Tag Archives: food

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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PAPPARDELLE WITH PROSCIUTTO AND PEAS

Pappardelle with prosciutto and peas

My world-famous mother has travelled back to Los Angeles with me. To me, personally, this means coming home to an extremely clean house, laundry sorted, ironed and organized, dogs brushed and über happy to have company most of the day and food. Lots of food. For others passing through my house, it also means being fed whether they like it or not. Somehow, my idea of cereal for dinner is such anathema to my mother, that she has to convince me every single night that whatever alternative she has cooked up, has to be better. Well, it is but that is not the point – by the end of her two month stay, at this rate, I will have ballooned into oversized proportions.

But you try to fight with an Italian mother intent on feeding her child! Last night, it was pappardelle with prosciutto and peas, a dish I hadn’t had in probably 20 years and forgotten how delicious it is. If you happen to have an Italian mother lying around, insist of freshly made pasta, otherwise, store-bought pappardelle will have to do.

RECIPE – yields 4 portions

1/4 #  prosciutto cut into small cubes

3/4 #  pappardelle

3/4 C  tomato sauce (possibly home-made)

1/4  onion, finely chopped

1C  peas, fresh or frozen

1 T olive oil, mildly flavoured

Salt and pepper to taste

1 T Butter

  1. Remove about 1 T of fat from the prosciutto and set aside. Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the onion and the prosciutto fat and cook on medium until the onion is translucent and the fat has melted.
  2. Add peas and cook for about three minutes, then add the tomato sauce and mix until everything is combined. Add salt and pepper. Set aside.
  3. In the meantime, cook the pappardelle in salted, boiling water. Drain.
  4. Re-heat the sauce, add the prosciutto and the pappardelle and mix together on the stove (you want to add the prosciutto at the end to keep it tender but, should you prefer it crispy, add it with the peas).
  5. Remove from heat and add the butter. Mix until melted and serve immediately.

 

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ASPARAGUS PUREE

I had to add the first tomato from my plant

I have been of an asparagus binge lately, as I want to catch them before the season is completely over. Lovely, thin stemmed, bright green asparagus. If there is one vegetable one shouldn’t mess with, that vegetable is asparagus. To better enjoy the flavor, when I make soup, I forgo even the basic steps of sautéing onion or mire-poix and I don’t bother adding cream to my puree.

What’s left of my home-made mayo

In asparagus binge mode, tonight I used half of the bunch I bought to make a simple soup and the rest I steamed and served with home-made mayonnaise. That’s right – have you ever tried? It makes the jar stuff pale. But I will keep that for another post.

RECIPE

1 1/2 pound Asparagus

5 C Vegetable Stock

1 Large Potato, peeled and cubed

A/N Salt and Pepper

  1. If your asparagus is thick, peel it and chop off the end of the stems. Otherwise, just chop them.
  2. Put them in a pot with the cubed potato. Add the vegetable stock and bring to boil.
  3. Add salt and pepper to taste and let simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes.
  4. Let cool and puree with a hand-held blender or a regular blender.
  5. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add a few drops of lemon juice and drizzle some good olive oil.
  6. Alternatively, omit the lemon and add some heavy cream or sour cream. Can be served warm or cold.

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STICKY TOFFEE PUDDING

Photo: Wikipedia because I remembered to take a photo when my guests were already half-way through dessert….

If you are English, you won’t flinch if given a choice of desserts ranging from Eton Mess,  Spotted Dick or Sticky Toffee Pudding. If you are American, Sticky Toffee Pudding is probably the most familiar sounding of the three (more about the Spotted Dick some other time).

Most likely created in the 1960’s by a Chef working in a hotel in the Lake District, Sticky Toffee Pudding is a moist pudding/cake served with a toffee sauce. The whole thing has more calories than it’s possible to conceive in one mouthful but, now and then, why not be decadent? My personal consumption of Sticky Toffee Pudding is limited to exactly once a year. I happened to make it for a recent dinner party and here I am, offering it to you.

The original calls for Lyle Golden Syrup, a sweet syrup that is really hard to find on these shores. If you live in LA and really really want it, the British Pub on Santa Monica and 2nd Street in Santa Monica does carry it.

As this is one of the sweetest desserts ever invented, I mostly refer to a recipe by Sherry Yard (of Spago and Oscar fame) who has trained, amongst other places, in England, and knows her English puddings. She cuts the sweetness with some coffee extract, which I love. Instead of Lyle Golden Syrup she substitutes light corn syrup – not one of my favourite ingredients but, if you do want to feel better about it, Wholefoods sells an organic variety (yes, really).

RECIPE – Yield: one 9” cake

1 C Dates, pitted and finely chopped

1 C Boiling Water

1 3/4 C AP Flour

1 1/2 ts Baking Powder

1 ts Baking Soda

1/8 ts Salt

4 oz Butter, softened

1 C Light Brown Sugar

1/4 C Sugar

1 ts Coffee extract (or extra strong espresso)

2 Eggs

FOR THE SAUCE

1 C Dark Brown Sugar

1 C Heavy Cream

1 T Butter

1/2 Vanilla Bean, split and seeds scraped out

1/4 C Milk

3 T Corn Syrup

  1. Place the dates in a bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Set aside for 1 hour.
  2. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. With a fork, mash the dates and the water. Stir in the baking soda.
  3. In the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter, both sugars and coffee extract until light and fluffy. Scrape down the bowl and add the eggs, one at a time, mixing until well incorporated.
  4. Add half the date mixture and mix on low-speed. Still on low, add half the flour mixture, then end with the remaining date mixture and flour. Pour the batter into a 9” round cake, well-greased. Bake at 350F for about 25 minutes or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
  5. In the meantime, make the sauce. Place the brown sugar, cream, butter, vanilla seeds and bean, milk and corn syrup in a heavy saucepan and simmer over medium-high heat until the mixture thickens (it will coat the back of a wooden spoon, about 10 minutes). Continue to cook until golden brown, 1 or 2 minutes more. Remove the vanilla bean and keep warm.
  6. When the cake is done and still hot in its pan, poke some holes with a skewer in  several places. Pour the toffee sauce over it and serve (should the sauce be too thick, you can thin it out with a tablespoon of water). You can also cut the cake and serve it with the sauce on the side.

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EGGING ON

Photo: missalpha.wordpress.com

Please don’t think I am on a Starbucks bashing mission. I am not. I don’t love the place so I don’t patronize it but I don’t wish them ill. I recently noticed, though, that alternative coffee shops are not afraid to enter in competition with what used to be the mightiest coffee place in town. Driving around Santa Monica, I saw a bunch of high-end coffee places right across from the green mermaid, to prove that customers have become very discerning (and possibly a bit snobbish) about their coffee.

I am not on a Pain Quotidien bashing mission either. Really. But, after having had brunch at their Brentwood location (right next to Starbucks) I couldn’t help harping on how outrageously overpriced their food is.

Le Pain Quotidien, a Belgian chain, were the first to open bakeries cum restaurant spaces with a rustic look, communal tables and the idea of serving fresh and simple food, mostly organic. The pastries are in the best French tradition, their own made bread is very good and they can all be bought and brought home, together with jams, coffee and other edible and pretty packaged products.

The food is indeed good, in a simple and fresh way, especially the sandwiches made with their bread and the salads. The coffee, served in wide French bowls, is also excellent but, today, sitting at one of the long communal tables, I couldn’t help noticing that my two soft-boiled eggs, albeit organic, were priced at $7.45. Two eggs. Boiled. With the addition of two slices of rye bread and a small cafe au lait, my breakfast was nearly $15. I felt taken for a ride.

The French toast one of the other guests ordered looked appetizing and healthy, without the common addition of whipped cream and other heavy accoutrements but, even for a small eater like me, the portion looked extra small. European portions with Euro prices. And, when yet another guest asked if it was at all possible to slightly heat the pain au chocolat (you know, to moisten all that butter), he was told that it was company policy not to do that. It might be company policy but certainly not good business practice.

I work in the food industry and I am aware of the cost of food, especially organic food, and of the small margins that restaurants have to deal with. And the rent in tony Brentwood can’t be cheap. While I will gladly pay $40 for a fish or meat entrée at a good restaurant, over seven bucks for two boiled eggs is something I just can’t get over. Unless the chicken lived on her own private farm!!

 

 

 

 

 

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PASTATELLE FROM PUGLIA (or sweet ravioli)

 

My version of pastatelle


As proud as I am of the cuisine of my native country, I can’t claim it has a remarkable pastry tradition. Most of it is derived from France and what is original is steeped in “cucina povera” – basic ingredients mixed together to create simple sweets. The only exception is Sicily, with its moorish influences, and abundant use of almond paste and citrus.

Italian sweets are therefore rustic but, on occasion, I revel in the pleasure of enjoying simple flavors, in confections that could be straight out of any Italian grandma’s kitchen.

Recently I was asked to contribute a dessert from Puglia to a restaurant’s monthly dinner focussing on a different region each month. I can’t say I know much about sweets from Puglia but an extensive search yielded some interesting results, especially when it comes to desserts that celebrate Easter.

In the end, we picked “pastatelle” which, in Emilia, we call “raviole”. The dough differs significantly as in the Pugliese version there are no eggs or butter, just simple flour and vegetable oil. According to tradition, in Emilia we stick to plum jelly while in Puglia they favour cherry, fig and walnut.

You will find that the dough will be very oily when handling it, but also very supple and, when baked, it will retain a good amount of moisture. These “cookies” keep for several days in an airtight container.

RECIPE – Yields about 12/14

500 g AP Flour (1 pound)

180 g Vegetable Oil (mild tasting, such as canola or corn) 6.4 oz

5 Tbs Sugar

5 Tbs Brandy (the original recipe calls for pure alcohol but I used cherry brandy)

1 ts Salt

100 ml Water ( just over 1/4 cup)

200 g Cherry or Fig Jam (5.5 oz)

50 g Walnuts, chopped (2 oz)

1 Egg

 

  1. Mix the flour, salt, brandy and vegetable oil in a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, on low-speed. With the mixer running, start adding the water in a steady stream and mix just until the dough comes together: it should be slightly sticky but not crumbly.
  2. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
  3. In the meantime, mix the jam with the chopped walnuts.
  4. Roll the dough to about 1/8” on a lightly floured surface and, using a 6” round (10 cm) cookie cutter, cut as many disks as you can. You can re-roll the dough scraps once.
  5. Place about 1/2 teaspoon of jelly in the center of the disk, fold each cookie in a half-moon shape, pressing gently with your fingers to seal and then with the tines of a fork.
  6. Place on a cookie sheet. Mix one egg with a teaspoon of water and brush the top of the cookies. Sprinkle some Demerara sugar (or regular sugar) and bake at 350F (180C) for about 20 minutes or until pale golden.

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SEAFOOD AND CHORIZO PAELLA

If asked to name a traditional Spanish dish, most Americans will think of seafood paella when, on the other hand, Spaniards consider paella a regional dish. Born in the Valencia region sometimes in the 19th century, paella (which, in Spanish, simply means “pan”) can be made with just seafood, meat or a combination of both, which is what we are mostly accustomed to.

Paella requires a short grain rice, such as bomba or calasparra (bomba is easier to find here in the US) and just a little bit of patience. Unlike risotto, it requires no stirring whatsoever – so do resist the urge. I have used the same recipe forever, changing some of the ingredients here and there depending on seasonality but I recently incorporated a suggestion from David Tanis of the New York Times, which I found intriguing, i.e. finishing the paella in the oven.

 

RECIPE – for 4 people

1 # large shrimp, deveined and tails on

1 onion, chopped

1 fat link of chorizo sausage, cut in small chunks

2 C bomba rice

4 C chicken broth, warm

1 pinch saffron

2 ts paprika (or pimenton if available)

2 cloves of garlic, minced

1 ts red pepper flakes

1 C fresh or frozen peas

A/N olive oil

A/N salt and pepper

  1. Rinse, dry and marinate the shrimp in a bowl with olive oil, 1 ts paprika, garlic and a bit of salt and pepper (up to an hour on the counter or two in the fridge).
  2. Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a 12” cast iron skillet or other large skillet on med-hight heat (or paella pan if you have it). Partly cook the shrimp, about 30 seconds per side and set aside.
  3. In the same pan, add the chopped onion, remaining paprika, saffron, red pepper flakes and a pinch of salt. Cook until the onion has softened, about 10 minutes, stirring often.
  4. Add the chorizo and cook for another 5 or 6 minutes.
  5. Add the rice and stir, coating it evenly with the oil. Add all of the warm broth and the peas and stir to distribute the ingredients evenly. Bring it to a boil and then reduce heat to simmer and let the rice cook for about 15 minutes, without stirring.
  6. In the meantime, heat your oven to 375. Once most, but not all the broth, has been absorbed, remove the pan from the heat. Taste the rice. It should still be very firm and not cooked through. Adjust seasoning if needed. Distribute the par-cooked shrimp over the rice and slide the pan in the oven for about 15 minutes.
  7. Let the paella rest for 10 minutes before serving.

 

 

 

 

 

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BYE BYE FOIE GRAS

Drawing by thebirdman.hubpages.com

If you are a foie gras lover and live in California, you have just about three weeks to enjoy it legally. And there is no shortage of restaurants that will indulge you, from the Michelin starred Melisse to Animal.

On July 1, a law that was passed in 2004, and signed by then Governor Schwarzenegger, will come into effect, banning the production and consumption of foie gras in California. Some prominent chefs are working to present a proposal to the Legislature that would aim at repealing the ban, by proposing more humane treatment of the geese and ducks whose livers we have been feasting on for centuries.

But how did foie gras (literally “fat liver”) even come to be? The Egyptians were the first to recognize the advantage of force feeding birds to fatten them up and then eat them, although this didn’t necessarily involve consuming their livers – or, at least, we can’t tell from their hieroglyphs. In the first official cookbook, the Romans’ Apicius, fattened liver makes an appearance so it’s clear this practice has been going on for millennia. Nowadays, foie gras is protected and codified by French law and, to qualify as such, the birds have to be force-fed with a process called gavage.

If you imagine geese and ducks, necks stretched, with funnels rammed down their throats for hours at a time, you are both right and wrong. Several times a day, for three weeks, a tube linked to a funnel is inserted into the birds’ esophagus and the allotted amount of corn feed is inserted. The whole operation lasts 2 to 3 seconds and, I am assured, the animals do not have a gag reflex but whether they enjoy the procedure, it’s another kettle of fish.

Animal welfare associations, recently seen coming out in droves picketing restaurants across California, contend that, beside the emotional aspect, the swollen liver leads to impaired function, the expanded stomach makes breathing harder and the accidental scarring of the esophagus can lead to death. It is  indeed true that the mortality rate among birds submitted to force-feeding is higher than in animals raised for just braising or roasting.

The company I work for forced us to stop making foie gras quite some time ago, to the chagrin of many chefs. Have I consumed foie gras ever since? Yes, I have. It’s not a food I crave but, if put in front of me, I can see the attraction. And its versatility – because of its consistency, foie gras can be used in a variety of inventive ways, which I believe is the thrill for high-end chefs.

My views on animal husbandry have evolved over time and it’s interesting that I have become a lot more active and vocal on how animals are treated since I resumed eating meat. While not advocating for a vegetarian or vegan world just yet (although my personal meat consumption is extremely low), I believe that humane treatment of the animals we feast on should be a must, even at the cost of reducing the meat output on a global scale. While I can’t imagine force feeding is fun for any creature, I view it on a par with cage stacking, hormone injections and the poor quality of life that most mass consumption animals are forced to lead.

I am happy to give up foie gras for a cause but this cause needs to be pushed further – stopping at a small percentage of birds is simply not enough.

 

 

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GOAT CHEESE AND LAVENDER CHEESECAKE

My lavender bushes are my pride and joy – mainly because I don’t have to do a damn thing about them while they go about their business of flourishing, flowering and keeping me perpetually supplied with lavender that finds its way into sachets, bath salts and food. At a time when dried lavender became too expensive at the Farmer’s Market, I would just chop mine and take it to work.

While scouring the net recently, as one does when one feels particularly idle, I came across Madame Croquette (how adorable a name is it?). Among various interesting meat dishes – you might have surmised Madame Croquette is a blog dedicated to food – some lavender and orange zest cookies stood out, also because of the lovely photograph. One or two comments later about the usage of lavender in food, I mentioned my goat cheese and lavender cheesecake, that I eventually took off the menu because I was so sick and tired of making it. Nonetheless, I thought I would share it with you.

RECIPE – Yields 1 10” round (with some batter left over for a couple of little ones)

10 oz Mascarpone cheese, softened

10 oz Cream cheese, softened

10 oz Goat cheese, softened

1 3/4 C Sugar

4 T Dried Lavender

10 oz Eggs (about 5)

1 oz Lemon Juice

1 oz Lavender Syrup (optional – available at specialty stores and online)

2 1/2 ts Vanilla Extract

3 # Sour Cream

  1. Process lavender and sugar in a food processor and then sift to remove the larger pieces of lavender. Set aside
  2. Places cheeses and lavender sugar in the bowl of a mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low-medium speed (you don’t want to incorporate too much air). Scrape the sides often and mix until combined.
  3. Combine eggs and vanilla extract. Add to the cheese batter in 3 separate additions, scraping the bowl well in between.
  4. Add sour cream and mix just until incorporated.
  5. Pour batter in a 10” cake pan with removable bottom, over a graham crust if desired.
  6. Wrap bottom of pan in foil and place in a roasting pan. Add hot water to reach one-third of the side of the cheesecake pan.
  7. Bake at 325 for about one hour or until the center looks set.
  8. Let cool and then refrigerate for about 8 hours before unfolding.

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LEAVENING AGENTS IN BAKING – A primer

A few days ago, a friend and avid baker, called me and rattled on a list of ingredients she had gotten from the bakery where she purchased a gluten-free coconut cake and asked me to give her proportions that would work so she could replicate it at home. Together, we approximated measures that could potentially work and started talking about baking soda and baking powder, whether to add one or both, although not mentioned in the ingredients’ list. “I am not sure how they work”, she mused, so I thought I would put together an easy primer for her.

The role of leaveners in baking is, clearly, to make baked goods rise. They all achieve the same effect by introducing carbon dioxide into a batter or dough. There are three different types of leaveners.

CHEMICAL

By far the most used by home cooks, these comprise baking soda and baking powder. They both work because an alkaline ingredient (such as sodium bicarbonate, the real name of baking soda) interacts with an acid. In the case of baking soda, the acid can be an ingredient such as buttermilk, kefir, sour cream, yogurt or chocolate (not Dutch processed). With baking powder, the alkaline is already contained in the packaged powder we get at the market. The combination of alkalis and acids create carbon dioxide in the presence of liquids which, with heat, expands the batter. These doughs and batters are called quick breads because the leavening process happens quickly.

If you have ever wondered what “double acting” means on the baking powder box in your kitchen, it refers to the double reaction that occurs when the powder is mixed in your batter: it reacts first when mixed with the liquids and, secondly, in the presence of heat. And if you are not sure how much baking soda to add to a recipe that contains an acid, a good rule of thumb is 1/2 ts (or 2 mg) per 1 cup (240 ml) of acid liquid.

ORGANIC

We are talking about yeasts here, living organisms that feed on sugars, thereby producing carbon dioxide and alcohol. Mainly used for bread or yeasted doughs such as brioche, they take a long time to act and their temperature needs to be controlled. Yeasts will not work below 65 F (18C) or above 140F (60C). Sourdough starter is another natural yeast and it’s obtained by “souring” flour and water over the course of days or weeks. Regular feeding of water and flour can keep the yeast alive for years.

PHYSICAL

Steam is  a leavener that follows the laws of physics – think souffle. Heat causes air pockets that expand the batter. It also plays a vital role in laminated doughs (puff pastry, croissants and Danish pastry): the steam is trapped between the layers of dough, causing them to separate and rise. Air is also a rising agent – we whip or cream certain ingredients such as egg whites by incorporating large amounts of air before adding them to the final batter.

 

PS The sources I used to express in words what I do every day were “The Culinary Institute of America – Professional Chef” and Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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