Saturday, January 10, 2009

And So It Begins...

we are in the new year and i'm feeling a sense of wonder and a little under the weather -- a weird cold has taken ahold of me, which is rather inconvenient, thank you very much, but whatever. but, beyond the cold, i feel like i want to purge everything from my house except for the essentials -- which, of course, would include my cookbooks, as you know -- and take my sons, our dog, our two bunnies and a couple of suitcases total, move to a communal farm somewhere, offer to be a slave in their kitchen and in the fields, home school my children and learn how to sew fabulous frocks for the masses. i sucked in home ec for the simple reason that sewing just wasn't my bag, which is kinda funny considering i enjoy knitting and cooking. i like doing crafty type of things, but as much as i have patience in the kitchen, i do not, for some reason, have patience with building stuff. i want it DONE, DAMMIT! however, i am learning patience, because it is my belief that if i want a cool chair in my basement or a great daybed, i'm going to have to make it myself right now. or, barring that, comb the curbs of america, find a nice enough or visionary discarded piece of furniture and remake it. hey, i have a large enough car, i could fit just about anything in there.

the point is my need to be one with the land, with simpler things, self sufficient beyond financial and into practical. my delightfully fabulous friend, stacey, is going to give me one of her sewing machines and show me how to use it. i worship stacey. oh, not just because of that. because she and her husband, gill, are two of the most genuine, warm and accessible people i've ever met. when i say accessible, i mean that they are available in an open way. i can talk to them about anything, we can disagree, then laugh about it and know we're adults and that's what adults do -- be individual, who they are and respect who the other person is without having to change them. isn't that great? gill and stacey are so respectful of personal choice that they appreciate it, even if they don't agree with it. or at least that's my sense of them. i mean, stacey's outspoken, but in such a well positioned way as to make me understand what being positively outspoken means. and her laugh is so infectious, i want to bottle it. and gill has a gentle quietness that hides a deep and brilliant mind and a huge heart. yeah, i'm gushing. it's a new year and i feel like gushing is necessary, because, too often, people don't know how much you like or appreciate them and this particular blog is in honor of my friends i truly appreciate here in the midwest. i could list them all, but i'm sure i'd forget someone, and i don't want to do that, so, instead, i would like to posit a dinner i would like to prepare for them, even if only in my mind, to thank them for being the kind of people who have made my time here not so lonely.

first of all, i would start with something amazing, tantalizing and meant to tempt tastebuds without filling stomachs. a lovely morsel -- perhaps a perfectly grilled fig with a dusting of pistachios and a good chevre melted over it. maybe some bruschetta topped with chopped grilled shrimp, tomatoes and feta. ah... the possibilities are endless. let me show you my thoughts:

first course:
Antipasti -- Grilled Polenta with Soft Cheeses and Grilled Marinated Vegetables

second course:
Stracciatella Soup

third course:
Spinach Salad with Roasted Pine Nuts, Garlic Crouton and a Drizzling of Good Olive Oil and Balsamic

palate cleanser:
Merlot Sorbet with mint

pasta course:
Orecchiete in a Sage Butter Sauce

main course:
Whole Herb and Salt EnCrusted Salmon w/a Citrus Beur Blanc Sauce
w/garlic and herb steamed baby new potatoes
roasted broccoli w/lemon zest and parmesan

seventh course:
biscotti with pears and oranges

dessert course:
Ricotta Cake with pinenuts and candied orange peel

all of these courses would have wine pairings, lots of conversation, and love. and i would prepare all of this in my magically transformed to football stadium size kitchen to be served in my exquisitely spacious dining room with the finest china, flatwear, and crystal. and we would laugh, have fun, eat and enjoy each other's company.

that's what i would love to do for my friends. and, in time, i hope i can. it would be fun to make something like this for my pals. i love doing it, the art of doing it, the feeling of putting my heart into the food to show people how much i care. even the mundane day to day cooking i do with and for my sons is full of feeling, which is why i love cooking so much. it's never really a chore for me, just because i feel so good about WHY i'm doing it, even when i'm cranky. and don't misunderstand me. i cook EVERY SINGLE DAY for practical reasons. i'm not making sauce reductions, frenching lamb chops or souffleeing eggs daily. nope, i'm making sandwiches for lunches (or heating leftovers), steaming vats of rice to have on hand, roasting chickens (and boiling them for stock), making quicky salads or cutting up fruit to go with dinners, and on and on. so, it's not glamorous, food network kind of work in the kitchen over here, although, sometimes (well, often), i do things like that to keep everything fresh for myself. but, even that, brings a smile to me. the little things -- turning a grilled cheese sandwich into something more so that my sons know what grilled cheese sandwiches can be beyond just a slice or two of processed or whatever cheese on some buttered bread, fried up in a pan and placed on a plate beside some canned tomato soup -- which is, in my opinion, one of the greatest comfort duos in the history of comfort duos (the other, for me, is won ton soup and a plate of dim sum, but that's me). they serve it at my sons' schools for lunch. the bigger reason that i "kick it up a notch" with simple things like grilled cheese and tuna melts, is because of how i love my sons and cooking in general. i want it to be special for them. i want them to know how much they mean to me through the cooking. this sense of taking something simple and making it more began for me when i had my first grilled cheese sandwich at a now extinct restaurant in los angeles called Cafe Figaro at the beverly hills end of melrose. if you know l.a. at all, it was where melrose runs into doheny drive and was where i spent many a night in high school. to say their food was amazing would probably be an overstatement, i suppose, but my memory of it is that it was, well, amazing.

they were a homey french bistro-y, european-y, healthy-y type of deal with lacquered wood tables and wood floors, dark in the evening, bright in the day -- funky cool and completely great. it was a rehash of the famed Cafe Figaro in Greenwich Village, on Bleeker and MacDougal Streets (just read how they closed that one in 2008, which is so sad). i loved them because they had my favorite pasta -- Linguine and White Clam Sauce -- which was my almost standard dinner when we'd go there (my friend, caryl, still likes to tease me about it, which brings a smile to my face all the time, just at the memory of that creamy, clam-filled sauce and perfectly cooked pasta -- one night, i ordered it and they came back and told me they only had the red sauce that night and i sulked all night long, eating nothing and drinking lots of wine -- which was another reason we liked going there, they never seemed to card us... wonderful). all of their ingredients were super fresh. they also had the best spinach on the planet -- sauteed with onions, topped with some good swiss cheese then served in a little crock kinda thing. oh, man. they had stuffed zucchini that was to die for -- first time i ever had it was there -- amazing whole wheat bread, great steak fries, and the best grilled cheese and tuna melts ever. it was my induction into a whole new world of possibility and from that moment on, i felt like i could never make a grilled cheese sandwich the same way ever again. no more just one cheese for me. it had to be more and with more going on.

now, just to be clear, i also went through a whole period of going to Nibblers, another high school l.a. hangout, and notoriously ordering their tuna melt, a slice of grilled ham, french fries with mayo, a coffee and putting the ham on the tuna melt and dipping my fries in the mayo -- which i still do. love it. and i can down a whole plate of Hamburger Hamlet fried chicken wings like i'm a man who has been starving in the desert for a year (my friend, brooks, calls my obsession with chicken wings my guilty food pleasure, just as i call his devotion to Sizzlers insanity -- so, essentially, we're even). i also believe in the power of the Fatburger Double King Chili Cheese Burger with Bacon and Egg (although i couldn't finish one or even make a dent to save my life, but i believe in its power and won a free movie ticket out of eating the Double King Chili Cheese Burger sans egg and bacon on a bet from the owner's son-in-law when i was 13 and, subsequently, got sick, much to my brother's delight), the deliciousness of a Jacopo's Sausage, Peperoni and Mushroom Pizza with Extra Cheese, a Carnegie Deli Pastrami and Swiss on Rye with Brown Mustard, a Nate 'n Al's Turkey, Pastrami, Swiss, Cole Slaw and Russian Dressing on Marble Rye (or Pumpernickel), Lox and Bagels with Capers and Tomatoes, also from Nate 'n Al's, and a DB Levi's chocolate chip cheesecake with a scoop of haagen das ice cream on it. Ah, childhood memories of food i haven't eaten since, well, so many years, i can't remember -- DB Levi's doesn't even exist anymore, but when it did, oh, man, it was awesome.

but, i've totally digressed and i'm sorry. i went down a path of food memory lane and i didn't mean to. it's the new year, ya know? the thought of dumping all of the old -- and i've got years of old to dump over here -- so i can make room for the new in a way i've never done before. it's a soul purge as much as a house cleaning. and it's bringing up things in me that are, at turns, exciting, sad, deliriously happy, and unbearably bitter. but that's good, in the long run. it makes me know i'm alive.

so, i'd like to leave you, today, with my memories and how i have turned them to working for us in our day to day over here. what i learned about grilled cheese sandwiches, i learned from Cafe Figaro (or Cafe Fig, if you were hanging there during that era). "hey, let's meet over at Cafe Fig in 20!" "tote!" (ex.: tot-ally)

2 large slices of your favorite bread -- we use home baked wheat, white, ciabatta, italian bread, crusts cut off, if you wish, but if you're using ciabatta, just keep them on. also make sure the bread you use is a fairly thick slice, not sandwich bread slice
good olive oil
fresh marinara sauce
2 slices fresh mozzarella
2 slices sharp cheddar cheese
2 slices swiss cheese
2 slices colby jack cheese
2 slices provolone cheese
1 slice parmegiano reggiano, cut in half
(note: try not to go too thick on your slices of cheese)
4 large leaves fresh basil, chiffonade
salt and pepper to taste
sauteed onions and mushrooms (optional)
roasted tomatoes (optional)
roasted sweet peppers (optional)

what to do:
1. if you've got a pannini press, brush it with olive oil and heat that up, or if you've got a waffle maker, turn the waffled side over to get to the flat grill side, brush with olive oil and heat that. if you've got neither, then just put a large skillet on the stove and brush with a generous amount of olive oil. follow assembly and cooking instructions for on the stove in step 4.
2. brush olive oil on the bread, all over, bottom and top. then brush the bread with marinara sauce and assemble the sandwich -- on one side of the sandwich, place:
sprinkle half of the basil onto the bread
half of the mushrooms, onions, tomatoes and peppers, if using
1 slice of mozzarella
1 slice of cheddar
1 slice of swiss
1 slice of jack
1 slice of provologne
half slice of parmeggiano
1 slice of cheddar
1 slice of swiss
1 slice of jack
1 slice of provologne
half slice of parmegiano
1 slice of mozzarella
top with the rest of the basil, mushrooms, onions roasted peppers, and tomatoes (if using). place the other piece of bread on top and press down.
3. if using a press or flat side of the waffle iron, place the sandwich onto the grill and press down until it is browned and melty. to be honest, i don't remember how long this takes, i just do it, and how it works is like this -- you put the sandwich into the press, press it down then walk away and let the heat do it's work, then check it, press some more, and so on until it's melted. don't try to put more than one or two sandwiches on these and only if they fit comfortably without crowding each other. if there's too much going on in there, it will not grill properly.
4. if you're using a skillet on the stove, don't assemble the sandwich just yet. take the two pieces of bread and brush them with olive oil all over. then, heat the skillet on medium high until a drop of water sizzles across it. toast each side of the bread in the skillet lightly, until just hot and a little golden. remove from the heat and quickly assemble the sandwich, splitting the assembly between both pieces of bread. DO NOT PLACE EITHER SIDE ON TOP OF THE OTHER. instead, place each assembled piece of sandwich bread into the pan and allow the melting to begin separately, then, when you notice each side has begun to melt, put the pieces of bread together and allow to finish cooking on each side, turning over until browned and melty.
5. this heart attack waiting to happen can be held in a warm oven until ready to eat -- and to get more melty, if you like. serve with really good sliced apples, thick sliced roasted potato slices and a nice Chardonnay (or, if for your kids and if you don't live in europe, apple cider). because of the size of the sandwich, you can cut this into quarters and share it out as an appetizer. you can also serve this with, yes, tomato soup... topped with a parmesan crouton, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of chiffonade fresh basil.

we also do this for tuna melts, but without the basil or marinara sauce, omitting the parmesan and using only one slice of everything.

i know i rambled a ton today and i'm sorry. maybe it's age setting it. or maybe i just had a lot to say... HA! didn't think of that, did you? either way, i'm sorry if i bored you all, but the memories of old and the knowledge of new just kind of merged today. maybe i can make my friends killer grilled cheese sandwiches, soup and have a raucous party of delight that way. as long as it comes from the heart, right?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

My New Year's Resolution -- More RAPINI!!!!

happy new year's eve, everyone. i hope all is well, libations are wonderfully delightful and you've dodged the crazies who were drinking and driving out on the streets last night. it's funny, i do believe the only thing i don't miss about los angeles is the warning to not shoot guns into the air and still hearing them being shot no matter where i was -- well, not at the beach. when i'd be at my bro's place, i wouldn't hear them, but i would where i lived and, yo, not happy. uh-uh.

as a general rule, i don't drive on new year's eve after a certain time. not interested in meeting the wrong drunk driver at the wrong time, especially not with my kiddles in the car. however, i have made a couple of resolutions i feel i need to share with you. ready? here goes:

i will gourmet cook every chance i get
i will not be in a financially icky place
i will follow my dreams
i will hug my children as often as they let me
i will get ready to do a marathon

yes, rapini. it is a magicaly delicious veggie to me, for sure. i remember my first real introduction to it. not a long story, i promise, so i'll make it quick... ish... you know me.

my first job in entertainment was for my dad. he would pay me $3.50 an hour to read the scripts that would make their way to his hands and give him my thoughts. i was 12. nice guy, considering the minimum wage at the time was so not that and i was just a kid. i think he knew, even before i did, that my future lay in the written word in closer acquaintance than acting or singing. and, so, i did that. from there, i went to work for various factions as soon as i was old enough -- a movie theatre at age 15ish/16 (i lied about my age to get the gig, cuz, back then, you couldn't work unless you were 16), auditioning for commercials (i hated it, so i quit my agent who thought i was absolutely crazy), working for a record company, going on the road and selling t-shirts for the "official licensor" of such bands as Cameo, Culture Club, and Lakeside (if you recall the last one, you're amazing), worked in reality television before it was cool and, i'm getting to the rapini now, working for a little company called Eddie Murphy Television. i was assistant to the president of TV and, yes, it's that Eddie Murphy , as in Shrek's best bud -- i did move up to features and a big deal sounding (emphasis on "sounding") development position, but that's totally boring and has nothing to do with rapini, so forget it (although it has quite a lot to do with soft shelled crabs, but we'll get to that someday). anyway, my boss was cool, the vps were awesomely wild guys who had gone to high school with eddie and their fave thing to order from a fab italian place near us called Marino (which is still there in l.a. on melrose, people, so check it out if you get a chance) was their rapini. i learned quickly that it was quite the popular veggie item, because it would often be sold out.

for my birthday and to thank me for being such a great assistant -- which i moved out of and into features a few months later -- was a lunch there. so i ordered the rapini with my meal. luckily, they had it. i tasted it and i have been hooked ever since. i am a total greens kinda girl. i love greens sauteed with garlic, olive oil, balsamic and a sprinkling of parmesan, no matter what they are. i adore them and rapini is a mix of broccoli and bitter greens that makes me swoon. oh, man. i could live in those suckers and nothing else ever as long as i live. i mean it. if i could just eat greens everyday for the rest of my life -- with rice and a poached egg, i suppose -- i would die happy. definitely.

and, so, i decided it's time to be more about rapini. the one place i can find it here is Whole Foods and i don't get to go there as much as i like, for obvious reasons, but i did this past week in prep for my chocolate recipe testing. and i got two bunches of rapini and i devoured, by myself, the first one. oh, yes. i am happy. and, so, one of my new year's resolutions is to eat more of it, cuz it makes my tummy happy and me happy and that, my friends, is excellent. here's how i make it. you see what works for you. it is, as i say, a somewhat bitter green, much like radicchio (another all time fave of mine) and mustard greens (yep, love 'em when done right), but it's yummy and so worth it. oh, man.

check it out:

1 tbs good olive oil
3 pcs. bacon (turkey bacon totally acceptable), diced (optional)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch of rapini, well washed and cut in half, a bit of water still clinging to the veggies
salt & pepper to taste
pinch of red pepper flakes
1 tbs. good balsamic vinegar (or whatever kinda vinegar ya got on hand, quite frankly, except rice vinegar -- we'll get to that)
1 tbs. grated parmesan (or romano, or asiago, if you're on a budget -- you could also buy one of those tubs with all three in 'em and it'll be awesome)

what to do:
1. in 12" sautee pan heat the olive oil over medium heat. add the bacon, cooking until browned and just getting crispy, if using. add the garlic cloves until they are just fragrant -- do not let brown.
2. toss in the rapini, salt and pepper to taste and a pinch of the red pepper flakes (more if you're in a spicy mood). using tongs (not a fork or a spatula), toss the rapini in the hot oil, coating with the flavors and bacon. test a piece to see if it is tender, but still with plenty of bite and take off the stove.
3. quickly add the vinegar, sprinkle on the parmesan, toss again then serve hot.

love it. AB-SO-LUTE-LY LOVE THIS! if you use rice vinegar, i suggest you use 1 tbs. veggie oil, dump the bacon altogether, add some diced ginger -- about 1 tsp. -- keep the pepper flakes, add 1 tbs. roasted black sesame seeds (or regular ones, if you want, but i prefer the black with this), drizzle with just a bit of ponzu and sesame oil and serve with some great steamed rice and steamed ginger fish. omg, so good.

so this is one of my new year's resolutions. also to be more consistent with the blog and give you more cost saving yums for your life of food luxury -- as well as unexpectedly decadent ones. cuz, don't we all deserve some killer food even if we're cutting corners? and don't we also deserve ways of doing things from scratch that don't freak us out? i think so. so do my sons.
that's enough for me.
peace and love and happiness, everyone.
i mean that from the heart.
happy new year and, as springsteen says, happy the rest of your life :o)