Salad Days (Are Here Again).

I have a fantastic memory.  This isn’t a grandiose statement, not in the least.  It’s plain fact.  I can describe what I wore to the first day of class for all four years of high school, I can recall conversations from months ago in great detail, I can remember not only passages from my favorite books but also where those words lie on a page, I can tell you about the various culinary tasks assigned to me as a child by my mother in order to keep me occupied and out of trouble.  Popping canned chick peas out of their individual translucent skins, for example, or picking parsley leaves off of their stems, or tearing the legs and shells off of shrimp.

That was a particular favorite of mine, denuding shrimp.  I believe the first time I was made to do this, strip shrimp from their shells, was when I was in the first or second grade. My mother emptied a bag of oyster-colored shrimp into the colander she had placed inside the stainless steel basin of the sink, then set our gray-and-black plastic footstool at my feet.  I’ve always been short, and the footstool’s added few inches allowed me to almost tower over the small mound of shellfish.  My mother showed me how to remove the slippery spindly legs and the smooth sectioned skeletons, and how to make sure each shrimp’s tail remained intact without its husk.  I made a game of this, giving myself points for each entire tail I shucked, though I quickly lost count; I’ve never had a head for numbers.

Ripping the legs from the pleasantly slimy and surprisingly firm shrimp bodies was highly satisfying, even to my grade school self.  There was something simply rewarding about grasping the five sets of legs in my stubby child’s fingers and giving them a sharp pull.  I was also kind of blown away by the fact that my mother had given me permission to basically destroy something, to literally tear something apart.

When I found the following recipe in the pages of Cooking Light, the first thing I thought was about how similar-yet-different it sounded to the avocado salad from Bon Appétit that Keith and I so often enjoy.  The second thing was I want to tear the legs off of some shrimp, and my mind simultaneously conjured up a physical memory: the feeling of those miniscule legs, gently bent like the willowy branches of a tiny tree, between my finger and thumb.

I felt the need to shell shrimp as keenly as a craving, and so I set about gathering the ingredients for this salad.   I can’t tell you what pleased me more: the end result — which was quite spectacular — or learning that breaking down a pile of shrimp still makes me ridiculously happy.

Don’t bother making this salad if you can’t find fresh tarragon at your local market.  Its licorice-y flavor is integral to the dish, and you’ll be doing everything involved — the rest of the ingredients, your taste buds — a great disservice by trying to substitute dry for fresh.  And if you have the good fortune of living with a dog, consider giving him or her the tarragon stem to nibble at.  This does two things: freshens his or her breath, and gives you something cute to look at while you segment your citrus fruit.

Shrimp, Avocado + Grapefruit Salad, from Cooking Light
Makes four courses

2 ½ tablespoons olive oil, divided
12 ounces peeled and deveined medium shrimp
½ teaspoon salt, divided
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
1 grapefruit (I used two navel oranges, since Keith doesn’t like grapefruit)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon chopped shallots
6 cups chopped romaine lettuce
1 peeled avocado, cut into 12 wedges (I used two, and chopped them into a rough dice)

  1. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 ½ teaspoons oil to pan; swirl to coat. Sprinkle shrimp with ¼ teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Add shrimp to pan; cook 3 minutes or until shrimp are done, stirring frequently. Remove from pan; keep warm.
  2. Peel and section grapefruit over a bowl, reserving 3 tablespoons juice. Combine grapefruit juice, remaining 2 tablespoons oil, remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, remaining 1/8 teaspoon pepper, tarragon, brown sugar, and shallots in a large bowl, stirring well with a whisk. Add lettuce; toss. Arrange 2 cups lettuce mixture on each of 4 plates. Top each serving with 3 avocado wedges; divide shrimp and grapefruit sections evenly among servings.
Salad Days (Are Here Again)” by Procol Harum.
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I’m Going To Tell You Something, But I Don’t Want To Talk About It.

Here’s something you probably don’t know about me: I struggle with my weight.  And when I say struggle, I mean in an epic Greek tragedy kind of way, minus Oedipus or Electra complexes.  The thing is, I never wanted to write a fat girl blog — I’ve got no interest in composing it, and I’m going to assume that you’ve no interest in reading it.  That said, some days there’s just going to be no avoiding it, and this is one of those days.  Here’s why:

I’ve just made the most delicious-smelling dinner, and the recipe called for fourteen tablespoons of butter.  Which is why it’s probably going to taste fantastic.  And I want to enjoy it, I really do, but I’m scared that I’ll scarf the whole damn thing down.  I know you think I’m being glib or hyperbole-prone, but I promise you I am capable of such a thing.  Moderation and I have yet to meet.  And when we do, I’ll probably punch the broad in the face and take off running.  Because that’s the kind of gal I am when it comes to food.

Anyway, in the spirit of the holiday season, and of sharing and solidarity and all that, here’s the recipe.  I don’t want to be fat alone.

Chicken, Sausage + Mushroom Pot Pie, from Jean Soulard at the Fairmont le Château Frontenac, as published in Bon Appétit
Makes six portions

for the crust
2 cups all purpose flour
¾ teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
4 tablespoons ice water

for the filling
4 tablespoons butter, room temperature, divided
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
12 ounces crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 cup finely chopped shallots
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 ¼ pounds Italian sausage, casings removed
2 pounds skinless boneless chicken thighs, trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces
½ cup Madeira
2 cups low-salt chicken broth (or you can use the handy-dandy turkey stock you made this past Thanksgiving, if you’re me)
1 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled, thickly sliced *
1 large egg yolk, beaten to blend with 1 tablespoon water

  1. Make the crust.  Blend flour and salt in processor. Add butter and cut in, using on/off turns, until coarse meal forms. Add 4 tablespoons water. Using on/off turns, blend until moist clumps form, adding more water by ½ tablespoonfuls if dough is dry. Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap in plastic and chill at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.
  2. Make the filling.  Mix 2 tablespoons butter and flour in bowl to smooth paste; set aside. Melt 2 tablespoons butter with oil in large deep skillet. Add mushrooms, shallots, and thyme. Sauté until mushrooms brown, about 8 minutes. Add sausage; sauté until no longer pink, breaking up with spoon, about 7 minutes. Add chicken. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté until chicken is no longer pink on outside, about 5 minutes. Add Madeira; boil 2 minutes. Add broth; bring to boil. Mix in butter-flour paste; simmer until sauce thickens, stirring often, about 3 minutes. Mix in parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to 10-cup round baking dish; top with egg slices.
  3. Preheat oven to 400°. Roll out dough on floured surface to 13- to 14-inch round. Place atop filling. Trim overhang to 1 inch. Fold overhang under; crimp edge. Brush crust with glaze; cut several slits in crust.
  4. Bake pie until crust is golden, about 45 minutes. Let rest 15 minutes and serve.
* I did not include the hard-boiled eggs.  Keith isn’t too into them, and besides, it’s not as if I need any more cholesterol.

Redoing a Classic.

Normally I don’t like to make anything from a recipe that requires special equipment.  I only have so much space in my kitchen cabinets, after all, so where am I going to store a pasta machine, panini press, a yogurt maker, a slow cooker, an espresso machine, a meat grinder, an electric slicer or a deep fryer?* I’m not exactly Ina Garten, with my own barn in the backyard specifically for cooking, baking and entertaining — no matter how appealing such a barn sounds.  I’m all for a room of one’s own.

And now I’ve gotten off topic.

blood-orange-madeleines2The exception I’ll make to my so-called rule, though, is the madeleine tray.  They stack right up, taking up practically no space, and it’s so easy to find an inexpensive mold that buying them in triplicate won’t break the bank.  Think of it this way: you’ll get reimbursed in flavor.  The intense citrus of these little cakes can’t be denied.

Traditional madeleines are made with lemon; each bite will also bring you the distinct luxury  felt only when eating something baked with a lot of butter.   Still, butter or no, as any Proust fan knows, having a madeleine is revelatory.  I’ve tried a few different recipes, and the one I’ve had the most repeat success with is David Lebovitz‘s, so when I got the idea in my head to make an orange-y madeleine, I didn’t want to mess with perfection.  Instead I went with a simpler recipe, but I decided to whip up an orange version of David’s lemon glaze to make my cakes as orange-y as possible.

In the end, I was happy with my experiment, but I’m thinking next time of how to possibly include some Cointreau or similar in there.  Also, I was pleased to see how astonishingly malleable a madeleine recipe can be, so now my mind’s buzzing with different ways to imbue various flavors into the batter.  I’ll keep you posted…

Blood Orange Madeleines, adapted from Bon Appétit
Makes about 25 cookies

2 large eggs
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
one blood orange’s worth of zest
pinch of salt
1 cup all purpose flour
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, cooled slightly

  1. Preheat oven to 375°. Generously butter and flour large madeleine pan.  Using electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar in large bowl just to blend. Beat in vanilla, orange zest and salt. Add flour; beat just until blended. Gradually add cooled melted butter in steady stream, beating just until blended.
  2. Spoon 1 teaspoon batter into each indentation in pan. Bake until puffed and brown, about 12-14 minutes. Cool 5 minutes. Gently remove from pans.

Blood Orange Glaze, adapted from David Lebovitz

¾ cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed blood orange juice
2 tablespoons water

Stir together ingredients until smooth.  Dip each cookie into glaze and let rest on cool cookie sheet or cooling rack until glaze becomes firm.

* You’ll notice I left out an ice cream maker.  That’s because I’m certain I can squeeze one into a cupboard somewhere.

Ben’s Kitchen in LA.

Where do you live?
I live in Los Angeles, California — specifically Studio City.

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How often do you cook or bake?
Since I was laid off a month ago, I’ve been trying my hardest to conserve money and not go out for meals. So as of late: nearly every meal is a home-cooked one. (And when they’re not, I opt for the semi-cheap, entirely-delicious Hugo’s Tacos — Chicken or Al Pastor Bowl with Honey Chipotle.) As for baking? Uh, haven’t crossed that bridge yet.

What is your favorite kitchen utensil?
I’m a gadget nerd. (Latest love: the Kuhn Rikon Lid Lifter.)  But in terms of sheer practicality and overall use, I’ma go with the Pure Komachi stainless steel knife my mom gave me a couple years ago. She was at some cooking expo of some sort and I think it was given to her…  Anyway, it’s a ridiculous shade of purple but it’s incredibly sharp and lightweight. I tend to use chopped peppers and/or onions and/or garlic in about everything I make, so it’s in almost constant use.

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Which part of your kitchen do you like best and why?
My favorite part of my kitchen? I guess the piece of real estate to the right of my sink. There’s plenty of space to spread out supplies and room to chop & concoct and the window’s right there, so when the weather’s just right you can catch a nice cool breeze.

What was your biggest kitchen accomplishment?
This is a two part answer.

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A. When it comes to cooking regular meals, I’m not super adventurous. I go for maximum flavor from as few pots/dishes as humanly possible. For example, a few weeks ago  I made a really tasty soba dish from — cough — Martha Stewart. I highly recommend it.

Sautéed Chicken with Herbed Soba, from Martha Stewart

4 scallions, thinly sliced
1 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves, plus more for garnish
1 cup fresh parsley
1 garlic clove, chopped (But as far as I’m concerned, one clove is never enough. I used two.)
1 teaspoon peeled and minced fresh ginger (Again, I think I erred on the side of a wee bit more ginger.)
¼ cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
12 ounces chicken cutlets
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (Oh and I didn’t have pure cayenne in the cupboard, so I used a cayenne-based spice rub that gave the chicken a really nice kick that was counterbalanced by the cool cilantro.)
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1 package (8.8 ounces) soba

  1. In a food processor, finely chop scallions, cilantro, parsley, garlic, and ginger with vinegar and 1 tablespoon oil. Transfer to a bowl.
  2. In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high. Season chicken with cayenne, salt, and pepper. Working in batches, cook, turning once, until opaque throughout, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer chicken to a cutting board; let cool 5 minutes, and thinly slice.
  3. Cook soba according to package instructions. Drain; toss with herb mixture. Serve chicken with soba; garnish with cilantro.

B. Here’s the real story about accomplishment that I wanted to tell. Roughly once a month, I have a bunch of friends come over for a ragtag, bourgie afternoon-into-evening of cooking, drinking, and eating. December’s dinner was based around the holidays (obvs) and nothing says the holidays like, uh, Moroccan Lamb Stew.  (To be fair we did have about 15 other courses that included more traditionally seasonal items like latkes and  Pimm’s Cup.)

Anyway, the purpose of this story: it wasn’t that the lamb stew was some impossibly difficult recipe — although none of us had ever made lamb stew — because it wasn’t. Instead, over the course of a couple of hours (and way too much alcohol) various factions and pairings would hover over the pot and finesse it, nudging it into the best stew I’ve ever had. That whole “too many cooks” maxim…? Yeah, that wasn’t in effect on that December night. So that’s our (Jill, Tim, Devereaux, and Tyler) accomplishment.

Moroccan Lamb Stew, from Bon Appétit
Makes four portions

¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
3 ½ pounds o-bone (round-bone) lamb shoulder chops, well trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces, or 2 pounds lamb stew meat
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped onions
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger
1 1/3 cups water
2 large blood oranges
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon honey

Mix salt, pepper, cinnamon and allspice in medium bowl. Add lamb and toss to coat with spice mixture. Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add lamb to pot and sauté until brown on all sides, about 4 minutes per batch. Return all lamb to pot. Add onion, garlic and ginger to pot and sauté 5 minutes. Add 1 1/3 cups water and bring to boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer until lamb is almost tender, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour 30 minutes.

Exactly how we veered away from this recipe is, alas, a little hazy. I do know that we chopped two big handfuls of really fresh mint and added it kind of late in the game. I also know that we amped the amount of blood orange used (plus zest) and added vegetable stock to the mix… But honestly, that’s all I remember at this late date.

Christmas Brunch + Happy New Year.

Ack, here I am on January first, having not written you all in quite some time.  I wish I had some sort of glamorous reason why — A surprise trip to Bonaire!  An unexpected delivery of Vizsla puppies!  A new pair of Frye boots to break in! — but the sad truth is that I was just plain sick (though I did recently get those boots and love them).  Keith and I spent Christmas Eve at his brother’s, and come the day after Christmas, six out of the nine guests were moaning on their respective sofas.  We were two of them.

Instead of telling you how I felt during the three days immediately thereafter (unhappy, unwell, unpleasant), I thought you’d rather hear about the Christmas brunch I put together before the sickness set in. Unfortunately I’ve got zero photographic documentation, so please just take my word on how great everything turned out.

Brunch, or breakfast, is a meal I’m pleased to say I can turn out both really quickly and really well, something I fully credit book group with as we mostly meet up at brunchy times.  In fact, I recycled two successful recipes from some of those get-togethers — a jam crumb cake and a citrus salad — that are easy to throw together.  They also seem more impressive than they are, and are definite crowd pleasers.

Since I like to have something savory at breakfast, I decided to also make a quiche.  I didn’t think it would be cheating per se to use a premade crust especially since I was extremely limited on time, but I wanted to make up for it by choosing a recipe full of decadent ingredients.  A trio of cheeses, chopped leeks, strips of double-smoked bacon and a more than generous dollop of crème fraîche fit the bill exactly.

In spite of my morning preferences, I knew that my guests tended to lean more towards the sweet; for that reason I chose to do a baked French toast.  When you’ve a group of people coming over for breakfast, the last thing you’ll want to do is stand over the stove, mechanically flipping slices of bread — it’s no fun for you and besides, your friends came over to see you, not your back at the cooktop.  I don’t care if your back is particularly lovely, or if you’ve got a spectacular neck tattoo you’re dying to share — I prefer having my conversations face-to-face, and that is why a baked French toast is perfect.  All you have to do is arrange your bread in an oven-proof dish, douse it with custard, refrigerate overnight and slide the whole thing in the oven about thirty minutes before you plan to eat.  It couldn’t be any simpler, and it will most certainly be a hit with those craving something sweet.  And best of all, you’ll be able to spend time with your friends.

Speaking of friends, I wanted to take a moment to thank you all for reading my sometimes rambling messages.  I really appreciate it, and am wishing you all the best year yet.

Jam Crumb Cake, from Gourmet
Makes six to eight portions.

For cake
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
1 ¾ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ stick unsalted butter, melted
½ cup milk
1 large egg
½ cup raspberry jam or preserves

For crumb topping
¾ stick unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

  1. Preheat oven to 400° with rack in middle. Generously butter a 9-inch square or round cake pan.  Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.  Whisk together butter, milk, and egg in a large bowl, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined. Pour batter into cake pan. Dollop jam all over surface, then swirl into batter with spoon.
  2. Whisk together butter, sugars, cinnamon, and salt until smooth. Stir in flour, then blend with your fingertips until incorporated. Sprinkle crumbs in large clumps over top of cake.
  3. Bake cake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean and sides begin to pull away from pan, about 25 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes.

Note:  I’ve only got a ten-inch round cake pan, so I double the cake recipe but prepare just one recipe’s worth of crumb topping.  The cake then takes about thirty to forty minutes in the oven.

Boozy Baked French Toast, from Smitten Kitchen
Makes six to eight portions.

1 loaf  Challah bread cut into 1-inch slices
3 cups whole milk
3 eggs
3 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons Grand Marnier
zest of one orange

  1. Generously grease a 9×13-inch baking dish with butter.  Arrange bread into two tightly-packed layers in the pan.  Reserve one slice of bread to cut into smaller pieces to fill in gaps.
  2. Whisk milk, eggs, sugar, salt,  Grand Marnier and zest and pour over the bread.   Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. The bread will absorb all of the milk custard while you sleep.
  3. Bake at 425° for 30 minutes, or until puffed and golden. This will take longer if you have additional layers.  Cut into generous squares and serve with maple syrup, fresh fruit, powdered sugar or all of the above.

Note:  I used a deep 9×5 baking dish, so I made this with three layers of bread.  It still took only thirty minutes in the oven until the bread inflated and turned gold.

Citrus Salad with Mint Sugar, Bon Appétit.
Makes six to eight portions.

2 white grapefruits
2 pink grapefruits
6 large navel oranges
½ cup fresh mint leaves
¼ cup sugar

Cut peel and white pith from grapefruits and oranges. Cut between membranes to release segments. Combine fruit in large shallow bowl. (Fruit can be segmented 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)  Place mint and sugar in processor. Using on/off turns, blend until mint is finely chopped, occasionally scraping down sides of bowl. Sprinkle mint sugar over fruit; serve.

Note:  There were some really gorgeous-looking blood oranges at Whole Foods, so I decided to use 4 ruby red grapefruits, 3 large navel oranges and 4 good-sized blood oranges.  The combination of colors was fantastically pretty.

Ham, Leek + Three-Cheese Quiche, from Gourmet.
Makes six to eight portions.

1 round of refrigerated pie dough for a 9-inch pie (from a 15-oz package; not a preshaped frozen pie shell)
¾ pounds leeks (about 3 medium; white and pale green parts only)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ pound thinly sliced smoked ham
3 ounces Gruyère, coarsely grated (1 cup)
3 ounces Italian Fontina, coarsely grated (1 cup)
3 ounces whole-milk mozzarella, coarsely grated (1 cup)
3 large eggs
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 ¾ cups crème fraîche (from two 8 ounces containers)

  1. Prebake pie dough in pie plate according to package instructions, then remove from oven and reduce temperature to 350°.  Meanwhile, halve leeks lengthwise and cut crosswise into ½ inch pieces, then wash well in a bowl of cold water, agitating leeks. Lift out and drain leeks in a colander and pat dry. Melt butter in a 10-inch heavy skillet over moderately low heat and cook leeks, stirring occasionally, until very tender, 8 to 10 minutes.
  2. Line warm pie shell with sliced ham, overlapping layers as necessary to cover bottom and side of pie shell completely. Toss cheeses together and sprinkle evenly into pie shell (do not pack cheese), then spread leeks evenly on top of cheese. Whisk together eggs, nutmeg, and pepper until combined well, then whisk in crème fraîche until smooth.
  3. Carefully pour half of custard on top of pie filling, gently moving cheese with a spoon to help custard disperse evenly. Slowly add remaining custard in same manner. Cover pie loosely with foil, gently folding edges over crust (keep foil from touching top of cheese mixture) and transfer to a baking sheet.
  4. Bake until center of filling is puffed and set (center will be slightly wobbly but not liquid), about 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours. Cool on a rack at least 20 to 30 minutes before serving (filling will continue to set as it cools). Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note:  I’m not a fan of ham, so I was really pleased to see a double-smoked bacon in the case at Formaggio Kitchen.  I mean, honestly — who doesn’t prefer bacon?