30 July 2010

Personal Peach and Almond Tarts

A few days ago, a bunch of peaches sat ripening on the kitchen counter, slowly but surely reaching the point where they were almost too ripe.  They needed to be eaten, and right away!  The problem nagged at me even in my subconscious, and as I woke up one morning, one of the first thoughts that filtered through my mind was the idea for these almond-crusted personal peach tarts.

Each little ramekin holds a single portion, a peach half nestled in a cup of almond pastry dough and topped with crunchy toasted almond slices and granulated sugar.  You'll want to have soft, perfectly ripe peaches for this recipe--mine were at the point where just some gentle work with a paring knife easily pulled the skins off--so that the peaches retain enough of their juiciness during baking.

These little tarts are the perfect size to enjoy after a nice dinner, but they're so good that you might want to eat two of them...not that I'm speaking from personal experience or anything!  And I love the presentation for these tarts...aren't they so cute?  I used a fluted cutter to give the border a flirty edge.


I also tried a "Version B," where I baked the tarts upside-down style.  For this version I placed the peach halves cut-side down in buttered ramekins, and then I covered them with the almond dough, tucking it down over the edges of the peach.  It resulted in super-soft and juicy fruit, but after unmolding them, the crust was fairly fragile, having absorbed much of the steam emitted from the baking peach, and they didn't seem to have the same cute presentation as my original version.  Maybe it's just missing a dusting of powdered sugar as a finishing touch!

But either way you make them, they're a great combination of flavors.  So next time you're at the store, grab a few extra peaches and try these tarts at home!

Peach and Almond Mini-Tarts
Serves 8

1 cup flour
 2/3 cup whole toasted almonds, chilled
2 Tbs. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, diced
2-3 Tbs. ice water

4 soft, ripe peaches

4 tsp. granulated sugar
4 Tbs. sliced almonds

In a food processor, grind together the almonds and sugar until a fine meal forms.  Add the flour and salt and pulse to mix, then add the cold butter cubes and pulse until well blended.  With the machine running, add ice-cold water one tablespoon at a time, until dough clumps together.  Collect dough together and sandwich between plastic wrap, flattening into a large (~ 10-inch round) and thin disc.  Chill in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare peaches.  Cut each peach in half (slicing through the crease down the side of the fruit), then twist the halves around the stone.  One half should be easily released from the stone.  Remove the stone from the other half (I find the tip of a knife helps to pry it out), and then carefully peel off the skin.

Remove almond dough from refrigerator and, keeping it sandwiched between the plastic, roll out until 1/4-inch thick.  Remove the top layer of the plastic wrap and then, using a 4-inch diameter round fluted biscuit cutter, cut out 8 circles of dough.  (Note: The almond dough becomes very soft at room temperature, but don't worry!  The trick to keeping the dough intact is to peel the plastic wrap off of the dough circles, instead of trying to lift the dough off of the plastic.)

Line each of eight 3-inch diameter ramekins with a circle of dough, then fit a peach half, cut side up, snugly on top.  Bake 15 minutes in at 375 F.  Raise temperature to 400 F and sprinkle each peach with a 1/2 tablespoon slivered almonds and 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar.  Continue baking at 400 F for about 20 more minutes.  These tarts are best enjoyed still slightly warm from the oven.

25 July 2010


These guys are hanging out on the vine in my garden right now.  Oh the anticipation of fresh, home-grown tomatoes!  If we could just have a few hot, sunny days, these orbs of deliciousness would be ready for feasting upon.

But my question is, how to eat these?

There's the simple slice-and-sprinkle with sea salt, or get a little fancier with the Caprese thing layering slices of tomato with fresh mozzarella and basil, but I'm craving a little more inspiration this year.

So talk to me, folks...what are your favorite recipes that let luscious tomatoes shine forth in all their glory?


22 July 2010

Cool as a cucumber

With the heat wave of the East Coast and the recent sultry days in California, there is no time like the present to add a side of oi muchim to your next meal.  This spicy Korean salad--literally meaning seasoned (muchim) cucumber (oi)--is an absolutely delicious, refreshing side dish, composed of cold crunchy cucumbers dressed in slightly sweetened vinegar, spicy red pepper, and roasted sesame seeds.

One of the things I love about living in California is the wealth of cultural diversity.  As a result, I've had a chance to experience a lot of great food from all over the world, right here in my home state!  However, since this microcosm of Santa Barbara that I now live in sadly has no Korean restaurants (though we do have a small Korean market, yay!), I have decided to start adding some new recipes to my repertoire so that I can keep on enjoying the delicious food of Korea.

My first attempt to make Korean food was actually way back in high school.  At that time, my family still subscribed to the LA Times, and one of their food sections had a nice feature with some tempting recipes for savory mung bean cakes and japchae noodles.  I threw myself into making those recipes with great zeal and no idea what I was doing or what the final product should taste like.  It was fascinating, but honestly I felt a little confused.  So now, with much consultation with online recipes and videos, Korean friends, and the kind ajumma at my local market, I am taking it slow, starting with a few simple recipes and then hoping to graduate to more complex dishes.  It's a fun process, and I love all that I'm learning!  Come join in the fun with me and try oi muchim!  This is definitely a great dish to start with!

This is a super easy dish to make, but if you like step-by-step photos, check them out at Beyond Kimchee, which is where I found the original version of this recipe.  I served this up with some short-grained steamed rice and slices of tasty egg roll (aka Korean omelet), but I think it'd be a great complement to any sort of grilled meat or fish as well.

Spicy Korean Cucumber Salad 오이 무침 (Oi muchim)
Serves 4

1 English cucumber, chilled
1 Tbs. grated onion
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 - 1 1/2 Tbs. Korean red chili powder 고추가루 (gochugaru)
2 tsp. white vinegar
3/4 tsp. superfine sugar
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. roasted sesame seeds

Slice cucumber into 1/8-inch slices.  Stir together remaining ingredients and pour over the cucumbers, mixing well to coat each slice.  (Mixing with gloved hands is a great technique for this recipe, as you can really massage the pepper powder over each cucumber slice.)  Check seasoning and add salt and more chili powder to taste.  This salad is best served well chilled and soon after making so that the cucumbers retain their crunch.

19 July 2010

We're jammin'

Growing up with a jam-eating father, a garden full of fruit trees, and the European heritage of thriftiness, jam-making figured largely throughout my childhood.  My German grandmother has always sent us her clear Gellees made from wild forest raspberries, Preiselbeeren, and Johannisbeeren on a yearly basis.  And on the few occasions she's come out to visit us during the summer, she'd make us batches of jam from our California strawberries.  Clearly, if you eat a German breakfast of Brötchen or Butterbrot every morning, there is a great need for jam!

With the supply of fruits from our garden and the demand for jam, my mom has led the way in making jams and jellies from our apricots, plums, pomegranates, and muscatel grapes.  Now, you wouldn't know it by looking at our apricot tree, but this has been a good season for apricots in Santa Barbara.  For some strange reason, our tree produced a grand total of about half a dozen apricots, and I was feeling a little sad that homemade jam didn't seem like an option this year.  But then a coworker told me about Vincent Farm here in town, which opens up to the public for "you-pick" organic Blenheim apricots, and it just so happened to be that they were finishing up a bountiful harvest!

I managed to get over to the farm on the second-to-last day of the you-pick season, and, basking in the sunshine, a gorgeous ocean view, and the serenity of North Goleta, I got to select my own perfectly-ripe apricots from the orchard trees.  It was so fun to have an apricot harvest after all, even though my tree at home was on vacation.  And the price ($2 a pound) couldn't have been better!


Later that same day, my mom and I got together and washed, blanched, peeled, pitted, and cooked those fresh beauties into another year's worth of delicious apricot jam.   This recipe has been our go-to recipe for years...and we especially like that it is just simple ingredients coming together, no pectin needed!

BTW, Vincent Farm is located at 230 Winchester Canyon Road, Goleta, California.  If you would like to get email alerts on their latest harvest (they have apricots, plums, and I hear they're working on a grapefruit-blood orange hybrid), give them a call at 968-9310 and ask to be added to their email list.

Homemade Apricot Jam
Adapted from Better Homes Cookbook

3 lbs. of whole apricots (use just-ripe, unblemished fruit)
1/3 cup water
3 cups sugar
2 Tbs. freshly-squeezed lemon juice

Wash the apricots and then blanch briefly (~15-30 seconds) in boiling water until skins just burst, then peel skins off and cut away any brown spots (especially around the stem).  Remove pits and any membranes or fibers in the pit cavity.

Measure out 4 1/2 cups of fruit into a large, non-reactive pot.  Puree with an immersion stick blender and then add the water.  Bring fruit puree to a full rolling boil, then add the sugar and lemon juice and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the fruit reaches the desired thickness (about 7-8 minutes).

Remove fruit from heat and skim off any foam that may have formed.  Pour into hot, sterilized jars* and seal with sterilized lids.  (Using a clean, sanitized funnel makes filling the jam jars a whole lot easier.)  Let jam cool to room temperature and then store in a cool place (such as a cellar or refrigerator).

* To sanitize jars, submerge clean glass jars and their metal lids in boiling water for about 10 minutes.  Use tongs to handle jars and lids.  After draining jars of water, keep jars upside-down on a clean kitchen towel until ready to use.  Fill jars while still hot.

18 July 2010

Trattoria Grappolo

I don't normally do restaurant reviews, and I don't plan on making it a habit here, but I had such an exquisite meal this past week at Trattoria Grappolo that I can't resist telling you about it.  Plus, I got a few great photos so I really should share them, right?

Months ago, some friends and I had a wonderful, leisurely 4-hour meal at Grappolo, and when my birthday came around this year, I thought it would be the perfect place to go for a little celebration.  So my parents and I headed over to the valley (the Santa Ynez Valley, that is), and settled in on the restaurant porch for a gorgeous, multi-course meal.

We started off with Carpaccio di Bue, a traditional antipasto of paper-thin sliced raw beef.  The combination of ingredients was fantastic--salty shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh and green arugula, tangy capers, earthy hints from the beef, and drizzles of lemon juice and olive oil--and the delicate structure of each component created a perfect balance of flavors and textures.

In the Italian fashion, we decided not to order our courses all at once, but rather to savor each one, and only after fully tasting and eating one course would we order the next.  After some consultation with our taste buds and negotiation amongst ourselves, we settled on two primi.

The Tortelloni Burro e Salvia, homemade "ravioli" plumply stuffed with spinach, ricotta, and Parmigiano and resting in a sage butter sauce, had caught my eye on their way to a neighboring table, and the pasta special of the night, homemade ravioli stuffed with sea bass and served with a spicy tomato sauce, also intrigued us.

While I love tomato sauce and generally eschew butter, I was captivated by the tortelloni.  I just loved how cute and plump with filling they were, and the soft and creamy texture of the spinach and ricotta was well matched by the delicate pasta clinging round it.  And the velvety butter sauce, so fragrant with sage, made each bite pure bliss.

Not without its own merits, the ravioli special had a generous amount of sea bass, but in the end I found the filling to be somewhat dry and rather curious, consisting of what appeared to be just flaked sea bass and minced broccoli.  The tomato sauce was delicious, though, and the heat of the spice was pleasantly warm without being overpowering.

After our delicious primi, we sat back at our table on the porch and let the moment sink in, enjoying the balmy warm summer air, sipping our Chardonnay, and taking in the beautiful views of the valley.  We were so content with our meal up to that point that we slowly began consulting the dessert menu.

At length, however, (and much to our server's surprise, I'm sure!) we decided that instead of dessert, we did in fact want to order the New York strip steak special.  It was superbly aged and tender (chef Leonardo Curti superintends the aging process in-house; and on a side note, I hear he's making his own prosciuttos, as well!), perfectly grilled with a deep pink and juicy center.  The steak was topped with a creamy sauce hinting of melted Gorgonzola and more of that heavenly sage, and it was accompanied by roasted potatoes, sauteed carrots, and some of the best sauteed spinach I have ever tasted.

Having had a preview of the dessert card, we couldn't resist ending with a little something sweet.  So, we finished off our pleasant meal with the Pere alla Finanziera, a warm and soft almond cake topped with pear and served with cream and a scoop of vanilla gelato.

The food at Trattoria Grappolo is absolutely delightful, and the service is amazing as well.  It is (sadly) rare to find a restaurant in the States where dishes are not removed until all diners at the table have finished their course, and rarer still to find a restaurant where the table is "yours" for the evening.  But at Grappolo, you are treated with the best of European-style service.  The considerate and helpful staff have made my visits truly enjoyable, even offering tastings of some of their wines to aid in the decision-making and offering complimentary desserts on occasion.

With a "jaunt to Italy" just under an hour's drive from home, I can safely say that I'll be going back again.  And again!

12 July 2010

The real deal on Saag

If you were to ask me what my favorite Indian dish is, I think I'd have to go with saag every time.  Saag, a dish of slow-cooked greens that often gets chunks of paneer cheese mixed in, is an absolutely delicious concoction.  I love the creamy texture and subtle spicing of the cooked greens, and when made with sparing amounts of ghee, it is a luscious and low-fat way to get your daily dose of green vegetables.

My first encounter with this dish was at an Indian restaurant up in the Bay Area during my college years.  I'd never seen the likes of it before, and I relished every bite, wiping clean the serving dish with a piece of naan bread.  But one of the frustrating things about eating dishes that are outside of my native cuisine is that I don't have any clue how I could replicate the dish at home.  Even most ethnic cookbook recipes disappoint me, so when I find a recipe that actually does produce authentic-tasting results, I get super excited.  As it turns out, this recipe (adapted from the blog Blazing Hot Wok) made me feel like I actually have a knack for Indian cookery--I sure felt like I'd arrived when an Indian friend-of-a-friend tasted my saag and enthusiastically declared it tasted like the real deal!

For a healthy alternative to the paneer cheese, I recommend using firm tofu that has been well-drained and patted dry before frying.  Or, you can omit the frying altogether (although the fried exteriors of the cubed cheese or tofu is especially fun to chew on.)

Saag Paneer

Serves 6  (adapted from www.blazinghotwok.com)

2 Tbs. ghee (ghee is best for a velvety texture, but you can also use vegetable oil)
Minced green chilies, to taste (remove seeds for less heat)
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tsp. fenugreek seeds
6 inches of cinnamon sticks
5 cardamom pods (or ½ tsp. ground cardamom)
5 whole cloves (or ½ tsp. ground cloves)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ Tbs. grated fresh ginger
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 Tbs. tomato paste
2 - 1 lb. packages frozen chopped spinach
1 bunch kale (or mustard greens), de-stalked and chopped
1 lb. paneer (or tofu), cubed
~ 2 tsp. sea salt, to taste

Heat a very large pot over medium heat and add the ghee, chilies, onion, fenugreek, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves, and saute until the onions are translucent.  Adjust the heat if necessary to prevent burning.  Add the garlic and ginger and continue to cook for about 1 minute until fragrant. Add the dry spices and tomato paste and mix to thoroughly combine. Add the greens and about 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to allow the greens to simmer, covered, for about 30 to 45 minutes (longer is better), stirring occasionally until the greens are tender.

Remove from heat, discard the cinnamon sticks, and then process the greens with an immersion stick blender until smooth and creamy (I don't process it completely, as I like to have a little texture from the greens remaining).

Once the saag cools a little, check for salt and season to taste.  The greens taste great (and maybe even better) if made ahead reheated the next day.

Before serving, fry the paneer or tofu in a little oil (or ghee) until golden brown on all sides and then drain on paper towels.  Check the saag again to make sure it's the consistency you want, adding more water for a thinner consistency.  Add the paneer to the saag and mix gently.  Serve with basmati rice or naan bread.

**Notes on ingredients: If you live in Santa Barbara, I recommend Pennywise Market at East Montecito and Elizabeth Streets for the ghee and spices.  Paneer cheese can be found at the Oriental Market at 5863 Hollister Avenue in Goleta.

07 July 2010

Sweet and Simple


I have been enjoying a number of delicious salads recently, all of them centered on a fantastic foursome of summery ingredients.  It started off as an appetizer: arugula tossed in a lemon vinaigrette, with creamy avocado, perfectly-ripe summer strawberries, and fresh mozzarella, sprinkled with sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper.

You don't need to do anything complicated to treat your senses.

But then I couldn't help myself.  The next day I took the same four ingredients and added chopped cabbage and lettuce, thinly-sliced celery, and fresh corn shaved from the cob.  That was pretty good too.  What a salad!

Lemon Vinaigrette

1/4 cup lemon juice (or more, to taste)
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. superfine sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. freshly-ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, finely grated
1 Tbs. water
1/2 cup vegetable oil

Place all ingredients in a glass jar and seal shut.  Shake well until emulsified.  Store refrigerated up to 1 week.

Recommended Salad Ingredients
Romaine and red-leaf lettuce
celery, thinly sliced
fresh corn, shaved from the cob (raw)
sliced strawberries
avocado, large dice
fresh mozarella, cubed

01 July 2010

My obsession with "Pasta"

I have a confession to make.  I am totally hooked on Korean dramas right now.  The one that got me started on them all was one called "Pasta," a 20-episode series set in the kitchen of a fictional Italian restaurant in Seoul.  After hours of watching the characters cook and eat plate after plate of spaghetti, linguine, and ramen, I developed a deep craving for wrapping my mouth around some well-twirled pasta of my own!  So I took inspiration from a favorite family recipe that combines pasta, chicken, sauteed mushrooms, and broccoli in a delicate sauce.  (This was one of the few dishes my mom made when I was growing up that had a name other than a mere descriptive title.  We called this "Yum Yum" because it was, well, yummy.  Rather an original name, eh?)

The combination of the main ingredients is pretty hard to beat, but to make the sauce extra flavorful, I decided to use some sweet Marsala wine.  Then, to get the pasta and sauce to really meld together, I added the linguine--slightly undercooked--to the prepared Marsala sauce and finished cooking the pasta while tossing and coating it in the sauce.

While I do not endorse many of the kitchen practices portrayed in "Pasta" (e.g. sticking your fingers into the plated dish for a taste-test), I did pick up a couple of fun things to try out, one of them being a plating technique for long, twirl-able pasta.  Basically, you pick up a whole serving of pasta strands on a large two-pronged fork and twirl the pasta into a nice mound and then place it, all neat and tidy, onto the serving plate.  I think I still need some practice to get the same results everyone in the show was producing, but the learning curve shouldn't be too steep....

Anyways, I thoroughly enjoyed making and eating this dish, with the luscious linguine all coated with light Marsala sauce, and chunks of chicken, earthy sauteed mushrooms, and steamed green broccoli adding a variety of flavors, colors, and textures.  I'm not gonna force you to love K-dramas, or to call this dish Yum Yum, but I do think you should at least try this pasta!  Here's my recipe:

Linguine with Mushrooms, Chicken, and Broccoli
Serves 4

1/2 lb. linguine
1 lb. brown mushrooms, sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. flour
1/2 cup Marsala wine
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup milk
1/3 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 large chicken breasts, poached in chicken broth and cut into pieces

1 head broccoli, cut into florets
salt and pepper to taste
handful Italian parsley, finely chopped

Cook linguine in salted boiling water until not quite al dente.  While pasta cooks, saute sliced mushrooms in melted butter over high heat.  Deglaze mushroom pan with Marsala, letting alcohol evaporate.  Sprinkle pan with flour and whisk into the reducing wine, then add chicken broth, milk, and grated cheese, whisking and allowing to further reduce until a sauce forms.

Add linguine and stir to coat, continuing to cook the pasta until it is al dente, and adding pasta cooking water if too dry.  Meanwhile, steam broccoli florets in salted water.  Add broccoli and cubed chicken and stir to combine, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.  Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.