Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mm-m, good?

Reading Michael Ruhlman’s blog today on The Huffington Post entitled “Becoming Better Cooks, or Why Sandra Lee is not Evil Incarnate” and feeling a little nostalgic. Originally posted in April 2010, Ruhlman tells of being reminded by his wife of the days they cooked pasta with Alfredo Sauce using an envelope of Knorr’s powder. As a self-described “foodie”, he retraces his path from novice cook to gourmand, detailing questionable culinary successes along the way. Dishes featuring canned soup and parmesan “cheese” in a can were high on his list of edible accomplishments. Laughing along with Ruhlman, one can’t help but conjure up images of our own gustatory creations from days gone by.

Certainly at one time or another, we’ve all tried the infamous string bean casserole, made with canned or frozen green beans, Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, and greasy fried onion rings in a can. My boyfriend-now-husband wowed me in the kitchen when he made this treat for us in college.

My mom, never a particularly creative cook, but competent enough to feed seven people 3-square a day for decades, sometimes treated us kids to her special tuna casserole. I seem to remember it was made by mixing canned tuna, cream of mushroom soup, and what seemed at the time a very exotic ingredient – Chinese noodles from a can. (For another interesting culinary idea using this ingredient, go to Slashfood and search “Chocolate Chow Mein Noodle Cookies, another of my mother’s epicurean delights!)

So take a look at Michael Ruhlman’s trip down memory lane, see what culinary memories are reawakened from your past, and share them here with us!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

It's Not Easy Being Green

I have heard from more than a few of you, dear readers, that I might have gone a little over-the-edge in blogging about my wonderfully green dry cleaner. I get it. My rhapsodizing wasn’t even remotely related to food and I may have gone a bit overboard. Mea culpa; I hear you.

Perhaps it is because I am a novice small business owner…or the fact that I am, by training, a clinical social worker, as well as an unapologetic former hippie, and only marginally rehabilitated “bleeding heart liberal”, to which my much loved brother—the big mucky muck on Wall Street--- will attest. But I really am interested in doing anything I can to promote the healing and future wellness of our planet. I recycle and re-use religiously, donate to environmentally friendly causes and vote accordingly; I’ve watched “An Inconvenient Truth” more than once, and I just bought a second hybrid vehicle to get around our labyrinth of freeways in Los Angeles for cryin’ out loud. I make no claims to be Laurie David, but I think I’ve earned some credibility on the eco-friendly score.

My food business, No Reservations, is a modest one. I am happy to say it is successful in the sense that it is a fulfilling endeavor for me and, I believe a convenient (and hopefully tasty) resource for my clients. Since its inception, I’ve wanted to be as “green” a business as possible. At great length, I’ve researched resources for affordable recycled and recyclable packaging, use organic and local produce whenever available, and advertise strictly by word of mouth or internet.

It is with this in mind, I want to tell you about Nicolas Jammet, Co-founder of Sweetgreen, an eco-friendly salad and frozen yogurt chain in the D.C. area. ( Nicolas is the son of the owners of the famed La Caravelle restaurant in New York City, which closed in 2004. I was impressed with his and his partners’ concept in running such an establishment, but even more so by their business practice he calls “random acts of sweetness”. (Okay, it’s a tad precious, but it speaks to me and I want to “play it forward”.)

Here is one example Nicolas gave of the ways in which Sweetgreen helps promote kindness and healing in the communities which they serve: “On rainy days we cover someone’s bike seat with a plastic cover that says ‘You biked to work today, thanks, we have you covered.” I mean, COME ON, we can all get on board with this way of thinking and operating, can’t we? Have you heard or read about similar efforts by business owners? I’d love to hear about it and perhaps utilize them myself.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Waste Not Want Not

Just when I think I can’t possibly love my dry cleaner more, he does something else that rocks my world. I know this sounds extreme. But honestly, I am convinced my sweet middle eastern dry cleaner has only the best in mind for our planet and all of humanity.

I know you’re laughing but you haven’t been to THIS dry cleaning establishment, the one who’s motto is “If we were any more environmentally friendly, we’d be beating your clothes on a rock.” Come on! How can you NOT be moved to pull your car into their beautiful new, paver- lined parking lot?

Quick back story: I have patronized Hilltop Cleaners in Encino, California since we bought our house here eight or nine years ago. For most of that time, Hilltop has been a modest establishment, more kiosk than storefront. The owner and his staff were always friendly, although the gals who staffed the place were mostly dressed, shall I say “scantily”, prompting more than one customer to mutter something like “Aguilera meets Heidi Fleiss” under their breath as they gathered their freshly laundered clothing and hustled out to the tiny, hard to navigate parking lot.

But all that has changed. About a year ago, a renovation was begun. As time passed, it became apparent this was no ordinary remodel….this was a rebuilding of magnitude. And the months wore on...

Just as I began to despair of ever being able to quickly drop off and pick up our family’s stuff and even thought of switching cleaners, the GRAND OPENING was announced---in a big way. The banners, flags and fliers seemed kind of over-the-top for a dry cleaner but I have to say, the opening far surpassed anything I’ve witnessed of a similar kind.

What once could be likened to a glass shack with a driveway and a few measly parking spaces had become---Ta-Da!---a marvel of modern architecture proudly boasting coral-colored stonework, enormous glass windows, and an adjoining strip of light-filled spaces just waiting to be filled with uber-cool boutiques and ridiculously high-priced coffee shops.

But step inside and be blown away…..big screen tv’s abound, playing seemingly endless reels of the hottest live concerts available….Beyonce, Rhianna, the REAL Aguilera anyone? Multiple checkstands abound tended by uniformed, yes uniformed friendly young ladies offering free “panic buttons” (should you suddenly find yourself popping your’s), instant tailoring, 2 hour pressing or dry cleaning, and free freshly grilled hotdogs, popped corn and a cappuccino stand! I’ve started suggesting it as a luncheon place for me and my gal pals.

But the things I am most impressed by are the owner’s commitment to environmentally friendly business practices. Apparently, they’ve dumped the ol’ toxic to people and the environment chemical processes and are now using – well, I don’t know what they’re using but I do know my cleaned clothes no longer have that funky medicinal smell.

Last week, big advertisements went out for their Food Truck/Garmento Event. Yep, for the price of two items of clothing to be cleaned, customers would leave the store with a huge green (get it?) reusable Garmento bag that has four, count ‘em four uses! Turn it inside out and use it to collect soiled clothes, hang it on the back of a door to keep things off the floor, use the nifty shoulder strap to tote your unmentionables to the cleaner and, here’s the best part, they will return your cleaned items to you in the same bag now functioning as your own personal garment bag! That’s right, no more wasteful, landfill-devastating plastic bags! Do you love that??

Your reward for doing your environmental part, was to stand in the line of your choice at not one, not two, but three food trucks parked at the curb for the sole enjoyment of Hilltop customers! Does YOUR dry cleaner do that? I didn’t think so.

Finally, just when I thought the honeymoon might be ending, I was waiting at one of the registers for my ticket, mindlessly watching the shifting images on the monitor to my right and one message suddenly came into focus:

“If you are unemployed and need an outfit cleaned for an interview, we will do it for you FREE.”

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"The Mamas and Tapas"

Who does Laurie David (ex-wife of “Seinfeld” creator Larry David) think she is anyway? I mean, she’s already been crowned The Green Goddess, driving around in her earth-friendly Prius preaching environmentally correct sermons. Now she’s suddenly the expert on quality family time vis a vis The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids One Meal at a Time? She’s proven she’s got credibility on ecology issues, but where does she get off telling the rest of us how to enhance our family relations thru shared meals? If she really wants culinary street cred, she should attempt the massive undertaking my son Adam, his buddies and I did this past weekend.

The school both my sons attended in North Hollywood, has a tradition of holding annual social gatherings for the parents of students in each grade, beginning in kindergarten and culminating in the senior year of high school. Naturally, over time, we parents who’ve been haphazardly lumped together due to the coinciding ages of our children, form bonds that last many years and sometimes, a lifetime.

Wonderful, right? Except someone has to host these things. And that someone, at least in my son’s class is now us. It began last year when Adam’s tenth grade Room Parents asked me if we’d be willing to host the party. We had a great time doing it and the event was a big success, so I volunteered our house again this year.

Last year we did an Italian theme. At 15 or 16 years old, the boys were serious foodies; not only did they have the good fortune to travel extensively with their families, thus tasting some of the best cuisines in the world, but on occasion, they also pool their pocket money and dine out together in the best restaurants Los Angeles has to offer. Oh, and some of them have had summer jobs working in the finest professional kitchens around. These are boys who shop at 99Ranch Market, purchase a live duck, take it home, break its neck and start cooking. I am not nearly as adventurous.

Last year, the boys and I planned a menu and worked out a reasonable work schedule, that allowed us to prep and freeze many of our dishes in advance—a huge time saver. This year was no different. However, I had the bright idea to produce an authentic Spanish tapas menu, using a much admired but never used cookbook* I received as a jumping off point. We devised a menu of eight different tapas, some to be passed and some stationed, and a paella-sort of rice and chicken dish for an entrée. Did I mention we were expecting approximately 100 parents?

Our tapas menu consisted of Ginger-Spiced Cashews, Imported Spanish Tuna Butter Canapes, Wild Mushrooms with Marsala Wine, Roasted Mussels in

White Wine with Garlic & Pernod, Mini Spanish Frittatas with Chorizo & Chipotle Crema, Roast Pork Tenderloin with Herbed Cheese Crostini, Roasted Garlic Shrimp with Paprika & Aioli Dipping Sauce, and Chorizo “Lollipops”. (see right)

Talk about quality bonding time! Move over Laurie David! Over the course of a few weekends and many hours, the boys and I prepped our hearts out, sharing culinary tips and tweaking flavors. The best part for me though, was quietly observing the boys become so involved in their work, they talked and teased freely amongst themselves, seemingly forgetting I was in the room. What a wonderful window I was given into the hearts and minds of our children. So while getting your kids to help out in the kitchen on an already harried weeknight is a nice idea, I heartily recommend rolling up your sleeves, forming a partnership with your child(ren) and jumping into a challenge that neither of you will forget.

Next year I’m thinkin’ Chinese…..

*Tapas by Penelope Casas

Saturday, October 23, 2010

All in the Family


Veal Loin Chops in Balsamic-Marsala Syrup with Anchovy Butter

For the anchovy butter:

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

4-5 anchovy fillets in oil

for the veal:

8 Veal Loin Chops

Unbleached All-Purpose Flour or Brown Rice Flour

Kosher Salt & Cracked Black Pepper

4 T Unsalted Butter

4 T Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Marsala Wine

1 Large Shallot, thinly sliced in rings or half-rings

Aged Balsamic Vinegar

¾ cup chopped flat leaf parsley

1. Begin with the butter. Mash the butter with a fork in a small bowl. Add the anchovies and continue mashing until fully incorporated.

2. Spoon the butter mixture onto a sheet of plastic wrap, folding and rolling the butter into the shape of a small log. Place in freezer to solidify for easier slicing later.

3. Pat each veal chop in clean paper towels to dry completely. Divide the butter and oil in two heavy bottomed skillets (not non-stick), so as not to crowd the chops, and melt over medium-high heat. (Patting the meat dry prior to flouring and using non-stick pans will ensure a good crust on the chops.)

4. Mix a mound of flour (whichever kind you choose) with a healthy amount of the salt and pepper as this will be the only seasoning for the meat. Dip each chop in the flour mixture and shake gently to remove excess. (Do not flour until ready to sear or flour will become soggy and won’t form the desired golden brown crust.)

5. Carefully place each chop in the pans as the butter and oil begin to bubble but not brown. Leave some room between the chops and don’t touch for 4-5 minutes. Then check for browning and turn over. Let sear for another 3 minutes. Remove from the pan and keep warm by covering with foil.

6. Scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan, add the sliced shallots and wilt. Then add the marsala wine and let reduce while scraping the pan some more. (This is called “deglazing the pan”.) When the shallots are soft and the marsala thickens slightly, add the balsamic and heat. Then add the veal chops and cook for a few more minutes until pink in the center.

7. Arrange the chops on a platter, pour the syrup over and slice the anchovy butter into eight pieces. Place a butter slice on top of each chop, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.

“Pasta Rags” with Asparagus & Shiitake Mushrooms in Parmesan Cream

1 bunch thick asparagus, ends peeled and blanched

1 lb thin sliced large white mushrooms

1 lb thin sliced shiitake mushrooms (or other wild mushrooms)

1 garlic clove, pressed

2 T unsalted butter

2 T olive oil

truffle salt, if available

or kosher salt

marsala wine

half and half

finely grated imported parmesan regianno

1. Melt butter and oil in heavy bottomed skillet. When bubbling around the edges, add the asparagus, mushrooms and garlic clove. Add a pinch of truffle salt, if using.

2. Sautee until soft, about 8 or 9 minutes, then add marsala. Let marsala reduce a bit, then add half-and-half and some grated parmesan.

For the pasta rags:

Refer back to my post entitled “Cooking Outside the Box” of July 12, 2010 in which I cite a recipe for homemade pasta dough by Mario Battali. While you can certainly use boxed or fresh store-bought pasta, (for this sauce, I would recommend either a tagliatelli or fettucine, but whatever you have in your pantry is perfectly fine as long as it’s not too delicate), I love using my pasta machine and still have so much to learn about making my own pasta, that I chose to make it while my family and our close friends hung out in the kitchen. If using a machine, connect the plain sheet roller and make long thin pieces of pasta, going all the way down to #6 or 7, so the finished product is really, really thin and delicate. (Remember, pasta this thin will cook almost immediately in simmering water, so do not walk away from the pot!)

To make the “rags” simply cut or tear the long, thin pieces into squares that are approximately 3-4 inches on all sides. This does not have to be perfect, in fact, a sort of rough look is preferable, so don’t sweat it.

To serve the pasta and sauce, I would spoon a little of the sauce liquids onto the plate to keep the pasta from sticking. Then, slowly ‘wrinkle’ the cooked pasta rags onto the puddle of sauce and place a scant ladle of the sauce with vegetables atop. Finish with another fine grate of imported parmesan. Yum!


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Necessity is the Mother of Invention or...Use It or Lose It!

Our son, Adam has recently begun working out with and following the nutritional advice of a personal trainer. The two have formed a great relationship and Adam is reaping significant benefits from this challenging pursuit. As a result, my cooking skills are also being tested as I sometimes struggle to develop new and appealing ways to cook poultry and fish, as red meats are currently verboten. In my desire to support Adam's efforts, I’ve also made the switch from cooking with all things ‘white’ such as potatoes, rice, breads, and flours, to more wholesome multigrain or wholewheat ingredients. We’ve both had to make some adjustments but agree that it’s been worth the effort.

I don’t often make fish dishes at home because my husband, Daniel doesn’t like it. (I know, can you imagine ruling out an entire food group? But that’s another post.) So with Adam’s new dietary regimen, I’ve been branching out, and yesterday I purchased about a pound of halibut for our dinner. (Daniel would be having the remaining short ribs I’d made the previous night for company.) Intending to make poached fish tacos in place of fried, I knew this would be a great way to use up the leftover and soon to wind up in the trash romaine lettuce, almost overripe heirloom tomato, and slightly browning avocado I left on the counter after making a turkey sandwich for my lunch. That was until I returned home and discovered someone ate the remaining whole wheat tortillas I thought were still in the fridge. So now what to do with this halibut?

I browsed my bookshelves of cookbooks and reflected on a recipe I read in Nancy Silverton’s A Twist of the Wrist (2007) called “Garbage Salad”, which she created one night after deciding to empty her refrigerator of miscellaneous items. Spying the numerous jars and bottles of asian ingredients on my own refrigerator door, I decided it was time to use them or lose them. Somehow I’d figure out a compelling way to mix all of them into a sweetly sour sauce for our fish, including that stub of fresh ginger wrapped tightly and waiting quietly in the freezer.

Some of the most satisfying meals I’ve made for myself or family have come from a spontaneous refrigerator clearing effort. More often than not, I find myself fondly remembering just such a dish and being unable to reproduce it for lack of written notes. Most frustrating. Here then, as a memory jog for me and hopefully, an inspiration for you, is last night’s dinner. (I regret the absence of a photo but the fish was so good, we scarfed it down before I thought to capture an image!)

2 T dark sesame oil

1 T vegetable or canola oil

1 one pound boneless halibut

sea salt/fresh ground black pepper

Pat the halibut dry with a clean paper towel to facilitate the formation of a crisp crust. Sprinkle very lightly with salt and pepper, and heat the two oils in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. As oils begin to ripple, carefully lay the halibut in the pan, turning once after about 3-4 minutes. When both sides are seared, lower the flame and continue cooking fish, covered with a lid. Meanwhile, mix the following ingredients in a bowl:

2 t fish sauce

scant ¼ cup teriyaki sauce

1 T plum sauce

1 T mirin (Japanese rice flavored wine)

1 T oyster sauce

1 t grated fresh ginger

1 crushed garlic clove

When the fish is just barely opaque in the center, add the sauce to the pan to heat thru. Turn off the heat, place the fish on a bed of brown rice or tangy greens and spoon over some of the sauce. Enjoy!

(Note: We paired our halibut with sweet potato fritters made with wholewheat breadcrumbs, and sautéed French green beans with shallots, mushrooms & sliced almonds.)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Penne for Your Thoughts

Have you heard the latest controversy coming out of North Carolina, courtesy of---you guessed it, Fox News? Apparently, a mid-level restaurant owner posted a sign informing customers “Screaming Children Will Not Be Tolerated” and an irate mother of an autistic child who spends a lot of time screaming, is claiming discrimination.

Feeling wrung out from following the “Pastor Jones” debacle in Florida, I am not going to get into a dialogue about the outrageously inappropriate musings of both combatants. Instead, I suggest we all just stay out of that region til things settle down and cook ourselves into a cocoon of culinary comfort.

That being said, I am presenting my antidote to one blogger’s complaint that appeared in the story (which can be viewed at aol’s parentdish site), which reads “There’s nothing that can ruin a good dish of penne a la vodka more than a side of screaming kid.”

My advice to those of you who, like me, are sickened by the flurry of recent media fueled controversies, is to turn off cable news, turn up your Mario Lanza CD (you DO have one, don’t you?), and get yourself in your kitchen recreating Patricia Wells’ deliciously satisfying Penne with Vodka and Spicy Tomato-Cream Sauce or “Penne alla Bettola”. Or better yet, fly over to Florence, Italy and squeeze yourself onto a wooden bench packed with locals at La Vecchia Betolla, where you’ll eat well and won’t even hear an occasional infant squall over the din of lively conversation and laughter.

Here is Patricia’s version of the recipe served there; I’ve made it countless times over the years. Each time is as good as the one preceding it and always brings satisfied sighs of appreciation from my diners.

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 plump fresh garlic cloves, minced

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste

sea salt

one 28-ounce can peeled Italian plum tomatoes in juice or

one 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes in puree

1 pound dried Italian tubular pasta, such as penne*

2 tablespoons vodka

½ cup heavy cream

¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, snipped with a scissors

In an unheated skilled large enough to hold the pasta later on, combine the oil, garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt, stirring to coat with the oil. Cook over moderate heat just until the garlic turns golden but does not brown, 2 to 3 minutes. If using whole canned tomatoes, place a food mill over the skilled and puree the tomatoes directly into it. Crushed tomatoes can be added directly from the can. Stir to blend, and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce begins to thicken, about 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

2. Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add 3 tablespoons salt and the penne, stirring to prevent the pasta from sticking. Cook until tender but firm to the bite. Drain thoroughly.

3. A Add the drained pasta to the skilled with the tomato sauce. Toss. Add the vodka, toss again, then add the cream and toss. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and let rest for 1 to 2 minutes to allow the pasta to absorb the sauce. Add the parsley and toss again. Transfer to warmed shallow soup bowls and serve immediately. (Traditionally, a cheese is not served with this dish.)

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

*I find penne is the best pasta to use in this case because the chewiness the tubes provide serve as the perfect counterpoint to the silkiness of the sauce.