My New Obsession: Hot Pot aka, The Fon-Stew

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

[picture courtesy of wikipedia]
If you haven't had the absolute pleasure of dining Hot Pot Style, I want you to stop reading this blog right now, open a new browser window, google "hot pot (insert your current residence)" and locate your nearest hot pot restaurant. Then write the location down, and come back to read this blog.

I'll wait for you...



Ok. Trust me you will thank me for this.

Hot pot is a traditional Chinese quick-cooking method that's one part cheeseless fondue and one part stew. I like to call it Fon-Stew. Basically you are served a boiling hot pot of mildly flavored broth that sits traditionally in a clay pot atop a stove. At restaurants you'll get most likely a steel pot on a portable gas range. Then you choose your proteins -- among them including extremely thinly sliced pork, chicken, and beef, shrimp -- along with the usual suspects -- white fish fillets cut bite-sized, a huge heap of rice noodles (think pho noodles), bean sprouts, lots and lots and lots of shredded chinese cabbage, wood ear mushrooms, and fishballs. I'm still a little fuzzy on what exactly constitutes a fishball per se, but they're tasty so I'm not going to ask.

Everything is slid over next to your boiling pot of goodness, and then you're given two ladles -- one with holes in it and one without. And of course, a sturdy pair of chopsticks. The idea is you cook your food in the broth, and as more and more ingredients are added, over time the broth itself gets flavored so by the time you're done eating the food items, you've also made yourself soup to drink to wash it all down.

This method of quick-cooking it is said dates back to Mongolian times where the Mongolian armies would build a fire, turn their helmets over, and cook stew like this right in the open flame using meats and other foods they could find. It's an interesting concept and one I find fascinating. And rather tasty.

Traditional accompaniments to this meal of meals vary as vastly as the items you can cook in the stew, but most often you'll find simply chili sauce to adjust for spiciness factor and hoisin sauce for the meats. You can flavor your soup outright with these, but it's best to place in your small bowl and eat with the foods as they cook, thereby allowing yourself the ability to adjust seasoning to suit the food. For example, why ruin a perfectly cooked delicate piece of fish with hoisin sauce when you don't have to? It goes much better with the pork!

My favorite part: you can get this spicy as hell. Traditionally, especially in the Chinese province of Szechuan, these hot pots are served bubbling hot just loaded with chili peppers. You can get super mild with zero peppers (if you're a pussy) or just loaded with spicy peppers to the point where you are SWEATING. It's hurting so good. And nothing will make that hut go away but more hot pot. It becomes a frenzied race, with each bite getting you closer to a chili nirvana until you're literally high on the pepper heat. It's intense.

This style of eating is designed to be your appetizer, main course, side dish, and dessert all in one. It is meant to be eaten over the course of a couple of hours, or even longer, slowly working your way through the various foods. And then at the end, you drink the flavorful broth.

Some Hot Pot Etiquette notes for you:

  • begin with the Needs Longer To Cook items -- this includes the fishballs, cabbage, noodles, mushrooms, and any other tougher vegetable they may serve you
  • although thinly sliced and designed to cook quickly, remember that pork and chicken need to be fully cooked to avoid illness, so cook those at least 3 minutes, preferably 5; beef can literally go in and out of the soup in 30 seconds
  • it's polite to use the ladles to put the stuff in and out, especially if you're eating with other people not in your family; so use the ladle with the holes in it to load up with raw foods and then gently place in the soup, then use it again to serve yourself back out of the soup
  • the ladle without the holes is for the soup broth at the end -- serve yourself some as you would any soup
  • it is considered insulting to eat rice while consuming hot pot
  • you must finish everything as it is considered an insult to waste any of the food, so come hungry and don't over-order anything! keep in mind they give a lot of "basic" foods like the noodles, veggies, and fish so don't go nuts with the proteins or come with friends as your back up

Here's a cheat sheet for how long things take to cook for the more readily available hot pot ingredients:

Fishballs -- 15 minutes
Other meatballs or other...balls -- 15 minutes
Cabbage, mushrooms, other variations thereof -- 10 minutes
Noodles -- 10-15 minutes for nice soft noodles
Tripe -- 15 minutes
Beef -- 1-2 minutes
Pork and Chicken -- 3-5 minutes
Fish -- 5 minutes
Shrimp -- depending on size, go by the color instead -- when they turn bright orange
Squash or other tougher root vegetable -- 15 min+
Onion/Scallion -- 1 minute but you may want to leave it in the duration of the soup so as to flavor it

Is this meal kid-friendly? Yes, if you have adventurous eaters who can handle the wait time for the stuff to cook.

If you live in the Redmond or Seattle area, you must try Spicy Talk Bistro in downtown Redmond. Totally legit hot pot place filled with local China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong transplants. We were literally the only white people there so you know it's good! And they make THE BEST house-made noodles you've had in your life. Great fried rice for the kids and an impressive display of other traditional dishes that thankfully take a departure from the beef with broccoli area. I can't wait to try their whole grilled fish with black bean sauce and other house specialties. I just get seduced by the hot pot every time!

Brussels Sprouts Lardons

One of my favorite salads is a Frisee aux Lardons, which is basically bitter frisee salad, lots of French bacon called "lardon," and a poached egg with a vinaigrette made from the bacon drippings. It's a warm salad and just wonderful. I had some brussels sprouts staring at me in the fridge I needed to use up, and of course some leftover boiled eggs from Easter. And, bacon. I always have bacon. Because bacon is the Meaning of Life. So, I whipped up this lardon-inspired side dish using roasted brussels sprouts, smoked bacon, boiled eggs, and a simple balsamic vinaigrette. Creamy sharp goat cheese pairs beautifully with the egg and sprouts and bacon as well. It was great!

Brussels Sprouts Lardons
1 lb brussels sprouts
2-3 (or 4!) strips thick-cut bacon, cut into large chunks
1 shallot, chopped
1 Tbsp olive oil for sprouts + 1 Tbsp for vinaigrette
1 Tbsp good balsamic vinaigrette
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
goat cheese for garnish

Cut the tough stems off the brussels sprouts then cut them in half, and wash them. Set aside.

Place the bacon in a saute pan -- no need for oil as the bacon will render its own fat -- and cook the bacon on medium-high heat. Once the bacon begins to brown, add the shallot and continue cooking until shallots are softened and the bacon is nice and crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Leave the remaining bacon fat and add the 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add the sprouts all at once in one confident movement, as the water from the sprouts will react with the hot oil and the oil will pop. Don't be alarmed, you're doing it right. Season the sprouts with some salt and pepper and pan-roast until golden brown, turning occasionally. While the sprouts cook, combine the remaining tablespoon of oil and balsamic vinegar and whisk to combine. Pour the vinaigrette over the sprouts in the pan and cook for 1 minute to heat through. Turn off the heat, add the bacon and shallots back in, the basil and toss to combine. Top with the chopped egg and goat cheese and serve warm.

Week Night Yum Yum: Lamb Pitas with Quick Tzatziki Sauce

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Got some of that Easter lamb left over? No idea what to do with it? Try this insanely easy and festive dish for a quick week night meal.

This recipe is for 2 people for two generous portioned pitas, but can easily be increased to suit your dinner or leftovers.

Lamb Pitas
1/2 English cucumber, peeled and seeded then chopped roughly
1/4 red onion, roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves
2 Tbsp fresh dill
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup sour cream
leftover roasted leg of lamb, very thinly sliced and warmed*
1 cup tomatoes, chopped large
pita bread
fresh mint and dill for garnish

Place the cucumber, onion, cloves, dill, and salt and papper to taste in a food processor. Pulse to chop finely. Add the lemon juice and sour cream and puree until smooth. Set aside.

Warm the pita bread in the oven or toaster set on lowest setting. To build your pitas, mound a generous portion of lamb on top of the bread, then add some tomatoes and drizzle a generous amount of the tzatziki sauce on top. Sprinkle roughly chopped mint and dill and serve.

*A super great way to warm up the lamb without making it dry is to thinly slice the lamb then place it back into the roasting pan with the juices. If I have leftove roast, I always keep the pan and the juices and drippings from the roast -- they're great to keep moisture in when you reheat leftovers!

Cookbook Preview: Greek Easter Menu!

Monday, April 25, 2011

I'm extremely excited to share with you some photographs from the seasonal entertaining cookbook featuring the Easter chapter. Taking a turn from traditional American style Easters, I share with you some of my favorites and the menu I do for my family every year. It's Greek-inspired, featuring lots of the traditions while modernising a few others. It's a perfect feast and just beautiful as you'll see. I hope you enjoy the pictures. You'll have to wait a little longer for the recipes! Enjoy.

traditional red-dyed easter eggs

greeks and most eastern europeans dye the eggs red for easter

spanikopita makes the perfect appetizer!

pascha bread -- traditional yeast bread made for easter; it's eaten first to break the fast after midnight mass

easter soup -- wonderfully nourishing and refreshing, it's often eaten right after the bread after midnight mass and the next day as well during easter sunday

left: roasted leg of lamb with fresh herb crust and roasted asparagus

oven-roasted new potatoes with garlic and fresh herbs

romaine lettuce with a wonderfully flavorful spirng-isnpired scallion-dill dressing

homemade baklava with walnuts -- the perfect sweet way to end a meal
Which is your favorite spanikopita picture? Which food do you want to do first? Stay tuned for more!

Kitchen Basics: How To Boil The Proper Eggs For Easter

Saturday, April 23, 2011

I think the biggest crime for Easter is the improperly cooked egg. It's the highlight of the show, the main accent to the table, and if you're Greek Orthodox like me, a matter of competition with the Great Egg Cracking Challenge. But as we've discussed often here on the blog, often the most simplest of foods or dishes are the hardest to execute, and this of course, includes boiled eggs.

You already know how to boil 1 or 2 eggs. But it changes a little when you boil a dozen or more at a time like you would for Easter. The good news is it's still easy. Here we go!

1. Choose a container to boil your eggs in that will fit your eggs evenly but snugly.

You want enough space for the eggs to breathe and fit properly, but you don't want too much space between them. Space will create room for the eggs to bounce around, and this bouncing will cause your eggs to crack in the pot. And you can't dye cracked eggs because it looks ugly. And you can't play with a cracked egg if you're Orthodox because then you're forfeiting.

2.  Cover the eggs 1 inch over with COLD water.

We use cold water so the eggs can cook evenly. It's the same thing like when we cook potatoes for mashed potatoes. If we used warm or hot water thinking they'll cook faster they won't; they'll be raw in the middle or overcooked on the outside. Using cold water lets the eggs cook properly from the inside out in one even shot.

3.  Add 2 tablespoons of white distilled vinegar to the water.

No need to mix it in. The vinegar will help keep the whites of the eggs stay intact in case they do crack, and not compromise the rest of the water.

4. Place on stove top and bring to a boil.

The eggs will cook gently as the water heats up from cold to boil.

5. Once just about to boil, turn heat off and let stand 15 minutes.

This is the most important step for boiling the eggs. You want to turn the heat off just when the water is about to boil. The boiling water creates large bubbles and it's those bubbles that cause the eggs to move about, which encourages cracking as they bounce against the sides and bottom of the pot and each other. To avoid this, simply don't boil them per se! Turn the water completely off and let the eggs sit in that hot bath for 15 minutes to finish cooking. This will give you the perfect boiled eggs to decorate that will also taste good too!

Some Ideas For You To Try...

Most of us, including myself, will be using the Paas kits because they're easy and the kids love it. Great. Fine. Whatever. But here are some ideas in case you were thinking of doing something a little different.

Tea Dyed Eggs
This is really a cool technique. Add 3 tea bags of your favorite tea to the water after you turn the heat off, so during the steeping period. You'll see that not only does the tea give the eggs a beautiful natural coloring, but it will infuse into the egg and give it flavor! Green tea will give a pretty pale green, black teas will give a pale brownish color, raspberry will give you pale pink, etc. If you wanted to do an assortment and had a lot of time on your hands, you could do multiple batches with different teas to achieve colors. Note: kids will not be into this at all and won't care so this is best saved for an adult project!

The Orthodox Red
If you're Orthodox you're probably doing the traditional red eggs. Honestly in my opinion the Greek dye is the best. You know the directions to follow. The only added tip I can give you is to put some vegetable oil or other neutral oil on a paper towel and rub it on all the dyed eggs. This "polish" will make the eggs look so pretty but will also help preserve the color as the oil seeps through the shell. Using a neutral oil like vegetable oil won't alter the taste of the egg either.

Birdie Eggs
I saw once that someone dyed their Easter eggs all shades of naturally occurring bird eggs. They were beautiful blues, greens, and pale browns that were actually quite lovely on the table that was decorated in similar colors. It was very spring  without being quintessential "Easter" with the bunny and fake grass and all of it. If you're looking for a more elegant presentation tomorrow, this would be a lovely way to go: crisp white linens, twig about the table, white pillar candles set in twig nests in the middle like a runner, and these edible eggs nuzzled between flowers, moss, and nests about the table. It was quite lovely.

I hope this helps you with your eggs and maybe even gives you some ideas for trying something new! I'm off now to make my own batch of red eggs as the kiddos and I did our pastels Paas ones Thursday.

Happy Easter everyone!

Kitchen Basics: Lamb and the Cooking Techniques that Go With It

Friday, April 22, 2011

"What?! What you mean 'you don't eat no meat?' It's ok. I make lamb."

I'm always reminded of this scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding because it's so true if you're Greek or Eastern European. And as one of the few who doesn't prefer lamb for various reasons including an ill-timed honeymoon to Ireland in spring aka "Lamb Season," I actually have had family members including my own grandma tell me that exact phrase, almost verbatum.

Easter's coming up fast on us this weekend. If you're like me, at the very least you're obligated to do lamb. Well, let me rephrase that: you can always do something else besides lamb, but many people traditionally serve lamb (including my ethnic people) and so in the spirit of tradition, you do lamb. But despite so many people having eaten it and prepared it, most of the time we hate it. Why? Because it's usually done wrong.

First and formost, lamb is a gamey meat. This means it has a distinct, strong "meat" flavor to it. Specifically, it has a smell and taste unique to the lamb that makes you love it or hate it. Some recipes try to coax that flavor out by way of lemon-centric marinades, but in my opinion this only makes the lamb taste worse. Whenever you have to alter the basic flavor of something, perhaps it's best just not to eat it. Seriously, there is nothing wrong with eating chicken or ham or even turkey for Easter if you really detest the natural flavor of lamb. I won't judge you and you're probably not alone.

Second biggest mistake people make is they cook the lamb incorrectly. Lamb is a very tender meat, and is prized for that very tender texture. Tender meats are best served medium-rare, as it preserves that desired texture; anything more than medium goes into "tough" territory and then you're left wondering why you spent a small fortune on a tender meat when you made it into Rosemary-Flavored Shoe anyway! If your roasting lamb, like any larger roast meats, should have a crunchier crust on the outside, heavily seasoned with salt and pepper, and then a pink center. Period. End of discussion. If you like your lamb more than medium it's like having an aged-rib eye well-done: it's stupid. And then you're stupid. There, I said it. Just stick to chicken.

You can do lamb in a variety of ways. You can use leg of lamb, which is better to feed a larger crowd, lamb chops are wonderful grilled and can feed perfectly a party of 2-4, or rack of lamb which can be very elegant serve 4-8 people veyr nicely. If you're really into the taste of lamb, go with the leg or chop; if you're lukewarm on the flavor then I highly recommend going with the rack of lamb because they are the perfect 2 bites before you start to not like it .

Since most of you will be making the larger leg of lamb, here are some tips and techniques to help you along...

Bone-In or Bone-Out? THAT Is The Question!

I've mentioned it before: for large pieces of meat -- I'm talking roasts or BBQ meats -- if you can get it with the bone still in it then do it. The bone adds immense flavor to the meat, infusing it throughout, and often gives a more tender result. It's not to say boneless is bad. You can certainly achieve a wonderfully flavorful roast anything without the bone as well. Bone-in, however, will take a bit longer to cook. So if you're looking for a quicker, lower-maintenance lamb dish then boneless is what you'd want. You can find both easily at your local butcher shop.

Crust Is Key

Most people roast their leg of lamb. The same principle to roasting applies to lamb as to beef or other meats: a crust keeps moisture in. To achieve a good crust you need 2 things: a heavy hand of salt and pepper all around the outside of the entire meat (aka "a rub") and proper heat for cooking.

In terms of the seasoning, you want your lamb to have a good fat cap on it if you can. This means a good layer of fat around the leg. Not only will it help keep the lamb moist, it will also give it good flavor. Because fat is what tastes good. Next, you need the right salt and pepper. Course salt such as sea salt and a courser grind of black peppercorns is idea for a good crust because they will cover more surface area, and thus trap in the moisture better. I wouldn't use an expensive salt like fleur de sel for this; a good sea salt or even kosher salt will do you perfectly for this. And set your black pepper grinder on a larger setting if you can. If you don't own a pepper grinder for some God-awful, completely unjustifiable reason, then you can take whole peppercorns, place them in a sandwich bag, squish the air out, close it, then roll it with a rolling pin or bottle of wine until they're coursely ground.

Where there is a will, there is a way.

The idea is to coat the entire leg of lamb in this salt and pepper mixture. And by coat I mean coat. Like a carpet. Don't be alarmed at the amount of seasoning -- that entire 4-6 inches of meat inside remember is not getting any seasoning whatsoever; it's relying on the outside for that seasoning so make sure to give it some!

Now, depending on how fat or skinny your leg (of lamb) is, you may have to introduce some olive oil as well. Not each leg is created alike -- some butchers will automatically take off the fat, some leave it, some really trim any fat so that none is there. Again, LEAVE THE FAT to the extent that you can! If you find you've bought a leg that's trimmed already, dont' despair. Simply coat the entire leg of lamb in olive oil first and then season it with the salt and pepper. The olive oil will be able to create that barrier and help form that crust you're looking for as well. If you have the fat, during cooking that fat will simply melt and caramelize naturally during the roasting process.

Roasting Or Grilling??? Or Better Yet: THE SPIT!

You can cook lamb a variety of ways, but the most popular are roasting, grilling, or rotating on the spit like our ancestors did. Ok, my Greek ancestors did. And many of them still do. Because it's effing good.

A few notes on the manner in which you cook...

1) Roasting:
If you're planning to roast your leg of lamb which will be 99.9% of you, remember you need to recreate the searing technique for optimal success. To do this, you need your oven on pretty high -- 400-450 degrees depending on your oven's power -- to get the proper roast. The idea here is to sort of create an open grill in your oven. The outside of the lamb where you put your seasonings will melt and caramelize quickly at the higher heat, locking in the juices inside by way of creating a crust, then the inside can finish cooking to achieve the perfect medium-rare middle.

If you're planning to do rack of lamb you'll be roasting for sure. Take advantage and use a fabulous crust to infuse the lamb with flavors. I've included a wonderful recipe from Ina Garten for an excellent and easy basic rack of lamb.

2) Grilling:
I love grilled lamb. It's wonderful. You can add even more flavor by way of wood chips and smoke flavor to infuse into the lamb that is intoxicating. And it seems more legit than making it in the oven, doesn't it? A big downside is such a large piece of lamb will require multiple charcoals and chips and a constant eye because it will cook faster than the oven. If you go the grill way, I highly recommend oak chips for a nice touch to the lamb. And if you do grill, despite fat or not on the lamb, you will want to give it a nice coating of olive oil for nice lubrication anyway. Don't drench, just brush some all over the leg.

Conversely, for a quicker way you can use lamb chops instead of the leg. They will cook much faster than the leg if time is an issue for you. And especially if your Easter looks like it's going to be a blistering day, perhaps grilling is the way to go instead of roasting at 450 for an hour to warm the house up.

3) Spitting:
This is considerably more involved so I won't even go into much detail. Chances are if you are spitting your lamb you're not even reading this posting because you know what you're doing. But for those of you curious: wet rub with garlic, herbs, salt and pepper; set up spit, fire, beer, consume the goodness.

Resting the Lamb Before Slicing

Another huge mistake people make with any roast meat is they take it out of the oven and slice it right up. WRONG! No beuno. When heat is applied to meats, it gets the natural juices inside going and they're literally running around the entire meat. When you take it out of the oven the juices are still running, and if you slice it too soon they will run right out of the meat and onto the plate! And this will leave a dry meat, as if a vampire sucked out all the moisture. To avoid this, let you meat rest for 30 minutes after you take it out of the oven, 15 after the grill so that the juices can settle down. Then slice it up.

The Right Slice

All meats, red or white, should be cut against the grain. If you look closely you'll notice that meat runs in linear patterns. These are called "grains." The way the texture of the meat works is if you cut "with the grain" you'll get a tougher piece; if you cut "against the grain" meaning cross to the grain, you'll get a much more tender cut. Don't ask me why, it just works out that way. I swear. So if you are planning to present your roast to your guests already sliced, then make sure you're slicing it the right way!

Final Thoughts...

If you like, you can incorporate even more flavor into lamb by way of seasoning the crust or offering a side sauce. Three ingredients go famously with lamb: fresh green herbs, garlic, and lemon. That's it. You can add some finely chopped fresh herbs such as rosemary and oregano to the salt and pepper mixture when you season the outside. Or, you can create a lovely sauce on the side, a sort of gremolata of sorts that I personally love. Recipe to follow.

You can also venture into the land of Asia for a wonderful lamb. Try masala spices for an Indian flare, or adding ground cumin, cayenne pepper, and paprika for a Middle Eastern version. So good.

And you can do mint jelly. I don't know why you would, but I've been told that is classic. It scared me.

Here is a great recipe for Roasted Leg of Lamb from Ina Garten that's simple and very straight forward, AND give you an instand side dish with the potatoes. This is wonderful for your Easter dinner:

Ina's Roasted Lamb with Potatoes
12 large unpeeled garlic cloves, divided

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 (6-pound) boneless leg of lamb, trimmed and tied
4 to 5 pounds small unpeeled potatoes (16 to 20 potatoes)
2 tablespoons good olive oil

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Place the oven rack in the lower third of the oven so the lamb will sit in the middle of the oven.

Peel 6 of the cloves of garlic and place them in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Add the rosemary, 1 tablespoon salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, and butter. Process until the garlic and rosemary are finely minced. Thoroughly coat the top and sides of the lamb with the rosemary mixture. Allow to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Toss the potatoes and remaining unpeeled garlic in a bowl with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Place in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Place the lamb on top of the potatoes and roast for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the internal temperature of the lamb is 135 degrees (rare) or 145 degrees (medium). Remove from the oven and put the lamb on a platter; cover tightly with aluminum foil. Allow the lamb to rest for about 20 minutes. Slice and serve with the potatoes.

I LOVE this yogurt sauce from Bobby Flay for lamb. He writes it to go with grilled lamb chops, but you can serve it on the side for leg of lamb also:

Orange Mint Yogurt Sauce
8 ounces yogurt

1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Place the yogurt in a medium strainer lined with cheesecloth and place over a bowl. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight. Alternatively, buy thick Greek yogurt, which does not need to be drained. Scrape the drained yogurt into a clean bowl and discard the liquid that has drained. Stir in the remaining ingredients and refrigerate for 30 minutes before serving

If you're cooking for a smaller crowd, say 4 or less then my recommendation is to go the rack of lamb route. Not only will it serve the right amount of people perfectly, they will cook up way faster. How about in a half an hour?! Can't be that. I love Ina's recipe that does lamb prepared in the classic French way:
Ina's Rack of Lamb Persillade
3 small or 2 large racks of lamb, frenched

Good olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups loosely packed fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon chopped garlic cloves (3 cloves)
1 cup fresh white bread crumbs
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest (2 lemons)
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Place the racks in a roasting pan, fat side up. Rub the tops with olive oil and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Roast the lamb for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the parsley and garlic in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade and process until they're both finely minced. Add the bread crumbs and lemon zest and process for a second until combined. Take the lamb out of the oven and quickly press the parsley mixture on top of the meat. Drizzle with the melted butter and return immediately to the oven and roast for another 15 minutes.

Take the lamb out of the oven and cover with aluminum foil. Allow it to rest for 15 minutes, cut in double chops, and serve

What the Hell Goes with Lamb?!?
Classic pairing is potatoes for starters. You could do mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes with butter, gratin potatoes, any potato you wish but my personal favorite from over the years is oven roasted new potatoes. It's just my personal favorite. I love the crust on the outside, the tender inside, the fresh me it's perfect but you do whatever potatoe you like. I'd personally stay away from cheese-centered potatoes but that's just my own personal opinion. If you love it, do it. 
Virtually any spring vegetable goes with lamb: artichokes, carrots, potatoes, leeks, asparagus, lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, ramps, mushrooms, etc. A vegetable cassoulet would be lovely with a roasted or grilled lamb, or simple grilled or roasted asparagus is what I always do. I go by the rule of Throw It On/In Too -- meaning, if I'm roasting and the oven's already on, the vegetables will get baked or roasted too; if the grill is already fired up, the asparagus is getting grilled this time too. A fun side dish is to do a spanikopita, but make it like a pie rather than triangles. The crunchy phyllo and the spinach are fantastic, and feta cheese does go with lamb. It's the only cheese that does in my opinion. A nice spring salad with tender greens, thinly sliced radish, scallion, dandilion greens, and a dill sauce would be lovely with lamb. I would say to keep it simple though and not go too over the top with creams and sauces and seasonings. Baby carrots lightly boiled then sauteed in butter are lovely and very spring. Sauteed spinach with lemon and garlic is great. And you could of course always just slice the lamb thinly, make a cucumber tzaziki sauce and roll it in a pita for a really fun Easter!
What Wine?
The wine appropriate to lamb is as varied as the preparations. You can go from white ot red depending on how you're serving it. Grilled with vegetables would take a lovely very chilled sauvignon blanc or even rose, same goes for a lamb pita with cucumber sauce. Shiraz is a safe bet for any roasted lamb, especially if you're going the rosemary route in seasonings. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot are also good options for roasted or braised lambs.
Hope this helps! And remember, if it doesn't work out, you can always order Chinese!
Happy Easter!

Restaurant Review: Skycity in the Space Needle

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Last night we had the incredible pleasure of dining with two of the loveliest families I've ever met. Seriously. They were all beautiful, extremely friendly, energetic, and so loving. Oh ya, and English!! I could listen to the accent for the rest of my life and be so happy! And yes I had to ask about the royal wedding coming up. And for the record, no one in England really gives a shit.

But anyways...the food...

They were in town visiting and settled on having a late dinner at Skycity, a rotating restaurant sitting atop the famous Seattle Space Needle. Of course I did research and I was torn: on the one hand people said the view was incredible but on the other hand, the food left much to be desired. Which brings me to the Curse of the View.

I have a theory: the better the view, the shittier the food. Categorically, I never eat a a seafood restaurant where I can see the ocean. Never. Why? Because they all suck. Why? Because they're trading on the view, not the food. I will make the exception for wharf food because often it's easy, casual fun food that feels "wharfy" and is quite good. But as for the fancy schmancy $40 seafood entree while I gaze at the sunset right out my window...often the food sucks and the service is even worse. So, I tend to shy away.

I was hoping the Curse of the View wouldn't be applied to Skycity. I heard from multiple people the food is extremely overpriced for what you're getting, it's not that great, but..."the view is amazing." Well I was worried too because our reservations were for 8 pm. How great of a view could we possibly see?

Well, turns out a lot....

A big bright full moon just lit up the entire sound. As the restaurant rotated slowly (but faster than you'd think it does!) around, you saw a full 360 degree view of the Olympics glowing in the moonlight, the water glistening a perfect midnight blue color, and of course, the city lights of a bustling downtown. It was beautiful. And well worth the view. Even at 8 pm. I cannot even imagine it on a rare clear day, around sunset.

As for the food, I braced myself for the worst. The tired steak and potatoes, perhaps a horrible pasta dish, something lame for appetizers like caesar salad with croutons or some bullshit shrimp cocktail that cost $15 for 3 anorexic shrimp dipped in store-bought cocktails sauce. My heart fell when I saw the first appetizer was "Chilled Wild Gulf Prawn" with a cocktails sauce. "Chilled Wild Gulf Prawn" seems to always translate to "I'm going to rip you off now with 3 shrimp." But wait! there's vodka in that cocktail sauce! Hmmmm....

We progress further down....

"...Spinach and Artichoke Dip...of course...with..what? could it be???? marcona almonds????!!! in the spinach and artichoke dip?! and it's served NOT with tortilla chips but with crostini?! Interesting..."

and further...

"Carpaccio...good....local cheeses...prosciuto...yes, yes!"

This was promising, at least as far as the appetizers went. They had to be serving some god-awful soup though. And boring salads, right? Let us read on...

" salad...whatev---what? huckleberry vinaigrette?!?!?! HELL YES!!!! ....bacon shallot vinaigrette -- yes!...maple-glazed walnuts? ree-hee-hee-ly?"

My curiosity was now peeked.

"Seattle Clam and Corn Chowder -- New England style...good...smoked bacon...better...razor clams?!!! RAZORMOTHERFUCKINGCLAMS?! Awesome!!!!!!!"

So far, so very good!

"Salmon with wilted pea vines...Ahi with blackberry glaze...Vegetable Gateau -- they have a gateau! heart...melting...Roasted Chicken with Beecher's and prosciutto and hedgehogs -- wtf? what the hell are hedgehogs? I must try this!....Peking Duck!!....Beef Shortribs with cola sauce?!...oh what's this? the specials insert???

Goat cheese stuffed squash blossoms?!!!!! Ahi carpaccio?!!! TRUFFLES?!?!?!?!"

This friends, was not a tired menu. This was befitting the Foodie Town the great needle sits in. This, at least o paper, was paying homage to the local, to the cheeses, to the seafood and farms and everything that is just so wonderful about living in the Pac NW. On paper, this was looking as good as the view.

I was very excited.

Giddy, really.

And so I ordered the squash blossoms appetizer and the chicken dish because I'm fasting during Lent and couldn't do the shortribs which would have been my fist choice. And plus, call me crazy, after battling the flu all weekend I kinda felt like some comfort food and nothing says it like roast chicken for me. We all ordered and sampled -- the artichoke dip my friend next to me got was Uh-May-Zing. The marcona almonds gave it such a wonderfully unique kick. It was creamy and hot and excellently seasoned and I loved...LOVED...the crostini on the side. I can't wait to start playing around to recreate this recipe.

The squash blossoms were awesome. Goat cheese was nice and sharp, not boring or wimpy, the blossoms were perfectly fried nice and crispy without a trace of sogginess, and the tiny perfectly uniform zucchini tossed in rice-wine vinegar were a lovely crunch I didn't expect. To bring it all together, a beautiful orange-hued red pepper sauce. HEAVEN.

Then the chicken arrived...

Beautiful crispy brown crust, well seasoned. Butternut squash ravioli were al dente. Accompanying spring vegetables beautifully presented, cooked nice and al dente (that's my preference at least) along with the hedgehogs in a savory and bright sage-butter sauce. By the way, hedgehogs are mushrooms. And they were very yummy. The chicken I was sad to say was dry -- overly cooked by 5 minutes at least -- a casualty to the perfect crust it seems. Or more likely an overwhelmed Grill Guy in the back. And with the rest of the plate so beautiful, I was trying to figure out why they would do the butternut squash ravioli -- they were delicious, but were "clunky" with the rest of the plate and the elegance of the vegetables and sauce. I would have much preferred a freshly rolled fettucine pasta -- creamy, textured, and in keeping with the elegance on the plate. The ravioli seemed to sort of cheapen the dish, and would have been better off as an appetizer by themselves in the same sauce. The chicken was stuffed with Beecher's flagship cheese -- my most favorite cheddar type cheese of all time -- and prosciutto. The flavors were 100% there, but tragically it fell short with execution. As the cook executed the chicken to death on the grill. So sad.

Cocktails were strong, wine was great, and we all for-went the dessert because we were STUFFED and my 2 and 4 year olds were about to pass out as it was now 11:30. The kids however got really cook ice creams served in dried-ice flying saucers. They were wonderfully festive and perfectly ended a very fun evening on the same note.

So concluding...

My Verdict: Worth the Trip.

Was it overpriced? Yes. I was disappointed with staff -- our waitress seemed to lose motivation as the night went on despite our very low-maintenance. They have a standard kids menu and kids can very easily order off of the main menu as well. Atmosphere was casually elegant -- you might want to dress up in nice casual for this and leave the shorts and flip flops for another time. Same goes for the super fancy dress, although you wouldn't be out of place if you went on the fancier side. Great drink selection, excellent wine selection, and the food is definitely representative of basic Seattle cuisine. Is it innovative? Not necessarily, but it's strong and will deliver if the quintessential Pac NW food fare is what you're going for. It was really great for kids actually, so I love it because it's a place where as adults you can go with your kids and get your fancy fix without feeling nervous or uptight about them behaving themselves. They are beyond entertained by the view around them and the foods and desserts. And as an adult, you will be just as entranced by the view, especially if you're lucky enough as us to catch it on a full moon night.

Whereas we avoided this "tourist trap" for almost a year, I actually can't wait to go back. Might not be able to wait until someone comes to visit. Might have to go this summer around sunset...

Week Night Yum Yum: Spaghetti with Bacon, Asparagus, and Spinach

Monday, April 18, 2011

I made this pasta dish on the fly yesterday using ingredients I had on hand in the fridge. With spring time now firmly in force, I always have asparagus around. They are wonderfully versatile and literally go with every protein and meal of the day. A constant staple for me is also bacon or pancetta, with a slight preference for bacon. It's smoked, it's juicy, it's perfection and makes anything instantly better. I also have spaghetti -- the kids' favorite kind of pasta -- always on hand, and some kind of cheese. Here I used some left over boccolini -- mini buffalo mozzarella balls -- that were sitting in the fridge begging to be used. The result, to quote Little Girl: "Mama, this pasta is perfect."

And it was.

It will take you 15 minutes, start to finish, and really is the perfect spring pasta dish. Enjoy it!

Spaghetti with Bacon, Asparagus, and Spinach
1 lb spaghetti (recommend: De Cecco brand)
1 bunch asparagus, ends trimmed and cut into 1" long pieces
4-6 slices of bacon, chopped small
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 white onion, chopped small
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups fresh baby spinach, washed
2 Tbsp fresh basil, chiffonade
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
finely grated romano cheese for garnish

Bring a large pot of cold water to a boil. Once boiling, add a good handful of salt, then add your pasta. Cook according to package directions, usually around 10-12 minutes for perfect al dente (depending on the size of your spaghetti).

While the pasta comes to a boil, prepare your sauce. Heat a large heavy saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the bacon -- no oil is necessary because the bacon will render its own fat instantly -- and cook bacon until brown and crispy, about 5 minutes. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside for later. Pour out the bacon fat and either reserve for later use or discard. Return the pan back to the stove and place on medium heat. Add the olive oil and the onions. Season the onions with a small pinch of salt -- remember the bacon is salty and would have rendered it's saltiness in the pan already -- and pepper, and cook until softened and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute, stirring often so garlic doesn't burn. You'll notice the bacon had left some "brown bits" in the bottom of the pan from when you sauteed it. This is flavor! Take about 1/4 cup of the pasta water (eyeball it -- doesn't have to be exactly 1/4 cup) and add it to the onion and garlic mixture. Using your wooden spoon, scrape up the brown bits. You'll find the pasta water will help loosen them from the pan.

The last 5 minutes of the pasta cooking add your asparagus straight into the same pot as the spaghetti. Since it's being tossed together anyway, it doesn't matter if they all cook together and in fact makes an easier clean up! Drain the spaghetti and asparagus together, then add them directly into the onion-garlic saute pan. Add the spinach and bacon and toss, coating the noodles with the sauce and helping the spinach wilt. Turn off heat. Add the basil, boccolini and romano cheese to taste and serve immediately.

Week Night Yum Yum: Shrimp Scampi

Thursday, April 14, 2011

During our track back down to SoCal we had the amazing pleasure of staying with our good friends. One of my best friends Rochelle made this amazing shrimp dish. I love it because it's filling without feeling heavy like shrimp scampi can sometimes be, often just drenched in oil. On the contrary, this version gets amazing flavor from white wine and brandy for the sauce, and the garlic is nicely restrained. When I make this The Hubsters (who's blood type is Garlic) asks for double the amount, so go ahead and suit the garlic to your own taste. It's an easy dish to prepare that has all the elegance of a weekend meal that's just perfect for a busy weeknight. Add a simple side dish of steamed broccoli or sauteed green beans and you've got a wonderful complete meal. Or, this cous cous side dish Rochelle made that was just perfect. Enjoy it! And thanks Ro!! We miss you guys so much!

Shrimp Scampi for the Week Night   by Kat, from
1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 pounds fresh shrimp, shelled and
deveined without tails1/2 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, chopped
1/2 cup fresh parsley, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
2 tablespoons white wine
2 tablespoons brandy

In a small bowl, combine flour, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper. Mix thoroughly. Dredge shrimp in flour mixture.

In a large skillet, saute dredged shrimp in olive oil for 5 minutes over high heat. Toss shrimp often to prevent burning. Transfer shrimp with a slotted spoon to a serving dish, leaving the oil in the pan.In the same pan, saute the garlic, shallot, parsley and oregano over medium heat for 3 minutes; stirring constantly. Spoon the mixture over the shrimp. Return pan to the heat. Preheat your broiler for medium heat.Pour the wine and brandy into the skillet and ignite with a match or lighter. When the flames die down, stir to loosen any browned bits on the bottom of the skillet; pour over shrimp.Place the serving dish of shrimp in a preheated broiler for about 2 minutes and serve hot!

Kitchen Basics: The Perfect Fried Egg

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Funny how a lot of basic cooking involves eggs...

Well if you're like me, you love yourself some good eggs in the morning. Or afternoon, or evening for dinner. Now that you know how to easily poach an egg, scramble them, and soon you will know how to perfectly boil them just in time for Easter, you should also know how to properly fry them.

Many people, myself included, shy away from the fried egg. Why? Because it involves hot oil, usually splattering about your stovetop, and the delicate procedure of transferring said fried egg from pan to plate without breaking the delicate yolk. But with just a few tricks, you too can make the perfect fried egg that will kick any restaurant's ass!

First, there are two kinds of fried eggs: "sunnyside up" also known as simply "fried egg" which means the egg white is cooked, the yolk is left golden, and this usually means a very thin layer of undercooked egg white is floating about the egg around the yolk (some people love this) OR the "eggs over-easy" which simply means the fried egg is gently turned over and cooked very quickly on the yolk side to cook up that remaining white. I personally prefer the "eggs over easy" myself. I will teach you how to do both here.

First, you need the right equipment:
  • a non-stick pan (aka teflon or cast iron, etc.)
  • vegetable oil or other neutral oil
  • eggs at room temperature
  • a good flexible plastic or preferably silicon spatula
It's important to use a non-stick pan for fried eggs because it will make the egg easier to flip if doing over-easy or remove when done. Sometimes with metal pans the egg will stick to the pan despite your best efforts to lubricate it with oil, so try to use a non-stick if you can for sure proof eggs success. You want to use a neutral oil such as vegetable, peanut, canola, or safflower oil because they won't color the egg or overpower the flavor; olive or any nut oil are too heavy and carry an overwhelming taste that will completely overpower the egg. A huge trick for the perfect fried egg I've found is actually using room temperature eggs! Do you have the problem where you'll add the egg to the hot pan and the egg white will spread all the way out and then you have to catch it or it makes a bizarre pattern, then bubbles about the edges but the center isn't done so it tastes like the outside is crispy and over-cooked but the center is barely done? That's because you used a cold egg right out of the fridge onto the hot pan. Simply taking out the eggs about 5 minutes before you plan to fry them will avoid the crispy edges and keep your whites closer to the yolk which ensures even cooking and even makes the egg much easier to flip and remove. It's logical -- less surface area makes a smaller item to fit better on your spatula, thus making it easier to flip or remove. If you're pan is large enough, you can even fry multiple eggs at the same time this way without them touching each other! Finally, the utensil you use is just as important. Because you're working with non-stick this usually means you need to use a plastic or silicon spatula; using a metal one will scratch your pan and ruin the special coating. If you're using a metal pan then go ahead with the metal spatula. Personally I prefer silicon spatulas because they have a nice "give" when using. And when working with delicate items like fried eggs that can be easily broken, that "give" is good to prevent it. Sometimes plastic spatulas can be too stiff and then you fight your food rather then coaxing it about when transferring.

Now that you have the right workings, the egg will practically cook itself.

How To Fry An Egg: Sunnyside Up Style

1. Preheat your pan on medium heat. If it's too high the egg will cook too quickly and you'll run the risk of overcooking it; if it's too low you'll be there all day and have a soggy egg. This is why God created "medium."

2. Add about 1 Tbsp of oil to each egg, swirling the oil about the pan to evenly coat the bottom. So if you're cooking one egg then add 1 tablespoon; if two eggs add 2 tablespoons, 3 eggs add 3, etc. The point here is you want the pan well-lubricated so the egg won't stick. Even though you're using a non-stick pan, the proteins in the egg still make it very stick, adhering to everything. You know this if you've ever cracked a raw egg and the stuff dribbles about the counter, and it's annoying to clean up. So adding enough lubricant by way of the oil will ensure the egg can be easily transferred back out of the pan.

3. Carefully crack the egg on the counter in one good crack or on the edge of a bowl, then quickly transfer the egg into the pan. This entire process should take you .023 seconds. Don't fuck around cracking the egg on one side of your kitchen then running over to drop it in; you want to be cracking eggs right next to your pan for quick and painless transfer. You don't need to crack the egg into a bowl first, but if you're feeling nervous you can certainly do that and then gently slide the egg into the oil. Do NOT crack the egg on the edge of your frying pan! EVER! All this will do is immediately cook the egg dribble on the side of the pan, compromising the oil below and then will screw up your eggs. Plus, you can burn yourself and then you're really fucked for breakfast.

4. Once the egg is in the pan, leave it alone. Don't touch it. Don't even talk to it or stare at it. Let it cook and do it's thing. You're cooking the egg from the bottom-up, so you want the bottom to get nice and cooked through in one even layer before you start messing with it. If you start screwing around with the bottom too early, you'll leave some parts cooked fully, others not cooked as much, and this will screw up the removal of the egg as the undercooked parts will stick to the pan. Let the egg tell you when it's ready to come out: when you can easily lift half of it with the spatula, it's ready to be taken out.

5. To remove the egg from the frying pan, you can carefully lift it with your spatula or what I do, gently slide the egg or nudge it along with the spatula helping you to the side of the pan, then slide it right out of the pan and directly onto the plate. If you're super concerned about excess oil, then you can use a paper towel on the plate first to soak up the oil, but then be very careful when sliding that paper out before eating.

6. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately.

How To Fry An Egg: Over-Easy Style and The Art of Basting
To do over-easy eggs is the same process above, with one extra step involving cooking the yolk side. Prepare you pan and eggs the same way as described in steps 1-3. And now the difference:
4. Whereas for a fried egg you leave it alone until fully cooked, here you must manipulate the egg for the flip or baste. To cook the yolk side of the egg with the flip, cook the egg until the bottom is easily moved as described in step 4 above. At this point, if you wanted a fried egg you could remove it from the pan and consume. Instead, you lift it with the spatula and carefully flip it over. You want a pretty fast movement here actually, which seems counter intuitive. The more you take your time and think about it, the greater the chance of you breaking the yolk. You want both of your hands to help you here. Take the spatula in one hand and get the egg firmly on it, then raise it up out of the pan. Then with your other hand, hold the handle of the pan and bring it up to the egg off the stovetop. You want to create a maneuver where one hand flips while the pan catches the egg simultaneously. Then lower the pan back down and finish cooking the yolk side, about 30 seconds. Then transfer to plate and eat.
You can do what's called basting the eggs. Eggs are very sensitive and can cook instantly when heat is introduced. Case in point: when making hollandaise or other sauce requiring eggs and introducing hot liquids, you need to temper the eggs first meaning adding the hot stuff slowly and a little at a time to bring up the temp of the eggs or else they'll turn into scrambled eggs immediately. You can use the same idea to your advantage here. By adding twice as much oil to the pan when you preheat (so for 1 egg you'd use 2 tablespoons of oil then), you can actually use the hot oil to cook the top of the egg without having to flip it over!
What you'll do is heat your oil as instructed, then add your egg. Now, using a spoon, collect the hot oil and pour it over the top of the egg while the bottom cooks. You'll need to pick up your pan and rotate it around so the oil collects towards the bottom so you can easily scoop it up with your spoon. Keep pouring that hot oil over and over again the top of the egg. This is called "basting." You'll see that the top of the egg will begin to turn opaque, like having a very thin layer of white on top. This means you've fully cooked the top of the egg while having never had to flip it over! Then simply pick up the egg with the spatula or slide it off directly from the pan and onto the plate. Season and eat!
Try these new techniques and ideas next time you're in the mood for fried eggs. Making them at home versus the restaurant is still the way to go -- you can control quality, fat, and salt to suit your taste and diet much easier. Add some toast and maybe bacon or sausage and your breakfast is done! Enjoy!

Chicken Salad with Roasted Beets, Bleu Cheese, and Toasted Walnuts

Monday, April 11, 2011

This is one of those lovely Leftover Creations that we all know. When you have a shitload of leftovers in the fridge or "stuff" you need to get rid of, a salad is a wonderful way to go. It's healthier, can be extremely flavorful and colorful, and surprisingly satisfying. I had some leftover chicken breast and some gorgeous beets and arugula delivered from the farm that week, so salad was in order. I felt like chicken salad and so played around with it until I got this fabulous combination. It's like a morph of my beet salad and grilled chicken, together in perfect harmony. You have all the textures going on here -- creamy bleu cheese, crunchy toasted walnuts, celery and onion -- and flavors -- peppery arugula, sweet beets, savory herbed chicken -- and a lovely light vinaigrette to dress it all together instead of the heavier mayo-based dressing for traditional chicken salads. This was light, refreshing, and beautiful. Enjoy!

Chicken Salad with Roasted Beets, Bleu Cheese, and Toasted Walnuts
2-3 medium-large roasted red beets, cubed*
2 cooked chicken breasts cut into bite-sized chunks**
1 large celery stalk (or 2 smaller), ends trimmed and cut into 1/4" thick chop
1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped
4 cups arugala or spinach, washed and spun dry
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard
juice of 1 lemon
small pinch sugar
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup crumbled bleu cheese, or to taste
1/4 cup walnuts, lightly toasted in a pan

Place the beets, chicken, celery, and onion in a mixing bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste. In another small mixing bowl, whisk together the olive oil, mustard, lemon juice, and sugar. Pour the dressing over and toss to coat well. You'll see the chicken will turn bright pink from the beets; if you want the chicken to not get colored, leave it out and add it with the nuts and cheese in a second.

To serve, portion out the arugula (or spinach if using) on plates. Season the greens with a small pinch of salt and pepper, and a small drizzle of olive oil. Top with the beet-chicken mixture, then sprinkle on the cheese and walnuts. Serve immediately.

*To roast the beets, simply cut off the stem and bottom parts and discard. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wrap the beets in aluminum foil and place on a baking sheet or some oven-proof dish. Roast until tender and easily pierced by a fork, about 40 minutes to an hour, depending on size of beets. Unwrap foil and let stand to cool until comfortable to touch. Take a knife and using the dull top side (i.e., the sharp side you normally cut with is now facing upward), gently scrape down the sides of the beet, removing the tough outer skin. The beets are now fully cooked and ready to be chopped or sliced or consumed as is.

**I used leftover chicken breasts I roasted in the oven from the night before. I used this exact recipe for easy baked chicken breasts and it came out amazing with nice flavor and perfect texture for the chicken salad.

California Wine Country: An Afternoon Lunch at Los Olivos Cafe

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Although I'm admittedly not a huge fan of Southern California, a place that will always be special to me is northern Santa Barbara/Santa Ynez Valley/aka Santa Barbara Wine Country.

On our recent vacation down to SoCal we stopped in our favorite part. We finally made it to the Los Olivos Cafe where we met Unkl Kenny and dined on fabulous appetizers and local wines and beers. The sun was bright with with a beautiful blue sky above us, and the air was ever so slightly chilled with a cool breeze. We sat outside on the patio under some heat lamps and took in the fresh air and beautiful old town. Then feasted on wonderful light California fare that was just what the doctor ordered. This, was now a vacation!

I write these posts not only to encourage you to go to a place I think is fantastic and well worth your money, but more so to get ideas for what I and then you can do at home. Often I go to restaurants for inspiration -- how are they doing it now, what are they using, why are they using this in that way, and finally can I do this at home myself? And if it's something I think is a fabulous idea or interesting way of presenting things or a dish I think I could tweek and make even better (yes, this has happened more times than you think) then I can't wait to rush back home and start working on it.

Our trip to Los Olivos Cafe was such an occasion. A lesson in how to present casual, good and honest food in a way that helps to set the tone and mood for a get together at home. I grew up where food was set to impress, which is fine on occasion but it does make for a stuffy experience especially when you're having friends and family over. LOC was a great way to see how food can be beautifully made and presented but still not have a lot of fuss about it and be approachable and fun, and makes you awe at its beauty while at the same time wanting to dive right in. This is food that makes you want to pick up and toast your glasses of wine, take your time with the day, share stories and laugh. This is what good food is all about. And I'm happy to share with you the pictures and some thoughts here. Enjoy it!

Like I said, we approached the meal in a family-style, appetizer focused way. If you go out to eat or even better, when entertaining at home, this is a wonderful way to make everyone feel welcomed and really set the tone for a fun time. We started off with the Crostini with Tapenade, Hummus, and Muffaletta.

Simple crostini served with olive tapenade (left), hummus (top and bottom middle), and muffaletta made a fun and colorful start to our meal. The different "dips" were served more like spreads and went with both any wines and beers we were consuming at the same time.
 The bread was simply very thinly sliced baguette brushed with olive oil and baked until very crispy. The tapenade was kalamata olives and a little garlic, salt, and pepper with olive oil pulsed until very finely chopped and with a texture just shy of a true puree. The hummus was mellow with an emphasis on the chickpeas rather than the garlic, lemon juice, and herbs that went into it as well. And the muffaletta was the traditional olive salad that goes into a muffaletta sandwich. I loved that the tapenade, hummus, and muffaletta all stood on their own, but also went together with each other as well. So you could build your crostini as you wished -- all with one, a little of both or all three, the next one heavier on the olives than the one you had before. This is what I mean about "fun food." The muffaletta added unexpected flavor -- I've never seen the olive salad presented like that before! -- and wonderful color to the table.

You could very easily serve the same exact dish at your home. You can buy olive tapenade already prepared (Trader Joe's does a great version) or simply add pitted kalamata olives, garlic, salt, pepper, and olive oil to a food processor all to taste, and puree until desired consistency is achieved. You can make your own hummus or buy your favorite kind and scoop it out with an ice cream scooper, and then make the olive salad. Check out my perfect recipe for olive salad here.

After the crostini we had the Fried Green Tomatoes. I love fried green tomatoes. Love. By love I mean will kill people for them. They are so wonderful. They are slightly sour and sweet at the same time, warm and with that killer crunchy coating makes them irresistible. So when I saw them on he menu I just about lost my shit!

These were served with a salad of microgreens, blue cheese, and a fig sauce. SO good. The tomatoes were nice and tart and paired with the sweeter fig sauce made it perfect. The bleu cheese added just the right creaminess to combat the crunchy panko breading on the tomatoes and offer another tangy bite. My only change I would make would be to have added just a touch of honey to the fig sauce to bring out the sweetness just a shade more given how tart the tomatoes were. And with the bleu cheese going on as well, it would have made (in my humble opinion) a 9.5 dish a 10.

It's hard to find green tomatoes at the local markets. There are actually two kinds of tomatoes that can qualify as a "green tomato" for purposes of this dish: (1) an unripe otherwise would-be-red tomato that has not ripened to the point where the red color has come in yet OR (2) a green colored tomato such as the green zebra that remains green, ripe or unripe. The unripe tomatoes will yield a tarter tomato while using a ripened green tomato will be considerably sweeter. So, if making this dish you want to taste your tomatoes first and adjust your seasonings and accompaniments accordingly (as I would have added a little honey like I said).

Stay tuned for recipes in a few months utilizing green tomatoes, including my take on this dish. I cannot wait to start working on it! Now nature just has to give me tomatoes!

And then we got a couple of pizzas. (!!) I'm loving the "trend" to make pizzas elegant. It used to be we'd think of pizza as this shitty half-edible disc that came to our front door in a large cardboard box. Thank God we've departed from that and now with the help of store-bought pizza dough and idiot-proof ingredients, we can make killer pizzas in the comfort of our home. And maybe even involve the kids a little too. Well, in this departure we've also gone away from the tired pepperoni-and-cheese or "meat-lover's" and let me just say, as a law-abiding "meat lover" myself that pizza is fucking disgusting. My idea of meat lover's is thinly sliced steak and bacon on the pizza, not half-assed processed "pepperoni" and strange crumbly-yet-uncomfortably-chewy sausage. But I digress.

Los Olivos Cafe is an example of pizzas done right. They offer a small variety of simple pizzas, prepared in the classic way with no more than five-ish toppings. It's not layered on there, but rather gently sprinkled about, not overkilling the perfect crust. Their Soppresata Pizza is a wonderful combination of marinara sauce as the base, some spicy soppresata, parmesan, olives, and fresh arugula on top. This is my ideas of meat lover's! It's satisfying that craving while not going way overkill. It's elegant, easy to eat, incredibly flavorful and presents just beautifully.

Soppresata Pizza
But if you're looking for a more traditional pizza especially for the kiddos, they certainly have that as well. Take for example their Napoli Pizza -- prepared simply with tomato sauce and four cheeses. Crusty baked pizza crust completes the perfect slice of pizza.

Napoli Pizza with four cheeses.
With all of these dishes you just want to dive right in. And that's the point of this kind of dining. Especially with the pizzas, you can see how easy and FUN it is to entertain with something as simple as pizza. You can make a few versions yourself or even involve your guests to help make them. They come together so quickly especially if you use the store-bought dough, and can serve every single taste and food preference. One of my favorite parties to through for guests is a pizza and ice cream party -- cocktails or wine and beer, some grilled pizzas, and a built-your-own ice cream sundae for dessert. It's a throwback to childhood and so much fun and colorful and flavorful and everyone cant' help but have a good time.

Hope this posting gave you some good ideas for some menu ideas at your home. And make sure to stop in and have a glass of wine and some delicious food at Los Olivos Cafe next time you stop through.

My Lovely Berry Slump

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Whatcha gonna do with all that junk? All that junk inside your trunk?

I'ma get get get get you drunk, get you love drunk off my slump... slump my slump my slump my lovely little slump.

Check it out

In the immortal words of Fergie and, I present to you a wonderfully easy and incredibly tasty dessert called, a slump. Aka "cobbler," a slump is simply fresh fruit lightly seasoned with sugar or honey, topped with a biscuit-like batter that is baked until the top is puffed up and golden and the fruit is sweet and tender. It's gorgeous. It's so easy to prepare. And I love it because it's a dessert that very much preserves the integrity of the fruit, letting it shine through unmasked by other flavors or competing spices.

If you're sick of the pies and crumbles in particular, this cousin of the crumble is a must try. I used a combination of blackberries and blueberries because frankly, living in Washington, we have both growing up our asses out here. You could just as easily use any berry combination, stone fruit (cannot wait to try this with plums this summer!) or apples and pears. The dish comes together in 5 minutes to prepare, then bakes away for approximately 50 minutes in the oven leaving you plenty to time to finish prepping your dinner or even consuming it. You can certainly prepare it in advance and then bake it off an hour before you'd like to eat it, as it is best served right piping hot out of the oven. Garnish with simple vanilla ice cream or freshly whipped cream and you're done.

Blackberry and Blueberry Slump
1 pint blackberries, rinsed
1 pint blueberries, rinsed
1/3 cup granulated sugar + 2 Tbsp, divided (1/3 cup for the fruit; 2 Tbsp for the topping)
small pinch of ground cinnamon
small pinch of ground mace
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp corn starch
1 cup all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
pinch kosher salt
1/2 cup + splash almond milk*
2 Tbsp butter cut into small pieces
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place the berries in a mixing bowl. Add the 1/3 cup of sugar, cinnamon, and mace. Mix the lemon juice with the cornstarch in a small bowl, creating a slurry. This will help thicken the fruit juices when cooking. Add the lemon juice-cornstarch slurry to the fruit and toss to coat. Spray a casserole dish with nonstick spray (or butter) and pour fruit mixture in the casserole dish. Spread it out into an even layer.

The slump before it goes right into the oven.

To make the topping, simply whisk together the flour, 2 Tbsp sugar, baking powder, salt, and almond milk in a bowl. Pour the batter right over the fruit. It's ok if not all the fruit is covered or if the batter sinks down. This is good. Dot the top of the slump batter with the butter. Bake in oven for around 50 minutes, or until the top is golden brown, puffed up, and the fruits are bubbling. Let stand 1 minute before serving. Serve hot with ice cream or whipped cream if desired.
*Almond milk is a non-dairy milk made from almonds. I used it here for wonderful background flavor because I had it on hand. I loved the subtle almond flavor in the background. If you don't have it, can't find it, or don't want to use it, you can certainly use regular milk (skim to whole, doesn't matter). I wrote down "1/2 cup + splash" because almond milk is considerably thicker than regular milk, so you need just a tad more to get the batter to the right consistency. If you're using just milk then go ahead with the 1/2 cup only.

Passport to Italy: An Evening with The Borgias

To celebrate the first episode of the Borgias this past weekend, I decided to research some medieval Italian meals. Admittedly, when I think "medieval" I immediately think England, then France. Maybe Spain. I think roasted chicken, beef stews, and pastry. I was so curious to see what the medieval Italians did. Was it similar? Vastly different? How far does it depart from modern Italian cuisine, or what we consider Italian food today?

I was shocked.

It does not deviate on either end. It's both as medieval as English roasted chicken using the very same spices and preparations, and as "modern" as a bowl of macaroni or spaghetti. I am fascinated. Italian cuisine has stayed very much unchanged from 500+ years ago and I'm so happy for that. With an emphasis on using fresh, quality, preferably home-grown ingredients, simple dishes executed perfectly was the crux of Italian cuisine back then as it is today. Braises, stews, roasts, sausages, pastas all that we love today were also enjoyed in the same way by the Italians of 1500. So to celebrate the Borgias much in the same fashion as someone would in the time of the Borgias, I prepared this meal.

The Menu
Artichokes Old & New
Roman Macaroni
Pizza (for dessert)

We started out with some artichokes I had on hand from my local farm delivery. I wanted something simple and easy to prepare so I could focus my efforts on the pizza recipe, so I chose to do again my recipe for Artichokes Old & New. You'll notice below the dipping sauce was a lot lighter; I used apple cider vinegar this time instead of balsamic. Love it but prefer balsamic for this dish.

Then the main course was a pasta dish. During the time of the Borgiask, Marco Polo had visited Asia already, bringing back with him pasta, ginger, and various other spices. The Italians took to the pasta very quickly, adapting it to use with their own local ingredients to obvious success. I don't know why, but I was surprised to first see any pasta recipes at all during the period. I was amazed how quickly the Italians not only accepted a foreign dish like noodles, but how quickly they understood it and adapted it. It's truly remarkable if you really think about it. Second, I was surprised to see how unchanged the pasta recipe from 500 years ago was compared to today's pasta dishes. I elected to do this very simple recipe that is considered classic Italian fare today: good pasta, good olive oil, good parmesan cheese. That's it. The cuisine that I know and love today, emphasizing fresh ingredients prepared simply but executed perfectly was the same exact philosophy of Italian cooks 500 years ago.

And I love that.

I relish in being able to participate in unchanged traditions, a fiber connecting me with ancestors past and people I didn't know or met in a place I've never been. And such is this pasta dish!

Here's a delightfully simple and unchanged recipe for simple macaroni from The Neapolitan Recipe Collection by Terence Scully.

"Macharoni Romaneschi.
Piglia bella farina he fane pasta uno pocho piu grossa che quella dele Lasagne, et rivoltala in torno ad uno bastone, et taglia la pasta larga uno digito che resta como una stringo; et metteli a cocere in bono brodo ho in altra aqua secondo el tempo; et fa prima bulire l'aqua cum uno pocho de sale avante che li mette dentro li macharoni; et se li cocerai in aqua, mettelli dentro butiro freshco."  --circa 15th century, Naples

And the translation:

"Roman Macaroni. Out of fine flour make a dough that is a little larger than for lasagna, and wrap it around a stick, and cut the dough the dough the width of a finger so that it stays like a ribbon; set it to cook in good broth or in some other liquid depending on the season; let the liquid boil first with a little salt before putting the macaroni in it; and if they are cooking in water, add a little fresh butter to it."


For my interpretation, I used boxed pasta because honestly, I have two small kids and a house to maintain. I was planning on asking The Hubsters to make pasta from scratch for this, but alas work intervened once again and De Cecco had to step in and man up in the pasta department. I also used both butter and olive oil. And then tossed it with some freshly chopped garlic, a small sprig of rosemary, and finely ground Parmesan-Romano and shaved Parmesan.

Here is my adapted recipe:

Macaroni Romano In The Style of Medieval Italy
1/2 lb dried pasta -- your choice
2 Tbsp kosher salt
1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp good butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary leaves, left whole
1/3 cup finely ground Parmesano-Romano
1/4 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

Bring a pot of water to a boil. When boiling, season the water with the salt. Add the pasta and cook to package directions. Drain pasta. In the same pot the pasta boiled in, add the oil, better, garlic, rosemary, and drained pasta and toss to coat well. Add the cheeses and serve.
Now that appetizer and main dish were consumed, it was time for dessert! Here I was most surprised. Shocked and fascinated would be more accurate actually.

When we today think Italian we think pizza, right? Well, pizza was developed in Naples. So when I found a recipe for medieval napolize pizza, I jumped at the chance. Imagine my shock when I read it: pastry crust, rose water, dates, currants, sugar, paste. Huh?? Where's the tomato? The basil? The motherfuckingcheese for crying out loud???? Oh this is a DESSERT PIZZA.

I'll let you digest that for a second.

One fabulously popular medieval Italian dessert was a pizza using not the yeasty dough we know and love and often bicker about which version is best from Chicago to New York (I still say Connecticut, by the way), but rather a pastry dough more like pie crust called "royal pastry." And it was topped with a paste made of pulverized dried fruits, nuts, and sugar that was spread like the tomato sauce today. And instead of pepperoni or basil they'd use dried up cookies much like miranges.


Here's the actual recipe with its translation from this fascinating website.

"Per fare torta con diverse materie, da Napoletani detta pizza. Cap CXXI

Habbisi oncie sei d’amandole ambrosine monde, & quattr’oncie di pignoli ammogliati mondi, & tre oncie di datoli freschi prive dell’anime, e tre oncie di fichi secchi, tre oncie di zibibbo senz’anime, & ogni cosa pestici nel mortaro, sbruffandole alle volte d’acqua rosa, di modo che venga come pasta, giungansi con esse materie, otto rossi d’ova fresche crude, oncie sei di zuccaro, un’oncia di cannella pista, un’oncia, e mezza di mostaccioli Napoletani muschiati fatti in polvere, quattro oncie d’acqua rosa, e fatta che sarĂ  d’ogni cosa in una compositionne, habbisi la tortiera onta con un sfoglio di pasta reale, & il tortiglione sfogliato incirca non troppo grosso, & mettasi la compositione in la tortiera, mescolata con quattro oncie di butiro fresco, facendo ch non sia piu alta d’un dito, & senza esser copera facciasi cuocere al forno, & servasi calda, & fredda a beneplacito. In essa pizza si puo mettere d’ogni sorte condite."

Translation:  "To make a tart with various things, by the residents of Naples called pizza. Chapter 121. Have six ounces of peeled ambrosia almonds, four ounces of peeled soaked pine nuts, and three ounces of fresh dates with the seeds removed, three ounces of dried figs, three ounces of raisins without seeds, and grind everything together in a mortar, sprinkling every so often with rosewater, so that it becomes a paste, add to these things eight fresh raw egg yolks, six ounces of sugar, an ounce of ground cinnamon, an ounce and a half of Naples biscotti with musk, made into powder, four ounces of rose water. And make of all these things a filling. Have a greased pie plate lined with a sheet of royal pastry, and with not too large layered twisted pastry decorations around the rim. Put the stuffing into the tart, mixed with four ounces of fresh butter. Make it so that it isn’t any higher than a finger and without a (pastry) cover put to cook in the oven. Serve this hot or cold as one pleases. In this pizza one can put any sort of confit."

Note: the ingredients for royal pastry are: flour, sugar, butter, rose water and salt. Naples biscotti are a almost meringue type confection of sugar, flour and eggs, baked twice until crisp. The probably provide both flavoring and a binding agent for this dish.

And here is the recipe I myself adapted from this original and translation. Using dates, dried currants, almonds, and spices I tried to recreate the paste. I also made the pastry dough quickly in my food processor.

Medieval Pizza
for the royal pastry:
1 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cubed
3-5 Tbsp rose water

for the filling:
1 cup whole almonds
4 large dates, seeds removed
1 cup raisins
1 cup dried currants
pinch of salt
1 egg yolk
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
about 1/8 cup rose water

Combine the flour, sugar, salt, and butter in a food processor and pulse until butter is the size of peas. Add the rose water and mix until a dough ball is formed. Remove dough, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until cold, 30 minutes.

While the dough cools, prepare the filling. Place the almonds, dates, raisins, currants, and salt in the food processor (no need to clean it from the pastry dough work). Pulse until everything is ground finely, like you would if you were making pesto. Add the egg yolk and cinnamon and pulse again to mix in. Then removing the feeder tube above, turn the mixer on and while it's mixing, slowly add the rose water until eveyrthing comes together in a paste. You're looking for the consistency of peso here. Once combined and the desired consistency is achieved, set aside.

Take the pastry dough out and roll it out on a floured surface. Gently form the rolled out dough into your tart pan (or whatever pie pan you are using). Trim off excess dough from the sides, then fill it in with the fruit paste. Smooth out the top and bake in oven for about 30 minutes or until pastry dough is golden brown on the edges and the filling is puffed up a little and set. Let stand 10 minutes before slicing.

I have to be honest, this wasn't my most favorite. I can say we should all lay down and thank the South Americans and the Spanish for bringing chocolate into our lives. Because if we had to eat desserts like this, then we'd always end the meal with cheese. The flavors were interesting and the use of rose water made for an incredibly aromatic dish. It really reminded me of this peculiar Middle Eastern dessert my grandfather would very occasionally bring us when I was very young. Maybe that's why I didn't care for this pizza that much, because I hated that other dessert. The Hubsters seemed to enjoy this though. And I posted it simply for the historical relevance and shock of being the first real pizzas. That said, I'm not abandoning the project and think I could work with this. It needs just a few more tweeks, some different fruit and nut combinations perhaps, to make it truly a lovely dessert pizza. Stay tuned!