Monday, July 31, 2006

Happy Mondays: Beauty Night & Blasted Chicken

Monday nights are my night alone. And I know that sounds like the prelude to a complaint, but on the contrary, Mondays are all about me.

The husband is in the city taking a class, which means I can get all hyper-girlie and luxuriate in a bubble bath with a mud mask on my face, sipping Lillet Blanc and listening to '70s soft rock. You can be sure Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt and Carole King are always invited to Beauty Night. So, after my self-spa pampering rituals are complete and I've belted out "A Case of You" and "Blue Bayou" as many times as I care to, I like to read or watch trashy TV while eating whatever it was I craved all day. Thing is, slaving in the kitchen isn't really a part of the princess regimen, so if cassoulet's what I'm craving, I act a spoiled brat and refuse to make myself dinner. On the nights my palatte demands something too labor-intensive, I can always happily settle on the old standard, Blasted Chicken. It's a recipe that plenty of people know and rely on, but for anyone who hasn't tried it, you'll be glad to have this savory standby in your repertoire. It's easy, tasty and (thank you, Colonel) finger-lickin good.

Easiest Ever Blasted Chicken

1 4.5 lb chicken
olive oil
coarse sea salt, ideally Sel du Mer
coarsely ground pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 450. Wash and pat dry the bird. Truss the little drumsticks up with cooking twine and set the bird on a roasting rack over a cookie sheet. Pour olive oil all over the carcass and then generously cover with salt and pepper. The effect you're going for is more of a salt coating than a sprinkling. Pop that sucker in for 45 minutes and, as Emeril says, BAM yuh done! All you need to remember is 4.5 pounds at 450 for 45 minutes. Of course the chicken should rest for 10-15 minutes once you're pulled it from the oven. If the bird's a bit bigger or juices don't run clear after 45 minutes, you can leave it in another 5-10 minutes.

Chef's note: Blasted Chicken is best enjoyed in PJs, watching mindless TV while snuzzled under a comforter.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Mi casa es su casa: A little bit of old Mejico

Whenever I get a hankering for comfort food, but the standard Sunday roast dinner doesn't excite me, I take it South of the Border and braise some pork for carnitas tacos. The meat is rich, greasy and crispy on the edges. Seriously, its porky goodness will rival even the tastiest bacon. What more do you need to know?

This is a recipe I concocted by mixing tried and true techniques culled from other places. I think every Mexican mama has her own secret voodoo for making carnitas absolutamente perfecto, but this is one gringa's humble attempt.

The nice thing about braising meat is, you don't have to be too exacting and you can throw in additional ingredients to spice or sweeten it up as you like. You can also substitute different kinds of broth, juice and booze to arrive at your own ideal combo. I usually buy about 3 lbs of meat for 2 of us 'cause it's great the next day. Just figure you'll need 1/2 lb of meat per person for the initial serving and add a few pounds to that if you want to enjoy it with your eggs the next morning.

Carnitas Ingredients

Pork butt or Pork shoulder (whatever size you like)
Orange Juice
Beer (I like to use a Mex brand but it doesn't have to be)
Chicken Stock (enough to submerge whole cut of meat--maybe 10 c)
1 lg white onion
Fresh cilantro–well washed!
5 Limes

Additional items for toppings
Jack cheese
Guacamole or avocado
White onion
5" size corn tortillas

Brown the meat in olive oil for a few minutes in a deep soup crock. Roughly chop the onion and add to the pot. Saute onions with meat for a few minutes so they begin to become translucent. In one big handful, tear the cilantro leaves from the stems and add the leaf to the pot. Cover (or almost cover) all ingredients with chicken stock. Add a beer and a cup or two of OJ, pot size permitting. Squeeze the limes into the liquid and toss the peels (leaving them in makes for a bitter taste). Add a LOT of cumin (this is the main flavor) as well as salt and pepper. Bring to simmer. The meat will simmer for 2-4 hours depending on the cut size.

As the liquid boils down, keep meat covered by adding more beer and OJ. The amounts don't matter as long as the meat stays covered and simmering. You'll know the meat is ready when you fork it and it pulls apart easily like pot roast. Once this happens, remove meat with a slotted spoon and spread over a cookie sheet. Put it into the oven on about 400 for 10-20 minutes. Just long enough to brown it and make the edges crispy.

Serve on warmed corn tortillas with whatever toppings you choose. We like jack cheese, guac, minced onion, cilantro and salsa.

Ay Dios Mio, es delicioso!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Touring Toronto: crepes, mayo and more

Newly back from Toronto, I’m anxious to share a few new epicurean discoveries. And while we didn’t head North to eat ourselves silly, that’s pretty much what happened.

Upon our arrival, our lovely hosts Paul and Tiffany whisked us off to a spectacular restaurant, Amuse Bouche. And indeed we were amused when the promised pre-meal nibbles arrived not once, but twice. Our absent-minded waiter appeared with a second round of tuna ceviche and proudly proclaimed its arrival as though we hadn’t just enjoyed the same artfully stacked spoonfuls only moments before. Of course, far be it from us to complain. Edible encore notwithstanding, we enjoyed everything and we’d gladly recommend this neighborhood spot for menu and ambiance.

Sunday night, we grilled steaks at home, content to relax on the deck with tumblers of rye and ginger after a stormy Niagara Falls adventure. We’d stopped at farm stalls along the way to buy fresh corn, tomatoes and raspberries, so scaring up the rest of the meal was an easy proposition at the corner grocery.
While I was slicing tomatoes, I noticed Paul slathering the raw strip steaks with mayonnaise, and by “slathering” I mean slapping a four-fingered scoop of mayo onto the meat and massaging it lovingly into the flesh. He must have noticed my puzzled expression in his periphery because just then he explained that the thick mayo creates a seal around the meat and effectively traps the juices inside. Wow, was he right. With no discernable mayo taste, the finished steaks were dripping with flavorful juices and tender as all get out.

We’ll definitely be using this tip at home.

Sunday morning, we got up early and headed to Pusateri's for pastries and coffee. Croissants were passed up for light, moist cakes fragrant with orange essence. I also had to buy a few vials of candied rose petals because you never know when you'll need them. $60 later we were en route to Muskoka, where Tiffany’s parents have a cozy lakeside cottage. The next few days were rightly spent swimming, fishing, napping, eating, drinking and then eating some more. The high point of this eating came when Tiffany made us her grandmother Mamine’s crepes. She recommended serving them with butter and real maple syrup and warned against drowning them in Aunt Jemima. Done properly, they’ll be crispy around the edges and golden in the center. We can’t wait to make them with lemon and orange butter sauces and eat them all summer long.

Crepes de Mamine

1.5 c. milk
1 c. white flour
2 eggs
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
dash vanilla
1 tsp melted butter
1/4 tsp baking soda

Blend all ingredients except baking soda in blender and let rest for at least 1/2 hour. When you're ready to fry, use a dash of corn or veggie oil along with a pat of butter in the pan. Right before you pour the batter, add 1/4 tsp baking soda to the mixer and blend quickly. Now pour a bit of batter in the pan and tilt the pan quick;y to evenly spread the batter around. When the edges begin to crisp, flip your crepe and serve when golden brown throughout and crispy on the edges. Keep the pan at medium, never letting it get too hot and continually adding more butter. Bon appetit!

Monday, July 17, 2006


Just look at these lovely dill spears from Happy Girl Kitchen. Good people who make great pickles. Look for them at the Ferry Building Farmers' Market. Tell them Jamie sent you. And when they look at you like they have no idea, say "You know, Jamie...from Mexico." Then, when they shrug and look blank, say "You slept in her hammock." If that doesn't jog any memories, forget about it and focus on tasting some pickly goodness.

Late, lakeside dinner for 4

This weekend was a Yosemite getaway with Sylvi and Matthias, which pretty much guaranteed we'd be eating well. Matthias is Swiss, which means the chocolate and cheese are always top notch. Sylvi is an artist and approaches edibles the same way she does her work, carefully considering color, texture and sensory response.
Plus, her parents' lake cabin is stocked with her mother's homemade jams (this time they were apricot, peach and plum). So besides lake swimming, constellation gazing and golf attempting, we planned to make a few simple but memorable meals. And indeed, we succeeded.

We got off to a late start Friday and knowing we'd arrive around 9, we needed a meal plan that would be easy to execute but tasty enough to feel rewarding after the drive. While we nosed around the produce at Berkeley Bowl, Sylvi suddenly remembered the perfect pasta to make on the run. It's her friend Carla's recipe, which, interestingly, features brie as its star ingredient. The beauty of this dish is that you toss all the ingredients for the sauce into a bowl and let them marinate and mingle for a few hours–like say, the amount of time it takes to drive to Yosemite (in our case, 2.5 hours). Then you need only cook your pasta and stir it, still hot, into the mixture. By this time the flavors have taken on a new depth and the hot pasta melts them into one gooey, glorious, pungent sauce. It couldn't be easier to assemble or more enjoyable to eat.

Brie and Basil Pasta On-the-Go

1 bunch basil
1 container small tomatoes, preferably grape vs. cherry variety
2 wedges ripe brie (the softer, creamier & more pungent, the better)
1 bulb garlic
3-4 c. decent olive oil
Fresh fettucine for 4
coarse ground pepper
coarse sea salt

Slice small tomatoes in half and then put aside in large mixing bowl. Peel approx. 12 cloves of garlic (you can use more or less depending on your taste). Crush them by placing them under the flat surface of your knife blade and applying pressure with your palm. Add the crushed cloves to the tomatoes. Cut brie into small cubes and add to the mixture. Add olive oil to mixture. Rip the leaves from the basil stems in one twist, discard stems and then cut about half of the leaves that remain into chiffonade (fine strips) and add to the mixture. Now give your melange of ingredients a good stir and add healthy grindings of salt and pepper. Allow mixture to sit for at least 2 hours. Before adding hot pasta, stir once more. Then drain boiling pasta, and pour directly into mixture and serve. **Be sure to advise fellow diners to eat around or pick out the uncooked cloves of garlic. (Or not. The more adventurous in your party may welcome the blood-cleansing, detoxing properties of the garlic. Particularly if their acupuncturists tell them that they have angry livers. But I wouldn't know anything about that.) Anyway, if you have leftover sauce, slather it on bread the next day. We did this at 2 AM after plenty of Dark and Stormy cocktails and it didn't disappoint. Simple, surprising and so satisfying.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Petits Fours–not just annoyingly cute anymore

I recently discovered Dragonfly Cakes in Sausalito, a new bakery that specializes in producing petits fours. In the past, I’ve not much cared for these bite-sized cakes, observing that the fondant-to-cake ratio seems off and furthermore, that fondant itself reminds me of almond-scented candle wax in both taste and texture. However, on the quest to put on a traditional high tea for my friend Sylvi’s bridal shower, I sucked up the idea that I needed a hyper-girlie, bite-sized dessert that looks painfully precious on a plate.

Scones? Check.
Double Devon clotted cream and jam? Check.
Tea sandwiches with appropriate combos of watercress & butter, cheddar & chutney, cucumber and salmon? Check.
Cheese board featuring Gloucester, Stilton and Cotswold? Check.
Assorted teas including Earl Grey, English Breakfast and Apricot? Check.
Punchbowl of mojitos? Not in any way traditional, but double check.

And finally, petits fours. Since I had committed to the idea, I was determined to find a variety that didn’t sacrifice enjoyment for aesthetics. Not only did Dragonfly deliver on moistness, flavor and completely non-offensive coating, but they were happy to customize my order with tiny flag designs representing the heritage of both bride and groom. My cursory web search turned up the flags of their respective countries¬–Estonia and Switzerland–and a week later, these custom cuties were ready to go. Highly recommend using Dragonfly for any occasion where custom-designed bite-sized sweets feel appropriate.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

No Viognier today

It's been hot this weekend. Extra hot for these parts, and especially so just north of here in Sonoma where we spent the day yesterday. Now before you start conjuring images of us sipping wine in a faux chateau surrounded by picturesque vineyards, I feel compelled to admit we were actually at The Infineon Raceway. And not only that, but we were watching drifting, the relatively new offshoot of auto racing popularized by the summer flick Tokyo Drift. I will spare you the details as presumably you didn't start perusing this post to read about corndogs and Budweiser. (No promises on those subjects being off limits in the future though; both are awfully delicious.)

Anyway, despite the dusty, noisy surroundings, I was still thinking about drinking a crisp, citrusy Viognier. I guess mere proximity to grapes can do it. Or maybe the 115 degree heat did it. Whatever it was, I had a notion to order some wine today from our friends Jen and Chris Stark who make a lovely Syrah and a stellar Viognier. Imagine my disappointment in seeing that their fantastic Viognier is sold out just now that I had my heart set on it. Of course, the Syrah is super too and generally I do prefer red. If you like trying new wines and supporting small operations, I recommend keeping an eye on these guys. They're always trying new blends and everything they've made to date has been right nice.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Morning meditation on eggs followed by Michael's scrumptious scramble recipe

Apart from cheese, eggs are probably my favorite food. This is determined not by any exceptional flavor or rare quality, for I think we can all agree, eggs themselves are simple sustenance. It's not the same as calling foie gras a favorite. I adore it, but a little goes a long way. I measure my favorites by frequency of consumption and in the case of eggs, I eat more than my fair share. Best of all, I do so in a guilt-free manner as I am blessed with my mother's non-existent cholesterol level. And anyway, these days, many say eggs are a welcome addition to the diet and so I continue on my eggy way.

Now is probably also the time to mention that we used to own chickens. It's a long story and one that tends to raise a few eyebrows, but for that glorious year, it was the height of egg enjoyment. Our french hens were great producers despite being hostile siblings to our dog Ruby. And as the Survival Of The Fittest theory proves time and again, dogs are higher than chickens on the pet chain. Sadly, we sent the hens away. Unsadly, they went to live in an idyllic sanctuary with peacocks, peahens, other chickens and ducks. And in loving memory, I will say, we haven't enjoyed a plain old fried egg half as much since. Not since those days have our yolks been bright orange and tasted buttery and creamy just by themselves. And I think it is because of our dear departed (but still happily clucking) hens that we moved in bolder breakfast directions. It was around this time that Michael invented his now famous scramble, a creation that equals the buttery, creamy goodness of our home-laid eggs even if it does take, well, butter, cream and aged gouda to do it.

The cheese used in the following recipe is Saenkanter, which I am loath to admit is a gouda. Most know gouda as the pale yellow, soft cheese sealed in a red waxy coating. What we're talking about here is a whole different class of cheese. While you can find similar kinds of cheese sold under other names like Beemster, Old Gouda, Old Amsterdam and Leyden ( a delicious alternative, sprinkled with cumin seeds), Saenkanter is the superlative. It is, as we say all-too-frequently in advertising copy, "best in class."

Aged for at least 3 years (the others listed above hover between 12-18 months), this cheese surpasses the nuttiness of parmigiano reggiano and offers a caramelized, butterscotch flavor that's unlike anything else. After discovering it in Amsterdam 4 years ago, we were hooked, carrying big hunks of it home with us only to discover good markets around these parts do stock it. Since that time, Michael devotedly devours it whenever it's on hand. Then he came up with this scramble that owes as much to the delectable cheese within as to his great patience and slow scrambling hand. I always rush a scramble, yielding a dry, bland result. His version is rich, decadent and slow-cooked to moist, gooey perfection.

Michael's Scrummy Scramble for 2

6 Eggs
1/2 c Saenkanter cheese (or other aged gouda)
1 Shallot
1/8 c. Cream
Coarse sea salt
White pepper

Michael is dictating this recipe as I type, so bear with the commentary. He suggests beginning with a sip of your tea. In his case, it's Belfast Brew, a blend brought back to us from Ireland by his mother Margaret, who tells us it's the very same tea the shipyard workers at Harland and Wolff quaffed while building the Titanic. I hope it doesn't bode as badly for our breakfast as for the Big Ship. Anecdotally, Michael mentions that this combo was inspired by the Tato brand cheese and onion crisps he remembers from childhood. Of course, Mill Valley has somewhat elevated his tastes as he's now using the refined pairing of top shelf cheese and shallots to replicate the flavors.

And now it seems we're down to business: Mince shallot and sauté in butter until translucent and golden brown. Set aside. Cool frying pan and pour 1/8 cup cream in. Then crack 6 eggs into the pan, making sure nothing's cooking yet. Turn heat to medium low, and gently blend eggs and cream until mixture is a consistent pale yellow color. Grate 1/4 cup Saenkanter into egg mixture. Adjust heat to lowest flame and stir continually. Summon your patience and keep stirring until serving–it takes a little while. If you see scrambling action before thickening, your flame is too high. Add two pinches of coarse salt and a few shakes of white pepper. When your eggs are properly cooked (moist but not runny), stir in the shallots. Top with one quick grating of the cheese. Serve with toast that cuts the richness like toasted sourdough or rye.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Savory Arugula Salad

We've made this salad three times in the recent past and expect many encore appearances throughout the summer season. It's spicy and satisfying, but still light and refreshing.

One bunch arugula, washed and dried
One head fennel, stemmed and coarsely chopped
Parmagiano Reggiano, shaved in sheets using potato peeler
Prosciutto, coarsely ripped
Top Shelf Olive Oil
Coarse sea salt
Coarse black pepper
(Bosc pear, optional–best instead of prosciutto, rather than in addition to)

Note: The success of this salad was due, in large part, to the flavors of an award-winning olive oil (Balzana, 2005) and the nuttiness of the reggiano. Lesser quality substitutions didn't deliver, so break out the good stuff. Quantities are to taste, which, for me, means don't go crazy with fennel or capers, but be generous with the cheese....of course.

Directions: Mix arugula, fennel, capers, parmagiano and pear if you decide to include it. Tear prosciutto into bite-sized pieces, removing fat as you go–then sauté it until lightly crispy. Drain fat and add, while still warm, to arugula, fennel, capers and shaved reggiano. Toss all ingredients, drizzling in olive oil and sprinkling with coarse salt and pepper.

Embarking on a new culinary adventure

As a regular reader of other food-based blogs, I've decided to stop lurking and start contributing. I'm a devoted fan of Sam Breach's Becks and Posh Nosh, so credit to her for inspiring me thusly. I'm not sure what I intend to post here or who I expect to read it, so it may end up being a repository of my own favorite recipes. Maybe the first entry will be my recipe for the divine arugula salad we've made three times in the last week. I must record the ingredients–a combination arrived at by happenstance using our trusty "refrigerator surprise" method. That way, I can recreate this salad at will when our arugula crop is ready for harvesting, a few short weeks from now.