Monday, January 30, 2012

Oh Nuts.

Someone told me recently that people are more emotional on airplanes than they are in regular on-land life because of effects from the altitude and pressurized cabin.  I think I believe it. I’m much more likely to cry at a particularly compelling novel (or magazine article) at 30,000 feet. Not that I don’t do that on land. I mean, I get teary at television commercials. There’s a reason I work in the business. I like to think it’s because I’m highly empathetic…but maybe I’m just a great, huge sap. 

Anyhow, here I am on another airplane, composing yet another overdue blog post. Channeling emotions and all that. I got upgraded, and I’d be lying if I said the free wine wasn’t helping. 

The other day, by which I mean several weeks ago, I was tasked with making dessert for a dinner party in honor of some good friends from college who were in town. 

Lately, dessert presents a bit of a problem. In addition to needing to limit sugar, regular flour is not an option. (Ugh.  I decided to rebel and I ate a flour burrito tortilla a few weeks ago and I really, really regretted it. I won’t get into details – let’s just say the reaction was...systemic. Lesson learned.) As if the sugar-flour thing wasn't tricky enough, many winter-seasonal fruits are also not an option. And last time I checked, it was still winter. Basically, I've got chocolate and nuts on my side. And cream. 

I don't know if maybe you have picked up on this but sometimes I like to make things as hard for myself as possible. I will always pick a near-impossible challenge over a moderate challenge. The more impossible something seems, the more I want it and the harder I try.  

Yes, this might have something to do with why I'm currently single. 

As if figuring out what dessert to make wasn't challenging enough with those restrictions, Kristin and Chris were bringing fresh ravioli to the table and I thought it would be nice to have an Italian-ish dessert. 

After combing several cookbooks and sites, I happened upon this Chocolate Almond Torte recipe from Bon Appetit.
That's right. I found a chocolate flourless cake that didn't seem like it would cook up into a giant piece of fudge. This felt like what I imagine hitting the jackpot would feel like, except that has never happened to me, so I don't really know. 

And I got excited. 

Kate's Chocolate-Almond-Orange Torte
adapted from Bon Appetit

Serves 12ish 

1 1/2 cups blanched slivered almonds
1 cup sugar
8 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate, chopped
5 large eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, cooled
1/4 teaspoon salt

Man, I love zest. Almost as much as I love my Microplane grater.
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier 
1 tablespoon granulated sugar


Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter 9-inch-diameter springform pan with 2 3/4-inch-high sides. Combine almonds and 1/3 cup sugar in processor. Blend until almonds are very finely ground. 

Transfer almond mixture to medium bowl; do not clean processor. Add chocolate and 1/3 cup sugar to processor.  Blend until chocolate is finely ground but not beginning to clump, about 45 seconds; stir into almond mixture. 

Using electric mixer, beat egg yolks and remaining 1/3 cup sugar in large bowl until mixture falls in heavy ribbon when beaters are lifted, about 5 minutes. 

I swear it was a "heavy ribbon," not a "sad drip" but I just couldn't capture it on the camera.

Beat in almond extract and lemon peel. Fold in chocolate-almond mixture, then butter.

Using clean, dry beaters, beat egg whites and salt in another large bowl until stiff but not dry. 

Stiff peaks!

Fold whites into chocolate batter in three additions. Transfer batter to prepared pan.

Yeah. The batter looks pretty gross. Have faith.
Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out with moist crumbs attached, about 40 minutes.

Cool cake completely in pan on rack. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover; store at room temperature.) Cut around pan sides to loosen; release sides. 

Combine cream, Grand Marnier, and granulated sugar and whip until soft peaks form. Dollop on individual slices of cake, or, if your sous chef is a 3 year old, let her "frost" the cake. 

Forgot to snap a pic before we served everyone. Oops.

There you go. The only thing I will do differently next time will be to grind the almonds even finer. This was a little...toothy. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

How Whole Foods Screwed Me. Again.

Sometimes I happen upon a recipe that looks so good, I know, I just know, I have to go home and make it the same night. That happened today.

I subscribe to a lot of magazines. I like to read them on planes. And I seem to find myself in lots of planes. I also like to read them on the bike at the gym. Ideally, I also have music in my ears and a tv to glance up at while reading my magazine on the bike. I need lots of distractions when I'm working out. I honestly don't understand the people I see by Crissy Field who are running without music. Is James Earl Jones in their heads, reading them a story?

When I say I subscribe to "a lot" of magazines, I mean about eight. Or ten. Maybe twelve. I'm not sure how many. Lots. Fewer than I have pairs of shoes, more than I have umbrellas. This morning on the bike I was reading Sunset Magazine which sometimes makes me feel middle-aged, but I have to admit, I kind of love reading articles about "how to live in the West." I live partly vicariously through the bounty of gardening articles...oh, someday, someday this wannabe farm girl will get to plant stuff that's not in a pot.

This morning, I ran across a recipe for the rather dully-named "Thai Chicken and Noodle Curry." I swooned. It had those great big noodles - rice noodles! - that I love. And Panang curry paste. And coconut milk. I practically drooled on the bike console.

I was so excited about making this recipe that I actually had the magazine opened to the big glamour shot of my intended dinner all day while I was at work. 

I think I may have temporarily been in love.

This was taken at home, obviously. My desk at work isn't black granite, nor does it feature an orange colander. What it actually features is a light maple-esque laminate and a LOT of PowerPoint decks and scribbled notes.

I bolted from the cable car at Van Ness with a spring in my step, and not just because I had the pleasure of sitting next to a woman who had clearly imbibed a significant quantity of beer, perhaps an entire keg, earlier in the day. Trust me, I went to Duke and Kellogg. I am well familiar with the smell of stale beer on someone's breath. Yuck.

I had my list all prepped, I found a basket, I was ready to shop. Veni, vidi, vici. Or so I thought.

And then Whole Foods screwed me.

I am, most of the time, incredibly grateful that I live only a block from a clean, well-lit, orderly grocery store that has lots of local produce, lots of organic and sustainable products, and a really fine selection of cheese. That said, it drives me NUTS that I often can't find what I am looking for at Whole Foods. Have you ever noticed that the checkout people at Whole Foods never, ever ask if "you found everything ok?" Yeah. That's because NO ONE ever finds everything there. Tonight was a classic example.

Here was my list (truly, this is copied and pasted from the "Groceries" note in my phone):

Wide rice noodles
Panang curry paste
Coconut milk
Fish sauce
Thai basil
Green beans

Here are all the things on the list I was unable to buy at my local Whole Foods:

Chicken - Ok, this isn't Whole Foods' fault, entirely. I decided to use shrimp instead of chicken. However, they did not have the shrimp I was looking for, so only half a point for them.

Wide rice noodles - Nowhere to be found. I ended up using rice I had at home, totally deflating my dream of wide noodles, which I love. Oh, I have already mentioned that?

Panang curry paste - Not even close! I settled on a green curry paste, but I really wanted Panang. Sad.

Thai basil - Ha. I know, I'm a comedian. Did I seriously think Whole Foods would have Thai basil? No. I bought regular basil. Eh, whatever.

You'll notice that it's hard to make a Panang curry with wide noodles without, oh, the curry or the wide noodles.


I'm not even close to being an expert in Thai cooking and all these substitutions were making me a little nervous. Because in addition to the ingredients that Whole Foods didn't have, I decided to also add vegetables to the recipe and remove the garlic and shallots called for in place of the green part of some scallions which fit the bill because I had them at home and I can eat them without getting sick. That is what we call a two-fer.

Yeah. So I was nervous. Then I realized that I was only cooking for myself and so it was totally ok to cross my fingers and make this up and if the end result sucked, well, I've got a box of Annie's wheat-free Mac & Cheese in the cupboard. Let's do this.

Kate's Thai-ish Shrimp Green Curry

Adapted with many liberties from this recipe.
Makes 2 servings

1 cup green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 zucchini, trimmed and sliced into 1/2-inch thick rounds
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup sliced scallions, green parts only
1 heaping tablespoon green curry paste
1 cup coconut milk, divided (I used the light kind, which worked fine, but if you are up for the fat, get the good stuff)
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons  lime juice
1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce, ideally reduced-sodium
1 1/2 teaspoons Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce

8 ounces shrimp, peeled, and deveined if you're fussy
1/2 cup cilantro leaves and small sprigs
1/2 cup Thai basil* leaves and small sprigs
1 lime, cut into wedges

Accompaniment: basmati rice


1. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Steam or boil the green beans and zucchini until they are cooked but firm.  Drain and set aside.

2. Heat oil in a large (10") frying pan over high heat. Add scallions and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add  curry paste (watch out, it splatters!), and half the coconut milk. Stir well to dissolve paste and boil until liquid is slightly reduced, about 2 minutes. 

Scallions, soy-fish sauce concotion, green curry paste, all ready for the pan.

  3. Stir in remaining coconut milk, the sugar, lime juice, soy sauce, and fish sauce, then bring to a boil. Add the shrimp, reduce heat and simmer until liquid is slightly thicker, 2 to 3 minutes more.

Raw shrimp!

Add the vegetables and stir or toss gently to combine. Continue reducing the sauce for another minute or two, until the shrimp are cooked through. (Forgot to take a picture - sorry!)

4. Sprinkle with a generous dose of cilantro and basil. Serve over rice, with lime wedges.

And that was dinner. And you know what, it was actually pretty good!
Which is lucky for me because it's also "Tuesday lunch".

Ok, maybe the chopsticks aren't totally traditional, but I liked how they looked with the placesetting. And I was feeling dexterous. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sleep-ful in Seattle

I'm sitting here at Sea-Tac, waiting for my flight and thinking about what a lovely weekend I had with the Roberts clan and their pal Nick.

I learned a lot about myself this weekend, not least that I am totally capable of going to sleep at 9pm and waking up at 7am. Yeah, that's right. I can easily sleep TEN hours a night if you let me sleep in a cool cave surrounded by the BEST pajamas ever (just like these except mine are orange stripes with blue trim and yes, they are a child size, and yes, I am reminded of The Cat in the Hat everytime I wear them) and some very heavy blankets.

I think this is why there's coffee EVERYWHERE here.

Even Nalu was a good sleeper.

Visiting Chrissy and Will is one of my favorite things because they feed me. Also because I love them and their adorable kids, but if we're being honest... the feeding me is no small thing. Chrissy even makes tons of wheat-free treats. Including bread! And focaccia!! And cookies!!!

Focaccia. Tastes just like the wheat kind. Amazing.

Not to be outdone, Will is a true foodie. One after my own heart, really -- he does things like make his own ricotta.

Whole milk, citric acid, cheese salt. That's it.

Draining the curds.

Yeah. Like that.

Chrissy also makes an awesome wheat-free pizza crust.
And then dinner looks like this. Pancetta, spinach, ricotta. Awesome, awesome, awesome.

The kids' pizza was pretty good, too. I may have stolen a bite.

They're also really delightful, really wonderful friends. And they're about to move to Norway. Like I needed that kind of excuse to visit.

Sunday night was everyone's last night at home - Chrissy and the kids are sticking around but Will was off to Norway for a couple of weeks, lucky Nick was off to Utah for some skiing, and I, well, I was back to home and work. Let's be honest, I haven't spent much time in either place lately between focus groups, the holidays, jury duty, and this vacation.


It was time.

It was cold and wintry all weekend in Seattle. It actually snowed, and all four adults elected to abandon the plan to go out "in the city" in exchange for some lazy nights at home. This mostly involved drinking a bunch of wine (and beer, for the boys), eating really well and in far too great a quantity, and falling asleep around nine or nine-thirty after a couple of episodes of Eastbound and Down (which is really hilarious, although Chrissy would disagree).

For serious, though. How can you not love a show with this kind of exchange?

Terrence Cutler: There's something you need to know, Kenny. You're not the only athlete here at Jeff Davis. I happen to be training for a Triathlon right now. Doin' a lot of running, and cycling, swimming. Well, you know all about that. 

Kenny Powers: No. Actually, I don't. I do SPORTS, not try to be the best at exercising. 

To be fair to us adults, the kids get up at like 5:30am. Not like 5:30. Actually 5:30. In the am. That makes 9pm seem like a pretty reasonable bedtime. But still. No one was sleepless in Seattle, that is for sure.

Sunday night was another really cold winter day. We were going to take a ferry ride but all we could manage to do was walk a bit on the beach before considering how soon hypothermia might set in. Nick was super nice and got us all coffees (and the kids chocolate milk) which helped a lot although I was so cold I debated pouring the coffee over my head as a staying-warm maneuver. In the end, this seemed like a very short term solution to the problem so I abandoned that plan.

The cold weather and the wonderful local seafood inspired me to suggest cioppino for dinner. I adapted mine from this recipe.

Do not be daunted by the list of ingredients! This is really very easy to make.

Kate's North Beach Cioppino
Serves 6

The Broth
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed, cored, and finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1/4-1/2 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1 yellow or orange bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 tablespoons tomato paste
about half a bottle dry white wine (I used a relatively cheap Pinot Grigio)
1 (28- to 32-ounces) can diced plum tomatoes including juices
1 cup bottled clam juice
1 cup chicken broth

The Seafood
Use any combination of the following but aim for about 4-5 lbs total and no more than 4 different types. For this rendition, I used clams, mussels, mahi mahi, and shrimp. Without the crab, purists will claim this is technically not a "cioppino" but we had crab as an appetizer so it seemed a bit much to have it in the entree, too.

1 (1-pound) king crab leg, thawed if frozen, and hacked into 2 to 3 inch pieces
1 1/2 lb small (2-inch) hard-shelled clams such as littlenecks, scrubbed
1 lb mussels, scubbed and debearded
1 pound mahi mahi, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces (you can also use other firm white fish - cod, halibut, etc.)
1 pound large shrimp (16 to 20), shelled (tails and bottom segment of shells left intact) and deveined
3/4 pound sea scallops, tough muscle removed from side of each if necessary

The Finishing Touch
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil

Accompaniment: focaccia or baguettes


Cook garlic, onions, shallots, fennel, bay leaf, oregano, and red pepper flakes with salt and pepper in oil in an 8-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring, until vegetables are softened, about 5 minutes. 

Stir in bell pepper and tomato paste and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add wine and boil until reduced by about half, 5 to 6 minutes. Add tomatoes with their juice, clam juice, and broth and simmer, covered, 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. 

Add crab pieces and clams to stew and simmer, covered, until clams just open, 5 to 10 minutes, checking every minute after 5 minutes and transferring opened clams to a bowl with tongs or a slotted spoon. (Discard any unopened clams after 10 minutes.) Lightly season fish fillets, shrimp, and scallops with salt and add to stew, then simmer, covered, until just cooked through, about 5 minutes. Discard bay leaf, then return clams to pot and gently stir in parsley and basil. 
Serve cioppino immediately in large soup bowls. (We served ours over rice, too.)

If you can chop vegetables, you can make this. And you'll be glad you did. I wanted to drink the broth.

A few more notes from the weekend:
  • The same night I cooked up the cioppino, we made the kids shrimp and rice, (plus some refried beans for Josie, who's a beans and rice kind of girl. Love it.) The shrimp for them was super simple: some Old Bay cooked in a little butter on the stove, then I threw in the shrimp for a couple of minutes and sauteed them until cooked. 

This is a delicious method for cooking shrimp in a flash. Worth a try.

  • I saw this light fixture at Molbak's. It's super cute. Just what my dining room needs. And it was affordable. But why buy it when you can make it!? Chicken wire drum over a smaller burlap drum. Oh, how I love a textured, natural fabric. I am going to have to undertake this as a 2012 craft...

Sunday, January 08, 2012

J'adore Jacques!

I'm serious about these 2012 ambitions, y'all. Tonight I cooked not one, but TWO, recipes from Essential Pepin. I also tried to be nice today.

Tonight's Menu a la Pepin

Spicy Chicken Breast
Sauteed Lettuce Packages
(Leftover) Roasted Turnips and Parsnips (SO EXCITING!)

No, your eyes did not deceive you. I really did type "Sauteed Lettuce." Did you even know you could do that to lettuce? I didn't.

Let's start with the basics. The first recipe was a new twist on boneless, skinless chicken breasts that sounded intriguing because of the use of juniper berries, which I did not already have in my spice cabinet. I have a spice problem. All of that exploring that all those Europeans did back in the day to find a shorter route to India and the Spice Islands and such? I get it. I really, really get it.

If I read an even marginally appealing recipe that includes the use of a spice I don't already own, I am pretty much compelled to make it. I clearly have a psychological problem although I'm not sure this one was been identified in the DSM-IV.

There's a reason my spice cabinet looks like this:

At last count, there were over 50 herbs and spices in here. Now that I've had to start stacking the bottles atop each other, they frequently fall out. I need a new system which will no doubt be covered in a future post -- once I figure out what that system should be.

The first step is admitting you have a problem, right?

Juniper berries, for the uninitiated, are what give gin its flavor. As such, the juniper berries rather smell like gin. And we all know gin smells like tears. Just saying.

Anyhow, my personal problems aside, this recipe seemed super easy.

Toast and grind some whole spices.

The big ones are the juniper berries. The pale ones are coriander seed. The small brown ones are mustard seed.

I love my spice grinder. It really does a wonderful job, and it's easy to clean. Can't beat it. Sometimes I like to use a mortar and pestle, but for little roly-ball things that are likely to fly out of the mortar, the spice grinder is the best.

Rub them on a chicken breast. Add a little olive oil.


Brown the chicken in the pan, three minutes per side. Then put it in a pre-heated 200 degree oven (Jacques says 180 but my oven doesn't go that low) for another 10 minutes or so to finish the cooking.

It did not disappoint. 

Juicy, tender, tastes like gin. Odd, but good.

Recipe #2 was not quite as simple. Who sautes lettuce? Really, have you ever heard of such a thing? It sounds like crazy talk to me.

I just had to try it. Feelin' a little crazy, I guess.

For this recipe, Jacques instructs you to wash the lettuce, then cook it in a pot of boiling water for 20 minutes.

20 minutes seemed like a really long time to me. I might shave a bit off the cooking time next time. To keep the lettuce head submerged, you put a plate over the top of it, in the water. 

Once it's done cooking, you cool it immediately in ice water.

Then you squeeze it gently to get as much water out as you can. Cut it in half and make it into "a triangular package shape." As you can see below, I failed at triangular packages. Mine are closer to sad semicircles. Shaping cooked lettuce is harder than you might think.

Then you pan fry the lettuce (again, words I never thought I'd type) in a combination of peanut oil and butter.

Three to four minutes per side, with a little salt and pepper.

And voila! You have sauteed lettuce.

Guess what? Sauteed lettuce is delicious! Who would have guessed? It's almost like very mild spinach with none of that nasty iron-y bite that coats your teeth. The lesson here may well be that anything cooked in peanut oil and butter tastes good, but still, that's an important lesson for us all.

I know it sounds insane, but this is delicious.

And that was dinner. 

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Winter Comfort Food

It's a little hard to wrap your head around winter fare when it feels like it's almost 70 degrees outside, which it did around 1pm today. Crazy. I love this climate. 

However, yesterday evening was truly wintry and I was craving some baked pasta. I had (still have) a bunch of roasted turkey breast that I made on Monday. On a whim, I picked up some smoked fontina at the grocery store. And then I invented this:

Kate's Baked Penne with Turkey, Arugula, and Smoked Fontina

1 1/3 cups dry penne pasta
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, halved or 1 garlic clove, minced
1 15-ounce can tomatoes, pureed with their juices (I prefer to puree whole ones vs. buying pureed, but that's up to you.)
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
3ish cups arugula
1ish cup roast turkey (or chicken), chopped in 1/2-inch(ish) pieces
1 1/2 cups grated fontina, smoked or normal

Check out my freshly pureed tomatoes in my fancy new mini-prep, a gift from Sandy. Thank you, Sanderella. I love it!


1. Boil some water and get the pasta going. I used corn pasta for the first time which I LOVE - it's wheat free and one thousand times tastier than the rice pasta that I normally use. If you can't eat wheat or gluten or whatever, this stuff is worth seeking out. I hear it's the preferred format for gluten-free pasta in Italy and you have to believe those people know what they're talking about.

Corn pasta! Amazing! This stuff has restored my will to live.

2. Get the sauce going. If you can eat garlic, saute some garlic in the olive oil until it turns golden. If you can't eat garlic (i.e. me - so annoying!) saute the garlic clove halves in olive oil until golden, then remove the clove pieces. Proceed as normal.

3. Dump the tomato puree in the pan saute pan with the garlic/oil and add the thyme and oregano. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is done. (Normally you would add salt here but I find the fontina to be quite salty, so prefer to leave it out.)

4. Crap! Turn on the oven! To 375! Now!! (I always forget to do this.)

5. When the pasta's done, turn off the burner on the sauce. Add the pasta and the turkey to the sauce. Toss to coat. 

6. Add the arugula (uncooked!). Toss to coat, trying to not spill too much of the arugula all over your stove. 

7. Stir in half of the fontina. Try to get it mixed throughout. I recommend using tongs for all the mixing procedures.

8. Put a little olive oil in your baking pan and spread it around with your fingertips until the pan is coated. (I used an enameled cast iron au gratin dish but if you don't have one of those, use a souffle casserole or just a regular 8x8 baking pan)

9. Dump the mix into the baking pan and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. 

10. Bake until you hear sizzling coming from the pan and the cheese is all melty. That should be about 12 minutes. 


A couple more winter cooking thoughts:

Roasted turnips are DELICIOUS. I'm serious. They don't taste like dirt or Siberia at all. They are sweet and juicy. Yes, you read that correctly. Trim and peel them before you cut them into quarters to roast with a little olive oil and salt. Try it!

I inagurated my new cast iron pan tonight by cooking up some mustard greens with bacon. 

Ain't she a beaut?

By the way, bacon is much easier to chop if it's frozen.
Clean and not slippery. And as much as I'd love to see Dr. McDreamy, er, McDermott, at the CPMC ER again, I'm really trying to adhere to the lesson I learned about slicing fatty room-temperature pork.

The recipe is in the style of Collard Greens Miniera, which I love. Try it. No boiling water required. The only two ingredients are bacon and greens. It's amazing. I threw a poached egg on top and called it dinner. Perfect.