Friday, May 30, 2014

Baba's House

I've been fortunate enough to have a number of great culinary influences in my life. At the top of the list, is my grandmother. I call her "Baba", short for Babushka, the Russian word for Grandma as opposed to that scarf thing that you wear on your head when you're pretending to be a poor Soviet immigrant.

I'm up in Seattle this week visiting my grandparents and gratefully being fed in copious amounts by my grandmother. While I'm here, I've been taking notes on her recipes and favorite dishes. I plan to start making and recording them with more regularity. It's an incredible gift to have recipes for dishes that someone has been making for over 60 years... maybe for over 70 years. I should ask her when she officially started cooking, but I suspect it began in her own grandmother's kitchen.

My grandmother is the type of woman who is happiest in her kitchen. She has been cooking, baking, making jams, preserving vegetables, and making incredible meals from scratch since well before my time. My grandparents rarely go out to restaurants, because as my grandfather says, "Why would we eat anywhere else when the best food is here?" My grandfather is my grandmother's number one fan, both of her cooking and otherwise. In fact, I'm currently in negotiations to take them out to lunch this week and to give my grandmother a short break from cooking. My grandma is in, but my grandfather is still resistant.

And he's right. It's hard to imagine wanting to eat other places when you have one of the world's greatest chefs cooking all of your meals.

Above is a photo of a perfectly ordinary weeknight meal for these two. Shown above:
1) Homemade marinated roasted peppers
2) Homemade eggplant salad (roasted eggplant, fresh tomatoes and green onion)
3) Perfectly roasted chicken that had been stuffed with cut up golden delicious apples, lemons and prunes
4) Homemade marinated shitake mushrooms
5) A mix of cauliflower, broccoli, and sauteed and browned enoki mushrooms
6) Sliced challah bread on the side

I've often heard that Russian food is considered bad, but I beg to differ. This Russian food is as delicious as it is soul-warming. 

UPDTAE: My mother helpfully pointed out we shouldn't even really refer to my grandmother's cooking as "Russian Food." Our family's cuisine was influenced by multiple places and ethnicities. For one, our family was living in Ukraine (not Russia) for many years, which at the time when they lived there, had a more abundant harvest of fresh produce than Russia proper, and where the cooking was influenced by neighboring Romania. Also and significantly, Jewish cooking had its own unique qualities as compared to strictly Ukrainian or Russian cooking. Lastly, my grandmother's mother actually came from Odessa, which is a port city where various ethnicities merged and influenced what people ate and cooked. So there. Thanks mom!

Recipes to follow in the coming months...

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The best chocolate chip cookie

People tend to fall into two camps: those that like crisp chocolate chip cookies, and those that prefer them chewy. For me, I want a cookie with a slightly crisp edge that is chewy in the center. I don't want a cookie that's too doughy, hard, or crunchy. We can agree to disagree if your preferences don't align.

In the quest for the perfect cookie, I have come to terms with the fact that I will probably continue to pursue a flawless, un-improvable chocolate chip cookie recipe. True perfection may take years to master, and my definition of perfection may change. However, I'm getting pretty close...

A number of things are crucial to the success of this recipe:
1) Cooking time and temperature
2) Equipment
3) The size of your scoop of cookie dough
4) Butter in addition to shortening
5) Starting with ingredients at room temp

Those things matter a lot, but it's important to note that your results will differ based on the fact that every egg is different, the way each person scoops their flour differs, the lightness or darkness of your baking sheet affects the cookie, the quality and type of your sugar matters, the type of chocolate chip you use makes a difference, and so on and so forth. Just like pizza, your cookie will taste good even if it doesn't always match up to your dreams. But if you're unsatisfied with the results, keep fiddling with those things until you arrive at your cookie nirvana.

The one thing that everyone says makes the biggest difference is baking the cookies on a baking stone. I don't own a baking stone (yet), but my stubborn side also feels like there has to be a way to create cookie perfection on a baking sheet. I've done it before with other recipes, so why should this type of cookie be any different?

There are a lot of similar recipes on the Internet, and I have tried so many that my own recipe is derived from all of them. Most recently, I have been using this recipe as my starting point, sent along to me by my friend. After I made these cookies, I found this post which has a similar recipe, and if you want to get super technical it has all the info you need. I'd like to thank all the chocolate chip cookie makers who have come before me and already discovered these ratios... I'm happy I'm catching up.

Classic Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes 36 cookies

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt (table salt, which has a different sodium content than kosher salt)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temp
1/2 cup organic vegetable shortening, at room temp
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temp
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 10 oz bag chocolate chips (I like Ghirardelli 60% bittersweet chocolate baking chips for their size and flavor) - I also am a fan of mixing 1/2 dark and 1/2 milk chocolate chips)

Preheat the oven to 350°F/176°C.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, sift together your flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In a stand mixer using the paddle attachment, beat together the room temp butter, shortening, white and brown sugar. Beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, no less than 3 minutes, and you can go as long as 5 minutes. You can't over beat your dough at this point.

On medium low, add the eggs one at a time until fully incorporated. Add the vanilla extract. Beat for a minute.

On low, slowly add your flour mixture to the egg mixture a little at a time. Mix until just incorporated. You can over-beat your dough at this point, so don't let the flour mix too long. If you're nervous, stop the stand mixer, take the bowl out, and finish mixing up the wet and dry ingredients with a wooden spoon. Fold in your chocolate chips until they are evenly incorporated. Again, be careful not to over mix. Place your dough in the fridge for 20-30 minutes (truthfully, it didn't make THAT much of a difference whether or not I chilled the dough first, but lots of people swear this step is crucial... so there you go).

At this stage, an inexpensive piece of equipment makes a huge difference in the outcome of the cookie. I use a 1.5 tablespoon ice cream scoop to make even balls of cookie dough. I use that same ice cream scoop for meatballs, matzoh balls, and for ice cream (of course). It's a good investment and really helps these cookies become the right shape and size.

Scoop out 12, 1.5 tablespoon-sized balls of dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Space each piece of dough a few inches apart. Resist the urge to flatten the dough. The cookies come out less chewy when I've done this.

Bake the cookies in the oven for 8-9 minutes or until the edges are just slightly starting to turn golden. Your cookies will look a little underdone. Don't worry about that. If you want a chewy cookie, err on the side of under-doness. Also, the cookies will continue to cook as they cool. Keep the cookies on the baking sheet for 2 minutes (no more). Transfer them to a cooling rack so that they can cool properly. This final step is as important as any of the ones that came before it. If you leave the cookies in the pan, they will continue to cook and will potentially become too dry and won't stay chewy. That would be a bummer. A cooling rack is another great inexpensive investment, and a must for anyone that likes to bake things.

Let the cookies cool for 8-10 minutes, or for as long as you can resist biting into one. Serve with milk. Cookies will stay chewy and great for 3-5 days after baking, but they probably won't last that long. You can also scoop and freeze the dough. If you are baking frozen cookies, make sure the dough comes to room temp (about 30 minutes) before you bake them in the oven.

Happy cookie baking!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Turkish Pogaca - Savory Pastry

I have an awesome sister-in-law, and she happens to be half Turkish. The merging of her family with ours means that I've been introduced to all sorts of wonderful Turkish foods. Her mom is a fantastic cook, and recently visited us in L.A. One of the dishes she made was Pogaca (pronounced poh-ah-cha). She was kind enough to let me watch her make this popular Turkish savory pastry, which is lovely at tea-time, breakfast, or as a snack. I took careful notes, because these are delicious and I wanted the recipe for my arsenal.

I love learning recipes from mothers/fathers/grandmothers and people who have been making stuff for decades without a recipe. I love watching home cooks prepare food with ease and grace, as though the recipe is part of their DNA; it always appears as though the seasoned home cook is relying on sensory memory and little more.

These lovely things are quite easy to make, even if you're not Turkish and haven't been cooking them for years. The dough is really nice, and requires no yeast or rising time or special equipment or any other nonsense. I filled the pastry with a combination of spinach and feta, but you could fill pogaca with any kind of vegetable, potato, meat, or fruit that you are inspired to fill them with.

Spinach and Feta Pogaca
From Ayse's family recipe, makes 24-26 pogaca

for the pastry
2 cups flour + more as needed for dusting
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk plain yogurt 
1 cup melted butter or canola oil
1 large egg white
1-2 large egg yolk(s)
sesame seeds to garnish

for the filling
3 cups chopped frozen spinach (you can use fresh if you prefer)
3 scallions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 oz. or 3/4 cup crumbled feta
1/2 cup dill, chopped fine
salt and lots of freshly ground pepper

for the dough-
In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking soda and salt. Lightly stir the mixture until combined. Make a well in the flour, add the melted (cooled) butter or oil, yogurt, and egg white. Combine everything with your hands until a dough forms. The dough will be sticky and slightly wet, but you'll know it's right if it does not really stick to your hands (which it won't). If it is super wet and sticky, add a little more flour until it doesn't stick to your hands when you pick it up. It should look more or less like this:
That's it! Your dough is done. Ayse uses the dough immediately, but she told me about a relative that insists it needs to be in the fridge for several hours before you use it. She hasn't found any significant difference between letting the dough chill and using it immediately. I put mine in the fridge for 30 minutes while I made the filling; that seemed to help it firm up and made it easy to use. If you're impatient for pastry, it clearly works without letting it rest.

for the filling-
Add a tablespoon of olive oil to a pan on medium heat. Once the pan heats up, add the scallions and garlic to the oil. Sauté the garlic and onion for a minute until fragrant, then add the frozen spinach. The nice thing about the frozen spinach is that it is already wilted down and all that. You can use fresh spinach, but you will probably need to squeeze out the extra liquid in it once it has cooked before you add it to the pastry, otherwise it may be too wet. I sauté the spinach, onions and garlic together until the moisture has fully evaporated from the spinach (it will start to stick to the pan). Add salt and pepper to season the spinach to your liking. 

Transfer your spinach mixture to a bowl and let it cool. I speed this process up by sticking it in the freezer. Once it has cooled, add the feta and dill to the spinach and mix everything together. Now, you're ready to assemble your pogaca.

to assemble-
Preheat your oven to 350°F/176°C.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Dust your cutting board generously with flour. Have more waiting on standby. The dough is sticky and the extra flour is essential. 

Take a heaping tablespoon sized amount of dough, and flatten it into an oval with your hand. Make sure the dough doesn't stick to the board, if it does dust it with a little more flour. You can see how imprecise this process is, and you can also see that there's a lot of flour hanging out on the board. :

Fill each oval with about a teaspoon of filling. Fold over the dough and press it together with your fingers. Because the dough is so sticky and wonderful, you won't need to do much to close up these pockets of filling. Basically, you want to form the pogaca into an empanada shape.

Place the folded up pogaca onto your lined baking sheet.

Make an egg wash by lightly beating your egg yolk. Using a pastry brush, brush the egg yolk onto the top of the pastry. Depending on the size of your yolk, you may need to use 2 yolks to brush all of the pogaca. Sprinkle tops of the dough with sesame seeds.

Place both trays of pogaca in the oven and bake at 350°F for 20 minutes or until golden brown and cooked through. Halfway through cooking, rotate the sheet trays by putting the one that was on top below, and the one that was below on the top rack.

Transfer the hot pogaca onto a rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temp.
Enjoy any time of day, they're especially good with a hot cup of tea.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Vincent's Pizza

My good friend and a very talented French artist, Vincent, is visiting L.A. for three months. Vincent and I met 2 years ago on his first trip to Los Angeles, and since then I've visited him in Berlin, we've met up in Paris, and now he's back in Cali. It's been great to be able to visit each other in different parts of the world, and to be able to stay in touch via Skype when we're not in the same country. 

Vincent is here with his close friend and collaborator, Elise. You can check out their recent projects here.

Aside from his artistic abilities, Vincent is a great cook. He's incredibly inventive and adventurous in his cooking (he made cereal crusted turkey burgers drizzled with honey and topped with guac the other night), but he also has a handle on classic techniques. Lately, he's formed a minor obsession with pizza and bread making. The other night, while Elise and Vincent were staying at my place Vincent shared his pizza recipe with me. 

In my experience asking people for recipes, I've noticed that my French friends rely more heavily on touch, smell and taste as opposed to cups, tablespoons or other measurements. This pizza recipe is no different. If you're looking for something exact, hit up Mark Bittman or Smitten Kitchen - they are experts at exactitude. I appreciate any and all forms of cooking, but I do think it's worthwhile to experiment with relying on your senses if you're interested in developing your cooking skills. If you're a perfectionist (and I can speak to this), cooking without precise measurements is also a good opportunity to let go and trust your instincts.

This recipe will make 3 pizzas, which you can top with anything you'd like. 

Pizza is always the best.

Vincent's Romana Pizza
Dough makes 3 thin-crust pizzas, serves 4-6

for the pizza dough
300 grams of unbleached all purpose flour, plus 1/4 a cup reserved 
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 packet yeast
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup - 1 cup water (or however much you'll need)

for the sauce
canned plum tomatoes
olive oil
pinch of sugar
salt and pepper
dried oregano

for the toppings
fresh mozzarella, sliced
shredded gruyere or swiss or both
dried oregano
arugula (optional)
prosciutto (optional)

for the pizza dough
Add 300 grams of flour to a large bowl. Make a well in the flour, and into the well add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 packet of yeast, and salt. 

Start mixing the dough with your hands until the mixture looks like a coarse meal, or very grainy sand. Next, enlist your friend or family member to help you out. 

(Vincent and Elise!)

Have said friend slowly add water to the flour mixture as you continue to mix it all up with your hands. Add water a little at a time. Once the dough starts making a ploppy sound (this is an instruction directly from Vince) and is starting to get very sticky, hold off on adding any more water. Have the same friend slowly add extra flour to the mixture. Vincent says the key is that you want to add flour until the dough no longer sticks to your hands. So you continue to mix the dough while someone sprinkles flour into the bowl, like so:

This is what the dough looks like when it no longer needs any more flour or water:

Cover the bowl with a towel, and leave it in a warm place (near your oven, or out on your porch), and let the dough rise for 3-4 hours. 

While the dough is rising, you can prep your toppings. Make a tomato sauce by sauteing some onions and garlic until they're soft, add canned tomatoes, seasonings, and herbs to the onions and garlic. Simmer everything for 45 minutes, and then puree the mixture with an immersion blender or in a blender. The homemade sauce should be pretty thick; a thicker sauce holds up better on a pizza. Alternatively, you can buy pre-made pizza sauce or marinara.  

Cut up your mozzarella, shred your cheese, and get any other toppings ready.

Once the dough has risen, take it out of the bowl, kneed it for a couple minutes, and then divide the bowl of dough into thirds.

Preheat the oven to 500°F/260°C. Line 2-3 baking sheets with parchment paper and lightly dust the paper with flour.  

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to whatever thickness you would like. Vincent likes thin pizzas, and so do I. He rolled the dough out to approximately a quarter or an eighth of an inch thick.

Once rolled out, the dough basically fits a standard baking sheet. If you are fancy, you could also roll this out into a circle instead of an oval and place it on a pizza stone.

Add sauce to the dough, then top with the mozz, shredded cheese, and dried oregano. You could drizzle this with olive oil if you'd like. 

Bake in the oven at 500°F for 5-6 minutes or until the dough is browned, and the cheese is melted and bubbly. 


At this point, you can eat the beautiful pizza as is. If you would like you can top the pizza with arugula and/or prosciutto once it's fresh out of the oven.

Enjoy with good friends, a glass of French wine, and good conversation. Bon appetit!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Roasted Green Beans with Smokey Yogurt Tahini Sauce

I make and use tahini sauce A LOT. Tahini sauce comes from tahini paste, and tahini paste is made out of ground sesame seeds. Sesame seeds are full of magnesium and calcium, and other super good vitamins and minerals. My pantry is always stocked with back-up jars of tahini. Tahini on its own is a little bland, but with a few additional ingredients it's magic. I drizzle it on roasted eggplant, use it as a dressing on kale salads, and put it on whatever vegetable or protein that calls its name. It only takes a few minutes to make a good tahini sauce, and it adds so much flavor and goodness to whatever you're eating.

This week's CSA came with some lovely bright string beans. They were beautiful to look at, and tasted particularly fresh and beany, but their skins were a little tougher than normal. Generally, I prefer string beans that are small and delicate; the French call them haricot verts. I knew roasting the beans would soften and caramelize these tough guys, and so into the oven at high heat they went.

Roasted green beans are very good on their own, with some salt and pepper and maybe a squeeze of lemon... but roasted green beans with tahini sauce take these legumes to another level.

This version of tahini sauce includes yogurt for creaminess and tang, smoked paprika for smokiness and interest, sumac for complexity of flavor (optional), and lemon juice because lemon juice is everything to tahini.

Roasted Green Beans with Smokey Yogurt Tahini Sauce
Serves 4

for the beans:
1 lb. green beans, ends trimmed
olive oil
salt and pepper
sesame seeds for garnish (optional)

for the sauce:
3 tablespoons tahini paste
2 tablespoons yogurt (I prefer plain whole milk, but any plain yogurt works, even Greek)
juice of half a lemon
2-3 tablespoons warm water
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika 
1/2 teaspoon sumac (optional)
1 tablespoon chopped parsley (optional)
salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 425°F/215°C

Wash, dry and trim the ends off of your green beans. Lay the green beans onto a baking sheet. Drizzle them with a few tablespoons of good olive oil. Toss the beans with your hands until they are coated with the oil. If they don't seem coated enough, add a little more oil. Season the beans with salt and pepper.

Bake the beans in the oven for 15-25 minutes (roasting time will depend on the beans and your oven), or until they are golden browned and softened. Ten minutes into baking, take the beans out and shake them around a bit so that they brown evenly.  

While the beans are baking, make your tahini sauce. In a bowl, add your tahini paste, yogurt and lemon juice. The acid from the lemon juice will counterintuitively cause the tahini sauce to thicken and become unwieldy. This is where the warm water comes in. Add warm water, a tablespoon at a time, until you have thinned the sauce to your liking. If you over-water your sauce, just add a little more tahini and yogurt. No one will be mad at having extra sauce lying about. Once the sauce is thick or thin enough, add the olive oil. Season your sauce with smoked paprika (so nice and smokey!), sumac (it adds a lemony earthy flavor), fresh parsley, and salt and pepper. With all sauces and vinaigrettes, the balance of flavors depends entirely on your ingredients, and ingredients differ - from the juiciness and tartness of a lemon, to the smokiness of paprika - so taste, taste, taste, and adjust everything to your liking. Any extra sauce will keep in the fridge for 3-5 days. 

To complete the dish, drizzle the beans with the sauce, sprinkle everything with sesame seeds and serve hot or  at room temp with extra sauce on the side. Extra sauce is always a good thing. Enjoy!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Cherry Almond Cake

It took me a while, but I figured something out: making cake is easy. Once I got over that whole pastry-is-an-exact-science-and-there-is-no-wiggle-room-or-disaster-will-ensue thing, I found that I've gotten a lot more creative and comfortable with the whole idea of making baked desserts. I learned a few key things: 1) the temperature of your ingredients is critical, 2) most cakes are just combos of eggs, butter, sugar and leveaners, you can be slightly off about all those things and stuff will probably come out ok, and 3) keep an eye on things, because no two ovens or batters are the same.

There's one caveat to this whole ease business... baking started to get A LOT easier for me once I had the right gear. My favorite piece of gear is the stand mixer. The stand mixer makes me feel like I'm cheating at baking. But even without a pricey stand mixer (thank you older brother for the gift!) cake isn't hard. If you have a hand mixer, or lots of upper body strength and a whisk, you'll be just fine.

On Sunday I got in a cake making mood. That day, cherries were the stars of the Hollywood Farmers' Market and I couldn't resist them. I grew up with a cherry tree in my back yard, and as early as six years old I could be found climbing said tree and picking and eating sun-warmed cherries directly off unstable branches.

I brought home the cherries, and thought about classic cherry pairings. Almonds immediately came to my mind. I figured I could make a pretty basic cake, replace some of the flour with ground almonds, add some almond extract, and throw some cherries in there. I knew the cherries might sink to the bottom of the cake, but I didn't care. I wanted to keep this easy. If you want to add a step, you can make the batter without cherries, add it to the baking dish, dust your cherries in flour, and lightly place them on top of the batter. They will sink less that way, but I honestly couldn't be bothered.

If you can't get fresh cherries, frozen cherries are pretty awesome. I really like this brand, and I snack on them all winter. They'll work in this recipe, so you don't even have to sacrifice your perfectly good-as-is fresh cherries.

Long story short: this cake is crazy good.

Cherry Almond Cake
Serves 12 (or 1)

1/2 cup butter (1 stick), room temperature (very important)
1 cup organic cane sugar (regular white sugar works too)
2 eggs, room temperature (very important)
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup finely ground almonds (or almond meal or almond flour)
1 cup milk (2% or whole)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract (add a full teaspoon if you like extra almond flavor)
2 cups cherries, halved and pitted
1/3 cup raw sliced almonds
raw sugar for sprinkling on top

Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C

Grease a 9 x 11 baking dish, and line it with parchment paper. Grease the parchment paper. Set aside.

In a stand mixture with a paddle attachment on medium speed, cream the butter and sugar together. Beat the butter and sugar until they are light and fluffy. If you use regular white sugar this will take 3-4 minutes. If you are using organic cane sugar it takes about 5-6 minutes. You can also use a hand mixer to beat the butter and sugar. Add the eggs to the butter and sugar and beat them well for another minute or two.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk the ground almonds into the flour mixture. I ground my almonds in a coffee grinder, you could also use a food processor, or you could just use almond meal or almond flour.

Turn the stand mixer to low, and add a third of the dry ingredients to the egg mixture. Add a third of the milk. Alternate the dry ingredients and the milk until everything is fully incorporated. Be careful not to over-mix your batter at this stage. Gently fold in the almond extract, vanilla extract, and the cherries.

Pour the batter into the baking dish, and top it with the sliced raw almonds and raw sugar.

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown and a cake-tester or toothpick comes out clean.

Let it cool in the pan. Serve for breakfast, lunch, or dinner... it works for all three.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Spiced Peas with Fresh Mint

Shelling fresh English peas is a therapeutic act. Opening up each pod, and removing the delicately attached bright green peas is incredibly satisfying. Shelling the peas is almost as nice as eating them once they've been shelled. While most frozen things pale in comparison to their fresh counterparts, peas are actually an exception, and they are quite good even when obtained in frozen form. I still prefer fresh peas (for their previous mentioned gift of therapy), but frozen peas are a perfectly good substitute.

Peas are great with butter and salt, in a pasta sauce or risotto, or added to a salad. They don't need much to be wonderful, but if you want to make them the star of your dish, they lend themselves extraordinarily well to traditional Indian spices. 

This is a riff on an Indian recipe I tried at some point but can't remember where/when. I am no Indian cooking expert, so forgive my spice shortcuts, and my inauthentic approach. These peas are lovely served simply on a bed of Basmati rice, and I'm sure they'd be great as a side to a more elaborate meal. I added lots of fresh mint because I love it,  had some, and mint is a friend of peas; but I believe the dish might be even better with fresh cilantro. 

The other thing that should be noted is that you need A LOT of pea pods to get a meager amount of shelled peas. About a pound of fresh peas equaled a cup of shelled peas. That can get pricey, so again, frozen peas are a very good choice if fresh aren't available or are too expensive. 

Spiced Peas with Mint
Serves 4

1.5 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter), or you can use a mixture of butter and olive oil, or coconut oil
2 medium shallots, diced fine
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon Garam Masala
1 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1.5 pounds fresh English peas, shelled (about 1.5 cups)
1/4 cup freshly chopped mint or cilantro or both

In a pan on medium high heat, warm the ghee. Add the shallots to the pan, and season with salt and pepper. Cook the shallots until they start to soften and become translucent, about 2 minutes Add the Garam Masala, cardamom, cumin, and coriander. Continue to cook the shallots with the spices until they begin to caramelize just slightly, but you don't want them to burn or crisp. Add the fresh peas to the pan, and add about a 1/4 cup of water or stock. Once the water is evaporated, and the peas look bright bright green, and are plump and tender, turn off the heat. Add the fresh mint or cilantro.

Serve fresh as a side dish, or on a bed of freshly made Basmati rice!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Goat Cheese Tartine with Cherries and Mint

I can subsist solely on bread and cheese. Good bread and cheese would be ideal, but frankly, I'll accept any form of either. When a great loaf of bread ends up in my kitchen I get inspired to top it with other good things.

A tartine is just the French word for "open-faced sandwich." This tartine came as a result of having an incredible bag of cherries (it's peak cherry season in Bakersfield, CA), a bundle of fresh mint, and some crazy good goat cheese (Artisan Farmstead Goat Cheese from Drake Family Farms - available at the Hollywood farmers' market). 

It's hard to go wrong with good things paired with other complementary good things on top of toasted bread. If it's not cherry season where you are, strawberries or apricots would also work well with goat cheese and mint. If the bread was sliced into small pieces and toasted in the oven, this would make a great appetizer at a dinner party. It's also perfectly wonderful as a lunch for one.

Goat Cheese Tartine with Cherries and Mint

sliced cherries
soft goat cheese
fresh mint, chopped
good bread, sliced 

Toast the bread. Slather with goat cheese. Sprinkle with mint. Top with sliced cherries. Sprinkle with course salt. You could even drizzle this with good olive oil or Balsamic if the mood strikes. Serve immediately.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Simple Roasted Artichokes

I can never say no to an artichoke. They are easily my favorite food when they are in season. They are also extremely versatile. They can be cooked in a myriad of ways, and they are the perfect vehicle for condiments (the raison d'etre).

I grew up with boiled artichokes. They're not that bad, because they're still artichokes. Because I grew up eating artichokes that had been cooked in water, I too continued to cook my artichokes in water. Sometimes I steamed them, but mostly I just simmered them. The major downside of artichokes cooked in water is that they turn out waterlogged, and waterlogged foods can be improved upon.

I've made and had grilled artichokes, fried artichokes, and pan seared artichokes, and all are lovely. Those preparations involve a grill, or lots of oil, or lots of care. I wanted to make a crispy, super easy to cook artichoke in my own kitchen. I remember hearing about roasted artichokes, and I have no idea why it took me so long to try out this method.

Roasted artichokes are genius. I will never steam or simmer an artichoke again. Seriously. These are sooo good. The leaves become soft and tender, and crispy on the edges. As an added bonus, they look golden and beautiful. They're good on their own, and even better served along with your favorite artichoke dipping sauce. This is a perfect elegant spring and summer dish.

Roasted Artichokes
Serves 4, 1 artichoke per person

4 medium globe artichokes (or 2 large) cleaned, trimmed, choke removed, split in half
1 large lemon, cut in half
olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 425°F.  Line a baking dish (9 x 11) with foil or parchment paper.

First things first, you'll need to clean and prepare your artichoke for roasting. Here's a great tutorial from Mark Bittman. Get a bowl of cold water ready. Squeeze half a lemon into the bowl of water, and then toss that lemon into the bowl. Reserve the other half of your lemon to serve with the artichoke once its cooked. To prepare the artichokes you'll need to trim and peel the ends of the artichoke, remove the tough outer leaves, trim the prickly tops, slice each in half, and remove the choke. Once you've cleaned and halved an artichoke, immediately place it in the lemon water so that it doesn't brown. Move on to the next artichoke and repeat the process.

Once you've prepared and halved all of your artichokes, remove them from the water (it's fine if they are a little wet), and lay them cut side down in a lined baking dish. Any baking dish will do, as long as they all fit in a single layer.

Take the lemon that was sitting in the bowl of water, and squeeze its juice over the artichokes. The lemon should be extra watery. Add a few tablespoons of the lemon water from the bowl into the pan as well. I add a little (not too much) liquid to the pan so that the artichokes slightly steam as they roast. By the end of the cooking process, the water will evaporate, and the artichokes will start to brown. Next, drizzle the artichokes with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Cover your baking dish tightly with foil. Roast the artichokes in the oven for 30-40 minutes or until the artichokes are tender and browned. You can check their doneness by removing them from the oven, unwrapping the foil, and testing a few leaves or piercing the stem. If they seem too al dente or not browned, just rewrap them and place them back in the oven. Cooking time will depend on the size and moisture content of the artichoke.

Once they are cooked, season with more salt and pepper. Serve warm with sliced lemon, or with a dipping sauce.

Some dipping sauces include: melted butter, melted butter with garlic, mayo mixed with lemon juice, or mayo mixed with lemon juice herbs/spices.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Balsamic Butter Roasted Cipollini Onions

At the farmer's market I spotted a basket full of beautiful Cipollini onions. I couldn't resist their miniature onion form. The nice thing about Cipollini oinions as they can be used the way you would treat any yellow onion, or they can be served as their own complete side dish.

These onions love tangy things, and sweet things, and buttery things, and being roasted. 

This recipe doesn't need to be followed too closely. You can make more onions, add fresh or dried herbs, try Sherry vinegar instead of Balsamic, skip the butter, or add more butter. The basic idea is add an acid, a sweetener, a fat, salt, and roast them in a baking dish at 400°F for 25-30 minutes, or until they are caramelized and wonderful. 

Balsamic Butter Roasted Cipollini Onions
Serves 3-4

2.5 cups Cipollini onions, peeled
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon maple syrup
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
drizzle of olive oil
salt and peper
fresh rosemary or thyme (optional, would be lovely), chopped

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Peel the Cipollinis by placing them in a bowl and covering them with very hot water. Let them sit for 5 minutes. Using a pairing knife, you will easily be able to remove their peels.

Place the peeled onions in a baking dish. In a small bowl, combine the balsamic and maple syrup. Drizzle the mixture over the onions. Add the butter to the dish. Place small pieces of butter in different parts of the dish. Drizzle the onions with olive oil. Season everything with salt and pepper, and fresh herbs. 

Roast for 25-30 minutes, or until the onions are tender and caramelized. Halfway through cooking, mix the onions in the dish and place it back in the oven.

These can be served as a side dish. I ate them atop a lemony spinach salad. The leftover bits in the dish should be mopped up with good bread.