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!

25 August 2009

Onion goings-on in the garden

Just a quick update from the garden today: The Walla Walla onion seeds have finally matured, so I'm harvesting them to save for starting next year's onions. I hear starting onions from seed is the hardest way to grow onions in the home garden, but they tend to bulb without flowering as much, which is a good thing! (Bulbs that send up flower stalks get really spongy centers.)

I could tell these little guys were ready to be picked because the flower stem was completely yellowed and dry, and the flowers were opening up, revealing the black seeds ready for dispersal. I picked the whole head and crumbled the flowers to release the seeds, and I'm saving the seeds in a plastic baggie for next year!

23 August 2009

Afternoon tea and peach cake

So there was a huge flat of peaches in the house...what to do with them all? Well, it was early afternoon and I wanted a sweet but not-too-sweet dessert-like kind of snack. Then I thought, why not make a peach cake? It'd be just the thing, and it would be an excuse to try out a delicious-looking Stone Fruit Tea Cake recipe from Rustic Fruit Desserts (Ten Speed Press) featured recently in Gourmet magazine.

I chopped up 2 1/2 cups of peaches...

Then I mixed up the batter...

{Cream 3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, and 1 cup sugar. Then beat in 3 eggs, one at a time, followed by 1 Tbs. vanilla extract. Whisk together 2 1/4 cups flour, 1 tsp. baking powder, and 1 + 1/8 tsp. salt and mix the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture.}

....and spread half of it into a ceramic baking form...

...sprinkled the fruit over......dotted the top with the remaining batter...
...and baked at 375 F for 40 minutes. Halfway through baking, I sprinkled it with some turbinado sugar, for a little crunch on top.

{If your cake browns too quickly, place some aluminum foil loosely over the top while baking. Just make sure that your cake bakes long enough so that the bottom layer, which gets moistened by all the fruit juices, can cook through and get nice and fluffy.}

Delicious! It's like a cobbler, but it's a cake! Let it cool for 15 minutes, and then cut big wedges and serve! You'll love the crispy baked surface sprinkled with crunchy turbinado sugar, the fluffy cake beneath, and the soft sweet peaches dotted throughout the middle. I sure loved that afternoon snack.

Now, I wonder what I should do with the rest of those peaches ....maybe another one of these cakes?

16 August 2009

Pizza and Prosecco

It had to be done. I made pizza today. I have not made pizza from scratch in my own home in ages, and I needed a fix. The joy that comes from wrapping my mouth around homemade pizza -- the crust crispy on the outside but soft and chewy inside, ripe tomatoes and bubbly melted fresh mozzarella sprinkled with salt, and the green flavor of basil -- is incomparable. And the memory of one special pizza notte in Italy is a mini-vacation in itself.

This morning I mixed up some pizza dough using a family-revered recipe that comes from the kitchen of Spannocchia, an agriturismo and organic farm in Tuscany (and my idea of heaven). Five years ago, my family spent a short week at the fattoria there, and one night we joined with other guests and workers for a night of feasting on pizzas straight from the woodburning oven and drinking wine from the Spannocchia vineyards. Every time I make pizza, I remember that evening.

So I sliced some juicy red tomatoes, picked basil and rosemary from my garden, cut slices of soft, fresh mozzarella, and roasted a head of garlic.

I got my hands on the dough and kneaded it on a floury board. I let it rise, watching the yeasty goodness, and then portioned it out. Oh so good. Sipping prosecco, I assembled the pizzas. First I made a very simple flatbread spread with mashed roasted garlic and sprinkled with crumbled goat cheese and plenty of sea salt. After baking (500 F oven, about 10 minutes on a pre-heated pizza stone), I sprinkled it with some finely chopped fresh rosemary. It was divine with the prosecco.

The pizza margherita was made with a dab of marinara sauce with tomato and mozzarella slices, sprinkled with salt, baked, and then topped with torn basil leaves. To get the best of homemade pizza, you have to eat it freshly baked, everyone nibbling little tastes as each pizza comes out of the oven.
The kitchen for me was a flurry of flour, whisking pizzas in and out of the oven, sips of prosecco, and bites of some of the best pizza I've had in a long time. Ah, la bella cucina italiana....

10 August 2009

Eggplant Tomato Stacked Salads

For me, the fun of food comes from not just the creative combination of colors, textures, smells, and flavors, but also the sharing of it with friends. Tonight I cooked with some friends and had a lot of fun assembling and eating these composed salads. They look great, taste great, and are a good way to get everyone involved in the kitchen. And did I mention they're healthy and easy to make? You can assemble your stacked salad using whatever is in season or catches your fancy, but here's a mighty successful recipe that was eaten with gusto tonight. I love pairing cooked and raw vegetables, and here I put together eggplant (roasted to bring out a great depth of flavor), sauteed zucchini, cool slices of heirloom tomato, tangy-sweet balsamic vinegar, creamy goat cheese, and crunchy radish sprouts.

Eggplant, Tomato, and Zucchini Stacked Salads
makes 4 servings

1 large purple eggplant, sliced 1/2" thick (8 large slices)
4 small zucchini, sliced diagonally 1/4" thick
2-4 oz. soft goat cheese
1/2 cup loosely packed torn basil leaves
2 medium heirloom tomatoes, sliced 1/4" thick
4 tsp. balsamic vinegar
radish sprouts
salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Sprinkle both sides of eggplant slices with salt and arrange on a large cookie sheet. Bake at 450 F for 30 minutes or until golden brown and flesh has shrunk from original width, flipping slices over once during baking. Meanwhile, season zucchini with salt and saute until golden brown spots appear. Let eggplant and zucchini cool slightly.

To assemble the salads, place a large eggplant slice on each of four plates. Divide half of the goat cheese over the four slices and scatter the basil over. Arrange half of the tomato slices over, sprinkling with salt and pepper and 1 tsp. balsamic vinegar per stack. Divide the sauteed zucchini slices among the stacks for the next layer, then sprinkle over the remainder of the goat cheese. For the next layers, add the remainder of the tomatoes (sprinkled with salt and pepper) followed by the radish sprouts. Top with slices of roasted eggplant.

Alongside I served a potato coconut curry soup with shrimp and fresh corn and garnished with a basil chiffonade. Now that was a fun soup to eat. It definitely involved shrimp tails ending up in some crazy places, which shall remain unnamed.

Potato Coconut Curry Soup
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 1/2 inches fresh ginger root, peeled, thinly sliced
1 Tbs. Thai yellow curry paste
6 medium-large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2" cubes
4 cups chicken broth
1 (14 oz.) can light coconut milk
3/4 lb. pre-shelled medium shrimp (cooked or raw, tail may be on)
2 ears fresh corn
sea salt
1/2 cup (packed) basil chiffonade

In a large, heavy-bottom pot over medium heat, saute the onion and ginger in a tablespoon of vegetable oil until onions are soft and translucent. Stir in the curry paste, then add the potatoes and chicken broth. Cover pot and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and continue cooking until potatoes are fork-tender.

Scoop out the ginger slices and half of the potato cubes, setting aside in a bowl to keep warm. Using an immersion stick blender, blend soup until remaining potatoes and onions are pureed. Return reserved potato and ginger to the soup, then add coconut milk and shrimp. (If using raw shrimp, let shrimp cook until pink and opaque.) Slice corn kernels from the cob and add kernels to the soup; season to taste with sea salt.

To serve, ladle into bowls and top with a generous garnish of basil chiffonade.

08 August 2009

It's summertime

Something that made me really happy today (among other things): an heirloom tomato salad. Thickly sliced heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with salt and freshly-ground black pepper, balsamic vinegar, and garden-grown basil. That's it. Delicious.

Also, I was inspired by a friend's recent foray into galettes and made a peach galette with hazelnut-almond crust. Juicy summer peaches wrapped in a rustic shortbread-like crust was so easy to make and a perfect finish to the day. I love summer....

07 August 2009

Moroccan B'stillas (Chicken and Almond Pies)

This spring I had the pleasure of participating in a supper club; you know, the practice that's currently so popular of getting together with friends to cook and enjoy a special meal. Meeting Tuesdays on a monthly basis, we'd coordinate by email who would be bringing what dish, do some cooking at home, if necessary, and then do final prep work at the hostess's home, enjoying a glass of wine as we caught up with each other after a work day.

My club decided to go on a tour of the Mediterranean together. We started in Italy, feasting on a homemade ravioli and whole grilled fish. "Traveling" through France, we nibbled on ahi tartare on toasted flatbread with bleu cheese and red wine reduction, navarin d'agneau, and vacherin with strawberries and rhubarb cream. The next month followed with fish in romesco sauce with parsley potatoes in Spain.

Unfortunately , complications arose as we tried to cross the Gibraltar, and we didn't quite make it into Morocco. However, these tasty meat pies known as b'stillas made it! (I had assembled them and popped them into the freezer a couple days ahead of time, before I learned we had to cancel club.) That was a while ago...and my club hasn't resumed our journey together. So, I decided to clear out some freezer space and enjoy these great pies at home! Even after weeks in the freezer, the chicken filling turned out moist and juicy, redolent of saffron and cinnamon, and the phyllo pastry baked up perfectly flaky and crisp.
As this was the first time I ever ventured into Moroccan cooking, I looked for a well-reviewed recipe rather than make something up on my own. I found this recipe for individual Chicken and Almond B'stillas in a past issue of Gourmet Magazine, though I reduced the number of eggs to 2 and doubled the amount of ras el hanout. I also omitted the cinnamon sugar topping, but after tasting the final product, I think I would include it next time. I can just imagine how slightly melted cinnamon sugar clinging to the tops of those crispy meat pies would be a treat for the mouth!

Supper club friends, will we ever meet again?

04 August 2009

For the birthday boy

Today I want to give a shout out to my father: Happy Birthday Papa! Alles Gute zum Geburtstag!

My father is a native of Germany, and he grew up in northern Bavaria, evading work in his father's bakery. (What was he thinking?! Whenever I'm in Germany visiting the family, I always try to get in on the bakery work and learn some of their awesome baking!) With that upbringing, my Papa knows good desserts, and one of his favorites is Sahnetorte. Sahnetorte is a class of traditional German cakes made of genoise (or as I always call it by the German term, biskuit) layered with whipped cream (the sahne). Both the biskuit and the whipped cream can be flavored with nuts, or chocolate, or fruits, or liquers, or whatever your fantasy is, yielding countless types of cakes. This year, my father requested a Nusstorte, which would be a Sahnetorte with ground hazelnuts in the biskuit. I'm the family Birthday Cake Baker, so I scrounged around for a good recipe that I could modify for his special cake.

I must confess, I don't have the knack of making biskuit. My Opa (grandfather) tried teaching me, before he passed away, and I keep going to my uncle (who now runs the bakery) for brush-up lessons, but getting the biskuit just right takes a special touch. It also might have to do with the quality of butter and flour being different here in America than in Germany. Anyways, all this to say that I opted to forgo a traditional genoise base for the Nusstorte and instead go with something a little more forgiving. I also decided to deconstruct the Sahnetorte, serving the cake unadorned but with a bowl of lightly sweetened and freshly whipped cream on the side. You'll have to try this hazelnut cake...it is so moist and luscious, you'll want seconds!

Birthday Nusstorte

1 1/4 cup hazelnuts

scant 1 cup sugar
1 cup (salted) butter, at room temperature
3 large eggs, plus 3 egg whites, at room temperature
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/4 tsp. baking powder

1 cup heavy whipping cream, whipped to soft peaks and sweetened with 1-2 tsp. sugar

Grind hazelnuts and sugar in a food processor until fine. In stand mixer, cream the butter 2-3 minutes. Add the hazelnut mixture and beat until light and fluffy (about 2-3 minutes). Beat whole eggs lightly, then add to hazelnuts and beat in well. Mix together flour and baking powder, then gently and thoroughly incorporate into cake batter, avoiding over-mixing. Beat egg whites until stiff; gently fold into cake batter in 3 additions.

Line the bottom of a 10-inch round baking pan with parchment paper, then pour the batter into the pan. Bake at 350 Fahrenheit for 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

To cool cake, keep in pan and invert over a wire cooling rack. When cool, run a knife around the edge to release the cake onto a work platter and peel off the parchment paper. Invert onto a serving platter; serve each slice with a dollop of whipped cream.