Friday, March 28, 2008

Fish in Parchment, 11 Years with Spider the Dog

Oh, it's not fair.  I should've taken my dog Spider out for a steak tonight to celebrate the 11th anniversary of the day I brought her home from the pound.  But since they don't let dogs into steak houses as far as I know, and since I had some frozen cod and a few other essentials on hand, I made fish in parchment paper instead.

And Spider sat under the table looking at me with hungry eyes, as if to say "I'm hungry... no one ever feeds me...I'm as starving as I was the day you adopted me 11 years ago...PLEASE feed me some fish scraps...and really I deserve STEAK DAMNIT...".  And I felt really bad because this meal that I threw together was SO INCREDIBLY GOOD.  And I didn't share, not with dogs anyway. 

The fish was so good in fact, that I have to tell you how I made it, and of course, I made it by bastardizing a recipe I once saw by Rachel Ray.  Yeah, love her or hate her, she has some good ideas.   Here's what I did.  May Spider forgive me.

First, take 2 sheets of parchment paper, about a foot long, and set them down on a baking sheet.   Pre-heat the oven to 400.

Next, take a handful of aspargus (well, 2 actually) and place each on a sheet sheet of parchment.

Next, chop this stuff up coarsely: green olives, garlic, a bit of anchovy, a smattering of roasted red pepper.  You don't need proportions.  Just use your instincts and add just enough.  That's right - sprinkle it all on top of the asparagus and season w/ salt & pepper.


Now, add your fish.  In this case, I used cod.   Lay it on top of the asparagus, drizzle w/ olive oil, top with a sprinkling of lemon zest, toss a few sprigs of basil onto the fish, and squeeze lemon juice over it all.  And then, just for good measure, toss a few capers and some chopped shallot over it all.

Next up: wrap the fish up into a tidy little parchment package. I used kitchen twine to tie it all up. And then, you bake it at 400 for about 20 minutes or so.

In the meantime, give all the dogs lots of rubs and pets and drink wine. Guaranteed to make the stress of the week just wash away. Especially if you have the music of Breech cranked loudly on the stereo, which of course, I did.

After 20 minutes, take the fish packages out of the oven, carefully transfer to your plates, and enjoy.

Give thanks that the week is behind you, especially if it was a slightly stressful and highly emotional week, which it surely was for me.  Give thanks for the company - a wonderful sweetheart and two wonderful dogs, and don't forget to give an extra fish scrap to the old lady dog.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Seeking Gnocchi Nirvana

My latest food obsession is gnocchi, and wow, is it ever hard to get just right. If you've ever tried to make it, then you probably know this to be true. There are so many factors that can go wrong. The dough can turn out to be too heavy or too sticky, or the gnocchi can fall apart when you cook them. And even if you avoid all this, the end result can still be heavy instead of fluffy and light as air.

I wish I could tell you what to do to achieve perfect results, but I'm still learning. I want the process to be scientific: measure out this much of this and that, do this to it, then do this to it, and gnocchi nirvana shall be yours. But I fear it's not going to be quite that simple.

Yesterday my lovely pal Sabine and I tested out a recipe we found in Food & Wine Magazine. And in fact, the gnocchi were quite good. Don't they look tasty in the picture? We followed the recipe to the letter, and the dough wasn't too sticky or heavy, and the gnocchi cooked up very nicely. But all three of us who enjoyed the meal agreed that while these gnocchi were good, we wanted them to be lighter and fluffier and a little more delicate. Gnocchi nirvana had not been achieved, but we were not exactly complaining as we enjoyed our feast. Sabine and I agreed to remain obsessed until we found the perfect recipe.

So today, I began looking (everywhere from The Silver Spoon to The Joy of Cooking and many random web sites and food blogs), and discovered that so many recipes offer different takes on the matter, with so much conflicting information. Some recipes say to use an egg in the dough, others don't. Some swear you must bake the potatoes while others say you must boil them. One recipe said you must work with the potatoes when they're hot, while other recipes said to cool completely first. Some say to always use a ricer and never mash the potatoes. And then, others say mash the potatoes! It's a little exasperating for someone like me who just wants to follow step-by-step instructions. And who's got the time to test out every single recipe out there?

For the record, I think the Food & Wine recipe has some very good techniques, such as baking the potatoes on a bed of coarse salt to draw out the moisture, and using yukon gold potatoes instead of russet. If this was the only recipe you had to work with, you would not be in bad shape.

But, I'm dearly hoping that someone out there reading this may be able to point me to a recipe that takes me one step closer to nirvana - the perfect recipe for light, fluffy, delicate gnocchi. Does it exist? Sabine and I sure hope so!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Life without Coffee, Part 2

Didn't I say I was never ever ever going to give up coffee again? Never say never. I should know this by now, but it's a lesson I keep learning.

See, it all started when I was crazily ill with some kind of wretched virus. It was bad enough just having the virus, but then my doctor had me taking first anti-viral medication, and then, when it was disclosed that really, they didn't know what was wrong with me and that perhaps it was pneumonia, I began taking antibiotics. All of this medication wreaked complete and utter havoc upon my already delicate digestive system. I'll spare you the sickly details but let's just say that for the better part of a week, I couldn't keep ANYTHING in my system. Now there's a diet I won't soon be repeating!

I didn't really stop drinking coffee by choice, but rather by necessity, and I was honestly too sick to care.  I figured I'd reunite w/ my caffeine just as soon as I felt well again.  But then, when I finally did get well, a funny thing happened.  All of the stomach irritation that I had been experiencing previous to the illness was just GONE.   I had tried so many approaches in the previous months in an effort to make the stomach pain go away, including giving up alcohol (temporarily at least!), eliminating meat from my diet,  and getting acupuncture treatment.   All of these things no doubt contributed to my feeling better, but none of them was quite enough.

Of course, on more than one occasion I had read that sometimes giving up coffee is all that is needed to make stomach problems go away.  But NO WAY was I going to try this approach!  I couldn't live without my coffee!  Or at least, I couldn't get out of bed without it.  But feeling completely well is a powerful motivator.  That's what I tell myself every morning as I'm boiling the water for my green tea.

Perhaps one day I'll reunite w/ coffee after all, but I figured for now I'd give my body a 6 month break.  And who knows...  maybe once 6 months has passed, I won't even want it any more.  But never say never...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Pickled Red Onions and Geetar Pickin'

Mmmm.... it's bbq season again! Serve these pickled red onions at your next bbq, and your friends will surely devour them. Not only are they good on burgers of any kind, but they're a lovely addition to salads, and one of the nice things about these onions is that you can whip them up in no time at all.

I adapted this recipe from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone - a book that I love and find myself referring to again and again. The original recipe called for red wine vinegar, plus sugar and salt, but I used seasoned rice vinegar instead, and omitted the sugar and adapted the spices, and the results were mighty tasty.

2 large red onions
1 1/2 c. seasoned rice vinegar
2 bay leaves
a pinch of herbs de provence
3 dried red chiles
1 t. crushed black peppercorns
pinch of salt
1 1/2 c. cold water

Thinly slice the onions, place them in a colander, and pour boiling water over them to soften the onions a bit. Then rinse the onions in cold water and place them in a bowl. Now add the vinegar, bay leaves, herbs, chiles, peppercorns, salt and water to the bowl. If you don't have enough liquid to cover the onions, add more vinegar and water in equal parts. Place a heavy plate or bowl on top of the onions to press them down so they are fully immersed in the liquid. Let marinate for 15 minutes or more, and at this point, the onions should be tangy, sweet and zesty, and ready to serve. Refrigerate what you don't eat that day in an airtight container, liquid and all. It will keep for a long time in the refrigerator.

And about that matter of geetar pickin'... I have a REALLY BIG SHOW coming up this Saturday! When I was a mere twenty year old whippersnapper oh so many years ago and had first moved to California and begun playing music, I DREAMED of performing at the Great American Music Hall. I LUSTED after that place. I seriously could not have even imagined that I would get to enjoy playing there on more than one occasion in my life. But here I am, practically 40, and I'm lucky to be singing on that stage for the 4th time, come this Saturday, along with my cohorts in Loretta Lynch. Not bad for an ol' lady. I do hope that if you're local, that you'll be there to enjoy the show with us, cause it's gonna be a blast.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Organize those spices

I thought I'd share this little tip that has helped me organize my spices. I originally found the tip in Cook's Illustrated magazine in the reader suggestions section, and this is my adaptation.

Usually I like to buy my spices whole and toast and grind them myself. Consequently, I end up with lots of little bags which used to end up in a messy pile in my cupboard. Well no more, thanks to this little tip!

Just place each spice in its own little ziplock bag, and tape a bit of card stock on the top. The original suggestion was to use filing tabs, which is a great idea also but I just used what I had on hand.

Then, you alphabetize the spices, and place them in a shallow box (a shoe box works beautifully) and keep it in your cabinet or in a drawer. Now you can always find the spice you need (assuming you know the alphabet, that is!).

It's looking like Spring has sprung, and I'm very happy to report that I feel fully recovered and strong again. Hence, I've spent many an hour in the kitchen recently, so stay tuned for reports on homemade pickled onions, orange and lemon marmalade, limoncello, and more!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Eggplant-Zucchini Parmesan

It's alive! Well, I'm alive. And what a feeling it is, after feeling so cruddy for so long. And hey, I lost that annoying five pounds that had been bugging me! So naturally, the first thing I did once I started feeling better was to start cooking again! Friday it was Vietnamese spring rolls, and Sunday it was salmon burgers, with a trip to Mangia Mangia in between. Man, have I eaten well. The perfect antidote to a solid week of not being able to keep anything down.

Tonight, I made the most delicious eggplant-zucchini Parmesan, and would you believe I made it with..... ALMOND CHEESE?! That's right folks, it was made with fake mozzarella, and supplemented w/ real Parmesan, and WOW, was it good. See, I'm still hacking up bits of my lungs, and if I'd slathered this dish entirely in REAL dairy cheese, it would just mean more hacking. So I tried something that my lovely sweetheart recently turned me on to: almond cheese! Would you believe I laughed at him when he first told me about it? Well, I'm eating that laughter now because tonight's dinner was unbelievably good, so good that I have to share the recipe. This recipe was adapted from several different sources that I found on the web, the main one being Simply Recipes.

- Approximately 1 lb. eggplant and 1 lb. zucchini
- 1 cup breadcrumbs (I made my own w/ sprouted wheat bread)
- 1/2 cup flour
- 3 or 4 eggs
- Around 3 cups of the tomato sauce of your choice - I used Williams-Sonoma Vodka Tomato sauce - yum!
- 1 package almond cheese, mozzarella style - cut into 1/2 inch squares
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Around 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
- Oil for frying the eggplant and zucchini

First, cut the eggplant into rounds and salt it generously. Layer the slices in a colander and weight it down with a heavy plate. Let it drain like this for around 2 hours. Yes, this will require some advance planning but it's totally worth it because it will make the eggplant so tender and delectable!

Meanwhile, cut the zucchini into slices on the diagonal and try to get them to be close to the size of the eggplant slices.

Next, place 1/2 cup of the breadcrumbs and the flour into a shallow bowl and mix it up, seasoning with salt and pepper.

Beat the eggs into a separate dish.

Once the eggplant has finished draining, press the slices onto paper towels to extract any remaining moisture.

Now you'll want to heat a generous amount of olive oil in a skillet, and dip the eggplant slices first into the egg, and then coat both sides with the flour-breadcrumb mixture. Drop the slices into the pan when the oil is shimmering, and fry on each side until golden brown. This should take a couple minutes on each side. Place the slices onto a plate with paper towels to absorb the excess oil. Do the same thing with the zucchini slices. You will need to add fresh oil to the pan along the way, to make sure the vegetables don't burn.

Once you've fried all the vegetables, you're ready to assemble the dish. Coat the bottom of your casserole dish with a generous amount of sauce, and while you're at it, pre-heat your oven to 350.

Now place your slices of eggplant and zucchini, alternating them side by side until you've completed one layer. Top each slice with a square of mozzarella, sprinkle Parmesan all over it, and top each slice with a basil leaf. Now repeat with another layer. Pour more sauce over the top layer, and top with more Parmesan and the remaining half cup of breadcrumbs.

Bake it at 350 for around 25-30 minutes or until the top is bubbly and golden brown. Then take it out and let it sit for 10 minutes or so before serving. Inhale it, and watch the pounds slowly creep back...