Tag Archives: simple pleasures

Oysterfest

This weekend I was invited to a wonderful Northern California treat, an oyster picnic at Hog Island Oyster Company. Oysters are a perfect protein and a great example of sustainable and environmentally responsible seafood farming in California. Located along the Tomales Bay, the Hog Island Oyster Company, among others, grows over 3 million oysters a year, all Food Alliance Certified Sustainable.

My friends have an annual tradition of picnicking at Hog Island with their family and friends and I was delighted to be included this year in their wonderful picnic, which includes raw and grilled oysters fresh from the bay, plus wonderful wine and side dishes brought from our homes.

For years I have had oyster parties where we would buy a couple of boxes of medium oysters from Drake’s Bay Oysters (formerly Johnson’s Oysters) and grill them over mesquite with a variety of savory sauces or just lemon and hot sauce. Drake’s days of operation are coming to a close because the National Park Service decided to shut them down, and fabricated and misinterpreted evidence and have steadfastly ignored all scientific evidence to support their claim they operate sustainably while protecting the environment. We are continuing to hope they can get the NPS to overturn their irrational and puzzling decision and listen to Drake’s and all of the environmental and scientific groups supporting them to let their oyster farming continue.

I no longer have a place to grill at home but remember my oyster parties fondly and was very excited to have a chance to join a party of oyster lovers. My dearest friends joined me, D___, my little friend Bug and L___ are major oyster aficionados also so we packed up the car and hit the road.

Love this view

The drive north and west was quite pleasant, despite a bit of traffic along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard that leads from San Rafael all the way to Highway 1. The slow pace afforded us time for a natural history lesson given by yours truly on some of the wildflowers and trees in bloom in the chaparral, riparian and redwood forest environments. We passed through Samuel P. Taylor State Park, a beloved place for creek walking, picnics and hiking, and I hope to go there soon to do some of that with my friends.

Arriving at Hog Island on a weekend is an adventure. Highway 1 is lined with cars trying to park precariously on the side of the road to access the various oyster companies and restaurants that line Tomales Bay. We were very lucky to snag the last spot along the bed of oyster shells along the shoulder near Hog Island’s spot. Each night after the oyster farm closes they dump wheelbarrows full of shells along the shoulders, where cars crunch them into pure white and rather fragrant gravel.

We trudged along, carrying our loads of picnic baskets and apparatus to the reserved group picnic tables that hug the edge of the cove. If you don’t have a reservation don’t bother going, it is so very crowded there and the lines for oysters and a spot to sit were ridiculous. Instead, buy oysters to go and find a picnic spot in Point Reyes National Seashore; there is nothing finer than slurping oysters while sitting on the beach!

Pretty sunny day
(windblown but happy with the great view)

The sunny sky dotted with dragon and dolphin shaped clouds was perfect, just enough sun, the wind was up but it wasn’t too strong and we didn’t need coats at all, which is a complete miracle for the unpredictable weather along the bay. As experienced picnickers in Northern California we were prepared for everything, including wool hats, thermoses of espresso and flasks of whiskey, to sunhats, SPF 30 and chilled wines. Both D___ and I have glorious picnic baskets with all the accourterments required for sophisticated picnicking.

I brought a foie terrine to the picnic today
(a treat from D’Artagnan)

Cheese plate: chèvre, St Andre, Dubliner
(chevre, Dubliner and St. Andre)

Fun nibbles
(a trio of fun nibbles including chicharonnes from 4505 Meats)

We laid out our pre-oyster feast of savory tidbits along with L___’s batch of divine lemon meltaway cookies, bite sized lemony buttons that were egg-free (for me!) and D___’s enormous container of beignets fried up freshly that morning, just like the ones from Cafe du Monde! She even brought along a container of powdered sugar to redust the fluffy pillows of fried dough. Such evilly delicious treats and both sweet treats were the hit of the day.

L___ looked at me with a glint in her eye and said,

“Yes, I am really going to go there…. oh yeah……. I am!”

She then spread a bite of beignet with the foie pate. Oh my stars, did that ever look amazing. I had to try it too and it was true evil genius.

An evilly brilliant idea, pâté on a homemade beignet

After a very long wait in line our oysters arrived. Oysters really are just the perfect picnic food. Contained within their rugged and ruffled shells are the perfect bite (or two) of saline, oceanic goodness. Hog Island provides each group reservation with a bag of ice, a huge bag of oysters, a tray, gloves and an oyster knife and shucking instructions if you want them, and mesquite charcoal for the grills, plus all the oysters and mignonette sauce you desire. C___’s mom brought up a pair of sauces that were sloshed on the oysters as they grilled: a red Thai curry sundried tomato sauce and a delicious garlic herb butter. I had intended to bring my amazing garlic butter for oysters but a mishap in the kitchen that morning prevented its use, next time!

LunaRaven13s photo of our oysters

(L___’s photo of our enormous sack of oysters – please check out her other photos and art here and photos of our picnic here)

Everyone got into the fun of shucking and the shucking jokes flew fast and wild. N___, D___ and I took up our knives and started prying oysters open, some to slurp just then and some to put on the grill. Even young master Bug had a go and we were soon drenched in brine and well dusted with bits of shells, miniature mussels and limpets. Oddly this year we noticed the oyster shells were really crumbly and flakey but no one seemed to mind much the bits of extra calcium in their treat. No pictures though, shucking oysters is a messy business.

My method of grilling oysters is simple. Over a bed of coals, you place the rounded side of the oyster on the grilling rack and watch them. After a few minutes liquid will start to bubble and burst out of the shell. At this point, remove them from the heat with tongs and using a towel or hot pad and an oyster knife it is quite easy to slide the knife between the two shells. Remove the top (flat) shell and discard, and cut the oyster free from its curved bottom shell. It’s much easier opening oysters this way than trying to pry them open for a raw bite. If you ever watch an oysterman or a chef at a raw bar open oysters you must understand just how physically tough they are.

Now, return the oyster in its open shell back onto the grill and dollop in a little sauce and watch them again. Remove the oyster from the grill when the sauce is bubbly. Repeat until everyone is full. If you are grilling for more than 30 minutes you will need to add a few more pieces of charcoal to the bed of coals to keep the heat going – I bank them along one side of the grill and move away the oysters from the live flame.

Mini sweaters were a big hit
(lots of wonderful wines and my mini sweaters were a big hit although the whimsy was lost on a few folks. I think they are an essential part to any table.)

The 50 pound bag of oysters seemed large but it didn’t take long to go through them all. We opened more wine and sat back and watched the beautiful view and chatted with each other in a sated fashion.

My BFFs @Biggie and R - such a fun day
(Bug is taking a break after all the pate and oysters in his glamorous Mom’s lap!)

We are all very excited about N___ and C___’s impending move to the Bay Area. I looked around the table and realized that these people, all so near and dear to my heart, were all friends that I found through Twitter.

Picnic buddies @lunaraven13 @knit1eat1 thanks for having us!!!
(C___, N___ and L___)

L__ and I met and bonded over Massa Farm’s duck harvest one year, and she knew D___ from food blogging so the three of us had a blast one night organizing a dinner of the Bay Area Food Bloggers and have been the best of friends ever since. We are like sisters and it’s a wonderful thing.

Mustache gang(the Bay Area Food Bloggers infamous mustache incident on our first excursion together)

Two years ago we had a twitter-sourced meet up of local knitters, crocheters and dyers and met N___, who is an incredible knitting designer and artist, and his husband C____, who graciously kept us company and allowed us to geek out over fiber and fun. Through the magic of Twitter and Facebook we have deepened our relationship and having them move closer is going to be fantastic.

We are planning another visit to Tomales Bay this summer for more oysters and picnicking. I shall be sure to correctly prepare my garlic butter sauce but in the interim will enjoy it on prawns and grilled fish.

Fondue of Butter for Seafood
2 cubes of unsalted butter (1/2 pound or 1 cup)
1 head of garlic, peeled and trimmed
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. sweet paprika
1/2 tsp. shallots or onion powder (if desired)

In a small saucepan over very low heat melt the butter. Add the garlic and cook very slowly without simmering for an hour or until the garlic is extremely soft and tender and yet not browned. It is very important to monitor the heat of your stove to ensure the butter does not boil and brown and the garlic stays creamy white. When the garlic is super tender use a fork or an immersion blender to puree the garlic. Add salt to taste, the paprika and the shallot/onion powder. Keep warm while grilling the oysters in a small pot on the corner of the BBQ and dollop spoonfuls into the oysters. Grill until bubbly.

Also, if you are feeling too challenged by dealing with placing the oysters on the grill to finish with the garlic butter, you can place a grill-safe skillet on a corner of the grill and fill with the butter, and plop in the oysters as you open them after their initial grilling. Your guests can use a cocktail fork or spoon to scoop up an oyster as they wish.

Printer-friendly recipe

A few notes: Please buy your oysters and seafood from reputable, sustainable sources. On the West Coast you can gather your own shellfish but the red algae that plague our waters can cause Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), particularly in mussels, therefore a quarantine applies to our coast from Oregon to Mexico and shellfish are generally unsafe between March and October. You can phone the Biotoxin Information Line 1-800-553-4133 to get updates on current quarantines and health advisories throughout the year. Other types of shellfish, including oysters and clams, and commercially harvested mussels from certified companies are not included in the quarantine. The commercial companies test their shellfish and are certified as toxin-free.

Perfect Protein:

This summer I will be writing about sustainable seafood as part of the Perfect Protein project, created by Eric Ripert and Mario Batali. The book, “The Perfect Protein: A Fish Lover’s Guide to Saving the Oceans and Feeding the World” by Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless, is a new, thought-provoking book on why and how we should and can quickly increase the amount of wild seafood in our oceans; as well as how as consumers we can shop and eat more of the right seafood to help feed the world, address hunger and improve the world’s health. I am proud to be part of this project this summer as I have long been a proponent of wild and sustainable fishing, whether fished by myself or by commercial sources. Since I was a teen I have carried a copy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch’s guide in my wallet, and now have their app on my phone. I love seafood, and feel especially lucky to live on the California coast with all the wonderful edible creatures off our doorstep.

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Bursting with Bacon

Oh man, the bourbon maple is so intense.  The herb-pine syrup is heady.

Last month I had the pleasure of being invited to purchase a share of a Mangalitsa pig. The Mangalitsa is one of those wonderful heirloom breeds where the fat is not bred out of the animal like our modern day pork, in fact this breed of pig has a prodigious fat layer and is one of the most prized breed of pork in the world.

acorns

This particular pig was finished on acorns, which means for the last few weeks of its blissfully unaware life he was fed mounds and mounds of acorns. To us humans acorns are unconscionably bitter but pigs eat them up like potato chips.    Besides the no doubt gustatory delight of crunching them up in their forceful jowls it has an ancillary benefit of infusing the meat and fat with a delightful nuttiness reminiscent of hazelnuts. An acorn finished pig is a marvelous thing and I bought lots of it.

My modest meat budget was consumed by this purchase but the enormous 10 pound side of pork belly, a sizable pork loin, a tub of creamy, pure lard and a substantial pork neck was enough to pack my freezer and will provide me with porky enjoyment for quite some time.

My plan was to cure the pork belly in two ways, one with maple, bourbon and brown sugar and the other with a more traditional fresh and dried herb and spice blend.

To approximate the effect of smoked bacon, for which I completely lack the facilities to achieve, I used crushed black pepper that had been smoked over defunct bourbon barrels and a simple syrup infused from local pine trees from Mount Tamalpais.

I never really realized how easy it is to cure bacon.   The most difficult part was cutting the massive 10 pound pork belly into two pieces  because the skin is so very tough. 10 pounds of pork belly is quite large.

10# Mangalitsa pork belly I cut them in half, look at that glorious fat!

Pork belly, cut in half and trimmed

I had two ziplock bags, one for the sweet cure and one for the savory cure.  I  chucked in the ingredients into each bag and shook them around to mix.

The cure

On a clean cutting mat I arranged the pork belly, skin side down, poured over the cure mix and patted it around a bit before sliding the belly into the same bag.

The traditional cure

With both pieces of pork belly rubbed in their cure and sealed in their bags, I massaged them a bit and put them into the fridge.  See you in a week!

See you in a week!

That was not hard at all, nor was it hard to pick up the bag during the following week and give it a little massage, flip it over once in a while and just admire it.

To make the slabs even I had to do a little bit of trimming.  The skin side of these pieces had the nipples of the pig!  Well, we all know that pigs are animals and are mammals and that mammals have nipples but nonetheless it was a tiny bit of a surprise.  However, I am at the top of the food chain and have butchered my own animals for food, in my distant past, so it just made my eyebrows rise a moment then I continued on with my trimming.  I used these pieces, which weighed about a pound and a haf, into red cooked pork belly last Sunday.

The trimmings, includes the nipples!

A week later it was time to cook the cured raw bacon.

In lieu of smoking, I used the aforementioned flavorings in the cure to provide a smokey flavor and set about baking the slabs in the oven on low heat until the meat reached 150 F.   This was last Sunday during my cooking explosion and it wasn’t much work to add baking the bacon to my list of cooking projects that day.

I removed the raw bacon slabs from their curing bags and gave them a good rinse.  They certainly didn’t look like much but their aroma was fantastic.  The peppercorns discolored the skin, which I found interesting.  I used my nonstick cooling rack for cakes set inside a half-sheet jelly roll pan.

Cured and rinsed raw bacon

 

(Note the peppercorn stains on the skin, interesting!)

Cured and rinsed and ready to bake!  I poured in a good slug of bourbon into the bottom the the baking sheet before sliding it into the oven.  I was hoping this would add extra aroma to the finished bacon.

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After baking, not a lot of fat was in the bottom of the pan as you can see, and the slabs looked just as they should, very bacon-like.  I slid a meat thermometer into the sides of the slabs at various points to check the desired temperature of 150 F.

20130515-190802.jpg

Check out the thick layer of fat!  I could really smell the difference between the two slabs with their very different cures, but overall there was a rich nuance of nutty fat that I have never detected with ordinary bacon.  This is the delectable Mangalitsa acorn enhanced fat.  Wow.

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(these look like small pieces but my carving knife is 14″ long!)

I cut the bacon slab in half and then sliced off the skin to reveal the pearly, nutty fat. The meaty underside was particularly gorgeous too.

The same process was repeated on the other slab of bacon.  I wrapped two of the half-slabs in plastic wrap then secured them airtight in a ziplock bag for the freezer.  The other two half slabs went into the fridge for immediate use.

It was immediate too, I sliced off two slices of the herb and spice cured bacon with the pine syrup, and one slice of the bourbon maple pepper bacon and fried them up.  Just these three small slices gave off a lot of fat, which I saved for making my steak dinner later that night.

You can almost hear the sizzle.

Morning snack before brunch, Mangalitsa bacon

My own bacon, fried up and gorgeous.   The pine syrup and herbs really shone and matched well with the rich fat.  The bourbon flavor was very strong in the bourbon maple slice and it tasted too salty to me, but I have never minded a strong bourbon flavor nor salty bacon and it certainly didn’t deter me from enjoying this wonderful treat.

My recipes were inspired by a lecture I attended by Michael Ruhlman for BlogHer Food a few years ago.  When I talked to him after the lecture and mentioned my hesitation over making bacon without a smoker in my very urban apartment (aka no ventilation in the kitchen other than a window on the far end of the dining nook), he assured me that baking it off is just as wonderful as smoking and never to fear the bacon.   His book on charcuterie is fantastic and one day I will indulge myself.

Making your own bacon is much less expensive than buying it already cured and prepared, and you get to customize the flavors just the way you like it.  Even if you can’t find the luxurious Mangalitsa bacon, any fresh pork belly from your butcher or Asian market will make fantastic bacon.   It was so easy too, the hardest part of the entire process was being in my apartment as it slowly cooked in the oven. The aroma of the bacon was incredible, and if you are a restaurant in San Francisco, it can cause your neighbors to try to shut you down.

Better Bacon

5# fresh pork belly, skin on
large ziplock bag

Basic cure:
1/4 cup Kosher salt (Diamond salt)
2 tsp pink curing salt or sodium nitrite (not Pink Himalayan salt)  (I got mine here)
1/4 cup sugar (brown, maple, honey, agave)

Additions - These can be anything you fancy, but here are some good basic recommendations:
4 T ground or crushed black peppercorns
4 bay leaves
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
5 cloves of garlic, smashed flat
5-10 sprigs of fresh thyme, or any herb you like
1/4 cup booze

My savory herb and spice cure:
1/4 cup Kosher salt
2 tsp. pink curing salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup June Taylor pine syrup
4 T bourbon barrel smoked course ground pepper
4 dried California bay leaves
10 sprigs of thyme, spanked between my palms
5 cloves of garlic – smashed flat and skins removed
1 tsp freshly ground nutmeg

My bourbon, maple, pepper cure:
1/4 cup Kosher salt
2 tsp. pink curing salt
1/4 cup maple syrup
3 T brown sugar
4 T whole peppercorns, crushed coarsley with a mortar and pestle
1/4 cup bourbon

Mix together the bacon cure in the ziplock bag and shake or squish well to mix. Put the pork belly on a cutting board and pour over the raw pork belly, massage in and place the belly back in the bag (with any of the cure that might remain on the cutting board. Remove all the air from the bag, seal and store in the fridge for at least 7 days. Every few days massage the pork belly a bit and return to the fridge.

On the day to cook the meat (oven method), turn on the oven to 150-200 F. Put a rack on a baking sheet large enough to hold the raw bacon. Rinse the bacon well, pat try with paper towels and place on the rack.  Pour a good slosh of bourbon into the bottom of the pan.  Place in the cold oven and set the timer for 3 hours.  Add more bourbon to the baking sheet every hour or so, if desired.

Check the temperature after 3 hours to see if the meat has reached 150 F.  If not, give it another 15-20 minutes or until it reaches 150 F.   Allow to cool, trim off the skin and chill until ready to eat.

When ready to eat your bacon, slice of a thin or thick slice, add to a cold skillet with a dash of water and fry until as crispy as you like.  If your bacon tastes too salty for you, add more water and cook for a few minutes, then pour off the water and fry until crisp.

Another advantage to having slab bacon is to make your own lardon.  A lardon is a pinkie-sized rectangle of bacon that is delicious in a warm salad or in soups or just eaten out of hand.  Cut the bacon 1/2″ thick then again into large even matchsticks, add water, and then drain and fry on all sides.  Delectable.

Makes 5 pounds of bacon
(printer friendly recipe)

A note about the pink curing salt, or sodium nitrite.  It is a naturally occurring salt found in many vegetables and is also used for curing meats and is approved by the FDA.  The salt inhibits the growth of certain nasty bacteria such as botulism and listeria and it is highly recommended when making charcuterie and bacon.  But because bacon is cooked again after its curing and baking, aka in your skillet, you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to.  You will find that your bacon tastes more like ribs or roast pork than bacon and will not be pink but will be grey or brown.  That’s perfectly fine bacon, however, it is really easy to buy a bag of pink salt and you will have it forever.  I bought a pound bag for around $6.00 and used 4 teaspoons for this batch of bacon so I have plenty left!   If I ever wanted to make other cured meats such as salami or guacinale or any cured meat that is not cooked or smoked, the it is really crucial for the success of the recipe and one’s health to use the small amount of sodium nitrite.   It does not cause cancer, like many incorrectly people assume; sodium nitrate or saltpeter is toxic but it is a very different thing altogether.  

Happy baconing!

Happiness Is… Mac N Cheese with Sausage

Sometimes dinner is a simple and thrifty affair.

A box of Annie’s macaroni and cheese topped with sausage and put under the broiler. Make the sausage 4505 Meats cheddar brats and this frugal supper becomes something divine.

Happiness is…. Mac n cheese with sausage.

20130302-083732.jpg(many thanks to S___ for the idea!)

I Miss You / I Miss Your Onion Dip

Everyone was talking about what they were cooking and eating for the Superbowl, our last sports hurrah until Spring Training starts in a few months.  It started me thinking about all the fun parties my family used to have for the Superbowl and how much I miss those days.

My mom would have a dichotomous party at her fabulous Russian Hill apartment, the 49ers hopefully would be one of the contenders, we wore our colors and sipped Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and ate her lavish spread of appetizers and something luxurious to fill in the corners, like lasagna and her Boston cream pie.  Friends from the choir, our blended family, and other family friends would join the sports fanatic side of the party rooting for the teams, while other friends (big wigs in advertising) would root for their commercials and discuss that side of the Superbowl experience.  It was so funny to hear people say, “Shhh! The commercials are on!”

My dear sister would often make her onion dip for picnics and football game watching parties to eat with the ubiquitous ridged potato chips.  It’s a marvelous concoction with the usual ingredients (sour cream and onion soup mix) but it had a special, wonderful nuance to it.  She shared with me one day that it contained a small shot of very fine gin, now isn’t that a brilliant idea? Who would have thought, but it really made for the most perfect onion dip.

I always had sort of an Auntie Mame fantasy of my sister discovering this wonderful addition – her sipping an elegant martini in her tiny SF kitchen while adding this and that to the dip, and then…….

Hmmm, perhaps a touch of dill, a little more cracked black pepper, some onion powder, oooops! There goes the martini!  (pause to taste….)  ((big grin))

I am sure it really was nothing of the sort but you know, it’s a fun “movie” to run in my head and I know she would laugh at it.

My family has moved away and life’s changes has made our getting together a rare experience.  As I had the Superbowl on and was alone eating store-bought salsa and waiting for my humble vegetable soup to cook when I had an epiphany that I missed my sister’s onion dip, and I miss her even more.

My First Tagine – Chicken with Preserved Lemon

A beautiful Emil Henry tagine found its way to my home and I was so excited to wash it up and begin my maiden voyage of Moroccan tagine cooking.

My apartment is so tiny and I have enough kitchen equipment to stock several large homes, so my new tagine gets to live under the antique Japanese slat table I use as a coffee table. It’s such a gorgeous color, it looks like sculpture nestled under the bench.

My new tagine, which gets to live under my coffee table. #cityliving

The tagine gets to keep my vintage Taylor and Ng chicken roaster company along with my massive Irish cut crystal ice bucket that currently houses yarn.

Tagine and Chicken, good neighbors :)

This lovely gift also included a jar of preserved lemons from Tunisia, a large jar of saffron from Spain and some fancy couscous. I started with browning the chicken in some deep green olive oil from Lodi.

Heating the deep green olive oil.

The base of the tagine holds 6 cups of stew and is larger than my Caphalon searing pan. It did a tremendous job slowly browning the chicken to the perfect golden hue.

This tagine is amazing for browning chicken. I'm smitten.

(My, what big thighs!)

I used a 5 pound 6 ounce chicken, on sale from the Unsafeway for $6.00. What a whopper of a bird! I could have fit in all of the parts at once but I didn’t want to crowd the pan. While the chicken was searing, I chopped up some onions, garlic and ginger. I fished out three preserved lemons from its jar of brine and rinsed them a little. Then I cut the lemons into quarters and removed the pulp, and finely shredded the rind. Preserved lemons, if you aren’t familiar with them, are simply lemons preserved in coarse salt and a touch of water, and jarred until the salt completely melts into a brine. The lemons have a unique flavor, lemony but mellowed, and are essential to the recipe. You can make your own like Anna and I did one day.

Making chicken tagine for lunch today!
Three large onions and all of the aromatics and the saffron threads went into the tagine base until soft and gently browned. The aroma was heady. I have adopted Molly Katzen’s dogma that if you don’t know what to make for dinner, start by sauteing an onion. The scent will inspire you.

Sautéing onion, garlic, ginger in Lodi olive oile
The vegetables had softened and were golden so I added in the browned chicken, some artichoke hearts in lieu of olives, water, the preserved lemons and artichoke hearts.  I used artichoke hearts because I had them and did not have green olives, which are the traditional accompaniment to this dish.  I really don’t care for the flavor cooked olives, however, and the brininess they add to stews but that is just my preference, and it was my lunch, so I went with what worked for me.

I also added a splash of wine, it may not be authentic but the spirits moved me! On went the adorable cone lid and I relaxed for half an hour while it gently simmered.

My tagine's maiden voyage.

(Ready to simmer, and it already smells great)

After 30 minutes, I flipped over the chicken pieces, basted everything a little, tasted for salt and pepper and added pinches of each, and a good squeeze of fresh Meyer lemon juice and let the tagine cook for another 15 minutes.

I also started water boiling to make the couscous. Couscous is a fine pasta that is shaped into small grains. Traditionally one makes the couscous in a coucousiere, which I happen to have, and it is steamed and fluffed in the top section of the pot while a stew (or just boiling water) simmers in the base. We are fortunate today to have basically instant couscous that only needs to be added to boiling water, returned to a boil, removed from the heat with the lid on to rest for 15 minutes, and voila! Perfect couscous and no effort. The couscous that I received as part of this gift was particularly cool, larger sized shapes but not as large as Israeli couscous. It was *fancy*.  I let the couscousiere languish and used a 2 quart saucepan instead, super fast and so tasty. Why don’t I make more couscous?

m'hamsa couscous

The timer went off, and it was time for my Moroccan lunch! I heaped my bowl with some couscous, pulled out a tender and moist piece of chicken breast and a rich spoonful of vegetables and sauce. The chicken was gently flavored with lemon with the earthy undertone of the saffron and a zip from the ginger and garlic. I was surprised the chicken was a bit spicy but then remembered the lemons were preserved with some beautiful crimson chile peppers, no doubt the peppers infused the lemons with a bit of their heat. I was supposed to have added parsley or cilantro but did not have any and the dish did not suffer from the lack of it. It was a frigid and moist afternoon but inside I was enveloped in a fantasy of dining under azure skies, feeling cool breezes through twisting stone alleys and buildings, hearing exotic foot traffic behind ornately carved screens and wearing embroidered caftans and leather slippers. I nibbled at my beautiful lunch and sipped some rose wine and felt quite pleased with myself for making a hot cooked lunch on a weekend. And it was so easy!

Chicken tagine complete, I must say it was quite tasty and easy.

When I make this again I will use the fresh baby artichokes, quartered, because the canned and frozen ones really lacked the lovely artichoke flavor I was hoping for but it did add a lovely subtlety to the tagine regardless. I set aside some of the couscous and chicken in small containers for the freezer for dinners on another night, and packaged up the rest to take to work for lunch for the next few days. At my office, reheating the chicken and couscous in the work microwave the aroma of lemons, saffron, ginger and spice filled the kitchen and my coworkers were quite complimentary on my humble repast. I made myself a cup of mint tea and relaxed for a moment at my desk, enjoying my desk-chair visit to Morocco in rainy San Francisco.

(Recipe here)

Greek Comfort Food – Gigandes Plaki (Baked Giant White Beans)

Years ago when I was just 13 and visiting family in Canada I was introduced to Greek cuisine and became obsessed. In my late teens my mom gave me a basic Greek cookbook and over the years since I have made every recipe in it and collected several more wonderful cookbooks that are getting well used. One of my favorite recipes I make again and again is gigandes plaki, or baked giant white beans.

Gigantes

Gigandes are not restricted to the categorization of a winter dish but when it’s cold out there is nothing I find more comforting than a hot bowl of these giant, creamy and tender beans baked in a savory tomato and aromatic sauce with chunks of feta cheese. For those who can, a fried egg on top of the beans transforms the bowl of beans into a perfect breakfast or a homey dinner. I like to eat them one bean at a time, popping it against the roof of my mouth and letting the creaminess mix with the savory tomato and onion and garlic. Each bean is a complete sensory experience, luxurious and yet rustic and healthy.

In the summer I have made gigandes plaki and served them at room temperature with fried chicken or one large overstuffed sandwich that serves 8. This is truly a fantastic dish for any season, but since it is winter, please do find a bag of dried giant white beans (or giant lima beans, as I have seen them labeled lately) and make a batch now. With no embarrassment I confess I have made them four times so far this winter (but one batch doesn’t count because I fell asleep and burnt them in the oven, my bad cooking mojo continues to haunt me.)

There is no guilt with these baked beans, the beans themselves have a great deal of fiber and this is a low fat preparation. If you are vegan you can omit the cheese easily, many versions of gigandes do not contain feta but I really like the browned outside of the baked feta with the creamy interior that emulates the creaminess of the beans themselves with the addition of the salty tang of sheep’s milk.

A note about the beans, if you read “lima beans” and think, ew, please consider that this method of cooking the beans renders them creamy and soft inside with the texture of white beans or cannelini beans.  Somehow they don’t have that grainy texture that many lima beans seem to have.  I don’t know why, I think it is Greek magic.

Gigandes Plaki – Baked Giant White Beans

1# dried giant white beans, sometimes labelled as giant lima beans, soaked overnight in lots of water with 3 T of salt
3 T olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, very thinly sliced
2 large tomatoes, diced
2T parsley, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
1 tsp dried Greek oregano
1 c tomato sauce, or 1 T tomato paste dissolved in 1 c H2O
extra water if desired
6 oz feta cheese, cut into large chunks (I have also made this with goat cheese)
salt and pepper

The night before you make these, or the morning before, soak the beans in a huge quantity of water with the salt added, for overnight, or a minimum of 8 hours.

Drain the soaked beans and throw away any loose skins from the beans.  Do not be alarmed if they look wrinkled, split or otherwise strange.  Place the beans in a large saucepan, cover with cold water by several inches and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a slow simmer.  Cook the beans at a simmer for 40 minutes, skimming the foam or scum that rises to the top of the water.  When most of water is absorbed and the beans are tender with no resistance, remove from the heat, drain a little and let cool.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350. Heat the olive oil in a skillet, sauté onions and garlic with a good pinch of salt for 10 minutes, stirring frequently, over medium heat.  Then add the carrots and tomatoes and sauté for another 10 minutes.

Add the cooked beans, put in large shallow dish, add everything else, except the cheese, and taste for enough salt and pepper. The sauce should be slightly soupy but the beans should not be swimming. Gently fold in the cheese, and bake 1  to 1 1/2 hours or until beans are soft and most of the liquid has been absorbed. Beans should be slightly burnt on top.

Serves 4.


It is highly recommended to make them ahead of time because the flavor of the sauce permeates the beans over time. I prefer them on Day 3 after cooking. Sometimes I add a 1/3 cup of water to the dish before putting into the fridge as the beans will continue to absorb liquid.

I have just finished my last batch and think I will wait a week or so before cooking more.  Maybe I will wait, that is…

Birthday Memories and Chicken Parm

It was my distinct pleasure to coordinate a birthday dinner for a dear friend and to cook one of the entrees.

When you were a kidlet did you get to ask for your favorite birthday dinner? Mine was always pork chops braised in a curry sauce with apricots and onions. Once my sis asked for a full-on Thanksgiving dinner! In the summer!  And she got it!

My friend’s childhood recollection of her favorite birthday dinner was veal Parmigiana and chocolate cake with vanilla frosting. My grocery budget doesn’t allow for veal but I do make a mean chicken Parm!

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(mean)

Turns out we were planning on feeding fifteen people, including hordes of children, so I knew I needed to make a big batch of chicken Parm. I wanted the birthday gal to have leftovers to take home also, so basically I needed to double my recipe. Costco was the perfect choice for large quantities of chicken, cheese and tomatoes and it felt fantastic to finally be un-gimpy enough to walk through the entire warehouse to shop. It took forever but I did it! It was fun too, I shopped with a mutual friend for the party and it was great to collaborate with someone on the overall menu.

Back at home, the night before the party I tackled the “do ahead” tasks such as grating the cheese for the breaded coating and making the largest pot of sugo or tomato sauce that I had made in several years. My first challenge was to open the enormous can of tomatoes, it was about three quarters of a gallon of tomatoes!

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I love Andrew Carmellini’s book Urban Italian that I received for Christmas a few years ago and have absorbed his concept of a quick pasta sauce. I sauteed a huge white onion in olive oil until it was soft and added a tablespoon of sugar, a teaspoon of chile flakes, a tablespoon of sea salt and several teaspoons of dried oregano, and then began hand-crushing the tomatoes with the heel of my hand. Elbow deep in this giant can I scooped out tomatoes with my fingers and found stems, leaves and shreds of peels as well – not impressed with this product – I was glad I was doing this by hand! It was also my dinnertime so I added in some raw cheddar bratwursts from my favorite local butcher, 4505 Meats, to cook in the sauce. It was a nice symbiotic touch, they flavored the sauce and the sauce flavored them.

Eventually the sauce was done, it simmered for 45 minutes and then after a quick blitz with the immersion blender I tasted it for seasoning. Usually I use nicer tomatoes like San Marzano tomatoes and these domestic tomatoes had a lot of acid that I was used to. I didn’t want to add more sugar so I used James Beard’s mother’s trick for balancing out acid in her tomato soup recipe and added a 1/2 tsp of baking soda. It’s fun to watch the base soda react with the tomato acids and foam up! Once the foam subsided the chemical reaction of neutralizing the acid was complete, I tasted it again and the sauce was perfect. Into the fridge it went in my largest four quart storage bowl. Four quarts of sauce! I was worried I made too much but I could have actually used more in the recipe. Isn’t that something?

I took on grating the cheese next. It was a 1 1/2 pound block of cheese, it was like grating a hard bound book! My arms were flagging but I pressed on and grated almost all of it to use for the breading of the chicken and for sprinkling on top of the finished dish before baking.

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(the cheese dwarfs my box grater)

The day of the party I pulled on my favorite mushroom-sprigged apron, tied up my hair and got to work pounding the chicken. A dozen chicken breasts pounded to a 1/2″ thickness takes a bit of time to do and I am sure my (nice) neighbors hate me. I hope my noisy upstairs neighbors got the fillings rattled out of their head from my banging away for about an hour!

(A little side note, it sure felt good to be able to do this kitchen task, a sure sign that my shoulder is all healed from its repair and subsequent injuries post-surgery. Hooray!)

Once the chicken was all pounded I realized that I needed to get creative for the breading process. A good chicken parm is coated in seasoned flour, dipped in beaten egg, and then crumbed with grated cheese and bread crumbs, then fried or baked before being layered in tomato sauce and mozzerella cheese and baked until bubbly and golden brown. I am getting hungry just thinking about it.

I may not have mentioned this much but most every kitchen in San Francisco has tiny kitchens. Apparently they are not as tiny as in New York per se but nonetheless they are quite tiny in comparison to the vast acreage of suburban kitchen counter space. I have one counter in my kitchen and it is next to the sink, covered with my luxurious but very necessary (to me) portable dishwasher. It doubles as a holder for the dish drainer as well. There is another small counter area directly underneath the built in cupboards that house my dishes and glassware. It has a clearance of perhaps 12″ and is essentially useless as a work surface. It currently is the perfect nook for my convection/toaster oven and barely holds the paper towel holder on the sides.

I am nothing short of a miracle worker when it comes to finding creative solutions for the lack of counter space. I use my kitchen table often for work but it is very far from the stove, I also use the open door of the aforementioned portable dishwasher but there is little room when the door is opened to access the stove or open the fridge.

Last time I made chicken parm was in my late ex’s Marin home, which was graced with lots of counter space and a mobile kitchen cart that I assembled from Pier One. In my tiny Roost kitchen I had to get quite creative to set up the breading station, so I utilized the cutting board under the convection oven (which does not fit the space and slants at a horrific angle, rendering it useless for chopping or measuring anything – thank you Mr. Landlord!). I put the egg wash on the cutting board, put flexible cutting mats inside the silverware drawer and the utility drawer that holds the wax paper and foil and balanced the pans of the dry breading mixtures in each. Another cutting mat was perched on the open door of the convection oven to receive the finished breaded chicken so it could be ferried over to the stove without dropping crumbs everywhere. The raw chicken sat on yet another flexible cutting mat on the open door of the dishwasher. Crazy, but it worked!

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I had two pans going at once and used the oven racks to receive the finished crisped chicken pieces. The trick to making chicken Parmigiana so that the coating does not fall off is to place the breaded chicken in a well oiled frying pan over medium heat and not touch it. For those of you that like to poke and prod their food as it cooks you must refrain from touching or moving the chicken. If you move it and the cheese is not properly golden brown on the bottom it will tear right off and you will have chicken that looks like it has mange. Put the chicken in the pan for two to three minutes and just relax, after that time you can grab the pan and give it a vigorous shake. If the chicken moves in the pan, it is ready to be turned over. The cheese has browned and set, it has unstuck itself from the pan, and you are good to go. If it doesn’t move, it’s Not Ready. This applies to nonstick pans as well. There is no rushing when it comes to browning chicken Parm.

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Once you turn over your chicken and admire the golden brown gorgeousness of it all, again you must wait until the flip side has browned sufficiently.

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It took over an hour to brown the dozen pounded pieces of chicken but it was worth the time. Each piece was perfect. Since I was assembling the dish at the party location I wrapped up the chicken in foil after it cooled and transported it, the sauce and the tubs of cheese in market bags with the casserole pans and a ladle. It was a giant chicken Parm kit!

At the party about an hour before dinnertime, I heated the oven to 350, spread a couple of ladles of the tomato sauce in each casserole, added a layer of chicken, a layer of sauce and topped each one with slices of fresh mozzarella and handfuls of more Parmesan cheese. They baked for 30-45 minutes until the cheese was browned nicely on top and each casserole was bubbling with caramelized edges. They had to sit for about 15 minutes before serving so that you could cut generous squares of the finished Parm.

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I was so gratified when the birthday gal took a bite, closed her eyes and said, “Mmmmmmfh, it’s just like home.”

Another dear friend and conspirator made the most delicious chocolate cupcakes with cute sprinkles and vanilla icing.

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Perfection. Birthday dinner goal accomplished!

Recipe here

White Hot Russians

Ah, San Francisco “winters”.  We have cold grey mornings where the tops of the high-rises on the hills are heavily obscured in frigid mist and the light is pale and diffuse.  The wan sun struggles to show around mid-day for a brief glaring hour then gives up with a moist sigh of vapor to return us to basement  bone chilling damp before 5:00 pm.

It is good weather to be inside, wrapped well in woolens and squishy cashmere plopped next to a blazing fireplace hissing radiator.

A few years ago I concocted this soothing boozy cocoa for nights just like tonight.    

White Hot Russian

1 cup low fat milk
3 T Ghirardelli sweet chocolate powder
1 jigger Sky vodka (I had this on hand but any vodka will do)
1 jigger Baileys Irish Cream
1 jigger Kahlua Coffee Liqueur
coffee ice cream (option but awfully nice)

In the microwave (or stovetop), heat milk in a pyrex cup until very hot (3 minutes in my micro). Mix in the chocolate well.

In a small jug, mix the liquors together. Pour half of the liquors between two mugs and top off with the hot cocoa. Scoop a generous spoonful of coffee ice cream and float it on top of cocoa.

Serves two if you have white hot Russian masculine company, or for one person with seconds on a frigid night after watching sappy Christmas movies and using up all the Kleenex in the house….

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Stay warm out there!

Soft Rolls for Thanksgiving

Last Thanksgiving I made several batches of these amazing, soft rolls for our dinner.  They were so delicious that as the first batch came out of the oven we “sampled” them so much that we did not have any left over for the next night and I just *had* to make more.

Poor us.

I love these rolls so much and tweeted their picture *a lot* last year, and this year, and my friends not-so-gently reminded me that I that did not share the recipe.

The genius thing about these rolls is how easy they are to make, especially if you have a stand mixer.  If you have never made dough in your life you can easily make these rolls.

My mom has her glorious “Red Baron”, a glossy, fire engine red Kitchen Aid that does all but the dishes for you.    You add all the ingredients into the bowl, turn it on and do other things for a few minutes (like the dishes).  The dough gets turned out to rest in a bowl for an hour or so, then formed into the rolls and popped into two cake pans.  After another rest (just long enough for a restorative glass of wine and feet up on the couch) into the oven they go.  When they’re done they’re basted liberally with melted butter, and then comes the hard part – not eating them all before dinner time.

Given my current bout of weird food allergies these are one of the few things on the holiday table I will be able to eat (with a minor modification), so you know I will be buddying up to the basket of rolls this Thursday.  And Friday.  Heh.

Soft Rolls for Thanksgiving

3 1/2 cups all purpose
2 tsp. instant yeast
2 T potato flour or 1/4 cup instant potato flakes (or in my case, I am just using more regular flour)
3 T nonfat dry milk
2 T sugar
1 1/2 tsp. salt
4 T unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus 2 more T melted for basting)
2/3 c  water, warm
1/2 c milk, lukewarm (out of the fridge for an hour or s0)

Place everything (except the melted butter) into the bowl of the stand mixer and mix to make a dough, using the dough hook.  Let the machine run for 7 minutes at medium speed.  The dough should be pretty smooth at this point.

If you do not have a stand mixer, mix together everything with a spatula or wooden spoon until a rough dough is formed.  Then knead with your hands on a lightly floured surface for about 7 minutes until the dough is soft and smooth and pretty much not sticky.

Remove the dough from the bowl, form into a ball and put in a bowl that has been well buttered.  Cover the top with a little plastic wrap and let the dough rise until doubled in a warm place ~ about an hour.

When the dough has doubled, deflate it by a gentle punch right to the midsection.  Oooph!   Divide it into 16 even pieces.  I do this by rolling the douhg into a long log, then cutting it in half, and keep cutting each half until I have 16 pieces.  Roll the balls in your hands until they are nice and round, or pull the sides down to the bottom of the ball and pinch, then roll gently.

Butter two 9″ round cake pans well and arrange eight balls of dough in each pan (see picture).   Cover the pans loosely again with plastic wrap and let them rise until doubled again and nice and puffy, about an hour or so.  If they don’t look like they are filling the pan let them rise another 20 minutes or so.

Bake at 350 F for 22 to 24 minutes, remove from the oven to a rack and brush the tops well with melted butter.

Try to contain yourself and not eat them all while hot, and I wish you the best of luck with this.

If you make the rolls earlier in the day during Thanksgiving, you can reheat them in the oven after you take out the turkey.  Turn off the oven after you extract the bird and leave the door ajar,  put in the pans of rolls in for about 10 minutes (set the timer!) and they will be beautifully warmed.  I would even go as far as brushing the tops with more butter, because there can never be enough butter on Thanksgiving.

I think this recipe might have originated from the King Arthur website but cannot find it, so please forgive the lack of attribution.



Happy Thanksgiving!

Sweet Potato Biscuit Love

This time of year the markets are overflowing with different varieties of sweet potatoes: large, orange-sherbet colored, sea lion shaped sweet potatoes, palm-sized pale yellows and the deeply orange garnets.

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(little yellow-fleshed sweet potatoes, about 4″ long – babies!!)

Instead of covering them with gooey marshmallows as a Thanksgiving side dish my family usually prepares an elaborate sweet potato souffle with an orange sauce, dotted with buttered roasted pecans.

This is a bit too rich for every day, so I get my fill of roasting them and eating them split and mashed with butter and sea salt, and as crunchy oven-baked fries or simmered into softness in a zippy Thai red coconut curry.

My absolute favorite way of using up the bounty of sweet potatoes is to make them into savory and sweet biscuits. They are like soft little pillows of love and comfort, crunchy on top and moist and fluffy inside.

This week I received about 8 tiny little sweet potatoes with the palest yellow flesh, and last night I got the craving for my sweet potato biscuits, so I popped into the kitchen and started my preparations.

I preheated my convection oven and started a pot with a steamer insert on the stove. About four of the baby sweet potatoes were scrubbed and peeled and cut into small chunks and steamed until very tender, about 15 minutes. I let them cool and then pureed them in my minichop.

Meanwhile in a mixing bowl I dumped in the flour, brown sugar, leavenings, salt and stirred them up, and then added cold butter that I had diced up. I also measured out some milk and added some lemon juice for a quickie faux-buttermilk.

The “buttermilk” and the sweet potato puree were mixed together and poured into the butter and flour and were quickly mixed into a soft dough.

I patted out the dough with my hands and used my ancient biscuit cutter to punch out about 12 pretty pale yellow biscuits. They went into a well oiled cake tin and were baked for about 25 minutes.

I actually got really caught up in watching the Monday International Mysteries on tv – Inspector Morse this week – and let them go just a minute longer than they should have so the tops were deeply browned this time. I keep forgetting that convection ovens cook faster than regular oven. These biscuits brown a lot more than regular biscuits due to the sugar content in the mixture plus the natural sugars in the sweet potatoes. It is also what makes them so delicious!

The timer dinged and I pulled a few hot biscuits out of the plan, split them open and buttered and slathered the halves with dollops of the last of my Potrero Hill honey, and I ate them, slightly singeing my fingers and tongue as I nibbled away watching the whodunnit.

The murderer was caught, the biscuits were delicious and a hot cup of tea finished off my impromptu snack before bedtime.

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Sweet Potato Biscuits

1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2″ chunks – enough to make 3/4 cup puree
1 3/4 cups flour
2 T brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
6 T unsalted butter, diced
1/3 cup buttermilk*

In a small pot with 2″ of water in the bottom, add a steamer insert and then the sweet potato cubes. Bring the water to a boil and steam the sweet potatoes until they are very tender when stabbed with a fork. Mash until smooth or puree in a food processor. Let cool before using. (Sometimes I fudge this step a little by just spreading them out on a plate until they stop steaming and then puree and add them to the buttermilk while still a bit warm.)

In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and powder and mix well. Add the diced butter and combine and mix until the butter is mixed into the flour about the size of small peas.

In a measuring cup mix together the buttermilk and the sweet potato puree until smooth and pour into the flour/butter mixture, and mix until a soft dough is formed. Knead gently in the mixing bowl for a minute or two, then pat the dough out onto a floured cutting mat or cutting board, the dough should be about 1 1/2 inches thick. Cut into rounds using a biscuit cutter or use a knife and cut them into squares.

Arrange in a buttered or oiled round cake pan and bake for 20-25 minutes until the tops and bottoms are golden brown.

*If you don’t have any buttermilk in your fridge, you can make “faux buttermilk” by adding 1 T of lemon juice or plain vinegar to regular or skim milk. Stir the milk and let it sit for at least 5 minutes and it will thicken up pretty well to approximate buttermilk.