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Thursday, June 12, 2008

From Father to Son: A Dinner Menu

I enjoy cooking so much, I was happy when my older son Frank asked if I could help him plan a dinner he was going to cook for a friend.

The best meal is one that starts with great ingredients, which means shopping at farmers' markets and specialty shops. Supermarkets are fine for household supplies but only a few--like Gelson's, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Fairway Market, Canyon Market--carry quality produce and meat.

Since Frank will be in San Francisco for the weekend, I suggest he and his friend go to the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market Saturday morning. Located on the Embarcadero at Market, he'll find premium vegetables, fruits, cheeses, olives, freshly baked breads, desserts, and flowers. The market is open from 8:00am until 2:00pm. If they go early they'll avoid the lunch-time crowds.

While they walk around the market enjoying the cool breezes off the Bay, they can pick up snacks from Hog Island Oyster Company, a muffin from the Downtown Bakery, or sample cheeses from Andante Dairy. The market is definitely an eat-as-you-shop kind of place.

Because I know Frank won't want to spend more time in the kitchen than necessary, the menu I'm suggesting relies on quick-and-easy techniques. And since I know he understands the importance of cleaning as he cooks--a meal is so much more pleasurable if the kitchen is clean when the cooking is finished--I've tried to minimize the number of pots and pans required.

Appetizers

Serve a plate of 2-3 cheeses, ones that contrast with each other. A Triple Cream (soft) for example and a Comte (firm). Tasting cheeses at the market is a good way to find the ones you like. Olives, fresh fruit, a baguette, and wine all go well with a cheese.

Putting together the appetizer plate will take only a few minutes. Frank and his friend can snack on the appetizers while he prepares dinner.

Salad

For a salad something simple: fresh arugula tossed with crushed roasted hazelnuts and dressed with olive oil and reduced balsamic dressing, seasoned with a little sea salt and pepper.

Or a tomato and avocado salad with a touch of olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper.

Pasta with Mushrooms and Parmesan Cheese

Yield 2 servings
Time 15 minutes

Ziti or penne takes about 10 minutes to cook in salted, boiling water. While the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce. A cup of the pasta water is a key ingredient. When the pasta is strained, put a heat-proof container under the strainer and capture a cup of pasta water.

Ingredients

1/2 box of De Cecco pasta (ziti or penne)
1/2 pound mushrooms, brown or shiitake (washed, dried, thinly sliced longitudinally)
2 garlic cloves (peeled, finely chopped)
1/4 cup Italian parsley (washed, leaves only, finely chopped)
1 teaspoon sweet butter (unsalted)
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 cup pasta water
1 tablespoon Kosher salt for the pasta water
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Boil 4 quarts of water with the Kosher salt, add the pasta, stir and cook for about 10 minutes. Stir every couple of minutes to prevent the pasta from sticking together. Cook until al dente. Strain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of the pasta water, return the pasta to the pot, drizzle with olive oil, stir well, and cover with aluminum foil to keep warm.

In a frying pan, sauté the garlic, mushrooms, and parsley until lightly browned, add the butter and pasta water and simmer, reducing the liquid by half, then add the pasta and toss to coat with the sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning with sea salt and pepper.

Serve with freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

Variations

Add to the sauté, quartered cherry tomatoes and roughly chopped up spinach leaves.

Sauté fresh corn kernels ( 1/4 cup) and shallots (1 tablespoon) with the mushrooms and parsley.

Chicken Fillets with Parsley-Bacon Topping

Yield 2 servings
Time 10 minutes

Buy either chicken tenders--which are pricey--or skinless, boneless breasts and cut them the long way so each breast makes two 1/2" thick fillets.

Ingredients

2 chicken breasts (washed, cut into 1/2" thick fillets) or 4 chicken tenders (washed)
2 slices of bacon (finely chopped)
1/4 cup Italian parsley (washed, finely chopped)
1 garlic clove (peeled, finely chopped)
1/2 avocado (peeled, roughly chopped)
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Season the breasts with olive oil, sea salt, and pepper. Pour a little olive oil into a frying pan and sauté the bacon and parsley on a low flame. Use a fork to break up the pieces and cook until lightly browned. Remove and drain on a paper towel.

Drizzle olive oil into the frying pan and season with sea salt and pepper. Get the pan hot on a medium flame. Add the chicken. The fillets cook quickly because they are thin. Lightly brown on each side.

Top with the sautéd bacon-parsley bits and garnish with chopped avocado on the side.

Salt Steamed Broccoli or Spinach

Yield 2 servings
Time 10 minutes (broccoli) or 5 minutes (spinach)

Ingredients

1 bunch broccoli or spinach
3 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
Olive oil

Method

Wash the broccoli and cut off the florets. If you're using spinach, wash well to get rid of the grit, remove the stems and discard. Put a steamer in a pot, add the water and salt, bring to a boil, add the broccoli florets or spinach, and cover. Steam the broccoli for 10 minutes or the spinach for 5 minutes.

Transfer to a plate and drizzle with olive oil. Serve with the chicken.

Dessert

Good fruit is available now at the farmers' market: cherries, apricots, early grapes, pluots, cantaloupe, and lots of berries. A plate of fresh fruit and a small cake from the farmers' market would make a delicious dessert. Or, with very little effort, baked pluots and apricots, coupled with ice cream or yogurt, make a beautiful finish to a meal.

Baked Pluots and Apricots

Yield 2 servings
Time
30 minutes

Ingredients

2 apricots
2 pluots or plums (washed, cut in half, pits removed)
Raw sugar

Method

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the halved apricots and pluots on a sheet of aluminum foil on a baking sheet, dust with raw sugar, and bake for 30 minutes until softened.

Serve with ice cream or yogurt.

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