ketchup. i baked some french fries drizzled lightly with olive oil and tossed with a little salt, freshly ground pepper, and dried herbs and garlic (375ºF for about 15-20 minutes, i guess). to this we added some wonderful pears and the evening was complete.

The Best Burger? hmm... i don't know if that's really the case. it was quite a good burger. my sons were happy little campers as they devoured it, so that says a lot.

happy campers make life a lot easier.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

I... Am... Crazy...

sometimes i realize just what a dork i am. it doesn't take much for me to recognize my dorkyness. it's pretty on the surface in my day-to-day life. however, when i do see this aspect of my personality, i have to decide -- do i fall apart in my dork discovery or do i go with it and make it work for me?

i don't always make the right decision either way, but i certainly make a decision.

this time, i decided to go with it. this was the last weekend of football -- a weekend long tournament. both boys played HARD and deserved a pretty great dinner that night for all that work. they love homemade pizza, so i decided i would do that, and we had been talking about my making homemade cinnamon rolls for awhile. that was their extra special something for the night. and as i began putting everything together, i started laughing. because both of these little beauties of dishes requires rising, kneading, serious prep before cooking. ha... ha... oy...

and here, for the first time, i won't be leaving behind a recipe for you. and here's why --

there are a lot of things put together over the course of these three cookbooks:

THE ITALIAN COOKING ENCYCLOPEDIA: The definitive professional guide to Italian ingredients and cooking techniques, including 300 step-by-step recipes all compiled by CArla Capalbo, Kate Whiteman, Jeni Wright & Angela Boggiano;
TODAY'S COUNTRY COOKING from The Cooking Club of America and authored by John Schumacher; and, last,
BREAD BAKERY, the bread machine book of instructions and recipes

ITALIAN COOKING ENCYCLOPEDIA is a staple of my kitchen. it is a monolithic, 500 page tome of Italian food expertise and each and every recipe is enhanced with step-by-step photos that go along with the step-by-step directions. it... is... amazing and so incredibly cool. it was out of here that we made our pizza dough, which we make quite frequently, and out of which we have made a lot of stuff. and i mean a lot of stuff. this is a GREAT cookbook and if you were to never buy another Italian cookbook as long as you lived, having this would be fine.

TODAY'S COUNTRY COOKING is a new one for me. i used it for some of the elements of my cinnamon rolls and you can only get it, unfortunately, by being a member of the Cooking Club of America which, as you can tell, i am.

and then, really stupid, yes, i know, but surprisingly helpful and good, is BREAD BAKERY which only comes with, yep, my bread machine. the actual dough for the cinnamon rolls were in here.

this was a day of mixing and matching elements, truly using the recipes as bases. the pizza was light and wonderful -- i even ate a slice and i do not eat pizza... ever. and it's not because i made it. it's because the recipe for this dough is, i think, excellent and very simple. our base for the pizza was also simple -- excellent mozzarella, very basic tomato basil sauce liberally brushed on the dough, hand forming the dough, oive oil, herbs and baking until bubbly and golden. the chinnamon rolls were buttery, cinnamony and just the right kind of sweet. this was a simple, homey dish also glazed with a creamy vanilla glaze.

it was a huge late afternoon undertaking, because of the rising, second rising and proofing that goes into this stuff. we were all exhausted -- them more than i, for sure -- and then taking the time for this meant a lot to them, so it meant a lot to me.

hey, i like my boys. they drive me absolutely bonkers sometimes and irritate the hell out of each other more often than i'd like (or they'd like, i would imagine), but i enjoy them as people. they're unique, interesting and very loving. to be able to put my heart into this crazy couple of dishes meant a lot to them, brought them joy.

i made two time consuming dishes for my kids without ONCE thinking how ridiculously overworked i would be if i did this. i could have easily just made something else, ya know. gone to the store, bought a flat bread and used it as a base for pizza toppings, gotten some refrigerated dough and done a take on a cinnamon roll. as i realized the magnitude of what i was doing and how i was being a total dork of obliviousness again, it was that time i decided to just go with it and be ridiculously overworked for all the right reasons.
nicholas and brandon.
and, no, i'm no saint of a mother, trust me. it's just that doing these little things for them is worth any amount of time or effort it takes me beyond what i would normally do.
tonight may be a grilled cheese night.
actually, i'm sure of it.
but really good grilled cheese on some homemade bread.
that'll work.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Lusty Flavors

i have a cookbook that brings a chill down my spine every single time i look at it. hard to believe that out of 220 of these suckers -- and countless cooking mags, articles, old newspaper recipes and things i've found on the net -- that i have this one book that makes me shiver with antici...pation. it's not the ONLY one that brings a tear of joy to my eye, but it's the latest one. it's pages hold some of the most extraordinarily elaborate and passionate dishes i have ever seen. i dream of one day going to al of the countries it embodies and it wasn't until last night, as i was reading through it, that i realized i had been to two of the three upon which it focuses and recalled how much i enjoyed eating in each of them. from roadside food stands to elaborate feasts, these were some of the most memorable culinary experiences i had gone through.

the book is CRADLE OF FLAVOR -- pretty cool title, i think -- Home Cooking form the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. it is by James Oseland and he, like Tyler Florence, is my hero. the book itself is wonderful, yes. the recipes a delight, the pictures gorgeous. but it is the stories that captivate me even more. the way he sets up his recipes and talks about his experiences in putting together this book. i have had the opportunity to be in indonesia and singapore. i was to go to malyasia, but that part of my journey was cancelled at the last minute and i went back to singapore. there's a part of me looking for that experience over and over and this book gives it.

the recipes are also very elaborate, because of the layering of flavors. that makes me want to use it more and buy things like plantains and dried shrimp paste; lemongrass and glass noodles when i'm at the store for milk and toilet paper. they have a whole section just for tempeh, tofu and eggs. k'yeah. this whole aroma comes to mind when i read the recipes and i read them like they're magical fairytales. such passion and attention to the entire experience of each dish makes me warm to this book and type of cuisine even more. it's so full of life and communal enjoyment. this is also the very first time i've used this cookbook since i got it and since i had already made the roasted chicken the night before, i decided to make a side for it using Cradle of Flavor. i made LEMONGRASS-SCENTED COCONUT RICE, which, considering how our chicken was made, seemed like a good idea.

check it out:

2 cups jasme rice
3 thick stalks fresh lemongrass, tied into a knot
1 1/2 cups water
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
1 tsp kosher salt
10 whole daun salam leaves (large, grass like leaves that impart a vanilla flavor -- if you can't find them, omit them -- they're optional in this and are available at Chinese or Asian markets)
2 tbs crisp fried shallots (optional)

what to do:
1. place the rice in a 1 1/2 or 2 quart saucepan. fill the pot halfway with cold water. if any rice hulls or small twigs float to the surface, scoop them out and toss. gently swirl your fingers through the rice until the water becomes cloudy, about 20 seconds. don't work the rice too hard, because you don't want it to crack. let hte rice settle for a few seconds then tilt the pot over a sink and drain out all the water, cupping the rice with your hand to prevent it from spilling from the pot. repeat the whole process 3 more changes of water. by the last rinse, the water will be much less cloudy. it doesn't need to be completely clear. drain after the last water change and leave the rinsed rice in the pot.
2. add the lemongrass, cooking water, coconut milk, salt and daun salam leaves (if using). stir well to combine, making sure the lemon grass and leaves are as fully submerged as possible.
3. place the pot over high heat and bring the liquid to a boil, sitrring with a large spoon to prevent the rice at the bottom of the pot from scorching or burning. it may thicken a lot, but that will be from the coconut milk. boil for 15 seconds, continuing to stir to prevent the rice at the bottom from scorching or burning. immediately reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cover the pot tightly with the lid. continue cooking for 15 minutes. don't lift the lid.
4. remove the pot from the heat and allow the rice to continue to steam, covered, off heat, for 10 more minutes.
5. remove the lemongrass and daun salam leaves. fold the rice over with a spoon, evenly distributing the aromatic flavors that may be concentrated in pockets in the rice. transfer the rice to a deep serving bowl and fluff it well with a fork.

what we did:
we did an optional ginger scented cocnut rice, because we didn't have daun salam leaves. we took a 2 inch piece of ginger, peeled it and bruised it until it was juicy and used it in place of the daun salam. we also didn't have lemongrass, which is a severe drag, because i like cooking with it -- i have a great recipe that uses lemongrass for a tea -- so we went with lime -- not at all the same, but whatchagonnado? it had a citrus vibe that was gonna have to be close enough. i also didn't have jasmine rice -- which was weird, because i could have SWORN i had it (love that stuff) and then as i looked, i realized i had used it a couple of weeks ago with every intention of replenishing it.
or was it?

the kids liked it well enough. oh, it didn't bowl them over, but it was a nice little addition to our chicken and salad. i loved it, but i'm a rice whore, so there ya go. i am making this again and often. but i will tell you how this worked out so well. leftover rice for fried rice.
oh, yeah.

i made myself a little lunch yesterday of a handful of chopped leftover chicken, chopped ham, both sauteed until a little crisp and browned, some cilantro, mushrooms, and chopped omelet and a handful of chopped shrimp -- sauteed with curry powder, ponzu sauce and garlic chili paste. i sauteed up some chopped garlic and ginger, tossed everything together then topped it with some leftoever rice, cooked that up until it was heated through and full of the goodies, topped this with some hoisin sauce -- about 1/4 tsp. -- ponzu sauce and black sesame seeds. it was GREAT! oh, man. the yummiest lunch i've had in a long time.

a little bit about rice: rice is serious business, once you get into it. i've probably said this before, maybe i haven't. i dunno. the massaging of rice, washing it, handling it as a general rule is very methodical. you need to put your hands in it, feel it as you prep it for cooking. and the ratio of water to rice is always an issue -- do i do a 2 to 1 sort of deal or do i do 1 - 1 1/2? and does it REALLY matter if i wash my rice, i mean, who cares?

there are different types of rice -- long grain, short grain, black, white, brown, wild (which isn't a rice at all, but a plant), medium grain, sweet and on and on. my recommendation -- and what has helped me in my rice cooking life -- is to really take a look at the asian rice cooking recommendations and follow those. there is a high respect for the grain and they have discovered the best ways to work with all forms of it.

another night, another meal, another walk down a culinary road with my kiddles.
pretty cool.

Difficult Simplicity

roasting chickens are an art. ask any french cooking teacher or chef or anyone. roasted chicken takes a finessing that is more in the knowing than in the doing. or so i've learned.

tonight or, better yet, last night, we didn't use a recipe. sorry. i got home, things were crazed, i prepped a chicken for roasting, then had to leave for a basketball game with brandon. so, i brought out our meatball toasts, heated those while the chicken finished cooking and put some fruit with it, there ya go, eat up, let's go.

however, the chicken i make is based upon a recipe i created/learned a LONG time ago and i will try to recreate this for you, but here's the truth about roasting chicken --

often, you will discover, your roast chicken is overcooked or undercooked. it happens to ALL of us. i must say that it has been my experience that things like roasted chicken, a perfect turkey -- also very difficult -- great pork chops, lamb that doesn't taste gamey and ick, duck that isn't too fatty, good bread, well-baked goods and hollandaise sauce (oh, and poached eggs) are, well, a feeling. a feeling, yes. and pie crust. you FEEL when it's good. it takes practice and a willingness to fail in order to become proficient at any of these. practice. i adore cooking and the way it makes me feel inside to create things for my family that make them smile and feel loved, so i'm willing to fail in order to succeed. i trust my palate to my own hand instead of constantly fearing my own hand with my tastebuds then trusting my tongue to a stranger who doesn't know me at all. it's not because i'm super confident. it's because i'm completely ignorant of my failings in the kitchen. really. it's that simple and stupid.

i swear.

and so, here is the roast chicken i put in the oven last night that we are eating in the next little bit with something terrific you will see in the next post. or, at least, i hope is terrific.

linda's roast chicken
1-3 to 4 pound whole chicken
good quality olive oil
rosemary (fresh or dried)
thyme (fresh or dried)
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
1 whole head of garlic, the tip cut
1 whole lime or lemon, cut in half

what to do:
1. preheat the oven to 375ºF. rub the chicken with olive oil all over, even under the skin. be careful when you go under the skin, because you don't want to break it, because it protects the meat and keeps in the moisture.
2. if using fresh herbs, you'll be stuffing them inside of the cavity of the chicken, so we'll get there in a minute. but if you want to use dried herbs, sprinkle them over the chicken and into the cavity. if you've got the time and a mortar and pestle, then crush the herbs first to release the oils that really bring out the flavor and sprinkle them over and inside the chix. liberally salt and pepper the chicken all over, even the underside (same with the dried herbs) and inside the cavity. rub, rub, rub -- feel free to massage the chix. if using fresh herbs, salt and pepper the inside the cavity before you put in a few sprigs of herbs inside.
3. after that is all done, put in the garlic head, that has been sliced to reveal the top of the cloves thereby releasing the flavor, and the lime or lemon, sliced in half lengthwise, then put into the cavity. if you want to squeeze it lightly around the whole chicken, go ahead. i do and it adds a really nice tang.
4. roast the chicken for about 1-1 1/2 hours at 375º WITHOUT BASTING. i think i may have said that the purpose of the skin of a chicken is to keep things out, not let things in, so to baste it really makes no sense. so, don't baste it. if you're totally married to basting, then who am i to dissuade you? but, i NEVER, EVER DO and the chicken comes out moist and faboo.

like i said, i go by feeling with chicken rather than temperature. but, if memory serves, when a chicken is 165 or something with a meat thermometer, take it out of the oven, tent it and let it rest for 15 minutes. it'll continue to cook. check temp. in the meaty part of the thigh, do not touch the bone. your reading will be off.

a really good roast chicken is SPECTACULAR, as i'm sure you know. a well-stocked pantry to enhance that chicken is even better. let me tell you about mine:

i keep my pantry as well-stocked as i can, because we enjoy and cook a ton of different types of foods, however, i also like unique types of food that require unique types of pantry items. to me, my pantry is ALWAYS lacking, because for all we cook, you would assume i would have more or i would like to have more. i realize in stating what i actually do keep in my pantry, others may stare at me in disbelief and say, "you don't think you're well-stocked enough? puh-LEASE!" but, hey, i still believe what i believe.

these days, i keep the basics in my pantry -- real vanilla (don't EVER use imitation vanilla, unless you're doing a baking job that requires pure white fondant or frosting with a vanilla flavor, then use imitation, but it better be a really good paying job), dried herbs like rosemary, oregano, thyme, savory, sage, parsley, mint, dill, basil, bay leaves and vanilla beans. i use a lot of vanilla beans. i also keep ground cumin, nutmeg, cardamom, turmeric, garam masala, curry, chili powder, red pepper flakes, cayenne, season salt, whole peppercorns -- multi-colored, white and black (couldn't find pink here, but if i could, i'd have those as well -- i use a coffee grinder to grind my whole spices when i need them) -- five spice powder, cardamom pods, coriander seeds, whole cloves, allspice seeds, fennel seeds, black and white sesame seeds, lavender, saffron (yep, it's worth it to me), chicken boullion cubes and paprika (hungarian, preferably). i also have dried mustard, good raw honey, real maple syrup, almond extract (some of the stuff i bake calls for it), real lemon extract (again, the baking thing), olive oil, sesame oil, vegetable oil, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, sherry wine vinegar, rice vinegar (seasoned and unseasoned), worcestershire sauce, soy sauce (regular and low sodium), organic chicken broth, beef broth, beef consomme, stick cinnamon, ground ginger (i always keep tons of real ginger in my fridge, because i use it A LOT), garlic powder, garlic salt, cream of tartar, corn starch, fresh baking powder and soda (i go through these pretty quickly, so they never go bad), various nuts including pecan and peanuts and walnuts and almonds, kosher salt, sea salt, all-purpose flour, cake flour, bread flour, whole wheat flour (although i keep that in my fridge), blue cornmeal (which i also keep in my fridge), rye flour (yep, fridge), white onions, brown onions, maui onions, shallots, garlic bulbs, potatoes -- russet, red and yukon gold -- all sorts of rice -- we'll get to that in the next blog -- um... hmm... let me see... and a bunch more like sun dried tomatoes, tomato paste, superfine sugar and on and on.

i also keep on top of my pantry enough to know that when i find a recipe i plan to use, read it, i know what on there i don't have and what i do. i am in touch with my pantry, feeling it, aware of what's in there without needing a list, and agument it accordingly for the most part. but i also trust enough in what i'm doing to know that if i'm missing something i either move on and find something else or i will rework it to accommodate what i DO have. that is not easy for everyone and i understand that. so, keeping the basics in your pantry is all you need to do in order to succeed. but what are the basics? well, i'm no expert, but i can tell you that whatever your heart gravitates toward with this stuff is what you need in there. it has to be based upon your own tastes, not what some book tells you. you may love indonesian cooking in theory, but keeping coconut milk and jasmine rice on a regular basis for personal cooking may not suit you. do what you FEEL. cooking is very tactile and sensual, as you know.

there was a time when i kept my pantry so well-stocked, it freaked even me out. i had stuff like herbes de provence, fleur de sel and kaffir lime leaves. really. nowadays, if i need that, i go look for it. it's not so hard to find something you want when you're committed.

a pantry is a funny thing. we often tend to have just the minimum and when we find a recipe we like, we have to go out and buy EVERYTIHNG, thereby making us feel pretty lacking. that's not to say to have things that you will use only once and, therefore, will lose their flavor within six months -- for example, if you find a great recipe for paella that calls for saffron and you really won't be using it that much, then don't spend the kazillion dollars it will cost for one micromilligram. but if you know you'll be using it frequently, then buy it. don't scrimp and cheat yourself, budget it into your grocery bill and be prepared for anything, including whims of your own in the kitchen. splurge on yourself once in awhile if you're interested in cooking. buy a specialty herb -- real curry powder instead of basic, real maple syrup instead of corn syrup masquerading as maple.

as i mentioned before, i am adamant about having fresh mozzarella and the best parmgiano reggiano in my home. we cook too much with it not to have it at our disposal. i use my saffron, so it is economical for me to buy it and have it on hand. i cook with a great deal of exotic spices and herbs, so buying them makes sense, because i use them. and that's what a pantry is for. to be stocked with the staples you use and will use. not to hold stuff that you won't use for 20 years, unless there is some sort of significance with all of this, because food does create a sense memory within us all. the smell of campbell's chicken noodle soup on the stove reminds me of lunches as a kid in these cool mug and plate sets with chix noodle soup and a pb&j or tuna sandwich on white bread. omg. i remember those things all the time, so significance of pantry items comes into play also. and i'll give you an example of this:

when i was a kid, we had one of those pantries you could basically walk in. in this pantry were a myriad of things we used and some i had never heard of nor tasted. there were the typical cans of tuna, soups, boxes of dried goods and baskets of onions and potatoes (we didn't use fresh garlic back then -- when i discovered it, i couldn't believe i had been fed dried all these years -- i was 8 when i discovered fresh garlic whereas my sons have never known differently). we also had cans of sardines, salmon and underwood deviled whatever my father's taste was at that moment -- ham, beef or anything. and something i had never tasted in my life -- spam. we had this can of spam in our pantry since, i think, the day we moved into our house in 1970. maybe it had even moved there with us. i remember going into that pantry and seeing that spam and wondering what the hell it was every single time, but i never opened it to taste it and no one ever moved it. it stayed in its same place on the shelf of our pantry until we moved out in 1979.

my father had put that there. no, he didn't like spam. he had once lived on it when he was younger and he never forgot it. that can was NEVER OPENED. let me repeat this, that can of spam was NEVER OPENED. i have yet to taste it. i mean, i have lived on top ramen and tap water in my day. crackers and air. nothing but water and canned pasta dishes and i've lived on leftover campbell's chicken noodle soup. but i have yet to eat spam and i think it's because my father kept that can of spam on our shelf for 10 years as a reminder of what he hoped would never happen to any of us again -- a need to eat only that. he never mentioned whether he liked it or didn't, so don't go off thinking we eschewed spam because of the taste. i have no idea what it tastes like and since i adore hawaiian culture and respect it as well as loving monty python and their little viking friends, i can not comment on the quality of spam on any level. i can only say that can sitting on our pantry shelf for all those years was enough to make me seek anything else in my food keepsake world other than that.

a pantry is your friend. it is your savior. your guide. that's why reading through a recipe before you attempt to make it is a good thing. then you can decide if you're going to fill your pantry with what you need or just wing it.

me? i keep my pantry as stocked as i can given the times
or i just wing it.
because i'm a big believer in making the simplest of things as hard as possible.
you think i'm lying, but i'm not.
i told you i'm a flibbertigibbet.
such is life.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Turkey Basing

i often think of recipes as bases for creativity. it makes my life easier if i don't try to extend my minuscule pantry beyond its capabilities on any given day. i have a pretty extensive one considering, mainly because it's important to me to be as well stocked as possible so i never have to leave in the middle of a recipe to go get, oh, i don't know, cumin or saffron or cardamom pods (all of which i have). and, anyway, i read through my recipes before i go whole hog with anything so i can be sure i've got the goods to make something work.

that was before i began this journey through my cookbooks that has made it not always easy to be totally prepared. i already have a TON going on in my life to which i have added this and countless other journeys into the unknown, just so i always know i'm alive on the planet. don't get me wrong. i'm enjoying this. i love this walk through my cookbooks and actually using them. they are my friends and wonderful teachers. but because of the schedules of my sons, their sports and my own schedule, when we're not on the weekend -- and i'm often not savvy enough to have the foresight to prepare the night before which, to be quite frank, would kind of take the fun out of the spontaneity of it all, so i tend not to -- i look for recipes in the books that will let me get in, out and on the table unscathed and in little time.

tonight was no exception and this is why i revere many of my cookbooks. inside all of them are happy, peppy, quick fix meals even if it's one of my serious classics. always. or at least a side dish i can whip together for a really yum roast chicken -- i did think of that for tomorrow night, just so's ya know, cuz me and my bambinos have NO RESPONSIBILITIES TOMORROW NIGHT so i've got time to make fabulous side somethings if i want... and maybe a cake... hmm... -- and to say i was jazzed when i saw this dish would be an understatement.

it was this really great set of ingredients to which i could add, subtract and/or manipulate to be exactly what we needed based upon what we had on hand. i grabbed my A TASTE OF TURKISH CUISINE cookbook written by Nur Ilkin and Sheilah Kaufman, a cookbook i've grown to love and cherish in the short time i've had it. just for the record, all of the cookbooks i have in my repertoire are ones i have chosen after a great deal of thought and consideration. well, except for the dated ones. you know the ones i mean. the "so obvious this is from the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties" ones i have mentioned before. those are ones my mother sloughed off on me, because she discovered, after my brother, sister and i moved out of the house, she hated cooking. deeply. and with a passion. but every cookbook, even the ones i have gotten as gifts, have been kept and held onto with a great deal of loving thought. if i didn't think i'd ever use it or gain any insight from it, i sold it. honest. and since i have over 220 of these suckers, you must realize that i never think i'll know enough about cooking to ever truly be considered accomplished. kinda cool, in a way. because there's something about this art that is ever changing, like all arts, that makes my inability to become an expert pretty terrific and a continuous journey.

but, forgive me, i have digressed once more and i shall get back to the point. tonight's dinner was SHEPHERD'S SAUTE or Coban Kafurmasi. it is quick, it is easy, it is... you'll see.

3 tbs butter
3 tbs veggie oil
1 pound lamb (leg), cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 onion, cut into chunks
4 cloves garlic, cut in half
3 long green hot chili peppers, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch pcs
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 tsp fresh thyme

what to do:
1. heat 1 tbs of butter with all of the oil over high heat in a large skillet. add the meat and cook, shaking the pan instead of stirring, until the color of the meat changes. add the onion and garlic and continue cooking and shaking the pan for another 2 minutes. add salt to taste.
2. add the remaining 2 tbs of butter. let it melt, add the green peppers and continue cooking by shaking the pan. cook for 1 minute and add the tomatoes and thyme. coontinue cooking and shaking the pan for another minute. remove from heat and serve with a warm country bread.

here's what we did:
we did not have chili peppers, tomatoes or fresh thyme -- although i have dried thyme, FRESHLY BOUGHT dried thyme (remember, no more than six months, folks). HOWEVER, i did have a lovely roasted red pepper -- home roasted -- fresh tomato sauce, chunky, and red pepper flakes. i did all that it asked and added this -- red pepper, tomato sauce, one russet potato, washed, and skin on and cut into 1/2 inch chunks, a half of a zucchini, washed and cut into 1/2 inch chunks, dried thyme and red pepper flakes. the shaking caused everything to brown rather than the juices to STEAM everything. a nice caramelization of the onion and crispiness of the potato took place in the lamb juices, which were abundant. in this short period of time, the potatoes were done, the lamb, the zucchini, all of it was tender, cooked through and filled with flavor.

our report card is EXCELLENT. this was NUMMER! oh, man. so simple yet full of flavor like you can not believe. brandon was, once again, my victim for the night, because nicholas had football practice (last night, he was out with his big bro, adam) and brandon's basketball didn't start until 8:00. i put this together and spooned some on a plate for brandon to which he added, for my enjoyment, the spicy relish he had created back when and which enhanced the dish tremendously -- this kid has got the gene for passionate cooking DOWN. both my sons do. nicholas has a more methodical flare to him, but he also takes chances in foods his brother never would, like vegetables and pairings that seem not to make sense until he does them and you try them. nicholas is monet, consumed with the lovely lilies, delicately creating an ambience befitting his masterpiece as well as the masterpiece itself. brandon is picasso, emoting the paint onto the canvas, roaring his gifts to the world and secure in the fact that he is right and his passion is exactly what the world needs. this is how they cook and live, both of them. extraordinary.

and so it went. we went kind of far afield tonight, or at least added a flair that turned this into a bit of a different dish. so i wonder if we can consider we have actually cooked out of here? hmm...

well, recipes are created to be played with, right? and, if not, then i think we can survive another night of turkish cooking.

most definitely.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Timely, Yummy and Easy

i didn't want to get too deep tonight with food. i was running a little behind, wanted something easy and fast and something that would satisfy my one dinner companion tonight -- brandon. he can be kinda picky, not that it stops me, mind you. yeah, i know -- great mothering skills -- but, ya know, i always figure i can finesse something to get him to be happy. and tonight ended up being one of those challenges for me, because the book i chose was THE BEST AMERICAN RECIPES 1999 put together by Fran McCullough and Suzanne Hamlin. now, i know that doesn't sound like it should cause any issues with the all american burger eater, but i needed something fast, remember, and all the recipes i was flipping past weren't fast -- at least not the entrees -- ... until i came to MANLY MEATBALLS. these were under appetizers, but said they could be used as a main course, and i stared at them for a good five minutes before i decided to go for it because...

brandon does not

he likes them on pizzas, in meatball sandwiches with lots of sauce and cheese, but he does not like them i soup, on spaghetti or by themselves AS APPETIZERS. so, yes, i stared at this recipe long and hard, gauging my success rate and then thought "fuck it" and went with it. it was fast.
it was easy.
i could make this work.
oh, please.

2 long, slim loaves crusty bread (baguettes), about 2 1/2 inches in diameter
1 pound ground chuck (not leaner beef)
1/4 cup dark soy sauce, tamari or low-sodium soy sauce
1 tsp firmly packed dark brown sugar
5-6 scallions, white and light green parts only

what to do:
1. preheat the oven to 450ºF and set rack on the middle level or the racks on the top and bottom levels if you plan to use two baking sheets.
2. slice off and discard the heels of the baguettes and cut them into 36 slices about 1/2 inch thick. lay slices side by side on a baking sheet, or two if necessary.
3. mix together the meat, soy sauce, or tamari, brown sugar and scallions in a large bowl with your hands. knead thoroughly until you have a fine paste. make 36 small meatballs about the size of walnuts. put one in the middle of each bread slice, pressing down slightly. bake for 7 to 9 minutes, until the meatballs and bread have become one.

the report card: well, as these were cooking, brandon commented on how good "something" smelled. promising. as they were cooking, i came up with an idea and asked if he would like a boiled egg or poached egg with dinner. "no," he said, "i'd like an egg white scramble, though." yeah, well, i got caught up, scrambled whole eggs, put them on a plate, surrounded them with four slices of the bread with meatball, handed off a banana and gave the plate to him, waiting for the obvious -- "are these meatballs?" with curled lip disgust. yes, that happened. then he took a bite -- after i gave him the "just try them" urging in desperation (although i didn't show it, oh, no) -- and he took a bite of the morsel and walked off to sit down. "how's it taste?" i asked, fingers crossed.

"good," he said quickly, then ate all four without thought.

meatballs. brandon ate meatballs tonight and liked them.
he ate greens last night and liked them as well.
we may make it through puberty after all.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Dreamy Greece

i've never been to Greece, except in my dreams. i remember being deeply enamored with my father's Greek classics -- Antigone, Oedipus, Medea -- the myths of Greece completely entranced me and then there was THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT. i remember seeing that movie in the movie theatre -- long before i became a ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW groupie -- and thinking Susan Sarandon was pretty okay (now i think she's brilliant, but i don't think anyone would dispute that this is not her best film or anyone's, for that matter). but more than that was Greece. this extraordinarily beautiful country with such passion and life. it leapt off the screen and i knew i someday wanted to be a part of it. had to be.

then, of course, there was SUMMER LOVERS. totally sealed it for me. i remember a few months before i began dating my ex-husband that i was preparing to take a vacation in Greece. i had found a villa i wanted to rent along with a couple of girlfriends, our own staff, a private beach and we were ready to go when i fell in love. all bets were off. and i never made it to Greece.

but i haven't given up.

however, until i do, i indulge in Greek cuisine every chance i get. i love the flavors of the Mediterranean, the sense of true culinary leisure and sensual delight in the art of dining that comes through in everything created along those waters. there is a lustiness to it all, very Irene Papas and Telly Savalas. and the mezes that are part of the Greek celebration of food always give me more satisfaction than even tapas.

so this evening, we opened up our trusty dusty cookbook THE FOODS OF THE GREEK ISLANDS by the amazing Aglaia Kremezi and made not one but two of our favorite dishes to go along with a simple steak kinda deal -- a bit of salt, freshly ground pepper, dry crumbled oregano, some thyme and garlic with good olive oil, seared and let to rest for 15 minutes. yummy.

to that we added these two LAHANIDES ME PASPALA or Collard Greens with Pancetta, and PATATES RIGANATES or Roasted Potatoes with Garlic, Lemon and Oregano. check it out:

collard greens
2 pounds collard greens or kale
1/4 cup olive oil
6 ounces pancetta, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp aleppo pepper or pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
2-3 tbs Greek sweet vinegar or balsamic vinegar

what to do:
1. in a large pot of boiling salted water, blanch the greens for 5 to 8 minutes or until just tender. drain, rine under cold running water to stop the cooking and drain well. coarsely chop the greens.
2. in a large skillet, heat the oil and saute the pancetta over medium heat until crisp. add the garlic and pepper or pepper flakes and saute for 30 seconds. add the greens and saute, stirring, for 3 minutes, or until coated with oil and hot. add the vinegar, toss and taste to adjust the seasonings. serve warm.

here's what we did:

instead of blanching the greens, i washed them and chopped them raw. i used swiss red chard and instead of pancetta, i used turkey bacon and less olive oil -- because we were low.

i'll tell you the report card after i give you the lowdown on the potatoes

roasted potatoes
3 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-1/2 inch cubes
1/2 cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1-1/2 tsps dried oregano, crumbled
1 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup beef stock or chicken stock
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2-3 tbs chopped fresh oregano

what to do:
1. preheat oven to 400ºF.
2. pleace the potatoes in a single laye in a 13x9-inch baking dish and pour the oil over them. add the garlic, dried oregano, salt and pepper to taste and toss well to coat with the oil.
3. bake the potatoes for 15 minutes. add the stock, toss and bake for 10 minutes more. add the lemon juice, toss and bake for 10 to 15 minutes more, or until the potatoes are cooked through. you can also preheat the broiler and broil the potatoes for 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown.
4. sprinkle with fresh oregano and serve at once.

here's what we did:
i used yukon gold potatoes, which imparted a really creamy texture to the potatoes, used beef stock and left off the fresh oregano, because i didn't get a chance to go to the store.

the report card... ah, before i tell you that, let me share with you this:

brandon saw what we were having for dinner and told me he had an idea on how to plate it. i told him to go for it. so, he mounded some potatoes in the center of the plate, topped them with a dollop of the barbecue sauce we have leftover from our bobby flay night, topped that with slices of steak, mounded some greens to the side then served it all together. he said we had to eat it outside in -- a morsel of steak with a couple of pieces of potatoes topped with the sauce then followed by the greens. how he came up with this, i have no idea, but it was sublime. just amazing. he even ate all of his greens, which is one of his LEAST favorite veggies, although i keep trying new ways of getting him interested. he ate them all and even wanted more. whoa.

nicholas, who adores greens, ate two helpings of the greens then asked for them to take to school for lunch the next day. he liked the whole meal, but was a little full after it all -- he had a heavy duty football practice and was wiped out -- then ended up taking the whole thing -- potatoes and all -- with him to school this morning for lunch.

i marvel at my sons and their enjoyment of this part of my personal quest. so far, we've had successes with our meals and i hope we continue. but, more than anything, what i'm most excited about is nicholas and brandon's involvement. brandon's plating was yummy, beautiful and distinctly him.

even nicholas congratulated him on it.

i think we'll all go to Greece together.
they would like that.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Fragrant Evening Delight

you've heard about brandon's love of curry. it's true. he is a fan of the spice and when he hears i'm going to put it in anything, his eyes light up and food he would have never tried, he is willing to eat.

tonight, in honor of this love and because my young son has been struggling with his fair share of stuff in his pre-pubescent life, i decided to MAKE curry. i grabbed our THE NEW BASICS COOKBOOK by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, the SILVER PALATE ladies, and discovered LAMB CURRY WITH CONDIMENTS. now, as a little history with this cookbook, i shall regale you with the tale of howf this cookbook made my first platinum, full on sit down, all the way live, show off what i'd learned in cooking class dinner party such a success. here goes:

i took a serious cooking class from a school located on a corner that faces both MORTON'S in l.a. and what was once TRUMP'S -- this lovely teahouse my mother frequented with "the ladies who lunch" crowd who were (and still are) her friends -- but, at the time, was a pan pacific restaurant whose name escapes me (very yum -- i ALWAYS got their THAI FRIED WHOLE FISH when i went, because, as i have said, i was once almost a full on vegetarian save the fish and chix and because it was freakin' AWESOME). my teacher was fantastic and i learned a TON from the class. mostly how much i truly loved cooking in a serious way. it consumed me and i have kept all of the recipes i learned in class and all of the notes. i remember i had this really great cooking partner to whom i just gravitated. we always picked the same dishes to work on together and it just seemed natural that we would always look across the class to each other when our teacher would announce the various dishes we would prepare and ask us to sign up for them. i don't remember his name. that really bugs me, because i'm actually really good with names and faces. but i don't remember ANYONE'S name from that class, not even my teacher's. i'm sure it's because it happened during a rather icky time of my marriage and i put a lot of things out of my mind from then. even stuff that was life saving, although i've held on to the teachings or have begun to, i don't fully remember the specifics of the events from which i learned during that time. yep. amnesia can be your friend.

anyway, this guy was from korea and his goal was to return one day and open a REALLY GOOD hamburger stand. along the lines of a Johnny Rockets, In 'n Out or Sonic. i loved that. and he took photos of everything we made and gave me copies. what a good guy, right? yeah. we did a lot of great food, my teacher was exceptionally supportive of me and believed in my ability. and i wanted to show that off to my friends. i'd like to say i was purely altruistic and wanted to SHARE it with them, but let's be honest. i wanted to show off like a prize peacock. shoot me.

i created a multi-course meal to end all meals. i set a long table, like in the film BIG NIGHT, for 16 people and fed them soup, salad, sorbet for palate cleansing, a fish course, a meat course, a cheese course, an antipasti, wines with every course and desserts. i made EACH AND EVERY BIT OF THIS MEAL. honestly. and when the meal was over, everyone was happy. even me. amazing, isnt it?

so where does THE NEW BASICS COOKBOOK come into play with all of this? i made three of these courses from it and have considered this cookbook one of my best friends. i use it frequently, rework things from it, add, change, use as my base for many of my best dishes, but i always know where it comes from . that's something about cookbooks that i love. that you can GROW the recipes, once you get your confidence with the cooking. you can take what you read and tweak them. and that's what they're there for as much as they are there to show you how great the cookbook writer is with the dishes they have put in there.

back to our meal tonight. LAMB CURRY WITH CONDIMENTS. and here we go.

2 tbs olive oil
3 pounds lamb shoulder, cut into 2-inch chunks
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbs minced fresh ginger
2 tsps best-quality curry powder
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cumin
/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
2 cups homemade beef stock or canned broth
1 cup New Basic Tomato Sauce
1/4 cup orange marmalade
1/4 cup mango chutney
1/4 cup cream of coconut
2 tbs fresh lemon juice
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup golden raisins
toasted unsweetened coconut, for garnish
3 to 4 cups cooked white rice

what to do:

1. heat 1 tbs of olive oil in flameproof casserole or dutch oven. brown the lamb, in batches, over medium-high heat and set aside.
2. add the remaining oil and saute the onion, garlic, and ginger over medium heat, 5 minutes. then stir in all the spices.
3. stir in the stock, tomato sauce, marmalade, chutney, cream of coconut, lemon juice, and salt. return the lamb to the casserole.
4. sprinkle the mixture with the raisins and bring to a boil. lower the heat, cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.
5. sprinkle the curry with toasted coconut, and serve over rice.

4 to 6 servings

here's what we did:

we used canned beef broth and pre-made tomato sauce -- no time. we also didn't have any mango chutney in the house -- which was pretty funny, since i had just been at the market before looking at the recipe and thinking "ya know, i could sure go for some mango chutney" then didn't buy it (follow your instinct, that's what i say). we also used dried currants instead of raisins (we're not a big raisin family, as i believe i've said before) and i didn't top it with coconut (it's packed away in a box somewhere still). but, i upped the amount of marmalade and lemon by a tad and simmered away, serving it atop the leftover rice from the night before with fresh apples and pears with it as a cooling, refreshing accompaniment.

the report card was yum. brandon was very calmly delighted to have curry as the main, focused meal. nicholas liked it, except the currants, which he doesn't like in anything but baked goods (i make couscous with them in it, but always leave them out in his portion).

nicholas wants to take it with him to school for lunch tomorrow as long as i pull out the currants. i'm cool with that.

it was a nice night. leisurely, loving, low key. it's rare we have no drama in our evenings and this was well worth the simmer, sit down and just be time that came out of it.

now you can see why, even more than a multi-course show-off meal, i am so deeply devoted to my NEW BASICS cookbook.