Sunday, June 26, 2011

Community garden salad

Clockwise from bottom: watermelon radishes, panzanella, Ronde de Nice squash
Cucumber & chocolate mint water, watermelon radish garnish

The community garden in Sutter Park is starting to produce. The recent hot weather really boosted a lot of crops, notably summer squashes. Our garden is on the verge of yielding some bonanza tomatoes: San Marzanos for sauces, Cherokee Purple for eating and orange cherries for whatever we feel like. Silk is showing on the corn, we have a Bell pepper just about ready for harvest, and we usually get a strawberry or two for a treat. The watermelons, beans and squash have a long way to go yet, but hopefully by then end of summer they'll all be producing.

After our usual Sunday weed and water, I walked around to see what everyone else is growing and how their plants are doing. The result: a conversation leading to a couple of Rondes de Nice squash, a watermelon radish, and another radish with "giant" in the name - long, red and a bit twisted. Combined with an organic cucumber and an heirloom tomato from yesterday's trip to the market, we had everything on hand for a great veggie/salad plate.

The first thing I thought of was a nice panzanella. This is an Italian salad made with croutons, tomatoes, olive oil and whatever else you want to throw in, if you're not being authentic. The gardener who gave me the Rondes de Nice stressed that they're creamier than zucchini (courgettes if we're being French), and to cook them separately to get familiar with their taste. I couldn't resist throwing the radishes in as a garnish, both for the main plate and the drink.

Recipe notes

Ingredients (for everything) 
  • Stale bread, cut into 3/4"  to 1" cubes. I used a Chinese cleaver for this, since the bread knife was not liking this task.
  • Chicken stock
  • Fully ripe summer tomatoes, medium dice
  • Cucumber, small dice for salad; julienne for water
  • Onion, julienned
  • Fresh basil, chiffonade
  • Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO to foodies)
  • Sea salt
  • Pepper
  • Rond de Nice squash, large dice (irregular)
  • Chocolate mint, chiffonade
  • Garlic, fine dice
  • Fresh grated Parmesan cheese

Since it was part of a summer medley, the panzanella didn't get too involved. However, this can be a meal in itself if you add nice fresh cheese, capers, hard boiled eggs and make it bigger. It can have grilled meats, different herbs, whatever you think is appropriate - although I don't consider it a panzanella unless it has fresh, ultra-ripe tomatoes. You could also add anchovies, but in this case I'd hold the cheese. 
  1.  Preheat oven broiler
  2. Lightly fry the croutons in some oil. 
  3. Splash in some chicken stock and add the garlic. This replaces the soaking and squeezing step from the more traditional recipe. Keep stirring so that the croutons don't stick, transfer them to a baking sheet and pop them in the broiler to crisp up a bit. Keep checking them and turn as needed so they don't burn. 
  4. Set aside.
  5. Assemble the panzanella just before serving time by tossing the tomatoes, cucumbers onions and basil with the croutons in a bowl. 
  6. Pour in some strong, grassy EVOO. I skip the vinegar or lemon juice since I don't want it interfering with the acid from the tomatoes. 
  7. Once it's plated, grate some Parmesan over the top.
Ronds de Nice
These were done subtly to let the delicate flavor of the squash come forth. 
  • Sauté the squash, stirring/shaking constantly so they don't stick. 
  • Add chicken stock and some of the julienned onions, salt and pepper.
  • Cook uncovered until the liquid has mostly evaporated but things are still juicy.
Actually, you don't do much with the radishes. The giant type was julienned and plated under the watermelon, which was sliced into thin rondelles then dusted with salt. The juice from the squash and panzanella will run through the julienned radishes, making them a lot more interesting than simple radishes sitting in a plate as an appetizer.

This was a really healthy lunch, certainly much healthier than some kind of spicy grilled meat just dripping with fat. My cholesterol probably thanks me for eating it. Only one drawback: I'm already hungry again.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Tomato Carpaccio

Although summer officially started a couple of days ago, it's not really summer without vine-ripened tomatoes. Ours are still hanging green from the vine, but they're slowly starting to appear at our local farmers' market. These were small, plum-sized varieties. Two yellow and one red. Three with good tomato flavor and one sweet but otherwise not thrilling.

With hotter weather and good produce, it's easy to create something without all that mucking around in the kitchen, slaving over hot pans and incandescent ovens. This couldn't be simpler: thinly sliced ripe tomatoes, a strong extra virgin olive oil, smoked sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, basil from the garden. And some bread, in this case flax seed ciabatta.

This is a filling dish when you serve it with lots of bread for sopping up all that tomato-basil infused olive oil. No need to pile on lots of protein or add courses. Just four ingredients and two spices (I'm counting bread as an ingredient - but if you want to get fussy, add another five for the bread).

Monday, June 20, 2011

Lucky Dog Ranch burger

Ciabatta bun, organic red leaf lettuce, Lucky Dog Ranch burger, orange tomato and scallion relish, fresh basil mayonnaise. Washed down with a Luc Pirlet Minervois, a great hamburger wine from Southern France.

These hamburgers come from cattle who roam around on pastures, living a tranquil life, munching on grass and finished on brewer's grain mix. They never even imagine those nightmare feed lots that you can smell miles before you pass them on the highway. Unstressed cattle taste better, apparently, and this meat gives weight to this claim.

Annette said, "This tastes like the beef we used to get in the market when I was little". That was a farmers' market in France, where the meat was fresh ground while you wait. The taste is complex, a bit gamy perhaps.  Rich and complex, with flavors going well beyond what you'd expect from a mere beef patty.

The goal with this burger was to let the meat shine. No Bordelaise sauce, no mushrooms. Only a light relish, a dab of freshly prepared basil mayonnaise and a thin ciabbata baked only hours earlier. Eschewing the umami-rich decadence of my last burgers, these tasted garden fresh, the grassy flavor of the lettuce mingling well with the complex, grass-fed note from the beef and the sweet-sour tang of the relish. If ever a burger could be deemed health food, this rendition should easily qualify.

Braised Cache Creek Chicken with herbs

This chicken is raised in open air pastures, where it can eat whatever it can catch. Yes, that includes bugs. I can't say that it had a distinct air of cricket, but the meat was flavorful. This is good when you're boning the bird, rubbing the inside with a strong herb and prosciutto paste, rolling it up and braising it in a garlic/red wine broth in the oven.

The chips are Yukon Gold waffle cut on a mandoline, tossed in extra virgin olive oil, salt and garlic, baked, then tossed again in finely chopped fresh basil and topped with Maldon smoked sea salt.

The hors-d'œuvre was Tuscan style crostini. None of that topping rich nonsense that the Americans favor. Just recently baked ciabbata toasted on the grill, rubbed with raw garlic, drizzled with organic, extra virgin cold pressed Mission/Manzanillo blend olive oil from Happy Valley, dusted with sea salt and fresh ground pepper.

The first course was a traditional Tuscan melon draped with Prosciutto, served with a glass of reserve ruby Port. That trip to Portugal did make an impression after all.

The chicken was followed with a Nicasio Valley cheese plate, then some fresh fruit, all eaten under the stars on a warm almost summer evening.

Since these birds actually move about rather than sitting in tiny cages, their meat is a bit firm. A bit of time in a brine might be useful for a bit more tenderness.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Farmer's market brunch

We finally got to our closest Certified Farmers' Market. The market just keeps getting better. There were cheeses, grass fed beef, pasture grown chickens, organic eggs, complex olive oils... and of course fruits and vegetables.

This coincides with one of us being on a low carb diet. Yes, she's the one who added the toast to the plate. Nice to know she's not restrictively serious about the whole diet thing.

Just about everything in this recipe came from the Farmers' Market. I wish the prosciutto had come from there, but so far nobody is making charcuterie for the market...

Farmers' Market Eggs

Ingredients (per person)
  • 1 Orange cherry tomato (other tomatoes still not ready), chopped
  • about 2 Green onions (scallions). Chives would work, too. Finely chopped. You'll use the green tips as a garnish, the bases for the Hollandaise and the frittata.
  • 2 Organic cage free happy chicken eggs, whole for poaching and separated for sauce and frittata.
  • Salt to taste
  • Foggy Morning cheese from the Nicasio Valley Cheese, sliced into 1/4" thick rounds
  • Chicken stock - about 1/2 cup or so
  • White wine vinegar - for the Hollandaise and the water for the poached eggs
  • Prosciutto, cut into narrow strips, about one piece (slice)

The goal is to time all this so that everything goes together hot and is whisked out for everyone to enjoy. You either have to prepare some things in advance or juggle several processes at once. I tend to make the Hollandaise a bit in advance since a quick whisking will restore it to its former glory, within reason.
  • Chop all ingredients that need chopping.
  • Slice the cheese so it's ready
  • Boil some water for the poached eggs.
  • Fry the scallions for the sauce and some more with tomatoes for the frittata
  • Let the pan for the Hollandaise cool down
  • Do the frittata and poached eggs
  • Finish the Hollandaise
  • Assemble the thing
  1. Fry some of the scallions in some butter, when they're translucent add chicken stock and white wine vinegar (just a dash of the vinegar)
  2. Add chicken stock and a bit of white wine vinegar (or white wine) and reduce to almost dry
  3. Let the pan cool.
  4. Whip in egg yolks over low heat or bain marie. Careful! If you don't use a bain marie, lift the pan off the heat... better read about this technique before you try it. I don't use a bain marie because it's a pain, but too much heat will break your sauce and you'll have to start over.
  5. Add small cubes of room temperature butter, whisking constantly
  6. Add lemon juice when sauce thickens, whisk in. 
  7. Reserve sauce.

  1. Put some oil in a pan, slowly fry some more scallions and the tomatoes.
  2. When they're a bit translucent, add the egg whites left over from the Hollandaise.
  3. Put on very low heat and let set up while you're doing other things. 
  4. When almost done, but still a bit liquid, turn off the heat and reserve. The eggs will cook on residual heat.

Poached eggs
  1. Add some salt and white vinegar to the boiling water.
  2. Stir the water, and add the eggs to the middle of the swirling water, one at a time. Drop them from just over the surface of the water so the yolks don't break.
  3. Turn off the heat once the eggs are in, give them about three minutes. You want fully cooked whites with runny yolks (unless you have a different preference).

  1. Get your plates ready.
  2. Make sure everyone is ready to eat and at the table, not walking around the garden gawking at flowers.
  3. Place the cheese rounds on the plates
  4. Place the hot frittata on the cheese
  5. Carefully lean the two poached eggs on the frittata.
  6. Pour the Hollandaise over the frittata, between the poached eggs
  7. Add the prosciutto over the top
  8. Add the green onion garnish (or chives).
Serve right away, preferably without taking lots of photos, so it will be warm. The frittata should melt the cheese a bit, and the Hollandaise will flow like lava, mixing with the cheese, the egg yolks, the frittata, the prosciutto... If you're the photographer, it's even good lukewarm. 

This was originally designed to be a low carb plate. If you want it that way, don't serve with toast. You really don't need the toast except to chase down that remaining cheese/frittata/sauce on the plate.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Cheap yet extravagant

On the way back from a meeting, we headed for our favorite hole in the wall Mexican joint for a burrito, but ended up passing Whole Paycheck just to see if they had anything irresistible. Result: we spent a bit too much on cheeses. Along with some other things. Only one solution: stretch out our purchases so we can get back to the cheap burrito index. That will mean a minimum of four meals.

Only one thing to do: compensate. Compensating with inexpensive ingredients does not mean choking down something in atonement for our fromage extravagance. Old bread (home made), eggs and butter are all cheap. Prosciutto isn't, but then this doesn't use much of it.

This uses a Hollandaise sauce made of shallots, white wine vinegar (also homemade) and limes to keep things moist and interesting. The bread is cut out into a round and gently simmered in butter after being lightly splashed with chicken stock. The bread scraps become croutons, same process (they'll crisp up again in the butter). Only two free-range brown organic eggs per person. One poached, the other in the Hollandaise. Eight eggs left in the under four dollar package. Damn cheap!

The prosciutto also gets cut into a circle, and the scraps get trimmed kind of like a chiffonade and used as a garnish.

Here's how it stacks up, from the top down:
  • Prosciutto "chiffonade" garnish
  • Crisped round bread
  • Hollandaise
  • Poached egg
  • Prosciutto round (two thin slices deep)
  • Hollandaise

Garnish all around with croutons and parsley or basil.

There might be a way of making this with fewer pans, but I doubt it. One for poaching, one for croutons, one for Hollandaise, container to separate the egg yolks. A lot of washing, but cheap + good often equals extra labor.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hamburger avec champignons sauce bordelaise garni avec os à moelle

This is really something that sounds better in French. Although it's really not so bad in English, at least until you get to the bone marrow part: a half pound (before cooking) hand shaped burger, mushrooms in red wine-beef reduction sauce, garlic-lemon-chipotle mayo, slow proofed French bun, organic red leaf lettuce, bone marrow.

Sounded great until that last part, right? Marrow? Zombie food! Undrool!

Really, the marrow isn't that dominant from a gastronomic point of view. Much less so than verbally. It simply adds a rich note, more beefiness and no doubt more calories. It might have some redeeming quality, like being rich in some mineral or other. I don't know, since this was all about taste.

The bones, cooked along with mirepoix and seasonings, made a rich beef stock that was perfect for creating a sauce for the mushrooms. The rest can be used for something else later, like a sauce for another no doubt unhealthful beef dish.

The mayo gives the burger a bit of a kick from the heat of the peppers combined with the tang of fresh lemon juice.

Still no tomato in this bad boy - with the cool weather, the tomatoes aren't yet ready for prime time.

The lettuce goes in under the patty because I think that the mushrooms "stick" better to a rough burger than to slick lettuce - so when you bite into the thing it holds together a bit better. I've heard laying the lettuce low keeps the bottom bun from getting soggy, but I really don't mind some juicy burger drippings getting into the bun. More flavor. This bread is able to absorb a bit of juice without disintegrating.


NOTE: For reasons known only to the L.A. Times, even though I posted it to their Facebook site, it never got into their best burger competition. So much for that. Guess it wasn't so simple to enter after all.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bad weather. Good cookies.

What do you do when it's June, but temperatures are running twenty degrees below normal and it's pouring rain, you're confined to indoors and there's no outdoor dining in sight for the next few days? Make cookies, of course!

These use a positively decadent amount of chocolate chips. They melt, they ooze, they stick to your fingers and have to be licked off. You will eat too many warm cookies and ruin your appetite, then eat too many again for dessert. You'll add some more to go with your coffee. In the process, you'll forget about the weather and sit back with a smile on your face and stretch marks on your belly.

Put them out and watch friends eat a normal amount, then sidle up to the cookie plate and slyly pluck another cookie as clandestinely as they can. Then another. Then they'll try some kind of sleight of hand, making the cookies disappear without appearing to move. Eventually, you'll catch them at it and they'll reward you with a classic grin and a half shrug, probably the same thing they did as children when caught in the same act.

So, here's the magic formula. It transforms skinny people into round people, makes them forget about the rain, and gives grown adults an excuse to lick their fingers. It's adapted from a cookbook recipe, now evolved so far that it doesn't have a lot in common with its origin. This formula uses a food processor, since I don't have a fancy stand mixer with all the attachments. You can also make it in a mixer with a paddle attachment, being careful not to overmix.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
Food processor method, metal blade

yield: about four pounds of cookie dough. The quantity of cookies is up to you - some like small cookies; use a teaspoon to portion and round the dough by hand for 2"-3" cookies. Use an ice cream scoop for 4" cookies. I like the small cookies since I can eat more of them.

If you have a decent scale that weighs in tenths of ounces, you can put this all together in a food processor bowl, pulsing to mix ingredients as you go and zeroing out as you add ingredients. Less washing up this way. Don't use the food processor to mix the chocolate chips since it will grind them up - dump the dough into a bowl and mix them in by hand.

  • 1 lb 1 oz (4 cups)    All purpose flour
  • 0.25 oz    (1 1/2 tsp)    baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp    kosher salt
  • 8 oz        unsalted butter, cut into 1 oz. pieces (2 sticks)
  • 10 oz (2 cups tightly packed) dark brown sugar
  • 5 oz granulated sugar (or use all dark brown sugar)
  • 2.25 oz (2) large eggs
  • 1 oz (2 Tbsp) dark rum
  • 1 tsp Vanilla extract
  • 24 oz dark or extra dark or mixed chocolate chips (two packs is 23 oz - good enough)

  1. Preheat oven to 300° F.
  2. In food processor bowl, combine flour, baking soda, salt, sugar. Mix using metal blade.
  3. Add room temperature butter to the food processor bowl and mix.
  4. Add the eggs, dark rum and vanilla to the food processor, pulse until mixed.
  5. Transfer to mixing bowl, fold in chocolate chips by hand.
  6. Form the dough into balls, size according to how large you like your cookies. The balls will melt into cookies in the oven.
  7. Place the balls on parchment paper covered baking pans, leaving space around them so that the cookies won't touch when they melt.
  8. Place baking sheets on the top and center racks of the oven and bake for 28 to 30 minutes, until the cookies are a bit browned (or more browned, according to your taste).
  9. Remove cookies from oven, allow to cool on baking sheet for 30 minutes. I like to tilt the cookies by overlapping them so that air can circulate beneath them.

You're done. Restrain yourself. Remember that the chocolate is molten when the cookies come out of the oven, and will be painful when it sticks to your fingers and lips. Best to wait a few minutes before giving in to your cookie-eating urges.

Store the remaining cookies in an appropriately marked cookie tin, assuming that you, your friends and family did not eat the entire batch.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Buttermilk fish & chips

It was a dark but not yet stormy night. The storm was on its way, though. Rain was in the air as the trees bent in the wind. An ideal night for some comforting pub food.

This recipe started with an idea to use a thinner, lighter batter but still have moist, flavorful fish. I did not want to fool with beer batter, yeast, and a thick crust with a lot of flavor, since the goal was to bring out the fish's natural flavor and just use the batter for a bit of crunch and as a coating. The fish should be the star, after all. Instead, the fish is left in some salted buttermilk to act as a brine and get more moisture into the fish before frying. The buttermilk will also act as glue to hold the flour mixture onto the fish during frying.

I suppose I should mention that this type of cooking has an element of risk. Doing things the old school way is not the same as sticking things in a microwave and waiting for the "bing". 

Hot oil overflowing onto an open flame creates a grease fire - not a good thing, and definitely best avoided. This typically happens when your fryer has too much oil, too close to the rim. When you add the food, the moisture on its surface will flash into steam, creating bubbles. All those bubbles - combined with the food itself, will raise the level of the oil. If you have too much oil, it will overflow right onto an open flame (if you're doing this over a burner). Badaboom! Danger! No eyebrows! Always add the food slowly, even when you're certain that the oil level is fine. Dropping the food into the oil is never a good idea in any case, since hot oil hurts, leaves unsightly red welts on your skin and is overall bad form if you're trying to appear expert and cheflike.

Maybe this is a good time to check that you have appropriate materials on hand to extinguish a small kitchen inferno appropriately, too.

Never, ever use water to put out a grease fire! Remember the Wizard of Oz? Do you really want that fireball in your kitchen or in your face? No, I didn't think so. Water is heavier than oil, so what happens when you get a lot of it in the fryer is that it sinks to the bottom of the oil and flashes into steam, shooting burning oil everywhere.

If all this sounds too scary, maybe you should bake the fries and fish instead - but that's another recipe. This recipe is the real thing, hot oil, potatoes, fish. If the oven is too much a challenge, well, there's always frozen stuff and a microwave, the mainstay of cooking-challenged people everywhere - although at this point I'd rather brave the approaching storm and head for a local pub.

The Fish 


The Fish
  • Black rockfish fillets, sliced into four inch chunks. Debone the fillets first (fish or needlenose pliers work great for this). You could also use some other type of white fish with firm flesh. If you opt for salmon, remember that your oil will be forever imbued with a good dose of fishiness. Remember to use sustainable seafood, whatever your choice!
  • Buttermilk to cover fillets
  • Sea salt
  • Aleppo pepper (chile flakes)
  • Black pepper
The flour for dredging
  • All purpose flour
  • Morton sea salt flakes
  • A bit of kosher salt (since the flakes won't all stick)
  • Aleppo pepper
  • Black pepper
  1. Mix the buttermilk, salt and peppers together, pour over the fish, mix everything together so that each piece of fish is well coated. Place in refrigerator for at least two hours.
  2. Mix the flour, salt, peppers together and set aside in a large mixing bowl suitable for dredging the fish.
  3. Heat a suitable vegetable oil to a point where a chip (piece of potato) bubbles energetically when dipped into the oil. It doesn't have to be smoking, and it's probably a good idea that it's not.
  4. Dredge the fish in the flour mixture, making sure that the pieces are well coated. When removing the fillets, shake them a bit to remove excess flour.
  5. Your oil should be nice and hot at this point. Slowly dip the fish into the hot oil and let go. Don't drop it in unless you like oil burns all over your forearms. The fish will cook much quicker than the fries, so stagger the two processes.
  6. When the fish is golden brown, remove it from the oil, turn off the heat and set it on a rack or screen to let the excess oil drip off.

The Chips

The chips should not come out of a large bag that's been in a freezer for an unknown amount of time. They should be cut from scrubbed Russet potatoes, sliced and done in a three step process just like in Belgium. No, they're not French. Just ask a Belgian if you don't believe me.

  • Russet potatoes, julienned. If you have a mandoline, you can slice them quickly. If you're a gadget freak, you can get a gizmo that mounts on the wall and slices them just about instantly. If you have a really great, razor sharp knife you can do them all by hand.
  • Salt, pepper for tossing on the finished chips
  1. Soak the potatoes in water, preferably overnight. If you're in more of a hurry, you can rinse the potatoes until the water is clear and soak them for less time. This is to remove excess starch for crispier chips.
  2. About an hour before showtime, heat a suitable high temperature vegetable oil. Use a frying pan or fryer that's deep enough to cover the fries yet have ample room between the top of the fryer and the surface of the oil. The fries will bubble energetically when they go in, raising the surface of the oil so it's essential that this can all happen inside the fryer. 
  3. Place the fries in the oil slowly. This lets you avoid splashing and consequent burns, and also lets you verify that you didn't put too much oil in the fryer. If the bubbles get almost to the top, save the rest of the fries for a later batch. 
  4. Fry the potatoes until they start to get limp, not golden. That's the next step. Leave the potatoes to cool off. Don't worry about draining off excess oil at this point, since you're going to re-fry the chips anyway. Turn off the heat under the oil.
  5. Before meal time, start heating the oil. Since you may need to fry the chips in batches, allow time for multiple fryings as needed (you can heat the oil for the fish so it's ready too - just be careful not to overheat it while you're doing the chips).
  6. Fry the chips until they're just a nice golden brown. Drain off the excess fat.
  7. Toss the chips with some salt and pepper and serve immediately. If all went well, you've also cooked the fish and everything is in perfect synchronization. 
Place the fish over the fries, garnish with a lemon wedge and dinner is ready. If you insist on being very British, make sure you have some malt vinegar on hand.