Category Archives: cooking

WHEN HOME-MADE JUST CAN’T BE BEATEN

My pink lemonade

It took a long week-end, the first in many years, since working on a Saturday was par for the course of my job, to make me appreciate my lemon tree. I haven’t bought a lemon in the nine years I have lived in this house – this tree miraculously bears fruit twelve months a year and I typically step outside the kitchen and pluck one when needed, without giving it much thought. Until last Friday when, tired of the coyotes and other wildlife feasting on the lemons that fall to the ground, I set out to pick as many  ripe ones as I could. And, with all that bounty, I made lemonade.

Don’t laugh. I took immense pleasure in juicing lemons, finding the right proportion of simple syrup to please my palate and, finally, adding some end of Summer cherries to make pink lemonade.

Home-made noodles

The same pleasure that I took in watching my mother make pasta and meat sauce, the way the universe intended it to taste. Or slicing some perfect tomatoes from McGrath Farms and let them roast on a ricotta tart.

Tasty tomatoes

Somebody asked me this morning if I did anything fun over Labour Day Week-end. As a matter of fact, I did and it involved lounging around on the patio, consuming large quantities of ice-cold lemonade and steaming home-made pasta. And I didn’t even bother working out.

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CITRUS OLIVE OIL BUNDT CAKE

cooking

Citrus Olive Oil Bundt Cake with Honey Ice-Cream, Pistachio Dust and Berry Caramel

I never thought the day would come I would astound my mother with my cooking abilities. She knew I had been working in a professional kitchen for the last eight years but never saw me in action for the limited time she would come here for and, when I was vacationing in Italy, the last thing I felt like doing was cooking and, especially, making cakes. Now that she is here for a solid two months, I have been making food for her and she is most impressed with my desserts, asking me to write down recipes, watching me as I work dough and quizzing me on ingredients. What I make at home is all fairly easy so who knows what she would think if she saw some of the stuff we make at work.  I have clearly been on a cake binge recently, mainly for  her sake.

The following recipe was also a mainstay in our restaurant for quite some time. The original recipe (at this point heavily re-worked) came through the husband of a former chef. Don’t be put off by the idea of using extra virgin olive oil in the cake – it adds flavour and wonderful moisture and it won’t taste as if you were eating salad. My advice is to use a mild tasting extra virgin olive oil, more on the fruity side. Pastry flour is highly recommended to keep the batter light.

The version in the photograph came about thanks to some pretty sunflower molds that I was given and was inspired to use. The recipe will yield one bundt cake (with a little bit of batter left over) or 10 small ones.

RECIPE

2C + 2 T Pastry Flour

1 1/2 C Sugar

1/2 ts each Finely zested rind of Tangerine, Lemon and Orange (microplane zesters work best)

1 ts Baking Soda

1 ts Baking Powder

1 1/2 ts Salt

A few drops Lemon, Orange and Tangerine Oils* (optional)

3 Eggs

1 1/2 C Milk

1 C Canola or Corn Oil

1/2 C Extra Virgin Olive Oil

  1. Begin by combining the finely grated citrus zest with the sugar. Mix using your hands and allow the flavours to infuse while measuring the rest of the ingredients.
  2. Combine and sift dries (including sugar) in a large mixing bowl. Set aside.
  3. Combine wet ingredients with a whisk in another bowl.
  4. Add wet ingredients to dries slowly, whisking constantly to avoid lumps, but do not whisk too vigorously.
  5. Pour into very well sprayed bundt pan(s), filling about halfway.
  6. Bake at 325F if using a convection oven (about 20 minutes for individual, around 1 hour for a large bundt) or 350F if using a still oven (it will take a bit longer). Check cakes about halfway through baking time and rotate the pans.
  7. Bake until lightly golden brown and a wooden skewer comes out clean when inserted.

* Citrus oils can be purchased at gourmet food stores or on-line.

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FRENCH BUTTER CAKE – GATEAU BRETON

French cooking

Gateau Breton

As I started the process of cleaning my work computer in preparation for my departure, I have come across myriad of photos of creations that I served over the years. I hadn’t thought of this particular cake in a long time, a staple of Bretagne, originally consumed for breakfast, that I started making in individual portions and dressed up with caramelized peanut ice-cream.

The original recipe came to me through Anne Willan, an accomplished cook who used to own the French cooking school La Varenne and whose cookbooks are beautiful works of art and sources of inspiration. Ms. Willan makes the cake by hand but, in the interest of time-saving (and of serving many people), I started using my trusted mixer and I can’t say I noticed any difference.

Because this cake’s centrepiece is butter, the better the quality, the better the cake. You want a butter that is extremely high in fat content and low in water – I used Plugra, a fantastic French butter that is also divine just spread on bread (and then forget dinner). This cake can be stored in an airtight container up to two weeks, with the butter flavour becoming more intense as time goes by. Perfect to serve with coffee or tea.

Calvados (an apple liqueur) is not essential but a lovely addition that adds complexity to the overall cake.

Recipe – Serves 8

1 C/225 g High quality butter

6 Egg Yolks

2 C/250 g AP Flour

1 C/200 g Sugar

1 T Calvados

  1. Butter or spray one 8” (20 cm) tart pan, possibly fluted, and with a removable bottom. Mix the egg yolks in a small bowl and remove one teaspoon for the final glaze.
  2. Sift the flour and place it in the mixer. Cut the butter in small cubes and add it to the flour, together with the yolks, sugar and Calvados. Mix on low with a paddle attachment until the dough comes together. It will be pretty stiff.
  3. Transfer the dough to the pan, smoothing it with your palm, dipping it in water  so it doesn’t stick.
  4. Brush the surface of the cake with the yolk you set aside and then mark a lattice in the glaze with the tines of a fork. Place in the fridge for about 20 minutes.
  5. Bake at 35F/190C for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 356F/180C and bake 20/25 minutes longer, rotating it for even baking, until golden brown.
  6. Let it cool to warm and then unmold. The butter flavour will become more intense the longer you keep it.

 

 

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FRIED ZUCCHINI BLOSSOMS

$6 bought me eight, precious and wonderful looking zucchini blossoms at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. Not exactly cost-effective if preparing a low-budget meal but I have an incredibly soft spot for zucchini blossoms that I have been eating since I was a child.

Over the years, I have enjoyed them filled with all kind of goodies, from sardines to goat cheese but my first love is simply fried, tempura style. With my  mom in the kitchen, and with frying being one of her specialties, we got to work. Here is the result.

Perfect for an appetizer if you are entertaining, everybody will love the subtle, fresh taste of these blossoms.

RECIPE – Yields: 8 blossoms

8 Zucchini Blossoms

3/4 C AP Flour

3/4 C Sparkling water

1/2 ts Salt

1 ts Olive oil

A/N Canola oil, for frying

  1. In a shallow bowl place the flour and start adding the water, a bit at a time, mixing with a wooden spoon, until you have the consistency of a slush. Add salt and oil. Whisk until smooth.

    Whisk until smooth

  2. Wash the zucchini blossoms with a damp paper towel, being careful not to tear them.
  3. Heat about 1/4” of oil in a frying pan until very hot.
  4. Dip the blossoms, one at a time, in the batter and drop them in the hot oil. Fry them, turning them once or twice, until the batter feels hard and looks deep golden. Remove them with a slotted spoon and place them on plate covered with paper towels.
  5. Sprinkle some salt on top and squeeze a few drops of lemon and serve immediately.

Eat immediately!

 

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FOUR HAND SONATA

Dinner in Rome

Just because my mother is busy in the kitchen while staying with me for the next two months, it doesn’t mean I eschewed cooking altogether. It’s the first time, in our long and distinguished lives, that we are cooking together. Even as a grown-up, it was always my mom cooking my favourite meals whenever I would visit, with me relishing every bite but keeping my nose out of her kitchen. But with food having played a huge chunk in the last ten years of my life, most of them spent in a professional kitchen, it’s force of habit and, I won’t deny it, pleasure, that will make me shove some cauliflower in the oven just because, or concoct a dessert someone happened to mention.

The result of this tandem culinary activity is a fridge and freezer bursting at the seams, and a series of invitations extended to friends in an effort to consume this edible mound that keeps on growing.

As I observe my mother’s mottled hands as she rolls pasta (with the long rolling-pin she got past US customs) or deftly twirls tortelloni, she quizzes me as to the dressing I whipped up for the salad or will peek into the food processor to inspect my humus. As I try to hold on to or acquire what is second nature to her (rabbit with black olives anyone?), she opens up to new flavors and embraces foods I take for granted, such as guacamole, which she calls “that avocado thing your cousin makes”.

“Which counter do you want?” one of us will ask, as we divide the kitchen, pull out chopping boards and, like last Sunday, at the end of a brief cooking session, we’ll find out we have more food than we can possibly sit down and eat. Not surprisingly, Ottie and Portia are gaining weight at an alarming rate as my mother hasn’t become inure yet to the liquid, pleading eyes that will tactically position themselves either by the stove or the trash can. Whomever still believes dogs don’t have a thinking process of some sort, I beg them to reconsider.

A comment from Aunt Snow, aka the blogger behind Doves Today, on an old, heavy  colander belonging to her grandmother that she recently rescued, made me remember the old kitchen ware that was passed down from my grandmother and still very much in use in my mother’s kitchen as I was growing up: an imperfect and massive scale that my mother revamped by painting red; an ancient wooden coffee grinder with a giant cranking handle and a small drawer for the ground coffee; copper pots of every size, the tiny milk pot banged up beyond recognition – it’s as if the gadgetry of the ’60’s and ’70’s completely bypassed our house, with the only exception of Tupperware. Not much of it has survived and I wish I had squirreled it away when I had the chance. But in my ’30’s, I felt myself and my mother to be eternal and that our house would always be my personal museum.

My mother doesn’t realize how this gift of cooking together is the best 50th birthday present she could have ever given me. I don’t feel eternal anymore and, despite her resilience and endless energy, I can see the stiffness in my her joints. But I am not thinking about it just yet. For now, the rolling and chopping and whirring will go on so that I can pull out lasagna from the freezer sometime in December and remember these perfect Summer days.

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PASTA E FAGIOLI (ITALIAN BEAN SOUP)

When you work in a professional kitchen, the tendency to run amok with culinary gadgets is very strong. And whenever I enter a kitchen supply store, I am inclined to buy anything and everything for my home kitchen – sure, I will have the chinois because the 60 feet of cheesecloth still sitting in my pantry is not good enough! Why not an egg poacher? Then I remember I can poach eggs perfectly well in my crappy little saucepan – they might not be perfectly round but they are perfectly poached. Only the fact I abhor clutter stops me from adding useless crap to my counters. Then, if all else fails, I think of my mother, who cooks magnificent meals out of a postage stamp sized kitchen, with culinary utensils five decades old.

Cooking at home seldom requires the skills or instruments of a professional kitchen, although having huge cutting boards is something I am so used to I can’t do without, but, with my mom now cooking in my kitchen day and day out, I am reminded that good food does not equal a $200 knife. She already thinks I am off my rocker for having color coordinated cutting boards used only for certain items or that my fridge is organized according to health laws, that when I saw her chopping parsley with the scrappiest knife in my drawer, one that I had thought long lost and that she probably picked because it was the least intimidating, I didn’t have the heart to say anything. The pasta and fagioli she made with that parsley couldn’t have been improved by my Shun knife anyway.

RECIPE – Yields 4 portions

11 oz Dried Cranberry beans, soaked overnight and rinsed

3 T Parsley, chopped

1 Garlic Clove

5 T Tomato Sauce, possibly home-made

1 Carrot

1 sprig Rosemary

4 T Olive Oil

Salt and Pepper to taste

1 C Short pasta or handmade egg pasta roughly cut

  1. Cook the beans in plenty of water (enough to cover the beans) with the carrot, rosemary and salt. Bring the water to boil then let simmer until the beans are tender (about 1 hour)
  2. In the meantime, heat the olive oil in a small pan. Add garlic and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes (make sure not to cook the parsley). Add the tomato sauce, salt and pepper and let cook until the sauce thickens.
  3. Once the beans are cooked drain them but reserve the water.
  4. Mix the tomato sauce to the beans and, adding some of the reserved water, puree in a blender in several batches, adding water to taste, depending on the desired thickness. You probably won’t use all the water but you want it thin enough to be able to cook the pasta in it.
  5. Place the soup on the stove in a big pot, bring to a gentle boil and add the pasta. Cook until al dente and serve with olive oil.

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MY FAVOURITE GRANOLA

Let’s end the week with another sugar-free recipe. My first taste of granola was actually under the guise of Muesli, on my first trip to Switzerland as a child. Can’t say it was love at first sight. Now I chomp down granola dry, as a snack, if I need a pick me up during the day. Granola is so easy to make that I have forever foregone store-bought varieties. No matter how good they are, they can never match a home-made one. I tried infinite variations and the following recipe fell in my hands a few years ago – I think I found it in the New York Times and, if memory serves me, it belonged to a restaurant whose name now escapes me. What intrigued me was the use of extra virgin olive oil, rather than blander cooking oils.

When it first came out of the oven and I tasted it, I knew I had found my granola partner.  I make it regularly, store it in a jar and reach for it whenever a sweet craving strikes.

RECIPE

3 C Rolled oats

1 1/2 C Pistachios, hulled

1 C Pumpkin Seeds, hulled

1 C Unsweetened Coconut Chips

3/4 C Pure Maple Syrup

1/2 C Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 ts Kosher Salt

1/2 C Honey (or brown sugar)

1/2 ts Cinnamon

1/2 ts Cardamom

3/4 C Dried Apricots, chopped or other dried fruit of your choice

 

  1. In a large bowl, combine oats, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, coconut chips, maple syrup, olive oil, honey (or brown sugar), salt, cinnamon and cardamom. Spread mixture on a baking sheet in an even layer and bake at 300F for about 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes, until golden all over and well toasted.
  2. Transfer granola to a bowl and add dried apricots.

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