Tuesday, November 24, 2009

In thick, dreamy wafts

Some of my proudest moments living in France were spent standing behind the glass counter of my neighborhood boulangerie, ordering. It was one the few times I could actually pass as a chic young Parisienne, breezily picking up her baguette or pain au chocolat, ready to dash off to her next engagement of the day. Okay, so maybe I didn’t always pull off the chic part, even with my shiny ballet flats and black wool coat (it was wintertime, mind you), but I swear the counter people believed I was a true French girl at least 90% of time, especially if they didn’t recognize me from the last time I was there. Just as long as I didn’t obviously fumble with my order or speak too slowly, I could walk out the door with my head held high and white crinkly bag in hand. It may seem like a small feat, but sometimes I felt I needed that boost of confidence after a particularly difficult and self-esteem crushing French class. 

In truth, the most difficult part of the whole affair was deciding what to get in the first place. Sometimes I went to a specific spot that I had read about and ordered whatever the book had recommended, other times, I went on a whim, counting my Euros to see what I could afford. I will say I had a soft spot for those tender, crumbly butter cookies called sablés, often sold in cute little cellophane bags tied with a ribbon. It was sort of thrilling to go in there with an idea of what I wanted and come out with something totally unexpected in my bag, a bonus, you might say, for later after I trudged up to the sixth floor of the apartment half-soaked from getting stranded in a rainstorm without an umbrella.

I think I had this idea that living in France would be endlessly exciting and new, each day filled with the discovering of foods, museums, parks and shops. While this was often true, what I remember most vividly about my stay were the routines—the bakeries I went back to more than once, and the wide avenues and narrow streets that I walked on every day on my way to and from school. I think it’s true wherever you are, really. There’s only so much newness we can swallow before we long for places in which we have history, no matter how brief. In a similar way, there is something reassuring about going to sleep each night knowing breakfast the next day will be the same as it was the day before—which over there was toast and confiture, yogurt and café au lait. A glass of orange juice from the bottle, too, all arranged on that little marble table in the kitchen, each morning around 7am.

There was also something tremendously comforting about the prospect of teatime, after both chaotic French classes and rainy days. Now, just to be clear, when I say ‘teatime’ I’m usually referring to something other than just tea, or in absence such imaginable treat, the idea of something besides just Earl Grey or jasmine pearls. For while a pot of black tea with milk and honey is all well and good, the addition of cookies or a sliver of cake makes the whole picture into something quite handsome indeed.

In Paris, I had two main teatime snack sources – Monoprix, the supermarket chain with a cookie aisle daunting in scope, or, of course, my choice of bakery. The cookies from the market were significantly cheaper, and quite good actually, but even in France the packaged cookies never quite live up to the freshly made ones. I got into the habit of eying the cookie selection whenever I went in to get a chausson aux pommes, and every once in awhile, I would actually get a bag of sablés, which are appropriately named after their characterisic “sandy,” crumbly texture. Later, I discovered madeleines, and finally tried macarons, but sablés really couldn’t be beat, so beautifully pale, and round, and modestly sweet.

But why all this talk of France, now? Well, mostly because I just made a batch sablés, like I often do this time of year. If I feel at times a tug inside for the place I left a year ago, I feel an equal pull for home, for wandering these streets and rain-glistened sidewalks. Only here, my mind is whirling with all the kinds of cookies I want to make and eat and wrap up in pretty little boxes to give away. For when baking brings with it a kitchen smelling of butter and sugar and lemon, permeating the air in thick, dreamy wafts—well, I don’t know about you, but that’s a place I’d like to stay for a while, cause it is cold outside and the holidays are fast approaching, which means cookie season is definitely in full swing.

Lemon Sablés
Adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours, by Dorie Greenspan

These are the kind of cookies that are nice to have around not just for tea, but to go with a strong coffee, too, or even a cup of hot chocolate (yes, really). I have also made them for  holiday gifts. Do keep in mind that sablés require a little bit of advance planning because they have to chill for at least three hours before baking. I made them the night before and baked them the following afternoon. They also require a delicate hand in their mixing process, which insures the sandy texture of the cooled cookies. Note too that you can make these plain, without the lemon zest, and with or without the decorating sugar (I made them sans sugar this time, but I like them both ways); the sugar on the outside does make them look a bit more festive.

- 2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- ½ cup sugar 

- Grated zest of 1- 1 ½ organic lemons
- ¼ cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- Decorating sugar (optional)

In a small bowl, rub the lemon zest into the granulated sugar until the sugar is quite moist and very aromatic. Next, working with a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter at medium speed until smooth and very creamy. Add the sugars and salt and beat until well blended, about 1 minute. The mixture should be smooth and velvety, not fluffy and airy. Reduce the mixer speed to low and beat in the egg yolks, again beating until the mixture is homogenous.

Turn off the mixer and pour in the flour. Drape a kitchen towel over the stand mixer to protect yourself from the flying lfour and pulse the mixer at low speed about 5 times, a second or two each time. If you look and there is still bits of flour visible in the dough, pulse for a couple more times; if not, remove the towel. Continue mixing at low speed for about 30 seconds more, just until the flour disappears into the dough and the dough looks uniformly moist. If there is just a little bit of flour at the bottom of the bowl, use a rubber spatula to incorporate the rest into the dough by hand. The dough should be very soft, moist and rather clumpy.

Scrape the dough out onto a smooth work surface (I put a piece of parchment onto our wood dining table), gather into a ball and it in half. Then, working on a piece of plastic wrap, shape each piece into a smooth log about 9 inches long. Wrap the logs well and refrigerate them for a least 3 hours, or preferably overnight. (At this point, the dough can be kept in the refrigerater for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months.)

When ready to bake, center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350º F. If baking all the cookies at once, line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats, otherwise, you just need one. Remove a log of dough from the refrigerator, unwrap it and place on a piece of parchment paper. If using the decorating sugar, whisk the egg yolk until smooth and brush some of the yolk all over the sides of the dough, then sprinkle the entire surface of the log with the sugar.

Trim the ends of the roll and slice the log into 1/3-inch-thick cookies. Place the rounds on the baking sheet(s), leaving an inch of space between them.

Bake one sheet at a time for 17-20 minutes, rotating the baking sheet at the midway point. When properly baked, the cookies will be light brown on the bottom, lightly golden around the edges and pale on top. Remove from the oven and let the cookies rest a minute or two before carefully lifting them onto a rack with a large metal spatula to cool completely. 

Repeat with remaining log of dough, if using, always beginning with a cool baking sheet.

Makes about 50 cookies.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

In just two bites

The allure of a good soup, so often, is that we can’t quite tell what is in it, at least at first. The color alone does not immediately give away the ingredients—especially when puréed. Take, for example, the soup I made last night. It is a deep green, but on a lighter side of the spectrum, like clover, or evergreen with a dash of cream. The aroma offers hints of cilantro, lemon and something bright and fresh and leafy, perhaps. Then comes the first bite. I think if we really break it down, for a split-second, all sense of taste is momentarily lost; in that first spoonful our senses are overwhelmed with the sheer pleasure of its warmth, and it’s only after the second bite that we can fully grasp the delicate flavors that were hinted at in the first. After that, everything starts melding together, one bite indistinguishable from the next.

I admit that’s quite a lot happening in just two bites, and this is soup we are talking about, not truffles, or chocolate, or fine wine. It’s mere vegetables, at the end of the day, gussied up and cooked with some onions, in broth, until they soften and burst. There is a grounding quality to sitting down to a bowl to a soup, particularly when the seasons are changing and one is feeling a bit worn at the edges from the cold days and longer nights, but there are also a lot of weighty, unexpected things that can happen in the space of two bites of hot soup. It’s at moments like these, at the table, that I could imagine foregoing meat altogether if vegetables could be so satisfying all by themselves. Regardless, such questions are good to ponder, I’ve found, while smearing salted butter on torn pieces of bread, one's place setting a mess of flour and shards of crust. 

In the film Ratatouille, the perpetually grouchy and aptly named restaurant critic Anton Ego has an epiphany over a plate of the dish that shares the movie’s title. He literally melts with the first bite, having this momentous flashback to his childhood. There are many things I liked about this movie, but I especially loved that the dish that changes everything is, quite simply, a French peasant’s version of stewed vegetables.

Certainly, I’ve had such epiphanies, but usually they aren’t so grand or life-altering. Nor can I say anything about the dish itself, which I've never actually had. I will say that many of my mini-epiphanies came in the form of a bowl, with something extra special inside—granola, for instance, or macaroni and peas, or soup. This time, like I was beginning to describe, it was a very green soup, perfect for those of us feeling a little bit under the weather. Like ratatouille, one of its stars is zucchini, a vegetable more known for it’s overbearing presence in the garden than it is for its culinary value. Taste-wise, somewhat ironically, it doesn’t have a very strong character, but it makes up for it in versatility. The spinach makes the soup beautiful and deep grassy green—the zucchini is primarily just there for a boost of texture and body, as are the potatoes. The last punch of green is made from the addition of fresh cilantro, a whole cupful in fact, just at the end. The result is pure comfort, yet vibrant and fresh, perfectly instilled in the hollow space of a bright white bowl.

All this began one day when I found myself with an enormous zucchini my mother had grown in her garden. I had made zucchini bread at home and we all agreed it was good, all spiced and moist with a tender crumb, but when I brought giant zucchini #2 to the City, I found a very intriguing and savory use for it on Heidi’s site. You are probably wondering how I could possibly have a zucchini when we are nearly on the brink of winter, but let's just say it was a very late crop this year, and we had an Indian summer. Anyhow, Kyla and I were on a soup run, barely having finished a butternut squash one I had made a few days prior, and she was beginning to believe I was putting her on a "soup diet." We laughed about it, but between quarts of soup from our local gourmet foods store, Bryan’s, and my homemade efforts, some not so successful, we had been quite busy heating up our meals in saucepans on the stove, I’ll admit.

A week goes by and I’m still thinking about that soup. That, and the amazing lunch we had at Chez Papa, the Brussels sprouts with bacon from Mark Bittman in the New York Times, and figs, in all their delicious forms. We had both been craving greens, thus it seemed only natural to dig out the recipe again. And so I did just that, using three small red potatoes and the other half of the zucchini that I had leftover in a zip lock bag. Miraculously, it was still good, like it was just waiting for me to hurry up and use it. I even conquered my fear of the The Blender, which nearly exploded all over me last time. Everything was going to be Okay, with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil, the zucchini shining quietly through - as if Summer had lingered one more day to see the leaves of Fall, and then left, just shy of November.

To get the recipe for Spinach and Zucchini Soup, click here

My only change is that I used “Better than Bouillon” instead of actual vegetable stock. Hopefully the soup gods will forgive me for not using my own, which I do intend on making one of these days. I'd also love to try adding crème fraîche at the end, like Heidi suggests in her notes.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Firsts, Lasts, and favorite places

I hope my posting hiatus has not made you believe I have ceased cooking, though that would explain my absence. In truth, I spent my last few weeks in school thinking probably far too much about the next meal/snack/bite to be had, whether it be prepared by myself or by a very savvy Frenchman who opened his own bakery-café a mere ten minutes away from my place of residence.* Even if it is just pondering what would be the best possible thing to be found at noon on campus, or considering the idea of driving 15 minutes merely for a slice of very expensive quiche (see later rhapsodizing about Renaud’s), food is a daily affair, even though at times, I'll admit, I wish it were not. I mean, let’s face it: sometimes eating can just turn into a matter of survival; hunger trumps taste in the mind of a weary, sleep-deprived student with way too much to read, a girl who gnaws on Luna bars and sips lackluster smoothies until she can race home to make something, well, more substantial. As in Paris, at times all I could think of making was scrambled eggs, or sautéed kale, which as good as these are, can suffer from repetition.

All that said, I certainly didn’t intend to make such a depressing introduction. The truth is, I’ve always looked forward to late-summer’s bountiful food opportunities, immediately evident upon weekly jaunts to the Farmer’s Market. To make matters even easier, such opportunities don’t even require actual cooking, per se. Even when I am so tired I can’t even consider the prospect of preparing a reasonably balanced meal, and when it's so hot I consider trying to get by solely on tall glasses of Pelligrino with lime, I also know that a few ripe tomatoes, a bit of cheese, some fruit and crusty bread have never failed me. For as much as I love to bake, a perfect slice of fruit, unlike an essay, needs no fancy introduction, nor oven or flame. What it does need is someone to eat it, juice and all.

If I sound a bit wistful in all of this it’s because (I think) of my recent uprooting: I moved out of my place early September after finishing college; come October I’m off for more adventures in San Francisco. Certainly, I’ll go back down South to visit sometime in the future, but I felt as though I spent the month of August saying goodbye to all my favorite spots. For instance, I made sure to visit Renaud’s, my favorite French bakery, at least twice a week, and paid a visit to D’Angelo’s for their extra-strong coffee, brunch, and walnut bread once more. I rewarded myself for all the studying I had been doing with a cup of hazelnut gelato from Scoop on State Street one quite steamy afternoon downtown, and made sure to pick up a sack of those amazing raisin squares from Our Daily Bread before I left. A visit to C'est Cheese was definitely in order, for my last stop had me dreaming up a very fine spread already.

Caprese salad, to start, quickly became a summer weekend staple, with all the gorgeous heirloom tomatoes in every color imaginable available at the market. Feeling particularly fiendish one Saturday I got up early and went to get my produce, bread, then finally I walked up to C’est Cheese, which is conveniently located right next to Our Daily Bread. Being fresh out of their regular fresh mozzarella di bufala, I bought a small package of burrata, and a few slices of their best prosciutto. Feeling like a French housewife with the edible findings of the morning stuffed precariously into my basket, I drove home and assembled a platter: a drizzle of olive oil, a few leaves of basil, salt and pepper--simple and amazing. Then, just standing right there at the counter, already ravenous, I tore up my round of ciabatta and dug in. The burrata was heavenly—pillowy yet fleshy and full—like bufala but richer, sexier, equally at home nestled up to a tomato as it is spread gently on warm toast, for a BLT that’s ready for its moment on the cover of Bon Appétit.** Its surprise is that the outer layer is firm but inside it’s creamy, somewhat akin to a molten chocolate cake, when the chocolate center oozes just slightly when you slip your fork through the middle (The photos, I should divulge, are from another Saturday afternoon, when I got a baguette instead of the ciabatta, as at the time I was so focused on the food I forgot to grab my camera).

My affinity for the Italian pairing of charcuterie and the orange-fleshed cantaloupe goes back to my childhood, as does caprese salad, both of which my mother prepared many a time for summer meals—at home and during our once-annual camping trips. After years of watching her drizzle olive oil over alternating slices of tomato and mozzarella, sometimes adorned with some splashes of balsamic vinegar, I felt confident enough to make it myself, 800 miles away in a kitchen that was not mine.

Food is, I believe, the best way to say goodbye to a place; because taste is always connected with memory, visiting favorite haunts is like flipping through an imaginary photo album, some images tinged with melancholy, others with rapture, some with both triggered at the same time. Thus, before going, I had my last pain au chocolat (and my first tarte au citron) from Renaud’s, bought my last coveted jar of orange-blossom honey from Ojai, my last sack of walnuts from the nice man at the Rancho La Vina stand; I bought my last bag of fresh Medjool dates (and my first sack of honey dates), my last coconut-ginger smoothie (and first tropical “Açai bowl”) from Backyard Bowls, and left that lovely coast that was my home for the past six months. Now, I hope, I’m ready for some more firsts, and seconds, and in-between courses, reunited with my sister; surely, I’ll find something to write about during the Indian summer that fades into Autumn, along the hilly streets lined with Victorian houses of every shade, Golden Gate Park and, of course, the foodie paradise that is the Ferry Building. Wish me luck, and I promise an actual recipe next time.***

* Speaking of all things French, if you haven’t already seen Julie and Julia you must see it now!!! My mother and I saw it together and we were absolutely charmed.
** Indeed, there was such a cover in Bon Appétit history, and as of now I’m going to try and find this particular back issue in our archives.
***For more photos visit my flickr page

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Salade Niçoise, and summer

Well, here we are in July—the heat of it, in fact, when in Santa Barbara the fog starts its lazy departure, making way for the quiet warmth of a coastal summer. When the days start getting hotter, there are a handful of things I crave—fresh lemonade, hazelnut gelato, ripe stone fruit in the peak of its ripeness, and, well, green salads.

Salads are not, I realize, a particularly seasonal food. After all, one can obtain fresh lettuce pretty much year round, especially in Southern California. But I can’t help but long for the delightful union of crisp salads and umbrella-shaded decks in the height of summer—alfresco dining at home, but in its finest hour. There is an art to composing a salad (just as there is to poaching an egg, as I mused upon in my last post), but a skill we have all had at practice at one time or another upon survey of the ubiquitous salad bar.
Lately, I often find myself making salads out of whatever I can find in the fridge—a half of an avocado, perhaps, or bit of soft goat cheese, just waiting to be crumbled atop some mixed greens. Salade Niçoise, however, is a salad one must plan for, usually, as it is quite unlikely to have all the ingredients on hand just by happenstance. For this reason, a glance at the ingredients list for a somewhat lazy salad-maker like myself can be a somewhat overwhelming experience. (Do not despair, as I almost did!!)

A Nicoise-type salad is something my mother has made at home for me at home, in all times of year. She grew up in France, where she got her first taste of niçoise, in the form of salad. Last time she made it when I was visiting we ate out on our deck, with a view of the garden. I think perhaps it gave me the inspiration for this post, one that has been long overdue. When I was in France I never actually didn't have Salade Niçoise, for no particular reason except that I never did make a trip down to Nice. But there was this one afternoon when my host family took me to their “country house,” about an hour and half drive south from Paris. The first full day we were there, Madame made a big salad for a late lunch, and although I don’t remember the ingredients precisely, it most certainly had egg and green beans, with the most wonderful vinaigrette. It was by no shape or form a Niçoise salad, but it had the same kind of air—Mediterranean, sun-drenched—blessed with the essence of the olive, the lemon, the saltiness of oily fish.It was one of the memorable meals she made during my stay. Just sitting there with Madame and Monsieur, in that huge, cool, tiled house, munching on greens, I felt for a moment a relief from the frantic anxiety of searching for the right word. Instead, I found that the simple hum of satisfaction—some enthusiastic mumbling between bites of
“très bien, Madame…merci beaucoup”—was all that was necessary to communicate my delight.

The way my mother makes it is not the classical version either, but I love it all the same. She mixes the tuna with the hard-boiled eggs and a bit of mayonnaise and chopped Kalamata olives, and serves it with the greens and potatoes. This last time around, I more or less followed Julia Child’s recipe for Salade Niçoise, just for fun. Through a bit of research I found her recipe online, and adapted it so it only serves 2-3. I found tuna packed in olive oil, and then picked up a head of green-leaf lettuce, some green beans and eggs from the Farmer’s market. I made the vinaigrette with Dijon mustard, lemon juice and red wine vinegar, tasting so perfectly citrusy and pungent. I hard-boiled my eggs and cooked some little new potatoes. I blanched the green beans and quartered a roma tomato. I didn’t find Niçoise olives, but I did find Kalamata olives, which I think are a good substitute. I even got some anchovies, which are always optional, but I think they add a lot.

It all sort of came together in the end, bursting with colors and textures, channeling the South of France and the umbrella-covered table of Home, all in one bite.

Salade Niçoise
Adapted from Julia Child, via YumSugar

For salad:
1 head tender green-leaf lettuce, such as Butter (or even mixed greens), washed and dried
½ pound green beans, cooked and refreshed
1-1/2 tablespoons minced shallots
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1-2 ripe red tomatoes, cut into wedges (or 10 to 12 cherry tomatoes, halved)
3 or 4 "boiling" potatoes, peeled, sliced, and cooked
One can chunk tuna, preferably oil-packed
2 hard boiled eggs, peeled and halved
1 freshly opened can of flat anchovy fillets, optional
1/3 cup small black Niçoise-type olives (or Kalamata)
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

For Vinaigrette:
1/2 tablespoon finely minced shallot or scallion
1/2 tablespoon Dijon-type mustard
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon wine vinegar
1/3 to 1/2 cup excellent olive oil, or other fine, fresh oil
Freshly ground pepper

1. Make vinaigrette: Either shake all the ingredients together in a screw-topped jar, or mix them individually as follows. Stir the shallots or scallions together with the mustard and salt. Whisk in the lemon juice and vinegar, and when well blended start whisking in the oil by droplets to form a smooth emulsion. Beat in freshly ground pepper. Taste (dip a piece of the salad greens into the sauce) and correct seasoning with salt, pepper, and/or drops of lemon juice.
2. Arrange the lettuce leaves on a large platter or in a shallow bowl.
3. Shortly before serving, toss the beans with the shallots, spoonfuls of vinaigrette, and salt and pepper.
4. Baste the tomatoes with a spoonful of vinaigrette.
5. Place the potatoes in the center of the platter and arrange a mound of beans at either end, with tomatoes and small mounds of tuna at strategic intervals. Ring the platter with halves of hard-boiled eggs, sunny side up, and curl an anchovy on top of each if using. Or, if just making one or two servings, simply arrange onto individual plates or in shallow bowls.
6. Spoon a touch more vinaigrette over all, if desired; scatter on olives, parsley, and serve.

Serves 2-3 (with extra vinaigrette and lettuce for next time).

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Scrambling in the Dark

A perfectly poached egg, some ambrosial scrambled eggs…two things I would never want to live without. The art of cooking an egg (or two, or three) is a skill, I have heard, that is of great importance for many a chef, and lately I’ve come to see why. To be sure, I’ve always loved softly scrambled eggs, à la Française—slowly and delicately cooked in a pan with a knob of butter until they form soft curds, so right for spooning atop a piece of toasted baguette. It was my mother who first introduced me to the miracle that is her "soft-scrambled," a regular feature in our family breakfasts. She had them when she was growing up in France, sometimes made with a light sprinkling of fines herbes, and oh how grateful I am that she never forgot her first taste. It is, I have come to believe, the epitome of comfort food—luxurious yet simple (and fabulously cheap!). When I was in France and my host family went out for dinner, it was a meal I made often for myself, with whatever bread laying around that Madame had picked up. I could always count on finding eggs in the fridge, good ones too, with deep yellow yolks and cute phrases written on the plastic carton like “elévées en plein air!” for free-range. I never used to eat things like scrambled eggs for dinner, but after living in Paris for five months, where they will eat eggs at any hour of the day, in all their various forms, it has become my secret meal. Picture this: me, alone in a grand old French apartment on the seventh floor at 9pm, bent over the stove with wooden spoon, scrambling in the dark.

Still, it wasn't until quite recently that I mustered up the courage to eat (or make) a poached egg. Believe it or not, I used to be one of those types that squirmed upon the sight of a runny yolk. Presumably it had something to do with texture, but I'm still not sure myself. My mother used to make my sister and me “one-eyed jacks,” cutting a hole in the center of a piece of bread and cooking the egg in the vacant space, but she would always have to cook mine until it was hard. Even then, it difficult for me to eat that caked, dreaded "yellow part," so pitifully dense.

Boy, was I missing out! A softly cooked egg, whether fried or poached, is a rare treat indeed. Somehow, the idea never appealed to me when I was younger, but I was determined to try them again in college. My father loves over-easy fried eggs so much he eats them at least two or three times a week, always preparing them in his signature “chopped” style, in which he swiftly slices the just cooked eggs into small pieces—not a pretty plate, but I’m sure it tastes good. I also have a distant memory of my parents making poached eggs in a large cast-iron pan, but alas, I was still so stubbornly sure of my dislike at the time, I imagine they never even asked if I would like to try a bite.

Years later, in my tiny studio apartment kitchen in student housing, I made poached eggs, Italian-style—with roasted asparagus and shavings of parmigiano on top, sometimes with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. I’ve always had a thing for roasted asparagus, but served with poached eggs it was a meal, and a fine one at that. Granted, the first few times I attempted my eggs didn’t look quite as pretty as the ones you see in cookbooks. Also, I found it was quite easy to overcook them, and although they were still edible when slightly firmer, they lacked the slightly liquid center, an essential part of the dish. But after few more times I started to get the hang of it—and suddenly, miraculously, I was no longer afraid of poaching an egg. The recipe here is variation of the asparagus/egg union inspired partly by something I spotted on a breakfast menu recently. I always like to have a little smoked salmon around, and after my great success with poached eggs à la Italienne, it seemed only natural to slip a bit in between those lovely green stalks* and the perfectly cooked egg. I made it the other night, for an impromptu dinner. The crème fraîche was a last-minute addition, but the whole affair turned out quite nicely, so nice, in fact, I thought I’d share.

* I’ve still seen asparagus being sold in some of the markets, though sadly, its season is nearly over here in So Cal.

Roasted asparagus
with smoked salmon and a poached egg

If poaching an egg does not seem appealing in the slightest, fried could also work here. Also, even though slightly thicker asparagus holds up a little better in the roasting process, I used fairly skinny ones last time and they were just as good—just make sure not overcook them! The same goes for the egg, but I’ve already told you about that. Also, many recipes suggest adding white vinegar to the water to prevent the whites from “feathering” too much in water, but I never have, mainly because white vinegar it’s not something I usually have on hand. I’ve always been curious, though, if it does really a difference.

- ¼ bunch asparagus (approx)
- 1 fresh, free-range egg
- 1-2 oz smoked salmon
- one lemon
- one piece of bread, toasted
- 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
- crème fraîche (optional)
- salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400°. Trim asparagus stalks, then wash and dry thoroughly, spreading them out onto a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle olive oil over them and roll the asparagus between your hands until they are all evenly coated, and sprinkle with salt. Put the pan into the oven and roast for 10-15 minutes, shaking the pan once or twice, until asparagus is slightly browned.

During the last few minutes that the asparagus is cooking, crack the egg into a small bowl or glass ramekin. Fill a small saucepan of water until it reaches a ¼ way up the sides and bring to a simmer, reducing the heat to low until the water just has tiny bubbles. Begin toasting bread. Then carefully dip the bottom of the bowl with the egg into the pot of water for a few seconds before gently turning out the egg into the water. The whites will feather slightly, but it is not worrisome unless it is extensive. Cook for four minutes on low and then lift the egg from the water with a slotted spoon, setting on some folded paper towels to drain.

Plate asparagus and place a few pieces of smoked salmon on top. Squeeze a bit of lemon juice on the salmon, and place poached egg on the salmon as the final layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, and serve with a bit of crème fraîche and warm bread.

Serves one.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Worthy Reward, or, Homemade Granola

When I tell people they laugh, or give me quizzical look, like I’m slightly nuts but in an endearing sort of way. “Really?” they reply, admiringly but somewhat incredulously. Once they’ve realized I am quite serious, the curious questions begin—“So, what exactly do you put in it—besides oats?” The truth is, I’ve been making my own homemade granola for several years now. I never knew there was such a mystery behind the stuff, because even though recipes for granola often have long lists of ingredients, it is deceptively simple to prepare. There are, I assure you, others out there that make their own granola, for once they've tasted the results of their efforts, they almost never go back to the overly-sweet or too dry store-bought varieties, unless desperate or without a kitchen to bake in (both situations, I should add, in which I have found myself at one point in time). There is just something that happens to oats, when they are doused with honey and oil and toasted until golden, satisfying and wholesome, but indulgent and at the same time.

It began with a photocopied recipe a family friend had given me from the Café Beaujolais cookbook, by Margaret Fox and John Bear. The recipe was for “Suzanne’s Famous Cashew Granola,” and I had wanted the recipe because I used to buy the Beaujolais granola at their local bakery. Though, being the somewhat ambitious, aspiring young baker that I was, I wanted to learn how to make it myself, which would not only save my parents hard-earned money but also gave me something to do in my spare time. Most likely, the book was published at a time when granola was still considered a hippie food, and anyone that made their own was seen as slightly crazy or nostalgic for the “Crunchy” days of their youth. Suzanne, Margaret explains in the recipe’s introduction, was the librarian at the Mendocino Middle School, the school I attended. Later, I remembered Suzanne not only as a librarian but also as my 7th grade Science teacher. Little did I know at the time that she was so skilled at making granola, and was developing a recipe that would catch the eye of former restaurateur Margaret Fox! She was neither crazy nor a hippie, at least as far as I could tell. Anyhow, apparently she used to work at the restaurant, where they used to
serve breakfast, and so it became the birthplace of her legendary granola.

Yet since my initial forays into granola making, my recipe has changed somewhat. Though I still and will always be indebted to Suzanne, it has become my own creation, so to speak. I like that. It is really the first recipe I have really made my own, after going through several incarnations. In fact, I am still working on it, still trying new ingredients and consulting new recipes with a can’t-help-it curiosity. Along the way, I have consulted Heidi Swanson’s recipe for “Grain-ola” from her book Super Natural Cooking, as well as the excellent version found in The Esalan Cookbook, sharing the recipe for their house granola. In the food blogs and food magazines that the read like Bon Appétit, I’m always on the lookout for a good granola recipe, even just because it reminds why I make it over and over again, having tea while it bakes, the oven wafting aromas of honey and toasted nuts through the house.

What I have found present in almost all granola recipes is the encouragement to play with the recipe a little bit. Though I admit the one have been making for a while now I quite happy with, I can’t help but try different nuts/fruits/oils/sweeteners if the opportunity arrives (i.e. my granola stash runs dry). Sometimes I’ll even add the zest of an orange or two to the oats, or some maple syrup with the honey. If I have a sack of flaxseeds on hand, it always seemed like a good way to use them, so sometimes I add a few tablespoons along with the sesame and sunflowers. You really can’t go wrong when dealing with oats, and honey and coconut—toasted until golden and crunchy.

I always like to always have at least a jar of it around, and usually, I do. My mother and sister make special requests for it when I’m home from college on breaks, and I’ve been known to make an extra batch for my sister when I come and visit her, too. My father has never been a morning-granola-eater, but even he is known to have an “evening snack” consisting of a bowl of granola and milk when the craving strikes. When there’s a stash of it in the cupboard, I like to eat it every morning for breakfast, with some plain yogurt. Some enjoy Greek, but I prefer European-Style in this case, creamy and mild, the perfect accompaniment. Fresh fruit also makes for a lovely addition, especially berries when they’re in season (like the strawberries in the photo), but it’s not entirely necessary.

Homemade Granola

This is the kind of recipe that is endlessly adaptable to ones tastes. Instead of the walnuts I have used whole almonds, and dried cherries instead of cranberries. I discovered the orange-cranberries from Trader Joe’s go quite well with the walnuts, but regular cranberries do just fine, too. Although gathering the ingredients can be quite a demanding pursuit (wheat germ, thankfully, is now easier to find than used to be), a lovely batch of granola will be your reward in the end, which I find worthy enough.

- 4 cups regular, old-fashioned oats
- 1 ½ cups unsweetened shredded coconut
- 2/3 cups raw wheat germ
- 6 tablespoons sunflower seeds
- 6 tablespoons sesame seeds
- ¼ cup canola oil
- ¾ cups mild honey, such as orange blossom (or: ½ cup honey + ¼ cup grade B maple syrup)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or other nut (optional)
- 1 cup dried cranberries or other dried fruit (optional)

Preheat the oven to 300°, setting a rack in the center of the oven. In a large bowl, mix together the oats, coconut, wheat germ, seeds and nuts, then set aside. In a small saucepan over low heat, mix together the honey, oil, vanilla and salt until melted and liquid in consistency. Pour the hot oil/honey mixture over the bowl of oats and thoroughly mix together until incorporated. Spread onto a large rimmed baking sheet and bake for 40-50 minutes, stirring every ten minutes, until golden and toasted. During the last five to ten minutes, take out the granola and add the dried fruit, giving it a quick mix with your spatula to combine (After this point you will want to check the granola often, making sure not to over-toast). When done, remove and let cool completely in the pan. *
Serve with fresh fruit and yogurt or milk.

*If you enjoy clumps in your granola, as I do, a trick I learned is to press firmly down on the granola as soon as you pull it out from the oven. Once cooled, you can break up the sheet that will have formed from the pressing of the oats, and voilà – clumps!