May 03, 2009

Yellow Mustard, Orange Carrots and Red Communism

MustardCarrot1 Before getting in to this latest carrot exploration, I need to explain that my personal history with mustard is short.  I was a mayonnaise girl in my youth. And I did think you had to be one or the other. For some reason, my childhood was filled with these imagined food dichotomies: you either liked mayonnaise or mustard, but not both. Chocolate or vanilla is another good example. The sensible among us spread mayonnaise on our sandwiches and ended a meal with vanilla ice cream. In the cold war era, I felt like these choices were akin to being a loyal patriot for democracy versus becoming a communist. Imagine my concern when I noticed my father spreading mayonnaise and mustard on his sandwich and that my mother added vanilla extract to chocolate cookie dough. What are they, anarchists? My aversion to mustard continued well past the point I'd overcome the majority of my other pickiness, which was of course also long after the cold war ended. These days, I don't go so far as to special order my Croque Madam without mustard, but I also don't actively spread mustard on sandwiches of my own making.

I had several carrot dishes picked out to try.  I don't even know why I had a mustard-bearing one among them, but you won't be surprised that it was at the bottom of the list.

However, it was 7 pm on a weeknight and it wasn't until my key hit the lock of the apartment that I remembered I was planning to try out another carrot recipe. I had the lion's share of a great big bag of carrots, but nothing else to round out a recipe. (I'd say this should be called the rabbit's share, but rumor has it rabbits actually prefer to eat grasses, weeds and their own poop. I think I'll stick with the lion.) I couldn't convince myself to head back out to the grocery store; I needed something I could make with ingredients we already had around the house. A quick look around the kitchen confirmed what my sinking heart already knew:  the only recipe I could make was the mustard-based one.

Dijon Vinaigrette Carrot Salad
I Heart My Cuisinart

After the folly of the sweet carrot salad I made a couple days before, I knew I wanted something savory. The aptly (but not very descriptively) named Savory Carrot Salad by The Nourishing Gourmet caught my attention for being unabashedly savory while also making use of some common ingredients we already had around. I changed the recipe only a little from the original, mostly through the addition of orange zest, use of fresh basil instead of dried, and suggested amounts of salt and pepper as I found the "dash or two" too little. Though admittedly, I'm not sure I have a great handle on how much a dash is supposed to be. Oh, two pinches - that clears everything up. I also couldn't help renaming it to be a little more descriptive. Here's what I did:

4 carrots, shredded
2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons of Dijon mustard
2 garlic cloves, small diced
3 to 5 basil leaves, chiffonade or diced
2 teaspoons orange zest (about 1/2 to 1 orange worth of zest)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoons pepper

Shred the carrots in the food processor. If you are still wasting time chopping and shredding by hand, you should seriously consider ordering a 12 or 14 cup Cuisinart or equivalent as soon as possible. You'll get so much more use out of it than that Kitchen-Aid Mixer you've been eyeing and the Cuisinart comes in red now too!

Small dice the garlic, cut up the basil, and zest the orange peel then mix these together with the remaining ingredients (other than the carrots) to make a thick dressing. Pour this over the carrots and don't panic when it doesn't look like nearly enough to cover all the carrots you have. The flavor is strong and the dressing should be viscous enough that you won't need the carrots to be drowning in extra dressing. Just mix it all up until everything is lightly coated and serve.

MustardCarrot2 The spiciness of the raw garlic and mustard contrasted nicely with the natural sweetness of the carrot. The orange peel amplified the juicy freshness of carrots. Both Orion and I found this a compelling side dish. The leftovers were used a couple days later during an impromptu dinner party with friends. They became one ingredient in an otherwise simple salad and added a surprising zing to the bowl of greens. If you end up with leftovers, note that they do lose some of their crunch over time, but still taste great as part of a salad.

This salad is a quick weeknight side dish with serious adult appeal.  Not bad at all considering it's simply shredded carrots with some goop on them. It's a big step for me to make a dish using mustard. I'm proud to have overcome another childhood aversion, and I'll thank you not to call me a mustard-eating commie pinko.

May 3, 2009 in side_dishes, vegetables | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 21, 2009

A Big Bag of Carrots and a Dream

Carrots2 Unfortunately, I decided to learn to cook vegetables in the late fall. With the winter vegetable season trudging along, I've begun to feel like a one-trick pony with quite seriously only three recipes in my repertoire that can make use of the meager offerings in the produce section these days. Though I suppose that makes me more accurately a three-trick pony, I still strive toward that elusive carrot on a stick that is the ability to eat veggies every night of the week without repeating and without feeling the need to compare myself to a diminutive ungulate.

A metaphorical carrot on a stick leads me to consider the very real five pound bag of carrots taking up valuable real-estate in our fridge and threatening to turn rubbery and unusable if neglected much longer. These aren't the cute baby carrots either, that promise crisp sweetness with their low-effort clean and rounded nubs. No, I'm talking about gnarled 9 to 12-inch lengths of orange tubers still sporting smears of the dirt in which they gestated and starting to split lengthwise as they dry out. These are to be my inspiration for at least a few healthy side dishes? Yes! And there's some very good reasons:

1. they're laughably cheap,
2. they outlast even my ability to procrastinate when kept in the fridge, and
3. they are at least as tasty raw as they are cooked.

Just take a moment to think about the implications of this last point. You can make entire dishes without actually having to cook anything. Talk about a time-saver! This is my kind of "cooking"!

Carrot-Apple Salad
I'm Just Not That Sweet

I bravely pulled the first 4 carrots out of the huge bag but then lost a good portion of my nerve. I had trouble likening these trollish tubers to the sweet and buttery carrot dishes of my youth, but I couldn't remember eating a carrot-focused dish any other way. Rather than listen to my gut instincts, I fell back upon the familiar. I found this simple and sweet Carrot Salad recipe posted by Colleen on All Recipes and decided to give it a go.

CarrotAppleSalad The ingredients aren't anything crazy, just carrots, apple and slivered almonds mixed with honey and finished with a squeeze of lemon and a few dashes of salt and pepper. I'll let you follow the link to the actual recipe if you're interested in specifics, as I followed it exactly. If you can shred and mix things together, you've got all the skills you need to tackle this recipe. I may have been undershooting even my limited kitchen skills.

The results? While tasty and sweet, I wouldn't call this sophisticated. It struck me as something you make because the kids will eat it too.The almonds added a good crunch but not much else as their flavor was drowned out by the sweetness of the carrots, apples and honey. It needs something to give it more adult appeal, but I haven't thought of what that is exactly. Definitely cut down on the honey and replace the almonds with a more aggressively flavored nut or seed and consider adding spices other than just salt and pepper. Really though, I don't think it's worth trying to refine. No need to become mired in this first disappointment. I'll just move on to the next recipe! I do have about 16 carrots left in the bag...

April 21, 2009 in side_dishes, vegetables | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 19, 2006

First Recorded Dinner Party of 2006

Octopus_salad2 This past weekend we broke the dinner party moratorium.  We invited one of our favorite people over and set about the business of cooking.  I didn't actually start planning the menu until the morning of the meal, and I knew that I wouldn't have more than a few hours to cook once I got back from the store, so I designed a menu that I could prepare quickly but that was classy nonetheless.  I think I succeeded admirably.

We had some technical problems with our digital camera.  Rebecca did a great job with the camera on my phone, though.


Marinated Octopus
atop Bean Sprout, Pea Shoot, Daikon Radish, and Asian Pear salad 

OK, this was an easy one. considering that I bought the octopus already marinated.  I put together a salad of sprouts, pea shoots, and julienned Asian pear and tossed it in a Japanese-style dressing.  I then topped the salad with the octopus.  It was actually fairly good for a low-effort salad starter.  Next time I may try marinating my own octopus, as it's usually available in Chinatown fish shops.  (Well, the one I frequent at least.)

The recipe for dressing is worth remembering, so I'll put it down here:

  • 3 parts soy sauce
  • 1 part Shaoxing wine
  • 1 part brown sugar or to taste
  • 1 part rice wine vinegar or white wine vinegar
  • 1 part sesame oil
  • 1/2 part minced ginger

Make sure to use high quality light soy sauce.  I made the mistake of substituting dark soy sauce one time, and the result was somewhat less than delicious.

I made a version of this dressing later on in the week that went on a salad topped by pork loin that had been glazed with maple syrup.  Instead of using the brown sugar, I poured off the excess maple syrup into the dressing.  It was worth doing.


Mushroom --//--

Bluefoot Mushroom and Artichoke Ragu
in Puff Pastry

Bluefoot mushrooms are the cultivated version of (wild) Blewit mushrooms.  I've always wanted to taste Blewits, as they are reputed to have a stronger flavor than Bluefoots (feet?).  However, like many tasty wild mushrooms, Blewits have several poisonous dopplegangers.  This is why (no joke) the leading cause of death among mycologists is mushroom poisoning.  Think about that the next time you're tempted to pick a wild mushroom or become a mycologist.

Bluefeet are tasty nevertheless, and have a distinctive but mild flavor that make them perfect for many uses.  One disadvantage is their distinctive blue color, which means that the person in the checkout aisle is 87% less likely to mistake them for other kinds of mushrooms.  In contrast, I have been the recipient of the Fungal Ignorance Discount several times upon purchase of very pale, thick-stemmed Chantrelles, which are sometimes mistaken for trumpets by the foolish and unwary.

This dish was inspired by a recipe in James Peterson's Vegetables, which, like most of his books, is useful, informative, and entertaining.  The procedure is fairly simple, and I'll reproduce it here just so I can remember it:  Prepare some bacon lardons.  Cook some fresh artichoke hearts. (That's the tricky bit, but I'll leave it to others to explain that.  In a pinch, you can used frozen or canned (in that order of preference), but if you're using canned or jarred, make sure they're stored in water, not vinegar.) Cut puff pastry into squares or rectangles and bake until done.  In the meantime, saute mushrooms and shallots with herbs in butter (or, as I did, in duck fat).   Add the lardons, cream, and stock and reduce until the sauce is relatively thick.  Add the artichoke hearts and warm through.  Split the puff pastry down the middle and spoon the mixture between the two halves.  Drizzle the top of the mixture lightly with truffle oil.


Duck1 Seared Duck Breast
with Coconut Creamed Corn and Grits
and a Balsamic Strawberry Reduction

The duck breast itself was prepared simply:  rubbed with salt, pepper, five-spice, and herbes de provence and then pan-seared in duck fat until medium-rare. 

The strawberry sauce was also very simple.  I pureed a pound of strawberries with 3/4 cup of balsamic vinegar, pushed it through a fine mesh strainer, and then began reducing.  After reducing by half I added more balsamic vinegar and some brown sugar to balance the tartness of the vinegar and strawberries.   I reduced it again by half and swirled butter in just before serving.

The coconut creamed corn and grits were inspired by a recent meal at Azie, where we had a coconut milk risotto with duck and (as a separate side dish) creamed corn.  The risotto (we all thought) didn't pull its own weight, but the creamed corn was fantastic.  When I was considering what should go under the duck, I got an image of the two being combined.  I'm not sure how the risotto became grits in my head, but the result was very excellent and I think this will become a dinner party staple.

I decided to prepare the grits and the corn separately and combine them at the end.  I took the corn from four medium-sized cobs and cooked them in butter.  I added 3/4 c of coconut milk and a shot of pernod and cooked it down.  I then added pepper, parmesan, mascarpone, and chopped tarragon and cooked it through.

For the grits, I just warmed 2 tbsp of butter, 3/4 c stock, 3/4 c milk, and 1/2 c coconut milk and whisked in 1/2c of instant grits.  It cooks in about six minutes.  I then combined the two dishes.  Voila!


Cake1 Ginger Cake

Rebecca made this very tasty ginger cake to cap off the meal.  It used fresh ginger, candied ginger, and powdered ginger.   The topping was (I think) based on ginger jelly, put it was pleasantly tart -- probably had lemon juice in it.

It's great to be cooking (and blogging!) again.  I think I'm going to try to do it again this coming weekend, so stay tuned!

March 19, 2006 in main_dishes, recipes, salads, side_dishes | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 06, 2005

First SF Dinner Party: Menu

Porkfigs In Irvine, I had a bad habit of throwing dinner parties and forgetting to take pictures of the dishes as they went out to the table.  Worse yet, sometimes I would take pictures and forget to blog about them later.  After moving back to San Francisco, I promised myself I'd photograph and blog every dinner party I threw.  Well, I nearly fell off the wagon on the first go-round.

Two weeks ago we threw the first dinner party in the new place, and I only took one servicable picture, and I nearly forgot to write the whole thing up.  Here's the lone picture and what I remember of the dishes.


Amuse Bouche:
Dates Stuffed with Stilton

I was going for something unexpected and fun here.  There's a delicate balance which, when achieved, it tastes pretty good.  If one of the flavor elements dominates, which is easy to do with the stilton, it tastes one-dimensional and flat.   In truth, I think it needs a third ingredient to tie the two tastes together more tightly, but I'm not sure what it would be, especially given that it would have to fit inside of a half of a date that's already stuffed with cheese.  Interesting, but I don't think I'll be pursuing it further.


Tomato Porcini Soup
with Olive Tapenade on Crostini

I haven't made a tomato soup in a long time, so I thought I'd break it out for this party.  This soup is made with porcini mushroom stock, the reconstituted porcinis themselves, white wine, good canned tomatoes, some herbes de provence, a little sour cream and one lone carrot.  There is enough porcini flavor to come through as a dusky, brooding undertone, but not enough to drag the focus away from the  bright, acidic tomatoes.

The epitome of tomato soup, for me and for a surprising number of people, is from Bistro Jeanty.  For me, it's nearly an ancestral memory, since it's been five years since I had it last.  I remember a number of great things about it, but one of them is a particular indescribably round, golden, delicious flavor that I've never known how to even attempt to duplicate in my versions.  This time, I remembered an email that someone sent me years ago that made some suggestions as to how to improve my soup.  I used a couple of them and tripped across the answer.

The "secret", as it turns out, is merely to swirl a metric sh--load of butter into the soup just before serving.  That's it.  Am I a dullard or what?  The thing is, when you taste it in the soup, it doesn't come across exactly like butter.  That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.  Anyhow, if you make a tomato soup, try it the next time you have a dinner party.  It is totally worth the calories, at least when you're making it for guests.  Don't just do it for your own dinner unless you're terminally skinny, because it's quite addictive.


Baked Goat Cheese Salad
with Frisee, Mache, Lardons, and a Truffle Vinaigrette

I use Cook's Illustrated's approach to making the goat cheese rounds -- freeze a log of goat cheese, cut it into rounds, roll it in herbs, egg, and then Melba Toast crumbs, and bake.  It generally turns out well.  (Though I'm not nearly as enamored with the magazine as I was when I first started cooking, I find that I still use it quite a bit, and this is exactly the sort of preparation that it is useful for.)

This is another dish I haven't made in awhile.  Last time, I used roasted white asparagus and a basalmic redux.  This time, I just tossed the greens with truffle oil and good port vinegar.  I prefer the reduction, but I think the tossing method works better with loose greens like this.

I'd like to try this recipe with an aged goat cheese.


Open-faced Salmon Wellington
with Caramelized Leeks and Fennel,
  Artichoke Creme Fraiche,
and a White Wine Tarragon Cream Sauce

Yes, you read that right, leeks and fennel.  In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of home ruled that in this instance it was okay to cook these ingredients and add them to the dish as long as Rebecca's didn't have any in hers.

This was basically a rectangular slice of puff pastry underneath a bit of salmon fillet, with the artichoke bit in between and the sauteed leeks and fennel on top.  The "artichoke creme fraiche" was essentially a modified version of my baked crab artichoke dip, but that isn't nearly a fancy enough name for this dish, now, is it?

I chose this format partially because I thought it might be easier to prep than a regular wellington.  It actually turns out to be a lot fussier, because the elements are cooked separately and then assembled at the end, so you have to worry about timing everything properly.  By the time I got everything to the table, nothing was at the right temperature.  Nevertheless, it has its advantages in dinner parties because portion control is far easier, and because the puff pastry won't get soggy.


Maple Ginger Coffee Glazed Pork Loin
on Molasses Coffee Rounds
with Roasted Figs and Root Vegetable Brunoise

I found the flavor of these cookies so intriguing that I thought they might be good in a savory recipe, perhaps as a pie crust.  This was my first attempt to use the recipe in a savory context.  I cut back on the sugar and the baking soda and pressed them a little thinner.

The resulting dish was, I thought, a success.  Arguably, the flavor of the rounds is a bit too strong for pork.  One of my guests suggested lamb or venison, which I did try later on that week.  It was also good, but not the dream combination of flavors that I was hoping for.

I may try to groom this into a signature dish.  It's unsual enough that people will remember it, and if I can get the balance of flavors just right, it could be very good.  It's the sort of dish that people talk about.  A few weeks later, at a Labor Day Barbeque, I was the "Pork Cookie Guy".

September 6, 2005 in main_dishes, menus, salads, side_dishes | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 19, 2004

Salmon Stuffed Tomatoes


The stuffed roasted tomato is definitely a part of my dinner party repertoire. I've filled them with tomato risotto and with beet greens, goat cheese and sausage, among other things. My favorite version, though, which I found in Simple to Spectacular, is a dessert. The hollowed-out tomatoes are stuffed with a mixture of candied ginger, currants, dates (in my version), and nuts that have been briefly cooked in butter and spices. It's elegant, unusual, and easy to make -- all important dinner party characteristics.

Last week I ran across a recipe for Tuna-Stuffed Tomato from Jacques Pepin via wine critic Robin Garr. It seemed like a good weeknight recipe -- quick, fairly healthful, potentially tasty -- so I thought I'd give it a try. My version used salmon instead of tuna and was flavored with ginger, hoisin, and soy sauce.

The verdict? So-so. Some of the issues were problems with my rendition. I didn't have nearly enough crunchy vegetables mixed in, for instance, so the texture was somewhat monotonous. Other problems seemed more endemic. Unless you're lucky enough to have a tomato with a wide base, the assemblage isn't very stable. The tomato rolls around the plate as you're trying to cut it. (If I was going to serve this again, I'd take a slice out of the bottom to make it more structurally sound.)

Unlike a roasted tomato, you can't eat it with just a fork. You must cut it with a knife in order to take each bite, and this is somewhat annoying. In the end, I decided that I'd rather have a cut-up tomato with the salad on top. Your mileage may vary.

As you can see in the picture, I served the tomato with a salad of romaine, dried cranberries, pepitas, bell peppers, and other bits, topped with a tomato and date vinegar vinaigrette.

October 19, 2004 in salads, side_dishes | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 28, 2002

the bitter -- no, the bland taste of failure

Dramatic Failures

I'm having some people over on Saturday for a post-Thanksgiving dinner. I had some great ideas for the menu, but I've been experimenting with them one by one over the past month and most have been dramatic failures. Here's one example:

Lobster Mashed Potatoes

Sounds like a great idea, right? I like lobster. I like mashed potatoes. Two great tastes that taste great together! What's not to love?

(In all fairness, I must point out that I didn't come up with the concept. It's been done plenty of times before; see for example here and here.)

Here's what I did:

- Steam lobster for 4 minutes using 1/2 bottle of dry white wine. 

- Put lobster in a bowl of ice water to stop it from cooking further.

- Remove tail meat, body meat and put in the fridge.  Remove 
  tomalley and set aside.  Remove evil stomach sac and throw away.

- Make "lobster butter":  put some shells, some of the tomalley, 
  some herbes de provence and two sticks of butter in a small pan and 
  put in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes or so.  

- Meanwhile, boil the potatoes.

- Make lobster stock:  put some other shells and herbs 
  along with the drained lobster juices in with the steaming 
  liquid, along with more white wine if necessary, and reduce.

- Cook the lobster meat briefly in some of the lobster butter.

- Mash the potatoes.  Use the stock, the lobster butter, some
  cream, and some truffle oil in the potatoes.

When I first tasted them, I thought not bad; this could work. The lobster flavor stood out just enough to make it interesting. But by the time we had them with dinner, they'd changed. They tasted bland, bland, bland. The lobster was overcooked and the potatoes had no trace of lobster flavor. Worse yet, they tasted grainy. I think this is because I'd substituted the lobster stock for much of the cream.

I made several mistakes during preparation, but even though I could possibly do things a bit better, I decided not to serve it at my Thanksgiving dinner. It just didn't show enough promise.

Beet-cream sauce

The lobster dish had one saving grace: the sauce served with it. Ironically, the sauce was thrown together as an afterthought and was the product of several mistakes and poor choices.

I'd intended to create something along the lines of Keller's Red Beet Essence, which I'd had at the French Laundry. But that sauce begins with beet juice, which my local store does not carry. So I just bought some beets, sure that I could make something similar using the raw materials.

I decided to start by roasting the beets. (To do so, just coat them liberally in olive oil, salt and pepper, and put them in a pan in the oven at 350 degrees for about an hour or until a knife slides easily through them.)

I then peeled them and ran them through the blender. It seemed like the right thing to do.

I peered into the blender. I saw beet mush. Far too thick to be a sauce. "Fine," I thought. "I'll strain it."

I poured the contents of the blender into a strainer. The beet mush just sat there, defiantly, refusing to strain.

I used the back of a ladle to lightly work the beet puree through the strainer, taking care not to force it through. I threw away the remaining beet matter, about 1/4 of the original volume. But the puree that remained was still far too thick to be a sauce.

What could I thin it with? White wine seemed like a good choice. I combined equal parts beet puree and white wine in a saucepan and left it over medium heat for a few minutes; just long enough for the alcohol to burn away. I added salt and pepper to taste. It wasn't bad. Pretty good, actually. But it was still a bit too rough-edged.

So I took it off the heat and stirred in a few tablespoons of heavy cream to mellow it out. The sauce turned a bright fuscha. I wasn't sure how to take that.

The resulting sauce is very flavorful. The color is quite distinctive, so it can be a powerful element in the presentation of a dish. It's easy to make, and I imagine it can be prepared well in advance. (Just don't stir in the cream until just before serving.)

I'm glad to be able to add this sauce to my small but growing arsenal.

Seafood and the Circus

So, tonight: dinner at Waterfront, and then Cirque Du Soleil. Seafood and the circus -- call it a non-traditional Thanksgiving. I'm looking forward to it. Have a great holiday.

November 28, 2002 in old_site, recipes, side_dishes | Permalink | Comments (0)