Still Memorable

One year ago, I was sitting in a small corporate apartment in Cupertino, California, scanning Craigslist for a home in San Francisco. My husband had been here for two months already, having landed his dream job. The cats were here and getting settled, enjoying a little more sunlight than what was typical for Chicago this time of the year. Things were changing much more quickly than we had intended, that’s for sure.

But all that being said, I was so excited I couldn’t stand it. It was that “pee in your pants kind of excited” – know what I mean?! And one year later, I know for sure it was the best decision ever.

I think I knew that the second he accepted his job. I think I knew the year before that we could live in California. And ironically enough, after reading back through a past trip to wine country, I laughed at the fact that I’d suggested it then. Clearly, this was all meant to be.

And don’t get me wrong – I love North Carolina and I love Chicago. But this is home now. Sure, there have been adjustments made along the way. We’re outdoors more, we commute longer, we spend more money on wine, and we never ever worry about snow. We also miss many folks who are now even farther away, including our family. We see them all less than we’d like, but we try to make up for it in phone calls and internet face time and email. It’s not the same, but it is a good effort, and we get by with it.

This pudding is similar in that respect. It is a somewhat last-minute adjustment. I’d planned on making a roasted banana pudding for dessert this past Valentines day, but as per usual Whole Foods seemed to only carry ultra unripened ‘naners. So instead of making lackluster ‘naner puddin’, I picked up some strawberries instead, since they seem to always be in season out here. Hopefully they’ll be coming to a market near you soon, too.

With a couple of necessary changes, the puddin’ turned out to be pretty awesome, maybe even better than what I’d planned, when it came down to it. It’s a good example of how not going off of what’s written on paper worked – how taking a chance paid off in the end. And now, it’s not the same as hopping off to California, but it’s still memorable nonetheless.

Basil Balsamic Strawberry Pudding
inspired by Cooking Light; serves 4

time commitment: 2 hours (1 hour is for chilling the pudding)

printable version

ingredients
1.5 lbs fresh strawberries, cut into thin slices
2 T balsamic vinegar
1 c skim milk
1/3 c sugar, divided
1/4 c basil, whole
1 T arrowroot powder or cornstarch
pinch of salt
1 egg
1/2 T butter
1 t vanilla extract
6 oz frozen whipped topping, thawed
18 vanilla wafers, divided

instructions
pre-heat oven to 350.

Place strawberries on a sheet pan and drizzle them with balsamic vinegar. Bake at 350 for 15 minutes. Remove and cool completely.

Combine milk and 1/3 cup sugar in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer (do not boil). Add basil.

Combine remaining 1/3 cup sugar, cornstarch, salt, and eggs in a medium bowl; stir well with a whisk. Gradually add hot milk mixture (removing basil beforehand) to sugar mixture, stirring constantly with a whisk. Return milk mixture to pan. Cook over medium heat until thick and bubbly (about 3 minutes), stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Add half of the cooled strawberries, butter, and vanilla, stirring until butter melts. Place pan in a large ice-filled bowl for 15 minutes or until mixture comes to room temperature, stirring occasionally. Fold half of whipped topping into pudding.

Spread 1/8 of the custard into the bottom of four single serving dishes or glasses. Top each with 2 vanilla wafers and distribute half of the remaining strawberries on top. Spoon the rest of the custard into the dishes over strawberries. Repeat procedure with 2 more wafers in each dish followed by the remaining strawberries. Distribute the remaining half of whipped topping evenly over the top of each. Crush remaining 2 wafers; sprinkle over top. Refrigerate for 1 hour or until chilled.

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Just the Two of Us

In almost 3 years of blogging, there are a lot of recipes around these parts. And among all the ones seafood-centric, not a one of them involves scallops.

This is going to change that, and majorly.

Chris and I usually do like everyone else and head out to a restaurant for Valentine’s day, whereby all the wait and cook staff forced to work that night provide somewhat lackluster food at dilated prices. It never stops us though – and it’s not like we go to restaurants we’ve been eyeing for years, or places we’ve never been to – we go to the same places we’d go any other weekend. That said, it seems just as reasonable to stay home and just be together, saving the tasting menus and parking hassles for another night.

So we did this year. I mean, at least this year Chris wasn’t about to hop on a plane and move to California without me for two months, right?! So there was certainly plenty to celebrate – a March and April free of selling a condo, shipping our belongings across the country, tempering territorial cats, living out of a suitcase, and apartment-shopping. Instead, months of continuing to settle in and absolutely adore everything different about this year was something definitely in need of appreciating.

So I decided it was well past time to make scallops. I picked up a half dozen oysters, too. We hung out in the kitchen together – me searing scallops and making this amazing lemongrass-tomato sauce, and Chris shucking oysters and putting together a nice, spicy mignonette to eat them with. We even ate at the dining room table like civilized folk. Or do civilized folk eat on the floor in front of the TV, desperately trying to catch up on episodes of Castle or CSI? Because if that’s the case, then we are ultra-civilized. I can’t decide…

Either way, I enjoyed the way things turned out that night. I enjoyed being home, a little music in the background, not having to worry at all that the cooks would serve me raw pork chop (V-day 2009) or that someone would propose in a super cheesy way nearby (V-day 2004) or that we’d be drunk and stumbling home in the cold (V-day 2011). We just ate together, the two of us.

And this dinner was freaking awesome, to boot.

Seared Scallops in Lemongrass-Tomato Sauce
adapted from Self Magazine, 2008 via Epicurious; serves 2 

this recipe was originally slated for 8, probably as an appetizer. I pared it down and made it for 2, but you’ll still have leftover sauce. it would go great on any seafood or even on pasta, so don’t throw it out!

time commitment: 45 minutes

printable version

ingredients
2 T canola oil, divided
1/2 onion, chopped
4 stalks lemongrass, dry leaves removed, stems pounded; cut into 3-inch lengths*
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 red Thai bird chiles, finely chopped*
1 c dry white wine
1 can (14 ounce) whole tomatoes, plus juice
1/4 c Thai basil
1/4 c fresh mint
1/4 c cilantro sprigs
1/2 c baby arugula
Juice from 1/2 lime
10 jumbo sea scallops

*lemongrass and Thai chiles can be found abundantly in Asian markets (Thai chiles are sometimes in their freezer section) or in well-stocked grocery stores, like some good-sized Whole Foods.

instructions
Heat 1 t canola oil in a large, nonstick pan over low heat. Cook onion with a pinch of salt until translucent, about 8 minutes. Stir in lemon grass, garlic and chiles. Add wine. Raise heat to high, then simmer 4 minutes. Add tomatoes and juice; break apart tomatoes. Simmer until sauce thickens, about 15 minutes. Remove lemongrass and discard; puree the rest in a blender until smooth. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm.

Meanwhile, toss basil through arugula together in a bowl; season with salt and pepper. Whisk lime juice and 2 t oil together, then add to salad and sit aside.

Season scallops with salt and pepper. Heat a large nonstick pan over high heat 1 minute; add 1/2 T oil. Cook 5 scallops 1 minute; reduce heat to medium-high; cook undisturbed until golden, about 4 minutes. Turn scallops over; cook 3 minutes more. Remove from heat. Repeat with remaining 1/2 T oil and 5 scallops. Divide scallops and sauce and serve with salad.

Better Late Than Never

Man, long weekends really do fly by, don’t they? For those of us with so-called regular 8-5’s, a standard Saturday-Sunday weekend never seems like long enough – no matter how much you like your job. For whatever reason, the few and far between holiday ‘long weekends’ never seem much better, once it’s all said and done.

Except for this weekend – we seemed to cram quite a bit o’ fun into those three days; a tradition I think I can stick to easily, quite honestly.

The weekend started off with a trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market with Chris and my fellow SF transplant via Chicago friend, Judy. While I do adore Chicago’s Green City Market, I have to vote for SF’s markets, hands down, but given the plethora of fresh produce in these parts it’d be hard not to. For starters, I found a stand indoors that specializes in mushrooms and guess what they also brought on the field trip to the market – ramps! Holy hell it took a lot for me to hold it together, but I did – just barely.

Needless to say, ramps were purchased and grilled this weekend. But also! There are fresh oysters at the end of a mere 60-minute line. You don’t get that at most markets, do ya? Probably overpriced, but totally worth it that day.

Saturday ended with an x-box date with Jennifer & Jon (laugh it up, but it is totally awesome), and Sunday was pretty much grill/beer/friends fest. Also, a lot of youtube videos. There was plenty of solid food that will be discussed in a matter of time, but at the forefront of my mind is ice cream.

Oh, right. Saturday also consisted of a trip to The Haight, and Ben & Jerry’s. But that’s not the ice cream that’s on my mind, you see.

It seems I’m grabbing up all of Spring’s produce at the last minute: ramps, strawberries, rhubarb, even fava beans. I figure: better late than never, right? Things stick around a little bit longer out here, and I had to remind myself that even though the produce is more prevalent, it will eventually run out – even here. I got lucky with the ramps, and the rhubarb doesn’t seem to be quite as abundant as I’d expected, either.

Nonetheless, find some I did, and with it I put the ol’ ice cream maker to work for the first time this year. Eating homemade ice cream always leaves me feeling a little bit sheepish, kicking myself in the ass for not making more frozen treats than I do.

Because when your holiday Monday is spent by taking a 2-hour bike trip through the park and to the beach (the beach!) and back, finished off by lounging in the park with a husband, a magazine, and a beer, there’s only one thing that’s missing from that equation, and that’s a pint of fresh, homemade ice cream.

Strawberry-Basil-Rhubarb Ice Cream
adapted from Cooking Light, May 2010; serves 8

time commitment: less than 1 hour for preparing ice cream + at least 8 hours to freeze afterwards

printable version

ingredients
2 1/2 c reduced fat milk
3/4 c half-and-half
1 handful of fresh basil (~1/2 c)
1 c sugar, divided
3 egg yolks
3 stalks of rhubarb
1/3 c Malbec or other red wine
1 lb fresh chopped strawberries

instructions
Combine milk, half-and-half, and basil in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Heat milk mixture to 180° or until tiny bubbles form around edge (do not boil). Combine 1/2 cup sugar and egg yolks in a large bowl, stirring with a whisk until pale yellow. Remove basil and gradually add half of hot milk mixture to egg yolk mixture, stirring constantly with a whisk. Pour the egg yolk mixture into pan with remaining milk mixture; cook over medium-low heat until a thermometer registers 160° (about 2 minutes), stirring constantly. Place pan in a large ice-filled bowl for 20 minutes or until custard cools completely, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, combine remaining 1/2 cup sugar, rhubarb, and wine in a saucepan over medium-high heat; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 8 minutes or until rhubarb is tender and liquid is syrupy. Remove from heat; let stand 10 minutes. Combine rhubarb mixture and strawberries in a blender; process until smooth. Strain mixture through a sieve over a bowl, pressing with a wooden spoon; discard solids. Stir rhubarb mixture into custard mixture.

Pour custard into the freezer can of an ice-cream freezer; freeze according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Pholicious

Okay. Remember how I’ve always said that I rarely make things more than once? I got bored a little bit ago (c’mon, people, I’m in Cupertino, California for the time being. It passes the time.) and I updated the recipe section (there are sections within sections now – watch out!). In doing so, I also made a list of the dishes I’ve actually made more than once on this site.

As it turns out, there are less than ten out of probably 200+ recipes on this blog that have been given this particular distinction. I was surprised there were that many, but nonetheless, here they are –

Paella. It requires getting your hands on Spanish chorizo, but when you do it is such a satisfying dish. I heart saffron.

Pad Thai. This one doesn’t require any explaining. It’s just a damn good recipe, and you should make it, too. Matter of fact, once I get settled, I’m going to make it again.

Deviled eggs. Okay, this one doesn’t really count. It’s a Thanksgiving dish that we just can’t live without. Plus, Luke eats like 5 of them so I think he’d miss it.

Puppy chow. The easiest party dish ever, so again, a no-brainer. 5 ingredients – 5!

Zucchini fries with romesco sauce. Seriously, what’s not to love? Although, making something twice isn’t that much to write home about, but I’d give these a third go if the timing was right…

Granola bars. Man, I want to make these NOW! I’m going to miss not being able to roll outta bed at 9 and eat cereal every morning (okay, 9 on a good day. there were a couple of 11 am wake-ups too, just a couple).

Vanilla-chai granola. Again – this would be really good in some Greek yogurt right. this. minute.

Baked pasta with squash and sweet potatoes. Creamy, vegetable-y goodness, all in one casserole dish.

B’stilla. Yes, Chris, I know I didn’t make this for you for your birthday this year. Clearly, we had other stuff going on. All in good time, love.

Nine. Nine! But there are at least 50 other dishes that got me drooling all over my Wallaby pineapple yogurt the other day. One day, I’ll revisit some of them. One day. But for now, I already have dish #10. I found a recipe for a quick version of pho (pronounced ‘fuh’) in Food & Wine last month, and since I’ve done nothing but think of pho since living in California (it’s awesome – noodle shops every mile or so, for real), I knew this dish could be a problem.

And it is. But such a good problem, though. I’ve already made it twice, and have so many leftover bunches of basil, bean sprouts, and scallions in the fridge that I decided it’s going back on the list this week. And sure, it’s not quite as delicious as the more time-consuming, traditional versions (including whatever they do at the actual restaurant here called Pholicious), but it’ll do for a quick weeknight meal.

Okay, okay. It’ll also do for lunch, a midnight snack, or a weekend meal with a movie and a bottle of wine. Just call it a multi-purpose dish, and make it.

Quick Vietnamese Pho
Adapted from Food & Wine, March 2011; serves 4

time commitment: less than 30 minutes

printable version

ingredients
5 c chicken stock or low-sodium broth
4 c water
2 T agave syrup
2 T finely grated fresh ginger
3 T low-sodium soy sauce*
1 8oz package thin brown (or white) rice noodles
3 T fresh lime juice, plus lime wedges, for serving
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 lb trimmed beef tenderloin, very thinly sliced across the grain
1 t dark sesame oil
1/2 c chopped basil
1/4 c chopped scallions
1 c mung bean sprouts
1 jalapeno, sliced thinly
Sriracha, for serving

*gluten-free available

instructions
in a large saucepan, combine the chicken stock with the water, agave syrup, grated ginger and soy sauce and bring to a boil. Add the noodles and simmer over low heat for 2 minutes. Add the lime juice and season with salt and pepper.

using tongs, transfer the noodles to bowls. Add the beef to the noodles and ladle the hot broth on top. Drizzle with the sesame oil and top with the basil, scallions and bean sprouts. Serve with lime wedges and chile sauce.

Corn Ninja

I’m not really into the act of completing house chores with a smile on my face. Nonetheless, I think Hubs and I remain as the only condo in our building of 6 without a regular housekeeper. For me, it’s not a matter of time, it’s a matter of priorities and overall dislike for cleaning, or for having any chores for that matter.

Fortunately, Hubs and I are relatively fair in our division of labor, but it still doesn’t mean that I get excited about cleaning the bathroom just because I don’t have to take out the trash or clean the litter box. My mind constantly reverts back to the ‘old days’ and my parents’ ‘money system’ – rather than giving a weekly allowance, we had to earn it by doing chores. And not like these days where kids get 5 buckaroos for unloading the dishwasher – we were luckly to get 50 cents per chore. I therefore mark 1 point in the “reasons to have kids” column for the sheer geniusness of that system; I can’t seem to think of any more points for that column just yet…

I do remember racking up on my allowance cash though, and as a result I have to say we had a pretty clean house growing up, and some bathroom sinks that shimmered so much you hated to brush your teeth (which who didn’t, anyway?) for fear you’d spew on the counter, or drip a blob of sparkly pink Barbie toothpaste into the bowl. Then again, at that point it would be ‘dirty’ and I could rack up oh, 25 cents to touch it up.

All of the chore reimbursements went out the window at gramma’s house. You see, grandparents like to have grandkids around for more than just cheek-pinching and babysitting – they also like to put ’em to work. Those of you who are grandparents are probably nodding at this point, but it wasn’t all smiles over here, partner. For one, days spent at the grandparents’ house meant days of no income, which is bad. For two, there was no Nintendo, which meant that all the while our high-scoring Mario game was getting beaten by someone else. And three, we really worked. We had to clean all the debris outta s’mores gramma’s pool, and pick up pine combs (cones…), and often we were forced to go to the grocery store and the Hardees with her and her friends so she could “show us off”.

Pound cake gramma was a little less militant, but I can’t tell you how many ears of corn I shucked, and even though that was one of the only things she made us do, I probably hated it more than all of the other chores put together. It was hot out there, and we all had to sit on the back porch with buckets, meanwhile the piles of corn to shuck seemed taller than us, and neverending. I rarely shucked a perfect ear, and she (or my dad) always made me go back and get the silky pieces off. I swear they must have grown back, because to me, those ears of corn were as naked as could be.

As a result of those days upon days of shucking corn, I gotta say – I’m pretty damn good at it now, and fast, too. If there were a corn shuckin’ race around these parts, I’d win it, no doubt. Just call me a corn ninja, ok? Gramma would certainly be proud.

This here recipe is summer in a bowl, and will definitely have you practicing your shuckin’ skillz. Corn takes the place of basil in this play on pesto, and while you might think it’s loaded with cream and butter, there’s none to be had. You’ll taste sweet corn in every single bite, and if that’s not the best taste of this month, I don’t know what is.

After you’ve shucked all the corn, it’s time to cut it off the cob, and often times that looks like a crime scene in a corn field after it’s all said and done, and half the corn is on the ground, or down your shirt, and who knows where else. If you’ve got a bundt pan handy, position the narrow end of the cob into the hole in the middle of the pan, and slice downward; the corn will magically fall directly into the pan, with barely any stragglers.

I’ve said it once and I’ll say these two words again – corn. ninja. Please and thankee sai.

Psst! It is almost vacay time, folks! Before we head out at literally the crack of dawn on Friday (probably even before..), I’d love some advice/suggestions. We’re heading into Portland, Oregon and driving all the way down to LA along the Pacific Coast Highway, with a short stop in Napa and thanks to one of you lovely people out there, a visit to a magical magical place while we’re there (and some wineries, of course). If you have any advice, recommendations, or maybe a quick comment about how jealous you are, bring it on!! Vacation is way overdue, and it’s gonna be a blast! (and no worries, I’ll keep you occupied on this front, too!)

Tagliatelle w/ Fresh Corn Pesto
Adapted from Bon Appetit, August 2010; serves 4

printable version

ingredients
4 bacon slices, cut into small pieces (lardons)
4 cups fresh corn kernels (cut from about 6 large ears) 
2 large garlic cloves, minced
salt & pepper
1/2 c freshly grated Parmesan cheese plus additional for serving
1/3 c walnuts, toasted
1/3 c evoo
8 oz tagliatelle (or fettucine, if you can’t find tagliatelle)
3/4 c coarsely torn fresh basil leaves, divided

instructions
Cook bacon in large nonstick skillet (or Dutch oven) over medium heat until crisp and brown, stirring often. Transfer to paper towels to drain (it is at this time that you should give a nibble or two to your cat, if you have one…). Pour off all but 1 T drippings from skillet (save drippings for another time – don’t waste that bacon fat!). Add corn, garlic, & a pinch of salt and pepper to drippings in skillet. Sauté over medium-high heat until corn is just tender but not brown, about 4 minutes. Transfer 1 1/2 c corn kernels to small bowl and reserve. Scrape remaining corn mixture into processor. Add 1/2 c Parmesan and walnuts. With machine running, add olive oil through feed tube and blend until pesto is almost smooth. Set pesto aside.

Cook pasta in large pot of boiling water until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally (for tagliatelle, this happens fast – in ~4 minutes). Drain, reserving 1 1/2 c pasta cooking liquid. Return pasta to pot. Add corn pesto, reserved corn kernels, and 1/2 cup basil leaves. Toss pasta mixture over medium heat until warmed through, adding reserved pasta cooking liquid by 1/4 cupfuls to thin to desired consistency, 2 to 3 minutes. Season pasta to taste with salt and pepper.

Transfer pasta to large shallow bowl. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup basil leaves and reserved bacon. Serve pasta, passing additional grated Parmesan alongside.

Redemption Song

{If you’re hoping for a recipe for the 4th, this probably isn’t it. But check here for a bunch of past summer recipe suggestions – there are plenty of things to be grilled, especially my favorite burgers!}

I’m not about to delve into my years as a young, semi-hell-raising teenager; on occasion, my mom reads this blog. But I’ll share a few tidbits.

In my family, I was the smart, oddly-dressed, middle child who, according to my sister, was never grounded and always got her way. Rightfully so, my senoir superlatives were as contrasting as apples and oranges: “most likely to be a millionaire” and “most retro”. Clearly, I failed to live up to the former, and in terms of the latter, I only occasionally wear polyester pants & platform shoes; in fact, the most retro I get these days is wearing a sleepytime t-shirt from the 90’s. And truthfully, I wasn’t grounded often. The key to avoiding such punishment is simple – don’t get your ass caught, sista.

I went through what you might call a hippie phase, and then a grunge phase, and then I couldn’t decide so I just went with both. Amidst the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin there was Pearl Jam and Nirvana. I rocked the “60’s retro-wear” on some days and my dad’s flannels and corduroy pants for the days I jammed to Jeremy and Porch. For a few months I shaved the back of my head and I still can’t figure out the point in that. Somewhere, Bob Marley fit into these crazy years too, but fortunately for me (and others) I never had the desire to abandon hygiene and “grow” dreadlocks. There’s still time for that…

I like to think that my musical choices haven’t changed, but have instead broadened. I still break out the grunge rock somewhat regularly, but less often do I find myself singing Sugar Magnolia or breezing through Songs of Freedom. I’m not sure I’d use the term evolve here, in fact I know I wouldn’t, because that implies a sense of improvement and lemme tell ya, you can’t improve upon that stuff. In fact right now I just changed my Pandora station to reggae. What the hell.

Now for the transition you’ve all been waiting for: in contrast to music, food choices do evolve, or mature. Remember the tomato story? Exactly. And sometimes you really get smacked in the face, front-on, by something you thought you hated, despised even, but then months later you realize how nutty you were, how naive, or maybe quite simply how horribly this certain ingredient was prepared.

This dish here is a perfect represention of food evolution, or redemption. The first time I made quinoa, I almost spit it out because it “felt weird”. Then I learned how to cook it. And remember my diatribe about escarole? Well, ignore it. When I pulled it out of the CSA box last week, I stared at it, wondering how many sleepless hours I’d endure if I just casually tossed it in the garbage. The answer? too many, because food costs good money and wasting it is lame. So I sucked it up and found a good hot preparation for some of it that was reasonably yummy (and not overly bitter), and then used the rest of it in the recipe below instead of the suggested spinach. Maybe I got a bad batch before, or maybe this batch from a local, organic farm was just better. Either way, both quinoa and escarole have redeemed themselves.

So now, if you’ll excuse me, I have leftovers to eat and jammin’ to do.

Quinoa, Bean, & Escarole Salad w/ Smoked Paprika Dressing
Loosely adapted from Bon Appetit, July 2010; serves 6-8

ingredients
1 1/2 c red quinoa (regular works too), rinsed & drained
4 c chopped escarole or other bitter green
1 can garbanzo beans, drained & rinsed (or dried, cooked beans)
1 can white beans, drained & rinsed (or dried, cooked beans)
1/2 unpeeled English cucumber, halved and sliced
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
3 T fresh oregano, chopped
3 T fresh basil, chopped
1 c crumbled feta cheese (~5 oz)
1/4 c Sherry wine vinegar
1 T sweet smoked paprika
1/2 c olive oil
2 T lemon juice
salt and pepper

instructions
place quinoa in large saucepan and add water until quinoa is covered by 1 inch. bring to boil and reduce heat; simmer on med-low for 15 minutes. drain, if needed and let cool completely (toss out on sheetpan and refrigerate if needed).

combine lettuce, beans, cucumber, tomatoes, oregano, basil, and feta in an extra-large bowl. add cooled quinoa and toss gently.

in a small bowl, whisk vinegar and paprika together. slowly add olive oil, whisking constantly until incorporated. season with salt and pepper. pour over salad and mix. add lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper.

Foodbuzz 24×24: The Last Supper

This is the post where I bash vegetarianism. But only after a night full of meatless, fishless fare, loads of wine, and 6.5 people to consume it all.

I have a horrible habit of blurting out my opinions with reckless abandon. Not thinking before I speak. I’ve been accused of having no ‘mental filter’, whatever the hell that nonsense is. And this ‘no meat’ business, it happened in much that same way: a quality i generally admire in myself (although others may not) backfired. I was the victim of my uncensored words, this time.

You see, for those of you who’ve not been reading along this month, it’s been a long month of vegetarian-occasional-pescaterian-ism in these parts, and it’s all my fault. I thought it sounded like a good “project”, and I blurted it out, and so it was. I’d made an assertion, and I’ve stuck to it.

In that respect, I’m what you might call a “sure thing”: if I tell you I’m doing something, I will do it. If I RSVP “yes”, I will be there. And by golly (I’m lame too, you see) if I say I’m going vege(pesca)tarian for a month, I’m damn well going to make sure it happens, even if the Hubs sticks his pulled pork, brisket, AND his crisp pork belly from People right underneath my nose. Come to think of it, that guy is lucky to be alive, isn’t he?!


{adventures in semi-molecular gastronomy: the making of tomato gelee}

So – longish story a wee bit shorter, but still long, that’s what this post is about. The Last Supper as a wannebee (or not) vegetarian. And yeah, I ate a little fish, I even ate a little shrimp, and I may or may not have licked the juice from the stranger’s burger last week, but this meal you see here is 100% vegetarian. I even used agar agar instead of gelatin for my fancy gelee; I’m hardcore like that. And fancy, too.

Quite honestly, I don’t see how these ‘high-end’ restaurants do these tasting menus. Well, maybe I do: they have a brigade system, for one. And Foodbuzz may offer cash incentives for their monthly hoorahs, but they don’t staff these parties… So, friends, I was chef de cuisine for the night, but I was also my own sous chef, and for the most part, my own plongeur and certainly my own pâtissier. Prep started on Wednesday when I got the urge to make caramel powder. I almost ate it all that night, but I decided to share. And Thursday involved a quick trip to Crate and Barrel for a couple of missing pieces, a Whole Foods excursion (which, why don’t I always go on weeknights? it is so very quiet there after 7), and more prep – making the base for the ice cream, cubing some bread I made a month ago and froze (not for this party, I should say, but why buy brioche when you have frozen cardamom-spiced bread that you made from scratch?!), and getting my plan of attack put together for the rest of my time before Saturday, which included a lot of research about spherification, gelees, and preparing risotto restaurant-style.

With much of the work behind me, Saturday was actually manageable. Thanks to the 3-day weekend, I skirted outta work early on Friday and prepped a bit more, and then celebrated (yeah, I really made this month a big deal, didn’t I?) with a penultimate dinner at Green Zebra (go there, even if you love meat – read about our experience here). After a trip to Green City Market for my local ingredients (‘shrooms, rhubarb, asparagus, un baguette, etc), it was prep ’til service, but in a totally unchaotic way, which is far different than I’d imagined.

Before long, I’d managed to squeeze in some quality book-reading, and then it was “go-time” once everyone arrived. Fortunately, Katherine & Brook (newlyweds – say congrats everyone!) brought apps and wine, Ryan & Caroline (along with Hudson, who I promise didn’t drink any, or not much…) brought more apps and a drink I thought only my sister drank, and I, since I volunteered, got the short end of the stick, and finished it up with 4 courses of veggie fare.

Here’s the dishes:

First Course, Savory: Tomato, Basil, Mozzarella ‘Salad’. This was my insane attempt at molecular gastronomy, and I gotta give mad props to Grant Achatz, because this shit is a lot of work, and he has 10 components on his dishes – this was supposed to be two and a half: mozzarella spheres powder, tomato gelee, and basil oil. Lesson: don’t start molecular gastronomy spherification with mozzarella; start slowly with easy liquids, and not during a dinner party :).

Second Course, Savory: Carrot-Ginger Soup with Chili Butter, Roasted Peanuts, & Crostini. This is what we’d call the ‘easy course’. I think soup is best made in advance so the flavors develop, and making it Friday, rewarming Saturday, was perfect. Plus, who doesn’t like butter in the shape of a star? I knew those ice cube trays would be used one day!

Third Course, Savory: Truffled Mushroom & Spring Vegetable Risotto with Fried Egg. Hmm… I think this was the trickiest. Risotto is best served immediately, but clearly restaurants have to have another way, or they’d have a 30-minute wait just for risotto, which would be stupid. So, you cook it 2/3’s, chill it quickly, and finish it off before service. Add a fried egg on top and you certainly don’t miss the meat. You do, however, miss the full effect of the finished product, because I was intent on getting the hot egg to the table ASAP, and sacrificed the pic to do so. So just imagine that over-easy fried egg atop.

Fourth Course, Sweet: Rhubarb-Ginger Cardamom Bread Pudding, Cardamom-Vanilla Ice Cream, and Caramel Powder. You’re gonna have to hold your horses for this one, friends, because it’s very special and in need of the spotlight. Full post (with recipe) coming soon.

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I gotta be honest here: I am so freakin’ glad this month is almost over, at which point I’ll stop whining and thinking of all the food I’ve missed out on because of my silly ideas.

But….

I have eaten (and cooked) some really good vegetarian food these last 30 days. From Korean tacos to ramp pesto pizza to Green Zebra and now this big ol’ dinner. When you’re actually eating a vegetarian meal, you don’t know what you’re missing, quite honestly. But for me, only choosing to eat vegetarian to “see if I could”, I couldn’t help thinking about what I really was missing, because many times I would have rather eaten meat.

Is it healthier to eat vegetarian? It shouldn’t even be a question. But the answer is no, and if you’re surprised, I’ll tell you why it’s not. For a typical person eating vegetarian food (and when I say typical, I’m comparing that to a vegetarian who eats salads all the time – your stereotypical vegetarian), you are drawn to the heartier recipes – which are cheese-laden and overflowing with carbohydrate – both in a meagar effort to make up for the lacking protein. On the other hand, you do eat more fruits and vegetables, which is without a doubt healthier. And certainly, a balance is probably best, at the end of the day: some meats during the week, a bunch of whole grains, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Maybe flexitarian is where it’s at.

And maybe one day I’ll consider it. But for the next few weeks, you best believe I’m loading up on pork, beef, lamb, and even chicken. Come to mama.

 The First Course:

Tomato, Basil, & Mozzarella Salad
Inspired by Alinea; makes at least 6 with extra tomatoes and oil

printable recipe

ingredients
tomato gelee (recipe below)
6 small mozzarella balls, sliced in half
basil oil (recipe below)
balsamic vinegar
Maldon sea salt

instructions
assemble each component on small plate. basil oil and balsamic vinegar first, then tomato, then mozzarella. sprinkle with a tiny bit of sea salt.

Tomato Gelee

ingredients
1 lb heirloom tomatoes
salt and pepper
1 T olive oil
drizzle of black truffle oil (optional)
agar agar (quantities below)

instructions
Blanch tomatoes (score bottom of tomatoes, boil for about 2-3 minutes, shock in ice water bath) and peel. Chop roughly and dump in food processor;  add salt, pepper, olive oil. Puree until smooth and strain. Measure liquid content, and dump in saucepan. For every 1 cup of juice, add 1 T agar agar to mixture and bring to boil; simmer for about 5 minutes. Pour into desired container (such as rubber ice cube trays). Cool until firm. Can be made 1-2 days in advance.

Basil Oil

ingredients
1 ½ c fresh basil
¾ c evoo

instructions
blanch basil for 20 seconds. rinse with cold water and pat dry. puree fresh basil and olive oil until smooth; strain. Can be made three days ahead.

The Second Course:

Carrot-Ginger Soup with Chile Butter, Roasted Peanuts, and Crostini
Adapted from Bon Appetit, May 2010 ; serves 6-8

printable version

ingredients
chile butter
1/4 c (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 T finely chopped green onions or ramps
1/2 t dried crushed red pepper

soup
2 T butter
¼ t curry powder
¼ t hot smoked paprika
¼ t cumin
1 1/2 lbs carrots, peeled, cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
1 1/4 c chopped onion
5 oz taro root (~2 small, or white-skinned potato), peeled, chopped
3 1/2 T minced peeled fresh ginger
4 c vegetable broth
1 c water + more for thinning soup, if needed
2 T heavy cream
splash of balsamic vinegar
6 T unsalted roasted peanuts, finely chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
fresh baguette, sliced and toasted

instructions
For chile butter
Mix all ingredients in small bowl. Cover and chill (or pour into shaped molds and chill). Bring to room temperature before using.  

for soup
Melt 2 T butter in large pot over medium-high heat. Add carrots, onion, taro root, and ginger; sprinkle with salt and sauté until vegetables are slightly softened but not brown, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Add 4 cups broth and 1 cup of water; bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are soft, about 20 minutes. Cool slightly, then puree in batches in blender until smooth or all at once using an immersion blender, without leaving the pot. Return soup to same pot; if desired, add more water by 1/4 cupfuls to thin soup (I added at least 1 cup). Bring to simmer. Season with salt and black pepper and add heavy cream and a splash of balsamic vinegar at end to freshen.

The Third Course:                                                                                  

Truffled Mushroom & Veggie Risotto with Fried Eggs
serves 6-8

printable version

ingredients
5 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, divided
1 lb chopped shitake mushrooms
1 T black truffle oil
salt and pepper
1/2 lb diced trimmed asparagus
1/2 lb fennelhead ferns, cleaned well (if unavailable, use asparagus)
3/4 c chopped onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 c carneroli (or arborio) rice
3/4 c dry white wine
4 c vegetable broth
3 c water
3/4 c 1/3-inch cubes carrots
1 c freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese plus additional for serving
1/4 c chopped fresh parsley
1 T evoo
6 large eggs (one for each person)

instructions
melt 3 T butter in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms; sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add truffle oil, simmer for about 1 minute. Season mushrooms with salt and pepper. Set aside.

meanwhile, blanch asparagus and fennelhead ferns (separately). boil asaparagus for about 2 minutes then shock in cold water; boil fennelhead for about 3. set aside.

In a saucepan, heat veggie broth and water. keep heat on low while making risotto.

melt 2 T butter in large, heavy pot over medium heat. Add onion; sauté until beginning to soften, 5 minutes. Add garlic; stir 1 minute. Add rice and stir for about 5 minutes. Add wine. Stir until liquid is absorbed, 1 minute. Add 1 cup broth. Simmer until broth is absorbed, stirring often, 3 to 4 minutes. Add carrots. Continue to add remaining broth/water, 1 cup at a time, until rice is just tender and mixture is creamy, stirring often and letting almost all liquid be absorbed after each addition, about 25 minutes total.

Stir 1 cup cheese, parsley, mushrooms, and blanched veggies into risotto. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook eggs, without turning, until whites are cooked through and yolks are cooked to desired doneness.

Mound 1 cup risotto on each plate. Top each with egg. Serve, passing additional cheese.

The real bacon-lover: