Wednesday, April 30, 2014

An American Invention With Italian Style

About as authentically Italian as Mama Celeste but still delicious. Antipasto salad. Basically just a delivery vehicle for cheese, cured meats, olives and pickled peppers -- an Italian sub without a roll given a "healthy" appearance by incidental crisps of crunchy lettuce.
I love any dish that doesn't need a strict recipe. With a little of this and some of that (what else could I do with that last kohlrabi?) we've got a quick dinner James is happy to eat "any night of the week."

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Road Home

 Lined with beautiful wild California poppies,  
 our state flower 
and a welcome springtime sight.

Monday, April 28, 2014

A Mess Of Veggies

One of our new favorite dinners: whole roasted cauliflower. After 45 minutes in a 450º oven the heads are ready to be doused in a lemon caper vinaigrette (juice of one lemon, 2 TB capers, S&P, 1/2 cup olive oil). To round out our vegetable extravaganza I added kale sautéed with new red potatoes, brown rice, and a bright fresh green salad with more of the tangy lemon vinaigrette.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Bacon and Eggs For Dinner

Yesterday I toddled over to the farmer's market. Putting away the beautiful fresh produce seems to shine a spotlight on purchases left over from the week before. Asparagus had to be used, one lone leek rattled around the vegetable bin. Still tasty but maybe not starring role pretty, I thought soup -- puréed into a silky, creamy soup.
I started 1 leek, 2 cloves of garlic and 1 large shallot (all chopped) in a pan with melted butter. Before they colored I added in 2 bunches of chopped asparagus (reserving a few of the prettier tips for garnish), and a couple stalks of celery. Next went in 6 cups of chicken stock a little S&P and the soup simmered for 20 minutes. Everything puréed in the blender and went back into the now cleaned pot. Just before dinner I added in the last bit of cream from a bottle set to expire and warmed the soup through (and tasted for seasoning). To serve, though it's hard to see in these deep bowls, I topped the soup with a poached egg and a few blanched asparagus tips. So much for the eggs.
Little gem lettuce are a sweet miniature romaine variety. I've tried to grow them with not much success so when I see them at the farmer's market I try to grab at least a dinner's worth. Tonight these sweet little head lettuces starred in our crunchy dinner salad topped with crisp bacon, salty Bay Blue cheese by Pt Reyes Farmstead cheese and honey vinaigrette.
Bacon and eggs in an unexpected way.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Love At First Sight

I pulled into the parking lot at my favorite grocery store to find a local products show setting up. It's a good thing I didn't know or I'd probably have stayed away figuring on extra crowds and cars. But if I'd have stayed away I wouldn't have met her -- a beautiful fawn colored Jersey calf, barely 3 weeks old.

 A local dairy (McClelland's -- maker of our number 1 favorite butter) brought three future dairy workers for kids (I guess) to see where their milk might one day come from. I couldn't take my eyes off her.
"I love her so much it hurts," I said.
"That's how normal people feel about children," James replied. I guess he's right, but I love her.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Maybe My Best Biscuit Ever

I didn't grow up kneading biscuits at my grandmother's knee. I don't think my mother ever made one that didn't pop from a can. There is no genetic reason I should have become a biscuit eater much less a biscuit maker. But I love the feel of the cool, short dough in my hands. For years I have been trying variations, new recipes and flours hoping to pinpoint the masterful fluffy biscuits of Southern breakfast lore.
On Easter Sunday with  a bag of White Lily flour and plenty of butter I finally achieved a biscuit so light the golden brown top reached skyward forging open holes and a shaggy crevasse crying out for melted butter. A movie star biscuit made with my own hands.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Pork. Peas, Potatoes

I love peas. When spring markets offer baskets of fresh garden peas I try to use them, and often, while they are in season.
Way back in the freezer was a lonely package of pork stew meat. Sometimes in the winter I'll make a stew with pears or winter squash. Though there is still a chill in the air most evenings those wintery dishes feel out of step with our bright spring days and the lonely pound package pushed further and further back in the freezer. We needed something simple and fresh.
I set out to create a kind of French farmers stew (at least the version from my imagination) with a light broth and bright tasty vegetables. I seasoned the meat with salt and pepper and lightly dredged each piece in flour.  One chopped onion and two chopped carrots cooked in hot olive on the stove and when they were softened and just a bit golden I added in the meat and allowed it to brown on all sides. With the meat browned I spilled in about 3/4 cup of white wine, deglazed the pan and let it cook down until reduced -- just about 5 minutes. Next I stirred in some flavor -- 1TB of tomato paste, about 2tsp chopped rosemary, 1 TB fresh thyme, and a pinch (maybe 2 tsp) of chopped fresh sage.  If I'd found some parsley in the fridge or the garden I'd have added in a couple TB too. A pile of potatoes peeled and cut in nice chunky cubes went in next followed by about 5 cups of chicken stock. The stew came to a boil and then simmered for about 40 minutes until the meat and potatoes are tender. Just before serving I added in plenty of fresh shelled peas and let the pot simmer for about 4 minutes more.
In the end we had a spring stew. Not too heavy. Not too thick. Just right with crusty bread for dinner.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Fish For Dinner

I suppose it's cheating but around here a fish dinner goes down a bit easier with a little pig for flavor. Tasty but not pretty this is pan seared fresh halibut with a chorizo butter vinaigrette of sorts. Usually I prefer the Spanish style dried chorizo but in a pinch the fresh sausage more Mexican style can really make a dish sing. Simple. Two pans no waiting. In a large non stick skillet I sautéed the fillets until cooked through and golden on each side along with some precooked flattened baby potatoes for crisp golden skin. In a second skillet I fried the chorizo in a mix of olive oil and melted butter until cooked through and then splashed in a couple TB of sherry vinegar (off heat). The fish layered onto of the potato and the chorizo flavored it all raining down messily overtop. Not pretty but this plate was clean soon enough.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Happy Easter

Easter 2014. Roast ham with bourbon brown sugar glaze, scalloped potatoes, pea salad (blanched garden, snow, and snap peas with pea greens in shallot vinaigrette) and flaky homemade biscuits.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Chicken For Dinner

"They must be popular because I've never heard of them," our neighbor and self confessed luddite quipped while her daughter and I rattled on trading recipes featuring and professing our affection for Panko bread crumbs.
"James love them too," I said. "In fact he is having them for dinner tonight." And with that our dinner menu was settled.
I butterflied and pounded (just a bit) boneless skinless chicken breasts until about plate sized. I dipped each breast in seasoned milk and then in a mixture of seasoned panko breadcrumbs and grated pecorino Romano cheese. Pressing to make sure the coating adhered I laid the chicken in a skillet with hot olive oil. After about 4 minutes on each side the chicken was tender and cooked through and the crust was flaky and golden brown.
Meanwhile, beet greens -- a gift from this same generous neighbor -- sautéed in a separate pan with olive oil, garlic, and crisped pancetta.
Schnitzel, Milanese, Paillard, chicken fried, Katsu -- nearly every cuisine has a similar dish because it's quick and just plain good.
Crispy, silky, crunchy all one one plate.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Veggies For Dinner

Ever since James and I ventured to Glen Ellen to have dinner with our friend Shari at The Star I've been thinking about their selection of delicious vegetable dishes.
The Star has a minute open kitchen barely bigger than group tables at some restaurants. The center piece of the room and the menu is a understatedly beautiful blue tiled wood fired oven. Seated at the "chef's counter" I watched the kitchen staff deftly maneuver an array of prepped ingredients (par cooked cauliflower, marinated fennel, tomato sauce, ricotta gnocchi) to finish on either the stove top or more likely in the oven. From pizzas to pasta to roasted fish and meat entrées everything was well prepared and tasty but it's the vegetables that are unforgettable. The first section of the menu offers a rotating selection of vegetable dishes served in little cast iron skillets piping hot from the oven. We had brussels sprouts with brown sugar bacon marmalade, blistered snow peas with feta cheese, crisp roasted artichokes, and my favorite, whole cauliflower with tahini, sumac and almonds. We should have made a meal of just veggies dishes alone.
I love the idea of an occasional vegetable dinner so I decided to bring some of the Star to our house with home roasted cauliflower. I carefully cored the beautiful head of yellow or cheddar cauliflower I found at the farmers market, rubbed it with olive oil, sprinkled the head with za'atar and popped it in a 450º for about an hour. Meanwhile I whipped up a sauce with 1/2 cup tahini paste, 1/2 cup water, 3 cloves garlic, juice of a lemon, and S&P quickly mixed up in the blender. When the cauliflower came out of the oven it was brown and crisp outside and silky soft inside. I poured the sauce overtop and sprinkled toasted sliced almonds as a finishing touch.
I generally don't like to make things more than once but this dish was so simple and so delicious it'll be in regular rotation as long as cauliflower is in season.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Turtles Are Back

The fall was dry. The water in the pond got low. Turtles were scarce and barely any birds came to land -- except for the hawks who were thirsty and hungry (far fewer of the migratory birds they often feed on came through with the drought conditions) and perched lower in the tree than I've seen before. The pond seemed barely alive. We feared the turtles were gone for good.
But with spring and a couple good rains comes any number of little miracles. The fields are green. The trees are brimming with little birds. The turtles are lounging lazily on their homemade float and venturing up onto our rocky "beach" for a bit of sun.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pot Roast For Company

" Do you need us to bring anything?" they asked. "No, just come" we said. And yet our friends Mike and Sally came bearing gifts. Literally a bucket of fresh beets direct from Sally's amazingly beautiful and productive garden and greenhouse, a cushion spurge she thought I might enjoy in my garden and a beautiful package of beef cheeks wrapped in white paper. Invite a rancher to dinner and if you rate you might get an enviable cut like cheeks or hanger (both tucked away in my freezer right now).
Our favorite neighbors, our friends recently came back from a trip. We missed them and wanting to hear about their travels made a good excuse for dinner at our house.
Looking into my freezer I found a chuck roast -- almost 4 pounds --really two big for the two of us (not a fact that generally stops me) so it seemed perfect to build a dinner for four around. Pot roast. Could I really serve pot roast to guests? James had advised me to make a "regular dinner" not go overboard. Pot roast is about as regular as it gets so I forged on.
Stracotto (Italian Pot Roast) in Italian officially means overcooked but the name is used for a variety of braised roasts. The meat is slow cooked in a rich sauce flavored with pancetta, aromatic vegetables, dried mushrooms and tomatoes. Jumping off from Sara Moulton's recipe I found online I started by soaking 1 ounce of dried mushrooms in a cup of warm beef stock. Then browned the seasoned meat on all sides in hot olive oil. I set the meat aside, poured off most of the fat and added a couple ounces of chopped pancetta to the pan along with a chopped onion, carrot, and celery stalk. When the vegetables softened I tossed in 4 cloves of garlic (finely chopped), about a TB minced fresh rosemary, 1/4 cup chopped parsley, 2 bay leaves and seasoned the pot with salt and pepper. Next I stirred in 3 TB of tomato paste and a whole bottle of red wine (well actually the remains of two bottles I had in the kitchen -- using up that wine was initially the inspiration for this dinner). The wine cooked down for about 20 minutes and then the beef went back in the pot along with the mushrooms, a 28 oz can of tomato purée, and enough beef stock (yes I used the mushroom soaking liquid but poured it through cheesecloth first to remove any grit) to come 2/3 of the way up the side of the roast in the pot. The meat simmered very slowly, covered for almost 3 hours. I turned it over in the pot a couple times while it cooked.
When the meat was super tender I strained the sauce to remove the aromatic vegetables and cooked the liquid down a bit (with the meat resting on the side) to serve as gravy.
When people come to dinner, though I do like to be busy in the kitchen, I to have a good number of make ahead dishes. That way the kitchen seems clean and everything well organized to hit the table at the same time without guests seeing the cook starting to sweat. I usually add the finishing touches while James and our guests enjoy a few appetizers (today it was a salt cod brandade I had tucked way in the freezer for just such an occasion and toasty French bread) Alongside the classic of make ahead dishes, pot roast, I served an oven baked polenta. -- a fuss free but still impressive side dish, especially when studded with delicious creamy Humbolt Fog goat's cheese and parmesan. With these two rich dishes instead of a heavy vegetable recipe I opted for a bitter fresh tasting arugula, radish and red onion salad with tart balsamic vinaigrette (1/4 cup balsamic, 1 tsp dijon mustard, 1/2 tsp salt, pepper, 1 minced clove garlic, 1/2 cup olive oil shaken together).
I know James said "regular dinner" but I just can't have people to dinner and not serve dessert -- especially when I know our guests, like Mike and Sally, appreciate a sweet treat. More than once James has told "you don't always have to serve dessert." But honestly I do. You go to someone's house you expect dessert -- it's what good boys and girls get. Even if it's just something simple I can't feel that I have treated guests well unless the cake plate comes out.
Usually, because I love a theme, I would have gone for something terribly Italian like budino or biscotti and vin santo. But tonight -- because I wanted to try a recipe I saw on The Kitchy Kitchen, a cooking blog with photography so gorgeous I think about quitting every time I read it -- and because we have a lot of jam around the house thanks to my annual county fair efforts -- I opted for these simple lemon jam bars. A little tart a little sweet and just sugary enough to feel special -- just like the perfect dinner for friends.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monterey Sardines

Should I feel guilty about sardines? I didn't even think twice when I saw them fresh at the fish market. A rare treat high in omega 3 fatty acids (higher than just about any other food and also high in vitamin D), a small fish that retains less of the toxins tragically found in our oceans and are quick to reproduce. It's so rare to see them fresh. I snapped them up for dinner.
Sardines made the once sleepy town of Monterey, CA into a bustling fishing center. Demand from two world wars brought the industry to it's peak and it's eventual collapse. The area was fished out by massive numbers pulled form the sea and what scientists now know is a cyclical pattern (seems like 40 years) of abundance that shifts between anchovies (the other competitor for plankton in the area) and the iconic sardine of Steinbeck's cannery row.
Higher quotas are in effect to try and preserve the catch, but evidence on the sea floor points to cycles of heavy and scarce populations daring back to the 1800's before commercial fishing and big nets came to the area.
Science to study, but for now I have fish to clean.
We're not big fish eaters so I knew an oily, strong tasting fish would be a hard sell. To cut through some of the oil and allow the clean fish flavor to come through I brined the fish (as I saw described in this month's Bon Appetit magazine). I rubbed kosher salt inside the cavity and laid the fish on a sheet pan with 1/4" layer of kosher salt and covered them with another 1/4" of salt. The fish rested in the salt for 5 minutes. Then I rinsed the fish and allowed them to soak in unseasoned rice wine vinegar for another 5 minutes. I rinsed the fish again and patted them dry, rubbed olive oil salt and pepper on the skin and placed them in a hot iron pan, also coated with a slick of olive oil. While the sardines cooked on one side I mixed a heaping tablespoon harissa, the North african condiment that's become one of my favorite flavors recently, the juice of 1/2 lemon and a glug (as Jamie Oliver who inspired this dinner would say) of olive oil. I brushed the mixture on the fish, flipped them in the pan and brushed the cooked skin.
Following Oliver's lead for a side -- though I found no couscous in the cupboard -- I cooked quinoa and mixed in lemon juice, chopped scallions, mint, and feta cheese. The leftover harissa mixture topped greek yogurt for a bright, cooling flavor to lighten the strong tasting fish.
Something different, not for everyday. Everybody has a quota for sardines.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

California Quail

Beautiful California quail. Usually skittish and preferring the cover of shrubs and woodpiles, this year the quail have made themselves at home in our yard and today settled in -- right in the open -- for a luxurious dirt bath.
 If startled they run or flap away. But undisturbed our backyard friends relaxed in the soft soil just near our biggest apple tree.
A welcome visit form the state bird. A special visitor.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Plain Baked Chicken

 Kind of a plain Jane (or plain James) dinner. Simple baked chicken, fresh green beans and steamed buckwheat.
Looking around for something a little different I happened on one of Ina Garten's recipes where she made a quick olive oil sauce to bake along with the chicken. Following the Barefoot Contessa's lead I heat 1/4 cup olive oil with 9 minced cloves of garlic. Then I added in (off heat) 1/3 cup white wine, 1 1/2 tsp oregano, a pinch of crushed red peppers, 2 TB lemon juice, the zest of 2 lemons, and a handful of thyme sprigs. I poured the sauce into the baking pan, nestled in the chicken breasts and a lemon cut into eighths and dressed the chicken with olive oil, salt and pepper. The chicken baked for nearly 40 minutes until just golden brown and the sauce became a tasty dressing for our green beans.
Simple weeknight dinner.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

It Started With Sauce

I spent Friday bubbling a deep red meaty sauce. Served it again over spaghetti last night and tucked the rest in the freezer for a future dinner. Then I was left with the braised meat that had flavored the sauce. Thick meaty pork ribs and sauce poached sausage.
Those tender ribs would be perfect as accents in a hearty bowl of bean soup.
First I sautéed 2 chopped onions in a pot of olive oil. After about 5 minutes I added in 4 minced cloves of garlic and let everything sauté. Next I poured in a pound of quick soaked beans (beans covered in 2 inches of water brought just to a boil and allowed to soak in the hot water for an hour), 1 bay leaf, 2 quarts of water, 5 cups of chicken broth, several crushed chiles, a good sized piece of parmesan cheese rind I had tucked away in the freezer for a day like today, S&P, and about 1 TB chopped rosemary. After simmering for 50 minutes the beans were tender. I tossed in a pile of potatoes cut into large cubes and 6 carrots peeled and sliced into thick disks. After 5 more minutes simmering I added in cubes of the cooked meat, sausage slices (the little bits of sauce still clinging on added a reddish tint and a savory boost to the stock) and chopped kale.
An unexpectedly big pot of soup (some times things just get out of hand). Dinner tonight, lunch tomorrow and plenty in the freezer for busy days to come from the sauce that keeps on giving.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Slow Cooked Sauce

There is something reassuring about sauce bubbling on the stove. Old fashioned long cooking red sauce. The kind New Jersey TV gangsters call gravy and Neopolitans call ragu`.
We belong to a meat CSA and after a couple months I find myself with meats I haven't used -- the packages are usually 1 pound so I end up with 1 pound of country style pork ribs or one pound of short ribs -- not enough to bother roasting or braising alone so I've been saving them for a really killer sauce -- and today is the day.
I started with an idea from Arthur Schwartz's tremendous documentation of Neopolitan cooking,  Naples At Table. Schwartz is not Italian but he has studied the authenticity of Southern Italian cooking like he was born to it and his collection of recipes is as close to having an Italian grandmother in the kitchen as most of us will ever come.
His basic ragu` uses meat with bones, stew meat, an sometimes sausage. Though Schwartz counsels cooks to use onions or garlic, I could not resist and used both.
I started chopped onions (1 1/2) and garlic (3 cloves) sizzling in a pan of hot olive oil. And my own addition a pinch of chile flakes. When the onions started to soften I added in pork ribs, beef short ribs, and chunks of stew meat. I let the meat brown for a good 10 minutes and then poured in about 3/4 cup of red wine. When the wine had nearly evaporated I poured in 3 large cans of crushed tomatoes a good pinch of salt and 4 links of Italian sausage (2 spicy -- another inauthentic touch -- 2 sweet). The sauce slowly bubbled on the stove for about 3 hours, The sausage poached in the sauce. And the bones offered their hearty flavor through the dish.
In the end we had a silky rich red sauce (topped with sausage slices) and and as they do in Naples cooked meats ready for dinners later in the week.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Little of This a Little Of That

Some days I just want mini-bites, a combo platter of tastes to pick up bite by bite. Tonight I looked through the fridge and came out with a semi Middle-Eastern semi North African platter. Harissa roasted cauliflower, za'atar (James loves this Middle Eastern spice blend) grilled chicken, tangy feta cheese with olive oil and chiles, piquant arugula salad and spicy hummus with chile roasted chickpeas.