Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Anniversary Anecdote

Last year around this time, we were cruising the Croatian islands on a yacht.

I know that sounds ridiculously decadent, but we rented a boat and a crew for our party of 10 and it was actually quite reasonably priced for the quality of food and sightseeing it provided. I knew it was going to be brilliant when, within the first 20 minutes, the crew were pouring us champagne and asking us to pick out a lobster for lunch. It so happens that our first anniversary fell during that trip as well, so we enjoyed a pretty spectacular backdrop for our 1-year celebration.

This year, we've decided to celebrate in more modest style by cooking at home. I haven't figured out our menu yet, but it occurred to me we could use this opportunity to recreate some of the dishes we enjoyed in Croatia, including stuffed peppers, gnocchi (we were just across from Italy, you know) and a local sausage called cevapcici. That's pronounced cha-vap-chi-chi for anyone who's wondering. Lucky for us, our sis-in-law's mother is a real live Croatian, born and bred. And she's agreed to show Adri and me how to whip up some of her native dishes this weekend.

Will keep you posted on the process and the results.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Peas Glorious Peas: Layered in Shepherd's Pie, Blitzed in the Blender and Spread on Crostini

Today's entry was going to be about shepherd's pie, but then I got to thinking about peas and how I love to incorporate them into my basic pie recipe for a little extra flavor and texture. This of course led to thoughts of all my other favorite pea preparations, so a surprise theme materialized.

So before we move on to the main event, a few simple ideas for using peas in inventive ways. Twice recently, I've come across blended peas being used as the base for a crostini spread instead of the standard bruschetta set up. My friend Jen simply blended frozen peas with chopped up mint and spread it on toasty baguette rounds at a bridal shower. Then, I found a similar treatment at Sparrow, the new French Asian restaurant on Nob Hill. There, the chef had blended the peas with a little truffle oil, giving the otherwise delicate flavor depth and earthiness. It seemed to me the mint option is perfect for summer, while the truffle preparation would help peas stand up as part of a heartier fall meal.

Finally, we've often turned to Nigella's version of peas blitzed with creme fraiche and white pepper as a nice alternative to the whole variety. I'm not sure if Michael likes them so much because they're tasty or because he has a not-so-secret crush on Nigella. Either way, I can vouch for their deliciousness.

So pack those ideas away in your mental pantry, and let's get down to business.

Shepherd's Pie

4 pounds Yukon Gold spuds
5 pounds full fat ground beef
3 medium red onions
5 large carrots
2 cans petit pois peas (optional, but recommended)
1.5 cups red wine
worcesterchire sauce
1 cup cream
olive oil
kosher salt and coarse ground pepper
potato ricer tool (strongly recommended)
2 9" pie pans

This recipe makes two shepherd's pies, which is perfect because the first one will be gone within the hour. At least that's what happens around these parts. It's also nice to have a second on hand cause it keeps well and tastes just as good the next day. We're sending our extra pie over to an elderly client of Michael's who complains he can't find a good option around here and has to resort to Safeway's frozen version. And that, my friends, is a travesty. When it comes to shepherd's pie, no one should have to settle. I'll happily share a pie to spare him that particular indignity.

So before you begin, I recommend setting the mood. For me, this means pouring a glass of red (which is handy since you'll be opening a bottle anyway) or a Lillet Blanc on the rocks with an orange twist. Of course, a good old Guinness would do rightly, too. Sometimes I like to light my favorite candle, Tocca's Agadir, which is scented like sweet tobacco. I guess it's meant to conjure hookahs and opium dens (which seems like fun) but for me, it just smells like my grandfather'spipe. And what's a better cooking inspiration that remembering your granddad making a martini and then cooking sherried crab or making beer bread. Note to self: recreate Grandad's recipes for these two favorites.

Next, I like to put on some lazy singalong songs like Neil Young or Willie Nelson. Today though, it's Grant Lee Phillips' album Nineteeneighties, which I highly recommend. It's all accoustic, moody versions of my favorite acts from the '80s like The Smiths, The Psychedelic Furs and Echo & the Bunnymen. The result is sort of dreamier and moodier than the originals, which are generally kind of dark. However, he stays true to arrangements and phrasing for the most part so you won't be annoyed by overzealous interpretations. Now if anything I just said appeals to you in the least, I recommend you download it. Go ahead, I'll wait. I know I digress here, but this is my process so you'll have to bear with my tangents in order to get to the tastes. I suspect if you were looking for succinct recipes, you'd go somewhere else so I'm not too worried about it. In case you hadn't noticed, I'm not one for brevity.

OK, so are we all settled in? Let's do this thing.

Pop your spuds into a large soup pot with salted water and set them to boil. If you've taken my advice and procured a potato ricer, you can throw them in, skins and all. If you're a luddite and you resist newfangled gadgets that make life easier, go ahead and skin those suckers. While the water's coming to a boil, roughly chop your onions and cut your carrots (which you will have to peel) into 1/4" rounds. Pour 1/4 c. olive oil into a large skillet and add both the onions and carrots. Sauté them until the onions are translucent and the carrots are soft, but not wilted. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Once the veggies are adequately soft, bring out your secret weapon: the wine. Pour it in and let it cook down, stirring occasionally, till there's no liquid left, only a magenta syrup coating the veggies. Lovely.

By now you've heard the GLP cover of New Order's "Age of Consent". Might want to hit repeat on that one.

Moving on. Divide your coated veggies between the two pie pans and cover the bottom of each with the combo. Put your ground beef in the same skillet and set it to medium to start browning the meat. Now, if you're working at the same pace as I am, your potatoes will likely be ready to rice. Check their tenderness by inserting a knife. If it moves through without resistance, you're there. Scoop the spuds into the ricer and push them through the grater.
Incidentally, this will give you a nice little bicep workout, as well. Add your cream to the taters and fold it in. Slowly add salt, tasting after each sprinkle ('cause you know, once you oversalt, there's no going back).

Now return to your meat and give it a good stir to ensure it's cooking through. If you purchased the full fat variety, per my instrux, your meat will now be swimming in rendered fat. This is fine though, cause you're about to strain it. Once the meat is done, strain it out and then sprinkle it with a few healthy shakes worcestershire. You want enough to taste, but not to overwhelm the meaty goodness. Your call. Lightly salt it too, if you like.

Now the meat goes into the pie pans as the next layer, on top of the veggies. Next, open your cans of petit pois and spread one each over the meat layers. Finally it's time to spread the spuds on top and seal the deal. Using a flat spreading spatula, plop a pile of potatoes in the center of the layered pies. Then, starting in the center, gently spread the potatoes outward, working your way around the pie until it's all covered.

Now turn your oven to broil and pop those suckers in. Just long enough for them to brown on top a bit. They're already cooked, so this is just a finishing touch. Serve warm, ideally with an authentic Anglo brown sauce, like HP. You can order it online from British importers. Michael loves the fruity variety, while I'm partial to the curry flavor.

Go on, guvnah, take a bite. It goes down a treat!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sister-in-law Slumber Party Smorgasbord: Spanakopita & Pear Tart

So Friday night was a baking extravaganza. I invited my sister-in-law Adriana to come over and spend the night so we could attempt to make spanakopita and she could teach me to make her famous-at-every-family-occasion pear tart. She agreed to come over and to bring our dog Ruby's puppy cousins, Elvis and Chopper, as well as some chilled champage. Already, we had the makings of an eventful evening.

The spanakopita idea had been brewing for some time, but had never come to fruition. I crave it often and regularly lament the absense of good Greek restuarants in San Francisco. Sure, there's Kokkari, but that's sort of gourmet Greek. What I crave are the rustic flavors and preparations I remember from the 3 glorious years of childhood I spent living in Greece. My fondest memories are Friday nights at the local taverna eating souvlaki, fried zucchini and tzatsiki, and summer days at Piraeus eating calamari (so what if I spat my squid across the table upon learning I was chewing the same sorry creatures that were strung over the rocks along the nearby seashore. So what if I'd always assumed I was eating onion rings). I can chart most of my childhood memories in exotic locales by conjuring up the tastes and smells of the places. And when I think of Greece, I always imagine myself eating spanakopita purchased at a kiosk in some city square while waiting for a ferry.

Despite my love of this simple pastry staple, I've been phyllo-phobic for years now. It seems every recipe I read warned that handling the delicate pastry was an exercise in frustration. That thawing the phyllo improperly or neglecting to cover it with a damp cloth would ensure total failure. So the spanakopita, she's been a long time coming. But now I can say, with great pride I might add, that the pastries we made were simple to assemble, gorgeous to behold and gratifying to taste. I think the following combination will meet the standards of anyone looking to replicate "the real thing".


2 lbs fresh spinach, well washed and dried
1 large bunch dill, stemmed and roughly chopped
2 c. finely chopped green onions
sea salt & pepper
olive oil
1 stick butter & brush to apply
1/2 lb feta
4 eggs
1 box phyllo pastry sheets

Pull your phyllo dough from the freezer 2 hours before using. If your box contains two individually wrapped stacks of phyllo, return one to the freezer as you're not likely to use it all in one go. Once the phyllo is thawed, pull in from its wrapper and lay it flat on a countertop with a damp, well-wrung rag on top of it. This is important to ensure the pastry doesn't dry up while you're assembling your pies. Preheat oven to 350. Combine the washed spinach, dill, green onions and sea salt in a bowl. Mix well and let stand 15 minutes, then press out all the liquid. Heat the olive oil in large skillet and saute the spinach mixture–in batches if necessary. Saute until spinach is well-wilted and drain liquid from the pan.Transfer to a bowl, add crumbled feta and pepper and lightly toss. Lightly beat 4 eggs and fold into spinach mixture. Melt a stick of butter in a small saucepan. Now uncover the phyllo and cut the sheets in half down the length of the sheet. You should end up with 2 piles of sheets, each about 12" by about 3". Cuts may differ brand to brand, but I imagine most sheets are this size. Gently lift 2 sheets together from one of the stacks and then cover the stacks again. Spread your two sheets out on top of one another and lightly brush the top layer with melted butter. Then scoop a spoonful of the spinach mixture on the left corner closest to you. Gently lift that corner and fold it as a triangle, with the filling inside, over towards the right. Then continue this triangular folding pattern up your strip of pastry until you've reached the end. Then just lightly press the pastry closed, brushing it with butter to seal if necessary. Place the folded pie on a greased cookie sheet and brush once over the top with butter to brown. Once your trays are full, put them in the oven. They will cook for between 15-30 minutes. Let them turn golden brown and crisp, but not too dark. When a toothpick comes out clean, the egg has set and they're good to go. Let them cool, take a bite, smash a glass and yell OPA!

Next on the menu was Adriana's pear tart. I've been enjoying her signature dessert for years now and never believed her when she swore it was ridiculously easy to make and called it "white trash" due to its reliance on canned pears. It's a beautiful product and it tastes as good as any Parisian fancypants tart I've ever had. So fool your friends and family with this ever-so-easy offering and pretend you slaved all day.

Bavarian Pear Tart

1/2 c. butter, softened
1/3 c. sugar
1/4 tspn vanilla
1 c. flour
1/4 c. chopped walnuts
2 tart pans with removable base

8 oz. cream cheese
1/4 c. sugar
1 egg
1/2 tspn. vanilla

2 28 oz cans pears

Preheat oven to 350. Mix all crust ingedients using hand mixer, blender or bowl mixer. Press mixture into bottom of both tart pans. Don't worry about pressing it up the sides, just cover the bottoms. Bake at 350 for 10-15 minutes and remove to cool. Beat ingredients for filling together in same mixer. Spread evenly over cooled crusts. It will make a very thin layer, which is fine. Drain pears and slice thinly, lengthwise. Starting at the outer edge of the tarts, place the pears around the perimeter, slightly overlapping them and spiraling in towards the center. Once you've covered the top with pear slices, sprinkle a little sugar and cinnamon on top and bake for 30 minutes at 350. Once they've cooled, gently push the tarts through the removable sides so they rest on the base alone. Then transfer to a serving plate and dig in.

And that's not the end. We made basil cinnamon ice cream and swapped a few additional recipes, including a summer salad and oven fries that rival any deep-fried spuds. Those recipes will have to come tomorrow 'cause carpal tunnel's setting in. Go make a pear tart and we'll talk mañana.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

People, Get Ready.

Last night was a sister-in-law showdown in the kitchen. It's going to take awhile to transcribe everything we achieved, but shortly I'll post recipes for our delicious and successful creations, including:

"crunchy" salad featuring peas, corn and endive
bavarian pear tart
cinnamon basil ice cream

Right now I need to recover from excessive champagne consumption (last night) and gorging at the Farmers Market (this morning). The neighborhood pool is calling my name. Back soon!

Monday, August 07, 2006

Weekend wrap-up: Gaspare's pizza, key lime pie and flame-retardant chicken

So it's been a long weekend and there's a lot to cover. There are a few food-related items to report but they're scattered and unrelated and kind-of all over the map. While I do have a recipe to post, it's one that was passed on by my friend Kate and I feel I should at least attempt to replicate it before posting it here. She warns that it really requires a hands-on demonstration, but promises that, when executed correctly, it produces absolutely delicious and amazingly flame-retardant chicken. Best of all, asked what it tastes like, she replied "orange sunshine" (and here I can only assume she means a bright, summery flavor and not LSD). I hereby commit to attempting this recipe so you have something to look forward to. Go ahead and stock up on annatto seed. I hear you're going to need plenty. So to recap, no recipe today. Nor do I have any Martha-style food pix. The only pictures that did come out of this weekend are from the Eagles of Death Metal tourbus and I suspect those would act as an appetite supressant, so let's leave those for my yet-to-be-created rock 'n roll blog. When and if it comes to pass, remind me to comment on the size of that bass player's hands. Seriously, they are freakishly Frankensteinian meat paws.

So onward to appetite-inducing items.

1. Gaspare's Pizza . Have you guys been yet? 'Cause if not, put it on the calendar. Our friends Jeff and Julie introduced us to this cozy cucina a few years back and truly, it's a gem. It's a small, unassuming joint out in the avenues, which means it's remarkably convenient for us now that we're totally B&T. Anyway, the thing about Gaspare's is this: you'll go there, you'll hear the schmaltzy Deano tunes on the juke, you'll admire the murals of Italia on the walls, you'll quaff the chianti and you'll think "I wanna spicy meat ballah." But you'll be wrong. So very wrong. When you go to Gaspare's, there's only one item on the menu you should order. And that's the margherita pizza. Sure, you can supplement it with a nice antipasto platter or some pasta to share, but really, the margherita is where it's at. Cradled in a thin crust, doused in olive oil and generously sprinkled with garlic, it's pizza pie perfection. Fini.

2. Next order of business: key lime pie. Now you're probably expecting a key lime pie recipe here and I don't have one for you. I mean, I have a couple. But they're not mine and I have yet to find the right combo of ingredients that takes it over the top. I spent a lot of time in the Keys during the college years (Jamie Gone Wild) and so I'm pretty picky about getting the flavor just right. I really feel strongly about using real, live key limes or at least key lime juice. However, those buggers are hard to find around these parts so I'm working on a recipe using regular old limes that comes close. I made one recipe that I saw on the Barefoot Contessa the other day (I know, I know–so ridiculous) and it almost did the job. But here's something I discovered that I'm willing to share. When I'm making a graham cracker crust, I want that crumbly, buttery texture, but I can't stand how even a homemade GC crust sometimes ends up tasting like a bland, boxed mix or something. So I decided to add some spicy ginger cookies to the crumb mix and voila–the crust ended up with the extra zing I'd been craving. Seriously, this one small addition makes a big difference to overall crust quality.

3. Margaritas. We've moved past the pizza and now we're on to tequila. And let me just say, it's a fine addition to my Monday night. See, I made a tex-mex dinner on Saturday night and left an unfinished pitcher of margaritas in the fridge. I don't think I have to tell you what a welcome sight it was upon arriving home after a long, chafing day at an ad agency.

Right about now, I say salt, rocks, and make it a double.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Cheese is my raison d'etre

I actually just caught myself saying this aloud. To another person, mind you, not as some sort of mantra, but still.

An intervention may be in order.