Friday, October 1, 2010

Inspector Gadget

I have been on a cooking rampage lately. I can't begin to tell you how many hours I have spent pouring over recipes, on the hunt to find the next perfect meal. Yesterday I was determined to make yet another American staple: the meatloaf.
It's incredible to me that I have made steak au poivre and lemon chicken piccata but I have yet to make a meatloaf. I think it's because meatloaf has such a bad rap for being so bland and dry. Because I love a challenge, I decided I would take the cliche and make improvements.
After several searches for the perfect meatloaf, I found a recipe for a spicier meatloaf with a sweet and tangy glaze.
One of the tools needed to make this perfect savory loaf was a probe thermometer, ensuring that within one-tenth of a degree it would reach 155 degrees and thusly avoid a dried out disaster. Trouble is, I didn't have a long-probe thermometer.
Most people would probably have picked a different dish, one that they knew they had the tools or ingredients to complete the meal. I, on the other hand, spent time investigating consumer feedback on the best probe, best thermometer and compared that to what the retail associate ascertained. Satisfied with my selection, I ran to the nearest Williams Sonoma to get my hands on this high-tech gadget.
With the my birthday around the corner, and with much desire to make an even tastier dish using newer, better tools, I have spent an exhausting amount of time admiring cooks tools.
While the kitchen is certainly gender neutral, it does seem that the more casual cook is typically female. Women don't usually get excited by specs or newest models. They just don't. But give us a Williams Sonoma, Dean and Deluca or Sur La Table catalog, and we turn into excited little boys admiring a new Ferrari.
Not quite the molecular gastronomist, I prefer tools that my grandmother might not recognize but at least my mother would. Give me a hand blender with a high powered blade any day. Add a Kitchen Aid attachment to churn ice cream out smoother and faster and I die. Consider throwing in a top of the line espresso machine and I'm yours.
A gadget doesn't have to plug into the wall to make you happy. Yesterday, besides a probe thermometer, I also bought a hand held pastry blender. Nothing fancy, but it has a thumb grip to give you better control over cutting through the butter. At under ten dollars it was a slice slice of non high-tech heaven.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bye Bye Birdie

There is nothing more delectable than a whole roasted chicken. It's savory, it's well seasoned, it looks beautiful when served on a platter. The smell of it cooking in the kitchen is indescribable.
I have been craving a whole roasted chicken for some time now. I allowed myself to substitute the braised chicken with mushrooms the other day but somehow it didn't quite satisfy the "homeyness" that I was going for. Roasted chicken is one of the simplest things to make and in many ways, like the egg, the easiest way to identify a true chef.
Like it's offspring, the chicken seems to be fairly innocuous. But oh, the places you can go. Why is it that chicken has been the centerpiece at many an American dinner table? I'll tell you why. It's inexpensive, readily available, and most importantly, allows the cook to be a master of it's destiny.
There are many ways to prepare a whole bird. While brining is largely recommended because it seals in the juices, I find that brining is left best to the big birds like Thanksgiving turkeys. The mighty young chicken can be marinaded in a buttermilk bath, seasoned with simple salt and pepper, spiced up with exotic herbs or greased down in either butter or oil.
The reason I chose to prepare my poultry today in a simple marinade of cayenne pepper, fresh, coarsely chopped rosemary, salt, pepper, loads of garlic and butter was quite frankly because of time.
Today I spent all day cleaning. It was near a hundred degrees and was probably the last day that you would want to clean, or cook for that matter. But, I felt it was necessary to tidy the house so that the other days that I would come home from work I could enjoy a peaceful (and clean) sanctuary.
For that reason I wanted to find a quick recipe that would keep me out of the kitchen and away from the heat, while still satiating my need to provide my husband with a wholesome and iconic dinner.
With the bird properly dressed, baking away in the oven, turning a toasty brown, it was time to turn my attention to the veg. A sweet potato has been popped into the oven, protected by a coat of aluminum arms, the asparagus peeled at the tips and laid to cook with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of lemon rind.
Tonight we feast.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Brunchy Bunch

For many years I have envisioned what my perfect brunch would look like, what I would serve, who I would invite and even what I would wear. My brunch would be the height of fifties entertaining; the food would be delicious, the hostess charming, and everyone would be properly turned out in their Sunday best.
Yesterday, my dream came to fruition. Perhaps it was not the dream I had when I was thirteen and picked up a copy of my mom's "Best Brunch" cookbook, but in many ways it was much better.
The Sunday Brunch is one of the most sophisticated meals in many ways. Not quite breakfast, not quite lunch, brunch is a carte blanche of cuisine. Want a scrambled egg? You got it. Feeling more like a shrimp cocktail? That's fine too. Unlike breakfast (or even lunch for that matter), drinking is never frowned upon. In fact, the delectable mimosa and the savory bloody mary are best served at this time of day.
Because of the range of options with the Sunday brunch, it can almost seem daunting to create a menu. What does one make in a short amount of time, still hot and in this case catering to vegetarian diets as well? For me, it was not an easy answer.
Since my brunch fantasies began many years ago, I have accumulated a library of brunch cookbooks to assist me in this possible best case scenario. Crepes, waffles, pancakes and scones seemed like the most likely options for the palates of my animal friendly guests, but to be honest, it didn't sound very tempting to those of us who need a little more protein to start the day off right.
I spent hours doing research on my beloved Williams Sonoma website, I poured over my Culinary Institute "Breakfasts and Brunch" cookbook. Entertaining books, Betty Crocker, Bon Apetit and even Food and Wine magazine ensued, and still no menu.
Agonizing over the menu didn't seem to help me further along, so I finally decided that I would just make what I knew I could do best and leave it at that.
My guests were invited via Evite, a modern concept that would have Ms. Post rolling over in her grave, but it's the modern girls guide to realistic etiquette. With invites set out, menu finalized and guests confirmed, the big B day arrived quickly and with much anticipation.
The purpose for our reunion yesterday was to bring budding friendships together and progress a series of promises to get together soon and get to know each other betters.
My best friend, Kristi was at my house the weekend of said brunch, having celebrated a friends' wedding the previous night at the beautiful Presidio in San Francisco. Together, Kristi and I attacked the mountain of tasks that needed to be completed under Top Chef-like timelines. Expecting to have the brunch ready by the time our guests arrived at ten a.m., we were surprised to see that it was already ten after ten and only the first dish had been started.
In my original fantasies of yore, I would have been wearing a bouffant and my mothers' pearls, the spread would have already been laid out in such a way that Martha would be proud, and my guests would marvel at what a great hostess I am.
The reality went something like this: no time for make-up, so I'm going "natural". Not wanting to wear heels or a dress, since I had already worn that garb dancing the night away the night before. Food ready? Not a chance. Table beautifully adorned? Try having to ask my guests to help so that the food could be served only forty minutes after everyone arrived, instead of two hours after.
To her credit, Kristi kept me very calm in what could only have been described as a potential nuclear meltdown situation. She jumped in where needed, took on any task that was delegated and acted as my charming co-host to help put the guests at ease. And you know what? It actually went better than expected BECAUSE of the hiccups, not in spite of them.
The formality that can sometimes cripple a new social situation was diminished because of assigning everyone a task, and as a result everyone felt easy and natural with each other.
The menu was simple but tasty and consisted of homemade biscuits, homemade honey butter to accompany, apricot-orange marmalade, raspberry jam, roasted potatoes, heavily seasoned with spices and garlic, scrambled eggs, honey smoked bacon and roasted tomatoes, not to mention a fresh fruit platter of sliced cantaloupe, sliced at the peak of freshness, pineapple, blueberries and strawberries. To drink we had guava and mango mimosas, coffee, milk and tea.
During the meal, easy conversation ensued and all was falling into place. One of my guests, Aronn, suggested we play a fun guessing game where the intention is to guess the anonymous answers of others and simultaneously demonstrate memory skills.
It's funny what you discover about people once the velvet ropes have been lifted. We learned things about each other that you might not normally learn until late night drinks have been had and yet it was only midday.
What ultimately made the brunch a success wasn't the food, the decor or even the dress code. It was about following up on a promise to see each other soon and making good on the promise to get to know each other better.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Welcome Home

It's been a long time since I've thrown on an apron and picked up a knife. It's been an even longer time since I've logged in and written about my cooking (or lack thereof). To be honest I even thought that my account may have closed from lack of use. So you may be surprised, dear reader, to find a new post from yours truly. "Why return now?" you might ask. Because it's Fall.
I can't begin to tell you how happy it makes me to say that autumn has descended upon us. Although dear Father Time may not agree with me, there are a few things contrary to the calendar that make me think otherwise. First, kids are going back to school and with that come fond memories of buying new school supplies, wearing your newest, favorite clothes and deciding how you had reinvented yourself enough over the summer to present yourself as a changed person. I have also begun to notice that leaves are falling and dusk is creeping in earlier and earlier.
With the idea of Fall comes the promise of good things to come. Pumpkins need to be picked, cashmere sweaters pulled out of the closet and worn with a beloved scarf. Caramel apple cider tempts you and suggests that you might want a slice of pecan pie with whipped cream while you are at it. But, most of all, Fall means cooking.
There is nothing more seductive to me than the ritual of cooking a gourmet meal. From the moment I put on my cherished Dean and Delucca apron and tie a hand towel through the loop, I enter the arena as Chef Flay and my regular existence gets put away in the closet for the night. I put on a little jazz music to start (Ella being the perennial favorite), pull out my cutting board (my new, hot pink one from Crate and Barrel being my current favorite), and reach for the melange of ingredients needed to make my masterpiece.
In thinking about my re-entry into the cooking arena, I began to think about the meaning of cooking. I'm not talking about it's definition or even need, I'm talking about the little rituals that we associate with food. From the requisite barbeque on Fourth of July to the traditional pheasant at Christmas, Americans have always associated socializing with food. In fact, we've built an entire 3 day holiday around it: Thanksgiving!
The kind of ritual that I am thinking about though, is Sunday dinner. When I was first married I had every Sunday off and I vowed to myself that I was going to make a nice dinner every Sunday, that we would use the china, and that we would turn off the t.v. and eat at the dining room table. That fantasy lasted 1 Sunday. The reality turned out that we would pick up something and bring it back home, like Marie Callenders. Most often we would eat dinner in the living room from the coffee table. And instead of talking about our day, we would turn on the t.v. and allow the Simpsons and Family Guy to lull us into a lazy stupor. This wasn't every Sunday, but it certainly wasn't once in a while either.
Because I had Sunday off again and for once didn't have plans to see anyone, I decided I would resume my place in the kitchen, dust off the old knife block and tip my hat to the typical Sunday dinner.
Originally planning to make a whole roasted chicken with a side of roasted vegetables cooked in the dripping from the bird, I instead decided to stay in the vein of poultry, while not having to marinade and brine my dinner for 3-4 hours before cooking could even commence.
I poured over the Williams Sonoma website and found a salivating recipe for braised chicken with mushrooms cooked in a sherry reduction. With a shopping list in hand, I set out for the grocery store.
Have you ever shopped for whole, fresh fennel before? I hadn't until yesterday. Let me tell you, it was the most adult thing that I have shopped for in a long time. I picked up the long stemmed produce and set out to pick out the other ingredients that I would need to make the small salad that I would be serving with said chicken.
Getting home, I unpacked my motley group of ingredients and set out to make my dinner. The salad began with fresh arugula, radicchio, and spinach. I then added in a diced red pear, tiny pieces of prosciutto and then added in shaved fennel and freshly grated parmesan. For the final touch, a pear and rice vinegar vinaigrette was seasoned and swirled within my new Williams Sonoma dressing emulsifier.
With the salad made, it was time to move on to the main course. The chicken was cleaned and heavily seasoned with salt and fresh, ground pepper. The chicken was then added to the frying pan and left to cook on both sides within a buttery bath. Then the chicken was removed and more butter was added in along with the onions, mushrooms, dry sherry and worcestershire. Finally the chicken was added back in and served over a bed of egg noodles.
The salad was laid out on the dainty, china salad plates, the dinner was served on the formal, dinner plate, a bottle of full bodied, buttery Chardonnay was chilled, uncorked and poured, and Sean and I sat down for dinner at the coffee table and watched Simpsons and Family Guy. Four years of marriage and we were finally at home.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Fall Flavors

Today I cheated.
This blog is supposed to be dedicated to updates on my forays into the culinary world in which I am the chef. Today however, I have cheated because I have taken the time to write about someone elses cuisine. So for this I can only say, "forgive me father, for I have sinned."
This afternoon I was walking back towards the office, and from the break area I smelled an amazing scent wafting through the air, beckoning me with its ribbons of sweet and savory seasonings. Like a cartoon, my nostrils flared and I was floating toward the delightful aroma, curious as to who was enjoying such a delectable meal.
It was my associate, AnnMarie, nibbling on a piece of ravioli. "What are you eating?" I asked, another associate harmoniously agreeing with my inquiry. She replied quite simply, "Butternut squash ravioli."
I couldn't believe what I was seeing, a frozen meal so appetizing, it looked like it could have been served on china and in a Batalli establishment. Hmm, I might have to look into this.
Not usually a fan of mixing the sweet with the savory, I've been finding myself bending more and more on my old steadfast notions, accepting a change in palette with eagerness. I love ravioli, I am on friendly terms with squash, so why have I waited this long to try them together?
When I got out of work it was a later later than I was planning, and the air was cold and brisk. The first scent of fall tumbled around me as I was being whipped around by the blasts of cool air but it wasn't altogether unpleasant. I could smell cinnamon in the air, freshly fallen leaves were collecting into little piles for the night, and I sighed with contentment; I love fall.
Deciding that I wanted to capitolize off of autumn's emergence, I decided then and there that I would have myself some butternut squash too. Remembering that one of our local restaurants offered it on their seasonal menu, I asked Sean to call in the order and we went to pick up dinner together.
Taking the dinner home was a small treat. The flavors reminded me of a dinner that my best friend, Kristi and I had enjoyed last year when we were in New York. Around this time last year we went to the notorious "Butter" restaurant and treated ourselves to a scrumptious dinner. Kristi had herbed ravioli and butternut squash soup and I had mushroom soup and a lobster dish. I also enjoyed an apple cider martini. With those flavor profiles in mind, I compiled tonights' dinner.
A small caesar salad, butternut squash ravioli, with crispy sage leaves and a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon, and lastly tiramisu. The topper was an apple cider hard liquor drink that Sean had picked up earlier that day. I was in heaven.
A waltz of flavors danced in my mouth, the creaminess of the ravioli curtsied to the sweetness of the sugar/cinnamon mix. They partnered together nicely in my mouth, begging to fill up my dance card once more. Bite after glorious bite I consummed my ravioli, savoring each herb, each crisp each seasoning. Fall had arrived in the form of my dinner.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A "Sand"y Lunch

Today I channeled a new chef in my (un) haute cuisine: the Barefoot Contessa. It seems that there aren't many fans of hers in my circle of friends, one friend even described her as very "sand". When asked why, she responded that she is very bland and lives in the Hamptons.
The thing about sand though, is that while it might not be mighty as a single grain, together it forms a formidable force in which something so simple can become something more elaborate. I use this as my topic today because of the inspiration that dear Ms. Ina has given me, creating a simple yet satisfying lunch for ones friends.
As of late, my little band of San Francisco girlfriends have formed a little group that I like to call the Movie Girls. So far our outings have revolved around seeing new chick flick releases, hence the name. Last time that we got together, we treated ourselves to the prix fix lunch menu which consisted of more prosecco then food.
This month, we are going to see the new Jennifer Anniston movie, and rather than going to another bistro, I have offered to make lunch for my little group. My menu is not very fancy nor challenging for a couple of reasons. The biggest being that I have no access to a stove, and I will be transporting said meal for over an hour before it will be consumed. While it does present a challenge, I decided to take the lone sand route and make a much simpler menu.
Years ago when I worked at Stanford, there was a small deli named the Oakville Grocery that I used to frequent. Besides having an amazingly gorgeous wine specialist, they delivered fresh, gourmet options, to the hungry mall goer such as myself. I would go in nearly every day and get a little variety of options. Some days it was a crab cake with a remoulade sauce accompanied by a small, shrimp caesar. Other days it was turkey breast panini grilled with roasted red peppers and a creamy pesto sauce. My absolute favorite dish was their Chicken, Orzo pasta salad. It was light, refreshing and provided a small burst of flavor that would instantly waken my tired palette.
I thought back to the Barefoot Contessa and saw that her best lunch options were portable, served best cold and were easy enough to eat without much utensils or condiments. With that in mind, I decided to re-create my own version of the pasta salad that I missed so dearly.
Going to the grocery store without a list allowed me to think differently about the dish. I shopped for what was fresh, and allowed that to influence my salad. I saw very green arugula, cherry tomatoes on the vine that were so sweet that you can smell their sweet juice when you picked them up. Finally I had my salad.
I got home, threw 2 boxes of orzo pasta into a boiling pot then added 2 cups of raw, chopped red onion, the fresh arugula, a handful of cherry tomatoes, diced chicken breasts that I had marinated in lemon juice, salt, garlic and pepper and finally a few, very generous spoonfuls of white, truffle oil. Yummo! It was the perfect dish for a lunch in the park.
I also knew that I wanted to make sandwiches but I didn't want to fall into the trap of turkey or tuna. Instead, I recreated my favorite sandwich, which I had when I was with my best friend, Kristi, when I last visited her in Orange County. We stopped by Lawry's for prime rib sandwiches on ciabatta, dripping in horseradish sauce.
When I asked the movie girls if there were any food allergies or dislikes I found out that one of the girls, Gail, does not take well to horseradish sauce. With that in mind, I set out to still make steak sandwiches, minus the horseradish. I started with potato, rosemary artisan bread, followed it up with garlic and herb cream cheese spread and completed it with vine-ripened tomatoes and peppery arugula. The steaks had been gently seared in my new, French skillets, in the same method as the other night save for shallots and substituting garlic instead.
Lastly, for dessert, I wanted to give my guests a small, easy treat that would be effortless to carry and ultimately selfishly indulge in: fresh baked madeleines. They were surprisingly easy to make and baking was a cinch. In the 10 minutes they were baking, I checked my emails.
Wrapped in little, cellophane bags they are the perfect end to a quick feast in the park. I enjoyed making my basic lunch for my friends and I especially relish the idea of eating it outdoors in the beautiful, Yerba Buena gardens.
For those of you who doubt the Contessa, or find vanilla to be a little too vanilla, I challenge you to take notice in the little things, and see that even the basic can be extraordinary.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Wanna Be Italian

I think that I was born in the wrong country. Every little fiber of my being tells me that I should have been Italian. I'm sure many people believe this because they are fans of pizza and spaghetti. Not me, I think I should have been Italian because I love my familia, the great fashion houses of Gucci and Valentino and mostly because I sincerely think that the only way to eat pasta is when it is made from scratch.
If I was a true Italian, then I would have a huge family and especially a huge mama who would hand down her two hundred year old recipes for pastas, insalates and tiramisu. She would be nothing like Sofia of the Golden Girls, instead more of an Isabella Rossellini mixed with Giada DeLaurentis. My Italian husband would be a Rocco DiSpirito incarnate and I would take my little, pink Vespa to the local farmers market where I would meet up with my sisters, take in an espresso con panna and then terrorize the local farmers, demanding the best, and freshest produce.
Since I am not Italian, I shall have to resign myself to adopting the culture through my culinary exploits. I vow to make all my pasta from scratch, never again allowing a box of Golden Grain to enter my household. I also commit to tossing my pizza pies in the air as I am kneading the dough and I promise to throw my linguine al dente against the wall to check for doneness.
Firmly ensconced in my Italian fantasy life, I am listening to Pavarotti as you read along, sipping cold pinot grigio and embarking on my first homemade ravioli with beef. The filling has already been made. A quick saute of onions, butter, carrots, celery, ground beef, and seasoning cooked along merrily with a full cup of red wine. Once cooled, it went into the food processor where it was blended into a light and fluffy mousse that will be the filling for my pasta.
My dough was created also in the food processor, and from there it was rolled into long, lean sheets of pasta that was cranked through a pasta rolling machine. It's such a funny thing making pasta at home. There is flour everywhere and the dough that you use gets cranked and cranked and then cranked again until the little fist sized balls of dough get squeezed out into long sheets of pasta-y goodness. They are so long in fact that you actually have to take a knife and cut them to make it easier to handle.
I'm sure that my fantasy mama would knead, roll and cut the dough by hand, but I am glad to admit that my fantasies do not include cutting out modern equipment like food processors and KitchenAid attachments.
It was quite fun to make the ravioli, turning the pasta just so, lining up the savory filling, pressing the pasta back down and cutting out cute little squares with my pastry wheel. Cooking the fresh ravioli is also so much easier, because it is so much softer,and in 3-4 minutes it's done.
Tonight my in-laws came to dinner. They are good people and very all-American so I worried a little that my dish might not be the big hit that I had hoped it would be when I planned it. It wasn't until we sat down to eat that I realized it was probably not such a smart idea to serve an un-tested recipe to a group but I figured that if all else failed we could take them to Marie Callendars instead.
I needn't have worried. We started with a warm salad of green beans, edamame, and cherry tomatoes that I had left to marinade in a vinaigrette of olive oil, balsamic, dijon, soy sauce, honey and chili paste. It sounds a little odd but it was Italian-Asian fusion. The main course was the beef filled ravioli in a pomodoro sauce made very simply of tomatoes, garlic, basil and sauteed in olive oil. My in-laws seemed impressed.
What I realized tonight is that love for cooking can season the food and that you don't have to be an Italian to cook like one.