Saturday, February 2, 2008

Appreciation Makes the Cooking Worth All the Effort

If lonely J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, for me, the measure has been in roasting, sautéing, and grilling, making meals for my family. As a parent, what your kids really think about you, is pretty much a mystery.

Today is my birthday and my sons, Frank (23) and Michael (17), decided I didn't need another pot or a kitchen gadget, because I pretty much have every kitchen tool imaginable. They decided instead to write me a memory about my cooking.

From Michael:
Every Thursday night when I was younger, doing homework, I would wait in my room for my dad to come home. He would bring home a whole chicken that he would marinate with rosemary and olive oil. My brother and I could tell when he put the chicken into the oven, because it made the whole house smell amazing.

When the chicken was finally cooked, my dad called all of us into the dining room. The table was covered with the finest dishes: roasted potatoes, flour-less chocolate cake, and, my favorite of all, the golden, baked rosemary chicken. I was always the first one in the room and the first one to grab a piece of chicken from the dish. It was crispy on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside. The breast meat was my favorite, but I wasn't the only one in the family that loved it. Each member of the family had their favorite part. My mom loved the wings, my brother loved the legs and thighs and dad loved the dark meat.

From Franklin:
At an early age I was introduced to cooking. My father, when he wasn't working on a set or writing, was either in the garden or in the kitchen. I didn't realize it then, but cooking made him happy. It let him experiment and test the boundaries of his own creations. I was always there to fill my stomach with some of my favorites: roasted chicken, grilled carrots, banana bread, roasted beets, and steamed artichokes. I could count on there being food in the fridge, and, with a little asking, dad would whip something tasty together in a heartbeat.

As much as I dreaded the start of another school year, it did mean one great thing: dad's homemade, signature lunches. Every day at school, I had a lunch that no one else had. Some days it was a bbq NY strip-steak sandwich, salad with homemade dressing, and sliced apples. Other days, it would be a roasted chicken with avocado sandwich, carrot sticks, and a piece of pound cake. With each lunch came a napkin, a plastic fork, and each item on the menu was individually wrapped in Saran Wrap or packaged in a deli pint container. In my eyes, my father had mastered the art of gourmet brown paper bag lunches and there wasn't anyone at school who didn't know it.

When I left for college at 17, I had my dad write me a recipe book of all my favorites, so I could impress my new friends as well as have a little taste of home away at school. Some of my favorites: NY Steak, Chicken with Dumplings, Chicken Soup with Vegetables, Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing. Today I'm 23 and still call my dad for recipes when I'm in a cooking jam. I always have some of his homemade salad dressing in the fridge, some pound cake in the freezer, and a few other of his latest creations that I'm dying to try.

In the next couple of days, I’ll write up the recipes for their favorite dishes. Right now, I just want to enjoy the realization that my cooking made a difference to them. I couldn't imagine a better gift.

Tapenade, the Frugal Cook's Secret Weapon

I'm always looking for easy-to-make, affordable ways of creating unexpected flavor. I remember eating at a French restaurant when I was growing up in LA and the bread basket always came with 2 ramekins: one with delicious sweet butter, the other with tapenade. To my kid-taste buds, the French food wasn't that great--I never knew what to order--so I'd eat all the bread the waiter would bring. To that, my mother always admonished me, "Don't fill up on the bread," but, of course, that was the point.

It wasn't difficult to learn how to make tapenade. The only specialized tool you need is a blender, like the Cuisinart Mini-Food Processor. A little bit of tapenade adds a special flavor to sandwiches and appetizers. Use it as a topping on sliced hardboiled or deviled eggs. Try it spread on a good slice of buttered bread, a hot, crispy piece of grilled lavash, or a turkey breast sandwich.

2 cups, pitted olives, black oil cured or cracked green
1 cup Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped
2 tablespoon capers
1 garlic clove, peeled, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ freshly ground black pepper
Cayenne, a light dusting
2 anchovies (optional)

Put all the ingredients into a blender and pulse until the olives, capers, and parsley have combined into a paste. I'd add anchovies, but my wife doesn't care for them, so I put them in when I'm making myself a special treat.

Makes ½ pint.

Preparation Time: 30 minutes.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Bing Cherry Sauce Makes Everything OK

When we lived in Banning, a small crummy town two hours' drive east of LA, my mother loved to go to Cherry Valley when the cherries were ripe. The window for the picking season was only a couple of weeks. The cherries had to be picked quickly before the birds pecked them apart or a freeze made them inedible. After the trees had been picked by the farmer and the crop sent to the markets, for $5.00, you were given a bucket and a ladder and sent into the rows of trees to pick whatever was left, which was a lot. My memory was that you had a time limit for your $5.00. An hour, I think, to pick all you could, and, of course, to eat 'till you were sick of cherries.

Maybe it's that memories are often better than reality, but since then I've only had fresh cherries that tasted that good a couple of times. Fat, dark red Bing cherries, warm from the sun, sweet, juicy--they were the best.

Bing cherries make great sauce. Without the sugar, they make a savory sauce with roast pork or duck. With sugar, the way I like them, they're delicious on ice cream, yogurt, or even a slice of a quality cheddar, like Neal's Yard.

2 cups Bing cherries, washed, halved, pitted
1 cup water
1 tablespoon raw sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Put everything into a small saucepan and simmer on a low flame for 45-60 minutes, stirring frequently. After 30 minutes, taste and adjust the flavor if not sweet enough by adding a sprinkling of raw sugar. The liquid part of the sauce should thicken as it reduces.

Makes ½ pint. Serves 6.

If you do go cherry picking or find yourself with a bucket of cherries, after you've eaten your fill, try canning them so you have them in the off-season. All you need are Ball or Kerr glass canning jars and lids. Submerge the jars in boiling water for 30 minutes, remove, empty out the water, then fill to 1" below the rim on the top of the jar. Put the lids into the boiling water for 30 seconds to soften the rubber, then seal the jars snuggly not super tight. Put the filled, sealed jars back into the boiling water for 10 minutes. Remove, cool, dry, and store in a cupboard. In the winter, a jar of cherry sauce is the perfect treat and it makes a great gift for someone you really like.

Preparation Time: 20 minutes. Cooking Time: 45-60 minutes.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Second Life: Ginger Pork and Rice Turns into a Delicious Soup

"Never waste food." When my grandmother showed me how to cook scrambled eggs, she ran her finger inside the shell to get out all the egg. Waste made her crazy. My mother was the same way. When we'd go to a restaurant, what we didn't eat, came home, much to my father's embarrassment.

To my mother, the prime rib my father didn't eat at Lawry's, reheated at home, made a great snack, and it was free. The gigantic baked potato with sour cream and chives I couldn't finish, turned into the best breakfast potatoes. I learned that the food we brought home from the restaurant had a second life...if you know a couple of tricks

Yesterday I was doing an errand and stopped at Mitsuwa Marketplace, a Japanese supermarket, that always has great sales on high quality meats and produce. The food court inside doesn't make allowances for Western tastes. Mitsuwa has the feeling of a Tokyo-style market.

From Misasa, one of the half-dozen food stands, I bought a bento box lunch with ginger pork, miso soup, a small piece of tofu with bonito flakes, steamed Japanese rice, and pickled daikon. Everything was delicious but I couldn't finish the ginger pork or the steamed rice, so I packed them up and took them home.

In the morning I turned the left-over ginger pork and steamed rice into a hot soup with rice, pork, carrots, and broccoli. The flavors from the bento box lived on, reconstituted into a nourishing soup, perfect for the rainy day. Which made me happy, because it tasted great and because I didn't waste any food.

Creating a hearty soup, using a cooked meat and rice, fresh vegetables, and a stock, is really very easy. All it takes is remembering to bring home the left-overs.

3 cups homemade chicken stock
1 cup ginger pork, cooked, sliced
1 shallot, peeled, sliced
1 carrot, washed peeled, cut into 1" long batons
1 small broccoli florette, washed, sliced into bite-sized pieces
1 cup steamed rice, cooked

Heat the chicken stock on a medium flame. Add the pork, shallot, carrot, and broccoli. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add the cooked rice and cook another 5 minutes.

Serves 1. Preparation Time: 5 minutes. Cooking Time: 15 minutes.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Snack Food Good Enough for a Super Bowl Party

Having friends over to watch a game or just hang out means I'll make a lot of different kinds of finger food. Lavash pizza with a dozen different toppings. Grilled bacon-wrapped shrimp. And my absolute favorite: prosciutto wrapped mozzarella and avocado.

The recipes I like the best are ones that are easy to make and have a lot of flavor, even though they use very few ingredients. What gives this simple dish it's rich flavor is dredging the mozzarella and avocado in olive oil that's been seasoned with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper before they're wrapped in the proscuitto. Sandwiching that layer of seasoning between the clean tasting mozzarella/avocado and the salty proscuitto, makes all the difference.

The mozzarella can be wrapped by itself, so can the avocado, or you can put them together. It's entirely your call.

10 sheets of proscuitto, paper thin
2 large pieces of fresh mozzarella
1 medium avocado, ripe, skin and pit removed, thin sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

When you buy the proscuitto, ask to have the fat cut off and the slices cut paper thin. That means you only want one layer of proscuitto between the paper sheets, with very little overlap. Thin proscuitto will stick together, so ask the deli man to minimize the overlap.

Clean off the counter so you have room for several large plates. Take the mozzarella out of the water and gently pat dry. Put one slice of proscuitto on the cutting board and cut 4 equal pieces. Use a chef's knife and cut a ¼" thick slice off the mozarella. Cut that slice into 4 strips.

Slice the avocado into ¼" strips.

Pour the olive oil onto a small plate and season with the sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. How much is up to you.

Dredge each piece of mozzarella through the seasoned olive oil on both sides, then lay it on one of the proscuitto sections. Carefully roll the proscuitto around the mozzarella so it overlaps the cheese. The olive oil should allow you to stick the proscuitto to itself. Add a slice of avocado if you want, or wrap the avocado by itself.

Serve the proscuitto-mozzarella-avocado wraps with napkins and ice cold beer or white wine.

Serves 6. Preparation Time: 30 minutes.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Time for Something Special: Broccoli Spigarello and Sausages

Michelle's been out of town for three weeks. Given the rainy weather, curling up in front of the fire is a great way to celebrate her homecoming. I wanted to cook her a special dinner. Not that my plan was to spend hours making sauces or a complex recipe. Going to the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, I looked for ingredients that weren't the same old-same-old vegetables. Luckily I saw broccoli spigarello, making a very infrequent appearance in the market.

Described as a wild form of broccoli, broccoli spigarello is similar to kale, all leaves, without any florets. The stems are woody and should be cut off and disgarded.

1 bunch broccoli spigarello, washed, stems trimmed off, leaves roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled, roughly chopped
4 shallots, peeled, roughly chopped
2 Italian sausages, washed, grilled
1 carrot, peeled, cut into thick rounds
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup pasta water
2 tablespoons butter
¼ box pasta, penne or ziti
Olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Grated Parmesan cheese

Boil a large pot of salted water. Add the pasta, stir frequently, and cook until al dente. Strain, saving 1 cup of the pasta water. Return the pasta to the pot, add 1 tablespoon butter and 1 teaspoon olive oil, stir and cover to keep warm.

Sauté the shallots, garlic, and broccoli spigarello with olive oil in a hot pan. Stir frequently until lightly browned, season with sea salt and black pepper, then add the chicken stock and pasta water. Add the tablespoon of butter. Reduce the flame. Cover loosely with a piece of tin foil and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the carrot rounds. Simmer for another 10 minutes.

Grill the sausages until browned on all sides. Remove and cut into thick rounds. Add the sausage rounds and the cooked pasta to the sauté pan. Stir well and serve with grated Parmesan cheese.

Serves 2. Preparation Time: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 30 minutes.

Pickle Me Up! It's Thanksgiving!

Pickles are delicious anytime of the year. For Thanksgiving they are especially good. Their crunch and acidity counterbalances the delicious...