Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Happy 2009!

Here's wishing all of us a most wonderful 2009! The holidays have sort of swallowed me up a bit recently, so please forgive the infrequent postings.

At our house, the Christmas feast was a five course Indian meal that we spent two days preparing - that's my idea of a good time! In fact, we've been refining and combining different recipes to come up with the perfect palak paneer, and we think we've finally hit the jackpot! So hopefully I'll post that recipe in the near future. If you are not familiar with palak paneer, it is a spinach and cheese curry that uses homemade cheese, and it's a total comfort food, yet bursting with flavor and texture. I'm telling you, our house STILL smells amazing from all the food we cooked, days later!

But what's a person to do when they don't actually have two days to spend in the kitchen? Thankfully, my obsession with Indian cuisine recently led me to yet another cookbook that I am very excited to enjoy: 5 Spices, 50 Dishes: Simple Indian Recipes Using Five Common Spices by Ruta Kahate. The recipes in this book feature coriander seeds, cumin seeds, turmeric, cayenne, and mustard seeds. I'm very excited to start trying some of the recipes, particularly because the recipes are simple, in that you can whip them up any night of the week in an hour or less. But simple doesn't have to mean simplistic, and I'm sure this is true, because I actually had the good fortune to take one of Ruta's cooking classes in Berkeley several years ago, and I have tasted the results. I'm sure you'll be hearing more about my adventures with this cookbook before too long.

For now, I'm off to get ready to ring in the new year, and wishing everyone a safe and happy and prosperous - and well fed - journey into 2009!

Monday, December 22, 2008

For That Special Coffee Drinker In Your Life...

... I thought my friend Berge was kidding when he told me about Weasel Puke Coffee, but it's the real deal.  Maybe now I can start drinking coffee again?  On second thought.... maybe not. Somebody out there must love the stuff, because apparently, it's currently sold out!

In case you're too lazy to click on the link (cause maybe you need a little jolt of caffeine?), here it is in a nutshell:

"There's a little animal in Vietnam which has magical properties. Locally, it's called a weasel (though technically, it's a type of civet, but let's call it a weasel like the locals) and it sure likes to eat the fruit of the coffee plant. But the seeds don't sit well in its tummy, so it vomits them up. And that's where the fun comes in - for local coffee folks gather up the beans and lightly roast them. The stomach acids seem to wear away the bitter taste of the coffee beans, and the resulting coffee is delicious and smooth.

Ok, right now you're probably thinking we're full of crap. But nothing we've written above is false. Weasel Puke Coffee really is made of beans thrown up by local Vietnamese weasels. And it really does give the coffee a different taste - a rich chocolaty flavor. Weasel Puke Coffee is truly a gourmet treat. And if the thought of drinking puked up coffee makes you throw up in your own mouth a little, then you are just the person to try this. Because puke makes the coffee better. Trust us."

On second thought, I might just stick to tea...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

It's Pizzelle Time!

I am a bit of a scrooge. And also, I'm not hugely into sweets. But every December, I find myself craving pizzelles - a "traditional italian wafer cookie" - typically flavored with anise and lemon or a combination of the both. Every December, usually thanks to my mom or my sister, I nearly o.d. on these things (And of course, every January, I curse that extra fat roll!).

I've never baked them myself but this year I realized that if I want to eat them, I'm going to have to learn how to make them, because I won't be seeing my family for the holiday. So tonight I pulled out the pizzelle iron that my mom gave me for Christmas several years ago, and I finally took it out of the box. Thanks, Mom!

In my search for the perfect recipe, I found this interesting article. But that's just an aside, because the perfect recipe of course, is my family recipe! I don't know exactly where it came from, but tonight I called my sister and she dictated it to me, and told me to follow it exactly, and I did... almost. The recipe calls for lemon extract but I was too cheap to cough up $7.99 for a bottle of lemon extract, and I happened to have a bunch of nice, thick-skinned lemons on hand from my friend Thomas' tree, so I used lemon zest instead, and I think it the results are fabulous.

So remember, you have to have the pizzelle iron in order to make these things. And once you do, you make them like this: (click here for printable recipe)

Melt 2 sticks butter, and let it cool.
Put 1 3/4 cups sugar in a bowl, and pour the butter into it and stir.
Add 6 eggs to the butter & sugar mixture, and mix it well.
Add to the above mixture: 1 1/2 t. vanilla extract, 1 1/2 t. anise extract, and 1 1/2 t. lemon zest.
Now add to the mix: 3 cups flour, 1/2 t. baking powder and 1/2 t. salt. Mix it well.

Heat up the pizzelle iron, and drop the batter by the small teaspoonful, a plop on each side. Clamp the lid down and let it do it's thing for about 30 seconds. Don't worry if the first few come out funky - the pizzelle iron just needs to get into its groove. Remove the pizzelles with a spatula (plastic or wood only please!), and let cool on a cooling rack. You'll notice that they come out of the iron soft and pliable, but within a minute or two on the cooling rack, they'll be nice & crisp, and you probably will eat them as fast as you make them. So much for giving them away as gifts. So much for your diet! If you do manage to refrain from eating every last one, once they are completely cool, store them in an airtight container. They should last for several weeks, except they won't, because everyone will love them!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Roasted Beets with Horseradish...

... the recipe couldn't be more simple.  Dice some beets and toss with a little kosher salt, roast till they're nicely tender but still have a bit of texture, and toss with fresh grated horseradish, a bit of olive oil and some chopped fresh basil.

Upon seeing this dish prepared, I learned about one of the great culinary mysteries, that being the relationship between beets and horseradish - when you combine them, they transform one another.

If you've ever been within a few feet of someone grating fresh horseradish, then you've felt the way it burns your eyes and nose.  This shit is HOT - sinus clearing hot.  It makes your eyes water and your nose run just to be near it, to say nothing of consuming it.  So naturally, I expected this dish to be hot in the same way.  But in fact, it was subtle as can be.  Something about the sweetness of the beets just completely mellows the horseradish, and the horseradish somehow mellows the sweetness of the beets.  It's a match made in heaven.

I learned this simple recipe while assisting my friend Phil Gelb at his underground restaurant concert series last weekend.  It's been quite awhile since I've worked a food gig, and I must admit that it was nice to just show up and chop and slice and dice and serve, instead of being in charge of the whole affair.  And the bonus, besides  working with Phil and enjoying the delicious food, was being able to enjoy two sets of music by Amy X. Neuburg.  This is a woman who has an amazing voice and uses it masterfully, and her compositions are sophisticated, entertaining, and moving.  I found myself at different points during her set with goosebumps, and then tears in my eyes, and then laughing out loud.  Amy is a uniquely talented composer, vocalist and entertainer, and it was a pleasure to enjoy her music two nights in a row.

On other fronts, it seems the cold winter temperatures have finally arrived.  That means I'm laying low whenever possible, and baking lots of squash in an effort to keep warm.  I'm sure I'll emerge from the cocoon at some point with a new recipe or two.  Until then, be well and stay warm!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Kitchen Improv: Indian Spiced Cauliflower, Fennel and Red Lentil Stew

Anyone who knows me knows that I don't do a lot of improvising in the kitchen.  I like to follow recipes; I guess I'm not the biggest risk taker.  When I do create my own recipes, it usually involves a fair amount of testing and refining until I get it right.  But once in awhile,  a meal just magically comes together despite my skepticism, and last night was one of those nights.

It was getting towards the end of the week, and the fridge was looking a bit bare, but it did hold some cauliflower and fennel and half an onion.   In the freezer, there were cooked red lentils that were left over from my last pot of Indian soup (a recipe for curried red lentil and tomato soup with perfumed spice butter,  from my recent cookbook purchase "Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking" by Julie Sahni), and also, frozen peas.  In the pantry there were black mustard seeds, cayenne and cumin seeds, and an abundance of Garam Masala, plus there was ghee.  It wasn't long before dinner was on the table, and wow, was it good!

I was skeptical about combining cauliflower and fennel - I don't know why, but it seemed like a combination of flavors that could go either way, delicious or god-awful.   Thankfully, it was delicious.  What follows here is more of a guide than an actual recipe.  Serve it with some basmati rice and you're good to go.

One thing to note about red lentils - they cook much differently than the standard green or brown lentils, which generally hold their shape.  Red lentils cook a little more quickly, and develop a thick, creamy consistency as they cook - so they are perfect for a nice, thick stew like this one.  Also, don't be alarmed when your red lentils lose some of their color as they cook.

I wish I'd gotten a picture, but alas, my camera batteries were dead, so I'll just have to make more of this another time!

First, cook your red lentils.  I did this according to the recipe in the aforementioned cookbook, and basically it involves rinsing about a cup and a half of red lentils, covering with about 4 cups water and a pinch of turmeric, bringing to a boil and then simmering over lower heat, partially covered, for about 35 minutes or so.  Note:  skip the turmeric if you're not going to use the lentils for an Indian preparation.

Cut up half an onion into a small dice, plus a couple of cloves of garlic.  Set the garlic aside.  

In a heavy-bottomed soup pot, heat about a tablespoon of ghee, butter or olive oil.   Over medium heat, saute the onion, stirring frequently, for about 10-15 minutes, until it's soft and nicely golden brown. 

Now, add to the pot:  about a teaspoon of cumin seeds, and about the same amount of black mustard seeds, plus a bit of cayenne, depending on how spicy you like it.  Keep stirring, and after a minute or so, add some chopped fennel and chopped cauliflower.  I used about 1 1/2 cups of each. 

Add the garlic and a generous sprinkling of salt, and keep stirring for about 5 minutes, and then, add some water - about enough to cover it all by half an inch.  Simmer over medium heat for about 10 minutes or so, until the cauliflower and fennel have started to become nicely tender.

Now it's time to add the lentils - I used what I had on hand, which was about 2 cups or so.  I also scattered about 3/4 of a cup of frozen peas into the mix, along with about a half teaspoon of Garam Masala.   Cook for another 5 minutes or so, and it'll be ready to serve.  It's nice when things turn out that way, isn't it?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

And Speaking of Wine Lovers...

... a friend of mine is not only a wine lover and collector, but she also makes her living selling wine.  Occasionally she has more wine in her personal collection than she knows what to do with, and a couple of times, she has been known to pawn some of it off on me.  Or maybe she just takes pity on me because I told her that I recently bought a bunch of wine (or rather... swill!) at the Grocery Outlet.  Of course, that was before I knew about The Wine Mine!

Anyway, said friend was kind enough to hip me to an opportunity to enjoy a fabulous meal at a brand spankin' new restaurant last night - this restaurant is so new in fact, that it isn't even open to the public yet, so it was a very special treat.  The place is called Marzano, and they specialize in wood-fired pizza, so naturally I had to take a break from my post-Thanksgiving diet.  I had planned to make stir fried vegetables and tofu last night, but those plans were quickly and happily abandoned when I got the call that there were 2 seats available for a test drive before the place officially opens tomorrow.  How could I resist?

Here are a few things we got to enjoy, and truly, every bite was savored.

House cured monterey bay sardines with giardiniera valencia orange, almonds, golden raisins, saffron - it's not a combination that I would have thought of, but it was exploding with vibrant flavors and contrasting textures.  Salty and sweet, crunchy and tender all at once. 

Tricolore salad with treviso, frisee and wild arugula lemon-anchovy vinaigrette, pane grattugiata pecorino romano - just say the words "anchovy" and "arugula" in the same sentence, and I'm there.  And this salad did not disappoint.  I had to refrain from licking the plate.

Quatro formaggi pizza with mozzarella, fontina, pecorino, roasted wild mushrooms & sage - This pizza was dreamy.  I rarely cook with sage and every time I taste it, I am reminded that I really ought to cook with it more!  Together with the roasted mushrooms and cheeses, this was a perfect flavor combination.

Napoletana pizza with tomato, anchovy, capers mozzarella, black olives, chili flake - Once again, I couldn't pass up more salty, briny goodness and this pizza did not disappoint.  In fact, it was a good contrast to the 4-cheese pizza, because as far as I could tell, this one had no cheese except perhaps for a light sprinkling of parmesan.

I'm looking forward to enjoying more meals at Marzano.  Another nice thing about this place is that it doesn't break the bank, and also, the service is great. I'm no restaurant critic (not that I'd mind getting paid to eat!), but that's my two cents.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

For Winos and Those who Love Them

Since I made a little trip the Wine Mine today, and also read a good article and watched a video about frugal wine buying, I thought I'd help spread the good word.

First, about the Wine Mine.  I just discovered this place, which is not much more than a hop, skip and a jump away from where I live.  It has apparently been there for over a year, but some of us are slow learners!  I finally wandered in recently, and am so glad I did.  The service is great. You can read all about the owner, David Sharp, on the Wine Mine's web site.  David offers a wide selection of great quality wines at reasonable prices -  from $5 - $205.  He's knowledgeable  and friendly, and so far I haven't bought a bottle from him that I didn't love, even in the $7-10 price range.  

If you don't live in the Bay area, fear not!  I read this great posting on the Get Rich Slowly blog today (yes it's true, I have a secret love of blogs having to do with personal finance!).  The article is entitled Finding Good Wine at Great Prices: Expert Advice for Frugal Wine Lovers, and features a video from Gary Vaynerchuk at Wine Library TV.  I didn't previously know about Wine Library TV, but am glad I do now.

So let's hear it for good wine that doesn't break the bank - I'll drink to that... tonight, in fact!