27 December 2009

Not your ordinary grilled cheese sandwich

Cheese. It's delicious. And with so many lovely varieties available these days, it never ceases to inspire me. Take a tangy gorgonzola, or a creamy goat cheese, or a nutty comte, or a sharp aged cheddar, and a host of savory (and sweet!) culinary options are before you. This past week I've had a huge hunk of Fontina cheese in the house, thanks to a local purveyor of fine cheese (surprised at where I bought it? You should really take a look at the selection there!)

If you've never had Fontina before, let me tell you about it: it's a semi-soft cow's milk cheese and is pale cream in color. Originally made in the Italian alps--specifically in Valle d'Aosta--it is now made in other regions as well. Depending on who made the cheese, its flavor can range from pungent (those alpine Italians) to delicate (most everyone else). The kind I see sold here in Santa Barbara is on the milder end of the flavor spectrum, and it might remind you of a non-smoked Gouda that hasn't been aged for too long.

Inspiration struck today as I was madly rushing around the kitchen, trying to assemble some form of a lunch. I grabbed a couple slices of sourdough bread, slathered on some Dijon mustard, layered slices of the delicious Fontina cheese, sprinkled on some pickles and peppers, and added some warm pastrami. Topped that with the second sourdough slice and plopped the sandwich onto a hot pan. Covered said pan with a lid. Then I waited. And waited. Peeked at the bottom bread. Not quite the toasty golden brown I was wanting. Covered again and waited....ah yes, now that's what I'm talking about. Flipped it over and toasted the other side, then ...plate, slice... Oh wait, I have to show you guys how beauteous it turned out to be:

Mmm, gotta bite into this goey goodness...yummm....

See how nice and melty the Fontina gets? I just love how the sliced pepperoncinis and sweet-and-sour pickles and onions sink into the melted cheese, and then how the Fontina gets all clingy and hangs over the layers of that great pastrami. Cheese and I hit some rocks in our relationship a few years ago, but we've reconciled beautifully lately and I couldn't be happier.

I think you will go nuts for this hot sandwich, and with the chilly weather we're having lately you will love having something warm for your next lunch! And the pickle recipe I'm including below is absolutely fantastic...these tasty homemade pickles are so easy!

Pastrami Sandwich

2 slices sourdough bread
Dijon mustard
1-2 slices Fontina Cheese
1 large pepperoncini, well-drained and minced
3 sweet-and-sour pickles with onions, minced (see recipe below)
2-3 slices lean pastrami

Heat pastrami slices in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Meanwhile, spread a generous amount of Dijon mustard over each slice of sourdough. On one slice layer the Fontina, then the peppers, pickles, and onions. Fold the warm pastrami over, and top with the second slice of bread.

Place sandwich on hot pan and cover, toasting until the bread is nice and golden-brown. Flip sandwich and toast the second side, covered, until cheese is melted.

Sweet-and-Sour Pickles
Adapted from Artisan Restaurant in Paso Robles, CA

Makes about 6 cups

2 1/2 pounds pickling cucumbers, cut crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick slices
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons coarse kosher salt
2 cups white vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon celery seeds
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds

Toss first 3 ingredients in large colander. Place in sink and let drain 2 hours. Rinse vegetables; drain. Transfer to kitchen towels. Gentle squeeze vegetables to dry. Place in 8-cup glass measuring cup or large bowl.

Bring vinegar and all remaining ingredients to boil in small saucepan, stirring to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 10 minutes. Pour vinegar mixture over pickle mixture, pressing on vegetables to submerge. Cool to room temperature. Cover and chill overnight. Can be made 1 week ahead. Keep pickles chilled.

23 December 2009

Eating healthy during the holidays

The holidays are a fun time for eating, but I sometimes feel like the plethora of sweets and baked goods can become overwhelming. At this moment, there are packages of Christmas cookies, presents of fudge and toffee, and the leftovers of two pies and a turkey dinner lurking in my kitchen. During the holiday season, it is easy to eat too much starchy and sugary food and forget to feed ourselves the veggies and fiber that our bodies need--and crave. When I came across the inspiration for this salad recipe in Bon Appetit (my version here is a bit different from the one in the magazine) I thought it would be a perfect winter salad that could serve as a main course for a veggie-focused lunch or supper. If you are like me, you will relish this healthy salad right about now!

With tons of fresh arugula (packing in isothiocyanate, a natural cancer-fighting chemical), protein- and fiber-rich lentils, and flavorful roasted yam "croutons," this salad will fill you up when you're hungry and leave you feeling fresh, cleansed, and full of energy. After happily munching on this salad for two suppers in one week, I realized this was a recipe to share with you! So here it is, my recipe for arugula salad with lentils, goat cheese, and spice-roasted yam croutons. Hope you all are enjoying a happy and healthy holiday season!

Arugula Salad with Lentils, Goat Cheese, and Spice-Roasted Yam Croutons

Serves 6

3/4 cup green lentils
1/2 large onion, chopped
1 Tbs. red wine vinegar
1 lb. yam, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. sea salt
6 cups baby arugula
1 cup goat cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup thinly-sliced mint leaves
Favorite salad dressing (such as Bernstein's Restaurant Recipe Italian)

Cover lentils with cold water and soak 10 minutes, drain and rinse. Place in a medium saucepan along with the chopped onion and cook in boiling salted water until tender but firm, 30-60 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water, then drizzle with red wine vinegar.

Place cubed yam on a large baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Mix together cumin, paprika, and sea salt, then sprinkle the spice mix over the yam cubes and toss to coat evenly. Roast at 375°F for about 20 minutes, until tender. Let cool.

Toss baby arugula with salad dressing, salt, and freshly-ground black pepper to taste. Divide arugula among plates and sprinkle with lentils, yams, goat cheese, and mint leaves.

17 December 2009

Dessert for a crowd

When I'm not enjoying the coziness of home or out with friends, I am most likely to be found in the lab, studying the embryonic development of worm intestines. Before anyone of you thinks "worms, yuck!" let me tell you that I work on elegant worms. They're even called C. elegans! Anyway, these worms have been sucking up more than their fair share of my attention of late, and as a result I feel like it's been a while since I've been here sharing with you what's been going on in my kitchen. If it gets quiet around here, let's blame it on the worms, or on writing of papers about worms. I guess all this to say, I've missed you! So I'm slowing down, and getting back to some of the more important things in life.

I really wanted to share this fantastic new recipe with you for Cranberry Crumble Coffee Cake. Just saying the name is kind of fun, isn't it? Roll your rrr's and try saying it again. Crrranberry Crrrumble Coffee Cake. I needed dessert for a crowd one evening a couple weeks ago, and I thought a nice big cake would work well. Then I had a ton of fresh cranberries left over from Thanksgiving (anyone else with me on that?) and this cake evolved from there. It comes out as a nice soft and fluffy cake with a layer of sweet cinnamon-spiced cranberries and a crumbly, crunchy topping of cinnamon walnut streusel. This is great served as dessert or at a holiday brunch, and it would be super cute cupcake-style, baked up in muffin tins! So enough talking about this cake, here's the recipe, so you can get in the kitchen and enjoy it yourself!

Using seasonal cranberries and adding the festive flavors of cinnamon and nuts, Cranberry Crumble cake is perfect for this time of year.

Cranberry Crumble Coffee Cake

Crumble Topping:
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 Tbs. cinnamon
1/2 cup butter, softened

1 cup flour
1 cup walnut pieces

Cranberry Layer:
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 Tbs. cornstarch
2 Tbs. cinnamon
4 cups fresh cranberries

3/4 cup butter, softened
1 1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
3 cups flour
3 3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup milk

Combine all ingredients for the crumble topping and mix until well blended and crumbly; chill in refrigerator while mixing the rest of the cake.

Rinse and drain the cranberries, allowing some water to remain on the berries (this will help the sugar to stick). Place berries in a large bowl. Mix the brown sugar, cornstarch, and cinnamon in a small bowl, and then sprinkle over the cranberries, tossing to coat well.

For the cake, cream together butter and sugar; beat in the egg. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt; add dry ingredients to creamed mixture alternately with milk.

Spread dough in a lightly-oiled 9 x 13 - inch pan. Top with cranberries and then with the crumbly streusel. Bake at 350°F for 45-50 minutes. Let cool 30 minutes, then cut into squares and serve.

12 December 2009

Lebkuchen: a family Christmas tradition

Every Christmas, for as long as I can remember, my family has been supplied with freshly-baked Lebkuchen from the Sommermann Bäckerei in Lippertsgrün, Germany. I loved it when the big boxes, carefully tied with twine, arrived from Germany in early December. The first whiff from the newly-opened box--the fragrance of spices and smells from the homeland--was a treat in itself. My Opa and Oma tucked those boxes full of Christmas specialties from their bakery: traditional Bavarian Christmas cookies, chocolate, Lebkuchen, and sometimes even a Quarkstollen, all made by hand.
So what is Lebkuchen? Well, in its very basic form, it can be likened to gingerbread. Have you ever seen heart-shaped gingerbreads decorated with hard icing for sale in the outdoor markets of Germany? Well that is one kind of Lebkuchen. This same kind of gingerbread is used in making Hexenhäuse (witch houses), the original gingerbread houses based the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. (How did the gingerbread house become so innocuous here in America?)

But that is just the basic form. The only kind of Lebkuchen I'm willing to call Lebkuchen is made of chopped nuts, candied citrus peel, spices, and minimal amounts of flour and spread over a base of oblaten. Oblaten are akin to communion wafers. In fact, the monks who developed the earliest Oblaten Lebkuchen recipes used actual communion wafers to keep the cookies from sticking to the baking sheets!

Lebkuchen were first made in the Middle Ages by monks living in Franken, a northern Bavarian district in and around the city of Nürnberg (a.k.a. Nuremberg, in American). The meaning of Lebkuchen is uncertain. "Kuchen" means "cake," but the "Leb" part of the word could be translated a number of ways. Laib = body, Labla = dialect for bread, Leben = life... I guess the name could be considered a fusion of words that all have a spiritual connotation, which is in keeping with its origin in monastic bakeries.

In 1808, the Lebkuchen bakers' guild gave the name "Elisen Lebkuchen" to the highest quality variety of lebkuchen and established regulations regarding what may be called an Elisen Lebkuchen. An excerpt from the German Fine Pastries Guidelines (Deutsches Lebensmittelbuch III. 3.c.aa)
  • finest Oblaten-Lebkuchen = Elisen-Lebkuchen
  • The dough contains at least 25% almonds and/or hazelnuts and/or walnuts.
  • Other oilseeds are not used.
  • The dough contains not more than 10% grain flour
There is also strict protection of the appellation; to be called "Nürnberger Lebkuchen," the Lebkuchen must be manufactured within the city boundaries.

My grandfather was, and since his passing my uncle now is, Der Bäcker aus dem Frankenwald. (In English, "the baker of the Franconian Forest.") The Frankenwald, a forest now predominantly composed of fir trees, is the forest of fairy tales, and the things my relatives have been baking are the stuff of dreams. Years ago, an old lady from Nürnberg gifted a recipe for Elisen Lebkuchen to my grandfather while he was still an apprentice. Over the years, he and my uncle have refined the recipe, adding a little of this and adjusting a little of that to make the most exquisite Elisen Lebkuchen ever. The recipe is a family secret, which only the master baker knows. Believe me, I don't know it, so I can't share it with you! What I do know is the general ingredients list, as stated on the packaging: "sugar, fresh eggs, hazelnuts, almonds, marzipan, fine flour, selected dried fruits, noble spices, lemon, salt of hartshorn, and melted chocolate."

Today, the Elisen Lebkuchen in the Sommermann Bakery are finished off in one of two ways. Some, as pictured here, are covered by a thin layer of bittersweet chocolate; others are hand-decorated with three almond halves and brushed with a thin sugar glaze. My Opa used to put extra almonds on top the sugar-glazed Lebkuchen he sent us, and he used to arrange some of them to spell out the initials of his grandchildren. I was always so excited to discover a Lebkuchen with a big "E" on it as we went through our canisters. Then there'd be an "A" for my sister and a "D" for my brother. I knew that far away in Germany, he was thinking of us out here in California. These Lebkuchen, tasty as they are, represent far more than just something yummy to nibble on this time of year. They remind me of my family's heritage, the history of my people, and the love my grandparents have always shown me. So for me, it is never Christmas without these Lebkuchen, a taste of the homeland.

02 December 2009

Mountain of pie

This pie, I think, is the best homemade apple pie I've made yet! What is it that makes it so good? For one, I used a sweet pie crust recipe instead of my usual pate brisee. For another, I used an abundance of great apples (mostly Pippins, with a couple of Galas thrown in), mounding them into my pie shell to make a mountain of pie. Mmm. Mountain of pie. The crust came out nice and flaky, with a little extra crunch of raw sugar sprinkled on top. The apple slices were soft, yielding a luscious syrup spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and finely grated lemon zest.

Every Thanksgiving, my family expects a trio of pies (apple, pumpkin, and pecan) to be served after the main meal. This year, I think I shocked them by serving only pumpkin creme brulees and that Ruby Red Pecan Pie I wrote about before. Feeling a little guilty for not indulging them in accordance to tradition, I pulled out all the stops in whipping up this pie a couple days later. Ooohs and ahhhs came pouring forth when my family saw this beauteous pie fresh from the oven. My pie-guilt has been dispelled! Next time you want to please your loved ones, I recommend making this pie of impressive stature and taste.

Best-ever Apple Pie
Adapted from a Bon Appetit recipe

3 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter, cut into 1/2" cubes, chilled
6 tablespoons (or more) ice water

2 1/2 pounds assorted apples (such as Pippin and Gala), peeled, quartered, cored, cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons corn starch
1 1/2 teaspoons (packed) finely grated lemon peel
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg or ground nutmeg
1 1/2 tablespoons flour

Milk (for glaze)
1 tablespoon raw sugar*

For crust:

Blend flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor. Add butter; cut in using on/off turns until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add 6 tablespoons ice water and blend just until moist clumps form, adding more ice water by teaspoonfuls if dough is dry. Gather dough into ball. Divide dough in half. Flatten each half into disk. Wrap in plastic and chill at least 3 hours. Soften dough 15 minutes at room temperature before rolling out.

Roll out 1 dough disk on its plastic wrap to 12- to 13-inch round, dusting top with flour as needed to prevent sticking to the rolling pin. Transfer dough to a 9-inch pie dish and press dough onto bottom and up sides of dish, allowing overhang to extend over sides. Roll out second dough disk on its plastic wrap to 12- to 13-inch round; transfer dough to baking sheet. Refrigerate both crusts while preparing filling.

For filling:

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 425°F. In a small bowl, combine sugar, cornstarch, salt, spices, and lemon peel and mix thoroughly. Combine apple slices and sugar mixture in a large bowl and toss gently to coat all slices thoroughly with the sugar mixture. Let stand at room temperature until some juices form, tossing occasionally, about 15 minutes.

Place crust-lined pie dish on rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle flour over bottom of crust. Transfer apple filling to crust, mounding filling slightly in center. Brush crust edges lightly with water. Using a small sharp knife or shaped cutters, cut out a steam vent at the center of the second dough round. Invert dough round atop filling; carefully peel off the plastic wrap. Trim dough overhang on both crusts to 1/2 inch. Press crust edges together, then fold under. Using fingers, create decorative fluting around the edge of the pie. Brush top crust lightly with milk, then sprinkle with raw sugar.

Bake pie 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375°F and continue to bake pie until crust is golden, apples are tender when pierced, and juices are bubbling thickly, covering crust edges with foil collar if crust is browning too quickly, about 1 hour longer. Transfer pie to rack and cool to lukewarm or room temperature.

28 November 2009

Ruby Red Pecan Pie

Try this: A perfectly flaky pie crust filled with a soft and sweet, vibrant red pie filling fragrant of cloves and topped with crunchy, caramelized pecans. This is Ruby Red Pecan Pie, an innovative twist on the traditional pecan pie. The secret to the color comes from roasted fresh beets--yes, beets--grated into the filling. With spices like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, plus the addition of dried cranberries, this pie has a variety of fun flavors and textures. I came across the recipe for this pie filling at a blog called Edible/Usable a week ago, and I was really excited to try it. I made a few changes: light corn syrup instead of maple syrup and pecans instead of walnuts. I also used my own pastry crust recipe and bumped up the spice measurements a notch. (And then I avoided using my food processor, because I didn't want the plastic fittings of my food processor to be permanently stained with red beet juice!) The pie came out great, and while I served it on its own, I think a scoop of vanilla ice cream would make it really pop as a dessert.

Many of the ingredients are what you'd see in a pecan pie recipe, but I like to think that the addition of beets makes this a healthier pie. It's not overly sweet, so leftovers are great for breakfast too. My breakfast this morning? A dollop of creamy, tangy plain yogurt over a slice of ruby red pecan pie. I think I want seconds on breakfast today!

Ruby Red Pecan Pie
1 single unbaked pie shell (9 inches)
2 medium beets, leafy tops removed (for 1 cup grated beets)
1/2 cup light corn syrup
3 eggs
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
3/4 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
3/4 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. white vinegar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
2 Tbsp. butter, melted
3/4 cup (packed) brown sugar
3/4 cup dried cranberries
3/4 cup roughly chopped pecans

Cover beets with water in a saucepan and boil for 30-45 minutes until tender. Cool and peel. Grate beets on the coarse holes of a box grater, set aside. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Add all other ingredients except cranberries and pecans to a large metal bowl and blend well. Add 1 cup of the grated beets (you may have some beets left over), the dried cranberries, and the pecans. Mix well to combine, then pour into the unbaked pie shell. (I tried to arrange the pecan pieces to be floating on top.)

Bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees. Reduce temperature to 375 degrees and bake for 25-30 minutes or until pie is firm. Let pie cool a little and serve either warm or at room temperature.

25 November 2009

Cranberry Tangerine Sauce

Happy Thanksgiving Eve, everyone! Like many of you, I have been getting a few things together for the big feast tomorrow. One of my make-ahead dishes is fresh cranberry sauce, and for as long as I can remember, we've always made it with a hint of citrus. When I was younger, we used oranges from our trees, lining a glass serving bowl with glowing slices and then mounding a cranberry sauce inside. I loved eating those orange slices, with sweet-and-tart cranberries clinging to them.

A few years ago, I came across a delicious cranberry-kumquat sauce. I had planned on making this sauce again today, but unfortunately the kumquats around here are not quite ripe yet. However, tangerines are in season, so I decided to experiment with them. It turned out great! Get yourself some seedless tangerines (such as Satsumas) and fresh cranberries, a little sugar, a little water, and you will have a delicious, citrusy sauce in no time!

What I love about this recipe is that the tangerines are mixed in with the cranberries, so you can enjoy the citrus in each bite. I also love the candied peels that get chopped and stirred in; they add another layer of sweet which balances the sometimes-overpowering tartness of the cranberries.

If you've already made your sauce for tomorrow, you might want to try this over the weekend to eat with your turkey leftovers! This goes great in sandwiches, too, or even as a dessert over vanilla ice cream!
Cranberry Tangerine Sauce
Makes about 5 cups

6 seedless tangerines (such as Satsuma)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/4 tsp. salt
6 cups fresh cranberries

Peel tangerines in large strips, removing any loose membrane from peel and fruit. Place peel in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring water to a boil, then drain. Cover with water, boil, and drain 2 more times. (This removes any bitterness from the peels.)

Add 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water to drained peels. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes. Let cool. Using a slotted spoon, transfer candied peel to a small bowl, leaving syrup in the saucepan.

While peel is cooking, separate tangerine fruit sections and cut each section in half. Add salt, cranberries, and tangerine sections to the syrup and stir to combine. Cover saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and continue to cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until cranberries burst. While cranberries are cooking, chop the candied tangerine peel. Stir peel into cranberry sauce. Let sauce cool to room temperature, then chill in the refrigerator. Sauce keeps up to one week, refrigerated.

08 November 2009

Home-cooked and gourmet

Image from Food & Home Magazine

This weekend I cooked a delicious dinner of parmesan-crusted swordfish steaks served over a bed of sautéed fresh spinach and bacon and topped with a chunky tomato-vegetable ragout and a watercress salad tossed in lemon-shallot vinaigrette. I was inspired by the beautiful photographs and mouth-watering descriptions in a Food & Home article that featured various local restaurants and their seafood-starring entrees. The pictures were gorgeous, and while some of them seemed fairly labor intensive (like smoked mussels jarred in olive oil with garlic, onions and herbs from Julienne or stuffed Louisiana soft-shelled crab from The Palace Grill) or simply mundane (like cioppino or grilled salmon with veggies…things I’ve had plenty of experience with already), this dish (which you can find at Enterprise Fish Co. with halibut instead of swordfish) was both approachable and unique enough to capture my imagination and get me into the kitchen.

With just the photo and a brief description, I went ahead and made up my own recipe for this great dish, and I am excited to share it with you! Composed of four different units, the colors, flavors, and textures come together to create a beautiful and fantastic experience. You’ll be thrilled with the cost ($30/plate at the restaurant versus $8/plate if made at home) and you’ll have a lot of fun making it and serving it to your appreciative guests!
If you plan to serve this when entertaining, here are some game-plan tips: make the ragout and vinaigrette a day or two ahead of time. Then, in the hour or so before your guests arrive, start reheating the ragout, wash the watercress, cook the bacon, and pat your swordfish steaks dry with a paper towel. Your final prep, which is best done right before serving, could take as little as 10 minutes, and will be to dredge the fish in parmesan and pan-fry it (4 minutes per side), sauté the spinach, toss the watercress in the vinaigrette, and then plate up the dishes. I served this with some crunchy ciabatta bread, and I think this would be paired well with a nice chardonnay.

But, don’t wait to have guests over to try this out! Go ahead and make this fun dish for your own enjoyment! The smoky, salty bacon with earthy spinach, the creamy swordfish in a crispy parmesan crust, the hearty ragout of tangy tomatoes, veggies, and jalapeño, and the cool and refreshing cress salad are just so delicious together!

Santa Barbara Swordfish
Serves 4

Tomato-Vegetable Ragout
½ large onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1 small rib of celery, diced
1 jalapeño, seeds removed, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 (28 oz.) can diced tomatoes in juice
1 cup fresh basil leaves, coarsely torn

In a medium-sized pot, sauté onion, carrot, and celery until onion is soft and translucent. Add the jalapeño and garlic and continue to cook for a few minutes more. Add diced tomatoes and juices and cook on at high simmer for about one hour, covered, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened. Stir in basil leaves and continue to cook, uncovered, until juices have evaporated and ragout is very thick.

Bacon and Spinach Sauté
4 oz. lean bacon, diced
12 oz. pre-washed fresh spinach

In a large pot, render the fat from the bacon by cooking over medium-low heat. Drain fat from pot. Just before serving, toss spinach in bacon until warm and wilted.

Parmesan-crusted Swordfish
4 (1/3 lb.) swordfish steaks, patted dry with a paper towel
Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper
4 tablespoons finely grated parmesan cheese

Sprinkle steaks with salt and pepper on both sides, and dredge evenly in parmesan. In a skillet over medium-high heat, pre-heat 3 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil. Cook swordfish 4 minutes on each side. The parmesan crust will become golden brown, but be careful to avoid overcooking the fish.

Watercress Salad
1 ½ tablespoons finely grated shallot (with juices)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons lemon juice
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
1 bunch watercress

Combine vinaigrette ingredients together in a small glass jar. Cover tightly and shake to emulsify the dressing. Place the watercress in a large bowl and drizzle with a few tablespoons of the vinaigrette, being careful to keep stems aligned together (to make it easier for pretty plating). You will have extra vinaigrette; save for another salad!

To plate:
Divide bacon and spinach sauté among four large dinner plates. Place a swordfish steak on each mound of spinach. Spoon the ragout over one side of the fish, and then arrange the watercress over top.

07 November 2009

Soup from the garden

When my family moved to Santa Barbara back in the 1980's, we had a lot of fun trying all the different types of fruit that grew locally. We had been living in New York, Germany, and Illinois prior to our move out here, and many of the fruits we saw here in the produce stores and farmers markets seemed quite exotic at the time! Our garden was an exciting Eden in itself, with about a dozen established fruit trees including pomegranate, avocado, grapefruit, persimmon, and guava. We bought a citrus juicer and enjoyed fresh-squeezed orange juice for the first time. Snacks became walking out onto the back patio and grabbing a tangerine off the tree, throwing the peels down the hillside, and eating the sections one by one in the outdoors. Or getting a guava, cutting it in half, and scooping out the soft flesh with a spoon.

One of the really interesting fruits in our garden was the persimmon. We had never seen anything like it before: lightly sweet, seedless fruits about the size of an apple with a hint of cinnamon flavor. And did you know, they're actually considered a berry? We'd eat them crisp early in the season and bake the softer ones into puddings and cookies later in the season. Recently, I started experimenting with other uses of persimmon, and came up with this persimmon soup, spicy with fresh ginger. You'll have to try it out and let me know what you think!
Now, there are two types of persimmons commonly found in California, introduced in the 1800's from China and Japan. The persimmons I know and love are the fuyu variety; they are shaped like squat tomatoes (wider than they are tall) and can be eaten raw even when firm. The hachiya variety, on the other hand, with a very high tannin content, must be ripened until the fruit is essentially liquified inside its skin. Try eating it any sooner, and you'll be unpleasantly surprised by its astringency. The hachiya persimmons would lend themselves best for baking. But if you're out shopping for persimmons, or have the opportunity of planting a persimmon tree, go for the fuyu type. They are the most versatile and delicious!

Persimmon Soup

2-inch piece fresh ginger, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup white wine
6 fuyu persimmons, peeled and chopped
2 cups chicken stock

In a large pot, saute the ginger, garlic, onion, and bay leaf with a little olive oil, until onion is soft and translucent. Deglaze bottom of pot with white wine and continue cooking, until wine is reduced by half. Add persimmons and chicken stock, and simmer until soft. Remove the bay leaf and then blend the soup with an immersion stick blender until smooth. Season with salt to taste and thin with more stock, as desired.

25 October 2009

Back to Morocco!

A couple months ago, my "traveling" supper club took a break just as we were about to visit Morocco. (Remember those b'stillas I told you about?) Well, we have bravely returned to the business of cooking and enjoying delicious food and wine together--not without a good dash of jubilation--picking back up at Morocco! We savored spicy keftas (meatballs), flatbread, baba ganoush, a butternut squash and chickpea ragout sweet with cinnamon, a chicken, cilantro, and rice dish, as well as this stew of tomatoes, chickpeas, and spices.

Wanting to expand my Moroccan repertoire beyond b'stillas, I looked around on the internet for (what I hoped were) authentic recipes. I found some descriptions of a tomato chickpea stew called harira, and cobbling together various recipes I ended up with this soup or stew. It's a fun medley of ingredients; chickpeas, lentils, and orzo pasta each contribute a unique shape and texture, a number of spices weave a deep flavor profile, and lemon juice and herbs add a light, fresh finish. It's super easy to make, healthy, and vegan-friendly (just replace the chicken broth), not to mention tasty! Four good reasons why you should try this Moroccan dish out.
Moroccan Chickpea Stew
(serves 12)

1 large onion, finely chopped
1 small celery rib (including leaves), finely chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 (15 oz.) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed well
2 1/2 cups water
1 (35 oz.) can crushed tomatoes in puree (about 4 cups)
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup red lentils

1 cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided
3/4 cup dried orzo pasta
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Extra lemon wedges for serving

Combine the first 14 ingredients plus 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro in a large heavy pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until lentils are tender, about 35 minutes. (Can be made ahead to this point.)

Before serving, stir in orzo pasta and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Stir in remaining cilantro, parsley, lemon zest and juice, and salt to taste. Garnish with more cilantro as desired and serve with lemon wedges.

21 October 2009

Panforte: the Italian strong bread

I'll always remember the road trip my family took through Italy six years ago. For one thing, it was the summer of the record-breaking heat wave in Europe 2003; there was one afternoon walking through the Roman Forum which would have seen us baked alive had it not been for the copious number of drinking fountains that Rome is so well known for. That was also the summer when my family learned that we should not go on road trips together. Wow. Let's just leave some of those stories untold. But, in between heat exhaustion and emotions running high over where we were going to eat next, there were some fantastic, happy moments that impressed themselves upon me deeply.
One of them was completely unexpected. It came on a day of visiting Assisi, birthplace of St. Francis. We were walking through the town, which is perched high on a hillside in Umbria. It was an overcast day, punctuated by intermittent showers that had us ducking into churches and shop doorways every now and then. One of the shops we took refuge in was a bakery. Surrounded by a vast array of incredible-looking creations, we decided to try some panforte for a morning snack. The shopkeeper cut off a wedge for us. It was a dense cake of dried fruits, nuts, and spices...much tastier than any Clif bar but probably just as good an energy source for the day. The wedge disappeared quickly as we meandered on through the streets of Assisi.
Days later, after visits south to Rome, Pompeii, and Accadia, we turned around and drove back north to Germany. Refueling in Tuscany, we noticed an exquisite array of biscotti and cakes in the gas station and asked, if by chance, they had any panforte. Sadly, they did not, and we were informed that they only offer it during the Christmas season. That made total sense to me, as the flavors of panforte ("strong bread") are reminiscent of those of the Lebkuchen ("life cake") that my German relatives make in their bakery from September through December.

So, it being October now, I believe we are well into panforte season too. I've looked around for a good recipe, and after tweaking one, I now have a recipe that I'll be enjoying for years to come. While it is called a cake, it is really more to be enjoyed as a confection in small pieces rather than as a slice of cake eaten with a fork. This sweet, fragrantly-spiced panforte is a luscious treat, and large wedges, decoratively wrapped, would make a great holiday gift. I hope you have a chance to try it out! I think the one I made a week and a half ago is in danger of disappearing just as quickly as the one we had in Assisi.

(adapted from Gourmet magazine)

4 teaspoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole almonds, toasted
1 cup whole hazelnuts, toasted and loose skins rubbed off with a kitchen towel
1 cup (8 oz.) soft dates, each cut into 6 pieces
1 cup (8 oz.) soft dried Mission figs, each cut into 6 pieces
1/2 cup soft golden raisins (4 oz.)
1/2 cup candied lemon peel (4 oz.)
1 tsp. (packed) finely grated fresh lemon peel
3/4 cup sugar
2/3 cup honey
1 Tbs. butter

Line a 9-inch springform pan with parchment, using a round for bottom and a strip for side. (Lightly oiling the pan first will help keep the parchment paper in place.) Lightly but thoroughly grease the inside surfaces of the parchment with non-stick spray or vegetable oil.

Whisk together flour, spices, salt, and 4 teaspoons cocoa in a large bowl, then stir in nuts and fruit and lemon peel.

Bring sugar, honey, and butter to a boil in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved, then boil without stirring until a candy thermometer registers 238 to 240°F, about 2 minutes.

Immediately pour honey over fruit mixture and quickly stir until combined (mixture will be very thick and sticky; if it cools and hardens too quickly, you might try setting the mixing bowl over a pan of simmering water, double boiler-style, as you stir, or try carefully microwaving a few seconds at a time in between stirs). Quickly spoon mixture into springform pan, spreading evenly with back of spoon. Dampen your hands and press mixture firmly and evenly into pan to compact as much as possible. Bake in middle of oven at 300°F until edges start to rise slightly and become matte, 50 to 55 minutes.

Cool panforte completely in pan on a rack, then remove side of pan and invert. Keeping parchment paper on, wrap well in plastic wrap and seal in a plastic bag. Store chilled one week to allow flavors to meld. Keeps up to one month when stored chilled. To serve, cut with a serrated knife into small pieces.

16 October 2009

Grandpa's Lentil Soup

I know that many of you, like me, are rejoicing that soup season is here. Soups can be so easy to make, and it is so much fun to play around with different combinations of ingredients! This past week, with cooler weather, darker evenings, and a huge rainstorm (that dumped over 10 inches of rain up on San Marcos Pass in the course of two days!), I have been in a soup mood. I've actually had three different soups this week. The first was a semi-homemade tortilla soup, the second was a semi-successful yellow curry soup with shrimp, cabbage, and roasted pumpkin, and the third was a lentil soup, made using a recipe from my Italian grandfather.

When my yen for soup set it, I knew this soup would hit the spot. It's been a while since my Grandpa passed away, but I still have a clear memory of him sharing this recipe with me. We were at his home in Florida (don't all New York-born Italian Americans dream of retiring in Florida?) 17 years ago. I think I had been asking about lentils or lentil soup for some reason, and he was surprised that my mom didn't have the recipe for his soup. A man of strong opinions, he averred that this soup was the lentil soup to make. He set his reading glasses on, pulled out a steno pad, and wrote this recipe down for me.

That's my grandpa sitting at the table, third from the left. He's passing a plate of food down the table. This photo must have been taken in the late 50s or early 60s. He sure loved to eat!

I'm not sure how this recipe was developed, whether my grandpa got it from his mother or from his own testing in the kitchen, but it has "family" stamped all over it for me now. It is a deeply satisfying lentil soup, savory with homey Italian flavors. I have to say that it is also ridiculously easy to make. No pre-sauteeing of mirepoix, no overnight soaking of legumes. Just chop a few vegetables and throw everything into the pot, then simmer away for 1-2 hours. You could make it on a slow weekend afternoon or throw it together for a quick dinner on a weeknight. And since it reheats well too, you can make it ahead of time and store it in the fridge for an even faster supper on a busy day.

So try this soup some evening soon, and when you do, remember my Grandpa, George Anthony Muligano.

Grandpa's Lentil Soup

2 cups dry lentils

2-3 slices bacon, raw and diced (I actually used chopped-up "Heart Healthy Ham" slices from Trader Joe's instead. The bacon is simmered, rather than fried, so don't be expecting crispy crunches of bacon in this soup.)

1/2 cup chopped onion (1 medium onion)

1/2 cup chopped celery (2 stalks celery)

1/2 cup chopped carrot (1 carrot)

3 T. snipped parsley

1 clove garlic minced

1 1/2 t. salt (to taste)

1/4 teaspoon pepper (to taste)

1 (16 oz.) can plum whole Italian tomatoes, cut up

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

Rinse lentils, drain. Place in large pot with 8 cups water. Add remaining ingredients except tomatoes and vinegar. Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. Add tomatoes along with their juices and vinegar. Simmer covered for 30 minutes longer. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (For extra kick, I like to add a few dashes of hot sauce like Tabasco or Sriracha at the table!)

11 October 2009

Just enjoyed an exquisite lunch recently, featuring a lot of great produce from my garden. My eggplants, tomatoes, and basil are thriving beautifully, and I am loving it! This spring, don't forget to plant yourself some tomato plants...you might spend more on homegrown tomatoes (factoring in the cost of water here in Santa Barbara) but you will never, ever be able to buy tomatoes with such taste from the store, even if they're locally grown. The flavor of minutes-off-the-vine tomato can't be beat! I made a quick and easy salad of roasted eggplant slices (they get so creamy in the center!) layered with tomato over a bed of greens. Then I sprinkled balsamic vinegar, fresh corn kernels, torn basil, and crumbly goat cheese over and finished it off with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Life tastes pretty good about now.

10 October 2009

Perfect breakfast for an autumn morning

The air is crisp, and now people are turning in earnest to hobbies such as Saturday morning snuggling. Well slip on your cozy socks, grab a mug of tea, and check out this great recipe. What better way to wake up than with the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg and a hot stack of pancakes?

I am always amazed how simple ingredients like buttermilk and home-roasted pumpkin come together to form these delicious pancakes. Really, there is no pancake out there that I've tasted that rivals these pumpkin pancakes of mine. The recipe is fool-proof, turning out golden, fluffy pancakes with steaming hot, moist interiors. Still have some leftover roasted pumpkin from making your ravioli? Or do you have a pumpkin sitting around, as yet unroasted? (Or maybe you have a can of pure pumpkin on your pantry shelf but can't bring yourself to make a pie with it?) Well, here is another fantastic pumpkin-based recipe with fragrant spices and tummy-warming goodness that you will want to make again and again. Let these pancakes become your Saturday morning tradition this fall!

Pumpkin Pancakes

1 1/4 cups buttermilk

3/4 cup mashed, roasted pumpkin
4 large eggs, separated, room temperature
2 Tbs. sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 Tbs. melted butter
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon each ginger, allspice, and nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Using an immersion stick blender (or electric hand mixer), blend buttermilk, pumpkin, egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla in medium bowl until pumpkin is pureed and all ingredients are thoroughly combined. With blender running, mix in melted butter. Whisk flour, spices, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in large bowl to blend. Add buttermilk mixture to dry ingredients and mix until just combined.

Using an electric mixer, beat egg whites in a clean, medium bowl until soft peaks form. Immediately fold whites into batter in two separate additions.

Lightly oil or butter heavy large skillet pre-heated and on medium heat. Working in batches, pour batter by 1/3 cupfuls onto skillet; cook until bubbles break on top and edges are cooked. Turn pancakes over and cook until second sides brown, about 1 minute.

Sprinkle with toasted pecans (tossed in a little melted, salty butter) and drizzle with pure maple syrup.

05 October 2009

No gelato maker? Try a semifreddo!

Do you ever wish you could make ice cream at home but don't have an ice cream maker? That's the quandary I have been facing after reading a procession of delicious-looking ice cream and gelato recipes over the course of the summer months. I dipped into the world of online reviews, determined to find myself the perfect ice cream maker and came across Cuisinart's ICE-50 BC and thought I had found the one. It goes for about $300, and while it is pricey, I thought that with its fully integrated freezing component (no pre-freezing of bowl inserts needed!) it would be worth it. But then my father, who knew of my search, came along and told me about an Italian machine, the Musso Lussino. After reading the description of the superior qualities of the Musso Lussino--sleek body, powerful engine, fast performance--how could I go back to the Cuisinart ice cream maker?

The huge hurdle, however, was the price. Not having $700 to drop on an ice cream machine, I suspended my shopping foray, hoping for a day when I could afford the bliss of homemade gelatos made on a machine I could be proud of. Then my uncle (a master baker and also experienced ice cream maker) suggested I try making semifreddo. Semifreddos are Italian frozen desserts much akin to ice cream, but with a key difference: air is incorporated into the creamy mass before freezing, rather than as a result of churning during the freezing process. Thus, if you have an electric beater and a freezer, creamy frozen desserts are within your reach!

I seized at the first semifreddo recipe I came across...a cantaloupe semifreddo from Gourmet magazine. It was surprisingly easy and gave delicious results! While their recipe calls for grappa (a pretty strong liqueur) and grenadine (for coloring), I omitted the grappa and replaced the grenadine with a few drops of red food coloring, which enhances the natural orange glow of the cantaloupe. Another thing to note, if you try their recipe, is that it makes about twice as much as would fit in one loaf pan. I froze half in a loaf pan, which looked nice when unmolded onto a serving platter, and the other half I froze in a plastic container and scooped out for serving. Either way, it has a pretty presentation!

Cantaloupe Semifreddo
from Gourmet magazine
  • 1 pound peeled chopped cantaloupe (about 2 1/2 cups)
  • 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
  • 3/4 teaspoon grenadine (for color; optional)
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 5 large egg yolks
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream

Line loaf pan with plastic wrap, leaving an overhang at each end. Purée melon with 1/3 cup sugar, grenadine (if using), and salt in a blender until smooth. Transfer to large metal bowl and stir in yolks. Set bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and beat with mixer until pale, thick, and tripled in volume and registers 170°F on an instant-read thermometer, about 8 minutes.

Remove bowl from saucepan and set in a large ice bath. Continue to beat until cold, about 6 minutes.

Beat cream with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar in other large bowl using cleaned beaters until it just holds soft peaks. Fold whipped cream into cantaloupe mixture gently but thoroughly.

Pour mixture into pan and freeze, loosely covered with plastic wrap, until firm, at least 5 hours. Uncover top and invert semifreddo onto a plate.

03 October 2009

Pumpkin Ravioli

Is it really fall? With temperatures in the seventies and all this sunshine, it's easy to think that it is still summer in Santa Barbara. This morning I went for a walk at Butterfly Beach and felt pretty warm in shorts and a tank top! But weather aside, the changing produce availability is telling me that summer truly is merging into fall. Just this past week, a friend of mine gave me a pumpkin that he picked over in the Valley (that is, the Santa Ynez Valley), and I have been thinking about what I most want to make with it. I love pumpkin pancakes and pumpkin soup, but with this first pumpkin of the season, I decided to make pumpkin ravioli. With onion, sage, and rosemary straight from my garden, the savory goodness of the pumpkin filling was irresistible.

Last year it struck me how little we appreciate this fruit of the vine. Certainly there is a huge market for the pumpkin in America, but the pumpkins we buy generally go to the front door with a jack-o-lantern face, doomed to a mouldery demise. Many Latin American cultures, however, prize the pumpkin as a culinary delight, which moved me to make a last minute decision not to carve my Halloween pumpkin but instead send it to the roasting oven. I cut it in half, scooped out the seeds, and placed the pumpkin on a baking sheet, cut side down. After one hour roasting at 420 F, the flesh was soft and the rind easily peeled away. This left me with fresh pumpkin, all roasty and golden, primed for a plethora of creative uses in the kitchen or ready to eat with just a simple sprinkling of sea salt. Who wants canned pumpkin now, with the abundance of fresh pumpkins available today? And who wants to stick to the trite pumpkin pie, when there are so many other great things you can do with pumpkin?

Pumpkin Ravioli
(makes 16)

1 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tbs. minced fresh sage
1 Tbs. minced fresh rosemary
1/2 cup white wine (my standby is pinot grigio)
1 tsp. sea salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 cups roasted pumpkin flesh (from a 2-lb. pumpkin)
32 Won ton wrappers

Saute onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until soft and translucent. Add herbs, wine, salt, and pepper, and cook until liquid has evaporated, stirring occasionally. Add roasted pumpkin and puree with an immersion stick blender until all ingredients are well blended. Continue cooking 5 minutes until liquid no longer gathers.

To assemble ravioli, place 1 rounded tablespoon of pumpkin filling at the center of a won ton wrapper, moisten the edges with water, then place a second wrapper over the filling and press firmly to seal edges. (While working, keep stack of won ton wrappers covered with a damp cloth to prevent premature drying.)

Cook ravioli in batches in gently boiling salted water for about 3 minutes. Avoid overcrowding the ravioli in the cooking water so that they don't stick together. Toss with a simple sauce of browned, melted butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Celebrating Santa Barbara's food culture

This past Thursday kicked off epicure.SB October 2009, "a month to savor Santa Barbara cuisine, libations, and culture." It was a feast for the senses, looking at Fran Collin's photographs of chefs, kitchens, and local food on display at The Book Den, sipping local-brewed ale from the Telegraph Brewing Company, tasting the most exquisite avocado blossom honey from San Marcos Farms, and learning about cold-brewing coffee at The French Press.

If you live in Santa Barbara, October stretches before us with a bounty of food festivals and tasting events! Some of the events are ongoing throughout the month, such as the 31-day "Eat Local" challenge (you'll realize how diverse and plentiful the offerings are in Santa Barbara, support local business, and reduce your carbon footprint!), or restaurant "local spotlight" tasting menus at Coast, Downey's, Olio e Limone, and others, or art gallery shows featuring food-inspired paintings, mixed-media, photography, and more!

Then of course are the festivals, such as the 23rd Annual Avocado Festival this weekend in downtown Carpinteria. You can learn about the history of avocado farming in the area, vote for your favorite guacamole, and sample interesting avocado concoctions like avocado ice cream from McConnell's and beer-battered avocado (pictured below).

Next weekend stop by the Santa Barbara harbor for the annual Harbor & Seafood Festival. You'll enjoy looking over the fresh local catches, watching cooking demonstrations, and eating lobster, crab, and uni (sea urchin sushi)! Many more fun happenings are planned for the month, so check out the calendar of events and join in the celebration!

I just came across this season's issue of edible Santa Barbara, pictured at left, and loved reading more about the abundance of food and wine that comes from our land!

26 September 2009

Lunch time

One of my mandates is that the best sandwiches require at least 9 ingredients. When I make a sandwich, I carefully prepare each component, from the perfectly toasted bread to the drained tomato slices seasoned with salt and pepper. Yes, I'm a bit zealous about my mis en place, and it is not unheard of for me to spend 20 minutes composing my lunchtime sandwiches! But lest you think my sandwiches are complicated, let me tell you that my enjoyment comes almost as much from the process of creation as from eating them. I savor the moments of twisting the salt grinder, folding the turkey in just the perfect way over my growing stacked masterpiece, and cutting the sandwich with a darling diagonal cut.

I've got to share my sandwich with you today, because it is bursting with flavor and stars thick, meaty slices of my homegrown tomatoes. My seven tomato plants are just coming in with their luscious fruit now, and they are yielding giant red beauties, many more than 6 inches in diameter!

Erica's Sandwich
Toast sourdough bread until golden, let cool. Meanwhile, thickly slice homegrown tomatoes and remove the watery seeds. Sprinkle with finely ground sea salt. Once toast has cooled, generously spread with Dijon mustard. Layer slices of avocado over, sprinkling with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Mash avocado against the toast gently with a fork (so the avocado slices don't come shooting out when you bite into the sandwich), then cover with a thick bed of alfalfa sprouts. Blot tomatoes with a paper towel, then place over the sprouts, sprinkling with more salt and black pepper. Add a couple slices of roasted turkey breast, and top with green leaf lettuce. Mmmm....

Okay, so sometimes salt and pepper each count as an ingredient to get me to my golden-sandwich-number 9.

14 September 2009

Cantaloupe Coolers!

Mmmm, a cool, lightly-sweet treat of a drink! I love this new combination of flavors...and I've been enjoying it a lot lately as a thirst-quencher after gardening in the warm sun or after rock-climbing. It easily transforms into a pleasing happy hour drink, too, by just adding a splash of vodka.

Cantaloupe Cooler

2 cups cubed cantaloupe
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 quart chilled club soda

Puree cantaloupe with an immersion stick blender (which I find makes it easier to chase the unblended chunks of fruit) or in a regular blender. Pour melon into a fine-meshed sieve and collect juice, stirring melon pulp to help release juice. Discard pureed solids. Mix lemon and melon juices together in a pitcher. Chill well. (Can be stored in refrigerator, covered up to 3 days.)

Just before serving, slowly add the juice to the club soda. (Note: avoid pouring the soda into the juice, as this will produce some not-so-pleasant orange foam!)

08 September 2009

Polpette di tacchino con peperonata

Hooked by a beautiful photograph of luscious looking meatballs and intrigued by Gourmet Magazine's unique suite of ingredients, I tried out this tasty recipe for chicken meatballs with roasted red bell peppers. Except I made some alterations and therefore present to you polpette di tacchino con peperonata, aka turkey meatballs with red peppers.

Though baked, these meatballs retain moist interiors while the exterior takes on a tawny roasted color. Paired with soft sweet red peppers dotted with briny capers, this is a delicious combination of flavors and colors! If you work it right, you can get this on the table along with some crusty Italian bread and a green salad for a delicious meal in 45 minutes. Hope you enjoy this as much as I did!

Polpette di tacchino con peperonata
(Turkey meatballs with roasted red peppers)

For peperonata:

3 red bell peppers, cut into 1 1/2" strips
1 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/2 tablespoons drained capers
2 teaspoons red-wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

For meatballs:

1 cup Italian bread torn into small pieces
1/4 cup milk
4 ounces sliced pancetta, finely chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 large egg
1 1/2 pounds ground chicken
3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons tomato paste
salt and pepper

First make the peperonata:
Preheat oven to 400°F with racks in upper and lower thirds.

Toss bell peppers with 1 tablespoon oil and sea salt, then roast in a 4-sided sheet pan in lower third of oven, stirring occasionally, until tender and browned, about 35 minutes.

When finished roasting, sprinkle with capers, vinegar, and red pepper flakes and gently toss to distribute over all the peppers.

Make meatballs while peppers roast:
Soak bread in milk in a small bowl until softened, about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally to distribute milk and break up the chunks of bread.

Saute pancetta, onion, and garlic in 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat until onion is softened, about 6 minutes. Cool slightly.

Lightly beat egg in a large bowl with 1 tablespoon tomato paste, then gently combine with chicken, pancetta mixture, bread mixture, parsley, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper. To get the most tender meatballs possible, avoid overworking the mixture. Form 16 meatballs and arrange in a baking dish. Brush the remaining tomato paste over the tops of the meatballs. The brushed tomato paste will add beautiful color to the tops of the baked turkey meatballs.

Bake in upper third of oven until meatballs are just cooked through, about 20-25 minutes.

While the meatballs are baking, it'd be easy to throw together a salad of shredded carrot, thinly sliced celery and radishes, and red leaf lettuce. The fresh, crunchy salad plus some Italian bread rounds out the polpette and peperonata for a simple and flavorful meal!

06 September 2009


One of the ways I am inspired to cook is by seeing beautiful ingredients. For example, there were four giant, crisp green apples in my fruit bowl, and whenever I looked at them a vision of homemade apple pie kept coming to mind. So I followed the vision and made a pie, just like that. Not because it was Thanksgiving (when I am supposed to crank out three pies) or because anyone asked me to, but simply for the joy of making these fruit into what they wanted to be. I blanched the apple slices before mounding them into the pie shell so that they would be tender and juicy after baking and not crisp and dry (as so often is the case with my apple pies!), and I spiced them up with cinnamon and cardamom.

Then my sister visited and asked me for her traditional birthday banana cream pie. I've been making these banana cream pies for I don't know how many years! I thought I was off the hook this year, with Anna having moved out to Pittsburgh, but when she came in August for a short visit, how could I say no? This year I made it with less filling than usual because she likes a higher crust-to-filling ratio. Plus, that way we all can take bigger slices!

If you are thinking that I'm not a fan of making pies, you're right. I think my main reluctance in making pies comes from having to deal with finicky pie crust and wrestling it into the pie dish without it falling apart on me. However, I've learned that using a food processor, very cold butter, truly ice-cold water, and minimal time processing really helps in getting a tender, flaky crust. To more easily get the dough rolled out and into the pan, I shape the dough into discs (not balls, as some recipes might direct you to do), wrap it in plastic wrap, and chill it in the fridge for 30 minutes. (This helps prevent gluten from developing and making your crust rubbery.) Then I roll the dough out into a circle on the plastic wrap itself, invert the pie plate over the rolled-out dough, and then slip my hand under the plastic wrap and flip the pie plate together with dough to get it right side up. After making sure the dough is centered in the plate, I then carefully peel the plastic wrap off of the dough. And there you go!

Do any of you have some great pie-making tips? I'd love to hear from you!

30 August 2009

Blueberry picking

This weekend, braving soaring temperatures, my mom, sister, nephew and I headed up the 101 to Restoration Oaks Ranch for some U-PICK blueberries. Restoration Oaks maintains 13 different blueberry varieties, so from about early May through August there are sure to be fresh blueberries ready for the picking. After a short 45 minute drive north, we were greeted by friendly ranchers who equipped us with tin pails and directed us to the best field.

Blueberry picking is great for little kids and adults alike, as the hardy berries stand up well to the grasp of little fingers. In almost no time, we had my 11 1/2 month-old nephew Teo picking ripe blueberries...though all of the ones he picked (and the ones we dropped into his bucket) went straight into his mouth! He's a quick learner and isn't shy about munching up the good stuff. What's great about Restoration Oaks is that their blueberry farm is grown all without pesticides and sprays, and taste-testing (which is allowed during picking!) is completely safe.
After less than an hour of leisurely picking, we had 36 ounces of Bluecrisp, Emerald, Jewel, and Star blueberries. Each variety has its own level of tartness, and by planting a mix of berries in the same field, the plants are ensured healthy cross-pollination and pickers are offered a tasty blend of berries. If you prefer blueberries with more tartness, ask for the Maru and Ochlockonee Rabitteye varieties. The folks at Restoration Oaks are happy to give you taste samples, which we availed ourselves of. I am a fan of those tart ones! If you do get some Rabitteyes, you should know that as they age the sugars develop and the tart flavor is diminished.

We've enjoyed our fresh-picked blueberries in cereal, with yoghurt, as a fresh topping over ice cream, or just plain by the handful. We have so many that I'm trying to make a dent in them by making another blueberry coffee cake. It's just about ready to come out of the oven!

So if you have a free morning this next week or so, I recommend driving up to Restoration Oaks and getting yourself some of the best blueberries around. The season is almost over, but if you miss it this year, make sure to head over next May!

28 August 2009

Linguine ai Frutti di Mare

A spicy tomato broth with chunks of salmon, curly shrimp, and meaty clams and mussels over al dente linguine is my perfect "Friday night dinner out."

Whenever my siblings are in town, I enjoy cooking their favorite dishes for them. So when my sister, who is visiting this week from her new home in Pittsburgh, starting talking about how much she was wanting a good Italian seafood dish I knew linguine ai frutti di mare was in order. I've actually never cooked fresh shellfish at home before, feeling a bit intimidated by byssal threads, shells, and sand, but having a request put in to The Cook and having a little leisure time on my hands, I decided to be adventurous and make this dish for her.

Living here in Santa Barbara, we have scores of fantastic restaurants. This means we also have some great wholesale providers. A couple years ago, I discovered Harbor Meat and Seafood, located in the funk zone on Helena Street. In addition to providing stellar-quality meats and seafood to the local restaurants, they offer retail to the public. It's a very wholesale-esque operation, however; you enter through one of the delivery docks into their butchering rooms and have to ask the nearest employee to assist you. If you enter the seafood room, watch out, as the floor is super-slippery from fresh deliveries and from the tank of live lobsters. When I went in today to get some Manila clams and local-caught black mussels, they carted in an 8-foot fish right past me. This really is a serious butcher shop and purveyor of meats and seafood--no display cases, no frills. Come in and ask for what you want, and know you're getting high quality and fair prices.

Ah, frutti di mare. The delightful fruits of the sea. We in my family are such fans...take my father for example. Every time we go to an Italian restaurant that offers cioppino or another such seafood dish, you can be sure that that is what he will order. But now that I realize I can cook this meal just as well as the local restaurant chefs can, not to mention that it costs a total of $30 for six people, I don't know how often we'll be going out for this again....

I'd recommend reading about how to clean shellfish before starting this recipe if this is something you haven't done before.

Linguine ai Frutti di Mare
(serves 6)

2 Tbs. olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
4 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1/2 cup white wine (I use pinot grigio)
1 (28 oz.) can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup water
1 lb. salmon fillet, cut into 6 pieces
1 lb. Manila clams, scrubbed and soaked for 20 minutes in fresh water
1 lb. black mussels, de-bearded, scrubbed, and soaked for 20 minutes in fresh water
1 lb. shrimp, shelled and de-veined
minced parsley, for garnish
1 lb. linguine

Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onions and cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add red pepper and garlic, and continue to cook until onions are soft. Add wine and let reduce by half, then add tomatoes and water. (I use the water to rinse out the tomato can and get every last bit of the tomatoes.) Bring sauce to a boil.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Salt the water with a handful of sea salt, and add the linguine to the boiling water once the tomato sauce is boiling. (Pasta should always be served al dente, and over-cooked seafood is tough! Therefore, be sure to coordinate the cooking times.)

Add the salmon to the sauce, submerging the pieces below the sauce, then add the mussels and clams on top. Cover tightly with a lid, and let shellfish steam for 4 minutes. Once the shells have opened, gently stir the shrimp into the sauce, lower heat, and continue to cook until shrimp are opaque and pink.

Strain the linguine from the cooking water and toss with a little of the sauce. Divide among six bowls and top with salmon, clams, mussels, and shrimp and with a few spoonfuls of the tomato sauce. Sprinkle with parsley and serve!