Monday, June 29, 2009

Picnic in the Park

Okay my dear readers, I owe you a big entry since it's been awhile! I know you're out there, I've got a new way of seeing you and I want to hear from you! I love comments and I'd love to know who you are. Think about it at least?

Alright, let's just get to business. This last weekend Around the Table, the gourmet cooking group I belong to, had it's monthly dinner and it was all about the picnic. This was the first event where we were not having the dinner in some one's home and that made it different and fun. So we set up in a lovely park just a bit north of here and enjoyed a creative and delicious meal amid charming gardens, fields, and trees. If you go check out Mallory's blog soon I think she'll even have some photos of turkeys, cows, goats, and bunnies. I got a pretty hard time at the dinner for having my face behind the camera so much so I feel it necessary to share lots and lots of photos here.

Hovander Park was so serene and there were numerous amazing views whether it was open grassy fields under a big blue sky or Mt. Baker herself. I loved all the neatly manicured gardens and beautiful trees and flowers! The little white picket fences also added lots of charm.

We started the evening off with a cocktail from Miss Laurel. She made us a watermelon concoction with cucumber, rum, and sparking water. It wasn't too sweet and was quite the refreshing little drink. I have beverage for the next dinner which happens to center around the BBQ so if you have any ideas I'd love to hear them...

Laura had appetizer and made us grilled skewers of chicken, shrimp, and vegetables. The real winner of this course was the dipping sauce! It was a tzatziki of sorts and had lots of feta and scallions. I made a meal for my mom this last Mother's Day weekend which also happened to be her birthday weekend and I also did skewers, lemon-marinated blackened chicken kebabs with a lemon yogurt mint dipping sauce. I don't think a kebab would be complete without a cooling, cold sauce like this. Tasty indeed.

Alexis, our budding little vegetarian (meaning she keeps trying more and more meat and seafood) brought along a delightful salad with lots of goodies from her garden. It was a pretty mix of arugula, lettuce, and parsley and came topped with the cutest little flowers which happened to come from from her arugula. I told my sister about this and she knew all about it, I'd never seen them before and fell in love with their daintiness and muted tones. I've been known to pull out the "edible" flowers for fancy occasions, but can we just agree that though they are safe to eat they really shouldn't be deemed edible? If you don't know what I'm talking about, the next time you happen upon a marigold just pop it in your mouth and let me know if you'd like them on your next salad? These little barely-green flowers are so delicate and you can eat them right along with the other ingredients and not experience any off tastes or textures. She also pickled some carrots, beets, and zucchini from the farmer's market, can you get over those colors? I felt like I should have been saving them to hang up on my wall instead of eating them! Nature can be gorgeous.

The ever-delightful Mallory never disappoints and this dinner was no exception. She hit it out of the park (pun intended) with two mouth-watering sandwiches. When she took them from her basket they looked like little Christmas presents. When a sandwich arrives on your lap looking like this you know it's going to be good. And it was.

The first one I tried was the langostino roll. I wish I had one now. Langostinos for those of you who aren't familiar with them, is the meat from a Squat Lobster which is neither a lobster or a prawn but more like a little crab closely related to the hermit or porcelain crab. This works for me because I actually prefer crab and really don't like lobster!

Perfect soft rolls, delicate langostino filling that tasted like just the right amount of ocean. The mayonnaise wasn't overpowering and there were subtle hints of lemon here and there. AMAZING!

I took a small break to have some of Ashley's (she's back in the group after a couple months of being with her new and adorable baby Aurora) potato and pasta salads. Her potato salad was studded with green peas and chives and her pasta salad involved lots of tomatoes - regular and sun-dried, olives, capers, basil, and mozzarella. Yum! You just can't have a picnic without the requisite pasta and potato salads!

One more present to unwrap...

Local artisan foccacia with grilled flank steak, Gorgonzola, arugula, and garlic mayonnaise. At this point my mouth was overwhelmed with joy and I was left trying to decide if left on a deserted island with one of these sandwiches which one I'd choose. I just couldn't pick a winner. These two sandwiches were so wonderful, in fact I made a version of this one for some friends who took us on a boat road this evening. There is something very perfect about a good white bread, beef, and bleu cheese. Slather the whole thing with garlic mayonnaise and I don't know what could be better!

My turn.

I brought along dessert which I was very excited about. I found a recipe for peach creme caramels over at Cannele et Vanille and just couldn't resist. Our co-op had some amazing organic peaches in from California and I decided to pair the custard with a batch of Ina Garten's Ultimate Ginger Cookies.

For a good peachy measure I also served peach rings and peach-flavored Jelly Belly Beans. I really thought this whole dessert and presentation would be a major score but truth be told there were some major issues! The biggest issue being the creme caramels. They were so darling to look at in their little mason jars, topped with minced pistachios and dried rose buds. Their looks were mighty deceiving, after we sunk our spoons through the firm top we discovered the contents below were very watery and the caramel was rock hard. I came a bit unglued and quickly tried figuring where I went wrong. I emailed the Aran, the author of Cannele at Vanille (which is a stunningly beautiful blog of pastries and treats) and she agreed that the peaches were the culprit and that perhaps roasting or sauteing them first would help lock in their moisture. You can find the recipe over at her site.

Even Ina's cookies weren't a total home run, as picture-perfect as they were with their crackly little tops, they were a bit to gingery for most. I even cut the crystallized ginger in half from what the recipe suggested. Next time I would reduce or eliminate the ground ginger in the recipe. I'm not a huge ginger fan, you might be and would probably like the full amount. You can find the recipe for the these cookies here.

I will try to attempt these again sometime. I love the idea of a jar of peachy, firm custard rich with vanilla beans and heavy cream sitting on top of a layer of sweet caramel. I will definitely start making some of these simpler recipes for the dinners in advance! You can't always go right it turns out! The girls cut me some slack thankfully. They said it was like dipping your cookie in peach milk and they still claimed to love it. They're good people! It was a wonderful meal and evening as usual. To picnics!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Gorgonzola Burgers and Fries

This last Sunday my husband and I got a bit traditional. We decided to watch the last game of the NBA finals and make homemade hamburgers and fries. My husband could eat burgers morning, noon, and night and I was quite happy to oblige him with this meal. We decided to make fat, juicy natural-beef burgers and served them between Rosemary English Muffins from a local artisan bakery, and smothered them with caramelized onion and warmed gorgonzola. Is your mouth watering yet? I'd love to hear about your favorite burger by the way...

We also decided to fry up some onion rings and sweet potato fries. I was kind of looking for a beer-battered onion ring recipe but came upon this one on All Recipes which 350 people gave five stars so I just went with it. They were really good onion rings, much like what you'd get at a typical drive in. I tend to prefer onion rings with a really crisp, smooth coating and these had a very crisp, crunchy coating. But they were good and we made up a little dipping sauce for our fried goodies using mayonnaise, some ketchup, honey, relish, and white wine vinegar.

I have to say that the game was a pretty bland one, somewhat of a blowout and not terribly exciting to watch - but thankfully our meal was packed with flavor and fun! You gotta love those kind of days. Simple but oh-so-good.

Salads, Herbs, & Green Goddess

I couldn't be more pleased with my little window sill lined with fresh herbs. It's been over four years since I finished culinary school and have been cooking professionally since, yet I'm just learning the value of these precious green bundles. I've always heard it said on TV as well as in the magazines and cookbooks, fresh herbs and citrus, fresh herbs and citrus, fresh herbs and citrus... But like a stubborn adolescent I just didn't get it. I wasn't convicted yet and I guess I had to find out for myself or 'learn the hard way' as my Dad always used to say. The light bulb finally came on this Spring and I really learned about the storehouse of fresh flavor and brightness that fresh herbs can bring to just about everything.

I've grown mint, basil, rosemary, Italian and curly parsley, lavender, chives, and oregano. I treat them as if they were my children and I'm just so proud of how they've grown and blossomed. Maybe I'm proud of myself? I've never been one for gardens or dirt and I never could claim membership in that Greenthumb Club, but whether it's inappropriate or not, I'm now the kind of girl who has a box of Miracle Grow in the cupboard with all of the drinking glasses. I don't know I put it there really, but I suppose it makes sense. When I'm thirsty I go for a glass, and when the plants are thirsty they need a glass. It works. I'm still amazed thought at how well they have done and I'm finding I use them in all sorts of things. I've put them in an omelet for Ethan and I, added some to a simple pasta with fresh mozzarella and sauteed vegetables for a friend, and last night we plucked off fresh oregano leaves and put them on top of our pizza just like that.

I also made the most wonderful salad dressing with them last night. I'll tell you more about that in a minute. I don't know if you recall, but awhile back when I wrote about the tea room I mentioned Mrs. Beeton and and English Salad Creme... I said how I'd write about salads. Well, here it is. I must admit I only met Mrs. Beeton recently. She's been around in homes for ages and is quite the household name in England. Though they were different, I'd say she's almost to England what Julia Child is to America. My boss recently got back from a trip to London and brought me a little book titled, The Best of Mrs. Beeton's Easy Entertaining. It's chock full of classic recipes like Cherries Jubilee, Waldorf Salad with Chicken, Crepes Suzette, and Court Bouillon. I get such a kick out of the way she defines things for the reader, such as telling us about what a salad should be and the proper types to serve. It seems that in our culture it's become custom to do things however we want, anything goes. And really, that's a good thing. Especially when it comes to cooking. But because I think we've forgotten about these vintage definitions of what something should be, I'd like to share. And in this case, it's all about salad. Take notes.

This will be a bit long but worth your time. Here we go. In the words of Mrs. Beeton:

"The rules of a successful salad... ingredients both raw and cooked must fresh and in prime condition. Select ingredients which complement each other in flavour and texture. Do not use so many ingredients that the salad ends up as a kaleidoscope of unrecognizable, clashing flavours. Ingredients such as apple and cut beetroot, which discolour or shed colour, should be prepared and added just before serving. Salad leaves and greens which become limp quickly should be dressed at the last minute. The salad dressing should moisten, blend and develop the flavour of the main ingredients. It should not dominate the dish."

And, here's a bit on side salads. Again, sorry for the length but I think you'll find it interesting.

"Side salads should be simple, with clearly defined flavours and a light dressing that complement the main dish. Green Salad : Do not underestimate the value of a good, crisp, really fresh lettuce lightly tossed with a well-seasoned, oil-based dressing. This makes and ideal accompaniment for grilled fish, meat or poultry, or may be served with the cheese course. A classic green salad accentuates the richness of the main dish and refreshes the palate. A Mixed Green Salad should consist of green ingredients, for example salad leaves, cucumber, finely sliced green pepper, celery, spring onions, watercress, mustard and cress, and avocado. A mixed green salad is ideal for serving with foods such as quiche, baked potatoes (topped with soft cheese, butter, soured cream of fromage frais) and with cold roast meats or grilled pork sausages. Mixed Salad (she lets you get crazy with color or this one) : This type of salad usually consists of a base of leaves, with other green ingredients, topped with raw items, such as tomatoes, radishes, grated carrots, shredded cabbage, beetroot and red and yellow peppers. A mixed salad goes well with cold meats and poultry, cheese or eggs. Satisfying Side Salads Pasta, rice, beans, grains, and potatoes all make good salads, and do not have to be mixed with a cornucopia of ingredients. They should be perfectly cooked, then tossed with selected herbs, such as parsley, mint, basil, or tarragon. Additional ingredients should be kept to the minimum. In keeping with the main dish, mayonnaise, yogurt, fromage frais, soured cream, or an oil-based mixture may be used to dress the salad."

I hope you enjoyed reading about the way you ought to make and serve your green salads, mixed green salads, mixed salads, and satisfying side salads. She has another paragraph on main course salads but I will save that for another time. I think you are getting tired (I feel like a Grandmother reading you nap time stories) and plus, I have to end with my killer dressing from last night.

I suppose you would classify my salad above as a Mixed Salad. I used green leaf lettuce, green bell peppers finely chopped, sliced mushrooms, tomato wedges, petite green peas, and avocado. I made a ranch-green goddess inspired dressing using an abundance of fresh herbs from my collection. To make my dressing use nearly equal parts mayonnaise and sour cream. Then thin it a little with buttermilk, good buttermilk, and a couple drizzles of white wine vinegar. Add an appropriate amount of minced fresh garlic, dried dill, and dried onion flakes. Then chop finely and assortment of your favorite fresh herbs. I used lots of parsley, basil, chives, and some rosemary. Season with salt, seasoned salt, pepper, and voila. This dressing is so good you could eat it with a spoon (we did...) and I know I probably overdressed the salad according to Mrs. Beeton, but this dressing was so good it was practically the main ingredient and we just couldn't help ourselves! Enjoy your summer herbs and salads!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bleu Cheese and Bacon "Cake"

Every now and then something falls into your lap, something wonderful and something that whisks you away to a land of excitement and curiosity. A few weeks ago, Amazon brought me a new treasure. It's made of lots and lots of pages and bound in a cover, it's a blend of tales about Paris. Its titled, The Sweet Life in Paris : Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - And Perplexing- City. It comes to us from the wonderful David Lebovitz. It's been keeping me company each evening as my head hits the pillow. I can't imagine anything better than getting swept up in Parisienne adventures before drifting off into dreamy time land.

David Lebovitz writes in such a real and comical way. He talks to you like a friend and reading his stories just makes you want to know him even more. I have always been obsessed with Paris and most things French. I dream about the day I board a plane and actually travel there. I can't wait to experience all of the lavish sights and tastes. I know I will fall in love. I just know it.

While David L. admits that Paris is amazing, he chooses to mostly write about the quirky and less delightful sides of the city. Referring the french, he writes, When they say, "It does not exist", they mean, "It does exist - just not for you." When they walk right into you on the street and say nothing, they mean, "I'm Parisian, and you're not." When they say, "The Cheeses in France are the best in the world," they mean, "We are indeed a superior culture." Very funny and I'm sure true.

He writes about how the customer service in Paris is horrendous and how the coffee is even worse. He also says that restrooms are nearly impossible to come by and that most of the grocery stores are very hideous, unwelcoming, and inconvenient. He goes into depth about how the french hate to wait in line for anything and will push and shove to get ahead. And you can't touch anything when shopping, at the Farmer's Market, don't even think about handling any of the produce. He mentions how people keep fresh cheeses and stocks in their cupboards because the refrigerators are so small and that hardly anyone has a dryer to go with their washing machine. He also says the french boys and men have very skinny waists.

The book is full of tempting recipes like Dulce de Leche brownies, Fromage Blanc Soufleé, Floating Islands, and Warm Goat Cheese Salad. It's kind of ironic that the first recipe I've decided to make from this famous pastry chef is not something sweet and flaky but something involving bacon and bleu cheese. Bleu Cheese and Bacon Cake. From the first glance at it, I was intrigued. Anyone who knows me even a little knows about my ongoing and eternal affair with cake. I love cake. Love it like crazy. I'd never had a savory cake such as this and it just so happened that I had a party to attend the next day and needed to bring a finger food along. I actually got so excited about baking these little loaves that I went out and bought two new loaf pans that are apparently the big thing right now, they should be for twenty a piece! I also made a variation he offers using chevre and black olives. Just a couple notes about this recipe, I don't know how much I liked the chili flavor. Next time I would reduce the chili powder and not use any salt, the bacon provides all the saltiness you need. Also, my friend Mallory, who I shared a glorious evening and meal of pasta, salad, and the bread cake with later that night thought something spicy would be nice in the bleu loaf, minced jalapenos, etc.

Bleu Cheese and Bacon “Cake”

8 strips (5oz) of bacon or pancetta, cooked to a crisp, grease reserved for later use
1 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 - 1 tsp chili powder ( I would use less next time)
1/2 tsp coarse salt ( I wouldn't use next time)
4 large eggs, room temperature
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup plain whole milk yogurt1
1/2 tsp Dijon Mustard (recommended brand: Edmond Fallot)
1/2 small bunch of chives, finely chopped (about 1/4 cup) or scallions
5 oz well crumbled bleu cheese or Roquefort**
2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

**To make the bleu cheese easier to crumble, put in in the freezer to firm a bit.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook bacon over medium-high heat until crisp. Remove bacon from the pan, reserving the grease. When the bacon has cooled, crumble.

Grease a 9-inch loaf pan (I used a 10-inch pan) with reserved bacon grease and line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, chili powder and salt.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, olive oil, yogurt, mustard and chives until smooth. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and use a rubber spatula to stir in the wet mixture, stirring just until the wet ingredients are almost incorporated. (there should be a bit of flour still visible). Do not over mix. Fold in the bleu cheese, Parmesan, and bacon bits until everything is just moistened. Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan.

Bake for 1 hour (45 minutes was enough for a 10-inch pan), until the top is golden brown and the cake springs back when you gently touch the center. Let the cake cool for 5 minutes, then tilt it out onto a wire cooling rack. Peel off the parchment paper and let cool upright before slicing.

Storage: The cake can be wrapped in plastic and kept for up to three days. It can also be frozen, well-wrapped, for up to two months.

Yields: One 9-inch loaf cake
Source: Adapted from The Sweet Life in Paris, by David Lebovitz

I recently found myself in the premier local grocery store here in Bellingham and I have to say that since reading this book I've started to look at my friendly little town and clean, welcoming market as little blessings. We all know Paris is the shiniest city around, and as much as I dream of the special place, maybe it doesn't have it going on entirely. I am vowing to find more things to love in my native land and to stop putting Europe on such a pedestal. Maybe we don't have amazing old architecture and culture coming out our ears, but we do have a pretty good way of doing things and life in our lil' country is pretty easy-breezy indeed. Get your hands on this book!

That's Just How We Roll

I've come to fill you in, dear reader, on the latest dinner that was shared by Around the Table, the fabulous gourmet cooking group I belong to. Some of you may recall how dramatic our little story was in the beginning, dealing with members that didn't cook well (at all), and our efforts to eject them from the group. I can now say that things are sailing along pretty smoothly. We've hit our stride and have been enjoying some really amazing dinners.

You can see below that the lovely Mallory created a most enchanting place for us to feast and converse in her exquisite backyard area. She garnished each place setting with a package of strawberry Pocki sticks and a little tiny journal with our Chinese calendar animal on it. These photos also belong to her, thanks lady! The night was quiet and the perfect temperature for socializing outdoors. It was the kind of moment than when it starts you know it's going to be a treat. And that's just what the night turned out to be.

The theme was Sushi-Japanese and I was dreaming of lots of ginger, garlic, and fingers crossed - no cilantro. Well, I got my dream and I didn't get any cilantro. We started the night off with Mango Lemonade cocktails and ended the evening with Lemon-Ginger Pound cake and a fire pit roaring with flames.

I drew the appetizer course and decided to make gyoza. Which I learned is pronounced, gyooza. I went with the traditional pork and cabbage filling. I was really surprised to learn how easy it is to make gyoza. I made my filling, bought a package of gyoza/potsticker wrappers from my local favorite Asian market and sat down on the sofa with ingredients at hand and quickly folded fifty gyoza while watching Sex and the City. They were good, a bit salty, I would reduce the amount of soy sauce in the recipe next time. Also, if you were going to make these regularly, I would think about using a lighter protein than pork. I liked them, it would just bit a lot if you had them more than once in awhile. I will add the recipe down at the bottom along with the recipe for...

Tempura! I don't necessarily mean to toot my own horn here, but this was some good tempura! I can't really take credit for it since I found the recipe for the tempura batter online. It was a very light, runny batter and produced a very thin, crackly coating on all of the vegetables. The recipe called for a really healthy amount of vodka and I know that had something to do with the amazing texture! The vegetables stayed crunchy for a really, really long time after coming out of the hot oil. I also had never made tempura and really loved the results. It was really hard to stop eating this. We all agreed that mushrooms, broccoli, zucchini made the best vegetable tempura. I made a dipping sauce for the both the tempura and gyoza using tamari, mirin, rice wine vinegar, toasted sesame oil, minced scallions, a a bit of sugar.

Next came a little palette cleanser of sorts from Laura, a seaweed and cucumber salad. There isn't a whole lot to say about this recipe, it was pretty tangy and salty from the Tamari. I liked it though. The cucumber pieces were my favorite, the nori got a bit mushy and reminded me of the algae you'd find in your local pond. It was simple and seemed very Japanese which was fitting.

After picking at our salads, we all headed into the kitchen to make sushi rolls. As the host, Mallory made the rice and had lots of fillings for us to work with. We had ingredients like crab, smoked salmon, unagi, and tempura prawns. We also used cucumber, avocado, cream cheese, and spicy mayonnaise. By this point we had a couple drinks and did quite a bit of joking around and giggling. You can imagine where the jokes headed. Anyway, we had a blissful time creating the rolls. The one below is Laurel's, it was the last one of the night to be made and was deemed the Everything Caterpillar roll. We all agreed that the sushi with most fillings always won out over the more simple and few fillings. We barely had room for anything else but you just can't end a dinner party without something sweet.

Laurel drew dessert and made a pound cake infused with lemon and ginger. She baked them off in ramekins and served them turned out with vanilla-roasted plums and homemade ginger ice cream. A lovely creation and concept, right? I think I would have liked the dish even better if the plums had been grilled and then drizzled with vanilla simple syrup perhaps. All in all though, it was a lovely finish to a lovely night.

Traditional Pork Gyozas
adapted from
makes about sixty

6 cups minced napa cabbage leaves, shredded
1 1/2 teaspoon table salt (no kosher as it is too coarse)
1 1/2 lbs ground pork
3/4 cup of garlic chives, minced. If not accessible, white and green parts of scallions can be used for substitute.
1/4 teaspoons white pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons Tamari soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons grated ginger
2 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
3 large cloves of garlic, minced
3 egg whites, lightly beaten
1 package of gyoza wrapping skins
vegetable oil and water for cooking

1. Place the cabbage and salt in a colander in the sink and allow to sit for thirty minutes allowing the salt to extract water from the cabbage. After 30 minutes, using a wooden spatula or spoon, press the cabbage against the sides of the bowl to strain out all liquid, a paper towel would also work well here.
2. Place cabbage and pork along with all other ingredients in a bowl and mix well to combine. Chill for thirty minutes up to a couple of hours.
3. Working quickly as to not let wrappers dry out, keep most of the wrappers covered in a Ziploc bag or damp cloth, put about a teaspoon or so of filling inside of wrapper. Run a finger dipped in water along 1/2 of the edge and carefully bring sides together, to create a traditional look pleat the edges a few times and be sure to seal well. It just takes a few tries to get it.
4. Chill or freeze until using. If freezing, you can freeze them first in a single layer and then dump them in a freezer-safe bag for later use.
5. Heat a few tablespoons oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium high heat. Add about eight dumplings and allow to brown on the bottom. Once golden brown, quickly pour a 1/2 C. water or so over dumplings and cover with a tight fitting lid. Once the water evaporates the dumplings are ready to serve. Eat immediately and continue to cook dumplings as needed. Serve with your favorite soy dipping sauce. Enjoy!

Perfect Tempura Batter

1 qt. canola oil, for frying
3/4 C. AP flour
1/4 C. cornstarch
1/2 L. egg
1/2 C. vodka
1.2 C. seltzer water
salt to taste

1. Combine flour, starch, and salt in a medium bowl. Heat oil to the point of frying and in the mean time combine the egg, seltzer, and vodka in another small bowl. Wait to combine the wet and dry ingredients until the oil is just hot enough for frying. Be sure to not over mix the batter. Dip your favorite vegetables or seafood into batter and fry till just slightly golden. Carefully place tempura on a paper towel surface and serve with your favorite soy dipping sauce. Yum!