Monday, March 16, 2009

Like peanut butter and pink shoes

It's late on a Sunday (for me that means 10:15), I am sore from far too much dancing, but I couldn't help but write tonight. Molly Wizenberg's "A Homemade Life" has bewitched me into staying up later than usual today, making me salivate over fruit balls and Aunt Bill's, pain du chocolat and banana bread. Reading her book gives me all the warm fuzzies and comfort of things familiar -- like a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich, my rugged pink Converse, and leaping into warm laundry. In fact, I feel a bit like Fraulein Maria tonight, desiring to sing about "a few of my favorite things." I apologize that this probably won't rhyme or have parallel structure, but who cares? Sing with me...

Chocolate and "Jane Eyre" and "Anne of Green Gables,"
Permed hair and toe socks and tv with cable,
Lighthouses, roses and pearls on a string,
These are a few of my favorite things...

Ok, that wasn't so bad. But in homage to Molly, I have decided to make her Blueberry-Raspberry Pound Cake. As she says, "There is no problem that cannot be solved with cake. It's the right answer to everything."

This morning ...

Woke up at 8, and still thinking of cake (I guess that I haven't gotten "The Sound of Music" out of my head yet -- or its classic yet slightly psychotic soundtrack). Opting for her blackberry-lemon zest-orange zest version of this pound cake, I folded together the dry ingredients, dousing myself and the kitchen in a fluffy cloud of Swan's Down. Page 20 of my new book was quickly covered in splotches of flour and butter, since I used my moistened index finger to make sure that I was following the recipe correctly.

Bouncing from the book to the food processor, memories rose as easily as the flour and the aroma from the orange and lemon zest I was adding to the wet ingredients. For a small moment, as I watched my hands grow purple from bursting blackberries, I was a little girl again, picking blackberries on Island Drive in Seattle with my brother and cousin. There is something incredibly lawless and delicious about picking berries -- something that doesn't feel like it ought to be right to pluck each plump berry from their thorny home and simultaneously run from angry bees. We were interrupting their world -- and we knew it -- but we didn't care.

Memories like that never get old -- even 20 years later, when instead of picking berries I buy them from the market and constantly wish they were on sale.

"A Homemade Life" is full of little gems like that -- precious moments from Molly's life. Her father's adorable and sagging belly, his love for experimentation, those dear and difficult last moments at his deathbed, her banging pots and pans in the kitchen as a little girl, that insanely small flat in Paris after college, her romantic early interludes with Brandon -- sigh. That was a fragment (I know), but it was the only way to explain the quirky and adorable recipe of memories that she cooked up for us devotees.

I've laughed from this book. I've cried from this book. I ate Ghirardelli's with this book. We've bonded.

Folding together the dry and moist ingredients and the berries, I licked the naughty drips of batter that fell from the cake spatula onto the food processor. I could only dance (dorkily) as I imagined the flavor getting even better when the blackberries, orange and lemon zest burst and surrendered their flavor to the oven's heat. Smoothing the batter into the bundt pan, I popped it in the oven.

Taking the cake out of the oven about an hour (and many paranoid peeks) later, I admired the finished product: a fluffy and perfect circular cloud of a cake, complemented by the freshly burst blackberries along the top. Eating one slice was equally amazing -- the consistency was smooth and light, the berries tart without being sour.

This pound cake surely met my craving. Thanks, Molly.

Curling up with "A Homemade Life" and Orangette is like biting into a macaroon at Jin Patisserie here in LA -- sensitive and unique, handcrafted and colorful, tender and satisfying. I can't wait until her next book -- because, when I finished this one, I was bitter that it was over.

Blackberry Pound Cake
Adapted from "A Homemade Life," p. 20

5 large eggs
1 2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 ¼ cup (2 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces, at room temperature, plus a bit more for the pan
1 Tbsp. organge zest
1 Tbsp. lemon zest
2 cups plus 8 Tbs cake flour, plus a bit more for the pan
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 cups of blackberries

Set an oven rack to the middle position, and preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Generously butter a 9-cup Bundt pan, and dust it with flour, shaking out the excess.

In the bowl of a food processor, blend together the eggs and the sugar until smooth and thick, about 1 minute, stopping once to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the butter and blend until the mixture is fluffy, about 1 minute, stopping once to scrape down the bowl. Add 2 cups plus 6 Tbs flour, orange and lemon zest, baking powder, and salt, and pulse twice or so to just combine. Do not overmix.

In a large bowl, toss the blackberries with the remaining 2 Tbs flour. Using a rubber spatula, fold the batter into the berries. Transfer this finished batter to the prepared Bundt pan, spreading it evenly across the top. Bake until a toothpick or knife inserted in the cake’s center comes out clean, about 1 hour and 25 minutes. Cool the cake in the pan for 5 minutes; then invert it onto a rack to cool completely. Serve at room temperature, with tea, ice cream, or whipped cream, as the weather dictates.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Purim Sameach!

When I decided to celebrate Purim this year, I must confess that I had no idea what I was doing. I knew the story of the little orphan girl who became a queen and was able to save her people from complete destruction -- a rags to riches story if I've ever heard one. There was a heroine and a villain. I knew that a lot of people use the holiday as an excuse to get completely tossed, so wasted in fact that one can't tell the difference between "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordecai." I also knew that I wasn't planning on partaking in that part of the mitzvah.

But I had no idea what to cook. Coming from a non-Jewish background (and having a lot of Christian friends whose eyes glazed over when I said I was celebrating Purim), I didn't know where to begin. Should I keep kosher? Where is a recipe I can trust? What the heck should I cook? Is it wrong to use Creole seasoning (my staple for all things) in a Jewish recipe?

Luckily, I stumbled upon a recipe for kasha varnishkes (buckwheat with farfalle) on my faithful Borrowing a friend's home, I spent the afternoon mixing kasha with egg yolks, chopping parsley and praying for a decent flavor. Side note: I don't know why I torture myself with experimenting with recipes I've never had and serving them to others. Call me a glutton for punishment.

All prayers were answered, however. Despite its non-sexy appearance, the kasha varnishkes was a light and healthy blend of grains, accented by flavors of bouillion, parsley, onions and kosher salt. As a starter, I opted for a sugared almond salad, complete with romaine lettuce, mandarin oranges and purple onions. It was complemented by my very first REAL dressing -- a concoction of sugar, white vinegar, olive oil and parsley. I even did a little jig for joy when I tasted it.

But the best part was watching my friends enjoy my cooking, a full feeling that cannot be duplicated by any amount of chocolate. It is in those quiet moments, watching the dearest people in the world to me experience the sheer delight of a good meal, that I am at my happiest -- especially when the food is composed of unfamiliar flavors with (gasp!) no meat at all.

We finished dinner with hamantaschen -- a triangular sort of cookie with a fruity center, symbolic of the Haman's (the villian) three-corned hat -- laughs, wine and a reading of the book of Esther aloud. You can flip open the Torah to read this soap opera -- a dramatic tale of captivity, sex, lies, murder, war and deliverance.

All of this good Jewish eating and cooking has given me enough momentum for the rest of the holidays I am preparing to celebrate this year. Shalom to all -- and bring on the Passover!

Kasha Varnishkes at Wolff's in New Jersey
(Adapted from Gourmet magazine)

2 large onions, sliced in rounds
2 to 3 tablespoons margarine or chicken fat
1 large egg or egg white, slightly beaten
1 cup medium or coarse kasha
2 cups water or bouillon
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3/4 pound large or small bow tie-shaped noodles
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander (optional)

1. Sauté the onions in 2 tablespoons of the margarine or chicken fat in a heavy frying pan with a cover until golden. Remove to a plate.

2. Beat the egg in a small mixing bowl and stir in the kasha. Mix, making sure all the grains are coated. Put the kasha in the same frying pan, set over a high heat. Flatten, stir, and break up the egg-coated kasha with a fork or wooden spoon for 2 to 4 minutes or until the egg has dried on the kasha and the kernels brown and mostly separate.

3. Add the water or bouillon, salt, and pepper to the frying pan and bring to a boil. Add the onions, cover tightly, and cook over low heat, steaming the kasha for 10 minutes. Remove the cover, stir, and quickly check to see if the kernels are tender and the liquid has been absorbed. If not, cover and continue steaming for 3 to 5 minutes more.

4. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook the bow-tie noodles according to the directions on the package. Drain.

5. When the kasha is ready, combine with the noodles. Adjust the seasoning, sprinkle with the parsley and coriander. If desired, add a bit more margarine or chicken fat.

Sugared Almond Salad

12 cups washed and dried salad greens of your choice
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup slivered almonds
3 11-oz. cans mandarin oranges, drained
1 purple onion, sliced

3/4 cup white vinegar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
6 Tbsp. parsley, snipped
1 Tbsp. salt
1 1/2 cup vegetable oil

1. Shake all dressing ingredients in a tightly covered jar. Refrigerate for at least one hour.
2. Cook and stir almonds and sugar in a skillet over low heat until sugar is melted and nuts are coated. Cool on wax paper. Break apart. Set aside.
3. Toss dressing with salad greens and arrange on plates. Top with orange sections, onion slices and sugared almonds.

Friday, March 6, 2009

I promised myself I wouldn't ...

But I lied. Somewhere in the midst of all of my cooking and food curiosities, I was laid off about two months ago. The lie comes in because I told myself that I wouldn't tell you.

Being vulnerable isn't one of my strong points, especially not to the void that is cyberspace. Dear friends can attest to many nights of pleading with me to go ahead and let myself cry, to not feel like I need to be the strong one ... blah, blah and more blah. And while I agree with all of them and let a lone tear (or two) trickle through my mascara, the official breakdown hasn't happened yet. I've buried myself in mountains of cookbooks and food magazines, lusting after what I want to cook next, always on the prowl for something tasty. And not too sad to say, Miss Giada --with her 100-watt smile, a figure that makes me jealous and delicious recipes -- has become a part of my daily dish.

All of this extra time has left me with an insatiable desire to explore local cuisine like never before -- and a chocolate jones like you wouldn't believe.

In an effort to quell my sugar craving for the day, I decided to stop by Jin Patisserie -- a little sweet shop in Venice Beach whose techno music gives you a club-like feel and feng shui design makes you want to say "namaste" before you indulge in cake. Promptly sitting down at a corner bench underneath a heat lamp (yes, I was wearing a wool peacoat and sitting under a heat lamp in 60 degree weather), I surveyed my surroundings with pleasure and pulled out Michael Ruhlman's "The Making of a Chef" -- a book where making stock is a fine art and dough is actually sexy.

After peeking at the menu and the displays inside, I decided on a little chocolate confection called "Desire" and a matching tea, appropriately termed "Carpe Diem." Ironic titles that I didn't really think about until later, as one person recently told me that now is an excellent time to reinvent myself. But back to the dessert.

Owner and creator Kristy Choo prides herself on combining taste with art, having trained at San Francisco's Culinary Academy. "Desire," made with French groittine cherries baked into a chocolate sponge, Majari chocolate mousse, and vanilla creme brulee was unassuming at first bite, with the chocolate mousse smooth and yielding. The top and bottom of the dessert, however, was a gentle and pleasant assault to my mouth as the dark chocolate had a slightly bitter flavor and the crunch of the sponge was an interesting contrast to the smoothness of the mousse. The tea was fruity and delicate -- and had no need for the brown sugar cubes that the server brought out to me.

It took every ounce of Audrey Hepburn in me not to lick my plate or my fingers -- not to mention that the woman next to me was giving me the evil eye. I reluctantly asked for the check, due to a beach-inspired wind that was mussing any hope of a normal hairdo.

But that didn't stop me from taking a "Desire" for the road.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Thoughts from a Gloomy Monday

Today was a particularly gloomy Monday in Los Angeles, the kind of day that is pregnant with rain, but only manages to push out a light drizzle. And in the midst of it all, in between a hard run and a business chat, my mind couldn't help but wander to a few things I just can't stand:

1. Getting sand on my new pedicure
2. Lint on my favorite black sweater
3. Flat hair
4. Lettuce

Yes, I said it. I know all of the hooha about lettuce and folate and how it is ever so good for you. I've even tried buying different kinds of leaves in order to trick my brain (and my palate), but no luck -- I am still left with a bag of crickled lettuce when I look in the crisper. To be honest, I try to reach around the lettuce to find something more interesting in the fridge.

So, I decided to rebel and create a lettuce-less salad today -- in part to experiment, and in part to use up all the produce in my refridgerator.

Chopping perfectly plump tomatoes and crisp asparagus made even better because it was on sale, I juggled chopping, roasting garlic bulbs and talking to a dear woman about a mutual friend. Trust me, there was no gossiping going on -- it was one of those conversations when two women are trying to help someone who needs to make some tough decisions. Being a woman who always sees the world in people, it is hard for me to watch others make the same poor decisions over and over again. And if I love them enough, it breaks my heart.

But the Lady Wisdom on my speakerphone sang words of sense over the noise in my kitchen, leaving me with tons to think and pray about as I squeezed roasted garlic over a concoction of tomatoes, asparagus, cucumbers and bell peppers. The end result was a fun tease to my palate: warm and garlicky (is that a word?) asparagus, crisp tomatoes that yielded a gentle burst when my teeth met and garlic that gave the vegetables the zing that they needed.

I kissed lettuce goodbye today.

Pairing the salad with baked salmon and an occasional nibble from the chocolate raspberry mousse slowly languishing in my house, it was perfect, with no disasters to report. The gloom remained, both over the sky and over my spirits, but dinner was delicious.

Asparagus Salad
with Roasted Garlic Vinagarette Dressing

2 tomatoes on the vine, chopped into fourths
1/2 pound of asparagus, chopped
1/2 cucumber, thinly sliced
1/4 green bell pepper, sliced in strips
Garlic salt
Kosher salt

For the dressing:
2 full bulbs of fresh garlic
2 tbsps. of red wine vinegar
1 tbsp. of olive oil

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Cut the heads off the garlic, exposing the cloves. Drizzle both with olive oil and wrap tightly in two separate squares of foil. Place on a baking pan and bake for roughly 30 minutes.

In the meantime, heat 1 tbsp. of olive oil in a saucepan. Toss asparagus in and sprinkle with a pinch or two of garlic salt and kosher salt. Saute asparagus until tender but not mushy. Set aside.

In a bowl, combine sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers and sauteed asparagus. Be sure to allow the flavored olive oil from the asparagus to drip into the bowl as well. Drizzle the entire mixture with red wine vinegar.

Once the garlic is roasted and is a soft texture, squeeze the softened garlic into the bowl with the rest of the vegetables. Sprinkle with pepper, and toss everything to coat.