Tuesday, January 30, 2007

I Feel The Need, The Need for........Parsley...??

You know how it goes. One day, you're reading a cooking magazine or watching Food TV and then the craving hits you- you MUST MUST MUST eat (fill in the blank) now! Trust me, it happens to me on a weekly basis....that longing for Mexican food after seeing a Rick Bayless show.......the uncontrollable urge for onion rings when you get a whiff of them walking past a fast food joint, when you read food blogs....it happens to the best of us. It happened to me just the other day actually. My name is Anne, and I'm a food craver. There, I said it.

The very strange thing is actually the food (if you can even call it that) I suddenly got a craving for. Although we've all certainly had our salad cravings after the holidays, this was a first for me. As I sat at my desk, minding my own business, I got to thinking about how I just needed parsley. Yep- that green stuff that gets regulated to the side of a plate to make everything else look more appealing. Mind you- it wasn't Garnish King curly parsley that I wanted- I wanted its Italian cousin, the Flat Leaf. Now before you jump to conclusions, there is no little tokyoastrogirl on the way (my 6 cups of sake last night should prove that!). I supposed I may have seen a photo of tabbouleh somewhere, but those are the flavors I craved- lemon, parsley, olive oil and something nutty.

Luckily, I had all of the ingredients I needed to whip together this crave buster. I had recently purchased a bag of farro from the Cheese Store of Silverlake, and was waiting for the perfect opportunity to bust it out. It was quite simple- soak and boil the farro, drain it, then mix it with over a cup of chopped parsley, a squeeze of lemon juice and a nice drizzle of good olive oil. Toss in a handful of diced red onion, a pinch of salt and a sprinkling of pepper and it was done, ready to defeat my craving.

I tossed some shrimp with a mixture of cumin, madras curry powder, garlic powder and turmeric and baked for 5 minutes to accompany my farro salad. The slightly chewy farro was delicious- especially mixed in with my beloved parsley. The minute the greens hit my tongue, I was satisfied. I have to say, it was nice to have a craving for something so healthy for a change!

Farro salad

2 cups farro
juice of one lemon
1/4 cup good, fruity olive oil
1 small red onion, diced
1 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
salt & pepper to taste

Soak farro for 20 minutes, drain. Cover with water by about 2 inches and bring to a boil- cook for about 15 minutes, but check for a texture that you like- I like mine to stay slightly chewy. Drain, mix immediately with red onion, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Let cool before adding parsley, mix well and enjoy.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Holla! (aka Challah)

Nothing gets me in the mood for baking better than a drizzly, grey day, and Saturday turned out to be one of those lovely gloomy days. Living in Los Angeles, where the sun shines 90% of the year, I embrace rainy days, especially on a weekend. It's no fun spending all day in the kitchen next to a hot oven when it's 85 degrees out, so I was happy to wake up to a cold, drab day. Yay!

Our good friend L recently had a birthday, and we had plans to go to dinner with him and his lovely wife, R, that night. I was plotting the night before about what sweet goodies I could bake L for his birthday present.....cookies, cheesecake, brownies.....perhaps a pear tart? I was digging through my baking books with glee when I decided to ask J what he thought was best. That's when my sugarplum fairy world came crashing down......J said that dreaded sentence: L doesn't like sweets. Oh great. There goes my plan to serve him up some of the best cookies this side of.....the L.A. River. I didn't really want to do the cheddar crackers again since I had just made them, so I wracked my brain trying to think of something savory. Flour tortillas? Naw......since L is Mexican, he probably had many relatives whose homemade tortillas would blow my gringo ones out of the water. A vat of my famous Bolognese? That seemed like the ticket until I realized that his wife doesn't eat meat....so poor L would be eatin' Bolognese every night for a week, alone. I never realized how much harder it is to think of a savory food gift since it's so easy to bake a batch of cupcakes or pack up a bunch of scones in a nice package.

I finally decided to make bread....although I must admit I was a bit nervous. Sure, I had made bread before but I've certainly had my failures....like the time I used old yeast and my dough didn't rise a single centimeter. It was a risky move to put all of the afternoon into making my Bread Present, considering we were going to see the birthday boy that same night. I flipped through my well-worn copy of Baking With Julia and chose challah. Had I ever made this staple of Jewish bakeries before? Nope. Did it matter? I didn't even really stop to think since I saw that I only had about 6 hours before L and R were set to arrive. And in bread baking time, my dear readers, that's nothin! I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.

Thankfully, I had picked up a few packets of yeast on a recent shopping excursion so I knew that part was taken care of. I was sad to see that I didn't have any bread flour, but since the recipe said I could use unbleached all purpose, I figured I'd be ok. I started by pouring warm water over the yeast until it foamed madly....I LOVE the smell of foamy yeast! After starting the mixture of that and flour in my mixer, I took the ball of dough out and kneaded it by hand for a good ten minutes. Talk about a workout! It is actually quite relaxing to knead bread by hand, and I think I was a bit inspired by Cynthia's recent post on the joys of kneading bread. There's been so much talk about a no-knead bread on many food blogs, and hey- I ain't knockin' it- but there is a therapeutic quality to grabbing and pushing around all that dough. You can actually feel it evolving from a sticky mass into something smooth and elastic. It's not a bad way to tone your arms and middle either!

Punched down dough........

After the first rise, I "punched the dough down" which is a part I've always enjoyed. You can hear the "pfffffffff" of the air coming out of the dough- you're actually redistributing the air all over the blob. When the second rise was completed, I took half of the dough and divided it up into three ropes. Now comes the fun part! Although I hadn't braided hair in YEARS, it's sort of like riding a bike....a very squishy bike. I started in the middle as the book instructed and pretty soon, I had a fat, doughy braid. After taking the second half of the dough and creating another loaf, I covered both with towels and let them rise for another 30 minutes.

While I waited for those babies to rise, I made the egg wash with 1 egg, 1 egg yolk and a tablespoon of cold cream. I strained the mixture through a tea strainer to get the globs out, then brushed the now-puffy loaves with the yellow glaze. I decided to put sesame seeds on one and leave the other plain. They both went into a hot oven for 20 minutes, at which point I pulled them out and re-glazed the parts of the loaves that had swelled and exposed more of the internal dough. This was a step I had never read about before but made total sense. After another 20 minutes or so back in the oven, the challah was done! Holla!

Shiny loaves of challah in a row......

Sliced and ready for my tummy.....

Both loaves turned out super shiny and smelling wonderful. I decided to give the sesame one to L since the plain one had cooked a bit too much and was a bit too brown on the bottom. L appreciated the bread, and I was happy to have found a savory food gift that I'll definitely be making again. The best part? J and I enjoyed a breakfast of challah toast and scrambled eggs the next morning. The slightly dense and eggy bread was fantastic with just a smear of butter.


I'm looking forward to more rainy day bread baking if the weather cooperates!


Thursday, January 25, 2007


If there is a God in Food Heaven, may he be crowned the Top Chef next Wednesday.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Austin, TX Part I: Vespaio and Long Branch Inn

I recently spent forty-eight hours in Austin to visit one of my best friends, JR. I'd never been to the hipster town and was looking forward to spending time with JR and gettin' some grub on! After a pleasant 3 hour flight out of LAX, my friend Mika and I landed in rainy, freezing Austin. Watch out Texas- we had arrived! We were greeted by JR's smiling face, which was certainly a sight for sore eyes, and were whisked off in his Honda to East Austin where he resides.

We spent most of the dreary afternoon catching up and drinking wine. After a light snack at a local Mediterranean/Italian joint (nothing to write home about) we went to Long Branch Inn, JR's local pub of choice. The large, loft-like space was filled with people and had a very welcoming vibe. I could see why JR loves it so much. We sipped on red wine, met some of his friends and then remembered that we hadn't really eaten much. This is where you'll probably be very disappointed, but we went to a Wendy's drive-thru. Yes, she of the square burger.....that Wendy. It was late, we were buzzed and I couldn't remember any of the Austin-based fast food chains that I had seen on the drive from the airport. I got some sort of Southwestern salad which was basically a bowl of lettuce with some hot chili dumped on it. Not good. Should have stuck with the square burgers.....I imagine they're famous for a reason.

Long Branch Inn.........

A little art in the bar........

The next night we went to our only pre-planned dinner of the trip. I had wanted to celebrate our reunion with one fancy dinner out, so I did some research and settled on Vespaio. When I told JR, he said that yes, Vesapio is one of Austin's most celebrated restaurants. The three of us put on our good jeans (ha) and made the short drive there. I had been told in advance that Vespaio does not take reservations, so we weren't too taken aback when the hostess said our wait would be 90 minutes. We made our way through the VERY crowded bar, stared at some people until they relented and left (well, not really) and snagged a small bar table. We were ready to get our drink on!

We got champagne for us girls and a gin and tonic for JR. The time passed quite quickly while we chatted, checked out the other customer and made small talk with the very helpful waiters. I have to say, it was almost uncomfortably crowded- people kept knocking into my purse which was hanging on the back of my chair. After almost exactly 90 minutes, the hostess lead us to our table. Food time!


The dining area was nice and large, facing the open kitchen where we could watch the chefs put pizzas in a wood burning oven. We ordered a bottle of red and immediately asked for the baked oysters and an order of calamari before continuing to check out the menu. JR settled on the Bistecca Togliatti Con Palate Fritte, which was the Tuscan marinated hanger steak grilled on oak with a Chianti redurre with shoestring potatoes, sautéed spinach and parmesan roasted tomato. Phew- did you get all that? M went with the Pappardelle with Cream and Mushrooms- chestnut pappardelle tossed in truffle cream sauce with king trumpet and shitake mushrooms finished with parmigano reggiano. (Yes, Vespaio is very thorough in their descriptions!). I opted for (take a deep breath in) the Lasagna a la Bolognese- sheets of handmade spinach pasta layered with beef, veal & pork ragu, béchamel, pepperino romano, Tuscan pork sausage and housemade mozzarella. Sounds good, doesn't it??
Calamari with yummy marinara

The oysters and calamari arrived and we dug in. Although the calamari could have been a tad crispier, they were nice and tender and the accompanying marinara was so well seasoned that we couldn't stop dipping everything into it. The oysters were baked in a cream/cheese sauce and also very delicious. Off to a promising start!

Steak and fat fries

The main dishes arrived and were absolutely massive. JR's steak came with an enormous pile of fries coated in garlic- and they certainly didn't resemble any shoestring fried I'd ever seen. These were much thicker and definitely lacking any crispness that a well-fried fry would have. He did enjoy the steak, but it was nothing that special. My lasagna was also a heaping pile of pasta just drenched in melted cheese, garnished with half of a sausage link. I don't mean to sound snobby, but the presentation of these dishes didn't exactly scream "fine dining." The sheets of pasta were thick, and the sausage was such an odd touch. Flavor-wise, it was quite delicious actually, but I could hardly make a dent in the behemoth. M's dish was the best- the flavor of truffle cream sauce was perfect- but once again, the pasta was too thick.

Behemoth lasagna with sausage garnish

The winner of the night...mushroom pappardelle

For dessert we got a trio of chocolate- a dry brownie that none of us even bothered with, a chocolate mousse and a scoop of chocolate sorbet. The sorbet was so good that we ordered a scoop a la cart since we ended up fighting for it. Rich and decadent, we didn't miss the cream at all.

Trio of chocolate desserts....

After dinner we made our way back to the Long Branch Inn to cap off the night. It was a nice way to end the evening.

Overall, I have to say that Vespaio is certainly not worth the wait. I would certainly go back if they took reservations, but the food better be insane for me to wait 90 minutes. Obviously there are lots of other people who disagree, so I'll let them wait for Vespaio and give them one less person to hold up the line.

Thanks JR and M
for a memorable Austin trip!

More Austin eats to come, stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Dinner Party

After mulling it over for the last couple of months, I finally had a proper dinner party this past weekend. My only regret is that I didn't have one sooner! Every aspect was great- the prep work and cooking leading up to it was thoroughly enjoyable, the party was immensely fun, and the happy looks on the guests faces were truly rewarding. The fact that I now have some tasty leftovers in my fridge is just the icing on the cake.

Getting the table ready......

J being out of town for a month has resulted in my not cooking much, so that was the final motivation I needed to get off my butt and throw a party. I have many coworkers with whom I'd like to socialize more and thought a dinner party would be a nice way to spend some quality time with my friends. With a vegetarian in the bunch, meat and seafood were out which posed a welcomed challenge. I sifted through my gigantic cookbook collection, looked at endless old issues of Gourmet, Bon Appetite and Food & Wine but came back to the one cookbook that has never let me down. Yep- you guessed it- Sunday Suppers at Lucques. Yes, I know...food bloggers the world over have gushed over Goin's popular book but there is a good reason why. The flavor combinations don't just work- they shine. The steps are explained in a clear and concise manner and you see WHY certain techniques are used. The results are delicious, in large part due to the fact that the recipes are categorized by season so you know the ingredients you are using are the best at that time of year (for example, you won't find any tomato recipes in the Winter Menu section!).

I told you I am a big nerd......

After trips to both the Pasadena and South Pasadena Farmer's Markets, I was ready to start cooking. For hors 'd oeuvres, I decided on Endive Cups with Goat Cheese, Orange Segments, Candied Pecans and Balsamic Glaze. It's something I've been making for awhile now, and seeing the cara cara oranges at the market sealed the deal. I also picked up two perfectly white heads of cauliflower for a Pureed Roasted Cauliflower Soup I'd planned as a started. For the main course, I opted for the Wild Mushroom Tart with Gruyere, Young Onions and Herb Salad and the Baby Roasted Beets with Horseradish Crème Fraiche as a side. I also added an old staple of mine- a simple salad of puy lentils, red onions, parsley and a light vinaigrette to finish up the dish. Of course, what's a dinner party without a sweet ending? I once again pulled from the Lucques book and decided on the Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake with Sautéed Pears. I mean- I've never met a brown butter cake I didn't like...in fact, I've never met a brown butter ANYTHING I didn't like....and it all felt so wintery.

Endive cups with Goat Cheese, Orange Segments, Candied Pecans and Balsamic Glaze

I started the day before so that I could actually enjoy hanging out with my guests on the night of the party. Another great thing about the Lucques book is that it tells you everything you can do in advance for each recipe. On Saturday, I roasted the beets, made the horseradish crème fraiche, the vinaigrette, the cake and the lentils....and had a blast. Maybe "blast" isn't the right word for it....but it's times like those that I think of how much I love to cook. I know this sounds cheesy, but as I was peeling the beautiful, deep purple/maroon beets, I was thinking about how you hardly ever see a color in all its glory like that- bleeding all over your fingers, as bright and gorgeous as can be. As I'm thinking this, my nose picks up the heady scent of toasted hazelnuts and brown butter wafting from the oven and think of how nothing could possibly smell better. Cooking gives you all kinds of wonderful, sensory experiences. I can't think of a better way to spend a cold Saturday than to putter around the kitchen, peeling this, baking that.....so yes, you can label me a Big Nerd but I truly enjoyed every minute.

Soup for starters........

The next day was spent doing some final prep and cleaning the house. At around 7:00 pm, my guests arrived and we uncorked what would be the first of six (hey- there were six of us, after all....well, M is pregnant and didn't have any but still....) bottles of wine. After munching on the endive cups, we moved to the dining table and began with the soup course. The combination of roasted cauliflower, roasted garlic, sautéed white onions, thyme and vegetable stock all pureed together was a hit- although it was my first time making the soup (I sort of just made it up) but I'm a huge roasted cauliflower fan so I wasn't rolling the dice too much. After we cleared away the bowls, it was time for the main course.

Before and after....Wild Mushroom Tart with Gruyere, Young Onions and Herb Salad

How did it all turn out? Well, you can't go wrong with roasted baby beets- they're just beautiful to look at, sweet and wonderfully tender. The horseradish crème fraiche was a nice compliment to the sweetness. The lentils were good as well. But the real star was Goin's mushroom tart. Wow. I suppose anything that starts with puff pastry can't be bad, but it really knocked my socks off. Underneath the gorgeous mushrooms lies a thin layer of gruyere, and underneath that is a layer of fresh, whole milk ricotta mixed with an egg and crème fraiche. Bake it all in the oven, toss some fresh tarragon, chives and parsley on top and drizzle with some truffled olive oil (my added touch since my boss gave me a nice bottle from Italy last year) and you get, well, a slice of heaven. I'll definitely have to make this again.

The dinner plate........

The lovely dinner guests!

We retired once again to the living room to start a rousing game of Scrabble. Unfortunately, my team lost but after that much wine, who cares?! We definitely needed something to soak up the vine so dessert was served. Another winner here- the brown butter cake was amazing, and soaked in the caramelized pear juices, it was divine. The cake takes a bit of a light hand to make, but the end result is truly worth it. The pears, on the other hand, are absolutely simple and can be made in advance (thanks Yoony- for answering my questions on that one!). You simply heat some butter and vanilla seeds (plus the pod) in a pan, add the pears and let them sauté until they're golden brown. It would be perfect over a big bowl of vanilla ice cream....or even on its own. Another keeper.

Scrabble begins......

Before and after....Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake with Sautéed Pears

To end the night, I stole an idea from one of my favorite restaurants- Grace. J and I had Valentine's Day dinner there one year, and they presented us with a "Morning After" box- filled with mini versions of various Grace pastries to be enjoyed the next morning. I thought it was so clever to have the guest extend the dining experience until the next morning like that, so I made some lemon raspberry muffins and put two of them, plus a mini pack of Kona coffee, into little bags and gave them out as the guests left to go home.

There's got to be a morning after....(I couldn't resist!)

All in all, it was a wonderful evening. I am hoping that I'll be able to host more dinner parties in the future...it'd been a long time and I guess I forgot how much I enjoyed them. There's something so satisfying about rolling up your sleeves and diving into the cooking process- I want to make sure I keep it up! It's so easy to get lazy about cooking sometimes....but then you remember why you fell in love with it in the first place and you make a resolution to do it more often. I definitely will!

Thanks to all of my friends that came, and here's to more dinner parties in the future!


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Food Gift For A Friend

I love having friends who are really into cooking and food. There's something nice about being able to tell someone that the toro at Z Sushi changed your life without having them look at you like you're nuts. We food lovers understand the impact that a great meal or a beautiful glass of wine can have on our lives, so it's always nice to have like-minded people around to talk food to.

Have you ever seen a lovelier cheddar?

D is one of those people, and we work together. He's the one who took me for a lovely Lucques lunch, and we've vowed to treat ourselves to at least one gourmet lunch a month in the coming year. Today is his birthday, so I wanted to create something yummy. After all, he got me an autographed copy of the new Bon Appetite cookbook for Christmas!!!

Grated in all its glory....

Although I thought to make something out of the cookbook, another idea hit me. My parents gave me a one pound chunk of the best cheddar cheese I have ever tasted - Hook's 10-year Cheddar- for Christmas. Although I'd love nothing more than to consume the entire brick by myself (J is out of town for a month), my metabolism would probably stop dead in its tracks and I'd be calling Jenny Craig. I remembered a post I read about cheddar crisps recently and couldn't wait to try my hand at the little crackers.

Oh NOW you're all nice and neat!

I have to say one thing- thank goodness for Cuisinart! I grated 12 ounces of the cheese in a nanosecond, thanks to the grater attachment (no, I don't work for them!). The rest of the ingredients were simply tossed in with the mountain of cheese, blended together, then thrown onto wax paper to be rolled into neat logs. This is the part where I had some trouble since the dough was very sticky and soft. I made two logs (one with cracked black pepper, the other plain) and put them into the freezer.

Looks like butta.....

While waiting for the rolls to harden, I started on what I thought would make a nice accompaniment to the sharp flavor of the crackers. You now know of my love for onions, and I felt that a sweet onion jam would work well with cheddar. I simply sliced six large sweet onions (thanks again, Cuisinart!) and started on the long, slow process of caramelizing them. After adding about a tablespoon of sugar, I just let them do their thing in a bit of butter and olive oil. The entire house smelled amazing! After about 2 hours, the onions had cooked down to a deep, golden brown and I finished it off with a splash of good balsamic and some thyme leaves. After a few pulses in the food processor, the chunky jam was done.

Fluffly, sliced onions........

Beginning stages of browning.....

The cheese logs were now ready to slice and bake. They were very easy to manage now, and I got lots of crackers out of just half the batch (the rest will be saved for this weekend!). After 10 minutes in the oven, the crisps came out golden on the edges and smelling of salty cheese. For the sake of quality control, I tried one (well, maybe more than one) and WOW. When Molly said to use a cheddar that you really like, she was right. The crisps were as good as the cheese. They were, quite honestly, some of the best crackers I had ever tasted. The black pepper ones were even better! Combined with the sweet onion jam, they would make the perfect compliment to a slightly sweet wine, which I also added to the gift.

Freshly baked crackers

I think I'll have to put these crackers into regular rotation in my kitchen. Next time, I will probably chill the dough a bit before trying to form them into logs. The onion jam is something I'll have to make more of as well- I think it would be fantastic with some good ham and gruyere on a sandwich, or even stuffed in a pork chop. I'll include the "recipe" here although I'm sure you could make a batch using any herbs you like, or even a splash of red wine.

Sweet Onion Jam
(makes about 1 1/2 cups)

6 large Vidalia, Maui or other sweet onion
2 TBS butter
1 TBS olive oil
1 TBS brown sugar
2 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
Splash of balsamic vinegar

Thinly slice the onions. Set aside.

In a large, stainless sauce pan (don't use Teflon- you won't get good caramelization), heat the butter and olive oil until melted. Add the onions, add the sugar and sauté on medium-low heat until they turn a nice golden brown. Add a splash of balsamic (it will sizzle) and stir well, finish with thyme leaves. Pulse in a food processor a couple of times until you get desired consistency. Spread on anything, enjoy!

Happy Birthday D!!!!!!!!!!!