Duck… duck… burger!

Posted by Anita on 01.24.08 2:22 PM

(c)2008 AEC **all rights reserved**I may be the only foodie on the planet who doesn’t dig duck. I love the glorious seared breast they’ve been known to serve at Seattle’s Union, and we’ll pick up the occasional leg of confit for salads or cassoulet. I don’t actively dislike it, but duck’s not the kind of food I generally crave.

All that may be changing. On our recent trip to Napa, Cameron ordered the famous duck burger at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen. It smelled so heavenly that I had to try a taste. Needless to say, the combination of sweet, spicy, and smoky goodness made a lasting impression on me; as soon as we got home, I flipped open our copy of Big Small Plates to hunt down the details.

I found it easily enough, but the complexity of reproducing this dish was enough to make my eyes roll back in my head. The recipes, plural, went on for pages and pages — and that didn’t even count the marinade found in a separate part of the book. Ugh. But the flavor of that burger was haunting me… and besides, what better way could there be to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon?

Truth be told, the prep wasn’t all that difficult, or even time-consuming. There’s a lot of measuring and mixing, but that’s about it. We weren’t wowed by the original mustard sauce sub-recipe, however; it took too much time, dirtied too many dishes, made enough spread for a dozen burgers, and ended up tasting no better than a much easier substitution: store-bought honey mustard mixed with a touch of creme fraiche.

If you can find pre-ground duck for this recipe, things get even easier; some Whole Foods locations offer it, and any decent butcher should grind duck-leg meat (or any meat you want, for that matter) on request. Bizarrely, the recipe says you need two whole ducks at 4 pounds each — 8 pounds of bone-in duck!? — to make 1 pound of ground meat. Holy duck! Instead, we purchased 4 whole duck legs — about 1-3/4 pounds total weight, before boning — and ran the meat, fat, and a small amount of skin through our KitchenAid grinder. We ended up with exactly 1 pound of ground meat.

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Cindy’s Famous Duck Burgers
- adapted from Big Small Plates

1 pound ground duck (see note in text above)
1 scallion, white and tender green parts, minced
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
1-1/2 tsp minced garlic
1T Mongolian marinade (see below)
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper

Mustard Sauce
2T spicy honey mustard
2T creme fraiche

Shiitake Ketchup
2T olive oil
1 pound shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
1 onion, diced fine
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tsp minced garlic
2 T molasses or dark honey
1/4 cup Mongolian marinade (see below)

To Finish
1 cup arugula
3 or 4 egg-sesame hamburger buns

Combine patty ingredients in a large bowl. Refrigerate duck mixture while making remaining components — at least 1 hour, or overnight.

Whisk the honey mustard and creme fraiche in a small bowl. Refrigerate until serving time.

Saute the mushrooms in a skillet with the oil over medium-high heat, cooking until tender. Add the onions and cook until translucent. Add the remaining ingredients, stirring well to combine, and simmer 3 to 5 minutes, until the sauce coats the mushrooms.

Portion the meat into 1/4- to 1/3-pound patties. Grill the burgers over a medium-hot fire, or broil in the oven, to medium rare — about 4 minutes on the first side, and 2 on the back — or to taste.

While burgers are cooking, toast the hamburger buns. Spread some of the mustard sauce on the bottom half of the bun. Top with the cooked burger, then the shiitake ketchup and arugula. Top with the other bun half, and serve.


Mongolian Marinade
1/3 cup hoisin sauce
1-1/2 tsp sugar or honey
2 tsp tamari
2 tsp sherry vinegar
1 medium scallion, white and light green parts, minced
1/2 tsp Tabasco sauce
1/2 tsp black bean chili paste
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
2 tsp minced garlic
1/4 to 1/2 tsp ground white pepper
2T minced cilantro
1-1/2 tsp sesame oil

Whisk all ingredients together and set aside.

(Leftover marinade keeps for 3 to 6 months in the freezer, and works well on chicken or pork chops, too.)

cookbooks, locavore, recipes


A Napa dining dynasty

Posted by Anita on 01.09.08 8:03 AM

(c)2007 AEC ** ALL rights reservedOnce upon a time, there was a Chef who toiled away in other people’s kitchens. After gaining acclaim for a rare skill with classic preparations, the Chef moved to Napa Valley and opened a signature restaurant on the fringe of the sleepy village of Yountville.

Soon, visitors flocked to the Valley not just to drink, but also to dine. An award-winning cookbook soon followed, then another cozier restaurant just down the road. The ensuing years brought more praise from the press, another cookbook, still more awards. Never content to rest on culinary laurels, the Chef recently opened a third restaurant aimed at a broader audience.

Think that you know this story? Not so fast. The hero of this particular tale is a woman, and the plot begins not in 1997 at The French Laundry with Thomas Keller, but in the dark ages of 1983 at a “truck stop deluxe” along Highway 29 known as Mustards Grill.

Before making history at Mustards, Cindy Pawlcyn made her name at the once-enthralling (but now sadly coasting) Fog City Diner. One of the first to popularize the conceit of comfort food as true cuisine, FCD was among the vanguard of New American restaurants. Pawlcyn was praised for her efforts there, and the cookbook she wrote remains a classic of the comfort-luxe genre.

When Pawlcyn took her jumped-up homespun specialties to Yountville, the national press knew she was onto something special. “[Mustards] changed Napa Valley and took the stuffiness out of dining,” said Gourmet magazine. Pawlcyn was soon in high demand, serving as chef and/or consultant to a string of well-known ventures, including San Francisco’s Bix, Marin’s Buckeye Roadhouse and Napa’s Tra Vigne. The Mustards Grill Napa Valley Cookbook won a James Beard Award, and it remains a perennial favorite in our kitchen (and many others, to judge from our friends’ bookshelves).

Pawlcyn eventually sold her share in the Real Restaurants empire to focus solely on Mustards, but with the 2001 takeover of St. Helena’s Miramonte, she again became a multi-location chef. Morphing into the less-threatening Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in 2003, this outpost continues to draw crowds — a happy success in a region where fickle diners often disappear as quickly as they came.


We’ve eaten at most of Cindy Pawlcyn’s restaurants, including a good dozen visits to Mustards over the years, although a recent lunch there with family left me wondering if the 25-year-old landmark was feeling its age. The four of us ordered an assortment of options; none of our choices really wowed, and a few truly bombed. Months later, I grimace to recall a plate of greasy onion rings, and a pulled-pork sandwich with bland meat under a nearly inedibly sweet, heavily spiced sauce.

Happily, Pawlcyn’s two other ventures are as good as Mustards ever was in its prime.

We’ve returned to Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen three times in as many trips north — twice last summer, and then once again last month. The food is old-school American with judicious flashes of Asian and Latin spark. If, like me, you’re a fan of Pawlcyn’s latest cookbook, Big Small Plates, you’ll find yourself equally taken with the dining room where many of its recipes first appeared. The decor evokes a gorgeous farmhouse, with a California crispness and vibrant splashes of Wine Country color. A long bar forms the centerpiece of the front dining room, a metaphor brought home by a clever cocktail list that weaves farm-fresh produce into a collection of delectable drinks.

In early 2007, Pawlcyn launched what is now her largest outpost: Go Fish. A “West Coast seafood house” along Highway 29, Go Fish is paradoxically cavernous but cozy, a coup that owes much to successful decor and lighting. The menu includes both traditional and modern seafood plates, but — as you might expect from a kitchen under the auspices of sushi master Ken Tominaga — the raw fish options are its stunning centerpiece. We visited over the holiday and out of a dozen nigiri and a few specialty rolls we sampled, only one (the kitchen’s very last portion of ikura, which we should have known better than to pounce upon) was less than sublime.

As lovely as Go Fish is, though, it’s too dear for everyday. It’s all too easy to spend hundreds of dollars on dinner for two, especially if you make a meal of the amazing sushi… which I highly suggest you do. Happily, there are many different ways to experience the inspired cuisine of the other — one might even say the original — Napa dining dynasty.

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Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen
1327 Railroad Avenue
St. Helena, CA 94574

Go Fish
641 Main Street
St. Helena, CA 94574

Mustards Grill
7399 St. Helena Highway
Yountville, CA 94558

cookbooks, Napa & Sonoma, restaurants


DOTW: Ampersand

Posted by Anita on 11.30.07 7:02 AM

(c)2007 AEC  ** ALL rights reservedA few months ago, the New Yorker ran a ‘briefly noted’ blurb about Michael Lerner’s book Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City. The review’s blasé tone must have dissuaded me from rushing out to buy a copy; instead, I patiently waited months for my chance to read our library’s single circulating print.

Had I known what a compelling read Dry Manhattan would be, I probably would have spent 20 bucks for the luxury of getting my hands on it sooner. True, it’s a bit scholarly, weighed down with inconvenient end-notes and a tendency toward expository repetition. But I can forgive the academic author’s shortcomings, given how entertaining the final story becomes, even when you know the ending.

Despite his geographic focus on New York City, Lerner illuminates the entire era by throwing a cosmopolitan light on the social changes that led both to Prohibition and its eventual Repeal. Although the book steers clear of drawing any overt parallels to current politics, readers who possess even a passing familiarity with modern-day prohibition movements — foie gras bans and the war on medical cannabis come to mind — will recognize plenty of eerie echoes from 80 years past. The story here makes a stark reminder of how a vocal, conservative, puritan minority swept away the freedoms of an entire country as their city-dwelling counterparts complacently boasted “it can never happen here”. Until it did… and it stayed that way for 13 long, dry years.

Honestly, it’s enough to send you straight to the bar in search of a sedative.

Perusing my library for appropriate Prohibition-era cocktails to salve my nerves, I stumbled upon a drink called the Ampersand in the Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book. How could I help but love a drink named after my favorite typographical glyph? (I suppose I just outed myself as a font geek. So be it.) Plus, it just sounds like a winner: Gin, brandy, sweet vermouth, plus a pair of orange-scented grace notes… What’s not to like?

But why “Ampersand”?

Although the compendium is rife with anecdotes — no great surprise, given that it was laid down by the hotel’s official historian — the origins of this particular drink’s name are lost to the mists of time. It’s possible that the typographical moniker’s a nod to Martini & Rossi, the still-popular Italian sweet vermouth, and one of the drink’s key ingredients.

Whatever the namer’s original intent, it seems particularly appropriate as cocktail bloggers around the world are celebrating both this month’s Mixology Monday & this year’s Repeal Day festivities next week. Wednesday evening, be sure to raise a glass of your favorite beverage in honor of those who fought the good fight in the 1930s, restoring the pursuit of mixological happiness to us all.

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1 oz Old Tom gin (see note)
1 oz brandy
1 oz Italian sweet vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
orange curaçao, to finish

In an ice-filled mixing glass, stir the gin, brandy, vermouth, and bitters until very cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, then add two drops of curaçao.

Note: Old Tom was a sweetened gin of yore, a popular ingredient in many pre-Prohibition cocktail recipes. Although there are no ready sources for such a beast, fruit-derived gins such as G’vine are not bad stand-ins. Alternately, David Wondrich recommends slightly sweetened Plymouth or Junipero as acceptable substitutes; a drop or two of simple syrup seemed to do the trick in the Ampersand samples we tried. Given its lore, I suspect the original Old Tom gins were a fair deal harsher than anything on the shelves today, but we’re going for delicious approximations here, rather than slavish authenticity.

My neighbor Erik (proprietor of Underhill Lounge) was kind enough to let us sample from his personal stash of Death’s Door gin, a product that may be the closest modern Old Tom equivalent. Its flavor is noticeably sweet, a trait that the distillers assured Eric was intended rather than accidental. Alas, it’s not widely available outside the upper Midwest, but we didn’t find a drastic difference in mixed drinks made with Death’s Door compared with those made from sweetened dry gins.

bar culture, Drink of the Week, drinks, holidays & occasions, literary, Mixology Monday, other blogs, recipes


Sweet and spicy

Posted by Anita on 10.28.07 7:50 PM

(c)2007 AEC ** ALL rights reservedWhen my mom was growing up, homemade dessert was a regular occurrence around the dinner table. By the time I was a kid, the family tradition had lapsed; cakes and pies showed up mostly around the holidays or on someone’s birthday. Not that I felt deprived: To this day, my idea of dessert is scraping the bowl for the last spoonful of mashed potatoes, or sneaking an extra meatball from the lunch-bound leftovers.

Despite my defective sweet tooth, I love to bake for friends and family. At my office in Seattle, I belonged to a crew of hard-core amateur pâtissières dubbed the Spare Change Bakery. We all kept jars on our desks for our coworkers’ contributions, and as soon as we scraped together enough nickels and dimes, one of us would whip up a double- or triple-batch of something sweet and scrumptious for the next staff meeting. By the time we disbanded, we were collecting enough cash to bake every week — a gratifying but rather exhausting sign of our popularity.

But since we moved back to San Francisco, I haven’t had many excuses to bake. Sure, our dinner parties often need a sweet ending, but I miss those crowd-pleasing desserts: Brownies, bars, and other decidedly lowbrow sweets. So when I saw the photo of the Spice Cake with Coffee Toffee Crunch on the cover of the new issue of Sunset, I knew my path was clear. The theme for this month’s “Waiter, There’s Something in My…” event is layer cakes, after all, and there’s just something about a sky-high cake with cream-cheese frosting that sends me running for my sifter and whisk.

Waiter, there's something in my...Working my way through the recipe, I found it refreshingly well documented. The writer details a number of steps — creating a crumb coat, and using strips of parchment to keep the serving plate clean — that help give the final cake a centerpiece-worthy appearance. With the exception of the recipe’s lack of measurements by weight (the serious baker’s preferred method for dry ingredients like flour and sugar, especially), it was one of the best-written magazine recipes I’ve used in months.

Aside from substituting Alfieri Farms’ almond brittle for homemade coffee toffee, I followed the recipe to the letter, so click over to Sunset’s site if you want the full rundown. Although I doubt the magazine’s suggestion that this cake will replace pumpkin or pecan pie on your holiday dessert buffet, it’s got a spicy, deep flavor that would make a perfect finish for an autumn feast. While the icing’s got enough sugar to satisfy even the most intense sugar junkie, the cake itself — sweetened with molasses — keeps things moist and spicy without too much sweetness… just the ticket for a baker without a sweet tooth.

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baking, dessert, magazines, other blogs


DOTW: Strega-nator

Posted by Anita on 09.28.07 7:11 AM

(c)2007 AEC ** ALL rights reservedThe folks at The Spirit World sure picked a doozy for the inaugural episode of their “Raiders of the Lost Cocktail” challenge. I spent many evenings thumbing through my bar library, searching for recipes featuring Liquore Strega, and found precisely one mention of this saffron-tinted herbal liqueur.

Excitement quickly turned to despair as I noted the drink’s name: The Strega-nator.

Oh, please. Spirits snob that I am, I didn’t give it so much as a second glance. There’s no way in hell I am making a drink called the Strega-nator, much less putting it on the blog. I’d never be able to show my face at Mixology Monday again! I headed back to the drawing board, muttering under my breath about slapped-together cocktails with frat-boy names, cursing the editors who foist them on their unsuspecting readers.

Next, I hit the public library. Even among dozens of titles both old and new, I didn’t uncover many options. My curiosity was piqued, though, by a UK-published book that suggested mixing Strega with Orange Smash Squash. I consulted our City’s guru of British comestibles, who promptly dashed my hopes again. Orange Squash was nothing short of “putrid” said Sam: “I wouldn’t trust anyone who suggests you put it in a cocktail.” (After having personally sampled it — I found a bottle in the British foods section at Mollie Stone’s — I’m inclined to agree. It’s something like the bastard stepchild of SunnyD and Hi-C Orange, neither of which has any place in my kitchen, much less my bar.)

Once you’ve sunk to the depths of imported kiddie-colored juice substitutes, there’s nowhere to go but up. Having all the necessary ingredients on hand, I grudgingly gave the Strega-nator a whirl. And damned if it wasn’t tasty. Especially considering that it has no base liquor as its spine, it’s a fine drink. Well-balanced, nuanced, perhaps a tad sweet for my taste, but the herbal finish is quite bewitching. After much hand-wringing, I came to the realization that we’d all lived through one Drink of the Week with a god-awful name; why not make it a pair?

Unfortunately, I can’t imagine that a cocktail recipe published 18 months ago could really be considered “lost” for the purposes of the challenge. (Unless, of course, everyone else took one look at the name and flipped right past it, too — a distinct possibility.) I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve, plus a full bottle of Strega and enough time before the challenge ends; there just might be another entry in the works.

As Arnold would say: “I’ll be back.”

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- published in Food & Wine Cocktails 2006
credited to BLT Prime, New York City

2 oz Strega
1 oz fresh orange juice
1 oz fresh lime juice
2 oz chilled club soda
1 orange wedge, for garnish

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the Strega and juices, and shake well. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass, and top with club soda. Garnish with the orange wedge.

cookbooks, Drink of the Week, drinks, other blogs


DOTW: Sweeney’s Cocktail

Posted by Cameron on 09.21.07 7:07 AM

(c)2007 AEC ** ALL rights reserved“The history of the world, my sweet;
Is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.”
– Sweeney Todd

We’re headed to the thyuh-tuh tonight for a performance of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Here’s the short version: Crazy barber kills people, crazy restaurateur bakes them into meat pies, hilarity ensues.

I’ve loved the show since I first heard the music as an impressionable youth. How can you not like a musical with a showstopping number that muses about how different people would taste if you served them wrapped a tender, flaky crust?

While you digest that macabre notion, here’s a little something to wash it down. We’ve tinkered with the recipe a tad, but the name and the basic ingredients are original.

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Sweeney’s Cocktail
1 1/2 oz brandy
1/2 oz pineapple juice
1/8 oz Maraschino liqueur (or to taste)
1/4 to 1/8 oz lemon juice
3 dashes Angostura bitters

Shake all ingredients well with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist, if desired.

Drink of the Week, drinks, literary, recipes


An herbal life

Posted by Cameron on 09.19.07 11:49 AM

(c)2007 AEC  ** ALL rights reservedLike we needed more herbs.

Seriously, we’ve got thyme, rosemary, and oregano in the yard (and by the yard), probably the three most useful fresh herbs to have within easy clipping distance. Adding to that could be viewed as extravagance, piling on, perhaps even hubris. So why do we have a window box outside our breakfast room sprouting green leaves and stalks?

It all started in July with a bunch of sweet basil that Anita brought home from the farmer’s market. She used what she needed and stuck the rest in a glass of water on the kitchen windowsill, where we ignored it for two weeks. We must have added water at regular intervals, because the glass wasn’t all that big, but I don’t remember doing it or seeing Anita do it. It got less attention than a bald white guy at a dim sum parlor.

Darned if that bunch of basil didn’t grow roots and stay all green and lush and everything.

So about the time that we’re watching these stalks get their groove on in about a cup and a half of Hetch Hetchy’s finest, we start thinking that the view out the window of our breakfast room is a little stark. Which is not exactly a penetrating observation given that the window faces an expanse of painted plywood about eight feet away. This was also right about the time when the main garden was popping along in full summer bloom, and I was thinking that maybe I could see a faint tinge of green around the edges of my thumbs. Yes, even after I washed them. Smartass.

Anyway, I figured that if we gave this little survivor of a basil plant some dirt and a little love, we’d really see something. At the same time, a window box would be just the thing to spruce up the view. So I split the bunch of basil in two and planted half down in the yard near the bergamot tree. The other half I put in a window box along with some tarragon, chives, and Thai basil.

So far, the box has succeeded both as a still life and a food source. A little bit of the tarragon goes a long way, but it gave the sauteed potatoes that we made for our Julia Child dinner just the right touch. The chives have made cameo appearances in several dishes (including those same potatoes), and the Thai basil dropped in on one of our standby stir-fries last week.

The basil is still growing, but slowly; it’s a living demonstration of how my enthusiasm for gardening occasionally outstrips any calculations of practicality. As I’ve discovered, basil isn’t generally the sort of thing that you just pick a leaf or three off now and again. If you’re serious about consumption, you grow it in big bunches for regular harvest.

But honestly? I really don’t care. I know that I’ll have to plot (heh heh) and plan if I want to try a real vegetable garden… even a small one. In the meantime, it’s a thrill just to plant something green and watch it thrive. It feels like a promise that I’m making to myself.

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Pommes de Terre Sautées
adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking

2 pounds “boiling” or new potatoes
2 T butter plus 1 T oil, for sauteeing
2 to 3 T softened butter
1/4 tsp salt
2 to 3 T minced fresh green herbs (parsley, chives, tarragon)

Peel the potatoes. As you do, try and make them as smooth as possible and give them an oval shape that may remind you of extremely large olives or impossibly small rugby balls, depending on how you spent your formative years. Do not wash the potatoes after peeling; pat them dry with a clean towel. If you need to hold the raw potatoes for a while before you cook them, wrap them in a damp towel, and then dry them before cooking.

Add the butter and oil to a skillet and heat it over medium high. When the butter stops foaming, put the potatoes in and leave them for two minutes. Control the heat so that the butter/oil mixture stays hot but does not color. Shake the potatoes in the skillet, rolling them around and letting them sit to sear until they are pale gold all over.

Sprinkle the salt over the potatoes, lower the heat, cover the skillet, and cook the potatoes for 15 minutes, shaking them every three or four minutes to prevent sticking. When the potatoes yield to slight pressure from your finger or when a knife pierces them easily, use the skillet cover to hold in the potatoes while you pour off the fat.

Take the potatoes off the heat, add the softened butter, herbs, and a few grinds of fresh black pepper. Shake the potatoes in the skillet so that they glisten with herbs and butter. Serve immediately.

cookbooks, garden, recipes


Using the ol’ melon

Posted by Anita on 09.10.07 1:04 PM

(c)2007 AEC  ** ALL rights reservedIt’s been a gazpacho-filled summer for us. In addition to the traditional Spanish soup’s regular appearances on our warm-weather menus, we kicked off tomato season with Cookie’s gloriously deconstructed version, and were lucky enough to sample Sean’s gorgeous white Andalucian gazpacho, too.

Now, I love me a straight-ahead gazpacho as much as the next tomato fanatic — that magical combination of cucumber, pepper, tomato, and vinegar is nearly unbeatable when it’s too hot to cook. But with two show-stopping variations fresh in my mind, I craved something equally appealing for Tami’s second Super Soup Challenge.

Rummaging through my library copy of Mitchell Davis’s Kitchen Sense, I spied a likely candidate. Much like the watermelon salad we brought to DPaul’s party last month, this fruit-based gazpacho is actually a savory appetizer, not a dessert. But it’s still easy as pie.

After rough-chopping all the veggies — all of which are in season and readily available from local farmers markets — you simply whiz them all together with a few simple seasonings, strain out any remaining bits, and chill for an hour in the fridge. At serving time, a pair of salty garnishes teams up with your best olive oil to add a touch of contrast. Drizzling the olive oil off the edge of a spoon gives the sparkle of beautiful small droplets.

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Watermelon Gazpacho
- adapted from Kitchen Sense

1 6-pound ‘icebox’ watermelon, red-fleshed
2 Kirby cucumbers or 1 hothouse cucumber, peeled (seeded, if necessary) and chopped
1 fresno chile or other medium-hot red chile, chopped
1/4 large red pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
1/2 medium red onion, chopped
2/3 cup tomato juice
1/4 extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
fresh-ground black pepper
2 oz feta cheese, crumbled
3 T finely chopped Kalamata olives
your best olive oil, for drizzling

Remove the rind from the watermelon. Cut the flesh into chunks and remove the seeds, if necessary; you should have about 6 cups of melon. Using a stick blender, traditional blender, or food processor, blend all soup ingredients (except the garnishes) until well liquified — about 1 to 2 minutes. Strain the puree through a large-mesh strainer to remove any lingering seeds or other bits, pushing the pulp through with a spatula. Adjust seasonings as needed, and chill for at least an hour. Serve garnished with the feta and olives, and a drizzle of olive oil.

Serves 6 as an appetizer

cookbooks, cooking, farmers markets, locavore, other blogs, recipes


Fabulous failures

Posted by Anita on 08.23.07 12:10 PM

(c)2007 AEC ** ALL rights reservedAll the cool kids are taking blog-sabbaticals this summer. Oh, how I wish that were the reason why we’ve been so blissfully post-free. Truth is, we’ve got plenty of inspiration, and we’re cooking up a storm. We’ve had a week of meals lined up, shopped for, and planned to a fare-thee-well. But – sadly, right in the heart of the best-eating time of the year – we’re more than a little off our game.

First there were the gnocchi.

As any sane cook will tell you, gnocchi are fraught with peril, even in the best of circumstances. Attempting to devise gnocchi that are somehow simultaneously delicious, gorgeous, and interesting enough to write about adds a serious degree of difficulty. While I am sure there will be plenty of entries in this month’s exciting episode of Hay Hay, It’s Donna Day, my Day-Glo fuschia beet-ricotta gnocchi will not be among them. Fussy, dumpy, and not terribly tasty… it’s not too strong to call this an outright failure.

Then there was the antipasto salad. I think it’s safe to say that Nancy Silverton is decidedly not targeting my demographic with her latest book, A Twist of the Wrist. It’s a cool, heartfelt attempt at legitimizing the semi-homemade trend, streamlining weeknight dinners with the judicious application of store-bought gourmet goods. Like tapenade.

Oh, the tapenade.

Trust me, kids, it was all I could do to fight the urge to just buy some good olives and slap them in the Cuisinart with a splash of olive oil and a spoonful of capers – completely eliminating the book’s time-saving charm. So I didn’t; I bought a nice-looking bottle of chunky green-olive paste and added it to my pile of lettuce, salami, and herbs.

You know where this is going, eh?

Salty, metallic and otherwise irredeemably bad, the store-bought ‘tapenade’ overpowered all of the other ingredients – and I’d only used half what the recipe called for. I don’t think we actually tossed it all down the drain, but it was a near thing; there was a lot of picking good salami and cheese out of the hyper-salinated salad.

Returning to familiar territory, we pulled out a tried-and-true recipe for Thai shrimp-cakes from Dancing Shrimp. Our makrut lime tree is finally bearing fruit, and these savory morsels seemed the perfect way to showcase our harvest for Andrea’s “Grow Your Own” roundup. As I pulled all of the ingredients out of the fridge, I caught a whiff of the ‘fresh’ shrimp we’d bought at Whole Foods: It had spoiled overnight. (That will teach me to sleep in and skip the market. This would not happen at Shogun.)

Feeling defeated, we cannibalized a meal we’d planned to eat later in the week: Rib-eye steak and rosemary salt-roasted potatoes. It was fine, I guess, although we both picked through the definitely-not-Prather-quality meat and the too-sweet supermarket spuds.

Last night, in need of a sure thing, we hoofed it all the way down the peninsula to our favorite Mexican restaurant. We’ve eaten there for more than 10 years now, always bragging that we’d only ever had one bad meal there. Well, now we can say we’ve had two: Unmelted cheese, blown-out rice, tortillas heated to the point of hand-scorching rubberiness, and a squeaky-dry chicken tostada. At least the margaritas were good.

With the exception of a lovely dinner at Oliveto on Monday, I can honestly say that there were exactly two meals over the last week that I truly enjoyed: a fluffy Denver omelette I made from piperade leftovers, and a bowl of Rancho Gordo’s giant lima beans simmered with onions that had been sautéed in bacon drippings.

Amid an overwhelming collection of intricate disasters and well-planned flops, these simple, graceful plates stand out as a steady reminder: Sometimes even the best-laid plans are no match for kitchen kismet, and sometimes less is more.

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Denver Omelette
3 large eggs
1 T half-and-half, or cream
2 T butter
1/2 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced bell pepper
1/2 cup small ham cubes
1/4 to 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

In an 8-inch skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Saute the onions until they just begin to soften. Add the pepper, and saute until vegetables are well softened but not browned. Add the ham cubes and saute until heated through. Remove sauteed ingredients to a plate and keep warm. Return the skillet to the fire.

In a medium bowl, scramble the eggs and the half-and-half until well blended and a little frothy. Add the beaten eggs to the hot pan, and let sit for 15 seconds; stir gently with a wooden spatula, pulling the curds toward the center of the pan and encouraging liquid to fill in the gaps. When a little liquid remains, use the spatula to gently even out the thickness of the curds in the pan, and reduce the heat to low. Spread the cheese all over the soft-set eggs, then evenly top one side of the omelette with the filling. Cover the pan and let sit for a few minutes until cheese melts. (If the underside of the egg browns too much, turn off the heat entirely; the pan will be hot enough if you leave the lid on. Unlike a French omelet, you do want some color and crispness, but you don’t want leathery eggs.)

When cheese is melted, fold the unfilled side of the omelette over the filling. Slide onto a warmed plate, glazing the top with a bit more butter, if desired.

Serves 2 with salad as a light supper, or a very satisfying breakfast for one hungry soul.

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Paying the piperade

Posted by Anita on 08.15.07 12:31 PM

(c)2007 AEC ** ALL rights reservedJulie Powell notwithstanding, most cooks discovering Julia Child’s recipes for the first time seem mysteriously drawn to the most labor-intensive and luxurious among them. Apparently, this isn’t strictly a modern phenomenon: In his entertaining book The United States of Arugula, David Kamp recounts this very same thing happening when Child’s first book debuted, poking gentle fun at those who “deliberately chose the most difficult [recipes] to execute when company was coming.”

Among these over-the-top creations, Kamp makes much of the overwrought dish known as Veau Prince Orloff, “a display piece consumptive of enough time and money to garner status.” I looked up the offending recipe in my own copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and felt a little queasy: The damned thing goes on for three full pages and contains — I kid you not — no less than a dozen sub-recipes.

Luckily for those of us who don’t have days to spend in the kitchen, Julia’s chef d’oeuvre also offers up simple recipes in spades. Scattered among the aspics and the suprêmes and the canard a l’orange lies a wide assortment of bistro classics and a fair number of recipes that rise no higher than the cuisine de bonne femme of everyday French households. Kamp recounts Julia herself choosing the simple potage Parmentier as the book’s first recipe “so that her audience would not be intimdated.”

When I pull out my Grandpa‘s battered copy of Mastering, these are the sorts of recipes I crave: The Provençale garlic soup, the mushroom quiche, the steak au poivre. So when Lisa at Champaign Taste proposed her second-annual blog party to honor the 95th anniversary of Julia’s birth, I knew right away the sort of dish I’d share. Sure, it’s not going to win any beauty contests, but it’s a delicious and satisfying plate full of seasonal flavors with a subtle French flair.

Julia recommends serving this humble “Ham Slices Baked with Tomatoes, Onions and Peppers” alongside her sauteed potatoes — and really, folks, how can you pass that up that kind of good advice? While I prepped the piperade, Cameron peeled a pound of baby spuds and trimmed them to roughly the same size, browned them in butter and oil, then covered them to steam until tender. Along with a bottle of French rosé, they were the perfect foil for the tangy, salty richness of the ham. We raised our glasses to the warbly voiced girl from Pasadena, and counted ourselves truly lucky to have lived in her era.

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Jambon en Pipérade
- adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Cook’s note: Julia simply calls for “peeled, seeded, juiced and sliced” tomatoes; I’ve complicated matters a bit by explaining how you get there. If you dispense with peeling your own tomatoes and opt for good quality whole canned tomatoes — like Muir Glen — you’ll need 2-1/2 cups of tomato pulp plus about 3/4 cup of their juice. Go this route and this simple dish can be on the table in less than 45 minutes.

2 pounds cooked ham, sliced 1/2-inch thick
1 to 2 T bacon fat or olive oil
1 cup sliced yellow onions
1 cup sliced green bell peppers
2 pounds firm, ripe, red tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, mashed
1/8 tsp pepper
pinch of cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp fresh thyme
2 T minced parsley

Preheat the oven to 350°. Meanwhile, bring a saucepan of water to a boil.

While the water heats, prepare an ice-water bath in a large bowl. Peel the tomatoes by scoring an ‘x’ in the bottom of each, then dropping into the boiling water. When the skin begins to peel away from the ‘x’, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon, and drop each tomato in the ice-water bath. When cool enough to handle, remove the tomato and peel off the skin. Proceed with the remaining tomatoes until all are peeled.

Cut each tomato in half, and remove any hard core or stem section. Squeeze the juice and seeds out of the fruit, reserving on the edges of the cutting board (or in a bowl if they become overwhelming). Slice the squeezed tomato flesh into regular pieces. Set aside the tomato flesh and the tomato seeds/juice separately.

Trim any excess fat off the ham, and dry each slice on paper towels. Heat the fat in your largest skillet until it is almost smoking; then brown the ham for a minute or two on each side. Remove ham from skillet and place in a shallow baking dish large enough to hold the ham in one layer. (A slight overlap is fine.)

Lower the heat and stir the onion slices into the fat. Cook over medium-low heat for 5 minutes. Stir in the peppers and cook 5 minutes more, or until the vegetables are soft but not browned.

Place the tomato pulp over the onions and pepper, and continue to cook over medium-low heat. While this is happening, scoop the tomato seeds and juice, along with any seed jelly, into a strainer, and add the strained liquid to the skillet.

Push the solids to one side of the pan, and tilt the skillet to allow the liquids to gather on the now-empty half of the pan. Arrange the skillet off-center on the burner so that the juice side of the pan is directly over the flame, and the vegetables are further away. Simmer until the juices become minimal, stirring everything together and re-dividing every few minutes, to make sure that the juices reduce without overcooking the vegetables.

When the tomato juice has almost evaporated, stir it back into the vegetables and cover the browned ham slices with the mixture. Cover the baking pan with foil, and place in the preheated oven. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until the ham is heated through and tender. Baste with juices in the dish, then correct seasoning if necessary. Garnish with chopped parsley, and serve with sauteed potatoes.

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