Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Mad Dash to Bouchon

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of helping my dad celebrate his 70th birthday in Vegas. It was wonderful to have the whole family together, if a little surreal in terms of places to gather.

I didn't have much money to spend, and after quickly blowing the cash that my parents so generously bestowed me with, I realized I'd better save what little I had left if I was ever going to make it to Bouchon.

Yes, amidst the heat and cigarette smoke and nauseating air fresheners and clanging dinging slot machines and overpriced everything, just knowing that there is a Thomas Keller restaurant on the Strip was like a breath of fresh, cool air. If I was going to lose the rest of my money, I was going to lose it at Bouchon. And lose it I did, in the most glorious of ways.

But first, we had to get there! Suffice it to say it was a bit of a haul, and that it took us nearly an hour to travel the roughly half a mile distance, and that by the end of that journey, we were nearly running in order to get there before they stopped serving breakfast. In fact, we got there 10 minutes late, but they were kind enough to seat us anyway.

First things first, Bloody Mary's were in order.

I had to stop myself from swilling the whole glass down in less than a minute; it was that good. And then, for some reason, the staff decided our breakfast was taking too long to arrive, so to make up for it, they brought us 4 pastries, a plate of fruit, and another round of Bloody Mary's. Uh, we were quite happy sitting there in the sunshine in front of the fountain sipping our drinks, but go ahead, twist my arm!

I'm not big on pastries usually, but the pecan sticky bun was in another league entirely. It managed to taste completely decadent and yet somehow light and not overly sweet.

And then there was the quiche.

I'm quite certain now that I've never in my life tasted quiche the way it was meant to be. The spinach custard felt like silk, and I can't even find the words to describe the pastry crust, except to say that it put to shame every other pastry crust that I've ever tasted.

The only thing that could've made this meal better, Dad, is if you had joined us!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Turn to Chocolate

I love it when the food theme lends itself perfectly to a musical theme. Today's theme happens to be Turn to Chocolate. Because truly, that's what I did. It was only about 80 degrees outside but I HAD TO BAKE BROWNIES. It was a bit of an obsession because I've had this bar of Green & Black's organic dark baking chocolate just waiting, sitting on the counter taunting me. Each night I would look at that bar of chocolate and want it to magically become a plate of brownies, but each night I found myself too exhausted to do anything about it.

But then there was today, a day when I went into work before dawn and finished my day shortly after lunch time, and I knew that today was the day to transform that bar of deliriously dark chocolate into something even more sublime....something I could sink my teeth into. So that when tonight rolled around, all I'd have to do was eat it, piles be damned. Tonight I needed a little comfort of the chocolate variety, and let me tell you, these brownies did the trick.

But wait! Turn to Chocolate happens to also be the name of an album by one of my favorite local bands, She Mob. And how lucky am I that I actually get to KNOW this band, and sometimes sing with them? This is a band that I like to listen to LOUD, a band that delivers catchy, heavy, funny, rocking songs. A band that I like to listen to sometimes when I'm not feeling quite right and I don't know what I need - their music just comes rushing in to comfort me in some strange way - kind of like chocolate can do.

And so, I turned to chocolate because like I said, I couldn't resist that bar of dark baking chocolate any longer, and I was happy to spend some time in the kitchen, my favorite room in the house.

I'm particularly happy about these brownies because I used more or less my own recipe, albeit one that is based upon several other recipes I've seen. I did quite a bit of adapting in order to utilize my entire bar of dark chocolate, no more, no less. It irks me that some recipes call for amounts of chocolate that don't happen to coincide with the amounts that are in the packages that I buy. For instance, this bar of chocolate was 5.3 ounces. I found various recipes that called for 8 ounces, or 3.5 ounces, but I wanted to use only the 5.3 ounces that I had on hand. So I did some adapting and this is what I came up with. Also I should caution you that these aren't the sweetest brownies you ever tasted - they are intensely chocolate-y though, and that's exactly how I like it. Most recipes that I found called for as much as 2/3 to a whole cup MORE sugar than my recipe. If crazy amounts of sugar float your boat, then go ahead and increase the sugar.

Put the oven rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 350. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan and if you like, line the pan with parchment paper.

Set a heatproof bowl over a small pot of barely simmering water, and into the bowl, add 2 sticks unsalted butter plus 5 ounces (or 5.3 ounces as the case may be) dark baking chocolate (don't use unsweetened!). Stir occasionally until it's all melted and smooth.

In a small bowl, whisk together 1 1/2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder.

In another bowl, whisk together 4 large eggs and 2 teaspoons vanilla. Then whisk into this mixture 1 1/3 cup sugar.

Now pour the liquid chocolate mixture into the egg and sugar mixture, and when it's well mixed, slowly add the flour mixture, and then finally, add 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for about 40-45 minutes. At this point, the brownies will be gooey in the middle, and cakey on the outside. You can bake them for a little longer if you want them to have a more cake-like texture.

Cool the brownies completely (if you can wait that long!) on a wire rack. Cut them up and try not to eat too many before bed, unless you really don't want to sleep!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Citrus-scented Yogurt

Sorry for the lack of postings as of late. The process of battling the piles continues to consume me, so I haven't spent as much time in the kitchen recently as I would like. But the good news is, the piles are shrinking, even if they aren't shrinking as quickly as I'd like.

Not only have I been battling piles, but I've been battling the anal-retentive control freak in me (did I mention she's impatient too?) that wants EVERYTHING PERFECT NOW. Ha - good luck with that! Anyway I came across this recipe for citrus-scented yogurt and thought someone out there might appreciate it. It makes a great topping for fruit or granola or french toast or pancakes, and it's quick and easy to make, a bonus for impatient types like me! Obviously you can double or triple the recipe as you see fit.

Add to 1 cup plain yogurt:

1 teaspoon grated orange or lemon zest, or a combination of the two

A drizzle or two of honey or maple syrup

A very light sprinkling of cinnamon and/or fresh ground nutmeg

Stir it up, and now you're ready to serve it.

If by chance you find yourself feeling a little bit patient, you can first drain the yogurt in a layer or two of cheesecloth over a fine mesh strainer for 30 minutes before adding the goodies. This will create a thicker, creamier consistency.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Everything Will Be Just Fine, as Long as We Stay in the Kitchen

Yeah, I'm moving. Leaving the Fruitvale Mansion (as I like to call it) behind. I'm going to miss the place, and I'm especially going to miss the kitchen. But the thing is, in recent months, the kitchen became totally infested with mice. Stubborn, ever-present mice. Mice that wouldn't leave despite my best efforts to humanely show them the door. I couldn't bring myself to kill them, and so I just left.

Ok, that's not entirely true. I left because the time has come to share a home with the one I love, and I'm mostly ecstatic about that. It's just that when you reach a certain age and you have two people attempting to combine their two homes into one home, suddenly, said home seems tinier than you ever imagined, and you find yourself wondering how on earth you're going to make this thing work. So if you're like me, you just make sure that the kitchen is the first thing you unpack, so at least you can still eat very well despite the chaos that is all around you.

But, I digress. I was planning to move anyway, just perhaps not as soon as this. But it's no fun living with mice, never mind cleaning up after the little vermin. It kind of takes the joy out of being in the kitchen. So I haven't cooked anything in the old kitchen for months. I started living in the new place awhile ago; I just didn't get around to moving all the rest of my stuff until this weekend.

What I should have been doing tonight was unpacking and organizing, but how can a person unpack and organize without the sustenance of a delicious meal? So instead of dealing with this....

...I tried out a recipe that has long been lingering in my recipe binder for a Mediterranean fish stew, courtesy of none other than Emeril Lagasse. I adapted it slightly by adding potatoes when none were called for, and using lemon zest instead of orange zest, and all I have to say is, screw the piles in the living room. This stew was absolutely reason enough to blow off the piles, and the recipe made enough to sustain us through the next several days while we're attempting to shrink the piles before they swallow us up. 

I'd much rather enjoy this beautiful and lively combination of saffron, crushed red pepper, fish stock, white wine, tomatoes, fennel, halibut and shrimp than try to figure out how and where things should go.  The piles will still be there tomorrow, but tonight I really needed to enjoy myself in the kitchen.

You might call this denial, but what did you say?  I couldn't hear you over the stereo and all my chopping and slicing and dicing, and besides, I'm intoxicated by the aroma of the stew, so intoxicated that I keep switching tenses in my writing.  Oh wait, maybe it's the wine that made me that way.  Who cares?  Just make this stew some time.  It'll make you the hit of the party or it'll make you forget the chaos that lies in waiting merely one room away. 

Here's how to do it:

In a large soup pot, saute over medium-low heat for about 6-8 minutes: 1 onion, thinly sliced, 2 celery ribs, sliced thin on the diagonal, and 8 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed. When the onions are soft, add 1/3 cup white wine, 3 pinches saffron, 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper, the juice of 1 orange, a couple of thin strips of orange or lemon zest, 3 tablespoons tomato paste, and 8 cups fish stock. Bring to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, for about 45 minutes or until the stock is reduced by about one third.

At this point, add 1 bulb of fennel, cored and sliced thin, plus about 6-8 small red potatoes, quartered, and 1 cup of diced, peeled and seeded tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper, and cook about another 20 minutes or until the fennel and potatoes are tender.

Take about a pound of halibut and season with salt and pepper, and dice it into chunks that are about an inch or so. Peel and devein about a half pound shrimp. Add all of this to the pot, along with a small handful of chopped parsley, and cook just until the fish is done, which should take about 5 minutes.

Bon Appetit!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Maniacally Unhinged, Supremely Talented

Here's a cool article on the front page of this week's East Bay Express, and it's all about the Immersion Composition Society. I've been participating in ICS since 2002, and it has truly transformed my creative process in regards to songwriting. The Express article goes into great detail about what ICS is and how it works, but in a nutshell, a bunch of songwriters choose a day, get up in the morning and write and record as many songs as possible, and then meet up that very same evening to listen to the fruits of each person's labors. It's nutty, it's fun, it's sometimes terrifying, and completely liberating. No more waiting for inspiration to strike! No more excuses! You get up, you get to work, and somehow although you have no idea what it is you're supposed to be creating, the most fantastic things manage to spill out of your subconscious. Granted, a lot of crud leaks out too, but the theory goes that in the midst of quantity, eventually there's gotta be some quality too. And one of the cool things about ICS is that the participants aren't there to judge or critique. It's a very supportive environment.

Although my ICS sessions have been very few and far between over the last couple years, at a certain point in time I was doing it so frequently that I managed to write over 250 songs in a period of a couple years (granted, not all of them were good, or even listenable, but hell, I got more good songs written in those years than I would have otherwise!). God, I miss those days. I'm just about ready to kick myself in the butt and start doing ICS sessions again so I can write some new material. But in the meantime, I'll play a very small handful of those 250 songs as one of the many performers at Friday night's show at the Uptown, featuring a whole slew of ICS participants. The concert is presented by the Budget Cinema Suicide Mission, and is a benefit for local filmmaker Annmarie Piette, who's doing a documentary about creativity and the brain, featuring a segment about ICS. If you can't make it to the show, do check out the Express article - it's a very worthy read. I love the author's reference to ICS participants as "maniacally unhinged, supremely talented"! It turns out I am lucky to know quite a few people who fit that description.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Garlic Toast w/ Goat Cheese and Tomatoes

There's no special story to go along with this recipe, and in fact it's not so much a recipe as it is a guide, but no matter what you call it, the end result makes for a delightful appetizer in the summer, all the more attractive and tasty when you use heirloom tomatoes. And it goes something like this:

First, make the garlic toast. Slice a baguette or some italian bread, and brush with olive oil. Take a fat clove of garlic and peel it and smash it with your knife, and rub the garlic onto each slice of bread. Now turn the slices over and do the same thing to the other side. Toast the bread slices in the toaster oven or in your plain old oven on a cookie sheet, but be careful not to toast or bake for too long, or you'll end up with extra toasty toasts, like I did! They're still good that way cause they're extra crunchy, but some might aim to make them a little more on the perfectly golden brown side.

While the bread is toasting, slice up a few tomatoes. You can use heirloom tomatoes, romas, or even super sweet cherry tomatoes, in which case, you'd just cut them in half. Put the tomatoes on a plate, season with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil, and top with slivers of fresh basil.

Once the garlic toast comes out of the oven, smear each slice with a dab of goat cheese. I'm fond of Redwood Hill fresh chevre, but you could also use fresh mozzarella, or thin shavings of parmesan, or whatever suits your fancy.

Next, top each slice of cheesy toast with a tomato slice, or a half a tomato slice, as the case may be.

Eat, enjoy, repeat. Try to save room for dinner, which could prove to be difficult.