Monday, October 15, 2012

On a Perfect Fall Evening...

...the sky was a swirl of grey and clouds, the ground still damp from the rain that took all day to arrive and, best of all, a definite chill in the air.  To say that it was relief would be an understatement.  I was beyond tired of the 100+ degree weather Los Angeles had been living with for weeks.

It would be foolish not to take advantage of the weather.  This was a night that called to be wrapped up in warmth.  Wrapped in warmth like a tawny blanket, heavy as cream, and a cup of ginger-spiked tea in your hands.  A blanket that, strangely enough, looked like a bowl soup.

One of my BFF's introduced me to mirin a week ago, when I had this amazing Asian avocado salsa at her house.  It took me all of three days to find myself at the grocery store with a bottle of mirin in hand.  It would undoubtedly be in that soup, along with the butternut squash and cauliflower that I had.  To add a little more of an Asian twist to the soup, ginger would go in too.  I made toasted sesame oil 'breadsticks' with a day old baguette to serve alongside.  [Cut, toss in a skillet with the oil, and toast.]  I am mad for toasted sesame oil as I also used it to make the 'croutons' on top of the soup.  Those are actually grits that I made, poured in a loaf pan, and chilled until firm.  So easy to slice and throw in a pan with the oil, but be warned, those grits will sputter!  It's worth it though.  They're crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside.

There will be more chilly, rainy evenings to come.  This is an easier blanket to make, than say, knitting one.  I can guarantee it will taste better.

Gingered Butternut Cauliflower Soup
Makes enough for 4 generous servings

2 cups butternut squash, cubed
4 cups cauliflower
¼ tsp ground ginger
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
1 tbsp butter
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
¼ cup mirin
1 tsp grated ginger
1 leek, sliced (white and light green parts)
¼ cup heavy cream
Cilantro, for garnish
Croutons, for garnish

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.  In a bowl, toss the cauliflower and squash with the ground ginger, a tablespoon of the olive oil, and sesame oil.  Place in a baking dish and roast until tender, 25-30 minutes. 

In a stock pot over medium heat, warm the remaining olive oil and butter until melted, add the leeks and cook until translucent, about 5-7 minutes.  Add the grated ginger and stir.  Mix in the squash, cauliflower, stock, a pinch of salt, and mirin.  Stir.  Allow to simmer for 20 minutes.  With an immersion blender or regular blender, blend until smooth.  Add the cream and blend until mingled.  Garnish with cilantro and croutons.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Little Indian...

How often have I mentioned here that I love Indian food?  I don't think I have at all.  That is an oversight that we can clear up right now.  I love Indian food.  Before my friends, Cathy and Mike, moved to Austin, there was a great place in Pasadena we used to go to.  Please don't ask me what the name of the restaurant is.  For someone who prides herself on always remembering names and other pertinent bits of information, for the life of me, I don't know what it's called.  I can tell you where it is.  I can tell you that it's on the second floor in the little group of shops it's with.  I can tell you that everyone who works there that I've encountered has been lovely and helpful.  And I can tell you that all the food I've eaten there is delicious.  But the name?  A blank.

I have an Indian grocers a 10 minute drive away.  I love going there.  Spices, sweets, snacks, and so many other things you can't find just anywhere.  They have a cafeteria next door where I had the most amazing pumpkin curry a few years ago.  I've been there right before Diwali when they have tables laden with dozens of sweets in bright pinks and pistachio greens and I've wanted to try every single one. But I have not really attempted cooking Indian food at home.  I bought a curry mix from them and made it once, but to me, that's like the American equivalent of buying a box of Shake n' Bake and saying you made fried chicken.

I was cruising Pinterest  a week or so ago, and someone pinned a recipe for palak paneer.  Damn, that sounded good!  I hadn't had it in a couple of years.  The recipe seemed pretty easy and I always have spinach in the fridge.  Hmmm...I should also tell you that I discovered this wonderful blog called Crave Cook Click by Anita Mokashi.  She posted a recipe for Ukadiche Modak that really got my attention.  Little sweet dumplings.  Little parcels filled with coconut and jaggery.  What??  Exactly!  I needed jaggery and paneer.  Life would not be complete until I had both.  You see, when I get an idea (or two) in my head, it swerves into obsession where I cannot let it go.  So I went.  I bought paneer.  I bought a 2.2 lb hunk of jaggery.  I also came home with black sesame seeds and caraway seeds (yes, plans for the near future).

Palak Paneer has a lot of spices in it, but my results weren't too spicy.  I probably could have taken it up a notch and next time I will, but I was happy with my first attempt.  I made a few substitutions in the recipe I was following, but if you listen to anything I say, listen to this:  Don't leave out the garam masala!  I truly believe this is what takes this recipe from good to beyond!  This recipe also has tomato in it, which if I'm not mistaken, isn't typical.  But I like it here a lot.

More Indian food is on the horizon.  You know I'll share the Ukadiche Modak experience and plenty more.

Palak Paneer (Saag Paneer)
(Adapted from a recipe by US Masala)

4 cups spinach, packed
1 1/2 cups paneer, cubed
2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp fennel, ground
3 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, grated
1 clove garlic, smashed 
1/2 teaspoon ginger, grated
1 medium tomato, chopped
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp chili powder
1 cup milk

Cook spinach in a pan with a cup of water and the sugar for 6-7 minutes.  Drain water, and pulse spinach in food processor once or twice.  You want it really finely chopped, but not pureed.  Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium high heat.  Add the ground fennel, one teaspoon of cumin and the onion.  Cook for 3-4 minutes until onions are translucent.  Add the ginger and garlic, mix and cook for another 4-5 minutes.  Add the tomato with 1/4 cup of water, the other teaspoon of cumin, coriander, and the chili power.  Mix and add the spinach and milk and let cook for 5-6 minutes.  Stir frequently.

In another pan, heat one tablespoon of olive oil and the paneer cubes.  Turn the paneer frequently to brown evenly on all sides.  Remove from pan and let drain on a papertowel-lined plate.    

Add paneer and garam masala to skillet.  Lower heat and let everything simmer for another 6-7 minutes.

Serve with naan, or as I did, with pita on the side.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Little Italian

The closest I've come to eating at Mozza (the Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali, and Joe Bastianich-owned Los Angeles restaurant and pizzeria) was an almost-made reservation four or five years ago, not long after they opened.  I remember my ex telling me that the earliest reservation available was an 11pm opening, and that was the last I heard of it.  I don't think the ex was interested in the late hour, so it never came to fruition.

I've driven by countless times as the restaurants sit conveniently near the corner of Melrose and Highland.  Someday I'd still like to go.  I don't think I've once heard anything bad about it, but I'll have to wait until the level of disposable income I have increases a hundred-fold.

So in the meantime, I'll have to bring a little bit of Mozza my way via the library.  Once again I was perusing the cooking section at my local branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, and spotted The Mozza Cookbook by Nancy Silverton, Matt Molina, and Carolynn Carreno.  With all the times I've looked at those shelves, I don't know how I missed it.  I almost didn't check it out because I have three or four other cookbooks checked out, but I thought, 'what the hell?....what's one more?'

I've got a few recipes flagged to try before the book needs to be returned and there is a good chance it will also have to be a purchase at some time in the future.  Initially,  I flipped through the cookbook and saw a few recipes that looked interesting, then a night came when I settled in and starting flipping through the 'Dolci' section.  That's what sold me.  I have both the Toasted Coconut and Toasted Walnut Biscotti recipes earmarked and can't wait to give the Rosemary Olive Oil cake a try.  Oh...and I think the Olive Oil Gelato they serve at Mozza is justification enough for me to get myself a seat there.

The first recipe I made from the book wasn't dessert though.  It was the Eggplant Caponata.  I had two eggplants that needed to be used in something and realizing that I had everything I needed (or suitable substitutions), the caponata called to me.    It can be a part of an antipasti plate or as a chunky sauce with pasta.  Make some fresh ricotta and when you make crostini with the cheese and caponata you will thank me.

Eggplant Caponata
(Adapted from The Mozza Cookbook by Nancy Silverton)
Makes about 4 cups

5 cups eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
3/4 cup onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
2 tbsp raisins (or currants)
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1 oz. balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup diced tomatoes with juice
1 tsp fresh thyme (or 1/2 tsp dried thyme)
1/2 tsp sugar

In a bowl, toss the eggplant with the salt and set aside.  Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a skillet over medium high heat and when the oil is near smoking, add the eggplant.  Let the eggplant cook for about 2 minutes without stirring.  The eggplant will begin to brown and cook down.  After a couple of minutes, stir the eggplant, add a couple more tablespoons of the olive oil and continue to cook for another 5-6 minutes.  Add any remaining olive oil and cook the eggplant until it is all browned.

Once browned, remove the eggplant with a slotted spatula and place on a plate.  Lower the heat and add the onion.  Stir constantly to cook the onion, until translucent, and de-glaze the pan, about 3 minutes.  Add the garlic, raisins, and red pepper flakes and cook for a minute or two.  Add the tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, thyme, and sugar.  Stir to combine and add the eggplant back into the pan.  Mix well and cover, allowing to cook for five minutes.  Remove the lid and cook for another 5 minutes, allowing the remaining liquid to cook down.

You can eat the caponata warm or let it come to room temperature.  Either way, it's delicious.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Little Celebration

We celebrate birthdays, getting an A on a final, graduations, new jobs, and new relationships.  We will seek out reasons to celebrate because it makes us feel good.  A little acknowledgement, a little validation, a little joy.

There are a couple of accomplishments to celebrate here.  No, I can't tell you that I have a new job yet.  Hopefully soon.  But what I can tell you is that this post is Number 100.  That's right.  The big One-Oh-Oh.  I know, I know...I could have reached the marker a little sooner if I posted more often, but you know what they say...good things come to those who wait.  And I've got a lot of patience.

Another accomplishment from the past two weeks was writing the recipes for the weekly newsletter of FarmBoxLA.  FarmBoxLA has built relationships with a couple dozen farms in the area and will source seasonal fruits and vegetables from them on a weekly basis, which will then be delivered to you at the beginning of each week.  I heard from them about three weeks after I responded to an ad they placed looking for food writers.  A few emails and a couple of phone calls later, I met Reisha at the Santa Monica Farmers Market and we did a little shopping.  I came home with a bag of goodies and a five recipes goal.  Those recipes were featured in the September 30 Newsletter or via the 'Our Kitchen' link on their site.  I had a lot of fun writing for them and hope I will again.

So, I waited to write post one hundred because I was busy for a couple of days with the FarmBoxLA assignment, but also because I wanted to make something special.  Sure...I could have baked another cake.   But why bake a cake when you can make struffoli?  Don't know what struffoli are?  Let me tell you.  Other than being my favourite dessert ever, this Italian treat is little bits of dough that are fried and then coated in a honey syrup.  Struffoli is usually made around Christmas and my strongest memory of them is my Aunt Placida bringing over a huge platter of struffoli a couple of days after Christmas in 1979 after I had come home from the hospital after an overnight stay.

Proust had his madeleine, I had my struffoli.  Despite having struffoli once or twice since that day in 1979, the first bite I took after making them transported me back to my parents' kitchen, sitting at the table and biting into a crunchy bit of dough and candy sprinkles, my fingers sticky with honey.

It was the perfect way to celebrate being home from the hospital, hanging out with my family, and now...celebrating one hundred.

(From The Italian Cookbook by the Culinary Arts Institute)

2 cups sifted flour
1/4 tsp salt
3 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup honey
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp candy sprinkles
oil for frying (I used sunflower)

In a skillet over low heat, mix the honey, sugar, and cinnamon.  Stir and let the sugar dissolve.  Once warm and all ingredients are combined, turn off heat and set aside.

In a large bowl, add the flour and salt.  Making a well in the center of the flour, add eggs, one at a time, loosely mixing with a fork after each addition.  Add the vanilla with the last egg.  

After mixing well to form a soft dough, turn onto a floured board, knead for 5 minutes and divide dough in half.  Roll each half until about 1/4 inch thick.  Slice into narrow strips, then cut strips into little pieces about 1/2 to 3/4 inch long.  You can also roll the strips before cutting them to get little tubes or spheres.  

In a saucepan, add the oil and heat.  When the oil is hot enough, add only enough dough pieces so you're not crowding the pan.  Let fry until lightly golden brown.  Remove with a slotted spoon and place onto a papertowel-lined plate to drain any excess oil.  

Once you've fried all the dough, add to the honey mixture and mix thoroughly so each piece is coated with the honey syrup.  Spoon onto platter and add sprinkles.