Saturday, December 27, 2008

Holiday Vacations, Vietnamese Food & A Lobster Roll Lunch

How lucky we are that holidays allow us to take time off from our daily routines. Right now we are enjoying the in-between time that begins with the day after Christmas, extending until the day before New Year's Eve. In the retail world this is the make-or-break period when the year's profits will tip one way or the other. Besides the year-end sales, a few other price breaks are helping make the season merry.

Lower gas prices definitely help. Filling up for half the cost of a few months ago continues to be a treat. On the food front, while many commodities continue to cost more, a very few have come down in price. One in particular, lobster, surprises and delights. Mark Bittman recently wrote about lobster prices coming down on the East Coast. Even in LA, prices have fallen. At Gelson's, the upscale supermarket, lobster has been on sale for most of December.

For the holiday our family makes a yearly pilgrimage to a week's time share we bought when the boys were young. Less than two hours drive and we're in our home away from home.

Driving south from LA, we have an excuse to stop in Little Saigon, where we can have lunch at Ha Noi and shop at ABC Supermarket. At Ha Noi we had three of our favorite dishes: a shrimp spring roll, pho ga (noodle soup with chicken), and vermicelli noodles with bbq pork and shrimp.

In Vietnamese supermarkets like ABC, the cost of fresh produce, meat, poultry, and seafood tends to be 1/3 to 1/2 the price in mainstream markets. Which means we splurged and bought a lobster and lots of produce, shrimp, and a crab.

Our first lunch on vacation was a simple one: lobster salad and a Persian cucumber salad. The salads are easy to make, fresh tasting, and delicious courses to serve over the holiday or to help you welcome in the new year.

Lobster Salad

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

2 lobsters, 1 1/2 pounds each
1 cup corn kernels
1 cup Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, washed, finely chopped
1/4 cup capers, finely chopped
2 scallions, washed, ends trimmed, finely chopped, white and green parts
1/4 - 1/3 cup mayonnaise
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
Cayenne (optional)

Method

The lobsters can be steamed or grilled, either technique is fine. Use the one that's easiest. If steamed, boil 2" of water in a large pot. Hold the live lobsters, head down in the boiling water for 10 seconds. Cover, reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes. Take the lobsters out of the pot, let cool so they can be handled, remove the meat, and clean away the liver.

If you want to make lobster fume for sauces or a soup, reserve the cooking water. Add any liquid inside the lobster and all the shells to the cooking water, simmer for 20 minutes, reducing the liquid by half, strain, and discard the shells and solids. Add the fume to a finely diced saute of olive oil, celery, potatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic, simmer for 30 minutes, strain, use the fume as the base for a pasta sauce or lobster-vegetable soup.

Saute the corn in olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper until lightly browned. Cut the lobster into bite sized pieces and mix with the other ingredients. Season to taste with sea salt, pepper, and (optional) a light dusting of cayenne.

The lobster salad can be served many ways: with romaine lettuce leaves, grilled rolls or a halved baguette with drizzled olive oil or a heated tortilla, either traditional or ones made from brown rice (found at Trader Joe's and favored by my wife, Michelle).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Yukon Gold Latkes

For dinner on the first night of Hanukkah my mother always started with a romaine lettuce salad topped with scallions and Lawry's French Dressing. Then there was a brisket of beef with carrots and mushroom gravy. But the real stars of the meal were the latkes served with apple sauce and sour cream.

My mother's latke recipe was handed down from her mother: grated potatoes, eggs, flour, a little salt and pepper. She'd fry them in vegetable oil and serve them as soon as they were browned. So simple and yet the result was so soul-comforting: crispy on the outside, soft inside, with just the right amount of oil and salt. There are few dishes that are as satisfying as food and so emotionally evocative.

Like most kids, my sister, Barbara, and I waited eagerly at the table. As soon as the plate full of latkes was passed around, we emptied it. I kept count, because I didn't want her to have more than I did. They were that good. When my grandmother was in town, she and my mother made Hanukkah dinner together. Their relationship was competitive to say the least, so there was always considerable discussion about the right way to make the latkes: flour vs. matzo meal; onions or no onions. My grandmother liked to point out that she had given my mother her latkes recipe but my mom insisted that she hadn't remembered it correctly.

These days we look forward to celebrating all the nights of Hanukkah but the first night is special. That's when both our sons are certain to be home. Now that they're off on their own, we're happy when we can be assured they'll share a meal with us.

Michelle likes to make the Hanukkah latkes and they're always delicious. Her recipe is similar to my mother's. This year I asked her to make a small adjustment. I wanted her to use Yukon Golds instead of Russet potatoes because they're sweeter and less starchy.

After the first night's candle was lit and placed in the menorah, presents were given and opened. Then Michelle made latkes as fast as she could and they disappeared as soon as they arrived at the table. In the end, there were only two left. Michael ate those for a late night snack. The family's opinion was unanimous. The Yukon Gold latkes were a keeper.

Yukon Gold Latkes

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

4 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, washed
2 eggs
1/4 cup white all purpose flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper (optional)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped (optional)
1/2 cup parsley, washed, finely chopped (optional)
4 tablespoons safflower or canola oil

Method

Peel the potatoes and keep them covered in a bowl of lightly salted water so they won't discolor. Using the large holes, grate the potatoes by hand. Keep the grated potatoes submerged in the bowl of water.

Take a handful of grated potatoes. Gently squeeze out the water so they are "dry" but still light and fluffy. Put the grated potatoes into a second bowl and mix together with the eggs, flour, and olive oil. Season with sea salt and pepper. Add the parsley and onions (optional). Mix well.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or griddle. Use a parsley leaf to test the oil. When it sizzles, the oil is hot enough. Form the latkes and fry them in batches. With our griddle, that means we can make 4 or 6 at a time.

Each side will take 4-5 minutes. When they're golden brown on each side, remove them to a plate with several sheets of paper towels to drain off the excess oil. Finish with a light dusting of sea salt.

Serve with sour cream and apple sauce.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

One for the Table Gets Ready for the Holidays

Amy Ephron's One for the Table recently posted a holiday special called "Xmas on Your Doorstep." Regular contributors were asked to talk about,
... their favorite things that come in the mail at Xmas. We always think that one of the nicest things to do, if you can’t be with someone at the holidays, is to send something that can be part of their holiday meal, Xmas dinner, Xmas breakfast. A favorite jam, a basket of muffins, crab cakes, caviar (although this may not be the year for that), an apple pie, candleholders, a smoked ham or turkey, or even barbecued brisket!
Steven Zaillian, Alan Zweibel, Agatha French, Emily Fox, Susan Dolgen, Lisa Dinsmore, Andrea Pyenson, David Israel, Seale Ballenger, and Brenda Athanus remembered with fondness gifts that came in the mail that were as varied as "Mexican wedding cookies" and "a small shovel".

I contributed my own more conflicted response, detailing what was a continuing debate in my parents' household during the holiday season. My father was all in favor of Mail Order Food. My mother was not.
Mail Order Food

lattdad.jpg

I associate mail order food with my father. When I was growing up, he and I had very few connections. He took me to only one professional football game. He never came to Back-to-School Night and had no interest in any of my hobbies. I remember him as dour, not very talkative and disapproving. I was part of his second family and he was, I’m certain, just a bit too old to have a young kid running around.

Added to that, my father was burdened by tragedy. He was the eldest son of a prosperous Jewish family in Odessa on the Black Sea. Unfortunately when the Russian Revolution swept across the country, Bolsheviks rampaged through his neighborhood, lining up and shooting many people, including my father’s family. Being Jewish and well-to-do were two strikes too many at a time when “line them up against the wall” was meant literally.

Luckily for my father, when all this happened, he was studying at the University of Kiev. He learned later that his mother had survived because she had very thick hair. When she was shot at point blank range, the gunpowder was apparently so weak that the bullet merely lodged in her hair, knocking her unconscious and otherwise leaving her unharmed. My father never returned home to Odessa, having been told that he needed to flee the country, which he promptly did.

This is a long way of saying that my father spent his entire life reacting to this tragic event. The few times I remember him being happy was when he watched wrestling on TV (remember Gorgeous George?) and when the mail order food packages arrived during the holidays.

lattparents.jpgI was convinced that those packages reconnected him with happier memories of his family in Odessa. I remember watching him at the dining room table as he unpacked the treats he'd ordered: wine soaked cheddar in crocks, salamis rolled in herbs, specialty English crackers, chocolates from Belgium, tins of anchovies and sardines, glass jars with Italian antipasti, pasteurized caviar from the Caspian Sea, and cellophane wrapped packages of Russian black bread. He would get out a plate and encourage my mother and myself to share them with him. It would take him several days to finish everything and in that time he would munch away contentedly, a smile on his face.

But for my mother, those packages were an issue of contention. To her they were an extravagance. We had to watch our expenses in those days and we couldn't afford such luxuries, but my dad was old school and felt that this was one of his few pleasures and he should be indulged. Unfortunately my father had inherited his family's love of the good life without having inherited their wealth.

img80m.jpgMy dad died some years ago, my mom in 2006, but when the holiday catalogues start to arrive around Thanksgiving, I relive their debate about mail order food. The catalogues I enjoy the most are from Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table with their exquisite photographs and seductive descriptions. I look lovingly at the boxes of Handcrafted Toffee, Cream-Nut Milk-Chocolate Peanut Butter Clusters, Perfect Endings Cupcakes, Chocolate-Dipped Peppermint Moravian Cookies, wheels of Stilton Cheese, the D'Artagnan Pate Collection, and the Niman Ranch Applewood Smoked Ham. And I am seriously tempted to buy something.

Then I look at the prices and return to my senses. My mother taught me all too well. Her reproof to my father that mail order food is too expensive rings in my ears and, besides which, as she and my grandmother always said, "Never buy retail." And yet, that smoked ham sounds really delicious, as does the handcrafted toffee, and there would be the added pleasure of connecting with my father who, for all his many faults, did imbue me with a love of good food.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Couscous Steps Up to the Plate as a Main Course

Traditional couscous has a home in the flavorful cuisines of North Africa. Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, and Libya have perfected a small grained, steamed couscous that contrasts well with their spicy sauces. Preparing authentic couscous requires a steamer and considerable patience. The result, while delicious, is too time-consuming for most people.

Instant couscous is now widely available, made with either white or whole wheat flour. Requiring only 10 minutes in a hot water bath, this small grained version is perfect for a grilled vegetable couscous salad.

There is also a larger pearl-sized, "Israeli" couscous, which is prepared in a manner similar to risotto. The grains are first lightly toasted in olive oil, then a liquid is added. The grains soak up the liquid as they cook and expand 2-3 times their original size. With the addition of vegetables or meat, this version can easily be a main course.

Couscous with Vegetables

Aesthetically I like to keep all the ingredients about the same size as the cooked couscous grains. Because couscous is a pasta, it will continue to absorb all the liquid it's given, so the couscous should be served as soon as it is cooked. Don't put in too much liquid or you risk overloading the grains and making them mushy.

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 cup Israeli couscous
1 medium yellow onion, washed, peeled, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, washed, trimmed, finely chopped
4 brown or shiitake mushrooms, washed, finely chopped
1/2 cup Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped, leaves and stems
1/2 cup corn kernels
2-3 cups liquid, water
1 tablespoon sweet butter
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Over a medium flame, heat a tablespoon of olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper. Add the couscous and lightly brown. Remove from the pan.

Add another tablespoon of olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper, and saute the onions, carrots, celery, garlic, parsley, corn, and mushrooms until lightly browned. Add the butter and put back the toasted couscous, stir well, pour in 2 cups of water.

Heat uncovered for 5-10 minutes, stirring to prevent burning. Taste a couscous grain. If it needs more liquid, add a cup of water, stir, and continue to simmer another 5 minutes. Taste and add more sea salt and pepper as needed.

Serve immediately.

Variations

Add 1 cup chopped spinach leaves, no stems, when you add the liquid.

Add finely chopped broccoli or squash or red peppers or tomatoes to the vegetable saute.

Use meat stock (chicken, beef, or veal) instead of water.

Add finely chopped chicken meat or sausage to the vegetable saute.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Tofu, the Other White Meat

Tofu has a bad rap: good for you but tasteless. Conventional wisdom has it that tofu is acceptable ornamentally in miso soup or the occasional stir fry but is simply too bland to be featured in a main dish.

At some Japanese restaurants, I had seen "Tofu Steak" on the menu. It struck me that tofu wasn't like steak but it was similar to chicken breasts. I began a series of experiments. Using firm tofu, I cut it loose from its Asian moorings. I tried grilling, sauteing, and roasting.

My favorite so far is an oven roasted tofu with a topping of crispy shallots, garlic, parsley, and shiitake mushrooms. A little bit of olive oil, sea salt, and pepper was all I added. Besides being quick and easy to prepare, healthy, and affordable, the tofu was delicious.

Please send in any of your own favorite tofu recipes.

Roasted Tofu with Crispy Toppings

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

1 package firm tofu, preferably organic
6 large shallots, peeled, julienned
4 garlic cloves, peeled, julienned
1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1/4 pound shiitake or brown mushrooms, washed, thin sliced
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Saute the shallots, garlic, parsley, and mushrooms in olive oil over a medium flame until lightly browned. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Cut the tofu into equal sized slabs, 2"x3"x1/2". Drizzle olive oil in the pan, season with sea salt and pepper, dredge each piece of tofu in the seasoned olive oil, put into the pan, cover with the shallot saute, put into a preheated 350 degree oven for 20 minutes.

Serve with a side of sauteed or steamed broccoli or a green salad.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Spinach Salad For a Change of Pace

As much as I enjoy arugula, red leaf, and romaine salads, there are times when I need a change. At the farmers' markets these days there is a good supply of regular spinach and the Bloomsdale or heirloom variety, the one with the crinkly leaves.

The nutty flavor and sturdy leaf structure of spinach invites the addition of flavors. So many ingredients go well with spinach. Personally, I like scallions, tomatoes, avocado, olives, grilled corn, and carrots go well with spinach. If you're ok with meat, add crisp bacon, chopped hard boiled eggs, grilled shrimp, sliced chicken breast, or julienned ham.

Any favorite salad dressing will do. We tend to like a simple dressing of olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar, seasoned with sea salt and pepper. The dressing can also be heated to create a wilted spinach salad.

Spinach Salad

Because all the grit has to be removed, spinach is a little more work to clean than arugula or lettuce. If the spinach leaves are still connected to their roots, cut off the root ends while the leaves are tied together. Separate the leaves and put them into the sink with a lot of water. Shake the leaves and remove to a colander. If you want, double rinse by spraying the leaves while they're in the colander.

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

2 large bunches spinach, washed thoroughly, stems removed
2 scallions, trimmed, finely chopped
1 carrot, washed, trimmed, peeled, thinly sliced into rounds
1 avocado, washed, peeled, roughly cut
10 cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
4 brown mushrooms, washed, dried, thinly sliced
1/4 cup grilled corn kernels
1 tablespoon roasted almonds, hazelnuts, or pine nuts, roughly chopped (optional)
1/2 cup croutons (optional)
2 eggs, hard boiled, finely chopped (optional)
4 pieces bacon, crisp, finely chopped (optional)
10 grilled shrimp, washed, peeled, deveined (optional)
4 slices chicken breast, grilled or sauteed (optional)
1/4 cup julienned ham (optional)
Olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, reduced to 1 tablespoon
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Make the salad in a large salad bowl. Tear the large leaves into bite sized pieces. Leave the small leaves whole. Add whatever toppings you like. Make the olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar dressing or use whatever dressing you like and serve as a salad course or as a main course.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Best Post-Thanksgiving Comfort Food: Turkey Dumpling Stew

Usually on Thanksgiving between 20-25 people come over for dinner. This year we had a smaller group. With 10, we had time to talk and there wasn't quite as much work getting the meal ready. Out of habit, though, we bought the same size turkey we always buy, a 25 pounder. So we assumed we'd have a lot of food left over, enough for several days of sandwiches.

When we looked in the refrigerator on Friday, we were surprised that we had very little cranberry sauce, almost no stuffing, and only enough white meat for a couple of sandwiches. But, happily, we did have a lot of dark meat and almost a gallon of turkey stock we'd made Thanksgiving night.

For our day after Thanksgiving dinner, I didn't want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen and I wanted a good comfort meal. Dumplings with anything is always great, but with richly flavored turkey stew, there's nothing more satisfying.

Turkey Stew with Dumplings and Vegetables

Yield: 4-6 servings
Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

4 cups cooked, shredded turkey dark meat
6 cups turkey stock (fat removed)
2 carrots (washed, peeled, ends removed, chopped into thick rounds)
2 sweet potatoes (cooked, skins removed, roughly chopped)
1 medium yellow onion (peeled, ends removed, roughly chopped)
1 ear of corn (kernels removed) or 1 cup of canned or frozen corn
1 celery stalk (washed, ends removed, roughly chopped)
1/2 cup brown or shiitake mushrooms (washed, thinly sliced)
4 garlic cloves (peeled, finely chopped)
1/2 cup Italian parsley (leaves only, finely chopped)
1 small bunch spinach (washed thoroughly, stems removed)
1 cup flour
1 tablespoon sweet butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 - 3/4 cup half and half
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Method

In a dutch oven or a frying pan with tall sides, sauté the carrots, garlic, celery, mushrooms, onions, corn, and parsley in olive oil until lightly browned. Season with sea salt and pepper. Add the shredded turkey, cooked sweet potatoes, and turkey stock. Simmer. Drop in the spinach and cook for 10 minutes or until the spinach has wilted. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

To make the dumplings, mix together the flour, baking soda, sugar, season with sea salt and pepper in a bowl. Finely chop the butter, add to the flour and mix well. Slowly pour in the half and half, stirring until the batter has a thick consistency. Using 2 spoons, make dumplings and ease them them into the hot liquid.

Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Serve with a salad and a baguette.

Variations

Add 2 tablespoons finely chopped scallions or Italian parsley to the dumplings.

Add 2 tablespoons finely chopped roasted red peppers to the dumplings.

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