Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Chocolate and Valpolicella Crema

Happy Mardi Gras! Hey - just because we aren't shimmying down the streets of Rio boa'd and beaded and feathered and masked doesn't mean we can't celebrate, right?

Normally, I am not into celebrating impending deprivation (Lent) or worse, mortality. Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday, is followed by Ash Wednesday's dust to dust, ashes to ashes, in which sinners spend the day sporting an ashen reminder of mortality on their foreheads. Such contemplation no doubt intensifies repenting. Picture fire and brimstone, etc.

According to Herodotus, considered the first Greek historian, the Egyptians had a similar tradition. "At rich men's banquets, after dinner a man carries around a wooden image of a corpse in a coffin.... This he shows to each man saying 'Drink and make merry, but look on this; for such shalt thou be when thou art dead.' Such is the custom at their drinking bouts."

Now I'm not recommending you try this at your next dinner party, but somewhere in the back of your mind, isn't this one reason why every meal counts? Can you come up with a more elaborate justification for this sinfully rich dessert?

One of my favorite desserts when I was a kid, was chocolate pudding. I loved the thick skin that covered the milky pudding. Ah, the privilege of adulthood. Now I can whip up a dessert that has this intensity all the way through, not just on the top.

This chocolate crema elevates the pudding by adding a little wine and a lot of richness. This is not a mousse, whose joy consists of lightness. No, in contrast, this is a thick and velvet smoothness that effortlessly melts in your mouth. An intense chocolate experience. The recipe suggests that this serves 4 - 6. It is so rich, I suggest that it serves at least 8, preferably 1o. For this toast to the sweet life, you only need a spoonful or two to savor.

So put this on the turntable, and Carpe Diem and Carne Vale!

Chocolate and Valpolicella Crema from the Babbo cookbook
1/2 cup red wine, preferably Valpolicella or another medium body fruity red wine
1/4 cup plus 2 Tblsp plus 1 Tblsp sugar
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 Tablespoon unsalted butter
  • Combine the red wine and 1/4 cup of sugar in a small sauce pan and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until reduced to a third, about 15 minutes. Set aside.
  • Heat both chocolates in a a large bowl ( I use a big pyrex bowl) over the bottom half of a double boiler until melted. Turn off the heat. Leave the bowl sitting over the hot pan and whisk in the reduced red wine. Then whisk in the egg yolks.
  • In a medium saucepan, scald the milk and 1/2 cup heavy cream and 2 Tablespoons of sugar. Whisk quickly into the chocolate mixture. Whisk in the butter.
  • Portion into wine glasses or desert cups and chill until set.
  • Prior to serving, whip the half cup of cream into soft peaks, add 1 tablespoon of sugar and whip until stiff peaks develop.
  • Serve each crema with a topping of cream. Enjoy!

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Herodotus translation from Choice Cuts

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Salmon Fillet with Smoked Salmon and Horseradish Crust

At least the color scheme would be minimalist. Brilliant orange red pepper coulis. Alternating pink and pale salmon. Crusty orange crumble dotted with deep pink. But so many different flavors in one dish. Was it a little too fussy? After all, L. and I loved our salmon simply butterflied, sauteed in olive oil and sprinkled with coarse Hawaiian sea salt.

The lure of the ingredients was powerful. Fresh squeezed lime, grated horseradish, minced shallots, garlic. I couldn't resist the siren song (not that I'm into resisting food anyway).

Perfect for a dinner party, you can prepare much in advance, so you can shower your friends, not the fish, with attention. First I made the prepared horseradish. Then the red pepper coulis. Finally I was ready for the salmon. Actually it's easy to prepare. Only 20 minutes to crumb the bread, mince the shallots and garlic, squeeze the lime, crush the pepper and warm up the oven. Then bake.

You will be rewarded with a savory, complex dish. Complementary flavors. Textures from firm salmon, to crusty topping to velvety coulis. Delicious!

Salmon Fillet with Smoked Salmon and Horseradish Crust - adapted from The Professional Chef, the Culinary Institute of America
Serves 6
1 1/2 to 2 pound wild salmon fillet
Juice of 2 limes
1 tsp garlic, minced
1 tsp shallots, minced
1 tsp peppercorns, crushed

Crumb mixture:
1/8 tsp shallots, minced
1/4 tsp garlic, minced
3 Tablespoons butter, unsalted (organic)
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs (2 1/2 oz)
2 1/2 oz smoked salmon
2 Tablespoons prepared horseradish, recipe here

10 fluid oz. red pepper coulis, recipe here
  • Combine marinade ingredients - lime juice, garlic, shallots, peppercorns. Cut the salmon into 5 oz portions. Rub With the marinade.
  • Saute the shallots and garlic in the butter until aromatic. Combine all the ingredients for the crumb mixture in a food processor and process to a fine consistency.
  • Portion the crumb mixture onto the salmon fillets and place on a rack on a baking sheet.
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes or so, until the salmon is opaque and firm, and the topping browned and slightly crispy.
  • Portion the pepper coulis on the plates, and place a fillet on top.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Eggplant with Poblano Chiles

Do you remember Woody Allen's Zelig? Leonard Zelig, the human chameleon? Zelig wants to be liked, so much so that he can morph into the people that happen to surround him at any given time. With a group of fat men, Leonard blows up to twice his size. In a jazz club, he effortlessly transforms into a black Jazz musician. Then a chinese restaurant owner, a doctor, a rabbi and so on.

Well, when I consider an eggplant, I can't help but remember Leonard. You see, this lovely vegetable must feel compelled to be accepted by everyone, for it also takes on the characteristics (flavors) of whatever groups in which it is cooking.

And perhaps insecurity causes this poor vegetable to be a little bitter, so you must make it weep, a salty cathartic experience that exorcises the bitterness.

L. and I hadn't made an eggplant dish for a long time, so when we spied a lonesome lavender lovely nestled next to the peppers, we knew we had to adopt it. And why not some peppers to go with it?

This makes an aromatic, flavorful dish that tastes wonderful the next day too. Poblano chiles are mild but they spice the eggplant up beautifully. It's tasty enough for Weekend Herb Blogging hosted by Kalyn's Kitchen.

Eggplant with Poblano Chiles and Yogurt
1 or 2 eggplants, about 2 lbs
2 poblano chiles
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 cup plain yogurt
Chopped fresh parsely for garnish
Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Cut the eggplant into 1 inch cubes and place in a colander. Sprinkle with at least a tablespoon of salt and let it sit over the sink for 30 minutes to an hour. It will weep. Squeeze out as much liquid as you can and then rinse, pat dry.
  • Add oil into medium skillet over medium heat. Add all but 1/2 teaspoon of garlic and saute for 2 minutes.
  • Add the eggplant and cook, stirring until the eggplant is slightly tender and lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Add the peppers and cook about 15 more minutes or until the eggplant is soft. Salt and pepper to taste.
  • Meanwhile, crush the remaining minced garlic in a mortar with kosher salt and a Tablespoon of olive oil. This way, the oil completely incorporates the garlic flavor. Then stir this mixture into the yogurt.
  • When eggplant is done, remove from heat. Plate the eggplant and peppers and add the yogurt sauce on top.
  • Garnish with the parsley and serve it with quinoa or rice.

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Red Pepper Coulis

You catch a stack out of the corner of your eye. The deep red accented with a crooked green stem beckoning. It fits well in your hand. Perfectly smooth, firm. Sophisticated, despite the fact that bell peppers are the most popular pepper in the US. Rather like finding Ralph Fiennes' photo in People magazine.

Unlike during your high school days, you can be best friends with this popular hottie. (Actually, it's more sweet than hot, since bell peppers lack capsaicin, the "hot" in chili peppers.) How often do you find a sauce that tastes great, adds beautiful color, is easy to make and is very healthy too? And it complements tons of dishes - baked fish, over omelets, as a soup garnish, with quinoa, crab cakes, and well, let me know how you use it.

Many recipes instruct you to peel the peppers. And they might only suggest that you strain the puree. Well, this is very backwards thinking. After all, coulis (vegetable puree) is a French word derived from "strained liquid" which in turn came from Latin, "to strain". When you strain the puree, you not only get a much smoother texture, but then you don't have to do any boring old peeling - yey!

If you use a chinois, you will get the wow factor from your friends - a coulis smoother than velvet. If you don't have one, then use the finest strainer you can borrow. (And if you like Nose to Tail cooking for vegetables too, spread the remaining veggie "offal" on toast and enjoy an exotic bruschetta.)

Red Pepper Coulis
2 Tablespoons olive oil
3 Tablespoons minced shallots
3 the most beautiful organic red bell peppers, seeded, deribbed and chopped (about 1 1/2 lbs)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock
Makes about 2 cups.
  • Heat olive oil in medium skillet. Add the shallots, cover, but also take care to stir them frequently as they sweat, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add the peppers, cover, and cook over medium heat until the peppers are very tender, about 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste as they sweat.
  • Deglaze the pan with the wine and let the wine reduce until nearly cooked away, about 6-7 minutes. Add the stock. Simmer until reduced by half, about 15 - 20 minutes.
  • Puree the sauce in a food processor until very smooth. Strain the coulis through a chinois or other fine strainer to get a silky texture.
You can store this for up to 3 days in the fridge. It's even better the next day.

p.s. This red pepper coulis is going in the same dish as the prepared horseradish. Is the suspense building?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Preparing Horseradish

The young man plunged his shovel into the garden loam, unearthing a long thick brown root. After several more shovels and some grunting, he wrenched it out of the earth. It seemed a fitting metaphor for the community garden in which we stood. The oldest community garden in San Jose too was to be uprooted, paved over. With the September sun dipping behind the sunflowers, he wrestled more roots from the warm soil.

Gradually curiosity displaced the poetry of the moment, and I asked him what he had been growing and was he pulling it out of the ground because the garden was going to be destroyed. He laughed. No, at summers end, it is time to harvest the horseradish.

Til then, horseradish had only been something from a little glass jar. I investigated. A perennial plant from the mustard and cabbage family. Mostly grown and harvested by hand. Known and used in antiquity. Strong bite and aroma. Yes, these facts sent Cupid's arrow into my heart.

Plus the oracle of Delphi herself proclaimed, "The radish is worth its weight in lead, the beet its weight in silver, the horseradish its weight in gold."

You can make your own prepared horseradish - all it takes is grating and adding vinegar to preserve it. You won't experience the bite or aroma of horseradish until it's grated. Crushing the root cells releases the volatile oils and the smaller you grate it, the sharper your final result. Use the smallest shredder on the food processor, then follow that with a few pulses with the metal blade and you will have a finely grated and dangerously aromatic condiment. While I initially dismissed the cautions about inhaling freshly grated root, I quickly learned respect for plant also known as "stingnose" in some part of the U.S. I did have to open the window. Add a 1/2 tsp salt for each cup of horseradish while processing.

If you don't use it immediately you must add vinegar to keep it from turning brown and bitter. I added 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar to about a cup of grated horseradish. If you want a milder preparation, add the vinegar within the first minute of grating. If you want sinus cleaning, then add the vinegar at the 3 minute timeout. That's all there is to it.

You might be wondering what I am going to do with this lovely condiment. All will be revealed in time! There, have I left you in suspense now?

The community garden is gone now - apricot trees and sunflowers and juicy Russian tomatoes and all. But the California immigrant harvesting his roots, roots that extended beyond the San Jose plot, all the way to Russia was an inspiration.

San Jose Wine Bar teaches how to Unwined

Does learning about wine increase your enjoyment of a good glass of pinot noir? Well, I'm not going to get into the old debate of cerebral vs sensory pleasures because, after all, you can enjoy both - even (gasp) simultaneously. And now you can take a class right here in San Jose.

The Unwined Wine Bar and Shop is giving monthly wine education classes. This month's class:

Tuesday, Feb. 28 7:30 - 9:00 PM $30
This class will involve a component tasting designed to help one develop a better understanding of the oak, acid, malolactic fermentation and sweetness levels of wines. The $30 fee per class includes all wine and/or food provided for the class. Space is limited so please email or call for more details.

UNWINED Wine Bar and Shop - 408-323-9463 (WINE)
6946 Almaden Expressway
San Jose, CA 95120

Monday, February 13, 2006

Valentine's Day Dessert

Many of you will be shunning Valentine's day commercialism and creating a personal Xanadu with the candles, the music, the cute dog under the table (or cat on). And a sumptuous dinner.

But do you want an authentically Romantic Valentine's Day? Then buy out a tiny dessert and share it with your lover. No, not two tiny desserts, not a box of Vosges chocolates. Do not bake a red velvet cake. Just acquire one exquisite small treasure to share.

Lest you think some mad mistral has blown the lemons out of my tree, consider what recipe romantic poet John Keats might have chosen were he to cook for his beloved.

1. One cup, delight in mystery (do not "unweave the rainbow")

We like to flex our culinary muscles. Cooking a pleasurable experience for others can make us feel powerful. But the transformation of ingredients to repast looses magic if we're the cook. Discover something exquisite together. Enjoy the suspense opening the little box with a beautiful pastry hidden inside. Taste it together. Wonder at its flavor. Bond with your partner by sharing this experience. Very romantic.

2. Tablespoon, intense experience ("O for a life of sensation...")

Remember Thomas Keller's law of diminishing returns in which pleasure from a dish decreases with each additional bite? Maintain that intense first impression. Think small, and share it.

3. Pinch, melancholy ("And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips Bidding adieu")

Experience life fully by acknowledging that you can't have joy without pain. Bliss out on sweet flavor, and deepen the experience knowing that everything, including your dessert must end.

And if perhaps you accidently consume more than your share, follow Keat's advice...

"...if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes..."

Happy Valentine's Day!

p.s. the lovely Satin pictured above comes from La Fleur de Cocoa, a charming patisserie in Los Gatos. Satin composed of ladyfinger sponge soaked in raspberry brandy, layered with white chocolate mousse and topped with Italian meringue.

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Saturday, February 11, 2006

Dining Out - Coco500 in SF

The piquillo peppers stuffed with tuna confit arrived playfully arranged amid a few capers and many dots of chive oil. This is one of the starters at Coco500 on Brannon and 4th in SF, and just the looks of it put L. and I in a great mood for the rest of our meal. Well, that and the staff who were delightful and efficient despite the large crowd on Friday night.

L. and I were in SF to see Julian Barnes read from his new novel "Arthur and George". Did you know that Barnes wrote a cooking column for the Guardian Unlimited for a few weeks ( "And as with sex, politics, and religion, so with cooking; by the time I began finding out about it for myself, it was too late to ask my parents. They had failed to instruct me, and I would punish them by not asking now." )? One of my favorite authors, we stooped so low as to actually take pictures of him signing my (his) book. Very uncool. You'll have to wait until I know you better to see those photos.

Well, after all this excitement (embarrassment), we headed to Coco500 for its welcoming atmosphere. You can read a great restaurant review by Sam of Becks & Posh.

Later that evening, L. asked me what had been my favorite flavor from the dinner. The julienned lemon peel from the chicken tagine was my choice. Just the white of the peel, blanched, cut into elegant slender strips and distributed generously amongst the couscous, chickpeas and chicken.

L.'s pick was the chive oil that dotted the plate of tuna confit. It had been delicious. After a moment's consideration, I changed my vote to the chive oil. And it's very easy to make.

Chive Oil

Blanch a bunch of fresh chives in boiling water for 10 seconds. Cool in ice water for a moment, and then thoroughly pat the chives dry with paper towels. In a food processor, pulse the chives till they are minced. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt. With the processor running, slowly add in 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil and process until smooth. Refrigerate for a day.

Some recipes call for straining the oil. My preference is leaving the tiny green dots of chive suspended in the olive oil - they add drama don't you think?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Exploring the Silver Spoon

Have you heard of The Silver Spoon cookbook? It's an English translation of the book to which Italian cooks refer when they haven't got a family recipe from Mamma. It's often compared to our Joy of Cooking in its completeness (2000 recipes!) and status as a classic (first published in 1950).

As is often the case with cookbooks translated from one language to another, there are apparently some failures to communicate (see editorial reviews on Amazon).

And this is why you will love the new blog Exploring the Silver Spoon. Sara, who I met at a Commonwealth Club food event this past week, is working her way through this cookbook and giving the rest of us excellent explanations and photos of her findings. Plus, she assigns grades to each recipe for taste and ease of preparation.

Being a risotto fan, I'm going to try the carrot risotto which she has awarded an A- in tastiness.

Grazie mille, Sara!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Class acts in the South Bay

Classes at Williams Sonoma Los Gatos store are coming up.

Touring France
Tuesday, February 21, $50
A tour of the Mediterranean with a stop in France. French cuisine offers rich tastes and velvety textures with every bite. Menu includes classic dishes as well as a decadent dessert.
MENU: Salad Nicoise, Cheese Fondue, Coq au Vin, Petits Pots de Creme au Chocolate

Weeknight Vegetarian Meal
Tuesday, March 14, $50
MENU: Polenta with Wild Mushrooms, Fettuccine with Asparagus and Morels, Moroccan-spiced Vegetarian chili, Garden-style Eggplant Parmesan.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Herb Jam with Olives and Lemon

Yes, I have flirtations with others. Sexy swiss chard flaunting its dark green leaves and ferrari red stems. Ride with me baby and I'll take you to culinary heights. And for one whole autumn I had a crush on kale. Oh lacinato kale, strong and mysterious, the tall, dark and handsome Italian heirloom set my gastronomic heart aflame.

But despite these adventures, it is the boy next door, enduring patiently my flings with those other leafy greens, that captures my heart. Spinach - wholesome, available, and willing to please in so many ways. Maybe it's just that we grew up together. Or that spinach was there when I had my first quiche. But it will always have a special place in my heart.

And so it seemed right to choose the Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, Recipes for the Passionate Cook by Paula Wolfert, to let loose my feelings for what the Chinese called the "herb of Persia".

Herb Jam with Olives and Lemon is a thick puree of several types of leafy greens and herbs, but mostly spinach. First steamed, then fried in a skillet, then mixed with chopped olives and olive oil and then refrigerated for 1 to 4 days. When you bring it back up to room temperature the jam glistens and spreads like warm butter on bread. Combine that with subtle smoky flavors from the Spanish pimenton de la Vera, livened with lemon and you have a delicious and healthy jam.

With parsley, cilantro, and celery leaves, it also happens to work just great for Weekend Herb Blogging hosted by Kalyn's Kitchen. Serve it on toasted pita bread or on bell pepper slices.

Herb Jam with Olives and Lemon adapted from Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, Recipes for the Passionate Cook by Paula Wolfert. (We add more pimenton and lemon.)

4 large garlic cloves, halved
1 pound baby spinach leaves
1 large bunch of flat-leaf parsley (about 4 oz), stems discarded
1/2 cup celery leaves, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, stemmed
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
12 oil-cured black olives (about 1 ounce), pitted, rinsed and coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons Spanish sweet smoked paprika (pimenton de la Vera)
pinch of cayenne
pinch of ground cumin
1 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice or more to taste
salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Put the garlic cloves in a large steamer basket in a pan of simmering water and top with the spinach, parsley, celery, and cilantro. Cover and steam until the garlic is soft and the greens tender, about 15 minutes. Let cool, then squeeze the greens dry, chop finely and set aside. Mash the garlic cloves.
  • In a heavy-bottomed skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add the mashed garlic, olives, and spices and stir over moderately high heat for 30 seconds, or until fragrant. Add the greens and cook, mashing and stirring, until soft and dry and somewhat smooth, about 15 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Add the remaining olive oil. Refrigerate, covered, for at least 1 day and up to 4 days.
  • To serve, return to room temperature. Stir in the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Serve with crackers, pita bread pieces, or vegetables.

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Olive Oil Soap

One of my best purchases ever was the pure olive oil soap at the market in Aix-en-Provence. Despite the impatience of the tall, thin man shifting his weight from leg to leg behind the table, I hesitated among the dozens of colorful, aromatic soaps (of course without touching them and thereby eliciting a scolding). Then, there it was - the most pure, unscented, lovely green olive oil treasure.

Yes, olive oil is rich in vitamin E and makes an excellent moisturizer and is gentle on your skin but that's only part of the story. You probably figured out by now that I have a soft spot in my heart for things done in the traditional manner, by hand and with a long history. Olive oil soap has been around for a thousand years - why, just wash your face with it and you may catch a resonant glimmer in the mirror of the thousands, maybe millions of soap users from the murky (yet clean) past.

The vendor brusquely packaged the soaps as though scrambling to satisfy long lines of customers. Of course, it was just me and my sister at his stand.

At home I conserved my soaps carefully, making sure they never melted in a pool of bath water. Pure olive oil soap is rare here, and mighty expensive if you do find it. Still, only one bar left - and Aix so far from California.

Then, last week, making my way through the International Food Bazaar's narrow aisles, hunting for Pimenton de la Vera, I saw familiar green bars crowded next to the natural henna. The bag matter of factly announced its contents - Natural Green Olive Oil Soap. (Obviously from a place untouched by marketing hype.) And it's a bargain. It's made by Said Saifan Est., a company that has been making soap since 1939 with hand-picked olives from the Koura valley in Lebanon. Their ancient process is described here.

I'm happy to tell you that it's just as pure and sweet as Savon de Marseille.

Find it at the International Food Bazaar, 2052 Curtner, San Jose.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Dining Out

Since L. and I found ourselves in Oakland last evening, we decided to check out Pizzaiolo on Telegraph Avenue.

The chef, Charlie Hallowell, was written up in last Sunday's SF Chronicle as a Rising Star. And the restaurant has a glowing review here. What this means is that you will likely find all the seats taken (yes, even on Tuesdays) and have to wait for your table. But in the meantime you can enjoy the people watching. Last night we sat next to actor Delroy Lindo. And we also saw a well known San Francisco-based food blogger enjoying her meal there.

L. and I loved all our dishes, but especially the moroccan salad composed of beets, carrots and celeriac with its delicate mix of flavors. Well, ok, L. really loved his polenta with gorgonzola too.

A delightful evening and on the way back to Los Gatos, zooming down 880, I was amused to spy the Wedding Gown Superstore. Does that strike you as funny?